Tag Archives: Africa

Presidential Wannabes, How About Giving Us Tangible, Optimistic and Inclusive Competing Narratives

A young, black South African cashier took a second glance at my unusual looking Southwest Airline Visa card. We struck up a conversation with me informing her that I once lived in Johannesburg and had returned for a two-week holiday. With a tired and bewildered look she sighed, answering an unasked question, “The only good thing about South Africa is the weather!” For sure, it promised to be a sunny Highveld day with a temperature near 70F, yet given my past overwhelmingly positive experience of the rainbow nation’s peoples I queried, “Only the weather? What about the people?” She deeply gave thought to my question before again despondently responding, “No, only the weather.

A country of 53 million, almost twice the size of my home state of Texas, South Africa is a nation grappling not only to come to peaceful resolution of the residual yet resistant-to-change affects of apartheid, but also to lessen an eon’s old pandemic of violent crime, while simultaneously struggling with the challenges of the rapid onset of a 1980s infectious and second national pandemic—HIV/AIDS.

South Africa’s 2013/14 statistics reflect a sobering daily reported human suffering tally from violent crime: 180 sexual assaults, 50 murders and equal number attempted murders, and 510 assaults with the intent to inflict grievously bodily harm. It was easy, then, for me to be sympathetic to a young woman’s national dismay—particularly when it’s all too statistically likely that she, herself, spoke as either violent crime or AIDS victim. During my family’s 15 year South Africa residence, we had direct and indirect personal linkage with about 15 to 20 murders, and 40 to 60 assaults.

In terms of daily human suffering from HIV/AIDS, if memory serves me even marginally well, I recall the daily infection / death rate to have been in the region of 1500/1000 as of mid-2010.

It’s no secret that those who suffer most by violent crime and AIDS in South Africa are its majority black populace, who, contrary to a too common, wrongful, and high (often “Christian”) moralist, largely Western mindset see AIDS as divine retribution for gross sexual improprieties—or, as I’ve regrettably heard on more than one occasion, “Africans failure to ‘condomize.’” Egg on mostly white faces, however, because HIV/AIDS was an import to South Africa – mostly likely from two (white) homosexual South African Airway stewards, who contracted the disease during a trip to the United States’ West Coast (see Shattered Dreams? An Oral History of the South African AIDS Epidemic, by Gerald Oppenheimer and Ronald Bayer).

To be fair – and more hopeful – during my two weeks in-country I went on to hear more upbeat and hopeful remarks about South Africa’s present and its future, from mostly young adult South Africans, who either idealistically spoke of being part of a national effort to build a new democratic South Africa, or energized by the economic prospect of easy and abundant profit for those with access to cash and credit.

Since my brief exchange with the cashier four weeks ago, her bleak perspective has provoked me to ask myself, “What, if anything, is different or good about my own United States of America?

It’s a more difficult question than you might imagine because I’m a so-called Third Culture Kid, who grew up, then worked in Africa, yet a U.S. citizen as well. Of my own admission I’m bicultural, “African-American.” Although my birth certificate and passport are stamped with the U.S. official seal, my worldview is decidedly and preferentially African – especially Africa’s underlying ethos of Ubuntu, in which persons, communities and relationships are of far more importance than individualism and consumerism.

It’s a difficult question, too, because like The New York Times contributing op-ed writer, Arthur C Brooks, in his recent piece “We Need Optimists,” I’m more realist than optimist, which makes me an optirealist, I suppose. I know you’re thinking, “There’s no such thing as a realist, only optimists and pessimists,” but I disagree. A pessimist singularly perceives negative.

I recall the humorous story of two hunters (remember: I’m from a gun loving culture). The optimist owned a retriever dog, which he was sure would be able to win over his pessimist friend. The three were sitting camouflaged and crouched among the dense lakeside reeds when some ducks flew by. The friends rose up, shot, and watched a duck fall. The optimist could hardly contain his excitement when he instructed his dog to “fetch.” The dog dove into the lake, but incredibly, instead of swimming out to the bird, she walked on top of the water, gently retrieving the bird. After a moment or two, the pessimist exclaimed, “I see your dog doesn’t know how to swim!

As to the at times unreal, unhelpful positivism of an optimist . . . well, let me share Brooks’ opening paragraph, which makes light of those who share in common optimistic spouses: “My wife, Ester, and I had just endured a difficult parent-teacher conference for one of our teenage children. It was a grades issue. The ride home was tense, until Ester broke the silence. ‘Think of it this way,’ she said, ‘At least we know he’s not cheating.’”

I’m near overwhelmed at times by what Brooks describes as the United States’ “environment of competing pessimisms” or “competing pessimists.”

Pessimists are distinguished by their negative view of people. People are liabilities to be managed and controlled, burdens and threats to be minimized. Pessimists utilize fear and anger to solicit and arouse support.

A positive, more optimistic perspective and vision is politically less appealing. Presidential hopeful, Donald Trump, is the quintessential model of dour politics’ mass appeal with a sour mood public, as is FOX News.

