Saturday, December 20, 2008

Santa Claus: Christian, Pagan, or Both?

Most of us would be amazed at the way many of our traditions have evolved to their present practices. In North America, many of our traditions have been handed down to us from our European forebears -- and in recent years, many of the American permutations of those traditions have made their way back to the old country.
Most historians agree that the legend of what Americans call Santa Claus comes from Nicholas, the 4th-century Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). He is believed to have been extraordinarily kind and generous, so it is not surprising that his persona spawned many different legends and mixed with other historic and mythical figures. In much of Western Europe, St. Nicholas is still portrayed in his flowing bishop's robes.
It was primarily the Dutch who imported the tradition of Sinter Klaas to the colony of New Amsterdam, now New York City, in the 17th century. To this day, the Dutch and Belgians celebrate the Feast of St. Nicholas on Dec. 6, with the exchange of gifts and other centuries-old traditions (many of which come from early pagan myths, such as Sinter Klaas arriving on a flying white horse). Following the Reformation, German Protestants preferred the veneration of the Christkindl (Christ Child) on his own feast day, Dec. 25. The Nicholas figure would not die easily, however, and his celebration was eventually attached to the Dec. 25 holiday. The term Christkindl eventually evolved to Kriss Kringle, another name for Santa Claus.
In the United States, it was the popular writer Washington Irving who first explained the Dutch tradition to the American people in his History of New York (1809). But St. Nick became a full-fledged American icon with the publication of the 1823 poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" -- more commonly known as "The Night Before Christmas," by Clement Clarke Moore. Amazing, the effects of a single poem.
It's easy to see why we are so confused in our Christmas celebrations today. Now that my children are grown, I sometimes wonder how they arrived at any true understanding of Christmas. I also now wonder what I will tell my yet-to-be-born grandchildren. Even what Christians today consider to be a 'pure' Christmas celebration is often riddled with extra-Biblical tradition and conjecture.
Yes, I enjoy the warm fuzzies of the Christmas season, to a degree. But when all is said and done, one thing I know: Santa Claus -- or even St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, can't redeem this sinner's life.
And that's what I'll tell my grandchildren, if nothing else.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

It's Your Planet -- Go See It!

If you have been a reader of mine for any length of time, you know at least a couple of things about me: I love this planet we're on -- its beauty, its diversity, its people; and I love the adventure of entrepreneurship and the importance of developing multiple streams of income. So in order to provide YOU with a one-stop travel shop -- and to open up an additional stream of income for World to the Wise, I now have my very own TRAVEL PORTAL:

No, I am not a licensed travel agent, nor do I intend to become one. Instead, I have linked arms with Hemisphere Travel, the world's largest private travel provider, with a search engine twice as large as Expedia, the next largest online travel provider. They are the ones making your travel arrangements for you, and they are the ones you will contact directly with customer services issues; but when you book your travel through this website, not only will you find true concierge service, you'll be supporting World to the Wise as we develop into a multi-faceted organization.

Nothing else needs to change for you -- simply save this URL in your Favorites and go there instead of the other guys, knowing that you'll get the same competitive prices and be apprised of some pretty amazing specials from time to time. And when you hear the signal for the first World to the Wise cultural tour, your travel will be booked through this portal.

Check it out: -- whether it's to book flights, cruises, rental cars, hotels, group trips, or ski vacations, we've got you covered. I'll tell you about some more cool features in future posts.

It's your planet -- go see it!

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanks for Thanksgiving

As an American, I'm not always particularly proud of our cultural exports. Halloween, for example, came into vogue in Europe while I was living there; and not all of Hollywood's values make me want to stand up and say, "That's us!"

Thanksgiving is different. And what is ironic is that I don't know of other countries besides Canada that have instituted this tradition on a national level. (Prove me wrong by posting a comment!)

