Friday, November 28, 2008

Gratitude 08

(News-Herald, November 27) Americans don’t always do gratitude well, and Thanksgiving comes at a particularly challenging time. The weather is turning harsh and the days are shortening. With election results only a few weeks old, some percentage of the population is always warning that America Is About To Be Destroyed.
And yet, after over two centuries of electing supposedly evil, incompetent men (the last President to be elected without receiving similar invective was George Washington, and even he had his detractors), the Republic still stands.
Perhaps that’s something to be thankful for as Americans—that what we imagine as The Worst can happen, and yet life goes on and we can all survive and thrive.
Governments promise “Give us lots of power and we’ll insure that Bad Stuff will never happen.” Of course, it’s not just governments that make that empty promise. Lots of individual humans try to live by the same principle—if I do X, Y and Z, then no Bad Stuff will ever happen to me.
It’s good to take that kind of personal responsibility, certainly better than people who live by the rule “I’ll make any choice I feel like, and the consequences should not be my problem.”
But it’s a mistake to believe that with total control of your life, you can guarantee it will turn out exactly as you hope. First, you can’t have total power (other people and disease, to name just two forces you can’t control). Second, even if you have it, there’s no guarantee that things will turn out as you hope.
I know you can find people who will claim to have done it. “I’ve eaten a box of saltines every day and never had a moment’s sickness” or “I always listen to my mother, and I’ve never been hit by a truck.” Which is just another way to take personal credit for the luck and grace in one’s life.
This brings us back to my first point: Americans have trouble being thankful. We prefer to believe that we have earned every good thing in our lives, that we don’t owe anybody anything.
Since it’s Thanksgiving, let’s consider what the Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock would think. They would think that “we don’t owe anybody anything” is exactly backwards. I don’t have room for their long answer, so let’s shorten it to this simple principle: God (and therefore the world) doesn’t owe you squat.
By all rights, the Pilgrims should have been steamed. They could have been standing there, shaking fists at heaven. “God, first you suckered us over to this dump, and then you killed our friends and family, half our entire group,” Brother Grumpy McPilgrim could have shouted.
But the Pilgrims, dour and stern, never believed that they deserved better, that they had earned easy treatment by God. If anything, they believed that the Almighty had let them off easy. And so, instead of being angry about what they had lost or self-satisfied about what they had achieved, they were grateful for what they had. They took focus off what they had lost and put it on what was still strong and alive and growing.
It’s trite but true; there is always something in your circumstances to feel unhappy about, and always something to be thankful for.
Despite the occasional frustrations, I’m thankful to be doing a job I love. I’m thankful that 99% of the people I deal with are likeable and decent. I’m thankful that I’m reasonably healthy.
My son claims that I am overdue to mention him and his sister in this space; today seems like a fine time to remedy that. I am grateful for both my children, grateful for how much they love each other and their parents and the rest of their far-flung family.
I could be grumpy about how far away their trails have taken them for the time being (and some days I am), but mostly I am thankful for their courage and their adventurous spirits. I am awfully proud of them, and while it takes some sacrifices of time and space right now, I admire their willingness to stretch in pursuit of their dreams, how much they have grown up and keep growing. At the same time, I am thankful for cell phones and the internet.
We have our full share of whiners and doomsayers in Venangoland, and they have plenty of material to feed their carping. But today of all days we can be thankful for the good parts, grateful for what’s alive and strong and growing.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Holiday Season

