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?

Friday, July 24, 2009

LDS Church leaders present President Obama with his family history

LDS Church president Thomas S. Monson met with U.S. president Barack Obama this week and presented him with five volumes of Obama's family history. The histories were compiled for Obama as a gift from the Church. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is a member of the church, attended the meeting, along with Elder Dallin H. Oaks from the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

President Obama on the meeting: "I enjoyed my meeting with President Monson and Elder Oaks. I'm grateful for the genealogical records that they brought with them and am looking forward to reading through the materials with my daughters. It's something our family will treasure for years to come."

President Monson on the meeting: "President Obama’s heritage is rich with examples of leadership, sacrifice and service. We were very pleased to research his family history and are honored to present it to him today."

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Cape Flattery hike and the Makah Nation

Three months after our 1,000+ mile move to Washington state, I finally started to get the desire to take another car trip. Over two days last week we completed a circuit of the Olympic Peninsula that included stops at Ruby Beach, La Push, and Forks (no, we are not huge Twilight fans, but we were amused at how the local economy has capitalized on the opportunity). Our ultimate destination, however, was Cape Flattery, the northwesternmost tip of the Olympic Peninsula, and home of the Makah Nation.

I gained an interest in this area as a Boy Scout when we made several 50-mile backpacking trips on the Olympic Coast. I remember seeing a former archaelogical dig site at Cape Alava, where the Makah village of Ozette was covered by a mudslide in the early 17th century. The slide preserved thousands of Makah artifacts, which, when excavated, provided clear views into the tribe's past and reaffirmed oral traditions passed on by tribal elders.

Many of the artifacts from the dig are on display at the Makah Cultural and Research Center. After hours of winding along the Strait of Juan de Fuca on state highway 112, we reached the town of Neah Bay and made our first stop at this museum. Here we saw baskets, clothing, blankets, weapons, toys, and other artifacts unearthed at the Ozette site. We went inside a replica of a Makah longhouse and viewed a dugout canoe like the kind used by the tribe for whaling. (See this page for information on how the Makah have struggled to retain the traditional whaling rights granted them in their 1855 treaty with the United States).

The museum was well worth the $5 price of admission, especially if you like Pacific Northwest Native American artwork. The displays contain various pieces of old and new art from the Makah, and you can get many art prints and postcards with designs like this from the museum gift shop.

After the museum, we took a beautiful 7-mile drive to the Cape Flattery trailhead. From what I understand, the Cape Flattery experienced has changed somewhat in recent years. Contrary to what I read in one Internet report, the road to the trailhead is completely paved. The Makah tribe recently rebuilt the 1/2 mile trail, with generous use of stairs and boardwalk that allow even my two toddlers, to see the beauty of Cape Flattery. You do need a $10 Makah recreation permit to park at the trailhead, which is good for the calendar year and is available at the museum.

The trail keeps a mostly straight course through the forest, mostly downhill. As you approach the cape, various spurs head off to viewpoints at the left, then the right. These look out over storm-battered cliffs and deep blue coves. Although the viewpoints contain railing, you'll still want to keep ahold of children and pets as they are right on the edge of high cliffs and can be circumnavigated.

Continuing past the spurs, you reach the final viewpoint where the Makah have constructed an observation deck. At this lookout you feel like you are clearly at the "tip" of the cape, and can observe amazing quantities of water in the Pacific Ocean to your left and the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the right. The expansive Vancouver Island looms across the strait.

Although the trail was packed to almost California-like proportions on the sunny 4th of July weekend, we enjoyed staring in awe with many others at this wonderful area of God's creation. We feel grateful to Him and also the Makah tribe for providing us the opportunity to see it.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A scripture from Dad, about Dad

This past Sunday, Father's Day, I was thinking about a scripture that my Dad sent me when I was on a mission for the Church in Argentina. It's Jacob 3:1-2 in the Book of Mormon:

"But behold, I, Jacob, would speak unto you that are pure in heart. Look unto God with firmness of mind, and pray unto him with exceeding faith, and he will console you in your afflictions, and he will plead your cause, and send down justice upon those who seek your destruction.

