Monday, April 30, 2012

Why Graduation Speeches are So Vapid

Every year as we enter school graduation season the media starts throwing around op-ed pieces postulating things that graduating seniors 'should' hear instead of the drivel they will hear at commencement exercises. People start sending around emails of edgy commencement speeches from the past. Many of these do not check out, although; a few do.

I saw another of these predictable articles today and thought that it, like most commencement speeches I have heard, was utterly forgettable. I mean, who really remembers any commencement address they have heard?

A few details from some graduation speeches stick in my head. Such as when my son's scholarly friend that grows prolific and unruly red hair on his scalp and face made a remark at graduation about graduates learning to control their futures better than he can control his hair. I recall an elderly retired math professor speaking at my wife's university graduation about how a bushel of tomatoes settles on its way to market as each tomato goes from connecting on six points to connecting on eight points.

But honestly, who remembers much more than sparse details like this? I was the student speaker when I graduated with my masters degree. I worked that talk over and over. I practiced it again and again until I could deliver it reliably in nine minutes flat with just the right inflection. I felt like I did great delivering the speech. Yet I can only remember a little of what I said.

Paul Graham opines in this essay that public speaking is mostly about entertaining rather than informing. In fact, he suggests that most public speaking actually makes the audience dumber rather than smarter. He admits that it does, however, offer an opportunity to get to know the speaker better.

If commencement speeches are on the fast road to oblivion for most audience members (as well as most speakers), why do schools continue this exercise year after year?

The whole purpose of the graduation ceremony is to help students feel like they have accomplished some great feat and to provide a dividing line between learning and doing. These observances demark movement into the next phase of life. We fill them with serious sounding speech making to lend an air of dignity and authority to the occasion. (Although it seems like commencement exercises are becoming decreasingly dignified.)

In other words, commencement speeches are mostly for effect. They are not platforms for conveying actual wisdom. These addresses are filled with varieties of platitudes because that is part of the formula for achieving the desired effect. The way the speech is delivered is more important than its content.

I expect to attend many more graduation ceremonies during my lifetime. As I do, I will be watching to see how well the speakers match the occasion's desired ambiance. I won't be judging these speeches by the wisdom conveyed because I do not expect to be subjected to such sagacity at these celebratory events.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

What Is the Purpose of Politics?

Politics: what does it mean and why does it exist? (The word politics is singular.) Most of the definitions I found list politics as the art of governance, particularly of a state. While the word is certainly used this way, this seems to describe what politics does rather than what it is.

Finally I happened upon the Oxford Dictionaries #2 interpretation of the word, which reads, "activities aimed at improving someone’s status or increasing power within an organization." This game of power takes place in all organizations, both governmental and private, both formal and informal. Particularly when it relates to government, politics aims to improve status by gaining and trading power over the lives of other people.

As for why we have politics in the first place, it is the natural way people act in organizations, from the smallest partnership to the largest government. Each of us belongs to and interacts with many organizations. Each individual in every organization works to leverage the organization's resources and activities to what he perceives to be his individual advantage at a given time.

This propensity to seek personal benefit applies to everyone, including those in leadership positions. This is true even if the individual is unaware of his self focus or claims to be altruistically sacrificing himself on behalf of others. Incidents of politicians gaining personal benefit while claiming to act on behalf of the people (or the children, or the environment, or whatever) are so common as to nearly define the word politician.

More dangerous than the disingenuous and manipulative is the politician that truly believes himself to be a great savior of some cause. This breed seems to naturally seek to coerce others to do 'right.' The worst devils are those that would force others to be angels.

Since politics is a natural human condition, calls for organizations to operate sans politics are superfluous—and often feigned. It is akin to demanding that humans live without breathing air. Politics will remain a constant as long as we live in this world.

This need not be all bad. Note that I previously asserted that each seeks his own advantage. Advantage is so individualized to personality, opportunity, time, and a host of other factors as to offer a certain level of uniqueness. This uniqueness allows organizations to frequently offer win-win situations to multiple individuals. It is not always necessary for someone to lose for someone else to gain.

We engage in many mutually beneficial activities daily. You exchange some of your money to purchase a product at a store. Both you and the retailer feel better off for having made the trade. I spend time teaching a merit badge to local scouts. They gain advantage by learning and achieving. I gain advantage through personal fulfillment and by making my neighborhood a nicer place.

Often the word politics, however, refers to those situations where someone must lose for someone else to win. We chafe at the resulting friction and discord. (This domain, incidentally, is where the media earns its wages. This understanding ought to inform our view of media activities and reporting.)

While advantage is fairly unique, it can often be similar enough for individuals to band together in hopes of gaining greater benefits as a group. One of the most obvious examples of this is the political party. Other examples include buyers' clubs, civic organizations, activist groups, student clubs, corporations, religious organizations, etc.

But not all of these things are equal. In general, the politicking in and among private organizations is limited by market forces, due to competition. We can and often do take our business elsewhere. With government being a monopoly, politics in the government realm has no similar force to tame it. This means that governmental politics requires special handling.

To explore this topic, it may be beneficial to ask why we frequently return the same politicians to governmental positions when they have so clearly acted the part of the politician? The answer is that the constituents perceive that they gain some advantage, or at least lose less advantage if they return the cunning pol to office than if they don't.

When it comes to selecting governmental political officers, we often despair at the poor selection available. In truth, political races rarely offer a white hat vs. black hat scenario. (Those that think otherwise are deluded—perhaps willingly so.) We are usually offered only choices that vary by a few degrees, much like the selection of soap at the store. The choice more often comes down to taste than to substance.

The fact is that our politicians will continue to act in their personal interest, regardless of what drivel they spew to make us think otherwise. Happy are we when what a politician does happens to work to our advantage. Teeth gnashing ensues when it goes the other way.

What really matters are the incentives in the system in which our politicians operate, as politicians will always respond to those incentives. The design of the system is far more important than the party or the identity of a given politician.

I have voted regularly since age 18. But if I objectively review my voting record, I can honestly say that there is no chance that my failure to vote would have altered the outcome of any but two of the many elections in which I have voted. The exceptions involve local municipal seats that were won by fewer than 100 votes. And even in those cases, it is likely that actual outcomes (i.e. how government behaved) would have been little different had the other candidate won.

It is possible for a rational person to conclude from this that voting is an irrational pursuit. However, most people rarely have an opportunity to make a major difference except on the most local scale: in his family and among those with whom he personally interfaces.

Likewise, politicians can usually only marginally affect the design of the political system. But marginal change, over time, amounts to significant change. So it is still important to promote and select candidates that are likely to marginally improve the system (according to our viewpoint). We should seek to remove those that have a track record of marginally damaging the system from office.

Our nation's Founders understood that politics could be a nasty force. But they also understood that it was unavoidable. So they tried to design a system that pitted ambition against ambition to limit the worst aspects of politics. Governmental politics is a powerful force. So powerful, in fact, that it must be restrained with the strongest chains to prevent it from devouring the liberty it is supposed to protect.

