Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Myth of the Job You Love

When I was in 7th grade one of my teachers told us that the key to a happy career was to find a job doing something that you love to do. He read an article to us about a highly paid lawyer that discovered that he hated legal work. So he quit, went back to school, and eventually ended up as a professor of music. He was paid far less, but he loved his job.

Similar scenarios were repeated from time to time throughout my school years as a regular parade of people regaled us with tales of job-loving workers. The promoters of these narratives weren't always teachers. Sometimes they were paid consultants or people from various agencies. I even got some of this same counsel at church.

I was a newspaper carrier during most of the years this was going on. I didn't hate my job. But I sure didn't love it. Then I spent a summer planting pineapples in Hawaii. Yeah, it sounds exotic. But it was hard and boring manual agricultural labor. Nice climate; lousy job. I spent a couple of months working at a McDonald's restaurant before leaving to find something that I disliked less and that had better hours.

Setting up and cleaning up for a small company that did wedding receptions was OK, as was doing janitorial work for an architectural firm. I worked for a floral shop putting together pine bough wreaths for the Christmas season in a cold shed. I occasionally delivered flowers for the shop, which was kind of fun.

Finally I spent a summer working as a counselor at a Scout camp. The days were long and were regularly punctuated by hard work and trying circumstances. But I loved it. While I had found a job that I loved, it was seasonal work and it paid only enough to cover the cost of required uniforms. I could love the job, but I couldn't make any money at it.

After that summer I worked checking and bagging groceries at a local market. That was tolerable but not much in the way of lovable.

Then one day it dawned on me that all of the advice about finding a job I loved was little more than feel-good claptrap. How many people did I know that actually loved their jobs? I realized that few if any of the people that had told me to find a job I loved had followed that advice themselves. There's the rare person who loves their job, but for most people their job is ... just a job.

Over the years I have worked at lots of jobs. I have generally been happy to get the work and I have always been happy to get paid. Some jobs have suited me better than others. Few of them have been intolerable. Most of my jobs have been more or less fine, but I can't really say that I have ever had an actual paying job that I just loved.

Actually, I think that advising youngsters to go on a quest for the perfect "meaningful" job can be harmful. In real life, you don't get paid to do what you love to do. You get paid for doing something that somebody else needs to have done. Doing what you love to do is called recreation, and you generally pay to do it rather than getting paid for doing it. Jobs are called work because they involve a healthy dose of drudgery.

Telling kids to get a job doing something they love could lead to a lifetime of job disappointment and a feeling that they are entitled to something that is unlikely to happen. It could keep them from getting productive work while they are young, as they sit around waiting for a 'good' job to come along instead of following the tried and true pattern of starting out doing menial work and working up. Dude, it's hard to get paid much for playing video games and posting social media updates.

In reality, you do not need a job you love or a job that is meaningful, whatever that means. You need a job that you can tolerate and that provides sufficient compensation for your needs. You should find fulfillment in your work from time to time, but you should also expect to find a whole lot of drudgery. You can do what you love to do when you're on your own time.

It may actually be helpful to warn kids about finding work doing something that they love to do. They may discover that turning a beloved activity into a job kills enjoyment and turns the undertaking into drudgery. Or they may find themselves becoming so engrossed in their job that they neglect more important aspects of life.

Rather than teaching kids to look for some kind of ideal employment, teach them to find fulfillment in being a productive member of society and in building life enriching relationships. If they happen to find a job doing something they love to do along the way, they will be among the lucky few that win life's lottery. But they should know that they don't need a job like that to be happy and to have a satisfying career.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Almost Everyone Cheats: Do You?

The vast majority of us are dishonest. So says behavior professor Dan Ariely in this fascinating article. Ariely describes various tests he and his team used to measure honesty and explains his team's conclusions. Some of the more salient points include:

  • Only a few people are nearly always honest and only a few are seriously dishonest.
  • Most people are dishonest right up to the point that they believe their personal integrity is at stake. They are only a little dishonest.
  • The seriously dishonest impose marginal costs on society. Although each may cheat much, their relatively small number makes for small total cost.
  • Those that are a little dishonest impose large costs on society. Although each may cheat only a little, their huge number makes for major impact.
  • Dishonesty by the many is related to opportunity; it is not significantly tied to the amount of gain or even the chance of being caught.
  • Dishonesty is contagious in two ways. 1) People observing others being dishonest (especially with no apparent negative consequences) tend to behave more dishonestly than normal. 2) Those engaging in one kind of dishonest behavior (i.e. wearing fake designer fashions) tend to more readily engage in other dishonest behavior.
  • Increasing the psychological distance between the behavior and the payoff tends to increase dishonesty. More immediate payoff reduces dishonesty.
  • Mental and/or physical stress can increase dishonesty.
  • A desire to please the group can increase dishonesty and can be excused as helpful.
  • Reminding people of moral codes at the point of potential dishonesty severely curtails the behavior. This worked even when atheists swore on a Bible. (Although, the moral codes don't have to be religiously based to be effective.)
Airely uses a lock analogy to make his point. A lock on a house or a car is not going to stop a determined thief. It will, however, stop the average person that might filch something from the house or car if they found the door unlocked. Although it's not that hard to figure out how to break or pick a lock, doing so would violate the average person's sense of personal honor, while opening an unlocked door might not.

This Businessweek article provides an interesting side note to the integrity issue. Ariely and colleague Francesca Gino say that creative people are more dishonest. The article says that "creativity fuels dishonesty and that dishonest behavior triggers creativity." The researchers suggest that creative people are better at rationalizing their unethical behavior.

I could not tell from Ariely's article whether reminding people of moral codes away from the point of behavior is effective. For example, do people that attend church regularly behave more honorably than those that don't? Perhaps more research is needed to find out.

Various studies have been done over the years to try to measure the effect of church attendance on honesty, but results have been inconclusive, partially due to poor study design. For example, reliance on survey responses as opposed to actual observed behavior means that you are relying on people to self report their dishonesty. How accurate can such a measure be? It's like relying on an individual's own math to test whether he is a good mathematician.

It would also be interesting to find out what effect continuously reminding people of moral codes has on ethical behavior. Would effectiveness constantly increase or would there be a saturation point where effectiveness levels off?

For most people, then, the question is not whether they are honest or dishonest, but how dishonest they can be without violating their personal sense of honor. Ariely says that "many good people cheat just a little here and there. We fib to round up our billable hours, claim higher losses on our insurance claims, recommend unnecessary treatments and so on."

Society cannot make us reliably honest. That requires personal choice and determination. I suppose that each of us ought to seriously face the questions of how much dishonesty makes us dishonest, and how much our personal integrity is worth.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Why Should We Remember the Titans?

I don't often sit down to watch TV or to watch a movie. On a recent rainy Saturday my wife and I sat down to watch Remember the Titans. I had heard about the film for years and had seen video clips from the film. I'm no sports fan, but I understood that the film was a triumphal movie about far more than football.

Our youngest son joined us to watch the film. We found it necessary to pause the film from time to time to explain the history and culture behind the racial tensions depicted. Although my son has a pretty good grounding in the history of slavery and the Civil War, and has been taught for years about the civil rights movement, he simply had no context for understanding early 1970s race issues, especially with respect to the South.

It took me quite a bit of explaining before my son could even begin to fathom some of the movie scenes that showed racially charged events. He just could not seem to grasp why anyone would consider someone superior or inferior on the basis of race. He couldn't figure out why anyone should be treated differently on the basis of race. It made no sense to him.

My son attends school with people of various races. To him, all of these are just people. Sure, people look different. But, so what?

I greatly enjoyed the 12-year-old film, which portrays football as the catalyst for overcoming the harsh realities of culturally enforced racism. The coaches are depicted as heroes, but interviews with the actual coaches included in the bonus features make it clear that they did not see themselves that way. They gave much of the credit to the boys on the team. They seemed to suggest that youth often have the ability to transcend issues that stymie adults.

In truth, the film is about far more than football or racism. It's about the triumph of the human spirit. We tend to love stories of this nature because we have all had a taste of this kind of accomplishment and because such stories speak to the best that is within each of us.

I was glad for an opportunity to discuss our nation's history of racism. I would no more want to hide the truth of these ugly episodes than I would want to bury the history of the Holocaust. Our country is still far from perfect when it comes to racial issues. But I think my son's attitudes about race show how far we've come in the past 40 years.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Intestinal humor: is it only a guy thing?

