29 August 2015

Crazy Talented

Yeah, this pretty much nails it!
When I was growing up, one of the never to be unbroken laws of the land was music lessons, staring at age eight with the piano. This was required because A) two very musically gifted parents and B) Mormon. I mean how could I be a card-carrying member of the Church and NOT be able to pound out "Popcorn Popping on the Apricot Tree" on the piano shortly after turning eight? That's a thing, by the way, a real song.

So shortly after I turned eight, my mom loaded me into our (faux) wood-paneled Ford Country Squire station wagon and we drove into the wilds of east Phoenix to the home of one fearsome Mrs. Kramer. She was a legendary (terrifying) piano teacher who, given her demanding nature, seemed more apt to have been an angry prison matron than a children's piano teacher. Being her student was a study in "Damned if you do, damned if you don't." You were terrified not to practice because you didn't want to show you weren't improving and you were terrified to practice because you didn't want to show you weren't improving. This dance of the damned, for me, went on for four years. By the time I was twelve, my relationship with Mrs. Kramer and the piano came to a merciful end. It was clear that none of us were happy with how this was going, so we all walked away with a sense of relief.

Fast forward nearly five years. I'm seventeen and at the height of my teen-age awkwardness (I've had the testicular fortitude to post some pictures here in the Den from those hideous years so you know what I'm talking about) and I, in yet another moment of teen-age delusion, determined that if I took up the piano again, I'd get me a lady. By this time, our family had moved on from Mrs. Kramer and our go to piano teacher was a bearded, which apparently made him hip, professional guy in Scottsdale. So with the easy learning music book of Journey's Escape album in hand, ready to master 'Open Arms,' I made my way to his house and took up lessons again. Suffice to say, Escape was an appropriate choice, as I did exactly that a few months later. My formal relationship with the piano was over and in case you were wondering, it was the only relationship that it yielded me. Piano - one; ladies - zero. Shocking, I know.

Why the piano nostalgia? Last night, the stunningly patient and mighty fine SML and I and a few friends made our way to Tanglewood to see the Piano Guys in concert. If you are not familiar with them, the down and dirty is that they are a couple of exceedingly white, Utah Mormon dads who play the piano and the cello and they have mashed up modern hits and classical music in a crazy, stupid (and I mean that in the best sense of the word) talented way. During one the 'cheesy witty banter' breaks, Jon Schmidt, the pianist, talked a bit about what drove him to the piano. It was eerily similar to my experience as a seventeen year old. He described himself as an "ugly" (his words) teenager and he'd heard the lie story that playing the piano would get him the girl. He then went on to play the song that he'd learned to impress a girl. It worked for him. For two weeks. He did better than me then, that's for sure. He got a girl for two weeks. Me? Zero. Zilch. Nada.

It was a great night for a concert. Tanglewood, which is the storied summer home of the Boston Symphony, is a beautiful venue and Our Lady of Perpetual She Hags, Mother Nature, could not have behaved better. The incredible talent that Schmidt and Nelson as well as their two other collaborators demonstrated was only heightened by the surroundings. They put on an excellent show. One of the highlights was when Nelson, the cellist, was soloing and demonstrating flawlessly just how amazing and emotive an instrument is the cello. As he played, he was joined by eight teenage violinists, whom he later described as some of the finest violinists in the country and he was right, and they absolutely nailed it. It was one of those moments that reminds you of just how powerful music is. It literally made my spirit soar.

It was great to wrap my arm around the mighty fine SML as we enjoyed the music. It was a lot different than one of the last big concerts we went to wherein she was nine months pregnant with our firstborn and I somehow thought dragging her into a mosh pit at B52's concert was an excellent idea but that is a story for another day. During the concert, in a moment that defined us as solidly middle-aged, she leaned over to me and said, jokingly, 'Do you have a lighter to hold up?' To which I said in all seriousness, 'Um, that's what my phone is for.'

Did I leave the concert last night determined that I'm going to go for round three and take up the piano again? Absolutely not. Did I come away with a renewed appreciation for the beauty and power of music? I did, indeed.

