Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 Book Round-up

I read 58 books in 2011. Here are the top six in terms of impact or enjoyment.

The Forever War – Dexter Filkins

This covers the author’s experiences reporting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. While I have to give this an “R” rating for violence and some profanity, this was a very impactful book for me. While the author didn’t promote an “in your face” political agenda, it still left me appalled at various US missteps that had such drastic consequences for everyday Iraqis. And I wonder about the prospects for pushing democracy on some cultures. But mostly, I ached from the tragedies imposed on normal Iraqi (and Afghani) people, and am in disbelief what awful things some humans can do to others, especially by presumably pious people in the name of religion.

The Journals of Addison Pratt – ed. George Ellsworth

While a dramatically different time (1850’s) and place (South Pacific), I was struck by the similarities in Addison’s missionary experiences and feelings to those of my own. And what a normal, rational person he was (not some fanatic religious zealot). It felt like he would be at home in the modern Church. His earlier life on whaling ships read like Moby Dick. His lengthy separations from, and longings for, his wife and children were heartrending.

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid – Bill Bryson

While a humorous and clever book in its own right for any reader, I was propelled back in time to my childhood from the same period as the author, and so many things and experiences resonated with me.

Doc, the Rape of the Town of Lovell – Jack Olsen

I know, how could such a book make it on my reading list, much less my top list. But on several levels this was a fascinating and impactful account for me. As a bishop, I wondered about how the Church leaders handled things. I was dismayed how the victims were treated by so many, and the doctor supported by so many. I worried how justice could be served, with so many things stacked against the accusers.

Stiff – Mary Roach

A really off the wall subject—dead human bodies. But dealt with by the author in both an amusing and enlightening way. I went on to read other books by the author, but this one was a notch above. Not for the squeamish, though.

Give a Boy a Gun – Jack Olsen

The story of Claude Dallas and his murder of two F&G officers. Very interesting story about a variety of fascinating people. Especially interesting to me as it was in our backyard and dominated Idaho news at the time.

Here are the honorable mention books:

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War – Nathaniel Philbrick

A rather virgin subject matter for me, and this went far beyond the ship and voyage, and continued for a couple of generations of interaction and impact between settlers and natives. A huge percentage of settlers died the first year from illness or starvation.

Nothing to Envy – Barbara Demick

All I can say is “wow”. North Koreans have had, and still have, it very rough indeed.

The Painted Veil – W. Somerset Maugham

Poignant story, and the ending differs from the movie (I liked the movie ending better)

Columbine – Dave Cullen

Fascinating, and a bit disturbing.

In the Heart of the Sea – Nathaniel Philbrick

Adventure and peril in the extreme

The Looming Tower -- Lawrence Wright

Very insightful recounting of people and events of the rise of radical Islam leading to 9/11.

Panzer Commander – Hans Von Luck

An interesting and different look through the German army lens at WWII battles and fronts, and the tragic aftermath of many imprisoned for years in Russia.

Moby Dick – Herman Melville

To the Ends of the Earth – Robert Kaplan

I love his adventure travels and commentaries

Inheriting Syria – Flynt Leverett

Reads like an extended report assignment, but interesting in a narrow sense of understanding the modern Syrian regime.

Malcolm X – Manning Marable

The man had some serious flaws, yet a knack for inspiring.

In Cold Blood -- Truman Capote

Interesting treatment of a tragic crime and tragic perpetrators

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – Rowling

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - Rowling

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – Rowling

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – Rowling

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – Rowling

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince – Rowling

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Rowling

I read these as virgin territory long after everyone else, so didn’t have to wait for the next installment. I enjoyed them more than I thought I would, and they evolved from lighter YA literature to more mature and complex circumstances. By book 7 I had my fill.

The Help – Kathryn Stockett

I particularly enjoyed this audio rendition.

The Perfect Mile – Neal Bascomb

Learned a lot about the legend and legendary event(s).

The Darkest Summer – Bill Sloan

Desperate and historic times early in the Korean War.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – Vincente Blasco Ibanez

Fiction, yet grounded in the times and events and people of WWI.

These were interesting or enjoyable enough, but another notch down for me:

Snow Falling on Cedars – David Guterson

Hiroshima – John Hersey

The Big Rock Candy Mountain -- Wallace Stegner

Spook – Mary Roach

Bonk – Mary Roach

Packing for Mars – Mary Roach

Last Stand – Nathaniel Philbrick

Without a Doubt – Marcia Clark

The Number One Ladies Detective Agency – Alexander McCall Smith

Rocket Men – Craig Nelson

Sometimes a Great Notion – Ken Kesey

Baghdad Without a Map – Tony Horwitz

Vietnam, A History – Stanley Karnow

Hot, Flat, and Crowded – Thomas Friedman

The Ghost Map – Steven Johnson

At Home: A short history of Private Life – Bill Bryson

Son – Jack Olsen

My Father, Maker of the Trees – Eric Irivuzumugabe

A Walk in the Woods – Bill Bryson

Six Armies in Normandy – John Keegan

The Professor and the Madman – Simon Winchester

Shakespeare – Bill Bryson

Far from the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy

On Mount Hood – Jon Bell

These weren’t worth the time:

Skyjack, The Hunt for D.B. Cooper – Geoffrey Gray

Author jumped all around, ultimately had nothing to add to solving the mystery, and seemed sucked into all the conspiracy kooks.

Notes from a Small Island – Bill Bryson

I like and enjoy Bill Bryson, but I couldn’t get into this account of travels in his adopted UK, and found it just too mean spirited too often.

Judas Gate – Jack Higgins

Churchill – Paul Johnson

Helmet for my Pillow – Robert Leckie

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The memory lane of slide scanning

We have over 3000 slides accumulated from 1972 to well into the 1990's, and some 2000's. This covers the time on my mission in Germany, when I bought a small Rollei 35mm camera, through 1989, with the purchase of an SLR with zoom lenses and auto focus and exposure capabilities, and beyond. In the past we would view the slides using a slide projector, and stored the slides about 40 per cube. It was such a hassle to setup and project, so it has been a number of years since we have viewed the slides.

I finally borrowed a Nikon slide scanner, with an automated tray, so my holiday project has been to scan all the slides and convert them to digital format. It is a lengthy, tedious process but at least, with the automation, I can walk away and return an hour or so later to load the next batch of 40 slides. Other than the occasional jam, it is a marvel of technology.

One thing I am immediately struck by is how awful so many of the photos are. The Rollei was completely manual, for focus and exposure, and had a fixed lens. Focus is often bad, and exposure was hit or miss. Inside shots are habitually underexposed, and when a flash was used the lighting was harsh and cast shadows up the faces. Very unflattering.

But in spite of all these technical faults, I have been launched down memory lane, and am reveling in the past. I am struck by how cute our kids were, and what a charming little growing family we were. Suzanne and I were once young and energetic. We had such good friends and visited (and lived in) such interesting places. We moved into new homes and landscaped them, built fences, wallpapered rooms. We shoveled snow from driveways and walks, and hosted family members at holiday times. We had Christmas nativity scenes with costumed kids playing various roles through the years. We had siblings holding newborn additions to the family. There were softball teams, birthday parties, school plays, family reunions, campouts, quilts (Suzanne's handiwork), first steps, Halloween costumes, and so much more. And I'm only up to 1984!

Well, as Jimmy Stewart says in the movie, "It's a Wonderful Life". That's how I feel.

Here is a sample photo from 1983.

Friday, December 23, 2011

And Still More Christmas Music

I've been watching the recent Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas concerts, and here are more "greatest hits".

Here is the opening processional from the 2008 concert:

Renee Fleming from 2005:

The First Noel, with some moments of power, and others of exquisite, quiet contemplation:

Here is a history of Christmas concert guests from Wikipedia:

2001: Actress Angela Lansbury
2002: Former CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite
2003: Mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade and Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel
2004: Actress and singer Audra McDonald and actor Peter Graves
2005: Soprano Renee Fleming and actress Claire Bloom
2006: Norwegian vocalist Sissel
2007: London-based King's Singers
2008: Broadway singer Brian Stokes Mitchell and actor Edward Herrmann
2009: Jazz singer Natalie Cole and author and historian David McCullough
2010: Pop singer David Archuleta and actor Michael York
2011: Operatic baritone Nathan Gunn and actress Jane Seymour.

You can catch a PBS broadcast of the concert from the prior year. David Archuleta's concert is broadcasting right now, and again Christmas Day here in the Portland metro area.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

More music

Here is some quiet, contemplative Christmas music:

Monday, December 12, 2011

Wondrous Christmas Music

One thing I love about the Christmas season is the glorious music we can sing and listen to. And the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is right up there, especially their annual Christmas concert. Oh how I would love to attend one of these live--Suzanne tried to get tickets this year for my birthday, but no luck. I'll have to content myself with getting and watching the DVDs.

Here are a few of my favorites, leading off with perhaps my all time favorite:

Here is the opening processional from a few years ago. If this doesn't get the energy flowing I don't know what will:

This one took a few listenings to grab me, so hang with it. About 2:30 it really kicks up a notch:

The finale "Angels from the Realms of Glory" from last year's concert (Miriam and Magdalena should enjoy the dancers):

The same finale from the prior year. Note the choir member with tears at 4:02. I can only imagine how powerful this rendition is live:

Mack Wilberg, the arranger for these selections, is my all time hero. I love pretty much everything he has a hand in.

I hope you enjoy these as much as I do, and Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Return to Slovakia -- Iron Curtain, Part 5

We continued with the rental car, driving from Berlin down through southern Germany, Austria, and into Slovakia. We stopped in Prievidza to visit and spend the night with Juraj Bubnas and his family. Juraj is a distant cousin of Suzanne's and their family was so welcoming. Prievidza is a nice city in central Slovakia, and Juraj's family lived in a nice home. We toured the nearby Bonice castle with them and enjoyed a pleasant dinner and singing on their backyard patio.

Juraj Bubnas and family.

We continued eastward and enjoyed hiking up to Spis castle, an impressive edifice, though a bit mismanaged and not quite tourist friendly. For example, there was loud pop music playing in a concession area in the center of the castle, and we found the gate locked as we attempted to exit the castle on the path back down.

While there were no expressways in the eastern half of the country, we did find the roads decent and well paved. However, the Slovaks are dangerous drivers, routinely passing in curves and other blind spots. Several times we came upon accident scenes. It was rather unnerving. One strategy was to follow behind another vehicle so at least you wouldn't be the one in the head-on collision.

We took a chance and checked into the Hotel Chemes upon arrival in Humenne in the far east of Slovakia. It had a few rough edges but was quite satisfactory, given the very reasonable price. In fact, prices seemed depressed for everything in Slovakia. Unlike, say Prague, Slovakia is a very low key and economical destination for tourists.

Once again we were welcomed with opened arms by many of Suzanne's cousins in the Humenne and Poruba areas. What gracious and friendly people. They held an outdoor party for us and numerous cousins came by. Bridget and Jeremy were particularly popular speaking Russian to those of our generation and older (who learned Russian rather than English).

It had been five years since our first trip to Slovakia, and we felt like the country was definitely moving up in the world. Still off the beaten path but a more pleasant, upbeat feel to it.

Here is a blog post by Bridget describing experiences from this trip.

And last year we returned for a quick drive through Hungary and Slovakia, again visiting the same cousins. I wrote several blog posts (here, here, and here) about that, as did Suzanne.

There is a lot to like about Slovakia, and the other former Eastern Bloc countries. Some day we'd like to go back and spend more time hiking and sightseeing.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Side trip to Poland -- Iron Curtain, Part 4

We left Russia, flying from Moscow to Prague. We spent several days in Prague, the well preserved tourist magnet in the Czech Republic. People said Prague should be visited before it became too popular, but we were too late. It is a wonderful city, but crowded with tourists, and sprinkled with pickpockets. One tried to reach into my pack on a subway.

From Prague we took the train to Berlin. There we visited the Checkpoint Charlie site and museum and remnants of the Berlin Wall, both on the border of the former West and East Berlin. You could still see the difference in affluence between the two sectors, though there was rampant construction in the downtown sector of the east--cranes everywhere. Berlin seemed a vibrant, multicultural place.

In Berlin, we rented a car for a day trip to Poland. I have German ancestors who lived in Pommerania, the northwest section of the country, near Kolberg, in a small village called Moitzelfitz. I only had a small 100+ year-old map showing the German villages and roads from that time, but we managed to navigate our way there.

Here is the city limit sign, showing the present Polish name.

The main (only?) street through town.

The old German church was in the center of town, and in disrepair (a new church was next door).

This plaque was on an inside wall. It commemorates the fallen from the war of 1870-71. Family legend has it that my ancestor fled to America to escape military service, perhaps this very war.

There was a fairly modern cemetery on the outskirts of town, but all the graves were Polish. We tried to communicate with some villagers, but nobody spoke English or German, and the minimal Polish phrases in our tour book were insufficient. Eventually, someone fetched a youngish man named Martin, and he spoke English or German, and he was happy to show us around a bit. He took us to the old German cemetery, which was rather broken up and neglected.

At the end of World War 2 the border between Poland and Germany was moved many miles west. Pommerania became part of Poland, and the native German people moved west as well. Martin said there were no more German people left in this part of the country--they had all gone.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Tree Hunt

Each December since we have lived in Oregon we have driven five miles (plus or minus) to a local Christmas tree farm to select and cut down our Christmas tree. It has been a family outing and tradition. Over the years we have experienced a variety of weather during these outings--rain, sun, cold, balmy, dry, wet (muddy). I don't recall snow, but all the above is possible in December.

There must be half a dozen or more different farms we have visited, with varying features. The last several years we have visited the Furrow Farm, about six miles distant and very convenient. They have a shed where hot chocolate is served, and a tractor pulls a hay wagon where we can ride to the tree area. This year we added a short hike in the nearby woods.

Here are the men of the family poised to snag a tree in 2002:

In the hot chocolate shed in 2004:

The Palmers were visiting in 2006:

And again in 2009:

It was a beautiful balmy day this weekend:

We opted for a table-top tree this year, which was easily handled by Jonah and Eli.

So it has been fun and memorable over the years to experience this with our children, and now our grandchildren. Last year we never got around to getting a tree, as Suzanne was out of town helping with baby Shiloh until shortly before Christmas--and I confess it was a relaxing change of pace. This year I actually started thinking about buying an artificial tree. Perhaps the live tabletop tree size is a good compromise so we can enjoy the tree hunt with the grandkids, but have less hassle dealing with the tree. We'll see.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Unfortunate name associations

My siblings and parents were discussing common meanings for their given names, and how they grow weary of hearing the same jokes about them from different people. June, Chuck, Wendy, Barry, Sandy, Glade, Kevin.

Then, there is Craig, which doesn't seem to have such a disadvantage. Except for the fact it is my middle name so my life has always been complicated by that. Like being called "Alan" by people who don't know me, or having to fill out forms with first name, middle initial, and last name.

But when we moved to Oregon back in the 80's there was a prominent local TV and radio personality named Craig Walker. Now, every time my name was spoken in public everyone would turn around to look at me. Many would ask if I was THE Craig Walker. I do suspect I got special treatment a time or two from people or businesses who weren't sure. But overall it was a burden I didn't care for at all. Sometimes complete strangers would call for me on the phone, a few times in the middle of the night. We found out that Craig Walker was only his stage name, and learned what his real name was. So we would tell people my name wasn't his real name anyway.

I recall my first business trip out of state, and checking into a hotel in San Jose, CA. I was pointedly relieved that I could approach the check-in desk and announce my name with impunity. What a carefree feeling! So you can imagine how appalled I was when the clerk immediately asked if I was the famous Craig Walker from Portland! Arghhh!!

The famous Craig Walker has since retired from public life, so it is increasingly rare that I get comments. In any event, I have become hardened to them and it is no longer an issue.

By the way, that is why my blog is titled "A" Craig Walker, not "The" Craig Walker.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Into the Heart of the Beast--Iron Curtain, Part 3

We had another opportunity to venture behind the former Iron Curtain in June, 2002, after Bridget and Jeremy moved to Moscow, Russia, and provided a reason for the trip and a home base with tour guides. This time, we traveled right into the very heart of the beast, of the former Soviet Union itself.

Things looked exotic right off the bat after landing at Sheremetyevo Airport and seeing the words on signs in the Cyrillic alphabet. We had immediate exposure to the former Communist influence in the terminal, with the horrid building architecture and the surly employees. In the neighborhoods we noticed a rather scruffy appearance, with weeds growing and unkempt public spaces.

Bridget cautioned us to be careful what we said in public, as well as in their apartment, which they were confident was bugged. (You can read more about that in Bridget's blog here.) It was forbidden to take photographs of some things, such as any underground metro station, which was a shame because they were so ornate and fascinating. On our last day I did venture taking some video shots of one station while coming down the escalator, and a stern lady scolded me for doing so--I just played the dumb tourist.

The first day we went to the city center and toured Red Square. This was the very spot where former Soviet leaders would view military parades, showing off their might to the West. Here was the Kremlin, Lenin's tomb, St. Basil's Church--all so incredibly exotic to me, as one who grew up during and was so influenced by the Cold War.

Red Square and the Kremlin

St. Basil's Church on Red Square.

From many vantage points we could see the seven sisters of Stalin across the landscape of the city. These are prominent buildings constructed from 1947 to 1953 and are symbolic of Stalin architecture. Here is one of those buildings, Moscow University.

The onion dome churches were another dominant feature. Amazing that these Russian Orthodox churches, as well as the faith of many in the population, survived so many decades of Communist repression. The famous Moscow Cathedral was demolished by the Communists in 1931, with plans to build a grand Palace of the Soviets, which never happened. The world's largest open air swimming pool was constructed in the perpetually flooded ruins in the 1950's.

We took an overnight train to St. Petersburg (formerly known as Leningrad under the Soviets), spent the full day sightseeing there, and took an overnight train back to Moscow. European influences were prominent in St. Petersburg, a beautiful city and the former capital and home of the Czars.

Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ in St. Petersburg.

One day Suzanne and I ventured an unguided trip to Sergiev Posad, perhaps 50 miles northeast of Moscow. We navigated the Moscow subway system and found a bus destined to go there. It was a warm, sunny day and we were so thirsty. I purchased a bottle of "Seven-ya" soda pop for the bus ride. It was the most awful tasting imitation of lemon lime soda imaginable. Tasted more like bathroom cleaner, and, as thirsty as we were, we drank very little of it. We were proud of ourselves for pulling off this successful adventure.

Domes of numerous ancient churches in Sergiev Posad.

You can't help but notice the impact Word War II had on Russia. It is estimated 20 million Russians died in the conflict. Coming into the city from the airport there are markers showing the maximum advance of the German army. Many cities are designated as "hero cities", such as Moscow, Leningrad, Stalingrad, and many others, due to their defense and suffering during the conflict. There is a prominent museum commemorating the "Great Patriotic War", as they call it. I don't think we Americans can fathom what it was like for them. We visited the museum and it made a strong impression on us.

We visited a most unique cemetery in Moscow, where most of the famous Russians are buried. There was a wide variety of styles of monuments on the graves. Nikita Krushchev's marker was black and white, signifying he had good and bad traits. It is noteworthy that he was buried here, rather than the Kremlin, showing he was out of favor at his death.

Western culture is taking some hold in Russia. McDonald's has several restaurants in Moscow, and it is considered upscale to the Russians. It is novel indeed to get service with a smile. We took a special bus to Ikea to enjoy a salmon dinner.

Oh, there is so much more I'd like to share about this memorable trip. But, another time and another post.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Behind the Iron Curtain, Part 2

Continued from yesterday's post--we had just checked into the Hotel Europa in downtown Kosice, Slovakia.

We slept uneventfully that evening after using the hotel's community showers, which we had all to ourselves (as it seemed there weren't many customers there that November evening). The next morning I awoke early and anxious to explore, so I headed out on foot to explore downtown Kosice and to get some Slovak currency. It was a brisk November morning, pedestrians moving quickly to their destinations. And all so exciting and exotic.

We then walked over to the train station to buy my train ticket to Austria (the language barrier was problematic), and then to a travel office to buy Suzanne's plane flight to Bratislava two days later, where she could then take a bus across the border to Vienna to meet me. Finally, we took a bus to the Hertz office and picked up our rental car.

Leaving Kosice we were struck by the extensive blocks of large concrete apartments ringing the city, a certain product of the Communist regime and architecture. But we found the road system surprisingly good vs. what we expected, and tolerable traffic. We drove to Kalusa to check our accommodations for the night. Here we had more luck communicating, as the receptionist spoke German, as did I. This was a resort area so German tourists were common. Still, the place was rather vacant--no tourists in November.

We continued on to Poruba, one of Suzanne's ancestral villages. We stopped at the church and looked around. An elderly babushka approached us, and Suzanne managed to communicate the name of her great grandmother, and the lady walked us to her distant cousin's home.

Poruba Greek Catholic Church.

Typical village street scene.

We were welcomed most graciously by these distant relatives, language barrier and all. It was clear they lived a harder life than us, as our peers had the physical appearance of our parents' generation. Fortunately, one of the younger cousins spoke some English, so we got by.

The younger generation was just starting to learn English, whereas the older generation learned Russian, since their country was allied to Russia. And German was also spoken here and there, much more so than English.

We then drove through more villages to sightsee, coming right near the border with Ukraine. We stopped at the train station to scope out where I would need to catch my 5AM train the next morning. Good thing we did because it was difficult to find, and a stranger had to help us out. In the process I was unable to start our car. Turns out the theft prevention system had locked out the ignition somehow, but we got it going after a bit of a scare.

That evening we drove to Humenne to visit relatives on Suzanne's grandfather's side. Once again the people were so welcoming and gracious, and Suzanne was invited to spend the following two nights with them so she wouldn't be alone at the hotel. Her cousins continued to be wonderfully gracious hosts the next two days.

We had a horrible abbreviated sleep that night, as some neighbors to the hotel were having some kind of party, and there was loud music playing until the wee hours. We arose around 4AM for my trip to the train station and, to our horror, all the doors exiting the hotel were locked. Fortunately, the receptionist awoke and let us out. What would people do in case of fire?

I had a long 11 hour train ride across Slovakia. It was interesting seeing all the people, villages, and scenery as it passed by. It seems all the train passengers, as well as plane passengers, or pretty much anyone else in the country had a bad case of body odor. Do they not have deodorant, we wondered. Or just different standards of hygiene. I did see remnants of the old Communist system. For instance, each train station I passed had old or shabby looking guys in uniform standing on the platform, as in this moving shot.

Crossing the former Iron Curtain border into Austria was like night vs. day. The train compartment was immaculate and modern, the employees spiffy, and English spoken everywhere.

To be continued...

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Behind the Iron Curtain

I grew up in the midst of the Cold War. All my life the Soviet Union was portrayed as our dire enemy, and we were constantly threatened with nuclear annihilation. Indeed, the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 was a terrifying event, even for a fifth grader. We had drills at school where we would duck under our desks in the event of nuclear attack. Many people built underground bomb shelters in their yards.

Here is an example of the terrifying images we contemplated.

Even the space race was an offshoot of the Cold War, with the USSR achieving many firsts with Sputnik and the first man in space. The US was very motivated to be first to put a man on the moon to prove to ourselves and the world that we were better than the Russians.

My father was career Air Force, so I lived on military bases growing up and was exposed to the drills and the culture. My older brother also joined the Air Force and made it a career. The Cold War had a huge impact on me and my family.

The Iron Curtain separated the Soviet allied countries in eastern Europe from our allies in the free countries of western Europe. I served my mission in West Germany, and my brother was stationed in West Germany in the Air Force. It was hard to imagine the difficult circumstances that must have existed behind the Iron Curtain--a different world than our own.

Around 1990 we won the Cold War, as the Berlin Wall came down, the Communist regimes fell in Russia and most of its allies, and relatively unrestricted travel became possible all through Europe. It was a scant seven years later (1997) that Suzanne and I ventured a trip behind the former Iron Curtain to Slovakia to visit her distant cousins and the land of her father's ancestors. This was the far eastern part of Slovakia, not the relatively progressive Czech Republic with Prague, nor Hungary with Budapest, nor even Bratislava in the western part of the country. But the further backwaters in the east up against the border with the Ukraine.

Neither of us were novices to overseas travel, but we viewed this trip with a sense of apprehension, as well as adventure. Things got off to a rocky start when our flight out of Portland was cancelled and we had to scramble to alter our reservations for flights and hotels in Slovakia. This was before pervasive internet so we're talking long distance telephone conversations with Slovaks who may or may not speak English. We flew into Kosice in the far east of Slovakia, landing 11PM or so.

Here is the Kosice airport terminal.

We walked out of the small terminal not knowing what to expect, and encountered a taxi, which took us to the city center and dropped us off around the block from our intended hotel. There we were, alone near midnight on a dark street in a very foreign place, nobody around, much less an English speaker, and not sure if we had a confirmed reservation at the hotel.

We walked into the Hotel Europa, went upstairs to a lobby, which was full of cigarette smoke and two uniformed men sitting on the couch (policemen?). Speaking to the attendant in patches of English and German we checked in and went to our room, which was ancient and spartan. The shared bathroom was down the hall. We had most definitely entered a different world.

To be continued...

Monday, November 28, 2011


Despite the title, this post won't be about clothing, toys, or other such items. Rather, how much of our physical attributes, character, and personality do we inherit from our parents? And how much is learned or acquired?

It is obvious that looks, hair color, eye color, stature, health propensities, and other physiological traits are inherited. I and some of my siblings and children have always had a keen sense of smell, for example. This is not always a good thing, as evidenced by the frequent squabbles between my two younger brothers growing up when one couldn't stand the smell of the other's feet when they were in the same room. My son Daniel is ultra sensitive to lotion and perfume smells, which was a point of contention with his two younger sisters (nicknamed by him as losh1 (short for lotion) and losh2). My younger brother could even smell light vs. dark ("PU it's dark in here!" was the famous quote in our family). It was fascinating to learn my Walker cousins also have a keen sense of smell, which I discovered on a trip to Texas to visit them. So I assume this is passed down from my father.

Another trait I suspect comes from inheritance is a clean hands fetish I suffer from. For example, I can't stand the greasy hands resulting from eating chicken by hand, and I will get up from the table and wash them in the middle of a meal after doing so. Eating tacos is similar. If I eat a peach or orange by hand I suffer from the byproduct of sticky hands until I can wash them. My younger brother (who seems to have inherited all these things in extreme) would wash his hands for minutes several times per day. Perhaps he still does. If there is any task involving dirt or grime, such as working on a car or bike, or in the yard, I prefer to wear gloves if I can.

It would seem intelligence is inherited to some degree, though life experiences and application must affect it. Same with athletic ability, which will have an innate component as well as application. Language and accent I suspect are more learned traits. What about personality traits? What about our capacity for faith, or desire to do good? Different children in the same family can be so different.

I suspect controlled conditions have been observed where siblings, or better yet twins, have been raised in different families and environments, though I don't know the findings.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Let there be night

"Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise." This quote is attributed to Ben Franklin. Clearly, Ben was not a night person. I am.

General wisdom has it that rising early is the preferred practice. "The early bird gets the worm" goes the saying. I admit there are a number of benefits to rising early. I love the quiet morning hours, and the magic of the dawn and rising sun. You can beat the traffic on your commute (though it seems these days you must be exceptionally early to accomplish this). It is satisfying to have a productive early morning and feel by, say, 10 o'clock you have accomplished so much. The morning isn't so rushed and stressful if you give it an early start.

A couple of days ago I arose at 5AM to hit a couple of black Friday sales. It was a novel break in my normal routine, and I did snag some desired sale items (the early bird did get the worm!). I had a leisurely breakfast and did accomplish so much by noon. But to do this every day? Not me.

What about the other side of the coin?

I've decided my body wants to run on a 25 hour day. We should come off of daylight savings time every day of the year. In general, I don't want to go to bed yet when I know I should. My mind is active and there are things to do.

Evenings, especially late evenings, are quiet with minimal outside distractions. My mother, who is also a night person, knows to call me after 10PM because I will be home and wide awake. Except that late evening is my favorite time to play tennis--often until nearly 11PM. Easier to get courts and play longer with the reduced demand. For stores that stay open until 9PM I prefer evening shopping and less traffic. Going to work later and coming home later is another strategy for avoiding traffic. Speaking of work, I find most of my colleagues work a later schedule, so things often don't heat up until afternoon so it is difficult to leave before 5PM anyway. The internet is open 24 hours, so research, shopping, and work are all available on my computer at home. My most productive, quiet, and personal time seems to come after 9PM. That's when my body and mind seem to hum.

Which makes waking early troublesome. On days when, by choice, necessity, or otherwise, I rise early after going to bed late I can feel dragging all day, especially during sedentary activities. I can get a slight stiff neck and headache. My ideal morning activity is to lie in bed for some time and just think. Some would say I am being lazy, but my mind is working while my body rests a bit longer.

I think the ideal solution is this. Rise early, reap all those benefits from doing so, take a nap in the middle of the day, and enjoy the late evening as well. The only way to accomplish this, though, is to move to a culture where this is the norm, or retire from regular full time employment.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Late to the Harry Potter Party

While the whole world was in a Harry Potter frenzy for seven plus years, lining up at midnight for book and movie releases, I was pretty much on the sidelines. I wasn't attracted to the fantasy story about wizards and witches. I never read a book and don't think I ever watched a movie from start to finish, even though others in the house were watching them on DVD.

Then a few months ago I noted how some people were expressing sorrow that the saga was coming to an end, with the release of the HP 7.2 movie, and there was no more HP to look forward to. I was thinking I was in a unique position in that I had all seven books (and movies) as virgin territory. I needed some new audio books to listen to, so I jumped in.

Firstly, the enjoyment of an audio book is heavily influenced by the skill of the narrator, and I'm glad to say the HP book narrator was exceptional. He maintained wide, yet consistent accents and tones for the many characters.

Books 1 and 2 were about what I expected, novel and interesting, but not terribly engaging for me. They seemed like children's or adolescents' stories. But book 3 ratcheted up a notch, and things accelerated more from there. It was no longer just a story for youth, as good guys and bad guys alike started taking on shades of gray. Most notably, Dumbledore, Harry's father, and Harry himself made mistakes and wrong choices, while Snape became increasingly interesting and multi-dimensional. And good guys started getting killed.

So now I have finished all the books, and watched all the movies except 7.2. I could say the same about the movies as the books, as far as their maturing as they progressed. Movie 6 in particular I thought was very, very good, even separate from the integral HP story thread.

In addition to everything else, I was intrigued with the Snape story, and was anxious to see how it would be resolved. I decided he must be a good guy, though a shade of gray (of course).

Well, I thoroughly enjoyed the books and am glad I read them. But am I sad they are at an end? Mostly not. I distinctly felt during Book 7 that the mini-plots seemed to be rehashes, and it was time to resolve the larger story. I am still looking forward to movie 7.2, though.

Friday, November 25, 2011

North to Alaska!

One of the highlights and most pleasant memories of my life was our family vacation to Alaska in July 1996. We (Craig, Suzanne, Daniel, Bridget, Teresa, Steven) flew to Anchorage and rented an RV.

We drove through the interior of Alaska, up to Denali National Park. We took a long ride on the park bus, seeing wildlife and views of Mt. McKinley. Teresa had a memorable experience opening the bathroom door on someone by mistake. We all still laugh about that.

We continued on to Fairbanks to an RV park which had pervasive signs "5 MPH, love Sarah". Teresa and I took an Arctic Circle tour, flying to an airfield above the Circle, and riding in a tour van all the way back to Fairbanks. It was so exotic.

The Alaska pipeline.

We walked across the Yukon River bridge at one rest stop.

We got home from the tour after 1AM and it was still rather light outside.

Alaska is so huge! The vistas, the distances--everything.

We drove back down to the Kenai Peninsula, visiting some glaciers and Homer. Teresa was enamored with sled dogs, so she and Steven went for a ride.

We turned in the RV back in Anchorage and went sightseeing downtown. Daniel had a major seizure, resulting in an ambulance ride to the hospital. They gave him some medicines to take, which made him groggy and somewhat ill for the next couple of days.

We flew to Juneau and took the ferry to Skagway. Daniel won a prize for the most gambling winnings.

We continued on the Alaska ferry system over to Sitka, Petersburg, Wrangell, and back to Juneau. It was like a poor man's cruise of the Inside Passage. On one ferry we had a four berth cabin, a three berth in another, and none on a third. Steven ran into a cable on one ferry, knocking him down. The crew saw it happen and the captain gave him a tour of the bridge and a complimentary hat, and let him blow the horn coming into port, so the minor injury was worth it.

Back in Juneau we chartered an ice field tour in an airplane. It was a rare sunny day in Juneau--the scenery was breathtaking. Bridget and I went for a run up a trail out of Juneau, and I went to an all-you-can-eat salmon bake.

I loved everything about this three week vacation. It was exotic and adventuresome. All four kids were so well behaved the whole time. The RV was wonderful, and the ideal way to traverse the interior, stopping about anywhere for the night. We had the Beach Boys music playing in the RV. The ferry trips were interesting, as were all the destinations.

I often think I'd like to go back to Alaska and try to relive those experiences. Sadly, I know it wouldn't be the same. It would lack that first time adventure, and our small children wouldn't be with us. But the memories remain precious.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Tennis anyone?

Playing tennis is one of my favorite pastimes. I recall my tennis origins playing with my dad and brother in Fallon, NV, when I was in 4th grade. I'm sure I did more chasing balls around the court than hitting rallies, but there it is.

In high school I was very active in basketball and numerous intramural sports. There was a core group of us, maybe six or seven, who were always engaging in some sport activity or other together after school. It was the spring of our sophomore year we started playing some tennis, and continued through summer. We had the tennis bug.

Our junior year when basketball season finished we went out for the school tennis team, which had already started practices and set up a ladder. We had to start at the bottom and work our way up with challenge matches. The first few matches we played JV and continued improving. By the end of the season I got up to #3 varsity singles, and most of my buddies also made varsity. We played all the time that following summer on the outdoor courts in Riverside, CA., often under lights. There were great courts at UCR and RCC.

We all switched from basketball to tennis focus for our senior year, and I played #1 singles. I never had a formal lesson--completely self taught and improved through constant practice play with my buddies. I was far outclassed by some of my opponents, who clearly had formal training and years of experience, but I held my own and finished the season winning about half my matches. Our team also finished with a winning record in CBL standings, the best record the school ever had. I credit the group of us former basketball players for this result.

I played recreational tennis in college, entering intramural tournaments (and winning one). But then pretty much didn't pick up a racquet again for twenty years. Too busy with work, family, and playing softball, basketball, and soccer, and riding my bike.

In summer 1995 at a family reunion I played some tennis with my cousin and I instantly caught the tennis bug again. I couldn't play enough and joined Sunset Athletic Club. They have indoor courts (tennis is an indoor sport in the Pacific NW), organized practice play, tournaments, and leagues. I engaged in all these and my game improved quite a bit. Eventually I took on the responsibility of team captain, organizing practice and match play.

And that brings us to the present day. I still love the game and play two or three times per week, singles and doubles. What a fun and healthy lifelong sport!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Backpacking Rookie

I have long enjoyed ambitious hikes and mountain climbs, but was never motivated to backpack and spend the night on the trail. I guess I felt like hiking was so much more enjoyable without carrying the heavy load on my back the whole way, and spending a sleep deprived night in the wilds.

Suzanne has done an annual three day backpacking trip with her lady friends the last few years, and this year it grabbed my imagination. So she and I did a short trial backpacking overnight trip at the coast, and, even though we got rained on, I thought it was great. We managed to get two more backpacking trips in before the weather turned, and I thoroughly enjoyed both. Suzanne wrote a great blog post about our most ambitious one, including photos of the spectacular trail here.

Sure, it's more work to carry the pack, but sleeping in the tent in the wilds is actually a plus. By spending the night (or nights) on the trail you can venture further. And what's not to like about the quiet outdoors the evening and early morning? The dinner meal cooked over our portable stove is absolutely delicious. And there is that powerful sense of satisfaction and accomplishment for being self sufficient out there on your own. It's also a real plus that this is something Suzanne and I really enjoy, and can do together. And a blessing that we have the physical capacity and the beautiful Pacific Northwest in our backyard.

We can't wait for spring to get back on the backpacking trail!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Bishop: Epilogue

It has been five months since I was released as bishop, after serving the anticipated five years. I kept a journal the entire time, recording many of the precious experiences. Here is my final journal entry, written about two months after release:

I was released as bishop on June 26. It was a hard day emotionally, second only to the day I was sustained. I feared I wouldn’t be able to keep my emotions in check, and I had to tread carefully sharing my testimony. But I held up pretty well, and it was a joyous day as much as a sad one. Bishop Bill Young was called—I don’t know of a more angelic man, and good with people, especially the youth. I spent a couple of hours with him this afternoon briefing him on various items. He must feel even more overwhelmed than I did, since he is a convert.

I was subsequently called to teach the Marriage and Family Relations Sunday School class. What a delight that is. I find myself so “free and easy” at church these days, and enjoy sitting with my wife in the chapel. I do find myself gravitating towards my counselors, Br. Bay and Br. Atack, in the hall or at gatherings. In some ways I feel like a recently returned missionary who isn’t used to being separated from his companions. I miss some things, and have to sit on my hands at sacrament meeting sometimes thinking this or that needs to be done, or done differently.

I enjoyed testimony meeting today, and felt strong emotions when A. C. was awarded his Duty to God, and when Sis. xx bore testimony about her long road back to the Church. I had visited her a few times over the years and worked with her to petition the First Presidency to cancel her sealing and to feel the power of the atonement in her way back. It is heartwarming and satisfying to know I have had some impact in my years of service. Sis. Emmett remarked in her testimony that we love this new bishopric, just as we loved the previous one. Each is right for the time they serve. And I feel the same way.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Autumn Hikes and Scenery

I am mesmerized by and love the striking fall foliage. Once again, here is a recent view outside the west window at work. I am often arrested by the view from this window on my frequent traverse to my lab.

Suzanne and I have driven the ten minutes to Washington Park for some recent short hikes. A few years ago we hiked in this trail network and got somewhat lost amongst all the crisscross trails. Here is a photo of a posted map:

And here are some photos from hiking there last Saturday:

I can't get over the bright red trees, and love the mix of colors all around.