Category Archives: Personal

Roy Samuelsen, 1933-2017

My father had terrible toes. They were badly misshapen, gnarled and twisted. He wasn’t particularly embarrassed about it; when someone noticed and said something, he’d laugh. He had “Hitler toes,” he’d say. Or “Quisling toes.” They were an artifact of his childhood, a reminder of the Nazi occupation of Norway.

My Dad was seven when the Nazis invaded Norway, twelve when the Germans were finally defeated. And as a child in Norway, it was simply impossible to get new shoes. Any leather that might be used to make shoes was reserved for German soldiers. A Norwegian kid had no chance at all. I suppose that a quisling–a Norwegian traitor–might have gotten on a list somewhere; a Norwegian Nazi might have gotten shoes to match a child’s growth. But my grandfather and great-uncles all were in the Resistance; all were fiercely anti-German. Bestefar, my wonderful grandfather, worked at the glass factory in Moss, making glass for German airplanes and jeeps and warplanes. It was the only time in his life he was bad at a job. Like all Norwegian patriots, he worked slowly, inefficiently, delivering glass of the poorest quality, and sabotaging shipments whenever possible. And then, evenings and weekends, he’d ride a bicycle for miles into the countryside, looking for farmers so he could buy or barter for milk for his kids.

And during air raids, my father would sing. Just a little kid, but he was a natural entertainer even then, as a child, and even then, he sang exuberantly, cheerfully. He loved the folk songs his grandfather taught him, but even more, he loved American songs, especially cowboy songs. At his funeral, my son played Home on the Range on the guitar. Dad loved that song from an early age, and could bang it out on the guitar and sing it at high volume. Everything, with Dad, was high volume.

Because that was Dad. An opera singer, a Wagnerian baritone, and a somewhat hammy but effective singing actor; he was above all, an entertainer. And he loved it. He loved everything about it, singing, acting, performing. He was never more alive than when he was singing.

At his funeral, my brothers and I knew we needed to hear his voice again. That, for me, was the hardest part of his death; the thought that that voice had been silenced. So we played this:

“I love life.” Nothing captured Dad better. Really, I never knew him to be down; never knew him to have the blues. He loved to sing, yes. But he loved all of it. He loved waterskiing, and hiking, and tooling around Lake Monroe in his boat. He loved playing catch with his boys, loved playing basketball with us, loved tossing a football around. He wasn’t much of an athlete, but that didn’t matter; he’d come home from a hard day teaching–or rehearsing or coaching–and he’d see us out playing. He had to join us.

And he loved to travel. He and Mom visited every continent–yes, including Antarctica–and everywhere he went, he took his camera. He was an outstanding photographer, with a great eye for composition and color and contrast. His skills with a camera are shared today by my brother, Rob; two terrific nature photographers. Dad also loved to work with his hands. He could build anything, and loved it, a good carpentry project. And what he build, lasted. My brother Rolf is currently working with his sons to renovate a home; again, my Dad’s legacy continues.

And what about me? Because I was always the odd man out, I thought. When we’d take the boat out, I brought a book; I’d rather read. I had no carpentry skills whatsoever; I really, genuinely, can’t fix things, or build things, or imagine ever wanting to. I liked to sing, but we all sang; you couldn’t be a Samuelsen and not sing. I fancied myself an intellectual; my Dad was an academic, but hardly any kind of scholar. His publications were all performances. My Dad was the ultimate extrovert, outgoing and charming and greatly beloved. As I said at his funeral, he probably had more close personal friends in Iceland and South Korea than I have total. My Dad was larger than life, a booming, friendly, lover of life. He was also a man of immense kindness and charity. I think I’m fairly outgoing, and certainly try to get along with people. But in many respects, we were different people, and we struggled for mutual understanding. We clashed at times; I regret that more than I can say.

But then I think of Dad’s toes. And how little they mattered. They probably hurt when he walked; he never mentioned it, though, and wouldn’t have cared. He had a heart attack; he also had a stroke. Neither slowed him down. Yes, he was tough. But more than that, he couldn’t let minor health problems get in the way. There was too much life to experience, too much of the world to see.

Within Mormonism, there’s a rhetorical stance in which we’re urged to reject the world and worldly values. I don’t altogether understand it. I love the world; I really do. I don’t mean that I love nature, or the planet, or pretty scenery. I mean, I like scenery too, but mostly, what I like about nature is keeping it out of my house. No, I love the world. I love art, and performance, and good theatre. I love opera, and musicals, and dance. I love comedians and comedy, musicians and music. I love movies. In fact, I won’t even say that I love good movies. I love all movies, indiscriminately. I think the world is amazing. I want to live now, on the earth today, with wifi and air conditioning and dentistry and antibiotics.

I remember Dad in a Priesthood class once. The lesson was on humility, and Dad raised his hand. And Dad said, “look, I’m an opera singer. I can’t do what I do unless I’m pretty sure that I’m good at it. I’m grateful that I’ve been blessed with certain talents. But I do have those talents. I’m a great singer. I have to know that, or I can’t do it.”

