Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Strong-arming For Charity

It's time for the yearly intimidation-fest at the workplace.

You know the drill. I've seen it at every job I have worked since 1980. It's time for the United Way drive. Time to pony up your "fair share". And if you don't know what your fair share is, they'll be happy to tell you.

What makes me characterize the drive as "strong-arming"?

Simple: they enlist the active, and at times fervent, support of your employer. Most of us need our jobs, and therefore, when your bosses "encourage" you to contribute, it is by definition intimidating.

And it doesn't stop there.

Where I work, a notice is passed out to all employees, with a deadline: "Please respond by November 1". Now, if you had already planned to risk your bosses' disapproval by not participating, does that let you off the hook? Sorry, no, you're not getting away that easily. The notice continues, "If you're not planning on giving, mark zero in the amount box and return."

So, instead of being allowed to quietly not give, you are forced to call attention to that fact.

That's an attempt to intimidate, with a side order of humiliation.

So I ask the designated collector: "Why do we have to return the form with zero on it if we're not participating? They get the same amount of money from me, either way."

The reply: "United Way wants to be assured that everyone was contacted."

Now, for all I know, this wasn't United Way's idea at all, but rather the employer's innovation. However, from my perspective, the principles are still the same. My invariable response is: "What entitles anyone to know whether I was contacted? Isn't that an invasion of privacy?"

And about this time, the collector -- a fellow employee -- starts taking it personally, and gives me that little look that says, "Grinch."

Fine. Let's concede for the sake of argument that I ought to be forced to wear the Scarlet G. Does that mean anyone has a right to demand that I respond to a solicitation for money?

So I did a Google on "united way tactics", wondering if I'm a Grinch Army of One. Apparently not. I was struck by the number of posts from folks who, apparently, feel the same way I do.

Let's stipulate that United Way does some good work. There are certainly enough charities under their umbrella that it would be hard for them not to do some good. I found an online brochure from a Virginia branch of United Way, and its roster includes such worthies as the Salvation Army, the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association. However, Planned Parenthood and the Abortion Access Project are also on the same roster, so depending on your view of abortion, your contribution might have the precise opposite effect of whatever you intended. Magnanimously, United Way permits you to specify the charities to whom they will remit your contributions, but now you have to trust their bookkeeping -- which, judging from this Wikipedia article, hasn't always been a sure bet.

But the larger issue is, why would I want to contribute money to people who make money, in part, by contributing to Planned Parenthood? Personally, I don't want those folks even within smelling distance of my money.

I'd rather give to my own church, or to the Salvation Army. I could choose to support the SA through the United Way, but, sorry, I don't need a middleman, and I'd be more comfortable if United Way were to ring bells at the local department store and leave my employer out of it.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Reformation Sunday

Reformed churches all over the world have been celebrating the Reformation this past week, As a Baptist for most of my life, I am relatively new to its significance, but significant it was, indeed.

The timeframe was early in the 16th century. The Roman Catholic Church was pretty much the Christian church. Most of its competition (e.g., the churches in Alexandria and Antioch) had been swallowed up by Islam hundreds of years earlier; this process was finally completed with the fall of the Byzantine Empire to the Ottoman Turks in the mid-15th century. (The Eastern Orthodox Church today is a remnant of the Byzantine Church.) The Roman church was also significant as a political power -- there was no "separation of church and state" in 16th century Europe. Politics is corrupting, and corrupt people often decide that a practice is ethical just by checking to see whether it is productive of revenue.

Two practices that were very productive of revenue for the Church were the selling of relics, and the selling of indulgences. The relics were items claimed by religious hucksters to have special significance with respect to Christ or his disciples -- e.g., pieces of his cross, bones from a disciple, and so forth. The indulgences were "guarantees" from the Church of forgiveness for a particular sin, whether for oneself or for a loved one suffering in Purgatory -- "As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs."

Even more disturbing, however, was the shameful suppression of the Bible by the Church hierarchy. At various times in Church history, it has been against the law, and punishable by death, to possess a Bible, or one that had been translated into one's own language. It would appear that the Church wanted a monopoly on theological thought, and would dispense the Lord's wisdom, or their own wisdom relabeled using the Lord's brand name, as they saw fit.

A handful of men led the rebellion against such corruption. Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin changed the world profoundly, and not merely in theological terms. Until the Reformation, the centers of Western Civilization had always been Italy, Spain, and France; soon, they were to be rivaled by Protestant Holland, Switzerland, various German states, and the emerging economic dynamo that was England. In these countries, the Bible replaced the Pope as the ultimate religious authority. Martin Luther's German translation of the Bible, followed by the Geneva Bible, and (soon after that) the King James Bible put the word of God directly into the hands of Christians, and in their own language. We see the Bible today everywhere we go, even in hotel rooms (thanks to the Gideons), and we take that for granted today, but it took about fifteen centuries, and a lot of martyrs, to make that happen.

It was a tragedy, of course, that Christianity became split, and we take it on faith that someday we shall be united again. However, relics are meaningless, and the Lord alone can forgive sin -- and He can do so without the help of a middleman. Originally a response to corruption within the Church, the Reformation provided a much-needed reinvigoration of theology simply by restoring the authority of God's own word. Ideas have consequences, to borrow Richard Weaver's signature phrase, and this reinvigoration played a huge role in shaping the world we know today.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Great Divide

Some guys are Ford guys; others are Chevy guys.

Some trombone players are Conn guys; others are Bach guys. I'm a Conn guy, even though I play Edwards trombones nowadays. It's more about the ideal of the tone quality than about who made the trombone. Conn trombones (particularly the older ones from the 1950s and 1960s) have a lively, rich, interesting tone quality, while the word that applies to a Bach is stentorian -- they are big and bold.

In Ireland, there are Catholic guys, and there are Protestant guys -- which has been the basis for a lot of, er, disagreement. William F. Buckley, Jr. once asked an Irish acquaintance, "Aren't there any atheists in Ireland?" The reply was telling: "Of course, but you see, there are Catholic atheists and Protestant atheists."

Some guys go for Ginger; others for Mary Ann. Tall, seductive, red-headed, and unobtainable, vs. perky brunette girl next door. (Don't expect complete honesty on this one. Most guys are Ginger guys, but their wives might somehow acquire the impression they prefer Mary Ann.)

Dogs vs. cats. Boxers vs. briefs. Blondes vs. brunettes. PC vs. Mac. Lowes vs. Home Depot. Life is full of dichomoties, with partisans who line up on both sides. It is the rare independent individual who can always remain truly ecumenical.

But the most important of all divides is, indisputably, this:

Beefeater vs. Bombay Sapphire.

It's Friday night after work. You come home and want the pause that refreshes, and nothing does that like a good martini. Put some ice in a shaker. Add dry vermouth, shake it until your hands are cold, pour it out into the sink -- the vermouth that sticks to the ice is all the vermouth we need. Add two shots of gin, shake until your hands are too cold to keep going, pour into a chilled martini glass, add a lemon twist. Voila. Liquid paradise.

Have one. Have two. But this is very important: do not drive anywhere. Martinis are the original velvet sledgehammer.

One of my Omaha buddies, Jay, taught me how to make martinis. Jay is also a Conn guy, having been a symphony musician for twenty years. The key is the brand of gin, Jay emphasized. So what are the good gins? Beefeater and Bombay Sapphire. Jay served Beefeater.

Later, making them on my own, I decided to try Bombay Sapphire. After two of them, I called Jay and got his answering machine. I told his machine that it was my considered opinion that Bombay Sapphire made an inferior martini. A week or so later, Jay and I played a gig together. He told me, "I wish I had saved that message you sent; I could make a million dollars with it."

"Why?" I asked.

Putting on his best drunk impression, Jay replied, "Jay, thish is Lee. It ish my conshiderd oh pinion that Bomb Bay. Safff Ffire. Makesss an inff ffferior martt. Hiccup. Tini."

That was ten years and another life ago, but Beefeater is still the one.

Enjoy, but enjoy cautiously.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Men and Women

I work on the second floor, and the coffee room is on the first floor, so it makes good sense to stop by the coffee room first thing when I get to work, and grab the cup of coffee that will last until 10 AM. And that's when I might run into some ladies in the coffee room.

If there are no ladies there, it takes about ten seconds to get coffee. Grab a cup. Put the cream in the cup. Pour in the coffee. No need to stir if you put the cream in first -- physics does it for you. You're done.

