Saturday, February 28, 2009

Who Would Have Thought 2/27/09

Who Would Have Thought 

Who would have thought that Cindy and I would be walking home (to our hotel) in the snow after a visit to the state museum in Almaty Kazakhstan? We have had many unanticipated experiences in the past few years, but this was way under our radar. Incidentally, the name was originally Alma-Ata that means “Father of the Apple”. In remote forests of Kazakhstan botanists believe the first apple trees took root. They also have a lot of wild tulips and claim to be its origin.

Almaty (əlmä`tē), formerly Alma-Ata (ăl'mə-ətä`), city (1993 pop. 1,176,000), is the capital of Almaty province, Kazakhstan, in the foothills of the Trans-Ili Alatau range. A terminus of the Turkistan-Siberia RR, Almaty is the industrial and cultural center of Kazakhstan and was for many years its capital; moved in 1997 to Astana (ästä`nä).

Almaty lies on the site of an ancient Silk Route settlement, which was sacked by the Mongols. The town was founded in 1854 as a military fortress and trading centre and was used as a place of exile by the Tsarist regime in the late 19th century. It was destroyed by earthquakes in 1887 and 1911, and was made the regional capital in 1928. The city underwent great expansion during World War II, as factories from west of the Urals were relocated here to safeguard them from Nazi invasion forces.

With our visit here we will renew our Russian visas and get another 90 days residency in our mission. I am looking forward to getting back to the mission office and get in touch with what’s going on there. I am confident that Elder Olson, my missionary assistant, has done all that was necessary to keep the mission solvent. He’s a great support to me.

Today we visited the largest Renik that I have every seen. They tell me that it stretches 6 kilometers along a road in western Almaty. The traffic there indicates that business is strong and I expect sales are good. We bought a couple of ties from a man who claimed that he sells 1000 a day. We didn’t find many bargains in the fur hats we sought, but we did get some small things including a two-string traditional instrument called a Dombra.

While returning home we experienced some unexpected things. First, in Novosibirsk you would never expect to see the smiles and conversations that where endemic on our bus trip. Second, the money collector in Novo sits in her personal chair or roaming the car gruffly collecting money from those getting on. On our bus, he announced each stop, called-out the bus’ destination to those waiting, answered questions, helped people get on and off, and collected money only as people disembarked; a friendly and efficient atmosphere.

An added bonus came when about twenty teen-age students got on the bus and three of them noticed my Dobra and recognized our English. Several were music students and offered to tune and play my instrument. They stayed on for only a short time, but we got a short concert and made new friends.

While visiting the state museum we noticed that vendors were setting up their wares in the halls and balconies. As we left the last exhibit, we met a young man selling scarves and handbags made by his mother. They were from Uzbekistan. Here Cindy poses with him and her new bag. On the lower level, Cindy bought some silk scarves and I got a painting in keeping with our plan to get a painting from every city we visit.

Tomorrow we will get a ride to the mountains from a counselor in the Branch who will take us finally to the tram that will lead to the place were Kazakhstan was dedicated by Elder Nelson for the preaching of the Gospel. It should be a fun and informative day.

What a nice country.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

A Low Cut 2/12/09

A Low Cut 

We came from Novosibirsk to Sacramento in search of several miracles (we are big on miracles these days) that would get my hernia fixed and us back to Novosibirsk by the 23rd in time for our Visa Renewal trip. We had a schedule, created by Sister Cindy of course, and everything needed to fall in place or the plan would not work. It was: Arrive the 8th, doctors' orders by the 9th, surgery by the 10th, recuperation and release by the 19th, on a plane by the 20th, home by the 23rd, and off to Kazakhstan by the 24th. We also made a list of things to do in between the medical stops to fill up our days.

We stopped in Orem to see Trisha & the girls (Chris was out of town at a school) from the 7th to the 8th and arrived in Sacramento on the night of the 8th of February not quite sure what day it was. We settled into Brian & Andrea's second floor extra bedroom for the nights and would travel to Sacramento's medical community during the next day.

A public thanks to Brian and Andrea; THANKS. They went to enormous trouble to have us and we couldn't NOT stay there. They moved everything out of the extra bedroom downstairs and into the garage. Then they gave us their king-size bed and slept on an air mattress while we were there. Quite a sacrifice. Thank you for your love and care.

Monday we saw my primary care doc (miracle #1) and got confirmation, again, that, "Yes, you do have a hernia Mr. Simmons and it's pretty big". He then announced that the surgery department was not available until Friday to which Sister Cindy made her own announcement, "That will not do", and we began the quest for the next miracle.

The PCP gave her the phone number for the outpatient surgery department "in case there were any cancellations" and Cindy began doing her "thing". After being told that there was no hope of seeing a surgeon before Friday, and Cindy saying "That will not do", the scheduling nurse found an appointment on Tuesday at 10 AM; miracle #2.

We filled Monday with pre-op blood work, more of my regular medications, a stop at The Travel Store, my sister Diane's, Elliot's Health Foods, Walmart, Lunch with the Lunds, the Bel Air market for supplies, Dr. Hull's (dentist) but he was closed, and home to Brian & Andrea's to see Hannah and get dinner & Family Night.

Tuesday was the surgeon, Dr. Fandrich, a massage at Taffey's, Taco Bell on the way back; Wells Fargo; the post office for more flat-rate boxes; evaluating the pond leak at our house with Peter Frangel, Jeff Mills, and Bishop Ibey who will make the repairs; dinner and the evening at Diane's; and home to sleep.

Dr. Fandrich was miracle #3, he spoke English, and #4 he was in his mid 50's, and #5 he made his schedule work for us. First off, we shared English as a native tongue and that 's only about 50% with Kaiser. We find it hard to have confidence in someone that you cannot understand or whom you are not sure understands you. Second, this was not his first surgery and in fact he was going to do the procedure just exactly as our surgeon friend Peter Carruth suggested. Finally, he was able to schedule us on Thursday morning, just in time to meet out 20th deadline.

To expand on the first miracle, his ancestors were German immigrants to Ukraine during the reign of Catherine the Great and much of his family spoke Russian. We immediately connected on that level. He is a strong Adventist and had been on a medical mission so we connected on a spiritual level. When he explained that this was elective surgery and could take several weeks to schedule, Cindy went into her "That will not do" mode and we prayed hard to help his scheduler find room for us. Heavenly father came through on all three levels and we were all set.

What a trip.

Monday, February 9, 2009

That Ripped It 2/7/09

That Ripped It  2/7/09

The title to this post refers to the inguinal hernia that I either acquired in Russia or was not discovered during my pre-mission physical and has gotten worse. In any case, I've got one, and it's a biggie.

I first noticed it one night last week during one of those "gas" pain events that I have had for the past month or so. I would get these severe pains in the lower gut that sometimes would bring me to tears. I often would lay on the bed and massage my stomach in an effort to move the "gas" around and get some measure of relief.

Well, this night the pain was particularly acute and I got out Cindy's exercise mat, a 24" by 60" foam pad we confiscated from the "Palace" (the largest apartment in Novosibirsk where the AP's and the office elders live along with the extra stuff no one wants at the moment) and laid it on the parlor floor. As I laid down and began to massage my stomach, I noticed a bulge on the right side of my groin. When I pushed on it, it moved. As I pulled up on the stomach. I felt something move in that bulge spot like pulling the bottom pillow from a tall stack of them. Immediately the paid stopped and at that moment I knew what it was, an inguinal hernia; that had trapped my small intestine which I had just pulled free. (For the squeamish, that is about the extent of the intimate anatomy descriptions in this posting.) In my past wanderings through various information sources, I remembered the danger of getting any tissue trapped in a hernia, called a strangulation, and that it could be serious, quickly.

