Friday, November 29, 2013

The Friday Four, Part 42


I hope everyone had a fabulous Thanksgiving with lots of yummy food and time with friends and family! We sure did!

Setting the table and filling plates for the kids...
So much yummy food!!!!!!!

(Random tidbit: Did you know that yesterday was a very rare occurrence? Thanksgiving and the first day of Hanukkah haven't coincided since 1888, and won't again in our lifetimes! Nifty!)


The Pew Research Center recently released a study about the reading habits of teens and young adults, as well as their opinions regarding libraries.  And it gives me great hope for the future!  One section in particular, regarding ebooks, caught my attention:
As with other age groups, younger Americans were significantly more likely to have read an e-book during 2012 than a year earlier. Among all those ages 16-29, 19% read an e-book during 2011, while 25% did so in 2012. At the same time, however, print reading among younger Americans has remained steady: When asked if they had read at least one print book in the past year, the same proportion (75%) of Americans under age 30 said they had both in 2011 and in 2012.
In fact, younger Americans under age 30 are now significantly more likely than older adults to have read a book in print in the past year (75% of all Americans ages 16-29 say this, compared with 64% of those ages 30 and older). And more than eight in ten (85%) older teens ages 16-17 read a print book in the past year, making them significantly more likely to have done so than any other age group.
I love my Kindle and you can't beat it for convenience, but nothing can quite compare to holding a print book in your hands.  It's almost cliche to talk about the way a book smells, but reading has always been a sensory experience for me.  I love the sound of pages turning, the feel of the paper between my fingers, and yes, the scent of paper and glue and ink and dust.  Glad to know that the younger generation recognizes the charms of old-fashioned books, too.


The New York Film Academy released a fascinating infographic titled "Gender Inequality in Film."  It points out in stark visuals the disparity between roles for men and women both in front of and behind the camera.  The graphic is pretty big, so I won't embed it here, but check it out on the NYFA website.

Just a few of the startling stats:
* In the top 500 films of 2007-2012, only 30.8% of the speaking characters are women.
* Likewise, only 10.7% feature a balanced cast where half of the characters are female.
* Roughly a third of female speaking characters are shown in sexually revealing attire or are partially naked.
* There is a 5:1 ratio of men working on films to women.
* In this year's Academy Awards, across the 19 major categories, only 35 women were nominated compared to 140 men.

C'mon, Hollywood, you can do better than that!  Those of us who, at least occasionally, go out and pay money to see movies can, too.  Hollywood will continue to make movies that make money; it's supply and demand, folks. (Yes, I know that's an extreme simplification, but there's still quite a bit of truth to it.)  Take a minute to think about what you want the future of filmmaking to look like, and choose movies today that will help send that message to the industry.


We're almost to the end of These Happy Golden Years, the second to last book of the Little House series.  Here are a couple more songs I found:

"Highland Mary" is, not surprisingly, Mary's song. The family sang it one night when they were missing Mary away at college:

And singing one Scottish song brought another one to Pa's mind.  Here's "My Heart Is Sair":

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Book Review: Allegiant by Veronica Roth

Allegiant is the third book of a trilogy that definitely improved as it went along.  This final installment offered the strongest characters and the most interesting, complex and believable relationships, without losing any of the page-turning action and breath-taking surprises of Divergent and Insurgent.

For those who haven't started the series yet, you can read a plot outline on wikipedia, if you'd like.  I won't retell the whole story here, but to set the stage very basically, it's another young adult trilogy set in a dystopian future.  The population of Chicago is divided based on their primary character trait into five factions: Abnegation (selflessness), Dauntless (courage), Erudite (intelligence), Amity (peace), and Candor (honesty).  There are some people who for one reason or another are rejected from their faction and they become the faction-less.  And some few special people show aptitude for more than one faction and they are called Divergent.  Because the existence of Divergents threatens this well-ordered system, certain elements of the leadership find them to be a threat and are determined to exterminate them.  [spoiler alert if you haven't read the first book!] Our two protagonists, Tris and Four, are members of Dauntless and both are discovered to be Divergent.  And, of course, romance blossoms.

