This Month’s Letter

  • Vol. 23, No. 11

    Dear Family,

    A week ago, the prophet invited1 us to turn social media into a gratitude journal by posting each day for a week about “what you are grateful for, whom you are grateful for, and why you are grateful.”

    I did not succeed in following this counsel. I typically post to social media between one and two times per month and frequently go days and sometimes weeks without opening it at all. Posting on seven consecutive days was going to be a bridge too far for me, and so I didn’t even try.

    I recognize that one does not walk the strait and narrow path to exaltation by trying to meet the prophet halfway on things. But it’s often how I roll, and it’s effectively what I’m doing now by attempting to cram a week’s worth of gratitude expressions into this one letter. This was not the assignment, but it’s the best I can do. President Nelson and I are not acquainted and he’s never going to know. I hope God will understand.

    Sometimes it’s difficult for me (and from the looks of things I’m not the only one) to express gratitude in ways that don’t come across as self-aggrandizement. Some might think it self-serving, for example, for me to #GiveThanks on social media for my favorite neon green Brooks singlet that has held together like a champ through more than a half-dozen marathons.

    I am grateful for the longevity of this shirt. Wearing it always makes me happy.

    I’ve run marathons in other clothes, but never as fast as when wearing Old Green.2

    This will come across as preening (because it is) but I am thankful to be able to run (and bike and swim). I am grateful to Crystal Kent Willis, Colby Jenkins and Bill Warner for getting me into running a decade ago and to Crystal Kent Willis, Grant Willis, Carolyn MaGee, and Roland Kent for getting me into triathlon shortly thereafter. It’s hard to say what kind of person I’d be without these things, but I’d be a less happy one and, if it were possible, even more insufferable and curmudgeonly.

    Thanks to the coronavirus and barring a Christmas miracle, 2020 is shaping up to be my first marathon-free year since 2011. Grace is going to try and help make the miracle happen next month, but a lot of things are going to have to break my way. Stay tuned.

    I #GiveThanks for Grace and her eagerness to pitch in wherever needed. She’s taking over my live streaming duties at church beginning this week, which should improve things for everyone. The first thing she noticed when I made her a manager of the White Oak Ward YouTube channel was that it has only 18 subscribers. This is unacceptable to her, even though the only thing that ever happens on the channel is the weekly sacrament meeting live stream, and, per instruction from up the chain, we delete it immediately following the service. Many of the people who tune into the live stream each week are members of an age demographic that — how shall I put this? — I suspect doesn’t subscribe to many YouTube channels. I’m curious to see what Grace will do about it. I’m sure it’ll be better than anything I’ve been doing.

    Several months ago, Grace began expressing interest in receiving her patriarchal blessing. The pandemic complicated this, as it has everything else. The bishop interviewed her over Zoom and then referred her to one Bertram Cannon Willis, patriarch of the Seneca Maryland Stake.3

    We suggested that Grace contact Grandpa to set up the appointment and I gave her his email address. True to a certain stereotype sometimes applied to 78-year-old men (though I’m positive he did not vote for Trump), Grandpa’s email address ends in

    “What’s AOL?” asked the 15 year old.

    Crystal explained that America Online is an old internet service provider that used to be popular back in the dial-up days.

    “What’s dial-up?”

    This led to a conversation we’ve probably all had with teenagers at one time or another about how phones used to be attached to buildings, how everyone in the family shared one phone number, how people used to actually talk on the phone, and how doing so made it impossible for anyone else in the house to get on the internet, etc.

    Grace, who has literally no memory of a world without iPhones and ubiquitous WiFi, processed this information as best she could, clearly imagining such an existence in the same way I contemplate life without indoor plumbing.

    Grace was somehow able to reach Grandpa via his fossilized email address and made an appointment for her blessing. Their pre-blessing discussion to ensure the accuracy of records, etc., customarily done in person, happened over Zoom. But the actual blessing happened in Grandma and Grandpa’s living room — our first time inside their house in many, many months.

    It was a tender experience, as it has been with all of our children, and I’m grateful for it. Nowadays, to say anything good about “patriarchy” is about as fashionable as calling attention to the positive aspects of climate change. But I nevertheless #GiveThanks for patriarchal blessings and the righteous people who pronounce them.

    Patriarchs are unique among Church leaders in that they have no functional power or control over the Church or anyone in it. Stripped of any administrative authority they may have held earlier in life (and unshackled from the at times maddening bureaucracy of it) literally the only thing patriarchs are allowed to do is bless people. This is patriarchy in its purest and loveliest form, and I suspect if this were the only way it were manifested, then there would be less cause to complain about it.

    Which reminds me, I haven’t read my blessing in years and should probably pull it out.

    In the patriarch’s living room shortly after Grace’s blessing on 8 Nov 2020. Grace is also #GivingThanks for being taller than her mother (and all her older siblings).

    I’m also #grateful to be wearing the same double-breasted suit in the picture above that I wore home from my mission 27 years ago. #GiveThanks #humblebrag

    Philadelphia International Airport, 24 June 1993. I remember precisely three things about this picture: 1) the suit I’m wearing, which I obviously still have, 2) the bag I’m holding, which contains the Wawa Italian hoagie that Mom greeted me with, and 3) the sign Peter’s holding, which contains a misspelling (“Bienvenu” rather than “Bienvenue” — it’s an easy mistake for a 10-year-old American with Down syndrome to make).

    Grace also began “virtual swim team” this month. (We haven’t had high school sports — or in-person instruction — since last winter.) Virtual swim team involves no actual swimming, but they get together over Zoom for dry-land workouts and the traditional Friday-night pasta parties. Grace misses the real thing but seems to enjoy this.

    The virus’s resurgence has me wondering if we’ll have any in-person instruction at all this school year. I don’t have a strong opinion and #GiveThanks that I don’t have to make these sorts of decisions.

    Grace’s high school is in our neighborhood, less than a mile way. If things ever get back to normal, her commute will not be particularly taxing. Crystal, who started work as a para-educator at Ridgeview Middle School this month, is a different story. Ridgeview is in Gaithersburg, on the other side of the county.

    Crystal’s new job (for which we #GiveThanks) has her working with high-functioning students on the autism spectrum, i.e., boys with Asperger syndrome. She likes her job so far and she really likes the boys, whom she describes alternatively as “delightful” and “sweet.” These are not always the first adjectives used to describe middle schoolers, but they often describe middle school boys with Asperger’s pretty well.

    Crystal’s interest in this sort of work stemmed in part from our family’s interactions with the county’s special education resources over many years. These always worked well for us and instilled in us (and especially in Crystal) an appreciation for the small army of people who help special needs students.

    Crystal is nobler and more altruistic than I. My interest in Crystal’s going into this line of work had more to do with the generous employee benefits her county job now affords us. My job’s benefits are reasonably generous for a small private firm, but needless to say, we’re totally switching over to Crystal’s health plan!

    I #GiveThanks for Sophie’s safe and healthy arrival home from BYU on Wednesday night. She appears to have dodged the college covid bullet, having received a negative result from her final on-campus coronavirus test while she was in the air. I #GiveThanks that all BYU classes are remote until the end of the semester, which has been the plan since August, and which means we get to have Sophie at home until January (at least). She has resumed her habit of seemingly round-the-clock piano playing, which you might think would get annoying but really doesn’t, especially at Christmastime.

    Thanksgiving, which is usually a thirty-plus-person affair at grandma’s, was just the five of us at home this year. We had abandoned the idea of a large family get-together long before Tuesday’s county order that made such gatherings illegal. The scaled-down celebration was different from what I’ve become accustomed to — I didn’t watch or play a down of football for the first time probably since Thanksgiving 1992, when I was in France and the holiday passed without my noticing — but it was pleasant and I enjoyed the quiet time with our small crew. I missed seeing all the people I usually see, but the day felt no less satisfying.

    I #GiveThanks for crab cakes, which we ate instead of turkey, and which is somewhat easier to pull off for five people than for thirty. Crab cakes are better than turkey, in case you’re wondering. Not traditional Thanksgiving fare perhaps, but in Maryland they should be.


    I often poke fun at our county and its many, many uptight ordinances. But all that notwithstanding, I #GiveThanks for living in a jurisdiction that takes good care of its public employees and is willing to make hard choices to protect the health and safety of all its citizens. I don’t follow the logic behind keeping bars open (while closing schools) but I’m impressed by its efforts to keep the streets safe.

    In that spirit, I’ll even #GiveThanks for the $75 camera-generated, red-light-enforcement citation that came in the mail this month. I always open these hoping with all my might that the offender will turn out to be Crystal, but it’s always me.

    As usual, the citation contained three incriminating photographs along with a URL for viewing video evidence of my misbehavior. I always go to the video, not because I think it will exonerate me, but because I generally respect red lights (if only while driving) and I like to see if I can reconstruct what I was thinking. (They also sometimes make me laugh.)

    This one annoyed me more than most.

    Mine is the last car to go through — the light blue Toyota Avalon, fittingly with a yellow “Student Driver” magnet affixed to the trunk that one of Grace’s friends has described as looking like it contains a dead body — making a left from Colesville Road onto Georgia Avenue.

    The video confirms that I’m 100% guilty. That’s not what annoys me. It doesn’t even annoy me that much that I missed the light by less than half a second (0.4 seconds to be precise — though if I’m going to get fined $75, I want it to be for a good hard foul under the basket, not some ticky-tack crap out at half-court, away from the ball). The video annoyed me by reminding me of what actually happened and how angry I was at the time. I was stuck behind this parade of irritating sloths, slowing w-a-y down as they approached the light and then braking in the middle of the intersection as the light turned yellow (and then red). I make the light easily if not for those morons.

    It’s probably just karma since I’ve undoubtedly violated this particular red light dozens of times on my bike4 and, until they start making me put license plates on my bikes, there’s nothing the camera can do about that.

    And if I’m dissatisfied with elected officials who enact stupid laws requiring cyclists to stop at stop signs,5 then I #GiveThanks for living in a representative democracy and having a say in electing different ones. Lucy and I voted together in Lucy’s first presidential election earlier this month and had a nice experience. (Also, I don’t know what the “I voted” stickers look like where you live, but ours are better.)

    Lucy also pointed out that last month’s letter went out before Halloween, which means nobody got to see the awesome costume they created from scratch. I #GiveThanks for my fun, imaginative children.

    I also #GiveThanks for you and hope the holiday season brings you peace, joy, good health, and many opportunities to make other people happy.

    Love, Tim

Posterity & Progenitors

JT & Hannah Embley (2)
m. 4 May 2018
Lucy (20)
Sophia (18)
BYU Student
Grace (15)
Northwood High School
Crystal and Me (26)
m. 28 May 1994
Bertram and Christine Willis (50)
m. 10 June 1970
(My parents)
Karel and Roderick Kent
(Crystal’s dad)
Patrick and Carolyn Magee
(on the left)
(Crystal’s mom)
  1. Faithful members of the Church promptly (and predictably) began to categorize this invitation as a challenge. (“The prophet has challenged us to post expressions of gratitude to Facebook…”) I watched him deliver the message live last Friday and I’ve read the transcript probably a half-dozen times since then. He never uses the verb (or noun) challenge. He first uses the verb prescribe (he’s a doctor, after all) and then the verb invite. I don’t know what it is about our culture that makes us want to turn everything into a “challenge,” but it drives me crazy. After moisture, it’s probably the most overused word in the English-speaking Church. The gospel’s not a contest. Prophets don’t issue challenges, only invitations.
  2. Full disclosure: I don’t have photographs from most of my races, and only three of these five photos are from actual marathons (my three most recent marathon personal records, as it happens, in 2014, 2015, and 2019 — there’s enough information in the pictures for you to look up my times if you want to; they’re not that fast). The other two are from 10-milers in 2011 and 2018.
  3. We do not belong to the Seneca Maryland Stake, and our stake has its own perfectly nice and serviceable patriarch. But in the unusual case where your grandpa also happens to be an ordained patriarch, they let you ignore stake boundaries and go to him.
  4. Confessing an occasional disregard for red lights on my bike is going to raise the hackles of every cyclophobe who reads this and is already inclined to categorize all cyclists as idiot scofflaws. To you I would say two things: 1) Guilty as charged, and 2) Failing to wait for the green and slowly rolling through stop signs are the only traffic laws I violate on my bike, and then only when doing so clearly endangers no one. I understand that my behavior is technically illegal, but I don’t understand why you care. You can throw the Twelfth Article of Faith at me if you like, but if you ever justify driving your car so much as one mile per hour over the speed limit, then you have forfeited your moral authority in this matter.
  5. Colorado, Delaware, Arkansas, Oregon, Washington, and (most famously) Idaho have more forward-thinking laws around this, explicitly permitting cyclists to treat stop signs like yield signs and red lights like stop signs (which is what most cyclists everywhere do anyway).