Monday, September 15, 2014

Family Home Evening activity: pumpkin lanterns!

(Mom is here visiting! Fun!)

Halloween approaches apace. And our very own cut-rate Martha Stewart, aka Miss V, has been preparing for her favorite holiday since mid-July or so. She was at the dollar store with me the other day when she saw these little orange glass lanterns -- the kind that hold tealights -- with fluted sides. Instantly V saw them as crafting gems in the rough, and she knew what we were going to do on Monday night.

So today, after a quick trip to Dollar Tree to pick them up and another quick trip to Ben Franklin to score some sticky-backed black vinyl, we had a Family Home Evening crafting activity.

Here are the results:

Pumpkin lanterns!

We already had a big bag of IKEA tealights in the pantry, so we added a light to each one and then lit them with a long noodle (it's easier and less finger-burning to set fire to lengthy pasta than to try to reach down into one of these things with a short kitchen match).

L to R: Mom's lantern, Captain Midnight's lantern

L to R: my lantern, Miss V's lantern

Don't you like the way they shed sunburst rays in every direction? I'm thinking about stringing them on thin wires and hanging them outside for Halloween, assuming it isn't too windy on Halloween night.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Keenan Arthur Galloway

When we first moved to Washington, Captain Midnight and I lived in a little rectangular tract house in the Renton highlands that we semi-affectionately called the Blue Shoebox. It was built during World War II, had crappy baseboard heating and a wood stove, no insulation, a tiny kitchen that seemed tacked on as an afterthought, and a leaking roof in an area where it rains some 9 months of the year. We spent a lot of time wiping the walls with bleach solution to stave off mildew, and didn't spend much time getting to know our neighbors. The sense of isolation was almost tangible.

Then we were introduced to the Galloway family, who became our first real friends in Renton. At the time, Garon and Dawn were a young married couple with a little boy named Keenan. I got to know Dawn by coming over to visit and help with Keenan's everyday health care. Keenan had been born with a number of serious health issues -- club feet, hydrocephalus, ataxic cerebral palsy -- and a congenital diaphragmatic hernia (essentially, a hole in his diaphragm) which had caused his digestive tract to float up into his chest cavity, hampering the development of his heart and lungs. So many doctors told Dawn her son would not live to see his first birthday, but she was determined to find a doctor who believed in Keenan's ability to survive and thrive as much as she and Garon did. And somehow, thanks to their care and Keenan's own determination to live, he kept befuddling the doctors who predicted his early death.

Keenan did a lot of things no one expected him to do. Not only did he live to see his first birthday, he just kept on living to see the birth of his five younger siblings, various milestones in school including high school graduation, participation in track and field events as part of the Special Olympics, and (unfortunately) necessary adventures in and out of the hospital for corrective surgeries and medical emergencies.

Because his lung capacity was never great enough, Keenan was mostly nonverbal, but he figured out ways to make himself understood. He used his body language to respond to verbal comments. He learned signs. He had a sound board. He used social media. More to the point, he often expressed himself through his sense of humor and his big, glorious toothy grin.

When he was a toddler, I used to call it his "lion grin" because his spiky hair and pronounced little canines reminded me of a lion.

(Funnily enough, Keenan adored musicals, including "The Lion King," and the Galloways went to see it when it came to the Paramount in Seattle.) Keenan radiated a sense of happiness and positivity, even on days when he didn't feel well. His infectious grin and the spirit behind it touched pretty much everyone who knew him.

And because he'd already lived so long, I don't think anyone really expected him to die.

Every night before bed, Keenan would come into his parents' room and sign "good night" to them. The night before he died, he went in three different times to tell them good night. Garon is convinced, and I agree, that Keenan had a premonition he would not be seeing them the next morning.

Keenan died on September 8, in his sleep. He was 19 years old.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Bullet Journal! *pew pew*

I know it will shock to pieces anyone who has ever seen the state of my computer desk, but I have a little trouble getting organized. To date my attempts at organization include memorizing my to-do lists (*BZZZT* WRONG!), writing them down on small pieces of paper (and promptly losing them), looking askance at Franklin Planners and the like, and steadfastly refusing to get a mobile device. I need something highly configurable to my own needs, something small enough to be portable and big enough not to get lost, something that will still work when the power goes out, something that doesn't have to rely on my own very ephemeral short-term memory.

I think I've found it.

Costs as much (or as little) as you choose, highly customizable, keeps track of all the bits and pieces of everyday errands, even has space for doodling and scribing down story ideas. And it doesn't plug into anything or have a battery life. Thank you, Ryder Carroll!

I've only been using my particular cheapie bullet journal (a quad-rule paper composition book) for a few days, but I'm liking it a lot. And I am successfully Getting Stuff Done, which is a huge boost.

Friday, September 05, 2014


ef·fi·ca·cy noun \ˈe-fi-kə-sē\

: the power to produce a desired result or effect
--Merriam-Webster online dictionary
If you've been reading this blog a long time (as in "for years now"), you may remember the general request made for prayer on behalf of Devin Munk, who at the time was 14 and in the direst medical trouble after a hiking accident.

Perhaps you might be interested in a follow-up. Devin is now 20 years old, an alumnus of the Nerd Brigade, properly addressed as Elder Munk, and serving as an LDS missionary in Ogden, Utah. On September 1 he posted the following to Facebook:
6 years ago today my life ended. Literally, the earth came out from under my feet and took me over the edge. A 100 foot free-fall, 17 or so broken, but mostly shattered bones, internal lacerations, paralysis from the waist down and so on. I was not dead but life as I knew it was over. The doctors predicted death, or at least severe crippling (amputation of my legs, permanent paralysis below the waist and possibly other things.) However, my father, Steve Munk, administered to me a priesthood blessing, through the priesthood of God that he holds as a worthy member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As directed by the Holy Ghost he commanded my body, in the name of Jesus Christ, to be healed. I am not dead, I am not paralyzed, I have both of my feet, I can walk for hours every day and you cannot even tell by looking at me that I have ever been injured in my life.

The recovery took half the time the doctors predicted, or less, for almost everything mending. This time was a blessing, in retrospect, because though it was faster than predicted it still took months to get out of the hospital bed and years to feel normal. It was a blessing because I learned how important the gospel of Jesus Christ was to me. Before it was important in my life and to my family, but now it was real. My angel mother, KayLyn Munk, despite her distress and exhaustion, would read to me, upon my request, from the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ. It brought me peace and comfort, lying there in agonizing pain in the hospital. The Spirit testified then to me of the reality of our Savior, Jesus Christ and His sacrifice and suffering for our sins. Contemplating this, in context of the pain I was then experiencing, I turned my head to my mom, and asked her, "how did He do it, how did Christ do it?" But I know that He did!

Because of Him I am healed. Because of Him, though my life ended, it started anew. Because of Him I can be forgiven of my sins and mistakes and every day become a better person. Because of Him I am happy, and can be eternally so as I enter back into His presence, and into the presence of our Father after this life. I so testify in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
In this life, you are free to believe in anything you choose, or to believe in nothing at all. You can believe in the goodness of God, in the power of science, in the whimsy of flying spaghetti monsters and invisible pink unicorns. You can believe only in yourself. Or you can just believe you'll have another drink. It's your call.

As for me, I believe that Devin was healed by the power and inspiration of God, as a response to his faith, his family's faith, and the many, many prayers that were made on his behalf. I believe each of us has a specific job to do on this earth, and that Devin's broken body responded so well to treatment -- and his physicians were inspired to perform to the best of their abilities -- in part because he still has a critical role to play. For those watching carefully, time may reveal the nature of that role.

Is Devin scarred from the experience? Yes, absolutely. Is he completely healed of his injuries? No. But he is a visible manifestation of miraculous healing, he has a powerful testimony of what faith and prayer can do, both to save lives and to save souls, and he's not afraid to share it. And that's part of what he's doing on his mission.

I believe that faith and prayers are both efficacious. Go back and read the definition of efficacy again carefully before you scoff; these acts do not always have the power to produce an expected result, but they have the power to produce a desired result. Very often I've seen prayers answered in an unexpected way, and these unexpected-but-still-desired answers produced results far superior to what people had originally asked for. (Besides, what do we expect God to be? Some kind of celestial vending machine? Honestly.)

Monday, September 01, 2014

The liar

For most of my adult life, I've lived with the liar.

As far as I can remember, the liar first entered my life when I was eight or nine, proceeded to become my inseparable companion in junior high, continued to keep tabs on me in high school, and volunteered to be my full-time roommate for several years of college. Since then it's been something of an on-again, off-again relationship -- mostly off-again, thank heavens, because liars are hard to live with.

But then, that's sort of the point. The liar wants me to stop living.

It took me a while to realize that the liar was there. See, liars aren't visible to the naked eye, and they don't have voices of their own, so they learn to use yours. They watch and listen. They discover your faults, your bad habits, your secret horrors, the things you hope no one ever finds out about you. They wait for the right moment. And they strike.

It doesn't feel like an attack. In fact, unless you've trained yourself to recognize how the liar operates, it might feel like you're alone with your own natural thoughts. But these thoughts are dark and disordered: You are worthless. You are useless. You are evil. You deserved to be hurt. You are broken, and will never be right again. You are a waste of space, time and money. Nothing will ever get better than it is right now. You are stuck in an endless loop of despair, and the only way out is oblivion. The best thing you could do would be to remove yourself from the picture. Over and over again, the liar whispers into your ear, its voice a perfect simulation of your own so that you'll pay attention, its words a stream of thick black poison, urging you to swallow them and die.

At times I've made the liar go away with medicine. Counseling provided a good antidote to the poisonous thoughts when I was in high school. Exercise sometimes helped chase it off, as did any creative act. And faith has given me the rock to which I cling, the belief that every human being has inherent, infinite worth. But in all cases, when the liar starts whispering things to me, I've found it extremely useful to externalize it, give it a physical form. Sometimes it's a particular mean girl from junior high, her hair and clothes still reeking from her smoke break in the girls' bathroom. Sometimes it's the college guy who callously broke my heart and crunched the shards under his foot. Sometimes it's the man who abused me when I was a child. It doesn't really matter what face I give it, as long as I make it look like a cruel, supercilious douchebag and recognize that it's trying to kill me. Because the minute I externalize the liar, give it a face I recognize as dangerous, and see its actions for what they are -- then I can fight it.

I can turn and tell it off. I can refuse to let it dictate its lies to me. I can tell it that it doesn't get to be in charge of my life -- not how I choose to live it, and sure as hell not how it's going to end.

Depression lies. It wants you to believe you're worthless. It wants to suck the joy from your life. It constantly seeks to make you believe that the world would be a better place without you.

Kick it square in the nads.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

A ditty

(Apologies in advance to Iggy Azalea)

I do laundry
You already know
I'm folding T-shirts
That say "Neo-Tokyo"

I do laundry
Hot, warm or cold
A touch of Clorox
Gets out mo-oo-oo-old

Saturday, August 23, 2014

On human utility and individual worth

Unless you happen to follow the Australian news media, you may not have heard of the Baby Gammy controversy. Here's the digested version: an infertile Australian couple engages a Thai woman to be their surrogate mother. The surrogate becomes pregnant with fraternal twins, one of whom -- a boy later named Gammy -- has Down syndrome. (According to the surrogate, the Australian parents told her to selectively abort the boy, but she would not do so, believing that ending an innocent life in such a manner would be wrong. For their part, the parents claim they never directed the surrogate mother to abort the child.) When the twins are born, the Australian parents visit Thailand, but only to retrieve their daughter; they abandon their unwanted biological son with his surrogate mother, leaving her to sort out what to do next and how to pay for the boy's necessary medical care (like many children with Down syndrome, Gammy has numerous medical issues, including congenital heart defects, and his health is delicate). The couple, who have been practically in hiding since their actions were brought to light, defend their choice on Australian television by saying they "don't think any parent wants a [child] with a disability" and further complain that they expected to receive a partial refund of the surrogacy fee, presumably because one of the children produced was defective.

