Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Experiencing Sunday as a Child

I grew up attending church in my LDS ward in the days before the consolidated meeting schedule. For more than 30 years the Sunday worship habits of Latter-Day Saints have included a three-hour block of meetings for all members. The block is broken into three segments.

A 50-minute segment has separate meetings for children (Primary), Young Women, young men (Aaronic Priesthood), adult women (Relief Society), and adult men (Melchizedek Priesthood). A 40-minute segment includes a continuation of Primary for children under 12 and Sunday School classes for everyone else. The remaining 70-minute segment is Sacrament meeting, where the entire congregation gathers in the chapel to worship together and to partake of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. A 10-minute break separates each segment of the block. Some wards hold Sacrament during the first segment. For others it’s at the end.

When I was a child, the young men and the adult men would arrive at the church to attend priesthood meeting an hour before the rest of the congregation came. Then the whole congregation would gather for Sunday School, which included opening exercises followed by classes. Children under 12 attended “Junior Sunday School.” We’d then go home and return later in the afternoon for a 90-minute Sacrament meeting. (Except on fast Sunday, when Sacrament meeting immediately followed Sunday School.)

The Primary auxiliary met one afternoon each week. Relief Society also met during the week. Young Men and Young Women continue to meet one evening weekly for Mutual.

There are some significant differences between the current consolidated LDS meeting schedule and the split schedule that was used when I was young. For starters, moms used to have to get everyone ready for church twice each Sunday.

Maybe others grew up in families where perfect children quietly stayed in their Sunday best following morning meetings until getting home from Sacrament meeting. But I was one of five boys. We changed out of our Sunday clothes after getting home from Sunday School out of sheer economic necessity. Mom needed to preserve our good clothes as long as possible. Had we stayed in our church clothes between meetings, they likely would have been unfit to wear to the afternoon meeting.

The split schedule also meant that we spent the whole day involved in church meetings. During my formative years, Dad was always serving in some leadership position that required him to attend meetings during the early hours each Sunday morning. He’d be tired enough that he would often get some napping accomplished between morning and afternoon meetings. After a morning of getting kids to and from church, making a lovely Sunday dinner and cleaning up, Mom would also often collapse for much needed rest.

We kids would frequently be shooed outside to provide a little bit of peace for our parents. We’d engage in many activities that I’m certain would be on the “Don’t” list of any lesson about keeping the Sabbath Day holy.

One Sunday between meetings my brother and I ended up down at “the gully,” a water retention basin about a block and a half from our home. There was a lot of new construction going on in that area, so it was a natural draw for curious and adventurous boys. Since our neighborhood was filled with young families, there were lots of boys in a fairly narrow age range in the area. A huge group of these kids had congregated around this huge mud hole that Sunday afternoon.

Excavation had exposed many rocks and left large dirt clods on a ridge overlooking the bog. Seemingly countless boys were standing there doing what almost any boy in such a situation would do—throwing rocks and dirt clods into the water.

I was only about five or six years old, so I didn’t have much of a throwing arm. After being unable to reach the water consistently with my rocks, I noticed my older brother and a couple of other boys down on the mud bank on the other side of the gully. Some of the boys were trying to hit them with dirt clods, but they were out of range.

Taking measure of how close the water was to where my brother was standing, I surmised that I could land my rocks in the bog more easily from that location. I made my way down there and found that I could make splashes with my rocks from there. Of course, being guys, the whole activity soon devolved into a contest of who could make the largest splash.

By this time, most of the boys on top of the opposite ridge were heaving huge rocks or clods into the water, so they didn’t have much range and we were in little danger of being hit.  Or so I thought.  I heaved up the biggest rock I could carry. But I could see that I’d have to get much closer to the water to successfully make a splash. As I ventured out closer to the water I was suddenly whacked on the head by a rather large rock zooming down from the opposite ridge.

Being a rather young child, I screamed in pain and went wailing home. About halfway between the gully and my home, a kindly neighbor darted out of his house to see if he could help. I was holding my head with a bloody hand. My head hurt like crazy. I was blubbering so incoherently that I couldn’t even tell the man what had happened. He got me home to my folks. Mom kept changing out cold washcloths that she held compressed to my head until the bleeding slowed.

Then it was time to go to Sacrament meeting. Mom deliberated about whether to seek medical attention, but back in those days that would have meant going to the emergency room at the other end of town. Besides, I wasn’t bawling out loud anymore. So we got dressed and went to church. The top of my scalp throbbed the entire time. Although Mom dabbed at it with Kleenex, it kept leaking and making my hair sticky.

My wound eventually healed. If anyone brings up that story even today, Mom will say that she feels badly about not taking me in and getting my head stitched up.  If I were balding, a lovely scar would still be apparent.  On another Sunday afternoon my brother severely broke his arm while jumping on a large inner tube. That time Mom had to skip Sacrament meeting to get the arm set and casted. Such were our Sunday afternoon escapades in those days.

Since we always had our big Sunday dinner at lunchtime, our family opted for simpler fare for our evening meal. After getting home from Sacrament meeting, Mom would set out sandwich fixings and we’d eat sandwiches, often while watching the Wonderful World of Disney on our old black & white TV.

With all of us seated around a relatively small table, and all reaching for food, the spillage of drinks was a frequent occurrence. A child spilling his milk in this setting could expect an immediate reaction from each parent. Mom would move with lightning speed to get something with which to stanch the flow of fluid before it dripped off the table onto the carpet or seeped through the cracks where the table halves joined the expansion leaves. The offending child would also earn Dad’s renowned stern German discipline.

One Sunday evening, it was Dad that spilled his milk. We children sat pensively, wanting to laugh but knowing that we’d be in for it if we did. As Mom made her well-practiced dash for a dish towel, Dad cast about for anything that might blot the spill before the milk dripped off the table. He could see that the fluid was moving so fast that even Mom’s rapid response wouldn’t be fast enough.

Being a man with a quick analytical mind, Dad grabbed the closest blot-worthy item he could reach—my brother’s sandwich. Using the sandwich as a towel proved to be effective in stopping the spread of the spill. My brother didn’t think this was funny at all. But the whole rest of the family responded with gales of laughter. This was perhaps the funniest thing I ever saw Dad do during his life.

Sundays are different for my kids than they were for me as a kid. My kids usually only have to get dressed for church once. Upon arriving home, we do not require them to stay in their Sunday meeting clothes. They still roughhouse on Sunday. They will often jump on our trampoline, sometimes while fighting with Nerf swords. I know people that consider such displays to be highly irreverent and not in keeping with the Sabbath. But given the nature of children, I think we’re actually doing a pretty good job.

We have carried over a Sunday tradition from my wife’s family. When not in meetings, we reserve Sunday time for family time. Our kids do not hang out with friends on Sundays. I am quick to say that I have no problem with families that choose otherwise. This is just something that we have found to be successful for our family.

We also avoid entertainment that is not at least somewhat worshipful on the Sabbath. If we watch TV, for example, it is limited to worshipful content. We do not watch sports, or secular TV shows or movies on Sunday. We have found this to be useful in helping us try to focus on worship throughout the day.

I guess that, even though Sunday activities are somewhat different for my children than they were for me when I was a child, in many ways they are similar. We attend church together as a family. We try to do things that will help us make the Sabbath a special day each week. Some Sundays are better than others, and I’m sure that some of our activities don’t look very worshipful to others. But at least we make an earnest effort to keep the Sabbath holy.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Our Memorial Day Visits

I never really had graves of loved ones to visit until just a few years ago. At least not closeby. My maternal grandparents are buried a full day's travel away in a tiny out-of-the-way town in northern Wyoming. My paternal grandparents were buried in Germany.

I say, "were buried" because the common practice in that area is to turn over graves after a while unless families continue to pay fairly exhorbitant 'rent' for the spaces. If Oma's and Opa's graves haven't been turned over yet, they will be before long.

Until fairly recently the nearest grave of a close relative would have required significant travel. So we usually found little motivation to go to a cemetery over Memorial Day weekend.

Then four years ago my Father-In-Law died after a difficult battle with lung cancer. Having served in the Air Force as a young adult, he was interred in the veteran's portion of a local cemetery.

Dad's grave is inauspicious. The headstone is level with the ground. It's not far from the road that loops around and through the rolling green expanse. It's really quite a peaceful and beautiful area. We now make a sojourn to Dad's grave each Memorial Day weekend. The cemetery is festooned with many American flags. Many graves show signs of having been visited.

A little over a year after my Father-In-Law passed away, my Dad died of heart disease. Dad was interred in a cemetery that is only a mile from my home. It is a place I have frequented throughout my life. As a child I walked by or through the cemetery on the way to and from school. In the summer we would walk through the cemetery on our way to and from the community swimming pool.

When my kids were young my main workout was speed walking. We had a two-seat jogger stroller. I'd load up one or two kids and take them on a stroll that included going up and down the roads in the cemetery. Having lived in this area for a while, it is surprising how many names I recognized as we passed grave markers. My kids used to love to see the many rather unique monuments that are scattered throughout the cemetery.

