Friday, May 28, 2010

Risking One's Neck

Although I write about stuff like this all the time, my recent ramblings on risk have not been enjoyable or satisfying. Perhaps part of the reason involves my penchant for trying to appear as though I have a command of the subject about which I’m writing, while deep down I suspect I’m not fooling anybody. Another reason involves my struggle with contemporary, conventional evangelical culture, in which I would be much more accepted and befriended, if I didn’t have so many problems with it!

A lot of cynics get labeled unrepentant pessimists because we refuse to conform with the myopic, generally-accepted standards the rest of a society or peer group embraces. We’re shunted to the side as troublemakers, pot-stirrers, and impediments to progress. And some of us are just those things.

Maybe it’s my own pride and self-deception, but I like to hope that the way I think has its benefits, even if conventional evangelicalism doesn’t want to see it that way. Part of my mindset has to do with the fact that I’ve always been a social misfit, to one degree or another, only in the church, other people are supposed to love me anyway. But it’s a two-way street, isn’t it? How much love and grace do I exemplify by the way I write, talk, and share my opinions? Not that just because I may be right gives me license to run roughshod over people who have yet to see the light in my viewpoint.

Which is why, even though I had told myself that Wednesday’s essay was enough for the risk topic, I’ve decided to broach the subject at least once more today. Well, that, and the fact that the totally random Bible passage I read this morning had the word “risk” emblazoned across it.

Thy Neck Sticketh Out

In Romans 16:1-16, the apostle Paul sends greetings to members of the Roman church, including Priscilla and Aquila, the tentmakers with whom Paul occasionally worked. He says in verse 3 that “for my life [they] risked their own necks…”

“Hmm…” I thought, as the verse kept slapping me in the face… “Why hasn’t this dawned on me before?” After all, I’ve known about Priscilla and Aquila since childhood. But for some reason, the fact that they risked their lives for Paul never hit home for me, until today.

Whenever somebody tells you to keep re-reading familiar passages of scripture, do it! I’m constantly amazed at how much stuff God tucks away in these holy texts.

After a quick Google search, I determined that nobody knows what sort of danger Priscilla and Aquila actually endured for Paul. And I suppose it doesn’t really matter anyway, otherwise Paul would have told us. The way he writes it, I can’t tell if he assumed the Roman church would know what event he was referencing, or if he simply wanted to clue them in as to the intimate value he held for them – after all, if somebody I knew risked their life for mine, we would have a unique personal bond thereafter, wouldn’t we?

Speaking of personal bonds – and things that hadn’t ever struck me before in the Bible – Paul also sends greetings to a relative of his in Rome, Herodion. He also sends greetings TO Rome from Lucius, Jason, and Sosipater, relatives of Paul in Corinth, from where his letter to the Romans was written. I’ve always thought of Paul as a solitary figure, but he obviously stayed connected to his extended family.

Losing Your Life

But anyway; back to Priscilla and Aquila. Let’s not delve into suppositions and extrapolations on what, why, and how they did what they did for Paul. Let’s just allow the fact to sit by itself; that they risked their lives for Paul.

I’ve never risked my life for anybody before. Have you? I’ve tested the low limits of my reputation, employment, friendships, and finances, but never to significant degrees that could be called risk, and certainly not my life. And obviously, not many people risked their lives for Paul in the way Priscilla and Aquila did, otherwise he either wouldn’t have mentioned them, or he’d have included them in the longer list of his mortality benefactors. (Since I’ve already proven I’m don’t have an encyclopedic mastery of Bible references, I searched Google for other people who Paul may have similarly referenced, and didn’t find any).

Some commentators use the word “risk” here to say that believers should risk something for the kingdom, which of course isn’t a false statement.

But somehow, when Paul says a husband and wife almost died because of their friendship to Paul, I think something more significant happened than them just giving up comforts, other friendships, or good jobs.

This event involved their mortality.

Earlier in the Gospels, Christ says that people who try to save their lives will actually lose them (Luke 17:33, John 12;25). So we should not avoid risk simply because we might get injured, or suffer some sort of loss. But does that mean any risk is OK? Is speeding around Texas Motor Speedway in a Corvette an acceptable risk? (remember, that's where this all started...)

Christ isn't talking about living life in a bubble, is He? And He's not talking about getting one's kicks from thrill rides either, is He? Aren't Christ and Paul - albeit by inference from the Romans passage - telling us that if we're going to take risks, we'd better be sure they're worth it?

It doesn't sound like Priscilla and Aquila were taking Paul's place in the Corvette as it sped around the track, does it?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Theology of Risk

Risk - Part 3

OK, so maybe all of my rambling about risk simply proves I’m a timid little mouse. I readily admit that risk is not a word people immediately associate with me. And I’m OK with that.

But it’s not only my disjointed DNA and my sheltered upbringing that prejudice me against unnecessary risk. My brother, who was raised by the same parents as I, is a helicopter pilot today, so what does that say about nature and nurture? Of course, he’s an exceptional pilot – in fact, I prefer flying with him rather than riding when he’s driving.

When I lived in New York City, I remember coming home at the end of normal workdays and flopping down on my bed, recalling the numerous opportunities I had that day to be smashed by a speeding bus, run over by a crazy cabdriver, or sliced open by impatient subway doors. I’d take a deep breath and marvel that I was still alive and in one piece! I've since learned that other people who've lived in the Big Apple have had similar "mortality moments." Maybe that’s not the way most people would want to live life, but for me, it was oddly therapeutic and energizing, even though it was physically exhausting.

So again: let this prove that I don’t deny some risks are worth taking.

But… and there’s always a but, isn’t there?

How should evangelical people of faith view risk? What is the degree to which people of faith are called to take risks, and what types of risk should we take?

Pump (clap) You Up

At the risk (!) of unintentionally publicizing what has proven to be utter garbage, let me reference the blasphemous book Wild at Heart by John Eldridge, printed in 2001. Marketing material for this travesty of a “Christian” book included such dorky bylines as “Helping men rediscover their masculine heart” and “Discovering the secret of a man’s soul”.

Among the many fallacies of his book, Eldridge tries to posit the theory that men are basically wild animals with a lust for life that girlie-man theologians have stripped of virility and castrated with empathy, education, and – gasp! – selflessness. His book made a big splash in the evangelical world when it first came out, but aside from some pseudo-Colorado-mountainmen and a few closet metrosexuals, Eldridge’s fantasies about alpha-male primitiveness soon fizzled in the light of Biblical reality.

The reason I bring up this horrible book is to draw upon a major aspect of risk which Eldridge attempts to pawn off as truth: he claims God took risks with His creation, and so should we. Apparently, Eldridge considers that an aversion to risk should be the hallmark of any manly-man, for which God serves as the supreme prototype.

Without wading too far into the muck and mire of all that is wrong with such a theory, can we at least agree that God’s sovereignty, omnipotence, and omniscience automatically preclude the impossibility that God takes any risks? Of all that is possible with God, He cannot take risks, because risk implies He would not have ultimate control over something, or that He would lack intimate knowledge and understanding about something. So right away, even though a lot of people initially defended Wild at Heart by saying “you can’t criticize the book without reading it,” we can indeed and with full conviction proclaim that risk cannot be validated by God’s use of it Himself.

Eldridge Isn't All Wrong

Which leaves us with the remaining shards of Eldridge’s idea that evangelicals should engage in risk for God. Which, of course, is true to a certain extent. But not necessarily in all of the ways Eldridge thinks.

True, “he who loves his live will lose it,” and that we are to “count all things as nothing for the sake of the Gospel.” But that doesn’t mean we’re free to skydive out of a plane into a wildlife sanctuary, tiptoe along the third rail, or even push the legalistic envelope, does it?

As over-quoted as it is, martyred missionary Jim Elliot’s words still ring true: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose." That's probably as good a definition of Biblical risk as I've ever heard. Because what did Elliot and his mission team really risk when they went to Ecuador to evangelize the Auca tribespeople? They knew their eternal reward was in Heaven, not here on Earth. In mankind’s way of thinking, perhaps going to jungles ruled by headhunters constituted a ridiculous risk, but if these missionaries were genuinely called by God to serve in the South America, what might they have risked by NOT going?

Taking Risk Further Than God Intends?

