Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Can you say, "O death, where is thy sting?" and mean it?

Within the past couple of weeks I have received news of the passing of two of my high school classmates. These aren't the first members of my class of about 500 that have passed through the veil. I am aware of several others, including one that died of complications related to Multiple Sclerosis, a disease that I have lived with for most of my adult life.

Although these recent deaths represent only 0.4% of my graduating class, seeing two classmates die in such a short period of time naturally causes me to reflect a little more seriously upon my own mortality. I attended elementary school and played little league sports with these two. Although I haven't seen them since high school years ago, I see a reflection of my own existence in their obituaries.

People have a variety of approaches to grappling with their own impending deaths. After all, each of us has exactly one lifetime to prepare for that inescapable eventuality. Sometimes death's door comes as a welcome release after a long health struggle. Other times it strikes quickly, leaving survivors feeling as if they have been punched in the gut.

Some try to ignore their future demise until it stares them in the face. Some spend years courting it. When I was a missionary in Norway I became familiar with the works of the famed Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, whose most famous work is likely his painting, The Scream. Munch's entire life and body of work seems to have revolved around a morbid fascination with and fear of death. Ironically, he lived to age 80, which was a fairly long life for that era. But that time can hardly be considered happy.

Most people, however, arrive at some kind of accommodation with the knowledge that they will die someday. Studies show that the vast majority of people do this through faith based belief systems. Many studies suggest that people of faith tend to live happier and healthier lives, and to experience greater peace in the face of death.

My personal approach to dealing with my impending demise is based in a lifetime of cultural, secular, and religious experiences and foundations. There are so many of these threads woven into my thinking that it would be impossible to tease them apart. Many of these bits surf only my subconscious waves. But several particular events stick out for me.

Nearly eight years ago my father passed away following about a year and a half of decline precipitated by a stroke. As I looked at his emaciated remains on the hospital bed, I was suddenly overwhelmed with "the peace of God, which passeth all understanding" (Philippians 4:7). I clearly knew in my soul that my father and I would someday stand together as resurrected beings. Some would say this was just a manifestation of grief. They would be wrong. They weren't there. I was. The experience was palpable and undeniable.

I later saw Dad in a spiritual dream. Most of my dreams are an odd jumble of things that flow like meaningless flotsam on a stream of uncontrollable unconsciousness. But every once in a while I have a clear dream where the Holy Spirit is present. This was one of those, and that's all I will say about it.

About a dozen years ago I was helping Boy Scouts build a snow cave when the structure collapsed on me. (I have since learned and taught much about snow safety.) I was panicked. I couldn't move. Snow crystals were filling my mouth and throat as I struggled to breathe. But the worst thing was that I couldn't expand my lungs to inhale the limited available air because my rib cage was immobilized.

At this moment of great alarm, I realized that my death might be imminent. Oddly, I was far less concerned about its effect on me than on my son and the other Scouts that were nearby. I silently prayed for help. Even as I struggled, I experienced a moment of deep clarity. This cannot be fully described in human terms. But knowledge and light from a source outside of myself was suddenly injected into me and I knew, absolutely knew, that if I died right then I would continue to exist as myself in spirit form. I knew that I would be alright even if my physical body died.

By this time Scouts were climbing all over the top of me, which I doubted was the best way to ensure my survival. But there had a been a thick crusty layer of icy snow that had broken apart upon collapse. Boys were throwing those chunks out of the depression. Suddenly one Scout moved a chunk that relieved the pressure on one arm. I was able to use that arm to clear away another chunk, and then I could sit up and get my head above the snow. I extracted myself and spent a couple of minutes on my hands and knees coughing up ice.

I walked away from that disaster with my physical body intact. But I also walked away with the undeniable knowledge that I would exist after death and that I would be fine. Several other experiences that I won't detail at this time have given me glimpses into the spirit world. Really, I will be just fine when the time comes to go there on a more permanent basis.

The final experience that I write about occurred during my service as a missionary. This one is too sacred to me to detail at this point. But it involved other senses than just internal sight. One afternoon I had occasion to study and deeply ponder 3 Nephi when this event occurred. Suffice it to say that I can — no I must — testify that the resurrected Savior Jesus Christ literally did visit with the Nephites as described in the scripture.

The resurrection is real. Not just for the Savior but for each of us, because of the Savior's Atonement, as Alma(2) declared in Alma 41:2.

I feel grief at the passing of loved ones. I mourn at funerals. But because of what I know to be true, I still feel to exclaim with the Apostle Paul, "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?" (1 Corinthians 15:55). My prayer is that you will also know the truth of these words in your soul so that you can own them and say them with sincerity.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Why are there so few Easter songs?

"Why do we have so few Easter songs?" my son asked. He was specifically talking about Church hymns and children's songs. "We have loads of Christmas songs but hardly any Easter songs," he said. He noted that while Christmas celebrates our Savior's miraculous birth, the only reason that Christmas and our entire religion have any meaning at all is Christ's Atonement, which is the focus of Easter. So why not more Easter songs?

It turns out that we do have a number of Easter hymns and songs. The hymnbook topic index lists 13 titles under the topic Easter. But I think that any of the 30 titles under the Sacrament heading would be suitable, as would a number of other hymns. The book lists 15 Christmas hymns.

The Children's Songbook topic index lists 17 Christmas songs and only 7 Easter songs, but again, I think that a number of other songs in the book suitably address the Savior and His Atonement.

My son makes a good point. Sacred music is an important part of our worship experience. And what could be more important than the message of Easter where we commemorate Christ's victory over sin and death? It's easy to bring sacred Christmas songs to mind but I think that the average Latter-day Saint would find it much more difficult to come up with many Easter songs.

Although people whine about the secularization of Christmas and the demise of sacred Christmas music in our culture, I think that it's actually quite common to encounter Christmas hymns for many weeks leading up to Christmas. We don't do Easter like that in our culture. It's pretty much limited to one weekend. So we just don't hear music specific to Easter all that often.

While the Church holds a place aloof from the broader culture, it is designed to serve people largely living in that broader culture. So it shouldn't be surprising that the Church tends to reflect society to a certain degree.

Our modern culture goes hog wild over Christmas. The secularization of Christmas began centuries ago when branches of the Christian church syncratized the celebration of Christ's birth with renewal traditions that existed in many cultures. That secularization has led to the holiday becoming a huge worldwide cultural event.

Easter has been secularized too. I can't for the life of me comprehend people taking their little kiddies to have photos taken with the Easter bunny. Most of those Easter bunny costumes look creepy anyway. Come to think of it, Santa costumes often do as well. Why do you think it's so common for kids to bawl like crazy while sitting on Santa's lap?

For the first time in more than two decades we dispensed with our annual family Easter egg hunt this year, figuring that our youngest is now too old for it. Last year when trying to find the last of the eggs we discovered one that had been hidden since the previous Easter. And then there are those people that roll Easter eggs. What's up with the whole Easter egg tradition anyway? Jim Gaffigan jokes that this and certain other holiday traditions seem like they were designed by a drunk guy.

Some people go crazy on Easter, making it another major gifting occasion. The secular portion of our Easter celebration has always been much more muted. We have had our annual plastic Easter egg hunt (until this year) and have put out Easter baskets filled with candy. My oldest son asked why Easter baskets had to contain a bed of fake plastic grass. So his basket didn't have any of that this year; just candy.

Perhaps it's my perception, but Easter still seems to have a significant religious focus for most celebrants. Music plays a major role for most that make it a communal worship experience.

