Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Sticker Parade

Back in the 80s it was common to see bumper stickers that read, “I [something].” That something might be a pet, an activity of some sort, a location, or a sports team. I mentioned in a previous post the humor I found in a ploy on this sticker that read, “I my dog.” (It might have been an ad for a veterinarian.)

Another popular sticker in those days read, “I’d rather be [doing some activity].” It might be wind surfing, rock climbing, motorcycle riding, sailing, horse riding, hiking, cycling, or some such activity. One I saw read, “I’d rather be doing genealogy.” Another common theme was, “I’d rather be in [some location].”

Some found these advertisements of what people were fond of or what they’d rather be doing to be tedious or obnoxious. I once saw a sticker that read, “I don’t care what kind of pet you have, what you love, where you’d rather be, or what you’d rather be doing.” I occasionally heard the comment that if people would rather be somewhere else or doing something else they should just go there and do it without pestering the rest of us about it.

Times have changed and so have personalized automobile decorations. In recent years I have noted a dramatic increase in cutouts made of white tape showing a family’s configuration. These are usually placed in the rear or rear side windows of vehicles. Most of these stickers show family members in order of age and by proportionate size. Most show the sex of each family member.

Some of these family stickers include the names of family members. Some show the family’s surname. Frankly, I have privacy issues with doing stuff like this. Do I really want everybody that looks at my car to know my kids’ names or even how my family is arranged? There are enough strange folks around to make me uncomfortable with turning my vehicle into a traveling billboard showing this kind of personal information.

When these family configuration stickers first appeared, most of them depicted fairly simple stick figures. That has changed over time until there is now such a broad variety of shapes, sizes, hair and clothing styles, positions, etc, to provide a very distinctive customization. I have seen a van around town that has a Boy Scout symbol on the license plate. The father and the sons depicted in the family stickers on the van are dressed in Scout uniforms.

Some people get carried away. An older couple I know has covered the whole rear driver side window of their van with figures representing themselves, their children, children-in-law, and grandchildren, along with all of the extended family’s associated pets. Some stickers are more casual. Yesterday I followed a car that simply showed a pair of flip-flops of various sizes; one pair for each family member.

Besides privacy concerns, I also wonder about putting something static on a vehicle when families are dynamic. Maybe it’s OK if you keep your cars for only two or three years. We tend to keep our vehicles much longer. Although we average about a decade for a vehicle, we have a van that is 17 years old. You might put stickers on your car showing the baby in diapers and the eight-year-old with a crew cut. Four years later, the kids look a lot different. 17 years later, the whole family looks very different.

Another sticker phenomenon I see in the area where I live is huge flashy words and symbols in the rear windows of tricked out 4WD trucks driven by guys in their 20s or 30s. These trucks are usually jacked up high and decked with lots of extra chrome. They’ve got stylish rims and beefy looking tires that will likely never leave the pavement.

The stickers on these fancy muscle trucks either depict some kind of skull design or near pornographic silhouettes of slutty females. (Women only look like that in real life after surgical enhancement.) My oldest son dismisses these guys, saying, “They’re trying to compensate for something, if you know what I mean.”

As I said in a previous post on this subject, I derive a certain amount of entertainment value from the stickers people use to decorate their vehicles. Our family’s vehicles are unadorned and rather plain. My wife has suggested putting some kind of design item in the rear window of the cars to make them easier to spot in a parking lot. I think they are already fairly easy to spot in a parking lot. I just look for vehicles that are sticker free. There just aren’t that many.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Art of Storytelling

I first fancied myself a teller of stories when I worked on Boy Scout camp staff during my teen years. It seems that stories get told whenever people sit around a campfire at night. This common ritual predates recorded history and spans every culture.

But storytelling exceeds hearth and campfire settings. Indeed, it permeates our lives. We tell each other stories during breaks at work and around the dinner table. Some of the most popular songs encapsulate stories. The entire motion picture industry exists to tell stories. We tend to remember information better if it is attached to some kind of story.

It is true that we tell stories to connect, inform, entertain, educate, and convey moral values. But perhaps the main reason we tell stories is to transmit culture. This is particularly true of intergenerational storytelling.

Storytelling seems to be an innate part of us. We all tell stories. We all appreciate a good story. But sometimes we have difficulty telling good stories ourselves. What elements make for a good story?

Telling Good Stories
Delose Conner, who was my camp director when I worked at Camp Loll years ago wrote and self published two books about storytelling, the first in 1980 and the second in 1992. Eventually, he published both books bound into a single 136-page paperback titled Folk and Campfire Stories. He privately sells the book for $10. If you are interested, please email me and I will happily provide contact information.

Delose’s book includes 27 stories that range from comical to scary to inspirational. Some are tailored hand-me-downs, while others relate personal experiences. The stories are a treasure by themselves. But another great trove is comprised in the storytelling tips Delose provides. Only a few of these tips are contained in the book’s initial concise instructions. Many of the best tips are scattered throughout the book in copious footnotes.

