A Bit 'o Random Musings on Politics, Religion, and Anything Else That Passes Through My Crazy Head

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Spirit of Christ

Merry Christmas Eve! I began posting my Christmas messages the last day of November, and this will be the last of them (then I'll go back to my socialist views of religion).

I wanted to bear my testimony of Jesus Christ, his birth, life, message, death, and literal resurrection. I believe in a living Jesus, one who knows you and me personally. We can gain a testimony of him through prayer, study of His words and deeds, seeing His principles in action - and, ultimately, through faith. When I say "I know" that something is true, it is knowledge through faith. I don't claim to have seen Him, but I have felt the Holy Ghost whisper to me that Jesus Lives, and loves me. For my final post, I'll share two things with you: this video from the Mormon messages channel (which I loved), and the story of Luke 2, which my family reads every Christmas. To spice things up a bit, I've included the New International Version of the bible, which has slightly different wording than the standard King James Version that we often read.

"In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph went up from the town of Nazareth in Gaililee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with mar, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests." when the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing which has happened, which the Lord has told us about." So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told." (Luke 2:1-20)

Truly, this is a season of "Glory to God in the Highest!" Peace be with you, and Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Tracking the Big Guy

In case you were thinking that modern technology wasn't good for anything, I was reminded today that NORAD tracks Santa as he delivers gifts on Christmas. It's pretty awesome, eh? Here's the link for the Santa Tracker:


I hope you all were good this year and you don't get a lump of coal in your stocking!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Christmas Music!

While I've already talked about a few Christmas songs, the truth is that I LOVE CHRISTMAS MUSIC. Maybe next year I'll do a Christmas song a day (a bit more manageable that putting coherent thoughts together everyday). So, without further ado, here is a playlist of great Christmas Music. I have to admit, I even love the pop Christmas music - I can't help but tap my toe to Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You."

Monday, December 21, 2009

Wise Men (and Women!) Still Seek Him

The wise men in the story of Jesus' birth are interesting. We don't know if there were three wise men, or more than that. We know this:

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel. Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way. (Matthew 2:1-12)

The journey of these wise men has always fascinated me - where were they from these mysterious men of the east? Why did they seek the fulfillment of an obscure prophecy? What happened to them after they found the baby Jesus?

Henry Van Dyke wrote a great short story about "the other wise man" - you can read the full text online. It's about a wise man who doesn't get to see Christ personally, only through the people he serves. Here is my favorite quote, when the wise man, Artaban, seeks out a Hebrew priest who tells him:

"And remember, my son," said he, fixing his eyes upon the face of Artaban, "the King whom thou seekest is not to be found in a palace, nor among the rich and powerful. If the light of the world and the glory of Israel had been appointed to come with the greatness of earthly splendour, it must have appeared long ago. For no son of Abraham will ever again rival the power which Joseph had in the palaces of Egypt, or the magnificence of Solomon throned between the lions in Jerusalem. But the light for which the world is waiting is a new light, the glory that shall rise out of patient and triumphant suffering. And the kingdom which is to be established forever is a new kingdom, the royalty of unconquerable love.
"I do not know how this shall come to pass, nor how the turbulent kings and peoples of earth shall be brought to acknowledge the Messiah and pay homage to him. But this I know. Those who seek him will do well to look among the poor and the lowly, the sorrowful and the oppressed."
Christ did indeed come to establish a kingdom of the royalty unconquerable LOVE.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Mary You Did Know

"And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end. Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren. For with God nothing shall be impossible. And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her." (Luke 1:26-28)

Let's give it up for Mary! I really don't mean that flippantly - you've gotta admire a woman (or in today's world, a girl) who has the courage to respond to an angel who tells her she's going to be mother of the Son of God, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord." She had faith enough to tell Joseph the news, without being sure he would back her up; eventually make a long journey via donkey while very pregnant; give birth in a stable without modern medicine; flee to Egypt with her young child; raise a child who was probably a tad different, and eventually live to see the death of her son in a very violent manner. The scriptures don't say much about Mary, but reading between the lines we can see a Daughter of God who was selfless, courageous, and faithful. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is an example to me, and Christmas wouldn't have happened without her faith and devotion. Mary did know, and did the impossible through faith in God.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Dog Days of Snow

Today we got slammed with what has variously been described as a "Snowpocolapse" "Shopper-stopper" or "Obamasnow" (I don't quite get that last one - is it a tribute or a mocking name?). Anyways, the long and the short of it is that we have 22 1/2 inches of snow here. My dad and I spent parts of the afternoon going out to shovel - not that you'd really notice, since our sidewalk and driveway are still covered in snow. Church is already canceled for tomorrow (and I'm rooting for work to be canceled Monday).

Since I was going to teach a Sunday School lesson on the "Pure in Heart," I've had "Zion" on the brain recently. Now, at first glance, the concept of Zion may not seem to have much to do with Christmas. But in our current understanding of Zion, Christmas brings out what I would call the "Zion moments" in people.

Mormons in general are a little weird in our concept of Zion. When I think of zion in a non-mormon context, it's generally an idea of cults. In our scriptures, it's a concept that has evolved through time - it began as a place (Jackson, Missouri) and has evolved to a concept that includes anyone who is "pure in heart." I think of Zion as a striving to live the spirit of Christmas and giving. I noticed in studying for the lesson that Zion is usually accompanied by living the law of consecration - "having all things in common" - this applies to the saints in the New Testament in the book of Acts, saints in the book of Mormon after Christ's appearance to them, and to saints in the early years of the Church in the 1830's and 1840's. Obviously we don't live in a time where the law of consecration is in full operation but we still have opportunities to give to others.

I am really excited that it was recently announced there will be an addition to the "3-Fold Mission of the Church" - caring for the poor and needy. While this is already part of a true Christian life, I hope including this principle prominently in the church will lead us to "do many things of our own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness."

So here are some "Zion moments" I've noticed, today with the snow and all during the week:

- It was nice that in the coverage of the storm, all the news anchors were reminding us to check in with our elderly neighbors and see if they were ok - I thought that was truly kind and charitable, and I've never noticed it before during a storm.
- My dad helped dig out a van from our street, a family was trying to get home
- Our home teacher picked up my brother from the Metro (after his plane ride to Newark and train to Union station) so that he could be home for Christmas

Along with that, I had the opportunity for Zion moments to serve others this week. I won't tell you what I did in response (suffice it to say that I regret my response in some circumstances).

- Seeing a co-worker carrying two heavy boxes, a laptop, and purse through the hallway, and knowing she needed help, despite the fact that I was running late
- Seeing a salvation army bell ringer at the mall, but not by the entrance I was going in, and knowing that I should donate because I had cash and I don't usually have cash with me
- Being prompted that I should go into a client site early (before training at another location) to do some work so someone else wouldn't have to
- Getting a great Christmas gift idea for a co-worker that I don't really know that well, but feeling strongly I should give it

I love this quote about giving:
"We are all both givers and receivers. President Marion G. Romney has said, 'There is an interdependence between those who have and those who have not. The process of giving exalts the poor and humbles the rich. In the process, both are sanctified" (Ensign, Nov. 1982, p. 93). No one is exempt from giving to the impoverished. The counsel is: "And again, I say unto the poor...I mean all you who deny the beggar, because ye have not; I would that ye say in your hearts that: I give not because I have not, but if I had I would give. (Mosiah 4:24)" No one is exempt from receiving. To the rich, the reality is: "For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God,...calling on his name, and begging for a remission of our sins" through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ? (Mosiah 4:19-20)
- Bishop Robert D. Hales, "Welfare Principles to Guide our Lives: An Eternal Plan for the Welfare of Men's Souls," Ensign, May 1986, 29.

If you're reading this post, you are likely wealthy in the eyes of the world. What more can you be doing to create Zion and care for the poor and needy?


So I just realized that I was so engrossed in the book I was reading (and finishing...in one day) that I didn't post something! Not that anyone would notice. But since we here in the D.C. area are expected to get 10-20 inches of snow, enjoy "Walking in a Winter Wonderland" despite the anachronistic fact that Christ's birth was likely not accompanied by snow.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Your Turn

It's almost one week til Christmas! I am (almost) done with Christmas shopping, without going to the mall. I'm going to be lazy tonight and focus on you - my solitary readers! What is your favorite Christmas memory? Is there one gift (given or received) that you remember more than others? What are you doing to make this Christmas special?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Stille nacht, heilige nacht

For whatever reason, I feel like I've heard the Christmas carol "Silent Night" a lot during this Christmas season. Which I like, because I like the song. It's such a beautiful and peaceful lullaby. I also love that it was sung during a temporary truce during World War I between German and English troops. It's a reminder that sometimes our common humanity trumps the evils of our basest selves. So, you can read about the Christmas truce, and the origin of the hymn, on the Silent Night Wikipedia page. Of the online versions, I liked this music video with the version sung by Sixpence none the Richer:

Here are the lyrics:

Silent Night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon Virgin Mother and Child
Holy infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace

Silent night, holy night!
Shepherds quake at the sight
Glories stream from heaven afar
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ, the Saviour is born
Christ, the Saviour is born

Silent night, holy night
Son of God, love's pure light
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


I loved this performance, and thought it was a good Christmas related song to make my blog post tonight easy:

Monday, December 14, 2009

Christmas #2

My second Christmas on my mission was in a larger city not far from the mission headquarters. It was a step up in creature comforts, since it had a real pizza place and a huge supermarket with actual shopping carts. Also, as I recall it was heated inside the shopping center. Christmas in Russia is nothing if not cold. But when you're a missionary, you know that service is the best way to warm you up!!

At Christmas, our district had two relatively new missionaries. One of them had a birthday near Christmas, so we (my companion and I) made him a Gingerbread house. This was a challenge, since we had no cream cheese frosting or method for making gingerbread. My mom's Christmas package saved the day, with Christmas candy! We also used sweetened condensed milk (a Russian favorite) as our glue to hold the house together, and shortbread-type cookies for walls.

We also decided to make Christmas trees out of painted cardboard for each district in our mission, and also composed a song about how awesome our mission was - I think it was to the tune of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. It was so fun to stay up late and think how excited everyone would be to receive our gifts!

The best part of Christmas was picking up Babushka B., our branch Babushka and helping her get to church. As some of you know, Russia is built and sustained by the faith and prayers of its Babushki (Grandmothers). Most congregations of the church have at least one. Our Babushka was always the first to Church, because it was her job to be "greeter" to everyone. She took this responsibility seriously. However, by Christmas she was suffering from heart problems and hadn't been able to take the tram to church in a long while. My companion was sweet enough to suggest that we pick up our Babushka by taxi and take her to church. With snow all around, we picked up our favorite babushka, and helped her walk very slowly down the stairs of her fourth floor walk-up apartment. I remember how happy she was just to attend one hour of Church. It made that Christmas so special to me to be able to give someone that gift!

So, as all my posts must preach something, this one teaches that Christmas = Service!

Sunday, December 13, 2009


There are many things I love about my mom, and one of those things is that she love Christmas, and decorating for it (at last count, we had 17 manger scenes throughout our house). Besides manger scenes, Christmas trees (perhaps worthy of a post all by themselves), twinkly lights, and stuffed santas, we usually have a few fresh poinsettias. Their merry white and red petals seem to speak aloud the beauty and freshness of Christmas. I was thinking about symbols of Christmas today, and decided to look up the poinsettias because I don't really know much about them. Turns out they were an import from Mexico many years ago. You can read about the legend associated with Christmas and Poinsettias here. So, here's to poinsettias! What Christmas symbols/decorations are meaningful to you?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

It *is* a wonderful life!

