Monthly Archives: April, 2010

Time for Your Second Act

April 29th, 2010 Posted by Thought Tools No Comment yet

Though neither of us could afford the time off work, my wife and I took a long walk through the forest last week.  It was so utterly rejuvenating that when we returned to our office I decided that we couldn’t have afforded not to have gone.

Experiencing a kaleidoscope of new blossoms, birds breaking into rapturous song, lush green ferns unfolding themselves from a long winter’s sleep, and a parade of colorful caterpillars, all in the company of my soul-mate, filled my heart with joy.

Spring, sweeping away the vestiges of winter, brings the message of renewal, hope, and second chances.  It may seem dark and cold but it is never all over.  For those who faithfully love God there is always tomorrow.  As the lowly caterpillar transforms into a butterfly, there is a second act for everyone.

I shouldn’t really have needed a walk in the forest to remind me of this heartwarming truth.  After all, Scripture offers so many affirmations of rebirth.  One is evident from the arrangement of the Torah into the so-called Five Books of Moses. 

People who pore lovingly over its pages are encouraged to explore the themes of each book of the Torah.  The careful reader will quickly discern that the book of Deuteronomy, in Hebrew Devarim, recaps much of the previous four books repeating many of the laws and events found earlier.  For instance, we find:

The Ten Commandments  (Deuteronomy 5 and Exodus 20)

The story of the spies  (Deuteronomy 1 and Numbers 13)

Moses delegating authority (Deuteronomy 1 and Exodus 18)

However, some concepts we encounter in Deuteronomy for the first time.  Obviously in a short Thought Tool I am able only to provide a brief glimpse into the vast wonders of this discussion so here are just a few.

Divorce  (Deuteronomy 24:1-4)

Levirate marriage whereby the brother of a man who died childless

marries the widow  (Deuteronomy 25:5-6)

 

God reciprocating and returning to us

when we return to Him  (Deuteronomy 30:8-10)

A common feature in these examples is that there is a second act.  Sometimes things may go badly but it is not all over.  Sometimes we abandon God and feel utterly alienated from Him.  Callers to my radio show in San Francisco often tell me about having been away from faith for decades.  Still, a return is always possible and we are always welcomed back in loving embrace by our Father in Heaven who takes a step towards us too.

Sometimes a marriage has deteriorated so badly that it can never be restored.  While this doesn’t happen as often as many couples think, it does happen.  Well, a second act is possible.  One has to endure the pain of a divorce but then rebuilding is possible.

The book of Deuteronomy even presents the example of a life which might be seen as leaving no impact – dying childless.  Even in that situation, a means to perpetuate the person’s life exists.  Today, while levirate marriage is not allowed, the point remains. Whatever our first act, we all have the ability, profoundly and spiritually, to impact the world in our second act.

 

To raise the curtain on your second act, you must first lower it on your first.  Doing so can take courage because sometimes it is just plain easier to resign yourself to pain than to abandon your caterpillar skin and soar like a butterfly.

The 3 keys are courage, inspiration, and motivation. Courage can be found by reading Joshua, Judges, and Psalms. Inspiration is acquired by returning to God and remembering that this “…is not hidden from you and is not far away..” (Deuteronomy 30:11)

Goofing Off

April 27th, 2010 Posted by Thought Tools No Comment yet

 

One of the downsides of running your own company is that you always know when at least one of your employees (you) is goofing off. Nevertheless, that was what I was doing last week. I came back from a truly wonderful Passover (see below, Fifty pounds of potatoes…) rather tuckered out, and had great difficulty changing gears and focusing on work.

After I wasn’t concentrating on the job at hand but before laying my mouse down and walking away from the computer, I succumbed to one of the dangers of modern life—computer games.

In doing so, I either made a worthwhile discovery or else deluded myself into rationalizing that I wasn’t completely wasting my time.  In an attempt not to lead others down a frivolous path, I won’t give the name of the game that seduced me, but seduce me it did.

