Friday, March 28, 2014

The Incredible Timing of Delivery Services

I arrived home from a business meeting at a time of day when the neighborhood was quiet. Although our neighborhood has plenty of kids, it's not like it was back in the early days when we first moved into our newly built home that was in a development chock-full of young families living in recently built houses. Back then there were no mature trees, but the place veritably swarmed with roving gangs of noisy toddlers and pre-teens on foot, roller blades, skateboards, Big Wheels, scooters, and bicycles.

Our neighborhood is more mature nowadays. There are plenty of well seasoned trees. Homes are occupied by a fairly even distribution of young families, families with older kids, and empty nesters. Fences and hedges prevent the flow of traffic through backyards. In the middle of any school- and workday, the place can be pretty calm.

After closing the garage door and getting inside the house, I realized that I was the only one home. The silence of the neighborhood and the house settled around me as I walked to the master bedroom. Not that it was completely silent. You never realize how much white noise continually permeates your house until you have a power outage. But it was quiet enough.

Being the only one at home and expecting no visitors, I didn't bother closing the bedroom door as I doffed my business suit, released the pressure of the necktie girding my collar, and unbuttoned my shirt.

By the way, why does more formal male attire in our society demand the wearing of a necktie? What logical purpose does this piece of cloth throttling the neck serve? Is it simply decoration? If so, isn't there some way we could hold a vote of men around the world and get this silly bit of apparel banned? Despite the ridiculousness of the necktie, it seems to have incredible endurance in conservative fashion. What's up with that?

Anyway, I was standing in front of my open closet in nothing but my undergarments as I prepared to put my suit on its hanger, having put the coat and slacks on the bed after removing them.

Speaking of closets, I have often wondered how I ended up with the least closet space among my family members. I'm not really complaining, mind you. I have this "if you build it, they will come" theory about closets ("it") and clothes + other junk ("they"). The expansion of "it" invites the proliferation of the "they." I already have plenty of clothes. Too many clothes, in fact. Some I've had since I was 21 years old. (And, yes they fit.) My wife occasionally cajoles me to get rid of old clothes, despite how comfortable they seem.

My wife's closet is no bigger than mine. But she has clothes stored in two other closets in the house too. Two of the kids have walk-in closets that came with the bedrooms we added onto the house a few years ago. But somehow that doesn't stop their clothes from being hung on chairs and bedposts, as well as being piled on any horizontal surface in the room. Go figure.

Oh yeah. There I was standing in my skivvies when the doorbell rang. I moved to where I could see out front and spied a FedEx truck, as well as a female FedEx driver standing at the door with a package that required a signature.

Since my closet was open, I was able to quickly pull on pants and a T-shirt, and then run to the door in time to sign for the package. That was fortunate, at least. I could have arrived a few seconds later to find a note saying that they had tried to deliver the package but had found no one home. Trying to arrange for the delivery of such a package can be nightmarish. The whole exercise was enough to get my heart beating at an anaerobic rate. Hey, workout done for the day!

How is it, I wondered to myself, that you can waste hours sitting around the house waiting for the delivery of an important package or for a service person to arrive, while other deliveries or service people come at the exact moment that you are indisposed. Do delivery and service people have some kind of sixth sense or a secret calculation that lets them know how to achieve maximum inconvenience?

Anybody in the delivery or service business care to venture an answer?

Monday, March 24, 2014

Repentance: It's a Good Hurt

My friend had tears in his eyes. "It's an amazing thing to see in someone you never thought would get to that point," he said. He was describing the change he had recently seen in a lifelong friend who had previously exhibited a pattern of making poor choices.

Leading up to this I had been discussing repentance with my friend, who had been undergoing a challenging repentance process himself. "The hardest part about repentance" he offered, "is getting to the point that you are willing to repent. To get there you have to admit to yourself that you cannot fully fix it yourself." My friend said that this felt like much more than a simple surrender of pride. It was more like giving up an essential piece of one's identity.

(This, of course, presupposes that the individual has first gotten to the point that he recognizes his sin as a problem and then decides that he wants the problem fixed.)

The very first of the commandments listed on the stone tablets Moses brought down from the mountain demands our recognition of God's preeminence in all things and forbids the worship of idols (see Exodus 20:3-6). Our modern society regularly worships many other gods (see Dallin H. Oaks 10/2013 general conference talk). But perhaps the god we are most guilty of setting before the great God of heaven is ourselves. Isaiah tells us that "we have turned every one to his own way" (Isaiah 53:6).

I have a friend that greatly dislikes the Old Testament tale of the prophet Samuel confronting King Saul about Saul's failure to fully keep the Lord's commandment (see 1 Samuel 15). My friend focuses on the direction to engage in scorched earth warfare and genocide, as well as the execution of the enemy king following the battle. While these are weighty moral issues to consider, I think that my friend's heavy focus on these factors might cause him to overlook an important lesson in the story.

When Saul claims that he disobeyed so as to offer better sacrifices to the Lord, Samuel replies that "to obey is better than sacrifice" (see 1 Samuel 15:22-23). He goes on to say that "stubbornness is as ... idolatry."

We engage in self idol worship whenever we decide that our idea is better than God's or that what we want is more important than what God wants. We rationalize that our cherished sin isn't that bad and that we know plenty of decent people that engage in this type of thing. But we cannot escape the consequences of our enmity with God.

The reason it is so difficult and painful to get to the point that we are willing to repent of the sin of self worship is that destroying our idol literally means destroying something that we have allowed to become part of our identity. The Savior said that this process can be like cutting off a hand or a foot, or plucking out an eye. But he assures us that in the end the reward will be worth the pain (see Matthew 18:8-9).

Pres. Dieter F. Uchtdorf assures us (see 10/2013 general priesthood address) that while "heartfelt regret and true remorse for disobedience are often painful and very important steps in the sacred process of repentance," true "repentance is about transformation, not torture or torment."

Pres. Spencer W. Kimball's book The Miracle of Forgiveness left an indelible imprint on my generation. Sadly, I think that the message that many of my generation took away from the book was one of harshness, torment, and torture. Most people I talk to about this book today only vaguely recall the message of Christ's miraculous and healing atonement, while vividly recalling the message of suffering as part of the repentance process.

My penitent friend said that trying to shed patterns of past wrongs in favor of patterns of righteous living indeed has its painful moments. But he also claimed that these episodes are nothing compared to the pain of becoming willing to repent. In fact, they can even seem like milestones on the way to a better place.

When the prophet Samuel talks to Saul about obedience, he isn't really saying that God wants this or that action. He is saying that God wants us to sacrifice our own will to his, because he knows that in doing so we will find eternal joy. Christian apologist C.S. Lewis famously put it this way:
"Give me all of you!!! I don’t want so much of your time, so much of your talents and money, and so much of your work. I want YOU!!! ALL OF YOU!! I have not come to torment or frustrate the natural man or woman, but to KILL IT! No half measures will do. I don’t want to only prune a branch here and a branch there; rather I want the whole tree out! Hand it over to me, the whole outfit, all of your desires, all of your wants and wishes and dreams. Turn them ALL over to me, give yourself to me and I will make of you a new self---in my image. Give me yourself and in exchange I will give you Myself. My will, shall become your will. My heart, shall become your heart."
This is where my repentant friend is headed. And while this path has its share of pains and trials, it is a joyful path. Perhaps even more joyful than traveling this path ourselves is seeing another soul making progress on that path. This may help explain why God's work and glory is "to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man" (see Moses 1:39): because his joy is great "in the soul that repenteth" (D&C 18:13).

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Studying for Employment: A Lesson In Marketing and Statstics

A billboard that I pass quite often in my travels advertises the local applied technology college. In huge bold letters it boasts, "90% of our grads are working. Are you?" The marketing is clearly aimed at the unemployed. But might it actually be aimed at those that are bad at math?

It was recently reported (see D-News article) that Utah's unemployment rate has hit a five-year low of 3.9%. Turning the math around on the college's billboard we can see that the college is proudly stating that the unemployment rate among its graduates is about 10%. That's more than 250% higher than the state average. Can someone explain to me how this is supposed to be a good thing?

It's like the college saying, "You can more than double your chances of being unemployed by spending a lot of time and money to get a certificate from us!" Well, by golly, who wouldn't want to take them up on a deal like that?

To be fair, the numbers are actually far more complex than can be conveyed in sound bite statistics. While it is true — according to government accounting — that Utah's official unemployment rate has dropped to 3.9%, unemployment is not evenly spread across demographic groups. Besides, political accounting machinations don't mean nearly as much to people as do the financial realities they face every day.

To understand what the unemployment rate is actually counting, you must first understand the labor force participation rate. That is the percentage of people in the 16-64 age range that are either a) employed or that are  b) unemployed, are available to work, and have actively looked for work in the past four weeks. The unemployment rate is b (unemployed) divided by a (employed + unemployed).

Most people likely assume that a 3.9% unemployment rate means that only 3.9% of those that could be working are unable to find jobs at the moment. But that's not accurate. The unemployment rate does not count people that are willing to work but that have quit looking for a job. That number is harder to calculate because it is difficult to know whether people that aren't actively seeking work are available to work or not.

We try to get a feel for this by looking at the change in the labor force participation rate. This rate recently hit a 35-year low nationally (see MarketWatch article). While this number can be heavily influenced by fluctuating retirement rates, the recent decline seems to mostly involve those under age 35. Moreover, Utah has seen the nation's largest drop in labor force participation over the past half decade (see Governing article), exceeding the national average decline by more than 230%.

This tells us that a lot of Utahns would work if they could but that the job market is so lean they have simply quit looking for work. The state's rosy unemployment rate paints an overly optimistic picture because it fails to address thousands of real unemployed folks.

In Utah these would-be workers are more highly concentrated in the 16-24 age demographic (see LocalInsights publication). This group's labor participation rate is only 81% of the demographic's national average. Given Utah's high youth population, this age group's poor performance is enough to make Utah's overall labor force participation rate look dismal. (The Governor boasts in the linked D-News article about the recent jump in Utah's labor participation rate, but this was only possible because the rate had fallen off so badly. Even with the recent improvement the state's rate is poor.)

When you add the 44.8% of Utah teens and young adults that aren't looking for work to those that are (11.9% unemployment rate), the total rate of those without jobs in this age category is pretty high. Since the main demographic for applied technology students is the 16-24 age bracket, perhaps the college's billboard is an apt advertisement after all. 10% unemployment sure beats 50%+ unemployment.

Youth jobs in Utah have dried up due to multiple factors. The lean economy means that a lot of jobs simply aren't available any longer due to business contraction and the transition of some jobs to technology. Also, adults in the next higher age group have increasingly accepted jobs that formerly went to younger workers. (This is true all the way up the line of ages.)

Even the labor participation rate is inadequate for capturing job quality. The number of workers that want full-time employment but that are working in part-time jobs has risen dramatically. Well meaning government sponsored efforts to "help" workers but that also add costs to employers can only make the overall employment situation worse.

What this means is that, despite all of the rhetoric about an improving economy, the job market is a much tougher place than it once was. Training that might have been unnecessary in the past may turn out to make the difference between having a job and not having a job. So school can be valuable. But it's no panacea.

If your goal is to get a job, it pays to do a little research before plunging dollars and hours into education. You want to make sure that your investment will pay off. This is historically difficult, especially if you are chasing a field that has a lot of hot jobs today. Those jobs might not be there by the time you graduate. Or you may graduate with so many competitors that your group swamps the market.

College doesn't necessarily beat vocational training either. Record numbers of college graduates are working in jobs that don't require a degree (see CNN Money, LA Times articles). Much of this is because people have spent their time getting degrees that don't have much value in the job market or that they have ended up hating.

The moral is to get real about what you choose to study. Colleges are increasingly facing pressure to prove the market worth of the degrees they offer (see Wall Street Jounral article), but many have no idea how to accomplish this feat.

It is also good to remember that in a tight labor market you can't expect your ideal job to be available. Successful job candidates often settle for conditions they would prefer to avoid.

It is entirely appropriate to pursue an education to improve your job prospects. But do your homework before committing yourself. And be realistic about what your certificate or degree can do for you.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Do You Ever Have Old Teachers Emerge From the Mists of Time?

The ringtone emanating from the phone in my pocket alerted me that my junior high schooler was calling. I glanced at the clock and saw that school had just let out.

On a side note: I never used to care about ringtones because I always relied on the vibrate feature. But that was back when I geekily wore my phone in a plastic holster attached to my belt, a setup that allowed the phone to vibrate right against my hip bone. Once I made the transition to pocketing my phone I found that I missed too many calls unless the phone both vibrated and rang. So now I have obnoxious ringtones. Loud ones. Because I otherwise won't hear the darn phone if there's much ambient noise.

On a side side note: Speaking of clocks, does anyone else have kids that are old enough but that still don't know how to read analog clocks despite your best efforts to teach them? Kids that don't know what "a quarter after" or "a quarter to" means? I know that digital clocks continue to proliferate, but there are still plenty of analog clocks around.

Me (hearing a lot of junior high hallway noise in the background): Hi.

Child: Hi, Dad! I had a substitute teacher today. Did you have a math teacher named Mr. X [name redacted] when you were my age?

Me: Uh ... yeah.

I doubt my child could sense the immense mixture of feelings that washed over me during that ellipsis.
  • Is that man still alive? And still substitute teaching?! How old could he be? Or how young was he when I was in junior high? For all I know he might have been fresh out of college back then. To my 13-year-old self anybody that was old enough to be a teacher was simply ancient. 25 or 95; what's the diff?
  • When I was a kid I thought of teachers kind of like school equipment that was switched off after we left school and that somebody switched back on before we arrived the next day. I couldn't fathom that they actually had regular lives complete with daily concerns like finances and family. Although I can see the regular lives of teachers I know nowadays, it still somehow amazes me that anyone that was one of my teachers actually existed outside of the school context. That irrational kid part of me wonders if Mr. X has just been stuck in the back of some storage room at the school all these years.
  • Should I tell my child how much this man intimidated girls in my class? He was kind of a handsome guy and the girls liked him, but only from a distance. Many wouldn't even approach his desk without taking friends along for protection. Given half a chance, Mr. X would jauntily snap any girl's bra strap, tweak her bottom, and/or make comments about her developing feminine anatomy. While these behaviors could bring very serious consequences nowadays, administrators treated those girls' complaints very lightly back then. Mr. X must have learned to curb that behavior since then. Maybe they installed an update to his programming.
  • Math! Why did it have to be math? (I'm thinking of an Indiana Jones analogy here.) I hated math. (So it's kind of odd that I went into accounting and ended up programming computers and writing algorithms.) The desktops in the math classrooms at our junior high school were emblazoned with a graph grid, a large circle, and various measurement aids. I remember Mr. X working out problems on the overhead projector as I glanced back and forth between the screen and the design on my desk without the slightest comprehension of what he was explaining. Sometimes I would slightly cross my eyes while staring at the grid on my desktop until the grid appeared to take on a three dimensional appearance. All the while Mr. X was talking, but my brain perceived his vocalizations pretty much like what you hear when an adult talks on a Charlie Brown cartoon.
  • On the other hand, I ran into some people a few years ago that talked about how much they admired Mr. X and talked about some great things he had done in the community where he lived. Could it be that my judgment is rather skewed by looking through my 13-year-old eyes?
  • Come on! Was it really necessary to dredge up this memory? Why is it that despite the intervening decades, part of me is still a 13-year-old kid staring dumbly at a sheet of junior high math problems?

Child: He said that you and some of my uncles were students of his.

Me (masking my emotions): That's true.

Child: He said to tell you hi.

Me (monotone): That's cool.

Child: Well, see ya Dad. I gotta go.

Me (glad that the conversation is finished): See ya later.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Dying Dreams and the Sacrament

Sometimes I have glimpses of triumph. But it's not like I imagined it would be when I was younger.

In my youth I had grand plans for my life — aspirations of personal greatness and glory. On the rare occasions when those schemes have come to fruition I have invariably discovered less gold and more rubble than I had imagined, but almost always with a few unexpected gems hiding among the detritus.

