Friday, November 24, 2006

The First Church of My Stuff

Luke 12:15-21 (New International Version)

Then he said to them, "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions."

16And he told them this parable: "The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop.
17He thought to himself, 'What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.'

18"Then he said, 'This is what I'll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I'll say to myself, "You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry." '

20"But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?'

21"This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God." __________________________________________________________________

In the course of walking through work and life I've taken note of people within our society who seem to be predisposed with the accumulation of "stuff". I'm guessing that it's this segment of the population who keep those cable home shopping channels in business, and who are lined up well before dawn to get into the stores the mornings of big sales, like the ones this morning. In the course of work I encounter the occasional distraught person going through a breakup exclaiming that they "need the cops here now because (he/she) won't let me get my stuff".

I have jokingly said that someone overly concerned with their material wealth was a member of the "First Church of My Stuff". This came from a lesson I heard at Young Life camp as a teenager, when the leader admonished us about the worship of worldly things. If you care more about music than anything else, then music is your church, the same with money, celebrity, sports, and so on.

In all honesty we have to look at each other and confess that we've all been devotees, in varying degrees, of the First Church of My Stuff. A significant segment of our economy is dependent upon us being obedient and penitent, and rush to services on the denomination's high holy day, "Black Friday", the day after Thanksgiving.

In keeping with the biblical advice that I led off with, I believe that the dichotomy of being both a Christian and a consumer is balanced in direct proportion to the importance that $249 laptop or 5-11 AM doorbuster special plays in your overall existence, and how much is enough to satisfy you. I often wonder what the economic impact would be if the majority of people in this country who call themselves Christians started accumulating and distributing wealth in the manner that scripture advises. What would happen to some of the industries that hinge themselves on the next big thing, and making sure we're all lined up to get it?

The video game industry, AKA "The Drug with a Plug", is a good example. My son likes video games, and has put a lot of money into video game systems that promise more and more functionality for higher and higher prices. The concept of planned obsolescence, combined with the continued advances in technology, seems to be a benchmark of this industry.

The shameful display at many stores around the country last week over the
release of the Playstation 3 was a good example of the extremes that many will go to for the artificial realities that are by and large the attraction of many video games. Part of the blame has to be placed on Sony for going ahead with the release despite having proportionally so few units available, feeding the hype machine and speculation in gray markets such as eBay. Because of production problems, Sony delayed the European release until next March. Social responsibility should have dictated some healthier choices here as well.

The recent sermon series at the Vineyard on the seven letters of Revelation concluded this past weekend with a message that was timely not only in the sense of the upcoming season, but for our approach to everyday living. Pastor Chalane Coit deftly drew modern-day parallels to the admonition of St. John in Rev. 3:16-18:

16So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.

You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.

I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.

The key word is "lukewarm" - neither hot or cold - which Chalane likened to complacency, apathy, and mediocrity in everyday life, not just in one's struggle to put the pursuit of kingdom riches (spiritual wealth) over that of material wealth. I strongly recommend the online sermon and accompanying notes.

I hesitate when I write about these things because I don't behave perfectly. At times I don't set a great example. I make bad choices and lose my cool just like everyone else. I feel bad about it and try hard to stay on what I believe is the right path. I also believe that if I keep what I feel to myself, then no one else will have the potential to benefit from it. To quote Jean-Luc Picard, I've recently become aware that there are likely fewer days ahead than there are behind, and not only for me.

So I think that I will commit some extra time this holiday season in service to others. I've already started out pretty well, by taking some extra Thanksgiving dinner items over to the Homeless Shelter last night. When thinking about the balance between self-service and service to God through serving others, I'm reminded of Bob Dylan's lyric as much as anything else.

Maintaining an interest in the so-called secular output of our culture, instead of just one segment, helps me be aware of threats as well as opportunities for education, service, and enrichment.
Maybe that's one key facet that separates the true church in God's world from the First Church of My Stuff. As Captain Picard also said, what we leave behind is not as important as how we've lived.

I'm also thinking about friends and family in distant places, and hoping for healing and happiness now and into the future. I hope that you had a good Thanksgiving. Have a good weekend too.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Today I am Thankful For...

1. My wife not having any acute changes in the condition of her spine, which was a significant concern yesterday morning when she awoke with severe back pain of the kind she was experiencing before her cancer diagnosis last year. X-Rays yesterday afternoon showed no changes to the vertebrae in and around her surgery site, and as of last night she was feeling a little bit better than she was earlier in the day.

2. The love and caring of family, friends, and co-workers across town and across the country.
Not enough can be said, especially over the last few years, but more words don't do the feelings justice, so for those of you who I'm fortunate enough to be able to associate with in a positive way, you know who you are.