Oh, and I still can't play "Popcorn Popping on the Apricot Tree" on the piano.

I'll leave you with this from the Piano Guys:

24 August 2015

On laughter

Getting his Betty Crocker on
As you've seen from the last couple of posts recapping our hijinks in both outside and behind the Zion Curtain, we were TMFKATB-adjacent for a few days. Unlike the last time, when I cried like a little girl at the sight of the freeway exit sign to the town he's in, I managed to shed not a tear. This was not done intentionally, as if I was trying to protect that last vestiges of my shredded man card. No, it's because I was enveloped with a tremendous sense of peace as I saw that sign off the I15 on Saturday. I was grateful more than I was emotional.

Getting his letter today so soon after we'd been not far from him was more fodder for my gratitude. It was a challenging week. That's how it is when you are teaching people. Some times, it goes really well and some times, life gets in the way. That can be hard when you are nineteen year old, fully committed to serving as a missionary. It can be hard to understand why life gets in the way for those you are teaching. TMFKATB had a chance to learn a bit about that according to what he shared in his letter. As he weathered some of those challenges, he came away with this simple understanding:

"Best thing I learned this week is laughing throughout the day is the best thing ever. If we don't do it, we are just going to fall into a "meh" mood."

As TMFKATB went through some challenges this past week, he was able to see a way though them. One of those ways was, and is, laughter.  It's a simple, age-old concept. I believe that the Reader's Digest cornered the market on that column, right? If you're of a certain age, like mine or order, you may remember reading that very column at your grandparents' house. Perhaps in between "Hee Haw" and "The Lawrence Welk Show." C'mon, you know exactly what I'm talking about...I'm proud of him for connecting laughter with happiness and staying positive. He threw me for a loop though when in the same letter he sang the praises of Sizzler. Yes, Sizzler. He ate there for the first time, which was more terrifying for me than any of the places or things he may have eaten while in Mexico. To the credit of his palette, he only had this to say, "Well, their garlic bread is to die for."

Now that made me laugh and it's a review I can live with.

On Mr. Spud, Geysers, and Summer Tourist Season

Me and Mr. Spud

As a part of our faux Parents Weekend, we were determined to get reacquainted with the area in which CAL has been living. This meant road trips to Jackson Hole and Yellowstone National Park.

In the winter, Jackson Hole is a Mecca for skiers. In the summer, it is a Mecca for tourists (more on them later) looking for deals on bad Western art, cheesy Western-themed outerwear, and crappy t-shirts. Once you step away from the throngs and look up at the mountains that surround the town, their beauty reminds you to slow down and take it in. In spite of the fact that much of the view was hampered by haze from the forest fires in neighboring states, it was easy to take in the beauty of the area.

With 'Take it in' as our theme, I did something I rarely do - pulled over to take a photo of something sublime in its ridiculousness. When you blow by an enormous potato on the bed of an old pickup being 'driven' by a couple of smaller potatoes, of course you pull over. Hence, my photo with Mr. Spud at the finest drive-in movie theater in all of Driggs, ID. Awesome!

While Jackson Hole and its environs were beautiful, they paled in comparison to Yellowstone National Park. Words can't describe the stark beauty and awe-inspiring wonder of this place. The earth simply does not fool around here. The hot pots, the falls, and the geysers were each a testament to the beauty of this earth. 

Now, while the Old Faithful geyser was cool, it proved, much like creepy Josh Duggar to be less than faithful. The geyser  was 45 minutes late to its scheduled 'eruption.' The better geyser was the Beehive, just across the way from Old Faithful. It erupted like the angriest bidet on the planet. My favorite geyser, though, was the Spasm Geyser. Not because it's eruption was the most spectacular, but because of its name. Seriously, the Spasm Geyser is the best name ever. To top the Spasm, we took an easy 5.2 mile hike to Fairy Falls. It was worth the chafing I'm dealing with now...

Here's a collection of photos from Yellowstone:
Suffice to say, it was amazing. This earth, this incredible creation, is a gift.

Based on the hordes of tourists at both Jackson Hole and Yellowstone, lots of people are wanting to see this all too. Some observations:

When pretty much every store in Jackson Hole now accepts China Union Pay, you know the Chinese tourism moment is far from over.

