Monday, November 22, 2010

Sleeping In on Black Friday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Years of Family Video

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 12, 2010

Enjoy Christmas — Just Not Yet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 08, 2010

Fast and Testimony Meeting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 01, 2010

The Simple Solution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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