Wednesday, May 20, 2015

(Somewhat) Proper Decorum Is Not Dead

As a follow up to last week's post about our end of school year activity overload, I am happy to report that yesterday's high school commencement exercises were somewhat better than I had expected. Either I'm getting used to these things, or they did a better job of maintaining some sense of decorum than was the case when we attended the graduation ceremonies of our two older children.

The high school our children have attended (like most high schools in the area) always holds its graduation ceremony at a nearby university sports arena. Sitting about 12 rows up we had a good view of the mortar board caps worn by the graduates sitting in chairs on the arena floor. We noted right away that none of them had any customization of the tops of their caps. This differs dramatically from previous graduation events we attended, when there were some rather innovative and distracting cap top displays.

I noted that the event ran very efficiently. Each of the speakers was relatively brief. Mimicking the two hecklers in Muppet Christmas Carol talking about Fozzi's short speech, my wife and I turned to each other after each commentary and said, "It was ... short. We loved it!"

I'm all for short speeches at commencement exercises. Who remembers anything that was said at their high school graduation anyway? Of all the graduation ceremonies I have attended over the years, I only remember what one speaker said. That was when I earned my master degree. I distinctively remember part of one speaker's message, but only because I was the speaker. I doubt anybody else remembers a single thing I said.

At the beginning of yesterday's event the school principal read a brief statement asking that attendees refrain from using horns, bells, or other noisemakers when honoring their graduate. He explained that doing so often obscures the reading of the name of the next graduate, spoiling the moment for those that came to support that person.

Following the principal's announcement, I heard one fellow behind me say to a companion that his family would make noise anyway, "Because that's the kind of people we are." I though to myself, "What kind of people is that? Jerks?"

The principal's request didn't stop some people from blowing air horns. But I noted that the bursts of noise tended to be short. The feeling I got was that these revelers felt a sense of public shaming for their obnoxious actions.

When I told a neighbor about this experience, he expressed surprise that the principal would need to make such an announcement. I assured him that, based on past experience, it was absolutely necessary. In our present "it's all about me" culture, some people have no understanding of courtesy. Such a sense would require having some empathy for others, even strangers.

The qualities of individualism and/or family unity can be taken to the point that the needs and concerns of others are unimportant or seemingly nonexistent. Some people might refrain from obnoxiously blasting an air horn if they feel shame for doing so, even if they can't manage enough concern for others to desire to be courteous.

On the other hand, I'm certain that some would think me discourteous for quietly reading a book during most of the graduate recognition portion of the program. I wasn't bothering anyone, but I wasn't paying much attention either. After all, I knew that our child would be one of the last of the 600+ graduates, since the choir went after the final letter in the alphabet.

We all survived graduation. We even found a decent restaurant afterward that wasn't terribly crowded. Our graduate went with friends to the school's all night graduation party at a recreation center. He made it home safely well before morning, apparently having finished celebrating long before the event was officially over.

One of our university children recently asked if attendance at commencement exercises was necessary to receive his diploma. He has never much liked large public events and feels like the whole graduation ceremony thing is a bit silly. He was relieved when I assured him that he wouldn't have to attend any ceremony and that he would actually end up paying extra if he chose to do so.

On another note, the child that we feared might have to attend summer school is off the hook (by a hair breadth). With all schoolwork done, he now has only fluff left for the last couple of days. One of our university students thought he might have to take a summer course to boost his GPA enough to maintain his scholarship. But he also appears to have escaped that specter. One child still has school next week. And then it looks like we get a break for a few months.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Longing for the End of the School Year

The approach of the end of the school year always brings a cavalcade of activity. Not just at school. It seems like every organization that our kids are involved with — church, performing arts, Scouting, etc  — gets into the act. (I didn't add sports because we currently have no children involved in athletics programs.) It's as if all organizations have to get their events done before the end of the school year ... at the very same time that some (as in "my") kids are scrambling to finish essential school work.

On that note, it wasn't certain until 3 pm yesterday that one of our children would graduate high school next week. We're still holding our breath on whether another will have to do summer school. Yeah, these kids like to cut it close. It doesn't help much when a teacher is inflexible in dealing with a child's disabilities.

Last Saturday there was a piano performance for one child. On Monday night was the high school's choir concert. Tuesday night heralded a child's play performance. The kids had worked hard for months. But sketchy audio coupled with the varied skill set of the large cast (ages 3-14) made it feel like 10 minutes of enjoyment crammed into 2½ hours. A script editor might have been useful in reducing the endurance contest to 90 minutes.

There was Mutual and Scouts on Wednesday night, and a piano recital for two of our children last night. After work and school today, some of us will pile in the SUV for a two-hour drive to camp out in the rain with the Scouts. (Complaining about the weather after praying for moisture = ingratitude. So I'm not complaining.)

While the Sabbath is to be a day of rest, I have learned that this often means a rest from the things you'd like to be doing, not from the things you should be doing. So among the many "shoulds" and "shalls" we have scheduled for Sunday will be seminary graduation. On Monday night we will attend a Baccalaureate gathering at the high school. Tuesday will bring high school graduation (after years of wondering whether this child would actually make it).

Speaking of graduation, I recall some mildly undignified behavior by some of my fellow classmates back in the day. But the audience was generally quite well behaved. Some of today's seniors go out of their way to make lack of dignity into a YouTube-able moment. But their self-centered behavior is mild compared to the crass actions of some of their family members.

I'm not arguing for demonstrations of false piety. But is there no longer a place in this world for dignified behavior? It seems that even the coarsest of folk ought to be able to briefly subordinate their sycophancy out of courtesy for others.

Graduation is not the end, since two of our children will still be in school for a few more days. Some of the kids will be attending youth conference just after the end of the school year. And then we greatly look forward to having a brief respite from a whirlwind of activities.

At least this whirlwind marks the end of the long slog of the school year. Those that would force everyone into year round school apparently fail to comprehend the need for the downtime. It's not just students that need a break. Teachers and parents need it too.

While parents have to deal with their kids during the off season, at least they don't have to grapple with the fallout of streams of useless (i.e. all) homework, stupidizing standard tests, dictatorial teachers, ignorant administrators, and inflexible school systems. Many teachers and administrators do as well as they can in the system in which they find themselves, but there will always be those that seem to thrive on making life miserable for some of the students and their parents.

At any rate, we're feeling the effects of scrambling to be everywhere we need to be and doing everything we need to do. The end of the school year can't come quickly enough.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

I Lived Under a Totalitarian Dictatorship

It's true. I lived under a totalitarian dictatorship when I was in junior high school. Mind you, it was only for two days and it was only during school hours on those days. Unbeknownst to me, my parents had received a letter from our school's principal a few days earlier explaining the exercise and asking them to keep it confidential from their children until after the plot unfolded.

We went to school one morning in December, most likely with visions of the gift cornucopia that Christmas morning would bring a couple of weeks later. School started as normal. But then the school was invaded by guys in military outfits bearing very real weapons from the "State of Triangula." They had the kids that were in charge of the school's flag lower the American flag. Then a white banner emblazoned with a black triangle was hoisted up the main flagpole. American flags were removed from the classrooms and we were put in a state of lock down.

I found a the local newspaper's coverage of the event on this page (requires subscription). Recalling that the event made national news back in the day, I was able to find coverage from a couple of other newspapers: see Daytona Beach Morning Journal article and Gettysburg Times article.

To add some perspective, bear in mind that this occurred at a very unpopular phase of the Vietnam War. Domestic and foreign events over the preceding several years had caused many Americans to question the patriotism that had been common in the years following World War II. But it was also during the height of the Cold War. Tensions between Western and Eastern Bloc countries were high and fear of communist oppressive ideologies was rampant among Americans.

