Month: December 2010
I visited Mt. Vernon this week. When I told people where I was going or where I had just been, all said the same thing, “O, I love Mt. Vernon.”
It was mid week, mid morning, and freezing. Possibly due to all these, the crowds were not only thin, but unusually grey. The army of tour guides, all dressed in Navy blue with red trim, reminiscent of the colonial army, walked small groups of elderly folks in furs and suits. Everyone was cordial, knowledgeable, and surprisingly efficient. At one point there was a changing of the guard, of sorts, and our tour guides switched out mid-sentence, one finishing the other’s phrase without missing a beat. In the house and the adjoining museum I saw the General’s sword, the businessman’s study, and the gentleman’s false teeth. The museum sports what is touted as the most accurate sculpture of George Washington’s likeness, used as a baseline for which scientists did aging analysis to recreate Mr. Washington at various points in his life accurately. It was impressive and interesting. There was a bit of living history with a blacksmith, a camel (records show the President rented a camel to impress guests), and even demonstration of our first presidents primary import; chocolate. I like chocolate. I learned the Washington’s drank a lot of chocolate. Did I say I like chocolate?
Visiting such locations is a wonderful way to bring to life those of whom we only know in books and paintings. There is much to be said about walking where those who shaped today, walked back then. I like to see the items they touched and saw, things that were there then and are still here now. The continuous existence of objects creates a sort of connection through time. There is value in this experiencing history, yet I found this place to be disappointing. I was disappointed in the same way many others are, and it makes me tired.
The estate at Mt. Vernon had over 70 slaves in residence. While I was there I saw one black person, I high schooler flirting with a girl while the teacher attempted to hurry them to a bus.
Slavery was not ignored, the barracks were well restored and explained, the museum had a wall dealing with the “dilemma”, and the bookstore had its black history section. I thought there should be more.
I suppose some, many rather, may tire of me seeing and talking of slavery everywhere. I understand that. George Washington did in fact do many great things and helped shape my modern existence. To deny that his contributions and accomplishments qualify him as great would be historically inaccurate and ignorant, as would be the ignoring of slavery. I suppose I would say to those who say I see slavery too much, that I don’t see it nearly as much as Mr. Washington did.
Our modern sensibilities and preferences don’t wish to have the brush of race painted over every little thing. It is tiresome and old. But if we are to preserve and learn from our past, we need to do it honestly. To ignore such a large part of our history truly handicaps our understanding of today. Sure slavery was hundreds of years ago, but so was George Washington.
Joseph Smith on the Subway
When we arrived at the platform there was only one other person waiting. He was a middle aged white man with glasses and a well trimmed beard. I stood a comfortable distance away and we all waited silently for the train.
“Mormons huh? I used to be one of those.” The man offered without looking at us. I knew a set up when I heard one but I’ve always been that silly fish that takes the bait knowing full well there is a hook in it. “Really? What happened?” I returned. “You need to read the Doctrine and Covenants,” he answered and before anymore could be exchanged the train arrived, the doors opened, and he went for a different car.
As I stepped onto the subway car I became immediately aware that this was not to be like other commutes. It was standing room only. Not just crowded but that uncomfortable squish where parts of you touch parts of other people and the jostling of movement ensures you never grow accustomed and or comfortable. While my view was mostly armpits and shoulders I noticed the other odd thing; everyone was white, and everyone was male. I noticed all this but had no time to react before the doors shut and we sardines were encased for the duration.
“Ya know, Joseph Smith was an adulterer.” I heard a voice state matter-of-factly. From a different direction I heard another man say, “Smith was a liar who believed in witchcraft.” I looked around to identify the voices and saw that all eyes were on me. I looked around for my companion to find that he had somehow managed his way to the back corner of the car and was standing facing the wall, so much for back-up.
Another man, one right next to me, looking me in the face said, “Joseph Smith is in Hell right now.”
None of their statements were things I had not heard before but this whole scene was a bit overwhelming. Looking at this man’s face I saw no clue as to his motivation, he appeared to have no emotion at all. I looked down from his face to focus on a name tag he was wearing. I do not recall his name but I do recall the organization, the Promise Keepers. I looked around and noticed all these men were wearing similar tags. Many had titles such as Rev. or Pastor before their given name and if I had to guess the average age was 45.
