Thursday, February 26, 2015

LDS Scouting: It's Imperfect and Plenty of People are Itching to Tell You How Flawed It Is

Scouter Mat Greenfield recently touched off a bit of a firestorm with his post on the Utah National Parks Council (BSA) Blog titled The REAL Problem with Scouting in the LDS Church. Greenfield suggests that criticisms of LDS Scouting can pretty much be chalked up to failure to "implement the full program."
"From my observation, many wards and stakes treat Scouting as if it were a buffet dinner, taking a little of this, a portion of that, and a side of something else. They implement only some of the program and then proclaim, “It doesn’t work! We’ve tried it!” They indict the program as a failure when in fact the failure arises as a direct result of the elements of the program they did not implement."
If Greenfield wanted people to give him a piece of their mind, this was a good way accomplish that goal. A handful of responses have been favorable, a few respondents offer suggestions that seem quite constructive, and of course there is the obligatory handful of snipers. But the vast majority of comments have served up a smorgasbord of gripes and complaints, often garnished with more than a little passion.

It would be easy to write off these people and their complaints. After all, aren't they railing against prophetic priorities, much like the Children of Israel repeatedly did in Old Testament times (see 1 Samuel 8:7-8)?

But most of these people seem to be earnest members of the Church, not mere snipers. In their comments (some of which are more thoughtful than others) you can sense serious anguish. Some appear to be crying out for help. To lightly regard their thoughts would be to miss out on a learning opportunity.

Although I am a died-in-the-wool Scouter and a committed member of the Church, I have offered my own complaints about LDS Scouting (see Mediocre LDS Scouting, LDS Sponsored BSA Units Have More Safety IncidentsScouting: "We're Doing It Wrong"). Criticism can have various purposes. It can, for example, express tender love, strident rebellion, hope for improvement, or just plain frustration, etc. So it is with the responses to Greenfield's post.

Quite honestly, some of the attitudes, concerns, and suggestions offered could easily be cleared up by referring to the Church's Scouting Handbook and administration Handbook 2 (search on the word Scout). But even these comments provide some insight into broadly based attitudes that church leaders and members that are working to support LDS Scouting are up against.

Although the comments are not of equal value, trying to rank them is beyond the scope of this post. Rather, I will try to give a representation of the concerns cited.
  • The BSA's rechartering system is antiquated and cumbersome.
  • The BSA's bureaucracy is expensive and problematic.
  • If adult leaders hate the Scout uniform the boys will hate the Scout uniform.
  • Some bishoprics fail to register adults with the BSA, allowing some bad apples to work with youth.
  • Disinterested and/or untrained Scout leaders/bishoprics/stake presidencies.
  • Disinterested/uninvolved/clueless parents.
  • Disinterested youth.
  • LDS sponsored Scouting units cannot do Scouting the way community sponsored units can.
  • Required attendance in LDS units vs. voluntary attendance in community units explains disinterested youth, parents, and leaders.
  • Community sponsored Scouting units have their own problems, including some that proselytize kids away from the LDS faith.
  • Moms doing the work for the boys' advancements.
  • High cost of Scouting, including overpriced uniforms and insignia.
  • The above point leads to a disparity between spending on Young Men and Young Women. This is an extremely sore point with a number of respondents, both female and male.
  • Prestige accorded Scouting far exceeds prestige accorded Young Women programs. One respondent suggested courts of honor for awarding the Young Womanhood medallion. (Our ward does something like this.)
  • Girls attend Activity Days only half as often as boys attend Cub Scouts.
  • Since the Young Women don't have Scouting, the Young Men don't need it either.
  • Since the rest of the LDS world gets by without sponsoring Scouting, North American LDS units should be able to get along fine without it too.
  • Why bother? The Church will certainly dump the BSA within 10 years or as soon as Pres. Monson/the current crop of old outmoded men leading the church is dead.
  • Since the Brethren are known to have had spirited debates about continuing Scouting, it likely won't last much longer.
  • Today's BSA is far different from the way the BSA was when the prophets embraced it. So it no longer deserves our alliance.
  • Where Scouting was hip during its first half century, today it is so far from hip and cool as to be irrelevant to the lives of many boys.
  • If you think getting rid of Scouting and just doing Duty to God for Young Men is going to be better, take a look at how poorly that system works in other countries.
  • Scouting is just a program; it is not required for salvation or exaltation. Therefore, it is optional.
  • The BSA is not the gospel. Why should a bunch of highly paid secular honchos dictate what church members should do?
  • A Duty to God certificate conveys little social prestige, but Scouting rank advancement does.
  • Too much fundraising (especially the Friends of Scouting drive).
  • Too little fundraising by the boys, resulting in failure to build valuable character traits.
  • Extreme difficulty implementing the program in small/struggling/spread out units.
  • Leader overload. Fully implementing the Scouting program consumes way too much time, especially precious family time.
  • Excessive training requirements (often driven by the desire to reduce liability).
  • Poor training led by pompous volunteers.
  • Lots of 'what' and 'why' training, but inadequate 'how' training.
  • The program is too complex, requiring years for a new leader to master.
  • Difficulty breaking into the quirky Scouting culture.
  • Not all boys (or adults) fit well with the Scouting program/culture. The program is too exclusionary.
  • Many adults are poorly suited to Scouting positions.
  • Adults that are well suited to Scouting positions are too soon called to serve elsewhere.
  • High Scout leader turnover.
  • Some units have too few boys to be effective and have little prospect for recruiting within boundaries. But stake president won't allow units to combine.
  • Combined stake unit functioning poorly.
  • Poor communication.
  • Combined YM/YW activities cut into the Scouting program and also alienate nonmember Scouts attending LDS sponsored units.
  • Scouting overemphasized while Duty to God underemphasized.
  • Way too much emphasis on uniforming.
  • Too little emphasis on uniforming.
  • Some priesthood and LDS Scouting leaders pay lip service to Scouting, but don't actually believe what they are saying. The boys and parents easily see the dissonance.
  • Some stake and ward priesthood leaders don't support the program.
  • Nonfunctional unit commissioners.
  • We don't let the boys run the program.
  • Scouting isn't a perfect program and it isn't staffed with perfect people, so we shouldn't expect the program to run perfectly.
  • Some leaders (and parents) emphasize advancement at the expense of character development.
  • Some use the words 'hate' and 'loathe' to describe Scouting due to bad experiences with the program.
  • We ought to allow people to volunteer for Scouting positions instead of relying on calling them by inspiration. Then we'd get more enthusiastic Scouting leaders. (What?)
  • Sometimes church members that don't love the BSA are treated like apostates.
  • A well run program attracts nonmember youth and parents.
  • We need more co-ed programs for the youth.
  • Some large wards lack sufficient committed adults to fill all important callings with people that will do the job well. All organizations, including Scouting suffer as a result.
  • We should only allow men with current temple recommends to be Scout leaders.
  • We shouldn't exclude good men that aren't Mormon or aren't active in the Church from being Scouting leaders.
  • Scout unit fails to accommodate son's disability.
  • Boys don't have enough skin in the game because they no longer pay dues.
  • Too much Scouting and too little religion.
  • Too much religion and too little Scouting.
  • Fully implementing Scouting doesn't produce good missionaries, husbands and fathers. Leaders who care do.
Some of these criticisms will strike a chord. Others may seem off base. You can note contradictory ideas expressed by different respondents. But these thoughts represent reality and often very real pain to the people that wrote them.

