This Month’s Letter

  • Vol. 24, No. 3

    Dear Family,

    In accordance with CDC guidance, I hugged Mom and Dad earlier this month for the first time in over a year. One could argue that more momentous events have transpired since my last dispatch. But I’m the editor here and this is what we’re leading with.

    The close physical contact was occasioned by Peter’s 38th birthday and made possible by the vaccination of almost every adult in the family except me. (They let me come anyway.) It was fun to be with everyone, especially Matt, who made the drive up from Raleigh. I especially enjoyed my brothers’ reminiscences of the infamous 2009 golf cart story in anticipation of this summer’s expected return to Oglebay.

    Birthdays are a bigger deal to Peter than they are to most 38 year olds. His birthday last year was one of the pandemic’s first social casualties and it made me happy that he did not have to lose another one. But I don’t think anyone found as much delight in the gathering as Peter himself, as evidenced by his grin below.

    Five brothers on Grandma’s patio, 20 March 2021 (perhaps fittingly, the eve of World Down Syndrome Day). I’m in the hat and scarf and am both the oldest person in this picture and somehow the only one not yet vaccinated.

    Peter’s birthday party came at the end of a busy day that for us also included niece Josie Kent’s bat mitzvah service. In normal times we would have traveled to Los Angeles for this, as we did for her brother Sid’s bar mitzvah three summers ago. (While there’s little chance of my actually making it to every niece’s/nephew’s wedding in the coming years, I was hoping to be able to attend 100 percent of the bar/t mitzvahs. Also, I’m generally not one to pass up an excuse to visit Southern California in March.) But alas.

    We watched the proceedings live on YouTube. We did not contribute anything to the live chat and so people will just have to believe us when we say we were there. Perhaps not surprisingly, the production quality of Temple Akiba’s live stream service — with multiple mobile camera operators, picture-in-picture, cantors patched in from two remote locations, and relatives contributing aliyah readings from the Netherlands and Kauai (and elsewhere) — was a notch or two above the single-MacBook-precariously-perched-atop-10-hymnals-stacked-on-a-cart-next-to-the-pulpit rig that our ward uses to broadcast sacrament meeting onto YouTube each week.

    Probably like most other gentiles, I tend to associate bar/t mitzvah celebrations less with Shabbat morning services and more with the lively parties that follow. The party, of course, did not happen this time, but Josie’s dad (Crystal’s brother, Rick) assured everyone at multiple points during his talk that one eventually would. I hope we can go.

    Grace turned 16 earlier this month, thus becoming the first member of the family to lose two birthday parties to the pandemic. She took it like a champ, though, because she’s awesome.

    If you are reading this, you are almost certainly already aware of Sophia’s mission call, which arrived two Tuesdays ago, and accompanying assignment to the Ukraine Dnipro Mission. Hopefully all the French she’s studied and her affinity for Duolingo will be helpful as she learns Russian. I love language and languages, but the thought of having to learn a new alphabet would frighten me.

    And now for some pedantry. (Because what would these letters be without pedantry?) First, the country where Sophie has been assigned is called “Ukraine,” not “the Ukraine.”1 Second, and I’m guilty of this too, it’s not correct to say that Sophie “has been called to Ukraine.” She’s been called to be a missionary and that is unlikely to change. Her assignment is to Ukraine and could change for any number of reasons, as every missionary currently serving knows all too well. I really hope Sophie gets there,2 but, as evidenced by the structure of her call letter, the location of her assignment is somewhat incidental to the whole thing.

    Sophie’s Hogwarts letter contains many of the same sentences found in my letter from 30 years ago. But the structure of Sophie’s letter is entirely different and vastly improved. In my letter, the assignment location was up in the first paragraph. In Sophie’s, the first paragraph is a single sentence: “You are hereby called to serve as a missionary of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

    I have come to appreciate the power of a well-placed, one-sentence paragraph.

    The second and third paragraphs outline the purpose of Sophie’s calling and what will be expected of her. The third paragraph, a perfect, two-sentence definition of missionary work, is entirely absent from my letter. It isn’t until the fourth paragraph (of five) that you finally learn where Sophie has been assigned to go. This is as it should be. It’s a beautiful letter in both form and substance. Even the layout is attractive.

    For comparison, below are two letters I opened in February 1991. The first thing you notice (okay, the first thing I notice) is how far word processing has come in 30 years. The final generation that was taught to insert two spaces after periods is finally approaching retirement, but it remains perhaps the hardest bad habit to break for people who learned to type on actual typewriters (and makes for some rather ugly copy).

    The first of the two letters above actually came from the Church. The second is a forgery. I learned this month that Sophie was somehow not familiar with the story of the second letter, and so here, for her benefit, is a synopsis:

    February 1991. Several guys in my dorm (“W” Hall of Deseret Towers, which no longer exists) knew my mission call was imminent. I was involved at the time with a lovely girl in “U” Hall from Prescott, Arizona, and I made no secret of the fact that I did not care where the Church sent me so long as it was not to the Arizona Tempe Mission (which at that time included Prescott). The girl I liked went home from time to time and I had no particular interest in bumping into her as a missionary.

    Upon learning this, some enterprising people on my floor conspired with W Hall’s head resident (a no-nonsense, grandmotherly type called Sister Bell) to intercept the envelope containing my mission call when it arrived and replace it with a different envelope containing a letter assigning me to the Arizona Tempe Mission.3 Photoshop was not yet a thing4 and, as I recall, the re-creation consisted of one guy photocopying the First Presidency’s letterhead, somebody else typing out the letter, and a third guy (who I think we agreed was the most likely to go to hell for all this) who managed to mimic Ezra Taft Benson’s shaky signature at the bottom.5

    The short version of this story is that I fell for the forgery and called home to tell Mom and Dad that I was going to be a missionary in Arizona. They of course were congratulatory and happy about that. It wasn’t until later that night (and really late in New Jersey) that Ma Bell gave me the real envelope, which compelled me to call home again to tell Mom and Dad that I was not in fact going to Arizona. I perceived some confusion on the other end of the line and I’m not sure which thing annoyed Dad more — being awakened for a second time or that I was paying for two long-distance calls6 on the same night. But we sorted everything out.

