It’s a Long Time Till Wednesday

Wednesday

Dear Will:

I’m not getting any better at this stuff.

When my daughter Bryn was barely 19, she boarded a plane for New Zealand where she lived and worked for the next two years. Putting her on that Air New Zealand flight was traumatizing, especially as we faced hours and hours of radio silence awaiting word of her arrival. As fatherhood memories go, it is not one I treasure. (Fortunately, it all worked out.) Nevertheless, a year later I found myself once again standing in an airport about to send my daughter halfway round the world. And once again, it was tearful and traumatizing.

So you’d think that I might be building up a tolerance for such things. Alas, it is not so.

Last week my wife Dana and I drove to Utah to deliver Seth (our youngest) to the Missionary Training Center (MTC) in Provo. On Wednesday, July 26, he began his formal preparations to serve full-time in the Argentina Posadas Mission, which straddles the Paraná River as it runs between Argentina and Paraguay. He will be gone for about two years, during which time we will communicate with him principally through once-a-week emails. No big deal, I thought. I’ve known this day was coming his entire life. We can do this.

But on Wednesday at 2:15 pm, he disappeared into the MTC with his two ginormous suitcases filled with white shirts and other missionary essentials. And at 2:16 pm it really hit me: Wait a second. I have to wait till next Wednesday for word from Seth? But I want to know what’s happening RIGHT NOW. That thought has come back to me again and again every day since we said our good-byes. I’m not worried about his welfare (not yet, anyway—he’s in Provo, Utah, after all), but I hate being out of the loop. How does he like his teachers? What about the other missionaries he will be training with for six weeks before they fly to South America? How’s the food? What’s the routine? Has he thought about his over-invested and hyper-agitated father even once since we dropped him off? HOW IS HE DOING?!!?

We will get over it, I suppose; parents always do. But for us first-timers, our previous experiences with Bryn have proved wholly inadequate. Anxious doesn’t even begin to describe our state of distress. Our plight is exacerbated by the fact that Seth’s departure leaves us as empty-nesters for the first time, with no one but Barnum, the Moron Dog, to comfort us. So far it isn’t working.

What does comfort me is this: I know Seth’s cause and I know his heart. And I see firsthand the impact that the gospel of Jesus Christ has on the lives of those who embrace it. Faithless cynics might assert that the Church should keep its beliefs to itself, that traveling the world in search of new members is somehow inappropriate. But I see these things from a very different perspective. As bishop, I have the unique privilege of seeing the lives of new (and longtime) members of the LDS Church from behind the scenes. I see darkness dissipate as people accept the teachings of Jesus and allow His Atonement to lift their spirits and heal their broken hearts. And when that darkness lifts, I see their lives transformed by light as hope, faith and truth inform their choices and fill their beings. It’s glorious.

Seth will offer all of that to the people of Paraguay and Argentina. Most will have no interest. But those who listen earnestly and embrace his message will bless his name forever. If my wife and I have to suffer a little separation anxiety in the interim, it’s a small price to pay.

But do we really have to wait till Wednesday?

PW

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Breakfast for Dinner

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Dear Will:

The thing about pancakes is that you get to douse them with syrup. Goopy, sweet, and delicious, syrup is one of the great nectars of childhood. Remember when you first discovered that—even though they were super-indulgent, dessert-like wonders—pancakes were a featured item of the Most Important Meal of the Day? Talk about beating the system! You would look at your siblings incredulously, blinking in amazement as if to say “Can you believe this?” in some sort of eyelash-flapping Morse code.

When I was growing up, I probably ate pancakes at least once a week. My mother would fry up a pound of bacon, cook a dozen or so eggs, and throw in the flapjacks just for good measure. It was both wonderful and no big deal. But then some fool invented cholesterol and spoiled an otherwise great thing for generations of kids to come. Add in the complications of over-programmed childhoods and it’s perhaps easy to understand why, one generation later, my children have pretty much subsisted on Cheerios and Quaker Oatmeal Squares for breakfast throughout their lives. It hardly seems fair.

So in order to assuage my guilt and keep them from reporting me to authorities, when they were small I began the practice of making Special Breakfast on Sunday mornings. It was an important bonding ritual for me and my kids since my wife, Dana—who has never been much of a breakfast-eater—was rarely around to cast a disapproving motherly glare at our mounds of goopy goodness. Guilt-free and giddy, we would slather and stab, forkful upon sticky forkful, unconcerned with caloric intake or the latest in nutritional science. And for one hour each week, I got to be the cool parent while eating breakfast the way it was meant to be eaten.

As a consequence, my kids and I have come to take our pancakes very seriously. We don’t use Bisquick (please) or Krusteaz (don’t insult me) or any other variety of ready-made mixes. As for me and my house, pancakes are strictly from scratch, with real buttermilk and a variety of other not-very-secret ingredients that, over the years, have turned the basic recipe from The Joy of Cooking into my own signature line against which my children judge all other so-called hotcakes. Straight from the griddle, we smear them with butter and genuine maple or homemade apple syrup. If Dana is around we’ll throw in a few blueberries so that perhaps she’ll cave in and join us.

