Saturday, July 30, 2011

Humans Judging God's Performance

I'm not quite sure what to make of the poll reported in this KSL article that attempts to assess the respondents' opinions of God's performance. The Democratic polling firm Public Policy Polling reports that 52% of respondents approve, 9% disapprove, and 40% aren't sure.

I haven't looked into the sampling methods, so I'm not sure exactly how PPP derived its results. But it seems to me that the entire premise of the question denotes a profound misunderstanding of the nature of God.

Let me qualify that. I'm speaking mainly of monotheism. I have too little experience with polytheism to address the nature of the human-divine relationship under that philosophy. But since the vast majority of Americans adhere to some form of monotheism, it seems safe to assume that most of the poll's respondents do so as well.

Most monotheistic philosophies portray Deity as omniscient and omnipotent. In other words, God comprehends all that can be known in the universe and is simultaneously all powerful.

Given this, how is it that humans — who by nature are severely limited in their grasp of knowledge and ability to control themselves, let alone the universe — can even assume that it is appropriate to judge God?

Most monotheistic philosophies teach that our mortal lives are but a tiny fragment of our eternal existence. Let's bring this down to a more understandable level. If all you knew about a movie director was 15 seconds of one of the films he directed, how appropriate would it be to judge him and the entire body of his life's work?

The question is not whether we approve of God's performance; it is whether we accept God. Having accepted God, the question becomes whether God approves of us — whether we are striving to adhere to the commandments he gives us because of his love for us, with our everlasting joy being the object.

Every poll has some kind of agenda behind it. It's not clear to me what PPP's agenda is with this particular poll. Maybe they're just goading people. But it seems clear that many of the respondents are confused about the basic nature of their relationship to God.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Stuff Addiction

A week and a half ago our family embarked on an adventure that has been difficult and challenging for all involved: getting ready to sell my Mom's home.

After living in apartments for the first few years of their marriage, Mom and Dad arranged to have a starter home built. The idea was to live in the home for about a decade before moving into something nicer. That was nearly five decades ago.

Every time my parents thought about moving out of the home, something came up. At the 10 year mark, some of Dad's family came from Germany and spent the summer with us. My parents felt it necessary to take them to many tourist destinations in the region. They also felt it necessary to install a central A/C unit because my German relatives wouldn't be used to the arid Utah summer climate. All of that ate up the money my folks had hoped to use toward a new home.

Within a few years after that came a number of missions, weddings, and helping young adults get started in life. That consumed excess funds that might have helped buy a new house.

Eventually my parents served a mission. Although they didn't want to live in the same house when they returned, there were so many things to do to get ready for the mission that they couldn't bear to even think about trying to sell the home at that time. Besides, they let one of my siblings live in it rent free for the time they were gone.

By the time Mom and Dad could think about getting into a new home, their dwelling needs had changed significantly. They looked at homes, but they had difficulty achieving a unified vision of what kind of home they needed. When Dad's health went downhill, any thought of moving was out of the question.

Dad made me promise on his deathbed that I would get Mom out of that house and get her into something more suitable. In the three years since then, Mom has halfheartedly looked at new homes. She has repeated over and over that she can't keep up with the current home's maintenance needs. But she has never gotten serious about the matter.

Something has changed this summer. Dad was very handy. He did many upgrades to the home over the years. For its age and type it looks nice and is in pretty good condition. But Dad also enjoyed creating features that ostensibly would require maintenance within a few years. I think Dad enjoyed having to re-work these features after a while.

But Dad's not here anymore. I did not inherit Dad's handyman gene. One of my brothers did, but he lives half an hour away and has his own property to care for. Mom has been reluctant to hire out the work. The upshot is that nothing gets done and Mom feels oppressed by the ever increasing load of projects crying for attention.

A few weeks ago Mom started talking about selling the home once again. I admit that I was shocked when she actually called a real estate profession and asked to meet with him. I attended the meeting at Mom's request.

