Saturday, April 9, 2011

Scripture study with three small children: How we try to keep it sane

Mormon families are encouraged to study books of scripture together. We think it's a good way to bring a good feeling into our home and remind ourselves each day that there's a bigger picture to our lives. It also helps our children learn basic principles of the gospel.

As uplifting as the scriptures are to us as adults, they're new territory for children. How do you get a 5 year old, a 3 year old, and an 8-month old to sit still for any amount of scripture reading? I thought I'd share some ideas that have worked for us.

We currently hold "scripture study" for a period of 5-10 minutes before our oldest child leaves for school. Every member of the family is present. If it's on a weekend, we do it before the first person leaves the house to do something in the morning. Doing it the same time every day helps us to be consistent; however, we are not perfect. There are occasional times where we forget or are especially in a hurry, and we try to make up for it by doing the study in the evening.

Our children are young enough that they are not going to be able to process extended passages of scripture. So when we first began daily study, we took the set of 100 "scripture mastery" passages (used by teenagers in Mormon seminary classes) and studied one each week. These passages consist of usually one or a just a few verses that cover a key point of doctrine. For seven days in a row we read the same passage, and accompanied it with a different thought, or some thoughtful questions, each day. Occasionally in church when one of the scriptures was quoted, our oldest son would turn and look at us with wide eyes and we knew he had remembered it!

When we ran out of scripture mastery scriptures (yes, it took about two years) we studied the 13 Articles of Faith. By this time we had begun to accompany the study with a song or a hymn related to the passage we were studying. I believe the words of the songs are sometimes easier for children to understand and remember than the scriptural verses, but the songs have the double benefit of reinforcing the principles we are learning in the scriptures.

Having exhausted the scripture masteries and the Articles of Faith, we needed another place where we could find focused passages to study. The "few verses a day" approach was working well for our little ones. Usually we could keep them quiet for at least 30 seconds and ignore whatever ruckus was brewing for the next 30 seconds, or distract them with a question about the material. Their thoughtful answers showed they were usually listening.

We finally found a scriptural gold mine in the Gospel Principles manual, which is essentially the textbook for what you could call the "Mormonism 101" Sunday School class for new members and visitors. It has dozens of in-line scripture references in each chapter. So we started with the first in-line reference in the first chapter and read it as a family on the first day of study. With this manual we decided to no longer repeat the scripture for the whole week, so on day two we just went to the next in-line scriptural reference in the chapter. We have kept this up to the point where we are now in chapter 16, having touched a great variety of areas of the scriptures. Sometimes we'll also read a few sentences of the very concise and easy-to-understand Gospel Principles text that accompanies the scripture reference.

We finish our study with a prayer together as a family. Although there is nothing doctrinal requiring us to do this, we hold hands in a circle during the prayer because we've found it extremely effective at curtailing any toddler mischief that might occur while (most people's) eyes are closed. Two of our children are old enough that they can participate in offering the prayer when asked to do so. We take turns.

I imagine our study techniques and practices will change as the children get older. I look forward to the day when they are old enough to take turns reading and we can cover longer passages. But I doubt those moments will be any more satisfying than the ones we are having now each morning. Although everyone has good and bad days, more often than not I get in my car for work with a great feeling after spending this period of time focusing on my family and God.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Mariners broadcasts by Niehaus transcended generations

Although this blog has been quiet for a while, I haven't made any movement to officially retire it. I wanted the blog to still be here when I felt that I needed to write. This week, I need to write.

On Wednesday, longtime Seattle Mariners broadcaster Dave Niehaus passed away of a heart attack at age 75. It was one of those days that I knew was going to come eventually, but never wanted to think about.

I've been listening to Dave Niehaus announce Mariners baseball since I was old enough to tune a radio. Our family lived far enough away from Seattle that we only made it out to one game while I was growing up, and "Mom forbid" that we would have any type of cable TV package that would allow us to watch every game (I still thank her for that). The radio was it, and the radio was available everywhere: in the car, the kitchen, and even in my room.