This past Sunday our ward choir sang several Easter appropriate arrangements in sacrament meeting, culminating with a rousing rendition of the traditional Easter hymn He Is Risen! Praising the Lord for the miracle of the Savior's resurrection should always be joyful. I hope that your Easter celebrations included some sacred music that brought joy and peace to your soul.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The "M" Word (Marriage) Doesn't Need to be Scary for LDS Young Adults

Earlier this month Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles presided over a Church Face to Face event for young single adults. For those that are unfamiliar with this type of event, it usually consists of people in the upper ranks of Church leadership or Church members that are celebrities (such as David Archuleta, Lindsey Stirling, the Piano Guys) meeting with a group of Church members. The groups have usually been adolescents or young adults. The leaders or celebrities respond to questions. Audiences have always included live and remote congregations.

Formats for these events have differed. Some have featured live questions and some have used moderators. The moderator format was used for this month's event, where Elder Holland answered questions along with Elder Donald L. Hallstrom of the Presidency of the Seventy and Carole M. Stephens of the Relief Society General Presidency.

If you want to get a taste of the tender loving concern Church leaders exhibited at this event, check out this video on Elder Holland's Facebook page. This is a teaser clip that Elder Holland put out a few days before the event where he answered a question from a young man that had returned early from missionary service due to mental health issues.

The very first questions at the actual event focused on marriage, which Elder Holland said was "the elephant in the room." One of the first questions was founded in fear of marriage among young adults. Each of the three leaders took turns addressing various viewpoints, with Elder Holland broadly ranging into territory that covered a wide variety of topics, including those that do no marry, same-sex attraction, and religious freedom. The trio spent more than half an hour of the event directly discussing marriage.

Here is my takeaway from the comments offered, which involves my own reading between the lines:
  • Marriage requires risk. There are no guarantees.
  • Don't pass up a good thing waiting for something better or perfect. (But make sure it's at least a good thing.)
  • A functional marriage requires long-term sustained dedication and work by both partners.
  • Go forward in faith not fear.
  • Don't worry so much about marriage. Worrying may inhibit rather than help marriage prospects.
  • Strive for and accept the ideal of an eternal marriage that begins as a young adult and continues forever. But accept your situation if it differs from the ideal, without becoming embittered about the ideal.
  • Don't wait for the right financial, educational, or career situation before marrying or you will miss out on much more valuable marital growth that can occur as you work through these challenges together.
There's a lot more. But these are some of the points that caught my attention.

A mother of six that I know recently discussed what kind of faith it requires to willingly bear children. "You invite a child to come to your family," she said, "and you have no idea who is coming." You have no clue whether it will be a boy or a girl, or what kind of personality it will have. You don't know what kind of mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health issues will arise. The kinds of lifelong joys and burdens the child will bring to you are also unknown.

But you move forward and have the child anyway. Why? Because you hope that in the long run it will be worth whatever sacrifices are required.

Pursuing marriage is similar in many ways. While there is great value in getting to know your future spouse during dating and courtship, the simple fact of the matter is that you cannot know up front how it's going to turn out. Nor, Elder Holland assured, can you know the long-term outcome during the first month, year, or even decade of marriage.

I know a couple that has been married for 3½ decades where one partner has developed a great interest in anti-Mormon groups and opinions. I'm sure that the day they were married in the temple neither partner dreamed that one of them would be leaving the Church decades later.

The day my wife and I were married we had no clue that I would be diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis just two years later. Or that I would experience a series of job losses during my career due to layoffs.

In the October 2015 general conference, Linda S. Reeves of the Relief Society General Presidency told of a sister who had two marriages fail "due to the addictions and unfaithfulness of her husbands," despite the woman's best efforts. Sister Reeves wanted to tell this sister, "You are doing all that Heavenly Father wants and hopes you will do!" The sister could choose her behaviors and attitudes, but she could not choose the outcomes because the agency of others is involved and must be respected.

Like choosing to have a child, getting married requires a leap of faith, regardless of how well you know your spouse-to-be. But, also like having children, marriage is worth the risk because you have the hope of eternal family joy. And even if it doesn't work out exactly as you hope, you can at least know that you are doing your best to follow the Lord's plan for you.

Yes, there are marital failures. But as Elder Holland notes, most marriages both inside and outside of the Church are happy marriages. Don't spend so much time focusing on problem marriages that it drains away desire and wastes energy that could be put to productive use.

Some have opined that one reason some LDS young adults fear marriage is FOMO: the fear of missing out. They are afraid that if they get married to the person they are dating they will feel like they may have missed out on better opportunities. At the same time, they worry that if they did hold out and marry somebody later they would regret having foregone the earlier relationship.

This is a recipe for a lifetime of perpetual inaction coupled with regret. Sounds fun, eh? Listen to Elder Holland. If you have a good thing, go for it. Then work to make that good thing a great thing.

I recognize that it is difficult for young adults to accept marital advice from people a generation or two ahead of them. Today's dating and courtship scene is wildly different from what people of my generation or those of Elder Holland's generation experienced. How could the advice these people give be relevant?

While things truly are different today, some core matters have not changed. You can trust the Lord's servants to give valuable teachings about marriage. But you must ultimately find out directly from the Holy Spirit what is specifically right for you. And then you must do it.

Some young adults say that they are struggling with their connection to the Holy Ghost due to worthiness issues. The answer, of course, is to accept Christ's grace into your life. Do as President Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the First Presidency taught in the October 2015 general conference and "start where you are."
"God will take you as you are at this very moment and begin to work with you. All you need is a willing heart, a desire to believe, and trust in the Lord."
A friend that has served as a bishop once told me of a man that came to him after having struggled with a pornography addiction for 25 years. He had counseled with leaders, had been through the Church's 12-step program, and had gone to therapy. But in counseling with the man, my bishop friend discovered that the man had never fully applied Christ's Atonement. After working to make that happen over the next few weeks, the man felt alive in Christ for the first time in years. He lost his seemingly insatiable appetite for porn. "It can't be that easy," the man told the bishop. "I'm here to tell you, my friend," said the bishop, "that it is." The man hasn't had a problem with porn in the years that have passed since that time.

I have seen enough cases that I know that it doesn't work that swiftly for everyone. But the answer to worthiness problems is to start now and move forward, however incrementally the progress may be. Christ "will not leave you comfortless" but will "come to you" (John 14:18). President Uchtdorf assures:
"My dear brothers and sisters, if we look at ourselves only through our mortal eyes, we may not see ourselves as good enough. But our Heavenly Father sees us as who we truly are and who we can become. He sees us as His sons and daughters, as beings of eternal light with everlasting potential and with a divine destiny."
Satan wants you to wallow in your sins. He wants you to think that you can't progress; that it's hopeless. The Savior wants quite the opposite and will do all in His power to help you experience the light of the Holy Spirit once again so that you can know how to move toward an eternal marriage.

No, there is no guarantee that marriage will turn out as you hope. But you can have the guarantee that doing what the Lord commands is always right and will ultimately lead to ultimate joy. The Lord has promised it. And I promise that you can always trust Him.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Keeping Making the Sabbath Sacred

I grew up in a home where my parents took Sabbath observance quite seriously. Far more seriously than us kids did. So I was rather surprised the Sunday that Dad did construction work. I’d never seen him do anything like that on the Sabbath before. One of Dad’s former co-workers had passed away. The funeral was to be held on a Sunday at a small church belonging to a different denomination in St. George. This man had never been religious, so Dad was rather surprised when the family asked him to be the main and only speaker at the funeral. Although the man lived a non-religious life, he had apparently always respected Dad’s faith.

Dad worked with a lot of handy guys, but many of them were either not LDS or not active in the Church. As Dad was packing to go to St. George, one of his co-workers called and said that the home of the widow was in desperate need of certain repairs. He had arranged to get the materials needed for the repairs, but he wanted all of the guys that came to the funeral to go to the house and do the labor. The only time they could get the materials and the handy workers together was right after the funeral. I watched Dad pack his tools before leaving for St. George.

That Sunday morning Dad stood at a non-LDS pulpit and preached an LDS sermon on the purpose of life, the doctrine of Christ, and the resurrection. He then spent the rest of the day doing construction work, before leaving as late as possible to return home so that he could go to work the next day. During a discussion that evening, some of us kids expressed shock that Dad would work on Sunday. Mom simply asked us what we thought the Savior would have done in the same situation.

In D&C 59:10 we read that the Sabbath is a day appointed to us to rest from our labors. Note that this does not say that the Sabbath is a day to rest from the Lord’s labors, but from our own labors. In Isaiah 58 we read (in v5) that on the Sabbath we are to “undo the heavy burdens” and “break every yoke”, (in v6) feed the hungry, house the homeless and clothe the naked, (in v10) satisfy the afflicted soul, and (in v13) turn away from doing our own pleasure. In time I came to understand that this is what Dad was doing that Sunday when he worked on the widow’s house.

What we do outwardly on the Lord’s Sabbath is important. I think it’s vitally important, because correct outward actions help create ideal circumstances for God, the master potter to mould the clay of our souls. But what we experience inwardly on the Sabbath is far more important than what we do outwardly. It is possible to seemingly do all the right things outwardly without really worshipping God inwardly. That doesn’t mean that we can really worship God while doing the wrong things outwardly. Our outward actions and inner self must be yoked together with God for proper Sabbath worship.

Over the past year our church leaders have placed a great deal of emphasis on properly observing the Sabbath. If you go to the topic index of the October 2015 general conference, you see that five talks directly addressed the subject. But in fact, most of the speakers treated Sabbath worship in one way or another. Those that speak to us in general conference are not assigned topics. They seek revelation and deliver what they feel the Spirit tells them to say. So why do you think that the Lord is having his servants repeatedly invite us to honor the Sabbath Day and keep it holy?

While we are very familiar with the term “keep the Sabbath Day holy,” it makes a greater impact on me when I change the word “keep” to “make,” as in, “make the Sabbath Day holy.” It implies that I need to actively do something rather than just letting something happen. In Exodus 31:13 we read that the Sabbath is a sign of our covenant with God. I need to purposefully show my love for God through the sign of making the Sabbath holy.

In the April 2003 general conference, Elder Dennis B. Neuenschwander of the Seventy said, “One may not have the sacred without first sacrificing something for it. There can be no sacredness without personal sacrifice. Sacrifice sanctifies the sacred.” From this I understand that I need to actively turn away from my own pleasure, sacrificing the animal in me each Sabbath to do my part in making the Sabbath holy and sacred.

One way to think about the Sabbath is to regard it the same way we regard going to the Temple. In this respect, the Sabbath is the Temple of our weekly reckoning of time. It doesn’t replace Temple worship. But like going to the Temple, we need to prepare ourselves for the Sabbath. Just as we make the Temple a sacred physical space, we need to make the Sabbath a sacred time space.

What do we hope to gain from making the Sabbath holy? In the October 2015 general conference, Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve said that honoring the Sabbath “will bless and strengthen families, connect us with our Creator, and increase happiness.” It will “separate us from that which is frivolous, inappropriate, or immoral ... allow[ing] us to be in the world but not of the world.” The Sabbath will “be a refuge from the storms of this life.”

Sister Neill F. Marriott of the Young Women General Presidency said, “True worship begins when our hearts are right before the Father and the Son. What is our heart condition today? Paradoxically, in order to have a healed and faithful heart, we must first allow it to break before the Lord. “Ye shall offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit,” the Lord declares (in 3 Nephi 19:20). The result of sacrificing our heart, or our will, to the Lord is that we receive the spiritual guidance we need.”

Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Twelve said, “All of us are blessed when the Sabbath is filled with love for the Lord at home and at church. ... And all, young and old, who are carrying heavy burdens will feel the spiritual uplift and comfort that comes from a Sabbath day of devoted contemplation of our Heavenly Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Again in Isaiah 58, we are promised when we make the Sabbath sacred:
  • (v9) “Then shalt thou call, and the Lord shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am.”
  • (v10) “... then shall ... thy darkness be as the noonday,” meaning that the darkest hours of your life will be like the brightest hours you would otherwise have without honoring the Sabbath.
  • (v11) “... the Lord shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, ... and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not.”

All of these things sound like blessings I want in my life. But to have them I have to want them more than I want to do my own pleasure on the Sabbath. Some orthodox Jews don’t just “keep” the Sabbath holy, they celebrate the Sabbath and its holiness to the Lord. Maybe we can learn something from them about celebrating sacredness each Sabbath.

I have had many sacred Sabbath experiences. Many of them in this very room. The Spirit has impressed me to speak in closing about a sacred experience that occurred on a Sabbath many years ago, shortly after I was released from the hospital while suffering my first major Multiple Sclerosis attack. I was scared. I didn’t know what life would bring. Would I be able to provide for my family? Would I be able to even walk or talk?

That day our home teachers Steve Stewart and Leland Barker came over. These two humble men hardly knew me. We were fairly new to the ward. But they placed their hands on my head and gave me a priesthood blessing that contained certain promises that continue to grace my life to this day. I will forever be grateful for the way these brethren honored the Sabbath that Sunday by visiting the sick.

I promise that the Lord will amply reward every effort you make to make the Sabbath sacred and holy. If you have questions about how to do that, seek the words of his servants and go to him in prayer. He won’t fail you. I also promise that the Lord will more than compensate you through blessings that will ripple throughout the eternities for any profane thing or activity you sacrifice to more fully worship Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ on the Sabbath.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Sending off another missionary: It gets easier — in some ways

Does it become easier each time you send a child out to serve as a missionary? We recently made the trip to the MTC to drop off our third missionary. From this perspective, I can say that in some ways sending off missionaries does become easier, but not in other ways.

On a side note, I referred to our MTC trip as "Operation Empty Sea" at work. One of my LDS coworkers asked what that meant. I explained that when I was a missionary, one of my companions had come from an area where there were few Latter-day Saints. At a going away party before he left on his mission, some of the LDS attendees kept talking about "the MTC." A non-LDS friend wished my companion well, but then asked why he had to go to "the Empty Sea" to be a missionary. It's kind of been a joke for me ever since I heard that story.

It takes a lot of work to get a son or a daughter ready to leave to serve as a missionary for 24 or 18 months. Quite frankly, my wife has shouldered the bulk of that burden for all three of our missionaries. I suspect it is the same in many families. So among the emotions a parent experiences upon sending off a missionary are relief that the preparations are finally done and worry that you probably forgot something important. Incidentally, my son's first email from the MTC said that he had failed to pack deodorant.

Parents generally experience varying levels of worry about their missionaries for the duration of their missions. Of our three missionaries so far, we're least worried about this one. That's only in part because he's not the first. The first one gets additional worry simply because there are many things the parent experiences for the first time, even if the parent has served a mission (as both my wife and I have).

The real reason for the reduced worry is that this son happens to be fairly low maintenance. He's low on drama. He's pretty comfortable in his own skin. He has always been very comfortable talking to just about anybody about things that interest him. That penchant used to cause us embarrassment and consternation when he was young, but it will come in handy as a missionary. This child is fairly flexible. He doesn't get up tight about new situations or new people.

This doesn't mean that we aren't worried at all. While our son is quite smart, he has a certain type of directional dysfunction. His brain doesn't register landmarks the way a typical brain does. Meaning that he easily gets lost. This problem was mitigated by the mapping app on his smartphone. We're reasonably certain that he will have access to some kind of GPS device while serving as a missionary. At any rate, he will have a companion with him 24x7, so if he gets lost, at least he and his companion will be lost together.

As we have with the other two missionaries, we drove up to the Provo Temple to take pictures before going to the scheduled drop off at the MTC. It was rainy, so we didn't stay long at the temple grounds. The photos didn't turn out very well. But such is life.

We drove onto the grounds of the MTC. After waiting in a line, we were directed where to turn and where to pull up to a curb. We hopped out and pulled our son's luggage out. Another missionary that was assigned to be our son's escort grabbed some of the luggage as we gave final hugs and good-byes. By that time, the escort was already moving down the sidewalk. Our son grabbed the rest of the luggage and hurried to catch up with his escort. We hopped back in the car and were directed to pull out. We were soon back on our way home.

I know that rapid-fire drop off process sounds harsh. But having done the drama laden presentation gathering back in my day, I truly believe that this method is better for both the missionary and the family. After all, you've already had weeks to say your good-byes.

I felt a great sense of pride and joy as our son entered the MTC. Still, a piece of my heart went with him as he walked away and we drove away. That part never seems to get easier. It's different for each child because each attaches to our heart strings in unique ways.

This son spent three years as my Scouting buddy, acting as chief of the Order of the Arrow chapter that I advise. He's been transitioning to more of an adult role in life, especially since he began college last fall, so that the Scouting separation I feel is more nostalgic than immediate. In fact, he seems far more comfortable interacting with others on an adult level than he ever did on a child level. It just seems natural for him.

One less body in our home simplifies things in some ways. We aren't waiting up late for our son to return from a date or an evening with friends. It's easier to coordinate family schedules and meals. But our home is also a bit emptier than before.

Occasionally I find my thoughts wandering off to what our son might be doing at that moment. As I consider some of the more difficult things he will face on his mission, a part of me reflexively wants to reach out and protect him. But another part tells me that it's a good thing I can't do so. Our son will become something more, hopefully greater as he deals with these things. He will be less our little boy. But that's a good thing.

Godspeed, my son. Serve well.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Our Star Wars Christmas

In the run-up to Christmas we made time to watch a few Christmas movies as a family. As usual, we watched A Christmas Story and the musical Scrooge. I brought nostalgia for these films into our marriage years ago and now they are Christmas favorites for (at least some of) our children.

Some of the kids watched the live version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I was pleased to have missed out on yet another viewing of that frenetic film. We have a stack of DVDs of other Christmas movies, including a number of animated and live action films. The kids have seen the various Tim Allen Santa Clause movies enough that they rarely watch those anymore. Not one of my kids likes The Polar Express, likely due to the uncanny valley effect.

Due to the way things worked out this year, we enjoyed Christmas morning with all seven members of our nuclear family and nobody else, for the first time in many years. I figured that since we no longer had small children, we'd be able to sleep in a bit. But apparently our junior high and high school kids still found Christmas morning magical enough to make the rest of us get up at 6:30 am.

The middle of the day was filled with family and food. As evening settled in, it was back to our nuclear family. Our two youngest insisted that we sit down and watch a Christmas movie together as a family. But then bickering ensued about which film to watch.

After the two main parties went back and forth for half an hour, I thought I'd play the funny man by suggesting that we watch Star Wars. Instead of laughter, one child noted that our youngest had never seen the first Star Wars movie (now episode IV). As a family Christmas gift, my wife had purchased tickets to see The Force Awakens the following day. She thought it would be good to review A New Hope before going to see the newly released film. I looked around the family room and saw a lot of head nodding.

Soon the lights were turned down, popcorn was popped, and the family was watching Star Wars IV. I said something to the effect that this must be a great Christmas movie. After all, more than one family in the neighborhood had some kind of Star Wars themed inflatable Christmas yard ornament.
For the record, the connection between Christmas and Star Wars continues to elude me. As does the appeal of inflatable yard ornaments of any kind. We didn't make it far into the movie before I realized that I had forgotten how whiny Luke Skywalker was in that movie.

OK, so Star Wars isn't much of a Christmas movie. But the family seemed to enjoy watching it together sans contention. Maybe that's more important.

The following day after lunch we sat in a packed movie theater to watch the new Star Wars movie. Don't worry, I'm not going to reveal any serious spoilers here. Besides being exciting, it had good special effects, fun callbacks to other Star Wars movies, acceptable acting, at least one gut wrenching scene, and unanswered questions that set up sequels. C3PO and R2D2 played more minor roles than they did in the original trilogy. C3PO's initial appearance was deliberately annoying. I laughed when one of my kids leaned over and whispered, "Worst human-cyborg relations droid ever!"

The entire family enjoyed the Star Wars excursion. It caused me to reflect on the enduring nature of the Star Wars franchise. I first saw Star Wars in a movie theater in Honolulu, after having spent the summer working in the pineapple fields on the island of Lanai, which was pretty rustic back in those days. Given the nature of our work, schedule, and surroundings, we hadn't heard much about the Star Wars phenomenon. But our entire 17-member group waited in a line that was several blocks long to watch the film.

Within a short time after returning home, it became clear that Star Wars was a pretty big thing. I saw the second movie by special permission while serving as a missionary in Norway. Given that Norway had a population of less than five million and a high rate of English proficiency, they rarely dubbed films into Norwegian, relying instead on Norwegian subtitles. I still remember being sorely disappointed at the end of The Empire Strikes Back.

Critics were happier with episode V than with episode IV, but I walked out of the cinema feeling that I had been robbed of an episode IV-like strong positive ending and a knowledge that I had to wait another three years to see the conclusion. Return of the Jedi finally provided the positive thrill I had hoped for with episode V, but I still feel conflicted about the whole Darth Vader deathbed repentance thing.

I watched the Star Wars prequels as a father seeing them through the eyes of my children. Frankly, I was appalled by the bad acting and brain dead writing in Revenge of the Sith. I walked out of the theater feeling like I had endured the film simply to finish a series I had started watching nearly three decades earlier. I consoled myself by telling myself that my expectations were likely too high and that I wouldn't have cared much for the first movie if it had had a 28-year build up. But even then I knew that wasn't completely true.

It would seem that many agree that JJ Abrams has produced a much higher quality film this time around. But even after seeing it, I still think that my favorite film from the Star Wars franchise to date is the short Lego Star Wars: The Padawan Menace. It is chock full of quirky humor and callbacks to other Star Wars works. (Not everyone will appreciate this kind of work, but I think it's great.)

After getting home from the movie, the two older boys left to return to their apartment near the University of Utah campus, where they are majoring in different engineering disciplines. Our family Christmas gathering, which had begun on Christmas Eve, was done for the year.

With one son leaving in a few days to serve for two years as a missionary and the older boys working toward graduation and life thereafter, we may never have another Christmas with just the seven of us. Life is meant to progress like that. But I will long cherish this year's Star Wars Christmas — not so much for the movies, but for the shared experience.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Sometimes I hide from my inner Good Samaritan

I felt a familiar surge of irritation as I noticed that traffic was backed up at the busy intersection ahead. This intersection is noisome even on good days, at least when I'm on my way home from work. You are prohibited from turning right on a red light, even if there is no oncoming traffic. (In Utah you can generally turn right on a red light after stopping and ensuring that the way is clear.) So I was preconditioned to have a somewhat surly mood as I approached the intersection. Seeing the traffic backed up only enhanced that sentiment.

As vehicles slowly moved through the intersection, I finally got close enough to see the source of the problem. A lone man was pushing a pickup truck across the wide intersection. As I rounded the corner, I saw a car parked at the curb. It suddenly dawned on me that the man pushing the truck was the driver of the car. A woman was steering the truck as the man strained to push it, while other vehicles zipped by.

"You could pull over and help the man push the truck," said the Good Samaritan (see Luke 10:25-37) that lives somewhere in my mind. "Yeah, I could," I responded, "but by the time I got there, the truck would already be pulled to the shoulder on the other side of the intersection. Besides, traffic is heavy enough that trying to get to the truck would be dangerous."

A moment later my inner Good Samaritan said, "You might not get there in time to push, but maybe you could provide some other kind of assistance." "What, me?" I shot back. "You know I'm no good with mechanical stuff, especially when it comes to cars and trucks. It's not like they need my phone; everyone's got cell phones nowadays. It would be awkward. Besides, I frequently serve others. Do I really need to do it this time?"

The intersection was receding in my rear view mirror as I was having this conversation. As I accelerated, the Good Samaritan voice I had been hearing became quieter. I cruised my way home, but I knew inside that, like numerous other drivers that had passed the scene, I had been the priest or Levite while the sole man pushing the truck had been the Good Samaritan.
It's not like I haven't been steeped in the doctrine of service to others throughout my life. It's not as if I haven't deliberately gone out of my way to serve others. Often. It's not as if I don't belong to organizations where I actively reach out to serve. But sometimes I excuse myself from unplanned service, especially when it seems inconvenient.

A few days ago I happened to be working from home when my wife came in and said that a neighbor lady's car battery was dead. I may not know that much about cars, but I have successfully jumped dead car batteries many times. At my wife's importuning, I got up and went across the street as my wife pulled her car up along side the one with the dead battery. I soon attached the battery cables as the lady started the car and brought it to life. She was very grateful as she hurried away to pick up some relatives from the airport.

I went back across the street, stowed the battery cables and returned to my computer. Although the task had taken only six or seven minutes I  grumbled at the interruption, because interruptions can really throw someone doing a deep thinking task like software development completely off track.


I was just starting to get my head back into my work when my olfactory senses started to pick up on some undefined foreign scent. I sniffed my hands. Nothing. looked at my shirt. It looked OK. I checked my pant cuffs. Nothing there. Just then my mental classification system kicked in. "If I didn't know any better," I thought to myself, "I'd think that odor smells very much like ... cat crap!"

Oh, no! The neighbor I had helped owns cats. A quick check of the bottom of my shoes revealed the telltale yellowish greenish goulash of feline excrement firmly embedded in the well defined tread pattern of my fairly new hiker shoes. Although I immediately pulled the shoes off my feet, I realized that I had likely tracked pussycat poop all through the house.

The next few minutes were occupied by cleaning the bottoms of my shoes and cleaning spots on the flooring where I had stepped while wearing poopy shoes. This took much longer than the original car starting task had taken. I re-grumbled as I again tried to reengage my software developer brain.

There are lessons I can learn from both of these events. I really do enjoy serving others. But I like to do it on my own terms. It's best if it's planned and on my schedule. Sometimes I don't respond well when service opportunities inconveniently present themselves suddenly.

Years ago, Elder Rex D. Pinegar (then of the Seventy) told the following story.
One morning several years ago I was driving with my family to Disney World in Florida. Our four young daughters were excited as we approached the turnoff to that famous park. The laughter and happy chatter stopped suddenly, however, as our rented station wagon sputtered and chugged to an unexpected stop on the exit ramp. Many cars sped by us in the rush-hour traffic as I tried unsuccessfully to get the car running again. Finally, realizing there was nothing more we could do, we got out of the stalled car and huddled together off the road for a word of prayer.
As we looked up from our prayer we saw a smiling, handsome man and his son maneuver their bright red sports car through the lanes of traffic and pull off the road beside us. For the remainder of the morning and into the afternoon these men assisted us and cared for our needs in many kind and helpful ways. They took us and our belongings to the receiving area at the park. In their small car, it took several trips. They helped me locate a tow truck for the stranded car; they drove me to the rental agency to get a replacement vehicle. Then, because there was some delay, they drove back to where my family waited to let them know where I was. They bought refreshments for them and then waited with my family until I returned several hours later.
We felt that these men were truly an answer to our prayer, and we told them so as we said good-bye and tried to thank them. The father responded, “Every morning I tell the good Lord that if there is anyone in need of my help today, please guide me to them.”
Elder Pinegar went on to explain that planned and institutional acts of service are "important and commendable. They are the mark of a Christian people." But these opportunities "cannot fulfill the responsibility you and I have for personal acts of Christlike kindness. These lift our soul and renew our relationship with our Heavenly Father and with His Son, Jesus Christ."

President Dieter F. Uchtdorf recently detailed the following discussion between an 11-year-old girl name Eva and her Great-Aunt Rose.
Eva ... said, “But surely being busy isn’t what made you happy. There are a lot of busy people who aren’t happy.”
“How can you be so wise for someone so young?” Aunt Rose asked. “You’re absolutely right. And most of those busy, unhappy people have forgotten the one thing that matters most in all the world—the thing Jesus said is the heart of His gospel.”
“And what is that?” Eva asked.
“It is love—the pure love of Christ,” Rose said. “You see, everything else in the gospel—all the shoulds and the musts and the thou shalts —lead to love. When we love God, we want to serve Him. We want to be like Him. When we love our neighbors, we stop thinking so much about our own problems and help others to solve theirs.”
“And that is what makes us happy?” Eva asked.
Great-Aunt Rose nodded and smiled, her eyes filling with tears. “Yes, my dear. That is what makes us happy.”
Service by itself doesn't make us happy. The pure love of Christ makes us happy. While we often feel this love when serving others, those filled with this kind of love naturally serve. If I had been filled with this charity (see Moroni 7:47-48), I would have loved the woman in the stalled truck and the man pushing her truck enough to stop and help, instead of giving excuses to my inner Good Samaritan.

I didn't know about my neighbor's dead battery until my wife alerted me to the problem. Still, even if I had known, would I have gotten up off my duff and done something about it without my wife's encouragement? I would have if I had been filled with Christ-like love. Sometimes an invitation can help us get outside of ourselves and help others.

What about the cat crap on my shoes? If you're going to follow Jesus Christ, you have to accept the fact that you're going to have to deal with some crap when it comes to serving others. Service can be inconvenient, problematic, and even dangerous.

But I suppose that it was pretty inconvenient for the Savior when He bled great drops of blood for me in Gethsemane and when He allowed himself to be tortured to death on the cross for me. But He has a fullness of joy. And He wants you and me to have it too. I'm sure that in the long run we will see that the trade off is well worth it.

I want to go there. But I still often find myself listening to my inner priest or Levite on the road to Jericho, instead of listening to my inner Good Samaritan. Like Nephi, I am sometimes frustrated with my own wretchedness (see 2 Nephi 4:17-18). But God doesn't want us to think of ourselves as hopeless cases.

Pres. Uchtdorf recently said, "God will take you as you are at this very moment and begin to work with you. All you need is a willing heart, a desire to believe, and trust in the Lord." Like the desperate father that cried out "Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief" (Mark 9:23-24), I feel like crying, "Lord, I am willing; help thou my unwillingness." If I keep working at it, I know that God won't give up on me.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

You can learn a lot about people by going to a buffet

I took my son to lunch yesterday. What better way to celebrate the day after Thanksgiving than to go to an all-you-can-eat buffet? It seems that our culture has determined that the proper way to give thanks is to gorge ourselves on loads of comfort foods on the fourth Thursday in November. So going to a buffet the day after Thanksgiving must show double gratitude.

We chose a nearby buffet because my son was famished, having missed breakfast that morning. One of the advantages to a buffet is that everyone can get something to eat right away. There's no looking at menus, waiting for someone to take your order, etc. You just grab a plate, put some food on it, sit down, and start eating.

Actually, I noticed that many diners didn't wait to get back to their seats before sampling the fare. At a buffet it's no problem if you end up picking something you don't like. Just leave it and someone will eventually come by and whisk it away while you go back for more food.

My son noted that the word buffet (meaning self serve meal, pronounced buh-FAY) and the word buffet (meaning to strike a blow, pronounced BUH-fit) are spelled the same way. I pondered on the deeper of meaning of this coincidence as we chose a table and then went to select food from the bounteous spread.

Before long I decided that this type of restaurant would provide great fodder for another son that occasionally does stand-up comedy. I watched one painfully thin girl spend 10 minutes at the salad bar carefully crafting a huge pile of well ordered leafy stuff. Now, I like salad as much as the next guy — which is not that much. I mainly eat it to ensure that I get some roughage in my system. But I could never understand spending dollars on a buffet only to eat cents worth of leaves.

In the neighboring booth was seated a family with young children. The problem with sitting in a booth at a buffet restaurant is that anytime someone that isn't seated at the open end wants to go back to the buffet, everyone between that person and the end of the bench must first exit. They must again exit when the diner returns.

Perhaps this is thought by parents of young children to be an advantage, because mom and dad can act as gatekeepers. I think that's what these parents were thinking. The plan seemed to work well for most of their children. But not so much for Jackson, who appeared to be four or five.

During the 20 minutes or so that we spent dining, I must have heard Jackson's dad call Jackson's name at least 200 times. When the dad told Jackson to do something, Jackson would do pretty much the opposite. After the fifth, sixth, or seventh repeated demand, Jackson would finally sort of do what his dad had demanded, but definitely not in the way the dad intended.

I had not discussed the Jackson situation with my son. After all, what needed to be said? Wasn't it obvious to everyone in the restaurant? At one point I quietly said with intended understatement, "Jackson doesn't seem to be very obedient." My son returned a sly grin, as we heard the dad say, "Jackson, get back over here!" for the umpteenth time.

We then glanced down at the floor to see Jackson doing an army crawl past our booth. The exasperated dad then repeatedly said, "Jackson, get up off the floor!" Which Jackson, of course, did not do. "Well," I said to my son, "someone has to clean the floor in this place. He seems to be doing a nice job of it."

Actually, I was somewhat proud of Jackson's father. I well remember the frustrations of going to restaurants with young children in tow. The dad never physically corrected his child. And while he was clearly frustrated throughout the meal, he never really lost his cool. Although, I must admit that if his goal was to have Jackson behave, he pretty much failed. Maybe this hefty fellow's parenting style differs when he's not in public.
There's something about buffets that tends to make people notice the more corpulent diners. Is it just my imagination, or are there really more obese folks at buffet restaurants than at other styles of restaurants? Maybe it's just human nature to fear that these folks will eat more than their fair share, leaving inadequate pickings for the other diners.

I noticed one particularly bulky couple conversing with several of the workers at the restaurant. "Tony," one of them said to a young man who was working hard behind the counter, "we haven't seen you here in the evenings lately." From their conversation, it became clear that these folks were very regular diners. I got to thinking that if a customer knows a lot of the staff at a buffet restaurant on a first name basis, it might be a sign that they're spending too much of their time there. Their steadily increasing girth might be another sign.
Have you ever watched the blocking strategies some buffet diners employ to hold other diners at bay while they consider their potential quarry? I notice that most buffet diners approach the counter with a kind of lustful gleam in their eyes. As they make their approach you can see their faces change. Their breathing goes from even to intense. When you see a kind of wild look in their eyes, it should be taken as a caution to avoid getting between those people and the food.

For a few of these folks, the whole event is clearly a competition of some sort. Most manage to keep it from turning into a contact sport, but they're not above using physical methods if necessary. I watched one 300-lb fellow deftly shift his weight in such a way that young Jackson, who was again on the loose, ran headlong into the man's fleshy leg. Jackson rebounded away from the dessert counter and back toward his frustrated father, who was saying something about being unable to understand what Jackson was saying with his mouth full of food.

As I was pondering all of this, my son said, "I think I'm done." "Don't you want to try the..." I began asking. "No," he cut me off, "I really think I can't eat another thing." The look in his eyes told me he was quite earnest. He apparently had more than made up for missing his morning meal. He also clearly had more discretion than some diners at the establishment.

As we walked from the restaurant, I realized that going to an all-you-can-eat buffet is an interesting study in human nature, with parallels to both domestic and international relations. Not all those that have plenty of weight are good at throwing it around, but some clearly are. Just before the door to the building closed completely, I was pulled out of my reverie by the sound of a man's voice once again calling, "Jackson!"

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

I was a stranger ...

"I've read most of the Koran," said the man, "and I can tell you that Islam is not a religion of peace." I knew that this man claimed to take his claims of being a disciple of Jesus Christ very seriously. So the next words out of his mouth rather shocked me. "I think it's time that we just eliminate the whole bunch of them."

Really? And how, pray tell, are "we" going to eliminate 1.6 billion people, roughly a quarter of the people on this earth? Yes, there are Islamic fundamentalist terrorists that are intent on inflicting harm on what we define as the civilized people of the earth. But even if you add up all of their atrocities, how — under anyone's moral compass — can the mass extinction of billions of innocents to get at a number of terrorists be justified? Is it right to judge an entire religion by the extremists among them?

Realizing his rashness, the man backpedaled, saying that he really only meant the elimination of ISIS. That's a relief. But nobody really knows for sure how many people are members of ISIS or who those people are. Estimates range from about 20,000 to more than a quarter million. The area controlled by the group is very fluid.

Even if we had better intelligence, how would "we" accomplish the goal of completely destroying ISIS? Bombing is not enough says one favorite LDS politician. We need to be "willing to devote whatever resources are required to win", including putting "boots on the ground." I guess the US needs to start another war in the Middle East because that strategy has worked out so well in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Going back to my friend's desire to eliminate Muslims based on what he reads in their scriptures, I can't help but wonder if he has paid much attention to what he has read in the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon. I love these scriptures. But quite frankly, I could easily find plenty of fodder in these documents to claim that Judaism, Christianity, and Mormonism are evil, blood thirsty religions. Maybe those of us that live in glass houses ought to be careful about throwing stones at others' houses.

Noting that there could be (and probably are) terrorists among the refugees fleeing the violence in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, hoards of 'good Christians' are insisting that our nation refuse to admit any of these refugees in the name of national security. Unlike what Donny Osmond sang, they insist that a few bad apples do spoil the whole bunch.

This seems to make a mockery of the words of Emma Lazarus' poem emblazoned on the base of the Statue of Liberty.
It's true that acceptance of others should not go so far as to constitute a suicide pact. But consider what Jesus Christ said in Matthew 25:31-46. "I was a stranger and ye took me in." He doesn't seem to mention qualifiers in that statement. In fact, admonitions to embrace and show hospitality to foreigners pepper the scriptures.

During the winter of 1838-1839, Mormons were driven from Missouri. Many lacked adequate food, transportation, clothing, and shelter. As they trekked toward Illinois, most residents along the way refused to help the suffering Mormons.

Part of the problem that resulted in the expulsion was that there had been actual terrorists among the Mormons. They were only a fraction of the total number. But the fact that there might be terrorists among the fleeing refugees was adequate excuse for refusing to help any of them. (The expulsion from Nauvoo was no picnic either.)

Are we now using the same kinds of excuses to refuse to assist refugees from the Middle East? Modern prophets have directly admonished Latter-day Saints to "contribute to the Church Humanitarian Fund" and "participate in local relief projects, where practical." I've heard some say that doing so is fine, as long as those refugees stay away from here.

While we now recognize the atrocity of the Holocaust, bear in mind that most Americans were completely opposed to helping Jewish refugees before World War II (see WP article). It was feared that these people would bring their problems with them and inflict those problems on the rest of us.

Wide disparities exist in estimating how many extremists there are among the worldwide Muslim population. This site, which appears to be somewhat favorable toward Muslims, along with other resources, suggest that roughly 7% of Muslims harbor extremist views. That's actually quite a large number. But this doesn't mean that many of this number are willing to actively enact or support the kind of violence we saw in Paris last week.

Besides, Adam Taylor claims that being inhospitable to the refugees from the Middle East is exactly what ISIS wants. Do we really want to come down on the side of helping ISIS further its larger goals?

I'm not claiming to be any guru on how to solve the problem of radical Islam. Nor am I suggesting that bringing refugees into the US and other Western countries won't bring with it problems and dangers. But I do think that the gospel of Jesus Christ requires disciples to be willing to shoulder some of those burdens, and even dangers. The inconvenient commands in the scriptures aren't just ideological gas. It's what you must grow to love doing to become a celestial citizen.

Are security and hospitality really such diametrically opposite goals? Or are we perhaps harboring less sanguine fears about those that are different from us? Even if hospitality impacts our security to a degree, how would Jesus come down on that question?

Perhaps we should not let our fears run our lives too much. John Meuller points out that the chance of Americans being killed by terrorism (even including the 9/11 attacks.) is so rare that it is about the same as your chance of being struck by lightning.

Mueller quotes John McCain as saying, "Get on the **** elevator! Fly on the **** plane! Calculate the odds of being harmed by a terrorist! It's still about as likely as being swept out to sea by a tidal wave. Suck it up, for crying out loud. You're almost certainly going to be okay. And in the unlikely event you're not, do you really want to spend your last days cowering behind plastic sheets and duct tape? That's not a life worth living, is it?"

This same logic can be applied to helping Middle Eastern refugees, who also happen to be God's children, even if some of them are legitimate terrorists. The chances of any individual in the US being directly impacted by the baddies among the group is pretty low. So suck it up and do what Jesus would do. Help those refugees.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Our dog hates the dog park

Earlier this year our city opened a dog park near our home. I very much appreciate the volunteers that spearheaded this effort and the city leaders that worked to make it happen. The original location proposed for the park was about a mile from our home, but they settled on a location that is just a couple of blocks away.

The first few times I took our dog to the dog park the place was deserted. That was likely due to timing. The park seems more popular in the late afternoons and early evenings. Saturday mornings seem to often draw a handful of dog owners as well.
When nobody else was at the park, our dog seemed to enjoy wandering around off the leash, sniffing the perimeter. But he also tended to stay pretty close to me. Then one time when we were at the park, another owner showed up with a couple of small to medium sized dogs. They seemed quite content to frolic and run around.

Our dog watched the dogs with quite a bit of interest, but he only interacted with them when they approached him. When they did, he seemed very uncomfortable. He stood rigid and resisted their attempts to engage him in playful behavior. In fact, he ultimately snapped and snarled at them — not in a playful manner like he does when playing tug-o-war at home, but in a way that clearly communicated, "I don't like this. Stay away."

The next time we went to the dog park when other dogs were present, our dog started drooling while at the park. I had never seen him drool like that before. I am told that excessive drooling is a symptom of anxiety. Although there is water available, our dog will never drink while at the park. He usually loves chasing water hoses that are squiring water, but he won't do that while at the dog park either.

This behavior has become increasingly prevalent as we have visited the dog park throughout the season. Only once has our dog engaged in playful behavior with other dogs. Then he seemed to enjoy scrambling through the mud puddle. (The park was built in an existing drainage basin, so there's a perpetual mud puddle.) This required us to clean him when we got home, but I think this was really the only time our dog enjoyed his experience at the dog park.

As the season has rolled on, our dog has demonstrated decreasing desire to have anything to do with the dog park. When we go into the entry area, he gladly lets me take off his leash. He sniffs the entry area. But then he wants to leave. He can see the dogs on the other side of the fence and he doesn't want anything to do with them.

I have spoken with many other owners at the park. I have repeatedly been assured that our dog will become more acclimated to the park as we take him there more often and as he gets more opportunities to socialize with other dogs. But the exact opposite seems to be the case. The more we go to the park and the more our dog gets to interact with other dogs, the less he likes it and the less he wants to be there.

I have wondered if part of the problem might be the layout of the park. It's just one large fenced area, unlike a park a few miles away that has several areas for different activities and different sizes of dogs.

Not all dogs that visit our local park are well socialized or well managed by their owners. On our last visit to the park, another male dog that initially seemed very affable kept trying to mount our dog. Our dog didn't know how to handle that situation. He snarled, barked, and nipped, but the other dog didn't get the clue. Nor, apparently, did its owner, who failed to do anything to manage the aggressor.

The Imo-Inu breed is known for its fastidiousness. Our dog doesn't like to get or stay dirty. But our dog took to sitting his white hind end in the dirt every time the would-be rapist dog came by. Our dog kept hovering near the park exit. He just wanted to get out of there.

It wasn't just that one dog that was the problem. Our dog just didn't like hanging out with any of the dogs at the park, regardless of how congenial they were. Our dog's general behavior and body language told me that he had had enough of the dog park. I felt like our visits had become a form of torture for him.

I haven't taken the dog back to the park since that visit. Nor do I plan to return anytime soon. I just can't bring myself to subject to the dog to something he has clearly come to hate. The main purpose of the dog park, as I understand it, is to provide a venue where dogs can socialize together. It seems to work well for many dogs. But not for our dog. If anything, our visits to the dog park have made his canine socialization skills worse.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

The fear of self-driving cars

Big Think recently published this article provocatively titled, "Would You Drive an Autonomous Car if It Was Programmed to Kill You?" (If you go to the non-Facebook link, the article is more sensibly titled, "Here's the Math Self-Driving Cars Will Use to Decide if it Should Sacrifice Its Passengers.")

Let's get the symanical nit-picking out of the way first. You would not drive an autonomous car. You would simply be a passenger in the car. Now let's get on to the meat of the matter.

The article points out ethical and legal issues surrounding decisions the technology must make in determining how to handle situations where some people are likely to die. Should it try to preserve the lives of the car's occupants at all costs or should it be more altruistically programmed to try to save the highest number of lives? A linked video asks, "If your robot commits murder, should you go to jail?"

While these are interesting questions, Google consultant Brad Templeton argues in this blog post that they are largely the domain of philosophy class debate. Such questions, he contends, are so far from reality that they don't rank "anywhere high on the list of important issues and questions." He notes that most drivers never face such decisions, thus implying that the same will be true of the vast majority of autonomous cars.

Judging from how things have worked in the past, it seems that social acceptance, ethical viewpoints, and legal interpretations will evolve as these questions arise in real time. I do not believe that all of these things need to be fully determined in advance, nor do I believe it is even possible to adequately anticipate many of these things in a realistic manner until the issues arise in the context of that day and age.

Besides, we regularly turn our safety over to much more fallible human machines today. Every time you are a passenger in any kind of vehicle operated by a human, you are at the mercy of their fallible capacities. Perhaps even more importantly, you are at the mercy of every other vehicle operator you encounter along the way. This is true of travel by ground, sea, or air. I don't see the shift to more technology as a hugely different issue.

Technological advancement has always been both welcomed and feared by humans. The term Luddite is commonly used to refer to those that fear technology developments. (This Smithonian article explains that the Luddites were fine with machinery; they just wanted to preserve high wages for machine operators. Still, the term is used the way it is used today.)

In my (admittedly limited) experience, Luddite well explains the initial reaction most people have to autonomous cars. When the subject is brought up, people seem to respond with the following fears:
  • The loss/reduction of personal freedom.
  • The imperfect technology will cause some crashes, injuries, and probably deaths.
These fears are not always expressed in that order but both are usually mentioned. I find it interesting that people seem to respond with their fears first. Most seem to only reluctantly consider opportunities and improvements autonomous cars will likely bring, such as:
  • A massive reduction in driver error, the #1 factor in the vast majority of crashes. (SmartMotorist.com reports that "Over 95% of motor vehicle accidents ...involve some degree of driver behavior...."). More on this later.
  • Getting problem drivers (elderly, distracted, impaired, novice, etc) out from behind the wheel without limiting their transportation.
  • Freedom of people with driving limitations to get around. Frankly, I'm hoping that autonomous cars are ubiquitous by the time I am no longer capable of driving safely.
  • Increase in Über-like services that allow people to get rides when needed and only paying for what they use, instead of paying 100% for a car that is parked 95+% of the time. This will mean that most places that have parking lots today will need smaller lots but perhaps larger dropoff/pickup zones.
  • The ability to use your time commuting doing something other than driving the car and worrying about other drivers. How would it be to sleep during a long trip to a vacation spot?
One thing I find mind boggling is that people seem to simply accept the status quo, which includes more than 5.5 million car crashes, 2.3 million injuries, and 30,000 deaths each year (see USDOT database, NHTSA overview). While the rate of crashes, injuries, and deaths per 1,000 has steadily declined, this still represents a huge amount of property loss, injury, and death.

Pretty much everyone agrees that self-driving cars will radically cut the number of crashes over time. But most people speaking from a fear base seem to demand zero crashes caused by the new technology. This is not even remotely realistic. With systems designed by humans to move humans around humans, some crashes will occur. But demanding zero crashes from new technology while accepting 5.5 million crashes involving human drivers each year makes no logical sense, whatever level of freedom one thinks operating a car brings.

Most experts agree that crashes involving autonomous cars will be highest during the crossover years, when there are still lots of human operated vehicles on the roads. At first autonomous cars will be very unusual. But just as gasoline powered cars overtook the horse and buggy, autonomous cars will eventually become the rule. The time will come when human-driven cars are considered unacceptably dangerous on the public roads. As it is with horses today, there will be places where people can go to drive cars, but those places will mostly be off the public roads. As this change occurs, infrastructure will morph to address new realities.

Don't worry, this change isn't going to happen all at once. We will be eased into it a little at a time. Automobile manufacturers have been adding "driver assist features" for years. We've had cruise control since the 70s. You can already buy high end cars that find a parking spot and park for you once you pull into a parking lot.

More and more features will become available, first in high end cars, then moving down to the mid-level cars, and finally pushing their way into low end cars. People will use these features for the convenience they bring. Then one day they will be sitting there using their mobile device as the car hauls them somewhere, thinking how glad they are that they no longer have to pay attention to traffic.

Autonomous cars are coming. It's not a matter of if; it's a matter of when. You can fear it. But that won't stop it from coming. And like our ancestors, you will eventually find yourself using the new technology, even if you continue to express misgivings about what it is doing to society.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

I saw a child tormented and did nothing to help

Childhood social structures can be brutal. Mary (not her real name) entered my 2nd Grade classroom partway through the year. It was clear from that first day that Mary would fall low in the classroom pecking order, mostly due to factors far beyond her control.

We had some kids in the class that were on the heavier side. But Mary was obese. It's hard to keep a growing child dressed in properly fitting clothes. Mary's corpulent frame made the problem worse. Anything she wore looked oafish.

The thin hair on Mary's head was so blonde that it was almost white. It might have looked better if it had been completely straight. But it had an uneven waviness that refuted attempts at taming it, making it seem unkempt even when well styled.

Some girls looked cute wearing the cat eye glasses that were somewhat popular at the time. Unfortunately for Mary, that style of glasses only added to the whole sorry ensemble. Naturally, Mary seemed to lack any sense of self confidence. It didn't take the kids in the class even 10 minutes to home in on all of this.

The new girl in the class was treated to ostracism, rude comments, pranks, and outright bullying. Some girls were good about inviting her to spend time with them on the playground, but it seemed painfully obvious that this was only because they thought her pathetic and themselves morally superior for deigning to allow her to join them.

I hardly thought about most of the kids at school over the summer, when the kids in the neighborhood became the center of my social world. As the glory days of summer wound down, the thrill of the impending new school year built. (That usually lasted until about two days after school started.) My elementary school only went through 3rd Grade back in those days, so my class was going to be at the top of the social heap.

Desks in my 3rd Grade classroom were aligned in pairs. The first day of school started with an empty desk to my left. We were told that another classmate was out of town and would join us a few days later. When my desk mate arrived, I was horrified to see that it was Mary. Over the summer I had forgotten that Mary even existed.

Some kids made rude comments or openly gloated over how unlucky I was. Many that didn't join in the verbal ridicule still gave looks revealing how pitiful they thought my plight to be. The snotty boys were the worst, repeatedly making the obligatory accusations of Mary being my girlfriend.

As the days passed, we all got quite used to sitting and working with our desk mates. I was frankly rather shocked when Mary came out of her shell from time to time, revealing intelligence and humor hidden beneath her insecure surface. I'm ashamed to say that each time I enjoyed these moments, I quickly pulled back, lest the crowd lump me in with her and punish me as it did her.

Desk assignments changed after a couple of months and I was no longer seated next to Mary. Frankly, I hardly gave her another thought. She was just another kid in the class — one that was particularly unfortunate and was regarded as something less than fully human by most of the other kids.

In my memory (which may admittedly be tamed to hide some of the darker elements of my past from myself), I never openly abused Mary the way some other kids at school did. But I also was never truly kind to her. I never cared about her as a human soul. It never crossed my mind to do anything to help her. I was just trying to survive the merciless realities of 3rd Grade life myself.

Although I never had classes with Mary after 3rd Grade, I saw her around school. The pattern I had seen in that 3rd Grade classroom pretty much followed Mary through high school. I remember one guy being proud of the fact that he mocked her during her testimony at a seminary religious meeting for graduating seniors. This guy would leave to serve as a missionary a few months later. Yes, Mary was even abused by people that professed to be disciples of Christ.

I haven't seen Mary or heard anything about her since graduation day all those years ago, so I have no idea what became of her. It would be sweet if she had somehow managed to dig her way out of the misery heaped on her during her school years. I wish her all the best.

Schools, churches, civic organizations, and parents have developed a much greater awareness of bullying than they had back when I was a kid. But I'm certain that our schools are still filled with Marys for whom the realities of childhood social life entails a great deal of pain.