Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Halloween that Cured Me of Pranking

I was not a mischievous kid, but I did manage to get in trouble one Halloween when I was about ten years old. I lived in a neighborhood chock full of young families. Thus, there were swarms of kids roving about each Halloween night.

As planned, I linked up with two friends who came by the house to pick me up. I can remember feeling anxious that they had already hit the houses between their homes and mine. I also envied the store bought devil outfit worn by one of my friends. My family never sprang for such costumes. We just had to come up with our own. Thus, I wore a ripped up sweatshirt smeared with fake blood under my jacket. I also wore a pair of bulky torn up pants over my regular jeans.

Masks were all the rage that year and each of us had one. I never did much care for those brittle plastic Halloween masks. The holes for eyes, nose, and mouth never seemed to match the actual anatomy of my face, making for visual and respiratory challenges. Not to mention making it nearly impossible to eat treats along the way.

We didn't do much of that anyway because we were too busy running to the next house. Besides, the public service folks had done a good enough job of scaring the bejeebers out of us about tainted candy that we waited until our parents could review our booty before partaking. This served a dual purpose of allowing my brothers and me to compare our full take. My brother Tim always won that contest.

One of the two friends with me that night perpetually got into mischief. He seemed to be drawn to trouble like a moth is drawn to a light. He suggested that when we found a house that was giving away really good candy that we go somewhere to remove our costumes and then return to the house as unadorned youth. Some kids our age were going door to door sans costumes anyway. Nobody would be the wiser.

I didn't feel right about this. But my friend in the devil outfit liked the idea. After all, it was Halloween. Wouldn't a minor prank be just part of the fun? In the end I gave in to peer pressure. Before long we encountered a house that was giving away good candy bars. We soon found a hideaway behind a fence, took off our outer wear, and returned to the home. Kaching! We each scored an extra candy bar.

A few houses later we were given some particularly delectable candy item. There were lots of kids coming and going, so there was noise and confusion. But I thought I heard the lady say hi to my devil friend by name. My two friends wanted to go back sans costumes for seconds on the candy.

"But the lady recognized you," I said to my friend. "Didn't you hear her call you by name?" Apparently he had not heard this. "I have no idea who she is. I don't think I've ever met her before. And anyway, how could she see who I am behind this mask?" he asked. He had a good point. We had already seen three other kids with the same type of costume and they all looked so similar that I had mistaken one of them for my friend in the dark.

We soon returned to the house. The lady gave us candy, but she gave us a very strange look. Giddy with our success, we were ready to perpetuate this gag all night long. Up the street a bit we got big candy bars from one lady. They weren't as big as regular candy bars, but they were much larger than the standard minis that some houses were giving.

Soon we were behind the neighbor's bushes pulling off our costumes. But I didn't feel good about it. Two of us knew Mrs. S. She was always very nice. It didn't seem right to take advantage of her. But these were really good candy bars. So against my better judgment I returned with my friends and got a second candy bar.

We were congratulating ourselves as we donned our costumes in the dark behind the neighbors' bushes when we saw an adult exit the house we had just visited. This grown up form walked directly toward our location. Suddenly we all held still.

The shadowy figure stopped on the other side of the bushes. But by they way the person was looking, we obviously remained unseen. Maybe we had escaped after all. Then I heard the voice of Mrs. S. "I can't see you boys, but I know you're there. I'm very disappointed in you. I expected better of you, or at least of the two of you that I know."

My heart sunk as she explained that a friend from down the street had recognized one of us and had called issuing a warning about us. Dang busybodies! Never underestimate the social networking capacity of women. It's like a super power.

We offered to return the extra candy, but Mrs. S. refused to accept it. She said that she would probably call our parents. (She didn't, but I didn't know that until later.) Weighing the potential fallout, I knew that Mom would be mad because it would reflect badly on her, but I surmised that Dad would probably just laugh.

