Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Fair Weather Worshippers

One of the worst things you can be called in the universe of sports fandom is a "fair weather" fan or even harsher, a "bandwagon" fan. These are individuals who conveniently ramp up their zeal for a team when the team is contending for championships and enjoying great success, but abandon interest and support - or even worse, change alliances - when aforementioned team falls on hard times. An examples of this would be an individual in New York who professed to love the late 80's to very early 90's Mets when they had Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling, Daryl Strawberry, Keith Hernandez and David Cone; who lost interest in baseball temporarily, and then starting donning a Yankee cap and jersey when the Yankees starting winning World Series championships with regularity in the late 90's. This is why when I tell people that I'm a Yankee fan, I make sure I remind people about living through the great days of Rick Rhoden, Andy Hawkins, Mel Hall and Mike Pagliarulo. I may even throw in a Alvaro Espinosa reference or two if I really think I need to prove my my Yankee fan bona fides.

The accusation of being a "bandwagon" fan is, in a sense, an attack of a person's loyalty and integrity in the area of sports fandom. What it's really communicating is that the said fan is not really a fan of the team, at all, but a person who like's the feeling of being on the side of a winning team. Loyal, or "die hard" fans despise those types of people because they're seen as opportunistic and shallow - the political equivalent of a person who claims to be willing to fight for the death to defend his country, who quickly changes his loyalties to the invading force when the tide of the battle turns. There's no loyalty at all, just self-centered opportunism.

There's a version of this in the Christian faith, as well. I think the book of Job captures the struggle of "fair weather worshipping" very well:

Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.” 
“Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied. “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.” - Job 1:8-11

Satan's pretty much accusing Job of being a "bandwagon" follower of God. The accusation which Satan lays out against Job is pretty much the same: Job is a self-centered opportunist who follows and worships God purely out of material self-interest. He's rich, the work of his hands if fruitful and successful and his family is healthy and happy. Given those circumstances, why wouldn't he love being a God follower? It's a fair question.

What follows this passage is Job being put to the test, with many of the happy, happy, joy, joy aspects of his life suddenly becoming bitter as he encounters tragedy after tragedy. And while his circumstances make a 180-degree turn and he mourns and laments openly, he does not (as Satan had suspected) curse or reject God.

It's a good lesson for us. What is my response when life isn't going swimmingly? Does a couple who struggles getting pregnant fume that God doesn't exist and their prayers are wasted? Does a young lady who has constantly encountered failed prospective relationship after another curse a God who she is now convinced wants her to live alone and miserable? Does one lash out bitterly when a potential exciting job prospect fail to materialize? These are perhaps easy answers in theory, but they are much more difficult in practice. I can empathize with the last example, which I experienced this past week.

I understand that disappointment and appreciating God's sovereignty has a major "head knowledge / heart knowledge" gap. I understand that well-intentioned Christian clich├ęs (e.g. "God is in control", "God will redeem this", "God's greatest mercies are often things he withholds", "God will never refuse you the very best thing."), while true, often range somewhere between unhelpful and irritating. I understand, because I've been on the receiving end of these words, the giving end of these words, and both, when I've preached these words to myself. But the reality is that those words are true. It just takes the heart a long time to catch up to that.

Going back to sports references, there are many cynical people who hate when Christian athletes open post-game victory interviews, "First of all, I'd like to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ...." The snarky retort of these detractors is, "What if they had lost? Would they still give thanks to Jesus?" My response is that I hope they would, because thanking God and worshipping and following Jesus aren't dependent on circumstances, it's a condition of grace which transcends circumstance.

I don't want to be "fair weather" worshipper of God. I don't want to be a "bandwagon" Christian. Difficult and hard circumstances shouldn't turn me from Him; if anything, they should make me cling harder. The ironic truth of the matter is if we really believe in God's goodness and sovereignty, the wise Christian will ultimately not jump off the bandwagon... because eventually things will work for the good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Revenge Is a Dish Best Not Served At All

The whole concept of revenge is great for drama. It serves as the backbone for some of the best formulaic action movies a'la hero's partner gets killed by villain, leaving the hero go rogue to avenge aforementioned partner's death. And who can forget Ricardo Montalban's awesome line in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan when he taunts Admiral Kirk as he sits on the bridge of the crippled Enterprise?: Do you know the Klingon proverb that tells us revenge is a dish that is best served cold? ... It is very cold in space.

Let's face it. The pursuit of vengeance feels good. Visualizing it feels good. The buildup towards something that theoretically should somehow eliminate the anger, pain and angst over the original offense seems cathartic. Who doesn't fantasize about revenge? Everyone wants to stick it to the former employer who laid you off, the ex-best friend who suddenly found you uncool or the ex-girlfriend who ran away with an Olympic gymnast. In a fallen world which has at times fallen on top of us, we're tempted to make things "right" with revenge. Part of this comes from a warped belief that this is our own proactive way of "balancing out the universe".