"O all ye that are pure in heart, lift up your heads and receive the pleasing word of God, and feast upon his love; for ye may, if your minds are firm, forever. "

My Dad said this scripture had given him comfort at various times throughout his life, and I can say it's done the same for me. I feel blessed to have a father on this earth that worked hard for me and consoled me as a child when I needed it. At the same time, I know that if I did not have a father, or if my father were not available (as happened on the mission), I have a Heavenly Father who can plead my cause and send me comfort when I "pray unto him with exceeding faith".

A teaching of Mormonism that I feel very strongly to be true is that God is literally our father. When Jesus addressed "Our Father, who art in heaven," it wasn't just a figurative expression. He was representing all of us and talking to a real being. I think many people believe this deep inside, regardless of whether they subscribe to organized Christianity.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Our own patch of mud (Does the Honey Bucket stay?)

In the past few weeks my wife and I have forayed into the complex new world of home shopping. There's a lot to learn and decide. Although we hit the market at a good time, we want to make sure we don't get duped. We're also looking for a home that will fit our family after a few more children (heaven willing), while still being affordable in the not-so-cheap Puget Sound home market.

Interestingly, we found our best prospect for square footage on the dollar was to buy new. It seemed like the only other way to get a house meeting our size and price requirements was to purchase a fixer-upper. That may be the right decision for some folks, but we currently don't have the skill set or time to invest in a home that has fallen apart, especially when new ones are available at the same price.

So yesterday we found ourselves trekking out past the row of model homes (the interior of which will look nothing like our house) to affix the "SOLD" sticker on our own lot sign. You'll notice that this lot has already been partially developed, but I think we would get charged for an upgrade to keep the Honey Bucket.

The same afternoon we hit the showroom to start choosing the interior and exterior details. Our builder boasted that we could make over 700 free choices to customize our home. I didn't exactly think that was a selling point with two young children who barely kept it together during the paper-signing process (and are currently howling downstairs as I write this). How could we make 700 choices with them clinging on us? Luckily we learned that the showroom has a kids area with surround-sound, big screen Curious George. This gives me confidence that my wife will be able to peacefully make all our selections as I lounge in a beanbag chair with the little ones and watch that naughty little monkey fly, fly away with his bundle of balloons.

I think this process has brought our family closer together.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Remembering those who purchased our freedom

Today was about the most beautiful Memorial Day one could ask for. In the morning we completed a short family hike through the forest to a remote beach on Puget Sound. After a quiet afternoon of reading and looking through home listings, we met some friends at the park and let the kids run loose on the playground. By then it was too late to worry about cooking dinner, so we picked up some food on the way home. After chatting online with my parents for a while, my wife and I got the kids in bed and finished the evening watching a movie together.

In the late afternoon as I was running footraces against my son (who is surprisingly speedy for a 4-year-old) I felt a pang of sadness for the men and women who have fallen in combat for the United States of America and would not have a similar opportunity to see the laughter and growth of their children. Lately I've been engrossed by the book Lone Survivor, in which Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell gives an eyewitness account of a few of these brave soldiers who lost their lives during a special operations mission against Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. These men and thousands like them paid a very high price to preserve the freedom and opportunities that I enjoy in their place. They made the ultimate sacrifice that allows us to enjoy our daily lives, and they deserve recognition for that not just today, but every day. God bless them and their families.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Blog analyzes growth of Mormon church

Did you know that the top five states in LDS Church membership growth between 2000 and 2008 (including convert baptisms and members moving in) were Tennessee, West Virginia, Kentucky, Iowa, and South Carolina in that order? This and similar factoids are plentifully available on Matt Martinich's blog United States and Canada Church Growth. Also see his other blog LDS Church Growth for commentary and news on Church growth worldwide.

Martinich is mesmerized with Church statistics and he provides detailed analyses of where the Church is growing and, in a few cases, shrinking. His thoughtful posts include maps, history, and comparison of current statistics with growth during previous eras.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Product of a quiet Sunday morning...

My wife was never really into dolls as a kid, so we didn't inherit much pink stuff after getting married. However, she did own about 7 million K'nex that have wound up in our home.

This morning the K'nex turned out to be a quiet way to entertain the kids. They get up about 6:30, church starts at 11:00. You do the math. This void needs to be filled so we don't wind up at the chapel already insane.

As we sat in the kids' room building different things and talking, I realized how nice it was to spend a few peaceful hours alone with the family. And as abominable of a toy the K'nex are for keeping a room tidy, they can get a daddy hooked. The above tractor is the product of this morning's labors. It was my son's idea to build this, but I was still engrossed in the project after he and the others had lost interest and gone downstairs. Now here I am showing it off on my blog... Is that a shameless Daddy trick or what?

