A Simple Way to Improve Your Life… With Just a Few Minutes and a Can of Oil

On a camping trip with my family, I got up early one morning and gracefully slipped out of our RV. Feeling proud of my stealth I went to get something out of the trunk of a car… and noticed a squeaky creak as I gently raised it. Not a bad noise, yet one that stood out amid the silence. It struck me that it’s been there for as long as I can remember and just seemed like the character of the car. Upon returning home, I diligently sprayed a little WD-40 on the trunk’s pivot points which easily cleaned up the noise. As I opened my trunk before going to work the next morning I noticed that it didn’t squeak. It was a simple thing but it gave me a satisfying sense of progress. That I’d fixed something and my busy life was just a tiny bit better for it.

I go to thinking that it would make a great project to do with my youngest son. Going around the house testing all the hinges, giving the ones that needed a little shot of oil simple things that we can fix together… And make life just a little bit better in ways that we didn’t even know needed it.


Family Night and the Importance of Simple Traditions

Pizza… a movie… junk food… and the entire family chilling around the TV. The requisite check list items for our crew’s “Family Night”. What started out years ago as something fun for all of us to share, grew in to a weekly mandate by the kids. Not in a spoiled, “we want sugar” kind of way, but as a genuine need to spend fun time together. If mom or I try to weasel out of it on an especially busy weekend, they’ll call us on it. It’s something that has been especially important as the draws of school, work, Scouts, sports, and the like pull everyone in radical directions all week. Friday night is Family Night, and we do it together.

Family Night SignFirst off, it’s worth noting that there are magically no fattening calories in our house on Family Night. (It’s funny how that works out when you need it to.) We do admit that a banquet of combination pizza, chocolate doughnuts, and Cheetos aren’t going to win us any parenting awards for nutrition. However, the impact a simple tradition like this has on the crew makes it more than worthwhile in the end. It forms bonds that emphasize the importance of a close family that has fun together. Maybe when our kids are grown up, they will have a Family Night in their own homes… or perhaps they’ll come up with their own bonding tradition. Regardless, I do know that they will do something because it’s meant so much to them.

If you have simple traditions that your family shares or you remember as a kid, please share it. A family tradition can’t grow without first starting out as a new idea!

CPR: Are You Ready For The Moment You Can Make A Difference?

Do you know CPR? Have you ever actually had to use it? I encountered the sudden need to perform CPR recently, and the power of the moment proved to be a very eye-opening experience. It was one that emphasized how important knowing CPR is, and the need to be ready.

It was a Saturday night on which I was losing at cards to my wife and mom on our back patio. We’d just gone out to dinner for my daughter’s birthday, the kids were playing in the pool, the weather was perfect. A nice night; yet one that was quickly changed when a shriek pierced the air from my neighbors’ house. At the sound I jumped up, peeked over the fence, and looked across the hundred yards to their property. Samantha, the middle-aged mom of the house, was standing on her front lawn and screamed “Help me” in a tone that left no question of the urgency. I shouted “Grab a phone” at my wife (who had already gone to get one), and took off through the front gate. As I approached their house, I yelled back to “Call 9-1-1!” as it became clear that someone had collapsed on their front lawn… her father.
Grass with dead tips
He was lying flat on the ground with a purple color to his face and a blank stare to the sky. Samantha and her two kids were standing over him, stunned by what was happening and unsure of what to do. The need to do something flushed through my mind as I took in the surprising scene. I’d taken CPR training a few times in the past, but it had been many years. Inactivity was not an option though, so I knelt down next to him, checked his mouth for any obstructions, and felt for a pulse in his neck. Nothing obvious.

I started chest compressions intermixed with some mouth-to-mouth breaths and encouraging words to him. Anything to get a response. Samantha was on the phone with 9-1-1 anxiously awaiting rescuers to arrive. I spoke briefly with the dispatcher to make sure I was doing the right thing, and continued on. Occasionally he would exhale, but I didn’t know if it was an actual response or a byproduct of all the action on his body.

A couple minutes in, a passerby drove up and identified himself as “CPR certified”. As he was likely more recently trained, I stepped back and let him take over. Shortly thereafter, the fire department arrived, followed a couple minutes later by an ambulance. By the time the man was taken to the hospital, he had received numerous chest compressions and defibrillation by the paramedics, had a pulse, and was being bagged for breathing.

In the days following, the dad was diagnosed as having had a massive heart attack and underwent quadruple bypass surgery. He is very thankfully still alive and recovering, but of course faces a long road ahead for he and his family.

Personally, the experience left me feeling numb. I had attempted to breathe life in to a seemingly unresponsive body. I’d done chest compressions while wondering in my head… Am I doing the right thing? Is this even helping? While serving as an air ambulance pilot in Afghanistan, I’d flown several people who had life-threatening or traumatic injuries, and it felt good to help each time. But this was different. It was the first time I’d directly worked on someone. The first time I’d seen a chest rise and fall as I blew in to it, and compressed the chest of a real person who meant so much to his family.

The gist of sharing this experience is to highlight how being ready can make a huge difference in someone’s life. If the moment comes that a daughter is panicking with fear because she thinks her father is dying, or that kids are staring in disbelief at their grandfather who lays unresponsive in front of them… can you help?

Cardiopulmonary resuscitation training only takes a slice of a day yet can make all the difference in the world to someone. Check out the links below for good starting points to find a class near you. Heck, maybe I’ll even see you there… I know I’m looking forward to rekindling what I know.

American Red Cross
American Heart Association

Book Break – How the horrors of a North Korean labor camp drove one citizen to “Escape from Camp 14”

In “Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom”, Blaine Harden tells the riveting story of the first person to be born in and escape from a North Korean political labor camp, Shin Donghyuk. During his 22 years in Camp 14, Shin endured isolation, torture, starvation, endless work, and life alone with no concept of love or family. Reviews of “Escape from Camp 14” include comments that, “If you have a soul, you will be changed forever…” (Mitchell Zuckoff, New York Times). Pretty powerful commentary.

The book ends up being a hybrid between true stories, and a study of North Korea. It chronicles experiences in Shin’s tortured life, and then expands on many of them with details highlighting the rampant atrocities in North Korea. For many books, this cycling between narratives and background details might be a distraction; however, here they serve as important underscorings of how oppressive things truly are in this isolationist country.

In North Korea, citizens who are condemned to a camp can be held for the rest of their lives… and their kids’ lives… and their kids’ lives. Three generations of lives for allegedly doing something against their repressive government. It’s a tragic cycle that can’t be questioned by North Korean citizens.

Inside camps such as # 14, the Kaechon Internment Camp that Shin lived in, prisoners exist solely for the betterment of North Korea. They are worked relentlessly, beaten, and nearly starved to death such that they are a physical shell of a person. “Marriages” are arranged by camp staff, but couples are still segregated and rarely afforded the opportunity to be alone. Kids endure hunger to the point that they will pinch kernels of corn out of animal feces just to have something to eat, despite the risk of being punished for it.

Prisoners are broken down mentally, being told over and over that the actions of their families justify their incarceration. They are further programmed to rat out other prisoners who consider doing things against the camp, such as escape. Failure to do so is considered equal to aiding those prisioners, and the accomplice must then “be shot immediately”. A common punishment that repeatedly echoes through the camp rules that prisoners must memorize.

Overall, “Escape from 14” rates… 4 out of 5 Crumbs. It is very good, but it left me wanting more. The author’s interviews with Shin extracted many difficult details from him, but there are so many more things I wanted to know about Shin’s experiences and life inside the camps. If you look at the importance of the topic though, it is off the charts. North Korea’s atrocities receive little attention these days, and this book is a true eye opener that hopefully sparks greater exposure to life there.

Looking for a bit more background on “Escape from Camp 14”? An interesting interview with the author by Sacramento radio hosts Armstrong and Getty can be found on their website. (It’s the first segment in that hour’s podcast.)

