Friday, November 8, 2013

Happiness is a Flat Pillow

I have a character flaw.

“Just one?” you ask.

Before I reveal the shocking secret about what it is, here’s a little background. While on vacation once, I discovered I slept much more soundly than at home. It wasn’t because of the quiet, well-insulated room. It wasn’t that we’d been walking around Disneyland all day and I was worn out. It wasn’t that we were on a relaxing vacation that we’d paid for months earlier. It wasn’t because we’d chosen a time of year when the lines at Disneyland were actually bearable.

No, I slept well because the pillow was comfortable.

So when we returned home after the vacation, I needed to get a new pillow. I went to Mervyn’s department store and looked at the expensive goose down pillows. They were fifty dollars, so I skipped those and bought a pair of synthetic down pillows for thirty dollars each—one for me, one for my wife.

I was so excited to sleep on my new pillow that I went to bed extra early. But unfortunately, the new pillow was only slightly better than the worn-out pillow I already had. It was way too hard. It felt like I was sleeping on a large yam. Raw, not cooked. I tossed around all night. My wife couldn’t tell the difference between the new and the old either and questioned why I even disliked the old. The next day I took the two pillows back to Mervyn’s.

It’s nice that many stores will let you return almost anything and Mervyn’s graciously took the pillows back. So I bought the fifty dollar real down pillows and returned home with a happy heart.

I went to bed even earlier this time. Unfortunately, I felt like Goldilocks—this one was way too soft. My head sunk all the way to the bed. It was like sleeping on an empty pillowcase with two large mounds on either side of me. I nearly suffocated. My wife switched to the old pillow partway through the night. Once again, I returned the two pillows to Mervyn’s. I think I might be the reason Mervyn’s went out of business.

I gave up on Mervyn’s and went to Costco’s website where I ordered two premium Kirkland Signature genuine down-filled pillows. They cost seventy dollars each and arrived a few days later. These were so light and fluffy that the UPS driver owed me money for delivering them to me.

I think I went to bed around six in the evening this time. The pillow wasn’t yammy. It wasn’t flat. Unfortunately, neither was it much better than the original old pillow I was trying to replace. My wife promptly pointed this out the next morning.

Here’s where my personality flaw came into focus. And it has nothing to do with being picky about pillows.

Rather, I realized I’d just spent nearly one hundred and fifty dollars to sleep comfortably while there must be a billion people around the world that don’t even have beds. How many people can’t sleep because their neighborhood is getting bombed? How many children have nightmares all night from abuse, fear, abandonment, hunger, or disease? And I was worried about a comfy pillow. What was I thinking?

My flaw is that I have an overdeveloped sense of worry for all the bad things in the world that I can’t do anything about, and that aren’t my fault to begin with. I mean, can I really help it that a young girl in Nepal got sold into trafficking? Maybe not, but it still bothers me.

So I returned the pillows to Costco and donated the money to an acquaintance in Indonesia who’d lost her job and had failing health. Then I went to Kmart and bought a pair of seven dollar pillows.

And I slept better that night than I had in a very long time.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Live to Work – Work to Live

We probably all know people that just love to work. To them, an eighty-hour work week is a joy. After a fifteen-hour work day, they rush home so they can open their laptop and do more work. They could have retired years ago, but then what would they do? Watch other people work? The purpose of life is to work, dang it.

While I admire their industriousness, I’ve always thought it’s the other way around—the purpose of work is to provide you with a decent life. And how can you have a life if you’re always working?

To make our life work with our work life, we humans are always coming up with creative ways to schedule things. In the U.S., the standard forty-hour work week traditionally includes eight-hour work days for five days, or five-eights. Some have altered that to four-tens. Then there are four-nines with a half-day on Friday. Or eight-nines plus one-eight with every other Friday off. Or three-tens plus two-fives . . . (brain explodes here.)

I once tried to convince my boss to let me work two-twenties but he didn’t go for that. I’ve also tried to introduce the “diminishing work” schedule—one ten-hour day, then a nine-hour day, then an eight, a seven, and a six. That’s forty hours but you sleep one hour more and work one hour less each day. Maybe a better name is the “emerging life” schedule. Seemed pretty nice to me, but that wasn’t approved either.

Of course, people that don’t work in an office—like police officers, firefighters, train drivers, and others—probably laugh at all these attempts to change our schedules. They often work several days straight with little sleep. And the workaholics that put in eighty-hour work weeks scoff at the idea of working any less than that.

This weekend, the U.S. will switch from Daylight Savings Time to Standard Time by moving our clocks back one hour. Everyone gets an extra hour of sleep for one night. It’s wonderful. For a few days next week, people will actually arrive at work on time—and cheerful.

I think we should do this once a month. On the first Sunday of each month, let’s all set our clocks back one hour. For the first week of every month, we’ll all be much more refreshed and relaxed. After twelve months, we’ll all be going to work at 8pm, so at that point, we can just switch the AM and PM around and start over. We’d all get additional sleep and more importantly, perhaps we’d enjoy life more. Sound like a plan?

Monday, October 14, 2013

How to Become a Hero

Or: An Excellent Way to Make the World a Much Worse Place

This post is much different from my usual posts and it took me much longer to write. It's not about a personal experience. Rather, I’m writing about an interesting way we humans use to pursue our own agendas. Plus, I’m not trying to be funny or entertaining this time, and I don’t even have any photos to include, dang it. And please don’t take this post as me trying to be partisan. This is about humans, not about politics.

The maxim I want to present is this—and others have probably put this much more eloquently:
“If you create an enemy, then vilify that enemy, you’ll become the hero.”
This is an idea I’ve thought about for a long time as I see the way people interact with one another. And I think pretty much everyone does this to some extent, from young kids in a schoolyard to coworkers in an office to political figures with a global audience.

I’m not going to list references and include footnotes and all that, but I’ll give some examples of what I’m talking about. Think for a minute of what you might have learned in Sunday School or history class about the life of Jesus Christ. Whether you believe in His life and teachings or not, you know the story: He taught love, tolerance, and charity, and even performed miracles, but He was still persecuted and eventually murdered. Why? Because He was a threat to the livelihood of the politicians and attorneys of His day (among other reasons). And how did those public figures accomplish their goal? They turned Him into an enemy, then vilified Him as an evil usurper of their way of life, then those public figures became the heroes.