Now, I’m going to tread cautiously here: we still need to choose our "risk" ventures carefully, don't we? I’ve read some commentators who wonder if Jim Elliot had a streak of hard-headedness which virtually secured his fate at the hands of the Auca tribesmen. I bring up that theory not because it's been proven as credible, but to caution against misinterpreting foolish bravado for God's direction into danger. Whether Elliot - who has been practically enshrined by contemporary Christian culture - suffered from self-centered, unbiblical risk isn't for me to say, and again, I don't mean to impugn his memory by drawing the correlation between his genuine martyrdom and people with a mentality that justifies their own foolishness and embrace of risk. It's just that Elliot's story seems, um, downright swashbuckling compared with other stories of missionaries who have tread far more cautiously - yet still "successfully" - in their ministries.

Before you burn me at the stake as a heretic, let's move away from Elliot. You have to admit that some people claiming to be Christians seem compelled not by devotion to Christ, but simply because their acquiescence to their Type-A personalities makes it easy to scoff at risk and try to be the hero. It’s ego, pure and simple, to either deny the realities of risk or assume they don’t apply to you.

From my thin knowledge of 19th and 20th Century world missions, it seems like the evangelical fervor of the day tended to wink at risk and embrace the potential for glory that beckoned from distant shores. The terror that must have stalked every missionary upon their disembarking on those distant shores must have been excruciating, and far be it from me to judge their motives and hearts now, after so much Kingdom work has been advanced across the globe by these pioneers. But looking at how missions agencies today let insurance companies, health concerns, and other conventional bureaucratic considerations dictate ministry policies, has professional evangelical work become hog-tied by risk-aversion or simply more prudent and objective? Is less Kingdom work getting done because actuaries, lawyers, and accountants are calling more of the shots? Did God bless the proclamation of His Word because He says He would, despite the foolish risks His messengers took? Do the ends justify the means when it comes to the Gospel?

Which brings us to that thin line between ego and conviction, between risk for personal reward and trust in God despite the odds. Nobody really seems to know where that is.

God Is Sovereign Over Our Risks

The other day, I discussed the risks Carter BloodCare apparently absorbed into their business model by hosting a speedway event in which a guest was killed. Now obviously, people don’t get killed every time they get into a Corvette ripping through a closed speedway course. And all of the participants wore conventional protective gear that up until the crash probably seemed excessive, and after the crash proved inadequate. I’ve talked before about engineering a perfectly safe car, but that it would be so heavy and unwieldy nobody would want to buy or drive it. We take a certain amount of risk for granted every time we back out of our driveway, but should we simply ignore the extrapolation of that risk to a speeding car on a racetrack?

After reading my blog entry, a friend of mine mused that one freak accident shouldn’t necessarily force Carter BloodCare to scrap what otherwise is a novel and evocative way to recognize top blood donors and volunteers. After all, nobody was forced to participate, and by all accounts, proper procedures appear to have been followed. Just because I wouldn’t have participated, why should I say nobody else can?

And, since I'm a predestination Presbyterian, I believe that since God preordained that this person would die on this day, if he didn't get killed in a freak accident on a speedway, he would have died in some other way. But did the Lord allow this accident - no matter how freakish - to happen as a way to provoke some considerations of sensibility and prudence among the Carter BloodCare staff? Should risks that go wrong just be written off as the price of progress? Just because a few laps around a NASCAR speedway in a Corvette is fun, is the risk mitigated?

Perhaps my questions and opinions mean little to rogue risk-takers since I've admitted my sympathies lie with Prudence. Maybe since I believe that God will redeem His elect regardless of whether we invade indigenous habitats or nurture cross-cultural bridges, my musings about how non-ethnocentric missions is done mark me as a cynical second-guesser.

Somewhere, though, there exists that line that some evangelicals cross, and that some don't. Yet God uses it all - even the parts that seem so improperly executed.

Maybe the real risk is not doing anything for Him at all.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Of Risk and Prudence

Risk - Part 2

To respect Risk's dangers seems to invite more disdain than support these days. Not that the adventurous American spirit has ever sustained a denial of Risk; or has ever groveled at the feminine feet of Prudence.

Risk has been a man’s game, glorified as the laugh-in-the-face-of-danger hard-charging fix-the-mess-later macho rough-rider mentality upon which all that is good about humanity has been staked by popular opinion.

Prudence is the quiet, apron-skirted motherly admonition to look both ways before crossing the street as ambition charges out the kitchen door, looking to prove or acquire something. Or just to have fun – that ambiguous goal Risk promises as a reward, and Prudence only quietly defers.

Risk is what banks like to avoid – or used to, anyway. Risk is what insurance companies want to quantify. Prudence, on the other hand, is the way both banks and insurance companies make their money. Like a fist-packing outdoorsman's gracious wife, it’s what makes cold, hard risk palpable.

That’s because as much as we glorify it, Risk rarely proves to be as benign as when it’s manipulated in the game of the same name.

Risk can be measured in levels of tolerance. Indeed, tolerance for Risk can fluctuate over time relative to its rewards. Sometimes new-found confidence and expertise can negate levels of Risk previous generations considered high. On the other hand, considerable levels of strife can negate certain risks such as starvation (compared with moving west from the Dust Bowl) or the Gestapo (compared with serving in the French Resistance).

Rarely do people start a business with little to no Risk. After all, if something didn’t involve Risk, hundreds of other people have probably already tried it, and probably haven’t made much money in the process.

People who don’t Risk something rarely become heroes or cultural icons. Society tends to admire people who – no matter how foolhardy – manage to beat the odds and subdue Risk. Conquering it is how most people most significantly acquire money and achieve status.

And what of Prudence, our erstwhile wallflower of a beneficial personality trait? She receives more lip-serviced respect regarding her benefits, as opposed to the wimps who respect the inherent dangers in Risk and back away from them. Risk champions itself, while Prudence demurs even after stating her case. You many not win if you take risks, but you’ll be thought better of than if you methodically practice Prudence.

So once again, the machismo machine sets the bar, claims its stake, and gets the girl; while the feminine starchiness doesn’t fail, but doesn’t win, either.

Which explains a lot, doesn't it?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Speed, Blood, and Risk

Risk - Part 1

From the "What Were They Thinking?" files:

This past week, Don Krusemark died when the Corvette in which he was riding blew a tire and hit a concrete wall.

Sad stuff, although not exactly newsworthy, except the Corvette was being driven by professional speed driver Andre Vandenberg on the NASCAR track at the 100,000-seat Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth. Vandenberg suffered significant injuries, but survived.

And, oh yeah: 87-year-old Krusemark was the guest of Carter BloodCare, one of the largest blood collection non-profits in North Texas. Carter BloodCare cooked up the idea of rewarding their top platelet donors with a trip around the speedway’s track in a fiberglass sportscar.

Which granted, to a lot of people would sound perfectly harmless. Except it’s not, is it? If it was perfectly harmless, it wouldn’t be fun to so many people. And yes, harmlessness is relative. Shucks, driving a Corvette on LBJ Freeway across North Dallas is probably more dangerous than screaming around the speedway's closed course at 100 mph.

But it took a zany PR wonk at Carter BloodCare to test the limits of common sense – and their liability insurance – by inviting over 100 of their volunteer donors to experience the sanitized thrills first conceived by moonshine runners in the deep South.


Now, I have friends who love NASCAR. Even the highly-esteemed music secretary at my Presbyterian church can’t get enough of it. So I’m not going to launch into what I think about a “sport” in which highly-modified vehicles hurtle around a track hundreds of times only to end up where they started. I’m just not going to spend the time to tell you what I think about that.

Although I can’t deny that "professional" speed car racing has given the driving public a lot of safety technology that might not otherwise have been invented. But even that fact speaks more to the inherent dangers of high-speed driving than its benefits.

Last year, Carter BloodCare hosted their first ride-along speedcar event, and it went off without a hitch. People were so pumped about it that doing it again seemed like a no-brainer. The drivers were certified, professional high-speed drivers; and the Corvettes, although they have fiberglass panels, are built for speed and performance. Texas Motor Speedway offers one of the most respected tracks in the NASCAR and IndyCar circuits, and the whole event is completely on a volunteer basis. Nobody forced these riders into the cars; indeed, witnesses said Krusemark was one of the most excited participants they had. Like all the other riders, he wore a helmet and other safety gear.

Unfortunately, even the best tires blow out, don’t they? I’m sure legions of lawyers have already begun descending on the TMS track and the garage housing the Corvette’s remaining shards to try and determine if the tire was defective or if there was debris on the pavement. And at speeds of 100 mph, even a professional driver can’t guarantee they’ll be able to maintain control of a vehicle whose tire has blown. So accidents happen. Tragic ones.

Which makes this whole tragedy that much more ironic. Not just that it was a volunteer affair, not that the victim was 87, but that a blood collection agency was its sponsor. Should their motto now be “If you crash, at least we’ll have plenty of blood on-hand?” How much donated blood did Vandenburg need so he could survive?