On this 4th Thursday of the month of November, we stop to remember how blessed we are. Not that celebrations of thanksgiving have never been held in other cultures; harvest festivals have been a tradition of cultures worldwide since recorded history began. But the feast that has become an annual holiday in the United States is generally attributed to an offering of thanks not for copious material blessings, but for mere survival. The Pilgrims who had come to the New World from England in search of the freedom to practice their religion in the way their convictions dictated were thankful just to have made it through their first winter. And this would not have been possible were it not for the providential help of a Patuxet Native American named Squanto. You should take a moment to read this remarkable story some time.

The first national declaration of Thanksgiving was made by the Continental Congress in 1777, but it was not declared an annual holiday until 1863, when Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of a civil war that was tearing his nation apart, made the following resolution:

"... to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union...."

How radical and completely counter-intuitive. In some of the darkest days of this young nation's history, a leader urging his people to unite on two principles -- gratitude and penitence.

The tough times we're facing right now are a cake walk compared to many of the ordeals our ancestors went through. Is it possible that one of the divine laws of the universe might be that gratitude not only comes after deliverance, but also precedes it?

Here is one thankful heart that a day has been set aside for something that is actually intended to be a way of life for us.

May we all live lives of gratitude.

Monday, November 10, 2008

On the Offensive

Why am I not sitting down to write this blog post on a typewriter? Because people like John W. Mauchly envisioned a future of electronic word processing. At a gathering of the American Institute of Industrial Engineers in 1962, Mauchly stated, "There is no reason to suppose the average boy or girl cannot be master of a personal computer." It wasn't until six years later that Hewlett Packard first took the risk of using this term to describe their 9100A.

We are wired to innovate. Culture is wired to progress. There is an innate drive in man to produce, to improve, to outdo himself.
Seth Godin, one of my favorite bloggers, says if we give in to paralysis in the midst of this economic slump, we will only prolong it. If we stop investing in the future, we will find then, and only then, that those who say we're in for a long economic winter were right. If we allow the media to dictate our attitudes -- at this or any time -- we will find ourselves constantly on the defensive.
Don't let the doomsayers dampen your creativity. If there was ever a time for innovation, it is now. Be offensive.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Is It OK to Be American Again?

Having lived 17 years of my life as an ex-pat, I am all too familiar with the gammut of emotions and experiences that being an American abroad represents. Thankfully, most of my friends were entirely accepting of me, but this was anything but a guarantee that they agreed with my country's policies or view of its role in the world. I remember making an extra effort not to be too conspicuous, avoiding baseball caps and tennis shoes and keeping English conversations to just above a whisper when in public.
Given most of the world's reaction to the election of Barack Obama as the next U.S. president, it would seem that it's suddenly OK to be an American again. In Vienna, a young woman heard an American businessman speaking English on the bus, turned around and gave him a spontaneous kiss on the cheek, then got off at the next stop. No words -- but none were necessary.
Reports are coming in from all over the world that this momentous occasion is a welcome one. Jordanians and Egyptians wept for joy. The French fell over themselves to welcome the president-elect who, they believe, will be more outward focused with a kinder, gentler approach than his predecessor's. As one German put it, "A world without American leadership is, for most Europeans, a world of chaos." (The Israelis are among the few who don't seem too thrilled -- with Iran breathing down their necks, their concern over Obama's possible naivete can be understood.) One journalist observed that Europeans have been secretly pulling for the U.S. but were just too weary of the Bush bravado.
Does the world really know and love Barack Obama, or is there more going on in this outpouring of emotion in the international community? I see the pendulum principle at work here. Reacting out of such extreme disillusionment with the Bush foreign policy, the world is expressing what the American electorate also demonstrated: the farther we can remove ourselves from the disappointments of the past, the better.
I am among those who are eager to see the direction Obama steers America's relationship with the rest of the world. What if dialogue really does work better than confrontation? What if the "measure of humility" Obama spoke of in his acceptance speech goes a long way toward repairng the breach between players on the world stage?
It's well worth a try.
If you are a non-American, please express your reaction to the Obama victory by posting a comment.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Bathroom Blues

Cultural Anecdotes, Part III
In our ongoing series on cultural faux pas, a young American girl was visiting her German guy-friend's family. Before sitting down to dinner, she asked where the bathroom was. Following their directions, she indeed found herself in the bathroom -- but there was no toilet.
Too embarrassed to go out and ask where the toilet was, she -- you guessed it -- decided to just use the sink. No one would have ever known if the sink had not broken loose from the wall under her weight. Embarrassed now?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Cowboys and Arabs

Our criteria for what makes a movie worth watching are as diverse as the cultures to whom this blog is intended. Some consider a film worthwhile only if it has a happy ending (a particularly American syndrome).