The objective of the game was straightforward. I needed to stack playing cards by suits in order from aces to kings. What I found fascinating was that after losing the game, my computer gave me the option of replaying the exact same layout. While I occasionally won on the first round, what I discovered was that even when I lost, I was able to be victorious on my second, third or fourth try. The secret was discovering that what seemed the obvious road to victory was often a dead end path. To win, I frequently needed to ignore what looked like the unmistakable correct choice. Searching for unanticipated pitfalls was a more reliable strategy than sprinting to an easy win.

While I would not recommend that most Americans shirk work responsibilities to play computer games, I do think it could be a good idea for politicians. One potential benefit is that they might get so absorbed in the game that they won’t have time to tinker with legislation, which could have very positive results for the electorate. More importantly, maybe the message will sink in. What looks like the straight, clear-cut and simple path to objectives such as ending poverty, providing health care or quality education or achieving world peace, usually leads to a hazardous blind alley.

If a deck of inanimate cards contains surprises and snares, leading to a losing hand more often than a winning one, how can one expect manipulation concerning people to simply fall into place? It may sound like taking money from some and giving it to others will increase wealth all around, but it won’t. It may seem that increasing funding for schools will lead to better education for more students, but it won’t. It may even seem that being nice to people who want to kill you will disarm them, but it won’t.

Having a clear objective, whether winning a card game or saving the world is a good idea. But the unintended consequences of moving a seven of hearts prematurely won’t destroy lives and nations. Unfortunately, legislation’s unintended consequences are far from benign.

Hopefully, I am back to working conscientiously this week. But being reminded that good intentions and brilliant ideas often fall flat and that multiple paths may be needed on the road to success wasn’t such a waste of time after all.

 

Often Charming – Always Dangerous

April 20th, 2010 Posted by Thought Tools 1 comment

Back in the 1970s, Jim Davis, a good and deeply religious man, felt he could safely go into business with his flamboyant roommate at Baylor University, Allen Stanford.  In early 2009 Stanford Financial collapsed in scandal.  Today, Davis is a ruined man.

 

A long time ago, I entered into a business transaction with someone whose moral flexibility included listing his dog as a shareholder in his company.  While I didn’t know that fact when we worked together, there were clues to his character that I should have noticed. Happily we parted ways before his little empire fell apart and he was incarcerated.  However, I did lose a lot of money and worse than that I felt incredibly stupid because I had long since been taught the transcendent truth of this Torah tip:

 

You will seldom emerge unscathed after involving yourself with someone whose values do not match yours.

 

Consider this verse:

 

And when Jacob saw Rachel, the daughter of Lavan,

his mother's brother, and the sheep of Lavan, his mother's brother,

and Jacob went near, and rolled the stone from the well's mouth,

and watered the sheep of Lavan, his mother's brother.

(Genesis 29:10)

 

A look at Genesis 24:29 shows that the family relationship reiterated above is correct.  That doesn’t explain why we needed to be told this three times.

 

The question intensifies as we watch what happened a few minutes later when Jacob met Rachel, the daughter of Lavan (his mother’s brother!)

 

And Jacob told Rachel that he was her father's brother,

and that he was Rebecca's son and she ran and told her father.

(Genesis 29:12)

 

So, after Scripture firmly establishes in verse 10 that Jacob was Rachel’s first cousin, Jacob now lies to Rachel saying he is her uncle!  Then he immediately trips himself up with a contradictory statement when truthfully adds that he is Rebecca’s son.

 

At this point we have only three possible explanations for both the triple recurrence of “his mother’s brother” and Jacob’s seeming lie.

 

(i)   The Torah was written for people with really, really, bad memories.

(ii)  The Torah’s editor did an extremely sloppy job.

(iii) Every letter in the Torah, let alone every phrase, can reveal deep and valuable insights into how the world REALLY works.

 

 

In the context of verse 10 which emphasized the real relationships, it is not plausible that Jacob is merely discussing blood relationships.  He is discussing something far more important, namely morality, character and integrity.

 

Ancient Jewish wisdom fills in the pieces and provides practical life tools along the way.  You see, not detailed in the written text is Jacob’s immediate proposal of marriage to Rachel.  (For heaven’s sake, he’d kissed her already in verse 11!) 

