Friday, February 25, 2011

Inside the MTC

When KSL aired this last night, I knew immediately that it would end up here.  The MTC was an awesome experience, and I miss it.  This video represents it quite well; with the exception of the curbside drop-offs (implemented in 2009), it's just as I remember it.

Video Courtesy of

Can't wait to see the hour-long special during Conference!

Monday, February 21, 2011

When filming a hoax...

. . . make sure someone's watching your campsite.

The rest of the gallery on Brickshelf.
The set on Flickr.

Some thoughts on the build:

As soon as I obtained a gorilla suit guy from the most recently released series of collectible minifigures, I knew I had to do a Bigfoot hoax scene.  Many versions of this passed through my mind until I finally sat down to build, spurred on by a Bigfoot enthusiast friend.  The timing couldn't have been better: after a week or so of really nice weather, it snowed again this past weekend, and I began pining once more for summer and its associated outdoor adventures.

Well, as we Lego fanatics say, "Build it!"

The final concept for this scene took shape as I went through old pictures from the fifty-mile hike we used to go on every year.  I wanted to build a campsite that actually looked like a campsite, so these memories proved most valuable in the detail construction phase.  I wanted to get it just right, from the campfire setting, to the fallen logs, to the vegetation on and around the boulder.  Placement of the logs and clearing was also loosely based on the 1967 Patterson Bigfoot Footage.

While the intent of this build was to present a humorous scene, what really makes it one of my favorite creations is all the detail that reminds me of summers spent in the wilderness.  Those expeditions are among my most cherished memories, and it felt good to recreate some portion of them with Lego.  I am most proud of the campfire, the smaller trees by the rock, and the fallen, rotting tree.  For me, they are what really made this scene.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Thoughts from the Spirit World

By then it was time to get ready for our temple session. I can't even begin to describe what that visit was like; it was one of the single greatest temple experiences of my life so far. I could count on one hand how many times I had felt so very much love before as I did in that holy place with my dear friends, and it was the hardest thing to leave.

The above quote is from one of my last emails home as a missionary.  And that song that hopefully you just played (or are listening to now as you read) is what we listened to in the car as we left the temple that day.  I'll never forget what that was like: five young men, about to go home after two years away . . . and not a word came out of us as this song was playing.  I cannot describe the supreme power of that moment, as we prepared to die.

On a mission, you learn a lot about the Plan of Salvation; the experience itself is a reflection of it, because it truly is like a miniature lifespan.  You're born, you're schooled, you grow up, you work, you age . . . then you die.  It was six months ago today that I experienced death--or at least a taste of what such a transition would be like.

Over the course of my life in Texas, I learned a lot and built countless meaningful, even eternal, relationships.  I grew just as a child does into adulthood.  I had a home, an identity, a life.  It truly was an entire lifetime's worth of lessons and experiences.  And eventually my hour came.

Those around me during my last days of that "earth life" part of the Plan did their best to prepare me for the next step, much like family and caretakers would help those who are approaching the real thing.  Local members of the Church continued to make sure my companions and I had everything we needed, including food, transportation, and help with lessons.  Thanks to them, my final days were comfortable (but not in a lazy sort of way--it was facilitating).  Much spiritual preparation also came from my leaders and fellow missionaries.  They talked with me and comforted me, all the way through my final interview with the mission president, and into that last early morning when I was taken to the airport.

And that's when the separation of death really took effect: waving goodbye to the elders who dropped me off; sitting alone in the terminal, waiting for my flight; passing through the gate and into the tunnel, which would finally put me on the plane.  It was a separation that could be felt both physically and spiritually, and there's no way to adequately describe it.  But I knew it as death.

Yet it wasn't a bad experience.  Difficult, even painful at times.  But not bad.  I knew where I was going, and there were plenty of people "on the other side" to meet me there.  At the home I knew before my probationary state in Texas, there were family and friends who rejoiced at my return.  And I was able to rejoice with them.

Since then, I too have had opportunities to rejoice at the return of other friends from their mini mortality.  We had a mission reunion back in October, and even though there were tables set up, most everyone stood near the doors for much of the evening, in order to greet those who were just arriving.  It was a celebration as much as it was a reunion; once separated by death, friends were together once more!

And now we aren't limited by the bounds of our probation.  I get together sometimes with old mission companions and other friends from that life, and we just hang out.  We continue to reflect fondly on our experience as missionaries.  But we also take advantage of our current state.  We play music and video games, we watch movies, we hit the town, we talk about girls, school, employment, and girls.  We call each other by our first names.  One of us got married today, and tonight's the reception.  We're talking eternal progression, here.  That's what the Plan is.

