Saturday, December 9, 2017

Christmas clicking

The moment I saw the Amazon box I knew the fedora inside was crushed. It was just too shallow for that hat to fit. Sure enough, when I cracked open the package, the lid inside was dimpled and damaged.

Quickly clicking the "View or manage order" button on my e-mail, I discovered there were no orders in my account! A phone call to Amazon returns revealed I had inadvertently created two accounts. Ten more minutes on hold and I had a political apology and the return label sliding onto my printer tray. Since my afternoon phone conference was postponed until Monday, it was off to the post office with the smashed felt hat in the carton and then to the mall. We couldn't take the chance so close to Christmas that the massive online retailer would get it right the second time.

Traffic in Chicago was thick on Friday afternoon as we wound our way up I-94 to Skokie for Macy's at the Old Orchard Mall.  It took 30 minutes to navigate the bottlenecks and find a parking spot but it was worth it. There were deep discounts on top of markdowns making the opportunity for great buys and brisk shopping. And the service was wonderfully old fashioned.

Gift boxes and tissue paper flowed and even offers to package our purchases for us. When I found a sweater with a snag, the clerk sent her manager to the back room too search for the right size. She returned with an armful of pristine garments to consider.

There were no coupon codes to Google, the cashier identified the maximum savings and printed gift receipts. We felt the texture of materials and judged the sizes for accuracy. The store staff engaged us in conversations about pets, Sunday afternoon dinners, the quality of the products, and color coordinating accessories.

But by far, the best came during our last transaction when the cashier asked my wife, Ellen, "Can I give you a hug?" They had swapped stories about their churches.

Make no mistake, Christmas clicking on Amazon and cyber Monday is very convenient and has lit a fire under the Yule log of American retailers. Fierce online competition is helping to re-energize the concept of customer service in stores. And I'm truly grateful! Because there's something about rubbing shoulders with the crowds, listening to Christmas carols playing in the background and exchanging good cheer with friendly sales clerks that help to make the season bright.

Happy hunting.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Channeling Your Inner Claus

Serious actors diligently research the characters they portray, sometimes hanging out with real people in unusual professions or tiptoeing along the margins of life with those living on the edge.

With some of us playing Santa this time of year, we might as well know a little about the real person we're pretending to be.

St. Nicholas of Myra was about 17 when his parents both died of an epidemic disease in a region we know as Turkey today. Inheriting significant family wealth, he faced real financial decisions as he prepared to become a priest. Nicholas gave away his riches to the poor and signed up for the clergy. By 30, he was ordained a bishop. Folks called him "the boy Bishop" because he was so young for the job.

But it was not his rank that earned St. Nick his legendary distinction. It was his humility. He was quietly generous to those in need. In one situation, he waited until night to secretly deliver three bags of gold to pay for the dowries of three young sisters whose mother had died. As the story goes, the merciful bishop tossed the money into the girls' stockings that were drying by the fire while they slept. The gifts probably came from his inheritance.

Living as a Christian about 300 years after Jesus walked the earth, Nicholas was committed to closely following him, including the instruction to keep your charity a secret. That led to Santa's late night deliveries. Tradition says he helped those starving in famine and once slapped a heretic in the face. The Roman emperor, Diocletian, imprisoned St. Nicholas because he wouldn't deny his belief in Jesus. The saint survived Rome's harsh persecution of Christians and was released when Constantine took the throne and converted to the faith.

Today, in most of the world, children receive gifts on December 6, St. Nicholas' feast day in the Catholic Church. In Holland, Sinterklaas arrives by ship from Spain and rides a horse named Amerigo. In France, he's known as Pere Noel. In Spain, Papa Noel. Russian children call him Grandfather Frost. In the United States, Madison Avenue has repurposed the patron saint of children to become the ultimate pitchman for toy companies, sugary sodas and even sultry undergarments to the suggestive lyrics of "Santa Baby."

As you slip into your long white beard, body suit and red coat, remember your playing a man some people speak to in prayer. It's important we always stay in character. Especially around kids.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Artificial intelligence feeds on genuine thoughtlessness

Back in high school, one of my science teachers proclaimed that every fifty years, we double all our previous knowledge. Imagine that, taking all we know from Cro-Magnon to numbering chromosomes  and multiplying it by two in just a half-century.

