Friday, May 28, 2010

Do Memorable Graduation Speeches Exist?

A decade ago when I finished my master degree, I was selected as the student speaker at commencement. I had to submit my prepared remarks to an advisory board for approval. The board issued its approval without remark.

I painstakingly crafted my nine-minute speech. (I had a 10-minute time limit.) I selected each phrase with care. My wife helped me rework clumsy sentences and refine structure. I practiced the speech over and over again to get my diction, intonation, emphasis, and body language just the way I wanted — much as a vocal artist would practice to perform a song.

When the day arrived, I sat on the stage of the auditorium in my graduation robes, surrounded by faculty dressed in similar robes. I noted that others that were to spend some time at the lectern were not wearing their mortar boards, so I waited to don mine until the point arrived where graduates were to move their tassels from one side of the board to the other.

The keynote speaker that day was Rocky Anderson, who was then in his first year as mayor of Salt Lake City. Mayor Anderson’s speech was OK, but it was frankly rather lifeless. He droned on about how those of us that had been so blessed by life had an obligation to give back to the community — a sentiment with which I agree. The Mayor ducked out after his speech.

I could tell from audience response that my speech kept most listeners engaged. Among other things, I talked about the value of learning how to learn. I made a few minor stumbles, but overall the speech went very well. I was so relieved when it was over that I almost failed to appreciate the audience’s magnanimous response.

After the conclusion of the commencement exercises, I received many compliments from faculty, graduates, and other attendees. One seasoned faculty member said that she had never heard such a fine student commencement speech in decades of listening to such speeches.

Many remarked that the quality of my speech dramatically exceeded that of Mayor Anderson’s remarks. I explained that from overhearing a conversation prior to the event, I knew that this was the Mayor’s sixth speech of the week and that he left early to attend yet another engagement where he was to speak. The Mayor’s commencement address was just another speaking engagement on his busy schedule. My speech, on the other hand, was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I was determined to make the most of it.

In this season of commencement exercises, I am reflecting on the various graduation ceremonies I have attended over the years. I can’t remember who spoke at most of these events, let alone remember anything that was said. Have I just amalgamated these various valuable messages into my subconscious, or have most of them been simply vapid platitudes?

I recall one university commencement where one of the speakers was an aged, long retired math professor. I remember two significant factors. One was his explanation of the settling in bushels of tomatoes that occurred when as a boy his family hauled tomatoes from the farm to the market. The height of the tomatoes in the baskets was always lower upon arrival because the jostling caused the tomatoes, which had been touching on an average of five points to the basket and other tomatoes, to touch on six points. The other thing I remember is that his speech went on way, way too long.

I’m really having difficulty remembering much else that has been said by speakers at commencement exercises I have attended. Am I unusual in this, or is this experience more general? If the latter is the case, I think that it would be wise for commencement speakers to focus on three things: brevity, entertainment, and dignity.

While it is actually possible to speak too briefly, there has rarely been a case of this in recorded history. Making your remarks concise will force you to focus on saying the most important things.

Entertainment is more than cracking jokes. It is keeping the audience captivated and engaged. It is charming and delighting your audience. And that’s really what you want to do at an occasion like graduation. There is no need for academia to be dull and boorish.

Despite a general societal trend toward casualness and declining decorum, official celebrations of major life events merit a certain level of respectability. As important occasions lose respectability, people have less reason to regard them with seriousness. It is quite possible to be both entertaining and dignified. Even if society in general is moving away from this model, there is still a broad appreciation for class. Your tasteful speech may not be long remembered, but you will feel better about it.

Many of us will sit through a number of commencement exercises during our lifetimes. If you are ever called on to speak at one of these events, you should at the very least do your best to make the event more bearable for the audience. You can do this by making your remarks brief, entertaining, and dignified. After all, that’s the kind of speech you would want to hear yourself.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

An Entertaining Vocal Eclipse

About a week and a half ago my local Boy Scout council held a council-wide scouting event in conjunction with the centennial of the BSA (1910-2010). Boy Scout, Varsity, and Venturing units were invited to camp overnight. Cub Scouts and families of anyone involved in the BSA program were invited to come the following morning and spend the day enjoying a broad variety of activities. Thousands attended.

On Friday evening, I was surprised to hear that the a capella group Eclipse would be performing. Our family has a couple of the group’s albums that we quite enjoy. Accordingly, my three older boys and I wandered on over to the event stage at the appointed hour and found ourselves thoroughly delighted by the show.