I called President Mickelsen to report my discovery and get his advice. He said that the member of the Area Presidency who was visiting our mission at the time was a physician and would I like him to take a look at it. After checking with him, they both agreed that I should come right over to the mission home. We took a cab and when Cindy and I arrived, he took me into one of the guest rooms and examined me quite thoroughly. He said, "Well, I have good news and I have bad news. The bad news is that you have a hernia. The good news is that it is a REALLY BIG ONE and there is little danger of getting anything strangled in it." He also said that I should get it fixed soon and suggested a truss in the mean time.

When we got home, Cindy and I talked at length about our options and came up with:
  1. We don't want to have an emergency operation in Novosibirsk.
  2. We don't want to have ANY operation in Russia where we did not speak the language and didn't know the system.
  3. Our medical insurance is with Kaiser and they won't pay for medical treatment outside their service area except in case of emergency.
  4. Any surgery in another place like Helsinki or Frankfurt would be better, but not desirable because we would have to stay in a hotel, would not speak the language, could be there indefinitely, might not use the most current techniques, and would be expensive for the Church.
  5. Our best option was to come home, have the repair surgery where we knew the system, could stay with friends or family for free, have our support system, and return ASAP to the mission.
We settled on option 5 and counseled with President Mickelsen who agreed with our findings and said to have Brat Pyotr get the tickets. Eventually, it turned out that Katie at the Church Travel Department could get them at the same cost and with more options for the return so we went with them.

By now it is Monday night and we are making plans for the trip, what we would take with us, when we would go, and where to stay. The first issue was to take whatever we would not want to leave behind in Russia if we could not return. The second issue would be to go immediately because this was a slow time in the 6 weeks transfer cycle and we would be missed the least during the next three weeks. The third issue was left up in the air for the moment.

With President Mickelsen's approval, we set the dates of February 7 to leave and the 23rd to return in time for our Kazak visa renewal trip to Almaty with a group of 10 or so other missionaries. This would cause the least impact on the mission and would get us renewed on time. The plan was laid and Cindy set it in motion. By Friday we had tickets (electronically), were somewhat packed, and committed.

With President Gushchin's help we got to the airport, got boarding passes, made it to the security check-in where President left us , and eventually got on the plane for Moscow and our 30 + hour trip home; the beginning of a series of miracles that we expect will eventually get us home to Novosibirsk in time for our visa renewal.

What a trip. What a country

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Introspection 2/1/09


Light snow
Wind 2-3 mph
Temp -26C (warming from -31 yesterday)

This posting is rather personal and intended for the family and close friends. If you don't fit in that group, you can read on, but know that you are a guest and some of the "inside" terminology and references may not mean anything to you.

I had an epiphany today during Fast and Testimony meeting and Sunday School that I want to remember and share with you for your benefit; especially my family because it is very personal. Many people focused their testimonies today on prayer and the answer to prayers they have prayed. The Sunday School lesson was on personal revelation and how God answers prayers. As I sat there listening, a voice in my head said, "This one's for you friend."

Let me back up. During the last 7 months I have become more and more proficient at my job as Financial Secretary for the mission. There are a lot of details to keep in balance and most of those are moving targets.
  1. Missionaries are transferred from city to city, potentially putting them in different apartments every 6-12 weeks.
  2. Their assignments are changed making different people the ones to get certain funds.
  3. Additional funds are sent to branches quarterly via Zone Leaders who change every 2 transfers.
  4. Apartments are closed in some cities while others are opened in others.
  5. Additional funds are needed for in-coming and out-going missionaries under specific circumstances.
  6. Certain missionaries travel between cities and need additional travel funds, unless they, or their companion, are on visa renewal trips or their assignment is changed and no one told me.
And that's a short-hand list of the variables.

So, I put money (rubles) on the missionaries ATM cards so that they can draw money for their various expenses or to get money to a city for a branch. I don't write checks because most people in our mission don't have bank accounts to cash them and the mission has no local checking account. As a result, I have to make sure that the right amount of rubles is on the right missionary's card at the right time for food, rent, branch budget, apartment repair, visa renewal trips, etc., etc. This is all complicated by the fact that all of my requests for money are in dollars and I have to guess what the exchange rate will be so that they get enough, but not excess, for their need and it takes three-plus days for money to get from me to SLC to their cards. By the end of the year I was feeling like I had a firm grasp of the handle on these things and that I was really in control. WRONG!

