Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Love's Pure Light

Sometimes I sing songs without giving the lyrics much thought. This is especially true of familiar songs. I have always loved the Christmas lullaby Silent Night, but I was long into my adult years before I paid close enough attention to understand the third verse.

Most people in North America can sing the first verse of Silent Night and most are familiar with the second and third verses. I have sung these lines countless times throughout my life. From the time I was old enough to do so, I sang verse three like this:
“Silent Night! Holy Night!
Son of God loves pure light….”
As a child, I pictured in my mind’s eye the baby Jesus in a manger peacefully enjoying pure light from heaven shining down on him. As I matured, I added to this the concept of the Savior loving pure light, as in loving intelligence and truth.

Then one day I actually read the third verse of Silent Night in a choir arrangement I was singing. It read this way:
“Silent Night! Holy Night!
Son of God, love’s pure light….”
I did a double take. The comma after the term “Son of God” and the apostrophe in the word “love’s” seemed out of place. Surely this was a printer’s error. I quickly opened my hymnbook and read the exact same phrase.

It suddenly dawned on me that I had always understood the third verse incorrectly. While the Son of God certainly loves pure light, the phrase really means that Jesus Christ IS the pure light of love. It is a description of his identity rather than a report of his enjoyments.

There it was, right before my eyes in language simple enough for a third grader to understand. Yet I didn’t get it for most of my life.

As I comprehended the actual meaning of this phrase, the next phrase made more sense to me. It had always seemed kind of disjointed — filler added in to make the meter and rhyme work. Now I understood that radiant beams come from Jesus’ holy face because he is the source of the light of love.

I also understood that the love mentioned is Christ’s atonement — his redeeming grace. Having just been born, it would be years before he carried out his atonement. But his miraculous birth was certainly the dawn that would culminate in the accomplishment of his redeeming grace.

These simple and beautiful rhythmic lines accompanied by an even simpler lovely melody suddenly had an impact on me that I had somehow missed up to that point in my life.

“Silent Night! Holy Night!
Son of God, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from thy holy face,
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord at thy birth;
Jesus, Lord at thy birth.”
Although I have always cherished the hymn Silent Night, I now love it even more because I finally comprehend its actual meaning.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Coping with Technological Change

Novelist Orson Scott Card offers salve to the minds of those wringing their hands about the social changes brought about by the Internet and social networking media in this WSJ op-ed. In essence, Card suggests that people get over it. Society is morphing in this direction and nothing you do will stop this trend.

Card acknowledges that there are down sides to our modern (and continually shifting) social-technological conventions. For example, “Pornographers, pedophiles and other predators use their online invisibility to evade the negative consequences of their activities.” While this is surely a problem, it is hardly the only problem. The most frequent complaint I hear is people becoming disconnected from those around them.

I think, however, that Card has a point when he compares the Internet revolution with other socio-technological changes that we’ve learned to live with, such as the automobile. While we grapple with traffic problems and environmental impacts, few of us would care to, as Card puts it, “give up cars, trains and planes to return to the hay-eating, vet-needing, poop-generating, one-horsepower horse.”

As far as people becoming disconnected, Card asserts that people are actually connected in different ways that do not necessarily require close proximity. He says that we “sort ourselves into interest groups and communities that have no relation to geography.” Indeed, some observers claim that our society is more socially connected than at any time in history.

Maybe. But there are also those that claim that the quality of these social interactions is wanting; that our social networking gives us unprecedented width in our relationships while providing equally unprecedented shallowness. Unlike physically helping a neighbor in need, a tweet-if-you-care exercise conveys little more than a good feeling. There is no real sacrifice required or substance behind it.

In several of his works, C.S. Lewis decried those that regarded themselves as being caring and loving for adopting a level of concern for distant people and groups with which they had little real contact. Many of these people, said Lewis, treat their closest neighbors with disdain. This allows them to feel good about having largely imaginary love for people they can only imagine while harboring real hate for the fellowmen that surround them.

This is not strictly an either-or proposition. The point is that we can, through our social networking, come to feel as if we care deeply for those we know only as acquaintances, while allowing our closer and more important relationships to suffer. There is no shortage of examples of this in our modern world.

In the last LDS general conference, Elder M. Russell Ballard disapprovingly said, “Not long ago a bishop told me two of his youth were standing side by side texting one another rather than talking to each other.”

It almost seems as if Card (a Mormon) is replying to Elder Ballard when he says that “it makes perfect sense for teenagers to text each other even when they're at the same party, or sitting on the same couch. For one thing, nobody can overhear them. And texting gives them time to frame their words more carefully, even if they're using shorthand their parents don't understand, like "imo" (in my opinion) or "aaf" (always and forever).”

Still, it is wise for parents to be aware of their children’s media choices so that these can be steered in a healthy direction. As a parent, I find this extremely challenging. It used to be that the only TV in the house was in a common room so that it was difficult for family members to privately view unwholesome material. Youth might escape to their rooms or to the car to listen to music their parents didn’t like, but it was difficult to keep that completely private.

Nowadays, media choices are increasingly individualized. We don’t watch a lot of TV at our house. But we do have a lot of computer, cell phone, and personal media device usage going on. I’ve got Internet filters on all of our computers, but it is still quite easy to access objectionable content. All of our computers are in public areas of the home, but family members often sit at these with headphones on. It is not possible to always monitor what is happening on the computers. And monitoring cell phone activity is even more difficult.

No matter what you or I do, technology will march forward and social trends will adapt. We are as unlikely to be successful in staying aloof from these changes as those that tried to remain behind the transportation revolution. Some will romantically flirt with “living simply,” but not that many are interested in actually living like the Amish. I note that cell phones are a common item at mountain man rendezvous re-enactments.

The answer for most is to learn to use evolving technologies in a healthy manner. This is not really a new thing. People have been coping with technological change since the dawn of history. The pace of such change seems increasingly rapid. But humans are very adaptable creatures.

I have full confidence that societies will successfully absorb even relatively radical technological changes. But individuals will adopt these changes at different rates. Me included. I’m still not on Facebook.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A Generous Alternative to Christmastime Neighbor Gifts

A few years ago, some of the neighbors decided that they’d had enough of Christmastime neighbor gifts. No, they didn’t stop liking their neighbors. But they became concerned about the money people in the neighborhood spent each Christmas season to give each other mostly useless knickknacks, unhealthy treats (of which each household already has an abundance at that time of year), and the like.

Instead of running around from home to home distributing useless and unneeded stuff, wouldn’t it be better to gather and spend time face to face? Wouldn’t it be better to take the money spent on neighbor gifts and give it to those that actually are in need?

That’s how our neighborhood Christmas party began. The second Monday each December, we gather to share one another’s company. Everyone brings treats, so we still have the less-than-nutritious Christmas fare. But you feel less of an obligation to sample the various dishes. You don’t feel like failing to eat junk food will offend your neighbors.

When we gather, we socialize and even sing Christmas songs. We collect items and money to donate to the needy. We go home happy that we’ve shared Christmas cheer with our neighbors while also sharing some of our abundance with those that are less fortunate. Nobody is forced to participate, but we generally get a pretty good turnout.

In the early years, we held the event in one of the neighborhood’s cul-de-sacs. Several neighbors provided fire barrels. We roasted marshmallows and sang songs. That was lots of fun. But then came a couple of years in a row where the weather was quite nasty on the second Monday in December. So last year, one family offered their home for the party. It was quite enjoyable gathering inside. It looks like that tradition will continue.

Each year, one neighbor takes charge of gathering the donations and getting them to appropriate charities. Folks have tended to be fairly generous.

I’m grateful for insightful neighbors that decided to transform neighborhood gifting into neighborhood gathering and sharing. It’s a great neighborhood tradition. I hope it will continue for many years to come.

Oh, it’s time to go to this year’s gathering.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Christmas Without a Hot Wheels Car

When I was quite young, I started getting and playing with Matchbox cars. I registered to receive a small catalog annually that showed the available models. I would spend hours looking at each page over and over again, finding the few cars I owned, and coveting many that I did not.

Then Hot Wheels cars came on the scene. This changed everything. While Matchbox cars were made to look like actual vehicles that were in mass production, Hot Wheels cars depicted custom hot rods and muscle cars.

To top it off, Hot Wheels were made to actually race on plastic tracks. The most I could do with Matchbox cars was to play with them on the car town blanket my Mom had made for me. Matchbox cars might have won the reality contest, but that was so mundane. Hot Wheels cars won the coolness contest hands down.

Like every other boy I knew, I wanted Hot Wheels cars. And therein lies the rub. Hot Wheels cars and tracks were the ur-popular Christmas gift for boys that year. In my town, demand quickly outstripped supply. Anxious parents soon found it impossible to buy Hot Wheels toys for their young sons.

I never experienced a needy Christmas. We didn’t get the piles of stuff or expensive things that some of our friends with more spendy parents got, but my parents always made sure that we got sufficient booty each Christmas morning.

That year on Christmas morning, I was as excited as ever as I unwrapped my gifts and piled them in my personal treasure hoard. I was delighted when I opened a shiny miniature race car as my older brothers opened Hot Wheels cars. One brother got a single strip of Hot Wheels track that we quickly attached to the kitchen table with the included plastic C-clamp.

Then came an early lesson in branding. My brothers pointed out to me that my car was not an actual Hot Wheels brand toy. It was from some unknown company. While it was a racer, it had skinny wheels instead of wide Hot Wheels tires. It was lighter weight than my brothers’ Hot Wheels cars. They only permitted me to run my inferior imitation on the official Hot Wheels track after threats of discipline by my parents.

Mom explained that there simply were no more Hot Wheels cars to be had and that it had been difficult to find the car they had given me. I refused to be mollified. In a matter of a few moments, my delight with my Christmas bounty turned to vexation. Nothing had physically changed. I still had the same pile of gifts as before. It was just that one of the cheapest gifts was not the popular brand.

I had received a carrying case that was designed to hold 24 Hot Wheels cars, but I had no Hot Wheels cars to put in the case. I stowed my new racer and my Matchbox cars in some of the slots. Most slots were still empty.

All of the slots in my carrying case filled up over the next couple of years, mostly with new Hot Wheels cars. This included my first Hot Wheels car, the greenish Silhouette that had a plastic bubble for a roof. (I still have a replica of it in my junk drawer.) I eventually had so many cars that I had to stack some of the lower profile models together in slots.

I also got new tracks over the next few years. One had a “Supercharger” house that made cars zoom around the track. Another was specially built for “Sizzlers” rechargeable cars. I even got a “Hotline” train set and an “Earthshakers” bulldozer based on the same technology.

I kept my first racer. But I almost never actually played with it. I was ashamed to show it to friends or to let anyone know that I even had the car, although; it was actually pretty fast on the track.

How easy it is to turn from gratitude to unhappiness when something that is perfectly fine on its own doesn’t meet the approval of peers. How tempting it is to hide away a gift when others are critical of it.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Equally Precious Brothers and Sisters

Like many others, I recently attended an LDS Church worldwide leadership training meeting. I attended the broadcast at my local stake center, which was pretty jam-packed with people. There were thousands of similar gatherings throughout the world.

The intent of the meeting was to introduce the church’s new second volume of the church administration handbook. In the meeting, some of the handbook changes were highlighted and a variety of principles were emphasized. (Volume one is available only to those holding higher leadership callings at each level of the church. A separate training meeting addressed that book.)

Everyone at the meeting was instructed to read the first six chapters of the handbook, as well as the portions of the manual that relate specifically to their current church assignments. It was noted that the first three chapters contain basic doctrinal principles. This wasn’t a heavy reading assignment. Each chapter is relatively brief, covering only a few pages.

Church leaders decided to give everyone in church leadership positions the entire volume two manual. The practice in the past has been to distribute only the portion relating to one’s current assignment. Leaders will now be able to see how their position is supposed to work with other positions.

One thing I noted right away was that the book is somewhat briefer than its preceding edition. It was explained that an effort was made to achieve both clarity and conciseness. There is a stronger focus on those elements that must be consistent across the entire church, regardless of the size and strength of a congregation and other variable conditions. It was further explained that leaders are to rely more strongly on guidance from the Holy Spirit and from their local leaders when it comes to matters not addressed or only briefly addressed by the handbook.

Organizational leaders in church units are to pick up added responsibilities so that the bishop may focus on those matters that must be handled personally by him. Organizational leaders are not to do more work; they are to delegate what they reasonably can to others. This will spread out the work and strengthen the church by expanding individual responsibility and accountability.

As I began to read the new handbook, I came upon the final paragraph of section 1.4.3 under the heading “Strengthening Individuals.”

“Every member of the Church is as precious as every other. God’s eternal plan provides for all of His faithful children to receive every blessing of eternal life, exalted in families forever.”
The second sentence above is well established doctrine. Hence the church’s strong emphasis on families and eternal marriage.

The first sentence is also not new. But I have reflected on it many times since first reading it. I wonder how many of my fellow church members actually believe the doctrine that each church member is as precious as any other.

That would include church members that live very sinful lives, those that shun the church, the bratty kid that disrupts Sunday school class every week, those that disingenuously mooch off the church’s welfare system, the unconverted for whom the church is simply a social institution, the crotchety guy on the corner that yells at kids that walk across his lawn, the gossip, and those that refuse to accept callings, among others.

It would include members whose lifestyles fail to align with the traditional family pattern, those that are disabled, foreigners that are in the country illegally and/or that speak a different language and have a different culture, the illiterate, etc.

All are equally precious.

It seems to me that there is sometimes a tendency among church members to think of some church leaders as having greater value than other members. I have often heard church general authorities talk glowingly of some that have served in various leadership positions almost as if such service defines worth. While it may denote devotion, official church policy states that these leaders are worth the same as the lowest member of the church.

There is no doubt that some individuals create great value for the church, while others do not. Some actually generate great liabilities for the church. But when you consider the concept that each soul is of infinite value, and that none is able to realize much of that value without the Atonement of Jesus Christ, the principle of equality in value makes perfect sense.

The question then for those of us that are members of the church is how this principle should affect our discipleship. It is frankly easy to minister to some. But what about ministering to those equally precious souls that are prickly about it or that actively repel such ministering?

Monday, November 22, 2010

Sleeping In on Black Friday

I have a very simple policy when it comes to Black Friday shopping: JUST SAY NO!

My wife will tell you that I pretty much hate to go shopping. I know guys that love to go shopping just as much as their wives do; they just like to shop for different stuff. While she’s cruising the clothing stores at the mall, he’s in a big box hardware store looking luridly at a lithium battery-powered cordless drill. While she’s storming the clearance racks at the department stores, he’s surveying outdoor equipment at the sporting goods store.

Not me. While I like a lot of stuff sold in stores, I hate to go shopping for it. When I was telling my wife a couple of weeks ago that I only detested going into warehouse club stores and home improvement stores, she corrected me. She said that I simply loathed some stores more than others. Upon reflection, I realized that she was right. I don’t like to go shopping. Period.

But when it comes to Black Friday, I can’t fathom why even people that enjoy shopping would spend their morning nearly killing (or in some cases actually killing) themselves and others in an effort to save a few bucks and/or get a few scarce items. Maybe it’s like extreme sports for shoppers. I’ve never quite understood extreme sports enthusiasts either.

I spend Black Friday morning doing something more enjoyable and, in my mind, more profitable. While others are out freezing their tails standing in the dark and cold among crowds of avaricious deal hunters outside of various retail establishments, I am comfortably dreaming in my cozy bed at home. I am pleasantly ensconced in gauzy memories of Thanksgiving dinner while others are stampeding hapless retail employees, glorying in the spoils of their vicious shopping battles, and standing in endless checkout lines guarding their shopping carts like a predator protecting its kill.

To me, the entire exercise of Black Friday shopping ascends to the highest echelons of absurdity. Everybody knows the stupid game, but hoards of people play it anyway.

Everyone knows that the low priced items in the bargain teaser ads are stocked in such small numbers that only a few lucky (and highly aggressive) souls will obtain them. Everyone knows that there will be copious amounts of time spent waiting, including waiting in line to get into the store and waiting in line to get out of the store. Everyone knows that the crowds will be horrendous and that they will bumped and jostled by fierce strangers. Everyone knows that they will be tempted to overspend.

Why go through all of that? What virtue can possibly come of it?

I remember years ago when one of the most popular Christmas gift items was the Tickle Me Elmo doll. I didn’t understand the craze then and I still don’t. I even had young kids that identified with the Elmo character, and I still didn’t get it. The item was so popular that stores couldn’t keep them in stock. There were widespread reports of physical violence in stores as shoppers vied for a piece of the limited supply on Black Friday. Re-sellers got as much as $1,500 per doll after stores sold out.

I laughed heartily when I saw a comic depicting a little kid standing in front of a Christmas tree holding a Tickle Me Elmo doll. The remains of the gift wrapping are in the background. The child is looking rather disappointedly at his parents, who have obviously awaited this moment with great anticipation. He is saying, “So let me get this straight. You tickle it and it laughs. And that’s all it does?”