So THIS Is The Nugget of Wisdom My Son Learned From Me?

Cake, Frosting, and JelloLast night, my second grade son and I whipped up a storm together in the kitchen for our Cub Scout Pack’s annual Father-Son Cake Bake. The cake was of the historic USS Hornet aircraft carrier surrounded by an ocean of blue Jell-O, and it looked pretty cool. It was especially rewarding this year as he’d taken a recent interest in cooking, and has been learning a lot about it from his mom. That was clear as he was more capable, and eager to dive in. Excellent.

As we were cleaning up the kitchen, he told me, “Dad, there’s something I learned from you.” I admittedly welled up with a bit of pride on hearing that. We’d just accomplished something together through a nice bonding experience; and I try to instill ideas in my kids to help them be happy and successful in life. What could the valuable nugget be that meant so much to him? “Don’t eat your boogers.”

Oh, well. I guess it shows he’s listening… and perhaps even the seemingly littlest lessons can make a difference in the end.

My Daughter Cared Enough, Maybe I Should Listen

Text Message, "Don't Eat Meat Today"Mmmm…. It’s Friday of what’s been a long week, I’ve got a great pulled beef sandwich in my lunch, and it’s just about time to crack it open. Simple pleasures.

Hey, the buzz of a text message. Likely my freshman daughter who often sneaks a peak at her texts during lunch at school. Always fun. Let’s see, four simple words, “Don’t eat meat today” Oh yeah… it’s a Friday during Lent.

I paused and stared at the screen for a moment. We’re a Christian family, so I could do the right thing and abstain from the tasty treat in my desk drawer; or, I could dismiss her message and dive in. After all, the leftover laden sandwich is what I happen to have for lunch. As I considered this, my thoughts evolved beyond my own personal discipline, but to the point of listening to my daughter. She had sent the message as it was important to her. We may not always agree, but I respect her and her opinions.

It’s easy to get in the groove of always feeling the need to be the adult and not reciprocating the respect inherent in truly listening. If you raise your children right, then the judgment and insight they develop as they get older should be a reflection of that. Listen, and you can learn from them as they have learned from you.

The sandwich got a pass that Friday, and a couple bean burritos from the Taco Bell down the street made up my lunch. Still tasty, yet garnished with a greater respect for my daughter.

When Toddlers Think, What Do Their Minds Say?

A Toddler ThinkingThe other day, my 11-yeard old son looked at his newly walking brother and wondered… how does he think? When he feels a toy, looks at his siblings, or eats one of the dog’s treats, what does he say in his mind? As adults, we think thoughts in our native tongue. We take advantage of the framework that language gives us to organize what goes on in our mind. Look at a banana and you may think “yellow” or “nutritious”. For a toddler that is old enough to process, but not speak coherently, what are the actual thoughts that run through his mind? An interesting question… that is considered with words.

When Opportunity Knocks – A Lesson for Life from Sac State over Oregon State

Last weekend, the FCS/I-AA Sacramento State Hornets turned a $425k “body bag” football game at Oregon State in to the biggest win in their program’s history. Up 14-3 at the half, and 21-6 after 3 quarters, Sac was in control of much of the game. OSU however found a running game in the 4th and quickly tied things up 21-21. With time expiring, and a chip shot field goal by OSU’s Kevin Romaine as the final play of regulation, victory seemed to have yielded to the Beavers. That was until the ball hit the upright and fell helplessly back to the field. An unbelievable miss which sent the game in to overtime. Opportunity knocks.

In OT, the Beavers went on offense first and took only two plays to find the end zone. Down seven, Sac then took their shot and marched in for a TD and six points as well. Opportunity knocks.

With his Hornet team wearing out against a deeper Beaver team, yet riding high on an effective offense, head coach Marshall Sperbeck laid all his team’s chips on the table and decided to go for two. If the Hornets don’t score, then they would have still made a solid showing in a game they were supposed to lose anyways. Make it, and they’ve made football history. The pieces had fallen in to place, and set up for this incredible opportunity… For the two, Jeff Flemming lobbed a pass in to the corner of the end zone that was snared by a falling Bradyn Reed. Victory!

