Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Dad's Office Via Kid-Vision

When I was a kid my Dad worked as an electrical lineman. On occasion we visited his workplace for one reason or another. I was fascinated by the equipment, trucks, garage, and office. I still recall the distinctive smell of the machinery. I think I was 12 years old before I realized that Dad mostly worked on power lines, traveling to various locations on the trucks we saw at the station.

Dad later became the equivalent of an electrical engineer, although, it always chagrined him that he never achieved an official bachelor degree. Never mind the fact that he regularly trained and worked with PhD level electrical engineers. Dad was one smart guy.

My own career has evolved along a path that I could never have imagined at the time I graduated high school. I initially majored in accounting and had a career in finance and accounting. Eventually I began automating accounting processes and somehow ended up working as a computer programmer. I went back to school to get a bachelor and then a master degree in computers. I now wear many hats including software developer, database administrator, business analyst, and system administrator.

My son has been working on the Computers merit badge for a few weeks. One of the requirements is to visit a business or industrial plant that uses computers to learn about and discuss how computers are used by the business. So the other day I brought him to my workplace. My daughter came along. As I observed my children's eagerness to see where I worked, I thought about how much I enjoyed visiting my Dad's workplace back in the day.

As we walked into my office, both my son and my daughter asked why the sign on the wall read, "IT DEPARTMENT." My daughter queried, "What is it?" I laughed and explained that I.T. is a common acronym for Information Technology.

I have worked in a variety of offices throughout my I.T. career. While I've never had my own office with a real door, I've had a few nice cubicles. One of the nicer cubicles I had was in a building that was partially surrounded by lovely forested landscaping. The building also had large highly reflective windows. One day we watched a man clamber down from the busy street into the 'forest' just outside of our window. He took a quick look around and then proceeded to unzip his pants and urinate right there. I guess that the building's public restrooms weren't good enough for him. He apparently couldn't see that we were only three feet away from him on the other side of the window.

I've also worked in some less nice conditions. To be frank, my current office would be fit within this classification. We are on the second floor of what formerly was a private indoor sports court that had a ceiling so high that they managed to create two levels when it was converted to office space. It has been years since the building had a serious cleaning. The floor boards and chair rails sport a thick coat of dust and grime. The walls sport a number of ¼" holes where wall hangings were once attached. I have no cubicle, but maybe that's not so important in a small department like mine.

Despite my current office being somewhat inferior to many in which I have worked, my children were tremendously impressed. From their reactions, you'd think they found it on par with a secret lair from a spy movie. After all, we have our own water fountain, small fridge, and microwave. And, yeah, I have three wide screen monitors on my desk. My daughter was particularly piqued by the collage of family photos I have on my desk. My children were less impressed by the adjacent large manufacturing facility where the products are built that produce the revenue from which my paycheck is drawn.

It was interesting to see my workplace through my children's eyes. It brought back memories where every visit to my Dad's station was an adventure for me, grime and all.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

When Kids Ask About Sex

I chuckled as I read The Weed's post about his six-year-old daughter posing a question in her Primary class about sexual relations. I can identify, since my children have posed uncomfortable questions on this topic from time to time.

Over the years I have had "The Talk" with each of our four sons at what we figured were appropriate times. I asked my wife to take charge of this duty for our daughter. This initial foray has been followed up with multiple impromptu discussions, almost always precipitated by the children.

I am grateful that my children have felt somewhat comfortable discussing sex and other delicate subjects with me. From the beginning I have tried to handle these queries in a sensitive yet matter-of-fact and age appropriate manner. I have wanted each child to understand that the topic is not taboo; delicate, perhaps, but not untouchable.

One child that has been particularly inquisitive about sex has tested the limits of my candor by occasionally asking very personal questions. It's one thing to discuss the topic academically with some detachment and quite another to reveal details about my own intimate activities.

Despite my attempts at openness, I have noted that the boys have naturally turned somewhat reticent (even to the point of squeamishness) to discuss sex openly with me as they have advanced into their mid teen years and have lost some of their childhood innocence.