One of my criteria for a worthwhile film is whether it makes me think. My wife and I went to see “Body of Lies” the other night, and I came away thinking.

Without having read David Ignatius’ book, I can only take the film at face value. Was the Ed Hoffman character (played by Russell Crow) an intentional caricature of the stereotypical American cowboy with some very sophisticated toys he’s not afraid to use on people he’s never taken the time to understand? (It irks my Mississippi-born wife to no end that these characters always have southern accents.) Are we to extrapolate and believe that everyone in the U.S. intelligence community is cut from the same cloth? Whether or not that’s the case (and I still dare to hope it’s not), Hoffman’s line toward the end of the film (“After all, what is to like about this place?”) reflects an undeniable fact: many of us simply don’t see anything to like about, in this case, “these Arabs.” You could replace the word “Arabs” with countless other names, depending on what culture you live in and who your traditional enemies are.

I once had a voice student in Switzerland whose example left an indelible impression on me. She was from the French-speaking part of Switzerland, a relatively small area and unfortunately susceptible to the traditional French prejudice toward Germans and German speakers. Aware of this prejudice in her own heart, this lady actually sought out a job in Zurich, the largest city in the larger German-speaking area of Switzerland –- simply to find something to like about those German speakers! Needless to say, she was not disappointed, and to this day has maintained several close friendships there.

Enough said. Or perhaps not.

Welcome to Water Cooler Wednesday.

Monday, October 13, 2008

"Justice is what love looks like in public..."

Slavery is very much alive in the 21st century. With over 27 million people in bondage around the world, a collection of musicians--including Moby, Natasha Bedingfield, Matisyahu, and Talib Kweli--gather together to make a stand for justice. Harvard professor Cornel West (whose quote is the title of this post), former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and actress Ashley Judd lend their perspectives in this "rocumentary" that offers a provocative call to action.

Click here to see if Call + Response is showing in your city.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Can you say 'faux pas'?

Cultural Anecdotes, Part II

Thanks to those of you who responded with your own cultural faux pas stories. Unfortunately, they all came through Facebook and are therefore not posted on this site. That darn Facebook is just too convenient.

Here are a couple that have come through:
On the first day of classes, a university freshman in the States who has been raised in Europe and learned English only from her mother and foreign language classes, asks a classmate for a rubber. (Don't get it? Ask someone.)

In one of my own French classes years ago, one of my students, who is a recording artist, was trying to tell me how her husband's voice blends well with her own. She was making a gargantuan effort, truly; but instead of saying 'He blends,' she said 'He changes my diaper.'

And finally, a dear friend who was living in Switzerland and learning French thought she knew a thing or two about predicting whether a pregant woman's baby would be a boy or a girl, depending on how the woman was carrying the baby. In faltering French, but confident it was a boy, she proudly informed the dubious woman that it was going to be a fish.

Keep them coming! And post them here so non-Facebook members can appreciate them!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Under the Weather

Cultural Anecdotes, Part I

I lived for a number of years in Australia as a child. Even though my memories of that time are somewhat sketchy, I remember my parents recounting, through tears of laughter, the lessons they learned about the differences between Australian and American vocabulary. Some of these lessons they learned firsthand; others they learned through (or rather at the expense of) other visiting Americans.

For example, one American couple had been in Perth just a few days. The wife had come down with a bug of some sort and had stayed at the hotel. When asked where his wife was, the gentlemen forlornly replied that she was under the weather, so had to stay behind.

If you're from a present or former British Commonwealth country, you already see the problem here. If you're not, you're probably not aware that in those countries, "under the weather" means very, very drunk.

