Friday, March 29, 2013

Mormons and the Law of Consecration, part 2

In my previous post in this series I outlined some of the 19th Century efforts by early Mormons to live the law of consecration. I also stated that I was somewhat dissatisfied with the stock explanation that all of these efforts failed due to the sins of greed and laziness.

A relatively well known story from the Orderville communal experiment will help illustrate part of the reason for my conundrum. Almost a decade and a half ago Henry B. Eyring, then a counselor in the Presiding Bishopric mentioned this story in a general conference talk.

Bishop Eyring confirmed that Orderville residents were poor, but he felt that their relative poverty was actually a blessing that fostered gratitude. When a mining boom improved the economy in surrounding communities, some residents of Orderville started to feel deprived. Bishop Eyring explains:
One ingenious boy acted on the discontent he felt when he was denied a new pair of pants from the Orderville factory because his were not worn out yet. He secretly gathered the docked lambs’ tails from the spring crop. He sheared the wool from them and stored it in sacks. Then, when he was sent with a load of wool to sell in Nephi, he took his sacks along and exchanged them for a pair of store pants. He created a sensation when he wore the new-style pants to the next dance.
The president of the order asked him what he had done. The boy gave an honest answer. So they called him into a meeting and told him to bring the pants. They commended him for his initiative, pointed out that the pants really belonged to the order, and took them. But they told him this: the pants would be taken apart, used as a pattern, and henceforth Orderville pants would have the new store-bought style. And he would get the first pair.
That did not quite end the pants rebellion. Orders for new pants soon swamped the tailoring department. When the orders were denied because pants weren’t yet worn out, boys began slipping into the shed where the grinding wheel was housed. Soon, pants began to wear out quickly. The elders gave in, sent a load of wool out to trade for cloth, and the new-style pants were produced for everyone.
So, what we have here is one greedy boy that inspired other greedy boys to upset the tranquility of the commune-ity, right?

It might help to point out that a relative of the boy later explained that the rapidly growing teen had gotten too big for the pants he had. But he didn't qualify to get a new pair of regular pants from the order because his pants were not yet worn out.

Given the way sheep operations of that era functioned, the lamb tails collected by the boy were likely considered worthless garbage. It took too much effort to make much use of them. But this enterprising boy saw the tails as something useful, even if his elders didn't. He put a fair amount of labor into sheering the tails so that he could trade the wool for a pair of pants that fit him.

Calling this greed doesn't seem quite right to me. In fact, I'd love to teach my children to be this enterprising. The boy used his free time to take something that seemed worthless to others (discarded lamb tails) and turn it into something of value (new pants). Think of that. Instead of whining to his parents to buy him clothes he actually needed (albeit in a style he wanted), he earned the clothes through hard work. If this is greed, we need a lot more of it in our society.

Of course, under the communal system, not only did the trash belong to the commune, the boy's labor, which he could have used for leisure instead, also belonged to the commune. The collectivist ideology raised the perceived good of the community and complete equality among its members to overriding virtues. Nothing belonged to the individual. The system called for sameness in everything: food, housing, clothing, labor time, leisure, etc, to ensure equality.

In the communal system the enterprising boy was in the unenviable position of having stolen his leisure time from the collective and having misused it for labor. Thus, it was ruled that the pants, which had been bought with the communal properties of trash and the boy's free time, belonged to the commune and not to the boy.

Heaven knows we wouldn't want kids using their leisure time for self directed productive labor. They might form gangs that go around mowing people's lawns or cleaning their windows FOR PAY! And that might lead to the gross sin of inequality.

While the boy was rewarded with the first pair of the new style of pants manufactured by the order, he was punished for his ingenuity, industry, and initiative. The mixed punishment/reward given to the boy did not foster more productive ingenuity among his peers. Rather, they ended up employing destructive ingenuity to get what they wanted from the collective.

When I lived in Norway years ago, I was stunned by the level of vandalism of public property in that society. Personal property was held inviolate (although that is no longer the case). The number of people that felt like they were owed something amazed me. They had no problem turning to destructive means to express their frustrations when the collective failed to provide for their (sometimes rather esoteric) wants.

The stifling of productive ingenuity and the promotion of the learned helplessness of dependence are among the problems endemic in all collectivist systems. F.A. Hayek noted that a few of these drawbacks can be somewhat overcome by truly converted participants that are willing to make unusual sacrifices, but the system remains flawed by nature. Killing off individuality unfortunately means killing off ingenuity and industry.

Besides, trouble soon arises in these systems as soon as a new generation comes along that has not personally bought into the system. Some start 'causing problems' by being more industrious than their neighbors and thinking outside of the box created by the central planning apparatus.

19th Century Mormon collectivist systems failed because they failed to harness the power of the human spirit. Communal systems mainly looked at humans as glorified beasts of burden. Not only did these systems fail to take adequate advantage of the great resource of human ingenuity, they actively squelched it..

In my next post I will delve further into how and why 19th Century Mormon collectivist orders failed and why they would still fail if attempted today. I will discuss why I believe that these systems inadequately implemented the law of consecration.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Mormons and the Law of Consecration, part 1

Christians have long been enamored of descriptions in the biblical Book of Acts of believers having "all things common," selling "their possessions and goods," and imparting "them to all men, as every man had need," not considering any of their possessions as their own, so that none among the community of believers lacked. (See Acts 2:44-45, 4:32-35.) These few verses have engendered much rhapsodizing. Extensive glorious conclusions and prescriptions for living have been extrapolated from these brief words.

But a dark side of the system also reveals itself. Acts 5:1-10 relates the strange story of a couple that sold a property, which presumably had been consecrated to the church. However, they gave only part of the proceeds to the apostles, while representing it as the full amount.

In separate interviews, each partner lies about the matter to Peter, the president of the church. In each interview, Peter discerns and calls the donor on the lie, whereon, each in turn collapses and dies. The message seems to be that it is wrong to withhold our property from the Lord and that lying to the Lord's representative about such matters can have dire consequences.

There really isn't enough information in the verses in the New Testament to determine how well the common system worked, how it was actually carried out, or how long it lasted. Some scholars have asserted that the political and economic conditions of the time and area lent to the communal system (see here).

LDS scripture delves into this topic in much greater detail. The Book of Mormon also describes a people having all things common and having no economic class distinctions (4 Nephi 1:3). This system apparently endured for more than 160 years (verses 22-25) until pride resulted in the system's demise.

In modern scripture the Doctrine and Covenants condemns anyone possessing "that which is above another" (D&C 49:20). We are told that the Lord's way of providing for his saints is that "the poor shall be exalted, in that the rich are made low" (D&C 104:16), and that the bishop is to administer to the wants of the poor "by humbling the rich and proud" (D&C 84:112).

The Encyclopedia of Mormonism (EoM) relates in an article on the Law of Consecration that when "Joseph Smith arrived at Kirtland, Ohio, in February [1831], he found the Saints organized in a communal society called "the family." He persuaded them to abandon this practice for "the more perfect law of the Lord."" A few days later he received a broad ranging revelation on how saints were to act and organize themselves. A portion of that revelation (D&C 42:31-39) outlines the basic premise of the law of consecration.

The system called for church members to "impart of [their] substance to the poor" by consecrating their donations before the presiding bishop. Each who did this was in return "made a steward over his own property," which was to be "sufficient for himself and his family." Anything in excess of this was to be used by the bishop to "administer to those who have not." The promise was "that every man that has need may be amply supplied and receive according to his wants."

All consecrations were based on covenants to live according to the law of the Lord, to supply one's own needs as much as possible, and to care for others. As the EoM explains, this was not a true communal system. Families continued to live separately and held actual title to their properties.

Many church members entered into the new order. But problems presented themselves from the very beginning. Just four months after Section 42 was received church members were chastised for their failure to live the law. Both the rich that would not give their substance to the poor as well as the lazy poor that envied others' substance were condemned (D&C 56:15-17).

Variously adapted attempts were made to live the law of consecration in both Ohio and Missouri between 1831 and 1839. All of these failed. The envisioned surplus for blessing the poor never materialized. The order was not a significant part of Mormon life during the Nauvoo era (1839-1846).

Life was a hardscrabble existence for the first few years after the church settled in what is now Utah. Conditions had stabilized by the 1860s to the point that non-Mormons (Gentiles) began settling in the area in larger numbers. With a religious utopia in mind, church leaders established a number of cooperative mercantile associations throughout predominantly LDS settlements (see EoM article). Some of these were quite successful, while others were not.

Beginning in the mid-1870s church leaders established more than 200 united order organizations in Mormon communities throughout the west. Some were based on the consecration-stewardship model and others were based on the communal model, which had been eschewed by Joseph Smith. Not all of the consecration models required consecration of all properties. Most of the communal systems soon disbanded or converted to the consecration model. The two ends of the diverse models are discussed in detail in this 2009 Educated Wannabe Cowboy post.

The most famous of the communal systems was Orderville, which endured for about a decade. They strictly followed the communal system, including eating at the same table. The order became nearly self sufficient. By the end of the experiment most members of the order were still quite poor, but they were not destitute. Some claim that the order disbanded only because many of the men were hauled off to jail for practicing polygamy.

