Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A District Junior High Choir Concert

Last night my wife and I attended a junior high school choir concert. I know that sounds painful to some music lovers. But this event was actually quite enjoyable.

Junior highs from the local school district sent choir members to a daylong symposium at a nearby university. Each choir had prepared two numbers for the event. Each choir learned an additional three numbers to be performed as a combined group. A talented guest conductor led students through various exercises and learning experiences throughout the day.

In the evening students returned with their family members for the performance, which was held in the university's largest theater. By the time the event started there were few empty seats left. Choirs had practiced getting on and off stage quickly to minimize the time between choirs.

Most schools brought only a select set of choir members. A couple of schools brought all members of all of their choirs. That was the case with the first school to perform. The two numbers performed by this choir were impressive. They were powerful and well executed. Each student paid close attention to the director. He obviously expected much from his students and they obviously delivered. It was difficult to believe that these were mere junior high students.

The second choir to perform was also comprised of a relatively large group. As with the first choir, the director obviously demanded much of her students, but they seemed to like it. There is a certain reward in rising to a challenge, especially as a group. Many students prefer this to having an "easy" choir director.

Most of the subsequent choirs were more along the lines of what you'd expect from a junior high choir. None were bad. But none performed at the same level as the first two choirs.

The smallest choir, however, put in a very good performance. The stage had been arranged with a full Steinway grand piano in front of the risers on which the choir members stood. Unfortunately, the piano accompaniment sometimes drowned out the smaller choirs.

The smallest choir, however, performed both of their numbers acapella, so there was no accompaniment to drown them out. Moreover, the director arranged the small group in a way that maximized their vocal power as a group. The members of this choir had all been selected by audition, so they were all talented vocalists. So the numbers were very well done despite their small number.

Finally, all of the choirs came on stage together and the guest conductor came out. When the first chord of the first number was sung it was so powerful that I (probably along with most audience members) was stunned by the dynamic power of the group. They sang well and with tremendous power. All three numbers were a joy to hear.

I wasn't sure what to expect when we walked into the theater at the university. So I had few expectations. I walked out of the theater quite pleased with the event and grateful that my child was able to take part.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Teaching Christoper

As I read this Ensign Magazine article about serving children with cognitive disabilities, I thought of the experience my wife and I had with Christoper. He was a little boy with thick, dark, straight hair and shiny dark eyes that often conveyed how he felt.

Despite being born with severe physical and cognitive disabilities, Christoper was adopted as an infant by a family in our ward (congregation). This family loved Christoper deeply and did everything they could to address his needs. This was helped by the fact that Christoper's adoptive mother was a registered nurse.

Christopher was usually seen in public in his specially built wheel chair that was decorated in the colors of his favorite basketball team. He had little control of his small arms and legs. He was unable to speak. But he was able to show how he felt. This was never more apparent than when he would smile at someone with a look of unbridled gratitude.

At some point, Christoper's parents and the leaders of the ward Primary (children's auxiliary) organization decided that Christopher should attend Primary classes and events along with the other children. He did not advance each year as did other children. He moved from level to level as his parents and leaders felt the time was right.

Christopher was far smaller but also far older than the other children when he joined the class of 11-year-olds that my wife and I taught. We received some basic training in dealing with Christopher's needs and then we forged ahead.

Frankly, it was pretty uncomfortable at the outset. But the children in the class were mostly great with Christopher. Many of them had spent time around him for years. They were familiar with his needs and knew how to interact with him. We learned a lot from these children.

Christoper didn't attend class every week, as his health was rather fragile. He was once absent for a month, having nearly been taken down by a simple cold. Some Sundays Christopher could only spend part of the Primary time with us. Sometimes I couldn't tell whether Christoper was much aware of what was being taught. Other times it was obvious that he was engaged in the lesson. Although he couldn't sing, Christopher usually seemed to quite enjoy hearing the other children sing.