(News-Herald, November 2003) Time now to enter the holiday season. Really, finally time—I do my best not to acknowledge any pre-Thanksgiving Christmas activities.
I remember Christmas. I’m sure many of you middle-aged or older folks do, too. I’m not sure what younger people are going to remember when they grow up.
There was a time when it was kind of fashionable to complain about the commercialization of Christmas. Now it hardly seems worth mentioning; Christmas has been swallowed up like a rabbit going down an alligator’s gullet.
In stores, the Christmas displays go up when Halloween items go down. Thanksgiving, once the opening salvo of the Christmas season, is now just a small speed bump on the rocket train to Consumerville. Thanksgiving has been dropped from the mainstream of consumer advertising; Lord knows, if we spent too much time reflecting on what we were truly thankful for, it could occur to us that buying a bunch of stuff might not be the highest, finest expression of the human spirit.
And of course I’m in error to refer to Christmas anyway. In an attempt to broaden commercial appeal, we now lump it with Hannukah and Kwanzaa and National Pickle Day and heaven knows what else into some vague sort of Be Nice and Buy Stuff season.
It is now “the holidays” or “the holiday season.” Christmas has literally become the generic holiday, stripped of every speck of meaning or purpose, except of course to buy stuff. God bless all the music programs in the area that present Christmas concerts instead of “holiday concerts”—may they have large, appreciative audiences until the day the ACLU comes to cart them away.
And poor Santa, still the most shamelessly exploited pitching device in advertising; in recent years the American flag has given him a run for his money, but the usually big poorly bearded guy still leads the pack. Santa pitches everything from soft drinks to furniture and barely bats an eye. In a way, I’m thankful for his existence as a crass commercial symbol, because otherwise I’m afraid we might be treated to the spectacle of, say, the three wise men bringing a twelve-pack of Coke to the manger while Mary decides she really needs to rest by kicking back in a La-Z-Boy recliner.
I have thought for years that it was time for a Take Christmas Back movement, but I think we’ve all been too busy shopping to organize it. Perhaps it’s the kind of battle that can only be fought guerilla-style. So let me offer some possible acts that you can commit on your own to help reclaim the season.
Turn off the TV. At least some. The constant stream of advertisements contributes to the debasement of the season. Even if you’re watching a decent and respectable holiday program on the tube, every 42 minutes of program comes with 18 minutes of advertising.
Would any of us really, seriously announce, “I thought we’d sit down and get in the mood for Christmas tonight by watching a half hour of commercials.” I doubt it. Not that I don’t appreciate my seasonal tv—the original Grinch and Rudolph are must-see’s in my home. But the beauty of technology is that I can now watch those on tape or dvd without a barrage of sales pitches along with them.
Enjoy local Christmas stuff. There are plenty of real live people making real live Christmas stuff happen right here in the county. Franklin’s Light up Night is such a great spectacle that I can just about forgive it for happening before Thanksgiving. Franklin Civic Operetta’s annual presentation of Messiah highlights along with some more modern Christmas music makes a great night of musical decorating, like a gorgeous Christmas painting in sound. Every high school in the county offers seasonal musical treats as well. None of these events include commercials.
In addition, the vast number of churches in Venangoland guarantees a wide assortment of Christmas events to suit just about any taste. I know there are some folks who get uncomfortable with talk of God and Jesus and stuff, but in all fairness, They were there long before Santa and Coca-Cola.
Plan to extend the season in meaningful ways. At this time of year, many many groups decide that it would be nice to go sing carols for shut-ins or at an old folks home. If you have the urge to spread that holiday cheer, that’s a good thing. But while you’re at it, why not make a commitment to come back and visit in February or March, when winter is dragging on and the Christmas Outreach Season is long past.
Remember—money can be replaced, but the time you give to someone is irreplaceable, and therefore the most valuable gift of all.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Honoring Heroes '08

