Genetic Mom-ifications

DNA is a pretty amazing molecule.  Even though the strands are so tiny that 5,000 of them laying side by side would only be the width of a human hair, DNA contains an incredible amount of information.  It encodes all the information necessary for your body to look and function the way it does.  DNA is such a compact way of storing information that scientists have found a way to create “DNA hard drives” to store digital data.

Besides the vast amount of information stored within DNA, I find it amazing that DNA can survive the vicious daily beating that it receives.  Each day the DNA in each of our cells will be damaged up to one million times – and yet most of that damage is fixed by an amazing cellular repair system that operates without a single conscious thought from us.

Now most of the time we are happy to have an organism’s DNA repaired and kept just the way it is, but sometimes it’s nice to modify it.  Life saving insulin for diabetics used to be extracted from pig pancreas, but it is now produced by genetically modified bacteria.  Until the late 1980’s cheese was made by extracting an enzyme from calf stomachs, but that same enzyme is now mass produced by genetically modified microbes.  Genetically modified Glo-fish are now available at pet stores.  Genetic modifications can be used to add β-carotene to rice, create edible vaccines in bananas, or to reduce the amount of cancer-causing acrylamide in potatoes.

Now I’m not here to talk about whether genetic engineering is a good idea or not, but I think everyone agrees that it is incredible that scientists have the power to make genetic modifications.  And yet, that power is nothing compared to the power that mothers have to change lives.  I guess you could call them genetic mom-ifications [although that sounded way cooler in my head].

Just as our cellular repair systems protect us from damage done to our DNA from everyday life, mothers devote their lives to protecting their families from the destruction rampant in the world today.  Elder Boyd K. Packer once said, “We need women with the gift of discernment who can view the trends in the world and detect those that, however popular, are shallow or dangerous.”

Besides providing protection, mothers are agents for change in the lives of their children, grandchildren and in the world around them.  In 1979, President Spencer W. Kimball said, “Much of the major growth that is coming to the Church in the last days will come because many of the good women of the world … will be drawn to the Church in large numbers. This will happen to the degree that the women of the Church reflect righteousness and articulateness in their lives and to the degree that the women of the Church are seen as distinct and different—in happy ways—from the women of the world.”

Since it is Mother’s Day, I’d like to talk about some of the women who have changed my life forever.  There is no way to discuss all of the ways that they have affected me, so I’ve chosen to focus on some small things that have had important consequences in my life.

Growing up, every year my Grandma Cross would call me on my birthday.  She would always start by singing to me.  As a teenager I would roll my eyes and pretend that it was embarrassing, but to this day I get a little choked up just thinking about it.  The simple fact that she remembered my birthday and took the time to call and talk to me made me feel important.  It still serves as a reminder to me that there are people out there who know my name and care about me as an individual.

When I was serving a mission in South Texas my Grandma Jones found out that my companion’s family wasn’t very supportive of him.  She would send amazing packages that somehow defied the laws of physics by containing more items packed in there than was physically possible.  And every time I’d open one of those boxes I would find that half of the goodies were for my companion.  The first time it happened he couldn’t believe it.  He ended up writing letters to her each week because he was so grateful.

Now my companion and I didn’t always get along, mostly because I was young and foolish [I’ve solved half that problem, as I am no longer quite so young].  At times we would argue.  But after that first package arrived things changed.  When I would get upset and try to start and argument I could see him about to say something back, but he would get a look on his face and then he would suddenly stop.  This would defuse the situation as I found that it was very hard to fight when you are the only person arguing.  It was as though he would look at me and think, “This guy is a dork, but his grandma is so nice that I’m going to treat him with kindness.  Not because he deserves it, but because she does.”  I’ve tried to apply this in my own life.  I’m far from perfect at it, but when I get upset I try to stop and think that even if the person in front of me deserves my anger, would I react differently if their mother or grandmother was standing next to them?  What if their Savior was by their side?  Would I bite my tongue and let go of my anger for His sake?