 

Rachel responded by explaining that her father, Lavan, was a notorious rogue who would endeavor to cheat Jacob in any marriage negotiations. 

 

Jacob attempted to reassure Rachel by saying, “Hey, I’m capable of being your father’s brother.  I’ll be as canny as if I was his brother.  However, never fear, deep down I am the son of the righteous Rebecca.”

 

And to paraphrase the sad closing words of ancient Jewish wisdom’s explanation—Lavan succeeded in cheating Jacob into 14 years of hard work anyway.  This is not merely a poignant afterthought—it is the very point of the entire story:

 

When you become involved with someone possessing fewer moral scruples than you, you will lose.  No matter how clever you think you are, any interaction – business, social or romantic – with someone whose moral threshold is lower than yours will eventually bring pain.

Free to Choose?

April 20th, 2010 Posted by Thought Tools No Comment yet

 

I was chatting with a young mother recently while two of her three sons simulated a boxing match. The baby watched avidly from his stroller. Turning to me, my companion said, “I’ve never been a boy. How am I supposed to understand them?”

 

I don’t really think she was expecting an answer. But the differences between the genders don’t go away as children get older. Over the last few years, I have watched my daughters and their friends transition from adolescence into adulthood.  I have seen that the challenges they face are entirely different from those that my son and his peers face as they navigate the same years.

 

I know that today’s social and economic realities dictate that both sexes explore career options.  But there are very different implications for boys and girls though it is perhaps politically incorrect to point this out.  The burden of career commitment rests far more heavily upon the shoulders of boys than upon girls.  Deep down, young men know that their masculinity is intimately linked to their being successful providers.

 

They know that any woman who decides to take “time out” from her job and focus on her home has not made herself any less of a woman.   They know that when a woman decides not to return to work after maternity leave, much of society approves.  However, men also knows that if a man announces to his wife that he no longer feels like going to work he will be viewed as an irresponsible failure.  For him, work is for keeps.

 

The woman in her twenties or early thirties who adamantly declares that she doesn’t want children or that having a family won’t interfere with her dedication to her studies or career, may well mean it sincerely.  But young men can get themselves into quite a mess if they gamble on those feelings never changing.   

 

Economic factors often force many women into the workplace even if they truly would rather be building a home or spending more time with their children.   But women whose economic situations allow them genuinely to exercise choice often choose to work only part time or to stop working altogether.  I have read that in countries such as China after years of being fully integrated into the work force, more women are choosing to stay at home as economic and social changes allow that option. 

 

But, whether we think it fair or not, men don’t have the luxury of choice in this area.  As a society, we ardently defend the idea that women should have full access to professional schools and the careers of their choice.  But we also insist that they should have complete freedom to opt out of school or work if they choose.  Then we refuse to acknowledge that we have different expectations for men. Something is wrong with this picture, isn’t it?  Ancient Jewish wisdom teaches that one who is obligated to do something and does it, is exhibiting more greatness than someone else who volunteers to do the same thing. The act of doing what we should rather than what we choose requires greater commitment.

 

Since graduating college, my son and his friends have been navigating the career waters trying to find occupations in which they can prosper and thrive. In contrast to summer jobs they may have held, they are now looking at years, not weeks, of work ahead of them. Embracing this challenge can be a part of what molds them into the type of men who will make good husbands and fathers, the type of men whom our daughters seek as life partners.

 

When we pretend that gender doesn’t matter, that – as a group – young men and young women have equal stakes in the job game, we are lying to both sexes. While I admit that sentence would have infuriated me at eighteen, and probably will infuriate most college students today, I think our society suffers when we pretend that we can make up any rules we feel like, even when they run counter to reality. Those little boys I saw whose behavior was perplexing their mother are going to want to wrestle and struggle in ways most little girls will never understand.  And if they channel that masculinity and grow up to accept the yoke of supporting a family, they deserve our appreciation.

 

 

 

The Magic of Many

April 13th, 2010 Posted by Thought Tools No Comment yet

 

If it takes 1 man 1 hour to dig a ditch, how long will it take 2 men to dig the same ditch? “Half-an-hour” is not the correct answer. 

