Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Me As Editor and Publisher

I never imagined that I'd edit or publish a book. But circumstances have rendered me both an editor and a publisher.

Last autumn as I was driving my son back to his university dorm after he spent a weekend at our home, he told me all about a novel he wanted to write. His story line, which had been formulating in his head for some three years, sounded quite innovative. He seemed to have a strong grasp of plot development and details.

Before long my son had produced the first chapter. He eventually wrote an outline for the book. But real life often gets in the way of pet projects, so months went by with little progress.

My son had hoped to leave on his mission late last spring. Alas, that was not to be. Although he started on his missionary application during the holidays and had it ready to submit by mid-January, a number of roadblocks popped up.

My son's ward was split and it took several weeks before his new bishop could access the application system and schedule an interview. Then the church missionary department had additional questions about my son's knee surgery. Eventually he had to meet with one of the church's specialists to resolve concerns. When my son's mission call finally arrived in early April we were surprised to see that his mission wouldn't begin for another 4½ months.

My son came home at the end of spring semester. But given the unexpected extra time he had, he pursued a full load of online courses during summer semester. He also got serious about writing his novel. He shared each newly completed chapter with certain family members and close friends. Many responded to his invitation for input. These suggestions helped refine the work.

As the time for my son's mission approached I wondered how he would complete his book. But he managed to pull it off with a few days to spare. I am certainly biased, but I believe that my son is a pretty good author. He has a captivating style of writing. The book is filled with innovative adventures.

Then with less than 48 hours before my son was to leave on his mission, he decided that he wanted to publish his book. I did a little research and realized that this was not really possible, given everything else that needed to happen in that short time period. I promised my son that his mother and I would do what it took to get the book e-published.

It turns out that self publishing is easier than ever. But there are so many options available that it's hard for a novice to know which course to pursue. CNET writer David Carnoy maintains a very good regularly updated article about self publishing. The upshot is that, while self publishing is not terribly difficult, actually selling books is more challenging than most authors imagine.

There are several reasons for this. One is that while almost all authors find fulfillment in writing, few of them enjoy or even know the first thing about marketing. To top it off, it is almost impossible to successfully market self published fiction books because supply outstrips demand.

My son has done a good job of formatting his book for e-publishing. But he left us the tasks of editing, getting cover art, and publishing the book. Without him to consult on changes, I am limiting my editing to obvious spelling errors—words that have passed spell check but that are still wrong—and egregious grammar mistakes (of which there are very few). I don't want to do anything that changes the author's style. We're going to have to find someone to develop cover art.

I don't foresee us doing much marketing once the book is published. I think the main goal is to make the book available to family and friends, at least for now. Besides, the book is the first of a two-book series. My son has uncharitably left his readers hanging with the book's tantalizing conclusion. He knows what he wants to write in the second book, but how long will it take him to write it once he returns from his mission two years from now? We will just have to wait.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Sending Off Our First Missionary

The atmosphere in the car was subdued as we drove toward the MTC in Provo. We all knew that a couple of hours later we'd exchange an embrace with our son/brother, and then we wouldn't see him for two years.

I thought back to a similar trip that had occurred many years earlier. I recalled being quite anxious as my parents drove toward Provo. But I also recalled that it didn't take long for me to settle into the work and develop new friendships. I tried to lighten the mood of the family members by recounting some funny experiences from my mission.

There was the time that Elder G. decided to return to his room at the MTC solo. (Missionaries are supposed to stay with their companions.) He thought it was odd that the entire floor seemed vacant when it was usually busy following lunch. He sat in the room wondering why the rest of us didn't return. Elder G. wasn't there when we got to our rooms. About 20 minutes later he showed up, explaining that he had sat in the silent room of the adjacent dorm (all of the dorms are nearly exact replicas) for a long time until he realized that it wasn't his room.

It was not uncommon for the missionaries on my MTC dorm floor to sing religious songs while showering in the communal showers each morning. But on one occasion we somehow started singing theme songs from various cartoons with which we had all grown up. We were in the middle of a rousing chorus of the Flintstones when a fully clothed elder walked in and issued a deeply self righteous scathing rebuke for our frivolity.

We stood silently in our showers as the angry young man stomped out of the bathroom. One of our group contritely said, "I'm not sure what to say." Elder M., a calm, level headed guy said, "I do." And then he belted out at the top of his lungs, "Flintstones, meet the Flintstones!" We all joined in and had a good laugh.

There was the time that my mission president downed an entire glass of beer at a restaurant, thinking that the waitress had brought him Vørterøl, a Norwegian soft drink promoted as a health beverage. (Mormons are supposed to abstain from drinking alcohol.) We thought that was pretty funny.