“How can you follow such a liar?” yet another voice called from the crowd. I had been a missionary for almost a year now, I had just turned twenty. Normally I would answer such questions with contradicting facts or questions as to the questioners’ sources. This time I didn’t. I stood there almost outside myself in shock. Here I was, a kid, crammed onto a train full of middle aged men, most of whom wore titles earned by schooling or mid-career progression. By their questions they obviously thought me uneducated and misguided. The titles they wore and the event they were attending deemed these as men who had taken upon them the responsibility of helping others, and here they were, surrounding a sole young soul, and this is the tact they chose?
They continued on as if this was one of the convention’s role plays or exercises. Each man individually took a turn trying his best one liner to destroy my faith. Not a single one of them appeared to have taken the time to consider what I had done previous to putting on the tag I wore, what it took to wear it day-to-day, or what it meant to me to wear it. They were just a bunch of old men publicly insulting the things closest to my heart.
I stood tall and listened. I did my best to look at the face of whomever it was speaking while they took their stab. When there was finally a lull I took my turn. I suppose they expected some sort of religious retort, or possibly a parry of sectarian insult, I think this is what I expected of myself. Instead of any of these things I simply said,
“I know what I believe. You will not change what I know. The idea that you, grown men, religious leaders, would choose to insult me, and insult someone you know full well I believe to be a prophet of God, is much more a testament to your own character than anything else.”
As if on cue the train stopped, the doors opened, and I stepped off. I watched as my companion gloomily shoved his way out another exit and we continued on our way. I was not then, nor am I now, particularly eloquent. The words I said then were a surprise to me and I have since rarely achieved such punctuation and clarity. I can’t even be completely sure those were my exact words. There was no training for handling this sort of situation, there was no manual for antagonistic trainloads of convention attendees. What I do know is that what came out of me that night either came from somewhere deep within, or came from elsewhere entirely.
I sometimes wonder if any of these men remember the scene. I am curious if my words had any effect. I simply stepped off the train and went about my business, and they sped off to somewhere else. None of the things they told me that day had an impact on me, but them saying those things surely did.
Planks asked how we were received.
Missionaries are always in pairs, sometimes in threes. They do not choose to whom they are paired, nor do they stay with that person for the entire two years. The rule book says these “companions” are to be within sight and sound of each other at all times, the restroom being the sole exemption.
There is scriptural basis for this practice “in the mouths of two or three witnesses shall every word be established”, (2 Cor. 13:1) but there are also reasons practical. When sending 19 year old males out into the world it is safer for all concerned that they have another with them. It is also wise to have another set of eyes to witness what goes on; to later defend or quite often mock, the players in events that transpire.
Doorsteps were usually safe. If large dogs were present and angry, we went elsewhere. If inhabitants were present and angry, they would usually just curse us and our cause, and then we would go elsewhere. The thing that was probably least safe was the commute to elsewhere.
While riding my bike along city streets I dodged three beer bottles (that I can recall) but was unable to avoid a bagel, two donuts, and one motorcyclist.
I was riding a good 50 yards in front of my companion, he was slow. I was well over on the shoulder, a good five feet from the lanes of traffic. It was a busy highway so I did not think to be alarmed at the motorcycle swerving over toward me. I never saw it. No, I take that back, I did see it as it sped away. There was a passenger riding on the back, twisting around to watch me. I could not see, but I’m sure the passenger was smiling. There was no way not to see my companion’s smile when he finally came skidding to a halt beside me.
“Dude, that was the funniest thing I have ever seen!” He exclaimed as I stared up at him from the ditch. “I totally saw it coming too. That guy was riding the yellow line and the passenger leaned way over to get a good shove on your backpack.” I asked him why he didn’t warn me. He said there may not have been time but more importantly, he wanted to watch it happen.
I was luckier than another missionary we knew. He was in a more rural part of Georgia with a different demographic. Rather than a motorcycle his assailants were in a pickup, with a bat, and he received two broken arms. He healed just fine. I have no idea if his companion warned him.
I’m smiling as I type this. I’m remembering Elder Reese and me walking down Campbellton Road. We were on the sidewalk, he between me and the road. A large town car, built before either of us were born, honked as it went by, the passenger leaning out the window screaming. This was normal, I just kept walking. Elder Reese didn’t. He stood frozen and silent. As I turned to look at him I saw he was completely wet from head to foot. “It’s warm. Is it…?” He couldn’t finish his question. I sniffed him. “It’s just beer, maybe Schlitz’s, I’m not sure.” Relieved, he simply swiveled about and began walking back home to change. I just chuckled as I caught up to him, taking my turn to walk on the side facing the street.
This was the forced fun portion of the conference. Two hundred twenty something’s, one year into their first post college job, and there was an open bar. There was one other young man not drinking so I approached him. “So where did you go to school?” I asked. That is how we all started our conversations at these things.
“A little school called UVSC. You?”
“Really?” I asked, eyebrow cocked as best I could. “I spent a few years at USU, but finished at the U.”
His eyebrow cocked. We had established each other’s reason for not drinking without having to ask directly, but my newfound brother had a distant look that insinuated there was something more.
With just a bit of prodding he offered, “I played rugby against USU once. There was this reff…”
“His name is Nev Tuipolotu”, I answered. “He’s a good guy.”
With this, my sober friend’s jaw dropped open, and he asked, “You mean you were there?”
This UVSC alumnus was about six feet two, blonde haired, and had a movie star jaw. He was the one in the company we all admired, not for his look, but for his territory; he covered Hawaii. Upon establishing that we had in fact been collegiate competitors against each other, and shared a common historic event, he shared more.
“I was on the sidelines when things got really out of hand. I had just been watching,but when it got crazy, I started to run onto the field. This reff stepped in front of me, grabbed me by my collar, looked me in the eye, and said, “you will stay right where you are.” He held my gaze till I realized my feet were off the ground. He jogged off and I stayed put.”
I had never heard this little bit of the story before. I had never heard it told from the other team’s perspective at all. By now some others had gathered round and more explaining was in order.
We, Utah State University, were the hosts. This was to be a “friendly”, meaning the result would not be official, it was a practice game of sorts. Our coach grew up on the island of Tonga, had come to the States for an education, and then just stayed. He did not get paid to teach us the game, nor was he being paid to be the reff that day.
Our team, a rag-tag of frat boys, islanders, and general knuckleheads would win the games we were supposed to, lose the ones predicted, and accepted any request for a game extended. This Saturday’s contest came with no crowds, no police, and no ambulance. In this respect it was the same as all our other games. That soon changed.
Cia (Siy-uh), had just employed a common tactic of enforcing the rules of play by “raking”. In rugby it is illegal to hold on to the ball once you are tackled and it is additionally rude to lie on top of the ball while it is on the ground. Raking is using your metal cleated boots to encourage the opponent lying on the ball to stop doing so. Most reffs will allow this as long as you don’t rake one’s head, and offenders quickly learn to stop cheating. In this instance the rakee did not learn but got upset. He jumped to his feet, yelled choice words, and started for Cia. Wayne, a slender fellow with two gold teeth who spoke little English came quickly to Cia’s defense with a hard thrown right fist.
Nev, the reff, caught Wayne’s fist mid-air, placed his other hand on the other players chest, and prevented a tragedy.
This other player, this neophyte philistine, forgot himself for a regrettable moment, and punched Nev in the face. We were not unaccustomed to a scuffle here and there and most just sort of sorted themselves out. Someone would get thrown out of the game and we would finish a man down, or a couple of us would spend 5 minutes in the “sin bin” to cool down and then get cleaned up before the post game party. No big deal; till now. No one had ever punched Nev before and in so doing this unaware hot head had dropped a bomb.
Fists flew and lips bled. I saw some of the best tackles a rugby pitch has ever seen and kicking that Beckham could never match. Everywhere you looked there was action, two on one here, one on one there; piles of bodies writhing and biting. Seeing a haymaker headed for a teammates head, I put my shoulder in that guys ribs and dropped him to the ground. Holding his face in the grass I was perfectly posed to be grabbed from behind in a headlock and pulled backwards. Flat on my back I had a great view of the player above me, kicking me in the chest. I also had a great view of Wayne executing a beautiful flying kick that crumpled my tormentor like a paper doll.
Usually when things like this begin, some sort of authority steps in and brings it to a close. I began to wonder how long this was going to continue as I bear hugged a very angry, but smaller, player from the other team. I held him immobile off to one side for what seemed like an eternity before I saw the other team sort of trickle off the pitch, gather their gear, and leave. I released my prey to join them and flopped onto the grass exhausted.
As I lay there Nev walked past and said, “Guess we are done for today.” The incident had lasted more than twenty minutes. I sat round the kava bowl with my roommate and some other players later that night. I was tired, achy, and confused. I had never seen anything like that before and nothing like it since. It was the sort of thing that didn’t get retold often because we tellers grew tired of being accused of exaggeration. Listeners would tire or ask questions I could not answer. Questions like “why did it finally end? How did the fighting stop?” As years passed I began to wonder the same thing. I never knew, till that evening, years later.