Of course, this fails to account our very poor ability to calculate that balance. In an episode of "The Simpsons" titled "The Great Money Caper", Homer and Bart delve deeper and deeper into con artistry using this logic, first with Bart pretending to be indigent:

Bart:  People.  I guess they thought I was a charity case.
Homer: Really?  Hey, maybe we could do that again!  Can you look even more pathetic?
       [Bart messes up his face and whimpers]
       Oh-ho, that's beautiful!  We could make a fortune!
Bart:  But wouldn't that make us con artists?
Homer: Well, yeah, but ... God conned *me* out of 6,500 bucks in car repairs.
Bart:  So ... in a way, we'd just be balancing out the universe.
Homer: There you go!  We'd be stealing from people we know!  It's just like the seasons!

But Homer and Bart find it difficult to stop:

Bart:  Why are we still grifting?  The car's paid for; doesn't that balance out the universe?
Homer: In a way, but I also remembered some other stuff, like my bike that was stolen in third grade.  Plus the baldness.
Bart:  Okay, I'm sold.

From a Christian worldview, even those who are the most aggrieved have no standing in a self-adjudicated effort to "balance out the universe". In fact, the Bible teaches us that our cosmic standing is so wretched given our rebellion against God that we are compelled to not take up vengeance with our own hands. Jesus' parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:21-35 essentially tells us that each one of us has tallied a massive debt before God because of our sin and rebellion, and credibility and real justice dictates that in light of the grand forgiveness extended to us, we must forgive the (by comparison) paltry debts that we've tallied against each other.

Even on a practical level, I've rarely heard people say that they're really enjoyed getting back at someone that has somehow wounded them in the past. And even in situations where the person has been "successful" in getting revenge, I seriously question if their souls are any less troubled than they were before. Or put another way, what does it say about someone who somehow gleefully feels made whole in the pain or misfortune of another? Isn't that just a adult form of destroying somebody's sandcastle after they've destroyed yours, or "If I can't be happy, then you can't be happy either"?

I'm not talking justice here, where there's level-headed correction or penance without the poison of vindictiveness in the hopes that the culprit (and others, by example) will turn to righteousness and away from future wrongdoing . This is about a desire to make people who have wronged you suffer in the hopes that this will  provide balm for your wounded soul. I get the fact that the line sometimes gets fuzzy in practice, such as in the controversy where one widower of a 9/11 victim vocally spoke out against capital punishment for the accused, his conviction in part due to his desire to be consistent in his principles that capital punishment is morally wrong.

While the legitimacy of capital punishment is a related but separate issue, I can't help but extend him credit on the consistency of his principles. And given that he's proposing an ending which would be more merciful for those who killed his wife (despite the clamor of detractors who believe the solution is to take the  accused and "cut these bastards up into little pieces and burn them" or "hang them up-side-down and slit their throats while they are slowly burning"), I'd guess he's done some pretty good soul searching on seeking justice instead of personal vengeance.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Voyeuristic Sadism and Donorcycles

One of the benefits of my conversion from Crackberry addict to iPhone freak is the bounty of games I have at my disposal. No longer shackled to burn time with awful games such as "Brickbreaker" and :"Bubble Trouble", being on the iOS platform has enabled me to tap into games that are far advanced in terms of control, game play and graphics.

The latest iPhone game that has grabbed my attention is called "Highway Rider" in which you control a motorcycle rider and you speed past cars on a highway. Have you ever driven at a highway and cursed under your breath at maniacs on motorcycles which speed past cars stuck in traffic (or at least moving slower than the motorcycle) which barely miss your side view mirror? You know, the one that leaves you with one or a combination of the following reactions:

  • "Idiot. Next time I swear I'm going to swing my door open when I see him coming and splatter him all over the road."
  • "Wow. I wish that was me."
So in the game, you get to be that person. You control your motorcycle rider and you earn points with "close calls" passing cars or trucks. Yes, that's right: you actually get rewarded for driving unsafely enough that you barely miss vehicles without actually becoming road kill. Each "close call" bumps your speed up slightly and before soon, you're going 160 mph and slaloming vehicles like a downhill skier on methamphetamine.

The game ends when you get into an accident, either by hitting a car, truck or roadside barrier or sign which then propels you into the air while your flail and tumble helplessly onto the pavement (occasionally hitting another object and/or getting run over by a vehicle in the process). The driver groans and makes a funny comment along the lines of "Does anyone know the number for 9-1-1?" or "Are my arms supposed to go this way?" or "Oh... I can't feel my legs." Well, the last one isn't really funny, I suppose.

You then proceed to get an itemized list of the rider's injuries and a total medical bill tab. Whether you're supposed to aim for a high or low medical bill, I have no idea. All I know is that the game can't be at all the accurate because there are clearly some accidents I've created in this game that Superman wouldn't have survived. There's a reason why they call these things "donorcycles".

