August 21, 2006

More Minor Changes

You may notice that I’ve altered the category pages a little: they’re now proper XHTML 1.0 Strict (or at least the basic structure is: individual posts inside it may not be ... I’ve spent hours already correcting some of my most egregious early habits in HTML). They also have a nice (at least, I think it’s nice) table of contents at the top that quickly shows you what’s on the page. I’ve also brought their style into line with the main site. I’m not quite sure I’m happy with the narrow column in the middle, but I couldn’t think of anything that really belonged in the right-hand column and the text seemed a little too wide otherwise. Right now, it’s set at 70ex, I think, which should be about right in whatever font you’re using.

*WARNING—Technical Rant beginning

Also, if you’ve been using IE to view this page, you may have just noticed some fairly drastic changes. For example, the blog posts are now centered on the screen. You are now seeing what the rest of us using sane browsers like Firefox have been seeing all along.

I’ve known that IE ignored my margin-left:auto, margin-right:auto for quite a while, but until tonight, I just threw up my hands and said “what can you do with a non-compliant browser?!?” Then I read this article, which seemed to imply that there was a way to turn on standards-compliance in IE. I was intruiged, but after reading the article, I was still mystified. My pages should have already been triggering that mode: all of them correctly identify themselves. Then I had a sneaking suspicion that IE’s coders had failed to account for the possibility of someone’s putting an xml declaration (like <?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>) before the !DOCTYPE, which is the recommended but not required practice for XHTML. A quick test verified this to be the case. After one or two curses upon the coders of IE, I have removed the offending xml declaration from my pages and used the more standard meta declarations for my file encodings.

I’m still miffed, though. And my blog probably still isn’t rendering properly for users of IE 5. I can’t bring myself to care about that right now. Scholl would be proud of me. :)

Posted by Leatherwood at 08:22 PM
This post has been classified as "Public Address"

Helen Richardson

Helen Richardson was probably the most influential teacher I’ve ever had—at least, of the teachers I’ve met inside the classroom.

When my family first moved to Mongolia in August 1992, we and a few other missionary families put together a little “joint homeschool” where all the children attended together under three or four teachers. This worked pretty well for the first year, but at the end of that year, most of the families and teachers moved away, returning whence they’d come. For the next few years, my siblings and I were pretty much the only Western children in our area. My parents brought in a new team member to serve as our tutor (amongst other responsibilites). Her name was Helen Richardson. She arrived in October 1993, if memory serves. I was just starting the fifth grade.

As I’ve noted before, I’ve suffered from a perfectionistic streak for my whole life. I only recall it as far back as third grade, but a few years ago, I chanced to examine this big fat folder of papers my parents gave me when I started college, and ran across this most enlightening note from my teacher in first grade:

Daniel does well in expressing his thoughts, feelings, and ideas on paper—it comes very easy for him. His reading vocabulary is growing nicely. He enjoys his work. Math comes a little harder for him. He is currently working on his 5, 6, 7 fact families. He understands how to do the problem, he just needs more practice so that he remembers his facts quickly. I am pleased with his progress. One area that concerns me however is his overemphasis on grades. He was in tears one day because he received a 2! [2 being roughly equivalent to a “B”] I tried to explain to him that he was only in 1st grade and that we mainly do a lot of practicing—it’s okay to make mistakes—we’re still learning! Please reassure him of my confidence in his abilities and praise him for the progress he has made. Some things, like learning to work in a group, take time. He lacks confidence—I believe we can help him gain confidence by focusing on his strengths. Thanks for your support!

The level of prescience in this note and others from my early school life is rather frightening. :)

Anyway, no matter how far back the evil tendencies ran, they were very nearly out of control by the fifth grade. Fourth grade was terrible for me as I shrieked and howled my way through every mistake. Just in writing this, I’m beginning to wonder if my parents didn’t import Helen to have the exact effect on me she did? I dunno, but God used that woman.

You see, she simply refused to tolerate my tantrums. I can still remember her talking to me, pleading with me, arguing with me. She fought with me and for me against the demons that were threatening my sanity. She also noted my increasing arrogance (arrogance and insecurity seem to go hand in hand, more often than not) and stepped on it hard. In talking with my parents recently, they recalled a question she asked me once in the height of one of my rages: “Do you think you’re God, Daniel?” At the time, I brushed off the question angrily: of course I didn’t think I was God! Now, thinking back on it, my demand and expectation that I be perfect are more than vaguely reminiscent of Satan’s boast “I will be like God; I will exalt my throne above the heaves...”

Helen was more than my sanity preserver: she was my friend. She read books to us over recess periods at school: White Fang, Jungle Book (all of it, not just the common pieces), Captains Courageous, Huckleberry Finn ... and others.

She lived near my family in the ger community called Damtardja on the outskirts of Ulaan Baatar. (Ger is the Mongolian word for yurt, which is what the Russians call them. The noted Wikipedia article has some pictures of them at the bottom.) There was, of course, no running water for those gers and pumps were highly problematic ... particularly in the winter. The government delivered massive water trucks to central buildings called hoducks (my own transliteration); it was an individual family’s responsibility to acquire the ration tickets for the water supply and haul a canister up to get it. Ah, those were the days ... shortly after we moved to the ger community, my parents in their infinite wisdom decided to entrust the reponsibility of acquiring this water to me. I put a stainless steel 40-liter canister of water onto a two-wheeled contraption (rather similar to a long wheelbarrow) called a tehrig, trundled it up to the station, filled it up with water (after breaking it open because it was frozen shut), and trundled it back. Since a liter of water weighs about a kilogram, forty liters of water weighs around eighty-eight pounds. When I started the job, the canister was heavier than me; I had to get help to lift it on the tehrig. The job was especially fun in the spring time, when the road was all muddy ... but I digress.

Anyway, when Helen saw what a splendid job I did carting that water (definitely qualifying as a “character-building experience” in a Calvin and Hobbes sense), she hired me on to do the same for her. Since there was only one of her (well, two when her room-mate was around), I only had to do it a couple of times a week (as you can imagine, we established a very strict water economy quickly), but she paid me really well ... a little more than a dollar a week (800 tugriks) if memory serves. I’m not so sure, but she has always considered that experience an extremely character-building one for me. I didn’t notice, but she’s always claimed that I changed a lot through that work, particularly since she and her room-mate needed me. Without water, bad things happen.

As I said before, Helen was a friend. A really good one. She helped me get through probably the hardest period of my life, where my self-control was weakest and my perfectionism most demanding. She introduced me to some of the greatest classics in all literature. She gave me a man’s job—or at least a young man’s job—and I grew into it. She gave me lemonade when the trek was long and hot in the summer and hot chocolate when it was less than minus forty in the winter. She helped keep me sane, and helped me begin to get a handle on my pride.

She did a lot of other things, as well. Some of them at the same time she was tutoring us (she tutored us for three years), some of them afterwards. She helped teach kindergarten, if memory serves. She was really active in reaching street children (believe me, living on the street when it’s forty below and colder is a very trying experience). I really don’t know everything she was involved in, nor do I know many of the details of her past. I’ve seen her twice since she moved back to the States: she actually came to my wedding.

Picture of Helen Richardson, my siblings, and myself at my wedding: August 7, 2004

That’s Helen at my wedding in August 2004 (the other extremely good-looking people in that shot are my siblings, in case the family resemblance isn’t clear). Good looking as well as awesome, can you beat that? :D

To Helen:

Thank you. For everything. For teaching me so much more than was in the textbook. For reading to us. For loving us. For trusting me with a big job. For helping me stay sane. For helping me ease my death grip on perfection. For never giving up on me. A great many of the good things in my life owe a great part of their make-up to you, my most important teacher. God bless you, Helen. You’re welcome in my home any time ... and I’d like to hear from you.

I love you.

Posted by Leatherwood at 08:05 PM
This post has been classified as "Eulogy"

August 11, 2006

A Chance Observation

I have occasionally heard someone scoff at the idea of God being a person without a beginning; they think that it's impossible for something not to have a beginning. It occurred to me a few days ago that there are only three possibilities:

  1. Nothing exists at all.
  2. At some point, something came into existence from absolutely nothing.
  3. Something (or Someone) has always existed.
Posted by Leatherwood at 08:04 PM
This post has been classified as "Musings"

Freedom of Choice

Well, here’s a second post in as many days. In the words of Calvin and Hobbes: “Reward, please!!” :D Actually, if you take a look at the top of this page, you’ll notice I’ve added a new section—posts I’m considering writing. In the past, I’ve often had ideas for posts and other things to write about that somehow never got written or I forgot about them. The new section will hopefully accomplish two things: remind me of the interesting subjects I’ve got to write about, and give my loyal readers an incentive to bug me about writing the ones they’re most interested in. If not, it will at least be evidence of my good intentions! :)

Now, on to the post itself.

My father periodically writes and suggests reading material to me. Most of the time, I do little if anything about it; those suggestions go on my “good ideas” pile where they rot along with all the other good ideas waiting for opportunity and motivation. But, in this case, he was particularly insistent and the request stuck in my mind. So that’s how I came to read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Dr. Stephen R. Covey.

The 7 Habits is one of those books that most people have heard of but never read. I, for one, heard about it, saw it, and dismissed it as another one of those self-help books. Perhaps a very famous self-help book, but just a self-help book nonetheless. In reading it, I have begun to suspect that the titles of the book and chapters and habits are buzz phrases to wow PR people into recommending the book to their employers and suckering them into reading it. Because the book itself is good. At least, I am finding it so. After all, the first habit has prompted enough thought on my part that I’ve talked about it to four people or so (and am about to write about it).

The first habit is to “Be Proactive.” Did I mention I dislike nearly all the titles in this book? But what he means by this is quite simple, yet fundamental. He recounts the story of Victor Frankl, which I was familiar with in bits and pieces, but had never heard the whole. If you don’t mind, I’ll quote from the book here:

Frankl was a determinist raised in the tradition of Freudian psychology, which postulates that whatever happens to you as a child shapes your character and personality and basically governs your life. The limits and parameters of your life are set, and, basically, you can’t do much about it.

Frankl was also a psychiatrist and a Jew. He was imprisoned in the death camps of Nazi Germany, where he experienced things that were so repugnant to our sense of decency that we shudder to even repeat them.

His parents, his brother, and his wife died in the camps or were sent to the gas ovens. Except for his sister, his entire family perished. Frankl himself suffered torture and innumerable indignities, never knowing from one moment to the next if his path would lead to the ovens or if he would be among the “saved” who would remove the bodies or shovel out the ashes of those so fated.

One day, naked and alone in a small room, he began to become aware of what he later called “the last of the human freedoms”—the freedom his Nazi captors could not take away. They could control his entire environment, they could do what they wanted to his body, but Viktor Frankl himself was a self-aware being who could look as an observer at his very involvement. His basic identity was intact. He could decide within himself how all of this was going to affect him. Between what happened to him, or the stimulus, and his response to it, was his freedom or power to choose that response.

p. 69

The first and most fundamental principle of highly effective people is the conviction that they can choose their response to what happens to them, and that it is this choice that makes them free agents, makes them human. To an enormous degree, this is basic to everything else: if you’re going to write a self-help book about how people can change, first has to be the conviction that they can change. Covey says a little later that “until a person can say deeply and honestly, ‘I am what I am today because of the choices I made yesterday,’ that person cannot say ‘I choose otherwise.’ ” (p. 72)

This principle of freedom rung a bell with me. I’d heard things like this before ... actually, I was raised on them. But I also realize that I’ve steadily drifted farther and farther from actually believing it. Over the years, I’ve come to believe that a person is not defined by their choices, but by their “heart” in making those choices. And I’ve (foolishly, perhaps) come to believe that a person’s feelings and a person’s heart are almost the same thing. You can, I freely concede, choose your actions and responses, but I am far from convinced you can choose the heart from which you act. And I’ve also come to doubt my heart, my motivations, for everything. This threatens a total paralysis, as I cannot do anything without wondering if my motivation for doing it is good, suspecting it isn’t, and despairing because I can’t change that motivation (or, at a deeper level of doubt, that I would if I could. That, after all, would be saying that my intentions are good.)

I’m not quite sure why I’m so pessimistic about my own fundamental nature. Part of it stems from the Biblical doctrine of the fundamentally deceitful nature of the heart and the total depravity of mankind. That’s my intellectual justification, anyway. But on a more personal level, I note the tendency going back a long time. I think it’s something I learned from the stories I read as a child: that you can never relax your guard, never take anything for granted, never assume the best, never be sure things are ok ... because as soon as you do, disaster strikes. Or, so I learned, anyway. I can see this “wary” tendency in me as I competed: I refuse to be confident I have won until the game is absolutely over and I refuse to rejoice much in victory (there’s always the next test). Indeed, I hated losing much more than I loved winning for that reason. I am indeed a competitive person, but I also tend to shy away from competition.

Earlier, I mentioned that I have come to identify one’s “heart” with one’s feelings. I also came to define “hypocrisy” as “hiding your true feelings.” This has had some beneficial affects on my character—I am a very transparent person. I say what I think, I don’t hide what I feel, and I follow my impulses (mostly). This causes another block against accepting what Covey says, because after you realize you can control your responses to what happens, you then realize that you can subordinate your impulses to your principles. You can act because of what you believe instead of what you feel. To me, this is rank hypocrisy. Yet I encountered it years before in Mere Christianity.

May I once again start by putting two pictures, or two stories rather, into your minds? One is the story you all have read called Beauty and the Beast. The girl, you remember had to marry a monster for some reason. And she did. She kissed it as if it were a man. And then, much to her relief, it really turned into a man and all went well. The other story is about someone who had to wear a mask; a mask which made him look much nicer than he really was. He had to wear it for years. And when he took it off he found his own face had grown to fit it. He was now really beautiful. What had begun as disguise had become a reality.

Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. p. 187, at the beginning of chapter 7, “Let’s Pretend”

Lewis goes on to make the argument that, as Christians, we all “put on the mask” and try to behave better than we really are. We attempt to put on the face of Christ, and find that as we do, our true faces change to become more like His. It’s a good argument ... and I disliked it from the first time I saw it (around 13 years old, if memory serves). Part of me rebelled against having put to on a nicer face than my own, though a more rational part of me accepts the necessity. But I was never comfortable with it.

A few moments’ thought will show that my conception of “hypocrisy” has a few holes in it. A rather large hole appears as soon as you consider that my conception means that self-control is no longer a virtue. For, if self-control means anything, it means controlling your behavior in order to act in a way you don’t wish to. So clearly, a little rethinking needed to be done. And I started to ... but never really finished my thought. Or never believed my conclusion, anyway. But in talking with Miss Tucker a few days ago, I returned to my conclusion and mused about it. Wearing a mask is essential, for fallen people. The reality of my sinful inclinations long ago convinced me of it. So all of us pretend ... we must. We all wear masks more beautiful than our real faces (according to our own definitions of “beautiful”). But who then is the hypocrite? I think that the hypocrite is the man who has forgotten he wears a mask, and has come to fancy his mask is his true face. He is satisfied with his pretty mask, and no longer feels the grief that his true face doesn’t match it. The hypocrite is the mask-wearer without grief.

For we all must wear masks, but it is essential to remember that it is a mask. That memory keeps us humble, for we know our pretty appearance isn’t the full truth ... and that memory keeps us longing for it to be the full truth.

God’s peace be upon you. Thanks for reading.

Posted by Leatherwood at 07:34 PM
This post has been classified as "Musings"

August 10, 2006

Long-Belated Update

Umm ... hello, everybody. *Sheepish grin* It’s, uh, been a long time. Around two and a half months, actually. Which is terribly sad, and I really ought to update you all on what’s been going on. So I will.

My wife got a new job around mid-June (she was working at a day-care center here in Bellingham before). Now she’s working for an upscale women’s clothing store called Christopher and Banks. She’s bought more clothes since starting there than in our entire married life up to that point (nearly two years). Fortunately, Christopher and Banks is a good store, my wife has good taste (and consults with me), and she gets a 50% discount as an employee. :) All good things.

I’m still working at the same packaging company that I’ve worked for since May (and worked at since April). It’s not the most exciting work in the world, but it’s not bad either, and I really like the people I get to work with there. Also, the day goes from 7–3:30, so I get off with a fair bit of time at the end of the day. It’s been a good place to work.

However, in another bit of news, I’ve been offered a new job working at a naval research base in Dahlgren, Virginia. Conditionally offered, that is. First, I have to pass a security check. So I’ve been having fun the last few weeks filling out paperwork and tracking down old friends and seeing if they’d be willing to reassure the Navy I’m neither a Commie nor insane. :) At least, that’s the idea. I don’t expect too many problems from the process, but my parents and little sister do live in Iraq, so that could make things a little ... interesting. We’ll see.

I’m really glad to have been offered the job, though. I’m really looking forward to being able to work with computers and write code and make things blow up. :D I’m also really looking forward to being paid enough that Nikki and I can seriously consider starting a family in the relatively near future. That’s a ... shall we say trepidatious thought ... but also an ... exciting one. We’ll have to see how things will work out. I’ll miss the low humidity and relative lack of bugs of the Northwest, though. And Nikki and I will really miss our church. But my former room-mate and best friend, Daniel Wise, just started work there in a different department. I’m really looking forward to being able to work and hang out with him again.

In other news, Nikki and I celebrated our second wedding anniversary on Monday. It’s hard to believe it’s been so long! Yet it has ... and it’s been wonderful. It’s not every man that gets to marry the woman of his dreams, and then find out his dreams were a pale thing next to the reality of the woman he married. :D I love you, sweetheart. Our second anniversary was a good time to finally get our rings engraved. We’ve been planning on doing it since before our wedding. But it’s finally done, and the message we chose is the same one I thought of more than two years ago: semper fi. That’s the shorter version of semper fidelis, and is the Marine Corps motto (reading about the Marines was the first place I came across it). Its meaning is simple: “always faithful.”

Oh, one more bit of news. My wife and I have finally acquired cell phones! We chose Verizon, and we’ve been having scandalous amounts of fun with our new toys in the last few weeks. If you’d like the number, just drop me an e-mail. The cell phones sport pretty decent camera’s: here’s a picture of my wife I snapped a couple of days ago.

Second anniversary snapshot of my wife

And with that, I close. God’s blessings on you all.

Posted by Leatherwood at 05:03 PM
This post has been classified as "Public Address"
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