7, 6, and 5 Gifts

In the season of giving, I’ve found some gifts that linger. We again must address them by the numbers.

The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, first published in 1988, created a business sensation that has lasted decades. Over 25 million copies sold! You can buy editions that are new, abridged, miniaturized, calendarized, work-booked, and so on. Versions are available for teens and children. President Clinton invited Stephen Covey to Camp David to show him how to integrate its principles into his presidency. The respected British journal The Economist published his obituary here, making reference to Covey’s spiritual roots. The habits themselves are reasonably self-explanatory: Be pro-active. Begin with the end in mind. Put first things first. Think win-win. Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Synergize. Sharpen the saw. An 8th was added, but it’s not as obvious: Find your voice and inspire others to do the same. I think this list is wonderful and use it often. Sometimes I fail. If in the last week, I didn’t seek to understand before saying something I shouldn’t, it wasn’t a week.

According to Napoleon Hill in Think and Grow Rich, there are six basic fears: Fear of criticism. Fear of old age. Fear of ill health. Fear of poverty. Fear of death. Fear of loss of affection. Someone has copied the 15th chapter in which these appear, here. Hill’s book was published in 1937, and with over 100 million copies in print (plus the etc. etc.), it leaves 7 Habits in the dust. Still, I find it unreadable. The list seems comprehensive, however. A more recent Psychology Today article lists only five fears but each has many applications and seems no more useful than Hill’s. These days, I wonder if we find fear of criticism as compelling as in the past. Fear of poverty? Yes. Although I see people living under bridges and suppose I could, the horror of that affects me on many levels. Regardless, naming fears helps conquer them.

In 1995, Gary Chapman wrote The Five Love Languages. Following the pattern of the first two books, it’s sold millions of copies and gone through many iterations, still number 2 on the New York Times best-seller list of love and relationship books. You can take a free test to determine your own love language here. An email comes with your results and, astonishingly, does not redirect you to a paid site. The 5 languages are easy to understand: Acts of service, words of affirmation, receiving gifts, quality time, and physical touch. This information seems valuable, if a little obvious; specific, if not completely scientific.

So, enjoy the power and peace this knowledge brings. Eighteen gifts, not bad. The next two in the series (4 things and 3 things) will have to wait. They take a turn to the dark side. Not a Star Wars reference, for better or worse. Next time.

Christmas Favorites (While I Avoid Shopping)

Although I sometimes (update: usually) feel violent when someone asks me if I’m ready for Christmas, perhaps you’ll forgive that failing. I do have some favorite Christmas things to share, and I doubt if all will be familiar.

The first is a short novel (or long short story) by Henry Van Dyke called The Story of the Other Wise Man. Written in 1895, this little volume has been reprinted many times, dramatized, made into a movie with Martin Sheen, used as the text for an opera and an oratorio, and, frankly, cried over. The magus named Artaban misses his rendezvous with the other three and spends a lifetime trying to find the King of the Jews. He almost succeeds, at Golgotha. Remembering that you will weep, it is worth reading.

This tiny story about a Christmas pageant gone awry first appeared in 1966. I didn’t read it then, but perhaps 20 years later. Yes, okay, I still cry at this one too, but mainly because I keep hoping I’d be as kind as the child playing the innkeeper. (And all my children appeared in the perennial production The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, which is very funny in its alternate perspective from kids learning the Christmas story for the first time. Playing at a venue near you!)

New Christmas songs seem rare, but perhaps they aren’t. “Mary, Did You Know” was written in 1991, but I didn’t hear it until 5-6 years ago. The most famous version these days is by Pentatonix, with millions and millions of views. It’s usually performed as a duet.

Another new favorite is “What Shall We Give?” It’s an old Catalonian carol in a modern arrangement. Inexplicably, I can’t find it on Wikipedia. The video shows how to be Christmas, not just how to celebrate.

Something tiny to read, something longer. Two new Christmas classics. Enjoy. Yes, I still have shopping to do. Don’t ask…

A Brief History of Aspirin, and How to Kill an Assailant

My great-grandfather was a doctor in the Hill Country. My grandmother, an only child, thought he’d hung the moon. But she didn’t just love him: she loved the craft of medicine. She taught me the real name of aspirin, for example. We’d say it over and over, acetylsalicylic acid. Later, she’d insist that I study Latin in high school because that’s what doctors did. All country doctors used ASA, but the Bayer company renamed it aspirin, patented it, and sold it. My grandmother, perhaps bitter about the loss of a fortune, didn’t always repeat that part of the story. They also patented the name heroin, but that’s another story.

My grandmother also taught me how to kill a person with a kitchen knife. You don’t just stab someone willy-nilly. Ribs get in the way of the heart. An abdominal wound might not be fatal. She explained where to thrust in the knife under the rib cage then how to turn it up, through the diaphragm, to kill. If you ever had to, in self-defense. This wasn’t a one-time lesson. As she grew older, she repeated it over and over, in and up, in and up.

It was years, after she was gone, that I realized why I had to learn this. When I was about seven, an older man, working as a painter next door, called me over to the driveway ledge and asked me if I wanted to play Fish. We sat a long time. He taught me something else, too. I’ll spare the details on that, but it involved touching and a lesson on what would happen to me when I was older. He was, in a word, a molester, a pedophile. No one caught him, and I didn’t tell what happened, but he disappeared. I think I heard the phrase “run out of town on a rail.” My grandmother must have been suspicious.

There are some things wrong with this conclusion, of course. One must assume he went about his molesting elsewhere. It would have been my word against his, and I understand why no one would have wanted me to try and tell police about something they didn’t even know for sure had happened. I expect I lied and said nothing had, supposing I was in trouble. And then it faded from memory: a discomfort, nothing more

When I reminded my mother of the how-to-stab lesson, she had no idea what I was talking about. It was not something her mother had taught her. I felt puzzled. Part two: In my career as a children’s protective services investigator, sexual abuse training was important. The memory came back, and suddenly the topic was everywhere—maybe we were watching Oprah. I reminded my mother about the man. Again, she hadn’t been told. But that revelation distressed her: her brow wrinkled, tears came. Decades later she worried that she hadn’t protected me. Then it all made sense. My grandmother hadn’t told her, my grandfather handled the problem, and the self-protection lessons began.

TIME’s Person of the Year for 2017 is a group they’re calling The Silence Breakers. When the #MeToo movement began, I didn’t participate but watched as most women I knew did. My story was enough different, I thought, because I was a child. One differentiation: Nothing happened to me as an adult. (Not counting a slow-moving driver on the campus of Texas Tech who called out obscenities as I walked to class; I reported him to police.) Was it because I knew how to kill a potential attacker? I don’t know, probably not.

I hope this is a line in the sand, and I hope no one—male or female—feels a need to remain silent again. I know someone who was raped not once but twice by the same man because she assumed she wouldn’t be believed. Don’t let that happen. Would I have killed him? I don’t know that either. But I have been trained.

A New Christmas Hymn

The hymn lyric below reflect a purely Mormon doctrine: A sign was given to those in this hemisphere regarding the birth of the Savior. Before the star in the east appeared, there would be great lights in the sky so great that no night would separate two days. In the Gospels, only St. Matthew mentions the star which the three wise men followed. The Lost Tribes, on the other hand, are mentioned a number of times in the Old Testament, including here. Encyclopedia Britannica will explain more here.

So I got thinking, how might those lost tribes learn of the birth of Jesus? Hence the resulting song, which is not Mormon doctrine. No, I didn’t write any music. At least not yet. I may still. But it is a regular meter (LM) and can be sung to any tune that is 8 8 8 8 with an 8 7 8 7 refrain.

A Sign of Light

A sacred time, upon that night,

Two signs were given, full of light:

A star to shine, two days no night.

For Judah, Joseph, these were right.


Not lost to God were ten more tribes

In countries north, on isles at sea—

Was all of Israel told that night

About the birth hid from their sight?


When they return, all gathered in,

Scriptures bringing, of joy they’ll sing.

We’ll know if on that holy night

They too were given a sign of light.




Joyful singing, glory bringing

To the God of Heaven above.

Christ has come, and He is coming.

Praise to Israel’s God of love!




This New America

First, the old America. In the summer of 1981, the PR director of the local Budweiser company called me and asked if I would be willing to march in front of the Clydesdales in the 4th of July parade, playing my piccolo. (This wasn’t totally random because I was in the local symphony on said piccolo.) It was to be a Revolutionary War float. I said yes. If you know me now but didn’t know me then, you’d still wonder how I could imagine myself doing it. The narcotic effect of fame, perhaps. They would supply the costume.

However, as I started thinking this commitment through, I knew I couldn’t do it: The previous December I’d become a Mormon. I’d never drunk beer, but now I didn’t drink anything. It wouldn’t be right. So I called the woman back and explained. She understood completely and said she appreciated my position.

A slight change of topic—to language for a moment. In Lois Lowry’s The Giver, one phrase I find chilling is “precision of language.” Here are two examples. This law student uses the same reference to discuss learning to talk like a lawyer. Not that I think we are in a dystopia like Jonas’s or one in which language is always distorted as in Orwell’s 1984. Still, a certain imprecision of language highlights a current case causing dissension widely.

On December 5, 2017, the Court heard legal arguments regarding Masterpiece Cakeshop. The owner, Jack Phillips, refused to create a cake for their wedding reception in 2012 because they were a gay couple. He had previously refused to create Halloween cakes, bachelor party cakes, and even a divorce cake, based on his religious beliefs.

My concern here is two-fold. Too often I am hearing the hue and cry that Phillips refused to bake a cake. Strictly speaking, that’s not accurate. He would have gladly sold the couple a cake. He would not create or design a custom cake. Had he done the former, the case would be easy to decide and obviously discrimination. About half the amicus briefs argue that he did discriminate based on the idea that there is no substantive difference: A cake is a cake. The other half see it differently, of course, or there wouldn’t have been appeals: A cake is also a form of expression.

A second complaint is that Google has made everyone an “expert.” People can quote statistics at the click of a mouse. Esoteric law theories can be investigated and repeated at will. And with the ease of access comes a failure to think deeply about ramifications. Nicholas Carr in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains suggests that both neurologically and habitually Google may be making us stupid. (I had lunch with him when he spoke at our school once and apparently so offended the organizer who had not provided water, only tea, that I apologized to her later at the suggestion of a friend, once again discussing the Mormon angle. Full circle.) Google may or not make us stupid, but it does make us think we’re smart.

Choice is at stake here, of course. Phillips was ordered to design cakes for same-sex couples, so he declined to do them for anyone. No one would have dragged me in front of those Clydesdales, of course. We don’t do things like that. The Masterpiece case may not be decided until June, but if it’s of concern to you, read arguments from both sides. Google can help with that at least. I personally don’t think it’ll hurt your IQ.


The Auto Paint Shop

If the phrase “spray paint for my Lexus” makes you queasy, bear with me. Yes, I’ve been spraying bits of the bumper for two years with matching car paint. Yes, I need to get it done professionally, which I will someday. Luckily, when I ran out of paint recently, I went into English Auto Paint to see about a replacement supply since it was expensive on Amazon. (You should follow the link for an idea of the kinds of cars that are often parked in front. But that’s another issue.) My topic today is the sort of experience that comes when we wander into one of those microcosms of product and service that are far removed from our usual ken. For example, I’ve rarely seen a man getting a pedicure, and then only towed in by a woman. I don’t remember ever seeing a man in a quilt store. And I wonder how many women work in auto body shops.

I shop. A lot. So I’m confident in my ability to get what I need and walk out. I put the empty spray can on the counter and explained the problem. The guy said he didn’t recognize the brand but went to the computer, searched briefly, printed something out, and went to a stand that must have been a small scale. There was no “Do you want me to make you some paint?” He just started mixing. Without exaggeration, I expect he put 10 colors into a 4-ounce paper cup, a few drops at a time after the initial glop of metallic blue. The paints were in cans that worked on the same principle as the syrup containers at IHOP. It was fascinating. Finally, the guy finished the mix, broke a regular paint stirrer in half length-wise, mixed the batch, and asked me if it looked right. I said yes, basing my answer on hope in his skill. He went to the rear of the store and proceeded to make a can of spray paint—I have no idea how–which he presented to me with some pride. He charged me $19.82, checking my ID for the credit card.

Since I’ve done this for two years, I asked his advice on sanding the chipped spots. He asked another guy: “600 grit or just a PGA cloth?” We went with the cloth. Prepped with some rubbing alcohol to get any oil off. He didn’t want to make another ticket for 99 cents. And he wouldn’t take cash.

He then gave me more advice about spray painting—“Hold the can 8-10 inches away”— but I assured him I’d been spray painting for decades. He smiled and said, “Are you sure you’re not a Mexican?” I bent over laughing and said no, I was just boring. He could ask the question, of course, because he was Hispanic, as were all the customers and one of the other employees. These were all guys with paint on their hands, who-knows-what in their lungs, speaking a lingo of car paint and sprayers and “the new system” that I couldn’t understand. One customer used the old cliché “kid in a candy shop” about some expo he’d been to. It wasn’t my world, but I was welcomed and respected, provided with a superior product and helped on my way. It was a marvel. And yes, the results are great. If spray painting a bumper doesn’t upset you too much.


Some years ago, the daughter of a friend complained about how false she felt Christmas had become. Perhaps she was surprised that I agreed. On reflection, however, the word “given” seemed the explanation for it all, inspired perhaps by this passage from Handel’s Messiah. So I wrote a poem.


Given, that this is not the season when He was born,

But on a mild April night, full of new lambs, shepherds tending.

Given, that the stores (and we, shopping, encourage them)

Start too early, the days before Halloween now.

Given, that too much attention is paid to these tinseled toils:

Trees, bows, old elves, new elves, words in glitter.

Given, that red and green are not the best of colors

Arranged on silly sweaters, flattering few.

Given, that shallow promises to do and be good should best be

Conquered with deeper resolve some summer, when we have time.

Given, that worries are misplaced on things, which never

Last but break or shrink or fill our stomachs but for the hour.

Given, that those selfsame gifts could find better uses

Feeding the poor, clothing the naked, saving the world.


Ah, no, not that last:

For there is only One mighty enough to save.

For all the disappointments, the burdens

Given and received, for all the sadness, for the emptiness

For all the tears over those gone on

For hardships, ours and others

For all the indulgence and self-righteous singing

For all the narrow,

There is still the great


This the time when we remember the birth of a child


To a virgin,

His Father ours, too, but once, not twice.


So that we might come again to that Father,

Given our faults.

For us, to us, was He