Or at least, that’s what we used to do. These days, I’m in meetings from early to late most Sundays, and I get through the day without any breakfast, Special or otherwise. For his part, like any good teenager, Seth (the only kid left at home) would rather sleep in till noon if given the choice, so as with so many other essential family rituals, Special Breakfast now happens only once or twice a year. It’s just not the same. We’ve lost something important—and it’s not (I hasten to add) weight.

So with Dana’s complete (if unenthusiastic) acquiescence—we have declared that tonight shall be Breakfast for Dinner, an indulgent shout-out to years gone by when calories didn’t count and it was still possible for Dad to be cool.

And in so doing, we shall feel virtuous because we are fulfilling a mandate given by prophets of God, who said (and I quote): “Successful marriages and families are established and maintained on principles of faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, wholesome recreational activities . . . and pancakes.” At least, I’m pretty sure that’s what they said. And if not, surely it’s what they meant.

PW

Please Don’t Tell the Ranger

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Dear Will:

“WARNING!,” the notice read. “EXTREME ALPINE CONDITIONS. The following MINIMUM equipment, experience, procedures and skills strongly recommended by the US Forest Service and County Sheriff’s Department Search & Rescue Teams.” The list included winter mountaineering training, map, ice axes, helmets, alpine boots, and crampons.

We had none of that. But when you agree to go hiking with Bryn, that sort of lack of preparation does not register even as a minor annoyance. “It’ll be fine,” she insisted. “Let’s do it.”

I suppose this is what I unwittingly signed up for 21 years ago when she was born, but it would have been nice in that moment to have come prepared with a suitably exotic Plan B that might have dissuaded her from her purpose. But here’s the thing: Her original intention was to climb Mt. San Gorgonio—alone—at night—so that she could be on the summit at sunrise. That we were intending to climb Mt. San Bernardino in the daytime was Plan B.

How often have we read about people who disregard expert advice and common sense and venture off where they do not belong, only to be airlifted to the hospital to have their frostbitten toes surgically removed? That was about to be us. Or to be more specific: me. Bryn is a fit and fearless dancer and world traveler. I spend my days building PowerPoint decks and hiking to the Men’s Room.

We weren’t even a third of the way to the 10,700-foot summit when the trail became mostly covered in icy snow. We had to rely on the footsteps of previous hikers to mark the way—footsteps gouged with the unmistakable stab-marks of crampons, I might add. It was about that time that we came upon another hiker—decked out in the sort of regalia that would have filled the Ranger with a frisson of joy—who had turned back, she said, because of faulty footwear. It was like one of those allegories you hear in Sunday School about the angel who comes along to warn the unsuspecting of imminent disaster.

(You saw this coming): Nevertheless, we hiked on. On one particularly treacherous side-slope I remember thinking that if I slipped I could very well end up luging all the way to Yucaipa—unless, that is,  I could MacGyver a handbrake out of my ChapStick and a protein bar. Fortunately for me (and my ChapStick) it never came to that. The first time I took a spill was while trying to cross a bunch of manzanita, so rather than becoming a human toboggan I merely sustained a puncture wound to the shoulder and several other bloody scrapes along my left side. That I could handle.

Eventually we lost the trail altogether. We made an earnest attempt to connect up with a different set of footprints in an adjacent gully, but the hiking there proved to be the most taxing of the entire adventure. When we could no longer confidently identify the peak we were supposedly climbing, the following words of Robert Frost passed through my mind:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And they never found my body.

Actually, I’m not sure about that closing line, but I guarantee you my friends would have paid a lot more attention in English class if Frost had written it that way. As it was, I knew that, although I had not reached the summit, I had reached my limit. I begged Bryn for mercy.

Reluctantly, she relented. We had fallen 1000 feet short of our goal, just as (apparently) others had before us. Now the only trick was to retrace our steps. I will skip the humiliating story of the spill I took on the way down that turned my sunglasses into safety goggles and my nose and forehead into hamburger. And on one other detail I will be appropriately brief: We spent most of the day hiking in sunshine across bright, white snow. We carried sunscreen every step of the way. We forgot to use it.

In all we covered over 16 miles of mountain on a difficult yet glorious day. And while my sunburned face seems to be decomposing like something out of that scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, I have it on good authority that the damage is not likely to be permanent. Except maybe for that gash on the bridge of my nose.

So what’s my point? I suppose that, in the spirit of Choose Your Own Adventure, you might select from any of these familiar aphorisms:

  1. It’s not about the destination. It’s about the near-death experiences along the journey.
  2. That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger—unless you forget the sunscreen.
  3. A journey of 1000 miles begins with the proper equipment.
  4. Nothing ventured, nothing broken.
  5. Just because you got away with it, doesn’t mean you’re not stupid.

To which I would add one other: It’s pretty great to be a dad.

PW