One insight I've gained from these experiences is that, without being emo or anything, death is one of the most awesome things that will ever happen to any of us, in our own time.  Just look at what and who is waiting on the other side!  There's gonna be rejoicing.  It's gonna be a celebration, with more friends than we can even keep track of on Facebook.  There will naturally be some adjusting to do with the transition, and it will be hard to leave everyone here behind (every day I still miss everyone I left in Texas).  But eventually, they'll join us, too!

So let's do everything we can here in order to make the party as epically awesome as possible there.  It's like a mission: work hard and don't waste the time you've got, and not only will you have reason to rejoice, but so will those whom you touch.  Use the mission well, and it will last forever.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Lunch with a master

I think everyone has someone they would like to just sit down and talk with someday.  As a musician, I would love to spend an afternoon with Beethoven, or jam out with Chopin or Vivaldi.  It would be fun to visit with J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis, then turn around and interview the Apostles Peter and Paul.

Well, I did have a similar opportunity today.

Legoland California Master Builder Gary McIntire has been in town the past couple days promoting the new Miniland Star Wars display that opens in the park this spring.

Well, Gary's kind of a big name around the Lego community, or at least here in Utah; before he landed the Dream Job, he founded the Utah Lego User Group (a club of which I am a proud member).  And so, he wanted to see the club while he was in town.  What an exciting opportunity!  Luckily a few of us were able to get together with Gary today, along with Legoland Public Relations Representative Beth and Park Security/Glorified Truck Driver Reuben. 

And we just sat down and had lunch.

Now this wasn't quite one of those sit-downs where we "picked the master's brain" and basked in his wisdom, as anyone might imagine a musician's visit with Beethoven or a fantasy writer's evening with Tolkien.  Granted, we had our questions (I finally learned that Lego Master Builders do, in fact, run out of pieces!), and it was a blast to hear about the Legoland experience from the inside.  But mostly, we all just talked about our mutual passion: the Brick.  It was as natural a conversation as it would have been with any other club member.  We talked about what we like to build, how we acquire our pieces, where we keep our collections, ideas for future builds, what we do with our creations, experiences from shows, upcoming Lego products. . . .  Stuff like that.  Naturally the subject of addiction to the drug-like collectible minifigures also came up, and our methods for finding all of them as well as adventure stories of shopping for them.  The whole time was just plain awesome.

And you know, I think that's how most visits with "the masters" would probably be: just chilling over some food and talking about stuff.  

Monday, February 14, 2011

Spread the love

When I got onto Facebook this morning, I was quickly reminded it was Valentine's Day because everyone had written one of two kinds of status updates:  There were happy couples expressing love for one another, as well as singles wishing everyone else a happy day . . . and then there were those who talked about how much they hate this holiday, some calling it "Singles Awareness Day" in jest.  All my friends were divided about half and half along this line.

I have no intention of being preachy or judgmental, because all of these are my friends and the way they feel toward something doesn't change the way I feel toward them.  I love each of them, and would never even consider forcing anything upon them.  But it really, really bothers me when people make a day like Valentine's Day all about themselves, and announce their bitterness to the world.  In a world where the concepts of love and marriage are corrupted more with each passing day, I think it's wonderful to get online and see couples saying how much they love each other.  It's great to go out and see them with each other, just spending time together.  And it breaks my heart to hear other people accusing them of "rubbing it in" or "being gross," because that's not what these couples are doing.  When did it become wrong to celebrate happiness?

I will admit that until just a few days ago, I was also one who would jokingly wish everyone a happy "Singles Awareness Day."  I figured, Hey, I'm single, so changing the name of the holiday gives me something to celebrate.  But anyone who says that has completely missed the point.  And oh, how I missed the point.  I was thinking only of myself.

My attitude changed over the weekend, thanks to an Institute devotional on Friday.  The speaker was a woman who, at 45, had never been married.  And everything she had to say immediately applied to us, the group of young also-single adults in attendance.  Many of her words involved not being bitter over being single, but instead living a full and rich life by living the Gospel and serving others.  Even though she had spent all this time not married, she was happy.  She was living the Gospel, and she was happy.

The whole message was wonderful; I wish everyone could have been there.  But what hit me the most was her position on "Singles Awareness Day."  She talked about how very selfish it is to say something like that, and how those who do are only thinking of themselves.  Very bold words.  I had never looked at it that way, but I realized that I, too, was guilty of selfishness. 