One time as I drove along with three of the boys in the car, the youngest of the trio (the aforementioned inquisitor) asked some rather specific questions about sex. His older brothers, who were mortified beyond description, bluntly told him to be quiet. They were even more horrified when I insisted on straightforwardly engaging the topic on the younger boy's level with no hint that it was improper. I was, however, grateful that the boys' little sister wasn't present, as this would have required reducing the vocabulary to her level, risking the loss of important understanding.

Our youngest child was born before the medical establishment's legal arm put a stop to capturing births on video. Thus, we have video of each of our five children's births. I shot the video from the head of the bed, so these home movies are fairly modest. Our daughter has watched all five of these episodes over and over.

One day my daughter confided in me that she was somewhat worried about giving birth. "It looks like it hurts," she said. Fortunately my wife was present to provide her view on the matter. My daughter seemed somewhat relieved. But later she asked me how the babies got inside of her Mom in the first place. That led to another chat.

Sex is a natural part of life. It can and should be a wonderful part of life. But due to its physical, psychological, and cultural implications, sex is also very complex. It can lead to great joy, sorrow, confusion, or some combination of these. I want my children to develop healthy attitudes and practices when it comes to sex. For that reason I try to be open and thoughtful in discussing this topic with them.

I believe that it's important for parents to be prepared to answer their children's questions about sex. After all, the kids will inevitably ask. But they will stop asking and could develop unhealthy ideas if the parent shuts them down or treats them like they've done something wrong.

Some innocently asked questions will make the parent uncomfortable. But that's part of life. It's not a reason to freak out. If handled appropriately these episodes will engender trust and stronger relationships. Good luck.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

What a Week at Boy Scout Camp Does

It's been decades since I first attended Boy Scout camp at age 12. We had a large troop. Not being among the popular boys in the troop, I was relegated to the tent of misfits. We brought all of our own food and prepared meals over a campfire.

There were all kinds of activities. We swam in the lake, canoed, rowed, played with frogs and tadpoles, participated in campfire programs, bought stuff at the trading post, played games with each other and with other troops, attended flag ceremonies, went on hikes, tied knots, went to church in an outdoor chapel, carved wood, and did a host of other things.

Last week at that same Boy Scout camp, the program director stood before the boys and told them that their mothers had shed a tear upon their departure because they knew they were saying goodbye forever to their little boys. They knew that when their sons returned they would be changed forever and would be well on their way to manhood.

It's odd what a week at Scout camp can do for a young boy. Most never forget it. Not all of the memories are fond. Camp can be fun, but it is also filled with challenges. Boys expand their personalities as they grapple with these challenges with varying degrees of success. For the umpteenth time I watched this transformation take place in the lives of a number of youth last week.

We started out with rain. Actually, the rain started just as we were finishing tent setup. Then it turned into a real gully washer. We donned rain gear and realized that we were better off than the troops that weren't yet setup or that had yet to arrive. We grappled with wet and mud for the first couple of days, but the boys seemed to take it all in stride. Besides, the rain seemed to break for program events as if it were on a schedule.

During a break in the rain we went to waterfront to do the swim check in the chilling waters of the lake. Most  of the boys passed. One that is a good swimmer climbed out early, although, he has passed the test in the same lake previously. Another boy that is a poor swimmer quit early too. But later in the week he returned and completed the test for the first time in his life while two of his friends swam alongside.

I watched boys fetch water, cook, clean dishes, and clean the kitchen area over and over again throughout the week. Some became quite proficient at these tasks. Some did them willingly and energetically. Others, not so much. Almost all of the boys became good at taking precautions against bears. The boys consistently received high marks on morning inspections.

Some boys were self starters, making sure that they got to their merit badge classes and passed off all requirements. Others needed constant supervision and seemed rather oblivious to many badge requirements. Most of the boys were somewhere in between. But by the end of the week, most of the boys felt pretty good about their achievements.

When the troop went on an eight-mile hike, we put the two slowest boys at the head of the column along with a staff member. The adults brought up the rear. We had a great hike. The two 'slow' boys stayed up front and wouldn't let others pass them. It was quite remarkable to watch.

I saw two boys get into a real knock-down fight over the rightful temporary possession of a piece of troop equipment. I watched a patient scoutmaster take each boy aside for a personal chat. Although they were still angry with each other, both were genuinely contrite about their bad behavior. A couple of days later I saw them sharing candy with each other.

Occasionally I had a few moments to sit peacefully in camp. During these brief respites I could always hear the joyful sounds of a couple hundred scouts scattered over half a square mile having a great time. Sometimes it was pretty loud. I also occasionally awoke in the middle of the night to dead silence—much deeper and more profound than ever occurs even in the suburbs where I live. Then there were the times staring up through 70-foot high spruce trees at more stars than most of the boys had ever seen.

I watched a stepfather sleep on the ground and gingerly hike trails nursing a foot injury to share an experience with his stepson. His gentle ways were a good example for me, and I'm sure, for the other boys.

The boys looked up to the two camp staffers and the commissioner assigned to our troop. These high school aged young men tirelessly served our troop and provided great role models for the boys.

Our troop did a service project paving a chronically wet section of trail with paving stones that another troop had hauled in from a nearby Forest Service quarry. One eager young man broke a water line on the third swing of his mattock. This created a lot of mud and got a number of people wet until some of our adults succeeded in patching the line. We were muddy, but we finished the project.

I saw 14 boys sit around a campfire near the close of the week telling each other what the experience had meant to them. Many were quite emotional and felt comfortable shedding a few tears in front of their companions. I watched grown men and young boys choke up as a tattered American flag was lovingly committed to the flames of a campfire as the haunting melody of Taps floated out across the glassy lake after sunset.

When we awakened the boys on the last morning in camp, they eagerly broke down the gear and hauled it the long distance to the parking lot, making many trips carrying heavy loads. In almost precisely two hours the campsite was emptied out and we were on the road home.

A boy probably doesn't realize what a week at Boy Scout camp does to him. The fruits of that week bubble up for many years afterward in myriad ways. But it's certain that every boy that spends a week at Scout camp comes away changed—hopefully for the better.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Why Do People Go Camping?

My earliest memory of camping was when my family stayed in a borrowed canvas tent in a campground in Yellowstone. I had difficulty getting to sleep in the strange surroundings. Two of my brothers and I shared two sleeping bags that had been zipped together into a single large bag. In the morning I watched a bear wander through the camping area. It stopped to garner goodies from a nearby trash can before a camper chased it off by beating a cast iron frying pan with a metal cooking implement.

Since that time I have camped out hundreds of times in all kinds of weather conditions. Over the past decade I have slept on the ground well over 100 nights. I had a cot years ago, but I didn't replace it when it broke. I'd rather sleep on a cheap foam pad on the ground.

As I prepare to head off into the wilderness for yet another week of Boy Scout camping, I have begun to wonder exactly why it is that people go camping. For me it comes down to supporting scout, church, school, or family events. Despite my camping expertise, I'm not too sure that I would go camping just for my personal enjoyment.

I'm told that one reason for camping is to "get away from it all." I have noticed throughout my life that campers have increasingly tended to bring "it all" with them. Indeed, many campers go to great expense and effort to do so. A coworker of mine recently watched two people paddling a canoe on a back country waterway while media content streamed from their devices through their ear buds to cancel out any audio input nature might provide. And don't even get me started on the camping palaces people haul to campgrounds. It would be cheaper to spend nights in five-star hotels.

Some people say they go camping to get in touch with nature. That may be true for a small minority of campers. By reading the previous paragraph you can tell that I think this isn't so true for most campers. Unless you call screaming around dirt roads on super charged off-road vehicles a good conduit for communing with nature. To be frank, many campers seem bent on destroying the 'nature' they claim to love.

Camping takes a lot of work. From the moment I start preparing for a camping trip to the moment the cleanup is finished, it's work, work, work, work. The packing, unpacking, hauling, setting up, cooking, cleaning, tearing down, gear maintenance, and related activities never seem to stop.

