White Elephant

I always enjoy a good white elephant Christmas party, when you never know if you’ll go home with something awesome or something completely lame. I still think the monster hat scored (which I gave to Kyra) was my favorite.

I have a long tradition of white-elephant gifts, such as three amazing vinyl LPs, five dollars in pennies, potato cookies, $2,000 in gift cards, and even last year’s Feliz Navidoug pillow. I’m also remembered for a massive CRT computer monitor that weighed around thirty pounds (rookie mistake: open the big heavy box), a puzzle featuring my friend dressed as a sexy firefighter, a Jesus Christ Atonement board game (!), and a lobster-topped serving bowl that seems to come back to our party each year.

And it’s that time again, so I was thinking of clever ideas. The best white-elephant gift is one that’s funny and somewhat useful, but not too nice or useful. After a few aborted directions, I settled on a custom-printed shower curtain. It arrived today.

This thing is so big. Six by six feet doesn’t seem that large until you unfold all of it and realize your face is a good three feet high. Pepper and I were laughing pretty hard.

In a couple of days I’m excited to see who takes this little gem home…

The things you do

Little kids are entertained by just about anything. It’s so fun to watch them giggle and laugh at dumb stuff. And of course that means you’re always doing dumb stuff in an effort to make them laugh.

Take today, for example, when Ollie and I were eating crayons.

He thought it was hilarious. And of course it was way more fun than just coloring on the little kids’ menu at the restaurant!

I suppose a bit of a waxy aftertaste in my mouth as I ate my pizza was a small price to pay for a little bit of joy in my grandson’s day.

Orem Temple

The Church is building a new temple in Orem, just a couple miles from our Villa. It’ll be super convenient to go there when we visit Utah. Today we stopped in for the “open house”, where we had the opportunity to walk on a self-guided tour.

We’re excited to attend the next time we’re in the area.


Last week one of Zack’s friends was celebrating a birthday, so Zack treated him to an evening of pinball at a local arcade. Today he talked me and Pepper into stopping by, and we had a grand time. It’s been many years since I last played pinball, but it’s still as fun as I remember. They even had a copy of Addams Family, one of my favorites and a well-known classic.

Here’s a shot of Pepper playing Indiana Jones while Zack tackles a bit of Star Trek.

It’s basically a “nickel arcade” where you can play pinball and video games and air hockey and shoot baskets and all that sort of stuff for a few nickels apiece. I mostly played pinball, where each game cost a quarter, and it seemed like a great deal.

The best part: it’s about a five-minute drive from the Villa. Obviously when we go down to Utah to visit our kids in the future, we’ll always need to hit the arcade.

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Today I’m grateful for Thanksgiving. It’s sort of a weird holiday, when you think about it. We celebrate the good things in our lives by absolutely stuffing ourselves with food and then taking the rest of the day to lounge around talking about how full we are. But the point, of course, is to give thanks for those good things and recognize the blessings that are ours. It’s definitely a unique holiday, and even in less-than-ideal circumstances we can all benefit from the introspection Thanksgiving brings.

As our family partook of the traditional meal today, we appreciated the chance to be together. This isn’t a great photo, but hey, that’s us.

For the past few weeks, as I’ve written these #givethanks posts, I’ve had a good time reflecting on some of the little things that make my life so good. I intentionally did not write about people in these posts– I wanted to focus on things that were perhaps a bit more mundane. Through that process, it’s been very clear to me that although each of these things brings some measure of happiness and contentment to my life, it’s the people who really make a difference. My wife, my kids, my parents, my siblings, my family, my friends, and even the strangers who cross my path… all of them have, in one way or another, shaped me into who I am today. I can never truly express the depth of my gratitude to them, and words on a web page hardly do it justice.

Not a day goes by that I don’t say a quiet prayer expressing my gratitude for something and someone. And so, as I wrap up this little series of posts, I’m filled with a warm sense that I’m truly and deeply blessed.

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Today I’m grateful for the Villa. It was about two years ago when we first tossed around the idea of buying a townhouse near our kids, so we could visit them more often. College apartments aren’t very good for family gatherings, and we wanted to take advantage of our kids all living in the same area. It seemed ludicrous to buy a second home, but at the same time it was silly to keep bouncing around Airbnb rentals.