Now I make a habit of stopping by Dad's grave each time I go for a bike ride. The headstone is upright. It sports my parents' names and basic info on the front. On the rear it has the names of their children, a graphic of the Christus statue, a graphic of a set of scriptures, and an engraved quotation of John 17:3; Dad's favorite scripture.

I have a little ritual that I perform when I stop by Dad's grave. Mind you, I am usually riding pretty hard because I am trying to keep my heart rate up. I stop my bike, get off, stand in front of the headstone, remove my helmet, and bow my head. I then don my helmet, re-mount my bike, and am soon on my way.

We always make it to Dad's grave over Memorial Day weekend. Usually we make it there more than once. It has been a tradition to have a family gathering on Memorial Day with some or all of my siblings' families. Usually as we get ready to wrap up the event, we make a quick trip to Dad's grave before everyone heads home. Each year the cemetery staff does a lot of work to beautify the grounds in anticipation of Memorial Day.

When we visit the graves of my Father-In-Law and my Dad, I recognize that the experience is different for each member of my family. Each brings a unique perspective to the visit. It is not really possible to convey to my children what I experience as I stand there, since they didn't share the same relationship with these men that I did. Nor do they have the same level of maturity. I suppose that the important thing is that we make an effort to honor our loved ones that have passed on.

As is the nature of life, the number of nearby graves of loved ones will increase as the years pass. We will do what is needed to visit those graves. I hope that my children will do the same if they are in a position to do so. Who knows where life will lead them and how far away they will end up living?

It has been said that the way a society treats its dead says a lot about its level of humanity and civility. My Dad and my Wife's Dad are gone. But the love I feel for them is not diminished. That is what I will be thinking about as I visit their graves this weekend.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Mind Games and Economic Semantics

Rationality is a significant principle in economics. It is employed to explain how people make choices. This SmartMoney article highlights Dan Ariely, an expert in behavioral economics that has PhDs in cognitive psychology and business. An accomplished and engaging public speaker, Ariely contends that many choices are made on an irrational rather than a rational basis.

An example of Ariely’s contention of general and predictable irrationality mentioned in the SmartMoney article involves mortgage-backed securities that played such a prominent role in the 2008 housing bubble crash.
“Most people, it turns out, are comfortable with a small amount of cheating; if the incentives are in place, they can bend the rules and still consider themselves "good people." That's one reason Ariely is disappointed but not surprised that high bonuses are back in the financial world. "If I pay people $5 million to view mortgage-backed securities as a good product, most people will believe [those securities] are good," says Ariely.”
If this is a good example of irrationality, it is a poor one. In fact, it looks a lot like cases cited to support rational choice theory.

The common use of the term rationality denotes sanity and fact-based emotionless decision making. This appears to be the way the term is used throughout the SmartMoney article. It would seem that this is how Ariely employs the term.

Rational choice theory, on the other hand, defines rationality as making choices based on which option is likely to produce the greatest return at the lowest cost. It applies in all decisions regardless of whether they involve monetary matters or not. It suggests that people respond to the incentives they perceive—all of the incentives, not just those that translate directly into money.

Paying someone “$5 million to view mortgage-backed securities as a good product” creates a huge incentive to adopt such a view. Rational choice theory says that a person receiving such an opportunity would balance the perceived benefits and costs of accepting that view against the perceived benefits and costs refusing to do so.

Maybe the person considers what his neighbors will think of him or what his God will think of him, as well as how his physical lifestyle will improve. Perhaps, like Tevye singing If I Were a Rich Man, they see their neighbors revering them for their wealth and even increased opportunities for worship and doing good.

One of the main points many economists make with respect to rational choice theory is that no one is better suited to make any choice a person faces than the person themselves. While no one has perfect information regarding any choice, each of us brings a unique understanding of the costs and benefits involved to each decision. It would be impossible for anyone else to fully comprehend the number of factors we consider and the weight we apply to each factor when making a decision. Some of these things are so automatic that we probably couldn’t articulate them all if we wanted to.

Whenever someone purports to demonstrate that people make irrational economic choices, it is almost always because they have indulged in the hubris of assuming to know what is best for others. It can be relatively easy to quantify whether someone spends overall less on a cart of similar groceries at store A than at store B. But to then assert that someone that shops at store B is behaving irrationally is extreme arrogance.

How does the outside observer know all of the factors that go into a shopper’s cost-benefit analysis? Declaring emotion to be irrational makes it far easier to study behavior and to declare it irrational. But the fact is that we are emotional beings. It is absurd to attempt to separate people from one of their core characteristics in the name of science.