The American gentleman was a pastor.

Stay tuned for more -- and in the meantime, send me YOUR faux pas anecdotes!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Bossa Nova Meets Samba Meets Hip-Hop

If you are able to listen to the sweet samba sounds of Sergio Mendes and sit still, well, I'm just plain sorry for you. Sergio has been spinning out Brazilian grooves for over four decades -- whether with Brazil 66 or at times joined by the likes of Herb Alpert and who became Alpert's wife, Lani Hall.

On his latest album, Encanto, Mendes is again joined by Herb and Lani on one track. The rest of the record is pure Brazilian, recorded in Rio and Salvador de Baia. The sounds are more irresistible than ever, chronicling the amazing musical journey of a man who has become a legend. Skipping some of his mid-career forays into American pop and soul, Encanto reflects some later influences such as a wonderfully African brand of hip-hop, combined with some of the jazz and bossa nova influences that have blended to produce that oh-so Mendes sound.

Looking for timeless? You've got it right here.

Welcome to Water Cooler Wednesday!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Help for Haiti

You would almost think there was a curse on the nation of Haiti. Ravaged by not one, not two, but FOUR storms in the last month, the already destitute country is now struggling to dig out of the latest devastation left by Hurricane Ike. Not that the Texas victims have nothing to deal with -- but there are resources readily available to most Texans that the Haitians could only dream of.

Here is a tangible way you can help: Terry Snow, Director of Youth With a Mission in Haiti, has made an appeal for help in feeding the thousands of newly homeless in the city of St. Marc, Haiti's third largest city. For only $1.50 US, you can provide a hot meal for someone who has no idea where the next meal is coming from. Youth With a Mission has been involved in nation building in Haiti in the most holistic way possible, from opening a fish market in the city to helping with roads, bridges, and feeding programs for well over a decade. Here's what you can do:

Send a quick e-mail to stating the number of meals (@ $1.50) you would like to provide. Then mail your check for that amount IMMEDIATELY to:

YWAM Haiti
PO Box 236
Akron, PA 17501

...and indicate that it is for the meal program in St. Marc.

Thanks for your help.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Cultural Intelligence

Having spent 17 years outside my home country, I well remember what it was like when groups from the US would come on short term missions or service projects. I also still wince to this day as I remember that it is actually possible for these teams do more harm than good. That is, if they have not been properly trained and oriented to the host culture which they are supposedly coming to serve.
This is why I'm glad to see the new book by David A. Livermore, Serving With Eyes Wide Open. Written particularly with short-term missions teams in mind, I believe this book would benefit anyone seeking to be of service in a foreign culture -- frankly, it probably would not hurt tourists to read it! Let's face it -- we're all ethnocentric to some extent, which is normal to a degree. But cultural intelligence means identifying our areas of ethnocentricity, learning to appreciate the beauties and strengths of the host culture, and going, above all, as a learner.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

YouTube Guilty Pleasures

The YouTube phenomenon is nothing short of that. Today's Water Cooler Wednesday topic is "favorite YouTube guilty pleasures." This entire blog could of course be filled with nothing but favorite YouTube videos. But do you know the New Zealand duo Flight of the Conchords? No?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Age of Creativity

I last blogged from southern France, where I was speaking at an annual arts camp in a region called the Cévennes. I was struck by the legacy of the persecuted Huguenots as portrayed at the Musée du Désert, hidden away in the rugged hills of the Cévennes. Their oppression lasted over a century, and many of the men were sent away to the French galleys, seldom to return home. Centuries later, the Protestant church is strongest in the south (as well as the Alsace region in northeastern France).