Retailers will continue to foment the bizarre day-after-Thanksgiving shopping debacle and shoppers will continue to respond. I guess that for some people, there’s no better way to top off your holiday weekend other than extreme competitive shopping, assault and battery, and attempted murder. All in the name of getting some piece of manufactured junk that will be broken before long anyway.

I guess, in the end, the important thing is that you got something that others didn’t get, or at least got something at a greatly reduced price, even if you had to literally step on others to win that prize. And after all, isn’t that what the holidays are all about?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Years of Family Video

We bought our first video camera when our oldest child was born. We paid over $1,000 for the thing, which had a black-and-white viewfinder. The device, which was fantastically compact for its day, used smaller Hi8 tapes. Some tapes held as much as two hours of film.

The births of our first three children and many moments from the early years of their lives were captured on tape. Drooling, rolling over, crawling, laughing, crying, jumping, running, climbing, playing, talking, and the like filled hours of tape. Eventually school programs and soccer filled tapes as well. Our children were (and are) beautiful — to us, at least.

In those early years, I sat and painstakingly copied the video segments we wanted to keep onto VHS tapes. Back in those days, the only editing tools I had were the pause button on the camera and the pause button on the VHS recorder. The home movies I produced were pretty rudimentary.

To top it off, I’m frankly not a very good videographer. I don’t take the time to take the kinds of interesting shots that our second oldest has become proficient at capturing. Maybe some of that is simply due to being a parent that constantly has to be focused on multiple things at once: the camera, the kid in the viewfinder, the kid in my arms that is trying to grab the camera, the kid to the side that is about to step into the mud, etc.

A while after our third child was born our video camera started acting up. We had bought extended batteries, but it started intermittently just shutting off or refusing to work. As my wife’s fourth pregnancy advanced, we became concerned that the camera would fail while trying to film the birth. So we were soon shopping for a new video camera.

We ended up with a digital camera that used MiniDV tapes. It was far smaller than our previous camera and took far better shots, yet it cost only $600. It had both a traditional (color) viewfinder as well as a small fold-out video screen. The camera performed admirably for the births of our fourth and fifth children. It successfully captured many hours of tape for a number of years.

Not long after our fourth child was born, we got a new computer that included video hookups and video editing software. This setup was great for our digital camera. I soon began making DVD home movies. While I was able to add titles and effects, my videography talents improved little. Over the space of a few years, little by little, I also went back and made DVD movies from our older analog camera’s tapes as well.

About three years ago our MiniDV camera started acting up, inserting hiccups and jumpy breaks during recording. No amount of cleaning and servicing seemed to help. Then I read where this particular model was notorious for that kind of problem. The best remedy, it was suggested, was a new camera. So once again we found ourselves shopping for a new video camera.

This time we ended up with an even more compact digital model that has a 30 GB hard drive. It lacks the traditional viewfinder found on our previous cameras, but its fold-out video screen is far superior. We spent about $300 for the device. (They now have high definition models for about the same price.)

Although I was initially concerned about the lack of permanent source media — and we did lose some important Christmas morning clips one year due to my stupidity — the camera has performed admirably. Copying clips to the computer is as simple as hooking up a USB cable and then dragging and dropping the clips. The clips are large enough that I do not retain the originals once I have used them to make a DVD movie.

I now have more video editing options than ever, yet I tend to use few of these when developing my home movies. The amount of time covered by a given DVD varies depending on how much video we capture over time. Sometimes a DVD will cover a year or more. Sometimes it covers only a weeklong vacation. I note that since the newest camera is so simple to use, we take more video with it. We have built up 25 family movie DVDs so far. We have given a complete set to my parents and my in-laws, at least in part for the purpose of having an off-site backup of the disks.

Since I have watched audio and video storage media change significantly over my lifetime, I assume that the default video storage medium will soon change again. The DVD format will likely go the way of the VHS tape before too long. It is not yet clear where that evolutionary path is headed. Maybe someday I will be storing my 25+ home movie volumes on some remote server that offers the service for free.

Why do I continue to capture video and make home movies? I feel compelled to document my family’s development. My older children seldom watch the movies. My youngest child watches all of the disks over and over. Not only does this remind her of events in her own life, she learns what her siblings were like before she was ever born.

Although the older kids do not watch our home movies often, I assume that I will one day have grandchildren. I hope that they take an opportunity to peruse these videos. Not only will they be able to see that grandma and grandpa were once vibrant younger adults, they will be able to watch their daddy or mommy grow up right before their eyes. At some point each of our lives, the lives of our predecessors intrigue us. I hope that our family’s home movies help satisfy those interests someday.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Enjoy Christmas — Just Not Yet

“My wife already has the radio in the car tuned to Christmas music,” my neighbor told me last weekend. As I later drove to my Mom’s house, I saw a home with a large lighted Christmas tree prominently displayed in the large picture window. I long ago got used to retailers putting up Christmas displays even before Halloween, but, come on people, give it a rest!

I like the Christmas season. I might even say that I love it. I’m no Grinch. But too much familiarity breeds contempt.

The U.S. approach to Christmas is quite different than what I saw in Norway back in the 1980s. Christmas in the U.S. is all about the buildup, the anticipation, the journey to the glorious event of Christmas Day. Holiday parties, church socials, school choir concerts, decorations, holiday oriented performances, parades, and the like all get rolling around Thanksgiving and continue through New Year Day.

Then suddenly it’s all over. As soon as the New Year Day observance passes, it’s like we flip a massive switch and turn it all off. We go back to school and work, hardly giving a thought to the Christmas season until the following November. (Except for the Christmas lights that some people don’t bother to take down until July.)

When I was in Norway, there wasn’t much of a buildup to Christmas. I didn’t hear Christmas music or see much in the way of Christmas displays until December 23, which they affectionately referred to as “Little Christmas Eve.” Even then, it was kind of muted. Some people had Christmas trees in their homes before that, but not many.

People would go to work and school on Christmas Eve. There would be some holiday cheer going on. Then they would go home and get ready to celebrate. Many families donned nicer clothes and had a special dinner.

Then the parents would go into the living room or family room, set up the Christmas tree, and put out the gifts. In general, the decorations were fairly simple. It didn’t take long to set it all up. The children would then enter the room. Christmas carols were sung and the gifts were opened.

Christmas Day was usually more of a relaxed affair. But December 26 was also a national holiday. Pretty much everything was closed on December 25 and 26. Mass transit ran on a very reduced schedule, but even fast food joints were closed down. Only essential things like police and fire agencies ran as usual.

Most holiday oriented church, school, and social events occurred after December 26. The celebrations tended to die down sometime after the middle of January.

I’m not suggesting that the Norwegian method of celebrating Christmas is superior to the American method. It’s just different. I must admit, however, that the approach seems much more laid back. It lacks much of the pressure that is common in the American approach to the holidays.

That makes me wonder how necessary anxiety and stress is to the American observance of Christmas. It seems like it has become an integral part of the season. Many people wear it like a red badge of courage. Nothing I say or do is likely to change the culture of holiday stress. So I wonder why anyone would want to extend the strain to two months instead of limiting it to two or three weeks.

One of the things that engenders fondness for the Christmas season is the season’s temporary nature. Stretching the season dulls sensitivity to its special nature, making it more mundane, more common, less exceptional. It can decrease rather than increase enjoyment of Christmas.

Our family’s policy is to put up our Christmas decorations over the first weekend in December and to take them down sometime during the week between Christmas and New Year. That allows us to enjoy the season about as long as we want to without the decorations gathering too much dust. We think our d├ęcor is plenty elaborate, but it is quite simple compared to many in our neighborhood.

While enjoying Christmas, it might be good to ponder some of our holiday traditions. Here’s comedian Jim Gaffigan’s take on this.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Fast and Testimony Meeting

Latter-Day Saint congregations devote the first Sunday each month to fasting. Members of the church (that are physically capable) are asked to go without food and drink for two meals — about 24 hours. The cost of the meals is to be donated as a “fast offering” for the benefit of the poor and needy. Church leaders have long admonished members to give “much, much more—ten times more when we are in a position to do it.”

While helping the poor is an important feature of fasting in the LDS Church, fasting is to be coupled with earnest prayer to develop greater faith and spiritual power. The importance of this kind of spiritual power is evidenced in Matthew 17:14-21, where the Savior succeeded in healing a boy after his disciples could not, thanks to prayer and fasting.

As part of the fast, the weekly congregational worship service (known as Sacrament meeting) on “fast Sunday” is devoted to the impromptu bearing of testimonies by those in attendance. Following the administration of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, a member of the bishopric (lay ministers that lead the congregation) spend a few minutes bearing testimony. This ‘primes the pump,’ as it were. Congregants are then encouraged to stand and bear their own testimonies for the remainder of the service.

Since attendees are at various stages of spiritual maturity and understanding, testimony meeting can produce varied results. No one is assigned to speak and pretty much anyone present may take a turn. No formal time limit exists except for the scheduled end of the meeting.  Even that limit is violated from time to time.  The potential for problems should be apparent.

Although church leaders have advised that it is inappropriate for very young children to testify in this setting, it is not uncommon for kids still learning to speak to come to the microphone. Occasionally, teenagers old enough to know better, and even adults, treat the meeting as an open mic situation where anything can be said, regardless of its spiritual value.

Years ago, I was unable to attend our ward fast and testimony meeting one Sunday. My wife was there with our three young children when the baby needed to eat. She left the two older boys in the chapel and went to the mother’s lounge. Audio from the meeting was piped into the small room.

As my wife nursed the baby — a process that defies rushing — she heard the voice of our six-year-old son at the microphone. Instead of giving the pro-forma 30-second ‘testimony’ speech that is common among children, our son embarked on a broad ranging, rambling talk that had little to do with spiritual matters.

As my embarrassed wife sat there, unable to do anything about it, she occasionally heard the congregation roaring with laughter. She thought that a member of the bishopric would surely bring a stop to the debacle and kindly ask our son to take his seat. But he rambled on, and on, and on for seven minutes before he decided he was done. My wife was mortified, but she later received many encouraging comments from ward members.

Some church members seem to be unaware of what kind of testimony is appropriate in a public testimony meeting. Some seem to be clueless as to what a testimony is. The relatively brief discussion of testimony in the booklet True to the Faith is probably as good as anything you’re going to find on the topic. Testimony is something inward. With respect to its outward expression, “Your testimony will be most powerful when it is expressed as a brief, heartfelt conviction about the Savior, His teachings, and the Restoration.”

I have sat through hundreds of fast and testimony meetings during my lifetime. Most of the time, the value I derive from the meeting has more to do with my own spiritual preparedness than with the actual words spoken in the meeting. I have come away from some of these meetings marvelously uplifted. But I have also been bored, simply waiting for time to pass. Occasionally I have been quite entertained.

Once when I was younger, a fellow stood in testimony meeting and told of meeting his wife for the first time. He recounted, “Then the most beautiful girl I had ever seen walked into the room. She later became my wife.” My friend, who had only known this woman as middle aged and a bit haggard, leaned over and said, “I guess that was his first wife.”

When I was a teenager, a woman in our ward was ‘testifying.’ This mother of five looked like a 5’2”, 200-lb pile of cottage cheese. There was an audible gasp among the congregants when — for whatever reason — she said, “I have never knowingly enticed any man.” I overheard as my stunned father leaned over and whispered to my mother, “Never unknowingly either.”

We had two older men in the ward where I grew up that were capable of droning on in testimony meeting for impossibly long periods of time. As soon as either would stand, teenage boys would start timing them. We’d compare notes after the meeting to see if either had broke his previous longwinded record. My Dad quipped that one of these guys was more effective at killing the Spirit than Satan himself.

Church leaders have also expressed concerns that some people mistake emotionalism for testimony. Page 99 of the book Preach My Gospel includes this warning by Howard W. Hunter:

“Let me offer a word of caution. . . . I think if we are not careful . . . , we may begin to try to counterfeit the true influence of the Spirit of the Lord by unworthy and manipulative means. I get concerned when it appears that strong emotion or free-flowing tears are equated with the presence of the Spirit. Certainly the Spirit of the Lord can bring strong emotional feelings, including tears, but that outward manifestation ought not to be confused with the presence of the Spirit itself.”
Among the worst testimony meetings are when minutes pass by without anyone getting up to speak. I am reminded of the line in the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald (a brutally long and laborious song) that says, “Does anyone know where the love of God goes – When the waves turn the minutes to hours?” A friend called long gaps in testimony meeting a bishop’s nightmare. I’ve noticed over the years in the wards I have attended that these gaps occur on Super Bowl Sunday more often than at any other time. I guess congregant’s hearts and thoughts are worshipping elsewhere that day.

Despite the inherent risks of having a meeting with an open microphone, many of the fast and testimony meetings I have attended have been spiritually powerful and ennobling. The spiritually disconnected utterances that occur are a small price to pay for the priceless gems that can be gathered in these meetings.

Monday, November 01, 2010

The Simple Solution

A couple of months ago, I came home to discover my son and his friend toying with a small brainteaser puzzle while taking a break from homework. Both of these boys are high magnitude techno geeks. They gobble up calculus together. Each of them has native genius that far exceeds my own somewhere-around-average level. Yet the boys were highly frustrated with a child’s toy.

We’ve all played with brainteaser puzzles where tiny silver spheres must be guided to destination spots in some type of sealed plastic maze. This particular oblong puzzle was about three inches long with a curved bottom surface. It contained two spheres that were to end up in small divots at the two extreme ends of the puzzle. The curved bottom caused the balls to gravitate to the center. The divots were such that the boys could keep only one ball successfully in place at a time.

At the encouragement of the boys, I tried my hand at the puzzle, only to run into the same difficulty experienced by the boys. It didn’t take me long to set the puzzle aside. As it sat on the kitchen counter for the next couple of days, pretty much every member of the family took a number of unsuccessful shots at solving it.

One day I came home from work and got a drink of water in the kitchen. As I was standing there with my cup, staring at the puzzle, a childish though occurred to me. The puzzle easily rocked on its curved bottom. But in my mind’s eye I could see the puzzle spinning on the counter. I thought it would be fun.

Nobody was around to see me playing with the thing. So I quickly gave the puzzle a spin. The two silver balls immediately migrated to opposite ends of the puzzle and each fell into its respective divot. I smiled to myself both out of a sense of pleasure and out of recognition of my own stupidity.

I was pleased to have discovered the simple solution to the puzzle (by accident). But it chagrined me to realize I had been unable to detect the obvious solution. Instead of observing the nature of the puzzle to derive the readily visible answer, I automatically tried to solve the thing by employing the same unsuccessful method that the boys had been trying.

How often do we approach life matters in this way? We try to solve issues by employing manifestly unsuccessful approaches, thinking that success will come by tweaking this or that. When the actual answer is to step back and observe the actual nature of the thing to see the solution that is in plain sight.

I thought of this as I read pollster Scott Rasmussen’s WSJ article about the thumping Democrats are going to take in tomorrow’s mid-term elections. It’s not a question of whether the outcome will be bad for Democrats. It’s only a question of how bad it’s going to be.

It has been difficult to ignore the fact that many Republicans over the past few months have been positively giddy about the political tide that is now moving strongly in the party’s favor. Pre-election GOP gloating has been almost as bad as it was among the Democrats two years ago.

The solution, many Republican stalwarts have assured us, is tweaking the political system a bit to move it to the right. Rasmussen, on the other hand, assures us that Republicans are not winning this election. Rather, Democrats are losing it. They are losing it much as Republicans lost the 2006 mid-term election two years ago. The only thing voters currently detest more than the Republican Party is the Democratic Party. But how long can it be before the shoe ends up on the other foot? As Rasmussen says, “This reflects a fundamental rejection of both political parties.”

Few pundits on any side seem to have noted that Americans are now in a pattern of voting against the party in power. This massive thrashing from party to party is occurring at the most rapid pace in the history of the nation. The stunningly obvious answer is that Americans are voting against, as Rasmussen put it, “a bipartisan political elite that's lost touch with the people they are supposed to serve.”

Americans are not looking for more political solutions. They are lashing out against political solutions. Rasmussen seriously quips, “Voters today want hope and change every bit as much as in 2008. But most have come to recognize that if we have to rely on politicians for the change, there is no hope.”

I can only assume that Rasmussen is drawing on polling data when he claims that “Americans instinctively understand that if we can unleash the collective wisdom and entrepreneurial spirit of the American people, there are no limits to what we can accomplish.”

It seems to me that there are plenty of Americans that are willing to ride the dependency gravy train to whatever destination it will take them, as long as they have the promise of a seat that appears comfier than the ones in the vehicle of self responsibility. Never mind the facts that somebody else has to pay for the seat and that the seat comes complete with shackles.

Rasmussen’s final dig is likely to be lost on politicians, its intended audience:

“Elected politicians also should leave their ideological baggage behind because voters don't want to be governed from the left, the right, or even the center. They want someone in Washington who understands that the American people want to govern themselves.”
Turning more governance to individuals works directly against the interests of politicians. Whether they admit it to themselves or not, politicians tend to choose political involvement because it is a way to accumulate power — ostensibly power over the lives of others. Few conceive of devolving power back to others as the way to amass greater power for themselves.

