Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Worst Feeling of All

I have often wondered why intelligent people with good lives, good families, good livelihoods, and so much to lose, do things that catapult their lives into tailspins from which they never recover and which devastate their reputations, their relationships, and their futures.

Today I read one more example of that. Dipak Das, a University of Connecticut researcher known for his work on resveratrol, the ingredient in red wine that is credited with cardiovascular benefits, has been accused of falsifying his data in over a hundred instances. [Read news story here:] Das is the tenured director of the University Health Center’s Cardiovascular Research Center, which receives millions in federal grants. Why would someone so distinguished and obviously successful do something so wrong, making up data and reporting it in his research reports?

A number of years ago, I knew a couple of women, with whom I was active on non-profit boards, who did themselves in, in similar fashion. The untruths started out small, told within a circle of friends, but the crashes were very public and dramatic.

The first woman was the mother of a teenager and an 8-year old. She owned a condominium management business that bore her name. If the rest of us contemporaneous female professionals, who shared similar dedication to our careers and high-profile volunteer leadership roles, wore designer silk dresses, had our hair and nails done at the finest salons, and made generous donations to the most chic charities in town, this condo manager always outdid and outshone us in every instance.

I knew something about the condominium management business, because I had served as the president of a high-rise condominium association and had condo associations as banking customers. It always mystified me how this businesswoman could afford to spend prodigious amounts of money, when I couldn’t spend at that level, and I had a good paying corporate job that paid more than she could possibly be netting in her condo management business.

It was revealed, a few years down the road, that her ability to outdo and outshine us was fueled by embezzled funds from the condo associations which she managed. She turned out to be a criminal, and her felonious actions earned her ten years behind bars. I always wondered how any mother could intentionally do the crime, knowing she would do the time away from her 8-year old, and that those years would be lost forever.

The second woman was a single woman, who worked for a large corporation in a techie position and carried a pager as a badge of self-importance. She was an unabashed self-promoter, who boasted about her management prowess, and none of her friends wanted to doubt her word. Once I received a written article submitted by this techie friend for the newsletter of a woman’s organization, and I was really confused with the disconnect I was experiencing at how articulate this article was, compared to other less accomplished committee reports she had written. Later, after the you-know-what hit the fan, I would realize that she had plagiarized someone else’s work.

A few years passed, and during those few intervening years, there were some other incidents that involved mutual professional friends that raised questions about our techie’s true abilities and claims of high status jobs. One day, this techie woman, who was quite popular, was appointed to an important public position as the manager of a sizable staff. Someone who had been offended by one of those other incidents took the initiative to do some investigative digging, and the dirt came out. It turned out that Ms. Techie Boaster did not have the college degree nor the management experience and positions that she claimed.

Ms. Boaster did a song and dance for the newspapers for a few days, before she finally resigned, having done irreparable damage to herself and significant damage to the reputation of the administration that appointed her. They hadn’t done their homework to vet her, relying solely on friendship to offer her the position. She split town and faded away. My friends and I pondered why this woman had such an overwhelming need to inflate herself and her importance and to do it in public. What kind of self-delusion or arrogance causes someone to believe her own lies so completely that she thinks no one will discover the truth?

I realize that there are all sorts of psychological reasons why people lie and lie publicly. I suspect that those reasons can all be bundled into one overarching reason, which is that they lie and lie egregiously to fill a hole in their lives. That hole is the soul-deep feeling that they are unlovable. The feeling of being unlovable is so invasive in a personality that it overcomes all judgment and common sense, and it also overcomes the ability to recognize when one is, in fact, loved. Feeling unlovable serves to discount everything else and is the worst feeling of all.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Racial Slurs on Receipt Not New News

Sadly, racial slurs on receipts is not new news. It's happened before and made the news, and regrettably, it's probably going to happen again and make the news. One would think that by now, corporations doing business with retail customers in the 21st century would get it and do a better job of avoiding racial slurs in their stores.