Over the past century and a half we have systematically removed many of the checks on government that our Founders designed; thereby, allowing the ambition of governmental politicians to increasingly influence our personal lives. The fetters are increasingly transferred from the politicians to the citizens. This is always done with many virtuous sounding words and arguments.

Citizens become so comfortable with the fodder offered by their prison guards that they tolerate the chains and even argue against their removal. Politicians are extremely adept at appealing to this type of dependency, which is perhaps the most addictive force on the face of the earth; maybe even more addictive than power.

Politicians will never vote to restrain themselves. Not really. Sometimes they undertake Potemkin votes that are "hollow facades" of self-restraint. Proper restraint of government comes only from the united will of the governed. Our legal documents, however well written and regarded, and our judiciary, however wise, will never protect us from our own weak will.

In other words, liberty can only be maintained through individual virtue—a love of liberty that is so strong as to engender abhorrence for dependence—that is so widespread as to become a cultural feature. Are there enough of the willingly virtuous among us to sustain a culture of liberty? If not, how long can liberty possibly last?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Mom's Cooking Lessons

I learned to bake cookies on a Sunday afternoon when I was about 10 years old. I loved homemade cookies and I had a hankering for some that day. I had often watched Mom bake cookies and I got the idea in my head that I could do it too.

Mom had already had a full day. She had prepared our weekly Sunday noon meal (which was always a very nice meal), gotten four kids ready for church, and attended morning church meetings with the family, before coming home to serve and clean up Sunday dinner. The last thing she wanted to do was to mess up the kitchen and bake cookies.

Mom had no daughters, so she usually jumped at the chance to teach her sons basic cooking skills whenever any of us showed the slightest interest. But Mom was too tired this time. Besides, it was the Sabbath and she wanted to rest. Heaven knows that she deserved it.

At my great insistence, Mom helped me find a cookie recipe and helped me get out some of the ingredients that were hard for me to find or reach. She then left me to my own devices. Or so I thought. She was actually trying to help me develop some independence by letting me think I was handling the chore on my own.

Mom checked in on me from time to time and gave me hints that a baking novice like me couldn't have known, like explaining that the mixture would work better if the butter and eggs were closer to room temperature.  During one of Mom's interventions she taught me how to read the recipe and to understand measurements. She later showed me how to measure ingredients.

Baking cookies turned out to be a pretty laborious task for me at that age. I was learning first hand as I went along. Mom allowed me to make some mistakes. But it seemed like she would magically appear just at the right moment to help me remedy each error before it became critical enough to ruin the cookies or to cause injury.

After more than 2½ hours, I finally pulled a pan of freshly baked cookies from the oven. I felt pretty satisfied until Mom directed my attention to the mess I had made. I had dirtied far more pans and utensils than necessary, failing at my young age to understand principles of efficiency and reuse.

Mom helped me clean up the counter, the pans, the bowls, the equipment, and the utensils. Actually, Mom did the vast majority of the cleaning. But I was sufficiently worn out by the time we were finished to think that I had been the major contributor.

By then it was time to get ready for the evening church service. A task that usually took Mom about 45 minutes had consumed the entire afternoon.

At church Mom praised me in front of several neighbors, telling them how I had made and baked a batch of cookies all by myself. My ego soared. It would be a long time before I understood how much work it was for Mom to make sure that I succeeded with that project.

As the years went by, Mom taught me a lot about cooking. Sometimes I even called her at work for cooking instruction. I learned to do fairly well at baking cookies and at making a number of meal items. But I never really cared much for preparing oven baked chicken with baked potatoes, which was a regular dish in our home. By the time I left home to serve as a missionary for two years, Mom knew that I wouldn't starve.

I rarely bake nowadays, although; I used to turn out a pretty mean loaf of whole wheat bread back when I was doing the low-fat/complex carb thing. In fact, I'm not much into food preparation these days—probably owing to the fact that I choose to eat healthy stuff instead of fare that is more pleasing. Cooking just doesn't turn my crank as it once did.

But I will always be grateful for Mom's cooking lessons. I now realize that those sessions were merely a framework for teaching things like love, loyalty, self-reliance, service, and a host of other values that are far more important than any dish I will ever cook. Thanks, Mom.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Old Car

When I was a kid we had a 1959 Buick station wagon that my parents had bought used. Dad didn't know until a couple of years later that the thing had been in a serious enough wreck that part of the frame was permanently skewed. He had to repeatedly replace the bracket that held the steering column in place because it would sometimes break after going over a bump.

I always thought the brown and white car looked somewhat distinctive. As a kid I thought all cars had faces. The 'face' of our station wagon looked kind of angry.

Dad was always working on that beast of a car. Actually, a lot of men in the neighborhood worked on their cars with some regularity. Mechanic work was a necessary skill for middle class automobile owners back in those days because automobile reliability was actually pretty poor. It was not uncommon for Dad to be out in the carport working on the Buick in just about any kind of weather.

Like lots of kids back in those days, we would often play in, on, and around the car as it was parked in the driveway. Mom recounts how my older brothers once played "gas station" with the car using the garden hose. Yep, that caused a lot of unplanned work for Dad.

Dad's tools were sacrosanct. That is, we weren't supposed to touch them. But, hey, we were little boys. Men used tools. We wanted to grow up to be men, so we naturally wanted to use tools too. One day while Dad was at work Mom caught us playing with some of his tools. She scolded us and told us to put them away.

But Mom was busy with the baby, so she couldn't make us put the tools away at that moment. We honestly planned to put them away, but instead we set them down on the rear fender of the station wagon and got distracted doing something else. The huge 'stabilizer fin' fenders simply looked like good shelves.

Later, Mom got us ready and we drove downtown. A couple of hours after returning Mom happened to discover that the tools with which we had been playing were not in the tool box. Upon questioning us, she realized that we had left the tools on the car fender. She knew we'd all be in trouble with Dad, because the tools were obviously scattered along the roadside somewhere.

Still, Mom ran outside and looked on the car fender. Wouldn't you know it, the fender 'shelf' had worked pretty well, because the tools were still there!

The old Buick lacked modern safety features such as seat belts and padding on the dashboard. We would ride up front when we could get away with it. We had a baby seat that hung over the back of the front seat so that the baby's feet dangled onto the front seat. I always felt envious that my younger brother got to ride in that seat when he was small.

Sometimes we had fun riding in the station wagon's rear cargo area. As I was doing that one day, I kept popping up on my knees and leaning against the back of the rear seat. Dad, who was driving, kept telling me to sit down. But I kept pushing it. I was up when Dad suddenly had to stop for a fire engine that was pulling out of a fire station. I fell forward into the foot area of the rear seat where Dad's tool belt was lying and sustained a broken collar bone.

After years of regular problems with the station wagon, my folks bought a used Chevy Impala from a car rental company. We were impressed with its gold color and its seat belts (although it still took us years to use seat belts regularly). Dad arranged to sell the old Buick to a salvage yard.

I rode with Dad for the final ride in the station wagon. We backed out of the driveway and drove to the nearest gas station. The thing was so low on gas that Dad had to put a couple of gallons in just to make it to the salvage yard, which was only a few miles away.