As soon as the group was announced, the music started. Then one by one, the six members of the group came up the steps and out onto stage, performing as they went. Each was dressed in an official scouting uniform. (Five are Eagle Scouts. They later even announced their BSA unit numbers.) And they were great.

My #2 son is fairly accomplished at beatboxing, so he was enthralled. After the performance, he took an opportunity to chat with Kevin Jones, the group’s vocal ‘percussionist.’

(Disclaimer: I do not personally know any members of Eclipse and stand to gain nothing from this post.)

Each member of Eclipse has a tremendous talent. Their vocal arrangements blend all six voices together into captivating numbers that are enhanced by stage choreography. These guys move around a lot. They’re not just standing in place and singing. Having sung most of my life, I can attest to how difficult it is to maintain vocal clarity and enunciation while moving energetically.

One of my favorite numbers was the group’s rendition of Owner of a Lonely Heart, where tenor Paul Hansen performed the entire main bass vamp line simply by buzzing his lips. (I wonder what his lips felt like by the end of the song.) While the song has never been on my tops list, the innovative arrangement and execution made for great entertainment.

The whole show was pure fun. The youth loved it. My three sons that attended the show with me loved it. I’ve attended a lot of scouting events during my lifetime. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything as superbly entertaining as part of a scouting event. I’d definitely suggest taking an opportunity to see Eclipse perform live. You’ll be glad you did.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Goodbye Soccer

When I was a kid there were three little league sports available in my town. There was baseball in the spring and summer, football in the fall, and basketball in the winter. It seemed like all boys played baseball and lots of boys played football. Basketball seemed to be somewhat more exclusive. You had to have at least some talent for it.

All of these were male only sports. I knew that older girls played softball because I sometimes saw them practicing on fields adjacent to our practice fields. But if there were little league sports for younger girls, I was oblivious to them. I had only brothers.

I hated team sports as a kid. I have never been any good at any game involving a ball. But I played because that’s what my brothers and all of my friends did. My baseball summers consisted of dreading to go to bat for the inevitable strike out and seemingly endless hours standing in right field where the ball seldom came. I swatted gnats and picked dandelions, unconscious of what was happening in the game.

Mom and Dad signed me up for football when I was eight, figuring that I was just like my older brothers. The team was huge. I was so bad that I was fourth string right offensive guard. I showed up game after game, but never played. That was OK because I didn’t want to play anyway. But the coach put me in during the last quarter of the final game of the season. Dad, who was watching the game from the car, had fallen asleep by then. I never signed up for football again.

Once a boy in my town turned 12, his little league days were finished. He could play church sports — softball in the summer and basketball in the winter. He could play school sports — football, basketball, baseball, wrestling, tennis — but only if he was good enough. I heard of a few kids playing on competition league teams, but these were rare in my area back then.

I never even heard of anyone playing youth soccer until I was 17. The first time I actually saw kids play soccer (except as part of gym class) was when I was a young adult living in Norway. By the time I was a father, however, it seemed like all kids played soccer. Plus there were lots of other types of athletics available for both boys and girls (and mixed). Many sports offered competition leagues.

Although I had detested playing sports as a kid, I vowed that as a father I would give my kids the opportunity to play and I would support them. I didn’t want my kids to miss out just because I didn’t care for sports. But I also vowed that I would never make any child of mine play sports if he didn’t want to.

We signed my oldest son up for AYSO soccer when he turned five. (We have never done any soccer other than AYSO.) Back then they fielded a fairly large team on a fairly large field. The kids ran around in a big bunch, all trying to kick the ball at the same time. One kid on each side played goalie. My son was often one of those that was off somewhere on the field picking dandelions.

Toward the end of my son’s second season, he was put in as goalie. An opposing player with a good leg (but lousy aim) kicked a ball right into my son’s gut. The team cheered him for his heroic save, but it had all been an accident. He thought he was going to pass out. At any rate, he was done with soccer. He later played baseball for a couple of seasons, but then decided he was done with all team sports.

My second son was far more adept at soccer. He seemed to enjoy it. Year after year he kept coming back. He played well in the back and mid-field, but was never great as a forward. When he got older, his teammates became aware of his goalie abilities. He didn’t mind playing in the goal, but he didn’t want to be there full time. When he was 16, he received an ankle injury as the result of an illegal action by a non-registered player. It took six months of physical therapy to fully recover. Although he liked soccer, he decided that he was done with it. He also played baseball several seasons, but eventually ran into enough time conflicts that he quit.

I was impressed with the soccer setup when son #3 started playing. They had small fields. Each team fielded three players at a time. There were no goalies. The coaches were on the field refereeing and coaching players. I thought it was a great way to learn. But my boy wouldn’t focus on the game. The next thing you know, he’d be talking to the coach of the opposing team about Pokemon or something. About halfway through the season, he simply refused to play anymore.

The following season, my #3 boy decided he wanted to play again. My wife relented and signed him up. He actually seemed to be developing well. Then after the best quarter of soccer I had ever seen him play, he came up to me and said, “Dad, I’m not going to play anymore.” It was his turn to sit out a quarter anyway. But when it was his turn to go back in, he refused. He said, “I just don’t want to play soccer anymore,” and he was serious. He did baseball for a few seasons and even tried basketball once, but he eventually decided that team sports were not for him.

My #4 son seemed to enjoy soccer, except that he detested the games eating into his Saturday morning cartoon and leisure time. He played for a few seasons, but then he decided that the game was too much of an imposition on his valuable time. He did baseball for a couple of seasons, but then he started developing problems with migraine headaches that would completely wipe him out. The headaches often came on during baseball practices or games, which were held on a shade free field. Maybe the heat had something to do with it. Anyway, he quit baseball.

My daughter has played baseball, but didn’t sign up this year. She was never as aggressive as some other girls on her soccer teams, but she has held her own. I felt like she played quite well this season. When soccer signup started a few weeks ago, however, she asked that we not register her for next season. Even after last week’s final game of the season, where she scored well, she expressed relief that she won’t be playing soccer again next season.

As I walked off the soccer field a few days ago, I realized that it was the last time I would be attending an AYSO soccer game as a parent. The next time I attend will be as a grandparent. That will likely be a number of years down the road. Despite my aversion to team sports, I have attended a lot of soccer games over the years to support my children. My wife has coached some of our children’s teams.

My wife and I are both happy that this phase is done. But oddly, it leaves me with a somewhat wistful feeling.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Is Grounding Children from Church Activities Good Discipline?

The neighborhood where I grew up was a new development full of entry-level middle class houses. That meant lots of young families and lots of children. There was never any shortage of kids to hang out with.

One member of my younger brother’s group of close friends dropped from the group in his teen years. After being widowed, this boy’s father married a woman who brought her own kids to the relationship. The dad and stepmother were decent, caring people that struggled with the challenges of blending two families into one.

All children need discipline. A common method used by parents is restriction of privileges. As the father of five children, I have found that this works better for some personality types than for others. To make it work at all, the restriction has to apply to something meaningful to the child.

My brother’s friend enjoyed attending scouting and church youth activities with his friends. His parents — trying to do their best under difficult circumstances — decided that grounding him and keeping him home from such activities was an effective disciplinary method. As a teenager, this seemed like a very wrong-headed approach to me. Shouldn’t parents be promoting the kinds of positive relationships the boy had at church and scouts?

It didn’t surprise me when this boy started hanging out with some pretty rough kids he knew from school. Before long he was involved in drugs and crime. He spent his young adult years satisfying his addictions, fathering children with various women, and getting in scrapes with the law. I hear that he eventually achieved some level of stability, but his once bright mind has been permanently limited by drug abuse.

I’m not saying that punishing kids by keeping them from church activities is going to turn them into druggies. I do, however, think that this method of discipline for this boy was part of a pattern that exacerbated certain life problems.

I was once teaching a merit badge to our Boy Scout troop as part of their weekly troop meeting. In the middle of the class, one boy’s father (who was a church leader) appeared and told the boy to come home with him. A few days later, this man explained that he had pulled his son from the class as punishment for the boy sassing his mother. He said that his son would be contacting me to set up a time to make up the missed merit badge requirements.

While I respect this man’s right to discipline his son, I admit that I was chagrined. The boy did set up an appointment. The dad saw this as a responsible approach. But the dad had disrespected my time. I am busy too. I had to take extra time away from my family to do for this boy what could have been done in a group setting with time I had already invested. I earnestly feel that this father could have found a different but effective disciplinary method.

This brings me to the question of the appropriateness of disciplining children by keeping them from weekly church and scouting activities. Attendance at these activities follows church leader counsel and brings blessings that cannot be had otherwise.

Where else are these kinds of positive relationships fostered? Where else do youth get this kind of positive mentoring from dedicated adult volunteers? What kind of message do parents send to their children when they purposefully prevent them from attending these weekly activities?

