Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Considering Christmas

Christmas and I have had a funny relationship. In my childhood, my view on Christmas was pretty much summed up by one word: loot. The classic movie "A Christmas Story" summed it up well: "Lovely, glorious, beautiful, Christmas, around which the entire kid-year revolved." Why? Well, it's pretty simple, actually. Without any sort of spending power, this was the one time of the year where a young Asian kid who wanted a Nerf football, model rocketry kit, slot car racing set, Transformers, G.I. Joe vehicles, or radio-controlled vehicles could pretty much stand up and demand that his wishes were satisfied. I was a kid who had run the diligently run the gauntlet of Asian tiger parenting and it was the day for me to collect.

As I grew older and started to become financially independent, the receiving of gifts became less important, as I had mentioned in a previous blog. Anything that I materially wanted I could purchase for myself whenever I wanted to, so there was an increased component of Christmas being "about giving", the overwhelming portion of it well-intentioned, but some of it surely tainted by a desire to prove my generosity and flaunt my new-found wealth, as well as a tinge of wanting to influence people or have people think well of me.

As an adult, Christmas now has largely been specialized as being "about the children". My wife and I try to make the holiday enjoyable for our children by keeping some of the basic traditions and providing them some gifts to demonstrate the love of Christ, though I suspect that the theological weightiness of the holiday is often lost on them as they rip through wrapping paper to get to their ant farms, dresses, games and toys. This too is well-intentioned - we love our children and want them to experience great happiness and joy in the holiday, as a glimpse and shadow of the Gift that the Father has given us through Jesus Christ.

But if I'm honest with myself, I sense that Christmas for me has evolved into this holiday of "giving", which is just fine if you check this against most things you'll find on the Hallmark Channel or greeting cards. The thing is, it's really not. What I mean is that Christmas isn't about this generic sense of "giving" and a warm and fuzzy "let's be giving and kind to each other!" - even though this in itself is a good thing. It's about the Incarnation, about Christ coming as a human child as a requisite part of the redemptive plan to save sinners in need of a Savior. The Incarnation itself is mind-blowing: the Divine becoming flesh. Without the incarnation, there is no ministry on earth to teach, comfort and guide us. Without the incarnation, there is no crucifixion, resurrection or redemption. It may sound pious to poo-poo the meaning of Christmas in comparison to holidays such as Good Friday or Easter, but it's also misdirected.

A pastor said in a recent sermon I heard, part of the Christmas theme is "God makes room." What I take from that is God actively and mightily intervenes in this world, in love and justice. And the Incarnation, more so than any ways He intercedes in my life, work, family and relationships is the greatest manifestation of this intervention. The coming of Christ isn't a footnote in redemptive history, it's a cornerstone.

My intention here is not to be a Scrooge about this or be the least bit legalistic (e.g. "Let's all burn the gifts and toys and spend the day in fasting, meditation and prayer!") It's more of a challenge to myself that Christmas doesn't have to be just for kids. There's plenty here to celebrate in joy and wonder, if I would just be better about making room in my own heart and mind to do so.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Relationally Impaired

"We live in a society of social networks, with Twitter pages and Facebook, and that’s fine, but we have contact with our work associates, our family, our friends, and it seems like half the time we are more preoccupied with our phone and other things going on instead of the actual relationships that we have right in front of us."
This insightful and thoughtful comment didn't come out of the mouth of Oprah Winfrey, Dr. Phil or President Obama. It wasn't from Rick Warren, the Dalai Lama or Bono. It was from a journeyman (less gracious football fans would say "washout") quarterback Brady Quinn of the Kansas City Chiefs, who spoke emotionally after a game played in the shadow of the tragic murder-suicide of teammate Jovan Belcher, who killed himself in front of a coach and member of the front office.

It's a remarkably insightful and timely observation from an athlete who wondered aloud whether he could have done something differently. "When you ask someone how they are doing," Quinn shared, "Do you really mean it? When you answer someone back how you are doing, are you really telling the truth?"

We've become a people who are increasingly relationally impaired. We find conversations uncomfortable because hate the real-time nature of listening and response and can't get over the "inefficiency" of talking to one person at a time. The bottom line is that we've become galactically lazy. It takes time and effort to give someone your undivided attention and have a conversation with someone. It's much more time efficient to post your status on Twitter and Facebook and read about others' in the same way. But this "efficiency" comes at a price - how much love and compassion can you really feel when there's no cost or investment involved?

Yes, I get the irony that this a blog post, one which has been syndicated on a Twitter feed and Facebook. And I take the prophetic warning that there is a real danger when our preoccupations with communication through our phones and gadgets outweigh the value that we place in the relationships we supposedly treasure.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Real World Devotionals

Every night, my wife or I read a devotional to my daughter from a book called "My ABC Bible Verses: Hiding God's Word in Little Hearts". It's a decent devotional book which is age appropriate for my five-year old, which provides faith lessons by providing a glimpse into the life of Bill and Missy, two Christian youngsters who are just trying to find their way like the rest of us. There's a passage or verse of Scripture which provides the core of the lesson, and there are even a few debrief questions to boot.

The thing is, we've read through this book around five times over, so sometimes when I'm tired and little bored in the evening, I decide to spice things up a little and take some liberties with the original text. Here's the original:
Missy and her friend Janet were playing with Missy's dolls. Janet said, "Let's put the dolls in the bathtub."
Missy said, "Oh no, Mom told me never to put these dolls in the water."
Janet became angry. "Missy," she said, "I'm going home if you won't give the dolls a bath! I'm not going to be your friend anymore!"
Before Missy learned Proverbs 15:1, she would have said, "Well, you just go home. I don't want to be your friend either." But Missy remembered "A soft answer turns away wrath." Then she said to Janet, "I'm sorry. I want you to be my friend, but I can't disobey my mom."
Janet was angrily stomping out the door, but when she heard Missy speak so sweetly, she turned around and smiled. "Oh Missy, I'm sorry. You're my best friend. It was wrong for me to ask you to disobey your mom."
Here's my version:
Missy and her friend Janet were playing with Missy's dolls. Janet said, "Let's put the dolls in the bathtub."
Missy said, "No."
Janet became angry. "Missy," she said, "Don't be such a poopy-head. If you don't put your doll in the water right now, I'm going to punch you in the face."
 (Sophia usually interjects, "That's not what it says.")
... and then since Missy forgot Proverbs 15:1, she said, "Go ahead and leave, Janet. Your breath smells and I know taekwondo so I'll just beat you up. And your dolls are ugly, just like you."
  (Sophia now usually really starts getting irritated, "Daddy, read it the right way!")

Then Janet ran out crying and Missy laughed. And then Missy's mom ran in and spanked her because she was so mean to Janet.
   (Sophia screaming, "Daddy, stop it!")

All right, it's probably not ideal for me to take so many liberties with these devotionals. In my defense, I always tie it up at the end and provide some sort of biblical redemptive lesson at the end of it. The way that I see it, life is not always simple and every scenario my kids are going to encounter is not always going to fit like a glove into the 26 stories that are in the book, so there's probably some benefit of providing some variations to keep the bases covered. Real life is messy that way.

And it make our bedtime stories a little more interesting. Well, at least for me.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

A Thanksgiving With Compassion

In 1984, Bob Geldof cobbled together a group of British pop stars to produce a hit-song as a means of raising money and awareness around the plight of African famine victims. This song, titled "Do They Know It's Christmas?" featured a cavalcade of future music hall of famers including a young Bono from U2, whose line was a puzzling "Well, tonight thank God it's them (the Africans suffering), instead of you," arguably the most inappropriate suggestion of prayer or schadenfruede in the history of man. Yes, I understand what the songwriter meant; that still doesn't hide the fact that the lyrics are awful.

The reason why I bring this up is that I think it's pretty easy to have the mindset of Thanksgiving shift into this "Well, today thank God it's them (other people who have crappier lives than I do), instead of me"-place. The backdrop of Hurricane Sandy makes this easy to do, when looking upon those who have lost their homes and endured unimaginable suffering and loss. Even globally, we are faced with yet another crisis in the Middle East where lives are lost and tensions mount.

As others fall victim to catastrophe and hardship, there is thin line between compassion and voyeuristic sadism. The most obvious difference is that true compassion is moved to action to do something to help those who are in need, whether that be writing a check, praying for relief, volunteering to help or donating goods and services. For those who do nothing, this is tantamount to those who rubberneck as they slow down and glance at a wreck on the freeway. This empty pity is at best useless, and at worst, insulting.