In the store A, store B example, might it not be possible that some shoppers are willing to pay more to shop in a store with better lighting, more pleasing d├ęcor, or a layout that makes more sense to them? Or maybe it’s a matter of time vs money. They happen to know where things are in store B and their time is more important to them than the savings they would get by going to the unfamiliar store A.

I know people that are deeply religious that choose to shop at a store that is closed on the Sabbath, although, prices are generally higher. I suppose Ariely and his ilk would say that these people are behaving irrationally. But their choices are perfectly rational under rational choice theory. They perceive a greater net benefit from their choices despite the fact that shopping receipts show that they spend more. Spiritual benefits are hard to track through cash register receipts.

In effect, Ariely is simply playing a game of semantics, applying some behavioral economic theories to the common understanding of rationality rather than using the term as employed by most behavioral economists. From the grand living he earns by doing so, it would seem that he is highly incentivized to engage in this deceptive behavior. That too demonstrates rationality.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Me Run for Office? Not Likely

Two neighbors that I very much respect asked me yesterday to consider running for city council this year. Three of five council seats will be up for election this fall. This isn’t the first time I have been asked to run for public office. There was a time in my life when I somewhat fancied that idea. By the time I arrived at a station of life where it might have seemed possible to seek public office, I had come to abhor the thought.

I have noted that most of my neighbors feel that they have done their civic duty if they vote in the November elections. A few try to vote in primary elections and one-off matters like bond elections. A very tiny minority attend their party’s caucus meetings and only a very few of those attend party conventions.

Many of my neighbors have no idea what the city council is doing unless something out of the ordinary gets reported. Many could not tell you the names of their state representative and state senator. Some aren’t sure who their U.S. representative or senators are. Yet most of these folks consider themselves to be decent, civic minded folks.

Every once in a while people get hot under the collar about some public matter that threatens to affect them in a more personal way. Then they get more politically involved—some temporarily and some more permanently. It is during such civic spasms that I have been approached about running for public office.

The current civic paroxysm is occasioned by the city considering the construction of a public works facility near my neighborhood. About a dozen years ago, descendants of pioneer settlers sold a handsome chunk of farmland to the city after reaching an understanding of how the property would be used.

A small portion of the property would be subdivided. Family members of the sellers would be given opportunities to buy lots up front. The property that was not part of the subdivision was to be maintained as green space. The city could build a park but not a sports venue on the land.

I was concerned when I heard that the actual deed did not include these agreements. Some other type of instrument was supposedly drawn up for that. The subdivision went in, part of the area became a lovely park with an outdoor amphitheater, and the remainder continued to look much as it did at the time of the sale.

Of course, city leadership changes over time. The current leadership sees a large chunk of property owned by the city that might be a decent spot for a new public works campus. City leaders are still licking their wounds from the last attempt to locate a public works facility in a residential area on property the city already owns. They appear to have stepped into a mess again, having been caught unaware of the terms under which the property was acquired.

Current leaders have been conscientious enough to check with those that were in leadership at the time the city bought the property. Former leaders have corroborated residents’ claims that the city agreed to maintain the area as green space.

It may be that the city would be within its actual legal rights to develop a public works facility on the property. But it would engender a great deal of ill will among residents, as well as descendants of original settlers who only agreed to sell the property with the understanding that it would remain green space.

Frankly, I empathize with city leadership. The current public works facility is old. Maintenance costs are rising, the buildings do not meet current seismic code, the city has outgrown the facility, the property footprint isn’t large enough to accommodate an adequately sized new facility, and even if adjacent property were available its characteristics would render it unsuitable for that use.

The city needs a new facility in a new location. Predictably, nobody wants this facility in their neighborhood. The standard not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) sentiment runs strong for pretty much every location the city has considered.

It’s a sticky wicket. City leaders have been asked why they keep looking mainly at residential locations for the facility instead of considering spots that are already industrial. It turns out that almost all of the available property owned by the city is surrounded by residential communities. The city has been planned as mostly residential. There isn’t much industrial space.

Why can’t the city buy the rundown vacant grocery store for this purpose? Not sure. Maybe it’s too small or too expensive. At any rate, buying property would necessarily cost a lot more than using property already owned by the city.

Costing more is a problem. Voters have recently disciplined leaders that raised taxes instead of trimming budgets. This chastening has been sufficient for city leaders to work harder on being more frugal. I would be surprised if they voted for tax increases or asked voters to support a bond in the near future.

At any rate, some of my neighbors, suddenly concerned about what city leaders are up to, are casting about for alternatives. They should be careful. If they manage to elect new leaders, how sure can they be that the new leaders will be an improvement over the old?

