Essay

Will the United States ever rebuild from its ugly and shameful history of institutional racism?

A pilgrimage to Central Camera

News is rippling through the film-photography community today that Chicago’s Central Camera was looted and set ablaze last night. Violent protests began Friday night in Chicago, and in many other large cities across the US, after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, a black man, while he was in their custody.

Downtown Indianapolis has seen violent protests this weekend, as well. One person was shot to death and at least two more were shot and injured. Windows are broken and shops have been looted, including in the block where my workplace is located. The city has instituted a 6 pm curfew tonight trying to stem the violence.

Anger was already high in Indianapolis. Earlier this month, city police shot Dreasjon Reed, an black man, to death as he was running from them. Reed was armed, it turned out, but the news does not indicate that he was waving his gun at the time he was killed. This happened about a mile and a half from my old house, near the Michigan Road, which quickly filled with protesters and was closed for hours. Read the story here.

As I scan news reports, it sounds like the majority of protesters in every city are loud but otherwise peaceful. A minority is violent.

I condemn the violence. But I fully support the right of everyone to protest police overuse and misuse of force, especially because it appears to affect black men in gross disproportion. I can’t imagine a valid reason for a Minneapolis police officer to keep his knee on a man’s neck for nine minutes, ignoring his protests that he couldn’t breathe. I can’t imagine a valid reason for an Indianapolis police officer to shoot a man in the back as he ran away. I can’t escape the feeling that if these two men were white, they would not have died.

The owner of Central Camera says he will rebuild his store. But will the United States ever rebuild from its ugly and shameful history of institutional racism? I’m not optimistic.

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Essay, Personal

When your wife divorces you

I read a monthly e-mail newsletter called The Masculinist, written for Christian men living in the modern world. Its author, Aaron Renn, has some very well-reasoned positions on men in the church and in living the Christian life. He does a great job of explaining and building upon his positions in his newsletter. If you’re interested, you can sign up here.

In his most recent newsletter, he offers advice for men whose wives decide to divorce them. He points out that women file for 70% of all US divorces, and it is therefore wise as married men to think about how it will affect us should it happen to us. He then offers solid advice and perspective. Read it here.

His advice really resonated with me. My first wife divorced me. I won’t tell the story as I’m sure my ex wouldn’t like me telling stories on her, as I don’t appreciate her telling stories on me. But she was the one who decided the marriage was over, and filed.

At that time I got two pieces of excellent advice that line up well with Renn’s perspective. The first one came from an unlikely source: my attorney. He told me to find five trusted men who would take my call and who would pray with me. Many of us men don’t have five male friends, especially ones not married to our wives’ friends. If I couldn’t find five men, find as many as I could. My attorney warned me that they would probably not be able to offer me any real counsel or help, and I should let them know I understand that. Their purpose was simply to listen when I needed to talk, and to pray with me and for me.

My young sons on the suspension bridge at Turkey Run State Park. It was 2005, after the separation but before the divorce was final.

Second, do not date for three years. My mother gave me this advice. You are a mess, she said, and need time to recover and figure out who you are again. If you date now, you will choose a woman like the one who just rejected you, or a woman equally a mess for her own reasons. Either way, it won’t lead to a healthy relationship. That will be bad for you. But more importantly, you do not need to be that distracted from your sons, who are also hurting and need you.

I took both pieces of advice. The trusted male friends (and family members) I lined up really did take my call at any time, and really did pray for me and with me. True to my lawyer’s counsel, they seldom had any meaningful advice or material help to offer. But they did listen, and offered comforting words. Because of them I was never alone through any of what came. It was a long, dragged-out mess — after filing, my ex flatly refused to negotiate, our judge refused to order mediation, and we went to trial in a badly backlogged court. It was more than a year before we stood before the judge.

The second piece of advice was wicked hard at first. I was so starved for attention and affection! But not dating helped me keep my head in the right game: raising my two sons, with the time the court granted me to have with them. Three years became seven, with my sons in high school, before I dated at all. At ten years, I met the woman who would become my wife. Even then, we delayed until my youngest son was out of high school. We agreed that it made no sense to upend his life as he knew it with me, with a new house and stepsiblings, when he was so close to the finish line.

The stability I provided for my sons in my home became foundational for them — the oldest has acknowledged this openly without my prompting — as their mom went on to marry two more times, moving our sons with them each time.

The other thing that I did on my own was double down on my faith. I was furious with God for the failure of my marriage. I’d prayed daily, on my knees and in tears, that he intervene and save us. I felt that God had not kept his promises to me, the ones I felt he had made all through his Word. I could have easily walked away at that point.