At the arts camp I spoke on the fact that art, as a part of culture, must evolve. I believe that, as God is Creator and continues to create, He created us to evolve. Otherwise, we would still be nomadic hunter/gatherers, oblivious to agriculture, industry and technology. We are wired to move forward. And a faith that withstands the test of time is one that continues to innovate, to explore new ways of expressing the same timeless truths. If the church doesn't wake up to this fact, it will find itself shut off from some of the very people who could help it move forward in its ongoing quest for relevancy.I particularly wish this for the church in France, in many ways known as the cradle of aesthetic appreciation. It's in the church's best interest to embrace and reclaim this love of beauty. We have entered the Age of Creativity -- let's keep creating.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Vive la France

Bonjour from France, where I am speaking at an annual arts camp. The camp is situated in the southern region called the Cevennes, about an hour and a half inland from the Mediterranean. This is my third time to be invited to speak here, but it's been five years since the last time. I was eager to see how things have evolved.

It's impossible to visit any place in Europe without discovering some historical significance; in this case, many an impressionist painter, for example, traversed and painted these rolling hills with their picturesque villages. But what I find most striking goes back further than the impressionists: it was to this part of France, among others, that the Huguenots fled the persecution of the Catholic church under Louis XIV in the 17th century. This post will hopefully be followed by a Part II after a visit to the "Musee du Desert." The "desert" in question is not a physical desert, but a period of such intense persecution that the years have come to be known as such. More on that later...

In the meantime, it's gratifying to see the arts flourishing...they've assembled an impressive faculty representing practically all the artistic disciplines -- and I'm speaking at the morning plenary sessions. Reunions with old friends and great conversations with new friends...grateful for the privilege! Out of time for now...more later.

And welcome to Water Cooler Wednesday!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Bringing Out the Finest China

After watching the opening cermonies of the Beijing Olympics, I suppose the cynic could say that the awesome display of artistry and grandeur was merely China putting on its best face, hiding a truer China of oppression, poverty and uniformity.

But what if what we saw on 08.08.08 was actually the truer China after all? What if the breathtaking magnitude and splendor of the opening ceremony -- the rising of the curtain on what has already proven to be a most memorable Olympic Games -- was the China God had in mind in the first place? I don't usually delve into matters of religion in this blog, but indulge me for just this: in the book of Revelation in the Bible, it says of the New Jerusalem that "the kings of the earth will bring their splendour into it." We tend to think of heaven as a nondescript existence of golden streets and harps. I believe that nothing could be further from the truth. I believe that heaven is the perfect version of all that is splendid and beautiful about the universe we know and have known.

The reason I fought back tears during that performance is that I felt I was getting a taste of the beauty of heaven. And we ain't seen nothin' yet.

...and welcome to Water Cooler Wednesday!

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Ubuntu Beads

I recently met a man on a mission named Jared Miller. Jared is the son of life coach Dan Miller, who has had a profound influence on my thinking over the past year.
Having been weaned on success theories based on entrepreneurship and firmly rooted in capitalism, Jared is taking a road less traveled, yet gaining momentum in our day: cross-cultural social entrepreneurism.

Enter KEZA, a growing division of the nonprofit organization Sisters of Rwanda, founded by Jared. KEZA is the result not only of an entrepreneurial spirit fueled by a genuine desire to achieve gender equality in the East African nation, but especially of over two years of listening.

Having heard of the horrific fallout of the infamous Rwandan genocide of the 90's, Jared made his first trek to Africa almost three years ago. His initial contacts in Rwanda stopped him in his American tracks: as he sat and listened, first to Pastor Joseph Ayienga, then to Virginia and Rosa's stories, all his well-intentioned plans began to evaporate. It suddenly occurred to him that his time would be better spent with an ear to the ground, rather than setting to work immediately implementing plans that, in hindsight, could have proven disastrous.

As Jared listened, a philosophy known as ubuntu began to take center stage in his consciousness. Ubuntu can best be summed up in the statement, "I am who I am because of who we all are." Archbishop Desmond Tutu explains, "We cannot be fully human alone. We are made for interdependence, we are made for family." In this case, 'family' means helping dozens of Rwandan women make their way out of gender-based, violent oppression where there is little to no opportunity for self-sustenance. KEZA provides them an opportunity to reflect the beauty of their culture through the making of vividly coloured necklaces. Each bead is, remarkably, hand crafted from old calendars, posters and paper scraps, then varnished and strung together to make a beautiful fashion statement.

