tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Mitch – How could you do that?!

The Mitch Albom situation has the journalism world abuzz. Albom is the Detroit Free Press sports columnist who wrote that two NBA players were in the audience of a Michigan State basketball game when, in fact, they weren’t. Albom turned the story in April 1, the game took place April 2, and the Free Press ran the story on April 3. Albom wrote the story based on interviews conducted days before the game. The guys said they planned to attend the game and Albom wrote about it as if they were actually there. Problem was, plans changed and they never made it.

Albom, of course, is not just any sportswriter. He is a multi-million dollar talent, the author of several books including the best sellers “Tuesdays with Morrie” and “The Five People You Meet in Heaven.” He’s also a musician and a playwright. He has a radio program and is a frequent contributor to ESPN. I have had the opportunity to hear Albom speak on two occasions and I have to say he is the best speaker I have ever heard.

Albom has intrigued me for years, maybe because I have often toyed with the idea that I could be him. We are the same age and we both started out as sportswriters. We both have a wide range of interests, including theater and music. And we have both written books. We both have radio and TV experience. And, like me, I get the sense that Albom has a certain level of eschatological interest. Of course, Albom has juggled all these interests with much more success than I have; he is a superstar while almost no one has heard of me. But that’s okay; I’m glad I am me, and right now anyway, I’m glad I’m not him.

People wonder why he did it. Why did he say Mateen Cleaves and Jason Richardson were in the stands when they weren’t? Sure, Albom thought they were going to be there, but that’s not the same as actually being there. Was Albom so busy with everything he’s got going on that he made a sloppy mistake, or does he simply not care about the details? Speculation is rampant and I am not sure we will ever know the answer. It does seem like an experienced newspaper reporter should be able to handle his workload and deadlines sufficiently to get the basic facts right.

I am not saying that I have never made a mistake; of course, I have. Maybe the reason Albom’s situation has ruffled so many feathers is because he doesn’t really seem all that sorry; he doesn’t seem to grasp the importance of what he is doing. His April 7 apology tries to minimize what he did. He says the basketball players in question were “hardly the thrust of the column” and that getting it right “would have required some weird writing.” I know this much. If anyone is going to accept your apology, you have to really mean it. Albom doesn’t really seem as if he means it.

Ironically, the two times I heard Albom speak, he talked about forgiveness. “Don’t let a grudge come between you and someone else,” Albom said in an October 2002 speech I covered. “Even if you know you are 100 percent right and the other person is 100 percent wrong, just say you are wrong if that is what it takes to mend things up between you.” I think that is pretty good advice and maybe that is what Albom is going to have to do if he wants to mend things with his editors, readers and critics.

Maybe Albom’s editors need to do some soul searching as well. Where were they? Nothing appears in a big-time newspaper like the Detroit Free Press without editors scrutinizing the copy ahead of time. Why didn’t anyone say anything? Why didn’t any editor ask Albom what he was doing?

God bless Nikki Overfelt, the young copy editor at the Duluth News Tribune who caught the mistake and edited the copy to make it accurate in her newspaper. Internet lore has it that she was the only editor at the many newspapers that run Albom’s syndicated column, who caught the error. Every writer, no matter how accomplished, can benefit from a diligent editor.

The Free Press has suspended Albom while it reviews everything Albom has ever written to determine whether he has a pattern of fabrication in his work. I would be surprised if they discover that this is anything other than a one-time incident. Personally, I like Albom’s work and I suspect he will continue to turn out meaningful work most of the time for years to come.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Woody Allen: the master of comedy and tragedy, if you can tell the difference

A good friend of mine laughs when she considers the fact that she only knows two people who really love Woody Allen movies: one is the most politically and socially liberal friend she has, and the other is me, one of the most conservative people she knows. “How is it that two people so completely different can be attracted to the same film maker?” she asks.

I have spent some time pondering that question and I think Allen himself answers it with his latest film, “Melinda and Melinda.” This film gives us one story presented in two different ways –- one is tragic and the other is comic. As a writer, I love this film because it deals with a question that I wrestle with all the time: how do I present the story?

In “Melinda and Melinda,” a group of creative adults is talking around a table in a New York restaurant. They are discussing a story that is tragic in the eyes of one person at the table, but obviously comic to someone else. Australian actress Radha Mitchell plays Melinda (in both versions of the story). She is a dramatic woman who shows up unexpectedly at a dinner party and turns everyone’s life upside down. The story (again, both versions) involves emotion, romance, infidelity, and searches for happiness. The story is both tragic and funny, which says something about the mystery of the human experience.

I laughed at the film because the characters were so incredibly shallow. For example, when one of the characters finds his wife in bed with another man, he is elated because it frees him to pursue a relationship with the woman he has recently fallen in love with. Selfishness is tragic, but depicted in such an extreme fashion, it struck me as funny.

While I watch the film and laugh at its absurdity, perhaps others watch the film and relate to it. Maybe they see real life. Maybe they like this film because it is so accurate. Woody Allen does that, film after film. He tells stories that are absurd, but real. They are funny for their absurdity but tragic for their accuracy.

Allen has made somewhere around 50 films and I have seen probably half of them. His films range from the ridiculous (“Sleeper” and “Bananas”) to spiritual (“Alice”). Perhaps my favorite Woody Allen film is “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” This is a film which brings together a wide range of human experiences: a genuinely good man goes blind while a parallel story depicts a man who commits murder going unpunished. The murderer is a doctor who is lauded by society, while the good man is a rabbi, largely ignored. Allen captures the irony of life so succinctly that I can see where it would attract an audience made up of people from all over the social and political spectrum.

Woody Allen movies, of course, are not for everyone. It you are looking for action and police chases, Allen is not your movie maker. But if you are looking for character studies, films that bring to life human emotion and insecurities, Allen is you guy.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Why Pope John Paul II will be called ‘The Great’

As the world’s Cardinals gather in Rome today to begin the process of naming the next successor to Peter, I can’t help but continue to think of Pope John Paul II. I am convinced that the work he completed during his 26-year pontificate will influence faith-seeking people for decades -– perhaps centuries -– to come. Many people are already calling him “John Paul the Great” and I think it is likely that at some point, that title will be formalized.

One of the main reasons he should be considered great is because of his philosophical approach to revelation. The first theologian to be pope in centuries, John Paul II set the stage for the entire Christian world to look at truth through a new lens. He introduced the use of phenomenology as a way for people to understand their relationship with God.

Since the time of Christ, there have been two great philosophers who have guided Christian thought about its understanding of revelation. The first was Augustine, who died in the year 430. He gave the world a framework for Christian thought based on the Greek philosopher Plato. That approach served the Christian world until the 13th century, when Thomas Aquinas gave us a philosophical approach based on another Greek philosopher, Aristotle. It was an objective, deductive and principled approach to understanding morality.

Seven hundred years after Aquinas, the culture, for the most part, does not think in objective, deductive and principled ways. Having been influenced by 17th century philosopher Rene Descartes and 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant, people today are much more likely to think in terms that are subjective, inductive and experiential. So the Church desperately needed a new way to approach moral theology. Karol Wojtyla recognized this early in his life, and saw the value of using phenomenology for understanding morality.

His idea is that because we are created as images of God, we should be able to learn something about God by studying the image -- in other words, people -- just like you can learn about something by studying its image in a mirror. Our actions, as long as they are not sinful, Wojtyla notes, can teach us something about God, because they reflect God. This provides an experiential methodology for studying morality that is consistent with the way most people in the Western world think and speak.

This philosophy is most evident in Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, which he articulated in a serious of lectures delivered between 1979 and 1984. It is a teaching that deals with marriage and sexuality in a way that no Church teaching has ever addressed those subjects.

