Gift Ideas that Make a Difference

‘Tis the season of giving! My awesome wife is already done with our family’s Christmas shopping except for the intra-family gifts that we’ll do later. She LOVES Christmas shopping. The challenge and thrill of picking the right present for so many people are one of her favorite parts of the season. Not so for me. It’s not that I don’t like spreading joy to my loved ones with gifts. It’s that I’m not a creative gift-giver, so the prospect of picking just the right gift for lots of people sends my stress level skyward. Will they like what I chose for them? Will they be disappointed if I get them the same thing as last year that they seemed to enjoy? Or is that a cop-out? So I am eternally grateful that my wife loves to shop, which is reason #128,105 that I married the right woman, but I digress…

The one type of shopping that doesn’t stress me out is buying gifts for complete strangers who are in need. Those kind of presents seem to fit the season even better than the other kind. Don’t get me wrong – I love getting presents and giving them to my people, but it just feels right to give good things to those who might not have them otherwise. Every single thing on my Christmas list is a want. Many others list actual needs, needs that you and I can help meet this Christmas.

Borrowing the idea from Rachel Held Evans’ excellent post, here are some gift ideas that will make a huge difference in the life of someone you’ll probably never meet, but who will be extremely grateful.

Quality Coffee to Fund an International Adoption

Quentin and Jessica live in New York and are trying to adopt a little girl from South Africa. The adoption costs around $20,000. They have teamed up with a great little Internet coffee company called Just Love Coffee to raise money for their adoption while hooking you up with tasty java. They sell a wide variety of coffee from numerous countries, including several organic and/or fair trade choices. I just ordered some of the African Skies blend and the Rwandan Coopac. For every bag you order, Just Love donates $5 to help Quentin and Jessica bring their little girl home.

Clean Water for South Sudan

My biggest water is that sometimes I tilt the cup too high and spill something on my shirt. For a huge number of people in South Sudan, the biggest problem is finding clean water. For some, the only available water is muddy and tainted with disease, parasites, and animal waste. For others, clean water is available, but only after hiking several miles carrying a heavy five-gallon jug.

Water is Basic is changing that. By drilling over 400 clean water wells so far, it has provided a new life for hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese. You can help.

Salvation Army Angels

Although I don’t agree with all of its positions, the Salvation Army helps a huge number of people in need every year. One of the biggest way they help at Christmastime is the Angel Trees, a simple plan that matches a child or adult in need (the angel) with someone who can help by buying them clothing, toys, and other items and then delivering them to a local drop-off center. Each year we “adopt” two boys about Brenden and Jonathan’s age and let them help us decide what to get them. It’s one way we’re trying to help the boys focus on giving rather than getting this season.

World Vision Microloans and Gift Catalog

Many of you already know I’m a big fan of World Vision’s Gift Catalog, which lets you purchase unusual but helpful things for people in need such as goats, cows, school fees, and seeds. This year, World Vision has set up a new option as well – a Kiva-style microloan program. You can search for individual entrepreneurs who want to borrow small amounts of money to expand their businesses and raise their quality of life. Many are farmers who want to buy seeds or fertilizer or another animal. Instead of paying you back, the money goes back to World Vision and is loaned out again to another small business owner. Both the gift catalog and the microloan program are great ways to help people climb out of poverty one step at a time.

Ten Bad Assumptions

You know what assuming does, right? It makes an ASS out of U and ME. – My tennis coach

Our world is complicated, full of gray areas, complexity, nuance, and small details that a casual observer doesn’t see or understand. No one can be an expert in everything. If I spend my entire life studying nothing but aviation and business, I won’t have time to become a doctor or a PhD in psychology. When we encounter gaps in our knowledge, we often fill in those gaps by making assumptions based on what we already know. Sometimes it works great. Other times, we can be way off.