I have learned a thing or two throughout my own years of storytelling. In my mind, there are two major things that make for a good story. Most other factors can, I think, be classed under these two headings:

  • Own the story.
  • Practice to perform.
Make the Story Your Own
A good story comes from inside the storyteller. That happens naturally with personal experience. But it is also fine to take someone else’s story and make it your own.

I need to qualify that last statement a bit. You need to know your setting and audience. There are settings (rarely around a campfire) where failing to give credit to a story’s source could be construed as plagiarism.

It’s usually fine to embellish, tweak, or filter story elements when you’re entertaining or when you make clear that you are merely using a partially or wholly fictitious story as a teaching tool. But you must never stretch or diminish accuracy when credibility is important. Otherwise, your personal trustworthiness could be permanently compromised. True and credible stories can be entertaining and/or educational. But not all entertaining/educational stories are true and credible.

To make a story your own, you need to internalize it. That doesn’t mean that it has to be in first person, although, that is an attention grabbing approach. Think through the details and be ready to drop these elements into the story as necessary. It is more important that you have the details internalized than that you actually voice them.

Think about the different characters. What is each feeling at any given moment? What does each notice in the scenes where they appear? What are their various perspectives? What kind of movements do they make? How does Charlie’s face feel when his friend embarrasses him? What is Charlie doing with his fingers at that moment? What is the hair on the back of the dog’s neck doing when it senses the snake?

Think about the objects in the story. What do they look like? What are they doing? How do the dappled shadows on the north side of the old shack look in the light of the last quarter moon? Is the glass in the shack’s windows thick and rippled? How does the smoke curling up from the fire inside the old chief’s tipi move? What is hanging from the chief’s lodge pole? How do the horse’s leather reins feel in your hand when you loop them around the saddle horn? What does it feel like inside your shoe when your foot sinks into the mud?

Little details like this add spice to a story and give it an air of reality. Even if you don’t voice all of these details, knowing them implies a sense of authenticity that helps draw your audience into the story. In effect, they become part of the story. They become invested in it.

A very important part of the art of storytelling is knowing just how much detail to give to an audience. Nothing makes a story better for a listener than filling in bits and pieces from their own imagination because your listeners’ imaginations are better than your words. Listeners themselves make the story funnier, scarier, or more inspirational, as the case may be.

Too much detail robs the listener of this experience. Too little detail prevents them from having enough to germinate the process. Getting it right takes practice and skill development. It may need to be tailored to the audience.

Delose says to picture an old master storyteller in your mind. What does he do that makes his stories so good? Focus on those points, and then become the old storyteller yourself by employing those factors in your stories.

Practice and Perform
Storytelling is performance art. A storyteller “performs” a story every bit as much as a singer performs a song. A good singing performance is usually preceded by a lot of preparation and practice. A singer will drill on general technique and will practice a song over and over again before performing it. Good storytelling requires the same level of preparation.

This will come across as strange to some because many swear that the stories I tell seem to come so naturally. I prepare to tell stories by “performing” them for myself in my office and in the bathroom in front of the mirror. When I am ready, I perform for a small audience, usually family members. Not only do I solicit critique, I find out during this telling how people respond to different points. I find things to tweak.

Stories as performance art are more than just words. How you say the words is important. When a character says something in an exasperated tone, you need to say it in an exasperated tone. When tenderness or harshness is expressed, the audience needs to hear it in your voice. If a character has an accent, mimic that accent. It also takes practice to deliver a subtle punch line with just the right inflection.

Facial expressions, hand motions, and other body language actions are a vital part of each story. Act out the motions of the man with his pants down around his ankles trying to run away from what he thinks is a ghost in the outhouse. When Jane slaps Tony, you can act out both the part of both the slapper and the slappee. When the tough guy realizes that what he’s got in his mouth isn’t berry pie, you demonstrate his facial expression. When the miner brushes away the rock chips to see if he has found gold, you act that out.

Another part of preparation is story organization. If you’re picking up a story created by someone else, this is likely already done for you. But even in these cases, you can choose how you will develop the story, which elements to emphasize, and which elements to soft peddle.

When creating your own stories, consider what you are trying to achieve. Are you going for a punch line that will draw laughs, a climax that will elicit screams, an eerie ending that leaves the audience anxious, a specific educational point, internalization of a moral value, or a soaring inspirational sense? Are the elements of your story laid out in such as way to achieve that goal and to get the most bang for your buck?

Don’t forget to plant seeds along the way to the conclusion of your story. If the punch line of a story revolves around a man eating his hat for losing a wager, drop little hints along the way. For example, you might give hints from different angles about how valuable the man’s hat is. Or maybe the thing is filthy and soaked with years of perspiration.

