Category Archives: family

When Rightness Poisons Religion

Recently I went to a business dinner at George’s at the Cove, a rather posh restaurant in La Jolla. Since it was a Friday evening with no school the following day, Wendy decided to drop me off for the dinner and take our son, Jeremiah, and his friend (let’s call him Jacob) to explore La Jolla. Since San Diego was in the midst of a red tide that resulted in phenomenal glowing surfs at night (read about it here), she had planned on taking Jeremiah and Jacob to get a hamburger and then go down to the Cove and see the phosphorescence. But first she treated them to a little window shopping at Symbolic Motors. Symbolic is the local exotic car dealership. (We will occasionally take Jeremiah down during a Saturday and let them wander around the Rolls Royces, Bentleys, Aston Martins, Lamborghinis, Ferraris, and even the occasional Bugatti. As amazing as these machines are and as excited as I get to see them, I often don’t enjoy our trips as I’m so stressed about Jeremiah tripping into one of the cars or some other accident.) Symbolic was closed, but its large street facing windows gave the kids ample opportunity to gawk. Though the store was closed, there were two men moving cars around in the store’s rear lot and garage. Wendy, Jeremiah, and Jacob walked over to the fence that separated the customer parking lot from where the men were working. In a surprising (to me) display of class, the leader of the two, Marc, stopped, and recognizing that nobody loves cars more than 10 to 12 year old boys, started chatting with Jeremiah and Jacob. Marc told them about his company–how he buys exotic cars from rich people in location A and sells them to other rich people in location B. Marc told them about the particular cars he was bringing to Symbolic to sell now, including a Maybach, a luxury car I’d never heard of, but, as coincidence goes, Jeremiah and Jacob had spent much time discussing as we had driven to La Jolla. Marc showed them photos on his phone of previous cars he had sold. Finally, Marc rounded off the discussion by telling them to do well in school.

Meeting Marc had been a phenomenal experience for Jeremiah and Jacob and they couldn’t stop talking about it. When the two of them squeezed onto the only stool available in the Burger Lounge, they kept talking about Marc and his cars. A gentleman on the stool next to them couldn’t help but overhear their enthusiastic banter. They were both taken aback when he started talking to them. “You met Marc? I know Marc.” Turns out, this stranger sitting next to them, enjoying his gourmet yet still rather down to earth burger, was Bill Sr., owner of the Ferrari and Maserati stores in San Diego, Orange County, and Washington (he didn’t mention the fact that he was the owner – they discovered that later). Bill was just as affable as Marc, and again recognizing the pure love a boy has for a Ferrari, pulled out his business card, wrote his son’s cell-phone number on it, and told them to call Bill, Jr. for a personal tour of the Ferrari dealership. Wendy had brought them down to La Jolla for the glowing surf, but the planets were obviously aligned to bring a much greater event into Jeremiah’s and Jacob’s lives.

The next day Jeremiah and Jacob (joined by Jeremiah’s sister, Clare), got their personalized tour of the Ferrari and Maserati dealerships. And just like Mark, and Bill, Sr., Bill, Jr. was friendly, down-to-earth, and without airs. Bill told them how his father had been a mechanic, always tinkering with cars. The mystery of how a mechanic had acquired these dealerships was left a mystery but perhaps explained much of these men’s friendliness to Jeremiah and Jacob: they were selling cars because they loved cars, the same love they could see in these boys.

Some time later I was talking with Jacob’s mom about his experience with the exotic car dealers. “It is all Jacob talks about,” she said. “But the most amazing thing he told me,” she continued “was ‘Mom, even though Bill, Sr. must be really rich I think he is really humble.'” The maturity and insight to recognize that virtue really pleased her, and led to one of those much-desired teaching moments where a parent and a child can mutually explore ideals to live by.

When I recounted this conversation to Wendy and Jeremiah as we drove to BBQ Republic, Wendy asked Jeremiah, “Do you think Bill, Sr. is humble?” “What’s humble?” he replied. We both felt deflated. Every Sunday of his life, sans vacations, illnesses, and conferences, Jeremiah has gone to Church, sat through sermons and two hours of religious instruction at Primary. He could tell us that we shouldn’t go shopping on Sundays, that gambling is wrong, and that caffeine is an addictive drug to be avoided, yet he didn’t know what humility was? I felt like a parental failure—how could I have not, at the very least, passed on to Jeremiah my love of the scripture in Micah about walking humbly with God. But I also wondered about my church.