Papa John's Receipt
Here is a follow-up to the Papa John's "Lady Chinky Eyes" receipt story. Read the story here. Papa John's corporate office has issued a formal apology and is still trying to reach the customer, Minhee Cho, to present a personal apology directly to her. The franchise owner of five Papa John locations in New York has fired the 16-year old cashier who issued the receipt with the "Lady Chinky Eyes" description in the place where a customer's first name normally would be typed. And the franchisee's operating partner and a manager named Jerome and an assistant manager at the location where this happened still don't get it.

I admit that I have mixed feelings about the punishment fitting the crime, and I'm not sure that being fired for using a racial slur on a receipt rises to the level of a firing offense, with a big caveat which I'll get to later in this commentary. In other words, I'm not out for blood on racial justice issues. I want to raise awareness and change behavior.

Ronald Johnson, the operating partner, expressed his reluctance at firing the cashier thus: "I bet I'll talk to her and she won't know why this is offensive. She needs to know, and she will know. If I fire her, two years from now, she won't even remember why she got fired. If I sit her down and talk to her, I can help her. You still need a certain decorum and level of professionalism [at minimum wage jobs], and that may help her more in the long run." Johnson's comments do reflect an admirable desire to treat minimum wage earners and teenage employees like workers worthy of an investment in their personal growth. Sitting the employee down and talking to her should happen even in the case of a termination of employment; the employee should be given the full reason for the firing.

If this weren't a minimum wage retail job in food service, and if there weren't pressure from a corporate franchise entity with the high profile of a Papa John's and a major outcry in the media [I counted 32 pages on Google of this Papa John's racial slur receipt story just now], perhaps a firing wouldn't have taken place so quickly without other intervening steps. For example, in a bank, car rental agency, or other large company with branch locations that aren't franchises, a written warning and some type of mandatory employee education would probably have taken place, putting the employee on notice that this type of racial slur is unacceptable. 

From that point of view, I agree with Jerome, the manager at the location, who said, "I truly don’t think it’s fair. It’s been taking up all our time. It’s been very disruptive.” that, indeed, it isn't fair. But, it also isn't fair that an Asian customer should be subjected to this type of racial slur when all she wanted was to buy some pizza. It may have been disruptive to the store's employees, but it was also disruptive and upsetting to Minhee Cho, the customer, enough so that she tweeted about it and got the viral ball rolling. And now, Cho says, I probably would not go there again, because they would probably spit in my food,” and sadly, that is a reasonable concern to have, because as I said, the people at the franchise don't get it, and there is precedent in prior similar receipt stories of retaliation against the customer who complained.

A quick Internet search indicates that these types of incidents are not new news. 

Journeys receipt
In October, 2008, an incident occurred at a Journeys shoe store in a Kansas City mall [click here to see video news report], where an African American man returned a pair of shoes and received a receipt that had "dumb N-word" typed where the customer's name would go. When the TV reporter showed the receipt to people outside the mall, one White man asked, "Has he [the store employee] been fired yet?" A racial slur, in writing, on a receipt for something a customer has paid for, a customer who has chosen to do business with the retailer, is insulting and outrageous, and the gut reaction of the people outside the mall reflected that sense of insult and outrage.

Domino's Pizza receipt
In October, 2010, near Raleigh, North Carolina, a Domino's Pizza customer says she received a receipt that said "N-words don't tip." The store fired the employee, apologized for it and said it was the act of an individual employee. Afterwards, the African American woman customer said that she received harrassing phone calls calling her the N-word and chiding her for getting the employee fired. [Click here to see video news report.]

And as recently as December, 2011, in Irvine, California, two Chick-Fil-A customers received receipts that labeled them "Ching" and "Chong" where their names would have been typed. [Click here to read a news report.]
Chick-Fil-A receipt
Those customers spoke to a manager at the restaurant immediately, who gave appropriate responses, apologizing on the spot. The offending employee was subsequently fired. Chick-Fil-A's corporate office issued an official apology, which showed an awareness of what the issue really is all about: "Please understand and accept our confirmation that the inappropriate, and unthinking behavior of a young team member at one of our restaurants does not support any claim or even suggestion of racism at our restaurant. The individual clearly violated our operating standards; the matter was addressed and discussed immediately with the guests on the spot; and a confirmation was provided that the employee was immediately dismissed for the individual behavior."

The point that Chick-Fil-A makes is important -- that there is and should be corporate operating standards that prohibit racist behavior and making or using racial slurs when working with customers and fellow employees. The disruption that the Papa John's manager talked about is costly to businesses, and it is avoidable with an upfront investment in training. Anti-Racism Training is an important component of both customer service and raising anti-racism awareness in organizations, and I'm deeply committed to providing such education in my professional practice. So, a shout-out to corporations looking for anti-racism training: write me at, and let's talk!

The caveat that I want to make about whether or not to fire an employee who makes racial slurs to customers is this. While being terminated from a job is harsh punishment, especially in today's tough economic and high unemployment environment, the fact is that racial justice progress is made when societal awareness is raised. High profile incidents require appropriate responses, because the responses will also receive a high profile. 

Retail establishments that depend on customers to survive and thrive ought to be held accountable for being places where racism is absent. Such businesses should be responsible for the hiring, training and management of employees who exhibit non-racist behavior. Employees, including teenage employees, should have a sense of responsibility about the nature of the employment relationship when they accept a job. 

Performing a job is serious business, and when employees don't exhibit a serious respect for their jobs, their employers' businesses, their fellow employees and their customers, then they should be held accountable. So, my conclusion is that the firings for the inappropriate use of racial slurs on receipts and the disrespect shown to their customers and employers are justified.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Pews are Just a Symptom

Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber of the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver writes in her blog post entitled “The Problem with Pews” about worshiping in the round. She says:  

This population [her congregation] of urban, postmodern young-ish people have a deep critique of consumer culture and as such are far more interested in being producers than consumers. This goes for church as well. And being able to worship in the round creates an accountability of presence to each other and a shared experience which allows for the community to create the thing they are experiencing rather than consuming what others have produced for them.

I think Bolz-Weber is onto something – that people are searching for something to belong to, to participate in, and to help create. Bolz-Weber has many ideas about creating a worshiping community organically from mostly non-churchians that are worth examining, and she writes about them in her blog entitled Sarcastic Lutheran. Christian communities can never be about adopting wholesale some other church's idea of how to be and do church, but must always be about creating something authentic where the Spirit speaks to their people and they hear Her. 

In a recent reflection entitled “Seven questions every church should ask,” the Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi of the Anglican Church in Canada writes: 

In fact, I have come to the conclusion that there are no “one size fits all” answers, but that each church will need to develop its own style of ministry in connecting with its own unique environment. This is a “bottom up” rather than a “top down” process that needs to be discerned at the local level rather than imposed by any hierarchy.

From my perspective, within a denomination (aka a hierarchically organized church), there must be not just accommodation, but true embracing of a dispersed version of church that is authentic to each local context. Bottom up, not top down – much more challenging to manage than a turn-key operation where everything is by the book. In other words, no more cookie cutters, which makes raising up leadership with a different sensibility, one that is not married to vesting authority only in themselves, a prime consideration. This means that the way in which we educate clergy and how seminaries are oriented must also change. You won’t get a new and different church that meets the future by continuing to prepare clergy using old models.

This kind of change will take time and probably be evolutionary, which is going to be too slow for our needs. Times of great change require quicker, bolder responses. Notice that I didn’t say don’t bother with having the discussions with stakeholders and don’t bother having a plan; you still need conversation, and you still need plans. You just need them quicker, and you will most likely have to tolerate conversations and plans that are works-in-progress and good enough rather than finished and perfect. Tolerance for ambiguity is a key attribute that contemporary leaders who will lead into the future will be required to possess.

It would be wonderful if we were able to break out of our self-images and take some risks, recognizing that some choices will work out and others won’t. We also need to lift up and embrace those few revolutionary leaders who come knocking at our doors, rather than sending them elsewhere, because we need to be challenged to become new versions of ourselves. And it just may be the case that some of our beloved leaders and clergy won’t be the right ones to take us into the future. For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.

