A Time to Play God

•January 30, 2015 • Leave a Comment

While looking back through these events, it occurred to me that someone might take offense – at the events that are purported to have happened, at the people involved, at some of the beliefs expressed. Please understand that no one is criticizing anyone’s culture or religion. That said, there are certain beliefs, rationalizations and justifications that lead to terrible events when fundamentalist extremism and desperation of any kind are allowed to exist. This is one of those stories.

*                *                *

We called him Jim. That wasn’t his name, but it was short and easy to remember. Of course, we all asked him what his real name was. He’d mumble something unpronounceable that even those of us who spoke the dialect couldn’t reproduce. In the end, it was easier to just call him Jim.

He was our go-to guy, for everything from the best local food to the Western creature comforts that were impossible to find in this god-forsaken corner of the world. Our NGO was one of the few left in this part of the country, and the only one still crazy enough to staff this township. We couldn’t have survived without him.

Jim was tall and surprisingly urbane and well educated. His English was impeccable, with a trace of a formal British accent. Unlike the other local men, he was clean-shaven and outgoing. It had taken us months to be allowed into the lives of this town’s residents. Jim burst into our lives with a huge grin and bone-crushing bear hugs for anyone in his path.

One day, Jim burst into my office with his usual infectious swagger.

“Ah, my friend, today you learn to play backgammon!”

Actually, I already knew how to play. I may have been a rusty when I arrived in town, but I quickly learned that a casual game back in the States was a completely different endeavor over here. Surprisingly large sums of money would pass back and forth on every match. Grudges, jealousies and bodily harm erupted on a regular basis. I lost often and badly. I paid my often-substantial debts quickly, which was one of the things that had endeared me to these otherwise very cautious people.

“Jim, you know I’m no match for you guys. I’ve got a math degree from Princeton and a PhD from Michigan, and you guys destroy me pretty much every day.”

“That’s because you Westerners only think you know how to play. You have to grow up with it, to feel it. For us, it’s part of who we are. We created this beautiful game, and now you’ve been here long enough to understand. Today, you learn to play.”

Jim unwrapped a package he’d been carrying. It was, not surprisingly, a backgammon board. It was beautiful, tastefully elegant, with wood inlays and patterns of gemstones around the borders. The pips were black and white onyx. One die was black with white dots. The other was white with black dots. The doubling die – the one used to double the stakes whenever the dice rolled doubles – was a red stone that I didn’t recognize. It must have cost a fortune.

“Jim, that’s amazing. Where did you get it?”

“It does not matter. It’s part of my gift to you. You will learn to play backgammon. And you will learn who you really are.”

I wanted – needed – to protest. But I’d learned enough about the rules of hospitality out here to know better than to refuse. It would have been an unforgiveable insult. If Jim couldn’t afford the board, then he wouldn’t have offered it to me.

And so my education began. Every time Jim passed through our village, he would slam open the door to my office, pull up a chair, demand a fresh pot of tea and take down the backgammon set.

At first, I lost just as often and badly as I had with the locals. He was a brilliant tactician, with a phenomenally subtle feel for the mathematics underpinning the game. I began to realize that Jim was easily my intellectual equal, and our conversations began to drift from local issues to the broader challenges roiling our corner of the world.

It seemed that Jim knew everyone, from the villagers around us to the politicians in the capital. He even had sources within the various insurgent groups whom the army had pushed into the mountains. It was often due to his influence that these warlords were willing to let us do our work and keep us out of harm’s way when trouble flared.

And so we played. I slowly got better. One day, I beat Jim, and it was due to strategy, not luck. He beamed.

“Finally! My friend, you are ready. I congratulate you!”

“Ready for what?”

“You will see. Thank you for the match and the tea. It is time, and I must be going.”

With that, he stood, wrapped his coat around his shoulders and swept from the room, as charming and as enigmatic as ever.

Months went by, but there was no sign of Jim. The security situation around us was deteriorating, and I had been ordered by our European headquarters to start planning our evacuation. Several other villages had been overrun by a violent fundamentalist cult. Most of our staff had already left, and we were down to just a few remaining Westerners. The helicopter to take us back to the capital was scheduled to arrive next Tuesday.

Once we were gone, five years of hard work trying to help these people build better lives would probably be lost within days. It was heartbreaking. These people had become our friends. Not only would we miss them dearly, but there would be nothing we could do to help or protect them once we were gone.

I was packing up the last of our office equipment when the insurgents attacked. The only warning we got was some light gunfire on the outskirts of town. Then shouting, as maybe 300 soldiers swarmed in, easily outnumbering the 200 or so permanent residents who lived here.

The garrison that was supposed to protect us had either melted away, switched sides or been killed. Four or five soldiers in dusty black uniforms and wraps over their faces burst into my office. They shot at the ceiling, just to make sure they had my to get my attention. Two of them grabbed me, one by my hair and the other by one arm, and they threw me to the floor. Someone pulled a burlap sack over my head. My hands were bound behind my back. The plastic ties cut deeply into my wrists.

I was too stunned to react, and too terrified to fight back. The soldiers yelled at me in a combination of local dialect and some other patois that I didn’t recognize. I think they wanted me to stand up. I tried, but my legs were shaking too much to support my weight. I felt hands on each arm, and I was hauled up off the ground. A voice sounded in my ear.

“Walk. Or die.”

I found a way to walk.

As we staggered outside, I realized the sack covering my face wasn’t much of a blindfold. I could see blurry snatches of what was happening. The townspeople were being pulled from their homes, the men and boys separated from the women and girls. A few families tried to protest. When two men tried to fight back, a few short bursts of bullets ended the argument.

Over the screaming and the crying, I recognized voices among the attackers. They were villagers, including one whom had hosted me for dinner just a week earlier.

My captors and I lurched from one end of the village to the other, my escorts grunting with effort when my legs were too panicked to function. There was a warehouse of sorts at the far end, more like a large shed than anything else, where we had been collecting our supplies and personal property for the evacuation. Someone opened the door to the shed and I was shoved inside.

I fell to my knees. Someone cut the wrist ties. I flinched, and felt the knife cut the skin on my left hand. Blood started to drip off my fingers. I did not look up. I heard footsteps walking away from me, and then the door closing and being barricaded from the outside.

I pulled the sack off my head and looked around. It was dark in the room. Once my eyes adjusted, I saw that our computers, office equipment and other pieces of technology were gone. The duffel bags and backpacks with our clothing were all that remained. I opened my bag and grabbed a t-shirt, wrapped it around my left hand, and waited for the bleeding to stop.

I heard a soldier barking orders using a megaphone somewhere on the other side of the village. It was a nightmare.

The villagers were condemned for being stooges of the infidel West, traitors to their heritage and their religion. Everyone must submit to this group’s interpretation of God’s word – a new, twisted form of “pure” religious law. Resistance meant death. All property now belonged to the soldiers, who would decide who could live where, what jobs they would perform, what food they would eat. Those who cooperated and did as they were told could stay. The rest would be shot.

All physically able men would become warriors or die. Betrayal to the cause meant that their families would be killed All women were to hide any appearance of skin, and could not leave a building without permission of the authorities. Unmarried girls and women were to be given to the soldiers as brides. School was banned, but boys were to be forced to learn a combination of this faux-religion and basic military training.

I had descended into madness and hell. It was impossible. It was unthinkable. And it was happening all around me.

It was hot in the warehouse. The door was solidly blocked. I thought about breaking through the walls, but couldn’t figure out how to do so without making noise. I was sweating, probably more from fear than anything else, and my lips were parched. I kept having visions of being paraded on my knees in front of a camera, my head about to be cut off for a propaganda video. I couldn’t see any other reason they had left me alive.

By evening, I could hear trucks and Humvees rolling through the streets. No one had come for me. I needed to go to the bathroom. After a while, I did the only thing I could. I went to the far end of the shed, relieved myself in a corner and used the shirt from my hand to clean myself off.

It was terrifying and degrading, which was probably exactly what my captors wanted me to feel. They were in charge, and my welfare mattered nothing to them.

As night started to settle in, I knew I needed warmer clothing. As hot as it gets during the day, it can be astonishingly cold out here once the sun goes down. I started fumbling through the baggage. It was too dark to do more than guess whether any of the bags were mine or not. I finally found an overcoat. It was much too big for me, so it must have been Sven’s. I put it on.

Sven. Mary. Tom. There had been five of us remaining in the area. I hadn’t seen or heard any of them since the invasion. There weren’t that many places in town to hide a bunch of Westerners, and I doubted many of our friends were willing to take the risk. I hoped they were OK, but feared for the worst.

I woke up the next morning when I heard the door opening. I was cold, stiff and sore. My tongue was so dry I couldn’t swallow. I stank.

Two soldiers came in. Light was just creeping over the horizon. They didn’t bother with covering their faces. I didn’t recognize either one. They had long beards and dead, angry eyes.

“Get up.”

I tried to talk, but couldn’t. One of the soldiers placed the barrel of his AK-47 against my neck.

“Get up.”

I rose to all fours and then started to vomit. Someone kicked me hard in the ribs, and I fell over on my side. Then two more soldiers came in. They lifted me by the arms and dragged me out into the dawn.

This time, I didn’t even try to make my legs work. My feet left tracks in the dust as they carried me to the biggest house in town, which up until yesterday had belonged to the mayor. They lifted me over the threshold and left me in the front entryway. Two other soldiers then picked me up and dropped me in front of the desk in the parlor. I lay on the floor and groaned.

“Ah, my friend. What is this? Is this how you greet me?”

I was lifted into a chair. Slowly, I raised my head and looked across the desk. Jim’s smiling face beamed back at me, except that this time there was a cruelty in his smile that I’d never seen before.

“You are surprised to see me? Tsk – you shouldn’t be. I thought I’d taught you better than that. Please. You must be hungry. And your appearance is disgusting.”

He yelled something in dialect. I hurt too much to bother trying to translate. I found myself hauled away again, thrown into a bathtub, washed and handed a towel. When I stood up, a soldier handed me a toothbrush and toothpaste, then pointed a pistol at my head. When I was done, he handed me floss. I flossed.

Someone tossed a set of loose pants and tunic at me, along with a pair of boots. I pulled them on. Somewhat to my surprise, they fit.

The soldier with the dental fetish pointed his pistol at the door, then at me. We walked back into the den, where a small table had been set on the floor, with a cushion on either side of it. Jim was nowhere to be found, but water, yogurt, fruit and the local flatbread were on a tray on the table.

I was beginning to understand the drill. Although it was the last thing I wanted to do, I ate.

About an hour later, Jim came back into the room. He was carrying the backgammon set he’d given me under his arm. We were alone, but I had no doubt there were armed guards all around. I had no doubt he could kill me easily, should the impulse strike him.

He moved the tray to the desk, opened the backgammon set on the table, and sat down on the cushion opposite to me.

“So. Now we play .”

I didn’t say anything.

“Why so glum, my friend? Aren’t you glad to see me? Do you want to insult my hospitality?”

“You’re one of them.”

“One of who? There is no ‘them’ over here. It’s just ‘us.’ And I am one of us. It’s you Westerners who are the ‘them.’ Now, we play.”

I wanted to scream at him. I wanted to strangle him. I wanted to run back into the street and get shot by one of the soldiers. I wanted to be dead.

Instead, I didn’t do anything.

“It seems you need a little encouragement. That’s OK – we can do that.”

Jim reached into a pocket and pulled out a small military radio. He barked a quick series of commands that I didn’t catch, except for the name Sven. Then he sat back and smiled.

I heard scuffing from outside, then a solitary gunshot. A woman screamed. It was Mary.

“OK – so now you have a little incentive. I think you know who that was.”

I stared, too stunned to do anything else.

He looked directly at me. His voice was cold.

“Pick up the dice.”

