This Month’s Letter

  • Vol. 23, No. 9

    Dear Family,

    In keeping with what is perhaps America’s most universal and inescapable rite of passage, Crystal opened her AARP welcome letter this week. She doesn’t turn 50 for another month and seems unperturbed by the whole thing. I mention it here only because I know it will make my mother feel old, even though her oldest child won’t turn 50 until 2022.

    September brought an unceremonious end to what must have been the strangest summer of our lives — one that in some ways felt like it lasted six months and in others felt like it never happened at all. Though none of us has had any symptoms, we dutifully reported for covid testing at the Silver Spring Civic Building at the start of the month, after August’s cross-country odyssey took us through any number of alleged hot spots. Our tests all came back negative. If you have it, you probably didn’t get it from us.

    Of course, nothing signifies the end of summer like the return of early-morning lunch-and-backpack preparation in anticipation of heading off to school. But with “walking to school” now consisting of Grace taking two steps from her bed to her desk and opening her MacBook, we lacked even that reliable shred of normalcy. Fortunately, no one has figured out yet how to stop our spinning planet from tilting away from the sun, and this past week’s crisp weather heralds the inevitable arrival of what is indisputably earth’s most magnificent season. Everything will be all right.

    Grace is taking a lot of the same classes most 10th graders take nowadays (chemistry, government, language, algebra 2, …) but what makes me proudest is that she’s taking an introductory computer science class. I’m pretty sure she’s only doing this because she views it as the easiest way of fulfilling the “tech credit” required for graduation. But part of me is secretly hoping that she falls in love with coding and becomes one of those STEM girls.1 But it’s fine if she doesn’t, and in any case, she will likely have the distinction of being first person (male or female) in her genealogical line to take a computer science class. So that’s something.2

    Grace — first day of 10th grade

    Grace attends “Zoominary” on Friday mornings and has to complete a specific online assignment by a specific time on each of the other four weekdays in order to get credit for having “attended seminary” on those days. A month in, this seems to be working okay and no one is complaining about not having to drive to church at 6:00 every morning.

    This month’s farewell to “summer” brought the melancholy annual closure of our beloved neighborhood pool (a 200-meter walk from home) and an enforced return to the YMCA pool (a 3,800-meter jog from home). The gatekeeper at the Y takes everyone’s temperature and I initially feared that running there would raise my body temperature and make me appear feverish.

    If you’re rolling your eyes at how stupid I am, you’ll get no argument from me. I obviously don’t understand how bodies work, but I’ve learned from experience this month that they’re pretty good at thermoregulation because, no matter how hot I feel, the spot on my forehead that gets hit with the infrared thermometer never goes over 97.9 Fahrenheit.

    The hardest thing about pandemic swimming at the Y is finding an open lane. Because sharing lanes is now verboten, a maximum of just 12 people (six lanes times two pools) can swim at once. The situation roughly approximates what I expect to encounter in hell and, consequently, pool time must now be reserved.

    The online process for making these pool reservations is fiercely competitive and favors the young with fast reflexes. Slots can be reserved one week in advance — exactly one week in advance. Meaning that in order to swim at 6:15 a.m. on Wednesday the 30th (as I plan to) I had to be sitting in front of my computer at 6:14 a.m. on Wednesday the 23rd with the little arrow over “sign up” and my trembling index finger hovering over the mouse button, waiting to pounce the instant the clock rolls over to 6:15.

    By 6:15 a.m. and two seconds all the slots are usually gone. It’s worse than trying to get concert tickets. (I mean, you know, back when there were concerts.) Notwithstanding all the swimming, biking, and running I do, my heart rate never gets any higher than it does while I’m completely motionless, staring into a screen at 6:14 a.m. and 55 seconds. I’m usually successful in getting a lane this way, but it creates some interesting marital dynamics when Crystal and I discover that we’re competing for the same time slot.

    Another widely understood harbinger of fall (in the United States) is Labor Day. Crystal, Grace, and I (Lucy opted out) marked the holiday this year by driving 40 minutes up to Baltimore’s Little Italy in recognition of our family’s extensive Italian-American heritage.

    Gather round, my children. It’s time I told you about your noble Italian ancestry (from my side at least — if your mom wants to tell you about her side of the family, then she can write her own letter).

    My 16 great-great grandparents were born in Utah, Utah, Utah, Utah, Utah, Utah, Utah, Utah, England, England, England, England, England, Denmark, Sweden, and Italy.