Naturally, you have the opportunity to play again, and the screen depicts a bandaged up motorcycle rider walking past the gaze of a disapproving nurse and defiantly saying, "Nothing can keep me from riding, doll!" or "Let's do this!"

Here's the thing, though - I actually like this game a lot, and for a while, I would laugh hysterically when my rider would fly through the air and splatter himself against a truck or road sign. Does that make me a sick or sadistic individual? Is this part of the same DNA of our culture which also enjoys hard concussing-causing hits in football and bone-rattling body checks in hockey? And it's not just me, there's a reason why millions of people buy DVD's of these sort of things. And unlike cartoonish iPhone games, these videos depict people who will live with post-concussion symptoms and other medical complications for the rest of their lives. Maybe it's part of the gladiator culture that has never truly gone away in the thousands of years of cultural evolution and sophistication.

My kids watch me play this and they find it hilarious, too. In truth, this game has also enabled me to break into a serious educational conversation around the dangers of motorcycles with my kids. But it's clear that the kids find me crashing and the motorcycle moaning and making some quip utterly hilarious. It's sort of funny to see my four year old daughter cackle in glee and repeat the injured rider's lament, "Unngh... my bones feel like jelly."

Trying to be the responsible dad and all, I'm wondering if I should either junk the game or begin every session of my kids watching me play this game with a warning about the hazards of motorcycle riding. Or maybe I should just show walk them through this webpage about a real motorcycle accident in Hungary (warning: very graphic photos). My mother to this day forbade and forbids me to own two legal things: a gun and a motorcycle. I'm thinking that bit of wisdom might get passed down.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Class Warfare and Unrighteous Rage

Two years ago, a young bank employee in Greece named Angeliki Papathanasopoulou went to work to put in an honest day's work as a financial analyst in the height of the economic crisis. With Greek's financial system teetering towards bankruptcy, the leadership were left no choice but to agree to a financial bailout package with fellow European Union which would save Greece from bankruptcy, but would require sacrifices from the Greek people, notably freezing pension payments and public sector pay wages. Christmas, Easter and summer bonuses were abolished and taxes were raised.

Unions called for a general strike to express their outrage, and on May 5th, 2010, around 50 masked and gloved protesters armed with 150 molotov cocktails brought the "war against the banks" to Angeliki's bank. Despite protests from some of the protesters to spare people inside the bank, others' chants of "F**k them, burn it, burn the rich!" prevailed. Three bank employees, including Angeliki, were killed in the blaze.

This account on CNN.com is interesting in that a significant focus of the rest of the article is:
A series of failings by a bank executive, the bank's external health and safety consultant and two managers -- including asking staff to remain inside and locking the main doors during the riots -- that contributed to the tragedy. [That] the staff were unable to access an emergency exit, with a door for disabled people that could be used in an emergency blocked by the fire. Further, the bank did not have a fire safety certificate, unbreakable windows, or security shutters drawn in readiness for the riots.
Hmm... you think that the protesters who actually caused the inferno by hurling molotov cocktails into the bank might be somewhat responsible, as well? You think?

The publication of this article is timely in that it comes at the same time when the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement is trying to gear up for a brand new year of revolutionary mayhem, starting with the May 1st "May Day" protests. The movement has contributed to "constructive dialogue" and "civil" disobedience by vandalizing businesses and cars in Oakland, destroying small businesses, stores and cars in San Francisco, and similar bad behavior in Seattle (so much for the mellow vibes on the west coast).

Naturally, the OWS folks are quick to blame either "infiltrators" or (even more laughable) police instigation for being the root cause of the destruction.

This isn't to say that people don't have a right to be frustrated about the state of the economy. This isn't to say that people don't have a right to peaceful protest. But it's becoming clear that the Occupy Wall Street movement has not been and will not be effective in its means of enacting the change that it seeks. In fact, it'll be probably be as effective as effective in enacting change as those Greek protesters who burned down banks and killed three innocent bank workers. Let's just hope it doesn't come to that for people to stop the madness here in the United States.

This is why it's important for the restoration of sanity. Don't like the tax code? Write your congressman and use back a politician who holds your position (or run for office yourself). Don't like banks? Vote with your wallet and use a credit union. Use your brain and partner with other like minded individuals to come up with ideas which will create solutions to social and economic problems. But the glorification and promotion of any fruitless movement which leads to the destruction of people and property must end. And the politicians and pundits who have thrown support and encouragement to these class-warfare anger movements are already complicit in the wasting of these individuals' time and the destruction of innocent people's property and small businesses. Let's just hope that we never have the tragedy of blood on their hands when a "splinter" member of OWS decides to throw a molotov cocktail in a Wall Street subway station.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Island Life

I remember playing Trivial Pursuit many years ago and one of the questions that came up for a competing team was "What is the most popular honeymoon destination for American newlyweds?" The correct answer was "Hawaii", but I remember being both surprised that the answer was correct and wondering why I'd be surprised. Hawaii was clearly an exotic destination which happened to be an American state, meaning that all the hassles of passports, customs and dealing with a different language were unnecessary. Somehow, going to Hawaii for my own honeymoon never seriously crossed my mind - we went to the Caribbean and had a great time. I think part of my thinking was that for all of the beauty and appeal of the place, it just seemed far. I mean, spin-the-world-globe-as-you-hold-your-finger-still far.

A few days ago, my wife and I were blessed with the opportunity to go to Hawaii and we had a terrific time. With my parents watching the kids, we had the opportunity to enjoy some quality husband-wife time which was refreshingly unrelated to dealing with or revolving around our children. Here were some of my random musings and recollections:
  • As mentioned before, getting to Hawaii is indeed quite a trek. We had a stopover in Phoenix, and doing two segments of four-plus hours of flight-time wasn't particularly enjoyable. Let's put it this way, whoever coined the phrase "half the fun is getting there" hasn't recently flown coach on a commercial airline. It's been quite a few years since my travel on a weekly basis management consultant life, and flying is simply the antithesis of comfort. Combine the steady removal of previously free amenities (snacks, etc.) and increasingly cramped seating and flying has evolved into something which is a half-foot away from violating Geneva conventions. It's probably my imagination, but I'm convinced that the recirculated air smells even worse than it used to.
  • When we first arrived in Hawaii, my wife and I somehow couldn't stop making stupid jokes and observations on the shuttle bus to the resort. It's possible that we were tired from the travel, but we would make these inane comments like: "It must be weird for people in Hawaii to never see a car here with an out of state licence plate." and "I wonder if Hawaii Five-0 is a really popular show here." I chalk it up to exhaustion. That, plus the road from the airport reminded us of Route 22 in New Jersey - congested and lined with fast food restaurants and "big box" chain stores (no, it didn't make us homesick).
  • While I thoroughly enjoyed my Hawaii experience and am glad that I had the opportunity to sample the culture, cuisine and attractions, I'm not sure if I'd choose Hawaii as a vacation destination again given the similarities of the vacation experience with a Caribbean one. Before all the Hawaii-philes get their knives out, I'm not saying that Caribbean and Hawaiian culture is the same, but that the sort of things that you tend to do on tropical vacation (beach, rainforest hikes, water sports, snorkel, catamaran, etc.) are similar enough that I'm not sure it warrants the additional hours of travel. 
  • One distinctive is cuisine, and Maui definitely is a great place to eat. The "in house" resort food was very good and included some examples of Asian-fused foods, but three notable gastronomic experiences were going to Bev Gannon's Hali’imaile General Store (I enjoyed the Kalua Pork Enchilada Pie, my wife was disappointed in the Fish Curry), Humuhumunukunukuapua'a (wonderful venue, with open air seating with a sunset view; the Miso Cod and Seared Tuna were both very good), and best of all, Alan Wong's Amasia, for which we were blessed to happen to visit on the night of the restaurant's "soft opening", sort of a pre-opening night. Amasia was an incredible pupu (think tapas) eating experience with a number of inventive creations, probably one of the top five meals I've eaten. Ask my wife about the coconut dessert.
  • For the most part, we stayed on location at the resort, as we were quite content soaking up sun at the beach and pool. While there's an "adult only" pool which is pretty standard and designed specifically for more laid back swimming, the main pool is the most impressive I've seen in my life, a well constructed network of connected pools with man-made waterfalls, slides and canals. The weather, thankfully, was beautiful for the duration of our trip - perfect for intermittent sunning and pool dipping. For two of our days, we hit the spa for hydrotherapy - which was distinctive for its use of aromatic bath salts - and massages. I thoroughly enjoyed doing 'nothing' those days.
  • We did use one day to take a rented car off resort and explore the island a bit. With our Ford Mustang convertible, we trekked over to the Lavender Farm where we, uh, looked at lavenders and had an opportunity to see terrific elevated views of the island. Okay, frankly, this was probably a much more enjoyable outing for my wife than me, but driving the Mustang with the top down was still pretty sweet. While off resort we also hit Front Street in the west coast city of Lahaina, sort of the epicenter for tourist shopping where cruise ships dock. Good times.
All in all, it was a great time. Very blessed to have been able to enjoy an early 10th Anniversary in this fashion. Interestingly, I didn't walk away with the thought, "We gotta come back here with the kids" but that's hopefully more of a factor of the difficulty in getting here and lack of unique things to do for kids as opposed to my lack of love for our children. Hey, if they want to take us here when they're grown up, I'll be more than happy to join them.