Sunday, November 30, 2014

Thanksgiving 2014

This year we had an awesome multiple day Thanksgiving celebration bonanza.  I think Thanksgiving is the holiday I miss the most because they don't celebrate it here in Estonia.  We started off with a nice Thanksgiving lunch, we had Turkey and pulled pork sandwiches with a Reeses and Pico Balo candy.  We thought that Turkey sandwich meat would be it because we didn't find any other Turkey in Keila.  Maris went to the doctor Thursday morning and took a trip to Stockman's and brought home a slab of Turkey, which we ate for dinner.  They also sell sweet potatoes there for a much better price than the Keila Selver!

I bought a 7 day NFL game pass this week so I could watch the 49ers play the Redskins and then the Seahawks.  The 49ers beat the Redskins, but just barely and the Internet connection was bad.  Against the Seahawks the internet was better but the 49ers played poorly.  While I could go on about the hate, anger, and rage I feel towards the Seahawks or the frustration, disappointment, and emptiness that come from losing this important of a game, I decided to be more positive for the blog.  This is a blog of thanksgiving afterall.  Regarding the Seahawks I am thankful that two former 49ers are doing well and on the Seahawks' 53 man roster after being released by the 49ers this year.  FB Will Tukuafu (returned missionary) and DE Demarcus Dobbs.  Both are relatively younger players who work hard and are doing a good job for the Seahawks.  I wish they were still with the 49ers but its nice to see them in the league.  No doubt they are thankful for the paycheck and the chance to play in the NFL.  About the 49ers, I'm grateful they have a winning record and that they beat the Saints and Cowboys with a good chance of beating the Raiders next week.  It wasn't that long ago when the 49ers were the worst team in the league, having a winning record is something to always be thankful for.  Some wins are worth more than others.  Watching some teams lose in some ways is more gratifying than watching your own team win, and when your team can hand those other teams a loss it is pure ecstasy.  Beating the Cowboys, Saints, and Raiders in one season is priceless.

Then on Saturday we went to visit some friends the Bairds.  They are basically a carbon copy of us.  Piret is from Estonia, Zach is from the US and served a mission in Estonia, they both went to BYU.  Zach is working and getting his Masters here in engineering.  They have an 18 month old.  We're thankful for awesome friends!

2014 has been a great year, many things to be thankful for: family, friends, health, work, a nice home, the gospel, and the Hershey's company's decision to start selling Reese's peanut butter cups in Estonia and Europe!!!!!!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

What's in your soup?

Every now and again Maris busts out an old school recipe from her childhood that catches me off guard.  The most shocking meal of my childhood was pasta pizza, you can imagine some of the surprises that could come from old school rural Estonian cooking.  After I get over the initial shock I usually enjoy the meal.  In many ways it is exciting to experience a different food culture. This time the surprise was putting a pig foot in the soup pot to add extra flavor to pea soup.  I always wondered who bought those pig feet I saw in the stores, now I know!  The pea soup was excellent for anyone wanting to know.  We are not sure what to do with the leg now though. 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

post election thoughts

It has now been several weeks since the US mid term elections are over.  The Republicans took control of the senate and increased their majority in the house.  When looking at both the overall election results and some interesting individual races my reaction can be summed up by a phrase I muttered just after I read the results "good luck with that".

While the results were not surprising, they are interesting.  Why would American voters reject the Democratic party and Obama?  The economy is growing (2.8% in 2012, 1.9% in 2013), unemployment is falling (5.8% in October), the stock market is at an all time high, and the budget deficit is under 3% which most economists consider the healthy limit and which was one of the Republicans primary concerns in recent years.   While these statistics do not seem overly impressive, compared to the Euro zone, Japan, Russia, Brazil, and almost anywhere they are actually pretty OK.  Though one may find many problems in Obama's economic policy, I would dare to say that they still chalk up a victory for Keynesian stimulus policies as opposed to the Austrian austerity policies which we have seen in Europe.  This is a difficult admission for me as I was on the Austrian side of the debate. 

The best way to explain the popularity of the Republican party is the fact that it is a mid-term election and people are often upset at the President's party in mid term elections.  In a brilliant op-ed, a political scientist and a graduate student offer the idea of getting rid of the mid term elections.  They highlight the problem of gridlock in Washington.  Indeed the events of the last few weeks highlight yet again the problems with the US political system. 

For a few days after the election, it seemed as if there was a sliver of hope for cooperation.  For starters Obama would not face any more elections, not that 2014 was his election, but he still had to look out for party interests in a way that he won't have to in 2016.  The Republicans had control of the Senate and House and would need to show America that they were not controlled by radical Tea Party members or that they were a not a party of 'no'.  They would need to show that they are interested in governing.  Perhaps there could be cooperation on a comprehensive immigration reform plan or on two important free trade deals in Europe and Asia. 

That of course seemed to be wishful thinking at best.  Obama is taking executive action regarding immigration reform and Republicans have not reacted kindly to the measure.  Despite pro free trade ideology, it is doubtful that Republicans will be interested in giving Obama fast track authority without getting something in return.  In short, we can expect another two years of a government that refuses to offer pragmatic solutions to America's problems. 