So I'm watching the movie "It's A Wonderful Life" and as corny as it is, I love it - I love that the most important things are not money or power or influence (at least influence in the way Mr. Potter understands it). This movie celebrates family, friendship, and the power of the little guy. I know real life can't always be so black and white - the movie contains little nuance or understatement (it tends to drive its moral points home with a sledgehammer), but I love the message it sends. So, here's the end of the movie on YouTube for your Christmas enjoyment:

Friday, December 11, 2009

A Calvin and Hobbes Christmas

I love the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, and there are some pretty good Christmas/winter strips. You can read some of the Christmas strips here and here.

There's also the classic snowman strips, but those aren't really Christmas, so I will leave those to your googling powers.

Christmas BELLS!

So I wrote this post yesterday, but our internet was down and so I couldn't post it. I know you were all waiting with baited breath for my next Christmas post, here it is:

This is (I think) my favorite Christmas hymn. It's probably appropriate to share on the day our President accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. Regardless of whether you think Pres. Obama deserved the prize or not, I think it's awesome that there is an organization out there which strives to recognize people who "proclaim peace." Too often our society glorifies violence, it's nice that we try to recognize peace as a worthy goal.

After all, the angels sang of "Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth Peace, Goodwill toward men." So, let us strive to establish peace in our lives - in our relationships, in our country, and in the world too.

Here are the full lyrics of the poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (the carol in our hymnal omits two of the verses). To me it has more meaning because it was written during the dark times of civil war, when the United States was riven by discord and disunion, yet it ends on a note of hope that we can come together as brothers and sisters.

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound the carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn, the households born
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Till ringing, singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Navigating Charity

I know at Christmas time, you want to give to charitable organizations but sometimes it's hard to know which organizations will spend your hard earned dollar wisely. That's why I like Charity Navigator. It helps you pick your charity by category and rating system - it has a lot of useful information, like what percentage of the organization's budget goes to fundraising, other charities similar to your favorites, and searchability. I personally like to look at how much the CEO gets paid, because I feel like they shouldn't get paid much. Also, I like that the site lets you donate anonymously, that way you won't get a billion letters thanking you for your donation and using up your dough.

So give, and give generously - even if you don't have money.

From Howard W. Hunter's 1994 Christmas Devotional:

Christmas is a time for giving. Someone once said he couldn’t think of what to give for Christmas. The next day in the mail he received an anonymous list which read:
Give to your enemy forgiveness,
To your opponent tolerance,
To your friend your heart,
To all men charity, for the hands that help
are holier than lips that pray,
To every child a good example,
and to yourself—respect.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Gift of the Magi

I love this story! Re-reading it put me back in the Christmas spirit after a long day. Hope you enjoy!

The Gift of the Magi
by O. Henry

ONE DOLLAR AND eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one's cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.
There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.
While the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding from the first stage to the second, take a look at the home. A furnished flat at $8 per week. It did not exactly beggar description, but it certainly had that word on the lookout for the mendicancy squad.
In the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring. Also appertaining thereunto was a card bearing the name “Mr. James Dillingham Young.” The “Dillingham” had been flung to the breeze during a former period of prosperity when its possessor was being paid $30 per week. Now, when the income was shrunk to $20, the letters of “Dillingham” looked blurred, as though they were thinking seriously of contracting to a modest and unassuming D. But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he was called “Jim” and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good.
Della finished her cry and attended to her cheeks with the powder rag. She stood by the window and looked out dully at a grey cat walking a grey fence in a grey backyard. Tomorrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87 with which to buy Jim a present. She had been saving every penny she could for months, with this result. Twenty dollars a week doesn't go far. Expenses had been greater than she had calculated. They always are. Only $1.87 to buy a present for Jim. Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him. Something fine and rare and sterling—something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honor of being owned by Jim.
There was a pier-glass between the windows of the room. Perhaps you have seen a pier-glass in an $8 flat. A very thin and very agile person may, by observing his reflection in a rapid sequence of longitudinal strips, obtain a fairly accurate conception of his looks. Della, being slender, had mastered the art.
Suddenly she whirled from the window and stood before the glass. Her eyes were shining brilliantly, but her face had lost its color within twenty seconds. Rapidly she pulled down her hair and let it fall to its full length.
Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs in which they both took a mighty pride. One was Jim's gold watch that had been his father's and his grandfather's. The other was Della's hair. Had the Queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty's jewels and gifts. Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.
So now Della's beautiful hair fell about her, rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters. It reached below her knee and made itself almost a garment for her. And then she did it up again nervously and quickly. Once she faltered for a minute and stood still while a tear or two splashed on the worn red carpet.
On went her old brown jacket; on went her old brown hat. With a whirl of skirts and with the brilliant sparkle still in her eyes, she fluttered out the door and down the stairs to the street.
Where she stopped the sign read: “Mme. Sofronie. Hair Goods of All Kinds.” One flight up Della ran, and collected herself, panting. Madame, large, too white, chilly, hardly looked the “Sofronie.”
“Will you buy my hair?” asked Della.
“I buy hair,” said Madame. “Take yer hat off and let's have a sight at the looks of it.”
Down rippled the brown cascade. “Twenty dollars,” said Madame, lifting the mass with a practised hand.
“Give it to me quick,” said Della.
Oh, and the next two hours tripped by on rosy wings. Forget the hashed metaphor. She was ransacking the stores for Jim's present.
She found it at last. It surely had been made for Jim and no one else. There was no other like it in any of the stores, and she had turned all of them inside out. It was a platinum fob chain simple and chaste in design, properly proclaiming its value by substance alone and not by meretricious ornamentation—as all good things should do. It was even worthy of The Watch. As soon as she saw it she knew that it must be Jim's. It was like him. Quietness and value—the description applied to both. Twenty-one dollars they took from her for it, and she hurried home with the 87 cents. With that chain on his watch Jim might be properly anxious about the time in any company. Grand as the watch was, he sometimes looked at it on the sly on account of the old leather strap that he used in place of a chain.
When Della reached home her intoxication gave way a little to prudence and reason. She got out her curling irons and lighted the gas and went to work repairing the ravages made by generosity added to love. Which is always a tremendous task, dear friends—a mammoth task.
Within forty minutes her head was covered with tiny, close-lying curls that made her look wonderfully like a truant schoolboy. She looked at her reflection in the mirror long, carefully, and critically.
“If Jim doesn't kill me,” she said to herself, “before he takes a second look at me, he'll say I look like a Coney Island chorus girl. But what could I do—oh! what could I do with a dollar and eighty-seven cents?”
At 7 o'clock the coffee was made and the frying-pan was on the back of the stove hot and ready to cook the chops.
Jim was never late. Della doubled the fob chain in her hand and sat on the corner of the table near the door that he always entered. Then she heard his step on the stair away down on the first flight, and she turned white for just a moment. She had a habit for saying little silent prayers about the simplest everyday things, and now she whispered: “Please God, make him think I am still pretty.”
The door opened and Jim stepped in and closed it. He looked thin and very serious. Poor fellow, he was only twenty-two—and to be burdened with a family! He needed a new overcoat and he was without gloves.
Jim stopped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the scent of quail. His eyes were fixed upon Della, and there was an expression in them that she could not read, and it terrified her. It was not anger, nor surprise, nor disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she had been prepared for. He simply stared at her fixedly with that peculiar expression on his face.
Della wriggled off the table and went for him.
“Jim, darling,” she cried, “don't look at me that way. I had my hair cut off and sold it because I couldn't have lived through Christmas without giving you a present. It'll grow out again—you won't mind, will you? I just had to do it. My hair grows awfully fast. Say ‘Merry Christmas!’ Jim, and let's be happy. You don't know what a nice—what a beautiful, nice gift I've got for you.”
“You've cut off your hair?” asked Jim, laboriously, as if he had not arrived at that patent fact yet even after the hardest mental labor.
“Cut it off and sold it,” said Della. “Don't you like me just as well, anyhow? I'm me without my hair, ain't I?”
Jim looked about the room curiously.
“You say your hair is gone?” he said, with an air almost of idiocy.
“You needn't look for it,” said Della. “It's sold, I tell you—sold and gone, too. It's Christmas Eve, boy. Be good to me, for it went for you. Maybe the hairs of my head were numbered,” she went on with sudden serious sweetness, “but nobody could ever count my love for you. Shall I put the chops on, Jim?”
Out of his trance Jim seemed quickly to wake. He enfolded his Della. For ten seconds let us regard with discreet scrutiny some inconsequential object in the other direction. Eight dollars a week or a million a year—what is the difference? A mathematician or a wit would give you the wrong answer. The magi brought valuable gifts, but that was not among them. This dark assertion will be illuminated later on.
Jim drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw it upon the table.
“Don't make any mistake, Dell,” he said, “about me. I don't think there's anything in the way of a haircut or a shave or a shampoo that could make me like my girl any less. But if you'll unwrap that package you may see why you had me going a while at first.”
White fingers and nimble tore at the string and paper. And then an ecstatic scream of joy; and then, alas! a quick feminine change to hysterical tears and wails, necessitating the immediate employment of all the comforting powers of the lord of the flat.
For there lay The Combs—the set of combs, side and back, that Della had worshipped long in a Broadway window. Beautiful combs, pure tortoise shell, with jewelled rims—just the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair. They were expensive combs, she knew, and her heart had simply craved and yearned over them without the least hope of possession. And now, they were hers, but the tresses that should have adorned the coveted adornments were gone.
But she hugged them to her bosom, and at length she was able to look up with dim eyes and a smile and say: “My hair grows so fast, Jim!”
And them Della leaped up like a little singed cat and cried, “Oh, oh!”
Jim had not yet seen his beautiful present. She held it out to him eagerly upon her open palm. The dull precious metal seemed to flash with a reflection of her bright and ardent spirit.
“Isn't it a dandy, Jim? I hunted all over town to find it. You'll have to look at the time a hundred times a day now. Give me your watch. I want to see how it looks on it.”
Instead of obeying, Jim tumbled down on the couch and put his hands under the back of his head and smiled.
“Dell,” said he, “let's put our Christmas presents away and keep ’em a while. They're too nice to use just at present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs. And now suppose you put the chops on.”
The magi, as you know, were wise men—wonderfully wise men—who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.

Monday, December 7, 2009

In the nick of time...

This one is sadly, posted from work, where I've been for the last 17 straight hours. It may just be the late hour, but no Christmas list of mine would be complete without this Weird Al song. I've thought it is hilarious ever since I first heard it more than a decade ago. Fair warning: some of you will likely find this (and me) disturbing. I'm ok with that.

YouTube isn't letting me embed it, but here's the link to The Night Santa Went Crazy. Let me know your thoughts.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

With Wondering Awe

I loved the words to one of the hymns we sang in Church today (despite the "stranger" reference to the baby Jesus...which is a bit odd in my book). Especially the third verse - let us all be wise men and women who still seek Him.

With wondr'ing awe the wise men saw
The star in heaven springing,
And with delight, in peaceful night,
They heard the angels singing:
Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna to his name!

By light of star they traveled far
To seek the lowly manger,
A humble bed wherein was laid
The wondrous little Stranger.
Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna to his name!

And still is found the world around,
The old and hallowed story,
And still is sung in ev'ry tongue,
The angel's song of glory:
Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna to his name!

The heavenly star its rays afar
On ev'ry land is throwing,
And shall not cease til holy peace
In all the earth is growing
Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna to his name!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Gift Giving

My mission contained two Christmases. The first one was with a Russian companion and the second one was with a Ukrainian companion. Christmas on your mission is obviously a lot different from "regular" Christmases, but some things remain the same. I still got gifts and got to eat a special meal. However, it's the differences that I wanted to blog a bit about. I'll start with the first Christmas and maybe another day I'll talk about the second.