The Dec. 14, 1972 local Standard Examiner article featured a photo of our student body president destroying the Triangula flag at the end of the event.
The text of the article, titled "Students Free 'After Siege' In N. Ogden" follows:
"Hooray, the Americans are coming," said one North Ogden Junior High School student this morning at the sight of an officer of the U.S. Army.
Freedom returned to the “embattled school” today at a special “freedom assembly” at which Principal Carl C. DeYoung announced the end of 50 hours of enemy occupation.
Students have attended classes, eaten, studied — and gone without smiles under the watchful gaze of armed soldiers from the mythical foreign government of Triangula.
The soldiers, actually volunteers from the local 6th Battalion, 83rd Artillery of Army Reserves, turned up at the assembly in civilian clothes to the cheers of their former captives.
Mark Jenkins, student body president, tore up the black-on-white Triangulan flag to the kind of delirium usually reserved for basketball in the school gymnasium, where the assembly was held.
The ninth-grader was asked to dispose of the flag by Lt. Col Clair Frischknecht, the 83rd’s commander, who posed as chief of Triangulan forces during the occupation.
Special tribute to the organization committee for the exercise — William Woodard, Richard Johanson and Mrs. Lynn Miller — was paid by Col Frischknecht and Maj. Gen. Ray D. Free, USA-Ret, who appreciated the military precision of plans.
Mr. DeYoung said the experience was planned for students to instill in them a feeling for the American flag and what it symbolizes— “and it’s hard to teach a feeling.”
For two school days and this morning until 10:30 a.m., students lived under a totalitarian regime, including facing a military court for infractions from tearing down the Triangulan flag (Tuesday) to smiling in class.
Signs of smoldering revolt were evident at all sides this morning: dozens of students wore red, white and blue clothing to school, others wore armbands of the same color, and holes were torn in paper covering trophy cases and seasonal decorations in glass-walled banks.
“They didn’t catch me, and I’m glad,” said eighth-grader Matt Berrett, describing how he played a trumpet rendition of “God Bless America” this morning.
“You know, it sounded kind of sweet floating down the halls,” said one teacher, still wearing the Triangulan lapel pin.
Despite unaccustomed cooperation from pupils — who were required to stand whenever a teacher entered or left the room — some teachers grew weary of the occupation and began to sympathize with the “underground.”
“A lot of us wore the school colors (purple and gold) today rather than the dark clothing,” said drama teacher Mrs. Joyce McKean, adding “about half of my class wore armbands this morning and they’re in detention, so we’re having trouble practicing for our plays.”
Another group of “partisans” about which not much was said demonstrated the widespread interest in the experiment.
A group of about 60 boys from Weber High School formed an expeditionary force for a sally to North Ogden to free the school, according to Dr. LeGrande Hobbs, who has to children at North Ogden and one at Weber High.
“The (sic) finally decided they might get kicked out of school,” he added.
Gen. Free, a Salt Lake City businessman who once commanded the seven-state 96th Army Reserve Command, said the re-raising of the American flag brought back memories of other such visions.
Recalling seeing the flag over liberated territory in Attu, Kwajalein, The Philippines and Okinawa during World War II, he said: “A thrill went through me as it rose and fluttered and showed again that freedom was abroad in the world.”
Citing Paul the Apostle that “all things are bought with a price,” he told students and parents at the freedom assembly “of the price of freedom.”
Many of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence were wealthy and respected men, he said, and dozens came out of the Revolutionary War with only “their sacred honor intact” after pledging that, their lives and fortunes.
Lessons then and now
More than four decades have passed since the invasion of our school by Triangula forces when I was a seventh grader. I was among the many students that were sent to trial for the misdeed of showing patriotism. I was shuffled back and forth between bureaucratic judges until I was finally sentenced to service in the library.

In retrospect, I think my act of disobedience was as much about revolt against oppression as it was about love of country. But I can say for certain that there was an overwhelming feeling of gratitude for the freedoms we enjoyed when the school was 'liberated.' Emotions of gratitude ran very deep among even the most hard core students.

Pulling off a project like this today would likely be impossible. I expect that it would be met with heavy denunciation from around the world via the court of the Internet. Back then a couple of parents opted their children out of the experience. You'd have far more parents do that today. Administrators would be investigated and disciplined, maybe even fired and perhaps jailed. But that was a different era. Can you imagine the flack that would rain down nowadays after having militia troops armed with automatic weapons storm the halls and guard the children?

The article above notes that some teachers started to sympathize with the students. That kind of thing only happens very surreptitiously in actual oppressive regimes, because such regimes are careful to fill positions like that with loyalists. My father saw this when he grew up in Nazi Germany. Government positions of all kinds, including teaching and dog catching jobs were slowly turned over to Nazi party sympathizers. Dad said that all teachers were replaced by people that knew only one thing: how to beat the hell out of the students.

Moreover, most Americans today have a different understanding of patriotism than once was the case. Trust of government is at an all-time low. Many Americans still love their country, while simultaneously harboring suspicion and distrust of that country's government. The exercise in 1972 mixed these elements, but that approach might backfire today.