In contrast to the first two books, which were both told exclusively from Tris's perspective, the first person narrator duties in Allegiant switch off between the two main characters Tris and Four.  Of course, this allowed Ms. Roth greater flexibility in telling the story from different angles and I completely understand why she chose this route, but I found it extremely confusing.  Even though it's clearly marked at the beginning of the chapter which character is speaking, I can't count the number of times I had to flip back a page or two to make sure I knew which point of view I was reading.  Perhaps using a different font for the characters would have been a better cue for readers?

In my reviews for the first two books, I mentioned that the romance between Tris and Four simply wasn't very believable for me.  I didn't care for their lopsided relationship and didn't sense any chemistry between them at all.  Allegiant turned it around.  The relationship became much more real, not to mention more equitable, when Tris called Four on his hypocrisy, demanding that she share all her secrets with him but refusing to reveal anything to her, and they both actually started working at being together.  After a series of betrayals on both sides, Tris comes to a realization:
I used to think that when people fell in love, they just landed where they landed, and they had no choice in the matter afterward.  and maybe that's true of beginnings, but it's not true of this, now.
I fell in love with him.  But I don't just stay with him by default as if there's no one else available to me.  I stay with him because I choose to, every day that I wake up, every day that we fight or lie to each other or disappoint each other. I choose him over and over again, and he chooses me.
Choice is a recurring theme throughout the series, but especially as the story wraps up.  Not only is the choice to love and to continue to love vital to who these characters are, but the ability to make choices that substantive affect their own lives becomes paramount.  Four argues that the system of factions that some are fighting to save is deceptive, but that forcing any way of life on others is just as wrong:
The reason the factions were evil is because there was no way out of them...They gave us the illusion of choice without actually giving us a choice. That's the same thing you're doing here, by abolishing them.  You're saying, go make choices. But make sure they aren't factions or I'll grind you to bits!
Of course, it's the final book in a series, so there are some emotional moments.  Without getting too spoilery, I'll tell you that it wasn't the moments regarding the Tris-Four relationship that got me teary-eyed.  It was the moments when damaged family connections were healed.  For example, there's a scene between Tris and her brother Caleb who betrayed her in an earlier book that brought me to tears.
When I look at him, I don't see the cowardly young man who sold me out to Jeanine Matthews, and I don't hear the excuses he gave afterward.
When I look at him, I see the boy who held my hand in the hospital when our mother broke her wrist and told me it would be all right.  I see the brother who told me to make my own choices, the night before the Choosing Ceremony.  I think of all the remarkable things he is--smart and enthusiastic and observant, quiet and earnest and kind.
He is a part of me, always will be, and I am a part of him, too.  I don't belong to Abnegation, or Dauntless, or even the Divergent.  I don't belong to the Bureau or the experiment or the fringe.  I belong to the people I love, and they belong to me--they, and the love and loyalty I give them, form my identify far more than any word or group ever could.
In the end, Allegiant proposes that two factors demonstrate who we are: our choices and our family.  Denying people either of those factors causes deep damage, and restoring those elements can be the catalyst for healing and growth.

by Veronica Roth
ISBN: 9780062024060
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcoverpaperbackebookaudiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Monday, November 25, 2013

Book Review: The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer

The Invisible Bridge takes us through a dark part of world history.  In the late 1930s, Europe is starting to see changes wrought by the insidiously spreading influence of Hitler's Nazi government.  Andras Levi is a Hungarian-Jewish architecture student. His brother is studying medicine in Modena, his younger brother has run away from home to become a performer and his parents are at home back in Budapest.  New laws are passed on an almost weekly basis limiting what Jews can do, where they can travel, study, work, live.  Miraculously Andras is able to secure a spot at a prestigious architecture school in Paris, France, despite the obstacles and for a short time all seems to be falling into place for him.

Unfortunately, his good luck doesn't last long as he is forced to abandon his schooling and return to Budapest, and eventually called up to join the work service Munkaszolgalat, building roads and clearing forests for the military.  I can't chronicle the whole almost 600-page story here, but of course there's a love interest.  A tragedy in her past complicates their desire for a peaceful life, but they are finally able to be together and start a family.  As with most stories set during this time period, they have more than their share of trouble and pain, but they are able to find joy even in the most desperate of situations.

