Happy? Thanksgiving

This might come as a surprise to many Americans - especially the patriotic, beer guzzling, Murica shouting, football watching variety. Not everyone celebrates Thanksgiving.

Shocker. Right?

On the surface, Thanksgiving is the kind of holiday that everyone can get behind - both the religious and nonreligious. After all, science supports the positive affects that gratitude has on our emotional and physical health, it makes sense to have a day set aside to celebrate that concept. You don't need to be religious to accept the need to be thankful for what you have. So there is clearly a secular aspect to Thanksgiving that can be revered by people with no religious leanings.

In the Christian world, Thanksgiving is one of those holidays that we should honor. Time after time, the Bible highlights a spirit of thankfulness and commands us to be grateful. Give thanks to the Lord because he is good. Give thanks in all circumstances. This is the day which the Lord has made; Let us rejoice and be glad in it. Let us show gratitude.

Yet Judeo-Christian traditions don't have a monopoly on religious conscription to be thankful. The Qur'an instructs Muslims to have gracious attitudes. They believe that Allah instructs, "If you are grateful, I will surely increase you in favor, but if you deny, indeed, my punishment is severe." Islam also ties being grateful to finding favor from God. Buddhism teaches that "A person of no integrity is ungrateful and unthankful. This ingratitude, this lack of thankfulness, is advocated by rude people. ... A person of integrity is grateful and thankful. This gratitude, this thankfulness, is advocated by civil people." Hinduism teaches adherents to be grateful for everything and to give without expectation of gratitude from others.

So much evidence in favor of thanksgiving as an action regardless of world view, and yet Thanksgiving as a holiday is not universally celebrated. Why is that? A complete answer to that question could be as complicated as trying to explain string theory to a kindergarten class that skipped recess and snack time.

There are simplistic and obvious reasons. Because some people are just ungrateful jerks. Because their retail employer insists that Black Friday actually starts on Thursday. Because they come from another country where the history of this American holiday is confusing or foreign. Because it is absurd to set aside one specific day to be thankful when we should be thankful all year round.

Or because the meaning of the holiday is a sore subject. This is something I never realized until I started studying my kids' heritage. Many Native American tribes view Thanksgiving as a day of mourning instead of the celebratory feast modeled after the first Thanksgiving (the one we were all taught was held by the Pilgrims and members of the Wampanoag tribe). Modern American education tends to romanticize that first festival so it might be helpful to review the fate of the Wampanoag people.

Prior to the founding of the Massachusetts Colony, the Wampanoag's population was several thousand. Their numbers thinned as soon as they began to have contact with white explorers. Several were captured by Captain Thomas Hunt, then sold into Spanish slavery. More fell to illnesses brought over from Europe. When the Pilgrims arrived in 1620, they survived their first rough years in the new land thanks to the generosity of the Wampanoags and lessons in fishing and farming that the natives provided.

In the decades that followed, the Wampanoag population continued to shrink due to diseases that they caught from their new neighbors. As the population of white settlers grew, the Wampanoags faced a new challenge: assimilation. The Puritan settlers engaged the natives with religious conversion and forced relocation. The tension finally reached a breaking point with King Philip's War. For three years, the English colonists clashed with the Native Americans during which the Wampanoag tribe lost 40% of their people in battle. By the end of the 1700s, the Wampanoags where nearly decimated from sickness, war, slavery, and evictions from their traditional lands.

Understanding this history places a clear perspective of why some Native Americans do not view Thanksgiving in the same positive light as is done by white America.

If I'm honest, which I generally try to be honest, I like the idea developed by the United American Indians of New England in 1970. The National Day of Mourning. We should be thankful all year, but it could be incredibly healthy for us to recognize that life isn't always sunshine and roses. Perhaps, it could be beneficial to the American psyche if we observed a day to lament.

Which reminds me of something else I learned from reading my Bible. That there is a time for everything. "A time to weep and a time to laugh; A time to mourn and a time to dance." Also, "Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn."

The church needs to foster an understanding and empathy for those that are hurting through the holiday season. We need to accept that this is not an easy time of year for many people. In that spirit, I will embrace a day of mourning.

Yes, I have much that I am thankful for: my kids, my job, reliable transportation, my faith community, living in a scenic corner of the USA, and Netflix. Yes, I am grateful. But my heart also breaks for there is much to mourn.

It was just over a year ago that Grandma Budd, my mom's mom passed away. Four years ago this past Friday, Grandpa Casey, my dad's dad lost his fight with cancer. Today, I mourn with my parents, my aunts and uncles, my brother, my cousins, and all who still grieve their losses.

I mourn personals setbacks that I've experienced over the past couple years.

I mourn the deaths of new and old friends I will never see again. David. Jeff. Sam. Travis. Patrick.

I mourn the tragedies from my hometown and the lives that were forever altered in the MPHS shooting a month ago.

I mourn a deeply divided nation that can't manage to agree on much of anything.

I mourn the headlines we've seen this week: riots, looting, and arson. I mourn with the business owners who lost their livelihood and watched their business burn to the ground. But I also mourn with protesters who feel like they have lost so much that they feel destroying something is the only way their voices will be heard. And I mourn with a family who is experiencing their first Thanksgiving without their son, knowing that the man who killed their son will never face criminal charges.

Our world is filled with so much pain, anger, brokenness, and loss. This year, I will observe this National Day of Mourning. However, I do so with knowledge that grief and sadness will not last. There is a time to mourn. But there is also a time for praise and jubilation. There is a time to party, to laugh, to dance, and to sing.

I propose we honor a day of mourning so that we can better appreciate those days when it is time to celebrate.


R is for Replay

In video game reviews, the critic looks at many different elements: story line, graphics and design, background music and sound effects, ease of controls, balance of cut-scenes versus game-play. The myriad of factors used to determine a favorable or unfavorable review is far greater and more subjective to those used in critiquing movies or music albums. There is one word that you will find in video game reviews that is rarely used anywhere else.


Is this a game that has reply value? Is this the kind of game that gamers will play over and over again? Game developers understand this concept. They know that most people will only play through a game once and and if there is a repeat play-through, it is done at a greater difficulty. For years they have experimented in hopes to release that fan favorite that people are still playing years after the game is initially released.

Thirty years ago, the NES launched. Two games that were released at the same time as the console were so ubiquitous that odds favored them being a part of the game collection of anyone who owned an NES: Super Mario Bros and Excitebike. While my family could never afford a gaming console, I still played and enjoyed these games vicariously through friends and neighbors. However, if I was given the option, I favored Excitebike for one big reason.


In Excitebike, you could customize your own track. Every time you played it, it was a different game. You were in control of how much you enjoyed the game.

Alternately, Mario was the same game every time (excluding the glitch where one player could pause the game while the other player was playing and cause that other player to fall into a pit). Super Mario Bros followed a pattern - one that is predictable to the point of rote memorization. There are people that are able to play the entire game blindfolded; they do so successfully because there's no chance that the game will do something different than every other time it is played.

I find that level of predictability boring. Does anyone ever find repetitive activity - doing the same task the same way over and over again to be fun? According to the oft heard adage, that is the definition of insanity. Repeating the same action with the same method and expecting different results. That isn't fun. It borders on dysfunction.

When Christian was younger, he had a habit of frequently repeating jokes he found funny. These ranged from the typical kindergarten level knock-knock jokes, to hiding around a corner and shouting "boo" when someone walked near him. Then he would cackle like a master villain whose plan to take over the world was succeeding. The redundant prevalence of his routine (joke, maniacal laugh, repeat) quickly lost it's appeal.

Neurotypical kids will learn through trial and error that this kind of behavior is socially unacceptable. For Christian, having Aspergers complicated this learning process; he could not figure it out like most other kids his age. To help him, we developed a verbal queue to help him understand this social rule. After several iterations of the same joke, we would tell him, "First time, it's funny. Second time, not so funny. Third time, it's annoying." It took a long time to catch but he did learn the lesson. Jokes have a replay value. Repeat them and they cease to be funny.

But people delude themselves. They convince themselves in the existence of pleasure in insane reiterations. Sometimes, when repeating destructive or disruptive behaviors, people will use the excuse "I'm just having fun."

I don't buy it. I can't. Because I understand the concept of replayability from a consumer's point of view. In economics, it is called the law of diminishing marginal utility. It is the concept that the most utility or the most satisfaction of a product or a service happens with the first use. You might have a favorite wine, but if you drank the same variety from the same winery every single day it losses it's appeal. After a week, a month, a year, a glass of your favorite wine won't taste as good as the first glass you ever drank. The same concept applies with anything we consume. The first time you watch a movie. The first time you mix cake batter in a new KitchenAid. The first time you wear a brand new pair of shoes. The first time you drive a car. There's an allure to the first time that cannot be easily recreated.

Imagine if every football game you watched had the same result regardless of the teams playing. If, at every level from little leagues through the NFL, every game followed the same turn of events. The home team always score first but the visiting team immediately answers with points of their own and ties the game. At the end of the first quarter, the visiting team kicks a field goal to gain a three point lead. Through the second and third quarter, neither team scores. Even through most of the fourth quarter, the away team maintains their three point lead. Then in the final play of the game, the home team runs in a touchdown and wins the game. And the next game you watch transpires with the same series of plays and ends with the same score. Same thing with the next game you watch. And the game after that. And the game after that. How long would it take before you would stop watching football games?

Variety adds value. Unpredictability grants excitement. Differing experiences lead to greater satisfaction.

That is replayability.

Video game developers know this and they have come up with creative ways to exploit this over the years. They have created an array of multiplayer opportunities, both cooperative and competitive; the addition of another human changes what happens in the game and adds replayability. They have improved artificial intelligence in non-playable characters - randomizing it so that the game is never the same no matter how many times you play it. Some games have multiple endings depending on choices you make while playing. There is downloadable content that expands the gaming experience. There are trophies, achievements, and hidden collectibles scattered through out many games, some of which are not available the first time you play through it (the Lego series are notorious for this feature). The people who earn their living creating video games are finding new ways to capture and maintain the interest of gamers beyond the first play-through.

But what about life? Does your life have any replay value? What can you do differently tomorrow and the next day to create more excitement? How can you make your life more enjoyable? How can you avoid the law of diminishing marginal utility in your daily existence?

Disclaimer: my job is filled with repetitive tasks. I have deliverable reports that must be done the same way on a daily and weekly basis. If I tried to shake things up to create some measure of greater enjoyment, it would not end well. In fact, it would turn out drastically and horribly wrong.

However, I know that your life is more than your job. You are more than a title. If you are in a position where your employer appreciates creative spontaneity, then enjoy it. If not, please realize that life still happens before you walk through the office doors and it continues after you leave. It is during the hours where you are not earning a paycheck that you have the greatest opportunity to give your life replayability.

Do it. It is worth the effort.


Q is for Quirky

Think back to when your younger years. Do you remember that quirky kid from school?

You know the one I'm talking about. This individual was socially awkward; they tried hard but the complexities of unspoken social rules were far too confusing for them to understand. They were smart with above average to remarkably high IQs but their intelligence was not always reflected in their report cards. Your parents probably liked them more than you liked them. They fidgeted during quiet times, exhibited wild if not odd imaginations, laughed when inappropriate, or displayed obsessions with particular subjects or activities. They demonstrated either an extreme attraction or aversion to auditory, visual, olfactic, tactile, or gustatory stimuli. Bossy. Creative. Disorganized. Absent-minded. If conditions were right, one person could have possessed each of these traits. There was no better way to describe them than with the word quirky.

You can probably recall a former classmate that fits that profile. Perhaps even more than one. I remember a kid like that. I was that kid.

Back then, psychiatrists tried to explain it by saying I had ADD. I am not confident I would receive the same prognosis today. The more accurate diagnosis would be Asperger Syndrome. If doctors and psychologists knew back then what they know today, my story would have taken a much different plot line.

Now, I've grown from a quirky kid into a quirky parent of a quirky kid. This paradox is a mixed bag of blessing and stress.

I'm a first hand witness to his wonderful creations; from one-man plays to Minecraft mansions. I am first in line to hear his philosophical musings and to be stumped by his thought provoking questions. He and I geek out over shared interests: comic books, Doctor Who, architecture, and fantasy liturature. As he's aged, I've held my breath as I watched him develop his own version of autonomy. Despite the successes, heartbreak exists. For my son, being quirky also includes navigating the treacherous paths of schoolyard bullies, loneliness, and social stigma.

I've been there. I know how he feels. It is not easy to convey the lessons I learned. But there is progress. And I have hope.

Why hope? Because I believe that the future ahead of my son is brighter than anything that lies behind us. A future where he plans on becoming a billionaire inventor. A future where he is able to build deep and lasting friendships. A future where more people understand and accept those who are quirky.


You get what you vote for

Today is Election Day and I hope you went out and voted. I did. Yes, I know I live in Idaho where I know my vote is practically useless as the winners are inevitable in most races.

