About The Site

"But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny" --Mark 12:42

How the actions of this poor widow challenges a slightly irreverant, Linux-using, business school educated Christian. And his money.

Broccoli and Burritos

Thursdays nights are for swim lessons.  I teach for fun at the local YMCA.  Sometimes though, like tonight, I’m the one who’s taught — or reminded of — the important lessons of life.

Mateo is my four-year-old energetic curly-haired student.  We were practicing our kicking by “racing” each other across the pool.  I was letting him win, because, well… it’s kinda mean to beat a pre-schooler.  As I was feigning defeat, the conversation went like this:

Me:  “How are you going so fast?”

Mateo: “Because I ate my vegetables today”

Me: “Oh?  What type of vegetables did you eat?”

Mateo : ” Broccoli!!”

Me:  “Oh! Do you like broccoli?”

Mateo:  “Yes.  I had it for lunch. What did you eat for lunch?”

Me:  “I had a burrito”

Mateo (matter-of-factly):  “Burritos aren’t very healthy.  You’d swim faster if you ate broccoli.”

Alas.  There’s nothing like a four-year-old telling you the brutal honest truth.  But what can I say?  He’s right.  After all, Robert Fulgham did say that all I need to know I learned in kindergarten.

Lessons From Starting a Food Pantry

Some towns may call them “Food Banks” — charities that give away groceries to those in need.  But in my fair city, where the SF Food Bank is a government-funded entity, us little guys are known as “Food Pantries”.

My food pantry is known as the Excelsior Community Food Pantry or ECFP for short.  When I say “my”, I really mean “my Bible study’s food pantry”.  We’re a small once-a-month pantry that still gives a way ton (yes, more than 2,000 pounds) of food every month.

We started this pantry in early 2009.  Founding and running a food pantry is rewarding and a lot of work.  Believe me, we have plenty of grumbles to go around.  But I’d like to share some of my positive lessons with you.

Three Lessons

1) Generosity abounds. I’m constantly amazed by how generous people are in giving their time and resources.  We get a dozen volunteers every pantry.  Some even ride the Muni bus across town early on Saturday morning, just to help out.

2) Churches are good for the community. Churches have gotten so much bad press in the last decade that even I, a regular church-goer, started to form a negative image of “the church” in my mind.  But I think we’re doing something good here.  We’re not making money.  We’re not forcing the Bible on anyone.  We’re just being good neighbors.  And a good member of the local community.

3) Teamwork. Studies have shown that teams of entrepreneurs have a much higher success rate than go-it-alone entrepreneurs.  I am certain that’s true for non-profit initiatives as well.  Individual members of my Bible study have gone through great lengths to get this food pantry started and to keep it running.  We have studied together, laughed together, and sometimes consoled each other for several years now.  After seeing their skill, dedication, and investment into this pantry, I appreciate them more than ever.

Weary Reflections

I thought that starting a non-profit program would culminate in a sense of self-satisfaction for a job well-done — rather like getting that A paper back in school.  In fact, it’s left me feeling a bit weary.  But I’m weary with a new-found appreciation for my fellow Bible study members, for my church, and, most importantly, for the surprising generosity of strangers.

Counting Cash Can Make You Feel Less Pain

Money can make people feel a lot of things.  But according to a recent study, the mere act of counting money makes experiences less painful.  University students who participated in this psychology study were separated into two groups.  One group counted cash, while the other counted sheets of plain paper.  Afterwards, both groups were instructed to place their fingers in hot water (120 degrees F… hot enough to hurt, but not to cause lasting damage).  Those who counted cash reported less pain.

There are numerous scientific findings linking money to the human psyche.  Money can be a substitute for social popularity.  Conversely… and more interestingly, the lack of money can make social rejection more painful.

As a kid I remember hearing, probably in a Sunday school setting, that “money is the root of all evil”.  I don’t know if I believe that today.  But I can believe that money can make jerks feel not so bad about being well… jerks.

Should we pretend boys and girls are the same?

Sometime before kindergarten, I learned the difference between boys and girls. Then, when I was in college, all of my sociology friends told me that my “social constructs” about the differences between boys and girls were incorrect. Not only were the wrong — they were also hurtful.

