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,


Vol. 23, No. 8

Dear Family,

I was reminded this week that I don’t have a very good memory.

I had forgotten, for example, how excruciatingly long it takes to drive across Nebraska. Driving across Montana, which we did last week, takes longer (Montana is nearly twice the size of Nebraska — I looked it up) but the trip across Montana doesn’t seem as long because, unlike Nebraska, Montana actually gives you something to look at.

Montana is beautiful by any objective measure. Nebraska is beautiful only in the philosophical sense that all of God’s creations have aesthetic value in some unique, metaphysical way.

[Crystal will doubtless tell me that the preceding sentence misuses the terms philosophical, aesthetic, and metaphysical. I’m going with them anyway because they sound pretty.]

Also, Montana, despite its more twisty and mountainous topography, has 80 MPH speed limits. Nebraska — a 450-mile strip of dead-straight, dead-flat asphalt — the driving equivalent of running on a treadmill — tops out at 75. The scenery only changes when a tractor-trailer going 61 MPH in the left lane takes what seems like 15 minutes to overtake an entire convoy of trucks going 60.999 MPH in the right lane, thus creating an infuriatingly slow-moving blockade across the entire highway. This seemed to happen several times each hour and invariably resulted in my shouting a series of angry and incoherent things at nobody in particular. It probably didn’t improve the situation, but it did break up the monotony for everyone else in the car.

Also, I’m assigning Nebraska a mask rating of 2 (out of 10 — rating scale explained below) based on a single experience in an Arby’s where: 1) the order taker was wearing one of those vented masks, which, according to the internet, are basically useless; 2) a fellow patron, whom the vented-mask-wearing employee was struggling to hear through the patron’s mask and the plastic shield separating them, removed his mask, reached his head around the plastic shield, and shouted his order at the kid; and 3) some maskless punk loudly marched in as we were leaving wearing a black t-shirt with “Social(ism) Distancing” printed in white letters across the chest. If anyone has figured out how to knee someone in the groin from six feet away, I’d like to learn about it.

And if you think it’s odd for me to judge an entire state — one with literally hundreds of inhabitants — based on the behavior of three people at one Arby’s, you obviously don’t know me very well.

I had also forgotten — or perhaps just hadn’t appreciated until now — how beautiful Utah is. The place and its people.

I was given to believe as a BYU freshman that Utah was home to the nation’s worst drivers. This was an assertion that students from other states smugly repeated to each other without supporting evidence. The twin miracles of anecdotal observation and confirmation bias helped me cling to this belief for many years. It was also a convenient way for me — a kid from New Jersey with 18 months of driving experience who had already managed to crash both of his parents’ cars — to feel better about myself.

Arriving in Utah last Sunday after driving through much of the country led me to conclude that Utah may very well have the worst drivers, except for all the other states.

Because of some poor planning on my part after exiting the freeway onto 8th North in Orem last Sunday, I found myself in the left turn lane needing to turn right into the La Quinta parking lot. Many (most?) drivers in my situation would have decided they had to just eat it and, I don’t know, driven around the block or made a U-turn or something. But because I learned to drive in New Jersey, I went ahead and made the right anyway, cutting off at least four cars across three lanes of traffic.

This incident in itself is unremarkable. You could write a book chronicling all the dumb things I’ve done behind the wheel of a car. But here’s the thing: No one honked at me. As far as I could tell, no one even made so much as a frustrated gesture at me. This happened last Sunday — six days ago. If someone had cut me off that way, I’d still be on the horn and shouting at them.

The next day (Monday), I managed to cajole everyone (except JT, whose 24-year-old knees are already paying the price of his soccer-filled youth) into hiking up to the Y with me. The climb was fun, though perhaps more intense than I remember it being last time. (Last time was probably 26 years ago.). We caught up with JT at a pizza place on the north side of 8th North in Provo that he and Hannah like. The place had no parking and so I stashed the car south of 8th North on 6th East (are you following? I love Utah street names). I returned from the car to 8th North but a car was coming, and so I started walking along the gutter of 8th North waiting for the car to pass so I could safely jaywalk from the south side of 8th North back to the pizza place on north side of the street. I kept walking and looking over my shoulder wondering why the car hadn’t gone by yet. It wasn’t until I looked over my shoulder for a third time that I realized the guy had come to a complete stop and was waving me across. The guy was yielding to a jaywalker. I sheepishly jogged across the street, waving back at the guy and thinking about the two times I’ve been struck (and countless other times I’ve been honked at) in crosswalks by Maryland drivers.

View from the top of the Y.

The next day (Tuesday), I managed to cajole Crystal, Hannah, Sophie, and Grace into hiking up to Stewart Falls with me. The nostalgia almost overwhelmed me as we drove up Provo Canyon and Alpine Loop past Sundance and Aspen Grove. The Stewart Falls trailhead is probably not even 100 meters from a Mount Timpanogos trailhead, but that wasn’t going to happen this time. Maybe next time.

Grace, Sophie, and Hannah on the trail to Stewart Falls

The final thing I’d forgotten is the intense emotion associated with dropping off a daughter at college. I don’t know why I thought it would be easier with Sophie than it was with Hannah. I guess I thought that going through it once would immunize me against it in the future. Life’s not a vaccine, moron. Being sad about something once doesn’t prevent you from being sad about it again. I get that now.

This all happened on Wednesday. After spending the morning doing last-minute shopping at Target, at precisely 1 p.m., the check-in appointments having been spread over several days to maximize distancing, we all helped lug Sophie’s junk to up to her east-facing bedroom on the top floor of Heritage Halls building 11.

Heritage Halls building 11 did not exist 30 Augusts ago when Mom, Dad, Matthew, Grant, Andrew, and Peter left me in my south-facing dorm room on the top floor of Deseret Towers–W Hall. Dad often says he “cried all the way to Evanston” on their drive home across the country after that. I thought about that as we drove past Evanston on Thursday morning. The thing is, Evanston’s not really all that far from Provo — just a mile or two across the Wyoming border — less than two hours away. I wish I’d stopped crying at Evanston. I wonder when I’ll stop.

Deseret Towers and W Hall are long gone — razed years ago to make room for bigger and fancier Heritage Halls apartment buildings. It wasn’t until Sophie checked in that I realized that Heritage Halls building 11 now stands on the precise footprint once occupied by W Hall. I mean, it’s in exactly the same spot. Her freshman experience will differ from mine in many, many ways, but it makes me happy to think that her walks to campus (for her relatively small number of in-person classes) will resemble mine.

The six girls in Sophie’s Heritage unit come from states in five different time zones (Maryland, Tennessee, Utah, Utah, Oregon, and Alaska) and reflect BYU’s remarkable geographic diversity. It’s not especially diverse in many other ways, but the students come from lots of different places. The two girls I met seemed nice and Sophie is comfortable with everyone’s commitment to avoid situations that risk introducing Covid to the apartment.

Only time will tell how well these commitments hold up. As Crystal observed, we are now in the awkward position of hoping that Sophie will encounter lots of really great people and then stay away from all of them.

This letter’s already quite long, but since you’ve made it this far, here, for posterity’s sake is my quick run-down of how we got to Utah — including my scientific rating of each intermediate point’s cultural norms around mask wearing. On my statistically sound and patented ten-point scale, a rating of 0 is the equivalent of a Trump rally (i.e., mask wearing appears to be the exception), while a rating of 10 is the equivalent of Washington, D.C. (i.e., random strangers are liable to swear at you for exposing your bare face anywhere, including while exercising outdoors). Most places fall somewhere between these extremes. For what it’s worth, I generally feel comfortable at a 6 on this scale and the rest of the family is probably more like an 8.

On our first night we camped (in a tent!) at Pokagon State Park in Indiana. (I give Indiana a 6 on the mask scale–would’ve been a 7 if not for a couple of boorish jerks at Wal-Mart.) The state park was nice and the people were friendly but I slept badly. (I never sleep well camping but the yahoos in a neighboring campsite making noise all night didn’t help.) And so we stuffed all the camping gear into the car-top carrier, never to open it again during the remaining 13 days of the trip. Whatever money we saved by camping that one night was undoubtedly dwarfed by the reduced fuel economy associated with driving a Toyota Highlander more than 5,000 miles with a giant box on top of it. (Sorry, planet. I’m a moron.)

Camping Night 1 (and only) — Pokagon State Park, Indiana

After stopping to look at Lake Michigan (Grace had never seen any of the Great Lakes) and to buy cheese curds and ice cream in Wisconsin (mask rating: 7), we spent night two at a Holiday Inn in Fairmont, Minnesota (mask rating: 8)

We spent most of day three in South Dakota (mask rating: 2) where we visited the World’s Only Corn Palace in Michell. There we encountered a large group of indoor bare faces for the first time since March and were later served lunch by a small team of unmasked Subway employees. I was surprised by how jarring this felt.

World’s Only Corn Palace — Mitchell, South Dakota

We then drove through Badlands National Park, which is breathtaking, and spent night three at an Econo Lodge in the small town of Wall (whose population of 818 is serviced by at least two pop-up Trump shops). We’ve now experienced Wall Drug, which I found slightly more interesting than the Corn Palace and slightly less interesting than a Cracker Barrel Old Country Store.

The following morning we traveled about an hour from Wall to Mount Rushmore, where I’d never been. Sophia Joan Willis, whose initials are also an abbreviation for “social justice warrior,” used this time to explain to the rest of the car why Mount Rushmore, rather than being a tribute to four dead presidents, is in reality a giant symbol of our country’s proud history of displacing indigenous peoples and desecrating lands of spiritual importance to them.