My first Christmas on my mission was in a tiny city 2,000 miles from the mission home. Missionaries called it "Pai" (Paradise) because it had a very high baptism rate. I thought it was a paradise because of the wonderful way members treated us. People in that city in Russia are just dang nice. During the beginning weeks of December, my companion and I had many progressing investigators and she decided to challenge all of them to get baptised. In the end, many of them did, some of them on Christmas.

Our district had a baptismal service on Christmas Day - the most beautiful expression of "White Christmas." Five people got baptised that day,* and I remember thinking what a sweet experience it was and that it would surely be among my top Christmases of all time. The baptism was in the "Yolki Polki" (literally, "Christmas Tree Sticks" it's an expression in Russian) Sauna. It was kind of an odd place to have a baptism, but I just remember being so very very happy. Even if I couldn't understand everything that was said, I felt the spirit of truth and was so happy for these people who had made a choice to follow Christ, the whole reason for Christmas.

The baptism was followed by a Christmas party with all the church members. Actually to be honest I'm not sure it was the same exact day as the baptism, but I know it was around Christmas. We missionaries arrived and found that no activities had been planned for the party!!! So, the party started 45 minutes late so that we could plan everything - spiritual thought, an acapella version of "O Holy Night" that turned out surprisingly well, me playing the piano very poorly, and a live manger scene involving some hastily conceived costumes. Again, I remember a feeling of warm contentment and happiness.

Another thing I remember about that Christmas was my companion's reaction to presents. My mom had sent me a big package (actually, two - just in case one didn't get there on time), and my companion was so excited she literally did not want to wait until Christmas morning! She had already received and opened her Christmas package days before (full of her favorite Russian candy). I would almost say she was childishly excited, but that has a pejorative connotation - except maybe at Christmas, when childish wonderment is all around. She was very excited about the gift that my parents included in the package for her. Then, I remember very distinctly what she did after I opened all my gifts. She gathered up all the discarded wrapping paper and used it to wrap gifts for so many people - she gave away a lot of things that were in her Christmas package, and didn't mind a bit. She wanted to create the same kind of excitement that she had in opening her gifts. That Christmas taught me that Christmas about giving.

"To Give is Better than to Receive" - much as I like receiving presents, I love giving something, especially when I find the perfect gift for someone.

*Not all of them our investigators, don't want you to think I'm some kind of super missionary!

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Nutcracker

Even though I don't normally like classical music a whole lot (it all sounds the same to me...I know, I'm an uneducated jerk), I'm nuts for the Nutcracker! Pyotr Illych Tchaikovsky really knew what he was up to, especially because he's Russian! I've had it in my head all day!

Enjoy the whole ballet (I think) via grooveshark widget:

Thursday, December 3, 2009


Instead of doing what I planned tonight, which was silly, I'm going to post some quotes from the First Presidency* Christmas Devotional in 2000. For some people, Christmas isn't religious, but I think we all feel something special about it. I personally feel like it brings out the best in every person. I liked all three of the short talks at the Devotional, you can read them online here. This Sunday is this year's First Presidency Christmas Devotional, you can watch/listen to it online at 8 p.m. Eastern Standard time. The music and words will be fantastic!

From President Hinckley:

All of earth’s children are the sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father. Fatherhood denotes brotherhood and sisterhood. We are of His family, you and I. We have within each of us something of His divinity. We have an obligation one to another. We are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves. It is the Light of Christ which has brought into the world an enlarged sense of brotherhood. While there is much of darkness and strife, of brutality and evil in our time, there is yet more of appreciation and respect, of reaching down and helping, of giving and loving than at any previous period in the history of the world, I so believe.

At this glad season how grateful we should feel. “He, watching over Israel, slumbers not nor sleeps” (see Ps. 121:4). He walked the earth as our teacher, our leader, our exemplar, our Lord. Through His matchless Atonement, He did for each of us what we could not do for ourselves. “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” (1 Cor. 15:55). Through His great atoning sacrifice, He cut the knot of the cords that bound us and gave us freedom to go forward on the road to immortality and eternal life. He is our Lord, our Master, our Redeemer, our King, our Ruler, and our God. Without Him there is no salvation.

From President Monson:
Our opportunities to give of ourselves are indeed limitless, but they are also perishable. There are hearts to gladden. There are kind words to say. There are gifts to be given. There are deeds to be done. There are souls to be saved.

There is no better time than now, this very Christmas season, for all of us to rededicate ourselves to the principles taught by Jesus the Christ. It is the time to love the Lord our God with all our heart and our neighbors as ourselves. It is well to remember that he who gives money gives much, he who gives time gives more, but he who gives of himself gives all.

From President Faust:
I wonder why it takes the Christmas season to bring out the best in all of us. Parents have the same love for their children 365 days a year. We are all nieces, nephews, uncles, aunts, cousins, friends, and brothers and sisters in the kingdom of God each day of our lives.

I would hope that we can try to open our hearts a little more each day and not wait for the Christmas season. A gift given or an expression of kindness may be more unexpected and appreciated in July than in December.

*The First Presidency is the guiding body of the church, made up of the Prophet (in 2000, President Hinckley), and his two counselors (Presidents Faust and Monson).

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Yes, Virginia!

I'll let this one speak for itself, as it's been around more than 100 years and is one of the most reprinted editorials of all time. As long as goodness exists in the world, so does Santa Claus!

"DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old.
"Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
"Papa says, 'If you see it in THE SUN it's so.'
"Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?


VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except [what] they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Moral of the story? Don't be a Scrooge!

This month my book club is reading "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens, which is a classic Christmas masterpiece (Read online here). As I read it, I thought about changes of heart. When we first meet Scrooge, Dickens describes him thusly:

"Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind-stone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn't thaw it one degree at Christmas.

External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. Foul weather didn't know where to have him. The heaviest rain, and snow, and hail, and sleet, could boast of the advantage over him in only one respect. They often "came down" handsomely, and Scrooge never did."

Dickens goes on in his description, but you get the idea. Scrooge is an extreme example of someone obsessed with worldly wealth and with himself - cold to the warmth of loving, human relationships. In short, he doesn't have a heart.

We often think of the three ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future who visit Scrooge, but as I reread the book this time, the Ghost that struck me the most was the first to visit Scrooge - the ghost of Jacob Marley, his old business partner. Marley is a mournful ghost because of his missed opportunities. Read Marley's reply to Scrooge's efforts to cheer him up:

"But you were always a good man of business, Jacob," faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself. "Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"

I love those words because they remind us that our business isn't business, it's being truly charitable and loving others. Marley, and the other three ghosts who visit Scrooge, make him feel much the same way - during each Ghost's visit he thinks of something kind that he could have done, but failed to do. So, take this Christmas opportunity to do something nice for someone - don't be a Scrooge! It doesn't take much, as the Ghost of Christmas Past reminds Scrooge. In this section of the book, Scrooge is given a glimpse of his old boss, who kindly threw a Christmas party and invited the entire neighborhood. The Ghost of Christmas past remarks that this was a waste of money:

“Why! Is it not? He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?”

“It isn’t that,” said Scrooge, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter, self. “It isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ’em up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”

Scrooge learns that much money is not prerequisite to sharing Christmas joy (a needful lesson for those of us with less wealth than Scrooge). Scrooge is changed into a generous and giving person. Though Scrooge's change of heart comes suddenly, I like to hope that it was sincere and lasting. By the end of the book, Scrooge is as happy as a school child, delighting in sending a prize turkey to his clerk (anonymously, which I love). Contrast the closing description of Scrooge with the beginning description. I'll let Dicken's masterful words close this post (don't forget to play the song at the end - in honor of my brother, it's Chanticleer). I hope we can all have a change of heart in seeking to do good, be charitable, and lift others with the joy of Christmas!

"[Scrooge] became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!"

Monday, November 30, 2009

We (All) Need a Little Christmas

Deck the halls! It's Christmastime! I love Christmas because it tends to bring out the best in people, and encourages kindness and generosity - qualities needed greatly in the world today (More accurately, I should say I love the true Spirit of Christmas - not the crass commercialism that sometimes overtakes the holiday).

As a celebratory gesture from me to you, I'm going to be posting Christmas cheer (in small doses) each of the 25 days before Christmas. Fair warning: some thoughts will be funny, silly, mawkish, sentimental, and/or corny; and hopefully some will be downright spiritual. I'll be quoting Dickens, Longfellow, O'Henry, and a letter to a girl named Virginia in the coming days. I might even type up some favorite Christmas memories to share with you. Let me know if you have favorite Christmas stories/poems/songs to share.

This is post #1, and was inspired by listening to a choir performance in Salt Lake City's Temple Square on Sunday night. I love this song, because we all do "need a little Christmas" in our lives.

(Couldn't find a good choir version on YouTube, but Johnny Mathis will have to do)

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Fall: In Love!

I'm officially over-the-moon for fall. Don't get me wrong, spring is nice and showy, winter is crisp and clean, and summer is pretty and bright. But Fall is GORGEOUS!
Especially if you are lucky enough to live in a place with seasons. Green turns to a delightful gold,which turns to brilliant orange,

which turns to an amazing red.I've been reveling in it while I drive to work, and when I drive home. My favorite tree on my way to work has been slowing changing a little bit each day. Here's what it looked like today:

This morning I went a bit crazy on my bike ride, and took 168 pictures. Here are some of the best, which don't even capture the true beauty. I've interspersed the pics with words from two songs that ran through my mind: The chorus of the Hymn, "All Things Bright and Beautiful" and the primary song "My Heavenly Father Loves Me."

All things bright and beautiful,
all creatures great and small,
all things wise and wonderful:the Lord God made them all.
Whenever I hear the song of a bird
Or look at the blue blue sky,
Whenever I feel the rain on my face
Or the wind as it rushes by,
Whenever I touch a velvet rose
Or walk by a lilac tree,
I'm glad that I live in this beautiful world
Heavenly Father created for me.

He gave me my eyes that I might see
The color of butterfly wings.
He gave me my ears that I might hear
The magical sound of things.
He gave me my life, my mind, my heart:
I thank him reverently
For all his creations of which I'm a part.
Yes, I know Heavenly Father loves me.This church sign summed it up:

If you live in a place where fall hasn't quite hit yet, this one's for you:Can you spot "the face"?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Government Thanksgiving

Corporate taxes are due on March 15th and partnership tax filings are due April 15th, but both can be extended to September 15th. As a tax accountant, September 15th was a big work deadline for me, and I’m glad it’s passed! I even got to have a bit of drama to celebrate the end of “busy season” – I had to hand deliver a tax return to a client in order to meet the filing deadline. Since that meant battling area traffic, I got to jam out on the radio in my car. I lucked out and heard some really good songs – “Lean on Me” and “Here comes the Sun” (which, I’ve decided, is my favorite Beatles song). The point is, all that good music got me thinking and so I sort of composed this post in my head.
I’m grateful for government.
I’m grateful for the tax system (even if it’s complex) and the fact that the vast majority of American citizens and corporations pay taxes, thus contributing to building our society. I’m grateful to live in a relatively corruption free society, where businesses can thrive without having to pay bribes to government officials. I’m grateful for a car that’s safe because government mandates certain safety features. I’m grateful for a government that restricts monopolies from crushing ordinary people. I’m grateful for a government that allows us to protest against it, and even provides police officers to protect such rights. I’m grateful to work in a building that won’t collapse, due to building codes. I’m grateful for workplace safety regulations and government protection from discrimination. I’m grateful for all 12 years of my public school education, paid for by our government. I’m grateful to eat safe food that’s inspected by the government. I’m grateful to be able to vote for my representatives, governor, senators, and president (and grateful for the confidence that the votes will be fairly counted). I’m grateful for a government that stays out of my religion and guarantees my right to worship as I please. In fact, I’m grateful for the whole bill of rights and all constitutional amendments (especially the 19th!). I’m grateful for a government that provides a social safety net to the poor, the elderly, and the unlucky. I’m grateful for the sacrifice of brave men and women in serving in our armed forces, protecting me from horrors I will probably never fully comprehend. And yes, I’m grateful for the bureaucrats – those who work in public service jobs in government.
There are notable exceptions and limits to government’s abilities. Sometimes government doesn’t work. Government is imperfect, but I believe it reflects our own imperfections. When failures of government come to light, they should be exposed, rooted out, and reformed. After all, in America we believe in government “by the people, for the people, and of the people.”
Ronald Reagan once famously said that “Government is not the solution, government is the problem.” That simplistic statement overlooks the vast good that government can and does do in our society. Sure, it’s annoying to wait in line at the DMV, it’s frustrating to pay taxes, and we may not like our current representative, governor, senator and/or president. But on the whole, government is a good thing, and I’m grateful it protects my rights, provides so many services, and regulates things that should be regulated.

Monday, September 7, 2009

"Socialized" Medicine? Sign me up!

Call me a socialist, but I am so pro-health care reform, it's not even funny (After a my post on likeable things about President Bush, I had to make up for it by getting back to my liberal roots). I'll illustrate my health care views with a simple example from my time in Russia as a missionary.

I served for seven and a half months in a the town of Barnaul, which is in Siberia. As you might imagine, there was a lot of ice. On one cold winter night, my companion slipped and fell on some ice, twisting her ankle. Luckily, we were only three blocks from home and 1 1/2 blocks from a local clinic. We entered, and she was seen immediately by a doctor, given an x-ray within 15 minutes, and it was determined that nothing was broken (though she was in a lot of pain, poor girl). As we were leaving, I asked the nurse/receptionist where we should pay. I'll never forget the look on her face, or on my (Ukrainian) companion's face. They looked at me like I was completely insane. Why would we have to pay for basic medical services? Then it dawned on me that this was all paid for by the government!

Now, I will not pretend that all my interactions with the Russian health care system were that positive (some of them were downright scary), but on that visit at least, my companion was cared for more quickly and effectively than she would have been at the typical U.S. emergency room. I am not suggesting that socialized medicine is perfect (or that we should model our system on Russia's!), but I am saying that every civilized country in the world recognizes that health care is a national responsibility. Every country, that is, except America.

Depending on which poll you cite, about 8 in 10 Americans who have insurance are happy with it. Of course, citing those numbers doesn't include more than 40 million Americans without health insurance (Tangent: WSJ article about estimating the number of uninsured). It also glosses over the fact that 85% of Americans are concerned about rising health care costs. Others are "uninsurable" because of pre-existing conditions. For all too many people the American health care system is a nightmare of inefficiency and insufficiency.

For all the scare tactics about some "government bureaucrat" standing between you and your doctor, right now you have company bureaucrats standing between you and health care - we have a system with some very scary incentives. I am lucky to have a job with health insurance, through a large HMO. Think about that: this company literally makes more money if I don't go to a doctor. They have a profit incentive to deny me health care. On the other hand, doctors in our current system have an incentive, under fee-for-service plans, to push more expensive options. I have an incentive to consume more health care than I need because I'm not (directly) paying for it. These incentives often don't lead to the best treatment. A friend emailed me recently a story (not verified) of a doctor who treated children on Medicaid and was denied access to a badly-needed medication to prevent blindness. Horror stories like this may well occur (if they do, we need to change that), however my private health insurance plan does the same thing - I just received a three page list in very tiny print of all the drugs my health insurance doesn't cover (including such drugs as Prozac).

One of the best articles I've read on the bad incentives currently in place for doctors, patients, and all participants in our health care system was written by a man whose father died of an infection he picked up in a hospital. David Goldhill writes about what he learned in his search for answers in "How American Health Care Killed My Father" in Atlantic Monthly. I don't necessarily agree with his solutions, but he does a really good job of fleshing out the problem of how messed up our current American system is.

Here's a news flash: often the best run parts of the American health care system are (gasp!) the government run parts. People who are on "government plans" actually like it. Medicare recipients rate their health care higher than those on private insurance (see this article). The Veterans Administration is generally better at providing care, according to a study by the RAND corporation.

There are so many people saying "we can't" do health care reform. "We can't" afford it. "We can't" make a system that preserves the positive aspects of choice and competition. "We can't" have a public option because it would hurt those poor big health insurance companies. Congress "can't" possibly understand an issue as complex as health care reform.

I believe in the problem solving abilities of America. I believe that we can find a way to preserve competition and choice while also providing a basic safety net for everyone. My main problem with current proposals is that it doesn't take reform far enough - we need to be doing more to change the way health care is funded (again, see Goldhill's article cited above). We are going to have to make some tough choices, and yes I may have to pay slightly higher taxes because of it. Who says that because something is a difficult and complex issue that "we can't" tackle it with American ingenuity? How about some "can-do" American optimism? Yes we CAN!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth? (or Crawford, TX?)

There is a verse in the bible that I've been thinking about as it applies to politics. Phillip, a follower of Christ, goes to his friend Nathanael and tells him about Jesus Christ. Nathanael's response is interesting:

"And Nathanael said unto him, Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth? Philip saith unto him, Come and see."

What I get from this is that Nathanael has some preconceived notions about Nazareth, because it's a po-dunk town. He's thinking to himself: nothing good can come from there, I know it's all bad. Do we have some of the same views of our political opponents?

The reason I've been thinking about this is that I've been, quite frankly, surprised by some of the venomous discourse directed at President Obama. Some of my friends literally cannot find anything about him to like! This seems to show a pre-judging and uncharitable spirit. But then I had a thought: maybe I'm the same way about President George W. Bush. So, I urge you to take a politician that you disagree with, or think is stupid, or cannot find anything about to like, and look at that person with fresh eyes. Take a walk in their shoes, and you might find more to like than you think. Now, it's no fair to say things like "Congressperson A is less dumb than I thought" or other sarcastic things like that. You have to truly find things to value in this person. I didn't say it would be easy (and for me it wasn't), but I am going to say that it's worth it. I think this is so important in politics, because it is much easier to demonize the other side than to try to understand them.

