Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Slip-On Shoe Conundrum

A few years ago, I happened upon an odd looking pair of casual shoes that I quite liked. I didn’t like the shoes because they looked weird. I liked them because they felt good.

It used to be that I would buy any shoe that fit, even if it didn’t feel particularly good at the time I bought it. Over time, newly acquired shoes would wear to the point that they felt relatively comfortable.

I’m not sure exactly what happened to change this. But at some point, it was as if new pairs of shoes stopped conforming to my feet. If a shoe didn’t feel good at purchase time, it never felt good. Months of wearing the things didn’t seem to help.

Maybe my feet just succumbed to the natural aging process. Maybe shoes are made of hardier materials than when I was younger so that they are no longer as malleable as shoes of yore. Or maybe some evil shoe gnome decided to curse any shoe I buy that is less than completely comfortable when I first try it on. It couldn’t possibly be that I have simply become less tolerant of foot-to-shoe anomalies as I have aged.

Whatever the reason for the spread of permanently uncomfortable shoes, I have arrived at the point in life where I simply won’t buy a shoe unless it feels fine when I try it on at the store. While I love buying stuff over the Internet, there’s no way that I will buy shoes without first trying them on. So my shoe shopping is limited to inventory that is in close proximity to the location of my feet.

Back to my strange looking shoes. (At least they looked strange to me. I see people wearing much more bizarre footwear on a daily basis.) These shoes looked like athletic shoes, but they were slip-ons. They were very snug on my feet, but they stayed in place even when I ran. They only slipped off when I worked to pull them off. But the main point is that they felt very good on my feet.

Imagine my good fortune when I found a second pair of this same model of shoe a few months later when my first pair was showing signs of wear. I bought the second pair and stowed them under the bed. When the first pair were so shot that I made them my lawn mowing shoes, my second brand spanking new pair were ready for service.

Life was good until the second pair of shoes were starting to become very well worn. I shopped for replacement shoes, but the model I had come to adore was nowhere to be found. After much casting about at various stores over a period of many weeks, I found a different slip-on shoe model that seemed to feel pretty good too. It didn’t look quite like an athletic shoe. It was a casual shoe that looked classier than the athletic shoes.

I threw out my old lawn mowing shoes, which were literally falling apart, moved my athletic slip-ons to that position, and started using my new shoes for everyday wear. The new shoes turned out to feel pretty great. Over the space of the next year, I was able to pick up three more pair of the same model, sometimes paying as little as $12 for a pair. These went under my bed to await their turn to be worn.

Those four pairs of shoes stretched out more than six years. But they weren’t as hardy as my athletic slip-ons. They fell apart faster. I still have one pair left. The sole is worn completely smooth in the high friction spots. The inner is so shot that some pieces poke my feet. But for some reason, I haven’t thrown them out yet. I’m still using the second set of athletic slip-ons for lawn mowing shoes.

Over the past year, I have tried on many pairs of shoes that have a somewhat similar style to the shoes I have found so satisfactory for so long, but no luck. Last winter I found the exact model of shoe I was looking for. It was literally the exact model as the wasted pair in my closet, but it sported a known name brand on the inner sole.

Alas, the shoes cost $40. Knowing what I had paid for the four pair of shoes I liked, I simply couldn’t bring myself to pay $40 for the pair. The store no longer carries this model of shoe, so I couldn’t buy them even if I wanted to.

Given my track record in finding the style of shoe I want that fits as well as I would like at price I am willing to pay, I suspect that I will likely never have those three criteria come together in a pair of shoes again. I am obviously a small minority in the market of those that liked the shoes in question. I was likely able to buy them at an economic price because they failed to sell well.

But such is the nature of the marketplace. There will always be products that become scarce that some of us wish we could find, even while we continually welcome the advent of newer products. In this respect, it is probably best to apply the motto used in the Disney movie Meet the Robinsons: “Keep Moving Forward.”

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Managers and Group Culture

I have been fascinated by organizational behavior since I first had a course on this subject in my undergraduate studies. Each group or organization has its own culture. Each person typically belongs to multiple groups, with each group having a unique culture.

Culture in this respect refers to a set of shared values, goals, and rules. In effect, it is a system that governs behavior. We tend to act largely within the mores of the group culture. Usually it is only those on the margins that significantly violate the norms of a group.

The groups to which I belong include my nuclear family, my extended family, several workgroups where I am employed, church groups, scouting groups, my neighborhood, my town, etc. Within some of these groups are subgroups that have a culture that is distinct from that of the larger group. For example, when I am with only my older children, we have somewhat different goals and customs than when we are together with the whole family.

Each group has leaders. Sometimes groups have formal managers. These are not always the same people as the leaders — the people that actually get others to do things. Formal management positions are more likely to exist in organizations that have formal goals.

A number of theories exist about managing people in organizations. One theory, for example, postulates the existence of natural born leaders. Another theory suggests that all people have the ability to exert one or more types of power depending on the circumstances in which they find themselves. Yet another classes people into naturally intransigent personality types. It is asserted that managers can only be fully effective in organizations where their individual personality type complements the organizational culture.

I once worked in an organization where the manager’s personality was a poor match for the group’s culture. The manager was a great guy — and that was part of the problem. He thrived on lots of social connection and human interaction. Being a group of highly autonomous computer geeks, however, we worked better with managers that were more analytical and that did their thing while leaving us to do ours.

It’s not that it was unpleasant to chat with our manager about matters not much related to work. We all do this in our workgroups. It’s part of the lubricant that allows the group to function. But when my boss would come into a worker’s cubicle and plop down for 45, 60, 90, 120 minutes, or even longer just to shoot the breeze, it became a hindrance both to work and to the relationship.

Being geeks, we soon devised two systems to deal with our manager’s excessive gregariousness. The first was an early warning system based on email and phone that would alert workers of an impending social visit from our manager. If someone was on the phone, he’d usually leave them alone unless his visit was actually work related. If that failed, we’d take turns rescuing colleagues trapped in their cubicle by calling from a remote phone.

Our manager had great relationships with his peers and his direct managers, but he didn’t really know that much about what our group did for work. In effect, we were autonomous enough that we could have operated without his ‘management’ most of the time. But social aloofness would not have matched his personality type.

Over the years I have had managers that seemed to fit better or worse with the group culture. I’ve had a few outstanding managers and I’ve had a few that were deplorable.

I once worked for a guy that was manipulative and extremely verbally abusive. I was among the 80% of his employees that fled to other jobs over the space of a year. I saw no reason that a professional at my level ought to put up with that kind of mistreatment. Sometime later, one of the workers that stuck it out came to work to find the manager’s office cleaned out and an email telling him that he was reporting to a different manager.

For years I harbored resentment for my former nasty manager. I saw him in a store once and avoided him. But a few years later I had the opportunity to meet him in a different job. He had left management, seemed like an easy guy to be around, and was reportedly a great worker. Perhaps his personality type was simply a bad fit for the organizational culture where we worked.

Changing organizational culture may be nearly as difficult as changing basic personality traits. Perhaps some companies go down the tubes because they can’t manage to alter the culture to meet changing business needs.

It also seems that we tend to self select into group cultures where we feel that we nominally fit. We tend to leave groups that prove to be a poor match for our personalities and groups where the culture shifts enough that we find our personalities to no longer be complementary.

Sometimes we have little choice in group membership. I think, for example, about my elementary school classes. There was a bit more flexibility in junior high and high school.

Group culture is a huge factor in the behavior of group members. We all tend to function within the parameters of the culture of the group in which we are operating at the moment. This is why changing a few of the group’s members tends to have little effect on the behavior of group members and why new group members soon adopt the behavior of their cohorts.

I suspect that my interest in organizational behavior will continue as long as I continue to hold membership in various group cultures. And that will be at least as long as I live.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Doing a Disney Park? Do RideMax

As I said in my last post, we significantly improved our Disney park experience by using a private service called RideMax.

RideMax is a small family owned business that constantly gathers data on attractions at Disneyland and DisneyWorld. Using the software you download from RideMax, you plug in the attractions you want to visit on a given day. Add any attraction more than once if you want. For example, our family wanted to ride Pirates of the Caribbean and Indiana Jones twice. Schedule the breaks you want to take. Plan your walking rate and choose a few more options. Then the software spits out an itinerary that will minimize the time you spend waiting in line while maximizing your fun at the park.

I was a bit skeptical at first, but the RideMax website has many helpful general tips on visiting Disneyland and DisneyWorld. (Arrive early, avoid early entry days, ways to keep track of your irreplaceable entry passes, how to get the most of each ride, don’t eat breakfast at the park, etc.) For $15, we figured it was worth a try. It was worth every penny and more.

When we told our kids that we were going to stick to the RideMax schedule no matter what, one of my sons quipped, “So, this is like the Nazis do Disneyland?” But keeping to our RideMax schedule worked. In fact, we got ahead of schedule at one point so that we were able to pick up a couple of attractions that weren’t planned. Part of the magic of RideMax is its scheduling of gathering FastPass passes that allow you to come back later and jump ahead of everyone in line.

Doing Disneyland can be difficult for a family like ours, where the kids span early elementary to college ages. The older boys simply aren’t going to enjoy riding Dumbo like their little sister. We could have split into two smaller groups and used two itineraries, but there’s no guarantee that the groups would even run into each other during the day. Since family togetherness was one of our goals, we opted for a single itinerary. The older kids split off to hit other attractions during some of the little kid rides.

You can also plan multiple RideMax itineraries and then choose the one that tickles your fancy on the day of your visit. Since the service is constantly updating its data, it is best to plan your itinerary close to your trip — no more than two weeks before your visit. We finally settled ours four days before our visit.

Thanks to RideMax, we only waited in a couple of longer lines. Most other times, we walked right onto attractions or waited only a few minutes. Bear in mind that this was during peak season at the park. We did see lots of other people waiting in long lines. RideMax schedules you for rides that others are not riding while they’re all waiting in long lines at other rides. You skip those rides until later when the lines are shorter or when you can use a FastPass.

During our visit to California Adventure, we deviated from our RideMax itinerary quite a bit because a couple of the rides on our schedule were temporarily shut down. We also managed to ride some rides earlier in the day than was planned. We were quite pleased with that. We were able to split up more often and got to ride Soarin’ Over California twice.

I’d suggest printing off a copy of your RideMax itineraries for each person in your group that is old enough to comprehend the schedule. Not only will you avoid having everyone pester the only person holding the schedule, it will this make deviations (or partial deviations) from the itinerary work out better. It will be easier to get the group back together afterward.