No argument there, but we went anyway and admired what is, in any context, an amazing work of art. Still, if you find yourself in southwestern South Dakota with only time enough to visit one thing, I suggest Badlands.

Mount Rushmore

It’s only a couple of hours from Mount Rushmore to Devils Tower National Monument in northeastern Wyoming (mask rating: 1). Devils Tower is a magnificent, thousand-foot-tall butte of uncertain origin located approximately 500 miles from the nearest gas station. It’s a wonder to behold and we enjoyed walking the mile or so around its base. I suggest arriving there with more than a quarter-tank of gas (unless you enjoy really long walks).

We spent night four at a Days Inn in Sheridan, Wyoming, and the entire next day driving across Montana (mask rating: 4) up to Idaho’s northern panhandle (mask rating: 5) and the lakefront estate that is the primary residence of Dr. and Mrs Roland Kent (Crystal’s little brother).

For the next four nights, Roland and Marci graciously put us up in their guest cottage (thus forgoing a non-trivial amount of peak-season rental income) and guided us through a collection of traditional North Idaho activities. These included biking around the mountainous perimeter of Hayden Lake (with Roland patiently waiting for the rest of us at the top of every climb) and foraging for huckleberries — tiny, non-segmented berries perhaps half the size of blueberries that I would assume were poisonous if I found them growing around here. They’re delicious (when mixed with enough sugar) and figure prominently in the local cuisine.

Huckleberry picking in North Idaho

But we spent most of our Idaho time in and on the lake watching kids wakesurf and listening to Roland passionately articulate why pontoon boaters, tubers, jet skiers, and anyone else with the temerity to gum up the lake with anything other than wakesurfing, wakeboarding, or waterskiing should all drop dead.

No argument here.

We spent day nine driving from North Idaho to Utah Valley, which basically takes all day. You might be surprised (as I was a quarter-century ago) to learn that, even though the two states border each other, the fastest and most direct driving route from North Idaho to anywhere in Utah goes through about 4 hours of Montana.

To drive through North Idaho and western Montana is to view some of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen or can even imagine. Something about its confluence of evergreens, mountains, and glacial lakes makes it feel like you’re traveling through some sort of never-ending painting. Every time we drive through it, it crosses my mind that we should just move there. We only see it in August, of course. We should probably visit in March before making any rash decisions.

The glorious vistas were well behind us by the time we crossed over from Montana into southeastern Idaho (mask rating: negative-3 — based entirely on stopping in Idaho Falls for food and gas where every single person we saw — store employees, patrons, every human soul — was maskless). Strong work, Idaho Falls! You show that overhyped little Chinese virus who’s boss!

From there we drove to Utah (mask rating: 7 on campus, 5 elsewhere), and I’ve already written about most of our three days there. We’re grateful to Hannah and JT for taking such good care of us and helping us make good dining choices. I did not mention the lovely time we had Tuesday night in Aunt Florence’s back yard with a group of socially distanced Willis relatives (including Riches, Borens, Farnsworths, and Binghams) who kindly moved their monthly get-together to a night when we could be there. It was great seeing everybody.

Lucy, Sophie, Grace, Hannah and JT outside a really good ice cream place

We left Utah on Thursday morning and arrived home 35 and a half hours later (would have been faster if not for those trucks in Nebraska — and if Crystal hadn’t made us stop at a Comfort Inn in Davenport, Iowa, to sleep for 3 hours).

School starts Monday for Grace, who isn’t excited about remote learning. She describes it as “all the sucky parts of school without any of the good stuff.” She’ll be all right. I’m not all that excited about tackling the mountain of work that’s going to be waiting for me on Monday morning, but I’m thankful to have work to tackle.

I just poked my head into Sophie’s empty bedroom and had a moment. Only 90 days until Thanksgiving. We can make it.

Love, Tim

Vol. 23, No. 7

Dear Family,

July began with a quasi-physically-distant Independence Day visit with our friends the Eskelsens in Fairfax County, Virginia. The visit was prompted in part by our affection for the Eskelsens and in part because the Fourth of July is best celebrated away from the strictures of Montgomery County, Maryland.

Everything is illegal here, including sparklers–sparklers!–even on the Fourth of July. Breathless posts to NextDoor and the neighborhood listserv in the days leading up to the holiday implored people not to shoot off fireworks because they’re dangerous, they frighten pets, small children and PTSD sufferers, and probably some other reasons.

I get all that, but it got me to wondering whether people in our little bubble here realize that fireworks are actually legal in most places–at least on July 4th (I looked it up)–and that Montgomery County residents aren’t the only people who own pets.

And so it was with an air of smugness that I reclined on an Adirondack chair in the Eskelsens’ front yard while Jon (and, from the sound of things, roughly every third house in the neighborhood) blew up all kinds of stuff procured mainly in Pennsylvania, where fireworks laws are even laxer than in Virginia. The Eskelsens’ dog stayed in the house but seemed to take it okay.

My smugness came down a notch after Grace was burned by a sparkler and hit by a roman candle and the fire department had to come put out a dumpster fire at the elementary school down the street, but we’ll probably do it again next year. God bless America.

July 4th sparklers. Legal in 49 states, including most of Maryland, but not in Montgomery County.

Grace made a full recovery from her roman candle injury and is now spending her mornings at swim team practices (whatever that means — more below) and her afternoons taking online courses in stress reduction and social justice movements (two things that seem to be at odds with one another, but okay, fine).

A 15-year-old girl’s perpetual desire for new clothes would ordinarily stress her miserly father. But fortunately for the family budget, Grace prefers getting her “new” clothes at the thrift store. She is distressed by the amount of water new clothing takes to manufacture and by the destruction fast fashion otherwise wreaks on the environment.

There was a time when I might have rolled my eyes at this, but not anymore, and I felt a brief moment of kinship with that dude from the IBM “Go Green” ad from 12 years ago. (I was surprised it was only 12 years ago — seems like longer — back when “going green” was still sort of fringy and not yet the de facto religion of every blue-state high school student.) You might not remember the ad unless you watch a lot of golf. It’s pretty awesome:

I also learned this week that only 2 percent of Spotify users listen to more Taylor Swift than Grace does. I have Grace to thank for letting me know about yesterday morning’s new “Folklore” album drop. I listened to it. It’s good.

Our family’s original Taylor Swift fan, Hannah, passed the NCLEX licensing exam for registered nurses this month, thus removing the “provisional” modifier from her BSN-RN credential. (You may recall from last month’s letter that BSNs (in Utah, at least) are now provisionally granted RN licenses for 90 days after graduation while they sort out sitting for the exam.)

Hannah subsequently interviewed at the Utah State Hospital (a facility in Provo whose name has changed numerous times over the years as various terms used to describe the mentally ill have inevitably taken on pejorative connotations) and they offered her a job on the spot. I am given to understand this does not happen often, but they apparently got to like her during her internship there earlier this year. She likes them, too.

The hospital pays less per hour than what she makes at Provo Rehabilitation and Nursing (where she also continues to work). But the hospital job comes with more attractive, state employee benefits. Meaning that at the tender age of 23, Hannah has figured out how to game the system by simultaneously earning the cash wages of a private-sector job and the generous benefits of a public-sector one. And all she has to do is work 60 hours per week. She claims to get bored if she works less than that — a trait she obviously inherited from someone other than me. She seems to have picked the right line of work.

Hannah and JT have abandoned their Provo apartment and are now citizens of Orem, inhabiting a residence Hannah describes as “the nicest place I’ve ever lived.” This is perhaps more a commentary on the conditions in which she grew up than anything, but I’m glad she likes their new digs. We hope to spend a night or two there when we deposit Sophie at BYU next month.

As of this writing, BYU is still planning to push ahead with a blend of in-person and online instruction in the fall. They’ve already started dunning me for Sophie’s dorm rent, and so I guess it’s happening.

In contrast, Montgomery County Public Schools announced this week that instruction will be online-only at least through the first semester (i.e., until no earlier than January 29, 2021). I don’t feel strongly about this one way or the other, but I am really glad not to have to make these kinds of decisions. You’re going to have to deal with angry people no matter what, and one thing I’ve learned as a cyclist is that life’s too short to argue with angry people. Grace, our family’s lone extrovert and the only one of us directly affected by this, isn’t excited about it, but having long ago resigned herself to this eventuality, the news did not crush her. She seemed saddest about the cancelation of all fall and winter sports, which means no high school swim team, which she genuinely likes.

The Montgomery County Swim League’s decision to cancel its summer season came as no surprise to anyone. Swimming is unlike most sports in that its competitors can reasonably keep a safe distance from one another, but its officials cannot. Tennis, with all its line judges, is the only other sport I can of think of in which the number of officials so dwarfs the number of active participants. To run a meet at our modest, six-lane pool requires 20 timers all bunched together at one end of the pool, four stroke-and-turn judges also at the water’s edge, a referee, a starter, two clerks-of-course, three people to record times and keep score, and other people I’m not thinking of right now. That these people are all trained parents is remarkable enough. (Can you imagine a high school football game officiated by the players’ parents? That’s how high school swim and dive works.) But I can’t think of any practical way to do it with a six-foot halo around everybody.

Because our summer swim team is as much a family as a competitive body, the decision was made to push ahead with the season despite the lack of a league. They started practices almost immediately after the pool finally opened late last month and had something resembling meets this past week (or so I’m told–parents weren’t allowed on the premises).

Our community being what it is, people still gathered for a year-end “senior meet” this morning honoring Sophie and the team’s five other graduates. The turnout even among families with no seniors was something to behold and not at all surprising. Its irrational fear of fireworks notwithstanding, the community’s pretty awesome.

July 25th. Forest Knolls Swim Team senior meet.