Many have used that same pattern throughout history. Anyone remember a young Nazi named Adolf Hitler? He created enemies—the Jews, the gypsies, the homosexuals (the vernacular of the time), and any non-Aryans. He convinced people that these enemies were evil usurpers of their way of life. Then he became the hero and leader of Germany, and millions of people lost their lives.

Mussolini did something similar through his fascist ideas of biological racism. He created a class of inferior people—the Slavs—and vilified them as barbaric, thus making himself the hero. And of course, the history of that period shows how many people were murdered, imprisoned, or killed during the war as a result.

I live in the state of Utah and our history here shows this very thing. The early members of the Mormon church lived in the eastern part of our country where they were persecuted by politicians and mobs that just wanted to pursue their own agendas. Those early members were peaceful, quiet people who had different religious views than other Christians. But mobs and politicians painted them as evil enemies and drove them from town to town and murdered their leader. Finally, the Mormons left the United States and trekked across the plains to the Rocky Mountains. Fifty years later, when the U.S. was more civilized, their territory joined the union as the state of Utah.

In the U.S, in the 1950s, senator Joseph McCarthy used this maxim to great effect with the political philosophy that became known as mccarthyism. In his case, he created a list of enemies that he claimed were communists. He vilified them as traitors disloyal to the American way of life. As a result, he became the hero and won the next senatorial election. But another result was the many people whose lives and careers were destroyed with no real evidence of them having ever done anything wrong.

Let’s not forget Mao Zedong and his Cultural Revolution in China. In this case the enemies were capitalists and traditional Chinese values and culture. He was so effective in creating a hero cult centered around himself, that children even accused their parents of being anti-revolutionaries and they were sent off to re-education camps. It was a very sad time in Chinese history where many people lost their lives and countless cultural treasures were lost.

I’m sure anyone can come up with more examples, such as the Ku Klux Klan, religious extremists, the subjugation of Native Americans, imperialism during colonial times, racial cleansing during modern times, and the list goes on.

Everyday people, business leaders, and political figures all fall back on this maxim to promote their own agendas. Hate the other party; hate the immigrants; hate anyone that doesn’t speak your language; hate the poor; hate the rich; hate other religions; hate other ethnic groups. As long as people are hating someone else, they’ll ignore your weaknesses and love you.

It’s probably just a simple facet of human nature that we think of those whose opinions we agree with as telling the truth while others are lying hate mongers. It’s also interesting that this is especially noticeable in religion and politics—two areas that potentially touch our lives in very personal ways. The “other guys” are telling lies and spreading acrimony; “my guys” are simply telling the truth.

How is it, though, that people are conned into believing someone is an enemy when they’re really not? Oftentimes the perpetrator uses lies. Other times, they just distort the information for their benefit. But mostly they pander to peoples’ baser emotions of anger, fear, hatred, distrust, paranoia, and similar negative feelings. These emotions are very easy to evoke whereas positive emotions like love and charity are much more difficult.

Using emotion is very effective in many areas. Think of TV advertisements you’ve seen. The frantic car salesman: “Three days only! Hurry! Inventory going fast! You’ll never see prices like this again!” He’s invoking fear of missing out on something, worry, and lost opportunities. Or the opposite with a loving mom lovingly making a lovely casserole out of processed foods for her beloved little loving kids. In this case it’s a positive emotion, but it’s the same idea.

A perfect example of how this works in our modern era is commercial talk shows on radio and television. The purpose of these shows is of course to make money. Many of these hosts make millions of dollars a year and the industry itself makes billions a year. That’s wonderful—I don’t begrudge them the money and I wish I had that kind of income.

But the method they use is not so wonderful. They’ve figured out a great formula, though: portray the other guys as evil—they’re destroying our country and way of life, they’re taking your money, they stole the election—and you evoke those baser feelings of hatred and anger. If someone gets all worked up listening to this today, they’ll be more likely to tune in again tomorrow. And the show continues to bring in millions of dollars. Remember, create an enemy (the other guys), vilify that enemy (They’re Evil! They’re Ruining the Country!), then you become the hero, or in this case, you become rich.

Certainly not all talk shows are like that. Some, including many on nonprofit or community stations, tend to foster more academic discussion and give fair time to all sides of each issue. And even some of the commercial shows invoke one’s intellect and promote the free flow of unbiased information. But most are in existence to make money, and promoting hatred and anger is the easiest way to do that.

How many times in the last decade have you heard someone claim they hate a particular politician? I often wonder, do they really hate that person or just dislike that person’s views? In many cases, it seems they legitimately hate the person, even though they’ve never met before.

Last fall, I read a short essay (written by a talk show host, no less) where the author talked about all the reasons she hated a prominent politician. About half the reasons were lies, many of the rest were gross distortions of the truth, and others were just her opinion. But none of them seemed to be a good reason to hate the person. However, by convincing others to also hate that politician, she was growing her audience and her pocketbook. And we wonder why there is so much divisiveness and anger in politics today. Again, my posting isn’t about politics; I’m just using this as one example.

I’m sure there’s no global solution to stop all the hatred and anger in our world today. I wish I had an answer. I wish I could say I don’t do the very things I’m talking about in this post. The fact is, I find it hard in my own life to avoid these same negative feelings.

But maybe if each person resolved to try to build bridges rather than acrimony, the world would slowly become a better place. Maybe when we sit around the dinner table and discuss the events of the day, we can go out of our way to point out all sides of the issue, not just those we agree with. Maybe first we need to spend time getting to know all sides of the issue. Maybe when we talk with our children and friends about something important to us, we can use less hateful language. Maybe we can make friends with people whose lifestyles are different from our own.

I’ll end this with a quote that reminds us of this very thing. This is from former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking at the Utah Women’s Conference in Salt Lake City on October 11, 2013. The following is from an article in the Salt Lake Tribune.* (Oops, it looks like I did include a reference and a footnote after all, sorry.)