I did as I was told.

We played.

I lost.

Badly.

“I am so disappointed. In the last few months, you have forgotten so much. I think you need a reminder. Let’s see – the doubling die is on 8. Yes, that’s a good number.”

Once again, Jim spoke into his radio. After two of the longest minutes of my life, I heard eight single gunshots. Then I heard women screaming and crying.

“You. You come over here and tell us how to do things. You send your troops to make us live your way. You act like you are gods. But do you really bother to learn who we are? How we live? Of course not. But we learn about you. I’ve lived in your world. I’ve studied in your schools. I know how you think. But you? I thought you might be different. You are a disappointment.”

Jim left the room. I was taken upstairs and placed in a bedroom. The door locked behind me, and I was left alone to consider the horror of the day.

Someone brought me dinner. I ate because I was too terrified not to. After dark, a voice outside the door ordered me to sleep. Somehow, I managed to. I think I was too crushed to do anything else. When I woke up in the morning, it was a hollow version of myself that stared back from the bathroom mirror.

Like the day before, I was taken to the den at the front of the house. As before, there was food waiting for me on the table. I ate mechanically. After a while, Jim came in with my backgammon set.

“So. We are ready to play today?”

I felt a slow, cold anger starting to build in my gut. In spite of myself, in spite of everything, I realized what I had to do.

“Give me the dice.”

And so we played, him with gusto and a sick, peculiar delight, and me with a desperate passion I never knew I could possess. There was a cold calculation behind every move I made. The triangle pattern on the board looked like sharp teeth, ready to close on the hand of the unwary. Backgammon may be partly a game of chance, but I was leaving nothing to luck. Lives were at stake, even though I knew people were going to die because of me, no matter what I did.

An hour or so later, the stakes had mostly balanced out. I had a small overall advantage – two points after everything contested had been added up. Jim smiled, clearly pleased with himself.

“So. You win by two. I salute your play. Two of your friends will go free.”

I made eye contact and raised an eyebrow.

“Why are you so surprised? You have known me to be a man of honor. That does not change, just because you are my… guest.” He spoke into his radio. “So it is done. Two of your Western friends will be taken to the capital and released.”

With that, Jim left the room, taking the backgammon set with him. The other door to the room opened, and a guard motioned for me to leave. No one pointed a gun at me, and I went back to my room. Lunch was waiting. No one was watching me or outside my door.

Later that night, I was summoned back downstairs for another round. Jim was waiting for me on his cushion. When he saw me, he smiled as he recognized what he had been looking for.

At that moment, I understood. It was everything – the competitiveness behind the backgammon, the petty feuds, the wariness around outsiders, the willingness to take what we Westerners gave without volunteering much of anything in return. I finally knew the hatred, the fascination, the jealousy of who we were and the dismissal of everything we stood for. Suddenly, I needed blood to settle the score, real or imaginary.

It was now obvious how this was going to play out. Either I would win until every villager was free, or I would lose until we all were dead. I was now God, and I was going to deliver life or death for everyone in my care.

I reached for the pips and set up the board. Einstein be damned – this god was going to play dice.

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The Backpack

•January 22, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Two ladies jogging in front of me noticed it first. One was tall, the other considerably less so. Both were moving a lot faster than one might expect for a couple of middle-aged women, neither of whom seemed to be in great condition. Either that, or my dog and I were moving much more slowly than either of our egos wanted to admit.

The taller of the two stopped suddenly. Her companion ran a couple of extra steps, then turned back and pulled her friend sharply away.

“Oh, my.”

“What should we do? It’s just sitting there.”

“Should we call the police?”

By then, the dog and I had caught up to them, and we could see the “it” that was causing the commotion. It was a backpack, the type kids use to carry their books, calculators and computers to school. This one was nearly new, Kelly green, with the zipper to the main pouch slightly open. It appeared to be full.

I looked at the women. The women looked at me. The dog looked at the backpack. He strained at his leash to get a closer sniff.

At this point, it’s important to understand a couple of things. First, this event took place only a few weeks after the Boston Marathon bombing. And this mysterious backpack was sitting by itself, no one except us around it.

Second, my rather shaggy dog of uncertain parentage is insatiably curious. He needed to know what was in that bag.

Finally, all four of us we were running in a park in a suburb where nothing ever happens. A river winds through our city and the towns that surround it. Forty years ago, the local, state and federal governments pooled resources to buy up land on the river before it could be developed. As a result, the river has a necklace of these parks set aside for walking, running, beach volleyball, food trucks, whatever.

It’s beautiful, safe and boring. There couldn’t be any more pointless a place to leave a backpack, let alone a backpack with a bomb in it. And yet, there was this backpack, mysteriously sitting there, all by itself.

I pulled my dog back. The shorter woman pulled out an iPhone and called 911. Two police cruisers arrived within minutes. Apparently, it wasn’t just us joggers who worried about the untold dangers of unchaperoned bags.

Two cops came over. One walked over to the bag. The other started pushing us back. The dog wanted to play with the female officer. She did not want to play with the dog. I tugged the dog to safety and watched from a distance as the cops yelled back and forth to each other.

“What does it look like?”

A shrug. “It looks like a backpack. Expensive.”

“No, that’s not what I meant. What’s inside it?”

“How would I know? I can’t see inside it. What do you think I’ve got – x-ray vision?”

Other people had started to gather, wondering what was going on. There were maybe 20 or 30 people milling about by now.

“Well, what do we do? Is it a bomb? Geez – it might be a bomb.”

That was the first time anyone had used the “b” word. We’d all been thinking it, but the cop had said it. Now it hung there, adding to the tension. The small crowd started to back away. After a moment, so did the cops.

Word must have gone out that something was happening down at the park, because our group was rapidly growing into a crowd that was bordering on becoming a mob. A murmur started at the back, and the people who couldn’t see began to push forward, forcing those of us at the front closer to the cops, and the cops closer to the backpack. The male cop spread his arms and tried to restrain the surge.

“Please – we don’t know what’s in the bag. We need you to retreat to a safe distance. Don’t push. We need you to back away. Please – back away.”

After much shouting by the cops and the arrival of three more police cruisers, we’d all been relocated about 30 feet from the backpack. We stared at the cops, who stared back at us while stealing nervous glances at the bag. The backpack itself remained defiantly silent.

Three local news broadcast trucks arrived. The reporters and cameramen took pictures of the backpack and interviewed random people in the crowd. The backpack declined to speak.

Our town is too small to have its own bomb squad, so we were all surprised when three large black vans appeared, two with SWAT teams and one with a bomb disposal unit. Two fire trucks also arrived. Clearly, the cops had called in reinforcements. To all appearances, the backpack was unimpressed.

One of the SWAT officers charged over to the local cops and started yelling at them. Our current definition of a safe distance wasn’t enough, and everyone grudgingly started to pull back yet again. One of the local cops, the firemen, a SWAT officer and the apparent leader of the bomb squad huddled off to the side, discussing what to do.

I looked at the backpack. A squirrel had wandered over to it. It reached up to the top and pulled at the zipper. After a few minutes, there was a squirrel-sized gap in the top, and the bushy-tailed burglar climbed in. It emerged a moment later with a potato chip in its mouth.

Two other squirrels immediately converged on the one with the potato chip. After much running around, the biggest squirrel chased away the other two. He immediately dove into the backpack, surfacing with a plastic bag filled with a sandwich.

The crowd and the sirens had been difficult for my dog. Watching the squirrels was torture. Seeing the squirrel with the sandwich was more than he could bear. He pulled the leash from my hand and made a dash for the backpack.

There was an audible gasp from the crowd. One of the bomb squad officers dove unsuccessfully for the dog. My dog grabbed the sandwich, and the squirrel jumped up a tree. After eating the sandwich in two gulps, the dog stuck his nose into the backpack and came up with more potato chips. Another investigation produced an apple.

A gunshot rang out.

One of the cops had fired his gun into the air. My dog startled, yelped and dropped the apple. Then he picked it up again and ran back to where another cop was holding me back.

“Sir, you need to leave. Now.”

I wasn’t about to argue. As it was, I had to figure out how to explain to my family that my dog had nearly blown up 50 or 60 people, plus a bunch of cops and firemen, while snarfing a sandwich and stealing an apple from a backpack.

One of the reporters wanted to interview me, or possibly my dog. The whole mess apparently was going to appear on that evening’s news. I ran past her to my car and drove home, shaking and hyperventilating.

I learned later that, right after the dog and I left, the back of the bomb squad van opened, a robot emerged, made its way over to the backpack, picked up the backpack and placed it inside a container. The robot and the container disappeared back into the back of the van, which then drove off. It was very anticlimactic.

For some reason, the fire department hosed down the area where the backpack had been. The SWAT team left. The firemen left. The reporters left. The cops left. The crowd left. As far as anyone knows, the squirrels stayed put.

News reports that night said the bomb squad detonated the backpack at an undisclosed facility. We watched from the safety of our living room. The family cheered when the dog dashed for the sandwich, and booed when the cops chased him away. The dog, thoroughly uninterested in his celebrity, ate his dinner and slept flatulently at the foot of the sofa.

No one found out what was in the backpack. It might have been a bomb. It might not. No one ever admitted to owning it or placing it there. However, I can’t help but wonder. Is there a mad bomber on the loose out there, extra angry because my dog ate his lunch?

What Happens in Vegas

•May 23, 2014 • Leave a Comment

A few weeks ago, I settled into my seat and got as comfortable as possible for the long flight to Las Vegas. I was flying out to work a trade show. Most of the other flyers were also business travellers. A few were heading out on vacation, but it was mostly a working crowd.

Two young women sashayed down the aisle, dressed in sweats but with fashion sunglasses and other expensive accessories. Both were tall and quite pretty, one blond and one brunette, perfectly coiffed and with impeccable makeup. Their carry-on bags indicated that they’d been part of a model search contest at a seaside resort.

They settled into the row in front of me, and started looking through the photos of their recent trips and parties on their iPhones. They took selfies to properly document their flight. And they started ordering vodka drinks.

Before too long, they’d each had at least three or four. The laughter got louder and louder, and the iPhones went from being passed between them to being held high in the air. They were clearly unaware that their on-screen shenanigans were visible to a very large percentage of the aircraft.

They talked to everyone around them, and actually were quite nice – even charming. Still, we’d all seen more than enough of things that shouldn’t be shared in public by the time the flight landed and everyone disembarked. They wandered off to baggage claim, and I figured that was that – two young people having fun, if a bit excessively. Okay for them.

Later that evening, I was walking back to my hotel after dinner with several of my coworkers. Around the corner came a small group of people – almost-middle-aged men and several young women, two of whom were dressed for minimal cover and maximum leg and push-up cleavage, both on impossibly high heels. They were obviously well beyond tipsy, with one of the two leaning heavily on the other for balance.

It took me a moment to recognize the same two women, girls really, who were sitting in front of me on the airplane that morning. They were drunk – thoroughly trashed. The partying that had started that morning had clearly continued throughout the day, and had veered deeply into something disturbing and more than a bit tawdry by that evening.

Seeing a small slice of where those two pretty young things were heading left me feeling very sad. They’d objectified and commoditized themselves, and it looked very much like they were getting the wrong end of a very Faustian bargain.

None of the Above?

•May 20, 2014 • Leave a Comment

So politics has finally come to this – a mountain of bulk mail postcards and endless robocalls recorded on our voice mail. It’s been stunning how much paper, ink and time at the phone bank has been spent by candidates during this midterm election. I can understand these tactics for Senate and statewide offices, where geography is a concern. But now even local candidates are jumping aboard the remote control bandwagon.

