Tuesday, August 25, 2015

On religion: Finding spirituality through nature

Peaceful summer morning / Stanley Park, Vancouver, B.C.

Summer vacation is a time of the year when many of us take advantage of our beautiful natural resources. We enjoy escaping urban environments in favor of wide open spaces. 

It should come as no surprise, then, that our beaches, lakes, hills and mountains provide us with a much-needed respite from our busy, fast-paced lives.

However, one thing I recently learned that may come as a surprise to you is this: Nature may have a profound effect on our religiosity. 

Golden Gate Bridge /
San Francisco, California.
In an NPR "Cosmos & Culture" commentary penned by Barbara J. King, which I recently read on the NPR website, she noted that in U.S. counties with warm winters, temperate summers and beautiful natural resources -- sounds to me like she's describing the San Francisco Bay Area -- "people's rates of affiliation with religious organizations are lower than in other places, according to a new study."

Fountain Lake /
Albert Lea, Minnesota.
King is an anthropology professor at the College of William and Mary who often writes about human evolution, primate behavior and the cognition and emotion of animals. In her commentary, she cited a study by Todd W. Ferguson and Jeffrey A. Tamburello of Baylor University in Waco, Texas, who wrote in the journal Sociology of Religion: "Natural amenities can be considered as a resource for spirituality that has the power to satisfy some people's need for inspiration, awe and divine connection ... 

Mount Rainier / On a clear day,
you can see it from Seattle.
"When a person hikes in a forest to connect with the sacred, she or he may not feel the need to affiliate with a religious organization because her or his spiritual demands are met." 

Imagine that! God is competing against Mother Nature on Sundays for our spiritual attention.

King writes: "Worshipping God, affiliating with a religious organization and experiencing a sense of spirituality may all overlap -- but certainly they're not the same." She asks: "How do the Baylor researchers distinguish these dimensions, and how did they measure an area's natural resources?" 

Allium summer flowers.
Good food for thought, definitely, and King seeks to answer these questions through breaking down what the Baylor researchers have written in their study.

Granted, not everyone who we see outdoors soaking up nature -- whether it be absorbing sunshine at the beach, jogging around a city lake, hiking through foothills or climbing mountains -- is communing with the sacred. 

However, I think it's pretty cool to know that it's a spiritual experience for us to encounter the sacred in nature.

All photographs by Michael Dickens © 2015.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Is Amazon's company culture innovative or punishing?

Amazon / More than just a dot.com that sells books and music.

The play story on the cover of Sunday's print edition of The New York Times, "Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace" by Jodi Kantor with help from David Streitfeld, has grabbed the nation's attention and lit up social media, but not necessarily for all the right reasons. According to Kantor, Amazon is conducting an experiment in how far it can push its force of white-collar workers in order to get them to achieve its ever-expanding ambitions.

Amazon is the U.S.'s biggest retailer with a market capitalization of $250 billion -- bigger than Wal-Mart and Target -- and most of us know this dot-com powerhouse from being consumers. Indeed, they've come a long way since being just an online retailer for books and music. Now, it's possible to buy over 20 million items -- from Amazon's Kindle to digital cameras to even toilet paper -- and if you're willing to pay the price for Amazon Prime, you can have it delivered the next day.

Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos
Part of the success that Seattle-based Amazon has enjoyed starts with its founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, who is the fifth-richest man in the world -- yes, the world. According to Kantor, part of Bezos's success can be attributed to his inventing a way to get the most out of every employee. Yet, while some may look at his management style as draconian, others consider some of the data-driven tactics and practices coupled with the passive-aggressive work environment he's promoted at Amazon as innovative and fascinating.

One thing's for sure, Amazon has a reputation for having hard-working employees. "They do pride themselves on being a tough culture," said Kantor on Monday in an interview with American Public Media's "Marketplace" program, which aired nationwide via NPR. "You know Bezos tells people 'This is a culture of working incredibly hard.' They use the phrase 'unreasonably high' to describe their standards and expectations."

According to Kantor, who interviewed current and former employees over the past six months which included several executives, employees value a lot of aspects about Amazon, including the fact that "it's a culture of innovation, there isn't a lot of red tape, relatively junior people can have a lot of responsibility." However, in reading her damning Sunday story in The New York Times about Amazon's company culture, it came across to me -- and I'm sure was noticeable to everyone -- that Amazon's employees are being hurt by the harsh company culture. "I found that in most of our interviews, we were talking to people who really loved aspects of working for the company, but they were struggling with this kind of punishing culture," she said during her "Marketplace" interview.

Among the practices which Kantor cited that upset Amazon employees included how team members had to compete with one another. "Team members are ranked against each other," said Kantor. "It's a very competitive atmosphere." Yet, because of this, it has morphed into an uncomfortable working environment. Imagine, because of this particular directness, it's possible to send secret negative feedback about your peers to your peers' bosses. While the bosses see who it's from, other workers are not privy to this information.

On Monday, Mr. Bezos responded to The New York Times article about Amazon's uncompromising attitude and hard-hitting management style, saying "I don't think any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today's highly competitive tech hiring market."

In a letter to Amazon's 180,000 employees, Mr. Bezos added: "I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company.

"But hopefully, you don't recognize the company described. Hopefully, you're having fun working with a bunch of brilliant teammates, helping invent the future, and laughing along the way."

It became very apparent from reading Kantor's article that work-life balance -- the "Amazon way" that promotes climbing the wall after you've hit the wall -- skews towards employees who rank their work life more important than their personal life. Amazon, by all accounts, has perfected a balance between pushing its employees to the brink -- driven to tears amid a climate of fear -- while making sure they haven't hit their breaking point.

I can imagine Amazon employees asking themselves the following questions: "Is this right for me? Do I really want to work this way?"

Where do you draw the line?

If anything, after reading The New York Times article, I hope it brings the debate about workplace culture into the open and starts a public discussion about Amazon.

Listen to Jodi Kantor's "Marketplace" interview:

Read the New York Times article:

Photos and images: Courtesy of Google Images.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Quality of Life: Naming the best places to call home

No. 1 Tokyo / Provides great quality of life for those who live and visit.

"What makes the good life and where can we find it?" asks Monocle, the global affairs and culture magazine that's published in London. While great cities adapt and change like their residents, it's worth asking: How do we create cities that deliver quality of life for everyone?

Stanley Park / Vancouver, B.C. 
It's no secret that the best cities in the world are ones which are vibrant and offer the best quality of life for their residents. The best city environments are those which are tolerant and open-minded, celebrate diversity, have great universities and welcome creativity. Having quality independent bookshops, green spaces and clean streets as well as efficient transportation systems are big pluses, too.

In summer 2007 when the magazine was still just a few months old, Monocle launched its inaugural Quality of Life list, naming the best global cities to call home. Munich was the first No. 1. Over the years, its added new metrics that take into account both intangibles and infrastructure which have led to some dramatic changes and brought about a new world order. While London, Paris and Rome remain three of the biggest tourist destinations in the world, their popularity doesn't necessarily translate into great places to live.

Place de la Concorde / Paris
"Now we know we are not the only people to draw up a ranking of great metropolises but ours is different," writes Monocle editor Andrew Tuck, in the preface to this year's Quality of Life list. "For a start we ensure that we are not just looking at data about the quality of education or the cleanliness of the streets but also the softer elements that inspire you to make a city your base: cinemas, bars, opening hours. And while much of our survey is pretty data-driven we are happy to say that a good amount comes from the views of our correspondents and editors. And it is also tilted to our readers' needs; we know, for example, that while that Alpine city is cute it's also woefully disconnected and lacks even a modest airport -- so it's not in the running for us."

This year, Monocle also took into account another annoyance: "cities where the cost of living prohibits old bookshops from staying in business or young entrepreneurs finding a start-up space." I guess that's why San Francisco didn't make the Top 25 and Portland, Oregon did.