“She said it is easy in today’s world to receive news and blogs only from people who share the same views. If you find yourself with company where everyone ‘says amen to everything you say, you need to find new company,’ Rice said. Sticking only with like-minded people will cause you either to lose your ability to defend your views or the ability to see when you are wrong.

“She added that if people never encounter others with whom they disagree, they ‘start to think of them as stupid or venal because you don’t have the chance to exchange views.’”

Amen to that (ha ha).

* Davidson, Lee. “Condoleezza Rice: World needs U.S. to solve shutdown, partisanship.” The Salt Lake Tribune. The Salt Lake Tribune (Media News Group), 11 October, 2013. Accessed 14 October, 2013.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

How to Impress a Guy—Not!

I'm certainly no expert when it comes to relationships, but I have a good story about what NOT to do. In fact, if you're trying to impress someone, do the opposite of this. Luckily for me, this is a story about someone else—I'm really glad I didn't do it. But it did involve me, sort of.

When my wife and I were still dating, we joined a tour group to southern Taiwan. I lived in the north part of the island at the time, where I taught English and did my best to avoid serious responsibility. This tour group was comprised mainly of single young people, and one of those was a girl I'll call Mei, because I can't remember her real name. She desperately liked another young man on the trip that I'll call Yang, for the same reason. Yang, however, had no interest in Mei. I found out later it was due to Mei's drinking problem. She was only in her early twenties, but had a serious issue with alcohol, which often made it difficult for her to impress anyone. But she definitely tried.

We took large tour buses to a small resort village next to a beautiful gorge in the southern mountains. Several dorm-like hotels sat on the very edge of the gorge. Taiwan has constant earthquakes, so you kind of wonder what the builders were thinking. But luckily, the hotels didn't fall off while we were there. Though I think after the following experience, Mei probably wished they would have. The tour leader assigned the guys to stay in one set of dorms and the girls in another.

In the evening, many in the group sat around talking and joking, with Mei kind of hanging all over Yang while she slowly got plastered. He tried getting rid of her, but she wasn't too good at taking hints. Yang finally got tired of the whole thing, and decided to go to bed. I was sleepy by then too, and the two of us happened to be sharing a room with two other guys, so I accompanied him back to the room.

Our room had two double beds in it, and Yang and I had chosen one. I suppose it seems a little odd for me to be sharing a bed with a guy I'd never met prior to the trip, but hey, life was simpler back then. Not long later, the other two guys came in and the four of us soon fell asleep.

After consuming a case or two of beer, Mei eventually decided Yang must be waiting for her to join him. Why else would he have gone to bed? So she walked into our room—which we had unfortunately forgotten to lock—and climbed in bed with Yang and me. Yang quickly scooted away from her and I scooted away from him. She then scooted closer to him, he scooted away, and so did I. This continued until I was squished against the wall with Yang squished against me and Mei squished against him.

All of our scooting wasn't just from the fact that any nocturnal activity would have been a little awkward (it was a pretty small bed). Rather, it was the fact that beer apparently made Mei sweat a lot. Anyone that says "guys sweat—girls glow" hasn't been around a sweaty drunk girl in a tropical climate. It made for a potent stew.

Yang finally gave up on scooting and climbed over Mei then camped out on the floor. Mei continued scooting until at one point she realized I wasn't Yang. So she sat up, looked around all dopey-eyed, then joined Yang on the floor. He of course quickly joined me in bed. This little dance went on for some time until Mei finally passed out, half on the bed and half off. Yang then pushed her onto the floor and we were all able to sleep. If Yang wasn't impressed with Mei by then, I don't know what more she could have done.

At five the next morning, I found out. She jumped up off the floor, tripped over the chair, and stumbled into the bathroom where she proceeded to impress Yang with the most horrible noises I'd ever heard. I didn't know humans could make those kinds of sounds. She stayed in there about half an hour and only came out because a giant beetle the size of a small bird flew into the bathroom from the open window. She screamed, tripped all over the room, then ran outside. Yang quickly locked the door and we were all very happy to finally have some peace and quiet.

And I can tell you, Yang was definitely impressed. I don't know what happened to the beetle.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Sweet Revenge

I used to work in a small office setting with only a few other employees. Outside our office, at the end of a long, dark hall, sat an old vending machine. It was notorious for taking our money without delivering the goods. It worked about half the time and stole our money the rest. But whenever we were hungry, we'd crawl timidly down the hallway, pay our dues—seventy-five cents for a fruit pie—and had faith that the desired treat would appear. More often than not, our faith was shaken.

One day we discovered that if you put money in it, you'd get nothing back, which was not surprising. But if you just pulled the knob without any money, the treat magically arrived in the bin. It was busted—in the best possible way! As soon as word of this great windfall got out, vengeance day arrived. We stopped all our work and gathered around the machine, swiping all the candy we could. It was payback time at the office.

For better or worse, our consciences soon started feeling bad. Inexplicably, so did our stomachs. We'd already stolen and eaten about half the chocolate bars, fruit pies, Twinkies, and other equally nutritious trash, but maybe it was time to let the owner know about his broken machine. One of us finally called the service number posted near the change slot and reported what was happening.

The vending guy showed up very quickly. He repaired it then stopped in our office to thank us for acting as such outstanding citizens by reporting it. He was a small business and his only source of income was these vending machines he'd set up in offices. We nervously glanced at each other. He only made a few pennies on each sale and even the loss of one piece of candy took many more sales to make up for. All the stolen swag in our stomachs began churning in an odd way. He and his wife spent each day driving around the valley to check on machines and it wasn't an easy way to make a living. I waited for him to tell us about his disabled child and dying mother next.

We kept looking at the floor and rubbing our necks and wishing he'd stop making us feel like The Great Satan. Finally, he pulled out some candy and set it on the table for us.

"Thanks for being such honest people and reporting this to me," he said, then turned and left. As I recall, that candy remained on the table a long time before someone finally ate it.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Paper Jobber

I swear I'm not making this story up. In fact, all the stories I relate through my blog are true. Mostly.

Have you ever had an experience that you later thought was "just like a Brady Bunch episode," or "just like something from Seinfeld?" I had an experience straight out of The Office. The Office is a hilarious sitcom in the U.S. about a fictional paper supply company. If you've never seen it, and that description seems boring, I defy you to watch an episode without laughing.

Anyway, in my experience, I needed to buy a large roll of cheap paper to cover some banquet tables. It was just one roll of paper, so how difficult could it be? I stopped at a nearby paper company and went in the front door, then up a long stairway to the second floor office.

Inside, the office was just like any other office you've all seen—people busy at desks scattered around the floor. Except this office had a massive cage in the middle of the room housing a huge, green parrot. The parrot saw me and squawked loud enough to hurt my ears. It flapped and blew feathers all over. Nobody at the desks even noticed, except for the receptionist who looked up and very politely asked what I needed.

"Uh, just a roll of butcher paper."

She smiled. "Do you have an account?"

I didn't.

"Then you can just drive around back to the Will Call dock and pick up a roll there."

That seemed easy enough. I thanked her, the parrot squawked at me, and I left.

I drove to the back of the building. A large gentleman wearing a baseball cap backwards greeted me at Will Call. I explained what I needed.

"No problem," he said with a smile. "Just go up these stairs here and pay for it, then we'll get the paper for you."

A tall and narrow flight of stairs stood next to the loading dock and led to a small doorway above the warehouse. I climbed up and walked in. A loud squawk announced my presence—I was in the back of the very office I'd just left.

Thinking I was in the wrong place, I asked someone at the nearest desk where to pay for Will Call items. She pointed me to the front receptionist. I walked back up to her.

"The guy at Will Call sent me back here."

"That's correct," she said. "You need to pay for the paper first."

"Then why didn't you—"

"Hold on a moment," she said. "Let me call up a salesman so you can place your order."

She dialed a number on her phone and another phone on a desk not ten feet away rang. That can't be who she's calling.

Sure enough, an older man sitting there answered the phone. "This is James."

"I have a man up front who needs to order some paper," the receptionist said with a totally straight face.

"I'll be right up." He hung up his phone and walked three steps to the front desk.

For the third time, I explained what I needed. He pulled a large catalog off the receptionist's desk and flipped through it until he found large rolls of butcher paper. "Is this what you need?"

I nodded.

He wrote the item number down on a yellow sticky note and handed it to the receptionist, then returned to his desk as though nothing strange was happening at all.

I turned back to the receptionist. "Couldn't you have just done the same—"

She interrupted again. "Will that be cash or credit card?"

I handed her my credit card, which she ran through her machine and had me sign a receipt.

"You can go back to Will Call now and we'll send the order there."

I carefully avoided the squawking parrot and weaved my way to the back door then walked down to the Will Call guy.

"I paid for the paper," I explained.

"Okey dokey," he said. "We just need to wait for the order to get here so we don't grab the wrong roll for you."

I glanced into his small office where a computer sat on his desk. It appeared the computer wasn't even turned on. How's he going to get the order without his computer on?

He started talking with me about the weather and sports and other important things. I kept looking at his computer, but he didn't seem concerned at all that it wasn't on. Soon, the door above the tall staircase opened. Another young lady walked out—and again I swear I'm not making this up—and she picked up a small basket that was on the stairs, placed a piece of paper in it, and lowered it down using a rope. When the basket reached a table below the door, she rang a small bell.

Mr. Will Call finally perked up. "There's an order now. I'll go see if it's yours."

I looked around and didn't see another customer in the whole warehouse.

He picked up the paper from the basket, tugged on the rope, and the young lady pulled it back up.

He walked back. "Yep, one roll of manila butcher paper, all paid for. Hold on, and we'll get this for you." He detached a walkie talkie from his belt. "Tom, we have a Will Call order."

"10-4," Tom responded through the radio.

Soon, a large forklift arrived with a young man inside. Mr. Will Call showed Tom the order and Tom drove the forklift a total of fifteen feet to the rolls of butcher paper, which happened to be on the very first aisle. He loaded one onto the forklift and drove back. He pulled up right next to the edge of the loading dock, and lowered the forks down to my waiting car.

Mr. Will Call watched the whole thing, then explained, "We always use machinery here, because we don't want to lift anything that might injure our backs."

I guess that included computer mice. I nodded to him, hurried out, and easily lifted up the light roll of paper and placed it in my trunk. Tom and Mr. Will Call waved at me as I drove away.

I think even the U.S. military couldn't come up with a better system than the one used by my local paper jobber.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Barbie vs. Mrs. Pillsbury

I met a real Barbie one day. It wasn't so much how she looked—if she really looked like Barbie, she'd probably have lower back problems and fall over a lot. Rather, it was her lifestyle that brought the comparison. It happened when my older daughter, Miara, needed a ride home from a friend's house. I'd already changed into my pajamas and didn't want to change back, so I put on an old army-style coat that I'd gotten from a friend who wanted to throw it away. I couldn't find my shoes, so I stepped into my winter snow boots. I'm sure I looked right at home—that is, if my home was under a freeway overpass.

I drove up the steep hill, past the country club, to the friend's house. All the houses there were very nice, very big, and each one very unique. They must have had restrictive covenants requiring meticulous landscaping and Range Rovers. The view of all the lights in the valley below was pretty awesome.

I rang the loud, clanging doorbell and Ken and Barbie answered. Barbie had immaculate hair and makeup, even at that late hour. Ken's sporty sweater hadn't a wrinkle on it. They invited me in to the parlor, where I stood on the shiny hardwood floor next to an equally shiny Steinway. Two very well behaved dogs strode in and sat quietly.

By all measures, it was the perfect couple, with a perfect house, in a perfect neighborhood, and perfect dogs. I'll bet they even trained the dogs to use the toilet. Despite how nice it was, I felt extremely uncomfortable and out of place. It wasn't my clothing, but more like I'd stepped into a totally different reality. They told me how much the girls had enjoyed their time down in the theater room all evening. Ken asked what I did for a living. I told him I drove trucks for the landfill.

Luckily Miara soon emerged from the palace basement and rescued me. Once she saw my attire, she said goodbye to her friend and pushed me out the door. After that, she always asked Mom to pick her up.

A few months later, my younger daughter Ro Ro needed a ride home from a friend's house. This neighborhood was the exact opposite of Barbie On The Hill's. It was sandwiched between a freeway, a hotel, and a refinery. The houses in the cul-de-sac were originally all the same, but several sported additional rooms and sheds attached to the main structure. Toys, bikes, lawnmowers, and dogs cluttered the yards. One house had an old muscle car on blocks in the driveway with an engine dangling above it. The sidewalk had some cool skateboard and bike ramps where tree roots had lifted up the concrete slabs.

I parked in the single-car driveway and held the screen door steady so I could knock on it. A half-dozen kids rushed to welcome me in. I gathered that they lived in nearby houses but used this one as their second home. The living room had a mess of toys that the kids were having a great time playing with. A slobbery, crotch-sniffing dog lumbered around and knocked stuff down with his tail.

The mom walked out of the kitchen and my first impression was of Mrs. Pillsbury—Poppie Fresh. She wore a stained apron and carried a spatula. Bobbie pins held her greying hair back. Her bare feet looked used to stepping on Hot Wheels and jacks.

She immediately related how much fun it was to have the kids all there and invited me to stay for dinner. It smelled wonderful, but we had to leave. For those few minutes I was there, though, I felt completely at home. It was like I'd known the family my whole life.

I don't want to force a value judgment on these two families. I'm sure Ken and Barbie were wonderful people that I could have become good friends with—if I had season opera tickets. And I have a lot of respect for someone who's ambitious enough to afford that lifestyle. I'm also sure Poppie Fresh sometimes wished she had a bigger home and someone to cook for her once in a while. But it struck me that Poppie's home was so much more inviting because she wasn't out to prove anything.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Strawberries vs. Juniper Berries

Two of my sisters-in-law are in town for a few weeks from Taiwan. They're both very nice and generous, and have enjoyed traveling many places, particularly in Asia and Europe. During a conversation, they talked about The Strawberry Generation in Taiwan—referring to many young people who can't seem to do anything on their own. The strawberries live with their parents, can't find a decent job, and rely on others for everything. The comparison to strawberries comes from the fact that strawberries go bad after a very short time if not stored in optimal conditions.

Delicate Arch
While they were here, we visited Arches National Park and Dead Horse Point. Anyone who's traveled to Utah's Red Rock Country knows the climate there is hot, dry, high elevation desert. It's beautiful, but extremely inhospitable. We hiked to the iconic Delicate Arch. That trail isn't a particularly long hike, but can be arduous for those not accustomed to hiking, especially in that climate. Our Land Cruiser is well-suited to slick rock four-wheeling so we took it up the relatively mild Gemini Bridges trail and stopped at many of the overlooks and took way too many pictures that we'll probably never look at again. (We didn't take the Cruiser on the Metal Masher trail, because we needed to get back to Salt Lake City in one piece.)

Along with cactus and sagebrush, juniper is very common in Red Rock Country. Junipers (杜鬆屬) are a scrubby evergreen with stringy bark and small green berries. I love junipers—they remind me of many family vacations to Southern Utah in my youth. Junipers can survive the harshest of climes, high and low temperature extremes, deep snow, no water for months at a time, and very poor soil. They're the exact opposite of strawberries.

My daughter Amria and I later talked about our trip and realized that many people fall into these two categories—strawberries and junipers. Some people can't handle the least amount of discomfort or can't function when facing even small adversity. Others, like the mountain bikers we saw on the Gemini Bridges trail, seem to relish hardships. Call it "character building," "learning from experience," "training for the zombie apocalypse," or whatever you want, but perhaps having at least a little adversity in our lives helps prepare us for the big stuff. Like zombies.

Red Rock Country Junipers

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Life Doesn't Stink

I'm by no means a wealthy or famous person. I grew up in a lower-middle class neighborhood and that hasn't changed much. I've never won any great awards or sporting events. I've never invented anything, though I did make a cool house for our cockatiel Tiki. Probably the most notable thing that's ever happened to me is my elbow was in an episode of the TV show Touched by an Angel.

Little Miara (and Bumper)
But every now and again, events happen to remind me that perhaps my life is worth something. One of those happened last week when my oldest daughter got married to a nice and well-deserving young man. Miara and Colton are a great young couple and I know they have many happy years ahead of them.

As children, we don't realize how much we mean to our parents—or how mean we are to our parents sometimes. But once we have children of our own, most of us soon discover that our most important work in life is doing our best to keep our children from crashing and burning. It's difficult enough just to manage our own affairs. But add to that the needs of a spouse, one or more children, a career, a house, friends . . . You start to wonder how anyone makes it through life without going totally nuts.

Miara has always made us proud. She's artistic, funny, smart, pretty, and fun to be with. She often makes very astute statements—Miaraisms—that everyone should take to heart.

Big Miara
"People should be required to take a test before having kids."

"Dad, you can't wear plaid with more plaid."

"Mom, you don't need to teach me the facts of life—I learned all that in fourth grade."

"Can I have a hippopotamus for my birthday?"

"I'm not sure if the Easter Bunny is real. I saw him at the mall, and there aren't any real bunnies that big."

"The planet would be a lot better place if there weren't any people on it."

"The problem with the world today is people don't watch enough Disney movies."

With astute comments like that coming from my offspring, how could I ever feel that my life isn't worth anything? Thanks, Miara, for making everyone around you happy. And thanks, Colton, for making Miara happy.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Getting Soaked in Mexico

We had the opportunity last summer to visit Puerto Vallarta, Mexico as a family. It was one of the funnest vacations we've ever had. We stayed in a hotel on the beach, swam with dolphins, rode horses through the jungle, sailed on a pirate ship, met a sea turtle laying her eggs in the sand, and a bunch of other fun things.

