Friday, August 26, 2011

Well, then.

That didn't work out quite as I expected.

I'm immersed in technology. I live it, breathe it, rely on it, love it and curse it. But sometimes I forget that it's not really like that for everyone else.

Case in point: My trip to Michigan. I had intended, dear reader (I think there is at least one of you) to blog my way through the journey, but a strange thing happened on the way to the electronic chalkboard.

There ain't a lot of Internets out there.

My first stop yielded no open wireless access, and no one could remember the password to the closed network. On my second stop, I stayed with folks that don't even own a computer. On my third stop, I once again encountered the "no wi-fi zone", along with the strangest proprietary router I've ever seen that had me baffled. I was reduced to snagging free wi-fi from McDonald's periodically on the journey, but by that time I was too baffled to blog.

So I shall blog parts of the trip in retrospect. It was, after all, an interesting journey.

Can't wait to tell you all about it.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Places to go, people to see

I guess you can go home a way.

People who spend any time around me are probably sick of hearing me wax rhaphsodic about my home state of Michigan. I think it's a very special place, and unfortunately it often gets painted with the same large brush that passes over Detroit (another place people know nothing about other than the "decay porn" that shows up on the evening news).

I'm traveling back this week for my High School class reunion (let's just say it's divisible by 10 and leave it at that). But really, it's an excuse for me to cruise the state and visit some people I haven't seen in a very long time.

One of those people was my friend Susan, whom I haven't seen since we graduated from Journalism school over 20 years ago. Sue was one of my best friends during a particularly challenging time in my life; I counted on her for professional and personal advice. I probably leaned on her a lot more than she knew at the time. We fell out of touch over the years, but recently reconnected on facebook; when I knew I was going to be traveling to Michigan, I asked if I could stop by and say hi.

Such "reunions" are often difficult and awkward. I'm generally a fan of leaving the past in the past where it belongs, but this friendship was (and is) more important to me than some, so I thought it was worth the risk.

As it turns out, it was. Susan and her family were very gracious in accepting me into their home, showing me around town, and even helping arrange for a mechanic when my vehicle started to make a horrible scraping sound that, I'm sure, terrified dogs and young children miles away with its incessant screeching. We chatted away into the wee hours of the morning over some wine I brought from New York (well, to be honest, I did most of the drinking), caught up on old times, shared some new memories, and renewed a friendship that now spans several decades.

During the tour Susan gave me of her new hometown, the conversation turned to author E.B. White, best known for his books "Charlotte's Web" and "Stuart Little", as well as the indispensable writer's reference, "The Elements of Style." Turns out, White used to hang around the area, and we remarked at how few authors could capture the imagination of both children and adults. It's another relationship that spans decades; the bond between author and reader. And I was reminded of one of my favorite EB White quotes, this one from "Charlotte's Web":

"It's not every day that someone comes along who is a good friend AND a good writer. Charlotte was both."

So is Susan. I'm blessed and lucky to have good friends like her in my life.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Pure Michigan

I'm heading back to my home state of Michigan tomorrow for a week-long (and much-needed) vacation; I'll be visiting friends, family, and attending my class reunion...something I said I would never, EVER do again. Apparently, time has dulled the miserable memories.

Anyway, I'll be blogging the journey as much as possible. Stay tuned, folks. Should be fun. I hope.

Sunday, July 17, 2011


Went to church this morning with the family for a special service; we're sending 12 members of our congregation to Iona, Scotland on a religious pilgrimage that happens every few years in our congregation. The "pilgrims", nine teens and three chaperones, will spend two weeks in Europe, visiting a location that has held a special place in Christendom for centuries.It was hard to not be moved by the service, which was based in part on worship ceremonies conducted on Iona. The special connection to Scotland was not lost on me; my Great-Grandmother immigrated to the United States from Scotland, and my Father's side of the family included a long line of Presbyterians with Scottish roots. On my left arm, I have the triquetra (an ancient Celtic symbol used in Christianity to represent the Trinity) permanently inked in my skin. So you can say I have something of a connection to this ancient place.

It was also bittersweet to know I'm entrusting three of the most treasured people in my life—Connie, Andrew and Mackenzie—to this journey. I'll admit to some trepidation; I'm nervous about watching them board a plane that will carry them half a world away. I'm carrying a bit of jealousy that they get to go and I simply cannot, due in large part to the physical demands of the pilgrimage itself. But most of all, I'm excited that they get to participate in this journey and this ritual.

I was struck this morning by the tone of the service. In a world that is increasingly hostile to people of faith, where we often get painted with a wide brush that portrays us as intolerant, angry, selfish people, it was refreshing to hear a message of charity, love, tolerance and peace. It's far different from the caricature that I see daily in the press and in popular entertainment. This is the reality of my faith, and I'm proud to be a part of it. I hope those that are going on this journey can appreciate its larger significance, and not take it for granted as "just another trip".

I wish these dozen pilgrims well on their journey. I can't wait for them to return and to see their pictures, hear their stories, and share the experience vicariously through them. Godspeed, all.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

To The Newly-Minted Graduates of 2011

This weekend, I'll videotape a graduation ceremony, and I'll listen to another series of graduation speeches. As many as I've heard, I've never given one. I don't know why I've never been asked; after all, I'm smart, witty, and I can actually pronounce some pretty big words. That's more than some of these clowns can do.But that notwithstanding, I was once again passed over as a graduation speaker. So here's the speech that I'd give if I were asked (which, once again, I wasn't).


Dear Graduating Class of 2011:

Welcome to the real world.

When you leave here today, you'll step out of the sheltered halls of academia into that mystical place you've heard about for so many years called "The Real World". Some of you may have already experienced it on one level or another, and others among you may think it's a TV show on MTV, and still others are wondering what the old codger up behind the lectern is rambling about when he uses phrases like "MTV" and "TV show". But that's not important right now.

The fact is, when you wake up tomorrow, you're going to find yourself in the position you've worked so hard for all these years: Hung over, unemployed, and in debt up to your mortarboard.

Welcome to the real world.

It's customary for graduation speakers to offer some brilliant bit of wisdom to help carry you out into this brave new place, but I'm afraid I don't have anything particularly insightful to offer. I can't even draw from my own graduation ceremonies, because I don't remember a thing they said, except for the speaker at my college commencement, who said, "Just as there was when I was graduating, there's a whole wide world waiting for you. Only it's waiting for you with a 2x4 to knock you upside the head."

That explains why I stayed in school for an extra two years for an advanced degree. The man scared the hell out of me.

And so here you are in the glorious year of 2011. Unemployment is at the highest it's been in your lifetime. The world is facing increasing pressures from natural disasters, global wars, technology run rampant, and environmental uncertainty.

Lucky you.

Welcome to the real world.

Now don't get me wrong; I'm an eternal optimist. It takes a certain kind of crazy person to open a business in the middle of a recession providing a service that no one really needs in a town that seems to have as many vacant buildings as it does occupied ones. My business offers a premium service in a city where the per capita income is $14,495, and where the population has declined for the seventh year in a row. Where historic buildings were literally crumbling into the street. It's the kind of place that's a great place to be FROM, but people like you—newly-minted graduates—would barely consider a hotbed of opportunity.

But that's where you would be wrong. In the midst of what has been called "the worst economy since the great depression", I've found a small but thriving business community, fantastic people that are engaging, fun and polite, and a small-town atmosphere that I find refreshing, in an area surrounded by some of the most natural beauty I've ever seen. I've witnessed a small renaissance in the downtown business district, and I'm now hearing complaints that the biggest problem we have downtown is a lack of parking spaces. Go figure.

So that brings me to my point (which I think I had, but I almost forgot). The world is what you make of it. You can look at the ugliness around you and get discouraged and depressed, or you can face that approaching 2x4 as it heads for your head and DUCK. Then punch that sucker that's swinging it right in the face.

Some of you were just toddlers when a band called "Crowded House" performed a song called "Weather With You" in the 80's. The chorus includes the line, "Everywhere you go, you always take the weather with you". It's a simple but profound verse; a more sophisticated version of the one-liner, "No matter where you go, you'll always be there." In short, the world is what you make of it. If you walk around carrying a storm cloud above your head, all you'll see is rain. That doesn't mean that you put blinders on to the very real problems that surround you, but life is about making choices. You can choose sunshine or rain. It really is that simple.

One more thing for those of you who haven't fallen asleep or who aren't posting disparaging remarks about this speech on twitter before I'm even done:

I encourage you to be kind. We live in an age of increased polarization, rancor, anger and bitterness. We label each other: Conservative, Liberal, Radical, Warmonger, name it, there's a label for it. Folks, labels are for jars, not people. The sooner we stop trying to fit each other into convenient little boxes where we can shove each other on a shelf and say, "There, that's a good little [insert label here]" the better off we'll all be. As we all enter the real world, we're going to need each other more than ever. Yes, we can disagree. Yes, we can have differences of opinion. But in the end, we all have to work together.

So as you head out into that mythical new frontier before you, and as you consider the advice I've so wisely dished out, please ponder the words of author P.J. O'Rourke who wrote: "Everybody knows how to raise children, except the people who have them." Then realize that I really don't know a damn thing, and I've made it all up. Congratulations on your graduation, and again...welcome to the real world.

Friday, June 17, 2011

On New York's Marriage Equality Bill

The New York State Legislature is poised to vote on the issue of "marriage equality" soon. The House has already passed a bill, and its future in the Senate is unclear. Below is the text of an open letter to my State Senator that I posted to my facebook page; I'm reprinting it here to give it maximum exposure.


Dear Mr. O'Mara:

If everything works out as expected, there will be a vote in the Senate any moment now that, if passed, will allow same-sex marriage to be legal in New York. You, of course, know this already. You have also indicated your intent to vote against this bill.

Despite my well-known political bent as a left-leaning moderate, I did vote for you, so I feel like I have a voice are MY representative, even more so than if I had voted for your opponent. You have indicated that this issue deserves a debate, and that you're open to hearing opinions from both sides (despite your stated opposition to the proposed law), so I hope you'll read this and at least give it thoughtful consideration.

First, some background: I grew up in a very small Midwestern town, the son of very conservative parents in a rural area where the only buildings were a barbershop, a general store, a gas station, a post office, and a church. My family attended a conservative Lutheran church where I was baptized and confirmed, and I grew up with—you guessed it—very conservative values, which I still hold close to this day. When I was growing up, I didn't know anyone who was gay (although we had some suspicions about the school librarian), and the concept of "gay rights" was not only foreign to me, but to be honest, somewhat repugnant. I'm not particularly proud of that attitude looking back, but that was the world I was raised in.

In fact, that world was a cruel and harsh one. In my time, the worst insult you could hurl at another guy was to call him "gay". As a shy, reserved, artistic young man, you can imagine that this invective was directed my way more than once. In fact, I was once nearly run down on a back country road by a car full of my classmates who shouted "Queer LaVere" as they drove their speeding car about a foot from me. I grew to resent not only the implication, but the larger gay community for even existing.

Two things changed this for me. One was the horrific case of Matthew Shepard, a young man who was tortured and murdered in 1998 simply because of his sexual orientation. This disturbing incident made me face my own bigotry, and I realized that this was the ultimate end result of the hatred that I was harboring. My attitude turned around almost overnight. I started seeing homosexuality in a whole new light. Clearly, this was a population that was mistreated for no other reason than pure bigotry and hatred.

The second thing that changed was my interaction with gay people. That might sound odd, but remember my background—I didn't know anyone who was gay, so my entire view of the gay community was based on a caricature. I found that the gay people I knew were really no different from anyone else, good or bad. Despite all the chatter about the "gay lifestyle", I found their morality, behavior, and decency to be no more egregious or better than my other contemporaries.

In short, my experiences overcame my biases.

Flash forward to today, and the "gay marriage" issue is on the front burner. I'll admit that my religious convictions and my personal experiences have often clashed. But a wise preacher once told me, "Religion is about rules. God is about love." God doesn't hate his creation. I've watched good friends reject their church, religion, and God in general because they hear messages of hate coming from pulpits across the world, and think (incorrectly, I believe) that they are not welcome in the fellowship of faith. It disturbs me to see this happening, and I don't find any justification for cherry-picking scripture to target a specific group of people simply because their private behaviour is foreign to some.

Likewise, I firmly believe the time has come for government to get out of the way and allow gay people to marry whomever they choose. In the eyes of the state, marriage is a legal contract. In the eyes of the state, it has nothing to do with morality, nothing to do with "God's holy word" and absolutely nothing to do with social engineering. I'm baffled at the reluctance of "small government" conservatives to understand this and allow this bill to pass.

