Friday, December 31, 2010

Debunking the Doctrine of "Legislating from the Bench"

Over the past several years, I've read many articles about judges who "Legislate from the Bench." Anecdotally speaking, it appears that it's generally conservatives who strongly disagree with the judicial outcome of specific cases. For example, the Iowa Supreme Court recently ruled that prohibiting gay marriage was unconstitutional. As a result, homosexuals may now marry in the state of Iowa.

Today's post is really not designed to discuss whether or not gays should be allowed to marry. Indeed, I am merely using this case for illustrative purposes. The case was brought before the Supreme Court, and the judges unanimously agreed that prohibiting gay marriage was unconstitutional. Conservatives decried the decision as an attempt by Iowa's Supreme Court judges to legislate from the bench. My issue is not whether or not the decision was correct, but whether or not such a condition exists.

For starters, I should define "legislate." My non-legal definition of legislate is the making of laws. The legislative process, in America, always starts with congress. The idea for a law may come from anywhere... the executive branch, the legislative branch, or even the constituents of a given government. The actual process of making a law, however, always starts with congress.

The process itself is generally complicated and time-consuming. A legislator writes up the bill. The bill is then reviewed by the appropriate committee(s) in congress. Most proposed laws never get past this initial phase. Assuming that the recommended legislation (a bill) passes committee scrutiny, it then goes to the full congressional body for a vote. Each body -- the House of Representatives and the Senate -- must approve the bill. Furthermore, the bill must have the EXACT SAME WORDING before it goes to the next stage, which is that it is presented to the head of the executive branch for approval (the Mayor, Governor or President for the purpose of this article). The executive head has a period of time to approve or deny the legislation. If approved, the bill becomes law.

If the bill is not approved, congress can STILL force the bill into law. This is done by congress re-voting on the bill, but it has to be approved by a 2/3 majority. As you can imagine, this doesn't happen very often. The idea here is a balance of power. The legislative branch and Executive branch of government are supposed to be equally powerful.

The branches have different, but equally important functions in our government. The legislative branch proposes and writes laws... and to an extent makes the laws. The executive branch ratifies and enforces laws. The judicial branch interprets laws.

In order for the judicial branch to interpret the law, that law must be challenged through the judicial system. Going back to the gay marriage issue, someone has to say It's not fair that gays can't marry, and then file a lawsuit. The case goes before a judge who decides whether or not the law behind this claim is valid. Regardless of the outcome, the loser can appeal. Then, the appeals court chooses whether or not to hear the case again. (Most cases are appealed, and the appeals court declines to hear the case.) And even then, the loser of the appeal can appeal to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, like the appellate court, has the right to decline to hear a case. If at ANY point, the next higher court declines to hear a case, the lower court's ruling stands, and that's that.

By now, you should understand that VERY FEW cases get to the Supreme Court. And the Supreme Court is the ONLY body that has the authority to invalidate a law by calling it unconstitutional. The Supreme Court cannot draw up legislation. They cannot approve or enforce the legislation if it becomes law. The Supreme Court's purpose is to interpret laws, and their interpretation of the law is based on the constitution. Please note, that I said "based." The Constitution was designed as a framework of laws, written with the understanding that times and circumstances change.

The term "Legislating from the Bench" implies that judges are somehow writing laws from the courtroom... and a more subtle implication is that this judicial activism is destroying the country. The reality is that each branch of the government... the executive, the legislative, and the judiciary... have all taken their turn as the prominent branch of government. But in the end, NONE of them have been able to achieve and maintain a dominant position in government. Anyone who believes that these alleged activist judges are out of bounds should seriously brush up on their constitutional law, and their history. I would also like to point out that the ONLY time a judge is accused of legislating from the bench is when a long-standing law is overturned.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Crafty

Here's a shot of my latest craft...

There's a bit of a story to this. The charms you see on this necklace are crushed pennies, and it all started as a lark. I got my older daughter a "present" a couple of years back. Without going into the details, she wasn't wild about the original gift when she received it, but it inadvertently started a tradition. Over the last couple of years, every time we'd pass one of those penny crushing machines, I'd give the kid a penny and make another "charm."

After a while, the kid acquired quite the collection, and I decided to do something about it. My original idea was a charm bracelet, but I quickly realized that she had too many charms for a mere bracelet. Thus, the necklace you see here. The cool part is that we can add to the necklace as time passes and continue the tradition.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Evan's Christmas Memories

In response to Sunny's latest post, discussing times of Christmas Past, I've decided to share a couple of Christmas memories of my own. So, without further ado, here are a some of my fondest recollections...

One Christmas, somewhere between ten and fifteen years ago, my kids' mom and I were slumbering peacefully, when my older daughter came in and whispered "Dad, it's Christmas! Time to wake up and open presents." When I opened my eyes, I immediately noticed that it was still dark; once my eyes finally focused, I saw that it was about 4:30 AM. (I don't recall the exact time, I just remember that it was waaaaay early.)

Figuring that I'd be clever and stall for some more time, I said "Go back to your room and go to sleep. We'll open presents when your little sister wakes up."

"Okay daddy," she replied.

Pleased that I had dodged that bullet, I closed my eyes and starting drifting back to sleep, when I heard it... barely a whisper...

"Erin, wake up. It's Christmas. Daddy said that we could open presents when you get up."

I didn't get back to sleep that morning.

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Fast-forward a few years... The kids' mom and I had recently split up. It was the first Christmas since we parted ways, and I wanted to get the kids something that they'd remember. Unfortunately, I was on a budget. So I did a couple of things...

I went out and purchased about a dozen unfinished ceramic Christmas ornaments, and we spent a full night hanging out and painting the ornaments. They still adorn our tree every year. In fact, every year since then, I have purchased an ornament for each kid, and for Mrs. Evan. I've been doing this for enough years that we need a bigger tree.

--------------

That same year, I also wanted to get each kid something "big." When I say "big," I really mean large, because everyone knows that children love to unwrap big boxes. Baby Evan didn't yet have a bicycle, so I scraped enough cash together to get her her first real bike. The older little Evan already had one, so that took a bit more creativity. I looked around and finally decided to get her a nice sleeping bag. She was at the age where she was doing sleep-overs, and I thought it would be something that she'd like for that very reason, and something that she'd use a lot.

I was half right... it was something that she did use a lot. Unfortunately, she was really pissed that her sister got a new bike, and all she got was a lousy sleeping bag. Big fail on dad's part!! In fact, every time she used it... and every Christmas since that fateful morning... she has gone to great pains to remind me that baby Evan must be the favorite, because she got a new bike for Christmas, and all the older Evanette got was a sleeping bag. Just to reiterate, Big fail on dad's part!!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Really Cool Gift!

I got the coolest Christmas gift from my friend Adam. The gift seems pretty self-explanatory, but I'm going to describe it anyway. It started out as a bottle of "Jarhead Chard" wine. The wine bottle was melted flat, and the labels were reapplied and epoxied. The result is a very creative cheese serving tray. A VERY appropriate gift, considering that Adam and I met in the Marine Corps.

@ Adam: Dude, you've got a panache for finding the perfect gift.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Forgive? Forget? Naaaah.

Back in August, when my Uncle died, I wrote this post. That article obviously discussed my Uncle's passing, but it also had another topic, and I'm going to back up a bit and rehash that today.

My uncle lived in the same town where I grew up as a kid, so when he was in hospice, I was also visiting my hometown. I considered calling a select few people, but I only made one call... to Lisa. As I said in the last post, she hung up on me when I called her. To clarify, I called, she answered, and when I said "Hi," she instantly hung up the phone, without a word. On the off chance that she had been disconnected, I called again and the line was busy. I figured that I'd wait for a bit, just in case we had both tried to call each other and both ended up with a busy signal. After another ten to fifteen minutes, I tried again. This time, I didn't even have a chance to say "hi." The phone was simply picked up and immediately hung up again. The message was loud and clear. She had nothing to say to me. With that, I have washed my hands of her.

For the most part, I have to admit that I felt relief. As I said in my last post on this topic, we had a falling out of sorts. At least this brought some definitive end to things. I don't need the last word, I don't need any additional closure or anything like that. I am willing to accept that we are no longer friends, and I don't lose any sleep over it.

Fast-forward to yesterday, when I went to the mailbox and discovered a Christmas card from her, addressed to the entire family. I could certainly understand if she'd have sent a card to my kids. She's known them both since infancy, and they love their Leesee. I am a little flummoxed, and slightly irritated by this one. I really don't like the idea of getting a Christmas card from someone who's at best pretending to be my friend. It certainly hasn't changed my decision to let the relationship remain dead. It would require too much time and effort on my part to try to forgive and forget.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Why Is Life so Difficult?

Despite the title, I am not writing today about some trial or tribulation of my own. In fact, for the record, I will say that I'm content with my life. Today, I'm answering a question that I seem to have heard several times in passing over the last few days. Maybe it's a bunch of people who just happen to be whining at the same time... maybe it's the Winter Blues... maybe they're all experiencing a bona fide big problem at the same time... Regardless of how they all got here, a lot of people seem to be asking "Why is Life so Difficult?"

Well, I have a couple of answers. (Hmmm... imagine that... me claiming to have the answers!) As I say this though, remember a couple of things. I am NOT here to give you chicken soup for your bruised little soul, and I am NOT Dr. Phil, giving you a couple of little feel-good catchphrases that you can take home and transform your life. With that said, let me tell you why I think life is difficult.

My first explanation is a little philosophical, but it's pretty simple. You need to experience the bad to appreciate the good. Let's go to pretend land for a little bit, and use food as an analogy. Let's say that through your entire life, you've eaten nothing other than your favorite foods... pizza, ice cream, chocolate... whatever your favorite foods may be. By most people's standards -- you know, the ones who've had to suffer through life with nothing but brussels sprouts -- your life has been pretty good. But since you've experienced nothing but pizza, ice cream and chocolate, all you know is two things... first, you don't like ice cream, and second, your life is rather dull. The only way to truly appreciate the good things in your life is through a little bit of suffering.

The second explanation is a little more straight-forward. Just as physical pain is the body's way of saying that something is wrong, emotional strain is how your mind says that something's not right. Sometimes you have to just cope. Losing a loved one, for the sake of illustration, is similar to breaking a bone. It hurts like hell in the short term, but with a minimal amount of care, you heal and life goes on. Chronic stress -- think depression, unhealthy relationships, things like that -- is the mind's way of saying that something has to change permanently. Poor posture and ergonomics can bring on back pain and carpal tunnel syndrome. The only way to fix it is to make a permanent change in your lifestyle. Similarly, you need to take care of your emotional well-being, or you will end up with, well, repetitive stress injuries.

Like I said, this is an over-simplification. But maybe it will give a few people a little food for thought.

Monday, November 29, 2010

... A Little Remiss

My apologies to both of my regular readers for my lack of recent posting. I've been firmly rooted in 3d-land, and enjoying every minute of it. Okay, with the women-folk doing that mood swing thing lately, I haven't loved EVERY minute of it, but my point stands.

As I mentioned in my last post, I now have my girls full time, and that's required a bit of adjustment on my part. Add to this the fact that they've both got learner's permits, and you should start getting an overview of why I haven't been posting as much.

I'm also discovering that I have a bit of a green thumb. I inherited a few plants from my uncle's house after he died... a couple of dieffenbachia, a snake plant and one that I think it a peace lily. All of them were in rough shape when I received them, so they've all been re-potted, and I also took a couple of pups from the snake plant. I also bought a bromeliad last winter, and it gave me a pup, which I just transplanted into its own pot. And to top it off, a friend gave me a spider plant clipping, which I'm trying to get to take root.

Speaking of pups, one of my dogs isn't feeling well. Her nose is dry, she's absolutely pounding the water, and she's having a bit of a bladder control issue. I think it's a urinary tract infection. I will find out today.

And on top of this, it's Christmas time, so I need to get the tree up.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

...A Long Time Coming

Today is a day I've anticipated for over seven years. When my ex-wife and I parted ways, she stayed in the area, and we shared custody of our children -- joint legal custody, and joint physical care. I had the kids every Monday, Wednesday, and every other weekend. She took the kids on Tuesday, Thursday and alternate weekends. In actuality, the kids spent significantly more time at my place. On the ex's days, they came over early the next morning to get ready for school here; they stayed here after school until she picked them up on her way home from work. She frequently asked me to take the kids on her evenings or weekends for one reason or another. My ex is leaving town today -- in fact, she's leaving the state -- and now I have the kids full time.

My ex has never hid the fact that she didn't like Iowa. She said this when we were together, and she's said this to the kids many times over the years. I guess that she's finally had enough, and she's moving to Texas to start a new life. She plans to see the kids monthly, and for a couple of extended visits during the year, so it's not like she's dumping the kids and skipping town. Fortunately, she seems to realize that it's in the kids' best interest to let the kids stay here, where they have a stable home, good schools, and an established network of friends. The kids seem to be okay with their mom moving away, so I guess it's a win to the fifth power. I say "fifth power" because everyone seems to be pleased with the new arrangement. The ex gets to move out of Iowa. The kids are happy that their mom is moving somewhere that she'll be happy, and my wife and I are incredibly pleased that we get the kids full time.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Investing in My Future

While I'm not a financial guru, I do know a bit about investing, stocks, commodities, debt and so forth. Like many people, I had a lot invested in my 401(k), and like most investors, I lost a lot when the market crapped out. The way I differed from most people was that the ONLY reason I lost so much, was because my timing was a little off. I had planned on reallocating my investments because I saw the writing on the wall, but I was a bit too slow. It was a hard lesson, but I'm not losing sleep over it, because a lot of people lost a lot more than I did. And until I actually start realizing any gains or losses from my investments, it's all theoretical money. Besides, I'm young enough that I'll have time to recover my losses... as long as I play it smart and don't get greedy.

Since the crash, I haven't really invested anything in my retirement. My current employer doesn't offer any retirement package, and my income is lower than it was when Wall Street went south. With this in mind, I have taken a different approach. While the market is effectively moving sideways, I am paying off debt. Paying off debt provides a guaranteed return on my investment (something that no stock, bond or commodity investment can do), and it has a higher rate of return when compared to anything except for gold.

I've thought about investing in gold, but I don't have enough disposable income to buy a single ounce, much less the large stash required to really make some money from gold's current trend. I know that there's a major bull market on the horizon, but I'm going to let my 401(k) handle that for the near future.

Silver, however, is kind of intriguing. It's got the intrinsic value that gold has (though on a far smaller scale), but it also has industrial uses. I may be able to pick up a bit of silver over time. Another thing I've noticed regarding precious metal investing is the lackluster performance of platinum and palladium. Platinum generally runs several times what gold costs, but recently gold has taken off to such an extent that it's very close to the price of platinum. This ratio can't stay the way it is forever. Either gold will have to drop or platinum will have to skyrocket too. Palladium is in the same boat. It generally trades somewhat less than gold (50%??), but like platinum, its value hasn't appreciated much. This kind of makes sense. Palladium is a main ingredient in catalytic converters in cars, and face it, cars aren't selling like hotcakes lately. But again, at some point, palladium needs to take off. Silver seems to be starting to catch the coattails of gold, and it may be worth it to pick up some "poor man's gold" in the future. But for now, the way I'm going to invest is with a guaranteed return... pay off my debt.

Now, if only my government would follow my lead...

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

I'm Kinda Proud of This One

What you see in this picture is a pair of earrings. There is one other pair that's similar to them, but these pieces of jewelry are very unique, and each of my daughters has a pair.

You may wonder what's so special about them. On the surface, they look like simple gold earrings. Well, I'll tell you, there's a bit more to these earrings than meets the eye. These earrings, which I gave to my girls this morning, are made from the wedding ring I wore when I was married to their mother.

When I divorced their mom, I didn't throw away the ring. My decision to keep the band wasn't out of some deep-seated belief that we'd one day end up back together, nor was it strictly financial. I figured that one day, I'd hand it down to the kids. As time passed, I kept wondering how I was going to pass one ring to two children. This, coupled with the fact that my kids were young when their mom and I divorced, is why the ring stayed in my possession.

More time passed... the kids got a bit older... and I forgot about the ring. Every now and again, I'd run across it, which would get me thinking about how I was going to pass it to the kids. Eventually, I came up with two possibilities. One was to get the ring cut in half, flatten out each half, and make pendants out of them. The earrings were the second idea, an idea which didn't come until much later. Recently, the inspiration, opportunity and inclination to get this done all came together.

I spoke to an acquaintance of mine who is a master jeweler. He said that due to the pattern, the gold would probably crack if we tried to flatten it out, so we went with the earrings for practical reasons. There was an inscription on the back of the ring, and I asked the jeweler to preserve the inscription if possible. The inscription was preserved, and is on the back of two out of the four earrings, each daughter having one earring bearing part of the inscription.

I've showed these earrings to a few people, and the reaction has been incredibly consistent. I'd show them, and people would give me the "Those are nice" response, at which time I'd tell the aforementioned story. You could see the light bulbs go on as they understood the full significance, and their "Those are nice" responses, would become "Ooooooh.... that's COOL" responses.

Yeah, I'm kind of proud of this.

Friday, October 1, 2010

All Growed Up

My older daughter turned 18 this morning.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Color Me Confused

I really don't understand my ex-wife sometimes. From the time my older daughter was born, she constantly said that the kids were her primary responsibility... that she would always put them first... that she'd never do anything to compromise or jeopardize their well being...

When we divorced, she stayed in the same town as me because she wanted the kids to be able to spend equal time with both parents. Over the years, this changed a bit, and the kids started spending more time at my place. A headache here, a flat tire there, the occasional weekend getaway, and so forth, brought about a pattern where the kids ended up spending 60 to 65 percent of their time here. This combination of words and deeds brought me to the conclusion that, while her "best" wasn't quite as good as mine, she did provide for the kids to the best of her ability. Her idea of an "emergency" that would require her to give up the kids for a day or two was significantly lower than mine, but she never out-and-out abdicated her responsibility for the kids.

My perception changed last week, when we had lunch to discuss "something important" regarding the kids. During this lunch, she informed me that she planned to move to Texas, about 12 hours away from here. Apparently, she's met a man, and sees this as a golden opportunity to leave town. It's really never been a secret that she doesn't like it here... that she's staying for the sake of the kids. But this totally flies in the face of her alleged kids-come-first mentality.

Before I continue, I need to back up a bit. My older daughter will turn 18 tomorrow. Technically, she will be an adult, but in reality, she's still in high school, and not quite grown up. My younger daughter just turned 14, and in the throes of the whole teen angst part of life. And for those of you who aren't regular readers of my little blog, I should state that I am remarried, and my wife is an excellent parent to our kids. In fact, I've said on more than one occasion that sometimes she's the best parent out of the three of us. But this isn't really about my wife or me. It's about my ex effectively abandoning her kids... especially my younger one.

I've long held a perception that my ex has given my older daughter preferential treatment. My older girl has always been a daddy's girl, a little closer to me than to her mom. As a result, it seems that the kids' mom has spent significantly more time and energy trying to gain the older kid's affection, and neglecting the younger one, who's always been available to mom, but still somehow overlooked. I think that my younger one shares this perception as well, though we haven't talked about it a lot. So let's look at this from the younger one's eyes... Mom hangs around until older sis turns 18, and then suddenly she's found a boyfriend and is ready to move half way across the country.

To further illustrate the inconstancy between the ex's words and actions, she talked to the kids about her desire to move several weeks ago. I don't know the details of the conversations, but my understanding was that she told the kids that she's in love... that she's got an opportunity to move to Texas (she has family in Texas, by the way)... that she's always hated it here... and she asked the kids if it was okay to leave. Well what are the kids going to say?!? They want their mom to be happy. Of course they're going to put on a brave face and say it's okay to leave. In fact, I suspect that they genuinely believe that it's okay. But they don't understand the full ramifications of what they're saying -- especially the younger one.

There really is a lot more to this. Let's face it; my ex moving away would make life more... convenient. More convenient for me, for my marriage, and for the stability of my blended family. From a strictly selfish standpoint, it would be a good thing. And of course I have grand reservations about the man who, in theory, could become my kids' step-father. That's a complete blog post in and of itself, so suffice it to say that something smells fishy with the ex's new love interest.

But what bugs me most is that the ex would even ASK the kids if this was okay. If she REALLY had put the kids' welfare first, this would never have come up. She would have realized that moving away from the younger one now could NEVER be putting the kids first. Even ASKING them such a question forced the kids to be adults before they're ready. This whole thing is unfair to my kids... especially my little one. Color me confused.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

I Never Thought...

...that I'd be writing a blog post that reviews toilet flush valves. But here I am, doing just that. Over the years, I've replaced many of these things. I don't know what it is, but I've had bad luck with flush valves wearing out quickly. In some cases, I've replaced a flush valve after a couple of years. I've tried the hush-flow, but it required WAY too much maintenance, and eventually just shelled out. After the hush-flow, I went back to the ballcock float system, because it was tried and true.

The problem with these, is that I kept getting the old Wal-Mart el-cheapos, which kept crapping out after a couple of years. The fill valve would get stuck, so the toilet wouldn't quit running without manually pulling up on the lift arm.

Tired of continually replacing the toilet valves, I went out yesterday and bought a good valve system. This is the MJSI Hydroclean 660. The cost for the system was two to three times the cost for the cheap ballcock float system, but like I said, I'm tired of replacing these damned things every couple of years.

The Hydroclean was just as easy to install as any other system. The reason that I'm writing a review on this thing is how it works. It's got this jet system that, in my case, seems to force water down the bowl faster during a flush, which allows the toilet to flush the same amount of crap using less water. And during the bowl refill, it's got another adjustable valve that controls how much water goes into the bowl during the refill process. The net effect is that each flush uses less water. My toilet tank has about 40% less water in it after replacing the valve, and the toilet is definitely as effective as it was before. (Yeah, I "tested" it this morning.)

I'm not a plumber. In fact, I don't even really like doing plumbing, despite the fact that I seem to have a moderate amount of skill at it. and I NEVER thought I'd do a review of a toilet flushing valve. But I was so impressed with this thing that I HAD to write about it. In fact, I think that I'm going to proactively change out the valves in my other toilets and reduce my water bill.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Random Notes

Well, let's see here. It's September 11. It should come as no surprise that nine years after a day that changed America forever, a day that could bring us all together and unite us as a country has instead become a day for politically charged rhetoric and general partisan anger. On the good side, that Florida preacher I mentioned in my last post has changed his mind, and won't burn the koran after all. Of course, that idiot God-hates-fags church in Kansas has picked up the torch, so to speak. Apparently the Kansas church is pissed that they got one-upped and missed a chance for publicity more convinced than the Florida church that Muslims are evil and destined for hell, so they picked up the book burning when the Florida parish chickened out. I guess I'll never get it... how these idiots can turn the love that Christ espoused into something so unrecognizably angry, dark and evil. But then again, while I can't understand it, I also am no longer surprised that this religious-born hatred exists.

On the good side, I read this morning about the first US soldier from Afghanistan to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor without dying for the privilege. To make it even cooler, he's from my neck of the woods. It's good to get concrete confirmation that America still has men of honor and valor.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Oh Yeah, THIS is Gonna Help Things...

I read an AP article today, talking about this pastor in Florida who is going to hold an "International Burn-a-Quran Day" on Saturday, September 11. I can't even count the number of ways this chaps my hide, but I'm going to try to enumerate a few anyway, because silence is tantamount to a tacit form of approval for this alleged minister's actions.

Before I present my position, I'm going to tell you the reverend's rationale, just in case you didn't read the original article. He says that Islam "is evil because it espouses something other than biblical truth and incites radical, violent behavior among Muslims." Even though several organizations -- the White House... the U.S. Military, and coalitions of religious leaders -- have asked the preacher to reconsider his actions, his response was "How much do we back down? How many times do we back down? Instead of us backing down, maybe it's to time to stand up. Maybe it's time to send a message to radical Islam that we will not tolerate their behavior."

There's a little piece of me that agrees with his response. We should let radical Muslims know that their actions have consequences. But aren't we already expressing this sentiment in Iraq and Afghanistan? Haven't we effectively been saying this for the last several years?

Next, we need to discuss the definition of "radical Islam." In my opinion, the radicals are the ones who blow up historical landmarks, stone women for adultery, and fly airplanes into World Trade Centers. And even then, I would be very tempted to "allow" the destruction of historical landmarks and death penalties, because these are internal affairs. It's not my place to forcefully impose my morality on the rest of the world. But with this all said, let's deconstruct the rev's position, and share some of the ways that this guy is, well, just fucking stupid!

Since this church is claiming to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, let's start there. Jesus did NOT preach violence, and to my knowledge, he never espoused inciting violence. In fact, he was the guy that (basically) said "turn the other cheek." Jesus sought out those who were lost and without hope, and gently showed them God's love. Christ helped the helpless and recommended that people without sin be the first to cast stones. In short, Jesus came to Earth to help people find God.

Let's just say, for the sake of argument, that Jesus is the only way to heaven. Isn't this quran burning counter-productive? From a human behavioral standpoint, you're not going to get someone to change their fundamental spiritual beliefs by saying "Hey, stupid, you're wrong! This is the way." The only way to open up a person to the possibility of something different is through your actions. Why? Well, to use an old cliche, actions speak louder than words. If I'm going to introduce someone to Christ's teachings, I need to do so through what I do, and by how I live. When a person is ready, I can explain that I realize I'm not perfect, but God forgives and loves me regardless. I can expound by saying that I know I think, say and do things that are ungodly, but that God's love for me is unconditional, and THAT drives me to do better in His eyes. To fall back onto another cliche, you get more bees with honey than with shit.

My next few points will be a bit more succinct...

-Christianity is responsible for the crusades and the inquisition

-Christianity is responsible for the Salem Witch Trials

-The Nazis burned religious material as well. Were they holy?

So, in the end, here's my take... these clowns are a bunch of right-wing crazies who are more concerned with generating publicity than with actually saving souls.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Fun With Yaks

No, I'm not talking about the fuzzy, Tibetan cow-like thing. I'm talking about kayaks. If you know me, you know that I enjoy whitewater kayaking, even though I haven't actually been in a whitewater kayak for about five years, and I haven't made a bona fide whitewater run for even longer. But whitewater kayaking is still something I enjoy, and I'd welcome the opportunity to run some whitewater in the future.

The primary reason, by the way, that I no longer kayak is because my whitewater peers have all quit. More specifically, my annual boys' trips were whitewater trips for a few years, but one by one, everyone quit for various reasons. Eventually, I quit as well. Partially because it's not as much fun to paddle alone, and partially because it's not as safe. Either way, the result was the same. My kayak, paddle and spray skirt started to collect a serious amount of dust.

Over the winter, another friend who also happened to kayak, gave me her whitewater boat, spray skirt and paddle. She suffered an injury that prevents her from returning to whitewater, and she said she'd rather give it to someone she knew than sell it to a stranger.

Since then, my girls have been asking me to teach them how to kayak. In fact, they started asking me about kayaking back when I actually used to do it, but they were too young then. Now, they're a little older and I have a second boat, so I gave them their first lesson yesterday... teaching them the Eskimo roll. Neither of them completely got it, but they both made a tremendous amount of progress, and the three of us had a grand old time just putzing around in the water.

Maybe next summer I'll take them on a real trip.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Aging Vets' Costs Concern Obama's Deficit Co-chair

I just read this article on yahoo news. The original article was posted by AP. The gist of the piece was that former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson, the co-chairman of President Barack Obama's deficit commission, expressed "concern" that "the system that automatically awards disability benefits to some veterans because of concerns about Agent Orange seems contrary to efforts to control federal spending." (How's that for a jumbled mess of a quote?) The article further quoted Simpson as saying "the irony (is) that the veterans who saved this country are now, in a way, not helping us to save the country in this fiscal mess."

I've got a few issues with Simpson's comments. Let me start by acknowledging that Simpson is an Army veteran, according to the article. The clip does not, however, say when he served, or if he saw any action. I suppose that this is supposed to give his words a bit of additional weight, but in my book, it demonstrates that his loyalty is with politicians, not with veterans.

Based on what I see, the public voicing of this "concern" is merely a first step in cutting expenditures for VA benefits. I'm not wild about this idea. As I say this, I need to remind my readers that I have served two combat tours during my enlistment in the U.S. Marines. (Bear in mind that I was "in the rear with the gear," not a true front-line grunt.) I am fortunate to have suffered no long-term effects from my time in the Persian Gulf, but not all of us are so lucky. Simpson's words concern me greatly, not for my own sake, but for the sake of my fellow veterans.

What concerns me even more is the fact that a great many of the Vietnam Veterans who receive these benefits were drafted. They didn't join the military by their own free will. Our country told them that they had to go overseas and fight for the American way, and now the government is insinuating that it costs too much to support these veterans? What kind of precedent does this set for our current military personnel, and those who will serve in the future?

Furthermore, it's the government who set up automatic disability for veterans exposed to agent orange. How is it the veterans' fault that "we're spending too much" in benefits? But I think what chaps my hide most is Simpson's insinuation that veterans, who literally put their lives on the line at our government's request, are somehow once again required to take the front line in controlling "this fiscal mess."

No, wait. There's something that chaps my hide even more. A politician is talking about sacrifice. The guy who's talking about controlling spending is a former senator... and politicians have one of the greatest sweetheart deals in the world when it comes to "retirement" benefits.

Hey Simpson, if you want to give your words some credibility, why don't you go without your entitlements? Or better yet, get your buddies to make the entire congress cut back on their benefits?

Please don't get me wrong. I think it's long past time for ALL OF US to tighten our belts. We need to raise taxes AND cut benefits across the board. If veterans' benefits get cut in the mix, I guess that's a necessary evil. But, in my humble opinion, veterans should be among the last who are asked to sacrifice their entitlements. Veterans are among a small group of individuals who literally put their lives on the line for our country. That sacrifice deserves some consideration.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Pong... Ping...

Sunny and Paulius made comments on my last post that sort of ask me to do a bit of follow-up. My last post was a bit of a ramble, but to summarize it, I essentially said that my generation, and the generation of my kids is a lot softer than my grandparents' generation. I stand by my comment, but I'd like to clarify the statement a bit, so that everyone has a better understanding of my point of view.

First and foremost, I should say that I'm speaking on the aggregate. I understand very well that society has a lot of poor people who can't afford the luxuries our culture at large takes for granted... air conditioning, Cable TV, cell phones, and automobiles. But at the same time, I will refer to a comment that Sunny and Paulius made one of their podcasts... "Even hobos have cell phones." So yeah, people DO go without common accommodations in our society, but when the homeless have access to cell phones, it's certainly arguable that our society's standard of living is significantly higher than the highest standard of living of our ancestors... which is a nice segue into my main argument that we as a society, specifically our generation, is far softer than our forefathers.

Let me bring up another point. I'm not 100% sure, but I believe that it was Paulius who pointed out in one of his blog posts that many people don't know where their food comes from. There is a serious disconnect between the farm and the table. Consumers go to the store, purchase and prepare their beef, dairy, grain and vegetables without having a clue where these items came from. Many city dwellers are completely unaware that hamburger comes from a cow, that pasta comes from grain, and that cheese originated in milk-producing animals. Furthermore, if our society was actually required to hunt and gather food for our survival, I believe that a majority of us would perish.

Furthermore, Paulius mentioned that our grandparents were frugal and went without because they had to. This also underscores my point. They had to do without. Modern society, on the whole, really doesn't know what it's like to do without. We don't understand what it's like to wonder where we'll get our next meal. (This is a reference to the Depression.) We can't fathom recycling rubber and rationing sugar because our greater way of life is at stake. (A reference to WWII.) In fact, we are so averse to the prospect of denying ourselves our creature comforts that we are willing to increase our federal debt, forcing future generations to pay our bills. I understand Paulius' argument that the availability of technology doesn't make us soft, and I can see Sunny's point that some of us aren't affluent enough to afford a lot of our modern conveniences, but this doesn't negate my position. In fact, I agree, to an extent, with Paulius when he said that we started going soft many, many generations ago. (This is my interpretation of his overall point, not something he specifically said.)

Where my opinion diverges though, is when I think about the sacrifices that generations before made to make my country... my world... a better place. The American war for independence... the Civil War (aka the War Between the States, for you southern-types), WWI, WWII. During each of these times, our people made huge sacrifices for our way of life. Could you imagine a draft in today's society? There's no way it would work, because most parents are not willing to sacrifice their children. Indeed, most of these same children would not sacrifice themselves. Rationing? Yeah right. We'll simply borrow more money to buy what we need, and pass the bill to our decedents. Learn to hunt our own food? Oh no, that's just gross! Raise our own food? That would require us to spend time on our hands and knees, in the hot sun.

THAT.... is why I think we are soft. It's not because we have conveniences and creature comforts that our ancestors lacked. It's because we have become so self-absorbed that we are unwilling, or unable, to think of the bigger picture. It's because we are so accustomed to our way of life that if we had to REALLY fend for ourselves... provide our own food, clothing and shelter... that many -- nay, most -- of us would perish. THAT is why I say we're soft. And, by the way, I know how to provide for myself better than a huge majority of people. But even I am not 100% certain that I could keep my family alive. So when I say that we're soft, I'm including myself in that statement.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Greatest Generation

Yesterday, I helped my dad with the task of cleaning out my uncle's house, following my uncle's death. This house is in the town where I grew up... the town where my parents still live. It's the house where my dad grew up, and I have a lot of memories of this place... visiting with Grandma and my uncle.

Hoarding seems to be a proud tradition in my family. My parents do it, my grandmother did it, and my uncle did it. This makes sense. My grandparents were adults during the Great Depression. Between the Depression and World War II, my grandparents understood first hand what it meant to make do with what you had, and to go without. Their years of sacrifice had a tremendous impact on ... well, on everything they did.

My grandmother saved everything. She was the original recycler - and far better at it than we are today. She wrote her grocery lists on the back sides of cereal boxes. She kept used bread wrappers and transformed them into woven seat cushions (Shown in this picture). She started cutting paper towels into thirds long before the manufacturers picked up on the idea of half-sheets. Even twist ties were kept, because "you never know when you might need one."

My uncle inherited these habits. Now at this point, I've got to digress a bit. You see, my uncle effectively lived with my grandparents for his entire life. He was in Germany during a two-year Army enlistment shortly after WWII, and he played minor league baseball in 1949 and 1950, but aside from those four years, he lived at home. He never married, and for as long as I've known him, he never had a job.

Well, that's not quite true. His job was to help take care of my grandparents. My grandfather was an alcoholic, and had several strokes. My only memories of my granddad were essentially of an infant in an old man's body. He could say a few slurred words, and could walk with a little help, but that was about the extent of his ability. My grandmother was a shut-in. I can count on one hand the number of times I saw her out of her house.

When my grandparents died, my uncle got everything... the house, any money, and the hoarding instinct. He picked up where my grandparents left off, with his own twist. He loved gardening, so he raised a lot of his own food, and unlike my grandmother, he would leave the house. He used to ride his bicycle all over town, and would pick up just about any little treasure he found. The house was full of mismatched gloves, lug nuts, tire balancing weights and other tidbits he found when riding around town.

Yesterday, while I helped my dad clean out the house, I saw the results of two generations worth of hoarding. We threw out two old sofas, two old televisions, three old living room chairs, and several hefty bags of trash. Among the items I tossed...

-Hundreds of twist ties. Enough that I couldn't fit them all into my hand.

-A stack of plastic food containers approximately three feet high. This isn't counting the lids... all of these items were interlocked.

-A hundred or so plastic forks, knives and spoons from Dairy Queen, Wendy's and so forth.

-A stack of tin can lids (yes, the LIDS) approximately six inches high.

-Dozens of tin cans of various sizes

-Hundreds of Kraft Singles cheese wrappers.

The list of crazy shit goes on and on, and I really didn't make much of a dent in my quest to help dad clean out the house. While I was cleaning, a few thoughts went through my head...

-How can anyone live like this?

-All of this stuff... two generations and literally a house full of stuff... the total accumulation of many lives... and it will all be reduced to a few select mementos for my uncle's surviving relatives. The rest will end up in the dump. Even the house will most likely be demolished, and the empty lot sold to someone else.

-But mostly, I was amazed at the frugality and ingenuity of my grandparents and uncle. They used scraps of newspaper, cardboard and scrap clothing to seal drafty windows. They ate canned meat because it didn't require refrigeration. They never had cable TV. The only real indulgence my uncle allowed himself was his art. He was a very accomplished painter. I got one of his oil paintings while I was helping my dad clean out the house, which is what you see here.

I look at how they lived, and I compare them to my generation, and my kids' generation. We're so soft. We don't understand what it's like to do without. If we need want something, we simply go out and get it. When we're done with things, we simply throw them away. If it's hot, we sit in the air-conditioned living room and watch Blu-Ray Movies on our HDTVs. If it's cold, we don't put on a sweater, we turn up the heat. I actually brought home the aforementioned bread-wrapper seat cushion... to remind myself of the sacrifices of those who came before us, and maybe to instill this into my kids.

My uncle was one of the last relics of a generation that understood sacrifice and ingenuity. I look at the people of his era, compare them to my generation, and stand in awe of them, and with a bit of contempt for my peers. I can't picture us being able to live without our cell phones, fashionable shoes and computers. When I compare us to them, it's like putting a bunch of marshmallows against an oak. Tom Brokaw had it right... these folks really were the greatest generation.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Funerals are for the Living

We laid my uncle to rest yesterday. It was a good funeral. The morticians did an awesome job of preparing the body. More people showed than I expected. It was a warm, but not hot summer day. After the funeral, the extended family went out for lunch. There were twelve of us all together. Many of us hadn't seen one-another for over a decade, but we instantly fell into a rhythm which had us laughing and joking with one-another as if it had been minutes since seeing each other, not years. We celebrated my uncle's life, caught up with others, and we were all enriched for the experience. I hope that another funeral is not required for us to get together again.

By the way, it turns out that my uncle and grandparents are interred next to a childhood friend's parents.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Just Do It Yourself

Okay, I'll admit it. I'm a do-it-yourselfer. I enjoy troubleshooting a problem, finding a solution and implementing a fix. I like the of fixing things, and I find joy in the outcome. In fact, it's kind of therapeutic for me to fix things when I'm stressed.

Over the last few weeks... maybe months... I've noticed that the engine in my truck has been surging. It started with just a little bit of fluctuation at idle. Over time, the fluctuation grew, and it started happening while driving down the road. It wasn't unsafe in and of itself, but after a while the truck started shifting into overdrive while highway driving on the smallest of inclines, and quite frankly, the ride became rough and annoying.

Today, I did a little bit of self-therapy and fixed the problem. It was a simple, inexpensive fix that just about anyone can do in their own garage. The rest of this post is going to be dedicated to helping other do-it-yourselfers. If you don't fit into this category, you may as well stop reading.

And of course, since we are a land full of lawsuit-happy attorneys and money-grubbers, I will throw in this disclaimer: What I'm doing here is simply telling you about my experience. If you ended up here because you were researching the problem I will discuss below, feel free to use my experience, but do so at your own risk. I'm not your mechanic, and I make no guarantees about your specific outcome if you try what I did.

Anyway, here's the scoop... I have a 2002 Dodge Dakota with a 4.7L V8. As I mentioned above, I've been having problems with engine surge. Research told me that there were a few things to try. And since they were all closely related, I took an and-all approach and did three different things at the same time.

1) I cleaned the Throttle Body
2)I replaced the Throttle Position Sensor (TPS)
3)I reset the Powertrain Control Module (PCM)

I'll give a brief overview of how this is done. Again, this is a guideline, not a step-by-step tutorial.

-In order to clean the throttle body, I needed to remove the black plastic shroud in front of the throttle body. This is VERY easy. There is a hose between the air cleaner shroud and the throttle body shroud. (These are my terms, not necessarily the manufacturer's.) At each end of the hose, there is a hose clamp. Loosen the hose clamps and remove the hose connecting the shrouds.

-Loosen the hose clamp on the back end of the throttle body shroud.

-Remove the two screws that hold the throttle body shroud to the intake, and gently remove the throttle body shroud.

-Inspect and clean the throttle body with throttle body cleaner. (For those of you familiar with carburetors, the throttle body looks like a giant one-barrel carb, and throttle body cleaner is similar to carb cleaner.) Caution: throttle body cleaner will damage plastic and paint. Follow their directions. (In my case the throttle body was surprisingly clean, but I cleaned it anyway.)

-Remove and replace the TPS. On the right side of the throttle body, there were two sensors. The TPS is the upper sensor. Pay attention to the reinstallation of the sensor. You need to line up the tines on the sensor with the mechanical end of the throttle body. (This sounds a bit convoluted now, but it will make sense when you do the replacement.)

-Reset the PCM. Unplug the negative battery terminal. Put your key into the ignition, and pretend like you're starting the truck for about 30 seconds. This will reset the PCM. This is necessary when you repair or replace electronic devices in the vehicle.

In my case, I am fairly certain that the TPS was the trick. But like I said, since I had the shroud off, I went ahead and cleaned the throttle body, and resetting the PCM was necessary following the replacement of the TPS.

After doing this work, I took the truck on a quick test drive - about 20 miles, both in-town and highway driving, and the problem appears to be 100% fixed.

I hope this helps someone else.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Sometimes, it's not too Late. Other Times, it Is.

I'm sitting in hospice right now, watching my uncle "resting comfortably." It's apparent to me that he's having difficulty breathing, and I know that any breath could be his last. From what I've been told, he's got "everything." His heart is failing... they say it's operating at about 5% efficiency. His kidneys are failing. And they suspect that he has late-stage cancer, but there's no sense in opening him up to find out.

This is going to be a flashback post. I'm going to rewind God-Only-Knows how far. I guess that I should start in my childhood. On both sides of my family, we've been what you could conservatively call loose-knit. My parents live two hours away, and I see them a couple of times per year. My brothers each live four hours from me. One brother I see once or twice per year, and the other I haven's seen in about five years. I haven't seen most of my aunts, uncles and cousins in about a decade.

I know that there's no excuse for this. But I also guess that we're all happy with the way things are. We're all involved enough in our own lives that nobody is willing to call us all together. Another thing we've got going against us is that a lot of us hold grudges. My dad and my uncle (the one I'm watching now) didn't speak to one-another for years. They finally buried the hatchet over the last couple of days, before my uncle's condition deteriorated to where it is now.

I too haven't seen my uncle for I-don't-know-how-long. This had nothing to do with the dad-uncle feud. In my case, it's because I didn't make enough effort to visit an uncle who never left the house.

During my two-hour drive, I wondered a lot of things... Would I make it? What would I say? Would he be coherent enough for us to have a conversation? Would he be angry with me for waiting so long? Was I going for him? For me? For my dad? None of it really mattered. We're all family, and my place was in the hospice room.

My aunt and one of my cousins were here. I kept thinking what I'd be saying if I were in the bed instead of my uncle. "Well, geez, if I knew that it was this easy to get the family together, I'd have done it years ago."

The catching up is mostly done. Now it's just my uncle, my dad and me. My uncle is still sleeping peacefully. I am writing in bits and pieces... in between my dad and I telling stories.

I stepped out a while ago and grabbed a burger. I figured that while I was out, I'd look up Lisa, and old friend of mine. I've known Lisa for over fifteen years. I talked to her a lot when I was going through my divorce. I suspect that was a bit tough for her, because she stayed friends with the ex too. Anyway, when I started dating again, Lisa and my now-wife had a disagreement, which caused a fall out between Lisa and me.

A few months back, Lisa called. We caught up. I thought things were good. Fast-forward back to tonight. I figured I'd call and or drop by while I'm in town. She hung up on me. I'm not sure what I did, but that's not important.

Sometimes, it's not too late. Other times, it is.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Visiting With an Old Friend

Sorry for the long gap between posts... I'll say once again that life in 3D-Land is keeping me away from my virtual life. Oh wait. I guess I'm not sorry. I kind of enjoy my real life. Anyway...

During my trip to Florida, I had a chance to see an old friend. And when I say "old," I really mean that he's a long-standing friend, even though he's four or five years my senior.

When I was in the Marine Corps, almost 20 years ago, Adam and I were tighter than that glove on OJ Simpson's hand. Anyone who's been in the military can attest that friends from the service are as close as family. For me, Adam is a grand illustration of how these friendships stand the test of time. When we were in the Corps, we constantly hung out together. He was the best man at my first wedding, and he's my older daughter's godfather. With the passage of time, we've drifted apart to some extent, but even 20 years and 1500 miles fail to diminish my fondness for this guy.

Fast forward to the present. You know how the story goes... you get invested in your day-to-day living. The phone calls become less and less frequent. Your friendship gets reduced to occasional emails, and Christmas cards. (The cards are from him. I've never been good at sending Seasonal greetings.) But deep down, the friendship has never really faded. You think of the friend occasionally, and you honestly want to visit and catch up, but again, life doesn't allow it.

To put the time line in perspective, Adam left the Marine Corps in 1991, but he stayed in the area, so we kept in touch. My enlistment ended in 1992, and I moved back to Iowa in 1993. He decided to move back home in 1994 I believe, and Iowa was on his way back home, so I saw him then. We didn't see each other again until 2004, when he got married, and I saw him again in 2005, when I remarried.

Each time we saw one another, we spent the first few minutes catching up on what had happened since our last visit, but essentially, it was as if no time had passed... we always picked up where we left off. This, in my opinion, is one of the hallmarks of true friendship... a friendship that stands the test of time.

Well, it just so happens that Adam lives in Florida... a few hours south of Orlando. Fortunately, he was able to stop in Orlando, and we had a chance to catch up. In fact, we had an entire day! We met up mid-morning, where he joined my extended family-in-law for lunch, and agreed to tag along on our planned trip to Epcot. I must say, my family was awesome. Though I hadn't seen a lot of them for a long time -- and had met some of them for the first time -- everyone intuitively seemed to understand that catching up with Adam was very important to me. Adam and I tended to lag a little behind the main group, which gave us a chance to have some semi-private conversations, and reminisce without boring everyone else to tears.

We spent a LOT of time talking about days gone by, revisiting some of our favorite times together, but we both seemed to be firmly rooted in the here and now. We discussed how the Marine Corps really is a a brotherhood that never dies... something I think we both failed to thoroughly realize when we were on active duty. I think the highlight, for me, was when we visited Japan at Epcot.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Epcot, there's a feature called World Showcase that has highlights of various countries. Adam and I had both visited Okinawa during our enlistment, and we looked forward to seeing what Epcot had to offer. The one thing in Japan that I had looked most forward to seeing was an authentic Japanese cork carving. When I was in Okinawa, I was stunned by the detail of these Japanese handmade works of art. One of my regrets is that I never picked one up when I had the chance.

Anyway, while we were at the Japanese area of Epcot, I looked for these cork carvings, but none were to be found. I told Adam that I was a bit disappointed by this. He replied that he was thinking the same thing, and then proceeded to tell me that while he was in Okinawa, he had purchased a coffee table that was a Japanese cork carving with a glass top, He was studying it a few days before our visit, and noticed something that he'd never seen before, despite owning the table for over 20 years. We marveled at the detail of these spectacular works of art, and that cemented my impression that despite the passage of time, we were still in sync as if we'd been separated by days, not years.

We had a full day of catch-up. It was great. I was gratified that we got to visit. I know that it will once again be a long time before we see each other again, but I am thankful for the time we had.

Friday, July 30, 2010

A Trip to Disney

Most of you already know that I took a trip to Florida last week. After all, the majority of my readers are also my Facebook friends. What I haven't done though, is talk about the details of my trip. There are a lot of stories for me to tell. I haven't started before now because as soon as I got back from vacation, I went back to work, and have been once again putting in a lot of hours. I certainly won't complain about that... after all, I have a vacation to pay for.

We spent our time in Orlando, known, of course, for Disney. We stayed at the Hilton right outside of Downtown Disney, and we hit Magic Kingdom and Epcot. With this trip, I can now say that I have been to both Disneyland and Disney World. The first time I went to Disneyland was in the early 1990's, and then I went again around four years ago. I was impressed with Disneyland on my first trip (despite the fact that Snow White refused to have her picture taken with me), and the second trip was even better. They did a great job of expanding and improving the park. With that said though, Disney World blows Disneyland out of the water. I'd often heard this, but reserved judgment until I experienced things for myself.

There are a few reasons that I like Disney World better. For starters, I really like that Downtown Disney is a completely separate entity from the theme parks. This affords people the opportunity to focus on shopping while at Downtown Disney, and concentrate on the rides and attractions at the theme parks. This was a stroke of genius. With that said though, if you're short on time, or aren't wild about commuting to a completely different location for shopping, Magic Kingdom and Epcot both had plenty of opportunities for shopping. My point is that Disney ironed out some of Disneyland's kinks when they built Disney World.

My favorite feature of Disney World, however, was the tickets we purchased. Certain hotels have some sort of partnership with Disney that allows the hotel guests to buy discounted tickets to the theme parks. In our case, the discount basically worked like this... you buy the discount ticket, which allows you to enter the park late in the day, but you get to remain in the park after it closes to the other ticket holders. This was a quintuple win for us. 1) The kids got to sleep in. 2) Many early birds had already departed by the time we arrived, so the lines were shorter. 3) Lines were significantly shorter after the park closed, because there are very few hotels that offer this deal. 4) We were NOT at the parks during the hottest part of the day. 5) We got a DISCOUNT for the four aforementioned perks!

With this all said though, the hotels that offer these perks are a select few, and they're not budget hotels. However, I would ABSOLUTELY do the same thing again if I were to hit Disney World. I'll talk a bit more about the parks themselves, and other aspects of the trip in later posts.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Faith vs. Religion

I've got to say that Paulius has been very flattering to me lately. He mentioned me in his inaugural podcast, and he gave me credit for influencing a change in his attitude toward religion. While the former is kind of cool, it's really the latter that I'd like to discuss a bit more in-depth.

Paul's post started off by talking about the Westboro Baptist Church... you know, the "God Hates Fags" idiots that protests at the funerals of military personnel who were killed in combat. He then used these morons as illustrations of larger issues. In fact, you should just take a moment to read his article, and then come back when you're done.

Okay, now that you've read his post, and gotten a bit of background, you should have a better understanding of where I'm headed with today's words, which are going to discuss the differences between faith and religion. The words are used quite interchangeably, but there is really a cavernous difference in their meanings.

Religion, as Paulius' reference to the Westboro haters illustrates, has been the cause of a great deal of suffering and oppression throughout history. The Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Salem Witch Trials are three glaring examples of evils that the Christian Religion alone can perpetrate under the right circumstances. This is because religion is not faith. Religion is religion.

My definition of faith is the belief in something that cannot be definitively proven. My belief in God is, by definition, faith because I cannot create and recreate an experiment that can provide sufficient evidence of God's existence. My inability to prove God's existence has absolutely no bearing on whether or not He Is; I am simply unable to prove things one way or the other. With this in mind, I would like to point out that atheism is technically a faith, when using my definition of the word. Paul, a self-proclaimed atheist, cannot prove that God doesn't exist any more than I can prove that God does exist. Absent this proof either way, we simply have different preconceived notions regarding this existence. Both of us have an equal amount of faith. It's simply that we have faith in different answers to the same question.

With this in mind, I will freely concede, from an intellectual standpoint, that I could be absolutely wrong about God's existence. It's completely possible that my communion with God is nothing more than neurons firing in my brain under the right circumstances... that these neurons release serotonin and other chemicals, causing a feeling that I interpret as feeling God's presence. Science has talked about the process, but it has not yet found a method of addressing causation, which means that science hasn't come any closer to proving or disproving God's place in the universe.

But enough about faith. I hope that I've sufficiently defined and illustrated what faith is. It's now time to talk about religion. While faith is the core belief, religion is the set of rules, traditions and rituals that are associated with this belief. Taking communion, the premise that the Pope is infallible, and going to Church are examples of some of these rules. In other words, religion is the set of dogmatic principles that an individual follows in the practice of faith. Faith is the core belief. Religion is what happens as a result of faith.

For example, some people believe that if they behave in a certain way on earth, they will receive certain rewards in heaven (or punishment in hell). They follow certain rules with the expectation of a certain outcome. Atheists have a belief system that’s not incongruent with the belief of people with faith. Atheists are convinced that there is no God, so the only consequences for their actions are here on earth. Their belief system is self-imposed, and by society.
With this in mind, an atheist can be a good person while someone professing faith in God can be an absolute monster. My friend Greg doesn’t believe in God, but he does believe in being faithful to his wife, loving his children, honoring his parents, not stealing, and taking care of his friends. These are all tenements of the Christian religion, and by my definition, Greg is a good person. As for evil Christians?!? I think that we can all agree that the Westboro idiots are not a shiny happy example of people practicing a healthy faith in God.
So the next time someone talks to you about your religion, maybe you can bring up the possibility that they’re talking about the wrong thing. Because what they’re interested in is not the set of rules, but the belief itself.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Fun in the Sun

I'm going to start off today's post by making a small apology to my best friend Greg. You see, Greg and I have a kind of unofficial ritual where I drop by his house every other weekend and hang out for a couple of hours, and I haven't done so since our annual boys' trip, which ended in early June. Two weeks ago, I went to Des Moines for the 4th of July. I had a great time, seeing some of my high school classmates friends, so I missed him that weekend. Yesterday, I went on a poker run, so I missed yesterday as well. And next time I'll be on family vacation, so by the time I actually get around to dropping by, about two months will have passed. Sorry, Greg.

Now, for the poker run. I'll start out by saying it was a blast! I've never been on a ride with anywhere near the amount of riders I saw yesterday. There were about 150 bikes, and I estimate that the line of bikes stretched for about a quarter mile!

To make it even cooler, we had police escorts part of the way, who blocked traffic so we could stay together and ride without stopping. I also got to see a couple of friends that I hadn't seen for a long time. In fact, one of the guys helped organize the poker run.

I also took my older daughter with me, so we spent the entire afternoon together... hanging out, and chatting about nothing in particular. Since she's almost 18, and has a life of her own, I particularly cherish these times together, because I know that they won't last forever.

At the end of the run, a guy walked up to me and commented on the Marine Corps T-Shirt I was wearing. He was in the Corps as well, and it turned out that we served during the same years, and were even at the same base for a while. Talk about a small world!

I had a great time yesterday, and I'd like to thank Dan for inviting me on the run. It's definitely something I'd do again if the opportunity presented itself.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

...And Life Marches Forward

I suspect that by now everyone who reads my humble blog has noticed that I haven't been writing as much as usual. This is due to a combination of a lack of fresh material, and because life has kept me engaged in reality. There's a teeny piece of me that misses the blogging, but for the most part, I find that my other activities provide plenty of fulfillment.

Work is work. I've been putting in many hours, effectively becoming a full-time employee. Since I'm paid by the hour, I can hang with this. I must admit though, I sort of miss having some down time to do stuff around the house. For example, I started refinishing my kitchen cabinets over four months ago, and I'm still less than half way done. And I've started even more projects. I could spend a lot of time working on them, but hanging out with the family takes precedence... a choice I happily make.

With the summer season upon us, my garden is in full swing. But this year, it's the weeds that are prospering while my tomatoes, broccoli and so forth fail to yield. This one is a bit beyond my control. The garden was placed in an area surrounded by trees, and the trees have grown to a point that the garden doesn't get enough sunlight. I may simply replant grass there next year and have a deck garden instead.

I'm spending some quality time riding my motorcycle, but mostly it's commuting to and from work. I wouldn't mind some more weekend rides with the kids, but they're coming to an age where they want to hang out with their friends instead of dad. That's okay though, like I said, I've got plenty of stuff to keep me occupied. Last weekend, I did a ride to J&P Cycles with my younger daughter and some friends. It wasn't a lot of miles, but it was a lot of bikes, and it was an all-day event, so it was all good. Next weekend, I may do a poker run. I've never done a huge ride with a lot of other bikers, so I'm kind of looking forward to that.

Church is keeping me very busy. It seems that sometimes it's almost overwhelming. When I joined the church, I wanted to become involved... it's something that I'd been missing. It was a good way to serve God, expand my circle of friends, and do something for my community. I'm getting what I've asked for in spades. Every now and then it seems like too much of a good thing, but not to the point where I feel the need to withdraw... I don't want to do that, so I simply set limits, and say 'no' when I can't do what they ask. Fortunately, they understand my limits, and in the end it's all good.

I guess what I'm saying here is that life is life. Some days, I'm overwhelmed. Others, I'm content. Either way, I'm living the dream. And it's a funny thing about dreams... in a single dream you can go from bliss to despair to confusion to the surreal, but the dream continues. This dream is my life, and I'm not in a hurry to end it.

Monday, June 28, 2010

If Only They Weren't So Far Removed...

I was reading Paulius' post for today, and once again he's given me fodder for a post. (This is a good thing, because I haven't written for a while.) His article talked about The Ultimatum Game, which was an experiment in economics and human nature. Read his post if you want more information. It's okay, I'll wait.

The researchers were surprised by the results of the study, and Paulius, who is apparently much smarter and wiser than they, claims that he was shocked that they were surprised. Toward the end of the article, Paulius made a comment, saying "... it's these people who can't see these motivations and think everything works on making the most possible who run our economy..."

Ummm... I'd like to disagree on this one. In many science-based circles, research and application are completely different arms of the discipline. Researchers sit in their ivory towers, while the trench workers apply the discipline's knowledge in the field. This, of course, is an oversimplified generalization, but my point remains.

With this in mind though, researchers need to run these silly tests and experiments PRECISELY because they're removed from the trenches. And face it, some of the experiments researchers perform are pretty out there... nobody needs to spend millions to prove that water is wet or that snow is cold. If a researcher needs to run these kinds of silly experiments, then they've been away from the trenches for too long.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

That Evil Bastard

Over the last couple of days, I've seen internet articles talking about how people are pissed that Tony Hayward, the CEO of BP, went to some sort of yacht race. In one of the articles, there was also mention that people are pissed that Obama and Biden went golfing. To all of you that are angry about this -- give the guys a break!

Don't get me wrong here. I empathize with the anger and frustration that people are feeling over this spill. Jobs are disappearing, ecologies are being compromised- if not destroyed, memories are being tarnished. This is a huge deal... something that we won't come to grips with for a very long time.

That's not the point though. Hayward did not create the problem. His business practices may have contributed to the situation, but Hayward didn't exactly say "Geez, I'd love to see an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico blow up... think how pretty all of that swirly oil would look mixed up with the Gulf waters."

Furthermore, Hayward is the figurehead. His job is to run the business aspect of BP. He's not the guy who is going to come up with ideas to fix the problem. And even if he WAS, don't you think that he'd be a bit tired if he didn't have some time off?!? Think about it... would YOU be able to work 16 hours per day, 7 days a week, for months on end? Wouldn't YOU be a bit crispy and out of ideas?

Hayward has definitely come across as less-than-connected. And as the head honcho, part of his job is to be the face of villainy. And yes, he could have chosen something a bit less elitist than a yacht race for his time off. I'm not trying to defend his actions. I'm simply trying to express that it's not really reasonable for people to expect perfection from him.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Counterpoint

I just finished reading Paulius' post from yesterday, where he asserted that "parents want schools to teach their kids only their values and points of view." The article has some good ideas, and it's clear that he put some thought into what he said. With this in mind though, I'd like to point out a couple of flaws in the logic that he set forth.

I guess I'll start off with the whole home schooling thing. There seems to be an undercurrent in Paul's post that assumes home schooling parents are right-wing, fundamentalist, religious nut jobs who don't want their children exposed to the evil teachings of evolution, contraception and so forth. I am more than prepared to accept that many children are home schooled on this premise. However, it's not reasonable to assume that the majority of children are taught at home for this reason. I'd like to submit that many parents choose to home school their children in order to spend extra time with them, or to provide an experience that's superior to what may be offered by substandard schools in a given area. A home schooled child is not automatically the offspring of a fundamentalist parent.

And adding to a point I touched on a moment ago, it's no longer reasonable to assume that public school is adequately producing the critical thinkers that Paulius seeks. If schools were doing this, we wouldn't have No Child Left Behind, which by the way, appears to have had the impact of teaching children to take tests, not creating critical thinkers. In other words, public schools are often teaching facts, not broadening horizons.

As for teaching our kids about other religions... well, that's good, but only to a point. We can teach our kids about Islam, but that doesn't mean that Muslims will teach their children about Christianity. And to add a practical note to this.... when would we squeeze this in? The kids are already too busy preparing for their No Child Left Behind test.

I will say that I firmly agree with Paulius' final point. Raising our children to think critically is a good thing. They should be able to see both sides of any issue and come to their own conclusion, based on their own thoughts and experiences, rather than inheriting opinions from others. But it's a fallacy to think that home-schooling automatically breeds narrow-mindedness. It's incorrect to expect that a public education will produce freethinkers, and it's simplistic to say that understanding eliminates conflict.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

While I'm Evaluating Stuff...

During our boys' trip to the Boundary Waters, I had the opportunity to try out a lot of new gadgets and gear. Yesterday, I wrote about my impression of the Wenzel Ridgeline and Pinon tents. Well, since it rained a lot, I should talk about the rain suit I purchased. I suspect that by now, many of you have heard of Frog Toggs rain gear. For those of you who haven't, they're a lightweight, breathable rain suit.

I've been intrigued by them for a while, but there were two things that really scared me away from them... the price, and the issue that they LOOK like they'll shred to confetti in a stiff breeze. Just before my trip though, I found a knock-off, made by Natural Gear, at Sam's Club for about half the price of Frog Toggs... a price where I was willing to try them out.

All I can say is WOW! My last day was a full day in a constant downpour, and I stayed dry. Though the material looks flimsy, it's not. I snagged the coat sleeves on brambles and branches many times, and it never tore. It's also a great top-layer light jacket. It's breathable, but provides that extra bit of warmth when the weather starts to get chilly.

The other thing that made my time up north very comfortable was wicking clothing. Everything from my shirt to my undies had wicking action. This, combined with my rain gear, kept me dry and comfortable... not too hot, but not too cold. My wicking clothing, including the undies and socks, were purchased at Sierra Trading Post. I've made around six purchases from during the last year, and I've been consistently satisfied with their merchandise, service and prices.

The last thing I want to talk about is the water purifier. Water is heavy to carry, especially if you're going to port a weeks' worth. And while the water up north is clean and clear, it's still recommended that you filter, purify or boil your drinking water Greg purchased a Katadyn Combi. That was another WOW product. It worked exactly as advertised. The filter required considerably more cleaning than I expected, but then again, we tended to get our water right at short, and the manufacturer recommends using the purifier in deeper water. The thing that really surprised me was HOW MUCH water we all consumed. Between the four of us, for drinking and cooking, we probably went through two to three gallons per day. But I'm digressing. If you're in the market for a portable water filter, check out the Katadyn Combi.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Accommodations

On the first and last night, we stayed at a room in a small motel in Ely, Mn. The motel was named the Canoe On Inn. It was a quaint, motel in a resort town. Very overpriced considering what was offered, but it was convenient, it had beds, and there was enough hot water for four grubby guys to shower before and after the trip. And considering that we didn't take deodorant or toothpaste on the trip (bears seem to like these toiletries, so we left them at home), we were pretty ripe at the end of our journey.

The rest of the time, as you should imagine, we slept in tents. Greg and I purchased new tents for the trip... they were el cheapo $35 tents that we bought from Scheels. We bought these tents because we wanted something compact and lightweight, and because we figured it would be easier to find two small tent-pitching spots, rather than a place for a single, large tent. We were correct.

The tents we bought were very similar. I bought the Wenzel Ridgeline, and Greg purchased the Wenzel Pinon. I chose my tent with the expectation that it would last a week. Anything past the week was a bonus in my opinion. I wanted something that would allow enough room for Bill and me to sleep comfortably, and to stay relatively dry. But just in case, I brought a bivvy sack for extra insurance. And, oh yeah, I DID take the time to waterproof the tent before our trip.

For $35 I had relatively low expectations. Furthermore, during my research, I ran across one consistent complaint -- that the door zipper was a pain to work. I figured that as long as it didn't blow out, I could live with that. The tent did meet my expectations. It kept me relatively dry, and it survived the week. I figure that it will make a good little tent for the kids to use in the back yard.

With that said, I'd probably choose a different tent if I had it all to do over again. There were two major defects in this tent. First and foremost, the tent is technically sized 7'X7', but as far as usable room goes, it's more accurate to say it's just shy of 6'X6'. I have a cot that sits about five inches off of the floor and is six feet long. The cot was pushing on the tent at the head and feet.

And the door's zipper system is not well designed. There is no rain flap over the zipper, so consequently quite a bit of rain got in to the tent. Again, I had a bivvy sack and a cot, so fared well. Bill, on the other hand, woke up with a wet sleeping bag. Fortunately, the corners are not well sealed, which meant that the water flowed on out the corner, rather than puddling up in the tent. (Yes, I'm saying that rather tongue-in-cheek.)

Greg's tent, the Pinon, did have the rain flaps on the door. But his tent didn't have any clips to connect the fiberglass poles to the tent body, which meant that his tent was a bit flimsier in the wind. He lucked out though... there was rain, but no wind-driven rainstorm.

In both cases, the stress on the door's zipper is caused by the poles that support the rain fly. The fly support system is poorly designed.

At the end of the day, what I purchased met my needs, but I wouldn't do it again. If you're looking for a cheap, fair-weather tent, this may fit the bill... just remember to go easy on the door.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Minnesota State Bird

It's a long-standing joke that the mosquito is Minnesota's state bird. During our boys' trip, we found out why. The first day on the water was relatively quiet and peaceful. But on the second day, we saw -- rather, heard -- something none of us had ever experienced.

Just before dusk, when nature's daytime creatures are finding a place to hole up for the night, but before the nocturnal animals come out to play, I detected a high-pitched sound... not quite a buzz, not quite a whine, but something in between. At first it was barely audible, and I couldn't quite pinpoint the source of the noise. As the sun continued its decent, however, the sound grew louder, and I could tell that the source was right at the shoreline. This is about the time that Darin noticed the noise as well, and that was when I saw the it... a mammoth swarm of mosquitoes, dancing around the shoreline. Figuring that they saw us as ripe victims, we collectively shuddered a bit and retired to our tents. Greg and Bill were already asleep. The next day, I experienced the same thing, and pointed out the swarm to Greg and Bill. Again, we all retired to our tents for the evening.

The third day, when we were at a different site, we once again heard the now-familiar sound of the mosquito swarm. It was the loudest evening yet, and we could see the cloud of bugs completely surrounding us. This time, however, it was a clear, warm evening, and we had a nice camp fire, so we decided to brave the swarm and stay outside. By the way, if you'd like an idea of what the swarm sounded like, picture the bug scene in the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. It was LOUD!

None of us rushed to apply bug spray. I guess we were morbidly curious how they would react... would we be eaten alive, or left alone? Miraculously, they didn't bother us much. I guess the fire was enough to scare them off. Either that, or they were scared of all of the dragonflies and bats trying to eat THEM.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

In to Every Life...

... a little rain must fall... and such was the case on our boys' trip. It rained three of the six days that we were in the boundary waters. Our first day of paddling was cut short when mother nature decided to test our meddle with a little precipitation.

You should realize that on our first day, we were in our worst shape physically, and it had been about a year since any of us had paddled, so our technique was a bit rusty as well. Our journey started with a 1/2 mile portage to the entry point. Since we were carrying a week's worth of gear, we were already a bit fatigued by the time we hit the water. But we were also in high spirits, so the fatigue quickly wore off, as we paddled our way down the river that led to our first lake.

The rivers weren't really rivers in the traditional sense... no current to speak of. They were simply shallow, winding bodies of water connecting one lake to another, filled with river grass and lily pads. The first river had a couple of spots that were impassable by canoe, which meant that we had to do a grand total of three portages during our first day... the aforementioned 1/2 miler, followed by a couple quick hundred-yard jaunts. Nothing serious in retrospect, but again, we were a bit out of shape, so these portages took a toll on our old, out-of-shape bodies. After about 90 minutes of slow paddling, we hit our first lake.

We'd been on the lake for 15 minutes or so when the wind picked up and the sky grew gray. Intuitively we knew that we were in for a shower. Just as whitecaps began forming on the lake, the wind started blowing us toward shore. Providence kicked in and the shoreline happened to host a camp site. We really wanted to continue paddling, but after conferring for a bit, we decided that seizing the campsite was the wise thing to do.

We got our gear out of the canoes, quickly donned our rain gear, and got the tents set up just as the rain started in earnest. After the paddling, we didn't really want to huddle in our cramped tents, so we decided to tough things out in the open air. Fortunately there was no lightning, and we all had good rain gear. Everyone that is, except for Darin. Darin seemed to have misplaced his rain coat and was stuck with only rain pants. On the good side, I had an extra rain suit that was "one size fits all." Unfortunately for him, he was a bit too large for that raincoat. It took him several minutes to even squeeze in to the thing. And when he finally got the raincoat on... well, suffice it to say that it was more than a little snug. Furthermore, it was a cheap, non-breathable raincoat. Darin spent a considerable amount of time whining about this. In fact, he was even saying that he was thinking about going back to shore to make sure that he didn't leave HIS raincoat in my truck at the put-in point.

After about an hour, the rain let up a bit, and we put our sleeping bags and cots in the tent. That's when Darin found his raincoat. All was right in the world. Greg and Bill spent a few hours fishing. Bill got skunked, but Greg caught a good-sized Northern Pike, which he filleted and grilled up, despite all of the bones. Overall, the day was a little shorter than we'd have liked, but it ended well.

Here are another couple of pictures...

This is a shot of Darin in my raincoat. As you can see, he's none too happy about his clothing situation.









Here's a picture of my canoe going through the lily pads...









Here's a snap of Bill taking shelter in a hollowed-out tree. Lucky for him, there was no lightning.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Eating More than Dried Food

During our annual boys' trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, we had two primary goals... being old farts we didn't want to over-extend ourselves physically, and we didn't want to eat those crappy dehydrated meals all week.

We succeeded admirably in not working too hard. We paddled and portaged no more than a few miles per day on our way out. Furthermore, we had two days where we didn't really paddle anywhere. In fact, we were so lazy on our way out that we were able to make the entire trip back in one day. Don't get me wrong, that last day was a long, hard slog, but the point is that we managed to fulfill our goal of not over-extending ourselves.

Planning our meals required a bit more creativity. We could travel extremely light and eat only dehydrated backpacking meals all week, or we could add some extra weight and eat a bit better. And of course there is a happy medium. This is where my culinary expertise, creativity, and camping experience came in handy. Here are a few of the meals I managed to throw together for our trip...

-Chicken Broccoli Alfredo Pasta. Ingredients: Instant Broccoli Alfredo Pasta, Cooked Chicken Pouches, Powdered Milk, Butter Buds, Parmesan and Romano Cheese, and Lowry's Seasoned Salt

-Split Pea Soup and Spam. Ingredients: Dehydrated Split Pea Soup, 3 individual Spam pouches, Lowry's Seasoned Salt

-15 Bean Soup and Bacon. Ingredients: Dehydrated pack of 15-bean soup, Fully cooked peppered bacon, Parmesan and Romano Cheese and Lowry's Seasoned Salt

-Chili. Ingredients: Beef Jerky (which was reconstituted during the cooking process), Dehydrated Chili, 2x condensed tomato paste, Lowry's Seasoned Salt and Parmesan/Romano Cheese

We did have one evening of the dehydrated meals designed for camping/hiking/backpacking, and I must admit that they weren't that bad. With that said though, we ate MUCH better for a LOT less money. Yeah, it would have been possible to eat nothing but the dehydrated meals. We would have traveled a bit lighter, but we wouldn't have eaten nearly as well, and we would have spent a LOT more.

Let me close today's post with a picture from our trip...