Friday, September 22, 2017

Pre-Announced Visits by Church Leaders

Two weeks ago, Jacksonville experienced significant damage from wind and flooding associated with Hurricane Irma. Since then, our church has been heavily involved in the clean-up and recovery effort. Church on the 10th was cancelled because that was the day of the storm's arrival and it could be unsafe for people to leave home. Beginning on the 12th, we have been regularly working on debris removal. Most people were off work on the 12th and 13th, so those days it was an all-day effort, but since returning to work, it has been mostly evenings and weekends. Last weekend, local members were joined by members from throughout the Southeast, who camped on the church's back lawn and worked all day Friday through Sunday.

My current calling is in a ward leadership position where I receive planning and scheduling notices that are later shared with the ward members. Thursday the 14th, we received notice that President Henry B. Eyring of the First Presidency would be in Jacksonville that coming Sunday and attend a special stake-wide sacrament meeting. We were asked to publicize this information among the stake members.

Now, I'm sure the leadership knows what they're doing, but it seems to me there's a strong argument for NOT publicizing a visit like this before it happens. Here's my reasoning.

Where are stake members supposed to be on Sunday? In church. Not "in church because a high-up church leader is visiting," but IN CHURCH. If you're where you're supposed to be, you are there for the visit of President Eyring. But pre-announcing this turns it from a reward for faithfulness into a celebrity spectacle. Some people were there to see President Eyring, not to hear from the Lord's servant.

I get why someone might think this is still okay: come to see a church celebrity and now you're in the room to hear the Lord's servant. But I think of the Nephite experience recorded in 3 Nephi. Jesus arrived unexpectedly at the temple in Bountiful, not to a pre-announced meeting. The ones who got to have the experience were those who were at the temple because that was where they were supposed to be. Everything that Jesus teaches from Chapter 11 through 18 is only heard firsthand by those who were where they were supposed to be. Then, in 3 Ne. 19:2-3, the "come see a church celebrity" news is spread around, and the next day the larger crowd is taught by those who received the teachings firsthand the day before. And in the parable of the 10 virgins, the arrival of the bridegroom is immediate and only those already prepared are able to participate in what comes later.

My wife said, "If they didn't make it know, afterwards they'd have a lot of people mad that they missed it." And I said, "That's a pretty tough argument to make, saying, 'If you would have told me it was special, I would have done what I knew I was supposed to do.'" Isn't that what integrity is, doing what you're supposed to do ALL the time? And the reward for integrity is when one of those times turns out to be special. But it's not integrity when you say, "With advance knowledge of which time is special, I'll dust off my special behavior."

I get that this is probably jerky of me. Everyone has somethings that are easy and some things that are difficult. For me, being in the church meetings I'm supposed to attend is not difficult. Then, like a jerk, I say, "Screw the people who can't handle this as easily as I can!" But I sure don't want anyone to say, "Screw the people who can't handle the stuff A Random Stranger can't handle yet!" In THAT case, I say, "Give me some practice getting better, guys!" Like I said, I guess I understand that side of things: to get a child ready to be a responsible adult, you create a bunch of artificial scenarios for practice. Pre-announcing a visit can help people start a habit of being where they're supposed to be, so when it REALLY matters, they'll be there. But I dislike turning spiritual experiences into entertainment experiences, and I feel pre-announcing a visit from a church leader does just that.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Real-Life College Students

Yesterday I was in my Chinese class. The instructor is a Communist Party hack from China (she's great, but she's still a Chicom shill), and the students are me and three college students. The instructor wanted to give us practice saying the numbers from zero to 10. She wrote the words on the board in numerical order, in both characters and Pinyin (the romanization system). We spent three minutes or so reading them in order. Then she had us give our telephone numbers in Chinese, then had some other students read them in Chinese.

The first student could not read the numbers, even though the words she needed were written on the board, in numerical order. The instructor pointed at the digit "1" and the student could not figure out that the word "yī" was written on the board in numerical order. If you can't remember "yī," just move along the list to the number one and read it.

