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

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Moving Rocks

Dear Will:

I’m sitting on the deck of a cabin next to Bear Lake, near the border of Utah and Idaho on Highway 89. It’s not a bad way to pass a Sunday morning: the air is cool, the sky is blue and painted with lazy, drifting clouds. Inside the cabin, my sister-in-law is making her signature blueberry pancakes, enough to feed three generations worth of descendants who have gathered to celebrate my in-laws’ 50th wedding anniversary.

My letter-writing proceeds in disjointed bursts. I am easily distracted by various children, the sons and daughters of my nieces and nephews, mostly—the great grandchildren here at this celebration of posterity. The door from the cabin swings open and (sometimes) shut, over and over, as the kids chase each other to and from and around and through the jungle gym here in the yard. I’m amazed that there is hardly any sign of the contention you might expect to see in a schoolyard—the fun is effortless; the laughter comes easily.

It’s remarkable  to observe that these kids are such good friends, to see how they play for hours and hours as if they are Pals For Life. Of course, many of them are— first cousins who know each other well. Others, however, are new acquaintances, but still they demonstrate that mysterious blood-bond that somehow connects relatives who may see each other only briefly every few years or so. Put strangers together and it will take a while for children to tentatively set themselves to play. But bring together cousins for the first time and comfortable familiarity prevails almost immediately.

Susie arrives and I put down the computer. She holds in her tiny fist a wooden car. As she climbs up into my lap, it occurs to me that I only learned her name yesterday. I believe she is my nephew Randall’s daughter, but I am not certain. Her age? One, maybe? On Friday night my buddy was Ethan, a precocious two-year-old (is there any other kind?) who took me by the hand to show me around. He and I spent a happy half hour moving rocks from that pile over there to this pile over here. Ethan belongs to Rob, a nephew whom I haven’t seen since his wedding seven (or so) years ago.

Ethan and Susie and I are tied together by a seemingly flimsy thread: One is the grandchild of my wife’s sister, the other of her brother. And yet the tug of love and connection I feel for them is undeniable. How can that be? What is it about family ties that generates that sort of spontaneous closeness? Why is it that we can see some people at work or in the neighborhood almost every day and hardly know them, but when we see an uncle or a cousin, even for the first time, we become intimate almost instantaneously?

I think the prophet Malachi has part of the explanation. You’ll recall, perhaps, that Malachi talked of multi-generational bonds as being an essential component of God’s eternal plan. He said that one of the vital roles of Elijah the Prophet was to “turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers” (Malachi 4:6). Malachi was making reference to an ineffable pull that stirs within us, causing us to look back over generations and feel a bond with those who came before us and a yearning for our children and their children and their children, for generations to come.

After all, God wants it that way. The First Presidency has said that “the family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children” and that “the divine plan of happiness enables family relationships to be perpetuated beyond the grave.” When we gather as family—at a cabin in the mountains or simply over a pot roast on a Sunday afternoon, we are doing the will of God. And when we put down the computer to play with a wooden car or move rocks from one pile to another, we are answering a call that comes from afar and resonates throughout the eternities.

PW

The Benevolent Monarch Reigns

Dear Will:

With Independence Day fast approaching, I find myself pondering the significance of personal freedom. A couple of hundred years ago, self-determination was an idea worth committing treason for—worth fighting and dying for—and you and I and millions of others are now the beneficiaries of that fight, citizens of history’s most influential republic.

Of course, my children are filled with consternation over the fact that our home is less republic than benevolent dictatorship (their noun) or monarchy (my noun). They get frustrated by the fact that they are not always free to choose because their parents sometimes impose choice upon them. As we speak, my 12-year-old Seth is upset that his mother has filled his summer with productive, worthwhile activities rather than leaving him to his own devices. Given the choice, he would spend the next two months watching TV and playing computer games. Having had the choice made for him, however, he looks over the next eight or nine weeks to discover his days cluttered with basketball camp, art classes, tennis and golf lessons, and something or other to do with horses. (Outrageous, I know.) “My summer is ruined,” he declares. “You haven’t left me any time for fun!”

I know as well as you do that the central issue here is not whether basketball camp will be fun but rather that he is being forced to attend. Sometimes we do that as parents, constraining our kids to do things “for their own good.” It is part of our divine responsibility, in fact, to nurture and teach our children and, yes, from time to time compel them to stretch. The Church has declared: “Parents have a sacred duty to rear their children in love and righteousness, to provide for their physical and spiritual needs, to teach them to love and serve one another, to observe the commandments of God and to be law-abiding citizens wherever they live. Husbands and wives—mothers and fathers—will be held accountable before God for the discharge of these obligations.” I realize that it doesn’t say anything in there about tennis lessons, but it does give me some assurance that I am duty-bound to teach my kids to do things they might not otherwise do.

It gets a little trickier as our children get older though, doesn’t it? My eldest child is now 21, which pretty much means that his choices are his and his alone. Inasmuch as he’s still getting some financial support as he finishes college, he is still not completely independent, but I can assure you that these days he makes plenty of choices with which I wholeheartedly disagree. It is painful, I confess, to stand by and watch him make mistakes, but mistakes are part of the Divine Plan too.

Central to that Plan is the idea of individual choice. The scripture tell us: “Men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil” (2 Nephi 2:27). Freedom to choose for our­selves allows us the privilege to do as we please with the time we are given in mortality. Metaphori­cally speaking, God will not impose basketball camp on any of us; rather we’re free to spend our time watching all of the sitcoms and playing all of the video games we can stomach. But when the great summer of life comes to an end, we will be held accountable for the choices we have made. Whether our lives lead to liberty and eternal life or something significantly worse is pretty much up to us.

You probably guessed without my telling you that Seth is quick to cite this same scripture in a futile attempt to rescue his summer from his mother and father, but we are unyielding. At this point in life, our choice trumps his. The day of his complete independence will come soon enough. Until then, the Benevolent Monarch will continue to reign.

PW