A kid with no serious life obligations (there wasn't even homework during the summers) could easily pass an evening listening to a game, executing full windups and releases in the middle of the kitchen. My career aspiration by 4th grade was to be a sports radio broadcaster, due to logging uncountable hours with Seattle broadcasting legends Bob Blackburn, Kevin Calabro, Rick Rizzs, and Dave Niehaus.

Of those, Niehaus's mannerisms were the most memorable. Before long I knew all his common exclamations, such as "Swung on and belted!", "Fly away!" and "It's grand salami time!" When a declaration such as "My oh my!" came out of Dave's mouth, it wasn't a "signature phrase", it was just something you believed Dave Niehaus would naturally say when he saw something incredible. It fit.

A game with Niehaus was not just a game. It was a production, a work of art, every night. As Steve Kelley put it, with Dave, "a pitch wasn't just low, it was 'loooooow'. In a close game, Dave was almost reverential. He could have been a preacher giving a sermon when he called the late innings of a tight game."

Dave could even make the commercials he was obligated to read throughout the game sound fascinating. He would work them into the spaces in the game's action and put all feeling into the words, varying the tone of his voice as he tolled the virtues of Sterling Savings Bank. He wasn't afraid to reveal his emotion about the action on the field either. Kelley remembers:

"If a game was meandering and a Mariners pitcher couldn't throw a strike, [Dave's] voice would get sharp and gravelly, and he would say something like, 'You gotta throw strikes.'"

"The pleasure of listening to him on a stormy day in April or one of those long, lush nights in July always has felt like an inalienable right of being a sports fan in Seattle."

Indeed, Niehaus's presence was something you could always count on, something maybe too easy to take for granted. If you go to bed, the sun will come up. If you turn the key, your car will start. If you flip on the radio on a summer night, Dave Niehaus will be there calling a game with all the fervor of his soul, even if the Mariners are down 7-0 and they can't buy a hit.

My dad shared an appreciation for Niehaus's broadcasts, although as a busy father and physician he didn't have as much time to kill listening to the radio. Our opportunity to hear games together often came in the car on the way to or from some activity. A father and a teenage son can strap themselves into a vehicle and sit together in silence for hours, each in his own world. But when we switched on Niehaus, we were on the same frequency.

One night this past summer my 5 year old son was having trouble settling down to bed. I switched on a Mariners broadcast hoping that would lull him to sleep. Wincing through the beer commercials, I took a few minutes to explain what was happening in the game, then left to go to bed myself. The next morning I asked who won, and he responded in a sincerely dejected voice, "the Angels". This episode reveals three things about Niehaus's effect on my son: he communicated what happened, he explained how we should feel about it, and he didn't put him to sleep.

It's this family bond of listening to Niehaus that makes his passing so difficult. Last night I was in charge of watching the kids. Two out of three were successfully in bed, but the baby boy was agitated. In desperation, I switched on an Internet recording of Niehaus highlights. My son's eyes became wide and the pacifier began bobbing up and down in his mouth contentedly. As I watched his reflection in the computer screen, I saddened at the thought that I wouldn't get to share a Niehaus broadcast with him. Then I felt happy that, even at my son's young age, I was having an opportunity to share what Dave meant to me.

If you're a baby, too young to understand words or baseball or the magic of a summer evening, I guess you can be excused for getting soothed to sleep by the golden voice of Dave Niehaus.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Learning Hebrew on your own: Some resources

Well, this blog has gone into hibernation although I wanted to publish a quick post to let you know it's not dead. I think things started to slow down when I started working a second job...and we bought a house, and we got pregnant with our third child, and I started traveling to California once every few months, know...

Since both my jobs involve creating Web content, I have been doing other things to relax and enrich my free time that don't involve sitting in front of a computer screen. One of my goals for 2010 was to learn enough Hebrew that I could read the book of Genesis in its original language. I've been spending about 15 minutes per night studying The First Hebrew Primer on the floor of my son's room while he falls asleep. I picked this book after reading a number of reviews for "teach yourself Hebrew" texts, and I am happy with this choice. The print is large enough I can read it, and the book doesn't throw too much information at you before you're ready. Plenty of exercises help you review the material, although there's no included answer book. The going has been slow, but steady.

A few weeks ago I had a chance to browse the Jewish section at Powell's City of Books and had another great find: The Pentateuch and Rashi's Commentary: A Linear Translation into English. This old volume had the entire book of Genesis with the Hebrew and English side by side, line by line (not just verse by verse). I also get Rashi's commentary if I ever want to foray into Jewish theology...we'll see if I get time for that.

Finally, an amazing Web resource for Hebrew that has helped me learn pronunciation is the Mechon-Mamre Hebrew-English Bible online, which allows you to listen to any chapter as you read along.

Last night I made it through Genesis 1 (a good chapter for learning because of the repetition!) There is a beauty and simplicity in the Hebrew text that is making my work pay off.

Shalom until next post! Maybe I'll be in Canaan by that time.

Note: The author of this blog has not received any compensation from the authors or publishers of any of the materials reviewed in this post.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Thousands gather at Washington state capitol to support pro-life movement

On March 19, I gathered with about 6,000 other marchers at the Washington state capitol to protest the legalization of abortion in the United States 37 years ago. I choose carefully the political events in which I get involved, but I felt that this was an important enough issue that I could take some time and add one voice to the March for Life crowd.

This kind of an event is a good place to quickly learn things. Here are some thoughts I took away from the march:
  • Thirty-seven years after Roe v. Wade, opposition to abortion is still strong and is growing. Although many have tried to justify abortion with the "safe and legal" mantra (one might ask, "Safe for whom?") and others have tried to sweep the issue under the rug, public identification with pro-life principles is growing to the point where more than half of Americans consider themselves pro-life. This is up from 33 percent in 1995, causing me to cautiously wonder if the "abortion rights" movement is sunsetting.

  • The Catholic church is a major force holding up the pro-life movement. Most of today's crowd seemed to consist of Catholic parishioners bused in from all over western Washington. Catholic schools and organizations such as Knights of Columbus also showed strong representation. Other evangelical and orthodox groups were represented, but it was no question who comprised the majority. I do not suggest that the Mormon church formally organize groups to attend these rallies, but I do hope that more Mormons take motivation in themselves to get involved with the pro-life movement and consider it as high of a priority as Catholics do.

  • Some pro-abortion lawmakers cannot stop trying to hinder those who offer alternatives. Unsatisfied that abortion is already legal and readily-available in the United States, some activists and lawmakers cannot stop trying to suppress or throw roadblocks in the paths of those who would try to reduce the number of abortions through alternatives such as adoption or abstinence education.

    One such effort in the Washington state legislature this session is Senate Bill 6452, which would require any crisis pregnancy center not offering abortion services to state that no medical care is available at the facility in "thirty-point font size or larger on the main entry door of the organization", on the home page of the organization's Web site, and in all its advertising materials. I have read the full text of this bill, and it seems to be motivated only by persons upset that more young women were not being steered to abortion clinics. Perhaps the clinics are feeling the competition?

  • Abortion is not a partisan issue, a "wedge" issue, or even a political issue. It is a tragedy. On the Capitol steps we were addressed by various Democrats and Republicans who understand that abortion is wrong and are not ashamed to call themselves pro-life. They took time from their session to come out and stand with us in opposition to abortion. We need to pay attention to how legislators vote and support Democrats who have done a difficult thing and broken from their traditional party line that favors abortion. We need to sternly question Republicans who have broken from their party's platform of supporting pro-life principles. We are still a nation ruled by the people, and if the people vote for candidates who support pro-life principles, Roe v. Wade will be overturned. Today gave me hope that this day can come.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Stories from a North Korean prison camp

Today is "Veteran's Day" in the United States: a day to honor those who have served in the Armed Forces. I've found that learning about people who are not free is often a good way to appreciate the value of freedom and why it's worth sacrificing for. Today's post is about a man who experienced one of the places most absent of freedom on this earth... and lived to tell about it.

Kang Chol-Hwan was born in Pyongyang, North Korea sometime around 1968. His grandparents had spent some time in Japan, where the family had made a comfortable living. Caught up in a wave of North Korean nationalism, they decided to return to their native country and serve the Communist party. Shortly after arriving, they realized they had made a mistake; but by that time it was too late to turn back.

The family, especially Kang's grandmother, remained loyal to Communism and continued working toward better times in North Korea. But one day, when Kang was 9 years old, his life was turned upside down as government police stormed his family's house. The government suspected Kang's grandfather of treasonal motives, and decided to sentence Kang and most of his family to the Yodok prison camp.

Kang endured a Communist education and hard labor duties in the Yodok camp. School was no picnic as a prison camp wasn't nearly the first choice of assignment for the teachers. The curriculum demanded that the students parrot the merits of the "Dear Leader" with a satisfactory element of fervor. Lack of enthusiasm was duly punished.

Manual labor duties after graduation were no better. Often the prisoners had to work in freezing temperatures under the watch of abusive guards, then scramble at the end of the day to find any scrap of food they could. Escape was not an option. The prisoners were forced to witness executions of those who attempted it. Other would-be escapees perished on their own due to the harsh weather and terrain.

To his surprise, Kang was released from camp after 10 years. He didn't ask any questions. He returned to civilian life in North Korea, trying to eke out some existence as a young man. Understandably hardened against Communism after his experience in Yodok, Kang began listening to South Korean radio through an illegal transmitter. Sensing some suspicion from the government, Kang decided to flee the country.

Kang found someone to sneak him across to a Chinese border town with relative ease, but he had to keep on the move. As an ally of North Korea, China could not be too kind to defectors. Kang traveled through China and finally found a long-term hiding place with some friends who operated a brothel. Eventually he was able to "escape" again on a boat to South Korea.

Kang tells his story in the book Aquariums of Pyongyang. The increasing shades of freedom Kang describes as he passed through North Korea, China, South Korea, and finally the United States brings the value of our country's freedom into clarity. It's amazing to think how the story of life in a North Korean concentration camp could make its way to the free world. This book will cause you to thank God for your freedom, and pray to God for the freedom and comfort of those who do not yet have it.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

An afternoon in Tijuana

One item on my list of things to do in California never got fulfilled before I moved out of the state: visit Tijuana so that I could take a peek inside Mexico. I finally did get the chance to visit in July while on business in San Diego. For a tour guide I had my work buddy Rob who visits TJ about once a year. Finding our Thursday afternoon available, we decided to go on a brief stroll south of the border.

Getting to the border from downtown San Diego took about 15 minutes. We took the last USA exit for Camino de la Plaza and entered the maze of streets and parking lots that is San Ysidro, California. (It looks like just a slightly nicer version of Tijuana with the peace of mind of being on the familiar side of the fence.) We found a good $4 lot on the grounds of what appeared to be an abandoned motel and started working our way toward the border.

We zig-zagged through a maze of walkways up and over the highway to get into the border crossing. We passed through one tall turnstile, then right past a few officers doing occasional random checks, I guess, and through another pair of turnstiles into Mexico. Immediately the smell changed. It wasn't a heavy stench but a light pervasiveness of sewage in the air that continued the entire time we were in the country.

After following a corridor of walls we entered a plaza with some pharmacies, souvenir shops, and restaurants. Bright, tacky, bold-worded signs in English were everywhere. We strolled across the plaza pretty quick and wended our way up over a pedestrian bridge crossing the Tijuana River. This was a narrow green ribbon flowing down a broad cement channel. The river carried suds, occasional piles of garbage, and probably other stuff. A few beggars sitting along the bridge held paper cups.

One thing I had noticed at the border crossing that made me a little nervous is that we were the only Caucasian people around. Somehow I thought the border would have groups of American tourists moseying across, but I didn't see very many. Rob told me later it was the smallest number of Americans he's seen in Mexico, and that many of the stands normally housing souvenir shops were either closed or empty. The economy, plus the swine flu scare, plus some drug-related violence earlier in the year seem to have hit Tijuana tourism pretty hard. This made us prime targets for vendors hawking their wares. They could spot us coming a mile away.

After crossing the bridge, we took the main pedestrian route heading toward Avenida Revolucion. Before reaching the Ave. however and its giant archway, Rob abruptly stopped at a fish taco restaurant and declared it was time for dinner. He had been to this place at 125 Madero (marked by yellow signs and Tecate advertisements) several times and told me it was his favorite. The restaurant had an open front and picnic tables, but we had a roof over our heads. The menu was printed on a cardboard sign in black marker. In the upper-right corner was listed "Viagra Soup - $4.99. It works!"

View Great fish tacos in Tijuana - 125 Madero in a larger map

I ordered a supreme taco and, when prodded by the owner, assented to ordering two. I also ordered a Coke, following Rob's Guatemala mission trick of washing down dinner with a Coke in order to "kill the bad stuff". While the kindly owner and his wife were grilling up the tacos, we were treated to chips out of a plastic basket and a bowl of green salsa that had been sitting on the counter. The salsa was excellent and very hot!! The tacos had everything on them as well, and, while small, they were extraordinary. I asked the owner what the meat was and he replied "Marlin". All that for $5. Only bummer was the small bug crawling across my plate when I was done but I just pretended (and prayed) that it had wandered on there from somewhere else as I was finishing up my meal.

Our stomachs full, we proceeded under Tijuana's landmark arch toward Avenida Revolucion where we walked south for probably five or six blocks. Merchants at every store approached us with greetings in English, promising wonderful wares if we would only step inside. Some of them yelled out endearing statements about Seattle, since I wearing a Mariners t-shirt. One guy asked if we would like to pay some money to take a picture next to the "Tijuana tiger", a burro that I guess had been painted to look like a zebra. The burro was cool but sadly we had not brought a camera. Other men on the street asked if we liked women, and tried to entice us to enter adult clubs or allow them to lead us to other related activities.

After crossing what seemed like a fairly busy east-west thoroughfare, we walked one more block and turned around for the return down Ave. Constitucion, one block west. We had not yet reached the landmark big Mexican flag flying over downtown Tijuana. Rob said he walked to it once but by the time he reached it the neighborhood had gotten pretty sketchy.

The plan was to poke around in some shops on the way back, but Constitucion didn't have as many touristy shops and was a busier street. After a few blocks we jogged back over to Revolucion, where I started taking a look at some children's sized fake soccer jerseys out on the sidewalk. The owner pounced on me and let me inside to look at others that were on display. He quoted me around $40 the first time and when I started looking at something else he immediately dropped it to $25. I started looking at an adult-sized "I (Heart) Tijuana" t-shirt instead, which he quoted at $15. Rob later said his younger lady assistant was quoting him how low he could go in an Indian language while I bartered. Rob served a mission in Guatemala and is familiar with this kind of language.

We went back and forth for a while on the shirt. I got it for $11 but I think I was had. The owner showed no gratitude and yelled at me as I left the shop, angry that I had not taken a package deal for the kids soccer jersey, which he had dropped to $10.

We continued toward the bridge, but first Rob had to stop to get a peeled mango on a stick from a fruit stand. While we were waiting, some little kids came up with boxes of trinkets. One had a bunch of cool little bobblehead turtles, so I bought one for a dollar. It's held up pretty well through abuse from my kids since I've been home.

After crossing back over the river we wandered around the plaza looking at some more kids soccer jerseys. We asked some shopkeepers just lounging around if Tijuana had a futbol team. They said that yes, they were called Xoloitzcuintles (never would have been able to spell that without Google) and that they were okay. They played in the A division, and they had just beaten Chivas 2-1 the other night. Unlike the other storekeeper they were nice and told us to have a nice day, even when we didn't buy something.

I also looked at some stained glass art that had a Seahawks logo. I felt it would be too tacky despite the fairly reasonable $8 I was quoted. The shopkeeper must have been disappointed. He was already polishing it up for me once I showed the slightest interest.

The return to the USA border was not well-signed and I was glad I was going with a Tijuana veteran in order to not take a wrong turn. You have to walk down a longer corridor to get back, past some street merchants. I bought a few pieces of Bubbaloo gum from some kids right by the border complex. Good memories from Argentina...

