Humor

What Would Dilbert Do?

One day when my oldest son was about 12 years old, I put on my best Pa Walton impression and said, “Boy, there are two things you need to know in the big, ugly world out there. One—it’s all about those standardized tests that come down from New Jersey. And two—for any adult with a job, real life is exactly like “Dilbert.”

For daily readers of The New York Times (which has no comics) , I’ll note that “Dilbert,” named for its pear-shaped protagonist, is set in the engineering department of some sort of computer company. It features the conventional comic strip gimmick of talking animals. For instance, a cat with glasses is the human resources director. But it also depicts the absurdity of life in any bureaucracy—the meetings for their own sake, the pointless training sessions, the petty corruption and pettier tyranny, and the barely-suppressed state of impotent rage that is the lot of the cubicle drone. In short, “Dilbert” may be the great American novel of white-collar life in the information age.

I’ve been a daily reader of the strip, created by Scott Adams, for as long as it’s been around. But it took a while for me to realize how fully it expresses the spirit of our age. From my earliest reading, I had a fondness for Wally, the character who sometimes goes around with a tank of coffee strapped to his back, and who uttered the timeless proverb, “Sadness is just another word for not enough coffee.” But when I started reading “Dilbert,” I was a freelancer, juggling as many part-time and contract jobs as I could scrounge, along with the care of small children. If I had really identified with a comic strip character back then, it probably would have been Lois in “Hi and Lois,” or the father in “Family Circus,” trying to tend his art with a small army of short people running around his knees.

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Sojourners Magazine February 2008
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Playing in Public

I just read Ed Spivey Jr.’s piece about his first public recital (“Seriously, Is This What Hell is Like? December 2007), and I have to say it was inspired. I haven’t laughed so much in a very long time, as there isn’t much to laugh about in this world, but he described his hellish ordeal so well I think he had to be moved spiritually to write it.

For one thing, I never saw “Tchyeah” spelled out, and it should become part of any new publication of American slang dictionaries. For another, when he approached the podium and described it this way—“I’m pretty sure I heard someone whisper ‘dead man walking’ as I passed by”—I actually laughed out loud, and I haven’t done that much lately.

So, what I plan to do is try to find Concerto No. 5 by Friedrich Seitz, the demented German composer, and if there are any CDs out there, to buy and play it so I know what trying to play it on the violin is like. And I’d like Ed to know that I suffered a similar fate in my first piano recital, when I had to play some piece from Madam Butterfly, I think, because it’s all a blur. I have rarely touched the keyboard since, but I would like to, probably for the same reason Ed would like to play the violin. I love music.

Edward R. Schreiber

Saugerties, New York

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Sojourners Magazine February 2008
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The Gospel of Great News!

How was your Christmas? Did you experience God’s endless bounty in this, the greatest nation in the world? Did you gather around the tree in the morning and open all the gifts that Jesus had brought the night before, landing on the rooftop with his eight tiny disciples (or was it 12?), and squeezing down the chimney with his bag of brand-name products made at the North Pole, or at the very least, northern China?

Or am I thinking of Santa Claus? You know, the mythical figure based on Nicholas of Myra, a man of considerable inherited wealth who gave money to the needy. Not much is known of him, except that he probably did not dress in red, did not have cheeks like roses and a nose like a cherry, nor did he have a little round belly that shook when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly. These attributes are what marketing people call “value added” characteristics when something—or someone—is in drastic need of an update.

Take Jesus, for example. As far as we know Jesus went around almost barefoot, a little thin, and spent a lot of time with poor people. I mean, please. Doesn’t sound like Son of God material to me. That’s why, in this season of getting, it might be better to look at a gospel message that’s more appropriate for our current cultural context.

I refer to the new, and much improved, Pros­perity Gospel. It’s the New Testament with a modern makeover, and it’s spreading like wildfire. (Oops. Sorry, California. Sore subject. How about ... um ... selling like hotcakes?)

And who better to explain this new phenomenon than Dr. Norman Robertson—or, if you prefer his formal title, normanrobertson.com—the best-selling author and renowned speaker who thinks that Christians should be rich and, judging by the pinstripe suit and flashy tie in his promotional photos, he practices what he preaches.

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Sojourners Magazine February 2008
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Ride the Curl

Ride the Curl Jesus is cool again! He rides a motorcycle, plays soccer and football, enjoys the occasional rodeo—plus, he surfs! What better reminder that Jesus is with us than a $30 plastic version of him engaged in one of our favorite pastimes? Eric Dyson, president and founder of Fishermen, Inc., wants the figurines to remind people that Jesus is with them in everything they do. It’s not all fun and games, though—there is also a “Homeless Jesus” figurine holding a sign that says, “Will Work 4 Food,” and a “Christian Soldier Jesus” in desert-camo fatigues with a gun and dove. Sadly, the figurines are made in China by the same group of factories that make Mattel toys. Beware: Let not the little children come unto Him.