Our Founders developed the Constitution as a contract that tried to grant the central government just enough power to be effective while thwarting its capacity for tyranny. Statists have successfully chipped away at the effective application of the document over the years through legislative, executive, judicial, and bureaucratic systems. There is always a perfectly “sensible” reason for finding this or that element irresponsibly restrictive. This has led to ever increasing centralization of power, no matter which party is in control.

The centralization of power has become so deeply culturally and systemically entrenched that it is now on autopilot. There is no simple way to turn it off. Asking politicians to go to Washington and work to reduce their own power is a fool’s game. While they will no doubt excel at posturing, trying to fix the system this way is akin to trying to solve the brainteaser puzzle by repeatedly employing the same unsuccessful approach.

Rasmussen is correct that many Americans simply want the politicians — left, right, and other — out of their lives. But are there enough Americans that think strongly this way to make a real difference? And does anyone see the obvious simple solution?

As I see it, there are two likely ways to return power to the people. Both of them come down to taking power back from the political establishment. One is to actively fight. The other is to marginalize the establishment by ignoring them and turning them off. Admittedly, this second approach could land us back with the first approach.

Neither of these approaches is as easy as spinning a toy. Both are fraught with serious problems. I’m not sure that Americans are really at the boiling point yet where either of these solutions is feasible. Maybe a few more rapid thrashing cycles will do it. Maybe not. But one thing should be obvious. Regardless of party affiliation, Washington politics is not the solution; it is the problem.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Halloween and Trick-or-Treating

The custom of trick-or-treating dates back to Medieval times, according to this Wikipedia article. Originally the poor begged at homes in connection with All Saints Day. Food was given in exchange for prayers for the dead.

By the late 1950s, the practice was common throughout the U.S. Over the years, trick-or-treating became a children's activity, where revelers dressed in various types of costumes. Instead of buying prayers, homeowners were threatened with pranks if they failed to give some treats. But nowadays the kind of pranks that were common years ago would land a child in the juvenile justice system. Instead, the trick part of trick-or-treating has become something much more benign.

While the general concept of trick-or-treating remains the same throughout the U.S., the actual practice differs from community to community. My brother's kids grew up engaging in "trunk-or-treat." Parents parked cars around a local church parking lot. Children went from car to car getting treats while adults handed out treats from their car trunks. They had fun and then everyone went home.

Every neighborhood I have lived in has held a traditional trick-or-treat event each year. I have always lived in neighborhoods with plenty of young families where the houses are relatively close. Consequently we have always had lots of trick-or-treaters come to our house.

We decided early in our marriage that we weren't going to distribute candy for Halloween. Instead, we have bought cheap toys from outlets like the Oriental Trading Company. Some items cost less than a penny each. Many kids think that getting a small toy is a novelty, so they enjoy coming to our house.

Every year that Halloween lands on Sunday, there are always a few that get upset that our community does its trick-or-treating on Saturday, October 30 instead of Sunday, October 31. Each is free to celebrate the holiday whenever they wish. But if they want to enjoy their community's trick-or-treating event, they will participate on whatever night their community does it.

If someone feels strongly that trick-or-treating should happen on Sunday when their neighbors are doing it on Saturday, they are free to seek to influence their neighbors. Halloween is not an official holiday. So it is unlikely that trying to use the authority of the state to get their way would be a successful tactic.

I have noticed that the top age for trick-or-treaters in my neighborhood has increased over the years. When I was a kid, we pretty much topped out at age 11. It was a huge social faux pas to go trick-or-treating at age 12 or older. Now I see high school seniors and even college age people — technically adults — on my doorstep every Halloween.

Halloween is kind of an odd holiday, in my thinking. Pretty much every other official and unofficial holiday is intended to celebrate something more or less ennobling. Halloween celebrates the dark and macabre. While some religious folks will disagree, I think it's still possible to enjoy the tradition without catering to evil.

Dressing up in costumes, for example, is fine. It can be done in a fun way without going against my religion's tenets. I have encouraged my family members to steer away from costumes that emulate evil or gore, or that are immodest. Comedian Jim Gaffigan quips that some women use Halloween as an excuse to dress up like prostitutes.

It has been a long time since I dressed in a costume for Halloween. I tell my kids that I am dressing as myself. I still enjoy the fun of the holiday. It's great to see the kids have fun. Our neighborhood will hold its trick-or-treating on Saturday night this year. Many of us will end up at church the next day with sugared up kids.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Mormons Can't be Presbyterian Scouting Leaders - That's News?

A number of news sites carried an AP article yesterday about a Mormon couple in Raleigh, NC that was kicked out of their local Boy Scout volunteer positions when the sponsoring institution, a Presbyterian congregation, discovered that the couple belonged to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). The Mormon couple’s young sons were welcome to continue attending, but the adults were not permitted to serve in scouting leadership positions.

The article makes it clear that the Mormon couple felt badly treated by the Presbyterian congregation. They had purchased official BSA uniforms (a significant investment) and had already been serving for a couple of weeks when they were told that they were no longer permitted to serve. Congregational leaders apparently discovered that the couple was LDS from the religious affiliation section on their scout leader applications. (See blank adult BSA application form.)

A spokesperson for the Presbyterian congregation cited as the reason for the couple’s dismissal from their scouting positions irreconcilable differences between the congregation’s doctrine and forms of worship and those of the LDS Church. Mormons are not considered by many evangelical Christians to be Christian. They would no more allow a Mormon to represent their faith than they would allow a Muslim, Hindu, or Jew to do so. The Mormon couple, on the other hand, considers themselves to be very strong believers in and followers of Jesus Christ.

It is important to understand that the BSA permits organizations that sponsor scouting units wide latitude in developing rules for admittance to those units. Sponsoring organizations are free to add additional qualifications to BSA volunteer requirements. This is part of the BSA policy that permits these organizations a fair amount of leeway in their implementation of BSA programs.

This BSA feature is one that the LDS Church actively helped to craft and has worked for many years to keep in place because it is beneficial to the church. Not only does this policy let the church determine how to run scouting programs, it permits LDS congregations to control who serves in adult volunteer positions in scouting units sponsored by the church.

While it is not unheard of for non-LDS people to serve in such positions, they do so at the behest of local LDS congregational leaders. They may also be “released” from their “calling” at any time by these same religious leaders.

The parameters for scouting service in BSA units sponsored by Mormon congregations are pretty clear. It is a calling, not a strictly volunteer position. A person’s service only begins after being formally called to the position by congregational leaders and after that calling is sustained by a vote of the entire congregation. Technically, no one is permitted by the church to serve in a scouting position until they have passed a BSA background check. That process usually takes about two weeks following the submission of a BSA application form to a scout service center.

It appears that the Presbyterian congregation, which apparently has more than 2,000 members, has been less rigorous in filling adult scout volunteer positions. The congregation’s spokesperson said that requirements for service will soon be clarified so that problems like this can be avoided in the future.

The entire predicament could have been nipped in the bud had the Presbyterian congregation required the couple to turn in an application and pass a BSA background check before beginning service, as required by the BSA. Congregational leaders would have become aware of the couple’s religious affiliation in time to handle the matter privately. It likely would not have become a public problem for the congregation.

While I understand that the Mormon couple felt that the Presbyterian congregation’s actions put them in an awkward social position, I do not believe that the couple has grounds for grievance. BSA policy permits sponsoring organizations to specify additional qualifications for serving in a scout leadership position. This policy is fully supported by the couple’s own church. Doing away with the policy would mean that Mormon congregations would have little control over who serves their young men.

The BSA policy is fine. The Presbyterian congregation created an embarrassing social situation when it failed to strictly follow the BSA policy that requires adult volunteers to pass a background check before beginning service. The congregation should follow the rules in the future.

It seems to me that one that claims to follow Jesus Christ ought to consider His counsel to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39), to love and pray for those that they feel have mistreated them (Matthew 5:44), and to “forgive all men” (D&C 64:10). I may be wrong, but turning the matter into national news appears to violate the spirit of that counsel. The couple’s feelings were hurt. They — and everyone else — should get over it.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Online Voting is Still Insecure

Being a computer programmer, I am used to certain questions. Youth always want to know what games I have written. The answer to that is none. I’m not a gamer and that’s not the kind of programming I do. This answer usually boggles the minds of teenagers. Their response usually goes something like, “Well, what other kind of programming is there?”

One of the most common questions I get from adults during election season is why online voting is so scarce. It makes no sense to most adults. They’ve been buying things online with relative security for years. Why can’t we do that with voting?

It all comes down to trustworthiness. The simple fact is that we do not yet have systems with sufficiently sophisticated security to safely pass your vote from your computer, through a series of private (and probably public) servers to a secure destination server.

Maybe someday we will have those kinds of secure systems. But we’re not there yet. One expert quoted in this Time article suggests that we’re a decade or more away from that technology.

Voting differs from online purchases in the verifiability of the outcome. When you use your credit card to make an online purchase, you can verify the outcome of the purchase. You get the product and see the charge on your statement. You know fairly quickly if you get no shipment or get the wrong product. If someone else makes a purchase using your credit card, you see the charge on your statement.

There’s no feedback mechanism like that in voting. You have no way to verify that the vote you cast on your computer actually gets counted the way you sent it in. If you try to vote and get told that you have already voted, you know that someone else has fraudulently cast a vote in your behalf. But if you’re like lots of people that don’t bother to vote, you’ll never know that someone used your ID to commit voter fraud.

A problem that also exists with mail-in ballots is how to know that the person submitting the ballot is actually who they claim to be, and how to know that the ballot is submitted secretly and without coercion. That’s a problem you face with any kind of remote balloting. We may never overcome this problem regardless of how sophisticated our technology gets.

That’s really only the tip of the iceberg. As the Time article notes, public servers that gather and calculate election data are readily hackable. Don’t believe for a minute that there aren’t people out there that have sufficient motive to engage in this kind of hacking. With enough talent, a hacker can make sure that no one else even knows that fraud has been committed. With the right kind of attack, there may be no way to know it occurred, let alone track it down.

The cumbersomeness of physical balloting systems turns out to be a security feature. Hand marked ballots placed in locked boxes in front of election judges from different parties currently provides a more secure system than any system that uses higher technology.

We will probably get to the point where we can have reasonably secure Internet based remote voting systems. But we don’t have that today.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Boy, the Bike, and the Dad

I watch him wobbling down the road on that old bike — going too fast, I think.  (Older kids have grown out of that bike.)  “Why can’t he just keep the handlebars straight?” I ask myself aloud. By sheer will and by cocking my head, I try to hold him upright from a distance.

It’s obvious that coordinating the management of the pedals, handlebars, brakes, and balance all at the same time is a bit of a challenge for him. There’s no way I can do any of that for him.

He’s going too fast as he nears the corner where the stop sign is. Just in the nick of time, he slams on his brakes and skids to a complete stop in a very short distance. I watch as he struggles in vain to keep the bike from slowly tipping over. As he picks it up, I make a mental note to train him on the basics of gradually stopping and putting one foot down.

Because he hasn’t yet learned how to turn while riding, he physically picks the bike up and faces it the opposite direction. I bite my lip as I see that he’s about to try starting up the slope. Our road doesn’t have much of a slope, but there is a definite steady slope along its one-block stretch.

I am anxious for my son because the first time he ever rode a bicycle without training wheels was about 24 hours earlier. And that was in an empty parking lot that was nearly as flat as any sizeable paved surface can be. He had discovered that the slightest decline could help him get going from a standstill, but that the slightest incline presented a challenge.

It was with surprise I learned that he had been practicing bike riding in our neighborhood on his own. He had nearly been ready to give up the previous day. Maybe he believed me I told him that everybody is awful at cycling at first. Even the world’s greatest cyclists were once frustrated beginners.

It takes him three or four tries, but I am quite pleased to see him get the bike going up the slope. He’s not very stable. It’s a good thing there’s not much traffic on our road because he wanders all over the place.

As he nears the spot where I am standing in the end of the driveway, he looks at me. His face beams with pride as he says, “Look at me Dad! I’m riding!” I think he’s going to stop, but he rides on by. He wants to ride up to where the silver car is parked on the side of the road.

Upon his request, I get my bike out and don my helmet. I ride with him up and down our road, taking a few moments to demonstrate and explain how to make controlled turns and how to come to a controlled stop. He’s pretty rough at first, but before long he’s making decent turns and stops.

Soon it becomes clear that the only reason he still needs me there is for validation. He wants his daddy to share in his moment of triumph.

From the daddy perspective, my thoughts and emotions are beyond the mere earthly. Pride? Yes, I’m very proud of my boy. Who wouldn’t be? But the sheer joy of watching him learn, stumble, and conquer seems divine.

I pen the following poem in a callow attempt to capture this moment in prose:

He wobbles down the road
Astride that old bike.
By cocking my head
I try to keep him upright.

He awkwardly stops,
Stumbles to the ground,
Then picks himself up
And turns the bike around.

Starting uphill
Is painfully hard,
But he finally gets going
And goes pretty far.

He draws near to my spot,
His face beaming with pride,
Saying, “Look at me Dad,”
“See, I can ride.”

The accomplished moment
Is enough for my boy.
But to his proud daddy
It’s unequaled joy.

Monday, October 11, 2010

How Some Friends Helped Bring Financial Stability to Our Family

My wife and I started out our marriage with a car payment and a house payment. We were flush with cash from wedding gifts. I was trained in accounting and had a decent job working with taxes. My wife was in the final term of earning a bachelor degree. She had a promising temporary position that looked like it could turn into something permanent.

We seemed to have a lot going for us financially. I had managed a checkbook since age 12. I figured that I knew how to successfully run our fledgling family’s finances. Our earnings were acceptable. We had some cash. We should have no problems.

Then we bumped into reality. My wife’s temporary position turned out to actually be temporary. She finished her degree, but finding a new job was more difficult and took longer than we had anticipated. We had spent a lot of our cash surplus on things we figured we needed and/or would improve life quality. In retrospect, it would have been much better to put a lot of that money in savings instead of spending it so quickly (and frivolously).

Only a few months into our marriage, I was chagrined that I had mismanaged our family finances despite my training. With bitterness for my own folly, I swallowed my pride and asked my parents for a few hundred dollars to help us make ends meet. They graciously provided the subsidy along with some mild but firm advice.

About this same time, friends of ours that lived nearby asked if they could come to our home and spend an hour or so sharing something with us. I figured that they were going to pitch some multilevel marketing scheme at us, but out of friendship we scheduled the appointment anyway.

Instead of a marketing scheme, our friends shared with us a thin book titled Rich on Any Income. (See About.com review.) They had been married for a few years and had two beautiful daughters. They explained how they had gotten into financial difficulties early in their marriage and how following the principles in the book had pulled them out of those problems.

The book is so small that it can easily be read in one session. The principles in the book are really quite simple and flexible. They’re common sense, really. Oddly enough, many families — including families where principles are reasonably financially literate — fail to implement these very basic rules for successfully managing family finances.

I could sum up the rules this way:

  1. Spend less than you make.
  2. Develop and stick to a plan that your family can live with that helps you achieve rule #1. That means budgeting.
While it seems like nothing could be simpler, the book goes on to show you how to set up and maintain a simple family budget. The book is outlined around a monthly budget system, but I suppose you could use any period that works best for your family. Still, I’d caution against too long of a period because it might be difficult to maintain focus.

The basic steps to budgeting are:
  • Set up budget categories. This is where the money goes. Your categories can be as broad or as granular as works for you. Too few categories can make the system meaningless, but too many categories makes the system cumbersome.
  • Determine your anticipated income for the month.
  • Determine fixed and unavoidable monthly expenses. Don’t forget to split out a monthly portion of costs that come up annually (e.g. property tax, car tax & license), semi-annually (e.g. auto insurance), quarterly, or seasonally.
  • Split out the remaining income across more flexible categories. Include a category for savings, even if you’re only saving a small amount.
  • Anytime you spend anything for any purpose, subtract it from the appropriate category. When you run out of money in a category, you are done spending from that category for the month. Or you have to steal from another category.
  • At the end of the month, create a budget for the next month. Carry over amounts left in any category.
The book was written in 1986, before home computers and debit cards were common. It includes a small budget matrix that can be kept in a checkbook so that it can be updated in live time and can provide you with current budget status at a glance.

Discipline is key to making a monthly budget work because it can be tedious and tends to temper ‘fun’ spending. But the tedium pays off in financial peace of mind.

I had some friends that simply could not deal with the tedium of monthly budgeting. Columns of figures weren’t real enough for them. Despite being hard working, intelligent people, their family finances were a shambles. They finally resorted to the cash envelope method. (See Dave Ramsey’s explanation.)

My friends would immediately convert each paycheck to cash. They split the cash among labeled envelopes in a drawer. The envelopes were their budget categories. Anytime they spent anything — even to make a house payment — they physically pulled cash from the appropriate envelope and made the payment. If they ran short in a category, they literally had to take cash from another envelope. This methodology instilled discipline that helped them stabilize their finances once and for all.