In the same way, there's a difference between between comparison and compassion in giving thanks. There is no pride in Thanksgiving, and no subtle gloating about the "blessings" one has supposedly earned or accumulated. Thanksgiving, as in its original origins, is done with great humility recognizing and giving thanks to a God who has given all things to those who are loved but are not owed anything. These blessings are free gifts from a loving Creator, or gifts of "grace" and thus there cannot be boasting. We can consider our blessings in the light of others, but the choice is ours whether our Thanksgiving yields the right fruits of compassion and humility.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Surviving Sandy

In late August 2011, Hurricane Irene pounded the northeast United States. The region, including New Jersey, was hit with strong winds and heavy rain which toppled trees and flooded houses in my own neighborhood. While we managed to escape without any lengthy loss of power, we had significant enough water damage to our basement for us to have the floors redone. Many neighbors endured even worse damage, and some were left without power for over a week.

The common refrain to that storm was that it was a “once in a lifetime event”. While I temporarily considered adding a backup battery to my sump pump and purchasing a generator, the shock of the event faded away and like many, the sense that the region would be hit by such a strong storm in the near future became remote. Wow, that was a miscalculation.

I was at an offsite for my job the week before Hurricane Sandy. The buzz around the coming storm was still faint by the time I was driving back on Thursday, October 25th. I heard some reports on news radio, but more of the buzz was still focused on the coming election. By Friday morning, I made the decision to buy supplies just to be on the safe side. I was still on the “first mover” side at this point. I took a few gallons of bottled water from a shelf which was completely stocked and purchased some non-perishables.

By Saturday, there was a strong sense from the general public of “Oh crap, this hurricane is actually going to hit us.” I managed to navigate my way through a forty person line to purchase a generator, only to find out that my purchase enable me to pre-order one that might (I stress might) arrive on Monday, the day of the hurricane’s arrival. By Saturday night, there was little to do than wait.

Monday started innocuously enough, and like waiting for in the dentist’s waiting room, there was a lingering feeling of “c’mon, let’s just get this over with”. By the afternoon the wind started to pick up and we passed time with watching Little House in the Prairie and news updates on television. By the time we ate an early dinner, the ferocity of the storm began to pick up and wind gusts grew increasingly powerful. We lost power at around 7pm and as we put the kids to bed under candlelight, things got bad fast.

I’m not sure how my kids slept through this, but the wind pounded the house as the windows and walls creaked. Our youngest daughter was freaked out, so I spent the night sleeping in my daughters’ room, and used noise-cancelling headphones to muffle the chaos outside. By the time the worst of the storm had passed us by, we realized that we were extremely fortunate. When all was said and done, we lost power for five days, we did one long trek to find an open gas station only once, and my train commute was wrecked for two weeks. But we escaped any damage to our house and we still managed to have heat and hot water. Most importantly, everyone in our family and our friends emerged safe.

But walking away from this experience, I tried to process some of my many thoughts:

  • Hurricane Sandy brought worst in people. Like any catastrophe, we started to get a glimpse of what happens when basic social order breaks down and we move into a Darwinian “every man for himself” world. There were reports of people pulling guns on each other in mile-long lines for gas. People were forced to place generators under chain and lock when reports emerged of people stealing these units. Looting and other opportunistic crime occurred in some of the harder hit areas, as police services were stretched and focused in rescue and recovery operations.
  • Hurricane Sandy brought out the best in people. My wife and I were able to experience a great deal of kinship with our neighbors, as people expressed concern about those who were hardest hit and people volunteered resources to those who had less. E-mails constantly went out from those who had power restored with offers to have people power up devices and phones. Even the local Kings grocery store opened its doors to refugees, letting people camp out in their cooking class studio to power up their devices.
  •  I’m starting to suspect that this is the new normal. Hurricane Irene was supposed to be the once in a lifetime storm, and Hurricane Sandy completely crushed that myth. Whether it’s due to global warming or another cyclical phenomenon, I can’t be comfortable thinking that this won’t happen again in the near future. I’ve heard the numerous friends and neighbors speak of installing natural gas-powered whole house generators. We’ll see if the resolve for these projects wane as time passes, but I don’t think it will.
  • There was a simplicity of life without electricity that was telling about our (okay, my) addiction to electricity, and by extension, electronic devices. My wife lovingly teased me about it, but it’s true. A life without electronics and internet access was paralyzing and inconceivable to me. I had to (gasp) crack open books and magazines and (double gasp) provide my absolute undivided attention to my family without mentally wandering if I had gotten an important e-mail from work which required my immediate attention, or having a bright idea which required me to either type out a reminder to myself or fire off an e-mail, tweet or Facebook entry. At some point, I surrendered to being off the grid and there was a lot of good to it.

Above all, it did serve as a reminder of the frailty of life. As my pastor said in a timely sermon the week after the hurricane hit, the past weeks were a stark reminder of not just of how fragile and precious life is, but the importance in trusting and viewing our lives in the context of an all-powerful and loving God. Our life of faithful dependence on God manifests itself in a life unencumbered by anxiety even in the mist of the biggest storms. We can, with much prayer, acknowledge His power and His love and not be afraid, come what may.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Moving Forward in Ways Not Obvious

I've been working in New York City for the past nine years and one of the things that I can always look forward to around this time of year is the construction of The Pond at Bryant Park. It starts with the green being covered with platforms which will eventually form the walking area and the ice rink and before soon, small stores are constructed around the periphery of the park selling a variety of unique gifts, handicrafts and finger food. Every year in November and December I've enjoyed walking through the park which magically transforms into a postcard-esque winter wonderland. Ice skaters and hot cocoa and holiday shoppes - Norman Rockwell would be proud.

But just like clockwork in March, everything gets taken and broken down. The rink is drained, the stores are disassembled and the walking platform and ice surface is removed to reveal a dead lawn. For nine years I've seen the Pond come and go, and when I saw the beginnings of the construction this past week, it made me think about how one's life might resemble the annual assembly and dis-assembly of the Pond at Bryant Park. Let me explain.

In times of discouragement, my life sometimes feels like the park. There are occasions when I experience great times of richness and progression in different aspects of my life from a spiritual, relational and vocational perspective. But often due to my own hardened heart, I lament and grumble when the my "high" of great news and great blessings have faded. I'm a venue once full of light and life which has yet again been converted back to a park with patches of brown grass. I feel discouraged and discontent and the reality is that I've failed to acknowledge that there's much to be grateful about and my life has been full of simply joys for which I should be thankful.

Here's the thing. One way that you can look at the transformation of Bryant Park is that nothing changes at the end. On October 1st, it's a boring old park and on March 4th, it's still an old park. What that perspective lacks is the lives which tell a story beyond what a time-release video can depict in the span of those five months. The eye can only see the construction and destruction of podiums and storefronts and platforms. The countless stories of kids who had their first ice skate, the mother-daughter heart-to-heart conversations over a cup of hot cocoa, the African handicraft lovingly picked out by a spouse for a Christmas gift and the family stroll through the park admiring the lights in the trees - all of these things go uncaptured by the eye. This is the richness of the Park which transforms into the Pond - and like life, we learn that there is richness, growth and transformation which isn't always obvious at first glance.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Simple Answers for Simple Questions

When I talk to my children, I find that their problem solving approach is so much more straightforward than mine. I ask a question and they fire back an answer. There's no intense deliberation or internal cost vs. benefit evaluation running through their brain. They're not seeking additional data or analytics from internal or external sources to benchmark or get best practices. They're not throwing out questions to social media to try to crowdsource their solution. There's something incredible binary about their decision-making. They take it in, and give an answer based on what they feel.

So for example I mentioned to my seven-year old son that I had been reached out by a recruiter for an opportunity in Houston, Texas. I (tongue-in-cheek) asked him for advice and he looked at me and advised me seriously not to take it. "Why?" I inquired. He paused and said, "Houston is in Texas and it's very hot down there." Apparently what the position entailed, the salary and the career opportunities beyond it were irrelevant. To him it was a simple matter of whether he thought our family should live there or not. And the answer was 'no' because he didn't like hot weather.

Now one could counter that (1) his decision-making is pretty lousy and (2) his life is conveniently filled with choices and decisions which are simple and straightforward, such as "Would you like to have an apple or banana with your lunch?" or "Do you want to do a fun activity before or after you finish your homework?" He's not exactly dealing with the decision of paying down his mortgage balance versus putting excess cash in an index fund or agonizing about how one should confront a friend who is cheating on their spouse. Also, the stakes are often higher; Daniel chooses the wrong dessert, he laments about it for thirty minutes; my mistakes might alter my family's financial security and change the trajectory of people's lives and happiness. Those are all valid points.

