Wednesday, August 29, 2007

12 Years Later

Today is the 12th anniversary since I returned home from being a full-time missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I served from September 2003 through August 2005. Here I am 12 years later and I wanted to just run a few numbers to highlight some of the things that have happened:

-- I took 3 years to finish my bachelor's degree.
-- I took 2 semesters to finish my master's degree thereafter.
-- I dated more girls than I have fingers and toes, some seriously, before ...
-- I got married once (I intend to keep it that way, too!).
-- I have moved 11 times in that time, most of them when I was married.
-- I have lived in 3 different states during all that time.
-- I am now the father of 3 children.
-- I currently own my second house (which is the only one I own right now).
-- I have owned 3 cars, 2 of which I still have (one of which I'm still paying off).
-- I have worked 7 different jobs, but only one since leaving college.
-- I have had 7 different church callings.
-- I have received 3 speeding tickets, and one for missing a stop sign.
-- I have been in 1 automobile accident, where ...
-- I have been sued in small claims court once, and "won."
-- I have made an enormous amount of friends in all that time, some of whom I still keep in touch with.

Hmm ... it's a pretty good list. It's weird, though, tabulating some of that. I sometimes sit here and ask myself, "When did I grow up?!" It's really strange to think I am the primary breadwinner for my family, I have a full-fledged (let me say that again, a full-fledged) mortgage, two cars, three kids, and one wonderful wife who makes my life so very good.

I'm very grateful for these past 12 years. I have experienced some very wonderful times that have brought an incredible amount of joy to me, along with creating memories to cherish forever. Were there mistakes I wish I'd avoided? Absolutely. But in doing so, if avoiding those mistakes would have brought me to a different place than I am in right now, I'm confident I'd have made them all over again. Happiness is a very strange thing indeed.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Thunder Feet

My son has a superpower, but you wouldn't really know it. You see, his alter-ego, the mild-mannered, book-wormish facade he presents to the world, is so very convincing that you would never know that he also has an extraordinary ability. Yes, indeed, my son has a superpower that literally can shake the whole house when properly applied. He can wake up deep-sleeping people of all ages in the middle of the darkest nights. He can instill embarrassment into the hearts of his parents, or cause doubts into his safety when not visibly in view. He has ... Thunder Feet!

Yes, my son is a heavy walker. He walks heel-to-toe, placing each step firmly on the floor. Sometimes he goes into his room and stomps around, just because he finds it funny when we holler up the stairs for him to quit it. When he has to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, he stumbles around in his sleepy stupor and shakes the whole house; we always know when he's out of bed in the middle of the night. Just a few weeks ago, I dismissed an earthquake that was shaking the house as possibly another seismic event caused by my son. It's nothing short of extraordinary.

We have tried to teach him to walk more lightly. We've encouraged him to pretend he's a spy and to sneak around. We've even had sessions on how to walk toes-to-heel so as to avoid the heavy placement of his feet. Nevertheless, nothing works with him. He's a kid, nearly eight-years-old, and learning to walk lightly just isn't on his agenda. But that's okay. It's a superpower. Who am I to deny his true nature?

Friday, August 24, 2007

AYSO Referee

My daughter is going to play AYSO (American Youth Soccer Organization) soccer this fall. She's in what they call the "U6" group, and her team consists of 5 players. At her age, they play 3 kids on the field at a time, and each player is supposed to be in the game two-thirds of the time. She played soccer last spring with AYSO, but it was more of a practice-type game than a real game, but even so, she seemed to really enjoy it and looks forward to having "real" games this year.

Since it is a non-profit organization, each team must come up with a "team mom" to organize snacks for the kids (it could be a "team dad", I guess, but I've never seen one), two referees, and a few other volunteers to help patrol the fields looking for misconduct and to ensure the safety of the children.

I volunteered to be one of the two referees, and needed to attend a few nights of training. I completed the second night last night and I did learn a lot. I'm fairly familiar with soccer, having played it as a youth myself (badly), and had stepped up to referee last year for my son, even though I had not done any training. Having gone through the training now, I realize that there really should be a trained referee on the field all the time for the safety of the kids and to keep the flow of the game going.

A few things I learned that I didn't know before:

-- When the ball goes out of play by leaving the field, it is only out of play if the entire ball has crossed the outermost edge of the field's line. This means that the players can continue to play even if the ball literally rolls straight down the field line. This also means that the ball continues in play even if the player kicking the ball has stepped outside of the line.
-- Conversely, when the ball is being thrown back in, the player must have both feet on the ground anywhere on or behind the line at the edge of the field. This means that they can technically have most of their feet on the field (inside the line) when throwing in the ball.
-- A player kicking the ball on a goal kick can do so with the ball placed anywhere in the goal area, but the ball must be stationary when the ball is kicked.
-- It is recommended that the referee only touch the ball to check it out pre-game, and to secure it at half time and after the game -- all other times the players themselves should retrieve the ball when it goes out of bounds, etc.
-- Unlike in other American sports, minor infractions and fouls can be forgiven (i.e. need not be called by the referee) if nobody was injured and if the offender does not receive an advantage in play by the action. However, even the threat of a foul is considered a foul. For me, at the age group I'm refereeing, we won't be giving "cards" to the kids for fowls, but just will stop play and either give a free (indirect) kick or drop-ball.
-- At the age group I'll be refereeing, one can not make a goal off any free kick (including kickoffs at the beginning of the game, at half-time, after a goal; or penalty kicks) or throw-in without the ball first touching another player before going into the goal.
-- The players can proceed with throw-ins and kick-offs (including penalty kicks) immediately without interference from the referee of any sort, but may stop the game and request that the referee ensure the proper distance is between the one kicking or throwing the ball and the other players.
-- Between the start of the game and half-time, and between half-time and the end of the game, the clock never stops. Breaks mid-half for substitutions, water breaks, and injuries are all on the clock!

