Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Least of These

A few months ago, our family went on vacation to three national parks: Zion, Grand Canyon, and Bryce Canyon. I had never been to Bryce Canyon and none of our children had visited any these three parks. We enjoyed our trip and had the opportunity of interacting with a number of foreign tourists.

During the tourist season (from the beginning of April through the latter part of October), a shuttle system operates in Zion NP “to eliminate traffic and parking problems, protect vegetation, and restore tranquility to Zion Canyon.”

On one of our shuttle rides, I ended up seated directly behind the bus driver with some of the other family members to my right. We sat on a bench that faced a similar bench on the other side of the bus. Across from me sat a fellow that came across as the embodiment of a stereotypical good ol’ southern boy. His drawl, body shape, manner of grooming, and dress all lent to this image.

As the bus started to move, this southern fellow leaned forward and engaged the bus driver in conversation. He talked about how he was traveling around the west and sleeping in the back of his pickup truck. An older couple ended up seated next to this man at the next stop.

Throughout the remainder of the trip, our southern traveling companion went into great detail about his 1988 Toyota pickup truck, his truck’s shell (complete with details of its purchase and installation), his camping setup in the bed of the truck, and various ailments that had necessitated better padding to sleep on.

The bus driver was very kind and accommodating. The rest of us on the two facing benches sat quietly; being careful to avoid looking directly at the man for fear that we would be forced to become active members of his captive audience instead of just playing a passive role.

It was with great relief that I exited the shuttle at our destination. Given that this was an end terminal, almost all riders left the shuttle. We gathered our brood at a large 3D model of the canyon that was placed outside of a service building.

As we looked at the model and noted some of the places we had visited or seen that day, we saw the older couple that had sat across from us approaching in the stream of people passing by. The gentleman stopped and with a twinkle in his eye asked, “Do you now know more about 1988 Toyota pickup trucks than you ever wanted to know?” As we turned toward him, he feigned embarrassment and asked, “You’re not friends of Bubba’s, are you?” We all had a good laugh.

A few minutes later as we drove toward the park entrance, I made some kind of disparaging remark about “Bubba.” My wife didn’t take up my mirthful attitude. Instead, she said that she thought that the bus driver had been very kind. “Bubba,” she said, seemed like a very lonely man. By giving him a willing audience for a few minutes, the bus driver likely helped the man’s day along.

Duly admonished, I thought of the Savior’s teaching in Matthew 25:31-46. At the Judgment, He will send those on His left hand away because they failed to appropriately help Him. They will ask (v44), “Lord, when saw we thee … a stranger … and did not minister unto thee?” He will answer (v45), “Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.”

I realized that I had failed to render to “one of the least of these” aid that I could easily have given — in this case, a simple human kindness of caring concern that likely would have endured only for a short bus ride.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Current Freedom Recession

2009 brought us the fourth consecutive year of a ‘freedom recession.’ So says Freedom House, an independent non-profit organization that “advocates for democracy and human rights.”

Freedom House has been producing reports on human freedom since the 1950s. It registered its first Freedom in the World report in 1972. The methodology behind the report notes that it is necessarily somewhat subjective, but employs a fairly rigorous framework. The checklist used helps provide an understanding of what lies behind the organization’s rankings.

Freedom House measures freedom “according to two broad categories: political rights and civil liberties.” The organization’s website states:
“The survey does not rate governments or government performance per se, but rather the real-world rights and freedoms enjoyed by individuals. Thus, while Freedom House considers the presence of legal rights, it places a greater emphasis on whether these rights are implemented in practice. Furthermore, freedoms can be affected by government officials, as well as by nonstate actors, including insurgents and other armed groups.”
As noted in this press release, 2009 was the fourth year in a row where “global declines in freedom outweighed gains.” Some nations rolled back recent gains. Also, “the most powerful authoritarian regimes have become more repressive, more influential in the international arena, and more uncompromising.”

The continent that saw the most freedom declines was Africa. “…virtually all of the countries in the non-Baltic former Soviet Union continued to pursue a repressive course….” Latin America saw its share of problems too. The continent with the most freedom gains was Asia.