It would be easy to dismiss much of the dissatisfaction listed by saying that these people simply don't sustain God's prophet. Or that they don't believe that prophets can be inspired to implement different programs in different geographical areas or for different sexes. This essentially amounts to accusing these people of being in some state of apostasy.

That's a pretty serious accusation that seems to lack the kind of Christ-like charity that we all ought to demonstrate. I will say, however, that the real test of sustaining God's servants comes when they task us with doing something that we don't like or with which we disagree. Since none of us is perfect in this regard, we probably ought to be cautious about throwing around accusations of apostasy.

Rather, I think it is important for church leaders and those that promote LDS Scouting to consider Christ-like ways to address the criticisms listed. And more importantly, to address the pain that underlies those criticisms. Perhaps some changes are warranted.

Those that complain about the BSA bureaucracy have some valid points. Some improvements are probably warranted. But as a wise old Scout camp director once told me after explaining some of the bureaucratic problems he was grappling with, the business of the BSA is not Scouting any more than the US Government is America.

He said that Scouting is the program's undying principles and ideals that will far outlast the BSA bureaucracy, even if the bureaucracy sometimes seems to be trying to kill those ideals. Ditto with the US Government and the political ruling class that sometimes seems to be at war with the real meaning of being an American. Yet the organization can't function without it's business side any more than America can function without politics.

I am somewhat sympathetic to complaints about the difficulty of fully implementing the Scouting program in an LDS setting. It's easy to see the gap between how we are doing and how the program really should be run. For me this sentiment has worsened with training. Untrained leaders don't know what they don't know. Trained leaders are more aware of the dissonance between the ideal and their reality. Moreover, they often feel like they are already doing all they reasonably can and still falling far short.

Those that feel this way may benefit from a something said by Lord Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scouting movement. "We never fail when we try to do our duty. We always fail when we neglect to do it." Earnestly trying to do our duty is enough. Doing our best to provide a good program for the boys within the scope of our circumstances is enough. We cannot allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. Shirking our duty is failure.

To parents and leaders that are frustrated with LDS Scouting, I would say that it might be well to consider that a prophet's view of the matter may differ dramatically from our view in the trenches. Pres. Monson has said that he is the prophet for the whole world and that he has a responsibility to every boy regardless of whether the boy is a Latter-day Saint or not.

Pres. Monson's inspired view is that the unique relationship between the Church and the BSA allows the BSA to be a tool for accomplishing good in the lives of more people than all of the Church's other programs combined. It may lead to relatively few baptisms. But it has helped and continues to help many raise their eternal prospects higher. The Prophet is called to care about all of God's children and he sees Scouting as a way to help a portion of them.

Some have suggested that the BSA would crumble without the support of the Church. Perhaps. At the very least, it would become a much different organization than it is today, but not necessarily in a good way. Some obviously think that it's already a lost cause. But perhaps they would see differently if they could see it through a prophet's eyes. Indeed, everyone could learn from one man that did something like that (see Mac MacIntire's story).

I offer the following two insights to those that are sure that the Church is going to put the kybosh on its support of Scouting in North America in the near future:
  1. I have been hearing some form of this sentiment for 35 years. But somehow those we sustain as prophets, seers, and revelators keep stubbornly refusing to go along with what some think to be inevitable. Is is possible that it's not the judgment of the prophets that's out of whack? Maybe the Scouting program isn't nearly as fatally flawed as some believe.
  2. Even if the Church drops its support of Scouting tomorrow, it is still a prophetic priority today. The only question, then, is how we choose to respond to that priority. (Consider a possible analogy to Numbers 13, 14.)
The attitudes expressed above are poignant, broad, and entrenched. I know from certain sources that Church leaders are working to deal with some of these issues. Those that favor LDS Scouting may not be able to change the listed opinions much. But perhaps they could at least consider them and try to avoid doing things that make matters worse. At the very least, extending kindness and courtesy to those that don't care for LDS Scouting ought to be imperative.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Summer of 15

No, not the summer of 2015; the summer I was 15. Yeah, that's ancient history. But it was a pivotal time in my life.

Our neighborhood abutted other neighborhoods. Some social mixing between kids in different neighborhoods was common, but certain conventions had to be followed. Two backyards provided a portal between our neighborhood and one of the adjacent neighborhoods. If kids from these two neighborhoods mixed, the crossover usually occurred through these two backyards.

There was a fence between these two yards, but it had a gate that was deliberately built for easy access. The two families that owned the yards allowed children from both neighborhoods to pass through and play in their yards. It was like a dimensional portal.

One of the yards was large, fenced, and heavily landscaped, making it seem very private. The family had stocked it with various playground equipment that was very inviting to neighborhood children. I first saw her in that yard jumping on the giant inner tube.

Actually I had known her for most of my life. For years we had attended the same LDS ward until the ward had been split. But there were so many kids in the old ward that I only bothered to pay attention to those to whom I had a particular connection.

