Monday, April 18, 2016

Learning to Enjoy

I read Peter A. Coclanis' article about Study Abroad's Seven Deadly Sins with a knowing smile on my face. Not because his description of youthful debauchery abroad is my own college/travelling 20-something experience, per se (I went to a party school, yes, but my social life looked more like this than Animal House. No regrets.), but I've worked with students ever since, often in international contexts, and I've seen less dramatic versions of his bad apples. What's more, as an American living abroad, I'm sensitive to whatever image we Yanks have whenever and wherever we trapse around in other countries. We can do better. So, as a thirty-something with two daughters who will soon enough be skipping off on their own youthful adventures, I want to encourage us parents to read and think, especially this last paragraph:
Mature students with purpose and dedication will generally achieve the kind of personal growth so often heralded by study-abroad boosters. Immature students will not, for these programs do not so much build character as reveal it. A foreign country isn’t the place for a childish 20-year-old to grow up, especially when representing an American university. Students and parents, take heed.
Now, mistakes will be made, and these mistakes are often the best teachers (and make the best bar stories later). I, too, internationally open, mature-looking, tame, can look back on my own cringe moments. But even if Coclanis' list of sins are popular enough to forgive years later in the community of shared, laughable regret (I mean, who wants to be the guy at a table without a story to share?), there are dangers beyond hangovers and cultural faux pas. Also, the over-consumption and irresponsible use of good things like drink, sex, and technology isn't confined to foreign campuses. We parents can become good teachers before the teachable moments pile up too high.

So, for those of us raising children in a world of inflating choice, this is a chance to return to some thoughts about excellence in pleasure. I'll take two examples: drink and technology.

I had a professor who suggested making the drinking age 16 and the driving age 18 (that's how it is here in Germany, by the way). His logic was, once you try to bike home drunk, you'll never be stupid enough to drink and drive. Well, drunkenness is not famous for logic, and I question whatever definition of progress neighborhoods full of sloshed sophomores on BMXs fulfills, but I think he has a point for a different reason. Wouldn't it make more sense for young people to learn to drink at home: legally and under the watchful care of adults who know what they're doing?

Moreover, what if alcohol appreciation was a required part of 11th grade rather than a rare elective college course for over-21s? What if they understood much earlier the complexities of a good beer or how wine compliments food? What if they learned at an earlier age to view alcoholic beverages (in Chesterton's immortal words) as a drink and nota drug, that limitations enhance enjoyment and addiction can be avoided. America's blossoming beer culture and wine industry are showing the way already, while our kids our exposed to nothing but Bud commercials. (Note: There's a 16-year old boy in Germany fighting the good fight. Do any American breweries have apprenticeship programs for high schoolers?) Yes, anyone should be able to decline this course due to religious or conscientious objection, and by all means follow your conscience and teach your children to do the same, but treating alcohol like dirty secret only to be revealed as a cheap drug in far-away frat houses isn't doing young people, society, or study abroad programs any favors. And, after all, excellence in pleasure means not needing to rely on any pleasure for your happiness. A student, thus prepared, might find themselves abroad in a culture where the sauce is forbidden and still have the capacity for an enriching and enjoyable experience without touching a drop.

The same thing could be said of technology. Coclanis would ban smart phones if he could. He can't, and I think that's a good thing, but we can help him by raising our children to use technology well, and even when we're disoriented by the tech world's ever-changing landscape. My six-year old is growing up in a world that befuddles me more with every new adaption. My early-adaptor friend Justin has been evangelizing SnapChat to us old fogies who still think Twitter is modern, and for my daughters' sake, I'm starting to listen.

For my sake, I'd rather not. The only reason I knew about SnapChat, or at least knew SnapChat was the latest thing, is that I give private English lessons to teenagers. When I struck up a conversation about social media (an ESL trick is to explore topics of interest to elicit conversation without being boring), I quickly learned that Facebook is for dads, SnapChat's where it's at, and that I needed a different conversation topic.

What I've seen of SnapChat doesn't appeal to me, but I can understand it's appeal to teenagers. The temporary videos, the switching graphics, the crazy editing - it's like a digital house of mirrors. It's a ceaseless barrage of crazy images, which contrasts with my love of words, glorious bare words that leave the rest to the imagination (at least the Onion understands me).  This carnival atmosphere might explain SnapChat's generation and personality gap. As Facebook's grown from a playground for students to an adult-centered shopping mall with political graffiti, it makes sense that the young people want to run off to the carnival and use technology for regret-free silliness. I watch all the movements and get queasy; I feel the same way when I'm at a real carnival and I see teenagers devour chilli-dogs before hopping on the whirl-a-rama.

But in a few teensy years, my daughters will be exploring the carnival themselves. It's helpful, then, if I also know what's out there, so that I can help them navigate these pleasures with excellence. I've had a lot of helpful conversation with other parents whose kids are already of smart phone age, and it is a challenge for those of us who grew up with AOL and Gateway computers. But it means a patient, loving engagement, not to spy, but to understand the world they're entering, and help them use it in a way that it doesn't use them.

The marketers and the adults are descending on SnapChat, so I figure by the time my kids are old enough it'll be passe and the carnival will have moved elsewhere. But it will be there, and I pray I'll be able to help them use it well.

Humans, learning, and morality are complex, so there's no guarantee that any of this will spell maturity in travelling twenty-somethings. Sometimes it takes a horrible mistake for us to actually learn, so it's not all hopeless. It's a worthy pursuit. Excellence in pleasure, in this world, means "walking in the light" as the Apostle Paul instructs us. Coclani's description of fleshy immaturity reminds me of another phrase from Paul, this time condemning: "their god is their belly." What other gods have we been invited to follow, day in and day out? Excellence in pleasure suggests there's another.

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Procrastination GPS

Most technology is designed to make work and life more efficient. But let's face it - we don't always want more efficiency; there are things in life we'd just as soon put off. Where is the market for those of us who want to avoid uncomfortable engagements, escape boring work, and dodge unappetising people? Sure, technology lets us procrastinate by goofing off on social media, playing Candy Crush, or writing silly blogs. But, as the driverless revolution hasn't happened yet, you can't (or shouldn't!) do these things in the car.

That's why I propose that GPS devices have a procrastination function. Here's the vision:

Have an office meeting you'd prefer to avoid? Have a date that you wish you hadn't said yes to? Forced to shop at IKEA? Want 26 more minutes of peace before you have to pick up the kids? Might you AGAIN run into that American guy who thinks he has something intelligent to say about life in Germany? The technology is there to help you avoid confrontation. You can be passive-aggressive without actually being accused of being passive-aggressive!

Simply hop into the car and press the procrastination button on your GPS (conveniently labelled "quickest route" - wink wink). This will guarantee the longest possible way to your destination while making it seem to anyone tracking your movement that you are making progress. It will take you to side streets, alleys, country roads, and those long driveways that lead to cow barns, tangling your route until that uncomfortable meeting is adjourned. The procrastination GPS will lead you along roads with minimal mobile phone functionality, and, should an accident or construction site cause a spontaneous traffic jam, this wonderful device will guide you to it. It will also have a soothing voice that says things like, "you could use another coffee, couldn't you?" or "I know a place where gas is really cheap!" or "how about a massage?" or "did you leave the toaster on?"

The procrastination GPS comes standard with three audio books as well as MP3s of the 10 most popular episodes of This American Life. It can easily be transferred to your Smart Phone should you have to walk or use public transportation. (Train 133 has a two hour delay! Don't forget to buy a magazine!)

So don't wait. Let's make a GPS device for all of us who would rather put something off. Otherwise, we'll be forced to pull over and play Candy Crush at the Rest Stop.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Pumpkin Spice Latte Recipe

So, I'm quite content here in the land of beer and spreadable meat, but I note that my American friends, though they haven't yet traded their flip flops for college hoodies, are indulging in pumpkin spice lattes. I never knew summer was one of those things people want to end early. Don't worry, the Germans will wear their lederhosen and sandals (albeit with socks) through the end of Oktoberfest.

I, too, have tried the famed pumpkin spice latte. Based on what I've tasted, I think I've come up with the recipe.
For a grande sized pumpkin spiced latte:
One teaspoon of extra-sweetened pumpkin pie filling
Eleven teaspoons of bleached white sugar
Twelve tablespoons of the brown, granular sugar that comes in brown packaging that makes you feel bio-cultural-superior for using it
Three coffee beans, ground
Two cups of cream
Three cups of brown sugar
Six cubes of caramel
Six sugar cubes
Pumpkin spice mix (a pinch of cinnamon, a pinch of ground ginger, nutmeg, cloves, and seventeen teaspoons of sugar, mixed)
One package of condensed milk, sweetened
Two tablespoons of maple syrup
A generous dollop of whipped cream

So enjoy your pumpkin spice latte. Your dentist will thank you.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

We Are Known

"Nothing that is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and whatever you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops."


I couldn't help but think of this Judgment Day prophecy as I read about the Ashley Madison hack. The Judgment Day isn't here yet, but millions of families are experiencing their own smaller version. This week's Economist frets: "People will lose their jobs. Celebrity magazines and gossip columnists will have a field day." It's been worse, tragically. Despair has apparently driven some of the customers to suicide. The newspaper continues: "But perhaps the greatest significance of this episode is that it illustrates, more vividly than ever before, the woeful state of internet security." Well, yes, Ashley Madison is the umpteenth dead canary on the subject of cyber safety, and maybe this one has given the tech industry a jolt of urgency that will keep our data safer in the future if that's possible. Ashley Madison itself is surely ruined, and if the hackers have tossed this horrible website on the digital ash heap, then something good beyond improved data security has come about.

Meanwhile, and I think more significantly, we are warned, by the hack and by that repellent prophecy: Things have a way of coming to the light, and one way or another, they will.


The Economist's editorial echoes the prophecy: "No doubt some people signed up on a whim, while going through a rough patch in a relationship, or while drunk. In the past, the mere contemplation of infidelity left no physical traces. But now millions of people's thoughts and deeds are open to public scrutiny." Proclaimed on the housetops.

Technology's brought the housetops closer, hasn't it? A hacker with a grudge could easily publish my digital profile - how I spend my time and money, where, when, and what I click. Companies have that information and use it for advertising, but it could also be used for embarrassment or worse. I find that thought as horrifying as the Bible verse. Sure, I try, in my tweeting and posting, to shape the image of the thoughtful, funny, family man who occasionally has something interesting to say. But my inner thoughts and behaviour are more than this, much of which I would like to remain covered, even if there are plenty of corporations and government agencies who (if inclined) could piece all of these together and click post. To be so fully known and not on my terms but on the terms of some anonymous institution or prankster is a hellish thought, and the network of machines I'm writing on has a much better memory than we do.


Ironically, Ashley Madison's customers were probably driven by a desire to be known. It's a tension we all feel. We're petrified of being found out, and we're disturbed by how much soulless corporations, government agencies, insurers, and employers have on us, what someone with the computer know-how could dig up on us - even if we have, more or less, nothing to hide. There are intimate thoughts and feelings that belong to our inner selves that, if someone knew, could be used as cutting weapons to the most fragile part of our beings.

Still, we want to be known. We want eyes that see, hands that touch, hearts that feel these parts of us and acknowledge, understand, affirm, correct, forgive, and love. That's what we're to do for each other. That's what friendship is for, and that's also what marriage is for.

I suspect that most adulterers are in it for more than carnal passion (as delightful as that is). The Biblical euphemism for sex is "to know," and that hints at the truth that sex is, or is meant to be, a deeper knowledge of someone, that souls entangle themselves together as bodies do, oneness in a deeper sense. That's why we holy rollers keep insisting that sex and marriage are one in the same and physical unity consummates spiritual unity. The search for sex elsewhere, then, even if it's just pictures or mental images, could be a search for deeper knowledge, whatever we tell ourselves otherwise.


The author of Hebrews writes that sin "easily entangles us." How true, and this includes infidelity, which can be the results of "series of bad decisions" anyone can make, including creating an Ashley Madison profile "on a whim, while going through a rough patch... while drunk." Ashley Madison is designed to make this deadly entanglement easier. (It's ironic that a website designed as a platform for infidelity couldn't be faithful with its own users' data) The downfall of the website, of course, won't end a human failing that's old and popular; it's supply for an insidious, common demand. But there's a better way of knowing and being known.


I'm a Christian, because to be a Christian is to revel in being known and deeply loved. The Psalmist sings:
Lord, you have searched me and known me!  
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;    you discern my thoughts from afar.... 
Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lordyou know it altogether. You hem me in, behind and before,  and lay your hand upon me.
If this is true, then it is either extremely scary or unspeakably joyous. I don't know how it makes you feel, but the Psalmist rejoices, and I do to. This knowledge isn't for maximising customer service, and it isn't to sell to a third party. It isn't for a list of enemies of the state. It is not to commodify us or use us or manipulate or hurt. This is the knowledge of Love himself, who is the ultimate Lover, because he knows us like no other, because he made us. He sees and delights in his workmanship, our talents, our potential, our joys, our humour, our place. Yes, he is well aware of our wretchedness. He knows the extent of our unfaithfulness, whether or not we find our names on hacked spreadsheets. Still, in his love he has drawn near, and we're invited to turn away from all that has warped us and delight in his love and, in doing so, be what we're created to be.

If this is true, then all will be known, one way or another, even the parts they haven't managed to digitise. This should discomfort us, except that, though we're known, but we're also loved in places nothing on this earth can reach.


There's a reminder here, not only for the married, but for anyone in relationship. As far as appropriate and possible, let's know our colleagues, our friends, our family members, and our spouses, and love their wonderful parts and do so in spite of their horrid parts. For those of us who are married, this means pursuing and receiving intimate knowledge with our spouses and not nurturing hopes to find it elsewhere. It means going on the difficult, patient, and wonderful journey of knowing and loving another person, and in doing so, giving them a foretaste of the love of God.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

No, I Won't Let Business Jargon Dominate the Way I Communicate

Recently, a friend of mine worried that, as an MBA candidate, I won't be able to escape adding business jargon to every sentence I produce. Every sentence I speak, he warned, will start sounding like I memorized the latest fad-speak from that new must-read management guru or one of those blog posts designed to help you to be a better leader and enhance your productivity.

Don't worry. I may be incubating in business jargon, but I won't let it change me! And I have good reasons for this. 

Let me unpack the difficulties with business jargon. Business jargon fails to align end user desires with the marketing intention of my communication targets. This results in a loss of communication value which disrupts the synergy I normally have with my ideation partner. Such disruption means that both myself and my communication partner fail to ideate to the scale that we are accustomed to and our productivity falters. Another result of the loss of communication value is a lack of bandwidth available to accomplish the day's deliverable, which could cause me to lose leverage with communication customers.

Likely, if some business evangelists are utilizing business jargon beyond their building capabilities, they won't be able to circle back to their core competencies on their own. They need a change agent willing to give them the face time needed to provide a life hack to see that their interests are aligned to a more customer-centric, value-producing style of communication. The change agent will reach out with a holistic approach to sustainable communication, streamlining words and sentences in ways that make the end user feel empowered. The key pivot point is a strategy of organic communication vocabulary that breaks through the clutter for maximum impact. Once sustainable communication becomes part of their DNA, each sentence, email, or text will have a positive value-added for a greater return on investment, enabling communicators to develop their own personal brand and emerge as thought leaders. Communication sustainability will provide the right end-user solutions to every enterprise.

So don't worry - moving forward, I won't be drinking the Kool-Aid of Business Jargon, because communication transparency is a win-win for everyone involved.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015


A long time ago, in a world different than our own, there arose a reading tablet called Kindle. You might remember those times - Blackberry was the hottest smart phone, Tony Soprano was the hottest antihero, Apple computers were white and plastic and came with tiny, colorful iPods. Back then, though a Kindle was an expensive luxury that I, a late-adapter from the lower-rungs of the nonprofit world, could not afford, I was under no illusion about the future of reading - electric readers would take over for the same reasons MP3s took over - mobility, access, frugality, and choice would move the masses from the page to the screen. But I lamented my affection for the book in book form, and worried about further isolation and individualism that these devices promote.

Well, I finally joined the last decade when my in-laws gave me a Kindle Fire for Christmas. There's a bespectacled book bore in me that doesn't want to admit the device's advantages, first of which are a healthier back for not lugging around three hardbacks when I go to the supermarket. The sheer volume available is breathtaking - a book-lover is the proverbial kid in the candy store. I started to consume: The entire Sherlock Holmes for €2.99! Hey, I haven't read The Three Musketeers yet! (still haven't, but the pixely plot awaits my time and inclination, and hey, it was free.) Oooo, a journalist I like just tweeted a Kindle book deal - click, click, BUY! Ohhhh... an internet connection.... I won't be too long....

Choice is also the problem, you know. The opportunity cost of sitting and enjoying a good book is not just any work I could be doing or any relationship I could be building, but the thousands upon thousands of books plus the World Wide Web at my fingers. Not only do I not need to get up to distract myself - I don't even need to move my head. That nagging voice of "would you rather..." or, "you could always begin this again...", not to mention, "has anybody liked my clever Facebook post yet?" is now inseparable from the book I'm actually reading. They share the same page. With an electronic reading device, suppressing this voice requires an extra and unwelcome force of will to reach the patient pleasure of good literature.

Good literature is a patient pleasure, and that is why it's so rewarding. Like marriage, friendship, art, worship, or a good meal, it's a pleasure that can start slow, requiring a thousand tiny steps of faith, faith that our world's most urgent noises can be ignored at this one moment and the moment after that in order to get there. Oh, but once you get there! It is a deep, abiding, and enriching experience, and there is nothing else like it. For this, I am thankful for authors. Aside from those who were willing to have a real relationship with me, it's hard to think of anyone who has done me more of a kindness than to write something well for me to read. I've experienced this on my Kindle, of course, and the best prose finally quiets my distracted mind and gets me to stop thinking about how pixels are less personal than paper. The distance, however, is greater.

There's another problem. I own a Kindle Fire, which is useful for me as a grad student because it can process academic documents for research. However, the Fire also means Amazon advertising. We're used to the intrusion of adverts in magazines, radio, and television, but a good book is sacred ground. Sure, I supposed you can advertise after some bubble-gum mystery thriller, and I love reading those. But after I finished Home by Marilynne Robinson, I wanted my heart and mind to be left undisturbed. My finishing the last precious, perfect sentence was the worst, I mean the worst moment to flood my screen with, "if you liked this book, you'll love...." type ads. I wanted to sit on my couch and continue to feel. I didn't want to consume.

I'm writing these words as someone who will still continue to kindle. (I'm using the word as a verb completely divorced from its original meaning. You're welcome, Amazon.) The physical experience of reading is comfortable - better than the competitors I've seen and better than the Amazon app on the iPad. As much as I poke fun at the tyranny of choice, it has given me access to books that would be otherwise more difficult to reach, particularly here in Germany. Moreover, it's become part of my regular devotional ritual. I hope it's not sacrilegious to say that I find the digital Book of Common Prayer more navigable than the paper form, and it's also handy when I'm reading devotional literature, which can be bulky in paper form. Ironically, the discipline of simply setting aside time to read Scripture diminishes the problems I have with distractions and advertising that I have with novels. I may, of course, use the classic print and page form the next time I buy the kind of fiction that I expect to be a great read. And yes, I do worry about the company's competitive practice and treatment of workers (some good discussion here on the NYTimes Editorial page during Amazon's dispute with Hachette and it's not an infrequent conversation topic during my studies - may collect my thoughts for a later post).

It's part of our humanity to be surprised by rapid change - printing presses, trains, steam ships, automobiles, all sorts of horrible machines of war, and it tangles our minds to drift with the times, all the while wondering what's happening to our souls. I could be trying to have my cake and eat it, but I have hope that the irreversible digitisation of reading won't take its soul.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Loving Language in a Time of Commerce (or Happy National Grammar Day)

Once, when I taught upper-intermediate English to a design team at a major German auto company, one of my students showed me a grammar mistake in an email from an American colleague. This group of students was advanced enough for me to run a pretty tight ship, grammar-wise, so he was a bit amused that his native-speaker colleague would make the sort of grammar faux pas I would always pounce on during class.

Of course, the grammar mistake wasn't all that important. It didn't inhibit communication in anyway; the colleagues could continue business as normal. In commerce, it's clear communication that counts. I even read, in a Business English textbook of all places, that poorly-written emails are a sign of someone moving up the corporate ladder. Well-written emails reveal someone with too much time on their hands, but non-capitalized words clumsily spat out on a smart phone - that's a person with places to be.

Still, I loved unpacking little grammar secrets and the purposes of "why-we-do-this-when-in-German-you-do-that" mutual detective games in my English classes. It was great fun. But at the end of the day, I know that the need for international business is not elegance but to just do enough to overcome Babel, even if it ain't always pretty.  (I consider "ain't" a pretty part of the English language, but that could be a byproduct of my Appalachian)

This is thrilling, of course. There's communication! People who once may have never understood each other understand each other now! This also part of the dual nature of being an ESL teacher. I love language, especially written prose, but I also love it when people use language as is, discovering different channels and springs of communication along the way in our eternal effort to be understood.

This is partly why I blog, because my own electronic scribble creations are an outlet for me. There's a danger, though. I so wish I could be a real grammar snob and publicly rage against those native-English writers who fail to achieve every literal jot and tittle. For me, a fun way to spend the afternoon is a comma discussion by way of a memoir on the website for America's best source for all things prose. But a blog is a bad way to brag, especially about grammar. I bet, in fact, that as soon as I upload this, regardless of rereads by my wife and me, some grammar mistake will pop out like a pimple on my website, and a real grammar snob, if he had even bothered to read that far, would have to bite his fist to stop screaming. My writing goes on in fits and starts, a patch here, a paragraph here, an idea that occurred to me when I should have been thinking about something else, months of busyness when ideas collect like pollen waiting for the Spring, and some ideas are even remembered. Little time for editing, for prying my big-picture brain into a detail-oriented mentality. So I hit publish, hoping that the "you'res" aren't "yours" or that I didn't confuse "affect" and "effect," all the while wondering if I should mail Bill Gates a thank-you-note for blessing the world with spell check. Then, if I catch a mistake post-publish, I put on a hair-shirt and whip my own back 39 times. Ok, I don't do that, and I know the world doesn't care, but I can tell you that vanity-reading your own stuff isn't good for the soul.

Then, there's foreign languages. Over half of my MBA courses are in English (yippee!), but most of them are taught by non-native speakers, so the lectures are peppered with grammar mistakes which, as an English language trainer, I can analyse, explain, and suggest improvements. But I say nothing, not only to keep my professors' good graces, and not only because their mistakes rarely inhibit communication, but also because, often enough, it's my turn to speak German, and, and C1 fluent that I am, there's no way this side of heaven that I am going to get every detail of this language right. I'll never remember every gender of every non-gendered object, I'll continue to mix up their backwards numbers, and I insist that the differenced in pronunciation between o and ö is zero, null, nil, nada, and nothing. I am in deep need of grammar grace - at the university, at my church, in my family, and in any future employment.

Good writing with good grammar is beautiful. I can recognize it in German, even if I'll never produce it myself, and I can strive for it, however imperfectly, in English. The letter of the law, in language as in elsewhere, shows purpose, making communication effective, elegant, and enjoyable. But in our world of international commerce, international friendships, and international families, we get to communicate with each other, even if we'll never be maestros, and our strivings are beautiful in and of themselves. What should we do otherwise? In language, as with anything else in life, the best way forward is to love both the law and the person who will never perfectly fulfil it. We need to be full of grace and truth, and for this, we have an example.

Meanwhile, should you catch me in grammatical error, your welcome to point it out.