Every character is so well-drawn.  They are so human, so real.  They are well-intentioned and flawed and deep, and show different facets of who they are.  "Good" people do questionable things.  "Bad" people sometimes surprise you with unexpected kindness.

A single, brief exchange between one of the main characters, Andras, and his teacher, Vago, succinctly sums up the theme of the book:
Vago himself leaned back in his swivel chair, his fingers laced behind his head.
"So," he said to Andras. "Here you are, fresh from Budapest.  I'm glad you came. I didn't know if you'd be able to make it on such short notice.  But I had to try.  It's barbarous, those prejudices about who can study what, and when, and how  It's not a country for men like us."
"But--forgive me--are you Jewish, Professor?"
"No.  I'm a Catholic.  Educated in Rome." He gave his R a deep Italianate roll.
"Then why do you care, sir?"
"Shouldn't I care?"
"Many don't."
Vago shrugged. "Some do."
Over and over again, in the midst of the unspeakable cruelty committed by "many," the kindness of "some" shines brightly.  Characters like Vago, who is not Jewish, speak out against this "stain upon humanity, this Jew-hating dressed up as nationalism.  It's a sickness."  While being brutally used on work teams doing excruciating manual labor far from home on little food and in terrible conditions, Andras and his friends find small ways to fight back, such as creating a newspaper mocking their officers in the work service.

Andras finds compassion in unexpected places.  When he receives an emergency telegram informing him that his wife has delivered their child five weeks early and both she and the baby are ill, he approaches the company commander during dinner. The commander mocks him in front of the other officers, taunts him with the image of his loved ones dying, and refuses his request to return home. A General Merton, visiting for an inspection, stands up and with anger and disgust in his voice, dresses the commander down ordering him to apologize, and personally escorts Andras to Budapest hospital where his wife and son are that very night.

Another recurring theme is that of responsibility.  Who was responsible for the tragedies and the pain caused?  How far back does the chain of cause and effect reach and who bears the ultimate responsibility for what happens?  Most interesting to me was some characters' insistence on claiming responsibility for events out of their control, with a "novel kind of desperation, a brand of desire," simply as a way to assert their humanity, their existence.  "Why would a man not argue his own shameful culpability, why would he not crave responsibility for disaster, when the alternative was to feel himself to be nothing more than a speck of human dust?"

The Holocaust provided ample opportunities to view humankind's almost inexhaustible capacity for both cruelty and kindness and The Invisible Bridge follows suit, leaving us ultimately hopeful in spite of the horror.

The Invisible Bridge
by Julie Orringer
ISBN: 9781400041169
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperbackebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Friday Four, Part 41


Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency has released the next installment of her Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series! This one deconstructs the Ms. Male Character trope and the related Smurfette Principle.

Ms. Sarkeesian names and discusses something that has annoyed me in several of the (few) video games I've played.  She calls it "Personality Female Syndrome":
wherein female characters are reduced to a one dimensional personality type consisting of nothing more than a collection of shallow stereotypes about women.  She's vain, spoiled bratty, and quick to anger...When female characters are marked by obligatory stereotypical identifiers, it actively limits the range of available options by enforcing a narrow, restrictive, and monolithic model for the portrayal of femininity.  Meanwhile, since male characters are allowed to be unmarked, it permits a much wider array of possibilities for their designs.
While this series speaks specifically to video games, I've noticed this tendency in movies as well:
In a male-identified society like ours, men are associated and become synonymous with human beings in general.  In other words, male tends to be seen as the default for the entire species.  In video games, male identification manifests as a tendency for all characters to be male by default unless there's some special reason or specific justification for women to be present in the story...Both the Smurfette principle and the Ms. Male Character tropes breed scenarios that reinforce a false dichotomy wherein male is associated with the norm, and female is associated with the deviation from the norm.
The reason this series focuses on tropes is because they help us recognize larger recurring patterns. Both the Ms. Male Character and the Smurfette principle have been normalized in gaming and mass media more broadly, so much so that the two tropes usually pass under the radar and are often reproduced unconsciously, which is part of what makes the myths they perpetuate about women so powerful and insidious in our culture.  The truth of the matter is that there's really no need to define women as derivative copies of men or to automatically resort to lazy, stereotypical, or limiting gendered signifiers when designing video game characters.
I always feel so much smarter after watching her videos.


