April 09, 2005

Ara sent me these six literary questions and said I had to answer. Since I am nothing if not compliant, here you go...

• You're stuck inside Fahrenheit 451, which book do you want to be [saved]?

I want to say the Bible, but I probably could remember enough of it to make a reasonable facsimile later. I’m going with The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho by a nose over Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.

• Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?

I was madly and tragically in love with Connie Selleca’s character in “The Greatest American Hero.” I was hopeless.

• The last book you bought is?

How to Live Between Office Visits by Bernie Seigel. Before that, an inordinate number of theology books.

• What are you currently reading?

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson.

• Five books you would take to a deserted island?

1. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. This is one of two life-changing books I read at least annually.
2. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. This is the other.
3. Parables as Subversive Speech by William Herzog. Because this is the book that started my re-thinking of Jesus’ mission.
4. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Because I would wither and die without it.
5. One of my writing craft books, preferably one with writing exercises. To keep myself sharp while away from opportunities to write.

• Who are you going to pass this stick to (3 persons) and why?

I’m not passing it on to specific people because I’m lazy. But I fully expect my readership to chime in with their answers.

Posted by Dan at 01:11 PM | Comments (13) | TrackBack

March 21, 2005

Good news for those of you who can read.

Paulo Coelho is ready to release his latest novel.

Coelho wrote "The Alchemist", one of two books that I consider must-reads and life-changing works. The other is "Things Fall Apart" by Chinua Achebe.

Both are easy reads.

Details on the latest Coelho creation here.

Posted by Dan at 11:43 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

January 03, 2005

Popping Culture Book Club Selection of the Month and a frontal assault on Wal-Mart

I read this book, Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich, some time ago as research for a paper I was working on in ethics class.

Ehrenreich spent a number of months in minimum wage (or close) jobs to see how well folks can survive on that level of pay. The answer: not well if at all.

Her easy-to-read book details the jobs she took, including one at Wal-Mart which gets a mention in this essay railing against the corporate giant.

While you're in line to read Nickel and Dimed at your local library or Barnes and Noble, you MUST READ the essay in full, which points out (and these are quotes):

For a two-hundred-employee Wal-Mart store, the government is spending $108,000 a year for children's health care; $125,000 a year in tax credits and deductions for low-income families; and $42,000 a year in housing assistance. The report estimates that a two-hundred-employee Wal-Mart store costs federal taxpayers $420,000 a year, or about $2,103 per Wal-Mart employee. That translates into a total annual welfare bill of $2.5 billion for Wal-Mart's 1.2 million US employees.

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But the actual budget imposed on the store managers always falls short of the preferred budget, so that most Wal-Mart stores are permanently understaffed. The gap between the preferred and actual budgets gives store managers an idea of how much extra work they must try to extract from their workforce.

Jed Stone, a store manager at Wal-Mart between 1983 and 1991, explained to Rosen the practical consequences of this understaffing:

With the meager staff he was allowed, it had always been a struggle to keep the shelves stacked and the floors shiny, or to get hourly workers to help customers.

To get the work done Stone had to break the company rules by having employees work more than fifty hours a week—an "offense" for which a manager can be fired at Wal-Mart. Rosen also interviewed Katie Mitchell, a shop floor employee who worked night shifts at the unloading dock. Her task was to move goods from the dock to the store aisles where they could be stacked. She also had to count the goods with her handheld computer: "There was always too much work to be done and no one to help her," and at the end of the shift the supervisor was always at hand to issue a reprimand if the work had not been done.

Sandra Stevenson was an overnight supervisor at a Wal-Mart store in Gurnee, Illinois, whose job was to get the store ready for the next day's business. Stevenson was supposed to be assigned between fourteen and sixteen employees to do the job properly; but she was usually understaffed and her requests for additional workers were always turned down. Nevertheless, Stevenson was severely reprimanded for "the condition of the store in the mornings." After a string of such incidents, Stevenson found that her "spirit was broken" and she left the company. Many others have had similar experiences.

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Perhaps the best evidence we have of this selective harassment is to be found in the depositions of 115 women who have testified against Wal-Mart in the Dukes case, a class-action lawsuit brought in 2001 by six female employees and named for one of the six, Betty Dukes, a Wal-Mart employee in Pittsburg, California. Most of the witnesses in the case have since either left Wal-Mart or been fired, but Betty Dukes herself continues to work as a greeter at the Pittsburg Wal-Mart. The suit, which alleges systematic discrimination by Wal-Mart both in the pay and promotion of women, is brought on behalf of 1.6 million female employees of Wal-Mart past and present, the largest civil rights case of its kind in US history. On June 22, 2004, US District Judge Martin Jenkins of San Francisco held that the Dukes lawsuit could proceed to trial, although a date has not been set.

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The independence of spirit shown by the women in the Dukes case has therefore challenged the strict obedience that Wal-Mart requires of its rank-and-file employees. Indeed, the corporation insists on an elaborate aptitude test for new employees that is intended to weed out troublemakers. When Barbara Ehrenreich took the test at the Minneapolis Wal-Mart, she was told that she had given a wrong answer when she agreed "strongly" with the proposition that "rules have to be followed to the letter at all times." The only acceptable answer for Wal-Mart was "very strongly." Similarly, the only correct answer to the proposition "there is room in every corporation for a non-conformist" was: "totally disagree."

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Since 1995 the US government has issued sixty complaints against Wal-Mart at the National Labor Relations Board, citing the illegal firing of pro-union employees, as well as the unlawful surveillance and intimidation of employees. But under the present law persistent violators of government rules such as Wal-Mart are responsible only for restoring the lost pay of fired workers —in most cases, not more than a few thousand dollars—and these penalties do not increase with successive violations. So long as US law makes it possible for Wal-Mart to crush efforts to organize unions it will continue to treat its more than a million workers shabbily, while the company no doubt continues to be celebrated in the business press as a a model of efficient modern management.

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The exploitation of the working poor is now central to the business strategy favored by America's most powerful and, by some criteria, most successful corporation. With the re-election of a president as enamored of corporate power as George W. Bush, there is every prospect that this strategy and its harsh practices will continue to spread throughout the economy.

I voted for Bush, but it was in spite of his stand on big business and aggressive democracy, not because of it.

The essay (read it in full, please) doesn't paint a pretty picture. Still, there's nary a mention of the overseas sweat-shop labor, which is my main concern.

And there's an interesting bit on our own national guilt in this thing: for instance, knowing all of this, I still shop at Wal-Mart. I think about these things every time I go in, but still the Sirens call me back. The offenses above make possible a place where one can eat, shop for groceries, get the tires on the car changed, pick up prescriptions and even get new eyeglasses, all in one place with helpful and friendly (if underpaid and overworked) greeters.

The most telling bit is at the end: in our capitalistic society, Wal-Mart represents the most efficient of businesses. That's what makes it inhuman, while making it a model to be copied in the world of business. When the goal is money, people become tools of acquisition.

And I guarantee you that I'll let myself back in before January is out.

Posted by Dan at 09:14 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

August 05, 2004

"And now there is merely silence, silence, silence, saying all we did not know." - William Rose Benet

As chaplains, those of us who drew the dreaded and loved 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. shifts in Richmond's downtown MCV hospital were required to conclude our tours of duty by logging the night's activity in a notebook, to be read by the day staff in case follow-ups were needed.

Normally filled with names, times, conditions and activity reports, this is the report I wrote one particular Thursday afternoon:

It started with noise, in the way that Wednesday nights are often noisy. The code beeper came to life, demanding attention, signaling to those of us who are chaplains and therefore forced to listen that somewhere in the hospital someone was dying, or dead.

There was noise as I arrived. Nurses and doctors huddled around a newborn, shouting orders, yelling for this or that medication. A mother, asking questions that had no good answers, questions like "What's wrong with him?" and "Will he be alright?" More noise as monitors sounded alarms. More noise as the father's labored breathing gave background to the shuffle of activity around the little one. Then, finally, more noise, as a deep voice cut through the cacophany, "Time of death, 1:32 A.M."

And then silence.

You call yourself a chaplain, Dan, don't you have anything to say? Where are your words of comfort now? Where is your precious faith now?

There was another chaplain with me. He was useless, too.

We quietly steered the couple, the mother and father, to a family room. I opened my mouth to start to say something, anything, to speak to their pain, but what words are there for a time like this? There is only silence. Only silence can communicate what a mother feels when she loses her 9-day old son.

We sat in silence for half an hour, then an hour. One of the other of us would sob out loud occasionally, but even that was cut short, as if in reverence for the silence, for the empty, hollow, quiet place that was now forever part of their lives. Even a hundred healthy children could never fill the empty place that was now in their hearts. Part of them would always keep silence now, even in the happiest of times.

And what was there for me to say? I was powerless in the face of such amazing grief. No words from a textbook or verse from the Bible can make a dent in a pain so big, so sudden.

Finally, I slipped out of the room, to find the nurses. They had wrapped the baby in a blanket, clean and blue. They had combed his hair. It is part of my job to bring the parents their child, to hold for the last time. Numbly, silently, I took the child that would not even see ten days in to them.

There are times when keeping silence communicates more powerfully than a million words or songs or cries. There are times when the only thing you can give to someone is your silent presence, your sharing of their pain. Sometimes silence says that there are emotions too deep for words, too primal, too much a part of who we try to hide to ever be expressed aloud.

And so I was there, with them, silent in that awful, terrible room for as long as they wanted to stay. Where could I go? Where could I run from silence? I had shared with these two souls the most terrible, most defining moment of the rest of their lives. I had been with them to watch their child die.

Later, they left. I finished my shift in silence, waiting for 8 A.M. to arrive. Tears would fall from time to time, and I never moved to dry them. If I spoke, it was only in response to questions, and even then my answers were nothing more than excuses to be silent again. Silence has that kind of power, a power I had never seen before.

Somehow, I drove myself home and got safely into the bed.

It is a terrible thing when it is too quiet to sleep. I lay awake, staring at the pillow where my wife's head would have been if she were home, should have been if there were any justice in the world. I lay awake staring, praying that she would never leave the place she holds in my heart. It is too big a place to be empty, to be silent. Funny how I never seem to tell her that. Funny how silence can teach us the things that are truly important.

Sometimes silence can be a cave to hide in, an excuse to never take risks.

After a while, physical and emotional exhaustion took over, and I fell asleep.

I almost never remember my dreams, but that morning I dreamed of a white room, and a blue blanket, and I was trying to scream or cry or yell, but all I could dream was silence.

And we all go in to them, into the silent funeral,
Nobody's funeral, for there is no one to bury.
I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God.

- T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, East Coker, 1940

Posted by Dan at 08:30 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack