Friday, March 28, 2014

The Incredible Timing of Delivery Services

I arrived home from a business meeting at a time of day when the neighborhood was quiet. Although our neighborhood has plenty of kids, it's not like it was back in the early days when we first moved into our newly built home that was in a development chock-full of young families living in recently built houses. Back then there were no mature trees, but the place veritably swarmed with roving gangs of noisy toddlers and pre-teens on foot, roller blades, skateboards, Big Wheels, scooters, and bicycles.

Our neighborhood is more mature nowadays. There are plenty of well seasoned trees. Homes are occupied by a fairly even distribution of young families, families with older kids, and empty nesters. Fences and hedges prevent the flow of traffic through backyards. In the middle of any school- and workday, the place can be pretty calm.

After closing the garage door and getting inside the house, I realized that I was the only one home. The silence of the neighborhood and the house settled around me as I walked to the master bedroom. Not that it was completely silent. You never realize how much white noise continually permeates your house until you have a power outage. But it was quiet enough.

Being the only one at home and expecting no visitors, I didn't bother closing the bedroom door as I doffed my business suit, released the pressure of the necktie girding my collar, and unbuttoned my shirt.

By the way, why does more formal male attire in our society demand the wearing of a necktie? What logical purpose does this piece of cloth throttling the neck serve? Is it simply decoration? If so, isn't there some way we could hold a vote of men around the world and get this silly bit of apparel banned? Despite the ridiculousness of the necktie, it seems to have incredible endurance in conservative fashion. What's up with that?

Anyway, I was standing in front of my open closet in nothing but my undergarments as I prepared to put my suit on its hanger, having put the coat and slacks on the bed after removing them.

Speaking of closets, I have often wondered how I ended up with the least closet space among my family members. I'm not really complaining, mind you. I have this "if you build it, they will come" theory about closets ("it") and clothes + other junk ("they"). The expansion of "it" invites the proliferation of the "they." I already have plenty of clothes. Too many clothes, in fact. Some I've had since I was 21 years old. (And, yes they fit.) My wife occasionally cajoles me to get rid of old clothes, despite how comfortable they seem.

My wife's closet is no bigger than mine. But she has clothes stored in two other closets in the house too. Two of the kids have walk-in closets that came with the bedrooms we added onto the house a few years ago. But somehow that doesn't stop their clothes from being hung on chairs and bedposts, as well as being piled on any horizontal surface in the room. Go figure.

Oh yeah. There I was standing in my skivvies when the doorbell rang. I moved to where I could see out front and spied a FedEx truck, as well as a female FedEx driver standing at the door with a package that required a signature.

Since my closet was open, I was able to quickly pull on pants and a T-shirt, and then run to the door in time to sign for the package. That was fortunate, at least. I could have arrived a few seconds later to find a note saying that they had tried to deliver the package but had found no one home. Trying to arrange for the delivery of such a package can be nightmarish. The whole exercise was enough to get my heart beating at an anaerobic rate. Hey, workout done for the day!

How is it, I wondered to myself, that you can waste hours sitting around the house waiting for the delivery of an important package or for a service person to arrive, while other deliveries or service people come at the exact moment that you are indisposed. Do delivery and service people have some kind of sixth sense or a secret calculation that lets them know how to achieve maximum inconvenience?

Anybody in the delivery or service business care to venture an answer?

Monday, March 24, 2014

Repentance: It's a Good Hurt

My friend had tears in his eyes. "It's an amazing thing to see in someone you never thought would get to that point," he said. He was describing the change he had recently seen in a lifelong friend who had previously exhibited a pattern of making poor choices.

Leading up to this I had been discussing repentance with my friend, who had been undergoing a challenging repentance process himself. "The hardest part about repentance" he offered, "is getting to the point that you are willing to repent. To get there you have to admit to yourself that you cannot fully fix it yourself." My friend said that this felt like much more than a simple surrender of pride. It was more like giving up an essential piece of one's identity.

(This, of course, presupposes that the individual has first gotten to the point that he recognizes his sin as a problem and then decides that he wants the problem fixed.)