We entered the hallway and room of the return walk-across border complex, and the place was apparently relatively deserted. We picked one of the four or five lines and sped through in about 5 minutes. After showing my passport, answering a few token questions, and passing my shopping bag through an x-ray machine, I was back on blessed American soil.

The drive home was crazy. It was about 6:00 PM and everyone was trying to return from work to their homes in Mexico. The main border crossing is on I-5 but folks were taking side-streets to get there and San Ysidro had been reduced to gridlock. We started back over the freeway on Camino de la Plaza but that was mistake because the road intersected the final freeway onramp to I-5 South that everyone was trying to use to shortcut the line. We flipped a U and headed north on San Ysidro boulevard. We had to wait through some more gridlock but it was a fairly easy drive to get onto the next onramp leading north. From there, smooth sailing on the freeway.

The poverty in Tijuana is a contrast to our comfortable way of life in the United States, but it is what I expected to see. I didn't find it much more disturbing than the excessive displays of wealth alongside homelessness that I've seen in downtown San Diego this week. The exploitation of women and children that occurs in Tijuana is definitely a problem and hard to see or understand. One other thing I had a hard time getting used to were people shouting greetings and other things to each other in the streets in very loud voices (not common in the USA to raise your voice above a certain level). I guess I always thought they were shouting at me.

Next time I go to Tijuana I'd like to get on a city bus that does a loop route and take the loop around the city, not getting off. I would do this in the morning, if possible. It might also be fun to walk a similar route near the border, just one or two blocks off the tourist circuit. Although I can now say I've been across the border, I still feel like I've yet to see the real Mexico.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Summer without a television

Well, this blog has obviously been on summer break. We've had plenty to do, and we've done it without a television for three months now. Sometime in mid-June, the television signals in the United States switched from analog to digital, and all of the sudden our TV just started replaying a program of a man explaining how to hook up a converter box. A converter box we didn't have and didn't want to pay for.

Perhaps we were secretly anticipating an excuse to get rid of TV. "Just give me an excuse..." is a threat I occasionally toss at my children. The TV itself has provided plenty of excuses for us to turn the thing off, including rude and mindless sitcoms, unrealistic and predictable dramas, and raunchy commercials. What would I miss by not upgrading my TV?

Before the great signal switch, the only programs I watched were sports events (mainly college football), the final 12 rounds of American Idol, and occasionally, the news. Let's address these concerns in order:
  • I now have plenty of sports to watch, including dozens of college football games, on, a streaming online sports site that comes free with certain Internet providers. Instead of paying for cable to get ESPN (which was not even included with the basic package), we just upgraded our Internet to high-speed Comcast and, voila, many good games to watch each Saturday, with the option to replay any of them. All the ads are for ESPN, Honda, and Gatorade. It's nice.
  • Last season's judge juggling, poor production, mediocre contestants, and crazy rule changes were all pretty good evidence that American Idol is headed out the door, and I'm not afraid of missing much next year. My wife and I had gotten in the habit of taping the episode and fast-forwarding (now I really sound like a dinosaur) through the commercials and, sometimes, the judges comments. In this way we could make it through a two hour episode in about 40 minutes, but by the end of last season, we didn't even watch the final round.
  • The news is available online and I can get it from the website of my choice with much less spin and no interruptions for commercials. Admittedly, it's interesting to watch live breaking news coverage, such as when we were among the wildfires in Southern California and it was incredibly smokey outside, or when the Iraq invasion occurred. However, I can also follow this type of news on the Internet, and with Twitter, there are plenty of eyewitness reporters that can give me the news before the TV crews even get there.

So why don't I just upgrade to cable TV to get some shows that I really want to watch? Well, suppose I plunked down between $30 - $40 a month for a nice cable package. Now suppose that between two jobs, church responsibilities, raising two children, taking care of the yard, spending one-on-one time with my wife, and other critical stuff like eating and sleeping, I was blessed enough to sit down twice a week to see a program I really wanted to watch. That's like plunking down $4 every time I want to watch TV and I still have to watch advertisements for that privilege.

Anyone have a good book recommendation?