So why do we go to all that expense and work? For the sake of recreation? Sure. Because nothing says 'enjoyment and recreation' like getting your privates chewed on by mosquitoes and horse flies while squatting over a pit toilet, right? Well, except perhaps for climbing out of a snow shelter to relieve yourself while hoping that your warm flesh won't freeze to the latrine ring.

Comedian Jim Gaffigan gives his take on camping in this video clip:

I visited this About.com site for some insights as to why others go camping. The author says that when we go camping we can be rejuvenated by "escaping the routines of ordinary life." I can go along with that. But camping is clearly not the only way to do this.

RONEILL says, "Camping teaches resilience. It builds courage. It teaches us about our strengths and weaknesses, and in so doing, it makes us productive people." This comports with my personal experience. But again, why camping over some other activity that could offer similar benefits?

At the end of next week I will come home with a number of bug bites, probably some sunburn, a few scrapes and bruises, sore muscles and feet, dirt in a few places I'd rather not be dirty, some gear in need of repair, and hopefully a son that has a few more merit badges and is a little more mature.

And maybe, just maybe, after canoeing on the lake, watching the sun rise over the mountain, listening to the birds, watching the chipmunks, hiking the trails, and staring up through 70-foot tall spruce trees at countless stars, I will come home with a better understanding of why I go camping.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Annual Lagoon Pilgrimage

Our family (part of us anyway) made our annual trip to Lagoon amusement park yesterday. Our two oldest are long done going to Lagoon with the family. Also, we didn't go to the park last year, so it has been a couple of years since we last visited. We may not have gone this summer either, except that the two youngest begged us to go and my employer offered a special deal that made it affordable.

To be quite honest, it's pretty expensive to go to Lagoon without some kind of discount or else a season pass. More on my opinion of season passes later. Heck, it's even expensive to go to Lagoon with a discount.

The weather yesterday was grand, except that it started out rather humid from the previous day's rain. It was clear and warm without being scorching hot.

We tried to dress family members in clothing that could dry quickly, knowing that we'd end up participating in some activities designed to get us wet. It can be fun to get wet, but sloshing around in wet shoes and walking around with wet underwear chafing against the skin for hours really isn't much fun.

I was pleasantly surprised that the ride lines weren't that bad. The longest line we waited in was for the Wicked ride. Even then we spent only 15 minutes from the time we arrived at the line to the time we walked away from the ride. Trust me, that's pretty quick.

We rode the recent ride additions, Air Race and Bombora with minimal waiting. These are among some of the lately added "family ride" genre that aim to appeal to a broad age range. Air Race spins riders upside down, but it's nowhere near as harrowing as the Samurai. The Bombora ride lasts just over a minute. It banks and turns, but it's not a terribly fast roller coaster. It is certainly more tame than Colossus, Jet Star 2, or even the White Roller Coaster.

As far as wet rides go, Cliffhanger was closed due to a mechanical issue. But my family loves to ride Hydro Luge, the Log Flume, and Rattlesnake Rapids. The first two have pretty low hourly throughput, meaning that even relatively short lines can make for a long wait. We have learned to hit these rides early after entering the park because lines get longer as the day progresses. Also, the tunnels in the Hydro Luge get hot and stifling later on, especially on sunny days. (Several other rides, such as the Flying Aces and the Rocket also have low hourly throughput.)

All of the damp rides mentioned above, as well as the interactive fountain can get you very, very wet. I have walked away from each of these rides with little moistness, but I have also come away as drenched as if I had jumped fully clothed into a swimming pool. (That was the case yesterday with Rattlesnake Rapids.) It's best to be prepared. I stow my wallet, my electronic key fob, and cell phone in my pockets in zip tight plastic food bags.

Anytime you go to an amusement park you can be certain that the food and drinks are going to be expensive. Luckily for us, the deal offered by my employer included one junk food meal for each of us. We still spent plenty of money on other treats. Unlike some amusement parks, Lagoon allows patrons to bring their own food. That can help save a lot of money.

Yesterday's crowd seemed somewhat different than those I have often encountered at Lagoon. There were quite a few families. Some of them were extended families. Many parents were obviously trying to be good parents for their kids.

Of course, it is impossible to go to Lagoon without also seeing a fair number of people that would have qualified to be performers in carnival freak shows a couple of generations ago. Bizarre tattoos, piercings, and gauges are ubiquitous. Some folks clothe and groom in a manner that may not break any legal statutes, but that certainly violates the laws of good taste.

Then there are the ever present young teens and tweens that roam the park unsupervised. Many of these are season pass holders. It is jarring to watch these little boys and girls engaging in the rituals of a hyper sexualized sub-culture of irresponsibility. I personally couldn't imagine thinking that it would be a good idea to get my kids season passes to Lagoon and then to dump them off there on their own on a regular basis. It reminds me of watching parents drop their scantily clad youngsters off at a rave party last winter. What are these people thinking?

All in all, we had a great day at Lagoon. Our daughter looked nostalgically at the kiddie rides, many of which she is now too tall to ride. But having no younger children actually made our trip to Lagoon much easier than in past years. We still dress everyone in bright clothes and make sure that we know what each family member is wearing so that each can more easily be spotted among the throngs of people.

I no longer ride any of the rides for my own benefit. I will ride a ride for the benefit of a child or for the benefit of the family. But I could live and be happy without ever riding another amusement park ride. Actually, I think I could live and be happy without ever visiting an amusement park again. But I will continue to go as long as is necessary for the kids.

Perhaps someday I will, as my father happily once told me years ago, reach a stage in life where I will never have to visit an amusement park again. Then again, I did see extended families with grandparents at Lagoon yesterday....

Monday, July 02, 2012

July 2: the Day of Deliverance

On this day 236 years ago the representatives of the various American colonies in Congress voted to declare independence from Great Britain. It was an act that many were loath to take, but events had reached the point that most felt that independence could no longer be avoided. Members of Congress knew that they would personally be considered traitors and would be treated as the vilest of criminals if captured. Yet most saw no other way forward.

The following day, July 3, 1776 John Adams who was then serving as a Massachusetts delegate to Congress wrote one of his many letters to his wife Abigail. Adams' impatience shines through, as he wishes that independence had been declared some seven months earlier; although, he admits that the intervening period had brought many that were previously ambivalent to support independence. The final sentences of Adams' July 3, 1776 letter have proven to be somewhat prophetic with respect to the founding of the United States of America.
"The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more. 
"You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. -- I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. -- Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not."
Adams was off by two days. The final draft of the Declaration of Independence was approved by Congress on July 4. Thus, we celebrate Independence Day each year on July 4. But Adams' other foresights  have proven remarkably accurate. The battle for independence cost a great deal of toil, blood, and treasure. Yet most Americans since that time have thought it well worth the price. And we still celebrate Independence Day with the kinds of activities Adams envisioned.

The U.S. was not the first nation in history to declare its independence from another nation. Nor was the American Revolution the first war fought over an idea, such as liberty. After all, as one historian notes, wars had been fought over religious concepts for millennia.

The American Revolution is unique among wars because it was the first that successfully battled the prevailing accepted social caste structure. It is true that few of the signers of the declaration thought that Thomas Jefferson's stirring assertion "that all men are created equal" meant that this included non-males and people didn't descent from northern Europeans. But it set the stage for equal respect of all people and established a goal to which our nation yet aspires, however clumsy its actions.

In an age when most of the people with whom Americans interacted accepted the idea that some people were naturally better than others and deserved to be treated better than others, the declaration introduced a new thought—that people were not naturally beholden to the aristocracy and that people could govern themselves.

The success of the American Revolution was evident in that within half a century after its conclusion the concept of aristocracy as a valid form of government was largely dead throughout most of the world. It was evident that free people could govern themselves at least as well as any aristocratic system.

The American form of governance is not a perfect system. It is fraught with innumerable problems and deficiencies. Yet it beats pretty much every other system actually used on a large basis anywhere in the world.

So as I celebrate Independence Day this year I will be grateful for those that courageously embarked on the path of liberty, for those that waged the long slog to actual independence, and for all that have contributed to the cause of liberty since that time. I am a beneficiary of their sacrifices. I suppose that the best way to show gratitude is to pass it on by helping further the cause of liberty for future generations.