Friday, December 20, 2013

Do-It-Yourself Holy Ground--Here and Now

I got to Rob Bell's latest New Age Parable Challenge after he'd already posted "the answer." But I stopped myself from reading the post with the answer(s). You're just going to have to take my word on that. I went back to the parable(s) Bell had posed as a challenge for his readers' interpretation. [And I invite you to play along with me and take the challenge yourself before you read any further and see our answers.] I slept on it. Nothing came to me by this morning (maybe the bed was too comfortable?) so I read it aloud to Dear Husband (DH).
Not Larry, but DH and Sam, oblivious to the
possibility that Dublin airport may be Holy Ground

But as I was reading, The Answer came to me: Bell had told three stories about amazing real love, lost and recovered, that could have been unfolding at the baggage claim area of an airport (while you wait with Clueless Larry for an aunt and uncle from Sarasota). You, standing with Larry, think you may be witnessing the kind of love many of us are lucky enough to experience just once or twice in our lives--the sometimes-bittersweet love made only more poignant for all the work (emotional, physical, artistic, charitable...) that we and others did, all the obstacles that were overcome, to get to that miraculous place.

Yes, I was sure of it. Bell had given us three mini-parables about love, loss, and the heavenly joy of recovered treasure. In this case--and maybe every great case--the recovered treasure is love. Love Wins, as they say.

So in response to the first part of Bell's challenge, which was replying to our clueless friend Larry, who does not appreciate the miracles unfolding before him,  I would say: "Larry, the Kingdom of God is like this baggage claim area."

I'm not good at citing chapter and verse, but -- in response to the second part of Bell's challenge, guessing what part of the Bible this parable is inspired by, I would say: "This alludes to Jesus' three 'lost' parables describing the Kingdom of God." The great thing about Bell's parables is that they're not about Pie-in-the-Sky-when-we-Die Heaven, but rather describe heavenly possibilities right here, right now, in 2013--almost 2014--if we only have eyes to see it, ears to hear it, hearts to find it.

The parable brought DH to completely different places. The first was reflecting on a time when he was flying out to meet his late wife (who had been working for the U.N. in Kosovo) in what had very suddenly become a war zone in Eastern Europe. Not sure he'd make it back alive to see the 18?-year old son he and his wife had left at home in the UK, he wrote a letter with all the things he meant to tell son-Rob about how he loved him. When both DH and his wife survived, he wondered why he hadn't realized that every day is just such an opportunity to tell others how we love them.

But DH knew this was a very personal response to Bell's challenge. From there he stepped back a bit and thought about how, all too often, (especially when it comes to religion?) we try to strong-arm other people into seeing one particular, narrow view, namely OURS--rather than just opening a skylight and inviting people to identify their own bit of heaven (gratuitous Woodstock reference).

And then DH said how moved he'd been by something I'd emailed him -- a brilliant exchange from my old church's seasonal "Twittering Through @dvent." Evidently my old (--sorry, Ron, I should say my FORMER) pastor had opened a skylight in his sermon last Sunday, and this week #PhuongBui, a member of the congregation, had made quite a heavenly sighting. You have to read that to appreciate it. DH and I were both gobsmacked, blown away by this sighting, and by the power of just opening the observatory roof and letting people have a look. That's what Rev Ron Foster had done, what Rob Bell had done... It's what parables do. Maybe what all would-be evangelists should aspire to.

So DH, being a Franciscan (St. Francis evidently having been misquoted on advice to use words only as a last resort in preaching the gospel) fills in the blank in Rob Bell's challenge thus: "Larry, let me buy you a coffee." Presumably this invitation will also include your aunt and uncle. Who knows what little bits of heaven will come upon you all in that conversation.

And the bit of the Bible that DH concluded Bell was drawing on follows the parable of the sower and the many types of ground/ears that seed (or The Word / enlightenment from God) falls upon. Back in Jesus' day, when they used broadcast sowing of seed, some landed amidst weeds, some on rock, some in the mouths of varmint. Some gets lost to Larry's preoccupation with air dryers.

But some seed lands on good soil/receptive listeners. Phuong Bui hears Ron Foster's message, sees the generosity of the person working on the cash register, and is moved to pay the last bit on the grocery bill for a woman who can't cover it. But I digress. DH, struck by Larry's obliviousness and the fact that this is a parable challenge, responded to Bell's Bible citation quiz with Matthew13:10-17:
"10 And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables?
. . .
"17 For verily I say unto you, That many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them"
So what was the "real" answer -- at least the one Bell claims he had in mind? Bell says respondent sethbthomas got it right:
You look at [Larry] and say - 'That isn’t just two people embracing. That is two people realizing life will never be the same again.' This is based off the story of Jacob Genesis 28? Jacob falls asleep using a rock for a pillow (Serta, if you’re reading this, ditch the memory foam - nothing says good night’s rest like stone), had a crazy dream with angels climbing a ladder, and God said 'Dude, the ground you're on is yours” Jacob is given insight and was made aware that surely, God was in that place
Holy Ground in Aller? Sunset over
the Levels,  Dec. 19, 2013
[Choristers may now suddenly hanker for the Gaither classic, "Standing on Holy Ground..." or one of my favorite bits of spiritual/gospel, "We are climbing Jacob's Ladder".]

We're just going to have to trust Bell when he says he really did have this answer in mind when he wrote the parable. This despite abundant clues that Bell is an imp, full of playful fun, laughter, and sly humor. I wouldn't put it past him to toss out a parable with no rational, logical answer in mind --  just a feeling that there was some kinda holiness in these seeds he was broadcasting -- and faith they would hit some good soil among his online congregation.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Eulogy for Koz

I wrote this in 2001, in the week before my husband's memorial service. I gave it to my pastor, #Ron Foster, to use in preparing the eulogy that he gave in church, complete with a video clip from Ferris Bueller's Day off. Sam and I attended the service with our Siberian husky, Voi. Probably not the most dignified memorial service ever, what with kids running around, a dog sitting quietly in front of one pew, and my singing along with Twist and Shout. But maybe Koz would have wanted it that way. Besides, I didn't actually have much control at the time. It felt like an out-of-body experience.