Speaking came early for son #2. We have video of him standing in the bathtub at 18 months of age rattling off full sentences and paragraphs. Of course, articulation came later, so it's hard to understand him in the video. You might think he's just making noise. But, no, he's actually talking and what he's saying makes sense.

After learning to talk, my son almost never stopped talking for the next 12 or so years, except for when he was asleep. Don't worry, because son #4 has picked up where he left off.

Son #2 started experimenting with making noise at an early age. He plays a dozen musical instruments and has worked hard on developing an amazing vocal range. He has written and performed various types of music ranging from classical to metal core.

My son has tried to explain to me how he experiences sound. If I understand it correctly, it is as if he perceives sound with an additional dimension that most people don't hear. Maybe it's like synesthesia.

We have four sons. My wife was shocked as her sons started to grow up at how readily they found humor in normal bodily functions. Having had only brothers, and having spent years working with Boy Scouts, I couldn't see what the big deal was. One of the first lessons I learned after we married was that it was inappropriate to ever experience an escape of gastric gas (either from the attic or the basement) without verbally excusing oneself.

A couple of months after the aforementioned bathtub event, I picked up sons #1 and #2 from the baby sitter, strapped them into their car seats, and started to drive down the street. One of the boys passed gas and both of them broke out laughing. I immediately tried to play the role of the responsible father. In an effort to play down the comedy factor, I explained that this is a normal body function, like sleeping.

Son #2, who was about 20 or 21 months old at that time bluntly said, "Dad, farts are funny." I literally pulled over to the side of the road and stopped because I was laughing so hard. This is a favorite family story that always seems close to the consciousness of my children.

I thought about this story when I saw this clip of Christian comedian John Branyan:

I used to think laughing at intestinal gas was only a boy thing. Then we had a daughter. Now, it may be that having only brothers she has little choice other than to become steeped in boy-lore. But she also seems to find great humor in the body's less sanguine functions.

Yet another Christian comedian, Brad Stine has this take on flatulence:

Seriously folks, gas happens. How you respond to it is up to you. Some choose to see humor in it. Others suppress the amusement factor. But, if John Branyan is right, stifling the jocularity could be as bad for your health as stifling the passage of gas. This site claims that the following epitaph is engraved on a headstone:
Wherever you may be
Let your wind blow free.
For holding it in
Was the killing of me.
With all of the seriousness of life, don't forget to have some fun on occasion. And ladies, lighten up on us guys. We can't help but laugh.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Broken Trust

I arrived as a missionary in Norway a few days before Easter, which is one of that nation's major holidays, and which like its many other religious holidays, is observed in a mostly non-religious manner. I was amazed to see the whole country (except for convenience stores, tourist spots, and limited mass transit) shut down from noon on Wednesday until the following Tuesday morning.

I was soon feeling queasy in a smoking car on a northbound train. Two missionaries met me at a train station many hours later, where for the first time I saw a bizarre gang of punk rockers. The missionaries helped me haul my gear to their apartment where I crashed on the floor for the night. The next morning I boarded a train bound for a town in North Norway where the next nearest full-time LDS missionaries would be 300 miles away. There was still a lot of snow up there.

Norway is a long, skinny county that stretches some 1,200 miles from top to bottom. Regardless of where they live, most Norwegians will concede that North Norwegians are different from those that hail from the far more populous southern third of the country. Those from the south often say this with some derogation. North Norwegians wear it as a badge of honor and seem to revel in their cultural peculiarities.

I was soon introduced to Sister Å., who for years had been a surrogate mom to the missionaries that served in this town of about 18,000. Her husband, Brother Å. was not a member of the church. But he was a very nice guy that would help us out whenever needed. He was also pretty good at playing the fiddle. Their son was serving as a missionary in England.

The Å's were wonderful people. Although our apartment was far from their home, they lived close to the center of town, an area we frequented. They allowed us to drop by just about anytime. We sometimes went there for a respite from the hard realities of proselyting among irreligious people.

On some visits I was allowed to pull out large hardbound comic books that belonged to the Å's son. It was surprising how much useful Norwegian I picked up by reading these books, which put words and pictures together in a most propitious manner.

Most visits to the Å's were pleasant occasions that left us uplifted and often fed. Then one day was different. Sister Å. was somber when she let us in. She seemed to want to be alone. I suggested to my companion, Elder Pease that we leave. But he felt that this was precisely the time that Sister Å. needed someone.

Elder Pease was right. Before long Sister Å. started talking. Her composure increasingly gave away as she talked. Eventually she blurted out that Brother Å. was having an extramarital affair. "Don't get me wrong," she said; "He's a good man at heart and I love him. He's a good father to our son."

Sister Å. explained how she had known for many years that Brother Å. had a mistress on the other side of town. Despite her husband's infidelity, Sister Å. intended to remain loyal. But she admitted through tears of anguish that "Sometimes it just hurts and I have to cry."

Elder Pease was far better at providing comfort than me. But in the end, our efforts seemed clumsy and ineffective. What did I know at age 19 of such matters? After a while, Sister Å. apologized for burdening us. We prayed with her before heading on our way. I always felt awkward whenever I was in Brother Å's company after that.

Within a few weeks I was transferred hundreds of miles away. A few months before the end of my mission while I was traveling with the mission president I saw Sister Å. at a church meeting. We were only in town overnight, so we didn't get time for a personal visit. I don't know how Sister Å's story ends.

Sister Å. was a loyal sort with a big heart, ever willing to reach out and help anyone in need. She made those first few months in the mission field more bearable by acting like a second mom to me. She introduced me to the only person with whom I worked as a missionary (of which I know) that both joined the church and remained faithful.

After Sister Å's disclosure to us, it was difficult for my 19-year-old self to understand why she insisted on staying wither her husband. I was too inexperienced to understand such real life complexities.

Brother Å. never had an unkind word for his wife. Unlike some others I knew, he was always gentle both verbally and physically. But I think his infidelity harmed his wife in less visible but more insidious ways. It still saddens me to think of this good woman being mistreated so. I wonder if Brother Å. ever saw in his wife the pain we saw that day. Though many years have passed, I still wince inside when I think about it.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Dealing With Job Loss

Within the past week two friends have asked for any help or leads I could provide in finding a new job. One was laid off many months ago but still hasn't found work. Another has been informed that he will soon be laid off because his operation is moving to another state. Both are middle-aged workers with deep experience in their respective fields. Each has been used to earning a good salary.

As I sat thinking about my friends' predicaments, my mind stepped back to the day after I was laid off from a professional level job. Per instructions in my severance package, I drove to a local unemployment office to attend an outplacement seminar. The gray skies and rain matched my mood.

As I entered the building and shook the wet from my jacket, I was directed to a room with about 60 chairs. Although I have a habit of sitting near the front at meetings, I chose an empty row about 2/3rds of the way back and sat down to wait for the meeting to start.

Within a few minutes more than half of the seats were occupied. I looked around at the seated men and women, most of whom seemed to be near my age or older. I saw more than a few brows knitted with worry.

One burly fellow nervously chewed on his pen while puzzling over the booklets and forms that had been distributed. One lady looked like she'd just been punched in the stomach. One man with a weathered face sat with his jaw clenched and his forearms solidly resting on his thighs as he intently stared at nothing. A couple nearby gazed blankly ahead with emotionless faces. None of the attendees looked happy. Most simply looked uncomfortable.

As presenters took turns providing information about options, available help, and what steps to follow, the interchange soon revealed that many in the room were manufacturing floor workers that had been laid off from a government contracting business whose contracts were drying up. It was clear that many had expected to spend their entire career with this employer.

The questions asked also showed that many of these folks were worried about life's new realities. For years they had been handsomely paid, but few had much in the way of savings. The likelihood of finding a job that paid anywhere near their accustomed wage was very low. Some had spent years doing government mandated jobs that had become obsolete in private industry. Some voiced concerns about finding a job while being past their prime. The sense of despair in the room was palpable.

I sat in my seat silently praying, "Dear Lord, please don't let me be like them." After a while, I felt the edge ease off my own gloom as I realized that in many ways I was not like them.