This list came out a month or so ago on Buzzfeed and I had to smile since just about every single one of the "22 Signs You Were a Theatre Major" apply to yours truly.  Except #17.  Though there are a few times I probably should have put a sign like that up, just to save other people the worry and confusion...


I found this graphic to be shocking and disturbing.  We generally think of human trafficking and sex slavery as something that happens in third world countries, but this graphic shows the location of 72,000 reports (phone calls, email, online tips) the National Human Trafficking Resource Center had from individuals concerning human trafficking in the United States from 2007 to 2012.

Read more about the numbers associated with the graphic here.  To get involved with the Polaris Project, click here.  And if you haven't read Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, pick up a copy at your local library and brace yourself for the removal of the blinders.


We're getting toward the end of These Happy Golden Years, and here's another piece of music that's came up recently.  Laura started singing it to Almanzo while they were out riding in Almanzo's buggy one night.  My boys are more into the romance part of the story than I thought they would be.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Book Review: The Tea Rose by Jennifer Donnelly

It's not often that a book that was so highly recommended to me by a good friend, and with such a high rating on Goodreads (4.15 out of 5 at the moment I hit "Publish" on this post), falls so flat for me. But I guess The Tea Rose just wasn't my *ahem* cup of tea.

Full disclosure: I only read the first 150 or so pages of this 600+ page book.  I've been berated before for posting a review about a book I hadn't finished, but really, if the first 150 pages just weren't doing it for me, how likely is it that the next 500 would change my mind?  Just how many hours am I obligated to invest in a book I don't like before I can decide that enough is enough?  And why on earth should that negate my opinion about the part I actually read? But I digress...

I'm having trouble putting my finger on why I just couldn't get into the story or the characters.  Historical fiction is usually a genre I enjoy, but this time the characters seemed a bit too modern in their speech patterns, mannerisms, reactions.  And even when they were acting in a period-appropriate way, it came across as if the author was just trying too hard.  For example, when describing a meal time, Ms. Donnelly was careful to point out in an expository aside that the menfolk got larger portions than the women, and that all the meat in the meal went to the men as well, while the women and children made do with the gravy or broth and vegetables, but it didn't even occur to the women to object because that's just how things were done.  But instead of providing context and serving as background to the world of the story, it acted as a commentary on the time and pulled me out of the world rather than drawing me in.

Another factor: I'm just not a fan of sex scenes and there were several in the first 150 pages.  Of course I know people had sex in the 19th century.  There were prostitutes and extramarital affairs and sexually transmitted diseases were rampant and babies were born out of wedlock, I know, but I don't want to read about gasping breaths and throbbing this or aching that.  Again, they way they were described just seemed so anachronistic.

Life in London in the late 1800s was hard, there's no dispute there.  But Ms. Donnelly was determined to fit every possible contemporary event into the story.  It's such an easy way to "set the scene" and ramp up the devastating emotional impact. So we have Jack the Ripper, the creation of unions on the docks and the violence that surrounded that, death by tuberculosis, the threat of workhouses, and dozens of others.  And I think that she exerted so much of her energy on the "historical" aspect of the genre that the "fiction" part, especially her characterizations, suffered as a result. Fiona, Joe, Nicholas, all of the characters were largely one-dimensional cut-outs, either good or evil with nothing in between. And the plot suffers, too.  It's pretty far-fetched for two impoverished Brits to work their way out of poverty into relative wealth in an incredibly short time.  Melodramatic soap operas definitely have their fans, and I'll even admit to enjoying a period soap opera or two (Hello, Downton Abbey!) but this one just fell flat for me.

This was Ms. Donnelly's first novel, published in 2002, and she's written several more successful stories since this one, including two sequels to The Tea Rose.  So I'm sure she's honed her craft and improved on the weaknesses of this book.  But I'm not interested enough to actually find out for myself.