Friday, May 1, 2009

This year's Rays?

April's gone and the Mariners are still leading the AL West. Did anyone see this coming?

My oh my...

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Not someone's best guess...

Because of all the commotion with moving, I didn't get out a post during this April's LDS General Conference. Thankfully I did get the chance to view the conference over the Internet. This one of my favorite quotes, from Dieter F. Uchtdorf (Full text of his talk) :

"This gospel does not come from man. The doctrine of the Church is not someone's best guess as to the meaning of ancient scripture. It is the truth of heaven revealed by God Himself. I testify that Joseph Smith saw what he said he saw. He truly looked into the heavens and communed with God the Father and the Son, and with angels."

This quote describes why I choose to belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I believe that to have an effective organized religion, God himself must lead it.

The following highlight video from the conference shows a good example of how God inspires and speaks through the leaders of the Church. The men speaking in the video are "apostles" (the same kind as in the Bible), and their assignment is to lead the Church and be special witnesses of Jesus Christ.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Farewell California

It's difficult to categorize the emotions we felt leaving Southern California for our native Pacific Northwest. In the past week I’ve felt occasional pangs of homesickness for our friends, our home, and the sunshine that we left behind. We were very blessed during our time in California and contrary to the prejudices of my youth it turned out to be a great place for our family to begin a career. Here are some things we’ll miss.

  • There’s always something interesting happening close by. If you want to go to a sporting event, the zoo, a farmer’s market, a shopping center, camping, or whatever, it’s all there and usually you have multiple choices.

  • There are many choices of hospitals, libraries, performing arts venues, clubs, and other organizations that enhance the quality of life.

  • The weather is unbeatable in the Fall, Winter, and Spring. In early April we left sunny, t-shirt weather, which allowed us to go on family walks or attend outdoor activities just about whenever we wanted.

  • The Church is strong and its members in California are extraordinary people. We saw individuals give hundreds, if not thousands of hours of their time in volunteer service to Church administration, youth programs, humanitarian projects, and defending the traditional definition of marriage. We also enjoyed attending a temple just minutes from our home.
Along with these advantages, California definitely has its challenges. For example, we won’t miss the prohibitive cost of living, the threat of a massive earthquake at any time, severely underfunded schools, torn-up busy freeways, unhealthy air, and political corruption and ineptitude at every level of government. Many of these things exist to some degree everywhere, but California is a state of extremes.

Peter Schrag’s book California: America’s High-Stakes Experiment gives a well-rounded picture of some of the current and future hurdles that California faces, and you will find it interesting whether you’ve lived in California or not. The book was published too early to include last year’s Proposition 8 battle over gay marriage or the 2009 state budget standoff, but these events would have fit in as natural chapters and were easier for me to understand after reading Schrag’s book.

Friday, April 17, 2009

1100 miles later, we're back online

This blog has been offline for a while as our family has been busy relocating to the Pacific Northwest. Although we had tried to limit the amount of stuff we accumulated during four years in California, it was still quite a chore packing everything up, loading it onto my father-in-law’s trailer, driving 1,100 miles with two children, and unloading everything at the new place.

Some things I learned on the drive:

  • Goldfish crackers will quiet almost any storm that brews in the back seat. But if that doesn’t work, Pez will do the job.

  • If you buy two identical Magna Doodles for your children so they won’t fight, they will still pick one to fight over.

  • Nothern California rest areas are just as thrashed and understaffed as Southern California rest areas.

  • Oregon must have some money in their budget for road projects. We crawled through one construction site after another.

  • Once the kids get to sleep on the first evening of driving, gun it and get as far as you can.

  • If you drive through California, Oregon, and Washington in April, you’re going to see a LOT of water. And a lot of green. The drive was beautiful.

For our friends back in California, we are cold and wet just like you predicted, but safe and settled in just as you wished for us. Thank you for all the help and offers for help leading up to our move.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Church sponsoring links in Google Maps

Today I typed in a Google Maps search for an address near a Mormon temple. I was excited to see this sponsored link when my search results appeared:

It's nice to see the Church looking to boost its Web traffic in creative, yet effective ways. Who hasn't searched for something in Google Maps? And if someone searches for my temple, I want them to get the official link.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Madness is a part of life...

Tark the Shark (ESPN photo)Last night I flipped on the first round of March Madness, knowing that Big Ten overload notwithstanding, the evening would produce at least one thrilling contest. I was not disappointed, as hot-shooting Siena knocked off Ohio State after 2 barnburner overtimes. Wisconsin also made the evening interesting with their come-from-behind, overtime victory over favored Florida State.

Watching the merry-go-round of games in Round 1 of the Big Dance, along with the ensuing Final Four and Championship game, is a yearly ritual for me. My dad got me into it. He and I are still the only ones at home that really enjoy watching sports on TV. But everyone else in the family knew they had to participate in one Family Home Evening a year where we watched the Championship Round, since it fell on a Monday night.

Early memories of the tournament include Tark the Shark, his towel, and his unstoppable Runnin' Rebels who trounced Duke in the 1990 title game. I also remember Seton Hall being pretty good, which meant I could have started taking interest in the tournament as early as 1989. An exceedingly archaic but useful site helped me reconstruct this important piece of my life's timeline. (Somehow it didn't make the scrapbook.)

Other memorable moments of tournaments past include Christian Laettner's last-second heave against Kentucky in 1992, Michigan's Fab Five in the early 90's, Utah's unlikely run to the finals in 1998, and 14th-seeded Bucknell knocking off Kansas in 2005. Last year saw its own set of thrills with Mario Chalmers' three that saved the Jayhawks and sent the final game into overtime. This game happened during our spring vacation in Washington where the family was once again gathered around the screen.

Do these bring to mind any great tournament moments for you? What's your earliest memory of the Big Dance? Post it here!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

What do I do on March 17?

What do I do on March 17 of every year? I bust out U2 and The Cranberries, put on some green item of clothing, and celebrate my Irish heritage! I may even live dangerously this year and bring home a six-pack of 7-Up.

Apparently my forefathers came from the Killybegs area of Donegal County in the north of Ireland. I hope we get to learn more about them this year, especially if my sister's long-dreamed-of trip to the mother country goes through. Thanks to Panoramio, we've been able to find some lovely pictures of the area.

Now that's green!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Route 66 camping at Amboy

For the first time during my two-year tenure as a Scoutmaster, a boy voluntarily suggested a place for our troop to camp: a volcano! Not about to discourage this practice, we packed up the 4-runner a few weeks ago and headed out to Amboy Crater, an extinct cinder cone just a few miles off the old Route 66 in the Mojave Desert.

We found a nice open lot for camping about a quarter of a mile away from the trailhead and went to work pitching our tents in the very black and quiet desert. After about 10 minutes a faint rumble began, slowly growing to a roar that filled the entire valley. Thankfully the volcano hadn't awakened; it was just a freight train passing through just a few hundred yards to the north. As we were reminded all night long, the old Route 66 is still alive and heavily-traveled by rail traffic.

In the morning we took a stroll up into the crater. The trail is well-signed and is about a mile and half one way. A breach on the west side of the crater ensures you don't have to do much climbing to reach the rim.

The views at the top were spectacular. I hadn't seen any pictures on the Internet looking back down inside the crater, so I included one here. Notice the panoramic views of the desert in the background and some small puddles of water at the bottom of the crater, left over from some recent February storms. I imagine this is a rare sight as summer temperatures in the area can reach well over 120 degrees.

Following lunch on the rim and a quick descent, we took a spin over to Amboy, California. Once a thriving stop on Route 66, Amboy became a ghost town with the completion of Interstate 40 in the 1970's. Recently a revival effort began and Roy's, the town cafe, was open for souvenir sales when we passed through. The original hotel sign at Roy's, preserved for movie sets, made us feel like we were stepping back in time 50 years. However, I kept getting a creepy feeling I was going to have to leap into a refrigerator at any moment to weather a nuclear attack...

Just east of Amboy on the old Route 66, there's a tree where people throw old pairs of shoes. Viewing the picture below, start at the bottom of the tree and scan to the top until you find the very highest shoes. Those are my $15 Spauldings that I purchased with my own money after I got home from my mission. Those have served me well these past 6 years and I was thrilled to send them to such a dignified resting place!

If you don't have your own shoes, there are plenty lying around you can chuck in the tree. Some of them represent a stark clash of the cultural and physical geographies of California.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

What is a Mormon "Institute"?