    Anyway, leave it to me to take a story about my daughter’s mission call and make it about myself. If you know me at all, this should no longer surprise you. She really does make me happy, though, and I continue to be very proud of her.

    Ukraine, like most countries in the northern hemisphere, moves its clocks ahead this weekend. I only mention this because it allows me to segue to my annual rant about Daylight Saving Time and how the United States is essentially the only place on earth to “spring forward” while it’s still winter, thus plunging morning exercisers even deeper into darkness than would be the case if we were to wait to “spring forward” until, you know, spring. (Most of Canada also moves its clocks ahead on the second Sunday in March, but only because that’s when we do it.7) At any rate, we’re now two weeks in to DST and I’m almost back to my normal rhythm of waking up at 5:30 (give or take) without an alarm clock. If history holds, I’ll stop complaining about the time change sometime this week.

    Speaking of spring, I learned last week that BYU actually has a spring break now. It lasted one day–Friday, March 19th, which is one day more than we got for spring break when I went to BYU. Sophie and her roommates borrowed someone’s Suburban and drove down to Zion National Park for the long weekend. I’m told they stayed in a hotel (not sure if they all crammed into one room, as I would have done at that stage of life) and Sophie had the privilege of being needled for never having done any “real” hiking because there are no “real” mountains where she’s from. There are a million snarky ways of rebutting comments like this, and I got a lot of practice as a BYU freshman from New Jersey. (Everyone has an opinion of New Jersey, none more pointed than from people who have never actually been there.) But there’s just no getting around the fact that Utah’s mountains are spectacular, and if I were from there, I’d be just as annoyingly dismissive about other people’s backyards.

    As part of Crystal’s growing portfolio of community outreach initiatives, our ward joined forces again this month with the United Methodist Church up the street to co-host a second Red Cross blood drive (at our meetinghouse). Lucy and Grace both donated (Grace for the first time, having just become eligible by turning 16). Crystal, who it’s possible has not donated blood since college, tried to give as well. But she learned that she has been permanently disqualified as a blood donor by virtue of having lived in the U.K. for more than 3 months between 1980 and 1996. It would seem they can’t rule out the possibility that she may have consumed mad-cow-contaminated beef and, even though she’s shown no symptoms, the Food and Drug Administration is concerned that she might asymptomatically transmit something.

    Speaking of mad cow disease, Lucy landed a job this month as a host at Outback Steakhouse.8 This caps a long and at times frustrating search and we are all delighted for Lucy. Loud environments, extended social interaction, and staying up past 8:30 p.m. are all things Lucy ordinarily seeks to avoid. But they’re going to give it a shot. This was Lucy’s first week and they usually take the bus. But I insisted on Lucy’s letting me drive them there the first couple of days — it’s a dad thing — and, obviously confusing my 21-year-old’s first week of work with their first day of second grade, wanted to take a picture. Lucy tolerated this but understandably opted not to look back and wave.

    25 March. Lucy’s second day of work.

    And finally, closing the loop on last month’s saga of our roof, we now have a new one. It looks nice (it looks like a roof) and we’re told the shingles are more wind resistant than the ones we used to have (several of which had blown off, thus necessitating the new roof). For no extra charge, the roofers also cleaned probably a decade’s worth of decaying leaves out of our gutters and installed some kind of fine mesh contraption that allegedly will prevent leaves from ever clogging our gutters again. This is nice since I was obviously never going to do anything about it myself. I’ll miss the random waterfalls during heavy downpours, but it’s probably for the best.

    May serenity attend you through all of life’s storms.



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. People who came of age prior to the dissolution of the Soviet Union (like these two dopes) are most likely to struggle with this, though the error has been perpetuated by younger generations, too. But unless your aim is to undermine the sovereignty of Ukrainians, you need to learn to drop the extraneous the.
  2. Crystal connected with a member of our stake whose sister is currently a missionary in Dnipro. She arrived there in January of last year and is still there. Hopefully this bodes well for Sophie.
  3. The envelope (complete with a fake postmark) included the cover letter (the only thing anyone really cares about) along with the entire thick stack of other documents that accompanied mission calls at that time. Several mission calls were kicking around W Hall by that point in the school year, and so the other contents were not particularly difficult for the forgers to reproduce.
  4. Photoshop existed but it was a niche, Macintosh-only product that few people had and even fewer could use. No one back then used photoshop as a verb the way people do now.
  5. We watched Murder Among the Mormons on Netflix this month. Mark Hofmann, who in 1991 was just a few years into his life prison sentence, would have been proud.
  6. Hey kids! Talking to someone on the other side of the country used to cost money. Remind me to tell you about that sometime.
  7. This is not Canada-bashing–it’s just fact. In 1986, when the U.S. stupidly moved the start of DST from the last weekend in April to the first weekend of April, Canada followed suit. Then, in 2005, when the U.S. even more stupidly moved it from the first weekend of April to the second weekend of March (i.e., into winter), Canada followed us again. If the U.S. were to unilaterally remove the entire month of February from the calendar, Canada would (correctly) call us idiots — and then do precisely the same thing.
  8. Specifically, the Outback in Aspen Hill with the Rita’s out front in the parking lot — Lucy loves Rita’s and this makes them happy even though I worry about the dent it’s likely to put into Lucy’s take-home pay