All of the Utopian economic systems practiced by 19th Century Mormons eventually failed. The main explanations for these failures at the time basically boiled down to greed and laziness. The prosperous didn't give enough and the poor didn't work enough. This seems to remain the chief explanation given nowadays for these failures. Few people living in telestial conditions are capable of consistently living celestial laws.

This explanation seemed satisfactory to me when I was younger. But the more I have learned about economic theory and economic laws, the less satisfactory it has become. In my next post I will discuss a fuller understanding of early Mormon attempts at Utopian economic systems.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

We Should be Happy About Recent Stock Market Increases, Right?

"So, the stock market is at record highs, and you say that's bad?" asked a co-worker. I had just given a dour response to his exuberance about recent stock market gains.

I replied that it could be either good or bad, depending on one's position in the market. But I noted that the underlying assumption seemed to be that the recent gains meant that the economy was dramatically improving and that life would be getting better. Oh, it will get better for a few people that have a good sense of what is happening in the market, but ....

My friend was mystified by my pessimism. I asked if it seemed reasonable to think that the underlying value of the firms that make up the DOW or the S&P 500 actually increased so much over such a short period of time. Or was it that these highly watched firms were carefully hiding value that has only now come to light? No, none of that seems right. Value gains like that would have rippled throughout the economy driving massive employment gains, and real unemployment is still extremely high.

Then maybe one should consider the possibility that a bubble lacking real value is forming in the stock market. If so, that bubble will burst at some point, leaving many decrying their losses. For long-term stockholders this will mean losses of imaginary gains that never really existed. For recent buyers that bought stocks at inflated prices, the losses will be very real.

An economist that goes by the pseudonym Adam Smith does a fine job of explaining the impending stock bubble collapse in this article.

The Federal Reserve Bank and the U.S. Government have colluded to keep long-term bond rates very low (effectively 0%) for many months in an attempt to stimulate the flagging economy and fund government debt at artificially low prices. Those that used to rely on long-term bond yields for income (i.e. retirees) have had to move to the stock market to get any kind of income.

Smith doesn't mention this, but many people that got out of the stock market when it crashed in 2008 are just now feeling comfortable enough to get back in. The average stock market investor is a very emotional being that exits the market when confidence drops and re-enters the market when confidence is high. The result, however, is that they sell when stocks get cheap and buy when stocks get expensive; the precise opposite of a wealth producing strategy.

With no "great underlying fundamental driving real growth," the supply of business equity (i.e. stock) value is no higher today than it was a few months ago. When supply remains constant while demand increases, price must also increase. People are paying more for stock without getting additional value.

Smith explains that this is actually being done by design "to make people feel richer and hence spend more money and expand the economy." One can debate the ability of fake wealth to foster real wealth, but the Fed can't keep this up forever. At some point "the Fed is going to change policy and increase interest rates."

Trading professionals are keenly watching for this moment and will engage in a huge stock sell-off when it arrives, locking in their gains. Seniors, however, that have moved their savings from bonds to stocks will end up reaping the whirlwind as the value they thought they had purchased will evaporate. After the bubble bursts, emotional based investors will jump out of the market again, thereby, permanently locking in their losses.

The stock market isn't the bad guy here. It is just a tool that is being manipulated by big government actors, whose efforts will end up contributing to the impending retirement crisis.

As I noted in this post from a year ago, we cannot avoid the fact that retirees rely on existing workers to support them. This would be true even if Social Security did not exist and retirees were completely self funded. Retiree investments only have as much value as is imbued in them by current worker productivity. Also unavoidable is the fact that the ratio of productive workers to retirees is rapidly declining.

Some say that this isn't so bad, because per-worker productivity continues to increase. While this is true, it would require a highly skewed view of economics to believe that productivity increases can adequately compensate for decreases in human capital. The best measures we have of productivity do not appear to support such a conclusion.

To top it off, the Wall Street Journal reports that workers aren't adequately saving for retirement. A significant number quit saving when the economy went south in 2008 and many have less saved today than they did in 2007. Besides the current dismal economy, increasing life expectancy, expanding expectations of post-retirement lifestyle, the relative size of the Baby Boomer generation that is now entering retirement, the diminishing worker-to-retiree ratio, and the impending stock market bubble collapse lend to the forecast of a looming retirement crisis.

When the crisis hits, watch for large swaths of the populace—especially those that are retired or close to retiring—to clamor for more government mandated wealth transfers. They will cry for those that have been most productive and most prudent to be punished, along with the young and unborn future workers that cannot yet speak for themselves. One problem of moving from a republic to a democracy is that a majority or even a highly motivated minority can succeed in gaining benefits funded by those that are less politically connected. Even this game can only be played temporarily.

