Sunday, October 22, 2006

#153 - Magic Story - First in a Series

(Author's Note: Magic Stories had their beginning in the Woody household when Jelly was a toddler. Daddy would tuck her into bed and offer to tell her a "magic story." Magic Stories were stories that seemingly appeared out of thin air. Of course, when Jelly was a toddler, Daddy could whip out any old story at the drop of a hat and have it be the first time she'd ever heard it. Later she would begin requesting her favorite ones. "Daddy, tell me the one about the princess in the woods!" When Doodle came along, the tradition continued.

Occasionally Daddy makes up a story that impresses even Daddy. Daddy made up one such story just the other night at Grandma's house. I'd like to commit some of these to paper (so to speak) so I can remind myself to do something with them. Hopefully soon I'll recreate the Magic Story called "The Messiest Room in the World." Jelly loves that story.

The Elephant and the Spider

In a faraway jungle lived a very grand elephant. At least, that's what the elephant thought of himself. It was true that, as a younger bull in the herd, he was a grand animal indeed. He also, as a younger bull, had much still to learn about the world around him.

One thing the young elephant could not stand was spiders. He thought of them as disgusting, even dangerous creatures. "One bite," he had once been told, "could make you very, very sick." He thus spent tremendous amounts of energy avoiding them. It rather surprised him that the other elephants in his herd seemed so tolerant. They completely ignored the fact that several spiders seemed to gather near the elephants' sleeping places. He shuddered to think that they allowed the spiders to get so close!

Not this elephant, he thought to himself. He studiously swept the trees near his sleeping place every day with fronds that fell from the trees nearby. He prided himself on being not only a grand elephant, but a tidy one, too.

So imagine his dismay to discover one morning that a spider had taken up residence in one of his trees. She had spun her web just high enough to escape his gaze, and now sat just out of reach of his tree frond broom. The thought of this spider tormented the young bull for several days, and he began to lose sleep. Finally he could stand it no longer, and decided to confront his problem head on.

"Excuse me, Lady Spider," said the elephant, for even with enemies the elephants are exceedingly polite. "I don't wish to appear rude, but I find your living in my tree to be intolerable."

"But why is that, Friend Elephant?" asked the spider, who was herself quite polite.

"You know what they say," began the elephant delicately. "One bite could make you very, very sick."

"Indeed I could," responded the amused spider. "However, I have never so much as hinted that I would be interested in biting such a large animal as yourself. Do you really think I lie in wait for you?"

"Perhaps not," admitted the young bull. "At the same time, I feel it only prudent to ask you to remove yourself from my sleeping area. Why not join the spiders over by the other elephants? There seem to be plenty of them."

"Too true, there are," rejoined the spider. "Can you not see that this is why I chose this spot? It is wonderfully uncrowded."

The elephant was not to be deterred. "My dear lady," he began. "I really must insist. I must ask you to vacate my tree at once!"

The spider smiled widely, although she was too small for the elephant to see clearly. "I will leave, my large friend, but you will soon regret this decision."

True to her word, by the following morning the spider had vanished.

The elephant was tremendously happy because of his good fortune, and he began to brag about it to the other, older elephants in the herd. He couldn't understand why they seemed not to share his joy in having banished his feared enemy from his home.

The very next day, the elephant began to be bothered. It is very true that very small things can bother very large animals, and elephants are no exception. Late in the morning, when the sun began to move high in the sky, a buzzing noise reached the young elephant's ears. Before he could quite register the source of the noise, he felt a sharp stinging sensation high on his back. "Ouch!" he said to no one in particular. "That hurt!" This was followed shortly by another, and yet another sting on his back.

The young elephant swished his mighty trunk over his back to make this new problem go away. He had no time for courtesies; he had a problem, and that problem needed to be addressed right now!

He soon decided that the source of both the stings on his back and the buzzing noise in his ears must be the obnoxious black flies that his mother had spoken of when he was a baby. Her remedy at the time had been to have him roll in the mud. This he did, and the flies did not bother him for a time. But he also noticed that once the mud dried and began to flake off, the flies returned. He also noticed that none of the other elephants in his herd seemed to be having much trouble with them.

On the second day of his trial by flies, an older elephant of the herd trundled over to watch him. With an amused expression, he glanced about the young elephant's sleeping place. "Hmmm," he said almost to himself, "nice, clean place you have here."

"Unh! Thanks, old-timer... ouch! I can't seem to... ooch! get rid of these silly flies!" the younger elephant said in an exasperated tone.

The older elephant merely chuckled and indicated his own sleeping place. "Look over there, young bull, and tell me what you see."

The young elephant squinted through watery eyes and said, "Ugh. Spiders. You seem to have several. Can't you get rid of them?"

The older elephant was smiling broadly now. "Why on earth would I want to?" he asked. "Can you see what's caught in their webs from here?"

In spite of his troubles, the young elephant squinted harder at the older elephant's sleeping place. Yes, there did seem to be something in those webs, but... "I see many small black specks, it seems. What are they?"

"Those, my young spiderless friend, are flies. The same flies that would love to chew on my back are the spiders' favorite meals. Rather than feast on me, the spiders feast instead on the flies, and I only have to flick away the occasional fly who hasn't yet been caught. Indeed, the more spiders one has in his sleeping place, the fewer flies one has to endure." And with that, the old bull lumbered off back to his sleeping place, free from small black flying pests.

The younger elephant thought hard about what the old elephant had said. Fearing he might be too late, he wondered how on earth he could find the spider he had driven away, and apologize to her.

However, the very next day the young elephant was awakened by a familiar sounding voice. "So, Friend Elephant," said the voice. "Am I still unwelcome in your home?"

"Oh, no, Friend Spider!" cried the young bull. "I am so glad you have returned. Would you be so kind as to make your home here? Would you make it, perhaps, even larger than the web you had before?"

The spider only smiled and began to spin. She built a beautiful web in a very short time, so that by afternoon she was already catching nice, fat flies to eat for her supper. The elephant immediately began to notice that there were fewer stings on his back. By the next morning, the flies had all but disappeared from his sleeping place. When he looked up into the tree, the young elephant was overjoyed to see many dark specks on the spider's web, and a very content looking spider sitting in the middle.

"I am so sorry that I misjudged you, Dear Spider," said the elephant that afternoon. "Can you ever forgive me for being so foolish?"

"Of course I forgive you!" she declared.

The spider and the elephant were fast friends thereafter. In the next season when the spider had babies, several of them took up residence in the young elephant's trees nearby. For the rest of that year until the monsoons came, the young elephant's sleeping place was the envy of the herd. No one begrudged him his good fortune, however. They all knew how hard the young bull had worked to learn his lesson. And the young elephant never again spoke ill of spiders. Not even the ones that bite.

#152 - Woody Apparently Butchers German

Most of our family lives in Ventura County. Ventura County sits on the opposite side of Los Angeles County from us and, depending on traffic, may take anywhere from a little over an hour to nearly two and a half hours' drive time. Most of the time we average about an hour and a half.

We made this trip this weekend so we could make sure that the Woodyettes' sick grandmother was home resting comfortably and able to take care of herself without too much assistance.

Generally speaking, the Woodyettes handle this commute fairly well. They are both seasoned travellers. They just recently completed a 3,000 mile circuit of the western United States, plus a trip back to Utah for a family wedding.

Mrs. Woody sensed a bit of restlessness on this particular trip north. To avoid meltdowns in the backseat, she began a game of "Name That Tune." She began by humming the first few notes of some favorite lullabies or Primary songs. Within a few minutes the Woodyettes had jumped in with gusto. Pretty soon, they were humming their own tunes and having Mommy and Daddy do the guessing. (Daddy would like it noted, for the record, that he guessed Jelly's attempts fairly accurately. Daddy hears some of these songs a lot.)

