Vol. 24, No. 2

Dear Family,

Months like this one remind me that Dante may have been onto something in Inferno when he depicts the ninth (i.e., the worst) circle of hell not as fire and brimstone, but as an extremely cold place where Satan is trapped in ice.1 Worrying about our Texas relatives, I was reminded of the time a decade ago when we lost power for 15 hours during a winter storm.2 I observed to my cousin Julie, who lives in Austin and was among the fortunate ones who lost power for only 28 hours but retained hot, running water, that while summer power outages are supremely annoying, losing power in extreme cold is terrifying. I obviously wasn’t telling her anything she didn’t already know and I’m glad things seem to be improving there.

We’ve had a lot of winter weather this month — more than in the past several years and enough to cancel church on three consecutive Sundays. No one’s complaining about that, but the specter of spending eternity in these conditions (presumably without a working furnace) is enough to make me want to repent.

Assuming you don’t live in a developing country, Maryland’s vaccine rollout has probably been less efficient than wherever you live.3 As with the Texas power fiasco and everything else that goes wrong in life, people will find a way of blaming this entirely on whatever political tribe they don’t affiliate with. But fortunately, Crystal was able to jump the queue by virtue of being an educator and now has two shots of Pfizer in her (as opposed to Hannah, who got two shots of Moderna — we hope they prove equally effective). The rest of us remain fully exposed.

It appears Crystal’s inoculation will get its first real test at the beginning of April. That is when she is scheduled to first set foot inside the middle school where she’s been working since late last year. (She doesn’t even have an ID badge yet.) Students are going back to school in a phased approach the prioritizes the youngest students and students with special needs. Crystal’s charges — seventh graders with Asperger’s syndrome — are somewhere in the middle.

It is not yet clear to me what “in-person learning” will look like with so many students opting to stay remote. It seems to vary even within the district. Some schools will have an in-classroom teacher providing a conventional experience to the students who are present while simultaneously broadcasting to the remote learners over Zoom (kind of like how we’re all doing sacrament meeting now). Rumor has it (i.e., parents are complaining on social media) that at some schools, teaching will apparently continue over Zoom for everyone — the only difference between the in-person and remote students being that the in-person students will follow the lesson on their laptops from desks inside a school building. It sounds like there might be other models, too. The school district’s website mentions “a combination of instructional experiences to meet the needs of students,” but I can’t find any public information about what’s happening where. I guess we’ll find out. I guess I don’t really care since Grace, her extrovert tendencies notwithstanding, is opting to continue remote learning.

Remote learning appears to be working okay for Grace. Her chemistry teachers (this semester and last) are both British. She likes them and is growing accustomed to how they pronounce and spell things like aluminum/aluminium. Having a teacher who pronounces words differently than his students do is charming but not without downsides. Only recently did Grace learn that manganese is its own element and not just the British way of pronouncing magnesium, as she originally assumed. One downside of remote learning we did not originally appreciate is the difficulty of taking a chemistry class in a room without a periodic table on the wall.

And so we ordered a large periodic table and somehow found room for it among the many, many Taylor Swift posters on Grace’s bedroom wall.

Grace had been struggling earlier this month with stoichiometry (a funny-sounding word in any accent) and as much as I enjoyed reacquainting myself with molecular weights, moles and figuring out how many grams of whatever ferric salt you need to mix with something else to get 28 grams of iron, it’s not something that’s come up a lot since I learned it back in the ’80s. I eventually helped her get the right answer. But, according to her teacher, my way of doing it only works some of the time while his funny-sounding British way works all the time. This forced Grace to decide whether to take stoichiometry advice from a chemistry teacher or from a French major who hasn’t touched a chemistry textbook this century. Fortunately, I think she made the right choice and now feels she is “killing it” (her words) in stoichiometry.4

I haven’t met Grace’s chemistry teacher but I know I’d like him. He writes crisply worded emails, which is reason enough to like anybody, and he announced at the beginning of class on February 16th that it was “Pancake Day” in the U.K.5 We had pancakes for dinner that night to celebrate, but, having looked it up, pancake is yet another one of those words that doesn’t mean precisely the same thing there that it does here. (What they call a pancake most of us would call a crêpe.)

Pancake Day ushered in the start of Lent. Our family did not observe Lent when I was growing up, and I imagine most of us still don’t. But some church friends of ours started doing it (not out of religious obligation — I think they just think it’s a good thing to do), and this has rubbed off on Crystal, Grace, and possibly Sophie.

I’ve always thought of Lent as kind of pointless since the most popular things people give up for it (apart from chocolate) are things I’m not particularly inclined to do anyway.6 I considered trying to give up sugar for the 73rd time. I even considered trying to give up being a jackass. But I knew I would fail at both of those things and so I figured why torture myself. (I have other ways of doing that.)

Crystal claims to be giving up bacon and Grace is giving up social media (or possibly just Instagram). I wish them luck even though I don’t really see the point in it. And like any of a million other practices, I will probably roll my eyes at it right up until the moment that I inevitably adopt it.

Grace got her learner’s permit since I last wrote, which means the clock is now officially counting down toward the day when we run out of children who can’t drive. I drove Grace to what Maryland calls the “Motor Vehicle Administration” (MVA) and, thanks to the pandemic, it was by far the most un-MVA experience of my life. Which means it was awesome. Everything is by appointment now, and so the wretched sea of humanity you usually encounter upon entering the MVA has been replaced by a mostly empty waiting room. Usually the person manning the check-in booth hands you a number and you go and sit for an hour waiting for your number to be called. This time, they called Grace’s number over the loudspeaker literally as the guy was handing it to her. I misplaced my drivers license earlier this week. I found it a couple of days later but the intervening time was not especially stressful because the thought of having to deal with the MVA seemed downright pleasant.7

Anyway, Grace passed her written exam, which, now that all my kids have passed it, I don’t mind saying is WAY too easy. I’ve long held that we could address a myriad of social ills simply by restricting drivers licenses to people with IQs of at least 85, releasing all the people in prison for drug offenses and replacing them with motorists who fail to yield to pedestrians, and quadrupling taxes on gasoline. But nobody cares what I think. (And probably for good reason.)

Sophie had her wisdom teeth extracted today and seems to be doing okay. She’s lucky to have such a nice big sister nearby. Hannah drove her to the oral surgeon, picked her up afterward, and apparently has been taking care of her ever since. The procedure was required by the missionary application process she’s now going through. I’m about 38.1 percent certain that requiring prospective missionaries to get their wisdom teeth out is part of an elaborate scam perpetrated against the Church and its members by the Utah Dental Association.8 It all seems kind of pointless given how unlikely it is that she’ll be assigned to serve in an area without reliable dental care. If recent trends around here hold, it’s even money she’ll get sent to Utah. (Which of course would be just fine. It’s just that it’s already hard enough explaining the concept of missions to friends whose distorted understanding of them is informed primarily by The Book of Mormon (the musical) without also having to explain why the Church needs missionaries in Utah.) But I’m glad Sophie’s mouth is okay.

She called a few weeks ago as the Super Bowl was kicking off to ask where she could watch it. I told her it was on CBS, but that of course meant nothing to her. Even though Sophie has always lived in a house with 80 bajillion cable channels, she, like many 18 year olds, has only a vague concept of live, broadcast TV. If it’s on any streaming service, she can find it in 8 nanoseconds. If it’s on “Channel 9,” forget about it.

Sophie’s roommates had made arrangements to watch the game with the one designated apartment of boys that her apartment is officially allowed to hang out with in quarantine. I imagine Sophie would have enjoyed that, but she had a family tradition to uphold. That tradition involves watching the game at Grant and Jen’s house with Grandma and Grandpa, their four Maryland-resident sons, those sons’ 14 children (minus those who have left the nest, which is happening at an alarming rate), and Aunt Coco. Like Thanksgiving and Christmas, this tradition also fell victim to the pandemic.

Dad did not approve of our watching football on Sundays growing up. (His preference in this matter had little practical effect since church responsibilities kept him away from home most Sunday afternoons and Mom liked watching the Eagles.) But he picked his battles wisely and, along with his aversion to caffeinated soft drinks and face cards,9 Dad’s disapproval of Sunday football seems to have eroded away entirely. (That’s how Satan gets ya. He plays the long game.) But even in the old days, he almost always joined us for the Super Bowl. I’m not sure why those are such pleasant memories for me, but they are.

This year’s Super Bowl party was a virtual affair, with brothers sharing photos from their respective family rooms. But my favorite picture of all is the one below of Abby and Sophie in Sophie’s apartment with Super Bowl-themed frosted sugar cookies (one of the most important parts of the tradition). Seeing these two cousins carry on a family tradition (however unimportant) on their own from 2,000 miles away makes me happy.

Abby and Sophie in Sophie’s Heritage Halls apartment (with Boomer Esiason in the foreground, probably offering advice on how to throw interceptions at key moments). If I had to guess, I’d say the cookie in Abby’s left hand is a Tampa Bay Buccaneers flag, and the cookie in Sophie’s left hand is a culturally insensitive Kansas City Chiefs arrowhead.

And finally, there’s the ongoing saga of our roof, which for the past several months has been partially covered by an attractive, small (6 sq. ft.) blue tarp. At some point, probably more than a year ago by now, unusually strong winds knocked some shingles off our roof. It was a little disconcerting when Crystal started finding them scattered around the yard, but it wasn’t obvious (from the ground) where exactly they’d come from. Neither of us had any particular interest in climbing up onto the roof, and so we adopted my usual approach of ignoring problems until they become un-ignorable.

It didn’t take long for various roofing companies to begin canvassing the neighborhood. One of them happened to be our neighbor from three doors down. Figuring that his was the least likely roofing company to screw us, we (Crystal) listened to what he had to say. He felt that the storm had likely done enough damage for our insurance company to pay for a new roof. And so Crystal told him that if that was indeed the case, then he could install it. He put the tarp over what I guess was the worst part and Crystal filed a claim with USAA.

USAA sent a guy out to inspect the damage. A week or two later we received word that our claim had been approved — for like $700. Basically just enough to fix the area under the tarp and nowhere near enough for a new roof. We relayed this to our neighbor who didn’t seem surprised, said something about how USAA always low-balls you the first time around, and suggested we submit the claim again. Which we did.

USAA sent a different guy over, but this time our roofer went up there with him, ostensibly to point out several other damaged areas he felt the first guy had overlooked. The inspector climbed down and told us he’d found enough issues to justify a full roof replacement. (He then smiled and said, “Yeah, you guys have a really good roof salesman.” I did not actually see any extra hundred dollar bills dangling from the guy’s pocket as he walked back to his truck, but I half-expected to.) Anyway, literally while I was conducting sacrament meeting last Sunday, I got a barrage of text alerts from USAA informing me that they had approved a significantly larger claim amount. Hopefully it’s enough as I’m really looking forward to no longer being the neighborhood yokel with a tarp on his roof.

We wish you the best of luck in the great American vaccine sweepstakes and hope this finds you happy, healthy, warm and dry.

Love,

Tim et al.

  1. This is how I remember it, at least. More than a quarter century has passed since I was compelled to read The Divine Comedy for my BYU History of Civilization class. (I was seduced by the name of the course, which was “The Pen and the Sword.” It turned out to be a lot more pen than sword and I nearly went blind from all the reading. I didn’t love Dante and would have been lost without two extraordinary professors (Griggs and another guy whose name escapes me at the moment). In reality, the fact that Dante’s hell is cold (and his heaven, conversely, is very, very hot) is all that I remember about it.
  2. as memorialized at the end of this letter from January 30, 2011, in which I also declare that I didn’t envision us ever owning a dog (a prediction that would hold up until early 2013) and provide evidence of Grace’s love affair with Taylor Swift going back as early as age 5
  3. We’re 45th in this ranking, down with perennial cellar-dwellers Mississippi and Arkansas but also with Texas (understandably) and Delaware.
  4. She also claims to be killing it in polynomial long division, but that’s a different class.
  5. I had to look this up. “Pancake Day” is how some British Christians informally refer to “Shrove Tuesday,” which, as I also had to look up, is the day before Ash Wednesday. I guess some people do Mardi Gras and other people eat pancakes. Christians are an eclectic bunch.
  6. For religious reasons, I obviously already abstain from alcohol, tobacco, recreational drugs, coffee, tea, mammals (though I consume a lot of their milk) and birds (though I eat a lot of their eggs).
  7. Never mind that it takes 2 months to get an appointment. The experience is worth the wait.
  8. I somehow managed to serve a mission without having my wisdom teeth removed. I seem to recall dutifully taking the form to my New Jersey dentist. He looked at the form, looked in my mouth, said something like, “You’re a kid. You don’t need your wisdom teeth out,” wrote something like that on the form and, yada, yada, yada, I’m now a 49-year-old returned missionary who still has his wisdom teeth.
  9. Two longstanding cultural taboos with no doctrinal basis — I should not lump these in with Sabbath observance since Sabbath observance is doctrinally important and something we take very seriously. We just don’t consider watching sports on TV as a family to be at odds with it.