Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Thanksgiving 2011

We decided to do something different this year, since the family who's still around had other plans. Camping for Thanksgiving is "different," right? But is it possible to still have turkey and stuffing and the usual Thanksgiving foods while camping? For my wife, nothing is impossible, and we invited the Jorgenson's to camp with us since we like them so much.

We had planned to go camping at Big Basin State Park in the Redwoods, but the forecast called for rain... and camping in the rain doesn't sound like much fun (neither did the 6 or 7 hour drive). But luckily a couple of spots opened up at Carpinteria. Camping on the beach. For Thanksgiving. With good friends. Can it get any better?

We had hobo (foil) dinners of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, green bean casserole, ambrosia, rolls, and cranberry sauce. Jamie also made her delicious pumpkin cake which even the raccoons loved. (Just after I'd gone to bed I heard a lot of noise and looked out with a flashlight. The raccoon had somehow opened the cooler and gotten the plastic top off the cake. He was standing several feet away and just stared at me for a moment before picking up his piece of cake and leaving. The rangers told me the raccoons can even unzip tents!)

Of course Jamie sets the table even when we're camping

Thanksgiving dinner at sunset

Bringing the bikes was definitely a GOOD idea!

AP Calculus homework never takes a vacation!

Very low tide at the tidepools

The waves were crashing pretty big against the rocks

Monday, November 28, 2011

"... they were still his brethren"

"And now it came to pass that as Alma was journeying from the land of Gideon southward, away to the land of Manti, behold, to his astonishment, he met with the sons of Mosiah journeying towards the land of Zarahemla.  Now these sons of Mosiah were with Alma at the time the angel first appeared unto him; therefore Alma did rejoice exceedingly to see his brethren; and what added more to his joy, they were still his brethren in the Lord; yea, and they had waxed strong in the knowledge of the truth; for they were men of a sound understanding and they had searched the scriptures diligently, that they might know the word of God."  Alma 17:1-2

It's been a little over 20 years since I served a 2 year LDS mission in Porto Alegre, Brazil. It wasn't always easy but it was one of the greatest experiences in my life, and I look forward to my sons serving missions. It strengthened my own conviction and testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and I continue to serve faithfully in the church wherever I'm asked.

I made a lot of friends but a couple American missionaries are the only ones I still have occasional contact with (maybe I need to sign up on Facebook and track some people down?). So I was especially surprised yesterday to run into another missionary from my mission. I'm currently serving on the Stake High Council and was assigned to speak in the Chatsworth Ward. I had greeted a few people I knew before the meeting and then turned around to a guy who looked vaguely familiar. When he said his name I knew exactly how Alma felt, both the "astonishment" and the "joy!" Elder Quist and I weren't companions, and I didn't even know him especially well, but it was so wonderful to see him. He and his beautiful wife were there picking up their son who had just finished his mission, and this ward was one of the areas where he'd served.

The surprise of running into someone I served with during such a great time in my life and in an unexpected place really made my day, but the circumstances made it even nicer. Especially because we were still "brethren in the Lord."

Thursday, November 24, 2011

What do you know about your ancestors?

Several years ago I gathered all the information I could find about my genealogy. Luckily, between the family history research done by my mom and others, there was a TON of information on both sides of my family. I found, for instance, that my first ancestor to come to America was a Pilgrim, George Soule, who came on the Mayflower. The last was my Grandma Green, who came from Denmark with her mother in 1903 when she was just a baby. I also found that I am basically an American mutt:
  • 31% Danish
  • 14% German
  • 10% English
  • 6% Swedish
  • 6% French
  • about 3.5% Irish
  • less than 1% Scottish and Welsh
  • and about 29% unknown
The 29% unknown are lines that haven't been traced beyond America. They dead end in places like Kentucky, Virginia, and Pennsylvania and I expect most (if not all) came from England and some may have even been early settlers at Jamestown (and that would make me more "English" than "Danish").

(As an aside, it reminds me of an episode of "The Wonder Years."  Kevin comes home from having dinner with Paul's family and listening to Grandpa Pfiefer tell stories and he says to his mom, "I know Paul's Jewish, but what are we?"  And she says "Well, I think Jack's grandmother was Italian and his grandfather came from Romania and..."  And then the narrator voice says "And that's when it hit me: I was a mutt.")

But gathering names and dates is fine, but what makes it most interesting is when you find actual stories about them and if you're lucky  photos. That helps them feel more like real people instead of just names. And it makes reading history so much more interesting to better understand the events that might have affected their lives and wonder if they participated in them, and to realize why they moved from Virginia to Kentucky or New Jersey to Pennsylvania and things like that.

I thought of this again because there was a couple visiting at church who were Christensens from central Utah (my Grandma Green was a Christensen) so we're probably related a few generations back. My great grandfather Niels Christian Christensen was born in 1879 in Raunkilde, Denmark. We don't know who his father was except that he was German and his family owned a fleet of fishing boats. He was raised by his grandparents and that's how he got the name Christensen. They did names differently in Denmark, and his grandfather was Kristen Sorensen (because his father was named Soren) and so his children were Christensen. Niels grew up with his uncles and aunts being more like brothers and sisters.

But when it came time for Niels to go into military service he decided instead to go to America where many of his brothers and sisters (both the Christensens and the Jensens from his mother's second husband) had already emigrated. They must have joined the LDS (Mormon) Church because they all settled in the town of Moroni in central Utah. He got a job working for the railroad and because he could read and write, he got work keeping the books for his employer. He earned enough money to go back to Denmark where he met Dagmar Marie Mikkelsen, and they were married in 1902. He had to return to America or enter the military so he left his wife behind, but sent money as soon as he could for her and their baby daughter (my grandmother) to join him.

My grandmother said he loved America and seeing Mount Nebo made him feel "at home." Niels and Dagmar joined the LDS Church a few years later and raised 11 children. Family was always very important to them - both their own children and their extended family. Niels was a hard worker and he encouraged his children to get an education. Later in life he had a heart attack and his health wasn't as good for the last few years of his life but he still worked as much as he was able before he died in 1935 at 56 years old.

But those are the kinds of stories and information I like to find, and it's what makes them come alive as real people and helps you to feel a connection with them. And when I'm reading my history books I always hope to see a name that looks familiar I haven't, but it would be nice.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Cool... very cool!

I've already mentioned how much I love U2's concert video of Under a Blood Red Sky and how I enjoy watching it occasionally. Before I had that one, though, I had to content myself with watching Rattle and Hum over and over again (with a similar reaction from my wife, of course).

U2 - Rattle and HumRattle and Hum is not exactly a concert video, but it's not really a documentary either. I've only seen a few concert videos and they're usually of a single edited concert, and largely limited to a handful of cameras and angles. In contrast, this one shows a series of different concerts around the US during their Joshua Tree tour with incredible camera angles that put you right on the stage. But it goes beyond that and shows rehersals and recording sessions for some of the new songs, backstage shots, and a few brief interviews, but not to the point where you would really call it a "documentary." The Edge puts it best when he says (about the film), "it's about music."

Most of the film is in black & white, which comes across very cool. The exception is the color footage from Sun Devil Stadium in Arizona, and the sudden contrast more than half-way through adds to the coolness factor. There are quite a few notable songs in B&W on the DVD such as "Exit," "Bad," and an emotional "Sunday, Bloody Sunday"; and "With or Without You," "Running to Stand Still," and "Bullet the Blue Sky" in color (just to name a few!). Also excellent are the parts with BB King on "When Love Comes to Town" and with a Harlen gospel choir on "Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." And in my opinion, most of the versions on the DVD are better than the recorded versions or what was included on the CD (especially "Silver and Gold"). Ahhh, who am I kidding... I think the whole thing's cool!

Friday, November 18, 2011

God's image

I'm not really a fan of science-fiction but I found an old paperback that I read when I was a teenager (the book was originally written in 1935). It's called The Secret People by John Beynon Harris and the cover shows a group of pale underground pygmies advancing out from under giant mushrooms towards an ordinary couple. The man is holding a gun in one hand and has the other protectively around the waist of a very pretty (and curvy) woman. Yes, I know – it's not an image that begs to be taken as serious literature. But as I recall, the story was mildly interesting – enough that I finished it – and for some reason I've hung onto it for 25 or 30 years.

But about a year ago I read The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham, which is sci-fi from the 1950s and I actually rather enjoyed it. Well, it turns out that John Wyndham and John Beynon Harris were the same person. His full name was John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris and he apparently wrote quite a few books under a variety of names. And it seems many are post-apocalyptic, or – as I like to call them – "end of the world books." But not knowing that connection, and having enjoyed the Triffids, I recently listened to the audio version of The Chrysalids.

Thousands of years after worldwide devastation by atomic weapons, civilization has tried to reestablish itself in various places around the world. In Labrador (northeastern Canada) small communities resembling Amish communities or American farming towns in the 1800s have legends of the "Tribulation" sent by God that caused the destruction. Their religious beliefs specify that anything that doesn't conform to a strict description of normal must be destroyed. This applies to crops and animals as well as humans – who were created in God's image – and there's an "Inspector" to make judgments. Young David Strorm finds out how dangerous this can be when he befriends a girl and finds out that she has 6 toes. When she is later discovered she and her family are cast out and she is sterilized so she cannot perpetuate her deformity. David realizes the danger to himself, however, because he and several other young people in the community have their own abnormality – the ability to communicate telepathically – which could be a very serious threat to the established order.

Wyndham creates an interesting world that still reeks of frequent radiation-caused deformities. Outside the small and insular community lies the "Fringes," an area teeming with plant and animal mutations as well as those who've been cast out. Beyond the Fringes very little is known except what David learns from his Uncle Axel who was once a sailor and saw firsthand the weirdness in the world. But Axel also provides a quiet voice of borderline heresy in David's fundamentalist upbringing, questioning what really is normal and if the real "image of God" is what's being preserved.

I find the religious aspect of the story particularly interesting. I wouldn't go so far as to say the book is anti-religion, but it raises the question of whether anyone could claim to know ultimate truth or God's intentions. And while it's easy enough to read this book and see the ridiculousness of judging a person living in a radioactive world with an extra toe as an abomination, what about deviations from the norm in our own society? We certainly have those whose choices and lifestyles are less accepted than others, some benign and some uncertain. I'm not questioning religious prerogatives for calling any disagreeable behavior "sinful," but does that justify mistreatment of such people? In an interesting twist, the book's end kind of explains such pruning of deviant characteristics as natural for self-preservation, but equates it to a type of evolution and natural selection. At any rate, the ending wasn't as strong as the beginning (for several reasons), but it raises some interesting philosophical thoughts.

And I DO like a book that makes me think.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Man's vision

When I was a teenager we took a family trip to visit my Grandpa Duffield who lived out in the Arizona desert near Lake Mead. The only neighbors I remember seeing were rattlesnakes. He kept a little pool of water behind his house where the desert animals would come at night. My brother and I stood near it in the gathering dusk as swarms of bats came, drinking as they flew slowly over the water. It was hard to stand there without running because you could feel them flying so close by, sometimes barely brushing your skin or clothes, but never crashing into you.

Another thing I remember from that trip was boating and water-skiing on Lake Mead. I even got up once on the skis, before promptly going right over on my face, that is. I don't remember if we saw Hoover Dam or not, but it's a place I'd like to visit after reading Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century by Michael Hiltzik.

The American Southwest is a very dry place. What little rain that falls collects into the Colorado River, a river some said was "too thick to drink and too thin to plow" because of all the silt. It can be a wild and dangerous river and yet its flow wasn't regular enough to reliably allow crops and irrigation. Some tried, however, and in 1906 an enterprising effort to bring irrigation water to California's Imperial Valley failed spectacularly and created the Salton Sea near present-day Palm Springs. Higher than usual flood waters breached a canal bank and created a new river rushing downhill into the below sea-level area at a tremendous rate. "In simple terms, the river was carving itself a new gorge... the current hurtled over a precipice at the point where the New River entered the Salton Sea. This miniature Niagara proceeded to claw its way upstream at a pace of a mile a day, leaving in its wake a canyon eighty feet deep." (pg 45) It was floods like this that prompted some to propose taming the river with a dam.

Herbert Hoover, then US Secretary of Commerce, met with representatives from the 7 states affected by the Colorado River (CA, NV, AZ, UT, CO, NM, WY) and eventually hammered out an agreement on water sharing and rights. The political wrangling made this the least interesting part of the book. After that it mostly discusses the actual construction of the dam: the massive scope of the project and the labor involved. This was the Depression years, and Six Companies (the firm who won the bid to build the dam) wasn't above cutting the wages of desperate men willing to work for a pittance just to keep their families from starving - to which the government mostly turned a blind eye. Safety was a low concern as well, and frequent fatal accidents opened the door for labor unions, although heavy-handed tactics by Six Companies kept them from organizing much of a presence.

Most of this fascinating book focuses on the social, political, and labor history of the dam. I wish more of the environmental aspect had been discussed, especially as it relates to the changes caused by damming the river (although it does mention that decades of earthquakes followed as the massive weight of the water that became Lake Mead began pressing down upon the land). The book explains rather well how access to water and electricity (generated by the dam) allowed the southwest to grow and thrive, creating such thirsty and brightly-lit cities as Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Phoenix. Squabbles over water continue even today, however, and an enormous population still lies at the mercy of the river and its unreliable flow of water. The book would benefit from more pictures and maps, but regardless, it was very interesting and insightful. Now I just need to plan a trip to actually see it.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Best movie trailers - part 3

The trailer for Aliens was the first time I ever actually heard the entire theater say "whoa!" out loud.  Or maybe it was just me.  But it was a hushed "whoa!" while everyone sat kind of stunned.  Then someone yelled something (probably "WHOA!") and everyone cheered.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Best movie trailers - part 2

Another 'best' movie trailer was the first Harry Potter movie.  Maybe not so much because it made the whole theater say "whoa!" but because everyone reading the books was SO looking forward to it.  And the trailer looked perfect!  Harry looked perfect!  Even the music was perfect!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Best movie trailers - part 1

I've been posting a lot of book reviews lately (and sometimes that feels a little boring) so I thought I'd post the best movie trailers ever. It's only my opinion, of course, but this is my blog. Sometimes a movie trailer makes the entire theater say "whoa!" or cheer out loud, and these are some I remember getting the most enthusiastic reactions. Three come to mind which I'll post in no particular order, but if I've missed a great one, let me know.

I guess I might as well start off with Pearl Harbor. The movie tried a little too hard to be Titanic and the 'love story' was a bit much, but - HOLY COW! - that whole attack scene was one of the coolest ever! And how could you not be inspired by this trailer?

Saturday, November 5, 2011


I have to admit I don't really know much about Prince William and Kate Middleton (not sure if she's called a "Princess" or not). They seem like nice people, and she's very pretty and classy and I hope she's really as down to earth as she appears. It can't be easy living with that much attention – it seemed especially difficult for Princess Diana. Of course, Diana didn't seem to have much support from a husband who appeared stiff and anything but warm. But again, these are just the impressions I have from what I've seen in the media – I haven't gone out of my way to actually learn anything about them. But I couldn't help but think that the lives such people live isn't as charmed as it sometimes appears while I read Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie.

Sophia Augusta Fredericka (later renamed Catherine) was born in 1729, the daughter of a minor noble in a minor German kingdom. She was chosen at age fourteen by Elizabeth, Empress of Russia, to be the bride of her son Peter and travelled to Russia with her determined and scheming mother. But in a Russian court full of ambition and jealousies, Sophia managed to maneuver herself onto the throne in 1762 through her charm and intelligence (and a generally bloodless coup). Once there, and inspired by the enlightenment philosophies of Voltaire, Diderot, and others, she sought to institute many changes in a society considered backward and primitive by other European countries and rulers. And while her sweeping and lofty reforms were rejected, she managed to leave her imprint on Russia in so many other ways throughout her 34 years as ruler – so much so that her people called her “Great.”

Mr. Massie writes an engaging and fascinating biography of Catherine II, and makes her intensely (and sometimes uncomfortably) human in the process. He brings her to life as a young woman in a foreign court faced with earning acceptance from the Empress, her future husband, power-hungry courtiers, and the Russian people. In her first few years on the throne she tried to gradually eliminate serfdom (slavery) but was opposed by the nobility (to which she owed in large degree her ascension to power). Interestingly, she also found that the serfs themselves were not progressive thinking enough to imagine such freedom – a rather rude awakening for her enlightenment beliefs – instead being more concerned about broken fences and small grievances like that. Later her views on emancipating the serfs turned completely around when she saw the violence and chaos of the French Revolution and the parallels to the Pugachev Rebellion she herself had faced. Another aspect of her life that was explained in a way that made her a sympathetic character was the different "favorites" (lovers) she had and her deep-seated desire just to be loved.

With excerpts from Catherine's own writings this bio offers a very insightful look into the politics and intrigue and the lives of European rulers and nobles during the latter half of the 1700s, and for being such a long book (nearly 600 pages before the index and bibliography) it's incredibly interesting. I thought pedigree charts explaining the relationships of the characters would have been helpful (mine was an advance copy from Amazon Vine, so perhaps the final book has them) and it would have been nice if a little more background had been given on nations outside Russia (only Poland and the French Revolution are explained in much detail, but little on Prussia, Germany, and Austria). Still, this was a remarkable book and didn't often show life as a princess or queen in a very charming manner. I'll definitely be looking to add Mr. Massie’s other books on the Romanovs and Russian history to my reading list.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

If you build it... it could be really cool!

I think a big part of growing up in the late 70s and early 80s was video games - at least for boys. I remember going to the movies at Trolley Square and playing Star Castle in the lobby. I remember hanging out at the Gold Mine arcade in Crossroads Mall and playing games like Battle Zone and Joust and Rampage. I remember the first time I saw Dragon's Lair, which was such a sensation because it used traditional animation. I never got really good at any of them, because my income was mostly limited to mowing lawns, but we also had an Atari at home. I'd save up and buy game cartridges and my brother and I would play them for hours sometimes. I even "beat" one of them - Demon Attack, a Space Invaders kind of game - and was disappointed that the screen just went blank and I couldn't even see what my score was.

But I don't feel the same way about the video games kids (and lots of grownups, too) play now. They don't have a limited number of lives and you can save your place and start where you left off. Worst of all, many of them just don't seem to have a clear objective - it seems to be a lot of wandering around. Besides, I don't have that much patience anymore. So I was kind of excited when I stumbled upon a software online called MAME and a number of video game files from my youth. Seeing those old games again was a lot of fun, and the kids actually enjoyed playing them. And I've sometimes thought it might be fun to install those games on a computer that could be hooked up to the television with some joysticks or paddles instead of using the keyboard, but finding a simple joystick that doesn't resemble something from an F-22 fighter jet (and cost almost as much) hasn't been so easy.

I realize this isn't the normal kind of book I review here, but Project Arcade: Build Your Own Arcade Machine by John St. Clair looked like it might have some good ideas and tips. Unfortunately, the focus is geared toward making your own Arcade cabinet - just like the old days. And that's an idea that sounds really cool - it could be loaded with and configured for all the old favorites - and no quarters! Of course, that's assuming your wife doesn't mind, right? There are also ideas and plans for "desktop" Arcades, which are smaller but still not the simple setup I envisioned. It's a great book if you're looking to spend some time and money to build your dream Home Arcade. But if you just want to plug an old computer into the TV you probably don't need it.  (I received this book from Amazon Vine.)