The unliberated Christmas tree

I attended Brandeis University in the early 70s. For my freshman year, there was some controversy about the mass acceptance of “townies” – those from the same town of Waltham, MA – into the school. I knew of no one who applied who did NOT get accepted. It was hypothesized that the school wanted to make some amends for recent political stirrings on campus. Anti-war sentiments were very high at the school, and among the offshoots of those leanings came a group of students who robbed a Boston bank and killed a police officer. They intended to use the stolen $26,000 they gained to overthrow the US government.

I am very grateful for the blessing of attending the school; it was a great experience. It was agreed that I should live on campus, at least originally, and so I moved into a dorm room in September 1971. My roommate was Oliver, a gay Puerto Rican man from Brooklyn. Getting to know him and both communities he represented was a very rich part of my time at Brandeis.

Among the Latinos I befriended were many who had not just liberal, but radical politics. Hailing from some of the most repressive nations in the Western Hemisphere, many of them had family or friends wiped out by those regimes. They were also largely anti-American, at least anti-American government (in that they were in the right school). They were uniformly poor people by US standards. Yet intelligent and good students. Many had lived in NYC, though some came from Latino communities in the south. They were almost all on hefty scholarships, which I thought and still think was great.

I remember one instance when the older brother of one of my friends came to visit the school. A strong anti-government, anti-establishment discussion was brewing and I recall his objection, saying “No! I love my boss. I have a good job and it pays for my family to eat and someday my children will go to a school like this and I will pay for it!” He was regaled by most as a traitor to his people and culture, though his point was made nonetheless.

Most of all, I remember the love.  They would address each other and speak of another in the third person as ‘dito Lydia, ‘dito Edwin.  It was short for “bendito” – blessed.  The closest thing to it in English would be “dear” or “dearest” which was and is so foreign to common speech as to invite skepticism or even ridicule.  But it was completely authentic – they meant it.  From the heart.  And then they started to call me ‘dito John.  It was so beautiful it made me cry.   I had taken Spanish in high school, so I knew a little of it.  But I never heard “simpatico” used in a sentence.  Though it sounds like “sympathetic” it is much more than that.  It’s love that condescends without shaming or belittling.  Today I would say it’s Jesus coming to earth and dying for us.

Part of their culture, part of their group mindset, held that stealing was okay. They reasoned that since everything good in life was out of reach financially, they were themselves the victims of theft, so “liberating” (code for stealing) goods was perfectly ethical. And they would have actual examples of being targeted by agents of “the system” that were perfect descriptions of corrupt government and policing. So, they would sometimes show me clothing they had left on while in the changing rooms at clothing stores, sneaking it out under their outer clothing. And they had other methods.

Since I was a townie with occasional means of transportation, I would act as chauffeur to my friends, though they would humor my gringo presence well enough. We loved each other; let’s be plain about that. I don’t remember whose idea it was – certainly not mine – that my family car would serve as a getaway vehicle for the liberating of a Christmas tree, but it somehow blossomed into a plan without my having much say in it.  The dorm had a need, and no one had the money so ..

I believe it was a Sunday night that we were to do the deed, and we pulled up to the unguarded lot where the trees were. Suddenly I was unanimously nominated to do the actual stealing. It was a moment of truth for me – a true double bind. I wanted these people to be my friends but come on, I’m no thief. Part of the latter conviction came from the grace of getting caught 100% of the times I had tried to steal as I grew up. And I didn’t share the same mentality about theft.

Image result for christmas tree lot

The Christmas tree remained unliberated.  And I guess I let them down.

My parents later revoked my rights to using the family station wagon to drive anyone around, another grace.

Given today’s biggest qualification – back then it didn’t matter to anyone – I have no idea as to their legal immigrant status at the time. Many were Puerto Rican and were certainly allowed to live in the US.

But I will say this. I loved and still love these people. Stealing is wrong, not because you might get caught. And if your politics justifies it, you need to adjust your politics.

Proverbs 6:30-31 Men do not despise a thief if he steals to satisfy his hunger when he is starving.   Yet if he is caught, he must pay sevenfold, though it costs him all the wealth of his house.