My point is to demonstrate that the culture we experienced in 1972 is different enough from present day culture that it might be difficult to nowadays understand the two-day occupation project my school ran back then. It would be easy to cast aspersions at the episode from our present sociocultural understanding. But I think that doing so would cause us to miss some valuable points.

This event left a lasting imprint on me. I venture to say that more than four decades after the event, all of the surviving students that were involved — except those that ended up burning their brains out on drugs — have visceral memories of the occupation. Thus, it was quite memorable.

At the time of the event, most students involved actually thought about what it might be like to live in a society with more restricted freedoms. I can't say, however, whether the goals of instilling appreciation for what the American flag represents and gratitude for the blessings of living in America were achieved. That would require studying that body of former students.

I think that the experience has at least helped inform whatever opinions those former students currently have of government, country, and patriotism. That ought to form part of a monument to the careers of those that worked to pull off the project.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Friends of MS Does Little to Help People With MS

After I was first diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, I naturally sought for support. I soon came into contact with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Founded in 1946, the NMSS is a "non-profit organization, and its network of chapters nationwide help people affected by multiple sclerosis by funding research, driving change through advocacy, facilitating professional education, and providing programs and services that help people with multiple sclerosis and their families" (see Wikipedia article).

The NMSS is a legitimate charity. Per this Charity Navigator report, about 20% of revenues go to administrative overhead while the rest goes to the research, advocacy, education, and assistance programs/services mentioned above. The three out of four star rating isn't the highest, but it's pretty good. This review gives the NMSS 20 for 20 on charitable accountability and governance.

When I was first diagnosed more than 2½ decades ago it was widely thought that a cure for MS was perhaps a decade away. Thanks to organizations like the NMSS we now know a lot more about the disease. It's far more complex than was thought a generation ago. But better treatments and interventions have been found so that the average person with MS is living better than at anytime in known history.

I used to participate in the MS Walk fundraising event annually. But as our family expanded, the event always ended up conflicting with other charitable activities. The first time we were contacted by an organization called Friends of MS (no website found) to give used clothes, we thought it would be a good alternative to the annual MS Walk fundraiser. However, over time I started to hear some sketchy things about Friends of MS and we discontinued our donations to that organization.

This KSL report puts some meat on the bones of those suspicions. Last year the Better Business Bureau dinged Friends of MS for tiny charity payouts (see 11/18/2014 article). This Charity Navigator report gives Friends of MS zero of four stars. In 2013 administrative and overhead costs consumed 84% of revenues and only $6,000 went to the NMSS. Fundraising consumed 67% of revenues. It looks like the organization spent two-thirds of every dollar taken in to ask for more.

KSL reports that Friends of MS board member Robert Clark concurs that the amount of funds sent to NMSS and other MS charities in recent years has been paltry, due to "increased competition for clothing, rising transportation costs, and fewer landlines for the charity to call and solicit donations." He showed financial reports demonstrating that Friends of MS has given $1.8 million to the NMSS over a 15-year period.

I don't know how much revenue Friends of MS has garnered over the past 15 years. But let's assume that the annual average is at least equivalent to the $1.2 million reported in 2013, which Clark seems to suggest was a very bad year, making for a total of $18 million. That would mean that the organization has averaged only about 10% charity (and likely less). That is abysmally bad by any measure of non-profit charities. In contrast, most employers that allow charitable donations directly from their employees' paychecks screen out non-profits whose charitable efforts amount to less than 75% of revenues.

Clark says, "Every dollar we raise is going to help people here, that work here." Many for-profit businesses could say the same thing. Clark seems to be implying that Friends of MS employees are charity cases, so that you should feel fine about the majority of your donations going to their paychecks. But most people that consider donating to Friends of MS are likely thinking research and aid programs, not fundraiser paychecks.

While Clark "is extremely proud of how the charity fulfills its mission of helping people with MS," donors should be fully aware of how their donations are being used. If you're interested, you might want to read the full KSL article to see how the tight relationship between Friends of MS and the for-profit thrift store Savers works.

Those that are interested in donating to fund MS research and services/programs for people with MS should donate to charities such as the NMSS that have a good track record of spending the bulk of their revenues on these important functions. Perhaps you could agree to fund a co-worker or a friend that is participating in the annual MS bike ride or walk. If you prefer to make sure that most of your donations go to pay fundraising expenses, then Friends of MS looks like a good option for you.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Sustain: To Strengthen or Support

From its earliest days The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has had a principle known as common consent. In the Guide to the Scriptures defines common consent as:
"The principle whereby Church members sustain those called to serve in the Church, as well as other Church decisions requiring their support, usually shown by raising the right hand.
"Jesus Christ stands at the head of his Church. Through the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, he directs Church leaders in important actions and decisions. However, all Church members have the right and privilege of sustaining or not sustaining the actions and decisions of their leaders."
Most LDS Church members likely equate common consent with the sustaining of church leaders, although, this is only a subset of the principle of common consent.

Active church members will be quite familiar with the process of being asked to sustain people called to serve in church callings. This occurs in various church assemblies, ranging from young women classes to the Church's semi-annual worldwide general conference. Most members have rarely seen situations where someone has voted against sustaining. But this happened last Saturday at the Church's general conference (see Fox 13 news story).

I am old enough to recall the last time something like this happened, when dissent was expressed over the Church's official position opposing the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution (see 1980 statement by Church leaders). In a June 2012 post I discussed the time some members voted against sustaining our local bishopric.

The understanding of voting to sustain church leaders has evolved over time. In the early days of the Church it was more common for people to vote according to their reason and whims. Over the years the understanding has changed to where it is now only acceptable to vote against someone proposed for a church calling if you happen to have knowledge of that person's unworthiness to serve in the calling. Unlike years ago, disagreements over administration are now insufficient reasons to vote against sustaining an individual in a calling.

Some see this shift as a deepening of the understanding of the Church as a theocracy, where God is at the helm. Another likely factor is the organizational realities of moving from a small early 19th Century group to a diverse multimillion member worldwide institution. But to critics of the LDS Church, the shift seems like an awfully convenient way to shield church leaders from criticism.

In fact, that seems to be the main point one of the five dissenters among the 22,000 attendees at last Saturday's general conference session seemed eager to make. He and other dissenters are likely frustrated by Pres. Uchtdorf's direction for them to consult with their local stake presidents. They do not believe that stake leaders have sufficient authority to address their concerns, nor do they believe these leaders have adequate avenues for raising those concerns to those that could address them.

From what I can gather from the Fox 13 story, the concerns raised by the main dissenter interviewed are so fundamental that I doubt they could be resolved by any meeting with any church official. After considering various sources, some dissenters seem to call for more open discourse, feeling that the Church's top leaders are too insulated to be able to consider diverse viewpoints. While I do not know how genuine they are about this, it is difficult to imagine how the Church could ever flex so far as to appease them without losing its appeal to the vast majority of its active members.

One of the central features of the LDS Church is its claim that it is the authorized kingdom of God on earth, whose mission is to prepare the earth for the second coming of Christ and to prepare souls for maximum joy in the eternities. It's not a perfect organization because it's staffed with imperfect people, so there's room for improvement. But the more the organization can be reworked according to human ideas, the more it loses this defining feature, and thus, its appeal to the faithful. Too many of the viewpoints offered by dissenters seem to drive in this direction.

The first words uttered by some faithful church members following the dissenting vote on Saturday amounted to wondering why these people didn't just leave the Church if they couldn't sustain its top leaders. It seems likely that some are already headed down that road. But this uncharitable view seems antithetical to the teachings of Christ as well as the teachings of modern church leaders about gathering the lost sheep. The Lord deeply loves each of these individuals. Church members are under covenant to follow this pattern.

Of course, love does not mean tolerance for damaging behaviors. C.S. Lewis said that proper Christian love includes wishing for people to willingly accept the earthly consequences of their actions, even as they accept Christ's Atonement in assuaging the negative eternal impact of those acts. When done right (which admittedly isn't always the case), excommunication can be one of the most loving acts a church leader can perform.

Having gone through a period of spiritual crisis myself, I empathize with church members (and even former church members) that are struggling with their faith. Even those that are absolutely certain that they are right in their stance against the Church deserve mercy and kindness.

The vocal dissent by five people last Saturday seems to have caused some faithful church members to wake up and really think about what it means to sustain their leaders. Many have openly expressed their approval of top church leaders. This isn't a bad thing.

I was sitting at home during the sustaining of church leaders. It was a sacred privilege for me to raise my hand in support of each. This was no mere reaction. It was a thoughtful exercise. While I can empathize with the turmoil some dissenters must be feeling, I can also say that I know through experiences too sacred to detail here, that I am under divine mandate to fully sustain those serving today in the Church's First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve — despite their aging and faults. I feel much like what Joseph Smith expressed in Joseph Smith History 1:25. I know it. I know that God knows that I know it. And I dare not deny it.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

I Want a Nice Yard, But I Hate Doing Yard Work

I am not great when it comes to yard care. We don't have the worst yard in the neighborhood. But it's a long way from being anything like the best. I really enjoy seeing well kept yards. But apparently not enough to actually turn my yard into such a place.

For me, beautiful yards are a lot like Christmas lights on houses. I love seeing festive holiday lighting on houses. But not enough to actually put Christmas lights on my own house.

When the kids were younger they always clamored for our family to hang exterior holiday lights. I would always tell them that they couldn't see the lights on their own house from inside the house, so that if they liked Christmas lights, the best thing they could do was to look out the window at the neighbors' houses.

This didn't stop the kids from grousing about wanting to put up lights. Until they got older, that is. Eventually they got to the age where they realized that they would be the ones doing the work of setting up and taking down the lights. Then they became quite content to continue my non-lighting policy.

When our yard was still taking shape a quarter century ago, I came home from work one day to find about a dozen trees in the driveway. My wife informed me that her sister and brother-in-law were coming over for dinner, and that after dinner my brother-in-law and I would be planting those trees.

Over the years my yard care techniques have succeeded in the demise of all but two of those trees. The two remaining — a silver maple in the front yard and a blue spruce in the back yard that I planed too close to the property line — must have been of hardier stock. They have gotten quite large, despite my efforts.

Several ornamental features have been added to our yard over time. This would have been fine, except that my wife isn't much for yard care either. This means that these features have more of a natural unkempt appearance rather than anything akin to orderly beauty.

The lawn is a mess. Although we prepared the yard and carefully planted a premium seed blend all those years ago, the lawn is now filled with a variety of less wanted grasses and weeds. Moreover, it's bumpy enough to make lawn mowing a jarring experience.

The bumps resulted from trying to care for the lawn without adequate training. We had the lawn aerated each year, but this only seemed to produce a yard full of mud plugs that looked an awful lot like dog poop. When these plugs melded back into the turf they became bumps.

One day I asked a friend who has a gorgeous lawn — an avid golfer who tells me that he loves yard care almost as much as he enjoys golfing — how often he aerates beautiful his lawn. He shrugged his shoulders and replied, "Never." Gaaa! All those years of trying to do the right thing had only ended up making our lawn worse.

Despite my wife's protestations, I haven't put fertilizer on the lawn for years. Mainly because I don't want to mow more than every seven days. Every time I have fertilized in the past, the lawn has grown enough to require mowing every five days. And in my estimation, it hasn't really looked any better.

I actually do have some treatments that I know to be effective. Broad leaf killer does kill dandelions and clover. The trouble is getting around to applying the stuff. It's really not that onerous of a task. But frankly, any kind of yard work seems onerous to me. So killing weeds ends up fairly low on the priority list.

Besides, since getting a dog I have been loath to put chemicals on the lawn lest the animal be harmed by tromping around in the residue. Even if said dog has made the yard worse by digging holes, leaving droppings, and making trails.

But I have been concerned about the bountiful dandelion crop that has been popping up since spring's early arrival this year. So I finally picked up some broad leaf killer at the hardware store. As is my nature, I put off spraying the stuff while it was warm outside. I apparently had to wait until last night when temperatures had dropped more than 20 degrees from the previous day.

When I left for work this morning I noted with satisfaction that some of the dandelions already look very sickly from last night's chemical application. It looks like I got the jump on the weeds this time around.

But I know that this is just the first skirmish of the season. The weeds will be back. Maybe I will actually garner sufficient motivation to re-treat the lawn in a couple of months before it gets too bad. The realistic side of me says that I will probably procrastinate until the yard looks more like a field of yellow flowers than a lawn.

This is my perpetual conundrum. I like having a yard. I would really like to have a nice yard. But I don't like doing yard care. And I am apparently too cheap to hire professionals to manage it for me.

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.