“People in our church are more concerned with being right than being good,” I later lamented to Wendy. I may be wrong, but I think the pursuit of being “right” is often dangerous because there are so many ways to be wrong whereas being “good” is a much simpler task. I acknowledge that “right” and “wrong” are loaded terms, and not entirely separable. Being “right” in some sense is a prerequisite for being “good,” but the scope of “rightness” far exceeds the scope of “goodness” and thus offers greater opportunities for “wrongness.” Since “wrongness” feels horrible, people will fight vehemently to prove to themselves and others that they are really “right.” This is a plague of our religion, which is unusually “gnostic” in its approach: that is, we are not only concerned about being “good” but about being “right” in a sense that far exceeds a foundation for being “good.” (I think of, for example, Bruce R. McConkie’s BYU address “The Seven Deadly Heresies” that you can read here if you are interested.) Fortunately, there are some good Mormon antidote to this excessive gnosticism, such as this very plain statement from Anthony W. Ivins:

I do not argue with the men who say the earth is only six thousand years old, or those who say it is 600,000 years old, or those who say it is six million. I know we are here on the earth, and I know the Lord has told us why we are here. The time will come when we will know all the rest. It is our misinterpretation of the word of the Lord that leads us into trouble. (quoted in Hugh B. Brown, Continuing the Quest)

The same call to, one might say, relax that Ivins advocated was echoed by another Mormon leader, B. H. Roberts, who at the October 1912 General Conference said, “In essentials let there be unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things charity.” Roberts enjoyed speculative theology, he realized that even theoretical ideas can impact daily living, yet he recognized our limits:

[I]n no department is the frank and honest confession “I don’t know,” more
imperative than in Theology; and when it is given as an actual confession of
having reached the limits of our knowledge, it is worthy of all praise. But
if it becomes tainted with the spirit of “I don’t care,” then I have no respect
for it.

“Rightness” often devolves into an obsession with uniqueness. An LDS Institute teacher I greatly admired once provided this critique of Mormons: when asked by their non-Mormon friends to describe God, Mormons concentrate on our unique doctrine of God’s corporality while ignoring the much more important, but non-unique doctrine of God being all powerful, all knowing, and all loving. Lowell Bennion wrote

I do not insist on innovation and novelty to make his teachings profound and
powerful for me, for what is unique about Jesus’ teaching is his emphasis and
his wonderful art. (Legacies of Jesus, p. 24)

Bennion’s comment about religion reminds me of a statement that Fred Brooks said of computing:

[I]n design, in contrast with science, novelty in itself has no merit. If we recognize our [computer science] artifacts as tools, we test them by their usefulness and their costs, not their novelty.

Novelty, shouldn’t be a significant metric for our religion. Dieter F. Uchtdorf stated this quite well in his October 2009 General Conference address:

Although there will always be those who stereotype the Church and its members in a negative way, most people think of us as honest, helpful, and hardworking. Some have images of clean-cut missionaries, loving families, and friendly neighbors who don’t smoke or drink. We might also be known as a people who attend church every Sunday for three hours, in a place where everyone is a brother or a sister, where the children sing songs about streams that talk, trees that produce popcorn, and children who want to become sunbeams.

Brothers and sisters, of all the things we want to be known for, are there attributes above all others that should define us as members of His Church, even as disciples of Jesus?

President Uchtdorf ends his sermon by answering in the negative the question he posed:

Love is the guiding light that illuminates the disciple’s path and fills our daily walk with life, meaning, and wonder.

Love is the measure of our faith, the inspiration for our obedience, and the true altitude of our discipleship.

Love is the way of the disciple.

I testify that God is in His heaven. He lives. He knows and loves you. He is mindful of you. He hears your prayers and knows the desires of your heart. He is filled with infinite love for you.

Let me conclude as I began, my dear brothers and sisters: what attribute should define us as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

Let us be known as a people who love God with all our heart, soul, and mind and who love our neighbor as ourselves. When we understand and practice these two great commandments in our families, in our wards and branches, in our nations, and in our daily lives, we will begin to understand what it means to be a true disciple of Jesus the Christ. Of this I testify in the sacred name of Jesus Christ, amen.