RideMax does not offer itineraries for Sundays. Their website says that they decided to give their employees Sundays off.

If you’re planning a visit to Disneyland or DisneyWorld, you should definitely spend the money for a RideMax subscription. It will increase the value of your visit by many times the cost of the subscription. Make sure to read all of the tips on the RideMax website. You’ll be glad you used RideMax.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Doing Disneyland (part 2)

In my last post I wrote briefly about our trip to Disneyland. I’m going to include a few tips and hints that might be helpful to others considering a Disneyland trip.

From what I understand, the middle of the week is a better time to visit a Disney theme park if you want to skip huge crowds. Still, the press of the crowds at Disneyland on Wednesday was pretty intense. It increased as the day progressed. Our family was separated when the Main Street Parade started. We discovered that it was nearly impossible to get us all together again until the parade was finished due to the press of the crowd. (I could not even traverse 10 feet to another family member.)

While Disneyland is constantly being upgraded (for example, Star Tours is closed for renovations until 2011), the basic framework offers some challenges that simply can’t be overcome. The park is an international icon. Disney can’t significantly change certain features without violating the basis of the iconography. The number of people operating in this structure makes efficient management of foot traffic difficult.

It was a lot easier for us this trip because this is the first Disney trip we have made in two decades without using at least one stroller. Moving strollers around Disneyland can be challenging. I did carry my daughter piggy-back several times during the day — sometimes for very long hauls. That kind of thing could be problematic if you’re not in decent shape.

We also discovered that having older children with their own cell phones was very helpful.  We could split up and still keep in contact.  When we weren’t sure if someone was on a ride or not, we’d send text messages.  This worked quite well.

The days we spent at Disneyland and California Adventure were unseasonably warm. We tried to keep our crew well hydrated, but that’s a challenge too. I hauled water bottles in a backpack, but they warm quickly in hot weather. I refilled bottles from restroom taps and water fountains, but most of these fixtures in Disneyland have relatively low flow. The fixtures tend to be newer and better at California Adventure. I think my Mom-in-Law became dehydrated the first day.

One of the big questions when going to a Disney theme park, of course, is how to deal with long lines at attractions. Disney tries to manage this somewhat by raising park pass prices, as was recently done. Higher prices tend to bring fewer customers, but I’m not sure that’s a problem for Disney. Demand seems to remain very strong despite higher prices.

Notwithstanding the huge crowds, we hit all of the attractions we wanted to visit, while spending minimal time waiting in lines. This was possible thanks to a private service called RideMax. We paid $15 for a 90-day subscription to the service. It significantly enhanced the value of our Disney park experience. I will cover our experience with RideMax in a separate post.

We felt that California Adventure offered a more laid back and less harried experience than our visit to Disneyland. When my wife said as much to a park worker, the worker responded that Disney employees definitely notice this difference.

We enjoyed California Adventure, but two huge sections of the park are currently under construction with new attractions to open next year. It seems like there are fewer attractions than at Disneyland. The general consensus was that the Soarin’ Over California ride was our family’s favorite attraction. There were many other attractions that were highly enjoyed as well. Different family members ranked different rides higher. But that’s to be expected.

We helped our vacation budget by informing the kids months in advance that we would not be buying any souvenirs out of the family budget. Each child was encouraged to save to buy their own souvenirs. Thanks to our family discussions on the matter, nobody pestered us for trinkets. Only two children bought souvenirs, and these were modestly priced. It’s amazing how frugal people become when they have to spend their own money.

Food is expensive at any theme park. There are many nearby offerings if you want to leave the park to eat. If you want convenience, you either pack lunches and keep them in a locker or you pay the exorbitant park rates. We made this work for us.

Our drive home on Friday was much less stressful than our drive to Los Angeles. We ran into very few traffic slowdowns. Traffic flow seemed better all around than when we drove down.

All in all, we’re pretty pleased with our Disneyland vacation. Everyone tolerated it. Nobody got lost or was injured. We had a few hectic moments, but we had some time to relax as well. I will be putting video clips and photos together in a home movie DVD over the next week or so. We’ll have some memories for years to come.

A Trip to Disneyland

I hadn’t been to a Disney theme park during the summer months since I was a kid. The heat and the crowds scared me away.

Over the years, we’ve visited the Disney parks in Southern California a few times and Central Florida once. We have usually hit at least one other non-Disney theme park while on these trips. We’ve gone in the fall and spring. Twice we started our visit during the last couple of days of November and were able to see everything decked out for the holidays. The crowds were smaller and the weather was great.

But our youngest was barely two years old the last time we went to a Disney theme park. When she looked at me with big innocent eyes early this year and asked me if we could “please take the family to Disneyland this week,” my heart melted. “This week” was out of the question, but we started planning a Disneyland trip.

When my wife suggested that the third week of August was going to be our best bet this year, she encountered much weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth from me. To top it off, my wife said we’d have to drive to make the budget work. The last two times we went, we flew using special discounts. We couldn’t find any deals like that this time, so driving was the answer. I dreaded that.

But thanks to my Mom-in-Law, things worked out pretty well. Bringing two vehicles allowed us far more room for people and gear. Built-in vehicle entertainment systems are very helpful too. Instead of including a non-Disney park in our trip this time around, we made arrangements to visit a couple of university campuses that have solicited one of my sons. My Mom-in-Law was also able to visit her brother.

We spent one night in Las Vegas to break up the driving. It seemed as if the whole town was under construction. The first real traffic jam we encountered on our trip was due to lane closures on I-15 in Las Vegas. Then we ran into loads of construction on roads surrounding our hotel. Our rooms were pretty good, but the section of town we were in wasn’t great. We watched a police arrest go down in live time. I was glad to leave early the next day.

The rooms at our hotel in Los Angeles were OK, but the queen size beds weren’t really queen size. That made sleeping arrangements difficult. The pool was nice. Traffic on the Los Angeles freeways and highways was very congested. But that’s to be expected.

On some of our previous Disney trips, we have spent three or four days doing the parks. This time, we spent one day at Disneyland and one day at California Adventure. It turned out pretty well, but we’d do a few things differently if we were to do it over again. Our day at Disneyland was very long. Everyone was shot by the end of the day. In retrospect, we’d should have left Disneyland earlier and opted to stay later at California Adventure the following day for the evening show.

I will write another post that describes more tips and hints that might be helpful for others considering a trip to Disneyland.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Trending Toward Religious Disengagement

A couple of evenings ago, I attended a meeting of church leaders at my LDS stake. Perhaps it is my perception, but after years of attending these meetings, it seems that attendees can usually expect to be chewed out for falling short. Then they wonder why turnout is low.

The purpose of these meetings seems to be mostly to call leaders to repentance than about lifting them spiritually, at least in my neck of the woods. Paradoxically, those that are diligent enough to attend the meetings are likely to be the ones that are also diligently fulfilling their leadership callings, however imperfect their performances might be.

It sometimes seems as if the faithful leave these meetings feeling berated and burdened rather than enlightened. Those for whom the messages were likely intended weren’t there to be admonished. Perhaps they glide along in blissful ignorance.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand the principle that “he that will not bear chastisement is not worthy” of the kingdom of God (D&C 131:31). That’s why I work my schedule to be at these meetings, why I take notes, and why I earnestly try to improve my performance. But sometimes I feel disheartened when leaving these meetings.

One item of discussion at the recent meeting was our stake’s trend in declining Sacrament meeting (weekly worship service) attendance over the past few years. We used to average 62% annually, but have dropped to 54%. The stake president opened up a discussion about why this was happening and what could be done about it.

While I am not certain of all of the factors for declining worship service attendance in my stake, it would seem reasonable to assume that we are not immune to broader societal trends. Almost three years ago, I wrote about the growing drift toward civic disengagement, which has been documented by political scientist Robert Putnam.

Due to the advent of in-home entertainment technology, the expansion of women into the outside-of-the-home workforce, social trends away from conformity and formality, the crowding out effect of government social services, the ability to rise socially outside of traditional institutions, and a variety of other societal changes, there has been decreasing involvement in civic institutions over the past four decades.

This is not to say that all of the factors mentioned are purely negative. It’s just that costs are blended with the benefits.

The Pew Forum published an interesting study earlier this year titled Religion Among the Millennials. Religious attitudes and practices of the Millennial generation were compared with Generation X, Baby Boomers, and older Americans. Researchers tracked how Millennials stacked up against previous generations at the same age. They also did a good job of tracking the evolution of religious attitudes and behavior among these older generations.

Millennials are less religiously affiliated than previous generations, but they tend to pray more regularly than those who were the same age 10 and 20 years ago. One-fourth of Millennials are non-believers, compared with one-fifth of the previous generation at the same age. While it has been fairly common for Americans of all currently living generations to switch religions, Millennials switch to no religion at a much higher rate than previous generations.

Besides religious affiliation, Millennials attend worship services at a lower rate than previous generations. But this is simply part of a longer trend where each succeeding generation attends church less frequently than their parents’ generation. Millennials attend church at less than half the rate today’s seniors did at the same age.

This is a bigger issue for the LDS Church than for most other denominations, because Millennials make up a larger proportion of LDS Church membership than is common for most other churches.

The whole Pew study is quite interesting. It includes a number of surprising tidbits, such as the fact that religious convictions among practicing believers are just as strong among younger generations as older generations — even stronger by some measures. But the overall picture is clear. Religious affiliation and church attendance are steadily declining with each succeeding generation.

Given the rate of demographic turnover in my area, the decline in Sacrament meeting attendance noted by my stake president is not out of line with overall societal religious trends. I do not doubt that active church members in my area could be doing a better job of reaching out to neighbors and inviting others to worship with them. But it is unrealistic to assume that members could significantly counter a broader cultural trend.

Perhaps I am one of those of “little faith” (Matt 14:31), but it seems to me that the worship service attendance trends we have seen over the past decade or so are going to continue despite our best efforts. That’s no excuse for complacency. It’s just a recognition of cultural realities.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Music of Freedom

A few years ago, one of my children played a piece titled Toccata (see ClassicCat links) by Aram Khatchaturian at a piano recital. This is a challenging, highly technical, fast moving piece that features heavy chord vamps, dramatic romantic movements, hammering tones, flowing falls, and wild runs that fly across huge swaths of keyboard real estate. It’s not something one sits back to enjoy with ease. It demands listener engagement.

Khatchaturian was born in the country of Georgia to a poor Armenian family. After his family’s native Armenia was declared a Soviet vassal, Khatchaturian traveled to Moscow, where he received opportunities to develop his musical talents.

As Khatchaturian’s musical prowess increased, he joined the Communist Party and wrote music to honor the Soviet Union. But the repressive government didn’t see his offerings as sufficiently patriotic. Instead, the government formally denounced him and several other famous Soviet composers of having “antidemocratic tendencies” in their music. Although Khatchaturian was later pardoned, he raised some hackles when he called for greater artistic freedom and when he wrote music about man’s constant struggle for political freedom.

Why is it that authoritarians tend to have a problem with music, even when it is designed to further their aims? Talented writer and acclaimed jazz musician Eric Felten asserts in this WSJ article that it’s all about control. Authoritarianism, by definition, is about controlling people. While music “affects people profoundly,” says Felten, music itself “can’t be controlled.”

After noting how music can be — and is — used manipulatively, Felten exposes why tyrants are uncomfortable with music. Despite all that we know about music, it still has a mystical quality that all of our science has been unable to plumb. It interacts with our emotions and our psyches in ways that are not completely predictable.

Perhaps the most significant feature of music is that it evokes different thoughts and feelings in each listener due to our unique backgrounds. Even in a stadium full of people listening to the same musical performance, each person is experiencing something different than all others present. The same musical recording can even affect a single individual differently at different times. Each musical interaction is in essence a profoundly unique and individual experience.

Individualism, by definition, is at odds with tyranny. Individuals are hard to control. ‘People’ are less of a challenge. As one tyrant is said to have stated, “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.” Authoritarians deal readily with the faceless masses. Any individual is a challenge to their controlling position.

The individualistic nature of music “poses problems for the propagandist,” notes Felten. My Dad grew up hearing and singing the first stanza of the Song of Germany as his nation’s national anthem. The arrogant lines, “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, Über alles in der Welt,” (Germany, Germany above all, Above all in the world) grated on him.

Despite the fact that this offensive stanza was dropped after World War II and only the third stanza focusing on unity and brotherhood is now sung as the German National Anthem, the lovely Haydn tune evoked anger and disgust in my Dad as long as he lived. A tyrant, says Felten, “can't count on his patriotic anthem not to curdle in the ears of abused people trying to divorce themselves from the state.”

It would seem that music is at odds with tyranny. Thus, authoritarians will always have an uncomfortable relationship with music. We should be grateful that music is as omni-available as it is. It may be that every time we sing, play, or listen to music, we are combating tyranny.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Back to Camp Loll

Years ago when I worked on staff at Camp Loll, a Boy Scout camp in the wilderness between Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, we used to sing an alternate version of the Wood Badge song, Back to Gilwell. I’m sure that some dyed-in-the-wool Woodbadgers would object to this. (For the record, I used to be a bobwhite, and a good old bobwhite too....) But I think our use of the song wasn’t too irreverent. We’d sing:
“Back to Camp Loll, happy land. I’m going to work at Camp Loll, if I can.”
I spent this past weekend at Camp Loll, rubbing shoulders with other former staffers and their families at the third annual Camp Loll Alumni Reunion.

The reunion is a relatively simple affair. Attendees show up on the first Saturday in August after the scout troops that have been at camp for the week have departed. They set up camp in the campsites. The current staff graciously provides meals and activities. After enjoying lunch together, the current staff spends the afternoon manning their program areas just like they do for the scouts on most weekday afternoons during the season.

Reunion attendees are free to enjoy the rifle range, climbing rock, archery range, waterfront (provided they bring current BSA medical exams), handicraft, and other program areas. Alumni can recall the days they spent staffing those program areas. Their children can see what their dads used to do back in the day. Part of the whole experience is for staff alumni to see their younger selves reincarnated (and improved) in the current staff.

In the evening after dinner, attendees gather for flag ceremony as the staff sings. They then head off to the campfire bowl to watch the staff perform some of the same songs, skits, run-ons, and cheers that alumni performed when they were on staff. On Saturday evening we were pleased to see a bald eagle fly over us during the campfire. Then it’s back to the lodge to watch ‘movies’ — photos of staff from years past made into DVD movies.

Sunday morning breakfast is serve-yourself cold cereal, just like always. Then we head to the campfire bowl for church. I’m not sure why we don’t use the chapel. You’d have to ask Delose about that. But the view of the Lake of the Woods from the campfire bowl is stunning. The last 15 minutes of the worship service is reserved for staff alumni to make remarks.

Following church yesterday, alumni met in the lodge to discuss service opportunities. Last Labor Day, we went up to camp and replaced the footbridge down the trail from the shower house that spanned the swamp over to the trail by the Blackfoot campsite. This new, much sturdier structure is designed to last for many years, perhaps decades. Delose posted about it (including pics) in this blog post.

This Labor Day weekend we are again going to construct a footbridge across the swamp. This one will span the swamp from the trail by the Crow campsite to the trail by the Piute and Sagwich campsites. Some people will go up as early as Thursday, Sept. 2. Most of the rest of us will get there as early as we can on Friday, Sept. 3. We will work until dark on Friday and will start as early as we can on Saturday. We hope to have the work mostly done by Saturday afternoon. Most will head home then.

We could use all the manual labor we could get on this project. Cordless drills and saws, and good wheelbarrows would be useful too. Although skilled labor is handy, we need mostly general labor — the kind of work staffers do regularly. While the focus has mostly been on former staff, any good help would be accepted. Food will be provided, as long as organizers know how many to plan for. Workers will have to provide their own sleeping bag and pad.

Labor Day weekend is a good time to work at Camp Loll, weather permitting. The biting fly population is significantly decreased by that time of the season. Nights are quite cool (which is not a problem, because we sleep in the lodge). Daytime temperatures are pleasant. Working on a project like this is a great way to “give back more to Scouting than it has given to [you].” Send an email if you’re interested in helping.

I have thought about the years I worked on staff at Camp Loll. Ever since then, it’s as if Camp Loll occupies a permanent spot in my soul. Those summers were a foundational experience that helped determine who I am today. In 2007 when my oldest son spent the summer working on Camp Loll staff, I wrote the following poem that I titled, “‘Round the Lake of the Woods.”

Those glorious days ‘round the Lake of the Woods,
We frolicked, we toiled, and sang.
The woods nearby heard the loon’s cry
And with the echoes of young voices rang.

The clear starry night and the thunderstorm
Are things of beauty that I’ve loved,
With the deer’s casual canter,
The chipmunk’s fierce banter,
And the eagle’s flight above.

Oh, the games that we played,
The songs that we sang,
And the service with steadfast friend
Will glow in my soul as the campfire’s last coal
When we joined hands and sang at the end.

But summer’s now past,
I’m back in the city
And life goes on as it should.
Still, my heart often wanders
To those glorious days
‘Round the Lake of the Woods.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

When the Music Changed

I grew up in an era when The Beatles were very popular. The face of contemporary music was in a state of change. New acts flared up with wild regularity. Many of them fizzled almost as rapidly. Even new subtypes of music came and went.

It was very difficult for me to keep up with all of this. We didn’t have a hi-fi system in our house. My brother and I had an ancient AM band radio that sat atop a bookshelf in our bedroom. The old wooden radio case had been carefully covered with wallpaper to hide blemishes. By the time we got the thing, even the wallpaper was beat up.

The vinyl record album was the medium upon which music was purchased back in those days. We owned a single turntable for vinyl records. That was a cheap model made for kids. We’d frequently put our 45 rpm records on the thing and either play them at 33⅓ or 78 rpm for a laugh. Lacking a ‘sophisticated’ audio system, we simply didn’t buy music albums.

I am often amazed by how familiar my kids are with the music I listened to growing up. Many songs that were popular when I was in junior high and high school are easily recognized and even listened to by today’s kids. Sometimes it blows my mind to discover that some of those artists are still alive. Some are even still performing.

My generation knew very little of our parents’ music. We still don’t. In my head I can still hear a few tunes from the pre-rock era that people of my parents’ generation used to listen to. I can even remember some of the artists. But it is undeniable that the broader rock genre usurped the forms of contemporary music that had been popular prior to rock’s explosion in the 1960s. Artists like the Beatles and Elvis Presley were/are revered because they played a big role in that shift.

As a kid, I always seemed to be out of the loop when it came to popular music personalities. While I knew who the Beatles were, I knew very little about the members of the group. One day when I was still pretty young, my friend from across the street came over and said that his oldest sister was bawling hysterically because Paul McCartney was dead. “Who’s Paul McCartney?” I asked. My friend breathlessly explained what turned out to be the Paul McCartney death hoax. My eyes just about glossed over. When he was done, I responded, “So what?”

Later on when I did start to buy and listen to music (on vinyl, 8-track, and cassette), I fancied certain types of music and certain performers. But I still fell short of turning my music appreciation into cult-like followership of artists, something that seemed fairly common among peers. I found that I could enjoy an artist’s music without appreciating the artist’s lifestyle.

I was just a few years behind the whole Beatles phenomenon. The Beatles were immensely popular to kids a few years older than me. I mostly heard Beatles music when I visited the homes of friends that had older siblings in the right age range. By the time I became interested enough in popular music to care much about it, the Beatles were long done. Besides, to me they had seemed pretty creepy toward the end of their group career. Although a rock group I used to perform with covered a few Beatles songs, I have never personally owned a Beatles recording.

I don’t much care for some of the music my kids listen to. But I also have to admit that I don’t much care for some of the music I used to listen to when I was their age. Some of it was little more than a passing fancy. Assuming that my kids will also mature in their musical tastes, I cut them some slack on their music choices — as long as they don’t make me listen to metalcore too often.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010


My son and I stood in line at the store behind a pretty young mother and her beautiful two-year-old daughter. The mom was dressed casually but not cheaply. Her clothing and grooming reflected significant investments. She was adorned with a number of high quality multi-color tattoos that looked far more stylish that the usual dreck I see glopped on people’s bodies at that establishment. Her high class jewelry and piercings virtually shouted, “I’m worth a lot of money!”

The lady didn’t have many items to purchase. We were, after all, in the express lane. Some of the things looked like common necessities, but others would definitely have been considered discretionary items in my household.

“That’ll be 56.37,” said the clerk. The young mom opened her sleek wallet, extracted a card, slid it through the card reader, and typed in some numbers. “I’m sorry,” said the clerk, “but there isn’t enough on that card to cover the purchase.” The young mom seemed only mildly perturbed as she returned the card to her wallet, pulled out another, and said, “Let’s try this one.”