A perusal of the rankings of independent countries and the table of political rights and civil liberties by country are intriguing. (The lower the score, the more freedom enjoyed.) I note that some of the nations listed as most free suffered under intense communist repression a mere two decades ago. So there is hope yet.

46 percent of the world’s population is judged to be free. 20 percent is “partly free.” The rest; more than “2.3 billion people live in societies where fundamental political rights and civil liberties are not respected.” Moreover, it seems to me that we have entered into a phase where the freer nations of the world are content to let those billions languish in the name of maintaining a chimera of peace. No doubt this results at least somewhat from a backlash against the adventurism of the past decade.

Anyone can set up a standard to measure anything. No one is obliged to accept anyone’s judgment on a given matter unless agreement exists on the standard employed and its implementation. Some that earnestly promote human liberty would likely have a different system that would produce different results. Measured against a more exacting standard of freedom from undue coercive influence, many of the nations ranked by FH as best would rank as needing improvement. Some of these nations pursue serious anti-liberty agendas.

I suppose that most people in FH’s most free countries would agree, however, that the report at least provides appreciable levels of differentiation. For example, the average person in Micronesia enjoys more freedom than her counterpart in Ecuador, who enjoys more freedom than the average person in Oman, who enjoys more freedom than most in North Korea. Perhaps most citizens of FH’s least free nations would also agree, but that would be impossible to find out.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Family That Laughs Together

I don’t know about your family, but there are moments when my family gets in pretty high spirits. This kind of thing never happens by design. It sometimes starts with some kind of wisecrack. Or perhaps someone happens to find something said by another to be particularly humorous, even when no comedy was intended.

Such was the case a couple of evenings back. It started with a comment by one child that was taken up by another child with a twist. This chain continued until my oldest son said something that was very funny, but somewhat crude. His brother, thinking it to be one of the funniest things he had ever heard, asked, “Where did you hear that?” The oldest replied, “Dad said that to me once.”

I was standing on a stool in the kitchen looking for something in an upper cabinet. “I don’t remember that,” I retorted. “I remember,” he replied. Another child chimed in, “I remember it because I was there.” The oldest then went on to regale the family with a brief tale of how I had uttered this phrase while meting out correction — when trying to get him to settle down for family prayer, no less.

This brief retelling cannot hope to capture that dynamics of the situation. By the time this interchange was finished, the whole family was in stitches. I was laughing so hard that I couldn’t get breath. I got lightheaded enough that I had to step down from the stool for safety sake.

I’m sure that the situation wasn’t nearly that humorous at the time the correction occurred. But it’s surprising how much comedy a decade of time adds to such events. I also note that something that hadn’t been terribly memorable for me turned out to make quite an impression on my young children.

Once my son recounted the experience, I too remembered it. In fact, one of the reasons I was laughing so hard is that in my mind’s eye I saw my younger self in third person uttering those words with sternness. It was such an incongruous picture that it was impossible to take the intended correction with any degree of seriousness.

I’m grateful that our family can laugh together. It’s part of the glue that binds us together. I hope that we can occasionally still have moments like this two or three decades from now.

Friday, January 08, 2010

So, Without College Football We'd be Stupider?

I have yet to find a compelling argument for public sponsorship of professional and semi-professional athletics. If these entertainment businesses are worth having, let the customers that are so enamored of them foot the entire bill rather than foisting part of it off onto the taxpaying public. (Incidentally, I’d say the same thing for opera.)

Conservative political pundit George Will takes a shot at defending college football in this article. His comments do not delineate between public and private institutions, so his arguments are not a precise match for my concerns. But there is enough there for me to consider the validity of what he has to say.

Let’s get one thing out of the way right up front. College athletic programs comprise a semi-professional sports industry. As Will admits in his article, the athletes are compensated, albeit; through somewhat indirect methods. Coaching staffs are well paid. Some are very highly paid. There is a broad spectrum of people employed in these programs. Those outside of the colleges that also make money through these programs run the gamut from equipment manufacturers to construction contractors to fast food companies to broadcasters to ticket resellers.