The very first of the commandments listed on the stone tablets Moses brought down from the mountain demands our recognition of God's preeminence in all things and forbids the worship of idols (see Exodus 20:3-6). Our modern society regularly worships many other gods (see Dallin H. Oaks 10/2013 general conference talk). But perhaps the god we are most guilty of setting before the great God of heaven is ourselves. Isaiah tells us that "we have turned every one to his own way" (Isaiah 53:6).

I have a friend that greatly dislikes the Old Testament tale of the prophet Samuel confronting King Saul about Saul's failure to fully keep the Lord's commandment (see 1 Samuel 15). My friend focuses on the direction to engage in scorched earth warfare and genocide, as well as the execution of the enemy king following the battle. While these are weighty moral issues to consider, I think that my friend's heavy focus on these factors might cause him to overlook an important lesson in the story.

When Saul claims that he disobeyed so as to offer better sacrifices to the Lord, Samuel replies that "to obey is better than sacrifice" (see 1 Samuel 15:22-23). He goes on to say that "stubbornness is as ... idolatry."

We engage in self idol worship whenever we decide that our idea is better than God's or that what we want is more important than what God wants. We rationalize that our cherished sin isn't that bad and that we know plenty of decent people that engage in this type of thing. But we cannot escape the consequences of our enmity with God.

The reason it is so difficult and painful to get to the point that we are willing to repent of the sin of self worship is that destroying our idol literally means destroying something that we have allowed to become part of our identity. The Savior said that this process can be like cutting off a hand or a foot, or plucking out an eye. But he assures us that in the end the reward will be worth the pain (see Matthew 18:8-9).

Pres. Dieter F. Uchtdorf assures us (see 10/2013 general priesthood address) that while "heartfelt regret and true remorse for disobedience are often painful and very important steps in the sacred process of repentance," true "repentance is about transformation, not torture or torment."

Pres. Spencer W. Kimball's book The Miracle of Forgiveness left an indelible imprint on my generation. Sadly, I think that the message that many of my generation took away from the book was one of harshness, torment, and torture. Most people I talk to about this book today only vaguely recall the message of Christ's miraculous and healing atonement, while vividly recalling the message of suffering as part of the repentance process.

My penitent friend said that trying to shed patterns of past wrongs in favor of patterns of righteous living indeed has its painful moments. But he also claimed that these episodes are nothing compared to the pain of becoming willing to repent. In fact, they can even seem like milestones on the way to a better place.

When the prophet Samuel talks to Saul about obedience, he isn't really saying that God wants this or that action. He is saying that God wants us to sacrifice our own will to his, because he knows that in doing so we will find eternal joy. Christian apologist C.S. Lewis famously put it this way:
"Give me all of you!!! I don’t want so much of your time, so much of your talents and money, and so much of your work. I want YOU!!! ALL OF YOU!! I have not come to torment or frustrate the natural man or woman, but to KILL IT! No half measures will do. I don’t want to only prune a branch here and a branch there; rather I want the whole tree out! Hand it over to me, the whole outfit, all of your desires, all of your wants and wishes and dreams. Turn them ALL over to me, give yourself to me and I will make of you a new self---in my image. Give me yourself and in exchange I will give you Myself. My will, shall become your will. My heart, shall become your heart."
This is where my repentant friend is headed. And while this path has its share of pains and trials, it is a joyful path. Perhaps even more joyful than traveling this path ourselves is seeing another soul making progress on that path. This may help explain why God's work and glory is "to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man" (see Moses 1:39): because his joy is great "in the soul that repenteth" (D&C 18:13).

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Studying for Employment: A Lesson In Marketing and Statstics

A billboard that I pass quite often in my travels advertises the local applied technology college. In huge bold letters it boasts, "90% of our grads are working. Are you?" The marketing is clearly aimed at the unemployed. But might it actually be aimed at those that are bad at math?

