11.27.13

38, shepherding, and my friends

Posted in Uncategorized at 1:49 am by Administrator

it is a tradition for me to write a poem on my birthday. i’m really not in the mood, but i’ll do it because i’m already a day overdue.

The Artist

at long last i have graduated from making art
to collecting it.

dissuaded of the idea that i see things differently,
i enjoy seeing them as others do.

the window curtain: my daughter’s long dress.
the corner behind the piano: my son’s fortress.
and my words: playthings for my lover.

i collect the things i never could have made:
their laughter, their songs,
the look in their eyes.

they tell a story that has already been told,
for which i will only make new words
to replace the old.

————————

i’ll admit that i do not understand why Christ designates Himself as a shepherd, and why He charges Peter to feed his sheep. what are sheep? they are imbecilic animals destined to be shaved bald and then eventually slaughtered for stew. they are protected only to be harvested.

i can only imagine that Christ encourages Peter to see the people as sheep because the people—who had recently rejected, tortured, and murdered Christ—had patently proven how foolish and incomprehensible they were. by charging Peter to feed His sheep, He was reminding Peter to care for the people not because they were lovable but rather because they were pitiable. regardless, it is nearly impossible for me to imagine a shepherd desiring intimate, passionate union with his sheep; the idea is a bit bizarre (if not scandalous). the fact is that a shepherd and his sheep have nearly nothing in common, except that the sheep may eventually become part of the shepherd (after being eaten by him).

in any case, three of my old best friends did reach out to me on my birthday. Won Ho texted me from China; Chris called me from Chicago; and Andrew called me from Massachusetts. it was nice to be remembered by old friends in a very intentional manner… it reminded me that ritual occasions do occasionally serve a good purpose.

i feel that i have two years to figure out some important things, mostly related to matters of “calling” and “purpose”. but here at 38, i’m contemplating a few ideas and metaphors that i believe will hold richness for me, for years to come. in no particular order, they are:

the biblical Aaron
the Lion
the prime of a man’s life
the people of God
post-modernity
excellence
generation X
the favor of God

11.16.13

exchange with a friend, regarding “excellence” (to be continued)

Posted in Uncategorized at 5:04 pm by Administrator

Friend:

The thing that stands out to me more than anything is that you seemed to have written about “excellence” as if it is some concrete thing, when it certainly is not. Your team went in with qualifications for “an excellent organization.” And that is why you needed to needed to make hard judgments with measurable items. But then you kind of extrapolated it to other instances of “excellence” when in actually seemed that were speaking about things that were “big” or “powerful.” I would argue that an “excellent government” would be one that does not promote injustice. “Excellence” cannot be unqualified. Each thing or entity has certain characteristics that would make it excellent (by the way, for many, these characteristics would be totally subjective). That is why you are an examiner for THE Baldridge award- because they are a body which has a systematized rubric. But I am sure there are some individuals who may have “loved” certain companies/ organizations who would have never received the Baldridge award.
….
If I gave made you dinner, do you want an excellent dinner, or just an OK dinner? If I ask, do you want an excellent marriage, or a decent one? Excellence BY DEFINITION means something wonderful. That’s why I think you are actually speaking about things that are popular, big, powerful- not necessarily excellent.

My response:

i want to clarify that my use of the term excellence points to a specific concept of excellence, which is synonymous with the popularized terms “organizational excellence”, “business excellence”, and “performance excellence”. but i would argue that even the vernacular usage of “excellence” has been transformed by the broader paradigm shifts regarding “organizational excellence”. what we are referring to when we speak of this brand of excellence is not necessarily moral goodness; rather, it is reduction of variation, improved product quality, and consistent stakeholder satisfaction. in short, it is “maximization of potential”, in social and economic terms.

the great misconception of our times is that “maximization of potential” is a moral goodness (if not a spiritual and moral prerogative). it is not surprising then that many “business excellence” theorists have Christian backgrounds and that they point to scriptural passages that would appear to emphasize good stewardship manifested in productivity (i.e. the parable of the talents). but i would challenge you to take a step back and understand the inherent problem with conflating the emergent idea of “organizational excellence” with spiritual maximization. the two are not equivalent; and the increasing interchangeability of these concepts in post-modern America creates a unique and potentially problematic context for the 21st century pursuit of God.

i would highlight the origins of “excellence” as it pertains to this discussion. excellence of this nature is a very recent ideological phenomenon. it’s predicated on two distinct factors: 1) economic rewards for corporate productivity (capitalism), and 2) a surplus of labor. “Taylorism” was probably the genesis of excellence as we now understand it: a scientific approach developed in American industry in the late 1800s, intended to decrease variation, adopt best practices, and empower managers to standardize workforce practices. Stewhart and others built upon this foundation in the 1920s to begin measuring workforce efficiency and productivity through statistics, and in the mid 1900s certain practices were developed (i.e. PDSA, lean six sigma) to decrease variance and error. By the 1960s and 1970s, the global expansion of industry became fertile ground for theorists to begin systematizing these early approaches into macro systems, which we now assemble under the auspice of “performance excellence”.

though the roots of “organizational excellence” are decidedly secular (and rooted in America’s particular form of industrial capitalism), its impact has been pervasively experienced throughout society. when we hear about errors, we expect to learn of “root causes”; when we face difficult decisions, we ask for facts, if not “data”. our general assumption is that “an education is always a good thing”, because we take it for granted that the maximization of one’s intellectual and economic potential is a universal ideal. we assume the moral benefit of systematic processes by which people network, synergize, and increase mutual productivity. I would argue that Rick Warren’s approach to church structure and growth is very logically a reflection of America’s rationalism and of America’s preoccupation with excellence in particular.

is this kind of “excellence” actually good? are decrease in variation, increase in productivity, and capacity for growth actually moral? the conclusion of my reflection is that this answer is “not necessarily”. as a society, we are so absorbed with being productive (and recognized for that productivity) that we increasingly only understand personal morality within that framework.

i don’t want an “excellent” dinner. i want a “good” experience, in everything i eat and do. i want to assert the primacy of the moral code, relative to society’s emphasis on productivity, profit, and maximization. there is no easy rapport between capitalism and Christianity, but we have forged one, and it is a perilous ideological bridge that threatens to justify technocracy and its inherently Machiavellian religious belief system.

11.14.13

excellence

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:46 pm by Administrator

over the past year in particular, my company has afforded me a chance to focus a bit more of my time on its efforts to gain recognition for excellence. “excellence” is itself a very interpretable word, so i’ll translate it as it relates to my professional context. my company is seeking excellence of the Baldrige award variety. it wants to attain a level of sophistication defined by the Baldrige award criteria.

now, before i say more, i need to summarize what i’m wrestling with in this entry. my question is this: do i believe that excellence is worth seeking, for myself and for the various communities that i’m a part of? do i believe in the particular kind of excellence my leaders subscribe to?

i’m a certified Baldrige examiner now (in my particular state) and i was recently part of a team that did a site assessment of an applicant. i’m not allowed to disclose where i went, whom i assessed, or what i found, but i can describe the process in general terms. it was an extraordinarily demanding process of evaluation. individual members of the team had to put in about 70-80 hours of pre-site visit work on our own time, reviewing the organization’s application and engaging in long team conference calls to distill our observations. the site visit took six days in total, and we worked about 15 hours a day on little more than 5 hours of sleep, for the duration of the visit. our approach was relentless. we interviewed hundreds of employees and organizational leaders; we mapped out the company’s processes, personnel, and history of improvements; and through all this information we arrived at specific conclusions about the company’s culture. we scored the applicant according to its ability to meet the finer points of the Baldrige criteria, which span seven categories of achievement defined for leadership/governance, strategic planning, customer service, data/measurement, workforce management, processes, and results/deliverables.

the intensity of the process compelled several of us to renewed reflection on our own lives, which led to some interesting conversations. i’d say that an important component of the process for each of us was the personal struggle to deeply understand the content and significance of the Baldrige criteria for excellence. when we first began the process, we understood the criteria and their categories in broad strokes; but the process of evaluation forced us to understand the criteria down to their specific terms. late in the week, it was not unusual for us to engage in protracted debates about semantics. what is engagement? what does it mean to be systematic? what is the true nature of integration? we struggled with the words because we had to own those words; they were the only tool we were given by which to judge our applicant.

i’m not going to jump to the obvious parallel that presents itself here, with regard to the “Word of God” and its seminal place in Christian praxis. but i should say that wrestling with terms was absolutely necessary to me in my effort to understand the Baldrige criteria. now that i understand the criteria in personal terms, i can begin the process of reflection through which i might come to believe in these criteria, inasmuch as one can believe in them as a framework for something valuable.

so do i believe?

i’ve read many many interesting books on organizational excellence. i count “Good to Great” as one of my favorites; i’ve enjoyed “Hardwiring Excellence” and “21 Irrefutable Laws” as well. i’ve been influenced more by “Purpose-Driven Church” than i’d often like to admit. “Remains of the Day”, “Ender’s Game”, and at least a few of my other favorite fiction books have piqued my interest in both leadership and culture as well. the Bible of course provides an interesting text on organizational excellence. my nearly irrepressible tendency at this point is to emphasize how poorly the Bible functions as a manual on good leadership (as i simply delight in deconstructing the biblical narrative) but i’ll restrain myself. yes, all of these books and many more fascinate me because i am myself deeply fascinated in the interpersonal dynamics of teams and in this whole notion of organizational excellence.

but as much as the matter of excellence interests me, i’m resistant to the idea, at heart. try as i might, i cannot shift my fundamental psychology as it pertains to individualism. my father’s deep cynicism of religious fanaticism is at the foundation of the way i perceive the world. i don’t trust groups of people; i don’t like large companies; i think “nations” are arbitrary; and i fear mob psychologies of all kinds. as much as i believe in God of the Christian kind, i really fear religion, in the way that it unites people and masks their true differences, in the way it coalesces will and mobilizes people toward proselytization and even persecution. the “megachurch” to me is the second most frightening social institution in America, surpassed only by our national government—which uses our tax money to carry out drone attacks, kill people, and spy on us. it’s because of this fundamental leaning that i now support personal gun ownership. i believe that the primary intent of the 2nd amendment is to install that one last check against government tyranny: an individual’s ability to defend his freedom, with lethal force if necessary.

with this context in mind, i think one can understand why i hesitate to believe in excellence, when it is so easy for others to believe. if a company reaps great success and basks in its efficiency, is that necessarily of great benefit to all the individuals that are connected to it? the assembly lines of the early 20th century implemented great process changes that multiplied profits and actually decreased the burden of labor for employees; but what did that sort of “excellence” due to the fabric of its working class society, now divested of the personal leverage rooted in their manual trades? i hear about ascendant companies, and i wonder if their success does not serve to justify certain ideologies of privilege regarding society and personal worth. despite all my suspicion of religion, i embrace personal spirituality because i believe that the needs of the individual are not met by the needs of the whole. great, effective, profitable industries inevitably contain and disempower those that work for them, simply through indoctrination and inequality.

perhaps i’m a socialist (if not frankly a communist) at heart, but with time, i’ve found this to be an unfair way to characterize myself. the pursuit of true egalitarianism and social justice predate the invention of socialist philosophy. this ideal was rooted in the American constitution, and in the Enlightenment protest against church hegemony, and in the early church movement, and in the covenant culture of the Old Testament Jews. it has always been with us. the fear of the integrated, monolithic, and powerful organization of humans is well-justified by our history; and for every example of a corporation or tribe that accomplished something great, there is for sure an example of an emergent organization that used its efficiency and power to destroy lives. i take to heart the lesson of Babel, and i reconstruct it this way: that evil synergizes more mightily than does good.

but i do endeavor to transcend this cynicism of organization and of collective excellence. after all, has God not called me to truly and deeply engage in community, as a sign of my allegiance to Him? did He not tell me in straightforward words that i would not personally experience blessing apart from the blessing of my people? so i see this at play, that the Lord has embedded in me a great fear of nations, so as to inform my participation in His nation. the Lord has planted in me a great hostility toward the predators of the world, so that in being His lion i would know their kind—and overcome them.

i come to this shred of early belief: that excellence may not be good in and of itself, but it is at times important. for most people of this world, the pursuit of excellence may be the closest thing to authentic spirituality that they will experience; and if in this pursuit they experience something of God, then there is good in that. all things being equal, i think it is best for the imperfect man to reflect on his depravity and to learn from his futility, but when excellence can point to godliness, then it is more than simply worthwhile; it is necessary

11.12.13

missing you, God

Posted in Uncategorized at 6:52 pm by Administrator

i’d explain the context if i could, but i think that for me it suffices to say that after a difficult and demanding ten months, i finally have a chance to curb the forward momentum. i’ve landed, for however long, after a terribly long migration, and i can’t remember where i came from, and it no longer matters where i’m going. i’ve landed on this branch, and i’ve closed my eyes beneath my wings, and i know only that the wind has been harsh and the flight has been arduous. here, i’ll let my soul catch up to where i am. i am tired.

