Life Outside My Cube

My life, a work in progress.

Category Archives: people

Empty Green Space

Many communities make a big deal out of how much “green space” or “open space” they have set aside for public use, as recreation areas, green ways or parks. The community in which I work is no exception, and boasts no fewer than 5 city parks within approximately 5 square miles. However, I contend that aside from limited sports and walking, they’re rarely used.

The park immediately adjacent to me – and whose nearly four acres I observe from my office window – is half wooded, with a maintained baseball diamond, sunny playground and open field. Tall oak and maple trees shade half of the blacktop walking path that circles the park. It’s a good looking park, and well maintained. I see a handful of walkers each day, a few kids on the playground, and some summer evenings a girls softball team comes to practice.

However, the park itself is inaccessible on three sides (office building, fence/railroad, yard fences). The one accessible side is on a dead-end street with no turnaround or parking area. It seems more like an adjunct to the surrounding neighborhood rather than an integrated space, as if the city didn’t know what to do with the odd piece of land. The playground was renovated about 4 years ago but the only nearby benches are in the full sun. There are no other benches or picnic tables in the park. The baseball diamond is pretty weedy and only tended a couple times each year.

Many deterrents, under-utilized, but with great potential. The one thing missing is community involvement. It wouldn’t even take the whole community – a single person could organize events and activities, and help make the park an integral part of community life. Matching funds available from the city to encourage neighborhood projects are available. The park is surrounded by houses on two sides, and the park, with some small improvements, could easily accommodate after-school programs, sporting events, picnics, neighborhood get-togethers and other activities.

Who will step up to fill this empty green space? Or should we just let the grass turn brown?

The Slough of Despond

Five years ago I was at the tail end of  self-employment, and a year from accepting a position with my current employer. I was working for my father on and off – he did not have sufficient income to pay me fulltime – and some programming, web design and home-business gigs. Unfortunately, there was not enough sustainable income, and my family was getting deeper and deeper into debt, which would at one point top $50K. I was feeling helpless, frustrated and depressed.

I had left my previous job 6 years before, to take on some work with my dad. He (inexperienced in software development, but too persistent to let that get in his way) designed and coded a software program used in the long-term care dietary business, and needed help with, well, Help. It wasn’t writing code, but technical manuals was fine with me to start with. I shortly after began to assist with software development, support, sales and marketing. It wasn’t long, however, until financial difficulties began. There was not sufficient income from the company to support me fulltime, despite my dad’s hopes and dreams that things would get better. He paid when he could – or wanted to – but it wasn’t enough, and we soon began relying on credit.

The peculiar thing was, I didn’t feel I could just say “no” to him and move on. By the time things were bad, I was fully involved and he was – to a great extent – dependent on me. I felt that to bail out at that point would be not only end my hopes for a work-at-home job, but also crush his hopes and dreams. How could I do that to my own father? I was beset on all sides – my supremely patient wife continued to urge me to quit, my bank account begged me to find a paying job, and my dad continued to not care about my financial situation. I felt helpless to act at all.

Well, I did act a little, and purchased a reseller account from a web host, thinking that I could fill in the gaps with web programming and hosting. Weak in the sales/marketing area, I found myself undercharging (per my astute wife) for work, and giving away too much for free. Hardly the way to make a decent income, but when you’re working for your friends (how else do you get started in this business?) I felt like it was almost an insult to charge going rates. Plus, I wanted to “build up the portfolio.” Unfortunately, since I did next to nothing marketing-wise, the web business didn’t grow. I don’t believe I was equipped to be a successful entrepreneur – I was only a technician (according to The E-Myth) and missing the kind of skills needed to grow the business. Here I was full of programming skills, but I didn’t know how to effectively do anything about getting clients. That was frustrating.

So I was in a horrible financial situation, feeling helpless and frustrated. There was a terrible amount of pressure to change my situation, but I seemed to be paralyzed. One reason might be that I sincerely thought that working from home was the Ultimate. Oh, we’d escaped the traditional church and were meeting in homes, we’d rejected public schools and home educated our children. Bringing the work home seemed like the next logical step, and God-ordained. Yet here we were in a much worse financial situation than we’d ever been in! What was I doing wrong? Were we totally deceived? I began a long period of self-doubt and depression over our situation. I lost interest in work, in the business, in home life.