Like nearly everyone else, however, most of my great ambitious have fallen prey to life's realities. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It is (or can be) the process by we gain perspective and become grounded.

I think the first major adjustment to my lofty objectives came when as a young adult I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, an incurable and sometimes debilitating chronic illness. Previously unknown dimensions suddenly confronted me, forcing a major reassessment.

Parenthood — one of the goals deliberately pursued — has instilled nearly continuous revisions as children's needs have surpassed my own. Nowadays I am mostly just trying to get by, hoping that my current trajectory will culminate in something much better than I had imagined as a young man.

This isn't as bleak as it might sound. Some of my wrecked goals can now be seen to have been puerile. In retrospect I am glad for their demise. Others simply weren't meant to be. I have become a different person than I had planned, but unlike Robert Frost's traveler in his poem The Road Not Taken, I do not regret taking a different path.

Some glimpses of glory yet to come have occurred in unexpected moments. I am reminded of an occasion several years ago when I was serving as a member of a bishopric. Like many LDS congregations, ours struggled (still struggles) with reverence problems in sacrament meeting, which, according to Elder Dallin H. Oaks, should be "the most sacred and important meeting in the Church."

That Sunday was like most in that our congregation was not particularly reverent during the administration of the sacrament. But something was different.

I don't recall the hymn we sang in preparation for the sacrament, but during the ordinance I kept thinking about President James E. Faust's lyrical poetry, This Is The Christ (see Mormon Tabernacle Choir rendition). As I knew my own broken self and my need for the Savior's atonement, I reflected on Pres. Faust's question, "How many drops of blood were spilled for me?"

Then something deeply spiritual occurred within me. The gratitude I felt for the Savior caused tears to spring unbidden to my eyes — enough so that I couldn't hide them from the congregation. But it was not primarily an emotional experience; it was a spiritual event.

As I self consciously glanced sideways at the bishop and the other counselor I quickly noticed that each was having his own spiritual moment and that each had tears in his eyes. At that moment we all noticed each other. In a flash we shared a profound spiritual understanding that cannot adequately be described in earthly terms. We were united in divine worship. We felt God's love for us and for each member of the congregation.

The congregation wasn't any different. Children were still moving around and making noise, bored teenagers still whispered to each other and shifted in their seats, adults still flipped book pages and cleared their throats. But we were different. The sacrament, an ordinance I had experienced thousands of times, had risen to a new level of sacredness for us.

As with some of the rare moments parents experience with their children, this moment of joy reprioritized earthly matters and whispered of a greater and more sublime future.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Utah LDS Church Members Encouraged to Attend Political Caucus Meetings, but I Won't Be There

I found myself experiencing a bit of a dilemma last Sunday when a member of our bishopric read a letter from the First Presidency encouraging LDS Church members in Utah to exercise "their civic responsibility and privileges" by participating in political precinct caucus meetings that will be held this month (see LDS Newsroom article). This official counsel comes from men that I consider to be properly authorized to speak for God. Thus, I should carefully consider their admonition.

While some might read the First Presidency's statement to say, "Go to a political caucus meeting or be damned," I believe that reason and personal inspiration are required to determine how to honor any generalized prophetic counsel.

Some prophetic pronouncements are clear, unambiguous, and specifically as well as generally applicable for all people in all situations. For example, "Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery" (Matthew 19:18). But the vast majority of prophetic directives do not fall into this category.

Consider, for example, the 1833 revelation on health known as the Word of Wisdom (D&C 89). Recent church leaders have made it clear that church members must abstain from the use of tobacco, alcohol, coffee, tea, and illegal drugs, as well as the abuse of any addictive substance to be in good standing with respect to the Word of Wisdom.

But what should we make of verse 17 where it implies that corn, oats, and rye are for various animals but not for humans? Are you breaking the Word of Wisdom if you eat corn on the cob, oatmeal, or rye bread? And what about the counsel in verses 14 and 17 suggesting that wheat is to be the "staff of life" for humans, in light of the fact that the wheat commonly used today is a dramatically different substance than the wheat used in 1833? If gluten causes you problems, are you breaking the Word of Wisdom if you eat no wheat?

What about President Monson's June 2013 statement that "Now is the time for members and missionaries to come together, to work together, to labor in the Lord’s vineyard to bring souls unto Him."? Or his October 2012 statement that "we encourage all young men who are worthy and who are physically able and mentally capable to respond to the call to serve [as a full-time missionary]."? How are these statements to be applied?

It seems obvious that most prophetic counsel requires both rational judgment and spiritual insight to be specifically and individually applied, so that "all these things are done in wisdom and order" (Mosiah 4:17). I believe this is also the case when the First Presidency "encourages" church members to attend political caucus meetings.

Utah's system of nominating political party officials and candidates at precinct caucus meetings and escalating conventions has been under fire lately by well funded politically powerful interests. But at present it appears that the system will likely endure in some form. At any rate, it remains unchanged this year.

The First Presidency's letter describes precinct caucus meetings as "a grassroots level of political involvement in Utah [that] are best served by a broad representation of Utah citizens." The Presidency also notes that those "who attend play a critical role in selecting candidates for public office."

For those that are interested, the Utah Democratic Party will hold its caucus meetings on Tuesday, March 18 at 6:30 PM and the Utah Republican Party will hold its meetings on Thursday, March 20 at 7:00 PM. You can see a full list of links to Utah's registered political parties here. Check your party's website to see whether/where your local caucus meeting will be held.

My problem is that I have entered a post partisan phase. At one time I was a staunch Republican. But when I found myself trying to defend some of my party's horrible politicians and policies I started to take a more critical view of the party and of the political process in general. When I looked across the aisle and saw Democratic apologists defending their party's awful politicians and policies I realized that there was a lot of the same kind of thing going on throughout the system.

The more I studied politics and separated what political actors really do from their stylistic and rhetorical approaches, the more it looked to me like all political actors (whether they believe it or not) were more of one kind — folks that get fulfillment by trading power over the lives of others — while the general citizenry were another kind — pawns in the political game. It looked to me like most of what partisans argued about boiled down to style and hyperbole rather than substantial differences in actions and results. The more I learned about how politics really works the less I wanted much to do with it.

I think that I really got on the road out of the GOP last time I attended a caucus meeting. Turnout that night was impressive. It soon became evident, however, that those that held individual liberty dear represented only a tiny minority of those present. Any that didn't enthusiastically support establishment candidates were quickly eliminated from vying to become delegates for the county or state conventions.

After watching the GOP for several more months I couldn't see how my views could ever be adequately represented by the party. I'm not like those sour grapes folks that whine that the party left them behind while their views remained unchanged. I think, rather, that as I became more clear on both my own views and the nature of the party I found too many irreconcilable differences to remain a member. Nor did I see a ready home for my views in any of the other parties. So I registered as an unaffiliated voter.

I have the utmost respect for those that know that their political party is deeply flawed and yet view it as the best avenue for them to see their political views represented in some measure. I have less respect for those that are well tuned to the defects of opposing parties while being largely blind to their own party's faults. (Maybe that's because I am abhorred that I was once among this latter group.)

My post partisan condition means that I have no neighborhood caucus meeting to attend this month. While some parties that do hold caucus meetings welcome unaffiliated voters, I cannot presently bring myself to work directly with those parties any more than I can bring myself to work with the GOP.

Others may legitimately come to different conclusions for themselves, but in my case I believe that the best way for me to have my political views represented is to vote with my feet and remain aloof from all political parties for now. Even after reviewing the First Presidency's counsel, I inwardly feel that this is the right approach for me. Thus, for the first time in many election cycles, I will not be attending a neighborhood caucus meeting this time around.

I pray for those that will be attending their caucus meetings this month, but I do so with limited faith. I'm afraid that I find myself agreeing with P.J. O'Rourke when he says that he has difficulty seeing God in politics, which appears rather to be the domain of "the Other Fellow."

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Baking Cookies for Mental Health

I like baking cookies. Or at least I used to like baking cookies.

I whipped up my first batch of cookies on a Sunday afternoon when I was nine years old. The task took three times longer than was necessary, dirtied three times more gear than was needed, and required repeated bouts of assistance from my mom. I also may have overcooked the morsels a bit. But in the end I was proud of the plate of cookies that I had (sort of) made all by myself.

It's easier — and probably cheaper — to buy ready made cookie dough than to mix up your own. For that matter, it's even easier to buy ready made cookies. In many cases it's likely cheaper too, when you consider the value of your time and the cost of running the equipment. But your house never fills with the magnificent scent of freshly baked cookies when you buy them already baked.

I have always relished the process of making cookies from scratch. And although experts warn against the possibility of food poisoning from eating cookie dough suffused with raw eggs, I can't seem to help sampling some of the concoction before it reaches the oven. And no, I have never (yet) been poisoned via this indulgence. (Knock on wood.)

We have plenty of cookbooks full of cookie recipes at our house. Of course, nowadays you can find copious volumes of cookie recipes online. We have the general ingredients needed for most basic cookie types at the house. Fancier recipes might require a trip to the supermarket for additional supplies.

But I hardly ever bake cookies nowadays because, along with all truly tasty treats cookies are bad, Bad, BAD, BAD!!! for you — as we are constantly reminded by an annoying army of health and nutrition scolds that are absolutely certain they know what's best for us.

I have always loved wheat, rice, and other grains. Ditto when it comes to refined sugars. The combination of grains and refined sugars aspires to a culinary ecstasy for me that is achieved in no other way.

Of course, ice cream — a frozen combination of refined sugar and dairy products — excels any grain based confection in exquisiteness for me. The difference being that I never make ice cream at home because I can never get the results to approach the delectability of the commercially made stuff. Nor does ice cream making produce the delightful scents conveyed when treats are baked.

But eschewing bondage to my sweet tooth I have largely avoided grains and sugars for the past several years. Yes, I feel better when I do so; although, I do not claim that such abstinence would be the right approach for others.

My body is now so unused to grains and sugars that my occasional forays into their consumption tend to produce mild to moderate unpleasant consequences, not all of which are physical. The bony blue fingered nutrition nags have succeeded in making me feel guilty whenever I take a dietary diversion. I can't seem to bring myself to enjoy as I once did the art of making cookies. So I don't do it very often.

For some reason I am reminded of the scene in The Princess Bride where Prince Humperdinck and Count Rugen (the bad guys) are discussing their plans to torture Westley (the hero) and murder Buttercup (the maiden in distress):
Count Rugen: Ah. Are you coming down into the pit? Wesley's got his strength back. I'm starting him on the machine tonight.
Prince Humperdinck: [sincerely] Tyrone, you know how much I love watching you work, but I've got my country's 500th anniversary to plan, my wedding to arrange, my wife to murder and Guilder to frame for it; I'm swamped.
Count Rugen: Get some rest. If you haven't got your health, then you haven't got anything.
We are constantly regaled with similar assurances that we will be much happier if we do our best to maintain optimum physical health. For years I have seriously followed a strict health regimen involving exercise and diet. I am in pretty good shape for a formerly obese guy my age that has MS and hypothyroidism. I am grateful for the relative level of health I enjoy.

But if I am totally honest with myself, there is a certain grimness to my approach. What is the value of a longer and healthier existence in this nasty little world if such a life is bereft of simple pleasures such as baking and eating an occasional cookie without shame? Mental health is important too, you know.

I see a batch of cookies in the near future — for the sake of mental health, of course.

Monday, March 03, 2014

When A Church Lesson Goes Off Topic

I generally enjoy teaching at church. It wasn't always that way. At age 16 I was assigned to teach a church lesson the first Sunday of the summer I spent planting pineapple in Hawaii. The lesson went well for about seven minutes. The trouble was that I had about 38 more minutes to fill. I had planned on more input from class members (who were all teenage boys). Bad planning on my part. We survived, but it was pretty painful for all involved.

Yesterday I was assigned to teach a priesthood lesson. The only instruction I had was to focus on the Savior. I like to think that I have become a fairly adept teacher in the years since my debacle in Hawaii. I've been down the road of preparing and executing lessons a time or two. I have even stepped up to unexpectedly teach classes. Many of these experiences have been wonderful.

As I worked over several days to prepare yesterday's lesson I kept getting impressions. But there seemed to be something missing. None of these disparate ideas seemed to gel into a cohesive message. Nor did I get any particular impression about timing or order of presentation.

Finally I fell back on the talk given by David S. McConkie in the October 2013 general conference, where he said, "After you have prepared yourself and your lesson to the very best of your ability, you must be willing to let go. When the quiet promptings of the Holy Ghost come, you must have the courage to set aside your outlines and your notes and go where those promptings take you."

I had prepared. I had plenty of material to choose from. I could just jump in and let the lesson go where it needed to go, based on the needs of class members as dictated by the Spirit. Due to an unusual number of business items during priesthood opening exercises, about half the class period was gone by the time it was my turn. That would have bothered me if I had had more of an idea of how the lesson should go. But feeling rather rudderless, the short time remaining comforted me.

We had already sung a hymn in opening exercises, but I felt like I should start my lesson with a hymn. I chose My Redeemer Lives, a poem by Gordon B. Hinckley set to music by his lifelong friend G. Homer Durham. Then I quoted a favorite scripture, Omni 1:26. My intent to was to choose selections that testified of Christ.

Some of the best teaching that I have ever experienced in priesthood lessons has been during discussions where members have taught each other. I hoped to start a discussion based on the Savior by inviting class members to offer any favorite scriptures or sacred songs about the Savior.

Brother B. offered Hebrews 4:14-16. Brother H. talked about how he feels when he hears the children's song, I Feel My Savior's Love. So far so good. These were good things to mention, but not much discussion ensued.

Then another brother cited the Psalm of Nephi from 2 Nephi 4:15-35. These are powerful verses that are among my favorite scriptures. But they don't specifically mention the Savior, so they were somewhat off topic. Another brother then talked about how inspired he feels when he hears America the Beautiful and My Country, 'Tis of Thee; songs I love but that don't directly reference Christ.

It kind of went on in that vein with brethren talking about fine songs and scriptures that uplifted them but that were off the lesson topic. I would express appreciation for the insights offered but would then try to pull the discussion back to the Savior without much success.

With time running out I closed off discussion. Hoping to return to my assigned topic, I referenced some inspiring events recorded in 3 Nephi 17 and the story of the disciples walking with the resurrected Christ on the road to Emmaus from Luke 24:13-35.

After concluding I felt unsatisfied about how the lesson had gone. It felt like a jumble in my mind. Why had I felt like I was wrestling with the class members? Moreover, why had I felt like I was wrestling with the Spirit? I had done my best to follow the assignment given by my priesthood leader. Should I have jettisoned the topic and allowed the discussion to flow with less restraint? What was the Spirit trying to tell me that I had been too hard hearted to receive?

Yesterday's lesson was enough to make me question my teaching abilities. But maybe that's where the problem lies. In church instruction, human teaching skills are only valuable to the extent that they are used to assist the Holy Ghost in teaching. Sticking too tightly to a topic can sometimes get in the way of that instruction, even when the topic is as centrally important as the Savior. Or perhaps the Lord had prepared a different path to such a witness than I was willing to permit.

I'm still not sure what went wrong yesterday. But I will be taking a different approach the next time I prepare a lesson for church.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Don't Like Our New Constitution? Don't Worry, It's Bound to Change Tomorrow

We have a new constitution, says Angelo Codevilla in this Independent Institute article. He asserts that the effort that has been ongoing since at least the 1930s to eliminate any substantive limit on governmental power has finally succeeded. The "Constitution of 2014," says Codevilla, "is best understood by asking, ... what may the president of the United States NOT do, so long as at least one third of the Senate protects him from being removed from office."

The chilling answer, says Dr. Codevilla, is "not much." He writes, "Quite simply, our ruling class behaves as if the Constitution of 1787 no longer exists, and as if the words of laws merely authorize the powerful to “do anything I want.”" Those final quoted words are a direct boast from the current US president (see Washington Post 2/10/14 article).

After regaling readers with several proofs supporting his thesis, Codevilla writes, "Increasingly since the 1930s, our lives have been run by administrative agencies that make, administer, and apply regulations as they see fit rather than by laws that Congress passes, that the President administers, and that only courts and juries may force onto individuals."

(I might quibble with Dr. Codevilla about his 1930s starting point. I think he could easily look back at least to the administration of Theodore Roosevelt, and quite possibly, even further back to the Civil War and post Civil War eras.)

This expansion of administrative power has been bolstered by the fact that the "Supreme Court has shaved away to nothing the distinction between law and administrative decree" so that today's "so-called laws are in fact grants of power to bureaucracies."

Partisans will insist that this state of affairs is due to the nefarious dealings of the "other" party. But Codevilla asserts that it has in fact been a completely bipartisan effort. While opponents eagerly hurl accusations of presidential incompetency at the current occupant of the White House, there is little doubt that he has been immensely successful in expanding executive power, taking the expansion game played by all of his predecessors over the last century to a new level. The opposition party "facilitates this process and looks forward to filling the shoes that they have helped ... expand," since the White House will inevitably someday change hands.

(On a side note, Gene Healy explains in this Reason.com article why presidents always pursue and accept new expansions of executive power. It comes down to the general expectations of Americans who place "virtually boundless" demands on the president for nearly all of their public and private aspirations; an example of overly successful government marketing and the all too human desire for a divinely empowered earthly monarch.)

I think that Dr. Codevilla is a little late coming to the party, since Murray Rothbard very clearly outlined this thesis 40 years ago in his 1974 treatise Anatomy of the State. Rothbard explores in some detail the expansion of the state and the ineffectiveness of constitutional law in providing any real limit to the power of the state.

The government, asserted Rothbard favorably quoting H.L. Mencken, is not "a committee of citizens chosen to carry on the communal business of the whole population, but ... a separate and autonomous corporation, mainly devoted to exploiting the population for the benefit of its own members."

Of course, this corporation could not continue to exist without co-opting significant portions of the populace, combining with the politically powerful, rendering vast swaths of the populace politically impotent, regularly demonstrating its power over the commoners, perpetuating myths about individual liberties that no longer actually exist, and maintaining a certain chimera of legitimacy among the public. In his "What the State Fears" section Rothbard outlines how the state goes about maintaining legitimacy while oppressing its subjects citizens.

Any Boy Scout that has earned the Citizenship in the Nation merit badge ought to be able to explain how our government was structured to maintain individual liberty by having three competing branches (executive, legislative, judicial) and multiple competing levels (federal, state, local). The fact that all of these entities are merely vying for power over the lives of individuals — and are thus part of the same corporate entity whose interests are often at odds with those of the populace — is never mentioned in merit badge classes.

In his "How the State Transcends Its Limits" section Rothbard carefully demonstrates how the state has set itself up as its own judge, leaving the fox guarding the hen house, as it were, when it comes to limiting the power of the state and preserving liberty. The judiciary, which wields the ultimate authority on what is constitutional, has instead steadily legitimized the expansion of state power in defiance of the original intent of our nation's founding documents.

Rothbard laments, "The last few centuries were times when men tried to place constitutional and other limits on the State, only to find that such limits, as with all other attempts, have failed. Of all the numerous forms that governments have taken over the centuries, of all the concepts and institutions that have been tried, none has succeeded in keeping the State in check. The problem of the State is evidently as far from solution as ever."

I highly recommend the book Ratification by Pauline Maier, which explores the process of ratification of the US Constitution. No one could tell how it was going to turn out at the time. Anti-federalists that raised many valid concerns about the document ended up losing. State legislatures ultimately sided with the federalists, who admitted to certain flaws in the document but insisted that it was the best that was politically achievable. Still, the anti-federalists demonstrated prescience, since nearly every warning they issued about the inability of the new constitution to curb expansion of state power has come to pass.

A number of voices have lately called for a new constitutional convention, as authorized by Article V of the US Constitution. I believe that such a convention would serve as a wake up call to the federal government that it is doing an inadequate job of marketing itself. But I also believe that a new constitutional convention would end up disappointing most of its supporters.

Even with all of its amendments, the US Constitution is a very concise document, containing fewer than 5,000 words. Would a new constitutional convention succeed in creating anything so succinct at such a rapid pace? Think of all of those vying for political power that would line up to lobby to affect the new constitution.

A few years ago when the European Union attempted to develop a constitution, the multi-year effort resulted in a sprawling document that delved into nitpicking details of daily life. Efforts to produce clarity instead produced confusion. Is it any surprise that ratification could not be achieved? Is there much of a chance that a new US constitution wouldn't suffer from the same kind of bloat and ambiguity?

Rothbard might have been ahead of his time. But his 40-year-old conclusion that constitutional government has failed to realize its stated goal of limiting the power of the state seems quite accurate. Without explaining further, Rothbard called for "new paths of inquiry" to find "a solution to the State question."

Some might regard such rhetoric as treasonous. Indeed, the Declaration of Independence states, "Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed."

But it is important to realize that James Madison and his cohorts were breaking new ground when they developed a new system of government that did better at preserving liberty for longer than just about any other documented system in history. Maybe it is time to explore new ideas, given that the system bequeathed to us by our Founders has ultimately proven inadequate to the task for which it was created.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Mashed Peas and Other Missionary Food Hazards

I underwent a fair amount of culture shock after arriving in Norway to serve as a full-time missionary for my church. I had spent two immersive months at the MTC in Provo Utah learning the Norwegian language and learning about Norwegian culture. (Yeah, Norwegian is its own language; a fact that seems to surprise many Americans — who may or may not even realize that Norway is it's own country.) But no amount of training can fully prepare you to live in a different culture.

A couple of days after arriving in Norway, my missionary companion and I were invited to eat lunch with a family. They served us sausage (more like bratwurst) and sauerkraut. The sausage was spiced differently than anything I had ever tasted, but I had no problem eating it. The sauerkraut, on the other hand....

My father was German and my mother had served a mission in Germany, so I grew up regularly dining on German food. But I never learned to enjoy German sauerkraut. Or other cabbage based dishes, for that matter. Norwegian sauerkraut was somewhat different than the German version. I may not have liked the German stuff, but at least I was used to it.

Despite my utter dislike of Norwegian sauerkraut, I did as any good missionary would do and cheerfully choked it down while thinking that I was going to die from it. Having slogged my way through the nightmare, the lady of the house happily insisted on serving me a second portion. I managed to choke most of that down too. But this time I was wise enough to leave some on my plate, signifying that I had had enough.

A few days later the local branch president invited us to eat dinner with his family. Their home had what I eventually came to understand had a classic Norwegian upper middle class style and atmosphere. The wife served us a gracious meal that included far less meat than I would have liked, small whole potatoes with a delicious sauce, and mashed peas with a distinctive blend of spices that I came to realize was very common in Norwegian dishes.

When I expressed surprise at the mashed peas and whole potatoes, explaining that I was used to whole peas and mashed potatoes, the family members looked at me like I had a third arm growing out of my forehead.

A few days later it was my companion's turn to prepare breakfast. I saw him open both ends of a long can and systematically push out something that had an odd scent and looked like some kind of mashed meat. Maybe liverwurst? He kept slicing off half-inch thick pieces onto the skillet until the pan was covered with wafers that seemed to fry quite readily.

I could see the label on the can, but I didn't know what "Torskerogn" meant. My companion served the fried wafers and we ate them. The flavor was unfamiliar but not unpleasant. It was only after breakfast that he revealed that we had eaten cod roe, which is compacted codfish eggs. Go figure.

One of my companions introduced me to hvalbiff (whale beef). It had lots of protein. But it frankly tasted like beef liver; something I have never learned to like.

Not all Norwegian food was strange. There was the bread. Oh, the bread! So many varieties to choose from. And freshly baked each day. Oh, my goodness! And the cheeses! Along with the various delicious white cheeses (including nøkkelost spiced with cumin and cloves), I learned to love brunost (aka geitost), sweet brown caramelized goat cheese. I think I had only ever eaten cheddar and faux Swiss cheese prior to my time in Norway.

Norwegians served a rice porridge dish (riskrem, risgrøt) made of short fat rice grains in a creamy sauce that was very delicious. They had marvelous pastries that enticed us to visit bakery shops way too frequently.

One Thanksgiving Day, a lady invited us to dine, knowing that we would probably be missing our traditional American celebration. She couldn't serve us a traditional American meal, so she served us a traditional Norwegian meal that included these huge delectable potato dumplings that she called kumle (aka raspeboller). I subsequently had many opportunities to enjoy this dish. My mouth still waters when I think about it.

But back in my day standard American fare was pretty hard to come by in Norway. Things like peanut butter, root beer, McDonald's food, and the sugar sweetened breakfast cereals I craved were pretty much nonexistent. We made our own breakfast cereal by mixing corn flakes, puffed wheat, puffed rice, and dry oatmeal in a big bowl, sweetening the mass with a mixture of butter and light syrup. A hefty batch would last two weeks. Yeah, not too healthy. But it gave us our breakfast cereal fix.

The longer I was in Norway the more I liked Norwegian foods, including many different types of fish and other seafood. I never thought that the dreaded pickled herring was bad at all.

When I had been in Norway for about a year and a half, my companion pointed out to me that we were mutually relishing the idea of our weekly dinner of sausage and sauerkraut the following Saturday. His point was that both of us had gone from disliking Norwegian sauerkraut to craving it. How was this possible?

I still have fond memories of many of the dishes I ate while in Norway, including some that I initially considered to be barely tolerable. I even make or buy some of these foods from time to time. My children regularly pester me to make Norwegian pancakes, thin crepe-like concoctions filled and/or topped with whatever interesting delicacy you can think of.

So if you serve as a missionary in a different culture or otherwise have opportunity to live immersed in another culture for a fair period of time, you might find yourself later on craving foods that you initially found unpalatable. That's a good thing, no?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

How Oft Will He Gather Us?

"I haven't lost my faith," the man told my friend. "But I'm not coming back to church until there is a change in leadership."

Maybe the man was just trying to get my friend off his back. He might have been trying to fool himself into thinking that what he was saying was true. Or maybe he really believed what he was saying. But if past results are any indication of future performance, the man will still refuse to return even after local church leadership changes.

Of course the man has a good reason for his position. Years earlier the man had made a public case against his bishop following a sharp disagreement. When his attempts to rally others to his cause against the bishop yielded minimal results, the man largely withdrew from church activity, vowing not to return until the bishop was released.

But after the bishop was released the man still did not return. Some years later the former bishop was called to serve in a stake position. The man again cited this as his reason for staying away from church meetings and activities.

Someday the former bishop will be released from his stake calling. What will the man say then? I suppose it would be easy for him to say that all stake and ward leaders have been so tainted by their association with the former bishop that it would be better to spend 40 years in the wilderness until all of these unworthies finally leave the ranks of church leadership.

But to what avail? I do not doubt the depth of the pain the man feels. But how are his current actions helping his situation? The years that have passed hardly seem to have been therapeutic. How is this affecting his family? If the man does indeed believe in the gospel, how does his spitefulness serve the gospel cause? How does it improve his relationship with God?

As an outsider looking in I can easily see the mote that is in my brother's eye (see Luke 6:41-42). I'm sure that from the inside looking out, the man's chosen course of action appears positive and rational. Which of us never uses faulty reasoning to justify our favorite sins and indulgences?

I pray for this man. Sincerely. Because the gospel is essentially optimistic, seeing opportunities for spiritual improvement even for those that currently seem unwilling to be gathered with the Savior (see 3 Nephi 10:4-6, Isaiah 54:7). It is this kind of optimism that also gives me hope for my own soul.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Frozen: A Fun Slice of Scandinavia

Right after the new Disney animated movie Frozen was released we took the family to see it because my wife had obtained discount tickets. I honestly wasn't very happy about it.

I knew nothing about the movie except that it was another Disney animated film. The first serious cold virus I have had in a couple of years was at its peak, complete with stinging watering eyes, ear pain, nasal discharge, congestion, and coughing. I had no desire to be in a crowded movie theater sharing my illness with others.

It was a work and a school night. I work long hours several days each week. The theater was 20 miles away, so I had to cut out of work a bit early to get there on time and it would be after my ideal bedtime by the time we got home. My condition called for extra sleep instead of an abbreviated slumber. I was chagrined that the kids would get no homework done.

But I decided to follow the counsel I received from a wise man before my wife and I were married. He said that I needed to learn and frequently employ two words if I wanted to ensure a happy marriage. Those words are, "Yes, dear."

We walked into the theater after the notoriously noisy and borderline assaulting previews and ads had already started. It was crowded enough that we had to split the family up to find seats. I was in a dour mood.

As the feature started I felt shivers down my spine as I heard the opening song, which sounded like Sami yoiking. Having lived in northern Norway, I have mixed with and heard the unique singing and chanting of Sami people. I was captivated by next scene, which featured ice cutters singing a song called The Frozen Heart that sounded deliberately Sami.

It soon became clear to me that the movie was designed to appear Scandinavian. The geography, landscape, architecture, settings, decor, etc. screamed Scandinavia. The Scandinavian blood that runs in my veins rendered me hooked from that point on.

Disney loves to kill off one or both parents of its main characters. I can think of exceptions such as MulanThe Incredibles, Tangled, and Brave. But most of the main characters in Disney's animated movies have lost or else end up losing one or both parents. Frozen is no exception, as the king and queen of Arendelle meet their demise early in the movie. I realize that knocking off parents makes it easier for the story tellers to place young people in situations and adventures that would generally be impossible or implausible if the characters were an integral part of a wholly intact family. But a plot device used too often can seem tedious.

Frozen is (very) loosely based on the Hans Christian Andersen story the Snow Queen. Characters, purposes, and plot lines are shifted dramatically from the original; although, Disney used the Scandinavian motif to honor Andersen, who hailed from Denmark.

***SPOILER ALERT***
Sisters Elsa (who becomes queen) and Anna are the main characters, although, younger sister Anna clearly plays the lead role. Both are very strong figures. Anna's memory of Elsa's magical ice capacities are lost in childhood after Elsa accidentally hurts Anna with her magic. Elsa spends years hiding from Anna for fear of harming her again. This fear eventually leads Elsa to take a number of actions that seem harmful and villainous; although, the audience understands why Elsa is doing what she does and she remains a sympathetic character.

In the meantime, Anna, who has been behind the castle walls for years, gets an opportunity to mix and mingle with more people. She immediately falls in love with Hans, a handsome prince. This event comes complete with a fun and quirky love song.

When Elsa delves into destructive behavior, Anna sets out to redeem her. Along the way Anna meets up with Kristoff, a handsome ice cutter. This develops into an awkward love triangle, even as Olaf, a snowman accidentally brought to life provides comedy relief. (Frosty the Snowman, anyone?)

The situation with Elsa left me feeling bereft of a traditional Disney villain — until later in the film when Prince Hans is suddenly revealed to be the actual villain. While this resolves Anna's love triangle, Anna and Kristoff do not marry in the Disney fairy tale tradition. Rather, by the end of the movie they seem to be starting to work on a dating relationship.

During Anna's attempts to rescue Elsa from herself, Elsa ends up wounding Anna in a potentially fatal manner. The wound can only be healed by an act of true love. The story tellers deliberately lead the audience to think this must be the traditional fairly tale kiss from a handsome prince, a la Sleeping Beauty. But instead it turns out to be the moment Anna gives her own life to save Elsa. Of course, this breaks the spell. The seemingly dead Anna comes back to life and Elsa gains control over her magic so that she can use it for good.

This is clearly a Christian theme. Hans Christian Andersen was a devoutly religious man. Christian religious themes are woven throughout his works and Christian redemption is the main message in his original Snow Queen work. In Frozen, Elsa plays the role of the fallen sinner who keeps doing wrong despite her desires to refrain from doing so. Anna plays the role of the Savior who continually works to redeem the fallen soul. She ultimately gives her life to save that soul before finally being 'resurrected.' (Harry Potter did something similar.)

While Frozen has been wildly popular with audiences, there is no shortage of critics that find fault with the movie. And really, there is plenty of fault to find, if that's what you're looking for. Success always begets much criticism.