Jared has now launched a campaign to export this jewelry to other parts of the world as a stream of revenue, not only for the women directly, but also so over a hundred children can go to school and make their own way out of the cycle of poverty and oppression.

Read more about KEZA and the Sisters of Rwanda here.

Bravo, Jared.

...and welcome to Water Cooler Wednesday!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Perchance to Dream

Many of us, for whatever reason, have been discouraged from dreaming. The pragmatists tell us it's a waste of time and energy. I suppose I have always been somewhat of a dreamer, even being called an idealist once by a work supervisor. I have seen many of the dreams come true, and have many yet to be fulfilled. I dreamed of singing and recording in multiple languages, combining two of my greatest passions and giftings. It has happened. I then dreamed of equipping other creatives with a broader world view and a deeper sense of their place in this world. Almost 1000 creatives came through the programs we offered. Could I have done some things better? Oh yes; but the dreams became reality nevertheless.

They're not all old dreams, either -- the dreams keep coming. One of my latest dreams is to promote a deeper sense of cultural awareness in this age of globalization; to foster what one author has termed "glocalization", where we learn to think and act both on a local and on a global scale. (Check out the book in my reading list on the right.) And being an American, one of my more ambitious dreams is to improve the image of America and Americans in the international community. God willing, this will take the form of seminars, webinars and podcasts on cross-cultural dynamics in this new age in which we live.

Another dream that is not far from reality is hosting World to the Wise Cultural Tours, where North Americans are given the chance not only to visit their dream destinations, but also to understand the heart of the culture they're visiting: what is the story behind the way people live as they live? Stay tuned -- our first tour is in the offing!

Welcome to Water Cooler Wednesday -- check it out!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Celebrating a Hero

I do not pretend that Nelson Mandela is perfect. What I do affirm is the astounding way he has resisted the urge to respond in kind. Imagine spending 30 years in prison under an oppressive regime -- 30 years -- then upon your release, walking out and committing to rebuild a nation through peaceful means. Has the African National Congress always operated without violence? Of course not. But if Mandela had responded to apartheid in the same spirit, my sense is that the nation of South Africa would have been completely consumed in violence and civil war.

This Nobel Peace Prize recipient turned 90 years old on July 18, and was celebrated by a huge crowd at a concert in London's Hyde Park.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Mandela. My hat is off to you, one of the stateliest statesmen I know.

Click here to watch a 4-minute audio slideshow of this man's extraordinary life.

Dancing Badly Around the World

This video is sure to bring a smile to your face and remind you what an amazing place Planet Earth is:

With all the "war and rumors of war," it's easy to lose sight of the fact that when God created the world, he sat back and pronounced it good. And as Matt Harding demonstrates in his own unpolished, abandoned way, there is much to celebrate in the beauty of cultural diversity.

So do a little jig today -- wherever you happen to find yourself on this big ball of ours!

This post is part of Water Cooler Wednesday -- check it out!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A World in Flux

First, thanks to all who participated in the poll, with the question of whether it's appropriate for governments to boycott the Beijing Olympics to make a political point. 88% of those who took the poll said it is inappropriate.

Speaking of China, she finds herself again in todays' topic: our changing world climate. Addressing an elite gathering in Switzerland of CEO's from some of the foremost international companies, Herbert E. Meyer laid out an insightful manifesto entitled "What in the World Is Going On? A Global Intelligence Briefing for CEO's." Meyer is widely credited with being the first senior U.S.Government official to forecast the Soviet Union’s collapse, for which he was later awarded the U.S. National Intelligence Distinguished Service Medal, the intelligence community’s highest honor.

According to Meyer, there are four great transformations that are currently shaping global political, economic and social life:

  1. The war in Iraq - the conflict is not just between Islamic terrorists and the U.S.-led coalition; Meyer says it is much, much bigger -- and actually represents the 3rd major attack of radical Islam on Western Civilization.
  2. The emergence of China - in a few short years, 500 million Chinese will have moved from the country to the city. This internal upheaval and historic transformation cannot help but have a cataclysmic effect on the world stage.
  3. Shifting demographics of Western Civilization - Europe is currently importing so many Muslims and other foreigners that by 2020, for example, more than half of all births in the Netherlands will be non-European.
  4. The restructuring of American business - with the rise of outsourcing and independent contracting as a common business model, it is increasingly difficult to get an accurate read of the economy.

Fascinating and illuminating, Meyer's entire speech is worth the read...

Thursday, July 10, 2008

To Boycott or Not to Boycott

President Bush has pledged to attend the Beijing Olympics, stating that to boycott would be an "affront to the Chinese people." French president Nicolas Sarkozy has also decided to attend the opening ceremony, having stating earlier that it depended on China's handling of the Tibetan situation.

This brings up a huge question: are the Olympic Games an opportunity to air grievances between nations? Do they supply the leverage governments are looking for to punish another country or at least make a political point?

Take our poll and post a comment!

Monday, July 7, 2008

What's a Hash Cafe Owner to Do?

If you've ever been to Amsterdam, you know it stands out from other world capitals. Having lived there over five years, I have vivid memories of a charming city rich in culture and history -- but also of a conflicted city on an ongoing quest to "find itself." Historic old churches in the middle of the world's most (in)famous red light district; world class museums housing priceless treasures, coexisting with buildings almost effaced by graffiti.

Since July 1, Amsterdam finds itself again facing a unique set of questions. In compliance with the EU's initiatives to ban smoking in public places, the Netherlands was one of the last to lay down the law. Not surprising when you know that the traditional coffee shop can just as easily be called a smoking parlor. But in Amsterdam, it's a little more complicated: for years, many of the city's notorious coffee shops have also offered hashish on their menus. It's technically illegal, but smokers are not prosecuted for possession under 5 grams. Around 750 Dutch cafés — half of them in Amsterdam — are licensed to have up to 500 grams in stock at any one time. The problem Dutch smokers now face is that most of the marijuana they smoke is in fat, cone-shaped joints that contain a blend of cannabis and tobacco. With the new law now in force, the hash will have to be pure.

Shops are scrambling to adapt. One alternative is "vaporizer" machines, which incinerate weed smokelessly. Another is to replace tobacco with herbs like coltsfoot, a common plant that looks like a dandelion and that smokers describe as tasting a bit like oregano. But most shops are just planning to increase their sales of hash brownies and pure weed — and are hoping the law isn't enforced.

What a predicament. I guess every small business has its challenges...

Thanks to my friend Celeste Yohai for the observation!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

My Nephew the Olympian

You may have heard about the track and field Olympic qualifiers in Eugene, Oregon this past weekend. The trio of finalists in the men's shotput includes my nephew, Adam Nelson. The son of my wife's oldest brother, Adam is a two-time Olympic silver medalist.

Let's be honest -- when you look at those guys, you tend to think they're all brawn and little brain. Nothing could be farther from the truth, especially in Adam's case. In between workouts, he happens to be working on his MBA at the University of Virginia, and his wife, Lacie, is in law school there. Adam is the picture of perseverence, discipline and keeping life in balance.

You can listen to Adam's latest interview with NPR's Neil Conan, where Adam shares his perspective on the quest for the gold. And check out the numerous videos of Adam on youtube.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

O Africa!

A number of years ago, a friend of mine who's life had been touched by the continent of Africa wrote a song and entitled it "O Africa." It's been so long, I don't even remember any of the lyrics except the title, which continues to resonate in me. It's amazing what is contained in the single letter interjection: "O!" How much passion, emotion, hope, despair.

If you've been to Africa, you know what I mean.

My wife and I spent two amazing, enlightening months in Zimbabwe in 1985, just five years after the British colony of Southern Rhodesia had achieved independence and renamed itself. Robert Mugabe was still the Man of the Hour, having led the nation not only into independence, but ongoing relative prosperity as well. Not by any means that Zimbabwe was a model society -- inter-tribal conflict and racial inequality were very present; but it was a period of peace, and most of all, hope. Twenty-three years later, Mugabe is regarded by most as a power-addicted despot, desperately clutching what authority remains in his 84-year-old hands. For the rest of the world, his moral authority has long since dissipated.

We freedom-touting Westerners are inclined to immediately take sides with whichever side appeals most to our idea of liberty. I'll admit that I'm more than ready to see Mugabe hand over the reins of that nation in demise, the nation that was once called the Bread Basket of Africa. And Morgan Tsvangirai seemed like the man for the job. Now we'll just have to wait and see what unfolds.

I hear the word "O" with the word "Africa" because she has so much to offer. Like a slave who has just been offered freedom, she struggles to find her footing, her role on the international stage. South Africa, which many consider the bellwether nation of the continent, finds itself facing a whole new set of challenges as foreigners flock to its already swollen cities.

More later -- in the meantime, share your "O Africa" experiences and thoughts by posting a comment.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Lars and the Real World

You may have seen the poignant film by Craig Gillespie, Lars and the Real Girl, where Ryan Gosling masterfully portrays a young man whose loneliness is so acute that he actually buys a life-size mail-order sex doll, names it Bianca and expects all his acquaintances to welcome her into the small-town community. Sex is not what he is after, however – he is simply starving for a relationship of substance.

So why would I cite this film in the world history class I taught last semester? Gosling’s character’s behavior was symptomatic of some serious adolescent scarring – a profound sense of abandonment, in particular. It is no secret that dysfunctional behavior can almost always be traced to some kind of past trauma or extreme deficit. As I write this I’m also reminded of the Barbra Streisand film, Nuts, in which it is revealed that, during her teenage years, the father of this now high class, sex-addicted call girl regularly used money to coerce her into having sex with him. Not all consequences are so dramatic, but they are there nonetheless.

If this is true of human beings, is it not possible that the same is true of nations? I am sincerely asking the question, rather than making a dogmatic statement.

There are many problem spots in the world we would label as dysfunctional, whether it be ethnic conflict, corruption, religious friction…and in my simple, naïve, American mind, I wonder why everyone can’t just get along….Knowing that over half of the foreign aid that arrives in Africa falls into corrupt hands and never reaches its destination makes me crazy; Sunni vs. Shiite makes absolutely no sense to me; the refusal of the Myanmar junta to allow relief agencies to help its people in the wake of such a disaster blows my fuses.

I am certain that I never see the whole picture, that no one really sees and understands the full story; but I am convinced that if we look into the past to learn for the sake of the future, we will have more than one “aha” experience. Take Rwanda, which I believe is emblematic of much of Africa: We would better understand the Tutsi/Hutu conflict that engendered the genocide of the 90’s if we knew that the Belgian imperial presence (preceded by the Germans) showed a blatant preference for the Tutsis, thereby setting one tribe against the other. We would have more insight into the Kurdish conflict – and why Turkey is so threatened by them -- if we knew that this is the largest ethnic group in history to have never had its own independent political state. I don’t cite these examples to take sides; just to say that there is always a back story.

This blog is intended not as a monologue, but a diablog! Do other examples come to mind? We welcome your comments.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

A global conversation

Welcome to World to the Wise -- a place for international dialogue in an age of globalization.

It's a new the world shrinks, there are ever-emerging dynamics that create hope, discovery, excitement -- but also enormous challenges and questions. This is a place to exchange ideas and opinions on all aspects of the global experience: travel, culture, business, etc., with a view of promoting cultural understanding and awareness in the 21st century.

I am an American. I have spent 17 years outside the United States, during which time I developed a fascination with the beauty and diversity of the nations of the world. I personally believe that each culture is endowed with God-given uniqueness and strengths, which, when brought to the international table, provide a sumptuous banquet we have only begun to experience.

Rules of Engagement:

Our purpose is not to bash any one country, ethnic group or religion. We welcome your comments -- and you are encouraged to be honest and forthright -- but remember that our end goal is increased awareness as we learn from each other -- both from our mistakes and our successes.
For non-Americans: What is the biggest thing you wish Americans knew or understood in the global arena?
For Americans: What is the single richest lesson you have learned from the international community?
Let the conversation begin!