So, when the ninth annual Quality of Life list was published in Monocle's July/August issue, a new number one emerged for 2015 -- say hello to world No. 1 Tokyo.

On Tokyo, Monocle wrote: "A new and worthy winner. Monocle has made little secret of its love for Tokyo through the years and it does something no other global city can: provides great quality of life for those who live and visit. London and New York, take note.

"Tokyo has appealed to many outsiders and for many different reasons: its cleanliness, tolerance, politeness and difference, as well as its sheer scale, which has always allowed foreigners to bathe in comfortable anonymity. ... It was recently identified as the world's safest city, a stereotype that residents can happily attest to. ... At the heart of this unexpected sense of security is Tokyo's defining paradox: its heart-stopping size and concurrent feeling of peace and quiet."

Powell's City of Books / Portland, Oregon
Monocle asked its contributors, which included architects, chefs, writers and directors, to consider what draws them to their favorite cities and what quality of life means to them.

"Quality of life is ... simple pleasures," wrote Mari Shapiro, founding director of Protocinema, which creates contemporary-art exhibitions. "What makes life good is simultaneously a very simple and complicated question. It is about being in a city that allows you to do or have what makes you happy. Ultimately, this issue often comes down to class and economy and the cities with the best quality of life are those in which the basic pleasures -- to be safe, to have the time to enjoy food, to be engaged with culture, with friends and family -- are available to people of any means. At the top of my list is Istanbul: a strong cay or a grilled fish for a few lira by the Bosphorus is available to anyone."

Bloemenmarkt / Amsterdam 
One thing Monocle hopes, as in previous years, is that the Quality of Life list provokes a stimulating and lively debate.

At the very least, for me, it's always interesting to pour over the list and see how many of the cities I've visited in person -- six (Vancouver, Helsinki, Copenhagen, Paris, Amsterdam and Portland).

Here is Monocle's 2015 Quality of Life ranking of the top 25 cities in the world:

  • 1. Tokyo
  • 2. Vienna
  • 3. Berlin
  • 4. Melbourne
  • 5. Sydney
  • 6. Stockholm
  • 7. Vancouver
  • 8. Helsinki
  • 9. Munich
  • 10. (tie) Zürich and Copenhagen
  • 12. Fukuoka
  • 13. Singapore
  • 14. Kyoto
  • 15. Paris
  • 16. Madrid
  • 17. Auckland
  • 18. Lisbon
  • 19. Hong Kong
  • 20. Amsterdam
  • 21. Hamburg
  • 22. Geneva
  • 23. Oslo
  • 24. Barcelona
  • 25. Portland
To watch a film on the Monocle Quality of Life Survey 2015:

Photographs: Tokyo - Google Images; Amsterdam, Paris, Portland, and Vancouver by Michael Dickens © 2012 and 2015.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

A vacation journey: In omnibus glorificetur Deus

Saint John's University Abbey Church in Collegeville, Minnesota

Last Tuesday, during the fourth day of our week-long midwest vacation visiting family, my wife and I decided to pause during our long, six-hour drive from Fargo, North Dakota to Albert Lea, Minnesota for a chance to rest and reflect. We detoured off Interstate 94 at exit 156 and drove our Chevy Malibu rental car a short distance to the campus of Saint John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota. It was the first time I had seen the Saint John's campus in all the years I had been living in or visiting Minnesota, and the walk we shared over the next half an hour exploring the architecture and common spaces, including the Abbey Church and Great Hall, was most enjoyable. 

While there, at exactly 4 o'clock, we heard the five bells of the Abbey Church sound the afternoon hours -- they broke the quiet solitude felt across the campus -- which made our sense of mission on this cloudy afternoon all the more worthwhile. 

Saint Benedict / He led a monastic life
and became a patron saint of students.
The Abbey and the University are both rich in history. First, Saint John's Abbey, a Benedictine monastery affiliated with the American-Cassinese Congregation, was established in 1856 following the arrival in the area of monks from Saint Vincent Archabbey of Labtrobe, Pennsylvania. They settled on the banks of the Mississippi River in Saint Cloud. 

Their purpose, I learned, was to provide parishes, missions and schools for immigrant German Catholics. 

Saint John's Preparatory School, University and Seminary all began on November 10, 1857, when Cornelius Wittman, monk of Saint John's, began instructing five students -- yes, just five students -- in the classic liberal arts. 

The university is Minnesota's oldest continuous institution of higher learning. Early in the 1860s, the monks left Saint Cloud for the present-day site of Saint John's, in Collegeville, on land known as Indian Bush. Today, the campus covers approximately 2,700 acres of forest, lakes, prairies and wetlands.

The Abbey Church, the focal point of the campus, was designed by the modernist Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer and built between 1958 and 1961. It is made of concrete and is faced on the outside with local granite. I learned that the board forms were oiled before the concrete was poured so that the finished interior surface would show the grain of wood.

The Bell Banner / The five bells are dedicated to:
 the Holy Trinity, Mary the Mother of God, the Guardian
Angels, Saint John the Baptist, and Saint Benedict.
Dominating the front of the Abbey Church is the Bell Banner, which is 112 feet high and 100 feet wide. It holds aloft the cross, which is the sign of Christian salvation "and boldly announces the Church." The cross is fabricated of white oak from local forests. The banner reflects the sunlight into the north façade and holds the bells, which replaced the bells from the old Abbey Church in 1989. At that time, Abbot Jerome Theisen "baptized" the bells and dedicated them to: the Holy Trinity, Mary the Mother of God, the Guardian Angels, Saint John the Baptist, and Saint Benedict. The largest of the bells weighs four tons and 30 pounds.

Visually, the Abbey Church expresses the entire family of Saint John's -- its monks, the students as well as staff, parish, friends and guests -- as they gather in worship around a single altar. It was consecrated more than 50  years ago in 1961. Now, four times each day, the monks and their guests gather in the Abbey Church for the celebration of Morning Prayer (7 a.m.), Midday Prayer (Noon), the Eucharist (5 p.m.) and Evening Prayer (7 p.m.). 

The Great Hall / Built in 1879, it served as the
original Abbey Church until 1961.
The Abbey Church replaced the Great Hall, a Romanesque structure that was built in 1879 and which served as the abbey church until 1961. Inside, the mural of Christ in the apse is a focal point of the Great Hall. It was painted by Clement Frischauf, a monk of Saint John's, during the last renovation in 1938. I learned that it is one of the foremost examples of Beuronese art in the U.S. There is also stained glass windows, installed when the building was completed, which depict symbols from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures as well as images of men and women Benedictine saints. 

The Great Hall is now used as a greeting and gathering place as well as a performance space for social, religious, educational and artistic functions.

In researching the history of Saint John's University, I learned that since 1856 the university has produced its own coarse-grained bread, known as "Johnnie Bread," and uses the proceeds to fund projects such as the Abbey Church. It is also the home of the famous Saint John's Bible. Each year, people come from around the world to visit the campus to see its pages on display in the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library.

Inside the Great Hall / The mural of Christ is not only a focal point, it is
also one of the foremost examples of Beuronese art in the U.S.

As for Saint John's University, it is comprised of a liberal arts college for men, a graduate school of theology for men and women, and seminary for priesthood candidates. Academically, the college is in partnership with the College of Saint Benedict in nearby Saint Joseph, just four miles from the Saint John's campus. Students attend classes and activities together, and have access to the resources of both campuses.

Together, the two schools have a combined undergraduate enrollment of about 4,000 students. The joint faculty consists of about 350 professors, mostly full-time, permanent appointees.

Near the end of our walk on the Saint John's campus, we strode across the Quadrangle. On the west tower are the initials I.O.G.D. carved in yellow brick. They stand for an ancient Benedictine motto, taken from the Holy Rule of Saint Benedict: In omnibus glorificetur Deus -- that God may be glorified in all things.

All photographs: © 2015 by Michael Dickens.