The Tea Rose
by Jennifer Donnelly
ISBN: 9780312288358
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperbackebook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Book Review: My Story by Elizabeth Smart

Like pretty much everyone else I knew in 2002, I was riveted by the story of Elizabeth Smart, the cute, blond, harp-playing, horseback-riding Mormon girl who was kidnapped from her Salt Lake City home in the middle of the night. And I was stunned and thrilled when she was found alive nine months later and returned to her family.  I hoped she would somehow find a measure of peace and normality again, but didn't think much more about her.

A few years later I remember watching a brief interview with Elizabeth when she was 18. Nancy Grace started asking probing questions about Elizabeth's feelings while she was being held captive, questions designed to extract salacious details, to manipulate Elizabeth and exploit her trauma. I was disgusted.  And then I watched as, on live television, Elizabeth held her own against a persistent and experienced media professional, shutting her interviewer down with a reminder that she was there to talk about pending legislation she wanted passed and a simple, "to be frankly honest, I don't appreciate you bringing all this up."  My respect for her skyrocketed that day.

Elizabeth Smart is her own person, and speaks on her own terms.

And My Story is told on her terms.  Elizabeth takes us through her nine months of hell, honestly describing her experiences and feelings, but showing restraint and pulling back from the worst details that might traumatize others. She explains the foundation that was laid for her by her parents and her faith, which allowed her to maintain a core sense of self.  She recalls a conversation with her mom after a difficult day of junior-high.  Her mom told her:
Elizabeth, you're going to meet lots of people in this life.  Some of them will like you.  Some of them won't. But of all the people you'll have to deal with, there are only a few people that matter. God. And your dad and me. God will always love you. You are his daughter.  He will never turn his back on you.  The same thing is true for me.  It doesn't matter where you go, or what you do, or whatever else might happen, I will always love you.  You will always be my daughter. Nothing can change that.
Elizabeth goes on, "The realization that my family would still love me proved to be the turning point.  In fact, it proved to be the most important moment throughout my entire nine-month ordeal."  She realized that she had a purpose and reason to stay alive.  "It was at this moment that I decided that no matter what happened, I was going to find a way to survive.  The conviction was crystal clear.  I would do whatever it took to live.  No matter what it took, no matter what I had to do, I was going to survive."

She fills in details on where they camped, why they went to California and why they came back to Utah, the deprivations she was subjected to, her kidnappers' selfish and odd choices and the disdain in which she held both of them. While she cooperated as much as necessary to protect herself and her family, which her captors constantly threatened to kill if she displeased them, she held on to her defiance whenever possible, learning how to carefully manipulate him with apparent religious fervor and obedience.

After the heart-warming homecoming scene, there is a brief coda where Elizabeth describes the trial in 2010 and her recovery from everything that happened to her.  I was completely shocked when she said that she has not received any professional counseling and was immediately concerned that others might try to follow her example, but she is very careful to stress that "every survivor must create their own pathway to recovery."
What works for one might not work for another.  Therapy, medicine, and counseling might be the right path for some people, but not for others.  The fact that I chose a pathway to recovery that worked for me is not to suggest that it's the best path, or that it's the only path.  The only thing it suggests is that I found the path that worked for me.
Elizabeth path to recovery includes her strong and loving family, a perspective on suffering as a constant human experience, horseback riding with her Grandpa Smart, throwing herself into her music, holding on to gratitude, and reaching out to help others. She's the president of the Elizabeth Smart Foundation which works "to prevent and stop predatory crimes." Her primary focus is on "empower[ing] children through education and understanding of choices and options."

Elizabeth Smart has repeatedly demonstrated incredible strength, poise, courage, and determination. Her resilience is admirable, and her willingness to use her experiences to change the world for the better is inspiring.

My Story
by Elizabeth Smart with Chris Stewart
ISBN: 9781250040152
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Friday Four, Part 40


Back in February, in my very first Friday Four, I highlighted a new web series called The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a modern adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.  That series finished up several months ago and the same team is now producing a new version of Jane Austen's Emma called Emma Approved (check out the youtube videos and website).  I'll admit it's taken me a little longer to warm up to this one - Emma is my least favorite of Ms. Austen's works, the titular character just gets on my nerves! - but it's growing on me. There are only twelve short episodes so far.  Take a look and let me know what you think!