That is, though there exist reasons that people might resort to theft, it is wrong.  Period.

As a result of knowing my friends in school, I do understand that mentality. They weren’t making up their stories of poverty. Nor were they trying to establish their culture or Spanish language over English. They were just struggling for an identity as a people – without shame and without stigma.

Much later I would learn about a theological branch called Liberation Theology.  Even in that, I would learn, there is imbalance and a hardened, corporate victim mentality.  The balance is that God does move on the hearts of people to help the poor.

Though I have lost touch with them all (that actually happened by senior year), in my little way, I was glad to give my friends my love. And I was glad I chickened out with that Christmas tree, because that was a small gift to them as well.

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March (well April) for Science

I ventured onto Boston Common after a meeting I was attending on Tremont Street this past Saturday (April 22, Earth Day). I had heard that the March for Science was to take place that day. It was rainy, pretty cold with a raw wind and I wasn’t really dressed for it so I wanted to make it quickly to my car parked under the Boston Common. When I started across the common, entering at Park Street Station, I could tell the march was already in full swing. Well, that wasn’t right either, because many hundreds of people were still arriving from all directions.

The first person who caught my eye was a HUGE man, with a sign that said something defiant and angry (I forget exactly what and you would too). He scowling, growling with a shaking fist held high in the air as if to rally the people. I passed up the opportunity to involve him in the pugilistic exchange he seemed to long for, and walked by to his right. For the next several days I was searching my memory for the image that best fit his appearance and mannerisms. Then it came to me.

The tone of the signage, speech and even the expressions on people’s faces was just like that. Lots of spouting. Lots of indignation and well, hatred.

Now I love science. My Dad had a PhD in Physics. I love the researching, the discovery and the exchange that goes into the scientific method.

And the scientists I have known have been a pretty humble lot. By no means all of them, but

  1. Their work is so laden with trial and error that it just makes them cautious towards advancing their findings beyond some initial positive results, qualified with words like “tentative”, “preliminary”, etc.
  2. They are careful not to cite something, even evidence, as “fact” until is it thoroughly vetted.
  3. When there are theories that get developed, it’s only after lengthy community scrutiny and testing.
  4. Their work is open to revision and even repudiation, should other, overriding evidence emerge.
  5. Their community is not American but international.  That is, advancements and contributions arise from all over the world.

The contrast between that careful process and the brash posters and talk on the Common was profound. The march was not about science but about using some selected scientific themes and theories to advance a world- and political-view that the people felt was being attacked by the current president and his administration. “Science”, then was the ultimate authority, though science itself establishes its authority with much more trepidation and process.

And the hatred was palpable. Another saying from the movie referenced above came to mind:

I was relieved to see a nerdy, overweight kid smiling with a poster reading “Be a proton. Be positive”

I do think I understand the antipathy particularly against THIS president. It’s not so much as he’s conservative, though that certainly was unforgivable to this crowd. It’s that he is defiantly so, ill-mannered and impenitent in the face of mistakes.

But this Saturday I didn’t see anything better in his opponents.

Which brings me again to the place of saying if that is the substance of modern political “discussion”, then I am proudly unpolitical. Because I will not hate like that. Not even (or especially not) or science.

When umpires get it wrong

A while ago I figured out why I have always been a baseball fan. Sport – particularly that one – is analog. Drama gets played out on the field that we see in our lives. It’s a replay or a sidebar to all that has happened or is happening. The characters have similar analogs – pitchers are those who put their best foot forward and present their goods, skills and personalities. Batters are those who – a third of the time at best – send them packing. And they do it by being scrappy – bunting, beating out an infield hit or Texas-leaguer – or masterful – culminating in the grand slam home run.

There are two teams with management and strategy honed for each game and each season.

And there are .. umpires.

I was watching the Red Sox bat in the 9th inning at Yankee Stadium last night. Here’s another reason I’m a baseball fan – you can’t script this stuff. Of course bases loaded. David Ortiz is up. He strikes out. Not because there were 3 strikes thrown, there was one (ok if pitch 5 was a strike there were 2). He is called out on strikes that were not strikes. Here’s the pitch placement:

Umpire Ron Kulpa is an evil villain today in Red Sox nation as he would be among any fan base rooting for the team that he victimized. And I’m sure his performance will be analyzed by the big wigs in MLB and maybe something will come of it.

But I’m more interested in the analog, as I said above.

So first, who are the umpires in our lives? That’s pretty easy – they are or bosses, the authorities, the government. And I must include God, as we perceive God.

And it’s no wonder why people get so steamed when they get it wrong; when our players get judged unfairly. But the analog is deep, and deeply instructional, because when umps mess up:

  • We are reminded who our authorities are. That is, who has power over us. Sometimes we can change who they are, sometimes not. But there are ultimately two responses to the rule of authority – acquiescence or rebellion. In the face of injustice, both are perilous. The former because it can ignore what’s really inside of us and the latter because it considers our position higher than it is and, as St. Paul said of the authority – “he does not bear the sword for nothing.”
  • We see disappointments that had nothing to do with us. Our projects are canceled, we lose our jobs or even more tragically, our marriages or families. Again, it had nothing to do with us. But we struggle to believe that because we know we’re not perfect. Because in disappointment we always try to find a reason so we can try to avoid it next time. So we blame. Ourselves. Now it might be true that we did have something – and maybe a lot – to do with it.  That is, it wasn’t a bad call after all.  But the truth is that the tendency to blame ourselves is universally overblown.
  • We learn – erroneously – that we can’t trust as much as we thought. Multiple bad calls forge patterns in our emotions. This can get dangerously generalized to the point that we view all the world as hostile. That blossoms into operational and even clinical paranoia. The trick here is to isolate the bad call, see it in situational and relational context. If there is a pattern, identify all the patterns, not just the ones that dealt us a bad hand. And big point – see the hand of God as always for us, even when we are disappointed. God’s goal is our redemption. Always. Thus, God can be trusted. Always.
  • We fail to move on. There will be another game, another day, a different and fair umpire. Adopting futility will do nothing but take us down a dark hole. Different than trust issues, this takes us into depression – seeing things worse than they really are. People still love us. We’re still talented, desirable and valuable. A bad call, or a bad ump can’t change any of that.

Like many reading this, for me there is a flip side. I have also been an umpire. Who made bad calls. Often there’s nothing I can do to fix the error; either the people are gone or just won’t talk about it. To be sure, I made good calls that weren’t accepted either. No one is perfect, and the place where our imperfections hurt the most are when we are leaders.

Grace, humility, mercy and forgiveness are what get me through the day and through life. Because the umpires calling my game get it wrong. Many times. Humility calls me to remember when they got it right too. And honesty says that is most of the time.

Let’s go Red Sox!

Dr. Freireich

I remember growing up and hearing about childhood leukemia as a death sentence. The disease was so horrible that collections like the Jimmy Fund in Boston were founded to fight it (and other childhood cancers). I don’t remember when things changed, but over the years it has gone from being nearly 100% deadly to a very serious yet treatable disease.

I am reading Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath book. Though it cites the biblical story – and there are those who really should know that story – its focus is on debunking and countering well-founded associations people have formed between environmental factors and outcomes. It’s not just fascinating, it’s seminal reading. As an example, Gladwell tells the story that follows.

DrFreireich

Emil J. (Jay) Freireich (also called Emil Frei III) was a kid who grew up in St. Louis. His father passed away when he was very young. He entered Colgate college with $25 in his pocket. He worked hard and earned his medical degree from Yale. He was not an agreeable person, with arguably horrible bedside manner and even worse relational skills with coworkers. But he was relentless.

When he began work at MD Anderson Hospital in Houston, leukemia-ridden children would typically bleed to death. There was no stopping it; their blood was so diseased. Freireich studied the problem and started transfusing massively to restore platelets. Problem solved, bug fixed.

Treatment for the underlying condition was the choice of three drugs. Success rate was low. Against biting criticism and open opposition, Freireich experimented with combinations of all three. Then he found a fourth and added it also. The kids he treated would die differently but would die nonetheless. And quickly. But he kept on, until he got the combination right. Kids starting surviving, and then the cancer started going into remission.

Because of his persistent effort, childhood leukemia is treatable 90% of the time today.

Not too shabby, Dr. Freireich.

And a lesson to those who are holding back because of criticism and opposition – which are actually fear and envy. Push through. We all need you to.

And yeah, I pray for people like Jay Freireich.  Because I don’t care whose hands are used to heal people.

The lure and peril of quick-fix

I recently was called into a meeting to review an alternate approach to a technical problem I knew very well. The presenters smiled a lot, joked incessantly with one another (though not with their audience) and showed how their approach would deliver a solution faster than another other way. As I spoke with my management friends afterward, I didn’t even have to prompt their reactions. “It won’t work, not at scale” and “I don’t see this working” came from those who are not paid to be technically savvy.

Those reactions were right. And though the work is only beginning, the approach is not sound and is destined to known dysfunction and hand-waving, compromised workmanship. I don’t say that from an envious heart of “not invented here” but from the perspective of one who’s seen too much and too many fail for the same reasons.

QuickFixEgg

The deep lure of the quick-fix has repeatedly astounded me. In the corporate world, it happens when those in power don’t understand the work it takes to produce goods and services and develop suspicion based upon reports of others who don’t understand the work. They come to the conclusion that they are over-paying and over-indulging their most productive workers.

But quick-fix can happen any time that impatience is adopted. Any group or leader can fall prey. Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign was wildly successful because it attacked procrastination. What other footwear would you buy to attack your complacency? But projecting complacency, inefficiency and practical waste onto those who work hard and with integrity is misinformed.

Despite all the spin and Teflon-coating on those responsible yet not accountable, a quick-fix is very often disastrous.

This is not to say it’s easy to fight. Those prone to it want to be process heroes. And there is legitimate process evolution to be done. But it’s also the job of those who know quick-fix when they see it and are called to speak up. Here are some alternatives to offer:

  1. Planning and design. Eisenhower said “Plans are worthless but planning is everything” – meaning that contingencies can’t possibly be known beforehand but they can all be considered beforehand. An obvious and usually required phase of any project, but overlooked or partially done for quick-fix, the need to to brainstorm, write down and bat around the details of how the desired goals will be met is indispensable. The battle for doing planning/design is a hill to die on, truly.
  2. Do it right – quickly. Are there ways to correctly accomplish the task that get you and those waiting for you to the goal faster than traditional means. Nine women can’t have a baby in a month, but they can have nine babies in nine months. And that’s just citing parallel labor (intentional pun). A solid antidote to quick-fix is innovative process. Tools and technique, all that.
  3. Do it right – in phases. Software, even that in the Cloud, has the notion of releases or versions. For sure there is a bare minimum of what is viable – call that Release 1, which is never very useful. So you do need something that is standing, even on crutches, which meets impatient demands. But after that, amendments and replacements are less noticed but vital. You can even correct go-faster mistakes. Caveat – this does require buy-in from the powers that be who will be tempted to declare “all done” and move you on to other things before you are really “all done” – to their own discredit and at their own cost.
  4. Patience. When people cite their goals in their field of endeavor there is an implicit time line. And there is inherent impatience with the project not meeting the time goals. Therefore, impatience is highly valued trait in leadership. Now, the time aspect is not imagined – it’s very real. Whether I am working with people, machines or markets, there are such a things as “late”, “very late” and “too late”. That said, the virtue of “early”, “under budget” or even “on time” is often overblown. It is the folly of quick-fix leaders to blow that trumpet only and never consider – or be called to account – for the long-term effects of what they have produced. It’s a ploy, and one that sacrifices value for appearance. So, a balance needs to be struck here and doing a job right needs to be tempered by doing it quickly.

This is not a call for sloth or unionized slowdowns or overarching process. And sometimes quick-fix is the way to go; it’s important to be real about that.

But the time to oppose and suggest alternatives to a quick-fix approach is earlier than later. Citing the past and asking hard questions.

It’s a good fight to have.