The senior meet went off at a little past 9:00 this morning, which meant I had to hurry back from an 8:00 a.m. meeting with the rest of the bishopric at the meetinghouse to ensure that we and our building were ready for the resumption of in-person sacrament services tomorrow.

If I may, a brief note here about Church communication. Generally speaking, direction reaches us from Salt Lake in two ways, one of which is great. Communications that go directly from Salt Lake to local leaders and members, in the form of handbooks, official notices, letters, and other written means, are always excellent. Their provenance is unmistakable. They’re crisp, clear, and professionally copyedited (I assume, based on the quality) with no middlemen and no ambiguity. I actually take pleasure in reading and implementing these directives.

That’s the good way.

The second way involves an elaborate game of telephone and name-dropping in which something allegedly originates with one or more prominent General Authorities and makes it way downstream, cascading through multiple levels of lay hierarchy (competent men with respectable, but not professional, communication skills) before finally reaching a drone like me (a bishopric counselor) who actually has to, you know, do something. This way works about as well as you’d expect it to.

Naturally, the order to resume sacrament meetings capped at 25 attendees scattered throughout our large chapel (accompanied by a list of safety procedures that I am for some reason not permitted to possess or even read) came down in the second way. After multiple misunderstandings, it’s possible that what we’re doing tomorrow will be a reasonable (fourth-generation) facsimile of what the alleged source of the instruction actually wants us to do, but you’d be foolish to bet on that.

And so, after 18 weeks (or whatever it’s been) of 4 p.m. Sunday Zoom devotionals, sacrament in the living room, and weekly written epistles from the bishopric, we’ll get back to something resembling normalcy tomorrow (albeit with no more than 25 people in attendance and most of the ward continuing to Zoom in). I’m reasonably optimistic that it’ll work out okay but also kind of terrified by everything that might go wrong.

Other Sunday activities this month included a lovely walk around the lotuses and waterlilies of Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens on the Maryland/DC line.

July 12th. Sophie and Grace — Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens
July 12th. With Grace at Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens

Last Sunday also brought the first in-person gathering of local relatives since the onset of the pandemic — a backyard affair to commemorate Sophie’s and Alex’s graduations before both of them head west in three weeks. I think we were reasonably careful.

July 19th. Andrew’s & Jessica’s backyard. Sophie and Alex open their traditional Willis graduation gifts — handmade quilts tied by every member of the extended family.

I neglected to mention last month that Lucy was called to be our stake’s assistant Young Women’s Camp Director. It’s an interesting calling for someone who doesn’t consider themself a woman, but they seem happy to do it. The girls in the stake aren’t doing any actual camping together this year (obviously) but they’ve been doing some virtual stuff.

Lucy also passed the driver’s permit written exam. An oft-cited reason for waiting so long to do this is fear of my losing patience with them in the car. This is understandable given Lucy’s 20 years of experience watching and listening to me react to idiots (i.e., all other drivers) in the same calm and measured way I respond to many of life’s challenges. I’d like to think that I’m gradually getting better at this (and other things) but Crystal’s handling the training all the same. Wish them well.

May life continue to bless you with gradual improvements and other incremental victories.

Love, Tim

VOL. 23, NO. 6

Dear Family,

Stay positive. Test negative.

That’s what the charming, unmasked older woman I didn’t recognize said to me from the now completely worn-away grass next to the Sligo Creek Trail as we ran past one another earlier this month.

While the stranger’s second suggestion is not entirely within my control, I’ve decided that her first one is, and I’ve been trying to identify silver linings as we feel our way through month four of whatever this is.

In doing this I run the risk of giving the impression that I’m actually pleased it’s happening. I of course am not. As much as I’ve appreciated elements of the resulting introvert’s paradise, I nevertheless mourn with those who mourn. I grieve not only with those who have lost health or loved ones but with those who have lost the comfort of economic stability, routine, and general peace of mind. I’m also sorry that Mom and Dad had to cancel their trip to Greece and that we don’t let them within six feet of their grandchildren anymore.

I sometimes get the impression that Grandma and Grandpa feel we’re taking all this too seriously. But I also think they understand that we’re just trying not to kill them. With the gradual relaxing of things, we spent a couple of pleasant evenings with them and Peter this month—one in their backyard and one in ours. The tender mercy of several uncommonly un-hot and un-humid June days made this especially pleasant.

And so rather than dwelling on the inherent difficulty of effectively communicating through a mask and plexiglass shield with the order-taker at our favorite faux-Thai place in the mall food court whose first (and possibly second) language is not English, I am choosing to just be grateful that the place actually opened again on Friday for the first time in over 100 days. I haven’t the faintest idea where they could be storing all the tables and chairs that used to fill the now-empty food court, but it was good to be back.

Grace and Crystal biking in Downtown Silver Spring — 26 June 2020

Another upside of current conditions is that I was able to get a same-day appointment with my orthopedist a couple of weeks ago. I was becoming increasingly frustrated by pain in my right calf when I ran (and only when I ran) that I thought was getting better and then got worse. Because it only hurts while running, my 85 IQ was able to ascertain that the solution was probably to stop running for a while. But I was struggling to make myself do that and was hoping the doctor would have some sort of magical fix — even though I knew he wouldn’t. (When it comes to faith, hope and charity, I bat a fairly consistent one for three.)

And so I took a 10-minute bike ride down to the Greater Washington Orthopaedic Group’s office in the building adjoining Holy Cross Hospital. For presumably the same reason that I was able to get a same-day appointment, the doctor was able to spend nearly a half-hour speaking with me, which is about 25 minutes more than I usually get from any doctor. He looked at my x-rays (which revealed nothing) and then sat down on the opposite side of the room from me. We both wore masks, of course, but it was quiet and we were two native English speakers who grew up in the same metropolitan area, and so communication was not difficult. He asked me some questions from way over there, then scooted his chair over to me, pushed on my calf in several places, and then rolled back to the other side of the room to continue the conversation.

His diagnosis was a soleus strain. Like most of my muscles, I didn’t even know I had a soleus until it started giving me trouble. I now understand the soleus to be a small calf muscle underneath the much more prominent calf muscle that I had always thought of as my only calf muscle.

After questioning me about my running habits, the doctor concluded that my soleus injury was most likely the result of “training error.” I have a pretty good idea of what the error was, and, like most of my problems, it stems from my being an idiot.

The doctor, himself a 52-year-old runner, advised me that there are likely a growing number of poor choices that I could get away with as a 38-year-old runner that I no longer can at 48. More depressing, though I didn’t mention it, is the body of things I apparently could get away with at 47 that I can’t at 48. He suggested that I not run for two weeks and that I not be an idiot (not his exact words) when I started again.

I managed to abstain for 11 days, which I rounded to two weeks, before heading out yesterday. The leg felt great for about 800 meters before I realized I’d made a mistake and walked home.

Not being an idiot, unfortunately, remains elusive for me. I’ll try again next Friday.

And so in the end, my visit to the orthopedist was like any number of church meetings. It was largely unnecessary; it lasted longer than it needed to; I was told things that were affirming of what I already believed; I followed the ensuing counsel in my own imperfect and haphazard way; and I was ultimately glad I went. “They that are whole have no need of the physician,” Jesus said, “but they that are sick.” Sometimes a pointless meeting is just what the doctor ordered.

The upside of my running injury is that it roughly coincides with the re-opening of swimming pools.

The Silver Spring YMCA’s 3-month closure officially ended at 8 a.m. on Saturday, June 20th. At 7:40 a.m. I pedaled my bike through the empty YMCA parking lot, where every second spot had been coned off—they don’t even want the cars breathing on each other from less than 6 feet away. I racked my bike and was first in line to get in. I got hit with the forehead thermometer at 7:55 (by a guy who said my temperature was 95-point-something, which didn’t seem right, but I wasn’t going to suggest he take it again); I scanned my membership card at 7:56; and at 7:58, having skipped the supposedly-mandatory-but-never-enforced pre-swim shower and removed my mask literally at the water’s edge, I was first into the pool.

[I just wrote and deleted three paragraphs detailing how poorly the workout went. No need to thank me.]

Safety measures at both the YMCA and our neighborhood pool, which opened two days later, are almost certainly overkill. I can’t imagine it’s really necessary to clear the pool and sanitize ladders, chairs and other surfaces every 45 minutes (at the YMCA) or every 90 minutes (at the neighborhood pool) but I get it. At some point, once someone can effectively demonstrate that no one is getting infected by whatever trace amounts of virus can manage to survive on a swimming pool ladder, we might be able to dial back some of this theater. But until then I understand wanting to give the appearance of erring on the side of caution.

A YMCA lifeguard sprays what we are to believe is sanitizer on the pool ladder after the morning’s initial 30-minute session.

I must not make much use of my soleus while cycling because that doesn’t seem to bother it at all. The gradual return of cars to the roads means that my three-month respite from being honked and sworn at by motorists is now over. One of the guys who honked at me this week was justified in doing so. (I’d cut him off.) But the guy who swore at me wasn’t. (A much longer story stemming from a difference of opinion over whether a cyclist should be expected to stop and yield to a large flock of geese stretched in a line across all six lanes of University Blvd. My view was so long as I could get through without actually striking any of the birds that I was fine. The driver, who was inclined to exhibit more patience with a flock of geese than with his fellowman, disagreed. He called me a vulgar term for a body part—rhymes with “glass bowl”—and that was the end of it. I continued on my way and he sat in his car looking at geese.)

