Wednesday, October 6, 2010


Doubt is a noble thing. …[D]o not think that when I speak as one who knows with certainty that I do not also doubt; do not think, either, that when I doubt I am not also sensing right beside me, close enough to touch them, definite, indisputable things.
-- Czeslaw Milosz

I struggle with a lot of things.

Mormonism is built on knowing:  we are not satisfied with believing what we believe; obedience and study and fasting and prayer enables us to transcend belief, to actually see and know. Christ said that the pure in heart are blessed, for they shall see God, and we take that promise literally.  We are driven by the conviction that with the right amount of effort, with the proper levels of purity, we will have our own Sacred Grove experience.  Faith will end, for we will know.

The problem with that is that it's exhausting, this striving for purity.  It can lead to despair, when you are trying so hard to do right, to be Good, and not only are you not only seeing God; you can't even get Him to answer a prayer.  This is hard work, humbling, exhausting, and soul-stretching work.  Too hard, sometimes.   It's tempting to just slip quietly away.  (One of the things I've discovered, as I'm moved from ten years sitting on the stand to the strange anonymity of being the Former Bishop, is that you can not show up at Church, and nobody even notices.  One missed meeting becomes two, becomes three: I understand how people disappear.)

It's even more tempting to fashion a faux certainty.  We paper over our unkindness and intolerance and veniality with bluster, taking all of our closely held prejudices and calling them The Word of God.  There's no discernible tune in the bleating of our trumpets, but we play 'em loud and with confidence.  Lots of Mormons are wallowing in this goop, this mess of mangled doctrine, crackpot politics and lamebrained social criticism.  They need to pull themselves out.

There was a time when I wanted a vision, a manifestation, an irrefutable proof.  I didn't want light and knowledge; I wanted LIGHT! and KNOWLEDGE! personal revelation as presented by Cecil B. DeMille, with cheesy special effects and a cast of thousands.  I never got it, and I'm glad.

I have learned that Milosz was right.  

I do not need angels and visions to know that the Book of Mormon is true.  And I do not need the voices of dissent to know that knowing that is a difficult thing.  Light illuminates, but it also creates shadows.  Somehow the dark spots, the uncertainties, are as important to our growth as the places where the light shines with perfect brilliance. 

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Why I Hate Facebook

Not so very long ago, back in the days when people still communicated with ink and paper, Christmas brought with it the Christmas letter.

Christmas letters were horrid things, endless lists of Where I Vacationed and My Latest Diseases and Proof That My Children Are More Successful Than Yours.  It was bleak, poring through these epistles: "And in July, our 14 year old toy poodle, Mister Bumpkins, came face-to-snout with Jesus.  We're still grieving, but with time and prayer and several hundred hours of intense counseling, we're learning to cope."

The problem with Christmas letters is that, with very, very, very few exceptions, you already know what's going on in the lives of the people you care about, and you really don't care about what's going on in the others' lives, so what's the point?

Facebook is like receiving hundreds of Christmas letters, every day of the week, every hour of the day, for the rest of your life.  It's agony, the endless navel-gazing banality of it all.  For every legitimate piece of news -- "I got accepted to grad school," "the baby's fine," "the biopsy was negative" -- there are hundreds, possibly thousands of "I'm so bored" and "I am eating pie" and "help me win in Mafia Wars."  

I don't know what Mafia Wars is, and I don't want to ever find out.  

There are a few things that should stay private.  Bowel movements.  Romantic histories.  Political opinions.  It's all there on Facebook, pinned to a wall and inviting our comment. The last tattered shreds of Decency and Circumspection and Decorum, the stuff that was assaulted by Phil Donahue, brutalized by Oprah Winfrey, and subjected to the Unspeakable by Maury Povich and Jerry Springer and a host of imitators have been gathered up by Facebook, doused with jet fuel, and set aflame.  We stand shameless, a world of exhibitionists, naked as a "special guest" on the Howard Stern Show.  

So don't sit on the edge of your computer chair, waiting for me to update my status.

Conference Briefs

Friday, I bet my daughter that before Conference was over, President Monson would tell a story about visiting widows.  

I just won.

A couple of thoughts (one of my goals is to keep these entries short, so that people will actually read them):

-- I have never been more attentive, or more inspired by a Priesthood session.  Wonderful talks, wonderful counsel.  And it was made all the better by being there with my younger son (though we missed Number One son, who's up in New York).

-- I've always struggled with President Monson's speaking style, but my kids are sitting in front of the teevee right now, paying rapt attention.  He reaches people.  I need to pay closer attention.

-- President Packer's talk was important, because it represents a refocusing of the Church's position on marriage.  Policies have not changed, but we've spent so much time focusing on who shouldn't marry (and President Packer did spend some time on that), that we've taken for granted that marriage is actually working the way it's supposed to.  Love your children.  Love your spouses.  Avoid things -- cruelty, inattention, pornography -- that undermine family unity.  

One of the enduring challenges of belief is that we are so careless in living the standards we espouse, that our lives are an ineffectual argument for those standards.  The more we draw our hearts to Christ and Christian standards, the more compelling our endorsement of Christian principles.

I've always liked GK Chesterton's response to Bertram Russell's complaint that Christianity had been tried in the scales of history, and found wanting. Christianity hasn't been tried and found wanting, Chesterton replied; it has been found difficult, and therefore not tried.

Anyway, I feel rejuvenated, and desirous to recommit myself to what I know is right.


Trek is for Suckers

Mormonism has always strenuously exerted to keep its youth "unspotted from the world."  Some of these efforts, like Boy Scouting, persist.  Others, like Road Show, have slipped from prominence.  The search for a new way to "engage the youth," to help them understand that they are "a royal generation," is constant.

In my day, we had the supremely creepy Plane Crash Fireside:  the evening starts as a happy little play, depicting a typical LDS family getting ready for a big family vacation.  This all goes down in typical Mormon style, with slapstick and sappiness and some really lame efforts at appealing to contemporary sensibilities (playing Kevin, the teenage son, in one of these productions, I was required to refer to myself as "Big Daddy," because our director, the imperious Sister Frond'ohdiak, thought that was the way Kids Today talked.  This was in 1980: it was as authentic as Pat Boone rapping.)

So it's a typical feel-good Mormon night of fellowship, until the plane crashes (or the car is rammed by a drunk driver, or the houseboat is sunk by a North Korean torpedo: there are variations).  The family is dead; after whatever special effects were employed to convey this concept, the newly departed reappear on stage, dressed all in white.  Then they are judged.  For their sins.

The afterlife consisted of a quick tour of the three degrees of Glory, represented by graduating intensity of spotlight and quality of chair: folding chair for the Telestial Kingdom; Relief Society room chair for the Terrestrial Kingdom; wing back from the foyer, covered by a white sheet, for the Celestial.  High Council members, dressed in white, acted as "angelic guides" for the evening. I seem to remember that Big Daddy Kevin ended up in the Terrestrial Kingdom.  

It was all meant to be edifying for the youth, to spur them to greater heights of devotion and fidelity.  Mostly, it made us scared, scared and confused.

The sure-fire save our youth program du jour is Trek.  Youth dress in homespun and gingham outfits, and spend three days pulling plywood handcarts through a local state park or farmer's field.  Food and water rations are kept to a minimum: hard-core Treks often include a night where the youth are presented with a dinner consisting of live chickens, which they are required to slaughter, clean, pluck and roast over open fires.

Trek hits all the traditional Mormon high points: it's a lot of work to prepare and execute, and we LOVE for things to be hard; it acknowledges our shared pioneer history, though in a convert Church, most members' connection to the pioneers is more conceptual than literal; it is something that no one else is doing -- can you imagine the Presbyterians going on Trek? -- and we wear our peculiarity like a badge of honor.  And it teaches Gospel Principles to our youth, dips them into a long weekend marinade of Sacrifice and Good Works and Building the Kingdom of God.

Except it doesn't do any of those things, not really.  Trek is built on hoary tradition, turning a difficult and challenging period of Church history into a fetish.   

Something like 100,000 people made the journey to Salt Lake Valley, over a period of about 45 years.  Roughly 2,700 traveled by handcart.  Brigham Young came up with the handcart idea as a stopgap: the Church was near bankrupt; ox teams were expensive to maintain and in short supply; and the converts -- mostly poor people from Great Britain and northern Europe -- just kept coming.  Handcarts were meant to be a cheap and efficient means of conveying large groups of people to Salt Lake.
There were ten groups, or "companies" of handcart pioneers, and the 1,200 miles from their base camp at Iowa City (then the terminus of the westbound trains) to Salt Lake represented only a portion of their journey.  There was behind them a more than 3,000 mile journey by ship from Liverpool or some other European port to Boston or Philadelphia or New York, then a 1,200 mile train journey (no easy thing in the 1850's) to Iowa City.  Once they arrived in Salt Lake, they would be assigned a place to settle, somewhere within the Great Basin expanses of Deseret, and there were hundreds of miles more to journey, to the far edges of what is now Utah or Arizona or Nevada or Wyoming or Idaho or for a lucky few, southern California.  Walking the plains was the least of their challenges.

Most of these handcart pioneers came from industrial centers; the mills and factories of Manchester, England were a particularly fruitful ground for the Mormon missionaries (in his exhaustive journals, Wilford Woodruff writes of his first day in the soot and poverty and filth of that northern city, "I have seen Hell, and it is Manchester").  They were novices, ill-suited for the demands of cross-continental pioneering.  Coupled to their inexperience was the near-complete inattention from Church leadership.  Then as now, a significant number of Church members saw the converts less as a blessing than a burden, and many leaders were resentful of their assignment to shepherd these neophytes across the plains. 

This combination of inexperience and inattention results in a shameful episode (given the Mormons' actions against the Indians in the Black Hawk War and the massacre at Mountain Meadows, it's hard to call it the most shameful episode of the period, but it's close).  Two companies of completely inexperienced converts, the Willie Company and the Martin Company, were allowed to leave Iowa City at the end of summer, weeks behind the recommended schedule, mainly because leadership in Iowa did not want them hanging around all winter.  The expectation was that they would move more quickly than previous companies, and that winter would come late that year.

They moved more slowly, and the first snows hit three weeks earlier than normal.  Food stores ran out.  In the hard country of what is now southern Wyoming, the companies were hit by disease, blizzards, and death.  Hundreds died before scouts found the beleaguered pioneers and arranged for a rescue team of oxcarts to recover them.  Dozens of survivors lost toes, fingers, even limbs to frostbite.  Heroic efforts were made to save the stranded travelers, but the central lesson of Willie and Martin is that poor planning and negligent leadership creates chaos.  Brigham Young admitted that the handcart experiment was a failure, and by 1860, just four years after its inception, the handcart program was scrapped in favor of ox-drawn wagons.  With the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad at decade's end, those desiring to "gather to Zion" were doing it by train.

None of this is addressed in Trek.  

Trek embraces the Handcart Myth, which is itself an extension of that strange Mormon ethos: To be good, it must be difficult.  Had the trains been running in 1856, there never would have been a handcart movement.  (As it is, those who traveled West by train are not considered "pioneers" in official Church histories, further evidence that we are conditioned to respect efforts more for their degree of difficulty, than for their utility.)  

I have a hard time understanding how dressing teenagers in calico and keeping them sleep deprived and hungry leads to Great Spiritual Insight.  If my appreciation for the pioneers is wholly dependent on my living like a pioneer for a weekend, then it must follow that restaging historical events is the only way to grasp them.  Are we prepared to say that the only people on earth who truly understand the Atonement of Jesus Christ are those guys in the Philippines who nail themselves to crosses every Good Friday?  

Trek doesn't enrich understanding; it reduces the very real sacrifices of those 19th century converts, their earnest desires to unite with the Saints and their willingness to gather with the righteous or die trying, to a Nike-clad weekend of minor inconvenience, seventy-two hours without iPods and cell phones. 

There are so many people who need our service, our influence, our love.  Three days repairing the homes of elderly poor people, working in a soup kitchen, volunteering at a hospice: there are so many ways to teach our kids to serve, to sacrifice, to feel the Spirit that drove those pioneers to take up their handcarts and walk.  We don't need the silly stuff.  We don't need to turn our children into the Mormon equivalent of Civil War reenactors in order to stir their souls.

Saturday, October 2, 2010


The story is that Robert Johnson went to a dusty crossroads in Mississippi, and in exchange for the ability to play guitar better than anyone else in the world, sold his soul to Satan.

Lots of people say he was the greatest guitar player ever -- it's hard to tell, partly because there are only about 50 known recordings, partly because he died when he was 27 years old, and partly because there has been so much said about the guy, that it is nearly impossible to separate truth from fiction.

I don't really care about the guitar playing.  It's the Crossroads thing that interests me.

I have stood at a lot of crossroads and made a lot of questionable bargains, but I've never seen the Devil.  Every mess of pottage I've ever bought, I've bought from myself: all the compromises, all the bad deals, the Devil had nothing to do with them.  He may have been hiding in the bushes, sniggering at my folly, but he wasn't brokering anything.

Every single day, we have to choose.  Yesterday, in the temple, I realized that some long-held and cherished beliefs about my own history were wrong, or if not exactly wrong, unhealthy, and that I needed to abandon them.  These beliefs were my blues guitar, all hurt feelings and alienation, and I've played them with virtuoso skill.

If I am going to be who I am supposed to be, I can't keep playing.  They aren't major deals, these "If x hadn't conspired against me, I would have been a major league y" sorts of thoughts, little myths we all create to convince ourselves that nothing is our fault, nothing is our responsibility, and that we were supposed to be Derek Jeter, or Oprah Winfrey, or Zog, the King of the Albanians.  Living without them, being faithful enough and mature enough and humble enough to abandon our victim myths and accept responsibility for our lives (and more importantly, to be honestly grateful for the lives we have), is infinitely more rewarding than being the best in the world at anything.

Even playing the blues.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Guest Columnist

I'm back, baby!

For a day, at least.  I have been thinking about writing again, but that's another post for another time.

Today, we have a special treat, a Guest Columnist!  You know him, you love him, you can't get enough of him, so without further magoo, Heeeerrreee's Noah!

Hello, people of the Internet.  I'm not the usual mastermind behind the 3000 Project.  I'm his son.  One of the requirements for the Boy Scouts Communications merit badge is to write a blog entry, so here I am.  For my dad this is killing two birds with one stone, getting me closer to finishing Scouts and not having to write a blog entry himself.  Before we get started I want to let you know I'm not a very good writer.

Okay, recently my dad and I traveled to Atlanta to see our favorite soccer team from England on tour (Ed. note:  Noah is referring to our beloved Citizens, the Manchester City Football Club.  We are Forever Blue).  The whole trip was fantastic.  Atlanta is one of the coolest cities in the world.  Once we were there I couldn't get over the fact of how much cooler Atlanta is than Houston.  I know I should have respect for my hometown but if I had to vote between Atlanta and Houston Atlanta would win in a landslide.

I was a little bit nervous that the trip wasn't going to turn out so great because as I was walking off the plane the pilot either complemented me or made fun of my shirt:

The airport in Atlanta was huge!  It took my dad and me one hour just to get from our plane to our rental car!  Once we got our rental car it was probably the wimpiest car I have ever seen.  It had no kick, no vroom vroom (Ed. note:  It was a Hyundai.  I believe it was made out of used Dixie cups and Campbell Soup cans.).  After driving through what looked like hillbilly country (Ed. note:  He exaggerates.  There were trees and hills.  Hillbilly country is a little further north.), we got into the city and man it is great!  They have The World of Coca-Cola, the biggest aquarium in the world, and so much more.  After checking into the hotel we went walking around the city and it kept on getting better.  Humidity was like 20%, way better than 90%. 

(Ed. note:  Again, he exaggerates.  It was more like 60% humidity.  Still, it's way better than Houston's 90% plus.)

After a long walk we went to an open practice, where the team practiced in front of the public.  After the practice we went back to the hotel for some much needed rest. 

The next morning we got breakfast and an unexpected phone call.  The guy who sold us our tickets said the team was practicing at a super fancy private school and nobody else knew about the practice.  We rush off to the school, or at least as fast as you can go in such a wimpy car.  

There they were, my heroes right in front of me.  I got a couple of autographs and shook hands.  That moment was the highlight of my trip.

The rest of the day was spent at the hotel.  That night we went to the game.  It was Manchester City versus Club America.  Long story short, our team won!

As we left on the plane the next day I said goodbye to the great city of Atlanta.  Walking out of Houston Hobby Airport was like hitting a wall of pure heat.  That was my trip to Atlanta.  Short but sweet.  Hopefully I'll be able to write for you again people of the web.

I sign off.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Well, this is embarassing...

Do you remember when George W. Bush made the state visit to Beijing, and at the end of a speech, he attempted to walk out of the conference room, but chose a locked set of doors?  He pulled and pulled and the doors wouldn't budge; finally, his Chinese hosts led him to another exit:

It was, like most things Mr. Bush did during his presidency, an extremely uncomfortable thing to behold.

In the interests of political balance, Jimmy Carter's speech at the 1980 Democratic National Convention easily equals Bush's door troubles.  Carter had barely outlasted challenger Ted Kennedy in a long, ugly primary battle.  The party was deeply divided, the nation mired in what Carter himself called "a malaise":  the economy was a mess and the Iranian hostage crisis extended from weeks to months and we were becoming familiar with a nightmare called Love Canal.  Lousy times, indeed.  Carter, seeking to unite his dissolute troops, invoked the name of a recently deceased lion of the Democratic Party, the much beloved Senator Hubert Horatio Humphrey of Minnesota.  We have lost a hero, a warrior, Carter declaimed, a man "who would have been one of the greatest Presidents in history -- Hubert Horatio Hornblower, um, Humphrey!"  Even watching it on tee vee, you could feel every ounce of energy drizzle out of Madison Square Garden.  Carter looked like a man who knew that his political career was over, an utterly defeated, completely humiliated man.  I haven't been able to find a photo of that, but this image of a conventioneer sums up the moment:

I was in high dudgeon in my last post.  I'm still probably going to take a break, but then again, I woke up four times last night, thinking about Thomas More, and I feel guilty, so who knows?  The guilt cocktail that is produced when a Catholic converts to Mormonism, the Monongahela of Catholic guilt joining with the Allegheny of Mormon guilt to create one super river, a mighty Ohio of guilt, makes any other psycho-religious conscience pangs you can muster -- Jewish guilt, Lutheran guilt, Mennonite guilt (if there is such a thing; I know they make quilts, I'm not sure about guilt) -- look like a kid playing with a garden hose by comparison.

Anyway, I mentioned the Battle of Agincourt, but I messed up the Shakespeare reference.  Hubert Horatio Hornblower! am I embarrassed!  It hit me this afternoon that "screw your courage to the sticking place" is from Macbeth; Henry's speech is about "a band of brothers."  It's the St. Crispin's Day speech.  (If you're interested, Lawrence Weschler writes an interesting essay about Shakespeare's take on Agincourt in his Vermeer in Bosnia.)

So I apologize for that, cabbage soup.  And now to find an unlocked door...

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Adieu, Adieu, to Yuh and Yuh and Yuh

I've been writing this thing for about six months.  It started as a way to keep track of family history, and also as an excuse to write on a regular basis.  I never really intended for anyone else to read it, and for the most part, that's been the case: the people who wander in here either do so accidentally (and beat a quick retreat), or they are using the site as a means of luring people into soft-core chat rooms aimed at the Chinese market (check the comments; you'll see what I mean).

After six months, we've had just shy of one thousand visitors, maybe ten of whom read with anything approaching real interest.  This has made me happy.

Until recently.

A goodly number of that rather skimpy throng are unhappy.  "You need to stick to family history," some say.  "You are too critical of your ancestors," say others.  "What you write usually makes me mad," says a third.  "What do you think, someone is actually going to publish you?  You're trying to write a novel or something, instead of doing what you were supposed to be doing."  That last one is especially interesting, considering that, a) the only people reading this are a couple of family members and some pervy Chinese dudes (I'm not exactly pulling in "Julie and Julia" readership); b) this isn't a job, and no one is paying to read it, so I am not exactly sure what I was supposed to be doing; c) if there is one thing that gets beat into you when you grow up where I did, when I did, it is: KNOW YOUR LIMITATIONS.  Even on my best day, when the endorphins are tap dancing across my synapses and the sun is shining and I've done a push-up or walked around the block or completed some other crazily audacious act of physical endurance, even on those increasingly rare days when my blood pressure is reasonably normal and I've actually had a good night's sleep, I'm not thinking, "I'm gonna write a book."  I know my limitations.

On top of that, there's a website out there which is plagiarizing this blog.  It's weird: it almost looks as if someone is translating my writing into a foreign language, then re-translating it into English.  It's all garbled and strange, but it's definitely mine.  Here is a sample from The Three Thousand Assignment, which appears to be cribbed from my entry, "Kids Today, Part Two, Or, Why I Am A Mormon":

i boast ancestors who connected the house of worship in the 1830’s, in western new york. one of them, dana jacobs, was a bishop,cabbage soup and in a while, one of the seven presidents of the seventy. one more, hiram jacobs, helped erect the nauvoo temple, and conventional his donation in attendance,cabbage soup by his partner caroline, in february 1846, immediately in the past nauvoo was abandoned. the jacobs did not comparable brigham fresh. by 1848, they had been disfellowshipped for apostasy.cabbage soup hiram took his family unit backside to niagara, everyplace his daughter married abriam pearce. their granddaughter, gladys mae, is our grandmother. dana returned to ohio; his son,cabbage soup moroni, was a 33nd measure mason and a neighborhood chief, and died in ashtabula exclusive of increasingly having been a associate of the house of worship.

in a out of the ordinary way,cabbage soup their apostasy ended it viable for me to be born: the strange cabbage soup with the intention of is my DNA amalgamate – keep pace with parts kielbasa and corned beef – may possibly not boast happened had the jacobs family unit passed on to utah.

on the additional give, i have faith in, by all my tenderness,cabbage soup with the intention of the missionaries bring into being my parents in 1969 for the reason that our family unit was living being brought backside to the fold. i am a warden of with the intention of herd, a guardian of with the intention of fold. too countless of the nation i fondness wander timetabled unfamiliar paths, attain comfort in the dark.
cabbage soup

it breaks my tenderness.
This has discouraged me no end.  You might say it breaks my tenderness, cabbage soup.

Between the Siskels and the Eberts and the guy who's ripping me off, I'm sick of the whole thing.

So here it is, for the last time for a while.  Family history.

To date, I have linked a lot of names to my family tree, some of which are on my wife's side of the family.  I quit counting this afternoon at 1200 names, and I'd only gone two generations deep on my wife's side, and had only looked at a few of the lines on my side.  The number could already be as high as 3000 names, and I suspect it may be even higher: I am trying to sort through a lot of research that I've linked into from other sources, and the numbers get a little fuzzy (see my earlier post on this subject, where I discuss my suspect ties to Charlemagne and Jesus Christ).

My research has uncovered the following facts:

My wife's family, on her mother's side, were among the first French families to settle in North America.  Her ancestors, the De Launays, were contemporaries of Samuel de Champlain.

One of my wife's ancestors, Jabez Alexander, fought for the New Hampshire militia during the Revolutionary War.

Another ancestor, Alvah Alexander, tended Joseph Smith's cows during the Nauvoo period, and was present when the wagon carrying the bodies of Joseph and Hyrum Smith arrived in Nauvoo following their murder at Carthage Jail.

My McMurray family, contrary to all I was taught as a child, is Irish, not Scot.  What's more, they were Irish Protestants, and loyal to the English crown.  We come from County Antrim and Country Armagh in Northern Ireland.  At least three family members -- Hugh, James, and James Ocean -- were British soldiers.  James was born in India, where his father fought against the Sikhs.

James Ocean McMurray settled in Canada before emigrating to the United States.  He and his family lived near what is now the site of the CN Tower, in a working class neighborhood.  In the US, they lived in Buffalo (in a house that still stands), and finally settled at the corner of Oliver and Stenzil Streets in North Tonawanda (in another house that still stands).

The Siedlecki family lived in Suwalki, about 15 miles south of the border with Lithuania (I know this from Walter Siedlecki's military record, which lists his place of birth).  Since I know nothing else about the Siedleckis, I really don't know if this is significant.

I have found the marriage certificate, the insurance papers issued following his death, and a number of photos of Peter Litwin, the farmboy turned factory worker turned barber turned bootlegger turned respectable saloon owner who is my great-grandfather.  For me, Peter Litwin IS the story of Eastern European immigration to the US.

Two of my direct line ancestors, Hiram and Caroline Jacobs, were endowed in the Nauvoo Temple, in February 1846.  Hiram is listed as a member of Alpheus Cutler's building crew: he helped construct the original Nauvoo Temple.  In 1845, he bought land in Nauvoo from Parley P. Pratt -- I have seen transcripts of the documents.  By 1850, unhappy with the leadership of Brigham Young, Hiram and Caroline had disassociated themselves from the Church, returned to the family farm in the Town of Niagara, and evidently never mentioned Mormonism again.

Henry Anguish, son of Jacob Anguish, was the first permanent settler of what is now Tonawanda, New York.  He ran a tavern at the mouth of Ellicott Creek, about where O'Connor's Toy Store used to be.  By 1830, he had returned to Canada, where his descendants live today (there are hundreds of Anguishes living in southern Ontario).

Jacob Anguish, who from the records I've found seems to have been a paranoid nutjob, was a member of Butler's Rangers, the greatly feared British guerilla outfit.  He joined, as best as I can tell, to avenge himself against neighbors whom he accused of stealing timber from his land.  To this end, he participated in at least two massacres, including the infamous Battle of Wyoming, in which about 340 men and boys were murdered and 1,000 homes were burned, and the Cherry Valley Massacre, which led to retaliatory strikes against Iroquois and Loyalist settlements and ultimately led to the deaths of as many as 10,000 people.

The Pearce family, Jacobs family and Milliman familes settled in Niagara County in the 1820's and 1830's.  Our family is among the oldest residents of Western New York.

Our heritage includes Irish, English, Polish, possibly Lithuanian, possibly Ukranian, possible Jewish (no more on that until I have more solid evidence), and Palatine German.

From others, I have learned that we are direct line ancestors to Deacon Samuel Chapin, a man immortalized in a famous statue, "The Puritan", which graces Springfield, Massachusetts.  (I have a photo, but it won't upload to the site, so maybe I'll try again later.  On second thought, google "Deacon Samuel Chapin" and find it yourself.  Your fingers aren't broken.)

I learned that we are direct descendants of the noble Sir Thomas More, the man who died rather than betray his convictions.  "A Man For All Seasons", the play and the movie, are about Thomas More.  Al Stewart wrote a song about him.

I learned that one of our ancestors, Michel de la Pole, 2nd Earl of Suffolk, died on 14 September 1415, during the siege of Harfleur.  This won't mean anything to you, except that it was England's surprising defeat at Harfleur that forced Henry V to take a much depleted force into battle against a numerically superior foe the following month.  That battle, which Henry won, largely thanks to a combination of brilliant strategy and the deadly effectiveness of a new weapon, the English longbow, is known as Agincourt.  You know, "screw your courage to the sticking place"?  Shakespeare's Henry V? The most important battle in pre-1940 English history?

So that's it.

I could devote 40 or 50 hours a week to this effort.  I would dearly love to do that.  It's interesting, and I like writing about it, but I'm taking a break.  Typical, a few of you will say.  He's picking up his toys and he's going home.   I guess so.

The fact is that I can't do it, not the way it deserves to be done.  I can't do it the way some of you expect me to do it. 

One of the strange things about Mormonism is that nothing can be done for the pure joy of it: it has to be codified and organized and ordered and sucked clean of anything that makes it soul-restoring and happy and fun.  We are all pulling our handcarts (one of the great myths of Mormonism: only a handful of Saints pulled handcarts; the vast majority took the train), grimly trudging toward the desert we call Zion.

I'm taking a break in Nebraska.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day

The Scouts were selected to serve as an honor guard for the "Wall That Heals", a traveling, half-scale facsimile of the famous Vietnam Veterans' Memorial, located in Washington, DC.  (Of course, we drew the ten PM to seven AM shift, which was no easy sledding).

The traveling wall -- a series of metal panels forming an enormous inverted "V" -- features the name of every US military personnel killed in the Vietnam War, 58,261 of them, arranged in the chronological order of their death.  The original wall, a stone's throw from the Lincoln Memorial, is made of black granite, the names carved into the stone.

We tried to make the overnight event more than just an endurance contest.  We held a flag ceremony, and walked the boys through the small, traveling museum that accompanies the display.  We arranged for a Marine and a National Guardsman, both of whom have served tours of duty in the Middle East, to talk about their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.  I told the story of Norm Keller, a friend of my father's who left his job as a Spruce Elementary School P.E. teacher to become an Army medic.  Norm was shot and killed in South Vietnam, while rendering aid to a fallen comrade.  Two weeks earlier, he had celebrated his twenty-fourth birthday.

I am no soldier.  I have never fired a gun, and have little interest in that sort of thing.  My dad volunteered for the Army in 1958; he was rejected, classified "4-F" because of fallen arches.  (It's a little strange to think that my presence on this planet may well be the result of my old man's flat feet.)

But we come from a line of warriors.

Going back eight generations, I find five direct line ancestors who were either militiamen or professional soldiers.  There are numerous others, branches from that main line, who also fought.  Some took up arms to defend their homes, their families, their faith.  Some of them saw the military as an escape from poverty and hopelessness.  Some wanted glory.  Some wanted adventure.  Some just wanted to do the right thing.

I remember them all today.  I honor them all today.

This is a list in progress, but here is my family's Wall of Honor:

James Ocean McMurray, Royal Horse Artillery
James McMurray, Royal Canadian Rifles
Hugh McMurray, Her Majesty's forces in India and Afghanistan
Henry Anguish, Butler's Rangers
Jacob Anguish, Butler's Rangers
Roman Litwin, US Army Air Corps, European Theatre
Walter Siedlecki, Haller's Blue Army, Polish-Russian War
Philander Eugene Pearce, 8th New York Heavy Artillery, died as a result of wounds sustained at battle of Cold Harbor, 1865

Friday, May 28, 2010

A Mystery

I had a trying day yesterday.

Last summer, one of our storage tanks at work, a 4,000 gallon container designed to hold sodium hypochlorite, sprung a leak.  Despite the best efforts of our repair technicians, who nursed it along through the winter, the leak turned into a split, and the tank needed replacement.

This is a photo of our site seven years ago, when it was under construction.  Imagine a roof over the tanks, and you get a feel for what we were dealing with.
These tanks are huge: their diameter is about eight and a half feet, and they stand fifteen or sixteen feet tall.  They're heavy, too, several hundred pounds of specially treated, UV light resistant plastic.  Each tank is positioned on a plastic covered concrete pedestal, inside a walled containment area surrounded by bollards and covered by a steel canopy.  Remember that board game, "Operation"?  Imagine playing "Operation", only instead of using tweezers to extract a little plastic thigh bone, you're using a rented forklift to maneuver 800 pound chlorine tanks.  And instead of hearing a little buzz if you mess up, you ruin a $4,500 investment and potentially knock over a $10,000 canopy.

I am a lily-livered man, a man of many fears and a weak constitution.  I once got so nervous on ride at Knott's Berry Farm, that I hyperventilated nearly to the point of passing out, saying, over and over (to the great consternation of my fellow riders), "It's too steep!  It's too steep!  We're going to tip over! WE'RE GOING TO TIP OVER!"  The ride was the log flume, advertised, as I recall, as "Fun for all ages!"  Being placed in the middle seat on an airplane, squished between two passengers who are certain to suffocate me, provokes a panic attack.  I can't mount a three-step ladder without falling into something like the DTs, all shakes and sweat and blurry vision.  Suffice to say that all the forklifting and maneuvering and climbing around made for a nerve-wracking day, and had it not been for my friend and colleague Joel coming over to lend a hand and some calming words, and for my co-worker Mo providing both his good spirits and his formidable Island muscle, it would have been a much worse day, indeed.
Splash Mountain, Walter Disney's World, August 2009.  Row One: Joyful excitement.  Row Two and Row Three, Right: Cheerful bonhomie.  Row Three, Left: Fear and Loathing in Orlando.  My thoughts at this moment are as follows: 1.  If my family loves me, why are they trying to kill me?  2. This water is crawling with bacteria. 3. I hope Walt Disney melts (playing into the Urban Legend that he is cyrogenically frozen in a secret chamber under Cinderella's Castle). 4. If I lose my hat, I will be sad. 5. If I lose my glasses, I will be in big trouble (in a crisis, people who wear glasses always release their inner nine year old). 6.  Whatever you do, man, do not pee!  Do not pee! 7. I AM GOING TO DIE!!!!  Row Four is two people I don't know, who are a little too excited to be on  a thrill ride.  Probably drunks.

Which brings me to my mystery.

I have been searching for my Siedlecki kin.  I have four tangible pieces of evidence: first, Walter Siedlecki did indeed muster into Haller's Blue Army, a American unit comprised of Polish immigrants, who fought against the Soviet Union in the Polish-Soviet War of 1919 - 1923 (more on this later -- this war is lost between the first defeat of Germany and the rise of Nazism, but had Marshall Jozef Pilsudski and his men not held fast against Lenin's armies, the Soviets control may well have extended all the way to France); second, the 1930 U.S. Census, showing Valentin Siedlecki and his family living on Third Avenue in North Tonawanda; third, a headstone in a Tonawanda cemetery, the resting place of my great-grandmother, Jozefina Siedlecka (the headstone is poignantly inscribed, in Polish, "Our Mama"; and fourth, my grandfather himself.

Other than that, bupkis.

My grandfather says he was born in June 1912, in Medina, New York.  There is no record of it.  I have found birth records for an Anthony Siedlecki in Hennepin County, Minnesota, in 1918, and for an Anthony Siedlecki, born in Ohio in 1909, but nothing for New York.

Tony's  father's was Valentyn Siedlecki.  There is no record of a Valentin or Valentyn Siedlecki ever arriving in America, not at Ellis Island, not at the ports in Boston or Philadelphia, not via the immigration points along the US - Canada border.  Prior to 1930, he does not appear on a Census list.  I can find no record of Valentin's death, either, although some family members think he died before 1945.  I think I may have found Joszefa, or Josephine's name on a manifest, but I can't verify it.

There is an Anthony Siedlecki on Facebook.  He calls himself "Papa Nazzty" and in the identifying photo, he has words tattooed on his forearms, wears one of those Peruvian skullcaps with the tassels that hang down over the ears, and he's using the antenna from his cell phone to pick his nose.  I am praying that we are not related.

So that's the mystery.  (No, not how does someone who picks his nose with a cell phone conjure up enough brain energy to create a Facebook page; from what I've seen, if he's got some free time and really wants to connect with old pals, a sea urchin could create his own Facebook page.)  Where did the Siedleckis come from, and where did they go?  I'm stumped.  I'm stymied.  I'm disoriented and a little discouraged.  It's the middle of the eighth, and my arm feels like hamburger meat.  I need help.  Is there anyone out there who can help out?  Is there anyone who could be my Mariano Rivera (at this point, I'd take a Jonathan Papelbon, or even a LaTroy Hawkins.  Maybe even Ryne Duren)?

(For those who don't much care about baseball players, those fellows above are all relief pitchers.  Mariano Rivera of the New York Yankees is generally considered to be the Greatest Reliever Ever.  Jonathan Papelbon was briefly excellent for the Boston Red Sox; he's not lived up to his rookie season hype.  LaTroy Hawkins is mediocre.  Ryne Duren played for the Yankees in the Fifties.  He wore Coke bottle glasses and threw about 105 miles an hour, but he had no control whatsoever.  Batters were terrified of him.  He was famous for asking umpires, after pitches had been called for balls, "Where was it?" implying that he did not see well enough to see the pitch trajectory.  Scary, when you're throwing hard enough to kill a man.)

The Great Rivera

Papa Nazzty need not apply.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Camp-Out

Norman Rockwell's version of camping.  In my experience, camping involves more bugs, the distinct probability of contracting a flesh-eating bacteria, and passing gas.  Lots and lots of passing gas.

I don't understand camping.

There are people who live for it, their garages stuffed with tents and Coleman stoves and fishing poles and coffin-sized Igloo coolers, all well-used, immaculately maintained, and always at the ready for ventures into the Great Outdoors.  These people frequently wear tee-shirts featuring clever slogans like "And On The 8th Day, God Created Hunting" and caps festooned with the noble profile of the mighty elk, or the somewhat less noble profile of the smallmouth bass.  Construction workers, school teachers, corporate attorneys: whatever their profession, they are one, The Brotherhood of the Hiking Boot, their F-150s gassed up and ready for a quick trip to the nearest deer blind or state park, to commune.  With nature.

I'm more of a Marriott guy.

Last Friday, we took the junior patrol of our Scout troop, mostly 12 and 13 year old boys, to Brazos Band State Park, for a camp-out.  Mark, the assistant scoutmaster overseeing the trip, is a member of the Brotherhood, completely and totally at home in the woods.  Mark is one of those rare Scout leaders who is as comfortable being around teenage boys as he is whipping up a cherry cobbler in a Dutch oven.  (The vast majority of Scouters treat boys like mosquitoes or "primitive restroom facilities": an annoying inconvenience that has to be endured to enjoy the wonders of nature and the avoidance of responsibilities at home).  He's an organized and perceptive leader: within fifteen minutes of arrival at our campsite, the boys had set up their tents (by themselves); two kids were busily cooking burgers for supper; and the rest of them were helping get the Dutch oven going, all under Mark's patient, watchful eye.

I stood by, swatting at the invisible bugs gnawing at my calves, watching the cooks do grave personal offense to the hamburger patties.  Visions of e-coli.danced in my head as they prodded and poked the burgers with all the gentle care that Brutus and his colleagues showed Caesar: after a few minutes, they were less patties than bloody, ragged lumps,  at once raw and charred.  I watched, grimacing, resisting the temptation to take over; this was their camp-out, after all.  Dinner was served in the gloaming, the dying light mercifully too faint to afford a clear view of what we were eating.

The boys loved it.  "Man," one declared, "these taste just like Burger King!"  Six boys blew through 18 burgers about the time it takes Usain Bolt to run 100 meters.

Most of the Brazos Bend campers were families, grandparents tagging along with mom and dad and the kids, enjoying the only semi-oppressive heat and only partly stifling humidity of mid-Spring in south Texas.  Many came with those pop-up tent trailers, towed behind their pickup trucks.  A few had larger, Winnebago-style campers.  One couple showed up in a maroon and grey, ten-wheeled behemoth, which I'm pretty sure was at one time Reba McEntire's tour bus (this defeats the whole purpose of camping.  Whether you subscribe to the Brotherhood of the Hiking Boot's credo -- camping restores man's vital connection to nature -- or my personal ethos -- camping is Discomfort, Pain, and Privation, designed to deepen your appreciation of the glory that is Civilization -- you accomplish nothing by driving an air conditioned Greyhound coach into the woods and watching the season finale of "N.C.I.S. -- Bayonne" via satellite while the kids cook S'mores on a Weber grill outside.  Get in a pup tent, people.  Quit cheating.)

Brazos Bend is famous as an alligator sanctuary.  There are signs everywhere, delightfully cut in the shape of a gaping jawed gator, reminding you that alligators have lived at Brazos Bend for 65 million years, and that there is no record of a human ever having been killed by an alligator in Texas, which of course leads to just one conclusion: They're due.
A full-time resident of the park.  They think we taste like chicken.

Brazos Bend is a beautiful place.  Despite its considerable charms, the knowledge that you are sleeping with gigantic, carnivorous holdovers from the late Cretaceous Period is unnerving.  I felt like a character in "Pearls Before Swine", sweltering in my tent, swatting at the legion of bugs Noah had let in when he neglected to zip the mesh flap, waiting for a tapping and the words, "Hullo, zeeba neighba."

Being a middle aged man who takes a diuretic for hypertension, Two AM brought the urgent need for a restroom.  I headed to the cinder block facilities, roughly two football fields away from our campsite.

It was dark.  Dark and quiet.  Too quiet.  There was an alligator cutout on the restroom wall: "Welcome to Brazos Band S.P. -- Home of the American Alligator!"  My skin puckered, the way it does when you think someone creepy is standing right behind you.  I used the facilities, splashed some water on my face, and headed back to camp.
It was dark.  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw movement.  "This is it, I'm gator bait!" I thought.  My hands trembled as I awaited the horror of those awful mandibles of death.

It was an opossum.  Opossum are the Mister Haney of woodland creatures, plodding and devious, untrustworthy but non-threatening.  I relaxed as he lumbered across the path.  

Wait a second," I thought.  "Those things have giant rat bodies, and babies' hands, and creepy prehistoric faces.  They're nocturnal, and smart.  He's probably gone to get his opossum buddies, and they're going to come back and eat my face off."  I spent the next three hours sitting in a chair, occasionally waving a glow stick, waiting to repulse an attack from the Opossum Horde.

Like I said, I'm more of a Marriott guy.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

A Short Rant

Houston is a very strange city.

At first look, there is really nothing here to recommend the place, and I say that as an unabashed, almost insanely enthusiastic civic booster.  For six months of the year, it is relentlessly hot, brutally hot, Colonel-Saito-sticking-Alec-Guinness-in-a-steel-box-in-"The Bridge On The River Kwai"- until-he's-nearly-blind-and-completely-mad hot.  The humidity is usually at terrarium levels.  In the winter, it rains: Not gentle, life-affirming rain; but buckets of cold, hard, flood-inducing rain, rain often accompanied by hail and infrequently by snow, rain that washes away landscaping and fills busy intersections with water, which, inevitably, some knucklehead in a Nissan will try to drive through, sucking gallons of the muck into his engine, ruining his car.  You see them every storm, slightly dazed, standing by their dead vehicles, telling a voice on the other end of the cell phone, "I don't know WHAT happened."

My friend Joel is from Arizona's Gila Valley, one of those arid, barren places that Brigham Young sent settlers 150 years ago, and instead of shriveling up and blowing away, they irrigated and planted crops and made a go of it, and continue to make a go of it, seven generations later, whether out of deep-set obedience or an even deeper need to prove to Brigham Young that they could, I cannot say.  After his first year in Houston, I asked Joel what he thought of the place.  He was quiet for a few seconds, then he said, "All my life, I have sat in Church meetings, and heard old farmers pray for rain.  It's nice to finally live in the place where all those prayers are answered."

It's more than bad weather.  We have the greatest number of strip clubs of any city in North America, and more convenience stores per capita than any other city in the world.  Our boulevards, for the most part, are not lined with trees and punctuated by majestic arches; they are lined with pawn shops and storefront churches, the major intersections marked by multiple Starbucks and guys with signs that say, "Gulf War Vet: Please Help" or "Forget Food.  I Need The Money for Beer!"

We also have an amazing, dizzying amount of diversity.  Last night, our younger son had some friends over to play FIFA 10.  That alone is remarkable: the preferred choice in video game among these kids is a game about soccer.  A friendly argument broke out between two of the kids over which team was better, Manchester United or Manchester City.  One of the kids (mine) proudly owns a Carlos Tevez jersey.  Another kid was wearing a Chelsea jersey.  There was a Vietnamese kid, a couple of kids from Mexico, a kid from El Salvador, a kid from Nigeria, and my kid, our very own Rainbow Coalition.

This is why I love Houston.  The place I grew up is gone, all of the rich and wonderful ethnic heritage sacrificed to the blunted sameness of suburbia, the Poles and Czechs and Germans and Russians and Italians and Serbs and Irish all boiled down into a bland, pasty goo called "White People".  The world that is coming, a world represented by my nephew, who is the child of a Tongan father and an Anglo mother, and my other nephew, the child of a Korean mother and an Anglo father, and my sons and daughter, whose friends come from all over the world, bringing their foods and their faith and their rich traditions, is a world that kids growing up in places where everyone looks like them and everyone thinks like them and everyone believes like them cannot appreciate and are inclined to fear.

I will take the heat.  I will take the humidity.  I will take the endless skeins of QWIK-STOPs and HANDI-MARTs and GRAB-N-GOs and the lumpen neon throb of The Men's Club and Heartbreakers and The Silver Beaver (I made that one up, but it makes me laugh, if for no other reason than it happens to be the name of the highest honor in Boy Scouting -- seriously, what were they thinking?) to have evenings like last night, when the whole world was laughing in my living room.

Monday, May 10, 2010


In a pure coincidence, the same week that Arizona enacted its policy requiring police officers to demand anyone they suspect of being illegal to produce proof of legal residency, I watched Roman Polanski's "The Pianist" for the first time.

Polanski is a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto; he spent his formative years scrabbling for food and doing his best to avoid being killed by Nazi soldiers.

The movie is harrowing, at times darkly funny, and heartbreaking, Polanski at the top of his form.  His message is straightforward: In times of great fear, some hearts will choose to act compassionately, while others will succumb to hatred and depravity; and if somehow we manage to survive the madness, all we can turn to is Art (though I wonder if even Polanski believes that last bit.  The closing scene, with the Holocaust survivor seated at a grand piano in a golden concert hall packed to the rafters with the bejeweled and bow-tied cream of Polish society, is filled with questions and accusations.  It goes on for several minutes, the pianist's music moving and sublime, but as it progresses, your mind focuses less on the playing, and more on the ghosts hovering at the edges, the father and mother, sisters and brother who were lost to Hitler's camps; the German officer whose kindness saved the pianist's life, only to lose his own in the Soviet Gulag; the block after block of bombed-out buildings that had once been home to a thriving community of several hundred thousand Polish Jews; the people in that audience who had stood silent as the Nazis exterminated their neighbors.  And you wonder, for all the beauty of the piece, is it enough?  Can beauty -- alone, separate, the purely aesthetic -- heal the world's sins?  And you feel, as Polanski waits until the last bit of applause has died to bring the screen to black, that it cannot.  It is not enough.)

Which brings me to Arizona.  The law is based on fear, the old conviction that the Other is the cause of all our troubles, be he a Jewish shop owner in Warsaw or a Mexican laborer working the Gila Valley cotton fields.  And it is not a stretch to say that what happened to the Jews in eastern Europe began with seemingly little things, like authorizing police to make random checks of identity papers.  No good thing comes from this kind of fear.

We have about 10 million illegals in this country.  They are not nearly the drain on our resources that the Fox News crowd would have you believe.  Most of them pay taxes.  Many own homes.  They contribute to Social Security.  They are active in their communities.  They spend money here, lots of it.  And they are no more likely to commit violent crime than the average American: in fact, many studies indicate that the crime rate among illegals is actually significantly lower than the crime rate among American citizens of the same age, income level, and gender.

There is a solution to this.  Grant a limited amnesty.  To be eligible for a green card, candidates must be able to prove that they have been in the US for at least 5 years, that they have been gainfully employed for at least the last three years, and that they have been convicted of no crimes during that period.  Candidates would have to have a sponsor employer, someone who would guarantee their continued employment for at least the next two years.  The candidate would pay a $1000 fine for having been here illegally.  He or she would pay an additional $500 for an unemployed spouse here with them, and $250 for each illegal child.  This money would be garnished from their wages.  They would also forfeit any claim to Social Security benefits on wages earned prior to their receipt of a green card.  The sponsoring employer would pay a non-refundable bond of $500 per sponsored employee.  Commit a crime within two years of receiving a green card, and you forfeit all rights to remain in the United States. 

Anyone who does not meet this criteria -- the criminals, the chronically unemployed, those who have been here less than five years -- would be subject to deportation.

This is just a guess, but I figure that such a program would net the government about $7.5 billion in fees.  In September 2009, the Government Accounting Office put the annual cost of maintaining a border fence between Mexico and the United States at $6.5 billion.  

Every time I see a story about illegal immigration, I think about my great-grandparents, Piotr and Rosalia Litwin.  They arrived here as part of a mistrusted, even hated group. They did not speak English.  They were allowed into the country to work as laborers, another type of raw material fed into America's steel mills and iron works and bolt factories and automobile plants.  They were not illegal, but arrived here when the standard for legal entry to this country was at its most lax.  Had Piotr, a small, somewhat sickly man, arrived here just ten years later than he did, he would have most likely been excluded from entry: by 1920, "sunken chest" and "pigeon toes" were enough to get you sent back to Europe. 

We are about ninety years removed from Piotr's arrival at Ellis Island.  Here is, off the top of my head, some of what his progeny has become:

One elementary school teacher

Two college professors, including an English Department
chair and a Music Department Chair

Three practicing attorneys

One of the country's leading authorities on traditional Slavic music, and a nationally-recognized musician

An award-winning composer of avant-garde orchestral music

A published researcher on both Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder and the role of media in contemporary culture

A playwright and director who has established a thriving community theater group

Several members of the medical professions, including surgical technicians and registered nurses

A number of skilled craftsmen in the building and construction trades

Several successful small businessmen

In other words, Piotr Litwin's family built modern America.  We ARE America.

As one of Piotr's progeny, how can I deny someone else an opportunity to add their own chapter to America's history?

We don't need Arizona fear.  Amnesty now.