Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Best Time to See the Christmas Lights at Temple Square

The LDS Church's Temple Square in Salt Lake City is always an interesting place to visit. But around Christmastime each year it becomes a major holiday destination as its trees are lit up with hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) of lights. The effect is magical.

In addition to the lights, there is always a special Christmas display in the North Visitor Center and a life size presentation of the Nativity story on the lawn between that building and the historic tabernacle. The Nativity story plays over and over with lights shining on staged scenes and speakers conveying professional narration along with music by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

A beautiful Nativity scene graces the center of the reflecting pond. Small clear balls with lights that appear to be lit candles float on the surface of the pond. A walkway is lined with Christmas lanterns. Nativity sets reflecting various cultures grace a number of spots.

Temple Square at night during Christmastime is indeed magical. There are only a couple of drawbacks: parking and crowds. The lights and displays make the place such a popular holiday destination that the press of people on any night of the holiday season can make the experience difficult. This is particularly so for families with young children and strollers, as well as for anyone with mobility challenges.

My wife and I visited Temple Square one evening about a week and a half ago only because we were attending an event at the Salt Lake Temple that concluded in the early evening. As we walked around sans kids, I was reminded of the times we had navigated the crowds with our kids and recalled the difficulty of maneuvering a stroller while also managing young children on foot that could easily get lost in the crowd.

We have found that the best time to visit Temple Square to see the Christmas lights and displays is AFTER Christmas. The lights stay lit each night until just after New Year. (The website says that they will only be lit through December 31 this year.) But once Christmas is over the crowds diminish, as do the panhandlers and anti-Mormons that line the sidewalks around Temple Square.

I would say that the experience of strolling around Temple Square after Christmas beats being pushed along in a stream of people before Christmas. It would seem that most people that want to see the lights feel as if it absolutely must happen before Christmas, perhaps to help them get into the spirit of the season. But in my mind, the relaxed pace and easier parking after Christmas more than make up for anything lost by missing the lights before Christmas.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Family History

We got a video camera when our first son was born so that we could capture our family's special moments on video. We've had five iterations of video cameras since then plus a couple of phones that actually produce somewhat decent video.

We currently have about three dozen DVD discs of family movies that include many years of our Christmas celebrations. One Christmas morning is missing because I accidentally deleted critical files on a then-new camcorder. But for the most part we can watch our family age as we look at videos of Christmas over the years, allowing us to recall events from a lengthening chain of Christmases.

Some elements are perpetually the same. We do our annual Christmas Eve dinner on the floor. It started out being somewhat reminiscent of the type of dining that occurred in Israel around the time of the first Christmas. But over the years we have gradually dropped the less favored and less convenient items for items with broader appeal. We seriously parted from Jewish tradition the year our Christmas Eve feast included slices of ham.

Then there's the Christmas morning gift opening event. What started out as a desire of young parents has firmed into an iron clad tradition. Following breakfast the kids first get their Christmas stockings and check out the stocking stuffers. Then we start handing out gifts from under the tree, trying to time the opening in such a way that I can capture the moment of delight (or disappointment) with each gift.

A few years ago we headed into the Christmas holidays with no snow on the ground. But then it snowed during the night so that we awakened to an incredibly beautiful snowy day with clear skies. After opening gifts we went to the nearby park where we slid down the slopes on toboggans and tubes, making our mark in the fresh snow. I caught elements of this on video. We returned to the house for hot chocolate, movies, games, and playing with gifts. It seemed like the perfect traditional Christmas.

My appearances in our family movies are rare and rare, since I am usually running the camera. However, my commentary can often be heard.A couple of evenings ago my daughter was watching some of our Christmas videos. It was fun to see the kids when they were much younger. But it was a bit shocking to see myself in those videos. It provided for a comparison with the present, allowing me to realize how much I have aged.

Being a regular journal writer, I have also captured our annual Christmas celebrations in writing too. There was the year that our two oldest were toddlers and were both quite ill. My wife took our oldest to the emergency room late on Christmas night, only to be told that his very high fever was the result of a virus and that the only option was to let the virus work its course.

I was off work between Christmas and New Year that season, but my wife wasn't. I spent the holidays mostly caring for my sick little boys, who had little desire to do much other than to watch videos and be held. Fortunately, they both rebounded about the time I had to return to work.

My brothers and I used to bring our families to my parents' home on Christmas Eve, where we would eat, share gifts, and have the grandchildren perform a talent show and the nativity story. That eventually became too difficult to pull off as families aged and started spreading out.

There was the Christmas when it snowed, and snowed, and snowed. I spent much of the day doing snow removal at our place, for various neighbors, and at the church. Then there was last year, when we celebrated together for what we figured would be our last time as a family for a while, anticipating boys leaving on missions.

I need to figure out which services I'm going to use to move our family movies and my journals out to the cloud. Although I have backup copies of these files (even stored off site), they are not as accessible or as secure as they could be on the cloud. Besides, all electronic data is subject to obsolescence. I have already undertaken major projects to upgrade my journals and videos to current formats. But even those are aging. When will DVDs be little more than anachronisms of a bygone era?

We will soon be taking video and still shots of our annual family Christmas celebration once again. I will then work to preserve these videos for future use. Hopefully my kids will always have the opportunity of looking back on events from their formative years to help remind themselves of the ties that bind us together even stronger than the bonds of life itself.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Music of Christmas: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I have always genuinely loved Christmas music; although, my tastes have varied over time. As a small child I was quite fond of Up On the Housetop. Nowadays I much more enjoy the likes of the Hallelujah Chorus.

Not that I didn't like sacred Christmas music as a child. Once when I was young I watched big fluffy snowflakes falling on our already snowy neighborhood out the front window of our home just days before Christmas. I went out into the carport where I could look at neighbors' Christmas lights through the falling snow without the glare of indoor lights reflecting off the window. I suddenly found myself so filled with the Christmas spirit that I burst out and sang O Holy Night at the top of my lungs.

Christmas music comes in sacred, secular, and crossover varieties.There are distinct subsets or themes revolving mainly around Jesus Christ, Santa Claus, charity, winter, and winter romance. Over my lifetime American culture has developed an increasingly tortured relationship with Christmas music. Americans seem to love Christmas music, but listen to it under a cloud of possibly offending some.

Still, some Christmas songs seem to endure quite well. But some of them honestly mystify me. When I was a kid we had a 33⅓ rpm vinyl LP that included a rendition of The Little Drummer Boy. I kind of like the music for this song. But maybe I'm too cerebral about it, because the lyrics make no sense to me.

As the father of five children I wonder what sane adult would allow some kid to pound on a drum to soothe a baby. Is Mary saying, "Yeah, the cattle and chickens aren't making enough noise. Why don't you see if you can permanently damage the baby's hearing by whacking your drum? That's sure to help the child sleep. Who the heck needs a silent night anyway?"

And while Jingle Bells has an incredibly catchy tune and rhythm, how in the world did it become a Christmas song? How many people can even sing more than the first verse of the song anyway? Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow! is a fun song, but why is it considered a Christmas song? Ditto with other romance based songs such as Sleigh Ride and Winter Wonderland. None of these songs even refer to Christmas in any form.

Unlike various religious scolds, I have no problem with most secular Christmas music, as long as it's not used in a worship service. While I think that devotion should play a central role in my Christmas celebration, I don't think that the Lord is offended with an appropriate amount of celebration that is not strictly religious. So I enjoy both religious and secular Christmas music.

I like both traditional and modern arrangements of various Christmas songs. Up to a point. Most broadcasts seem to tightly focus on a tiny subset of the ample repertoire of available songs. While there are multiple versions of these songs performed by various artists, it sometimes feels like overload.

It's easy for overload to happen when the Christmas season lasts 2-3 months. Christmas is magical when it is special. The longer the season is drawn out, the less special it becomes. Instead of the music lending to a magical feeling, it becomes annoying.

Speaking of annoying, there are a few Christmas songs that fit squarely into that category for me. I still recall the moment nearly 30 years ago when Jingle Bell Rock became permanently annoying to me. While I particularly can't stand the version where the male singer sounds like a goat when he sings, "Jingle around the clo-o-o-o-o-ock," I detest pretty much any rendition of the song. Feliz Navidad sits at the bottom of this bucket for me too.

On Monday night our family will gather for our traditional Christmas Eve dinner. Later on, after the sibling gift exchange, we will prepare to pray and read the Christmas story from the scriptures by singing a religious Christmas carol. I'm not sure what we'll sing. Whoever is the voice for our family prayer on the 23rd gets to pick the song on the 24th. But I am sure that I will enjoy singing the song.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Missionary Christmas

I recently pulled out my missionary journal from the way-way-back device (aka bookshelf) and reread my entries from the days surrounding the two Christmases I spent in Norway. It brought back some pleasant memories.

Both years I was in Norway I was transferred to a new city just days before Christmas. Each year I left behind those I knew and went to a new situation. The first year I went to a companion and church members I had never met. The second year I went to a companion that was already a good friend. The city had three other sets of missionaries. I knew all of them. I knew some of the members. But in both cases, people made Christmas very enjoyable for me, despite being far from home.

I arrived in Hamar a few days before Christmas my first year in Norway, replacing my MTC companion, who had been there the whole time we had been in Norway. (Hamar was my fourth city.) Church members immediately welcomed me. They were very hospitable to us during the holiday season.

One middle age couple whose children were all adults lived quite comfortably by Norwegian standards invited us to their Christmas Eve celebration. Gifts were opened that night per the national tradition. We had a marvelous feast and enjoyed the family's gift giving. We also opened gifts that our families had sent from home. Thanks to the efficiency of the postal system between the U.S. and Norway, my gifts had arrived weeks earlier.

We spent Christmas day with a couple of other families. One family allowed me to use their phone to call home. (It was a collect call, so it cost them nothing.) I can't remember why my companion had to call his family on the 26th, but this family made arrangements for us to visit them for that event.

When we showed up on the 26th, the lady of the house talked to us through the front door and asked us to go around back. When we got to the back of the house, she opened a window and invited us to climb into the house through the window.

Although the 26th is a national holiday along with the 25th, the man of the house had to make a trip to a town about an hour away that morning. The deadbolt locks on their doors were keyed on both sides. When the husband had locked the house and left that morning, he had inadvertently taken both sets of house keys with him.

I thought that it must have been quite a sight for the neighbors to see two young Mormon missionaries climbing through the back window of the house at the wife's bidding while the husband was away. Thankfully, the husband returned home while my companion was still on the phone. He said that he was surprised when he found the second set of keys in his coat pocket upon arrival at his destination.

My second Christmas in Norway was spent in Trondheim, one of Norway's significant cities. I arrived on the 23rd, a date many Norwegians refer to as Little Christmas Eve. Being immediately thrust into a leadership position meant that my companion and I spent all that day shuttling missionaries that were transferring to and from the city and getting the new missionaries settled.

On Christmas Eve we were invited to visit a couple of families, where we enjoyed food and gifting. At midnight we took our entire missionary zone to the midnight mass at the Nidaros Cathedral, where most Norwegian royal coronations have taken place for nearly a millennium. (Since 1908 only the royal benediction has occurred in the cathedral. The actual coronation takes place in Oslo, at the seat of government.) It was an interesting experience.

We spent Christmas day making more visits to church members and investigators, doing a bit of impromptu snow sliding with some kids on a slope near an apartment complex, and playing Monopoly. When we visited "The Captain," a very gracious brother who was a retired cruise ship captain, he allowed us to call home using his phone and he served us elegant treats. I only realized after popping one luxurious dipped chocolate into my mouth that it was filled with cherry liquor. My companion laughed when he saw the surprised look on my face.

I'm not sure what it's like nowadays, but Norway's Christmas celebrations back then differed from those in the U.S. in that decorations usually didn't appear until just before Christmas. Work, school, and church Christmas parties usually occurred in the weeks following the holidays, rather than prior to the holidays. People leave their decorations up until mid or late January (or sometimes even later).

In the U.S. we are inundated with Christmas as stores clear Halloween candy from the shelves. It seems like radio stations that once played 100 hours of Christmas music now play 100 days of Christmas music. Stores play 20 variations of the same 12 Christmas songs for weeks until we are all sick of it. But once December 25th passes, Christmas is over. Decorations go down. Christmas music stops. It's done.

Each year when I was in Norway, we eventually gathered at the church for a congregational Christmas party. Per Norwegian tradition, we joined hands in circles around the Christmas tree. A small circle (usually of young children) circled the tree tightly. That group was surrounded by a larger circle, and so forth until all attendees were in a circle. Every other circle rotated the opposite direction from the next circle as we sang Christmas carols.

I recall with fondness the two Christmases I spent as a missionary in Norway. I hope that my son that is serving a mission in a foreign country will encounter hospitality, generosity, and enjoyable local traditions this Christmas, much as was the case for me years ago.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Christmas Breakfast Cereal

I have a handful of extremely vivid memories from my early childhood. I still remember Christmas morning when I was three years old. It was still dark outside when we got up. The only lights in the living room emanated from the Christmas tree. I walked closer to the tree through what appeared to be aisle ways of massive wrapped boxes. It doesn't take very big or very many boxes to look that way to a three-year-old.

I got a Wonder Horse for Christmas that year.
I am told that all I did on Christmas day was to cycle through eating treats and bouncing on the horse. Apparently this cycle continued until I managed to make myself sick by evening. I finally threw up and then went to bed queasy.

Mom still claims that I never rode that horse again, but she's wrong. The horse was relegated to the basement. My brothers and I actually did ride that horse quite a bit down there. But we also drew on it with markers and poked darts from the dart board into its vinyl rump. It stayed in the basement until my younger brother was too big to ride it.

Although I don't clearly remember getting sick that Christmas, I think that one of my family's current traditions may have stemmed from my subconscious memory of that event coupled with my deep memory of another Christmas morning.

When I was a kid the family practice was to get up early on Christmas morning (not one second before 6:00 am by parental decree) and open gifts. Of course, there was always an abundance of treats available, including the treats in our boots. We didn't have Christmas stockings. Mom had made us each a Christmas boot that fit a #10 can, which could hold far more goodies than your average stocking.

With all of the gift opening, playing, and eating of treats, we never got around to breakfast until 10 am or later. By then we'd have filled our tummies with delectables that were intended to be eaten only in small amounts, so we weren't hungry. Eventually the consequential effects of indigestion would set in.

Then one Christmas morning the doorbell rang just as we were beginning to open our gifts. Mind you, this was about 6:15 am. On the doorstep were the Rasmussens, a cheery empty nester couple that lived around the corner. They refused our invitation to come in, but they presented us with a plate of hot scones along with a container of honey butter. Then they were on their way.

The scones were delicious. We ate them and then continued with our Christmas morning activities. We later learned that when the Rasmussens realized that none of their children or grandchildren were going to be close enough to visit that year, they wanted to find a fun way to celebrate Christmas morning.

They decided to go to bed extra early and then get up extra early to prepare scones. They made a large batch of scone dough and got hot grease ready. Then the moment they saw a neighbor's lights come on they would prepare enough fresh scones for that family, quickly deliver them, and then return to their work. It was hard work, but it made Christmas morning fun for them and for many others.

Mom later noticed that we didn't delve into the candy and treats much that morning, so there was less indigestion (and gas) among the family members. Ruminating upon this as I became a young adult, I vowed that when I had my own family I would make everyone eat breakfast before opening gifts. When my wife and I began to have children, she agreed with me on this. The question, however, was how to get excited young children to focus on eating breakfast when a trove of Christmas presents beckoned from the next room.

Together we eventually formulated a plan. We would allow each child to select a box of their favorite breakfast cereal for Christmas morning. The whole box would be theirs until it was exhausted. We even wrote the child's name on the box with marker to prevent others from inadvertently eating from it.

This has worked wonderfully. Our kids usually only get breakfast cereal from the biggest bags of cereal that they sell at the local markets. Boxed cereal is more pricey and has certainly always been a novelty in our home. The funny thing about this is that even our young adult children still look forward to this family tradition each Christmas. They get the cereal they want, everyone has breakfast before digging into gifts and treats, and everyone is much happier.

At least, it works to a certain extent. A couple of years ago our oldest son requested Berry Berry Kix, a cereal he relished from his childhood. We soon found why we hadn't seen it for a while. None of the stores in town carried it any longer. It was available online, but only in quantities of four boxes. It was too close to Christmas to get the cereal without paying exorbitant shipping, so he opted for something else.

Then last Christmas we got our son four boxes of Berry Berry Kix. He quickly realized on Christmas morning that either the recipe had changed, his palate had changed, the cereal tasted a lot better in his memory than it did in real life, or some combination of these factors. Sometimes foods we haven't eaten for years don't live up to our memories because many elements besides the actual taste are involved, and some of those things can't be recreated. It took months before all four boxes of the cereal were gone.

I have tried making scones on Christmas. But no matter how many recipes I read or how many videos I watch on the subject, I just can't seem to make my scones turn out very well. Besides, there is no way to recapture the magic of the moment that the Rasmussens delivered hot scones to our door that Christmas morning long ago. Still, I suppose that if I do something to bring joy to someone's Christmas celebration, it might help spark their own Christmas traditions long after I'm gone.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Christmas Gift Spies

When I was nine years old I discovered that parents hate it when their kids get out of school too many days before Christmas. The children in our family at that time were all old enough to be hep to the Santa thing. (My caboose brother was born later.) So Mom started putting gifts under the Christmas tree a few days before Christmas.

Mom kept a pretty vigilant eye on the gifts, so we couldn't get too close. But then Christmas Eve arrived. They had let us out of school early on the 23rd. Then we had a whole day at home on the 24th. A whole day to think about the following morning when we would—as the narrator of A Christmas Story puts it—plunge "into the cornucopia quivering with desire and the ecstasy of unbridled avarice."

We tried doing other things—playing games, watching TV, eating treats, etc—but the pile of brightly wrapped gifts that grew every time Mom came out of the bedroom with a few more boxes in hand drew us with an impossibly irresistible force. Regardless of the distractions we attempted, that treasure trove was right there tantalizingly out in the open, mocking our childish passions with its close yet inaccessible presence.

Then about midday Mom decided that she had to run some errands. We correctly assumed that she was about to pick up a few last minute items for us, since she was adamant that we all remain behind. I'm also sure that she wanted her trip to be as quick as possible. She knew that each additional child would hamper that goal. Besides, my oldest sibling was 12½, plenty old enough to watch the rest of us, none of whom were tiny.

No sooner had the taillights of the car disappeared around the corner than we began inspecting the wrapped hoard under the tree. We looked to see to whom each package was addressed. We touched none of them at first. Then we ever so carefully began picking up parcels to feel their weight and to gently shake them. We paid careful attention to each gift's location and orientation so that it could be replaced just as Mom had left it. We didn't want her to know of our surreptitious gift reconnaissance.

My oldest brother played the part of the executive. He was always the chief executive when our parents weren't around—not simply due to his age, but due to his nature. Today he is the chief operating officer of a vibrant multinational firm. He kept our foray under control.

At least, he did so until the second oldest—who has always been the most adventurous among us—decided that he would carefully open the end of one of his gifts and then reseal the package. We posted a sentinel at the front window to watch for Mom. My brother was able to see one of the minor gifts he was to receive. Then, as promised, he cautiously fixed the wrapping and returned the box to its original location.

Having proved that this could be done, my executive brother opted for a turn at it. He too discovered what one of his minor gifts would be and returned the gift to its place. Of course, the remainder of us clamored for the same privilege. But the executive said that we were insufficiently skilled to accomplish the task without leaving evidence that would alert Mom to our transgression. After a fair amount of pestering, he finally gave in.

I selected a box covered with thick shiny foil wrapping paper. I still remember that it had a silver background covered with large colored dots, most of which were purple. The paper was so tough that I easily pealed the tape back without scarring the wrapping. I was thrilled to see a Kenner SSP car.

My younger brother picked a box that was kind of heavy for its size. He opened it to discovered an HO scale train engine. He had so wanted a real HO railway set. But it was so expensive that Mom and Dad could afford to get him little else. So Mom had opened the set and packed each train car separately. The power converter was in its own package. The tracks were split into several packages. But as soon as my brother saw the engine, he pretty much knew what was in most of the other gifts addressed to him.

Unfortunately, the box my brother picked was wrapped in very delicate paper. Unlike the thick foil wrapping on my box, the paper had easily torn. What's more is that the only piece of that style of paper remaining on the roll was far too small to cover the gift, so it could not be wrapped anew.

My oldest brother was trying to help my younger brother re-wrap the box in its now tattered wrapping when the posted sentinel saw a car turn the corner that looked like Mom's car. With no time to spare, they slapped the wrapping together, trying to cover the unsightly rips with tape. They re-attached the bow and flung the box under the tree in nearly the right spot under another box.

Fortunately, the car was not ours. But Mom returned a few minutes later anyway. By then we appeared to be casually lounging in front of the TV. Inside we were reeling from a sense of impending doom. Mom returned to her room for more wrapping. Surely she would discover the pre-opened gift upon delivering more gifts to the base of the tree. But she didn't. We had gotten away with it!

A couple of hours and a couple of trips to the tree later, Mom moved some gifts to make room for a few more boxes. Mom's wrapping jobs were always meticulous and gorgeous. Upon moving one gift, Mom's eagle eye suddenly caught sight of a box that was very un-meticulously wrapped.

Even as Mom hoisted the formerly gorgeously wrapped toy train engine, I thought we might still get away with our spying. And even if we didn't, my younger brother—thanks to a pact among brothers—would throw himself on the grenade, as it were, and proclaim that he alone was responsible for gift espionage.

It didn't work out that way. When we did our best to do the three monkeys routine when Mom asked what us older brothers had been doing while our younger brother opened the gift. Mom must have learned her interrogation techniques from Sgt. Joe Friday, because it didn't take her long to get to the bottom of what had happened.

We were in serious trouble. By the time the whole thing unraveled we knew it wouldn't be long before Dad would get home from work. It would be all over then.

Thankfully, our punishment was rather light. Dad didn't want anger or harshness hanging over our Christmas Eve celebration. And it was hard for my parents to be angry the following morning. They seemed to get nearly as much delight out of watching us open our gifts as we got from opening them ourselves. My younger brother was still thrilled with each box he opened.

The following Christmas I was surprised to see Mom again putting gifts under the tree a few days before Christmas. Maybe she thought we'd learned our lesson. She was only partially right. We never again tried to prematurely open any gifts. But we did carefully scope out the packages when we were unsupervised.

We were surprised to discover that the gift tags showed only symbols and no names. That way our parents were able to keep us from knowing which package belonged to which child until the operative moment. It would have been unconscionable—and probably punishable by pummeling—to open another brother's gift. So nobody tried opening any gifts ahead of time.

Just as Dad was about to explain the code on Christmas morning, my analytic executive brother piped up and asked if he could guess. Amused, Dad told him to go ahead. My brother asserted that the circle was for child #1, the cross for #2, the triangle for #3, and the square for #4.

My parents looked at each other in stunned amazement, and then asked, "How did you know that?" "Simple," my brother explained. "A circle has only one line so it is for #1. The cross has two lines so it is for #2. A triangle has three lines so it is for #3 and a square has four lines so it is for #4." My surprised Dad said, "We didn't even think about that. We picked these symbols randomly." My brother surmised that they must have subconsciously recognized the correlating pattern.

It may be due to my childhood gift espionage that my wife and I wait until just before retiring on Christmas Eve to put gifts under the tree. But we keep no secrets about where the gifts are stored until then. Our kids know that they can go there if they really want to. It's up to them whether they want to be surprised on Christmas morning or not.

I'm not sure whether our kids spy or not. They certainly don't do so while we're around. Even if they spy, it seems that they still manage to quite enjoy opening gifts on Christmas morning. And maybe gift spying is just another fun part of our family's Christmas traditions. After all, it still makes me smile.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

We Heart Christmas: A Marriage Parable

Years ago my wife and I got engaged in November. We spent a lot of time together over the next few weeks. With Christmas approaching we dropped by a shop and selected our first Christmas ornament as a couple; a stuffed cloth heart adornment that reminded us of our love for each other. Since each of us was living with family at that time, neither of us had our own Christmas tree on which to hang the ornament. But we bought it anyway.

A year later as we prepared to celebrate our first Christmas as a married couple we bought a cheap little artificial Christmas tree at K-Mart. It looked like it was constructed of green bottle cleaners. We put it atop a box on the indoor balcony of our little house so that it could be seen from the main floor. We strung some cheap lights and hung a few very cheap ornaments on it. We also hung our 'engagement' ornament from the previous year.

During that season we happened to see another heart shaped ornament in a shop. It didn't cost much. We bought it, brought it home, and put it on our ugly little tree. Thus was a born a tradition that we have followed every year since.

Each year we seek out a Christmas ornament that is either heart shaped or that features a heart. Before putting it on our tree we attach a piece of tape with the year written on it so that we can keep track of when we got each ornament.

We now have quite a menagerie of heart ornaments. Some are elegant; others aren't. Some are large and some are small. We have a large Mickey Mouse ornament from the year we went to Disney World. A string of four small wooden Teddy bears with hearts marks our fourth Christmas together. One of my favorites is a heart made of Hadeland crystal from Norway, where I served as a missionary. Another hand carved heart looks very Scandinavian.

One of the kids' favorite heart ornaments features two mice snuggling atop an old fashioned camera. The center of the flash pan has an opening that fits over a Christmas tree light. Our ornament for 2001 is a metal heart painted to look like an American Flag in remembrance of the patriotic response to 9/11. One two-heart ornament features painted words that say, "The best things in life ... aren't things."

There are many other heart ornaments, including a ceramic heart shape that is cleverly fashioned to look like a Santa face, a heart shaped picture frame featuring a photo of my wife and me from that year, an incredibly cute miniature xylophone, and an angel that is also a bell.

Each year we unwrap each heart ornament and reminisce as we put it on the tree. The appearance of certain ornaments always evokes a sense of delight. Then at the end of the season we carefully wrap each heart ornament in tissue paper and store them in containers until the following Christmas season.

I think our little tradition says something to our children and to each other about how we regard our marriage. It sort of reminds me of the April 2003 LDS general conference talk given by F. Burton Howard. Elder Howard related how his wife cherished and cared for the fine silverware set they began to accumulate upon marriage. He was enlisted in this care as well. His wife was so vigilant with the silver that he thought her to be "just a little bit eccentric." But he ultimately came to see that the silver was simply a metaphor for the conscientious way she approached their own marriage.

We long ago got rid of our bottle cleaner tree. Our current living room has a high ceiling but limited floor space. We very much enjoy our narrow 12' tall tree. Our heart ornaments are just a few of the many ornaments on the tree.