Setting is something over which you don’t always have control, but you should try to get the best setting possible for your storytelling performance. An evening around a campfire is often ideal, but even then there can be distractions that you have difficulty controlling. Just do what you can. And remember that a well told story can often overcome an imperfect setting.

Conclusion
Storytelling can be a lot of fun. But it can also be a serious matter in the right context. Even in these circumstances, practice helps to get your message across more effectively. This is so even for tales that are completely true. Good story organization is important, but the presentation of a story is at least as important as the plot.

Good storytellers rarely just happen. They develop their stories and hone their presentation skills. Chances are that you will have the opportunity to tell a story fairly soon. Maybe it will be around a campfire this summer. If you want to make the best of it, start working on your storytelling right now. You will enjoy the experience a lot more that way, and so will your audience.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Denial

We live in a neighborhood that was constructed in several phases over a period of about ten years. The oldest homes in our development are about a quarter century old. By my count, about 40% of the homes are still occupied by original owners.

We have watched each others’ families grow up. Our kids have played and hung out together in each others’ homes. We have taken turns working with each others’ kids as school, church, and community volunteers. We have shared each others’ joys and sorrows as we have seen neighborhood children grow up and embark on their own paths in life.

One of the sorrows we shared was when the high school aged daughter of one neighborhood family developed serious substance abuse problems. The dad worked in youth corrections. The mom was a registered nurse. Both had professional training in recognizing and dealing with substance abuse issues. But somehow they failed to see these symptoms in their own daughter until she collapsed in the entryway of their home upon returning from a night of partying.

Fortunately, once the problem became clear, these parents knew what steps to take. Their daughter went into a rehab program. After the initial treatment, she attended a school that was part of the treatment program for many months until she was able to graduate clean. Still, her adult life has been somewhat troubled, although, she is currently a fairly responsible adult.

A few years ago, I was able to have a long chat with the father of this family while we were together at Boy Scout summer camp. He explained that there were many warning signs that he and his wife had been trained to see. But both parents were blind to these symptoms because they were in denial.

After all, their daughter was popular. She had achieved a spot on the cheerleading squad her first year in high school. Her grades had been pretty good going into the school year. She was focused on her goals. Or at least, that’s how the parents perceived her.

The other side of the story was that the girl kept stashes of substances and related paraphernalia in the house. Her parents accepted her lame excuses about this. Her grades slid as she increasingly kept late hours. Her older brother didn’t want to get her into trouble, but sometimes made remarks to his parents of being concerned about her keeping bad company.

These and other warning signs made no impact on the parents. My friend said that there was no other explanation than to say that when it came to their own daughter, he and his wife willingly chose — perhaps somewhat subconsciously — to ignore the obvious. Seeing these same signs in any other family’s child would have caused them to take action.

I think this is a very natural human tendency. We want to believe the best about our loved ones. Sometimes it’s easier to avoid conflict than to bring up uncomfortable matters. At times we tolerate objectionable activities in the name of love, when true love can require these to be challenged. If we ignore problems long enough, we think, maybe they’ll go away on their own. We hate to see our own apple cart upset.

This principle probably has broader application as well. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see where else it applies.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Demise of One of My Childhood Icons

As a kid, we would on occasion go to McDonald’s. The drive-in, which was a couple of miles from my home is in my earliest memories of my town. I didn’t realize it, but that place was the first McDonald’s restaurant in Utah.

It was once a white building with a single-plane roof that slanted front to back. The sides of the building were graced with large trademark golden arches that extended above the roofline. The building contained only the kitchen and the retail/delivery counter. There was no indoor space for customers.

If my memory is correct, this McDonald’s was seasonal, so that it was closed during cold weather months. I do remember that they eventually installed outdoor heaters above the retail windows. This helped keep the customers nearest the windows warm in cold weather. A few years later, they added a mostly glass enclosure to shelter customers, but there was still no indoor dining facility.

Sometime during my adolescent years, the entire McDonald’s chain decided to change its look. The white buildings with prominent side arches were replaced with red-brown brick structures. Our local McDonald’s underwent extensive renovation to make the change and to add a dining room. When Ronald McDonald, the corporate mascot was joined by a host of other whacky cartoon-like characters, images of the characters began to grace the place. They added an outdoor playground too.

As a senior in high school, I went looking for work. I had gotten a food handler permit to work at a little joint that was started by the family of one of my Mom’s co-workers. After I went to work twice, it became obvious that these folks had been overly optimistic about the enterprise, so more than half the staff was cut. I applied at various food service businesses and ended up landing a job at McDonald’s.

By this time, there was another McDonald’s at the other end of town, and another one in the south end of the county. I enthusiastically began my short-lived career at McDonald’s, only to discover that working in fast food was not for me. After only a couple of months, I handed in my uniform and went in search of other employment.

During my brief tenure at McDonald’s, I learned several things. Employees at our installation were not permitted to stand around. “If there’s time to lean, there’s time to clean,” was a common refrain. Many things, even rather arcane matters, required strict compliance with corporate rules.