So we did it.

Right from the start– even before we’d fully furnished the place– we were having a grand time. We threw a big birthday party for Ollie, featuring three sets of great-grandparents.

Since then we’ve been down there a dozen times, sometimes for a few days, others for a couple of weeks. I never thought I’d be the kind of guy who has a “second home”, but it’s been an incredible blessing to be able to see our kids and really spend time with them.

It was– and continues to be– a fairly significant money pit. But it’s money well spent. For this.

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Today I’m grateful for my health. Ironically, as I write this I can feel a cold coming on. It’s been almost a year since I was last sick– I remember it vividly because it was during the Christmas season. Since I get sick so rarely, when I do it seems like it’s a real kick in the pants. I can’t imagine what it would be like to feel crummy all day, every day. At least when I have a cold, I know it’s a passing thing and in a few days I’ll be better.

If I’m being honest, I don’t actually pay all that much attention to my health. I eat and drink whatever I want. I haven’t been to a doctor since I was a kid. I don’t exercise, although I spend plenty of time doing exercise-y things like walking, hiking, swimming, and biking. I find that jumping around in a room while watching a video of other people jumping around just isn’t very engaging. I suppose as I get older, I should make more of an effort to do that, but for most of my life I’ve had plenty of opportunity to just be out doing stuff that keeps me more or less in shape. Hence, I haven’t needed to pay attention to whether I’m getting slower or fatter. I can still fit into clothes I wore in college, which I take as a good sign. I don’t have migraines or asthma or allergies or joint pain… another good sign.

So, despite a profound lack of attention to it, my health is actually pretty great. I should give some credit to genetics: Mom and Dad are both getting on in years but still vigorous and healthy. I hope I’m in the same shape they are when I hit that age. For now, I’ll continue to be grateful for each day I wake up, healthy and strong.

Now if I can just get rid of this pesky sniffle…

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Today I’m grateful for Lego. I firmly believe Lego is the greatest toy ever. Not only does it open up a world of imaginative possibilities, it teaches creativity and design and even engineering. It encourages kids to experiment and invent. Nowadays there are a thousand different Lego sets, many of which are branded by famous media properties: Harry Potter and Star Wars and everything in between. Back in my day, we had “town Lego” and “space Lego” and “castle Lego” and that was it. Thom and I spent endless hours building things– always careful not to mix up our respective pieces, of course. Every Christmas, we got to choose something from the JCPenney catalog for Grandma to buy us. Thom and I invariably picked Lego sets, and Grandma delivered every time.

Unfortunately I can’t find any pictures of myself with Lego, but I searched the archives and found a few of my kids. Here’s a very early shot of Alex and Kyra playing with their toys, and in the background are a bunch of the huge plastic block (not actually Lego), as well as some smaller Duplo and Lego. It looks like Kyra is building a Lego tower.

At some point I gave the kids my own Lego, stored away since college. Their creations weren’t always impressive, but they had fun.

Lego started branching out into new lines of toys, including Bionicle and Ninjago and the start of the Hollywood branding. Alex and Zack both liked Bionicles.

For fifteen years, our basement carpet was always covered with Lego. It was the only area of the house we didn’t require the kids to pick up each night, and Lego has a way of filling all available space in a room. But I didn’t mind, because it meant the kids were exercising their creativity and playing together.

So kids these days can have their Minecraft (which is arguably a similar creative building exercise), but I’ll take Lego any day.

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Today I’m grateful for photography. Maybe that’s a strange thing to say, but my photography hobby has been a source of inspiration and joy for a long, long time. It all started on my sixteenth birthday, when I opened a brand-new Pentax K1000:

An SLR camera! That’s what the professionals use!

I took a lot of pictures with that guy, most of which are quite unremarkable. Time passed, and when the digital camera revolution began, I jumped on board and picked up a Sony Mavica. It used floppy disks for storage, and each disk held maybe eight photos (at the highest resolution). That meant I had to carry around a little box of disks, but I figured it wasn’t that much different than carrying around rolls of film.

Camera technology advanced rapidly, and I soon found myself with a Panasonic Lumix.

This camera actually looked like an SLR, and took some decent shots. Then one day I won a raffle or something– I don’t entirely remember– and received a free Sony Cybershot camera. I can’t find a product shot online, but I remember it was about the size of a few packs of gum and had a sliding cover. When open, it looked something like this:

The cool thing about this camera was it was so small it just fit in your pocket. Imagine having a phone in your pocket all the time! What a time to be alive. Because of that, I had it with me all the time and my photography habit really took off. But it wasn’t actually a great camera; only the size was great. As I began to get more “serious” about photography, I turned to Canon and picked up a PowerShot 100.

About the size of a deck of cards, this camera was also very compact and found a place in my pocket pretty often. Thom and I were deep into our tradition of annual backpacking trips, and he suggested I consider buying a camera that produced raw images. Unlike the standard JPEG files every camera produces, raw photos can be manipulated after the fact because they store “raw” (hence the name) pixel data from the sensor. I really liked my PowerShot, so when I found that Canon made a model that output raw images, I bought it. Confusingly, it was also called a PowerShot.

These small cameras were fantastic for carrying around, but by this time cell phones were rapidly catching up in their capabilities. I could use my phone to take the same sorts of photos my little PowerShot was producing, and wouldn’t have to carry two devices. If I wanted to really step up my game, I’d need to move back into SLR territory. Well, technically DSLR, for digital SLR. My friend Brian happened to be in the process of upgrading his kit, so he offered to sell me his DSLR for a song. I started shooting with a Nikon D90.

Switching to a “real” camera felt pretty good. I lugged this thing around on hiking trips, and started figuring out how to do more than traditional point-and-shoot. I suddenly felt like I could be creative with my photography, rather than just capturing a scene. By now, Thom had given up on traditional analog photography and was shooting with various Canon EOS gear, and he gave me some recommendations. I spent some serious coin and picked up a Canon 5D Mark 4.

This camera changed my world. My hobby was now officially serious, and I started buying lenses and filters and tripods. I learned about aperture and shutter speed and ISO. I stopped using “automatic” mode and set my control dial permanently to “M” for manual. That gave me a ton of creative liberty, and I figured out how to make pictures look the way I wanted. I coined the term kameraspielen, which is German for “playing with a camera”, because I found that I could just play with this thing and do all sorts of creative magic. I started using Darktable to process my photos. It was so much fun!

This trusty 5D saw a lot of use– tens of thousands of photographs. Then came the mirrorless revolution, when all the major manufacturers started making cameras without mirrors, and I was tempted to switch out my gear. I held off for a few years, but finally caved and traded in my 5D for a Canon R6.

Although it’s not radically different than the 5D, it has some additional features I like. It’s quieter and a little lighter. I’ve had it for about a year now, and along the way I picked up a few more lenses. I’ve learned some new techniques in my post-processing workflow, and I’ve continued experimenting.

I think one of the things I really enjoy about this hobby is the opportunity to just take a gazillion pictures and figure out for myself what works. What do I like in my photos? What captures the scene best? Although I feel like some of my work is pretty good, I recognize it’s far from being something I could sell. So I do it just for the joy of doing it, not because I’m hoping to convince someone to buy it so I can make a buck. Hobbies like that are the best.

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Today I’m grateful for Mom’s cookies. Of course everyone loves cookies, but there’s always something special about the ones Mom makes.

We’re visiting as part of a little pre-Thanksgiving trip, and as always, Mom has made a bunch of different cookies for the family.

These are brownies and scotcheroos… I’ve already eaten the caramel cookies, which are my favorites. Lately Mom has taken to cutting them into bite-sized pieces (well, two bites maybe) and that’s a fun way to put together a little sampler platter with a bunch of different cookies. You don’t feel like such a glutton for taking six cookies at a time.

In a larger sense, I can honestly say that some of my favorite foods are the ones I ate growing up. I suspect that’s the case for most people, but as someone who’s sort of a picky eater, I’m definitely picky in favor of what my Mom makes. While growing up, my siblings and I were tasked with making dinner once a week (when we were old enough), and that was a good system to teach us how to cook and be ready when we eventually moved away from home. Pepper and I did the same with our kids, and although all of us occasionally fall back to the old standbys like mac and cheese, overall it’s been good to know something about cooking. Thanks, Mom!