(News-Herald, November 20)Thanksgiving is coming up soon, and that means it’s time once again to remember our heroes.
Soon it will be too late. Thanksgiving will officially arrive, followed immediately by the Shopping Onslaught (and I expect that it will be a bigger onslaught than ever this year, as retailers battle to convince us that it’s our Patriotic Duty to get out there and spend lots of money). Then Christmas itself arrives, followed by New Years, followed by the post-holiday collapse and hibernation as we draw big blankets of snow up around us. Then our three-week-long spring turns to summer, and we’re busy with the young folks’ vacation, and on, and on.
So now is the time. Now is the time to salute someone else, someone that has been a hero to you.
I will remind you, as always, that “hero” is not synonymous with “saint.” Every hero has claybuilt feet, or hands, or elbows, or left ventricles. And really, if someone were flawless, what would be heroic about him or her? If you swat a fly or eat a piece of cake, we don’t call that heroic—we just call it easy.
We all have our obstacles, our impediments, our challenges, and on days when we aren’t very heroic, these become our excuses.
My heroes are people who get the job done and do the right thing, even if it might be hard. It’s easy to do what you feel like, without taking the time or effort to examine whether it’s a good choice or not. It’s easy to hide behind rules and policy, and not make any judgment at all. It’s easy to use your circumstances as an excuse. It’s easy to run from a fight, hide from a fight, or jump eagerly into a fight that you haven’t chosen very carefully or thoughtfully.
It’s a rare person who can exercise courage and judgment 100% of the time. If I needed heroes who met that standard, I doubt that I’d have any. Since most people are a mixture of the admirable and the less-than-perfect, we have a choice of what we can focus on. We can use the less-than-awesome portion of a person as an excuse to discredit all the rest. We can give all our attention to the bathwater and ignore the baby.
It is easy to focus on the negative, to declare our surroundings a disaster area and insist that all we can do is decide what kind of fetal position we want to assume as we wait for The End. It’s also easy to slip into the State of Ultimate Denial, pasting on a plastic smile and declaring the world a bright and shiny place by refusing to look at it. It’s harder to make a thoughtful stand for what’s good and right.
If you think the world stinks, and that people are stupid and rotten, then you are helping to make that true.
If you want to make the world a marginally better place, you have the power to do that right now. You can’t fix the economy or personally guarantee that your favorite candidates fill every political office. But if you think the world would be a better place with more courageous people, then honor the courage of your heroes. If you think the world would be a better place with more faithful people, honor the faithfulness of your heroes.
Let your heroes know that you support them, that you value them at their best. You may not be in that that particular fight yourself, but you can strengthen those who are.
I’m not proposing anything philosophical, poetic or abstract. This week, as I do every year at this time, I’m asking you to write a letter.
No phone call, no quick conversation, not even an email, but a handwritten note on paper. Something that a person could save and take out to re-examine over the years.
It doesn’t have to be long and involved. A few sentences will work. Simply start out, “You are a hero of mine because…”
Don’t hedge. No, “I admire you even though sometimes you are stupid” or “I can almost forgive the time you stole my milk money.” Positives only.
Your hero will be surprised and strengthened, that much more able to bring the qualities you admire to the world. You will never have to regret not telling them while you still had the chance.
It will only take a single stamp and a couple of minutes. Don’t wait—do your part to make the world a better place, before the onslaught begins.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Honor Your Heroes

(November, 2002) It has been my practice every year around Thanksgiving time to devote this space to heroes. I believe that we need to celebrate the people that we value, and we need to do it now rather than later. When we want to complain about someone, we certainly leap right into it; why not extend the same speediness to appreciating people who do well? After all, when we appreciate people who are doing well, we strengthen them and make the world a bit more like the place we want it to be.
In years past, I have celebrated my former teachers, old friends, and community volunteers. This year I’m turning my attention to the world of work.
In the world of work, there are few things as great as a good boss.
The first boss I ever worked for was John Mahaffey. John was an unusual boss, the kind of man whose friends call him colorful and whose enemies call him a loon.
I went to work for Mr. Mahaffey the first summer after I graduated from high school, and I heard more four-letter words out of him in my first week of work than I’d heard in my entire senior year. He could be pretty forceful in expressing his opinion, but you never had to guess what his opinion actually was. I always found him to be decent and honest; he was a good first boss.
I am fortunate that my most recent boss is also a good one. Bill Vonada has not been the principal at FHS for many years, but he has demonstrated most of the qualities that you can hope to find in a good boss.
Bill listens and pays attention. He manages to hear what you’re saying and to listen for the point you’re trying to make by saying it. If what you’re saying is not good news, he doesn’t try to manage you or convince you to stop saying it.
Bill talks (which is not uncommon in bosses), but he speaks in plain English and says what he means. He is what was once called a “straight shooter,” the kind of person who uses words to communicate information instead of covering it up. If Bill thinks you’re right, he says so. If he thinks you’re wrong, he says so. If he doesn’t have an answer, he says so.
Bill works for the team. This whole team concept seems to be a tough concept for some bosses out there. Teams include a variety of jobs, some more critical than others. A good captain knows how to lead, but he knows the value of his team-mates, too. A quarterback with a great passing arm is useless without a receiver.
Teamwork is a two-way street. Bill takes care of his people and does his best to see that we can do the jobs that he does, in fact, expect us to do. This is a simple equation that escapes many leaders—leadership is a relationship, and no relationship can survive when one side does all the taking and the other does all the giving.
Like most of the good leaders I’ve known, Bill seems to have a clear sense of the purpose of his organization. There are lots of good people in leadership roles whose better sense is clouded by ego or insecurity. Bill is one of a handful of leaders I’ve known who never seem to let pride or ego get in the way of doing the job. When someone would rather look good than do good, problems always follow. Bill, I would guess, is squirming as he reads this; he would rather do good than look good.
Whether he knows it or not, I have learned a lot about leadership from Bill in the last few years. This is just my time of year to say so.
I would bet that you have had a good boss or two in your life. If you have become a boss, I’ll bet that somewhere in your past is a person from whom you learned some of the principles by which you now lead.
What I encourage you to do this very weekend is take out a piece of paper and write that person a letter. You can keep it simple: “You are a hero of mine because…” We are far too reluctant to praise bosses. We figure they’re “just doing their job” or we don’t want to appear to be sucking up.
But we live in a world where good bosses are an increasingly rare and lonely breed. Just like anyone else, maybe even more so, they need to hear that their work is noticed and appreciated.
The thing about most heroes is that they never know they’re heroes unless someone else tells them so. It’s up to the rest of us to let them know.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Friday, November 14, 2008