This topic holds particular interest for me because I am frequently the exception to many people’s faulty generalizations. I am a man who likes yoga and spas, a former Baptist who drinks, a Texan who votes Green or Democrat, a Dallas native who cheers for the Redskins, a straight guy who supports gay rights, a writing major who dispatches airplanes for a living, and a white guy who likes Ludacris and Snoop Dogg.

Here are some bad assumptions that I’ve seen people make or made myself:

  1. All male flight attendants are gay. Many are, but certainly not all. I work with a happily married, straight guy who started as a flight attendant.
  2. All Hollywood actors are tree-hugging, socialist liberals. Ask Clint Eastwood and his empty chair about this one.
  3. All Christians are pro-life, pro-gun, anti-tax conservative Republicans. Those Christians seems to get the most press (see Franklin Graham and Robert Jeffress for easy examples), but there are also plenty of Christians who are pro-choice, anti-gun, pro-tax liberal Democrats. Both sides use the Bible to justify their positions. Both sides are right. Both sides are wrong.
  4. All airline pilots are male. True, the vast majority are, but a few are not. I would guess that my airline’s pilots are perhaps 4-5 percent female. At work it’s tempting to assume the captain is male, which occasionally leads to awkwardness when I address a female captain as “sir” out of habit instead of “ma’am”.
  5. All fat people are lazy and indisciplined, and all skinny people work out regularly and eat well. Such a gross oversimplification is easy but terribly inaccurate. One’s weight is a product of many factors beyond diet and exercise, including genetics, hormonal status, disease, age, and others that we just don’t understand fully. Some people win the genetic lottery and look good even though they eat terribly and never work out. Others work out like crazy and diet constantly but simply cannot reach their target weight.
  6. All students at ______ University have rich parents. Not necessarily. Many take out massive student loans. Some work part- or full-time to put themselves through school. Some are veterans who are taking advantage of the GI bill. Some get scholarships.
  7. All Americans consider the Christmas season a time of joy. Many Americans follow other religions or no religion and do not even celebrate Christmas. Even among those who do celebrate it, some become sad this time of year. Perhaps they lost a loved one in recent years and feel the loss more strongly now. Some have lost their faith and are reminded of how different their life used to be. Others are struggling financially and are ashamed and angry that they cannot provide the kind of Christmas celebration for their families that they would like.
  8. All Baylor students are Baptists who don’t drink. HAHAHAHAHA. Um, I had friends at Baylor who were Muslim, Catholic, charismatic, atheist, and of no religious affiliation. And yes, some of us did drink on occasion.
  9. All women who have abortions are young and promiscuous. Some are married and monogamous but don’t think they can afford another child. Some have medical issues that make pregnancy dangerous. Some made a one-time mistake and are terrified that someone will find out.
  10. All Christians save sex for marriage. Nope, only about 10 percent, roughly the same as the general population.

Oh, and don’t forget the ever-popular “All the people who disagree with me are idiots.”

You probably noticed the common thread among these bad assumptions: the word all. Each person is unique, a combination of his or her genetics, experiences, thoughts, teachings, and chance. It’s unwise and potentially harmful to generalize broadly about any group of people. Most likely, you can find exceptions to your generalization if you take the time to look deeper. Speaking of tendencies rather than absolutes, using most or some instead of all or none, seems like a better approach.

What are some bad assumptions that you have heard, or even made yourself?

Blog Soup 11/19/2012

Happy Thanksgiving, in case you don’t hear from me again this week. I wish you all mountains of sweet potatoes. With marshmallows. And no nuts. Here is today’s Blog Soup (r).

  • My Baylor Bears have had a disappointing season. When you combine one of the best offenses in college football with one of the worst defenses, you get a mediocre, .500-level team. So this weekend’s matchup between Baylor and BCS #1 Kansas State should have been a walkover for the Wildcats. Apparently, someone forgot to tell the Bears. Our offense took care of business as usual, and our much-maligned defense finally showed up. Final score: 52-24 Baylor, the first time we have ever beaten a #1-ranked team. SIC ‘EM!
  • I’m disappointed by the huge amount of media attention that the General Petraeus affair is getting. Yes, he made a mistake and owned up to it. Yes, affairs are bad news for all concerned. However, don’t we have more important issues to discuss than a guy who was cheating on his wife, even if that man happens to be in a high-level position? It’s like every newspaper in the country has turned into National Enquirer. The French are laughing at us.
  • Also on the Petraeus scandal…although I like to think that I am a strong person with high morals who can resist temptation, I’m only human. As such, I’m very glad that I am fortunate enough to live in the same home with my wife and kids instead of being stationed on the other side of the world for months at at time in a hostile environment. My freedom to do so results largely from the members of our military who volunteered to serve. I can only imagine how difficult a long deployment must be on our military personnel, especially those with spouses and children. A long absence certainly doesn’t excuse cheating, but in my mind it makes cheating easier to understand.
  • It was interesting to see a company (Hostess) cease operations due to a worker strike. Yes, I’ve laughed at the Twinkie memes circulating on Facebook, but the death of Hostess means thousands of people lost their jobs. Apparently the bakers found the struggling company’s contract proposal so unpleasant that the job just wasn’t worth it anymore. If your employer was trying to force pay, benefit, and work rule concessions on you, at what point would you choose to walk out? Would it make a difference if walking out meant burning down the entire company?
  • I can’t remember the last time I ate a Twinkie. I like Zingers, though. My coworkers run an honor-system concession stand in our office called the Recession Concession that sells various snacks and soft drinks. The day Hostess shut down, there was a run on Zingers, and I didn’t get to pick up a final package of them. I’ll bet I could find some on eBay. UPDATE: Recession Concession now has a limited supply of Zingers. Due to the shortage, the price has climbed from $0.75 to $8.00. I call shenanigans.
  • The U.S. government might stand with Israel, but I do not. Most Americans, particularly American Christians, seems to blindly support Israel because they view it as God’s chosen people. I disagree. The Jews might be God’s chosen people according to the Bible, but the modern nation of Israel was created by Western powers after World War II by, in many cases, displacing a people-group that had been on the land for generations. Yes, that is greatly oversimplified, but that’s basically how it went. The displaced people were robbed of their land by the West because they weren’t strong enough to resist. After the initial allocation, Israel gradually seized more of the Palestinians’ land, as shown here. As a result, the two sides have been fighting ever since. Both the Israeli government and the Palestinians have performed terrible acts that could be defined as terrorism. Both sides have rivers of blood on their hands. Yet our government props up one side with billions of dollars, military equipment, and other aid because we think we need an ally in the region. That support is one reason that many Muslim extremists hate our nation. As for the modern nation of Israel’s being God’s chosen people, also note that the nation today is not exclusively Jewish, partly because some of the displaced Arabs decided to stick around. It’s a melting pot, like most countries in a sense. I hurt for the millions of people caught in the crossfire on both sides, especially those who have been injured or have lost loved ones in this senseless, decades-old conflict. I wish our nation were energy independent so we didn’t feel the need to be involved in the Middle East. And I wish our government could understand a simple truth: we cannot fix the Middle East. Want to end anti-U.S. terrorism? Withdrawing all troops and foreign aid from all Middle Eastern countries would go a really long way toward that goal.
  • If the people (not the word I originally used, but I’m trying to be nice) who are petitioning for Texas to secede somehow win, which is impossible without a civil war, Jenny and I would be tempted to move. Likely destinations include Missouri, Washington, or Oregon. The biggest problems would be leaving our friends and family and giving up my awesome job. As tempting as Seattle or Portland might be to me, I hope this doesn’t happen.
  • I downloaded the latest album by British indie-rock band Florence and the Machine called Ceremonials. It is fantastic. You should buy it.
  • On a related note, do people still buy CDs anymore? I don’t buy much music, to be fair, but I really cannot remember the last time I bought an actual CD rather than simply downloading it. It might have been a few years ago when I picked up something on clearance at the Virgin Megastore (remember that place?) at Grapevine Mills.


My sister walked up to the taxi stand in the Las Vegas airport.

“Wheeeeyaah?” the middle-aged woman asked in a thick New York accent.

“What?” my sister, a native of the Dallas area who has little experience with New York accents, replied.

“WHEEEEYAAH?” she repeated, exasperation rising.

“Um, NOW,” my ridiculously awesome sister answered, thinking the woman was asking a different question that was much less logical in those circumstances. Normally, she tries not to be a smart aleck with strangers, but…you know.


“Oh, the Monte Carlo.”

Strong accents seem to be on the decline these days, both according to some articles I’ve read and from my own observation. I recently spent a few days in New York, a place full of people whom native Texans often expect to talk “funny”. However, looking back, I’m struck by how few New York accents I heard. The only one I remember belonged to a pizza maker in a neighborhood restaurant in Manhattan. The only other memorable accent came from two female South African tennis fans. Most people sounded fairly neutral. Now that I’m back home, even though I’ve lived in Texas all my life and come from a line of Texas accents, I still notice the accent when I’m around anyone who has a strong one.

Several factors contribute to this decline in accent prevalence. As our society becomes more mobile and more urban, people are less likely to spend their whole lives surrounded by people who all talk the same way. We move from place to place, from state to state, and even from country to country. Each generation is more likely to live in a large city or metropolitan area that contains people from a variety of places with a variety of different accents, many of which are very slight. We also consume mass amounts of nationally distributed music, film, television, and other media that generally uses a Midwestern-like accent called Standard American or General American English. As the article notes in quoting journalist Linda Ellerbee, “in television, you’re not supposed to sound like you’re from anywhere”. Standard American is becoming the most common accent in our country.

An article in the Austin paper argues that the younger people, especially younger women, are the biggest drivers of this standardization of accent. In some cases, the change is passive, but many people choose to downplay their native accent to blend in. When I’m relaxing with family or friends, and especially when I’m tired, I do speak a bit Texan. However, most of the time I try to use Standard American, such as when I’m at work, on the phone, giving a speech, or doing business with someone. Why?

First, I tend to mumble, so adding an accent to my mumbling doesn’t help. Trying to “talk neutral” forces me to enunciate better, like I learned back in my theater and singing days. Second, right or wrong, some people tend to assume a lower level of education or intelligence in someone who sounds strongly Texan. Unless, I’m deliberately playing dumb, I want credit for the few brain cells I have left. Third, in the same vein, some people make other assumptions about those who sound Texan. I might be from Texas, but I don’t ride a horse to work, live on a ranch, watch Fox News, vote for people named Bush, own an oil well or cowboy hat, or drive a pickup. Many people around here do the same thing when they hear a New York accent, assuming the speaker must be rude, abrupt, standoffish, and liberal.

Accents will probably never completely disappear, but I see no reason why the consolidation trend won’t continue. A strong Texas accent will probably sound a bit more foreign to my boys than it does to me. In some ways that’s unfortunate, as we’re losing some of the regional color that makes our language and culture so interesting. Yet it also provides some advantages, such as making communication easier and reducing our tendency to make assumptions based on how we talk.

Peace, y’all. 🙂

I Volunteer as Tribute

I finally saw The Hunger Games, the spring 2012 blockbuster about a government-mandated contest that pits 24 randomly selected teenagers against each other in a fight to the death on live TV. Think Survivor with no tribes, more clothing, and knife fights instead of Tribal Councils. Those who know both say the book was better. I’ll probably agree once I read it, but I did greatly enjoy the movie and was actually a bit disappointed when it ended.

One thing that intrigued me about The Hunger Games was the notion of sacrifice. The movie opens with a timid, frail little girl getting chosen as a Tribute to compete in the Games against her will. Only one of the 24 Tributes will survive. Knowing her little sister wouldn’t last five minutes, Katniss (played by the excellent Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to take her place. Katniss is a skilled archer and has honed her survival skills in brutal, poverty-stricken District 12, becoming her family’s chief provider and emotional core after the death of her father turned her mother into an empty shell. The odds are against her, yet she goes anyway with no hesitation.

I’ve thought over the years about the notion of dying to protect someone. Millions of people risk their lives to protect others in various ways – police officers, firefighters, Secret Service members, and soldiers, to name a few – but risking my life isn’t part of the job description for a flight dispatcher. So probably the only way I’ll ever need to do that is a freak occurrence such as a mass shooting, a car accident, or a burning house. In the unlikely event that I ever find myself in that position, I’ll need to quickly make a profound decision:

Am I willing to die for this person?

As a younger man, say in my teens or early twenties, if I were honest with you and myself, I think I would hesitate for pretty much anybody. Perhaps I would convince myself to take the bullet or jump on the ticking bomb to save a close family member, but perhaps I would chicken out, especially if we weren’t close. I might rationalize it by saying the person would’ve wanted me to save myself instead because I was still young and had my whole life ahead of me, or by saying they wouldn’t die for me, or by saying it was clearly God’s will for them to die and for me to live. But there’s a really good chance I would save myself. I’m not proud of that, but at least I’m honest.

Things are different now.

I’ve been married for nearly ten years to my best friend and partner for life. We have two wonderful little boys. One of my primary missions in life is to ensure that those three people stay safe and have everything they need. An interesting protective instinct has grown within me, an instinct that I believe can override my own instinct for self-preservation if I ever find them in danger. If some guy pulls out a gun in our church or a movie theater, I’ve already programmed myself with Job 1: protect Jenny and the boys at any cost. Don’t think. Don’t rationalize. Don’t hesitate. Just get between them and whatever is threatening them.

I’m no hero. I don’t have spectacular survival skills or great marksmanship or unusual bravery. What I do have is a mission: ensuring the survival of those three people. It’s actually quite liberating to make other people your primary mission, to love them enough that you know you would die for them without hesitation. It took a while to get here, but I think this is one of the most important parts of growing up.

Water is Life

For years now, Jenny and I have supported Water Is Basic, an organization that drills clean water wells in South Sudan. WIB is an interesting partnership that is making a huge difference there. It’s primarily a South Sudanese organization. They identified clean water as one of their greatest needs. They site, plan, and drill the wells. They use the water. The US partners simply provide most of the funding and some of the leadership. WIB hopes to be self-sufficient within a couple of years. The model works so well, and at such a low cost, that people in other countries see the model’s success and want to replicate it to meet some of their own greatest needs.

To help spread the word about the amazing work of Water is Basic, some supporters produced a 20-minute documentary film called Ru: Water is Life. Jenny and I attended the world premiere Sunday night at Irving Bible Church. Next the producers are entering the film in various film festivals and already got accepted in Florida. The cinematographer was our awesome and talented friend Joel Smith, and the camera work shows his distinctive touch.

RU is a beautiful film that tells the story of a twelve-year-old South Sudanese girl who is the primary caretaker for her family. Three times a day she walks two miles round trip to a muddy, disease-ridden puddle to gather water for her family. She uses a five-gallon jug called a jerrycan that weighs about 40 pounds when full. She must structure her day around these water trips and then hope the water doesn’t make her sick when she drinks it. Despite her difficult situation, she has learned a remarkable resourcefulness that allows her to survive with practically nothing. Even more impressive, she is filled with a remarkable joy that shines through in her beautiful smile. My favorite image waits at the end of the film when the drilling team finally breaks through to the clean water deep beneath the dry Sudanese brush. Like oil from a new well in Texas, the water gushes out at the surface and begins to flow downhill toward the viewer. Nearby villagers watch in wonder. Hope flows like wine at a wedding feast, and a new life begins for thousands.

In addition to the film festival campaign for Ru, the producers and president are also setting up private screenings for individuals, churches, and any other group that wants to learn more about Water is Basic and how they can help change lives in South Sudan. If you or your organization is looking for a way to make a huge impact by providing jobs and clean water for thousands of people half a world away, please visit