Isn’t Carter BloodCare an organization which usually encourages safety, prudence, and prevention?

Even if Krusemark hadn’t been killed this week, how much wisdom does it take to realize that safer and more prudent ways of rewarding people exist? What's the point of pushing the envelope in finding creative ways of saying "thank you" when the price could be so high? Carter BloodCare is in the life-saving business, not risking-life business.

I understand volunteer appreciation banquets can get stale and dull, and kudos to Carter BloodCare for trying to get a bit creative. But providing a full-scale real-life depiction of the need for donated blood should not have been a scenario which eluded their staffers when they were planning this event.

Don't trivialize risks. They exist for a reason.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Are Taser Users the Problem?

When Steve Consalvi got Tasered after running out onto the baseball field during a Philadelphia Phillies home game, he got the attention he sought, but maybe not the type. Attention from fans and the media focused not on the stupidity of teenaged Consalvi’s stunt, but on the fact that security officers at the game used a Taser to bring him down. Popular opinion thought the security officers had over-reacted.

This past week, city officials in Fort Worth, Texas, decided to take the easy way out and approved a $2 million settlement with the family of a mentally-disturbed man who died after being Tasered by a cop during a family dispute.

Sometimes it seems that law enforcement gets no breaks from the public or the press, doesn’t it? Cops that thought Tasers would be a kinder, less-lethal method for subduing troublemakers are now under the gun to prove they aren’t making these situations worse.

In the Fort Worth case, the family of Michael Jacobs called 911 to report that their son was acting uncontrollably. When they arrived, police discovered that he hadn’t been taking his psychiatric medicine and had a history of mental illness. When officers believed Jacobs’ violent behavior was escalating, they Tasered him. Tragically, Jacobs died soon thereafter.

I have to admit my sympathies for the Fort Worth cops and the security personnel in Philadelphia. These officers have been introduced to challenging situations without having been able to read the resumes of the participants, knowing the extent of their behavioral background, or being able to determine their thought processes. Yes, law enforcement professionals should be trained in how to react and apply logic in fast-moving, volatile, and dangerous situations, but don’t forget that their lives may also be on the line.

Also, what is the extent to which we should expect first responders to readily give up their own life at the hands of what looks like a maniac? Aren't cops usually only called out when societal norms and rules for lawful behavior have been violated? Not that I'm suggesting cops should shoot to death motorists pulled over for speeding. But isn't it usually true in these types of cases that hindsight really is 20/20?

Alternatively, do we want our law enforcement officers to be trained so rigorously that their humanity gets erased and they become gun-toting androids? How much safer would our society be if cops had all of their intrinsic safety fears scrubbed away, or they methodically entered life-threatening situations presuming the "alleged" perpetrator's life was worth more than theirs, meaning self-defense was inappropriate? Especially as our society continues to atrophy, and our police inevitably encounter increasingly complex criminal environments?

In Consalvi’s case, his defenders say he was just a kid behaving badly at a baseball game, and security officers unnecessarily Tasered him. But I agree with a number of other people who brought up the fact that security officers had no idea whether Consalvi was a terrorist or not. When you’re chasing a belligerent person who's displaying anti-social behavior around a stadium's outfield, with tens of thousands of people in close proximity, should you be running a racial profile check on the guy? OK, no long beard, no turban – he must be just some silly suburban goofball.

Hmmm… just like the Times Square bomber was, right?

Racial Profiling in Philly

Consalvi’s defenders may not realize it, but they’re playing the race/ethnicity card when they say cops should be able to tell by the color of a person’s skin or type of clothing whether or not the perpetrator is simply being foolish or posing an actual danger to the public. If Consalvi had been an Arab teenager, or black, would they be so forgiving of Consalvi and angry with the officers? Or would they be saying, “Oh yeah, with an Arab running around the field, who knows what would have happened. Those guys shouldn’t have Tasered him, they should have shot him.”

Jacobs’ case, while a bit more complicated, still paints cops unfairly. Jacobs died after an officer held the trigger, activating the shock mechanism for 54 seconds. The officer claims that in the tension of the moment, she forgot that the Taser doesn’t give just one quick jolt, no matter how long one depresses the trigger. The Taser’s darts also hit close to Jacobs’s chest, which probably contributed to his death.

I was not privy to the grand jury hearings on this incident, where the jurors declined to indict the police officer on any charges. The officer was also cleared by an internal affairs investigation by the police department, although the medical examiner ruled Jacobs’ death a homicide. It would be understandable if the subject officer was sent back to Taser class to have a refresher on how to handle the device, but it’s not clear if the Fort Worth Police Department has done so.

The Cops Are There; We Aren't

What people forget, however, is that police were called to a scene in which Jacobs had been threatening his family and had turned his aggression to the officers. When they learned that Jacobs hadn’t been taking his psychiatric medicine, the cops probably figured all bets were off concerning how rational his behavior was going to be. And how logical an assumption is that to make in that type of situation? How na├»ve is it to second-guess the officers’ Taser use when you’re not there with them, having this large, mentally-unstable man violently compromising the safety of everyone around him?

I have never been a cop, nor do I have any close friends or family members who serve in law enforcement at this time. I don’t own stock in or work for the company that manufactures Tasers. I simply don’t think that anybody who is acting properly and civilly has anything to fear from police or security officers carrying Tasers. People who do trigger the reaction of law enforcement personnel, however, should be wary of the possible consequences.

Including an inability of responding officers to read your mind.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Churches As Good Neighbors

When they pave paradise, do they always put up a parking lot?

Here in the preened grotto of McMansions known in Dallas as the Park Cities, genteel Highland Park Presbyterian Church is facing a battle royale with its tony neighbors over a plan to put up a parking lot in the middle of their exclusive residential neighborhood.

At eighty years old and with roughly half the membership it had only fifteen years ago, this smaller yet still-vibrant church has decided that now, after all these years, it needs another parking lot. Currently, parishioners have a large but singular lot on church property, plus wide boulevards all around the church where they can park. Neighbors don’t understand why this arrangement can’t continue, especially since the congregation has shrunk so much, and even on Sunday mornings, street spaces sometimes go begging.

Not that this will be just any parking lot, mind you. It’s the Park Cities, after all; North Texas’ epicenter of conspicuous consumption. To average Americans, the Presbyterians won’t be destroying paradise with their planned parking lot, but from listening to frustrated neighbors, you’d think we were talking about a Wal-Mart.

Paradise for Cars?

Over the years, church visionaries have been quietly purchasing homes adjacent to their property as they’ve come up for sale, and now they have acquired enough of these faded manses to construct a parking lot for 145 cars. Instead of demolishing the homes it has purchased, however, the Presbyterians intend to use them as screening for their new parking facility, which will literally be an elegant park for cars.

You see, the parking area would be installed where backyards currently exist. Instead of tall light poles, ambient LED lighting would be installed in both mature and ornamental trees throughout the lot. Flowers, groundcover, hedges, more trees, and shrubs would run alongside tall, curving stone walls to thickly veil any view of cars in the lot from the street. And designers promise not one headlight will be visible by passersby.

Without understanding the exclusivity of the neighborhood, these plans seem like too much luxury for an ordinary church parking lot. But in the Park Cities, defying convention is part of why people pay to live here. And after all, exclusivity is ranked on a sliding scale. No matter where you live, parking lots rarely rank as neighborhood amenities. Would you want one across the street from your house? For neighbors around Highland Park Presbyterian, where property values hover around a million, a parking lot screened by anything – especially smaller, non-McMansion domiciles – is still a parking lot.

Plus, for high-net-worth neighbors around the church, it’s not only the cars they supposedly won’t see, but it’s the future plans for other parts of the church property that they aren’t being shown, either. This parking lot issue has developed a deep suspicion in many of them about the church’s overall designs for other buildings and land that it already owns.

Ownership Is 9/10th's

Which brings us to the issue of land ownership, that prized cornerstone of the American way of life. If the church has bought this property fairly and squarely, which it has, why can’t they do whatever they want – or need – to do with it? The church doesn’t wander up and down the impeccably landscaped University Boulevard telling its neighbors their remodels are too gaudy. If, as church leaders claim, this parking facility will be primarily for their elderly parishioners, how misguided a motive is that? And besides, the $1-million-plus project has already been completely funded by a church faith-promise campaign.

But speaking of money, when a non-profit acquires land, that land is usually removed from the tax rolls, and even though the already-staggering property tax rate in the Park Cities can probably absorb the loss here, it does mean that prime real estate in the heart of Dallas’ rival to Beverly Hills has been hereafter removed from the books for... a parking lot. Does the church practice good community stewardship by doing that?