I would not say that there are never appropriate circumstances to keep children from attending church or scouting activities. After all, it is LDS doctrine that the church exists to support families in their pursuit of eternal life. And sometimes well meaning church leaders imprudently overschedule families. (That topic is worthy of its own post.) But I do question the value of grounding children from weekly church youth meetings as a method of discipline.

When I was a missionary, a recent convert to our church asked what members should do if they ever fell into sin. He asked, “Should they just stop attending?” We explained that Christ is the Good Physician — the Healer of souls — and that church is more of a treatment center for recovering sinners than a sanctuary for the perfected. I wonder if keeping children from church when they misbehave might not send the message that they should stay away from church if they sin.

Each parent is tasked with appropriately disciplining their children. I do not question the motives of parents that ground their children from attending church activities. I do, however, think that parents that use or consider using this method may want to consider the long-term effects of such a path.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Traffic Squeeze In North Ogden

Every city has transportation issues, and North Ogden is no exception. While there are a variety of problems, there is one that impacts my family on a daily basis. As with other towns that started out as small settlements, erstwhile farm lanes have developed into heavily used collector roads. This is the case with 2600 North.

Until just a few years ago, the west end of 2600 North terminated at 400 East, which is also known as Washington Blvd and is one of the main north-south routes through Weber County. Since long before I was a kid, the area around the intersection of 2600 North and Washington was part of North Ogden’s business district.

That area used to be mostly small family run businesses mixed with residential use. There has been a bank on one corner for more than half a century. There was a gas station for decades across the way. A 7-11 replaced some small shops years ago. One supermarket and another bank went up in the 1980s. Another supermarket went up in the late 90s. The last residence in the immediate vicinity of the intersection was torn down late last year.

You still don’t have to go very far east of Washington on 2600 North before it turns into a residential zone. But that’s part of the problem. North Ogden has grown significantly throughout my life. Much of the growth has been to the north and east of the intersection in question.

Since the middle of the last century, North Ogden has been chiefly a suburban bedroom community. Most of the people that live here don’t work here. Despite business growth, that is simply not going to change.

All of those homes that have been built to the east and northeast of 2600 North and Washington make for a vast amount of traffic passing through the intersection. Traffic on 2600 North is very heavy during high commute times each day. (You can cruise along the road on Sunday morning at 6:30 without encountering another vehicle.)

A few years ago, the old gas station was torn down and a 5-lane road was put in that connects 2600 North all the way out to the interstate exchange (and much further west). The result has been even more traffic passing through the intersection.

While the intersection has been improved, 2600 North is inadequate to handle its current traffic load. The first few blocks east of Washington were among the first residentialized parts of North Ogden. Projects over the years have widened 2600 North to the point that the road is quite close to the front porches of some of the homes in this stretch.

When cities face heavier traffic loads, they widen and improve roads where possible. They seek to spread traffic flow to other collector roads. All of this has been done with 2600 North, and yet the problem is still dire. It will only continue to get worse.

The only real solution to problem is to significantly widen 2600 North from two lanes with shoulders to five lanes with shoulders — matching the segment of the road west of Washington. The problem with this is that it would cost too much. The city would have to condemn property on at least one side of the road, and perhaps on both sides. The road would probably even end up consuming the current parking lot for the city building, library, and police station.

North Ogden is apparently making no plans for this type of road widening, since new construction has recently been approved and completed close to both sides of the road in recent years. Since widening is not likely to happen anytime soon, stopgap measures must be undertaken.

Last year the city added a concrete median on 2600 North between the west entrances to 7-11 and Wells Fargo Bank. Preventing left turns in and out of those driveways has improved safety, but it’s not enough.

UTA used to have its bus stop next to 7-11. Moving the stop half a block east has helped, but the stop still creates a huge traffic hazard. It is right in a squeeze zone where the road goes from two lanes to three without being any wider. (Shoulders are eliminated.) There are driveway approaches to businesses on both sides of the road in this stretch. Since it is an end-of-route stop, busses park there for long periods, often obstructing traffic and creating a visibility hazard.

The city needs to work with UTA to achieve a safer solution. While it is convenient for drivers and passengers to have a long stop near this intersection, the traffic hazard is unacceptable. This stop should become a quick stop only. Busses should remain there for less than a minute.