The GOP Battle for Party Identity

(News-Herald, November 13) It didn’t take long for the Republicans to start eating their own young. It was to be expected. The Republican Party is the new Democratic Party—fractured, unfocused, unclear of its own identity.

Political groups are like a bunch of college students in a dorm hungry for pizza. When there’s no pizza, and nobody has enough money to buy a pizza alone, pooling money makes sense. Everybody pitches in, everybody’s excited, everybody’s a big happy family, waiting for that pizza.

And then the pizza comes, and the bickering begins. Do I only get one piece? Why is he getting two pieces? Who the heck ordered pineapple on this?

The more times they go in together for pizza, the more the memory of those pizzaless days fade, the more people want their own way, and the more they forget that they can’t actually buy a pizza alone. The other people seem increasingly obnoxious, demanding and annoying. And when the day comes that they can’t even get the pizza, all hell breaks loose.

That’s how the Democrats became a bickering party standing for nothing except keeping a bunch of special interests happy.

The recent Republican era began with an uneasy alliance between political conservatives and social conservatives. Political conservatives were the good old boys of the party, the sons of Goldwater, who were all about a small government that didn’t spend many tax dollars and left everybody alone to live out their own traditional values without government interference.

Social conservatives (the so-called “religious right”) shared that interest in traditional values, and they were excited (back when they were called the “moral majority”) to be invited to sit in with the Big Boys. The old guard was happy to let the social cons believe they were major players as long as they would bring along their network of many voters.

But once the political conservatives let the social conservatives into the tent, they found them harder and harder to control. Social conservatives became peckish —they were repeatedly promised bold action on abortion and gay issues, and were delivered nothing of real substance. Many religious political leaders began to suspect they were being suckered.

Some of these guys took their ball and went home, but it didn’t really matter. At some point during the Bush Jr. administration, old line conservatives looked around the Republican tent and discovered that so many of the social conservatives had come in that the old guard was outnumbered.

The party that had once boasted some extremely smart and articulate thinkers (think William F. Buckley) was now filled with people openly hostile to ideas, proud that they didn’t read much, and distrustful of fancy-pants smart-aleck college-educated people and their so-called “facts.”

The party that had once preached endlessly of financial restraint found itself throwing money around like a rat in a Hickory Farms kiosk.

The party that once stood for personal responsibility promised a war that wouldn’t require us to sacrifice a single thing on the home front.

The party that once mocked Democrats for their fuzzy-headed inability to see the Big Picture decided that nothing mattered except a candidate’s position on gays and abortion. (As Diane Gramley says on her website, “These issues are more important to God than the economy.”)

The party of small non-intrusive government took over the nations’ local school districts, bought up a giant chunk of the economic system, and created new law-enforcement powers beyond any the nation had ever seen before.