As far as food quality, the temperature of foods was strictly regulated, as was the amount of time between preparation and delivery of foods. The oil in deep fry vats was changed on a regular schedule to keep it fresh. Back then, we had two kinds of hamburger patties: 10-to-1 and 4-to-1, meaning one-tenth or one-quarter of a pound in a quick frozen state. (A fair amount less in a cooked state.)

I didn’t mind doing the work. I learned the rules fairly quick and rapidly made it to the esteemed rank of head shift cook. But I didn’t like the way our store’s owner dealt with employees. There were lots of other jobs available, so I quit. (The guy was later indicted for embezzling from the franchise.)

As the years went by, I had steadily fewer occasions to go to this McDonald’s store. (For one thing, there are now two stores closer to where I live.) The joint was renovated numerous times. They replaced the outdoor playground with an indoor play place. They expanded the capacity of the drive through. The place seemed to always have plenty of business.

Yesterday afternoon when I drove by the place, it had been demolished. There was a big tractor parked atop the rubble. One of the kids said that he heard that it had been closed for renovations. I have since discovered that they are completely replacing the structure, which was 50 years old.

I don’t mind the progress. But seeing this building torn down also leaves me with a kind of melancholy feeling. I’m not completely sure why. I rarely patronize McDonald’s nowadays anyway. Perhaps it’s because I kind of grew up along with the place and its demise gives me a sense of my own mortality. I’m sure that after the new structure opens nobody will miss the old place much.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Tron: Old Technology, Some Quirks, but Enjoyable

My son recently showed me the trailer for the upcoming movie Tron Legacy, which is a sequel to the 1982 Disney film Tron. It had been many years since I had seen Tron, but I remembered it as being a pretty great movie.

Tron was the first movie to extensively use computer graphics in an age when green screen technology was in the stone age by today’s standards. Tron captured the interest of the video gaming genre that was burgeoning at the time. It was different, new, and exciting. But it only earned modestly at the box office. The video games it spawned produced more revenue than the movie.

Having been piqued by the trailer for the sequel (to be released just before Christmas 2010), we took an opportunity to sit down and watch the original film again. My oldest son said that he was just a kid the last time he saw it. I told him that he was born years after the last time I saw it.

It turned out that my memory of the movie was much better than the movie itself. Don’t get me wrong. We had fun watching the film. But some of the acting was lousy. Or perhaps some of the direction of the actors was lousy. And of course, the development of technology over the past 28 years makes some of Tron’s erstwhile awesome special effects seem poor, quirky, or even campy. (It is amazing to compare the 1982 Tron technology with what you see in the trailer for the sequel. We’ve come a long way.)

The constant black background in the computer scenes in the old Tron is wearying to me. The dark sets and re-colored monochrome faces sometimes make it difficult to tell which character you are seeing. Some of the film’s transitions are also rough.

The last time I saw Tron, I had not yet begun my career as a software systems engineer. I had to laugh when I saw the boxy monochrome screen computers that were state-of-the art back in those days, because I remember working on such machines. I also laughed at the klunky interfaces. Sure, these things were done for art, but they weren’t that far off from the real thing. My kids were amazed when I pointed out that no computer in the movie had a mouse. To them, computers have always had mice. Except for video games, the only input devices shown were keyboards.

I was reminded that once when my brother and I were in college, we managed to borrow a dumb terminal from a neighbor who had obtained it cheaply when a nearby hospital had shut down. We put this massive thing up in our basement. We’d dial the phone number of the college’s mainframe computer and then put the receiver of the old AT&T rotary phone in a cradle that attached to the monitor. After a series of tones, a login prompt came up on the terminal.

Once logged in, we could write and run our BASIC, COBOL, and Fortran programs from home. The transmission speed was interminably slow, but it was faster than driving to the college and waiting for a terminal in the computer room to become free. And by golly, it beat having to use a keypunch machine (like I did in my first two computer courses).

Back to Tron. As far as acting goes, David Warner does a fairly decent job as all three villains. He’s insidious and tyrannical, but he’s not completely ruthless. He is, after all, a Disney villain. As the human Dillinger, he finds himself unpleasantly subjected to the Master Control Program, a computer program he wrote. In effect, he’s the program’s stooge, but he must never let anyone discover this, lest his career be destroyed. As the computer program Sark, the MPC’s main agent inside the computer, Warner is cold and cruel.

I had not remembered how wooden Bruce Boxleitner (Alan/Tron) is when playing his real world character, Alan. Or how huge the lenses on his 1980s glasses are. At the very beginning of the movie when Alan walks into the bad guy’s office, his acting comes across as stiff as something I’d expect to see in a high school drama production. He’s better as the computer program Tron than as a human. Cindy Morgan’s character (Lora/Yori) is way too simple. She seems almost goofily willing at times. Jeff Bridges (Flynn/Clu) seems more believable, but he has some stupid lines as well.

