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The Stories Of Our Lives

October 1, 2014

For the last three years I’ve been privileged to be involved with the Timpanogos Storytelling festival. (The Power Of Story) I’m also a member of Toastmasters Olympic Orators club. Yesterday I gave a speech about storytelling. It’s longer than my normal posts. And it’s more about my family than I normally share here.

Tomorrow I’ll return to posts about business and leadership. Today, let me just tell you a story.

The Stories Of Our Lives
Welcome. Madame Toastmaster, fellow Toastmasters and honored guests, I’m happy to have the opportunity to speak to you today.


Stories not only describe our lives, they define them. We are here because at some level, we love stories. Stories predate literature. They probably predate language, although, it’s hard to say since there were no writers to record it for us.

Stories tie our societies together. They also tie us to our children and to our ancestors.

Did you know that when John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth was preparing for his mission on Gemini 6, that NASA didn’t think to include a camera? They didn’t have time to build a custom one so they went to a local drug store and bought an Ansco Autoset 35mm camera, manufactured by Minolta.

(Photo credit:

NASA was full of brilliant scientists, but they had not yet realized the value of storytellers.

Here is a picture that John Glenn took on that maiden flight with that drug store camera.

(Photo credit:

He noticed “fireflies” outside his capsule. He knew they weren’t actual fireflies, but that’s what they looked like. Later they were determined to be ice crystals coming off the spacecraft, but the world still, 50 years later knows, them as “Glenn’s fireflies.”

NASA learned, of course. By the time of the Apollo missions and the moon landing, NASA had figured out how to broadcast the entire thing live from 240,000 miles away. Anyone who was alive that day, 20 July 1969, can tell you the story of where they were when they heard and saw Neil Armstrong make that “one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind.”

The storytelling continued as we pushed our boundaries out to Mars. The Mars rover Curiosity carries with it a very high quality camera, of course. And the rover has a way to calibrate its camera.

(Photo credit:

This photo shows the coin that the designers of Curiosity mounted near the camera calibration panel. It is dated 1909. What it does not reveal is what makes the penny particularly rare. On the obverse, or the back side of the coin, are the initials (“VDB”) for Victor David Brenner who was the sculptor who created this image.

Brenner’s initials were deemed to be too prominent, and were removed from subsequent mintings within days of the penny’s initial release back in 1909.

Ken Edgett, who bought the coin with his own funds, said that he selected the coin to continue a tradition that began on Earth.

“The penny is on the MAHLI calibration target as a tip of the hat to geologists’ informal practice of placing a coin or other object of known scale in their photographs,” Edgett, principal investigator with Malin Space Science Systems, said prior to Curiosity landing.

The penny was also symbolic.

“Everyone in the United States can recognize the penny and immediately know how big it is, and can compare that with the rover hardware and Mars materials in the same image,” Edgett said. “The public can watch for changes in the penny over the long term on Mars.”

NASA learned the value of telling a story.

Stories tie us together as a society.

Stories also tie us to our children.

My family has a tradition of storytelling. As many of you know, I have 13 children. Every year on their birthdays, they get to pick the menu. And after a meal of corndogs and macaroni and cheese is consumed with not a green vegetables in sight, my son or daughter will turn to either my lovely wife or me and say, “You tell my story.”

Earlier this month, my son had a birthday. And he directed that request to me.

To China
I settled into my seat as the Boeing 777 lifted off from LAX in the early morning darkness. I was going to China. I was going to get my son.

We decided to adopt from China because our first adoption, was a boy of Asian descent. We didn’t want him to be the only adopted child who was Asian. So after a couple years when we felt it was time to expand our family again we looked to China. We were planning to adopt a little girl, because that’s what you get when you adopt from China, you get infant girls.

My lovely wife was looking through the list of waiting children on our agency’s website and saw a picture of a little boy, not quite two years old. She had the strong feeling as many adopted parents do that “this is my child.” But, it didn’t make sense. We already had two boys about that same age. But, the feeling wouldn’t go away.

As she was looking at his picture, our 6 year old daughter walked past the computer, “He’s cute. We should adopt him.”

When you adopt what’s called a “waiting child” it’s recommended that you send some things to the orphanage. We took pictures of our house, his new room, all the members of our family and a picture of my wife and me and put them into a book. In fact, we made two books. One to send and one to keep. We then had a friend write the names of each person in Chinese next to the picture. The other thing we sent was a blanket. You take a blanket, again we bought two, and you sleep with that blanket for several nights. Each of us has a smell. Babies learn the smell of their mothers simply by being held and fed. Sleeping with a blanket will give it your smell. We then sent one of the picture books and one of the blankets to china.

Months went by, full of home studies and paperwork. Visas and passports. Finally, the day arrived that resulted in me occupying a seat on a transpacific flight to China.

I touched down in the early morning hours. Several families were adopting kids all at the same time. We met our guide, Richard at the airport. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t his birth name since he was native Chinese. Everyone else was adopting from elsewhere in China, so all of them got on connecting flights. Richard then called for our car and drove me to our hotel, the world famous White Swan hotel. I checked in, showered, shaved (remembering not to drink the water) and then we headed for Shenz Zen. You have to travel through military checkpoints to move around in China. It was an interesting experience to literally have a man with a gun standing between me and my son.

Our papers were in order so we were waved through. Eventually we arrived at the orphanage. A big beautiful building with gleaming chrome exterior. I was escorted into a conference room where I met the orphanage director and many of the Aunties, the women who are the primary caregivers. After presenting each of them with a gift as is the custom, one of them left and returned shortly leading a little boy in a blue shirt and yellow shorts by the hand. He was holding a blanket and clutching a picture book.

When he saw me, he immediately came over and climbed up on my lap. He opened up the picture book to the picture of my lovely wife and me, pointed to my picture, looked up at me and with a big grin said, “Baba.”

It takes ten days in country to adopt from China. It was a magical time. Mostly, we were free every day to explore the city of Guangzhou. We would walk down the street hand in hand, this big white American and this small quiet Chinese boy. The shop keepers would ask, “Is a boy? Is good.” They showered my son with toys. I asked Richard if this was because boys are more desired in Chinese culture. “No, it’s because he is so cute.”

Finally, all the paperwork was done, and it was time to climb back on another airplane, this time with my son in tow and head back to the United States. We changed planes in LAX and completed the last leg home to Seattle. The terminal we landed in has a long hallway and then turns a sharp corner as you come out of the secured area. As we made that turn, my lovely wife was seated waiting for us. My son, let go of my hand, ran to her, climbed up on her lap, opened his picture book to our picture, pointed at her picture and said, “Mama.”

My son is now 14. He has heard that story every year for the past 12 years. And he never tires of it. He would rather skip the cake and presents at his birthday than skip the story.

Stories tie our children to us.

Captain Bliss
They also tie us to our ancestors. I had grown up hearing that my family, in fact, all the Bliss’ in America descended from a pair of brothers that fought in the Revolutionary War. About a year ago, thanks to the internet, I did some research. I call it research, I really went to a genealogy site, found my name and started clicking back. Eventually, I found a man named Captain Abdiel Bliss. Born in 1740 in Rehoboth, Massachusetts. He fought at the battles of Lexington and Concord the day the war started. A month later he fought at Bunker Hill.

In my research I also discovered something called the Society of the Cincinnati. After the war was over, the officers of the continental army got together and formed a society. Membership was open only to officers who had been in the army. When they died, the membership slot was open to their oldest son. If the eldest son died without a son it went to the next oldest son and so on.

I thought, “I wonder who holds the spot for my ancestor?” The genealogy site allowed you to search both backwards to ancestors and forward to descendants. I started tracing the male descendants of Captain Bliss. One by one each male line petered out. And finally, I realized I was tracing MY line. My great grandfather had one son. My grandfather had one son. My father had 4 sons. My oldest brother had no children. My next oldest brother had two sons. My next oldest brother had 5 daughters, and then there was me with my five sons.

The rules of the Society of the Cincinnati said that if the rightful heir didn’t want membership they could grant it to someone else. Would my brother want that membership? I decided to do more research before I approached him.

I wrote to the Massachusetts chapter of the Society of the Cincinnati. I got a very polite, but very firm letter back saying that my ancestor was not a Revolutionary War officer and his descendants were therefore ineligible. Here was a mystery. This time I really did do some research, teasing out alternate spellings and looking at troop lists.

Eventually I got another letter from the Society. They had also done research and had come to the same realization that I had. Captain Abdiel Bliss was an officer in the War, but was not in the Continental Army. He was part of the militia. As such, he was ineligible. The person I was writing to said they were sorry. I wasn’t. Sure, he wasn’t in the Continental Army, but it was still pretty cool to realize that you are descended from one of the original Minute Men.

Stories tie us to our ancestors.

One more quick story.

Mormon Pioneer
As many of you undoubtedly know, the state of Utah was settled by Mormon pioneers. July 24th, 1847 Brigham Young led a group of men, women, children and 5 dogs into the valley. The names of those first pioneers are on a statue in downtown Salt Lake City and on a monument at “This Is The Place” park up Immigration Canyon.

(Photo credit: Deseret News)

One of those names is Thomas Woolsey, my great-great-great-grandfather. He was a member of the Mormon Battalion. He was the designated postman. He made the trip back and forth between the battalion and the saints as they made their way west. He was captured and escaped from Indians. He built the first permanent house in the Salt Lake valley. He died and is buried in Southern Utah.

My children, especially those who are adopted know that their family is descended from pioneers and revolutionaries. Stories tie the generations together.

But Rodney, MY family doesn’t have any of those exciting stories. I’ve never been to China and my ancestors didn’t fight in the Revolution or found Utah. I don’t have any stories.

Wrong. In years of telling and listening to stories, I’ve discovered what many people already know. Everyone has a story. Are you married? There’s got to be a story there. Are you not married but almost were at one point? That’s probably a better story. Do you have children? I defy anyone to spend a day with a young child and not come away with at least one interesting story. Do you have a favorite vacation? A favorite movie? A cherished book?

Because it’s not the setting of our stories that make them memorable, it’s the people we choose to populate them with.

My charge to you today is twofold. First, find your stories. Find your own personal stories, whether it is a trip to China, or the move to a new house, or the thrill of getting a new job. Find your stories and those of your ancestors: aunts, uncles, parents, grandparents. Search out and gather your stories.

And then, share them. If you have children, tell them to your children. Make sure they understand that you and they came from somewhere. That they are result of a long line of people who lived and breathed, loved and lost. Pirate or priest doesn’t really make much of a difference. Our history and our stories are what make us who we are.

These are the stories of our lives.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday at 7:00 AM Mountain Time. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and one grandchild.

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or email him at rbliss at msn dot com

  1. Oh hi, inspirational post. I wasn’t expecting you today. Please thank management post for letting you fill in for him today, I enjoyed your story very much.

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