Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Twenty years of being 'right'

Saturday May 30th, 1992 was one of the best days of my life. That's not to say I haven't had a lot of great days since then, but it feels like all of them depend on that day.

I think it was around 8:30 that morning. Of course, everyone smiles and asks the same question: "Are you nervous?"

No. But after I'd heard the question a hundred times I began to wonder if I should be. Was I missing something?

I asked one of the other grooms in the dressing room if he was nervous. "Everyone keeps asking me that," he said, "but I'm not. It just feels right, you know?" I did know – everything just felt 'right.'

The rest of the day was a bit of a whirlwind. The weather was beautiful and we took pictures on the back side of the Salt Lake Temple because there was scaffolding on the front for cleaning. Someone forgot to have us sign the certificate, but Marilyn Gilmore brought it to the wedding luncheon – although we arrived late because that was our only chance to buy some things we needed before leaving on our honeymoon. (Honest!)

They normally didn't open the garden at the Lion House for receptions before June, but they made an exception since they knew us. And the evening and the reception turned out perfectly beautiful. I thought I'd parked my car where it wouldn't be found but my brothers and sisters and cousins (the Straders) decorated it with shaving cream, shoe polish, Oreo cookies, and aluminum cans.

In some ways that day twenty years ago feels like yesterday and in other ways like we've just always been married. Has everything worked out perfectly for us? Of course not – we've had our ups and downs and joys and quarrels – and when two stubborn people who're both the oldest children in their families come together there's bound to be some challenges. Add four kids and the whirlwind we started 20 years ago just seems to pick up speed each year, but I still feel like the luckiest man in the world... and it still just feels 'right.'

We never really had a song that we called 'ours,' but there were a couple I always thought came close. The one below seems more appropriate than others sometimes. Thanks for the best twenty years of my life, and for putting up with someone who thinks he's always right and knows everything. Happy anniversary, and I love you.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

It was never really about the money...

Although kings, presidents, and generals can have a tremendous impact on history, others sometimes influence our lives in even bigger ways. Think of the impact on society and culture by people like Ray Kroc (McDonalds), Elvis Presley (need I even say his last name?), Bill Gates, or Steve Jobs. And sometimes those people are a lot more interesting to read about than the kings, presidents, and generals.

A year ago I reviewed biographies about Alfred Hitchcock and Charles Schulz who certainly left an impact in their mediums and on our culture to a degree. One who was perhaps more broadly influential was Walt Disney. The company he created still influences the movies and television shows we watch and the music we listen to – especially if you have young children – as well as the way many people enjoy their vacations. But for Walt, it was never really about the money...

...well, almost never. Walt Disney was always more interested in "the next thing," and making money on a venture was usually just a way to finance his projects. Initially drawn to animation but burned by dishonest partners, he created his own studio to produce animated "shorts" – short Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony cartoons shown before regular feature movies. But he was always pushing for better animation and quality, eventually creating "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," the first feature-length animated movie, with the best animation for the time. But even as his fame soared he wasn't breaking-even financially and eventually had to cut corners just to pay the bills and some movies were made just to generate income (like "Dumbo" and some live-action films). As Walt became bogged down in the studio and trying to make too many movies at once and always striving to create something bigger or better (realism in "Bambi" and high-class art in "Fantasia"), plus with WWII forcing him to rely on government work just to keep going, he became discouraged. As a result, the animation that was once the top in the industry lost its edge and Walt turned to other interests like trains and eventually television and Disneyland. But in the end he left a legacy of memorable characters and family-friendly entertainment that still continues.

Neal Gabler's Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination was especially enjoyable to read because I'm familiar with a lot of his work and felt a real connection. I still occasionally watch "The Parent Trap" (the original, of course) and "Follow Me, Boys!," and most of the videos we own are Disney movies. But I was surprised to learn that Disney was always financially strapped and borrowing anywhere he could until after Disneyland opened. And it was fascinating while reading to go back and watch some of the movies, like "Three Little Pigs" and "Snow White" (which I never really liked before) and compare the styles, knowing what went into them and what made them great. And visiting Disneyland after reading the book makes you look at the place differently and notice more details. But I was also surprised to learn that the genius behind "the happiest place on earth" usually wasn't a very happy man himself. Mr. Gabler describes Walt's constant need to create "control" in his surroundings that drove his efforts at perfection. Animation, his trains, and Disneyland each in turn gave him an escape from reality into an environment where he had near-total control.

Books about Walt Disney either paint him as a saint or an evil tyrant, and I guess he could be both depending on the perspective. Gabler is careful to point out where the "legends" were embellished, and that "Walt Disney" became more of a brand than a man, but I thought he portrayed him fairly and honestly. Gabler tells Disney's faults, ego, and the complaints many of his employees had, but also why he did what he did and what motivated him. It sometimes bogs down in too much detail about finances, but it not only shows why he was so culturally influential but also that he was as human as all of us.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The haves and have-nots

I believe the Bible to be the word of God. That doesn't mean I believe the Earth came into existence on Sunday, October 23, 4004 BC (James Ussher, 1650) or that it is only 6,000 years old (Martin Luther). Instead, I believe the creation account in Genesis to be more allegorical than literal when it speaks of ‘days.’ The Bible, after all, wasn't written as a modern-day history book for a scientifically-sophisticated audience, but as a religious book. Nonetheless, I do believe the Bible literally in many respects. I believe there was an Adam and Eve; I believe the Earth was completely flooded in the time of Noah; and I believe Jesus was born of a virgin and is the literal son of God. I do not know exactly how all these things happened but I have faith that there is a rational explanation which will satisfy science and religion. I have faith that science is revealing many truths, but I also have faith in my religious beliefs based on personal experiences that are difficult to explain to someone without similar experiences.

So I don't have a problem with a book like Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond which attempts to explain how mankind and societies have evolved throughout history. Frankly, I think it's a fascinating book and it makes a lot of sense to me. Diamond's main focus is answering the question of why some societies developed in ways that others didn’t. Why were Europeans able to easily overrun native peoples in the Americas? Why did the peoples of Europe and Asia build densely populated cities with complex systems of government and advanced technologies while other groups remained primitive hunter-gatherers? Why did some develop written languages and not others?

First of all, he flatly rejects racist claims of superiority based on skin color or race. Instead he argues that geography and biogeography played a central role in creating the modern-day haves and have-nots. While Diamond briefly goes back to the beginnings of human development and explains its spread out of Africa, the book is mostly about explaining why some groups made the leap from nomadic hunter-gatherer to sedentary (stay in one place) farming cultures. Such a change allowed for larger populations, better nutrition, and advances in agriculture and crop and animal domestication.

And domesticated crops and animals is a big factor in why modern civilization has its origins in Eurasia. The area known as the Fertile Crescent had more wild plants and animals available for domestication than anywhere else. Domesticated animals also provided labor that drove further advances and gave advantages in war (especially the horse). These factors contributed to centralized governments and written languages and ever larger concentrations of people. But it was this combination of high density cities and domestic animals that created the most effective tool of conquest: germs.

(As a side note, I found the chapter about language especially interesting. He says written languages have arisen independently only in a few places, and one was in Mesoamerica  Mexico and Central America  around 600 BC. Readers of The Book of Mormon won't find that date surprising, nor will they think it "independent.")

It's hard to summarize such a far-reaching and encompassing book like this, but it does a good job of explaining the grand scope of history understandably. This is not to say it's an "easy" read, however, as it required a careful reading. It's also not without detractors, and a few online reviews had very technical complaints. I'm no expert in such history, although I was a little bothered by the tone of the book sometimes. He disparages "white racists" and rightly so  who claim racial superiority but he pushes the opposite too far and occasionally engages in his own subtle racism. When he talks of the spread of white Europeans in the Americas he uses words like "kill" and "infect" but when he discusses the spread of Bantus in Africa he uses words like "expand" and "engulf," and then downplays the word "engulf" with a lengthy paragraph softening it. There were a few times I thought his logic was weak and evidence thin, like when he claims New Guinea natives are smarter than Europeans but cites only his opinion as evidence. Still, I found it to be an interesting and enlightening book, and it gave me a lot to think about.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Playing favorites

"Who would just pick up a grass snake and put it in their pocket?!?"

That's what Maddie said with surprise while reading Charlotte's Web at breakfast. We see small lizards all the time but not snakes - which is good because they'd probably be rattlesnakes around here. But that's what I love about books and why we've always encouraged our kids to read: it exposes them to worlds they otherwise would never know. So I explained how a grass snake is very small and harmless while she peppered me with questions. Would it squirm? Would it hiss? Would it wrap around you? Would it bite? In the end she decided she'd like one as a pet.
Kate has always been "the girl with her nose in a book" at our house but this school year Maddie has joined her.  She's read several from the Guardians series about owls, and I think maybe books about animals are key with her.  She recently finished Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH - one I enjoyed as a kid.  Someone on the Amazon Vine discussion forum recently asked about those favorites from your childhood that you've re-read, and how they held up. And I've read quite a few with the kids. Some were still great and others left me scratching my head as to what I ever saw in them.

Some hits:
  • The Great Brain series never seems to get old. I loved them as a kid and Braiden loved them when we read them about 10 years ago.
  • Same thing with The Three Investigators series - Braiden, Taylor, and Maddie have all enjoyed them. Granted, they're a bit dated, but still fun.
  • Taylor really liked It Started With Old Man Bean. I thought it was pretty good, too, but I was surprised at how smoking was presented in the story. Times have really changed!
  • Kate enjoyed The View From the Cherry Tree and The Push Cart War, although they weren't as good for a grownup. 
Some misses:
  • I must have read The Ash Staff, The Hawks of Fellheath, and The Princess and the Thorn by Paul Fisher three or four times, but Taylor and I gave up half-way through the second book.
  • We couldn't even finish The House With a Clock In Its Walls, although I remember it being another of my favorites.
  • Danny Dunn is another series that fell totally flat with Maddie. The science is seriously outdated now, but I loved it when I was her age.

So, what about you? For those who grew up before Harry Potter, have you re-read any books that were favorites when you were a kid? How do they stand up now?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Beach hikes and piano recitals

It's been a while since I've posted pictures, so... since I have some from last weekend I might as well, right?  The youth from church are preparing for a pioneer trek this summer where they'll get to pull handcarts like pioneers for a few days so we went on a 7 mile practice hike.  Of course, it won't be exactly like what the real pioneers experienced, and hiking along the beach on a cool and overcast morning won't be exactly like their trek in the summer heat, but those are just small details, right?

Maddie and her cousin Haley (who are too young to go but can practice trekking) on top of the bluffs.

I don't think the pioneers had to wait for low tide, but we thought it was a good idea.

The pioneers also probably didn't see tidepools with little red sea urchins.

Kate, Maddie, and Haley climbed down the bluffs using ropes left by earlier pioneers.

The wildflowers have been spectacular this spring but we've been too busy to get out and see them.  Luckily, a few are still left.

All pioneers eat lunch at The Spot after a morning of trekking.

That evening we had a piano recital. Darlene always does a special recital for her students who are graduating, and this year it was just Braiden and Dan.

Braiden played seven different songs - this is "I Giorni" by Ludovico Einaudi.

Saturday, May 12, 2012


When I was a kid – like lots of other boys my age – I liked monster movies. Or... perhaps I should say I liked the idea of monster movies. I'm talking about the really old classics like Dracula, the Wolfman, Frankenstein, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, etc. But this was before VCRs, and if you wanted to see one of those old movies your options were limited to catching it on one of only 3 or 4 television stations. The better but more difficult option was "Nightmare Theater" on Friday nights around 11pm or midnight, and I remember seeing "The Mummy" and "Frankenstein vs. The Wolfman" but being too scared to stay up by myself. The easier option was "Science-Fiction Theater" on Saturday afternoons, but the sci-fi movies weren't as prized as the horror films. Nonetheless, I saw more of the sci-fi movies and there were a couple I never forgot from those Saturday afternoons that scared the pants off me!

One had a doctor who gave some kind of injection into this guy's shoulder and later, when it's hurting like crazy, the guy pulls his shirt back and there's an eye growing in the skin! It scared me so bad I never forgot it. I tracked the movie down several years ago and it's called "The Manster." The basic storyline is the mad scientist Dr. Suzuki, experimenting with unsuspecting victims, in this case Larry Stanford, a foreign correspondent working in Japan. I'm not sure what the doctor's goal was, but the reporter spends most of his time drunk and enjoying himself with geisha girls. Soon he gets the eye on his shoulder and the urge to kill someone. Eventually a full head pops out, followed by more killings, police chases and... the plot isn't hard to figure out. Yes, it was a B movie – and it probably wasn't that good when it was new, but it was kind of fun to watch again.

(Click here to see that scary eye scene!)

The other was called "The Monolith Monsters" and I've seen it again since I was a kid and it's actually pretty good. A geologist finds a mysterious black rock in the desert and brings it back to his office. But when water accidentally spills on it during the night it starts to bubble and hiss. The next morning another geologist finds the office wrecked with big black rocks and the first geologist is dead – he's been turned to stone. It turns out that when water contacts these rocks (which are fragments from a meteor) they grow into gigantic black crystals, toppling over and growing again from the fragments and destroying everything in their path... and there's a rainstorm coming! But what scared me so much (and remember I was probably 8 years old) was that I picked up interesting rocks wherever I went – like lots of boys my age – but you can be sure I became very careful about which rocks I picked up after watching that movie!

(If you're really interested and have an hour the window below is the whole movie - the preview/trailer just didn't do it justice.)

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

King Leopold's Ghost

Okay, one last book on the theme of exploration in the jungle, although this one is in the Congo instead of the Amazon and it illustrates some of the worst legacies of exploration. In fact, King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild isn't a very pleasant book. But some of the most important lessons from history come from some of the ugliest chapters.

Near the end of the 1800's much of Europe was discovering the untapped natural resources of Africa, and expanding their colonial reach into the Dark Continent. King Leopold of Belgium, unhappy with his small kingdom and diminished role as king, saw other nations building colonial empires all over the globe and sought for his own anywhere he could find space. He used the famed explorer Henry Morton Stanley to claim the area known as the Congo, and it became his own private colony since the Belgian people and government had little interest. He initially exploited it for ivory and later rubber, and used forced labor (slavery) among the native peoples to build his personal wealth. Although he never set foot there himself, he profited immensely while brutally suppressing the natives and forcing them to work for him. It is estimated that 10 million people died over 25 years as a result.

At the same time Leopold portrayed himself as a great humanitarian to the rest of the world. Eventually, however, as word got out of the atrocities committed the Congo Reform Association was created by Roger Casement (a British diplomat) and E. D. Morel (a former shipping clerk). Leopold waged public relations campaigns to discredit his detractors (which included Mark Twain and Arthur Conan Doyle), but he made several mistakes and the public outcry finally forced him to sell the Congo to Belgium.

Adam Hochschild is good at writing lesser known histories, as he did with the peace movement during WWI in To End All Wars. Here he does a very good job of pulling all available sources together – a difficult task since it was a part of history that has long been ignored and covered up. Even worse, much of the documentation was actually destroyed. The brutality and cruelness employed by the Europeans is discussed at length and in appropriate detail. He discusses the attitudes and hypocrisy prevalent at the time, but doesn't ignore the fact that slavery was a long-standing practice among Africans. He also examines the successes and failings of the movement to free the Congo, which was the first sustained human-rights campaign in history.

It's sad to learn that such intriguing places around the world have such a shocking past, but it helps to understand the history and present state of these places, too.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

How hungry...?

Have you ever said you were "so hungry [you] could eat a horse" or that you were "starving to death?" If you're like me the longest you've actually gone without food is probably about 24 hours which is a far cry from "starving." In my religion we fast once a month, and while I sometimes dread it beforehand, afterwards I realize it's not that hard. But how hungry would you have to be to eat something really unpleasant? What would you eat if you were really – truly – hungry?

In the early 1800s whale oil was as important as crude oil and gas is today, and the island of Nantucket was the center of the whale oil universe. Atlantic whales had already become so depleted that the Nantucket fleet hunted in the South Pacific, and the whale they sought was the sperm whale. But one very large and angry whale found the whaleship Essex in November 1820, ramming and destroying it in a matter of minutes. The 20 crewmen were left afloat in three small and leaky whaleboats for ninety days. Knowledge of the South Pacific was limited in those days, and fearing cannibals on the islands, the crew opted instead to try to sail 3,000 miles back to the coast of South America. But in a cruelly ironic twist of fate, their decision doomed many of them to starvation, and the rest to eating... each other.

Although mostly forgotten today, the story was legendary in the 19th century and inspired an unknown young novelist named Herman Melville thirty years later. In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick tells again the events that were once on everyone's hushed lips. He illuminates the whale oil industry, the life amidships and pecking order among crews, and the back-breaking work of killing and rendering whales in all its bloody mess. I found myself sympathizing with the whales, and almost cheering when a whale estimated at 85 to 90 feet long (twice as large as is common today) turned the tables and attacked the ship. But Philbrick is sympathetic to the men, too, and he brings their sufferings into such sharp focus that I found myself feeling sorry for them too. It's a fascinating but sometimes disturbing tale, and one I found difficult to put down.

As for me, I'll think of the men of the Essex the next time I fast, and remind myself that I'm not actually starving.

(For more books I've reviewed by Nathaniel Philbrick, see: "Who needs an Indian fighter?" and "Charles who?".)

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Random quotes I like

"Why does man kill? He kills for food. And not only food: frequently there must be a beverage."
— Woody Allen

"Culture is roughly everything we do and monkeys don't."
— Major FitzRoy Richard Somerset, 4th Baron Raglan

"A bookshelf is as particular to its owner as are his or her clothes; a personality is stamped on a library just as a shoe is shaped by the foot."
— Alan Bennett

"A library of books in the home builds a library of ideas in a child's mind, ideas that can make sense of challenges when they come. Kindle can't do that, folks." 
Rosalynde Welch

“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”
— Harper Lee

“Read obituaries. They are just like biographies, only shorter. They remind us that interesting, successful people rarely lead orderly, linear lives.”
Charles Wheelan