Several transitions and plot devices in the film are odd. Flynn seems far too willing to tell Alan and Lora about his stymied attempts to illegally hack their company’s computers. When he explains that he is trying to get justice, Lora (who is a scientist with a PhD) immediately and without supporting evidence suggests that they break into the plant so they can infiltrate the computer internally. While they are sneaking around the place, Alan and Lora seem too little concerned with the idea that they could lose their jobs and/or go to jail for their activities. Perhaps the writers assumed that having a PhD doesn’t mean that one has good judgment.

When Ram is dying, the transition from a casual to an intense connection between him and Flynn seems too abrupt. Then the moment lasts too long. Flynn’s willingness to jump into the Master Control Program seems odd. Sure the computer programs he is interacting with have human features and tendencies (in fact they get more human throughout the movie), but even a computer geek isn’t going to kill himself to save bits of data. Maybe Flynn is supposed to know that jumping into the MPC will restore him to the real world, but I don’t think that’s explained in the movie.

Near the end of the film the computer prints off “evidence” that Flynn developed games for which the villain Dillinger has gotten credit. Anybody could print something like that. It hardly seems like enough evidence to result in Flynn becoming the boss of the company. Reportedly, original shots showed more of a database printout, but the film makers worried that audiences wouldn’t get the connection. So they simplified it. Too simple, I think.

The main plot device — man’s fear of technology — is older than history itself. The fear of technology has been a recurring theme ever since humans began to use rudimentary tools. Science fiction in the computer era has frequently focused on machines becoming tyrannically powerful. The hero is usually a fallible human underdog that exploits some hubristic weakness in the machine. Tron’s plot fits nicely into this story line.

As a software developer, I have to laugh at the ongoing superstition about the coming of omnipotent computers. I guess that most people don’t realize the lengths to which we must often go to get computer programs to do things most of them think of as pretty simple. While we are much better at getting applications and computers to communicate than in the old days, the idea of artificially intelligent computing omnipotence seems like extreme fantasy to me. Computers in the real world aren’t that efficient.

Tron has its flaws, but it is still a decent movie to watch. It captures a time a generation ago when video arcades were a popular social phenomenon; before kids could carry around dozens of video games on pocket-size devices. It was an important film in that it opened the eyes of the entertainment world to the possibilities of computer assisted film making. Since then, computers have become essential tools to pretty much all film making.

If you think you might want to watch the Tron Legacy sequel that comes out late this year, I suggest that you first watch the original Tron movie as a refresher. You too might get a few laughs from old technology. Just don’t expect to see any computer mice.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Everything is Still Vanity When It Comes to Politics

In a comment on my last post, Travis Grant suggested that he’d like to see me do a political post again. In December, I wrote that I would be taking a break from political blogging for an indeterminate time.

During my hiatus from overtly political posts at this site, I have continued to be politically informed. On occasion I have made comments on other political blogs. But my commentary has followed more of a sniper pattern. I fire off a comment and then leave.

Over the past three months, I have spent more time doing things with my family. I have dedicated more time to family history work than in the past. And it has been pretty pleasant.

It takes time and dedication to write a decently researched political post. It is much easier to spout stuff off the top of my head while concerning myself little with referential linking. But such posts are less fulfilling. Besides, psychologists know that we all tend to use logic to support what we already think anyway.

As I noted in my December post, an important part of blogging is maintaining the comment stream. I just don’t presently have as much time for that as I used to. And frankly, I don’t care to respond to some comments. Taking time to respond to certain comments seems to cross the line of absurdity, as it often leads to meaningless pro-forma debates. And yet, it doesn’t seem quite right to leave such comments unrefuted. Ah, the dilemma.

Actually, I have written a handful of political posts over the past three months, only to end up tossing them. Most often, I have ended up muddling around when attempting to drive to a conclusion. Other times I have written conclusions, but on reflection have found them unconvincing even to me. It would be ridiculous to post such dreck.

Perhaps the root of the problem is my growing political cynicism. Rather than basing my thoughts on political arguments and posturing, I have started to pay closer attention to what politicians actually do. The result has been a drastic lowering of expectations of politicians and of the whole political system.

Since lowering my expectations, I have rarely been disappointed by a politician or by a political outcome. There has been an abundant supply of politicians that live down to my abysmal expectations. If I wait long enough, the seemingly rare exceptions to this rule often end up proving the rule correct.

But I have become aware that there is a healthy market for political saviors. Vast swaths of people exhibit with deep religious ferver their faith in salvation through politics, despite the abundant evidence that such a belief is based in something other than reality.

Of course, supply always pops up to meet demand. Thus, there is no shortage of political entrepreneurs that are eager to play the demanded role of savior. This would all be comical if the consequences weren’t so serious.