I learned a lot. Who knew there were so many rules? And these are just the ones that I didn't really know before.

At the end of the training, I took a test and of about 30 questions, I missed 4. As it turns out, I did the worst of the entire group! In all my life, I can't recall ever getting the worst score on any test! It was such an embarrassment (but I played it cool). I even did worse than the guy who couldn't speak English!

Anyway, I did pass, though. They gave me a new whistle and cheesy gray T-shirt that says "Referee" on the front and "It's for the kids" on the back. Now I'm well-educated, pumped, and ready to go! And I'll probably forget everything before the first game in a few weeks ...

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Guilt of Idleness

Wow. Last night my wife and I had nothing to do. The kids were in bed early since school is now in session, and she and I decided to take a night to do absolutely nothing. These kinds of evenings don't happen very often -- we literally schedule our lives out months in advance because we always have something going on nearly every night of every week. Most of the time, it's a case where she has to go out without me, I have to go out without her, or we schedule a date night and get a babysitter.

Well, last night, we didn't have anything going, so we decided to just sit down and watch TV for a little while. Needless to say, it was very relaxing. We enjoyed what we watched (Stargate SG-1 season 4, episode 4), then went to bed early so we could have some time to read. It was very nice to have some down time just to talk about things in an unrushed manner, and we were actually lights-out on our way to sleep by 10 p.m. (this is a very good thing for us, since we're always sleep deprived).

So why do I feel guilty? I have a list of things that need doing that can only be done after the kids go to bed, but don't I deserve a night to just relax? Under normal circumstances I'd do a combination of the following with a free evening: work on genealogy, continue archiving material my parents gave me on my family's history, do a unit or two from familysearchindexing.org, play the new computer game I got for my birthday, or create entries for this blog. There's also a few other personal projects I'm working on that I haven't made progress on in ages.

But again, why do I feel guilty for having some down time? Can't I just enjoy the time with my wife without spoiling it with some bizarre need to "accomplish" something? Our quiet moments together come rarely enough as it is. I think the problem is rooted in the fact that we are normally so busy that when we do have some down time, we don't quite know what to do with ourselves. I recognize it is good to have this time and I also appreciate that spending this time with my wife was a very good thing. So, I think I'm just going to work on letting it go, and enjoying life as it comes ... if only the guilt would subside ...

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

First Day of School

Every year since that movie "Finding Nemo" came out, whenever we talk about the first day of school, all I can hear in my head is the excited voice of Nemo proclaiming, "First day of school! First day of school!" His excitement in the movie was was expressed, and I can happily report that my children felt the same way yesterday morning.

I went to work a little late so I could accompany them to school. It was an absolute zoo. We ended up parking over two blocks away and walking over because of all the children everywhere. My wife was there, too, with our two-and-a-half year old toddler buckled securely into his stroller. We made our way towards the school and met the new crossing guard (Debbie? Dolly? Dotty? hmm ...) who replaced the well-loved curmudgeon who retired last year. The children were just delighted to be walking the familiar walk with the family crowds hanging around everywhere.

My oldest is in third grade now and my second child, my only daughter, is in first grade. She was so excited to go to school because she could finally: 1) stay at school "all day", unlike in kindergarten, 2) play on the big kids' playground, and 3) be with her friends again. Notice that there's nothing in there about learning. My oldest, on the other hand, was excited but also somewhat more pensive, worried about if his teacher was going to be nice (yes) and if any of his friends were going to be in his class (yes).

As for me and my wife, we worried that our oldest wouldn't be challenged enough by his new teacher or that he would be singled out for being picked on -- I remember from my own experience that third graders can be brutal. Regarding our daughter, we just worried that she would eat her snack too slowly as she normally does so that she wouldn't have time to play during recess. Our worries were well-founded because that's exactly what happened! We also worried that our youngest would not adjust well to not having the older kids around the house anymore during the day. As it turns out, he seems to be doing fine, but my wife has kept a pretty busy schedule since then.

Anyway, when we arrived, we were able to take the children to the back part of the school -- something that is only allowed on the first few days of school -- where the playground is and where the children line up to go into their classrooms. There, we met the teachers and found out which of our children's friends from last year are in their new classes. Thankfully, they both know a few people from their old classes and both of the teachers apparently used to teach higher grades; we're not worried about them being challenged anymore.

It will be an interesting year, though. Will our oldest continue to surprise us academically? Will he also make some really good new friends? Will our daughter choose to behave herself and control her talkative tendencies? Will she develop a love of reading like we hope she will? Time will tell. For now, we're very happy for them and the new and wonderful experiences they will have, even if the house does feel a lot emptier.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Fishing with the Kids

Have you ever been fishing? I have. When I was young, my father used to take all of his children (there were 7 of us by the time all was said and done) out camping and fishing. We used to have a pop-up trailer with sides that pulled out. We somehow managed to squash all of us in there along with all the accoutrements required to camp, including all the sleeping bags, clothes, fishing poles, dishes; and mounds of food required to feed the family.

As a child, my father would drag us along on what I now call "primitive" camping. We frequented campsites where we were lucky to have pit toilets. The taps, which were spaced every five or six campsites to provide water to the visitors, were always painted red with big signs next to them that read, "DO NOT DRINK!" I learned at a very young age never to trust a painted tap. The water from those taps was good only for washing dishes (though in hindsight, probably not) and washing bodies (ditto).

And of course, there was the fishing. My father was obsessive about it. He absolutely insisted that we get up before it was light outside and get down to the nearby lake to put our poles in the water. I don't recall ever doing so willingly. When we did get to the lake, invariably we would spend all our time trying to de-tangle the lines, put cheese on hooks (which would immediately fall off), and being grossed out when we impaled wriggling worms on large hooks. After spending so much time getting the kids situated with their fishing lines in the water, I expect that it was a moment of delight for him when he would finally be able to cast his line in the lake, too.