Once again, the mom swiped the card. The clerk said, “That card has been rejected.” Not to worry. The lady kept her cool and pulled out yet another card. Nope. That one had a zero balance in the debit account. “It looks like I’ll have to run home and get my other card. How long can you keep the groceries here at the check stand?” she asked. “Thirty minutes. You’ve got to be back in thirty minutes, or they put it all away,” came the reply.

By this time, more people had lined up behind us. Some were getting a little anxious about the time being consumed by this one customer in the express lane.

“OK,” said the tattooed lady, “we’ll be back in a few minutes. But I have enough to get this,” she said, as she held up a bag containing a colorful little fish. Her daughter playfully reached for the bag as the mom raised it out of the toddler’s grasp and handed it to the clerk. The bag went across the scanner. The register display showed $15.98 before tax was added. The lady swiped her first card, punched in a code, and was soon walking away with her exotic fish while items that looked to me like essentials remained behind.

Since we had only a few items, we were soon finished with our transaction and on our way out of the door. It turned out that we were only a few yards behind the glamorous gal. It surprised me to see her pile her daughter and fancy fish into a dilapidated old heap that was parked next to our vehicle. The car and driver painted an incongruous picture as the thing sputtered and smoked on its way out of the parking lot.

Inaccuracies are bound to result from judging a person after two minutes of observation. But I couldn’t help wondering what kind of priorities this lady has and how she got to such a state.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Ward Phone List Challenges and Opportunities

It wasn’t that long ago that the quickest way to get a message out to other members of the average LDS ward was to ride a horse or walk to a handful of farms. I’m sure that as telephones gained in popularity, people fretted about the loss of face-to-face contact.

When I was a kid, the only phone in the house was a rotary dial model on the wall of the kitchen. When the phone rang, we had no way of knowing who was calling until we picked up the receiver and talked to the caller. It was a really big deal when Dad installed a second rotary dial phone in the basement during my teen years.

We’ve come a long way since those days. My house has phones all over the place. Most of them are cordless and all of them have pushbutton interfaces. You can buy retro rotary dial phones, but I haven’t seen such a beast in a home for a very long time.

When I built my home, few had ever heard the term “landline.” All phone lines were landlines. It wasn’t terribly many years ago that cellular phones were the exclusive domain of the incredibly rich. Those huge handsets were usually integrated with fancy automobiles. Nowadays, tiny cell phones have become so ubiquitous that many are opting to drop their landline accounts completely. Pay phones are disappearing too.

It used to be that everyone in a neighborhood had the same kind of communication technology, but that’s not the case anymore. As I look around my LDS ward, I find people that still have a single landline phone in their home (with no caller-ID), some families that have a landline and a single cell phone that is used only in exceptional cases, those with cell phones but no texting plan, people with full-fledged smartphones, and every other permutation and combination imaginable. This diversity significantly complicates ward communications.

The one commonality here is that every family in my ward has at least one telephone of some kind. They don’t always answer the things (perhaps due to caller-ID) and they don’t always respond to messages left. So even voice calling is a hit-and-miss prospect.

Texting works for some people, especially among the younger crowd. Trent Toone suggests in this MormonTimes article that it’s good to know a person’s texting policy before sending them a text message. (Some people pay for every text message sent or received while others have unlimited texting.)  I know that people worry about the loss of personal voice-to-voice interaction, but sometimes texting is the best contact method. One text can be sent to many people, but you have to be careful about generating less-than-useful spam.

As Jacob Hancock notes in this MormonTimes article, a big problem for intra-ward communications is that most ward telephone lists reflect only one phone number per family. For those that have dropped their landlines, the number listed most likely belongs to the husband’s cell phone. That isn’t very helpful if you’re trying to reach a different family member.

We can grouse about technological change, or we can just get with the program and deal with it. As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said in April 2007 general conference, nothing “is so bad that whining about it won’t make it worse.”

Hancock says that the church is working on updating its computer systems to handle the evolving communication paradigm. But the church’s IT folks don’t have the solution ready yet. As soon as you add more data fields to a database, you increase the difficulty of keeping the data current. Not only would it be useful to know whether a phone number belongs to a landline or a cell phone, it would also be helpful to know whether it is acceptable to send text messages to the number. Of course, that would mean even more data to gather and maintain.

In my last post, I discussed my database that tracks participation on Sacrament meeting programs. In that database, I have a phone field that is tied to a house’s address. I also have a phone field for each individual, but I don’t have multiple phone fields for each individual.

It would probably be prudent for me to redesign the database to have a separate table for tracking phone numbers. But as soon as I do that, my data maintenance job will become more complicated. My reports will need to be redesigned too, so that they show the various phone numbers at which a person might be reached. As soon as you display more than one number per person, it becomes important to list the type of number it is and the order of contact preference. It would also be nice to note whether it is OK to send a text to the number or not.

As I wrote above, it makes no sense to gripe about the difficulties inherent in tracking communication points. All you can do is roll with the punches.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Our Sacrament Meeting Database

Years ago when I was called to serve as a member of the bishopric (lay clergy leadership) of my local LDS Church congregation (known as a ward), the need for a way to manage Sacrament meeting worship service programs quickly became clear.

In these weekly congregational meetings, the prayers, ordinances, sermons, and musical numbers are performed by lay members. Any member of the congregation may be invited to participate. In LDS terminology, these invitations are “callings” extended by the congregational leaders — usually members of the bishopric.