I suppose you could say that I have lost my faith in the religion of politics. I still observe politics and formulate theories about what is happening and why. But I feel as if I am outside of the congregation of political believers.

Still, I hold certain political principles to be true. But I am also aware of others that are deeply devoted to opposing principles. And I am aware that some of the principles that I cherish most dearly are broadly ignored — something that calls into question the validity of my beliefs. Or perhaps, it makes public statements of these beliefs seem like a futile exercise.

I don’t really have anything to tie all of this rambling together. But that is where I am with respect to politics at the moment. Maybe this helps explain my current aversion to writing political posts.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Finances and Responsibility

At one point in my career, I worked as a bank branch operations manager. It sounds a lot more prestigious than it really was. I handled customer service issues that the tellers couldn’t immediately handle, made sure that each teller had appropriate amounts of cash on hand throughout the shift, helped tellers periodically balance out, managed safety deposit access, and helped with required reports. I didn’t actually manage anyone.

One of the main features of the bank where I worked was to supplement low salary with prestige. Lots of people that wore nice clothes to work, sat at nice looking desks, and had nameplates with important sounding titles really didn’t make much money. One of the things that caused me to search for other job opportunities was when I realized how little many of the bank’s long-term titled employees were earning.

One day a hot looking Corvette pulled into the parking lot. The driver climbed out wearing a black leather jacket, shades, tight jeans, and leather boots. I noticed some of the female tellers eyeing his build, chiseled features, and wavy dark hair as he sauntered into the building. Not only did this guy drive a Vette, he looked every bit the part.

He came to my desk complaining about nine bounced check charges that he said were erroneous. He said that merchants had piled on more charges of their own. I said that I’d be glad to help. I asked him to explain how he knew that the charges were improper. He showed me his checkbook register and said that his records showed that he still had money in his account.

I pulled up the guy’s account records and saw that he was dramatically overdrawn. In fact, it looked like he hadn’t achieved a positive balance for months. The balance in his check register bore no resemblance to the bank’s records.

When I explained the balance mismatch as diplomatically as possible, Mr. Corvette nonchalantly said that he had at one point written his overdraft protection amount in as a deposit. He simply considered the monthly overdraft charges to be acceptable fees. These monthly charges were pretty high. It had never previously crossed my mind that anyone would consider purposefully paying them month after month.

I pulled this man’s last couple of bank statements and asked him to show me where he felt the bank had erred. He became irritated and said that he had no idea where the bank had messed up because he hadn’t reconciled his checkbook for those months. Looking at his register, I said that I’d be happy to do the reconciliation for those two months, but I needed him to show me where he had completed the previous month’s reconciliation.

At this point, the fellow looked at me with contempt and said that he had never reconciled his account in the six years he had had it. But he insisted that his math was accurate and that the bank’s math wasn’t. I realized that the only way to find any possible error would be to reconcile the customer’s check registers against the bank’s records for six years running. The charges about which he was angry may well have stemmed from a miscalculation five years earlier. Unfortunately, the man no longer had his past check registers. So, even that avenue was closed.

I explained that without evidence, I had to consider the bank’s records to be accurate. Bank policy did allow me to reverse duplicate charges where some merchants had tried to submit the same check twice, resulting in two bounced check charges. But there was no way I would be permitted to cancel all of the charges.

Anger flashed in the man’s dark eyes. He said, “I have been a good customer of this bank for six years, but now I am going to take my business somewhere else!” I wanted to say that his statement would be true if he dropped the word good, but instead I said that I would surface his concerns to the main customer service department. He then said that he wanted to close his account. I explained that he would have to expunge the negative balance before the bank could close the account.

The unhappy customer grumbled something, stalked out of the bank, jumped into his Corvette, and drove away. For a long time afterward I wondered what I could have done differently to provide a better outcome. I finally concluded that I had done everything possible to help this man, but that his poor financial discipline prevented a happier result.

Life is like that. Sometimes we make poor choices that prevent good outcomes down the road. It is natural to be angry and lash out when the consequences of these unfortunate choices strike. But the path from that point will be much better if we accept personal responsibility for our choices.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Reunion Aversion

I don’t attend my high school class reunions. I am very selective about attending other types of reunions. A few years ago I attended a reunion of missionaries that served in the mission where I served. (Those familiar with LDS culture in the Wasatch Front area know that mission reunions are commonly held each six months, timed to coincide with the church’s general conferences.) The reunion I attended was OK. But I note that I haven’t bothered to attend subsequent ones.

I do, however, attend my wife’s high school class reunions. She derives much more enjoyment from these kinds of events than I do. Since I love her, I go with her.

During two of the years my wife was in college, she was a member of a performing folkdance group at the LDS institute of religion adjacent to the college. She and I courted during her final few months as a member of that group. Although my dancing skills were and are limited, I often attended the group’s practices, performances (as a spectator/helper), and socials. The group performed dances at our wedding reception.