When the Eastern European girl working in one of the stores is driven to near tears by yet another Chinese tourist cutting the line, you simply smile, and tell her, "Honey, it's only going to get worse."

Why do Europeans insist on wearing  winter coats as they trudge through a national park on a warm summer's day?

The National Park Service would be wise to ban the scourge that is the selfie stick.

And, finally, lest anyone think the bus tour is dead, it is not. However, based on the average age of their participants, it is not long for this earth. The location of the nearest bathroom should not be the key topic of discussion in a stunning national park.

That said, I'm glad I could share the beauty of this earth with CAL and the stunningly patient and mighty fine SML. It's been great. I like this DIY Parents Weekend thing.

21 August 2015

Making our own 'Parents Weekend'

Because the BYU-I has sought diligently to differentiate itself from its Overlord nestled to the south behind the Zion Curtain in Provo, UT, the BYU, things are a little different in Rexburg, ID.

For instance, there is no official 'Parents Weekend' in Rexburg. This is, in my opinion, a travesty. During Our Lady of Awesome's four years at the BYU, I did four years of Parents Weekend shenanigans and it was great. The first year, back in 2008, spawned a picture featuring me, my daughter, and one Cosmo the Cougar that is in its sixth, yes sixth, year of being used by the University to pimp Parents Weekend. Without a 'Parents Weekend,' no such photo op existed for CAL.

So a few months ago, we decided we'd do our own 'Parents Weekend,' and hence, here we are in Rexburg. A few highlights:

It's summer break here in what is a tiny college town. Without the students, it is a ghost town.

You would think the management of the local Albertsons, a grocery store, would take advantage of the break time to clean up their store. You would be horribly wrong in that assumption.

The owner of the Great Harvest Bread store is my new BFF. We went in the store yesterday afternoon for one of their cookies and they were sold out. This was a devastating blow. She asked me what I was hoping to get and she offered to have it made for me. I will have a dozen cookies waiting for me this morning. All is right in the world.

The campus is beautiful. It would appear the cash I've been sending here the last four years has been well spent. 

Having CAL show us around her workplace in Word Nerd Heaven, the campus library, was great. Did you know that it is someone's job to vacuum the books? Well, it is. I saw them in action yesterday. I was oddly jealous. I want that job.

Because Rexburg is a small town and it's break time, there's not a lot to do. But when you are a quick drive away from Jackson Hole and Yellowstone, you've got options. 

More to come on those stops on the DIY Parents Weekend Tour. Stay tuned!

17 August 2015

Schooled. Courtesy of my 19 year old son.

He schooled me.
In his main letter (email) to the family that arrived early today, TMFKATB said the following, 'I miss all of you but things are smooth here.' That certainly wasn't all he said, but there's a certain degree of comfort that we take as his parents when he can say things are smooth. We take that to mean all is well.

In his stream-of-consciousness writing style, he also slipped in this gem: 'I also bought new pedals for my bike and put them on. It's nice having two pedals rather than just one.' Ya' think? This janky bike, of course, was the replacement bike for the one he wrecked last week. A+ for the initiative to move up to two pedals!

There wasn't a lot more from his main letter. More striking was his response directly to me that he sent after he read the letter I sent him. The stunningly patient and mighty fine SML and I send him separate letters each week, but after twenty seven years together, we continue to think more and more as one. Read our separately written, yet nearly identical weekly letters to TMFKATB. It's eerie.

Anyway, in my letter, I was lamenting the August doldrums and how pretty dull my life was right now. He was having none of it. In beautifully written Spanish, the son schooled his old man. He asked me the following:

Is there anything you haven't been doing that you need to be? (Insert dagger) It could be running or who knows. Maybe you just need something new. I would just make sure you use your free time well. Most of us are just on our phones. (Now twist dagger repeatedly) I know when I was bored back home I would go on my phone...that may be the trick. Who knows. Maybe meeting new people at work. Trying something new or going to a new place might work. Hopefully you get over this fast. You got this.