In his recent meditation on religion Yi-Fu Tuan wrote

What is the ultimate test of religion? What is religion if it is not the sacred book, the magnificent house of worship, the faithful community and communion? Worthy as these achievements are, they are, first and foremost, achievements in the cultural and social realm. They may help to ignite the divine spark and so promote religion, but they are not in themselves the test of religion, the justification for its existence on Earth. What can that test be? My answer is the truly good person–a saint, if you will–someone embedded in this world yet “not of this world.” (Religion: From Place to Placelessness, p. 66)

Perhaps if I were less obsessed with the rightness of the wrongness of our LDS obsession with rightness, I would have been better at teaching Jeremiah the weightier matters, such as humility. Perhaps if we were collectively less obsessed with being unique and more obsessed with being loving, as Presidnet Uchtdorf encourages, the world would better recognize Mormons as actually being Saints.



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Contemplating Yi-Fu Tuan’s Latest Book. Part 1: Contemplating the Family

I recently found myself stretched in my personal religious philosophy by reading Religion: From Place to Placelessness by Yi-Fu Tuan, an emeritus professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I’ve become a big fan of Tuan in recent years. I first read Human Goodness several years ago, and I quite recently finished Escapism, a book title with strong affinity to my personal modus operandi. But I found Religion: From Place to Placelessness to be a far more challenging book–not challenging to understand, but challenging to the core set of teachings I was raised with, in particular the belief in the centrality of the family. But as challenging as I found Tuan’s critique of family-centric theology, I’ve often pondered similar critiques myself. For example, on the first page of Tuan’s chapter titled “Falling Standard” I have written “Mormonism drifting into tribalism” in the margins in reactions to the following statement by Tuan:
A fall from the moral heights may land one gently on the natural goodness of family and home. Such a turn of events comes about when religion softens its disciplines and lowers its aspirations under the weight of material affluence; and it can also come about as religion leaves its place of origin to spread to another country and culture.
On the next page I’ve similarly scribbled “tribalism” next to the following paragraph from Tuan:
Protestant Christianity in North America and Buddhism in China are transplants from older civilizations–Europe and India, respectively. Given this difference in origin, one won’t expect them to have much in common. Yet both have turned aside from their religion’s highest ideals in favor of down-to-Earth place-making….Christianity’s fall has gone so far that, as it is practiced in picket-fence suburbs, it might as well be called a cult–the cult of family and hearth. A popular slogan of American churches–“the family that prays together stays together”–makes it seem that family togetherness is of primary importance and that worshiping in church is only a means to it. A sentiment more alien to Jesus is hard to imagine.
“Cult”? “A sentiment more alien to Jesus is hard to imagine”? I can see familiar Mormon faces flushing in anger in response to Tuan’s criticisms. Mormons, after all, elevate families to eternal units and make it the centerpiece of its theology. One of the most famous sayings by one of Mormonism’s most famous leaders was “No other success can compensate for failure in the home.” My charge of Mormonism devolving into tribalism is not a recent reaction to such family-centric excessives as the Petersons in Pittsburgh, but goes back nearly twenty years as I’ve observed so many people use the church’s emphasis on the family as essentially an excuse to only focus on their own family, in contrast to the broad social needs I first experienced on my mission and the deep social radicalism I read of in Mormon history. Indeed the New Testament does seem to uphold Tuan’s criticism:

Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. (Matthew 10:34-37)

Despite the radicalness with which Jesus’ words could be read, It seems to me, no one can argue with the importance of the family. The family is vitally important. I know that our Pittsburgh friend Tim Stevens would join in the chorus preaching the importance of the nuclear family, as I’ve heard him cite its decline being correlated with the rise of pathological violence in African American communities in Pittsburgh. Yet when we talk about “our” families and what is best for “our” families, I cannot help but think of another scripture in Matthew: “these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.” What our family-centric rhetoric often misses is a discussion of the balances and tradeoffs between seeking what is best for our families and what is best for society. There are tradeoffs and everyone is going to have a different decision point where they make the cutoff.