Michael Thomas Kozlowski
Apr. 10, 1953 - Dec. 31, 2000
We come here today to mourn the untimely loss of a dear friend, husband, father, brother, relative, and fellow geek. But more importantly, we come to celebrate a life lived to the fullest by a just and loving man. 

Who was  Koz? 

Koz called himself the Big Bear. He was not a ferocious bear—just a giant Teddy bear. He had a generous, childlike spirit, a curious mind, a loving heart, a winning sense of humor, but above all, a vast zest for life.

Koz could be compared to two movie characters. He was in many ways a grown-up version of Ferris Bueller, and a male, geek version of Babbette from the film “Babbette’s Feast.”

Like Ferris Bueller, Koz was a bit of a prankster, but his little tricks were always meant to help and delight his friends and family. This year he hid rolls of pennies in a package of sox for Sam at Christmas. After Celia complained repeatedly about his pulling the sheets out from the bottom of the bed at night, he pulled every summer camper’s favorite prank -- he short-sheeted Celia’s side of the bed.

Like Ferris Bueller, Koz was charismatic, lucky, and lovable—he made you want to join his parade and dance and sing to Danke Shoen or Twist and Shout. And like Ferris Bueller, Koz believed there was no problem that couldn’t be tackled with a creative technological fix—a new gizmo, a program, some software, a re-wiring. When his beloved Westfalia van was in peril of failing inspection because the
Koz's Westphalia van with Dave, above,
and Sam playing computer games on a
trip to Maine

defroster didn’t work, Celia jokingly suggested installing a hair drier in it. An hour and a half later, the fan and heater had been removed from a spare hair drier, the electricity converted from AC to DC, the unit inserted into the van’s air system and connected to the fan switch. The soft hum and small amount of air the jerry-rigged thing produced were just enough to get the van through inspection.

When Celia proved unable to remember to close the cupboard doors, he installed light-sensing crickets that chirped until the doors were shut. But surely what Koz most shared with Ferris was his pure enjoyment of life.

Babbett in the 1987 film “Babbette’s Feast” was a cook in a sad, aging Danish village. When she wins 10,000 francs in the lottery, she spends the entire sum on an astonishingly sumptuous feast that she lovingly prepares for her conservative employers and their spartan Lutheran neighbors. 

Like Babbette, Koz loved good food and cooking. He saw his role in life not as the center of attention, not as the boss, but as the one who prepared the feast that brought people together, gave them joy, and catalyzed priceless interactions among them. He made a creative, loving environment for friends and family; whether through his food,
Koz in the Kitchen, many
years before I met him
his love, his nurturing, or his technical know-how, Koz laid the feast that brought people together to work, laugh, grow, and enjoy life.

Early years—The making of a geek

Born on April 10, 1953, Koz grew up in Hammond, Indiana.  As soon as he could count change, he worked the cash register for candy sales in his parents’ grocery store. He had fond memories of early-morning weekend trips into Chicago’s Maxwell Street market with his Dad and brother, followed by visits to the Museum of Science and Industry. Later, when his parents, Lucille and Casimer, bought an A&W Root Beer stand, Koz worked every job, from making the root beer to dealing with difficult employees. Money from his work at the drive-in allowed Koz and his brother John the luxury of buying a van, which expanded their boundaries as well as their appeal and opportunities with young ladies…

Koz’s childhood pastimes included riding his bike, building things with his Erector set, experiments, and astronomy, He loved playing with model trains and learned about electricity by building electrical devices and sticking his fingers in a few live circuits. His love of these activities was cultivated and encouraged by his Dad’s tinkering and by his Uncle Frank Wegrzyn. At Hammond High School these interests channeled into working as a stage crewmember and participation in a Boy Scout program that gave him early programming experience on the main frames at Standard Oil. Tragedy struck the family in 1971 when Koz’s Dad Casimer died at age 53.

Koz attended Illinois Institute of Technology, but his fondest memories of the place had little to do with academics. Working with some fellow geeks,  Koz was able to find a way  of hooking into the transmitter for the campus radio station. For a number of weeks, he and his friends pre-recorded the “IIT Underground”—a program of music and irreverence that went on the air after the regular station’s midnight sign-off. The pranksters were careful to make their pre-recorded broadcast sound “live” and made themselves conspicuous in public when the show was airing. The show earned a circle of late-night devotees and Koz and his friends were never caught.  Ultimately “IIT Underground” was blown off the air by the demands of studies and exams.


Shortly after leaving IIT, Koz began his first job in the computer world as a Computer Operator with Computer Science Corporation’s Infonet Operations. His connections to Infonet would continue until the day he died. He advanced at Infonet to Senior Tape Librarian, Customer Systems Representative, and then Manager for Technical Training. Koz particularly enjoyed this teaching job, as well as his next Infonet position as an International Support Manager. This position included extensive travel to the Far East and Europe.
Koz as a teacher & author of
Koz's Hitchiker's Guide to CSVS

In 1986, somewhere in the lost years of computer science that lay between the pre-eminence of mainframe computing and the dawning of the internet, Koz was laid off at Infonet. Not one to waste time worrying about his unemployment, Koz sat down with a map and asked himself where in the world he would really like to work. His finger landed on Washington D.C. and the just-stirring Dulles high-tech corridor. He bought himself two plane tickets, two weeks apart and flew to this area to find a job.

The position he took was with NetExpress Communications. After lining up the job and a house, he flew back to his home in Manhattan Beach, Calif., packed his things and flew back here, as planned, to meet the moving van and settle into a large, peaceful house in a woods in Herndon, Va.

Koz worked just over a year for NetExpress, then spent a year as an independent consultant,,  doing database work and technical training for contractors to the U.S. Army and Department of Justice. By 1988 he was back at Infonet, although by now Infonet was no longer a part of Computer Sciences Corporation.  Koz worked six years at Infonet during this stint as an EDI Services Support Manager.

EDI is a data format that companies use to communicate with each other, and it was in this work that Koz met Mark North, a client with big dreams of creating a standard EDI and a company that would link up the far-flung parts of the container shipping industry—from giant steamship lines and rail-links to the tiniest container  depots around the world. Koz joined North’s new business, called Cedex Services International, in September, 1994 as Manager of Technical Operations.