It was recently reported (see D-News article) that Utah's unemployment rate has hit a five-year low of 3.9%. Turning the math around on the college's billboard we can see that the college is proudly stating that the unemployment rate among its graduates is about 10%. That's more than 250% higher than the state average. Can someone explain to me how this is supposed to be a good thing?

It's like the college saying, "You can more than double your chances of being unemployed by spending a lot of time and money to get a certificate from us!" Well, by golly, who wouldn't want to take them up on a deal like that?

To be fair, the numbers are actually far more complex than can be conveyed in sound bite statistics. While it is true — according to government accounting — that Utah's official unemployment rate has dropped to 3.9%, unemployment is not evenly spread across demographic groups. Besides, political accounting machinations don't mean nearly as much to people as do the financial realities they face every day.

To understand what the unemployment rate is actually counting, you must first understand the labor force participation rate. That is the percentage of people in the 16-64 age range that are either a) employed or that are  b) unemployed, are available to work, and have actively looked for work in the past four weeks. The unemployment rate is b (unemployed) divided by a (employed + unemployed).

Most people likely assume that a 3.9% unemployment rate means that only 3.9% of those that could be working are unable to find jobs at the moment. But that's not accurate. The unemployment rate does not count people that are willing to work but that have quit looking for a job. That number is harder to calculate because it is difficult to know whether people that aren't actively seeking work are available to work or not.

We try to get a feel for this by looking at the change in the labor force participation rate. This rate recently hit a 35-year low nationally (see MarketWatch article). While this number can be heavily influenced by fluctuating retirement rates, the recent decline seems to mostly involve those under age 35. Moreover, Utah has seen the nation's largest drop in labor force participation over the past half decade (see Governing article), exceeding the national average decline by more than 230%.

This tells us that a lot of Utahns would work if they could but that the job market is so lean they have simply quit looking for work. The state's rosy unemployment rate paints an overly optimistic picture because it fails to address thousands of real unemployed folks.

In Utah these would-be workers are more highly concentrated in the 16-24 age demographic (see LocalInsights publication). This group's labor participation rate is only 81% of the demographic's national average. Given Utah's high youth population, this age group's poor performance is enough to make Utah's overall labor force participation rate look dismal. (The Governor boasts in the linked D-News article about the recent jump in Utah's labor participation rate, but this was only possible because the rate had fallen off so badly. Even with the recent improvement the state's rate is poor.)

When you add the 44.8% of Utah teens and young adults that aren't looking for work to those that are (11.9% unemployment rate), the total rate of those without jobs in this age category is pretty high. Since the main demographic for applied technology students is the 16-24 age bracket, perhaps the college's billboard is an apt advertisement after all. 10% unemployment sure beats 50%+ unemployment.

Youth jobs in Utah have dried up due to multiple factors. The lean economy means that a lot of jobs simply aren't available any longer due to business contraction and the transition of some jobs to technology. Also, adults in the next higher age group have increasingly accepted jobs that formerly went to younger workers. (This is true all the way up the line of ages.)

Even the labor participation rate is inadequate for capturing job quality. The number of workers that want full-time employment but that are working in part-time jobs has risen dramatically. Well meaning government sponsored efforts to "help" workers but that also add costs to employers can only make the overall employment situation worse.

What this means is that, despite all of the rhetoric about an improving economy, the job market is a much tougher place than it once was. Training that might have been unnecessary in the past may turn out to make the difference between having a job and not having a job. So school can be valuable. But it's no panacea.

If your goal is to get a job, it pays to do a little research before plunging dollars and hours into education. You want to make sure that your investment will pay off. This is historically difficult, especially if you are chasing a field that has a lot of hot jobs today. Those jobs might not be there by the time you graduate. Or you may graduate with so many competitors that your group swamps the market.

College doesn't necessarily beat vocational training either. Record numbers of college graduates are working in jobs that don't require a degree (see CNN Money, LA Times articles). Much of this is because people have spent their time getting degrees that don't have much value in the job market or that they have ended up hating.

The moral is to get real about what you choose to study. Colleges are increasingly facing pressure to prove the market worth of the degrees they offer (see Wall Street Jounral article), but many have no idea how to accomplish this feat.

