Hoping You’ll Remove the Cork

Dear Will:

It was November, 2000. Bob Tucker was the bishop of the Orange 2nd Ward and I was one of his counselors. At some point in some conversation during some meeting we started talking about you—or somebody like you—and before I knew it I had volunteered to write a letter every month or so to keep you and others like you in touch with the ward. You know—just in case.

It seems to me that originally there were 18 people on my list of pen pals. Now, more than five years and 60+ letters later, that list has grown to around 35. Over time, several have moved away.  One passed away. A few of you have written back from time to time, and a couple have met me for lunch a time or two. One guy used to mail me multi-page rebuttals and another sent a one sentence note asking me to please buzz off. I’ve gotten the occasional phone call with a quick question or a request. But in most cases, I hear nothing at all. I always wonder how you are, what’s going on in your life, if there’s anything I can do to help you out. And I often wonder if you even bother to read my notes.

I enjoy the opportunity to correspond with you. I feel almost as if I have my own monthly column to muse about whatever strikes me as interesting or amusing, without the burden of a persnickety editor or a looming deadline. And I can’t begin to tell you how excited I feel when I get a response. It’s like I’ve stuck a message in a bottle and someone actually—finally—removed the cork.

The other day, for example, I got a call from a woman who lives in south Orange County. I did not know her nor had I ever heard of her. Her surname was unfamiliar to me. She was asking for my help in obtaining some assistance from the other members of our ward on behalf of her son. To be honest, as she spoke I thought to myself: “Um, why is she calling me?”

It was only later in the call that I discovered—to my great delight—that this woman is related to one of you. I cannot begin to describe for you the excitement with which I took on the task of helping this new friend and her son. It was an honor, and what’s more, I felt it was a confirmation that writing these letters is worth it. I would say, in fact, that if that were the only communication I got as a result of my 60-some notes, that one phone call was compensation enough. More than enough.

I bring this up because I want to remind you (or inform you) that I really am here to lend a hand if you can use me. Please don’t hesitate to call or send me an email—or mail me a rebuttal, if you feel so moved. Whether it is with a request or a simple hello or an update on your life, I would really love to hear from you some time. But if not, no big deal. I write these letters without expectation, and I hope that you read them without a sense of obligation. And even if I never hear from you at all, I will continue to write, every month or so. You know—just in case.


It Gives One Pause and a Little Tug

Dear Will:

Earlier this month my father turned 83. My mother’s 80th birthday is in about 10 days. So imagine my excitement when they told me they had decided to take a trip to Turkey. Their plane left this morning.

My parents enjoy traveling, but Turkey was never really on their list. However, when my sister’s husband, who works for the military, found himself assigned to a military base there, my parents’ vacation priorities shifted. Flying to Turkey is the sort of thing that parents do, apparently, especially when there are a passel of grandkids involved. Even when you’re in your eighties.

As you well know, that bond between parent and child is a strong one, not typically muted by passing years. Consider, for instance, that my sister Susan was born over 40 years ago. She has long since “left the nest.” Meanwhile my parents are really beginning to show their age, having fought battles with cancer and strokes and even a couple of knee replacement surgeries. Given those facts, it’s not hard to construct a pretty good case against this trip. Believe me, I tried. But even though my father acknowledged that this trip probably wasn’t the best idea, they would not be dissuaded. Their course was set and their cause was clear: One of their babies—and that baby’s babies—couldn’t make it home for holidays (much less Sunday dinners), and they didn’t want to wait any longer to hug and hold each one of them and admire the refrigerator art of a my sister’s five children.

That tug of affection across generations is an eternal verity, a manifestation of the ineffable bond linking son to father to grandfather and on. Even before the days of Christ, Malachi spoke of the hearts of fathers turning to their children, and the hearts of children turning to their fathers. It is that selfsame spirit which leads the curious to embark on a passionate search for ancestors, the resulting family tree branching back into history a dozen generations or more. It’s an amazing phenomenon.

I’ve had all of this on my mind lately, and not just because my elderly parents are traveling half-way across the world when they might be better off sitting on the sofa and watching the NCAA Tournament (my Bruins are in the Final Four!) You see, just last week I received via email an electronic copy of my wife’s genealogy and discovered that someone, by some means, has traced her heritage back into the 1500s. That’s over 400 years worth of family foliage, a staggering amount of research and a humbling glimpse of one’s past. As I stared at the screen of my computer I was in awe:

Christopher Worrilow – Born, 1579, Haughton, Staffordshire, England; died in 1605 [so young!], a year or so after his son John was born. He and his wife Margery died on the same day.

Wouldn’t you love to know how they died, and who raised little John, and the answers to half a dozen other questions? I don’t even know where to begin such an inquiry, but I do know this: The Internet has now made it possible even for a hack like me to tinker with family history. (You should check out familysearch.org—wow!) At any rate, it does give one pause—and a little tug—as eternal forces compel us to try to pull together our families across continents and cultures and many generations.


Paruntz on the Fritz

Dear Will:

My laptop is on the fritz. I will resist the temptation to bore you with the aggravating details and spare you an unpleasant accounting of my interaction with technicians who don’t speak English and a service center run by apparent morons. Instead I suggest we spend these few moments together considering the sad state of an otherwise useful phrase such as “on the fritz.”

Does anyone actually say “on the fritz” anymore? As it came off of my fingers there in the first paragraph, it occurred to me that I hadn’t said it or read it since the Carter Administration, and even then it surely must have sounded a bit dated. The last time I used it, in fact, I may have thought to myself, “Now there’s a spiffy little phrase”—even though surely nothing had truly been spiffy, or even nifty for that matter, since the Truman Administration. Those words were stuck on a dusty shelf along with “on the fritz,” replaced since then by other manifestations of cool, such as misspelling wurdz for effect (although I confess that the effect on me is an unintended one).

What exactly is the provenance of “on the fritz” anyway? It seems to suggest that there’s just the one fritz out there, apparently overloaded with all of our broken-down junk. “On the fritz” is where you put something that isn’t working right, right? I pity the original Fritz for whom this particular idiom was named. How badly do you have to muck things up for them to name a negative idiom for you?

(Aside: I suspect that things have not been “mucked up” since Calvin Coolidge was in the White House, but that’s another matter altogether.)

No doubt I learned “on the fritz” from my parents, (or should I say paruntz?). I’ve noticed that we do that to our kids, and I’m not sure it’s fair. Let me give you an example: Around our house, when you give someone a little playful goose in the keister (another word I learned from Mom and Dad), we say that you have given that person “woobs.” It’s a word I invented (or at least, I think I did) when my firstborn was a little guy. (I don’t even know how to spell woobs since it doesn’t rhyme with any real word. Even now, as I look at it, I know that you are mispronouncing it, as if it rhymed with “tubes,” for example. My guess is it needs some of those weird European vowels, like this: wöôbs.) The point is that at some future date my poor unsuspecting kids will leave home and discover (to their horror) two things:

  1. It is not socially acceptable to goose those around you. It’s rude in fact. Inappropriate. Generally not good.
  2. There are only 5 people (all relatives) who use the word woobs. Everyone else sticks to plain English.

At which point my kids will probably wonder why, with so many wonderful people in the world, God stuck them with us. And they’ll think to themselves: “Those two have been on the fritz since Clinton was President.”