CSI, with  headquarters in San Francisco, remained a small, close-knit  company devoted to its niche clientel. For a while, Koz closed up his Virginia house and tried living out in the San Francisco area, but decided it wasn’t for him, although he loved to visit the area. He moved back to Virginia and became an early “telecommuter” with frequent flights back to San Francisco.

In the fall of 1999, Koz helped Mark North sell CSI to Sterling Commerce Inc., a large computer services company based in Dublin, Ohio, just outside of Columbus.  Six months later Sterling itself was bought, by the giant SBC Communications, a conglomerate that grew up from Southwestern Bell. [Update: SBC became AT&T when they acquired that company in 2005. In 2010 AT&T Sold Sterling Communications to IBM. So, were Koz alive today, he might well be working for Big Blue.

Some of the key computers that handle the business communications Koz oversaw are still located at Infonet’s operations center  in El Segundo, Calif., and he continued to fly out there periodically to maintain and oversee his beloved Vaxes.

Koz as a Husband

Koz was a beloved husband. He married Sharla Cerra in 1987 and was embraced by Sharla’s large family, the Sitzmans. Koz and Sharla hosted a series of foreign exchange students in their home, with Koz serving as cook and tourguide. Sharla also brought her son Chris into Koz’s life. Although Sharla and  Koz would eventually get divorced, Koz always considered Chris to be his son. The two greeted each other with whole-body bearhugs last November when Koz attended a national awards ceremony where Chris was honored as the top political cartoonist for college daily newspapers. Koz  was enormously proud of Chris.

Late in  1998,  Koz answered an internet ad and met Celia. On their first date he wowed her by folding a spider out of a straw wrapper. The spider came to life when you sprinkled a drop of water on it and Celia knew this was one special guy. On April 11, 1999, he proposed, and on  June 5, many of you were right here for their wedding—perhaps the only Pokemon wedding ever.

As short as it was, Celia and Koz’s marriage was happy. Koz was only half-joking when he gave Celia the modest nickname “Chomolungma.” This is the Tibetan name for Mt. Everest and means “Goddess Mother of the World.” Whenever an e-mail from Koz arrived on Celia’s computer at work, Koz’s booming dramatic voice proclaimed, “Chomolungma, Goddess Mother of the World, I LOVE you!”
Celia and Koz clowning at Alcatraz

Beyond all his great sensitive new-age guy traits, like respectfulness, willingness to share the chores, commitment, devotion, and ability to express his love, Koz enriched Celia’s life with his infectious happiness. He was her rock and embraced the concept that love is not just the warm fuzzy feeling you get around someone you adore. Koz lived the idea that love is choosing to give of yourself to help another person grow.

Koz as a Dad

Koz was never a biological father, but he was a terrific Dad. This was especially important for Sam, the son he adopted last year, and for Chris. Koz was a natural at being a father—playful, funny, and dedicated to finding creative ways to help his kids learn, overcome problems, grow, and have fun.
Koz emerges from a leaf pile with Sam

Koz at a Renaissance Fayre with Sam,
Celia & Sarah & Adam, bottom right
Koz truly enjoyed being a Dad and his joyful parenting spilled over abundantly to any and all the kids around him—nieces and nephews and cousins and in-laws; to his neighbors Adam and Sarah; to the exchange students he hosted over the years; and most recently to Sam’s buddies, including Will, Daniel,  Samuel, and Alec.


Koz’s spirituality couldn’t be measured by his time spent in church, although he put in many hours as an altar boy in St. Kasimer’s Catholic church as he was growing up in Hammond, Indiana. But if the soul is the source of truth, honesty, courage, and vision, it is certain Koz had a deep well of spirit.

Koz’s God was not confined to traditional images and concepts. He found God in the stars—the mysteries and beauty of the universe; the elegance of mathematics and physics; in the love of friends and family. On Sunday mornings he cultivated his spirituality through walks with his beloved Siberian Husky, Voi, along the C&O canal, the Potomac River, or the parks in Virginia and Maryland.

Koz’s spiritual journey reflected his off-beat, curious take on life. He was always ready to entertain a new idea. A few weeks ago he was reading Scientific American in bed and came up with a new hypothesis, which he realized would be profoundly heretical to people with more traditional beliefs.

 What if, Koz speculated, Jesus was an early inter-galactic traveler sent to earth to elevate the understanding of then-primitive humans? The trinity, he suggested, might actually have been a way of trying to explain the three fundamental forces of nature—gravity, electromagnetic forces, and sub-atomic forces. Perhaps to make the alien visitor more acceptable to the humans, he was given human form through immaculate conception and birth. His many wise teachings sprang from the innate knowledge programmed into him by a more advanced civilization. As Koz spun out the analogy, he wound up at the conclusion that that Jesus’ crucifixion suggested that this intergalactic mission had gone very wrong and he was called home—somewhere in the heavens.

Passions and Dreams

In addition to his love of cooking, eating, and creating technology, Koz loved music—especially Wagnerian operas and Mahler. He loved travel and exploring new places;  he loved dogs, especially his big dog, Wotan. Koz was a football fan (Chicago Bears, naturally), and loved classic films. He was practically a life-long subscriber to Scientific American and Sky and Telescope. He loved science, especially physics and astronomy. He loved wood-working and building; long walks, gardening and beer-making. Two years ago he enjoyed playing a bit part (Sir Edward Ramsey) in a local theatre production of “The King and I.”

Koz died in the midst of many dreams and plans, large and small. A succinct summary of the big plans streamed across one of his computers as a screen-saver: Love Family (dot, dot, dot), Plan Renovation (dot, dot, dot), Travel (dot, dot, dot), Learn piano (dot, dot, dot), Continue education (dot, dot, dot). 

Koz was in the midst of building a system for launching backyard bottle rockets, made from soda bottles and fueled by air pressure and water. He was digging the foundation for a solar shed where he and Celia would start the seeds for next year’s garden. They were discussing plans for meeting with an architect and enlarging their house. Koz wanted a big kitchen where he could carry out his culinary dreams… and a great hearth, dining, and family room where he could again host a lively circle of friends, family, and kids.

Koz wanted to show the world to Sam. High atop Koz’s shoulders, Sammy had already seen San Francisco, Chicago, Greenfield Village in Michigan, and Pittsburgh—where they took in science museums and baseball. In November, as he’d done every year for a long time, Koz took the family up to Norwood for Thanksgiving with his brother John, sister-in-law Lynne,  niece Sarah, and nephew Matthew.
Koz with Sam and Voi

Koz, Celia, and Sam enjoyed venturing a few hours west, beyond the light pollution of the night skies to look at stars with Koz’s big Dobsonian telescope. They loved visiting the animal farm of Mike and Sue, and twice camped out at the western Maryland farm of Sam’s friend Sam Lichtman. They were hoping to buy a beautiful spot out in the countryside where Celia could set up a microscope to look at algae, and Sam and Koz could set up an observatory to look at the stars.

Koz also had dreams of learning to play the grand piano he had bought in Chicago in  the 1970s, then moved to California, Virginia, and now Maryland. He also wanted to continue his education. He took some courses at Northern Virginia, but was looking forward to more classes. His wild and crazy dream for retirement was to become a high school science teacher when he left the computer world.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Chronos, Chorus, Mindfulness

My Dear Husband thinks I'm obsessed with mindfulness -- or at least getting carried away with it as a panacea. Maybe. But today I personally discovered a new musical application of mindfulness, and read about research on yet another amazing payoff from the practice: controlling the passing of time.

First the research.

As described by Emily Nauman on UC Berkeley's "Greater Good" website, University of Kent researcher Robin Kramer and colleagues Ulrich Weger and Dinkar Sharma studied the effect of a single 10-minute mindfulness exercise on time perception.

The researchers trained students  to distinguish short (400 milliseconds) versus  long (1600 milliseconds) appearances of a shape on a computer screen. Participants then took a baseline test, estimating duration of appearance for a series of shapes presented to them.

Next, the participants were assigned to a control group or to an experimental group. The control group spent 10 minutes listening to an audiotape reading from The Hobbit. The experimental group listened to a 10 minute mindfulness exercise focusing attention on the breath.

The participants were then re-tested on duration of appearance for the series of shapes. The researchers found that participants who had done the mindfulness exercise rated the durations as being longer than they'd estimated on the baseline test. The control group showed no change in their estimates.

I haven't forked over the $36 to obtain a copy of the full research paper, so I have lots of questions about the study -- for example, how many participants were involved; whether assignment to the groups was random; whether the two groups differed in any important ways; and whether the difference seen between the groups on the second test was a fluke or statistically significant and repeatable. I am disappointed these details are missing from the abstract.

But assuming this was a reasonably large study, participants randomly assigned, groups comparable, and the end difference significant, the study would seem to suggest that even a very brief exposure to mindfulness can slow a person's perception of time.

Nauman's article gives more information about the researchers' view of their results:
"Because the mindfulness meditation exercise cued participants to focus on internal processes such as their breath, that attentional shift may have sharpened their capacity to notice time passing."
Kramer said the ability to slow perceived time could help people feel more in control in situations where it seems like time is running away from them.

Nauman reports that Kramer also speculated that a different mindfulness exercise could speed up perceived time:
"a mindfulness exercise that shifts attention to an external event could potentially make time feel like it’s passing more quickly. If this were true, mindfulness could have clinical applications for people who feel like time is moving too slowly, such as those experiencing depression, who tend to overestimate the duration of negative events."
The idea that we can intentionally slow time down or speed it up sounds pretty amazing, and until the research has more data to back it up, I won't rule out the possibility that it's too good to be true.
But it's not inconsistent with my experience. I've never been patient--I hate to wait. But waiting has become much easier since I took my mindfulness class. Or consider how time flies when you are in that mindful state known as being totally caught up in a favorite activity.

Today's personal discovery of a new application of mindfulness was completely accidental. I dedicate this discovery to my music-loving friend, the Living Anachronism.

For no good reason, I've had the song Paint with all the Colors of the Wind going around in my head today. Typical of my earworms, it's schlocky, melodic, and passionate--in a Disney sort of way. As much as it may shock the musical sensibilities of the LA, the songs from Pocohontas are one of my guilty pleasures.

Home alone, I threw myself into a full-throated run at the beautiful chorus:
Did you ev-er hear the wolf cry to the new-born moon? Or ask the grinning bobcat why he grins? 
Voi,  A Gentleman's
Canine Companion
By the third note, my voice shattered into a croak and tears filled my eyes. The wolf reference reminded me of my dear departed dog, Voi. And the moon reference made me think of my dear departed husband, Koz, an amateur astronomer who loved nothing better than gazing at the newborn moon.

Over the years, my propensity to dissolve into tears has prevented me from singing several beautiful hymns in public. I think the English have a special affinity for these. But I digress.

My mindfulness discovery was this: If I "did mindfulness" when attempting to sing the heart-wrenching bit -- intentionally focussing attention on the sound of my voice, rather than the emotional updraft of the melody and lyrics -- I could sing the chorus without breaking up.

I look forward to testing my discovery the next time one of those great anthems starts pulling on my heartstrings ...  This is my Song (sung to Sibelius' Finlandia tune ...This is my home, the coun-try where my heart is..." Shattering for an ex-pat). Or Hubert Parry's Jerusalem. Or Holst's I Vow to Thee my Country...

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Toe-Rag Parables, Rob Bell, & Foolish Risks of God

I've long been a fan of Rob Bell. Now even more so, having seen Bell's Tumblr series, especially What is the Bible?  Part 15: Everybody Loves Stuart and Luscious and the preceding post, What is the Bible? Part 14: What are you going to do with Stuart? I think these posts present a very creative way of reading, then thinking about and discussing the Bible through parable.

In Part 14 of Bell's Tumblr series, and without giving many clues about what he had in mind, Bell threw a modern-day parable at his Tumblr readers. It was a story about a nephew, "Stuart," entrusted to care for your house while you're away, but who massively screws up and throws a nightmare party. Upon returning and seeing the chaos, your opening gambit is to comment to Stuart on an unwatered plant.

Another of my Faith Heroes, (retired) Bishop Michael Ball (who lives in my tiny village) wrote a Lenten study, Foolish Risks of God, which is devoted to the parables and has a similar view to to the thinking I surmise lies behind Bell's approach in these posts, namely that parables are a compelling, shape-shifting way of teaching. Compelling because in trying to understand and apply the parable, you become much more deeply hooked into the text. Shape-shifting because the stories / analogies have a flexibility that makes them readily adaptable to every age and life.