3. The promise of our children and the nurturing of their gifts and abilities, as evidenced by yet more accolades for the Orange and Black, the GJHS student newspaper. The staff and advisor Mark Newton continue to distinguish themselves, this time by winning the Newspaper Sweepstakes competition of the Colorado High School Press Association for Class 5A High Schools.

Additionally, the newest edition of the paper contains among other things a comprehensive discussion of school security issues. If you can grab a copy at the school or someplace else, check it all out. This group knows how to ply its' chosen trade. Well done, and keep it coming.

4. The freedoms inherent in our system of government, tempered by the responsibility to be an active participant in that government by taking the time to inform oneself on the issues, being proactive with our elected representatives, and voting.

One of those freedoms includes creative expression, as evidenced by the collective work of the late Robert Altman, one of my favorite, if not most admired film directors who passed away earlier this week. One of my fondest memories of the movies is going to the generic mall cinema outside Monaca, PA when I was 15 with my mother and brother to see Nashville. There were maybe about 75 people in the theater, and we were the only ones laughing our heads off. Maybe it hit too close home for some people, but for me it was a big funny slice of America in the 70's, and still is.

Altman's films didn't always work for me, but when they did they displayed an intelligence and ring of truth that came from sharp writing, multiple story lines, and overlapping dialogue that sounds like real conversation (what a concept, huh?). My favorites that are emblematic of what has come to be known as the "Altman Style" include M*A*S*H, Short Cuts, Ready-To-Wear, The Player, and his last film, A Prairie Home Companion. His sendup of 70's nuptials, A Wedding, starred Carol Burnett in her prime. It's on my short list of older movies to see, and hopefully it will be available soon as part of some type of "Altman Masterworks DVD Collection".

Altman could also make some weird, funny films as well. Someone uploaded
Brewster McCloud to YouTube in 10 segments. It is still as innovative and funny as when I first saw it as a teenager. I can see why Universal Music might be a bit peeved at this capability, though.

It was fitting that he got his honorary Oscar this year while he was alive, and when Crash won Best Picture. That film, along with Magnolia, are among some great examples of successful uses of ensemble casts and interweaving story lines by other filmmakers. Mr. Altman left a great life's work behind, and hopefully it will continue to be enjoyed extensively by future generations.

5. Finally, I'm thankful to you, for being willing and able to take the time to read this today. Enjoy your day of Thanksgiving with whomever is important to you. Tomorrow starts something else entirely.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Silent Key

Got back into town late last night. Earlier Saturday I was informed of the tragic and untimely death of Brian Gould, KB0MEP, who was killed this past Thursday in a traffic accident on his way home from work as a Paramedic for Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins.

I never met Brian personally, but through our hobby of radio monitoring we communicated and shared quite a bit. Brian was the editor and webmaster of the ScanColorado scanner frequency guide and website, which I helped to edit with western slope frequency information after I moved here in 1995. Related articles in Denver area media will probably do a lot more justice to his legacy than I could ever hope to.

As I type this, Brian's memorial service is getting underway in Fort Collins. Please remember Brian and his family in your thoughts and prayers today.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Your Inalienable Right to Watch Football

I'm in Pittsburgh through the end of the week, visiting my mother.

The article in yesterday's Sentinel regarding the Broncos game on Thanksgiving was interesting, but judging from the comments attached to the article and information available elsewhere, this article seemed to raise more questions than answers.

This is a big deal with football fans in the Grand Junction area. In following the 'growth' of our little media market over the years, the availability of Broncos games in any form has been kindling for the fire of controversy over the loss of a full-time Denver station over cable and translators in the GJ and Montrose areas.

Back in the late 90's, the loss of KUSA Channel 9 in favor of local startup KKCO deprived viewers of pre-season games and ancillary programming related to the Broncos, generating media coverage and a public outcry that eventually got all the players talking, including AT&T Cable, now Bresnan Communications. Eventually an arrangement was reached to air the pre-season games, but that arrangement has been sporadic as the network for Broncos games changed, and the NFL itself broadened the scope of its' own cable channel.

This year is the first that NFL Network will be airing games independent of an over-the-air broadcast network, or a basic cable channel like ESPN. In the Grand Junction area, NFL Network is only available on the Digital Cable 'tier' of Bresnan's service, which in and of itself is controversial because only a fraction of local subscribers choose to pay extra for this service.

What people have taken for granted, that being access to a Broncos game on TV without having to pay a premium of some sort or subscribe to a special service, is now threatened.
Welcome to the future of information and entertainment, especially if Net Neutrality becomes a thing of the past, and municipal cable franchises are also swept aside.