Yes, I was middle-aged, was used to a good salary, and was trying to find a job in a lousy economy. But I was blessed to work in a field for which there was unusually robust demand. It would be far easier for me to find a job. In fact, I would find a job. I just knew it. I also had a decent amount of savings set aside. And I had temporary employment in my field that would keep me busy until I secured a permanent job.

After these realizations, I silently thanked the Lord and prayed for those less fortunate souls seated around me. The skies were still gray as I walked from the building, but my spirits were lifted.

I would spend the next seven weeks making a second job out of finding a job, while still holding down a full-time job. I was in a fortuitous situation, but it was still quite stressful. I was gratified to get many interviews, but there were some discouraging times as job offers failed to materialize or were inadequate.

After a solid job offer came in, it was hard to switch out of job finding mode. It was only then that I realized how much I had hunkered down and worked at the task. Though I was filled with gratitude, for a couple of days it was difficult to accept the relief of knowing that my job search was over.

I don't know what has happened to the other people that were in the outplacement seminar with me that day. I would hope that they have found employment. But I know that many of them had fewer prospects than my friend that has been out of work for nearly two years.

Having been helped by others during my job search, I am eager to offer similar help where I can. Sometimes there isn't much one can do in a given situation. But I hope that my two friends soon find decent employment. It's tough to be out of work.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

What Do You Wish Someone Had Told You When You Graduated High School?

The local high school is holding graduation exercises for its senior class today. Having attended this ceremony twice in recent years, I know that today's event will be somewhat different from the day I graduated from the same school.

As in my day, seniors will be seated in chairs on the basketball floor and guests will be seated in the spectator seats. But instead of being crammed into the school's "small" gym (a larger gym was added a few years after I graduated), the event will be held at the local university's indoor sports arena, which has stadium seating for more than 11,500—quite an improvement over aluminum and wooden benches for 2,000.

Like my high school graduation, some seniors will be dressed under their gowns in cut-offs and tank tops, some will be wearing formal attire, and many will dress as if it's a regular school day. A far lower percentage of graduates and guests will be formally dressed than when I graduated, but some will be dressed up. My #2 son wore full formal Scottish regalia complete with kilt and Prince Charlie jacket.

At my graduation, a couple of goofballs inflated beach balls that had been secreted beneath their gowns. They tossed the balls among the graduating class members until a couple of teachers intercepted the vinyl projectiles. As far as I can tell, today's seniors have been dissuaded from such undignified displays.

But their families haven't. At both of my older sons' graduation ceremonies, a number of audience members acted rather disrespectful by giving loud cheers, throwing streamers and confetti, blowing air horns, using other noise makers, and generally acting obnoxious. Some might argue that this is all the respect a high school graduation deserves.

One thing that won't have changed is the vapid speech making by administrators and top students. I recently overheard a conversation where the individuals were discussing what they wished someone had told them when they graduated instead of the ceremonial drivel that was meted out.

This got me to thinking, "What do I wish someone had told me when I graduated?" It's an intriguing question. But my answer is, "Nothing."

Quite honestly, I was in no state of mind to absorb and process any deeply meaningful admonition. Some say that high school seniors think they already know everything. But it wasn't that. In my callowness, I simply lacked the understanding and interest required for such a task. I don't think it would be uncharitable to suggest that most of my classmates were in the same boat.

My years have taught me that we can rarely recognize gems of wisdom that lie in our path until some life experience shifts our understanding enough to cause us to perceive their value. We may even pick these stones up, examine them, and receive training about them. But we still don't discern them until we must. Even then, we may choose not to do so.

I think that if we could each watch a replay of our senior year in high school, we would be surprised to discover that almost everything we wish someone had told us actually was told to us at that time. But we were not ready to comprehend it.

Still, it may be that repeated exposure to bits of wisdom helps us along the path to their eventual appreciation, even if we fail to value them at present. So, while I in some ways agree with the first line of Paul Simon's song Kodachrome, I also think that there are often gems hidden in the dross.

As a society we appear to understand that just the act of holding a graduation ceremony is worthwhile, even if the accompanying speeches aren't. It is nearly universally understood that it marks a significant transition. The form may be more important than the content.

I don't expect today's graduating seniors to garner any particular enlightenment from the speeches they will hear today any more than I did years ago. But I am certain that many of them will eventually discover great insights that were initially instilled during their school years—even if they must sift through dreck to arrive at that point.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Confessions of a Plant Killer

Occasionally when I see somebody doing something that seems remarkably imbecilic to me, I sarcastically exclaim, "I guess it's good to be good at something." When I see people that demonstrate little talent in anything other than doing stupid stuff, I reason that at least they're good at something. When it comes to my management of plant life, it could probably well be said, "I guess it's good to be good at something."

I am actually very proficient at growing plants. Unfortunately, all of the plant varieties to which this skill applies happen to be classed as weeds. I also have a good track record of managing to kill off desirable plants. I guess it's good to be good at something.

Many years ago, I came home from work one day to discover a number of potted trees sitting in the driveway. My wife's sister and her husband soon arrived. After dinner, my wife instructed me and my brother-in-law exactly where to plant each tree. Until the other night, three of those remained. Now there are two.

Three of the trees were supposed to grow quickly and produce relatively narrow boles. We planted them on the west side of the house, hoping to get some shade protection from the afternoon sun. That hope was in vain. It wasn't long before the first of these trees died off. It took several years to kill all of them. My oldest sons were still quite young when the last of this line of trees gave up the ghost. I had honestly tried to care for them. But it was to no avail.

I knew nothing about globe willows when my brother-in-law and me plugged two of them into the backyard. I had no idea how prolific those things were. Unfortunately, when the trees were still fairly young, an early October snowstorm dumped enough wet snow on the leafy branches to split the trees right down the middle.

But the roots still seemed good and I knew that the split would not prevent the transfer of nutrients up the tree. So I pulled each tree back together and bound them as well as I could. Despite the ugly splits, the trees seemed to thrive. They were so prolific that it became necessary to prune them severely each year to keep them off my roof and off my neighbor's yard.

But the splits ultimately led to the trees' demise. Both of them became diseased. When we finally had a trained arborist take a look, he insisted that the trees should come down immediately for safety sake. It was interesting to watch a crew with safety gear cut the trees apart from the top down. The stumps were later ground out.

As the arborist had predicted, the scrawny spruce tree that had been overshadowed by the willows has now turned into a towering beauty. It is the only tree that remains in the backyard.

We planted three maple trees in the front yard in sort of a triangular fashion: a Norway maple, a red sunset maple, and a silver maple. It soon became clear that the red sunset maple was unhealthy. The silver and Norway maples seemed to do OK. The silver grew faster, but the Norway appeared sturdier and better formed.

After a number of years, the trunk of the Norway maple started to de-laminate on one side. The next spring it produced no leaves. I left the starkly dead tree standing for two whole seasons before having my son help me cut it down and cut it apart. The stump remains.

I tried to help the red sunset maple. It still refused to thrive, although, its few sparse leaves did turn spectacular colors in the fall. This spring the tree looked worse than its normal sickly self. It produced leaves on some parts, but other branches looked dead and bare. My wife finally issued its death sentence. So on Monday evening, I gave my son a pruning saw (the trunk was less than 2" in diameter) and ordered him to cut it down.  He took to the chore with great delight. Within a few minutes, the blight was gone.

The silver maple remains. Unfortunately, it's on an off-center corner of the triangle, so it's lone placement in the front yard now looks kind of strange. It has reached a stable height and bole circumference. It's strong and beautiful. But each spring it drops thousands of whirligig seed pods all over the yard.

I manage to keep most of the lawn alive, although, that's now harder in the backyard, given the toll exacted by the puppy's activities. The lawn is filled with a variety of undesirable monocot and dicot weeds. But they don't look too bad if we keep it regularly mowed.

My lawn does not match the deep luscious green of some of my neighbors' lawns. But I figure that I'm providing them a service by making their yards look better by contrast. And given my lawn's appearance, it doesn't bother me much to have the neighbor kids traipse or ride their bikes across it.

We've got a couple of lilac bushes that seem to thrive. But maybe my neighbor wishes they weren't so abundant, as they climb over and stick through the fence. The kids dislike the fact that they are frequented by bees and wasps.

Despite our track record on indoor plants, we have one that my wife has managed to keep alive for a number of years. It is climbing down the wall in the living room. It really wouldn't hurt my feelings if it were to catch its death of some kind of illness. Perhaps that's why it's still alive.

I'm no gardener. I detest doing yard work. I love having a yard. I just wish I could have a nice yard without having to take care of it myself and without having to pay someone else to take care of it. Alas, that's a fool's wish. And my yard reflects it. As is the common lot of mankind, I reap what I sow.

When it comes to my care of plants, it should be said, "I guess it's good to be good at something."

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Silent Demise of Varsity Scouting

"Why doesn't anyone do Varsity Scouting?" my son recently asked me. In our area we have many registered Varsity units. But only a tiny number of them actually run the Varsity program. Many use some elements of the program, but it's not supported in any way like the Boy Scout program, which continues to enjoy strong support from sponsoring organizations and families.

Varsity Scouting, which is aimed primarily at boys ages 14-15 (but can include youth up to 18 years old) was primarily pushed by the LDS Church in the late 70s and early 80s. My council served as one of the pilot councils for the program. Varsity Scouting received a lot of attention and enthusiastic support during this phase. It was common to see young men wearing blaze orange windbreakers, some of them sporting the brown V varsity letter award.

During those heady days I helped staff a couple of major Varsity events. One was held at a local university and was attended by hundreds of people. Many competitions were held, ranging from field and team sports to chess.

In 1984 Varsity Scouting became an official BSA program. From my perspective, the program seemed to run with some enthusiasm in the early years. But around here it has largely been dead for the past decade and a half.

LDS sponsored Varsity units continue to meet weekly in my area, but it is very rare to find a unit where the boys are even aware that a Varsity Scout Pledge exists, let alone know what it says. Varsity uniforms are scarce at these weekly meetings. It is unusual to find a unit that runs or even pretends to know anything about the advancement program, so finding a boy that earns his varsity letter or Denali Award is very uncommon.

We get a handful of adult Varsity leaders out to our district's monthly roundtable meeting. Even among those stalwarts, few of them actually run the program in their units. They do some kind of super activity each summer. But they rarely otherwise go camping or pursue any of the program's athletic goals.

Many parents that have boys registered in the Varsity program would not know what you were talking about if you used the phrase "Varsity Scouts" in their presence. Many LDS bishopric members (who represent the sponsoring organization) are in the same boat at the parents.

The one thing that seems common among the boys, leaders, parents, and organizational representatives is that the moment a boy turns 14 he is out of scouts, never has to wear a Scout uniform again, and doesn't have to bother with scouting advancement unless his parents want him to earn his Eagle rank. Even then, the advancement is usually handled by the boy's former scoutmaster instead of his varsity coach.

In my area there is a deeply embedded cultural idea that scouting starts at age eight when boys become Cub Scouts (the LDS Church does not sponsor seven-year-old Tiger Cubs) and wraps up when boys turn 14. Both the eight-year-old entry point and the 14-year-old exit point are seen as rites of passage to a new phase of life. Except for the few exceptional scouts that work on camp staff or are active in the Order of the Arrow, doing scouting after turning 14 is akin to an elementary aged kid admitting that he still likes to watch TV shows aimed at toddlers.

It seems as if both the LDS Church (Varsity Scouting's main sponsor) and the BSA have decided to let the program wither, perhaps following the aging and/or demise of the program's founders.

The linked Wikipedia article asserts, "The validity of the program continued to be questioned. Supporters of Varsity Scouting found themselves having to fight tenaciously on a number of different occasions to preserve the program. The program survived each battle, but not without considerable change." The program's stature was reduced over time and a separate Wood Badge training program for Varsity leaders was dropped more than a decade ago.

Most Varsity coaches that I have talked to in recent years about this issue say that they prefer to focus on the LDS Church's Duty to God program instead of the Varsity Scouting program. The Duty to God program has presumably been designed to work hand-in-hand with Varsity Scouting, but that's not how leaders tend to see it. They see Varsity Scouting as an unnecessary additional burden rather than a beneficial supplement.

LDS Church leaders at the local, mid-tier, and general levels have done nothing of which I am aware to change this reticent approach to Varsity Scouting. So it would appear that they find it acceptable.

Being able to remember the heyday of Varsity Scouting, it has been somewhat rueful for me to watch the program waste away. I doubt that we're going to see it revive in the future. The interest for that simply doesn't seem to exist. It appears that some think this is all for the best.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Swede Crosses America on Foot

Two different friends each recently encountered an older fellow wearing running gear who was pushing a jogger stroller while running through our fair community. One of my friends does triathlons. While on a training run, he and his training partners stopped at our local McDonald's to use the restroom. They saw this man sitting there in his running gear typing away on a laptop computer.

My triathlete friend walked over to the man and remarked that he must be a tremendously dedicated employee to take time out of his run to do work. The fellow responded kindly in accented English that he was blogging about his coast-to-coast run across the United States. He explained that he had already done a similar run twice in the past, but using different routes.

The intrigued triathlete sat down and chatted with the long-distance runner. 64-year-old Björn Suneson is a retired economic news reporter from Stockholm, Sweden. Having taken up running at age 35, Suneson says he has run enough miles in the past 30 years to have circled the globe three times. He did his first U.S. coast-to-coast run in 2007 and his second in 2010.

Suneson regularly blogs about his adventures. He pushes a jogger stroller laden with his sparse personal effects, covering an astonishing daily distance at a very good clip. His brother in Sweden helps map out his route. They look for routes where economically priced hotels are located at the right intervals and where Björn can find a McDonald's restaurant.

The Swedish runner needs about 7,000 calories daily due to his energy expenditure. (The average U.S. male in his mid-60s consumes about 2,100 calories daily.) He would like to get at least one warm meal each day. McDonald's is cheap enough per calorie to make it a good stopping place. Plus, McDonald's usually provides free WiFi, which Suneson uses to blog and to communicate with family in Sweden. (He has a wife and five kids, two of which still live at home.)

This time, Suneson's coast-to-coast trip began on March 19 in Seaside, Oregon. He is currently in Iowa, more than halfway along his journey. He plans to wrap up this trip in Ocean Grove, New Jersey.

I am not a runner. I run when I must, but I don't enjoy it. I do high intensity interval cardio workouts three days each week. But it's not my favorite thing. One of the main reasons I went to high intensity intervals is that I can get the benefit of a longer run in a relatively short period of time. I'm no endurance athlete.

But I take my hat off to Suneson. Although I can't see myself ever attempting anything like his coast-to-coast run, his feat is a testament to the greatness of the human spirit. I think that's why most that find out about his adventure cheer him on.

Suneson notes that only 262 people have crossed the U.S. on foot since 1909, most of them accompanied by a support vehicle. Only 28 people have made the trip twice; and only one has done it four times. Suneson hopes to break that record without ever using a support vehicle. So one might expect to see him running on the American roads again in a couple of years.

I wish this running Swede well on his sojourn and hope that he eventually realizes his goal of setting a new record. Gospeed, Björn Suneson.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Return of the Paper Route

Believe it or not, some people in this world still pay to get a newspaper delivered to their doorstep. It's far different than when I was a kid and had a newspaper delivery route for five years starting at age 11. Back then I had two homes on my route that did not subscribe to the local newspaper. They seemed like oddballs. By the time my kids started delivering papers a few years ago, fewer than half of the homes took the paper at all. Some only subscribed to weekend delivery, or even just Sunday delivery.

Another way that newspaper delivery differs from my youthful days is that deliveries now always occur in the morning. Back in my day I delivered newspapers in the afternoons six days each week. Early morning delivery occurred only on Sunday. All newspaper delivery jobs interfere with life, but having an after school job wasn't too bad. My family had one or two paper routes for a decade straight as the routes passed from brother to brother. We found by experience that morning news delivery can be pretty harsh on grades and schoolwork, but people want their news earlier nowadays.

In fact, people want their news faster. While that's the reason for morning delivery, it's also the reason that many people do not subscribe to newspaper delivery. Why go outside to get the paper from your porch when you can just step to your computer and see what you want with a few clicks? And why even do that when you can pull your phone from your pocket and see the latest news instantly?

National statistics show that the average age of newspaper subscribers is climbing. I have seen this in my own neighborhood. Younger families see no need for a newspaper, just as they see no need for a land line telephone in their home. The older and technologically less savvy generation tends to enjoy hard copy more. Although it may still take a couple of decades, home newspaper delivery is trending toward obsolescence.

