Abraham, Rachel, Soren and Liam. Our life together in Smalltown, Idaho.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

What the World Needs

What does the world need?

I've been asking myself this question a lot lately, trying to figure out how I might live my life in a way that would maximize the good that I bring into the world. I believe that love is at the core of everything that is meaningful, and that we are given life so that we might learn about love: to learn how to love, to learn to experience love, and, in so doing, to find joy in living. However, it's difficult to know how this belief can be translated into my life. I know it's important to bring love and joy into the world; however, I wonder how much love is enough. How do I know when I'm doing enough?

Sometimes I'm just so overwhelmed by the world's neediness. There is so much need. There are people who are starving, who are afraid for their lives, who are sick and need medical assistance. There are children--sweet, innocent, precious children-- who have suffered unspeakable horrors, sometimes at the hands of those they rely on for safety and love. There are people who are lonely and isolated. There are others who are lost in a pit of depression and sadness. Many feel overburdened and insufficient. There are some who have sufficient food, shelter, and company-- but who feel still empty, hollow, lacking in something. There are needs, needs, needs, needs, and I'm not sure which ones should be prioritized. How do you measure an act of goodness? Is it better to sponsor an orphan or support AIDS research? Is it more moral to spend your time composing a symphony or building a school in Afghanistan? How much time can I spend on activities that I personally find interesting or pleasurable without regard for improving the well-being of others? Shouldn't there be some sort of goodness-o-meter into which you can describe an act and it will give you a moral grade? "Practicing the piano for personal pleasure...C+." "Making a donation of hard-earned money to the homeless shelter....B." "Gossiping with the neighbor....D-." Then you could go throughout your day with confidence, selecting "A+" activities only and knowing that you were doing everything you could to make the world a better place.

But it's hard to know the far-reaching effects of the things we do, and sometimes an act of love isn't as overt as volunteering at the soup kitchen or tutoring a kid in spelling. I believe that math, engineering, invention, philosophy, science, and art can all be used to lift lives, increase happiness, and create love.

For example, my life has been changed in meaningful ways by art....a series of paintings by Pilar Pobil, a song by Live, a novel by Toni Morrison. But how important is it that my life be improved on a personal level by art when there are children who don't have enough to eat? There are people who have needs on all the levels of need, but is it ethical to pursue self-actualization when some people haven't even stabilized sources of their basic physiological needs? Should Beethoven have dedicated his time and energy to helping little children, rather than lost in practice or scribbling away madly at musical manuscripts? Has his music moved enough lives to compensate for the deaths of the little ones he could have saved? And sure, creating great art is one thing...but what about producing mediocre entertainment? Is that a waste of life? Or is there a need for mediocre entertainment? A need that should be prioritized over visiting your widowed neighbor?

And where do I prioritize my own happiness? Sometimes it feels like I seek after my own happiness and pleasure at the expense of others' well-being. Is it right that Abe and I spend eighty dollars a month on eating out when we could eat at home and donate the extra money to the Make a Smile foundation? Is it okay to be spending time posting on my blog when I could be writing a grant proposal to get funds for the Domestic Violence center?

Is everyone's happiness of infinite importance? If you've made yourself happy and met all your own needs, is that enough? Or if you've worked to serve and care for your immediate family members, is that enough? If you've watched over a needy neighbor, have you done enough? If you donated fifty dollars a month to the Perpetual Education fund, is the world sufficiently better for your presence? What if you spend your whole life working to build up a business empire and then, upon your death, use your fortune to create foundations to improve education for youth in your own country? Is that sufficient? What if you raise two healthy, productive children who will go on to do the same thing? Was your existence worthwhile? What if you just smiled at everyone you saw? What if you just smiled at half the people you saw? What if you half-smiled at some people in the grocery store once?

Howard Thurman famously said, "Don't ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive." Which is nice. But, I dunno, shoveling crap out of my parent's neighbor's house didn't make me feel particularly alive, but it made her home a better place for a while. Visiting my lonely uncle doesn't make me feel vibrant, but he enjoys the company. I don't get a particular thrill of joy from making my little boys breakfast every morning, but I think it's good for them and for our family.