In another interesting story, Broadcasting and Cable also reported yesterday that NFL Network is suing Comcast Cable for assigning their programming to a digital tier instead of the more widely-viewed basic or expanded basic service. The network is demanding a pretty high per-subscriber fee from the cable company for its' programming, and like other cable operators in the Northeast there is an ongoing battle between them and popular networks such as Fox News and ESPN to keep fees down.

The comments in the Sentinel article have information regarding local phone numbers for Bresnan that will circumvent the call center in Billings. From a consumer vantage point with the above information in hand, it seems that Bresnan does have a lot of free space right now in the basic and expanded basic channel lineup, especially after shifting Starz and Encore to the digital tier, to accommodate the NFL Network if consumer demand requires it.

Channels 2, 14, 47, 48, and 62 are currently vacant, showing the same local information slides. While one of those channels will likely be another PEG (Public, Educational, Government access) channel (like Mesa County's Channel 12) whenever the city gets around to asking for it, one wonders what is up Bresnan's sleeve for the rest of them.

Now is probably a good time to ask questions, make suggestions, and insist on a response that is beneficial to local TV consumers. As for me, I'll be watching the Steelers this weekend. Now if only they played a little better...

Take care.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Corralling the "OK's"

Wednesday night I attended the Parent Advisory Meeting at Grand Junction High School, most of which dealt with school safety.

The bulk of this presentation was very interesting and informative, dealing with the school's new PBS (Positive Behavior Support) program, as well as the PRIDE initiative, which consists of, according to the GJHS Student Handbook:

Personal Responsibility-Taking ownership of your actions and their outcomes.
Respect-Demonstrate positive behavior towards yourself and others.
Integrity-Always doing the right thing, even when no one is looking.
Determination-Honest commitment to improve yourself, your school and relationships with others.
Empathy-Seeing and accepting others' situations, feelings, motives and showing compassion for others.

These are noble and appropriate goals for a student population, even if the acronym is somewhat unfortunate. I passed along to the group the wisecrack my son relayed to me about Pride being one of the seven deadly sins. I think I now know how John Kerry felt last week.

There was also a discussion about lockdown and other plans established to deal with extraordinary emergencies on campus. One of the Assistant Principals stated a big challenge for administrators was assuring that new staff were properly oriented as to their responsibilities in lockdown and other emergency situations. I inquired about what the GJHS staff is instructed to do when urgent or emergency situations occur day-to-day. I prefaced my question with the assertion that if staff isn't responding in a consistent manner to situations that occur on a daily basis, it's likely that the response will be even more inconsistent when a critical incident occurs.

I admit that I was trying to pin the Principal down to something consistent, but he wasn't having any of it. He wanted to say that it was dependent on the nature of the emergency, and that he would call 9-1-1 "slash" the School Resource Officer that the school was fortunate enough to have.

I stated that I thought the Principal's answer was too ambiguous and that only with clear direction as to how to respond to emergencies would a consistent, reliable approach be achieved. It was then that an Assistant Principal pointedly stated that he didn't understand my question.
I then went back to his earlier statement about difficulty orienting new people in critical procedures, and that if there wasn't consistency in everyday procedures how could one expect consistency in really nasty situations? I then went right to the point I was trying to get to in a logical manner (without much success): that there is too much effort in school safety planning placed on managing the message instead of just managing the incident.

At that point this Assistant Principal became somewhat indignant, stating that this statement was incorrect as far as he was concerned, and that he took offense to my statement, and that he and several other administrators also had kids at GJHS

My response to this? "OK", followed by "Thank you for your candor".

I now understand how Johnnie Walker might have felt after I calmly passed along my concerns about the minor league pro wrestling card at GJHS Saturday night. I got an "OK" from him, too.

The Assistant Principal was successful in deflecting the discussion away from the topic at hand by becoming defensive, and taking the route of personal indignation over reasonable discourse. "Shields Up, Captain." I could have tried to press on, but I realized that meaningful progress wasn't going to happen there. I made my point. I'm sticking to it. I'm not going away.

Eventually we will all have to put away our "OK's", work out our differences, and find out what are reasonable expectations for staff, students, and parents alike. Unfortunately, I feel that there is little room for ambiguity when it comes to school personnel responding to unusual occurrences that have, or may escalate to, an imminent threat to life, limb, or property.
More discussion will be needed, hopefully soon.

As far as PBS and PRIDE go, I'm hopeful for their success, so long as the expectations and interventions associated with the desired behaviors do not interfere with a student's First Amendment rights, as affirmed by the Supreme Court during another unpopular war.

Have a great weekend.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Johnnie Walker, red?