Our family members were somewhat less anxious as we drove into Provo. My son wanted to eat lunch at a particular Mexican fast food place of which he is fond. Using my phone he found an outlet near our route. The place looked kind of seedy from the outside. It looked even seedier on the inside. The bright orange paint on the walls couldn't make up for the devastated ceiling tiles, worn floor, aged furniture, and equipment that had seen better days. But my son enjoyed his lunch.

As we were dining, another family that was obviously on their way to the MTC came in. My son introduced himself to the missionary in the family and they discovered that they were heading to the same mission. That's kind of surprising, given the number of new missionaries that arrive at the MTC each week. "I guess I'll see you in a few minutes," my son called out as we left.

I haven't driven around Provo much in recent years. I was stunned by how heavy the traffic was. Having had the MTC drop-off protocol explained to us, we first drove to a lot across the street from the entrance. We got out and took a few pictures. None of them turned out very good. But it gave us an opportunity to say our goodbyes.

We then got back in the car and drove through the MTC entrance. We were guided to a spot in the drop-off zone. We quickly jumped out and retrieved my son's luggage from the car trunk as an escorting missionary greeted my son.

Our newly minted missionary exchanged a special embrace with our son that just recently received his mission call and will enter the MTC in a few weeks, shortly before his brother departs the MTC for his field of labor. My son, who outweighs me by about 30 lbs, picked me up from the ground and hugged me so firmly that my back cracked. It felt good—in more ways than one.

And then we were on our way back to the freeway as our son and his missionary escort walked away hauling the luggage and talking enthusiastically. Two years will pass before we see him in person again.

I expected to feel somewhat melancholy as we drove homeward. But instead I felt a warm glow inside—a sensation that told me that everything was alright and that all would be well. Instead of feeling sad because of my son's departure, I felt very happy for him. But I have to admit that I do look forward to the first email we will get from him.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Making it simple to enjoy your missionary's farewell or homecoming

Many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints look forward to the day when their son or daughter will serve as a missionary. Then they anxiously await the day 18 or 24 months later when their precious child will return. Near these bookend events the missionary usually speaks in a Sacrament meeting.

The missionary's family often invites guests to their home following the meeting to celebrate the departure or return. These gatherings can be burdensome for the family. When hosting such a function there are some things you can do to lighten the load and make your get-together more enjoyable.

Simplify the menu
The number one rule is to keep it simple.

Some serve a broad variety of foods to try to satisfy everyone that might attend. They worry that they might be considered ungracious if they offer too few choices. Remember that simply offering refreshments to guests shows hospitality. Overly picky guests are themselves ungracious and can choose to go hungry. Most will survive just fine. After all, we are constantly reminded that most Americans carry plenty of reserve weight.

Offering a broad assortment of foods also encourages guests to linger longer and to overeat. It's nice to have guests visit. But it's also nice for them to go home before they've outworn their welcome. It would be even nicer if they could depart without taking indigestion along for the trip.

Another reason for expanding food selection is to "keep up with the Joneses." It's tempting to feel obligated to do at least what others have done at similar gatherings. This leads to a culinary arms race that can't be good for the church. Do not feel in any way inferior to Sister So-and-so if you choose to be simple on the Sabbath rather than turning your home into the local Glutton Town Buffet franchise.

Following are some ideas for serving simple but sufficient refreshments for your missionary's homecoming or farewell.

Go for less mess
Serve only foods that are easy for guests to manage and that are easy to clean up. Let's face it; there will be spills, crumbs, smears, etc. You can limit these by making food easy for diners to handle and by reducing overt liquid content. The more fluid your dishes are—think Jell-O salads, soups, sauces, puddings, dips—the more messes you will have to clean up.

Some have found that finger foods and sandwiches work well. But keep diners' food management in mind. Corn on the cob sounds fun, but it's messy for diners to handle. Everyone loves ice cream treats, but they melt easily and tend to be an abundant source of sticky drips.

Serve only ice water to drink. Your guests won't die without punch, juice, or soda. Use disposable plates, cups, flatwear, etc. These produce trash, so keep trash containers readily accessible. In fact, set them out before going to church. A family member that needs to be useful can be assigned to make sure that these containers don't get too full during the gathering.

Satisfy the masses, not the individual
Serve only foods that are likely to be enjoyed by at least half of your guests. You are setting up a limited buffet, not a specialty diner. If only a few of your guests will touch a given food, it's probably too specialized.

Resist the urge to cook
Refrain from cooking or even warming up any food on the day of the event. The only exception to this might be something that could be warming in a crock pot while you are at church—think pork and beans or cocktail weenies. But only serve something like this if most guests will eat it.