Then, the instructor wanted us to practice saying various years. Surprise surprise, she "randomly" picked the year 1949 for us to say. Then she explained, "That is the year of the founding of New China." She invited, "Tell me in Chinese the year America was founded."

The "in Chinese" component was immediately ignored. The rest of the conversation occurred exclusively in English. The second student said, "I know it was sometime in the 1800s." The third student said, "No, the 1700s," but that was all he could add. The instructor wrote 1 and 7 on the board and awaited the rest. The students were stumped. The instructor tried to prime the pump with another 7. Yes, the Chinese lady knew the date of America's founding and the three American college students did not. Finally, I decided to end the misery by answering, "1776."


Monday, September 18, 2017

The Seventh-Best Swamp City in Northeastern Florida

We've been living in Jacksonville, Florida, for a little over a year now. I wouldn't say we hate it, but I would say we would happily move somewhere else if God saw fit to stop inflicting the punishment of making us live here.

Recently, my wife and I watched The Good Place on Netflix. One character is from Jacksonville, which led to this exchange.

Full disclosure: I have seen neither a Jet Ski nor a manatee since arriving in Jacksonville, but I have no doubt that, if both those things were in this town, they would be crashing into each other all the time. This is because the drivers are straight-up sociopaths. The actual number-one reason I don't want to live in Jacksonville anymore is the fear that we will die in an accident caused by a reckless driver. I have driven extensively in Los Angeles and Washington, two high-traffic metro areas, but it is only in Jacksonville that I am afraid of other vehicles every time I drive.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Great Moments in Female Positivity

I wrote sort of recently about how Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is female positive (as opposed to feminist). Another example of female positive is Wonder Woman. Specifically, how Diana is a total bad-ass who saves all the men around her, but who goes gooey when she sees a baby in the street. She can be strong and still be female; she doesn't have to deny her biology. Instead of seeing the ideal female as a dude with boobs, female positive action heroes see the ideal female as still female.

Hurricane Eminent

It turns out my wife is a terrible person to have around when a natural disaster is coming. So maybe my whole "bring on the Apocalypse because this world sucks" attitude needs to change; if the Apocalypse were coming, she'd be very unpleasant to be around.

In the face of NEAR CERTAIN DEATH (as media reporting on Hurricane Irma would have me believe), I had this thought yesterday: does anyone use those sanitary toilet seat covers? 'Cause I'll be honest: I never do. I mean, what's the worst that can happen? It's not like I place an orifice on the toilet seat; it's just skin making contact with whatever is on the seat, and then I cover that skin back up for the rest of the day. I find it impossible that I could ever get sick from sitting my bare ass on a public toilet seat. And so there's no reason to use the cover. It's wasteful, and it is a hassle.

Sharing a toilet seat is like intertemporally pressing your bare ass against another person's, which would be weird, but no more dangerous than pressing your bare hand against another person's, which is something we do all the time. If you're worried about getting some human waste on you from the toilet seat, get some toilet paper and wipe down the seat before you start. I do do that if the seat is visibly soiled. But when it comes to the covers, I think they're stupid and pointless.

Am I wrong here? I'd be interested in your best counterargument.

REMINDER: The "math" label is the "science" label is the "healthcare" label. Deal with it.

Friday, September 01, 2017

Solar Eclipse Conspiracies

Our ward's gospel doctrine class can get, well, sidetracked. Quite easily. My favorite was when the teacher started the lesson by saying, "Once when I was in college there was a church member who was distributing pamphlets claiming to know when the Second Coming was going to be, and the church leaders in that area stopped that because it's inappropriate and untrue," and then ended the lesson by saying, "Personally, I think the Second Coming will be [a specific date!!!!!]."