Still another way that the local newspaper business differs from the old days is the reduction of actual news content. By going to the archives, it is easy to see that the newspapers I delivered contained far more actual news. There were more local stories and more in-depth stories.

By contrast, if you pull out the national stories that are already more than 24 hours old in Internet time and remove the ads, my local newspaper is astonishingly brief. It's more like a newsletter. Newspaper staffs throughout the nation are a mere shadow of their former selves. And those shadow staffs produce a mere shadow of the news that their predecessors produced.

News carriers today are also completely separated from the chore of collecting money for subscriptions. I had to go door to door each month to collect subscription fees. This was not my favorite thing to do. But I must admit that I gained a tremendous financial education from this unpleasant chore. I saw how different families managed money. I learned which patterns I liked and which I didn't.

Still, the home news delivery market isn't dead yet. So news carriers are still needed. And that is where my family comes in.

My two oldest sons each had a newspaper delivery route for a couple of years when they were younger. The smaller route eventually transferred to son #3 when son #1 got a real job. But the early mornings took their toll on our kids and on our family life. Eventually we decided to give up the routes—first the larger route and then the smaller one.

Over the past couple of years we have occasionally been pestered by our younger kids about getting a paper route. It's hard for kids nowadays to find a decent job. Some sources say that teen unemployment is presently even higher than during the Great Depression.

I am gratified that my children want to work to earn. That's a good thing. But I remembered how hard newspaper delivery was on our family. So I continually pooh-poohed the idea.

Then a couple of months ago, sons #3 and #4 broke the news to me that they had agreed to take on a paper route. Instead of having two routes, they were splitting the small route our family had had a few years earlier. These arrangements were made through the complicity of my wife.

I have discovered in a quarter century of marriage that my wonderful wife will occasionally circumvent my wishes when she deems it very important. Sometimes it ends well. Sometimes it doesn't. But I love my wife dearly, so I try to take these things in stride. Besides, as I age I become decreasingly convinced that my way is always the right way.

So, over my objections, the news delivery job began again last month. After a month of trial, it was determined that son #4 could not effectively manage the route three days per week. So this month son #3 is doing it daily. He is almost five years older than he was the last time he had this job and is a strapping specimen of young manhood. He gets tired some days, but he seems to be doing just fine. Presumably son #4 will begin helping again after school lets out for the summer.

Thankfully, the kids started the route during a relatively pleasant time of year. It's lighter and warmer in the mornings. We'll have to see how well they like the job later this year when November and December roll around.

I'm glad that my sons are learning work ethic. Maybe one newspaper route won't be that bad, especially given that we no longer have any very young children. I'm supportive of their efforts. But everyone knows that my wife is the main go-to parent on this job. As a couple, we each have our departments when it comes to home and family management. The newspaper route just happens to fall under her auspices. For that I am very grateful.

Friday, May 11, 2012

We Have Ways to Make You Eat Healthy

Every day the media dumps more stories on  us complaining about the obesity epidemic. This is not simply an American issue. The problem spans the globe. It's easy to look around and see fat people. Actually, for a lot of us it's easy to look in the mirror and see fat people.

We are also exposed every day to ever more prescriptions for how to address obesity. This article asserts that the key to controlling the problem lies in our schools. But this article tells us that even a school based "intensive obesity-prevention program" was ineffective.

This article covers a report claiming that the rate of American obesity will increase from the current 34% to 42% by 2030. It's not the obese people's fault, the report insists. Rather, it's that the "average person cannot maintain a healthy weight in this obesity-promoting environment."

The authors of this op-ed give the report a fisking, suggesting that the "science" used in the report is extremely dubious and was designed to draw premeditated conclusions.

Why would 'scientists' skew studies and results? The op-ed writers explain, "The real purpose of the report is to ease the public into an acceptance of authoritarian interventions.The proposed solutions -- which include high soda taxes, minimum pricing on alcohol (already being considered in Europe) and restrictions on where fast-food restaurants can open (already law in Los Angeles) are very unpopular."

We have no shortage of activists that would willingly force others to choose right—or at least their version of right. (Sort of reminds me of a plan that was presented in the pre-earth life.) Many of these activists gain enough political power to get their pet interventions codified as public policy. Why does so much activism come down to limiting liberty and accountability?

For the record, I have trouble with the whole "It's not your fault" approach. I say this because I used to weigh 60 lbs more than I weigh today. Once I got serious about fitness and healthy eating, it took me a year to lose the weight. It has required constant effort and vigilance to keep the weight off for the past 23 years. Quite frankly, it hasn't always been pleasant.

I understand that we live in an environment that makes it easy to get fat. There are more food choices today than ever. The real cost of a calorie edible food (how much labor time it takes to earn enough to pay for it) is at its all-time low. Getting prepared foods is easier than ever. We are increasingly transferring the labor involved in preparing foods to others and these convenient foods tend to be higher in calories. I know—boy, do I know—that the foods that are the most physically and psychologically pleasing tend to be high in calories, and even addictive.

But I fail to see why I should transfer accountability for my dietary choices to society or to some nebulous food industry. In fact, by responding to consumer demand over the past 23 years the supposedly evil food industry has made it much easier to eat healthy than was the case when I started my weight loss program.

The blunt truth is that responsibility for my dietary choices is mine and mine alone. I am the final arbiter of what goes into my mouth. Absolving people of personal responsibility isn't going to solve the obesity problem. When has that approach ever worked for anything?

It has long been known that those that actually lose weight only manage to keep it off if they have undergone a psychological change where they develop a different self image in their mind. Then they almost automatically do what must be done to keep their physique in line with this image. How is this mental shift to occur if people feel no responsibility for the matter?

I am also doubtful about the effectiveness of coercive methods when it comes to obesity. Consider the current state of illegal drug abuse. The illegal drug trade doesn't even have media marketing like the food industry, but that does not stop drug abuse from proliferating. Despite the massive levels of public funds used for coercive anti-drug efforts, drug abuse is common and widespread.

When the food police crack down on comfort foods, you can be fully assured that people will still find ways to get the foods they want. Let's not fool ourselves into thinking that coercive food policies will work any better than coercive drug policies. They will, however, transfer more power to the state and further reduce liberty.

Some have drawn parallels between the food and tobacco industries. Smoking tobacco used to be far more pervasive than it is today. Cigarettes were available everywhere. It was easy to start smoking and to get addicted. The culture promoted it.

Then something changed. It wasn't the warnings on the tobacco packages or the fact that tobacco was sequestered in locked display cases at stores. It wasn't the sanctions on tobacco advertising or bans on indoor smoking. If anything, those were symptoms of the main factor—things that only became publicly acceptable due to the main factor.

A cultural sea change occurred over a period of time as people became informed about smoking and decided that it never smelled that great anyway. It didn't happen as rapidly as some might suggest. Over a generation, smoking went from being sophisticated, vogue, and grown-up to being akin to having BO. What was once cool became supremely uncool, especially among the middle and upper classes.

Some would like to fool themselves into believing that this was all by design—that it is evidence that the activists' coercive methods worked. Actually, as with almost every other major cultural shift, so many factors played into the transition that it is not possible effectively pin down or even allocate all of the significant components involved. As with the advent of rock-and-roll, no one can stop an idea whose time has come.

So how do we make the desire to avoid and reduce obesity turn into one of those ideas whose time has come? I'm afraid it's not that easy. Media haranguing and public shaming obviously hasn't worked. I have expressed my doubts that coercion will work. True cultural change bubbles from the bottom up through countless choices made by countless people.

A major element that nobody really talks about is the fact that most people just don't place as much importance on obesity as do activists and parts of the health care industry. People know that obesity causes health problems and earlier death. They simply don't believe that the cost of getting and staying slender is worth avoiding those outcomes. To many, an existence of dietary austerity doesn't seem worth living.

People are bombarded with so many different assertions of what constitutes a healthy diet that they despair of discovering what actually works. If we had a silver bullet diet that really worked on a broad basis, there wouldn't be so many different weight loss programs out there. Many overweight people have tried and failed at dieting. Trying yet another approach just isn't worth it to them.