When the year drew to a close, we bid goodbye to all but one of our class members. Christopher remained as we welcomed a new batch of children. Before long, my wife and I were called to different callings. Others took over our group of 11-year-olds and Christopher.

Looking back, I realize that, while I became more comfortable over time dealing with Christopher, I always felt a bit awkward having him in my care. I was constantly afraid that I might make some kind of mistake.

I once allowed Christopher to have a lollipop (which I understood was OK for him). But when he clamped down on it and started to breathe in an agitated manner, I became concerned that he might choke on it. When he wouldn't release the candy, I ended up prying it from his mouth. He calmed down, but I was left feeling unsettled.

Having Christopher in our class was sometimes distracting to the other children. This raised class management and teaching challenges. But we were always able to work through them. I tried to remember the Savior's admonition regarding little children being the epitome of the kingdom of heaven (Matt 19:14).

We continued to see Christopher at church after our release from teaching 11-year-olds. Then one day we received word that Christopher had unexpectedly passed away. His mother related how he had seemed fine when the family put him to bed as usual. A family member checked on him a few hours later and all seemed well. Then a few hours later, a family member discovered him still and lifeless.

After nearly two decades of lovingly caring for Christopher, each family member felt bereft of his presence. The whole ward mourned. Despite having been Christopher's Primary teacher for a while, there was no way for me to fully comprehend what the family was experiencing, but I ached for them.

I'm not sure how my months of contact with Christopher impacted him. But it left a lasting impact on me. Sometimes we are called to serve in uncomfortable situations. We are always blessed when we serve valiantly. And at least some of those blessings are enduring.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Philosopher Promotes Secular Religion

Modern day philosopher Alain de Botton praises religion in this Wall Street Journal article, while attempting to promote a secular alternative. deBotton writes:

"Religion serves two central needs that secular society has not been able to meet with any particular skill: first, the need to live together in harmonious communities, despite our deeply-rooted selfish and violent impulses; second, the need to cope with the pain that arises from professional failure, troubled relationships, the death of loved ones and our own decay and demise.

"Religions are a repository of occasionally ingenious concepts for trying to assuage some of the most persistent and unattended ills of secular life. They merit our attention for their sheer conceptual ambition and for changing the world in a way that few secular institutions ever have. They have managed to combine theories about ethics and metaphysics with practical involvement in education, fashion, politics, travel, hostelry, initiation ceremonies, publishing, art and architecture—a range of interests whose scope puts to shame the achievements of even the greatest secular movements and innovators."
Describing our current culture, de Botton decries the loss of religious worship in favor of the modern "worship of professional success." This, he says, has robbed us of a sense of community, leaving us strangers even in common settings such as restaurants.

de Botton writes glowingly of the importance of religious ritual in building a sense of community and putting us in touch with the core essence of ourselves and each other. But de Botton imagines that the individual and communal benefits inherent in religious observance may be had absent religious beliefs "about the afterlife or the supernatural origins of [religious] doctrines."

How is this to be achieved? By mimicking religious gatherings and rituals in a setting where "Everyone would be safe to approach and address, without fear of rebuff or reproach." de Botton imagines communal meals where people of every economic strata and subculture would gather to engage in set ritualistic patterns, even reading from texts developed for this purpose.

Color me skeptical. I'm not saying that secular gatherings of the type described by de Botton wouldn't be beneficial. I'm just not sure that they could be worship free gatherings and still attract adherents. It seems to me that the secular ritual de Botton imagines would necessarily evolve into a religion, even if its founders never meant for such to happen.

Philosophers (especially secular ones) have puzzled for ages as to why humans worship. Some have concluded that the human brain is simply wired to do so. Everyone worships something, even if they claim to have no connection to organized religion, and even if they deny that they worship.

Humans almost universally  give reverence to and seek communion with something greater or higher than themselves, whether that is an omnipotent creator, the combined wisdom of the masses, knowledge, a cause, career, the political state, athletics, etc. The list of possibilities is endless.

And that is one of the problems with de Botton's non-religious ceremonies. Even he admits that worship has become more fragmented and more individualized over time. As famously documented by Robert Putnam, the trend is toward greater fragmentation; not less. Culture continues to evolve into specialization that grants individuals increasingly nuanced ways to spend their time, to interact (or not interact) with others, and even to worship.

While some atheistic houses of worship could be established, the trend toward increased specialization means that they would likely attract too few adherents to provide a sense of community except in a few scattered enclaves. While the increasing trend to socialize at a distance diminishes vital relationship factors that are found only in close physical proximity, it is difficult to imagine a backlash strong enough to bring people together in the way de Botton imagines unless forced by external (perhaps cataclysmic) factors.

I perceive yet another problem with non-religious worship—a problem that I readily admit is greatly colored by my own religiosity. It is difficult for me to believe that completely secular ritual could bring the kind of fulfillment that comes from actual religious worship that is based on one's eternal relationship with deity and one's ultimate eternal disposition.

People have tried to explain to me how this works for secularists, but it has never been explained to my satisfaction (perhaps due to my mental thickness). But it is hard for me to imagine that atheists going to a secular church, as it were, could satisfactorily find the sense of community de Botton finds lacking in modern life. If that were the case, wouldn't such venues already exist? Perhaps they already do in parts of our modern higher education system that seem more like secular cloisters than bastions of free thought.

I wish de Botton and his fellow secularists success in finding their missing sense of community; a void that causes many to long for a bygone era of tribal life, blind to the incredible brutality of that age. But I honestly doubt that they will fill the emptiness they feel without religion and some of the attendant supernatural elements that they presently find so repugnant.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Downtown Salt Lake City on a Friday Night

My wife and I drove to Salt Lake City last night on a multi-tasking trip. We combined a date with picking up our son and a couple of friends from the university. But before bringing them home, we took them to a concert for which they had tickets that was at a venue near The Gateway.

We would have left the crew to get to the concert on their own, and then we would later have picked them up. But they needed to bring gear with them for the weekend and we didn't want to make a run from 5th West back up to the university, which would have added nearly an hour to our trip, getting us home even later.

Besides, we figured that we'd do something in town while the college kids were attending the concert. Our big mistake here was failing to plan in advance. We assumed that there were so many things to do in downtown Salt Lake City on a Friday night that we'd have no trouble finding something.

But the downtown area has changed a lot in recent years. With projects like City Creek Center, the downtown area has been a perpetual construction zone for several years running. So much has changed that many of the venues with which I was once familiar have moved or no longer exist. We didn't know what to expect, but we were sure to be able to find something to do.

Unfortunately, given the fact that I do not follow sports at all, we were unaware that there was a basketball game going on at the Energy Solutions Arena. All of the downtown parking spots were crammed. Traffic was terrible. After dropping the concertgoers, we drove east for a number of blocks before seeing someplace we could park.

We pulled into the City Creek Center underground parking. It is very clean and nice. But it is also unfinished. There are lots of escalators and elevators designed to take people to the surface, but zero of them were functional. We wandered around the very well-lit parking terrace until we saw people coming from the north. We backtracked the way they had come and discovered a 'temporary pedestrian path.' We followed this path as it went on and on and on until we found ourselves in the lower level of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building.

It was after 8 pm by this time. We knew that we could dine at The Garden or The Roof, which are in the building. Both are open until 10 pm on Fridays. But I'm not particularly fond of the fare at The Garden, and while The Roof is grand, so are its prices. It's someplace to go for a very special occasion. Maybe some other time. The Nauvoo Cafe and the Lion House Pantry are OK, but they both close at 8 pm.

We thought that, given how well lit City Creek Center was across the street from the JSMB, there certainly must be someplace to eat over there. We headed across the street, only to find the place largely deserted. You'd think that a venue like City Creek Center would post directories like they do at other similar developments. Maybe that kind of thing will come in the future. At least, we couldn't find anything like a directory last night.

We ducked into Deseret Book to get out of the cold. I checked the City Creek Center website on my smartphone. I was impressed with how well the mobile site was designed as well as its snappy response. But the only restaurant that was in operation at all was the Blue Lemon. We checked it out, but frankly, it didn't look like it was ready for prime time to us.

By this time it was a little before 9 pm and the entire district seemed like a ghost town. We decided to head back to our car. Although the parking terrace was just below our feet, we couldn't figure out how to access it directly during this construction phase. So we retraced our steps through the JSMB and made the long trek back to our car.

It was late and I was hungry. We were running out of time, because the college kids would need to be picked up before long. So we headed to the closest fast food establishment we could think of, ate in a hurry, and then went to pick up the concertgoers.

Although we had only a few blocks to drive, the basketball game had recently ended, so the traffic was appalling. Somehow we eventually arrived at the concert venue. As we waited for the crew to come, we saw people dropping off their young teens to attend a rave at the place. Many of the young girls we saw were wearing extremely brief and tight—uh, I'm not sure what to call them. I'd say pants, but they barely managed to cover the crotch. I suppose the parents of these kids were then freed up to go home and get high without the kids around.

Getting out of the downtown area was a bit of a chore as well. We ended up in a slow moving line of vehicles that were waiting to get onto the freeway. It stretched for blocks. I figured that we didn't need to play that game, so I split off and took an alternate route that sported surprisingly little traffic. I guess the standard sheep tendency common in crowds prevailed among the basketball revelers.

We finally arrived home a little before 11 pm, which was earlier than I had expected. In the future when venturing into downtown Salt Lake City, I will make sure to check to see what else is happening in the area so that I can be better prepared. I will also make more definite plans as to where to go and what to do rather than just leaving those questions open. And I plan on avoiding City Creek Center at least until after its grand opening on March 22.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Our First Home

After my wife and I became engaged, it took us about a week to settle on a wedding date. Once that was settled, we had about four months to figure out where we were going to live.

Despite being employed in a career position and being in my mid-20s, I was still living at my parents' home. My wife-to-be was in her final year of college and was living with her grandmother. Since neither of us was living on our own, neither of us could just move in with the other.

We began by shopping for apartments. But one day we happened to look at a booklet full of real estate listings. We did some calculations and realized that the monthly payment for some of the entry level homes on the market wouldn't be much different than a monthly rental payment for an apartment that wouldn't be anywhere near as spacious as even a small home.

Of course, being somewhat naive, we failed to calculate things like utility costs, property taxes, and homeowner insurance. But in the end run, it all worked out.

We began by looking at condominiums. We nearly settled on one, but we had some questions and the seller simply didn't respond. So we returned to the real estate listings and found several small homes in the area where we wanted to live that cost only a bit more than the condos at which we had been looking.

The first few of these homes didn't seem right for us. I recall walking through one that was in good shape that was marketed as a "story book" style. It was narrow and tall. While it had many beautiful features, the lengthy staircases were so steep as to make it undesirable.

Finally we looked at a home that was only a block away from where some good friends lived. When we arrived we discovered that the real estate magazine showed the wrong picture for the home. That was actually good, because I didn't much like what I saw in the picture.

The home was only three years old. It was small. It had two bedrooms and one bathroom. Finished space amounted to about 900 square feet. The 400-sq-ft basement could include a family room, bedroom, bathroom, and laundry/utility room. The lot was tiny. The carport shared a wall with the neighbor's home, which was a precise copy of this home, except that the floor plan was flipped.

The price was right because it was a distressed sale. A couple with two young children were divorcing. The husband had already moved out of state. They were way behind on their mortgage payments. They had been trying to sell the home for several months with no success. So they ultimately decided to throw in their appliances. Since we owned no appliances and the price was right, this seemed like the best deal for us.

We soon made an offer on the home and began to learn the ropes of home mortgage financing. I put down some money I had in savings along with money given by my parents as a down payment. And about six weeks later I moved into the home with a month to spare before our wedding. My wife moved in after our honeymoon.

It soon became clear as to why the previous owners had had difficulty selling the home. The home didn't have a problem. The neighborhood did. The neighborhood was pretty much all starter homes of several (small) sizes. There were several basic floor plans. The whole subdivision had been built over a fairly short period during a time of skyrocketing interest rates.

Smaller homes allowed families to afford their first home. But the high interest rates presented difficulties. The only way many families could afford mortgage payments was to accept mortgages that had low interest rates in the first couple of years, with these reduced rates being subsidized by higher rates in later years.

Marketers pushed these loans by suggesting that the families would naturally increase their income over time so as to be able to afford the higher mortgage payments that would necessarily come. If rates fell, they said, the families would be able to refinance to the lower rate. It did work out that way for some families, but not for others.

Many families did not see their income increase. By the time lower rates came along, these people were behind on their continually increasing payments, so they could not qualify to refinance. As my wife and I took walks around the neighborhood we saw home after home vacant and in foreclosure.

This had an impact on the culture in the neighborhood. There were many great people in the area. But the atmosphere of the neighborhood seemed oppressive. It was like a gray pall hanging over the place.

Moreover, we became acquainted with several families that had the same home model as us, but that were crammed too tightly in the place after adding several children. We could see ourselves stuck in a similar condition.

During the time we lived in the neighborhood, our careers were taking off and we were seeing pay increases. So we eventually decided to sell our home and build a new home in another part of the county. We put an ad for our home in the newspaper and were surprised to sell it within a couple of weeks.

The buyers were happy to buy our home and we were happy to sell it. We left the neighborhood and embarked on the adventure of building a new home. We missed some of the friends we had made. But we didn't miss the neighborhood.

I'm glad we started out with a home rather than an apartment. I'm glad that a home became available that suited our needs when we first got married. But I am also glad that we moved from that home before having children.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Fulfilling Our Assignment

At the Saturday evening session of our stake conference last November, our stake president asked who of those present would commit to personally identifying a deceased relative and then clearing that person for Temple ordinances. This was to be no idle promise. Each person making the commitment was asked to raise his/her hand. The name of each person was recorded.

The stake president admonished us not to jump in and do the Temple work right away for these people. Rather, we were to sit tight and await further instructions that would revolve around our upcoming ward conferences.

We have done much family history work over the years, following in the steps of other faithful relatives. Although we have many holes in our respective lines, all of the easy stuff is gone. Gone are the days when we gathered a number of relatives to take care of 150 baptisms in a single day. We now have to work hard for every single name.

But we sustained our stake president and we went to work completing the task we had promised to do. With guidance from the Spirit and the use of New Family Search, the members of our family that were under covenant were each soon able to clear at least one name for ordinance work.

And then we waited.

As our ward conference approached, we wondered what we were supposed to do with the names we had cleared. Then one Sunday a member of the bishopric asked that we supply these names for our ward conference Temple endowment session, having completed the other needed ordinances. It might have been nice if this had been mentioned earlier so that we could have more time to prepare.

This put us in a difficult spot. If we were going to do baptisms for the dead, we wanted our children that were of appropriate age to act as proxies for our deceased relatives. But finding a time to do that in the few remaining days presented a serious scheduling challenge.

Finally we determined that the only time that could work would be yesterday evening. We made arrangements for one of the grandmas to pick up our two younger kids from school, along with the class pet bird that we had agreed to watch for the weekend. As soon as child #1 and #3 were home from school, we dressed properly and embarked on a 65-minute drive to fetch child #2 from the university.

Since the Salt Lake Temple was closed for its annual two-week winter maintenance, we drove 35 minutes to the Bountiful Temple. Friday evenings are among the busiest times at LDS Temples along the Wasatch Front. So it still took quite a while to accomplish the small handful of ordinances we had cleared.

By the time we finished, everyone was hungry, so we stopped at a local fast food establishment. We were hurrying because child #2 had another commitment at the university. After ordering, we were reminded that the establishment took only cash or check.

With steadily fewer businesses taking checks, we rarely have our checkbook with us. I rarely carry much cash. My wife checked her purse and found a few dollars. The children checked their wallets and we pooled our cash, only to come up 40 cents short. The cashier told us that we were fine. But it was embarrassing.

Still, we had our meal, and then made the drive back to the university to drop off child #2 on time. Then we drove an hour to get home, so that our total trip took just under six hours. Thankfully the roads were in excellent condition and we weren't fighting weather.

I explained to the children that this expenditure of time and other resources to do Temple ordinances for a few people might seem somewhat extreme. But I wanted them to know that we felt deeply that it was very worthwhile. After all, I am certain that God cares for these individuals more than we can possibly comprehend at present. And I felt it was important to follow the counsel of our church leaders in this matter.

I am grateful for the experience we had in the Bountiful Temple last night with most of our nuclear family members. I am grateful for an opportunity to serve. I am grateful for inspired church leaders.

I'm not sure why our stake and ward leaders didn't make it clear from the outset of this assignment that the preparatory ordinances needed to be finished by a certain date. But once this was made clear, having the deadline provided a framework for yesterday's experience. So while I would have preferred better communication, I am not sorry for the outcome.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Groundhog Day

My earliest memories of Groundhog Day are from second grade. I'm sure it was mentioned before that, but it never made an impression on me until then. It seems like a simple concept, but I had difficulty understanding it.

Throughout my elementary years I was confused as to which condition was supposed to yield two or six additional weeks of winter. The whole connection between whether some critter sees its shadow on a given day and future climactic conditions never made much sense to me as a child.

As an adult, I now realize why Groundhog Day made little sense to me as a child. Despite what various Internet sources suggest might be the impetus for this eccentric commemoration, I am convinced that the folklore behind the tradition was developed by people that were very drunk.

I guffawed when I saw a link to an ABC News story that carried the headline, "Punxutawney Phil Isn't Always Right." Gee, ya think? A bunch of guys in Victorian era formal wear yanking a critter out of its den in some remote outpost in Pennsylvania and pronouncing whether the animal has seen its shadow or not is hardly a rational basis for extended weather forecasting. (I guess, kind of the same way that "Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.")

It is unlikely that many actually believe that some groundhog's view of its own phantasm accurately predicts weather patterns. It is far more likely that people take an interest in the matter simply for its whimsical value. It's a non-serious departure from the many serious matters with which we are constantly bombarded.

As for this Groundhog Day, I was blessed to take a day off work to accompany my son's class on a ski trip to Snowbasin. The day turned off quite grand. It was mostly sunny and relatively warm. Traffic at the resort was quite light.

For the first couple of hours, the students were all taking part in group ski lessons. So I was free to roam the mountain. It has been a long time since I skied at Snowbasin. Since it became a venue for the 2002 Winter Olympics, the cost of skiing at the resort has become cost prohibitive. But the group rate allowed me to ski today.

I was able to carve down hills that I haven't skied since I was a teenager. I skied terrain that I had never previously traversed. Despite the low amount of snowfall this winter, the snow base with the addition of manufactured snow provided a very nice surface for skiing. I went down a number of black diamond runs (although, with less aggressiveness than in my earlier days). My quadriceps are already complaining with soreness.

But I had a great day. For much of the day I had a smile on my face that wouldn't go away. As I glided down the sparsely populated slopes in the sunshine, I thought about Groundhog Day. I'm not sure whether there are any animals similar to groundhogs at Snowbasin. And frankly I don't care. But I'm sure that such an animal would necessarily have seen its shadow up there.

So what? It makes no difference whatsoever. All I know is that I had a very enjoyable day skiing.