And so my Dad embraced the world. Oh, he didn’t like all of it. He never did understand rock music, for example, and was appalled by a lot of recent opera stagings that he saw. He’d call me from time to time, and he’d say ‘did you see that performance? It’s exactly the approach that you like. And you’re wrong, and here’s why.’ And we’d talk it out. It amused me, that he’d get on me for potentially liking a performance I hadn’t actually seen. What I now realize is that it probably amused him too.

But he was a wonderful Dad. He may not have always completely understood me, but he never stopped trying, and he never stopped loving me, and he never stopped telling me how much he cared. And I never stopped loving him. Heavenly Father gave me Roy Samuelsen, as a mentor, teacher, father and friend. I am so immensely grateful. And miss him more than I can possibly say.

 

 

Multi-level marketing (scams)

You know that thing where you’re talking to someone about something, and it’s a thing you have a strong feeling about, and you express that strong opinion, strongly? And it turns out you probably expressed yourself more strongly than you should have? I did that recently.

Utah is home to many many multi-level marketing companies. Just in Utah County, I can think of several. NuSkin sells, like, dietary supplements. DōTERRA sells essential oils; I think they call their salespeople ‘wellness advocates.’  Morinda sells various products derived from a morinda citrafolia, a Tahitian tree that produces the noni plant, juice from which is supposed to be good for you. There’s also Neways; they also sell nutritional supplements. There’s Young Living–they sell essential oils–and Nature’s Sunshine–natural health supplements. There are many others.

And they all work the same way. Ordinary folks sign up for this stuff, and sell the product, but are also trying to get their friends involved in selling it too. You make your money via a pyramid. You get a cut out of your sales, but you also get a cut from the sales of the people beneath you on the pyramid. The basic model is Amway. Also Bernie Madoff.

Here’s the strong opinion I expressed that got me in trouble. I think multi-level marketing companies are all crooks. I think they should all be illegal. I think they’re scams, ripoffs, hoaxes, frauds. I think their CEOs should be in jail. I think the normalization of con artists is a bad idea, and that businesses built on a pyramid model are nothing but Ponzi schemes, pure and simple. And I tend to think their products are all, without exception, worthless crap.

I come by these views honestly. I have family members who have been ripped off in Ponzi schemes. I have seen how devastating they can be. I know people whose lives were ruined by Amway. I think the world would be a happier place if Amway was shut down, and its business leaders thrown in the slammer. And that would include Dick DeVos, former Amway CEO and husband of Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Secretary of Education. And that includes Jason Chaffetz, my Congressman, a former NuSkin exec.

In China, MLMs are illegal. Good for them. If you want to know why they’re not illegal in the US, check the previous paragraph: they’re well-connected. The Federal Trade Commission has been trying to shut down Herbalife for years. Herbalife has responded in the usual way; by buying Congressmen, and by spending hundreds of millions of dollars on high-powered legal representation. So does Amway; so does Mary Kay. These are rich, powerful companies. They aren’t going to be easy to stop.

And they’re big in Utah. And that bothers me. Why are Utah Mormons susceptible to these kinds of scams? Because we’re naive, gullible, trusting? That’s surely part of it. But it’s also Church connections. Our lives tend to center around wards. And our fellow ward members are also our friends. If a person you think of as a friend comes to you and says, ‘hey, I know about this great opportunity, a way for you to make a little extra money, and also enjoy better health. It’s worked for me, and it can work for you.’ Well, that’s a powerful inducement.

It’s also why these things are so insidious. A friendship shouldn’t be about some outside agenda. We’re friends because we genuinely like each other. We’re friends because we decided to make a commitment to someone, to maintain and nurture a relationship with another person, for its own sake, not because you can make something from it. MLMs take the idea of friendship, that personal connection we feel towards other people, and profane it. It’s fundamentally sociopathic. It’s like doing your home teaching solely to get good numbers, without making any effort to actually make friends.

Pyramid scams take basic, honest human feelings and turn them into sales opportunities. I want to believe that my friends like me because they like me. Not because they think they can sell me some kind of weirdo goop. Frankly, I think MLMs are worse than Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. Madoff ran an investment firm; his clients may have thought of him as a friend, but that friendship began as a business relationship.

I remember when my wife and I moved to Utah. I was a new BYU faculty member, and we hardly knew a soul. Some old friends of my parents, BYU veterans, invited us over for dinner, and we were thrilled. We knew these people a little, and it was nice to think that they wanted to be friends, maybe introduce us around to this new university subculture.

And then they pulled out their selling materials, and told us all about what a great deal Amway was.

We weren’t just offended. We were hurt. We were angry. We hid it pretty well, and are still able to greet these folks, when we run into them, with polite cordiality. But what an opportunity wasted! Of course, any possibility of actual friendship was completely gone. And that’s a shame.

So, sorry, but it’s time for these rip-offs to end. China got this one right. MLMs serve no legitimate role in any healthy economy. Or in any health-promoting friendship.