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Sojourners Magazine December 2007
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Seriously, Is This What Hell Is Like?

After less than a year of violin lessons, I am already reaping the rewards of music training. Before my instruction, I didn’t know the difference between Brahms and Beethoven. Now, as a classically trained musician, I know that Beethoven has more letters than Brahms, not to mention two more syllables.

Despite this newfound knowledge and confidence, I was ill-prepared to hear it was time for my first public recital. This ludicrous suggestion, monstrous in its presumptiveness, was made by a madman who we shall call, simply, The Violin Teacher.

Recovering speech, I asked if “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” played very slowly, would be acceptable for my debut. The fiend turned, a sadistic twinkle in his eye—if, in fact, fiends can twinkle—and placed two pages on the music stand. It was “Concerto No. 5,” by Friedrich Seitz, a German composer who suffered from a unique form of dementia, the symptoms of which include putting excessive numbers of notes on a page and, having done so, putting them REAL close together.

(And what’s the deal with using numbers instead of names for classical pieces? Was Beethoven so exhausted after composing his masterpiece that all he had left was “Okay, the last one was ‘Symphony No. 4,’ so I’ll call this one, um, ‘No. 5’”? Why not something evocative, like “Winter’s Morn is a Breakin’ Over a Mist-Shrouded Lake,” or “My Achy Breaky Hearth”? Or, in the case of Seitz’s “Concerto No. 5,” “Tchyeah, Like You Could Play This.”)

I had six weeks to prepare, six short weeks to come up with the precise medical condition that would, sadly, force me to stay home the day of the recital. “It’s probably the bug that’s been going around,” I would speak into my teacher’s voicemail, unless he picked up the phone, in which case I would breathe heavily, mumble something about cholera, and hang up.

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Sojourners Magazine December 2007
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Changing Environs (sp?)

At least I think that's the word I want. I'm talking about the immediate area around the Sojourners office; specifically, down on the corner, out in the street, where Willy and the Poor Boys have been replaced by a Starbucks, a Kinko's, and a Bed Bath & Beyond. That's right, in what was one of the poorest neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., we'll soon have a Bed Bath & Beyond (which I think is the next Star Trek movie, the one where the Starship Enterprise stops to pick up seasonal patio accessories).

Apparently, in an effort to protect us from terrorist attack, Homeland Security is surrounding us with a protective wall of chain stores, including Best Buy, Staples, and Target. The premise being that in a general state of emergency you should immediately seek shelter, order a latté, and buy a flat-screen television.

Our corner used to be a wonderful hodge-podge of diverse cultures and ethnicities. It had color and vibrancy, and offered experiences vital to a robust urban environment, such as getting robbed at gunpoint. These days, your only risk is being accosted by Cinnabon employees offering samples in front of their new store. ("Absolutely not," I reply indignantly, "I RESENT the way you people are trying to turn our neighborhood into a shopping mall!)

("... Okay, maybe just a taste.")

Where once there was the sound of children's laughter, now there is silence, mainly because the children's mouths are full of cinnamon rolls ("with extra nuts, please").

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Sojourners Magazine September/October 2007
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To the Blogsphere...and Beyond

A number of people have approached me and asked if I am going to start my own blog. Setting aside for the moment how they were able to approach me—since I keep furniture piled against my office door and, as a back-up deterrent, enjoy a sardines snack of a morning—their question gave me pause. After all, many of my colleagues already have their own blogs and post daily thoughts and reflections for the public-at-large or, in most cases, at-small. One excited co-worker recently rushed up to me and exclaimed, "I got 20 hits on my blog yesterday!" Since he showed no signs of physical injury, I presumed this meant 20 people had accidentally stumbled upon his blog and, seeing no pop-up ads to hold their interest, moved on to the more typical tasks for which the Internet was designed, such as shopping for discount flip-flops. (Did you know they make them for prom now?) I quickly moved past him, however, not wanting to encourage a type of "hall-blogging" that I fear could become an unwanted extension of the online version.

I've been observing this phenomenon for a while, watching as blogs have become a part of the "marketplace of ideas" that Oliver Wendell Holmes first mentioned in his classic detective novel The Case of the Tedious Typist Who Wouldn't Stop, Not for Anything. (Or maybe that was Sherlock Conan Doyle.) What I have learned is that blogs—an acronym for Blowing Off Goals—are basically personal diaries that are open to the public. They are places to bare your soul and, depending on the size of your server, photos of you and your soul on vacation. Unfortunately, because of their preponderance on the Web, they clog up my Google searches for flip-flops. On the plus side, however, their relative obscurity makes them unattractive to advertisers, so blogs seldom display pictures of large infected toenails. This is a good thing. (I don't care HOW effective Dermasil is when used as directed; nobody needs to see that.)

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Sojourners Magazine July 2007
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What's In a Name? (Parole if you're good.)

Here at the Sojourners Ethics Desk—with a staff of tireless watchdogs who, while not actual dogs, can't help it if one leg wiggles involuntarily during a nice tummy rub—we keep a keen eye on the nation's government employees, particularly those whose service to the public includes lengthy fact-finding trips inside courthouses and prisons. Lately, it has come to our attention that a pattern has developed in the scandals involving officials, for whom was written the phrase "absolute power corrupts absolutely." (It's also true that "a lot of power corrupts a lot" and "a smidge of power corrupts just a tad." But I digress.) While the charges against them range from influence peddling to lying to a grand jury, each of the alleged perpetrators has one thing in common: A nickname.

The list is short, but substantial: Former top CIA official Kyle "Dusty" Foggo is under investigation for his questionable relationship with defense contractors. Former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham is in prison for steering federal contracts to friends. (He first raised suspicion after naming his new yacht "The Ill-Gotten Booty.") White House aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby was found guilty of giving false testimony to a federal prosecutor. And Robert "Hair-Looks-Fake" Ney was convicted of taking bribes from lobbyists.

Okay, we made up that last one. But sometimes you have to bend the truth to make an important ethical point. (And, no offense, but Rep. Ney does have a look that says to passing lobbyists, "I REALLY like to golf, hint hint. And please stop staring at my hair.")

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Sojourners Magazine May 2007
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Flu Season Greetings

Advent is a season of hope and expectation, a time of waiting: for the Christ child, for prophecy to be fulfilled, for severe muscle aches and a temperature of 104.

This year, depending on your religious beliefs, Santa Claus may or may not be coming to town, but the bird flu definitely is, and it won’t matter if you’ve been bad or good. It will be bad.

Every major international health organization, including our own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (motto: THE SKY IS FALLING!), say that it is not a matter of if a pandemic will sweep the globe, but when. And those of you with the annoying habit of saying “bless you” at every sneeze will be of little help.

The virus started in Asia, where it can be produced more cheaply, and is slowly spreading west, following the ancient trade route established by a dispirited Marco Polo returning from the east with the bad news that his countrymen didn’t, in fact, invent spaghetti. By April the virus could be in Paris, where fashion experts are predicting surgical masks will be all the rage.

Originating as a bird-borne disease, the virus spread first among the chicken farms of Vietnam, where poor farmers lived and even slept in close proximity to their flocks. (Don’t laugh. You sleep with your dog, right? Which, in some Asian cultures, would be like taking a pot roast to bed.) Scientists don’t know exactly how the avian flu virus mutates into a strain that can infect humans (personally, I blame teenagers), but members of the Kansas Board of Education were more confident, proclaiming that its mysterious complexity can mean only one thing: It was created by intelligent design. Turns out, if something’s too complicated to easily understand, it must have come from the hand of God. (I’d like to take this moment to thank God for my Mr. Coffee. I don’t know exactly how it works, but it’s a real blessing in the morning.)

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Sojourners Magazine January 2006
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Decision 2004

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I’ve always wanted my own lawyer. Even though I’ve come this far without one, I still envy people who, with obvious satisfaction, can say, "I’ll see what my lawyer thinks about that." Having a lawyer elevates one’s status in life and suggests a higher level of security than you get with, say, your own plumber, which I do have.

But it’s not the same. Granted, no one would argue that a plumber is, in almost every way, far more useful than a lawyer. But invoking his name after a minor car accident doesn’t quite carry the authority desired. "You think this was MY fault?! Well, you’ll be hearing from my plumber about this!"

Coincidentally, Sojourners doesn’t have a plumber, but it does have a lawyer. Nice guy, I’m told, although I’ve never seen him around the office. And if I did see him, presumably he would not be wearing a heavy tool belt that made his workpants ride low on his hips, exposing more information than necessary while bending down to repair a leaky legal brief, or whatever it is that lawyers do.

Lately our lawyer has been giving us a lot of advice about what nonprofit organizations can and cannot publish during an election year. Sojourners is a 501(c)(3), a federal nonprofit designation which, as I recall, was also the name of that robot in Star Wars. But then Star Wars is a copyright-protected motion picture that our lawyer advises we shouldn’t even mention. (In that movie the robot also had an intimate friendship with a little robot called R2D2. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. And we imply nothing about their relationship, which, according to our lawyer, is also none of our business.)

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Sojourners Magazine October 2004
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