The party of professional politicians is even realizing, with a mixture of shock and surprise, that while they can spend a few months smearing their opponent and then leave it behind, some of their followers actually believed that invented foolishness and are still ranting about it.

Whether these shifts are good or bad is not the point. The point is that the political and social conservative wings of the Republican Party disagree big time about some fairly fundamental stuff, and now they don’t even get the pizza.

Palin was brought onto the ticket to make social conservatives happy, so she becomes the default spear-carrier for one wing of the party (which never liked McCain) and the target for the other. The battle about her is the beginning of the battle to determine what the Republican Party is going to become-- whether it is going to retreat to its own traditional values, or leave them behind for good. Either way, it won’t be pretty, and somebody is going to end up without a pizza.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

I Heart My Computer

This is an old column from 2004. I offer it as a chance to look back fondly at how much computer technology has advanced in the interim.

(June, 2004) This week I’m writing on my back-up computer because my main computer is in the shop. Of course, I only have a back-up computer in the first place because a couple of years ago, its spectacular failure showed that I needed a new computer.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate the computer era; I do. Years ago in my first computer class at Allegheny College, I learned to program in Basic on punch cards. After tedious hours of painstaking troubleshooting, I was able to create a program that could alphabetize names. This is better.

And despite all the time and irritation involved, I still thought it was cool when the program finally worked. Useless in any practical sense, but cool.

Computers were going to usher in an age of coolness; we were going to live like the Jetsons. We would pull out our keyboards and touch buttons and stuff would instantly happen. Cool stuff. Well, stuff does happen. Just not always the stuff we want. And it happens no so much instantly as somewhere between Instantly or After A While or even Never.

For folks who grew up in the Machine Age, computers are baffling and frustrating because they are so mysteriously fickle. If your tractor doesn’t run properly, you find the part that isn’t working and you repair or replace it. Then the tractor works. If it develops a little mechanical quirk, you learn where to rap it with a hammer, and you and the tractor get along fine.

But if a computer program doesn’t work properly, your best “repair” tactic is to turn the computer off and then on again, after which it may run. If that doesn’t work, you can play phone tag with technicians or call a helpful service rep in New Delhi and maybe they’ll have an idea, or maybe they won’t. Once it runs again, have you fixed anything? Who knows?

The biggest impediment to the arrival of the computer age is product reliability. Research buying a laptop, and you quickly learn that a critical feature is warranty and service, because the only thing that the manufacturer can guarantee about your laptop is that sooner or later, something’s going to stop working correctly. For ANY computer, only the most na├»ve would expect it to work the way it’s supposed to every single day.

That’s just one computer. Computer techs love the idea of networking many units together because it should make so many cool things possible. But computer techs are a lot like engineers—given the choice between an awkward solution that works and an elegant solution that should work, but doesn’t, they are invariably attracted to the elegant failure. Is there anybody in the working world whose heart doesn’t sink when they hear those magic words, “We’ll be upgrading the system. Wait till you see how much better it works!”

Networking computers is like interconnecting all the patients in a critical care ward—sooner or later, someone is going to bring the whole thing to a gasping halt.

Computers can do many cool things; they just don’t do them all the time. The internet is a great example of technopromise linked to technogarbage. The problem is even greater here in Venangoland, where instead of superfast cable or broadband, we’re still mostly internetting with packets strapped to the backs of little geriatric gerbils. Sometimes the gerbils are fine, sometimes they’re tired, and sometimes they’re off on a little gerbil coffee break. Thank heavens that even our pokey internet can still carry us offers for viagra, porn, and financial opportunities in Nigeria.

Movies like the Terminator films have created a mythic vision of all-knowing computers, so powerfully linked that they can rule the world. I don’t buy it. Here’s the scene I imagine from the real Terminator.

Terminator: Sarah Conner, I have returned from the future to—

Sarah: What? To do what?

Terminator: (Freezes in place and turns blue) Error 404. Site not available. Press any key to continue. Hit ctr-alt-del to restart.