Sugarloaf Mountain — 6 June 2020

My second-favorite bike ride of the month was a 94-mile round trip from home to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain, which I did by myself (to the consternation of many drivers who were stuck behind me on the climb up a steep, narrow road). My favorite ride of the month, one week later, was a somewhat easier (flatter) 81-mile round-trip from home to Annapolis with Grant, Andrew, and Alex Willis. We left at dawn, grabbed breakfast at Chick & Ruth’s Delly (in Annapolis), and were home in time for lunch. I think it was the first time we’d been together since the shutdown. The accompanying pictures lend the impression that we did not distance from one another to the extent we ought to have. The pictures are not misleading.

Speaking of not distancing, I also took a couple of rides through the two blocks of 16th Street, across Lafayette Park from the White House, that have been rechristened “Black Lives Matter Plaza” by the mayor and have launched a flurry of copycat street murals around the country. Both of my visits were in the morning, when a lot fewer people were around and the area had the feeling of a large block party, as opposed to later in the day when things tended to get a little more intense. By all reputable accounts, the protests have been overwhelmingly peaceful, but I didn’t feel any particular urgency to throw myself into a crowd during a deadly global pandemic. Crystal, Lucy, Sophie, and Grace attended smaller-scale protests in and near our neighborhood, and the whole thing continues to be eye- and mind-opening for me.

Sophie, Grace, and Lucy at a BLM protest

The last of Sophie’s several virtual graduations took place this month. I’ll repeat what I wrote last month: They should all be this way.

Mike Sauter — The coolest high school administrator you’ll ever meet.

Sophie also received word this week of BYU’s plans for on-campus instruction in the fall. It’s increasingly looking like she’ll be there. Check-in to Heritage Halls has been spread across three days in order to create some modicum of distancing. The university has announced that classes after Thanksgiving will be taught virtually, which means we’ll have Sophie here for Thanksgiving and the whole Christmas season, which is yet another positive outcome of the pandemic—at least for me. I’m not sure how Sophie feels about it.

Speaking of daughters in Utah, after learning that a patient with whom she’d been in close regular contact had subsequently tested positive for the virus, Hannah, who suddenly wasn’t feeling well herself, underwent an emergency test last weekend—which came back negative. This is doubly fortunate since testing positive would have likely made it impossible for her to sit for the NCLEX (the RN licensing exam) this past Thursday in Colorado. (I can’t remember where in Colorado, but it’s not a very big state, is it?)  Hannah said the test is usually several hundred questions but—in yet another hidden benefit of the pandemic—it had been reduced to somewhere between 60 and 100 questions. She thinks she did okay but was understandably apprehensive about the large number of questions with “check all that apply” answers. I hate those questions.

One final positive: But for the pandemic I almost certainly would not have been able to witness my Uncle David Farnsworth’s funeral this month (via livestream). The service was just perfect—a wonderful tribute to an extraordinary man—and, if you don’t mind my saying, the perfect length. (Funerals are among my very favorite church meetings, but once they run beyond about 75 minutes, I start wishing I could trade places with the person in the casket.) This one was just right. I think it was Reed’s talk that listed all the common expressions that drove his dad nuts. I can’t remember what all of them were, but as Reed was reciting them, I remember thinking that they were all things that I say all the time and could actually recall saying in Dave’s presence. But I don’t recall his ever giving me a hard time about it. It pains me to think that my language aggrieved him so, but it’s a tribute to his kindness that he never made me feel bad about it. He never made me feel anything but loved and appreciated. He was the perfect kind of uncle—fun enough to have a great time with, stern enough to keep me out of trouble. A fine example all the way around. I miss him.

If you’re wondering, it’s completely in character for me to use a verbose, 2,100-word letter to complain about meetings that run too long. Sorry about that. I genuinely hope this one finds you well and happy.


Vol. 23, No. 5

Dear Family

Not counting last Saturday’s 90-second flirtation with the still-frigid Atlantic Ocean, it’s now been 79 days since I last swam. While I’m reasonably certain I still remember how to do it, it depresses me to think that I’ve undoubtedly lost any semblance of ability to do it efficiently. The closest I get to upper body exercise these days is pumping up my bike tires. Sometimes, when no one’s looking, I try to do a few pushups. It would probably be a funny thing to watch if it weren’t so sad.

Still, my inability to swim and watch sports are really the only two things I find dissatisfying about life right now.

“No one finishes the day without a few existential lows,” wrote Jason Gay, the Wall Street Journal’s sports columnist, on May 11th. “Loneliness intrudes. Boredom persists. Even the introverts are like: Alright, that’s enough.”

What, you didn’t know the Journal has a sports columnist? Of course it does! It has precisely one of them. He writes two or three times a week. He’s not the reason I shell out $467.88 per year for an online-only subscription, but he’s great. He’s also obviously a classic extrovert who doesn’t understand introverts, because I can assure you that none of us is saying “Alright, that’s enough” to the current situation. If someone could figure out how to bring back swimming and TV sports, I could blissfully go on literally forever like this.

And it’s starting to feel like it might actually last forever. Even though Montgomery County begins its “Phase 1” reopening at 6 a.m. tomorrow—meaning you can now get a haircut (by appointment only), eat on the patio at restaurants, and get your car washed (exterior only)—gyms and pools are still closed and everything else is more or less the same as it’s been for the past two and a half months. On Friday my firm announced that we won’t re-open the office until October at the earliest and possibly not before next year.

Except for the pool closures, which are patently stupid and not informed by any degree of scientific inquiry, I am totally fine with all of this.

Based on my own comprehensive review of the scientific literature (i.e., reading the newspaper and watching YouTube) I’m becoming increasingly comfortable with the theory that outdoor transmission between people just passing by one another is highly unlikely. I continue to wear a mask outdoors anyway—mostly just to put other people at ease and not to be a jerk—except when cycling (because everyone already thinks cyclists are jerks anyway, and besides, I’m rarely anywhere close to other people on my bike) and when running (because, well, just because).

I scoured the internet a couple of weeks ago in an attempt to learn whether Dr. Anthony Fauci, an avid runner who turns 80 later this year, wears a mask when he runs (figuring if he did, then I might). I wasn’t able to determine that, but I did learn that Fauci ran a 3:37 marathon in 1984, when he would have been 43 years old. This works out to just under eight and half minutes per mile, which is respectable but nowhere close to a Boston qualifier for a man in his forties. He then ran a 4:07 when he was 44, and a 3:52 when he was 49. He did all this while dealing with the AIDS crisis and otherwise holding down an important and demanding job. This makes me feel even more self-conscious about my fastest marathon—a 3:54 last year when I was 47. (A time that makes me less slow than most, but far from fast.)

Notwithstanding my lack of concern about outdoor virus transmission, I’ve been struggling for the past week to decide whether it’s a good idea to admit publicly that we took a quick trip to Ocean City last weekend. We weren’t there long—maybe four hours—just long enough to hit the boardwalk, grab pizza at The Dough Roller, splash around in the frigid water and lay on the beach just long enough to get sunburned.

Sophie, Grace, and Lucy — Ocean City, Md., 23 May 2020
Grace and Sophie — Ocean City

It may not have been the most socially responsible thing we’ve ever done, but I will say this: It’s really easy to take a two-dimensional photo from an angle that gives the impression of 80 billion people stacked on top of each other at the beach.

Such pictures regularly run in the Washington Post[1] above captions along the lines of, “Local idiots defy distancing protocols during public health crisis.” But the reality—at least between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. when we were actually there—is that there’s a lot of space to spread out on the beach—even on the boardwalk—even when lots and lots of people are there—and it really seems like one of the easiest public places to stay six feet (or even two meters) away from other people.

Grace, Sophie, Crystal, and Lucy — Ocean City

It might help if we were a little clearer on what the distance should be. It was all I could do not to deface the signs all over Ocean City (and elsewhere) telling people to stay “6 feet or 2 meters” apart, as if those are two different ways of saying the same thing.

I get that we’re Americans and don’t regularly communicate in metric, but “6 feet” and “2 meters” are not even materially the same thing. If you don’t understand the difference, perhaps I can help. Chances are you know many, many people who are more than six feet tall. A six-foot person is noticeably shorter than I. But unless you run around with NBA or high-level men’s college basketball players, you probably know hardly anyone who is more than two meters tall. (LeBron James is more than two meters tall, but Michael Jordan isn’t, and I’m guessing you don’t know either of them.) I appear short next to a two-meter person. And if you know such a person, the first adjective you use to describe him physically—regardless of what he looks like—is tall (or some variant).

It’s comforting to know that virus-laden droplets are incapable of traveling more than such conveniently expressed distances. I only wish someone could tell me what the right distance is.

Lucy, Ocean City

Because of a recent change in the way Utah’s Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing treats recent Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) graduates, Hannah is now provisionally a BSN-RN even though she has not yet taken the NCLEX licensing exam for RNs. (I gather this is because something close to 100 percent of BSNs pass the RN exam.) She has three months to do so and has registered to take it sometime in June in Colorado Springs. The road trip is necessary because all of Utah’s exam seats are full until September, which would be too late. The new credential means that Hannah is now making, as she puts it, “big-girl money” (though I’m not sure she’ll ever be off my cell phone plan). She also has the rare good fortune of genuinely loving her work.

Hannah — Provo Rehabilitation & Nursing

Crystal’s fourth year teaching seminary ended on the Friday before Memorial Day. The final Zoom class was a party where everyone ate food that Crystal, Sophie and Grace had delivered to each student the day before.

A week earlier, the stake president had informed Crystal that this year of seminary teaching would be her last and asked her to be our stake’s communications director (a church position that until the most recent Handbook iteration was known as the “public affairs director”). She’s sad to lose her seminary students but had also been hoping to do something a little more outward facing. This is certainly that and she’ll be great. In her new capacity, she is our stake’s primary liaison to the people planning the temple open house. The optimists in charge of that event are still planning on having it go off in September as scheduled. I don’t see any way that happens, but we’re religious people who believe in a God of miracles. And I’ve been wrong before.

Thus ends Crystal’s adventure in that most curious of all church positions—seminary teacher. A job that in the Church’s Intermountain bubble is performed predominantly by men who are paid to do it and everywhere else in the world is performed predominantly by women who do it for free. Men outside the Intermountain Region do it for free, too (I did it from 2003 to 2006) but it’s mostly moms. Most of them love it, but it’s constant, relentless work. (I went directly from seminary teacher to bishop and didn’t notice much change in the time commitment. But I also wasn’t a very good bishop, so…)

The Friday before Memorial Day was also Sophie’s last day of high school. (Grace and other non-seniors still have a couple more weeks.) That Friday was also Montgomery College’s virtual commencement ceremony.

The ceremony was lovely and got me to thinking that all future commencement ceremonies should be virtual. The reading of all the names didn’t take nearly as long—in part because you didn’t have to endure the pockets of idiots cheering after each name despite explicit instructions to the contrary, but also because you didn’t have to wait for people to walk across the stage. More important, the speaker lineup included people of actual consequence, none of whom went for more than 3 or 4 minutes.

This is consistent with my theory that featured speakers tend to vary the length of their remarks proportionately with the inconvenience associated with attending the meeting. In-person commencement speakers seem to work under the assumption that “you had to drive all the way downtown, pay $35 to park, and then walk six blocks in oppressive June heat and humidity to come to this thing. And so I’m going to make it worth your while by talking for a really long time.” Visiting authorities at stake conference, who routinely go for 45 minutes or more, seem to apply the same logic. I’ll never understand it.

But because the commencement was virtual, instead of one long, boring speech, we got quick, crisp messages from two of Montgomery County’s three U.S. Congressmen and both of Maryland’s U.S. Senators. They were great. (Seeing them in succession also caused me to notice for the first time that our diverse, progressive county is represented on Capitol Hill by five white dudes. How on earth did that happen?)

Having now graduated from community college, Sophie will attend virtual high school commencement ceremonies this coming Sunday and the following Thursday. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m actually kind of looking forward to them.

In other news, Lucy is taking this whole mask thing to an absurd level (see photo) and we’ve had black bear sightings reported in the neighborhood. I haven’t seen any bears, but I’m seeing a lot more foxes than usual, so that’s pretty awesome.

Hope you’re holding up as well as we are.



[1] In addition to the Journal, I also subscribe to the Washington Post and the New York Times. Together the Post and the Times cost less than my WSJ subscription. You get what you pay for.

Vol. 23, No. 4

Dear Family

Forty-seven days have passed since I last went to the office. And 44 since the girls set foot in school. I can’t speak for the four other people living here, but I don’t yet sense that we’re getting on each other’s nerves. (They don’t get on mine, at least.)

A group of people standing around a fire

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S’mores in the backyard.

It probably helps that we like to watch a lot of the same shows. I continue to be surprised by how socially interactive watching TV can be. Especially with Grace, who makes that teenage-girl gagging/vomit suppression sound in response to every cringeworthy moment. She’s pretty good at it and it greatly enhances the experience.  

Crystal and I watch a lot of the same things but have also taken to making fun of one another’s YouTube habits. Actually, she’s been rolling her eyes at what I watch on YouTube for years. It’s only in the past few weeks that I’ve been responding in kind to her steady diet of yoga, Jimmy Fallon, more yoga, and John Krasinski.

Really the only resident of the house I find annoying these days is the cat, and that only because he has taken to peeing in my closet, on my bed, and in other unapproved places. The vet hypothesizes that neutering will curb this behavior. But sadly, this is not currently deemed an essential service. I beg to differ under the circumstances, but people in authority traditionally don’t care much what I think.

Hannah is now a graduate of BYU and holder of a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree. With no event to mark the occasion, it’s hard to say for sure whether or precisely when this happened. But for Covid-19, Crystal and I would be flying home from Utah today after having attended Hannah’s commencement ceremonies on Thursday and Friday.

But alas, Hannah’s Thursday was marked solely by a congratulatory email from the president of the university and a phone call from her parents and sisters. (Or maybe she called us—I don’t remember.) Canceling the trip was surprisingly easy notwithstanding my budget-conscious proclivity for booking not just non-refundable flights (like most people, I think) but also non-refundable lodging.

I actually paid in advance back in January to secure four romantic nights at a luxurious Days Inn near campus for $288. (Not $288 per night — $288 for four nights, including tax and breakfast!) In contrast, I paid $322 for one night at a crappy Days Inn in Cambridge, Md. (population 12,285) on the eve of Ironman Maryland two years ago. (They were kind enough to open the breakfast buffet at 4 a.m. for the competitors.) I figured Provo innkeepers would similarly jack up rates for BYU graduation, but I guess they’re just too gosh-darn friendly out there.

So anyway, I’d mentally written off the 288 bucks, but I figured it was at least worth a trip to the website. Clicking on the “Cancel Reservation” box brought up a screen informing me that my reservation was non-refundable and non-changeable (I knew that). But the screen also contained a text box in which I could explain my reason for canceling. Supposedly, if I had a good enough reason, they might be able to get me a refund anyway.

And so I (truthfully) typed in the box, “The governor of Maryland has asked that I not travel outside the state unless absolutely necessary.”[1]

I received an email a few minutes later telling me my cancelation had been “approved.” Two days later the refund had posted to my credit card.  

Perhaps you think 300+ words excessive for explaining my amazement at receiving a $288 refund, and you’re probably right. But what else am I going to write about?

Back to Hannah. She’s actually been working as a licensed practical nurse for the past year. Once her BSN degree officially posts, she will be eligible to sit for a licensing exam to become a registered nurse. Then, the next time you see someone at the hospital with “BSN, RN” on her badge, you can think (as I do/will), “Hey, Hannah’s one of those!”

Covid-19 for now seems to be sparing the rehabilitation/nursing home facility where Hannah works. They’ve had just one case. At some point they thought they had a second, which would have required cordoning off an entire floor and having Hannah work a bunch of 3-day shifts confined to that floor. But the second person was a false alarm and so they just shipped the first guy off to some other facility. Times like this make me even prouder than usual to have a daughter who’s a nurse.

Remote learning seems to be working for us. I recently caught a glimpse of Sophie’s laptop screen split down the middle. On the left was an essay she was working on for Philosophy. On the right, a season-one episode of “Community.” I don’t know how she does it. I need silence or white noise to write—talking throws me completely off-kilter. But I guess it works for her.

The seminary class Crystal teaches has been back in business for about a month. They meet via Zoom every weekday morning at 8:00. Surprisingly, the 8:00 a.m. Zoom class is attracting fewer attendees than the 6:15 a.m. in-person class was. For us I think it’s been a good way to give the day an official-feeling start, as opposed to sleeping and lazing the entire morning away.

Few things demoralize me more than wasted mornings. It’s the only time of day I feel like I’m any good. For those of you closely monitoring my mental health, I stopped taking my ADHD medication a little while ago. I’m not sure it was doing anything, and I wasn’t loving the side-effects. The doctor now has me on an anti-depressant. We’ll roll with that for a while. It could just be that I’m vainly seeking a pharmacological solution for laziness. But my motivation varies so dramatically from morning to afternoon (before sometimes rebounding in the evening) it’s got me thinking there’s probably something chemical going on. We’ll see.

Lucy’s classes have resumed as well. They’re back to running a bit (mostly on the treadmill—sometimes in the woods) but they really miss mermaiding. We all miss the pool. My swimming fitness plummets if I miss so much as a week. (A work colleague told me that, for him, missing a week of swimming is like missing a month of running. I think I’m the same way.) Now that all the pools have been closed for a month and a half (with no end in sight) I can only imagine what the forced layoff is doing to everybody.

If triathlons ever get going this year, I feel like we’re all going to be better cyclists and runners than we were last year. But we might drown before we get to those legs.

The latest controversy seems to surround whether I ought to wear a mask while running and cycling. I don’t—and won’t until either somebody in authority or somebody smart who doesn’t get their science from Facebook tells me I should. The law here is to wear them in stores and other public indoor places. I wear mine outdoors[2], too, just not while exercising. I feel guilty when I see other cyclists wearing them and dumbfounded when I see the occasional runner wearing one. I have no idea how they get enough air in and can only conclude that they’re not working very hard. The grass on either side of the Sligo Creek trail has been completely worn away in spots as strangers continue going to absurd lengths to avoid so much as making eye contact with each other. You might be happy to learn that I’ve (mostly) stopped spitting when I run—at least when people are around.  

For now, the people trying to guilt runners and cyclists into masking up are by and large the same self-righteous busybodies who took photos of a small group of boys shooting hoops last month and circulated them on the neighborhood listserv asking if anyone knew the parents of these awful miscreants. It’s all moot now that the parks commission has removed all the rims from all the backboards on all the playgrounds.

A group of people sitting on a bench

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With Sophie, Grace, and Crystal following an “essential” bike ride to Potbelly for ice cream sandwiches.
A person riding a bicycle in front of a building

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Crystal—a diligent mask wearer when walking the dog but not when riding her bike—has expressed concern that her hairstyle doesn’t complement mask wearing. I don’t see the problem and hope she changes her mind. But it doesn’t really matter since no one’s figured out how to give a haircut over Zoom yet. It’s only a matter of time. I haven’t searched for a YouTube video on cutting your own hair, but I’d bet $288 you can find one.