That being said, I wonder if I, as an adult tend to over complicate things. Do I unnecessarily over-analyze things and agonize over decisions which lead to results which are ultimately outside of my control?  Can I more easily react to questions with a simple assessment of "Do I think this going to be good for me and my family or not?" Is there a spiritual discipline component to this where I'm failing to live underneath the truth of God's sovereignty and good plans and purpose for my life and my family?

Daniel's right about Houston, anyway. The downside of the hot weather clearly outweighs the upside of being able to see Jeremy Lin play for the hometown team.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Suburban Family Guy’s 2012 MLB Playoff Preview

The good news is that my beloved Yankees are back in the playoffs for the fourth year in a row. The bad news is that this means that I’ll be bleary-eyed at work the next morning games creep later and later into the night thanks to manager Joe Girardi’s obsessive use of “the binder” to seek out positive relief pitching and pinch hitting matchups. So while Girardi makes his double-switch and third pitching change of the inning, I’ll look up at the clock reading midnight as I grumble about an early morning meeting the next day. And this is going to be brutal if the Yankees end up playing games away at the Oakland A’s, where those games will end at 2am or so.

In any case, here are my picks:

AL Play-In Game: Rangers over Orioles. The call here is that the Rangers shake off their shock of choking away a seemingly insurmountable AL West lead. What helps them is getting to play the “win or go home game” at home, and that they have Yu Darvish on the mound while the Orioles counters with Joe Saunders, who has horrible numbers against the Rangers in Arlington. The Orioles surprised everyone this season, but coming home and having their ace on the mound shakes the Rangers out of their doldrums.

ALDS: Yankees over Rangers. The fact of the matter is that the Rangers pitching isn’t as good as it was last year, and their best pitcher will have been burned in the play-in game. The Yankees bats are clicking at the right time, and having home field advantage plus the opportunity to set their preferred starting rotation in order gives that Yankees the edge.

ALDS: Tigers over A’s. I think Justin Verlander wins both of his starts against the Rangers, leaving only one win required between Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez and Rick Porcello. Getting one win from three pretty good pitchers and a team with Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder seems pretty likely. The A’s have been a terrific story and Billy Beane can again boast that he is indeed worthy of being portrayed by Brad Pitt in a major motion picture, but unfortunately, they’ve run into a team which has strikes out a lot of opponents – a bad omen when your own team is leading the league in strikeouts.

ALCS: Yankees over Tigers. On one hand, this seems like a fan-bias pick, given what I wrote about the Tigers vs. A’s matchup. The difference is that in a seven games, the other non-Justin Verlander starting pitchers” need to win two games. Also, the Yankees have a bona fide ace in C.C. Sabathia to counter Verlander. In a five game series, I’d probably pick the Tigers, but over seven I like the Yankees to prevail.

NL Play-In Game. Braves over Cardinals. Braves pitcher Kris Medlen is in the midst of an incredible streak where the Braves have won each of the 22 past games that he’s started. It’s bound to end at some point, but I don’t see it happening in a “win or go home” game at home. As for the Cardinals, they can still bask in that ridiculous run last year.

NLDS: Braves over Nationals. Imagine a scenario where the equally matched Braves and Nationals get to a deciding seventh game and the game runs into extra innings. It comes down to a battle of pitching staffs. As the game extends into the early morning, he Nationals fantasize about being able to pull out Stephen Strasburg to throw zeros on the scoreboard but instead have to trot out John Lannan. The Braves take the series, and the decision to sit Strasburg gets second-guessed (again) ad nausea.

NLDS: Reds over Giants. Yes, the Giants have great starting pitching. But the Reds starting pitching isn’t anything to sneeze at either, plus they actually can bash the ball with a tremendous lineup and play great defense. Reds win.

NLCS: Braves over Reds. The Reds should win this series. They’re a complete balanced team with good starting pitching, a shutdown closer, great defense and a mammoth offense. Oh, they’ll have home field advantage in this matchup as well. My gut just says that in the playoffs the best team doesn’t always win. This is one of those times.

World Series: Braves over Yankees. Remember when the Braves beat the Yankees in the World Series? Oh yeah, it never happened. The Yankees beat the Braves in ’96 and ’99 and the Yankee fan in me would like for that trend to continue. But the call here says that Chipper Jones gets his revenge in his farewell year. The Braves’ excellent starting pitching and bullpen stymie the Yankees offense as the Braves take the World Series in six games.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Selective Outrage and Tolerance

Large parts of the Middle East have gone aflame in outrage in the wake of a video titled "The Innocence of Muslims", which has been labelled as anti-Isalmic from a number of media observers. According to Wikipedia:
Sky News said the video was "anti-Muslim" and "designed to enrage".According to Reuters, the video portrays Muhammad as a "fool, a philanderer and a religious fake"; NBC News said the trailer depicted Muhammad "as a womanizer, a homosexual and a child abuser." Time magazine described the dialogue during the scene with a donkey as "homoerotic".According to the BBC, Muhammad's followers are portrayed as "savage killers hungry for wealth and bent on killing women and children."
Response to the video has been explosive in places ranging from Pakistan to Egypt to Afghanistan to Lebanon and Nigeria. Muslim peoples across the world have held demonstrations protesting the films and angrily demanding action as diverse as the criminal prosecution and execution of the filmmakers and annihilation of the United States and Israel. The protests in Libya were particularly tragic, where a number of embassy workers including United States Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens were killed in what may have been a premeditated attack independent of, though facilitated by, demonstrations precipitated by the film.

The United States government has taken a conciliatory approach, with President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denouncing the movie. And you know what? I think President Obama is right to do so, and I applaud him for doing so despite the political pounding that he's getting from some circles. If he feels that the movie is one which is making a contrary point in an incendiary and degrading way which lacks respect, grace and civility - he's certainly right to voice his displeasure and disgust. In addition, I give Secretary of State Clinton kudos in also emphasizing that while the video is "offensive, disgusting, and reprehensible" the violent reactions are unacceptable, citing, "It's important for responsible leaders, indeed responsible people everywhere to stand up and speak out against violence, and particularly against those who would exploit this difficult moment to advance their own extremist ideologies."

There needs to be some "universal norms" around how we deal with differences around things which are sacred to people in a pluralistic society. On one hand, people must be given the freedom to disagree on a perspective, even one which I may hold sacred without fear of persecution or physical violence. On the other hand, we must as a civilized society insist upon a level of respect, honor and civility in the midst of these promoting these opposing views. This is essentially what Secretary of State Clinton is talking about.

This is all well and good, but I can't help but notice the silence is deafening when the blasphemy and disrespect is aimed towards Christians. There are some things that I see on television on how God, Jesus and Christians are portrayed that I (and I'm sure others) find absolutely offensive and reprehensible and my response is usually to turn off the television. Last year, comedian Bill Maher infamously tweeted the following after Tim Tebow had a bad game on Christmas Eve:

Wow, Jesus just fucked #TimTebow bad! And on Xmas Eve! Somewhere in hell Satan is tebowing, saying to Hitler "Hey, Buffalo's killing them"

"Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane has crossed the line numerous times, including a scene where a petulant adolescent Jesus angrily dismisses Mary and phones "his real Dad" God who is portrayed lying in bed with a woman. God hangs up on Jesus and leers lustfully at the woman, who holds up a condom. God responds: "Oh, come on, baby. It's my birthday."

Nobody apologized and certainly no head of state apologized to those who were offended. Why? The first reason is that Christianity is the one major religion which people are allowed to mock for laughs. And it's even more cool to make fun of those who are trying to stand up for Christian tenets (see "Focus on the Family", "Family Research Council" and "Parents Television Council") These groups are routine told to "lighten up" or worse. Or as someone once told me, "If you're white, male or Christian, nobody cares if you're offended." On the other hand, it's obvious to everyone that it would completely insensitive to tell protesting mobs of outraged Muslims to "lighten up". 

The second reason is that Christians who are offended generally don't react by forming mobs, burning down buildings and threatening to overrun embassies and government buildings in protests. Who knows? Some would argue that the squeaky wheel gets the oil and to be pragmatist more civil (or non-civil) disobedience should be organized to express outrage towards blaspehmy. But I tend not to be in favor resorting to violence and hate to express offence. After all, getting attention isn't worth violating one's principles and conscience.

Columnist Christine Flowers made some good points in a recent article, similarly highlighting the different standards which are placed upon the need to respect other religions, and how attempts to defend one's religion are applauded ("Protesters! We share you outrage and anger! And please stop raiding our embassy.") and empathized in certain cases and mocked in others ("Lighten up and go back to your cave, you close-minded fundamentalist bastards.").