When Dad tried to back away from the pump, the reverse gear refused to work. Dad said that it had been slipping for a while. But it was finally gone, along with the lower forward gears. We were grateful that we had been able to back out of the driveway a few minutes earlier. A couple of men pushed the car back while Dad had it in neutral. Then we drove to the salvage yard using the one remaining forward gear and parked the car for the last time.

As we drove away in the 'new' Impala, I felt rather sad. The old Buick held lots of childhood memories for me. Mom just about died laughing when I suggested that we could occasionally return to visit the old car. Dad said it was a good riddance and that he hoped that we would never see that car again. We never did.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Evil: Call It What It Is

Having lived in Norway, I have followed with interest various developments surrounding the mass murder of 77 people in Norway on July 22, 2011. Some of the facets of this horrific event include the current trial of the confessed perpetrator and the shoddy police response on 7/22/2012 that gave the man time to continue his killing spree for an extended time.

The murderer first detonated a car bomb in front of the office of the prime minister, killing eight people and injuring 209. He then drove to a Labor Party youth camp on an island a little over an hour away. Posing as a police officer he gained access to the island and opened fire on the campers, ultimately killing 69 and injuring 110. Most of the victims were teenagers.

Norway is almost 2½ times the size of California in area, but it is stretched out over 1,200 miles from top to bottom. Its population is less than 5 million. Although population density is less than half that of Utah, "on average 1 of 4 Norwegians knew a victim affected by the attacks." Norwegians were stunned to find out that the two massacres were carried out by one man.

Much has changed in Norway since I lived there. Norway still has a low crime rate, but perceptions of personal and property security have undergone dramatic shifts in recent years.

Three decades ago it was not uncommon for people to leave their homes unlocked, even while away, and for people to leave their car keys in the ignition. Vandalism of public property almost seemed like a national pastime, but personal property was rarely violated. It was said that if a lady were to accidentally leave her purse on Karl Johans Gate, she would have no problem finding it unharmed when she returned hours later.

Nowadays, people are far more likely to lock their homes and cars. Gang violence has become more common, especially among the immigrant class. Violent crime (including rape), while low compared to most other countries, has been on the rise, much to the consternation of many Norwegians.

But none of this prepared Norwegians for the ghastly events of last July 22. Part of the reason for slow police response was that the country simply had not had to deal with a crime anything like this attack outside of wartime.

Modern Norwegians view vindictiveness with abhorrence. The death penalty was abolished in 1979. The last time it was used was in 1945 to punish a handful of war criminals. Crime sentences are relatively light and focus fairly heavily on rehabilitation. There is no such thing as a life sentence in Norway per se, but there are options for keeping someone locked up that is deemed a threat to society.

Despite the fact that the murderer has confessed and that the evidence against him is overwhelming and incontrovertible, Norway's justice system insists on granting him a fair trial. The purpose of the trial is not to establish his guilt or innocence, but to determine whether he should be sentenced as a criminal or a person with mental illness.

The culprit has made it clear from the beginning that he intends to use the trial as a platform for preaching his ugly beliefs. Victims and their families, among others complain that the man is getting away with his plan. While I understand that the victims may feel violated anew by the current trial, I think that Norway is doing itself and the world a great public service.

Acts of murderous terrorism have become common during my lifetime, as individuals and illegitimate syndicates (some sponsored by governments) have made the murder of innocents a political gesture. These actions are undertaken for shock value and are intended to cause entire populations to live in fear of a relatively small number of bullies intent on forcing others to adopt their radical ideals.

Much has been said about these killers, but rarely has an opportunity been presented for the public to see into the thinking of these people—to understand what makes them tick. It doesn't matter that Norway's mass murderer describes himself as a militant Christian; his thought processes are similar to those of all terrorists.

We now know that the Norwegian terrorist spent years meticulously planning, preparing, and training for the attack. We know that he still feels badly that he couldn't have killed more victims, and that he wanted to film the beheading of at least one high profile target. We know that he spent years dehumanizing his targets and convincing himself that his philosophy was the only correct philosophy. He came to justify his actions under the rubric of maintaining Norwegian racial purity.

While it is not uncommon for people to come to believe that their way of thinking is the only legitimate course, most of these do not believe that they can successfully force others to adopt their thinking through violence. (At least, not without the force of government to back them up.)

Some, including mental health experts, insist that Norway's mass murderer is less than culpable due to mental illness. They simply refuse to accept that any accountable person could choose to be so callously evil. In court, however, this man seems to be readily demonstrating that he is quite aware of what he has done and is quite capable of engaging in long-term planning and preparation. This is reminiscent of some Nazi zealots in WWII Germany.

I find it interesting that few would consider the 19 hijackers that carried out the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks to be mentally ill, but this is the first conclusion to which many jumped following the arrest of Norway's infamous terrorist.

One of the features of modern society is the tendency toward moral relativism. The concepts of good and evil become passe. While this can help bridge divides, it can be taken to such an extreme that otherwise erudite people respond in ridiculous ways when faced with actual evil. The institutionalized inability to conceive of individuals as willingly choosing evil may be one of the reasons that Norway's police were not up to the task of properly handling last year's terrorist attacks.

With each passing day, the trial of this terrorist increasingly demonstrates how brazenly wicked humans are capable of becoming. There is certainly a danger that the trial could enthuse and inspire some terrorists or would-be terrorists. But there is value in that the facts laid out in the trial inspire visceral revulsion among most people. The trial can't help but discredit this man's philosophy in the minds of the vast majority of people.

Norway needs to handle this case according to its laws. Regardless of how the case is decided, it is imperative that this man never again be permitted to be in a position to injure others in the name of his political beliefs. While the man wishes to be executed, supposedly to become a martyr for his cause, that is simply not possible under Norway's laws, no matter how much it is deserved. Besides, there is some poetic justice in knowing that this heinous killer won't get his way.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

There Is Music In My Soul Today

Music has infused my life from my earliest days. I remember singing a solo of Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam in German for a church program when I was four years old. I started singing with the church choir at age 14. I still sing with my church choir.

I was excited to start piano lessons at age seven. That excitement quickly wore off as the reality of daily practice set in. Somehow (i.e. much encouragement from Mom) I stuck with lessons for a decade and became somewhat accomplished at piano. I still play today, although, I now have two children that are much better pianists than me.

When I was 11 I started playing trumpet. I later picked up baritone. I still have and can play my big band era King Silvertone trumpet. My tone quality isn't great, but I can play. (At least until my lips tire and give out. Which is rapidly, because I don't maintain the muscle tone.)

I was given a cheap guitar for Christmas at age 13. I learned to play chords by looking at chord patterns in a John Denver book for piano. Years later I bought myself a nice 12-string guitar that I still have and occasionally play. But I've never had a guitar lesson and it shows. I'm pretty much a chord guy. I can't do fantastic finger riffs like my son.

I play a couple of other musical instruments, including a jaw harp and a harmonica. These are great for camping because they can be carried in a pocket.