What disturbs me is that these tactics replace old-fashioned, meet-and-greet campaigning. There’s little or no direct outreach, either by candidates or by their staff. Opportunities to look election hopefuls in the eye, ask them questions and judge them by their responses are nearly non-existent. If you want to meet a candidate, go to a fundraiser and open your wallet. Otherwise, you’re at the mercy of their outbound marketing and the advice of their handlers.

Candidates for public office serve us, the public. That’s why they have to stand for election. Somehow, the idea of service has dropped completely out of the equation. Now, we’re being asked to vote for the person whose sound bites best match what we supposedly want to hear.  Actual accountability and interaction are out of the question, probably because we voters are now considered to be commodities, to be handled and packaged as much as possible, with increasingly sophisticated techniques.

There are two reasons why this trend should alarm any voter with a brain. First, it’s lazy. It presumes that voters can’t be trusted, and that candidates can’t be elected if they don’t follow, quite literally, the party line. There’s now so much money at stake for any election that everything must be controlled, run through endless focus groups and packaged. And, of course, in the end, every candidate begins to look just like all the others, since they’re all using the same group of professional advisers.

Second, and far more dangerous, is that it relies on the noise generated by all that paper and robocalling to numb voters into apathy. The advantage then goes to the incumbent, the most extreme or to the deepest pockets. Quality of character, leadership and vision get tossed by the wayside.

In the end, the only way for anyone to get ahead is to spend more and more money – which gives more and more control to the hacks, handlers and other hangers-on who make their living as political “advisors.” In response, we voters are doing the logical thing. We’re tuning out the whole mess. Voting rates trend downwards, incumbents or people listed at the top of the ballot tend to win and only extraordinary situations generate a true competitive campaign.

There’s no secret behind why we’re in this mess. Politics has become an industry, and recent Supreme Court rulings have unleashed massive amounts of cash into the system. It’s become a financial free for all that’s bad for politics, worse for civics and a terrible way to select our judges and representatives. There’s only one way out, and it isn’t going to be easy.

Vote.

Vote for candidates who will serve with passion. Who are willing to legislate, innovate and compromise. Who care more about their country and their constituents than their egos or the lobbyists’ payola. They’re hard to find, but the more of them we put into office, the sooner the tide will turn.

Feeling Flush

•May 10, 2013 • Leave a Comment

We’ve always been a very environmentally aware family. It’s a point of pride that we have an overflowing recycling bin but rarely more than 2 or three trash bags in the bin on Trash Day. We use cloth napkins. Our appliances are low flow/high efficiency. Our daughter “upcycles” things like plastic bags into practical totes and artwork. We keep the house a bit too warm in the summer and a bit too cool in the winter. If it weren’t for the cost, we’d have replaced all the windows, doors and toilets with higher efficiency versions by now.

Recently, we had to repair our sewer line and replace the water line. We also discovered roots in the sewer line closer to the street. Water still flowed, so we figured that careful monitoring of what went into the line, periodic root kill treatment and monthly doses of a biologically active pipe cleaner had a good chance of keeping that second expensive repair at bay for a while.

We also got much more careful with what went into the sewer. Nothing into the toilets except, um, biological necessities, with tiny amounts of toilet tissue. Mesh traps in the showers and kitchen sink. Minimal use of the disposal.

That’s where the surprise came from – and quite the awakening.

The amount of stuff that goes into our water systems is amazing. Even with our being very good to save our leftovers, the amount of foodstuff that we’d been grinding up was stunning. At the least, it should make for quite the compost pile. The hair in the bathtubs is far more than I ever could have imagined. I don’t even want to think about what we’ve been flushing down the toilets, simply because we could. It’s a truly stunning amount of, well, stuff.

All of that material gets washed into the water system, where it has to get broken down chemically before it can be removed. That’s a lot of residue and unnatural additive that gets released into the watershed downstream. It’s also a rather sobering amount of chemistry that we’re having to put into our water to help clean up what we inherit from whomever is upstream from us. It’s a huge amount of waste, pun fully intended.

If we’re generating this much biohazard, just how much abuse does the typical creek, river or lake absorb on a daily basis? And that doesn’t even take into account fertilizer runoff, gas and oil from motorboat engines or industrial effluvium.

