Monday, March 30, 2015

Robo Cars are Coming

Over the past couple of years I have become increasingly intrigued about the future of the self driving automobile. Since I wrote this Sept. 2012 post on the subject, robo car technology has come a long way. They now have self driving vehicles that can satisfactorily handle the vast majority of real life traffic issues better than human drivers can. Human error is, after all, the most significant factor in nearly all automobile crashes.

While many car manufacturers are working hard on driverless technology, they know that adoption will take time. Attitudes have already changed a lot in the past couple of years, but people are going to have to get far more used to the idea of driverless cars than they are today.

For this reason, car manufacturers are releasing the technology piecemeal as driver assist features, mostly in high end vehicles. A number of car models now offer parking assist where drivers take their hands off the steering wheel in parking lots as the car finds a spot and safely steers the vehicle into the spot.

Right now the driver has to operate the gas and brake pedals, but that's only because manufacturers are worried that people aren't yet comfortable enough with the idea of the car completely parking itself while the driver touches no controls. These parking systems are far more reliable in avoiding parking lot collisions than human drivers.

As has been the case with many other features on cars, driver assist features will trickle down the line into mid-range and eventually economy vehicles. A steady stream of new features will ease drivers into the whole driverless paradigm. Instead of being fearful of the new technology, people will welcome each new advance.

Most people will hardly recognize the slide from a car completely operated by a human to a car that completely drives itself. They will simply find themselves relaxing and paying attention to what interests them, only occasionally recalling the stone ages when they had to pay attention to traffic conditions moment by moment.

The advancement of driverless technology will necessitate changes to our legal structure. Moreover, in the future as more driverless cars pervade the roadways, I suspect that we will begin to see infrastructure changes. Roads and intersections will be built differently in response to more efficient traffic patterns.

I theorize that this shift will also change the American love affair with automobile ownership. While Americans do love the freedom and status that come from car ownership, I see room for that to change. I like being able to go out and hop in my car and go where I want to go whenever I want to go there. But what if I could do all of that without having to pay to own a huge chunk of metal that spends the vast majority of its time parked?

This KSL article reports on a study that suggests that there could be great benefits to driverless taxis. In my mind's eye I foresee a day when there are actually fewer cars because many people will give up owning their own cars in favor of being able to get a car to take them where they want to go whenever they want to go there.

Parking lots will diminish in size as pick-up/drop-off zones increase in size. Many of these zones will offer features like being covered to keep passengers from having to deal with inclement weather. Companies that own and operate taxis will not have huge parking lots because their cars will be out on the roads much of the time. These companies will have maintenance centers where the cars come as scheduled or when they detect an issue.

I fully expect that there will be several strata in the driverless taxi industry. You will be able to ride in a high end limo, in a low end dive where the seats and floors haven't ever been cleaned, or in a variety of mid-range offerings, all conforming to price range.

One of the things that will drive the adoption of driverless cars will be the aging of America's Baby Boomer generation. This self centered generation will not put up with immobile dependence when they reach the point of being unable to drive safely. They will insist on the freedom that comes from being able to order a car anytime they want and to go wherever they want, all without ever having to deal with a taxi driver.

Some observers believe that driverless technology will also eventually render the whole truck driver culture obsolete, as trucking companies opt for driverless trucks that never require sleep, know how to avoid wrecks, and flawlessly pull in and out of the tightest loading docks.

A friend of mine grouses that he will never trust robo car technology. He thinks it opens the door for others to be able to control where he goes and when he can go there. He fears diminished freedom. I see the opposite.

News reports include numerous stories about terrible accidents involving cars and trucks driven by humans every single day. Just today I saw a story about a horrific accident caused by a drunk driver, several terrible accidents caused by inattentive or tired drivers, a mother that accidentally ran over and killed her own toddler, a driver whose failure to notice a cyclist proved fatal for the cyclist, etc.

Self driving vehicles could have avoided every single one of these incidents. Indeed, I foresee a day when the public not only stops fearing driverless technology, but begins demanding that old vehicles that lack this technology be removed from the public roadways for safety reasons.

The future I anticipate is likely still a very long way off, a couple of decades at least. But I think it's coming. This future will not be free of problems and complaints. After all, we humans seem to have a boundless capacity to gripe, even when things are better than they used to be. But many opportunities await those that embrace the new technology, as many businesses will undoubtedly do. Much to the benefit of all of us.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Are Online LDS Tithing Payments Coming?

As a child I remember watching Bro. B in the ward clerk office typing up the weekly tithes and offerings reports on triplicate forms that used carbon paper. He was meticulous about destroying the discarded carbon paper because data could easily be read from those flimsy black sheets.

My turn came when I was called to serve as assistant ward clerk over finance in my young adult ward. By then we had modern typewriters that used an OCR font, but could also output other fonts. The triplicate forms we used were on carbonless NCR paper. But any mistake meant retyping the whole report.

By the time I was called to serve as a counselor in a bishopric, our ward clerk used an archaic DOS based text screen system for entering donation data. I quickly became the backup guy because I had experience in banking, accounting, and software development.

While serving in the bishopric we were upgraded to a GUI fat client called MLS (Member and Leader Services). It was slow and we still had to use a dial-up connection to transmit data to Church headquarters. But it was light years ahead of the system it replaced. It took years for data transfers to move to the internet. Actually, our local church building got internet capabilities a couple of years ago.

The Church has not always been quick to adopt new technologies. You wouldn't know by today's copious online resources that the Church was very cautious about developing a presence on the internet. The Church's first rudimentary site had only a handful of pages. I know from an inside source that every single word and image on every single page had to be personally approved by a member of the Quorum of the Twelve in the early days.

Back to the finance topic. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are commanded to pay a tithe, ten percent of their annual "increase." They are also admonished to pay other offerings, including a monthly fast offering equal to at least the amount of two meals not eaten during the fast. These funds are used to help the poor. A variety of proselyting, temple, and humanitarian donation categories are also available.

For most faithful church members in North America, paying church donations means cutting a check and filling out a donation slip by hand. Those slips are then manually transcribed into MLS by clerks, who also reconcile and account for donated funds, and then deposit the funds at a bank.

This system seems perfectly normal to most people over 50. But for those that have grown up making most payments electronically, it seems like the dark ages. Tevya Washburn reports on his Mormon Life Hacker site that the Church is running an online donation payment pilot in some stakes. Washburn even has a screen shot.

The system appears quite simple. The interface looks like the current donation slip. You have to link up a bank account. I doubt the Church will ever allow credit card payments. It seems like it would be antithetical to gospel teachings to use debt to pay tithes and offerings. But I wonder if the Church will ever accept something like PayPal payments. Maybe not, because I doubt the recipient can tell whether the PayPal source is a bank account or a credit card.

Many are fearful of online payments. As I understand it, they are mainly concerned about identity theft. But most of these people engage in all kinds of activities that create at least as much identity theft risk as direct online payments.

It would seem that the online donation system would simply offer another method for paying tithes and offerings. I suppose the standard system will continue to be available for many years into the future. At the very least, children that have no bank account will still need an avenue for their donations. But I don't foresee anyone being forced to use the online system. So everyone ought to be happy.

I look forward to the day that the Church's online donation system becomes more generally available. It will simplify life for many donors as well as for clerks and bishopric members.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Tipping at Restaurants Needs to Stop

I don't like tipping restaurant servers. Don't get me wrong. I always leave a generous tip after dining at a sit-down restaurant that offers real table service. I just don't like the culture of tipping. I'd much prefer that food prices include the commonly expected gratuity amount up front.

Where did the tradition of tipping food servers come from anyway? Some sources say that it was popularized in Europe, where it originated with the elite offering extra payment for better service and pampering. Over time it worked its way down the economic chain as employers used the tips paid to servers as an excuse to reduce wages, until tipping became generally expected.