Since then, it's just gone off the rails. For a while I would try to bring the conversation back to the lesson, but the thing is all the class members don't want to discuss the lesson material. They like it better this way. A friend of mine summed it up thus: "They want to be entertained."

A few weeks ago, the lesson was even more derailed than normal. Someone made a comment that there might be significance in the coincidence of both the eclipses of 2017 and 2024 will pass over portions of Missouri. I sighed so loudly my wife had to tell me to be quiet. The next day, my wife sent me this link about how the solar eclipse passed over seven locations in America called Salem. The author sees significance in the fact that the eclipses of 2017 and 2024 will both pass over Salem, Kentucky (although the actual centerlines of totality cross south of Carbondale, Illinois, over 50 miles away), and the proximity of Salem, Kentucky, to the New Madrid Seismic Zone and the Wabash Valley Seismic Zone (although not actually in either).

I told my wife that, if she brought this up in Sunday School, I would either applaud her or disown her. I can't decide which.

Further Tales of the Church Hobo

One feature of having our church in its surrounding neighborhood: a lot of interaction with hobos. For instance, the ward clerk routinely has to shoo away a hobo from the steps when he unlocks the building at 6 a.m. on Sunday mornings. He's even gone so far as to tell the guy to sleep on different steps that won't need to be cleared off until 8:30, but the guy doesn't do it. Is that because a different hobo has already claimed those steps?

Once an enterprising hobo entered the building one evening during youth activities and camped out that night. He was discovered by a Seminary student using the restroom the next morning. So now Seminary students go to the restroom in groups, or else hold it until they get to school.

For some reason, these hobo stories have really captured Crazy Jane's imagination. She loves hearing a new church hobo story, and she often draws comics of her friend marrying the church hobo. Any unexpected change at the church she attributes to hobo action.

Today Crazy Jane came home from Seminary and excitedly reported that the ward owns a trailer, which we used to keep in the shed in the parking lot, but one time someone went to use the trailer and found a hobo living inside it. So now the trailer is kept at a member's house in a non-hobo-infested neighborhood.

In closing, before you get all "your church is so un-Christlike that you won't let hobos use your building like a resort spa," you should know that we HAVE mechanisms in place for helping needy people, but allowing them to use whatever they want is not one of those mechanisms.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Changing Minds

The on-going political rancor, and more recently the confrontations over Confederate monuments, has really brought home to me the need for sympathy and validation when trying to persuade people to change their minds. If you are unwilling or unable to acknowledge their current position as a valid response to their past experiences you will never gain their trust sufficient to allow them to change their minds. There's an element of vulnerability in conceding an argument, and I cannot be vulnerable with people I don't trust. You must be trying to convince me to think differently because you have my interest at heart, not your own.

For example, many of Donald Trump's fiercest critics cannot allow his supporters to be anything other than evil or stupid (or both). The critics who do manage to get past this are usually stuck on the next obstacle, which is to condescendingly say his supporters are misguided. This will never change anyone's mind. People react defensively when called evil or stupid, or when patronized. But where is the Trump critic willing to say to a Trump supporter, "Your support of Trump is a logical position for someone who has seen and experienced what you have, and had I experienced your same life experiences, I would probably be a Trump supporter myself"? That would be the beginning of a true dialog interested in bettering the country instead of what we have now, which is just an argument between parties interested in being right.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Life Is Hard

When I was a kid, I would hear people say, "Life is hard." I would think, "What's wrong with you, fool? Life seems downright easy." There's nothing hard about what is naturally happening with no required input. It would be life saying, "The rising of the sun is hard." No, it's completely effortless.

Later, I came to feel my life was hard. Everyone else's lives still seemed effortless to me, but mine was difficult, and at times downright herculean.

More recently, I've developed sufficient sympathy to see that everyone's life is hard. As Thoreau wrote, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." And now I'm beginning to wonder if maybe everyone's lives are too hard. It seems everyone I know is laboring under a weight too heavy to bear.

Younger me would probably say, "Quit your bellyaching." But this is the way things seem to me.

