Sunday, March 17, 2019

Killings in Christchurch

     This one is a bit of a rant.
     March 15: Killing innocent people is certainly a crime. Killing innocent unarmed people is heinous. Killing innocent people while they are praying in a house of worship is a heinous abomination. I awoke this morning to killings of 49 people in Christchurch, New Zealand. A racist, white supremacist, gunman walked into one mosque and killed 42 people and then went to another mosque in the same town and killed 7 more before he was arrested.
     The terrorist assassin is a white male from Australia. He is a white supremacist who planned his to the point where he had a hat mounted camera which he used to broadcast to Facebook Live while he shot and killed.
     I cannot fathom how anyone gets to the point where they could do such a thing. There had to be such a build-up of hate and delusion to conceive of and execute such an attack and broadcast it on social media.
     Killing people in a church, a synagogue, and in this case a mosque is inconceivably evil to me. Killing people in a house of worship is… I have no words. It is such an alien and abdominal thing. When I first read about people being barricaded into a church or synagogue that was then set on fire, I was shocked to the core. I was first exposed to such heinous crimes over fifty years ago, and nothing has changed. I am shocked to the core each and every time something like this happens. Of course, we can replace the words house of worship with school, community center, and even workplace. They are equally horrible and wrong.
     March 17: I could not finish this piece the evening I started it. It is easy to be outraged and sickened. But it is quite another thing to say something that will resonate with all and put an end to such attacks. I really am not sure how to deal with some of the ugly as well hypocritical statements being made. Certainly, many world leaders including President Trump, made a statement about the killings in Christchurch. I have to be honest, while they sounded heartfelt. Many sounded hollow.
     Immediately, the analyses of and dialogue around this crime was, as the killer no doubt wanted, all about the white supremacy as an ongoing threat. As hours turned to days, biases emerged proving that we have learned nothing, and this kind of vile crimes will certainly happen again. I heard, Erdogan for example, talking about Islamophobia while the practice of anything but Islam in his country is barely tolerated not to mention his crimes against the Kurds. There is the Australian Senator, Fraser Anning, who blamed immigration for the mosque attacks. There are numerous posts on social media basically siding with either Erdogan or Anning to some degree.
     From my perspective, this is all insane. Common folks praying in a place of worship have to be safe from a psychopath or gang of psychopaths barging into their sanctuary and gunning them down. It seems like such a simple truth. Most of the time, most everyone, has no problem following this tenet. At the same time, too many of us harbor biases and hatreds that, sadly, have a few on the psychopathic fringe take the hatred to the extreme and go on a shooting rampage.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

A Sad, Bittersweet, Convergence

Maryam Mirzakhani
     It has been a week since the University of Chicago Middle Eastern Music Ensemble (MEME) Persian Concert. As noted before in this blog, the Persian Concert is so popular that it is presented two evening. The other two concerts, the Turkish and Arab, are only presented one evening. In my view, this is because of the wonderful support of the Iranian community and also the talent of the amazing singers in this concert: Sam Taheri and Gilda Amini.
     As with all MEME concerts, I find a few of the selections running through my head for weeks after the concert. It is no doubt due to the intense rehearsals building up to the last practice, the dress rehearsal, and the concert all happening over three days. This time Bazgastheh, Hezar Dastan, and Peyk-e Sahari have been a non-stop sound track in my mind. These love songs came with me from Chicago to the Czech Republic. The same happens with every concert. I remember that after the Arab Concert in May of 2017, I could not stop humming Farid Al Atrash’s Ahbabina ya Aini. That soundtrack was with me all summer long. 
     It is Sunday morning in Prague. It is a rainy March day. Before leaving the hotel to go to an Armenian Church service, I was watching the BBC World News. As chance would have it, they aired a segment on the famous Iranian Mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani. She is the first women and the first Iranian to win the prestigious Field Medal of the International Mathematical Union. The award is presented at their international congress which takes place every four years. It is given to the best mathematicians under the age of forty and is very prestigious. Some refer to it as the Nobel Prize for mathematicians. The BBC portrayal was titled Algebra’s Daughter: Maryam Mirzakhani. 
     I was vaguely aware of Dr. Mirzakhani. The BBC show was fascinating and described her rise through the Iranian education system to reach the highest levels in a field, research mathematics, dominated by men in a country, Iran, where men seem to have an advantage over women in society in general. She was born in 1977. Dr. Mizrakhani earned her bachelor’s in mathematics from the Sharif University of Technology in 1999. She then went on to Harvard to earn her PhD in 2004. She went on to become a fellow at Princeton and then she became a professor at Stanford. She married a Czech native and another professor at Stanford, Jan Vodorak. They had a daughter Anahita who was a constant companion of Dr. Mizrakhani per the BBC portrayal. In 2013, this brilliant lady was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was saddened to learn that she passed away in 2017, joining other brilliant mathematicians, Galois, Abel, and Ramanujan, that were taken from the world too soon. She passed at the same age, 40, as the famous German mathematician Bernard Riemann. Eerily, she was awarded her Field Award in 2014 in part for her work in Riemann Surfaces. 
     As the BBC documentary ended, the sound track was a beautiful piano version of a song we played in the Persian Concert, Jane Mayram. It was beautiful, that brought a shiver up my spine and a tear to my eye. This lovely song has been in my head, heart, and soul the rest of this day…

