Saturday, November 29, 2008

33 for Thanksgiving (the day after, actually)

Thirty signed up for our pot-luck, plus the three of us (the elder teen didn't travel cross-country to join us for the 4-day weekend -- go figure). Some canceled; I think we had about 25. Friends loaned folding chairs and long tables, and we rented flatware and more folding chairs from an outfit downtown.

Who came? Immigrants from Japan, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Korea, China, and the UK at least. Some Americans came, too. "Red and yellow, black and white...."

People brought fabulous food, and good times were had by all. The lovely Carol had asked me to say a few words about thanksgiving (the practice and the American holiday), since we weren't sure everyone knew the story. So I mentioned the foolishness of some early colonists, who ate all their seed grain, and God's provision in spite of their silliness -- the idea being that even when we do dumb things, God is willing and able to help us out.

Then I talked about the idea of giving thanks as a spiritual practice: if you're feeling depressed, it's hard to stay that way after writing down a dozen items I'm thankful for. At least it's hard for me. It's actually not that hard to write a dozen items -- do you have two arms and two legs? Do you know how to read?

I related a conversation I had with a friend at church last Sunday. By making it a habit to give thanks, I said, we can take a step in the direction of more love, joy, and peace. My friend also mentioned his friend's 94-year-old aunt. Her diabetes had reached an advanced stage, and both her legs had been amputated. But when her nephew walked through the door, she turned toward him, her face like the sun. "Johnny! How nice to see you!" He asked how she was doing -- "I'm doing great!"

Now do you suppose that she was grouchy most of her life, then decided at age 90 to become joyful instead? I don't think so! I don't know a lot about this woman, but I think it's a safe bet that thankfulness was a long-standing habit.

One of the attendees added that those who know Jesus have this additional reason to be thankful: that God showed his love toward us in the person of Jesus Christ. He mentioned the passage in 1 Thessalonians 5 that talks about giving thanks in all circumstances -- not necessarily for everything that happens, but whatever happens, we can give thanks to God.

So here is my list for tonight:
  1. I can read. (I'll let you decide whether you think I can write.)
  2. I have access to the internet
  3. great food, in especially great abundance the past few days
  4. a corner market that stocks King's kim chee (or "kimchi")
  5. appliances that work
  6. the knowledge that I'm already forgiven, and the promise that one day I'll be made perfect
  7. ten functioning fingers (or as we'd say in junior-high, eight fingers and two thumbs)
  8. a fascinating, beautiful, sexy wife
  9. enough turkey gravy for once (1½ quarts)
  10. a keyboard setup that more or less works for the lovely Carol
  11. leftovers
  12. blue sky today
  13. orange clouds at sunset
  14. the younger teen's whistling
  15. Ender in Exile (Card)
  16. Return of the King (the novel and the film)

Sunday, November 23, 2008

I can't watch this!

This has been an unusual week; we watched movies for four hours, Friday and Saturday nights (about two hours each), and another hour or so on Wednesday. So if you feel so inclined, take a guess about which film we were watching when I stood up and left...
  1. Frank Capra's It Happened One Night, with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert;
  2. V for Vendetta, with Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving; or
  3. Woody Allen's Match Point
Let's see, #1 was corny, #2 was full of blood and gore, #3 had Scarlett Johansson, who in her younger days looked like Janet, who we know from church.

Well, it was #3, but not because I disapprove of Scarlett Johansson (I thought she was terrific in Lost in Translation). Rather, I didn't want to watch the tennis pro character, Chris, manipulate the people around him, particularly his girlfriend (and ticket to the executive suite) Chloe. After reading wikipedia's plot summary, I was especially glad I didn't watch it 'til the end.

V for Vendetta was scary in a completely different way. No-warrant wiretaps by the Bush administration, and the military's (historical) deliberate release of viral agents provided some of the fodder I suppose for this dystopian thriller.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Will there be layoffs? Let's try this first!

OK, this is absolutely not the view of my employer, my employer is not contemplating layoffs, but let's be realistic, nobody knows what the future holds, right?

So if things get so bad that a company is considering layoffs, here is an alternative I heard several years ago from an old boss. You've heard of the graduated income tax? This is the graduated income cut. The idea is that some people in the company make a ton of money (as one CEO said, "They pay me more than I know what to do with") and others make a lot less. The CEO-class of annual income could tolerate quite a large pay cut with a little inconvenience, whereas for the latter, even a 5% cut could be quite painful.

So, instead of doing a 10% pay cut across the board (as was sometimes done at HP), what if we said
  • At $250,000 or more annual income, you can tolerate a 20% pay cut without any real "pain."
  • At $50,000 or less, we probably don't want to cut your pay at all.
  • For ranges in between, we'll cut your pay by an amount that varies linearly with your annual income in excess of $50,000
Let me give some examples:
  • $50,000 and below: 0% pay cut
  • $51,000: 0.1% pay cut
  • $52,000: 0.2% pay cut
    ...and so on...
  • $60,000: 1% pay cut
  • $70,000: 2% pay cut
  • $80,000: 3% pay cut
    ...and so on...
  • $100,000: 5% pay cut
  • $150,000: 10% pay cut
  • $200,000: 15% pay cut
  • $240,000: 19% pay cut
  • $249,000: 19.9% pay cut
  • $250,000 and up: 20% pay cut
Call me a socialist, but I think the 5% lost by the $100,000 guy will hurt him or her more than the 20% lost by the $250,000 guy.

Now if you're in an industry or a part of the country where $50,000 is a ton of money, well, you can slide the figures around to where they make sense. But this is just a Dumb Idea™ anyway with no traction I've ever heard of -- except at one, ah, exceptional company.

The algebra for the above is like this. Let
A = current annual income
N = proposed new annual income under this graduated pay cut scheme.
  • N=A if A≤$50,000
  • N=0.8A if A≥$250,000
  • N=A(1 - (A-50000)/1000000) otherwise.
There's probably a generalized formula if one wants to have a linear increase in the pay-cut from 0 at annual income A0 to Pmax at annual income A1, but it's now time for me to drill holes in the walls so we can hang aprons up on them.

Our tax dollars at work -- in the DA's office!

After the ordeal we endured for our kitchen countertops, I had brief (5-10 minute) phone conversations with some attorneys, who advised me to file a complaint against Eco Design Resources (old website). It would be useless, they told me, to file a lawsuit for this amount of money.

I finally got around to requesting a copy of the canceled check, then assembling a package (the quote from Eco Design, a letter acknowledging receipt, credit card receipts, etc., and sending the whole kit and caboodle off to the DA's office -- consumer and real estate fraud unit.

Yesterday I got a call from a Mr. Finney, who had some interesting information for me.

First, Eco Design Resources is, according to a fictitious business name notice, owned by the same Michael Schaeffer who owns the Green Building Exchange, which you can read about in this September article and this announcement. Mr. Schaeffer apparently has an office there, at 1 Chestnut Avenue South San Francisco, 650-588-1113.

Mr. Finney also said that he talked to Ernestine Jensen at Scan-Top, who apparently are owed some $36,000.

He seemed quite concerned because this sure looks sleazy -- Schaeffer apparently has not filed for bankruptcy, contrary to the signs that my wife found at the old building in Redwood City. It might be a police matter, but we don't yet have enough information to know whether that's the case or not.

The Green Building Exchange is re-opening today in South San Francisco. I plan to head on up there soon, with copies of the quote from EDR, the canceled check, and the complaint filed with the DA's office. I will show these to Mr. Schaeffer and ask for my money back.

I'll also have several more copies to hand to any reporters who happen to be there, in case he doesn't come through.

So if you hear I've been shot, or my body was found in some random alley or in the bottom of the bay, it won't be an accident or some random violent act. But hey, my life insurance (not with AIG) is paid up, and I know where I'm going, so what's the worst that could happen? (H'm, I suddenly remember that film A River Runs Through It).

Update: what happened

Well, I asked a couple of people if Michael was around; they seemed to think he was wandering around somewhere, but I never did find him. I talked with one young fellow who was working there ("I'm out $5,000 myself," he said), essentially volunteering, because he believed in the idea of green construction practices, building materials, etc.

Here's what I think: I think he's working for a very persuasive fellow. He's volunteering right now essentially -- reading between the lines, it looks like he just hasn't been paid. The hope, he says, is that business will pick up and Schaeffer will be able to pay people what they're owed. I don't know how much business he'll have to do to pay his bills, but it looks like right now he's just not paying people.

I told this young innocent (who said that Michael "did what he had to do to keep the business afloat") that you can't take one person's money and use it for something else.

I did wander around a bit, looking at some displays and chatting with one or two of the vendors. Whole Foods had donated some food -- I enjoyed a tasty apple.

I could have tried harder to find Michael, but confrontations like this are not my idea of a good time.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The best shopping trip ever

So our church is working with the "Samaritan's Purse" people to provide gifts for disadvantaged children. The idea is that you stuff a shoebox, or similar-sized container, with goodies -- they provide good/bad lists (chocolate is on the "bad" list, probably because of tropical temperatures in transit), add some cash for shipping, and they take it from there. I saw no spare shoe-boxen lying around, so with encouragement from the younger teen, opted for the container.

Last night I went to Target (pronounced tahr-JAY by some of us pseudo-sophisticates) and roamed around before asking (hey, I'm a guy) about shoebox-sized containers. The helpful staff led me right to them -- less than $2 for a Made-in-USA plastic box of just the right size.

Then I found stuff to go into it: toothbrush and toothpaste, a hairbrush and comb set, a box of 24 real wood pencils, a sharpener, and 3-pack of Pink Pearl® erasers. A box of eight Crayola® crayons (which claim to be "preferred by teachers", maybe because of the low price). A notebook. A pack of Post-It™s. Multi-colored paper clips of two kinds (the binder-clip kind and the kind French people call "trombones"). An Etch-A-Sketch™ (that  brought back some memories for me). As I placed each item into the box (I wanted to make sure they'd all fit), I imagined the recipient discovering it. Oh, I could use this for... (or My friends and I could...). The whole thing put me in a good mood.

And for my last purchase: a T-shirt. By the way I wandered around (hey, I'm a guy) any semi-observant person could have told I never buy girls’ clothing there. Eventually, though, I found the T-shirts, excuse me, the tops.  There were some plain ones, and some with fancy designs on the front -- pictures of way too much jewelry, but cute. Yeah, I spent the extra $2 for the fancier one.

The whole thing cost me less than $50 -- less than $40 actually, since the younger teen had donated $10. I think I've enough cash in my wallet for shipping the box. I can't recall the last time I had so much fun in a public place. (Actually I can, but I won't tell you about it here. It was in Hokkaido, and what happens in Hokkaido stays in Hokkaido.)


But when I got home, I completely forgot about a 7:30pm phone appointment with someone in Bangalore -- until 90 minutes after the fact. Imagine my embarrassment! So I'm wearing my Alzheimer's Association T-shirt today.

He graciously allowed me to reschedule it for 6:30 this morning, though, and we had a great conversation.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

What, me worry? Well, I'm worried about this!

The conflicts around California's Prop 8 have got me worried about the erosion of a civil right in this state. I'm not talking about the right to get married, but the right to express an opinion.

Lawn signs have been stolen -- in the newspaper I've read only that "Yes on 8" signs have been stolen (apparently thousands of them), but I've heard that in some neighborhoods, "No on 8" signs have also disappeared.

Threats have been made, and people have gotten into fistfights -- we're talking about expressing an opinion here!

What ever happened to "I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it"?

Unlike many other countries, laws are supposed to mean something in this country. Here we're supposed to play by a set of rules, and I'm afraid we haven't had a lot of shining examples of that lately. Bush's no-warrant domestic wiretaps, Mayor Newsom's unauthorized "issue same-sex marriage licenses," and so on.

So when I see a sign I dislike, well, why not steal it when my neighbor isn't home? Or put an opposing sign right in front of it?

If someone's marching in a demonstration, and I don't like what they're saying, why not punch them out?

If some business donated money to a cause I don't like, why not vandalize their building?

Two reasons why not:
  1. Because it's wrong and unfair; or if you don't believe in right and wrong...
  2. Because this is America, for goodness's sake, not Zimbabwe.
Violence and lawlessness is not just "the final refuge of the incompetent" but it will bring about the downfall of civil society. If we don't play by the rules, we will become Zimbabwe.

Now, is it OK to call for a boycott on some business because I don't like their policies? Sure, that's your right.

Is it OK to march peacefully outside? Of course it is!

Is it OK to barge into a church and disrupt their meeting? Only if it's also OK to barge into an abortion clinic and disrupt legal activities therein. In other words, no!

I would like leaders on both sides to repudiate violence and lawlessness. Is that a vain hope?

When it comes to freedom of speech in California -- Oooh, do I worry....

Update November 19

Well, the San Jose Mercury News makes my point in this editorial:
Had supporters of gay marriage shown as much fervor for their cause before the Nov. 4 election as they have since, they probably would have defeated Proposition 8. But they will surely fail in their campaign to repeal the ban if threats and coercion continue to be among their tactics.
We may disagree on the merits of prop. 8 (or lack thereof), but they have it exactly right that vandalism and coercion are counterproductive and should be out of bounds.

Herhold goes even further in this piece:
You can understand why the advocates of the right to gay marriage are furious.
But the grass-roots plan for a boycott of the people and businesses who contributed to Proposition 8, from Leatherby's Ice Cream in Sacramento to the Cupertino dentist who gave $1,000, is the wrong tactic, a blunt club when a scalpel is called for. It will backfire.
Same deal here -- we disagree on prop. 8, but agree that civil discourse is important in a civil society.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Power of Jesus’ Name

"How can I pray for you today?" the lovely Carol asked me this morning. That I could be a good listener, I said. I was having lunch with "Jane," a mother with small children who works not far from my office.

I headed downstairs at the appointed hour and found Jane in the lobby. After some talk about the economy and such, we got onto spiritual topics. Jane bemoaned her lack of focus.

What would it look like to be more focused? I wondered.

"Just finding 10 or 15 minutes to open the Bible and do a meditation or something -- doesn't seem... I mean, it's not happening." She wasn't wailing or anything, but clearly carried a burden of needless guilt.

I was glad Carol had prayed for me, because somehow this came to mind
Suppose Jesus were right here right now. What do you suppose he'd want to say to you? "Jane, you should have done a meditation this morning"?
So I gave it a shot. This got a smile, because Jane knew (but needed a reminder) that our Lord Jesus is not that kind of person. Paul tells us that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ (Romans 8:1), and John tells us God is love, and there is no fear in love (1 John 4).

Jane went on to say that there are times when she didn't actually feel like being with her kids, and she felt bad about that -- also about not doing crafts with them. Fortunately, the lovely Carol had recently attended a mothers' group at our church, where the speaker debunked the myth of the "perfect mother." So this concept was fresh in my mind, and I mentioned to Jane that we have this myth, especially in the church.

I guess it was my day for doing the priestly thing, because Jane told me she wished she had the energy to keep her house looking picture-perfect as well -- the "Martha Stewart" image. I mentioned that given a choice between the teachings of Martha Stewart and the teachings of the Lord Jesus, let's go with the Lord Jesus -- who said this:
Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about many things. But only a few things are important, really only one. Mary has chosen the good part, and it shall not be taken from her.
Luke 10:41-42
Do you know what? I learned something today. How many times have I sung "All hail the power of Jesus' Name"? Today I saw the power of the name of Jesus in action. Not like "In the name of Jesus, be healed!" And not like "What would Jesus do?" (so now you or I have to do the same -- yeah right, feed five thousand, raise someone from the dead.)

But "What is Jesus saying to you here and now?" He doesn't reproach or accuse. Each time I brought his name into the discussion, it seemed to me that a weight came off Jane's shoulders. Because the Lord Jesus is true to his word:
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
Matthew 11:29-30
All hail the power of Jesus' name!

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

A Busy Week

Watching the Obama speech last night I felt very happy. "It's a new day in America," I said. Not so long ago black people couldn't even vote in some states, but now a black man will be our next president. So I feel hopeful for our country -- like we may be making progress in spite of the very disappointing current administration.

But I also want to tell you about last week. Tuesday morning, the lovely Carol's computer crashed. It was gradually getting worse, and Tuesday morning it decided "enough of this gradual stuff." The crash-LEDs claimed it was a problem with RAM, so I pulled out more DIMMS, but that didn't help. The lovely Carol graciously accepted the lack of computer for the day, and I went off to my breakfast appointment.

Only my car wouldn't start. I later found out I'd flooded the engine, but I was already running late, and Carol graciously offered me her car.

So I got over to Denny's and the kitchen was closed for remodeling! I had breakfast -- pie and coffee -- with my buddy anyway. We had a good chat and prayed together.

I began to wonder what all this meant -- I mean, these were inconveniences, not catastrophes; still, I usually don't see quite so many at once.

I returned home and called AAA to get the car towed. I also emailed the office to say I'd be working from home.

The garage is a ten-minute walk from the house, but I rode with the tow truck anyway. The 1986 Toyota was due for a tune-up, and it got new plugs, cap, coil -- and a new battery as well. I'd been meaning to get to that, and now somebody else would. That was about $300.

I don't remember the rest of the week, except that Saturday we had a drop-in event -- noon to 8pm -- to show off some of Sheri's art (see link at right) and to celebrate our completed kitchen. It was a good time, but tiring for an introvert like me.

Finally, on Sunday afternoon, I fixed our "new" used computer. The problem was a bad DIMM! So I was feeling pretty good. Car fixed, party went well, computer fixed...

Then came a cry for help from the laundry room. The washer had overflowed! Fortunately, there wasn't *much* water on the floor -- we swept most of it out, I siphoned out enough from the washing machine tub, then had to fix it -- a loose hose.

So what does all this mean? An opportunity to learn patience? A reminder that my life really isn't under my control? (It was a gentle reminder to be sure; these events were really just inconveniences.)

As one of our pastors said recently, now would be a good time to shake the illusion that we're in control, that "more" will somehow be enough, that we don't need God. Indeed.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Salvation as... rest?

In Chaim Potok's The Chosen, David Malter tells his teen-age son that he wants to be worthy of God's rest -- he wants his life to have counted for something when he dies. Such talk of course frightens his son, but I found it interesting that he mentioned the concept of rest in connection with Moses (who of course never entered the Promised Land).

The book of Hebrews also talks about rest, in chapter 3 and also in chapter 4, but for us who believe in Jesus, the rest is not something we must earn through Important Accomplishments (Malter was involved in international politics), but rather through faith, as I have written about before.

But what I want to talk about today is the nature of that rest.

Hebrews chapter 4 begins with the concept of entering God's rest:
Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith.
Hebrews 4:1-2
We can learn more about this rest by looking at the surrounding text. (You can see more if you click here.) Here are a few things that pop out:
  • Some were barred (3:11) from entry because they rebelled (3:8) and persisted (3:10) in rejecting God.
    • Every day (3:7) we have another chance to listen to God rather than rebel and harden (3:8) our hearts.
  • The issue is that of turning away (3:12) from God in disbelief.
    • In contrast (3:13 begins with "But") we are to encourage one another daily.
    • We need the encouragement because sin is deceitful and will tend to "harden" us.
    • Hence the encouragement probably has something to do with correcting sin's deception.
  • The negative model of rebellion is from Exodus 17:1-7 (Hebrews 3:15 is a quote from Psalm 95:7-11, which points there). In this incident, the Israelites embraced fear, panic, and rebellion rather than faith, peace, and obedience. These can keep us from entering God's rest.
  • It's possible to fall short of entering God's rest, simply by not believing the good news.
    • This can lead to panic, which can then make us stupid -- too stupid to obey.
    • The concepts of not obeying and not believing are tied together, both in 3:18-19 and in 4:3-6.
Putting that all together, I think we can see that "entering God's rest" doesn't mean an eternal sleep, but rather that we cease from our own work and instead do God's. As Jesus himself said, "Take my yoke upon you... and you will find rest for your souls." (Matthew 11:29)

So what does this look like? What kind of work do we stop doing, and what do we do instead? Well, in some sense we lay down ultimate responsibility for what happens to our lives. We still look both ways before crossing the street, and we still fasten seat belts, but we can relax about it; as Piper wrote, we do all those things as though not doing them -- apropos of our upcoming elections, we vote as though we were not voting.

We lay aside the work of worrying -- of fear, panic, and rebellion -- and instead embrace God's work, which Jesus defined very nicely: "This is the work of God: to believe in the one he has sent." (John 6:29)

So in whatever we do, the work of God is to believe in Jesus, to tie our hopes, our dreams, our dreams to him only. To work as though we did not! And to entrust ourselves fully to the Lord Jesus.

And having written that, it strikes me that someone who lives like that has been freed from anxiety, from the tyranny of the do-list, from uncertainty, from the unbearable weight of having it "all depend on me."

Someone who lives like that is someone who's been saved.

Can we disagree without being disagreeable?

Have you noticed that there's an election coming up? And that there's an atmosphere of incivility around here? We've got a local measure, which I support but our mayor doesn't. It appears there is incivility on both sides of the issue; she doesn't like being called names, but I can't say I like it either.

We have in California a famous (or infamous) ballot measure, which all Thinking or Enlightened people oppose. Without question. Anybody who supports Proposition 8 is supposed to be a bigot and a reactionary, blah blah blah. But incivility has reached new heights; a friend sent me this account:
In the past week I did an experiment with my son to help him understand the American democratic process:

I heard from several friends that their "Yes on 8" lawn signs were destroyed or stolen. As an experiment, I picked up a "Yes on 8" sign and put it on my lawn last Sunday. Some of my neighbors have "No on 8" signs in their yards.

I asked my son to measure how long this "Yes on 8" sign would be tolerated.

The result is "less than 4 days". I put out the sign on Sunday afternoon. It disappeared between 3-7PM on Thursday.

Why do I say "less than 4 days"? I was warned that damage to the signs happened late at night. Hence, I carefully took the sign indoors after 7PM every night, then put it out again every morning at 7AM. I guess someone must have been by earlier, but couldn't find the sign after 7PM -- so they finally decided to strike before I got home at 7PM. I wasn't sure when their first attempt was. That's how long their tolerance of different opinion really is.

Lessons my son learned:
  1. Just because there are several "No on 8" signs in the neighborhood, and only one "Yes on 8" in front of our house doesn't mean we are wrong -- just that somebody stole all the "Yes on 8" signs from other people's property to create that false impression. And now the last one in the neighborhood is also gone, but that doesn't mean nobody supports "Yes on 8".
  2. While the main reason to support "No on 8" is "equality for all", they don't really respect others' rights to express their opinion.

    In other words: Don't just listen to what the slogan says; the slogan is always politically correct. But watch the real agenda behind the slogan -- they want their way no matter what it takes.
This kind of thing really makes me mad. This is supposed to be the United States!

Apparently conservative republicans aren't the only ones who use "dirty tricks"; Politically Correct liberals sometimes use 'em too.

Some of us can

At a party the other day, a friend shared her views on Proposition 8. I said, "I've heard this argument, but I'm not convinced." Then I mumbled something about how it's a complicated issue. She didn't agree.

"The issue is very simple, really, but it's an emotional issue." That statement I could agree with.

As we parted, she looked at me and said, "I'm not going to convince you, am I?"

I smiled and shook my head. "I'll still be your friend," she promised. And I'll be hers, too. We've started an e-mail conversation on the topic.

Not that this is the most important thing in the world to talk about, but I think we're in agreement that coal miners' lives are more important than coal companies' profits, that the innocent shouldn't be persecuted and criminals should be punished. But this is an issue where we differ, so we'll talk. And I'll predict right here that it's going to be more about how we each think and feel than about the issue itself. Here's one article illustrating the complexity of what we call moral reasoning.

And does this help?

For those who follow Jesus, it's important to remember that the election results are not the be-all and end-all of our lives. My friend Jan sent me a link to this article, which says it much more clearly than I could.