Sarah: Oh, no you don’t. (Slugs Terminator in face with gun butt. Audience cheers wildly)

Terminator: Congratulations. You’ve been pre-approved for new low-rate home refinancing. And there’s a millionaire in Nigeria who wants to talk to you.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Unplugged Progress Report

(November 10) I guess we're coming up on two weeks without cable. For the three regular readers of this blog, here's how it's going.

I have been burning through my netflix account with abandon. House season 4 is finished (now THAT'S how you do a season finale) and Arrested Development season 3 is under way. NCIS has absolutely nothing of substance to recommend it, exactly, and yet is perfect brain popcorn. And Code Name: The Cleaner is 90 minutes of my life that I can never have back.

I listen to lots more music, and read even more than usual. But, I am still struggling to find something that allows the brain to just shut down and rest. Cable is not just back ground noise-- it's company you don't have to be a good host to and something sparkly to keep the brain just occupied enough. It is a kind of waking sleep, and it's precisely that state which I wanted to get away from. But I'm now casting about for some sort of mindless activity with which to replace it (no, blogging doesn't do it).

I didn't expect this to fall into place immediately-- any time you give up a drug you have a certain amount of detoxing to do. I'll be curious to see how that goes.

Friday, November 07, 2008


(News-Herald, November 6) Many writers are busy picking apart election results. But other stuff has happened in the last week. Big stuff. Things beyond mere politics.

Sometimes when death comes, it comes with a bit of warning. It calls ahead, or at least clears its throat when it walks into the room. But it is in the nature of human tragedy that it can happen at moments that are not just unexpected, but seem just wrong.

Poe thought that there was nothing more awful than the untimely death of a young woman. I don’t doubt that his insight is true, but I’m not sure why.

Part, I suppose, is our tendency to search for narrative, to organize our experiences into stories that make sense. The death of someone who has lived a long and full life is a story we can understand. The death of someone who has made a mess out of his life is sad, but it makes sense. It fits a story.

But the passing of a woman still young, a life of promise ahead of her, doesn’t work. It’s a bad story. It doesn’t make sense.

You can hear it in the voices of people talking about it, struggling to force sense into it. It’s that struggle to make sense that invariably leads well-meaning people to say Really Stupid Things. You would be better off trying to explain the Mind of God to a six-year-old than to stand in line at the funeral home and try to explain to a grieving family member why their loved one’s death is Actually Okay.

Yeah, sure. In another thousand years, we’ll all be dust. In another billion years this planet will be dust in the cold depths of space. So what. We are people of flesh and the moment, rooted here, now, in this time in this place in the universe. And now we are here, and our loved one is not. Long-range perspective does not help.

God has a plan for all of us, and everything in that plan works for the best, even if it’s in ways known only to Him. That may be. I rarely make the mistake of confusing God with Santa Claus—sometimes God demands some pretty hard things of us. I believe we can accept that and still think that some of those things stink. Big time.

A relationship with God can be a big help in these times, but I have also seen it hinder healing, bending people under the weight of grief doubled by a load of guilt because of a mistaken belief that we are always supposed to think that God’s plan is great.

I think any good relationship has room for anger. I think anyone who has had a loved one taken unexpectedly is entitled to be angry at God. I think God gets that. I expect God is still right there after the anger has run its course.

Death is not something we deal with well as a culture. We don’t even like the word—passing, gone, departed, left us, and a dozen other gentle euphemisms cushion us from the subject.

It is oddly surprising, though, that the religious and the not-so-religious agree about the importance of death-- We only have so much time in this world, and we have no way of knowing how much, so we had better make the best use of it we possibly can.

If I were going to live a million years, it doesn’t matter one whit how I spend today. If I knew the people around me were also going to live that long, it wouldn’t matter how I treated them, what I said, what I did, what I paid attention to.

I remember words from Mort Teig’s funeral years ago, to the effect that we should not be sad for the days we had lost, but grateful for the time that he was with us.

Death stinks. It hurts. It is a thief that robs us of precious time with people that we love. But that theft serves as reminder for us to value and cherish the moments we still have. If I had a million todays, they would be as cheap as paper napkins, as common as dirt. But I might have only one more, and that makes it more valuable than gold. I’m not sure being reminded of that is worth the loss of one bright, beautiful, promising life, but if it helps us resolve to honor that life, it’s a start.

From my Flickr