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Saturday, February 17, 2007

Unexpected Gifts

The date began delightfully enough. We went to a healthy restaurant specializing in Mediterranean dishes, meaning that there was a three-minute wait, as opposed to what would have been an hour wait at the wretched Olive Garden. At the end of a wonderful meal of Orange Roughy stuffed with spinach and other good things, the waitress informed us that another table was paying for our dinner.

I knew who it was, because we'd run into him and his wife on our way in. Along with his former partner in crime, he is the best leader and manager I have ever met. You've never seen his name in a paper or a Harvard Business School case study (which may well be proof that he's competent), nor has he received an ounce of recognition from the upper management of his own company, but I've seen him work miracles with manufacturing facilities, simply by harnessing the knowledge and passion of the employees.

Suffice to say that he and the other person I won't name (for fear of sending trouble their way), are my first and only business heroes. I've learned more about management from them than all my other sources of education combined, and for some reason they seem to enjoy my company as well, even though I take much more from them than I give.

So, my friend and hero paid for our dinner. On top of that, the way the waitress announced our good fortune made us sound like celebrities to the people sitting near us. An excellent way to begin the evening.

Then it was on to Barnes & Noble, which proved to be a profound disappointment. I've realized that I just don't care to pay top-dollar for a hardcover book any more. I found the book I was set on getting (see the previous post), but who wants to pay $24.95 for a big ugly hardcover book (especially when it's retailing for $16.47 and free shipping, provided your order is more than $25, at Amazon)? So I put it at the top of my Amazon wishlist, where I will salivate over it until it comes out in paperback, at which point I'll buy and likely read it in one sitting.

There is one exception to my newfound no-full-price-for-books rule, and that's when it comes to books in the Everyman's Library collection. I could try to describe them, but just look at this vivid (and true) description from Knopf:

"...printed on acid-free natural-cream-colored text paper and including Smyth-sewn, signatures, full-cloth cases with two-color case stamping, decorative endpapers, silk ribbon markers, and European-style half-round spines."

Do you remember Tim Allen's show, "Home Improvement," and that ape-sound he would make when he got worked up about tools? Insert that sound here.

So, I'm in love with the Everyman collection, even though I only have two: Marcus Aurelius's Meditations and George Orwell's complete essays (this last courtesy of my beloved mother-in-law). When I strike it rich I'm buying "The Everyman's 100", but until then I will peruse and covet and drool over and occasionally actually buy them, one at a time.

With that in mind (the coveting and drooling), I asked the nice lady at Barnes & Noble how many books they have in stock under the Everyman imprint. "One," she told me.

"Are you sure?" I asked. She swiveled her computer screen around so I could see for myself. It listed one: Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera. Oh well, I thought, Barnes & Noble is trying to push its own, cheaper, paperback classics series, so I can hardly fault it for choosing not to entice the buyer with the clearly superior, albeit more expensive, Everyman option.

So I began to wander the stacks. Right away, I found the Everyman edition of Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Then Bleak House, by Dickens. Then another title, and another. How could this be, I wondered, when the Barnes & Noble computer had only just snidely blinked at me with its one recorded Everyman title in stock?

So I took up counting the number of additional Everyman titles in stock in their adult literature section (because the Everyman collection, you see, encompasses religion, philosophy, and children's literature as well). Final count: 15 titles. The Barnes & Noble computer was off by a factor of 15. Fifteen hundred percent variance.

I think you see the problem. It made me think, how many of us even trust information given to us by the computer systems, websites, or personnel of large organizations any more? When was the last time you actually believed the "on-time" status of a flight listed on an airline's website? Who trusts the Home Depot employee when he tells you over the phone that they don't have that much-needed router bit in stock? I don't know about you, but I don't even bother to call a store any more, because my experience is that it's a coin toss as to whether what they tell me actually holds true.

And yet, organizations spend billions, collectively, on information systems every year, from the lowest end (the idiot teenager picking his nose by the phone), to the highest end (my favorite trend: fancy new government websites that are loaded with everything except answers to questions like, "How much, really, do we spend per pupil?" or "What are all the offices I need to get permits from before I start my business?"). All that money for information, and nary a lick of it seems to go toward providing what it is that we really need, which is reliable knowledge.

But I guess that's a critique of more than just information systems, isn't it? We are surrounded by sensory inputs, and yet we seem to be losing our grip on the things that lead to wisdom.

In the end, I came home without buying a book, but I already had two lovely books that were far better than what I'd set my sights on. The wife, you see, had slipped them onto the seat of my truck. The first was a hardcover book of English poetry classics. The other was a small hardcover early edition of Robert's Rules of Order, inspired by my recent failed bid to throw a monkey wrench into my homeowners association juggernaut.

And isn't life that way, sometimes? We think we really want one thing, but once we get close to it, we realize that we didn't really want it so much after all. And only then do we realize that we already have something far more precious. It's not necessarily as flashy or exciting or new as what we thought we wanted, but it's precious nonetheless, because it's bound up in the things of our lives that matter most to us.

I didn't get what I wanted last night. Instead, I received the kind gifts of people who are far better than me, and who care for me nonetheless. I don't see how it can get much better than that, do you?

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Friday, February 16, 2007

Read Me

I'm drawn to gadflies, iconoclasts, and intelligent heretics. I've heard that Sam Harris, author of Letter to a Christian Nation, is the last, but after admittedly only browsing his book, I found him to be a simplistic and mean-spirited little man.

I was likewise disappointed when I thumbed through Mark Steyn's new book, America Alone. Steyn's columns usually sizzle, and there's a depth to his thinking, but his current book looks like it was dashed off by a Bill O'Reilly aide, translated into German and then back into English, and then direct-marketed to Rush Limbaugh junkies. A real shame, because his thoughts on Islam's slow conquest of Europe are fascinating.

My favorite heretic right now is Henry Mintzberg, whose Managers Not MBA's is absolutely delightful. Here's a quote: "trying to teach management to someone who has never managed is like trying to teach psychology to someone who has never met another human being."

Why so torqued up about books, you ask? Why this extra-special bonus post on SitG? Because my woman and I have a date tonight. We're going to dinner, and then to the book store. I'm giddy. I already know what I'm getting, too: Michael Lewis's Blind Side, wherein he does for football what he did for baseball in his outstanding Moneyball.

Can't. Hardly. Wait.

Was that last sentence too girly? Don't care. I've wrung my hands here more than once about the decline of reading in America, but here's a little side benefit: it leaves more books for Tony.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)


Valentine's evening, after the rush of work and dinner was over, three little boys gathered around my chair. Caleb and Eli each handed me brown lunch bags covered in heart-shaped stickers. Inside Caleb's was a collection of elaborate cut-out hearts, two Reese's peanut-butter cups, a little candy bar, and a handful of those confection-sugar hearts that have things like "Be Mine" inscribed on them. It hadn't occurred to Eli to put candy in his bag, and he doesn't know how to cut out hearts, so instead he had cut me some slips of paper using scissors that leave a scalloped edge.

Each bag also contained a card; inside Caleb's was a note: "Dear Daddy how has work been going? Happy Valentine's Day. Love, Caleb." Inside Eli's was a stick-figure with spiked-up hair. "It's me after I have a bath," he explained. Isaac, meanwhile, stood watching and waiting for me to share the candy.

I have their little cards on my desk, next to my Father's Day drawing from Caleb (it shows him hitting a hole-in-one), next to the homemade card in the shape of a birthday cake, complete with lots of candles (it took Caleb most of a day to draw and cut it out), next to a picture of Isaac in nothing but a t-shirt and a cowboy hat, holding a little cowboy gun.

His card asks, "How is work going?" My answer is that it doesn't matter, does it? As long as I can come home to these little boys every day, work doesn't matter one bit, except that there's enough of it to pay the bills and keep them in candy hearts. Perhaps I should be more career-minded. But looking at these little Valentines as I type, I can't see work as anything but means to the end. I have a feeling that on my deathbed, I won't recall a thing about work. And I have a feeling, just as sure, that I will remember that Valentine's night, looking down into their expectant eyes, and opening the best Valentine's presents I ever got.

I like to linger in those moments, try to stretch them out, imprint them into my mind. I don't want to look back on the best part of life and find that I've missed it. So I linger.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Thursday, February 15, 2007


Delightful just-discovered quote from Alfred North Whitehead:

"The secondhandedness of the learned world is the secret to its mediocrity."

And isn't it humble of me to post it here in the midst of all my recent rantings inspired by the original work of deeper thinkers?

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

"Mental Slovenliness"

In his meditation for today (My Utmost for His Highest), Oswald Chambers writes, "When once you allow physical selfishness, mental slovenliness, moral obtuseness, spiritual density, everyone belonging to your crowd will suffer." This is directed, we should be clear, at the Christian church, and with good reason. People filled with religiosity but not grace are toxic — at the extreme they are the sort who blow up school buses full of Israeli children, while in milder forms they are the gossipers and backbiters who think hell exists for other people.