Yet in reality, no one on this entire planet is unloved, so we all have a reason to celebrate.  Why?

That's why.

I'm single, but there is still much for me to celebrate.  I can use this day to spread the love our Heavenly Father has for His children.  I can visit someone who is lonely.  I can perform kind acts of service.  Valentine's Day has never been and never will be about me.  It's about loving other people.  For many, that's a spouse, or a boyfriend, or a girlfriend.  For others, it's family and friends.  For God, it's everyone.

And so from now on, whether or not I'm in a relationship, I'll always look forward to Valentine's Day because of what it truly means. 

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Great doors swinging on little hinges

I've been thinking a lot about how my decisions have impacted my life.  It's easy to wake up in the morning and just carry on with life as we know it, so in that light I've been quite fascinated with the thought of "How did I get to where I am right now?"

Take fifth grade, for example.  That was the year we started music classes in elementary school, and each of us had a choice to make: band, orchestra, or general music (for those who might not have been interested in a particular instrument).  I think, up to that point in my life, this was the biggest decision I had ever faced.  I remember thinking long and hard about it--finally narrowing my options down to flute or violin.  I was interested in both instruments, but at one point actually leaned more toward the flute.  The band teacher seemed more interesting to me, and for a little while at least it looked like I was going to sign up for the band.

What if I had?

I don't remember why now, but in the end I chose to play the violin.  And I will forever be grateful for that decision, because many of the closest friends I would make throughout junior high and high school would be made in the orchestra.  Just think of it!  Had I chosen the flute, in my life there may have been no Joey, no Amber, no Sara, or Lydia, or Noel, or Tiffany, or Amy, or Stephanie, or Ellice.  No Dave.  And if there had been, we would have met under different circumstances, and possibly missed out on a lot of good things that would have come with the friendship we have now.  Who knows?  I certainly don't want to find out.

Then there's the piano.  Where would I be without it?  A little known fact is that during my fourth year of piano lessons, I wanted to quit.  I really, really wanted to quit.  I wasn't at a level where I could just sit down and play whatever I wanted, and that was discouraging.  Practicing was a chore to me, and even though I had the greatest piano teacher in the world, back then I didn't appreciate the lessons taking half an hour out of my week. 

I guess this was more of my parents' decision than my own, but I'm grateful that they insisted on keeping me in the lessons, because within a couple more years I would fall in love with the piano.  It became my greatest outlet when I needed an escape from the world, and the talent I discovered there would become a crucial piece of my very identity.  For instance, on my mission I was the piano guy.  If you needed a hymn, Elder Cunningham was one of the people you'd call.  My sister lived in San Antonio while I was serving there, and when she'd talk to the missionaries and they didn't recognize my name, she'd just say something like "he plays the piano," and they'd remember me instantly.  That's just who I am now; I can't see myself not as a pianist.

Speaking of the mission, that's another decision that has made a lasting impact on my life.  I met so many of my current friends on my mission that it just feels like they've been around forever--that we grew up and went to high school together, and everything.  In such a short time, we've built quite a history and relationship.  And yet, as recently as three years ago, I didn't know any of them.  No President Cutler, no companions, no members, recent converts, investigators. . . .  If I didn't serve a mission, I would know none of these wonderful people.  And I wouldn't even realize what I was missing.

Where would I be if I chose not to serve a mission?

I don't know.

I would think that at least a few of the lessons I learned as a missionary could have been learned here if I stayed, but certainly not all of them.  I doubt I would have discovered my true passion for language, so I'd probably still be wondering what I wanted to do with my life.  Or maybe I would have found another passion and already earned a college degree in that field.  Perhaps someone I would have met on my mission--a companion, or leader, or whatever--would walk past me on the street one day, but we'd be such complete strangers that both of us would forget we passed each other right after it happened. 

Life would be drastically different. 

But that's another one of those things I would prefer not to find out about, because I know what I know now and I love what I have.  I wouldn't trade any of my friends or experiences for anything, because they are what have made me me.  And I like myself.  I'm not perfect, by any means.  But I like myself, and I wouldn't want to change my history and thereby alter the present and future, because I don't know if I'd like it.  And who knows?  Maybe I would.  Actually, I wouldn't know any better, because I wouldn't have experienced what I have.  So I'd rather not risk it.

Sometimes I lie awake just imagining alternate universes where my decisions are the opposite from real life.  Yet no matter what I come up with, I am constantly humbled by the massive impact one little choice can make.  If I traveled back in time, that would probably be the first piece of advice I'd give to myself.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The joy of getting lost

Sometimes I like to grab my camera and just drive until I find a road I don't recognize.  Then I follow that road and the turns that come off it until it's impossible to take the same way back.  I end up discovering places I've never been, and new angles on things that had before been ordinary. 