 

Depending upon whether they help or hinder one another, there are two possible right answers:  More than an hour or less than half an hour.

 

If they are not committed to the work or to each other they will both become demoralized. As they grate on one other, each will work less effectively.

 

But if the two men enjoy one another and love the project, they will accomplish the job much more quickly. Spurring each other to greater exertion and developing efficiencies will speed the project. 

 

In this fashion, two colleagues might get a job done in 20 minutes.  Four committed individuals working as partners could accomplish that job perhaps in 7 or 8 minutes.

 

After two Sabbath meals with many guests, our kitchen would look a mess. Saturday night, seven children had the task of restoring order.

 

Occasionally we would hear griping and sniping.  The job was unpleasant and took forever.

 

But most times teamwork was high.  We’d hear singing and laughter. The kitchen would be sparkling early enough for an evening activity.  In those conditions, seven children achieved the goal in a tenth of the time one person would have taken.

 

Scripture reveals this life reality here:

 

Five from among you will pursue one hundred

and one hundred from among you will pursue ten thousand…

(Leviticus 26:8)

 

Ancient Jewish wisdom points out that the proportions are wrong. If 5 can pursue 100, 10 can pursue 200 and 100 should be able to pursue 2,000 not 10,000.

 

The Torah is not casual about details like this.  It is revealing how the world really works.  God built us to thrive and succeed when we connect with others.  This effect is exponential. 

 

If you have 10 friends who like and trust you, you derive way more than double the blessings brought by having only 5 such friends. Forging new friendships brings benefits far out of proportion to the numbers.

 

Have you ever arrived early at a party or social gathering to find that you are among a tiny handful of attendees. You drift around awkwardly silently praying for the other guests to turn up. When they do and the numbers have say, tripled, the atmosphere is not merely three times better than it had been earlier.

 

If you are in sales, (and in one way or another, most of us are) doubling the number of customers, clients, patients, or prospects in your book will do far more for you than merely doubling your sales.

 

You can only make twice the amount of apple sauce from 8 apples than you can make from 4.  To our great potential benefit, if we employ Scriptural spiritual strategies, human capital works in a very different way.

 

Connecting computers into a network is just a physical act of plugging in.  The tools are simple.  Hooking up an irrigation network is also physical; using the right tools, just connect up the pipes and hoses.  But connecting people is entirely spiritual, and the tools are not simple.

 

These tools include constantly creating and discharging obligations; understanding the drives and desires built into us, learning to listen; and many others.  Since the paramount purpose of the Torah is to facilitate relationship building both between people as well as between us and God, not surprisingly, that is where we find the tools.  Even the Ten Commandments are most easily understood as a set of five tools for establishing connection.

 

 

 

Fifty Pounds of Potatoes, Fifteen Dozen Eggs…

April 13th, 2010 Posted by Thought Tools No Comment yet

 

At the end of the meal, after proclaiming in a loud voice, “Thank you HaShem (God); thank you Grandma,” three year old Eli noticed that everyone at the table was looking at him. He explained to the group, “I like to thank both those guys.”

Which pretty much sums up our Passover. With God’s blessing, we had all our children and grandchildren around the holyday table for the first time in a number of years. While I spent many hours preparing the food for the seventeen to nineteen people at each meal of the eight day celebration (including ten festive meals), it truly was a labor of love.

This is not to say that it also wasn’t a lot of work. The planning started weeks in advance with a lot of unknowns. Would we have a very pregnant daughter at the table or a post-partum one? Or maybe the eagerly awaited family member would arrive during the festivities? Would we have a sparkling new and large kitchen to work in as well as extra bedrooms available or did the east coast winter snowstorms put another daughter’s planned move into a new home behind schedule?

Well, we are still waiting for the baby and about two weeks before Passover it became clear that a tiny kitchen would have to suffice and that we would need to impose on generous neighbors for beds. We rented an extra refrigerator, bought a counter top convection oven and moved the organizing/cleaning/shopping/cooking countdown into high gear.