For an example from our own life, I often wonder whether we acted properly by living in the city and sending our kids to Pittsburgh Public Schools. Initially I thought the decision was good both for our kids and for the local Pittsburgh society: our kids social experience was much broader than what they would have had in the suburbs, and, I hoped, our kids were good examples of scholarship and civility to their peers. Towards the end I wondered, however, if we hadn’t pursued a course of child abuse. Yet this questioning was primarily driven by the solitary measure of academic performance, but with a measure of psychological concern thrown in as Jeremiah started to get bullied and teased on the school bus and in the playground. Yet I wouldn’t doubt that our kids were measurably better off in their racial attitudes than if they had been raised in a middle class, racially homogeneous suburb. Now that we live in the middle class suburb people move to for the schools (at least for California schools, I’m learning), I am definitely glad that we are here academically–and what a difference it makes to Jeremiah to have friends just beyond his door! Yet I know that in these gains there have been losses.

In reading Mormon history I can see a much more inclusive ethic than our current “nuclear family” ethic. For example, the early practice of spiritual adoptions while, in my mind, obviously built around the concept of a great man and wisely discarded by Wilford Woodruff, had the advantage of building broad social connections extending beyond biology while maintaining the comfort of family terminology. Without appealing to history, both the missionary program and temple work exceed the nuclear family rhetoric by expending effort and resources to those with whom we have no immediate connection, although temple work often gets drawn again back to the biological family.

So quite simply, families first is quite a fine ethic, but only if the family is not also the last. “These ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.”

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Palomar Mountain Observatory

The Washington Post changed our Labor Day plans today. When Wendy and I woke up this morning we had planned on hopping on our Bike Friday tandem and doing a ride around Del Sur or Rancho Santa Fe. However, before we actually dragged ourselves out of bed, I pulled up my computer and started reading the Washington Post. I was drawn to the headline “Brightest supernova in decades serves up cosmic clues for astronomers.” When I saw that the supernova was first spotted by a telescope at Palomar Observatory, I immediately told Wendy, “Let’s go up to to Palomar.” She was game. We had to be back for a 3:00 PM neighborhood picnic, so we needed to get going fast. Jeremiah was an easy sell. Clare, a crap shoot, but I left her to Wendy. Surprisingly she signed on. Great. Then everything started to go wrong.

We didn’t have any breakfast cereal that Jeremiah, and he didn’t want to settle for eggs; he wanted pancakes. We did not, however, have any flour or pancake mix. After a five-minute meltdown I declared a solution: “We’ll stop at McDonald’s for hot cakes.” It took Jeremiah another 3 minutes to digest the solution. The perfection of my solution was limited by wanting to find a McDonald’s that didn’t require any backtracking. Enforcing that rule coupled with Wendy’s constraint that we buy gas (again without backtracking) before anything else resulted in a mutual rebellion from both Clare and Jeremiah. We gave in, turned off to backtrack to the Carmel Mountain Road McDonald’s, but first stopping to buy gas. That is when Clare mentioned the play audition. As they said in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” “Skip a bit brother.” That was when I dropped my iPhone, shattering the front glass. That was probably the second worst moment of the morning.

Our Garmin GPS navigator took us through Escondido and then through a series of indian reservations each with its competing casinos rising like an alien landing craft abandoned in the empty countryside. The road was curvy enough that Clare couldn’t do any homework, and Jeremiah’s brain was so bubbly that he could neither read his book (Reckless) nor listen to Blackout, the audio book we had purchased to listen to on our drive to Santa Barbara the previous week. As we passed Lake Wohlford I saw what must have been twenty turkey vultures roosting in a tree. I doubted that there could be enough dead carcasses in the neighborhood to keep them fed and happy.

The climb up Palomar Mountain brought beautiful vistas of the mountains and valleys to the south. The sky was cloudy–in fact we had had our first rainstorm in over a month–and some of the valleys were still filled with mist. The scene evoked Chinese poetry and landscape paintings. There were also bicyclists coming up and going down the steep winding road. Considering how much my brakes were squeaking lately, I decided I’d rather go up the road than down the road.