So there it is. TMFKATB for the win! Schooling his dad. The thing is that he is, of course, right.

I hate when that happens. Now I need to go put his lesson into action.

Speaking of lessons, here's why you might not want to down a handful of wildly tart blackberries:

16 August 2015

Those First Bad Miles

While not me, the sweat, pasty white legs, and expression are tragically familiar.
Once upon a time, I was a runner. No, really, I was. And by 'runner,' I don't mean an uncanny ability to run at breakneck speed whenever the "Hot Doughnuts" sign started flashing at the nearest Krispy Kreme. At the peak of my running, I was putting in close to 30 miles a week, got more than a few 5K and 10K races under my water belt. I paced a friend during one of his epic ultra marathons and I even completed two half marathons. I loved it. I loved the training. I loved the feeling of the sun on my skin. I loved the feeling of snow crunching under my running shoes. I loved the paradox of sweating as it snowed during a five mile run. I was never going to break a speed record or be first across the finish line but I loved how I felt. Oh, and I loved being twenty fives pound lighter than I am today.

And then one day, I didn't love it anymore.

Literally (thanks, Chris Traeger), it was over in a day. Well, maybe not a day, but it was shocking how quickly this thing I'd loved for several years disappeared from my life. Not shocking was how quickly the weight came back, giving me the #dadbod I now sport. The reasons for the 'falling out of love' are myriad and by and large, they are nothing more than a series of lame excuses. I'm not happy about it. I feel guilty in the company of my friends who run. While I am still a subscriber to Runner's World, I am embarrassed to read it in public. Somehow the visual of a magazine dedicated to running and staying healthy resting on my bulging gut as I read it on the train is all kinds of not right. Not right at all.

Several years ago, Simon Pegg (the pasty Brit about to have a seizure in the picture above) starred in a film called, "Run Fatboy Run." Pegg plays an out of shape, lazy bloke who decides to win back the affections of his ex-fiancee and son by running the London Marathon with an obscene lack of training. Without giving away the plot details, you can guess how it ends...of course, he finished the marathon (in ugly fashion) and wins back the love of his life. Go, romcoms! Because that's how life works, right?

Why the film reference? Because I woke up yesterday morning and said, 'I'm running again.' I laced up my beloved Brooks and like the Fatboy from the movie, I ran and I ran ugly. It was an ugly two miles yesterday. Some of the hardest two miles I can remember. But here's the thing...I liked it.

There will be ups (my manboobs flailing akimbo - Farmington Trail runners, you have been warned!) and downs (my uncanny ability trip while running). It's not going to be pretty, but as a Bollywood singer once warbled, "Love's never easy." I'm ready to fall in love with running again. So here I go.

Wish me luck.

10 August 2015

Who Crashed It Best?

The bike has no idea about what's about to go down.
One of the things that TMFKATB was pretty excited about in his new area was the chance to be on a bike. While he was serving in Mexico, a bike was simply not an option. When you grow up with cultural icons that include missionaries on bikes, it's weird to think you won't be on a bike. So when he was reassigned to his new mission, he figured he might get on a bike at some point. He got his wish and this week's letter was chock full o'pictures of the bike as well as a bike-related story or two.

But before I get to that, just a few other highlights. TMFKATB seems to have hit his stride. He faced some challenges that led him to some intense study and he felt really good about the ensuing teaching opportunities. He and his companion are very aware of  just how short two years of service really is and they're working hard to maximize it. All in all, it was the kind of letter that missionary parents hope for. All good.

Except for the bike debacle.

If you're a bike riding missionary, at one point or another, and if you're really lucky, multiple points, you are going to have an accident on said bike. My first accident was just a couple weeks into the field. I got the chance to use my face as brake. Sadly. I say first because there were multiple accidents. Because Miami, sand, and ten-speeds do not mix. Which is why I had the good sense to buy a fat-tired beach cruiser after that demon seed ten-speed got stolen. Anyway, last week, TMFKATB and his companion decided to take a short cut across a field to save some time and it went horribly wrong. TMFKATB was leading and had to 'tap' his front brakes, sending him and his bike into a flip. When his companion got to him, he A) first and foremost, took a picture of the missionary down (because that's what's most important) and then B) seeing how his leg was bent, thought TMKFATB had a broken leg. Mercifully, his leg wasn't broken, but the bike was.

