Sunday, February 28, 2010

"The Bible: A Skeptic's Take"

Sometimes sitting in Sunday Mass, while the priest repeats himself over and over, I find my mind wandering off in strange directions. I have the attention span of a moth in a room full of chandeliers. A reading from the Scriptures that is meant to inspire, I find funny or at least odd. I know things were different in Biblical times, but really, some of the stories are a little hard to swallow. These feelings are not new for me; I remember having them even as a child sitting with my grammar school class in the beautiful church of Our Lady of Lourdes. Let me give you some examples.

The Wedding Feast at Cana. This was the scene of one of the first miracles Jesus ever performed. Evidently the host didn't count on his guests being such lushes, or was too cheap to buy enough wine, because they began to run out as the party wore on. Mary, the mother of Jesus, feeling sorry for the host, asked her son if he could do anything to help them. His answer: "Woman, how does this concern me". I always thought this reply was a bit snippy. Obviously Mary was not Italian, because if she was, and her son spoke to his mother in this tone, he would have received a smack on the back of his head, son of God or not.

The Prodigal Son. A rich man has two sons and allots their inheritance to them when they come of age. One son, lets call him Murray, goes off, and "squanders his wealth in wild living". Having nothing left, Murray drags his sorry ass home to beg forgiveness from the old man. When the father spots Murray off in the distance, he rejoices. "Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate." Now the other son, Bernie, who stayed home and helped run the place, is understandably ticked off. "All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!" I think Bernie needed himself a good Jewish lawyer.

The Loaves and the Fishes. "A crowd of about five-thousand followed Jesus on foot from the towns to hear him preach. As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, "This is a remote place, and it's already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food." Jesus replied, "You give them something to eat." (Jesus was a card.) "We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish," they answered. "Bring them here to me," he said. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over." I always thought, if you're performing miracles anyhow, why not whip up something special...I mean loaves and fishes?? Why not some nice pot roast and mashed potatoes with gravy, and maybe a nice Cabernet.

Noah's Ark. "God warned Noah that the earth was going to be destroyed with a flood, but told him how he could save his family and himself. He could also save some of the animals. God told Noah exactly how to build the ark. It was to be 300 cubits long. That's about as long as one and one-half football fields. It was to have three stories, a window and one door. Two of every kind of animal, both male and female, came to Noah to be kept alive on the ark." Does anybody else have problems with this story? Can you imagine poor Noah's reaction? "God, what do I know about building arks? You seem to have the specs, can't you build it? Better yet, instead of flooding the earth, couldn't you just post warning leaflets on the trees for people to repent? Why do I and my family have to spend a year on some fachacta boat with a bunch of smelly animals?" I'll bet a thousand drachmas that's exactly how the conversation went.

David and Goliath. The Israelites and the Philistines were at war. The Philistines had a champion named Goliath, a giant over 9 feet tall! (Goliath was an early draft pick of the Philistine Lakers). Every day for 40 days he had called out," Choose a man to fight with me. If he wins, we will be your servants, but if I win, you must serve us!" The soldiers of Israel were terrified at the sight of the giant. "The king will reward the man who conquers the giant. He will give him great riches, and he can marry the king's daughter. Also his father will not have to pay taxes anymore. (This was the first recorded incident of a politician lying about taxes.)

David was a shepherd boy. David said, " Who is this Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?" King Saul thought David was too young to fight the giant, (but not relishing the job himself) put his armor and helmet on David, but they didn't fit him. David chose five smooth stones from the brook, and put them into his bag. He had his sling in his hand. David said to Goliath, " You come to me with a sword and a spear, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts. David took out a stone, slung it and struck the giant in the forehead. He fell on his face to the earth." Anybody buying this? A kid with a slingshot against a fully armed, nine-foot giant? I'll take the giant and give the points any day.

There are many other Bible tales that take some serious faith to swallow, but I've probably done enough already to ensure myself a suite for eternity in H-E-double hockey sticks!. I do believe in God, but I wish those who were acting as His press agents back in the day could have stayed away from those funny Jerusalem cigarettes before hitting their typewriters.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Life is Not Fair

Life is not fair. You probably knew that by now, but I need reminding occasionally. I start feeling sorry for myself when something gets thrown at me that I think I can't handle. It took me a while to even begin to understand that pretty much everybody who's been on this earth for any length of time has problems. The more people I talk to, the more I realize this is so. Very few of us pass through the gauntlet without being whacked over the head once or twice. No doubt some get whacked harder than others, the real question is how do we deal with it? Do we let the blows drive us to self-pity, or do we fight back, finding our happiness when and where we can?