Will pooh-poohs the concerns of those that believe that institutions of higher education have no valid reason to be associated with semi-professional sports. Although I think the marriage of higher education and semi-pro sports to be an odd match, I have no problem with private institutions that don’t use public funding to support their sports habit.

College sports programs bring in a lot of money to many schools. While Will notes that forty percent of Division I football programs lose money, those at the high end of the sixty percent of profitable programs bring in a lot of money. After regaling readers with a list of ways money pours into these programs, Will writes:
“Most of the money that flows into big-time football programs from individuals and corporations is tax-deductible for the spenders, and the universities' athletic programs are not taxed. Congress, however ravenous for revenues, will not dare to change this.”
Will has no problem with the fact that many so-called student athletes manage to meet NCAA academic requirements in a somewhat less than forthright manner. This, he asserts, is just a symptom of dumb rules that should be dumped. I’m all for dumping the rules that provide a student fa├žade to semi-pro athletes. Let the naked truth of the matter stand for itself. But I think that if that happened, people like Will would soon want the rules back to provide a chimera of educational legitimacy to cover the ugly exposure of reality.

Nowhere does Will express any concern over the public money that supports these programs. All he talks about is money from boosters. He suggests that without this money, many colleges would never have grown to their current stature. Educational programs, he seems to claim, owe their very existence to college sports. Will relishes the Bear Bryant quote, “It's kind of hard to rally 'round a math class.”

I wonder if it wouldn’t be better for public colleges and universities to have less stature and more educational quality. Will expresses no curiosity about such matters. He would likely retort that stature and educational quality go hand in hand, despite ample evidence that such correlations are ethereal. I also wonder how much of this fundraising is simply done to build bigger sports programs to raise more funds to build bigger sports programs….

Will is nevertheless correct when he suggests that football programs constitute a meaningful cultural ritual. Although I care not one whit for football, it cannot be denied that it has massive impact on American culture. Many follow it with more religious fervor than they follow their own religions. Perhaps separation of church and state should apply to football as well.

Getting back to my original concerns, it is important to note that sixty percent of Division I football programs are profitable only because of the way the books are kept. With rare exception, these programs never repay any of the public dollars they receive. If these programs had to repay all public money, only a nearly nonexistent fraction of them would be profitable.

The best argument that can be cobbled together from Will’s article in favor of public funding of educationally based semi-pro sports programs is that maybe some of these schools wouldn’t be able to offer the kind of educational programs they currently offer without the public support engendered by the cultural ritual of sports.

In other words, sans publicly funded athletic entertainment, we would choose ignorance over enlightenment. I’m not convinced.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

The Business of Being Santa Clause

When I was in my early 20s I was approached by a co-worker who had run a Santa Clause business on the side for a couple of decades. He suggested that I would make a great Santa.

This guy and his wife had been doing this gig for years and knew all the tricks of the trade. For starters, the costumes they had were remarkable. There was a quilted undersuit to make the wearer look much plumper. The main portion of the outersuit was made of industrial grade upholstery fabric. It was soft but durable. The material on the knees and thighs (where kids sit) was double reinforced. The white (fake) fur trim was durable and washable. There was a secret pocket for storing billfold and keys. A broad black leather belt went around the enhanced belly.

The headpiece was worth as much as the whole rest of the outfit. It was made of yak hair anchored in very sturdy stretchy off-white material. The hair was naturally lustrous off white. It could be washed and styled. The beard was hooked into the scalp piece so that it effectively stayed in place if anyone pulled on it; something that happened with regularity. It was actually a bit of a chore to get the headpiece on and off.

The mustache was part of the beard, but it presented a special challenge. While the beard naturally moved with the chin, the mustache had to be adhered to the upper lip with spirit gum. When it was properly in place, the mustache moved much like a real one. The wearer could talk, eat, and drink so that it looked quite natural. But it never felt right. Of all of the bits of the costume, I was always most grateful when I could get the mustache off.