In the past, the teaching generally said that God created men and women for lifelong monogamy and people are therefore obligated to live as such. That remains a true description of marriage in the faith, but John Paul II presented that truth in a phenomenological way that is new. He said that we all know what it is like to be used, and none of us like it. We humans -- created in the image of God -- have dignity. We are hurt when our dignity is ignored and we are reduced to being an object.

Because none of us likes to be used, it is obvious that we should never use another human being, particularly our spouse. If we don’t respect our spouse -- using them for our own pleasure or discarding them like a toaster that no longer works -- then we reduce that person to being an object. All people yearn to give and experience true love; as people learn to do that by reflecting on their own experience of what it means to be used, I think more people will embrace God’s plan for marriage and sexuality.

Over the next several years, other writers and philosophers will study and extrapolate from the work of John Paul II. I have no doubt that John Paul II’s approach will make the faith much more understandable and accessible. This is why the title “the Great” can rightly be applied to his name.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Losing a little weight can make a big difference

I have lost 28 pounds since the last day of January. That’s about two and a half pounds a week. When I lose two more pounds, I will have achieved my goal and I hope to keep that weight off for the rest of my life.

In mid January, I was visiting my parents. When my dad opened the front door to let me in his house, his first comment was, “Tom, man you’re big!” I ignored the comment at the time, but it bugged me for days. I could accept the fact that I was a little over-weight but I didn’t think it was so noticeable that it should be the first thing a person thinks of when they see me.

At 5 feet 10 inches, I was 206 pounds. That was about 40 pounds more than I weighed when I graduated from high school –- and my height has not changed since then. I spent a lot of time thinking about that. You always hear about guys suffering heart attacks and dying in their 40s and 50s. Plus, I had had some back problems that I am sure related to excess weight.

I’ve got so much to live for, I thought. My wife and I have four small children; I want to see them all grow up, and perhaps marry. I want to be around to see my grandkids grow up. Maybe I should do something about this extra weight, I thought.

Finally, driving home from church on Sunday morning, January 30, I declared to my wife, in front of all the kids, “Tomorrow I’m joining Weight Watchers.”

So the next day I signed up. There’s a Weight Watchers office less than a mile from my house. They weighed me and gave me a computerized scorecard where I could track my progress. A perky, skinning woman led a half-hour meeting for me and about 30 women suffering from various degrees of excess weight. She explained the program to me, and I stuck to it. I lost 16 pounds in the first 26 days. I have continued to lose weight, although at not so dramatic a pace.

I give Weight Watchers a lot of credit. They have a system where food is assigned a points value based on its combination of calories, dietary fiber, and fat grams. You want dietary fiber, and you don’t want calories and fat. So food that is high in fat and calories generally has a high points value, and food with a lot of fiber generally has a low points value. Initially, I was allowed to eat 26 points per day, plus 35 “flex” points per week divided any way I wanted. I could take all 35 points in one day, so I would theoretically be able to eat 61 points in one day, or I could spread those 35 points out to 5 per day.

As I ate, I recorded my food on a little note pad they gave me. It became obvious to me fairly quickly that I needed to change my eating habits. I used to eat a couple of Pop Tarts in the morning. One Pop Tart is 5 points, and it still leaves you hungry after you eat it. Two Pop Tarts is about a third of the food I would be allowed to eat all day. So I dropped the Pop Tarts. Instead, I switched to one bowl of Wheaties with a cup of skim milk – a filling breakfast for 4 points. Lunches became peanut butter on toast, which is about 6 points. This left me plenty of points for a descent dinner. Sticking with this formula, the pounds melted off.

There are a few things I did to accelerate the process. I committed to the program without the flex points. That means I limited myself to 26 points a day and didn’t bother with the additional 35 points per week. Next, I basically stopped eating between meals. I found that if I paid attention to what I was eating during meals, I was less hungry between meals. And third, I simply eliminated most desert-type sugar –- cookies, cake, brownies, M&Ms, you get the idea.

Perhaps the most important thing Weight Watchers taught me was to pay attention to what I’m eating. It sounds so obvious, but I have to say that my first response to stress or boredom for years has been to eat something. If you actually take time to think about what you are eating, what’s in the food you prepare, anyone can eat smarter. At a result, you feel better and you are less often hungry. They also taught me to think a little about portion size. Most restaurants serve portions that are way too big for the average person. Once I started limiting myself to eating only standard portions, I was well on my way to losing weight.

Weight Watchers also taught me that I don’t have to take a little of everything when I eat at a buffet or at someone else’s house. I used to take a little of everything, almost automatically, but now I limit myself to no more than three things – usually meat, bread and vegetables.

Weight Watchers offers a number of good tips that anyone can benefit from, such as:

Always eat breakfast. Too many people who skip breakfast get hungry mid-morning and end up eating more than they would have had they eaten soon after they got out of bed.

Drink lots of water. Often, people mistaken thirst for hunger and eat when a glass of water was all they needed.

Don’t ever drink regular pop. A can of pop is just 150 empty calories. Get the same thirst-quenching benefit from a can of diet pop, or better yet, drink water.

Never eat after dinner. While you sleep, your body should be burning fat, not your late-night snack.

Don’t put butter on anything. It is amazing how many useless calories you add to your diet by buttering your sandwiches, rolls, waffles, pancakes, etc. Most of the time, the food tastes just as good without the butter.

I learned all of these things while attending Weight Watcher’s weekly meeting. I am always the only man at the meetings, and I don’t really like that, but I live with it. Where are all the guys? Maybe they are at a different meeting, but I suspect they have a harder time acknowledging the need for help with weight loss.

At the meetings, people talk about the past week -– what worked for losing weight and what didn’t. Often, I am struck by how lame some people sound in the face of temptation. “I didn’t lose any weight this week because I couldn’t walk past the candy dish at work,” or, “I went on a cruise where the food was all-you-can-eat,” or “It was Valentine’s Day and there were a lot of chocolates around.” People in the meeting always nod in understanding, but I am always thinking “Do you want to lose the weight or don’t you?” These meetings are teaching me what a big temptation food is for some people.

One time the meeting leader asked people to share suggestions for resisting temptation. People talked about going to bed early instead of staying up late and eating, or bringing your lunch to work instead of going to McDonalds. I know for me the answer is making the goal part of a larger goal. Losing weight, by itself, isn’t much of a goal. Sacrifice, after all, is giving up something good for something better. For me, the goal is to live a healthy life so I can be there for my children and wife into old age. Weight loss is one way I plan to work toward that goal. I am giving up something good (brownies and M&Ms) for something better (a chance to see my grandkids). I would be a hypocrite if I said I wanted to be there for my kids but ate 4,000 calories in junk food every day.

God willing, I have a lot of life ahead of me; the least I can do is get in shape to make the most of it.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Bush-Blair relationship reflective of WWII era

President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have forged a unique relationship since the 9-11 attack, three and a half years ago. Given the war on terrorism, the President would say we are in wartime, which makes it easy to think of another great Anglo-American relationship forged during wartime – the friendship between President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during World War II.

Jon Meacham, the managing editor of Newsweek magazine, has chronicled the relationship between these two world leaders in a best selling book, “Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship.” Meacham spoke about two months ago -- on President’s Day -- at a business meeting I attended. His description of the friendship affirms a truly unique, long-standing relationship between the British and us Americans.

Meacham explained that Roosevelt and Churchill were unusually close during the early 1940s, spending 113 days together during World War II, and exchanging more than 2,000 letters. When Churchill became Prime Minister on May 10, 1940 it was not at all obvious that the United States should help out Great Britain in the war effort. U.S. Gen. George Marshall advised against it, as he was terrified that any weapons and armaments sent to England would be used against us if the country fell to Germany. Eighty percent of Americans at the time did not want the United States to get involved in the war. The U.S. army was only the 15th-largest in the world then.

Both men admired each other’s courage. Meacham said that in 1933, “Churchill wrote a speech in which he expressed admiration of Roosevelt for his courage to overcome polio. FDR was struck down at the age of 39. He woke up one morning after an active day with the children and he never walked again, except by forcing himself with braces. Churchill hugely admired courage. So Churchill felt that if he showed courage, Roosevelt would reciprocate. And he was right.”

Under siege of attack, Churchill kept saying England would fight until the end, that the country would never surrender. Even if its people had to starve, England would carry on.

“They exchanged a letter every day of the war,” Meacham said. “The emotion of these letters drips all over the page, with Churchill begging and begging. ‘England will never give in, but we need this, we need that.’ He was asserting his strength, but communicating the grave consequences of not getting what he needed.”

Roosevelt and Churchill were very divisive characters in their respective countries. “About 46 percent of the country hated Roosevelt,” Meacham reminded listeners. “Anytime you take a country to a place where it has not been, to a place where it is not comfortable, where people don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, there is a backlash.”

But Meacham said the two leaders were confident. They firmly believed they were the right people to lead their countries at that time, and they were resolute in their course. “Churchill and Roosevelt had clarity about their own roles, their nation’s roles and how to get there,” Meacham said.

Meacham quoted from an October 1944 speech FDR delivered, which sums up Roosevelt’s idea of the role of the United States on a world stage:

The power which this nation has obtained, the political, economic, the military and above all the moral power, has brought to us a responsibility and the opportunity for leadership in the community of nations. In our own best interest, in the name of peace and humanity, it cannot, must not and will not shirk that responsibility. But we should not swagger. The kind of world order that we, a peace-loving nation, must achieve must depend essentially on friendly human relations, on acquaintance, on tolerance, on unassailable sincerity, and goodwill and faith. Humility is essential. We are not fighting for, and we shall not obtain, a Utopia. Indeed in our own land, there is work to be done and we will never finish. We have yet to realize the full and equal enjoyment of our freedom. So embarking on a world fellowship, we have set ourselves a long and arduous task -- a task which will challenge our patience, intelligence, our imagination, as well as our faith.

About a year earlier, Churchill praised the United States as the world-leading power, and articulated the consequences of such a position:

Why has this responsibility fallen to America? I will offer you one explanation. The price of greatness is responsibility. The people of the United States that continue at a mediocre station -- struggling with wilderness, absorbed in their own affairs, and factor in no consequence in the movement of the world -- might remain forgotten behind their protecting oceans. But one cannot rise in many ways to the leading community of the civilized world without being involved in its problems, without being involved in its agonies, and inspired by its causes. (Bold added for emphasis by me.)

Meacham commented that Churchill loved the United States and that he believed that Britain’s role in the new world would result in more power for the United States and Europe.

One cannot miss the point that Bush and Blair share many of the sentiments that their predecessors shared some 60 years ago.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Nine reasons Pope John Paul II will continue to inspire me

I have never felt so much sorrow over the death of a man I never met. Pope John Paul II passed from this earth on Saturday and I cried a little when I heard the news. Of course it was expected, but the death of a loved one always hits you like a ton of bricks. John Paul II, however, was about life, not about death. He was a great inspiration to me, and will continue to be. Here are nine ways this magnificent man inspires me.

First in my mind is the fact that he was a writer. He was prolific, cranking out books and 14 encyclicals throughout his 26-year pontificate. I just finished reading his delightful memoir, “Rise, Let Us Be On Our Way,” the book published last year in which Karol Wojtyla shares his thoughts on being a bishop in Poland. I will have to re-read some of his great works, such as “The Splendor of the Truth,” and “Faith and Reason.” His work is empathetic and logical – an incredible recipe for persuasion. He was a poet as well which, as a fellow writer, I can appreciate. He recognized the beauty of words and language, and he cared about the way words sounded and fit together. Although the message was always important, I am sure he appreciated the process of writing well. He was truly a writer's writer.