One day, we went up into the jungle to try out the zip lines. Our youngest son, Tian Tian, has Down Syndrome and was eleven years old at the time. We really worried he wouldn't be able to do it. The first zip line was purposefully designed to be easy and slow, to help prepare people for some of the others that can go at speeds nearing forty-five miles an hour (over 70 kph). We hoped that by starting out with that line, Tian Tian wouldn't be too frightened to continue to the others.

One of the zip guys got into the harness and helped Tian Tian in with him. It was raining a bit and he really doesn't like to get wet. He looked at us like we were sending him to his death. Everyone thought he'd cry or panic. But as soon as he was out in the air and zipped across the canyon, he cheered and yelled with delight. Once we joined him on the opposite side, he immediately told us he didn't want our help on any other lines—he wanted to ride with the zip guys who'd just become his best friends.

Tian Tian & his zip line buddies
We rode fifteen or so very steep zip lines back and forth across a deep canyon. It was a blast and the zip guys were great. They helped Tian Tian with each line and made sure he had just as much fun as everyone else. By the time we finished, we were all soaking wet from the tropical heat and the rain. But everyone was happy and had a great time.

After riding all the zips, the guide steered our group toward the tequila tasting bar. My wife and I have never been drinkers, mostly because our religion frowns on it. But more than that, we had four children with us, none of whom were drinking age.

Ro Ro swings over the jungle river
So while everyone else went to the bar, our family went down to the river and found some big rope and vine swings. For the next hour, we hurled ourselves out over the river and dropped into the warm water. Even Tian Tian had fun sitting under a short waterfall and riding the swings.

Eventually, it was time to head back down to the city and we boarded an open-air bus that had a tarp suspended above the seats. It was raining even harder at that point—the warm rain of the tropics—and everyone was soaked. And our kids got an instant education in what it's like to be around a bunch of people who'd gotten soaked in a different way. The whole crowd on the bus was quite tipsy from the tequila, and they laughed, sang, joked, and had a ball all the way down the winding mountain road. Every corner we rounded brought down a torrent of water from the tarp onto everyone sitting near the sides, and roars of laughter from everyone in the middle. They never seemed to tire of it, even though the same thing happened at every turn.

We were all pretty tired when we returned to the hotel. But it was a great day, where we'd once again met a bunch of strangers who were willing to go out of their way to assist a young child with a disability. And of course, we also got entertained by all the tequila, even though none of us drank even a drop.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Junkyard Amigos

I'm not always a sociable person, and often prefer sitting around writing or watching a show to hanging out with people. Even with exercising, I prefer individual sports rather than team sports. (Plus, I'm pretty bad at most team sports.)

Despite that, I still enjoy the small interactions we all have with other people. I'm referring to the talk-with-someone-in-the-checkout-line type of interactions. The kind where you meet someone, have a short social dialog, then you're on your way, probably to never meet again.

I used to own an old Saturn car that we kept for about eighteen years before finally trading it in. It had those strange automatic seat belts that most people hated, and one day, a seatbelt motor broke. So I headed to the junkyard to find a used one.

The boneyard I went to wasn't the type I used to buy parts at when I was in high school. You know the kind—where rusting heaps of vehicles are piled all over in the mud and you're pretty much on your own. No, this one was lined up in neat rows. Each car was propped up on bare rims. Each type of car had its own section. It was like a Walmart, but with better quality merchandise. Even the "aisles" were lined with packed gravel.

I made my way to the Saturn department and immediately found a car with a working seatbelt. I'd brought screwdrivers, wrenches, pliers, and a hammer. But I didn't have a star-drive socket. I noticed another man nearby who seemed to be browsing, rather than looking for any particular parts. And I also noticed he had a big tool case with him.

I asked if he had a star-drive socket. He appeared to be from Mexico and didn't speak much English, but he was happy to let me borrow his tools. In fact, he set down his expensive tool set—probably worth several hundred dollars—and walked away looking for other things while I took the seat belt motor out. I was amazed he'd trust a complete stranger with his valuable tools.

He soon came back and found a truck right next to the Saturn with some parts he wanted, so he started removing them. Another guy came by and needed to get to a car on the opposite side of a nearby trench, and he asked us how to get over the trench. Me and my new best friend looked at each other with "This guy is obviously a newbie" looks. My amigo pointed out the end of the trench where you could walk over it, and the other man made his way across.

I got the seatbelt motor and thanked my amigo for his help, then went on my way. I don't know that I really learned anything from this brief experience, or even what I'm trying to convey in this posting. But as I left, I can say my memory of the junkyard was definitely made more positive because of help from a stranger.
Fixing the seatbelt turned into a whole-family project

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Same Planet—Different World

I found myself waiting at a train & bus station recently for a little longer than I normally do. The human interaction among the people waiting there was intriguing. And I should add, educational.

One older gentleman wore shabby, dirty clothes and slowly made his way through the small crowd asking for money. Most people ignored him or shook their heads. He passed a young lady who wore stylish clothing and yapped loudly on her phone. When he asked her, she looked at him like he was a disgusting parasite.

"Get the hell away from me. I hate you *$#%@ homeless bums begging all the time." She turned away from him and continued her phone conversation. She made sure her friend—and everyone else there—knew how much the @%^$# homeless guy bugged her.

The man quietly commented that he was just trying to get by and she didn't need to be so rude to him. He then asked me for some help to get bus money. I gave him a couple dollars in hopes he would stay for a minute and talk with me. He thanked me and asked God to bless me, then commented again on the rudeness of his previous client. He went into an interesting speech that I'm sure he'd practiced.

"You know, I don't like panhandling, but I don't have much of a choice. I'm between jobs and doing the best I can. You know, if they banned panhandling back in the thirties during the Great Depression, a lot of people would have starved to death. Then a lot of us probably wouldn't even be here now, you know."

I agreed with him. "We're all on this planet together. I guess we need to watch out for each other now and again."

He gave me a knuckle punch and left, and I noticed he wasn't heading for a bus stop.

Another man stepped over and spoke to me. "I've seen that guy here almost every day, but I've never seen him take a bus."

I figured that was probably the case. "Well, maybe he just needs a drink."

We started a conversation. He'd grown up in the area not far from the train station. It was amazing how much things had changed since he was little. I told him how I'd taken the bus when I was younger and it was only ten cents back then. I also related how I rode the bus to Deseret Gym.

As soon as he heard that, it was like we were sudden kindred spirits. "I used to go there all the time. We could walk to it from my house. They had handball and racquetball and swimming and basketball. That was our hangout spot. It's a shame they tore it down. Now you can't find anything like that for anywhere near the price."

Then a seagull flew over and he ducked. "Watch out—Mormon Dive Bombers."

That was a phrase I hadn't heard in a while. You probably only know what it means if you're from northern Utah.

I asked if he worked in the area, but no, he was between jobs himself. I'd been out of work at one point in my own life, so I could relate with him. He boarded the next bus and I continued my wait.

Two young ladies walked up and sat on the bench. Both were in high heels, tight jeans, revealing tops, and lots of makeup, piercings, and tattoos. They started talking about the men they'd just been with and the odd things they'd done. I decided it might not be in my best interest to have a conversation with them, although I might have learned something new.

Another young man came by, probably in his mid-twenties. He wore a long, dirty coat and an old hat. He had a different method of asking for help.

"Spare change or dollar bills. Spare change or dollar bills." That's all he said as he meandered through the crowd. I didn't notice anyone give him anything.

Another older man put on some blue rubber evidence gloves and sifted through the garbage can. I found that interesting. Was he looking for food? If so, would the gloves protect him from anything he ingested? He didn't find anything, but was happy when a lady offered him a drag from her cigarette. Then he took the gloves off and walked around the station, politely asking for any help.

A young man sitting nearby and dressed in a tight white teeshirt and dirty work jeans saw this new panhandler. "Hey, you got arms, you got legs, go get a job." He spoke with a heavy accent and was obviously an immigrant, and probably a hard-working one.

A well-dressed lady holding a large binder and standing next to him spoke. "You don't need to say that to him."

The young guy laughed. "These people all get money from the government, then they still come out here and ask for more. I work. I pay taxes. Then the government gives the money to these people."

The lady shook her head. "I work with homeless people all the time, and I don't think it works that way."

The guy was unfazed. "He can get a job. I got a job and I ain't even white."

My bus came next, so I boarded it and rode off to my destination.

We're all on the same planet, but we all come from different worlds.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Drinking Cokes Like an Adult

When I was thirteen, my friend Brent and I thought that since we were so old, we needed to find a way to prove our adult-readiness. We discussed various methods to accomplish this. One was hitchhiking to the west coast where we could swim in the ocean. We decided against that because we'd heard of giant squids there. Another idea was to trek through the high mountains near our house and kill an elk by hand. But we got grossed out thinking about trying to gut it with our Boy Scout pocket knives.

In the end, we decided the best plan was to take a bus from our home out in the suburbs all the way downtown, then see if we could make it back out alive. There used to be a recreation center in the city called Deseret Gym with a pool, handball courts, weight rooms, and other fun and sometimes painful activities. That seemed like a perfect destination.

So we gathered up all the money we could—about four dollars—packaged up all the sports equipment we had—a handball and our swimming suits—and boarded the number 36 bus to the city. The bus was only ten cents and admission to the gym was only about one dollar, as I recall. That left us plenty of money to rent lockers for our stuff and maybe even buy a drink.

We got to the city without incident and walked up Main Street to the gym. We bought a pass, rented a locker, and started our day with handball. I'd never played that sport before, but Brent was an expert, having played with his brother once. We ran around the little room, bumped into each other, tripped a lot, and were very glad the surrounding walls kept the ball from escaping. It didn't take long for us to go look for another activity.

We tried joining a basketball game, but most of the kids were older than us and spent their evenings in a type of gang warfare the locals called Church Ball. That was an activity where they'd chase an orange sphere around a court in a church while yelling, swearing, punching, and fouling. Then they'd return to the same church on Sundays and learn how to be Christlike.

Brent and I didn't last too long with the Church Ball veterans, so we tried demonstrating our might by lifting weights. It was mostly very old men in the weight room—they were all at least thirty—and they could lift weights much heavier than we could, so we gave that up. Besides, the equipment was a little frightening.

We decided to buy a drink then went swimming. That seemed like a safe activity. My regular swimming suit was really dorky-looking, so I had brought a pair of white gym shorts instead. I jumped into the cold water, immediately climbed right back out, and discovered a problem with my gym shorts idea—they became quite transparent as soon as they got wet. I hadn't thought that through too well. I jumped back into the freezing water and stayed there as long as I could.

We eventually decided to call it quits and head back home. As we were changing, we had a new realization even more chilling than the see-through shorts. We'd used the rental locker so many times—at ten cents a pop—we'd depleted all our money and didn't have twenty cents left to ride the bus home. We scrounged around the locker room looking for any fallen change, but couldn't even find one thin dime. We were in trouble. Maybe we should have tried our luck with the giant squids instead.

We went outside and walked down Main Street. It shouldn't take more than two or three hours to get home, we figured. About four blocks later, we realized that bus drivers knew the route home but we didn't. We needed a better plan. My mom worked downtown and I briefly thought of finding her office and asking for two dimes. But our whole purpose was to prove our adult-ness. We stopped near a small grocery store to rest, and after some discussion, came up with a fantastic plan.

The grocery store was one of those tiny family shops you don't see too often anymore. An older man sat on a stool behind the counter reading a newspaper. I casually went inside and talked to him about bus schedules and other important things, while Brent meandered over to the soda pop cooler. When he thought I'd sufficiently distracted the shopkeeper, Brent slipped two bottles of Coke into his gym bag, then strolled back outside.

I thanked the man for his help and joined Brent. We ran down the street until we found a pay phone, and used the change return slot to open the Cokes. We then strutted around an empty lot, drinking the Coke and toasting our brilliant plan. As soon as we finished, we went back into the same grocery store, returned the empty bottles, and got back two dimes.