My mother had an impact on my life daily.  Sometimes it was with things that seemed trivial at the time.  For example, I remember a fourth grade project on volcanoes.  I’m sure you’ve experienced this as a parent – “It’s due tomorrow?!?  Why didn’t you tell me about it earlier.”  On this particular occasion it was bedtime and suddenly I pulled out the paper about the project.  My mom just sighed and we went to work.  I remember that it seemed to take hours.  At one point I went into the bathroom and splashed cold water on my face because I had seen in the movies that that’s what you were supposed to do when you were working on a late night project.  I’m amazed my mom didn’t groan when I came back to the table, no less tired, but with a damp shirt and a confused expression on my face.

I didn’t realize it at the time since I didn’t grasp the fact that my mom had her own life and probably had hundreds of things she would rather do than work on a late night project with me.  But she sat next to me and helped me finish it.  She taught me that life is tough, but that just means you have to buckle down and get to work.  I’ve tried to teach that same lesson to my kids.  Mikayla and Natalia are currently testing for their 1st degree black belts and as part of the test they have to run three miles in 27 minutes.  This is not an easy task, but I know they can do it.  Whenever possible I go out there and run with them, even though before this I don’t think I’ve ever run three miles in my entire life.  I like to think that my presence and support helps them to run faster, even if it’s just to be ahead of me and out of the splash zone in case I throw up.

My lovely wife – the mother of our three children – is an amazing example to me.  She is the funniest person I have ever met and she has helped me to learn that life is easier to cope with when you have a sense of humor.  You wouldn’t know it by looking at her beautiful smiling face now, but our daughter Mikayla was not an easy baby.  In fact she was a bit of a shrieking terror for the first few months of her life.  Generally she would fall asleep screaming and then she would wake up screaming.

I was in my first semester of graduate school, trying to balance a full load of graduate courses, acting as a teaching assistant and doing organometallic research with a very demanding boss.  Lara was trying to recover from a C-section while dealing with a tiny, yet very demanding infant.

We were a mess.  We were both exhausted all the time – physically, emotionally and mentally drained.  I remember one night we were trying to do the bills and neither of us could add two numbers together.  On another night we had finally gotten Mikayla to sleep and we were so excited to finally go to bed ourselves when suddenly she woke up and began to wail.  We both laid in bed for a few seconds before Lara said, “You know, she’s the best baby I’ve ever had.”  We both began to laugh hysterically, which made Mikayla cry even harder, which made us laugh even harder.  I’m sure our neighbors thought we were insane, which we probably were.

We made it through those trying months, thanks in large part to Lara’s sense of humor.  We’ve had some very tough times since then, but my wife has taught me that sometimes your only options are to laugh or cry – and it’s a lot more fun to laugh.

So on this Mother’s Day, thank you to all the mothers who have made such a difference in my life and in the lives of every man, woman and child on this earth.  I echo President Russell M. Nelson’s words, “The culminating act of all creation was the creation of woman!”  Mother’s Day only comes around once a year, but your acts of love, devotion, and sacrifice will be remembered and cherished for all eternity.


Motherhood: Nurturing Seeds

I’ve always liked seeds.  Even as a kid I was fascinated by the idea that an entire tree could somehow fit inside a tiny seed.  Later I learned that the seed doesn’t actually contain the tree, but instead the potential for a tree.  In order to actually have a tree you’d need water, sunlight, nutrients and a whole lot of carbon dioxide – but the seed contains the blueprints necessary for that tree to come into existence.

I’m no expert on motherhood, but not only do I have a wonderful mom – I also happen to be married to the fabulous mother of my three children.  So if you’ll forgive my ramblings on this sacred topic, I’d like to talk a bit about motherhood.

To me, motherhood seems a lot like planting seeds.  You don’t always know how those little nuts are going to turn out, but you hope and pray and do the very best you can to help them grow into the majestic trees you know they can be.

I’m actually going to mention three of my favorite seeds.  The first seed (in the bottom of the photo) is from a Victoria water lily.  You should Google these things because they are pretty amazing.

The leaves of the Victoria water lily can grow 6-8 inches a day and can grow to be over eight feet wide.  Thanks to an amazing web-like structure of air-filled veins the leaves can carry up to 300 pounds of weight.  The leaves are a beautiful green, but if you flip one over you’d find that the undersides are maroon.

When blooming each lily produces a pure white flower the size of a soccer ball.  A chemical reaction inside the flowers causes them to reach temperatures as much as 20 degrees Fahrenheit above the ambient temperature.  This helps the flowers to disperse their scent, which is a mixture of butterscotch and pineapple.