Palomar Mountain is absolutely beautiful. Much to my surprise, the observatory is nearly invisible  from the road. Driving on the road we only got a glimpse of an observatory dome for one of the smaller telescopes. The dome for the 200″ Hale telescope wasn’t even visible from the observatory visitor parking lot. Instead we saw deep green conifers that generated immense cones; I wanted to steal one. But after just a short walk the dome sprung up from the mountain. It was like a beautiful pearl displayed on green velvet.

Dome for Hale Telescope and Palomar Observatory

Dome for Hale Telescope and Palomar Observatory

Because of the featurelessness of the dome, it was hard to comprehend its scale. Jeremiah kept insisting that the dome at the Allegheny Observatory was larger. But as we got closer to the observatory entrance only the stubbornness of a ten-year-old could deny its scale.

Peering through the Glass at the 200" Hale Telescope

Viewing the telescope was limited, but even through the observation windows it was difficult not to be impressed by its massiveness–a telescope that had to be built at a shipyard. And the twenty-one years it took to move from the grant application to first light, the technical challenges of casting, transporting, and grinding a 200″ mirror made our own professional efforts seem tiny. Viewing the beautiful photographs the Hale telescope had captured and appreciating how the telescope enlarged our understanding of the vastness of the universe made our work seem puny. I remembered all my dreams of being an astronomer, of sitting in the observation console of this specific telescope, imagining discovering new galaxies, new supernovas. I was glad that Jeremiah was there and that Jeremiah was running around the museum, one moment watching simulations of colliding neutron stars, another using diffraction to observe the spectra of mercury, nitrogen, and many of the nobel gases. This universe, this machine to make gods, as Henri Bergson wrote, is amazing.

The Flame Nebula photographed from the Hale Telescope

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Can a Man Love God and Hate his Brother?

Years ago I was talking with a friend in Pittsburgh about our mental health issues. I, as a childhood cancer survivor, suffered from generalized anxiety. My friend suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder. In the course of our conversation we discovered that we had had the same cognitive therapist. My friend exclaimed, “I hated that man!” “I love that man!” I replied, shocked that someone could actually dislike my therapist. But I shouldn’t have been shocked. I had many examples of different reactions to people, ranging from favorite teachers whom others struggled with, to sex symbols who did much for me but little for others of my friends. We all react differently to others, which is a good thing, otherwise we could never pair up into happy marriages and enlivening dinner groups. But sometimes this differentiation in reaction to others slides into a hatred that is morally reprehensible.

A week ago we were blessed with two separate visits from families with whom our lives had been much intertwined in Pittsburgh. On a Tuesday night Joe and Jolene Swenson, who were in town for their son’s wedding, went to dinner with us. Just a few months prior they had returned from serving as mission president (and what would be the official title for Jolene?) in Chile. Prior to that Joe had been our stake president where I had had the great privilege of serving with him on the high council, and Jolene had been one of the biggest fans of my talks, something that I thought might account for my frequent assignment to speak in their home ward (I knew it wasn’t due to their bishop). I both love and credit Joe for being inspired to call me to the high council, bringing independent fulfillment to one of the few spiritual manifestations I had had in my life. The years on the high council and the subsequent year in a bishopric were some of the few years I felt as if I truly was welcome in the church. One mutual friend of ours, Mike Layland, who had served as Joe’s stake executive secretary, once told me that what he most admired about President Swenson was that he was unafraid to make a mistake and thus was unafraid to act. President Swenson knew, Mike said, that he could always recover from a mistake. This is surely a great life sermon, and something that really appealed to me at the time, since I, suffering from decades of anxiety, was often paralyzed to act. But looking back at life now, I knew that I most admired Joe for something else: as a stake president he wasn’t narrow, but broad and inclusive. Both his counselors were very different men and the high council was filled with a wide diversity of men ranging from myself to my polar opposite. This was an attribute that I had once prided myself in. When I was in high school, I could brag at simultaneously being friends with the Seminary class president and the local punk rockers. So it was with a little embarrassment that over dinner at the Indigo Grill, I reported to Joe the near universal difficulties I had had with conservative church members over the recent years, both in Pittsburgh and now in San Diego.

This embarrassment was silently amplified by the next two nights we spent with the Marshes, friends whom we’ve known since the early weeks of our arrival in Pittsburgh in July of 2000. Wallis and I we are paradoxically very similar yet different people. The similarities might be hard to recognize at first, as Wallis is a confident if not fearless surgeon, but the similarities are there and despite a few rough patches, Wallis has been a good friend to me over the years. While Wallis and I have our bonding moments over contempt for a number of mutual acquaintances, I do admire Wallis’ ability to befriend a wide variety of people. Yet over the two nights as Wallis and I spoke, I was occasionally surprised to find Wallis saying “I really like him” in response to some critical statement I made about some mutual acquaintance. I was starting to wonder if I wasn’t letting my anger at others grow a little too unconstrained. What was most disconcerting was that the vast majority of my hatred was developing within church circles.

On the one hand this shouldn’t be too surprising, after all the overwhelming number of our social connections come through Church. And it is with our religion that we address what matters most to us. As deeply held ideals and hopes are violated by others within our religion, it is certainly threatening in a visceral way, and the historical and psychological basis for Alfred North Whitehead’s question–Must ‘religion’ always remain as a synonym for ‘hatred’?—is not hard to understand. Yet this religious hatred is a negation of religion itself. And as this hatred has festered, I’ve felt it weakening me by decalcifying my spiritual skeleton.

Lowell Bennion wrote in Legacies of Jesus:

As we read through the record of [Jesus’] life in the New Testament, we discover how freely he mingled with a rich variety of people and how consistently positive those interactions were.

What a good yard stick this should be for me to measure how healthy I am spiritually.

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First Day of College

Today is the first day of college for our oldest son, Alec. I believe he is nervous and excited, simultaneously feeling the liberation of studying the expansive curriculum of college (as opposed to the teaching for the test he has experienced over his years in public k-12) and the anxiety of the more competitive pool of peers. On Facebook he  simply posted “First day of class!” I’ll need to check back in a few hours to see what the updated post is. This momentous event brings to mind my first day of college 25 years and a month ago. Fall is normally a spectacular season in Salt Lake City, and my first day of college was spectacular: blue skies, pleasant temperatures. But best of all, I was carpooling with my best friend. Here is what I have previously written about that day, with names changed to protect the innocent.

Just before eight the next morning, I got in my silver Jetta, a used car my dad had bought me, drove over to Waterbury, and picked up Amy. As I felt God had blessed me the day before by speaking to me, this morning I felt even more blessed by God in that Amy’s sister Kathy had moved to Washington, Mary had moved to Logan to attend Utah State, and Nancy and Theresa were now both down at BYU, leaving me to be Amy’s primary schoolmate as we started classes at the U.

Driving up 13th East that morning, listening to David Bowie, talking with Amy, I was nervous and excited, wondering what this university experience would be like. In the year since Mary had told me she was moving on [from me], Amy had become my closest friend, and having Amy in the car with me gave me a sense of confidence as I pulled into the campus as a first day freshman.

All the stories about the lack of student parking seemed greatly exaggerated as we pulled right into a spot in the parking lot by the business school. The ten-dollar ticket we found upon returning to the car taught me to be much more careful about checking where a “U” (student) lot changed into an “A” (faculty) lot. I accepted Amy’s offer to split the ticket with me, a most unchivalrous act, my mother said, but since Amy and I were just good friends, I didn’t second guess myself much. We didn’t get any more parking tickets, and, as a bonus for our extra care and attention, we got more exercise by parking farther away from our classes.

Alec is living on campus, so he doesn’t need to worry about parking, and he wouldn’t be singing along to David Bowie if he were driving. Rather than having his ex-girlfriend 90 miles away, his is living two floors beneath him. But despite the differences, I imagine he is feeling the same way I was and will have a vivid memory of this bright and cool day. (Although Alec is living in Pittsburgh so it is more likely to be of a gray and muggy day.)


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Do Chapmans Think Cars are Cool?

We were driving north along U.S. 89 near Manti, Utah, and I was trying to get my parents, then both in their seventies, to use my digital voice recorder to capture stories from their lives. My mother dictated freely, seeming to come to life as her memories materialized. My dad, on the other hand, wouldn’t share any stories. When pressed, he would simply say, “It makes me too sad to remember those things.” None of our prompting or cajoling could move him off of this stance until I finally asked him, “Tell me about your cars.” With that simple request, my mother and I were regaled with detailed descriptions, reviews, and analyses of a sequence of cars for the next 90 minutes until we pulled in for an early dinner at the Art City Trolley in Springville—and we had only made it into the late seventies.

