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.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Kids Today, Part Two, or Why I Am A Mormon

I was being harsh yesterday. As one of my alert readers pointed out in a private communication, I was pretty insufferable in my Thirties, so maybe I should cut the young guys some slack.  This was one of the English-speaking visitors to the blog; the Chinese contingent continues to mystify with their cryptic comments and links to Asian "friendship" sites.

Maybe I was a tad curmudgeonly.  There are legions of faithful young men and women in the Church, people who shame me with their goodness and their faithfulness. But I do find among some of the young Mormons a discouraging lack of commitment to anything that does not come with a reward both easily obtained and richly remunerated. Mormonism brings some of this on itself: we grow up with a twisted conception of stewardship, constantly being told to take on unsavory tasks "for the blessings," whether it's weeding the Welfare strawberry patch or home teaching or performing in the Buffalo Stake traveling production of "Saturday's Warrior" (Hell for me is an eternity spent watching "Saturday's Warrior". Outer Darkness is being in the cast.) 

Once in a while, it would not be such a bad thing to tell people, "Do this because it is the right thing to do. It's probably going to be hard, and you aren't going to necessarily receive a reward for doing it. Do it anyway." 

The "scratch and win" approach to sacrifice annoys me.  What's more, lots of the people who spring from this tradition are very cavalier about things that are sacred to me.

It’s not their lack of belief. I don’t mind a lack of belief. One of my closest friends is a 50 year old graphic designer who wears a Mohawk and occasionally plays lead guitar for a punk band called “The Spunk Lads” and as far as I can tell, doesn't have much use for religion. He understands my beliefs, and I understand his, and we respect and like each other.  Unlike a lot of Mormons, I am far more comfortable in “gentile” venues than hobnobbing with the Saints: I get more out of reading one poem by Szymborska or Milosz than I do from a week’s worth of “The BYU Channel”. (Truth be told, I pretty much hate the BYU Channel.)  

The young ones' lack of commitment to disbelief is what gnaws.  In or out, guys: either stay and commit, or leave and be free of it.  Don't paddle around in the kiddie pool of Equivocation, mincing around like community theater Hamlets: "To be a Mormon, or not to be?  Well, it's good for my kids...but, Ho! Yon bishop's counselor hath just called me to teach Seminary! This cannot be inspiration, but folly! Oh, bosh, 'tis an ever so difficult choice!"

My faith has been tested lately, tested severely. It was more difficult to be a bishop than you can imagine. Over the last few years I have seen people close to me suffer agonizing, crippling illnesses and trials, things so difficult to watch that it made me wonder if there was a God at all. There were so many times that I doubted, so many times that I was filled with anger and resentment and hurt.

But I never lost faith.  Some event, some whisper of encouragement, some sudden insight inevitably appeared to revive my spirit, and Hope came back, stronger, more certain, the storm giving way to the full force of the sun.

My faith burns brighter, even though my opinion of some early Church leaders is more tarnished than it used to be.  I've read a lot of early Church history.  Church history is messy sometimes. I've turned over more than my share of rocks, and seen more than my share of the ugly, squirmy things wriggling around underneath them. For me, the Restoration is not about Joseph Smith's personal failings, any more than the Declaration of Independence is about slaveholding elites. He was a means, a means of bringing about something transcendent. Hate him if you must, but don't deny the force of his message.

I get discouraged when I talk to Church members who want to reduce Mormonism to a social movement, or a 19th century experiment in communitarianism or, as one associate told me this week, "The Utah equivalent of Kim Jong Il's North Korea." People who adhere to the faith, who really, truly live it, do so not out of fear, or tradition, or because Church membership affords them some reward: the opportunity to teach, say, or to be a leader.  They do it because they know it is True.

Where the disaffected see hairshirts and shackles, I see the beautiful robes of the Temple. Where they see the darkness of fear and false tradition, I see “a wonderful flood of light,” a light that gives me purpose and hope. Where they see oppression, I see opportunity: opportunity to be better, to be stronger, to be more resistant to the weaknesses that too often ensnare me. My faith is not reasonable, or rationale, or reducible: I see things that cannot be seen; I hear things that cannot be heard.

And I follow.

I have ancestors who joined the Church in the 1830’s, in western New York. One of them, Dana Jacobs, was a bishop, and later, one of the seven presidents of the Seventy. Another, Hiram Jacobs, helped build the Nauvoo Temple, and received his endowment there, with his wife Caroline, in February 1846, just before Nauvoo was abandoned. The Jacobs did not like Brigham Young. By 1848, they had been disfellowshipped for apostasy. Hiram took his family back to Niagara, where his daughter married Abriam Pearce. Their granddaughter, Gladys Mae, is our grandmother. Dana returned to Ohio; his son, Moroni, was a 33nd Degree Mason and a community leader, and died in Ashtabula without ever having been a member of the Church. 