The flower opens at night and closes as morning approaches.  This traps the beetles which pollinate the flowers and allows the lily to coat the beetle in pollen.  When the flower, which has changed to a dark pink color, reopens the following evening the beetle flies off to another flower.

The Victoria water lily reminds me that the world is an amazing place full of surprises.  This is a lesson my mother taught me as a child.  Whether she was watching me walk up and down the beaches of Bear Lake slowly filling a Wonder Bread bag with tiny shells or putting up with the bizarre aquatic experiments my brother and I performed in the wagon in the backyard, my mom always encouraged me to study, appreciate, and view with wonder the world around us.

The next seed (shown in the top left of the photo) is from a Giant Sequoia – the world’s largest living thing.  They can grow to be 300 feet tall and over 50 feet wide.  Because they are so tall they can’t pump water from the soil all the way up the trunks, so they supplement their water intake by harvesting fog using air roots.

Fire isn’t an enemy to the Giant Sequioa.  Their bark can be three feet thick, naturally protecting the tree.  The heat from the fire clears the underbrush and actually causes the Sequioa’s cones to open, dropping the seeds onto the newly cleared ground below.

To me the Giant Sequioa represents love.  It doesn’t appear overnight, but when it grows it is meant to last.  Love doesn’t disappear at the first sign of trouble.  Like many teenagers, I had my fair share of arguments with my mom.  Even if I didn’t agree with her, I knew she loved me.  Her love didn’t come and go based on my behavior, it was truly unconditional.  As a child, as a teenager, and even today this knowledge is priceless.

The last seed (shown in the top right of the photo) comes from a Bristlecone Pine – which can grow to be the oldest non-clonal living thing on the planet.  There are bristlecone pines that are almost 5,000 years old.  Imagine what those trees have seen and all the amazing things they have experienced.

Bristlecone pines have learned not only how to survive, but how to thrive.  They don’t live in a comfortable environment where life is easy.  They only grow high in the mountains where few things can survive.  But they have learned how to cope with icy temperatures, very little water and ferocious storms.  Because they grow slowly their wood is extremely dense.  This helps to protect them from pests and diseases.  They simply will not allow harmful things to penetrate to their core.

My mother taught me how to thrive in spite of trials.  One of the most challenging times in my life came when I was only seven years old.  I was involved in an accident that resulted in some pretty severe brain damage.  [If you’ve ever tried to hold a conversation with me I’m sure the whole brain damage thing explains quite a bit]

It was incredibly difficult for me to relearn how to read and do arithmetic.  The worst part was looking at a math problem and remembering being able to do it in the months prior to the accident, but not being able to remember how.  There were a lot of tears and years of frustration on my part, but through it all my mom was there – patient, kind and always willing to explain things to me time and time again.  It was because of her that I learned that adversity might beat you down over and over again, but it can only break you with your permission.  In the end struggling makes you a stronger and better person.

She taught me that the world will continually barrage you with what it thinks is important in life.  But don’t overly concern yourself with the world.  Remember that all of those things will pass and you will still be standing, firm and unshakeable, at the top of the mountain where nothing stands between you and your Heavenly Father.

My Mom… and chicken sunglasses

With Mother’s Day coming up tomorrow, I’ve been thinking a lot about my mom.  She is fabulous in so many ways, but one of the things that has made the most difference in my life is her ability to elevate people.  More on that later, but first let me tell you about chicken sunglasses…

Chickens are mean, very mean.  Did you know that chickens are cannibalistic?  It’s true.  Chickens will constantly peck at each other.  It’s a natural instinct and allows them to establish a hierarchy in the flock.  This is where the term “pecking order” comes from.  The worst part is that the sight of blood tends to intensify the pecking instinct.  Truly the weak get weaker and the strong get stronger.  On chicken farms this pecking often leads to death.

One innovative method to control this pecking instinct was invented in 1939 by Joseph Haas.  He decided to put sunglasses on chickens.  (I know, I know… the best ideas are always so obvious in hindsight.  I too wish I had come up with this idea.)  These glasses consist of red lenses attached to a metal frame via hinges.  Why red?  Well, to cover up the sight of blood, of course.  The hinges allow the lenses to fall forward when the chicken looks down so that it can see its food and water normally.  But when looking straight ahead at the endless lines of oh-so-peckable chicken scalps, the red masks the color of blood and therefore lowers the killer-chicken cannibal instinct.