Go cheap
This might sound uncharitable, but maximize foods that are rich in dense carbohydrates and fats while minimizing foods that are high in protein. Restaurateurs have long known this trick. Meats and cheeses are expensive. Breads, pastas, chips, cookies, cakes, and the like are cheap by comparison. People like them too. You can make it look like you splurged by serving real butter for the bread. While you need to make sure that you have enough of the pricier dishes you serve, you can reduce expenses by offering fewer varieties of these.

If you're concerned about the healthiness of this approach, consider the advice of one dietary expert who says that there are no truly unhealthy foods; only unhealthy diets. After all, this is only one meal, and it's supposed to be a party.

Proper planning and preparation prevents problems
Prepare everything in advance. Before going to church put out everything needed for the gathering except for the foods that must be kept cold until being served. That way you can come home, quickly put out the cold foods, and immediately begin eating.

It would be nice if every guest could dine while seated at a table. But this depends on how much room you have and how many tables and chairs you can get. You may end up with most diners just sitting on the furniture with plates in their laps. Also, consider the fact that the more comfortable guests are, the longer they will linger and the more they will eat. Remember that you're being a conscientious host, not driving guests away.

Keep it moving
Keep the serving line moving. You will need to use the limited space in your home as best you can unless conditions allow you to serve the buffet outside. Set up the serving line long before going to church. Try to foresee and mitigate bottlenecks. You might need to portion out some dishes and spread them out to allow better access.

Put the plates at the start of the line. The drinks, napkins, and utensils go at the end so that people don't have to juggle these while serving themselves. Between starting and ending points, place the main dish items, followed by side dishes, and finally the desserts. The fewer varieties of food you offer, the faster the line will move. Waiting to set out desserts until most guests have been through the line also significantly speeds up the process, but it means that you have to watch and work while people are eating.

Taking tips from the fast food industry can also be helpful. When serving foods that allow diners to add sauces or spreads, the line will move more efficiently if these condiments are located away from the serving table and closer to where the guests dine; maybe even on their tables.

Too much beats too little
Don't run out of food. It's difficult to know how many people will show up and how much food they will eat. Even consulting with friends and neighbors may not help, due to the uniqueness of your family dynamics and your child's popularity. Also, competing events of the day differ from occasion to occasion. Use your best guess. But remember that it's better to have leftovers than to turn guests away unsatisfied.

And finally, RELAX!
It would be nice to relax in Sacrament meeting and enjoy your child's talk. But the reality is that you may be too frazzled for that kind of calmness. Still, your day will be easier and Sacrament meeting will be more enjoyable if you keep the food and preparations for your gathering simple. (See D&C 59:12-13) Just keep thinking to yourself, "This too shall pass." And no matter how it turns out, try to enjoy interacting with your guests. These relationships are more important than any of the food you will serve.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Food for Missionary Farewell Gatherings

This past weekend our son spoke in Sacrament meeting prior to beginning two years of service as a missionary for our church. Per the accepted cultural pattern in our area, we hosted a gathering at our home following the meeting.

Years ago when I left on my mission it was common in these parts for the families of departing missionaries to host something more akin to an open house or a reception. Ward members dropping by with well wishes were offered refreshments. This was repeated upon the missionary's return. These gatherings could be fun, but they resulted in unnecessary expense and social pressure. Gatherings are still held in my area, but they are mostly limited to family and close friends.

Still, our son is a very popular guy. Since he is one of the younger members of his class, many of his friends and acquaintances are already serving missions. We had some idea of how many family members would show up to our event, but we had absolutely no idea how many friends (especially voracious 19- and 20-year-old young men) would put in an appearance. So planning was difficult.

One of the primary rules of hosting a gathering where food is served is to avoid running out. Having enough is more important than having a variety. While families may feel like they are in a culinary arms race to offer wider varieties of fancier foods, simplicity is your friend. We choose to narrow our focus and to have plenty of the items we were going to serve.

We decided to go with sandwiches, chips, salads, cookies, and water. We bought loaves of high quality (sliced) bread from a local bakery. These loaves were only slightly more expensive than rolls, but they were more compact. This allowed us to buy them early and then store them in the freezer until the day before the party. We sliced each loaf so that the square-ish pieces of bread ended up as triangles. As I predicted, this reduced the amount of bread used. The dense texture of the bread probably worked to our advantage as well.

We bought 10 lbs of sliced roast beef and 10 lbs of sliced roast turkey breast. Per my observation, the beef was preferred by guests more than two-to-one over the turkey. Next time we will try to balance that better. We put the condiments on the dining tables so that people didn't gum up the serving line preparing their sandwiches. We served American and Provolone cheese. We also put out peanut butter and jelly. I was surprised at how many guests opted for PBJ sandwiches.