In that spirit, I've come up with five things to like about George W. Bush, and I'm going to share them with you:
5. Immigration policy: President Bush actually made a lot of sense on immigration policy. He supported temporary guest worker programs and a path to citizenship for those already here.
"We must make our immigration laws more rational, and more humane...I believe we can do so without jeopardizing the livelihoods of American citizens."
"I ask Congress to reform our immigration laws so they reflect our values and benefit our economy. I propose a new temporary-worker program to match willing foreign workers with willing employers when no Americans can be found to fill the job. This reform will be good for our economy, because employers will find needed workers in an honest and orderly system. A temporary-worker program will help protect our homeland, allowing border patrol and law enforcement to focus on true threats to our national security."
4. Not pardoning Scooter Libby. A recent Time Magazine article reveals that Bush was pressured by Vice President Cheney to do so, but he thought Libby deserved punishment for breaking the law. I like what he said when he commuted Libby's jail sentence (which he thought excessive), while allowing the fine and guilty verdict to remain:
"Our entire system of justice relies on people telling the truth, and if a person does not tell the truth, particularly if he serves in government and holds the public trust, he must be held accountable."
Also, I thought Bush's reason for not granting more pardons was interesting, and I agree that pardons do tend to favor the well-connected and the rich:
"Bush had long approached pardons with suspicion. As Texas governor, he granted them sparingly. His reluctance stemmed not from a lack of mercy but from his sense that pardons were a rigged game, tilted in favor of offenders with political connections. 'He thought the whole pardon system was completely corrupt,' says a top Bush adviser."
3. Creating an awesome National Park that I want to visit someday. And if you can say its name five times fast, I salute you.
2. Going to war in Afghanistan. I don't think it's ever easy to order troops into battle, knowing that some of them will die or be wounded. But, taking out the Taliban was (and still is) essential to our national security. It was a repressive and horrible regime, and while the ongoing fight will be difficult and prolonged, it is the right one, because America should be on the side of freedom, women's rights, and progressive values. I'm glad President Bush choose to fight there.
1. And finally, one policy that is truly compassionate: providing billions in funding for AIDS medication to those in poor countries. Saying that the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (Pepfar, for short) is a good thing would be understating it! This was something President Bush didn't have to do, and he might not have won any votes on it, but it saved countless lives and was a truly good deed. From a NY Times article, a doctor who worked with the program had a good summation.
"Dr. Coutinho said Ugandans were terrified that when Mr. Bush left office, 'the Bush fund,' as they call it, would go with him. "When I’ve traveled in the U.S., I’m amazed at how little people know about what Pepfar stands for,” he said. “Just because it has been done under Bush, it is not something the country should not be proud of.”"

So, just because Bush/Clinton/Obama/Whoever does it, doesn't make it a bad thing. Finding good things in others makes you a better person yourself :)

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Adventures in Baking

I was pondering the other day that we don't do much "hands-on" stuff in our culture anymore. America was built by farmers clearing trees, by cowboys herding cattle, by pioneers building wagons and moving west, people having the vision to build skyscrapers and automobiles, Texans drilling for oil, etc. All these jobs had a certain degree of risk of injury and/or death.

Now, I spend my working day staring at a computer screen, with the greatest physical harm I'm likely to encounter being hurt eyes from staring at my screen too long. Americans generally are less likely to be employed in manufacturing jobs and more likely to be in the service sector. I don't know that I necessarily regret this, because I'm a wimp and I don't think I would do well on the frontier or walking the Oregon trail.

However, one "hands-on" thing that I love to do is bake. It's true that you can buy a cake at the store and it tastes delicious, but there's something about cracking open the eggs and mixing it up that makes it more enjoyable. I love to try baking new things. Sometimes this works well and other times it can be disastrous. This weekend I baked, and wanted to share pictures and a few recipes with you!

Banana bread (for some reason this loaf looked horrible, but I promise it tasted delicious):

My favorite banana bread recipe is on the Diana's Kitchen website (and no, I'm not affiliated with the site, but it does have some good recipes). I like it without the nuts, tho. Some tips for good banana bread: bake at 325 degrees to increase moistness and DON'T put too much flour in!
(I love the way banana bread looks)

Cinnamon rolls for the local pool party/fundraiser:
I'll have to do a separate post sometime on how much I love bread baking.

and, Coconut Cake for a church luau:

This recipe was really good, I may have to add it to my favorites!

(18.25 ounce) package white cake mix

  • 3 eggs
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 teaspoon coconut extract
  • 1 (14 ounce) can coconut cream (I had no idea where to find this in the grocery store - for good reason! Turns out my grocery store keeps it in the wine aisle as it's a popular drink ingredient)
  • 1 (14 ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 1 tablespoon white sugar
  • 1 cup flaked coconut

    1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Grease and flour a 9x13 inch pan.
    2. In a large bowl, mix together cake mix, eggs, oil, water and coconut flavoring. Beat for 2 minutes and pour into 9x13 inch pan. Bake for 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean.
    3. In a medium bowl, combine coconut cream with sweetened condensed milk and stir until smooth. When cake comes out of the oven, poke holes into it in even rows using a large fork or chopsticks. Pour milk mixture over, allowing it to soak into the cake. Refrigerate for several hours or overnight.
    4. In a large bowl, whisk cream until soft peaks form. Add sugar and continue whipping until stiff. Spread over cooled cake. Sprinkle top with flaked coconut.
    And speaking of "hands on," I wondered why my cream in #4 did not form soft peaks, but instead was watery. I learned today that I had made a grave tactical error in whipping my cream - I had used a hand whisk, but you need to use an electric mixer to get real homemade whipped cream. My parents laughed at me, because no one knows how to make whipped cream any more! Lesson learned.

    The only part of baking I don't love: clean-up.