As I said earlier, I respect our freedom of speech, and it rightfully governs the right to not be legally persecuted for speaking your mind, right or wrong. But that doesn't mean that we can't hold societal standards in which we insist that contrary points of stark disagreement are done with respect, grace and civility. These are where those aforementioned "universal norms" come in. When these lines are crossed, we need to condemn, even if we don't prosecute - and we need to condemn when those lines are crossed across the board, regardless of who and which faith is being mocked.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Joy in the Simple Things

My beloved five year-old daughter celebrated her fifth birthday last week and it was quite heart-tugging to realize that my little girl is growing up. One of the things that I found particularly encouraging was that while she was excited about her birthday, she wasn’t at all focused on gifts and presents, and when she received gifts of clothing from her grandparents, she was genuinely ecstatic and effusively grateful, rushing to calling my in-laws and repeatedly hugging my parents in thanksgiving.

My wife and I agreed that throwing a birthday party for our daughter would essentially be our present to our daughter, so when I brought home a pink (her favorite color) cupcake from Crumbs Bakery in New York City and a doll-sized prop beach chair that my company uses to promote sales incentives trips, my daughter practically hyperventilated with happiness. That was well worth the $4 I spent.

At five years old, my daughter has far surpassed the age where kids like to play with the wrapping paper more than the gift. She’s gone to plenty of other parties and has had plenty of play dates with classmates who are wealthier and have far more things than we do. So it was encouraging to see her be thrilled with a low key birthday. A cynic could argue that she’s anticipating her party in a week or so and the loot that she’ll get from that. I don’t think so – I just think she was happy that her family remembered her birthday and she got simple gifts from people that loved her.

The deeper reflection for me was how so many of us struggle with contentment and joy in the simple things. It’s way too easy to sweat the things that we think are important that really aren’t. I’ll pick on myself - why do I struggle with contentment in a job which pays me well with a boss who is kind and respectful? Am I overemphasizing the need for greater career growth, influence and certain experiences? Why can’t I find even more joy in the more mundane events and encounters of my life, whether it be putting the kids to bed or family talks during dinner? Can’t I view each day of life as something to be savored, as opposed to falling into the trap of feeling that weekday dreariness and drudgery is the price to pay before getting to the weekend? Simple holidays, an evening spent cuddled up with a good book, a family game night and inexpensive day trips and outings… maybe there’s room for more of these.

It’s a good reminder that while novel, exquisite and exciting has its place in our lives, there are some simple things which often give us the most joy.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A World Without Locks and Keys

Whenever there's concern around children being exposed to obscene or otherwise age-inappropriate content in the media - whether it be movies, television, video games or books - the common reaction from the civil libertarians is:

  1. Screams of "censorship!" and "these fascists or trying  to burn the Constitution and kill freedom of speech!"
  2. Condescending lectures to caring parents that those who express concern are lazy in not being more vigilant and active parents - if they don't want their children to view this materials, they should just be more attentive parents and regulate what their kids watch, play, read, etc.
Both points are nonsense. But I'm particularly galled by point two because it assumes an old world view of the what parental vigilance can do (the answer is very little in this technologically advanced age, if anything at all) in terms of preventing kids from viewing inappropriate content. It completely fails to sympathize with the reality that such oversight is extremely difficult.

I recently read an alarming article which detailed high school football players ordering prostitutes during a road trip from their smartphones. It was bad enough to read that for teenagers "ordering three prostitutes to your hotel room is as easy as ordering a pizza", but it also paints a bleak and jarring look at the futility of being able to "protect" your children against sexually explicit material. 

As recently as a few years ago, you could install parental controls on your family computer in a valiant (yet often futile in the hands of a relatively tech-savvy kid) effort to guard your kid against porn. Think you can out-tech-smart your kid over the next fifteen years? Good luck with that. Remember your parents and how they always relied upon you to program the VCR? Kids have always gained the technological upper hand on their parents. It's a tough tide to turn.

But the real game-changer is the smartphone. With unfettered access to the mobile network or any Wi-Fi network, it becomes almost impossible to what your kids are doing online. Yes, you can set boundaries around use, withhold giving them a device until they're older and confiscate their smartphones during certain times of the day, but that becomes difficult and impractical over time. Individualized mobile internet is here, and from a business and personal consumer perspective, this will continue to grow. A greater percentage of the population will have personal mobile internet, and the those who have this will get younger and younger.

And for people who think this is just normal stuff which accompanies "coming of age" events for kids? They may reconsider that in light of this tidbit in the article: 
Mobile porn has become so prevalent among teens that there is even a nonprofit group, Fight the New Drug, and a micro-industry of treatment camps aimed at teens who have a crippling addiction to it.
Yes, getting children to have a healthy view of sexuality and purity of heart is ultimately about changing hearts, not tying hands. Yes, I understand that shepherding our childrens' hearts - not rigid rules and physical prevention - will ultimately make the biggest difference. But in a world filled with poison, there are just a whole lot less cabinet locks to prevent terrible accidents and slip-ups.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Window into Race Relations

Our Labor Day weekend was chock full of activity. Apparently riding the wisdom of making the most of a long weekend, we went to the beach on Friday, went to a barbecue hosted by friends from our old church on Saturday, went to another barbecue hosted by current members of our Bible Study on Sunday, and then ate barbecue at my Pastor's house on Monday. Needless to say, it was weekend of fun, friends and a gastronomic delight, even if it didn't exactly fit into my plan to reverse the effects of cruise-induced gluttony. It was a fitting last hurrah for us and the kids before they got back in the groove with another year of school.

We also had an interesting encounter on Saturday which left me thinking a little about how race matters, and how racial sensitivities play themselves out in everyday life. Our friend Charlotte had taken us to a public lakeside beach a few minutes away from her house, and upon getting there, an older 60-something Caucasian gentleman - apparently the wristband-giving park cashier - asked Charlotte if she was a resident. She answered in the affirmative, and after counting the adults in our party, the older gentleman charged us a "local fee" and handed her a set of bracelets. Then it got weird.

An older Hispanic gentleman who was hovering nearby went apoplectic and rushed up to confront the older Caucasian cashier. 

"Aren't you going to check this lady's identification?" demanded the Hispanic man.
The Caucasian man ignored him.
"How do you know she's a resident? Why does she get the resident rate?" continued the Hispanic man.
The Caucasian man, visibility irritated, hissed at the man to back off.
The Hispanic man persisted. "If you ask identification, you need to ask it for everybody!"
The Caucasian man, obviously annoyed, apologetically asked Charlotte for her address, which she gave him, and told him that her wallet was back at her car in the parking lot.
The Hispanic man kept going, "Why do you only ask us for identification? Why doesn't she need to show her driver's license?!!"
At this point, the Caucasian man relented and apologetically asked Charlotte for her license, which I volunteered to retrieve for her.
As I walked back from her car with her license, the Hispanic man walked up to me and talked to me in a conciliatory tone (even though I wasn't angry), telling me that this wasn't personal, at which point the Caucasian gentleman (who was flat out furious at the Hispanic man) screamed at me to ignore the Hispanic gentleman.

The license was shown, and we were ushered in without further incident. Later on the drive home, my wife and I talked about what transpired.

I surmised that this Hispanic gentleman felt that he and his family were racially profiled as they tried to enter this same public beach. There were separate rates for residents and non-residents, and I guess while others were taken at their word regarding their resident status, this Hispanic gentleman and his family were asked to present identification which obviously revealed that they were not residents.

My wife was irked that the gentleman decided to make this big stink using us and our friends as the fodder for his self-righteous rage. The fact that a bunch of young kids had to stand around and witness this bothered her, and at the end of the day, he was rightfully paying the non-resident rate and our party was rightfully paying the resident rate. 

I acknowledge that he could have handled the situation a lot better, but was more sympathetic that when you've felt racially profiled and marginalized, judgment gets cloudy and you become less bound by good sense, which would remind one of things such as "don't scream at and confront other people in front of a bunch of little kids." When you encounter someone who you believe is racially discriminating against you, the visceral reaction is intense rage.

Sarah also noted that we were also ethnic minorities and were treated well, and I responded with my theory that racial prejudice is rarely applied equally across all minority groups. When considering the stereotypes that plague my particular ethnic group, we don't get followed for suspicion of shoplifting merchandise and people don't cross to the other side of the street in fear of getting mugged by us. No, my ethnic group is plagued by things such as the assumption that we're good at math, know karate or are good followers but not good leaders. Or to be blunt, in many racially prejudiced eyes, Asians are the "relatively good minorities" or the "relatively desirable minorities" - the one who will boost housing values as we move into the neighborhood and jack up average SAT scores in the school district. I sympathize with my Hispanic and African-American friends. We may be minorities, but the burden of the prejudice against us is not the same.

Sarah and I also discussed how I would've handle it better. I think for one, you can rarely win by confronting someone of racism directly and in the moment. For example, I read that it's never effective to claim racism to reverse a judgment (take for example, getting a traffic ticket from a cop). Telling the cop, "you only pulled me over because I'm (insert race here)" is a surefire way of getting the ticket because if the cop relents, it has the appearance of validating your claim. I think the more effective way is to observe (document and record as much as possible) a pattern of discriminatory behavior and report it directly to the supervisor, making it clear that you'd be happy to follow up and provide further information as needed. Continue to escalate up the ladder as need be. The key is to document and go "above" the problem person.

At the end of the day, I don't know exactly what happened that afternoon and I can't say for certain that I know the motivations of the heart of the Caucasian cashier or the Hispanic man. But it's clear that racial tension isn't just something that's a deep south phenomena. And it's sad to see.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012


Through the generosity of my parents, my family had the opportunity to my parents and my brother's family on a cruise to the eastern coast of Canada. The experience was a novel one on a number of levels: first, my wife and I had never gone on a cruise and second, we had never had the pleasure of visiting the eastern Canadian coast. We were going to break new ground and have the rare opportunity to do it with the broader family. Here are some musings and highlights:
  • I sought out and received a lot of tips and advice from folks around making a cruise a pleasant as possible. Two tips stood out in particular: First, take advantage of the kids' camp programs on the ship. I recognized that the kids (albeit with some initial hesitation and complaining) actually do pretty well with the children's programs, and God bless 'em, it's led to invaluable adult-only time for me and my wife. Second, an underrated but important tip was to take a power strip. In the cabin, we had a single 110V outlet, and being able to multiply that four-fold made it immensely easier to charge electronic devices.
  • The cabins were a heck of a lot nicer than I had anticipated. Early in our marriage, I stupidly convinced my wife to take the Amtrak to Florida on a sleeper car, which ended up being a nightmare in claustrophobia. The size of the cabin was barely 8 by 5 feet, with the toilet being one of the chairs with a flip open seat cushion and a communal shower to be shared with five other cabins. Having my view of in-transit lodging scarred by that experience, I was pleasantly surprised to see that our rooms were reasonably sized with a usable bathroom, all of which was attended to by a staff who housekept the cabin three times a day. Very nice.
  • One of the things that I was warned about was the likelihood of gluttony, and there was plenty of opportunity to stuff myself of the boat. It sort of lends itself to that sort of behavior, with food stations which are constantly open serving all-you-can-eat good, but not great quality food for which you've already prepaid. I sort of equate it with high-quality college dining hall food. That's not a backhand compliment, given how many people gain their freshman fifteen points after their first year of college. Deep fried chicken tenders, nachos with melted jalapeno cheese, fried oysters, big meats on cutting boards and dessert buffets which could give insulin shock on sight - it was a ridiculous amount of food. Beyond the gluttony, what was also alarming was how cavalier one gets around wasting food. If you sample something and don't like it? Leave it alone and go get something else. I joked with my sister-in-law that I hoped that they pulverized all of the leftover food into a slurry and pumped it into the ocean as a means of not letting all of it go to waste.
  • The land excursions weren't bad, but they were hardly the highlight of the trip. Saint John, New Brunswick is a nice, quaint little town that resembles Trenton, New Jersey... wait, maybe it wasn't all that nice, but it served as a good opportunity to stretch the legs walk on dry land. Halifax, Nova Scotia was a little more interesting, particularly Peggy Cove, a glacier-sculpted rock formation along the sea. It might not sound like much, but climbing on those rocks with the kids as the gentle sea breeze rolled across the landscape under blue skies and sun was a fantastic feeling.
  • As I told colleagues and friends about the cruise, I found that most people fell into one of two categories. You had the people who had gone on a cruise and loved it, and you had those who had absolutely no interest in going in one. For the latter group, which included me until recently, there's a negative knee-jerk reaction about "being stuck on a boat" for an extended period of time. That's the thing, it's not a boat as much as a floating resort. There are multiple pools, a giant waterslide, three or four restaurants, a couple of clubs, an auditorium and a casino. And my personal favorite was the giant movie screen on the deck, where I watched movies like Beauty and the Beast with the kids lying on a deck chair underneath a starry sky.
  • 254 e-mails. As soon as our ship departed New York Harbor on Monday morning and lost my cell signal, I promptly turned my iPhone on "Airplane Mode". While I had numerous opportunities to turn the phone back on when we made landfall in Canada, I made the decision to not break my mental vacation by getting a sneak preview of e-mails which I knew would eventually need to be addressed. I didn't turn it on until our ship returned to dock five days later and saw the e-mail indicator skyrocket. By the time it was done, the mail indicator stood at 254. Back to reality.
It was worth it. Good times.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Chikin Lovers Out of the Closet

A couple of weeks ago, there was a tremendous hub-bub when Dan Cathy, president of Chick-Fil-A affirmed in an article with the Baptist Press what has been known by many since the founding of their first restaurant: the organization operates on Christian principles. Like all companies which hold to certain corporate values, this has impacted operating principles and its corporate giving. The company I work for gives a large amount of money to health organizations in the third world and has created a employment policy which made it a Top 100 company in Working Mothers Magazine and gave it the highest score in the Human Rights Campaign Foundation's LGBT Ranking. Those corporate values have also led to the sponsorship of special events for non-profits who are active in health and women's issues and certain pet philanthropic causes, through it's company foundation. Those corporate values also led the company I work for to give generous donations to fine art institutions in New York City.

For Chick-Fil-A, their organization principles manifest themselves in things such as its closure on Sunday (in respect of the Sabbath), treating every customer (regardless of race, gender, creed, belief or sexual orientation) with honor, dignity and respect, and through its foundation, college scholarships, foster care programs, an international ministry, and a conference and retreat center modeled after the Billy Graham Training Center at the Cove. Oh yeah, and they also support national marriage ministries, which support and educate people around biblical marriage: a Christ-centered marriage of fidelity and respect between a man and a woman.

Of course, that last part is what the media flashed in the sky in big lights and a number of liberal progressives went bonkers, along with their enablers.

Boycotts were called for, and a couple of mayors pledged to do what they could to eject Chick-Fil-A from their towns and revoke their licenses. The unsurprising (but still disturbing) chants of "ignorant bigots" and "hate-mongers" were thrown around like confetti. Careless comparisons with the Ku Klux Klan and Nazism were made. Why not? It was part of the radical LGBT public affairs and strategic communications playbook. Part of this playbook is also feeding to media outlets like CNN soundbites of the most heinous outliers (see the Westboro Baptist folk) who say things like "kill the homos" and "incinerate the fags". Why? It accomplishes two purposes: (1) People on the fence react rightfully in horror, and think, "I'm not one of those people. I'm going to support LGBT!" and (2) People who are principled to support biblical marriage wince and instead of articulating their convictions and principles, are too busy disassociating themselves with the Westboro Baptist people. This is their playbook and strategy, and it works really well.

What often happens is the company president apologizes and backtracks for his words that were "misconstrued" or "taken out of context". The company censures or fires the executive in question, and the tide shifts just a little more towards the end goal of "defense of heterosexual marriage = burning a cross and lynching black people" and "homosexual marriage = abolition of slavery".

But it didn't happen.

In a grassroots effort facilitated by a handful of people including former governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, there was a massive Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day which set sales records ... on a Wednesday. Lines wrapped around blocks and social media was flooded by people who supported Chick-Fil-A by liking its Facebook page.

And in what may be a reshaping of the conversation, people starting coming "out of closet" around their support not just for traditional marriage but for their own Christian faith and convictions. No longer willing to be marginalized and forced to cower under the pressure of the radical LGBT public affairs and strategic communications playbook, more and more people bought chicken sandwiches and said in spirit, "I neither hate nor fear homosexuals. My calling to love them does not mean that I agree with every aspect of their lifestyle. And I will not be pressured into thinking that I am either evil or alone in my convictions." At least for me, I saw a glimpse of something exciting: people of faith no longer being afraid to say that they love Jesus and the Bible and all that it stands for, even those things which others find unpalatable.

But this public affairs battle will continue. It didn't escape me that CNN.com's coverage of the groundbreaking sales day was muted and perhaps made the middle of their news page. Guess what CNN.com's headline that Friday morning was? "Homosexual Marriage Supporters Plan Kiss-In to Protest Chick-Fil-A". It was practically a casting call to get people to go. At the end of the day, hardly anyone showed up and the protest fizzled. Nice try, CNN.