A Prague State of Mind

A view across the river of the Palace and Cathedral
     Back in May of this year, 2019, my colleague, Kristina Kaufman, and I were selected to lead this year’s School of Business and Nonprofit Management International Experience Trip which takes place every Spring Break in March. For the past several years, our Dean, Wes Lindahl, has organized these trips that included such wonderful locales such as Vietnam, Barcelona, Istanbul, Costa Rica, Brazil, and others. I was fortunate enough to be parts of the trips to Costa Rica and Brazil. Professor Kaufman and I were delighted to be running the trip for 2019. At my suggestion, we chose Prague. It is a city everyone, that has been there, raves about. It was someplace I have not been to and always wanted to go. Plus, Dean Lindahl had met with an agency that specializes in university tours such as our International Experience Trip. The group, International Study Programs (ISP), is actually based in Prague. How serendipitous was that?
     Shortly thereafter, Professor Kaufman, our newest and youngest professor, resigned for
Clock Tower in the Main Square
personal reasons. That was sad for both of us as she was really looking forward to working together and planning the trip. Another professor stepped in but only as a second professor on the trip. Essentially, I was on my own. So, I secured a marketing student as an intern to help advertise and market the trip. Lisa Poletto, the marketing student, was magnificent. She made flyers and had me in videos. We were excited. I thought we would break participation records. Come on, Prague sells itself. For sure, I thought we would easily surpass the ten folks needed to justify the trip.
     Well… as usual, I overestimated my salesmanship. Even with the excellent help of Lisa, we ended up with hearty crew of seven of us, including me, that made the trip. I am the only professor on the trip. I have the good fortune, however, to be with six wonderful people. Four are graduate students, Mike, Melissa, Donna, and Johana. Donna’s friend Vita joined and lastly, Max is an alum of both SBNM and the North Park Seminary. Max and Donna have been on several of these trips. The three of us were in Sao Paulo last year. Bottomline, we are all adults, self-sufficient, and responsible so, in essence, there is very little to manage. We are an easy and congenial group. Our agency, ISP, has set-up everything. We all have an app on our phones with our itinerary, background on the country and culture, a write-up of each place we are visiting, and suggestions of what to do on our free time. Their app is like a travel guide.
     Prague? We have been here two days and it has not disappointed. Often when you hear
Cobblestone Streets everywhere,
some are quite narrow.
other rant and rave about a place, you get there and are let down a bit. This is not the case here. Like Buenos Aires, it is a city of cupolas. It is not a huge city. It is very easy to get around by walking, public transportation, and Uber. It is old Europe. Many buildings have been here for centuries and are in beautiful shape, left unscathed from the ravages of World War II. The newer buildings are two hundred years old. The city is clean and orderly. It has become a tourist haven, but one only feels that in the main tourist sites. Otherwise, you just get into the pace of life here which, refreshingly, seems to be a step slower than we are used to.
     We took a tour of the city on our first morning here. It was a brisk spring day that got increasingly windy as we approached the river beautiful Vitava river that divides the city in two. In a word, Prague is magnificent. It is so different and steeped in history than we are used to and eye-opening in that regard. I suppose that if one lived here, one would perhaps
Symphony Hall
take eventually get used to the old world feel and history and take it for granted. I wondered how people from Prague feel when they visit an American city like Chicago? I felt, more so than normal, that I should hole up in a café, sip coffee, and write deep thoughts. It is after all the city of Franz Kafka, Milan Kundera, and Vaclav Havel.

Melissa, Max, Johana, Mike, Vita, Donna and
our tour guides Teresa and Katerina

Friday, March 8, 2019

Jet-lagged Musings and Meanderings

      I am writing this sitting in Heathrow for a long unnecessary layover as my arriving and departing flights are essentially in the same terminal and there were no lines at passport control. I have four hours before my flight to Prague. I am enjoying the flow of people and the slightly different shops than I am used to. The shops will continue to converge. It is inevitable fact. It is globalization. The people are, of course, the same but yet different. I am after all in another country on another continent. So, the people seem a bit different. I am not at O’Hare or JFK. It is more European, more international, though I am not exactly sure what that means. There are more languages being spoken certainly. I want to say that the people are more chill, but it might be that I am just tired and travel weary and, thus, I am more chill. I want to say people are just people everywhere. I know that this is both true and not true. I am just tired enough and not so well-versed in psychology and sociology to easily to communicate what I am trying to say. At least today, I have an excuse.
     For example, is the man next to me an ex-CEO or a retired landscaper? Is he from the UK, France, or Scandanavia. It is hard to tell. I went to order coffee at a cross between a Caribou Coffee (do any still exist) and a Starbucks called Caffè Nero. The young, east Indian heritaged, server spoke with such a thick British accent that I experienced George Bernard Shaw’s adage of “two people separated by a common language.” Then again, I am not sure as I am also in need of hearing aids. It is that kind of day where I am OK with dichotomies.
      I have my good camera with me. I want to take photos of the people and make a coffee table book that probably no one would buy: An Afternoon at Heathrow. It has probably already been done dozens of times in Pinterest and Flickr.
      In the department of idle observations whilst sipping on a Caffé Nero Americano, I was noticing what men were wearing and not wearing. The only fellows with coats and ties also had airport and airline name tags hanging around their necks. I also noticed what kinds of briefcases and bags men were and were not sporting. No one had an old-fashioned hard shell, carry it only by the handle, old fashioned briefcase. A few gents had soft bags slung over one shoulder. The vast majority, by far, sported backpacks. I saw one fellow wearing a Michigan hat but two gents with Spartan ones! I am fairly confident that I was the only fellow in all of Heathrow wearing a North Park University cap.
      I should have bought a pass to the British Airways lounge. I should have holed up in there and done some serious grading. But, I am feeling tired, yet serene, and people watching is exactly what I should be doing. Anything else would require more focus than I capable of mustering. And, my mind and spirit were more in the watching what others were doing than actually doing anything myself.
     Thank you, Heathrow, it was a nice little slice of life afternoon.
Republic Square in Prague
Our Student and Alumni Travelers

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Going to Prague
       I am 31,000 feet above Newfoundland en route from Chicago to London Heathrow. It never ceases to amaze me that I type a letter on an airplane and post it on my blog. What enables this is the WiFi on the plane. It probably isn’t that big a deal anymore but I still find it very cool.
     I am on the North Park University School of Business and Nonprofit Management (SBNM) International Experience. This year we are going to Prague. We generally like to have at least ten student/alumni travelers but that is not the case this year. We are an intrepid band of seven.
     As airlines require a minimum of ten for a group rate, we all booked our own flights. I booked mine first and choose American Airlines and British Airways simply because of my status with American having traveled for so many years. Everyone else booked their flights after I did but they are all going through other hubs were the layovers are not so long. It is so daunting to navigate the expanse of Heathrow that my travel agent booked it so I had plenty of time, four hours, to get between the terminals. As a result, I get to Prague last.
     Why Prague? It is very simple. I have never been there but have heard marvelous things about the city and the Czech Republic. The Old City in Prague has amazing architecture unscathed from the ravages of World War II and the years of communist rule. It is as old Europe as one can get.
     It is my third such trip. The first two were to Costa Rica in 2016 and Sao Paulo in 2018. On both those trips I was an assistant director for the trip. Our Dean, Wes Lindahl, has served as tour director for several years. This year, I have the honor of being the tour leader. We started out with two co-directors professors but due to the smaller number of travelers, I am doing this trip solo.
     These trips are really fascinating. We visit for profit companies and nonprofit organizations (NGOs in Europe). We learn about how they operate and conduct business. We learn about their strengths, weaknesses, and challenges. Students take an associated for credit course in which they summarize the learnings and reflections into a paper. We will debrief every evening during our trip. On this trip we will be visiting a glassworks factory and a brewery. Czechs are known for both their crystal manufacturing and their centuries old breweries. Beer may well be the most popular beverage there. We are also visiting the Volkswagen Skoda plant. On the nonprofit side we will spend time at a tech hub, visit an NGO that deals with the immigrant issue, and learn about the Czech evolution from communism to EU membership.
     We even take time to immerse ourselves in the culture and cuisine of the Czech Republic. We will take a city tour focusing on the oldest buildings and take a side trip to see, arguably, a typical Czech village in the country side and experience how village life has changed but more importantly how it hasn’t.
     I cannot go anywhere in this world without an Armenian connection or experience. This trip is no different. There are a few Armenian churches and restaurants in Prague. More importantly, I have become Facebook friends with one Haig Utidjian who is from Cyprus now living in Prague. He is a deacon in the Armenian Church as well a composer and musicologist. His great, great, great uncle was a student of Hampartsum Baba. We are meetng up Sunday for church service and lunch. How cool is this?
     Stay tuned for more postings on this trip.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Celebrating Sixteen Years

Flickr Ben Verrall
     In February 2004, I sent out my first e-letter. I had been writing a page, about 500 words, every day since June 25, 2002. I had pages upon pages of ramblings which were supposed to have been a book that chronicled my fiftieth year. It was a great idea but the writing was to introspective with whiney undertones. I was wondering, however, what to do with all my writing. I ran across a few examples of letters written by a Philadelphia born Armenian lawyer, Aram Kevorkian. He lived in Paris and started sending out monthly letters to friends and family on legal matters. Aram had passed away in December of 2003. Almost immediately, the idea of writing a monthly letter. My friend who I commuted into the city with, Marilyn Davidow, named the letter, This Side of Fifty: A Monthly Letter of Musings and Meanderings.
     I sent out a monthly e-letter to family and friends faithfully. It was a lot of fun and a great project. I emailed it to a list that grew to around 450 people via yahoogroups. People suggested I make it a blog but for several years but resisted mainly because I did not have any more time to dedicate to writing or a writing related project like starting blog. With the Great Recession, however, I had plenty of free time and created the blog you are reading now. I continued to send a monthly e-letter which I also posted on the blog. By 2015, I had basically stopped sending monthly letters by email and was exclusively using this blog. My monthly letters averaged about 2,000 words. I blogged more often with posts being between a quarter to a half of that e-letter word count.
     When I began this project, I used to handwrite everything first. That began to change when I bought an iPad in 2010. I found myself writing more and more on my iPad that had a Bluetooth keyboard. When it came time to by another iPad, I opted for the smaller screen MacbookAir on which I am typing this piece. I do miss the handwriting but the convenience of having everything digital and stored in the cloud is just too convenient. These days I also clip articles and jot down ideas for future bloggy bits on Evernote.
     This has been a great avocation and hobby for me. I always wanted to write and be a writer. Mostly, I envisioned being a famous novelist, poet, or commentator. Basically, I thought I would make my living writing. That was not to be. Actually, even at this age, I think it a possibility. OK, I am not a professional writer, but I am a writer. I write because I want to, I enjoy it, and feel like I have something say.
     In my last post of 2018, I basically made a commitment to self-publish The Best of This Side of Fifty. If you have any favorites, let me know. Happy Sweet Sixteen from This Side of Fifty.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

MEME: Talking with Elham and Hannah

     As readers of this blog know, I am a proud member of the Middle Eastern Music Ensemble(MEME) of the University of Chicago. Under the engaging leadership of Maestro Wanees Zarour, we perform three concerts a year. The Turkish concert in the fall, the Persian Concert in winter, and the Arab Concert in the Spring. The orchestra is 30 – 40 members strong, depending on the concert, and I am not exaggerating when I say that each performance is better than the last. It is a real honor to play in this ensemble and everyone feels the same way.
     This is third time I am writing about my fellow musicians in this blog. This time, I have the honor of interviewing our superb cellist, Hannah Vis, and our amazing tar player, Elham Beheshti. 

