Thankful Thursday 6 – State Holidays Edition

I was looking for a picture of Gene, but I don't have one, so here's one of the kids with their Nana-his oldest daughter.

I was looking for a picture of Gene, but I don’t have one, so here’s one of the kids with their Nana-his oldest daughter.

Happy 24th of July! I’m not really much of an exclamation mark guy, buy that sentence looks weird without it. If you don’t know me personally and you’re reading this, just imagine Eeyore delivering that sentence and you’ll have a good idea of how I’d actually say it.

Just now I was curious how many state holidays actually exist, and there are more than I thought. Here’s a list. Did you know that Indiana celebrates Lincoln’s birthday as an official state holiday, but that they hold the celebration the day after Thanksgiving, instead of in February when it actually was? That’s odd, right? Thanks for the factoid, internet.

So today in Utah it’s Pioneer Day. It commemorates the day that Brigham Young and the first group of Mormon pioneers entered the Salt Lake valley in 1847. I’m grateful for the pioneers and their sacrifices. Whenever I get the chance to really think about what they did, I’m just blown away.

Today is also an important observance on Bonnie’s side of the family: it’s Grandpa Gene’s birthday. Grandpa Gene is Bonnie’s maternal grandfather. He passed away before I joined the family, but by all accounts he was an amazing and inspiring person. I’m grateful that my wife and kids have inherited such a fantastic legacy.

Finally, we’re also right in the middle of a family reunion with all of Bonnie’s brothers and sisters. We’ve spent most of the week up at their cabin in Provo canyon, so I’m stealing a few minutes to get this post out. It’s been a lot of fun, and deserves its own post, but I’m grateful that we’ve had the opportunity to spend time together. Also, apologies to anyone who commented in the last few days, I haven’t been near my computer for a bit.

So like I said, there’s much to be grateful for today. It’s been a good week, and we’ve still got a few more days of reunion to go. I’m looking forward to it.

Remote Misses, Eustress, and My Kids

Full Disclosure: This is an affiliate link to Amazon. But it’s an awesome book and totally worth your time to read.

On our drive out to Utah, Bonnie read aloud to me some of the time. The book we read was Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath. It’s a thought-provoking book that explores why people or groups often succeed in the face of seemingly insurmountable problems. In particular, he looks at how things that at first glance are disadvantages can become tremendous strengths.

There is a web of related concepts from the book that I’ve been thinking about. For instance, he introduces the idea of “near misses” and “remote misses.” (Much of this next section is me paraphrasing and summarizing from Ch. 5) This terminology comes from the work of J. T. MacCurdy, who studied the psychological effects of the London bombings during WWII. In particular, MacCurdy was trying to figure out why the bombings didn’t cause mass panic and hysteria, but were instead met with an indomitable resolve among the British.

He theorized that when a bomb falls, it divides people into three groups: casualties, near misses, and remote misses.

Casualties got hit. They don’t really affect morale because morale “depends on the reaction of the survivors.”

Near misses feel the blast, they see the devastation, they might even be injured. For them the blast is a deeply traumatic event. Their morale is very low.

Remote misses have the opposite experience. For them, the bomb hits some distance away, so they hear sirens and maybe even hear some explosions, but they aren’t really confronted first-hand with the devastation. After experiencing several remote misses, they get a feeling of invincibility. On some level, after a person emerges unscathed from the experience of their worst fear, nothing else seems so bad.

Gladwell ties all of this discussion into the idea of “desirable difficulty.” Essentially, not all difficulties are bad. They can act to make us stronger, better people as we overcome or compensate for them.

To use an example from my own life, I was cast in one of the lead roles of the high school version of Les Miserables when I was 18. It was the summer after my senior year, and I had never done a stage show in my life. I had never even taken an acting class. The director would say things like “take a few steps upstage” (an incredibly simple stage direction) and I would frantically look over at my friend who would point to where she wanted me to go. I just had no idea what I was doing. However, by the end of that experience, I had gotten a nice crash course in basic stagecraft that was incredibly useful to me during my degree in vocal performance. The experience was very hard at the beginning but it offered me to opportunity to experience tremendous growth.
The ideas that Gladwell discusses remind me of some of the psychology and physiology classes that I’ve taken. There’s a concept that comes up called “eustress.” Basically, it means stress that is good or beneficial, as opposed to “distress,” which encompasses all of the negative effects of stress.