The process was then repeated in this country in the late 19th Century when members of the American elite brought the practice back from their European vacations. Bryan Palmer writes in this Slate article that many Americans considered tipping to be bribery back then. Once again, tipping sifted down through economic levels until it is now so ingrained that many can't fathom it ever being different.

Those that defend tipping say that it is the only way to incent servers to provide good service. They think tipping gives them power over the server. This is ridiculous. Servers only find out after you've left the restaurant what your tip amount was. Unless the server knows up front that you are likely to offer a significantly different tip based on service provided, it can't work.

Even when servers do know your tipping practices it rarely changes the quality of their service. As Palmer explains, "The factors that correlate most strongly to tip size have virtually nothing to do with the quality of service." Studies show that "Quality of service has a laughably small impact on tip size."

Servers know that it's a crap shoot as to whether a customer will provide a good tip or not. They know that their actions have little impact on the tip amount. Besides, the idea that servers do a better job for us if we leave a tip after the service is completed suggests that servers are somehow different from the rest of us who work to keep our jobs and to feel successful in the work we do.

In this Slate article about his tip-free restaurant, Jay Porter writes, "The next time you see your doctor, ask her if she wouldn't do better-quality work if she made minimum wage, with the rest of her income from her patients' tips. I suspect the answer will be a version of “no.”"

Would having a significant portion each half hour's wage determined by the fickle opinions and moods of some customer you may never see again improve your job performance? Even if you answered yes, would that paradigm make you feel better about your job?

Porter explains what happened after abolishing tipping at his restaurant:
When we switched from tipping to a service charge, our food improved, probably because our cooks were being paid more and didn't feel taken for granted. In turn, business improved, and within a couple of months, our server team was making more money than it had under the tipped system. The quality of our service also improved. In my observation, however, that wasn't mainly because the servers were making more money (although that helped, too). Instead, our service improved principally because eliminating tips makes it easier to provide good service.
Why did it work this way at Porter's restaurant? Because workers had predictability in the pay they received for their jobs, which is how it pretty much works for all other employees in America. Also, workers negotiated their pay with their employer, not with countless third parties passing through their work stations. Better service occurs when workers are happier and more satisfied, not when they are operating under the fear of underpayment caused by circumstances beyond their control.

Both Palmer and Porter explain how tipping encourages racist and sexist behavior toward customers that are outside of the middle aged white guy genre, the people servers favor because it is well established that they pay the best tips. Both authors describe how tipping is bad for restaurants because of disincentives caused by tip sharing, legal problems caused by a morass of confusing federal and state policies, and incentives to engage in shoddy employment practices.

So if we got rid of tipping, how would people express their pleasure or displeasure with their restaurant experiences? To me this seems like one of those proverbial stupid questions that teachers are fond of insisting are nonexistent. How do you express your feelings about your experience with the multitudes of other products and services you purchase? Why in the world should it be any different for the restaurants you patronize?

Clearly not everybody is on board with dumping the practice of tipping. Tracy Saelinger explains why in this Today article. Her examples of shoddy service rely on anecdotal rather than more empirical evidence. She does hover, make the salient point that tipping is probably "just too ingrained into our psyche." Maybe so.

Perhaps the best way to test this out would be for more restaurants to go tip free, Those that enjoy tipping could go to tipping restaurants and those that don't like tipping could patronize tip free restaurants. The market would eventually sort it out.

I would get rid of restaurant tipping if I could. Elizabeth Gunnison Dunn of Esquire would go further and outlaw the practice. I oppose such coercive approaches. But I can't just unilaterally decide to opt out of the culture of tipping without being a cheapskate jerk. So I will continue to tip while hoping for more restaurants to go tip free.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Proper English Isn't Dying; It Doesn't Exist

We have all been exposed throughout our lives to various versions of the hand wringing worry that the usage of proper English is dying. British commentator Oliver Kamm wants us to get over what he calls "grammar pedantry." He goes so far as to argue in this WSJ article that proper English (as defined by pedants) doesn't actually exist.

Language usage has never been successfully pushed from the top down. It bubbles up from its users. Kamm writes, "Usage is not just usage: It is what the language is." The whole point of language is to communicate well with one's intended audience. Different people use language differently, depending on place, time, audience, etc.

Regional dialects often fill this role quite effectively. The language used in private to communicate with close confidants naturally differs from the language used to address a formal audience. And even that will differ depending on whether that audience is filled with nuclear physicists or gourmet chefs. This is all just fine.

You actually can make grammar mistakes that make you appear stupid to others. But those mistakes usually have nothing to do with the rules promoted by pedants. Kamm says:
"It is possible, of course, for us to make errors of grammar, spelling or punctuation. But it is not possible for everyone, or the majority of educated users of the language, to be wrong on the same point at the same time. If it is in general use, then that is what the language is."
I have seen books about common English grammar errors. The more common these "errors" are, they less likely they are to be errors and the more likely they are to represent the de facto correct usages.

Those who get pedantic about supposed violations of linguistic rules usually want to work it from the wrong direction, forcing rules from the top down. Kamm criticizes this effort thus, "The grammatical rules invoked by pedants aren’t real rules of grammar at all. They are, at best, just stylistic conventions...."

"If someone tells you that you “can’t” write something," advises Kamm, "ask them why not. Rarely will they have an answer that makes grammatical sense; it is probably just a superstition that they have carried around with them for years."

Many such rules were derived from self-help books published in the 18th and 19th Centuries that were designed to help members of "an emerging merchant class" communicate effectively in "the dialect that grew up in and around London." Most people that insist on shoving these rules down others' throats have no idea where the rules came from or why anyone today should follow them.

Real language scholars, on the other hand, figure out what the rules are by studying how most people actually use the language. "Whatever is in general use in a language (not any use, but general use) is for that reason grammatically correct."

This effort is ongoing because language usage is in constant flux. I have seen reprints of articles written just three decades ago that add a notation saying that spelling, grammar, and punctuation have been modernized. In general, as I wrote in January, we are moving toward language simplification and clearer communication. We should be used to this paradigm of change.

But every year people freak out when dictionary publishers add new words that some feel are improper. They think that codifying those words will encourage their use. In fact, dictionary publishers are reactive to what people at large are actually doing, adding words that have come into use and dropping words that have fallen into disuse.

Kamm isn't the only one blasting away at faulty English 'rules.' TheMuse lists five dumb rules that can be dumped. Here's a list of 10. You can Google for more. Even Wikipedia lists a number of misconceptions about English rules, saying that many of these have simply been invented by teachers and textbook writers.

The teaching of English should not revolve around what supposed gatekeepers of proper English think it ought to be. Kamm says that people "certainly should not have stupid, made-up linguistic superstitions drilled into their heads." Rather, English instruction should focus on how the language is actually used. Students should also be taught about the need to keep abreast of changes, as language usage will definitely evolve over their lifetimes.

So, relax. It's fine to end a sentence with a preposition if you want to. Who knows where that supposed rule came from?

Monday, March 16, 2015

Not All Pain Is Gain

We've all heard the slogan that pain brings gain or something along those lines.

This is true. But only to a certain extent. Because it's also often malarkey. In more than a quarter century of regular daily exercise, I have gotten very used to having sore muscles. That's the kind of pain you push through to get some gain. Better muscle tone, better fitness, etc. But not all pain results in gain.

For the record, I've never liked the related slogan that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. You may miss winning the Darwin Award because you happen to survive engaging in some idiotic activity, but this does not automatically make it a good thing.

We've also all heard the slogan that it's important to listen to your body because it is always sending you messages about what it needs for optimal health.

Of course, sometimes (frequently?) our bodies send us messages saying that they need donuts and ice cream. So maybe our bodies are habitual liars. Or perhaps they're sending messages in some kind of code that we need to decipher.

I can imagine tiny officers sitting at monitors in the brain's darkened command center with the commander peering over their shoulders.
Operator: Message coming in, sir.
Commander: What does it say?
Operator: Just a moment ... deciphering. It either says that the perfume of the girl passing by is so overpowering as to be gag-worthy or that the subject finds her attractive. Possibly both. What should we do?
Commander: Send a wave of mild nausea. That should work either way.
I recently discovered that when it comes to pain, maybe it actually is good to listen to one's body. A few weeks ago when we were experiencing early spring in February, I took the dog out for a romp on some nearby trails. It seemed like an ordinary but somewhat vigorous walk through the woods, something we've done many times. As far as I recall, nothing unusual occurred.

Later that evening the command center upstairs started getting the message that my left calf was much more sore than my right calf. I'm used to having sore calf muscles, but this felt unusual. In fact, as I walked from a meeting that night I felt like limping.
Command Center: Something's not right with your left calf. You should treat it. Maybe some ibuprofen or muscle relaxer. Check for swelling. Maybe ice it down.
Me: Of course something's not right with it. It's the left calf. Duh! Besides, I've had worse. It's only a flesh wound. I don't need no stinkin' drugs. I'll sleep it off and it'll be fine in the morning.
I slept decently. Then I stepped out of bed onto my left calf and found that the soreness I had felt the previous evening had intensified overnight. I figured that it would start feeling better during my cardio workout, all while the Command Center was sending warning messages.

Not to be deterred, I soon began my regular cardio routine. Not long into my routine I stepped off my low tech stair stepper (homemade from 2x6 boards) and suddenly felt stabbing pain shoot through my left calf.
Command Center: See, we told you. Now you've done it!
Me: Ummm.... OK. That really hurt. And it still hurts every time I step on it. But wait, I can mostly avoid the pain by stepping differently. So it must be OK for me to keep working out, as long as I step carefully.
Command Center: You need to stop and do some rehab on that muscle or you're going to make it worse.
Me: La, la, la, la.... I'm not listening!
I limped for the next few days and modified my workouts to minimize pain. Eventually the calf started to feel a bit better. Nine days after the original stabbing pain I got up in the morning figuring that I would finally be able to take the dog for a serious walk that day.

As I started my cardio workout I figured that since I was feeling much better I could be a little less careful than I had been. Oh, I was still taking care to avoid causing twinges of pain. But I was back in my manly form as I exercised.

Until it felt like something tapped me on my left calf. At the same time I heard an audible pop! resound from inside my calf. I curiously thought, "That can't be good." I didn't entertain that thought for very long because I was suddenly assailed by a sharp shooting pain that made the pain from nine days earlier seem like child's play. It took me to my knees, prematurely ending my workout.
Command Center: See, told you so.
Me: Shut up. I'm going to go take some anti-inflammatory drugs.
After consulting the internet, the source of all truthiness, I discovered that I had experienced a calf muscle tear, likely class 2, and likely only because I had a class 1 tear that I failed to take seriously. "You may think you've just been hit in the leg and potentially hear a "pop." There is sudden pain at the back of the calf." Oh yeah, that's exactly it.

What do I do next? "Then you’ll experience pain, swelling or bruising in the calf muscle, and you’ll have difficulty walking properly or standing on your toes." Difficulty walking properly, check. Holy cow, I can already see the swelling. "As with most soft tissue injuries the initial treatment is RICE - Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation."
Me: I've got to walk around a university campus today. How am I going to elevate the leg?
Internet: "Anti-inflammatory medication ... may help reduce your pain and swelling."
Me: Ha! I did something right!
Internet: "However, it is best to avoid anti-inflammatory drugs during the initial 48 to 72 hours when they may encourage additional bleeding."
Me: What? Wait! Nooooo! I already took it more than half an hour ago. It's already being absorbed. I couldn't get it back out now even if I was into bulimia.
Command Center: (Snicker.)
A sadder but wiser me reads, "Full recovery takes approximately 4 to 8 weeks with good rehabilitation." I didn't want to lapse into inactivity for that long. But I really, really didn't want to make the injury worse. So the next week was filled with lots of limping, compression, elevation, etc. I altered my workouts to focus on the upper body.

The injury produced an impressive amount of bruising and swelling. I still used firm compression during the second week because I still had some edema going on. When you have an injury in your leg the excess fluid from bleeding tends to pool at the lowest point, in your foot and ankle. Compression, heat, and elevation can help with that problem. I was surprised that the injury involved my ankle and the back of my knee.

More than two weeks after the last injury I now appear to be on my way to recovery. I was able to take the dog on a very mild walk around the block yesterday without limping. The swelling is mostly gone but I am still using light compression. There is still some fairly constant discomfort accompanied by twinges of pain that happen when I step or pivot the wrong way. Little by little I am stretching the muscle as advised by physical therapists.

It turns out that it's not always wise to try working out in the face of the pain, regardless of what the old high school coach stereotype would say. Indeed, it turns out that when you feel pain your body is trying to send you a message. In this case, "Stop that!" I should have listened to begin with.
Operator: I think he's starting to get it, sir.
Commander: Very good. As long as he's paying attention, why don't you put in an order for donuts and ice cream. See if you can get some warm Krispy Kremes.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

My Child Is Not a STEM-bot

Of our children, numbers 1 and 3 can understand an do math, calculus, and higher math with enough work. Child number 2 works hard at it, but he is a math whiz. He wanted to add a math major to his physics major, but he ultimately decided that the extra semesters weren't worth it.

Children numbers 4 and 5 struggle with math. Child number 5 is making decent headway, however, by learning through the more hands-on non-traditional approach used at her charter school. But to child number 4, our Asperger son, his math class seems like a Sisyphean battle against a system that is determined to torment him.

For a decade and a half we have all been inundated with the relentless mantra about the pending crisis shortage of sufficient people to work in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) jobs. This has allowed the nation's massive educatocracy to pour vast amounts of taxpayer resources into STEM education programs.

After it became clear that this looming crisis is largely a myth, educrats that are building STEM empires changed tactics. Once it became clear that relatively few students will end up spending their careers in STEM jobs, educrats began arguing for their cherished programs by saying that due to technological advance, having a deep grounding in STEM subjects is about the same as being literate was for people living a century ago.

So being able to crunch a bunch of arcane equations is about to become as valuable as literacy was a hundred years ago? Color me skeptical. Most people use computers to do that kind of stuff. The only time most of these people will even think about anything beyond relatively basic math will be when they shudder with revulsion as they recall the years they spent suffering in math classes.

It is also argued that we are falling behind other countries in student STEM performance. Researchers have pointed out that county-to-country education comparisons are notoriously faulty. What studies really show is that other countries are improving their educational outcomes as their economies advance. The U.S., however, is not seeing improvements in outcomes; only increases in educational spending.

Marc Tucker, President of the National Center on Education and the Economy writes, "The countries that are producing more people with higher skills in mathematics, science, engineering, technology, and science (sic) don't have STEM programs.  ...we don't hear their educators talking about STEM priorities.  We don't hear their industrial leaders doing that either. The term is not used."

The answer to this conundrum, says Tucker is that these other countries "have education systems that work and we don't." He continues, "When we start falling behind in an area, we invent a program. When they start falling behind, they ask, What's wrong with our system? And they fix it. The truth is that "programs" won't work in an arena like this."

Tucker contends that the problems with the U.S. education system are systemic. Thus, programs bolted onto the existing system cannot work in the long run. It is quite easy to observe, however, that they can develop into deeply entrenched bureaucracies that defy efforts to kill, seriously reform, or defund them.

After noting what successful education systems do — it's worth reading his whole article to see what he says — Tucker writes, "Our most effective competitors do not need STEM programs because they have done all these things, which are the things you have to do to have a first rate education system."

Still, I can't help but wonder what we are losing in our headlong foray into STEM education, which certainly must come at the cost of reducing other educational offerings. We seem intent on turning every child into a STEM-bot that thinks within the parameters defined by the STEM educrats. This is precisely the opposite of the creativity that Sir Ken Robinson claims (in the most watched TED Talk ever) is absolutely necessary for the jobs of the future.