In Idaho, the predictability of election results provides a long string of discouraging results that really makes me question the sanity of the typical voter who keeps on voting for the same people but expect different results.

Take for example the candidates for Superintendent of Public Instruction: Dr. Jana Jones and Sherri Ybarra. On the surface, both women appear to be similar. Both of them have built careers in education. Sherri beginning as an elementary teacher in Mountain Home and Jana founding a day school that provided early education to kids in Idaho Falls. Both have and impressive list of degrees. Jana has a bachelor’s and a master's degree in special education, and she's earned a doctorate degree in educational leadership; Sherri has a bachelor’s in elementary education, a master's in educational leadership, and an education specialist degree. Both have influential titles: one is a curriculum director for a school district and the other is the vice president of a K-12 educational consulting firm working with many school districts. Both support Common Core. Both support charter schools. Both support recommendations from Gov Otter's Task Force for Improving Education, including restoring funding that has been cut since 2009. Both want to encourage increased use of technology in the classrooms.

But under the surface, things look a little shaky. Since both candidates were so similar on the issues, something interesting happened. At the beginning of the campaign, Ybarra plagiarized large swaths of verbiage from Jones' website. She admitted the similarities - and by similarities I mean nearly identical wording and sentence structure, but she blamed her web manager and the busyness of being an educator working every day. All could be forgiven if that was her only error. Unfortunately, it went down hill from there.

Her excuse that she's an educator working every day would make sense as she promised to continue working throughout the campaign. That was what she said after winning the primary in May. However, that's not the case and she's been on leave from the Mountain Home School District; she will not specify how long she's been on leave.

Ybarra barely won that primary election. She raised the least amount of money, made no effort to campaign, and did not have the support of the big names in her party. After winning, the minimal effort continued and Ybarra was a no show at a few important events including an invite from the Idaho Association of School Administrators to speak at their Summer Leadership Conference. She claimed one of her foes from the primary as a member of her campaign committee, a position he didn't want and didn't ask for. He had to clarify that he did not endorse either candidate and would support whichever one wins the election.

Her former opponent isn't the only person she incorrectly listed as a supporter. She also made the claim that the majority of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee supported her. When challenged on that claim, she defended herself by saying they're listed on her website. However, only two members of the twenty person committee are listed on her website. She also claimed to have the support of the majority of state lawmakers, yet her website only lists a quarter of them as actual supporters.

Then facts about her history surfaced. Turns out, she hasn't voted in a single election since moving to Idaho in 1996. She claims her candidacy is repayment for not participating in her civic duties. Going into her reasons for moving to Idaho, she was deceptive and misrepresented her marital history alluding she moved to Idaho with her husband ... she just didn't specify which husband. And she lied about her education, first stating that she would receive her doctorate from the University of Idaho in August. When August came, no doctorate. She got the education specialist degree instead.

Sherri Ybarra dismisses the controversies of her pratfall prone campaign as nothing but rhetoric. Meanwhile, her opponent has been busy running a positive campaign. These issues of dishonesty, plagiarism, family history, lack of a voting record ... these missteps were not pointed out by the Jones camp. These have largely been uncovered and reported by news organizations.

This mangled campaign is not just a collection minor errors of a political newbie running for office for the first time in their life, this is something all together different and mystifying. It has the horror of a train-wreck that has caught media attention, not just in Idaho but nationally.

Here's the sad part of the story. I'm sure Sherri is a talented and competent educator. But she will make a horrible civil servant. There is no logical reason Sherri Ybarra should hold an elected position with this much power or responsibility. Yet, she will probably win. Most polls show her with a minimum of one point advantage over Dr Jana Jones.


Because this episode of Sesame Street is brought to you by the letter R.

This is Idaho, one of the most conservative states in the union. A state where the majority of voters vote for a straight Republican ticket. A state where a timber thief and a tax cheat couldn't win an election as a Constitutionalist so he changed parties and won four consecutive terms as a Republican. A state where Satan could win an election as long as there was the letter R listed next to his name on the ballot. Because in Idaho, political party is often worth more than the actual issues or the candidates qualifications.

I hope I'm wrong. I hope for one night, the voters of Idaho prove my assumptions to be incorrect. I hope that lifelong Republicans decide they're not going to accept a weak candidate and vote against their party - even if Jones is the only Democrat they elect on their ballot.

But if I'm right? Congratulations Idaho, you get what you vote for.