Starting with the first week in January, I started making mistakes, some of them big ones. I have also started taking an inordinately long time to do things that I would have done faster a month ago. I spent 4 hours on the apartment list yesterday (Saturday) and it was still not right when I got done. Nothing has really changed about my job or its complexity, I'm just doing the same things, but I'm making mistakes that cause missionaries, branches, office staff, and myself a lot of grief.

I began to seriously think that I was experiencing some form of senility or early signs of dementia; really. I have agonized over this lack of focus and the inability to project needs that I did so well in December. Fortunately, I have been very open about this new inability to do my job and have enlisted others to help resolve the problems I have created and they have all been super about it. We've plugged all of the holes and back-filled with funds, but I'm a basket case by last night.

Let me mention one other background item before getting to the punchline. As you know, the Light of Christ (OK, this is where some of you get off the train. Just have a nice day.) is the power of God that flows through Jesus Christ because He is the Savior of this world and all things come from the Father through Him. The Light of Christ, or the Spirit of Christ, or the Power of God is in every living being and it gives life to every living thing. In addition, it "enlightens" every human and is the conscience given to govern the actions of God's children. It is also the conduit through which the Holy Ghost contacts us if we have not suppressed it or denied it completely.

Now, today I got the answer by the Holy Ghost while sitting in Testimony Meeting and again during the Sunday School class on personal revelation. The Holy Ghost spoke to me in my mind, and I was stunned with the perfect, painful truth, the clear rebuke of my own pride and neglect.

When we first came into the mission, I prayed constantly for help to master this job and to serve the mission and the missionaries as Heavenly Father would have me do it. I prayed morning and night and twenty times in between for heavenly help and I received it. I had angels on my shoulders guiding me every day. I knew I needed the help and I knew I was getting it, but something happened in January; I stopped praying about my job. In effect, I said to Heavenly Father, "I can take it from here. I don't need the help anymore", and He said, "Fine. Let's see how you do by yourself." Well, I fell on my face and today I understood why. I had forgotten God and He had withdrawn His angels.

I am confessing this to the whole world and especially to my family. I forgot who was really my strength and to whom I owed everything. I thought I was sufficient alone and I was wrong. I was prideful and I had little to be proud of. God's angels were doing the work and I had forgotten that terrible, beautiful fact. I am in His service, working for His missionaries, in His vineyard and I cannot do this, or any job, without His daily help. Please Father, send those angels back to help me. I am in really desperate need of your, and their, support.

I am also writing this to remind you that whatever you are doing, whatever your struggle is right now, you need His help too. Even if you are cruising, it won't last. Whether you are a regular prayer or a novice, whether you are a believer or a doubter, whether you love God or are angry with Him over something, YOU NEED HIS HELP and the only way you are going to get it is to ask for it. God is governed by His own rules and He has said in scripture that if we knock He will answer, but we have to knock. Please, whether you are cruising or struggling, pray for your Heavenly Father's help. Pray morning and night and in between. You may think that you are doing just fine, but the next challenge is just over the horizon and you need that on-going relationship to know that He will hear and answer your prayer. He has not moved away from you, you have distanced yourself from Him and He's just waiting to bless you. I know that was true in my case and I'll bet it is in yours too.

I love my Father in Heaven and his son Jesus Christ. I owe my body and my life to the Father and my salvation to the Son. Without them I can do little, but with their help and the help of their angels, I can do anything He wants me to do and I can defeat Satan in my own personal war with him and to come home to live with my God again. I know that through Christ's atonement, all mankind will be resurrected to that kingdom, condition, and place where we will be happy. For some, that will be other than in God's house. For me, I want with all my heart to live with Him again. I know that I have been called by revelation to serve in Novosibirsk, Russia and to do this job. And when He again sends me the help I sorely need, I will do it well again.

Thank you Father for the reminder. I'm sorry. I will do better.