Somehow, amidst all the chaos, we still managed to catch some fish. Usually, we would catch enough of them to make full-size meals out of them, with some extras to bring home (which we always dropped in the deep freezer, only to throw away a year later). My sister who is just older than me was very good at catching fish. It seemed my father would spend half his time helping her get her line in the water, then dealing with the fish he'd have to get off her lines. It was wonderful for her.

But not for me. I was a terrible fisherman. It didn't matter if I used the exact same bait as my sister, nor that I could cast my line in a near identical location. It didn't matter that I knew all the techniques for bobbing a line, or jerking it when the line went tight to snare the fish. All that mattered was that I was holding the rod, and no fish in it's puny mind would bite a hook attached to that rod. In all my years going fishing with my family, I can count the number of fish I caught at those times on one hand, with a finger to spare.

Needless to say, I hated it. I hated getting up in the cold. I hated walking half-dazed through the dark to get to the lake. I hated dealing with the rods (ungainly monsters) and the hooks (I was afraid of getting hooked!) and the tangled lines (my line always tangled worse and more often than my siblings). I hated sitting there on the side of the lake, bored out of my mind, waiting for a dumber than usual fish to even contemplate biting the hook on my line, which I somehow knew would never happen. And most of all, I hated watching my sister pull in all those fish. It wasn't like I wouldn't be allowed to eat one, it just hurt that I couldn't ever catch my own.

So now, here I am, a father of three wonderful children, and I have to make a choice. Will my children grow up knowing the joys and pains of fishing? Or will they be like most other kids and be zombies with their handheld game systems? My wife used to fish as a child, too, and by all accounts, she was far more like my sister than she was like me. Together, we decided that our kids will have the fishing experience.

So, this past weekend, we tried it for the first time. We went camping at a lake a few hours away and spent a whole day fishing off the shore. We didn't get the kids up at an absurdly early hour (we'll save that for another excursion), but we did give them the opportunity to put their lines in the water, and have to wait. They also had to be quiet, something at which they most certainly do not excel.

And guess what! We didn't catch any fish. Not even a true bite (though my wife insists she almost had one). We had a few tugs on the lines that we might consider nibbles, but not much else.

So here I had mustered my willpower to get to the lake, prepared myself by re-learning how to tie all the right knots, utilized the finest form of patience to de-tangle the inevitable messes the children made with their lines, studied how to clean a fish, and researched how to cook them -- all to no avail. I must admit that I wasn't surprised. The experience matched very closely that of my youth, only with me now the father responsible for keeping everybody's lines in the water.

But something remarkable did happen when we were at that lake. My children somehow did manage to follow instructions. They were quiet. They did show patience. By the end of the day, they were not even complaining that fishing was boring. It was a most remarkable time, and actually a little bit peaceful. And weirdly enough, I find that I actually enjoyed myself! I can't explain it. Maybe it's something inbred into men, a nascent quality that manifests itself only as a man ages wherein he will suddenly enjoy fishing -- regardless of the outcome.

I don't really understand it, but this much I do know: we will be going fishing again. Because somewhere out there, there's a big fish that will eventually bite my line.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Marvelous Saturn

The Cassini spacecraft was launched in 1997 out of Florida. A behemoth spacecraft, it took seven years to get to Saturn, flying by Venus (twice!), Earth, and Jupiter on it's way. Since 2004, it's been orbiting Saturn and producing stunning images. Over the last few years, I've been collecting them as I find them, and I wanted to share some of them with you here. In my opinion, many of these are frame-worthy and rival even the finest Ansel Adams. You can click on any of the pictures for a higher resolution image. Note: I do not work on the Cassini project, my working world is Mars.

The following picture is of Titan, Saturn's largest moon, as seen behind the rings of Saturn.


This next one shows one of Saturn's smaller moons, Epimetheus, floating as a little spot just outside the rings.


This is one of my favorites, and shows just how fine and delicate the rings of Saturn really are.


This is the most recent one I've collected. It's a much larger shot and shows the shadow that the rings make on the planet.

Monday, August 13, 2007

People To Whom You Should Be Kind

My father once gave me some advice. He said, "You should always be good to your secretary." I've always tried to live that, and was thinking about other people we should always be good to, and came up with the following list:

-- Your secretary or administrative assistant: they can make your work life miserable if they are not happy.
-- Your garbage man: supply your own reason, but it's just good advice.
-- Troubled teens: they have enough drama in their lives without angry words from an adult.
-- Anybody who can give you money: for obvious reasons.
-- Widows: nobody can reap an eternal reward without caring for the widows.
-- Children younger than 10: before they learn to be little punks, you have an opportunity to teach them to not be little punks.
-- Policemen, firemen, and nurses: when trouble comes, you'll be glad they're on your side.
-- Local bands: though they may be unrealistic, there's something wonderful about simple and extravagant dreams.
-- Cashiers: anybody who can treat me as if I'm buying a bag of pretzels while they scan a box of tampons is all right in my book.

There's probably more, but I had some opinions on those to whom we don't necessarily need to be kind:

-- Doctors: in my opinion, people who get paid exorbitant fees to take care of you deserve only the respect they give out.
-- Banktellers and the bankers behind them: they're overgrown cashiers who often act like we owe them a favor for taking our money off our hands -- and then give us really bad interest rates.
-- Elected officials: they have their job because of us, but they so rarely do anything good with it.

Again, the list could probably be longer, but I'll leave it there.