Besides, she was younger than me, although, I wasn't really sure how much younger. I'm not sure we had ever even talked to each other before. I had always seen her as a rough edged kid that was brash, kind of mouthy, and tomboyish. But that day I saw her for the first time as a blossoming young lady. It was almost like I had never seen her before.

As a side note, I could never see the girls in my own ward in anything but a sisterly light. I still recall how shocked I was when I realized that the "cute girl" a friend at school was talking about was one of the girls in my ward. "Her, cute?!" I thought. It took me looking through my friend's eyes to realize that some of the girls I had grown up with my whole life were quite cute. But they were still like sisters to me.

I had gone over to the portal yard to collect my younger brother for dinner. Of course, I hung out for a few minutes before heading home with him. But after dinner I returned with him and found her there. We jumped on the inner tube and chatted until twilight set in.

The next evening I gravitated back to the portal yard. And so did she. At first we only hung out together when other neighborhood kids were around. But eventually we started finding ourselves alone in the portal yard. Sometimes we jumped on the inner tube. Sometimes we sat on the grass. Sometimes we swung on the swings.

And we talked. And talked. About all kinds of things. I found that I could freely talk with her about almost anything. During our discussions I realized that she harbored a beauty, a depth, an intellect, and a pleasant personality that I had never previously noticed. I thought her quite intelligent, although, she told me that she had always struggled in school. She was two grades behind me but she was less than a year younger than me. (I was one of the youngest in my class. She was among the oldest in hers.)

During all of these liaisons we never touched each other. We just talked. It didn't bother me that she was interested in another guy. Somehow we developed a friendship that didn't directly approach anything romantic. We could even talk about each others' romantic interests.

We kept gravitating to the portal yard evening after evening. The long hours of summer sunlight gave us ample opportunity to spend time together before heading home in the dusk each evening.

Then about three weeks after it began it was suddenly over. I don't remember exactly how or why. But it was probably related to school starting. I remember the first time she showed up dressed in school clothes instead of summer play clothes. Her outfit seemed to fit with a rougher crowd than I ran with.

I can't remember if there was some mutual agreement or if our visits just kind of slowed to a stop. But after the first week of school we never found ourselves together in the portal yard again. That yard was indeed a special portal, because we were never able to interact in other venues.

Our paths seldom crossed after that. I saw her from time to time at school and at community events. But she was in her element — as I said, a rougher crowd than I hung with — and I was in mine. When we saw each other it was like we'd never known each other, almost like we were different people than we had been. Those social barriers hadn't existed in the privacy of the portal yard.

Since we operated in such different social circles I eventually lost track of her. I have no idea how her life has turned out. Nor am I sure I would even recognize her nowadays. We tend to keep internal images of the way people were back when we knew them. Then we are shocked to discover that they have aged and changed just like we have.

Those brief summer weeks taught me that I could have a friend that was a girl but that wasn't a girlfriend, and that there can be value to having friends from different social circles. And though our friendship ended as rapidly as it had begun, it made a significant impact on my understanding of life. And for that I am grateful.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Not Earning Heaven; Learning Heaven

One of the finest addresses I have ever heard on the topic of the grace of Christ from a Mormon perspective was given by Brad Wilcox at BYU on July 12, 2011 (see text, video). Wilcox suggests that a common misunderstanding of the Mormon approach to heaven — both among members of the LDS Church and others — is that Mormons are trying to earn salvation by their own works.

To this Wilcox responds, "No, we are not earning heaven. We are learning heaven. We are preparing for it (see D&C 78:7). We are practicing for it."

I will admit that for much of the first couple of decades of my life I felt a lot like the young lady Wilcox mentions at the beginning of his speech. Although I had been baptized, I had the idea that I still needed to earn the grace of Christ to be saved. I generally tried to do the right thing. But since I continually messed up, I felt like I always fell short of qualifying for Christ's grace.

My perception is that this misunderstanding of actual LDS doctrine and scripture was somewhat general among Mormons when I was younger. Indeed, when I was a young adult a national magazine published a generally favorable article about Mormons that cited a study suggesting that Mormons tended to see their own role in gaining salvation as primary with Christ's role as secondary. Many Mormons actually were trying to earn heaven.

Along with several other trends observed by church leaders, that article served as a wake up call that resulted in much greater emphasis in church talks and lessons of the Savior Jesus Christ and his prime role in individual salvation. Although great strides have been made over the past three decades, too many Mormons still think they are trying to become worthy of Christ's grace before they can benefit from it.

Actual LDS doctrine teaches that everyone that has earnestly accepted the covenant of authoritative baptism and that has continued faithful in that covenant is saved in the sense of being cleansed from the sins from which they have repented. As Wilcox puts it, Jesus Christ has "paid our debt in full. He didn’t pay it all except for a few coins. He paid it all. It is finished."

This isn't to say that the covenant can't be broken through sin. But we need to be realistic about what breaks the covenant and what doesn't. In his book Believing Christ Stephen E. Robinson reminds that the scriptures regularly compare the covenant of baptism to marriage. All human spouses that are faithful to their marriage covenants are still imperfect spouses. They make many mistakes that do not destroy the marital covenant. Likewise, those that faithfully maintain their covenant relationship with Christ regularly make mistakes that don't destroy the covenant.

Anyone that has read 2 Nephi 31 should understand, however, that baptism is only the beginning of the road to our ultimate eternal home. It is like the wedding ceremony at the start of a marriage. The Savior has paid the price for us to enter that gate (2 Nephi 31:9-17). We are then to walk with the Savior the strait and narrow path that leads to eternal life (2 Nephi 31:18-21) just as newly married spouses are to walk the long road of marriage together.

In other words, it is appropriate to joyfully remember the wedding ceremony (i.e. our baptism). Indeed, we should do this weekly when partaking of the sacrament. But Wilcox warns that we must not remain "so excited about being saved that maybe [we] are not thinking enough about what comes next" (i.e. the long marriage). Not only must we be saved by grace, we must be "changed by grace."

This is what walking that long path to eternal life is all about. "What is left to be determined by our obedience" says Wilcox, "is what kind of body we plan on being resurrected with and how comfortable we plan to be in God’s presence and how long we plan to stay there." The purpose of gospel covenant living is to allow Christ to make us more like himself so that we can someday actually be comfortable in his literal presence.