The challenge is how to support such ministry with sufficient dollars to pay a clergy person and overhead when congregations such as Bolz-Weber's often do not generate sufficient plate and pledge revenue to support themselves in even very nominal settings. Ethnic ministries focused on serving recent immigrants also fall into this category of congregations that are unlikely to be self-supporting based on plate and pledge. We should not forget that ministry to local communities of recent immigrants is also mission work, just as our focus on churches in Africa or Haiti is mission work.

Lack of a "church" home of their own has not prevented Bolz-Weber's congregation from doing some unique ministry, such as delivering gifts of sack lunches to people who have to work on Thanksgiving all around Denver, made from real roasted turkeys and home-baked goodies. [Bolz-Weber's congregation currently shares space at St. Thomas Episcopal Church while searching for a new space of their own.] Lack of financial resources likewise does not prevent ethnic congregations from providing culturally sensitive ministry to their communities. It just looks different, and all the members of the congregation have to work hard and work together to support and serve the community. Food and community meals play a large part in every ethnic church that I know of.

Maybe it's time to question the plate and pledge model of funding as well as the concept of a church home. After all, plate and pledge are not biblical, although the tithing and giving from first fruits in thanksgiving to the Lord are. And maybe as a source of initial seed money for new ministry to the unchurched, we need to look at releasing some of the treasure that we have locked up in church buildings to do the Lord’s work.

I just watched the 25th Anniversary Concert of Les Misérables and was struck again by the bishop’s gift of the candlesticks to Jean Valjean, saying “I have bought your soul for God.” I know it’s just a story, but in the story, Jean Valjean’s story was changed by the conversion of the church’s silver. Maybe it’s time to repurpose our beloved church buildings to do more than just serve worshipers once or twice a week and to repurpose our giving to the church to do more than just support the spirituality of those already within our communities.

Nicolosi closed his reflection with:

“Churches that can rethink their assumptions of ministry, reformulate their mission strategy and re-examine their way of doing church are more likely to revive and renew than the ones that do not. These “missional” churches will lead us into the future–confident and resilient, open and affirming, life-giving and liberating, with a compelling gospel message that centers on Jesus combined with flexible methods of ministry.”

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Singapore Observations

The Singapore Flyer (like the London Eye), at 165 meters,
is the world's largest observation wheel.
Singapore - Asia's business and shipping nexus
My husband and I visited Singapore in September, 2011. This was our first, and probably our last, visit to Singapore. We had always wanted to visit Singapore, because it is the stuff that dreams and great architecture are made of. Here are some observations about Singapore, not in any particular order.

That's the Hop-On, Hop-Off bus
we took to get a sense of Singapore
It is really hot and humid in Singapore compared to our home in the Mile High Rocky Mountains. Even in relatively “good” Singaporean weather, we sweated our brains out everywhere we walked. Of course, it doesn’t help that I’m overweight and out-of-shape by Singaporean or any standards. In a week, I only viewed two or three overweight Singaporeans in this island city-state.

Food Republic at Suntec Convention & Exhibition Centre
Choosing ingredients for the chef to make your soup dish
Chef preparing dish from ingredients chosen by the diner
Prepared dishes at a food stall
Food Opera at the Ion Mall where
there are chandeliers and sculptures
The “hawker” courts (aka food courts) are bits of heaven on earth, especially the upscale ones like Food Republic and Food Opera. For around five Singapore dollars (less than four U.S. dollars), you can get what we call plate lunches in Hawaii that abound with wonderful Asian food of every ethnicity and variety. And the made-to-order iced tea at Food Opera was a true delight, made by a barrista who was handling actual brewing pots and not a complicated cappuccino machine.

The view from the Marriott on Orchard Road where we stayed.
The swimming pool on the left is atop the Ion Mall.
The malls, from glistening marble, glass and stainless steel new ones, to older, funkier ones with roll-down metal doors on each storefront, all devoted considerable floor space to multiple escalators, although not so to benches or other resting places for weary shoppers. Shoppers are never forced to walk to either end of the mall in order to make their way up or down the many-layered malls, often four stories below ground and at least another four stories above. In fact, at the Ion Mall, you could see multiple escalators while riding one up or down. Obviously, with the multitude of malls, there is no lack of entrepreneurial fervor or designer chic profit. The number of jewelry stores with significant inventory both in number and quality of pieces is astounding, as is the number of hair and nail salons in all the malls, especially the more “local” ones that don’t specialize in designer goods.