It is also good to remember that in a tight labor market you can't expect your ideal job to be available. Successful job candidates often settle for conditions they would prefer to avoid.

It is entirely appropriate to pursue an education to improve your job prospects. But do your homework before committing yourself. And be realistic about what your certificate or degree can do for you.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Do You Ever Have Old Teachers Emerge From the Mists of Time?

The ringtone emanating from the phone in my pocket alerted me that my junior high schooler was calling. I glanced at the clock and saw that school had just let out.

On a side note: I never used to care about ringtones because I always relied on the vibrate feature. But that was back when I geekily wore my phone in a plastic holster attached to my belt, a setup that allowed the phone to vibrate right against my hip bone. Once I made the transition to pocketing my phone I found that I missed too many calls unless the phone both vibrated and rang. So now I have obnoxious ringtones. Loud ones. Because I otherwise won't hear the darn phone if there's much ambient noise.

On a side side note: Speaking of clocks, does anyone else have kids that are old enough but that still don't know how to read analog clocks despite your best efforts to teach them? Kids that don't know what "a quarter after" or "a quarter to" means? I know that digital clocks continue to proliferate, but there are still plenty of analog clocks around.

Me (hearing a lot of junior high hallway noise in the background): Hi.

Child: Hi, Dad! I had a substitute teacher today. Did you have a math teacher named Mr. X [name redacted] when you were my age?

Me: Uh ... yeah.

I doubt my child could sense the immense mixture of feelings that washed over me during that ellipsis.
  • Is that man still alive? And still substitute teaching?! How old could he be? Or how young was he when I was in junior high? For all I know he might have been fresh out of college back then. To my 13-year-old self anybody that was old enough to be a teacher was simply ancient. 25 or 95; what's the diff?
  • When I was a kid I thought of teachers kind of like school equipment that was switched off after we left school and that somebody switched back on before we arrived the next day. I couldn't fathom that they actually had regular lives complete with daily concerns like finances and family. Although I can see the regular lives of teachers I know nowadays, it still somehow amazes me that anyone that was one of my teachers actually existed outside of the school context. That irrational kid part of me wonders if Mr. X has just been stuck in the back of some storage room at the school all these years.
  • Should I tell my child how much this man intimidated girls in my class? He was kind of a handsome guy and the girls liked him, but only from a distance. Many wouldn't even approach his desk without taking friends along for protection. Given half a chance, Mr. X would jauntily snap any girl's bra strap, tweak her bottom, and/or make comments about her developing feminine anatomy. While these behaviors could bring very serious consequences nowadays, administrators treated those girls' complaints very lightly back then. Mr. X must have learned to curb that behavior since then. Maybe they installed an update to his programming.
  • Math! Why did it have to be math? (I'm thinking of an Indiana Jones analogy here.) I hated math. (So it's kind of odd that I went into accounting and ended up programming computers and writing algorithms.) The desktops in the math classrooms at our junior high school were emblazoned with a graph grid, a large circle, and various measurement aids. I remember Mr. X working out problems on the overhead projector as I glanced back and forth between the screen and the design on my desk without the slightest comprehension of what he was explaining. Sometimes I would slightly cross my eyes while staring at the grid on my desktop until the grid appeared to take on a three dimensional appearance. All the while Mr. X was talking, but my brain perceived his vocalizations pretty much like what you hear when an adult talks on a Charlie Brown cartoon.
  • On the other hand, I ran into some people a few years ago that talked about how much they admired Mr. X and talked about some great things he had done in the community where he lived. Could it be that my judgment is rather skewed by looking through my 13-year-old eyes?
  • Come on! Was it really necessary to dredge up this memory? Why is it that despite the intervening decades, part of me is still a 13-year-old kid staring dumbly at a sheet of junior high math problems?

Child: He said that you and some of my uncles were students of his.

Me (masking my emotions): That's true.

Child: He said to tell you hi.

Me (monotone): That's cool.