Still, Mom's probable ire was not why I felt bad. Mrs. S. was a nice lady. What's more is that I knew that us Mormon boys (two of us anyway) had just set a very bad example for a wonderful non-Mormon lady. And even if we weren't all Mormons, we were all Cub Scouts. We all knew better. I felt horrible.

After leaving the shadows and wandering toward the next house, none of us had much stomach for more pranks that evening. Besides, it took long enough to change in and out of costume that it was questionable whether the extra candy was worth the effort. We consoled ourselves by hurrying along so as to get as much candy as possible before having to go home.

Within a couple of years my trick-or-treating career came to an end. There was some unwritten convention in my neighborhood that you didn't go trick-or-treating after turning 12. It was a rite of passage. Although we secretly continued to envy those kids getting all of the candy, we stoically insisted that trick-or-treating was for little kids.

A lot of Halloweens have come and gone since that night long ago. But I still have never developed much of an interest in pulling pranks since then.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Giga Pet Prayer

Christmas was an amazing time when our children were young. The joy and excitement of the season all came to a head on Christmas morning when we would watch the little ones get so excited about a relatively inexpensive gift that they didn't want to take time to open their other gifts. Infants and toddlers were often happy just playing with the packaging material.

They were so easy to please back then. Many of the items for which they pined weren't terribly expensive. And they had two sets of living grandparents that insisted on spoiling them to excess each Christmas.

Although many of the things our children received those Christmases long ago are long gone, I still have one toy secretly tucked away in my dresser drawer. I keep this dead electronic gadget because it reminds me of an event that was very powerful at the time.

That year the thing that our two oldest children wanted more than anything else was a Giga Pet. I didn't like the idea at all. Although those things were all the rage that season, I knew that they required constant attention, including feeding, cleaning up, and interaction routines. Kind of like a real pet, but without the cuddliness. I thought the kids were too young for this kind of thing. If we were going to get something like that, why not just get a dog?

As a side note, I now know after three years of dog ownership the answer to that question. It comes down to dog hair, having to make arrangements for dog care whenever we go anywhere, the cost of real food, having to clean up real poop, and dealing with neighbors annoyed at the dog's barking. But the love factor is much greater.

Against my wishes, the two oldest each received a Buzz Lightyear Giga Pet among their other gifts that Christmas morning. Given their young ages, they had some challenges getting the things up and running. But eventually they started to figure them out.

After the morning rush was finished, I prepared for my daily workout. Back in those days I spent about an hour doing fitness walking each day. It had snowed an inch or so during the night, but it was already warm enough that it was melting off the parts of the road frequented by car tires. There was still snow on the road shoulders, but it would pose little problem.

As offspring #1 and #2 saw me getting ready, they asked if they could go along. We had a two-seat fitness stroller and the kids generally loved to take a ride with Dad. My wife heartily approved because she needed to nurse the baby. As we bundled up the two riders, I forbade them from bringing their new Giga Pet toys, fearing that the toys would get lost. Besides, there was no way they could operate the things with mittens on their hands.

We loaded up the children and headed out onto the nearly deserted roadways. Since we had to stick to the shoulders, I was walking in the snow most of the way. As I was unloading the kids from the stroller upon our return, child #2 suddenly realized that he could not find his Giga Pet — the very toy I had banned from the trip. We searched through his outerwear and stroller seat, but the toy was not to be found.

After the scolding and the I-told-you-sos, I looked at my little child and was overcome with a wave of empathy. No, the toy wasn't very important in the grand scheme of things. It was replaceable, although, that would have to wait for a day or two. But the child pleaded for help in finding the toy.

The toy had to be in the snow somewhere along our route. But the thing was mostly white. The rear side was almost completely white. How could we find such an item in miles of snow? My child suggested that we could pray.

I thought about it. A prayer to find a frivolous toy. A toy that had gotten lost due to disobedience. Weren't there much more important things to pray about, like expressing gratitude for everything we had or seeking blessings for those truly in need?