Then, our money in hand, we boarded the next number 36 and headed back to the suburbs. Not even an adult could have come up with an excellent plan like that!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Hogs on Parade

When I was younger, I had the opportunity to serve as a voluntary missionary for the church I attend. I was assigned to serve in the country of Taiwan and learn Mandarin. That type of service always brings with it great, life-changing experiences. But it can also lead to some very unusual episodes, especially when living and serving in another country and culture.

As missionaries, we were assigned a companion and expected to work full time helping others, and hopefully, to even convert a few people along the way. One day, my companion Elder Leach and I rode our bicycles through a rural area in the outskirts of Taipei. We came across a dome-shaped building that looked like an athletic arena, but much smaller. It seemed very out of place, given the distance from any major population center. A busy herd of cargo trucks backed up to the building, unloaded their cargo, loaded new cargo, then drove away.

Curious about the happenings, we parked our bikes and wandered up between the trucks. We soon found out that the cargo was live pigs. The smell gave it away. Men wearing hip-length boots and wielding electric prods forced frightened, squealing pigs off the trucks. The pigs scurried through the building in maze-like chutes separated by low walls. The men walked along these walls and directed the pigs to a door in a big wall that hid the front half of the building. After a moment, the pigs would reappear through another door in the big wall, where a code was painted on their hides. The men then routed the terrified animals through more chutes and loaded them onto different trucks.

We'd never seen anything like this, so of course we decided to climb onto one of the walls and wander through the maze to investigate. Keep in mind, we were wearing white shirts and ties, with dress pants and shoes. And we were the only Caucasians in the whole crowd.

It was fascinating how efficiently the men shepherded the pigs to their appropriate chutes. The snorting pigs, the buzzing shockers, and the thick odor made for quite a multi-sensual experience. We slowly made our way to the front of the maze, all the while dodging the men with their electric prods. Some of the men seemed annoyed by our presence, but most ignored us as the pigs kept them busy.

When we reached the big wall where the pigs kept disappearing, we still hadn't figured out what was going on. We noticed a door near the walkway and decided to explore some more.

Elder Leach opened the door just as I lost my balance. I bumped into him and we fell through the doorway and down onto a big stage surrounded by a few hundred people sitting in an auditorium. Everyone in the room stared at us. Did I happen to mention we were the only white guys, and the only in dress clothing, and the only twenty-year-olds surrounded by older men?

We quickly realized what was happening—we were on center stage of a pig auction. The pigs arrived through a door on one side and paused while people in the chairs placed bids with electric panels. Once a price was set, the pigs scurried out the other door. It was just like a fashion show in New York or Paris, except that . . . well, maybe that's not a good analogy.

We also quickly realized we had stepped into something we shouldn't have—and had the dirty shoes to prove it. We turned to climb back up through the door. Unfortunately, it only opened from the outside; there wasn't a handle on the inside. And on the front of the stage, the pig chute surrounded us. We were trapped.

You may notice a theme in my blog postings. When confronted with a choice, the main participants in a given event don't always choose wisely. And once again, in this instance, we proved that to be true. Feeling we had no other choice, we pulled out little notebooks and pens, and wandered around the stage, taking notes of everything we saw. When a pig squealed loudly, we immediately shook our heads with grave expressions and wrote it down. When the auctioneer glared at us, we again shook our heads and wrote it down. When a pig tried escaping by climbing onto the back of another, we ran over to the brave animal and wrote down its name.

The auctioneer couldn't stop the proceedings because the men in back didn't know we had interrupted things, and kept sending more pigs through the chute. And short of climbing into the pig chute ourselves, there was no way for us to get off the stage. So while the auctioneer continued his job, we continued ours by making notes of the smells, the bidders, the shape of each pig's snout, and other important things.

Finally, a man in the audience climbed a short ladder, lowered a platform over the pig chute, and joined us on the stage. He politely asked if he could help us with anything.

We looked at each other, then at him. Elder Leach explained, "We're missionaries. Do you want a pamphlet?"

He didn't. But he did help us off the stage. The auction continued and we left, having not converted a single person in the whole auditorium.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Downtown with Dad

One of the fun memories I have from when I was very young is actually a series of memories—trips downtown with my dad. We lived in a suburban area away from the city, and every now and again, Dad needed to travel into town to take care of business. This was before the days of internet banking and other conveniences. "Taking care of business" often meant—gasp!—actually talking with people face to face. Dad was a school teacher and had summers off, so that's when he'd take me into the Big City.

By "Big City," I mean Salt Lake City, which was very small compared to real big cities. But to me, a trip to the tall buildings and crowded streets was a magical experience.

We normally started the day by making a quick stop at the K-Mart deli. We'd pick up a couple hoagie sandwiches to eat later, then get back in the old Ford Falcon and head into town. We'd usually end up parking in one location, then walking to the various businesses. It always seemed like Dad walked way faster than I could, but I did my best to keep up so I wouldn't slow him down. We often stopped by construction sites and watched the men working their heavy equipment. I always thought they put those little observation windows by the sites just for me and Dad to see what they were doing.

Once in a while we'd stop at the big ZCMI Department Store where Dad would buy a bag of honey roasted nuts. Those were my favorite. At some point during the day, we'd find a place to rest and eat the hoagies. By most standards K-Mart hoagies aren't anything to write home about. In fact, they may be the reason K-Mart is going out of business. But I really enjoyed them, even with the flimsy processed cheese they came with.

I would usually be pretty tired by the end of the day. The trip back out to the 'burbs in the non-air conditioned Falcon seemed to take a long time.

I really treasure my memories of those trips. I don't know if Dad realized how important it made me feel to spend the day doing grown-up business with him. One thing I learned is children love doing things with their parents, and I've tried to incorporate that into my own parenting. My kids may think I'm just trying to get them to help me with the yard work so I don't have so much to do myself. That may be partially true. But really, I just want to keep spending time with my family while they're all still close by—and still willing to spend time with me.

Postscript: I wrote this post a little while ago, and in the meantime, the terrible tragedy in Connecticut occurred where twenty innocent young children were killed. Watching something like that unfold just makes all of my memories with my family growing up, and with my family now, even more meaningful.