Child: Well, see ya Dad. I gotta go.

Me (glad that the conversation is finished): See ya later.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Dying Dreams and the Sacrament

Sometimes I have glimpses of triumph. But it's not like I imagined it would be when I was younger.

In my youth I had grand plans for my life — aspirations of personal greatness and glory. On the rare occasions when those schemes have come to fruition I have invariably discovered less gold and more rubble than I had imagined, but almost always with a few unexpected gems hiding among the detritus.

Like nearly everyone else, however, most of my great ambitious have fallen prey to life's realities. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It is (or can be) the process by we gain perspective and become grounded.

I think the first major adjustment to my lofty objectives came when as a young adult I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, an incurable and sometimes debilitating chronic illness. Previously unknown dimensions suddenly confronted me, forcing a major reassessment.

Parenthood — one of the goals deliberately pursued — has instilled nearly continuous revisions as children's needs have surpassed my own. Nowadays I am mostly just trying to get by, hoping that my current trajectory will culminate in something much better than I had imagined as a young man.

This isn't as bleak as it might sound. Some of my wrecked goals can now be seen to have been puerile. In retrospect I am glad for their demise. Others simply weren't meant to be. I have become a different person than I had planned, but unlike Robert Frost's traveler in his poem The Road Not Taken, I do not regret taking a different path.

Some glimpses of glory yet to come have occurred in unexpected moments. I am reminded of an occasion several years ago when I was serving as a member of a bishopric. Like many LDS congregations, ours struggled (still struggles) with reverence problems in sacrament meeting, which, according to Elder Dallin H. Oaks, should be "the most sacred and important meeting in the Church."

That Sunday was like most in that our congregation was not particularly reverent during the administration of the sacrament. But something was different.

I don't recall the hymn we sang in preparation for the sacrament, but during the ordinance I kept thinking about President James E. Faust's lyrical poetry, This Is The Christ (see Mormon Tabernacle Choir rendition). As I knew my own broken self and my need for the Savior's atonement, I reflected on Pres. Faust's question, "How many drops of blood were spilled for me?"

Then something deeply spiritual occurred within me. The gratitude I felt for the Savior caused tears to spring unbidden to my eyes — enough so that I couldn't hide them from the congregation. But it was not primarily an emotional experience; it was a spiritual event.

As I self consciously glanced sideways at the bishop and the other counselor I quickly noticed that each was having his own spiritual moment and that each had tears in his eyes. At that moment we all noticed each other. In a flash we shared a profound spiritual understanding that cannot adequately be described in earthly terms. We were united in divine worship. We felt God's love for us and for each member of the congregation.

The congregation wasn't any different. Children were still moving around and making noise, bored teenagers still whispered to each other and shifted in their seats, adults still flipped book pages and cleared their throats. But we were different. The sacrament, an ordinance I had experienced thousands of times, had risen to a new level of sacredness for us.

As with some of the rare moments parents experience with their children, this moment of joy reprioritized earthly matters and whispered of a greater and more sublime future.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Utah LDS Church Members Encouraged to Attend Political Caucus Meetings, but I Won't Be There

I found myself experiencing a bit of a dilemma last Sunday when a member of our bishopric read a letter from the First Presidency encouraging LDS Church members in Utah to exercise "their civic responsibility and privileges" by participating in political precinct caucus meetings that will be held this month (see LDS Newsroom article). This official counsel comes from men that I consider to be properly authorized to speak for God. Thus, I should carefully consider their admonition.

While some might read the First Presidency's statement to say, "Go to a political caucus meeting or be damned," I believe that reason and personal inspiration are required to determine how to honor any generalized prophetic counsel.

Some prophetic pronouncements are clear, unambiguous, and specifically as well as generally applicable for all people in all situations. For example, "Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery" (Matthew 19:18). But the vast majority of prophetic directives do not fall into this category.

Consider, for example, the 1833 revelation on health known as the Word of Wisdom (D&C 89). Recent church leaders have made it clear that church members must abstain from the use of tobacco, alcohol, coffee, tea, and illegal drugs, as well as the abuse of any addictive substance to be in good standing with respect to the Word of Wisdom.

