Monday, December 30, 2013

The Logistics of Sacrament Meeting Programs

I furtively glanced at the clock on the wall of the chapel. The remaining meeting time was slipping away. Yet the first speaker gave no sign of concluding his talk. I quietly expressed gratitude that I was merely a congregant and not among the bishopric members that were seated on the stand and who were responsible for the meeting.

The speaker, a newly returned missionary, spoke with purity, reverence, love, and conviction. Despite the large congregation, most were reverently attentive to the speaker and seemed to be engaged in his message. There was a minimum of distracting noises or even white noise. I could tell that many present were feeling the Holy Spirit.

Still, I felt anxious for the two other speakers that were sitting on the stand awaiting their turn to speak. Moreover, I knew that a number of 11- and 12-year-old girls had worked hard to prepare a special musical number for the program. Would there be time for any of these items?

I frequently try to remind myself that the main purpose of sacrament meeting is for "members of the Church [to] renew their covenants by partaking of the sacrament" (Handbook 2, Section 18.2.2). Other purposes such as to "worship, provide gospel instruction, perform ordinances, conduct ward business, and strengthen faith and testimony" are icing on the cake, as it were. Each of these has value and is important, but each is also ancillary to the main feature of the ordinance of the sacrament where we covenant to make the Atonement of Christ the central component of our lives.

Our bishop is a wonderful man that seems to exude love. As a convert to the church he was not raised amid church protocol. He seems relatively willing to conduct meetings "after the manner of the working of the Spirit, and by the power of the Holy Ghost" (Moroni 6:9).

Still, church protocol exists for a reason. Bishoprics that plan sacrament meeting programs know that each meeting should last 70 minutes (Handbook 2, Section 18.1). Adhering closely to this schedule becomes more important when sacrament meeting occupies the first segment of the three meeting block or when another ward is waiting to enter the chapel for their own meeting.

When I served in a bishopric I quickly discovered that the meeting opening and the sacrament ordinance consumed roughly 25-30 minutes. It sometimes took longer if the number of visitors made for an unusually large congregation. The closing hymn and benediction usually took about five minutes. This left about 35-40 minutes (sometimes less) for the program.

Bishoprics are sometimes guilty of over scheduling—trying to cram too many program items into the allotted time. That's unfair to those that are asked to participate on the program. Musical numbers are generally limited in scope. But once a speaker steps to the microphone bishopric members have remarkably little control over how long that person will speak.

When I was responsible for issuing callings to speak I gave each a slip of paper that described the topic, where they were scheduled on the program, the time frame for their talk, and a list of people that would be willing to help them prepare. Most speakers stayed close to the time frame and topic. Some didn't.

I recall one brother (whom I dearly love) speaking with random aimlessness for about 25 minutes when he had been slated to max out at 12 minutes. The bishop twice very nearly got up to ask the man to sit down, but he restrained himself. The man's wife restrained herself too. Very rarely have I seen a speaker add anything of much value after exceeding his or her time limit.

Being the final speaker in a sacrament meeting can be challenging. You might end up with far more, or more likely, far less time than anticipated, requiring you to adjust your talk accordingly. I have also noted that with rare exception the congregation largely stops listening with about five minutes remaining in the meeting. At that point whatever you have to say just isn't important enough for people to listen.

Ending up with excess time at the end of sacrament meeting is an infrequent problem. But when I served in a bishopric our stake presidency asked us to stop referring to such events as "high five Sundays." (We had sacrament meeting last, so most congregants went home early under such conditions.) I note that nowadays any excess time is usually filled by a member of the bishopric or stake presidency. Another option is for the bishop to ask people to bear testimony.

In the meeting mentioned at the start of this post I could tell that the young man felt good about his talk as he concluded. But he did a double take when he glanced at the clock and realized that only five minutes of meeting time remained. He appeared a little nervous as he seated himself beside the other planned speakers. Our bishop got up and made a few kind remarks, noting that the Spirit had been present and that the other speakers would be asked to address the congregation on another occasion.

As congregants filed out of the chapel following the closing hymn and prayer, I noticed that the mother of one of the girls that was to have sung had one of the bishop's counselors cornered. She was explaining that a number of grandparents had braved snowy roads and had rearranged their schedules to see their granddaughters sing at the meeting. The uncomfortable counselor nervously said that he would discuss the matter with the bishop. I remember days like that. Bishopric members always seem to be in trouble with some members of the congregation.

Bishopric members have a lot to do and think about as they prepare for and execute sacrament meetings. After stumbling over a few seemingly simple announcements at the beginning of a sacrament meeting, one bishop remarked that conducting the meeting looks easy until you have to stand up and do it.

In my experience I have discovered that bishopric members can do much to help sacrament meetings go more smoothly. It's their job to help speakers understand their assignment, including how to stay on topic and within their allotted time frame. Too often bishopric members are so relieved to get someone to agree to speak that they drop the ball on the specifics of the assignment.

Church members that are asked to speak can also help. For starters, there is no need to get so uptight about speaking. It isn't really about you. Unless you do something incredibly memorable (which doesn't happen a lot), the memory that you even spoke will fade for most people after a few weeks. Just ask your family members who spoke in sacrament meeting two weeks ago.

Members of the congregation want you to succeed. Most are just trying to survive your talk. If you think about it, you will likely discover some things you can do to help them out. For starters, don't criticize the authority that asked you to speak and don't make it sound like a huge ordeal. That's prideful and selfish. Just dive in and do your assignment without making a big deal about it. I promise that you will feel a lot better about your talk.

If you are an active member of the LDS Church, you have likely attended many sacrament meetings and you will likely attend many more. At some point during your life you will likely have the opportunity (or many opportunities) of taking part in or affecting a sacrament meeting program. It goes with the territory.

Mistakes can be expected to happen in an all volunteer church. And that's OK. God will still love you even if you make some stupendous social faux pas. Nothing can really go very wrong in an eternal sense. Just follow the Spirit and try to enhance the worship experience. It will all work out. You will survive and so will the members of the congregation.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Echo of The Angels' Songs

Last year I wrote about my love of Christmas music. I related how as a child I once stood in our carport and looked at the neighborhood Christmas lights shining through the big fluffy snowflakes that were falling. Feeling overwhelmed by the Christmas spirit I spontaneously sang O Holy Night at the top of my lungs. I didn't care who heard me. I wasn't singing for my neighbors. I was singing for my God. And it felt so right.

When we listen to or participate in sacred Christmas music it is as if our heart strings faintly vibrate with the echo of the songs the angels sang for the shepherds outside of Bethlehem on that first Christmas night—songs of praise declaring that Jesus Christ, the son of God had come to earth as a mortal baby and that he would grow to accomplish the Atonement so that each of us might have the opportunity of living the kind of life that God lives and owning the joy that God owns.

In fact, I believe that every sacred Christmas song, ancient or modern is an attempt to recapture the glory of the songs of praise the angels sang that first Christmas night. Our poor mortal talents can never accomplish that goal. But when we sing or perform in the same spirit of praise as did the angels or listen in the same spirit as did the shepherds, we can sense the echoes of those angelic songs. We can get a glimpse of the angels' glory, feel their testimony of Christ, and sense God's love for us.

May you have a joyous Christmas season. At some point as you experience the sacred songs of this season, may you feel your heart strings vibrate with the echo of the songs the angels sang those long years ago.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Young are Best Suited to Parenting the Young

Years ago I worked with a lady that described a neighbor family as having 15 children, all single births. She said that the first half of the children turned out pretty well but that the last half provided an endless source of both private and public problems.

Some years later I became acquainted with a family that had eight children. Both parents seemed fairly sharp. The four older children were all solid citizens raising their own stable families. The next two both experienced a number of challenges before righting their ships of life and becoming productive members of society. The last two.... Well, frankly, it was, as a mutual friend said, as if the parents had run out of energy by the time those two were being raised.

My brother, who has been an empty nester for several years recently described hosting his son, daughter-in-law, and their three young children for several days at Thanksgiving. While the association was nice, my brother said that after their guests were gone he and his wife collapsed exhausted on the couch and listened to the quiet.

I quipped to my brother, "What you are saying is that the parenting of young children is best left to young parents." "Precisely," he replied. Someone then remarked that by the time you've learned all of the lessons of parenting children you no longer have any at home, but that this is good because you also lack the necessary energy for the task.

Our older children regularly harangue us with the "You never let us get away with that" refrain. I openly admit to them that they are often right. But then I rattle off my reasons:
  • There are more of you to deal with at present than there were back then.
  • I now have a much better idea about which battles are worth fighting, thanks to training provided by the older children.
  • Each child is an individual. The tactics that worked for you don't work well with your younger sibling.
  • Perhaps more important than any of the above is the fact that I am older and have less pep than I did back in the day.
This last point is not to be underestimated. My wife and I married later than most of our friends. Then it took us several years (and some fairly invasive infertility treatments) to begin having kids. The age difference between me and my oldest child is greater than the age difference between my brother and his youngest child. We had five kids while many of our contemporaries had fewer. Not that I'm complaining. This was, after all, our own choice. Also, biology being imperfect, the births of our children were often spaced further apart than we had hoped.

This means that my wife and I are fairly well seasoned. Some of our friends have grandchildren as old as our youngest child. People have occasionally thought that our daughter was our granddaughter. It kind of shocks me to think of how old I will be when I am attending our daughter's high school graduation ceremony.

My wife and I have studied a great deal of literature on how to properly raise children. The world is full of experts that, despite having very imperfect family relations, apparently know how to market books about ideal family life. Heck, my wife has a degree on the subject. (Family relations, not book selling.) I often know what I should do. But sometimes I simply lack sufficient vitality to do it. The weakness of my flesh sometimes means that my hard gained knowledge and wisdom are worth naught in practice.

It used to amaze me to see the extreme eagerness of some to get their kids out of the home. I wondered why they had embarked on the parenting adventure in the first place. Given my ever increasing weariness, I am much less prone to such judgments nowadays. Although our nest will be occupied by more than just the two of us for many years yet, I am told that there is joy (or maybe joyful terror) to be found in watching a fledgling take flight.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

My Big Break Came From Another's Service

"Be good to others," my boss told me. "You never know where your next break will come from. Besides, kindness costs you very little." He went on to tell me about being in a situation where he had to regularly meet with the same group of people for a number of months. He wasn't close to any of them but maintained a good professional relationship with each.

A couple of years later when a position opened up in another area, one of my boss' colleagues from his old task group championed him for the job, which was a promotion for him. He still had no idea why she did this, since there were other competent applicants that might have fit better. But he figured that exercising common courtesy and treating team members respectfully had helped.

A couple of years later I was doing decreasing amounts of tax auditor work and increasing amounts of office automation. This allowed auditors in our office to focus less on clerical functions and more on audit functions that required human judgment. It also provided information to which they previously had little access. I was gaining a reputation as a competent programmer,

One day my boss (a different boss by this time) called me into his office and said that the I.T. department had requested me to work on a 120-day temporary assignment. I wondered how they selected me. I didn't even know anyone the I.T. department, but I jumped at the chance.

By the time my temporary assignment was coming to a close I had proven my I.T. worth by successfully completing development work on several projects. There was talk of extending my assignment. To my disappointment, the approval didn't come through and I unhappily returned to my old auditor digs.

Eventually a permanent programmer position was announced and I applied. But things move awfully slowly in government agencies. So months went by before I was finally selected for the job. In the meantime I spent many evenings going back to school to enhance my programming skills.

I later learned that a lady in the personnel department whom I only obliquely knew had been my great benefactor. She had engineered my first temporary assignment to the I.T. department. She had also killed the extension of that assignment because she knew that I.T. would keep me on temporary assignment indefinitely rather than fill a permanent position that had growth potential. (The money came out of different budgets categories.) When I.T. couldn't fill the temporary assignment they were forced to open a stable position. My temporary assignment had uniquely qualified me for the job.

Thus my career was permanently changed for the better thanks to the work of a lady I hardly knew. I will never know why she worked to benefit me. It is quite possible that I just happened to provide the easiest way for her to accomplish her own assignments. Regardless, I will always be grateful for her help. It has helped me achieve many things in life that would otherwise have been impossible.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Family Christmas Traditions

I realized a few weeks ago that we no longer have any little kids. We still have nearly a full brood at home and we can still look forward to years of homework combat. But the kids are growing up. How do I know this? Other than the usual observations of children growing to adult size, I was surprised at this year's vote on Christmas decorating.

Our family policy has been to decorate not a moment earlier than the first weekend in December and then to put the decorations away sometime before New Years Eve. I quite enjoy the Christmas season, but its rarity is among the features that render it so endearing. While some people start decorating in October, for me that kind of thing increases the season's commonality, thereby, decreasing its specialness.

A few weeks ago, noting that December first this year fell on the Sunday of a long holiday weekend, I offered the family the opportunity of putting up Christmas decorations that weekend. It wasn't that I was eager to decorate. It's just that my practical side considered the available time. The kids flatly turned me down. They didn't care to decorate even one day early.

As it turned out, the kids didn't really care to decorate much at all. The younger two joined my wife and me part of the time, but they mostly preferred to watch a video. The older kids didn't bother to ascend from their basement habitations during the decorating festivities. Our children all seem to enjoy the Christmas decor, but this year they reminded me of the Little Red Hen's associates when it came to doing the work involved—a far cry from the days when seven bodies (many of them energetic young children) all tried to haphazardly jam ornaments on the tree simultaneously.

We put up two Christmas trees each year. Our living room ceiling is more than 12 feet tall. So we have a gorgeous 12-foot-tall tree in there. But the room is too small to host gift opening for our entire family. So we set up a second much smaller Christmas tree in the family room. We recently obtained a wall tree, which is only one half of a regular artificial tree so that it stands flat against a wall. Some of the children gnashed their teeth about that, but it takes up far less room so that we don't have to move furniture around.

Our decorating is limited to the two trees, a porcelain Nativity set, a few doorknob hangers, and a couple other odds and ends. I have never been one to put up outdoor lights. I tell the kids that they are welcome to enjoy the lights our neighbors graciously put up.

Our kids are somewhat flexible about some Christmas traditions, but they are very inflexible about others. In a post last year I described our tradition of giving each child a box of their favorite breakfast cereal on Christmas morning; a tradition we concocted long ago to make sure that family members ate breakfast before opening gifts. I recently asked the kids if they wanted their usual private cereal or if they would prefer that I make them a hot breakfast this year. I was shouted down for heresy. We will be doing cereal, as usual.

Another cherished tradition that will continue is our Christmas Eve dinner on the floor. Years ago we thought we'd try holding a dinner that would have been reminiscent of Passover dinners in the Jewish culture of Jesus' day. We're not Jewish so we didn't try to serve a kosher meal. But we got pita bread to imitate the unleavened bread, served dried fruits and nuts, and found a variety of other interesting fare. The main thing that intrigued the children was that we ate on the floor by candlelight.

Over the years our Christmas Eve dinners have turned to much more American fare that lacks any reasonable semblance of foods served in Palestine 2,000 years ago. But we still continue to hold dinner on the floor by candlelight. A lot of it is electric candlelight these days, simply for convenience and safety.

Not that this tradition is without challenges. We set up seats and TV trays for our aging widowed mothers whose joints find floor seating decreasingly tolerable. And since getting a dog two years ago we have had to figure out how to keep him away from the meal. We usually give him a nice meaty bone, which keeps him busy long enough for us to serve, dine, and clean up.

Another tradition that will stay for awhile longer was carried over from my childhood. Each Christmas we would draw a sibling's name for a gift exchange. Sibling gifts were presented and opened after dinner on Christmas Eve so that we had something to occupy us while we eagerly awaited Christmas morning.

This tradition evolved to family gift exchanges as my brothers and I began forming our own families. We eventually called it quits after a family discussion on the matter because we were all going home from the family gathering with more junk than we needed. I am probably still in hot water for making an insensitive comment about the proliferation of Christmas craft items generated by some of my craft-y and artistic sisters-in-law.

I'm not sure how much our kids care about our family's first Christmas tradition. The Christmas we were engaged my wife and I bought a heart shaped ornament. Every Christmas since then we have found some kind of unique ornament that features a heart. Each of these ornaments is labeled with the year. Perhaps this tradition will become more meaningful to our children in the future.

Our family Christmas traditions will evolve as our family dynamics change. Eventually our children will develop their own Christmas traditions as they form their own families. Maybe some of these traditions will stem from those they enjoyed while growing up.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Utah Politician Thinks He Knows How to Force Parents to Do the Government's Bidding

The problem with public education, thinks Aaron Osmond of the Utah Senate (R-South Jordan) is that schools can only assign homework to students and not directly to their parents (see KSL article). Osmond says that our system focuses too much on forcing students to be in school for certain periods of time rather than focusing on educational outcomes.

While Osmond certainly has a point, his proposed solution offers yet another Big Brother top-down approach to a broad cultural problem that Big Brother has played no small part in fostering. Why is it that when statist policies fail to produce desired results, statists always see the answer as more statism, more government control over individuals, more coercion, and less liberty?

Osmond's proposal would, among other things "require parents to attend parent-teacher conferences and agree to support children in completion of homework assignments." Never mind the fact that many experts dispute the value of most homework as it is actually assigned. (Education experts know what productive homework is, but despite extensive training, educators persist in overwhelmingly assigning unproductive homework, insisting that their assignments have value.)

The policy Osmond has proposed is rife with problems. For starters, it is based on a faulty understanding of why parents don't attend parent-teacher conferences and buys into the education system's "deeply seated assumptions about parental involvement" that conflict "with the views of many parents" (see 1994 Educational Leadership article).

Osmond, along with many educators, seems to perceive that the parents that most need to attend conferences are often those that don't attend. This thinking reveals "an assumption that one of the main reasons for involving parents is to remediate them. It is assumed that involved parents bring a body of knowledge about the purposes of schooling to match institutional knowledge. Unless they bring such knowledge to the school, they themselves are thought to need education in becoming legitimate participants."

But non-attending parents usually aren't uncaring. Rather, their "school experiences, economic and time constraints, and linguistic and cultural practices have produced a body of knowledge about school settings that frequently" differs dramatically from that of educators.

These parents often feel that their concerns continually go unheeded and unaddressed. They feel like the system treats them as subjects to be commanded rather than actual partners. Osmond's proposal would enhance rather than assuage this sentiment.

Many parents feel that they have little voice in their child's education, which is managed by a massive bureaucracy that passes out mandates left and right and commands what they and their children must do outside of school hours. (Incidentally, some teachers feel the same way.) Parents might be excused for seeing this as an admission that the school is insufficiently competent to provide instruction in a seven-hour day.

The education system often views such parental concerns and issues "as serious problems rather than valued knowledge." What parent wants to show up for conferences where she is treated as inferior and deficient?

Underperforming students are disproportionately concentrated in lower income families, which are themselves disproportionately single-parent families. Lower income parents struggle just to put food on the table and to put clothes on their kids. Many work two or more part-time jobs. These economic constraints often prevent attendance at school conferences and events, even if parents would like to be there. How will Osmond's proposal help these people?

We have a child that by some measures was ranked in the top 1% of students in the entire nation for his age group. His educational outcomes were spectacular. His younger brother has a number of challenges that will prevent him from ever aspiring to such lofty heights. Almost everything school-wise is a struggle. This son requires a great deal more parental involvement than did his older brother.

Osmond's proposal would presumably generously allow parents to customize their agreements with teachers on homework to address differing needs, as long as outcomes rise to the level of some bureaucratically mandated goal. But what about when our younger son simply can't do any more homework for mental health reasons? What happens when our son fails to reach the mandated standards despite our best efforts? Do we go to jail?

Nor is the fact that both my wife and I are well educated always help. Teachers usually expect students to do assignments in certain ways—ways that are not always clearly reflected in the associated textbook or on the teacher's blog site. I can help my child with his English paper or math assignment, but unless I have actually been in class with my child, I stand a very good chance of helping him magnificently mess up his homework because my method may not agree with his teacher's method. Thus, mandating that parents help their children with homework is not guaranteed to be very helpful and can actually be harmful to the proposal's stated goals.

Educators may also object to the expanded role that would come with Osmond's proposal as they add law enforcement and audit roles. Does anyone think that parents under this new mandate will not demand expanded conference opportunities including more evenings and weekends, professionally scheduled appointments, and the like? Will educator unions put up with this without demanding higher pay? Does anyone think that schools won't have to hire agents to police the parents?

Taking time to customize a homework plan with each teacher could consume copious time. It would certainly require more than the 60-180 seconds that teachers can generally afford in a face-to-face meeting with a parent during open conferences.

A junior high teacher could have as many as 150-200 sets of parents to meet with each term. Affording each set 10 minutes would require up to 80 hours (including meals and breaks), where teachers now spend about 10 hours. I know a family that had five children in junior high and high school simultaneously. Meeting with each of each child's teachers under such a paradigm (including travel) would have consumed all of the productive hours in a day, if the teachers could even manage to arrange consecutive appointments.

And what will Sen. Osmond propose to put teeth in his bill, since a law without consequences is no law at all? Fines? (Yeah, that will help those low income parents.) Jail time, as was proposed in one Michigan district in 2010? (Johnny, we had to put your mom in jail because she allowed you to be such a lousy student.) Home "visits" by government officials to "help" parents? (My Dad witnessed such visits while growing up in Nazi Germany.)

How would any of these coercive measures actually improve a child's education? And even if there was some such hope, how could the asserted positive results outweigh the predictable negative results? Good intentions do not compensate for harm caused by those intentions.

I am reminded of C.S. Lewis having written, "Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience."

Sen. Osmond needs to go back to school and discover the realities of why parents don't attend parent-teacher conferences. As it stands, his proposal hews to C.S. Lewis' gibe on "running about with fire extinguishers when there is a flood"

Osmond should ask senate leaders to repeatedly whack his fingers with a ruler until he gives up on trying to use coercion to improve educational outcomes. Senate leaders should put a stake in the heart of Osmond's proposal and bury it so deeply that it will never see the light of day. It is bad policy based on faulty assumptions and is designed to use the wrong tool to achieve its goals. Instead of interfering, government sometimes governs best when it gets out of the way.

Monday, December 02, 2013

White Friday

"No male baptisms today?" asked the kindly brother in charge of the font at the temple. I explained that my wife and I had come to handle only female baptisms and that I wanted to bring my school age sons to act as proxies for the male names that they had researched and cleared themselves (with help from Mom). This would necessitate coming when our boys were not in school.

"Ah," replied the brother. "Then bring your sons here the Friday after Thanksgiving. While the rest of the world is out there having Black Friday, we will be in here having White Friday." This, of course, was a reference to the clean white clothing worn when participating in temple ordinances.

So that is what we did. The same brother was handling the baptistery when my sons and I arrived. He recognized me and was pleased that we had accepted his invitation.

While nearby shopping venues were raucously thronged by bargain hunters seeking to prepare a Christmas cornucopia to be plunged into by revelers "quivering with desire and the ecstasy of unbridled avarice" (A Christmas Story), my boys experienced the quiet pleasure found in giving of themselves to serve others in the serenity of the temple.

How proud I am of my boys. How much more this experience will do for them and for their deceased kin than would the pursuit of any "craptastic item that we genuinely do not need" (Michael Lyons). How grateful I am for the temple workers that spent their day serving so that others might be blessed.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Black Friday, the Game

I won't be among the millions of shoppers hitting the stores on Black Friday (which is increasingly reaching forward into Thanksgiving Day). Many shoppers will exchange sleep for a chance to be among the first customers into stores and onto websites in search of holiday shopping Nirvana.

This Wall Street Journal article explains that the whole Black Friday marketing scheme is nothing more than "retail theater." But it is obvious that many shoppers love this kind of entertainment.

In the ancient days retailers sold most products at list prices. Discounts were used solely to clear unsold items from store shelves to make room for new inventory. While clearance sales still occur, the old pricing paradigm "began to change in the 1970s and 1980s, when a rash of store openings intensified competition and forced retailers to look for new ways to stand out."

Retailers began working with suppliers to list products at prices higher than their actual expected sales prices. To comply with trade regulations retailers kept a high price long enough to establish a base price before discounting to a secondary high price and then dropping to a "steeply discounted price," which was the true expected selling price. The fact that retailers managed to snag some shoppers at high markups made the practice legal. The idea was to generate shopper enthusiasm.

Retailers used to limit this tactic to a smaller subset of merchandise. But shoppers have responded so well that this methodology has expanded to the majority of retail offerings. Moreover, retailers jack prices up in the weeks before Thanksgiving to achieve even higher holiday discounts.

Despite all of the discounts, retailers end up selling most products at the same margin throughout the year and most shoppers end up paying the same prices throughout the year. List prices and discounts have both increased dramatically in recent years while actual sales prices have remained static. But retailers believe that shoppers will buy more under the discount sham.

Retailers also use loss leader sales, offering limited numbers of select products at a loss or a very low margin to entice shoppers on Black Friday. It is these kinds deals that result in shopping combat injuries, since shoppers know that supplies are limited. But the WSJ says that retailers engineer most of these "deals" with suppliers so that they still earn regular margins. Meaning that even the shoppers that get these deals aren't really getting that great of a deal.

Dear shoppers, you are the fish, the retailers are the fishermen, and the faux discounts they offer constitute the power bait that is so successfully employed to hook you. But you apparently like it.

Theater can only be enjoyed when the audience is willing to suspend their disbelief of the fantastical elements of the production. Everyone knows that list prices are a sham. Or, as the WSJ article puts it, retail prices have lost their integrity. But shoppers don't care. They like playing the game retailers are offering. They are willing to temporarily believe in the integrity of retail prices to feel like they have won the discount game.

Retailers can't opt out of this system. When J.C. Penney tried offering everyday honest pricing shoppers punished them for it. Penney now has a new CEO that is aggressively pursuing the faux pricing model. Shoppers are in essence telling retailers that they like the discount game so much that retailers that refuse to play will ultimately go out of business.

Many sports enthusiasts will be satisfied to watch football on Thanksgiving. The following day many shoppers will eagerly engage in the real contact sport of Black Friday shopping, not content to be mere spectators. They are excited to get on the game grid that retailers have spent months preparing. All I can say is, have fun and try not to kill anyone.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

I Had It Easy Thanks to My Brothers

I had it easy as a kid. Oh, I had my full share of challenges. But when it came to dealing with my parents I had it pretty easy.

You see, I was the middle child; the third of five boys. Why is that important? Because my two older brothers took the brunt of the process my parents underwent as they learned to be parents. My older brothers were the guinea pigs. May they be blessed forever for reducing the heat on the rest of us.

My oldest brother is the chief operating officer of a multinational company. He was always the chief executive among us boys. He was decisive, focused, and determined. He prodigiously grasped statistics at a far younger age than is common. Brother #2 is a great salesman that somehow morphed into an executive. He could be very focused and could always accomplish what was important to him. But he approached everything else in life with a devil-give-a-care attitude. He could always have fun.

Mom and Dad said that they could send the two oldest boys outside to play and end up with two very different outcomes. Brother #1 would return three hours later with his clothes perfectly in order and no sign of dirt on his hands. But 15 minutes after Brother #2 went out he would return scraped up, covered with dirt, and with his clothes in tatters. But he was happy. He's still the only guy I know that has managed to break four pairs of skis in a single season.

As these two boys progressed through the ranks of boyhood, Mom and Dad got to experience opposite ends of the parenting spectrum. They expressed disappointment that Brother #1 sometimes failed to perform as well in school as they knew he was capable of doing. They were just happy that Brother #2 came home from school alive. His grades were a mess in subjects that he didn't think were important, but nothing Mom and Dad did seemed to be effective in changing that.

This worked out very well for me. By the time I hit the various stations of life that my bothers had already passed, Mom and Dad were numb. Before the numbness wore off another baby (now an architectural engineer) came along. Sometime later another baby (now a VP of marketing) joined our family. Since babies require a lot of attention and my parents were still breaking ground with my older brothers, I was often able to cruise under the parental radar.

This likely caused my parents to develop a distorted view of my rectitude. At my missionary farewell my mom said that of all of her boys I was most like Nephi, the righteous son of Lehi. She quickly added with faint praise, "Not that the older two were like Laman and Lemuel."

Having five children myself, I have seen my own parenting style change over the years. I too have learned much from my older children and have modified my approach with the younger children—sometimes to the chagrin of the older children who occasionally complain about my comparative leniency.

The fact is that I now know better which battles are worth fighting. And I'm older. And more tired (lazy?). And, by golly, it turns out that each of those five children requires a customized approach. Each is an individual. Some have special needs. And one is a girl who teaches me that my attempts to always treat her like one of the boys simply won't do.

My wife and I agree that our middle child, Son #3 is a genuinely good soul that just seems to want to do the right thing. He's very smart (he can do higher math) and talented (his piano skills far exceed mine), but he still sometimes struggles with grades. And he is still directionally challenged, as has been the case since he was tiny. But he is a good boy. Or could it be that my wife and I suffer from the same child #3 perception issue as my parents?

Yes, I know that Sons #1 and #2 had to do the rough work of breaking in my wife and me as parents and that our younger children are their beneficiaries. I understand this better than my children realize, thanks to my brothers who reduced my parents' focus on me so that I could constantly be thought of as a good boy.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Value of Fiction

A number of years ago my analytic brained father told me that he didn't bother to read fiction. Why should something from someone else's imagination be of interest to him when there were so many interesting and important realities? After all, there is only so much time in life.

I never learned to share my father's disdain for fiction. I think that fiction serves important purposes beyond mere entertainment and escapism. Nor am I denigrating entertainment. It is an essential part of the human experience, but like dessert food, it is wisely kept in proper scope.

Good fiction enlightens and ennobles us. It is an important vehicle for conveying culture. Blogger Rob Parnell says, "We need stories to make us feel better about ourselves -- as human beings, as well as personalities. ...we need stories to help us make sense of life and the world around us." Parnell further explains:
"In real life, there are no beginnings and endings, just infinite sequences.
"You know how it is. You listen to the news. Everything is a segment, a teaser, a sample of every day life. Nothing makes sense because there's no structure.
"Without the confines that fiction offers us, we are drowning in a bewildering sea of actions and feelings and urges with no meaning.
"Stories 'frame' real life into manageable chunks that have tangibility, involvement and purpose, whether for us individually or as a race.
"Surely that's what we were placed on this earth to do!"
Very well, but can't nonfiction stories accomplish this as well as (or better than) fiction? We need a better 'story' than that to explain the purpose of fiction. Here's my shot at it.

Fiction is compelling because it allows us to explore beyond the narrow confines we place on our minds. When engaging reality we seek to frame new information within our current sociocultural strictures and developed prejudices, making the minimum possible allowances for growth. Fiction invites us to suspend these restraints to a greater degree, allowing us to more fully explore and experience our inner humanity. Even Jesus used fiction in teaching the gospel.

Nevertheless, I have horrifyingly found myself becoming increasingly like my father was with regard to fiction, in practice if not in meaning. I don't disregard the value of fiction; I simply find myself enjoying and reading it less and less. I usually have several reading projects ongoing simultaneously. But in recent years these have decreasingly included fiction, although, I feel that I have profited much from reading fiction in the past.

Fiction can be portrayed in other types of media than books. Last week I watched the local high school's production of West Side Story, mainly because friends were involved in the production. The drama teacher is one of my former Boy Scouts, neighbors were involved, and some of our son's friends played major roles. It was a grand performance that demonstrated great talent and much hard work. But I agree with another friend who said, "I loved the production but I hate the story. Always have."

I also recently saw the movie Ender's Game with some of the family. Unlike my family members, I had not read the 1985 book (or any of its sequels), or even the 1977 short story upon which the book was based. I had only a general idea of what it was about. I knew nothing of the lessons the story seeks to teach.

Andrew Lindsay does a decent job of discussing the movie. I thought the movie was great, although, it is intense, dark and brutal. It's not something I'd take my pre-teen to see without her having read the book. Harrison Ford (Col. Graff) and Asa Butterfield (Ender Wiggins) were very good together. I very much liked performances by Viola Davis (Maj. Anderson) and Ben Kingsley (Mazer Rackham), as well as a number of the younger actors. The small statured Moises Arias (Bonzo) was chillingly ruthless.

More than halfway through the movie I started to get a sense of the point the movie was driving toward. Or at least one of its major points. I wanted Ender and his team to win. But I also felt increasingly uncomfortable about the moral implications of where the story was headed. (The morality of using children in war had already been confronted.) Indeed the climax leads to an immediate gut punch that takes the wind out of your sails. This is followed up by a chance for redemption, which I understand is more fully explored in the story's sequels.

As I watched the movie, I lamentably sensed missing enriching back story elements that could have been filled by reading the book. Some transitions seemed too abrupt. This too would probably have been mitigated by reading the book.

After discussing this with my wife, she dug out both the short story and the novel. They are still sitting on my desk untouched, although, I can't for sure say why. Yes, life's been busy since she put the books there, but I have found time to read other material. Maybe I need to convince myself that reading the book would be of value.

To be frank, I'm one of those guys that has always had difficulty engaging in entertainment just for fun. I know of the research that demonstrates the necessity for humans to have fun. I generally have no problem with entertainment if the purpose is to benefit someone else. I'm not sure why I have difficulty internalizing the fact that I could better serve others if I occasionally took time to recreate. Just for fun.

Maybe I will pick up that book this weekend.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Is Comparing Our Children Really That Bad?

We compare our children with each other. Yes, I know that pretty much every expert in the world says that this is a bad thing for parents to do. But honestly, has there ever been a parent with more than one child that has avoided this much maligned activity?

Wait, it gets worse. We also compare our children with their cousins. Of course this is completely unfair. At least when we compare our own kids with each other we are comparing people that all share the same parents.

My kids would tell you otherwise. Especially the older ones. They know that their younger siblings have different parents than they had. The elder children occasionally make knowing remarks about how we never let them get away with thus-and-such behavior at that age. Sometimes they are bold enough to question our softened parenting tactics.

For the record, I agree with my older kids. My wife and I are not the same parents that we were a decade ago. Hopefully some of that is due to having grown in wisdom. The older children were the guinea pigs that helped us refine our skills. We are now somewhat better versed on which battles are worth fighting and when it is best to take a long rather than a short approach to a problem.

I also believe that it is impossible to parent each child equally and that it is imbecilic to attempt such. It sounds like trying to parent the way the old Soviet Union tried to run its government. Our children are different people with different personalities, needs, interests, capacities, etc. Each one requires a customized parenting approach.

Of course, I wouldn't completely rule out the possibility that being older and more worn out might have something to do with why we parent our younger children differently than how we parented their older siblings at the same age.

But wait. I wasn't writing a post about the evolution of parenting methods. I was writing about comparing children. Heck, we even compare our children with neighbor kids and people we don't even know. I don't know which expert came up with the sage counsel to strictly avoid comparing children, but it's an impossible and maybe even an idiotic standard. What real parent that is not in a vegetative state can live up to it?

We compare both the good and the bad. We try not to be too obvious about it. We mostly avoid the "Why can't you be more like your brother?" kind of thing. I think. But sometimes we think it to ourselves.

Or we gratefully sigh that at least our child is not like so-and-so. Who happens to be somebody else's child. Because making such a comparison might be a poorly veiled commentary on the other child's parents. And we wouldn't want to pass judgment on what rotten parents our child's sibling has.

Is it wrong to note that one child is deeply introspective and intelligent while another exudes musical performance capabilities? Or to recognize that our daughter's emotional responses differ significantly from those of her brothers? Or to acknowledge that our Asperger's child's pathway to adult kit requires a lot more assembly than most of his siblings' kits? Or to observe that one child looks more like his maternal grandfather than any of the others? Or to see that my twin nephews have distinct personalities and talents, although, they look similar?

Are not such comparisons the fodder for making parental decisions? Is it even possible to be an effective parent without drawing contrasts and observing correlations of this nature?

Self appointed experts continually warn us of the dark side of comparing a child's beauty or physical prowess with another. For the record, some of our kids were recently watching home movies from when our family was younger, and, doggone it, each of our kids has been beautiful. In fact, they are all beautiful today. It's the truth. Although, I might be biased.

When I compare my children with each other or with others, I am usually simply recognizing the fact that each child is an individual. One son made it through basic piano, but he will never command the keyboard like his brother. So what? That's not where his capacities and interests lie. It's not something to fret about. It's an opportunity for further exploration.

Now that we've established that comparing children is not the dark evil that bad-mouthing psychologists and pseudo-psychologists have spent decades making it out to be, maybe it's OK to ask why my children can't be more like their cousin who is a dentist, or their cousin who is pursuing a full-ride chemistry PhD at a top flight university, or ....

Friday, November 01, 2013

The Effectual Prayer of a Righteous Wife

On most mornings I roll out of bed at an unearthly hour while the rest of the family slumbers. After exercising I retire to the master bath to clean up and get ready for work. When I am ready I douse the bathroom lights, step into the darkened master bedroom, and walk the well worn short distance to my wife's side of the bed where I kneel. We clasp hands. And then we pray together.

We take turns praying, switching off every other day. One recent morning when it was my wife's turn to pray, I thought about how much I love to hear her pray. I get some insight into her joys and concerns. I hear how much she cares about and loves others. I get a deeper glimpse into the magnificence of her soul. Her faith increases my faith. Her conversion more fully converts me and makes me a better man than I was before I knelt with her. I cannot describe in earthly terms the tenderness and transcendent grandeur of these brief moments.

We also kneel and pray together each evening before retiring. Our prayers are not perfect. While the house tends to be very quiet during our morning prayers, our evening prayers often occur amid a din of activity streaming from the other side of the bedroom door. Since I arise early, my wife usually leaves the room after our evening prayer to deal with all of the things with which wives and mothers regularly grapple to prepare the family for the following day.

I find that when I pray with my wife or with the family, I often use the same comfortable phrases. But I hope that these are not merely vain repetitions. A priesthood leader and friend recently told me that, although one may use repetitive words while praying, those words are not trite if they are sincere. The Lord, I am certain, knows my intent despite my poor expressive abilities.

I trust that God will divinely expand upon my meager words and will answer according to his love and his knowledge of what is in my best eternal interest. Thank goodness I don't have to rely solely on the requests I make based on my limited mortal viewpoint.

Another reason I love to hear my wife pray is that I perceive that her prayers are usually much closer to God's eternal will than are my own. Through my wife's prayers I gain greater understanding of God's heart and mind. I sense simplicity, love, wisdom, care for others, humility, and a host of other divine attributes too numerous to name. I feel uplifted and ennobled. I feel blessed to be my wife's husband.

What a blessing it is to hear my wife pray.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Second Demise of Our Family Newspaper Delivery Business

About a year and a half ago I wrote a post about our kids starting to deliver newspapers again. When I recently received an email about that post I realized that I had never done a follow up. In short, our second foray into the news delivery business lasted only a few brief months. And then it was over. Maybe this time for good.

The brokered deal was that sons #3 and #4 would split the route. Son #4 was never able to fulfill his part of the deal, owing in part to some medical issues. In addition, we ultimately discovered that he had Asperger Syndrome and major depression disorder. Mornings were (are) not a happening thing for him. The every-morning grind soon wore enough on son #3 that he willingly gave up the route along with its small but useful stream of income.

As I suggested in my post last year, early morning news delivery routes are rarely as good for families as were the afternoon delivery routes of my childhood. Back in those ancient days I would come home from school and spend an hour or even less delivering newspapers. It wasn't too bad.

The more challenging part was going door to door each month collecting subscription fees from my customers. In the five years that I was a news carrier I learned some intriguing lessons about people's attitudes about money and how various families managed their finances. I never did understand those that would lie to a kid over a matter of five and a half bucks that they clearly owed. I also noted that I became so fond of the twenty-five cent tip one guy would give me each month that I would put his paper inside his storm door every day. I enjoyed the tip while he paid less than a penny per day for the service.

Today's news carriers don't worry at all about collecting subscriptions, since they are handled through the newspaper's billing system. If someone doesn't pay their bill, the news carrier simply gets a notice not to deliver the paper to that home. Problem solved. It's nice for the carriers, but they don't get the real life financial education that I got.

While early morning news delivery hasn't worked well for our family, another family down the street has turned it into a profitable business. I think they are up to five or six routes now. These are all automobile routes where newspapers are shoved into tubes on mailbox posts. The family nets more than can be earned from most part time jobs. But they get up at 3:00 AM every day, regardless of weather, desires, family situations, etc. Of course, their kids are older than ours. But I still don't think we'd be able to pull that off even if our kids were older.

Many parents are interested in helping their children learn good work ethic, as this is a gift that keeps giving throughout life. Newspaper delivery used to be one of the kinds of jobs kids could easily do. Once newspapers made the shift from afternoon to morning delivery, news delivery stopped being a natural fit for kids.

Other kinds of job opportunities exist. Last spring my mother-in-law hired an enterprising neighborhood boy to mow her lawn. But the situation ended up being less than reliable, so it didn't work out well for Mom. I think that the young man underestimated the difficulty of the labor and the level of business costs. Kids could earn fairly well in Mom's neighborhood doing yard care and snow removal. But they would have to establish a reliable system. Usually that means having more than one worker as well as parents that will back up the business.

In an effort to eliminate child labor abuse our society has made it increasingly difficult for children to find productive work. Some of this is also simply the result of an expanding economy. Many little jobs that kids used to do have long been overtaken by technology.

While the theory behind jobs for kids can be fodder for discussion, what I can tell you for sure is that early morning news delivery simply doesn't work well for our family. Maybe it's a different story for your family.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Myths of Social Security

My wife recently expressed anger about something posted on Facebook relative to Social Security and our "thieving politicians." I read it and explained that most of what had been written was false. The trouble is that those inaccurate statements are widely believed among Americans today.

In my view, the Social Security system is sustained by a system of myths and evidentiary short-term results that are extrapolated as sustainable over the long-term. I will explain that jargon jumble later. I believe that the Social Security system would enjoy far less support among the general public if understanding of the system were not founded in untrue or partially true myths. Interestingly, most of the myths are believed by both supporters and opponents of the system. Consider these:

Myth: I have a Social Security account.
Debunk: No individual Social Security accounts exist. In Helvering v. Davis (1937), the Supreme Court ruled, "The proceeds of both the employee and employer taxes are to be paid into the Treasury like any other internal revenue generally, and are not earmarked in any way."

Still too technical? To put it bluntly, none of the Social Security taxes you have paid are yours. Your contributions do not go into an account in your name or any individual's name. They go into a single gigantic holding fund that is accounted for separately from the rest of the U.S. Government's budget. (This Just Facts website is not too bad on discussing how the system really works.)

Myth: I have a right to Social Security benefits.
Debunk: It turns out that no one actually has any right to Social Security benefits, regardless of how much they have paid into the system. In Flemming v. Nestor (1960), the Supreme Court ruled that no one has any contractual right to Social Security benefits and that our politicians can change or even eliminate benefits at any time. Benefits are subject to political whims rather than contract law.

Myth: Social Security would be fine if our politicians hadn't raided our Social Security savings.
Debunk: As Just Facts explains, any amount the Social Security Administration receives in excess of its current obligations must be loaned to the federal government by law. The program was designed this way from the beginning.

There was never a plan to hold a huge pile of contributions in something like Uncle Scrooge's money bin. Excess funds are "invested"* in government bonds because they were deemed to be the safest instrument. Remember that the law was passed in 1935, shortly after the 1929 stock market crash and during the Great Depression, so any instrument with any kind of risk was strictly out. By law the government must repay the loans with interest. It has never yet failed to do so. Of course, it has often incurred debt to make the payment.

*Bonus lesson: Whenever someone uses the word "invest" or any of its synonyms or derivatives in a political manner, it means spending more money on government programs. It's code for unpopular phrases like "tax increase" and "pork barrel spending." 

In essence, everything workers pay into the system today goes to pay benefits to today's beneficiaries. Low interest rate government bonds are purchased with any contributions in excess of benefits paid. Taxpayers (hey, that's us) are on the hook to repay the bonds with interest. When today's workers retire, future workers are supposed to pay enough into the system to cover the benefits paid to the beneficiaries of that day. (See my March 2012 post on why this is a problem.)

Myth: If I retire at the average age and live an average lifespan, I can expect to get back about as much as I pay into the system plus moderate interest.
Debunk: This is somewhat complex. The statement is still true for some people, but not for the average worker. As of 2011, average workers can expect to receive less than they paid into the system. In some cases, quite a bit less. The charts and tables in this Urban Institute publication paint a decent picture of how it actually works.

Humorously (although, I don't think he meant it as such), Dan Kadlec suggests in this August 2012 Time article that you should take actions to extend your life so that you can be sure to collect at least as much in Social Security benefits as you paid into the system. As the character Manny says in Ice Age 4 (one of the many sequel laden animation franchises), "It's the spiteful ones that live the longest."

While Social Security is a bad deal for most of today's workers, most could plan to collect far more in Medicare benefits than they pay in Medicare taxes. Of course, that system's not sustainable. So you probably shouldn't plan on it.

Myth: The Social Security system is broke or soon will be.
Debunk: The government long collected more in Social Security taxes than it paid out. It has now hit the point where that is no longer the case. Unless some change is made, it is estimated that the system will no longer be able to fully meet its obligations beginning in 2033. That doesn't mean that it will be broke. It could afford to pay out about 75% of promised benefits for many years after that. Various combinations of benefit reductions and tax increases have been offered as potential solutions.

Myth: Although the Social Security system will go through a period of much higher payouts than revenue collections, it will once again be on sound footing as soon as the Baby Boomers finish working their way through the system.
Debunk: Although this might be technically true, it cannot work that way in reality because Social Security doesn't exist in a vacuum. The amount of debt the government would have to incur to pay full benefits until after the Baby Boomers die out would put the country so deep in hock that just paying the interest (like having a huge interest-only mortgage payment) would swamp the government (and likely wreck the economy).

Reality vs. Myth
There are many more Social Security myths that are widely accepted. The few I have presented are among the most common. If most workers today understood that:
  • Nothing they pay into Social Security is theirs (either now or in the future)
  • They have no contractual right to Social Security benefits
  • There won't be enough future workers to support future retirees
  • They will likely pay more into the system than they will receive in benefits
  • The benefits they plan to receive must be trimmed and the taxes they pay must be increased to keep the system functional
it is likely that support for the system would drop off dramatically. No one willingly invests in something on which they know they will lose money. On the other hand, the system isn't in as dire of financial shape as some believe it to be. My debunk comments are too brief to be completely accurate. But they are far more accurate than the myths they debunk. Grasping the realities of Social Security may leave some feeling relieved. Others will be more angry than they were.

The description of Social Security as a Ponzi scheme is at least somewhat apt. That is, it depends on a continual supply of new contributors to pay off earlier contributors. The difference is that Social Security is not fraudulent. The government has been completely up front about the matter, although, Americans' perception is otherwise. At the time the system was designed, few thought much about what would happen if birth rates declined and life spans increased in the future, as has been happening for more than a generation.

People believe in Social Security today partly because it has successfully provided benefits for two generations of retirees. When it comes to lifespans, however, this is a short-term payout, similar to the way Ponzi schemes work. Given current birth rates, the system is unsustainable in the long term. We are rapidly approaching the point where there won't be enough revenue from new contributors to pay off older contributors.

Although the Social Security Administration is quite forthcoming about the fact that Social Security was never meant to be any retiree's sole source of retirement income, it is well known that it is the only retirement plan many workers have. Unsurprisingly, this is particularly true of lower earning workers. Due to earning capacity and/or life choices, these workers would never be able to retire without Social Security or something to replace that planned revenue stream. Any future solution to the program's woes would have to address the situation of those with no retirement savings.

The chief myth of Social Security—that people 'own' their contributions—makes reducing benefits a hard sell politically. When an article recently appeared in the Wall Street Journal arguing for cutting all or most Social Security benefits for the top quarter of earners, one reader responded that in that case it would only be fair to refund these people their contributions. This makes a salient emotional point, but it fails to appreciate the facts that no one owns their contributions and that such a refund would constitute a greater benefit than they would otherwise receive if benefits were not cut.

Our Social Security system has long presented significant political problems, many of them based in myths that politicians are loath to expose. Exploding myths in a way that resonates with the public would destroy public support for the system. But the system is on its way to a publicly unacceptable condition anyway if it isn't revamped to some degree.

Unfortunately, all of the potentially effective solutions for these problems are politically painful. Politicians that go seriously after such solutions tend to get punished. So politicians are more likely to let things go along as they are until matters get so bad that the public broadly demands action. Another common approach is to use class warfare to target the least politically powerful segment in order to pass various changes.

This nation needs a serious discussion about Social Security. But such conversations need to be guided by realities and not by myths.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Left Behind: The True Story of a Boy Playing Football (sort of)

Excitement surged through me as I stuck my hand out so that one of the coaches could write "4RG" on it with a green marker. Standing there in my football uniform I felt manly, although, I was only eight years old. I had admired the football trophies that my older brothers' had received from playing on winning teams. Now it was going to be my turn to gain such a coveted icon.

I glanced around at my teammates, a huge group with whom I had practiced in the heat of many late summer evenings. Almost every boy I knew played football in the autumn back in those days because there were few other activities available. The excitement among the group was palpable as we got ready for the start of our first game.

That was pretty much the high point of my football career. The "RG" part of the monogram on the back of my hand meant that I was assigned to play right guard, an offensive position. I didn't know much about it. We did a lot of running and calisthenics at practice. Sometimes we chucked balls. We hadn't done much scrimmaging. Or at least the squad to which I was assigned hadn't.

It turned out that I needn't have worried about knowing how to play my position. The "4" on the back of my hand meant that I was part of the fourth string. The coaches had ranked the team members and they (rightfully, I later understood) placed me among the dregs of the team. Heck, the kid that still sucked his thumb was on third string. But he could play football better than me.

The only way the fourth string offense would hit the field was if the team was way ahead. Not like one or two touchdowns ahead. So far ahead that the other team had no chance of catching up. Well, that never happened. I'm not talking about the first game. I'm talking about the whole season.

As the autumn wore on and evening practices went from hot to warm to cold, I showed up Saturday after Saturday in my perpetually clean game jersey. One of the coaches would write "4RG" on the back of my hand with a green marker. And then I'd sit on the sidelines, something at which I became very proficient.

The way our team played, the defensive line saw most of the action. Our offensive line spent so little time on the field that the second string rarely played. The third string offensive players occasionally saw a little action toward the end of a game. But the flotsam and jetsam of the fourth string were confined to the sidelines game after game.

One time our coaches promised to buy us milkshakes if we won the next game. Amazingly, we did. It was the only game we won all season. And when I say "we" I mean "they," because I never played. Or maybe my not playing helped the team win. At any rate, I was excited about getting a milkshake.

After the coaches broke the news, I ran to tell my dad. I sent him home and went back to the team gathering. Only nobody was there. I later discovered that I had failed to listen to the rest of the news. The milkshake party would happen after practice on Monday evening.

I looked around at the people that had gathered for the next football game. I didn't see anybody I knew. I had no money. I was dressed in an uncomfortable football uniform with cleats that made walking a chore. I looked north and could see the prominent mountain that was north of my home. Not knowing what else to do, I started walking in that direction. I didn't realize that I was more than 10 miles from home. Hey, I was only eight.

I lost track of time as I trudged through the urban area of town. People looked at me oddly, but nobody said anything to me or offered to help. Eventually I saw a building with which I was familiar, so I knew I was going the right way. I knew how to get to the main drag from there, so I was soon headed north on the busiest street in town.

For some reason it didn't cross my mind to duck into a business and ask to use their phone. Maybe I figured that kids weren't allowed inside businesses without their parents because I had never been inside a business without an adult. I was just a kid doing what I thought I could do. I never thought I was actually lost because I had a general idea of how to get home and figured that I'd get there at some point.

Unbeknownst to me, my parents had eventually wondered where I was and had called my coach, who had been home for hours. He had no clue where I was either. There was a lot of area between my home and the school where the game had been played. Where would they look?

I was still several miles from home when a car passed me and then pulled over to the side of the road. One of my friends from school and from the team (a really good kid that played good football) leaned out of the window and called to me.

Soon I was in the backseat of the car as my friend's mother listened to my tale with noticeable shock. A few minutes later she dropped me off in the driveway of our house just as my dad was about to pull out of the driveway to start looking for me. He was both relieved and angry.

To top it off, I missed the milkshake party two days later because my family had some kind of conflicting commitment that caused me to leave practice early. So I never got the treat that had been the impetus for the whole debacle in the first place.

The weather was rather chilly for the last game, which was played at a field not far from my home. Dad watched the game from the car so that he could stay out of the cold. Again I commanded a spot on the sidelines throughout the game.

Suddenly the coaches called for the fourth string offensive players to go to the line of scrimmage. Was this for real? We were losing and there was little time left in the game. So I guess the coaches figured that they had nothing to lose by sending in the goof squad.

I was soon lined up opposite another player. A whistle sounded and I heard the quarterback call some numbers. I wasn't cognizant of when the ball was snapped, but everyone started moving. I briefly pressed up against the guy I was supposed to block. Another whistle sounded and the play was over almost before I realized what had happened. Somehow we had kept control of the ball so we were to remain on the field.

We lined up again. Just as the quarterback was about to begin calling numbers the final whistle of the game sounded. I had spent an entire season practicing football and attending football games so that I could play in one single down of an official game.

After the team broke up, I excitedly ran to the car at the edge of the field to hear what my dad had to say about my play. He was asleep and had missed seeing me on the field. I never received a football trophy to put on the dresser in my bedroom. Back in those days trophies only went to the top placing teams. There was no such thing as a participation trophy.

Perhaps it's not surprising that I declined to play football during subsequent seasons and that I never developed much of an affinity for the game. But I did learn some valuable lessons. Like what to do when you get left behind.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

My Mission Was a Failure, Until ...

Recent communications with our missionary son have brought back a complex mix of thoughts and emotions. He's in a challenging situation right now. It seems that his companion suffers from some kind of disorder that keeps him in bed for up to 12 (or more) hours a day. So he's often not ready to leave the apartment until lunchtime. The work is suffering. They have no steady investigators. The church's new missionary technology program has not yet reached our son's mission, so his ability to do any kind of effective work while his companion slumbers is quite limited.

The mission where our son serves is notoriously challenging. It is very similar to Norway, where I served. There is a general apathy about religion. Finding people to teach is difficult. Getting those that will listen to the point that they become interested in joining the church is exceedingly more difficult. It is quite common for missionaries in our son's mission to return home having not contributed directly to any convert baptisms.

I sensed the level of our son's discouragement when he recently wrote that he couldn't imagine ever saying that his mission was the best two years of his life. That hit home with me because my mission experience was not much different.

At the time I returned from my mission I could not say that my mission was the best two years of my life. Nor have I ever been able to honestly say that. I had some amazing experiences on my mission. I am ever so grateful that I served. I held every leadership position that any young elder in my mission could hold (whoop-te-doo), but I still came home feeling like I was a failure as a missionary. It took years for me to see my mission in a different light.

My son recently wrote that he feels ineffective as a missionary. He regrets his lack of boldness. Well, he is his father's son. We were supposed to make something like 125 street contacts per week back in the day. I averaged more like 5-6. I just did not like getting into people's faces. It was one thing to have people walk up to a street display to talk to (or heckle) us. It was quite another to initiate the contact. Once I got used to people rejecting us on the doorstep, I didn't mind going door-to-door so much. But I hated street contacting.

All of these contacting activities seemed horribly ineffective to me when I was a missionary. It turns out that I was right. At least from a direct viewpoint. One non-LDS researcher has studied the purpose of LDS missionaries. He says that in reality, young missionaries serve the same purpose as billboards. They are the most public face of the church. While their finding activities may be directly ineffective, it is important for them to be out there interfacing with the public. He says it has great indirect marketing value.

Other research has shown that LDS missionaries help bolster the faith and function of members where they serve. Returned missionaries also make up a significant and important part of the church infrastructure, even when they weren't very successful at baptizing new converts. Some researchers have gone so far as to say that these elements are the real products of LDS missions and that the focus on teaching and baptizing is really just a side light. The rank and file members are more important as far as that goes.

I think that repeated training, cultural imprinting, and years of direct and indirect messages convey an idea of what an LDS mission should be like. There is a lot of good in this. But the problem with the 'one true mission' (OTM) paradigm is that if your mission doesn't closely match that picture, it's easy to see your mission as a failure. In reality, each missionary has a unique blend gifts, talents, abilities, and shortcomings. Only a certain percentage of them are likely to match the OTM model.

For example, I have a brother that is the COO of a multi-national company. He says that he is always concerned about the educational credentials of any job candidate, except for when he is interviewing a candidate for a sales job. Then he doesn't give one iota about education. He says that salesmanship is inborn. You either have it or you don't. If you have it, much can be done to hone and build upon that talent. But if you don't have it, no amount of training will help you get it. He only needs 10 minutes with a candidate to know whether they have it or not.

There are lots of opinions on this matter and my brother's is just one of them. But behavioral scientists know that every person falls somewhere along the introversion-extroversion scale. Salesmanship comes far more naturally to those at the extrovert end of the scale. If you're toward the introvert end you will always find the sales element of missionary work to be difficult and challenging.

That's how it was for me. But it turned out that I had a lot of administrative skill. I ended up serving nearly a year in the mission office, where I excelled at the various administrative tasks I was assigned. We did regular missionary work in the evenings and on the weekends. That went pretty much like the rest of my mission.

I was no slacker while on my mission. But I knew that I wasn't very effective. I often filled time with less productive activities. We would stop by nonmembers that would reliably talk to us but that had no interest in improving their spiritual lives. We weren't immune to ducking into shops instead of doing street contacting. Or we'd schmooze members.

But frankly, the 'productive' activities weren't very productive either. We generally managed to keep a small pool of investigators, but none of them would make it past the third lesson. Most of the time I felt like we were spinning our wheels trying to look busy.

I spent five months with a companion that had some serious problems. The longer we were together, the less well we communicated and worked with each other. He wouldn't study. His Norwegian skills were so rudimentary that people simply couldn't understand anything he said. It was a tough time for both of us. Only years later would I gain some compassion when I realized the tremendous challenges this young man faced.

By the end of my mission I had stood in the baptismal font exactly one time. The young lady I baptized stopped attending church three weeks after her baptism. I had made a handful of street contacts and countless door-to-door contacts. I had taught a number of lessons, none of which went anything like the lessons I had memorized in the MTC. (Exact memorization of lessons was the way we did it back then.) I had acted in leadership roles and had seen much of Norway. I had done a lot of administrative work. But because my mission didn't match the OTM picture, I felt like a failure for many years after my mission.

Through much prayer and years of maturation, I eventually gained a different understanding of my mission. The Spirit has warmly whispered to me that the Lord is very pleased with my missionary service. Not that I did any great thing. He is pleased with my service in the way that parents are pleased when their kindergartener comes home with a pencil holder made of a can decorated with dry macaroni and spray paint. This is an apt analogy, because President Dieter F. Uchtdorf tells us that we are all spiritual toddlers.

If God is happy with my inept missionary service, what right have I to be unhappy about it?

Not everyone that serves a mission can excel at salesmanship. Missions don't run without administrative work. Not every missionary can do that effectively either. Many different skill sets are needed (see 1 Corinthians 12:20-21). Only a narrow percentage of missionaries are going to have OTM experiences. But the rest need not view their missions as failures. I suspect that many that now feel like missionary failures would be surprised to learn how God views their service.

Of course, this perspective likely won't help my son much in his current situation. It seems that we are destined to learn some lessons first hand. Some lessons can only be realized after many layers of perspective are added to the original experience.

I would like to reach across the world, embrace my son, and tell him how much the Lord loves him and appreciates his meager efforts. But I can't. I can pray and hope that God will somehow convey this important message to my son. But if he's as thick headed  as me, it may take years.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Autumn Comes to the Mountains

I drove through the mountain valley in the afterglow of a ripe autumn day, anticipating the unmistakable pleasant scents of the season that would reach me as soon as I climbed out of my vehicle at the scout camp that was my destination.

It's not just the glorious explosion of leafy colors that distinguish this time of year. Nature has its own rich set of smells that are specific to early autumn; a mellow cornucopia that for whatever reason just makes me feel good.

These scents come earlier to the mountains than to my home near the foot of the mountains. But I don't always recognize when autumn smells arrive at home. They come on so gradually that they are almost seamlessly woven into my awareness. But a trip to the mountains results in an abrupt change that is wonderfully noticeable.

Not everybody likes the spectacle of fall time. A friend tells me that it reminds her that the year is dying away to the bleakness of winter. The same sights and smells that lend a kind a wholeness to me make her feel cold and apprehensive.