Last summer I posted about the dismal view taken by Mark Steyn of the future we can expect. He asserts that "we will work till we’re older and we will start younger — and we will despise those who thought they could defy not just the rules of economic gravity but the basic human life cycle."

If Steyn is right, the coming retirement crisis may be more than just a temporary dip that lasts a few years. It could be the start of longer careers, less prosperity, less leisure, and shorter retirements for almost everybody.

So, go ahead and celebrate the recent stock market increases, if that's what you want to do. But don't be surprised when the bubble bursts, deflating Americans' dreams of long, luxurious retirements.

We have spent ourselves into the position of necessarily thrashing from economic crisis to economic crisis. The solutions offered by politicians and their business cronies at this point are designed to create temporary bubbles of inflated well being in an effort to gain power and put off for as long as possible taking the medicine we know must take. People buy these ideas because being truly fiscally responsible sells poorly.

In other words, when the stock market bubble crashes, it won't be the last economic bubble we will experience. Taking steps to get your own economic house in order can help, but it may be inadequate to fully protect you from the coming series of crises.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Of Dogs and Missionaries

A dog may be man's best friend, but such is not always the case when it comes to missionaries. I encountered many dogs on my mission. To be honest, most were either friendly or apathetic. But even the best dogs had this annoying habit of transferring doggy hair and doggy scents onto a missionary's suit and tote bag.

All Mormon missionaries nowadays carry their teaching supplies in backpacks. Nobody did that back in my day. It was common for those of us serving in Norway to use a 'veske.' That's a type of carrying bag that looks a lot like a big purse. Although men in Norway commonly carried these things back then, we would try to find the manliest looking purses possible.

I acquired a particularly durable veske that was the envy of many an elder in my mission. It had the unusual properties of being able to repel dog hair and taking no damage when sliding along the pavement after accidentally being dropped from a fast moving bike.

As the the conclusion of my mission approached, I asked one elder if he was interested in taking over my veske. He looked at me with wide eyes and asked why I wasn't taking it home with me. I looked at him like he was an idiot and said, "I think you've been in Norway too long, elder. Think about it. What would a guy in America with one of these things slung over his shoulder look like?" "Oh, yeah," he replied.

Man purses aside, not all dogs were friendly to us missionaries. Once when I was chased by a dog that seemed intent on taking a chunk out of me, my hillbilly companion (who was confused as to the number of siblings he had but could tell you the remotest detail of every hunting trip he'd ever been on) yelled at the dog to stop and return. The cowering dog obeyed him, even though, Elder hillbilly was yelling in English.

On another occasion a large German shepherd came toward us out of the darkness exhibiting the usual threatening body language: menacing growl, teeth bared, head lowered, eyes looking a bit wild, etc. I froze and contemplated whether my bladder and bowels were about to involuntarily empty their contents into my Swedish double-knit pants.

My companion, on the other hand, (a different companion) calmly dropped into a stance that clearly conveyed to everyone and everything that he was ready to take care of business. I'm not even sure that his pulse rate went up.

It turns out that Elder W.'s parents owned a martial arts studio and that Elder W. held various black belt ranks in four different disciplines. He was reported to have used his martial arts skills only once while serving as a missionary when a group of drunk punks tried to assault him and his companion. One swift kick to the side of the ring leader's head had brought the matter to a quick close.

As soon as Elder W. dropped into his stance, the dog's body language changed completely. It became fully submissive. It backed up, gave us a wide berth, and wandered off into the darkness. I asked Elder W. what that was all about. He casually replied that he had been ready to rip the dog's throat out if necessary, and that the dog knew it.

I walked confidently off into the dark at Elder W's side. The armor of God is a wonderful thing. But never underestimate the value of extreme martial arts training.

Friday, March 15, 2013

How I Almost Drowned or Don't Swim on the Sabbath

Reading Pete Codella's post at Modern Mormon Men reminded me of a time when I nearly drowned. I was with a group of male friends, mostly returned missionaries. We had gone to a cabin in Island Park that was owned by the family of a member of our group. We had agreed to do the work of opening up the cabin for the season in exchange for food and lodging for the Memorial Day weekend.

After driving up on Friday night, we split our time on Saturday between working and recreating. In the evening some of my friends started expressing doubts about trying to make it to church meetings in West Yellowstone the following morning. In the end, the matter was decided by the friend that had the vehicle. To my disappointment, he decided that we would sleep in. Most of the others concurred.

On Sunday morning I held my own worship service as my friends slept. After a late breakfast, my friends decided to drive into Yellowstone National Park. Someone mentioned that we should bring our swimsuits and towels in case we wanted to take a dip in the Firehole River, which is warmed by geothermal waters. Recalling the many times I had enjoyed the 80°+ currents of the Firehole River, I packed my gear.

It was cloudy and cool when we pulled up to the swimming hole. I was surprised to see no other cars. Many cars and swimmers had been present each time I had previously visited. I changed into my swimsuit in the car, the whole time thinking that something was not right. I knew I shouldn't be recreating on the Sabbath, but something more than that was wrong. I brashly brushed aside those thoughts and was soon headed toward the river.

Since I was familiar with the area, I directed the group to the point where people usually swim across the river and then walk up a rocky underwater shelf for a distance. A common practice is to jump directly into the current from the end of the shelf and be carried around the bend to where the river turns shallow.

The river seemed higher and faster than what I was used to. It was also quite a bit colder. This was runoff season. I had previously always visited in the latter half of the summer when the current was more sedate and the water was warmer. The conditions warranted serious caution. But I reasoned that I was a strong swimmer, while ignoring the feeling that I shouldn't be doing this.

I soon jumped in and started swimming. The force of the runoff surprised me as it pushed me further downstream than I expected. When I realized I could not reach the rocky shelf, I relaxed and allowed the current to carry me around the bend, something I had done many times. But I was again surprised as the river held me under much longer than usual. I finally emerged and made my way to the shallows panting hard.

I slowly clambered over the rocky outcropping that separated the entry and exit points. Two of my friends had decided against trying to swim. Two others had donned wet suits for the attempt. (We had no wet suits that fit me.) I stood in the water and watched each of those with wet suits barely manage to cross the strong current. Two other friends stayed dry on the rocky outcropping.

For a long time I stood in the shallows contemplating another attempt at crossing the river. I had expended quite a bit of strength in my previous battle with the ferocious current. But my other friends had made it, and neither of them was as good at swimming as I was. They beckoned me from the other side of the river.

After several anxious minutes I again lunged into the current and began employing my strongest freestyle stroke. I made it about halfway across and then my progress slowed. I crept forward until I was about three quarters of the way across. And then I stalled. The rocky shelf got no closer. It must have been only a portion of a minute, but it seemed like I held steady forever.

All kinds of warning bells were going off in my head, but I finally doubled down and exerted all my capacity to try to reach the shelf that was so close and yet so far away. I immediately knew that I should have turned and swam for the other side while I still had strength. Despite my exertion, the shelf got no closer.

Finally I was spent. I turned and tried to swim for the shore from which I had jumped, yelling for help as I did so. I knew I was in serious trouble. But somehow I couldn't bring myself to pray. How could I ask God for help when I was deliberately disobeying his commandments? As Huckleberry Finn discovered, "You can't pray a lie." Still, with weak faith that God would answer my sinner's call, I cried out to him within my soul for help.

The current was too strong for me to make it back to the shore. Instead, I was pushed downstream toward the rocky outcropping, which had been worn smooth by thousands of years of streaming water. As soon as it came close I tried grasping for anything that could keep my body from being pushed around the bend; a process that would have plunged me underwater for more time than I had breath to spare. In my mind's eye I could see myself being pushed, twisted, and turned underwater by the current until blackness overtook me.

In my reaching and grabbing at the outcropping, my hands grasped a mossy bump that allowed me to barely hold on. But it was too rounded and slippery. As my claw-like fingers slid over the surface of the bump, I suddenly saw my friend's arm and hand before my face. Just as my feet, legs, and hips were being pulled toward the bend, I managed to grasp my friend's hand. He held on with all his strength.

My friend had only realized the seriousness of my plight when I cried out for help. He had sprung down the outcropping to a tiny ledge where he had little leverage and had sprawled downward in one mighty lunge just in time to grab my hand. He couldn't pull me up on his own, so he held me there until another friend maneuvered into place and grabbed my other arm, which allowed the two of them to hoist me from the water and then onto somewhat level ground.

I collapsed onto a log feeling nauseous. I put my head between my legs and concentrated on breathing slowly and deeply. I was actually nearly hyperventilating. I felt like I was either going to retch, pass out, or both. My friends got my towel and jacket to help calm my uncontrollable shivering. In my soul I expressed sorrow for my disobedience and gratitude to God for being saved.

After about five or six minutes my breathing had calmed and I slowly started to feel like I wasn't necessarily going to faint. A few minutes later I was able to raise my head up. After awhile I was able to stand. We made our way back to the car. I almost immediately fell asleep as we drove toward Old Faithful.

I was pretty quiet the rest of the day. Not only was I keenly aware of how close I had come to departing this life, I was disappointed with myself for my rebellious choice and my willingness to give into peer pressure.

But the experience was not without some valuable lessons for me (although, you might draw other conclusions):
  • You can always pray.
  • God is merciful and is willing to help as much as he can, even when you do something stupid.
  • Don't ignore promptings of warning.
  • Don't ignore signs of danger. There was a good reason that there were no other swimmers at the river that day.
  • Don't let friends entice you into doing something you sense is not right for you.
  • While the old saying about getting right back on a horse after it has bucked you off can be valid advice, it is sometimes better to wait until conditions improve a bit before getting back in the saddle. You might need to recuperate and you might need to let the horse—or river—calm down for a few weeks.
And finally:
  • DON'T go swimming on the Sabbath.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Flashlight

In response to my post about funerals, some have asked me about my reference to "the flashlight poem." As it happens, I occasionally dabble in poetry. Some of my more memorable compositions are bits of doggerel of the cowboy poetry genre. I write other types of poetry as well, but I'm the first to admit that I'm no great poet. I mostly do write for my own entertainment and sometimes for campfire fun.

I rather like cowboy poetry because it's kind of rough around the edges. As such, it's rather flexible and forgiving. Much like the whimsical styles of Lewis Carroll and Dr. Seuss, words can be twisted to rhyme (or words can even be made up), meter can be varied, and other liberties can be taken. This particular poem sounds best if you say it out loud with somewhat of a cowboy twang.

My best cowboy poems relate true stories—actual events. Such is the case with the flashlight poem. This really happened to a boy in our troop at camp a few years ago. Every word is absolutely accurate.

Dyed-in-the-wool scouters will appreciate the poem without any introduction. But for others it is helpful to know that the word "kybo" is a Boy Scout euphemism for a latrine or an outhouse, usually of the pit variety. (There are a number of theories about the origin of this word, but that's not important for this post.)

Without further ado, my poem, The Flashlight.

It was dark that night in the kybo
As he stood there trying to aim steady,
But needing both paws he held clenched in his jaws
A flashlight from EverReady.

But the weight of D batteries is tough on a jaw
And his saliva started to flow.
Then from his wet lip that light made a slip
And tumbled right through that oval hole.

Now, as luck would have it, that light light on a ledge
Just above that deep pool of waste,
So he reached down in there with the greatest of care
And retrieved it with all due haste.

He rinsed it, then coated it with hand sanitizer
From its north end down to its south.
But one thing's for sure
It'll be a long time before
He puts that thing back in his mouth.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Planning Your Own Funeral

I was recently seated next to my wife at the funeral of a longtime and well venerated member of our ward. This hard working, dedicated family man had lived a long life. His wife and sweetheart of 6½ decades appeared to be close to following him across the veil. Wonderful memories were expressed. Fine musical numbers were presented. It was all very dignified and proper.

Then one son rose to sing a song that he said the children had been told for years had to be sung at their father's funeral. He said that the children had never been told how or why their parents came to love the song Somewhere, My Love. Somewhat in jest, he proposed a "rumor" that his parents danced to it on the night they first met.

I wasn't sure that could have happened. I seemed to recall that the song was related to the movie Dr. Zhivago. I remembered watching the movie on TV with my family as a child. I was ignorant of the political and interpersonal dimensions portrayed. All I knew was that the movie lasted for-stinking-ever.

As the number began, I whipped out my handy-dandy smartphone and quickly discovered that the song was released some 20 years after the decedent and his wife had married. I smirked and showed this find to my wife. The singer could easily have discovered the same information with a minute of research. A little too arrogant and cynical, no? Does modern mobile technology render this kind of peevishness too easy? I probably should just have kept the phone in my pocket.

As I sat through the meeting, I reflected on my father's funeral. We had plied him for his thoughts on the program prior to his death, but he simply refused to say anything about it. He finally told me that the funeral was not for his benefit, but for the benefit of the survivors. His only wishes were that his sons plan everything and that our mother be completely relieved from worrying about even the remotest detail. That ended up working out great.

When my father-in-law was preparing to pass on, his only desires as far as his funeral went were that it be only a graveside service and that it last for less than an hour. He hated long meetings. That worked out fine too.