"If you can't be in athletics, at least be an athletic supporter."

- Eve Arden (as Principal McGee) in Grease

It's after midnight, technically the morning after the elections, and between watching the last few returns come in online I thought I'd pass along a few thoughts before turning in. I'm not one for instant analysis, especially when it comes to politics, and besides I have to teach a class all day tomorrow.

A couple of weeks ago I was walking through the halls of Grand Junction High attending Parent-Teacher conferences when my attention was drawn by numerous posters advertising a professional wrestling card slated for the GJHS gymnasium this coming Saturday. It seems that this event, sponsored by the GJHS Athletic Department and a couple of local businesses, will feature the "AWA" championship bout between someone whose name now escapes me and an overly made-up chap named "The Warlord". The undercard is also impressive, featuring the always entertaining (?) midget wrestling.

I used to watch this stuff when I was little, and when it wasn't so ridiculous. Studio Wrestling on Channel 11 in Pittsburgh was the big thing in the 60's. I would always root for Bruno Sammartino, Jumpin' Johnny DeFazio and Baron Scicluna. These guys were part of the World Wide Wrestling Federation, now the more appropriately-named WWE (emphasis on Entertainment). Then I grew up and my tastes changed, and I discovered mainstream sports like hockey. Let's Go Pens!

There were posters plastered seemingly everywhere in the school. They had TV commercials on at least one local station, in one instance sandwiched between a 527 political ad and a Bresnan commercial for another wrestling pay-per-view "event". I had a hard time determining which was worse for a minute. I looked all over the GJHS website, and couldn't find a single reference to the event. The Orange and Black, true to their excellent journalistic roots, did list it on their events calendar.

Eventually I decided to call the school and ask about what possessed them to attach their name to an undertaking like this. I was transferred to Johnnie Walker, the Athletic Director, also listed on Saturday's card as a "special guest referee". I asked Mr. Walker if he had received any concerns from parents or other citizens regarding the sponsorship of an event that is viewed by many as not really an athletic event, and by even more as staged or "fake". He said I was the first one. I then went on to express my concerns about these perceptions, and whether or not sponsoring an event like this one was becoming of a publicly-funded educational institution.

His response? "OK".

There are a few things that I have to recognize beyond my own assumptions and biases.
First, there is a market for this sort of thing, otherwise they wouldn't bother. Second, there are people who take this stuff seriously, my guess the monster truck rally set and Spike TV fans. Third, there must be some fiduciary benefit to the school for them to host and sponsor the event. This reminds me of the saying about how nice it would be if schools got all the money they needed, and the Air Force had to have a bake sale to buy a bomber.

For about 5 years in the 80's, I was the PA announcer for my high school's varsity football and basketball games, so I understand the need for effective marketing of the "product" that is scholastic athletics. The pride that these types of activities instills in a community can be a very positive (and negative) influence, witness Friday Night Lights.

I still enjoy high school football a lot, especially knowing kids my son grew up with actually participating. The honesty of the competition, the reinforcement of sportsmanship and decorum regardless of what side of the outcome you're on, the lesson that regardless of who wins and loses there is still a rich life to lead off of the field. These to me are the true lessons of sport.

I don't see these types of lessons coming out of a minor-league pro wrestling event, which from my experience serves more as sweaty soap opera than a genuine display of athletic prowess.
What lessons for today's high school student-athlete will come out of this display? Money talks? Speak softly but carry a big metal folding chair? Most of life's problems can be solved by a no-holds-barred, locked-cage match? When you fail, change your name and put on a mask?

I feel embarrassed for the school in their sponsorship of this event, but I hope that the weekend is a success for the sake of whatever benefit the school stands to reap for their participation.
I hope that in the future the school will look to different avenues for athletic "entertainment" that will be of mutual benefit to school and attendee alike. Back east in the 80's they used to resort to Donkey Basketball, but now that is no longer politically correct and is perceived by many as a liability risk. Better to let the "little people" have at it, I suppose.

One other important item that is on the GJHS website is tonight at 6:30 PM in the GJHS Library. This Parent Advisory Meeting will focus on the topic of school safety, and appears to include a panel discussion. It's unknown if audience participation will be encouraged/allowed.
See you there.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

"Only a Sith Deals in Absolutes."

My wife and I had an enjoyable couple of days in a cabin on Grand Mesa last weekend. She was cold at times, and had some cramping and pain that was tough on her, but for the most part it was nice to get away with just the forest, a lake, her company, and time to relax and get some reading done. The Spruce Lodge is a very nice place. End of shameless plug.

of this reading was the cover story of this month's issue of Wired magazine, titled "The New Atheism". The article was intriguing and well-written, more confirmation for me that Wired is one of the most interesting publications out there, an Omni for the 21st Century.