As Brooks persuasively argues, however, as a nation we are and will pay “a steep price for our politicians’ choosing the dark side,” which, ironically, is a missed strategic advantage for competing candidates. Why? Optimism is not only a highly esteemed character disposition—a proven core trait of successful executives—but also an outlook associated with some of our nation’s most popular presidents, e.g., Reagan and Clinton.

Optimism requires hard work to be effective. That is to say, leaders, especially, must be willing to risk becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable. For example, “A positive vision requires the hard work of winning over new friends, which means going where politicians have not been invited, and enduring less-than-adoring crowds.” That is a much more demanding and riskier task than merely regurgitating (sorry for this distasteful yet apt analogy) calloused and hardline perspectives, which one’s followers already hold to anyway.

I regret that I could not convince the cashier that South Africa’s greatest strength and asset is its people in all their diversity—not its weather.

I believe, like Brooks, that people the world over are grappling with a “growing mainstream depression” about their respective nations’ futures, yet simultaneously hoping that public leadership would turn from their competing pessimisms to “a true competition of optimistic visions for a better future.”

In other words, stop telling us what and whom you’re against. Instead compete for the prize of most compelling (transformative) narrative—which, contrary to politicians’ over-inflated egos, will rely not on their singular ability to affect change, but on a belief in and reliance on the goodness, potential and resiliency of each nation’s citizenry.

Politicians the world over should take a queue from teachers, my postgraduate mentor included, who began each new university-level class by standing in front of his students, sweeping the room with his eyes, pausing to catch each person’s gaze, raising both hands in the air, passionately and with zero degree uncertainty declaring the following in a rich South African accent:

Class, you are not merely human beings . . . You are human becomings!”

It’s what Adam Saenz spoke autobiographically of to returning-to-school teachers in “From Jail to Harvard: Why Teachers Change the World”:

“In a few days you’ll stand in front of a group of students and I can almost guarantee that there will be at least one ‘Adam Saenz’ there, a kid who has potential and doesn’t know it, a soul who could change the world a little bit if they could only get the right instruction and encouragement to lift them out of their false sense of who they believe themselves to be.”

Amidst our own national gloomy environment, let’s individually and collectively commit to support whichever candidate(s) proffers the most tangible, transformative, optimistic and inclusive of national narratives—narratives of what we can individually and as a nation become.

#HopeAndBecoming.

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Airline Classism & An Appeal for Intentional Mindfulness of The Majority Unprivileged

On a recent trip from South Africa my daughter and I re-discovered that privilege has many benefits. There are multiple levels and shades of privilege, I realize, so when driving in east Austin (my hometown) or touring the former townships and rural areas of South Africa I’m aware that in comparison my family are an economically privileged percentile.

On August 11th, however, our OR Tambo International departure date, we were massed with about 350 Lufthansa Airbus 380 economy passengers in a cordoned off pre-boarding seating area, which butted up against the inaccessible First and Business Class ONLY pre-boarding seating. Whereas economy had limited seating and zero amenities, First and Business had a ample seats and a magazine rack stocked with every imaginable language newspaper to help bored passengers pass the time.

Boarding began (Lufthansa seems to have no boarding protocol, so all customers converge en mass at the gate like livestock at a corral or dipping chute) and almost immediately we noticed the check-in agents were reaching around and over one another, tearing up previously issued boarding passes and reissuing new ones. Wondering what the agent chaos was and why, upon delivery of our boarding passes to the agent (the day before we paid via online a modest dollar amount to be upgraded from “regular” economy to “premium” economy) we were instructed to exit the economy line and proceed to board via First and Business.

It did not register with us what was happening until the First/Business Class agent congratulated us on having been upgraded to business class – I perceived the agent’s unspoken message to be, “Congratulations! You have been selected among all your undignified travel companions to share and bask in the glory of business royalty and identity!” My just-turned eighteen-year-old daughter was simultaneously ecstatic and incredulous, which I’m sure made the Lufthansa agent feel especially good. Apparently the flight was overbooked in economy and in an effort to fill up every seat they upgraded some.

Our shared euphoria and callousness to the plight of former travel companions lasted several hours—through the pre-takeoff sparkling wine served in elegant wine glasses by the purser himself, through the self-exploration of all the Business Class amenities, including the amazing 180-degree reclining seat with lumbar and cushion firming adjustors, large screen TV, Bose headset, personal care kit with toothbrush and shaving kits, ear buds, sock footies, eye mask, et cetera.

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The cherry on top of purchased privilege had to be when the purser came around and asked each of us if we wanted to be woken for breakfast – noting our response on his flight pad. Menus were visually detailed and elegantly presented, with three-course meal offers, plus a wide (free) selection of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. Unlike economy, which serves food with all plastic containers and cutlery, BC meals came in courses, served on fine china with stainless steel cutlery. Even the rolls were hot, with a wide selection of fine German breads, and the purser incredulously kept asking us, “Is that one piece all you want?!”