Ever see those sad images of young third-world children living in absolute squalor with very little hope of a better life? What did they ever do to be born into such an existence? They have absolutely nothing...survival is day-to-day. The barest essentials for life are not always theirs and yet...when outsiders come to their poor villages trying to help, and the cameras are there to record the events, what do we see? Despair? Sometimes, but often their young faces will break into big smiles, an impromptu soccer game will break out using a taped-up bunch of rags as a ball, and for a few moments they forget about their poverty and choose to be happy.

Many people carry heavy loads. I sometimes read about a celebrity or star athlete whose life appears to be all one could wish for. I might find myself thinking, man I wish I could be in his shoes. Then I find out he has an Autistic child or seriously ill spouse, and I am once again reminded that life is not fair. There are no exemptions based on fortune or fame; the hands get dealt at random and we must play the cards as best we can. I am often amazed at how well some people cope. They bear burdens that most of us cannot fully understand, and yet they manage to find a way to bring joy and happiness into to their lives.

Families with children who are born with medical conditions that require constant monitoring and attention face challenges that can be overwhelming. I see this with my granddaughter Ava and the ongoing care she requires. My daughter and her husband have altered their lives and schedules to care for Ava. They know more about her condition than many doctors, and sleep every night with one eye open, in anticipation of any distress she may encounter. Because of their love and care, and the skills of her medical specialists, Ava has become a lively, intelligent and fun-loving seven-year old. I see the three of them pursuing their lives despite the very real challenges they face. I see them at family gatherings laughing and enjoying themselves knowing there will be more surgeries and more worrisome times ahead. They choose happiness when they can get it.

You move from fear and worry to laughter and happiness and then back again. As a result of Ava's condition, we have met other families of children with craniofacial disorders who understand this kind of compartmentalized life. My friend Joe and his wife understand it all too well. Joe has created a blog called "Ellen's Way" where people caring for children (or adults) with such challenges can tell their stories. I invite you to read a few of them, especially when you start thinking, as I sometimes do, that fate deals you more than your share of grief. I promise you’ll get a better perspective on the “fairness” of life.

I’ve seen how Ava’s parents sink exhausted after the ordeal of each surgery…the worrying, the trips into the O.R. to hold her hand through the anesthesia, the nail-biting until the doctors assure them that all is OK…it takes a heavy toll. I’ve also seen them reading stories and laughing with her when it is all over, being strong for her even though they may not be feeling very strong themselves. Parenting is a hard proposition. When the burden of a chronic medical condition for your child is thrown in, it’s almost like God is piling on. Somehow though, they get it done, finding joy and happiness in Ava’s steady progress, in the support of friends and family, and in each other.

They are an extraordinary family and we love them. All the courageous families who cope with such compartmentalized lives have my utmost respect and admiration.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Saturday, February 13, 2010

"The Doctor is In"

Not a lot of people in the world's limelight come to me for advice, but maybe they should. It seems to me that when you become rich and famous, you tend to lose your way. You surround yourself with a gaggle of sycophants who tell you basically what you want to hear. They will never tell the Emperor he's not wearing clothes because, like the little Remora fish who swim with the big sharks, the Emperor is their meal ticket. There was one American President (I can't recall who) who had someone on his staff whose job it was to always tell the truth, no matter how much the President may not want to hear it. Now there was a smart man. In case they come to their senses and seek me out, here is what I would advise the following folks:

President Obama - Stop reading the polls and listen to the voice of the American people. You are our President, and what we want should be important to you. Come to grips with the fact that the terrorists who plot to destroy our country are enemy combatants, not civil criminals whose rights we must respect. Abandon this dumb idea of wealth redistribution. Find a way to create jobs so that citizens have a way to earn their own money instead of taking some of mine. Forget about pushing for a government run health care system. The system we have now is not perfect but it works pretty well...if we turn it over to the government bureaucrats, it will cost more and not operate nearly as well as our flawed private system. (After you take care of these items, come back to me and we'll talk about welfare reform, Social Security, education reform and energy policy.)

Governor David Paterson of New York - You have painted yourself into a political corner and it's probably too late to salvage another term. When Elliot Spitzer, the Love Guv, stepped on his Johnson, you found yourself thrust into one of the biggest political jobs in the country. At first you seemed like a nice enough guy, but you know what Leo Durocher said about nice guys. You took the helm at an impossible time, when the economy was in the tank and New York's tax revenue was disappearing faster than a plate of meatballs at the Pavarotti family reunion. You were indecisive and tried straddling the fence, always a dangerous strategy because you tick off people on both sides. Your own party, including the President of the United States, is pressing you to step down. Your parking space in Albany now has Andrew Cuomo's name on it. From a selfish point of view, I wish you would run because almost any warm body the Republicans run against you will win. But I'm giving it to you straight Dave, turn off the lights on your way out.

Tiger Woods - Look into yourself and find out what your priorities are. If you are truly sorry for the heartache you have caused your wife and family, then do what it takes to start making it right, even if it means missing a year or more of golf. Your wife seems like she is willing to give you another chance...don't blow it if you have any hope of regaining her love and respect. If golf is your priority, then get back to the game. The first of the major tournaments you want more than anything to win is less than two months away. If distracted, you will never be able to focus and practice the way you should if you expect to compete at this high level and break Jack Nicklaus' record. If this is your priority, tell your wife as much so she can decide what course she will follow. Trying to fix your family life while at the same chasing wins in major golf tournaments is not going to work, and you will fail on both fronts.

Toyota President Akio Toyoda - You need to dig really hard into the embedded processes and people in your organization that suppressed the problems you were having until they exploded into the headlines. Whose decision was it to not act on customer complaints about sticking accelerators and faulty brakes until the bodies started piling up? Your corporate culture needs fixing. Usually, when people start behaving dishonestly or unethically, it's because such behavior is modeled, or at least tacitly approved, by their superiors. Root out the bad apples, no matter how high up you have to go. Toyota worked too hard for too long to build its market share based on quality, and it's not too late to recover. Get all the problems out into the open more letting them drip out week after week in the papers. Fix the known problems fast and give loyal Toyota customers a generous credit toward future new car purchases. Your current bottom line will take a hit, but your company will survive and prosper again.

Now that I've solved the world's problems, you'll excuse me while I try to get my own life in order. Sadly, we don't get do-overs in life. We make our mistakes, live with them, and hopefully learn from them. It must be so hard for people in the public eye whose every mis-step is covered ad-nauseum by scandal-seeking media ghouls. Hopefully, if they read "Braindrops" they will learn that help is just an e-mail away. The Doctor is in.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Monday, February 8, 2010

And Now a Word from Our Sponsor

This week we saw the annual Super Bowl commercials rolled out. It amazes me that advertisers will spend up to $3 million for a 30-second ad, but I guess when you consider that around a billion viewers watch the game worldwide, the product exposure makes it worthwhile. What makes for a good commercial is very subjective. I like humor, but humor that doesn't work can be deadly. What's funny to me could annoy you. There were also ads that were not funny, but highly effective in selling product. Here are the commercials that make my "hall of fame". (I've added video links where I could find them.)

Alka Seltzer: "I can't believe I ate the whole thing". In this memorable scene, a man is seated on the edge of his bed, upset at having eaten too much. His wife, who is lying next to him, is trying to sleep and is becoming increasingly impatient with his moaning. He groans: I can't believe I ate the whole thing. Wife: You ate it Ralph. Ralph (groans again): I can't believe I ate the whole thing. Wife (sarcastic): No Ralph, I ate it. Ralph (groans): I can't believe I ate the whole thing. Wife: Take 2 Alka-Seltzer's. Voice Over: Alka-Seltzer neutralizes all the acid your stomach has churned out. For your upset stomach, take Alka-Seltzer and feel better fast. Wife: Did you drink your Alka-Seltzer? Ralph (smiles): The whole thing. This commercial was so funny because we easily identified with Ralph; we've all been there-done that.

Wendy's: "Where's the beef". The phrase first came to public attention in a TV commercial for the Wendy's hamburger chain in 1984. In the ad, titled "Fluffy Bun", actress Clara Peller receives a burger with a massive bun from a fictional competitor which uses the slogan "Home of the Big Bun". The small patty prompts Peller to angrily exclaim, "Where's the beef?" The catch phrase was repeated in television shows, films, magazines, and other media outlets. It became a euphemism for describing anything that fell short. I think the ad succeeded for two reasons: 1) Again we could all identify with the disappointing big bun-small burger scenario; and 2) Clara Peller was born to do that ad. She delivered that line like no one else could. See for yourself.
Where's the Beef

Coke: "Mean Joe Greene" Ad. Coke is not one of the world's most recognized brands for nothing. They know how to advertise and have sold a lot of soda because of it. This ad was first shown at the Super Bowl. It features Joe Greene of the Green Bay Packers, one of the fiercest defensive players in football who had more than earned the nickname "Mean Joe Greene". The ad opens with a battered and dejected Greene making his way down the stadium ramp to the locker room, obviously beaten and exhausted. He looks like a Gladiator exiting the arena. A boy expresses his admiration and gives him a cold Coke. "Mean Joe" then smiles through his weariness, takes off his uniform jersey and tosses it saying: "Hey kid, catch". This ad was priceless. It captures a moment between a boy and his hero, all made possible by sharing a Coke of course.

Fed Ex: "Fast Paced World". This commercial had actor John Moschitta playing a fast-talking executive named Jim Spleen who speed-talks his way through a typical business day. For those of you who share my annoyance at advertisers who give you all the bad news and limitations of their offer at the tail end of their ads, spoken by an announcer at a mile a minute, this guy will sound familiar. Considered to be the most award-winning commercial in the history of advertising, it walked away with six Clio awards. Fed Ex followed it up with several other ads, but none was as good as the original. FedEx commercial with John Moschitta

Some of the best commercials we never see because they are shown overseas. The ads outside the U.S. are much more free about showing things that couldn't get past the uptight American censors. It's a shame we are not as cool as the Europeans for example about showing certain things, but there it is. Check the Internet for "Best Foreign Commercials" to get an idea of what I mean. Here's an example featuring a misbehaving kid and a surprise punch line.
YouTube - Funny Foreign Commercial

Advertising is a very creative medium, and some commercials are far more entertaining than the shows they sponsor. I guess we should be thankful.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Where Are the Hemingways of Tomorrow?

One of my favorite authors is J.R.R. Tolkien who wrote the wonderful "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, and the captivating prequel "The Hobbit". New fans of his work may not even know he authored these stories, but instead associate them with the recent film versions made by director Peter Jackson, who did a brilliant job by the way. Tolkien, an Oxford University Don, wrote the books between 1937 and 1949. The Hobbit was originally written as a children's story, but as the tales grew in scope, they took on a more serious tone as the mythical kingdoms and peoples created from Tolkien's fertile imagination engage in an epic power struggle between the forces of good and evil.

World literature offers many compelling stories told by men and women like Tolkien who had the gift of imagination and the skill with words to tell their tales. Giants like Shakespeare, Hemmingway, Tolstoy, Melville, Austen, Dickens and countless others enriched our lives with their books. As a child, the local public library was to me like an open doorway to knowledge and adventure. I can't help but wonder what will become of this legacy as the old masters die off. Will our modern-day society and its schools provide our children with the inspiration to write the literary masterpieces of tomorrow? Are there children sitting in classrooms today who will someday produce the equivalent of "Hamlet" or "Gone with the Wind"?

I saw a troubling show on PBS the other night about video game addiction. According to the National Institute on Media and Family, about one in 10 children is addicted to video and/or online games. Children and teens are becoming addicted to games where they assume a persona and take on a new identity. They feel they are earning respect from their gaming peers, and their self-esteem is improved. The show focused especially on tech-savvy South Korea, where the problem has become so acute that the government has opened hundreds of clinics to treat gaming and Internet addiction. The first U.S. Internet addiction center opened this summer and is located outside Seattle, Washington. One troubling finding of the study is that children who are so addicted lose interest in schoolwork and their grades suffer badly.

Other studies have concluded that the Internet and excessive television viewing have a negative effect on children's ability to write. They express their thoughts in brief paragraphs, almost like gleaning bits of information while surfing the Internet, but lack the ability to tie these paragraphs together into a cohesive narrative. A high school senior interviewed on the program said he couldn't remember the last complete book he had read. He uses online book summaries like Cliff Notes and Spark Notes for any book reports he needs to turn in. He did no reading outside what was required for school, prefering to spend his time video gaming or on social networking sites like Facebook.

I taught college for a number of years and can readily attest to the poor writing skills of students. Writing is a chore to them and they would rather do almost anything else than write an 8-10 page paper. Those with weak character were even inclined to boldly plagiarize entire papers from the Internet without even trying to disguise their theft. When confronted, they just shrugged their shoulders as if to say, well I tried. One of the things that drove me away from the classroom was the frustration of trying to deal with this lazy intellectual mentality. Teaching is hard work, and I refuse to waste my time on students who believe just showing up entitles them to a passing grade!

I hope I'm not crying wolf, but the trend I see emerging troubles me. The average kid spends 7 hours a day with digital media including the computer, television and cell/text phones. How many hours are being spent on homework? Schools seem to be pushing math and science and that's great, but let's not give up on literacy. I've mentioned the following reference before, but it makes my point so powerfully that it bears repeating. Ken Burns' great PBS mini-series on the Civil War featured the reading of letters written home by poor soldiers with an eighth grade education or less. The eloquence of these letters will take your breath away, and could never be written by today's college graduates. So hold on to that dog-earred copy of "Tale of Two Cities". We may never see its like again.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association