At the end of the day, there needs to be a change in people's understanding on this issue and what disagreement really means and doesn't mean. Rick Warren said it perfectly on behalf of people of faith on this issue:
Our culture has accepted two huge lies: The first is that if you disagree with someone's lifestyle, you must fear them or hate them. The second is that to love someone means you agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense. You don't have to be compromise convictions to be compassionate.
Wise words. If you think that Christians who believe in biblical marriage are ignorant and hateful bigots, please consider this. And if you, like me, are a Christian that believes in biblical marriage, let's make sure that we're taking seriously our responsibility to love those whom we disagree with.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Magic Shows and Hidden Lessons

A key to surviving the summer as a parent is to be shrewd in terms of you plan activities for your children. It's important that you don't overschedule or underschedule and it's also important that you provide a healthy mix of activities which are physically stimulating (e.g. sports), intellectually stimulating (e.g. math camp) while also ensuring that your kid actually likes the activities to some degree. Finding a good Vacation Bible School program or two is always nice, and at the end of the day, it'd be nice if you didn't need to take out a second mortgage for the programs that require payment. Oh, a healthy dose of self-directed and neighborhood free play is good, too. I have no idea if we hit the mark in our "portfolio" but we tried.

One of the summer activities that my wife and I enrolled our son Daniel in was a Science & Technology Camp at a local college. Now before you start prejudging me as a helicopter parent, this wasn't one of those science and technology camps where he coded iPhone games or develop a solid fuel propulsion rocket. We're talking about things like fun with weather, math wizardry and the course which I thought was most cool, Magic Show.

Okay, I admit that since my wife is much more on top of this than I am, I was surprised when Daniel came hope with a bag of magic tricks and a magician's hat after his last day of class this past Friday. Laying down each trick on the table and placing the hat on his head, he gesticulated with great fanfare as we sat down and prepared for the show. He introduced each trick with flair and enthusiasm: "For my next trick, I will now..." and "I will now ask my assistant to..." while also showing an entrepreneurial spirit: "If you liked this trick, you may add dollar to the dish being passed around." Between his love for performing his act and realizing that it earned him some cash, Daniel ended up doing shows twice this weekend, once with some old friends who came over and once with his grandparents.

What's really cool - as my wife told me - is that the class really isn't about magic. It's mostly about confidence in public speaking and presentation. It's brilliant - the camp used a topic which captivates 7-year old boys and girls (magic tricks) and uses it as a platform on which to teach the children valuable lessons in topic they'd otherwise have no interest in. That makes sense. I can imagine my wife going through the camp catalog with Daniel and saying, "Ooooh, public speaking, presentation skills and forensics... doesn't that sound like a fun course, honey?"

I think this is that way that God teaches us, as well. Most of the things that I go through, joyful and painful has a hidden lesson which helps me further understand the greatness of Christ and my need for Him. In interactions with my children I understand more of His unconditional love and His grief over my own sin. In interactions with friend, I understand more about the synergistic nature of Christian community and service in the Kingdom of God. This is good because like my son, sometimes it takes alternative means to get me learn lessons I need to take in.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Not My Fault, Blame the Other Guys

A couple of weeks ago on an early Friday morning in suburban Denver, a movie theater was buzzing with excitement around the premiere of the latest Batman movie, "The Dark Knight Rises". A young man named James Holmes walked in through an emergency exit and armed with a number of semi-automatic firearms and canisters of tear gas, began to fire into the theater. When the carnage ended, 12 people had died and and another 38 people were wounded.

Predictably, the next reaction after grief was a desire to find the root cause of this terrible tragedy. And just as predictably, every party which could be considered at least partially complicit in the equation put their head down and with great indignation, pointed the finger elsewhere.

The gun industry.will actually do even better than blaming everyone else. They'll actually use this as an opportunity to insist this is why we need to equip everyone with a gun. The argument will go something like this: "If James Holmes walked into a movie theater heavily armed and began to shoot people, he'd be dead after the first shot because twenty people would pull out their Glock semiautomatic pistols and put him in the ground." Really? I think what would be more likely is that Holmes would have gotten shot after the first killing, and then there would be an orgy of people tragically killing each other as a dark theater full of armed individuals without police or tactical training would gun each other down unsure of which person was the aggressor and which was acting in self-defense. Wouldn't our 2nd Amendment rights be honored without high-capacity magazines and high-powered assault rifles?

Hollywood and the media will blame the others, but mostly the gun industry and with a touch of "the guy was just nuts" (mental health system). It sort of reminds me of that old Simpsons episode when Marge Simpson tries to take on the violence of Itchy and Scratchy cartoons, and the Roger Meyers, the CEO of the cartoon goes on the a Nightline-like show to defend his show:

Roger Meyers: I did a little research and I discovered a startling thing...There was violence in the past, long before cartoons were invented.  
Reporter Kent Brockman:   I see.  Fascinating.  
Meyers: Yeah, and know something, Karl?  The Crusades, for instance. Tremendous violence, many people killed, the darned thing went on for thirty years.  
Kent:   And this was before cartoons were invented?  
Meyers: That's right, Kent.

Nobody doubts how visual media influences minds and shapes behavior, but Hollywood won't touch this one with a ten-foot pole. The argument goes that the vast, vast majority of people who view violent materials can separate fantasy from reality and will not duplicate or imitate the violence which is depicted within the artistic media. I agree, but the vast, vast majority of gun owners are law-abiding citizens, and they shouldn't get a pass in the same way, right? And using Roger Meyers' point, mass murders occurred before the days of high-capacity cartridges and automatic weapons. Does that mean that guns get off the hook?

The mental health system with blame others, but mostly the gun industry. Of course, this fails to acknowledge that we have a woeful support system for those who are mentally ill. If you walk in any major urban center and you encounter those who are willingly homeless and suffering from some sort of substance abuse, you'll also fine a alarming frequency where these people are actually mentally ill. The system is unable to accommodate them due to cracks in the system and unsustainable financial costs, so what happens? These individuals are released into the public, with the hope that they never have the opportunity to hurt someone or themselves. Even if this doesn't fit the mold of James Holmes, a doctoral candidates, isn't every violent offender who is ultimately found insane an indictment of the failure of a mental health system which should have institutionalized him or her in the first place?

An of course, we need to look in the mirror as a society, even though our own society will blame everyone else except ourselves. Why not? Everyone else is doing it. Could we be society where there is no glory or fame in the mass killing of innocent people, even as one pundit noted the irony is that the mass murderer gains fame, and the victims are quickly forgotten? What if we were a society where people like James Holmes could preemptively find more healthy outlets to vent his anger? What if we were a society which found no appeal in destruction and death, or the media depiction of such? What if we didn't engender a gladiator culture of violence, where hard hits in sports were considered manly, and our movie heroes are frequently those who tote guns and bandoliers?

What it comes down to is this: Each party can argue that if they did X, Y and Z in isolation, it would not prevent a similar tragedy from recurring. That's fair. But why wouldn't each party act independently to mitigate the risk and minimize the scale of such tragedies?

What if everybody took a portion of the responsibility and acknowledged that there was something that they could do to prevent tragedies such as these from recurring? What if each party raised their hand, even if maintaining "You can't blame this whole thing on us" and announced, "We're going to do what we can to reasonably reduce the probability of something like this happening again." Is seems to me that this is the only way that complex and multi-faceted societal problems gets solved.

That would be nice. But I'm not going to hold me breath.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A Premature Close of Linsanity on Broadway

A week ago, the New York Knicks officially declined to match the Houston's Rockets' three year, $25.1 million offer to Jeremy Lin, thus ending a short Knick career in which a young Taiwanese-American Harvard grad captivated the country and the world for two months with incredible performances as the Knicks pulled out of a tailspin and back into contention. His emergence caught the attention of not just basketball fans, but was the topic du jour around circles previously apathetic about the sport. Legions of Asian and Asian-Americans, including my wife and parents, suddenly categorized Knicks games as "must see TV". In the middle of the "Linsanity", I wrote a post about my own excitement and fears.

When the rumblings began that the Knicks weren't going to match the Rockets' offer, I actually began my cycle of the five stages of grief:

(1) Denial. What? ESPN.com insider Marc Stein quoted a Knicks source two weeks ago as saying "They will match any offer up to one billion dollars." The implication being is that the Knicks management, led by owner Jim Dolan, wasn't stupid. They knew that the financial upside of Lin with his global popularity and marketability would far outweigh any salary cap penalty. Surely they aren't going to be so irrational, right?