Wilcox uses a story about a troubled young man to illustrate the point that those that are unwilling to allow Christ's grace to change them to become more like God will have no desire to be in God's presence. They will be so uncomfortable that they will say in essence, "Get me out of here!" "The miracle of the Atonement" Wilcox says, "is not just that we can go home but that—miraculously—we can feel at home there."

I fear that sometimes we feel like we are walking that strait and narrow path alone. Sure, the Savior got us through the gate, but now we are on our own to hike the path. We are gritting our teeth and tenaciously putting one foot in front of the other so that we can earn the highest degree of glory in heaven. We are hiking our way to the Celestial Kingdom, proud of the blisters we are earning on the way.

But I think this view is all wrong. Jesus Christ has already walked that path. Not only does he walk the path with us, he is our guide. Not only will he support us and help us, at critical times he will carry us. There is no other way to get to the Celestial Kingdom. We cannot do it on our own. And when we arrive we will have become like him. Any blisters we have gotten along the way won't matter because, like him, we will be stripped of pride.

Wilcox applies the analogy of piano lessons to explain his point that our obedience is about practicing for heaven. A child's mother pays for her child to take piano lessons so that the child's life will be enriched. The mother requires the child to practice — not to repay the mother or the piano teacher — but so that the child can change in a way that will improve his life.

Similarly, the Savior pays the entire cost of our lessons to become like him. He asks us to practice being like him — not to repay him — but that we might have life "more abundantly" (John 10:10), even eternal life with him in his kingdom.

Carrying the analogy further, Wilcox notes that we readily accept that a child practicing piano is far from perfect and makes many mistakes. We accept that "growth and development take time." Likewise, we should accept that our path to eternal life will involve many mistakes. Wilcox asks, "Why is this perspective so easy to see in the context of learning piano but so hard to see in the context of learning heaven?"

We just have to be willing to keep practicing, even if we feel like we're not very good at it. As we do so, Christ's grace will be "our constant energy source" taking us toward our eternal destination as we learn heaven.

Wilcox ends with a powerful testimony of the help we will have on that path. "I testify that God’s grace is sufficient. Jesus’ grace is sufficient. It is enough. It is all we need. ... Seek Christ, and, as you do, I promise you will feel the enabling power we call His amazing grace."

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

My Motorcycle Riding Days

I can remember being shocked when my uncle told me that Dad had owned a motorcycle when he was younger. Dad seemed too stern of a German to be the motorcycle riding type.

But perhaps this helps explain why Dad bought the family a motorcycle when I was 12. I rode that thing extensively over the next half dozen years. My kids are still stunned about the fact that as a teen I was an avid skateboarder and motorcycle rider. To them these things seem like symbols of hoodlumhood.

This is what my kids think of when I tell them of my motorcycling days:

But the motorcycle our family owned was a Honda Trail 90 that looked like a girl's bike:

Our automatic clutch Honda 90 couldn't go very fast. But it was great on trails. It had two sets of gears. You would shift between the high and the low set by putting the bike up on the kickstand in neutral, rotating the rear wheel, and flipping a switch below the engine.

In the lowest gear that ugly Honda 90 could climb up the steepest trails we could find. Sometimes we'd have to walk along side it while working the throttle. But it could climb.

Back when I was a teenager most families in the area had at least one motorcycle that their kids used. I always felt self conscious about our inferior bike because most of my friends' bikes looked like this:

We had access to copious trails in the hills north and east of our community. Most of that area transitioned to residential neighborhoods over time. There are still some trails left, but it's illegal to ride motorized vehicles on most of them.

My brothers and I crashed that old Honda 90 with some regularity. But it was a pretty tough piece of equipment. We frequently bent or broke the mirrors. But crashes seemed to otherwise cause only cosmetic damage. The same was not necessarily true of our bodies. But given that most crashes occurred at relatively low speeds, I don't recall any of us getting actual medical treatment for our injuries.

By the time I was in my early 20s nobody in the family would ride the old motorcycle anymore. Dad traded it in on a Honda CB650 street bike.

I rode that bike quite a bit over the next several years, mostly to and from school and work. Some of my friends had street bikes, so we occasionally took longer recreational rides. But eventually I quit riding the bike.

It happened on a gorgeous Saturday in the spring of the year. It seemed like the perfect day for a motorcycle ride. I'm not sure that bumper stickers like this actually do much good:

Motorcycle riding offers a feeling of freedom that you don't get in a car or a truck. But let's face it, driving a motorcycle is inherently far more risky than driving a car or a truck. Motorcycles are smaller and harder to see. The freedom you feel exists because you are not surrounded by several thousand pounds of reinforced steel like you are in a car or a truck.

During the hour I was out riding on that sunny Saturday I had multiple instances where people dangerously cut me off or nearly ran me down. Finally, when I was a couple of blocks from home I succeeded in making an emergency stop about two inches short of the broadside of a car whose driver had decided to make a U-turn without bothering to look around or signal. The lady's eyes were as big as saucers when I curtly told her through her open window to check over her shoulder the next time she attempted such a maneuver.

I was chagrined as I rode home and parked the motorcycle. My anger cooled as I walked into the house and I suddenly felt wobbly on my legs as it hit me how close I had come to being on the wrong side of all of those motorcycle injury/fatality statistics.

Although I didn't intend it, I never ended up riding that motorcycle again. I have ridden other motorcycles on occasion without experiencing PTSD. But that Saturday was the last time I rode the Honda CB650. Years later I saw the bike in dilapidated condition in my younger brother's garage. Ever the handyman, I think he always intended to rehabilitate the thing. But it's now an antique that would take quite a bit of work.

My older brother bought a nice Harley-Davidson a few years ago. I don't really see myself doing that. Unlike lots of guys in my age range, I don't feel a compelling need to try to recapture my youth that way.
Besides, I don't think I have the right shape for it. A few years ago we saw a guy on a Harley go tearing very fast and very loudly up a residential street. My young teen son said, "I think that guy stole that motorcycle." When I asked him why he assumed this, he replied that the driver was too slender. He then said, "I've never seen a Harley driver before that didn't have a big gut."

My oldest brother's family has gotten four-wheel ATVs to ride as a family. That's fine for them. But it seems to me that there are so many of those things around that you can only ride them where there is a lot of off-road traffic. You're either choking other people's dust or caked in the mud they spatter. I'd prefer to hike.