It is no secret that the northern Utah home market is in the tank. There are lots of properties on the market right now and prices are in a declining trend. Many homes remain on the market for months and even years without selling. But this fellow has demonstrated his ability to sell homes of all kinds even in a poor market. It all comes down to pricing and aggressive marketing work.

The starting price the realtor suggested seemed pretty low. But he had done his homework. He carefully laid out the case for his suggestion, backing it up with ample research. He even said that it may be necessary to go even lower than this price to sell in a reasonable amount of time.

Selling homes in a declining market requires a different approach, the realtor explained. He said that we needed to move absolutely everything out of the house that Mom didn't need within the next 90 days. We were also told to de-personalize the home so that prospective buyers wouldn't be influenced by my folks' decor choices. Prospective buyers need a relatively blank canvas onto which they can paint themselves. This meant taking down nearly all wall hangings.

We were also instructed to get most of the furniture out of the house. Any furniture that remained was to take as little floor space as possible.

Dutifully, we began boxing up stuff and moving it to a storage unit last Thursday. We did a lot more work on Friday. I brought a moving van on Saturday and many family members spent many hours hauling the larger items to the storage unit. I was grateful for the Sunday break, but we were back at it on Monday. We ended up getting a second storage unit and moving some of the stuff from the first unit in there, while adding more stuff.

It turns out that 50 years of living in one place can result in significant stuff buildup.

As we have moved things into the storage units I have thought about how many of these things will never go to Mom's new home, regardless of what it ends up looking like or how big it is. I see five classes of stuff:
  • Stuff that should be thrown away.
  • Stuff that is of marginal quality and utility.
  • Stuff that is nice but that Mom will never use again.
  • Stuff that Mom actually needs.
  • Stuff that Mom will keep for mainly sentimental reasons.
Even though some stuff won't go to Mom's new home, we stored it because we didn't have time to make decisions about it right now. I suspect that it will be easier to part with some of these things after they have been in storage for a while.

We have continued the project throughout this week, but at a slower pace. I think the home is finally ready to show. But it has been a heck of a lot of work. (And there will still be a whole lot more work to do to clear out the home when it finally sells.)

But the work has only been a portion of the challenge. The emotional toll on Mom has been significant. Mom says that she realizes that this is necessary. She has worked very hard this past week. But the emotional turmoil of thinking about moving out of her home and neighborhood (a place she loves among people she loves) has been difficult. All in all, I think Mom has handled the situation quite admirably.

As we have worked to move stuff out of Mom's place, I have heard family member after family member remark that they have to go home and start de-junking. We all said it many times. But we likely won't do it. Life is busy. De-junking isn't fun. We tend to put off that kind of thing until we're forced into it.

Right now my wife and I envision a day when we become empty-nesters (or nearly empty-nesters). I have a fantasy about leisurely taking weeks and months to de-junk our home at that distant future date, and then putting the home up for sale after months of careful preparation. We would then move into something more suitable for empty-nesters with a whole lot less stuff than we have now. I doubt it will work out like that in real life.

During this moving project I have reflected on why people in our culture tend to accumulate so much stuff. Do we acquire and hold onto stuff in some kind of vain attempt to validate our existence? You know, "I have substance, so I am substantial. I have stuff to prove that I exist—to prove that I matter."

Why did I put my old electric shaver on the shelf instead of throwing it away when I got a new one last month? True, it isn't completely dead. But it's pretty shot. Why didn't I throw it away? If I don't do so soon, it will be among the myriad things I look at when we eventually move from our current home and wonder why I kept it around all those years.

Years ago I came to the conclusion that everything I own owns a piece of me. Not only does it take up space, it takes my time. It takes energy just to think about it and to categorize it. (I am remembering an old toilet seat that I replaced years ago but that is still in the crawl space under the stairs.) Even that owns a little piece of me.