I miss Calvin & Hobbes.


Forget that whole sleep-while-the-baby-sleeps thing, what this mother has done while her adorable baby slept is amazing!  I'm not remotely creative in this way, but I can truly appreciate her genius.  The trapeze artist and Tarzan swinging on a vine are my favorites.


I'm 35 and, as ridiculous as it sounds, I sometimes worry that life has passed me by, that I haven't done enough with my time and talents.  And then I read about Phyllis Sues, who started a fashion label at the age of 50, learned French and Italian in her 70s, and took up yoga at 85.  Or Sister Madonna Buder who holds the record for the oldest woman to ever complete an Ironman competition last year at age 82 - and she didn't even start running until she was 48.  Maybe life isn't over quite yet...

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Friday Four, Part 39


There were three "feel-good" stories I saw this week that I wanted to share.  It's easy to focus on the depressing, upsetting, disturbing news, and there's definitely plenty of that going around.  But there is also plenty of good in the world, too.

A simple act of service:

Isaac Theil, the man on the right, allowed his shoulder to be a pillow for a stranger on the New York subway for almost an hour. After the picture had gone viral, he said this in an interview with the Jewish magazine Tablet: “Maybe the photo wouldn't have become so popular if people weren't seeing a Jewish man with a yarmulke and a black man in a hood, and because they might not necessarily correlate the two, but there is only one reason that I didn't move, and let him continue sleeping, and that has nothing to do with race. He was simply a human being who was exhausted, and I knew it and happened to be there and have a big shoulder to offer him...I would love for people to use this as a lesson to just be good to each other.”

The Olivet Middle School football team in Olivet, Michigan, did something extraordinary.  Without informing their coaches, these twelve- to fourteen-year-old boys at the top of the middle-school "pecking order" planned a special play to include Keith Orr, a special needs student on the team. Rather than scoring a touchdown himself, player Sheridan Henrick took a knee on the one-yard line.  On the next play, the ball was handed to Keith and the team surrounded him, protecting him from the other team and ensuring that Keith would be the one to score the touchdown.

One of his teammates explained: "We really wanted to prove that he was part of our team, and he meant a lot to us." The last minute or so of the new report focuses on how these boys were affected by their choice to include and embrace Keith, and it is heart-warming.  I don't think it's hyperbolic to say that it changed lives.


This story is old news, since it happened in 1996, but I just became aware of it recently, so it's new to me.

In her senior year of high school Keshia Thomas gathered with others to protest a Ku Klux Klan rally in her home town of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Tensions were high and, at one point, someone in the crowd identified a white man wearing a Confederate flag t-shirt as a KKK supporter.  He tried to run, but a group surrounded him, knocking him to the ground, kicking and hitting him.

Keshia Thomas didn't know this man, didn't know whether he really was a KKK supporter or not, but she knew what the mob was doing was wrong, so she stepped in.  She covered his body with hers, blocking blows and shielding him.  Why did she put herself at risk?  "I knew what it was like to be hurt," she says. "The many times that that happened, I wish someone would have stood up for me."  Today, more than 15 years later, she says, "The biggest thing you can do is just be kind to another human being. It can come down to eye contact, or a smile. It doesn't have to be a huge monumental act."


It's a little early to be hauling out the Christmas posts, but I couldn't resist this one, and it just might take me all the way to Christmas to perfect them anyway.

Anthony Herrara has dozens of templates you can choose from including Darth Vader, the Death Star, TIE fighters, and Chewbacca. My favorites are Yoda and Han Solo in Carbonite (see below).  I can't believe the detail on these!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Parable of the Talents Revisited

Last night we held our annual Young Women in Excellence program at church.  It's a yearly event meant to highlight the young women and the good things they are doing and accomplishing as part of the Personal Progress program.  The young women in our ward chose "The Girl's Got Talent!" as our theme and did such a great job presenting the talents they'd developed and skills they'd learned over the past year.  As part of the program, the young women asked me to speak about the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30).  I was speaking from notes, but here's an approximation of what I said.