i wouldn’t say that that all the work and responsibility has been too much for me. what is too much, in any case? is it what drives one into depression? is it what takes a man’s life away? time and time again, i thought i was filled to capacity, only to find more being poured into my life. and when i was emptied, it was a savage emptying, a functional and mechanical emptying, meant only to make space for the next filling. i have been deflated and stretched over and again, and now the bounds of what i am feel fragile, if not porous.

i come back to the only thing that is familiar. perhaps i cannot recall my places or my friends; perhaps i cannot remember why i do the things that i do. but i do remember friendship with God. in this place, where i am, i come to you God, with no sense of whether i have obeyed or rebelled, whether i have loved or hated. i come to you, because i miss you. life has cast me into storm and tumult, and i have striven against the pelting rain, and i have ducked the fearsome gale, and yet i hold to the sliver of a memory—the feel of the mid-morning sun on my crown, a breath of still air. oh Lord, you are the warmth of my winter days; you are the sweetness of an untroubled dawn. i wish for you, like the birds roaming south, lost to thought and forgotten to the lands they have left behind. the only thing that matters is you.

today, i forget what i am and what i have. repentance is in the forgetting. it is the submission to the elements, in the pursuit of your favor. and today, your favor is just this: the breaking of the storm, and you resting with me in the perfect morn, without words

11.01.13

random random random

Posted in Uncategorized at 5:10 pm by Administrator

i hate the last entry i wrote, on allen iverson. when i re-read it, i found that it said just about nothing meaningful. i really hate lugubrious sports writing; it’s very unnecessary, especially when there are so many other things in the world to grieve. in his time, AI was a special player, and his retirement need not sublimate this fact. enough said.

i’d like the story i write to be in baltimore—baltimore of about twenty years from now. i want to depict a baltimore in transformation, ruthless in its reformation, sleek if not frankly bold in its reconceptualization. it’s already a city driven by self-loathing politics. if the powers that be could have their way, they’d buy the underclass out of their dilapidated rowhomes and sell it all en masse to the Beltway technocrats. they’d turn Baltimore into an industrial park. after all, it’s in the right location for a post-post-industrial rebirth of a kind.

the guilt-ridden baby boomers will give way to a new generation of municipal leaders governed by pragmatism of an intolerant kind. this new breed of social engineer won’t appreciate the aesthetics buried in Baltimore’s history of failed community development, heroin addiction, and violent crime. they’ll see the city as something that needs to be cleaned out and functionalized, to become a refinement center for everything shuttling back and forth between D.C. and NYC. they’ll take o’malley’s lead and do even more spartan things.

i’ve been waiting for Ender’s Game for about twelve years, with great anticipation. after poring over the RT reviews, i think i understand now what sort of a movie this is… and i’ve lost all desire to see it. granted, it’s an incredibly difficult book to adapt to the movie screen, as all of its appeal is wrapped up in its psychology. Ender’s Game isn’t really a story about interplanetary war; it’s mostly about the inimical organizations that children instinctively form, completely unbeknownst to their adult supervisors. it’s about how all the aggressiveness and cruelty of human society finds it genesis in the play of children. for the book to succeed as a movie, its essence has to be understood in this way; otherwise it totally misses the mark. and from what i can see, they have created an innocuous action fantasy out of Card’s masterpiece. for me, that is a fatal misconception.

i do so miss experiencing this time of year on the East Coast. i miss wrapping myself in a big coat and going out to watch a movie. i miss walking beneath bare trees and smelling hickory. i miss the smell of wood burning and the crunch of leaves underfoot. i think that as mid-fall turns to late-fall, i begin to remember all the creature comforts i once loved. taking walks in the cold; getting lost in public museums; meeting new people in overcrowded hipster restaurants; calling up old friends and having random reunions; and finding myself at hole-in-the-wall clubs in adams morgan or the lower east side, pleasantly surprised by my buzz and the sounds of the music. the nostalgia of Fall made me seek out people, and the cold of coming winter made the communion of souls instantly more intimate. i miss that. here in L.A., i pass the time by doing the same things in the Fall that i do in the summer. it’s pleasant, and it’s bland, and it’s strangely unfitting.