Sunday, December 28, 2008

Spam Jello

So, we're getting ready for a family holiday party, and I did a little internet sleuthing to try to confirm a jello and 7-Up recipe from my childhood that remains a favorite among my extended family. I know, I know: jello is kinda gross, and 'green jello salad' stands as a Mormon cliche, but this particular "salad" (ha!) tastes pretty good, at least as I remember it.

Having said that, many of the jello salad recipes I found online were truly horrific. I'm cool with canned fruit in Jello--seems like a natural fit--but miracle whip and cheddar cheese?

As much as that makes my stomach turn, we make lots of dishes here in America that make foreign foods like fried grasshoppers seem downright appetizing (blended hot dog, processed cheese, mayo and pickle sandwich, anyone?). But even the wildest gross-out songs from my childhood could not have prepared me for this:

Spam Jello

1 large box lemon or lime Jello
1 large can Spam
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 cup boiling water
1/2 cup ice cold water
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 bell pepper, chopped
4 hard boiled eggs, peeled and chopped
1/4 cup relish; pickle, corn, etc.
2 stalks celery, finely chopped
Tabasco to taste

And, no, it's not a joke, near as I can tell. Oh well, I guess someone deserves points for combining the two biggest cliche foods of all time: spam and green jello. Hungry anyone?

(Photo courtesy of ash2276 on Flickr; available at:

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Children's Museum

We visited the children’s museum in Salt Lake City today, and I was amazed at how far museums have come since I was a kid. Everything’s hands-on now, interactive. There’s something for everyone. Having said that, I left feeling, well, kind of sorry for today’s kids, and for today’s parents who feel compelled to run around and fill every minute of their kids’ schedules with “meaningful” activities.

The museum was crowded, full of kids of all sizes, jostling for the chance to do this or that activity, with a seemingly equal number of decidedly bored-looking parents and grandparents tailing them around.

But what really struck me was the artificialness of it all. Sure there were some great science-type experiences for the kids upstairs, but downstairs it was all plastic and pretend.

For example, they had an elaborate water play-type section designed to show kids how dams and water currents work. When I was a child, we had those too: we called them “gutters,” “creeks,” and “irrigation ditches,” and they taught us about dams, currents, and erosion equally well, if not better, as we designed them ourselves of rocks and sticks and sand, and built and sailed our own boats on them.

Instead of fake chickens in a fake hen house, we had real chickens in a real hen house, and, get this: we collected real eggs from those hens. What a concept! And we fed real carrots to real horses too, instead of fake carrots to a fake horse, and lived in genuine fear of having our fingers nipped.

The museum had a rock wall like the ones you see in a climbing gym. As kids, poor as we were, we had to settle for real rocks, which we scampered on, over, and around, without warning signs, medical releases, or the slightest bit of “parental supervision.”

Sure, the museum had a nice pretend house and pretend shop—beyond all imagining in the days of my youth—where the most elaborate play house consisted of four walls (maybe) and a window or two. But mostly we just made things up. We made forts from hay bales or blankets or sage brush, and used rocks and sticks as stand-ins for just about everything, and somehow we got by without being bored or feeling deprived.

What ever happened to simple, unstructured play, where kids have to use their imagination and build their own fantasy worlds from whatever they have at hand? To time spent with real animals and playing in real dirt? Today’s kids seem to have lost much of that, and I wonder what it means for the adults of tomorrow.

Despite all the advances in information and technology, the kids of today seem decidedly poorer—their horizons narrower—in spite of it, and possibly because of it. Do we really need more “adventure” museums? In my experience, taking them outdoors and turning them loose seems adventure enough, and when I take my kids to the local creek or pond or into the hills, they laugh, and pretend, and explore, and I never hear them complain about being bored.

None of these insights are terribly new or revolutionary—many of them have been summarized brilliantly in the book “Last Child in the Woods” by Richard Louv (a similar cultural critique lies at the heart of Wall-E, which we watched tonight as a family)—but they struck me with particular force today, as I wandered around the Discovery Children’s Museum, which charges $8.50 a person for the chance to pretend to do things kids used to do for real.

(If you haven’t read the Louv book, you should. He also maintains a website: with a link to his blog: Photo courtesy of blessed1with8 on Flickr; available at

Woods on a Snowy Evening

Another experiment with our point-and-shoot digital camera, this one taken on a drive home during a snowstorm as night fell on Christmas Day.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Confessions of an OCD Baker

As anyone who knows me well can attest, I can be just a wee bit compulsive about certain things. Take those little, white, umbilical cord-looking thingies inside of an egg, for example. This evening, I was making cheesecake for a holiday party, and, at midnight, I found myself scraping out those little goobers one at a time before I could bear putting the eggs in the cake batter.

I just can’t stand the thought of forking off a piece of chocolate cheesecake and getting a dangly umbilical cord as a bonus prize, no matter how small. (Okay, I know they aren’t umbilicial cords—Wikipedia tells me they are called “chalaza”—but they’re still gross.)

But why, you may ask. What’s the big deal? I dunno. That’s the thing about obsessions and compulsions. You can’t ask why. As my daughter Sarah likes to say, “It’s not my fault. Jesus just made me that way.”

(Photo courtesy of Whateverthing on Flickr; available at:

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Magic of Snow

What explains the magic of snow?

Today it snowed for hours and then, just as dusk began to fall, I glimpsed the line of hills to our east, the first sign of the storm lifting. Heading outside with the shovel, the sky remained an unbroken gray, and then, almost imperceptibly, a change: a hint of blue, first high and faint, then spreading slowly from the west like paint on a wet canvas.

Falling snow is the stuff of poetry, from Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening (“The woods are lovely, dark, and deep …”) to this little ditty by the gifted haiku poet John Stevenson: snowy night / sometimes you can’t be / quiet enough.

Returning to my question, I think the magic of snow lies in its power to transform. Like the wave of a magician’s wand, a snowstorm—in an instant—transforms an ordinary landscape into something different, mysterious, and unfamiliar. Colors fade and lines blur. Sounds recede as well, swallowed up in the whirling dance of ice crystals. Somber. Meditative. Lovely. The larger and softer the flakes, the more dramatic the effect.

I suspect too that part of the magic lies in how quickly it fades. Almost a soon as the snow stops, the snow falls from the branches, restoring the familiar, winter shapes of trees. The horizon returns, along with the noise of traffic, and I’m left cold, scraping ice from the front walk with an old shovel.

(Photo courtesy of algo on Flickr; available at:

Monday, December 15, 2008

Quote Book for Kids

As parents, there are plenty of things we don't do or we get wrong. One thing we've done right is to keep a book of "kid quotes"--all the funny, insightful, and interesting things they say--a practice we started when our first child, Jordan, was about a year old. We keep the book in the living room where we can grab it quickly and jot something down before we forget.

The quote book has grown over the years, and continues to provide fodder for the Christmas newsletter as well as entertainment for the kids and a lot of great memories.

Since this is the stuff of newsletters, some of you may have heard these before, but here are some classic examples:

Jordan to Mommy (at age 3): "Do you love me all the time, even when you're mad at me? I love you all the time, even when I'm mad at you."

Jordan (age 3): "Does Jesus like that police officers have guns?"

Daddy (putting on a black stocking cap): "Do I look like a bank robber?!" Sarah (age 3 and looking a little scared): "Bank robbers are nice to their kids, and they love their kids, and they catch butterflies, and put 'em in their nest."

Sarah (age 3), a "Little Mermaid" fan, explaining why she suddenly had to get out of the bath: "Because Ursula turned me into a human."

After Jordan (age 5) temporarily traded four of his toys for four of his friend's Pokemon cards, the cards found their way into his pants pocket and, ultimately, the wahsh. When we told Jordan he would need to use his allowance money to buy new, replacement cards, he said, "Let's just flatten them out and tell him not to worry about it."

Sarah (age 3), trying to get around our newly instituted rules that kids can't watch T.V. until their beds are made: "I maked my bed the way I wanted it."

One night I handed Sarah a sippy cup with only a little bit of old water in it. She took one sip, handed it back to me, and announced: "This tastes like Jordan's breath."

One evening over dinner Sarah announced that "When I get older, I want ballet." When asked whether she wanted to watch ballet or take ballet," she replied, "I want to take over ballet."

Dad to Jordan (age 6): "I think Mommy likes your (Christmas) cards as much as presents." Jordan: "Dad, can I tell you something? I like presents more than cards."

Sarah (age 4) to a then-expectant Mommy: "Does the baby swing on your bones?"

Sarah compliments: "Mommy, your veins are my favorite color." "Grandma: I think you were beautiful before you were a grandma."

Sarah to Jordan: "You can't judge a cookie by the way it looks."

Jordan (age 6), after seeing nude sculptures at the Smithsonian: "Those statues are immodest. Let's get out of this unholy place!"

Sarah, during a late night argument with her mother: "Mommy, you have beautiful ears, but they don't work very well."

Sarah (age 6), describing an airplane trip from Maryland to Utah: "I saw heaven with my own eyes, but I didn't see any angels. They must've been out to lunch or something."

Mary, still learning her numbers at age 3: "I want two of them," she announced this morning about some chocolate covered raisins, "six and five." Daddy: "How old are you, Mary?" Mary: "Twenty-five."

Mary, after getting a whiff of Daddy's cologne: "Daddy, you smell like a recipe."

Sarah, defending Dr. Phil: "Where would all those angry people go without Dr. Phil?"

Mary (still 3) upon feeling Daddy's hairy legs: "It's like Nar-ni-na (Narnia)."

Mary: "Daddy, why does Jesus wear a white dress?"

Mary (4) was acting out a fairy tale with Sarah when she called herself "Rapunza." When Sarah corrected her, she replied, "I know it's Rapunzel, but I call her Rapunza 'cause I speak French."

In response to the question "What gift would you like to give to the Christ child this year?" Mary replied, "A cookie."

Fun stuff. So, if you haven't been keeping your own little "book of quotes" you should. They grow up far too fast.

(Photo courtesy of Ti.Mo on Flickr; available at:

Monday, December 8, 2008

Miracle of the Gulls

If you’re Mormon, you probably grew up, as I did, hearing the story of the “Miracle of the Gulls,” in which the Mormon pioneers faced starvation as hordes of locusts devoured their crops in June 1848, less than a year after their arrival in the Salt Lake Valley. The story has an Old Testament quality to it, with seagulls darkening the skies, descending en masse, devouring locusts (actually a kind of katydid called a “Mormon Cricket”) until they puked (literally), and then going back for more. When the crickets were gone—and the miracle accomplished—the seagulls left. In commemoration of this event, the Utah legislature made the California Gull the State Bird and imposed a criminal fine for anyone caught killing one. The Church also erected a monument on Temple Square that stands today with a pair of gilded gulls atop a tall, granite pillar.

Raised with that image of the event burned into my consciousness, it troubled me to discover, in my late twenties, that the story had grown in the telling. A Mormon scholar and professor of history at Brigham Young University named William G. Hartley did some research and found that only a few of the journals from that period recorded the event at all, and those that did referenced it in decidedly more mundane terms, recognizing the hand of providence less in the appearance of seagulls in isolation and more as one piece of a broader story of survival and eventual prosperity (something along the lines of “Some seagulls came and they helped, thank the Lord”). So, while the seagulls didn’t wipe out the crickets in one fell swoop, they did—doing what seagulls normally do—play a role in saving the pioneers’ crops and, as a result, helped save the pioneers too. That version, however, lacked the drama to hold much popular appeal, and so, over the years, the story morphed into the Hollywood version I learned growing up.

To my mind, the story and the way it’s evolved over the years raise important questions. For example, if we take Professor Hartley’s version of the story as the correct one, what does it say about God and nature of miracles?

The skeptic will no doubt jump in at this point and say, “Professor Hartley’s research just confirms that religion is a lot of hooey. Things happen according to natural law and these weak minded types, desperate to find God in everything, wildly exaggerate an ordinary occurrence to persuade others to drink the Kool-Aid.” But that’s not the lesson Professor Hartley took from his research, and it’s not the lesson I take from it either.

If the “true” story of the seagulls suggests anything to me, it suggests we need to broaden our sense of the miraculous, to recognize the hand of God in all things, and not merely the inexplicable. As with those early journal writers, the pioneer miracle strikes me as more about survival than seagulls—that a group of people could plunk themselves down in the middle of nowhere with nothing but what they dragged in wagons and handcarts over thousands of miles and survive a series of harsh winters in an unfamiliar land. That they endured says a lot about their own fortitude, sense of purpose, and spirit of cooperation. It also speaks to miracles in the form of help from Native Americans, winter snowpack in the high mountains to the East (providing a source of water during summers hot and dry), sego lilies (an edible bulb), native fish (harvested in great numbers by the early settlers), and, yes, seagulls.

Oh, I believe in the miracle of the gulls alright, and I don’t care whether they blackened the sky with their wings and ate every last cricket. Seagulls are scavengers to be sure, petty thugs of the garbage dump, but they are also beautiful, elegant creatures, white against the sky, embracing the wind with wide outstretched wings. Isn’t it miraculous enough that, in doing ‘what seagulls do,’ they helped the pioneers survive?

And isn’t life itself the greatest miracle of all? Here we sit on a tiny pin prick, one small speck in an infinite universe, pinched in a narrow band—a thin shell—between the fire below and the icy void of space. Our lungs burn oxygen, our cells burn energy from the sun, and we move and breathe and love and laugh. Isn’t it amazing?

Why do we long so for a God who parts the Red Sea or sends seagulls without number to do things seagulls don’t ordinarily do? Why do we have to dress everything up in the mystical? The God I know works in ordinary ways, no less miraculous for being “ordinary.” Shouldn’t we thank God for the countless miracles of our existence, for each day, for each breath? He sends rain, as the scriptures say, on the “just and the unjust,” and the rain is a miracle. He sends friends and family to love us, and that love is a miracle. He gives us strength to endure and that strength is a miracle. Yes, I believe in miracles.

(Photo courtesy of thebugs on Flickr, available at:

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Small Town Diner

Today I took my son to a diner in the small town where I was born, the kind where the waitresses still take and deliver your order at the car if you turn your lights on. We chose to go inside instead, and sat on round stools at the main counter (you know the kind). We ordered hamburgers and milkshakes and toyed with the old juke box as a few late season flies buzzed slowly around the room.

The food came in due time. My burger was decent, the fries overcooked, and the shake wasn’t chocolately enough, but it all somehow tasted better because it reminded me of home, and family, and the carefree days of childhood.

(Photo courtesy of fotoedge on Flickr; available at:

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Yin and Yang of Yardwork

Last week a strong north wind blew leaves from all over the neighborhood into our yard. And so I’m raking them up today, loading them into the wheelbarrow, and piling them into the garden.

Recently I’ve been struck by the tensions of yard and garden work, the apparent contradictions. Today I water and fertilize this tree; tomorrow I prune it. Today I carefully plant the plants I like; tomorrow I violently uproot the ones I don’t. I kill myself getting the grass to grow healthy and strong, so I can cut it more frequently and wonder what to do with all the clippings.

I recall a monologue by Garrison Keillor about dandelions. After describing his failed efforts to control them (coupled with trouble nurturing domesticated flowers), he concludes: “I’ve started to wonder if we’re on the wrong side.”

Dandelions excepted, there’s a rough kind of balance there, don’t you think? The push and pull, the yin and yang of yard and garden. With some hard work and patience it all kind of balances out in the end. Harmony ... or at least a nervous truce between warring sides, which brings me back to my neighbors’ leaves.

I’m not a big fan of raking, generally, or of stuff blown in from neighboring yards, but my yard is new and leaves are few, and fallen leaves make a good mulch that offers nitrogen and other essential nutrients for next year’s vegetable garden. Besides, the wind did half the work, blowing all that nitrogen from the four corners of the neighborhood and piling it up neatly by the front walk … like so much manna, from Heaven. Bring it on.

(Photo courtesy of calderbrun on Flickr: available at

Monday, December 1, 2008

Photo Fun

While the kids were waiting to see Santa at the Centerville City park last night, I had fun playing around with our point-and-shoot digital, capturing the Christmas lights in a unusual way. (Becky just sighed and rolled her eyes.)

This is just one example. I'll upload a few more to my Flickr folder tomorrow. (You can access that by clicking the photo of the goblin statue with the funny nose at right). Makes for some interesting abstracts.

An Unnatural Sweetness

A recent blood test confirmed that I have insulin resistance. So, while my body continues to produce the insulin necessary to convert sugars into energy the body can use, my muscle tissues have become “resistant” to insulin, leaving too much of the stuff—a caustic (if essential) chemical—circulating in my blood. If not treated, the condition will almost certainly lead to Type 2 (adult onset) diabetes, with all the attendant consequences. Fun stuff.

All this talk of sugar got me thinking about artificial sweeteners. Michael Pollan posits—and others have as well—that today’s epidemic of insulin resistance and adult-onset diabetes may have something to do with Americans’ particular fondness for high fructose corn syrup—think sodas, candies, and just about everything else sweet these days—and refined carbohydrates (which the body converts to even more sugar) coupled with an appalling lack of exercise. All that blood sugar has to go somewhere, and, if it isn’t burned off through exercise, it just floats around and causes trouble. So, given my bad eating habits and appalling lack of exercise, a diagnosis of insulin resistance comes as no surprise.

Compare that situation to the one faced by our ancestors, who were lucky to find anything sweet to eat, and, if they did, likely ate it with all the fiber and other good stuff included—fiber that would naturally moderate the ups and downs of blood sugar, sugar that would likely have been burned off in any event over the course of a hard day’s labor. Even natural sugars like those found in a glass of orange juice would never have been consumed in any great quantity as recently as my grandmother’s day, when, as a girl in Holland, a single orange was viewed as a luxury, an extravagance, and each bite savored.

But this “unnatural sweetness” problem is broader than diet, isn’t it? It seems to me that we’ve made just about everything unnaturally sweet. Take contemporary notions of beauty for example, where the fashion, make-up, and plastic surgery industries have sold us on an artificial notion of beauty—impossibly skinny models with perfect skin, perfect hair, perfect lips and playboy bunny breasts. Is it any wonder that a teenage girl, beautiful in her own way, looks in the mirror and gets depressed? Why anorexia and bulimia run rampant? (If you haven’t seen this video, you should:

And it isn’t just the girls who fall prey, as the recent flood of ads for products promoting hair growth, muscle-building, and male “performance enhancements” make painfully clear. (Just shoot me if I have to sit through another Cialis commercial.)

Apparently, reality is too dull, too bland, so why not sweeten it up?

It’s the same everywhere I look. Drugs and alcohol? Sweeteners. Step on those pleasure receptors, baby, no need for natural highs. Video games? Who needs saber-toothed tigers to give one an adrenaline rush? Pornography? Every fantasy at one’s finger tips (for a fee). But it’s all ghastly pink cotton-candy in the end, isn’t it, and does it really deliver as promised? A short term fix, to be sure, but does it linger?

Will we reach a day—if we haven’t already—where we no longer take pleasure in the simple joys of life: the sweetness of an apple, fresh from the tree? a sunrise? a smile? a warm hello? I hope not.

Life can be sweet in a simple, earthy sort of way. I just hope we don’t sugar coat everything to the point that we can no longer savor it.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

On Gratitude

Two days shy of Thanksgiving, I thought it appropriate to share a few thoughts on gratitude.

Years ago, my mother tried to explain her concept of faith in the following way (she used the Mormon term "testimony" in the original):

The idea of [faith] once seemed complicated to me and now seems much simpler. Sometimes, it seems as simple as gratitude--the ability to acknowledge divine purpose and order in all creation with a full and thankful heart--the joy of being alive, running, swimming, seeing, hearing, loving--the joy of seashells and stones, of colored fruit from the brown earth--rainbows in the air.

On another occasion, she said it this way: "The Lord has provided so much for us. In our abundance, we have become thoughtless--even offensive. ... It seems to me we have two duties: to remember the source of our blessings and to share them."

What got me thinking about gratitude was a documentary Becky and I watched recently called "God Grew Tired of Us" which tells the story of three young men, representatives of the so called "Lost Boys" of Southern Sudan, who fled violent upheaval in their country, endured incredible hardships and depredations along the way, languished for years in a refugee camp, and finally came to America as part of a special program to resettle them.

The take home message for me--apart from the idea that we Americans may have something to learn from these young men, their culture, and the way they care for each other--was gratitude: gratitude for family and friends and community, for a roof over my head, and clothes on my back, and food on the table. Clean drinking water. Time to think. Education. Medical care. All the day-to-day miracles that that we take for granted.

I was startled too by how the gratitude these young men felt for the opportunities they were given translated immediately into a desire to do as my mother suggested--to share them. While still in Africa, one started a "Parliament" to help the other boys keep their minds off their empty stomachs. Another started a foundation to build hospitals in his home country, and a third wants to build a school. Great examples: these boys who grew up with so little, deprived of all the things we take for granted.

And so, my Thansgiving prayer is for a deeper sense of gratitude, and appreciation for everyday miracles: wise mothers, the soft light of early dawn, clean water from the tap, a smile from a friend, or the touch of a loved one's hand.

Happy Thanksgiving.

(Photo courtesy of Pat Di Fruscia, available at

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Spider

I once read a Japanese folk tale about a wicked man who died without having performed a single act of kindness for anything or anyone except once, when, in the act of deliberately stepping on a spider, he said to himself "Ah, well: Live and let live!" and moved on. When the man died he went--as one might expect--straight to Hell, where he was forced to tread water in a vast lake of fire and brimstone with the rest of the damned.

In his misery he looked up and saw, to his suprise, a tiny strand of spider web slowly descending from the unseen heights above, a gift from the spider whose life he spared. Grasping hold, he found it incredibly strong, and began to pull himself up, thinking to his delight and amazement that he might be able not only to climb out of the lake of fire and brimstone, but possibly pull himself all the way up to Heaven itself.

As others saw him climbing, however, they swam over and began to climb the spider's web too. Angrily the man kicked at them, and, at that, the strand broke and back he fell.

The moral of the story? Don't kick, and leave the spiders alone.

P.S. In Russia they tell a different version of the same story, involving a wicked woman, a poor peasant, and an onion. The moral there? Don't kick, and give onions, because they are much easier to hold on to than a carrot.

(Photo courtesdy of Goshinsky on Flickr; available at

Friday, November 7, 2008

Nature's Temple

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike. John Muir

John Muir often compared the valleys of Yosemite to cathedrals or temples, and I’ve certainly felt that way in the outdoors generally and, in particular, as I’ve explored the desert landscapes of Southern Utah.

I recall a trip to Zion’s National Park a few years ago in early spring. After stopping by the visitor’s center and doing a quick hike to Weeping Rock, I persuaded Becky to give Angel’s Landing a try—one of my all time favorite hikes, but not for the faint of heart. Though Becky was nervous about attempting it with the kids, I was so impressed with their efforts on the Beehive in Acadia National Park that I thought we could pull it off. We decided to go as far as Scout’s Lookout and then make a decision there about whether to go further. To keep the kids engaged (and their minds off their tired legs) we promised Sarah her very own bag of beef jerky and Jordan the rough economic equivalent: four hot wheel cars. It worked. The kids did remarkably well, and less than two hours later we arrived at Scout’s Lookout. It was so easy to that point I was sure we could breeze on up to Angel’s Landing. Neither Jordan nor Sarah had any qualms about gazing over the railing from the lookout, despite an 800-1000 foot drop from that vantage point straight down to the Virgin River.

But our snack break there gave Jordan time to think about the line of chains he could see winding up the sandstone knoll to our left. “It’s so narrow,” he complained. But we said a prayer together and decided to give it a go. The kids did great. Just like the Beehive, Sarah clambered around like a little monkey, seemingly unperturbed. Jordan, on the other hand, struggled, but managed to keep going. We climbed up and around the knoll and then descended towards the last saddle before the final climb. The view of that last steep pitch, however, with vertical cliffs on both sides, did both Jordan and Becky in. Jordan refused to go any further and Becky, fearful for the kids, wasn’t going to push him any further. Sarah, on the other hand, was raring to go. See seemed genuinely disappointed when we decided to turn around. Frankly, I had to agree with Becky. The view of that last ascent is rather fearsome (much more so than I remembered), and it had been a little nerve wracking to get the kids even that far. I would’ve done it with just Sarah, but with Mary on my back I had to agree with Becky that it was wise to turn back.

On the way down, the kids were cute together, laughing and bouncing their voices off the canyon walls. Becky, Jordan, and Sarah eventually moved ahead while Mary and I lagged behind. Soon, she fell fast asleep, and I descended most of the way alone and in silence. It gave me some good time to think, and to soak in the awe-inspiring beauty of that great valley as the afternoon shadows slowly climbed the Eastern walls.

I was struck, first and foremost, by how well the pioneers had named the place: Zion. And I had the thought that the words of the hymn Beautiful Zion, Built Above could have been written to describe this place: Oh Zion, lovely Zion! Beautiful Zion. Zion, city of our God. Truly Zion Canyon is the kind of place where God can dwell, and I half-imagined Him, like Rodin’s Thinker, sitting atop the Great White Throne.

What it is about these desert spaces, about the sheer, red cliffs of Southern Utah, that turn one’s thoughts to God? They seem to strip life and existence down to its essence. In the East, Thoreau had to go to the woods and live alone to “strip life down to its essence.” In Zion, the grandeur of that great sandstone cathedral does it for you. In those spaces one cannot but feel small and insignificant, where the signature of God is writ large across earth and sky. If Joseph Smith had lived in Springdale, he wouldn’t have gone to a grove of trees to pray; he would’ve gone to Angel’s Landing.

(Photo of Angel's Landing--that's it, and the path to it, on the left--courtesy of OneEighteen on Flickr, available at:

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Killdeer

July 2, 2006

A few weeks ago, near the duck pond behind my office in Murray, I spied a killdeer, making its odd cry and feigning injury. From experience, I know what that means: nest near by. So, I abandoned my plans for a walk and began looking for the nest, trying to gauge by the direction the killdeer was trying to lead me where her nest might lay. I wandered around in careful circles for twenty minutes or so without luck. I even tried to hide behind a tree and see whether the mother killdeer would return to her nest, but it didn’t work. At last, I gave up and headed back to the office. As I reached the shade of a line of cottonwoods, however, I paused again to see what the mother killdeer would do. This time, she fell for the ruse. She sat down on a barren patch of dirt I’d passed over several times previously, and right there, sure enough, I found her eggs—two beautiful, cream colored eggs with black speckles.

A few days later, there were four perfect eggs, nestled in a little cup of dirt; the next day, two. Then none. The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away …

Monday, November 3, 2008

On Doubt . . .

Since one of the beauties of a blog is that I can post whatever I want, you'll excuse me for dusting off a few old journal entries now and then. This sad, sobering one seems to be worth revisiting.

July 14, 2002

After a long, long drive home this afternoon, I planned to write a light-hearted account of my adventures in the haunted woods at the base of Mt. Fuji. (I spent most of the weekend traipsing about those woods taking pictures.) But a sobering email from Becky prompted me to address a far more serious topic: doubt. Not just uncertainty about this or that, but doubt with a capital "D."

My nephew Lindon, Jenny and Joe’s baby boy, has a brain tumor—a big, inoperable one. Barring some miracle of faith and chemotherapy, he will die, and his parents will be left to struggle with the big questions: doubt with a capital "D." It’s strange: I had a lot of time to think this trip, and at one point in my mental meanderings I remember stopping to consider what I would do, how I would feel, if something terrible happened to one of my children, Jordan or little Sarah. I remember thinking: "I don’t know if my faith could handle another blow like that." I came home to discover the just such a blow has been struck, just not at me. But I’m still left with the weighty questions. From a philosophical point of view, it’s no different, is it, just because it’s someone else’s kid? I don’t think so.

What I struggle with is the suffering of the innocent. I have no problem with personal suffering on account of wrongdoing, poor choices, even honest mistakes. Consequences—often in the form of suffering of some kind—teach us, strengthen us, benefit us in often unforeseen ways. Similarly, I have been taught, and have always accepted, that our poor choices may cause others to suffer as well. A drunk driver kills a small child. Tragic, yes, but at least we can ascribe the result to agency. God will not interfere with our wrong choices, even if they have tragic consequences for others. But this leaves unexplained a vast ocean of human suffering that has nothing to do with poor choices. (In truth agency can only explain a portion of the first two categories. If I make a mistake at the wheel, it may scratch the car, or I might be killed—for the same mistake. The uncertainty of the consequence defies the simple explanation that "I had it coming." Same goes for a mistake or bad act that hurts another--agency cannot explain the kind or degree of suffering.)

But the third category is the most troubling, and what prompted my soul searching. Why Lindon? What can explain his suffering? Nothing.

The only answer left is the one I cannot be satisfied with: it’s God’s will, or, put differently, it’s part of "the Plan." But the Plan doesn’t speak to this, except to suggest that we might learn something from his—Lindon’s—suffering. But what is there to learn? What is the wisdom purchased at such great price? Is it to be grateful for what we have, like Job, to thank God when all is taken away from us because we can still draw breath?

So, we’re left grasping at straws: "He’s needed more over there," "The whole point of this life is to get a body, and he did that," or "He will be in a place where there is no suffering and all is peaceful." I hope so, but something about these explanations smacks of administrative convenience: we can’t explain it, so we come up with these things to make ourselves feel better. But I don’t feel better. Not right now. Life is too precious to be given short shrift. I wonder why our little girl was born dead in my arms, and why our friends' baby died, and why Sarah had Down’s Syndrome, and Ben schizophrenia, and why Lindon has cancer. Why oh why must such things be?

I suspect I will never know the answer in this life, and will be left to make do as best I can, convinced—because there is a certain irreduceable sum of answers that I firmly believe—that there must be some explanation that escapes my finite mind. But it’s cold comfort.

. . . .

After some time to reflect I concluded that I can’t let the journal entry end there, as an unmoderated expression of doubt. So what do I believe? It’s a tough question these days, in the face of so much uncertainty, but there is, as I said, a "certain sum of irreduceable answers"—things I know to be true. Here are a few that come to mind:

I believe in love, and by love I mean to encompass both the love I feel for my wife Becky and the kids and "brotherly love" or charity: the pure love of Christ. The love I feel is never that pure, it’s often diluted or tainted by self-interest, but I believe in the ideal, and I’ve felt it enough in the giving and the receiving to be sure of it. I mean selflessness: that enobling quality of concern for others, and a willingness to serve them, help them, sacrifice for them. In this form it is pure and powerful, and it is real. My mother knew and understood this, and exemplified it in many respects. With time I have come to realize that the smug expression—"there is no such thing as a selfless act"—is a lie.

I believe in hope. I know that sound silly, since faith and hope are two sides of the same coin (would I say "I believe in belief?"), but what I mean is this: I believe in the power of hope. It has a redemptive quality to it, almost in the nature of a self-fulfilling prophecy: in hoping that the world is fundamentally good, we seek to make the world a better place, and it becomes—if not "good"—then at least better. That benefit is real. What’s more, there’s a tangible personal benefit as well. It doesn’t surprise me at all when studies come out saying that people of faith live longer or happier lives. It rings true, because I’ve felt it in my own life. When the Spirit attests that something is right or true or good, it feels good, and I know I am better for the experience.

Lastly, I believe in beauty, and by that I mean the spark of recognition I feel when I see something beautiful, whether it be an act of simple service, the face of a loved one, or a rainbow caught in a waterfall. These things are beautiful to me, and my reaction to them is real.

That’s a short list, I know, and there are more, but those are the truths that spring immediately to mind. From these truths I draw comfort and strength—even when the doubts seem overwhelming.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Can You Haiku?

October 27, 2008

One of my more obscure hobbies is writing English language haiku and a related form called "haibun" that combines poetry and prose writing. For a definitions and explanations of these forms, see Without getting overly complicated, let's just say a true contemporary haiku isn't the rigid 5-7-5 syllable poem you learned about in grade school. Hopefully examples like the following offer a flavor of for the simplicity and elegance of these forms, which seek to stay true to the spirit of the original Japanese haiku and haibun popularized by poets such as Matsuo Basho.


Hundreds of pinwheels spin in the autumn wind, each one next to a small statue of Jizo, who watches over the souls of stillborns, miscarriages, and aborted fetuses. The images stand in long rows: three deep, one row higher than the next; each with a large, round head, closed eyes and pursed lips, tiny hands with fingers extended, palms pushed together in prayer. Some are bare stone, but most are decorated, commonly with a pinwheel, a knit cap, and a bib. Many have caps bright red yarn; on others, only a few gray tatters remain. I stop to contemplate an older Jizo, its features worn almost entirely away by wind and rain. Someone has tied a new bib around its neck.

At one end of the line of statues stands a large bulletin board of sorts, on which hang many wooden tablets. Each bears a hand-written message. I read a few in English: "Little baby: We are so sorry we could not keep you. Please forgive us." "Dear one: We will always love you."

temple bell--
a wisp of smoke curls upward
from the incense stick


Thousands have leaped to their deaths from the Golden Gate Bridge. One man, who survived, tells his story: "I told myself that if someone--anyone--bothered to talk to me, to see if I was okay, I wouldn't jump." Near the middle of the span, a woman stops him and asks, "Would you mind taking my picture?" He takes her picture. She says, "thanks," and leaves. Then he jumps.

lone gull . . .
the cold sting
of the steel rail

And a few of my most successful haiku:

faint stars
the cabby speaks
of home

40th birthday
the leaves just beginning
to change color

another soldier . . .
the sound of wind
through a hole in the fence

Tulips and the Stock Market

October 24, 2008

I’m planting tulips today and thinking about the stock market. Like most people, we’ve watched the value of our retirement savings and investments plummet over the past several months. Stocks we bought as much as six or seven years ago are now worth less than when we bought them. All we can do is wait and hope that, in three, four, or five years, they’ll climb back to break even.

But back to tulips. When we built our home and installed the yard a few years ago, we didn’t bother to truck in topsoil for the lawns and flower beds. So, the soil remains a dense clay, shot through with construction refuse and stones of all sizes. Still, I make slow but steady progress planting the bag of 90 tulip bulbs we bought at Costco a few weeks ago.

This new bulb planter is a cool thing. I jump on it—like a shovel—and, if I’m lucky and don’t hit a rock, I can push it 4-6 inches straight down, twist it, and pull up a perfect cylinder of firm, dark earth, cool to the touch despite the bright sun on this Indian summer day. In goes the bulb—fat, round, and waxy smooth—and then the dirt, back on top. I should use gloves for this part, but I hate the feel (or the “un” feel) of gloves, so I use my hands, crumbling the soil over each bulb, tamping it down, then pushing the mulch back in place. By the last bulb, my back aches and my hands are stained and rough.

So, what's it worth, anyway--my modest investment in bulbs, the newfangled planter, dirty hands, a sore back, and two hours work on a Saturday?

A lot, apparently, if one believes the accounts of the “tulip mania” that gripped Holland in the year 1637, where a single bulb of the Viceroy variety traded for two lasts of wheat, four lasts of rye, four fat oxen, eight fat swine, twelve fat sheep, two hogsheads of wine, four tons of beer, two tons of butter, 1,000 pounds of cheese, a complete bed, a silver drinking cup (and, one suspects, a partridge in a pear tree)—heady stuff for a simple flower that originated, not in Holland, but the high steppes of Central Asia.

The economist Robert Schiller and others have identified the wild speculation in tulip prices in Seventeenth Century Holland as the first recorded speculative bubble, which brings my garden musings full circle.

I’m no economist, but if I understand speculative bubbles, they are driven less by intrinsic value and more by a desire to get something for nothing—that’s the “speculative” part—to get rich off of some particular fad. To buy, say, a bulb or a stock or a piece of property for an outrageous price and sell it for an even more outrageous price to the next guy who comes along. Since the price becomes, rather quickly, entirely divorced form the true value of the particular object, it will inevitably fall back to earth and leave someone holding the bag, which usually happens with stomach-in-your-throat kind of speed, like the first big drop on a roller coaster.

And that’s the beauty of planting tulips in the Fall. There’s no speculation here. For a modest investment of time, money and effort, I’m guaranteed a great return in about six months. Tulips are one of my favorite flowers. I love the vivid splash of early color, the graceful curves of the blooms, and the way the petals cup the light and warmth of the sun in early spring. That’s a result one can bank on.

(Note: photo courtesy of northofsweden, available at: