Sunday, April 27, 2014

Rudeness makes dinner invite tasteless

What's the right thing to do when someone insults you, but then asks you to dinner?

Years ago, I was researching an article about whether companies that offered employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs) -- a mechanism by which employees own shares in their own company -- outperformed companies that did not. I'd read up on the topic and drawn up a list of experts I could talk to who'd reportedly studied the issue.

What I was trying to figure out was whether anyone had specifically studied and documented whether ESOP companies outperformed non-ESOP companies, and if they had, if they would share specifics with me. On what basis was performance being measured? How much exactly did the ESOP companies outperform or underperform?

I was given the name of a fellow I was told had researched the topic and might have the kind of information I was looking for, so I emailed him and set up a time to talk by phone.

He was clearly enthusiastic about the topic, reminding me how intuitive it was to believe that ESOPs improved a company's performance. It only makes sense, he said, to think that employees who own part of a company would be more inclined to want to see it perform well than those who did not.

I agreed that intuitively it made sense. But I had told him in my email that I was looking for someone with solid evidence that ESOP companies actually did better, someone who had specifically researched ESOP-company financial performance and analyzed the results. I reminded him that I was looking for specifics.

His reiterated that his research showed ESOP companies clearly outperformed other companies. No question.

So by what specific percentage, I asked, again trying to get him to share his concrete research.

He seemed taken aback that I questioned him and asked for specifics and responded with a curt two-word expletive.

Taken aback myself, I asked him if I'd offended him somehow. He told me I had questioned his credibility by asking him to substantiate his claims.

I reminded him that I was reporting a story and simply looking for information.

He repeated the expletive.

This went on for some time until it became clear he either didn't have or wasn't going to share his research with me.

I thanked the source for his time. Before we hung up, he mentioned that he'd purchased a table at an upcoming industry association dinner and asked if I'd like to join them.

Given that I'd never been invited to dinner by someone who less than 15 minutes earlier had hurled epithets my way, I wasn't certain of the appropriate response. I supposed it might be an interesting event. You never know where an idea for a story might arise. Then again, I'd have to spend time with this guy.

If he didn't want to share information with me (if he indeed had it), the right thing would have been for him to simply tell me he chose not to share it rather than to launch into a verbal attack. I declined his invitation. 

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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Is a potentially offensive joke worth the possible repercussions?

Driving home one Sunday afternoon along Route 1 South heading into Boston, I noticed the message on a large billboard to the left off the highway. The billboard featured the photo of a Lexus sedan on the right and on the left, the message: "We give everyone great service. Unless you're a Yankees fan."

That's it. That's the whole billboard sign. It's a joke, of course, and after doing some digging, the newspaper version of the same ad features a note from the dealer that starts with the words, "Just kidding" and ends with the observation that everyone deserves great service, "even Yankees fans."

OK. So it's a joke. But when the joke is not made clear on the giant billboard sign, does the car dealer risk offending prospective buyers by telling them they're not welcome?

Granted, Boston is a diehard Red Sox town. Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) announces on its website that "our newborns are all Red Sox babies," tough going if you're an out-of-town Yankees fan who goes into labor in Boston and ends up at BIDMC.

It's all in good fun, but does the loyalty for one team that's so strong it carries over into a playful hatred of another team warrant carrying the joke far enough so that a particular group is made to feel unwanted on the premises? BIDMC welcomes all newborns as members of the Red Sox nation. It does not joke about providing exemplary healthcare to all newborns except those born to Yankees fans.

I'm a Yankee fan living in Boston. I've been a Yankees fan since I was 4. My father was a Yankees fan. But I've lived in Boston for more than 35 years and am surrounded by family and friends, all of whom are diehard Red Sox fans. (Except for my youngest grandson, Luke, who loves that Derek Jeter hit a home run on the first pitch in the first game that Luke ever saw the Yankees play the Red Sox at Fenway Park.)

My dentist of 30 years knows I'm a Yankees fan and he provides me with the same care and service he does his other patients. He doesn't joke about treating me differently because of my fan loyalty. And hepitched for the Red Sox in the 1960s.

Was the car dealer wrong to joke on the billboard about giving great service to everyone but Yankees fans? Humor is a funny thing. As long as the dealer is willing to recognize that by suggesting a specific group of prospective buyers is not as welcome at his establishments, he's likely to lose business, that's fine. Perhaps his business is just fine without welcoming Yankees fans. And it's not likely charges will be brought against him for discriminating against a protected group of Yankees fans.

The right thing for any business owner to do is decide whether it's worth it, in an effort to be funny, to run the risk of offending prospective customers. And the right thing for Yankees fans to do is decide whether to buy a car from this guy. I know at least one who won't. 

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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Alternative answer to exam question stands up to scrutiny

Years ago, when N.W., a reader in the Midwest, attended a liberal arts college, she and a friend decided to meet one of their distribution requirements by taking an introductory religion course focusing on nonwestern religions. It was, she writes, an overview course describing the beliefs and practices of "pretty much every other religion besides Judaism and Christianity."

When they sat down to their final examination, one of the long essay questions the professor posed "added some color" to the typically staid compare-and-contrast questions often used to test students' knowledge of what they've learned during the semester.

"The essay question posed a hypothetical," N.W. writes. "If your personal faith was outlawed, which of the faiths we covered during the course would you join?" The professor specified that students show their knowledge of at least three of the religions covered over the course of the semester in their answers.

After they finished the exam, N.W. and her friend talked about the question over lunch in the school cafeteria.

"I took it as an intellectual challenge and made a choice, as did the vast majority of my classmates," N.W. writes. But her friend, who was "far more deeply religious," chose to answer the question differently.

She chose to go the route of "persecuted religions the world over," writes N.W. "Go underground."

"I understood her choice," N.W. writes. "She didn't want to even consider losing her faith as part of a thought experiment."

N.W. asked her friend if she'd followed the instructions to discuss three of the religions they'd covered in the class in her answer. She told N.W. that, indeed, she had.

N.W. wonders if it was right to pass her friend, even if she didn't directly give an alternative religion as an answer to the professor's question?

In dealing with acts that show integrity, I often refer back to Stephen Carter's delineation of the three steps needed to act with integrity, outlined in his book, Integrity (Basic Books, 1996). The first step requires discerning the issue. The second step requires acting on what you discern. The final step is stating openly what you've done and why.

In writing the response she did, N.W.'s friend certainly worked to discern the issue. She thought through the question carefully and decided that, theoretically, choosing an alternative religion, even for the sake of getting a good grade on an exam, was unacceptable. She acted by writing the answer she did and articulating the reasons for her choice.

N.W.'s friend indeed showed integrity. Even though some of her classmates might have thought otherwise, the friend did give a direct answer to the professor's question. "None, and here's why" responds to the essay question posed, as long as she supported her answer with a clear understanding of the material covered in class.

The right thing was for N.W.'s friend to answer the question fully and with understanding and integrity, all of which she did. Although she never revealed the specific grade she received on the final, she did pass. Any teacher worth his or her salt welcomes a student who shows comprehension, critical thinking...and a bit of gumption. 

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Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Thirty-six reasons to be kind

Thank you, Bethany College, for inviting me to deliver the 2014 Founder's Day talk.

Text of talk:


Good morning.

When President Miller asked me if I would speak at Founder’s Day, I reminded him that I was not an Alexander Campbell scholar, a church historian, a minister … or a Christian.

He was quick to remind me, “I know who you are.”

He said it in a way that college presidents have of suggesting –  they know what they are doing.

I suspect that immediately after hanging up with me, he consulted with his staff and asked, “Does anybody know who this guy is?”

He would be right – who really knows who I am?

But because he asked, let me tell you … I have been an editor and a writer, and have tried my best to be a teacher.

I have tried to be all of these things since graduating from Bethany in 1978.

It didn’t cross my mind how long ago I had graduated, until I received a text from my grandson.  The text came to me during the Super Bowl this year. In it, my Grandson reminded me how old Peyton Manning, the Denver Broncos quarterback, was compared to the Seahawks quarterback, Russell Wilson.

“Papa, he’s 12 years and 250 days younger than Peyton,” Evan texted.

This means that Peyton Manning was 1 years-old when I graduated from Bethany.

It also means that this academic gown I’m wearing today ... is older than Russell Wilson.

It has been 36 years since I graduated from Bethany.

That number, 36 ... has profound meaning to many religions.

The Maori’s believe that 36 gods actively worked, to create the various parts of the first human being, before Tane, their god of forests and birds, breathed life into her.

According to Jewish Midrash, after God created light on the first day of creation, it shone for 36 hours.

In the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, there are 36 times that the faithful are commanded to love, respect, and protect a stranger.

And in 1836, four years before he founded Bethany College, Alexander Campbell wrote to the editor of The Christian Reformer to offer him several rules for writing and editing.

I am hopeful, that Campbell’s rules for writing could prove as useful today, 36 years after I graduated from Bethany, as they might have in 1836 …  which to be clear was just a few years before I was born.

So, let’s begin with Campells Rules:

Rule Number 1:
Introduce nothing – nothing into your pages that is not of obvious…practical…utility.

In the interest of providing you with something of practical utility that you can take with you when you leave this hall, I offer two pieces of advice:

Be curious, and - be kind.

My students regularly tease me about my relentless directive that they “be curious,” that they take nothing at face value, that they dig as deep as possible if they truly want to find answers.

Part of my job as a teacher is to make them want to be curious.

I urge them to challenge me and to challenge others.

I remind them of an old saying that seasoned reporters have shared with newcomers for years: "If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out."

In doing some research on Alexander Campbell, I came across several references on the Internet to his 5 rules of writing that others had written about.

Fortunately, I now teach at a place that not only owns one of the 48 Gutenberg Bibles known to be in existence, but also owns one of the only 6 complete sets of The Christian Reformer.

This publication is where Campbell’s rules for writing first appeared.

In the actual pages of The Christian Reformer from April 1, 1836, rather than from a learned essay on the Internet, I discovered that Campbell had actually listed 7, not 5 rules of writing.

So I urge you as I urge my own students  - be curious. You never know what you might find.

As I said earlier, I also urge my students to be kind.

I’m fortunate now to be teaching students who are chiefly engaged in doing public service. They work to shape public policy, to address issues that help others.

The rigor they apply to their work may be remarkable.  But I’m reminded daily that I am surrounded by their kindness. So, I urge you to be relentlessly curious and relentlessly kind.

So, that brings us to Campbell’s Rule Number 2: t is simply this:  Consider well how you are to end, or complete everything you commence.

OK. We’ll see how well I end when I finish my comments to you today

But for now, remember.

Be curious.

Be kind.

And remember the number 36.

And now Campbell’s Rule Number 3: Remember, many readers have minds Therefore give a reasonable variety.

At Bethany, I liked to think I had a mind and that I learned a variety of things.

Being here motivated me to want to learn, not just in the classroom, but in my relationships with classmates, staff, and professors.

That curiosity was nurtured in a late night astronomy class with Professor Stanley Becker, and it was nurtured by a course on modifying my own behavior with John Hull, and by a crash course in French from Pauline Nelson - taken so I could tutor a Haitian student - and by a lesson from Hal O’Leary in how to keep speeches short  - (we will see how well I learned this one) since audiences tend to get restless, and by a seminar on Nathaniel Hawthorne in Larry Grimes’ living room that led to a published book of essays -- written by the class.

At Bethany, I also discovered Dickens and Doestoeskvy, Pynchon and Kincaid, O’Connor and Keats, McCullers and Bishop.

It was here I first read that
“April is the cruelest month, breeding
lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
memory and desire, stirring
dull roots with spring rain.”

Or that

It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.”

But I also learned kindness at Bethany.

There were donuts and hot chocolate provided by the food service during January term when they saw that we had borrowed lunch trays to sled from in front of Old Main down past Cramblett Hall, across 67, and onto the front lawn of Campbell Hall.

There were emergency study groups formed to support classmates who had had a rotten first day of comps and needed what they should have learned in 4 years, crammed into one all-night session.

There was the president of the college sitting down during lunch to check in with you when he heard that a loved one was ill.

And there was the professor who loaned me $20 so I would have enough gas to drive home for Christmas break. [Pause. Return $20.]

Then we have Campbell’s Rule Number 4: When a series of essays is commenced on any subject, let it embrace the whole subject either on a larger or small scale – but let it embrace the whole methodically on some scale.

We’ve all read essays or listened to talks where we weren’t quite sure what point the writer or speaker was trying to make.

So again to be clear:  

I ask you to do two things:

Be relentlessly curious, and
Be relentlessly kind.

And now Campbell’s Rule Number 5: Avoid the appearance of dogmatism. Be independent, but not disdainful of the views and opinions of others.

This is a tough one.

Campbell could come down hard on those who did not share his particular views.

On the issue of slavery, for example, Campbell was against it, but he was also against abolitionism which called for the immediate ending of slavery in the United States.

In 1855, six years before the Civil War began, a student violated Alexander Campbell’s instructions that public discussion of the subject of abolition was to be avoided on campus. The student preached on the topic anyway in the village church at Bethany. Campbell expelled the student and used several pointed essays he wrote in the Millennial Harbinger to defend his actions.

While Abraham Lincoln may have shared some of Campbell’s views on how to end slavery in the United States, that student wouldn’t live to see slavery’s end. He transferred to what is now Butler University in Indiana and died 2 years after having given his abolition sermon in the village church.

But Campbell could also show kindness and respect for other people’s opinions even when they differed from his own.

In one fascinating issue of his Harbinger, Campbell recounts – well, re-creates – a conversation he had with a 70-year-old rabbi in Richmond named Judah.

Granted, this is Campbell’s recounting of the conversation, but in it, the Rabbi tells Campbell: “…you are the only Christian preacher I have heard
in a long life that does not abuse us poor Jews.”

The kindness that Campbell and Judah show for one another – in spite of clearly having a bit of a disagreement over the whole “Jesus as Messiah” thing – is clear.

And now, Campbell’s Rule Number 6: Be not too fond of analogies, new ideas, fine sayings and smart repartees.

In his lifetime, Campbell, who owned his own printing press, is said to have written and published more than 1 billion words. There are many “fine sayings” in his writings. But not being “too fond” of such words are the operative instructions in rule number 6.

Don’t be witty for wit’s sake.  Only use a good analogy if it’s clear to your audience what point you are trying to make. Always have a point to make, but be clear what your point is. Conversely, be curious enough to insist that others are clear with you in whatever point they are trying to make.

I teach a course now in opinion and column writing.

Because many of my students are planning careers as government officials in various countries, they often ask how concerned they should be about publishing strong opinions they might have.

It’s a real concern, but I tell them if they feel strongly enough about a topic, then they need to decide if those feelings are strong enough for them to be willing to stand behind them.

A couple of years ago, in a large class of students, I told them that they had to figure out “if the juice is worth the squeeze.”

An older student from India who sat in the back row had never heard the expression and asked the fellow next to him, “What did Professor Seglin say about Jesus and squeezing?”

Without hesitating the student answered, “Professor Seglin said you should never squeeze Jesus.”

Overhearing them, I tried to clarify by suggesting that I hadn’t said you shouldn’t squeeze Jesus … although that’s probably good advice as well.

It was on me to make clear the point I was trying to make about taking risks with publishing strong opinions. Had I been less fond of weaving smart repartee into my lecture, my student would have been less confused.