Putting the water cooler, cups, napkins, and flatwear on a different table also sped up the serving line. Speaking of water, it's a lot cheaper than sweetened and/or flavored drinks. It's also colorless and not sticky. No one complained. We put a 5-lb block of ice in the water cooler on Saturday evening and filled the container with water on Sunday morning.

Our town has a commercial cookie bakery outlet store where we picked up a number of frosted and sprinkled sugar cookies for cheap. My wife baked three batches of brownies in advance and froze them. She likes baking brownies using a mix because it is such a simple process. We also baked up a load of chocolate chip cookies using store-bought dough. How can you go wrong with chocolate chip and sugar cookies, along with brownies?

We bought four large bags of plain potato chips and four large bags of Doritos. We had three bags of each left over. Family members that wanted to help were asked to bring various salads and relish trays. We cut up a watermelon and a cantaloupe as well. For dessert we had frozen Otter Pops in a cooler.

There are lots of other possibilities that we considered when it came to serving food. But we had read an article that suggested that the more varieties of foods you offer, the slower your serving line will move. It also suggested refraining from cooking anything on the day of the event. After all, you're offering simple refreshments to guests, not setting up a buffet restaurant. I figured that any guest that couldn't find enough to eat among our offerings was just too darn picky. And at any rate, most of us Americans carry enough excess weight that missing a meal wouldn't hurt us.

We prepared everything we could in advance. We staged most things on Saturday evening so that food could be quickly set out after our church meetings on Sunday.

We were also gambling with the weather. Since it is summer, we planned to hold the gathering outside. This would minimize impact on the inside of the home. No one cares much when a drink gets spilled on the lawn as opposed to the carpet. Hosting the event outside also meant that we didn't have to worry as much about perfecting the cleaning and presentation of our home.

We own three banquet tables. We borrowed three others. We have about a dozen folding chairs and a handful of lawn chairs. We borrowed another dozen chairs and used our dining table chairs. After my morning meetings on Sunday, I came home and set up all of the tables and chairs. I hoped that the wind would die down, that the overcast skies would refrain from dropping rain, and that our setup would not be disturbed while we spent more than three hours away at church.

Our son delivered one of the finest outgoing missionary addresses I have ever heard in a church meeting. OK, so I'm biased.

We rushed home from our church meetings (except for our son who was greeting well wishers after church) to set up our feast. The wind had thankfully died down and the overcast skies took the edge off the heat just enough to make it relatively pleasant. By the time our son arrived, we had about two dozen of his friends along with a number of our extended family members. We blessed the food and then let people dig in. I spent much of the time taking video and photos.

Guests eventually started to say their goodbyes. An hour after we started, about half the guests had finished and left. Another half hour later, all but my son's buddies (his girlfriend called them his "bros") were all that were left of our guests. We hauled food into the house, put chairs and tables away, and returned borrowed items. The sun came out, driving our son and his buddies into the house. The friends all went home after a while and we finally relaxed.

Some of the lessons we learned from our missionary farewell party include the following:
  • We had nearly twice the amount of every kind of food as was actually used; more than twice enough of turkey, chips, and cheese. It's better to have more than enough than not enough. But if you're going to have a lot extra of something, it's better if it's something that can be easily stored.
  • Sandwiches are a good option for this type of gathering. But we could get more beef and less turkey, as well as less cheese. Setting out peanut butter and jelly was a good idea.
  • It's not a good idea to freeze thinly sliced meat in large blocks. I think this would be more successful if the meats were split out into 1-lb or even ½-lb bags. Or else buy the meat the day before the event and refrigerate it instead of freezing it.
  • Moving condiments and items that slow the serving line off to another location worked well.
  • Although we didn't have an extremely broad selection, the selection we offered was just fine. Limiting selection and not cooking on the day of the gathering constituted a good plan.
  • It's nice to hold the event outdoors if conditions permit.
  • Guests like to dine at tables. We had 50 chairs, but table seating for only half that many. It would have been nice to have more tables.
  • Serving only ice water to drink worked well.
  • Otter Pops were a decent outdoor summer treat. Maybe not so good for indoors or for colder weather.
We will get an opportunity to improve on our missionary farewell party skills in just a few weeks when we celebrate another of our sons embarking on his mission. Maybe we'll have decent weather then too. If not, we may gather in the garage. Then we'll get to reprise both of these gatherings when our boys return in two years. Down the road we hope to have similar departure and return parties for their younger brothers.

Of course, these parties are merely social formalities. They are nowhere near as important as the work these young men are undertaking. Still, if we're going to hold gatherings like this anyway, it makes sense to try to make them as good as we can. Please feel free to post your suggestions for good missionary farewell/homecoming gatherings in the comments.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

It's a Miracle

Miracles happen. I have experienced them. But sometimes they take time and require work.

I recently stood in what I consider to be one of the most sacred places on earth. Like others there, I was clothed in white. I stood inside the entrance and waited for probably 90 seconds, although; it seemed like much longer.

Finally I could see him coming. My son approached the large entrance looking at the glorious room beyond. An inner glow seemed to make his face as radiant as the white clothing he wore. When he saw me he rushed forward through the doorway and gripped me in a full body embrace.

One by one the family members in attendance filtered into the room, each clad in white. Tears were soon slipping freely from my son's eyes, to the point that drops were falling from his chin. My sister-in-law kindly offered a Kleenex.

This day had been long in coming. I long doubted it would come. As a young child my son seemed to carry the light of heaven with him. He had an innate strong faith and frequently had spiritual experiences. His early school years brought a variety of challenges, including serious moodiness, regularly being bullied, and a third grade teacher that often publicly harassed and verbally abused this tender boy (a fact we discovered late in the year).

Even through those dark times the inner light still shown. Something changed during my son's teens. He never fit in well with the youth in our neighborhood or congregation. He felt that those that should have been his strongest supporters treated him noxiously. It hurt him when his contemporaries in the congregation would treat him badly outside of church.

Eventually my son sought acceptance in other circles where he could feel comfortable. Unfortunately, this ease meant that seldom did anyone in these groups encourage companions to aspire to their better selves, as would a true friend. My son's previously bright countenance became darkened as he increasingly pulled away from spirituality and higher moral values.

That's not to say that all was bad during those years. We (especially my wife) still had a fairly good relationship with our son. He still helped out at home. He had gainful employment until he developed a mystifying chronic illness that made college and work difficult.

Eventually my son started to feel his way back to the goodness he had known in his youth. It was pretty awkward at first. For quite a while it was as if he was trying to walk with one foot in the light and one in the dark. A breakthrough occurred when relapsing into behavior that he had promised to forsake caused him to realize that he wanted something better.

We began weekly father-son meetings that over the months went from uncomfortable to deeply sweet and precious. These were aided by regular meetings with ecclesiastical figures. Little by little the light that I had seen in my young son's face began to illuminate his soul again, but on a much deeper level. Over time he came to know for himself the power of the Savior's Atonement.

A relatively minor surgery miraculously improved my son's chronic illness, allowing him to consider service that had previously been foreclosed to him. In preparation for this service we recently found ourselves in what for us is a holy place, clothed in white, embracing, and experiencing great joy.

The change my son has experienced has been nothing short of miraculous. He is a new person— much more the person he could and should be. He is much happier. And because of that I am happier.

Miracles do happen. Sometimes they take time and effort. But when that is the case, they are well worth whatever is required.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Toward Social Disconnect

"There were only three TV channels when I was a kid, so everybody watched the same stuff and knew who all of the entertainment personalities were," I often find myself telling my kids in defense of the fact that I am so utterly oblivious about current entertainment matters. Every other kid I knew in those long ago days watched the Beverly Hillbillies, Gilligan's Island, Green Acres, Star Trek, Mission Impossible, etc. We'd occasionally catch a bit of the Twilight Zone when our parents weren't around.

I can remember watching TV on a somewhat regular basis when my older kids were quite young. I then spent four years earning a bachelor and a master degree while also working full time and raising a family. Watching TV went by the wayside during those busy years. I have simply never found time to devote to that pastime since then.

If I ever do sit down in the family room when the TV is on, it's only a short time later that I am walking out of the room, having thought of something else to do. I can't imagine paying for cable or satellite TV. When we visit someplace that offers such, I quickly surmise that it's simply more channels of 'nothing to watch' than used to exist.

Entertainment has expanded and diversified significantly since my childhood. People can more easily find offerings with more direct personal appeal than at any time in history. Moreover, we are moving to more 'pull' than 'push' forms of entertainment, where people choose what they will do when they want to do it instead of being stuck with only being able to watch a show when it is broadcast, for example.

While this specialization is a boon, it has diminished the shared paradigm—the common cultural reference that existed in my childhood, when everyone knew details about the Stephens family in Bewitched. I frequently find myself unable to participate in discussions about TV shows at work. Not only have I seen none of the shows people discuss, I haven't even heard of most of them. When someone mentions in a dreamy tone the name of an actress, I usually have no idea who they're talking about.

When I recently held the door open at a restaurant for a fairly large family group, some of my family members were star struck. Among the group was a famous TV personality. Not only did I fail to recognize this person, I had no idea who the person was once my family members told me the star's name.

These common points of reference, though inane of themselves, can provide a platform for relating to others. Small talk performs an important social function, although, the actual words used may matter little. It helps engender civility and can lead to more useful communication. Small talk is easier when the parties have some kind of common ground.