Bad Dad Moment

I had a "Bad Dad" moment last Saturday. My wife and daughter were gone for a few hours, so I decided to take some time to try to install some software on my new computer. Okay, it was a game -- SimCity 4. My oldest son was sitting next to me, enthralled by the whole procedure, and my youngest son was just playing around us on the floor.

Well, I proceeded to install the software, and went to execute it, but it didn't work. I knew the software was somewhat old (built for Windows 98/NT), so I tried adjusting the compatibility parameters of the software to see if it would work with the current operating system (Windows XP, which I adore, by the way).

There's an icon on the desktop. My son kept pointing at it. I tried something different. He said, "Just click the icon, Dad!" I clicked it to show him it didn't work. "Click it, Dad!" I did again (nothing happens). I tried something different. "Click it!" Click (nothing happens). I go to check online at the website for help. "Click on it, Dad!" I read a couple of forum posts on why the program won't start. "Come on, Dad. Just click it!" Click (nothing happens). I find out there's a patch available, so I start to download it. "Click the icon!" The patch is downloading. "Click, Dad. It's right there!" Click (nothing happens).

You can see where this is going. He went on and on like that every few seconds. Soon, I snapped at him, raising my voice, and told him that I had clicked it over and over again and nothing had changed since the last time I clicked it, so why would it work?! "But just click it, Dad!" "I did!" I yell.

At this point, my younger son comes over, wedges himself between me and my older son, looks him in the face, and starts screaming at him in the same tone of voice I had just used with him. Instant guilt.

It was a "Bad Dad" moment.

Why can't little kids learn from and model the patient, quiet moments in life? Why do they so easily pick up on the moments of weakness?
------

P.S. -- I did eventually get the game to load, and started playing it, but it eventually winked off about twenty minutes into a game. I'm still scratching my head about that one. At that point, I decided to call it quits; I shut down the computer and he and I went downstairs. My toddler followed us, happily humming along.

Birthday Weekend

So it was my birthday yesterday. And the weekend has been a very good one. Let me run down some of the highlights.

Friday afternoon my daughter had her first soccer practice of the fall season. Being not-quite-six, the little girls all were pretty obedient to the coach (who is a friend of mine). It was really cute seeing them running across the field, clumped all together, attempting to "steal" the ball from the coach. She played soccer last spring, but it was more of a "practice and scrimmage" environment than a "practice and compete" environment. I'm looking forward to watching her this fall, as she does have a competitive streak that might serve her well. On the flip side, last spring she was also prone to lying flat on her back in the middle of the field, proclaiming she was too tired to go on while everybody else played around her. It should be interesting.

Friday night my wife and I went out on a date to a local theater. There we were able to watch a night of "improv" -- improvisational comedy -- performed by a few members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). There were four actors, three of whom I've seen in LDS movies before: Kirby Heyborne ("The RM", "The Singles Ward"), Lincoln Hoppe (ditto), Corbin Allred ("Saints and Soldiers"), and Kelly Lohman (um ...). It was actually quite funny, and since they are members of the church, they guaranteed that it would be clean and family friendly. Of the four, I think Corbin Allred was the best actor of the bunch, but all of them were quite funny and quick-witted.

In hindsight, we probably could've taken our two oldest children, but that would defeat the purpose of date night. We've never been to "the improv" before, though we had previously been fans of the television show "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" (but we were often annoyed by the sexual tone that the show would often take for a cheap laugh). We did have a wonderful time, and look forward to going again sometime soon.

Saturday morning was one of hard labor. I woke up early and soon got started in the yard. I mowed, weeded, spread bark on our front hill (in a few places that were unfinished), thinned the garden, sprayed for weeds, and generally did a marathon gardening session. It was a good morning.

That afternoon, my wife took my daughter out to see "Beauty and the Beast" at the local community college. By all reports, they had a wonderful time, with the following two exceptions: 1) my wife had to constantly remind herself that it wasn't a Broadway production - and it showed, and 2) they advertised the sale of cheaply-made, expensive, glowing roses (to go along with the play) that would be on sale in the lobby during the intermission. My daughter immediately went into "gotta-have-it" mode, and spent the latter half of the play driving my wife crazy asking for one. On the way home, she was still begging and pleading, and pushed my wife to the edge, who wouldn't tolerate that, especially since they had left the play, and couldn't buy one anymore. We do our best not to spoil our children by not giving them everything they want, but sometimes that doesn't show.

Saturday evening, my wife and I again got the babysitter and went out to the adult session of our local "stake" conference. In our church, local congregations are called "wards", while small groups of wards are called "stakes". Every six months, we have a conference with all the wards in the stake gathered together -- it's basically a long, two-hour service filled with various speakers providing five to twenty minute sermons intermixed with singing performed variably by a choir and/or the congregation. On the night before there is always a session intended for the adults. The big topic was about preparing ourselves for the coming of Jesus Christ by performing service, keeping the commandments, and teaching our children properly. It was a very nice experience, and we enjoyed the quiet time without the children.

Sunday morning I woke up early to go to a "priesthood leadership" meeting, also part of stake conference. This meeting is intended for those who hold leadership positions in the church. Since there is no paid ministry, everybody tends to be asked to do something to help make things go smoothly -- teach classes, direct choirs, staff the library, deal with the finances, or manage the various youth organizations in the church, for example. For me, I'm the executive secretary to the bishop of the ward, who is the leader of our local congregation -- I basically set up interviews and manage meeting agendas.