The source of the stress can be anything, it’s the response to the stress that matters. Do you perceive the stress as something positive or something negative? A difficult challenge, or a dangerous threat? Deadlines are a good example of a stressor that can cause either eustress or distress. For me, a looming deadline is usually a huge boon to productivity, but there have been a few times where I’ve been totally overwhelmed, and that deadline has caused paralyzing worry and fear.

I use these ideas when I’m teaching voice a lot. I think Gladwell touched on this in his book, but that’s not where I first encountered it. Basically, if you imagine your mental state as a continuum with boredom at one end and feeling overwhelmed at the other end, then you want to try to keep students in the middle so they’re challenged but not overwhelmed. If you can keep your students in that zone, they’ll enjoy themselves and learn a lot too. If you go too far to either end, then both learning and enjoyment take a nose-dive.

Returning to Gladwell’s book, he has a long section about children who have lost their parents-fairly pertinent reading for Bonnie and me right now. He cites a variety of studies which suggest that a strikingly disproportionate number of extremely successful people lost one or both parents in their youth and childhood. In that same vein though, a striking number of convicts also lost one or both parents early on in their lives.

So after reading and thinking about all of this, I am left with several unanswered questions. If my kids lose their mother, what do I do to help them emerge from that difficultly as stronger, better individuals? I don’t think you can reasonably call the death of a parent a desirable difficulty, but there must be some way for something good to come out of all of this. I like the analogy of the near misses and remote misses, but this is different. It’s like trying to turn a casualty into a remote miss. How do you do that? How do you pull your kids out of the path of an incoming bomb? How do you patch them up once they’ve been hit? These are the questions that actually matter, and I have no idea how to answer them.

Thankful Thursday 5 – Hiking

This is a view of one of the peaks as you start out on the trail.

This is a view of one of the peaks as you start out on the Slate Canyon trail.

I decided to set some goals for myself while I’m in  Utah. I need to have some direction and control, especially when I don’t have much control over other areas of my life at this moment.

One area I need to work on is physical fitness. I’m not in particularly good shape. I’m not hugely obese or anything, but I’ve definitely got a few extra pounds. I can’t run fast. I can’t jump high. I’m a terrrible swimmer. I’ve never done a pull-up…

You get the picture.

On the other hand, I’ve always aspired to the ideal of the Renaissance man. I’m a pretty talented person generally, but if one area in my life is neglected, physical fitness is it.

With that in mind, my physical fitness goal is to hike the summit of Mount Timpanogos. I’ve lived almost my whole life looking up at that mountain, and I’ve never hiked to the top. I’m giving myself a couple months to get into some sort of shape (round is a shape, right?), and I’ve started doing some easier hikes in the area. Last week I hiked Battle Creek with the kids, which is a short, easy hike to a waterfall. This morning I tried hiking Slate Canyon by myself.

I did not make it all the way through the trail (I mis-typed that as trial initially, which is close enough); I don’t even think I made it halfway through the trail. It was steep and I can’t breath at elevation yet. However, I still had a really nice time. How many places have views like this just ten minutes from home?

This is looking out of the valley on the way down.

This is looking out over the valley on the way down the trail..

If I was in better shape I would have been singing or humming, rather than gasping and huffing, but I had two songs going through my head as I did the hike: For the Beauty of the Earth and Wolf’s Fußreise (here’s a translation).

Fun Fact: If you time your steps to fit with the beat of the song you’re imagining, then the song will get slower and slower in your head as you tire out. I was walking to the most dirge-like For the Beauty of the Earth that you can imagine.

The truth is that Utah wilderness is sublime. I’m grateful that I have some time to explore it and see how amazing it is.

Nauvoo Thoughts 2 – I Want You! (conditions may apply)

Image via lds.org

Image via lds.org

As I was walking around Nauvoo, idly daydreaming about the area, I thought that it might be a cool place to go on a mission. I entertained this thought for a while, but then a question interrupted my reverie: could I serve a church mission as an older single man?
In all of my time in the church, I’ve never, as far as I know, seen an older, single man serving a mission alone. I know women can be companions and serve together, and, of course, couples can serve together, but can men serve in the same way?

After a brief internet search I found the missionary handbook. Appendix A is called “Guidelines for Couples and Senior Sisters.” The body text makes it pretty clear that only couples or sisters can serve missions. I’m sure there’s a reason for that somewhere, but I have no idea what the reason is. To me it would make sense to send older men on missions, particularly to areas where they need more priesthood.

Regardless of the reason, it was an interesting experience. Let me preface my comments about this by saying that I try to be widely read on a lot of topics, and I often read opposing viewpoints on things because frequently both sides have some legitimate (or at least legitimate-sounding) points. In that spirit, I follow some of the Mormon Feminists online.

The reason I thought of them is because I was contemplating a situation in which I was part of a group where I wouldn’t be allowed to serve in the way that I wanted (they would call it being marginalized), and it kind of bugged me. It’s not a situation that I’m used to, since I’m a straight, white, male. I once jokingly called myself “Captain McPrivilege” in a class when discussing modern sociology. So while I’m not whole-heartedly endorsing the Mormon Feminist message and movement, I think I can see maybe a little bit better where they’re coming from. It can be a difficult pill to swallow if you want to serve, but are told that you can only serve in a particular way.

I’m not interpreting this as a call to action, or even a call to agreement. Perhaps there can be such a thing as a call to understanding? Or a call to compassion? That’s something I could definitely get behind.

Nauvoo Thoughts 1

Allison familyphotos 0614 050It’s been about a week since we visited Nauvoo, and I’ve been thinking a lot about it. Our whole trip had nice weather, except for the day we decided to spend in Nauvoo. It rained. Lots. We took a covered wagon ride around the town, and even though it was covered, everyone still had to wrap up in several layers of blankets in order to stay dry and warm. While there were dozens of old houses and other attractions to visit, the one thing that I really felt excited about was the brass band’s hymn concert.

Before each hymn, a band member would stand up and give a little information about the hymn and a short testimony.We haven’t had too many Sundays since Bonnie got her most recent diagnosis, so I wasn’t really prepared for how much the hymns would affect me. The hymns talk about faith and hope, but those virtues are often described in the context of exercising them while experiencing loss, pain, and death.

Praise to the Man is all about the martyrdom of Joseph Smith.
How Firm a Foundation talks about God being with us in our trials. Sickness, fear, fiery trials, poverty–all of those and more get a mention in this song.
Lead, Kindly Light takes us through encircling darkness so thick that you can’t even see one step ahead.
Be Still My Soul describes all of us as burdened with a cross, which is not immediately lifted. The advice given is to have patience and bear your cross along thorny ways.
Brightly Beams our Father’s Mercy talks about people stuck in sin and being lost and alone in life’s storms.
Come, Come, Ye Saints is especially poignant in Nauvoo when it talks about dying “before our journey’s through” because of all the people who lost their lives before making it to Utah.

Listening to all the hymns, I was struck with a sense of how much the composers understood life. These hymns deal with difficult subjects, and they’re not meant to be simple platitudes or lip service to faith and endurance. The people who wrote these words understood. Bonnie’s cancer is an overwhelming, heart-breaking, gut-wrenching, soul-crushing experience.

But (and here’s the important part) this experience won’t break my little family if we don’t let it, and the way to get through is to cling to God. I find comfort in one of the other hymns that the band played: If You Could Hie to Kolob. Pain, sorrow, and heartache-even death-are all temporary things. The things that really matter are eternal.

There is no end to virtue;
There is no end to might;
There is no end to wisdom;
There is no end to light.

There is no end to union;
There is no end to youth;
There is no end to priesthood;
There is no end to truth.

There is no end to glory;
There is no end to love;
There is not end to being;
There is no death above.

Thankful Thursday 4 – Silver Linings Edition

W-23We finally arrived in Utah after our long road trip. We had a great time, and I’ve got a few more posts coming about that in the next few days. However, it’s Thursday, so it’s time to talk about gratitude. There have obviously been a lot of challenges this month, but I’ve been surprised at how many things have worked out well. For every bad thing, there are a lot of reasons why it was the best possible time for that bad thing.

Bonnie was talking to her Mom yesterday about how well so many things have worked out. For instance, Clark and Wayne were already planning a road trip through Cleveland, so we were able to meet up with them and spend some time in Kirtland and Nauvoo.

Most people expected Laura to go on a French-speaking mission, since she’s studied it a lot. Instead, she got called to Taiwan, which means that she spent twelve weeks in the MTC instead of eight. In addition, she put in her papers in December, but didn’t leave until April. All of these things meant that the timing of her mission coincided with Bonnie getting sick. Because of that, she can take a break for a transfer to see Bonnie without the massive inconvenience of travelling from Taiwan to Utah.

A particularly noticeable bad/good thing happened last night: our car failed catastrophically. Go 2014! Obviously that’s bad, but the timing of the failure couldn’t be better. We drove that thing almost 3000 miles in the last two weeks. Then when we got here, we drove it back to Provo and then up to Pleasant Grove. It did (relatively) fine for all of that.

Last night, however, we drove it a distance of maybe two miles to see Gran. When we pulled into the parking lot, I heard a sort of hissing/fizzing sound. We looked under the car and green fluid was spraying everywhere, while smoke leaked out from under the hood. I’m not sure what’s wrong yet, but it couldn’t have happened in a better place. Gran has a van that she doesn’t use a lot, so we were able to move all the stuff from our car to hers and make it back home.

Like I said, this is the silver linings edition of Thankful Thursday. Just moment ago I typed out this sentence, “Of course, I would be happier if all these things hadn’t happened.”

As soon as I typed it out, I stopped. In reality, I don’t know that that’s true. I’m not glad that Bonnie is sick, and I’m not glad that our car broke down, but I feel like these little things illustrate what seems to be a common theme for Bonnie and me these last two years: even when things go wrong, they still work out. You can still be happy in the middle of all of that. I’m not even sure if the happiness comes in spite of or because of the challenges.

Think about it for a second. What really makes you happy?

  • Feeling connected to others
  • Sensing God in your life
  • Feeling like you matter
  • Family
  • Friends
  • A purpose
  • Security

You can probably add a few things of your own to the list, but the truth is that a major catastrophe like an illness in the family can improve most of those things (with the exception of security). I’m not saying that Bonnie getting sick is some awesome thing that has made me much happier, but it hasn’t destroyed my happiness like you might expect. More than anything it’s given me perspective on life and what I want to do with it. I’m grateful for that most of all.

The Food Tour of Western NY and Pennsylvania

Valley Inn SoupWe’re on this road trip which will end up in Utah, however we started out heading northeast instead of west. We’ve claimed that we’re going so that we can visit some of the church history sites in the area. While this is technically true, it’s not the whole story. A big part of our motivation was to visit some of our favorite restaurants in the area.

The first important stop was the Valley Inn in Warsaw, NY. I served in Warsaw on my mission, and a few people took us out to lunch there. I have remembered it forever after that, and have gone back several times. The food is amazing. It’s a gourmet restaurant for olive garden prices.

The next stop was La Nova Pizzeria. The pizza is okay, but I love their wings. They make these barbecue wings that are seriously the best barbecue I’ve ever had. Not just the best barbecue wings, but the best barbecue anything. They’re spicy, with a really nice charred taste. It’s a complex flavor that keeps changing as you eat each bite.

The final important food stop was Wegmans. Yes, it’s technically a grocery store, but it is seriously the best place in the world. I love Wegmans. Calling Wegmans a grocery store is like calling Michelangelo a guy who painted some murals. It’s technically true, but at some point the description falls short. Wegmans is the happiest place on earth. One of the awesome things at Wegmans is the sandwich shop. It’s ten times better than Subway. The bread is better, the meat and cheese are better, the whole experience is better.

Now that we’ve gone to all these places, we’re heading back to Utah, but if any of you are in the area, it’s worth stopping by any or all of these.

Thankful Thursday 3 – Radio Silence

radio-silence-L-M8qvlZI just finished writing a different post and was about to hit publish when I noticed that it’s Thursday. Which means that it’s Thankful Thursday. I decided to postpone that other post and actually get a Thankful Thursday post published on Thursday. I’m just improving at this blogging thing every day.