Years ago I thought I would develop very detailed plans for my own funeral. Maybe something like the scene portrayed in the song Forest Lawn that was popularized by John Denver. Although I hope that this event is yet in the distant future, I now think I like my father's approach better. Unlike my father, however, I have a handful of minor requests for my children. (All of which are subject to my changing whims.)
  • Testify of the Savior's Atonement.
  • Get the cheapest casket you can. You will honor me best by saving the money for more valuable matters than a box that is going to be buried under six feet of dirt following a few hours of display.
  • May there be both weeping and laughter, but hopefully more of the latter than the former.
  • Have some kind of (spiritually appropriate) music that reminds you of me. (Probably no progressive rock.)
  • Read something that I have written. (Maybe not the flashlight poem.)
OK, so it's a little macabre to discuss your own funeral. As it happens, my wife and I have already purchased our funeral plots (so as to reduce burdens when that time arrives). As the plots are not far from my parents' plots, I often take the opportunity to lie down on my plot when we visit Dad's grave. That creeps my kids out, but it doesn't bother me one bit. Death is a natural part of life. It need not be approached with fear.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Ward Choir Woes

Our ward choir is pathetic. I've seen a broad spectrum of ward choirs over my lifetime, just within the wards of which I have been a member.

During my teen and young adult years, the ward in which I grew up had a fine choir directed by a professional music teacher. They practiced for an hour every Sunday prior to Sacrament meeting (back in the old split schedule days). At age 14 my mom nagged me into joining the choir, although, I had no vocal training.

I have tried to sing in ward choirs ever since those days. My vocal talents have developed over time, but I am still no grand singer. We had a decent sized choir when we moved into our current ward many years ago. My wife did a seven-year stint as the choir director as we were starting our family. She was thankfully released from that calling as our young family expanded.

Choir practice used to be on Sunday mornings. As our family expanded, I hit a point where I rarely sang with the choir for a few years, opting instead to stay home and get the kids ready for church while my wife attended practices. This provided her a needed respite before spending three hours wrangling young children while trying to worship.

One of the biggest challenges our choir faces is finding a convenient time to practice. There just isn't one. People generally don't come to weeknight or Saturday practices. It is horrendously difficult to get people to the church before the block meetings start nowadays. Many that would do so are busy with morning leadership meetings anyway. It's easier to get people to stay after the three-hour block. It's much more difficult to get them to return to the church later on.

The trouble with practicing after meetings is that every room in the church with a piano is generally busy except for the chapel, where we get about 30-35 minutes before the next ward comes in. Depending on how promptly meetings end and choir members make their way to practice, we are lucky to get 20-25 minutes of decent practice time on any given Sunday.

Every ward has its own culture. The choir in my old home ward regularly practiced and performed demanding numbers. When we moved into our current ward I could tell that the choir, while fairly well attended, wasn't nearly as loyal or willing to prepare such numbers. It has remained that way ever since. Directors have occasionally tried to get members to practice more or to sing more challenging numbers, but that has never worked out. People just vote with their feet.

Over the years I have watched our ward choir slowly dwindle in membership. Practicing after block meetings takes its toll because every other organization in the ward wants to catch people at that same time for 'brief' meetings. Some people with young families feel that they need to go home with their kids, who need to be fed, etc. But if we try to hold practices at another time, even fewer people come.

Right now our regular practices fail to draw even a mixed double quartet. (That would be eight people: 2xSATB.) We once had young adults sing with us, but they now mostly attend a young adult ward. I am now the lone tenor, although, I am really a baritone. My wife is often the lone soprano. We sometimes get a couple of the several bass section members out to practice. One of them is usually my high school son (who is a basso profundo and can sing as low as the lowest note on the piano keyboard). We have three or four altos that show up consistently.

We actually have a number of musically talented people in our ward, including many piano players. Some that used to sing with the choir feel that their voice is no longer capable of choir quality singing. Few younger people—even among those that can sing well—are willing to fill those vacancies.

Our choir director occasionally has a 'flash choir' sing in Sacrament meeting. She invites anyone who is willing to come up to the stand to sing a slightly modified version of a well known hymn. This has worked to a certain extent, even if musical execution isn't the best. At least we get a few more people on the stand to bolster our flagging numbers.

Although the church handbook calls for the ward choir to perform at least monthly in Sacrament meeting, our director has the choir take each summer off. It's a relief to have one less meeting to attend each Sunday throughout the summer. I'm not sure that anyone really misses our singing.

I can't nail down all of the reasons that our ward choir is dying. I've seen other ward choirs in our stake that seem to be thriving; although, they deal with the same issues as our ward. It is disheartening to be one of a tiny number of people that show up to choir practice. It is even more depressing to feel more like a member of a quartet than a ward choir when performing in Sacrament meeting, especially given the size of the congregation.

I am not presently serving in a leadership responsibility that could do something about our choir. But when I was, the choir wasn't a top priority. We had so many other things on our plate. So I can't blame current leadership for the situation.