During the meeting there were four speakers who spoke about the following topics:

-- Family Home Evening (FHE) is not Family Home Hour. In the church it is strongly encouraged that families take Monday nights as family night, and make it a priority to be together, discuss the gospel, and have a little fun. The intent is to strengthen families, and sometimes it's easy to find other things that distract us from holding a meaningful FHE.
-- Service in the temple brings blessings to the lives of those who attend. There was one very old man who joined the church at 82, and at 90 years old said something like, "The temple has added years to my life, and life to those years."
-- "Do you know a young man who needs help?" was the topic of the third speaker, who was a very moving speaker. As it happens, he was a young man who came from a broken home and could have easily been "lost" to religion were it not for the attention of conscientious church leaders, young men leaders, scout leaders, seminary teachers, and other adults in his life who helped him through the really tough times.
-- "Focus on Five" was a message from the president of the stake. One of the greatest things about the church is that we take care of our own, even if our own don't really want to be cared for. We do our best to extend welcoming hands to encourage people who have "fallen away" from the church to return and be a part of it. In this task, the stake president encouraged each of the wards to focus on five families at a time -- rather than getting overwhelmed by the dozens or hundreds of people who have "wandered away" -- and to actively try to find ways to bring them back into the church. It was a very good meeting.

Afterwards, we attended the regular session of stake conference. It was a two-hour meeting with everybody packed in together. My wife directs the stake choir, so she was up on the stand the entire time, which left me to wrestle with our three children. In an effort to help them behave themselves, we brought some "Color Wonder" books for them to color in. During normal church services, where the main meeting only goes about an hour, we don't provide anything for the children to do because we've found that they have a hard time being reverent. They need to eventually learn to be reverent and to listen to the speakers.

During stake conference, since it's a two-hour meeting, we usually do bring something for them to do, and I broke it out when the first speaker started talking. However, things went badly from the very first minute. It seems that while they are focused on coloring in the books, they forget where they are and are incapable of whispering to communicate. Not only that, but they fight over who gets what color and which book and where to sit and how to lean and, incidentally, our youngest wants all the pencils, crayons, and markers. Then my daughter announced she had to go to the bathroom, and I didn't want to march all three of my children out, so I sent my oldest to shepherd her -- they did wonderfully and came back in a timely fashion. Then my youngest starting throwing a tantrum because the older kids wouldn't let him have all the crayons. I ended up leaving the older kids on the bench and taking him out to the foyer to have a little time-out. After I returned my daughter started complaining that her chest hurt -- with no explanation -- so started crying and whimpering. All the while I'm trying to keep them all happy and quiet and keep things from being thrown around.

About an hour in, I'd had enough and I took it all away. Interestingly enough, they were suddenly quiet, and they didn't complain. I think they recognized how they were misbehaving. I gave my youngest a few cars, and the older kids sat there bored out of their minds. But at least they were quiet. While my wife sat up on the stage and had a wonderful time hearing the messages as delivered by the speakers, all I could think about was the scripture from Genesis 2:18: "It is not good that the man should be alone ..." Really. I was glad when the meeting was over.

So then we went home, had lunch, and opened my birthday presents. Since we had just bought a new computer, there were only a few things for me, but that's plenty fine by me. My in-laws gave me a movie called "Work and the Glory III" (one I've been wanting for a while), and my wife and kids gave me a computer game called "Star Wars: Empire at war". Since I love strategy games, I'm looking forward to spending some time with it. We also spent an hour napping (cut short by my impatient oldest son), had a wonderful dinner with the kids, and played a little bit on my new computer game. My wife made a very nice cake for me -- three layers of it! It was my favorite kind: chocolate cake, with chocolate frosting, with chocolate ice cream on the side. She dazzled it up a bit with some fillings, and put it atop a silly stand that has purple feet below it. Since she professionally makes cakes, it wasn't much to look at, but I had previously told her that I would sacrifice a fancy and decadent cake if she would just make me one that I could have a lot of. You seen, when it comes to my birthday, I like to eat chocolate cake with ice cream, and a lot of it! She was dismayed, but satisfied me! Yes, indeed, she does love me.

Later that night, I called my parents to visit with them a little. My birthday snuck up on them so apparently there's a card on the way. My mother said that my birthday was the only good thing to happen to her family in August. I'm not quite sure what she meant by that, but then we started tabulating all the birthdays therein, and she was surprised a bit by the results.

Anyway, after the kids were down for the night, two of my siblings called me. One thing to understand about me and my siblings is that each of the seven of us are very, very different people. To that end, we don't get together as much as I'd like, and since I live a few states away from the rest of them, it's even rarer that I get the chance to see or talk with them. So, I was genuinely touched when two of my siblings called me to wish me a happy birthday. In my entire life, that was the first time that has happened. I've had years where one of them will call, usually not the same one, but this year I had two! Figuratively speaking, that was the icing on the cake.

------

P.S. -- My parents did send a check to me for my birthday. It was worth far more than they should have spent, and I chastised them for that in the same moment I expressed my gratitude. Funny how we are sometimes. In any case, I used the money to buy a bicycle rack so that we can more easily take our bicycles with us when we go camping or to the park. It's something we've wanted for a long time. Thanks Mom and Dad!

Friday, August 10, 2007

Pink Box

Oy. I'm a dog. A slobbering dog. A slobbering dog who loves donuts. Somebody just walked by with a pink box, and I know there's donuts inside it. I don't even have to smell them, but I know they're there. There's probably a chocolate cake donut with chocolate frosting and peanuts sprinkled on top. I want it. Right now. Oy.

So I work in a place with cubicles. Most of us are engineers who spend far more time in meetings than we do actually doing engineering. Since we also work on a federal facility, people aren't allowed to bring donuts and coffee (which I don't drink) to meetings -- it's considered "bribery" and "unethical" (hey, I don't make the rules). But we're also human (mostly), and so occasionally somebody will bring a box of donuts to take the edge off an early morning meeting.