The Baby Gammy case represents one surprisingly pervasive school of thought about human beings.

Here's a different one.

A couple I know well recently gave birth to a sweet little daughter. They could tell right away that she had some physical abnormalities, but it wasn't until her blood work came back that they found out their little girl was born with an extremely rare chromosome disorder -- one so rare, in fact, that I will not mention it by name in order to retain the family's privacy. Individuals with this particular disorder have severe to profound mental retardation, do not learn to talk, rarely learn to walk, have hearing and vision problems, low muscle tone, seizures and heart problems. They have extremely fragile health and often do not live past childhood. Here is what the mother of this little girl has to say about her:
"We know God gave us this perfect little human to teach us many things. She is beautiful and when she looks into your eyes her sweet spirit peers into your soul, pouring her love into your heart. We are so blessed to have her! We may not have known anything was wrong with her until she was born but it would not have changed a thing to know it sooner. We love her and our lives will be blessed forever no matter how long she is with us .... [Our daughter's purpose] is to teach those she comes in contact with about unconditional love."
What is the key difference between these two stories?

While you're thinking on that, here's another controversial idea: do you think human euthanasia should be legal? After all, when beloved pets become too old or too ill, we often do the merciful thing and have them put to sleep; shouldn't we be equally merciful to the human beings in our care? To be clear, we're not just talking about infants with moderate to severe physical and/or mental disabilities. Consider people like Christopher Reeve, one of my favorite actors; after a riding accident he was paralyzed from the neck down, no longer even able to breathe unassisted, lingering on for years as a completely helpless quadriplegic. Would it have been better for the doctors to have granted him his original wish, just after he'd wakened from the accident, and let him go gentle into that good night? Or what about Terri Schiavo, the woman who entered a "persistent vegetative state" after an incident of cardiac arrest and subsequent coma? Was it morally correct for her parents to fight to keep her alive, to continue to feed her, to keep her husband Michael from moving on with his own life indefinitely -- or did the courts make the fitting and proper decision to withhold food and water from her until she passed away? What of the many very old people who linger on for months or years, blind, deaf, senile, incontinent, incapable of enjoying anything resembling "quality of life" but just as incapable of bringing their lives to an end? Would it not be better to keep the beauty of their lives from sliding into jangling discord by choosing to impose a simple coda?

If you think of it, the practice of euthanizing individuals with low quality of life issues could be much more widely applied. Our prisons are vastly overcrowded, and there are a whole lot of serial predators in jail who could make the world a better place simply by never waking up again. People in mental institutions who had no hope of improvement would no longer be tortured by living with severe mental disorders. We could do away with the homeless problem in a single night by going under bridges and overpasses and through tent cities, spreading gentle death in our wake. Illegal immigration would slow to a trickle if we were to find and euthanize all those who had entered our country illegally. I hope you can see where I'm going with this; legalized euthanasia is a rabbit hole that yawns open all the way to China, because once a culture makes it permissible to end lives that are in some way inconvenient or imperfect, how does that culture halt the progression toward euthanizing people with polydactyly, albinism, vitiligo, elliptocytosis, cleft palates, depression, diabetes, even the wrong color of eyes?

As I see it, the key difference between Baby Gammy's parents and the couple I know, or between those who are in favor of legalizing euthanasia and those who find the idea abhorrent, is a specific difference in the way they view human beings. One group primarily views other humans in terms of their utility, and the other values human beings as people with unique individual worth.

It's quite common to see the "human utility" school of thought in the Western world. You see it in social behavior, in the way people cocoon themselves in comfort in their homes and never get to know their neighbors, because they don't need anything from them. You see it in politics, when a first world nation merely watches a third world country go through the hell and devastation of war or plague, declining to intervene because doing so would be costly and that country has no resources it wants. You see it in medicine, where abortion as a form of birth control has become commonplace. You see it in business practices ("human resources," anyone?), in education, and in law. You definitely see it in Hollywood, where attractive and accomplished people are constantly used as though they were talent vending machines, and the unwritten motto seems to be "What have you done for me lately?"

You could even make the argument that Hollywood's view of human utility sometimes contributes to the death of its talent pool. In fact, I think I will.

Let's take a recent example. A well-known, well-loved actor and comedian, the recipient of multiple awards for entertainment excellence, enters a dark period of his life. His physical health has not been ideal for several years and he has financial obligations from surgeries and treatment, he has been working on film after film to make money, the new television show he headed -- the closest thing to a steady paycheck in acting -- was cancelled after a single season, he's been struggling to maintain his sobriety, and recently he's discovered that the source of his deepening depression is a brain disease from which he will never recover. And as he sits still and lets the depression whisper poisonously disordered thoughts and ideas into his ear, he begins to think as Hollywood people think, in terms of human utility. He thinks of his current and former wives, his children, and other family members who depend on him for their support. He feels the weight of all the people whom he employs -- publicists, lawyers, personal assistants, housekeepers, security details -- as well as those who are indirectly employed because of his performances -- other actors, directors, producers, cinematographers, foley artists, caterers, etc. He thinks of the specific talent he has honed, on which all this hinges -- a lightning-quick, flexible mind, highly observant and able to put together odd connections at a moment's notice -- and how his doctors have recently informed him that his mind and body are destined to slow, to tremble and break down, until eventually he reaches a point of senility. He thinks of how he will progress from a highly successful, contributing member of elite society to a patient barely able to walk, from a man who can provide for others to a man who will impose a burden on his family's finances as his health becomes worse and worse. In terms of his simple utility to others, he perceives he will become a net negative. And one particular evening, when he is alone with these thoughts, the depression whispers to him, "You know what you have to do, and you have to do it now, while you still can. It doesn't have to be a complex plan. Just do what you do best. Improvise."

Thus it is that a man who so obviously saw the individual worth of other people -- who brought humor and hope to sick children and quadriplegics and active-duty members of the military, who regularly gave away huge sums of money from his performances to help the poor, homeless and distressed -- was incapable, in the end, of seeing the singularly bright glow of his own individual worth. All he saw was that, in the eyes of the world, he would eventually become useless to other people. And rather than allowing the people who loved him to show him another viewpoint, to let him see how much he was valued, he took his own life.

What is individual worth? It is the recognition that every human life, regardless of its "quality" or its utility to others, is precious and irreplaceable. It is the understanding that we give our kindness and support to others, not because they can do something for us, but because we love and cherish them, because it is an honor and a privilege to serve another human being. It is echoed in the words of the traditional Christian marriage vow, that each spouse takes the other not just for the good times, but "for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health." It is the knowledge that if the worth of every soul is great in the sight of God, how should it be any different in the sight of man?

As a Mormon, I believe that human beings -- all human beings -- are spirit children of God who once lived in His presence, and who therefore have within them the seeds of deity. Our lives here on earth are imperfect and messy, and our minds and bodies have various problems, but that is largely because we are being subjected to individual tests, tailored to our specific strengths and weaknesses and designed to help us fulfill our potential to become like God. This way of thinking about oneself, about other people, allows very little admittance for the concept of human utility, and no admittance for the concept of brooming people aside when they become a burden. Whether or not we see it, even the most wretched human life on this planet has infinite worth and glorious potential, and the only lasting tragedy is to see that potential wasted and destroyed.

In his book The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis famously wrote, "It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest, most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship .... You have never talked to a mere mortal." One wonders if the biological parents of Baby Gammy might perceive their discarded son a bit differently if they could see past his disability, past the inevitable imperfections that are part of being human, and grasp his individual worth -- if, even for a moment, they could catch a glimpse of the sort of being he is destined to become. But that level of perception of other people is hard to achieve when you're occupied with thoughts of ways to use them.