Sitting around waiting for the entrenched interests "to abandon their belief that they can get what they want with STEM programs" is a fool's errand. At any rate, it's not going to help my son that is struggling with math. He has demonstrated that he can learn math concepts, especially with one-on-one help. But he cannot do everything that is required of him under current STEM programs. (He's suffering in physics too.) He can't complete all of the homework assigned. He can't deal with the computer based work that he is required to do at home. He can't get everything done in class that they want him to do in class.

Unfortunately, my son's math teacher is part of the problem. She simply cannot seem to comprehend that he has special needs. A resource teacher that works with my son son has repeatedly tried to explain to the math teacher that it takes our son twice as long to do half the math work that an average student can do, meaning that he can only handle a quarter of the workload.

But the math teacher doesn't seem to get it. In her defense, our son appears fairly normal on the outside. She sees a kid that looks like he's being lazy and inattentive in class, a kid that often turns in incomplete homework when he turns it in at all.

We would like our son to get more done at school, but by the end of the school day he has little left to give. He does homework every single night, but he can literally only do it for so long and then he's tapped out. Few people seem to understand what it's like to have a disability like our son's. His math teacher's 'helpful' suggestions that he stay after school or that he just do more homework are unhelpful at best. Like many STEM arrogants, she acts as if math is the only class our son has, when in reality he struggles and has homework in many classes.

As I wrote last month, our son is stuck in a system that judges his intelligence by his ability to perform within parameters to which he is ill suited, like Einstein's proverb about judging a fish by its ability to climb a tree. Our son is very intelligent. His intelligence just doesn't present itself in a way that suits the educratocracy complex.

Sometimes I despair of ever getting our son to successfully complete his compulsory education. We have considered alternatives but have found none that seem like they would work much better for him. Some days I want to shout at the massive Borg-like school system that my child is not a STEM-bot and that they will never successfully torment him into becoming one.

But then I realize that we're just one family with unique needs. To the educrats we're like gnats. We can be annoying at times, but they can also squash us. The education system is filled with good-willed and well-intentioned people. But they are stuck in a system that is often insidious. Unfortunately, that's not going to change anytime soon.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Latter-day Fear vs. Latter-day Faith

When I was a child the U.S. was embroiled in the Vietnam War, there was an energy crisis, the sky high inflation rate seemed to be here to stay, and drug abuse was becoming rampant. I recall my parents fretting about the potential for their sons to be shipped off to war, wondering how any of their children would ever be able to afford a home, and expressing deep concern about how their children would survive the mounting evils of that time. I remember people often opining that the prophesied end of times was certainly just around the corner.

Fortunately for our family, the war and the draft ended before any of my parents' sons were old enough to go into the military. Each of my parents' five sons gained a better education, got a better job, and ended up living in nicer homes than did their parents. All of those sons seem to have done remarkably well managing their spiritual and moral lives, despite the societal decline visible during our youth.

People often express nostalgia for simpler times. Indeed in about 30 AD the prophet Nephi (descendant of Alma) expressed this very sentiment (see 3 Nephi 7:7-9) when he wished that he could have lived in the days of the first Nephi six centuries earlier. In our day reenactment groups that try to relive the past (medieval, Revolutionary War, mountain man era, Civil War, etc) have become quite popular. But I'd wager that very few of us would willingly go back to the way things were just four decades ago.

Consider, for example, Don Boudreaux's contention that most people today would prefer to pay $16,950 for a new 2015 Toyota Corolla than pay $2,746 for a brand new (piece of junk) 1972 Chevrolet Vega. How about living in a home with 1970s technology? (Watch this humorous take on what the TV show 24 would have been like with older technology.)

The fact is that the average person lives a much plusher lifestyle today than did the average person 40 years ago. Yet I still regularly hear people decry the evils of the day, suggesting that the prophesied end of times is certainly upon us. Things are so bad that you hear people say things like:
Why should I date and get serious with a girl? I am not sure I even want to marry and bring a family into this kind of a world. I am not very sure about my own future. How can I take the responsibility for the future of others whom I would love and care about and want to be happy?
I hope I die before all these terrible things happen that people are talking about. I don’t want to be on the earth when there is so much trouble.
I am doing the best I can, but I wonder if there is much reason to even plan for the future, let alone retirement. The world probably won’t last that long anyway.
Now, it is certainly possible for lifestyles to have become more sumptuous while evil has simultaneously advanced. You'd have to be blind to be ignorant of the normalization (and increasing celebration) of sexual immorality in our culture over recent decades. On the other hand (and despite what we're bombarded with in our current 24x7 news cycle), Steven Pinker has documented in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature how violence has declined on all levels during this same time.

In 2010 Pres. Thomas S. Monson said:
This is a wonderful time to be on earth. While there is much that is wrong in the world today, there are many things that are right and good. There are marriages that make it, parents who love their children and sacrifice for them, friends who care about us and help us, teachers who teach. Our lives are blessed in countless ways.
Pres. Monson also has famously said, "Be of good cheer. The future is as bright as your faith."

To add some context, consider the fact that the three gloomy quotes above came from a talk given by Pres. Howard W. Hunter (then President of the Quorum of the Twelve) 22 years ago at BYU. In hindsight, it looks like those that spawned those despondent quotes have had a generation to enjoy pretty decent lives.

To add some more context, consider the fact that Pres. Hunter's talk was interrupted when a man jumped onto the stage and threatened to detonate a bomb he had in his briefcase (see Church News article). Pres. Hunter refused to comply with the man's demands and the man was ultimately subdued by students and security personnel.

Despite the drama, Pres. Hunter "continued his address without appearing shaken." The remarks, which were prepared beforehand, certainly seem to have been prophetically inspired to address things like the assault that had taken place. Pres. Hunter said:
I am here tonight to tell you that Despair, Doom, and Discouragement are not an acceptable view of life for a Latter-day Saint. However high on the charts they are on the hit parade of contemporary news, we must not walk on our lower lip every time a few difficult moments happen to confront us.
He also said, "I want to say to all within the sound of my voice tonight that you have every reason in this world to be happy and to be optimistic and to be confident." Regarding the multiple prophesies about the calamities that will occur in the last days, he said:
Inevitably, the natural result of some of these kinds of prophecies is fear, and that is not fear limited to a younger generation. It is fear shared by those of any age who don’t understand what we understand. But I want to stress that these feelings are not necessary for faithful Latter-day Saints, and they do not come from God.
Pres. Hunter went on to encourage people to faithfully and joyfully go forward with their lives. Then he spoke more bluntly about living in fear of what is to come:
As children of God and descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, we must seek to dispel fear from among people. A timid, fearing people cannot do their work well, and they cannot do God’s work at all. Latter-day Saints have a divinely assigned mission to fulfill that simply must not be dissipated in fear and anxiety.
And there you have it folks. There are lots of prophesies about nasty things to come. Get over it. Go forward in faith and you will be helped to deal with anything that comes. Hunkering down in fear is not God's way. If you are fearful about the future, those feelings come from a different source than God. John said (in 1 John 4:16) that "God is love," not "God is fear."

Perhaps the end of times is here. It's hard to tell, especially since no one except God knows when that will happen (see Mark 13:32). During World War II lots of people thought it was the end of times. Do current conditions even remotely compare to those calamitous times? Even if the foretold afflictions strike tomorrow, we are to face them with hope, love, and optimism. Fear is simply not an option for the faithful.

This is not to say that we should not prepare. The prophets have been clear about the necessity of appropriate preparations. Even if some present day Latter-day Saints pine for starker warnings such as they heard more than a generation ago, we are to follow the counsel given by today's living prophets. Sans fear. Optimistically. Happily. Faithfully.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

When We Went For Marriage Counseling

My beloved wife and I had an idyllic but whirlwind romance after one of my Scouts lined us up on a blind date. But we were both in our mid-20s and had been around the block a few times. So by the time we wed 4½ months later we both felt certain that we were doing the right thing.

We moved into a small starter home and began married life. Trials can cause a couple to grow closer or to grow apart. Thanks to my wife, we grew closer together when I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis two years later.