It wasn’t until post-dinner and movie, when I had reclined my seat fully and settling into an unfamiliar five-hour, in-flight snooze that IT hit me. IT being both conscience and consciousness of my unexpected privilege relative to the majority of passengers.

Did IT compel me to get up, go downstairs to economy and offer my privilege to someone else? No, but IT did cause me to: be mindful of my privilege, give thanks for an underserved privilege, and resolve that if life ever allowed me this (or any other) gift of opportunity/privilege on a regular basis that I would make it a discipline to forego my privilege on a not infrequent basis so as to never lose sight, experience, sensitivity, to what the majority of life sojourners experience on a daily default basis.

I wish leaders and celebrities of each and every imaginable type and geographic place would be like-minded and like-willed. Perhaps, then, we might live in more equitable, peaceful and social justice minded communities and societies, where the proverbial religious Golden Rule was neither golden nor a rule, but merely the essential and everyday mindset of one and every person for another and all persons.

While I recognize some of you who regularly fly First or Business Class – or daily live a privileged life – will rationalize that you pay for your privileges, and work hard to afford them, it’s also true what The New York Times op-ed columnist, Nicholas Kristof wrote in a recent piece entitled, U.S.A., Land of Limitations? – “Success is not a sign of virtue. It’s mostly a sign that your grandparents did well.”

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Why The Hell Go To Church?

Last Sunday, rather than attend church, I opted to stay home, drink three cups of bold, Starbucks Verona coffee, and take a walk in spring-like sunshine with my wife.

My truancy was motivation for reflection and response to Joan Chittester’s question in her memoir Called To Question“Would Jesus stay in the church today? In any of them? And, if not, who would follow him out of it? Would I?,” as well as Steve McSwain’s Huffington Post thought piece, “Why Nobody Wants To Go To Church Anymore.”

If you missed it, one motivation for going to church (or any religious place of worship) is embedded in my title–as a means to avoiding hell (or damnation).

Although many still believe in a literal hell (a “furnace of fire and weeping and gnashing of teeth”) and profess to know “the way” to avoid going there, self-preoccupation arising from a foreboding perception of a capricious and punitive God is minimal today compared to times past.

For instance, nineteenth century North American worldview was largely influenced by the thought life of Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards, and then his student Samuel Hopkins, of whom and among his writings was a 1793 piece entitled A Treatise On The Millennium (derived from a larger work, A System of Doctrines Contained in Divine Revelation, Explained and Defended).

It warned of an imminent End Time and reign of God, in which millions of sinners and saints would be judged, punished, and destroyed.

Like a thief in the night, God would “rise out of his place to do his work, his strange work, to punish the world for its wickedness, reduce and destroy mankind so that comparatively few will be left.”

This widespread and wholesale destruction of humanity would serve the purpose of an unforgettable object lesson for those “true believers” (elect) still remaining. It would demonstrate to them “the propensity of man to the greatest degree of wickedness, and of the great and desperate evil that is in the heart of man.”

The apostasy and destruction of so many, including those who professed or feigned Christianity, would serve as both reminder and motivator for the obedience and love of the remaining “true believers.” Ultimately reminding them of this one constant reality:

With God, there is an ever-present and unpredictable possibility of judgment and destruction, therefore, every person must live hyper self-consciously pure.

Sunday fidelity came to be viewed as an objective sign of authentic piety and true conversion.

Whereas conversion was thought to be arbitrary and prone to false verification, faithful sabbath observance was seen as an unambiguous and visible delineating marker between sinner and saint and between the sacred and the profane.

Accordingly, one of the first priorities of American missionaries abroad was to teach “heathens” the concept of time, especially the “sacred hours” of the Christian Sabbath. The instruction of time served two purposes: enabling the “heathen” to identify days of the week, yet also to impress upon their minds the brevity of life and the urgent need to repent.

As one missionary journaled a chance encounter with an elderly Zulu man, “Saw an old man of 90, I should judge, & told him of the fewness of his days, & his need of preparation for death.” Accordingly, flag staffs were a first priority construction on mission stations, so as to announce to the “heathen” the arrival of the Christian Sabbath.

Sunday, therefore, was more than a day of the week. It was the linchpin of an emerging North American (Christian) consciousness.

It’s little wonder that the Christian Sabbath became one of the first exports of the new Republic, and sadly, an identifying mark of “American Christianity” on people, who were so-called “Christianized” and “civilized.”

In southeast Africa, Sunday church observance became synonymous in African thought with the heart, soul and essence of Christianity (note the absence of Christian “essence” in speaking out against apartheid, much as it was absent in America for Native Americans) as stated by South African, Lawrence Zulu, “The Christianity that has come down to our own day seems to be too bound up with the Church Building and Sunday.”

Although today going to church (mosque, temple, etc) for the purpose of avoiding a one-way trip to eternal damnation/hell isn’t a compelling motivation for people like myself, there are several notable reasons why someone might choose to attend, including:

-Fellowship of friends

-Forum for candid, different-from-the-ordinary-perspective life discussions, and

-Fraternity of broken/wounded people, where life lessons learned in the thick and thin of living can be shared with one another, and where nurturing can be experienced.

Although these are more good than bad motivations, in my opinion they aren’t “good enough” to sustain my family’s loyalty, nor good enough to distinguish the church from “Sunday competitors.”

Why these “notable reasons” for attending church are simply “not good enough,” is that they all require little of the mostly socioeconomic privileged people (myself included), who make up weekly faith communities across the United States.

They require little in terms of:

-Lifestyle change

-Significant sacrifice or sharing of economic or skills assets

-Vulnerability–e.g., of belief

-Time, energy or reason for developing and nurturing relationships with atypical “others,” and

-Active participation in redressing entrenched social systemic indignities, inequalities and injustices.

I admit I struggle to comprehend early church and present day church incongruities. That is to say, what imaginative and creative energy present day professional clergy and elected lay leadership must expend to rationalize annual multi-multi-million dollar church property, buildings and operational budgets in order to read without blushing about the earliest and mostly powerless community of Jesus followers, “They were together, breaking bread (sharing meals), having all things in common, selling their property and possessions and sharing them with all as each had need.”

As one who grew up Baptist, I agree with McSwain’s assessment that the church is dying, although and obviously, this is not to suggest churches will cease to exist.

Although McSwain doesn’t note how many new churches are begun each year (to counter those closing their doors for the last time), he does cite Hartford Institute of Religion Research indicating:

-Between 4,000 and 7,000 churches die annually–one person put the number as high as 8,000 to 10,000/year

-On any given Sunday less than 20-percent of Americans attend church

-Every day for the next sixteen years, 10,000 baby boomers will enter retirement, thereby exacerbating an already graying of the church, but also depleting it of its financial base, and

-Between 2010 and 2012 more than half of U.S. churches didn’t add a single new member.

McSwain lists seven trends affecting negative church attendance, including:

-Demographic changes/remapping

-Technology under utilization

-Leadership crisis

-Competition for people’s time and resources

-Religious pluralism

-“Contemporary” worship experience, and

-Phony, BS advertising by churches–professing “All People Welcome” when in actuality it’s not true.

most identify with McSwain’s initial statement, in which he informs readers that the title of his thought piece–Why Nobody Wants To Go To Church Anymore–is a question individuals who are leaving the church to join the ranks of the “religiously unaffiliated” are more than ready to respond to and answer, yet . . . . a question “few insiders are listening to.” 

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Hurtful Charity | A New Year’s Appeal To The Kind-Hearted and Well-To-Do

You’ve likely heard the adage, Give till it hurts, yet it’s unlikely you’re aware just how hurtful those acts of giving can be.

I’m not referring to charity of international aid type, which at times hurts more than it helps people and countries. This, because money is frequently wasted on minimal impact, culturally insensitive, and non-humanitarian programs, or alternatively, pilfered by greedy and corrupt individuals.

Rather, I’m speaking to some portion of the billions of dollars given each year by individuals, especially North Americans, to charitable causes, whether in cash, clothing, household items, or vehicles, and whether given to needy individuals who knock on one’s front door, stand in line at soup kitchens, or donated to residential or virtual non-profits such as Goodwill or Invisible Children.

Too frequently, it seems, the needy occupy a dumping ground for the well-to-do’s excess or discarded items, with little thought given to what it must feel like as human becomings, persons, to be so struggling that you’re reliant on the sometimes whimsical and charitable gifts of individuals or government–especially in the U.S., where 24-7 exposure to affluence is so pervasive.

“Excess benevolence” is predictable, particularly in capitalistic societies such as the United States, where home garages are more often used as storage containers than for their intended vehicular use, where garage sales serve to free up household space so that new items can be purchased, and where multi-storied, climate-controlled Public Storage is booming business and architectural landscape features.

Given realities that, one, “the poor will always be with us,” and, two, excess benevolence will persist irrespective of what I say or anyone campaigns against, what I’m trying to speak for is a more compassionate thoughtfulness toward the economically struggling, plus speaking to a prevalent attitude people have toward those who of necessity live at or below the poverty line–an unconscious versus pejorative attitude, perhaps, yet definitely condescending.

By compassionate thoughtfulness I speak for the dignity of those who by society’s definition are “poor” or “needy.”

Donna Hicks defines dignity as “a feeling of inherent value and worth,” and argues that a desire for dignity is humanity’s highest common denominator, as well as the missing link in understanding conflict.

She, more than anyone else, articulates what I am appealing for in this thought piece—

developmental shift in understanding, from our typically egocentric worldview and cognitive understanding, to a primal empathy.

Primal empathy calls for each one of us to develop a heightened emotional sensitivity and identification with those who suffer indignities.

That is—each one of us is capable of, and should more intentionally versus merely accidentally develop the capacity to “feel what the other’s life is like,” even to the point of “feeling the indignities they experience.”

Duplicity of intention, whether in the form of benevolence, generosity or “love,” is acutely felt and experienced at the nub of self-worth and self-identity by charity recipients.

Examples . . .

Pointing the finger at myself.

I wager that most of us will not perceive ourselves to be well-to-do. Comfortable, perhaps, but not wealthy. After all, one has to earn upwards of $400,000 annually in order to attain status as the “one-percent” richest in America.

Prosperity is fickle / relative, however.

For instance, although my non-profit take-home salary in South Africa was in the $30k’s, low by U.S. standards, benefits such as tuition remission for my children, rental housing allowance, healthcare, company use of vehicle, et cetera, took the figure upwards to a U.S. respectable $70k’s figure. At the current exchange rate, my salary equated to almost 750k rand, high above the average South African minimum income of 24k.

Our 100-year old rental house with Jacaranda tree, Kensington

Our 100-year old rental house with Jacaranda tree, Kensington

My family frequently had clothing, accessories, luggage, linens, even aging electronics like laptops and cameras, which despite still being wearable or operational, were, nevertheless, well-used. How convenient that we had one, sometimes two “needy South Africans” who worked as domestics for us ! It was easy to think: “Surely they will want and be able to use these items.”

Our "family" minus our son, who was in Germany studying.

Our “family” minus our son, who was in Germany studying.

Shamefacedly I admit that I have offered our well-used, soon to be discarded or replaced items by expressing the following type statement–“I’m going to throw these items away. Do you want them?”

Such “gifting” communicates the following attitude: “We recently bought new, and these used items are no longer desired or good enough for me or my family. But I thought to myself, ‘Given you and your family’s evident economic need, I’m sure you could use them.'”

The truth is: My own unconscious, yet condescending attitude toward the poor, didn’t slap my conscience until which time that my family and I were experiencing economic struggle ourselves.

The past three years have been a grateful awakening–despite them being painfully emotional ones–to what many people experience on a daily basis, including the many jobless and economically struggling in Austin, Texas, as well as many of our South African friends, colleagues and acquaintances. They likely felt the pain of “having less,” and perhaps, even, (wrongfully) perceiving themselves as “being less than” when in the presence of our material trappings of success.

Several personal comparisons:

Whereas our African friends heard us excitedly talking about going on this or that family vacation to the beach, mountains, or some international destination, I now experience my own Texas friends talk excitedly about their impending trips to Vegas, Hawaii, Vail, or similarly, reminisce about recent past trips to New England, Lake Tahoe, Paris or Cuba, while my own kids pine for glimpses of the life and experiences they once knew, while finding substitute in a 12-hour road trip to visit Abuelita in El Paso.

Whereas African acquaintances, even friends, perhaps, saw excess money in my family–that is, a means to enabling a better life for themselves, such as assistance with education expenses–I now experience that same temptation to hint at financial need to help offset my wife’s graduate study debt or enable vocational re-education/training for myself.

Whereas South Africans saw my family drive new or new-like vehicles, I now experience Texans test driving $100k electric cars, while my family makes do with a ’98 Honda and ’02 Toyota, which despite their age and my longing to drive a more updated and spacious vehicle, are still far more “life enabling” than required reliance upon foot or taxi power.

Whereas African friends and guests walked into our relatively large rental home and were no-doubt dumbstruck by its size, spaciousness, furnishings, amenities, security apparatus, et cetera, my children now experience leaving Texas homes, conscious of how constricting their shared and small bedroom is. While I’m truly grateful to have a roof over my head, I’m in awe of the extra spaciousness of some homes, which so effortlessly accommodates an office/study space, which as an academic I pine for.

What, then, should the (relatively) well-to-do do in light of such pervasive social need?

It’s tempting to advocate what is recorded in the Bible about the early community of Jesus followers, that “they were together, having all things in common, selling their property and possessions and sharing them with all as each had need.”

I do believe that a greater sharing of wealth and its privileges is essential not only for a more just and equitable society and world but also for a more peaceful one. I’m grateful for the rich and celebrity trend setters, in such persons as Bill and Melinda Gates, Bono, Warren Buffet, and Salman Khan, all of whom we should be grateful to for helping co-create a more equitable world.

Within a Christian or faith context, sharing beyond tokenism or for tax deduction benefit, as well as sharing in and alongside life with those whose life narrative is one of struggled existence would definitely restore a measure of credibility to “American religion,” perceived by many as elitist, segregated, socially reactive and disconnected–at least my own Baptist context of meaning.

Being realistic, however, I’ll settle for more compassionate and conscientious thoughts and acts of charity toward the poor and economically struggling.

I seldom reference the Bible in thought pieces, but it speaks to “offending the consciences” of those who are weak. Seems to me that those gifted with the “benefits of capitalism,” as well as a non-volatile/violent life setting in which to live, raise a family and children, should strive to live and engage the world with greater sensitivity and understanding, always mindful and sensitive to our shared and collective humanity.

 

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Word Choice | The Power to Shape Attitudes and Entrench Stereotypes

Coffee shops are somewhat like water troughs.  People come in parched and desperate for the black, sometimes sweet, yet always caffeinated rush, but also to shoulder up alongside the regulars, say “howdy,” and postulate on the problems of the local community and the world.

My remaining-at-home kids and I are habitual, four to six visits per week Starbuckers. It helps, of course, that my middle daughter is a recently hired Starbucks barista, but even before she took on her newfound responsibilities and identity (yes, she wears the logo with pride and a smile), we were regulars.

starbucks

If you frequent a place long enough, its staff and customers become a surrogate-like family. Driving up, we can determine before stepping foot in the store whether certain “family members” are there, in particular, a local construction contractor, whose presence is noted in the parking lot by his company’s logo, painted large and long on his dual rear wheel truck.

In Texas, clergy, aka religious professionals, seem to be regular Starbucks fixtures. Several weeks back I was sitting in one of four leather chairs located in our store’s entrance cove, a much vied for place from which to sit, sip, survey incomings and outgoings, and surmise about life. Three gentlemen who obviously knew each other, at least at a “Starbucks level,” were talking about a microbotic wonder. One of the men got up and left for a scheduled business meeting, accompanied by an attractive looking woman, whom I had not seen before. After they left, one of the remaining two men–a minister at a nearby church–remarked to the other, “That’s a pretty girl! That’s about the best work he ever did.”

Was he merely talking “Texan” or did his reference to the woman as “work” reflect and reveal something deeper, less respectful? For example, almost every driver has “worked” to own a vehicle, particularly a first car. The purchased item then becomes one’s “property,” to drive or (mis)treat as one determines or feels like. True of any material object, the allure and luster–e.g., new car smell–diminishes over time, and with it, too, one’s affection for, commitment to care, to maintain, and to fidelity.

If my academic studies benefited my life in no other way, than this one, I would still be exceedingly grateful.  In my face-to-face, experiential studies of other cultures and religions, I learned that our choice of words and our repetitive use of them shape and maintain images, stereotypes, attitudes and perceptions of others–especially those who have not been on the victor’s side of history’s narratives, which, to date, probably includes most anyone who is not male and WASP!

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author, David K. Shipler, observes in his book A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America, that with contentious topics like race, words have the power to label and circumscribe people, particularly those, historically, who have been bereft of privilege and power.

strangers

Despite the widespread popularity of “tolerance” messages, which on the surface positively advocate for recognizing and respecting people different from oneself in matters racial, religious, cultural, socioeconomic or sexual, such words have become tainted over time by their secondary definitions of “variation from a standard,” or “capacity to endure hardship.” As Shipler sensitively notes of African-Americans, “Black Americans do not want to be ‘tolerated’ as one tolerates deviance or pain. Anyone who advocates tolerance today risks being misunderstood as grudgingly accepting the unpleasant qualities of another group.”

When I was in my early 20’s, I remember driving in a pickup truck through a section of rural, East Texas with a much older and prominent community resident. It was spring time and orange wildflowers–Mexican Hats (Ratibida Columnaris)–were in everywhere display. Obviously trying to conversationally connect with me and provoke a laugh, he remarked with a mischievous smile on the abundance of “n&#g*r tits” in the fields.

Mexican Hat

Mexican Hat

My discomfort might not have been as acute if I had not just a few weeks prior, had another, even more senior, yet this time female resident shout out twice to her near-deaf husband upon the ringing of their doorbell and during my visit to their home, “THE N&#G@R’S HERE!” (they were expecting an African-American to come by and clean their rain gutters) Come to find out years later that racial prejudice in this part of the United States, was endemic, such that one nearby civil rights advocate claimed “East Texas is Mississippi 50 years ago.”

Benedictine nun and popular speaker/writer, Joan Chittester, observes in Called To Question that “once an image is cast in stone” it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to go back or reclaim its essence again. Dorothy Hammond and Alta Jablow, co-authors of The Myth of Africa, similarly echo about Africa and Africans, “The errors and biases so perpetuated have by now acquired an inviolable tenure.” The truth of this statement is no where more evident than Africa, a place synonymous in the Western mind with “the dark continent.”

Chittester speaks from a woman’s and oft-times socially invisible and undervalued perspective to the inviolable “heresy of God the Father,” in which, religious professionals legitimate their male positions of ecclesial power by stifling, even excommunicating anyone who dares question the status quo’s interpretation of Scripture–one, in which, God, despite disclosing identity to Abraham in neutral gender terms, “I am who am,” is from their accustomed privileged position Solus “Father.”

Call it over-sensitized, call it picky, call it anal, call it what you will, the truth is words possess a passive and active heritability, reflecting attitudes and perceptions toward others different to oneself, as well as maintaining entrenched stereotypes and emotions.

Choice and use of words is often subtle yet significant. It is common among the Christian community to hear or read reference to people different as “non-Christian.” Obviously the implication is that “Christian” or “Christianity” is the exemplar, the standard by which all others are to be assessed. Another popular term of reference is “uneducated,” implying that if you don’t have at least a high school education you’re “less than” — uncivilized, uncultured, uninformed, unworthy, unimportant, and un-opinionated. As my mentor respectfully distinguished, why can’t we be more sensitive by referencing those who possess “informal” versus “formal” education?

Given the world population’s unabated increase, coupled with simmering tensions and all out conflict in countless hot spots, the least we–aka, those privileged to be living in a part of the country/world not yet noticeably affected by overt conflicts of relationship–can do in reshaping a more peaceful, equitable, and just world order, is begin intentionally utilizing vocabulary and language that is respectful, inclusive, and sensitive.

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4 Life Takeaways from “We Bought A Zoo”

If you can overlook that the actual zoo, Dartmoor Zoological Parkis in England instead of Southern California, as well as the fact that Matt Damon, aka Jason Bourne, is simply a widower with two young children versus a trained assassin or a futuristic car thief / Robin Hood, then you might (like me) agree with We Bought A Zoo‘s 3-star rating and enjoy watching or re-watching it.

DZP

I recently re-watched the last half with my two younger daughters, and took away 4 reminders:

1.  “Sometimes all it takes is twenty seconds of insane courage . . . And I promise you, something great will come of it.”

It seems that being human is to opt for the easy and convenient over the hard and difficult. What prompted you to read this blog? Its promised “4” takeaways?

If we resolve to lose weight, consistently exercise, run a marathon, climb a mountain, learn a language, become a millionaire, ace the SAT/GRE/or MCAT, or even something as mundane as cleaning house or “doing” the yard, we typically seek out the short-cuts.

If only we took seriously, were ever mindful of the residual power in seconds or small steps; especially those first few, which are critical in helping you overcome the inertia of inactivity and progress toward an established habit and discipline.

I don’t have a “Yard of the Month” yard, but I have succeeded in growing a healthy lawn and ten double knock-out rose bushes, which total strangers have been known on more than several occasions to stop their cars, get out, walk to our front door, ring the door bell, and ask what I did to produce such lush, green grass and beautiful red roses.

I have no quick-step answer other than a little bit of effort and a lot of sweat spread out over many days, weeks, months, and now almost four years. I don’t use weed killer. I simply am relentless in pulling up a few weeds each and every time I walk the perimeter of my yard. Truthfully? I think they (the weeds – especially the nut grass) are afraid of me! 🙂

Let’s view achievement / greatness as a series of small steps, or as the sum of many steps (small acts), and learn to silence the inner voice (demon) that insists we leapfrog ahead or use a cheat sheet.

2.  Like the animals but love the humans.

I grew up in East Africa and many of my happiest childhood memories revolve around animals, whether pets, such as our two Vervet monkeys, or family excursions to famous national reserves like the Masai Mara or the Serengeti to witness the annual 1.5 million wildebeest and zebra migration.

I still love animals, but like Fanning and Johansson, I’d choose people over animals if I had to.

If polled, I wonder if most Americans would agree?

It often seems that equally or more money, time, kindness, love and respect is shown to pets, than to children, the elderly, the immigrant, the unemployed, or the hobo.

Lately I’ve been struck by how many Austin drivers let their pets “drive with” them in the front driver’s seat. Meanwhile my kids fight over which of them get to ride in the front passenger seat, even if the distance to be traveled is less than one mile!

What about you? Do you give equal or more time and affection to your pet than to your child, spouse or friend or neighbor?

3.  “The secret to talking is listening.”

We’ve all read enough Dear Abby-type relationship advise columns and books to know that men are typically less verbal when it comes to expressing matters of the heart (emotions, vulnerability, et cetera), yet more verbose when it comes to fixing problems: your problem, their problem, anyone’s problem.

Wise men have learned that the way to a girl (Elle Fanning’s) or a woman’s heart (Scarlett Johansson) — or even in matters non-romantic, to achieving greater organizational synergy (defined by Stephen Covey as “valuing difference” or “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”) — is through more listening, less talking.

Many men simply don’t care whether their percentage of speech to listening is skewed, however, because they’ve either achieved some senior management position in an organization and can’t be bothered by any underling, let alone a woman’s suggestion or advice, or because hearing the sound of their own voices and perspective has become habituated over time, in large part because men traditionally have held the monopoly on positions of power.

Now, I risk voicing a truism; namely, that women are very capable of talking and thoroughly enjoy doing so! Research demonstrates they generally are more verbal, and not infrequently more verbose than men.

A difference between the sexes seems to me to be: Men typically talk to resolve; listening with more an ear to actively fixing whatever might be wrong or perceived to be wrong, rather than listening with all one’s senses so as to hear the many unspoken words / emotions that speak themselves through glistening eyes, quivering lips, faltering voices, rapid and defensive / angered responses, etc.

4.  Grief and mourning can be delayed, but not bypassed . . . If, that is, you want to re-engage life and living.

For 10 of the last 13 years I have worked in a senior management capacity with non-profit organizations in South Africa that focused on mitigating the cause and effects of violence and HIV/AIDS.

A recent article A Save-the-World Field Trip for Millionaire Tech Moguls describes one man, Scott Harrison’s “sexy” effort to provide clean and plentiful water to those in the world without. Through his non-profit, Charity: Water, he has managed to facilitate the drilling of thousands of water wells and the installation of an equal number of hand pumps.

Incidentally, and perhaps reflective of the demographics of his donor base, each pump has an attached metal plaque with each donor’s name etched on it. Desire for legacy, recognition, seems to me a decidedly American fixation, as is our so-called exemplary charitable generosity, which in reality would not be near so generous if it did not hitch a ride on the coat tail of income tax reduction.

In contrast to “sexy” development work, coming alongside and participating in life with hurting people, particularly those who have suffered or soon will suffer loss, as well as trauma of any variety of types and degrees is far from “sexy.” Yes, your name is surely invisibly inscribed on the hearts and in the lives of those you shared vulnerable life moments with, yet seldom is there any acknowledgement of your sacrifice, no public recognition for being a “Well Member” – a donor, who pledges $24,000/year to Charity: Water, for three or more years.

My point is this:

It’s much easier and less demanding to give money to the needy of the world, than time, toil and tears (lest you misunderstand me, yes, social development organizations need both, including the Charity: Water’s of the world).

Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) lost his wife and struggled daily through a labyrinth of inconsolable grief (e.g., avoiding looking at photographs of his wife, certain grocery aisles, as well as previously favorite coffee shops). It took years and the collective, consistent and caring support of family and zoo staff friends for him to travel through grief to a place of acceptance and re-engagement with life and living.

I welcome “life truth” wherever it reveals itself. I’m grateful to movie and cinema for important life reminders.

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Why Kick a Man When He’s Down? | Smoking, Sin, Shaming and Salvation – Part 1

People used to smoke (a lot) . . .

I grew up and traveled when international airlines had “Smoking” and “Non-Smoking” sections. At least once, my assigned seat was the row before the smoking section began. If you’re too young to remember that period, imagine how your eyes and nostrils might burn after a trans-Atlantic flight.

I used to smoke . . .

Cigarettes during my 5th grade year (okay, the occasional cigar as an adult, too, particularly on mens’ only, multi-day hikes, where we envisaged ourselves as wannabe-as-tough Bear Gryllses).

My first puffs occurred in the dense and protective cover of Limuru and Tigoni (Kenya) hedges and maize fields. My smoking accomplices (may they never be found out!) and I preferred local Sportsman cigarettes, because they inspired our budding masculinity, their slogan was catchy and cool – “Ni Sawa Hasa!,” and, not least in importance, they were about the cheapest on the market.

sportsman2

I got caught smoking!

One day several Luo friends, my little brother of 3 or 4, and myself were hiding in a large and wild Lantana like bush (the exact name eludes me) situated in an undeveloped expansive area between our house and Lake Victoria. We liked the Lantana like bushes because not only were they secretive and fort-like, similar to corn fields, but you could chew on its minty leaves after smoking, effectively masking our smoking misdeeds.

Foolishly my friends and I decided to light up a single Sportsman. We were sharing it between us when my brother said he wanted to try it. Obviously I said, “no,” to which he smartly (he’s a lawyer now) blackmailed me with, “If you don’t let me I’ll tell dad and mom!”

I suddenly had a brilliant idea. Instead of letting him pull on our cigarette, I lit a match and quickly put it in his mouth. Unfortunately, instead of completely encasing the lit match with his mouth as he should have, effectively snuffing the flame out, and giving him smoke to coolly blow out his mouth and nose like we 5th grade sportsmen were doing, he left his mouth wide open, burning his lip.

He immediately bolted screaming from the bush in the direction of home, and upon arrival did . . . well, you know what! When I arrived home it wasn’t long before my mom informed me that my dad wanted to see me. He was in his wood shop with his protective eye glasses sitting atop his head, and a craftsman pencil wedged between his ear and side of head.

Surprise of surprises! Contrary to my fearful expectations, my dad didn’t verbally or physically launch or lurch at me. Instead he began personally confessing to his own prior smoking habits, and sweetened it by sharing that one or more of my siblings had similarly experimented with smoking. Instead of punishing me, he simply told me that he would not tolerate any more of my hiding and conniving. If I was intent on smoking, so be it, but he insisted I start smoking in public and among friends and family.

Well, wouldn’t you know it! He cured my 5th grade smoking habit! By de-criminalizing my activity, he de-incentivized me from wanting to smoke further.

Years later, and five children of my own, I’m grateful for this early (and wise) parenting lesson. It’s all too tempting as a parent, when your own life stress is near bowing you in half, and your child’s sudden discovered misdeed(s) adds extra strain to life and living, to reactively lash out punitively.

Sometimes that might be necessary and appropriate (the punitive part; not the lashing out). Many more times, however, it seems more productive to take a moment and share your own personal struggles and mistakes, thereby decriminalizing and de-stigmatizing your child’s mistakes.

As with my own smoking experiment, a calm and measured response just might provide your child with a new felt sense of self-worth and a nurturing seedbed for re-engaging life and its challenges, rather than a big, fat branded “L” on the forehead.

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