A Story of Integrity

4018734c6bfe99ec737ac189752baaebIn a time of relentless presidential campaigning, the word “integrity” often enters the discussion.  It’s not really a word that I grew up with.  When I first heard it, it was in reference to men.  Men of integrity.  And I still didn’t understand exactly what that meant.

My first given definition was “someone who says what he means and means what he says.” For some reason, in my mind, this sentence was always spat out of the mouth of a grizzled, old cowboy. I also came to know it as a synonym for “honest”.  Someone who tells the truth.  Not that my family of origin lacks integrity, but I married into a family of impeccable integrity.  My wife, in particular.  But it’s as natural as breathing for her.  Not for me.  It is a hard-learned behavior.


My definition for integrity didn’t truly crystallize until well into adulthood.  Before I tell the story, I must confess something.  I’ve never revealed my race to you because it hasn’t been relevant, but I am in fact very white. Like, I bought the soundtrack to Juno. I practically had Reality Bites on a loop during college. I eat cream-on-top, organic, grass-fed, yoghurt as a treat WITH the “h”. I researched Oklahoma’s laws on the selling and purchasing of raw milk because I really thought it might help me.  I’m gluten-free as a life-style choice. Ok, continuing.  So, I was working in a predominantly white organization (wow, that sounds bad). By “white organization”, I do not mean I was the IT guy for the KKK headquarters.  I mean I was working in a field dominated by white folks (still sounds bad).  There were only a few black co-

Stop.  Let me first pause to go through the litany that runs through my head EVERY TIME I have to describe someone when their race is an essential component of the story.   As a white person, I don’t know how to respectfully identify the race of someone with African descent. I say “as a white person” because, in a way, it’s easier for black people to speak about their race in terms of labels without upsetting anybody (not easy, but easier).   If I say “African American”, then it doesn’t apply to African Canadians.  If I say “black”, although people know what I mean, it doesn’t seem to fit very well given that no one really has black skin.  If I choose not to identify the person’s race, then this story will not make as much sense.  #WhitePeopleProblems.  Am I right?

(litany continues, because now we have to talk about labels)

All of this struggle with labels in our world!  Our brains need labels.  They are shorthand for creating meaning and understanding of a complex environment.  We’d be in a constant state of confusion (or wonderment) without them.   The problem is that our understanding of our environment is finite. If we depend solely on labels for people, places, and things then we might miss the finer, more essential elements of the object them.

It’s tough to speak in a way that offends nobody and respects everybody.  And as someone who possesses every kind of privilege the world affords, it seems incumbent on me to get it right. My policy, when I can make it work, is to call you what ever you feel most respected by, and for some people that’s simply “Bob” or “Mary” or whatever your name is.  Simplifies things. So, litany over. Whew! (every time folks. e-v-e-r-y time with this litany)

So, this black woman.  She was enjoyable to be around, professional, smart, funny, and kind.  I liked her.  Then, one day I overheard her talking to another black coworker.  It was like seeing her for the first time.  She was expressive and hilarious and free in her speech.  She seemed more at ease in her body.  And in that moment, I felt short changed.  I wanted THAT version of her.

But, for people of color, it’s not that simple, is it.  Over centuries, minorities have been conditioned to speak and act within the confines of a very white environment.  So, I certainly wouldn’t have expected her to do me any favors.

But that is when an idea struck me.  Have I been short changing anyone?  If white people can feel shortchanged, then do black people feel that way as well?  If I’m around a black person, and I change me behavior and speech based on what I think it should be around a black person, would they feel shortchanged?  If I started adding “girrrl!” to then end of my sentences instead of “I know, right?”, perhaps it would even be insulting.  Based on the black comedy trends of the last 30 years, black folks think white folks are hilarious when they’re not being terrible to black folks.  Why would I want to stand in the way of someone’s comedic enjoyment?  When you see those posts that say Stuff White People Like, I ace it EVERY TIME.  I’m a living stereotype.  And I’m cool with that.

I live in a very rural state.  There are many folks around me that you would call “rednecks”.  We all have an idea of what a redneck is.  Blue collar worker.  High school education. White. Guns.  Trucks. Rebel Flag, Heavy accents. Republican/Libertarian.  For many years, I changed my speech around “rednecks”.  I literally dumbed down my speech.  I used poor grammar.  Heavier accent.  Simpler words.  Politicians do it ALL THE TIME.  But how insulting is that?

I’ve been attending AA for awhile now.  Many of the meetings I attend are full of rednecks.  But I am astonished to learn that many of these folks are highly intelligent and very wise.  That’s when I realized how atrocious my behavior had been. By doing what I did, I was calling them all stupid!

But it’s not just that.  I also want people to like me.  There was a time when I would do just about anything to be liked.  And so, given the anti-intellectual climate of my home state, I kept my intellectual range tucked away.  I didn’t want to be pegged as a rich, intellectual prick…especially around a redneck.

But I’ve come ’round.  I can’t really help who I am.  I can’t help that I’m a white, upper middle-class, college-educated, straight, liberal, Christian, intellectual who loves the music of the incomparable Barry Manilow.  Now, understand.  NONE of these things are a point of pride with me.  And if you think that you know me based on these labels, then you’re getting shortchanged by your own limited view of me.  But I am trying to develop integrity now.  Not the kind where if I say I’ll do the dishes, and do them 100% of the time.  That is worth something, but not as much as this.   I’m talking about giving of my honest self, regardless of who you are and what the circumstance.  This is what I’m striving for.  But please continue to like me.

If You Were To Give Me A Penny

I really want to write a blog post today, but I have very few whole thoughts.  Instead, I will attempt to tell you what is on my mind, no matter how fragmented.

Harry Potter


For years, my friends have told me that I needed to listen to the audio rendition of the Harry Potter series as narrated by Jim Dale.  I have read the first four books twice, and the rest once, but I’ve never read all seven back-to-back.  I listen to a lot of audio books using Audible during my one hour commute, which means I can listen to a book every two weeks.

Harry Potter wasn’t released until last November 2015.  So from November to January, I listened to the entire series without interruption.  Jim Dale does an excellent job.  I don’t like all of his voice characterizations, but his Dumbledore is stupendous.

Listening to the books, I was able to break away from the movie actors a little bit and get closer to what JK Rowling was trying to convey.  It really gave me a fresh perspective.  Also, having listened to it all in such a short time span, I was able to appreciate her world-building and story arcs.  There were very few holes, unlike the movies, and the tone was a lot more consistent than in the movies.  I will likely read or listen to the series again and again, but now I’m moving on to something else.

War and Peace

2769211423_33999bc152_bThe epic novel “War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy has been on my bucket list for years.  It is hailed by some as the greatest novel in human history.  However, I confess, I’ve been dreading reading it.  Greatness does not always mean enjoyability.  But I’ve been very pleasantly surprised to find that this book is, in fact, delightful.

Tolstoy’s writing is even humorous at times.  He strikes a tone similar to Dickens.  The biggest complaint I’ve heard of the book is that there are too many characters to keep up with, but having read The Song of Ice and Fire books (Game of Thrones to you non-readers), which also have a crazy number of characters, I feel enough at ease with it.  Besides, the book really only centers around a handful of characters.  I am listening, reading, and studying this work because there are many layers and many foreign elements including period style, French language, and historical events.  I’m using the classic Cliff’s Notes to help me stay on track with the story and characters, and Google searches for the rest.  I’m dedicated to reading this, but I’m also enjoying it immensely.

My Thing With Books

booksOk, I have this thing with reading books.  I feel a sense of misplaced pride when I finish a book, as if this is some great accomplishment that someone would want to hear about.  As if I, in fact, wrote the book myself.  I realize that this is absurd.   Now, some people do enjoy discussing books with people who have read them or people who might read them, but this is different.  It’s like I want some sort of congratulations for reading a damn book.  I don’t really do this with any other form of entertainment, not movies, tv shows, or concerts.  I think it’s that people who read books tend to be very intelligent people, and being intelligent has always kind of been my thing. So it’s really the thing with intelligence.

Intelligence is like money.  We all want more of it. But most of us will not get it.  Which makes it a tricky subject to talk about.  Saying that you have money or intelligence is a big no no.  I feel terribly uncomfortable even writing about it.  It feels immodest.  We can’t help how intelligent we are, and it feels terrible to think that we are not as smart as the people around us.  I know what it’s like to be the dumbest person in the room given my career choice as a software engineer.   And when I started treatment for bipolar disorder, I noticed that the medicine dulled my brain.  I felt like I lost 15 or so IQ points.  A test confirmed that I actually had.  It was miserable.  It was an identity crisis. I felt very defeated by my work.  But with some nutritional tweaking, I’m back to normal…whatever that is.

I come from smart parents (a teacher and a physicist turned preacher) and I’m not even the smartest child of the three Burns boys.  We are the product of smart genes.  And genes really aren’t something a person can be proud of.   A problem with intelligence is that when it is shown off, it is very obnoxious and sometimes hurtful, so I’m working on it in the sense that I don’t want to make intelligence such an issue that it is a central part of my identity.  I do not want to continue being an insufferable know-it-all (as Professor Snape says to Hermione). I’d like to think I have much better traits than that. For instance, I’d much prefer to be thought of as a kind person.  One of the things that helps me gain a perspective on human intelligence is Howard Gardener’s theory of multiple intelligences which identifies seven different kinds of ways of being smart.  If you study it, you’ll see that each person you meet is highly intelligent in one way or another.  So why should anyone be even a little prideful of it?  It makes about as much sense as being prideful about reading a book.  And yet I have struggled.  I blame my mother’s constant praise.  Thanks, Mom!

This picture expands on Gardner’s theory, breaking intelligence down even further into nine.


Talent Show

antelephant300This Sunday is my church’s annual Chili Cookoff and Talent Show.  My choir is responsible for organizing the event.  I confess that I’m not the best at organizing events, but I’ve learned to delegate.  I participated in the talent show last year.  I played a difficult and awesome tuba etude.  I had only played solo tuba in front of an audience one other time.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, so I did not hesitate to accept an offer to play a duet with a young flutist this year.  We will play The Ant and the Elephant.  It is a very idiosyncratic work that I think people will enjoy for it’s unique instrumental pairing, and it’s fun to imagine a relationship between an ant and an elephant!

barry-manilow-manilow-magic-t-348632-290x300But what has occupied my brain is the song I will sing.  Barry Manilow is one of my very favorite artists.  He sings so effortlessly that it’s easy to underestimate his songs.  The tessitura (median range of a song) is high for me and the phrasing requires some mastery of breath support, head voice, and evenness of tone.  There are only a few of his songs that I can actually sing.  I will be singing Weekend in New England, which is a personal favorite.  With a few modifications, I can sing it, but it will take the best of what I can do to really pull it off.  So I practice every day at the piano, in the shower, in the choir.

I don’t sing very often these days, and if I do, it is sacred music.  My church has never heard me sing a love song before.  I wonder how they will respond to watching their music minister sing the words “When will our eyes meet? When can I touch you?  When will this strong yearning end?  And when will I hold you again?”


logo2I started a new job recently, using a technology that I’ve never used before.  It’s a technology I’ve sneered at over the ages:  Microsoft Access.  For fourteen years, I’ve programmed for the enterprise with Oracle, Java, Web, etc.  Access is really a personal database (to be used by a handful of people), as opposed to an enterprise database (to be used by many people).

When I interviewed for the job, I proposed that they move to Oracle and the web.  They indulged my ideas for the interview, but when it came down to actually maintaining the system, I learned that it actually is an appropriate technology for what they are doing.  First off, it does a lot more than I thought it did. Second off, there are fewer than twenty users, and only two or three signed on at any given moment.  Finally, if I made it an enterprise app, the Information Systems Group would want to take it over and I’d be out of a job.

I enjoy working with this technology, but I’m embarrassed when other programmers ask me what I’m working on.  I’m also concerned that having it at the top of my resume timeline could hurt my chances of getting a job in the future.  It’s an inner struggle.  I would not have even taken the job a year ago, but I’m learning to let things go and keep an open mind.  This is a good job.  It pays well.  I’m good at it.  And it is a low stress environment.  Isn’t that all that really matters?

Of course, there are a million other things on my mind most of which are either too personal or too uninteresting to mention.  So I’ll leave you here.



What a 90-year-old Said to Me About His Birthday

blog_small_airplaneI used to attend an early morning all men’s Bible study.  It’s humbling to study the Bible with men of such wide-ranging age and experience.  There was one man in particular who captured my interest.  He had just turned ninety, but he was so spry and mentally sharp.  He was also an active aviator.  Imagine that.  A man who had flown in WWII who was still flying!  After the study, we munched donuts and sipped a second cup of coffee.  I asked him if he had flown on his birthday as he had planned to do.  This is what he said.

People have asked me what it’s like to turn ninety, and all I can say is that it just doesn’t seem like it.  In my mind, I’m not really any particular age at all.  I’ve been a lot of ages, ya know? I guess I’m still all of those ages.  The only time I realize that I’m ninety is in the morning when I shave.  And there it is:  ninety, looking back at me.

Oh, I’ve been flying planes since World War II and it’s not really that big of a deal, ya know?  People ask me what it’s like to be a ninety-year-old flying a plane.   And I just laugh.  It’s not any different than it ever was.  You take off.  You fly around.  You land.  It’s flying.   I don’t do it as often, I guess.  Yes, I did fly on my ninetieth birthday.  I suppose it’s something you can raise a glass to if you like, but it’s just something I enjoy.

Someone made a joke about lust and women and aging the other day.  He said, “Sure, Joe has lustful feelings about women, he just can’t remember what to do with them!”  I suppose it was pretty funny, but I just wish I had thought of something to say in response.  I wish I would have said, “Ya know?  You think you young guys have a struggle with lust?  But see, to a ninety-year-old, ALL women are beautiful and sexy!  All the way from eighteen to ninety-five!  Talk about a struggle!”  But, I’m not as quick as I used be, so I didn’t say anything.

We’re really fortunate, ya know?  My wife and I.  Oh, in four or five years, I suppose one of us will become incapacitated.  That’s just life.  But today, we’re not.  We’re doing just fine.  We really don’t have any worries…or I should say we shouldn’t have any worries.  We wake up and look at each other in the morning, and although we may not always say it, I know that she and I are both thinking the same thing.  Well!  We pulled it off again!  We woke up to another day! And so we live it.

The Languages of Respect

respectWe all have our gifts, and I and everyone in my family have always had a natural knack for getting along with folks who many people find difficult to get along with.  Every work environment has a person who is difficult to work with.  It’s interesting that when you arrive at a new job, folks usually give you fair warning about who that person is, but even if they don’t, it will become very apparent very quickly.

But I’ve always found a way to work well with my coworkers, and I’ve made very good friends with many of these sorts of people over the years.  Recently, I began reflecting on how I do this, and I’ve come to a conclusion: it comes down to respect.

A number of years ago, a book was published which became wildly popular:  The Five Languages of Love by Gary D. Chapman.

It outlines five ways to express and experience love that Chapman calls “love languages”: gifts, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service (devotion), and physical touch (intimacy).


I realized that Respect could fit a similar formula.  Just like Love, most of us need to feel respected, and we all have particular ways by which we feel respected.  What I’ve found is that people who feel frustrated at work and who may be difficult to work with, feel that they are not getting the respect they deserve.

We’ve all encountered a person who is territorial, defensive, constantly complaining about they way they are treated, or constantly trying to prove that they deserve respect.  You try to be respectful, but it just doesn’t seem to help.  My assertion is that you have not taken the time to understand that person’s language of respect.

In one particular case, a person’s language is that they wish their competence to be acknowledged.  They feel that people, for whatever reason, have not given them credit for being competent at their job.  If the person is truly incompetent, then perhaps you’ll have to take another approach in order to form an effective working relationship with them.  But if they truly are competent, then say so!  Look for opportunities to praise their excellent work.

Once a person knows that you respect them, then much of their prickly behavior may subside with you.  And if it doesn’t, because the relationship is built on respect, then a word or two about the behavior can be given without a meltdown.

Other “languages” which come to mind are:

  • Territory.  Acknowledge the parameters of someone’s assigned duties.
  • Opinions being valued and heard.  Some people need to be sincerely listened to and acknowledged that their opinions are valued.
  • Humor being appreciated.  It’s remarkable the effect of giving people a good laugh when they use humor.  Everybody wants to feel that they have a good sense of humor.  Never let someone’s attempt at humor go unacknowledged.
  • Appreciation for service.  Some folks are particularly in need of being appreciated.  Most of us do not enjoy being taken for granted.  Say thank you and say how much you appreciate their service.

These languages can apply to nearly everyone, not just difficult to get along with folks.  Getting along with people you work with or members of your family and social groups is an important life skill.  You may take the attitude that “people are going to like me or they aren’t. it’s not my problem.”  And there’s some truth to that.  I’m not saying that you should change who you are in order to get along with them.  Or suck up to people in an ingenuous way.  I’m saying that respect is a cornerstone of relationships and everybody has a way by which they feel respected.

Then, of course, there are those few people who do not need to feel respected at all in order to manage.  People who are exceptionally self-respecting to the point that they can be happy and amiable regardless of how they are treated.  I know people like this, but they are a rare breed.  But they deserve respect nonetheless!

I’ve yet to meet a person who will not come around eventually.  It may take weeks, months, or years, but in the end, respect will win!

POST SCRIPT:  In looking for an image to head this post, I found a lot of pictures which assert that Respect is something earned, not something given.  Perhaps this is the natural order, but so is violence and territorialism and poverty.  In a loving society (a Christian society, if you wish), respect is acknowledged as a basic human need just as love.  I don’t have to agree with you in order for you to earn my respect.  Do we really have the God given right to judge who deserves our respect?  When we respect someone whom we disagree with or someone who’s behavior is abhorrent to us, we open a door by which understanding and perhaps even change can occur.  I believe that makes the world a better place.