Is Passover an easy holyday to make? No. But it is hard to think of anything that is worthwhile which doesn’t entail great effort. While this year had its specific complicating factors, other years have featured my own newborns, ovens and refrigerators that conked out, and a variety of other family and technical hurdles to overcome.

Still, while I appreciate the times we have spent Passover at friends or relatives as well as the availability of hotel Passover programs, my favorite years are like this one, when we are blessed enough to have the strength and time to do all the preparations and gather our family around our own table. The “easy” Passovers, when others do the work, can be wonderful, but they always feel a bit “Passover style” to me rather than the real thing. Not only are the weeks of preparation an intrinsic part of the celebration, but while the food may be delicious elsewhere, it doesn’t include those items whose smell and taste trigger the explosion of Passover memory receptors.  And had anyone other than I done the cooking, I would have missed out on my grandson placing me in such illustrious company.

As my mother always said at the holyday’s end each year, “May the same hands that put the Passover dishes away this year take them out again next year.” Amen.

 

The Return of Sue Barton

April 7th, 2010 Posted by Thought Tools No Comment yet

 

I have just re-read Sue Barton: Visiting Nurse. If you are male or perhaps a female under a certain age, you might not be familiar with the Sue Barton series. But for girls born during certain years, not reading Sue Barton would have been like not reading Nancy Drew. Don’t even dream of telling me you don’t know who that is.

 

Nancy Drew is still around. In fact, her books have been (unfortunately) updated and she was even the star of a recent (unfortunate) movie. But Sue Barton, whose adventures took place in the 1930’s, has gone the way of the corset. It is easy to see why.

 

In this era of “girls can do anything” a female detective is still deemed relevant. A nurse who works in hospitals and clinics where every single doctor is male is less so.

 

In the book I just finished, Sue is working in Manhattan as a visiting nurse, going into the homes of immigrants and the indigent as a combination nurse/social worker/Mary Poppins.  She soon faces a major dilemma, one that seems quaint to any contemporary reader. Her fiancé, a doctor naturally, is establishing a practice in New Hampshire, and despite her commitment to and satisfaction with her work, he balks at a multi-year engagement while she remains at her post. The idea of a commuting marriage doesn’t cross anyone’s mind.

 

The issue is resolved when Sue tentatively approaches her supervisor, expecting condemnation for thinking of leaving so soon after her training has finished, and instead receives delighted congratulations. If memory serves me correctly, in one of the future books Sue will even stop nursing professionally as she raises a young family.

 

Back to 2010. I know a number of bright, accomplished and capable young women who are either working in the nursing field or training to do so. A number of them thought seriously of attending medical school, but in the end decided against that path. Why? Because while they are drawn to the medical arena and think they would find working in that area personally gratifying and meaningful, they also value being wives and mothers. The number of years and the dedication necessary for training as a physician, the debt incurred during schooling and the investment of hours needed to establish and maintain a practice discouraged them from pursuing that course. In a way that might horrify some of their mothers who came of age in the sixties and seventies, they are willing to trade prestige, responsibility and higher income for the ability to better balance family and work.

 

They have watched older sisters, aunts and neighbors attempt to have everything and in the process sometimes lose too much. Some of them were raised by mothers who chose to stay home with their own daughters, and in retrospect, they appreciate that decision and want to emulate it. Others, while proud of their mothers and knowing they were always loved, felt that they want to be more available to their own husbands and children than their mothers were.

 

There is one big difference between the girls I know and Sue Barton. Approaching adulthood in the 1920’s, Sue never thought of being a doctor. (If there are Sue Barton experts out there and I am wrong, I await correction). My daughters and their friends are encouraged and wooed by professions that Sue Barton would have had to claw her way into if she so desired. Many of their peers are among the large number of young women who are going to medical school and whose primary goal right now is being a doctor, a career they often plan to mix with marriage and children.

 

I don’t see girls entering nursing rather than medical school as “settling” or not being true to their inner selves. I think they are showing a level of self-awareness and maturity that bodes well for their success in all the areas they view as important in their lives. I look forward to watching those lives unfold.  