(2) Anger. After a while, I was simply pissed at the prospect of having my sports fan nirvana shattered. "My favorite hometown basketball team had a Taiwanese-American Ivy-League educated Christian with the right to match any offer and we're going to pass?" I fumed at the idiocy of the decision, and vented on Facebook with posts like: "People need to calm down about this Jeremy Lin thing. It's just smart business: When you can get rid of a young talent who is a fan favorite, global icon and adored by a multibillion dollar Asian market and replace him with a fat guy (Raymond Felton) and old guy (Jason Kidd) who just got busted for his 2nd DWI, you gotta pull the trigger."

(3) Bargaining. Then there was sense of, maybe the Knicks can at least get something back for Jeremy Lin. I mean, they're not so foolish as to lose him for nothing, right? If we're convinced that he'll never mesh with Carmelo Anthony (more on this later) and the plan is to stick with 'Melo, why don't we sign him and then bundle him with Amar'e Stoudemire so we can get some cap relief? Other GM's get the value of Lin's marketability, why don't we at least make this a decision that actually makes the Knicks a better basketball team? Just please don't make the end state a virtual trade of Jeremy Lin for Raymond Felton.

(4) Depression. I don't know if I was ever depressed about this. I mean, besides crying myself to sleep and lying in the fetal position for hours.

(5) Acceptance. But seriously, at some point, I came to realization that this was for the best, especially Jeremy Lin, who right or wrong, I cared more about than the Knicks franchise.

So I ask myself, is this the sort of "this is for the best" in the way that people are consoled after their boyfriend or girlfriend cheats on them and leaves them heartbroken? I don't think so. I legitimately think that this is absolutely the best thing for every party given the circumstances. I'm not rationalizing. I'm admittedly disappointed that the perfect storm of having my favorite player (by far) on my favorite team with the ability to watch every game on cable will no longer exist, but it's not to be.

What became clear to me in the past week is that the Knicks didn't think that Jeremy Lin and Carmelo Anthony could play together effectively - largely because 'Melo would never adapt. Both players are most successful (and happy) with the ball in their hands, and Carmelo is simply not going to change his game at this stage of his career. The lack of synergy on the court was seeping into some tension not just with 'Melo but other players. Anthony's reference of Lin's "ridiculous" contract offer as well as J.R. Smith's petty comments around players (namely, him) being jealous of Lin's contract.made it clear that Linsanity and the global popularity of a guy who had a transcendent run for only a couple of months didn't play too well with some of Jeremy's more petty teammates.

By the way, please ignore the baloney about the luxury tax implications and penalties. The salary cap space is already blown through the 2014-2015 season even without Lin's contract. There will be no contract flexibility with Carmelo, Amar'e, and Tyson Chandler's along with the three year deals of Felton and Kidd. You can argue owner Jim Dolan would be paying a larger penalty with the Lin contract, but I'd be surprised if his refusal to sign Lin ends up ultimately netting positive for him financially. The lost market value of MSG stock (which has already started to reflect Lin's departure) doesn't make up for money "saved" by not matching Lin's contract. Plus, let's be honest, any money that Dolan saved is never coming back to fans in the form of cheaper cable to less expensive tickets. I also don't buy that Dolan's angry that Lin didn't play at 85% in the playoff series that they would have lost anyway. If he's ticked that Lin and his agents "renegotiated" a higher deal with Houston after it was clear that the Knicks would match the lower one, then shame on him for letting his ego cut off his nose to spite his face.

As for Jeremy, he's going to be in a good place. Houston showed that it could be a viable international market when it did so well with Yao, and as the 10th largest U.S. television market, it's not as if he's going to Podunk, Nebraska. From a basketball standpoint, Jeremy Lin will really be in much better shape. He'll be the undisputed leader of a team of young guns, including Jeremy Lamb, Chandler Parsons, Royce White and Terrence Jones. He's going to be loved, not frozen out by his teammates. His new coach, Kevin McHale, will let him run the offense that best utilizes his skills. It'll be more like the good old days at Harvard, when he was the leader of the pack and his teammates were thrilled to follow his lead. Being a young team, they'll struggle but fans will have reasonable expectations and there'll be significantly less pressure to win now.

Where does this leave me as a fan? I'm still wresting with it, but I'm deeply disappointed that the Knicks didn't match the offer and try their darnedest to make it work. I'm disappointed that Carmelo (despite the lame attempts of his PR people to hide this) let his ego get in the way of a partnership on the court that could have been special. I'm disappointed that Jim Dolan didn't throw a bone to a large portion of fans who wanted to see what a healthy (and young and improving) Jeremy Lin could add to a team of veterans. The reality is that not only are the Knicks worse without Lin, they're much less compelling. This wasn't about sacrificing the future for the present. This was about sacrificing the present and future for a luxury tax penalty and soothing the ego of a jealous star player.

On Facebook, a number of my friends have dramatically announced their abandonment of the Knicks as fans. Such is their anger and disgust around the team and how this was handled. Detractors may mock them as not being "true fans", but there are no rules around this stuff. Either you're inclined to root for a team or you're not. You can't fake being a fan. If you don't care about a team, you don't care about a team. No contracts are signed or vows made. And as far as detractors saying "you quitting as a fan won't change anything", that may be true, but people don't have to be a contributor to Cablevision's ratings, advertising revenue and leverage for MSG cable fees. People can vote their approval or disapproval with their feet, their money, their social media buzz and their remote controls.

I look at the Knicks and I don't care if they win. When Jeremy Lin was on the Knicks, the fan base was electrified, in part, because we identified with and loved the underdog who was genuinely a good guy just happy to be there who took down giants like Kobe and Dirk. We liked the childlike joy that he instilled on a team of unassuming role players when they started rolling teams who couldn't believe that this kid from Harvard was scorching them. I can root for Steve Novak and perhaps Tyson Chandler, but rooting for Carmelo Anthony? J.R. Smith? Jim Dolan? No thanks.

Go Brooklyn. Go Houston.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

"Let the Little Children Come to Me"

From a young age, I've always been moved by Jesus' love for little children. Being raised Roman Catholic, one of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) lessons (think Sunday School) that stuck with me as a first grader was a cartoon textbook account of parents gathering to have their children blessed, only to have indignant disciples ready to shoo them away, per the account in the Gospel of Mark:
10:13 People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.
That cartoon account of the Jesus' blessing of the little children has also seared into my mind (for better or worse) a detailed visual picture of what this looked like. Specifically, I envisioned an orderly queue of well-behaved and perfectly groomed (e.g. nicely combed hair, ironed tunics) children with happy smiles and patiently holding the hands of their parents, waiting their turn to step up to receive their blessing from Jesus, who is sitting on a rock in beautiful meadow with green grass in 80 degree sunny weather most typically found in La Jolla. Of course, some of this projection might be accurate, but most is probably not.

I thought about this during a Sunday where my children had a particularly tough time at church service. They were fidgety and couldn't sit still. My daughters found it utterly impossible to sit or stand still. During service, when the congregation would stand, they would slouch or sit. Two of my kids were constantly jockeying for position to sit next two whoever in the family they wanted to sit with at a given moment. Otherwise, they would slouch or crawl up in the pew in the fetal position whining about being tired. And despite instructing my son to pay attention during the service and at least follow along during our praise and worship time, he was more distracted folding his bulletin into a paper airplane. More than a few times, I've had to lean down to them and hiss a whisper of  "Cut it out. Now."

It's tempting for me to overreact to their bad morning, and I'd be the first to admit that I was a less than gracious and more than a little judgmental person when I wasn't a father and couldn't understand why parents couldn't get their kids to behave as Stepford children during service. Being a father of three young children, I've become much more understanding of how difficult it is for a 3-year old to stand for 20 minutes and sing songs which are difficult to sing with an inability to read the words, or listen to words which sail over their head. The reality is that little kids fidget (and worse) when us adults would prefer they were much more orderly.

Going back to the Gospel account of Jesus and the little children, I think my own preconceived notion of the account of Jesus and the Little Children has actually undersold the power of the grace within the message. The usual exegesis of the passage mostly revolves around God's love for children and mostly speaks about children's child-like faith, wide-eyed trust and lack of independence and self-sufficiency. All of this is true. But I wonder if it's possible that part of what makes this passage even more powerful is that Jesus isn't merely embracing well-behaved little children who are cute, cuddly, polite, adorably precocious and well-mannered. Little children, as a whole, aren't like that, or at least are never only like that.