The article was a good analysis of the singular belief of those involved in the "movement".
I agreed with the author that the approach by Sam Harris and others was "extremism in opposition to extremism", leaving most of us in the middle. As for those of us languishing there, trying to reason the challenges of modern living with the doctrine, philosophy, and sacred writings of the past, another British atheist had this to say:

"Moderates give a power base to extremists...A lot of Catholics use condoms, a lot of Catholics are divorced, and a lot don't have a particular opinion about whether you are homosexual. But when the Pope stands up and says, 'This is what Catholics believe,' he still gets credit for speaking for more than a billion people."

This approach reminded me of the quote in the title of this post, which is often cited as an example of the misguided nature of seeing things in just black and white terms. Like most things, however, you need to look closer to really see the meaning behind it. In this case, the line before this one in Star Wars III was "If you're not with me, then you're my enemy".

These quotes have been debated ad nauseum in Star Wars fan sites and elsewhere, many trying to draw comparisons to the current political climate, particularly with regard to Iraq. While as philosophy and pop culture they may be somewhat contradictory, they do illustrate the seeming lack of discourse and mutual understanding that has popped up in current events, and not just because it's election season.

Because I'm married to someone born with a significant hearing loss, I've paid a lot of attention to issues in the news that bring the deaf community to the forefront of mainstream debate. The recent protests at Gallaudet University over the appointment of a successor to it's first deaf President is such a time, and it was disappointing to watch the outcome. After months of blockades, building invasions, and much emoting, the school's trustees withdrew their nomination of Jane Fernandes to succeed I. King Jordan as Gallaudet's President.

I've been to Gallaudet, which sits behind some high walls and security gates in a not-so-attractive part of Washington D.C.. The walls made it easy for the protesters to set up tents and limit access, but are also a metaphor for the nature of most of those who populate and control the institution. One of the benchmarks of the protest, or at least the one that Mrs. Fernandes focused on, was her having been taught to speak at an early age (like my wife was), and not learning American Sign Language, the preferred method of communication at Gallaudet and those who identify with the so-called Deaf Culture, until she was 23.

While Ms. Fernandes' leadership skills were also called into question as the bulk of faculty and students forcefully declared their lack of confidence in her, the actions of the Gallaudet community are illustrative of a largely cloistered group of people who are resistant to the changes inherent in society, especially one where advances in technology, education, and awareness have integrated many deaf and hearing-impaired persons into the workplace and elsewhere as vital, involved and included members of 'mainstream' society.

Commentary in the Washington Post last week and in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle illustrate what many of us who are part of or close to the deaf and hearing-impaired community know all too well; that there are those who prefer the community of the Deaf to the community at large, and will forcefully defend that community against growth, choice, inclusion, and common sense.

As mainstream society continues to grow to include the "differently abled" as members of that society with all of the implied rights and responsibilities, those who cloister themselves behind ideological walls against improvements in oral education and technology such as Cochlear Implants will find themselves more isolated and less included. A word of advice; celebrate your differences, but don't use them as weapons against an increasingly diverse world. My prayers are with you for understanding and peace.

You might have noticed that several of the protagonists of the New Atheist movement, as well as the Gallaudet protests, come from within the academic community in our country and elsewhere. While others might be quick to draw comparisons to Ward Churchill, you have to look closer when taking these ideas in.

One such example of an idea coming from academia that is worth reading is a paper written by Jon Peha, a professor in Electrical Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie-Mellon (a shameless plug for Pittsburgh here, especially with the game this weekend).

Mr. Peha made a presentation to the New America Foundation last week on the future of public safety communications systems. A lot of his ideas run counter to the way that these systems have been planned and administered for many, many years. He basically debunked a lot of the recent efforts at improving public safety systems, and a lot of the assumptions that I and others like me have lived by for all of our careers.

Reading his paper set my gut a-churning, but was interesting and challenging at the same time. This dichotomy tells me that this is something I need to pay attention to, regardless of how uncomfortable it makes me or how much more it may complicate my work. Unlike the students at Gallaudet, I'm dedicated to analyzing change, adapting to it where necessary, resisting it when I have to, and making the best of it for the greatest number of people.

I'm forwarding Professor Peha's paper to many of my colleagues, as well as the leadership of our trade organizations, looking for comment and direction. In the meantime, many of his ideas will undoubtedly help to shape the future of public safety communications in this area and elsewhere.

It's time to get going, lots to do tomorrow. I have to contact some radio vendors, take Jan to the doctor, and vote. Have a great weekend.