With an appointment in Draper at 9:00 yesterday morning, another engagement in Orem at 11:30, and a significant dislike for traveling I-15 more than once in a day, I quickly saw the perfect opportunity for one of my little expeditions.

Exploration is the secret to making any ordinary day quite exciting.  With that said, I would also warn my readers against taking the frontage road around Point of the Mountain--unless you enjoy sharing a worn and twisty two-lane road with oncoming semis.

I have no pictures of that. 

Monday, February 7, 2011

Mantras for the Latter-day Saint

When this semester started, I tried a class in Buddhist meditation until I had to change my schedule.  It seemed perfectly natural to me; true principles aren't only to be found in Mormonism, or even mainstream Christianity for that matter.  And as a Latter-day Saint, I feel obligated to search out truth wherever it may be found, because all truth does come from God.  With the guidance of the Spirit, I can sort through the various practices and teachings of other traditions and discern what is in harmony with the Gospel and would help me grow.  So I had no problem incorporating a few pieces of Buddhist practices into my life.  I feel very strongly that they are in harmony with the Gospel and the teachings of living prophets (I particularly remember the words of President Hinckley on being still), and they've made me stronger. 

One thing that can be useful in meditation is having a mantra--essentially a syllable, or a word, or even a phrase that is concentrated upon and which represents some aspect of spiritual power.  In a lot of ways it's kind of like having a personal motto.  And that's something I could relate to even before taking that class.

My whole mission experience was awesome, and I feel like I served well; yet it still had its difficult parts, and there was the occasional day when I just couldn't do it--not for myself, at least, and not even for God.  On those days, I would look at the wall by my bed or the desk, where there were pictures of family, friends back home, and friends I had made in Texas--companions, members, recent converts, investigators--just a bunch of people.  And I would say to myself, "Be a hero to them."  That kept me going when nothing else could.  Other times, it was simply a good reminder that boosted my productivity.  I made it my motto as a missionary.

But it's been a while since I've really had a personal motto.  My life is much different now than it was on my mission, so the motto I used back then doesn't really have the same effect it once did.  Well, as of this weekend I have several, and the timing couldn't have been better!  I will talk here about just one.

During church yesterday, the elders quorum took over the Primary so that all the sisters could attend Relief Society.  It was quite a change of pace from our normal third hour because all of a sudden everything became a whole lot more simple.  But that's something I needed that day.

The lesson was on the Plan of Salvation, and the kids just went down a list and gave simple, true answers to questions such as "Who am I?", "Why am I here?", and "Where am I going?"  Then we sang songs on those topics.  I couldn't remember the last time I'd had such an effective lesson on the Plan.

Later in the day, we had a neighbor over to our home with the missionaries.  And the elders began teaching her the Plan of Salvation!  Once more, this subject was impressed profoundly upon my mind.

What finished me off was the movie One Good Man, which my brother and I watched together before bed.  It's very rare that I relate to a movie as much as I did this one; it did remarkably well in portraying many different aspects of life as a busy Latter-day Saint.  Throughout the entirety of it, I could see the Plan at work.  This family was doing their best to live it, and for me that's what the movie was really about.  While I face different challenges than they did, I truly saw myself there.  And that really moved me.

I'm at a stage in my life where nothing is set in stone.  I have a lot of decisions to make, and I can't really see the outcome just yet.  Everything relies on faith.  But that can be very difficult because of how fast life goes, and I wouldn't exactly call college itself the most enlightening environment.  Time is slipping by; indeed, I have never had a greater need to be mindful of God's Plan than I do now.

Since yesterday I've found myself saying "Stick to the Plan."  It's a new motto for me which has significant power.  The mental image drives this one quite far:  I think of those action movies where the hero walks into some place, and through a radio or headset or some other device his crew reminds him to "stick to the plan," even if things get rough.  In a lot of movies, we see this group of people forming the plan before they carry it out.  They know what they're gonna do, and they go ahead and do it.

Well hey, I was there with all of you when Heavenly Father presented His Plan, and because He wants us to succeed, He continues to reteach it to us as we go about this operation called life.  I may not know how specific details will play out, but I know what the Plan is and where I'm supposed to aim.  If I stick to the Plan, I can't fail. 

Too tired to serve?  Don't want to do homework?  "Stick to the Plan, Nathan."  All of a sudden there's perspective and motivation.  I just gotta remember the Plan.