Last weekend that folkdance group held a reunion for all 670+ people that have been members of the group at anytime during its 32-year existence. My wife was on the reunion committee. That meant that I was an adjunct member of the committee. I found that my place was to help with setup and cleanup, which was OK with me. This was the third such reunion of the group, with the first being 20 years ago and the second being 12 years ago.

We arrived a couple of hours before the event to get things set up. That situation required more working than socializing. As the start time for the event rolled around, I looked around the large hall to see members of the reunion committee along with a handful of others. We were set to handle more than 200 people. I began to wonder if the event might be a bust, but the committee head assured me that at least 150 had solidly committed to attend. Within an hour the place was bustling. Almost every seat was filled, although, some people stood chatting and never sat down.

The chief purpose of the event was to socialize and renew acquaintances. I had the pleasure of rubbing shoulders with a few childhood friends, as well as friends made during college days. It is always amazing to see people a decade or two after having last seen them. It is surprising to see how little some have changed and how much others have. There were a couple of people I was able to recognize only after reading their nametags.

It’s like I’ve got a snapshot in my head of what each person should look like based on what they looked like the last time I saw them. It somehow seems like a shock to see that people have aged since that snapshot was taken. Besides, there were videos playing around the hall showing these people dancing back in their college days. So it seemed natural to make now-and-then comparisons.

It was good to catch up a bit with people that we hadn’t seen for a while. Most were just busy with their families and careers. Most seemed to be doing well. One friend that went through a painful divorce a few years ago attended the event with her fiancĂ©, who seems to be a very nice fellow. I hope the best for them. A fair number came without his/her spouse, as some spouses sensed little personal connection to the group.

One feature of the evening was a performance by current members of the folkdance team. Another feature was when attendees were invited to step out onto the dance floor to try their skill at performing some of the dances they did when they were on the team. I watched, but did not dance. I was grateful that my wife was able to partner with a friend of ours whose wife is not a dancer.

When it came time to wrap up, several spouses of dancers joined me in cleaning up while dancers danced and visited with each other. It was still pretty late by the time the members of the committee closed up and left the building.

My wife has been somewhat self conscious in the past couple of years about the amount of gray showing up in her hair. But she has been reluctant to consider hair coloring. Once you start, she says, it’s constant maintenance. Besides, I think she looks great without coloring her hair. On the way home, she hoped that I wouldn’t think her too vain if she opined that her hair looks pretty good compared with some of her contemporaries.

I try to avoid reunions when I can. I am more likely to attend a rare or one-off reunion than an ongoing event. Part of me has moved on. I am busy with the present. My heart and head generally don’t live in that past realm, so why should I repeatedly go there? On the other hand, I have to admit that attending my wife’s folkdance team reunion turned out to be quite a pleasant experience.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Boy Scout Hiking In Yellowstone Preserved

Last month I posted about the prospect of Camp Loll losing most of its back country hiking opportunities in nearby Yellowstone National Park. In my post, I asserted that this condition arose pursuant to a Sierra Club lawsuit. It turns out that this was a misunderstanding. I apologize for spreading this idea. Rather, the park service was working to respond to recent heavier use of the Bechler area of Yellowstone.

A number of Camp Loll’s supporters called or wrote to their congressional delegations, Yellowstone’s superintendent, and the chief of Yellowstone’s Concessions Management Division. I received a prompt reply from the park superintendent assuring me that a park delegation would meet with representatives of Camp Loll and Trapper Trails Council, BSA to address the issue.

That meeting occurred yesterday. Camp Director Delose Connor provides a brief report on the congenial meeting in this post. The rangers were very interested in accommodating Camp Loll’s hikers, but they also clearly outlined the need to limit impact to the Bechler area to preserve its wilderness quality. The rangers’ main concern was daily impact.

The rangers explained that the notification demanding that Camp Loll obtain a conditional use permit was meant for commercial entities and had been sent to the Scout council in error. The camp is, however, required to obtain a special use permit that is essentially an agreement on usage. Any other nonprofits with outdoor aims that want to use the area on a regular basis will need to do the same. The good news is that the park appears very willing to work with such groups.

At yesterday’s meeting, the ranger staff and the Scouting representatives worked together to craft a plan that would maximize Yellowstone back country hiking opportunities while achieving the goal of moderating daily impact on the Bechler area. Delose will provide more details when the agreement is complete and signed, but the gist is that it is a win-win solution.

The camp will be able to continue its current program for the 2010 season. Beginning in 2011, the camp will split its hike day across two days. During the season, half of the camp will hike on each Wednesday while the other half participates in the normal in-camp program. They will switch these activities on Thursdays. Camp Loll will need to hire a few more staffers to maintain its ability to run a competent in-camp program while a number of staffers are off hiking. But it is exciting to note that a couple of new hiking opportunities will be made available to the camp’s hikers.

