Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Halloween and Trick-or-Treating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 18, 2010

Online Voting is Still Insecure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Boy, the Bike, and the Dad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 11, 2010

How Some Friends Helped Bring Financial Stability to Our Family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I could sum up the rules this way:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 08, 2010

The Fat Police are Coming!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 04, 2010

Life's Greatest Teachers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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