Flash forward to this week when I heard an interview that quoted tech genius, Elon Musk, warning that artificial intelligence (AI)  is the equivalent of "summoning the demon." Musk and other giant thinkers like Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking have been pounding that drum of precaution about the pace of progress on AI -- or demonic machines that can perform as humans, and eventually replace us.

In the next twenty years, computers will gain the ability to virtually see and listen and then the jobs will really topple. This is an eventuality that we are enabling every time we snap a photo of a check and make a deposit pretending to be virtual bank tellers. Then what happens to our world? To our economy? To humanity?

What will happen to the truth when robots edit all the news? Media companies are already using AI to help aggregate information and pre-written story lines.

The brightest of our technology leaders are hinting at the need for some regulation in order to prevent a world order where machines are smarter than most any person making people irrelevant. Without intervention, greed will rule and enterprise will choose computers over creatures every time. Gates is less concerned than Musk, but he acknowledges we can't blindly follow robots toward the horizon without stepping off the edge of tomorrow.

Of course, this can only happen if we continue to support a lifestyle that relies on "self-service" or what I call "working for nothing." I've been warning for years that we're killing jobs by pumping our own gas, checking out and bagging our own groceries and booking our own flights and accommodations and then schlepping the luggage.

How many times have you had to cycle through phone prompts again and again and repeat information so the computer "operator" can learn? Then, don't you eventually have to recite it again when the human customer rep picks up the line? You're doing someone's job and paying for it with time you can't get back.

Tools are supposed to make life easier, not create more work. How many times have you typed your unique information into a Website or app in order to electronically perform functions that someone used to perform for you? Think about it. For example, you pay a $30 deposit for an I-Pass or E-ZPass and then go online to register your account. This allows you the convenience of a quicker stop at the tollroads and a discount. But you're paying them for the privilege of doing the state's paperwork. Prediction: once states require everyone to buy an electronic pass, the toll master will take away the discount. It's basically what happened to self-serve gas -- there is no full serve, just full serve prices.

I've handed an airline clerk $120 bucks for baggage fees, after accessing my own boarding pass, only to be ordered to carry my luggage over to the loading area. That's quite a fee for the "honor" of working as a baggage handler.

Every time we put up with an inconvenience or a failing technology all in the name of "convenience" of self service, we're actually making it easier for the tech industry to create a society where real workers and real service become obsolete.

Self service should bring you and me a discount, a lower cost for the services that we deliver to ourselves. But I haven't seen the price of gas, flights, baggage fees, or most anything else decline. However, my available time continues to dwindle as I do my own banking, booking, and auto pays. I check e-mail, snail mail, texts from a variety of people I pay. I have a lengthy online survey to complete for a new doctor I'll be seeing. It used to be a physician or nurse asked me questions and filled out charts. Now I do that work and pay enormous fees for services. I've even bought my own health insurance at without the help of a human. And Blue Cross Blue Shield keeps raising my premiums, deductibles and copays.

Artificial intelligence is feeding on our genuine thoughtlessness and sheep-like mentality as we follow the herd into oblivion.

I'm not interested in preventing progress -- I just don't want to work for free as I help build the future and train the mechanical worker who will take my granddaughter's job. Working for nothing creates an artificial economic benefit to new technology, reducing its downside. Maybe we should all play dumb and begin to plead technological disability, requesting those we pay do the work. After all, we can't possibly be as smart as their machines.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Gratefully unaware

The guy finished his workout at the gym and grabbed a handful of free mini Tootsie Roll candies from the bucket at the front desk. As I zipped up my jacket, I laughed and said to the manager, "He's a slim guy; he can get away with that."

Resisting the sweets, I briskly walked toward the door and caught up with the guy munching the candies. "You're lucky to be slim; you can eat those things and not pay for it," I said.

He nodded and replied, "It's a great burst of energy after a workout."

"I'll bet you've always been slim," I guessed.

"Yeah, I'm blessed to have good genes from my parents and good health," he revealed. "Have a blessed evening."

A few minutes earlier I was wrapping up my workout on the exercise bike when a buff young guy with a Navy tank top walked by. "Gonna watch the Navy-Notre Dame game tomorrow?" I asked.

"Probably, but I'm really a soccer fan," he replied.