 

My Rudolf fiasco

We had our ward Christmas party last Friday, and I was part of the featured entertainment. I have this thing I do; a kind of fractured fairy tales thing, only for Christmas. I gather the kids up on stage, and sit in a comfy chair, and tell them a Christmas story. Only I mess it up. I’ve learned over the years that little kids love correcting a grown-up, so I pretend to be wholly incompetent. I’ll start by telling the story of the Grinch, say, only I’ll drag in everything from Goldilocks to Sleeping Beauty to Lord of the Rings. And every time the story goes off the rails, the kids are outraged. “No!” they cry. “That’s not how it goes!” And I course-correct, and a great time is had by all.

I’ve done this for years. I did it with my children when they were young, and their friends, and other kid relatives. I am, it seems, fairly good at feigning befuddlement.

I did it in our ward last year, and it went well. The kids were appropriately incensed by my, to them, astonishing inability to tell a simple Christmas story. One kid–maybe 5 or 6–came up to me in Church the next Sunday. “Boy,” he said, shaking his head. “You are the worst story-teller ever.” “I know,” I responded sadly. “I’m sorry. I’m just bad at it.” And he walked away, astonished, no doubt, that someone was fool enough to ask this poor sad sack to tell a Christmas story when it was clearly beyond him.

A couple of years ago, I was on the organizing committee for the Christmas party, and we decided to hire Santa to entertain the kids. Someone knew a professional Santa, a guy in the stake, and we brought him in, despite no one knowing his act. And I’m sorry to say it, but he was a big disappointment. He struck me as the kind of adult who thinks that what kids want is a strong moral lesson. Little kids do not want a strong moral lesson. Little kids want goofiness. And what’s wonderful about children is their exuberance, their energy, their imagination, their love for the truly silly. This Santa couldn’t even be bothered to plop kids on his lap and ask ’em what they wanted for Christmas. If I were Santa–and I’ve got the body type for it–I’d love that; treating each kid as special. But not this guy. I think it got in the way of his preachifying.

Anyway, I was looking forward to this year’s Christmas party. I decided beforehand that I would tell the story of Rudolf the green-nosed reindeer. That way, they’d catch on immediately to the nature of the game. “No!” they’d shout. “Red-nosed reindeer! Rudolf has a red nose! Not a green one.” And we’d be off running.

I do very little preparation for this thing. I can generally keep track in my head of where we are in the story, and which other extraneous tales I’ve already dragged in. I have various stalling tactics I can use when I need to buy time. “Are you sure?” I’ll ask. “I thought Rudolf had a green nose. Green means go; red means stop. Rudolf is what makes Santa’s sleigh go.” And meantime, I’m trying to figure out how to work Little Red Riding Hood into it.

This year, though, the kids were prepped. They were loaded for bear. They’d clearly remembered the goofy Christmas story guy from last year. And they had no interest in playing. In particular, I blame a cabal of older kids, 8 or 9 years old, deeply cynical little post-modernists, who showed up to the Christmas party with a plan. “You want to deconstruct Christmas stories,” I imagine them saying. “Well, deconstruct this, sucka!”

So I go “I’m going to tell the story of Rudolf the green-nosed reindeer.” And a few younger kids were suitably aggravated. “No!” they shouted on cue. But these older kids had the situation in hand. “Yeah,” they said, smirking. “Green-nosed reindeer. Sure. Let’s go with green.”

It didn’t matter where I went with it. They were ready for me. So I said “Let’s see. Santa’s reindeer were Dasher and Prancer, Donner and Blitzen, Comet and Cupid and Harry and Hermione.” And the kids went “Sure! Harry Potter’s a reindeer. Why not?” Yikes.

By the end of the story, Gandolf and Dumbledore were also on Santa’s sleigh, casting spells so Santa could get down particularly narrow chimneys. Cindy Lou Who and the Big Bad Wolf were working together to save Christmas, and Cinderella and the Three Little Pigs were huffing and puffing to get Santa’s sleigh some tailwind. I was tap dancing like Savion Glover, and the story was like Kafka channeling Tristan Tzara. Those kids! Those rotten kids! Derailing my story like that.

Who am I kidding? I had a ball. I had to work a lot harder than usual, but it was a ball. In the end, I brought things home, Santa’s sleigh made it through the fog, Rudolf was a hero, and Harry and Hermione, reindeer, got extra hay at the end of the night. I build an event on mis-told Christmas stories, and the kids did me one better, and turned the night into a pure story adventure. It was kind of a fiasco, but it was also fun, and the kids seemed to enjoy it, making this grown-up sweat. Darn ’em. I fully admit it; I met my match in this particular group of kids. And I couldn’t be prouder.

 

Losing my sense of humor

Here’s what angers me most about the election of Donald Trump. It’s not the ridiculous policies. It’s not the corruption. It’s not the close association with the alt-right. It’s not the thin-skinned tweets. It’s not any of those things.

It’s that I don’t find all of that funny. And I should. Because it is.

I’m losing my sense of humor. This cannot be allowed.