Finally we knelt and my child uttered a simple but very heartfelt prayer. I prayed too. Then we got in the car and started driving slowly along our exercise route. It was relatively easy to follow the three-wheeled tire tracks and footprints in the snow. But I kept thinking to myself that this was nuts.

About a mile from the house I felt a quiet yet firm prompting to stop the car. I was careful not to drive over our stroller tread marks as I parked. I got out of the car and felt like I should start looking in the snow just ahead. I slowly walked next to the path I had left earlier, carefully looking down at the melting snow.

Ahead of the car about ten feet I saw a small depression next to one of my footprints. It could easily have been anything. I had already seen hundreds of similar depressions as I had driven along our route. But I felt very calm inside. It was like I was being pulled to that precise spot. As I stepped closer, I reached down into the snow and felt my child's Giga Pet.

We had a prayer of gratitude in the car before driving home. My young child had simply accepted that this would be the outcome. But I saw a miracle. I could have driven up and down that route all day long without finding the small toy. Or the toy could have sat there until the snow melted and it was found by someone else. Or a car tire could have unknowingly smashed the toy. Instead, I was led directly to the spot where the toy had dropped into the snow after a few minutes of searching.

Some may scoff at my estimation of this episode, saying that people like me think that God is a ready replacement for a metal detector. But they weren't there; I was. Would the Great King of Heaven truly take time to answer a prayer about something so small and superficial? If I am fully honest with myself, I must admit that I still know within myself that this is precisely what happened.

Later as I pondered the events of the day, I gained a little greater insight into God's parenthood. I'm sure that much of what we pray for is largely meaningless in the eternal scheme of things, even things that seem crucial to us. Yet just as I was willing to go out of my way to help my child with something that was tremendously important to him at that moment, I believe that God willingly goes out of his way to help his children when they pray in faith about things that are extremely important to them at any given moment, simply because he loves them. And if he is willing to do so for relatively insignificant matters, how much more willing is he to answer prayers about truly meaningful matters?

God always answers prayers out of perfect love for his children. Thus, he thankfully grants us what will be best for us from his eternal perspective, and not always according to what we think we want at the time. Some will note that this seems like a tautology — any outcome following a prayer of faith is God's will.

But God does not leave us without access to a witness. The Holy Ghost can confirm that a given outcome is God's answer to prayer. And this is how I still know deep inside that God guided me to that Giga Pet in the snow years ago. I know that refusing to admit this would offend God; something I can ill afford to do, given the regularity with which I mess up otherwise.

Within a few weeks after the Giga Pet prayer, the kids' Giga Pets melded into the menagerie of toys about the household, only to be played with on occasion. I was frankly quite glad when the batteries died and the things quite chirping. Years later during cleanup of a toy tub, I found the long dead Giga Pet and was reminded of the poignant events of that Christmas day when the toy was lost and then found. I have kept the device in my drawer since finding it to remind me of how willing a loving Heavenly Father is to answer prayers of those that humbly pray in faith.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Surviving My Second Gingival Graft

I wasn't pleased when the periodontist confirmed my suspicions that I would need gum graft surgery to maintain a couple of teeth for the long run. From past experience I knew that it would cost the better part of a thousand bucks. But my memories of recovering from this same type of surgery 14 years earlier played a larger role in my psyche.

A dentist friend of mine says that they have a low follow through rate on patients being referred for this type of surgery. People know it's going to cost money. They usually aren't in pain. Often the danger of serious dental issues is not imminent. So they put it off. But I like having my natural teeth. I'd rather get it over with than deal with anxiety niggling in the back of my head for months on end.

So about seven weeks ago I reclined in a chair at the dental office. I knew that the doctor was highly experienced. He approached the procedure with a calm but confident demeanor. I never once saw the muscles in his face reflect anything but serenity during my hour in the chair. He pleasantly hummed 80s pop tunes as he went about his work, occasionally chatting with his assistant or informing me of what he was doing or was about to do next. It was all very disarming.