Inside Tang Plaza, one of the local malls
Singapore is Asian through and through. In many venues, such as malls, the subway and the country’s two casinos, I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of non-Asians, one of them being my husband. The only exception to this was in our hotel, the Singapore Marriott, which had over half its guests being non-Asian, many from Australia. For me, I felt “at home.” I was surrounded not only by people who look like me (except for my height, weight and graying hair), but who also speak Cantonese and English both, so that I felt at home regardless of which language was being spoken by the people around me. Incidentally, it was interesting to note that the English spoken in Singapore is more akin to American English than British English.

A storefront Buddhist worship space in Chinatown
View from Chinatown in a city of contrasts -- pagoda roofs
and high rise public housing
All the women dye their hair. I did not see a single Singaporean woman with gray or white hair. I did see some older ladies with white roots, indicating that they were overdue for a touch-up. So, I was odd not only because of my relative size, but also because I have allowed myself to go gray, although after I noticed this phenomenon, I admit that I did then feel self-conscious.

The shoe stores sell women’s shoes to about an American size 8 from what I could gather when viewing a size comparison chart in one shop. So, I quickly stopped looking to replace a pair of sandals that snapped a strap, thankfully in my hotel room and not while being worn out on the street. I observed many Singaporean women fashionably attired in high heels and dark hose, a look that I failed to carry off even in my younger, more fashionable days, given my penchant for red and purple colored hose.

Singapore is an incredibly clean city-state, and Singaporeans appear to be really careful rules-followers. The signs say, “No eating, drinking, smoking, gum chewing,” and you don’t see any eating, drinking, smoking or gum chewing in public places and especially on the subway. This observation led us to notice that we had not seen a single dog or cat in our week there. We had to Google "pets in Singapore" to learn that there are very strict rules about owning pets in Singapore and where they’re allowed to be.

Herb waiting for our subway train
In a week’s time, we only saw uniformed police officers once, and that was in the subway station underneath the governor’s residence. There was a group of six or eight uniformed officers who had two bomb-sniffing or contraband-sniffing German Shepherds under their control. I tried to take a photo of them with my phone and was warned off by one of the officers. Needless to say, I complied quickly and put my phone into my pants pocket.

Along with not seeing uniformed police, we also saw a great casualness with which people handled their personal belongings in public places such as the hawker (food) courts. It was apparently normal for women to put their purses and packages down at a table and choose a food stall to place their order. No one seemed to worry that someone would walk away with someone else’s belongings. It made us wonder about the presence of un-uniformed police, security cameras and other crime deterrents. We noted that low crime is not the same as no crime.

We were told, and had read, that the unemployment rate in Singapore is very low (2%) and many workers are imported from Indonesia and the Philippines. The notion of adequate staffing in shops, restaurants, malls and hotels is considerably different from what we’re used to in the United States. Here, we have to compete for the attention of scarce retail workers, while, in contrast, we noticed a surfeit of retail workers, hotel wait, maid and maintenance staff, and restaurant servers in Singapore. We also noticed people stationed at some of the escalators to assist people off in the large upscale malls.

There is a lottery system to become eligible to buy a private auto, and the almost 100% license fee (tax) to own a private auto means that only the economically well-off can afford one. To alleviate rush hour congestion, the downtown city streets have overhead electronic signs and toll systems that operate during rush hour, and apparently, all vehicles are equipped with transponders to pay those tolls. The public transportation system is extensive with buses and subways arriving constantly. Taxis are another matter, as we discovered the one night we went to a performance at the Esplanade and then waited over an hour in a taxi queue until we finally got one to take us back to our hotel. Flagging one on the street would have been impossible, as we learned from stories told by other tourists.