I'm afraid that my motorcycle riding days are pretty much past. And I'm fine with that.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Asperger Syndrome: When a Fish Must Learn to Climb a Tree

My son that has Asperger Syndrome likes to see things in blacks and whites. Gray areas and nuance can be problematic. He is often obsessed with comparisons, always trying to rank things in terms of right and wrong, good and bad. It's part of how he makes sense of his world.

But being an 'Aspie' doesn't mean that our son doesn't experience the run of the mill kinds of things that other mid-teens experience. Who isn't self conscious about ... well, just about everything at that age? When coupled with some of the Asperger and related issues our son deals with, his mid-teen issues sometimes present themselves in unique ways.

For example, pretty much all mid-teens wonder whether they are physically attractive ... enough. They try to develop a sense of this by taking cues from others. This can be challenging for Aspies, since they often have difficulty comprehending signals from others. So in his quest to comparatively rank himself on the scale of goods and bads my son recently asked me forthrightly, "Dad, am I handsome?"

Part of a parent's job is to be biased toward their children without being disingenuous. But an even bigger part is steering their kids in the right direction. Even trying to filter for my inherent partiality, I think that our son is quite handsome.

But obsession with physical beauty hardly seems like the path to happiness. If we overemphasize outward beauty in ourselves, we will likely allow our perceptions to inappropriately cloud our judgment of others. (See Elder Dallin H. Oaks on this topic.) How should I help my son understand this in a context he can appreciate?

In another recent exchange our son asked me, "Dad, am I smart?" I knew what he was getting at. He struggles in school. Despite his native intelligence, his outside-of-the-mainstream brain function meshes poorly with standard pedagogy. He has a learning plan at school and he gets specialized help. But the message that is pounded into him day after day is that he is deficient, that there is something wrong with him.

Coupled with his natural tendency to rank things in terms of goods and bads, our son can't help but feel that he is on the bad end of the spectrum. Sometimes we as parents reinforce this unfortunate view of things.

While I formulated a response to my son's question, I began to smolder inside as I realized that he was up against a system that will always class him as deficient. The way we rank academic achievement in our schools is a pretty crappy way of determining how smart children are. Grades only show how well one functions in that system, not necessarily how smart one is. Intelligence comes in a much broader set of categories than we measure in our school systems.

The reality is that our son will never fit that well into the school system. He exemplifies Einstein's proverbial fish trying to climb a tree.

I understand the economics behind this. We necessarily focus school on the middle 60% for cost effectiveness. The further we get away from the median, the more unique students' needs become and the more challenging and expensive it becomes to address those needs. Thus, the tendency to treat those outside of the mainstream as flawed and inferior.

But this knowledge doesn't make my son's plight hurt any less. He will continue to receive a continuous stream of varied messages telling him that he isn't good enough, that his uniqueness is a problem rather than an opportunity to pursue a distinctive course that ought to be celebrated. Those messages will come from just about all corners, not just from school. It bothers me to know that some of these messages will come from those of us that are closest to him, including me.

Many Aspies eventually learn to successfully navigate life. One thriving Aspie says that functioning well in mainstream society for an Aspie is like learning to live in a foreign country. You can become quite comfortable with the culture and the language, but no matter how long you live there you will always be a foreigner. Living in this 'foreign country' may become second nature, but it still won't be first nature.

I yearn for our son to be happy and contented. But there's only so much a parent can do. Much of the hard work of learning to embrace his uniqueness in a way that allows him to function well in society will necessarily come through our son's own efforts and struggles. Our job is to support him as well as we can in this pursuit. I pray that we will do better at helping him rather than making him feel defective.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

My Days As a Skateboard King

Unlike my kids, I grew up in an era when we didn't know what a photo would look like until it was professionally developed and printed. And that could take any amount of time, because sometimes people waited for-stinking-ever to take the exposed roll of film to a place like this:

The first time we'd know what the pictures we took actually looked like was when we picked up the photo prints a few days later. Or maybe a few weeks or months later.

This means that instead of having thousands upon thousands of electronic photos of our youth (i.e. selfies) like the younger generation, my wife and I have a couple hundred hard copies of (mostly grainy, poorly focused, badly composed) photos from our younger years. At times we pull these photos out for one reason or another. Our kids usually look at a few, often with grimaces on their faces while uttering terms like, "dorky."

But my kids were favorably impressed when I pulled out a block of photos taken during my teen years when I was heavily into skateboarding. Although we have no video of my skateboarding prowess, some of these photos make it look like I could pull some pretty rad moves. And I could. But I never felt like I could be as good some of the other skateboarders I knew.

My younger brother and I got into skateboarding just as wheels were making the transition from loose ball bearings to precision sealed bearings. The old wheels were noisy, dirty, and hard to care for. The newer wheels were amazingly better in all of these aspects.

Old school loose bearing skateboard wheels

Precision sealed bearings

We lived through the transition of skateboard decks from short and skinny to wider and longer. Nobody sold longboards back then, so my brother and I made our own with Dad's help.

Skateboarding was an avocation, not a way of life. Although we spent a lot of time skateboarding and earning money to buy equipment, being a boarder didn't mean being bad or having to dress, groom, or speak a certain way.

We mostly skated on roadways and in parking lots. Several times we skated down a nearby mountain pass. Yeah, that was kind of crazy. We were always on the lookout for banked surfaces. A nearby concrete reservoir dried out a few weeks after they turned off the secondary water each year. We'd take brooms and sweep it clean to ride its angled walls. That required trespassing, but we never damaged anything. Other than ourselves.

We were especially gratified when a nearby ski resort built a skateboard park with glorious banked curves. (They tore it out a couple of years later.) But we never even imagined the kind of grinding and flipping tricks that are commonplace nowadays.

With the maneuvers we did in those days we still managed to sustain our fair share of road rash. Nobody wore safety equipment back when I first started skating. That started to change as skate parks popped up, first in California and then elsewhere, that required helmets and sometimes knee pads and elbow pads.

We avoided investing in safety equipment, preferring to spend our hard earned cash on actual skateboard parts. That changed after I had one particularly nasty tangle with the ground at a high rate of speed. Although I sustained no broken bones — not broken enough to go to the doctor anyway — I achieved enough soft tissue damage to change my mind about safety gear. We bought hockey helmets, padded gloves, and various joint pads. Mom even made us each a pair of padded skating shorts.

I put two of my best boards in a safe storage location when I left to serve as a missionary at age 19. But I never really skated again after that. Different interests engaged me after returning two years later. Years passed, but somehow I kept those two boards (one shown below), even after getting married.

My formerly great balance diminished enough after my first major Multiple Sclerosis attack to render me incapable of safely using a skateboard. I can still ride a bike, but I can't balance on a skateboard.

Now many years later those boards are still stuffed away in the crawl space. I brought them out when my kids started skating. But they had little interest in my antiques, given that better modern versions could be had for relatively cheap.

I'm not even sure why I keep those old skateboards. Are they mainly nostalgic reminders of one of the few things I thought I did well as a teenager? Or are they like so much other stuff that we have in the house that we haven't yet gotten rid of simply due to inertia?

I'm thinking (hoping) that when we do actually get around to de-junking the crawl space that these ancient skateboards will depart my ownership with little regret. I have fond memories of my skateboarding days, but it doesn't bother me at all that those days are long gone.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Personal Finance For Young Adults In 416 Words

Personal finance is so simple, writes Brett Arends, that everything you really need to know on the subject "fits into less than 1,000 words—no more than three to four minutes." Arends' main audience appears to be people in their prime earning years. Anyone could benefit from the quick read, but some of what Arends says probably won't mean much to a starving college student.

For those in the younger crowd that are still wending their way toward the prime earning stage of their career, I'd offer the following simple rules.

Focus on needs rather than wants. You don't need a hot car. You do need education, food, shelter, clothing, transportation, and even some entertainment. But staying on the needs end of the spectrum in each of these areas will mean a better life when your career starts rolling. You can reward yourself in the future when you actually have the means to do so.

Use available benefits. You can reduce expenses by getting grants and scholarships, working internships, etc. All of these things take legwork and paperwork that's tedious and no fun. But the investment will pay off big in the long run.

Be debt smart. Avoid debt. But if you must incur debt, only use it to make a reasonable investment in your future, and only incur as much debt as you can rapidly repay with interest. Going into debt to enhance lifestyle is a bad investment. One study found that the average college student blows about $9,000 annually on lifestyle choices — take out food, alcohol, cable TV, other entertainment, nice apartment, nice car — and that they use debt to cover these expenses. Don't be one of those average students.

Begin real retirement savings as soon as you can. Yeah, retirement is so far away that it's inconceivable. But you need to start dumping a chunk of your paycheck into tax advantaged retirement investments as soon as you have a real job. The dollars you invest during the first decade of your career will produce more value than the dollars you invest during the entire remainder of your career. If you begin with 10% of your gross pay and stick with it, you will never miss it and you'll have a handy nest egg when you reach your senior years.

Re-read and follow Arends' article when you begin your career. By then most of what Arends says will become more real to you. His advice can carry you through the rest of your life.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Lessons I Learned From My Stake Patriarch Father

Dad was far from a perfect man. But it felt right to most of those that knew him when he was called to be a stake patriarch when he was in his mid-50s, even if it was the first time I had ever seen Dad intimidated by a church calling. Dad didn't talk much about his regular spiritual and visionary experiences, but everyone that knew him was aware that he had a special kind of contact with heaven. It just kind of exuded from him.

Over the next couple of decades Dad gave about 750 patriarchal blessings. Since everything was done on paper in those days and our family was transitioning to the computer era, I built software that let Mom use word processing to produce a patriarchal blessing document that looked sufficiently official to be acceptable to the Church.

The blessing process
Despite Dad's expansive capacities with the English language (including a working vocabulary greater than most English PhDs), he always felt self conscious about the fact that English was not his native language. He often felt tongue tied when voicing a blessing, finding himself incapable of adequately expressing in English the impressions he was receiving from the Holy Spirit.

As a side note, I think that often happens even with those that are very fluent with the language. Human language in our telestial sphere is not always up to the task of expressing celestial thought. It can be like trying to depict a three-dimensional object in a two-dimensional space.

Blessing recipients would sometimes express concern that they thought that some of the wording on the printed document differed from what they remembered Dad saying when the blessing was voiced. Dad would then explain that a stake patriarch is entitled to as much inspiration when developing the document as he is when speaking the words of the blessing.

The process went something like this. Dad used a voice recorder when giving each patriarchal blessing. Mom would then listen to the recording and transcribe what she heard into a word processing document. We tried voice recognition software, but at that time it was insufficiently mature to do a very good job. Besides, Dad's charming German accent — think Pres. Dieter F. Uchtdorf — gave the software fits.

Mom would then print the document for Dad to review. Dad would make changes with a pen or pencil. Mom would transcribe the changes in the word processor and reprint the document for Dad's review.

Although Dad was a genius at electrical engineering, he never had any interest in learning how to use a PC. That was Mom's world. So Dad only worked with the printed version rather than the computer screen. The revision process would usually go through two rounds before Dad was satisfied. The final document would then be printed, signed, and delivered to the recipient. A copy would be sent to Church headquarters.

Dad once heard someone suggest that the wording of a patriarchal blessing would be exactly the same regardless of which patriarch gave the blessing. Dad retorted that this was poppycock. Very rarely did the Spirit present precise wording to his mind. One stake patriarch has explained, "When he places his hands on your head to give you a blessing, Heavenly Father, through the promptings of the Holy Ghost, gives the patriarch ideas, concepts, and sometimes even specific words for you. The patriarch then includes those concepts and ideas in your blessing."

Interpreting patriarchal blessings
Sometimes Dad made fairly major revisions to a blessing. But he explained that by the time the document was finished, the wording was as close to what the Spirit had communicated as Dad could humanly make it. Dad was very painstaking about this, although, he knew that his final wording was only adequate and that the recipient would need heaven's help to interpret the blessing.