Eyebrows are a special challenge. If you want your own eyebrows to match the costume, you’ve got to color them. Most temporary coloring methods simply look fake. But dying the eyebrows for the Christmas season looked odd when out of costume. Gluing on pieces of yak hair didn’t work well either. I experimented with different things, but never struck on the perfect solution.

It was also necessary to wear makeup to make the small portions of visible skin appear seasoned rather than 20-something years old. A pair of wire rimmed reading spectacles (with no prescription in the lenses) completed the facial ensemble. I wore thin white cotton gloves so that it didn’t matter whether my hands looked old or not.

The black shiny boots appeared to be leather but were actually vinyl. My experienced Santa friend explained that he had converted to such boots because he got tired of getting his feet wet when walking in wet circumstances. The boots were effective in keeping the feet dry even in wet parking lots. A band of fake white fur attached to the top of each boot with the aid of Velcro.

Of course, there was a bag for filling with goodies and slinging over the back. My friend explained how he had shifted from candy canes to plastic Santa rings. The rings last from season to season and are far less fragile than candy canes. Besides, it’s difficult to get candy cane flavors that suit everyone and some parents aren’t thrilled about their kids getting another dose of sugar.

While the costume might have been impressive, the experienced Santa explained that it became useful only to the extent that the wearer was a good actor. He said that the trick he had learned over the years was that he remained in character from the moment he got the outfit on to the moment he began to get out of it.

I rented the suit the first season. Then I used the proceeds from the appointments that I landed to purchase the suit outright.

During the first couple of seasons I learned a lot about how to interact with children and how to manage crowds. Being able to sing and play Christmas songs on the piano was a plus. I was surprised by how many adults insisted on sitting on Santa’s lap. That can be tough, even if they are beautiful women. It is wise to be careful about overscheduling. Both the number of events and the number of people in a day need to be considered.

I had some amazing experiences during the seasons I played Santa. I once stopped by a friend’s home for a surprise visit. His three young boys (who are now fine men) were just getting ready for bed. I have a picture of three wide eyed little boys sitting on my lap. My friend didn’t even know who I was until I called him later.

Once I was driving home from an engagement when I saw some children who had come out onto their front porch in the cold to look at the night sky. On impulse I pulled over, jogged up the driveway, and handed each a Santa ring. They were completely amazed.

Once I got started playing Santa, it wasn’t hard to get appointments. I never had to advertise. Word got around. Some of my favorite engagements were ones where I personally knew the children. It was always great to greet children by name or with personal information. Almost nobody that wasn’t already in on the secret guessed my actual identity. The headpiece held my chin in a way that made me speak differently and I tried hard to take on the Santa persona while in costume.

One problem was that the outfit was very hot. I tried to stay well hydrated, but I occasionally found myself unusually fatigued after events. A few years went by and I was ultimately diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Many people with MS get fatigued when they get too warm. Once I had been diagnosed, I started to understand the episodes of fatigue I had experienced as Santa. My wife and I decided that it was time for me to put an end to my Santa career.

For a few years the outfit sat unused in a closet. Then one year a friend was looking for a Santa suit to use for a church gathering, so I lent him mine. He was such a natural at it, that I eventually gave the suit to him.

As the years have passed, I have come to a somewhat different understanding about playing Santa than I once had. Given the heightened awareness of deviants in our society, I have started to wonder about people that dress up in order to be in close physical contact with children. Their costumes convey a wholesomeness that disarms otherwise cautious parents. Clowns are also problematic. Frankly, clowns have always creeped me out.

Although I enjoyed being a part-time Santa for a few years, I have never deceived my children about the true nature of the whole Santa Clause thing. I have leveled with them about the real St. Nicholas and our modern Santa Clause tradition. My kids have always known that the gifts under the tree come from Mom & Dad, and Grandma & Grandpa rather than from some bizarrely clad intruder. I want them to know that they can trust me to be truthful with them.

I enjoy both our religious and secular Christmastime traditions. I have no problem having fun with the Santa Clause fairy tale. But even if I didn’t have MS, I doubt I’d still be playing Santa nowadays.