Jelly Woodyette has a LeapPad® learning system. One of her favorite modules is one that teaches some basic music appreciation. It has a snippet of Mozart's well-known "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik," and Jelly has been known to hum that famous opening to herself around the house. She tried it on us in the car. Daddy, of course, recognized it right away. "I know that one! That was 'Eine Kleine Nachtmusik!'"

I was expecting one of Jelly's patented groans, coupled with "Aaawwww! Daddy guessed!" and a slightly pouty lip. What I got instead was a puzzled silence from the backseat.

Then with stunned incredulity in her voice, "Daddy? Did you just say 'I Decline A Nut Music?'"

I haven't laughed that hard in a long while.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

#151 - Birthday Gifts

Another birthday has come and (just yesterday) gone. This is not one of those birthdays that one would consider a milestone, and I don't. 48 is just 48. It's middle age. It's not one year before 50. And I'm not one of those who gets morbid about my personal aging. Why worry? The fact that I'm developing many of the same creaks and groans that my parents have or had just confirms that I am indeed their son.

Howsoever be it, I'm now one day overdue for my annual birthday essay. Here it is:

Perspective is everything. It defines our realities and forms our opinions. It drives our belief systems and establishes how we understand the world around us. Watching how my perspective has changed over the years has been a fascinating journey of discovery.

I loved birthdays as a kid. What kid doesn't? It's a chance to indulge - and be indulged - in a little unadulterated personal greed. What gifties am I going to receive this year? Am I going to get that latest toy that's being mercilessly pounded into my psyche during my cartoon shows every day? Or will it be (horrors!) underwear?

As the big day approached, the sense of anticipation was very nearly overwhelming. I'd get so excited that sleep - always a challenge for me as a youngster - was just about impossible. Plus, my days were filled with pestering Mom for clues as to what I was getting. Actually, "pestering" might be putting it mildly. "Parental abuse" might be more appropo in today's litigious society.

One year (this is a true story) I just couldn't wait. I knew that Mom's favorite hiding place for presents was the closet in her bedroom. This was generally safe because we only entered that room on pain of death. Not from Mom, of course... Dad valued his privacy, and we only entered the master bedroom with fear and trepidation. However, need to know what (or IF) I was getting overrode my usual caution that year. While Mom was out shopping one afternoon, I took advantage and slipped into her room. Up on a shelf I found what must be my pending gift: a brand-new cassette tape recorder. (Toldja I was getting old. This passed for "high tech" in 1970.)

I was of course thrilled. I loved tape recorders, and often "borrowed" Mom's old Craig reel-to-reel that she transcribed patriarchal blessings from to record my own versions of radio programs or comedy records that I listened to from time to time. (If anyone out there found a strange reference to something out of Cosby's "Noah" routine in their blessing, I sincerely apologize. I'm fairly certain the Spirit wouldn't be quoting Cosby in a patriarchal blessing.) I couldn't help myself. I had to take it out of the box and examine it. When I was done, I placed everything carefully back in the box (including the bubble wrap), resealed it, and placed it back on the shelf. Mission accomplished!

On the day of my birthday, I acted appropriately surprised to see this wonderful machine as it was presented to me. How wonderful, I exclaimed! A tape recorder! Can't wait! To demonstrate my mastery of new technologies, I got everything out of the box, put in the batteries and turned it on. Imagine my dismay to have everyone hear, in my reedy soprano voice, "Happy birthday to me... Happy birthday to me...!"

Oops. Appropriate surprise was instantly replaced with appropriate contrition.

One birthday tradition began as a child that has stayed with me ever since: I rarely ever have birthday cakes, and never from my family. No, this is October, and October means pumpkin pies. For the sake of my mother, I will refrain from repeating our legendary pumpkin pie story in this essay. However, no birthday celebration - however informal - is official until I have consumed at least one full pumpkin pie. Or the equivalent thereof, by weight.

As a teenager the nature of birthdays changed. For one thing, I never knew what to ask for as a teenager. I was (theoretically) too old for toys, and things like books or music were always hit or miss with me. Mom finally had to throw up her hands and admit that even she didn't know what I'd like, and I believe that's about when I started getting money instead of wrapped presents.