A mistake too many Christians make in separating from Judaism and Catholicism is the notion that spiritual work is misguided. The Christian walk, in this worldview, is all about the personal decision for Jesus. He is the author and perfecter of faith, after all. But we also know that we are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling.

Work out — what a lovely way to put it. There's work involved, in other words. A signature of the Protestant movement for at least the last one hundred years, however, is anti-intellectualism, combined with an insurance salesman mentality — get the poor sinner to mutter a commitment prayer, and you've won yourself another soul for Jesus. Those newly won souls are tender things, of course, and the souls of children are especially imperiled, so best to shield the whole flock from seditious thought. Perhaps it's true that the heart and flesh crying out for God in despair feels a lot like Holden Caulfield, but best to just burn that copy of Catcher in the Rye. The boy curses, after all. So not only is spiritual work eschewed, but also the honest working out of spiritual things — evidenced, for example, in the stark paucity of Protestant literary accomplishments.

I'm wrestling with the two-fold challenge of how to teach my sons. I don't want them to turn out like vast sums of Christian churchgoers, with absolutely no sense of church history, no understanding of the foundational principles of theology — in short, no ability whatsoever to serve as genuine leaders or teachers. This is remedied easily enough (with the added twist of educating myself in the process, because I number among those vast sums — it's like building rooms at the same time you are laying the foundation).

But there's the additional challenge, of fostering in my boys a sense of genuine inquiry. I want them to learn the true things, the unseen things, but I want for them to learn to wrestle with these unseen things, because I don't think we really know them, in our gut, until we have looked at them in the cold dark hours, in the midst of our knowledge of the suffering of the world. I want them to know faith from the eye of Graham Greene's whiskey priest, and confront nihilism in the eye of Flannery O'Connor's Misfit. Certainly God places us in travails that teach us more than a book, but surely books, if the mind is nimble enough, can begin this process of inquiry.

I suppose this means that first they shall have to learn to read. Caleb is making great progress in this area, as is Eli. Isaac is still learning that upside-down is not the preferred way of looking at books. And yet already I'm thinking of reading lists, and gentle discussions, and days when they have questions that I have no idea how to answer.

So I'm curious, from those of you whose children are older, and have found some resonance in anything I've written above. What do you read? What do your children read? How are you working (and cultivating in them the desire to work) so that you and your family don't suffer from "mental slovenliness?"

Perhaps this is too constant a theme with me, the desire to be liberated from ignorance. I suppose it's the natural consequence of growing awareness of one's own ignorance. Funny how it took me two degrees and thirty-odd years to get to this place, where I realize how little I really know about anything.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Good Intentions

Recently I found myself sitting with bright and dedicated teaching professionals, all of us asked to participate in developing ideas for improving the entrepreneurial bent of students. Having a seven year-old who routinely sets up booths in our front yard to sell things, a four year-old who builds elaborate Lego/Thomas the Train/Hot Wheels/Daddy's books cities in our basement, and a two year-old master climber and escape artist, I think we've got the entrepreneurial creativity thing pretty well covered in our house, but I'm always happy to help someone else out.

My problem — one of my problems — is that I can't just look at the thread. There's always that big ball of tangled yarn somewhere in the shadows, with all of us noodling over the one thread stretched out in front of us, and I can't help but imagine that we are working on the wrong thing. Someone suggested — reasonably, understandably, with good intention — that we might give grade schoolers more exposure to economics and entrepreneurship, as a means of generating more understanding of it in their later years.

I rudely tugged the ball of yarn onto our table, and told them I think kids can get this stuff in a year or two. What we need to deal with, I said, was the fact that somehow schools — especially public schools — manage to squash the innate instincts for creativity and inquiry. If we want to turn out children who are prepared for college, cultivate in them a sense of inquiry. Teach them logic, and self-discipline. Protect them from television and video games and other mind-numbing garbage, and impart to them the ability to put down the bag of Fritos and read. If nothing else, I pleaded, teach them to e-n-u-n-c-i-a-t-e, for crying out loud, and to stand up straight and look people in the eye, instead of going out into the world as slouching, sloppy-thinking mumblers.

Awkward silence. Some of the people in the room have children in public schools. Others work in a private school that serves children with higher incomes and IQs than their public school counterparts. They are all very bright, and their children perform above average, I am sure. The problem, I believe, is that what we accept as "average" continues to slip. It embodies a set of disconnected skills, as opposed to a means of grappling with the world and the self and the soul and God. It has taken on a new connotation — that which best prepares my child to make money. I worry that the only people concerned with reforming education see this as the goal — preparing the workforce. I worry that the state of the GDP means everything, and the state of the heart and soul means nothing. I worry that I don't know when to shut my mouth. They all mean well, after all.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Unseen Things

In lieu of church this past Sunday I watched Bonhoeffer, a documentary about the German theologian and pastor executed for participating in plots to murder Hitler. It's worth your time and reflection. Watching it led me back to his book, The Cost of Discipleship, where I discovered this observation in G. Leibholz's memoir at the front:

"The majority of the people in all nations alike does not consist of heroes. What Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others did cannot be expected from the many. The future in modern society depends much more on the quiet heroism of the very few who are inspired by God. These few will greatly enjoy the divine inspiration and will be prepared to stand for the dignity of man and true freedom and to keep the law of God, even if it means martyrdom or death."

Leibholz then refers to Paul's second letter to the Corinthians: "...we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal."

We are accustomed to reading that passage as a description of the supernatural — invisible, ethereal, beyond our ken. Reading it in this context, however, clarifies that Paul was not simply describing the invisible quality of the supernatural, in fact, he says quite plainly that we look at it. Instead, he is describing that which man has turned his eyes from, the eternal true things, the lingering truths that we have eschewed in favor of temporal comforts and distractions. This is, it seems, why Leibholz's sad observation holds true. There are few heroes because we have no vision of the heroic, of truths greater than our immediate wants.

I am fascinated by the way most of us view the dark times of history, and inevitably place ourselves above the mass of people who furnished their energy and momentum. I wouldn't have joined the Hitler Youth. I could never buy and sell human beings. No cheering at the guillotines for me. And yet we recognize the truth in what Leibholz claimed, "The majority of people...does not consist of heroes."

It leads me to ponder how often I am not heroic in the everyday things. How often am I set on my own satisfaction, on the approval of others, on the avoidance of difficulty? How many lies and deceptions and cruelties do I abet, for lack of this vision of the eternal?

The encouraging — and frightening — element in Leibholz's observation, and in Paul's letter, is that any one of us can have this other-worldly vision, if we will have eyes to see. But we shrink from the vision and the call, Oswald Chambers writes, because "we know that if God does speak, either the thing must be done or we must tell God we will not obey Him." Better for our frail flesh if we are shortsighted, if we do not see the unseen things. Better to throw ourselves upon "cheap grace," as Bonhoeffer described it, a grace without obligation. But this lie, he explained, is one of the chief harms wrought by the modern church, because it teaches man that he might be saved without being changed.

Hence the cost of discipleship, wrote Bonhoeffer, because "what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us." I'm wrestling with this idea, and trying to peer into myself, where I have built faith on cheap grace, my house on sand, my hope on the world. I think costly grace, the only grace worth having, must begin with the vision of the unseen things, the true things. We neglect them for fear of how they might rebuke us, and what they will require. I suspect that when we look them full in the face, we cannot help but be changed. Recall Moses coming down from the mountain, his face shining from his time with God, and he not even knowing it until the people recoiled in fear. To look the neglected truths in the face is to be changed, and likely in ways that will cause the world to recoil.

So there are few heroes, and this will always be so. I learned in the documentary that at the start of Hitler's reign there were roughly 20,000 Protestant pastors in Germany, and of course a large number of Catholic churches. Within a handful of years, the Vatican had made peace with Hitler, while only a third of the Protestant pastors were willing to register opposition to what Bonhoeffer called the idolization of the state. Of these, only 100 were willing to persist, after Krystalnacht, and to form the Confessional Church, a body opposed to the prostitution of the church and the persecution of Jews. The shepherds became the goats. What would you have done, or I?

None of us knows, until that time. Survivors say that Bonhoeffer walked, naked, to the gallows, and told his executioners that his life was now beginning. He saw the unseen things. Who among us will dare to gaze at them as well, knowing what they might require?

People who know nothing of faith imagine that it is a chosen delusion, an easily purchased comfort. Bonhoeffer writes:

"We have a strange feeling that if Jesus himself — Jesus alone with his Word — could come into our midst at sermon time, we should find quite a different set of men hearing the Word, and quite a different set rejecting it."

Makes you wonder, doesn't it, what that sermon would be like, and how many of us could bear it?

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)