But what should we make of verse 17 where it implies that corn, oats, and rye are for various animals but not for humans? Are you breaking the Word of Wisdom if you eat corn on the cob, oatmeal, or rye bread? And what about the counsel in verses 14 and 17 suggesting that wheat is to be the "staff of life" for humans, in light of the fact that the wheat commonly used today is a dramatically different substance than the wheat used in 1833? If gluten causes you problems, are you breaking the Word of Wisdom if you eat no wheat?

What about President Monson's June 2013 statement that "Now is the time for members and missionaries to come together, to work together, to labor in the Lord’s vineyard to bring souls unto Him."? Or his October 2012 statement that "we encourage all young men who are worthy and who are physically able and mentally capable to respond to the call to serve [as a full-time missionary]."? How are these statements to be applied?

It seems obvious that most prophetic counsel requires both rational judgment and spiritual insight to be specifically and individually applied, so that "all these things are done in wisdom and order" (Mosiah 4:17). I believe this is also the case when the First Presidency "encourages" church members to attend political caucus meetings.

Utah's system of nominating political party officials and candidates at precinct caucus meetings and escalating conventions has been under fire lately by well funded politically powerful interests. But at present it appears that the system will likely endure in some form. At any rate, it remains unchanged this year.

The First Presidency's letter describes precinct caucus meetings as "a grassroots level of political involvement in Utah [that] are best served by a broad representation of Utah citizens." The Presidency also notes that those "who attend play a critical role in selecting candidates for public office."

For those that are interested, the Utah Democratic Party will hold its caucus meetings on Tuesday, March 18 at 6:30 PM and the Utah Republican Party will hold its meetings on Thursday, March 20 at 7:00 PM. You can see a full list of links to Utah's registered political parties here. Check your party's website to see whether/where your local caucus meeting will be held.

My problem is that I have entered a post partisan phase. At one time I was a staunch Republican. But when I found myself trying to defend some of my party's horrible politicians and policies I started to take a more critical view of the party and of the political process in general. When I looked across the aisle and saw Democratic apologists defending their party's awful politicians and policies I realized that there was a lot of the same kind of thing going on throughout the system.

The more I studied politics and separated what political actors really do from their stylistic and rhetorical approaches, the more it looked to me like all political actors (whether they believe it or not) were more of one kind — folks that get fulfillment by trading power over the lives of others — while the general citizenry were another kind — pawns in the political game. It looked to me like most of what partisans argued about boiled down to style and hyperbole rather than substantial differences in actions and results. The more I learned about how politics really works the less I wanted much to do with it.

I think that I really got on the road out of the GOP last time I attended a caucus meeting. Turnout that night was impressive. It soon became evident, however, that those that held individual liberty dear represented only a tiny minority of those present. Any that didn't enthusiastically support establishment candidates were quickly eliminated from vying to become delegates for the county or state conventions.

After watching the GOP for several more months I couldn't see how my views could ever be adequately represented by the party. I'm not like those sour grapes folks that whine that the party left them behind while their views remained unchanged. I think, rather, that as I became more clear on both my own views and the nature of the party I found too many irreconcilable differences to remain a member. Nor did I see a ready home for my views in any of the other parties. So I registered as an unaffiliated voter.

I have the utmost respect for those that know that their political party is deeply flawed and yet view it as the best avenue for them to see their political views represented in some measure. I have less respect for those that are well tuned to the defects of opposing parties while being largely blind to their own party's faults. (Maybe that's because I am abhorred that I was once among this latter group.)

My post partisan condition means that I have no neighborhood caucus meeting to attend this month. While some parties that do hold caucus meetings welcome unaffiliated voters, I cannot presently bring myself to work directly with those parties any more than I can bring myself to work with the GOP.

Others may legitimately come to different conclusions for themselves, but in my case I believe that the best way for me to have my political views represented is to vote with my feet and remain aloof from all political parties for now. Even after reviewing the First Presidency's counsel, I inwardly feel that this is the right approach for me. Thus, for the first time in many election cycles, I will not be attending a neighborhood caucus meeting this time around.

I pray for those that will be attending their caucus meetings this month, but I do so with limited faith. I'm afraid that I find myself agreeing with P.J. O'Rourke when he says that he has difficulty seeing God in politics, which appears rather to be the domain of "the Other Fellow."

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Baking Cookies for Mental Health

I like baking cookies. Or at least I used to like baking cookies.

I whipped up my first batch of cookies on a Sunday afternoon when I was nine years old. The task took three times longer than was necessary, dirtied three times more gear than was needed, and required repeated bouts of assistance from my mom. I also may have overcooked the morsels a bit. But in the end I was proud of the plate of cookies that I had (sort of) made all by myself.

It's easier — and probably cheaper — to buy ready made cookie dough than to mix up your own. For that matter, it's even easier to buy ready made cookies. In many cases it's likely cheaper too, when you consider the value of your time and the cost of running the equipment. But your house never fills with the magnificent scent of freshly baked cookies when you buy them already baked.

I have always relished the process of making cookies from scratch. And although experts warn against the possibility of food poisoning from eating cookie dough suffused with raw eggs, I can't seem to help sampling some of the concoction before it reaches the oven. And no, I have never (yet) been poisoned via this indulgence. (Knock on wood.)

We have plenty of cookbooks full of cookie recipes at our house. Of course, nowadays you can find copious volumes of cookie recipes online. We have the general ingredients needed for most basic cookie types at the house. Fancier recipes might require a trip to the supermarket for additional supplies.

But I hardly ever bake cookies nowadays because, along with all truly tasty treats cookies are bad, Bad, BAD, BAD!!! for you — as we are constantly reminded by an annoying army of health and nutrition scolds that are absolutely certain they know what's best for us.

I have always loved wheat, rice, and other grains. Ditto when it comes to refined sugars. The combination of grains and refined sugars aspires to a culinary ecstasy for me that is achieved in no other way.

Of course, ice cream — a frozen combination of refined sugar and dairy products — excels any grain based confection in exquisiteness for me. The difference being that I never make ice cream at home because I can never get the results to approach the delectability of the commercially made stuff. Nor does ice cream making produce the delightful scents conveyed when treats are baked.

But eschewing bondage to my sweet tooth I have largely avoided grains and sugars for the past several years. Yes, I feel better when I do so; although, I do not claim that such abstinence would be the right approach for others.

My body is now so unused to grains and sugars that my occasional forays into their consumption tend to produce mild to moderate unpleasant consequences, not all of which are physical. The bony blue fingered nutrition nags have succeeded in making me feel guilty whenever I take a dietary diversion. I can't seem to bring myself to enjoy as I once did the art of making cookies. So I don't do it very often.

For some reason I am reminded of the scene in The Princess Bride where Prince Humperdinck and Count Rugen (the bad guys) are discussing their plans to torture Westley (the hero) and murder Buttercup (the maiden in distress):
Count Rugen: Ah. Are you coming down into the pit? Wesley's got his strength back. I'm starting him on the machine tonight.
Prince Humperdinck: [sincerely] Tyrone, you know how much I love watching you work, but I've got my country's 500th anniversary to plan, my wedding to arrange, my wife to murder and Guilder to frame for it; I'm swamped.
Count Rugen: Get some rest. If you haven't got your health, then you haven't got anything.
We are constantly regaled with similar assurances that we will be much happier if we do our best to maintain optimum physical health. For years I have seriously followed a strict health regimen involving exercise and diet. I am in pretty good shape for a formerly obese guy my age that has MS and hypothyroidism. I am grateful for the relative level of health I enjoy.

But if I am totally honest with myself, there is a certain grimness to my approach. What is the value of a longer and healthier existence in this nasty little world if such a life is bereft of simple pleasures such as baking and eating an occasional cookie without shame? Mental health is important too, you know.

I see a batch of cookies in the near future — for the sake of mental health, of course.

Monday, March 03, 2014

When A Church Lesson Goes Off Topic

I generally enjoy teaching at church. It wasn't always that way. At age 16 I was assigned to teach a church lesson the first Sunday of the summer I spent planting pineapple in Hawaii. The lesson went well for about seven minutes. The trouble was that I had about 38 more minutes to fill. I had planned on more input from class members (who were all teenage boys). Bad planning on my part. We survived, but it was pretty painful for all involved.

Yesterday I was assigned to teach a priesthood lesson. The only instruction I had was to focus on the Savior. I like to think that I have become a fairly adept teacher in the years since my debacle in Hawaii. I've been down the road of preparing and executing lessons a time or two. I have even stepped up to unexpectedly teach classes. Many of these experiences have been wonderful.

As I worked over several days to prepare yesterday's lesson I kept getting impressions. But there seemed to be something missing. None of these disparate ideas seemed to gel into a cohesive message. Nor did I get any particular impression about timing or order of presentation.

Finally I fell back on the talk given by David S. McConkie in the October 2013 general conference, where he said, "After you have prepared yourself and your lesson to the very best of your ability, you must be willing to let go. When the quiet promptings of the Holy Ghost come, you must have the courage to set aside your outlines and your notes and go where those promptings take you."

I had prepared. I had plenty of material to choose from. I could just jump in and let the lesson go where it needed to go, based on the needs of class members as dictated by the Spirit. Due to an unusual number of business items during priesthood opening exercises, about half the class period was gone by the time it was my turn. That would have bothered me if I had had more of an idea of how the lesson should go. But feeling rather rudderless, the short time remaining comforted me.

We had already sung a hymn in opening exercises, but I felt like I should start my lesson with a hymn. I chose My Redeemer Lives, a poem by Gordon B. Hinckley set to music by his lifelong friend G. Homer Durham. Then I quoted a favorite scripture, Omni 1:26. My intent to was to choose selections that testified of Christ.

Some of the best teaching that I have ever experienced in priesthood lessons has been during discussions where members have taught each other. I hoped to start a discussion based on the Savior by inviting class members to offer any favorite scriptures or sacred songs about the Savior.

Brother B. offered Hebrews 4:14-16. Brother H. talked about how he feels when he hears the children's song, I Feel My Savior's Love. So far so good. These were good things to mention, but not much discussion ensued.

Then another brother cited the Psalm of Nephi from 2 Nephi 4:15-35. These are powerful verses that are among my favorite scriptures. But they don't specifically mention the Savior, so they were somewhat off topic. Another brother then talked about how inspired he feels when he hears America the Beautiful and My Country, 'Tis of Thee; songs I love but that don't directly reference Christ.

It kind of went on in that vein with brethren talking about fine songs and scriptures that uplifted them but that were off the lesson topic. I would express appreciation for the insights offered but would then try to pull the discussion back to the Savior without much success.

With time running out I closed off discussion. Hoping to return to my assigned topic, I referenced some inspiring events recorded in 3 Nephi 17 and the story of the disciples walking with the resurrected Christ on the road to Emmaus from Luke 24:13-35.

After concluding I felt unsatisfied about how the lesson had gone. It felt like a jumble in my mind. Why had I felt like I was wrestling with the class members? Moreover, why had I felt like I was wrestling with the Spirit? I had done my best to follow the assignment given by my priesthood leader. Should I have jettisoned the topic and allowed the discussion to flow with less restraint? What was the Spirit trying to tell me that I had been too hard hearted to receive?

Yesterday's lesson was enough to make me question my teaching abilities. But maybe that's where the problem lies. In church instruction, human teaching skills are only valuable to the extent that they are used to assist the Holy Ghost in teaching. Sticking too tightly to a topic can sometimes get in the way of that instruction, even when the topic is as centrally important as the Savior. Or perhaps the Lord had prepared a different path to such a witness than I was willing to permit.

I'm still not sure what went wrong yesterday. But I will be taking a different approach the next time I prepare a lesson for church.