And here's where the pink box comes in. I'm obsessive about them -- or rather their contents. I don't know how or why most donut boxes came to be pink and so very common amongst the makers of donuts, but they seem to be a standard now. Whenever I see somebody carrying one in, I ask myself the following series of questions:

"Who is carrying the box?"
"Is it somebody I work with?"
"Where are they going?"
"Is it for a meeting to which I'm invited?"
"Can I get myself invited to the meeting?"
"Is it possible I could gently insert myself into the meeting, steal a donut, and then excuse myself?"
"Could I just sneak into the meeting room, steal a donut, then sneak back out without being noticed?"
"Should I follow the donut box carrier, then when they set the box down somewhere before the meeting, I could steal a donut and make a quick getaway?"
"Maybe I should just tackle them, take the box, and run away ..."

Well, that last one's not a question, but usually my train of thought goes in that direction. I try to fight these base tendencies. I know I don't really need the donut, as I do try very hard to watch my weight (with mixed success), but I most certainly do want the donut. I'm no better than Pavlov's dog, who slobbered whenever the bell was rung -- except for me, it's not a bell ringing, but rather the blissful vision of a beautiful pink box.

4.6 Earthquake in Chatsworth

According to the U.S. Geological Service (USGS), there was a magnitude 4.6 earthquake on August 9th, 2007, at 12:58:49 am. The epicenter is recorded at 34.3 N 118.62 W (just north of Chatsworth, CA) at a depth of 7.5 kilometers. Since I live at roughly 34.46 N 123.17 W, this put the epicenter roughly 14 1/2 miles away from my house (surface point to subsurface epicenter).

Now I'm a pretty heavy sleeper, but this one did wake me up. My wife is a pretty light sleeper, but it barely woke her up -- she must have been really tired. The last time we were awoken with an earthquake in the middle of the night, my wife was in a state of near-panic and was awake for the rest of the night. This time, however, we both woke up and went right back to sleep. I recall that my first impression upon waking was that there was either a large truck rumbling down the street, the kids had dropped something large, or there was a bomb that had gone off somewhere in the distance.

In any case, my wife says she suggested it was an earthquake at the time and I just grunted and went back to sleep. What I remember was waking up and asking, "What was that?" then grunting and rolling back to sleep. At least the latter half of the story matches between us.

In any case, I don't get too disturbed about earthquakes. They're just not a big fear of mine. My take is that unless it's big enough to start knocking stuff off shelves, it's not worth getting excited over. And if it is big like that, my philosophy is simple, but maddening to my wife: try not to die and move on with your life.

At this point, you might be scratching your head about the "bomb" part from the second paragraph, and how I could possibly go back to sleep so easily if that was a possibility that had run through my head. You see, I grew up in Tooele, UT, where there's a big munitions dump nearby. While I was growing up, there would regularly be big explosions that would rock the town -- rattling windows, causing car alarms to begin to blare, and the like. In the mid-80s, the U.S. Army had to detonate these old bombs and such as a means of safely disposing of them in response to the disarmament agreements with the Soviet Union. So, weirdly enough, explosions in the distance don't even phase me. And if they don't bother me, then why would I get all uptight about a little shaking caused by a little earthquake?

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Acceptance

Last night I had the chance to visit with a family where one of the teenage daughters frequently struggles with depression, migraines, and other various medical problems. For example, late last Sunday night, the daughter had literally crawled down the hallway from her bedroom towards her mother's door, her head throbbing with magnificent pain, where she scratched at the door, sobbing and begging for help to make the pain go away.

The mother was greatly disturbed by this (who wouldn't be?!), and last night we had a difficult discussion about faith and hope and a willingness to accept things that we are powerless to change. The mother had been struggling with maintaining hope when it seems that nothing ever seems to get better for her daughter.

In the course of the discussion, I was reminded that we do not always have the power to overcome our difficulties. Sometimes things simply don't ever get better. When that happens, are we to lose faith, forget hope, and abandon ourselves to misery and sorrow? Or are we to strengthen our resolve and press forward? I was reminded at the time of a scripture from the New Testament's Gospel of Matthew (11:28-30), where Jesus Christ said:

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

You see, this good woman had been feeling that this burden was hers alone to bear. She had forgotten that she is not alone, that she is not solely responsible to help her daughter, to attempt to "fix" things. Sometimes when things are particularly difficult, we often feel very much alone, and forget that we have family and friends who can help us. This particular woman is surrounded by people who do their best to practice the following words from a prophet named Alma, as recorded in The Book of Mormon's Book of Mosiah (18:8-9):

... as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death ...

Her good family was standing by, literally feet away from her, as she expressed her sorrow and her frustration to me at her inability to make things better for her daughter. Why did she not look to them for comfort? Why did she not seek support from them? She clearly needed to speak to somebody, but she had felt this burden was hers alone to bear, and that her family could not help her. What faulty thinking! What a sad moment it was for me to see the looks on her family's face as I reminded her that this isn't her challenge alone. They nodded with empathy and clearly were grateful that I was saying what they somehow had not been able to express.

I reminded her of a scripture from the Doctrine and Covenants (122:8) -- a revelation received by the prophet Joseph Smith when he was feeling particularly down that reminded him to be humble and recognize our place:

The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?

We are children of our Heavenly Father. Jesus Christ is our Savior. He has suffered beyond all to take upon Him our transgressions, if we will but repent and look to him for forgiveness. Any measure of pain and suffering we can experience in this life pales in comparison to that which the Savior experienced to bring us to Him again. Let us remember the words from the Old Testament's 23rd Psalm:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

A beautiful psalm which reminds us of the promises set before us. Regardless of what happens in this life, what troubles or afflictions we must bear, we have been promised that we can return to live with our Father in Heaven again.

We do not understand the plan that God has for each of us. We do not know all it's details; our ignorance is an integral part of that plan, required to properly test us and to enable us to exercise our free will. What will we do with that blessing and that burden?

Perhaps this woman's daughter will never get better. Perhaps it is our Father's plan that she suffer her entire life so that those around her can be blessed with the opportunity to comfort her, to learn patience, and to be a witness to her willingness to endure suffering. Perhaps Father will take her Home early -- there is no evidence of that, yet if it were so, that would be all right, too, in the end. Or perhaps, hopefully (please let it be so!), the Lord will have mercy on this young girl and her mother, and heal her from her infirmities. One never knows.

But what I do know is that regardless of what may happen in this life, we have been given some counsel which we should not forget. It comes from the prophet Nephi, as recorded in the 2nd Book of Nephi (31:20) in the Book of Mormon, which reads:

Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Time

I've concluded that time is not my friend. Oh, it flows well enough. It is steady and reliable, but it is also unrelenting. Some say that time is a mechanism to prevent everything from happening at once. This is very convenient, and I appreciate that, but at the same time, it also prevents one from enjoying anything for any significant amount of time.

The theory of relativity says that if you were to travel really fast, then everything else around you would appear to speed up. This would be a good way to skip commercials on TV, or to pass the time while waiting for the next Harry Potter book to come out, but it is a one-way trip. If you forgot to take your spouse with you while you were waiting out the next few presidential elections, you'd come home to an older, lonelier, and probably very grumpier spouse.

Some people consider time to be the fourth-dimension. I think this is faulty thinking. We have three dimensions in our everyday life -- we can go up and down, forwards and backwards, and left and right -- through which we can all travel with relative ease. However, time, the so-called fourth dimension, isn't so simple to navigate.

In the world of science fiction, it is an interesting theoretical study that one could create a time machine to move around in time. It makes for good reading to wonder what would happen if you killed one of your own grandparents before they had any children, or if you stepped on a butterfly twenty million years ago, or if you went forward in time and brought home some advanced technologies. Usually, such alterations in the events of history past or history future have severe consequences, and it is generally thought that messing with time is undesirable.

But sometimes, I do really want to be a master over time. For example, some days I want to keep my children in their young age so I can enjoy their youthful enthusiasm, their ease of laughter, and their delight at learning new things. Other days, I want them to be much older, so I could actually stop changing diapers, or take my children out on more adult excursions than just to Chuck-E-Cheese's. Some days, I just want to lie in bed with my wife for untold hours, cuddling beneath the blankets and enjoying the warmth. Other times, I just want to add hours more to the day, for I never seem to be able to get things done in the time I have available. Or just to have enough time to actually get enough sleep! And wouldn't it be great to be able to go back in time to make changes (make corrections AND make mistakes?) to what we've done so that we could see how things would have worked out had we done something different? (Then back track to our "baseline" lives ... but only if we wanted to?)

But none of this is possible to us right now. I don't think it ever will be. God has created this universe to run only forward, no doubt for very good reasons. One of these days, I intend to ask him about that.

Movie Review: Transformers

Last Friday, my wife and I went out on a date to see the Transformers live-action movie. It was our semi-regular date night, which we don't get as often as we'd like. In addition, we don't usually get out to many movies -- there's just not that many that seem worth the time and money (around $10 per ticket, $5 per hour for the babysitter, plus any money we spend on dinner ... it adds up). But my wife knew I really wanted to see it, so she humored me and off we went!

As it turns out, this movie was everything I expected it to be: a good romp with plenty of action that allowed me to reminisce on my memories of watching the cartoon while satisfying some of my baser teenage instincts. Huh?, you may say? Well, read on.

As a kid, I loved the Transformers. Not just liked, but absolutely loved them. My parents didn't have a lot of resources, so I often would beg and plead and whine for a Transformer for the usual gift-receiving holidays. Only a few times did I actually get one, and there's one in particular that I still love and adore to this day (The G1 Jetfire, which design was blatantly stolen from the Robotech Veritech Fighter). I don't even allow my kids to play with it and it sits reverently on a shelf in my closet. One of these days I'll probably bronze it and mount it above my fireplace.

Anyway, back to the movie. It was pretty silly in a lot of good ways. The storyline wasn't unique or unusual (from a science fiction standpoint), and contained the usual plot devices one would expect to see, as follows:

-- Nerdy boy inherits important artifact from grandfather
-- Nerdy boy lusts after very attractive girl (VAG, for short) who doesn't know he exists and is way out of his league.
-- Nerdy boy and VAG get caught in the crossfire of very large robots (VLRs, for short) that somehow don't end up pasting the two of them to the sidewalk.
-- Nerdy boy and VAG end up as part of a government plot to keep the existence of VLRs under wraps, in the process discovering something using the aforementioned artifact that will allow them to later save the world.
-- Nerdy boy and VAG end up in the middle of even more crossfire between many VLRs, again somehow not getting pasted to the sidewalk.
-- Nerdy boy is able to escape the biggest, baddest VLR in a footrace.
-- Nerdy boy dispatches the biggest, baddest VLR using the aforementioned discovery, thereby saving the world.
-- Nerdy boy and VAG get together.

Along the way, there were plenty of things that annoyed, such as a mother whose every utterance was cringe-inducing, slow pans across the fenders of various automobiles, and even more slow pans across the fenders of the VAG intermixed with shots of the nerdy boy biting his knuckles in sexual frustration. There is no doubt, however, that these things appeal to the two primary target audiences for this movie, namely teenage boys and early middle-aged boys who grew up watching Transformers (that'd be me).

But there were also plenty of things that I loved, too. Each and every time a Transformer did it's thing, I wanted to put it on super-slow-motion and zoom in on every frame. The action scenes were well done (not overdone, as is often the case with this type of movie) and the story didn't even have that many plot holes.

I did have to suspend my disbelief whenever the Transformers changed because, apparently, there's no such thing as conservation of mass (or volume, as far as constant-temperature solids are concerned), and I was a little perplexed about why the main plot device, which creates new Transformers, would always create mean and nasty little buggers (which were quite humorous, in many cases, though).