Little children are, at times, rambunctious, rebellious, messy, whiny, loud and annoying. Perhaps the fact that Jesus is so eager to bless and love these children is another testimony to grace, and a wonderful reminder of his eager and possessive love for those of us who are a bit rambunctious, rebellious, messy, whiny, loud and annoying.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Operational Excellence and the Communities It Kills

A week ago, an industry rival announced that it was going to close down a site in nearby Nutley, New Jersey, a decision which will have major ramifications upon that community. In addition to the having to deal with the loss of around $14 million in local tax revenue, Nutley, Clifton and surrounding towns will lose up to 2000 jobs. I would expect that a handful of those employees deemed as most important will be retained and provided sufficiently lucrative packages to relocate to other sites outside the local area. The other who are not so lucky will need to join the growing ranks of unemployed, seeking employment in an increasingly tight pharmaceutical job field, wondering if they'll have to bite the bullet and take contract work or roles which pay considerably less than their current wage.

I'm not begrudging companies from doing what they deem best for their stakeholders. I know that every company has had to make difficult decisions in the midst of increasingly challenging business conditions, and those decisions often have an adverse impact upon municipalities, communities and families. In a strange twist of irony, my own employer made a decision a few years ago to significantly curtail operations at research and development site located in my childhood school district, the same site where my father toiled 30 years to provide for our family. The blowback wasn't pretty. A current colleague who lives in the area confided in me that his family can't walk around town with any paraphernalia bearing our company logo without fear of being hissed at, being targeted by snide remarks or otherwise glared at with looks that kill.

So what will Nutley and the surrounding towns do? They'll do their best to muddle through, and will likely offer a generous tax package (which they might not be able to afford) to entice another employer or set of employers to use the site. There will be more belt-tightening at the community level, and some of the small businesses (e.g. restaurants) which depend on the workers at that site will likely close down. And yes, that will lead to even more joblessness.

I'm all for encouraging job creation and stimulating the economy by creating an economic and regulatory environment which is business-friendly. But while I defend every company's right to downsize, I can't help but wonder if what's happening is a collective death-spiral of our economy by opting for operational excellence (e.g. cost cutting) instead of transformative growth. Or put another way, strategists always warn that a company "can't cut it's way to growth". As more and more companies leave dying communities with dwindling purchasing power in their wake, where will we find the disposable income to purchase and invest in companies which will spur that growth? It's another form of the death cycle. It's all over the place, and the news isn't good.

But the good news that if you have stock in Roche, your holdings are up 2% since that announcement. Terrific.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Exceptional to Me

There's been recent discussion going around that the United States is no longer exceptional. First, there was the preview clip in the new HBO drama "The Newsroom", where an anchor played by Jeff Daniels goes off on a rant around the ills of the country when tossed the seemingly innocuous softball question of "What makes America the greatest nation of the world?" There's debate with those who are politically liberal and conservative around what makes our country great, and similar disagreements around what we need to change to make our nation ever greater. The view of our country from across the oceans in Europe and Asia has pockets for warmth and admiration, but also more than a smidgen of contempt and even rancor.

Like everyone else, I'm not blind to what has happened in the country in the past five years. We still have a housing crisis. Joblessness at all levels continue to impact family all over the country. The complex problem of how to develop excellent yet affordable healthcare systems and education systems still is a problem with no solution in sight (Obamacare is not the solution, in case you were wondering). Hordes of people are unemployed or underemployed and there's an alarming increase in family homelessness. The moral fabric of the country seems to be ripping at the seams and the near-term future looks bleak with the country carrying a massive deficit on the track towards a European-type recession. Other than that, things are going great.

But I (and many would agree) wouldn't trade my American identity for any other in the world. I love my country. It's not easy to articulate why, and I can't objectively prove its cultural and social superiority any more than I can point to numerical figures our metrics which provide evidence of its greatness. The United States doesn't lead the pack in secondary education advancement, crime prevention, life expectancy or employment rates. Other countries have far few infant deaths and homelessness per capita. But those numbers don't change the fact that I still think it's the greatest country in the world.

At a wedding last weekend, the reception emcee was pumping up the crowd and pointed at bride, and said to the guests, "Look at her! Isn't she the most beautiful woman in the world?" and the joke among the husbands sitting at my table was that this was a "trap" question for all of us who were sitting next to our wives. Caroline (my friend, the bride) was radiant, no doubt, but of course my wife Sarah is the most beautiful woman in the world. I'm sure my friend Jim would respectfully disagree, as he would regard his own wife as such. Same with Luke, Dave and every husband in that banquet hall. It's not a slight against the bride. It's the way it should be.

But it's more than an "eye of the beholder" thing. I saw a glimpse of what I think makes America great. when my wife and I were watching the U.S. Olympic Trials earlier this week, when I saw a young black lady from Virginia named Gabby Douglas win the gymnastics competition after a tremendous floor routine, and then running to embrace her coach, a naturalized U.S. citizen from China now living in Des Moines named Liang Chow. Two people with such incredibly different backgrounds both found and are contributing to greatness in America, because in their heart of hearts they know that this country values and embraces exceptional ism regardless of social class or ethnic background.

I admit that I'm psyched to see more of this starting later this month, where our American athletes will be a mosaic of athletes and coaches of different colors with different stories all coming together to represent our country with pride. One can claim that diversity doesn't in of itself doesn't imply greatness, but I'd argue that the diversity in America is and has been a necessary component for our exceptionalism. And I'm rooting hard for this tapestry of greatness, representing the greatest country in the world.

Happy birthday, America.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

My Son, My Buddy

On Father's Day weekend, I had the opportunity to spend a good deal of quality one-on-one time with my son. His Cub Scout pack held a 'lock-in' at the Philadelphia Zoo, where he and other scouts would spend Saturday evening through Sunday morning at the zoo, having access to see animals in the evening and the early morning free of crowds, having their time punctuated with some structured games and activities and the thrill of sleeping in sleeping bags on the floor of a cavernous education center in the shadow of a giant plastic tower shaped as a tree. Put another way, between the event and the fact that he has a couple of good buddies in the same scout pack, he was really loving life.

For me, maybe it wasn't quite my bag. Seeing zoo animals at 10pm wasn't exactly on my bucket list, and I had even less enthusiasm for sleeping on a rock hard floor while getting mosquito bitten completely surrounded by hordes of scouts and parents. It was sort of like the wounded soldiers scene from Gone With the Wind, minus the bayonet and rifle wounds. Admittedly, the fact that the day ended at 11:30pm pretty much had me totally exhausted and gassed (I have no idea how my kid with an 8:30pm bedtime managed, it was clearly all adrenaline). Oh yeah, I have to say, you haven't lived until you've had a chance to brush your teeth and wash you face in a public zoo bathroom.

All that being said, I really had a great time hanging out with my son. The two-hour drives down to Philly and back allowed us plenty of chit-chat time, and at seven years old, he's pretty much capable of having conversations around anything and I feel free (maybe more than I should) to speak to mostly speak to as an adult with some humor, joking and sarcasm mixed it.. I enjoyed his company. For example, my GPS has this bad habit of taking me through the most rugged (i.e. dangerous) parts of North Philadelphia whenever we visit, and this time was no different. So we'd enjoy conversations like this:

(Me locking the doors of the car enters a clearly not-so-nice neighborhood)
Daniel: Why did you lock the doors, daddy?
Me: Oh, you know. It's not the safest area here. I just don't want to get carjacked and shot in the head with someone driving off with you. (quickly changing subject) Hey look, I see all these Korean signs here. This must be Koreatown.
Daniel: Daddy, this isn't Koreatown. Everyone here is black.
Me: But how about all these Korean restaurant and stores? If you paid more attention in Korean school, you'd actually be able to read this stuff.
Daniel: This isn't Koreatown. If this is Koreatown, why is there a Domino's Pizza over there?
Me: You're half-Korean. You like pizza, don't you?
Daniel: Yeah.
Me: So there.
Daniel: I'm American-Korean, that's why I like pizza.
Me: Korean-Koreans like pizza. How about harabujee (grandfather)? He likes pizza.
Daniel: Oh yeah.

It's not profound, but these sort of random conversations where we sort of banter and laugh are the best. There were also some teachable opportunities, as I tried to get him to understand that he shouldn't equate black people to bad neighborhoods and street crime. I'm not quite sure how much he understood my schpiel on economic empowerment and job creation, but hopefully some of it took.

I think what I liked about that weekend is that it's proof that we can spent a lot of time with each other and not get on each others' nerves. It also helps that he largely likes the things that I like (well, Cub Scout sleepovers notwithstanding) and happily partakes in the same fast food junk that I like. I appreciate the fact that he actually likes hanging out with me and wants to hang out with me. I'm preparing myself for the teen and even tween years where I'll be helplessly uncool in his eyes, because I know it's coming.

Until then, I'll buddy around with my son, with dreams of this evolving into the cross-country road trip that we'll take someday... provided I can trust him with my car.