I am personally acquainted with the mayor and three of the five city council members. I must admit that some of their choices upset me. But all of these people are upstanding individuals that earnestly try to do what they believe to be in the city’s best interest.

Besides, I cannot honestly say that I could or would do any better than they do. One of my neighbors suggests that this realization is “humility” and would be an asset in city leadership. Sounds like flattery to me.

I know myself to be a pleaser. I like to think that I have integrity, but I also know that I readily respond to the incentives inherent in whatever situation I find myself. I try to keep myself out of situations where my integrity might be compromised. Politics deals in shades of gray. No matter what you do you are bound to have people upset with you. You’ve got to have a thick hide in politics. I’m not sure I am (or even want to be) that resilient.

It has long been my philosophy that one can do his or her civic duty in many ways other than serving in public office. I believe that being a functional father and serving in the Boy Scouts are viable ways of strengthening the community.

Seeking public office also means campaigning. Campaigning costs money. It means unabashedly asking people to give you money and offering them a good reason for doing so. It means a lot of hard work. Getting elected usually requires a passion for the job. I harbor no such internal fire for political position.

As I mentioned earlier, I presently loathe the thought of being a politician. I once kind of liked the idea of having the honors that accrue with such positions. Now the thought of such accolades creeps me out. I have little desire to have the thrill of exercising control over others.

While some may say that we need people in public office with such characteristics of political modesty, I’m not so sure. Would you go to a doctor that detests being a doctor? Would you want to send your child to a teacher that hates teaching? Would you hire a receptionist that finds interfacing with the public abhorrent?

We live in a society where people specialize in pursuits. The more specialized and the more proficient they become, the more they are sought after and compensated. While it is wise to be wary of anyone that has avarice for power over others, the fact is that we tend to seek to fill positions with 
people that are good at performing those jobs. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a server at a restaurant, a mechanic, a clerk, a farm worker, a network engineer, a manager, a bus driver, or a politician. As the ‘hiring managers’ for elected officials, voters are unlikely to select someone that doesn’t really want the job.

Even with three city council seats up for election, the incumbent factor must be considered as well. Over the years I have noted that it isn’t enough to advertise how good someone will be at serving on the city council if the incumbent is running for re-election. Unless the voters are dissatisfied with the incumbent for some reason, the newcomer won’t be elected even if he/she is the most qualified candidate ever.

I’m not sure whether any of the three incumbents are running this fall (although I suspect all are), but none of them has done anything that would cause voters to oust them. Unless there is an open seat, I would see no purpose in trying to beat an incumbent with which voters are not displeased.

The main point is that I have no desire to run for political office. (In fact, I have anti-desire to do so.) I do not believe myself to be potentially any better at managing the city than the current crop of leaders. I lack the energy and drive necessary to be elected. I am completely unwilling to put in the kind of time and effort needed to mount a serious campaign.

I am flattered that some of my neighbors think that I might be a good elected official. But it simply isn’t reality.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Tribute to My Mom

Mothers Day was two weeks ago. Ever since then I have been thinking about my Mom. I have intended to write something about her, but one thing after another has delayed my writing.

I saw very few pictures from my Mom’s childhood when I was young. Then a few years ago, her brother, who had spent his career as a photographer, found a few family photos from the old days. He cleaned them up, reproduced them, and sent them out to family.

When Mom looked at the black and white photos of the family on the porch of the old homestead, she said that she didn’t remember the clan and the place looking so rundown. She said, “It looks like the Grapes of Wrath.” Dad looked at the photos and said, “That’s because it IS the Grapes of Wrath!”

Mom was born in a small town in the rural Midwest during the hardscrabble years of the Great Depression. She was second to the youngest of her parents’ large brood. Like everyone else in the area, my grandparents were farmers. Also like their neighbors, they fell on very hard times during the depression.

Grandma was a member of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Her sister sent her a letter saying that she had joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and was going to send missionaries to teach my Grandma. Grandma responded that if the missionaries came, she would prove them wrong.

The missionaries showed up during harvest season. During the day they went out and worked long hard hours helping Grandpa with the farm work. In the evening after dinner they taught the family the gospel. Grandma soon changed her mind and joined the LDS Church along with some of the older children. From that moment on, Grandma was a stalwart member.

Mom was a young girl when the family left the Midwest and moved to a tiny town way up near the northern border of central Wyoming. They were attracted by the oil field jobs in the area, since it had become so difficult to make a living farming. They still had a farm, but Grandpa spent the rest of his working years doing hard manual labor in the oil fields.