The idea, I guess, is to keep only stuff that comes out good on the cost-benefit scale, and to get rid of everything else. Since the factors in such an analysis change as our lives change, it takes energy to undertake that process as well. I guess it's the cost of de-junking that keeps me from doing it.

Maybe I will live to regret that.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Laid Off!

Three months ago I was laid off from the job I had worked at for more than 11 years. It wasn’t a huge surprise that there was to be another round of layoffs, given the company’s finances. I had survived many layoffs, but not this time.

In yet another cost-cutting measure, the company decided to get rid of almost all of its software developers. The two youngest were retained, but one of those soon left for another job. This sounds cruel to the more experienced workers, but it was likely for the best. Longer term workers had built up more leave and severance pay. Had the less seasoned guys been laid off, they could well have been out of money before they had new jobs.

Moreover, I had been blessed to work for an employer that offered a fairly generous severance plan. Along with getting my leave cashed out, I had enough money to last for a couple of months.

I was one of the very few fortunate ones. Even as I sat in my manager’s office, I was offered a temporary four-to-six month position at another of the company’s offices doing exactly what I had been doing. Maybe the position would eventually become permanent; maybe not. But at least I could search for a new job while still being employed.

While this was a tremendous blessing, it was also a bit of a challenge. The moment I arrived home, I initiated my job search. My job searching activities became a second job to which I applied myself with great energy. Some of my former co-workers had been pro-active enough to already have job interviews lined up.

I soon discovered that it wasn’t terribly difficult to get a job interview. The information technology sector is one of the few parts of the economy that has picked up. Many companies are looking to technology to help them cut costs and reduce the need for other types of workers. I had my first interview just two days after being laid off.

But I quickly found that actually getting to the point of receiving a job offer can be quite challenging, especially for a developer with my level of seniority. Many employers are looking for junior level developers, which are much cheaper and often more flexible. The employers that are looking for experienced developers tend to want very specific skills. They tend to want highly skilled, narrowly focused gurus rather than broad-based steady workers.

Prospective employers are also not very keen on hiring into a more junior position someone that has been used to working at a senior level, even if you are willing to work for less pay. They suspect that you will be gone the moment a better paying job comes along.

The whole hiring process is very similar to dating and courting. Interviews are like dates. Both the employer and the applicant are testing the relationship to see if it is something that feels like a good fit.

I walked out of some interviews feeling that it had gone badly. I walked out of others expecting a callback that never came. I walked out of some hoping that they weren’t interested in me because I certainly wasn’t interested in them. Some interviews went well, but ended with the realization that it was not a good fit. Frankly the whole process was challenging and frustrating.

As far as I.T. workers go, I discovered too late that it is likely better to pursue job offers through recruiters. Recruiters make money from successfully placing applicants in jobs. They develop relationships with hiring managers, so they have contacts that are difficult for applicants to develop on their own. They are able to finesse situations and present a better picture of the applicant, even if the applicant isn’t particularly adept at interviewing.

But recruiters are essentially sales people. Some can tend to paint too optimistic of a picture. Many are just looking to bolster their next paycheck. If they can’t immediately place you, they drop you like a hot potato. Some, on the other hand, are very good at what they do.

I found that it can be a mistake to just start applying willy-nilly on positions announced on job websites. Many of those go into some ethereal file that no one cares to ever look at. Another problem is that recruiters usually can’t represent you to a potential employer if you have already applied there on your own.

A good approach would be to develop relationships with several recruiters and to continue to look for jobs on your own. If you find something you’re interested in, you could shop it to your recruiter pool to see if any already have a contact at the firm.

On the other hand, some employers refuse to work with recruiters. By chatting with recruiters you can find out which companies those are, so that you can apply there on your own. Recruiters often know enough about a company to give you a feel for the company’s culture. You can get an idea of how well you might fit into the organization.

A very important avenue that should not be overlooked is to ask everyone you personally know for help in finding a job. You never know when a friend, family member, or acquaintance might have a contact that could lead to a job. Most jobs come through networking with people. In fact, you should pursue your job search from every possible angle, because you never know where your next job might come from.

Following advice of a job coach, I created an email ‘newsletter’ to all of my personal contacts. I then spammed them with an email message that had my resume attached. A few responded: some with opportunities and some with encouragement. I later found that others had prayed for me. Interestingly, this little newsletter eventually led to my new job, although, the process took a while.

Along the way, I worked with a professional job coach that helped me bring my resume into the 21st Century. I found that it is good for someone with multiple skills to keep various resume versions that highlight specific skills. Employers looking for narrow skills often care little about the other skills you have developed. In some cases, having those skills on your resume can hurt you, because it looks like you are not specialized enough for the position they have open.

A couple of months before being laid off, I had obtained a smartphone. Up until then, I had been just fine with a “feature phone” (aka “dumb phone”). But I found that the smartphone offered many features that proved extremely helpful during my job search, including immediate email and Internet connectivity.

After nearly a dozen interviews, I interviewed with a firm that seemed like a natural fit for me. Moreover, the opportunity had come through an old Scouting buddy, who worked in the company’s I.T. department. I was grateful when an H.R. representative called to offer me a position.

Unfortunately, the offer was far below what I felt I could accept. We dickered, but we were still so far apart that we concluded that we couldn’t make it work. I was disappointed, but continued with my search. A couple of weeks later, I was surprised when the H.R. representative called and offered me the lowest amount I said I could accept. My wife and I took a day to consider the offer before accepting it.

I have been at my new job for a month now. It is challenging, but it is also a great job. Frankly, I took a serious pay cut from my former position. Some of the benefits are a far cry from those I used to have. But in many ways, the work is better. And the shorter commute makes up for some of the shortfalls.

It has been common since the start of the recession for workers losing their jobs to be rehired at jobs that don’t pay as well. So I suppose that I’m simply part of the new workplace reality. Still, I’m not complaining. I am very grateful for my job. We have made a few sacrifices to make our budget work, but I am ever so pleased just to be employed.

As I said, I am one of the fortunate ones. Although I was laid off, I was never really unemployed. I got severance pay and a temporary job from my former employer that helped me bridge the gap until I could settle in a new permanent job.

The weeks that I spent in job search activities weren’t very fun for me. As I wrote above, the job search was challenging and frustrating. But I applied myself to it as if it were another job. I worked very hard following up leads, making phone calls, sending emails, interviewing, searching for jobs, etc.

I worked at it so much that it was kind of odd when I accepted my new job. All of that activity abruptly stopped. I suddenly had all of those hours available for other stuff. It was a huge relief, but I strangely found myself missing it for the first few days. I was surprised at how rapidly my stream of incoming emails and phone calls dried up. Life is more peaceful now.

I waited a month to write about this because I wanted to settle into my new job. I now know what it takes to find a job in this job market. It requires a serious approach, a lot of work, flexibility, and some good luck. I am grateful that it all worked out for me.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

July 2, 2011: Camp Loll Still Inaccessible Due to Snow

For some time I had planned to drive my son to Camp Loll, BSA on July 2 so that he could begin working there for two weeks as a camp counselor trainee.

Normally the first week of campers arrives on the last Monday in June. That means that the first weekend in July is the conclusion of that week and preparation time for week #2. By the time week #1 starts, the staff has usually been in camp for two weeks. During that time they prepare the physical facilities and train to run the camp program.

This year is different. The winter season brought far more moisture than is common. The spring was unusually cool and wet. It is not uncommon for the staff to deal with a few downed trees, mud bogs, and occasional snow banks as they make the first long drive over the dirt roads that lead to camp. But this year there has been so much snow on the road that there was no possibility of vehicles reaching camp before now. It turned out that there was no possibility of vehicles reaching camp yesterday either.

We started out the day stopping at various points to pick up staffers on the trip northward. Our caravan was larger than usual because we had more people and gear than usual. We made a stop in Idaho Falls and then had lunch in a park in Ashton, Idaho.
Loll staffers socializing before lunch in Ashton, Idaho
Enjoying the shade

We put gas in the vehicles and then started the 34-mile drive to Camp Loll. Once the pavement ended I was surprised at how good the condition of the dirt road was. Given Delose Conner's posts (and pictures) of attempts to reach camp over the past few weeks (6/12, 6/21, 6/24, 6/27), I thought the road would be worse.

Then we arrived at the stretch that leads down to Calf Creek. This section gets less sunlight. We expected that we'd have to dig through snow drifts here, but the depth and length of the drifts were surprising.
400 Yards of Snow up to 5 Feet Deep
We started applying manual labor to the situation. Some thought that it would have been good to have a snow plow on one of the trucks. But the snow was so densely packed that I doubt that would have been much good. The stuff had to be chopped up and shoveled out.

Unfortunately we had only about a dozen shovels. Most workers were reduced to using their hands to throw aside snow chunks created by the shovel wielders. I brought three scoop shovels. The staff managed to break all three of them.

Snow removal by shovel and hand
At one point we tried to get a Jeep through one of the drifts. It got high-centered so that the wheels could get no traction. The workers quickly got busy digging under the vehicle. They finally hooked a tow strap on and pulled it out by human power.

Scout power
A family from Layton soon came hiking up the road over the snow banks. They had left their truck parked at the beginning of the drifts and hiked into camp. They showed Delose pictures of the road into camp. They said that once we could get past the 400 yards of drifts we were working on that the road was pretty good until the turnoff to the Camp Loll road. Half of that final two-mile stretch to camp was also heavily snowbound.

Sensing that the day was waning, Delose assigned the rangers (all 18-25 years old) to continue working on the drifts, hike to camp, and stay the night in the lodge. They were then to bring all of the digging and chopping tools from the lodge back to the snow drifts in the morning.

We loaded up the rest of the staff and drove them back to Ashton, where they prepared to spend the night camped out under the stars in the yard of a kindly farmer. At this point I left my son along with the rest of the staff and headed back home.

I don't yet know how the rest of the story goes. The plan was to ferry the staff back to the snow drifts this morning to spend the day working on getting vehicles as close to camp as possible, and to do whatever was necessary to get the gear hauled to the lodge. It's a hard working way to spend a Sunday, but they don't know what else to do. I pray that they will get the staff and their gear to camp by tonight.

In the meantime, camp leaders are having to figure out how to deal with the nutrition, hydration, and sanitation needs of this large group of young staffers. It's a tough challenge.

The warmer temperatures and the clearer skies means that snow is now melting rapidly at Camp Loll and surrounding areas. The roads might be passable in a few more days even without digging. At this point, the staff cannot wait for that to happen naturally.

Tomorrow was to be the beginning of the second week of campers. The council has already cancelled the first two weeks of camp. The loss of that revenue presents a serious budgetary challenge for the camp. Camp leaders hope to get the camp and the staff ready in one week so that they can host campers on July 11. Once they survey the condition of the camp, they will know whether even that date is too optimistic.

There have been a few times during the history of Camp Loll that the first week of camp has been cancelled due to climate conditions. As far as I know, this is the only time the second week of camp has also been cancelled. I believe it is also the latest that the staff has been able to access the camp.

Camp support people here at home have been working to find some way to get a tractor up to the snow drifts. But that's a problem. Many owners of such equipment have gone away for the holiday weekend. Even if such equipment could be secured, a trained operator would be needed and both the equipment and the operator would need to be transported to the location. The staff will likely solve the problem through hard work before all of that can happen.

While this is a tough spot for camp leaders and staffers to be in, it will make for deep memories. It will also likely foster a special bond among the staffers that have this experience. Although I worry about my son, I am grateful that he has an opportunity to be part of this. He is rubbing shoulders with some very high quality youth. I hope he learns much good from them as they go through this experience together.

UPDATE: I just got word that they were able to get the staff and vehicles into camp at 4 pm today. There is lots of snow in camp, but it is melting rapidly. As has happened in other heavy snow years, the staff will work at doing snow removal in critical campground and program areas throughout this week. There will still be plenty of snow banks around when troops arrive next week, but they will hopefully still be able to run a regular program.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Grateful for the U.S.A.

A few years ago I wrote about my annual pre-Independence Day liberty ritual. Every year I watch the six-hour series Liberty! The American Revolution. I follow that up with A More Perfect Union, which depicts the constitutional convention.

I actually watch these documentaries while working out in the morning. It's kind of funny, but I have great difficulty sitting down and watching anything on TV for more than a few minutes. I say that it's funny because I grew up being quite a TV connoisseur.

Nowadays I get antsy if I watch TV for any length of time. I can't stop thinking about all of the other things I could be doing. TV programs can't hold my interest for long. It's OK to have the TV on in the background while I do something else, but I just can't bring myself to devote much time to sitting down and watching TV. It isn't interactive enough.

This year I have added to my liberty ritual the reading of Pauline Maier's recent book, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788. Maier is recognized as one of the foremost authorities on the American Revolution and the early history of the United States.

I am currently about two-thirds of the way through Maier's book. I tend to agree with this Washington Post review of the book, which says:
"In contrast to historians who see the ratification of the Constitution as the result of elites' manipulation of the masses, Maier tells a far more suspenseful and complex story. Her superb work provides an object lesson in the value of the deliberative process and the extent to which moderation and compromise are at the very foundation of our government. As Maier convincingly shows, the Constitution's preamble did not simply represent a rhetorical flourish or an abstract philosophical theory. It was the very means by which "We the People" chose to embrace a peaceful revolution in government."
There is some evidence that more than half of the general population of the states opposed ratification of the Constitution in its original form. Its ratification was far from a sure thing. The story Maier tells shows how close the document came to not being ratified in many states. It is somewhat of a miracle that it happened at all.

However, opponents of the Constitution were also far from united in their views. A relative minority seems to have thought that the document was irredeemably flawed. Most opponents appear to have been in favor of remedying problems prior to its implementation. They understandably felt that they would be in a worse position to negotiate such changes once the document had gone into effect.

Maier shows that the deliberative process that occurred in very different ways in different states produced a general understanding of the people's perception of the Constitution's most egregious flaws. The result was that the Bill of Rights became the first item of business for the 1st U.S. Congress. It was championed by many that had previously argued against the need for such amendments.

In fact, most Americans quickly accepted the legitimacy of the new national government and recognized the value of the amended Constitution. While fights broke out on occasion when the Constitution was being discussed by people prior to its ratification, hardly anyone seems to have given serious thought to opposing the new government once the document was ratified. It was quite common for leaders of the opposition movement to run for Congress.

While it is all the rage in certain circles to pooh-pooh the idea of American exceptionalism nowadays, I believe that such a view requires one to willingly don blinders. The U.S. undeniably has its flaws, some of which are quite glaring. But the overwrought focus on those imperfections is as irrational as the unwillingness to acknowledge them.

I believe that a fair reading of history shows that the U.S., as far as nations go, has been the most consequential force for good known to mankind to date, notwithstanding its problems. Some of the best features of the American system have been successfully copied around the globe. Yet no other nation has yet so successfully generated so much liberty and prosperity among its citizens.

As a grateful beneficiary of this system, the story of how it all came about fascinates me. Regardless of whether one believes that this process was divinely guided or not, it must be recognized as quite remarkable. This is what I will be thinking about this weekend as we celebrate our nation's independence.