Although our tree is gorgeous, I must admit that as I was putting it together and decorating this year, I started looking forward to the time that we might just have a half tree that hangs on the wall, like my Mom does. I suppose that when we get to that stage we will put only our annual heart ornaments on the tree. I would love it if we someday had 50, 60, or more such ornaments.

Whether we reach that high number or not, I hope that each of my children forms Christmas traditions that demonstrate their devotion to their spouse and family. It would be nice to someday see grandchildren carrying on in their own families something like the tradition my wife and I started years ago when we embarked on our journey together.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Giving and Getting Great Christmas Gifts

Despite my mixed musings about Santa in my last post, I have a great fondness for the Christmas season. My parents made Christmas a fun time for our family when I was young. If they were seeking to instill lifelong pleasant memories, their efforts paid off well. We developed traditions that I still cherish, some of which my own family mimics today.

Our working class family had sufficient. But we were far from well off. Still, Mom and Dad worked hard to be generous to their kids at Christmas while trying not to kill the family budget. We always got some great gifts, even if we rarely got the major items we wanted.

Actually, the lack of getting big ticket items we wanted may have been one of the best Christmas gifts of all. I often came to cherish some of the smaller items I received. And unrewarded immediate desires were often better rewarded in the long run.

I still remember very much liking a flying whirligig toy I got. You'd shoot it into the air using a kind of a slingshot device (a rubber band tied to a stick). When it reached its apex, the thin plastic wings would unfold and the thing would gently helicopter to earth. You can buy these things nowadays for a buck.

Another great inexpensive toy I received as a kid was Sea Diver by Parker Brothers, which was a Cartesian diver. We regularly got board games (this was the b.v.g. era: before video games), Hot Wheels cars and tracks, action figures, various balls for sports, etc.

When we did actually get bigger ticket items, they were things that our parents were pretty sure would get used and would hold up well. One year they bought a used ping-pong table that got quite a bit of use for three decades. One brother got a Schwinn 5-speed Stingray bike one Christmas. (He really needed a new bike and it also covered his birthday.) I got a cassette tape player one year. That was a big deal back then.

But year after year my parents would fail to get the big ticket things we REALLY wanted. In retrospect, I can see that most of these things suffered from one or more significant deficiencies, such as being too expensive, too bulky (Where are you going to put it?), too flimsy, too narrow focused to hold our interest for long (fun for the first half hour, but not so much after that), and/or would have been jointly owned and would have caused never ending quarrels.

One year air hockey tables were all the rage. We begged and pleaded for one of these amazing devices. These things were new and expensive. Only high end folks could afford to be early adopters. Besides, even the expensive home use tables tended to break easily. They were pretty large too. I later noted long unused and/or broken air hockey tables consuming space in friends' homes. We received many wonderful gifts on Christmas morning that year. But an air hockey table was not among them.

My brother and I used Lego blocks to build a frame that resembled an air hockey table (complete with goals) on the floor of our bedroom. We put layer after layer of Mom's furniture wax on a rectangular spot on the hardwood floor of our bedroom, fervently buffing each layer until the surface was incredibly slick. Two small Tupperware containers became our mallets and a poker chip became our puck.

We played our makeshift air hockey game (sans air) on the floor of our bedroom day after day over the Christmas break. We kept playing it for the next couple of months. In fact, our fake air hockey court outlasted some of the fancy-shmancy air hockey tables that some of our friends got for Christmas. Only, when we lost interest and our Lego frame broke to the point that we didn't want to put it back together (sometime in late spring), we simply put the blocks back in our Lego bucket.

I sometimes find my wife and I going to great ends trying to get each child the perfect set of Christmas gifts. Occasionally I step back from the heat of shopping and remember the makeshift air hockey table from my childhood. While that was far from the only time we made our own fun without spending more money, I wonder what might have been lost had my parents insisted on getting us exactly what we wanted that Christmas. And then I relax a bit about Christmas shopping.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Being Santa

Today, December 6 is the traditional observation of the feast of St. Nicholas. The old Catholic saint has morphed over the years into the modern tradition of Santa Claus. He has gone from having his own religious feast to being a secular symbol of Christmas giving.

I have a photograph of me sitting in a friend's living room with his three wide-eyed children on my lap. Their wonder arose from me being dressed as Santa Claus. I had purchased a Santa outfit from a man that had professionally done the gig for many years.

This was not your standard cheap-o Santa outfit. The custom built suit was made of rich but sturdy red upholstery material trimmed in plush fake white fur. The knees and upper forelegs were reinforced to handle the extra wear that came from people sitting on Santa's lap. A quilted undersuit added the appearance of plumpness. The wig and beard were made of yak hair that could be washed and styled. These pieces were integrated so that the beard did not budge at all when a child pulled on it.

The outfit included a dandy cap, a large padded plush red bag full of cheap little trinkets and candy canes, black boots, white gloves, fake reading glasses, and a black leather bandoleer festooned with jingle bells.

Being a young adult at the time, I had to color my eyebrows and put on makeup that made me appear older. That took some work. I was somewhat chubby back then so that my face fit the Santa persona fairly well. (Nowadays I would just look too gaunt.)

At first I just did a few gigs for neighbors. Sometimes I dropped in on friends and neighbors unannounced. Some of them never realized who it was that was playing Santa. It was a lot of fun. People were always happy to see Santa. I went away from these encounters feeling warm and happy.

Eventually I started doing professional engagements, mainly for family, work, or church gatherings. These larger gatherings sometimes left me exhausted. The multi-layered suit was incredibly warm, and once the headset was in place it was difficult (almost impossible) to drink or eat. It was easy to get dehydrated and overheated.

Despite the fun of playing Santa, some engagements left me far more fatigued than should have been the case. After a few years I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Most people with MS are susceptible to easily overheating and I am no exception. It can result in a serious bout of fatigue that doesn't just go away after cooling down.

I eventually mostly gave up playing Santa for health reasons, although, I did occasionally do smaller engagements. I was able to hide my preparations from my children when they were small. But the older kids eventually found out. I only ever played Santa for my own kids on one occasion. Eventually I gave the entire outfit to a friend whom I thought could better use the outfit.

Over the years I developed mixed feelings about our modern day Santa tradition. Although scholars are uncertain as to whether Nikolaos of Myra ever existed, the legend of St. Nicholas tells of a wealthy man that devoted his life to God, and then spent his wealth secretly helping those in need, sometimes even delivering these gifts in the still of the night.

While our modern jolly Santa figure still delivers gifts at night, he has become a supernatural tall and obese elf that goes around in a sleigh propelled by flying reindeer, dumping more stuff on kids already suffused with so much stuff that they can't take care of it all. Being needy is not a requirement for his largess, and the necessity of being 'good' is so disassociated with his gifting as to beg the question of how 'bad' one must be to be skipped.

The ancient saint carefully watched for those in need and carefully helped out where he could. He did not go around advertising his charity. Today's Santa doesn't ask what is needed. He plops children on his lap and asks them what they want. Unlike the iconic Santa that told Ralphie he'd shoot his eye out, most Santas today promise to try to bring what the child wants.

Can you see the message that is being sent here? The ancient saint is a model of charitably and secretly helping those that are in deep need. He is all about selflessness. The modern Santa is all about promoting and feeding children's avarice. He is too often all about selfishness.

I'm not trying to trash fun holiday traditions. After all, many people find the joy of 'playing Santa' by secretly taking gifts to neighbors and people in need. (No red suit required.) This is the kind of thing children (and indeed each of us) need to learn. Getting is fun. But giving to others—especially those that can't reciprocate—brings joy, which is infinitely deeper than any fun you'll ever have.

Santa is still a fun part of our family's holiday observance, but we try to make Christmas far more meaningful than just the getting of gifts. When our children were young we told them that Santa only filled the stockings, as in Clement Moore's well known poem. The remaining gifts came from parents, grandparents, etc. Whenever one of our children asked if we were Santa, we'd level with them. We wanted our children to be able to trust us when it came to important matters, so we refused to lie to them about Santa.

Even my youngest child discovered the truth about Santa some time ago. Yet my children still enjoy putting out cookies and milk on Christmas Eve before going to bed. Knowing the truth hasn't destroyed the magic of the occasion.

Those three little boys that sat on my lap when I came to their house dressed as Santa are now all grown men, two of them with children of their own. More than a decade has passed since I last played Santa. I admit that our society's current interpretation of the Santa myth gives me some heartburn. But I still feel a warm glow inside when I think about the times I dropped by friends' homes as Santa.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Basement

What is it about basements that creep us out? Is is just that they're darker and cooler than the upstairs? Or does the fact they are lower than the rest of the house have something to do with it? Be honest. What do you feel inside as you descend the stairs to a basement?

The house in which I grew up was a rambler with a full basement below the main floor. There were 12 steps from the back door landing down to the basement's concrete floor. I never did understand why the wooden steps were painted gray. But I was always grateful for the stability offered by the amber colored wooden handrail in the stairwell.

The ceiling of the corridor was level with the the main floor ceiling, so that it got higher and higher as one descended the stairs. It abruptly ended at a high wall just above the unguarded entrance to the basement. That unreachable corner where the high wall and corridor ceiling met sometimes sported cobwebs, which only added to the unsettled feeling I often got as I descended those stairs.

(That abrupt change in ceiling heights once resulted in a scalp injury that earned me half a dozen stitches. But that's another story.)

Our basement was fully in the ground. It had concrete walls that extended to the exposed main floor joists above. There were five tiny windows high in the walls, all of which were situated at the end of the basement farthest from the stairs and some of which were in cobwebby window wells. Thus, the single large room of the basement was a fairly dark place, even in the middle of the sunniest day.

When I was young the opening to the basement at the bottom of the stairs always loomed like some kind of gaping dark maw waiting to swallow those that dared make the descent. Worse was the sparse artificial lighting. Of the four pull-string bare-bulb light fixtures, the one nearest the stairs was a good six or seven feet away—a desperately long journey into the terrifying dark for a young child. What's more is that the pull string was out of reach.

My brother and I would stand at the bottom of the stairs peering into the inky blackness, trying to judge exactly how far away the light fixture was. After working up heroic bravery, one of us would dash into the dark, running with all his might to avoid whatever lurking monsters were waiting to pounce. Whoever remained behind would stand on the bottom step—not on the concrete, because by some unwritten law that surface was fair game for monsters—breathlessly hoping that the adventurer would succeed in turning on the light.

Most of these forays ended with success. After two or three jumps flailing for the pull string the bare bulb blinked on and the monsters were banished, making for safe entry into the basement. Occasionally, the advance party ran back to the safety of the steps after failing his quest to bring light to the benighted basement realm, and we'd have to start working up our bravery all over again.

Even when we made it into the basement and got the light turned on, we would avoid going near “the crawl space” under the stairs. Even with all four of the light bulbs blazing away, the shadowy reaches of the space under the stairs seemed like the perfect cave for any number of foul beasts that wouldn't dare enter the lighted portions of the basement.

Even having the lights on was no guarantee of safety. Once when I was about five and my older brother was about seven, Mom and Dad took our oldest brother to a Cub Scout meeting. It was a short meeting and they figured that we would be OK at home alone for that long.

But not long after they left, my brother and I started to hear strange sounds. We carefully looked around the main floor of the house and outside of the house, but we saw nothing out of the ordinary. There must be a robber in the basement, we reasoned.

In retrospect, it would have been difficult for anyone to break into the basement unseen. It would be nearly impossible to get through any of the five tiny windows and the basement had no external door. Since no one had come through the back door, teleporting or magic were the only other ways into the basement. Five- and seven-year-olds are not good at that kind of reasoning.

Having been left in charge of the house, we were determined to protect it. Before venturing into the basement gloom to face the imagined intruder, we each fortified ourselves with a weapon from a kitchen drawer. Mom and Dad came home to find every single light in the house on and us standing wide-eyed at the bottom of the stairs brandishing butcher knives.

The basement never bothered Mom. She was invincible. She went downstairs frequently to do laundry. She would casually advance into the darkness with a basket full of clothes and turn on the light, as if it were no big deal. We'd often follow so that we could take advantage of her amazing valor.

With the lights on we'd play in the basement. But we knew that the lights had to be off when we came upstairs. Dad worked for the power company and we were repeatedly indoctrinated in the necessity of saving electrical energy. Turning off three of the lights was not a problem. We'd sometimes use a stool for that purpose. But leaving a stool in the middle of the floor was not permissible. And we certainly weren't going to bother trying to put a stool away in the dark after turning off the light.

Rather, as the other children climbed onto the stairs, one of us would stand below the pull string of the light fixture nearest the stairs. It was considerably easier to turn the light off than on because we could see the pull string. The designated light turner offer would stand below the string, gather courage, leap and grab the string, release it after the light clicked off, and then run like crazy for the lighted stairwell. We hated it when the string rebounded and got caught on a floor joist brace, because we'd then have to recruit an adult to fix it.

When I was about eleven Dad wired and started finishing the basement (a project that lasted more than two years). But from the moment the place was wired we could turn on the lights from a switch at the bottom of the stairs. Gone were the days of fearfully dashing into the dark. It's true that I was older by then and plenty tall enough to reach the old pull string. But walking into the dark basement still gave me the willies.

Eventually the basement was sheetrocked and fitted with real light fixtures. I still remember the glorious day when burnt orange shag carpet was installed. How stunning that looked at the top of the formerly bare steps, where it mated up with the avocado green carpet in the dining area. (The 70s was a strange time in the evolution of home decor and those carpets were eventually replaced with neutral toned flooring.) Even when I moved into one of the two basement bedrooms at age 16, going down into the nicely finished basement alone still inspired a hint if eeriness.

Although the finished basement in our current home is a “full daylight” basement (meaning that all of the windows are fully above ground and have no window wells) and the basement has nine fairly large windows, I still harbor some sympathy for my younger kids when they tell me that going down there is kind of creepy.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Of Men and Home Maintenance

My Dad was an amazing handyman. He could do just about any kind of home maintenance project from tiny electronics to major construction. When the family gathered before closing Dad's casket, my brother slipped in a pair of pliers. He grinned and said that Dad was better than MacGyver. Dad could do anything with a pair of pliers  Another brother chuckled and said that Dad would be able to use the tool if the casket gave him any trouble upon resurrection.

My younger brother is an architect. Dad's handyman gene skipped me and went to my brother. Dad taught me enough about home maintenance that I can do many things. Over the years I have handled electrical, plumbing, insulation, roofing, fence building, painting, concrete work, landscaping, etc. I tried my hand at carpentry once before hiring a professional. I gave up on sheet rock and tile work before even starting. I'm fair at doing stuff that nobody has to look at, but you don't want me doing anything that needs to be aesthetically pleasing.

Still, the older I get the less I want anything to do with home maintenance. I can see chores that need to be done at home—fence repair and maintenance, plumbing fixes, landscaping improvements, wall repair, etc—but I just don't want to do these things. I put them off for as long as I can. When a project intrudes I quickly re-learn the validity of my basic rules of home maintenance, which are as follows.
All home maintenance/improvement projects:
  • Take longer than expected.
  • Cost more than expected.
  • Require more trips to the hardware store than expected.
  • Cause far more frustration, cursing, and injury than expected.
  • Produce worse results than expected.
Saturday evening's events provide a simple example. The shower head started dripping a few weeks ago. Having been through this many times I knew how it would work. With each successive morning we'd crank the shower handles off harder and harder to prevent water flow. Despite our strong-arm efforts, the shower head would drip, drip, drip more and more until one day it just wouldn't stop running.

By Saturday evening the shower was just at the point where strong-arming the valves was about to become ineffective. Surveying my schedule for the next couple of weeks, I figured that I'd better repair it before it became a steady flow on a day when I had no time to fix it. (Yeah, this kind of advance planning in the face of impending home repairs is uncharacteristic for me.)

Accordingly I fetched the tools I knew I needed: a Philips and a flat-head screw driver, a huge socket that I had ground to make flat spots that could be grabbed with pliers, and a pair of big jaw RoboGrip pliers. I fetched my collection of rubber plumbing washers, hoping that the size I needed was in there. For some reason I can never remember which size my shower uses until I have pulled the valve cores and can compare washer sizes.

I removed the knobs and external valve hardware before shutting off the house water. I wanted the water to be off for as short a time as possible. Next I climbed into the crawl space, turned off the house water inlet valve, and hurried back upstairs. I turned on the valves in the shower and in the bathroom sink to drain some of the water from the system.

Using my socket and pliers I quickly extracted the valve cores. A couple of years ago a plumber showed me that these things needed to be screwed in only until they were just past finger tightening. So they aren't that hard to remove anymore.

To my great surprise I soon discovered that I had exactly two rubber disks of the proper size. I installed them on the valve cores, returned the valve cores to their proper place, cranked them tight counterclockwise, ran downstairs, and turned the house water back on. I could immediately hear water running upstairs. I jogged up and saw that the water was running full blast in the shower. I cranked the handles clockwise all the way and the water was still running.

I soon had the house water turned back off. I again extracted the valve cores and noticed that the O-ring on one was pretty much shot. The other one wasn't in good shape either. I figured that the defective O-rings were allowing water to flow when it shouldn't. But I had no O-rings in my plumbing collection. So I headed off to the hardware store.

Now, I realize that for many guys a trip to the hardware store is like a trip to the candy store for a kid. Many guys like going to the hardware store as much as they like watching football on TV. I too enjoy a trip to the hardware store about as much as I like watching football on TV. Only, unlike the aforementioned men, I happen to detest watching football. So you can imagine how I feel about going to the hardware store. It seems like I can never get exactly what I want at the hardware store. I frequently end up making do with something that doesn't quite work for what I need it. And shopping at many hardware stores strongly resembles shopping in a landfill inside a massive bomb shelter. I just don't like it. (Besides, it usually means more work.)

Still, I made my way to the plumbing section. I brought my valve cores with me, but I couldn't tell whether they used 11/16 or 3/4 O-rings. Then I saw a board with threaded holes. I found the one that fit my valves and was surprised that it read 13/16. Accordingly I bought a packet of 13/16 O-rings plus a couple of packets of washers for future use.

40 minutes after running out of the house, I went to stretch a 13/16 O-ring over one of the valve cores, only to discover that it was too big. Why I hadn't thought to try this in the parking lot at the store is beyond me. I probably sounded like Ralphie's dad working on his furnace in A Christmas Story as I dashed out the door to return to the hardware store.

This time I bought two packages of 11/16 O-rings. But there was less dilly-dallying. So 30 minutes after leaving the house, I once again tried an O-ring on a valve core. This time I fit like a charm. I soon had both repaired valve cores back in place. I again cranked them counterclockwise, ran downstairs, crawled into the crawl space, and turned the house water back on.

But instead of feeling satisfied with a job well done, I felt dismay as I again heard water running upstairs. I ran upstairs to see the shower head running full bore. I'm sure I again sounded like Ralphie's dad. As I grabbed the knobs to crank them the other way I noticed that one stuck out a lot further than the other. The only reason for that would be....

I suddenly recalled that the last time we had hired a plumber to fix the shower he had replaced both valve cores. Instead of both closing by turning counterclockwise, one closed by turning clockwise. Of course I knew this. After all, I had been turning the water off and on in that shower daily for a couple of years since the repair. I deftly turned the one knob all the way clockwise and water stopped flowing from the shower head.

Part of the reason that I hate doing home maintenance or improvement projects is that common sense seems to flee from me under such conditions. It's like I put on my stupid hat when I start a project. Mistakes come so naturally. I just can't see some of the obvious realities and shortcuts that would allow for efficiency.

Well, at least I didn't make a third trip to the hardware store. And I only spent about $3.50 on supplies. Not counting the cost of driving to and from the store. And the water was only off for about an hour and a half for what should have been a five-minute task. But, hey, at least the shower head won't leak for about a year and a half. Unfortunately, by that time I likely won't remember what size of washer and O-ring I need for the job. Grrrr.

Don't even get me started on automobile repair.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Art of Campfire

I have camped out hundreds of nights over my lifetime. Most of these experiences have involved a campfire. One personal observation that seems undeniable is that boys like fire. I'm not just talking about youth. Boys of all ages like fire. Males seem to naturally have some kind of bonding relationship with fire that differs from the way most females relate with this same force. For example, roughly 90% of arsonists are male.

Crafting a campfire is an art form. Sure, you can chuck down a few logs, douse them with some kind of liquid accelerant, throw down a match and have a fire. But I'm more of a traditionalist. It comes from my days of working on a Boy Scout camp staff as a youth. I don't like to use liquid accelerants or even paper when building a campfire. I prefer to employ natural materials.

Why would anyone forego man made materials when building a fire? For one thing, such materials may not always be available, such as in a survival situation. If you've never learned to build a fire from scratch, it is unlikely that you will magically figure it out when you find yourself in a distressing situation.

You can successfully build a fire under most conditions in which you might find yourself—even if every last scrap of wood you can find is soaking wet. But you have to know how to do it. And you have to take the time required to carefully craft your fire.

Building a fire from scratch requires proper preparation. And that takes patience. We live in a world that teaches impatience. Whether it comes to food, entertainment, technology, services, or any other facet of life, we have been taught that we should be able to have what we want RIGHT NOW! How do you think personal and governmental debt got so out of control?

Learning to craft a proper campfire from scratch teaches the law of the harvest—that you can achieve worthwhile things through necessary persistent effort.

If you have access to dry natural material, you start by gathering tinder—stuff that will easily burn if touched by a flame from a match, such as dried grasses or small twigs. Dead evergreen branches with dried red needles contain resins that burn quite easily. If your tinder is still green or is damp, you will create smoke rather than fire. Gather more tinder than you imagine you will need.

If you don't have access to natural tinder, you may have to create your own. My favorite method is to create a 'fur stick' by carving into a piece of wood as if to create hundreds of shavings while leaving each shaving intact. This creates a number of fine edges for the fire to catch on. If you are in a downpour, you can often find 'squaw wood'—dry and dead wood suspended in trees. It is kept dry by the trees' canopies. If all else fails, you may need to split wet wood to get to the dry center to create your fur stick.

Next you will need wood of various thicknesses. You separate this into groupings based on thickness. You need a group of stuff that will easily catch the flame from your tinder, a grouping of wood that will easily catch the flame from that, and so on until you get up to logs.

When I teach boys this method, they usually assume that they can build their fire with three groupings: tinder, one-inch-thick sticks, and 6-inch-thick logs. Wrong. You need a minimum of five groupings. You can assure success with seven or more, as long as you have enough of each. Split wood burns better than whole wood. You gather all of this stuff next to your fire pit before even thinking about striking a match.

I have two favored methods for actually building the fire structure. Each has its purpose. Either you start with something tiny and build up to a healthy campfire, or you start with a graduated log cabin structure that will give you an immediate campfire and won't require more work for a while.

When going with the log cabin structure, I like to build a 'council fire.' I start with two large logs at the base. Atop these I place a layer of slightly smaller logs going the opposite direction. Then two slightly smaller logs with a layer of yet smaller wood atop. I keep alternating in this manner until I reach the top layer.

On this top layer I place my tinder, usually woven into an airy nest. (Fire needs oxygen, so don't weave the nest tightly.) I then build a tipi-like structure around the tinder nest out of materials slightly larger than tinder. If I'm building a tiny starter fire, I simply start with the tinder and tipi in the bottom of the fire pit.

Now you are finally ready to strike a match. You should have extra tinder nearby in case your tinder threatens to burn out before the next larger material catches fire. If you have prepared well, you should be able to stick a single match into your tinder pile, stand back, and watch you fire burn. Of course, if you started with a tiny fire, you need to tend it, constantly feeding it fuel until it is burning logs well.

Watching the fire catch and actually work its way through each level of the fuel you have gathered is a creative experience. Yes, it is also destructive in that it consumes the fuel. But it is creative in that this force is your creation—the fruits of your own labors. A properly managed fire creates useful warmth. It is also a work of art. The force of fire creates its own beauty—something you have worked hand-in-hand with nature to bring forth.

If you've never crafted a natural campfire before, you will undoubtedly run into problems and frustrations the first few times you try. These should be considered welcome learning experiences that help you understand what works and what doesn't.

The next time you build a campfire, consider using all natural materials. I promise that it will take time, effort, and patience. You could certainly just douse your logs in some kind of "fire juice." But I promise that you won't gain the rewards from this that you would otherwise garner from crafting a natural campfire.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Temple Fridays

I went to the Temple today, just like I do on most Fridays. (My current job schedule does not include Fridays most of the time. Don't worry, I still put in well over 40 hours each week.) Today's session was a good experience, but I can't help feeling a bit wistful. I'm missing my boys. Oh, I'm happy that they are where they are and doing what they are doing. But I miss Temple Fridays with them.

We were thrilled when one of our sons accepted a mission call last spring. We were surprised that his mission wouldn't start until 4½ months later. In the meantime, he completed an extra semester at school. He also received a sacred Temple rite known as the endowment. Almost every Friday over the subsequent weeks until he entered the MTC, my son accompanied me to the Temple.

A short time before our son left on his mission, another son accepted a mission call. The timing was touch-and-go. But on the final Friday before our first missionary entered the MTC, his brother likewise received the Temple endowment ceremony. Almost every Friday since then this son has accompanied me (and often my wife) to worship in the Temple. We have attended a number of different Temples in the area.

My son and I got in three extra Temple Fridays because his call was changed 2½ weeks before he was to enter the MTC. Mission call packets include a blurb stating that the church may change the assigned location and/or duties at any time to meet needs and conditions. But it always seems surprising when this happens close to home. The new call extended our son's departure date three weeks. This was somewhat frustrating for our son. He was ready to get on with it. I empathized with him. But the silver lining in this extension was three more Temple Fridays together.

Temple worship is designed to be a particularly sacred experience. However, like all worship events, it can be also be experienced as dumb, boring, tedious, etc. It's really up to the individual worshiper. The Temple is designed to focus on the eternal nature of the family. For that reason it has been especially meaningful to me to have these worship experiences with my sons.

Given the way life plays out, I may never have an opportunity to enjoy weekly Temple worship with either of these sons in the future. Once they return home, the circumstances that allowed our timing and proximity to line up will probably not repeat themselves. Our sons will appropriately move on with life. Who knows if similar time and location coincidences will occur with my younger children?

Regardless of how the future works out, I will always cherish the months of weekly Temple worship that I enjoyed with my two older sons during the summer and autumn of 2012. I know that these experiences brought to each of us a glimpse of the kind of eternal joy that we hope will flow through our family relationships in the eternities.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

A Source of All of Life's Wisdom

"Normal" health is an illusion. Nobody has it. Among the seven members of my immediate family, one has Multiple Sclerosis and hypothyroidism, another has spinal arthritis and a thyroid disorder that the doctors have yet to figure out, another has a permanent inner ear issue resulting in a balance disability, another grapples daily with a serious chronic pain condition, and another has a chemical imbalance that manifests itself as something akin to bipolar disorder.

I'm thinking that the other two family members simply haven't yet lived long enough for their health conditions to manifest themselves. In fact, I think that almost everybody I know has some kind of health issue.

As I thought about this, I thought of the scene in The Princess Bride where the Dread Pirate Roberts (Westley in disguise) tells Princess Buttercup, "Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something."

I recalled that a bishop of mine that had a fun sense of humor once quipped that The Princess Bride contained all of life's wisdom. So I pulled up a page of quotes and soon found myself immersed in this wisdom. It's broadly applicable.

On handling conflict: "You mean, you'll put down your rock and I'll put down my sword, and we'll try and kill each other like civilized people?"

On making a proper introduction: "Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."

On eternal relationships: "Death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it for a while."

On patience: "You rush a miracle man, you get rotten miracles."

On management-employee relationships: "Am I going MAD, or did the word "think" escape your lips? You were not hired for your brains, you hippopotamic land mass." and "And remember this, never forget this: when I found you, you were so slobbering drunk, you couldn't buy Brandy!" and "Good night, Westley. Good work. Sleep well. I'll most likely kill you in the morning."

On grammar: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

On offering help: "I do not think you would accept my help, since I am only waiting around to kill you."

On diagnosing medical conditions: Miracle Max: "Whoo-hoo-hoo, look who knows so much. It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. With all dead, well, with all dead there's usually only one thing you can do." Inigo Montoya: "What's that?" Miracle Max: "Go through his clothes and look for loose change."

On explaining medical conditions: Westley: "Why won't my arms move?" Fezzik: "You've been mostly-dead all day."

On encouraging a friend: Prince Humperdinck: "Tyrone, you know how much I love watching you work, but I've got my country's 500th anniversary to plan, my wedding to arrange, my wife to murder and Guilder to frame for it; I'm swamped." Count Rugen: "Get some rest. If you haven't got your health, then you haven't got anything."

On optimism: "Nonsense. You're only saying that [we'll never survive in the Fire Swamp] because no one ever has."

On responding to an insensitive remark: "The King's stinking son fired me, and thank you so much for bringing up such a painful subject. While you're at it, why don't you give me a nice paper cut and pour lemon juice on it?"

On property disputes: "You're trying to kidnap what I've rightfully stolen."

On jogging one's memory: Man In Black (Westley): "Why loose your venom on me?" Buttercup: "You killed my love." Man In Black: "It's possible. I kill a lot of people."

On subtle conversation: Grandpa: "That day, she was amazed to discover that when he was saying "As you wish", what he meant was, "I love you.""

On grandparent-grandchild relationships: Grandson: "Grandpa, maybe you could come over and read it again to me tomorrow." Grandpa: "As you wish."

And so much more. I guess it's about time to dig out the movie and watch it again.

Monday, November 05, 2012

The Wildlife Among Us

About two and a half decades ago, I was driving a vanload of Boy Scouts home from a service project at night. As we rounded a bend on a mountain road, a large owl appeared in the glow of our headlights, picking at a road kill rabbit. The owl spread its wings, launched itself, and sailed away into the darkness to the sound of oohs and ahs from my amazed passengers.

Nowadays we daily see birds of prey gliding in the air above our town. Hawks and golden eagles are the most common. This was a fairly rare occurrence when I grew up in this area. I now often camp in areas where taking bear precautions is a necessity. Such wariness was never required when I camped in these areas as a youth.

It is not uncommon to see deer wandering through the suburban areas near my home. Some of my neighbors complain that deer regularly kill the ornamental plants in their yards. The inevitable retort I hear when these neighbors voice their concerns is that we should expect this type of behavior, since we have moved into the animals' habitat.

Jim Sterba, who has written a book on human-wildlife interface, disagrees. In this WSJ essay, Sterba argues that the conservation movement that arose as a result of well documented "unbridled exploitation of wild birds and animals for feathers, furs, hides and food by commercial market-hunters and settlers" has been successful to excess.

"We now routinely encounter wild birds and animals that our parents and grandparents rarely saw," writes Sterba. "As their numbers have grown, wild creatures have spread far beyond their historic ranges into new habitats, including ours." Sterba says that the assertion that human-wildlife "conflicts are our fault because we encroached on wildlife habitat is only half the story."

Many wildlife populations in the U.S. are many times larger than they were when European settlers first arrived on these shores. These animal populations don't stay in the wild—not so much due to humans encroaching on their habitat as it is that suburban (and even urban) "habitat is better than theirs. We offer plenty of food, water, shelter and protection. We plant grass, trees, shrubs and gardens, put out birdseed, mulch and garbage."

The toll exacted by wildlife expansion is not trivial. Sterba notes that in the U.S., "the total cost of wildlife damage to crops, landscaping and infrastructure now exceeds $28 billion a year ($1.5 billion from deer-vehicle crashes alone), according to Michael Conover of Utah State University, who monitors conflicts between people and wildlife."

Many people are unwilling to face the realities of how best to manage this situation. People whose "knowledge of nature arrives on screens, where wild animals are often packaged to act like cuddly little people that our Earth Day instincts tell us to protect" are generally unwilling to consider introducing the most effective predation methods to control burgeoning wildlife populations.

Most of our population has grown woefully out of touch with real nature. Maybe they think it's OK for Bambi to be taken down by a wolf or a mountain lion, but they doubtless wouldn't want such predators wandering around their neighborhoods where the 'cute' deer come to dine. They resist as inhumane using the "predator that is already there: us."

Before giving into the cutesy indoctrination about deer, we should realize that they "kill upward of 250 people a year—drivers and passengers—and hospitalize 30,000 more."

Hunting by humans is the most effective, least expensive, and the most feasibly humane method of wildlife population control. Sterba also notes that humans have historically been the main predator of deer and other species. If people can reason through this and get past their squeamishness about hunting, we can talk about ways to best manage hunting to minimize negative impact.

Some areas currently use hired sharpshooters. Conditions in some spots are conducive only to archery rather than firearm hunting. Sterba suggests training hunters from the public in some areas and using public officers such as police in others. The idea is to manage "social carrying capacity," which "means the point at which the damage a creature does outweighs its benefits in the public mind."

In response to past destructive behaviors we have been conditioned to take a heartwarming, overprotective view of wildlife. The result has been a boomerang effect where wildlife is increasingly encroaching on and causing problems in human habitat. Sterba is not calling for a return to the bad days of the past, but a realistic and positive way forward.

It would seem that those that cannot climb out of their socially conditioned cartoon caricature of wildlife are destined to permanently disagree with Sterba, regardless of the cost.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Boy Scouting for Pedophiles

Three Strange Tales
I still remember the first time I felt uncomfortable about an adult scout leader. At age 14 I was with a group that was spending a week working at a scout camp to get the place ready for the summer camping season. One of the adults, a single guy in his early 20s that had been involved in the organization as a youth, was promoting some activities that I thought were pretty edgy.

It all appeared to be in fun. For example, the man tried to get some of the boys to pretend like they were making out with him as a joke on other scouts. This guy generally related well with the boys and they liked him. But the way the whole episode played out felt creepy to me. I left the area rather than participate in the activity.

This guy wasn't all bad. I heard some shady rumors about him, but I never saw anything happen that would warrant legal or scouting sanction. In fact, as an older teen I occasionally worked for the guy helping with his mobile disco business. (Yeah, that dates me.) He was later excommunicated from the LDS Church for illicit activity (with a female), but he was re-baptized a few years later. I lost track of him after that.

During this same period I knew an older youth through scouting that had a serious problem with pornography. He introduced a friend of mine to porn. It turned into an addiction that he battled for years. The older youth became an adult and then left the area for a couple of years. When he returned, he finished his degree and then got a job working for the BSA as a district executive. It was rumored that he was inviting selected youth to his apartment to view porn. He changed jobs right after that.

Eventually this guy married a woman that was much older than him and had kids that were half this guy's age. They moved out of state. But I ran into the guy on a couple of subsequent occasions. One time he was at a mountain main rendezvous with a handful of 13-year-old boys that were running around in nothing but breech cloths and tennis shoes. I never heard what became of this guy after that.

When I was 17 I spent the summer working at a scout camp. One of the adults on staff was a single man in his mid-20s that related well with the boys. There were a few occasions when he discussed matters that made me feel somewhat uncomfortable, but I never saw anything 'happen.' The following summer while he was working at a different camp, I heard that he was 'kicked out' of the BSA for something that was kept very hush-hush.

A few years later this guy was married and was somehow again involved in scouting. By that time I was an adult and had been through the BSA's youth protection training, which was a fairly new program. From this perspective I noted a number of things about this man that made me uncomfortable, so I kept my eye on him. Somehow it didn't surprise me at all when he was sent to prison for rape of a teenage boy that had been left in his charge by a somewhat dysfunctional family. An acquaintance that had reason to know about the case said that prosecutors had evidence suggesting that this fellow had had well over 100 victims starting from the time he was a young teen.

I note these instances in light of the recent release of the older portion of what has become known as the Boy Scout perversion files (click link to search and view actual files). (See the BSA's site that discusses abuse in the organization.) This article is similar to hundreds of others that have been published about the release of the files. I checked these files in vain for the names of the men mentioned above, since most of the incidents I cited occurred well before 1985, the last year covered by the current file release. (Files covering recent more cases will be released in the future.) Could some of these guys be involved with the BSA today?

One might think from the stories above that I think of the Boy Scouts as an organization filled with pedophiles. The linked article quotes psychiatrist Dr. Jennifer Warren who reviewed the files with a team of graduate students as saying that the files show that the rate of abuse in the BSA was "very low" in comparison with other organizations that deal with youth.

My personal experience as a youth and as a volunteer covering decades of membership in the BSA comports with Dr. Warren's findings. For every child abuser that has wheedled his way into the leadership ranks of the BSA there have been hundreds of other upstanding men and women that have simply been volunteering their time and efforts to improve the lives of boys. The three cases I cited are notable because of their exception from the norm.

Youth Banks
Organizations that serve youth are magnets for pedophiles. The infamous bank robber Willie Sutton wrote in his memoirs after his release from prison that his policy had been to "Go where the money is...and go there often." The reason that schools and youth organizations attract pedophiles is because that's where potential abuse targets can be found in rich abundance. Thus, pedophiles go where the kids are and they go there often.

For this reason, youth centered organizations need to be extra wary and impose protections for youths just as strong as the protections banks employ to prevent theft and robbery. As a scouting leader I have learned to carefully watch the men that relate with boys on a peer-to-peer rather than an adult-to-child basis. The boys like them, but these guys are the most likely to abuse youth. They should never be allowed to be with youth without a trusted adult present.

The Cover Up
The need to protect youth the way a bank protects money is the basis for concerns voiced by some of the BSA's critics. While the rate of abuse has been low in the BSA, the files reveal a clear pattern of covering up crimes involving abuse of youth by scout leaders, as well as a pattern of inadequately protecting youth.

It's not like it was a concerted top-down effort. Rather, the pattern shows up in myriad decisions made by local scout executives, law enforcement, and political leaders that felt that it was more important to maintain the squeaky clean BSA brand rather than see justice done. This flies directly in the face of being true at all times—one of the main values promoted by the BSA.

It is possible that some officials' actions stem from a general poor understanding of child sexual abuse and the discrete manner in which our culture once handled such matters.

The BSA's youth protection policy has evolved slowly during my decades as an adult volunteer. Adult leaders have been required to take youth protection training for nearly three decades. But until recently the requirement has not been rigidly applied. "Two-deep leadership" (having two qualified adults present with youth at all activities) has been required for nearly as long. But leaders still often end up alone with youth due to the challenge of getting enough volunteers to be where and when they are needed.

Going Overboard?
The BSA only began requiring mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse two years ago. I have mixed feelings about this. Right after I was trained on the policy I attended an event where an 18-year-old young man (technically an adult) and a 14-year-old boy acted far more affectionate toward each other than is normal. To me it looked like the older boy was following the standard abuse pattern of grooming the younger boy to be his victim.

Per the reporting policy, I reported what I had seen, being careful not to infer more than I actually knew. An official later contacted me to get more information. I was aware that other adults were also interviewed. Later I was informed that law enforcement officials had been involved but had declined to pursue action. However, the young man was disbarred from the BSA and was informed that he will never be permitted to register with the BSA in the future.

Admittedly, I don't know everything that the investigation revealed. I only know that it didn't rise to the level of legal action. But it almost seems as if the BSA has gone from being careless about abuse to being overly cautious. It may be that any adult that is suspected of abuse or even potential abuse will be permanently booted out of the Boy Scouts to prevent even the appearance of evil.

It's important to protect youth members of the BSA, but is it proper to permanently brand an adult on the basis of very little evidence?

Honesty Is the Best Policy
The Boy Scouts has been under fire for its insistence on banning openly gay activists from its ranks. The revelation that for years the BSA failed to adequately protect youth from abusers in order to protect its reputation adds fuel to the organization's detractors—some of whom would have us believe that Eagle Scouts are one of the greatest threats this nation faces.

It appears to me that the cover up methods employed by the BSA for decades have ultimately led to worse damage to the organization's reputation and brand than would have been the case had instances of abuse been made public when they originally occurred. It is also arguable that keeping abuse quiet likely led to more victims being abused.

Everyone that is interested in the value of the Boy Scouts should also be interested in weeding out the bad apples in the organization. The BSA insists that, despite past failures, it is now handling youth protection seriously and appropriately. But it seems undeniable that the organization's brand has been seriously harmed by its own lack of integrity.

The first point of the Scout Law is trustworthiness. The way to earn trust is to act consistently trustworthy. The BSA has not done so when it comes to child abuse. Trust once broken is not easily regained. You can't just snap your fingers and magically gain the trust of others. It takes time and consistency.

One Bad Apple?
The question is whether the cover up of the abuse (even if it was a low rate of abuse) by the BSA means that the organization is irredeemable. As one that has loved scouting and that benefited much from the program as a youth, I have to say no. This glaring blemish does not counteract all of the good that scouting does.

The high ideals and values promoted by the Boy Scout program are still as valid as ever and are needed by society more than ever. Destruction of the program is not the solution to its flaws. Rather, living true to scouting ideals is the way forward.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A Missionary Embarks

I sat in front of my computer at home working on a problem that had stymied me for two days as my eyes shifted from the clock to the phone. How in the world could the optimizer "optimize away" the pointer to the object being executed?

For non-programmers, I'll explain that all computer programs create electronic garbage, which optimizers intermittently remove to maintain efficiency. Unfortunately, in this case the optimizer was identifying the critical element currently being executed as garbage. Perhaps a joke by Microsoft's compiler programmers? If so, their brand of humor eluded me.

Actually, that's not important. My mind wasn't as focused on my work as it should have been anyway. I kept looking away from the center of my screen to the clock in the lower right corner of my computer screen and then to the phone, which maddeningly failed to ring, regardless of how often I repeated this cycle.

The last we had heard, our son was leaving the MTC that morning and planned call us from the airport before winging his way overseas. My boss had graciously allowed me to work from home until after the blessed communication before driving to the office. But we weren't really sure our son was leaving the MTC. Our last communication suggested that he didn't know if his group's visas had arrived. Maybe they would stay at the MTC another week or so.

Finally the phone rang. I glanced at the caller ID. Nope, just a distant out-of-state number—probably either a political or telemarketing call. I let it go to the answering system like I do with all such calls. As usual, no message was left. (It's worse when their insipid technology blathers some message I don't want to hear because it can't detect that it's attached to a machine rather than a human.)

More time. More difficulty focusing on work. I couldn't help but notice that the time we figured our son's flight would leave was rapidly approaching. Wouldn't he have already been at the airport for some time by now and already have had plenty of time to call us? Maybe it wasn't happening that day.

Amid this fog of thought, the phone rang again. The caller ID read "PAY PHONE." I didn't even know such devices still existed. My wife and I answered simultaneously from different rooms. Another son that was at home picked up as well. I was relieved to hear our missionary son's voice on the line along with various background noises. And, whoa, he had ... an accent. Can that even happen when learning a foreign language in Utah?

Our son was happy and excited. He had enjoyed his time at the MTC, but now it was time to go out and do the work for which he had trained for two months. Missionaries headed to several different countries would be on the same flight for many hours before splitting up at an airport on the other side of the globe.

I briefly chatted with our son in his newly learned language, since I am fluent in a variant of that language. I switched to English for the sake of the others on the line. We reported to our son on his girlfriend's efforts to apply to serve as a missionary herself. She may return home before he does. Our son gave some advice to his brother that will soon be entering the MTC.

Six and a half minutes after the phone rang, it was all over. It will likely be the last time we get to chat with him on the phone until Christmas. There will be emails and letters in the meantime. As I drove to work I felt like I should be worried, or concerned, or something. But I felt strangely at ease.

I awoke to my alarm in the wee hours the following morning. My first though upon looking at the time on my alarm clock was that the final leg of my son's flight should just have landed at its destination and that my son would likely soon be enjoying lunch in a foreign land that will be his home for the next 22 months.

At least we suppose this is what happened. I assume that we'd know by now if anything went wrong. We eagerly await our son's first email from abroad, although, we have no idea when that will happen. My mind keeps wondering what he is doing. I am suddenly aware that that the few paragraphs I sent home in weekly letters when I was a missionary many years ago really didn't provide much information about what I was doing as I went through my days.

But that is the way of life. Our children have many experiences when they are away from us in which we can only marginally share—especially as they mature and go out on their own. Though our lives are intertwined with theirs, many things are experienced in a personal way that can never be adequately communicated to others. At this point, the best tools available to me as a parent wishing to help my missionary son are prayer, email, the postal system, and monthly payments. It seems like it's so little, like it's hardly enough. But with proper faith, it will be.

Within days we will begin this process all over again as another son becomes a missionary. We have the potential of repeating this cycle three more times after that in future years. Maybe it gets easier. At least, that's what I plan to tell myself.