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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As If It Were August

Dear Will:

I grew up in Redlands, California, in the sort of neighborhood you might not see these days anywhere outside of Leave It To Beaver. There were kids of every age up and down the street and around the corner. We spent our summers untethered, roaming the streets and yards and vacant lots with the freedom to go wherever our curiosity and imaginations might carry us.

A typical day in August started with obligatory chores, completed with a greater focus on speed than quality. Once released from our indentured servitude, we would head out to pick up wherever it was we left off the day before. We moved seamlessly from kick-the-can to Marco Polo to a game we called (quite accurately) Anythingball. We generally grabbed lunch at whichever house we found ourselves and then dashed off to The Big Tree or one of several secret forts where we would dream up mischief and new adventures.

In the midst of all of that fun, we fought—for sure—and argued every day, perhaps about the rules of this game or a bad call in that game. We would go from best friends to enemies to best friends again all over the course of a single afternoon. We played so hard that the smog would irritate our lungs and make it hard to breathe, but we were undaunted. It was summer, after all, and if we had hung around the house you can be sure that some grown-up would have found something “productive” for us to do.

We preferred to fill the time ourselves. We might grab a bat and a tennis ball and head for the nearby golf course to play work-ups in the fairway until the course marshal chased us off or until the daylight grew so dim we could no longer see the ball. Then perhaps we’d take up an all-neighborhood game of sardines that might have a dozen kids or more dangling from the branches of a single, teetering pine tree in somebody else’s yard. We invariably ended the day exhausted, with grass stains and scrapes, smelling like kids do when the fun has ended but the grins still remain.

Some days the fun ended earlier than others, but every day, from early morning till late afternoon or evening, my siblings and I played until our mother whistled us home. My mom had a shrill, powerful whistle that could be heard no matter where we were at any given moment. It was the two-finger dinner bell, the ultimate tweet, an ingeniously simple way for her to get all seven of us puppies back into the box.

In some respects, you and I and everyone are all still kids, doing the chores we have to but looking for energy and wonder to fill our days. There are, sometimes, injuries and hard feelings along the way, and occasionally we’ll be forced to make a midday run to the ER, but mostly what we’re hoping for is friendship and laughter. Joy. For all of the challenges and frustrations, the sadness and the heartache that may accompany our mortal existence, scripture tells us that joy is our ultimate purpose (2 Nephi 2:25)—it’s why we’re here. Sooner perhaps than most of us will like, the time will come when we’ll hear a distant whistle calling us home, but even then we’ll find family waiting for us there: Father and Mother and siblings. Joy beyond measure.

In the meantime, we should live each day as if it were August. Which, by the way, it is.

PW

The Version of Us That I Like Best

Dear Will:

It’s very likely that I’m giving us a little too much credit here, but I believe that my little family is pretty normal. We laugh a lot and squabble too often. We sometimes make a big deal of inconsequential slights and often say things we later regret. We mostly do our best to coexist in peace and harmony, but the fact remains that the parents are too often impatient and the teenagers are too often teenagers.

When we have guests in our home, however, we typically become our better selves—consistently more charming and tolerant and much more fun to be around.  We wag more and bark less, as the saying goes. It’s the version of us that I like best, as you might guess. It makes me wonder why we don’t invite dinner guests into our home every night.

That best-behavior business happens regardless of who has come to visit, but then there are those special friends whose impact on us extends far beyond a single evening at the dinner table. They do not merely move us to behave ourselves when they are around, they inspire us to want to be better all the time. They are in no way preachy or sanctimonious, they merely live life the right way. Something about their character and manner shows us a glimpse of our own potential. Their example alone is a force for good.

Exhibit A: Pat and Kevin and their remarkable children. Every time we get together with them Dana and I have the same post-visit conversation: Why can’t we be more like the Merkleys? (Then after a pause in which we both grasp the impossibility of that prospect): Or why can’t we at least be more like the version of ourselves that shows up when the Merkleys are around?

We were with the Merkleys just last week. And as I felt those familiar, I-need-to-be-a-better-person stirrings, I was reminded of a pledge I made many summers ago when I was working as a teenager at a YMCA camp in the San Bernardino mountains. It’s called the Raggers’ Creed:

I would be true, for there are those who trust me;
I would be pure, for there are those who care;
I would be strong, for there is much to suffer,
I would be brave, for there is much to dare.

I would be friend to all—the foe, the friendless;
I would be giving, and forget the gift;
I would be humble, for I know my weakness;
I would look up, and laugh, and love and lift.

I don’t mean to imply that our friends are the embodiment of truth, purity, strength, and bravery. But even without discussing or conspicuously displaying any of those ideals, they somehow make me want more deeply to strive for them. I think that’s what my friend Ron had in mind when he frequently proclaimed that he’d rather be at church gatherings than at any other place: It was an opportunity to be around—and be elevated by—the best people he knew.

Laugh. Love. Lift. That’s what the Merkleys do. Now if we could just figure out how to get them to join us every night for dinner. . . .

PW