The anti-obesity crowd is free to try to entice the public to join in the worship of the god of slenderness. But they should take a cue from the global warming activists and avoid exaggerating their claims or overplaying their hand, lest their credibility go the way of climate doomology.

Unfortunately, anti-obesity activists often come across as know-it-all scolds that want to throw cold water on the party. Activists seem not to understand that all their talk in terms of costs to public health feels dehumanizing to individuals. It might buy some power among the political class, but it won't win many friends among the broader public.

I obviously decided at some point in my life that getting rid of a bunch of excess weight was worth making serious life changes. But who am I to say that what was good for me is good for everyone else? That's why we have this thing called individual liberty, which can't exist without personal accountability.

Go ahead and encourage people to choose healthy diet and activity. But don't force them, as if they were incapable babies. Let them reap the natural consequences of their choices. It may shock some to find that many prefer this approach to living longer and healthier but as thralls to intrusive do-gooders.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Earned Success vs. Learned Helplessness

A number of years ago I left my career with the federal government to work in the private sector. Many of my government employed colleagues thought I was nuts.

Having achieved the exalted level of GS-12, I was about two years shy of receiving the maximum annual leave allowance of 5.2 weeks. (Federal employees also get 13 days of sick leave each year.) I could qualify to retire at age 56 and was virtually guaranteed stable employment until then. If my MS flared up and my health took a dive before retirement age, I could still get a fairly generous medical retirement. How could I give all of this up?

To be quite honest, I too wondered for a long time about what drove me to take this step. For the first year, I traveled past my old workplace twice every work day. My round trip commute was 40 miles instead of 15. My new office was a tiny dingy cubicle instead of the splendid spacious office I had previously enjoyed. And what would I do if my MS acted up? Sometimes I pined for the old days, but not enough to go back.

I still occasionally drive by the building where I used to work. But instead of yearning for my old job, I can't even imagine working there.

The agency where I worked had many job positions and people worked hard to get those jobs. But many people also received preferential treatment, ostensibly to right some wrong that had been committed against somebody else sometime in the past. I understood this, but it never felt quite right. It bred a victim mentality, which was so pervasive that I too was caught up in it for a while.

My main motivation for leaving federal employment was to enable my wife to stay home with our young children. Although I was working as a computer systems developer, I had been trained and had worked for years as an accountant. Even after cutting out child care and employment expenses, I could not calculate how we could meet all of our obligations on my salary alone. It would be necessary for me to find a job with somewhat larger take-home pay. But that would mean giving up generous benefits.

Still, I doubt I would have undertaken this move had I not felt a growing compulsion to get away from my government job.

Arthur Brooks nails what I was experiencing in this WSJ op-ed, where he discusses the value and importance of "earned success." He describes earned success as "defining your future as you see fit and achieving that success on the basis of merit and hard work."

It doesn't matter how you define success or that your definition differs from others. In fact, this variety provides much of the power behind this concept. Too often we think we know how to define success for everyone and then we create policies that try to herd people into our narrow definitions.

Contrasting his and his wife's experiences in the United States with their experiences living in Spain, Brooks writes, "Earned success is at the root of American exceptionalism." In other words, Brooks asserts that earned success is what made and makes America great. Moreover, he explains that it is one of the keys to satisfaction and happiness in life.

There is another side to this coin. "The opposite of earned success" writes Brooks, is "learned helplessness." Brooks explains that when "rewards and punishments are not tied to merit ... [p]eople simply give up and stop trying to succeed." He cites research showing that people's well-being is not increased by receiving unearned benefits. Instead this actually leads to helplessness and passiveness—the victim mentality I mentioned earlier.

The more people see themselves as victims, the stronger the sense of entitlement they develop. They turn their efforts away from working to achieve via merit, focusing instead on attempting to protect and expand the unearned benefits to which they have come to feel entitled. All of this striving, however, only leads to dependency, less satisfaction and less happiness. This mimics the addiction cycle.

Perhaps this is why some religions proscribe gambling and decry what was once called the evils of the dole. It has long been taught that getting benefits we do not earn tends to, as some religious leaders have put it, canker our souls. We end up looking for happiness where it cannot be found.

Since leaving my federal job, I have been through several job changes. Some of these have been welcome. Some have not. I have been blessed to be able to provide for my family, although, this is a continual struggle. I have far less vacation and sick leave than I would have were I still federally employed. I will likely retire many years later than would have been the case were I still a government employee. And I am at much greater risk of serious financial trouble if my health goes south.

So, there are plenty of thorns in this bed of roses. But I do believe I am happier and more satisfied with life. Sure, that's a subjective judgment, but it's the best one I—or anyone else, for that matter—can offer. (Scientists have a devil of a time accurately measuring happiness because it is so subjective.)

I don't mean to imply that all government employees are among the ranks of the learned helpless. We need government staffers and it would be good if a lot of them were people that are interested in being morally good. But the government culture seems to provide an excellent breeding ground for learned helplessness. I know that it was right for me to break out of that environment when I did.

But I worry for my kids. It used to be intrinsically understood that earning success was the path to individual dignity. It was in our nation's DNA. Now the culture of providing everything for everyone regardless of merit seems to be overtaking society. We are increasingly induced to walk down this path to learned helplessness.

Taking from those that have something we want is made to seem morally right to the point that people are willing to vote themselves benefits from others' pockets. When this is done on an individual level we call it mooching or even stealing. This stigma strangely disappears when we do the same thing as a mob en masse.

The offering of benefits is always couched in the most virtuous sounding phrases. It seems so beguiling, yet it hides the unfortunate specter of learned helplessness. I pray that my children may escape this evil and may gain dignity through honest diligent effort.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Bad World, Good World

There are times when the world seems to be going to someplace very hot in a hand basket, and it's doing so at break-neck speed. News offers an endless stream of media content aimed at validating this supposition.

The institution of the family is disintegrating and dumping the associated societal ills on us without reprieve. The economy, for all the media insistence on viewing it through rose-colored glasses, is still in the toilet. Real inflation is whacking all of us, despite the government-finance oligopoly's insistence that this isn't so. The incompetence and corruption institutionalized in our institutions are ever apparent, and apparently expanding. Politicians spend millions telling us that they have the answers, when none of them do. People are fatter than ever and will continue to get fatter yet. Dumbed down college educations are getting more expensive and saddling graduates who can't find jobs with forever debt. Europe is crumbling. The Middle East is boiling over. China is gaining military strength. The war with the Mexican drug cartels is creating unspeakable horrors close to home. And on and on.

But I also see degeneracy and decrepitude all around me. Everything's going to pot. I sense this, for example, whenever I see the proliferation of specimens that used to be reserved for circus side shows while shopping at Wal-Mart. Or when crime strikes in my own neighborhood. Or when I see people close to me make life-altering unfortunate choices. Or when I see the havoc wreaked on my backyard by our puppy. Or when I look in the mirror at my increasing wrinkles and receding hairline. Or when I have to find a pair of reading glasses just to read something that used to easily legible.

Yep, this whole world is going downhill.

But then something happens that gives me pause. Like the other day when I saw a young child, maybe 10 or 11 months old reach his chubby little hand out to caress his mother's cheek, and then use both hands to give his mother a hug.

The same day I saw a long married couple give each other a glance that said so much more than words, conveying affection and love on more levels than a mere observer can reckon.

I also watched as a young boy and his father reached to each other unbidden and clasped hands while they walked side by side. I saw the trust in the boy's eyes and the confidence in the dad's smile.

I recently saw a scoutmaster patiently instruct one of his scouts in doing a task. It was something the scoutmaster could easily have done himself far better and far quicker. But instead he took the time to teach the boy.

My sixth grader recently came to me, gave me a hug, and asked forgiveness for having "acted like a jerk" earlier in the day.

A week and a half ago I drove a group of Order of the Arrow scouts home at night from a service project. I marveled as these young men spontaneously sang spiritual and patriotic songs in a reverent and subdued manner for 45 minutes straight.

The other day when we picked my son up from the university, I watched as this rough and tumble guy openly embraced friend after friend that we encountered on campus.

At my daughter's soccer game last Saturday morning, I watched a mother express sincere concern when one of the other team's star players—a girl she didn't know—sustained an injury. It turned out to be minor, but the empathy was there.

On Saturday afternoon I listened as my ninth grader son played Moonlight Sonata at a piano recital with more feeling than you'd think that a boy of his age and experience could muster—enough emotion to captivate the entire audience.