My dad’s love of cars was not unusual for men of his generation and geography. Of the two, I’m guessing geography was dominant. Wallace Stegner, twenty years older than my dad but raised in the American West like my dad, wrote of being born with a wheel in his hands. I doubt a New Yorker Stegner’s age would have written such a line. It seems fitting that Stegner died in a car crash.

I cannot conceive of my dad without reference to cars: he admired them, bought them, washed them, and serviced them himself until the late seventies. While my mother waited at Holy Cross Hospital while I was having my malignant kidney removed, my dad was at home working on the transmission in our metallic blue Ford Galaxy 500; my mother says the transmission never worked properly again.

That bad experience with the transmission, the increasingly computerized cars he owned, and the stricter rules for disposal of hazardous materials (like motor oil), forced my dad to hand over car maintenance to professionals, not always with better results, unfortunately. One mechanic replaced the fuel pump in my dad’s Buick Park Avenue with a non-GMC part, but failed to properly adjust the pump settings. The engine ran inconsistently for five years before the mistake was finally discovered.

Many of my friends’ fathers were also “car men.” Except for John’s dad, however, who owned a BMW 733, none of these men had enough money to buy anything particularly nice. Nate’s dad had a couple of old Saabs that were continually being repaired, Bryan’s dad held onto a 1969 Oldsmobile station wagon, and Curt’s dad drove a Pontiac 6000. Supposedly, these men held loyalty to a brand—Ford man, GM man—and expressed surprise when one of their peers broke the mold. “Earl bought a Dodge? But he’s a GM man,” Curt’s dad expressed with confusion. But as near as I could tell, these men were all pragmatists: they bought what they believed to be the best car they could afford.

My dad did, however, almost always bought new cars. And he always paid cash. The two rules once collided and resulted in the only car purchase that my dad ever regretted. He was disappointed in several cars, but I believe his only regret was the Dodge Ares he bought the summer of 1983.

Of all the cars I’m familiar with, I can’t think of a worse-named car. Nothing about that car—small, cheap, and powerless—evoked a powerful ram. Nor was there anything about the car that I can imagine my dad desiring, other than the price.  For some reason that I’m not aware of we only had one car in June of 1983. I do know that since I ended up in the hospital with a ruptured appendix and a discovered malignancy, my mother insisted that my dad buy a car immediately. Examining his bank account, he came home with a Dodge Ares.

My dad would have rather purchased a Pontiac Firebird, like James Garner drove in the Rockford Files, or the up Firebird Trans Am like the one his boss drove, but he didn’t have the cash on hand. Several years later when he had built up a larger cash reserve he actual test-drove a Firebird, but with his long body he didn’t fit comfortably. So he continued to settle for practical-people carriers. With age came retirement and even though a sporty coupe would have worked for him and my mother, they did have my younger sister around, visiting kids and grandkids to drive, so my dad stuck with sedans and tried to make a car last as long as possible, so as not to deplete their retirement savings, rather than spicing up his life with the latest car from his favorite company.

But the interest in cars didn’t die, even as the purchases diminished. On a return trip from Pittsburgh to Salt Lake City, my dad took my oldest son to a Detroit auto show. And in his old age, he has become friends with Ron A., another “car man” of his generation. My dad and Ron attend car shows in Salt Lake whenever they can.

On the face of it, my dad’s love of cars wasn’t passed on to me. Much to his disappointment, I never took an auto-mechanics class in high school—too blue collar—and I’ve never felt brave enough to crawl under a propped up car, although I have twice replaced the distributor in my Pontiac Sunbird; luckily the distributor was accessed from the top of the engine. And there has been nothing exciting about any of my car purchases. They’ve been cheap family transporters that have worked fine, even if they have been a bit dull. My biggest regret was letting Wendy settle for hubcaps on the Pontiac Vibe we bought in 2005. And if I had my druthers, our Toyota Highlander wouldn’t be gold, but I let Jeremiah chose the color, surely a sign of somebody that doesn’t care about cars. After 19 years of marriage, Wendy would have never predicted that I’d start spending all my evenings watching a British car show called Top Gear. But I did.

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