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.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Email and Tender Mercies

I recently received a handwritten letter from my missionary son. How times have changed since my missionary days. We don't often communicate with our son via snail mail.

Back in the dim ages when I was a missionary in Norway, I used to get letters from home roughly six to eleven days after they were postmarked. (My mom was very diligent about writing.) On rare occasion letters came more quickly or more slowly.

We would write back and forth. But by the time one party responded to a query by the other party, two, three, or even four weeks had passed. It was difficult to remember what had been asked.

It's not like that now. Once each week we email back and forth with our son for about an hour, discussing all kinds of things. Responses are rapid. I usually only have to remember what I asked a couple of minutes earlier. I have found myself getting impatient if my son fails respond within a minute or two.

A couple of days ago I got an email from a guy that (I now realize) lives in my son's mission. He said that my son was having dinner with his family that evening. He asked if I remembered him from when we both served as missionaries in Norway many years ago.

What a pleasant surprise. While the miracle of modern technology makes weekly communication with my son half a world away a breeze, it's always nice to connect with somebody else that has had personal contact with my son 'over there.' It's refreshing to get a third party perspective on how he is doing.

This particular communication had the added benefit of renewing an old acquaintance. How marvelous. I am thankful for tender mercies.