Sports, movies, TV shows, Internet memes, music, work, school, products, video games, etc, can provide somewhat non-threatening connection points. For those familiar with communications protocol, small talk about something the parties commonly understand is like the outer interface layer, where a connection must occur before moving to progressively deeper layers where vital communication occurs.

While expanding choices allow us to increasingly tailor our lives according to our desires, increasingly diverse lives can render simple human interaction more difficult due to a lack of common reference points. This can lead to a breakdown in community and cooperation.

I know all of this, but I still can't seem to bring myself to watch the TV shows others talk about. Nor am I a sports guy. Although I understand the value of connecting with others via sports, I can't bear to watch a sporting event any more than the average sports fan can endure an opera. I know that this sometimes leaves me feeling disconnected, but I don't foresee me changing my ways.

Forecasting the future is a risky venture fraught with many obvious problems. It would seem to me, however, that the expansion of specialization and diversity that has marked my entire life span will continue on its current trajectory for some time. I wonder what kinds of cultural factors will emerge to help us deal with this phenomenon.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

My Dying Uncle

"Is he taking any fluids?" I asked. "Not anymore," Mom replied. "He's mostly unconscious, but when he's somewhat lucid he's seeing people on both sides of the veil."

So this time would be different than the numerous times over the previous few months that Mom has told me that her oldest surviving brother was on his way out. He's been dying of cancer so long that the fact that he still survives in his mid 90s defies current medical understanding.

As I thought of my cousins on death watch, I couldn't help but hear in the back of my mind my Dad's labored breathing on his deathbed four years ago. Mom had been on constant watch at the hospital for a week and a half. I had spent nearly every moment I could spare up there.

When they told us that Dad was close to passing, my two older brothers drove from their more distant homes to be there. One younger brother was traveling back east. Another was traveling homeward and couldn't get to the hospital until the following morning.

The four of us—Mom, my two older brothers, and me—kept the grim watch as the evening wore into the night and then into the wee hours of the morning. It had been more than a day and a half since Dad had moved at all other than to breathe.

It pained me to sit there and watch Dad breathe. His bones rose up through the thinning skin of his emaciated form with each deep labored breath. Except for one brief moment around 2 am, the dreaded pattern of Dad's breathing seemed to go on unchanged, sounding almost like some horrible aspirating machine.

A little before 4 am my brothers sent me home to rest, out of concern for my own health issues. As I walked from the hospital room I was fully aware that I might never see Dad alive again. That thought didn't bother me much because of an experience I had had a couple of days earlier.

During the last few weeks of Dad's life I used up a lot of leave at work while trying to spend as much time as I could helping and being with Mom and Dad. Dad went downhill pretty fast after being admitted to the hospital. He was in and out of consciousness. Sometimes he tried to communicate coherently with us. Other times he was obviously experiencing psychological distress and/or physical discomfort. The hospital staff was very good about trying to help Dad be as comfortable as possible. But finally he was unconscious most of the time.

Per my regular pattern, I returned home late one night after spending the entire evening at the hospital. Early in the morning I got ready for work. But as I backed the car out of the driveway I felt an overwhelming urge to turn toward the hospital rather than turning toward my office. Somehow I just knew that I had to go to the hospital; although, Mom hadn't called and I had just been at the hospital hours earlier.

I chided myself as I drove toward the hospital, knowing that this trip would cost me yet more leave from work—time that would end up shortchanging my wife and kids when it came to family vacation. But I simply couldn't ignore the deep prompting I had felt.

Mom was surprised to see me walk into the hospital room, which was unusually bright because the blinds were open. To my surprise, Dad opened his eyes and recognized me. I pulled a chair up to his bed and he motioned for me to lean in so that we could embrace.

Dad's ability to verbally communicate fully coherent thoughts had been impaired by a stroke a year and a half earlier. But the real verbal communication problem was that Dad's diminishing heart function was supplying diminishing levels of blood and oxygen to his brain.

Still, we talked for a few minutes. Dad was the most lucid I had seen him for days. He made me promise that I would get my Mom into a more suitable home after he passed. We expressed our love for each other. Then Dad lay his head on his pillow and went to sleep. That was the final lucid moment of Dad's life.

I thought about that as I drove home from the hospital after my brothers dismissed me. I was exhausted as I climbed into bed. Part of me felt like I was shirking my duty to be at the hospital. But another part of me was relieved that I didn't have to watch Dad's labored breathing. 45 minutes after I closed my eyes the phone rang. I picked it up to hear my brother report that Dad had passed.

I quickly dressed and returned to the hospital. My youngest brother soon arrived. For nearly an hour we sat around Dad's bed and reminisced. It may sound macabre for family members to sit around the corpse of a loved one. But it was actually a very comforting and even spiritual experience. We stayed until the morticians arrived to discreetly remove Dad's remains.