If you're a college student or young adult interested in learning about Mormons or meeting some Mormon friends, you can visit your local LDS Institute of Religion.

"Institute", as members commonly call it, refers to both a physical location and a set of religious courses. Mormon students meet at the institute to supplement their secular education with classes about the scriptures, church history, and other related topics. Institutes are often also a place where students can study, socialize, and participate in organized activites. Institute is often held at a local chapel or a separate building purchased by the Church.

The Church has an online locator that can help you find the nearest Institute. You're welcome to participate in the activities whether you're a member of the Church or not. This can be a good way to make new friends and familiarize yourself with Mormon beliefs and lifestyle. An institute might also be a good place to find a roommate if you are looking for someone else who wants to avoid alcohol, sex, or profanity in your living quarters.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

"The Kid" returns to Seattle!

As a die-hard Mariners fan, today -- for the first time in a long while --I have something to smile about. Forget the 101 losses. Forget Ichiro staying in his own hotels on road trips. Forget that this is supposed to be a painful rebuilding year. "The Kid" is back in Seattle.

Ken Griffey, Junior was every aspiring Little Leaguer's hero in the central Washington town where I grew up. In that era he gave Dave Niehaus some of his only reasons to say "My oh my!" He was the reason the M's broke .500 for the first time. For Seattle fans, Griffey brought hope in proportions Barack Obama would be proud of.

When you ripped open a new pack of baseball cards fresh from the grocery store, Junior's was the one that you wanted to find. I remember pining over whether I could afford to shell out $7 for his Donruss rookie. I was certain I could eventually put my kids through college with it. (Guess it's okay that it's only worth $28 today because in the end it was more than my ten-year-old budget could handle.)

But card value aside, The Kid in a Mariners uniform again is priceless. Thank you Seattle and Griffey for making this happen. I'll see you at Safeco this year!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Teaching about tithing

My wife and I pay 10 percent of our income to the LDS Church as "tithing". A 10 percent tithe is taught in the Bible and is a principle Mormons are asked to adhere to.

We believe that by giving to the Lord, we show the faith that He'll provide a way for us to have the shelter, food, clothing, and other things we need. During my full-time mission in Argentina I often saw this to be true. The country was experiencing a period of great financial devastation and unemployment was through the roof. I knew several Church members who had to personally live the following scripture, putting the Lord to the test:

"Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the LORD of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it." (Malachi 3:10)

I was amazed in particular about how one old man, a Chilean immigrant, always seemed to find odd jobs to put food on the table. He was well past his prime years for manual labor and had limited education. However, I saw that he paid his tithing and did his best to serve in the Church however he was asked. His faith opened the "windows of heaven" and although his circumstances were humble, they were always adequate for his needs.

I want my children to understand why we pay tithing, so tonight for Family Home Evening we endeavored to teach our three year old son about it. We gave him ten pennies. We explained that this represented the blessings that Heavenly Father gives us. For each coin we gave him, he cheerfully replied "Thank you!"

We then asked him to return one of the pennies. He was happy to do so knowing that he could keep the other nine.

We then repeated this exercise with dimes and with quarters. Although I don't expect our son to know fractions at his age, hopefully he got something of the "one out of ten" principle.

In the end, we had 36 cents of tithing. He enjoyed putting it in the envelope and watching me fill out the donation slip. We showed him the Bishop's name on the envelope and explained to our son that he can give the envelope to the Bishop on Sunday.

After the lesson we had to run an errand, so at the store our son used his money to buy a treat. He picked "Dots" and we shared a few before bed (and before brushing teeth).

God's blessings are indeed sweet.

To read a Mormon church leader's talk on tithing, which includes some information about how the money is used, see Elder Robert D. Hales' Tithing: A Test of Faith with Eternal Blessings.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Catholics, Mormons on the same page with New Media

I recently learned that both the Mormon and Catholic churches have launched their own channels on YouTube. The LDS channel, Mormon Messages was recently showcased on the Church's website. The Vatican's channel was introduced by Pope Benedict XVI last month.

The Pope's message introducing the channel was titled New Technologies, New Relationships: Promoting a Culture of Respect. This speech is comfortingly similar to LDS Apostle M. Russell Ballard's widely-circulated 2007 talk Using New Media to Promote the Work of the Church. I've chosen just a few examples that show just how closely these Mormon and Catholic leaders view our changing media environment:

Pope Benedict: "The new digital technologies are, indeed, bringing about fundamental shifts in patterns of communication and human relationships. These changes are particularly evident among those young people who have grown up with the new technologies and are at home in a digital world that often seems quite foreign to those of us who, as adults, have had to learn to understand and appreciate the opportunities it has to offer for communications."

Elder Ballard: "How different your world is today. If you read newspapers, the chances are you read them on the Internet. Yours is the world of cyberspace, cell phones that capture video, video downloads and iTunes, social networks like Facebook, text messaging and blogs, hand-helds and podcasts. As many in my generation are just getting onto email, that’s already becoming old hat to most of you. "

* * *

Pope Benedict: "If the new technologies are to serve the good of individuals and of society, all users will avoid the sharing of words and images that are degrading of human beings, that promote hatred and intolerance, that debase the goodness and intimacy of human sexuality or that exploit the weak and vulnerable."

Elder Ballard: "Satan is always quick to exploit the negative power of new inventions, to spoil and to degrade and to neutralize any effect for good. Make sure that the choices you make in the use of new media are choices that expand your mind, increase your opportunities, and feed your soul."

* * *

Pope Benedict: "Dear Brothers and Sisters, I ask you to introduce into the culture of this new environment of communications and information technology the values on which you have built your lives."

Elder Ballard: "Talk honestly and sincerely about the impact the gospel has had in your life, how has it helped you overcome weaknesses or challenges, and helped define your values."

* * *

Pope Benedict: "It would be sad if our desire to sustain and develop on-line friendships were to be at the cost of our availability to engage with our families, our neighbours and those we meet in the daily reality of our places of work, education and recreation. If the desire for virtual connectedness becomes obsessive, it may in fact function to isolate individuals from real social interaction while also disrupting the patterns of rest, silence and reflection that are necessary for healthy human development."

No comparable quote from Elder Ballard on this one but this Mormon-produced YouTube video pretty much says the same thing:

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Testimony of Elmira Pond Miller

Browsing through some family history files my Grandpa gave me on a CD, I found this account of Elmira Pond Miller written by herself in 1890. This history is unique because it contains not only a chronology of her life, but also her religious feelings that led her to convert to Mormonism in the early days of the Church. She recounts:

"Father did not belong to any church. My mother was a Methodist, also my two sisters and one brother. I was religiously inclined. In my young days I read the New Testament often, and many times wished that I had lived in the days of Christ and His apostles and often wondered why the same gifts and blessings were not in any of the churches. We were told that they were no longer needed. That seemed a mystery to me. My desire was so great to prepare for a future state that I made up my mind to unite with the Methodist Church. That was in the year of 1827. In 1829, we moved to Adams County, Illinois. From that time I was not a member of the Methodist Church. I found that I could not believe as they did. I did not believe in shouting or in calling out amen before a prayer was finished. I believed that God was a person as I had read in the New Testament, that Christ was in the exact image of the Father. I had a great anxiety to find something that would satisfy my mind. I was sometimes impressed with the hope that greater light would come, and it was my sincere prayer that I would be prepared to believe it.

"On the 19th of June 1831, I was married to Henry William Miller. He was not religiously inclined, but I believed that he was the one for me, for I loved him the first time that I met him."

. . .

"In 1839, I heard the first true Gospel sermon I had ever heard in my life. It was delivered by Elder Able Lamb. I could not help but express my gratitude to my Heavenly Father for sparing my life, and giving me the opportunity of hearing the same gospel taught by Christ and His Apostles. . . . Brother Lamb held meetings at our house. After having a few meetings he gave an invitation for baptism. I was one of the first to accept. He said he did not like to baptize me, as my husband was not then at home. He wanted me to wait until the next meeting which would be held in two weeks, and he promised me that my husband would be ready to be baptized at that time. I did not like to wait, but did as he desired, and the promise that he made me was fulfilled, as we were both baptized at the next meeting. This was about the middle of September 1839. The Gospel was so plain that I could not believe that my relatives would reject it, but only three of my sisters believed. One of them did not join the church because her husband refused to let her be baptized."

. . .

"I feel to bear my testimony to this work. I know it is the true church, the only one the Lord has on earth, and whatever I may have to pass through I never can doubt it. This knowledge I received not only by those appointed to lead, but by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost which is a sure guide. I have many testimonies to bear. I have seen the sick healed by the laying on of hands and prayer of faith. I have been healed myself and so have my children."

Elmira's loyalty to her faith was put to the test, as several years after joining the Church she was forced out of her home in Illinois and eventually walked across the Great Plains to settle with the Mormons in the Salt Lake Valley. Although I have not had to do anything like this, the reasons she gave for believing are the same ones that I feel. I find it thrilling to belong to a Church that believes that God is literally a person, a father, just as it says in the scriptures. To me it makes so much sense that Christ's church would be directed by him, and would have apostles, prophets, and miracles, just as in the Bible. I think many people believe these things deep inside, and that Mormonism resonates in the soul of people who study it with a sincere intent to find God's will for them.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Disneyland Dos and Don'ts...what I learned

A few months ago I blogged about the anticipation of visiting Disneyland for the first time as a parent. Well, the big day came and went and much to my surprise we wound up staying until 7 PM, with everyone still composed and in fairly good spirits as we left the park. I left a wiser man than when I arrived, gathering some Disneyland Dos and Don'ts to share here on this blog.

Do- Go on a Thursday morning in January a few days after a holiday (when everyone else already went) on a day when it looks like it's going to rain but doesn't ever do anything more than spit. Park workers told us it was the slowest day of the year so far. I can't imagine lines on a normal day.

Don't- Try going to Toontown first thing. We were going to try to beat everyone to see Mickey, but it opened later than the other areas.

Do- Bring your own food. The stuff inside the park is about two times what it should regularly cost. Save the money for a treat at the end of the day.

Don't- Buy a bag of jelly beans without weighing them ($12/lb!)

Do- Ride the teacups. It was a great starter ride for our 3 year old son, for whom Disneyland had been the "Scariest place on Earth" up to that point. Also, I calculated that they can easily move over 50 people through the teacup ride at a time, so the line moves pretty fast.

Don't- Start spinning the wheel in the middle of the teacup or look at the other teacups until you near the end of the ride...unless you want to be sick.

Do- Ride the Matterhorn Bobsleds with your spouse in a double car. Make sure the male sits in front unless you are finished having children. Stop making out after about 15 seconds in the tunnel up the first climb unless you want to lose some teeth. This ride is bone-chilling not because of the architecture of the roller coaster, but because of how old and rickety it is.

Don't- Fall for the Autopia ride. It looks like cool go-karts, but you cannot really steer and you are limited to a low cruising speed. To make the car go you have to keep your foot all the way down on the pedal, which gets tiring. If a small kid is trying to drive in front of you, they will not have the strength to keep the pedal down, and you will not be able to get around them. This ride had one of the longest lines at Disneyland and a lot of it was in the path of gas fumes from the cars. Wish I would have braved the Finding Nemo line instead.

Do- Go on the Indiana Jones ride, but only on a slow day. If the lines were on the order of 1-2 hours, I would rather spend that time doing other things at Disneyland. The line for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was pretty short and if you are into speed or drops that is better than Indiana Jones. Indy is just for special effects.

Don't- Ride on the deceptively benign-looking train that goes around the periphery of Disneyland if you have children who are scared of pitch dark tunnels and violent dinosaur dioramas. That was about the scariest thing we could have imagined for my son, but we had no idea the train would go through those kind of scenes. This scary stretch is between Tomorrowland and the main entrance.

Do- Get the Mickey ears. The kids kept them on all day (surprising) and looked cute in them. (Did I use the word "cute" again on this manly blog?)

Don't- Be afraid to park your stroller. Just make sure there are enough stains on it to render the stroller unattractive to thieves and easy to identify.

Do- Check out the Lego store in Downtown Disney. It has giant Lego sculptures (including R2D2) and about every Lego set you can think of. This is a good place to hit on the way out if you're staying in one of the hotels.

Don't- Think about the ticket price if you want to have a priceless experience.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Wasabi game is a winner

Christmas at our house usually involves at least one new board game. This year we found a winner in Wasabi! by Z-Man Games.

In Wasabi! you take on the role of gourmet sushi chefs. The ingredients are square tiles that you take turns placing onto the board, or "kitchen". The object of the game is to assemble ingredients into adjacent squares to complete sushi "recipes" that carry exotic names such as Squid Salad Sandwich, Snapper Crunch, Poison Pill, and so on.

You get extra points for completing longer recipes or assembling your recipes in the exact order. When space runs out, or you complete all your recipes, you tally up the points and see who wins.

There are multiple reasons to like Wasabi!
  • A 2-player game only takes 30-45 minutes to complete.
  • Gameplay is mostly based on strategy; the only luck involved is the recipe-drawing.
  • The theme is creative and the artwork beautiful. I don't even like sushi and it makes me hungry. If this wasn't such a macho blog I would go so far as to call it "cute".

The theme also causes this game to have many pieces that require about 5 - 10 minutes to set up. You need to have a large table available, especially for a 3 or 4 player game. The pieces are brightly colored and probably attractive to young children. We don't know. It's one of those items where my wife and I have vowed, "The kids must never know this exists."

Wasabi! is not the kind of game you find at Target (that's also reflected in the price). A good place to get it is, Amazon, or eBay.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Bringing Grandpa's mission journal to light

My grandfather joined the Mormon church at age 18. Two years later, he left his home in Idaho to preach the Gospel in the Great Lakes Mission. I first learned that Grandpa kept a daily journal of his mission when I was serving a mission myself in Argentina. My mom obtained it somehow and typed out sections to send me.

Reading about Grandpa's difficulties and successes, as well as his dilligent work ethic, inspired me to work harder and lift up my head during the rough times that all missionaries face. It was comforting to know someone I knew and loved so well had experienced the same thing before.

This past year my wife and I embarked on a project to make Grandpa's journal more widely available to the family. I had run across the original copy and did not want it to remain hidden in my grandparents' house for occasional discovery. With their permission, we took the journal home and did the following with it:
  1. Type - We transcribed the journal into Microsoft Word, preserving the original spelling and grammar as much as possible. Grandpa wrote most of the entries quickly at night and did not bother with periods or capital letters, so we divided the text into sentences as best we could. Once we finished the transcription, we gave the text a full proofread to fix our own typos and review parts that were difficult to interpret the first time around.

  2. Add mission letters - For a long time we've had the text of a handful of letters Grandpa sent home while on his mission. We put these in italic font and inserted them in the journal at the appropriate places in the chronology.

  3. Add pictures - We have several pictures of Grandpa near his mission age, which we inserted into the journal at appropriate spots. We also have his mission "business card" which we scanned and added to the journal near the beginning.

  4. Add maps - At the time of Grandpa's mission there tended to be only one branch or ward per large city, so he did a lot of traveling to surrounding towns. To help the reader follow the geography, we copied out maps of each area from Google Maps and placed them on a title page for each area.

  5. Add foreword - We wrote a brief introduction to the journal that communicated the journal's value to us, how we transcribed it, and what to expect when reading it.

  6. Print - With the above additions, the journal wound up taking about 50 double-sided pages. At 12 copies we calculated it was cheaper to buy a print cartridge or two and print the journals ourselves, rather than make 600 copies. We put the printer on a lower-quality "Fast" setting which, from what I could tell, printed everything well enough for distribution.

  7. Bind - We took the manuscripts to Office Depot and got them spiral bound with a plastic cover for several bucks each.

  8. Distribute - Our goal was to get a copy of the journal to each branch of Grandpa's posterity. We enjoyed wrapping up the journals as Christmas presents and mailing them to Grandpa, his seven children, and his three grandchildren currently serving or called on missions.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Spirit of Speedy Joe

The Utah football team honored the late Mormon Apostle Joseph B. Wirthlin this week by wearing the initials "JBW" on their helmets during the Sugar Bowl. Wirthlin played for Utah in the 1930's and remained a fan and "self-appointed chaplain" of the team for decades.

Maybe some of the spirit of "Speedy Joe Wirthlin" was with the Utes in their 31-17 romp over Alabama. It's painful to admit this, but this season Utah executed every time and place that BYU didn't, and they have the BCS bowl win to show for it. The Cougs should take note of this for next year.

Hopefully this Utah win will take us one step closer to either a playoff system or an automatic BCS berth for the Mountain West Conference. It's unfortunate that MWC teams have to run the table to get in a BCS bowl. There are other teams in the conference that are perennially good enough to compete on the national stage. For example, this year's TCU squad is better than at least Virginia Tech, Cincinnati, Ohio State, and possibly other teams that got a BCS bowl invitation this season (I don't want to talk about Penn State right now).