Yeah, it’s kind of obvious, and it’s something I should have realized before now. It became something visible, even tangible, and that makes it much more real. Clean running water is an amazing thing and we take it for granted. It’s yet another example of something where, just because the damage isn’t visible, doesn’t mean that damage isn’t being done.

Flying Blind

•April 28, 2013 • Leave a Comment

And so Congress brags about its latest legislative triumph. No business travelers or vacationing families will be inconvenienced by sequestration budget cuts. We’ve restored funding. The planes will fly on schedule.

What is it about air travel that makes it so special? What about the remaining cuts to defense? To health and wellness programs for veterans? To food for needy children? To schools? To research? To protection for our borders?

A cynical person might say it’s because our Senators and Representatives care more for scoring political points than for actually doing something constructive on the economy. That getting elected or re-elected is more important than governing responsibly.

Maybe our ruling class is so wealthy and out of touch with the rest of us that they can’t recognize and therefore don’t care about anything that doesn’t affect them directly. They certainly don’t fear our votes, given the number of actions – or inactions –  in blatant defiance of what poll after poll clearly show that we-the-people want.

One of the rationalizations for supporting Mussolini in the 1930s was that at least he made the trains run on time. The members of our current Congress are in no way reincarnations of one of the 20th Century’s most notorious and odious tyrants. That said, our elected leadership is most definitely indulging in political buffoonery at a tragically epic level.

But hey – let’s give credit where credit is due. At least the planes will run on time.

The Importance of Being Important

•April 28, 2012 • Leave a Comment

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published the results of a poll recently that’s surprising — and, at the same time, not surprising at all. Metro Atlanta employees at a wide variety of organizations were asked to respond to a list of 20 statements, grouped into six categories. Workplace Dynamics ran the survey to determine which were the “best” places to work in Atlanta.

The leading categories were not pay and benefits. Nor were they quality managers. Instead, “direction of the company” came in first, followed by “conditions and execution of the business” and “career aspects.” The article itself is available online at http://bit.ly/JjJv7R.

At first, I found the relative unimportance of pay and benefits counterintuitive. Then I started thinking about some of the organizations I interviewed with when I was out of work. A depressingly large number of them were “zombie companies” — staffed by people collecting paychecks, with offices and cubicles exhibiting no energy and management teams who understood their challenges but not how to meet them.

That kind of behavior is a natural response to economic times in which any job becomes precious and not failing is its own sort of success. But it’s a lousy way to spend 40+ hours a week on an ongoing basis.

People like to be part of a winning team. They want to feel that their work effort is going towards something worthwhile. They want to see tangible results that come from clear goals, clearly articulated and ably led. From that perspective, the poll’s results make perfect sense.

What I expect is also the case, but the poll didn’t measure, is that organizations who have solid, achievable directions and know how to communicate those ambitions to staff also are adept at making their employees feel important. It’s great to be part of a winning team. It’s even better to know that you are an essential part of that team — and that the leadership recognizes and values your contributions.

I learned that lesson watching my father build his medical practice. His group found unusually good staff, then paid them above the going rate so that they’d stick around. Some might say that was inefficient. But no, it was smart business. The practice had far less turnover than most, which meant much less time and expense lost to training new personnel. It also worked wonders for patient retention. Years might go by between visits, but a new appointment was very likely to mean a familiar face at the sign-in window, another in the examining room and yet one more at checkout. The practice’s warmth and stability were powerful reasons why it thrived.

Sad to say, we live in a disposable society. For many workers, a job is no more permanent than paper cups or napkins. Employees know it. Management knows it. Yet management doesn’t seem to realize that their platitudes, unveiled with a flourish at off-site meetings, can only go so far to truly harness the energy and effort needed to build a successful organization. My wife’s father, long a corporate survivor, said it very succinctly: The last act of a dying organization is a new rulebook.

Smart organizations know how to buck this trend. Make your people important to your success. Let them know it and reward them for it. That way, everyone comes out a winner.