Mom was baptized a member of the LDS Church in northern Wyoming. Her Dad had been baptized a few years earlier. But Grandpa was never a serious churchgoing type. And he never gave up his tobacco.

One of my older cousins relates that he and a couple of our other cousins were pretty young boys when Grandpa caught them trying out cigarettes behind the barn one day. He said that it was the only time he ever saw Grandpa get really angry. Through strong words and corporal punishment he tried to impress on the boys how addictive tobacco was. He wanted to give up the dirty habit, he said, but he just couldn’t.

The only pictures I ever saw of my Grandpa until I was an adult were of him emaciated and dying of cancer incident to his tobacco addiction. He passed away while my Mom was pregnant with me.

Grandma did an astonishing amount of family history research from her outpost in rural Wyoming with very limited resources (in the days before computers). Once a year she would make an excursion to the Salt Lake Temple to do ordinance work for her kindred dead.

When Mom was a teenager she spent a year living with her brother’s family in California. She cared for the young children while her brother and sister-in-law worked. On one occasion they drove to Utah to attend the LDS Church’s general conference. They had to drive through Ogden to get to Salt Lake. Even living so far away from the area, they knew the seedy reputation of Ogden’s 25th Street. Mom said she felt unclean just passing through the town. Little did she know that she would one day live in Ogden.

Back at home, Mom worked in the local pharmacy after school and on Saturdays. Like most small town pharmacies, the place featured a soda fountain and hand dipped ice cream. During football season, the local high school games would end almost at the same time that the pharmacy was supposed to close. Mom said that the manager would try to keep the place open longer to catch the stream of people leaving the nearby football field. The girls that worked at the pharmacy, on the other hand, would try to make sure the place closed right on time so that they didn’t have to wait on the crowds.

Mom went to work one balmy afternoon wearing a light jacket. Then a severe winter storm blew in while she was at work. She lived several miles from town. Around closing time, her little brother showed up on his bicycle. Apparently Grandpa was still at work in the oil fields with the family’s only car. But Mom couldn’t ride on the bike with her brother. So she walked home with inadequate footwear and outerwear. She said she has never been so cold in her whole life.

After graduating high school, Mom took a trip to visit some friends that were living in Salt Lake City. While she was there, she ended up getting a job with a small CPA firm. Later she took a typist job at the LDS Church Administration Building. Back in those days, all businesses employed typists because every document had to be created from scratch. Large organizations had armies of typists.

One day Mom was sitting in the cafeteria alone during break time when Gordon B. Hinckley walked in. He was not a general authority at the time, but was the top employee in the church’s missionary department. He walked over to my Mom and said that he felt impressed to ask her if she had considered serving a mission for the church.

Mom replied that she had considered a mission, but that the church only let “old maids” serve missions. The policy at the time required young women to be at least 23 years old to serve. When Brother Hinckley asked Mom’s age, she responded that she would turn 21 in a couple of weeks. He said that the church policy was changing to allow 21-year-old women to serve missions. He suggested that she go to her bishop and apply to serve a mission. She followed this counsel and was called to serve in Germany.

Mom travelled to Germany by ship. All missionary language training occurred on the job back in those days. The first German word Mom heard after disembarking was somebody saying, “Achtung!” (Attention!) over a loud speaker. She thought some guy was clearing his throat in the microphone.

Over the next two years Mom served in various places, including Berlin and Hamburg. Back in those days young men served 2½ years and young women served two years.

While Mom was serving in Hamburg, she and her companion were at the local church building one evening when a young German man entered and asked to know more about the church. He had been contacted by LDS missionaries while visiting his parents out on the northwest coast of Germany. He had read everything the missionaries had given him and wanted to know more.

The first meeting with this young German wasn’t very productive. They knelt and prayed to start off. He asked all kinds of deep philosophical questions which the missionaries couldn’t address very well. But he agreed to another meeting.

As they began the second meeting with the young German man, they again knelt to pray. Then my Mom’s missionary companion informed the young man that it was his turn to offer the prayer. Although he felt odd about that, he began to pray and experienced a sensation of divine love so profound and all encompassing that he had difficulty saying much. From that moment on, the man was converted.

Mom grew quite close with this young man. Eventually Mom’s mission wrapped up and she returned to the States. The young man joined the church and continued to correspond with Mom. After a few months, the young man succeeded in arranging passage to America and getting a work visa. A kind couple in Colorado that didn’t know him at all sponsored him. They agreed to financially care for him for five years if he failed to care for himself. Mom moved in with her sister who lived in a nearby town.

Over the next few months, the couple courted. When Dad had been a member of the church for a year, Mom and Dad traveled to Salt Lake City and were sealed in the Salt Lake Temple. They then traveled up to northern Wyoming to visit Mom’s parents. Dad was stunned by how many hours they could drive seeing only what looked to him like desolation.

Dad was further stunned upon meeting his new in-laws. Their home was pretty rustic. Dad said that it was little more than a tar papered shack and that their “farm” was a tiny rundown affair. As far as he knew, nobody in Germany had lived like that for more than three centuries by that time. How could anyone in the world’s wealthiest nation live like that? He wondered what he had gotten himself into.

Mom and Dad soon settled into life in Colorado, where their first apartment was small and old. The bathroom was a converted closet that was so tiny that “you had to decide what you were doing before going in.” Eventually they moved to a larger apartment. During their five years in Colorado they welcomed three sons to the family.

Then Dad got a job in Ogden, Utah, so they moved. After a year of living in an apartment in the inner city, Mom and Dad moved into a starter home in a new development. They soon welcomed another son to the family. The fifth son—my caboose brother—didn’t arrive until some 14 years after that.

The new neighborhood was a joyous place filled with many young families and hoards of kids. About three years after moving in, Mom and Dad began to desire to visit Dad’s family in Germany. Contact with the family was minimal, mostly by mail. Overseas phone calls were frightfully expensive back then. But they needed more money to afford to travel to Germany.

The IRS was opening a new service center in Ogden, so Mom applied for seasonal shift work as a keypunch operator. During tax season, Mom would spend evenings punching taxpayer information into computer cards. I hated those times. I’d come home from school and Mom would leave for work. Dad would get home later after Mom left.

But Mom’s work paid off. After three years she and Dad traveled to Germany for a month. Gracious families in the neighborhood took care of us boys during the weeks that Mom and Dad were away.

Mom needed to work the next season to help defray some expenses. Without being asked, Mom was transferred to the human resources department as a clerk, where the work was not seasonal. Eventually Mom was working day shift. Later she transitioned to the job of personnel specialist and made a career of working at IRS.

Throughout those years, life was crazy with kids, school, activities, and church callings. Mom served in many church callings. Whenever Mom undertook to serve, she did so wholeheartedly. Whether she was a Cub Scout den leader, a Relief Society president, a Sunday School teacher, or anything else, Mom served with deep dedication and devoted energy. If Mom’s essence could be distilled into a single word, that word would be “service.”

When my younger brother was 13 years old, Mom and Dad gathered us around the kitchen table one Saturday morning and explained that Mom was four months pregnant. We were shocked. But a few months later we found ourselves very welcoming of our new baby brother.

As grandkids started to come on board, Mom tried to treat each one with special care, all while juggling her own affairs, working, and raising my little brother. Dad retired relatively young and then went to work doing electrical engineering work on a contract basis. Mom continued to work at IRS.

When Dad was called to be a stake patriarch, Mom became his stenographer. Dad recorded the blessings as he gave them. Mom would carefully listen to the tapes and type up the blessings; more than 750 of them over time. Although Dad’s command of the English language significantly exceeded that of most natural born Americans, Dad was always frustrated that he couldn’t say in regular English the ideas that the Spirit conveyed to him while giving blessings. Mom helped compensate for this by helping Dad refine the language of each blessing until he was ready to deliver the printed copy.

Eventually Mom retired from the IRS. Dad finally retired from work at that time too. A few years later, they went back to their old stomping grounds in Hamburg Germany as missionaries for the LDS Church.

A few years after returning from their mission, Dad suffered a stroke. His heart was in bad shape from having failed to get proper treatment for several heart attacks. After Dad’s stroke, he couldn’t think quite the same. Although he was mentally functional in some aspects, he was incapable of thinking his way through some daily tasks that had been his domain for many years.

Getting Dad’s medications balanced was nightmarish. But Mom persisted. After Dad’s stroke, he frequently suffered psychological trauma at night. Nights could be terrible for Mom as the caregiver, but month after month she persisted in caring for Dad. It wasn't just nighttime either. Dad's episodes of impaired mental clarity and physical impairment caused incredible amounts of stress for Mom, whose 24x7 job became caring for Dad.

Dad’s heart was dying bit by bit. The doctors had told us how it would go, and it pretty much followed that path. As the heart became less efficient, Dad became less able to function both physically and mentally.

Dad had another stroke about a week and a half before he passed away. This time his body and his psychological state were so dysfunctional that Mom simply couldn’t care for him at home any more. He was admitted to the hospital, where he declined day after day until he passed away. Mom stayed steadfastly by his side until the very last.

Mom has been busy in the years since Dad passed on. You guessed it, she’s been busy serving. Not only does Mom do church callings, she busies herself serving neighbors, friends, and family.

Mom has been a wonderful example of service, devotion, and work throughout the years. She has been persistently strong and valiant in her testimony of Christ. She not only sees the needs of others; she actively tries to do something about it. Every day.

That’s my Mom. One of the choicest people I know. I have no idea what I did to be so blessed to have her for my Mom.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Pets

We're not pet people. That is, we don't generally own pets. This has consternated my kids from time to time. But I have my reasons.

Years ago I saw a study that reported that people with Multiple Sclerosis (like me) tend to experience greater problems with the disease if they have fur bearing pets that live in their home. On the other hand, people with M.S. that have pets tended to report better emotional wellbeing than those that don't have pets.

I figured that I'd rather be better off physically, so I opted for the no pet approach — or at least no fur bearing pets. Of course, like every other study, this is a single data point that should be considered in a larger array of data to form a more objective picture.

Truth be told, I just don't want to own a pet. I'm frankly not certain why that is. I loved the pets we owned throughout my childhood. We briefly owned a small black poodle that my mother had gotten from a lady with whom she worked after the lady's poodle had a litter. We called our poodle Cinder.

We loved Cinder, but Mom and Dad were both working full time in those days. All of us kids were gone to school all day. We didn't have a fully fenced backyard. So Cinder stayed cooped up in the house for many hours each day with nothing to do and nowhere to ... uh ... go.

Finally, in the interest of being humane to the dog and keeping our basement free of pet excrement, we gave Cinder away to a family that could provide her a better environment. I think I cried myself to sleep every night for more than a month after that.

A few years later a little mutt followed my brother home, although, he tried repeatedly to get the dog to go home. She stayed around our house, so we felt that it was our duty to feed her and give her water. After three days we discovered who the owner was. My younger brother was heartbroken when we returned the puppy.

The owner explained that the puppy was part of a litter that was going to have their shots within a week. If we were interested, we could buy the dog for the price of the veterinarian visit. My younger brother got Poochie for his birthday. She soon became part of the family.

13 years later, Poochie was suffering from a heart condition that caused her a great deal of pain. We had a neighbor that was a veterinarian that gave us medicine. He explained that if the medication didn't help within 48 hours, no treatment would help.

The medicine didn't work for Poochie. One night after she spent the whole night walking around the yard coughing and in obvious intense pain, we held a family council. We decided it was humane to put Poochie down. I was the only family member that had both the time and the fortitude to take her to the vet to have her euthanized. It was a difficult chore. My Mom, who didn't particularly care for the dog, cried.

Poochie was the last pet I had until my oldest son brought a goldfish home from school when he was in fourth grade. Over the next few years we went through several episodes of owning fish. Most died quickly. If the fish lived long enough, the story was always the same. The same children that had begged and pleaded for a pet, promising to be ever vigilant in caring for the critter, would prove to be reliably unreliable in cleaning the aquarium.

We actually had one fish that lived quite a while. It started out as one of a whole passel of goldfish. Eventually it was the only one left alive and it was over half a foot long. When nobody in the family was willing to care for the fish any longer, we gave it to a local pet store.

A number of years went by before we obtained our next pet. That was just a month and a half ago when my youngest son received a tree frog for his birthday, along with a good terrarium and all of the necessary supplies. This only came about after many months of pleading and painstaking research.

My son was tremendously proud of his little frog, which he dubbed 'Stickers' due to the way the frog could stick to the surfaces of the terrarium. For the most part, my son was pretty careful about caring for the animal — sometimes only after we reminded him of his duty. The terrarium was kept in the proper temperature and humidity range. The water was changed on schedule. The frog received the best diet possible.

Then yesterday evening we found Stickers lying feet up in the soil-like material on the bottom of the terrarium. My son was completely broken up over this loss. He cried that he wasn't worthy to own a pet. I did my best to explain the circle of life and the inevitability of each pet's demise. Only prayer and blessing seemed to comfort my mourning son.

At my son's request, Stickers was left in the terrarium overnight. Today my wife found a small box just the right size for Stickers. My son forbade us from flushing or trashing the frog's remains. Rather, we buried Stickers in his little cardboard coffin in an ornamental bed in the front yard. My young son actually got his much older brother to play Taps on his trumpet prior to putting the dirt back into the grave.

My son then fashioned a cross out of two popsicle sticks. He wrote "RIP Stickers" on the tiny cross and placed it on his frog's grave. I get the feeling that, although my son has known Stickers for only a few weeks, he will long remember his first real pet.