Nevertheless, I did quite enjoy the movie. It's not one I'll buy to put on my shelf, as it's got plenty of morally ambiguous content that I don't want to keep in my home, but I'll probably rent it someday so I can do the super-slow-motion/zooming that I was desperate to do in the theater.

My rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars. Well worth watching twice.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The Genesis Impact

Back in 2004 I was witness to one of the most amazing things I've ever seen. NASA JPL had sent a spacecraft, called Genesis, to sit at the Lagrange point between the Earth and the sun to collect particles from the solar wind. The spacecraft behaved beautifully and returned to Earth in September of 2004. I was able to go to Dugway, UT, and take my father with me, to go sit in the hangar at Michael's Air Field when the spacecraft returned to Earth. The original plan was to have the spacecraft enter the atmosphere and pop out some parachutes, which a helicopter would hook in order to slowly lower the spacecraft to the ground.

Things didn't exactly go as planned. I sat in the hangar that September day with my father, who had retired from Dugway Proving Grounds, and explained to him how it was to work. With all the dignitaries around us, we watched as the capture helicopter (with the Hollywood-based chase helicopter, which was taking awesome footage) took off and headed out over the desert to the entry zone. Retreating into the hangar, we watched on several big screens as the video was transmitted back from the helicopters. There were also plenty of cameras watching the spacecraft re-enter Earth's atmosphere, and we got the first look of the dot in the sky while it was still over Washington state (from western Utah -- those were pretty good optics!). As the cameras continued to track the vehicle through the sky, it seemed to pulse bright then dark then bright again. This was expected because the vehicle was slightly spinning at the time.

As the object got closer and we could resolve it a little better, my father leaned over and asked, "Is that thing tumbling?" In my infinite wisdom, I replied, "No, it can't be." Uh huh. It was tumbling, and it shouldn't have been.

The funny thing was that the commentator, a big cheese from JPL, was also telling people that it was normal to see the coloration flickering like it was. Even after it was time for the parachutes to deploy, the commentator was wrongly assuring everybody, "You wouldn't expect to see it, yet." Clearly something was wrong.

So we watched it come in. It was extraordinary footage to watch as this UFO looking thing tumbled through the sky. And it moved so very quickly that we were shocked when it impacted. Even the mission operators were surprised, as one of the managers asked (after impact had been reported), "Do we have an altitude?" Came the reply, "That's impact, sir. Ground level." The reply was delivered quite deadpan, but you could hear the lilting "You idiot. Didn't you hear me the first time?" tone in the man's voice.

We were stunned. In muted silence we watched as bomb specialists were delivered to the spacecraft to defuse the explosive bolts that hadn't blown to release the parachutes. Their every move around the little capsule, which was firmly embedded in the muddy, cracked sand of the desert, was careful and coordinated -- downright mechanical. Soon after, the party-that-wasn't was over, and we left the base to go home.

It turns out that the builders of the spacecraft had mounted a device upside-down -- the device that was to detect the deceleration of the spacecraft in the atmosphere and determine when to deploy the parachutes. It was one of those mistakes that happen when people are overworked, underfunded, and over-confident. With no parachutes deployed, the vehicle came screaming in and crash-landed. It had been assumed that in order for the scientists to properly analyze the samples, the samples needed to be kept isolated from Earth's environment, and the project had spent an enormous amount of money to set up a sample handling chain to get the samples out of the spacecraft's canister and into the isolated facility where they would be analyzed. Seeing the spacecraft splattered in the sand with the sample capsule cracked open, the samples shattered and mud seeping in, was nothing short of devastating to the scientists.

Luckily, the scientists were still able to get good results from the samples. Ironically, this called into question the need to have spent all that money building the sample handling chain in the first place.

In any case, seeing that tumbling spacecraft and the final impact was a poignant moment in my life. We were all stunned and saddened by the event, and we left with a terrible sinking feeling in our stomaches.

But me -- it's just the kind of guy that I am -- I also secretly harbored some other feeling that I didn't voice for quite a while. It was a feeling that simply said, "Wow, that was pretty cool." I mean, really, how often do you see that kind of thing?!

Tagged Results

So my wife "tagged" me, meaning that she sent me a list of things to which I'm supposed to answer 4 items and then ask 4 other people to do the same. I usually detest this sort of stuff as a phenomenal waste of time, but since she's my wife, I'll do it this time -- but I won't ask 4 others to do it! Here goes, in no particular order ...

Favorite four jobs I've held:
-- Where I work now for the space industry in southern CA
-- Utah State University in the computer lab in Logan, UT
-- Lockheed Martin Missiles and Space in Sunnyvale, CA
-- Holiday Inn Reservations Center in Salt Lake City, UT

Four movies I can watch over and over again:
-- 2010
-- Anything Star Wars
-- I, Robot
-- The Day After Tomorrow

Four places I have lived:
-- Arcadia, CA
-- Sunnyvale, CA
-- Logan, UT
-- Tooele, UT

Four TV shows I watch:
-- LOST
-- Survivor
-- Amazing Race
-- The 4400

Four places I've been on vacation:
-- London, England
-- Cruise to Catalina Island, CA; and Ensenada, Mexico
-- Lake Powell, UT
-- Big Sur and Monterrey, CA

Four favorite foods:
-- Macaroni and Cheese
-- Meatlovers Pizza
-- A good salad (believe it or not)
-- Anything chocolate

Four websites I visit:
-- my.yahoo.com
-- www.cnn.com
-- www.space.com/news
-- www.desnews.com

Four people I'm tagging now:
-- Nope, ain't gonna do it.

Click here to see the full blog.


Visitor Map