    (What makes me even less interesting is that my eight Utah-born great-great grandparents appear to be entirely of English extraction.3 Despite being 13/16 English, I’ve still managed to hold on to most of my teeth.)

    My Italian great-great grandfather, Jacques Bertoch, was, as his name suggests, ethnically French. Jacques’s ancestors were Waldensens4 who, centuries earlier, had fled religious persecution in France, ultimately crossing the Alps and settling in Italy’s Piedmont region.

    When Latter-day Saint missionaries came to Italy in 1850, they found receptive minds and hearts among the Waldensen diaspora. Jacques joined the Church in 1853 along with his siblings and father, Jean Pierre Bertoch5 (thus trading one peculiar Christian religious tradition for another). Along with his siblings, Jacques emigrated from Italy to the United States in 1854 where, tragically, he anglicized his beautiful French name to “James.”

    Jean Pierre remained in Italy to fulfill a church assignment. In 1856, he attempted to join his children in Utah but died of pneumonia while crossing the plains. He is buried in Kansas at a place called “Mormon Grove.”6 Sometimes I wonder what it was like for Jacques/James, who would have been Sophie’s age, to receive word that his dad was finally on his way over, only to learn later that he’d died on the way.

    And so it was for this reason (and because conventional wisdom holds that good Italian food can’t be found anywhere in America south of Baltimore) that the three of us spent a couple of hours wandering around Little Italy.

    While there, I got the idea to create a Facebook post that would trigger people across the political spectrum. It wasn’t a great idea in hindsight, but it seemed clever at the time. My idea was to juxtapose two photos from Little Italy: one with us posing in front of the childhood home of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (which I imagined would trigger people to the right of me) and another with us posing in front of a large statue of the original Italian-American, Christopher Columbus (which I figured would trigger people to the left of me). Sadly, I’d somehow forgotten that there’s just an empty pedestal there now, the statue having been toppled by protesters three months ago on America’s birthday. As a fifth-generation Italian-American, this deeply offends me.

    I suppose it was inevitable that Columbus would get caught up in our summer assault against Confederate monuments, the Washington Football Team, and any poor free-thinking soul who expresses the slightest reluctance to blindly sign on to the suddenly popular notion that everything about America is fundamentally and irredeemably root-and-branch racist.7 Grace’s generation knows precisely nothing about Ferdinand and Isabella, 1492, or the Pinta, the Niña, and the Santa Maria. All they know about Columbus is that he was basically the colonial equivalent of Hitler, and Grace honestly couldn’t understand why any decent person would have ever erected a statue of him.

    It all has me wondering what part of our city’s name will get dropped first. Will it be Washington8 or the District of Columbia? Both names are problematic these days. Maybe that’s why so many people just call it “the District.”

    Old photo of Crystal repping “the District” in the District (last fall, when people still gathered for sporting events).

    And so I was left with pictures in front of Nancy Pelosi’s house and in front of an empty/vandalized Christopher Columbus pedestal. Since these two images are likely to trigger many the same people (rather than the more universal triggering I was going for)9 I didn’t see the fun in posting them. I’ve included them here, though.

    We wandered around, took pictures of some of the expensive restaurants, got paninis and cannolis from Vaccaro’s, and walked by the house where Mary Pickersgill made the actual star-spangled banner that flew over Fort McHenry and inspired the national anthem.10 We would have gone inside, but, you know, covid. [Edit: Crystal tells me the place is closed Mondays. Six of one.]

    Sophie gives every appearance of having enjoyed her first month of classes (and of testing negative) at BYU. She also enjoys her new job cleaning various buildings around Heritage Halls. In response to a recent Utah County covid outbreak driven primarily by the state’s two largest universities, the presidents of BYU and Utah Valley University issued a joint letter to students describing “the dramatic rise in positive cases” as “alarming and unacceptable” and warning students that “behavior must change” and that “more dramatic action will be necessary” if they don’t stop acting like idiots (i.e., like college students). We’ll see what happens and continue to hope that Sophie will remain healthy and not have to come home until Thanksgiving.

    Crystal received a very nice note from Sophie’s BYU bishop in which he describes her as a “wonderful young lady” and writes:

    “She recently was called to be a Home Evening Co-Chair which might be one of the most important callings in a student ward.  She and the brother with whom she serves have already put together a huge plan of activities as well as a training program and guide for the HE Group leaders that will involve many and give social opportunities and contact for each Home Evening group for our ward.  This is so needed.  She also is most vigilant in working to encourage others to be safe as it relates to Covid.”