Since Sac State athletics moved up to Division 1 in 1991, the Hornets football program has found only sporadic success. Occassional flashes of hope have been overshadowed by generally lackluster win-loss records, giving fans little to truly get excited about.

Since the win though, Hornet football has enjoyed a mini-renaissance. Sac State has seen rekindled demand for season tickets. They jumped up several spots in FCS polls to #12, their highest ranking ever. Their next road game against a good Southern Utah team was recently announced to be televised in the Sacramento market. National media sources have given Hornet football more love and attention than they have in years, including a shout out on ESPN’s SportsCenter’s Top Plays of the Day.

For major college programs, much of this might seem trite; but, to an up and coming program such as the Hornets, they are valuable rewards for seizing a rare opportunity.

Regardless of who or what you are, life periodically gives you special chances. Sometimes you see them coming, while others pop up out of the blue. How you embrace them can have great signifigance in your life, with the results being amplified many times over. So the next time a ball hits the upright in your life and gives you a second chance, be sure to think carefully about what your next play will be. It might just be the victory you need.

Book Look – “The Butcher: Anatomy of a Mafia Psychopath”

Some people get spooked at the mere thought of a cut on their finger. Others will look at a bleeding cut, realize that it’s not right, and calmly do something about it. Yet others will strip buck naked, get in a bathtub with someone they just murdered, precisely carve the dead up in to six pieces, and stuff the parts in to suitcases for disposal. The latter is the grisly style of mafia capo Tommy “Karate” Pitera, as described in Philip Carlo’s “The Butcher: Anatomy of a Mafia Psychopath”.

"The Butcher" Book Cover“The Butcher” takes a look at the horror and capture of Tommy Pitera from opposing sides. In one camp, Carlo delves in to the challenges Pitera faced growing up in a tough Brooklyn neighborhood; and how those inspired Pitera to hone himself in to an expert martial artist and a deadly mafia assassin. The emergence of Pitera in the Bonanno crime family, and the rough paths of those around him, are interestingly chronicled as he rises from bullied child to highly feared capo.

In parallel with Pitera’s story, Carlo chronicles the DEA career of Jim Hunt, the lead agent who hunted down Pitera. Hunt’s growth and success as a model DEA agent are highlighted, with key focus given to his pursuit of Pitera. The butcher’s shrewdness made for a slippery target though, challenging Hunt and his elite DEA team.

The deadly, drugged up world that Pitera preys in is one of the most insightful parts of this book. Its provides a peek in to how the New York mafia operated during the 1980’s, and emphasizes how much the sale and use of drugs played a key part of that life style. Pietra interestingly went against the grain when it came to drugs. Not wanting to dull his physical edge with drugs, he dabbled in them lightly, proclaiming that “I use the drug; the drug does not use me.”

The Butcher” is an overall worthwhile read. Despite a few areas that feel a bit disjointed in the flow of the story, it provides a compelling look at the barbaric Pitera and the New York mafia families he operated with.

Rating… 3 out of 5 Crumbs

DARPA’s Mach 20 Glider – 12 Minutes NY to LA

DARPA, a research agency of the US Department of Defense, attempted flying a vehicle today that could one day travel at 13,000mph. At those speeds, the unmanned Falcon Hypersonic Test Vehicle 2 (HTV-2), could fly from New York to Los Angeles in 12 Minutes. More strategically, a vehicle like this could reach anywhere in the world in under an hour.

Mid-20th century attempts at flying aircraft through the sound barrier of Mach 1 had already proved challenging. The pressure waves that form at the sound barrier change the dynamics of flight, impacting aerodynamics and overall control. Fast forward to today, and engineers are grappling with travel at 20x the speed of sound that could encounter even further unknown hurdles. Today’s test flight unfortunately failed when contact was lost; however, the premise is still an amazing endeavor.