Pres. Thomas S. Monson has said, "Length and language do not a patriarchal blessing make. It is the Spirit that conveys the true meaning." In True to the Faith we are told in essence that no one other than the recipient, with the help of divine inspiration should interpret a patriarchal blessing. Pres. James E. Faust told this story about understanding patriarchal blessings:
"This was well illustrated in my father’s patriarchal blessing. He was told in his blessing that he would be blessed with “many beautiful daughters.” He and my mother became the parents of five sons. No daughters were born to them, but they treated the wives of their sons as daughters. Some years ago when we had a family gathering, I saw my father’s daughters-in-law, granddaughters, and great-granddaughters moving about, tending to the food and ministering to the young children and the elderly, and the realization came to me that Father’s blessing literally had been fulfilled. He has indeed many beautiful daughters. The patriarch who gave my father his blessing had spiritual vision to see beyond this life. The dividing line between time and eternity disappeared."
In other words, we should study our patriarchal blessing the same way we should study our scriptures. Understanding scriptures and patriarchal blessings takes serious work — study, pondering, and prayer. We are to "treasure in [our] heart" the precious words of personal scripture in our patriarchal blessing and live to be worthy to receive the blessings promised. But we cannot expect the scant words of the blessing to convey the full meaning intended. That must come over time as we repeatedly seek personal revelation on the matter.

Years ago I found that I had become lax in reviewing my patriarchal blessing. Although I was quite familiar with it, a long time had gone by since I had last read it. I don't have a photographic memory. I can memorize, but it takes work and regular review. My blessing covers about one side of a legal size sheet of paper. The patriarch that gave my blessing was a lawyer, so I thought it was funny that the blessing came on a legal size sheet of paper.

I had replicated my blessing in a size that fit inside my scriptures. But I still found that I didn't review it very often. So I took to memorizing it. It helped that I was already familiar with the wording. Over the space of a few weeks I was able to get it down pretty solid. For years I have repeated it to myself at least weekly, often while showering, because that is otherwise a kind of mindless task. This has greatly expanded my understanding of my patriarchal blessing. I feel like I often garner new insights from my blessing as I walk through new phases of life.

The results of patriarchal blessings
Over the years that Dad was giving patriarchal blessings I often had opportunities to see blessing documents in process. I was Mom's main tech support guy, so I frequently helped her when something didn't go quite right. Sometimes I made Dad's revisions for Mom. On a few occasions I transcribed blessings. I saw some profound counsel and promises of marvelous blessings during these processes. Sometimes the fulfillment of these blessings has come to my knowledge.

A dental hygienist recently told me that Dad had given her blessing. She described the fulfillment of certain blessings that are probably too sacred to share here. A man once told us how Dad had used certain words in describing the man's future wife that the youth thought applied to his girlfriend at the time. But the printed blessing used different wording that very accurately described the woman he ended up marrying years later.

My own patriarchal blessing is chock full of fine counsel, divine information, and promised blessings. It would be inappropriate to share precise examples here, but I can say that several very specifically worded promises have been very literally fulfilled. This makes me confident that if I am faithful the remaining promises will be fulfilled in the Lord's due time.

Dedication to the calling
The calling of stake patriarch was one Dad took seriously. In the early days Dad gave blessings in the living room. But after a couple of us had grown and moved out, Dad knocked out the wall between the living room and the adjacent bedroom. He installed beautiful French doors and walled up the bedroom's former doorway to make a very dignified office in which to give blessings. Ever the handyman — a trait that bypassed me — Dad did all of the work himself.

Mom took Dad's calling seriously as well. During my young adult years, Mom loved getting her expanding family together for Sunday afternoon meals. It was a phase when children were getting married and grandchildren were being born. Many of us still lived close enough to visit frequently. We'd hang out together for hours after Sunday dinner.

But as more and more people came to Dad for patriarchal blessings, he frequently found it best to give blessings on Sundays. It was a sacrifice for Mom to tell us that her Sunday gatherings had to come to an end. She wouldn't get to see her expanding progeny as often as she would have liked. But she did this to support Dad's calling.

An interesting insight into Dad's dedication to his calling came when he was once asked if he ever felt personally unprepared to give a blessing. "Yes," he replied. But he explained that the gospel held all of the answers to this conundrum. Through the grace of Christ, following sincere repentance, prayer, and pondering, he could deliver the blessing despite his personal failings. After all, as explained by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, "Except in the case of His only perfect Begotten Son, imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with."

I doubt that many of those that came to Dad for a patriarchal blessing had any idea how much personal preparation, scripture study, prayer, and even fasting he put into their blessings. He often had never met recipients before they showed up at his door. Yet as he laid his hands on their heads he knew what the Spirit was telling him about them.

Recipients also probably had no idea how demanding this was on Dad. These powerful experiences sometimes drained him physically. There were Sundays when Dad had three blessing appointments. He would always be physically exhausted after the final appointment of the day. But he was willing to pay that price.

Preparing to receive a patriarchal blessing
Dad said that it makes the patriarch's job much easier when a blessing recipient is sufficiently mature and spiritually prepared to receive a blessing. He said that it could make the difference between revelation flowing in such abundance that it is difficult to receive it all or being akin to "pulling each word out of heaven with a pair of pliers."

Once a young man that was clearly unprepared for the experience showed up for a patriarchal blessing. Dad was frustrated. Stake patriarchs have no control over which candidates bishops recommend for a blessing.

Following a long chat with the boy about where he was spiritually and what he ought to be doing to improve that situation, Dad sent the boy home without giving him a blessing. He then called the boy's bishop to ask why he had recommended the boy for a blessing. The bishop said that he knew that the young man was on shaky spiritual ground, but he felt that the boy ought to visit Dad.

Dad was quite pleased when the boy returned much better prepared after having worked closely with the bishop for some months. Dad even attended the young man's missionary farewell a few months later.

Are patriarchal blessings necessary?
Interestingly, Dad never received a patriarchal blessing himself. He was in his mid-20s by the time he joined the Church. Before long he was married and raising a family. The thought of seeking a patriarchal blessing never occurred to him.

By the time Dad was called to be a stake patriarch he was sufficiently in touch with heaven and was far enough along in his life that he saw no benefit from receiving a blessing at that point. Church materials suggest that "Every worthy, baptized member is entitled to and should receive a patriarchal blessing...." But Dad once explained that a patriarchal blessing is an added benefit and a tender mercy, not a required saving or exalting ordinance.

A patriarch stops giving blessings
When stake boundaries were realigned and Dad found himself in a new stake, he was inactivated from giving patriarchal blessings until a new calling was approved by Quorum of the Twelve. When Mom and Dad left to serve a mission in Dad's native Germany (also where Mom served her mission as a young lady), Dad was again inactivated from giving patriarchal blessings, although, he retained the office of patriarch until the end of his life.

Patriarchs (even those not actively giving blessings) can give patriarchal blessings to direct descendants, regardless of whether they are members of the same stake or not. Pres. Boyd K. Packer has explained:
"A patriarch may give patriarchal blessings to his own children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who come recommended by their bishop.
"When we receive requests for exceptions, for one to receive a blessing from an uncle or some favorite family friend, we invite them to follow the order and receive their blessing from the patriarch in their own stake."
Dad gave only one patriarchal blessing after returning from Germany. That blessing was given to my oldest son, the only direct descendant other than my youngest brother that ever received such a blessing under Dad's hands. Even then Dad took nearly two months to ponder and pray about the matter before giving the blessing.

I think Dad was starting to notice the effects of aging on his cognitive faculties and was concerned that he wouldn't be able to do a good enough job on the blessing. I didn't see a problem, given that the recipient is to gain personal revelation to discern the full meaning of the blessing. Besides, after reading the blessing, I thought Dad did a fine job.

Some lessons I have learned
During his tenure as a stake patriarch I saw Dad honor the calling with tremendous respect. Although he knew that patriarchal blessings were optional, he treated the calling with gravity. He regularly made personal sacrifices to fulfill this calling, even altering the configuration of his house to better facilitate the blessing process. He continuously threw himself into gospel study, prayer, fasting and pondering to prepare himself to give blessings. Mom supported Dad every step of the way, making her own sacrifices to help him fulfill this calling well.

Perhaps the thing that I learned most from Dad's years of giving patriarchal blessings is that he really did receive revelation from heaven for those he blessed. I saw how Dad prepared to receive that revelation and I saw the results of the revelation he received. Some may scoff at the whole practice of patriarchal blessings. But the honest in heart can know for themselves the divinity inherent in those blessings.

I had imperfect but choice parents. I will ever be grateful for the marvelous lessons I learned from both Dad and Mom through the way they worked to fulfill Dad's calling as a stake patriarch. Their example has helped me cherish my own patriarchal blessing, to treasure up its words in my heart, and to be open to inspiration about the fulfillment of its promised blessings. I continue to be truly blessed by the personal scripture the Lord has given me in the form of my patriarchal blessing.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Cheating In School As a Moral Imperative?

Cevin Soling has a knack for producing provocative works — literature, music, films — that offer less than politically correct social commentary. His 2009 documentary film, The War On Children, for example, "concludes that schools are not only failing to educate, but are increasingly authoritarian institutions more akin to prisons that are eroding the foundations of American democracy." (Maybe he has seen the prison-like design of my alma mater, Weber High School.)

So perhaps it shouldn't be too shocking to read Soling's recent Wired op-ed, where he asserts that cheating by students in compulsory K-12 schools is more than just a good thing; it's "a moral imperative."

How's that? Since our earliest days it has been drilled into each of us that cheating in school is bad, Bad, BAD, BAD! Not so, says Soling. He suggests that cheating is only bad in systems where people are voluntary participants under reasonable conditions. Cheating by involuntary participants subjected to unreasonable conditions should not only be accepted; it should be applauded.

Hold on a minute. By law children are unable to consent and their parents (within limits) consent for them. Doesn't this mean that children that are attending school have consented to the conditions via their parents? Soling doesn't address this angle. But he might very well retort that the system is still involuntary because parents are coerced into enrolling their children in school lest they suffer unreasonable punishment for failing to do so.

Even if consent is assumed, however, Soling has a problem with the "unreasonable conditions" of our public school systems. What is unreasonable?
  • Grades that "are the currency and sole commodity of schools" do not actually represent useful learning. Yet, they "are a major component of a student’s portfolio and have the potential to impact their future." As in, getting good grades means that a student knows how to work the system, not that they are capable in any of the subjects graded.
  • Tests that mainly measure the ability of a student to "retain the material just long enough to take the test" treat "knowledge as a disposable commodity that is only relevant when it is tested."
  • Students are alienated from the uninspiring work required at school. They have little real input on what they must learn or what they must do to achieve an acceptable grade.
  • Although Soling doesn't mention it, homework has been documented to be little more than pointless busy work that mainly shows how much power the system has over a student's free time. A review of the full body of research on this matter reveals that "there’s not much to prop up the belief that students must be made to work a second shift after they get home from school."
The natural response to such an unethical system is to cheat, maintains Soling. We repeatedly lionize American prisoners of war that improved their situations in captivity by "cheating." None of us think of these people as being unethical for breaking their captors' rules because their cheating was morally justified.

Similarly, our public school environments have "created a set of conditions where cheating is necessary and justifiable," writes Soling. He claims that the students that (successfully) cheat develop useful creativity, show "disdain against an arbitrary and repressive institution," and boost their self esteem. All of these factors can serve them well in their future careers and citizenship.

Furthermore, Soling claims that it's not the cheaters we should be worrying about, but those that don't cheat. I am reminded of Stockholm Syndrome when Soling writes that these unfortunate souls "have internalized their oppression and might lack the necessary skills to rally and lobby against abuses of power that are perpetrated by governing bodies."

I'm sure that the initial response of most people to Soling's promotion of cheating at school will be disgust and dismay. They will see it as an attack on honesty, which is one of the pillars of a functional moral society. But what of Soling's contention that the institution of public schooling is so corrupt as to make cheating in school as morally justifiable as the cheating of American POWs in captivity?

Honest people will have differing opinions regarding the answer to that question. Folks that hew more authoritarian will lean one direction, while more libertarian folks will lean another. But Soling offers some food for thought. Perhaps we should ponder:
  • At what point does a system become so unreasonable as to justify subversive behavior?
  • Do we accept the current system simply because we are familiar with it?
  • Does the fact that the majority has not yet risen up against the current system render it ethical? In other words, does might make right?
  • We claim that we force our children to engage in this system for their own good. But is the trade off worth it?
  • Could other educational approaches (also here and here) be more ethical?