Is there really enough diversity in the world that if everyone just did what made them "come alive," that there would be opportunities for every need to be met?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Soren Update: November 2010

There's always so much to say about Soren that I find myself overwhelmed when I come to these letters each month-- so much, in fact, that I put off writing them because it seems an impossible task. So this month I've decided to do a twenty minute Soren Freewrite and publish whatever comes out without proofreading, reviewing, etc. So, here goes.

Briar woke up one morning and walked into the bathroom, where Soren was splashing in the bathtub. Upon seeing his auntie, he stop splashing and commented, "Cute belt, Briar. Where did you get it?"

While we were out walking one evening, Soren asked me, "Mom, who made all of this?" "Who made what?" I asked. "All of this," he said, gesturing expansively at our surroundings. "Well, there was this massive explosion billions of years ago..." I started. But he cut me off: "I think it was construction, a paint truck, and God." Made good enough sense to me.

Some weeks ago Abraham convinced Soren that we bought him at the store for a nickel.

The child will occasionally make up his own songs: one day I caught him singing a song with lyrics that went something like this: "It's a nice day for wuvin' (lovin') and wivin (livin')." He also occasionally bursts into song about his mommy, and how nice she is, and how much he loves her and misses her when she's at work or on a date.

Oh, that boy and his mommy. I have never met a child with such a bad case on his mother. Approximately seven hundred times a day he tells me that he loves me. ("Mommy? I just love you and love you and love you.") Three hundred times a day he'll inquire after my well-being: "So, Mommy," he'll say. "How's your day?" He also believes that I contain the answer to all his problems. When we were leaving New Hampshire, for example, Grandma Skousen was giving him a tearful farewell. "It's okay, Grandma," he told her. "Mommy will take good care of me." On another occasion he and Grandma Hanson found themselves lost in Wolverine (long story). He asked, "Grandma? Where's your house?" And she truthfully replied, "I'm not sure where it is, sweetie." "It's okay, Grandma," he said. "Mommy will come find us." It's sweet, and I enjoy being the object of his adoration, but his intense love does cause problems, a persistently ferocious jealousy of Liam being the primary one. This morning, in fact, I was explaining to him for the millionth time that I could hold Liam and still love Soren. He flat-out told me: "I don't believe you." He's also frequently telling me that I need to stop loving Daddy.

Some mornings Soren will bust out some serious dance moves. He's got this wild break dancing thing going on that involves a lot of rolling around on the floor and swiveling around his head. He'll do this to all kinds of music. One morning he even rocked out to Haydn. I called it Papa Haydn Meets Epileptic Strobe Lights.

One thing that Soren does that makes me feel all puffy with pride is say "thank you" consistently. He still needs a little prompting (okay, maybe some heavy shoving) to remember his "please"-- but "thank you" he says often and with all sincerity.

Soren's response to EVERYTHING from a clear directive ("Put your trash in the garbage") to a simple observation ("It's snowing today.") is "why?" All the time, forever and ever, it's "why?" "why?" "why?" "why?" "why?" "why?" "why?" "why?" "why?" "why?"

Also, there's a short-circuit in Soren's logic skills, as is evidenced by the following conversation types, which occur all too frequently in our home:

"Soren, if I see you take that toy away from Liam again, you'll go to your room."
"I don't want to go to my room!"
"Then don't take that toy away."
"But I want to take that toy away!"
"Then you'll have to go to your room."
"But I don't want to go to my room!"
"Then don't take that toy away."
"But I want to take that toy away!"
"Then you'll have to go to your room."
"But I don't want to go to my room!"
....ad nauseum, until Soren, bored with the argument, takes Liam's toy and has to go to his room.

I'm hoping he'll become a logical creature someday soon, 'cause right now the boy is one blob of the most intense of emotions. He never just is. He's always feeling or doing or wanting, bursting at the core with this hot magma of emotion and desire that he has little control over.

My twenty minutes is up, but I have to quickly report that he was a shockingly good little travel companion: when he and I flew to New Hampshire together he was so good that one lady even tapped me on the shoulder at the end of a long flight and said, "I would just like to commend you on your well-behaved child." And I was all, "Yeah, thanks. I'm not sure what got into him."

Oh, that little Sorenelli. I just love him and love him and love him.


With his little friend Eternity in New Hampshire.

With Grandma, wearing Auntie Amanda's Moby Wrap in Yellowstone National Park.

Participating in the long, proud Skousen family tradition of eating and reading. Sigh.
(That's a Richard Scarry book. Soren LOVES Richard Scarry.)

Playing in a cardboard box, accompanied by a demon-possessed pumpkin. Kind of freaky, I know, but you've got to pick your battles.


He got the idea for this out of the Friend magazine.

The boy loves his Duplos.

(So, not gonna lie....I did the twenty minute freewrite but couldn't help but give the a quick once over to remove any glaring errors. Then I added captions to the pictures. So the whole post took probably twenty-five minutes, instead of twenty. But still.)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Liam Update: November 2010

At Liam's well-child check several weeks ago, we addressed (again) our concerns about Liam's development: that, at nineteen months, he was cruising but not walking, that he wasn't really talking. We also noted that he was a very noisy breather and that he would sometimes wake up at night coughing and gagging. "We've been wondering if it's maybe allergies," I told the doctor. The doc looked at his tonsils and up his nose. There was definitely some congestion and some possible swelling in his nasal passages. Then he checked Liam's ears and found an ear infection. "Has he shown any signs of an ear infection?" the doctor asked. He hadn't: no fever, no ear-pulling, no more crying than usual. "That happens sometimes," he told us. "Sometimes kids have ear infections for weeks or months and no one knows. Or have ear infections that come and go on their own without anyone being aware. Either scenario could be contributing to fluid build-up in the middle ear, which would impact both his hearing and his balance. That would explain his developmental delays." And it turns out that these frequent ear infections might be caused by the chronic congestion....ie, allergies. At last! A possible explanation! A problem with a solution! Hooray!



So the doctor put Liam on an antibiotic for the infection, an over-the-counter allergy medication for the breathing, referred us to an ear-nose-throat specialist, and sent us on our merry way. And you know what? The allergy med seems to be helping....at the very least, it has improved his breathing. This means he's not congested, which we're hoping will decrease ear infections and ear fluid buildup, which would enable him to balance and hear well, and thereby free him to move forward with his development. So the plan we made with our family doc is that that we're going to keep an eye on his development, take him in to have his ears checked once a month for a possible stealth infection, and move forward with his physical therapy. So cross your fingers, yo. We might be on the way to figuring this kiddo's issues out. (The ENT doc was kind of worthless, if you were wondering, but whatevs....we've got Zyrtec.)

And, I don't know if it's related or coincidental, but during the past month Liam decided to start talking a little. He's now using the phrases "Thank you" and "Here you go" like they are going out of style. "Thank you" sounds like"Gankgoo," and "Here you go" is more of a "Keeyoogo," and sometimes they sound like the same phrase, something of a "Geenkyoogo," but it's adorable, dangit, and contextually appropriate, and...frequent. Very, very frequent. In fact, all the day long it's Liam either reaching for, taking, or sharing various objects and saying, "Gankgoo, Keeyoogo, Gankgoo, Keeyoogo." Other kids start with "mama" or "dada"-- but our kid? He heads straight for the etiquette words.

But, development aside, Liam continues to be just plain adorable. That's even the word his Auntie Briar uses. And those who know Briar know that "adorable" isn't a word she throws around like market seafood, so it must be true. He's just ridiculously chubby and sweet ("sweet" is the word that all the smiley grandma ladies in the grocery store use), has a heart-melting smile, and is the squishely misheliest schmuggly muggly buggly little cuddle bug in the whole world. When he laughs, he laughs from his belly, and he'll often fall over in mirth, lying on the floor, flailing around, laughing, laughing, laughing.

Briar tells me she's even seen him laugh in his sleep.

And he loves books. He'll spend an hour or more leafing through pages of books on his own, he'll sit on my lap and use very expressive gibberish to "read" the story out loud to me, and he lights up whenever anyone pulls a book out to read to him.


He also loves songs, particularly "Pat-a-cake" and "The Itsy Bitsy Spider." He'll do the finger gestures for Itsy Bitsy and, if he thinks no one is looking, will sing the song too (again, in very expressive gibberish).


Liam's favorite bathtime activity is drinking the bathwater. He'll use one of his stacking cups or just drink straight from the tub, but he always finishes each swallow with an appreciative "ehhhhhhhhhh" sound. (Swallow, "ehhhhhhhhhhh," swallow, "ehhhhhhhhhhh," swallow, "ehhhhhhhhhhhhhh.")


He's also starting to get a little spunky. When he doesn't like something, he'll make a horrible screeching sound, arch his back, give the offender a disapproving glower, or otherwise throw a fit. He's also taken to ransacking...crawling quietly off to the bathroom where he'll splash in the toilet or unravel the toilet paper, sneaking into our bedroom to pull all of his clothes out of the dresser drawers, throwing all the shoes out of the shoe basket in the hall closet. And truthfully, it's nice to have him making mischief. It seems right and good.

We sure love our little Yum Yum.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People

I recently received a phone call from a friend I hadn't talked to in a couple years. Delighted to see her name come up on my caller ID, I immediately answered the phone.

"Hey!" I said.

"Hey!" She said.

"It's been a long time!" I said. "I've missed you! How have things been?"

"Oh, you haven't missed me," she said. "You've been busy in your new house in your new neighborhood taking care of your family. But things have been good for me. Did you know that I'm expecting number four? Any day now."

"Are you? That's wonderful! How's this pregnancy been for you?"

So we chatted for a minute, until we reached that key point in phone conversations where ones switches from exchanging pleasantries to expressing purposes.

"So," I said, "What's going on?"

"Well," she said, hesitating a moment. "....I've missed you! I haven't had a walking partner since you moved."

Ah, I thought. She's lonely. She's having one of those days when she's absolutely starved for adult conversation. She's reaching out. I'm glad she feels comfortable calling me! Even after all this time!

So, even though I try to keep personal calls to a minimum when I'm at the office, I settled in for a chat, performing as many mindless tasks as I could while we caught up. Why don't people just call each other more often? I wondered. Just to chat. This is so nice.

Then, after forty minutes of visiting, she asked if I was still working at the same place. I told her about how Harbor House had closed and Abe and I had had to do a little rearranging of responsibilities, that he was finishing his master's degree while I worked full-time. And then she told me about how her husband had, over the past couple of years, become increasingly unhappy at his dead-end job. After a lot of thought and discussion and prayer, they decided he should quit. So he did.

"So that happened a few months ago and we've been jobless ever since," she said.

"Oh dear. I know how that feels. Been there, done that. So what sort of job is he looking for?"

"Well..." (More hesitation.) "He's actually kind of self-employed right now. He's working for Melaleuca."

(Imagine an ominous rumble of thunder rolling in the background.)

For those of you not in the know, Melaleuca is a "wellness company" that relies on a multi-level marketing structure to both peddle its products and recruit other people to sell its wares. So it was at this point that I should have realized what was going on. And a little alarm bell did go off in the back of my head, but I immediately turned it off, telling myself, This woman is your friend. She's talking to you about her husband's career change. She's not going to try to sell you anything.

So I replied. "Oh!"

"So yeah. We haven't been making enough to get by without dipping into savings, but we're hoping things will take off. The way we make money is if we get people to sign up for a Melaleuca membership," she said. "How do you feel about Melaleuca?"

More thunder.

"Oh, it's okay," I told her, realizing that my friend was going to try to sell me something. "I like the products. They're good products. I do think they're overpriced...and I don't like that you have to commit to purchasing a certain amount each month."

"Oh. Well," she said. "They've got this great deal going on this month. The annual membership fee has been reduced to just $1.00. This month only. And I just thought it would be great to share this bargain with you."

I wondered if she was reading this directly off a computer screen.

"Um, I'd have to talk to Abe about it. Can you fax me the information?" I asked.

And then she explained that they do presentations about signing up for the products, that I would have to come to a presentation.