Neighbors In Community

And what of the church’s witness to its surrounding community? So far, a well-organized opposition campaign has rallied residents throughout the Park Cities to its cause, appearing on local media and distributing yard signs decrying the church’s plans. Online message boards paint a grim picture of how they claim the church leadership has interacted with them. Granted, some people will always complain about everything, but the degree to which opposition has been sustained threatens to mark the church as unsympathetic and calloused to the concerns of its neighbors as it appears to be staunchly moving ahead with its plans.

Some Examples:

Although most growth in North America’s evangelical church has taken place in the wide-open spaces of suburbia and exurbia, central-city church expansion has posed problems for years.

Here in Arlington, Fielder Road Baptist Church grew at such a fast clip during the 1980’s and 1990’s that their campus started swallowing up an entire residential neighborhood bordering it. Church leaders considered relocating to an undeveloped area along an interstate, but decided to stay in-town, where its impressive colonial-style sanctuary was already a landmark of sorts.

While such dedication to aging central-city areas is noteworthy, the church’s leadership bungled its public relations campaign as they infiltrated the middle-class subdivision nearby, causing a small uproar and casting the pastors as self-righteous imperialists. Even here in the “Bible Belt,” having a clergyman use Christian-speak to promote the mission of the church does little to pacify residents fearful of overdevelopment. Fortunately, church leadership at Fielder Road Baptist managed to catch themselves before too much good-will was forfeited. They backed down from their hard-charging stance and forged a tempered expansion plan with their neighbors that took more time – and probably more money – but also salvaged some of their reputation in the community.

In recent years, the modest neighborhoods near Fort Worth’s cultural district have enjoyed a steady resurgence as a desirable central-city family-friendly district. There are no McMansions here, but the tidy pre-war bungalows and post-war tract homes have mixed fairly well with the newer apartments and, yes, some downright dilapidated eyesores to create a satisfying ambiance. Nestled in this unassuming community was Christ Chapel Bible Church, which in the past couple of decades found itself enjoying a surprising resurgence of its own.

After expanding and remodeling its tightly-spaced campus as much as possible, the congregation decided to build an all-new, larger complex in the same neighborhood. Church leadership envisioned clearing a wide swath of old, small houses and vacant businesses for their impressive new construction.

Their residential neighbors, however, were indignant at Christ Chapel. While appreciating the fact that the church wasn’t abandoning old, urban Fort Worth, residents found the tear-down hubris of the congregation insulting. As the church bought up properties and worked its way through the city’s re-zoning process, a vociferous opposition campaign ramped into high gear. After the dust settled, the church and its neighbors found some middle-ground, whereby the new construction took place closer to a nearby freeway, and instead of wiping out nearby blocks for an expansive parking lot, the church coughed up extra dollars for a parking garage.

And then there’s my own church, Park Cities Presbyterian in Dallas, which by way of full disclosure, split from Highland Park Presbyterian 19 years ago in dismay over liberalized policies in the latter’s denomination, reducing the aforementioned membership ranks at Highland Park to levels that have never rebounded. Park Cities Presbyterian relocated to an old Baptist church across the city line in Dallas, a property even more constrained by both residential and commercial development.

Park Cities Presbyterian didn’t really start out to be a mega-church, even though its first worship service held in a local high school drew 1,500 people. However, as the classical worship, evocative preaching, and theologically conservative denominational credentials of the church became known, membership flourished. It didn’t hurt that Park Cities Presbyterian formed just before evangelical Christianity witnessed a renewed interest in more liturgical styles of worship in a growing rebuttal of the contemporary movement that had eroded – and sometimes destroyed – other congregations.

So it was to everybody’s surprise when membership at Park Cities Presbyterian began topping 5,000 after only 10 years of existence. Parking was a supreme challenge – I remember walking up to 15 minutes in summer heat to attend church, wondering how many other people are willing to walk this far (after parking their car!!) to church in Texas? Sunday School space was maxed-out even after a large educational wing was constructed. Church leadership wanted to build even more classroom and office space, but the city of Dallas responded with a resounding no. At least, not until the church builds a huge parking garage.

Fortunately, the Mercedes-Benz dealership across the street decided to relocate, so the church was able to purchase part of the property that came with its own large parking lot. Other existing buildings along the street were purchased and former shops turned into classrooms. For a city the size of Dallas, taking these properties off of the tax rolls didn’t have nearly the impact that it would have had in smaller towns with less of a commercial real estate base. And the church could avoid spending millions more on a parking garage – at least for now.

Personally, I view parking lots as a necessary evil. Unless you live in a walkable city like New York, it’s really hard to get around without a personal vehicle. Yet you can’t stack cars like wood outside stores, restaurants, and churches. Still, it seems like such a waste of money and land for churches - not just Highland Park Presbyterian - to pave paradise and put up a parking lot that will only be used a few times a week.

It's Not Rocket Science

I believe churches should work with their commercial and residential neighbors to maximize nearby parking resources, and expect their membership to be responsible commuters to the church campus.

  • Shuttle buses: For several years, Park Cities Presbyterian ran a shuttle bus service between the church and the parking garage for an office tower several blocks away. It's not cheap, but it's cheaper, less permanent, and more neighborhood-friendly than a parking lot.
  • Carpooling: How many individual family members take different cars to church? If different members of the same family have different schedules at church, does it really hurt the others to have to wait or - gasp! - show up early?
  • Street parking: Neighborhoods around churches should work with the congregations to minimize street parking issues, and church members should park responsibly. If a business is open during the same hours as church, congregants should respect the parking needs of the business.
  • Valet service: One of the options floated for Highland Park Presbyterian is having a valet service for senior citizens; that way, seniors can drive up to the church and have an attendant park their car bumper-to-bumper in an off-premises lot, where parking space can be maximized.


Now, I’ve never owned a million-dollar home, so maybe I’m not qualified to say that Highland Park Presbyterian’s neighbors doth protest too much. Maybe even an elaborately-disguised parking lot will in fact depress property values.

Quite honestly, it sounds like many of them haven’t even seen the designer’s plans for the parking lot, which I find to be quite clever and extraordinary.

But if - to paraphrase the late Gertrude Stein - a parking lot is a parking lot is a parking lot, then I have to admit that the church’s concerned neighbors have a point, too. Have all other parking options been exhausted? Has church leadership been appropriately honest towards and respectful of dissenting opinions? How did Highland Park Presbyterian survive for so long with so many more members without 145 extra parking spaces?

I mean, back then, those Cadillac’s and Lincoln’s took up far more space than they do today.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Ecru Flight and the Gangsta Factor

On Wednesday, I discussed the transition that my town of Arlington has found itself undergoing for the past decade.

During its boom years of the sixties through the eighties, some of Arlington’s massive growth can be traced to the “white flight” post-war phenomenon that drained larger North American cities of middle class whites. However, most of Arlington’s new population has come from in-migration of people from across the country during North America's epic shift to the sun belt. For years, Arlington's affluent white population grew not so much because of racism, but simply because most of the corporate transfers from north to south involved white employees.

Although it usually bristles at the term “suburb,” Arlington has been a desirable one for most of its existence. However, without any warning, Arlington’s fortunes have turned, as more and more upper-middle-income families leave for the next big thing in urban sprawl: the exurbs. It's happening all over North America, and Arlington isn't the only established "suburb" in the Dallas - Fort Worth Metroplex to find itself suddenly undesirable. To varying degrees, the cities of Irving, Grand Prairie, Bedford, Garland, Richardson, Carrollton, and Farmers Branch are in the same boat as Arlington.

Instead of white flight, I call it “ecru flight,” because this time, it’s not just whites leaving established suburbs like Arlington, but well-employed minorities as well. Yes, the exodus is still mostly white, but enough people of color have joined this rush for the suburban exits to make it less racial in nature.

For the first time in its nearly 100 years of existence, Arlington now it finds itself in the challenging position of proving that it’s still a good place for people to choose to raise a family.

Gangs In A-Town's Hood

Not that Arlington has become an awful place to live. Ecru flight has simply proved that as a maturing city, there are no laurels for Arlington to rest upon. Indeed, new sales tax revenue from the recently-opened Dallas Cowboys Stadium masks seismic shifts taking place in the city’s once-prosperous economy, proving that breaking-even can be both positive and negative.

But something else has also come to the fore: the bane of urban America has come calling to prematurely aging subdivisions in a sprawling section of southeast Arlington in the form of gang violence.