After the local anesthetic took effect, the doctor hopped right into the part of the procedure that I liked the least: obtaining the graft tissue from the left side of the roof of my mouth. He took the donor tissue from the same spot that another periodontist had taken some 14 years earlier.

The doctor explained that the tissue in that part of the roof of the mouth is particularly dense and is prime for adhering to the graft site. I surmised that they always take it from the left side because they tend to sit on the right side of the patient, making that spot more readily accessible than the other side. I knew that the healing of the donor site would be the most bothersome part of my recovery.

After a few stitches were applied to the donor site, the doctor went to work opening up the graft site. Then he carefully stitched the donor tissue into place. He pressed some substance over the area and cured it with some type of light, creating a type of shield. Then he applied a temporary plastic retainer (built from an impression that had been taken a couple of weeks earlier) that covered the roof of my mouth and my upper teeth.

I was given a sheet of instructions, a prescription for antibiotics, and prescriptions for serious painkillers. I opted not to fill the opiate based pills. I really dislike the way they make me feel and I figured that I would get by without them. But I was grateful for prescription strength ibuprofen when the anesthetic started to wear off.

Over the next three weeks I was very careful to avoid chewing on the side of my mouth where the graft was trying to adhere. I wore the plastic retainer part of the time and I ate only soft foods, avoiding anything that might be caustic (like salsa). As expected, the rawness in the roof of my mouth was more bothersome than the graft area, which was relatively easy to maintain.

Within a week the stitches in the roof of my mouth started to come out on their own, as the doctor said they would. Later, the stitches in the graft area came apart one by one. The shield that had been applied to the graft area washed out, as predicted. I took care to keep my mouth clean, frequently and carefully swishing with salty water. The doctor removed the last of the stitches at a follow up visit.

One of the things that bothered me the most during the second week of recovery was pain emanating from a molar near the donor site. That eventually abated as the site healed.

Today the graft area feels pretty much like part of the original gum tissue. The doctor is very pleased with the results. The donor area in the roof of my mouth is recovering well. The tissue still needs to thicken a bit. It also feels somewhat dead, so it feels a little weird. But I know from past experience that it will enervate over time.

If were able to go back and change a minor thing from my youth I would go back and train my younger self to brush my teeth gently while also brushing thoroughly. In those days I thought that you had to brush hard to do it right. I was wrong and I am now paying the price for such zeal.

If I were advised by a competent professional today that I needed gum graft surgery in another area, I wouldn't be very pleased with the news. But I would move ahead without delay. I can see that the grafts I have received have been effective and are doing a good job of protecting my teeth. At any rate, I'd prefer to endure gum graft surgery than to deal with the consequences of failing to do so.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Hearts of the Children are Turning — Sometimes Via Official Callings

Last Sunday our youngest son (a young teen) was sustained and set apart as a family history indexer. At the same time, a young woman who is about a year older than our son was called to be a family history consultant, a calling that has traditionally been reserved for seasoned adults with lots of family history experience. Well guess what? This girl is already very experienced with family history work. Although she has been called to serve the youth, she could easily teach many adults a thing or two.

My son, on the other hand, while honored by his new calling, was also intimidated. Unlike many of his peers, he isn't terribly rapid at absorbing new technology. Nor is he very good at reading cursive writing. He has been asked to index a certain number of names each month. I think the number is within his abilities, but the bishopric also understands his Asperger condition. They made it clear that he need only make an earnest effort each month.

In keeping with Elder Bednar's October 2011 general conference address, we are starting to see more young people become directly involved in family history work in our ward. The LDS Church even has a website devoted to how youth can get involved. Like many others in the ward, each of our children has successfully cleared names for temple ordinances.