Vacuous Vacation or Summer Holiday? – reprinted from June 25th, 2009

April 7th, 2010 Posted by Thought Tools No Comment yet

 

Marrying a man born and raised in the British Empire, who speaks the “authentic” English, expanded my vocabulary. While some words, like queue, made it into my daily speech, others, like bonnet for the hood of the car, never did.

 

But there is one British word that I have gladly adopted and think is much more joyful and suitable than its American counterpart. I love the way that the British go on holiday rather than vacation. After all, vacation focuses on what you are leaving behind. You are vacating work or school or your daily routine. Holiday is full of mystique and charm, focusing on thrilling activities that will take the place of everyday life.

 

Holidays are distinct from “holy” days, set aside by religious or even civic duty. When Arthur Ransome titled one of his children’s books, Winter Holiday, he wasn’t talking of Christmas, but rather of what Americans might call winter break. Not surprisingly, as a winter holiday it was not used for going to the dentist, watching TV and sleeping late but instead was a period of adventure and excitement for the protagonists of his story. You might sleep away a break but who would so mistreat a holiday?

 

There is another dimension to this seemingly minor vocabulary difference. When you vacate or take a break from something, there is an implication that it is a burden you are happy to shrug off. In contrast to that, a holiday means that there is a fleeting (after all holidays can’t last forever) opportunity on the calendar. A subtle point, perhaps, but subtleties can have big impact.

 

So, as students come to the end of their school year, I don’t want to wish them a happy vacation. Anyone with a few unencumbered days should have plans to execute, ideas to implement, and dreams to realize. If imaginations are too shriveled to think beyond the ordinary, I would suggest tossing the TV and investing in copies of some classic British children’s literature like that of Richmal Crompton, Enid Blyton, E. Nesbit, and of course, Arthur Ransome. After all, how often do holidays come around?

 

 

 

 

 

Lifetime Learning

April 1st, 2010 Posted by Thought Tools 2 comments

After he had served multiple military tours overseas and was back in civilian life, a friend explained to me that one is never an ex-Marine. You may not be on active service, but you are still a Marine. I hope he and his comrades won’t find this offensive, but I feel somewhat the same way about being a homeschooling mom.

Although I have no children left in my homeschool, a large part of my identity was forged by those years, and I have no desire to leave it behind. One of the most important lessons I learned, and I hope that my children did as well, is that learning is not confined to a particular time or place. Learning takes place as long as one is alive and isn’t necessarily related to sitting for a certain number of hours in a specific location during designated months. You certainly can learn in a classroom setting; you just as certainly can accomplish no more than logging wasted time. Worse, you can be indoctrinated with the idea that once school is over, so is learning.

God created us with a natural desire to learn and to communicate with others. It is enchanting to watch a toddler manipulate an object until he understands its properties.  As he bangs it, chews on it, and throws it, he is learning to discern textures, shapes and size. His frustrations as he yearns to get an idea across before he actually has the language skills to do so may result in furious tears and make him difficult to handle, but they are signs of growth.

Over the years that wonder diminishes. There is a natural attrition as we become competent enough to navigate through life and less curious about what there still is to explore. Too often our love of learning is actively squelched, even by the very people and institutions that are officially dedicated to advancing learning.

I hope that my children benefited from our homeschooling adventure. I, for one, miss it.

There were subjects that I did not enjoy when I was in school, like ninth grade algebra, that I not only began to understand but actually began to have fun with when I covered it for the second, third and fourth time as a homeschooling mom. I had the opportunity to spend Wednesday mornings for an eight week period sitting in on a series of fascinating World War I history classes at our local library. I no longer have time for activities like that. Since I am no longer technically homeschooling it is hard to justify spending hours reading biographies or trying some really fun kitchen science experiments as a valid part of working hours.

My children may not (yet) enjoy algebra, might confuse Woodrow Wilson with country singer Gretchen Wilson and most likely don’t remember what all the abbreviations on the periodic table stand for.  The one thing that I do hope they acquired and internalized is a love of learning and the realization that it can and should be pursued at all times and through limitless paths.