Actually, police say Asian and Hispanic gangs have been here for years already, running extortion and drug rackets among the city’s sizable Asian and Hispanic populations. Only rarely, however, did they allow their turf to succumb to blatant displays of violence. Years ago, the Asian owner of a jewelry shop near my neighborhood was murdered gangland-style, but it did not result in widespread public alarm or the decline of our neighborhood.

However, the new breed of deadly gang violence which has reared its ugly head in Arlington doesn’t seem to have any roots in the traditional seeds of discord like discrimination or economic deprivation. It’s taking place in what would otherwise be a relatively acceptable middle-class neighborhood – not wealthy, but not a ghetto, either. It’s located in the sought-after Mansfield school district with good ratings, well-paid teachers, and quality resources. Since virtually all of the teenagers participating in the violence are black, their inexcusable behavior is compounded by their relatively privileged surroundings, making a mockery of previous generations of minorities who had legitimate causes for anger and despair.

Stupid Kids

And what is causing this violence? It's not what you'd think.

Several years ago, an entrepreneurial wanna-be hip-hop guru got kids to fight in groups, videotaped the fights, and sold them online. This most recent episode began, apparently, with girls fighting over a boy on April 19. Before too long, about 20 teens were enjoying a brutal melee reminiscent of the flash mobs which have been plaguing Philadelphia.

Inside one of the bungalows lining the street was a vacationing Houston cop, who heard the violent kids and went outside to see what was happening. One of the teens, Clevonta Reynolds, raised a pistol towards him, and when the officer identified himself and ordered him to drop the weapon, the kid made a motion towards the cop. You can imagine what happened next.

On the day of the stupid teen’s funeral, a bunch of kids were reassembling on the block in what they claimed was some sort of vigil. Because of the neighborhood’s recent violence, the police had been maintaining a strong presence in the area. However, things started getting rowdy again. A car full of teens careened wildly through the neighborhood, catching the attention of a nearby Arlington cop.

As seems to frequently be the case in these matters, what happened next is up for debate, depending on whether you’re a police officer trying to uphold the law or a juvenile with a humongous chip on your shoulder. At any rate, four teens ended up being arrested on traffic violations, which was enough to foment further petulance within the unreasonable crowd, although the subsequent release of the teens diffused further violence.

Parents, Don't Play the Race Card

Of all the questions the rest of Arlington is asking, one sticks out the most: Where were the parents in the videos kids were shooting with their cell phones and which they provided the news media? If they were both at work, why didn’t they make arrangements for childcare for their children? Obviously, just because these are teenagers, their attitude is still too juvenile for them to be trusted on their own.

Even some black Arlington police officers have suggested that race itself may be part of the situation. Have you figured out already that these kids are black, or up until now, did you not have a clue? However, haven’t decades of urban crime studies proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that race itself does NOT play a factor in gangs and delinquency? Plenty of middle-class black parents raise kids of equal - and better - quality as their white counterparts.

However, the fact that a disproportionate number of black youths are involved in these incidents cannot be ignored. But it's not a racist observation, simply a cultural one. And the culture I suspect to be responsible is the gangsta culture.

Why don't we see middle-class kids from other races and ethnicities behaving this way? Could it be because some cultures tend to glorify the gangsta lifestyle? How much less discipline and responsibility do these families exercise over their children which results in teenagers unwilling - and unable - to learn how to take responsibility for themselves? Nobody can expect all teens to be perfect all the time, but at some point, juveniles need to be mastering certain benchmarks for acceptable behavior well before they graduate. Sometimes it's the teens' fault for failing in this area, and sometimes it's the parents'. But the parent is the one legally responsible for their child.

Some parents may genuinely be ignorant of the role gangsta movies, music videos, and other lifestyle props play in the development of their children. Other parents may simply be in denial of how their own celebration of the gangsta culture rubs off on their kids. However, I suspect that a significant number of these parents are by themselves without a spouse, trying to hold down a full-time job to pay for their bit of suburbia and at their wit's end struggling to relate to their teenaged kids.

Should the city step in and provide taxpayer-funded programs to keep the kids off the streets? I don't think so. Even the black mayor of Philadelphia, responding to parents complaining flash mobs were a result of too-few city activities for teens, says he "was elected mayor, not mother."

Maybe single parents in the neighborhood need to pool their resources to have an after-school program for their kids. Maybe they need to lower their lifestyle expectations a notch or two so they can spend more time monitoring their offspring. After all - these kids are their responsibility, not ours. Yes, it takes the proverbial "village" to raise kids, but our village has already spent a considerable fortune in schooling and policing, so I think our responsibility has been met - as it has been met for every other race and culture in Arlington.

Da 'Boys In Town

The proof of a community's viability is its ability to succeed with as little help from the municipal government as possible. That means local churches, social groups, and maybe even employers need to step up along with parents to try and indoctrinate these kids with some beneficial social skills.

It’s not just because gangsta violence scares away they type of industrious, diligent, and civic-minded taxpayers that Arlington needs to remain a viable city.

People who acquiesce to a culture which glorifies crime - even soft-core crime like yelling at cops, street fighting, and driving dangerously - will only push their neighborhoods further and further into despair. The gangsta culture has to be thwarted.

If for no other reason than the real gangsta thugs in Chicago, the Bronx, and LA would probably laugh their heads off if they saw how silly these middle-class kids from a highly-regarded school district in a decently-manicured subdivision behaved.

And no, the genuine gritty urban gangsta scene isn’t what we want for Arlington. We’ll get enough of that vibe when the Dallas Cowboys play in their new stadium.

After all, at least they’re professionals.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Lost In Exurbia

Here in Arlington, Texas, we’re known for little more than the original Six Flags amusement park, and luring two national sports franchises to town: the Dallas Cowboys, and the Texas Rangers.

We sit midway between Fort Worth and Dallas in one of the country’s hottest corporate relocation centers. And by hot, I don’t just mean the temperature. Millions of people have moved here since my family did in 1978, and millions more have been projected to join us in the coming decades.

Compared to the rest of the United States, north Texans enjoy moderate taxes, low housing costs, healthy employment rankings, and considerable lifestyle amenities, like the aforementioned amusement park here in Arlington, world-class museums, and national teams for virtually every sport you can think of. Except curling.

Maturing Gracefully?

Not that Arlington has ridden the wave as well as other cities in our region. We’ve attracted over 300,000 people and virtually every chain restaurant known to mankind over the past 40 years, but about two-thirds of us have to commute elsewhere for work. As the city has aged, the cheap housing that developers conned former city councils to green-light has created wide swaths of now-dumpy subdivisions. Into those prematurely aging neighborhoods have come minorities from south Dallas and across the Mexican border, giving birth to our own subtle version of white flight to even newer towns like Keller, Southlake, and Mansfield.

Instead of suburbs, these new boomtowns are called "exurbs," and the trend has swept across America. As what had been highly-desirable suburbia during the 1960's through the 1990's ages into a new type of urbanism, upper-middle-class residents continue to seek the newest and more stylish developments in exurbia.

Except this time, the migration attracts not only middle class whites, but also blacks and other minorities of similar income levels. Race doesn't seem to be as significant a component now as the white flight which took place in the New York’s and Detroit’s of urban America forty years ago. These days, it's fair to say that a class of people, not a race, is fleeing to the outliers of urbanity.

Having so much mobility by so many people with good incomes for such subjective reasons hasn’t just created problems in places like Mansfield, Burleson, and Keller, which haven’t been able to build new schools fast enough. It’s created a vacuum in established neighborhoods across Arlington – neighborhoods that themselves were only built as recently the Clinton administration!

Ecru Flight?

But, as usual, I smell a rat.

Families who have left Arlington for the Mansfield's and Keller's of north Texas tell me with a straight face that it’s so their kids can be in a desirable school district. Which, if Arlington had become like Detroit, I could understand. But Arlington isn’t like Detroit, or Dallas, or Fort Worth. Arlington has the same state education ranking as Mansfield, and considering the size of its student body compared with the smaller exurb districts, manages to do quite well as a whole. What many white parents pretend to ignore, however, is that well over half of the Arlington student body is now minority, which means white kids are the minority in some schools. Oh, the horror!

Of course, it’s not being racist to point out that a disproportionate number of children benefiting from school nutrition programs in Arlington are minorities – although, surprisingly, few are Asian or Middle-Eastern, two significant minority groups in town. And state testing numbers dip significantly when it comes to black and Hispanic students. Yes, Arlington is home to too many illegal immigrants who get to send their kids to public school, but that is a state-wide problem that needs a federal fix. It is true that exurb districts have much fewer illegal immigrants, but where is the data saying the weight they place on school districts actually results in lower educational attainment for the entire student body?

Illegal immigration aside, the fact that Arlington has a robust minority population should be a selling point for white families who want their children to grow up in a community which is representative of what the United States will look like when they’re college-age. Arlington boasts the 15th-largest Vietnamese community in the country, as well as Indians, Pakistanis, and immigrants from numerous African countries who were initially drawn here by our local university and its well-regarded engineering department.

I can’t claim to be a supremely tolerant, non-racist person myself, but living as I do in one of the most racially diverse parts of Arlington, I don’t find sharing our local streets, stores, and restaurants with all different sorts of people intimidating or alarming. As long as they’re quiet, respectable, law-abiding, and code-compliant, I don’t see why my neighbors’ race or ethnicity should mean I have to move someplace else. Maybe that’s not an unqualified affirmation for diversity, but how many middle-class minorities would feel the same way if a bunch of noisy, rude, and sloppy whites lived nearby?

It's Why They Go

I’ve admitted before that I have a weakness for new cars. For some people, their weakness is new houses. I got to watch a friend’s house being built from the raw prairie into a three-bedroom tract home in Mansfield, and even though it ended up looking like many of the others in the brand-new neighborhood, it really was cool having the house built from scratch.

With millions of people moving here, new subdivisions will obviously be part of the development picture in North Texas for decades to come. It’s not illegal for people in older homes to want a new one. And I wonder how many empty-nesters will be leaving Mansfield and it’s skyrocketing taxation for the comparatively low taxes of Arlington in coming years? Look at all the people moving back into center-city Dallas – something only dreamers were predicting would happen a few years ago. Tides do turn, and exurbia will one day be aging, too.

Some of Arlington’s middle-class is also leaving because jobs are too scarce here, and they may be among the two-thirds of residents who have to commute elsewhere for work. Considering the miserable traffic conditions on most of our local freeways, I can’t blame anybody for wanting to move so they can live closer to where they work. If Arlington’s business leaders would get on the ball and cultivate more local companies while wooing the big relocations coming to North Texas, then maybe our city’s middle-class population could stay here and work.

But if, as I suspect, a considerable number of folks are leaving places like Arlington because more and more non-whites have also made Arlington their home, then I say “shame on you” for perpetuating the stereotypes that will continue to warp the generation you’re purportedly wanting to raise in a better environment.

And part of me also says “good riddance” as you leave Arlington a city whose remaining populace appears willing to at least try this new era of diversity. How much stronger a community might we become without you?

Monday, May 10, 2010

When It's Harvest Time

Harvesting organs. Doesn’t that sound like something some old Baptists and Methodists do in their spare time – collecting old electric church organs?

Of course, the term “harvesting organs” never had anything to do with church – unless you were talking funerals.

Harvesting organs is what doctors do when a desperately ill patient can benefit from the healthy organs left over in a corpse. Granted, it can sound a bit ghoulish, but in reality, that’s what it is. Waiting for somebody to die so their liver, kidneys, and even eyes and heart can be used by somebody else. The doctor “harvests” the good organs from the deceased.

It’s what happened to the benefit of Steve Jobs, Apple’s legendary CEO and now a newly-minted spokesman for the procedure. You’ll recall my essay on Jobs’ liver transplant last year in Memphis, and how his wealth bought him exceptional access to the nation’s transplant lists.

At the time, everybody related to the Jobs case was mum about the ethics swirling around the question of better health through wealth. But now, Jobs himself admits in a CNN article that even he would like to see access to organ transplants made more widely – and equitably – available.

From Atlantic to Pacific

Two states have proposed two different methods of liberalizing the organ harvesting process. California’s legislature has crafted a bill that would establish a state registry for donors who are still alive, which experts say would increase organ availability and streamline the patient identification process. New York wants to create a state donor registry listing all state residents, whereby everyone is automatically placed on the list, and individuals who might want to opt out need to take the initiative, a process called “presumed consent.”

California’s bill doesn’t appear to have a lot of negatives, but New York’s presumed consent bill has already prompted some serious pushback.

Critics of New York’s plan say that it’s morally and ethically sketchy, because the state would run the risk of overriding personal beliefs about organ harvesting. More draconian fears about the proposal have the state killing off marginally-healthy residents to get at their organs faster (as in "New York minute...").

What Do You Think?
  • Would giving your state easier access to your vital organs make you more - or less - comfortable?
  • Is expanding the practice of organ harvesting a better alternative to cloning, genetic engineering, and other artificial forms of human tissue creation?
  • What rights to needy living people have for organs your dead body will no longer need?

Have you already notified your loved ones, your lawyer, and/or your primary care physician of your wishes concerning the harvesting of your vital organs? I haven't... yet.

If you’re waiting for me to blast one side of the other in this issue, I’m sorry, but I’m not sure where I fall on this issue. I know that if I, or a loved one, needed an organ somebody else didn’t, I’d like to have unfettered access to that organ. But then, if the cadaver we’re talking about is mine, I’d like my state to wait until I’m well and truly dead before they harvest my organs.

Harvest time will come soon enough.

Friday, May 7, 2010

No Phantom At This Opera

Show and Tell

For a city as big, diverse, and powerful as it is, Dallas has never been able to shake its deep-rooted inferiority complex.

Even as more and more people and companies moved here during its heyday of the 80’s and 90’s, Big D always seemed to be denying its own identity, vainly striving instead for New York’s, LA’s, or even Fort Worth’s.

Now that the population of Dallas has crested, and city leaders have to work harder than ever to keep and attract employers, has it become too late for Dallas to figure out what it wants to be? Has it missed its opportunity to cast its signature characteristics into an iconic standard by which the world can recognize it?

After all, Fort Worth has the well-honed “cowtown” image. Chicago is big buildings and big attitudes. Boston and Philadelphia are historic Americana and old, old money. Dallas is… um… a dead president and a football team that now plays in another county?

Part of Dallas’ problem involves the fact that compared to “coastal” cities - particularly New York, the envy of Dallas - it’s relatively easy to make and keep money in Big D. One doesn’t need the brains of an Ivy Leaguer or the cunning of a Wall Street titan to be important here. You'd think cheap wealth would help Dallas ingratiate itself with America's A-listers, but somehow, the cities with the hardest shells have remained the most celebrated.

Which is where some big-money Dallas philanthropists come in. "OK, so we can’t top LA, Chicago, and New York in terms of living large, so why not try a counter-offensive and kick our cultural scene up a notch while we’re at it?" A group of them got together and decided to expand the fledgling arts district in a northern corner of downtown Dallas, where the majestic Meyerson Symphony Hall and the dumpy Dallas Museum of Art have been mainstays for two decades.

Now, the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, built in part with Ross Perot’s money and named after a close business associate of his, has become one of the world’s best concert halls. Its acoustics defy many more venerable spaces in Manhattan, and its architecture by the celebrated I.M. Pei almost makes the building sing by itself. My only complaint – really! – is that the seating was designed for diminutive Dallas matrons, not people my size. Other than that, every time I visit the Meyerson, I find joy in it.

We’re not even going to discuss the dreary Dallas Museum of Art, down the street from the Meyerson, which has been eclipsed in every way by a recent Arts District addition, the elegant Nasher Scuplture Center.

So, building on the existing cultural venues in this neighborhood – or perhaps, to make up for their shortcomings – Dallas’ new-money arts patrons decided to build an opera hall and a community theater, giving birth to the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House by Sir Norman Foster, and the Wyly Theater (in which I haven’t been).

Long-time classical music patrons, the Winspears donated a whopping $42 million from their steel fortune for the new opera hall. And although my opinions of Dallas society and the new opera hall may not sound flattering, I have to admit that the opera’s old space in the hideous Fair Park Music Hall probably served as great a justification as any for the Winspear family’s generosity in making sure the new hall got built.

Win. Spear. Thrust. Levitate.

Contrasted with the institutional, concrete clunkiness of Fair Park’s Music Hall, the Winspear building represents stunning design. Taken on its own merits, however, the Winspear seems flat and artificial to me. Flat, because a heavy horizontal trellis squats over a vast and curiously-designed courtyard. Artificial, because slick red plastic-looking exterior panels and kitschy silver-painted wood panels inside try too hard to do very little.

Basically, on approach to the Winspear, you behold a tall, red glossy box sliced by a metal trellis of gull-winged sun diffusers sailing over a concrete-and-grass plaza. It appears as though Sir Norman got his design theme for the Winspear from the Doppler radar tower he passed while exiting the south toll plaza at Dallas – Fort Worth International Airport (see photo above-right).