Earlier, I mentioned my first bike accident as a missionary and now my son has had his first bike accident. So let's play a game I'm calling "Who Crashed It Best?" It's easy to play.

Take a look at the images below.
Then decide "Who Crashed It Best?"


Here we go.

Just look at how TMFKATB's left leg / foot is twisted!
Ignore his Wicked Witch of the East socks.
Note my cuts and the boss emergent bruise under my right eye.

I ask you, who crashed it best? Vote once. Vote often!

09 August 2015

Thirty years on

There are no words.
This past Thursday, I succumbed again to #tbt temptation, and posted a photo from my past. I went deep into the WayBack, or WABAC, Machine (all props to Mr. Peabody from 'The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show' for that cultural reference!) to find the gem found on the left that I posted on the Instagrams as well as the Facebook. Before we get around to the most disturbing element of the photo, my Mo'Fro (Mormon 'Fro), some context and other things to consider:

- This was thirty, 30, count 'em, thirty years ago.
- I was a brand-new missionary. The supremely white shirt is a dead give away. It had not yet been subjected to the searing, color-crushing heat found in dryers in any and all Miami-area laundromats at that time. They had one setting: "Heat equal to that of the surface of the sun." I suspect it was because heat like that made for easy destruction of blood stains, DNA miscellany, as well as leftover blow. Remember, this was Miami in 1985.
- This photo was taken in an alley in Miami. I have no idea why we were back there. Probably the best place to lock up our bikes.
- The white Swatch watch. Matched my white shirt. This was the extent of my cutting edge fashion style. As a reminder, it was 1985. Also, Swatch is still a thing. Who knew?!
- Was I trying to channel Jake Ryan from "Sixteen Candles"? Google Image it and you decide.
- Now for the Mo'Fro. Seriously, there are no words. There is no way that this was an allowable length. As an old friend who served with me all those years ago said on the Facebooks, "I can't believe Mangum (our mission president) didn't make you cut that..." I agree. I have no idea how I got away with it. I also have no idea how I managed the style. It looks like I threw some shellac, or industrial strength AquaNet, on my hair and then slammed my head repeatedly with a frying pan to get that gravity defying look. I could have had a family of Cuban refugees in that mop and no one would have been the wiser. By all that's holy...

So finding this picture sent me down a rabbit's hole of memories as I pulled out a tattered box of photos from mission. There are some other photos that exceed the glory of the one above that may or may not make there way into #tbt rotation. As I looked at these photos, there were some moments of abject horror (mostly because it was the 80's), but mostly, it was smile after smile that came over me as I looked at images of people I served and people I served with. I saw families who had literally given up everything they had, meager as it may have been, to fight there way to the United States. While I can no longer remember the specifics of their histories, what I still remember is the joy they felt being reunited in the US. It didn't matter that they were living in a two bedroom apartment or in a tattered mobile home in one of Miami's sketchiest neighborhoods (and for Miami then, that's saying something). They were together. As I saw images of those other young men that I served with, I remembered late night conversations as we worried about the people we were working with. How could we, as nineteen and twenty year olds, help them? I remembered prayers being answered and finding those ways. What's funny as I went through all those pictures, is that I don't think there were any bad times. I know there were challenging times. I grew in ways that I could never have imagined in those two years and growing does not come without its share of challenges and pain. Every day was not sunshine-filled (despite what the Florida Department of Tourism would have you believe). But I became a better man because of those challenging days and how could I not be grateful for that?

So were those two years the best two years of my life? Nope. Were they the best two years of preparing me for the rest of my life? Absolutely. Those two years played a key role in shaping who I've become. I wouldn't have traded it for the world. Would I do it again? You bet, in a heartbeat, yes. But I'd probably forgo the Mo'Fro the next time around. You're welcome.

03 August 2015

Moving Fast

The things one finds behind the Zion Curtain
"I learned a lot about moving fast this week."

That was just one of the things that TMFKATB had to share  in this week's letter and follow up banter. A lot went on in the past week for him and he did a pretty darn good job of keeping us filled in. Here are some of the highlights:

Transfers - with his companion finishing up his two year assignment, a new companion was certain. TMFKATB is now serving with a Salvadoreno who goes home next month. Their time together will be short but he was really excited to be assigned to work with this young man.

New Area - he's now working only in a Spanish area. He's excited about that but was bummed to say 'adios' to those he'd built relationships with. The good thing is that he's still close by.

Bike - no more car. He's in a bike area. He's excited to be on a bike. Of life on a bike, he said, 'It's fun being on bikes. I was really sore the first few days, but then it feels good. But being on a bike is great. It makes to people so much easier!'

One thing that hasn't changed since his letters from Mexico is the stream-of-consciouness nature of his writing (I blame the scourge of texting for this.) He fires off details and then out of nowhere, inserts something that he observed or learned and then he jumps back on the rat-a-tat motion of details. 'I learned a lot about moving fast this week,' is an example of one of those learnings that he buried while discussing something else. He's talked before about how he recognizes that his time as a missionary is not infinite and how he needs to maximize his time as he serves.  That theme emerged again in his non-sequitur observation.

He's got a point. Our time in this life is not infinite. We better make the best of it by working hard maximizing our time here. But we can't forget to enjoy this life either. Wasn't it the great 1980's philosopher, cultural icon, and guru, Ferris Bueller, who said, "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it."

And a couple of pictures:

He loved his spicy shrimp dish

TMFKATB with his new companero

02 August 2015

The ABC's and Sesame Street - A Thank You

Created the year I was born but not going on air until three years later, in 1969, "Sesame Street" endeavored to, according to the truthsayers at the Wikipedia, "master the addictive qualities of television and do something good with them." Interesting to note that even nearly fifty years ago, people recognized that television would by and large be a vapid, soul-sucking cauldron of nothingness. The characters of Sesame Street, human adults and children as well as the Muppets, would go on to teach countless children the basics of elementary education (e.g. literacy, mathematics, communication). Literally countless numbers of children learned to say their ABC's from Kermit the Frog. Many of us can remember counting with The Count. The lasting legacy and impact of "Sesame Street" cannot be discounted and millions of children continue to learn today from this program, despite the efforts of the Mittites and their ilk.

Why the "Sesame Street" nostalgia, you ask? Earlier today, the good people at one of my favorite magazines, Mental Floss, posted a link to a 40 year old scene from the show, featuring Kermit and a young girl doing the ABC's. How it plays out is clearly unexpected for everyone's favorite green frog.

Take a look:

As I watched this, a wave of nostalgia swept over me and I couldn't help but be thankful for those days that I can recall counting with the Count and working out letters with the denizens of Sesame Street. I looked over at my nightstand and saw the pile of books that I have read or am reading and I was so grateful that I can read. While I don't owe that ability to Sesame Street, it played a part in my comprehension and to the good people at the Children's Television Workshop, I say thank you.

I suppose what I'm reading now and what I've most recently read may freak the aforementioned CTW people out a bit. Here's a few of the titles:

Nagasaki Life After Nuclear War - Susan Southard - I'm currently reading this unflinching look at the affects of the plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan at the end of World War II. It is told through the eyes of several survivors. It's every bit as horrible as you can imagine and even more powerful.

Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County - Kristen Green - In the early 1960's, there a handful of backward countries (countries!) and one county in Virginia where free public school education was not available. I just finished reading this personal history of the lasting impact of segregation.

The Billion Dollar Spy - David Hoffman - Fascinating and gripping account of a Russian engineer who spied for the US at his own volition. Why can't we teach this stuff in our high schools?

Like I said, it's an eclectic list. It may not be what the creators of "Sesame Street" envisioned but I don't honestly believe they wanted their young learners to solely recite the ABC's and read Dr. Seuss for the rest of their lives. They wanted us to know that each time you opened a book and began to read it, you opened a whole new world.

My world is better for it. Thank you, Sesame Street.