    I’ve wondered at times how being the bishop of a ward consisting entirely of college freshmen living in dorms would compare with being the bishop of, you know, a real ward. I expect it would be easier in some respects but very much harder in others, and I have no idea where this bishop would find the time to write an unsolicited, kind personal message to somebody’s mom. Knowing precisely nothing else about him, and assuming this is not the only letter he wrote, I’m almost as impressed with him as I am with Sophie.

    She didn’t know any of her roommates a month ago, but she really likes them now. Her roommates are the only people she can be maskless around, and so it sounds like they do a lot together. I guess they went boating a couple of weeks ago with one roommate’s family. I’m thinking that if she’s really nice, she should be able to parlay that into a free ski trip down the road.

    Sophie (second from left) and her roommates (all still testing negative) standing in what appears to be a park just west of the Provo City Center Temple. That building was the “Provo Tabernacle” back in my day (and I’m pretty sure didn’t have that statue of Moroni atop it) and, as I regularly announce to everybody irrespective of their level of interest, I once played the organ there.

    Sophie is taking a French conversation class this semester. She’s been feeling a little intimidated by it and so to help her train her ear, Crystal sent Sophie the audio version of one of her favorite classic French novels, Harry Potter à l’école des sorciers. We hope it helps.

    May you find peace in Albus Dumbledore’s immortal wisdom, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”11

    Wingardium Leviosa,


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)
(Because I can’t make the link above work and this video is awesome.)
  1. Grace is currently whatever the polar opposite of “one of those STEM girls” is.
  2. Grace has five living progenitors (besides me) who are free to refute this if they can. I’ll wait. (Matthew Willis, DDS, doubtless took more than a few CS courses on his way to the multiple engineering degrees he earned before ultimately giving it all up to become a dentist, but he’s not in Grace’s direct line.) My greatest computer science accomplishment this week was learning the short code for embedding footnotes in WordPress — a newfound superpower I abuse throughout this month’s letter.
  3. For simplicity here, I am lumping the Isle of Man — home of my Cannon ancestors — in with England, even though I realize it’s kind of its own thing.
  4. One account suggests that Jacques believed his ancestors were Huguenots. Waldensens (Vaudois) and Huguenots have similar protestant origin stories and often get conflated, I guess because both groups were ferociously persecuted in France. But the Waldensens, which date back to the 12th Century, are much older. Maybe he descended from both–I don’t actually know.
  5. Jacques’s mother, Marguerite Bounous, died when he was an infant
  6. A quick Google search reveals that Mormon Grove no longer exists but served as a way station of sorts where people headed for Utah would stop to get supplies, recuperate from cholera, yada yada yada.
  7. As a tall, lean, white, hetero, cis-gender man who benefits from about 18 different kinds of privilege, I recognize that my opinions about social justice movements carry no weight. But I think I’m still allowed to say that even if they weren’t implicitly racist, I would still support the removal of Confederate monuments. As for the Football Team–call them whatever you want, they still suck.
  8. Perhaps we should wait and see what the clever citizens of Washington State do. Residents of King County, Washington (named for former Vice President–and slave owner–William Rufus de Vane King) decided a little over a decade ago to officially start pretending that their county was actually named after Martin Luther King. They changed their logo and everything. Maybe they’ll think of a less objectionable Washington to pretend their state’s named after.
  9. And anyone who actually gets triggered by nonsense like this frankly deserves to be triggered
  10. It’s become fashionable to pretend to be triggered by the entirety of The Star Spangled Banner because Francis Scott Key was an outspoken racist who owned slaves and because the third verse is horrific. I can’t imagine my life (or anyone’s) being any different if we changed the national anthem, and so I don’t really care, but the problematic nature of the third verse would be a really dumb reason to do it. Nobody ever sings the third verse. The only reason anyone even knows about the third verse is because of self-righteous, virtue-signaling malcontents who dredge it up and wave it around in an effort to tar the whole poem as an ode to white supremacy. Do you throw away an entire peach because part of it is bruised? Unless you’re a wasteful idiot, you cut that part off and eat the rest. So just omit the third verse. You really want to get to the fourth verse anyway, where the question posed by the first verse is finally and emphatically answered and everything pays off (unless you’re an atheist) so just skip ahead to that. Seriously, people. Enough with this nonsense.
  11. This quote is actually from Harry Potter et les reliques de la mort.