I enjoy singing praises to the Lord. But doing so as a member of our ward choir is kind of a grim experience at present.

Monday, March 04, 2013

A Five-Inch Needle to the Eye and a Pirate Patch

"Don't look at the needle," the doctor said as a slim syringe with a needle that looked to be about four to five inches long passed directly across my field of vision. Realizing that he needed an instrument from the neighboring room, the doctor promptly left the room, leaving the syringe on the counter in plain view.

Knowing that the doctor was about to somehow stick that needle into the optic nerve behind my eyeball, I might have gone into full panic mode at that moment. Except for the fact that I had the good fortune a number of years ago of spending a week and a half as a patient in a hospital, during which time I became as familiar as is a well used pincushion with being poked by needles—at all times of the day and night. By the time I left that hospital, it was no big deal to be poked by a needle; although, I still don't care to watch the procedure.

Actually, I was quite happy to see the long needled syringe. I had been a total baby the last time the ophthalmologist had cauterized a retinal tear with a laser. I tried to keep my eye steady—a necessity for the operation—but my eyes seemed to move of their own accord as they filled with huge tears that spilled down my face. I felt sorry for the poor doctor. To prevent such problems this time around the doctor had offered to temporarily immobilize my eye.

The pinprick sensation on my lower eyelid wasn't too bad. I've had worse. It was only a flesh wound. "That's an odd sensation," I remarked as I felt something pushing my eyeball from behind. "Um, how long will the injection take?" I mumbled. "We're done," he refreshingly replied.

After several brief instances of weirdly shaped lights flashing in my eye over the past year, I had searched the internet and had figured that I was experiencing eye flashes that are not uncommon in middle aged eyes. But then I had a longer episode that lasted nearly half an hour. Some of the material I read said to get the eye examined by a professional right away or else risk retinal detachment, which can result in blindness. Yikes! So off to the doctor I went.

"What can you see out of that eye?" the doctor asked as he waved his hand in front of my face. I could see only gray outlines. "That's good," he said. He proceeded to place a lens directly on my eyeball. That didn't bother me like I thought it would. He looked through the other end of the instrument. I soon began seeing a small green point of light flash as the doctor activated the laser by foot pedal. My eye didn't move at all. It couldn't.

This was a vast improvement over the previous treatment when my eye was assaulted with blinding flashes of light, something to which I have always been extra sensitive. The 100-120 flashes of a tiny unremarkable green light took maybe five minutes. Probably less. That was considerably better than the 25 minutes the 40-45 flashes of blinding light had taken the time before when I couldn't keep my teary eyes still.

As the doctor bandaged my eye he said that normal eye movement would return "in a few hours" and that I could remove the dressing anytime I wanted. About an hour and a half later, it felt like I could move my eye and my eyelid normally, so I removed the bandage.

Bad idea. Bad, bad idea. My wife asked why I had immediately grabbed the wall. "To keep from falling over," I replied. Even then I wasn't sure that the wall would keep me upright. I could see clearly, but everything was slanted like a fun house room. But only out of the affected eye. In attempting to make sense of the two different views offered by my two eyes, my brain almost succeeded in making me seriously nauseous.

Unable to find an eye patch around the house, my wife drove me to a nearby pharmacy, where I bought what looked very much like a pirate costume patch. My son said that I looked more like a James Bond villain than a pirate. The vague "few hours" recovery time mentioned by the doctor ended up lasting at least 12 hours until I retired. I'm not actually sure when the anesthetic wore off because I awoke with my eye tracking normally.

In the interim, I spent the day with my Bond villain look. I was somewhat self conscious when I accompanied my daughter to a children's museum. Happily, no one seemed to care. Even the young kids (of which there were many) seemed unbothered by my appearance. It was a bit more problematic to attend a wedding reception, where my eye adornment brought unwanted attention from friends and acquaintances. But at least I was able to stay upright.

The vitreous gel inside our eyes hardens with age and pulls away from the retina and outside of the eye. It's usually no big deal. But some of us are blessed with 'sticky' gel that tugs hard enough on the retina to tear that delicate membrane during this process. As mentioned above, it's important to get this treated promptly. You know, impending blindness and all.

The good news (at least for the ophthalmologist) is that once you've had a retinal tear, you are a good candidate for more. So I am getting comfortable with the idea of seeing the eye doctor more often. I guess that as long as I can continue to see him, it will be worth it.

I'm not particularly looking forward to the next time I will need laser therapy on my eyes. But I will definitely go for the eye immobilization the next time around. For me, a five-inch needle and a pirate patch beat seeing bright laser light shot in my eye any day.