But I cannot deny what I feel. I have always loved early autumn.

My drive had already taken me past a ridge of bright yellow quaking aspen nestled among a mountain side of evergreens, making for a striking contrast that almost seems unnatural. Several eye catching gorges I had passed were filled with the whole spectrum of fall colors ranging from deep greens to fiery reds. Yes, there were plenty of dull browns, but for now the brighter colors held sway.

In the dusky light following the setting of the sun, I glanced at an adjacent field where about a dozen animals were peacefully grazing. The two horses were unmistakable, despite the visual flatness of twilight. Then I suddenly realized that the smaller creatures were deer, seemingly unperturbed by my presence.

My vehicle soon came to a stop on the scrabble that makes up the parking area of the scout camp. I climbed out into the mountain air and deeply inhaled the bountiful autumn surrounding me. Many colors were still visible in the dim light. The hillside across the mossy babbling creek ascended on a steep angle painted in myriad colors more beautiful than any human artist could mimic.

Before long it was dark in our tight valley. So dark that, despite the first quarter moon, it was difficult to make out the identities of other people until I was only few feet away from them. The nearly breezeless night soon filled with the sounds of insects, but far fewer that you'd hear at high summer.

I trudged half a mile up a rocky trail with a friend to show him how to get to a part of camp with which he was unfamiliar. As I walked back in solitude, I considered the water running seemingly black in the creek and thought how that for a drought year it seemed like a high volume for this late in the season. I recalled how walking through that canyon at night had given me the creeps when I was younger.

The following afternoon I sat on a hillside watching the dappling of the fall colors. I knew that the sun would still be up for nearly an hour down in the valley as it slipped behind the high walls of the canyon where the scout camp was located. I looked forward to returning home, maybe even with some light to spare. But I had thoroughly enjoyed my trip to the autumn mountains.

Winter will soon fill the mountain canyons with its deep chill, even if snow is sparse. But for now it is enough just to enjoy nature's autumn grandeur.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Restaurants and the 'Can't They Control Their Kids?' Syndrome

Not long ago I dined in a restaurant with my wife. I was about to write "...a fancy restaurant..." in that sentence, but I stopped myself. You see, to us, any eatery where you don't have to order your food from a counter or a window and/or don't have to get the food yourself is a fancy restaurant.

So, although it was fancy to us, this place would probably be classed by others as ... let's see ... an affordable restaurant. That's probably a good way to put it. A local place that's not part of some big chain. Reasonably popular.

I find it impossible to completely ignore other diners in a restaurant setting. I try to be circumspect about my people watching. But on this occasion my wife eventually noticed that I had been paying attention to family with several young children seated nearby.

My Lovely Wife: "What are you looking at?"

Me: (in a tone of disbelief) "Their kids."

MLW: "What about them?"

Me: (amazed) "They're, uh, remarkably well mannered. I mean, they're being pretty calm. They're actually eating the food and they even seem to be enjoying it. Nobody's pestering anyone else."

My wife immediately understood. Each of our five children is a remarkable individual and we love each one dearly. But to be frank, our family never experienced a restaurant scene the likes of which I was seeing when our kids were the ages of those kids.

Let's start with the food. You might think that most restaurants offer sufficient menu choices that every member of our family could find something they would enjoy eating. If so, you'd be wrong.

Between my special diet (yes, I'm part of the problem), one child's coconut allergy, the stubbornness of our Asperger's child, the relatively narrow palates of two children, and the extreme pickiness of another (by my calculation, this child is two standard deviations pickier than the aforementioned two), family dining tends to be traumatic, whether we're at home or out in public.

Consequently—and owing to the fact that, given our budget, taking the whole family out to eat runs into real money even at "affordable" restaurants—we don't often take the whole family out to eat. So maybe we just don't have enough practice dining out as a family.

Both my wife and I have studied plenty over the years (and have been given much advice by well meaning relatives and friends) about how to get our children to expand their palates. But I guess we're defective parents when it comes to kids and food, because we can't ever make it work in our family. We cringe every time we are admonished to have more family meals. To us, this advice sounds like someone saying, "Let the food wars begin."

But food attitudes are only part of the problem. I sat in the restaurant that day marveling at how a half an hour passed without any child screaming or bawling. No poking or hitting. No nasty insults or thoughtless observations about a sibling's behavior. Nobody taking this or that that doesn't belong to them. Or shoving something they don't want into someone else's space. Or flipping pieces of food at someone else. Or.... Well, you get the idea. Just good natured eating and conversing. To me this seemed exceptional.

Heck, if our family was more like that, we'd probably take our clan out to eat more often. I suppose having a lot more money would have to be part of the mix too.

In the restaurant that day I started to wonder if perhaps the young family I was watching was more normal, while our family was exceptional. Or maybe there should be a word like 'inexceptional' that is to 'exception' what 'infamous' is to 'famous.' That is, exceptional in a not-so-good way.

Fortunately, I soon heard a child screaming from around the corner. I couldn't see the family whose child was making such a fuss. Maybe our family wasn't so abnormal after all. The wailing child reminded me of what other restaurant patrons experience when they happen to be stuck dining near our family. Even if they don't say it out loud, they're thinking, "Can't those people control their children?!" They're just glad when we leave. Unless they leave first, having been driven out early by our family's behavior.

A buffet pizza place opened in our town last year. It's a very popular establishment. We can take our whole family there and everyone can find something to eat. (Even relatively healthy salads.) No need to worry about making selections from the menu. No need to worry about getting something a child doesn't end up liking. They can just get up and go find something else. All of the kids are now old enough to find whatever they want to eat without help from somebody older.

Of course, this place doesn't fall under fancy restaurant in our lexicon, because you still have to fetch your own food. If you go to one of these places with your family, you will want to sit at a table rather than in a booth. When you're in a booth, people are constantly needing to slide in and out from the bench. A table works better for the 'jump up and get more food' style of dining.

Now if we could only do something about the poking, hitting, kicking, insulting, blowing air on others through straws, chucking food, flipping boogers ....

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

When Family History Isn't Pretty

My mom has one of those big flat plastic tubs (the kind that can fit under a bed) that is full of family history stuff. My wife and I (OK, mostly my wife) have of late been helping to sort through this collection.

Some of what we have found is pretty mundane. Most of it is not new to us. The volumes of pedigree charts and family group sheets (Why in the world are there six or seven copies of each?) have long since been digitized.

Then there are the documents and copies of documents. Many of them aren't as legible as I would like. I'd like for all of that stuff to be scanned and digitized. But if that's going to happen, it's going to be me that does it. We're talking months of work. Unless I suddenly develop more free time and more motivation, the documents will probably still languish in that box a decade from now. Undigitized.

Still, there have been some surprises in the box. We found several sheets of paper in my German grandmother's handwriting, dated the year before she passed away. I can get by reading the German, but Oma's handwriting isn't easy to read. Thankfully, we also found pages where my mom transcribed Oma's writing into typewritten English. On these sheets are some stories I had never heard and names of people I had never heard of.

For example, Oma wrote about how her father-in-law (my great-grandfather) met his demise on the way home from a funeral at a time when my Opa was still a baby. (I don't know whose funeral it was.)

Urgroβvater was on a ferry boat with friends. The way Oma tells it, Urgroβvater usually didn't drink much. (Which, judging from common German practices, might mean that he usually didn't drain an entire keg by himself.) But in this case, his friends succeeded in prevailing on him to imbibe.

After a while, the well lubricated men began taking bets on who could jump into the November chilled fjord waters and successfully swim to shore. In what was assuredly a "hold my beer and watch me do this" moment, Urgroβvater was among the men that took the bet and jumped overboard.

Per Oma's telling, Urgroβvater's heart failed to withstand the shock of the cold. It seems far more likely that a fully clothed drunk man jumping into the icy ocean simply drowned. Although he had life insurance, the insurance company ruled his death a suicide; a condition not covered by the policy. So his widow received no insurance benefit.

I also recently learned of a Gypsy ancestor that came to New England in the early days of  European settlement. Unable to find a bride among the Puritan settlers, he married a native girl. Her ancestry has been traced back another five generations. There appears to be a good deal of inbreeding in that line, something that might have been quite normal for the native peoples of that region.

When I showed my oldest son the pedigree chart and indicated the inbreeding, he noted that a bit further back in our British and European ancestry there was also plenty of inbreeding, especially among the nobility. This was apparently one of the methods commonly used to keep ownership of land, and therefore power, in the family.

Well, you don't get to pick your ancestors. But regardless of ancestral practices of which our modern sensibilities may cause us to be less than proud, we ought to be grateful that our ancestors are the means by which we have life today. That gratitude is part of why I do family history work. Like others, I also crave to know from whence I came. Perhaps understanding our past help us understand where we are headed.