The city needs to consider extending the current concrete median to prevent left turns in and out of the east 7-11 and west Smith’s driveways. In fact, it might be reasonable to eliminate the west Smith’s driveway completely. Traffic would be funneled through the east driveway and through the driveways on Washington. When traffic is heavy, it is not even safe for vehicles to make right turns in and out of Smith’s west driveway on 2600 North, since no real shoulder exists and the driveway approach is too narrow to permit a turn close to the curb.

I invite our city’s legislators and executive to consider the worsening situation in this heavily used stretch of 2600 North. Planners need to prepare for eventual widening of the road. In the meantime, additional measures are needed to improve safety in the short term.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

North Ogden's Beauty Pageant Battle

For decades the city of North Ogden has included a beauty pageant as part of its annual “Cherry Days” (July 4th) celebration. The pageant has been affiliated with the pageant industry that feeds into state and national contests.

Residents of two adjoining cities have been allowed to enter the pageant. Overall participation has declined in recent years. But more importantly for North Ogden citizens, the number of contestants coming from North Ogden itself has dropped significantly. Pageant winners in three of four recent years have come from neighboring cities that have paid nothing to help host the competition.

Personally, I do not care for the beauty pageant industry. It seems like a throwback to a less enlightened era. Our culture already focuses far too heavily on physical appearance. I question the value of promoting this kind of thing as a matter of public policy. While I understand cultural tradition, I do not see how a show like this improves our community’s quality of life. I would strongly discourage my daughter from participating in such exhibitions.

I know that pageant supporters bill these events as “scholarship pageants.” But if we are honest, we will admit that the quintessential elements of these spectacles are their sensually appealing factors. Without those, the pageant industry would dry up and blow away. With carnally gratifying displays intact, beauty pageants would continue even without the attachment of scholarships or other features that are added to lend respectability.

Still, I have no problem with beauty pageants as long as they are private affairs. I become concerned when my tax dollars are used to make me an unwilling supporter of these events. That has been the case in North Ogden.

Last year, the council allotted $9,600 for the pageant in this year’s budget. Over the past several months the city council has discussed the pageant and made new decisions about the expense. At its February budget retreat, the council decided to finance the pageant if at least eight contestants from North Ogden registered.

The deadline for registration was the council’s April 8 meeting. Pageant supporters signed eight participants by that date, but two dropped out. At a later council meeting in April, pageant supporters (including former contestants/winners and their mothers) showed up in force to lobby the council to fund the pageant this year. They claimed to have signed 16 participants. The council relented.

After reading some of these details in newspaper reports, it bothered me that the council had considered the $9,600 expense of taxpayer money worthwhile, even with only eight contestants. That amounts to spending $1,200 of taxpayer money per person for a fancy dress up party. “Self esteem” notwithstanding, that seems like an unbalanced taxpayer burden.

So I shot off an email to all five council members and the mayor expressing my concerns. I questioned whether there was any other budget item that transferred a sum that high to a private beneficiary for a totally nonessential service.

So far, two council members have contacted me. First I received a phone call from Wade Bigler. During our extensive chat, Mr. Bigler provided a number of details and clarifications about the matter of which I had been unaware. He followed up our discussion with an email.

Brent Taylor responded to my email with additional clarification. He included a PDF copy of the minutes of the February budget meeting, detailing the discussion of the pageant matter. Mr. Taylor’s explanation pretty much matched Mr. Bigler’s account.

I very much appreciate these two council members taking time to address my concerns. After all, $9,600 is not really a large budget item. We’re talking about roughly $2 per household per year. But when all of the ‘small’ expenditures are added up, it makes for a large chunk of the city budget. So I think it is important to see how council members address even these smaller items.

Both Mr. Bigler and Mr. Taylor feel that the pageant should be privately funded. However, Mr. Taylor felt that the city should at least partially fund the pageant for a couple of seasons so that supporters could have some lead time to develop private funding. From what I can gather, most other council members agreed with that sentiment.

However, Mr. Bigler noted the concerns about declining enrollment and winners coming from other cities. He proposed that the pageant be funded this year only if at least eight contestants from North Ogden signed up. This motion carried. But Mr. Bigler told pageant supporters that they were on their own for funding next year.

Following the council’s decision to fund the pageant, Mr. Bigler received information that caused him to suspect that pageant supporters had padded the number of contestants. After repeatedly requesting an actual list of committed contestants, the pageant manager supplied a list of only seven girls. With the nine others having evaporated, the city will not fund the pageant this year.