In a strange way, their apostasy made it possible for me to be born: the weird cabbage soup that is my gene pool – equal parts kielbasa and corned beef – could not have happened had the Jacobs family gone to Utah.

On the other hand, I believe, with all my heart, that the missionaries found my parents in 1969 because our family was being brought back to the fold. I am a guardian of that flock, a protector of that fold. Too many of the people I love wander down unfamiliar paths, find comfort in the shadows.

It breaks my heart.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Convenience Store

One of those Chicago Seven guys -- Jerry Rubin, maybe, or Abbie Hoffman, once counseled the Youth of American, "Don't trust anyone over 30." the Chicago Seven, of course, left their thirties behind at about the same time that people stopped listening to Sly and the Family Stone, which gives broadcasters the occasional opportunity for some lazy man irony.  Some old Hippie's birthday will just happen to fall on a slow news day, and that night's "Before We Leave You" segment on Eyewitness News Albuquerque or Eye on Boise or Fox News Duluth will be about the guy who used to be a long-haired, flag-burning, adult-hating freak is now eligible for Social Security benefits, and Dave, the anchor who's been at the desk since the days when dinosaurs roamed the earth, will exchange a knowing, slightly world-weary glance with Sharon (pronounced "Sha-RON"), the co-anchor young enough to be his great-granddaughter, while Doctor Stan the Weather Man shrugs his shoulders and shakes his head and says, "It's a crazy world."

I am well into middle age.  This is no great discomfort: my sister, when we were growing up, was very fond of telling me that I had been born at age forty-two, so having my chronological age moving in lockstep with my attitudinal age is really quite nice.  It's comforting to be able to complain about my aching back, and have people take it seriously (no one listens to the "Oys!" of a teenager).  Middle age is nice, for a guy who is perpetually leaving the house with either a belt of combed hair; people accept that you are a Frazzled Dad, and they give you a little leeway.  It's a nice break between the soul crushing bookends of Weird Young Guy and Creepy Old Dude.

The Hippies had it wrong, of course.  Not their message: most people over the age of thirty, particularly most men over the age of thirty, are completely untrustworthy.  So are most people under the age of thirty, and therein lies the problem.

What the Hippies established was an artificial order of battle, based on their rather narrow, decidedly narcissistic view of the world.  First off, these were privileged, educated kids (poor kids don't have time to be countercultural; they're too busy working), kids long on entitlement and chock full of Daddy issues.  It wasn't so much that they wanted change; they wanted to be the ones making the decisions.  So they drew up fighting lines, old versus young, fresh versus stultified, vibrant and alive versus dessicated and mummified.  

And nothing changed.

Well, one thing changed.  The more I see of the generation of Americans between the ages of 25 and 35, the more I hate the Hippies, and the more I despair for the future.  The central themes of the Hippie message -- old is bad, young is good; young is always right -- have soaked into these kids like gasoline on bales of cotton.  They are self-centered.  They are spoiled.  They are, to appropriate a line from an old Neil Young song, "poisoned with perfection": blessed with exquisite educations and amazing opportunities and wonderful chances to better the world, and they spend endless hours whining about their struggles and gazing at their navels and endlessly endlessly looking for the easy route, irrationally convinced that all the world is Seven-Eleven, perpetually open and eternally ready to meet their needs.

It comes in a flood.  Christianity, once the place where Grace and Works joined hands, where adherents served the poor and sacrificed their time, talents and energies to bring Hope to the hopeless, is now some warn, thin gruel of aphorisms and pop songs and megachurches, Miley Cyrus and Pastor Joel and "Our God Is An Awesome God", the worshipers swaying to the beat, dazzled by the light show, using the closing prayer as a quiet opportunity to decide if they'll grab Sunday brunch at Luby's or at Papdeaux's this week.  Populism, the people's voice in the halls of power, is some crazy moose killer from Alaska, whose dullard sensibilities makes the gals on "The View" seem like the writers of The Federalist Papers.  Sexuality is something easy to sell, no moral compass guiding choices, no thought of restraint or repercussions.  Always -- and I have heard this from numerous young men, all of them well-educated and affluent -- the question is not, "What can I do?" but "What am I getting out of this?"  These are shoulders sculpted by weightlifting, backs toned by rec league basketball and swimming laps at the club and taking the odd spin class.  It's phony, all for show.  These are not backs willing to be bent in the service of others.  They aren't shoulders wide enough or strong enough to take up any burden that matters.

Entertain me.  Dazzle me.  Stroke my hair and tell me I am good and do not EVER hold me to any obligations.  It is a dreary, appalling, nearly useless generation  That is why I say, in my middle-aged body with my middle-aged outlook, "Don't trust anyone, but REALLY don't trust people between 25 and 35.  and if the opportunity arises, dope slap them once in a while."

(I do know a couple of young men who don't fall into this morass.  One is a young bishop.  Another is preparing for a mission.  They are like the North Star to me, constant and bright and pointing the way.  I commend them.)