If ladies are there, it's going to take at least a minute, maybe two or three. They pour the coffee first. Then over to the creamers. Set the coffee down. Open the creamer, pour it in, take a stirrer, stir. Need more cream? Pick up the creamer, pour it in, take a stirrer, stir. If any other ladies have arrived, turn, smile, and engage in conversation, stirring half-heartedly now. Be sure to loiter around the coffee pot or creamer in such a way as to take up as much space as your 130-pound body will permit. Make someone say "Excuse me" to reach around to grab what they need. Multiply by the number of ladies getting coffee.

Sorry if that sounds mysogynistic. It's what I see every morning, Monday through Friday. Truth is, it fascinates me.

Men and women are the same species, but different creatures. I see women as being process-oriented, and men as being results-oriented. With men, there is an objective to be accomplished: get the morning coffee. Get in and get out as quickly and politely as possible, with the objective accomplished. You put the cream in first because it saves at least five seconds. You don't want to get in anyone's way because you were trained years ago by the tough guys in high school, who would beat you up after school if you annoyed them.

With women, however, nothing is ever as simple as just getting what you want. There are rituals and protocols that must be observed at all times. If you're a woman, you pour the coffee before you add the creamer, necessitating the stirring, because that's the process you were taught by your mother, and if it can be done more efficiently, so what? If you're standing in someone's way, well, others can wait because you're talking with someone, and you won't be long. There's a process here: get the coffee, exchange pleasantries, never look rushed, always be feminine. There is a right way to get coffee, and you're going to do it the right way.

I'm sure there is more to it than that, but that's my best shot at explaining what I see. One perspective isn't better than the other, necessarily. If you have a problem that can easily and quickly be solved by decisive and efficient action, you should probably think like a man. And if you have a problem that is complex enough to require a more involved process, you should probably think like a woman.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Managerial Moves

Any football fan understands there are some grey areas regarding the rules, a notorious one being the difference between an incomplete pass and a completed pass followed by a fumble. There is a nebulous period between the time a receiver touches the ball, and when he gains possession. If the receiver takes a hit after catching but then drops the ball, it is ruled an incomplete pass. However, if the receiver has caught the ball and gained possession, but then takes a hit and drops the ball, it is ruled a fumble, with potentially disastrous consequences. A lot can be riding on whether the receiver has been awarded possession.

So, how do the refs decide whether to award possession? This is the grey area. Certainly the amount of elapsed time between catching and dropping the ball plays a role in deciding. How much the receiver may have juggled the ball is also taken into account. But a generally accepted guideline is, for possession to occur, the receiver must catch the ball and then make something called a "football move" -- which is still somewhat nebulous but at a more granular level. Sometimes, a football move occurs when the receiver has the ball and takes two steps; sometimes, it's when he tucks the ball under his arm and shifts his feet. Whatever the specifics, the idea is that the receiver must exhibit some palpable sign of controlling the ball.

It is similar, in other words, to the concept I will designate as the "managerial move".

This phenomenon is most often observable at the lower managerial rungs, with junior or rookie managers. It happens a lot when command and control within an organization are ill-defined regardless of what hierarchy chart might say -- at least for the purposes of a given project. Most junior managers are unsure of themselves (which is understandable) and greet each and every opportunity to appear managerial as if every meeting is the Super Bowl and they are Tom Brady. If you tell them to manage a fire hydrant, you will soon spot one standing over the hydrant with a clipboard and a pencil, wearing an intent look. Eventually, the hydrant will gain a reputation for having a bad attitude.

Like the football move, the managerial move is designed to make the player look like he's in control. And like the football move, it is hard to specify exactly what it is. However, like Supreme Court Justice Stewart said about pornography: it can't be easily defined, but we know it when we see it.

Example? A junior manager has emailed the big boss with a proposal to proceed directly with a technical solution, recommended by a vendor, involving massive and expensive changes to the server configuration. You were not copied on the email -- perhaps because you, as a high-level techie, have raised unwelcome questions about other solutions the vendor has proposed. But the big boss performs due diligence and forwards you the proposal, asking for your opinion. So, you work two hours late and respond by raising some questions, which prompts the boss to direct you to arrange a phone conference with the vendor. Only then do you get an email from Junior (your boss is cc'ed), stipulating that you need to invite "all of the players" to the phone conference -- because he doesn't "want a breakdown in communication on such an important issue". Never mind that the communication had already broken down in the first place when Junior bypassed you on the original email. You busted his play, and his reaction was to deny that a play had been attempted -- and not incidentally to hint ever so gently that you are the rogue and require some level of adult supervision. In short, this is a classic managerial move.

To provide assistance to a certain species of junior manager is to discover that the harder you work, the more bullets find their way onto his resume. This is probably why most of the senior techies you know are grumpy, terse, and matter of fact. Ronald Reagan once said you'd be surprised at what you can accomplish, if you don't care who gets the credit. And maybe the President of the United States can afford such a magnanimous attitude. The rest of us may occasionally need to point to an accomplishment or two without someone else hogging all the credit.

I'm not completely without compassion. The life of a junior manager can be unpleasant and uncertain, or so it appears to this techie. And many junior managers eventually get promoted and become good bosses, and what would we do without them? But just keep all this in mind the next time a junior manager for whom you don't work starts following you around with a clipboard.

Monday, October 8, 2007

2010 A Space Idiocy

My wife is a dedicated "space opera" freak, and dearly loves any movies involving flight, space travel, or time travel. She knows every Star Trek episode -- the original plus every spin-off -- by heart, watches decade-old videos of Babylon 5, and is now in the process of memorizing the Stargate series -- the original plus every spin-off. I've always figured that if Captain Kirk isn't somehow involved, I don't need to watch. His approach to foreign policy -- "We come in peace. Shoot to kill!" -- is as timely then as now.

Tonight, the wife popped in one of my least favorite movies -- "2010", the cinematic realization of Arthur C. Clarke's best-selling book and sequel to the vastly overrated "2001 A Space Odyssey". If you like your sci-fi done up pretentiously superior and sanctimoniously obscure, with a side of "we the puny humans stand in awe of a vast intelligence", 2001 is for you. Some folks thought this was refreshing, after a decade of movies in which humanity was always under attack by hideous aliens, who were ultimately vanquished in the Captain Kirk tradition -- namely, we killed them. These folks are also the same ones who draw horrified parallels between "evil aliens" movies and the "paranoid" McCarthy era -- "paranoid", as if having to cope with a superpower with nukes who infiltrated our government with spies and moles was no worse than listening to an insurance salesman. Like a good neighbor, Khruschev is there -- assuming your good neighbor doesn't mind lending you his T-94 super tank when your riding mower breaks down.

Clarke gave us a kinder, gentler sci-fi where aliens were distant and, at most, interested but detached. We were not the center of their evil machinations, just specimens in a petri dish. They might destroy us, of course, but it certainly wouldn't be personal. We're not important enough for that. This is a common theme in liberalism: humanity is nothing special -- as with most things liberal, the precise opposite of Biblical truth. Also, you get the idea that these unseen aliens were somehow our creators, which is interesting in light of the modern debate between Darwinists and proponents of Intelligent Design: we were designed, which meets the ID folks' requirement; and God was not involved, which meets the Darwinists' requirement. Something for everybody. Aliens are not just an excuse for driving off the road or explaining that drunken weekend in a Tijiana hotel anymore; they're also here to rescue our teleological debates. Sort of "The Aliens Ate My Homework" school of philosophy.

Anyhow, Clarke was never my favorite sci-fi guy -- drier than a good martini, but without the refreshing zip. I always preferred Robert Heinlein, who was a story-teller first and a sci-fi guy second. Not to mention, he was also a right-winger like me, as best as I can tell.

The next time someone in the liberal media or academia talks as if the disintegration of the Soviet Union was obvious and inevitable, one thing is for sure: it wasn't obvious to liberals before the fact. Clarke was a big-time liberal, and here, you'll find not a hint that the whole rotten house of potatoes was about to collapse. The movie 2010 was released in 1984 and thus probably written a couple of years earlier than that. Yet Clarke writes not only as if the Soviet Union was going to survive into the next millenia, but that it would rival and perhaps outstrip the United States in power and technology.

The story's backdrop: a world-threatening conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union is brewing over a crisis in Honduras. And get this: America's political leaders are depicted as dangerous, trigger-happy "reactionaries" -- that's liberalese and Hollywoodese for anyone who stands in the way of communist expansion. I.e., "conservatives". With the Soviets turning Honduras into a client state, presumably after having been successful in Cuba, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, why, it's hard to imagine what a bunch of right-wing cowboys could possibly be upset about, isn't it? The Evil Empire's expansion into our hemisphere is just fine, but it's going too far to defend ourselves. Go figure.

The movie has an excellent cast -- Roy Scheider, Helen Mirren, John Lithgow, Bob Balaban, and a too-brief part by the absolutely stunning Madolyn Smith (as Scheider's suffering wife). For 1984, the special effects (which we take for granted even in B movies today) were quite good. At least 2010 has an actual plot in something more than trace amounts, which is more than can be said for 2001. In short, if you find late 20th century liberal thinking to be profound on an intellectual and especially a spiritual basis, then I can recommend this movie to you -- but I'll add that you really need to get out more.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Tomlin Makes a Statement

It has been fun watching the Steelers get off to a 4-1 start. Today, they dismantled one of the NFC's finest teams, the Seattle Seahawks, and made it look easy. Even without their two starting wide receivers (Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes) and their two biggest impact players (pun intended) on defense (safety Troy Polamalu and the gargantuan nosetackle Casey Hampton), they overcame a slow start on offense and methodically ground the Seahawks into cat food.

How many new head coaches can boast such a wonderful start? I was sad to see Coach Cowher move on, and hoped that the new coach, Mike Tomlin, could fill those large shoes. So far, he's doing a masterful job.

Western Pantheism

It has been several years since I lived in Omaha, which had a hopping music scene. As a trombone player, I was a medium fish in a small but lively pond, and spent many of my evenings driving around Omaha and Lincoln playing for this church, that wedding, or the other concert. Since moving to Virginia Beach, however, the pond got slightly bigger, but my talents got a lot smaller. There are four times as many good players, but maybe no more than twice the opportunities.

I'm simply not competitive at the highest levels of the trombone profession; I figure at least six hundred trombone players worldwide would have to misplace their lips for me even to have a shot at playing in the New York Philharmonic. But it's something I like to do, and every once in a while, I get a good opportunity. I had one such an opportunity this week with a local chamber orchestra, playing in a good trombone section including one fellow from Australia who studied with Chicago Symphony players, and another who studied in New York with New York Philharmonic players. On the one hand, I hate being the weak link in a section; on the other hand, it's always a great way to learn more about the craft.

Tonight's concert was an assortment of "Americana", never a recipe for a great program -- music by John Williams and Louis Gottschalk and assorted others, and thank goodness no Charles Ives or Aaron Copland. I'd rather pluck a hangnail with a pair of pliers than play Ives. And while most of my musician friends don't share my dislike of Copland, to me it's like he goes out of his way to make simple sounding music so hard to play.

Anyhow, tonight we were treated to a modern piece that featured narrations by Native American poets and primitive flute. The piece was not out-and-out lousy; musically, it had its moments. But I couldn't help noticing the solemn, almost sanctimonious, lecturing tone -- like a bad sermon. Actually, that seems to be pretty much what the piece was: an overly earnest eco-conscious stemwinder. Before I quit listening, I heard phrases such as, "My mother taught me to worship every thing of nature, to worship the grass, the pine needles..." and etc. Well, why stop at pine needles? Why don't we worship lawn clippings? Corn cobs? It's one thing to recognize God's handiwork; it's another to mistake it for God himself. Someone who is deeply moved by literature might have a deep and abiding love, say, for A Farewell To Arms, but who would idolize a book without acknowledging its author? There once lived a man named Hemingway, and he wrote that book. If you love the book, might it make sense at some point to try to understand who he was? Pantheists find wonder in nature, but they stop short at wondering who created it, or what He might be thinking.

In Omaha, I once played at the dedication of an AIDS hospice which was blessed in prayer by various squishy denominations. If good theology is needed anywhere, it is where someone goes who is about to die. Yet, the speeches were decorated with the softest of liberal Catholic and Protestant platitudes, joining hands athwart tradition in an ecumenical rejection of a more substantive theology. The icing on the rice cake was the participation of a solemn old Buddhist who sang nursery rhymes, while his young acolyte swung pots of burning incense around the interior of the building -- guaranteeing I had taken my last good breath of air for playing trombone. It isn't nice, but I'll say it: the acolyte looked like an abused organ grinder monkey. That whole experience was much less dignified than listening to the marvelous speaking voice of the Indian chief, but I nevertheless felt like I had been here before.

Western culture, until very recently, was never particularly hospitable to pantheism. I wonder who else saw the irony of a chamber orchestra -- one of the hallmarks of Western culture -- being employed in the promotion of non-Western religious blather. Meanwhile, I celebrated the end of this evening's diversity training by drinking a beer -- not exactly worshipping every molecule of hops and barley that went down, but certainly thinking very highly of them.

The part about nature that pantheists miss is its purpose: it was made for you and me.