Many claim to find all kinds of hidden messages throughout the movie. Both religious and homosexual activists claim that a briefly appearing character that operates a shop in the mountains is gay. Some angrily state that the movie smacks of "faux feminism," whatever that means, whining that there are no strong supporting female characters. Others are chapped that the story doesn't culminate in a marriage or that there isn't enough multiculturalism. (Hello, racial and cultural diversity were pretty narrow in Scandinavia at the time setting of the story.)

Whatever. Disney movie makers are famous for adding private jokes and cleverly disguised social messages to animated features. A professor of literature that I know says that the focus on these minor elements misses the whole point of the story. It's not the background messages that are important, he says; it's the big messages that audiences get. In the case of Frozen, I'd have to say that the big messages most viewers get are redemption and self sacrifice for the sake of others.

Despite its deficiencies, it is important to remember that Frozen is primarily a bit of entertainment aimed at children. It's not sacred writ or anything like that. So what if it has a few flaws? It is also useful to remember that the defects perceived by some do not seem like defects to others. Disney has apparently done a pretty good job of putting together a story that speaks well to modern audiences.

The main thing Disney is trying to do with Frozen is to make money. You don't make money like Frozen is making without pleasing your customers. Given that the show's music is already becoming very popular and that the story is well suited for a Broadway stage play, it seems that Disney will be able to parlay its movie achievement into success in other markets as well.

I suspect that Frozen will end up being a cultural icon for today's toddler and elementary school girls. At least, my daughter walks around the house singing tunes from Frozen. Once the movie is released for home purchase many more will do the same.

In the end I walked out of the movie theater quite happy to have seen the movie, despite the inconveniences involved. While that might by my Scandinavian blood talking, I think it's more than that.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Why Jews, Mormons, and Immigrants Prosper: Three Essential Traits

Yale Law School professors (and spouses) Amy Chua (of Tiger Mother fame) and Jed Rubenfeld say in this NY Times article that Jews, Mormons, and immigrants are among those with the greatest upward mobility in the US. All successful members of these groups share three traits, some of which can even seem "un-American."
"It turns out that for all their diversity, the strikingly successful groups in America today share three traits that, together, propel success. The first is a superiority complex — a deep-seated belief in their exceptionality. The second appears to be the opposite — insecurity, a feeling that you or what you’ve done is not good enough. The third is impulse control."
Chua and Rubenfeld emphatically state that one or two of these traits is simply not enough to drive success. It requires all three. A lack of one or two of these factors or an improper balance of the three can lead to pathological behavior that would be antithetical to real prosperity.

Let's consider each of these three traits.
  • Superiority. The authors note that Jews have a deep history of seeing themselves as God's chosen people. Mormons do as well, considering themselves to be heirs with God. And although Mormon history is less than two centuries old as opposed to four millennia for the Jews, Mormon theology finds the religion's roots in a premortal life long before the earth existed. Many immigrants see themselves as exceptional compared to their cohorts in the old country. While superiority can be narcissistic and dangerous, "The United States itself was born ... with an outsize belief in its own exceptionality," so it should be a familiar American trait.
  • Insecurity. While insecurity is "anathema in American culture," it "runs deep in every one of America’s rising groups; and consciously or unconsciously, they tend to instill it in their children." The children of many immigrants are taught that failure to excel would dishonor the sacrifices of their elders. Despite their successes, Mormons are regularly the subject of popular derision. They also have a history of severe persecution in the 19th Century. Jews have been persecuted for millennia and were tortured and murdered by the millions in mid-20th Century Europe. While "In combination with a superiority complex, the feeling of being underestimated or scorned can be a powerful motivator," pressure to succeed can also make children feel like they can never please their parents.
  • Impulse Control. Self discipline — putting off immediate desires for long-term rewards — "runs against the grain of contemporary [YOLO] culture.... The dominant culture is fearful of spoiling children’s happiness with excessive restraints or demands. By contrast, every one of America’s most successful groups takes a very different view of childhood, inculcating habits of discipline from a very early age — or at least they did so when they were on the rise." Both Jews and Mormons, for example, have restrictive dietary doctrines and Mormons take chastity and service very seriously. Immigrants often feel pressured to work hard and save.
The culture in which one is raised is important (but not essential) to success. Culture can foster a general rise among the group or it can stifle such mobility. The authors state:
"Any individual, from any background, can have what we call this Triple Package of traits. But research shows that some groups are instilling them more frequently than others, and that they are enjoying greater success."
But "groups rise and fall over time." Some groups that were once prosperous have stagnated while others that once struggled have risen. "The fact that groups rise and fall this way punctures the whole idea of “model minorities” or that groups succeed because of innate, biological differences" the authors claim.

Moreover, today's prosperity can sew the seeds of decline for future generations. To "the extent that a group passes on its wealth" by inheritance "without hard work, insecurity or discipline," the group is "likely to be headed for decline." An old proverb states that a rich man's son is seldom a rich man's father.

Not to worry, the authors say. In America "prosperity and power had their predictable effect, eroding the insecurity and self-restraint that led to them. By 2000, all that remained was our superiority complex, which by itself is mere swagger, fueling a culture of entitlement and instant gratification. Thus the trials of recent years — the unwon wars, the financial collapse, the rise of China — have, perversely, had a beneficial effect: the return of insecurity."

This is actually a good thing, the authors argue. "America has always been at its best when it has had to overcome adversity and prove its mettle on the world stage. For better and worse, it has that opportunity again today."

Still the authors warn that the success they are discussing revolves chiefly around material measures. Focusing too heavily on "external measures" of worth such as "prestige and money" may not lead to the kind of success that breeds happiness, which is what each of us really wants in life. On the other hand, despite our human longing for comfort, complacency and mediocrity might not lead to real happiness either.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Doing Family History Work by Uploading Media to FamilySearch

I am officially at a frustration point with respect to my family history work. But I'm not that worried about it. I've been there before and breakthroughs have eventually occurred that have allowed me to progress.

Family history research (and if you're LDS, preparatory documentation for the work of salvation for the dead) has come a long way since I first started trying to do research as a teen. Back in the day most research work required travel to a location where actual records or copies of records were stored, hours of painstaking analysis, written correspondence, and lots of writing on paper. I still have the notepad I first used when I started doing research.

While this kind of approach is still sometimes needed, most people can now complete a great deal of family history work from their home computers. Clearing names for temple work has gone from using paper records to using floppy discs to using writable CDs (all of these formats required visiting or corresponding with a family history center) to selecting a few links in a web browser window on any internet capable device.

I am a big fan of the modern FamilySearch website. Content that was once stored on local computers (where it was often out of sync) is now managed centrally, where it is available to broad audiences and where contributions from users worldwide can be coordinated. The site's heavily graphical interface can sometimes be a little slow by modern standards. But it's not bad and the tradeoffs are worth the wait.

The recently enhanced ability to upload and tag photos, stories and documents particularly interests me. This has become my go-to place when I find myself temporarily unable to progress with research and submitting names, the condition in which I currently find myself.

I do have a nit to pick with the site designers. One of the ways to access this part of the website is through the Photos link on the top menu of the website (see image below). This would more appropriately be labeled something like Media, since it includes stories and documents (and perhaps videos in the future). Why would anyone think that they first had to click on Photos to get to stories?
FamilySearch top line menu
image of FamilySearch top line menu

A second way to access select media elements is by clicking on a person's name in Family Tree. This causes a panel to appear that shows information about the individual and along with links to the various media items have been tagged for the individual (see image below). Clicking on the various links takes you to pages showing those items.
image of FamilySearch individual information panel

Uploading and tagging photos can digitally preserve images that would often otherwise languish in storage until they were eventually tossed out following the demise of whoever had the photos. Or else photos are sometimes passed down with little information, since everyone that knew who was in the photos has passed on, diminishing the family value of the photos. Putting these photos online while information is still available preserves these pictures for the long term. Original documents, such as life event certificates or even old report cards can be uploaded.

Another valuable service is recording and uploading stories about family members. Tagging all those mentioned in the story automatically links the story to those people. Most family stories disappear with the passing of those who witnessed the events or who heard the stories told by those that did.

Recently I came into possession of a handful of pages handwritten by my grandmother many years ago, where she related various names and events. I have evidence that some of the information presented is somewhat suspect, probably due to the condition of Grandma's faculties at the time. But there are some great stories.

For example, I had no idea that my father's cousin was killed in World War II and lived to tell about it. The story goes that he was a casualty in a violent battle. His body lay in a morgue while his young bride was notified and was brought to the location where she could identify the body. Given the challenges of communicating and traveling in war torn Europe, nine days had passed by the time she arrived.

When they pulled back the cover on the body, the young wife said that she saw the body move. She insisted that a doctor be brought. The doctor was displeased to be pulled away from important work. He refused to believe the woman until he suddenly saw the body twitch. My father's cousin was rushed to a nearby hospital, where he underwent surgery and remained for many weeks of recovery. But he lived a relatively normal life after that.

Since the subjects of this story are deceased and the couple no children, I'm not sure that anyone would have been aware of this story had I not encountered it, written it up, and uploaded it to FamilySearch. Now it is available to anyone with interest in the matter.

When putting stories on FamilySearch, I have found it useful to first write, review, and correct the stories in a text editor. I have used Google Drive and Microsoft Word. The content of the text editor window can then be copied and pasted into a FamilySearch story frame. Bear in mind that reading content online is different than reading it on paper. Judicious use of white space, such as adding a line between paragraphs, can help a lot. Don't bother trying to indent paragraphs. When I tried this the results were not good.

You can associate up to one photo with each story. If you have multiple photos that could accompany a story, you might try breaking the story up into smaller parts. I have found it useful when I do this to number the parts of the story by adding numbering to each story title. This allows others to more easily read the pieces in sequence.

Others can comment on the stories you create on FamilySearch and you can respond to their comments. This allows for useful collaboration, such as when others have additional information that you lack. You can also edit the stories you add to the site if you discover new or different information.

Uploading photos, documents, and stories to FamilySearch may not help clear anyone for temple work, but it is still a valuable part of the important work of turning the hearts of the children to their fathers (Malachi 4:6).

What family stories do you know that could be preserved on FamilySearch?

Update 2/4/2014: The label of the Photos link that I thought ought to have been titled differently has now been changed to Memories. I see this as a most welcome change.

Monday, January 20, 2014

A Diet of Blended Punishment

I don't watch much TV. We were recently told by a sales rep that we could get the premium cable package for $6 more per month than what we pay for internet access. (Well, that and the cable box rental, fees, etc. Probably more like $40/month.) We talked it over with the family and everyone voted against it. We've seen cable at other people's houses. They've got lots and lots of channels ... of stuff that we just aren't interested in spending our time watching.

Recently as I was reclining in a dental chair I became even more convinced that our decision to remain free of cable TV was the right choice. I couldn't help staring at the ceiling where a TV had been placed directly in my view field. It was either look at the TV or concentrate on the pattern of tiny holes in the adjacent ceiling tiles. I'm not much into staring into the hygenist's eyes at close range—an activity that I reserve for my wife.

Since I had declined the complimentary headphones, I was spared the audio portion of the TV program. Even without sound, trying to ignore the blender infomercial was like trying to look away from a gruesome traffic accident. While they were selling a mere blender (which clearly wasn't a Blendtec industrial strength model), they were hawking it as some kind of fountain of youth cure-all answer to all of your weight and health woes.

I watched as blenders full of a variety of carefully arranged, extremely choice and tasty looking produce items were presented. Then someone would press a button and wham-o! The gorgeous cornucopia was immediately reduced to a horrid looking slurry that closely resembled the consequences of consuming such a diet on an uninitiated intestinal tract.

The worst part was when they showed families of people drinking the stuff with smiles on their faces. The irony of people wearing store bought grins showing the teeth that they should have used to grind up the whole food instead of letting a machine do the work was apparently lost on the marketing folks. Some of the younger family members were obviously having difficulty maintaining their goofy smiles. I couldn't help but wonder how much they had to pay those people. And how much the mom and dad had to threaten their kids to get them to go along.

What's up with this whole blender fad anyway? Beyond simply providing nutrition, food is supposed to "please the eye and gladden the heart" (D&C 59:18). Reducing a meal to sub-baby-food gruel destroys the presentation, which is an important element of the human dining experience.

Like other food fads, people will rush to try the blender fad. Then after they realize how difficult it is to do, how unpleasant it is to consume (and to digest), and how little it apparently affects the health conditions they hope to resolve, they will revert to their standard diets. Their magic blenders will gather dust on the counter or else be relegated to some remote shelf for storage. Sure, there will be die-hards that stick with the blender diet (maybe because they're into self punishment). But they will be a small minority.

After my dental appointment I had little appetite. Not that the dental work caused problems. I was just a little queasy from the blender infomercial. Maybe my dentist should more carefully screen what is shown on the office's TVs.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Frustration Wonder of Children

Our son that is in high school is and always has been a remarkable individual. While he certainly regularly demonstrates many of the faults that are common to young men, he has always had a certain goodness of soul.

Still, this son has always been, well, a bit different than the mainstream. From the time he was tiny he has approached life differently than our other kids and from most kids we know. After spending part of a summer working at a Boy Scout camp, the camp director told me, "That one marches to the beat of a different drummer. But it's a good drummer."

This child has always been curious about things, forever asking questions to which I don't know the answer or that are not easily addressed. When he was still in elementary school my father gave him a book about quantum physics because Dad was convinced that our son could grasp such principles. Nowadays when our son asks deep questions about scientific matters, I tell him to research it for himself.

We have called this son our wandering child. It is common for him to become so interested in something—often something that might not catch the attention of most people—that other matters (that we sometimes think ought to be more pressing) seemingly disappear from his active cognition.

From the time he was mobile, this son has regularly wandered off to explore something that has caught his interest. This means that he has gotten lost more than the rest of our children put together. It's difficult to explain the sheer terror of losing your four-year-old in a sea of 10,000 people at a parade. Now that this child the tallest member of our family it's easier to keep track of him. Sometimes he will even answer his phone if we can't locate him.

Given my lifelong involvement in scouting, my sons have been involved as well. This son is my Mr. Reliable when it comes to scouting needs. He is also my go-to family member for hiking. Nobody else in the family cares much for hiking. We have pictures of this son and me on each of the major mountain peaks in our area. It is difficult to explain the emotions I felt when this boy instigated our last major hike in October.

This strapping boy is musically gifted. He regularly demonstrates finesse and nuance far beyond the average pianist his age when playing classical piano compositions. He can play the euphonium and is quite good on his ocarinas. He composes and records electronic dance music. But his favorite instrument at present is his voice. He has a good range for a bass. But it bothers him that he doesn't have perfect enough pitch to always precisely hit the note at the very outset. He can adjust within a fraction of a second, but he wishes for perfect pitch. He fantasizes about going into voice acting with his marvelous speaking voice.

Mr. Music was asked to prepare a musical number for church a few weeks ago. But he didn't do anything about it. Finally a week before the performance I pulled him to the piano and offered some options. Among other things I offered to dust off a piano duet we had played a while back. He seemed indifferent to all of my suggestions.

I finally pulled out an arrangement of Come Thou Fount (purposefully selected for its easy accompaniment) and insisted that Mr. Voice sing while I played. Here is where a well practiced voice that has often sung before audiences comes in handy. After reviewing the piece a few times he was ready to perform with beautiful tonal quality and well placed and wide ranging emotional emphasis.

We all get sidetracked on diversions once in awhile, but this seems to be more the rule than the exception for our smart and talented son. My wife and I are nearly apoplectic about how we're going to get him to graduate high school. It is not uncommon for students to have difficulty managing their assignment load. But our son has always had organizational challenges. He does fine with assignments and activities done together as a class, but he just can't seem to get organized when it comes to individual (or even small group) tasks, regardless of whether they are to be done at school or at home.

It is already clear that our son is going to be doing summer school again this year, despite our best efforts to prevent this outcome. We are working with him to implement some additional measures that we hope (beyond hope) will limit the amount of work he will have to do this summer. We have considered clinical interventions, but I'm not sure that I want to medicate the uniqueness out of my child.

Kids can be so wonderful. Kids can be so frustrating. Sometimes simultaneously. Sometimes simultaneously in the same kid.