A as in Alpha – Know The Phonetic Alphabet

Everyone should know the phonetic alphabet. If you are not familiar with it, the common ICAO Phonetic Alphabet is a “language” for spelling out terms; which is used by radio operators, such as pilots and soldiers. It assigns the letters of the alphabet with common words that sound uniquely different from each other.  For example, “Charlie”, “Echo”, and “Papa” are used instead of the similarly sounding “C”, “E”, and “P”.  Numbers are also included, but the emphasis is on pronunciation and not assigning numbers to specific words.  An example is that ”3” is said as “Tree”.
Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, ...

Using the phonetic alphabet in conversations in which you need to spell out words makes them precise and succinct. Say for example you are talking with a customer service representative, and you need to spell out the name “Alphonso”. Without a common, standard phonetic alphabet, it might sound like, “A as in apple, L as in uhhh lantern, P as in pencil…” Clumsy. It doesn’t come across well and it’s a tedious way to speak.

Another way is to use the phonetic alphabet. “Alpha, Lima, Papa, Hotel, Oscar, November, Sierra, Oscar.” Done. It’s quick, clear, and easy!

When both people know the same phonetic alphabet, it really streamlines verbal spellings. Even if you already know the phonetic alphabet, you can’t necessarily jump right in and start using it. What if you start rattling off phonetic words to someone who isn’t familiar with speaking that way? It may throw them for a loop, and hence require clarification.

Thankfully though, the phonetic alphabet is simple and fun to learn. Once you’ve gotten the hang of speaking phonetically, it quickly becomes second nature.

..., X-ray, Yankee, Zulu

Interestingly, the US armed services adopted the ICAO phonetic alphabet in 1956. In the 15 years preceding this, the US Army and Navy used the Joint Army/Navy Phonetic Alphabet. Though identical in intent as the ICAO alphabet, the words it uses are notably different. Anyone who’s seen an old WWII movie will recognize familiar terms such as, “Able”, “Baker”, “Charlie”, “Dog”, “Easy”, and “Fox.”

How do you share information that needs to be spelled out?  Do you use the phonetic alphabet or perhaps your own creative approach?

Charlie, Hotel, Echo, Echo, Romeo, Sierra.

Oscar, Uniform, Tango.

Our Alien Brothers on Gliese 581g…. What Would They Say About God?

Last year, NASA discovered Gliese 581g, a planet 20 light years away that could be one of the most “potentially habitable” worlds ever discovered. At a distance of over 100 trillion miles, it is certainly well outside our lifetimes to make contact with it. However, it’s still amazing to think about we could learn from any “Gliese 581g-ians” living on this alien world.

One of the first things I’d like to know would be what their feelings are about God. They could be advanced technologically, use three arms, or have green skin, but their views on religion would still form a fundamental piece of their culture. It’s been that way on Earth for thousands of years. Regardless of one’s beliefs, Jesus and Mohammed are undoubtedly two of the most influential people who ever shared our planet.

Has God reached out to them? Are there other manifestations of a god that guide their lives? Have they fought wars exclusively over religion as people have on Earth? Considering the diversity of religions that have evolved amongst cultures on Earth, it’s hard to imagine our intergalactic brothers without religion in some form.

Peace be with you, Gliese 581g-ians.

Starting In Right Field… Harry Potter

My wife and I don’t care for baseball.  I’ll admit, we’ve caught the local AAA team in action and stayed for most of the innings.  We’ve even seen a game at the baseball temple that is the original Yankee Stadium.  For us though, it’s not a sport we follow or care watch to any extent.  This apathy is despite the passion some of our closer friends have for baseball.  A passion that we’ve never understood.

Yankee Stadium's Monument ParkAt a recent party, baseball came up and the conversation quickly turned in to evangelization as to why it is such a great sport.  The subtle strategy… the skill of the players… the exciting atmosphere of a close game… “You like football and hockey, I don’t understand why don’t you like baseball?!?”  They’re points we’ve heard before, but they just don’t collectively resonate with us to the point that we care.