As others hold you accountable to be clear about what you mean, hold others accountable to be clear what they mean.

And finally, Campbell’s Rule Number 7: Be assured that moral influence depends upon moral goodness; and therefore our reputation for moral goodness is essential to moral usefulness. We must show a good spirit as well as good arguments.

And this brings us back to my advice to be curious and to be kind … and that you remember the number 36.

Let me tell you another story about my grandson, the one who reminded me just how old I was during this past Super Bowl.

A few years ago, when he was 12, Evan was into collecting autographs from sports figures.

He had saved up his money and paid for a ticket to get the autograph of Patrice Bergeron, a hockey player with the Boston Bruins.

Right before the signing, we got word that Evan’s other grandfather had died suddenly and unexpectedly.

Evan’s father, my son-in-law, David, called to ask me if my wife and I would go to the Bergeron signing, while David and Evan, his brother Lucas, and my daughter, Bethany flew to Chicago where Evan’s other grandfather had lived.

Of course we said we would.

When Evan was in Chicago for the wake, he called me and asked if I would be willing to see if Bergeron would talk to him on the phone during the signing.

Given that there would be hundreds of people at the signing, I didn’t think this possible, but I told Evan I would try.

Of course, I had no idea who Bergeron was nor did I know anything else about the Boston Bruins   or about hockey for that matter.

But after doing some digging, I found out some details and also discovered that a week before this autograph signing event, Bergeron’s grandmother had died.

I called the owners of the store where the signing was to take place, told them Evan’s story, and asked if they might be willing to ask Bergeron to talk with Evan on the phone.  They were moved but said that they were pretty sure Bergeron’s manager wouldn’t want to slow down the line at the signing.

So we left it at that and just hoped we could get Patrice Bergeron’s autograph.

When we arrived at the signing event, we could see that they were moving people through the line fast. Bergeron’s people were taking fan’s memorabilia for Bergeron to sign while the fans were in line. 

They were asking “silver” or “gold” to see what color ink each fan wanted Bergeron to use to sign whatever stuff we had brought with us.

When we got close, we called Evan on our cell. My daughter had known we’d be calling and Evan was in a waiting room at the funeral home in Chicago.

As we came to the table, I saw Bergeron’s manager, a gruff looking guy who was all business. With phone in hand, I started to say to the Manager, “My grandson just lost his other grandfather…”  but was cut off when the manager said: “You’re that guy? Give me the phone.”

The manager took the phone, handed it to Bergeron, and said,
“Talk to the kid.”

And they talked.

And they talked.

And they talked some more.

Clearly, Patrice and his manager had been filled in and they took the time to talk to Evan.

Toward the end of the conversation, I heard Bergeron say to Evan, “I’m sorry for your loss.”

And then there was a pause.

And I could see Bergeron’s eyes well up, then silence, and then Bergeron said, “thank you.”

When we left the building, we called Evan back and asked him what he had said to Bergeron after Bergeron told Evan he was sorry for his loss.

“I told him I was sorry for his loss too,” Evan said.

It was in that moment that Bergeron’s eyes had welled up and it took him a moment to regain his composure.

I wish that I had had the presence of mind to show the moral goodness each of them showed to one another in that moment.

And finally that brings me back to the number 36.

The Hebrew words for 36, lamed and vav, have taken on a particularly special meaning.

There’s a belief in the Talmud that the lamed vav are 36 morally righteous people who must exist for the world to continue.

No one knows who these lamed vav are.

When one dies, another takes his or her place.

If someone claims to be among the lamed vav, that’s a clear indication that they are not. They are too humble to believe they could possibly be
among these 36 righteous people.

The lamed vav are scattered throughout the world.

These lamed vav are said to justify our purpose to God.

The Talmud holds that we need these 36, these lamed vav, for the world to go on.

One of them  may be sitting among you now.

Another reason, among many, to be kind to those who cross your path.

Thank you for your curiosity.

Thank you for your kindness.

And thank you for welcoming me back to Bethany.