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.