The following morning I watched a number of grown men silently weep as another man touchingly described a joyful experience from his life.

I see things like this and I realize that there are still many things right with the world. As President Thomas S. Monson said:
"This is a wonderful time to be living here on earth. Our opportunities are limitless. While there are some things wrong in the world today, there are many things right, such as teachers who teach, ministers who minister, marriages that make it, parents who sacrifice, and friends who help."
Yes, the world has its problems. While it has always been so, it seems as if some of these problems are monumental enough to be signalling the end of civilization as we know it. But there are also many good and wonderful things in the world today. The bad cannot be ignored, nor should it. But neither can I let it blot out the value and importance of the good.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Stayin' Alive

A few years ago there was quite an uproar when an elderly man died while running a marathon. Race organizers were roundly criticized for allowing such an old man to run. Media pundits quickly picked up on the controversy and offered up their feigned outrage.

Finally the deceased man's widow spoke up and essentially told all of these busybodies to clam up. The man had lived a full life, she said. He loved to run and was aware of the risks. Although she was grieving, she was comforted knowing that her husband had died doing something that he enjoyed.

We have all known and admired people that seemed to approach life with all of the gusto they had right up until the very end. (Consider, for example, Gordon B. Hinckley.) Part of the reason we admire these people is that they are somewhat unusual. We also probably think that we'd like to follow their example—at least if we're willing to face the fact of our own mortality, something many wish to ignore or deny.

Former U.S. Solicitor General Rex E. Lee was diagnosed with cancer at age 51. He recovered following treatment and successfully served as a university president. But the cancer later returned. While in the hospital Lee was actively preparing to argue his 60th case before the U.S. Supreme Court when cancer claimed him at age 61.

Each of us has likely also known people that seemed to be dead long before their physical bodies finally gave out. A relative recently remarked on the passing of an elderly relative, saying that it was as if she simply gave up after breaking a bone in a bad fall. A woman I know related how her grandmother spent the last 20 years of her life so angry at still being alive that she made life miserable for everyone around her.

Some are not offered much of a choice. The mother of a friend of mine was finally transferred to a nursing home when her dementia became so severe that the family could not adequately care for her. She could no longer recognize herself, let alone others, and she lost the ability to relate to people. Though unrecognized, my friend spent time with her mother daily for nine years until her mother's passing.

My father-in-law spent his final months in painful decline as he died from lung cancer. My father spent his final months slowly dying of heart failure, having been robbed of his prized analytic abilities following a stroke. Neither of these once vibrant men had any gusto left during those awful months.

I don't necessarily criticize those that simply seem to lose interest in life during their final weeks. There is a reason that a verse in the hymn Abide With Me begins:
Swift to its close ebbs out life's little day;
Earth's joys grow dim; its glories pass away
For many people, the time comes that the trappings of this life lose significance. One of my uncles spent the last three weeks of his life seeming to split his time between this life and the life beyond. This life became less interesting as the next became more compelling.

On the other hand, I do not want to ever be among the real living dead—those who unnecessarily spend their final years living a dead existence. They are physically alive, but live their lives simply waiting for death.

I do understand that age often exacts a terrible toll. An older relative is happy to still be able to live independently. Yet she finds that it takes hours to handle regular daily necessities—tasks she used to be able to do fairly rapidly just a few months ago. Activities like running a race (even walking a block) or preparing a law case are simply outside the realm of possibilities at this point.

It is possible that my health condition (Multiple Sclerosis) may incapacitate me at some future point. I still hope to live with everything I've got as long as I can. I really hope to avoid bitterness, regardless of what hand I'm dealt. Each of us has hopes and dreams. Some pan out; some don't. I'll have to see how it goes when I actually face the inevitable challenges that lie ahead.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Thanking Mom

As a child I was unaware that my mom was a relatively young woman. She was comparatively so much older than me.

When I was young, Mom knew everything and met my every need. She was the sage I went to when I needed wisdom, the physician I turned to in time of injury or illness, the psychologist that helped me deal with issues, my personal chef, teacher, ethicist, religious mentor, enforcer, judge, friend, and everything else. Mom was my go-to person.

I didn't go do Dad for these things. I loved Dad and I knew that he loved me. But Dad was a strict northern German that seemed angry with me more often than not. If Dad wasn't displeased, my best bet was to avoid him lest I do something to alter that balance. I mainly tried to stay out of his way. I have a few mental scars from the times I failed to do so.

Don't worry. Dad and I developed a great relationship once I was able to relate with him at the post-graduate level where most of his thinking seemed to occur. But as a child, Mom was a big part of my life.

Mom told us stories of her childhood. Born on the great plains of the Midwest, the second to the youngest of a dozen children. Then raised during the Great Depression in a podunk hamlet in a barren region of northern Wyoming. Learning about the big world out there when she spent a year in her mid-teens living in California working as a nanny for her brother and sister-in-law. Graduating high school with the handful of kids she had known since she could remember. Moving to Salt Lake City and working as a clerk, before serving as a missionary for the LDS Church in Germany, where she met my father.

Mom told us about living on a farm, dealing with farm animals and multitudes of siblings and relatives, and working at the soda fountain in a drug store. All of these seemed like tales from another world to me—like something out of a fantasy novel.

As a kid, it seemed like Mom was always working: cooking, doing dishes, cleaning the house, doing laundry, bathing children, doing projects and helping with dinners at church, and on and on. But she also took plenty of opportunities to read us books and to tend to our personal needs.

Things changed as I got older. Like other youth, I eventually discovered a new level of independence. Mom was still there for me, but she was no longer my sole source for everything. I often pushed back against perceived demands and restrictions.

When I served as a missionary for two years, Mom faithfully wrote to me week after week, just as she had done with my older brothers. She regularly sent me care packages. After getting home, Mom was still there for me, even when she didn't agree with some of my choices.

One episode I will never forget is what Mom did for me the day after I first went on a blind date with my future wife. Mom chatted with me about the event because she could tell that I was acting quite differently than I had following other dates.

Mom gently teased out of me the fact that I was quite smitten with this young lady. Cupid's arrow had found its mark. "Maybe you should send her a card thanking her for the date," Mom suggested. (This was before the advent of electronic social networks.)

Mom gave me tips about what a girl would like as I went about making the card. I felt pretty good about it by the time I was finished. The young lady was, in fact, quite impressed with the card. (As a side note, she had the same idea and had sent me a card too. It didn't take too long for us to turn from dating to courting.)

I watched as Mom added the role of grandmother to her already busy life. She went to great lengths to dote on each grandchild. She always tried to ensure fairness in the treatment of each grandchild. But that was challenging because their ages ended up spanning 2½ decades. For many years, Mom worked hard to host increasingly large family gatherings.

Both Mom and Dad did lots of work to prepare to serve as missionaries in Dad's native Germany. They worked hard in Germany. Things slowed down after they returned, but Mom still did lots of work.

Then Dad had a stroke. No one but Mom and God will ever fully understand the challenges Mom handled as she cared for Dad over the following year and a half. Dad's passing brought grief. But it also brought blessed relief from the immense burden under which Mom had labored.

Four years into widowhood, Mom has slowed down more. She has dealt with many health challenges. She can't do some of the things she used to do. But she still tries to send holiday and birthday remembrances to each of her sons, daughters-in-law, grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren.

Despite the natural adversities presented by the aging process, Mom is still a great example and a deeply caring individual. I will never be able to fully express my gratitude for the things that Mom has done and continues to do for me. In fact, I will probably never realize most of what she has done for me.

Mother's Day is still a week and a half away, so this post is a bit early. It's just that I have been thinking a lot lately about how much Mom has blessed my life (not the least by giving me life to begin with). Simply saying thanks seems too trite of a way to express my gratitude.

But I guess that's the way of life. We rarely get the chance to adequately repay those that do so much to bless our lives. All we can do is to pass it on. I hope that some of how I have lived my life reflects honorably on Mom.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

What to Do About Skyrocketing Student Debt

It is commonly understood that different homes have different values, based on location, size, features, quality of construction, condition, etc. While we sometimes hear of figures such as the median home price, it is doubtful that anybody makes a home buying decision on such a basis. Home buyers evaluate each prospective purchase on its individual value. No one expects to get a $2 million mansion for $200 K.

Oddly, the same is not true of college degrees. We glibly use the lifetime earning differential between the average high school graduate with no college and the average bachelor degree recipient as justification for obtaining any college degree. It is as if many are ignorant of the fact that lifetime earning potential differs between degrees. (See results of Pew-Geogetown study on values of various degrees.)

Whether the degree's earning value is akin to a castle on a hill or a run down dump in a trailer park that should have been bulldozed 20 years ago, many simply assume that the degree will ultimately be worth its cost—and any associated debt.

We seem to inherently understand comparative value in so many other aspects of life. How did we become so economically ignorant about higher education? Part of it could be chalked up to social status. Just as nicer homes can be status symbols, so can college degrees. But I believe that our student loan program has also significantly contributed to this economic illiteracy.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported on college grads that are saddled with enormous student debt. One lady that studied interior design is in hock to the tune of $98 K five years after graduating. She's not even working as an interior designer. The vicious financial cycle caused by her debt burden could mean that she may never fully retire the debt during her lifetime. (Unlike other loans, student loans have no statute of limitations and can generally not be relieved via bankruptcy.)

While schools and lenders are now required to disclose more about the real costs of student loans, this largely amounts to more pages of fine print being shoved in front of freshly minted adults that are inexperienced in real life finances. These novices assume (as enforced by marketing) that their future income will permit them to easily retire any educational debt they incur.

The Standard Examiner calls for a reformation of the student loan program. But the real problem with student loans is the basic nature of the loans themselves. Low introductory rates are subsidized with taxpayer dollars. Higher ed institutions also receive many other forms of subsidies. A basic economic principle is that whatever is subsidized ends up costing more due to overuse.

This principle also holds true in higher ed. As reported by the Associated Press, 53.6% of bachelor degree recipients age 25 or under are unemployed or underemployed. Subsidies have skewed the higher ed market, offering perverse incentives to higher ed institutions and students. This has led students to incur debt to obtain degrees that are worthless in the labor market.

It's not unlike the bust in the housing market that has caused home prices to plummet, leaving many homeowners (some call them debtowners) owing more than their properties are worth. And like the housing bust, the government and banks have partnered to cause much of the problem.

The politicians and members of the higher ed industrial complex have predictably responded, as one philosopher put it, by calling for more fire extinguishers to combat a flood. They are calling for more government subsidies for higher ed. A few of these people may understand that this can only drive costs even higher. But all of them are primarily interested in serving their own interests. And offering educational subsidies still polls well.

Since the establishment will only continue to make matters worse until forced to make adjustments in crisis mode, each family sending students into the higher ed system must take matters into their own hands to avoid the debt problems many graduates currently face. Start by becoming educated about the real value of various degrees when considering which degree to pursue. Do you really want to spend $50 K to get a job that pays only marginally more (or perhaps less) than clerical work?

Next, ask whether student debt is necessary. In a letter to the WSJ editor, L.E. Culbreth expresses no sympathy for the financial mess in which indebted degree recipients find themselves, chalking their debt up to pampered college lifestyles. Culbreth writes, "I worked throughout my school years and finished in three years to avoid the extra year's room and board. I also didn't go on spring breaks, own a car or a bunch of electronic gizmos."

There may be something to Culbreth's contentions. In his book Debt-Free U, Zac Bissonnette provides a relatively simple old school formula for finishing college without debt, scholarships, or mooching off one's parents. It boils down to working one's way through college and living frugally while doing so.

Bissonnette cites research showing that lifestyle choices such as off-campus living, eating out, ordering in, alcohol, video games, cable TV, and vacations account for as much as 90% of the average student's education debt. By cutting out these extras and maintaining a reasonable part-time job, the need for student debt can be completely erased for many students.

This discreet approach may cause some social anxiety. The student is likely to be surrounded by others that are following the government's example of financing today's excesses with tomorrow's debt bondage (ostensibly in the name of having a full college experience). But the resulting peace of mind and future freedom will more than compensate for any associated cultural awkwardness. Refusing to run with the lemmings has its rewards, but it requires discipline.

In other words, each student needs to take responsibility for her own future financial peace. The establishment and the social structure will strongly push her to follow the well worn path to greater debt. But if one wants different financial results than the average graduate, one must make different financial decisions than the average student.

That may sound harsh. But it may also be the best lesson a student can learn in college.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Puppy Wars: the Sequel

Dog training doesn't go nearly as smoothly for us as it looks in all of the training guides. Our pup joined our family last December as a 10-lb ball of gorgeous white fur. Now at six months of age he weighs in around 42 lbs. He still has lots of beautiful white fur, but he also has a few very light brindle colored markings (all of his siblings were brindle colored). Under his coat his skin appears to be mostly pink with chocolate colored spots.

We gained a lot of benefit by attending a puppy training class as a family. We have worked to continue reminding ourselves and our dog of what we learned in the course. We have also taught him a few additional tricks.

But it turns out that our very smart pooch also has a mind of his own. Apparently this is a common trait for his breed. He obeys ... when he wants to. I swear he's worse than my kids. Sometimes when I take him for a walk I think he is really starting to get it. Then he finds something to which he wants to pay attention and he ignores my commands until he's good and ready.

The dog really loves to greet people when they come home. He runs to the arriving person and snuggles up close to them while wagging his tail and laying his ears back against his head. When he is mellow, he will often roll onto his back with an open invitation to scratch his chest and belly.

Our critter does his share of sleeping. But he also has very active moments during the day when he wants to run and play. He loves playing tug-o-war. Sometimes he does what my kids call the "puppy dash" where he runs pall mall through the house trying to keep from being caught. He runs and runs, sharply cornering and making tight maneuvers while family members laugh and play with him. After a few minutes he is done. He goes to his bowl to lap water for a while.

We are trying to teach the dog that getting on the furniture is unacceptable. As instructed by the trainer, we started with the most benign form of correction. That works some of the time. But my wife put her foot down when it came to the dog jumping up on our bed. (He can jump pretty high.)

When the "off" command didn't work as well as we liked, we escalated correction. Per the trainer's instruction, we started keeping an air horn on the headboard of the bed. The next time the dog jumped up there we blew the horn once and he jumped right down. The next time he galloped toward the bed, the dog stopped cold in his tracks the moment my wife brandished the horn. She didn't even blow it. He still jumped up there last night during one of his rowdy moods. He jumped down before I could get the horn.

Our dog is very aware of which things are off limits. He's not allowed in my daughter's room; mainly because she has so many stuffed animals and toys. The dog has his own stuffed animals, but he knows that my daughter's are off limits. Still, he watches like a hawk for her bedroom door to be open. He dashes in there whenever he gets the chance and then runs away like a cheetah with whatever prize he has scored in his jaws.

The dog does the same with my wife's slippers and shoes, although, we're working on disabusing him of that behavior. He also seems to have a great affinity for facial tissues, regardless of whether he gets them fresh from a tissue box or used from a trash can.

We house trained the dog when he was small by frequently taking him out in the backyard and praising him when he'd eliminate out there instead of in the house. That bit of training has stuck very well. He now goes to the back door when he needs to go. But he often waits until someone will accompany him to the backyard to watch him pee. He then waits for praise. He thinks it's a great game.

My youngest son felt badly when the dog was neutered. (My daughter wanted to know what was broken on the dog that needed to be "fixed.") My son pined about the fact that the dog will never experience the joys of romance and offspring. My oldest son tried to explain that dogs can't experience those things the same way as humans, despite what you see in the movies.

When we got the dog, the kids promised to properly care for him. They're not too bad about feeding him when needed. But now that the novelty has worn off, they're not too good about taking him for walks or scooping poop. At least, not without a lot of cajoling and badgering.

Our dog's breed is not real 'barky,' so he doesn't bark a great deal. Unless he wants in the house. It turns out that our backyard neighbor isn't very tolerant of this. He calls if the dog barks more than 10 times in a short period. I love my neighbor. But the funny thing is that his family has a strong track record of making all kinds of noise at all times of the day and night. I can't help but chuckle at the paucity of self awareness each time a complaint is lodged.

All in all, the dog has been a good for our family. Training is still somewhat frustrating. And we have to worry about dog care anytime we think about going away for more than a few hours. But it would be untruthful if I said I was sorry for getting the dog.