But this is the first time any of our children has received an official calling to do family history work. In this case, our son is doing family history indexing. Family history indexing is a process that makes records searchable online, as shown in this video:

The general idea is to get data that is stored on paper records — censuses, birth records, obituaries, property tax records, ship registers, etc. — digitized into searchable databases. The process begins as people around the world (mostly volunteers) digitize images of these records. Images are categorized into projects with images of similar type. Databases and input forms are constructed. Then volunteer indexers look at the images and enter the data into the forms. Volunteer arbitrators review and correct entries. This makes the data available for those doing family history research, as shown in this video:

So Sunday afternoon I sat down with our son and got him started. He was intimidated by the first record with which he was presented, but he was actually able to read the cursive. Next I found a project of 20th Century Virginia death records. These were typewritten, making the project easier for him. It was tedious at first, but by the end of the batch he was starting to get the hang of it.

You don't need a calling to do family history indexing. You don't even need to be a member of the LDS Church. Anyone can do it. Once digitized, the data becomes freely available to anyone via the FamilySearch website. You can go to the indexing website right now and get started. Spend as little or as much time indexing as you'd like. Any work you do will help others.

Our son's calling is slated to last for about half a year. He can extend it after that if he wishes. Or he can just index on his own. I hope this is the beginning of a lifetime of family history work for him. Many people find meaning in researching their family tree. People crave to know who they came from. Indexing is among the opportunities available for helping others satisfy that craving. I hope our son finds joy in his service.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Last One Standing

I repeatedly expressed gratitude that it was early autumn and not winter as we drove across the desolate, windy Wyoming plains. I know from experience that winter driving in that region can be treacherous. I looked across at my mother, knowing that the trip would be challenging for her. But there was no way she could miss the funeral of her last remaining sibling.

Mom's parents married in Illinois. Like many others of their era, they migrated piecemeal westward as their family grew to include a dozen kids. They lived for a few years in Nebraska and then hopped back and forth between northern Wyoming and southern Montana, finally settling in Wyoming. They always farmed and Grandpa found various jobs, finishing out his career working in the oil fields.

Most of the kids and their descendants migrated away from Wyoming over time. But Mom's sister stayed and raised her family there, even after being widowed relatively young and then having most of her kids move away. (Most of them also eventually moved back.)

I think that the thing I will always remember best about my aunt is her perpetually cheery disposition, despite the many adversities life threw at her. She happily lived quite frugally her entire adult life and never bothered to spend much on luxuries or self pampering. I might also remember her collection of unusual salt and pepper shakers. My aunt's cognitive abilities diminished during her final years until she couldn't live on her own. My cousin has handled most of her care over the past year.

The blessings of a large family became evident as we gathered for the funeral. The number of family members in attendance was impressive, although, it represented only a fraction of my grandparents' descendants. Acquaintances were renewed and fond memories were shared. The service was comforting.

Afterward we followed the hearse to a bleak, windswept cemetery, where my aunt's remains were to be interred beside those of her husband. Following a brief graveside service, numerous family members came forward to greet my mother. As the line of well wishers surged, I realized that most of them expected this to be their last chance to say goodbye to Mom in this life.

Mom harbors strength that is not readily apparent, but she definitely appears far more frail than the strong woman she once was. Still, I can hardly blame family members for thinking that they may never have a chance to see her again. We get involved in the pressing matters of daily life and don't get around to spending time with those that don't fall immediately into our path. As Frost wrote, "Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back."

That evening I sat at the dining table in my cousin's house with Mom, a few cousins, and a family friend, while many of my cousins' children and grandchildren conversed in the living room. We looked at books of old photos that my cousin has carefully assembled and chatted about old times. Will I ever see a scene like that again?

Although Mom wasn't certain she could make the trip, she has repeatedly thanked me for taking her up there and taking care of her on the trip. I'm not sure that she will ever consent to make another trip like that. I will ever be thankful that I took time to take Mom to her sister's funeral.