I'm curious to know what some of my readers' mottoes are.  How has this principle or anything like it helped you?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Now I know my ABC's!

Throughout my life, I've had an interest in other languages.  It's something I was surrounded with from birth, really; both of my parents had served foreign missions, and as I grew up they still used the language skills they had acquired during their service.  Mom worked as a translator, and both she and Dad would switch into their alternate tongues when they wanted to talk about secret things (like birthday presents) but not have to shoo my siblings and me into another room or wait for a private moment. 

Then over time, one brother would study French, and another served a mission in Mexico.  That brother would go on to have a family of his own that spoke Spanish.  Other relatives also picked up extra languages as they served missions or studied hard enough.

It took me two decades to realize it, but this is also what I was born to do.

Interest became passion after I was trained in Spanish as a missionary.  I had never experienced anything as liberating as knowing another language; if I couldn't communicate with someone in English, I wasn't out of options!  I have fond memories of times on my mission when my companion and I would be out talking to people on the streets, and some would try to get out of it by saying something like "No Ingl├ęs."  Then came the priceless looks on their faces when we started rattling away in Spanish!  But that wasn't even the best part.  No--the fact that we could communicate with nearly anyone we met in Texas is what I'll remember years down the road.  It was freedom.  It was understanding.  It became the first building block in many precious relationships.

And that got me thinking: what would the world be like if we could all just understand each other?  If you look at the cause of any conflict between people or nations, you may find things like greed and apathy, but whatever it may be, most of the time there's also gonna be a miscommunication in the mix.  There was a misunderstanding of some sort somewhere down the line, and now there's trouble.  Sadly, this problem runs deeper than the language barrier.  Even when a dialect is shared, people will choose not to listen, or perhaps listen but take something completely the wrong way. . . .  I'm sure each of us could name many specific examples of miscommunication in just our own language.

But still.  Take away that initial language barrier, and you've got a start on the road to understanding.  When you learn a language, you're putting forth the effort to communicate with someone you wouldn't have before.  And that has to mean something to them.  Communication is huge!

At least, that's the way I look at it.

So I've chosen to devote my life--or at least the career aspect of my life--to language.  It's the only real dream I've ever had for a career.  Sure, I've got plenty of other kinds of dreams.  I want to get a book published, play in the Orchestra at Temple Square . . . things like that.  But I don't see any of those as career goals.  

I'm thinking that may be a reason why I was such a bum in high school: I just had no direction, no dream.  Back then, I hadn't ever considered a language career, and nothing else appealed to me.  Music was fun, and I enjoyed it.  Same with writing, Lego, being social, traveling, and even public speaking.  But I didn't want to rely on any of those to feed a family someday.  I felt very intimidated at the prospect of choosing a major and a career, because there was nothing to which I truly wanted to be committed.  And so I just didn't put much effort into school.  This annoyed at least a few of the people I was close to, who saw more potential in me and knew I was selling myself short.  But I didn't know where I wanted my education to take me, so I didn't go anywhere with it right then.

This semester I began studying Arabic.  And to be honest, it's the first time I've ever really wanted an "A," in anything.  I've been very happy to get good grades when they happened, but I've also always been content merely to pass.  Other than for college applications and scholarships, I never understood why anyone would work so hard for a perfect grade point average.  Many of my friends did work for that, and I look up to and admire them a lot for it.  It's taking them to wonderful places.  They've got vision, or at least determination, and I respect that.  I just never understood it until now (and even still I'm only beginning to understand).

I'll be the happiest man on earth for being able to support a family.  But there's more to this dream--things I don't really need after I've achieved that first and most important goal, yet which I still think would be choice experiences and which motivate me to not merely pass, but to excel.  For instance, it would be cool if someday I was good enough to be recognized to some extraordinary degree in my field.  It might even be interesting to be the guy the President calls when the current terrorist organization has sent him another bedtime story and he needs someone to read it to him.  Case in point, I see myself actually going places with this, and this is the first time that's ever happened.

In class this week we finished learning the Arabic alphabet and started on our numbers (I've learned the first ten now!).  Just like it was with English back in kindergarten, this is a big step, and I feel like I've really accomplished something.  Tonight we began our first points of basic grammar, and my vocabulary is small but steadily increasing.  In the coming weeks, when I've learned more fundamental principles and vocabulary, I'm going to attempt a boost in my learning by reading the scriptures in Arabic (I've already got the Bible and the Testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith waiting for me on my nightstand).  This is the grand adventure I've been waiting for.  I've got what I need to get started, and I'm ready to go. 
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