Father Michael spoke about parables at a home group I went to a few years ago. He gave me a copy of his introductory comments. This will give you a flavor of his humble brilliance:
These stories [Jesus' parables] are like a jigsaw whose pieces can constantly be rearranged to portray all things necessary for the needs of each age, for every condition of humankind. What we must never do (again it seems to me) is glue the pieces of the puzzle onto the table and surround it with a reinforced edge, so they can't be moved around. Parables are flexible pictures of God's wonderful nature, his forgiveness, his acceptance, his love, his treasures, and best of all, his saving grace...
Even the verbal structure of them has a timeless ingenuity ... Situations of his age yet transferable to every era. The cunning of the telling and the choice of words are constructed so that they are repeatable with different emphases for different occasions. The colours of the painting are so exquisitely, incomparably brushed on the canvas that the different lights of different centuries reveal new unrealised glories...
Rob Bell is seizing exactly this power of the parable to engage his readers/followers in the Tumblr posts. In Bell's latest book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, he says we can read the Bible as a trajectory, a demonstration of the direction God has been leading humankind over the eons -- the way forward. The parable exercise on Tumblr may extend the trajectory by a few microns. Bell's looking at where and how God is moving in his relationship with people, and inviting readers to participate... help sniff out which direction God is leading. At least "have a go" as the Brits say. It's pure genius that Bell's using the ultimate "trajectory" verbal medium -- the time-travelling, shape-shifting parable. (Can you tell I tuned in to the Dr. Who special?)

In Bell's Tumblr post, Part 15, he shares readers' responses (Including mine!) He also discloses the message he intended with the Stuart parable:
... This will take a while...
[upon returning home to find the chaos] your priority probably won’t be finding out who Luscious is and where the AK-47 came from and why the dog smells like beer and is cross-eyed pacing in circles ... However important those are, you may not get to them for a while. Stuart may not be ready…
  • Is this why slavery isn’t condemned in the Bible?
  • Is this why polygamy isn’t forbidden in the Bible? 
  • Is this why certain barbaric and primitive actions and practices aren’t prohibited?
You can’t deal with the entire mess all at once..... First you’d get the kids off the roof because that’s a matter of life and death. Then maybe you’d ask Is the kid in the refrigerator OK? . .. However you went about it, there would be something happening underneath everything else, something that is more important to you than all the rest of it: You and Stuart making things right together. 
Wow. Talking about God working with his creations to restore creation by telling a contemporary story about setting things right which works with readers via parable interpretation. The echoes are deafening!

Here was my interpretation (responses were limited to 400 characters):
Stu’s Everyman, beloved child of God & he’s screwed up, like we all do. Pointing out the minor fault, not yelling & threatening to throttle the little toe rag, gives Stu something he can apologize for & fix. He starts with that & goes on to get the drunk friends off the roof. The friends pitch in to help. Pretty soon the whole world’s restored. I’ve been there. Cheerios & ping pong balls everywhere! Son did apologize and make some efforts. Friends picked up some trash. Mom cleaned up the rest. 
Lke most parable interpretations, this comes from personal experience. Yes, we have come home to find caretaker-son having screwed up in throwing a party. One time there was a hole in a wall and Cheerios everywhere. Another time, a bizarre selection of things disappeared (bamboo toaster tongs, stacking container for coasters); the good crystal wine glasses got used; there was goo inside the layers of glass in the oven door window; and there were ping pong balls everywhere. Beer pong. Who knew? 

But we love Sam. I wasn't thrilled to wash the floors, dig goo out of the oven window and go through the rubbish (Sam's friends had helped him clean up, but put the numerous bottles and cans in the trash rather than recycling). I am hopeful that the next time Sam has a party, he'll  be better at social engineering. More shalom, less mess.

And,  in case he's reading, and because he asked, this is just for Rob Bell (a fellow Michigander, but one who has not been living in the UK soaking up these coloUrful expressions): About "toe rag," From the Urban Dictionary:
The definition derives from old England where convicts used to tie bits of shirt around their toes and feet as a makeshift sock, hence "toe rag" means scoundrel, criminal, thief, indecent/unlawful person etc. ..."Come back with my wallet, you little toe rag."
I can't resist including Definition 2, pretty much the same, but offering a slightly different background:
2. toerag--A derogatory British insult made antique by more popular words ... Used to describe one who is seen as worthless in society. The word 'toerag' is believed to come from a rag used to wash the feet... making it very lowly... "They were just a bunch of toerags anyway."
I think the connection to foot-washing makes"toe rag"  a perfect word to describe parable-wise, all of us humans, us party-throwers, polluters, climate-changers, war-wagers, gamblers, haters, thoughtless stewards... Jesus washed our feet, asked us to do that for one another. Nothin' but toe-rags, all of us.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Pollyanna Versus Chicken Little

One of the dualities of my life -- and one that I struggle to hold in equipoise -- is Pollyanna-like optimism versus Chicken Little-like pessimism. I give my parents credit for making me bi-polar in this regard. As I wrote in my mother's eulogy:
Her optimism and confidence that the glass was half full was never daunted by [my father] Frank’s worst-case certainty that it was half empty.
Growing up, my mother's blind optimism -- and what I perceived as an associated inability to empathize with our setbacks and heartbreaks -- drove me crazy. I was determined I would grow up to be neither an optimist nor a pessimist, but a realist.

Now I'm not so sure. I'm not sure that our very subjective emotion-governed brains actually permit us to be objective realists.

Beyond that, I've written before about the value and power of belief -- in anything, really -- as a sort of willing self-deception that can induce courage and confidence--even miracles. This positive thinking starts a self-reinforcing spiral that can elevate mood,  yield creativity and productivity, and thereby create a sense of accomplishment, satisfaction, and gratitude. In a previous blog I talked about psychological techniques that counteract a human being's natural "negative cognitive bias" -- a propensity to focus on negative phenomena. For our caveman ancestors, heightened sensitivity to harm was critical for survival. It's possible that psychology might actually be in danger of falling overboard on the bright side, but that seems to be the way they are thinking these days.

At any rate, what brought me back to this subject today was contemplating the effect that a strong negative bias can have on others. For example, I understand the frustration of some of my friends as they try to stay supportive of one of our group who sees a dead-end to any and every suggested avenue for circumnavigating her numerous challenges in life. We listen to her woes and try to empathize. We invite her for tea. We listen some more. We make more suggestions of resources that could help with that. But there's always some reason this won't work and that won't help.

It's awful to be Job, but it's also not much fun to be one of his friends. Psychologists have found that good fortune tends to generate a penumbra of optimism and satisfaction with life in the neighborhood of people who are lucky. I wouldn't be surprised if they found that the Jobs and Chicken-Littles of this world create local pockets of depression.

Robert B. Cialdini, Noah J.Goldstein, and Steve J. Martin write in their book Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive that strongly negative, fear-inducing communications
usually stimulate the audience to take action to reduce the threat. However this general rule has one important exception: When the fear-producing message describes danger but the audience is not told of clear, specific, effective ways of reducing the danger, they may deal with the fear by 'blocking out' the message or denying that it applies to them As a consequence, they may indeed be paralyzed into taking no action at all.
I suspect that the same psychological forces could be at work in relationships and when we are called to choose people as our spouses, mates, leaders,  friends, team-members, or co-workers. Taking Chicken Little on board could portend endless hours fruitlessly trying to reassure him or her that the sky is not falling -- rather than enjoying life or solving immediate problems. So instead we block out the message, stop listening, stop wasting our time offering suggestions -- or just turn the gloomy one away.

Sadly, I think that's what happened to me in my village church. I see problems at all levels--from mindboggling challenges with basic aspects of contemporary Christianity to the way our local clergy fail in their interactions with our village congregation. Serving on the parochial church council, the only suggestion I've offered for reducing risk of the church dying is a survey to ask our village what people do and don't want in a church. It's not really a solution -- but I don't think it will be possible to keep the church alive without taking that basic step. The suggestion wasn't taken up. Perhaps if I'd just focused on tiny problems and immediate solutions, I would not be feeling like a Chicken Little- non grata.

Back to Pollyanna -- and the types of people who are instantly welcome in our corporate and individual lives -- I think it's the people who make us feel good about ourselves and the world. Not with platitudes and flattery, but through insight. Their very presence reassures us that everything's going to be fine. They call out special gifts that we might not have noticed. Their careful gaze and thoughtful consideration convinces us that they know and love us. They may also see urgent problems--but also see "clear, specific, effective reduce the danger," as Cialdini and his colleagues write.

And somewhere in there likes a happy point of equipoise -- a way to be a sympathetic and tuned in to the woes of a friend, a spouse, a child, an organization, the world--yet never lose hope or lose sight of the good and the possibilities for fresh, creative answers.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

God of Aller

The church--Home to God and John of Aller--viewed from Aller Hill, where the dragon's eggs were buried
Our friend Tina has a five-year-old grandson who is utterly enraptured with life... As you are, if you're a lucky five-year-old. This charming child visited our village some months ago with his Grannie, and I had the privilege of giving them the grand tour.
The Saxon Font

I took them "To the Ancient Church" -- as the somewhat obscure sign reads at the end of the drove. I showed them the Alfred (The Great) window, the Saxon font, and well-preserved architectural details from the old part of our church.

Because the boy was very interested in dragons that day, I showed him the effigy of John of Aller and John of Clevedon, which lie in repose in our church. The latter effigy is well-preserved and is of an armoured knight, as Clevedon died jousting.
John of Aller, what slayed the dragon
John of Clevedon
 Aller's effigy is weathered from having been outdoors for a few hundred years. But he was the one I really wanted to introduce to my young friend. According to legend, it was John of Aller who made our village safe from dragons.

Aller Hill, where dragon eggs be buried
One day, the dragon that had been terrorizing our village was flying back to its nest of eggs on Aller Hill, I told my young friend. Brave John of Aller saw the dragon and was ready. He hurled his spear at the dragon and killed her mid-air. Then the good citizens of Aller climbed the hill and buried the dragon eggs deep in the ground, preventing any further dragon attacks--to this day. 

John of Aller's spear was in another nearby church for many years -- so it must have been quite a long throw. I'm not sure if the spear is still at High Ham or if it's been relocated to a museum someplace. The dragon remains our village mascot--we have dragon mosaics and dragon tiles adorning various landmarks. We celebrated the Queen's Jubilee by commissioning a very fine dragon sculpture. I showed all these sights to my young friend, who clearly absorbed all these details and proudly wrote his name in our church visitors' registry.

Aller's Dragon-themed sculpture, left
and mosaic above 
Several months later the boy returned to our village, this time with his mother as well as Grannie. I was out-of-town when they visited, but Tina later related her grandson's breathless enthusiasm at showing his mother what he'd seen and heard here, albeit through the filter of a five-year-old's memory and understanding. What the boy was really keen to show his mom was "God of Aller" in our village church.
Matthew 21:16 (King James Bible:) Jesus saith unto them, Yea; have ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise?
I am not sure if it's pathetic or glorious, but I come as close to finding God in this boy's experience as anything else I've experienced myself in our village church. I see -- and am induced to recollect my own experience of -- the wonder and amazement of childhood: The excitement of stories; lore and evidence of ancient times; the sense of a world filled with adventure, mystery, and pure wordless delight.

And love. I find love in Tina's care and celebration of life with her grandson and daughter. I feel Tina's loving friendship in telling me about their return visit to "God of Aller." I find a completely open, no-strings-attached invitation to join this spirit, to be like a child again, tuned in to such a wondrous place and time: right here, right now.
Matthew 18:3 (King James Bible:) Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Or for a secular version of what I'm sayin', see YouTuber Jason Silva's take on childlike wonder here:
or his take on awe here:


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Choice Architecture: Clever Big Brother

I've been fascinated recently by new ideas about motivation coming from economists and behavior scientists--in particular an approach variously known as "Nudge Theory" or "Choice Architecture." At its heart, this field devises psychologically astute ways of predisposing people to one behavior instead of another, typically by manipulating what, when, or how choices are presented. For example, two recent research papers applied choice architecture to improving children's nutrition and getting adults to save for retirement.

The subject has not escaped the attention of U.S. President Obama and UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who are using -- or have used-- nudge theory in hopes of advancing political goals on the cheap. Once I heard about the idea, I started to notice examples everywhere... a study of reducing theft of petrified wood from a National Park; improved drug packaging; Finnish government gift boxes for new moms ....

But back to the recent scientific papers. The school lunch paper didn't brand itself as an instance of choice architecture per se, but that's what it was. In two elementary schools in Upstate New York, researchers from Cornell University's Department of Applied Economics and Management studied the lunch choices of 272 pupils in 14 classrooms. Andrew S. Hanks, David R. Just, and Brian Wansink made one small change in the pupils' lunch entrée selection. Some students pre-ordered their entrées during the 4-week trial; others chose entrées while in the cafeteria line.

If your mother ever warned you not to go grocery shopping on an empty stomach, you can probably guess the outcome of this experiment:
When students did not [pre]order but instead selected their entrée as they entered the lunch line, it appears that hunger-based, spontaneous selection diminished healthy entrée selection by 48% and increased less healthy entrée selection by 21% ... data demonstrate how a simple environmental change—preordering—can prompt children to choose healthier food.
In the introduction to their research the authors of the study cite statistics showing that almost a third of U.S. children aged 6 to 13 years are obese. The hope is one healthy meal a day for more children could help combat this obesity epidemic.  Beyond that, there's room to hope that exposure to a healthy meal each day could nudge kids toward a preference for healthy foods and better food choices throughout their lives.

Such hopes for improved lifelong nutrition are stoked by observations from happiness guru/motivational speaker  Shawn AchorWriting about his personal experiments in reforming life habits, Achor says the key to increasing good habits and extinguishing bad ones is to make it absurdly easy to do the good thing and harder to do the bad. For example, he was much more likely to practice guitar if he left it out on a stand, within sight and close at hand. He sharply reduced his TV-watching by taking the batteries out of the remote control each time he turned off the set. Each behavioral manipulation made only a 20-second change in how long it took to start an activity--but that's just long enough to encourage or discourage an action. Repeat a behavior change for 21 days, Achor says, and you've got the makings of a life habit.

Making a good habit easy is at the heart of research on how to increase retirement savings. This research was reported by Shlomo Benartzi (at UCLA) and Richard H. Thaler (at the University of Chicago) and published in Science on March 8, 2013. The authors begin by observing that the savings of an increasing proportion of U.S. workers will be insufficient to sustain their lifestyle through retirement. Thirty years ago, just under a third of people were setting aside too little. Three years ago more than half were at risk. This doesn't even address the 78 million employees who will be completely dependent on savings because their workplace offers no retirement plans.
"Fortunately, there are solutions to these problems. We simply have to change the choice architecture of retirement plans by utilizing the findings of behavioral economics research and make such plans available to all workers."
Benartzi and Thaler say that increasingly employers have moved away from defined-benefit retirement plans to defined-contribution plans, in which employees choose whether to participate and then how much of their paycheck they want to go towards retirement. Unfortunately, almost 25% of those eligible don't even bother to sign up, and savings rates are too low for many who do. Choice architecture offers an easy fix: Make participation in the plan the default for all employees, but allow them to "opt-out." Studies show only around 10% will do so -- raising participation significantly compared to an "opt-in" system. For those in a savings scheme, most employers now offer a sensible, age-appropriate default investment option, sparing employees the daunting job of devising their retirement savings portfolio.

Choice architecture really comes into its own for deciding how much of each paycheck to contribute toward retirement over the years. Bernatzi and Thaler say:
Automatic enrollment does a good job of getting people started, but employees can be stuck for years saving at an insufficient rate.
What is needed to help employees save at higher rates over the years is automatic escalation of savings,
a plan we devised called Save More Tomorrow (SMT), based on behavioral economics research ... First, employees are invited to commit now to increase their saving rate ... in the future. Self-control is easier to accept if delayed rather than immediate. Second, planned increases in the saving rate are linked to pay raises. This is meant to diminish the effect of loss aversion—the tendency to weigh losses larger than gains. Because the increase in the savings rate is just a portion of the pay raise, employees do not see their pay fall. Third, once employees sign up for the plan they remain in it until they reach a preset limit or choose to opt out. This uses inertia to keep people in the system.
At the first company where SMT was tested, employee savings quadrupled in four years, and many employers have now jumped on the scheme, or at least some type of automatic escalation. To assure a decent participation rate and increased savings, very easy or default signup and savings escalation are crucial.

On a completely different front, I saw a less subtle example of choice architecture -- and found an explanation for a personal annoyance -- when I recently read the results of a study of packaging of pain relievers in England and Wales. Shortly after I moved to the UK seven years ago, I was irritated and mystified to discover that aspirin, acetominophen (called "paracetamol" in the UK), and other pain relievers and related products are only sold in tiny packs, and stores won't sell you more than a couple of  these per visit. In the U.S. I had tended to buy economy-sized bottles of 500 tablets. The results of the packaging study ended my mystification (if not my inconvenience).

Evidently the UK introduced legislation in late 1998 to restrict pack sizes of paracetamol. The pain reliever is effective and safe in moderate doses, but taking too much at once or over a long period can cause serious, even fatal, liver toxicity. Extensive aspirin use can cause pitting of the gastro-intestinal tract. Both drugs are also components of other over-the-counter medications, so people who don't read the list of ingredients may not realize they are getting "hidden" doses of aspirin or paracetamol. Doctors hoped the small pack size would reduce intentional and unintentional overuse of the pain relievers by making it inconvenient to buy more than a few doses at once.

The study, by Keith Hawton at the University of Oxford Centre for Suicide Research (and colleagues at Oxford and elsewhere)  looked at deaths (intentional, unintentional, and undetermined) and liver transplants in England and Wales due to poisoning by paracetamol before and after the 1998 legislation. The data pointed to a 43% reduction in accidental and suicide deaths due to paracetamol liver poisoning. Over the entire 11¼ post-legislation years that the team studied, they estimated there were 765 fewer deaths, thanks to the inconvenient packaging.