Again, I told her that I would have to talk to Abe about it and that I'd get back with her. Then I quickly began attempting to extricate myself from the conversation. She, however, had more spiel she had to get through before we hung up:

"One of the things I like about Melaleuca," she told me, "Is that their cleaning products are so safe. My son is always getting into things and I just feel good knowing that..." at this point I completely tuned out, because I had already heard this identical story from someone at church whose husband was also selling Melaleuca products. Her daughter was also forever getting into things and it was just nice to know that her little darling wouldn't die if she happened to break into the cleaning cupboard and chug a quart of carpet cleaner. I imagined them both reading and memorizing a bright, white, glossy card labeled, "Marketing Melaleuca Products to Young Mothers."

"Another thing I like about Melaleuca," continued my friend, "Is that..."

I knew she felt like she had to get through her list of Melaleuca's many virtues, so I sat patiently and waited for her to finish. Then I forced out a cheery farewell and hung up the phone, staring at it for a long, sad moment.

I felt dirty and used.

And I felt like my friend had also been used.

And it made me sad. And a little bit mad.

And now we have reached that key point in every blog post where one switches from antecdote to thesis. And my thesis is simple: Multi-level marketing is the devil. Really, seriously, the devil. Satan. Beezelbub. Lucifer. The Evil One.

This may sound extreme. But hear me out.

A company decides to use an MLM model to sell its product. After all, the MLM model is an easy way to make money by the sweat of someone else's brow. All the company has to do is to manipulate a few people into believing that the product is so fabulous that everyone will want to buy it and that, furthermore, people will love the product so much they will want to sell it. "Anyone who sells these products will make plenty of money," they tell their recruits, "But if you really want to make good money, you'll need to recruit people to do sales as well. But no sweat! People will be begging you to let them sell the product! So get started on this money-making adventure that, with a lot of dedication and a great attitude, will surely make you rich! You can be your own boss! The controller of your own destiny! All you have to do is pay a $1,500.00 start-up fee and the right to sell these products for us will be yours!"

And so it begins: manipulating the human impulse towards hope.

The starry-eyed sales force believes in the product, they believe in the company, and they believe that they have found a way to be able to pay for their child's college education, build up their retirement fund, or spend more time with their family. They turn out their pockets and dig through their couch cushions to pay the start-up fees. The company blithely takes the money, hands over the marketing rights, and turns them loose.

But turn them loose on whom? On an audience of people who are looking for a particular product? A car salesman doesn't follow around his friends and neighbors, stalk people in grocery stores, or otherwise make himself a nuisance in the world at large, saying, "You look like someone who could use a new car. Do you like cars? Look at the cars I'm selling. Don't you think these cars are nice? Did you know that my car company supports families? My leaky roof sure could use fixing. Did you know I make a commission when you buy a car from me? I could fix my roof if you would buy a car from me!" Instead he waits for people to come to the car lot where he works...and then he wheels and deals. Even cold-call telemarketers are at least selling their product in an equal-opportunity way: they're dialing random numbers and trying to persuade people they've never met before to buy a product. But multi-level marketers? They're taught to use their relationships to make money.

It's a sadly familiar scenario: your favorite aunt approaches you about Kiniquita oils. She tells you about how they've solved all of her health problems. She expresses concern about your health problems and begs you to try the Kiniquita oil. You demur. She casually states that it has been really difficult to make ends meet since her husband died and that her Kiniquita sales made it possible for her to put regular meals on the table for her eight children. She then tells you that she thinks the Kiniquita oil would really help with your frequent headaches. And what kind of a louse would let her eight young cousins go hungry? You buy some oil. But you also start avoiding your favorite aunt.

A friend told me that her husband had just begun developing a friendship when he received a phone call from his new friend: "John," said the man, "Can you come over? I need to talk to you." John, a professional counselor, was concerned that something was wrong and that his friend needed some support. So he drove to his new friend's house, only to be welcomed into a room full of people preparing to watch a PowerPoint presentation about a how selling a certain fabulous telephone system could make you rich. As you might imagine, their friendship never left the runway.

