Washington Square

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“Where are you headed on your mission?”

In the airport security line, the sister missionary turned around to face me, pulling a lock of blonde hair off her face and behind her ear. She was in a modest black skirt with grey top. Her tag read “Sister Jensen, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

“I’m going to Montreal, and I’m so freaking excited!”

I laughed, her enthusiasm contagious. “I’m excited for you! Congratulations!”

“How about you, where are you going?”

I gave a soft, tight-lipped smile, and looked down. “I’m headed to Philadelphia, actually. I went on my own Mormon mission there nearly 20 years ago. I haven’t ever been back.”

She held up a hand for a high-five, and I gladly gave her one. “Well, heck yeah! Now you’re going back! Good for you! Gonna see all those people you converted?” She did an awkward little hillbilly-like dance, conveying her good humor.

“Ha, actually, it’s a different life now. I’m no longer Mormon, and this time I’m going back with my boyfriend.” I craned my neck, indicating the handsome fellow standing behind me in line.

Sister Jensen made a sober face. “Oh. Oh! Well, um, good luck!” She rushed off, having been called forward by the next available agent.

I was overcome by a strange sense of nostalgia. In January of 1998, I had entered this same airport in a white shirt and tie, with my own name tag reading “Elder Anderson, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” clipped to my shirt pocket. I wheeled behind me a suitcase full of clothes and toiletries, scriptures and supplies, things I would use for the next two years as I lived with strangers and attempted to convert those around me to what I believed, at the time, to be the true religion. At the time, with only two weeks training under my belt, I had just turned it all over to God, hoping he would make me successful and reward my efforts with great numbers of baptisms.

Just a few years ago, in this very blog, I took time to go through my mission experiences in several different entries. I recounted my efforts to cure my homosexuality through missionary service, my bizarre and tragic experiences with companions, my converts, and my life lessons. But here I was, prepared to actually physically go back to the city I had once lived in for nine months. Then, I was 19 (and looked 14), away from my family for the first time, full of naiveté and self-doubt. Now, I was 39, confident in my own skin and full of life experience, out of the closet and with a fantastic partner at my side. And I was beginning the trip in line behind a brand new sister missionary. The irony made me smile.

The plane ride was smooth. I got a middle seat in the 20th row, and was comfortably nestled in between my boyfriend and an elderly woman who kept hacking, complaining about not being able to smoke on the plane, and sipping on a Bloody Mary and a coffee the flight attendant had brought her. We landed in Philadelphia around 4 pm, gathered our things, and caught a car into the city without incident.

When I lived Philadelphia for those 9 months of my mission back in 1999, I stayed in Germantown, in a crime-ridden area filled with poverty, though the house I stayed in was blocked into the nicer city area where it was safe. This time, we’d be staying in an Airbnb in Washington Square, what they now referred to as the “Gayborhood”, a place with mostly safe streets, thriving businesses, and gay bars. It was sure to be a very different experience.

After checking in, the boyfriend and I went through a long walk in the area, and so much felt familiar, although the city was as different as I was. The skyline, the moisture in the air, the sheer diversity of the people around us, the long flat stretches, the century-old churches int he middle of large blocky brick buildings, the row homes, the garbage on the curbs waiting for pick-up, the people just stacked on top of each other. A million flashes of memory hit me. Trying to maneuver a couch up and down flights of narrow stairs while helping someone move, ringing every doorbell on a particular building while hoping someone would answer and invite us up to teach, tables full of counterfeit products on street corners ready to be sold, navigating busses to subways to trains in order to get anywhere. This city had been so overwhelming to me at the time, so monstrous and impossible. Now it felt both familiar and foreign, like a place I’ve been yet just like every other place, its own history and people here all along, moving forward without me.

In nearby Washington Square Park, I stood in the middle to survey my surroundings. Behind me stood a statue of George Washington behind an eternal flame, making the grave of an unknown soldier to honor those lost in the Revolutionary War. Arrayed around that were benches and tables, pathways, and trees filled with birds. And across the park, a sea of humanity. A beautiful white man with a gorgeous black woman, cuddled tightly on a bench together, clearly in love. A gay man in a pink tank talking loudly on his cell phone while walking several dogs. An older black man with a thick beard mumbling to himself as he looked into one garbage can, then the next, trying to find some treasure. An Asian man reading medical textbooks. A heavyset woman wrapped head to toe in a burka and hijab, the symbols of her religious devotion, the colors of the robes flashing black and red. A well-dressed elderly black woman with tight grey curls laughing loudly, showing half her teeth missing. A handsome man instructing a white couple on how to do burpees in the main pathway. A lithe black woman with a baby strapped to her chest watching the water spilling in the fountain.

A sea of humanity, and one that included me, a formerly Mormon missionary who once stood in this park doubting himself, yet who had now returned to see it with new eyes.

Poisoned Peas: Strange Facts about Washington

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32 things you didn’t know about George Washington:

  1. George Washington received an unanimous 69 electoral votes for the office of president.
  2. He was not inaugurated until 1789, several years after the Declaration of Independence was signed.
  3. The colonies initially wanted to elect him King before creating the office of president.
  4. He did not get along with his vice president, John Adams, and gave him only minor duties. This trend has continued with vice presidents right up until modern history.
  5. George was 6 feet, 2 inches tall, much taller than the average at the time.
  6. George was a 4th generation American settler, in that his great-grandparents had settled here.
  7. While pregnant with George, his mother, Mary Ball, saw a young woman violently killed by a lightning strike while sitting at a dinner table.
  8. Remember that cherry tree story? “I can not tell a lie?” Never happened. Made up by a future biographer.
  9. George’s father, Augustine, died when George was 11. He also saw siblings die and had a house burn down.
  10. In his will, Augustine left George a plot of land and ten slaves. George owned slaves his entire life and saw them as a sign of wealth and prosperity.
  11. George worked as a land surveyor in his youth before becoming a military man.
  12. At age 16, George was swimming nude. Two teenage girls stole his clothes as a prank, but he was not amused and had them arrested. One girl blamed the other, who received the full punishment, 15 lashes on her bare back.
  13. As a young man, George contracted small pox, which left his face covered in pockmark scars his entire life.
  14. In the military, in one battle, four bullets went through George’s coat without hitting his flesh. He later said, “I have heard the bullets whistle and there is something charming in the sound.”
  15. Martha Dandridge (who grew up on a plantation) married Daniel Custis (two decades her senion) and had four children, though two died as children. Custis made a fortune before he died young, then Martha married George Washington, who inherited all of Daniel’s lands, riches, and slaves, starting him off wealthy (over 17,000 acres of land and 300 slaves).
  16. George never had biological children. He raised his two step-children, and later helped raise his grandchildren, adopting some as his own. George may have been infertile.
  17. George once wrote, “I have always considered marriage as the most interesting event of one’s life, the foundation of happiness or misery.”
  18. George was often known for being cruel to his slaves, keeping them in shacks with dirt floors and buying no clothes for the children, though this was common practice at the time. Toward the end of his life, his heart softened and he worked to keep his slave’s families together, not dividing by selling.
  19. During the War, Thomas Hickey once tried to kill George by poisoning his peas, but the housekeeper grew suspicious and instead fed the peas to the chickens. The chickens died, and Hickey was hanged.
  20. As a military leader, George often wished he was a soldier instead. He once said, “I beg it should be remembered by every gentleman in the room, that I do this day declare, with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with.”
  21. George’s stepson, Jacky Custis, died at age 28 of dysentry, leaving behind four young children. George adopted the younger two. His stepdaughter, Patsy, died as a teenager.
  22. After their victory in the War, George’s men went to taunt the British, but he stopped them, saying “It is sufficient for us that we witness their humiliation. Posterity will huzza for us.”
  23. After the war ended, George repaid his salary and expenses to the colonies without being asked, a sum totally $50,000. He was always exacting in paying and collecting debts.
  24. George had several farms, one called Muddy Hole, and a favorite nephew named Bushrod. In his will, he left Bushrod a famous cane that belonged to Ben Franklin.
  25. George posed for many paintings and sculptures during his life, holding still for hours at a time. He once said, “I am now altogether at their beck, and sit like patience on a monument whilst they are delineating the lines on my face.”
  26. George suffered from toothaches beginning in his 20s, and had all his teeth removed over the years. He eventually wore a set of false teeth, made out of a mix of hippopotamus tusks, gold, and human teeth.
  27. George and Martha had a dog named Frisk and a parrot named Snipe.
  28. A few years before his death, George had a large tumor in his leg that had to be cut out without painkillers. He was bedridden for six weeks.
  29. In 1791, George and Martha briefly moved to Philadelphia with 8 of their slaves. At the time, a law had been passed that any slaves who remained in the city for 6 months were automatically set free. George had the slaves sent back to Virginia just before the time limit was up to keep his property.
  30. In his final will, George stated that all his slaves should be set free after both he and Martha died.
  31. George died in 1799 at the age of 67. Martha died 2.5 years later in 1802 at the age of 70.
  32. In France, Napolean said of George’s death, “This great man has fought against tyranny. He established the liberty of his country. His memory will always be dear to the French people.

Slut-shaming in the 1770s

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The air in my lungs felt like fresh cold water after hours of thirst. The sky was a powerful blue over the painful white of the ski hills, the sun reflecting off it strongly enough to make my eyes hurt. Tall evergreens cascaded haphazardly over the hills as the tiny skiers sent tufts of powder among them on their descents down the hills.

The sun was surprisingly warm in the Alta area east of Salt Lake City. I had driven here this morning with a purpose, needing to clear my head from the inversion in the valley, an atmospheric condition that hits Utah in the lowest and highest temperatures, pollution and smog gathering in the valley, trapped there as if there was a lid over the whole of it. The smog had been growing worse by the day as I eagerly awaited a pressure system to come in and wipe the valley clean again, fresh winds and moisture the exact remedy required.

I had awakened this morning, my head clogged with invisible cotton, my throat constricted, my lungs aching. I always forget how sensitive I am to the inversion here on the bad air days. Where some others seem to not be at all impacted, my system reacts violently and makes me feel part sinus-infection and part allergy-attack.

But now, amid the blue and white, between the hot sun and the cold snow, my thoughts cleared and my brain came alive again, and so I sat to write.

My brain turned immediately to Georgianna Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire. A remarkable woman, a revolutionary if there ever was one. I had picked her book up off the library shelf at random. The book showed Keira Knightley the actress dressed in an ornate gown, her hair piled upon her head, surrounded by royalty, advertising the movie the Duchess, which had been based on this biography. I waited to see the film until after I finished the book. I watched it with a few friends, and throughout the movie, I pushed pause, providing commentary on the parts of Georgianna’s life the movie didn’t capture well, I was that annoying nerd with the running fact checks. But overall, the movie had done a good job. Georgianna was, after all, an intensely complex woman.

Georgianna’s biographer must have spent countless hours looking through ancient correspondence, newspaper articles, and journals, all hundreds of years old. Born in 1757, Georgianna was married on her 17th birthday to the 25 year old Duke of Devonshire, William Cavendish, who had strong connections to British Royalty and the Whig Party. The Duke was a philanderer, a man with exacting expectations and often very little patience. Georgianna was anything but a typical woman. She involved herself in the affairs of others regularly, arranging marriages and hosting political rallies and fundraisers for preferred Whig candidates.

As the United States of America won its freedom overseas, Georgianna set the trends of fashion in the United Kingdom with elaborate dresses, many she designed herself, and ever more garish hairstyles, some so high she had to sit on the floor of the carriage to fit inside it for transportation. He hair would be wound tightly, with horse hair and feathers intertwined to give it more height, and every woman in the region sought to emulate her as the newspapers reported on her fashion choices with pride.

Georgianna was berated by her husband for being politically involved, and the men she helped promote in politics were publicly ridiculed for treating a woman as an equal. The papers ran political cartoons, rather racy for the time they were in, showing Georgianna lifting her skirts and luring common men, like butchers, in for a kiss, making them promise to vote for her candidate. Rumors abounded of affairs and the public whispered and titered behind her back, even when some of the affairs (purportedly with both men and women) were true.

Georgianna raised her husband’s illegitimate child as her own and gave birth to two daughters as her husband kept pressuring her for a son, blaming her for the birth of the girls as if it had been a choice, while William continued having his own affairs, something that was apparently very common so long as it was never discussed. She finally had a son, giving William an heir, also named William, though that heir went deaf at a young age and never married, reportedly gay.

Georgianna reportedly only fell in love once, to Charles Grey (later the Prime Minister of England), and when she became pregnant with her last child by Grey, the Duke sent her into exile, shaming her for her affair, despite his own, and he required her to give the daughter, Eliza, up for adoption.

Georgianna was courageous, but she was far from perfect, spending a lifetime racking up tremendous gambling debts and lying to her husband about them, leaving many debts behind after she died tragically before hitting fifty. She was an extraordinary woman and mother, with a large ego and a hunger to be in the center of the action. She set trends in feminism that would take many women another century and a half to realize. Georgianna was strong, stubborn, unflinching, and often uncompromising, and she left behind one powerful legacy.

And perhaps most relevant to the readers in today’s generation, she was an ancestor of Princess Diana.

With thoughts on human existence in my head, I drove out of the deep blue skies and through the blinding snow, back toward the valley and smog. All of the individual pains and heartbreaks, joys and triumphs of one woman in one family in one place, each moment lived by her, now hundreds of years past, stories only preserved in the printed word, and most of her life forgotten, only to be pieced together by the the printed words and stories that remain from her time. Her life and the lives of her children and theirs and theirs, all of them past now.

And as I drove back down into the swiftly thickening fog, I realized this was one more moment of mine, soon to be past to the next.