But several years and two kids further down the road I was concerned about our marriage. Intellectually I understood that it is common for a husband to feel neglected when a couple has kids to care for, especially when the kids are young. Parents — particularly mothers of young children — only have so much energy and the kids demand a lot of it.

While I understood this in my head, I still felt hurt and empty inside. We talked together about what I was feeling. Despite my wife having a bachelor degree in family relationships, we didn't really arrive at any solutions that helped. Ultimately she suggested that we go to a professional family counselor.

Counseling has had a negative connotation in our culture. People expect you to go to a medical doctor if your body is sick or injured. But for some reason, going for professional help when your relationship or your mind is sick or injured has seemed scandalous. Such matters have been seen as character flaws that might even be dangerous, rather than as common conditions that require competent treatment. Traditionally there was a distrust of mental and relationship health practitioners that placed them in the same category as witch doctors.

Another reason that people often avoid counseling is the cost, which frequently isn't covered by insurance. Of course, the 'pay a little now or pay a lot later' paradigm applies here. Going to counseling is a lot cheaper than getting a divorce. Fortunately my wife's parents graciously offered to help us defray our treatment expenses.

Our counselor was a former college classmate of my wife's. He had gone on to graduate school and had become a professional family counselor. He met with us together and individually. On the second visit he explained something that kind of surprised both of us. Although I was the one that was experiencing psychological pain, both of us were ill, as it were. My wife's symptoms simply differed from mine. We had developed some less healthy patterns and it was our job to correct those patterns.

Given that both of us were 'sick,' both of us had roles to play in our treatment. We were given a variety of assignments to complete, some individually and some as a couple. Some of these were pleasant and some were less so. But we studiously worked on our assignments.

At first I found myself somewhat more frustrated that I had been, although, there was hope that we were pursuing a path to a better relationship, when I had previously felt hopeless. Within a few weeks we had a breakthrough experience. Although I didn't know it at the time, the treatment had been designed with this goal in mind. After a couple months of treatment, we agreed with the counselor that his services were no longer needed. We now had resources to address any issues that might arise.

I'm not sure if the counseling we had at that time saved our marriage, because we were nowhere near dissolution. I will say that it potentially saved our marriage. It definitely improved our relationship. Our counselor complemented us on taking care of the matter early. He said that many couples let symptoms fester for years, and then it takes a whole lot more work to rebuild healthy patterns.

I would like to say that we sailed on blissfully after that. But the truth is that we still struggled with variations of the same issues off and on for a number of years as we added three more kids and dealt with various life situations and stresses. But we have regularly worked on these problems together, finding and employing resources that have helped.

We no longer have little kids. Our clan now presents a whole new cadre of problems. But thanks to the patterns we have developed in the past, these situations do not have the kind of deleterious effects that we were experiencing when we first went for counseling; although, we constantly need to make purposeful efforts to work on our relationship.

We are far from perfect as a couple. But we are strongly committed to each other, to us as a couple, and to our whole family. That kind of thing can go a long way toward helping deal with the natural bumps and bruises life brings to relationships. We also know from experience that when a relationship needs more than simple first aid or home remedies, trained professionals can help with treatment and healing.

Monday, March 02, 2015

The Blessings I Have Found In Frequent Temple Worship

A friend that is a contractor was recently asked to bid on some work that will be done on an operating LDS temple. Having found much joy in temple worship, he was excited about this prospect.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints considers its temples to be especially sacred edifices where eternally binding ordinances are performed. Unlike regular chapels, only church members that have received a temple recommend following worthiness interviews with authorized church leaders are permitted beyond the foyer of the church's temples.

The Church takes this rule quite seriously. It's part of how church members go about making the space sacred to them. So the rule applies to everyone, including contractors that work on dedicated temples.

All of my friend's employees at the present time happen to be members of the Church. He privately asked each one the delicate question of whether they had a valid temple recommend or could qualify to get one. (Recommends expire after two years.)

My contractor friend was somewhat shocked to discover that the number of employees that answered affirmatively was so low that he could not muster a crew large enough to bid on the temple job. The loss of the job opportunity didn't bother him nearly as much as the faulty spiritual state of some of his employees. He cares about them and knows that they could be happier.

A number of years ago our stake president issued a couple of challenges: 1) take the necessary steps to qualify for, get, and maintain a valid temple recommend; and 2) serve in the temple weekly or as often as personal circumstances permit. He noted that many common moral and spiritual problems dissipate when people worthily attend the temple frequently.

Prior to that time I had considered myself to be a faithful temple attender. I made it to the temple at least monthly and I often went twice a month. But weekly? How was I going to fit that into my schedule? I tried to go more frequently than I had in past, but I frankly didn't have a very good attitude about it.

Our stake president hasn't backed down on his challenge over the years. In fact, he has regularly added challenges to do our own family history work and to do temple ordinances for our ancestors. But he has also regularly promised blessings that I feel are very valuable. Just doing the simple things it takes to honestly receive a temple recommend prevents a world of trouble.

Elder David A. Bednar has said that among the blessings that come to those that "honorably hold a name and standing in this thy house" (meaning the temple) are increased protection from the storms of life and from the wickedness of the world, greater spiritual strength and ability to handle adversity, and having the fire of the covenant burn in their hearts. These sound like blessings I want.

So after a couple of years of halfhearted efforts to improve my temple attendance, I earnestly began working on going to the temple weekly, and I started to see blessings come from it. It's a very good thing I began that committed effort when I did, because after a while they shut down our local temple for 3½ years of major renovation. Had I not been committed, I doubt I would have been very keen on adding 90 minutes to my weekly temple commute.

How grateful we were when our local temple was rededicated last autumn. We had taken it for granted for so many years that I doubt we'd feel nearly as much gratitude had we not been without the convenience of a temple close by for that extended period.

I think I can safely say that we have seen the blessings promised by Elder Bednar and by our stake president demonstrated in our lives. This doesn't mean that we've been free from adversity. But we have found the temple to be a refuge from the storms of life. (See for example my May 2014 post on job loss.)

We have also seen other blessings come that I believe flow from our weekly temple attendance effort, including breakthroughs in our family history research. This means that each week we are almost always doing ordinance work for deceased relatives. This adds a richness to temple worship that goes beyond what I feel when simply doing temple names, although, those people need ordinances too.

I have long had a testimony of temple worship. Now I can add that I have a testimony of frequent temple worship. The resulting blessings are so grand that I want others to enjoy them as well. Like my contractor friend, I ache inside for loved ones that are currently foregoing these blessings. I'd do almost anything to help them receive this joy.

I encourage all that do not currently qualify for a temple recommend to do what it takes to worthily receive one. I further encourage anyone that has a temple recommend to worship in the temple as frequently as personal circumstances permit. I know that those that do this will receive many blessings in this life and greater joy in the life to come.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

LDS Scouting: It's Imperfect and Plenty of People are Itching to Tell You How Flawed It Is

Scouter Mat Greenfield recently touched off a bit of a firestorm with his post on the Utah National Parks Council (BSA) Blog titled The REAL Problem with Scouting in the LDS Church. Greenfield suggests that criticisms of LDS Scouting can pretty much be chalked up to failure to "implement the full program."
"From my observation, many wards and stakes treat Scouting as if it were a buffet dinner, taking a little of this, a portion of that, and a side of something else. They implement only some of the program and then proclaim, “It doesn’t work! We’ve tried it!” They indict the program as a failure when in fact the failure arises as a direct result of the elements of the program they did not implement."
If Greenfield wanted people to give him a piece of their mind, this was a good way accomplish that goal. A handful of responses have been favorable, a few respondents offer suggestions that seem quite constructive, and of course there is the obligatory handful of snipers. But the vast majority of comments have served up a smorgasbord of gripes and complaints, often garnished with more than a little passion.

It would be easy to write off these people and their complaints. After all, aren't they railing against prophetic priorities, much like the Children of Israel repeatedly did in Old Testament times (see 1 Samuel 8:7-8)?

But most of these people seem to be earnest members of the Church, not mere snipers. In their comments (some of which are more thoughtful than others) you can sense serious anguish. Some appear to be crying out for help. To lightly regard their thoughts would be to miss out on a learning opportunity.

Although I am a died-in-the-wool Scouter and a committed member of the Church, I have offered my own complaints about LDS Scouting (see Mediocre LDS Scouting, LDS Sponsored BSA Units Have More Safety IncidentsScouting: "We're Doing It Wrong"). Criticism can have various purposes. It can, for example, express tender love, strident rebellion, hope for improvement, or just plain frustration, etc. So it is with the responses to Greenfield's post.

Quite honestly, some of the attitudes, concerns, and suggestions offered could easily be cleared up by referring to the Church's Scouting Handbook and administration Handbook 2 (search on the word Scout). But even these comments provide some insight into broadly based attitudes that church leaders and members that are working to support LDS Scouting are up against.

Although the comments are not of equal value, trying to rank them is beyond the scope of this post. Rather, I will try to give a representation of the concerns cited.
  • The BSA's rechartering system is antiquated and cumbersome.
  • The BSA's bureaucracy is expensive and problematic.
  • If adult leaders hate the Scout uniform the boys will hate the Scout uniform.
  • Some bishoprics fail to register adults with the BSA, allowing some bad apples to work with youth.
  • Disinterested and/or untrained Scout leaders/bishoprics/stake presidencies.
  • Disinterested/uninvolved/clueless parents.
  • Disinterested youth.
  • LDS sponsored Scouting units cannot do Scouting the way community sponsored units can.
  • Required attendance in LDS units vs. voluntary attendance in community units explains disinterested youth, parents, and leaders.
  • Community sponsored Scouting units have their own problems, including some that proselytize kids away from the LDS faith.
  • Moms doing the work for the boys' advancements.
  • High cost of Scouting, including overpriced uniforms and insignia.
  • The above point leads to a disparity between spending on Young Men and Young Women. This is an extremely sore point with a number of respondents, both female and male.
  • Prestige accorded Scouting far exceeds prestige accorded Young Women programs. One respondent suggested courts of honor for awarding the Young Womanhood medallion. (Our ward does something like this.)
  • Girls attend Activity Days only half as often as boys attend Cub Scouts.
  • Since the Young Women don't have Scouting, the Young Men don't need it either.
  • Since the rest of the LDS world gets by without sponsoring Scouting, North American LDS units should be able to get along fine without it too.
  • Why bother? The Church will certainly dump the BSA within 10 years or as soon as Pres. Monson/the current crop of old outmoded men leading the church is dead.
  • Since the Brethren are known to have had spirited debates about continuing Scouting, it likely won't last much longer.
  • Today's BSA is far different from the way the BSA was when the prophets embraced it. So it no longer deserves our alliance.
  • Where Scouting was hip during its first half century, today it is so far from hip and cool as to be irrelevant to the lives of many boys.
  • If you think getting rid of Scouting and just doing Duty to God for Young Men is going to be better, take a look at how poorly that system works in other countries.
  • Scouting is just a program; it is not required for salvation or exaltation. Therefore, it is optional.
  • The BSA is not the gospel. Why should a bunch of highly paid secular honchos dictate what church members should do?
  • A Duty to God certificate conveys little social prestige, but Scouting rank advancement does.
  • Too much fundraising (especially the Friends of Scouting drive).
  • Too little fundraising by the boys, resulting in failure to build valuable character traits.
  • Extreme difficulty implementing the program in small/struggling/spread out units.
  • Leader overload. Fully implementing the Scouting program consumes way too much time, especially precious family time.
  • Excessive training requirements (often driven by the desire to reduce liability).
  • Poor training led by pompous volunteers.
  • Lots of 'what' and 'why' training, but inadequate 'how' training.
  • The program is too complex, requiring years for a new leader to master.
  • Difficulty breaking into the quirky Scouting culture.
  • Not all boys (or adults) fit well with the Scouting program/culture. The program is too exclusionary.
  • Many adults are poorly suited to Scouting positions.
  • Adults that are well suited to Scouting positions are too soon called to serve elsewhere.
  • High Scout leader turnover.
  • Some units have too few boys to be effective and have little prospect for recruiting within boundaries. But stake president won't allow units to combine.
  • Combined stake unit functioning poorly.
  • Poor communication.
  • Combined YM/YW activities cut into the Scouting program and also alienate nonmember Scouts attending LDS sponsored units.
  • Scouting overemphasized while Duty to God underemphasized.
  • Way too much emphasis on uniforming.
  • Too little emphasis on uniforming.
  • Some priesthood and LDS Scouting leaders pay lip service to Scouting, but don't actually believe what they are saying. The boys and parents easily see the dissonance.
  • Some stake and ward priesthood leaders don't support the program.
  • Nonfunctional unit commissioners.
  • We don't let the boys run the program.
  • Scouting isn't a perfect program and it isn't staffed with perfect people, so we shouldn't expect the program to run perfectly.
  • Some leaders (and parents) emphasize advancement at the expense of character development.
  • Some use the words 'hate' and 'loathe' to describe Scouting due to bad experiences with the program.
  • We ought to allow people to volunteer for Scouting positions instead of relying on calling them by inspiration. Then we'd get more enthusiastic Scouting leaders. (What?)
  • Sometimes church members that don't love the BSA are treated like apostates.
  • A well run program attracts nonmember youth and parents.
  • We need more co-ed programs for the youth.
  • Some large wards lack sufficient committed adults to fill all important callings with people that will do the job well. All organizations, including Scouting suffer as a result.
  • We should only allow men with current temple recommends to be Scout leaders.
  • We shouldn't exclude good men that aren't Mormon or aren't active in the Church from being Scouting leaders.
  • Scout unit fails to accommodate son's disability.
  • Boys don't have enough skin in the game because they no longer pay dues.
  • Too much Scouting and too little religion.
  • Too much religion and too little Scouting.
  • Fully implementing Scouting doesn't produce good missionaries, husbands and fathers. Leaders who care do.
Some of these criticisms will strike a chord. Others may seem off base. You can note contradictory ideas expressed by different respondents. But these thoughts represent reality and often very real pain to the people that wrote them.

It would be easy to dismiss much of the dissatisfaction listed by saying that these people simply don't sustain God's prophet. Or that they don't believe that prophets can be inspired to implement different programs in different geographical areas or for different sexes. This essentially amounts to accusing these people of being in some state of apostasy.

That's a pretty serious accusation that seems to lack the kind of Christ-like charity that we all ought to demonstrate. I will say, however, that the real test of sustaining God's servants comes when they task us with doing something that we don't like or with which we disagree. Since none of us is perfect in this regard, we probably ought to be cautious about throwing around accusations of apostasy.

Rather, I think it is important for church leaders and those that promote LDS Scouting to consider Christ-like ways to address the criticisms listed. And more importantly, to address the pain that underlies those criticisms. Perhaps some changes are warranted.

Those that complain about the BSA bureaucracy have some valid points. Some improvements are probably warranted. But as a wise old Scout camp director once told me after explaining some of the bureaucratic problems he was grappling with, the business of the BSA is not Scouting any more than the US Government is America.

He said that Scouting is the program's undying principles and ideals that will far outlast the BSA bureaucracy, even if the bureaucracy sometimes seems to be trying to kill those ideals. Ditto with the US Government and the political ruling class that sometimes seems to be at war with the real meaning of being an American. Yet the organization can't function without it's business side any more than America can function without politics.

I am somewhat sympathetic to complaints about the difficulty of fully implementing the Scouting program in an LDS setting. It's easy to see the gap between how we are doing and how the program really should be run. For me this sentiment has worsened with training. Untrained leaders don't know what they don't know. Trained leaders are more aware of the dissonance between the ideal and their reality. Moreover, they often feel like they are already doing all they reasonably can and still falling far short.

Those that feel this way may benefit from a something said by Lord Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scouting movement. "We never fail when we try to do our duty. We always fail when we neglect to do it." Earnestly trying to do our duty is enough. Doing our best to provide a good program for the boys within the scope of our circumstances is enough. We cannot allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. Shirking our duty is failure.

To parents and leaders that are frustrated with LDS Scouting, I would say that it might be well to consider that a prophet's view of the matter may differ dramatically from our view in the trenches. Pres. Monson has said that he is the prophet for the whole world and that he has a responsibility to every boy regardless of whether the boy is a Latter-day Saint or not.

Pres. Monson's inspired view is that the unique relationship between the Church and the BSA allows the BSA to be a tool for accomplishing good in the lives of more people than all of the Church's other programs combined. It may lead to relatively few baptisms. But it has helped and continues to help many raise their eternal prospects higher. The Prophet is called to care about all of God's children and he sees Scouting as a way to help a portion of them.

Some have suggested that the BSA would crumble without the support of the Church. Perhaps. At the very least, it would become a much different organization than it is today, but not necessarily in a good way. Some obviously think that it's already a lost cause. But perhaps they would see differently if they could see it through a prophet's eyes. Indeed, everyone could learn from one man that did something like that (see Mac MacIntire's story).

I offer the following two insights to those that are sure that the Church is going to put the kybosh on its support of Scouting in North America in the near future:
  1. I have been hearing some form of this sentiment for 35 years. But somehow those we sustain as prophets, seers, and revelators keep stubbornly refusing to go along with what some think to be inevitable. Is is possible that it's not the judgment of the prophets that's out of whack? Maybe the Scouting program isn't nearly as fatally flawed as some believe.
  2. Even if the Church drops its support of Scouting tomorrow, it is still a prophetic priority today. The only question, then, is how we choose to respond to that priority. (Consider a possible analogy to Numbers 13, 14.)
The attitudes expressed above are poignant, broad, and entrenched. I know from certain sources that Church leaders are working to deal with some of these issues. Those that favor LDS Scouting may not be able to change the listed opinions much. But perhaps they could at least consider them and try to avoid doing things that make matters worse. At the very least, extending kindness and courtesy to those that don't care for LDS Scouting ought to be imperative.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Summer of 15

No, not the summer of 2015; the summer I was 15. Yeah, that's ancient history. But it was a pivotal time in my life.

Our neighborhood abutted other neighborhoods. Some social mixing between kids in different neighborhoods was common, but certain conventions had to be followed. Two backyards provided a portal between our neighborhood and one of the adjacent neighborhoods. If kids from these two neighborhoods mixed, the crossover usually occurred through these two backyards.

There was a fence between these two yards, but it had a gate that was deliberately built for easy access. The two families that owned the yards allowed children from both neighborhoods to pass through and play in their yards. It was like a dimensional portal.

One of the yards was large, fenced, and heavily landscaped, making it seem very private. The family had stocked it with various playground equipment that was very inviting to neighborhood children. I first saw her in that yard jumping on the giant inner tube.

Actually I had known her for most of my life. For years we had attended the same LDS ward until the ward had been split. But there were so many kids in the old ward that I only bothered to pay attention to those to whom I had a particular connection.

Besides, she was younger than me, although, I wasn't really sure how much younger. I'm not sure we had ever even talked to each other before. I had always seen her as a rough edged kid that was brash, kind of mouthy, and tomboyish. But that day I saw her for the first time as a blossoming young lady. It was almost like I had never seen her before.

As a side note, I could never see the girls in my own ward in anything but a sisterly light. I still recall how shocked I was when I realized that the "cute girl" a friend at school was talking about was one of the girls in my ward. "Her, cute?!" I thought. It took me looking through my friend's eyes to realize that some of the girls I had grown up with my whole life were quite cute. But they were still like sisters to me.

I had gone over to the portal yard to collect my younger brother for dinner. Of course, I hung out for a few minutes before heading home with him. But after dinner I returned with him and found her there. We jumped on the inner tube and chatted until twilight set in.

The next evening I gravitated back to the portal yard. And so did she. At first we only hung out together when other neighborhood kids were around. But eventually we started finding ourselves alone in the portal yard. Sometimes we jumped on the inner tube. Sometimes we sat on the grass. Sometimes we swung on the swings.

And we talked. And talked. About all kinds of things. I found that I could freely talk with her about almost anything. During our discussions I realized that she harbored a beauty, a depth, an intellect, and a pleasant personality that I had never previously noticed. I thought her quite intelligent, although, she told me that she had always struggled in school. She was two grades behind me but she was less than a year younger than me. (I was one of the youngest in my class. She was among the oldest in hers.)

During all of these liaisons we never touched each other. We just talked. It didn't bother me that she was interested in another guy. Somehow we developed a friendship that didn't directly approach anything romantic. We could even talk about each others' romantic interests.

We kept gravitating to the portal yard evening after evening. The long hours of summer sunlight gave us ample opportunity to spend time together before heading home in the dusk each evening.

Then about three weeks after it began it was suddenly over. I don't remember exactly how or why. But it was probably related to school starting. I remember the first time she showed up dressed in school clothes instead of summer play clothes. Her outfit seemed to fit with a rougher crowd than I ran with.

I can't remember if there was some mutual agreement or if our visits just kind of slowed to a stop. But after the first week of school we never found ourselves together in the portal yard again. That yard was indeed a special portal, because we were never able to interact in other venues.

Our paths seldom crossed after that. I saw her from time to time at school and at community events. But she was in her element — as I said, a rougher crowd than I hung with — and I was in mine. When we saw each other it was like we'd never known each other, almost like we were different people than we had been. Those social barriers hadn't existed in the privacy of the portal yard.

Since we operated in such different social circles I eventually lost track of her. I have no idea how her life has turned out. Nor am I sure I would even recognize her nowadays. We tend to keep internal images of the way people were back when we knew them. Then we are shocked to discover that they have aged and changed just like we have.

Those brief summer weeks taught me that I could have a friend that was a girl but that wasn't a girlfriend, and that there can be value to having friends from different social circles. And though our friendship ended as rapidly as it had begun, it made a significant impact on my understanding of life. And for that I am grateful.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Not Earning Heaven; Learning Heaven

One of the finest addresses I have ever heard on the topic of the grace of Christ from a Mormon perspective was given by Brad Wilcox at BYU on July 12, 2011 (see text, video). Wilcox suggests that a common misunderstanding of the Mormon approach to heaven — both among members of the LDS Church and others — is that Mormons are trying to earn salvation by their own works.

To this Wilcox responds, "No, we are not earning heaven. We are learning heaven. We are preparing for it (see D&C 78:7). We are practicing for it."

I will admit that for much of the first couple of decades of my life I felt a lot like the young lady Wilcox mentions at the beginning of his speech. Although I had been baptized, I had the idea that I still needed to earn the grace of Christ to be saved. I generally tried to do the right thing. But since I continually messed up, I felt like I always fell short of qualifying for Christ's grace.

My perception is that this misunderstanding of actual LDS doctrine and scripture was somewhat general among Mormons when I was younger. Indeed, when I was a young adult a national magazine published a generally favorable article about Mormons that cited a study suggesting that Mormons tended to see their own role in gaining salvation as primary with Christ's role as secondary. Many Mormons actually were trying to earn heaven.

Along with several other trends observed by church leaders, that article served as a wake up call that resulted in much greater emphasis in church talks and lessons of the Savior Jesus Christ and his prime role in individual salvation. Although great strides have been made over the past three decades, too many Mormons still think they are trying to become worthy of Christ's grace before they can benefit from it.

Actual LDS doctrine teaches that everyone that has earnestly accepted the covenant of authoritative baptism and that has continued faithful in that covenant is saved in the sense of being cleansed from the sins from which they have repented. As Wilcox puts it, Jesus Christ has "paid our debt in full. He didn’t pay it all except for a few coins. He paid it all. It is finished."

This isn't to say that the covenant can't be broken through sin. But we need to be realistic about what breaks the covenant and what doesn't. In his book Believing Christ Stephen E. Robinson reminds that the scriptures regularly compare the covenant of baptism to marriage. All human spouses that are faithful to their marriage covenants are still imperfect spouses. They make many mistakes that do not destroy the marital covenant. Likewise, those that faithfully maintain their covenant relationship with Christ regularly make mistakes that don't destroy the covenant.

Anyone that has read 2 Nephi 31 should understand, however, that baptism is only the beginning of the road to our ultimate eternal home. It is like the wedding ceremony at the start of a marriage. The Savior has paid the price for us to enter that gate (2 Nephi 31:9-17). We are then to walk with the Savior the strait and narrow path that leads to eternal life (2 Nephi 31:18-21) just as newly married spouses are to walk the long road of marriage together.

In other words, it is appropriate to joyfully remember the wedding ceremony (i.e. our baptism). Indeed, we should do this weekly when partaking of the sacrament. But Wilcox warns that we must not remain "so excited about being saved that maybe [we] are not thinking enough about what comes next" (i.e. the long marriage). Not only must we be saved by grace, we must be "changed by grace."

This is what walking that long path to eternal life is all about. "What is left to be determined by our obedience" says Wilcox, "is what kind of body we plan on being resurrected with and how comfortable we plan to be in God’s presence and how long we plan to stay there." The purpose of gospel covenant living is to allow Christ to make us more like himself so that we can someday actually be comfortable in his literal presence.

Wilcox uses a story about a troubled young man to illustrate the point that those that are unwilling to allow Christ's grace to change them to become more like God will have no desire to be in God's presence. They will be so uncomfortable that they will say in essence, "Get me out of here!" "The miracle of the Atonement" Wilcox says, "is not just that we can go home but that—miraculously—we can feel at home there."

I fear that sometimes we feel like we are walking that strait and narrow path alone. Sure, the Savior got us through the gate, but now we are on our own to hike the path. We are gritting our teeth and tenaciously putting one foot in front of the other so that we can earn the highest degree of glory in heaven. We are hiking our way to the Celestial Kingdom, proud of the blisters we are earning on the way.

But I think this view is all wrong. Jesus Christ has already walked that path. Not only does he walk the path with us, he is our guide. Not only will he support us and help us, at critical times he will carry us. There is no other way to get to the Celestial Kingdom. We cannot do it on our own. And when we arrive we will have become like him. Any blisters we have gotten along the way won't matter because, like him, we will be stripped of pride.

Wilcox applies the analogy of piano lessons to explain his point that our obedience is about practicing for heaven. A child's mother pays for her child to take piano lessons so that the child's life will be enriched. The mother requires the child to practice — not to repay the mother or the piano teacher — but so that the child can change in a way that will improve his life.

Similarly, the Savior pays the entire cost of our lessons to become like him. He asks us to practice being like him — not to repay him — but that we might have life "more abundantly" (John 10:10), even eternal life with him in his kingdom.

Carrying the analogy further, Wilcox notes that we readily accept that a child practicing piano is far from perfect and makes many mistakes. We accept that "growth and development take time." Likewise, we should accept that our path to eternal life will involve many mistakes. Wilcox asks, "Why is this perspective so easy to see in the context of learning piano but so hard to see in the context of learning heaven?"

We just have to be willing to keep practicing, even if we feel like we're not very good at it. As we do so, Christ's grace will be "our constant energy source" taking us toward our eternal destination as we learn heaven.

Wilcox ends with a powerful testimony of the help we will have on that path. "I testify that God’s grace is sufficient. Jesus’ grace is sufficient. It is enough. It is all we need. ... Seek Christ, and, as you do, I promise you will feel the enabling power we call His amazing grace."

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

My Motorcycle Riding Days

I can remember being shocked when my uncle told me that Dad had owned a motorcycle when he was younger. Dad seemed too stern of a German to be the motorcycle riding type.

But perhaps this helps explain why Dad bought the family a motorcycle when I was 12. I rode that thing extensively over the next half dozen years. My kids are still stunned about the fact that as a teen I was an avid skateboarder and motorcycle rider. To them these things seem like symbols of hoodlumhood.

This is what my kids think of when I tell them of my motorcycling days:

But the motorcycle our family owned was a Honda Trail 90 that looked like a girl's bike:

Our automatic clutch Honda 90 couldn't go very fast. But it was great on trails. It had two sets of gears. You would shift between the high and the low set by putting the bike up on the kickstand in neutral, rotating the rear wheel, and flipping a switch below the engine.

In the lowest gear that ugly Honda 90 could climb up the steepest trails we could find. Sometimes we'd have to walk along side it while working the throttle. But it could climb.

Back when I was a teenager most families in the area had at least one motorcycle that their kids used. I always felt self conscious about our inferior bike because most of my friends' bikes looked like this:

We had access to copious trails in the hills north and east of our community. Most of that area transitioned to residential neighborhoods over time. There are still some trails left, but it's illegal to ride motorized vehicles on most of them.

My brothers and I crashed that old Honda 90 with some regularity. But it was a pretty tough piece of equipment. We frequently bent or broke the mirrors. But crashes seemed to otherwise cause only cosmetic damage. The same was not necessarily true of our bodies. But given that most crashes occurred at relatively low speeds, I don't recall any of us getting actual medical treatment for our injuries.

By the time I was in my early 20s nobody in the family would ride the old motorcycle anymore. Dad traded it in on a Honda CB650 street bike.

I rode that bike quite a bit over the next several years, mostly to and from school and work. Some of my friends had street bikes, so we occasionally took longer recreational rides. But eventually I quit riding the bike.

It happened on a gorgeous Saturday in the spring of the year. It seemed like the perfect day for a motorcycle ride. I'm not sure that bumper stickers like this actually do much good:

Motorcycle riding offers a feeling of freedom that you don't get in a car or a truck. But let's face it, driving a motorcycle is inherently far more risky than driving a car or a truck. Motorcycles are smaller and harder to see. The freedom you feel exists because you are not surrounded by several thousand pounds of reinforced steel like you are in a car or a truck.

During the hour I was out riding on that sunny Saturday I had multiple instances where people dangerously cut me off or nearly ran me down. Finally, when I was a couple of blocks from home I succeeded in making an emergency stop about two inches short of the broadside of a car whose driver had decided to make a U-turn without bothering to look around or signal. The lady's eyes were as big as saucers when I curtly told her through her open window to check over her shoulder the next time she attempted such a maneuver.

I was chagrined as I rode home and parked the motorcycle. My anger cooled as I walked into the house and I suddenly felt wobbly on my legs as it hit me how close I had come to being on the wrong side of all of those motorcycle injury/fatality statistics.

Although I didn't intend it, I never ended up riding that motorcycle again. I have ridden other motorcycles on occasion without experiencing PTSD. But that Saturday was the last time I rode the Honda CB650. Years later I saw the bike in dilapidated condition in my younger brother's garage. Ever the handyman, I think he always intended to rehabilitate the thing. But it's now an antique that would take quite a bit of work.

My older brother bought a nice Harley-Davidson a few years ago. I don't really see myself doing that. Unlike lots of guys in my age range, I don't feel a compelling need to try to recapture my youth that way.
Besides, I don't think I have the right shape for it. A few years ago we saw a guy on a Harley go tearing very fast and very loudly up a residential street. My young teen son said, "I think that guy stole that motorcycle." When I asked him why he assumed this, he replied that the driver was too slender. He then said, "I've never seen a Harley driver before that didn't have a big gut."

My oldest brother's family has gotten four-wheel ATVs to ride as a family. That's fine for them. But it seems to me that there are so many of those things around that you can only ride them where there is a lot of off-road traffic. You're either choking other people's dust or caked in the mud they spatter. I'd prefer to hike.

I'm afraid that my motorcycle riding days are pretty much past. And I'm fine with that.