Cone snails

I love the ocean.  I love the sound of the waves, the feel of the sand beneath my toes and the amazing creatures that live in the deep.  This is strange because I’m a lousy swimmer and I don’t actually enjoy going in the water much.

Anyway, one of the groups of amazing groups of sea creatures are the cone snails.  They have incredibly beautiful shells (my favorite is the textile cone, 2nd from the right in the photo).  The beauty of their shells often causes people to pick them up, which is an incredibly bad idea because the snails are quite venomous.

Cone snails don’t hunt by sight, but instead use a highly sensitive olfactory organ to taste the water and sense incoming prey.  When a cone snail senses a fish it will extend its proboscis and then fire a tethered harpoon-like radula tooth.  This harpoon acts as a hypodermic needle delivering venom and paralyzing the fish almost instantaneously.  The venom contains literally hundreds of different toxins (called conotoxins), each targeting a specific nerve channel.

While finishing my undergraduate degree I had the privilege of hearing a lecture by one of the pioneers of conotoxin research.  He had isolated several of the peptides found in cone snail venom and was investigating their use in the medical field.  He had even started a company based on his research.  I was intrigued and took the opportunity to apply for an internship at the company.

I was called in for an interview and everything went very smoothly.  I had a chance to hear more about the research and take a tour of the state-of-the-art laboratories.  Afterward they sat down with me and offered me the internship, but with one condition – that I finish my undergraduate degree, but not pursue a Masters degree or Ph.D.  I was extremely tempted.  After all, the work looked interesting, the internship paid well and I was told that I would be guaranteed a position after graduation.

The only problem was that after my wife and I prayed about it, we felt that I needed to further my education.  My goal had always been to work in a research lab, so it was hard to turn down what seemed to be a golden opportunity.  But I knew that I needed to keep going to school.

It wasn’t until I was nearing the end of my Ph.D and had the opportunity to teach at a small college that I realized why I had felt inspired to continue my education.  Teaching was truly the career I needed and it would not have been possible without an advanced degree.  The internship offer had been much like the cone snail itself.  Just as the cone snail’s shell tempts one to pick it up, the offer seemed so wonderful and ideal, but if I had taken hold of it I know that I would have been paralyzed in a job that wasn’t what my family and I truly needed.

It’s so easy to give up what we need in the long run for what we want right now.

Because I have been given much…

During World War II, the United States government opened a new agency called the “Office of Price Administration” or OPA.  Their job was to ration food and other commodities to avoid runaway inflation and price-jacking during the war.  Each family was given a ration book with ration stamps for various goods.  Stores would mark items with a price as well as a ration stamp requirement.  When small change was required for stamps from ration books the cashier would use OPA token like the ones shown above.

Now fast forward about sixty years… A few months after my oldest daughter was born we invited family and friends to her blessing at the church and then we had a small get-together at the playground outside our apartment.  At one point my cousin Mallory and I needed to get something from inside.  As we walked up to the door she said, “Because I have been given much.”  I responded in my typically eloquent way by saying, “Huh?”  She pointed to the number on our apartment door and explained that 219 was the page number for that hymn in our hymn book.

I am ashamed to admit that the first thought that crossed my mind was something along these lines: Here I am living in a tiny cinder block apartment with a car that barely runs.  I’m in graduate school and we have absolutely no money.  In fact, I volunteer for research experiments at the hospital where they apply electric shocks to my fingertips just so I can make a few extra bucks to try to survive.  I skip meals because we can’t afford the food.  I’m trying to raise a brand new baby (who won’t sleep), TA classes and do my PhD research all while trying to do well in my graduate courses because if I drop below a B average I’ll be kicked out of school.  I’m utterly exhausted physically, mentally and emotionally and you’re telling me that I have been given much?!

I felt like a man with nothing but a couple of OPA tokens in his pocket who has just been told he should be grateful he is so wealthy.  But as soon as those thoughts flashed through my mind I immediately felt guilty.  Suddenly I realized all of the things I had been given: an incredibly amazing wife, a beautiful healthy daughter, a chance at an education, a place to live, a knowledge of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  The list just kept going on and on.

I realized at that point that I needed to stop worrying about what I didn’t have and start focusing on what I did have.  Whenever times get rough and I begin to complain I try to stop and remember the lesson I learned standing in front of apartment #219.

A million drops of sunshine

Have you ever noticed how a smell can bring back so many memories?  Whether it’s the smell of fresh baked bread or Play-Doh or the smell of nice crispy bacon (which reminds me of all-you-can eat breakfast buffets with my grandfather), it seems that odors trigger things that I’ve virtually forgotten.  Personally, I love the smell of chalk dust because it stirs up some of my earliest memories.  When I was very young my dad was in graduate school studying physics (Science rules!!!) and I remember playing in the classrooms at the University of Utah.

I always thought it was such an amazing thing to go and hang out where my dad was.  I was reminded of this a few days ago when I was able to attend my 7-year old daughter Natalia’s publishing party at school.  All the kids wrote and illustrated books and then read them to the gathered parents.  Most of the stories were about exciting trips to amusement parks or vacations in St. Croix.

Then it was Natalia’s turn.  Her book was about a time I took her to work with me.  It wasn’t a terribly exciting trip, it was on a Saturday and I needed to stop by my office at the college and pick up a few games for an upcoming game convention.  I asked if anyone wanted to go with me and Natalia did, so we went.  The whole outing took less than an hour and I really didn’t think anything of it.  But Natalia remembered and wrote about every detail, including the people we talked to and the toys… I mean important articles of scientific research… that we played with.

One of those toys in my office is a Crookes radiometer.  My dad and I had one when I was a kid and I always thought it was so amazing.  I still remember him taking the time to explain to me how it worked.  The device is simple – you shine a light on the radiometer and the vanes inside start to spin on the spindle, but the physics are complicated.  I think of it like this: millions and millions of tiny drops of sunshine hit the vanes and warm up one side more than the other.  The air molecules interact with this warmer side and push off, causing the vanes to spin.

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Fatherhood is the same way.  Being a great dad isn’t the result of one or two huge acts, it’s the combined impact of countless tiny and seemingly insignificant acts – like a million drops of sunshine.  My dad is a great dad.  He has never pulled me out of a burning building, donated his last kidney to me, or saved me from a pack of bloodthirsty zombie hyenas – although I don’t doubt for a minute that he wouldn’t do all of those things if needed.  Instead he took me to work with him, spent every Christmas morning putting together insanely complex GI Joe vehicles, cooked the trout I caught while camping and convinced me it was still okay to eat it even if it fell in the fire, and explaining to a young and overenthusiastic boy about the wonders of the Crookes radiometer.

All that being said, it’s kind of ironic that we only take one day out of the year to celebrate Father’s Day even though the job description involves a 24/7 work week from the moment your child is born.  So to my dad and all the dads out there, thank you for all the little things you do.  Happy Father’s Day – today, tomorrow and always.

Fossil Footprints

My family and I spent a year in Price, Utah while I was teaching at the College of Eastern Utah.  One of the amazing things about living in that area were the fossils.  The coal mines were full of massive dinosaur footprints and I would drool every time I saw one.  I was never able to obtain a dinosaur footprint, but I was recently able to buy some Eocene fossil bird tracks from the Soldier Summit area.

I just love running my fingers over the tracks and knowing that millions of years ago a bird walked along a beach and made those tracks.  I’m sure that the bird had no idea that the tracks it was making would last, yet here they are sitting on my shelf.

It reminds me of an experience I had as a missionary in Brownsville, Texas.  My trainer, Elder Davis, was an amazing missionary.  I was constantly amazed at how easy it was for him to talk to people and how clearly he explained the gospel.  I modeled everything I did after him.  One afternoon we were walking down a dirt road and he was a few steps ahead of me.  I looked down and saw the footprints he was leaving in the dust behind him.  It was a long walk (on a very hot day) and I began to think about the effect his example was having on me as a missionary.  He was a humble guy and probably would have been embarrassed if I told him how much I admired him, yet without knowing it he was leaving a trail of footprints (both tangible and intangible) for me to follow.

At one point I stopped for some reason and glanced behind me.  At that moment I realized that I was also leaving tracks in the dust for those that came after me.  We are often cognizant of the examples of others, but I don’t think we fully comprehend the impact of our own examples.  It’s important to stop and think about our own footprints and where they will lead those that follow us because those tracks will last for generations.