Purportedly created to shield Dallas audiences from the merciless Texas sun, and intended to suggest an invitation for the general public to become opera patrons, it's too high to provide much protection from afternoon and evening rays. It also means that what enclosed, air-conditioned space there is for audience members to wait until the hall opens is relatively contained. Which might be forgivable if the climate-controlled lobby wasn’t itself victimized by forbidding stairways and hardly more charm than some newly-built municipal buildings.

Speaking of public buildings, the needlessly broad wingspan of the Winspear’s ineffective canopy has been shoehorned betwixt the stunning Meyerson and the prison-like black brick Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. It’s as if Sir Norman wasn’t given a site plan until after his design went to the contractor. When I was in architecture school, my professors drilled into us the importance of site context when designing in close quarters like a downtown area. If you want to have a trophy piece, like Sir Norman perpetrated on London with his gherkin-shaped Swiss Re Tower, and you’ve got the notoriety to pull it off, then the old adage “just because you can doesn’t mean you should” easily gets ignored. How much more effective might the Winspear’s design have been if it was by itself on an open field somewhere in exurbia?

As it is, the new home of the Dallas Opera beats its old one hands-down; but then, the Music Hall set the bar pretty low to begin with. Aside from championing Sir Norman's penchant for completely snubbing architectural context, opera fans got an adequate building with some odd shortcomings vying for attention from its exceptional neighbor on its west, the Meyerson, while completely overwhelming the begging-to-be-overwhelmed high school to its east.

I can't help but wonder as it ages, how much the building’s exterior whims will speak more to the public’s estimation of opera’s irrelevance than the architecture’s innate longevity?

Listen Here

Inside the actual opera hall, however, we have a markedly different story. Sir Norman and his acousticians banked on a proven shape – the horseshoe – and achieved exquisite audio qualities with their work. You can actually hear the singing change as performers move about the stage – which in our wired and amplified world takes some initial adjustment. Most of us non-opera people are used to a consistent sound, like in the movies, or even a miked play. But the Winspear relies on no microphones, and the acoustics seem perfect. I sat on both the fourth and second levels (there are five), and I didn’t think the sound quality differed at all, so your only sacrifice in the cheap(er) seats will be a distanced view of the stage.

But the aesthetics – again – fail to impress inside the hall. Yes, Sir Norman and his experts have hit a home run with the acoustics, but what’s up with those silver wood carved panels bolted onto the fronts of the balconies? Maybe they enhance the acoustics, since the hall’s sound is so good. But silver paint? Did Sharon Osborne pick that out? In the Meyerson, when the house lights have been dimmed, the concert stage takes center-stage. But in the Winspear, when the house lights have been dimmed, you still have these bulbous silvery ribbons snaking around the audience.

With the hall's lights on, you can’t beat the suspended LED chandelier circling above the main floor for its wow-factor. When fully extended, long glass tubes with LEDs drip from the ceiling in high-tech homage to the elaborate multi-tiered, crystal chandeliers in the world’s most historic opera halls. When retracted into the ceiling, the LEDs twinkle like a starry sky.

Remember my one complaint about the Meyerson next door? The seating? Well, the Winspear’s fixed seating is considerably more ample, both girth-wise and knee-wise. No, I still didn’t have enough leg room in my 4th tier seat, but the high-dollar boxes feature movable cloth armchairs. They proved to be quite comfortable, but they squeaked – which in a hall with such impeccable acoustics as the Winspear, probably won’t be tolerated for long. This is, after all, still its first season, and I’m sure a lengthy punchlist has been drafted for after the season finale.

Added to that punchlist should be the wood laminate flooring in the Winspear’s hall, which while being a nice upgrade from the Meyerson’s painted concrete, has already begun popping up in a couple of places. And those peek-a-boo spaces between the soaring staircases in the lobby deny most women their modesty as they ascend to the nosebleed sections. I made the mistake of looking up to see what all the noise was (people tromping up the uncarpeted stairs make a racket in the high-ceilinged lobby) and you can look right up most women’s skirts through the openings in the stairs between the steps.

The Verdict

But we won’t go back to the unfortunate execution of the spaces outside of the opera hall. If you appreciate good music delivered through flawless sound, then you will have plenty to rave about inside the Winspear’s performance hall. If the silver wood panels look too garish, hopefully someday soon, somebody with taste will strip and stain them an appropriately darker color.

Does the Winspear help achieve its benefactors' goal of establishing a world-class cultural district for Dallas? Ultimately, of course, the quality of the performing arts which take place inside these architectural spaces will determine if the world views Dallas as a legitimate peer alongside the New Yorks, Philadelphias, and Viennas of the cultural world. Credit must be applied to the widely-acclaimed Meyerson and its principle tenant, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, which has already put Dallas on many classical music maps, and lends considerable clout to the very idea of a nearby opera hall, no matter what it looks like.

But where the Meyerson's design graciously yet emphatically ennobles the DSO, only the Winspear's acoustics contribute significantly to the credibility of its principle tenant, the Dallas Opera. The rest of the Winspear is like the rest of Dallas - trying too hard to impress.

Of course, Dallas could always run some sound waves through the Winspear's broad metal canopy to put themselves on the opera world's radar...

PS:  If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, architect Bing Thom is groveling over the Meyerson with his carbon copy design for Vancouver's Chan Center. 

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Speak and Listen

Since today is the National Day of Prayer, instead of having you read something that I've written, let me encourage you to spend the time you would have spent on my blog in prayer.

Tomorrow, we'll have a Show & Tell about Dallas' new Winspear Opera House.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Getting What You Pay For In Free Speech

Cynicism and satire have their limits, don’t they?

Not that I claim to be particularly erudite at writing with provoking cynicism or whimsical satire. But most of the essays I’ve written for this blog have been heavy on the cynicism, which makes for a decidedly negative weight, doesn’t it?

And a steady diet of satire can become tasteless, can’t it?

That realization has brought me to a conundrum, or at least a fork in the road, regarding this blog. For several months, I’ve pecked away at this keyboard on ideas and opinions that alternatively blast people I think are stupid or grumble against a society that in reality is only slightly more narcissistic than I am.

Without the cloak of specialized doctorates to hide behind, I’ve championed awkward and unpopular ideas, such as classical music in corporate worship. Even though I still strongly adhere to these convictions, I’m not sure I’ve been called to beat other people over the head with them like I have. I still think 1 Chronicles 16 gives me all the legitimacy I need to stand fast in my beliefs regarding corporate worship, but that oftentimes-pesky list of Fruits of the Spirit haunts the approach I’ve taken in sharing those beliefs with others.

She Whose Idea This Blog Was had a good idea when she suggested this project: use it as an online resume of my writing style and opinions. Tell people – prospective employers, mainly – who I am and how I think.

100-plus essays and blog posts later, though, I question the extent to which I’ve really provided a balanced perspective of who I am… or, if I have indeed succeeded in telling you who I am, I haven’t painted a very flattering picture of myself, have I?! I keep looking out my door, but I've yet to see publishers beating a path to it.

I suspect that many of my regular readers (not that I have many readers, but of the readers I have) have been friends of mine for years, and the fact that they’re still friends means they’ve developed either a crusty shell against my barbed thoughts or a gracious condescension for tolerating them. After all, they must think, we all have our faults. Tim just tells us his faults whenever he talks or writes!

Alternatively, I could currently be indulging in a bit of writer’s wallow and brooding nihilism. I wouldn’t be the first person trying to write who’s stumbled upon the realization that most people really don’t care what I think, or that what I think isn’t as important or essential as I imagine.

But even if that’s not the full story, I suspect that’s part of it. Even my blog’s numbers, as tracked by Google Analytics, are down. Total visits are down, and the length of time people stay on my site has declined from about six minutes to not quite two. And knowing how long it takes to read most of my essays, I’m not convinced my dwindling volume of visitors are all speed readers.

Not that I’m openly soliciting a flood of protestations from my readers saying how well I write and that my opinions are valuable. Indeed, whatever my readers are trying to do themselves to prove their worth, provide for their families, or exercise their abilities, you have your own seasons of angst and doubts, and we all have our seasons of success and failures. I've been blessed by the encouraging words and feedback from people who have read what I've been writing, I'm appreciative of every single person who has taken their time to read any of it, and I'm amazed at those of you who keep doing so! However, with no offense intended, that doesn't pay the bills, does it?

Is there a trick to successfully analyzing where we are, where we think we’re supposed to be going, and how we think we can get there? How long can people like me sit and listen to well-paid analysts blither about how the recession is easing and people are going back to work - without going insane? How much blithering like that have I committed?

There has to be a way for me to make what I write provide some sort of value to you, my readers. As nice as you may be, your graciousness in reading my stuff will only last so long. Plus, whether it's here in my blog, or in some other venue, I can't justify simply pontificating opinions day after day. What kind of contribution is that?

At some point, I could risk turning into the Rush Limbaugh of the disenfranchised evangelical set... which should send shivers up all our backbones.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Don't Mess With Times Square

Faisal Shahzad obviously isn't into musicals. Otherwise, he'd have known that the optimum congestion in Times Square doesn't take place on Saturday nights, but on Wednesday afternoons, when Broadway has its matinees. Specifically, when the matinees let out, and the tour buses are already bringing in the throngs for the evening shows, and office workers start trying to make their way home.

He also apparently doesn't know how to parallel-park, because his poor parking skills were one feature which caught the attention of sidewalk vendors. But then, I guess when you think you've got enough explosive stuff in the back of your SUV to blow up half of "the crossroads of the world," trying to squeeze into a Manhattan parking space becomes even more nerve-wracking than normal.

Shahzad has been charged today with terrorism in connection with the foiled bombing of midtown Manhattan's 45th Street, and apparently, he's not denying it. While experts say his explosive contraption could have killed people and blown out windows, it wouldn't have destroyed any buildings. Some cops have also said that the evidence Shahzad left in his SUV, combined with his sloppy trail of clues leading all the way into Connecticut, portray him as woefully amateurish at the whole KaBoom! thing.

Which doesn't exactly instill people with confidence, does it? We all know that any idiot can blow stuff up. Such incidents may not topple the US government, or even a one-story building, but they can still inflict plenty of death, fear, and anxiety.

Nevertheless, you have to hand it to law enforcement agencies which took the case from smoky Pathfinder to a jet pulling away from the gate at Kennedy: about 48 hours from start to arrest. We won't count the time it took from the early-evening images police say capture the Pathfinder snaking through Times Square traffic to the time when the street vendors saw the smoke. What's amazing about having the SUV parked along the street is that Shahzad found a curbside spot at all in Midtown on a Saturday night, so who knows how long it took him to find it.

After our recent series of political stupidity with nationalizing healthcare, the dreary drumbeat of earthquake news from across the planet, the goofball who set his family jewels on fire during a flight to Detroit Christmas day, and the BP folly taking place in the Gulf of Mexico as you read this, isn't it strangely refreshing to see how some people can still work together and pull of an amazing bit of Find-The-Terrorist?

Mayor Bloomberg took the officer who first called in the smoldering SUV and his wife to dinner at the W hotel in Times Square Sunday to show his appreciation - and prove he felt safe in the neighborhood. But kudos - really, ladies and gentlemen: congratulations, and thank you! - to everybody involved in averting this calamity, including the street vendors who initially noticed the oddly-parked Nissan.

Have a warm, soft pretzel on me!

Monday, May 3, 2010

An Ounce of Prevention To BP's Pound(ing)

Let’s face it: the Gulf Coast shores of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama have never been bastions of higher education, elite society, and fine culture. Wharves and piers along the region’s bayous and estuaries have never hosted old school regattas or glittering yacht clubs. Gritty, smelly, and saucy have been defining characteristics of the stretch of Gulf waterfront between Texas and Florida for generations.

Yes, middle-class resort communities have managed to stake claims on the prettier stretches of beaches, but the only value most A-lister's have for this beleaguered working-class coastline centers on the decadent seafood harvested just offshore.

Which makes the impending ecological and economic disaster lapping ever closer to this productive shoreline even more frustrating for the people who will be hit the hardest: blue-collar hand-to-mouth laborers who, for generations, have managed to wrest a meager living from these waters.

Natural disasters have come and gone, along with the occasional industrial accident, leaving scars but never decimating the region. BP’s recent loss of the Deepwater Horizon, however, might just be a game-changer.

The Big Boys vs. The Little Boys

Now, maybe it’s unfair to classify this situation as a conflict between the classes. Certainly, it’s more than that. But read between the lines of the many reports being filed from the Gulf, and the picture being painted becomes one of a resource-rich but marginally-respected region being taken for granted for far too long.

Corporate executives and political suits positing best- and worst-case scenarios seem cut off from the increasingly-destitute fishermen with weird accents stuck on the dock. Hoteliers and restaurateurs who have just recovered from recent hurricanes Katrina and Rita stand nearby, listening to their summer reservations calling to cancel. Hurricanes are one thing, they tell reporters; oil spills, however, mean someone’s to blame.

Ahh yes, the “B” word – that dreaded thing the corporate and political types have been jockeying to avoid.

Considering BP’s rich history at disasters, death, cover-up, and overall industrial sloppiness, the company has become quite adept at spinning its newest worst-practices prize. For example, in a press release posted on the Internet, BP provided a link to “Learn More About How BP Is Helping” clean up the mess.

Um, excuse me, but how patronizing is that PR statement? Do you see its spin? BP is “helping” to clean up it’s own mess? Isn’t that like a kid “helping” his mom clean up the milk he spilled? Somewhere, some ethics-devoid marketing professor is beaming her face off at the star pupil who came up with that one.

Of course, I shouldn’t be so glib about BP. After all, maybe its current crisis represents just another incident in a long-running string of unavoidable happenstance for the company.

Companies Think Prevention Isn't Profitable

Whatever BP's pattern of problems, how many defenders of conservative big-business mistakes shrug off personal injury mishaps and environmental foul-ups as simply part of the cost of doing business? How many people blithely trust that capitalism’s self-correcting mechanism will kick in at the appropriate time – the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back, or the final mistake before profitability becomes jeopardized. The more a mistake costs a company, the harder they’ll work at avoiding it in the future.

Ah, “in the future” doesn’t buy Wall Street confidence today, does it? Does that explain why BP and their subcontractor, Transocean, didn’t already have multiple mechanisms in place to more quickly plug up their well? Should they assume that everything will work properly the first time and that spending money on second-guessing safeguards and planning for the worst-case scenario is for sissies – or Europeans? (European corporations have a reputation for spending so much time planning for the worst that present development opportunities pass them by.)

If this oil spill had resulted after multiple accident prevention measures had failed (not just the one), we’d be talking about a different story, wouldn’t we? But we’re not talking about a colossal failure of best intentions, the foiling of redundant engineering, or even incredibly bad happenstance. We’re talking about minimal, fingers-crossed, that’s-what-insurance-is-for white-knuckle greed. Only this time, they ain’t ridin’ the gusher to shareholder bliss.

Conservatives whine about regulations, oversight, and restrictive legislation, but in how many cases were such regulations, oversight, and legislation enacted only after an industry failed to self-police, and develop its own failsafe best practices with worst-case scenarios in mind?

Sure, stuff like that costs more at the outset, but if American business had a broader view of long-term profitability based on short-term planning, how much more robust would our economy be? How less frequent would industrial accidents be? How much more lucrative would opportunities be for greater numbers of people to share in the financial pie?

It’s one thing for industrial heavyweights to argue for the status quo. It’s another thing for entrepreneurs or disenfranchised people to challenge the status quo with better ideas, different questions, fresher answers, and – ooh, here it is – morality and ethics. Some conservatives like to run and hide behind the banner of economic prudence when people like me start talking like this. And sure, if the drilling had been uneventful and BP’s rig quietly pumped up a king’s ransom worth of black gold from the Gulf’s floor, we’d have never even heard about it.

But since we know what can happen when deep-water drilling goes bad, how detrimental can it be to spend some extra dollars up-front to proactively develop and deploy back-up measures that may not be used? Does having just one blowout preventer seem adequate when we’re talking about the loss of a $2.4 billion a year commercial fishing industry?

They’re Fishermen. So What?

What is the point at which conservatives of faith begin to realize that extreme capitalism operates on far fewer biblical imperatives than we often assume? Imperatives like fairness. Balance. And those fruits of love, patience, goodness, meekness, and self-control.

An honest day’s labor is an honest day’s labor. One type of labor may not be valued as much as another type in our capitalist society, so different types of labor get paid differently. But toil is still toil. Are BP's profits more important than fishermen doing their best in a one-industry economy along the shore?

Am I wrong to characterize as immoral the deprivation of another person’s legitimate industry through measurable deceit, carelessness, power, or hubris?

Not that BP and its contractors are big bad wolves simply by virtue of their sheer size, political influence, and profit margins. It’s how they operate their daily functions and respond to disasters like this that determine if they’re big bad wolves. After all, other energy companies seem to operate just fine, with both impeccable safety records and satisfied shareholders.

You've heard the old saying that "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." Just because BP is based in Britain doesn't mean a pound of cure has a better exchange rate.