The parables of Jesus are some of his best known teachings, and sometimes we hear them so often that we start to gloss over them, we just assume we know what they mean, so I like to take a step back and try to see them through fresh eyes. I look at the historical and cultural context for additional clues and try to figure out what they’re saying to me personally, and listen for the Spirit to tell me how God wants me to apply them in my life. I'm going to mention three new insights I gained from studying the parable of the talents in preparation for speaking tonight; I hope they're as helpful to you as they were for me.

During what He knew was the last week of His life, Jesus returned to Jerusalem. He entered the city triumphantly while crowds waved palm leaves and honored Him as the King He is. He cleansed the temple and rebuked the corrupt temple leaders. He cursed the fig tree to show His disciples that He had power over life and death. He taught in the temple “daily”, as the religious leaders of the time questioned His authority and tried to catch Him in His words. He challenged and denounced these leaders for their hypocrisy. Finally, He withdrew from the temple, prophesying of its destruction and lamenting the wickedness and unbelief of the people.

Then He moved with His faithful disciples to the Mount of Olives where He continued His final public teachings. It’s in this setting that Matthew records Jesus told three parables. Jesus knew what was coming. He knew how confused, scared, and heartbroken and lost His disciples would be, in just a few days when He would be taken from them and brutally killed. While they knew who He was, they still didn't really understand what He was there to do.

So Christ told these three parables to let His disciples know, and to let us know thousands of years later, how to prepare to return to live with Him. Each parable provides an example of “what to do” and “what not to do”. In the parable of the ten bridesmaids, five virgins were prepared with extra oil for their lamps and were welcomed by the bridegroom to celebrate with the wedding party; five were not prepared and were left out in the cold. We need to be spiritually self-reliant. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, the Lord divides those who have served others including “the least of these my brethren” from those who did not, welcoming the sheep and rejecting the goats. We need to serve others, especially “the least” among us.

And then we have the parable of the talents. A rich man is going on a long journey so he gives money to his servants. To one he gives five talents, another gets two talents, and a third gets one talent. When the rich man finally returns, the first servant reports that he has doubled what the master gave him. His lord said unto him “Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.” The second servant reports that he also doubled the money in his care. The master responds exactly the same to him as he did to the first servant. Finally, the third servant approaches and explains that he was afraid, so he buried the money he’d been given and returned it to the rich man, exactly the same as it was when he’d given it to the servant. The master was not pleased. He took the talent and gave it to the servant with ten talents and cast the third, unprofitable servant out.

As I studied this parable for the millionth time, I made a few new realizations.

The first realization is that a talent is not a coin, it's a huge sum of money – it's about the amount that an average laborer would earn in fifteen to twenty years of working. The estimates I found were anywhere from half a million to a million dollars in today’s money. Now I'd always felt kind of bad for the guy who only got one talent, but he still got a lot of money, as much as a million dollars! It would have taken him decades to earn that much on his own. So what does that mean for us? Well, it’s really easy to compare ourselves to others and feel cheated when we perceive others to have more than we do. But, even if we feel we are “one-talent servants”, even if we feel less talented or gifted compared to others, we need to realize that we are each blessed with an incredible amount of ability and literally innumerable gifts. We need to be grateful, recognize the bounty we are blessed with and acknowledge that all good gifts come from God. We also need to be humble, because no matter how hard we've worked to develop our talents, they are only ours because God has blessed us with them and with the ability to develop them.

My second realization came when I started thinking about the parable from my business background. Have you ever thought about how the first two servants doubled their money? In biblical times, usury – or simply charging interest on loans, sharing profit without sharing risk – was condemned by Mosaic law. In order to make such a huge amount of money, these servants had to truly invest in others’ businesses. They had to become joint venturers with others, to use their money, resources, gifts, to help others achieve their goals, in order to make a profit. Our talents are not for us alone; they are to be used to help and serve others. With that in mind, it seems to me that the Lord’s condemnation of the third servant comes in large part because of his selfishness. The third servant refused to use his considerable amount of money to help others, he was only concerned about the consequences for himself.