As for its effect on churches, I would point out that my brother is a minister in a very conservative denomination. He is not allowed by his denomination to preside at a marriage where one of the two is divorced. The state has yet to come in and force him to do so. A state-sanctioned marriage has NOTHING WHATSOEVER to do with a church-sanctioned marriage. The argument that one affects the other is specious.

My gay friends want the title of "marriage" not only for legal reasons (to protect property rights, inheritances, hospital visitations, power of attorney, protecting end-of-life decisions, etc.), but because in their eyes, their lifetime commitment to another person is an important one, and the ritual and rite (not "right") of marriage MEANS something to them. These are good people. They are not the enemy. They do not want to destroy society. They basically want what the larger straight community wants, and entering into a long-term committed marriage is something they should not be denied. Several states already recognize this, and the last time I checked, the Republic was still standing, there wasn't anarchy in the streets, and life just goes on.

If you're still reading this far, I would ask you to seriously consider just one more thing. New York State is losing population. People are fleeing this state in record numbers due in part to high taxes, an oppressive government that sticks its nose in private concerns more every single day, and often refuses to tackle the big issues in favor of minor ones. Do we really want to push away a young, vibrant population that can make great contributions to the future of this state simply because of whom they choose to love? Seriously?

I doubt my words will change your mind. I fully expect you to vote your conscience, and while I respect that on one level, I'm disheartened by it on another. I would only ask that you give serious consideration to these words and the words of those who speak much more eloquently than I ever could on this subject. If and when the vote comes up, I hope you'll do the right thing and allow my friends the same privilege I've enjoyed for the past two decades.

Thank you for your consideration.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Memo to Corporate Management

Dear Corporate Management:

It has come to my attention that your firm may be experiencing some temporal displacement issues; to wit, you may not be aware that the rest of the world has "moved on" and we are no longer experiencing life in 1954. I realize that this revelation may bring with it some serious cognitive dissonance, therefore I would like to assist you in whatever way possible with forging forward into the brave new world you will encounter when you remove the blinders from your eyes and update your aging calendars.

First, the year is now 2011, and America now has a President of African descent. I mention this at the beginning, because when you see that dark face staring back at you from the White House, it's important that you know you are not looking at the housekeeping staff. This realization may come as a shock to you, but getting the "big news" out of the way first will help you cope with the rest of this memo. You may notice many "dark" faces in your company, and some of them may even work in areas outside the janitorial realm (although none are probably on your management team).

Second, women are now fully-functioning members in all areas of society. As you look around your workplace, you will now see females of all varieties performing tasks on every level. Some of them even have the title "Manager" in your organization (it's true...check the org chart). Instead of asking yourself how they managed to "sneak in", you are encouraged to take advantage of their unique skill sets, and may even want to consider moving them into positions beyond those of marketing and accounting. In many businesses, women now serve as Directors, Vice-Presidents and even CEOs. I realize this may shock your 1950's sensibilities, but rest assured, women are now seen as not only capable, but—brace yourself—competent.

In 2011, it is permitted for corporate management to seek the advice and counsel of those people outside the management team. Further, you are encouraged to foster an environment of camaraderie and collaboration whereby company team members (you probably know them as "employees" or "bodies") actually suggest ideas and help implement them outside of the management structure. This will take some getting used to, but you will find that many of them actually have good ideas based on their years of experience with your company and its operations.

You will find that many of your team members (there's that pesky phrase again!) work in three-sided boxes known as "cubicles". These are a fairly recent corporate development, designed to encourage ownership of one's own "space" while allowing for collaboration with other team members through what is commonly known as "walking around". Rest assured that if your team members are seen exiting their cubicle and engaging in conversation with another team member, it does not necessarily mean that they are not contributing to the bottom line of the corporation.

A few other brief things to remember (these are also known as "bullet items", to use the popular vernacular):

  • Women now wear pants. Blouses are also lower-cut than you remember, and staring is highly discouraged.
  • Do not refer to female team members as "honey", "baby", "sweetheart", "cookie" or "darling". In most cases, referring to them by their name is preferred.
  • Those hard things that look like donuts are called "bagels", and are basically inedible after about 2PM
  • "facebook" is not really a book, "The Net" is not really a net, and mail is now delivered instantly through a "computer". You will receive separate guidance on these issues.

I hope this will help you in your transition to this exciting new era.


William Shatner
Director of Temporal Placement Services