Bonnie and I (half-)jokingly decided to go radio silent on our car trip. No calls or texts to other people. While we haven’t exactly been perfect at it, we’ve done pretty well. It’s probably a bit annoying to our respective families, but it’s been fantastic for us.

We do really appreciate all the calls and well-wishing that we’ve gotten in the last few weeks, but with the number of people who want to talk to and visit Bonnie, we could just spend all our time talking to other people who aren’t even really part of our everyday lives anymore and miss out on talking to each other.

Happily, we’re both introverted enough that we avoid that tendency. We’ve had the chance so far on our trip to joke around and laugh with each other, to sing songs and read stories to the kids, to have Bonnie read to me from David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell as I drove, and to have some really good, deep conversations. We might have missed out on some or all of those things if we were constantly calling everyone back and answering texts.

If we’ve ignored you all this week, I’m sorry, but the truth is I don’t feel particularly bad about it. Once we hit Utah it will be a pretty steady stream of visitors and family gatherings. Those will be nice things too, but before all that begins I’m thankful that I have these ten days or so to just be with my little family having fun and enjoying each other’s company.

The Future is Bright

Allison familyphotos 0614 018Tonight I’m sitting here in Palmyra. It has been a series of long days. On Saturday, we were packing, but a friend also took some nice pictures of our family. I picked that one of R, because I doubt most of us can remember the last time we were that happy and excited.

On Monday we were finishing up packing our house and trying to get on the road. Things took way longer than planned, so we drove until  2:00am on Monday to get to Cleveland, and then dr0ve a bunch more today. I’ll post about the trip more as I go along, but first I want to write this down. On Sunday, sacrament meeting went a little short. When that happened, Bonnie leaned over to me and said, “well, you’re up.”

At first I laughed and said, “yeah, right,” but sure enough Bishop Francis called on me and a few other people to share our testimonies. Sharing my testimony in sacrament meeting is my favorite. If by favorite you mean something I hate.

I really do enjoy talking in front of groups, but for some reason I don’t enjoy sharing my testimony in the big, formalized setting of sacrament meeting. Happily, I had been thinking about some worthwhile topics already, so I had some ideas of what to say. Here’s basically what I said:

[Disclaimer: I tell some stories that may or may not be strictly true. For me, that’s okay. Much like the scriptures, it’s sometimes more important to get what you’re supposed to get out of a story than to worry about if it happened exactly that way or not.]

I’ve been thinking about my first mission president a bit lately. His name was Walter J. Plumb III. He was a great man. He was a little crazy. And he was rich, so he could indulge some of the crazy, but he was also a fantastic person.

To help you understand the kind of person that he was, I’ll tell a few stories. First, he loved cars. His car of choice was a Porsche 911 Turbo. He saw a scene in some movie where a fast car went up a steep hill and got some air. He decided to try it, so he took one of his Porsches to a really steep hill in Salt Lake. He gunned the engine and got some air at the top, but when the car came down all the guts fell out of it and it was totaled. Seeing how wrecked his car was, he just called a tow service, took it to the dealer, and traded it in for a new one the same day.

He was also very generous with his money. One Christmas he took the mission van with the trailer hooked up and went to a toy store. He grabbed an associate and said, “just fill up the car with  one or two of everything.”

After the car and trailer were filled with toys, he took the AP’s and said, “Elders, where are the children? Let’s go find them and give them some toys.” He then spent the rest of the day handing out toys to kids in Rochester.

He was also famous for having a bunch of sayings that he would repeat. For lack of a better word I’ll call them catch-phrases. “Elders, where’s a gym? Anywhere you are. Just do some push-ups on the sidewalk.”

Of course, the most important and famous saying of his was “The future is bright.” which sometimes got expanded to something like, “Elders, future is so bright it’s practically blinding.”

The further I’ve gotten from that experience, the more I’ve realized how true that statement is. The future is bright. No matter what happens to us, no matter what trials and hardships we face, the future is bright. Pain and sorrow will be healed. Wrongs will be righted. We will be made whole again, because of the Atonement of Christ. He suffered so that he would understand us and be able to comfort us in our trials. Christ is our future, and that future is bright.