This should come as no surprise.  This is in part due to political system we have.  Grid lock is a designed function of the American system.  When one branch of Congress is from a different party than the President there will be gridlock and there is no way to resolve that gridlock.  For an interesting overview of this concept read this piece on Juan Linz's work.  Elections come and go, but most of the time gridlock continues.  While there are many solutions to the problem most of them, including the idea to cancel mid term elections, requires a constitutional amendment which makes them unlikely.

The hope then lies on Americans to choose respectable politicians who are willing to compromise and willing to consider realistic, pragmatic solutions (yes this is a criticism of Tea Party Republicans).  Yet, when looking at how crappy politicians fared in the election, the answer is surprisingly well.  Let's take a look at Idaho and Kansas for example.

In Idaho, the Republicans won every state wide office.  Despite a growing population, it is ranked last or close to last in every statistical category (disposable income, education spending, doctors per population, Internet speed, and the list goes on).  This has happened when neighboring states have all improved in these same statistics.  Idaho choose to bring back the same politicians who are responsible for the mess.  While Otter boasted of a Magic Valley Miracle, the Salvation Army paints a different picture.  For an interesting read on how Ybarra could win the superintendent race, read this article on the power of the Republican brand. Regarding Otter, a court ruled a large 60 million dollar broadband contract invalid because of cronyism.  Of course AJ Bajukoff mentioned this on the campaign, but he had a D next to his name.

In Kansas it was even worse.  Governor Brownback tried a tax experiment to turn Kansas into a Texas, it failed.  Somehow he was reelected despite leaving his state with a 1 billion dollar fiscal whole. Someone forgot to tell him that there is no giant oil industry in Kansas like there is in Texas or no massive tourism sector in Kansas like there is in Florida!  Oops. 

There is an old saying that says every nation deserves their government.  While the United States does have some structural problems that share part of the responsibility, the American people need to take responsibility for who they vote for as well.  Until they do all I can say is, good luck with that, you'll need it. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Crazy nights!

I have to share this. It is just too funny to not write about.

So last night our one-year-old daughter decided to wake up at 1.45. Usually she goes back to sleep pretty soon. Not last night. I was up with her for an hour, trying really hard to get her go back to sleep. I did not work. Matthew was up with her the next hour until about four. She did not go to sleep. I tried to fall asleep, even used ear plugs, but it did not work. So I got up and said, "Take her for a car ride." Matthew did. Four in the morning.

20 minutes or so later he comes home, she is very much awake and not a bit sleepy.

Now the craziest part of it all: Matthew was pulled over by a police officer. He said he was quite nervous because he is driving with a permit and we were not sure if he really can. But he can, so that is good news. Last night, we got our answers. They did a breath alcohol test and let him go. No problems. But still pretty scary. I had just been thinking when they left that hopefully police would not pull him over.

At 4.30 or so we sat her down and gave her steamed sweet potatoes, rye bread and corn. She ate it all, drank some water and went back to sleep.

I have to say: what a crazy night!

Sunday, November 9, 2014

New Balcony

 Two years ago when we bought our apartment we thought it was too good to be true, the price seemed about 10-15% lower than what it should have been.  It turns out there was one main problem with the apartment, a leaky ceiling in the bedroom.  The culprit is the balcony above us.  The water comes in during a hard rain or when the snow melts.  I guess the cement floor was connected to the building (same rebar and so on) so the water would just flow into the bedroom and drip out by out light fixture.  Our crappy balcony was the reason why the apartment below us had a leaky ceiling.  Lucky for us the building management finally found a construction company that could fix the balcony.  This means a dry winter for us, no drips!

 This is a close up of the flower that was growing from our balcony.  That is the sign of a crack in the cement which is bad.  If a flower can come out of that crack, water can go in. 

 The balconies now look great.  They chipped away a lot of the old cement, drilled large holes in the balconies and filled them with cement.  They they coated the balconies with some type of covering.  They look much better than before. 

You can see that the plant and cracks are gone.  They did a nice job making sure that all the cracks were sealed, no water getting in this year.  even the crack on the wall got coated again.  The end result is no more leaks in our bedroom ceiling!  Soon we can redo the ceiling (it has some significant water damage to it).  I think the value of our apartment will go up about 10-15% and the total cost of the balcony and ceiling repairs will probably be more like 1-3%.  Three cheers for home equity!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Remember remember the souls in November

When most people compare life in Estonia to life in the US one of the first things they think about is the dark and cold winter.  For me the season with the biggest difference is actually Fall. I also miss fall the most out of all the seasons.  Summer here is amazing, winter has Christmas, New Years and beautiful snow, and spring is filled with melting and hope!  Fall?  This is where Estonia is lacking a bit.

First is the holidays.  Halloween and Thanksgiving don't exist, in their place is a pair of odd cross dressing holidays where boys dress up as girls and then girls dress up as boys and go around reciting poetry and asking for candy.  (They are called Kadri and Mardi days).  Of course if we disregard my cultural bias this holiday is less weird than dressing up as some goblin or ghost for Halloween.  But the dressing up aside, the candy aspect just isn't there.  When I read that my nephew threw up from eating too much candy last Halloween I realized how much Estonians were missing when it comes to the candy culture.  In addition to Kadri and Mardi day Estonians also have a souls' day which is kind of like a more somber memorial day where Estonians light candles at home and also in cemetaries.  No Pumpkin pie in November.

Also take away the start of the NBA season and the NFL and you get a dull dark November.  I wondered if it was perhaps a bit of home sickness and my extreme enthusiasm for the San Francisco 49ers and the Utah Jazz that caused this perception, but then I compared our calenders for the month of November and realized that his was not just my perception, this was a valid contrast. 

The difference in our two calendars is striking.  On the left is our Estonian calendar (notice that Sunday is the 7th day? I love that).  It has different Estonian art work.  Usually if focuses on rural life and nature pictures.  The other months have been very warm and nice.  November was a picture of a snowy cemetery.  It immediately gave me the creeps and made me want to take the calendar down.  Since the 2nd of November is Souls' day I guess it is somewhat fitting, but still!?

Our US calendar is of LDS temples, it is a very happy picture with beautiful fall colors, orange, red, yellows.  True fall weather.  The difference between the two couldn't be bigger.  Lucky for me, this year has been a very mild fall, no snow yet.  Also, the 49ers are playing on Thanksgiving this year!  I'll be getting a week long NFL game pass and enjoying all the football I can for 7 days.  That is something to be thankful for. 

Friday, November 7, 2014

New room

 Our baby turned one a few weeks ago and for her birthday we got her some new furniture and she moved into her own room!  The furniture took a long time to get here, so she didn't get it on her birthday but that's ok.  Before the room had been an office. My desk is now in our bedroom as well as a book shelf.  Both rooms look better.  We were able to throw away a lot of stuff we didn't need anymore.  Our baby seems to like it too. When she first saw the new furniture she smiled and boy that was an awesome feeling.  Now I know why my parents enjoyed giving so much to me growing up. 

 Orange seemed to be the best color, it is gender neutral so if we need to put another kid in here future we don't need to worry about colors.  More importantly, orange is happy and we need happy colors in Estonia

 Here is a before picture so you can see the difference. 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Highlights from the bloggernacle

These are interesting times for the LDS church.  The Mormon moment that started with Mitt Romney's candidacy for president has not really lost much steam.  The number of missionaries serving is at its pinnacle - about 88,000.  The church continues to be spotlighted by the media for a variety of reasons in a wide range of media outlets. Many church members have also received attention do to their activism.  In response to this added scrutiny, the church has published essays on church history and doctrine.  Recently the church also produced a video clip explaining the sacred nature of garments and temple clothing, a move that 20 years would be unthinkable.  The result of all this is a very active bloggernacle.  I thought I would highlight a few of the more interesting media and blog entries I have seen in the last month or so. 

Here is an article in the Daily Beast about the LDS temple in Rome, Italy which is currently under construction.  

This interesting piece by Jana Reiss on modesty offers an interesting view point on the topic.  Some of the rules at BYU and BYU-Idaho are a bit extreme.  From banning beards to blocking You Tube (yes they really did that when I was going to BYU only a few years ago) Church institutions love focusing on the nitty gritty.  Jana Reiss asks an interesting question, does the focus on the unimportant things detract us from some of the more important principles of the gospel?

Another interesting piece by Johnny Wycliffe deals with spiritual abuse.  Are we every guilty of using church or gospel principles to exert pressure on others in an unrighteous manor?  In the wards I have been in most of the members and leaders would have graded out well in those questions.  Yet looking at other people's experiences I know this isn't always the case, which is why I wanted to highlight this blog.

Lastly, a response to the Church's new article on Joseph Smith's polygamy.  It was an op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribune. I think this is a well intended response that brings up some important aspects.   

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The little things

Sometimes in life the little things make all the difference  Do we take time to appreciate them?  Next time you go to the grocery store take time to appreciate the little things that you have.  Take sweet potatoes.  In Estonia it is very hard to find sweet potatoes, they are imported from America.  They are sold in packages of one and cost a fortune.  It kind of reminds me of the prices that my sister paid in Japan (except salaries are much lower here). 
 This medium sized sweet potato is 2.54 euros, or $3.40.  3.99 euros a kilo means $2.45 a pound. 

Some people wonder if Estonia is very different from America, and in many ways it is not.  For example Estonians love cheese burgers, so much so that they have cheese burger flavored chips.  We declined to buy the chips, but had to take a picture. 

What do I miss the most from the grocery store?  Believe it or not it is the seasonal sweets.  Cookie Crisp was on sale last week but not even Cookie Crisp can replace having a nice bowl of Franken Berry, Boo Berry, or Count Chocula in October.  Cadbury bunny eggs and Peeps at Easter?! Priceless.  I think Halloween is a time when every expat feels a need for sweets, but don't feel sorry for me, the Haribo Pico-Balla (Skip to 5 min mark for the Pica-Balla review) were on sale for only 89 euro cents! Love love love those Pico-Ballas.