What does this music mean to you?
Hannah: The first experience I had with Middle Eastern music was in 2011 when I joined MEME. What draws me most to the actual music is the beautifully rich culture and the way the music sounds. The more I learn though, the more I realize there is to learn (especially since I didn't grow up learning or listening to Middle Eastern music). Being in MEME, a musical group consisting of a mix of masters of the tradition, newcomers, and everyone in between, I have found there are a lot of people to learn from. 
Elham: As an immigrant, it is always really important to be connected with my background and homeland. I really want to be identified as an Iranian living in the US. The Persian Concert is so important for this. But beyond that, the music stirs my soul and moves my heart

What has being part of MEME meant to you?

Hannah: MEME has meant community to me. MEME has never been a place to just rehearse, pack up, and leave. The members of the group are inviting, warm, and friendly. You really want to stick around and socialize. The director and the ensemble members cultivate this special environment. It is an honor to play with such a wonderful group of people. 
Elham: I have to agree totally with Hannah. I have made some wonderful, life-long friends, in this Ensemble. It is amazing that we have such a large ensemble of Middle Eastern and Western instruments that come together and create something so amazingly more than the small groups usually associated with Middle Eastern Music. MEME was a great blessing for me to play the tar seriously again.
What is your musical background? How you got into playing this music?
Elham: I started with music when I was ten. i went to a school of music for children in Tehran. We learned the basics of music playing recorders and other simple instruments. At the end of the year they were exposed to western and Iranian instruments. Long story short, I played violin six months but I was not feeling it. So, we went back to the music store and I bought a tar, the same one I am playing to this day.
I had three teachers in Tehran. The second teacher taught only listening by ear which is a very traditional approach. In high school, the famous tar player, Keivan Saket, became her teacher. He taught me notation and a more progressive style. I appreciate having learning both techniques and styles. I kept playing tar in high school and college. I also played tanbur and we had an ensemble, Saharvaran, and performed concerts from 2004 to 2006. 
Hannah: I grew up learning Western classical music on piano, voice, and cello. Music was always my favorite thing growing up and took precedence over sports or any other extracurricular activity. I learned about MEME in 2011 through an intro Middle Eastern music class that was once offered at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Wanees Zarour invited me to come join the ensemble. The rest is history! 
You have both played in the Turkish, Persian, and Arab concerts MEME. How do you differentiate between and relate to these three musical traditions?
Elham: I used to appreciate Arabic music before, but it has intensified having played three Arab Concerts with MEME. I really appreciate the musical selections in the Arab concert very much. I love to learn new things, so I was very excited to expand to both the Arabic and Turkish genres and I have really learned a lot. MEME gave me a wonderful opportunity to meet people from other cultures. It is a nice ensemble of people who really love Middle Eastern Music. We have students and people from all different walks of life and that is really beautiful. 
Hannah: I'm still learning about all three traditions and have enjoyed various characteristics of each. I have enjoyed learning about similar and different scales and the various intonations (e.g., quarter tones). The language, vocal technique, and ornamentations make each tradition sound unique. One thing I have really enjoyed about all three traditions is playing in different time signatures and rhythms than I grew up learning: 10/8, 9/8, and 7/8 to name a few.
What is your day job? Hobbies?
Hannah: When I'm not at MEME, I work in elementary schools as a Bilingual Speech-Language Pathologist. Other than MEME and the cello, I enjoy singing, learning about language(s), and cooking. 

Elham: I love to learn new things. My main hobby besides music is pottery. My PhD is in Computer Science. My research and passion is designing educational technology. In fact, I am leaving Chicago and MEME at the end of March to become a researcher in the New York Hall Science in Queens. I am excited about the opportunity but sad to leave MEME.
     The 2019 Persian Concert is Saturday, March 2nd at 7 pm and Sunday, March 3rd at 4pm in the Concert Hall of the Reva and David Logan Center for the Performing Arts. Come and see these talented ladies perform and wish Elham all the best as she moves to New York.

America will Never Be a Socialist County...
     I tend to agree with this quote from President Trump that was part of his State of the Union address from one month ago.
     Yes. “America will never be a socialist country,” unless we start electing more representatives, senators, and, perhaps, even a President that are socialists. Could that happen? I am not certain I can say never. It could happen.
     I never ever thought that Donald Trump could have become President of the United States. Yet, here we are. His tough no nonsense message and his "Make America Great Again" branding resonated with enough people who voted for him. They voted for him despite weekly gaffs, errors, and crude and insensitive remarks that would have deep sixed any other Presidential campaign in recent memory. Enough voted for him, with or without Russia’s help, despite truthful vs. fake news, to get him elected.
     Immediately, about half of the country was besides themselves and started feeling disenfranchised themselves. They seem to be disenfranchised as much, albeit on the opposite political extreme, as the disenfranchised Americans that voted Trump into office. The Trump supporting disenfranchised felt so isolated that the wanted something different. They wanted someone to come in and shake Washington up. The wanted someone who would bring jobs back, stop illegal immigration, and fix the trade deficit. They wanted this because they bought into a promise, a campaign promise mind you, that by doing this our lives would be better than they were.
     The newly disenfranchised created by the Trump election, have a different point of view. They are shocked and dismayed that social programs that were in place and they valued were being dismantled by the President brought in to “shake things up.” The social programs they were hoping would someday be enacted, seemed farther away than ever. These folks had a voice in the last presidential election. It was Bernie Sanders and he made an impressive run only to have to yield the nomination to Hilary Clinton whose unlikability with too many moderate minded voters cost the democrats the election.
     In the vacuum created by the Trump election, we are now seeing a posse of Democrats running for President that include Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris. They all seem to be on Socialist side of the spectrum even though I am not sure if Warren and Harris appreciate be labelled as such. They are all left of center and espouse platforms that can easily be viewed as socialist.
    New York representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez has taken a lot of the limelight from the others and she is not even running for President at this time. She comes right out and calls herself a Democratic Socialist and is advocating for Medicare for all, free college education for all, federal jobs guarantee, and criminal justice reform. I hope somewhere in there she wants to fix up our crumbling infrastructure. How will she pay for it? More taxes and especially more taxes to the super rich. Even then, can we afford everything she wants? It doesn’t matter, if it is what people that are disenfranchised want to hear. If it resonates and gives people a good feeling about their future, they will gladly vote for her or Bernie or whoever.
     Health care and higher education costs have risen six times the rate of inflation. Half of the politicos will tell you that this is because there has been too much government involvement and the other half attribute it too not enough government involvement. They are both partially right and partially wrong. Polarized debates that have taken use from Bush to Obama to Trump and perhaps a socialist to follow seems like a system out of control an
d flipping between extremes. It is quite dizzying and dismaying to a centrist like me.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Text before You Call
     There was a simple social practice I recall from my youth. We would simply drop-by the homes of our relatives and close friends for a visit. I was quite a natural thing to do. Mostly it was on the weekends but even, occasionally, on a week night. We never called ahead. We just did it. If they were home, we would be invited in and we would visit for a bit.
     Others dropped by our house as well.  It was a reciprocal thing and it was never an intrusion. After all, they were family and friends. In fact, all of this dropping-by seemed to an acceptable practice in our Detroit Armenian community. Even when no one was expecting company, the coffee was immediately put on and, amazingly, a spread was soon on the table. In our teenage years one of my bandmates once summed it up perfectly, “no matter whose house we end up at, I am amazed at how quickly each of our moms can have the table set and full of food… and they never knew we were coming over.”
     This practice of dropping-by lasted up through when I got married and then it began to change. These days, I always call first to see if it would be ok to drop by. Doing so without a call simply seems intrusive. Calling ahead seems like the proper and polite thing to do.
     Recently, I have noticed a expansion of this practice to even making a phone call. Now, rather than call, I tend to text folks to see if it would be OK to drop-by. In fact, I am texting people, with increasing frequency, to see if it OK to give them a call them? My thinking these days is that a phone call is also intrusive, though not as intrusive as the drop-by has becomes
     I am not alone in this behavior. More and more, folks are texting me to see if it is OK to call and, actually, I appreciate it.
     Why have our behaviors changed? Certainly, we can attribute much of it to our ever-busier schedules. We are on the go, all the time. Our work days are busy, and those workdays have gotten longer do to phones, laptops, e-mails, conference calls, and even globalization. For the same reasons our work weeks have spilled into our weekends which have gotten more congested with errands, children or grandchildren activities, tending to aging parents, and still trying to have a social life. Our time is more valuable than ever and, so, we guard and manage the time more diligently. Thus, we appreciate a call to see it is OK to drop by versus a surprise drop by. And we appreciate a text to see if it is convenient to call. These are the new norms.
     The world has changed in other ways. We have amazing home entertainment systems are these days combined with Netflix and other streaming services. Every movie and series every made is theoretically available to us on-demand. Why go to the movies? Furthermore, with services Uber Eats and GrubHub people are ordering-in their favorite foods. Why go out to eat? It is easier, especially after or amidst a hectic work/school week, to simply hole up in the warmth and comfortable confines of our homes, our cocoons. More and more we value this solitude and thus appreciate less and less the unexpected drop-by or phone call we weren’t expecting.
    As far as I can see, this is not a new trend. In May 2006, I penned a monthly letter: Porches. In which I commented on how, in my lifetime, the very communal and social front porch has given way to the patio and backyard where we see and talk to our neighbors less frequently. We have moved to having man-caves, studies, and TVs in every room or entertainment on our cell phones. This provides the possibility to isolate ourselves even more in our own homes.
It is quite a dichotomy that in the world of growing social connectivity due to technology, many are craving more and more control of when we actually see and talk to others. On second, thought it might not be such a dichotomy…

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

The Challenge for Churches
     I know better than to write about politics and religion. But, I have chosen to do so because of an online discussion on the topic in an MBA course on Strategic Management that I am teaching. 
     In the April 2017 issue of The Atlantic, an article, Breaking Faith, reported the following: 
Over the past decade, pollsters charted something remarkable: Americans—long known for their piety—were fleeing organized religion in increasing numbers. The vast majority still believed in God. But the share that rejected any religious affiliation was growing fast, rising from 6 percent in 1992 to 22 percent in 2014. Among Millennials, the figure was 35 percent. 
     According to Pew Research back in 2012: 
The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.
In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%).
     How are churches doing in terms of attendance to services and membership? There seems to a general decline even though some megachurches are clearly thriving. So, a question came to mind: How do churches stay relevant? The core beliefs have to stay true but there are a lot of changes happening around the edges. 
     It seems that technology and science move faster than religion can adapt. Just consider premarital sex, abortions, and gay unions/marriages that were always there to some degree but hidden from view due very strict church views regarding them. Now, some churches are struggling to deal with these changes while others have embraced them. How churches deal with them or how slow they are to adapt make churches less relevant to many folks. 
      Consider the advances of medicine. In past centuries, prayer and faith were perhaps the only thing people could turn to when a loved one took ill. Nowadays, prayer and faith are in addition to or hand and hand with medical science. 
     Consider when we had to grow or hunt for our own food and it was all done locally, we had to more thankful, seriously truly thankful, for our meals than we have to in today's world of abundance. We probably take that abundance too much for granted. 
     To me, religion has always thrived on answering one central question: what happens when we die? No one know for sure. We only truly have faith. In days of yore, the faith answer to these questions were more story based. Those dogmatic stories or answers have less impact in this uber (not the car service) connected world today. 
     I also see a dichotomy in free will vs God's will? The boundary is fuzzier than ever. People and, more so, churches use it however makes sense. If you sin, it was all free will. If someone dies suddenly in a car accident, we may attribute that to God's will. To me, everything is God's creation including the probabilistic nature of this world and our lives. When I am in church listening to sermons, I am often baffled how God’s will is evoked. 
     The Bible used to be the world's best self-help book. In a market flooded with self-help books on every need we have, how is scripture which was written and rewritten in the early days of the church 2000 years ago faring in that market place. 
     Oh my, is it indeed a market place? Churches are up against youth sports, school activities, 24/7 television, social media, books galore, streaming music and video services, dual working families, time management, etc. How do churches gain their share of mind and participation? 
     Consider two successful Chicago area churches. They are the Willow Creek and Harvest mega-churches. The founders or current head pastors of that church are currently entwined in sex and graft scandals that have to be devastating to the parishioners of those churches. How many will leave? Churches have to avoid scandal and criminal charges against their leaders 
     How do churches manage these kinds of changes and help people navigate these changes? How can churches help people understand and cope? Why are so many people turning away from churches for these answers?
     I believe churches have to offer what people want and need.  The have to do this while parts of this target seem to be moving faster than ever. Even though I am seriously thinking about this, I do not have the answers to these questions and concerns. I do believe that church leadership, clergy and laity, has to address them.