Second, he was so international. The most-traveled pope in history could speak two-dozen languages. My wife and I heard him greet people in many of those languages during a public audience in spring of 1994. I found John Paul II’s international aura to be inspirational. Although Americans travel, we are not particularly an international people. We think of our own country first and barely ever think of other countries. Most Americans probably can’t name more than a dozen countries. Pope John Paul II visited 129 of them. John Paul reminded me that the man in Cairo or the woman in Teheran are as much my brother or sister as the man in St. Paul or the woman in Rochester. When we watch all the political nonsense on television, especially during the campaign season, it is nice to remember that we are first subjects in the Kingdom of God, then citizens of the United States.

Third, he understood forgiveness. He forgave the man who tried to kill him, and he asked forgiveness for the past faults of the Church. It takes humility to seek forgiveness, but the Pope was a humble man and it gained him so much credibility. The word “pontiff” means “bridge builder,” and Pope John Paul II built many bridges. He reached out to the Jewish people, and people of all faiths, by asking forgiveness. It is difficult for me to judge, but my sense is his sincerity and humility did make a difference. There has been forgiveness and healing in the last two and a half decades – more so than in many previous years. Christ said: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3). To be poor in spirit means to be humble. John Paul II inspires me to try to be humble.

Fourth, he worked hard, right up to his last days. In America, nearly everyone is looking forward to retirement at age 65 or sooner. But Karol Wojtyla didn’t even become pope until age 58 (young by pope standards) and his life’s best work came while he was in his 60s, 70 and 80s. This is very inspiring to me, to know that I have my whole life to do good work and that my best work may well be ahead of me. I sure hope it is.

Fifth, he brought clarity to the church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality. While many people were afraid to deal with the 1968 church document that addressed birth control, Humanae Vitae, John Paul II dealt with it right away. From 1979 to 1984, he delivered a series of talks that has become known as his “Theology of the Body.” He very articulately describes the dignity of the human person. Nobody wants to be reduced to an object; nobody wants to be used. John Paul II understood that and helped people to see the beauty of true love, which for spouses involves total gift of self.

Sixth, he is an inspiration because he survived such a difficult upbringing. He lived through the Nazi occupation of his homeland. And his parents and only brother and sister were all dead by the time he was in his 20s. Karol Wojtyla had every excuse to be angry at the world, to claim that the world owed him something. But he rejected that path and gave back to the world -- big time. He turned those negative experiences into powerful assets. His experience with the Nazis helped him bring down communism.

Seventh, he gave us the “Catechism of the Catholic Church.” This is one of the most valuable books in my family’s library. This book is so much more thoughtful than the catechism my parents grew up with. And it certainly beats not having any catechism, which was the situation so many people faced from the 1950s to the 1980s. My experience is that most people want to do the will of God. They may not articulate their desire as such but, in fact, that is their desire. They just need someone to tell them what that means. They need some direction. The Catechism gives us that direction.

Eighth, he loved young people. Kids have a lot of pressures on them. In many ways, the odds are stacked against today’s young people. Corporate America sees them only for their buying power. Many older folks have given up on young people as disrespectful, faithless, selfish or worse. But not John Paul II. He loved young people and reached out to them. World Youth Day was one of John Paul II’s great contributions to the culture. I know many people who have been inspired by the events in Denver or Toronto or Paris. My only regret is that my own children were too young to attend any of these World Youth Day events, but they will attend them when they are ready, and surely the spirit of this great pope will be there.

And ninth, he showed us how to die. Although he suffered in his dying days, John Paul II did not complain. He did not shy away from people, but continued to reach out to them. It is reported that in his last hours, with thousands of people gathered in St. Peter’s Square outside his apartment window, he said: “I am happy and you should be too. Do not weep. Let us pray together in joy.” It was a cue that he took from Christ himself, who told the women of Jerusalem on the way to His crucifixion not to weep for Him (Luke 23:28). Even with the tube that was inserted through John Paul's nose in his last days, this was a dignified death – not so much because of what was surrounding him, but because of what was inside of him – the same peace and joy Karol Wojtyla wanted us to know from the moment he became Pope John Paul II in 1978 and declared to the world: “Be not afraid.”