Mr. Bigler is insistent that pageant supporters could still run the event if they put in the effort to obtain private funding; something Mr. Bigler asserts would not be terribly difficult for them. I agree that pageant supporters should find private parties that are willing to pay for the pageant rather than lobbying the city for a share of limited taxpayer funds.

It is difficult to be an elected official with the authority to spend taxpayer money. When lobbyists come calling, the benefit of giving them a chunk of taxpayer money is very clear. With only $2 per household per year at stake, no taxpayers are going to show up to protest the transfer.

Benefits are concentrated while costs are diffused in these instances. It is easier to play the ‘good guy’ that ‘helps’ the people that are there plying you for cash. It’s difficult to be the fiscal disciplinarian that comes across as ‘mean’ and ‘stingy’ for trying to protect taxpayer interests without any assurance that taxpayers will care or even know about it.

I applaud elected officials that are willing to appear unpopular to keep government within its proper bounds. It is by doing this that we can be more certain that government will have adequate funding to handle its essential duties.

I will add updates if any council members contact me about the pageant issue.

Update: 5/19/2010
Council member Carl Turner contacted me about the pageant today. He noted that his sister won the pageant back around 1980, but that interest in the event has waned significantly since that time. Times have changed, and he thinks it’s time for the city to move on. He is not in favor of the city funding the pageant in the future.

Mr. Turner noted that he actually suggested de-funding the annual July 4th fireworks display due to the tight budget. He quipped, “I almost was tarred and feathered for saying that.”

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Mind Games

A friend of mine told me today that when his four adult children were younger, he was constantly yelling at his son for terrorizing his younger sister. At a recent family dinner, my friend’s daughter admitted that in almost all of these incidents she was the antagonist. Once the parents were out of earshot, she would laugh at her brother for getting in trouble for something she had caused. My friend was astonished at this discovery.

A few years ago at a family gathering, my brothers and I discussed a number of incidents from our childhood that were poignant at the time they occurred, but that later seemed humorous. My Mom kept saying, “I never knew about that!”

In real life, I know that Mom was at least somewhat aware of some of these events at the time they occurred. But I suspect that nature has a way of blissfully burying certain memories that stem from the intense years of raising children.

It may also be that you get so numb from the antics of five boys that some things that would otherwise be significant kind of float above the layer of consciousness — perhaps because you’re so stretched out that you can’t do anything about it at the time anyway.

Kids sometimes think that parents are oblivious to what is going on. Other times they think that parents have an uncanny sixth sense to detect what is happening. As a parent of five children myself, I find that the extent of my awareness of everything going on in the family ebbs and flows. It is dependent on my capacities to comprehend it at any given moment.

Even when I am relatively aware, my actions in relationship to what is happening vary based on several factors. My ability and desire to deal with matters depends on how well I feel, how stressed I am, what I have going on, how readily my wife can respond, etc. Sometimes I purposefully stop myself from intervening in the hope that the kids will learn some valuable life skills from working it out themselves.

Given limited capacities, a parent must prioritize constantly. While consistency in parenting is a virtue, prioritization means that sometimes children will get away with things and other times they won’t.

I wonder how unaware my friend really was of the dynamic between his daughter and his son. Perhaps the details have been buried in his memory. My only daughter is our youngest child. I would be lying if I denied that she enjoys special status as our spoiled baby girl. She has had me wrapped around her little finger since she was still in the womb.

Sometimes my daughter is a brat. She can tease, torment, and/or be petulant. Her next older sibling probably catches more of this than any of the other children. But he knows that he will get in trouble if he retaliates. It’s not that we, as parents are unaware that she pesters him. But my son needs to know that lashing out is also improper. It is true that this leaves the boy with limited outlets for addressing the issue.

Conversely, these two siblings can be very close and can play together quite nicely. They share a close bond that is different than the bond they share with any of the other children.

Families have interesting dynamics that can bring great joy and great difficulty. I look forward to someday sitting around with my adult children and finding out about some of their childhood antics of which I was unaware — or have just forgotten.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The Boy(Scout)s of Summer

I just had a chat with my son’s scoutmaster. He is fretting about summer camp coming up in July. Most of the problem stems from one man insisting on bringing his too-young son to the weeklong event.

A little background might be useful. The vast majority of Boy Scout units in our area are sponsored by the LDS Church. Each BSA unit answers to the head of its chartering organization. In the LDS Church, that’s the ward bishop. The LDS Church enrolls boys in different levels of the BSA program based on age.
  • Ages 8-10 are Cub Scouts.
  • Ages 11-13 are Boy Scouts. But the church has a separate program for 11-year-olds. While the members of the New Scout Patrol are members of the Boy Scout troop, they do not participate in the troop’s full program. They hold few camps and they focus mainly on advancing through Scouting’s primary ranks.
  • 14-15-year-olds are Varsity Scouts.
  • 16-18-year-olds are Ventures.
Consequently, most boys that go to weeklong organized BSA camps from our area are ages 12-13. It is not uncommon for older boys to tag along. Every once in a while a Varsity team or Venture crew shows up at camp. But these units for older youth usually focus on other types of high adventure summer activities.

LDS Church policy prohibits 11-year-old boys from attending summer camp with the troop. There is a loophole that allows people to skirt this regulation. 11-year-old boys cannot be barred from attending summer camp if they are accompanied the whole time by their parent or legal guardian. And there’s the rub.

One boy that is in our unit’s Cub Scout program turns 11 a week or so after the troop goes to summer camp. He’s only 10 right now. But his father wants to come to camp with the boy. You wouldn’t want a boy that will turn 12 during the summer to miss camp due to an accident of scheduling. But a 10-year-old is a different matter.

When I served as scoutmaster I had a similar situation. I simply went to the bishop — the charter organization head — and asked him to tell the father that the boy couldn’t go with the troop. That worked back then. But the father of the boy in question this year is a member of the ward bishopric.

Perhaps without realizing the difficulties he was foisting onto the scoutmaster, the bishop agreed to allow this man to take his son to summer camp with the troop. Since it wouldn’t be proper to allow only one individual such a privilege, all boys of a similar age in the ward must now be permitted the same opportunity.

This situation dramatically expands the number of people that will be going to camp with our troop. It increases planning and trip execution by orders of magnitude. More troop equipment will be needed. The scoutmaster will have to keep track of the activity and advancement progress of more boys, even while he has far more boys to look after. More people will have to fit in the campsite.

BSA policy prohibits adults from sleeping in the same quarters as youth that are not members of their immediate family. You can minimize tent space by grouping the adults and grouping the youth. But our stake’s interpretation of church policy is that boys under 12 must sleep in the same facility with their father. That means that each sub-12-year-old that attends adds another tent. Since campsites are only so large, we will be cramped.

Meals will become far more difficult, as the number for which food must be prepared nearly doubles. Cleanup becomes a much larger chore. Keeping track of troop members ends up being like trying to hold a pound of sand in your hands. Some is always slipping out between your fingers, no matter how hard you try to keep it together.

You’d think that having all those extra adults along would be helpful, but you’d be wrong. As I have long known, and as the scoutmaster explained to me today, there are low maintenance adults and there are high maintenance adults. Some adults know how to facilitate the boys’ growth and accountability. Some are more of a hindrance than a help. Fathers that aren’t fully on board with the program sometimes thwart their sons’ ability to engage properly.

Having been involved in Boy Scouts for a very long time, having worked on BSA camp staff, and having been to Scout camp more times than most people have gone on overnight campouts, I have developed a different personal philosophy. With rare exception, I do not like to take a boy to camp that is outside of the age range of the target youth group. I have carefully observed this rule with my own sons.

I have found, for example, that when 11-year-olds go to Boy Scout summer camp, they end up being pretty high maintenance campers — even when they have their fathers in tow. Then by the time they’re 13, Scout camp seems so “old hat” to them that many of them end up making trouble.

A Varsity Scout leader once insisted on bringing his 12-year-old son hiking with the team in the High Uintas. At one point during our encampment, the boy broke the buddy system rule while he was out fishing and tried to make it back to base camp on his own. He ended up getting lost, and it was only by a near miracle that we were able to rescue him.

One year when I allowed some 14-year-olds that had been some of my best Scouts to come with us to Scout camp, even they ended up being trouble. There are certainly exceptions to this, but it seems to me that it is usually worth sticking to the age-limit rule.

Having said that, I must now admit that my scoutmaster let me and two of my friends come to camp with the troop when we were 14. (We all turned 15 just a couple of months later.) We acted in the role of junior assistant scoutmasters. That camp was a very important event in my life. A few years later I found myself working on camp staff.

The first time I went to summer camp I was homesick, hated hiking, and was scared of adventure. Who knew that I would someday work on camp staff and would grow to enjoy hiking? That staff experience of my older teen years has very positively colored the whole rest of my life. So, I’d say that there are times that exceptions to the age-limit rule are acceptable. A wise leader will know when it is right to make such exceptions.