The very things that my preschool teachers taught me about gender (”big boys don’t cry”) was harming society. The sociology majors passionately flung study after study at me. Their premise was that boys and girls are basically the same. It’s society or “socialization” that leads to gender differences.

How about Nature?

We have made strides in unfettering men and women from “gender stereotypes”.  Men can become nurses, with only a few muffled giggles.  And women can become doctors.  Gender inequities in these professions are (or were) easily attributable to societal notions of “gender roles”.

However, the pendulum seems to have swung too far.  Today, we deem any inequality to be a societal problem.  Bring up the possibility of natural differences between men and women (or God forbid, innate intellectual capabilities) and you’ll be tarred and feathered like former Harvard President Larry Summers.

“You can be anything you want”

Sometimes it’s good to lie to kids.  Let them believe that they can grow up and change the world.  If all children who hears this try a little bit harder to achieve their dream, then it’s a worthwhile lie.

Maybe it’s like that for boys and girls.  If we pretend that they’re all the same — even if it’s not true — will we be making this world a better place?  Or are we just replacing one societal lie with another?

Drink Beer for Your Health (and Other Things I Learned from China)

Hayley and I just got back from an incredible 10-day China trip.  It was foreign, yet familiar.  The country has a rich, brutal, and ancient history.  It also has an ultra-capitalistic, gaudy, and messy modernity.  Here are my top 10 from the trip:

1)  Chinese hospitality is second to none.  Upon landing on Chinese soil, the government greeted us with these representatives:

Yep, before they let us get off the 14-hour flight, four swine flu quarantine officers — decked out in full gear as if they expected to encouter bubonic plague — canvased the plane with laser handgun-style thermometers.  How’s that for a warm welcome?

2) Feng Shui, the ancient Chinese system of aesthetics, has merit.  I had always thought it was a Chinese-influenced real-estate sham.

We visited one of the smaller Suzhou gardens, which are laid out according to Feng Shui principles.  It was beautiful.  Every corridor and every corner of the garden felt pleasant.

flickr: rulde

flickr: rulde

Later, the tour took us to a Feng Shui “museum”, comprised of a few photos and a selection of cheaply made improve-your-Fengshui Chinese guardian lions (for sale, of course).  Now that was a sham.

3)  Driving in China is not for the faint of heart.  Neither is riding in a taxi.   Or crossing the street.  Red lights and road markers are regarded as mere suggestions.

4) Today’s best modern art comes from China.  Anybody who watched the 2008 Summer Olympics opening ceremony by Zhang Yimou would agree.

We watched Zhang Yimou’s show on the famous Hangzhou West Lake.  The performance was literally on the lake.  The show had 100+ Chinese performers walking on water.  The storyline was a bit slow, especially for westerners.  But it was damn impressive artistically.

flickr:

flickr: muzikbug

5) Avoid Chinese tap water for your digestive health.  This includes ice cubes and anything else that comes from the tap.  So, I followed their sage advice:  I drank beer for my health.

6)  The First Emperor of China was a bad ass.  I know, I know. He unified China, standardized the written language, created the Terracotta Army, and built the Great Wall.

The most impressive: an underground river of poison — namely mercury — protects his underground tomb.  It’s been safe from tomb robbers for over two millennia.  Archeologists recently found the remains of one tomb robber: a nine-meter deep hole and at the end, a skeleton.

flickr: roainguy

flickr: romainguy

7)  You can buy touristy junk… I meant to say souvenirs, everywhere.  Seriously.

Case 1:  We were on a remote section of the Great Wall that winded through a forest-covered mountain.  Out of the trees pop out three guys.  They scale a 10-foot section of the wall, and proceed to sell us postcards and t-shirts.

Case 2: We were on a riverboat.  Directly outside my window was the water.  Then I noticed two guys on a bamboo raft paddling furiously towards us.  They came up alongside our boat, held out some faux-jade figurines, and opened  my window in hopes of selling me this stuff.  I felt both impressed and invaded at the same time.

8) Chairman Mao had a big mole.  An enormous copy of this photograph of him hangs outside the Forbidden Palace.

Was that mole cancerous?

Was that mole cancerous?

9) Geithner was right.  Kind of.  In January, the treasury secretary accused China of manipulating the currency, saying it gave China an unfair advantage.  Except it gave us tourists an unfair advantage.  The exchange rate is 6.75 yuan to $1.  The purchasing power parity (PPP) is closer to 2 yuan to $1.

Basically, we were three times richer in China.  We ate like kings.  We shopped like kings.  And we were treated like, well… rich suckers.

10)   There’s no place like home.  It’s great to feast on international cuisine and see the world.  China has amazing history (a number of museum exhibits started at 8000 BC and ended before the US was founded!)  and great promise for the future.  But I’m so happy to be safely back at home.

Cheerful Communion?

This Sunday, I saw something quite surprising at church.  In the middle of church service during communion, a bunch of the grade-school children from Sunday school bounded into the sanctuary.  They cheerfully danced up to the communion table.  The church elder offered them the bread.  The children grabbed a piece, drenched it grape juice, and popped it in their mouths.  One of them turned around and flashed the congregation a big goofy grin, as to say “this is good stuff”.  And they dashed off.

My response?  My own grin, out of amusement.  Let me explain…

The Solemn Tradition

Churches define differing rules around communion (or Eucharist, if you’re Catholic), such as who’s allowed to participate, and who can serve it.  But they seem to have one unspoken rule in common: those taking communion must be solemn or pensive or mediative or contrite.  No giddiness allowed.

But why not?  Is it unholy to be happy?  When is piety measured in dourness?

An Honest Reaction

I believe in an honest reaction to God in worship and religious traditions.  Sometimes a meditative stance is called for.  In other times, I think this child had it right.  Sometimes there’s no better reaction to God than a big goofy grin that says, “this is good stuff”.

Fat People: Not so Friendly Skies

“Oversized” passengers who cannot fit into their assigned seats will now be paying more on United Airlines flights, according to this NPR report.  They’ll need to buy an extra ticket, upgrade, or refund their ticket.

Many folks — like the Canadians, whose airlines provide a free seat because they treat obesity like a medical issue — may cry that this is unfair.  Me?  I think it’s unfair when some guy’s side-gut comes oozing into my seat.

Worrying about Unemployment

It seems like everybody, myself included, is worrying about job security today.  A number of my friends have lost their jobs.  Yours and mine may very well be in jeopardy.  Sure, there are some glimmers of hope on Wall Street.  But the stock market is what they call a “leading indicator”.  Jobs recovery will surely lag any recovery of financial markets.

Suppose we lost our jobs.  What should we do?

Well, let’s take a look at some of the things a job provides:

  • Money
  • Community
  • Challenges and growth opportunities

Most focus on the first.  Money is important.  But — as long as your survival isn’t on the line (and if you have Internet connectivity, it probably isn’t) — community and personal growth is important too.

Would it be possible to honestly tell people: my one-year of unemployment has been among the most fulfilling periods of my life? People around the globe live on meager means, yet still have fulfilling lives.  Can’t we do the same?

Did You Read Hayley’s Blog Post?

I have a time-honored tradition* of responding to some of Hayley’s blog posts. Our friend Rahul calls it “competing blogs”. I like to think of it as complementary blogs. But I digress…

Hayley’s recent post expressed some of the busyness that we’ve experienced recently. Like Hayley, I’m a bit tired, stressed, and overwhelmed. Yet both of us are very very excited. Here are some of the things going on (both in my thoughts and in real life):

Food Pantry

We started a non-profit program, the Excelsior Community Food Pantry. It began off as a Bible Study idea: “The Poor and the Bible”. It’s now grown into a monthly farmer’s market-style food distribution. We provided free food for over 120 families this month. Customers who came to the food pantry got a hot cup of coffee and an opportunity to fill a bag full of groceries with red onions, carrots, cabbage, apples, oranges, Newman’s Own pasta sauce, chicken bullion, granola bars, and a box of Triscuits.

Does this make me a community activist? I don’t really see myself as one. And I hated those Berkeley tree sitters. Yes, I know. Hate is a strong word. It’s just that, well… I hated them.

If you want to volunteer for one of our coming months, sign up on the Facebook page or contact Hayley or myself. Donations — money or used shopping bags — are welcome too.

Age

Yes, we’re all aging. But once a year my facebook wall fills up with wonderful messages to remind me of that fact. Yep, this past Friday was my big three-oh, my 30th birthday. I’m celebrating with a party at a local wine bar.

I’ve actually had a really exciting birthday. I enjoyed a birthday brew with some co-workers, and I have plans for a birthday toast (with wine) tonight. I got a food pantry, time with family and friends, and a…

New Home

I’m excited to announce that we closed escrow on a house in San Francisco. It’s in the Parkside (aka Sunset District) with a view of the sunset. It’s not big — it’s about the size of our current apartment — but it ours. All we need to do now is to deal with painting, and repairing, and fixing floors, and appliance shopping, and packing, and moving, and… and… and…

The Burden of Responsibility and the Value of Teams

I would be lying to you if I said that all of these new responsibilities didn’t feel a bit burdensome. It does. I feel like I’ve got plenty of weight on my shoulders, along with my share of stress-induced knotted muscles there too. But it’s all good stress, in the sense that I’ve actively sought out this additional responsibility.

All my life I’ve worked towards increased responsibility. In high school student government, I remember thinking “Wee! Leadership responsibility is Fun!” But now that I’m a manager at work, an owner of a new home, an elder at church, and a co-founder of this food pantry, I think “Woah. This is serious”.

It’s in the face of this heavy responsibility that I truly value the importance of teammates. In almost every one of our recent milestones, we had gotten into a pinch and someone else came through for us. At work, it’s been coworkers both from inside and outside of my group. For our new home, it’s been our families. And for the first food pantry, we’ve had numerous members of our church step up.

I can honestly say that without these teams, I would not be reporting these successes to you today. I would be mourning failed work projects, an unsuccessful escrow, and dashed dreams of a non-profit food pantry. But I’m not. And it’s all because of my colleagues, friends, and family who have teamed up with me.

Hayley is Awesome

Does it look bad to brag about your wife? I don’t care. I’m doing it.

In my recent endeavors, Hayley has been a key teammate. I’m accustomed to relating to Hayley as my wife, friend, and companion. But recently I’ve been interacting with Hayley like a work colleague, and — it might sound weird but — I’ve been really impressed.

On multiple occasions, Hayley’s coworkers announced “Hayley is Awesome!” when I first met them and introduced myself as Hayley’s husband. Well, I’ve worked with her now, and she IS awesome. She’s fast, efficient, reliable. She’s a good negotiator — both polite and firm — and an effective communicator. She wades through the beauracracy and politics and makes stuff happen. I’m glad to have her on my side.

It’s been a busy busy few months. It’s been a lot hard work and overwhelming at times. I’m really excited about these new milestones, thanks to the great support from my teammates and the community around me. To all of my family, friends, and colleagues who are reading this blog post: THANK YOU!

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* This is my third time posting a response to Hayley’s blog.  In the virtual world, I think that makes a “time honored tradition”.

Aesops Retold: Ant bails out Grasshopper

Remember that age-old Aesops fable, The Ant and The Grasshopper? The version I was told as a child depicted the Grasshopper singing and dancing during the lazy summer months, while the Ant fastidiously worked and stored away food. When winter came around, the Ant had food but the Grasshopper went hungry. Moral of the story? Work hard and save.

I’ll probably tell the next generation this same story with the same message. But I’d be concealing today’s reality. A more realistic version of the story would depict the Grasshopper getting a bail-out, a hand-out, or a stimulus check at the expense of the hardworking Ant.

Savers get Penalized

This week’s issue of The Economist’s article, A lament for savers, describes this phenomenon. “In theory, everybody regards thrift as a virtue,” it writes. “In practice, they treat it as a vice”.

It’s true. Those who squirrel away their stimulus checks are chided for hurting the economy. Spending is patriotic. Even in church, during prayer time, a lady asked us to pray for local small businesses. And then she encouraged us to all go out to eat more often.

These are tough economic times, right? Perhaps this is just a temporary bias towards spenders. Well, maybe. But even long-standing institutions like the tax code put savers at a disadvantage. Interest income is taxable, whereas mortgage interest is tax-deductible. So, go ahead. The government wants you to take out a big loan and buy that expensive house. If you really can’t afford it, don’t worry, because you just might get a bail-out.