"My older brother went to the Naval Academy a long time ago," I shared. "He served 30 years after graduating."

That sparked our brief conversation, which revealed the young sailor's name was Nick, and he'd served five years in the U.S. Navy as an electrician's mate. Upon discharge, Nick finished his Bachelor's degree and then earned a Master's in the Humanities. Now Nick's an assistant paralegal with a Chicago law firm and in the Navy Reserves. Soon he'll be headed to Belgium for a month of service with NATO troops.

"At twenty, I had to write my will," he shared. "When you enlist, they make you list all your beneficiaries."

Coincidentally, my best friend has a son named Nick and this summer he reported for the U.S. Army after graduating college. He's hoping to serve in the special forces. His parents are praying for his health and safety. They're proud of him but genuinely concerned about his eventual deployment. This week, his father will travel from Dallas to Detroit for Thanksgiving to visit Nick's elderly grandmother who recently fell and seriously broke her arm.

My older brother, John, will also be traveling to Detroit from Baltimore for the holiday to visit our 89-year-old mother, who used to worry and pray for my big brother's protection all those years when he captained ships at sea.

Thanksgiving will bring many families and friends together to celebrate annual traditions, overeat, maybe watch some football and hopefully say a few prayers of thanks.

But true gratitude is a daily awareness of our vulnerability and an understanding that no one owes us the next beat of our hearts. But we owe a debt of humility and gratitude for the food on our tables, the peace of mind and protection we enjoy in our homes, the breath in our lungs and the sight to read and write what we choose.

There is a quiet rhythm to life that most of us take for granted, obliviously moving from moment to hour, encounter to conversation, thought to day dream, and desire to satisfaction. The seemingly random events align to fulfill needs and sometimes even delight us. Never failing what we are promised. Which is nothing more than the present. Yet, many of us who have been seriously ill, injured or damaged fail to remember to say thank you for our healing, our recovery, our resurrection.

What blessings are you most grateful for today?

Wishing you and yours a happy and heartfelt Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Your hairdresser knows

The first few hairs floated to the scrubbed floor, as I watched the first haircut of the week at my local barbershop.  Two other barbers stood at attention behind their chairs waiting for clients. As I hung up my coat, my guy was still setting up his tools after his weekend break. I grabbed a folding chair anticipating his invitation to take my perch.

In that brief moment, a thought of the divine came to mind. Jesus said God cares for us so much, he counts the hairs on our heads (Luke 12:7). And now we know DNA testing can identify our unique biological fingerprints with a single strand from each of our bodies.

The people who trim and razor us are earthly keepers of a heavenly inventory. For most of us, we have an unusually intimate relationship with our stylists. Few get that close to us for so long and so often. We certainly can't chat with our dentists or hygienists while their hands are in our mouths. Thank goodness we don't need to see them once a month.

My Chicago barber hails from my home state, Michigan, so we have a lot in common, although his beard is much fuller, longer and darker than mine. This month, after our usual small talk, we moved to the subject of health. Ironically, he shared that his dear wife has no hair. She suffers from alopecia, a disease where the immune system attacks hair follicles. My best friend fights this disease, too. He shaves his head and jokes about it, explaining his baldness with a rhetorical question, "Have you seen the price of shampoo?"

But for a woman to live without hair, takes real courage. Sometimes, my barber joins his wife at alopecia support groups and with his dark mane, he's the hairiest person in the room.

However, he's not the Samson in their relationship. She's the strong one, also fighting psoriasis; these autoimmune disorders travel in twos and threes like birds of a feather. You might think wigs would be the simple solution, but I know my wife, Ellen, hated hers when she shaved her head during chemotherapy for breast cancer. Hot and unnatural, fake hair was not her style. I know a guy who shaves his head to support his wife during her battle with breast cancer. She's been fighting it for years.

My barber's wife enjoys the freedom of her hairless head; her curse is a convenience, saving her time in the mirror and sparing curlers and products.

All the while, the craftsman scissored and clipped, hot lathered and shaved my head, neck and face as he spoke candidly about his personal life and asked me questions to show he cared about mine.

As I walked home with time to ponder our conversation, I considered the Scripture depicting our Creator taking time to inventory our hairs. Perhaps a little like the way a parent kisses the fuzzy head of a beloved baby.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Your Jesus Year

Our older son, Alex, turned 33 the day before Halloween 2017. We told him, "This is your Jesus year."