A guy from my high school class recently moved into my church ward. Our kids are the same age and we started chatting while standing in the foyer with our restless babies. We talked about how our families should get together and have a barbeque or something. He called one day and left a message....I enthusiastically returned his call, thinking that he was calling to make plans. He was actually calling to see if we could attend an MLM presentation. I told him we would, but then life got crazy and we never did it. I didn't really want to do it anyway, so I started ignoring his calls. He started ignoring us at church.

One wonders if a person who has been entrapped into selling in an MLM scheme ceases to see people as people but rather envisions them stamped with dollar signs. Instead of thinking, "I sure would like to know that person," she thinks, "I wonder if he would be interested in selling LavaLava juice under me." Another friend = another potential sale. Maybe even a $ale$ underling!

These companies often use an almost-religious angle to manipulate people into believing in the company and the product. I am reminded of an email correspondence Abe had with a college friend shortly after we graduated from BYU. The friend had emailed Abe to try to persuade him to sell VIOP phone systems. Abe did some research on the company and found a lot of information showing that the company was basically a pyramid scheme that was designed to take suckers' start-up fees and leave them coughing in the dust. So Abe and his friend emailed back and forth, Abe demonstrating with math and logic that it would be extremely difficult-- not to mention unethical-- to make money selling the phones; the friend arguing back that he was "just being negative." Abe emailed him a link to a blog about the specific scheme he was involved in; the friend emailed back with the following: "The world is full of negative people, Abe. Full of them. Anyone can find something bad if that's what they're looking for. Listen to me, someone you know, not some stranger on the internet. The fact that whoever wrote the blog tried to undermine the integrity of the company simply exposes their ignorance, and can therefore be considered as salt that has lost its savor, if you will, and is good for nothing but to be cast away and trodden under the foot of man. My point is that sure, it's good to look into something before you get involved, but shouldn't you ask the people that know?" My husband, not wanting to see a friend wasting time and energy on a fruitless endeavor, sent him a chart showing him the improbability of making money with the scheme....the friend emailed back saying, "So now you know how many people I need to get signed up for this, please get your phone through me. Thanks buddy!" They haven't communicated since.

My dear friend at least had the decency to feel uncomfortable about the whole exchange. I could sense that she wasn't entirely at peace with having to wield her interpersonal relationships as a tool in her husband's attempts to make money. I ultimately told her that we weren't interested, but felt bad turning her down because I wanted to help her out. After all, this was their livelihood! But that is seriously part of the evil of the MLM...the people who use the structure as a marketing tool-- the ones on top who benefit the most, not the regular people roped into doing the selling-- knew that their sales force would be able to play on the loving impulses of their friends and families. And I can't buy into that. If my friend called me up and said, "Could you give me and my husband $100 a month?" I would have been more receptive. Because when you get down to the core of the matter, that's what people are asking you for when they come asking you to purchase some product from the company they represent. The product is a buffer. (And sometimes it's a good buffer! I mean, Melaleuca products are swell. And I like Mary Kay and Pampered Chef and Scentsy products too. But I really hate the pressure and/or guilt-filled way they can be sold sometimes.) But anyway...what I'm saying is that, if I'm making a love/guilt expenditure, I'd rather all the money go straight into your pocket, rather than into some fat executive's.

Robert Fitzpatrick, author of False Profits: Seeking Financial and Spiritual Deliverance in Multi-level Marketing and Pyramid Schemes, clearly describes the problem with a sales model that encourages people to sell to friends and family: "The commercialization of family and friendship relations or the use of 'warm leads' which is required in the MLM marketing program," he writes, "is a destructive element in the community and very unhealthy for individuals involved. Capitalizing upon family ties and loyalties of friendships in order to build a business can destroy ones social foundation. It places stress on relationships that may never return to their original bases of love, loyalty and support. Beyond its destructive social aspects, experience shows that few people enjoy or appreciate being solicited by friends and relatives to buy products. "

So back to my earlier assertion, the one about MLMs being the devil.

My premises are simple:

1) God = love.
2) The devil hates God and therefore hates love.
3) Because the devil hates love, he seeks to destroy it.
3) MLMs destroy loving relationships.

Therefore,

MLMs = the devil

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