As a busy bishopric member, how do you go about arranging for members to fill these callings in an efficient manner? How do you spread the opportunities around so that you don’t rely on the same people over and over while constantly ignoring others? Technology provided part of the answer for our bishopric.

The main members of an LDS ward bishopric are the bishop and his two counselors. Other members include an executive secretary, a ward clerk, and assistant ward clerks. In our bishopric, Sacrament meeting arrangements fell to the bishop and the counselors. The other bishopric members had their own duties to attend to.

Within weeks of beginning my bishopric calling, I devised two tools that proved immensely helpful to us, especially as time went on. First, I built a spreadsheet that listed the dates of the next year of upcoming Sacrament meeting worship services. I had columns for date, main topic, possible participants, musical numbers, the bishopric member that would conduct, and the bishopric member in charge of making the arrangements.

Every three months, we would sit down as a bishopric and develop pretty solid plans for the upcoming three months, somewhat firm plans for the following quarter, and loose plans for the quarter after that. So our spreadsheet consistently covered nine months. While meeting conducting duties shifted among us from month to month, each of us would take a three-month stint to arrange meetings. This three-month window allowed for flexibility to shift program arrangements around to different weeks, as needed.

This worked well for us. Once we had our plans written down, the arrangements weren’t too difficult to make. Occasionally we’d have to revisit the plan when something didn’t work out as originally charted, but it was rarely a big deal. Each of us would take care of extending meeting participation callings for three months. This was followed by a half a year reprieve from that duty.

My ward’s current bishopric manages this on a month-by-month basis. Each bishopric member arranges and conducts all of the meetings for a given month, and then they’ve got two months off from those duties.

The second tool I developed was a MS Access database that tracks who does what in Sacrament meeting. I populated the people table with pertinent data about each ward member. An association table hooks individuals together in families and provides address and contact info. The Sacrament program table lets me plug in the program date, each participant, and the type of service rendered (i.e. prayer, speech, musical number).

I developed a number of database reports that were useful to the bishopric. The main report lists details about prayers, youth talks, adult talks, and musical numbers. Each of these categories lists participants for the past five years ordered both by least recent date and alphabetically. Each list shows how many times each individual has participated in that activity during the past five years. In addition, the prayer and speech categories list available members that have not participated in that activity for the past five years. (I didn’t do that for musical numbers, because only some are capable of public musical performances.)

After wrapping up my stint in the bishopric, I continued to provide monthly printouts to subsequent bishoprics. This has been considered to be very useful. Some that have found out about my database have expressed concern that bishoprics might rely too heavily on the data instead of inspiration in making assignments. While there is some possibility that this could happen, I have not observed such. Access to historical information tends to augment inspiration rather than replace it.

Of course, all databases are only as useful as the data they contain. Like all other databases, this one needs to be updated continually. That task falls to me as a volunteer effort. I enter Sacrament program data weekly. I keep track of move-ins and move-outs, births, deaths, etc. Managing phone numbers is a big enough issue that I will treat the matter in a separate post.

While this kind of database upkeep is relatively easy for me, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. A few years ago, the current bishopric decided to call a guy to take over this duty, since I have other callings that require my time. He was an intelligent man that was devoted to the church.

I developed training materials and loaded the application on this man’s computer. I trained him at his house and over the phone. But after several months, it became clear that this wasn’t a happening thing for him. So I continued doing the job. I think I’d have to develop an entirely new user interface to really make the application work for a non-techie. So far, I haven’t been willing to put that kind of work into it.

My database has evolved over the years to include a variety of information designed to assist the bishopric in developing the quarterly and annual historical reports. But the core remains essentially as I originally designed it.

This Sacrament meeting database has been a boon to my ward’s leaders for a number of years. While I know that the LDS Church is continually updating its computer offerings for local leadership, I haven’t heard about anything on the horizon that would replace my database. So I suspect my application will continue to be used by my ward’s leaders for years to come.

UPDATE 1/14/2017
I have just finished revising the database to be much more streamlined. Since I had become the ward's unofficial historian for many years, I had added some features to the database to assist with ward history. That actually made it pretty messy. It also became clear over time that some database relationships were overly complex.

This new version is much cleaner and simpler. It focuses chiefly on two things: track sacrament meeting program participation and produce useful reports to help ward leaders make decisions about calling people to participate in sacrament meeting programs. I kept a couple of things in the database that aren't essential to this vision. But they are optional and don't have to be used.

Since I haven't upgraded my MS Office subscription, the database was built using MS Access 2010. It should work with any version of MS Access from 2007 onward. It won't work with older MS Access versions without special tools.

Despite simplification, you still need a good working understanding of MS Access to use the database. People with little database savvy will likely find themselves lost. It would be sweet to make the database more user friendly. But I'm just not willing to put that kind of time into it at present.

My current bishopric has me generate the five-year rolling report monthly. I save it as PDF and provide it electronically to each bishopric member. One member of the bishopric asked me about the possibility of making it available as a web page. That would make it much more useful. But I'm simply not willing to deal with the security and confidentiality implications. I don't want to do the work to build a system that would meet Church handbook requirements.

Many have used my database in the past. Some have improved on it. Others have ended up using it as an idea for something that works better for them. I think something along these lines could be helpful to any bishopric that is willing to use it to augment guidance from the Spirit rather than as a way to replace the Spirit.