Finally, the last servant explained that he buried his talent because he was afraid. Burying money was not an unusual thing to do in biblical times. There weren't banks, so it was a simple way to keep your money safe and put it some place it would be hard to steal. But we’re not supposed to just do what everyone else does in our school, in our ward, in our community. We’re not supposed to “play it safe” and let our fear determine what we will or won’t do. Looking back at my life, some of my biggest regrets are choices that I made based on fear: adventures I didn't go on, challenges I didn't accept, things I didn't do because I was afraid. And some of the best experiences in my life have happened because I chose to take the leap, to try something new, to say “yes”, even though I was afraid. There are dozens of scriptures about fear, but I have two favorites. In 2 Timothy 1:7, we are counselled that "God hath not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind." And in Doctrine & Covenants 50:41, the Lord offers these comforting words: "Fear not, little children, for you are mine."

So to boil the message of this parable down, at least the message I got this time through:
  • All of us, even the “one-talent servants”, are blessed abundantly. Be humble and grateful.
  • Our talents are best used to help and serve others. Look for those opportunities.
  • Fear is not a foundation for good decision-making. Fear not, for we are Christ’s.
“[E]ach of us will one day stand before God and give an accounting of our…service and stewardships. Did we make a difference?” (Stanley G. Ellis, “He Trusts Us!” October 2006 General Conference) As we humbly and gratefully recognize where our talents and gifts come from, as we look for opportunities to serve and help others, as we refuse to make decisions based on fear, we will be able to make a difference to ourselves and others and prepare to live again with our Savior and our Heavenly Parents.

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Friday Four, Part 38 ~ Halloween Edition


I have to admit that Halloween is not my favorite holiday.  You'd think that with my theatre background, I'd live for the chance to put on a snazzy costume and fun makeup and really ham it up.  But we have several family birthdays earlier in the month and October always seems so busy anyway that Halloween sneaks up on me and I don't realize it until one of my kids announces that he thinks it would be great for our whole family to go as the Avengers to the party at church.  Tomorrow.

So, the Avengers thing didn't work out this year.  (There's always next year, right? I think I'd make a smashing Black Widow. Anyone have a red wig I can borrow? Maybe if I start with 364 days advance notice I have a chance of pulling it off!)  But we managed to find something each of the boys was happy with.  At least until Evan lost his Batman mask, Will refused to wear an Ironman mask or even to let me draw on Tony Stark-like facial hair, and Josh broke his lightsaber halfway through the evening.

Luke Skywalker, Batman, and Ironman:
Adorable and ready to collect some candy!!

Happy Halloween!


One of the other things about Halloween that's always bugged me is that it seems like a pretty selfish holiday.  It's all gimme, gimme, gimme, more candy, more treats, he got more Crunch bars than I did! It's not fair!  (At least that's how it's been at our house, and I'm sure we're the only ones who have that issue.)

So this year, in an attempt to make it just a little bit more about others, we went trick-or-treating at a nearby nursing home/rehab facility.  The boys still got plenty of candy, and the "grandmas and grandpas" seemed to be absolutely delighted by the stream of adorable children coming through.

Plus, it was much warmer than knocking on doors, the kids' costumes weren't hidden by their coats, and we got just as much trick-or-treating done in about a quarter of the time.  Talk about a win-win-win!


My sister posted an old Halloween cartoon on facebook, which then inspired me to spend half my afternoon watching sixty- to seventy-year-old holiday-themed animated shorts.  Thanks, Dith! ;)

So here are my two favorite Halloween videos. Enjoy!

Silly Symphony's "The Skeleton Dance"

Donald Duck's "Trick or Treat"


For anyone else out there trying to figure out what to do with All. That. Candy. I present "Top 10 Scientific Uses For Leftover Halloween Candy."  It's an older article, but there are some great ideas in there if you don't want to eat all those Skittles and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups yourself, or if you've failed to convince your children that the Switch Witch is coming to trade it for a great new toy they've been wanting.

[Edited to add: A couple of friends pointed me to local "candy buyback" programs that dentists sometimes run.  Kids get $1/lb for their Halloween goodies and the candy is then shipped to soldiers deployed overseas.  Plug in your zip code at and see if anyone near you is participating!  Thanks for the tip, Sarah and Colleen!]

And speaking of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, I've linked to this one before, but it deserves another listen: