Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Pioneers

It's late July, when everyone else is scrambling for shade, ducking into the Mall or just going under water to keep the sun from searing them into a greasy sweat pool. Us? No problem. The morning fog protects us, and we don't even have to spend any time cutting grass, since it finally quit raining. The real local cash crop, officially grouped with the "controlled substances," grows in the usual spots, which, I hasten to say, I know nothing about. Life's pretty good.

It's a good time, too, to honor a certain group, those Mormon pioneers that your History teacher might have spent ten minutes total talking about unless you grew up in The Beehive State. The first pioneers arrived in what became Utah in 1847, when Salt Lake City did not exist, the natives outnumbered the newcomers and the territory wasn't even technically part of the United States. It was July 24th when Brigham Young said it was time to stop traveling and really get to work.
You see, the history of the Mormons around any neighbors at that point was so bad that it finally required a 1200 mile trip to the far stretches of Nowhere to find a place where these folks might be left alone. New York, Ohio, Missouri and Illinois had all failed to protect the First Amendment rights of the Mormons, with the latter being the site of the ultimate social rejection - the assassination of the Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum in 1844 by a mob which charged a jail in which the brothers and others were being kept.
The world watched to see "Mormonism" disappear in leaderless confusion, but instead, a new group of leaders headed by Brigham Young kept the Church together, though they were forced to leave their homes again, this time for a land few knew anything about and even fewer coveted for themselves.
The pioneers were well organized, and the first ones used oxen and horses to pull covered wagons West. The hardest part of the journey turned out to be the first leg through Iowa. It was winter, which, then and now, can be pretty tough going through mud or over ice when your only source of warmth is a campfire. The Iowa side of the Missouri River near where Omaha is today was a stopping place where the travelers awaited better conditions.
When travel resumed, the Mormons took a route that followed the Platte River, but, in an effort to avoid trouble with other pioneer groups, they generally took the less-traveled bank.
The part of this story that has always impressed me most was that upon arrival, the Mormons really just had their leaders' word that anything could grow in this desert, that the area could be turned into not just one but many cities, or that life could ever be as good as that which they had left behind. Everything from schools, houses of worship, municipal facilities, running water, homes, farms and so forth had to be built by them if they were to exist at all. True, they had skills which they employed in this work, but it's hard to envision an easy day then, unless it was forced by sickness.
The work finally spread in all directions for hundreds of miles. Brigham Young, by this time serving as both Church President and territorial governor, would assign a group to "colonize" an area which had been empty. Some became cities, while others never did produce the crops or products required for self sufficiency. A look at today's map of Utah and some surrounding areas reveals names taken from scripture, a bit like reading through Moby Dick.
Settlers in subsequent years came all the way from Europe and the British Isles to make this new society part of their own future. Many didn't have the money for a covered wagon and pulled handcarts all the way from eastern Iowa, where the railroad tracks ended. Others later borrowed from what was called the Perpetual Immigration Fund to help them arrive by easier means. Charles Dickens once visited a ship filled with Mormon converts leaving England and commented that he had been surprised at the quality of the people, having expected something less favorable than the sensible, well-organized group he saw.
We are far enough removed from the days of the Mormon pioneers to be understandably unfamiliar with them as people. I'm sure they had their faults, as have all people at all times. But some deeds left to us today tower so highly over the generations that we are, I think, justified in simply knowing who did certain great things and why. While it would seem that the Mormon pioneers received little for all their pains other than the chance to simply be left alone for a time, I, and many who know this story better, are simply awed by their selfless dedication and perseverance. Seeing what they did answers anything I could possibly ask about how they felt about things. Would that we all should be so blessed by a such a sense of purpose in our lives.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Behind Closed Doors

Sometimes there is more than one explanation as to how something came to be a certain way. And, not to be cynical, but sometimes the public explanation seems less likely than an alternative. I wasn't in either place, but here are a couple of possibilities outside the official explanations:

Man with large gavel presiding over a gathering of perhaps 100 or so people: "Welcome, y'all. This here's the very first meeting of the Tea Party Group, dedicated to better government and better value for the taxes they make us pay. If I may, first.."
Interruption from the floor: "Mr. Chairman, I move we take a minute to tell some racial jokes in order to get them out of the way so's we can move on to the agenda."
Chairman: "You're outa order, Cowboy. Sit down. Wait a minute." (after consulting) "Before continuing, I need to know, first, if there are any minorities here." (laughter) "I take that as a 'no.' I also need to know if we have any mainstream, drive-by media representatives present, besides, of course, our friends at FOX News. None? OK, here's the way it is. We can tell racial jokes, but only for half an hour, and not to anyone you see wearing a press pass, got it? OK, now y'all heard the one about Obama walkin' down the street, and up comes a rabbi wearin' a beard and a big ole' black hat......."

Levi Johnston, father of Sarah Palin's grandson is on the phone to his manager, Sol Overtown, top PR guy at Pro Claim Industries, provider of management services and self-proclaimed inventor of "hyper hype marketing".
LJ: "Yo, Sol. You're a tough guy to reach sometimes. How's it coming for some new work, huh?"
SO: "Levi, my man! Great to hear your voice, kid. You been workin' on that line like I asked?"
LJ: "What are you talking about?"
SO: "Yeah, that's the one, but faster. 'Whatchyou talkin' bout?' Remember?"
LJ: "Got it, Sol. But what's cookin' here?"
SO: "Well, we had plans to slide you into the Gary Coleman slot on a deal, but we can't get you top dollar for it."
LJ: "Why #$% not?"
SO: "Hey, they want a guy who can say the line AND who's under four foot six. What can I say? Of course we could go back to those seal hunting boots guys if you like and tell them you'll do it, but I'm just not sure they think your feet are unique enough for the money we're talking."
LJ: (sigh) "I hear you, man. You'd think being famous would be enough, wouldn't you? But I'm twenty now, so I've got some experience, y'know? I'm not just another pretty face."
SO: "I'm with you, LJ. You know, we did get a feeler on something, but I'm just not sure it's for you."
LJ: "Really? Well what is it?"
SO: "Well, it's from Sarah. I wouldn't even mention it, but this is one deal only you could be in on, if you know what I mean."
LJ: "Geez, what does SHE want? Isn't it enough I made her a grandma?"
SO: "Let me cut right to the chase. You're a smart kid and you can see the value of something in a second. Ever heard of a job called Postmaster General?"
LJ: "All the postmaster does around here is sell stamps all day. But the 'general" part sounds interesting. Does it mean I get to order guys to blow things up? Hey, could I blow something up?"
SO: "Ah, I'm not sure about the 'blowing up' part, but you could go all over the country and check out the postal operations. You know - Vegas, Boise, Miami, New York, Anchorage..."
LJ: "Wow. Anchorage. But wait. I bet Sarah wants me to do something, right?"
SO: "Like I say. You're a smart one, kiddo. There's two things that have to happen to get you in the job. First, Sarah's got to get elected president. She'll probably ask you to help get out the youth vote. Shouldn't be too hard. All she has to do is get more votes than ah, what's his name - the guy in there now."
LJ: "Yeah, that doesn't seem too hard. Anything else?"
SO: "One more thing. You gotta marry Bristol."
LJ: "Hmm. I see. OK, but she's gotta get down to her high school weight or it's off. AND I'm not taking her on these postmaster trips. That's a deal breaker."
SO: "You're the boss, kid. Hey, I do happen to have Bristol's number here."
LJ: "Hang on. Let me get a pencil."

Monday, July 12, 2010

Still Competing

A funny thing happened on my way to dominating our little in-home competition for World Cup picks. My teams stopped winning. I doubt they had anything against me personally, but they kept losing, including, of course, games that they played against each other. Someone had to lose, right?
So last week I was left with Germany playing for third while the Mrs. had both finalists. You don't need a report on how those games turned out, but our household competition got mighty tight at the end. How tight? Within 3% of each other. So we'll call it a tie and wonder why neither of us had the brains to take Uruguay with 10 picks each. Where was that winner-picking octopus I read about in the paper when I needed it?

It's a thrill to still be competing past age 60 in any sport. Lucky for me we have both the good weather and a supply of willing competitors that allow me to get test my skills four or five times a week, normally for less than two hours.
A few months ago I started thinking about traveling to Iowa to play in a tournament I had both watched and played in before. But then I did the math: about 4,500 miles of driving, a strong chance of brutally hot weather, plus the fact that the division I might have entered (in the doubles) only had five competing teams last year. I shelved the plan.
But I still wanted to find a place to show our stuff, and so looked for events nearby that fit our criteria. Turns out that "nearby" in terms of tennis tournaments means "at least 200 miles"- each way. So that didn't seem to fit in too well with the family finances nor my religious duties. Plan "B" went into the scrap heap.
Then, a summer miracle. A town just down the road, "friendly" Fortuna (not to be confused with other CA burgs Fontana or Tarzana) announced a series of one-day events taking place through August that would include both doubles and singles. Partner "Skip" and I took the plunge, payed the $10 apiece entry fee and showed up last Saturday to test our skills.
The weather was good - cool, but not windy: the courts, if uneven and breaking up, were the same for everyone: and the competition seemed just about right for our skill level.
I won't bore you with details of our matches, but we ended up playing over 50 games total, winning just over half of them. We found a way to edge the best girl player in the county (two years ago) and her partner by concentrating on hitting the ball to him. We lost the final to pair of big guys, one all the way from New Zealand. The guy in charge promised us trophies (probably charm bracelet-size). He also said the nicest thing I heard from anyone during the day - that we looked like a real doubles team in action. Sign us up again, coach.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

A Diminutive Hero

I wasn't aware of the King family when they immigrated to this country in the early 1980's from Taiwan. I would guess they had plenty of hopes, but maybe few guarantees. It's a well-worn path that has worked for millions before, but you never know.
Things actually have worked out pretty well for the Kings, who settled in California. The three older children got educations, and somewhere in the gene pool they discovered the ability to play tennis at a high level. The youngest child, Vania, turned pro at the age of seventeen and has since won over a million dollars in prize money, though she's not yet 25. It should be noted, of course, that tennis professionals incur high expenses for things like traveling all over the world, but it still works well for just a tiny number of gifted people.
This past weekend marks the high point in Vania's career thus far. She teamed up with Yaroslava Shvedova of Kazakhstan (say that ten times) to win the Wimbledon Women's Doubles competition. Lest one get the impression that doubles is for less-gifted, non-singles players, the American Williams sisters were entered in the doubles and lost to the pair that King/Shvedova beat in the finals.
Here's another surprising fact: Vania's only 5'5", and 130 lb. This goes in the face of the trend that shows women tennis pros getting taller while retaining their speed and quickness. I'd guess being normal-size allows Vania to buy her own groceries without anyone even noticing that they're rubbing elbows with a Wimbledon champion.
So Vania King's life isn't much like that of the late Manute Bol, recently referred to in this space as the tallest man to ever play in the NBA. I do have a point here, though not an original one. Our society benefits in a thousand ways from immigrants and their descendants. We sent an army battalion made up of Japanese Americans to help liberate Italy. We sent soldiers who could speak the local language to assure Haitians of our good intentions. We take in an entire group of German rocket scientists, who simply continue what they've been working on. We get the boldest, most ambitious, most talented people from over a hundred other places to come here for a chance to be their best. And all we have to do is make sure this takes place in an orderly fashion, allow for some cultural differences from these new citizens, perfectly legal, but a little different from what we're used to, and make sure, as much as we can, that the best opportunities continue to be HERE, and not somewhere else. That shouldn't be hard, whether we want our heroes large, or, in the case of Vania King, diminutive.