Friday, August 25, 2017

One-Dimensional Heroes

The hot thing to do right now in the United States is to demand the removal of statues of racists, right? So I figure I'll demand my school remove its statue of Mohandas Gandhi.

"Wait, what?" Well, that's what is going on in Ghana right now.

People are multi-faceted. Terrible people can do wonderful things, and vice versa. But we tend to collapse our public figures down to one dimension, especially once they've died. "Lincoln freed the slaves," we say, and gone is Lincoln the failed businessman, Lincoln the country lawyer, Lincoln the depressive, Lincoln the statist. When anything else remains, it's trivia, like Lincoln the boy who read a lot.

The problem with our myopic view of heroes is when our attention shifts from one aspect of their lives to another. Washington the Father of the Country will be swamped by Washington the slaveholder, and we will either tear down the Washington Monument or re-purpose it.

There was a time when states could resist Martin Luther King Day on the basis of King's Communism and adultery. That quickly went away as King was reduced to one dimension: civil rights icon. Arizona lost the Super Bowl when they refused to submit to the one-dimensional portrayal of King. If King was nothing but a civil rights icon, the only reason to refuse to honor him must be opposition to civil rights.

Does this mean that every statue of a Confederate general should remain? When the people can only see one dimension of a hero's life, and when that one dimension held in the public consciousness changes from something noble to something ignoble, then it appears correct to remove the statue. Otherwise, it looks like we are celebrating the ignoble. But a better solution is seeing multiple dimensions of public figures' lives.

I used to say I had no heroes, because there was always something "wrong" with everyone. If I said Winston Churchill was a hero of mine, would I be supporting his colonialism, his boorishness, his insensitive treatment of Clementine, his weird penchant for nudity? I finally learned the value of venerating not the man as a complete man, but venerating his noble accomplishments. I can say Churchill is a hero of mine for the way he resisted Communist and Fascist tyranny.

This is important for Mormons to realize because, honestly, Joseph Smith did some weird stuff. But being a prophet doesn't mean you never did anything weird. Church members who think recognition of Joseph Smith as a prophet involves approving of everything he ever did, when they find out about something questionable, throw the whole thing overboard. Instead, I see evidence of the grace of God in the weird bits of Joseph's life; if God can work with a flawed man like Joseph, there might be hope for a flawed man like me, after all.

I don't really think my school should remove its Gandhi statue, because Gandhi doesn't mean "racist" here the way it does in Ghana. But the world would be better served if we could learn to be charitable to our public figures, to celebrate their great traits without ignoring their bad ones.

Personally, one benefit I see of statues revering Confederates is plurality of political thought. You don't have to subscribe to the government's view of things in America. What other nation has public statues honoring traitors? If Americans see Confederates as only slaveholders, then we need to replace these statues with some honoring non-slaveholding traitors who can be revered for their commitment to what they understand to be right. Basically, we need more statues of Edward Snowden.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Variance of Speed in the Fast Lane

I know we were only out of the country for two years, so it might seem ridiculous for us to talk about how much things changed, but remember that when we left America in August 2014, Bruce Jenner was a reality TV figure, and when we returned in July 2016, Caitlyn Jenner was a national inspiration. When we left, Donald Trump was a punchline on some of the finest blogs money can buy, and when we returned, he was the presidential nominee of a major political party. My point is, it was a two-year period that saw some major changes.

Not only has the country undergone massive change, but we are living in the South for the first time. As a result, my wife and I find ourselves constantly responding to distressing new events by wondering, "Maybe this is the way America is now, or maybe it's just the South that was always this way." For instance: sociopath drivers. Before we left, you would sometimes have the odd car weaving around in a reckless manner, but all the other drivers were outraged. Now, reckless driving is de rigueur. Is this how all of America rolls now, or is it only the South? Every time we drive to the temple in Orlando, we are driving 80 miles per hour in a 70-miles-per-hour zone and having our lives endangered by a series of drivers who are incensed if they have to go slower than 90.

And Florida's not the worst of it. Going north for Thanksgiving last year, we found each state worse than the previous until we reached North Carolina, where I-95 was reserved exclusively for drivers with a death wish. A few months later, I read this story about a deadly accident on I-95 at the Carolinas border. I don't feel safe driving on highways in the South.

Monday night we were returning from South Carolina, driving on I-95 in Georgia. I noticed that the inside lane, typically thought of as the "fast lane," was experiencing great speed variance. While the slow lane was moving along at 65 to 70, and the middle lane was holding steady at 70 to 75, the fast lane was rapidly changing from 80 to 60 and back again. What was happening?

Sociopath drivers were weaving between the middle lane and fast lane, allowing insufficient following distances when they entered the fast lane, requiring the drivers they'd cut off to brake suddenly. Speeds dropped, then returned to normal until the next reckless driver did the same thing.

What's more, this created additional motivation to participate in this activity. When you're in the fast lane and having to take emergency actions to avoid the car in front of you, and seeing the middle lane moving at a constant speed, you use the middle lane to weave around the cars in front of you.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Arkansas Provincialism

Our family likes to keep track of the license plates we see while we're on road trips (and since we are attempting to visit every county in the country, we go on a lot of road trips). One thing I've noticed is that we always end up looking for the same difficult-to-see license plates at the end of each trip. What's interesting is that it's not necessarily connected to state population.

Of course it's easy to see a state's license plate in that state, and should be easy to see it in a neighboring state. But what explains the differing difficulty in seeing an Arkansas license plate and seeing a Mississippi license plate? Their populations are nearly identical and they share a border. Once you are outside their immediate area, you should expect to see their license plates with equal frequency. But I can tell you that Arkansas is substantially harder to see than Mississippi is.

Why are people from Arkansas so much less likely to drive around the country? Maybe they are much poorer than Mississippians. Except they're not. While both states are in the bottom three when it comes to median household income, Arkansas is ahead of Mississippi. My wife thinks it might be a reflection of less urbanization, that city folk travel more than country folk do, so Arkansas must be more rural than Mississippi is. But I don't think that's true. The largest urban area in both states is Memphis, and since that covers parts of three states, let's just ignore it for a moment. The second-largest urban area in each state is the state capital, and Metro Little Rock is larger than Metro Jackson. Arkansas's third-largest urban area, Bentonville, is larger than Mississippi's third-largest urban area, Gulfport. Unless Metro Memphis is substantially skewed towards Mississippi and away from Arkansas, I'd say Arkansas is the more urban of the two states. (Mississippi is a denser state, but that's because it's a smaller state, which is not necessarily an indication of urbanization.)

So what about Metro Memphis? Is that where all the globe-trotting Mississippians live? Well, I don't think so. While it's true that the Mississippi portion of Metro Memphis is larger than the Arkansas portion, we can see here that the total population of Arkansas's metro areas is larger, and this is still true if we limit ourselves to only looking at Arkansas's largest metro areas. ("Arkansas's largest metro areas" is not a phrase that has ever been written before.)

If it's not a matter of affluence, and it's not a matter of urbanization, is it a question of interconnectivity? I don't think so, because I think Arkansas's connection to the Interstate Highway System is better than Mississippi's. I-20 and I-59 aren't providing the access to the rest of America that I-30 and I-40 provide.

Then it must be a result of state taxation regimes, right? Like how lots of truck fleets are registered in Indiana, and all U-Hauls are registered in Arizona. Mississippi must have a much more favorable registration process for motor vehicles. Except it doesn't seem like that's true, either. Arkansas has over 100,000 more registered vehicles. Given that the states are of nearly-identical populations, and that Arkansans have only slightly-higher incomes than Mississippians, that's quite a difference.

The only explanation I have left is this: Arkansans are more provincial than Mississippians.