What do I wish I would have done differently? I don’t think leaving the previous job was wrong; I’d do that again in a moment (besides, a layoff there was imminent). Here are some things I, in perfect hindsight, would redo:

– Talk openly with my dad about my finances, and ask pointed questions about his. Finances were never an open subject with my folks, and I didn’t get started of with a good foundation. Hence I had no savings to draw on, and we weren’t accustomed to changing lifestyle to accommodate reduced income. Anyhow, if my dad and I could have talked about my financial needs on a regular basis, perhaps we both would have come to the conclusion that it wasn’t working out, and bail earlier with no hard feelings.

– Connect with other web developers in the area in order to work cooperatively. I was lacking some skills, but perhaps with others we could have presented a full complement of abilities to potential clients. In an office, I find myself wanting to connect with other independent types at coffee shops, open workplaces, and the like – I should have jumped at those opportunities, or created them. Alone in a home office is no way to network.

– Get out my shell. I’m an introvert, and find it extremely difficult to cold-call and meet new people. Less so now, but much more then. I should have sought for advice on how to overcome this inward tendency, and how to improve those skills needed for an entrepreneurial business to survive.

– Open up to people. When things are going badly, I have a tendency to withdraw. I should have talked more openly with my wife and family about what I was going through, and drawn comfort from their love. I felt like nobody knew what I was going through. I’m sure some did, but I didn’t open up about it, to my loss. It wasn’t all about me and my failures (what I thought at the time); it was about the journey God was bring me – and us – through. That should have been shared more openly.

– Do that which I think or know is right. I was full of fear at what people would think, or how people would take my actions if I stopped working for my dad and friend (I’d set up a little home-business with a close friend that supported his business) and found a “regular” job again. Walking in fear is not a good thing, I realize now. I wish I would have gotten that back then.

A bright spot in all of this is that our eyes were opened – through that friend – to the beauty of God’s undying love and the hopeful theology of the kingdom during this low period. Had I not gone through these difficult times and been brought so low, I don’t believe I would have been as open to receive these truths. Through the slough of despond, God has brought us out into a beautiful vision of life and purpose. That’s a topic for another post, I think.

* Questions 6

Six Against the World

“Is volleyball all about skill?” That’s was the question of the evening as we watched our friends play a tough tournament set. On the surface, I quickly answered “Yes,” but the question was meant to probe a bit deeper. One aspect of the question was was concerned with God’s involvement in all our lives. Another aspect was concerned with individual skills.

An individual’s skill level will certainly help a team win, and a single stand-out player may win a few points on his own. Even the player who “takes charge” of the court, nudging aside weaker players just to gain a point is can help the team to win a game. But overall, stand-out players or a ball hoggers are detrimental to the team. You see, the greatest “win” on the court is when the whole team is working together and utilizing synergy to play at a higher level.

Volleyball is a fantastic game for emphasizing team play and cooperation. A , but a really good team working together is difficult to beat. A well-executed play involves different skills; each member of the team can participate in their own way, from the obvious pass, set and spike to the fakes and defensive moves. Each play involves everyone in the team, and requires different skills from each person. The beauty of rotations is that over time, each player has time at each position and will tend to excel at each skill needed.

Often, however, a player that has certain natural – or earned – abilities will tend to gravitate toward certain positions. Despite rotations, that person may switch positions after the serve in order to support or replace a weaker player at another position. For example, a short person without a high vertical jump may lean toward the passing positions. If this is done too often, that person will not be able to properly practice setting, spiking or blocking skills, unlike those teammates that occupy those positions regularly. If then a setter, for example, is injured or not available for a play, that passer may not be able to substitute at an appropriate level.

There will always be players that excel at certain positions – spikers, for example, where physical height or a high vertical is an enormous advantage. But it would be unwise for those players to spike exclusively – they may not be in a position to do so on each play, or each part of a play. A collection of players who excel at each position is a formidable team – flexible and dynamic with few weak spots the opponent can take advantage of. As everyone contributes to each position, I believe the team as a whole performs better than one or more stand-out players could on a weaker team. This synergy is the kind of skill that makes a competitive team.

In practice play, a team should be focused on increasing all players’ skill levels at each position. I believe that a team is as good as its weakest player, so that player should command a larger proportion of individual attention during practice. I also believe a team’s performance is as good as its weakest skills, so drills that improve those skills should command a larger proportion of time in practice. Drills and skills practice may seem boring compared to game play, but it’s essential for the proper growth of a competitive team.

I also believe that there is no “i” in team. Ball-hoggers have no place on a volleyball team. That kind of attitude demonstrates self-interest and a lack of concern for the team and other team members. “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves. Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others”

The Need to Create

Men are born with the innate desire to create. Women are born with the innate desire to nurture, but that’s perhaps another post. Creativity is a general characteristic of both men and women (or mostly children, these days), but to men, I think, creativity is a need, a validating force.

Here’s an example. I write software in my day job. The aspect of the work I enjoy the most is creating new software. I derive a great deal of pleasure from taking an idea and implementing it from scratch, especially where I have freedom to choose my tools and use my experience and the user-interface skills I have to build a piece of software. The more complicated, the better. This is much more satisfying than maintaining existing code. Even writing a specification for a new project is satisfying. I really get excited when I can spend time in creative designing and coding work.

Many guys have a place to putter about – a shop, a workbench – but the real satisfaction often comes with creating something there. Building a picture frame, a table, a solar heat exchanger or a go-cart are all achievements that bring a lot of satisfaction to the average male. Well, they would for me! These kinds of work – some might call them hobbies – are a guy’s way of feeding that need to create that might be missing in his day job.

So here’s a test: find a guy – or a bunch of them – and see if those whose jobs are predominantly rote have a creative outlet somewhere else in their life. Then think about how much more fulfilled they might be if their primary job centered around that creative outlet. I’m not suggesting that the key to fulfillment in life is finding a job that you love, but that a job that doesn’t offer a creative outlet may be stifling.

Does your life feel flat-lined right now? Why not try creating something!

* Question 4

Monstrous Discrepancies

Much of our time is spent evaluating ourselves in light of other people. We change ourselves in order to model others who we consider “popular”. More often than not, those people we consider popular have the same issue, and are themselves seeking for people to model.

Our culture values peer modeling. All you need to do is watch television to see advertisers working hard to convince you that you need their product in order to be like the “pretty people” portrayed in their ads. In other words, the person you are is not good enough, you need to conform to the socially acceptable norm.

I’m sure many have bought into this lie, having given in to the continual pressure. Others may observe the insidiousness of this pressure and resisted. Mostly. There is undoubtedly something in all of us that begs to be “normal”.

Unfortunately, there is no “normal”. Well, that’s only unfortunate to the advertisers – we are all so vastly different! This is a good thing! We should be constantly reinforcing to our children that they are unique and loved, valuable and important. No one can take away that uniqueness; it can only be subdued by constant peer evaluation and conformity.

Besides, as I said before, reality is not what it seems. Many of those people to seem to “have it together” really don’t; it’s a monstrous discrepancy. Let’s hear it for those creative, unique individuals who aren’t afraid to be different. And let’s encourage them!

* Question 2

I’ve Got Game

Next Saturday is the monthly LAN party at my workplace, and we’re going to be playing AOK, a family fave from way back that I haven’t played in many years. I got thinking about it when we played StarCraft at a previous LAN party. The two games are very similar in concept – civilization-building and warfare. The former I enjoy tremendously, the latter not so.

I’d never seen StarCraft before, so was very unfamiliar with the alien terminology. Though the mechanics of the game were similar, it takes a while to come up to speed with the different beings and their capabilities, their pros and cons. AOK is based on real earth civilizations, so although there are some unusual military units, everyone knows what calvary or archers are and what they can do.

Syntax aside, both these games have a strong pull and large following. What makes them good? Several aspects of the games make for enjoyable play. First, each scenario is different from the moment the game starts. Whether it’s solo, team, scenario or online play, there’s a certain unexpected randomness to opponent actions that makes each game unique and never boring. You never know how any given game is going to end up.

Second, while there is a framework of rules, how a player achieves his goals can vary widely. Building a powerful war economy is not easy, and strategy will be affected by many variables outside ones control, i.e. other players. I like the ability to choose the same scenario and work out different strategies through many iterations of play. Concentration, careful planning and quick response to unexpected events makes for an intense compelling game play.

Third, there’s more to the game than just killing opponents; it’s a constant march to building a more powerful civ, even as the skirmishes go on. A careful balance of resource, building and unit production is required throughout the game, not just quickness with a controller, though a certain agility with the keyboard and mouse is essential. It’s a combination of both; a thinking and action game.

Fourth, there is the opportunity to team up. That’s not unusual, but it’s an aspect of the games that I like, that allows people of different strengths and experience to enjoy playing together. Often at a LAN party there will be one or more people that are expert at one game or another, and they end up bored or teaching most of the time. With teams, even beginners can participate without being killed off right away. And there’s something about team play that brings people together.

Games like these are certainly no substitute for conversation, and I’d never suggest that they are a foundation for relationship building. However, I find myself engaging with people during a game that I’d otherwise probably not relate to on a casual level. It’s neutral territory, an overlap of experience that may help to deepen a relationship in another area.

So next Saturday I’ll be at the office. Not working.

The Fusion of Entertainment and Enlightenment*

So we watched a couple episodes of a pseudo-detective TV program last night from a library DVD. I suppose my expectations were a bit too high. The first episode was just ridiculous – characters acting very foolish, non-realistic storyline, unbelievable characters. I barely made it through, and was ready to toss the rest aside as unwatchable. I was kind of insulted that the writers would think I’d find the material humorous, much less interest me in a solvable mystery.

My wife reminded me that, contrary to my expectations, she was only looking for entertainment, not a puzzle to solve. On that basis, and because my daughter was in agreement, I caved and we watched the second episode. It was some better than the first, and my attitude was better, now knowing what framework to put the program in. I was to be entertained, not thoughtful.

Reminded me of a video I’d watched earlier, in which a guy was making the case that mainstream Christian movies are not effective tools for evangelism because people who go to see films do so to be entertained, not taught. He proposed that instead, we ought to seek out films that are entertaining but also allegoric, or have a theme or story that could be the basis for conversation (like Narnia, The Matrix, Knowing and The Book of Eli).

Well, that seems like a reasonable conclusion, though I do wonder how much time the average person spends thinking about films they watch. You know, longer than just some comments on the drive home from the theater. While there may be some who enjoy the in-depth analysis, I suspect the vast majority simply are there for the entertainment, and once it’s over, it’s gone from their minds.

Does that sound cynical? Perhaps it is. I’d hope that all the money, effort  and prayer that Christians put into films is not just brushed off as so much second-rate entertainment. I do enjoy entertainment, to be sure, but I also like to think. I’ve found much more value in watching TED talks recently than anything else. Why? Because these people are all about sharing ideas, not just filling my mind with foolishness.

Someone wise has said, “Small minds discuss things, average minds discuss people, but great minds discuss ideas.” Instead of just seeking entertainment from our TV or films, let’s aspire to relate beyond trivial things or other people, and discuss and work through ideas. Who knows what enlightenment may result.

*With apologies to Mr. Beck

At Home vs In An Office

The consultant came in for an 11am meeting with my boss and his backup engineer, that lasted just over an hour. I got pulled into the meeting too, as my workload was light today. Interesting stuff, good to be there; I’m glad I wasn’t too busy to attend.

We went for lunch afterwards, along with a couple other guys from the office, to a local place. This happens often – purposely scheduling a near-noon meeting so we can extended it in an informal way for another hour over a meal. Particularly for clients whose relationship we want to encourage.

In this case, the consultant was a good friend of my boss, so it was a pretty casual lunch. We had a pleasant varied and surface-y conversation, some business, around the table, and left more friends than business associates. And, the boss expensed the meal, which was a bonus.

One advantage to working in an office is the opportunity to take part in such impromptu meetings/lunches. If I were working at home or offsite, I would not have been invited to the meeting, and would have missed the lunch. While not critical in terms of my work or job performance, it was helpful in terms of being connected to activities within the company and relationships with my co-workers.

In each of these lunches, I learn something new about someone, or get to share something new about me. And I feel more a part of the whole. I’ve talked to a several people who work remotely, and they all know exactly what I’m talking about. You’re not fully a part of the group unless you’re taking part in these opportunities.

Two things to note. First, I need to do more of it. Even though I’m in the office each day 95% of the time, I usually don’t go out for lunch because of the expense. I think that needs to change. There’s no substitute for the relationships, and there’s so much that’s discussed during lunch that I miss.

Second, just an observation about the open office arrangement. I’d always had a cubicle in previous companies, and liked the privacy and quiet. Here we all share a room. It’s sometimes quiet, and sometimes quite noisy with conversation, visitors and phone calls. I can tune much of that out (noise cancelling headphones are helpful).

Often, though, I listen. I like to keep tabs on what other people are doing. I sometimes jump into a conversation if I have something to contribute, or if I want to know more about what’s being discussed. Oftentimes, quick conversations like this take the place of formal meetings, and  can be very effective in addressing issues or problems on the spot, and in a cross-discipline way.

Although my individual productivity may suffer a bit, the group/company as a whole is benefited. I’d highly recommend the open office arrangement for the way it builds relationships and enhances synergy within a development group.

Students and Teachers

In his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul strongly encourages – commands, even – the believers to follow his example in not being disorderly, working with his hands, and not being a burden to anyone. He specifically says they “ought to follow” him, Sylvanus and Timothy.

For you yourselves know how you ought to follow us, for we were not disorderly among you…(1)

Shouldn’t Paul have been encouraging these people to follow Jesus, instead of himself or his friends?

This wasn’t the first time Paul said something like this. To the Galatians he said, “Brethren, I urge you to become like me….”(2) To the Corinthians he said, “Therefore I urge you, imitate me,”(3) and “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.”(4). To the Philippians he said, “Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern.”(5) And to Timothy, “Hold fast to the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me,…”(6)

I don’t believe these statements are the ramblings of a prideful superior. Rather, this is the pattern: students should follow the examples of their teachers. In all cases, those to whom he writes are his children in the faith. Most did not have the benefit of the writings of the 12 disciples that narrated Jesus’ life on earth. So Paul, as he himself followed the example of the Jesus he learned about from those disciples, gave himself as an example. This is what he taught Timothy: “let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers….”(7)

Years ago I was criticized as a parent because my son was “just like” me in many ways, and not acting or thinking independently / differently. I took this as a compliment (and so did he)! Children will imitate their parents. Just like Paul, our role as parents includes modeling Christ-like behavior for our children. As they shadow us, and grow and mature into following the one Perfect Example, we fill this most important role. This means paying careful attention to the way we walk and talk, but I believe we are entirely correct in teaching our children to follow our example, as we follow the example of Christ.

Children will also imitate others. Role models abound for our children, good and bad. It may be a sports figure, a television character, or a literary figure, or friends. This mean paying careful attention to the influences in our childrens’ lives; often limiting or eliminating exposure to bad examples.

Here’s hoping your relationship with your children will so far exceed the others in their life, and that your relationship with the Father will so transform your life, that in following you, they will be following Jesus.

(1) 2 Thesselonians
(2) Galations 4:12
(3) 1 Corinthians 4:16
(4) 1 Corinthians 11:1
(5) Philippians 3:17
(6) 2 Timothy 1:13
(7) 1 Timothy 4:12

Data Warehousing and Public Schools

Reihan Salam, in a March 10, 2010, Time magazine article called The Dropout Economy, shares his vision of a new economy in the not-so-distant future. It’s based on his observation of large numbers of students dropping out of high school, taking time off between high school and college, and even bypassing college altogether.

Rather than warehouse their children in factory schools invented to instill obedience in the future mill workers of America, bourgeois rebels will educate their kids in virtual schools tailored to different learning styles. Whereas only 1.5 million children were homeschooled in 2007, we can expect the number to explode in future years…

This trend, he claims, is due to a large scope ‘libertarian revival’ in which higher education is viewed as an “overpriced status marker and little else.” Regardless of the motivation, this drives the political New Dealers nuts, who have invested many millions into public education since the first half of the last century. Salam’s ‘factory schools’ are indeed filled with ripe young converts to the liberal socialist agenda preached there.

This situation bears remarkable resemblance to the “data warehousing” system in Information Technology. In it, data from a variety of sources is input into an ETL pipeline, where relevant data is Extracted from it’s source, Translated into a form that’s meaningful, and Loaded into a huge database (called a Data Warehouse) for subsequent analysis and reporting.

Compare this to our public education system, where children from a wide variety of homes, cultures and world views are put into an educational pipeline, where their individuality and creativity is extracted, their previous meaning of life and purpose are translated into politically and societally acceptable ones, and after this programming, they’re loaded into a factory labor system where they mindlessly perform work for which they’ve been trained. Warehousing our children in this system creates a huge pool of human resources, to be managed by the intellectually elite.

Does anyone else bridle at this comparison? Like Voddie Baucham I think it’s long past time we pulled our children out of these Christ-dishonoring academically inferior soul killing government indoctrination centers!