A person and a dog in a forest

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Crystal and Ceres on the Northwest Branch Trail

It’s been an eventful month for Sophie who turned 18 and danced with John Krasinski at his prom. She also launched her wildly successful YouTube channel (Kaylub92), which is up to 33 subscribers despite not having posted anything in two weeks and several of the videos having been shot in portrait mode.

A person sitting at a table with a birthday cake

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Sophie — age 18
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Sophie (and everyone else) at John Krasinski’s prom

And finally, we thoroughly enjoyed watching Peter Willis (my nephew, not my brother) and his two teammates from Blake High School (a public school) mop the floor with the team from Bullis School (annual tuition: $40,000) and BASIS Independent McLean (annual tuition: $30,000) in the quarterfinal round of “It’s Academic,” a Saturday-morning television quiz show that’s been running on our local NBC affiliate for 59 years. Peter’s team was crazy-fast on the buzzer and often had the answer out before I had fully processed the question. They were fun to watch, and it was a total beat-down. The final scores were Blake 715 — Bullis 455 — Basis 350. I almost felt sorry for those rich kids. (Not really.) He’s a handsome fellow, that Peter. The show ran on April 11th but was taped on January 11th. I’m not sure when the semifinals were to have been recorded, but apparently not before Covid shut everything down.

A group of people sitting in front of a television

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Peter and his “It’s Academic” teammates. (Photo used without permission from the show’s Facebook page. Sue me.)

As someone who prefers getting takeout to eating in restaurants, who prefers watching movies at home to sitting in theaters, who prefers working from my personal 90-square-foot corner office (which I share only with three of my bikes) to working anyplace else, and who generally requires a extraordinarily compelling reason to attend any social gathering in the best of times, this has not in any way become an ordeal for me. Assuming I finish today’s, I’ll be up to a 24-day New York Times crossword puzzle streak.

And so I’m fine—we’re fine—but we’re also unbelievably fortunate. Whenever I’m inclined to dunk on people who are clamoring to start re-opening everything, I remind myself that I’m not any smarter than they are. I’m just lucky enough (for now) to be getting paid and finding contentment with things as they are. Sheer dumb luck.

Stay safe (whatever that means). Don’t take medical advice from a president who believes McDonald’s is healthy and exercise isn’t. Don’t drink bleach.   

Love, Tim

[1] As anyone who cares to follow me on Strava knows, I’m actually in the habit of leaving the state virtually every time I get on my bike. (I’m down to about 3 rides per week now that I’m not commuting to work anymore.) The governor’s office subsequently clarified that I don’t need to quarantine for 14 days each time I return to Maryland so long as I don’t leave the capital region.

[2] I wear a mask outdoors for the same reason I sort my garbage and recycle. I don’t think it’s really helping, but I also don’t want people thinking I’m a monster.

Vol. 23, No. 3

Dear Family

The events of this month have reminded me of a story told by Aunt Rebecca (I think it was Aunt Rebecca) at a family reunion many years ago about how her father (my Grandpa Willis) attempted to explain to his six daughters (and perhaps to a lesser degree his two sons) that, if you know what you’re doing, you really ought to be able to make do with just two squares of toilet paper.

The fact that Crystal’s most recent Safeway run found it cleaned out not only of toilet paper but also of napkins, facial tissue, and paper towels is further evidence that Grandpa, who came of age during the Great Depression and died in 1997, may have been a man ahead of his time. (The run on every conceivable type of paper product also raises the troubling likelihood there’s quite a bit of stuff getting flushed that shouldn’t be.)

30 rolls X 425 sheets per roll = 6,375 trips to the bathroom

The story about Grandpa and toilet paper may well be apocryphal (I’ll find out within a few hours of posting this) but it’s completely believable. This is, after all, the man whom I recall hearing lecture his posterity (at another family reunion) on the nuanced differences between tax evasion, which he did not recommend (because it’s illegal), and tax avoidance, which he characterized as part of a prudent, long-term investment strategy.

Grandpa was one of what I can only imagine is a relatively small number of people to have played both the Reims Cathedral organ (in France) and the Tabernacle organ (in Salt Lake City). To the extent that Sophie’s and my competence as organists can be attributed to our DNA, those genes seem likely to trace back primarily through him.

Meanwhile, I’m starting to wonder whether Sophie has played her last sacrament meeting as our ward organist. Because the pandemic has not yet afflicted the five people living here in any significant way—no one’s sick, I’m still getting paid to work from home, and (perhaps most important) we still have reliable broadband internet and many years of quality content to stream—my mind is free to fret over the possibility that all this could change tomorrow. Not having any idea what life will look like a month from now—two months from now, six months from now—is profoundly unsettling.

(Also unsettling is the fact that our Wi-Fi reliably reaches every corner of the house except my side of the bed. Crystal is getting better at suppressing her frustration whenever she enters the room to find my laptop and me set up on her side, but I don’t know how much longer we can live like this.)

The uncertainty of our future hit me hardest earlier this week when Sophie reserved her spot in BYU’s Heritage Halls for the upcoming school year. Heritage is the enclave of on-campus dorms with kitchens where residents do their own cooking – total rent for the 8-month academic year (which I include for the sole purpose of making my local friends who read this jealous): $3,875. I sincerely hope that five months hence we’ve reached a point on “the curve” where she can move in. But it is becoming less and less difficult to envision a scenario in which we haven’t.

But whatever happens, BYU mailed her some socks this week, so she’s got that going for her.

Sophie with her BYU welcome packet and socks, which arrived this week.

So Sophie’s in. Hannah, meanwhile, is out. BYU cancelled graduation, which would have been on April 23rd. My guess, unless something unimaginable and miraculous transpires, is that Crystal and I will cancel our trip out there next month, but we haven’t done it yet.

Hannah continues to log long hours (70 last week) at the nursing home. Amazingly, she appears to genuinely enjoy this. She reports that no one there has been diagnosed with COVID-19 (yet).

(I now have this irrepressible need to qualify all my negative statements with the word yet. My unsettling feelings of uncertainty seem to be amplified by companion sentiments of foreboding and inevitability. I’m clearly not the only one who feels this way. A work colleague told me the other day that she was “on an every-other-day anxiety schedule.” When I asked what day she was on, she replied, “I’m honestly not sure.”)

Anyway, Hannah’s nursing home is perpetually short-staffed because no one can come to work for 14 days if they develop so much as a mild cough. One of Hannah’s jobs is to take the temperature of everyone entering the facility and have them sign a statement asserting that they have no symptoms.

As of this instant, Sophie’s high school graduation has not yet been officially cancelled. It of course will be. As will prom and any number of spring rites of passage for American high school seniors. I asked her the other day whether having high school end this way saddened her. “Not particularly,” she replied. “I was getting pretty tired of it.”

Sophie: Scholar Athlete

For those of us who are not (yet) suffering, life sometimes feels like it’s becoming an exercise in waiting for the next thing to be cancelled. You’ll be sad and unsurprised to learn that the Kinetic (half-iron) triathlon on May 9th, which I’ve done a half-dozen times, has been cancelled. The next race on my calendar is the Baltimore 10 Miler on the first Saturday in June. That has not yet been canceled, but it will be. The YMCA has been closed since Monday, March 16th, leaving me (and the rest of the world) with no place to swim. As depressing as this is for me, I can only imagine what it’s like for real swimmers.

And so I fill the extra time with more running and cycling. I’m on no particular training schedule, because I don’t even know what I’m training for anymore, but logging the miles brings me a modicum of solace. It’s also been quite some time since anyone honked at me on me on my bike because there are so few cars on the roads.

I biked down to the cherry blossoms early (i.e., before dawn) two Fridays ago thinking I would have the place to myself and was surprised by the number of people we encountered. It was not difficult to stay away from people in such an open area, but we wouldn’t have gone if we’d known that everyone else was going to have the same idea. Sorry—we’ll never do it again.

I feel like I’m encountering more fellow runners now than before the pandemic. People have various ways of respecting (or ignoring) the six-foot buffer zone on the Sligo Creek Trail (where I do most of my running). The paved trail is a solid 8 feet wide, which would theoretically allow ample space for safely passing. But the other day a woman running in the opposite direction saw me approaching and veered so far off the trail to avoid me that I thought she might fall into the creek.

It felt like I was back in high school.

Speaking of which, my 30th reunion, which would have taken place this Memorial Day weekend, has also been cancelled (or “postponed” or whatever euphemism we’re using today). It’s unlikely that I would have gone anyway. I haven’t been to any past reunions, and I think I’m connected to a grand total of three former classmates on Facebook. Earlier this month I sent a friend request to my best friend from 6th thru 9th grade. If he were going to the reunion, I might have considered it, but he ignored my request.

I sometimes joke that Moorestown High School, reflecting the 338-year-old South Jersey Quaker town in which I grew up, is “102 percent white.” (Our mascot is the “Quakers,” which might raise alarms about cultural appropriation in the 21st Century, but I don’t recall any major street protests over it in the 20th.)

Go Quakers!

The “102 percent” statistic is a mild exaggeration. (Moorestown, according to Wikipedia, was only 90 percent white as of the 2000 Census, though I expect that figure was higher in 1990.) But it got me to thinking about how different my adolescent circle was from my daughters’. Earlier this month, before “things fell apart” (to quote my missionary niece, Abby), it came up in some conversation somewhere that (for now, anyway) a majority of people in the United States consider themselves white.

Grace could not (and still can’t) bring herself to believe this is actually true. A glance at the demographics of the schools she has attended provides some insight as to why. According to the school district’s website, our neighborhood elementary school (which all four girls attended) is 34 percent white; Grace’s middle school (which everyone except Lucy attended) is 27 percent white; and Grace’s high school (which everyone except Hannah attended) is 14 percent white.

With the occasional exception of middle school, which tends to be awful for everybody everywhere (my theory is that if you have mostly positive memories of middle school, then you were probably part of the problem), the girls have had mostly good educational experiences and great friends at all of these schools. This place isn’t perfect—it’s not half as tolerant as it thinks it is—but it’s been terrific for us.

It feels like an awfully long time ago, but the first third of the month was actually fairly eventful.

It began with a celebration of Grace’s 15th birthday. In what we did not realize would turn out to be a theme for the rest of the month, we marked the occasion by ordering in from Red Maple (an Asian restaurant in the neighborhood) and watching an old episode of Monk on Amazon.

Grace’s 15th Birthday

Something resembling this has become a nearly nightly tradition. Grace’s birthday was only different in that it included cake and Sophie’s ceremonial reading of the March 2005 Famlet, which recounts the events surrounding Grace’s birth. Sometimes I wonder why I write this stupid thing every month. Little things like this I guess are one reason.   

The first 10 days of the month also included Lucy’s portrayal of Cinderella alongside other Montgomery College students at a “character brunch” for children at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda. She sang something—I can’t remember what—and I didn’t hear it (or get any pictures) because they don’t let people like me into Walter Reed. But I’m sure it was lovely.

Sophie, who has recently taken a liking to basketball, joined our ward Young Women’s team. I don’t think they won any games, but the stake president praised her tenacious defense and the fact that she had “almost made two fouls shots” (a diplomatic and churchy way of saying that she had missed both shots). Sophie, being Sophie, continued working at it and actually scored 4 (of the team’s 11) points in one of her last games. She was clearly trending upward and almost certainly on the verge of multiple scholarship and contract offers.

But then the world stopped.

I’ve been working exclusively from home since March 11th, and schools have been closed since March 13th. Lucy’s and Sophie’s Montgomery College classes restarted (remotely) on Monday, the 23rd, and the first phase of the Montgomery County Public Schools “online learning plan” begins tomorrow. This mind-blowing (to me) undertaking has required distributing some extraordinary number of laptops and internet hotspots in order to ensure that all of the county’s 163,000 public school students have access to the various online learning platforms and activities. I still can’t get my head around it, but I’m genuinely impressed by the scale of the effort.

Meanwhile, I guess we’re just taking things one day at a time like everybody else. Our toilet paper supply is okay for now. One of Sophie’s friends/classmates works at the nearby Woodmoor Bakery and sometimes brings us surplus croissants, donuts, and bread, so that we’ve got that going for us. And so long as Trader Joe’s can manage to keep milk and Frosted Maple and Brown Sugar Shredded Bite-Size Wheats in stock, I think there’s a chance we can make it through this.

In truth, we are mildly inconvenienced but not suffering at all (yet). Our hearts go out to the many who are. Crystal chokes up a little when she prays out loud for the people working in the grocery stores. We are grateful for them, for the smart and wise people who are trying to work out what “The Next Right Thing” is (sorry, we just watched Frozen II), and for you.

Love, Tim

Vol. 23, No. 2

Dear Family

Mental health care has come a long way since 1885 when Utah’s “Territorial Insane Asylum” opened in Provo.

Today, no longer physically separated from the rest of town by swampland and the city dump, the historic facility is called the Utah State Hospital, and Hannah is doing one of her final clinical rotations there.

Many of my Willis/Cannon relatives already know this, but Hannah was surprised when I told her that the administration building at the Utah State Hospital is named after my great-uncle.

“You mean the Heninger building?” she asked.

Yes, that one. Dr. Owen Pratt Heninger, upon becoming superintendent of the hospital in 1942 (according to Wikipedia) “recognized the need for change…and…pioneered a new treatment philosophy. His new treatments included adopting smaller treatment units, involving patients in the implementation of their own treatment plans, and encouraging more humane treatment.”

Uncle Owen died 30 years ago in Provo while I was a freshman at BYU. I did not know him (though we probably met) but that’s some nice stuff he did.

And so I suppose it’s only fitting that Hannah would enjoy working at the Utah State Hospital as much as she seems to. It sounds like there’s a real job waiting for her there after graduation in two months if she wants it, and I think she might want it. Part of her training for working there involved learning certain types of “holds” for subduing patients when necessary. It strikes me as a skill that would be useful away from the hospital as well.

Four months after Hannah graduates from BYU, Sophie will begin there—her acceptance letter having arrived last weekend. It was a relief all around, but in hindsight I probably shouldn’t have been overly concerned. She continues to make the Dean’s List at Montgomery College, where she’ll graduate with an associate degree at the same time she finishes high school. Sophie’s adviser in this dual program (known as Montgomery College Middle College or “MC-Squared”) commented on Crystal’s Facebook post announcing Sophie’s acceptance with information he had gleaned from BYU’s website about the general education requirements that will be waived for Sophie by virtue of her starting with a degree.

It was keeping me awake at night because we hadn’t really helped her think through a Plan B had BYU said no. Sophie didn’t even apply to Maryland—I’m not sure why not. She had been admitted to other schools—the closest one to home being Temple University in Philadelphia—but I don’t think she was seriously considering going there, not that there’s anything wrong with Temple. I remember Temple’s most famous alum being Bill Cosby when I was growing up. I don’t know whose picture they’re putting in the marketing materials these days, but it’s presumably no longer his.

Sophie’s heading to BYU in the fall.

Five months have passed since I last wrote about my bike commute. I think that’s long enough.

Without question, the most enjoyable part of the let’s-call-it 14 miles between home and my Arlington office is the 8-mile stretch between the Maryland/D.C. line and Georgetown when I ride through Rock Creek Park—mostly on Beach Drive—and encounter precisely one traffic light. (I love Washington. Is there another city on earth where you can ride a bike 8 miles right through the middle of it and only hit one light?)

I could avoid even this one light if I rode through the park on the nearby trail rather than on Beach Drive proper. The fact that I prefer to risk life and limb by jockeying with the rush hour traffic on the road should give you an idea of how little I care for the trail. Most people—notably the occasional angry motorist who honks and screams at me while gesticulating wildly in the general direction of it—incorrectly refer to this paved trail as “the bike path.” I understand why people call this trail a bike path. People do ride bikes on it. But people also run on it, walk on it, push strollers on it, ride skateboards and scooters on it, let their kids and dogs meander across it, and otherwise turn it into an obstacle course for anyone wanting to go faster than 8 miles an hour. Plus, the surface is not consistently great. Most motorists will never understand this, but for these and other reasons, only a proper road is conducive to the speed at which I pedal my bicycle. It’s hard to explain all this to someone who just honks, shouts, and speeds away.

Beach Drive (speed limit 25) and the “Rock Creek Trail”

I had an unusual encounter this month with a driver on Beach at the aforementioned traffic light. The driver was stopped at the light and I rolled to a stop behind him. While I was waiting for the light to change, the driver emerged from his car and walked back toward me. He stopped about 5 feet away, pointed at me, and said in a flat, authoritarian tone of voice, “Get in the bike lane.”

A million thoughts run through your head in a situation like that. Beach Drive doesn’t have a bike lane and I could only assume he was referring to the trail and meant to say “bike path.” Given enough time, I might have explained to the driver that I’d ride in a bike lane if one existed. But before I could say anything, the driver had turned around and begun walking back to his car.

The light turned green, and before he could get moving again, I sprinted around him and beat him through the intersection.

It was a total jerk move on my part. I did it for no other reason than to antagonize and infuriate the guy, which I realize was a pretty stupid thing to do under the circumstances. But it had its intended effect. Predictably, he floored it, roared past me, pulled back in front of me, and then (unpredictably) slammed on his brakes and slowed to about 5 miles per hour. I’ll never know exactly what he was trying to accomplish with this. Was he daring me to pass him again? I certainly could have, but that didn’t feel like such a good idea. And so I kept riding slowly behind him until the parade of cars behind me started honking at him (presumably) and he drove away. I hope he had an unhappy Valentine’s Day.

Ours was nice. We celebrated by opening the “family love box”—a tradition Crystal initiated many years ago in which we all write love letters to one another and put them into a box like in elementary school. We then read our letters while eating a strawberry cake shaped like a heart.

It’s a pretty great tradition.

After opening the Family Love Box, we eat a heart-shaped cake. It’s a Valentine’s Day Tradition

We marked Presidents Day by finally visiting what I can only imagine is President Trump’s favorite Smithsonian museum—the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

(See, I did a joke there—no one can actually imagine the president willfully setting foot in any museum. Unless there’s one somewhere devoted to him.)

The museum has been open since 2016, and it’s bordering on criminal that it has taken us this long to go. But it’s been tough until recently because a bazillion other people have wanted to go, too, and I’m generally too lazy to do anything that requires me to plan far enough in advance to obtain a timed ticket. It’s a lovely place, but once you go you quickly figure out that it really wasn’t designed to handle hordes of people all at once.

But it’s easier to get in now, as evidenced by the fact that we walked right in on a spring-like Presidents Day when the National Mall was bustling with families and other gawkers. We had to wait a little while to get down the elevator to the beginning of the main exhibit, but it wasn’t too bad.

We spent several hours there and only got through the three levels of underground stuff. If you’ve been there, then you know what I mean. If you haven’t, then you should go.

It was eye-opening, but I can’t say I’m in a hurry go back. Parts of it were reminiscent of going to the Holocaust Museum in that the experiences are both physically and emotionally exhausting. It was also like the Holocaust Museum in that part of my motivation for going was genuine interest. But mostly, it just kind of felt like something I was obligated as a human being to see.

With Sophie & Grace inside the Contemplative Court at the National Museum of African American History and Culture

And finally, the sister missionaries serving in our ward texted me on Tuesday to tell me they had encountered a man who had kind things to say about some really nice Willis kids whom his kids go to Blake High School with. The sisters asked me to tell my kids what “awesome examples” they are. I replied that my kids don’t go to Blake, but my brothers’ kids do and that I’d pass the commendation along to them. This is how I’m doing it.

Incidentally, that our ward’s missionaries would be working the street of people who go to high school with my nephews who don’t live in our stake, is exhibit 4,937 in the case against our dumb stake boundaries. I’m never going to win that case, but I’ll probably also never tire of complaining about it.

On the other hand, if the stake boundaries were drawn intelligently, then I might not have had the privilege of knowing Mike Keller, at whose funeral I played the organ earlier today. I met Mike when he and I were seminary teachers 17 years ago. He would later serve in the stake presidency and finally as stake patriarch. It’s possible I’ve never met a more kind-hearted person. I am a better person for having known him, and so maybe I shouldn’t gripe so much.

I’m probably a better person for knowing you, too.

Love, Tim

Vol. 23, No. 1

A contributing factor to the unique nature of our church is the curious fact that none of our leaders—literally none of them—volunteer or apply for their positions. Leaders at every level are selected through a process in which existing leaders attempt to discern the mind and will of God on the matter through a combination of intellectual and spiritual means. My experience has found this to be an inexact science, but one that works remarkably well a lot of the time. My only quibble with the process is that it tends to select for mostly likeminded people who don’t share my (admittedly unorthodox) view that a vast majority of the world’s meetings are a waste of everybody’s time.

Our stake is probably not unlike yours (or anyone else’s) in its apparent belief that those challenges inherent to mortal life that cannot be solved by convening a special bonus meeting to talk about them can only be solved by convening an unending series of such meetings.

It was in this spirit of hardheartedness and general grumpiness that I walked into yesterday’s 2½-hour session at the church on dealing with mental health issues in our families. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the issue or find it important. I just didn’t think it was something that a big meeting would necessarily help with.

My typical M.O. in this situation would be just not to go (which is arguably no worse than going and complaining about it). But Crystal was on the speaking panel, and I wanted to hear what she had to say. Plus, it was cold and rainy out, and so I went.

Crystal was joined on the panel by another woman—a clinical social worker—and a counselor in the stake presidency with a daughter whose mental health challenges are reminiscent of Lucy’s. All three speakers were quite good and deftly handled a wide range of questions from those who attended.

Midway through I was forced to admit to myself that this probably wasn’t the waste of time I originally believed it would be. And I was reminded for perhaps the 498th time that whenever decision makers at church (again—unpaid people who didn’t ask for their jobs) make choices that annoy me, I ultimately end up feeling foolish at least 75 percent of the time for having allowed myself to become annoyed to begin with. Maybe someday (hopefully before I die) I’ll stop having to relearn this lesson over and over.

The girls look into the box at Ford’s Theater where Lincoln was shot
Sophie in the bedroom where Abraham Lincoln died
Sophie makes a January buche de Noel

Speaking of mental health and inexact science, you may recall that I mentioned near the end of last month’s letter that I had begun taking a daily 16-mg dose of some drug whose name I couldn’t remember for my self-diagnosed ADHD.

I subsequently learned that the doses were actually 18 mg and can now remember without looking at the bottle that the drug is atomoxetine, a generic version of something called Strattera. It differs from methylphenidate (i.e., Ritalin, Conerta, etc.) and Adderall in that it is not a stimulant, which means it is not a controlled substance and has no street value. This makes the procurement process for my meds a lot easier than that of, say, Lucy’s meds.[1]

I went back to the doctor last week and told him I felt like the atomoxetine might be helping. I allowed that part of my improvement may have had to do with transitioning to some different responsibilities at work—things that I’m actually kind of good at (for a change) and that I rather enjoy. I also suggested that if you give me a pill and tell me it’ll help improve my attentiveness, there’s bound to be some placebo effect.

The doctor responded to this by upping my dosage to 40 mg. I found a nearby pharmacy that sells it for less than one-third the nearly $8 per pill that CVS charged me last month.[2] I’m hoping the reduced cost will not dampen its placebo powers.

Drug prices really only matter to me in the first part of the year, before we inevitably hit our annual health insurance deductible. Grace helped us get there earlier than usual a year ago when she broke her ankle in January 2019. She helped get us right back on track this year by requiring an emergency room visit a couple of weeks ago.

It was a little past 5:00 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 10th.  I was at the office in Arlington and Crystal was with Sophie at the Maryland Thespian Festival (more on that below).

Grace texted complaining of nausea and sharp pains in her lower right abdomen. Remembering an episode of Gilmore Girls (a series she has watched in its entirety at least 7 times) in which one of the characters develops appendicitis, Grace feared she might have that, and so I called her pediatrician. The office was closed and I got whoever was on call. I conferenced in Grace and had the two of them talk to each other. After hearing Grace describe her symptoms, the doctor said that he couldn’t rule out appendicitis and told me I should take her to the hospital that night. He emphasized that it wasn’t something that should wait until morning.

And so I hopped on my bike at 5:35, pedaled home from the office, changed my clothes as quickly as I could, didn’t eat or shower, jumped in the car with Grace and had her to the Holy Cross Hospital emergency room by 7:00.

We were joined in the E.R. by what appeared to be roughly 17 billion other people. (I’m not sure what the precise population of the earth is, but most of them were at Holy Cross that night.) By 9:00 p.m. Grace still had not been seen by anyone other than the triage nurse at the front door. Around that time, Sophie and Crystal arrived with food for me.

We decided that there wasn’t any reason for all of us to sit around the waiting room, and so it was decided that Sophie and I would go home. Crystal, after all, hadn’t done much that day—arising at 5:00 a.m. to teach her 6:15 seminary class, going directly from there with Sophie to Northwood to pick up the other drama students (and their teacher) and drive everyone up to Baltimore for the thespian festival, spend all day there, drive back, and come home just long enough to make me a sandwich and bring it to the hospital.

In my defense, I offered Crystal the option to go home. But she said she wouldn’t be able to sleep anyway, and so I went home and to bed. Crystal and Grace finally came home around 4:30 a.m. with no diagnosis other than “abdominal pain.” They ruled out appendicitis and ovarian cysts and suggested Grace visit her pediatrician. The pediatrician subsequently couldn’t say for sure what was causing the pain (medical diagnosis can be an inexact science) but she suspected constipation and prescribed prunes. Grace hates prunes and probably would have preferred an appendectomy. She seems to be doing better now.  

Grace after 8 hours in the Holy Cross ER.

As alluded to above, Crystal and Sophie spent all of that Friday and Saturday at the Maryland State Thespian Festival at Towson University (just north of Baltimore) with two of Sophie’s classmates and their drama teacher. The two days included multiple adjudicated performances, highlighted by Sophie’s solo performance of “So Big/So Small” from the musical Dear Evan Hansen.

One of two adjudicators awarded Sophie a perfect score (24 out of 24) and recommended her for the “showcase” event. The other adjudicator apparently heard something s/he didn’t like and gave Sophie only a 16 out of 24. The combined score knocked her down to a mere “Excellent” (as opposed to “Superior”) rating. This was mildly disappointing because only “Superior” performers received special recognition and were afforded the opportunity to spend even more money to participate in the International Thespian Festival (in Indiana) in June. We’ll get over it.

I don’t know what could have accounted for the large disparity in the scores. I didn’t hear the performance, but obviously, as Sophie’s father, I can only assume that it was the less-generous judge who was mistaken.

Sophie is also on the high school diving team, and it’s reminiscent of the judging I see there. High school diving judges (like all other swim meet officials) are just parents who volunteer and receive a modicum of “training” in what to look for. While I was tabulating and entering the scores at last weekend’s meet it was not particularly unusual to see 4s and 7s awarded to the same dive. Attempting to discern the will of God is apparently far from the only inexact science humans rely on in their decision making. But somehow these things tend to work out.

Sophie prepares to dive
Sophie and Grace at the last regular-season swim meet of the year.
Crystal judges the legality of strokes and turns

Finally, Crystal, Sophie and I attended a fascinating memorial service for one Jack Mitchell (not a relative) at the nearby Good Shepherd Episcopal Church a couple of Sundays ago. (We would have a shorter trip to our regular worship services if we were Episcopalians…or Lutherans, or Jews, or Catholics, or Buddhists or almost anything other than what we are.) Jack lived in our neighborhood and Sophie has been classmates at times with his daughter Hailey. I met him once or twice when picking up Sophie from birthday parties but never had any idea what an amazing life he had led. You learn the most amazing things about people at funerals. Jack had been instrumental in bringing down big tobacco according to his Washington Post obituary, which also included this gem: “Among his most audacious exploits was a 1980 expedition to the Colombian jungle, where he delivered a $250,000 ransom to a group of leftist guerrillas to free Richard Starr, a Peace Corps volunteer who had been kidnapped three years earlier.” Seriously, go back and read that sentence again! (The whole obituary is actually worth your time.)This guy lived in my neighborhood and our paths crossed. How stupid am I for not getting to know him better?

It was one of those times that simultaneously made me feel good about the human race for having produced such a fine specimen and bad about how little I’ve done with my life.

I’m grateful to still have time to perhaps make something of myself and get to know the people around me a little better.

Love, Tim

[1] Lucy and her meds are flying home from Utah today following a long weekend there with Hannah and JT. The house has felt unsettlingly quiet at times without her and we’re looking forward to having her home again!

[2] Maybe if CVS started selling cigarettes again, they wouldn’t have to gouge their pharmacy customers.