In contrast, an obsession my wife and oldest daughter share is for Harry Potter.  They’ve taken in the books and movies numerous times, and debated the minutiae that J. K. Rowling weaved in to her stories.  When discussing the series with muggles who haven’t read the series, or have “just seen the movies”, they become very spirited and passionate.  The subtle depth of the story lines… the talent in the writing… the wondrous atmosphere that his Hogwarts…  “You like (insert any book), I don’t understand why you don’t like Harry Potter?!?”

Personally, I lump Harry Potter with baseball.  He’s just not my style.  The disparate passions they kindle though make me smile, and show that one person’s passion is another’s “eh, that’s nice”.

Now if Harry Potter traded quidditch for baseball… then maybe that would change things.

Honoring Independence Day – “Soldiers Surprising Their Loved Ones”

YouTube is home to some of the goofiest, stupidest, weirdest videos that could ever be dreamed up.  (Seriously… an “annoying orange“?)  Every once in a while though, one comes along that has genuine meaning and won’t be easily forgotten.  One such type of video are those of military homecoming surprises.  Nicely stitched together, they end up feeling like a warm blanket hand-sewn by your grandmother.

Honoring Independence Day – “Taking Chance”

My wife and I had never heard of the HBO movie “Taking Chance” before she added it to our Netflix queue; however, the journey this movie becomes proved to be worth every moment we watched it.  In “Taking Chance”, Kevin Bacon portrays Lieutenant Colonel Michael Strobl, a Marine officer who is manning a desk stateside during the Iraq war in 2004.  Strobl finds out that a soldier from his small hometown, Marine Private First Class Chance Phelps, had been killed during a firefight in Iraq.  In a epiphenal-like moment, he volunteers to escort Chance from Dover AFB to his final resting spot in Wyoming, an honor that is traditionally given to fallen service members.

The simplicity of the plot develops in to a moving experience with a cadence that is very somber and deliberate.  Taking Chance is not about action, humor, or combat; nor, does it push any specific position on war or politics.  The movie is a genuine, simple, touching depiction of how our fallen servicemen and women are respected in a very tragic situation.  Arm yourself with a box of tissues and some American pride, and you’ll find “Taking Chance” to be one of the most pure, moving film experiences you will ever have.

Honoring Independence Day – “The Good Soldiers”

To state the obvious, opinions about America’s second war in Iraq have varied widely amongst people.  These views often develop from newspaper articles, cable news shows, and polarized radio hosts which look at the war from a macro level.  A key piece that is often missing is what the war means to the soldiers living it each day… on the ground… in the dust clouds of roadside bombs.  David Finkel’s account of an infantry battalion he was embedded with during the surge, helps to bridge this gap.

“The Good Soldiers” documents the Iraq deployment of Fort Riley, Kansas’s 2-16 Infantry Battalion in 2007-2008.  Led by Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Kauzlarich, the battalion enters the fight with the best intentions of stemming the violence in Iraq.  The maddening reality of numerous challenges and eminent danger develop in each soldier over time, providing incredible insight into what serving on the ground in Iraq is like.

Finkel does an outstanding job capturing the futility of dealing with random bomb attacks, the difficulty often found in working the local Iraqis, and the toll a long, stressful deployment takes on soldiers.  He served eight months in Iraq with the 2-16, and conducted extensive research on events he didn’t see.  The detailed, choreographed writing of this Pulitzer Prize winning author molds “The Good Soldiers” in to a captivating story that is definitely worth a read.

In the spirit of Kauzlarich’s optimism and dedication, “It’s all good.

Rating… 5 out of 5 Crumbs

In Honor of America’s Independence Day

In honor of the 4th of July weekend, posts over the next three days will focus on some of the best military tributes I’ve come across.  Laid out like the 7-gun volleys of a 21-gun salute, the tributes consist of a book, a movie, and even a YouTube video.  They focus on more recent veterans; however, each one captures unique aspects of American service members’ lives and can be appreciated by any generation.

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