Before long my cousins will have a similar experience. As with my Dad's passing, I hope that the bitterness of separation will be tempered by the sweetness of the memories of a life well lived and love well shared.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Gratitude Leads to Happiness and Health

We try to hold family prayer each night. We actually have a chart to keep track of whose turn it is to act as voice for our family's prayer. I have recently noticed our young daughter's tendency to briefly thank the Lord for all the blessings he has given us in one blanket statement before moving on to ask for numerous blessings. A few nights ago, I actually interrupted the prayer and asked my daughter to be more specific in thanking the Lord. I sense a family home evening lesson on gratitude coming up.

It didn't surprise me when I saw this article discussing the scientifically measured benefits of gratitude. Researchers designed a method for measuring gratitude among teens. They found that as "gratitude increases, so do life satisfaction, happiness, positive attitudes, hope and even academic performance." Rates of depression and physical illness are reduced, and rates of well-being and accomplishment increase as people are more grateful.

While the study focused on teens, the results very likely transfer to all age groups. One researcher noted that rates of gratitude were not closely tied to economic class or race. Poor teens were just as likely to be grateful as were rich teens. The study seems to suggest that beneficial gratitude is an internal matter: a way of thinking and approaching life.

I have tried to teach my children that expressions of gratitude in prayer should usually exceed requests for blessings. This can be useful in helping them creatively think about what to say during the 'thanking' portion of a prayer. We have one son that used to regularly thank the Lord for modern toilets and other sanitary systems on a regular basis. I am not opposed to expressing gratitude for this. But our son would frequently get detailed enough that the matter seemed less than reverent to the rest of us.

Simply attempting to enumerate expressions of gratitude in prayer can also lead children to spout rote and meaningless words simply to get to what they might see as more important requests for divine intervention. On the other hand, one blanket statement thanking the Lord may be appropriate if our hearts are actually filled with  gratitude.

While our internal gratitude is more important than the words we say when thanking, I have sometimes found myself moved to greater gratitude by the words I say. While it may seem best for emotion to cause corresponding motion, sometimes getting in motion generates emotion.

Yesterday morning I was blessed to attend a worship service at an outdoor chapel overlooking Lake of the Woods in a remote area of Wyoming. It was easy to feel gratitude in that grand cathedral constructed by the hand of God and decorated far more beautifully than the finest man made chapel. I thought back to the first time I visited that place as a 12-year-old scout, and I felt gratitude for my scoutmaster Bob Porter.

Although I wasn't the youngest boy in the troop, I was the slowest when it came to hiking. Bob was right behind me as I slowly trudged my way to Beula Lake far behind the rest of the troop. Ditto for the return hike. As I reflected on this experience, I started to think about some of the people that had unselfishly served me throughout my life—far more than can be counted—and my heart swelled with gratitude.

One of the men present at the worship service got up and talked about coming to Camp Loll as a young scout. He then pointed at me and said that I had been one of the staff members that summer. He talked about some of the ways I had served him. I hadn't realized what an impact just doing my duty had had on him. It gave me joy to think that something I had done had blessed someone else. And this lifted me to a new level of gratitude.

I think that gratitude can be like that: part of an upward spiraling cycle of gratitude and joy. That's what I want my children to experience when they pray. It would seem that doing so carries side benefits of better mental and physical health. But the heavenly delight that comes from true gratitude seems more significant. I doubt there's any other way to get that kind of joy.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

The Value of the Eagle Scout Rank

My family's strong scouting tradition is only two generations deep. My Dad grew up in Germany where scouting had been officially supplanted by the Hitler Youth. As far as I am aware, none of my Mom's brothers were involved in scouting in their youth. But my parents strongly supported our scouting activities and encouraged our advancement in the program.

My oldest brother set a great example for his four younger brothers, each of whom followed him to earn the rank of Eagle Scout. How could we not? By the time my baby brother came along he had a lot of pressure on him to earn the rank. Three of my four sons are Eagle Scouts and #4 is well on his way to reaching that goal. Most of their male cousins have earned the rank as well.

Writer Michael S. Malone discusses the value of the Eagle Scout rank in this Wall Street Journal article, which was published yesterday, the centennial of the date that the first Eagle Scout rank was achieved by Arthur Eldred, a 17-year-old scout from Long Island. Malone notes that the award, which has been called "the Ph.D. of Boyhood," is currently earned by only 4% of young men that join Boy Scouts. (Malone has recently published a book on the subject titled Four Percent.)

Malone says that Eagle Scouts are "very different from the classic 13-year-old Boy Scout in short pants." After distinguishing themselves as youth, many go on to distinguish themselves as adults. The list of publicly known Eagle Scouts is impressive. It includes military heroes, politicians, astronauts, academicians, business leaders, journalists, athletes, entertainers, explorers, activists, judges, religious leaders, and those that have achieved well in many other walks of life. Hundreds of thousands of others have quietly served their communities and lived moral lives.

The list of Eagle Scouts also contains a few infamous characters that failed to live up to the high ideals of scouting, including several murderers. Still, Eagle Scouts tend to be much more civically involved and far less likely to commit crime than men that were Boy Scouts but did not earn the Eagle Scout rank or men that never joined scouting.

"Eagle Scouting's biggest contribution to American life" writes Malone, is "the service project, the "dissertation" of the boyhood Ph.D." Since this requirement was instituted in the mid-1960s Eagle service projects have been responsible for a "jaw-dropping total of more than 100 million hours of service" that have "touched every community in America in an important way."

I have helped with and reviewed many Eagle projects over the years. Most have been small scale projects. A few have been pretty ambitious. A common project is to collect items for non-profit organizations: books for a library at a shelter, blankets for disaster victims, school kits for kids in third world countries, etc. Work on municipal parks is another regular theme.

My three Eagle Scout sons had very diverse projects. Each project has tallied some 220 to 270 volunteer hours. One son photographed and created a database of grave markers at a local cemetery. Another built a serious official horseshoe pitching court at a church camp. Another developed a recruitment video for Bugles Across America.

While service is a key ingredient to the Eagle project, the requirement emphasizes demonstrating leadership in planning and carrying out the project. Frankly, I felt that I did poorly in that aspect of my own project. I had difficulty getting others to come and help with renovations on a city park playground (that no longer exists).

The scouting program is carried out in a distinctive way in the area where I live, where most BSA units are sponsored by the LDS Church. (See my 10/19/2007 post titled Mediocre LDS Scouting.) The Church strongly emphasizes the importance of becoming an Eagle Scout. According to this site, about 6% of LDS scouts earn the rank, a rate that is about 150% of the national average.

In my opinion the typical Eagle project carried out by an LDS scout is significantly less ambitious than the typical project completed by a scout from a unit with a different sponsor. It is not uncommon for an Eagle project in my area to provide fewer than 40 service hours. Maybe this is simply due to the fact that the typical LDS Eagle Scout earns the rank at a younger age than the national average. A 13-year-old Eagle candidate is likely to have less experience and capacity than a 17-year-old.

Some have suggested that these factors mean that an Eagle Scout rank earned by an LDS scout is of less value than one earned by a non-LDS scout. I certainly wouldn't go that far. I think that this could only be judged after a lifetime to see how well these men have lived up to their scouting pledges. From the data available, it would seem that LDS Eagle Scouts compare well on a lifetime basis.

All achievements in life include a mixture capacity, individual will, opportunity, and luck. I happened to land in a troop that had a strong scouting program and I had parents that supported and encouraged my achievement in the program. Others weren't as fortunate. I know a number of top notch adult scouting volunteers that didn't achieve the Eagle rank because they lacked some of the advantages I had.

But I also know many men that as youth had greater opportunities and talent than me, but that simply didn't do what it took to achieve the Eagle rank. Some got to the next lower rank and then stalled out. A friend says that he simply made decisions that resulted in him being a Life Scout for the rest of his life.

Malone notes that while the BSA as a whole has suffered from some negative stereotypes and controversies, "the image of Eagle Scouts has only risen over the decades in American life and culture." Still, a handful of Eagle Scouts (the BSA says fewer than 100, while Scouting for All claims about 1000) have renounced their Eagle awards in protest to the BSA's policy excluding from membership individuals who are open or avowed homosexuals.

The BSA has explained that it "believes that homosexual conduct is inconsistent with the obligations in the Scout Oath and Scout Law to be morally straight and clean in thought, word, and deed." Activists and media organizations that oppose this belief are determined to punish the BSA until it adopts their philosophy on the matter.

Still, it is doubtful that changing the policy would mollify opponents, since some have made it clear that they find many other BSA policies and practices repugnant. It would also seem that backing down on what has been codified as a moral imperative would only damage the integrity of the organization.

While detractors believe that Eagle Scouts represent what is wrong with America, many young men will continue to aspire to the high ideals of the rank. A few of these will do what it takes to stand proudly as the medal representing their achievement is pinned to their chest.

I have a dream of having a photo portrait made of me and my four sons, all Eagle Scouts and all wearing scout uniforms. We're more than two years away from that point. Son #4 could achieve the Eagle rank in a year or so. But the photo session will have to wait until his two oldest brothers return from serving as missionaries for their church a couple of years from now.