I saw a sweeter face of choice architecture when I read about the Finnish Baby Box. An article on the BBC website reports:
For 75 years, Finland's expectant mothers have been given a box by the state. It's like a starter kit of clothes, sheets and toys that can even be used as a bed. And some say it helped Finland achieve one of the world's lowest infant mortality rates.
Wildly popular with new parents, the box appears to have everything a baby needs for its first year of life. The contents change a little each year -- different fabrics chosen for the gender-neutral clothing, for example, and new items reflecting changes in thinking about best practices in infant care. In 1969 the boxes switched from cloth to disposable diapers, but by 2006 they returned to environment-friendly cloth "nappies." Baby bottles and pacifiers, ("dummies" in UK parlance) were previously included, but also ditched in 2006 to encourage the healthier practice of breastfeeding. The current box pictured in the BBC article includes condoms, a picture book, and bra pads--also encouraging breastfeeding. The box holding all the goodies is just the right size for a crib and includes a mattress and sheets. This subtly discourages "co-sleeping"--putting the baby to sleep in bed with the parents--which has been linked to infant suffocation.

The boxes serve as an incentive to healthy parenting in another way: To claim the box, expectant moms must visit their local doctor or pre-natal clinic before the fourth month of pregnancy. Because items in the box can be handed-down to baby brothers or sisters, Finland also permits parents to take cash in lieu -- currently €140. The BBC article says 95% of parents opt for the box, however, "as it's worth much more."

Too often I've heard the jokey line, "Babies don't come with an instruction manual!" The Finnish Baby Box is better choice architecture than an instruction manual could ever be. It simply makes it easy and fun to do the right thing when it comes to parenting. They don't tell you "Statistics show you increase your baby's chance of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome if he sleeps in your bed" -- they give you a separate bed the baby can sleep in until past the age where SIDS is a problem. They don't lecture you "breast is best" -- they just don't give you baby bottles and pacifiers/dummies. They don't lecture you about reading to your child -- they give you a starter book. Since Finland began handing out its treasured Baby Boxes in 1938, infant mortality has declined from around 70 deaths per thousand to fewer than five.

But beyond just making good parenting easier, I think there's some other important psychology behind the baby boxes that could explain statistics showing Finnish mothers are among the happiest in the world. The boxes seem like Finland's cheery welcome to all its babies. This sets a loving tone for the new baby's family. The article quotes one new father:
This felt to me like evidence that someone cared, someone wanted our baby to have a good start in life. And now when I visit friends with young children it's nice to see we share some common things. It strengthens that feeling that we are all in this together.
A Finnish history expert told the BBC that the Baby Boxes are "A symbol of the idea of equality, and of the importance of children."

Thinking about choice architecture led me to a book by Robert Cialdini and colleagues, "Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive." The book identifies deeper veins of influence on human behavior, and I believe some of these may be at work in the Finish Baby Box. For example, Cialdini & Co. say the most influential messages subtly convey that a desired behavior--such as breastfeeding or using cloth diapers -- is both socially prized and most prevalent for people like you. This nudge may be the most valuable gift in the Finnish Baby Box.

The work of Cialdini and his associates over the years forms a body of research -- experiments that isolate key factors that encourage people to do the right thing -- to recycle and save energy, for example. Other early studies isolated psychological principles that discourage doing the wrong thing -- like littering or theft of petrified wood from a National Forest.

Some of the other persuasion concepts in Cialdini's book might be worth another blog entry, but for now I'll end by pointing out that "nudges" can also be used for less salubrious purposes than saving for retirement, helping the environment, preserving national heritage, and improving health, nutrition, and parenting. Choice architecture could also be used to subtly influence purchasing or voting decisions, for example.

Being able to recognize the more clever, insidious ways Big Brother or Big Business may influence our decisions is empowering. Check who stands to profit when your choice suddenly seems like "a no-brainer." Look that gift-horse in the mouth! And consider the possibility you're being manipulated when a fast-talking politician or salesman claims his gizmo has impeccable credentials and is in huge demand -- whilst the competitor's is unpopular and far short of standards for people like you.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Kernels from the Nutshells: My Reading of Mindfulness Poems

This is an overflow page, excising my interpretations from the Mindful Poems page. I've included links to the poems covered.

My summary of these poems would be

Poem 1, The Summer Day
. Be intensely present here and now.

Poem 2--Autobiography in Five Chapters
. Break your habits of not really seeing, not taking responsibility, disparaging yourself, not learning from mistakes, lying to yourself, not trying new things.

Poem 3--Wild Geese. Whatever your situation, just practice being human, connecting to others and to nature in front of you.

Poem 4--The Guest House. Be hospitable to whatever comes your way, good or bad.

Poem 5.  I wouldn't dare try to summarize T.S. Elliot's Little Gidding, but would note that the commentary on wikipedia alludes to the "the mystical nature of the poem and how its themes were closer to Buddhism than Anglicanism."  

Poems 6/7 
(retreat poems): Lost by David Wagoner and haiku-like The Birds Have Vanished by Li Po [Bai] - These speak to the transience of human concerns and the timelessness of nature, mountain, here, now.

Poem 8 
(Penultimate week): Love After Love -- This echos a theme of Little Gidding -- returning to the familiar place -- or in this case face, your own face -- and knowing (and loving) it for the first time in the light of personal evolution. Great metaphor for treating yourself with compassion. The bread and wine could be a communion allusion, but in this eucharist, your  feast of thanks is for your own life.

Poem 9. In Kindness, I think Naomi Shihab Nye proposes that the great losses of our lives may give birth to deep kindness.

Bonus Poems Keeping Quiet-- That's mostly what we do in Mindfulness classes and meditation...
Neruda was apparently an "early adopter" as he touches on the omnipresent "busyness" of life and speculates on what the world might be like if everyone, just for a few seconds, was still.

#14 from The Kabir Book--This poem takes us to the mysterious paradise accessible when we give up desires and expectations of the exterior world.

Alberto Caeiro: Complete PoemsIX -- A key way Mindfulness brings us back into the present is by urging us to substitute intense use of our senses for thoughts

You Reading This, Be Ready-- A compelling invitation to live in the present.

Analgesic Meditation--Mindfulness helps adult pain much as imagination and the world of toy soldiers on a child's counterpane helped the child in Robert Louis Stephenson's poem.

Prelude to the Dance -- Striving and forcing yourself to improve versus just being and unfolding