Tuesday, October 27, 2015

I saw a child tormented and did nothing to help

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 23, 2015

The internet: a place of wonder and waste

The internet is a funny place. Actually, it's kind of a funny word. Back in the day, everyone used to capitalize the word Internet. It was a proper noun that seemed to demand that mere mortals cower in awe of its very existence. Now it's just a common utility that no one under 25 can ever remember being without.

There's more stuff available on the internet than humans have ever previously had access to. I use the word stuff deliberately, due to the broad variability in the quality of content. Sometimes it's surprising what ends up going viral. Less surprising is the dreck that people try to force to go viral.

I have a personal policy of refusing to click on any link that includes some variation of the following hyperbolic language:
  • You won't believe.
  • Stunned.
  • Made her jaw drop.
  • One weird trick.
  • Nothing could prepare me.
  • Absolutely incredible.
There's much more to that list. But you get the idea. There's even a browser plugin called Downworthy that turns "hyperbolic viral headlines into what they really mean." The phrase "Will Blow Your Mind" becomes "Might Perhaps Mildly Entertain You For a Moment." "One Weird Trick" becomes "One Piece of Completely Anecdotal Horse****." And so on.

The internet's incessant hyperbole is annoying, but it has become so common that my mind mostly automatically ignores it — after registering its annoyance. Some of the other more common time wasters bother me much more.

Consider the multiple videos/photos depicting crafty or handy things that you can 'easily' do yourself. Food projects seem to hold a special place among this genre. When it's a photo, the food always looks worthy of a spread in Better Homes and Gardens. When it's a video, not only does the food look like it was expertly prepared by a gourmet chef, the video is sped up and/or skips the tedious parts to conceal the fact that it took 14 hours to make the concoction.

Whenever I try to replicate any great looking dish, let's just say that the presentation of my recipe and the internet representation of the same differ greatly. I know what looks good. It's just that when I set out to make that delicious looking highly symmetrical dainty I saw on the internet, it comes out looking like an irregular pile of something or other.
How a Thomas the Tank cake looks on the internet

How a Thomas the Tank cake looks in real life
- when crafted by someone else
- mine would not look this good
This is also true of just about anything else that you have to look at. Crafts, construction, yard care, etc. It would appear that I missed out on some of the basics necessary for  making something visually appealing. Perhaps that's why all of these do-it-yourself videos irritate me so.

Or, maybe it's just the fact that all of those DIY videos entail work that I would be required to do. Car repair is the absolute worst for me. I watch the guy show how to do something that takes maybe 30 seconds in live time. Two hours later, after several trips back to the computer, skinned knuckles, sweat, grime, and scarred car parts, I put my tools away and vow that I will never again attempt car repair on my own.

People also seem to enjoy posting inspirational quotes that are intended to ennoble. But sometimes you see the same quote so many times that it becomes pedestrian. The same is true of overused jokes. Worse are the posts showing the results of insipid online quizzes/tests that people have taken. Really, folks, this is just pathetic.

The internet is also full of more wonderful things than anyone can ever access or even know about. As is the case in real life, you still have to sift through a lot of mundane material and various levels of rubbish to get to it. Alas, increased quantity does not make it easier to apprehend quality. The opposite seems to most often be the case.

The internet is a place of wonder.
Or maybe not so much. It's your choice. Enjoy surfing the web.

Friday, October 16, 2015

I love it when a product continues to provide delight

I have seen workplace dress standards change over time. I once worked for a company in the petroleum business where guys had to wear dress shoes, slacks, a conservative dress shirt, and a necktie. Gals had to wear nice dresses or business suits. Casual Friday clothing amounted to not having to wear the necktie.

The company was in a growth mode that turned out to be the prelude to its collapse. But at the time they were working on transitioning from the old outgrown headquarters building to a larger office some distance away. Our team was among the first that relocated to the new space. As the months went by, bosses and workers at our location started to relax on the necktie thing. Then one day the big boss showed up at our office and pitched a fit. The neckties went back on.

Today I work with people that daily dress in casual attire that would have been considered unthinkable in office environments back at the beginning of my career. Instead of trying to look 'professional,' folks choose to be comfortable. But many still make fashion statements.

As a software developer, I work among techno-geeks. It is common for these people, including my boss and my boss' boss, to wear T-shirts that display various things. Today I am wearing a black T-shirt from ThinkGeek (slogan: stuff for smart masses) that my wife and kids gave me a couple of years ago. The simple white letters on the shirt read:
$DO || ! $DO : try 
try: command not found
This probably makes no sense to most folks. But to people that deal with computer code — and that have at least some Star Wars knowledge — it's pretty funny.

$DO is a variable. The double bars mean "or." The exclamation point means "not." The colon is a statement delimiter. The word try is the name of a command that is to be executed. The second line is the system responding that the try command can't be found in the system.

Thus, the statement is programming code for Yoda's famous admonition in Star Wars episode V, "Try not! Do or do not. There is no try."

ThinkGeek's website is entertaining enough. But I think you need to actually own a ThinkGeek product to understand the finer points of that company's humor.

Today as I was about to don my shirt, I casually glanced at the tag. Something seemed unusual, so I checked it out and noticed something that had previously escaped my attention. The tag read:
Not dishwasher safe.
For external use only.
Contents may be hot.
The first three lines are funny enough. But the final line really gave me a chuckle. Anyone that has dealt with any tag based language like HTML or XML will recognize that anything inside of angle brackets that starts with a slash represents the closing tag of a block. The real humor here is that the physical tag itself opens the block, while the printed slash-tag enclosed in angle brackets represents the end of the block.

Moreover, the tag itself is what is commonly referred to in the industry as an Easter egg. This is when developers put hidden messages — usually jokes — into the systems they build. I find it delightful that ThinkGeek managed to hide an Easter egg in my shirt. I didn't even see it until I had owned the product for a couple of years.

OK, so not that funny if you're not a geek. But pretty funny if you are. At least, it made my day a little brighter.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015


Our home is plenty big enough for the size of our family. But it's still pretty cluttered. We have stuff all over the place. And it constantly needs to be policed. It seems like every horizontal surface naturally accumulates a proliferation of stuff that rarely moves once it comes to rest.

The collections on the horizontal surfaces in our home's public spaces are particularly annoying to me. The seat side of the kitchen island fills up with loads of paraphernalia so rapidly that it requires a major project to get it cleaned off, even if it was cleaned off just a few days earlier.

Right now the locker bench is giving me fits. Each child has a locker in the family room. The carpeted bench in front of the lockers is currently piled so deep with junk that you'd have to do archaeology to get to the bottom of it. I have repeatedly requested that the kids remedy this situation, but my pleas have fallen on deaf ears. The kids generally won't do anything about it until I get to the ultimatum level, where I promise to eradicate anything I find on the bench after a given date and time. (And I would do it too.)

When the kids actually do move this stuff, it is often only to shift it to another horizontal surface where it doesn't actually belong — whatever requires the least effort at the moment. But when they do this chore, they are always surprised at what their excavations reveal. Stuff that they hadn't thought of for a long time pops up. Even money. And of course, junk that should long ago have been relegated to the rubbish bin. Cries of "I wondered where that had gone," "What is this thing?" and "That's not mine" are common.

And don't even get me started on our storage spaces. Sometimes I think we could brand our house Clutter-R-Us.

So, on a recent visit to the home a friend that is an empty nester, I gazed about the pleasantly uncluttered and well ordered public areas of the house. I wondered if our home would eventually look like that in the future when our kids are on their own.

Thinking about the times our clan would visit my parents' home when our kids were younger, I thought out loud that my friend's home probably didn't look that nice after a visit from the grandkids. My friend responded that this was rarely a problem for him and his wife because "nobody visits anymore." Although I knew that some of his kids lived out of state, I thought that surely his local grandkids visited with some regularity.

My friend responded, saying, "The younger generation doesn't feel a need to do things like that because they figure that everything they need is right here." He cupped his hands as if he was holding a smartphone, moved his thumbs as if he were tapping an imaginary screen, and stared at his hands.

He commented that he sees the same thing when he visits his children and grandchildren that live out of state in "an outdoor adventure wonderland." He noted that they had off-road vehicles, motorcycles, canoes, kayaks, and plenty of outdoor gear. But when he suggests doing those kinds of activities during his visits, his grandkids mostly stare into their mobile devices and mumble something about being busy.

Our kids have grown up with bicycles, skateboards, scooters, and roller blades. But it has surprised me how little they have tended to use these things. My friends and I veritably lived on our bicycles during the warmer months. Not so much with my kids. Their bikes go unused for weeks at a time.

Not long ago when I chided one of my children about this in an attempt to encourage him to spend some time doing outdoor activities, he responded that the only reason we did more of those kinds of things as kids was that we didn't have the "awesomeness" that is now available indoors. He went on to compare the indoor activities I had available to me as a kid with those available to kids nowadays. "If you had then what we had now," he said, "you'd have done the same things we are doing now." That stung a little bit, because I knew he was right.

Still, it seems kind of problematic when we exchange time that once was spent interacting with family staring into various electronic screens. The scriptures teach that in the celestial realm, "the same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory..." (D&C 130:2). It's difficult to imagine people in heaven shutting out those closest to them in favor of entertainment and shallow relationships on a screen.