Despite my music making, I'm not a great musician. I play and sing well enough for my own purposes. At some point I decided not to put in the kind of work it would require to take my talent to the next level. (Or maybe I'm just not that talented.)

My first cassette player came into my life at age 12. For a long time I had only two tapes: Fiddler on the Roof and a Partridge Family album. I also had a blank tape, which at first was used mostly for recording stupid noises. Eventually I started recording songs from the radio. I occasionally bought tapes until I had a small collection.

When I was in high school, 8-track tapes were all the rage. I used some of the earnings from my various jobs during these years to buy albums on 8-track tape. I became somewhat partial to the progressive rock genre. Although I rarely listen to this music any more, it is remarkable how deeply some of the songs I used to enjoy are embedded in my memory.

Music is a complex matter that philosophers find difficult to strictly define. It intertwines itself with emotions and thought processes to produce uniquely individual experiences. Composers have long known how to elicit specific emotions with music. Think, for example, about how intense music enhances scary scenes in movies, or how quickly you can tell that a piece is sad.

Still, music is also culturally specific—not just with respect to broad cultures, but even to small cultural niches. Some of my kids like a certain genre of music that I didn't even know existed until a few years ago. Aficionados of this genre enjoy its intricate complexities, while I find it usually less than pleasant to hear.

Music interacts with memory differently than other inputs because it stimulates portions of the brain that otherwise exhibit little activity. Music has been shown to improve memory in Alzheimer's patients, reduce depression and stress, and increase attentiveness. But it can also be used to distract. I suppose certain types of music can even negatively impact mental health.

I enjoy many types of music. But the music that I recall most easily and with which I have the greatest psychological connection is found in sacred hymns. This is probably due to continuous exposure to this genre throughout my life and due to the fact that some hymns are tied to personal spiritual experiences. I probably play hymns on the piano more than all other types of music combined.

Singing is common around our home. So is humming. What's really funny is when a family member gets upset with another for singing or humming, when they engage in this same activity all the time. It is not uncommon for family members to spontaneously join in when someone else is singing. This is particularly true of scout camp songs.

Each evening we gather as a family for prayer and scripture study. We always start our evening devotional with a hymn or children's religious song. Each week when we gather for family home evening, we not only open with a hymn, we also sing a practice hymn so we can become familiar with a broad variety of hymns.

To me, music is one of the great joys and marvels of this world. I am grateful for music and the role it plays in my life.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Long Shadow of Harsh Words

One day when I was in junior high, my entire grade was herded into the school cafeteria to take a Kuder assessment. We had no idea what the assessment was all about until later. (Or maybe I was just doing a lousy job of paying attention, which would have been par for the course.) The goal was to provide some guidance as to of what kind of vocations would best suit us.

They made a big deal of explaining how the assessment process was to work. In fact, they spent so much time on the explanation that everyone that was not a schoolwork zealot was dreaming long before it was done. Some of us were just daydreaming, while others had their slumbering faces plastered to the cafeteria tables, which provided fine surfaces for collecting pools of drool.

Finally the big moment arrived when they passed out the test packets. No matter how many times they told us it wasn't a test, it sure looked like one. Moreover, the teachers and administrators treated it like the most serious test we had ever taken to that point in our educational careers.

The packet was sealed and came with an intriguing metal pin. One end was fashioned into a ring, into which we were to put our dominant index finger. The other end was blunt rather than sharp. We were told that we were to jealously guard our pins and that no one would be allowed to leave the cafeteria at the end of the event without first turning in their pin.

The 'test' was unlike any other exam I had ever taken. Instead of writing, we used our pins to punch through the desired answers. The assessment was timed. I remember feeling like I was under a lot of pressure.

They finally instructed us to open our packets and begin. No one talked. All you could hear was the rustling of papers, the sound of pins being punched through answer sheets, and the standard white noise that results from more than 200 bodies going through normal examination motions.

The assessment was broken into segments. I remember seeing some kids put down their pins and sit up when I still had lots of questions left to answer during the first segment. I tried to answer the questions to the best of my ability. Even all these years later, I remember some questions being about objective factual things, and others soliciting subjective opinions. The longer the exam lasted, the more it seemed as if some questions were tediously repeated or nearly repeated.

Finally the exam was finished. Teachers came around and collected our pins, much to the chagrin of at least some of the boys. Each of us was issued a pencil. We were then instructed to turn to the rear of the packet, something that had been prohibited up to that point.

What we saw was a grid layout that had various symbols. Holes made by our pins had been punched all over through the grid. Some of the holes went through some of the symbols. We were instructed to count how many of a particular symbol had holes and to then record that number in a special square at the top of the sheet.

One of the history teachers then asked anyone that had a score of 15 or higher to stand up. A handful of students stood with beaming smiles on their faces. I remember feeling badly because I had achieved a score of only nine. As I looked around, however, it seemed like the ones standing were not among the most astute students in our grade.

"Congratulations," said the history teacher, "those of you that are standing have managed to invalidate the results of your assessment by contradicting yourselves more than 14 times." He then added, "That means that you lied. You can turn in your packets over here and return to your seats."

I immediately felt awful inside for the students that had scored 15 or higher. For one thing, I knew that I had done my best on the assessment and had still, by their definition contradicted myself nine times. How simple it would have been to achieve at least six more supposed discrepancies.

I also felt chagrined because I immediately recognized that the history teacher's snarky display was wholly inappropriate. This teacher was fairly popular with many of the students, but his abusive approach to this situation severely reduced my opinion of him. I'll admit that I felt justice had been served when I heard a couple of years later that he had been permanently excused from the teaching profession for some type of undisclosed indiscretion that nobody would talk about in public.

Looking back from my current perspective, I suppose this man had already had a stressful day. He was partially responsible for correctly administering the assessment and it likely chagrined him tremendously when he saw students that he felt had not taken the matter seriously. We're all human. But his harsh treatment of those students was still unacceptable.

We had to tally up a few other things from the rear of our assessment packets before turning them in and returning to class. We received the results some weeks later. They took us by small groups into various rooms and talked with us about our future career options. All I remember about the list of potential vocations for those in my room is that it included the position of personnel (human resources) manager.

We were asked to select our top three desired careers from the list. They gave us a handout for each of these that described the kind of steps that we would have to follow to qualify for each profession. I recall being more intrigued by the slick, colored glossy printouts than by anything that was written on them.

I also remember that a couple of years later in high school, they brought us together in small groups and resurrected our old Kuder assessments, which by then were a distant memory; ancient history. I can remember thinking that this was ridiculous, because I had (I thought) become a very different person with different interests in the intervening time. I couldn't take the matter seriously.

I have worked at many different kinds of jobs during my lifetime, but I never did end up working in human resources. I didn't follow any of the plans laid out for me back in junior high. I found that real life offered many different intersections that led other ways to options of which I had been totally unaware as a young teen. Moreover, vocations popped up that the assessment designers had never dreamed of.

In short, I'm not sure that I got anything of much use out of the assessment, which must have cost the school district a pretty penny. The strongest thing I garnered from the experience was a visceral distaste for the history teacher condescendingly insulting students he had been hired to nurture. Although I was not among those directly mistreated, the revulsion of that moment is still sharply etched in my mental and emotional memory.

I wonder how many times in my adult life I have given others a similar reason to detest my behavior.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

I Keep a Journal

Among the things I brought with me on my mission was an empty journal. My first brief entry was written on the day I entered the MTC. Over the following two years I wrote nearly daily. It became part of my routine. My parents occasionally sent me supplemental blank pages to add to my journal binder. When it was overstuffed, they sent me a new binder.

I occasionally go back and look at my missionary journal entries. Most of them are pretty mundane, sort of like looking back at the end of the day at a to-do list written in the morning. (I almost always wrote before retiring for the night.)

But scattered among those humdrum accounts I find little jewels, such as events I had completely forgotten. Sometimes I feel anew the poignant feelings I was experiencing at the time that I wrote, although, I am reading only bland details.

My emotions were occasionally captured in writing, but rarely was there time for such luxury. Nor was my writing ability at a level where I could effectively recount what was going on inside. My feelings are instead mostly written in my deep memory. This means that nobody else that reads my journals (if anyone else ever does) can possibly experience them as I do. That's a shame, but it is what it is.

My early journal writing was affected by my awareness that someone else might someday read what I wrote. Consequently, I was perpetually on guard to try to present myself in the best light. Most of my posts took a (perhaps overly-) optimistic view of matters. I refrained from revealing my deepest thoughts and feelings (especially negative ones), considering them too private to capture in written form. This likely robbed my writing of much of the value it could have had.

Following my mission I continued to write in my journal with some regularity, even if it didn't happen daily. There have been times where this has come in handy. I was once called to testify in court several months after I turned in a drunk driver. Fortunately I had gone home and written a detailed account of the event in my journal the day it happened. I brought my journal with me to court.

The defense attorney was astonished at my recall of details of the event until I explained that I had just reviewed my journal entry. The judge asked if he could look at my journal. As he perused it to make sure that the entry could not have been inserted at a later date, a wry smile crossed his face.

The judge called the prosecution and defense attorneys to his desk for a private conference. The defense attorney then conferred with his client. After this he stood and said that his client had decided to plead guilty. The jury and the witnesses were then dismissed.

Life got busier as the years passed and my journal writing became sporadic and infrequent. Finally, when my oldest son was about half a year old, I began writing again. But instead of writing in a book, I recorded my entries in a word processing file on a floppy disk.

After more than a year of writing, I learned a very harsh lesson in the importance of backing up electronic data when my file was inadvertently erased. I was so disheartened by this data disaster that I did not write any more journal entries until the following year, when I made a New Year resolution to do so.

I am now in my 17th year of creating regular electronic journal entries. Although there are various ways this could be done, I have ended up writing word processor files—one for each month. At the end of each year, I compile the 12 monthly files into a single annual file (while retaining the monthly files). I keep my files redundantly backed up to minimize potential data loss.

There are pros and cons to electronic journal keeping. I type much faster than I write, so I can more easily capture details and thoughts that would be lost if I were writing by hand. Searching for words and events is also much easier. On occasions we wonder when a particular event took place or which child was involved in something. I am frequently able to quickly find that information in my journal.

Last year I pulled a number of interesting family vignettes from my journal and read them for family home evening. The kids ate it up. It was amazing how funny some of these happenings were when read years later, even when they weren't comical at the time they occurred.

But data loss can also occur through obsolescence. No electronic format is as permanent as paper. Every few years I go through my word processing files and bring them up to the most current standard. Then I save each annual file in a read-only format (currently PDF). Still, I know that the day will come when I can no longer keep this up (or that I pass on). Who will then maintain the electronic integrity of these writings?

I have considered the possibility of printing the several thousand pages that I have. There are businesses that would print these files and bind them at a reasonable cost. Maybe I could bind each year individually and add years as I go along. But the thought of putting these extremely private ramblings in the hands of people outside of my family to have this work done has so far given me enough pause to prevent me from taking that step.

I could be fooling myself about all of this. I seriously wonder who in the world would ever actually read from my journals. Would some descendant do so? I'm not so sure. Few people that have access to their ancestors' journals actually take the opportunity to read them. If they do so, they soon quit because they're so darn boring.

That, say many journal writing experts, is the main problem with journals. People tend to record more mundane facts and fewer personal insights. (My grandmother always wrote down the number of eggs she gathered from her hens each day.)

My journals include many personal observations. But I admit that they are mostly filled with mundane facts. It seems that I just can't help myself. I always recount the day's happenings, despite my best intentions to write more interesting stuff. Journal critics note that people don't like reading dull material.

This criticism assumes that the main reason for journal writing is for the benefit of future readers. I wonder if this is really the case for most journal keepers. I write to explore—to better know who I really am and what makes me tick. If somebody gains some benefit from reading my ruminations at some point, that's just icing on the cake.

I will continue to make journal entries as long as I am able, which I hope means that I will write for many years to come. I suppose that I will at some point break down and have my journals printed. Maybe somebody will someday read some of what I have written; maybe not. But I will continue to write regardless.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Coping With the Sting of Death

As a teenager I had an 8-track tape player in my car along with a stack of bulky cartridges. I would often listen to the mournful Kansas song Dust In the Wind as it played through the poorly mounted speakers in the rear window. The lament that "All we do / Crumbles to the ground, though we refuse to see" is a reminder that the trappings of our lives ultimately diminish and decay.

In 1818 poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote his famed poem Ozymandias. It is one of my favorites. While the poem is about the ruins of the empire of Ramses II, it too is a reminder that our personal empires must eventually waste away. The poem warns of the hubris of expecting these things to long survive us.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
I recall Gordon B. Hinckley once talking about a number of people of great renown with whom he had associated during his lifetime. He said that many of their names are hardly known by people a generation younger than him and are basically not known at all by yet younger generations. He said that it is the destiny of nearly all people to fade from importance within a few years of their passing.

I have considered this as I have researched my family history. Each person whose name I find lived out his/her life, labored, formed families, found joys, bore sorrows, etc. Each was important within a certain circle. Yet I know only a few paltry facts about them. I know almost nothing about their personalities.

The meaning of life has long been contemplated by the great and the low. Our thinking on this subject largely determines the choices we make each day. The inescapable fact of death can be banished to the shadows of our thoughts, but it is ever lurking, playing a defining role in life's purpose. What we think of death significantly influences what we think of life, and by extension frames our daily thoughts and actions.

I once listened to a conversation between two agnostics. One felt that it was important at some point in life to seriously consider what happens after death. The other thought that it was unnecessary to spend time worrying about the matter. If he found his soul to still be alive after the death of his mortal body, he'd consider his options at that time.

From what I could easily gather about the second individual, I doubted that he approached any other significant life element with such indifference. After all, failing to plan and prepare for any major life aspect is most likely to leave one with limited (probably unsavory) choices.

Yet this is how many people approach the matter of death; giving it little contemplation until they are forced to confront it. As one philosopher put it, many think of death as something that happens only to other people. This is why reminders of our mortality are commonly (and often effectively) used to elicit fear.

As I have studied various schools of thought on the subjects of life and death, I have encountered many different approaches to dealing with the matter. Some seem balanced; others extreme.

On the latter end of this scale are those that take an almost totally selfish approach, saying that they expect to live every minute of life to the extreme until they come skidding into death whooping about the wild ride they have just completed. Another extreme includes those that want to be so unselfish as to lose any thought of self value, so that death means nothing at all.

I am dubious about both of these approaches. The first echoes Ozymandias' self-centered vanity. My personal opinion is that those that follow such a course will be disappointed with the smallness of the final result. The problem with the second is that it is rarely possible to treat others as well as we treat ourselves. Eliminating our own individuality can't help but erase the individual worth of others. How can this type of 'unselfishness' lead to a meaningful life?

We all die. As the Kansas song says, "All your money won't another minute buy." Some figure that since you'll end up dead at some point and you won't be able to do anything about it, why worry about it? This seems to me like yet another extreme approach that is akin to ignoring reality, which rarely leads to solid happiness.

Still another extreme embraces death as an escape from the troubles of this life. We all need occasional respite from daily challenges. But taking escapism to an unhealthy level does not lead to peace and contentment. So how can the ultimate in escapism do so?

A wide variety of balanced philosophies about death exist. Many are rooted in a belief in a life beyond our current existence, usually with the idea that what happens now impacts our disposition after death. But some approaches are not based in such a belief.

I admit that I don't intuitively comprehend how philosophies that see death as the end of existence can motivate happy and purposeful living. But there are plenty of others that seem to be relatively happy to whom these approaches make sense.

I have had my own confrontations with mortality. I once had a snow cave collapse on me. In the frantic moments that followed I could hardly breathe, mainly because the compacted snow prevented me from expanding my lungs. As the time passed, it became starkly clear to me that I might soon be dead.

In that dire moment I suddenly felt an immense sense of calm. I knew with absolute clarity and certainty—in a way that I cannot convey with words alone—that I would continue to exist as an individual after death. I knew that there was a place for me to go and that it would be alright.

Fortunately, some astute Scouts noticed my predicament and began digging me out. I was glad when the ones that were standing on top of me decided to move off to the side to remove the snow. I still wondered if I would make it because there progress seemed slow. Then one of the boys pulled off a somewhat larger frozen chunk. That freed one of my arms so that I could push enough snow off my chest to sit up, expand my lungs and get air.

The desperate moment soon passed. But the assurance I gained from that experience has remained with me.

When my father passed away, my mom, my brothers and I pulled up chairs and sat around the hospital bed. As I looked at my dad's frail and lifeless frame, I had another moment of utter peace in which I knew that he yet lived on—not simply as a bunch of memories, but as a real individual with the ability to choose and act. I felt complete surety that I would again enjoy his company in a later life.

I'm sure that some would call these experiences delusions. They are free to do so. But I know what is real.

These and other experiences have helped form my philosophy of death, and thereby, my philosophy of life. I believe that it is important to do as much as possible to prepare for happiness in the life beyond this life—and that doing so will bring the maximum amount of joy that can be had in this life.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Order of the Arrow Recruiting Challenges (Still)

Last June I wrote about the problems our Order of the Arrow chapter has experienced in recruiting new youth members. This year I figured I'd get a jump on elections. One chapter adviser told me that the secret is to talk to the boys. Many boys are interested in joining, but their scoutmasters aren't much interested in having them join.

I have confronted a few scoutmasters about this dichotomy. It turns out that some of them have a much higher opinion of the O.A. than I suspected. They told me frankly that they didn't think any of their boys measured up to the order's standards. I'm glad that they thought so much of our order, but it troubles me that these men had such a low opinion of the boys in their troops.

As I mentioned last June, many boys don't qualify for O.A. membership because they have not achieved 15 days and nights of outdoor Scout camping. A number have achieved at least the required First Class rank, but the lack of camping experience is problematic. Scoutmasters tell me that it is challenging to get boys to regularly attend troop camp outs. Scouts and their parents often put a higher priority on other types of activities.

But when an adult leader indicates that the boys in his troop simply lack the character of an honor Scout, it makes me wonder if this doesn't say as much about the quality of the adult leadership as it does about the youth and their families.

At any rate, my O.A. chapter helped staff the drop-off point for Scouting for Food donations a few weeks ago. As troops arrived at the transfer station, my chapter chief went to each troop and solicited for boys interested in joining the order. Many expressed interest. Many did not. Many scoutmasters gave me their phone numbers, but few had their calendars with them, so I could not make appointments on site.

Later attempts to call many of these scoutmasters have proven pretty fruitless. Almost none of them actually answer their phones. They all have voice mail systems, but they don't return their calls. Getting appointments to do unit elections has been challenging and frustrating.

We were hoping to significantly grow our membership this year. The youth leaders set a goal of 20 new members. 25 years ago we had no problem in this area getting 45-50 new members each year. But the way it is currently going, we will be lucky to get half a dozen new members this year.

Membership in organizations that require commitment has dropped off throughout our culture over the past several decades. For one thing, there are far more options available for how to spend one's time. Organizational membership also used to play a much more central role in social life. Nowadays options are abundant for socializing outside of organizations like churches, scouting, fraternal organizations, and even sports leagues. People can opt for niche organizations, which have proliferated in recent decades. More often they choose loose organizational relationships that require little or temporary commitment.

In other words, my O.A. chapter's current recruiting problems are simply a reflection of a much broader cultural trend. That doesn't make it any less frustrating.

Part of the reason that I try to fulfill the O.A.'s mandate to recruit new members is that the organization played a very important role in my youth. My activity in the O.A. changed me and helped me grow in positive ways. I'd like for today's boys to have similar experiences. Maybe I will have to satisfy myself with helping fewer boys than I had hoped to help.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Long Term Care Insurance Is Getting More Expensive

My in-laws purchased long term care insurance long before it became popular. Even then it wasn't cheap. My father-in-law stayed at home as long as possible when he was dealing with terminal cancer. It nearly broke my mother-in-law's heart to send him to a care facility when he could no longer be adequately cared for at home, but she had little choice.

Mom was, however, grateful that they had insurance to cover Dad's stay at the care facility. She didn't have to worry about how she was going to cover the cost. As it turned out, Dad passed away two days later with Mom holding his hand telling him that it was OK for him to move on. Although my in-laws recouped only a tiny portion of the premiums paid for the long term care insurance, Mom felt that the peace of mind it afforded was well worth the cost.

I thought about this important episode in my family's history as I read this WSJ article about long term care insurance.

The entire point of insurance is to manage risk. The price of the premium is directly tied to the calculated risk of pay out. Premiums are lower for events that have little chance of happening and higher for events that have a high degree of certainty. Premiums are also directly tied to the potential pay out amount. It costs less to insure for a flat tire repair than it does to insure for the destruction of a home, for example.

The long term care insurance industry has undergone some major business factor shifts in recent years. People are living longer and needing more end-of-life care. The aging Baby Boomer population is lining up to place far higher demand on the care industry. While the industry can and will flex, the resources that can be brought to bear are expected to be scarcer than for the previous generation.

The insurance industry invests excess premiums, expecting that the returns on those investments will help finance the eventual pay outs. No one expected interest rates to be kept so low for so long. The industry has been scrambling to absorb the new reality of investments returning very small value increases.

All of these factors ultimately mean that long term care insurance is costing more than in the past. Industry observers expect rates to continue to rise and insurance companies to become increasingly picky about who they will insure.

Not all of the news is bad. New care options have become available and are continuing to be developed that may potentially reduce costs and provide customers with more flexibility than in the past. But insurance companies still have to make a profit. Even as they raise premiums, they will try to control costs by seeking lower risk customers and by more carefully defining benefits.

The WSJ article suggests selecting the 5% inflation rider and going for a shorter benefit period (around three years) with a higher daily payout when buying LTC insurance. Opting for a policy that allows for direct cash pay out is also suggested. It seems to me, however, that the market is still somewhat in flux and that today's assumptions may still need to be modified in a few years.

While long term care insurers are looking for lower risk customers, people like me haven't been able to buy LTC insurance for years. Although I'm one of the healthiest people with Multiple Sclerosis that I know, the fact that I have this potentially debilitating disease precludes me from buying this type of insurance.

Oddly enough, this is largely true for life insurance as well; although, the death rate for people with MS is not much different than that of the general population. Many life insurers simply refuse to cover people with MS. Those that offer such coverage charge cost prohibitive rates.

When the time is right we will be looking into long term care insurance for my wife. But my best options for LTC and life insurance are to self insure as much as I can and to take as good of care of my health as possible.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain

Yesterday I read Mosiah 4:16-27 about our responsibility to care for the poor. Despite having read this many times, I have re-read it twice since yesterday morning. In doing so I have reflected on what is being taught and how it applies to me in the society in which I live. After all, we are to liken the scriptures to ourselves.

The obligation to care for the poor has long been a theme in every major religious tradition. It is also common in modern secular ideologies. It isn't something new.

Today many efforts are made to help the poor at organizational and individual levels among the religious and the secular. For years I (along with hundreds of others) have donated many hours working at a local peach orchard. All of the produce goes to help the poor and those dealing with disasters and tragedies.

Each February or March we prune the trees. In June we thin the trees to provide for the best growth potential. In the harvest season we pick the fruit and stack it in refrigerated trailers. Some fruit is used fresh, but most is hauled to canneries, where other volunteers can the fruit. Some of these cans have made it to places like Haiti, following the earthquake there.

Members of my church are encouraged to fast one day each month. They are to donate the cost of the skipped meals to the church's fast offering fund, which is used to help the poor and needy. For many years the church has encouraged members with sufficient means to donate many times more than the cost of two meals each month.

Members of my Boy Scout Order of the Arrow chapter volunteer many hours each year because we are chiefly a service organization. Part of our volunteer work includes helping the poor. Just two weeks ago we staffed the collection point for our local Scouting for Food drive. This annual event helps sustain a local food pantry for up to eight months.

My family regularly takes items we no longer need to our local Deseret Industries store, rather than selling these things ourselves. The D.I. takes low skilled people (of any religion), gives them a job, trains them, and helps them gain more useful skills. It then helps these people find work. Donating items to the D.I. helps provide the transitional help these people need to better provide for themselves and their families.

For years I have supported the Perpetual Education Fund, which helps people in third world countries obtain a better education so that they can better reach their potential. Many beneficiaries become more productive and charitable members of their own cultures.

These are just some of the things I try to do to help the poor. I don't say any of this to pump my own ego. After all, I am merely trying to reach the minimum standard required of any Christian, and I probably often fall short.

Christian philosopher C. S. Lewis once said that the only safe standard for any Christian when it comes to helping others is that you must give enough that it becomes a meaningful sacrifice to you and to God. You must give up something important to you to bless the lives of those that are less fortunate.

But all of the things I have mentioned above involve institutional efforts to help the poor. When I read King Benjamin's words, I can't help but see this in a more personal light. In his words I perceive more of a face-to-face interaction between the giver and the receiver.

In our modern society we tend to spend most of our lives interacting with those that are not too far from our own socio-economic status. That is, those in the middle class don't often spend much time associating with the poor. We don't frequent the same circles or places (Wal-Mart notwithstanding).

So where do those of the middle class and the poverty class interface in our culture? When I think about this I always think about panhandling. Let me be frank. I detest such begging. We have so many programs available in our society that no one actually needs to panhandle to sustain life. There are places in the world where panhandling might be necessary. But not here. Not really.

Panhandlers play on emotions, or more particularly, on people's sense of guilt for apparently having so much more than the beggar. But the places and methods chosen for this activity say much about those engaged in it. I see panhandlers in downtown areas, around shopping plazas, and standing at freeway exits.

I never see panhandlers standing in front of the manufacturing business where I work as the machinists and welders leave at the end of their shifts. There's a reason for that. You for sure never see any of those guys with the fake "will work for food" signs standing around businesses where serious manual labor is performed. That's by design, not coincidence.

It frankly irks me to be confronted by panhandlers in downtown business districts. Some of these places even have signs put up by the police encouraging people to not give to these people. It's the equivalent of "don't feed the bears" signs in some national parks. And it serves a similar purpose. If no one gave to the panhandlers, it wouldn't be long before you would no longer see them there.

But then I read King Benjamin's condemnation of those that harshly judge the beggars. He says that these accusers have "no interest in the kingdom of God." However, I believe that it is equally wrong to foster dependency simply to assuage one's affluence guilt. Most people that are panhandling in our society do need help, but not the kind that comes from people giving them money.

In fact, it's rather easy to give money to these people without any thought of actually helping them. In many cases we are actually contributing to their harm, but we walk away feeling self satisfied. It would be much more difficult to reach out to the person and do what is necessary to provide the kind of help that would best benefit them.

So how do I bring this all together? Sorry, I'm not there yet. How do I fulfill the Christian commandment to help the beggar while also making sure that I'm not debauching a child of God? It turns out that I've still got a long, long way to go.

Most of the time I'm not willing to take time away from my own plans to truly help beggars one-on-one. I'm too interested in my own affairs to do what Jesus would do. I excuse myself by thinking that I already do enough to help the poor and by rationalizing that they should simply apply to the many programs available to them.

We're never going to solve poverty in this world (see Mark 14:7). But King Benjamin makes it clear that we are obligated to do what is in our power to help the poor, and even to sustain the beggars. I've thought about this many times over the years, and I still don't have it worked out to my satisfaction.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

The Good Old Days

This coming weekend I will take my daughter to a mountain man rendezvous, which is held locally around Easter time each year. This will help her fill a school requirement.

I attended my first rendezvous as a teenager and have been to a number of these events over the succeeding years. They are interesting cultural affairs—as much for the subculture of people that enjoy doing that kind of thing as for the historical portrayal.

It seems to me that historical reenactment groups and events have become increasingly popular during my lifetime. The Wikipedia article linked in the previous sentence lists 10 periods that are commonly reenacted, ranging from ancient Rome to the Korean War. (Many reenactment groups and events focus on a war.)

The proliferation of historical reenactment is a testament to the relative affluence of our society. It wasn’t that long ago that people generally didn’t have leisure time to spend doing this kind of thing because they spent most of their time working simply to subsist. The average person didn’t have the time, ability, or access to delve into arcane elements of historical life.

Years ago I became highly aware of the various levels of authenticity thought to be acceptable among reenactors. The linked Wikipedia article divides them into three categories: Farbs aren’t terribly interested in authenticity, Mainstreamers make a reasonable effort at authenticity while also using modern methods, Progressives go to extremes in the name of authenticity. I have often heard this last group called “stitch Nazis” due to their habit of carefully ensuring that clothing is stitched historically correct inside and out according to deep research.

Many people have romantic ideas about the past. We feel overwhelmed by the pressures of modern life. Sometimes we feel overwhelmed by the stuff and technologies that surround us. And we imagine that the past was somehow more serene than our current chaotic state of affairs. Some of us put actions behind these sentiments by engaging in historical reenactment.

However, few moderns would actually want to live in the past, especially once they realize that they’d have to give up most of their modern conveniences. For starters, living in a time when refrigeration and modern food storage methods were unavailable was not that wonderful.

Have you ever killed, plucked, gutted, and cooked a chicken for a meal? The amount of time and labor required to feed a household 150 years ago is staggering. The supply of food was quite uneven from season to season, or even from day to day.

It was not uncommon for people to go hungry, even for long periods. And then to gorge themselves when food was plentiful because there was no way to store the excess. Undernourishment and even death from starvation were common. Today our most common food problem is overeating.

We often complain about the cost of groceries, but a relatively small percentage of our incomes go to food compared with our ancestors. Cases of food poisoning make news headlines nowadays. It used to be a daily fact of life for our ancestors.

During the Civil War, famed author Walt Whitman served as a volunteer nurse in military hospitals. He wrote that war is 98% diarrhea. That may sound comical, but it was not meant as humor. More soldiers died from intestinal illnesses that caused diarrhea and severe dehydration than from battle wounds.

Cleanliness used to be connected to religious and spiritual pursuits. It was not tied to health until a little over a century ago when germ theory was developed. The popularity of personal hygiene varied from time to time and culture to culture. Sometimes it was more popular, sometimes less so. In the late 18th Century bathing was considered by many (even in the upper class) to be unhealthy. Some even boasted of having avoided a whole body bathing experience for decades.

People lived for millennia with open latrines. One economist calculated that modern flush toilets and sewer systems have saved more lives than all medical advances combined. Maybe you should be grateful the next time you clean a toilet.

The next time you grouse about traffic and automobile pollution, maybe you should be grateful instead. The streets of most cities used to be dirt or mud, depending on the weather. They were filled with solid and liquid draft animal waste. The smell was more noxious than most can imagine. Flies were prolific.

My kids have so many clothes that they can’t properly care for them, thanks to the advent of modern production methods. But clothing production used to be time consuming and expensive until the development of textile factories. Many people wore the same article of clothing for years. Some rural families would sell most of their clothes at the end of winter and run around in the buff during the summer.

Bedbugs were a fact of daily life. Most people had insect and/or arachnid bites pretty much all of their lives. Open oozing sores were also a fact of daily life, even for royalty.

Until relatively recently it was common for families to lose half of their children before they reached adulthood to disease or injury. In medieval England the typical female died at age 29 in childbirth and the typical male died at age 40 from a respiratory illness.

We have an entire industry that glorifies ancient tribal lifestyles. But few of us can image the harsh brutality of life in these cultures. Tribes were their own police and military force. Intertribal war and bloodshed was constant.

In short, it’s fun to play act historical times, but few of us would want to really go back and live in those days. There are many things wrong with the world today. But in many ways life is better than ever. And improving.

Monday, April 02, 2012

The Peaks are Calling

It is obvious that the mountains around me harbor less snow than they did last year. This strikes dread in the hearts of some as a harbinger of a drought. But last year was an extra heavy water year, so water managers expect reservoirs to exceed full capacity anyway. (I guess that’s how we get averages.) There will certainly be less flooding than last year.

Rather than feeling fear as I look at the receding snow on the mountains, I feel excitement. For some reason that I can’t quite explain, the nearby mountain peaks beckon to me. I feel somehow compelled to climb and stand atop these peaks. Less snow means that the trails will be clear enough for hiking earlier in the season than last year.

I didn’t always feel this way about hiking. As a youth I hated hiking. It was tedious and uncomfortable. I was always near the rear of the pack, often trailing far behind the main group. I hiked slowly. I was ill fit for hiking.

Thus, I feared the mountain peaks as a kid. I usually found a way to exclude myself from scheduled hikes to the various peaks in the area. But something changed over the years. Having transitioned from youth to adult, I found it necessary to sponsor and lead hikes to various destinations, including mountain peaks.

I suppose this whet my appetite somehow. I was no longer the pudgy trudger trailing behind my buddies. I discovered a new enjoyment from standing atop the mountains I had loved to look at my whole life. Even today I can’t quite define what it is that makes me want to do this.

After all, hiking is still uncomfortable and tedious. But there is a certain sense of reward that I gain from hiking to mountain peaks. And there is plenty of nature to enjoy along the trek. Maybe I hike peaks to spite my Multiple Sclerosis.

My peak hiking has increased as my children have reached the ages where they could hike with me. Oddly enough, I have difficulty just going out and hiking recreationally. I will do it if it serves some other purpose, such as helping a youth group, a school, or my own kids. But I probably wouldn’t do it if it was just for me.

As it turns out, most of my children aren’t that keen on hiking. I guess they’re more like I was when I was younger. I have hiked my two oldest sons to Willard and Ben Lomond Peaks. That can be done in a single hike. Son #3 is my only willing hiker. He has been with me to those same two peaks (twice), as well as Malan’s Peak, Lewis Peak, and Mount Ogden Peak.

Son #4 and my only daughter have yet to go peak hiking with me. My lovely wife has a bum knee that keeps her off the mountain trails.

I have no definite plans for peak hiking this year. I suspect that we are still a good two months away from having clear trails. But I’m thinking that I need to get son #4 out hiking a couple of times before heading to Scout camp this summer. He doesn’t like hiking. But maybe he will do OK if I bring his little sister along. He couldn’t let her show him up.

I’d like to get my wife on top of Allen Peak sometime. You can ride the Snowbasin tram to the top of the peak. You don’t have to ski the extreme slopes up there, but you do have to ski from the Needles tram to the Allen Peak tram. That will have to wait until next ski season, because the Allen Peak tram closed for the season just yesterday.

Maybe I will just settle for taking my wife to an evening of luxury dining at the Needles Lodge. On Saturday evenings during the summer months you can ride the tram up to the lodge and enjoy a gourmet buffet. It’s pricey, because you have to buy the tram ticket too. But maybe that’s a way for my wife to enjoy a (nearly) mountain peak experience with me.