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