The Marina Bay Sands Resort seen from street level --
three 55-storey towers joined by a one hectare roof sky park 
The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands Mall
We visited the two casinos in Singapore, both opened in early 2010, and observed some noticeable differences from American Las Vegas-type casinos. Singapore residents must pay an entry fee of 100 Singapore dollars each visit or an annual fee of 2,000 Singapore dollars, while foreign visitors with passports enter for free. Those entry fees don’t seem to deter Singaporeans from gambling though, and we saw only a handful of non-Asians in either casino. You can buy an alcoholic beverage in the bars and restaurants, but inside the casino, you can only get tea, water or soft drinks. There were some table games that were foreign to us, appearing to be Asian card games.

Evening at The Forum gathering and shopping area
on Sentosa Island

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Friends, Facebook and All That Jazz

I had two great conversations with women friends yesterday—a cousin-in-law and my husband’s best friend’s wife. Afterwards, I wondered to myself, why don’t I do this more often, because such conversations so feed my soul and connect me to the human family.

The first convo was a Facebook chat, both of us typing furiously to share our thoughts. The second was a conventional telephone conversation, not FaceTime or Skype. I offer my heartfelt thanks to these women for their friendship. May their days be richly blessed with fulfillment, happiness and joy, and may their nights be peaceful, soft and fanciful.

On the Myers-Briggs Typology, my indicators are ENTP (extroversion-intuition-thinking-perception). I have found, though, as I have grown older, my counter-balancing introversion is coming out, and I need a lot more “down” time to recover from time spent with others. That might also be a result of how much more I invest myself in others than when I was younger, how much more willing I am to be present to another’s joys and pains and not turn away, but rather, to engage.

I think that for some of us lucky ones, as we grow older, we also gather strength from the journey, and that strength empowers a vast empathy and compassion that we lacked in our youth. I don’t know about you, but my youth was consumed with ego and financial survival, trying to gain a stake in the larger society where I was often an outsider and marginalized.

All the electronic media and social networking tools definitely are making an impact on my psyche and my habits.

I carry an iPhone – everywhere, usually in my pants pocket, so that I have it even in the bathroom, where I play Words with Friends. I have whittled my computers down to a MacBook Pro laptop and am totally weaned – forever – from any Windows-based computer of my own. I have eschewed my husband’s offer of a hand-me-down iPad, because I’m at the limit of my capacity to consume personal technology. A hand-me-down iPod lies unused on the coffee table, since my iPhone and laptop contain all my music. Soon, the laptop, through the Kindle app, will also contain all my books.

My Web browser opens automatically to Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, my blog, AOL, and iGoogle. I’ve got another dozen or so Web pages bookmarked for quick access and view my checking accounts online daily. I haven’t balanced a checkbook in decades, says this former banker. I only read news online via online newspapers, news journals and news compilers. I subscribe to numerous news and cause email subscriptions, and I really value the Facebook posts that lead me to articles I wouldn’t otherwise find on my own. I confess that I don’t view nearly as many videos online as my Facebook Friends post, because I’m impatient, preferring to read the story rather than to view it.

I find Facebook, which is my main social networking arena, to be at once both intimate and offputting. I remember “Short Circuit,” a 1986 film about an anthropomorphic robot named “Number 5,” who constantly demanded more input. I feel like Number 5 when the news feed on Facebook slows down like it usually does on Saturdays and Sundays. Many of my Facebook Friends are associated with the church, and those are the days when their attention turns to church activities like preparing sermons.

I know that I frustrate some of my Facebook Friends, because I leave my computer on all the time, except when I’m traveling with it. I’m often not at the computer even though Facebook says I’m online, when they ping me to chat. I especially apologize to my Facebook Friends from Africa who are awake when I’m asleep and away from my computer.

Facebook raises conundrums for me. Can one be voyeuristic when others are being exhibitionistic? I admit to viewing the Info and Walls pages of Friends of Friends sometimes out of curiosity, especially if I have heard stories of those Friends of Friends from my Friends.

I think that it’s possible to develop a sense of the subtleties of what people are feeling when they post on Facebook, in the same way that experienced drivers can sense what the driver in front of them is going to do without any overt signals being given. So, I have claimed Facebook as my mission field in the sense that I chat with many young people on Facebook in the middle of the night about life, love, despair and all that jazz. These young people inspire me with their passions, dreams and complex lives. They compel me to continue my activism about things that matter.

What a glorious time to be alive! Welcome, 2012! Bring it on!