My cross-country co-worker told how this giant of a reff went from group to group, scuffle to scuffle, ordering people to stop, and they did. This player, new to the game, simply did what he was told; he stayed put. I doubt any one man has ever remained so cool amid such chaos, ever commanded such respect, or simply ever frightened so many people as Nev did that day.
I smiled at my new friend, raised my Shirley Temple in a silent toast, and the two of us sat bored as the rest of our cohorts got drunk.
A Continuous Lean, Interview
“… my apologies again about the coffee — I’m an idiot.”
I was once again unreasonably early and stood outside the coffee shop in Soho waiting for him to arrive. I watched a man in a fedora, skin tight jeans and knee high fur boots walk past, two guys in skinny suits with Moses beards, wearing work boots, and a six foot tall, waif thin woman in high heels and fur shawl all walk past. Seeing them, and knowing I was about to meet the blogger whose work is known as the go-to place for all things hipster, I began to really wonder who it was I was about to meet.
When he walked up, right on time, he was above all else… normal.
He told me he isn’t fashionable. He referred to fashion as the “F” word. He retold how style industry people meet him and say, “Really? This is the guy?” I must admit meeting with the knee high boots guy would have been pure visual entertainment, but Mr. Williams was the kind of normal that isn’t a disappointment.
We went inside and I ordered a hot chocolate, they were out, so I got apple juice. The normal line of questioning followed, completed by him saying, “So it’s kind of like I invited a Jew to have bacon?” I tried to convince him it was a complete non-issue, coffee is my favorite flavor of jelly bean, but I’m not sure he completely believed me. This wasn’t supposed to be about me.
In Michael’s case normal is not boring, but it does require you to pay attention. He does not act or speak in a flash of flamboyance to draw attention to him or his point, he and his work just are. That is in essence what A Continuous Lean is.
I had trouble describing to my wife what the site is, Michael helped by saying it’s a men’s interest blog focusing on Americana. “Why Americana?” I asked.
“Uh, I guess because I’m American.”
Great answer. He put me, and might I say a whole lot of other skeptics, in our collective place. He put me in my place because he is not some Soho sleuth trying to figure out what is cool and market it. He is not polling or trolling the streets for the next cool thing and trying to pass his version of it off as authentic. He is simply a guy from Ohio with a history degree. A guy from Ohio, not in the “let me cover up my fly over country past to become NYC” kind of way; nor is he the “Look at my Crocodile Dundee woodsy shtick and love me” kind of way either. He is simply from Ohio.
“I like traditional stuff. I figure if something has been around for 100 years it’s probably because it’s good. If you go to Istanbul you can get a traditional wet shave that has been done the same way for hundreds of years…. I’m American. Not in the flag waving, we’re number one kind of way; it’s just what I am… Americans didn’t invent the suit, we invented jeans. The clothing and things we perfected were work wear and utilitarian things. I like that stuff and I just started posting stuff I like.”
Approximately 350,000 people per month like it too. Such a large number makes me feel a little sheepish, but I have to admit… I’m whole heartedly one of them.
He posts things like trips to flea markets, how to tie a monkey fist knot, and most recently a company that makes shoe horns. Shoe horns?
This brings us back to normal. Michael Williams has a way of making normal cool. He has crafted a strange world where the Varsity quarterback is envious of the second string nose guard and finds himself trying to dress like him. He has urbanites scouring the countryside and searching attics for old military tents and ammo cans. He has me interested in shoe horns.
I got the idea he finds this all a bit funny but he doesn’t laugh very loud. I’m not sure if he does many things very loud. He was apologetic and modest. He had a dangerous way of distracting me with questions about myself, preying on one of my weaknesses. He even volunteered that he thought his site might appear too materialistic. How unfashionable.
As if he was sorry for it, he admitted he liked a lot of “things”.
“It‘s not that I’m telling everyone to go out and buy this stuff (the comments on an infamously expensive notebook are priceless) its more that I’m exercising demons. I see stuff I like and after I write about it I no longer feel I have to own it.”
Preach on my good man, preach on. The only problem is he does it a little too well and in exorcising his own demons; he’s passing them all on to me. I’m sure those featured don’t mind at all. I’m currently saving up for a new notebook.
Knock, Knock, Knock
The first thing you need to know about Mormon missionaries is that they do not choose where they go. The first thing I should say about me is that from birth till age 19, all I wanted to be, was a Mormon missionary.