At least that’s the theory anyway.  One problem is, how in the world do you get the sunglasses to stay on?  There are two options, you can ask the chicken nicely (this is less effective, but polite) or you can insert a metal rod through the side of the glasses, into one nostril, piercing the nasal septum and out the other nostril (this is effective, but cruel and has in fact been banned in several countries).  The second problem is that if the sight of red blood incites chickens to attack, wouldn’t coloring the entire world blood red make things worse?  I’m just picturing a peaceful flock of chickens eating their breakfast and looking stylish in their hip new glasses when Colonel Sanders walks out into the yard for a morning stroll.  The chickens look up and suddenly his impeccable (no pun intended, okay maybe it was) white suit is tinted the color of fresh blood and… well, you get the picture.

The world today is full of chickens.  We are often petty, mean and vindictive.  We are constantly getting ourselves into trouble and debt just to stay in fashion or one-up the people next door.  We can’t bear the thought of someone getting ahead and so we envy or bad-mouth those who succeed.  And when others fail or don’t quite fit in we laugh and kick them while they’re down.  To see this in action simply walk down the hallways of your local high school or turn on the television.

The world is also full of purveyors of chicken sunglasses – those quick fixes to every problem known to man.  If you believe the never ending supply of self help books or the countless magazines lining the grocery checkout aisles you can be good looking, rich and successful without ever leaving the comfort of your couch.  Plastic surgery and Botox will fix anything you dislike about your body.  The latest book from the latest guru will guarantee you riches beyond your wildest dreams.  Fad diets and miracle supplements will fix your weight, diabetes, testosterone levels, ingrown toenails and stop terrorists.

This is the difference between the world and my mother.  The world offers a million quick fixes – just slap on some sunglasses and your chickens will be better than ever.  My mom is amazing at meeting people where they are and helping them to become better people, but she knows it’s often a very slow process.  Growing up the focus wasn’t “You know better than that” or even “You can do better than that.”  Instead it was “You are better than that.”

Let me give you an example, it’s a small one and I’m sure my mom doesn’t even remember the event, but it made a huge impact on me.  I was in 2nd grade and my mom had come to help out in the classroom.  I had written down an inappropriate word on something I was working on (without really even knowing what the word meant).  My mom saw it and she didn’t yell, beat me senseless, wash my mouth out with soap or hustle me off to a therapist.  Instead she pulled me aside and told me that in our family we don’t use certain words because they don’t show respect for ourselves or others.  Then she went back to what she was doing.

I vividly remember scratching out the word with a marker and never repeating it.  To this day I don’t swear.  Not out of fear or guilt or because it makes me feel superior to those who curse, but because that’s just who I am.  Because that’s the man my mother knows I can be.

So on Mother’s Day and every day, thank you Mom.   I’m far from perfect, but I know that all that is good in me began to develop due to your goodness, love and nurture.  Thank you for always seeing the best in me and for helping me see it in myself.  I don’t say it enough, but I love you.

Mother’s Day and Gamma Rays

Video 1 0 08 20-23

The bottles above were both recovered from an old barn in New England.  They started out looking the same, but the one on the right was exposed to gamma rays.  It’s amazing to think about this process.  Gamma rays are just high energy photons – tiny particles of light.  When they interact with the glass molecules they change the structure of the glass and give it a nice lavender color.  But it’s not just one or two photons it’s trillions and trillions of photons, each making their indelible mark in the glass.  The process is invisible, but the results are permanent and they reach far beyond the surface of the bottle.

This reminds me of motherhood.  The process of being a mother is incredible – it’s a slow and thankless job.  I know that the hours are long and the pay is nonexistent, but as the son of a wonderful mother and the recipient of her boundless love I know what the effects are.  Her love, her example, and her endless prayers have permeated every aspect of my life and changed me for the better.  The faults I have (and the list is long) are my own, but all that is good and beautiful within me I owe to my mother.

So to my wonderful mother – thank you.  To my lovely wife, the mother of my children – thank you.  And to all of you mothers out there, whether you have children of your own or mother the children around you – thank you.  We may only celebrate Mother’s Day once a year, but my gratitude is constant and eternal.