All of this will work together to reduce daily impact on the Bechler area, while still allowing the camp to send roughly the same number of hikers into the park each week as they have for years. More hiking variety will be available. Units that go on shorter hikes and return to camp earlier in the afternoon will have the opportunity to participate in programs that have previously been closed on hike days. With fewer hikers going to Union Falls on any given hike day, hikers will be able to spend more time at Scout Pool.

I am breathing a sigh of relief. Not only will I be able to hike to Union Falls with my son and his Scout troop this summer, the new agreement between Camp Loll and Yellowstone will be an improvement for all interested parties and for the environment.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

A Journal is for ... What?

I first started keeping a regular journal when I began serving as a missionary for my church at age 19. Over the next several years I wrote faithfully, eventually filling two binders. In time I slacked off. Instead of writing four or five times weekly, I found myself writing several times monthly. That rate decreased to sporadic entries that were sometimes months apart.

Then in the dawn of the personal computer era, I began keeping my journal in electronic format. This was in the days before WYSIWYG was common. I once again kept my journal faithfully. But like many back in those days, I had a poor understanding of data security. My only copy was on a floppy disc.

I can still remember the desperation I felt when my journal file died. No amount of effort, even by my super geek friend, was able to restore the file. In the blink of an eye, an entire year of my ramblings disappeared forever. I was so upset by this that I quit writing for a year.

After repeated admonishments by church leaders to keep a journal, I made a New Year’s resolution 14 years ago to do so. I have kept that resolution to this day. I average about five journal entries per week. I keep my journal in word processing files, creating a new file for each month and keeping each year’s files in a separate folder. You can bet that I keep this stuff redundantly backed up. I don’t want to lose it again.

Recently I started working on bringing my older files up to modern protocols. Paper can deteriorate and ink can fade. But as long as it is kept from the elements, advancing technology usually doesn’t render your pen and paper writings obsolete. Not so with electronic files. No one can guarantee timeless support for old computing protocols. (Of course, it is difficult to do word searches using paper copies.)

Not only have I copied my old word processing files to new ones, I have been creating a composite file for each year, which I have then converted to PDF format. PDF used to be a proprietary format, but it is now an open standard. Hopefully that will keep it viable for some time. But even open standards drop support for older versions as they are updated. So I anticipate the need to repeat this exercise in the future.

I have long considered getting my journal printed. A local shop prints and binds long electronic documents for a fee. Of course, you pay extra for heirloom quality paper and printing. I do have some concerns about doing this. For one thing, I have realized during my project that I now have thousands of journal pages. Printing these would be somewhat pricey and would produce a number of volumes. What time period would be appropriate for a volume? Five years? Ten? Maybe it’s simply a function of size, say 400 pages.

Then there are privacy concerns. Although most of my writings are horribly mundane (and probably inane to others that might peruse them), there’s some pretty personal stuff in there. I’m not too thrilled about the idea of employees at the print shop having access to all of that.

During my upgrade project, I have begun to reflect on my purpose in keeping a journal. It turns out that there are times that my electronic journal has helped me find an important date or event. But that’s not really why I write. Is it for posterity? To be honest, I can barely stand to go back and read the glop that I record in my journal. It seems like gross fantasy to assume that any of my progeny might someday pore over thousands of pages of my routine daily events interspersed with mawkish musings.

A Romanian blogger named Ririan gives 10 reasons to keep a journal in this 2006 post. Most of Ririan’s reasons — stress reduction, improved organization skills, keener personal insight — focus on self improvement. Professional writer Jack Oceano gives eight reasons in this 2007 post. Some of these parallel Ririan’s thoughts. Others focus on the craft of writing. But Oceano’s number one reason is that journal entries are like snapshots that capture raw emotion in a way that photo snapshots never can.

I have just looked at a host of articles about how to keep a journal and have discovered that I have been doing it wrong all these years. Most articles suggest that your main writing emphasis should be your immediate thoughts and feelings. Humdrum details should be kept to a minimum.

My writings have this equation exactly reversed. I record what some would consider minutia. My personal feelings occasionally break through the particulars to spill onto the page, but even then they are often guarded and much less raw than Oceano proposes. I find that I am more likely to express my positive emotions in writing while being cautious about letting my negative emotions show.

I am not opposed to learning to do something different if I deem it to be beneficial. Positive growth entails (sometimes uncomfortable) change. But I am not certain that altering my journal writing to feature emotion above information would reflect me better than does my current tack. Nor am I certain I would find it as fulfilling. Details are important to me.

I guess that I write a journal for similar reasons that I exercise daily. It is a positive effort that requires a certain amount of self discipline and that provides certain psychological payoffs. I am not certain that anyone else will ever read from my journal. Frankly, I don’t expect them to. But if they do, I hope that they read enough to get a broader picture of who I am and gain some understanding of the growth process that led me to this identity.