For a number of years, we calculated our monthly budget on old time accounting ledgers. We kept a monthly budget matrix in our checkbook. This worked fairly well. We rarely used debit or credit cards back in those days. We mostly wrote checks and tried to rarely spend cash.

For years we avoided using credit cards. I had worked in the collection department of a bank and had seen many sad situations that resulted from credit card misuse. In time we discovered that credit cards used wisely could pay a small return instead of causing pain. From the outset, we decided to never make a charge on a card for which we did not already have money in the bank (and in our budget). That way, there’s always money to pay the full balance when the credit card bill comes due. We never pay interest.

Technology eventually caught up with us. We started tracking everything in Quicken, a popular financial management software package. That has worked fairly well for us. We track every bit of income and every expenditure, no matter whether it’s cash, check, or credit. It’s easy to quickly show where we’ve spent every penny for many years past. We know our financial status at any given moment.

While you can’t tote your PC with you everywhere you go, remotely accessible data and mobile solutions are making it easier to know and track your budget anytime and anywhere. Modern financial tools are helpful, but they do not change the fact that running a monthly budget requires discipline.

Our monthly budget is now an ingrained part of our family culture. For years, I was the family’s primary budget manager. In recent years my wife has taken over that role. Our finances are not perfect. We still run into situations for which we feel insufficiently prepared. We sometimes end up overspending in budget categories. This results in occasionally employing uncomfortable strategies to get things back in balance. Nobody enjoys spending cutbacks. But we are fortunately in pretty good shape.

I could not have known those years ago when I suspected that my friends were trying to hawk a multilevel marketing plan that the evening they spent with us would permanently improve our family’s finances. I’m grateful that my friends went out of their comfort zone to share that little book with us. How is it possible to adequately thank someone for that kind of service?

Friday, October 08, 2010

The Fat Police are Coming!

KSL recently posted this article with the stunning headline, “Americans have distorted view of health, weight.” And they don’t mean that it’s distorted in a good way. The photo associated with the article depicts the torso of a morbidly obese woman. (Was that really necessary? I see enough of that everywhere I go.)

For years we have all been treated to endless hand wringing over the indisputable fact that Americans are getting fatter. Almost every newspaper, newscast, and news website nowadays includes some reference to our nation’s “obesity epidemic.”

Who could have predicted back in the days of Soylent Green and alarmists loudly prophesying that billions would starve to death in the upcoming food shortages that 3½ decades later we’d instead be alarmed about ever increasing obesity in every age, income, and race demographic? Somehow even the “poor” and “hungry” are too fat nowadays.

The KSL article cited is a fine example of the fat news fare that is now part of our everyday news diet. It is reported that researchers found that Americans “think they're thinner or healthier than they actually are.” Oh, horror of horrors. How did researchers reach this earth shattering conclusion?

Hello, Fatso
Well, they started out by calling people on the phone. My college statistics professor told us to always be suspicious of telephone surveys because they have a very low verification factor and easily employ manipulative methodologies. Today you could add that it’s difficult to get a representative sample, given that most respondents to telephone surveys still use land lines, apparently have no caller ID, and have time to waste answering some stranger’s insipid questions.

Researchers had respondents tell their height and weight so that Body Mass Index score and category could be calculated. Then they asked respondents which weight category they thought they fell into.

Lots of people that ranked above normal on the BMI scale put themselves in a lower category than the one they actually fell into. 30% of those in the overweight category said they were normal. 70% of those in the obese category said they were normal. 60% of those in the morbidly obese category said they were merely obese.

It’s time to call the fat police. We’ve got an epidemic of people being unable to accurately state where they fall on the BMI scale. (At least among people that are willing to give out personal information to strangers over the phone.) Isn’t this a lot like missing a question on those cleverly worded quizzes we used to hate in school?

The Wrong Measuring Stick
This all raises a few questions in my mind. What is the BMI? How did they come up with the BMI categories? How useful is it for people to know which BMI category they fall into?

For starters, BMI’s developers affirmed that the index was “appropriate for population studies, and inappropriate for individual diagnosis.” But that latter inappropriate use is how BMI has mostly been used. This, despite the fact that the index is “not generally useful in evaluation of health.”

BMI is mainly applicable to relatively sedentary middle age Caucasians of approximately average height. This is what accounted for the bulk of the study group that was the basis for BMI. Those that vary from these controlling factors are likely to produce a less accurate BMI measurement. If you’re tall, short, lean, black, or Asian for example, your BMI measurement less accurate.

Having followed a bodybuilding regimen for years, I am particularly critical of the inability of BMI to delineate between lean body mass and fat. While I do rank in the “normal” BMI category, I know people that are very lean and muscular that rank as obese. Conversely, BMI also tends to under represent body fat among a large segment of the population.

The BMI categories were developed using the same limited (and dated) data mentioned above. What was normal for this population in 1960s when the measurements were being taken is by definition not the same as today’s normal. BMI ignores this fact and insists that some historical normal distribution is in fact normal. One might be able to argue that it’s more ideal, but it’s not “normal.”

The categories above normal were somewhat arbitrarily defined. What does it really matter if your BMI is 29 (overweight) or 30 (obese class 1)? How much does it matter in real life if your BMI is 30 and you incorrectly put yourself in the overweight class?

So far we have established that BMI is flawed and is not useful for individual health interpretations. Yet the whole basis of the KSL article and the study it reports on is that people are bad if they don’t use — or rather, they don’t abuse — BMI in this way.

What the Study Really Shows
The study does show that people can look at their rolls of fat in the mirror and think that they’re relatively normal. Well, heck, just wander around anywhere in America and you’ll see that these folks aren’t far off the mark. They are normal!

As Americans have gotten fatter, fatter Americans are the norm. (See study on changing BMI distribution.) When 34% of American adults are “overweight”, 34% are “obese,” and another 3% are morbidly obese, how can you say that the 29% that rank below being overweight represents normal? You can’t if you’re a statistician. I guess you can if you’re an activist.

Besides, wasn’t it recently reported that Americans actually have a more realistic view of their weight problem than used to be the case? What we have here is a case of somebody wasting money on a relatively useless telephone survey. Who footed the bill for the silly survey anyway? I went to the Harris Interactive website, but it wasn’t immediately clear where all of the funds came from; although, the medical news service HealthDay is presumably the main source of the cash.

Enough Nagging
It would seem that Americans are getting tired of the overabundance of fat news. Or maybe it’s just that they’ve noticed how utterly ineffective this overweening moralistic nag-a-thon is. While this constant pestering and supercilious preaching has succeeded in increased bigotry toward the non-slender among us, it has done little to actually stem the trend of our expanding waistlines.

Last month, the editors of the Chicago Tribune put out a pointed editorial titled We Know We’re Fat. Citing studies showing that people are becoming more realistic about their weight problem, the editors wrote, “Not only are we fat, fellow Americans, but we know that we're fat. Inexplicably, we accept it. We've … forgiven ourselves.”

The CT editors note the ineffectiveness and liberty killing effects of current and potential government programs aimed at tackling the obesity epidemic. After running through a list of things we all know we’re supposed to do to maintain a healthy weight, including eating right and exercising, the CT editors conclude, “Satisfied? Now mind your own business.”

We Know What’s Best for You
But that’s just the point. There are those among us that will never be satisfied with minding their own business. When it comes to obesity, they do not see it as an individual issue. To them it is a matter of “public health.” How so?

It is claimed that nowadays we have some kind of collective right to grieve over what we view to be the premature death of any individual. It is further asserted that the collective has some kind of right not to be subjected to this kind of grief. Therefore, the collective — the ruling class and their bureaucratic minions — have a right to force people to refrain from engaging in unapproved activities that might reduce their lifespans, including the consumption of junk foods, for example.

Even this argument doesn’t wash with most people. Those that would rule over others need something more. Enter the tool of ever increasing socialization of medical expenses. Now that donut you are eating not only causes us grief as it cuts off 20 seconds of your life, that donut is going to increase the government and its crony businesses $1 in future medical expenses.

Now the ruling class has a financial argument to regulate what you eat. And while nothing they do is likely to have much impact on our waistlines, this reality will not stop them from making life less enjoyable for everyone. I suspect that Americans are starting to tune out the professional fat grievance industry already.

Tuning Out
Huge percentages of American adults have tried some form of weight loss. The vast majority of these have achieved little or no permanent weight loss. Speaking from experience — I weigh 65 lbs less than I weighed 22 years ago — it is extremely difficult to lose significant amounts of weight. Once lost, it takes continual vigilance to keep the weight off. It requires a level of near fanaticism that few can maintain over the long haul. Or even over the short haul, for that matter.

To most Americans that exceed ideal weight, the constant harangue about their condition is superfluous. Nothing seems to really work, so why bother? Why pay attention to those loudly and repeatedly declaring that being fat is evil when you feel powerless to do anything about it?

Mark Twain once said, “The only way to keep your health is to eat what you don't want, drink what you don't like, and do what you'd rather not.” Even a century ago, people didn’t like eating “healthy” foods or exercising.

Most people know that they might be able to achieve a healthy weight if they turned their diet and spare time into miserable but physically healthy activities. They’re just not sure the tradeoff would be worth it. There’s more to life than being the perfect weight. Amazing to some folks is the fact that many think there’s more to life than living a long time.

So for all of their exposure, many of the intended targets of the anti-fat industry are likely to ignore the activists’ nagging. In fact, like loud TV commercials and ubiquitous Internet ads, the sheer volume of the messages might result in people developing a mental defense mechanism that allows them to block out the messages.

As long as there are people willing to throw cash at the fat harassment industry, I suspect we’ll continue to be treated to a steady diet of fat-is-bad nagging. It’s just that nobody may be paying attention.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Life's Greatest Teachers

My first scoutmaster was Bob Porter. He had a son close to my age with whom I was friends. Bob took over the scoutmaster job from Vern Hadley when he was called to a different position.

Scouting ran deep in Vern’s veins. He was my oldest brother’s scoutmaster. The summer my brother turned 12, Vern had the troop make their own lightweight backpacking tents and food. Stuff like that wasn’t much available commercially at the time — at least at reasonable prices. Then Vern took the large troop of boys on a 50-mile hike in the High Uintas. I had assumed that Vern would be my scoutmaster too, but it was not to be.

Bob was a great guy. He worked in law enforcement for a federal agency. I severely over-packed for my first overnight hike to Malan’s Basin. I thought I was going to die hiking up the Taylor Canyon switchbacks. The rest of the troop went on ahead. Bob stayed back and trudged along with me mile after mile until we trundled into camp after dark, long after the others had their tents pitched for the night. Bob somehow kept me going without taking my pack. He never complained.

A few months after I came into the troop, Bob was transferred out to the West Coast with his job. His family visited a couple of times after that, but I eventually lost track of them. When Bob left, Al Parks was tapped to be our scoutmaster. We called him “Big Al,” because he was very tall. He always wore leather shoes. He quipped that his shoe size was 2½: two cow hides and half a keg of nails. I didn’t know much about Al at the time except that he had a perpetual project trying to keep a Triumph Spitfire running.

Big Al didn’t know much about the Boy Scout program when he became our scoutmaster. He hadn’t been much involved as a youth. But he had taken a turn in the military. How different could the scouts be from the Navy? A friend of mine that retired from the military jokingly tells me that the main difference is that the Boy Scouts have adult supervision.

But Big Al was willing to learn. He threw himself into adult scout leader training. Before long it seemed like he was running troop meetings with 24+ boys present with ease. In reality he was simply implementing the patrol method first taught by Scouting founder Robert Baden-Powell.

Many scoutmasters never learn to implement the magic of the patrol method. They end up working much harder than is necessary to produce relatively substandard results. Good scoutmasters understand that scouting isn’t really about rank advancements, merit badges, and awards. It is about learning leadership through the patrol method.

When I advanced to the ranks of troop leadership, our leadership corps found itself meeting weekly at Big Al’s house to nail down the weekly meeting and to extend future planning. Big Al focused on doing what a scoutmaster needs to do while the youth leaders led the meetings and kept the boys in line.

It is difficult to describe the intense sense of camaraderie that developed from our involvement in our troop with Big Al as scoutmaster. Being a youth, I never focused on the sacrifices Big Al was making for us boys. He had a wife and kids. The troop’s youth leaders became very familiar with them. But they gave up a lot of time with Al so that he could serve us.

Back in the days when I served a mission for the LDS Church, it was common to dedicate the program portion of an entire weekly congregational worship service to the departing missionary. Big Al had made such a difference in my life that he was one of the key speakers at my ‘farewell,’ although, he had since moved from our congregation.

A few years ago, I got to thinking about Big Al. I see one of his sons fairly often because he works in one of the more prominent businesses in our community. But it had been years since I had seen Al. Having gained some maturity and some appreciation for the sacrifices scouting leaders make to run a decent program, I started to realize what it must have cost Al and his family for him to be our scoutmaster. So I wrote him a letter thanking him for all he did for me when I was an obscure boy trying to find his place in the world.

I suppose that the greatest teachers in our lives never cease to teach us, although, our association with them may diminish or cease.

Big Al came to my Dad’s funeral. When he came through the line, he said, “You wrote me a letter a couple of years ago. It made me cry.” There was a look of gratitude in Al’s eyes. My small act could in no way repay the sacrifices Al had made for me and the other boys. As he expressed appreciation for my letter, Big Al taught me once again.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Are You Religiously Smarter Than an Atheist?

The Pew Research Center recently reported on a study about religious knowledge among Americans. 3,412 Americans were asked 32 questions about religion. On average, Americans got half of the questions correct.

The researchers concluded that the survey “shows that large numbers of Americans are uninformed about the tenets, practices, history and leading figures of major faith traditions -- including their own.”

Interestingly, atheists and agnostics came out on top (65.3%) in the study, with Jewish and Mormon adherents close on their heels (64% and 63.4% respectively). This top grouping was followed by white evangelical Protestants (55%), white Catholics (50%), white mainline Protestants (49.4%), unaffiliated (47.5%), black Protestants (41.9%), and Hispanic Catholics (36.3%).

While these religious groupings are interesting, level of education was found to be “the single best predictor of religious knowledge.” The table on page 21 of this previous Pew study (PDF) shows education levels of various religious groups.

Groups with above average levels of post high school education include Hindu (84%), Jewish (78%), Buddhist (74%), agnostic (72%), Orthodox (68%), atheist (65%), Mormon (60%), mainline Protestant (58%), and secular unaffiliated (54%). Groups that ranked below average include Catholic (47%), Muslim (47%), evangelical Protestant (44%), historically black churches (41%), religious unaffiliated (39%), and Jehovah’s Witness (31%).

Regular scripture study and “talking about religion with friends and family” were also contributing factors to answering survey questions correctly. 37% of respondents said they read scriptures at least weekly. Excluding scriptures, nearly half of religious respondents reported seldom or never reading books or visiting websites about their own religion. 70% don’t read books or visit websites about other religions.

Mormons buck the meager religious scholarship trend. “Fully half of all Mormons (51%) and roughly three-in-ten white evangelicals (30%) and black Protestants (29%) report that they read books or go online to learn about their own religion at least once a week.” Only 6% of all Americans and 8% of religious Americans reported such weekly activity.

Of particular interest to Mormons are the following findings. “Around four-in-ten Americans know that the Mormon religion was founded sometime after 1800 (44%) and that the Book of Mormon tells the story of Jesus appearing to people in the Americas (40%). About half (51%) correctly identify Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as a Mormon.” Interestingly, only 93% of Mormons surveyed answered that Joseph Smith was Mormon (see here). I’m not sure what the other 7% were smoking.

The study sought to compare religious and general knowledge by posing nine questions “on history, politics, science and literature” 59% knew the name of the Vice President and 60% knew “that lasers do not work by focusing sound waves.” Only 42% correctly identified Herman Melville as the author of Moby Dick. As with religious knowledge, those with higher levels of education answered more general knowledge questions correctly.

While this study tells us something about the state of religious scholarship among Americans, it reveals relatively little about how Americans experience religion. It reveals little about how people view or experience their relationship with Deity. Pew publications released earlier this year on Prayer in America and Religion Among the Millennials do a much better job in that respect.

58% of Americans pray daily, but frequency of prayer differs dramatically by religious tradition. Groups with high prayer rates include Jehovah’s Witnesses (89%), Mormons (82%), black Protestants (80%) and evangelical Protestants (78%). The rate of prayer increases with age but decreases with income level. Women are much more likely to pray regularly than men.

I discussed the very broad Religion Among the Millennials study in this post. Younger generations are less religiously involved than previous generations were at the same age. But those that are religiously engaged are as strong in their practices and beliefs as were previous generations. Still, it appears that religion is an important part of daily life for a decreasing percentage of Americans.

On one hand, the religious knowledge survey seems like a relatively meaningless exercise in trivia. On the other hand, it gives us a snapshot of how familiar Americans are with religious matters in general, their own religion’s beliefs, and the religious beliefs of others. It’s another piece in a larger puzzle that helps form a picture of the state of religion in America.