As an adult, I found my tastes for birthdays changing again. I no longer anticipated them with any real fondness. I was another year older, but not, it seemed, any more mature. I began to long for acceptance as an authority figure similar to Dad. Dad was the go-to guy for hard-to-solve adult situations. What, exactly is a mortgage? Is $350 a month too much for an apartment? People went to authorities like Dad for those questions, myself included. People didn't come to me with those questions.

(People still don't. People apparently know better.)

By that time, birthdays were best spent quietly with family, enjoying the more clever cards that came my way. This is where we discovered that Mom actually has a pretty wicked sense of humor underneath that saintly exterior. Mom's cards frequently had me rolling on the floor.

Only one birthday between 21 and 35 stands out in memory. My 30th. For this birthday, my then-wife and the kids conspired to give me a full black-arm-band affair, complete with black balloons and black crepe. They invited some of our friends over for a surprise party. The fact that the screen door fell off its hinges when I walked in should have tipped me off. My daughter, bless her black little heart, gave her aged and decrepit father a tube of Poli-fix creme and a can of Turtle Wax (for my forehead). I remember certainly feeling older that night.

I have since divorced, remarried, and have two younger kids now; the older ones having grown up and moved away. Far away. Probably as far as they could arrange and not leave the country legally. (I tease; my kids love me, although I was shocked - shocked - to get a happy birthday call yesterday from my son. I was pretty sure he'd learned his phone habits from his Dad, which means actively ignoring the instrument unless a limb is coming off your body. Still, we had a nice chat, and my daughter phoned in her best wishes as well.)

With younger kids, my birthdays are once again filled with wonder and surprise. For instance, I wonder what the kids will do to for me this year? Oh, look! (Surprise!) A handmade birthday card! Fortunately, their writing skills have increased exponentially the last couple of years, and I can actually understand the cards without having to interpret sanskrit. This saves Daddy having to hem and haw and guess what the card actually represents. The girls label everything now, and this helps their communication-challenged father tremendously.

This year Daddy also got a gift, and one that Daddy will likely enjoy tremendously. I got a copy of Railroad Simulator® that will probably make Mrs. Woody a computer widow once again. At least for a few weeks.

But the fun part is, that's all I really want for my birthday. Whatever my family gives me, even if it's just hugs and kisses, is what I want for my birthday. The fact that they want to make a big deal out of it is all the big deal I need for my birthday. What, you may ask, did I do for my birthday last night? I bought KFC for dinner (like I'm going to cook on my birthday!), then took my family with me to rehearsal last night. They just wanted to be with Daddy.

Birthdays like that I will take year after year after year.

Pass the pie.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

#150 - Library as a Barometer

Tonight was Library Night for Wonderwood Academy. We do this for a couple of reasons. It's a service that we utilize heavily as homeschoolers. It's an invaluable resource when you have limited budget for materials. Tonight, for instance, I found a couple of videos that support Mrs. Woody's current lesson plan. One dollar for the DVD, and the tapes were free. Can't beat that.

The other reason we love the library is that it gives us a quick barometer of how the girls are growing. They have their homeschool group that they see roughly once a week, and of course they have church. Social situations are not a problem - they have many in the course of life. But the girls are both painfully shy. This, unfortunately, they have inherited from both parents. You've read my posts in the past about such things as getting them to participate in their annual Primary Program at church (painful), or even getting them to read a scripture in Primary (inaudible).

But things have changed this year. Both girls, while still shy, have grown more confident in public situations. Doodle, our baby, still doesn't like the idea of doing anything in front of people, but she's likelier to at least try it. Jelly, on the other hand, simply feels so self-conscious in front of people that she'll freeze up, even though she agrees to try. However, a few weeks ago Daddy was asked to help the dads in the ward sing with their young women-aged daughters in Sacrament meeting for a special number. (These brethren really needed Daddy's help!) The lady who put it together mentioned that Jelly could sing with us if she wanted; a proposal I was nearly certain would be met with instant rejection by said Jelly. To my surprise she not only agreed, but stood with the young women (not with Daddy) and sang her part. A monumental thing for our little family, and one we made a huge fuss over later.

This year the girls both have speaking parts in the Primary Program, and Mrs. Woody has been having them recite them every morning as part of their school opening exercises. Doodle at first was fairly insistent that she wanted nothing to do with this nonsense, but has since relented and is now agreeing to at least give it a try. Jelly seems to be gaining more confidence with every project she undertakes, and I'm hopeful that she'll enjoy this.

So where does the library fit in all of this? Simply that the girls both enjoy the Family Storytime that they have there every Tuesday night.

We started this tradition not long after we moved here. The girls at first were even too shy sometimes to sit on their little square of rug and listen to one of the librarians tell stories and sing songs. Everything is participative, of course, and while the other kids were jumping up and down and doing all the hand motions, my two girls would sit there, hoping desperately not to be noticed.

Over time this, too, has changed. Both girls are much more actively involved in the stories, although Jelly still doesn't do the hand motions; I think these are probably beneath her nine-year old dignity now. But Doodle dutifully does the motions, and both girls will sit right up front, even in a crowd.

So the barometer is rising for both girls. Given their natal ham-bones, I have little doubt that either or both of them could very well wind up on stage like their amateur actor Dad. They certainly keep us in stitches here at home. In fact, many's the time I wish I could close a curtain on some of their wilder performances, just so we could get a little peace and quiet.

I wouldn't change a thing, though. On one of Jelly's very first visits to her pediatrician as a baby, the doctor told (first-time) Mommy that her brand new baby girl was "thriving." Mommy cherished that word perhaps more than any other the doctor could have used. He could have said that the baby was "well," or "happy," or "doing fine." Instead, he used the word "thriving," and Mrs. Woody has forever wanted that to be the best descriptor of how her girls are doing.

They are thriving. Under Mrs. Woody's constant care and tutelage, the girls have become miniature copies of their Mommy. They're both bright, loving, happy little girls who undoubtedly surpass their parents' collective intelligence even as they struggle to learn everything their educator Mommy is teaching them. "Thriving" is really the only word that fits these girls.

So as I watched them tonight, and helped them find good books to hold their active imaginations over the next few weeks, I realized that the library is a good bellwether for our little family. As long as the library is something to be enjoyed, the girls will continue to grow.

Daddy thinks it's a pretty good litmus test.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

#149 - Homework Is as Homework Does

My girls are living proof of how homeschooling can work. For instance, we went on a field trip this last Wednesday to the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana. It happens to be the only active Egyptian exhibit with mummies in the greater Los Angeles area right now, and we really wanted the girls to see it. So, Mrs. Woody organized the field trip on behalf of our homeschool group (this gives us a pretty decent price break), and we went along with about four or five other families.

Mommy had already started studying Egypt with the girls a week or two before, and had even used the teacher's guide published online by the museum. Thus, the Woodyettes were primed for Egyptology, and showed their knowledge on several occasions when the docent would ask questions about certain artifacts. "Mommy! Just like in the story!" The docent was clearly impressed, because it wasn't just the Woodyettes that were answering the questions.

Later, in the gift shop (of course there was a gift shop; in fact, there were two: the regular one, and a special one located adjacent to the Egyptian exhibit) the cashier asked the girls if this was a day off or if they were homeschooled. "We're homeschooled," piped up the Jelly Woodyette. "We go to Wonderwood Academy!"

That same Jelly Woodyette just came up with yet another reason why - for us, anyway - homeschool is the way to go.

The girls attend "Hogwarts Home Study" as part of their school activities. This is their third year, and they just got their acceptance letters via owl post today. Included in the letter was an order form for various materials that they are required to have for their classes this year. Jelly had just finished filling hers out and put it in her owl post tube, awaiting Hedwig to deliver it tonight.

"Mommy," she said. "I think filling out that form was like homework."

"Why is that?" Mommy asked.

"Because homework helps us learn!" she answered.

I caught that statement and recognized its significance. When I was that age, homework was already a form of captivity and torture similar to the Spanish Inquisition, only more painful. I despised homework because it seriously cramped my style. I needed every single non-school waking moment to capitalize on my play time with my friends, and homework really got in the way of my laziness. Homework was the greatest single factor in my pursuit of perfecting the art of procrastination than any other facet of my life.

Yet here is my nine year old daughter, sagely advising her teacher/mother that homework helps us learn. It is not, apparently, the torturous device that her Daddy always thought it was. Even as she said it, she was bouncing on the balls of her feet as she always does whenever she's engaged in some ultra-fun activity.

This same child, I must tell you, would likely be diagnosed by some zealous school counselor as ADD in a public school setting. She simply cannot sit still long enough for conventional teachers to be able to cope. Yet it is only her extremely vivid imagination that creates this impression, and has nothing to do with her ability to learn. Once Mommy gets her focus, the child is sharp as a tack.

And she loves to learn.

Life is good.

(Yeah, I know I promised a travelogue... so sue me. This just happened and Mrs. Woody looked at me and said, quote, "You need to blog this, Bud." So I did. Travelogue still to come.)

#148 - Woody's Guide to Vegetarianism

(HINT: Chicken is not meat!)

A few months ago, I wrote a piece describing my new religion. I mentioned that, as a result of my recent heart, um, irregularities, I had probably become a vegetarian whether I wanted to or not. But the truth of the matter is that while I have been eating a lot more rabbit food in the weeks since my test results were discussed, I have hardly become the rabid sort of near-Vegan that I feared at the time.

So, how does Woody define "vegetarianism?"

Salad intake is definitely increasing. However, making sure I have enough protein in the diet becomes a problem. Yes, I know that it's possible to put together "complete proteins" by using legumes of various types, coupled with other things. This is fine as far as it goes, but I've been a life-long carnivore, and beans aren't one of the foods ancient hunters sharpened their spears to pursue and kill.

"Honey, I'm going out to hunt beans. If I don't make it, make sure you marry a vegetarian."

No, I grew up at a table where any meal that didn't include, at a minimum, hamburger and potatoes was sneered at by the head of the household. And the meat had to be well done. Anything but charcoal was met with, "Willie! (This was my Dad's favorite nickname for Mom) This cow is still mooing!"

So I ate a lot of beef in my day. Hamburger. Pot roast. Barbecued beef. Chili con mucho carne. You name it. From my perspective, it's really quite unfair that beef (or "red meat") is so rich in cholesterol, because that appears to be my particular downfall.

Not that I can blame red meat alone for my current condition. Oh, no. I have a long-standing addiction to caffeinated sodas and prefabricated snack foods that have all left their cholesterol droppings in my system since I was a teenager. Some habits, as you well know, are harder to break than others.

I have made a few heroic adjustments over the years, particularly since I married Mrs. Woody. (I might note, for the record, that if I currently possess a 135 IQ, 35 of those points were acquired merely by marrying Mrs. Woody.) For one thing, I really don't eat much red meat anymore. Mrs. Woody and I discovered the joys of ground turkey as a hamburger substitute several years ago, and we use it instead of ground beef in our cooking. As a meat it is much more lean than hamburger, and I have developed a spicing combination with onion power, salt, and garlic powder that pretty well flavors it to taste more like traditional hamburger.

Also, as I mentioned, I'm eating lots more rabbit food these days. I've been enjoying different salads for many years now, and when Daddy decides he really doesn't want to cook on a particular evening, we'll go to Jack in the Box and get one of their Asian Chicken salads (our current favorite). We buy romaine hearts, which keep nearly forever, and Mrs. Woody makes very yummy salads with that.

Poultry in general and fish make up most of my non-legume proteins nowadays. I can eat the white meats, but I really don't even eat that much pork. In cooler weather, my soup intake increases to roughly the capacity of your average septic tank. Mrs. Woody is forever finding new and creative soup recipes that we can do in our crock pot, and they are nearly always delicious. We frequently say, "Ooh. We need to add that one to our list of favorites!" Our list has grown to about 30 now, by my reckoning. The caffeine is history. I've been a very good boy on that score.

So we're eating healthier. One very important benefit to this healthier diet is that our girls have been eating fairly healthy since they were babies. We've never encouraged the junk food mentality with them, and Wonderwood Academy has a zero-junk-food tolerance policy. No vending machines at this campus, I can tell you! As a result, the Woodyettes will both (hopefully!) grow up with healthy eating habits firmly in place, and won't have to deal with the same difficulties Mommy and Daddy have had to struggle with for the past several years.

The good news is, Mommy and Daddy are both losing weight. We're motivated now, especially in light of my recent heart troubles. We both have goals that we'd like to reach by the time we turn 50. If we do, we'll both be much healthier than we are today.

Actually, today is not a terrific starting point. Today we both have head colds - a direct result of allergies coupled with not enough sleep. Last night was my first concert in an honest-to-goodness choir in many years, and I'm sure my stress levels tanked out afterwards. Always happens to me. In general terms, however, aside from the colds we're in better shape health-wise than we've been in several years. And it can only get better from here.

In the meantime, I need to go clean my rifle. Got me some beans to rustle up.

Next up: What I Did Over the Summer (with Photos!) - Part One

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

#146 - Why We Need Las Vegas

We've been in Utah the past several days. Mrs. Woody's brother married his long-time girlfriend up near Sundance, and the whole family gathered for the event. Even though I'm up to my neck in corporate alligators at work, I decided to take two days on the return trip so I won't be such a zombie when I finally (if virtually) show up at work tomorrow.

We always use St. George at the southwest corner of the state for our halfway point on such trips. I like St. George, if only as a place to visit. It's just too darn'd hot for my personal taste, so even when considering places for retirement (plan now!) I don't think St. George would make the cut. But it has that overcrowded small town flavor for which Utah is so famous, and I love the temple there.

The hard part is making the trip from Dixie to Reality via Outer Darkness.

St. George, being in the extreme south of Utah, has long been called Utah's Dixie, and even has a college by that name. Reality is, of course, Orange County where we Woodys currently reside. "Outer Darkness?" Need you ask?

Black holes, by definition, are so dense that they literally suck all light into their tight gravitational fields (or so I'm told). Little escapes their prison walls. Likewise, there are places on earth today that tend to suck all the light out of men's souls, and one such place happens to be Las Vegas. Or, at least, that portion of Las Vegas that immediately surrounds Interstate 15, including the world-famous "Strip."

We hit Vegas just about lunch time today. At first we thought that we might just sail through by cleverly planning our trip for a non-weekend day. Most unfortunately, there was a nasty accident at about the midpoint alongside the Strip which backed traffic up for at least 45 minutes. While crawling along, I had plenty of time to reflect on just why I despise the town so much.

I must caveat first by stating that Las Vegas - minus the Strip and all related gambling and adult businesses - has much to recommend it. Or, at least, it has the Las Vegas Temple, which will be the only thing that prevents Las Vegas from ending up as a gigantic sink hole on the map at the Second Coming. Pretty much the rest of the town is subservient to the great spiritual black hole that Vegas has come to represent.

The predominant thought that ran through my mind while crawling along the always-under-construction I-15 was that Vegas is spiritually void. Everywhere I looked I saw monuments to man's greed and avarice. The Temple is not (so far as I've ever been able to see) visible from the freeway. Therefore the mind must dwell on the glitz and flash that Vegas' many gambling establishments use to entice weak-minded fools to part with their supposedly hard-earned money. This is Vegas' only "contribution" to society, as seen from the freeway.

That may be unfair, but it brings to mind a story that Mom used to tell me. Many years ago, Dad took her to one of the local horse tracks to watch a race or two. Horse racing is, after all, still considered to be the "gentleman's sport," and Dad thought Mom would enjoy watching the thoroughbreds go through their paces. However, as soon as Mom entered the betting area, she was overcome with a feeling that a spirit other than one from God dominated that arena. It was, as she described it, nearly palpable and she has never set foot near a track ever since.

Likewise, I have had similar experiences with gambling establishments. In my so-called "starter marriage," my ex-wife wanted to visit a casino. We chose "Whiskey Pete's" at the state line, primarily to take advantage of one of those extremely cheap prime rib dinners they always advertised. She thought it might be fun to waste a few nickels on a slot machine, and I was curious to see a casino, so I agreed.

Turned out you have to walk through the casino to get to the dining area. Then you get to sit with an unobstructed view of people gambling and allegedly having the time of their lives while you eat. We played our nickels and, so far as I was concerned, satisfied the curiousity.

A few years later we had to lay over in Vegas due to some car trouble. We holed up in one hotel (no idea which... I think I've sublimated the experience), and took the kids to Excelsior to see some of the more "kid friendly" entertainment there. Once again we had to walk through casinos to get to anything interesting, but this time I was struck with just how uncomfortable I felt there. Perhaps it was because I had my kids with me, and I was feeling protective of them. In any case, my fascination with Vegas had clearly worn off.

Nowadays, Nevada is a state to be driven through whenever possible. I try hard not to stop along the way, unless we're visiting some place of historic significance, such as Virginia City. Today, however, we had to stop in Moapa for a pit stop for the Woodyettes. Moapa is a reservation for the Moapa Indians, and they have a casino/fireworks shop/eatery kind of truck stop right off the highway. I deliberately drove around to the eatery, reasoning that there would be restrooms there and we might avoid the casino. Unfortunately, those restrooms were closed for "cleaning" (as if such a thing could happen at a truck stop) and we were forced to use the restrooms in the casino. To get to the restrooms we had only to skirt around a corner of the casino - just a few paces, really - and we were home free.

But we weren't, truth be told. As I stood in the hallway waiting for my daughters, I happened to watch one gentleman work one of the video slots. I'm guessing he had a card, because I never saw him use any actual coins. He just kept pushing his buttons. Time after time he pressed the buttons and watched the screen as it rolled the symbols around and around. The whole time I watched they never did line up in his favor so far as I could tell. He stopped only to take an occasional swig from his beer, then resumed his near-religious devotion to the slot. As I watched I couldn't help but notice how spiritually empty that man seemed to be. This was, admittedly, a judgmental observation. I knew nothing personally about the man. But the old adage of avoiding even the appearance of evil certainly seemed to apply here, because this man looked like one who had nothing for which to fight. No burning cause that would drive him to greater aspiration. No concern for anything but his own personal economy. No family that he would choose to protect over his own dreams of an easy windfall. He appeared to be living the worst of man's lies to himself: Lady Luck can make you rich beyond your wildest dreams overnight. We choose to overlook the possibility that Lady Luck is really just Satan in drag, waiting to pull you down to the depths of your own personal hell.

Then we drove through Vegas. The mother of all selfishness.

Still, all was not darkness and grim foreboding. Mrs. Woody had, just that morning, purchased a book of stories related to our temples and the experiences that bear testimony of the work performed therein. Faith-promoting stories of the highest caliber. The kinds of stories that remind us that miracles really do happen in these modern hedonistic times. No sooner would I feel my spirits ebb because of the darkness around me, than Mrs. Woody would decide to read another story aloud to us. Instantly my spirits would soar above the filth and emptiness that surrounded us, and before I knew it we were nearly home.

Our home - cluttered and unkempt as it may be these hectic days - is still a refuge from the world around us. I returned home today to find the news blogs abuzz with the scandals and idiocy of the day: another congressman caught in a sexual scandal; North Korea ready to test a nuclear device; political campaigns that appear to be striving for a degree of mud-slinging and intelligence-insulting as yet unattained in modern times.

No, I need Las Vegas to remind me that, no matter how bad things get around me, I can heal from these assaults when I surround myself with light. And I don't mean the neon variety.