Right now I am feeling sorry for our scoutmaster. I have been in his shoes before and have taken very large troops to summer camp. The run-up to camp and the camp experience will present serious challenges for him. I will do my best to support him. But I know from experience that he will breathe a high sigh of relief when it’s all over.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Those &%!#* Solicitors

I don’t like being solicited at home, unless it’s something I invite. I screen out most email solicitations. It still requires time to go through junk mail and decide what needs to be shredded and what doesn’t. But these things are manageable. It’s those pesky telephone and door-to-door solicitations that bother me the most.

Many telephone pests are screened out by the national do-not-call registry. But there are some exceptions and loopholes that for-profit and nonprofit entities exploit.
  • The politicians that created the registry cleverly excepted calls from political organizations. Go figure.
  • Any entity classed as a charity can still call.
  • Pollsters and survey takers can legally bug you. (Another loophole for the politicians.) Some businesses exploit this by taking a survey and then asking if they can follow up. The follow-up is a solicitation.
  • Any company you’ve done business with sometime in the last 18 months can call you.
  • Bill collectors can call you. (That’s probably understandable.)
Fortunately, the advent of caller-ID has allowed us to screen out many of those excepted by the do-not-call registry. (It is amazing how persistent some of these can be.) But sometimes we end up screening out calls we would like to have answered, simply because we don’t recognize the number. Those that are truly interested leave a message.

When I end up actually answering an unwanted phone call from a solicitor of any kind, I usually simply hang up without saying anything. If they are especially persistent at calling back, I stay on the line long enough to tell them to stop calling. They really don’t want to waste their time talking to someone that isn’t going to buy their product/answer their questions/support their candidate/donate to their cause anyway.

Then there are the people that go door-to-door. We have a “NO SOLICITING” sign clearly displayed by the front door. Most solicitors bypass our house, but some are not discouraged by the sign. I have gotten to the point that I am very brief and blunt with those folks, while trying to remain somewhat courteous.

Last week I saw a guy making the rounds of the neighborhood. He repeatedly bypassed our home. Then one day he showed up at our door with another salesman in tow. I suspect that it was his manager who was going to show him how it is done. One of my kids answered the door and came to get me.

When I got to the door, I asked, “What do you want?” As the guy began talking, he turned his binder toward me. That allowed me to tell that what they were peddling. Before he had said five words, I interrupted. I pointed to the blazingly obvious “NO SOLICITING” sign and asked in a polite tone of voice, “Excuse me, but can you guys read?” The man responded that he hadn’t seen the sign, but the two quickly departed.

A couple of years back, a guy selling some kind of miracle gasoline additive showed up on my doorstep. When I took the same kind of approach with him, he started in on a debate about why ‘No Soliciting’ signs do not pose a legal barrier to door-to-door solicitation. I think the guy could see the fire building in my eyes. I finally said, “I don’t care what your legal manual says. It should be clear to you by now that I don’t want to be solicited!” As I closed the door, he was still saying something about how I was passing up an incredible opportunity. I’m sorry, but that’s simply not the way to win customers.

Once a salesman caught me while I was out in the front yard with a couple of my kids, quite some distance from my protective sign. I nicely explained that I don’t allow solicitation. I think this man was an entertainer at heart. He smiled and started in on a very amusing spiel about how he was brought up to believe that solicitation had something to do with those fancily dressed ladies on street corners in certain parts of town. Before long, the guy had my kids in totally fascinated by his product demo. His act was so fun that I simply couldn’t turn him away.

I do have to say that the ‘miracle’ cleaner this man sold me is probably one of the best cleaning products I have ever used. But I’d probably have bought even if it wasn’t, as I considered his show to be worth the price. If you’re going to be a door-to-door salesman, this guy could teach you a thing or two. But I doubt that a talent like that is easily transferrable.

My wife is too kind to close the door on or hang up the phone on solicitors. She politely listens to phone solicitors until she finally tells them she’s not interested. But she has a very difficult time turning away people on the doorstep.

Perhaps I’m just cruel. But I feel as if I have a right to a certain level of privacy in my own home, and I have no problem making efforts to exclude those that would infringe on that privacy. I take no pleasure in being rude. But I do think it rather offensive when solicitors ignore my sign.

I understand the value of advertising. None of us would find out about products and services that greatly benefit us were it not for advertising, even if that marketing comes only by word of mouth. There are zones I visit where I expect to be confronted with marketing tactics. I just don’t want my front door or my telephone to be among those zones.