My father spent two and a half years in Switzerland. My older brother went to Brazil. I went to Atlanta Georgia. Looking back I suppose I got the least exotic sounding locale, but at the time I was just so excited to go, that I easily brushed off all those dreams of foreign languages and strange foods. What I didn’t realize then, but appreciate now, is that by staying domestic I traded in a bunch of stories that could be shared by countless tourists and expatriates, for a whole new set of tales that are above else, uniquely Mormon. My native culture has a fine tradition of returned missionaries, “RM” in the vernacular, telling stories of their two years spent in God’s service. I was happy to join this expansive club upon my return and added mine to the stories of my progenitors and contemporaries. My experience was not all that unique in comparison with childhood friends. Kirk brought Yerba Mate back from Chile, Jonny returned with an accent from Mexico, and Matt left his hair in Singapore. We all spent countless hours recounting adventures and missteps to all who would listen, till the one day we realized girls weren’t impressed; then we shut up and got married.
It has recently been brought to my attention that what I thought was a mundane and common part of my past, is actually not. If I had been paying proper attention I would have realized this earlier. There were clues all around. Maybe things like others fascination with my alcohol abstinence, common confusion between my faith and the Amish, or the fact that usually the second question I am asked when making a new acquaintance is, “how many wives do you have?” should have helped me figure this out. Despite the lack of common knowledge on the tenets and doctrines of my faith, most Americans are familiar with the sight of two young guys in white shirts and ties, sporting black name tags. I stop at “familiar with the sight” because few are familiar with the young men themselves. I know this because I was once one of them and watched as my presence struck fear in the hearts of the public, sending them scurrying for a place to hide.
They were not hiding from Americans, Gringos, or the CIA, they were running from Mormons. They, you, were running from me. Two years of wearing that uniform, living that life, have quite stocked my quiver. Shall I share?
Perhaps a small sampling before you answer? I will start with a story that makes my wife cringe. Not because it is horrid, but because it is so common; at least to those of us who grew up with these sorts of things. Maybe you did not.
I arrived in Atlanta full of excitement and energy. I was assigned a “companion”, a more experienced missionary to show me the ropes, and he began doing so even before I unpacked my bags. We tossed my two suitcases on the bed and set out knocking on doors.
He went first to show me how it was done.
Knock, knock, knock…
“Hi, I’m Elder (withheld), and this is Elder Brohammas. We are out sharing a message about Jesus Christ, do you have a moment?”
-“No thanks, I’m already saved.” SLAM!
That looked easy. I inquired what would happen if we actually got past “hello” and he told me a few other little things to say before asking to come in and talk. I asked him to go again, I was still a little nervous.
Knock, knock, knock…
A man answered, waved at us through the screen, shook his head, and closed the door.
OK, still pretty easy. My companion looked me in the eye and said, “Elder. It’s your turn.”
It may be cliché’ to say I had waited my whole life for this moment but it was true. My favorite song as a preschooler was titled “I Hope They Call Me on a Mission”. They did, and here I was, my first door.
The man that answered must have been six feet five inches tall and not a pound under 350. He wore a tight white tank top, a blonde goatee, and had a toothpick pointing out from the corner of his mouth.
I smiled naturally and said, “Hi! I’m Elder Brohammas and this is Elder (withheld), we are out sharing a message about Jesus Christ. Do you have a moment?”
The man scowled, said, “I thought I told ya’ll Mormons to git,” and raised up his hand to show he was holding a Colt .45. Not a Colt as in a malt beverage, but as in a blue steel revolver.
The words I spoke were expected, “Uh…. Sorry. I didn’t know. We’ll leave you alone.” But the words I thought surprised me not just in their content but in quickness. I remember the words I thought exactly.
“Freaking Awesome! My first day! The guys are gonna love this!”
I turned to walk away only to be stopped by my companion. He pushed me back and spoke over my shoulder. “Are you sure sir? It will only take a moment.”
The man at the door cocked the gun. I don’t recall having any thoughts at this point.
The idiot standing behind me kept on. “Please, it’s very important. It will only take a minute.”
Seriously? I could not believe what was happening. All we had to do was walk away and we would soon be rejoicing in our shared tale of adventure and persecution for the word’s sake. In stead this overzealous fool may just get us shot.
The man, looking even angrier, began moving forward out onto the porch and my companion began moving forward to meet him. This was it.
Then they both doubled over laughing. The giant reached out his right hand and said, “Hi. I’m Billy Wilson. I’m a Mormon.”
And so it began.
Shall I go on?