But there was something in me that insisted on holding God to his promises, and I let him know it in no uncertain terms. I spent a lot of time searching the Scriptures like a lawyer poring over legal texts trying to find where God had made those promises. Instead, through this study I learned how my understanding of God’s nature was thin and inaccurate. I came to understand him far better — and built a feeling of closeness with him that I didn’t know was possible.

Even though the divorce has been final for 14 years, recalling it still brings up residual pain. That’s the other piece of advice I wish I had been given: this is a very serious loss, and you will find a new normal, a new peace, and hopefully a new happiness. You will eventually no longer think about your loss every day. But it will remain a sad, difficult memory for the rest of your life.

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Essay

Communication: Throwing the ball so others can catch it

“You are unusually direct,” Elsa said to me. She was one of the first people I hired in my first management role, in the late 1990s. She said this to me on a few occasions as we worked on a large project together. I took it as a compliment then, but with hindsight I see that Elsa found my forthrightness to be challenging.

I say half-jokingly that I was this direct because I have hillbilly and blue-collar roots. My dad grew up in the hills of West Virginia. His family moved to Indiana to find factory and construction work. Dad worked in a farm-equipment factory while I grew up. In the culture I came from, anything less than saying it straight — no matter how much the words hurt — is seen as being untrustworthy.

Handley, WV
Handley, West Virginia, pop. 350 — where my dad’s family is from

I was proud of my direct manner. I believed that my forthrightness was good and valuable. It came from a place of wanting good outcomes for the company, customers, and my co-workers. I wasn’t trying to be a jerk, but that’s how I was sometimes perceived.

I’d been a manager for about 10 years when the fellow I worked for at the time said it to me: “Jim. You’ve got to stop leaving dead bodies behind when you talk. Learn some tact.” He told me he’d like to see me move up in the organization, but not while this behavior stood in my way.

That got my attention. I had been pitching fastballs at peoples’ foreheads. That boss coached me in throwing drifts that others can catch. I’ve practiced it ever since, and have built reasonable skill. It has unlocked all sorts of opportunity for me. It has helped me build influence and trust.

It took a long time for more nuanced communication to not feel wrong. It turns out I’m not among my hillbilly family, and I’m not working a blue-collar job. I’m working with midwestern professionals, and the rules are different.

I revert to my natural form when I’m anxious, over-stressed, or very tired. Those are not my finest moments.

But there are times when speaking directly is valuable. Emergencies are one such time. A couple companies ago I managed the testing team. Production went down while all of the site operations managers were at a conference. I was ranking manager, so I dove in and, using my natural directness, led the team to quickly find root cause and get Production back up again. One engineer praised me: “You came outta nowhere and crisply and efficiently drove the train back onto the track. I’ve never seen this side of you!”

Another time is when I think I see something critical that nobody else does, and nuanced communication is not getting the ball across the plate. A flat statement can grab attention and change the conversation. It can also blow up in my face, so it’s a calculated risk. I’m hoping it works because it seems so out of character. “Whoa, Jim is really strident about this one. He’s usually so collegial. Maybe we should listen a little more closely.”

Finally, sometimes you have to say a flat “no” to a challenging request. I try very hard to find a way to say yes while highlighting the tradeoffs I or my team will have to make. “Could you deliver this feature two weeks earlier?” “Yes, if I pause work on this other feature.” Or, “Yes, if we trim scope and accept greater quality risk.” Or, “Yes, if we can flow some of the work through this other team.” But if scope, quality, and team are fixed and don’t support the timeline, I’m left to say no, and I do so plainly.

I will always wish I could be direct all the time. It’s how I’m made. But I care more about being effective than leaning into my basic nature.

I first shared this post on my software blog, here. It felt like a general enough topic to share here as well. It expands on a comment I left on another post on this subject, on Johanna Rothman’s blog, here.

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Essay

You always have to figure out your life

My father- and mother-in-law had stayed in their home too long. Not only could they not maintain it anymore, but they struggled with daily tasks in it.

They asked my wife to find them an assisted-living home. It turned out to be a giant project with lots of decisions to make. Even with my wife doing most of the work, my in-laws found the process to be overwhelming. My then-86-year-old father-in-law said, “I never thought that at my age there would be so many hard choices to make!”

I had been feeling exactly the same way about my own life at that time. I was not thrilled to learn that it never ends.

When I was a young adult, people in middle age seemed so together, so settled. They had their lives figured out! Now that I’m middle aged I know that middle-aged people have only been through enough to have figured out things about life that baffle young adults. We only seem together and settled to them. There’s so much more we haven’t figured out yet.

Down the path

Where I work, everyone who reports to me is younger than me. Most of them are in their 20s, like my children. Sometimes they’ll tell me how much they appreciate my coaching because it clearly comes from a lot of experience. It feels great to hear them say it. One of my engineers actually said to me recently, “You seem to have it all figured out.” I chuckled for a second and said, “I’ve figured out a lot of things that you haven’t yet simply because I have a 30-year head start on you. But I’m still figuring things out. Chief among them: how do I stay relevant and employable in this young-man’s industry when I’m almost always the oldest guy in the room?”

That’s not the only thing I’m trying to figure out. I’m also figuring out how to stay physically healthy as my body ages and begins its natural decline. I’m also figuring out how to love and help aging parents and parents-in-law while simultaneously loving and helping our grown children step successfully into their adult lives. I’m figuring out how to love my new wife well through all of this, a woman I’m still getting to know. I’m also figuring out how to save enough for retirement after my expensive divorce and putting my kids through college have dramatically hindered my ability to do that during the prime saving years.

I’m also still figuring out how to manage my emotions after all these years. I’ve always had remarkably intense feelings. My wife and I went to see the film Little Women the day after Christmas. This was my first contact with this story, as I’d neither read the book nor seen any of the other film adaptations. In one scene, Jo fretted to her mother how much she struggled with her anger and said how much she admired her mom’s composure. Jo was shocked when her mother replied that she was angry nearly every day of her life, but after working at it for 40 years she had learned to manage it and present a placid face to the world.

I don’t believe she means that she denies her anger, only that in the face of it she chooses to behave in ways that don’t tear people down.

I identify with that middle-aged woman. I want to be able to feel what I feel but make effective choices anyway. Even after 52 years I haven’t entirely figured that out. My feelings can still overwhelm me and render me inert — or, worse, incredibly unkind — until they pass.

Maybe what I’m figuring out in middle age is that you always have to figure out your life. I’m glad I’ve figured this out now, so that if I’m fortunate to live as long as my father-in-law I won’t be surprised by what I have to figure out then.

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Essay, Faith

The sacrifice of thanksgiving

First published 23 November 2013. I’m not by nature a happy person. That doesn’t mean I’m an unhappy person. I just don’t go around all day thinking sunshine, rainbows, and unicorns. I see the good and the bad.

I’m also a bit of a type-A personality. I have a considerable internal drive to make things better and to fix what is broken. I spend a lot of my time frustrated because I just can’t fix it all. Sometimes the problems are beyond my abilities, and frequently I lack the resources I need.

So you see where my focus is: more on the bad than the good. I’m aware of the good but I feel the bad.

The other day in some words in a psalm caused me to stop dead. From Psalm 50, verses 14-15 and 23:

Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and perform your vows to the Most High,
and call upon me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.

The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me.

sacrifice of thanksgiving? I know all of these words individually, of course, but strung together in that order I struggled to understand them.

So I asked, because this came up during a Bible study. The leader said, “One way to look at it is that you’re giving up ingratitude. But thanksgiving itself really is a sacrifice.”

It left me more puzzled than satisfied.

But as I studied it and thought about it, I came to see that just because something is always wrong, and some things are very wrong, it is a sacrifice to set it aside for awhile and be grateful for what is good and right.

This helped me realize that I had lost touch with something important. 15 years ago, my life fell apart. And as I put my life back together, the bad days and bad things dwarfed the good. I had to search hard for the good. They were usually very small things, and they were always very few in number. But I looked for them, because finding something good in every bad day was the knot at the end of the rope to which I clung.

My living room in the morning
One small thing for which I am frequently surprisingly grateful: the morning sun streaming through my front windows. I love how the warm light plays against the wall.

Thanks to a lot of hard work over the past several years, there’s way more good than bad now. But I’m still that guy who wants to fix and improve things – and often that’s all I can think of.

It’s hard to sacrifice it and offer up thanksgiving to God.

Perhaps that’s why it’s a sacrifice. When things are truly going poorly, when the biggest thing I have to be thankful for is mighty small, it can really hurt to thank God for it. And for some reason, at least for me, when more is right than is wrong it’s easy to focus on the wrong. It is still surprisingly hard to thank God for what is good.

And a sacrifice – you should feel it. Otherwise it’s not a sacrifice.

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Essay, Faith

Forgiveness isn’t reconciliation

First published July 17, 2013. It makes me crazy when I hear it said (especially by preachers or others teaching the Christian faith) that when you forgive someone, you must reconcile, returning the relationship to where it was before. It’s not true.

Hibbs Ford Bridge

In my last post I wrote about why and how to forgive – to suffer the loss and bear the pain, to no longer hold anything against the person who harmed you, and to give up your desire to get even. You forgive so you can be at peace.

Reconciliation is a separate step. Where forgiveness is about letting go of the past, reconciliation is about committing to a future – and sometimes it is best for a relationship not to have a future.

Even among people who haven’t harmed us, there are some who are a fit for us and some who aren’t. We routinely choose our intimates, friends, and associates based on any number of factors – shared values, common interests, demonstrations of care and concern for our well-being, and simple appeal. We don’t have to be tight with every person we encounter. We can’t be; there are simply too many people!

God can be tight with everyone; he is perfect and infinite, after all. God’s ideal is forgiveness and reconciliation, and that’s what he offered us at the cross. Jesus’s death gives us both forgiveness from and reconciliation with God, if we accept it as a gift from him. We get to be in relationship with him again, and he will not retaliate against us for our sins. I think God feels deep, deep sadness over every one of us who won’t accept his gift of reconciliation. It is much how we would feel if one of our children thumbed his nose at us and never came home again.

Canadian River Bridge

God wants us to live in peace with everyone, but I don’t think he means for us to keep opening ourselves up to harm. When Jesus preached at the mount, he said something that is frequently misapplied to justify reconciliation with someone who will harm us again and again.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”

That’s Matthew 5:38-42, NIV. Jesus was exaggerating a little to make a point; his whole sermon was filled with such hyperbole. Seriously, do you think he means for us to find to a mugger in a blind alley and say, “Here’s my wallet and my phone, and have a nice day?” Jesus himself was struck in the face in John 18:22; he demonstrates his point in John 18:23 where he doesn’t present the other side of his face to his aggressor. He doesn’t hit back or argue, either; he remains peaceable. Jesus is only trying to tell us to let God have vindication and mete out justice.

1880 bridge

I think God wants us to love ourselves enough to choose people who treat us well and build us up.

So when someone harms you, ask yourself:

  • How much did you value the relationship? Highly, moderately, lightly, or not at all? You probably value highly the relationship with a parent, a child, or your best friend of 30 years. You probably place much lower value on the relationship with a distant acquaintance.
  • How much damage was done? Extreme, moderate, or light? For example, someone deliberately burning your house down is far worse than someone casually saying something offensive to you.
  • What does what the other person did say about their character? Was what they did way out of character for them, a one-time deal that is inherently unlikely to be repeated? Or was it consistent with who they are? It’s pretty simple: keep people with good character and shed people with bad character.
  • How well did the other person make amends? Fully, partially or imperfectly, or not at all? When someone harms you or lets you down, trust is damaged. Trust needs to be restored before reconciliation can be complete. Making amends is the first step in restoring trust. Trust builds over time as the other person continues to behave well.
Steel truss bridge, Mill Creek

The answers to these questions help you decide whether to reconcile fully, to end the relationship, or to redefine the relationship.

Let’s look at redefining the relationship for a minute, because it’s not an obvious outcome. It’s when you change the rules of the relationship to protect yourself.

In college, a buddy used to lend me his car sometimes. Once I brought it back with a slightly dented fender. I apologized all over myself. He told me it was all right, and that the little dent didn’t make his old beater look any worse. But he also said that he’d like it if I didn’t ask to borrow his car anymore. He was just as friendly to me after that, but there was this one limit to our relationship. Perhaps in time I could have rebuilt that trust and he might have let me borrow his car again, but college ended for us before that day came.

I once knew a woman with an alcoholic husband. She finally told him that while she loved him and didn’t want to leave him, she couldn’t tolerate his drinking anymore. She told him that when he came home drunk she would kick him out, change the locks, and cancel his debit card, for increasingly longer periods each time. When she let him come back home, she would treat him with love and respect. He eventually got into AA and got sober, but only after being kicked out like this a handful of times, the last time spending many months unwelcome at home.

US 36 Wabash River bridge

Still, there are just going to be times when it’s right to call it quits permanently. Many years ago someone who was supposed to love me hurt me instead, repeatedly, in breathtaking ways. It took me several years to forgive and heal from the abuse, and to be at peace again. There have been no amends made, not even an acknowledgement of what happened. I sometimes encounter that person. I am polite, but I keep interactions short and move on. I think it unwise to let that person be close to me in any way.

I’m thinking again about the college roommate who stiffed me for the $400 phone bill, whose story I told in my last post. He called me trying to apologize. He tried to rebuild my trust by sending me money every couple months towards the debt. Yet I spurned him until the debt was repaid in full. My heart was in the wrong place.

Thankfully, my friend forgave me for that.

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