Christian tradition says Jesus was 33 when he died, nailed to a Roman cross, following three years of ministry and miracles. In his short earthly life, Jesus transformed the world. No single person has impacted the course of history more than the itinerant Jewish rabbi from Nazareth. As the New Testament scholar, Amy-Jill Levine says, "Jesus raised the bar on Judaism." Dr. Levine is Jewish. I've heard her explain that Jesus' Gospel was about changing our hearts and minds to eliminate even the thought of something sinful, something selfish, unloving, unmerciful and unforgiving.

So what do I mean by "your Jesus year?" It's a little bit like a "gap year" where high school graduates take a year off after graduation to work or volunteer in order to experience the world. It often includes travel abroad designed to broaden perspectives and prepare young students for university.

Now, imagine the news headlines in a culture where 33-year-olds everywhere took a year to focus on goodness, and healing and making a positive impact on the global community.

What do you think that would look like?

Immediately after Halloween, Christmas holiday ads spark the season of buying and bacchanalia. Many also think about charitable gift giving. Churches, temples and mosques host homeless for meals and beg for gently used clothing for organizations that serve the needy. Bell ringers on street corners collect coins and cash to help ensure a better Christmas morning for low-income families. I know a jeweler who gives 20% off coupons to customers who donate coats to a local church's closet for the homeless.

Unfortunately, after Hanukkah, Christmas and the New Year pass, most of us drop this beautiful tradition. It's back to racing through life and walking past those in need like so many fire hydrants. We just don't see them. Nor do we notice the good because we're preoccupied with the rancor between countries, political parties, communities and even family members.

What if Jesus had chosen to continue his anonymous life as a quiet carpenter from an obscure town? What if he never dedicated his time to performing remarkable public service -- as he washed feet, healed hearts and delivered the good news to the poor?

It's never too late to have a Jesus year, even if 33 is a distant milestone in your rear view mirror.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Beggars and Saints Welcome

Today, Halloween rivals Christmas as a holiday for decorating and outdoes Easter in candy-coating and significance in most families. But there's something very different about the fall masquerade and sugary celebration. Like these other two religious memorials, it's rooted in giving and honoring exceptional love and goodness although most folks are now oblivious to its charitable meaning.

The term "All Hallows Eve" comes from very old Middle English and is deeply Catholic and ancient in origin. In the Church calendar, October 31 is the eve of the feast of All Saints Day or a special day for all holy men and women. November 2 is All Souls Day, when the faithful remember the lives of the rest of those who have died. Mexicans call it Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead.

In jolly old England, the needy knocked on doors and begged for "soul cakes" in exchange for a promise to pray for the dead of the household. I remember as a kid sometimes yelling "Help the poor!" as we approached porches with our pillowcases and sacks full of apples, penny candy, coins and small bags of potato chips. Little did I know that real disadvantaged people once fed genuine hunger with their Halloween take of shortbread and currants.

The Brits, Scots and Irish immigrants imported this custom to the U.S. and it was observed in Maryland more than Protestant states. Over time, the alchemy of America's melting pot blended Halloween with Native American and other traditions to create the modern version of Halloween that emphasizes most every superhero and unusual personality except the likes of saints, martyrs and the poor.

Butterfingers, Kit Kats and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups have long replaced the carefully baked spiritual pastries that once satisfied the hungry. But on no other American holiday are people so truly generous. Think about it: strangers beg at the doors of millions of Americans who joyfully give them treats. Long gone are the devilish tricks that led to waxy windows and rotten eggs smashed on cars. The giving is not in response to that threat of nasty pranks, but to participate in the simple bliss of watching children laugh and make believe. People even hand out goodies to kids from the other side of the tracks, when vans full of youngsters pull up to safer, more affluent neighborhoods. Sure, some doors close and porch lights go out, but most homeowners don't mind giving away hundreds of pieces of candy in exchange for nothing. No feasting and gift swapping like Christmas. No brunch, flowers and egg hunts like Easter. Just joyful giving to children we often don't know.

T'here's something about this custom that celebrates the essence of Christianity. Our simple generosity to strangers commemorates the true origin of this holiday, even though we've long forgotten that it really represents a memorial for our good dead.