Imagine that someone wrote a satire about a newly elected US President, a businessman with zero political experience. Let’s imagine that the screenplay or play or novel included a montage scene of congratulatory phone calls, from heads of state to the new President-elect. So the Scottish political leader calls, and the new President accepts his good wishes, then mentions how annoying wind farms are. Especially when they block the view at his/my/the President’s Scottish golf course. “Of course,” says the Scottish leader. “We’ll get right on it.” That scene would be funny, right? And then the Argentinian President calls, and the P-E mentions permitting problems the business is having for a skyscraper they want to build in Buenos Aires. Of course, in on those phone calls would be the P-E’s former supermodel daughter, now officially running the various Presidential businesses. Seriously; funny stuff, amiright?

The days after the election, I moped around the house, all depressed. I tried to find solace with my friends–John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah–only they seemed as discombobulated as I felt. It’s like we all forgot how to be funny, or how to laugh. I was heartsick for my country, depressed, close to despair in fact, that somehow America had voted for this orange-face, small-handed, thin-skinned buffoon. And I was angry. I was furious. At everyone and anything. Those losers in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida; especially them.

If Mitt Romney had won in 2012, or John McCain in 2008, I would have been fine with it. Not my preferred candidate, but an honorable man, capable, and a patriot–we could certainly do worse. That’s how I would have felt. Not now. Not this semi-Klan walking dumpster fire. Not this incoherent demagogue.

And that’s funny. My misplaced anger and sorrow and frustration. It’s funny; if I (we) lose my (our) ability to laugh at my (our) selves, then what else do we have?

And so we see Trump’s appointments, the people he’s going to hire to help run his government. And it just gets funnier. Someone who hates public education as Secretary of Education. A more-or-less open racist as Attorney General. Someone who hates Obamacare for Health and Human Services. My favorite is his choice for White House Attorney, the guy who is supposed to be the ethical conscience of the White House. He announced Don McGahn for the role. McGahn was Tom DeLay’s attorney. You remember Trump’s ‘drain the swamp’ campaign pledge? McGahn’s the swamp. Probably the most corrupt attorney in Washington will be the Trump White House’s ethical watchdog.

Elaine Chao was named Transportation Secretary. The headline in Slate’s story pointed out, in tones of shock and surprise, that she’s actually qualified for the job.

All this stuff is funny. I mean, it’s kind of a grim kind of humor. How else do you report the fact that Donald Trump’s closest advisor, Steve Bannon, worked previously as CEO of a website beloved by white supremacists and, you know, the Klan? It’s one of those jokes without a punch line; you just report the facts and you get the laugh.

And it’s hard to laugh sometimes. I get it; it’s hard to find this stuff funny. Our country is falling from the sky, like Slim Pickens at the end of Dr. Strangelove, and there’s nothing we can do to prevent it. Gravity has taken over. But Dr. Strangelove is an amazingly funny movie.

It’s the end of the world as we know it. And I don’t feel fine. But we still have to laugh. We still have to make jokes. Trump may destroy our country. But he cannot destroy our humanity.

 

Why I stay

On Friday, I spoke at Sunstone, on the subject ‘Why I stay.’ A number of you were kind enough to ask if you could read the talk. Here it is:

“First, a moment of candor: I am a Mormon, because I was raised in a Mormon family. I grew up going to Church every Sunday, attending Primary and MIA; when I turned 19, I went on a mission. I never seriously considered doing otherwise. Why did I stay? Because, growing up, it never occurred to me to not stay.

Had I not grown up LDS, I think it unlikely that I would have found the Church on my own. But I don’t regret my lifelong membership and activity. Which is also not to say that I haven’t been tempted, that I haven’t suffered moments of doubt and difficulty and heartsickness over retrograde policies and cultural cluelessness. We stay for legitimate reasons, I think. Those of our faith who leave have similarly legitimate reasons for it.

It was on my mission when I experienced my first moments of cognitive dissonance. It wasn’t just the authoritarian style of my mission leadership. I didn’t know any better; I thought mission rules were supposed to be arbitrary and harsh. And while the policy of racially determined priesthood exclusion nagged at my conscience, it just didn’t come up very often. I was, after all, serving in blonde-haired blue-eyed Norway.

No, that first ripple in my testimony came as the result of a talk, by a General Authority, at a mission conference.  Here’s why we weren’t baptizing; here’s what we should do about it. Why were Norwegians not responding to our message? Pride, the sinful pride of you missionaries, he said, and disobedience. (‘Balderdash,’ said the little voice in my head). He left us with more unnecessary and arbitrary rules to follow—blue-suits-only was one, forcing me to leave my perfectly serviceable brown suit in the closet—and he mandated a new door approach, which he promised would lead to much more mission success, as defined by more baptisms. The door approach was woefully ill-suited for the Norwegian culture, and frankly kind of Gestapo, enough so that I thought it was likely to get us arrested. I did try it for most of one day—I was a district leader, and felt I had to lead by example, until my companion begged me to stop. And we did nearly get arrested. And I had to face a dismaying reality—a General Authority had spoken, presumably by inspiration, misidentifying the difficulties we faced as a mission, and prescribing preposterous solutions. This was not supposed to happen.

Nor were his solutions instructively absurd, the blue suits a blood-on-the-lintels act of devotion. As time went on, in fact, I couldn’t help but notice that the missionaries who baptized were those most dismissive of this particular GA’s prescriptions, and most prone to call him by a particularly unkind but probably inevitable nickname. Strict obedience was, quite specifically, what didn’t work. And that gradual realization became increasingly devastating.

I’m not going to tell you the name of that General Authority. For many years, I wouldn’t listen to him speak in Conference. Of course, he wasn’t the only one whose talks I thought were best avoided. The wife of a former stake President once said ‘if you aren’t filled with the desire to throw your shoe at the TV during General Conference at least occasionally, you probably aren’t paying attention.’ For them, as well as for us, inspiration is, at best, intermittent.

Getting a revelation is exceptionally difficult. When I’m struggling for an answer to a prayer, I can literally spend hours pondering and praying and trying to listen. And I’m rarely certain that my prayers have been answered, and oftentimes, subsequent events will prove that I wasn’t inspired at all. Culture is a powerful force, and its whisperings can drown out the still small voice, even if we can tell the difference between them.

The brother in charge of our region was trying to come up with an answer to an intractable problem; the difficulty in preaching the Restoration to affluent western Europeans. Western American conservative culture tends to be authoritarian, and so he was led to an authoritarian answer. He was a cultural conservative, and spoke as one. It was wrong for me to have judged him, or to hold a grudge for so long. He was a good man, struggling to hear and respond to the Spirit. It took me a long time to gain that more charitable perspective.

And why did I seek that perspective? Because I did, over the course of two years service in Norway, also grow a testimony. Yes, I was disillusioned. But I began also to feel blessed.

What does that mean, to have a testimony? I want to use language with specificity and precision, and that means, perhaps, resisting culturally familiar, but imprecise usages and clichés. I do not ever say, for example, that “I know the Church is true.” Or “I know that the Book of Mormon is true.” I don’t know what those words mean. I don’t know what ‘true’ means in describing an organization. If I say ‘this book is true,’ I’m probably referring to Newton’s Principia, not Second Nephi.

What I can say is this; that through service to other people, total strangers in fact, I began to have thoughts and feelings that seemed to me to have been externally generated. I would speak to someone in my halting Norwegian, and suddenly be overcome with a rush of unanticipated eloquence. I would see a distant house late on a night wasted in fruitless tracting, and a thought would occur—don’t go home, don’t quit for the night. You need to get to that house now. And a door would open. Teaching a lesson, I would suddenly know that the doctrine we were teaching was irrelevant to this person’s life, and that I needed immediately to switch gears and talk about something else. And I would follow that impulse, and see a life transform.

To what then can I testify? To something quite limited, it seems to me, but also at least potentially liberating. I can testify that I felt, at times, influenced by a power outside myself, and that I continue to feel so influenced. But it also works; pragmatically, it genuinely gets the job done.

So, two things. I got home from my mission in June of 1977. The first movie I saw when I got home was Star Wars; it was also what I saw the next eight times I went to see a movie. Just for some historical context. But anyway, July, 1977, I got home from work one day and saw that the new Ensign had arrived. I leafed through it, and read a talk by President Kimball. A gospel vision of the arts. This paragraph blew me away.

For years, I have been waiting for someone to do justice . . . to the story of the Restoration . . . the struggles and frustrations; the apostasies and inner revolutions and counter-revolutions . . . the transitions . . . the persecution days.

I did not know, at that point, what I wanted to do with my life. But that article hit me like, well, like Luke’s missile hitting the Death Star. In an instant, sitting on the sofa in my parents’ living room, I knew, who I was and who I was supposed to become and what I was supposed to do. I would be a playwright, and perhaps at times an essayist and novelist but mostly a playwright, and I would write, in part, about my own culture. Unsparingly, truthfully, compassionately, but with integrity; I would write about my people. Later, in college and in grad school, I would find models for my own writing—Ibsen and Chekhov, Tom Stoppard and Athol Fugard, and when I discovered Angels in America, the great Tony Kushner. But that moment, reading that Ensign article, that was what launched me. A revelation? A vision? Or just a flash of ambition? Whatever the source, wherever it came from, it began in single moment, and has lasted a lifetime.

The next moment of inspiration came in 1978. I was in a BYU choir, and we sang the world premiere of Robert Cundick’s magnificent piece, The Redeemer. I was a tall bass, and shared a riser with a tall blonde soprano. We chatted a bit during rehearsal breaks. At one point, she turned away, and I found myself looking at her, just the side of her lovely face, framed by her blonde hair.

It wasn’t love at first sight, not at all. We were both in choir again the next fall, and became friends. We liked a lot of the same books, we enjoyed the same music. Our relationship didn’t turn romantic for many months. But at that moment, sharing a riser, singing a piece of music we both loved, I knew, absolutely knew, that this person was going to be an important part of my life. She was a girl I shared a riser with; it’s entirely possible we would never have met again. But I knew, in my heart, that something beyond that choir and that music was going on. I didn’t think ‘that’s the girl I’m going to marry.’ Turns out, it was, and our marriage has become the centerpiece of the last thirty five years of my life. At the time, though, all I knew was that something significant was going to happen in my life involving this person. Marriage and four children? I had no idea. Still, something spoke to me.

Now, of course, you’re going to say, well, weird impulsive feelings happen all the time, without any religious meaning or context. People get inspired to pursue a career path, people meet and think ‘let’s keep this conversation going.’ Invoking gifts of the Spirit is not required to explain a common enough phenomenon. And that’s perfectly true. I interpret these two experiences as meaning something, but I know that something to be a Mormon cultural construct; The Spirit revealed my career path and the personal importance of the woman I would marry. That’s how I understand those experiences; other will say ‘career eureka moment and love at first sight.’

But that’s all right. In the D%C, we’re told that “in nothing does man offend God” more than when we “confess not his hand in all things.” That suggests to me that we’re not just justified but maybe sort of obligated to say ‘this was God speaking, this was inspiration, this was revealed.’ And that is what I believe today.

Annette and I married, we had four children, and I began teaching at BYU. And we had some joyful years, teaching theatre history and theory and playwriting, writing and directing and researching. And experiencing genuine moments of spiritual growth, transcendence, even. As well as moments of cognitive dissonance.

Is it just me, or did everything get weird in 2008? That’s my impression, at least. I’d write plays, and they’d be well received, and vigorously supported by the BYU administration. And then that stopped being true. A new University President was called, who knew not Joseph. More significantly, a new American President was elected. And, this is entirely my subjective impression of course, but it seems to me that conservatives went crazy.

I was too new at BYU and in Utah to understand or be much affected by the events of 1993, the brutal excommunications of the September Six. But my testimony has been buffeted by subsequent events, by further moments of cognitive dissonance. I am especially thinking of my LGBT friends and family members who feel, with justification, that there’s no legitimate place for them, that they will always be, at best, second-class citizens of the kingdom of heaven. And it breaks my heart.

People leave the Church because the pain of staying overpowers the desire to remain. Our brothers and sisters who leave, do so because they need to avoid continuing pain. A short answer to the question “why do I stay?” is because I haven’t been hurt enough to require that I leave.  The Church has never hurt me. BYU is another matter entirely. While I loved my twenty years on the BYU faculty, loved the students and colleagues and classes and plays, my time there ended badly, and hurtfully. But at that point, four years ago, I do believe that Heavenly Father saved me, mostly by making me really really sick. Time for more forgiveness, time for humility, and perhaps a more nuanced understanding. Those events certainly never drove me to want to leave. I stay because I think there’s good I can accomplish by staying.

There are times when we need to speak up, allow our voices to be heard. It is wrong, morally wrong, for BYU to expel good students who have, due to a crisis of conscience or faith, decided to leave the Church. That policy is indefensible, and incompatible with basic gospel principles of agency and accountability. The recent changes in the handbook regarding the children of LGBT families seems similarly uncharitable, unkind, and inconsistent with basic gospel principles, including the second Article of Faith. As I look back at the mission conference talk that so bothered me, it seems another example of practices borrowed from contemporary corporate culture, overriding the personal, individual touch favored by the Savior. And while I applaud the recent LDS.org essays on history and doctrine, the perspective they offer are not reflected in lesson manuals and other approved materials.

As the surreal 2016 election has unfolded in all its magnificent weirdness, it occurred to that in a sense, I am a Hillary Clinton Mormon. That is to say, I am fully aware that the organization to which I have given my lifelong allegiance is, in many ways, not all it should be. I know of its checkered history, especially on issues of race and LGBT rights. I know that it is only fitfully progressive. I think it unlikely that I would ever have become a Mormon if not raised to it. I probably would have become a Democrat, but I’d probably be leaning Jill Stein right now.

But Mormonism has become my home, just as the Democratic party has. I don’t believe in magical revolutionary solutions. I prefer to work within the organization, to do whatever good I can, to nudge things forward bit by bit, rather than hope for an improbable breakthrough.  That’s not to say that improbable breakthroughs can’t happen, as we all learned in 1978. But in the meantime, I do what I can, function where I am.

Meanwhile, I have a friend, a former stake President, who told me a few years ago about his awesome calling. Twice a week, doctors and nurses and other medical personnel provided free health care to anyone who needed it; his calling was to organize those events. All supplies were free of charge, including medications. I asked how many of the people who took advantage of this opportunity were undocumented immigrants. He said that his instructions were specific and clear; they weren’t ever to ask. And didn’t. He said they were also told that the press was discouraged from reporting on it. This wasn’t public relations, he said, it was pure compassion, Christianity at its finest. And therefore the best calling he’d had in a life of service.

So that’s also why I stay. Gene England, ultimately was right; the Church is as true as the gospel. And when we say ‘the Church,’ what do we mean? I don’t often think of the larger institutional Church. I mean my ward, the three to four hundred friends and neighbors with whom I so happily worship, every Sunday of my life. It does indeed take a village to raise a child, and I am forever grateful to the Primary workers and Young Men’s and Young Women’s Presidencies who have served so faithfully, who have befriended and loved my children. And I think of my own opportunities to stretch my compassion muscles and serve.

A month ago, I was very ill. I called my home teachers for a blessing. One of my home teachers is from Mexico, and speaks very limited English. But something, the Spirit, spoke, and said that brother should seal and bless, and that he should do so in the language he was comfortable with, Spanish. And he laid his hands upon my head, and I only understood a few words of what he said. But I felt it, an almost overpowering feeling of love and kindness, what I believe was a personal communication from my Heavenly Father. I was going to be okay. It was in his hands. He loved me, and knew how much longer He needed me here. In the meantime, be of good cheer. My eyes filled with tears, and I looked in the face of my good brother, and could see he’d felt the same thing I had. And I looked at my wife, my anchor and my joy, and I knew we were together for a reason, even if it’s not always clear what that reason might be. Love. Kindness. Service. Love.

And that is why I stay.

 

 

 

 

BYU, the Honor Code, and Sexual Assault

On April 7, at a Rape Awareness event on the BYU campus, it was revealed that women who report having been sexually assaulted may be reported to the Honor Code office. Turns out this wasn’t hypothetical. A nineteen-year old student from California had been raped, and had been contacted by a representative from the Honor Code office about a possible violation. A sheriff’s deputy had inappropriately given a copy of the case file to university officials. The young woman had refused to cooperate with the subsequent University investigation, and had been blocked from registering for classes. As a result, she was considering returning home to California. Utah County prosecutors have expressed their frustration over the case, because her absence from Provo might complicate their investigation into the alleged attack.

Of course, BYU does not regard being raped as a violation of the Honor Code. The point of an Honor Code investigation is to discover ancillary HC violations. Was she out past curfew? Was she alone with a man in her apartment? That kind of thing. However, it seems obvious that pursuing that kind of investigation could have a chilling effect on women reporting an assault. If a woman is raped, and knows that reporting that rape might result in university disciplinary action, she’s going to be less likely to report it. I don’t doubt that ‘fewer women reporting being attacked’ is an unintended consequence of this policy. It’s still a consequence.

And it seems just as obvious that this policy would really only apply to sexual attacks. If a woman is raped, she is the victim of a violent crime. Let’s suppose that a man was violently attacked. Let’s suppose that someone beat him up, for example. Would the Honor Code office get involved? Would they ask if he’d been somewhere he wasn’t supposed to be, dressed inappropriately? In general, we would say that any victim of any violent crime should be encouraged to report that crime, and we would hope that the police would investigate the crime, with an eye to arresting its perpetrator. And in all such instances, if the victim of the crime was a BYU student, there’s really no appropriate role for the Honor Code office.

And so, ever since we learned of this policy, there’s been a lot of outrage about it. I share that outrage. 30,000 people have signed a petition asking BYU to ‘stop punishing victims of sexual assault.’ I agree with the goals of that petition. BYU seems to be straining at the gnat of minor HC violations, while swallowing the camel of serious violent crimes. I also think it’s very unlikely that those policies will change. This is, after all, BYU we’re talking about.

Let me clarify. I taught at BYU for over twenty years. They were joyful years. I loved the students I was able to teach, loved the colleagues I worked with, loved experiences I had there. I also found BYU administrators could be, at times, difficult to work with. I rather suspect that faculty across the country would say the same about the university administrations at their schools. BYU administrators don’t like being challenged.

As a faculty member, I was particularly troubled by the dress and grooming standards of the Honor Code. As a male faculty member, it seemed to me that the language of the dress and grooming standard unnecessarily and inappropriately sexualized the young women in our classes and at the university. I was told, on occasion, that it was my responsibility as a faculty member, to ‘enforce’ those standards. This meant that I was to scrutinize the clothing choices of our students, to determine if clothing was ‘form-fitting’ or ‘revealing.’

I do not know, did not know, and never cared to know what any of that meant. Those terms strike me as quite subjective. And for me to determine if a young woman was wearing an outfit that was ‘revealing’ would require me, as a male faculty member, to view her as something beyond simply as a student.

I decided early on that I wouldn’t do it. I opted out. My informal interactions with colleagues suggest that pretty much everyone opted out. It was my job to teach. It was not any part of my job to judge how people chose to dress. Or how they cut their hair, or how many earrings they wore, or if they chose to express their individuality through tattoos. I wasn’t going to worry about any of it. I taught my classes, and I made myself available for office consultations, and I wrote letters of recommendation when asked, and I made lifelong friends. I never once turned anyone in for anything.

Except that’s not entirely true. I did turn students in to the Honor Code office, twice. Once, it was a student who openly, obviously and egregiously cheated on a paper. Plagiarized. And, when I asked him to meet with me about it, was so dismissive, so contemptuous, and so obnoxious about it I felt that I needed to do something about him. He was a kid with a problem and an attitude, and I thought the Honor Code office handled his situation with a mix of sensitivity and firmness that, in my mind, was kind of the Platonic ideal for dealing with rude and dishonest students. So that was one. The second time I turned someone in, it was a stalker situation. A student asked me what she should do; she didn’t want to call the cops, but she also wanted this guy to leave her alone. Again, the Honor Code office handled the situation well.

So it sounds like I’m defending the Honor Code office. In a way, I am. I only interacted with that office twice, and both experiences worked out well. I heard anecdotally of students whose interactions with the HCO were less positive. The operative verb would be ‘hassled.’ ‘I’m being hassled by the Honor Code folks.’ That’s a shame. I think monitoring whether students wear their hair too long, or their skirts too short is silly. I do think that it’s helpful to have an office you can turn to when students cheat on exams or harm other students.

The fact is, almost every university has a code of personal conduct to which students are expected to conform. And almost every university in the country struggles to deal with the national scourge of sexual assault. President Obama’s Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault has listed 124 institutions under investigation for possible violations of federal law regarding sexual violence cases. This is an important national issue. BYU is not alone in sometimes handling it badly.

Without becoming a BYU apologist, I do think that this situation is complicated in ways that have not been recognized in the public discourse over it. I agree, of course, that preventing campus rape should be a goal towards which every university should strive. One way to accomplish that is it to remove all possible barriers discouraging victims of sexual violence to come forward. This BYU policy creates such a barrier. The policy really does, therefore, need to change.

But there are ways in which the Honor Code could also help solve the problem. Since the code already prohibits ‘obscene or indecent conduct or expressions,’ then grossly sexist expressions would also seem to be prohibited. ‘Red Pill’ or ‘Gamergate’ attitudes towards women are already incompatible with the standards of the Church. As, of course, is rape itself. There are surely more positive steps that BYU can take. Call me naive, but in my experience, the will to take them largely already exists.

73-9

Drive and dish. Spacing. Block out on rebounds. Screen. Swing the ball around the perimeter, find the open teammate. Communicate on defense. Switch. Basketball, like soccer, is a team sport in the best sense of the word. It’s five guys working together, using their imagination and creativity and discipline to create magic. It’s a game where each player knows his role, and executes. It can be beautiful to watch, as pretty and inspiring as any sport can be when played at the very top level.

And last night, the Golden State Warriors finished a season in which they became the greatest team in the history of basketball.

One might quibble with that assessment. Perhaps some of the US Men’s Olympic teams, collections of superstars and Hall of Famers, might disagree. And the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls won 72 games, lost only 10. They had two Hall of Famers–Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen–and current US ambassador to North Korea, Dennis Rodman. They were a brilliant, intense, brutally competitive team.

The Warriors, last night, won their 73rd game.

(There is one odd connection between that Bulls team and this Warriors team. Steve Kerr started at guard for the Bulls. He’s also the Warriors head coach).

Michael Jordan’s Bulls were reflections of his ferocious intensity. LaBron James’ Miami teams were a bit like that; fierceness and fury. That’s not the Warriors. They play a different kind of basketball, more graceful, somehow, more balletic. They can take your breath away, with ball movement and athleticism.

They’re also a reflection of their star, Stephen Curry. And Curry just isn’t like most other players. He’s thin, fairly short, not imposingly muscled. But the ball is a yo-yo in his hands, his control of it absolute. His footwork isn’t just perfectly disciplined, it displays an imagination and creativity unlike that of any other player. And he can shoot like no one ever before in basketball history.

The player in basketball history that Curry reminds me of most is The Pistol; Pete Maravich. Maravich had Curry’s insouciance, his deceptive cool. And Maravich was a marvelous ball handler and passer. And while Maravich was a wonderful shooter, Curry’s better. Demonstrably better, 40% better; statistically, Curry’s on another planet altogether from anyone who has ever played the game. The all-time record for most three-point baskets made in a season was 286, by Curry, last year. This year, Curry hit 402. And Maravich couldn’t, or wouldn’t, play defense. Curry’s a pest on defense, a ball hawking vexation.

But the Warriors are more than just one superstar. The first, second and fourth greatest seasons by three-point shooters are all by Stephen Curry. The third greatest season was by Klay Thompson, Curry’s teammate. An excellent shooting percentage for three pointers is around 35%. That’s a terrific season, by a great shooter. Curry was at 45%, which is absurd. But here’s what’s really absurd: Curry had 8 teammates that shot over 35% from three point range.

Aside from Curry, here’s who else is on the team. Shaun Livingston was one of the most promising young talents in the game, until 2007, when he suffered a knee injury so severe that the doctors’ initial assessment was that the only option was amputation. Thank heavens, that didn’t turn out to be necessary, but it still took him two years to rehabilitate the knee. Only now is he playing close to the high level that was once predicted for him.

That’s one guy. Andre Iguodala was, for eight years, the best player on a dreadful Philadelphia 76ers team. He signed with Golden State because he was tired of losing. Marreese Speights was a college star, a big guy who can shoot, who was Iguodala’s teammate at Philadelphia. Leondro Barbosa is from Brazil, a quick guard who has bounced from team to team in the NBA. Brandon Rush was a big college star who blew his knee out, and bounced from Portland to Indiana before ending up in Golden State.

Good players, right? You can see why the Warriors like them. Now, here’s the thing; that’s the Warriors’ bench. Those guys are their reserves. Barbosa is Curry’s backup.

Klay Thompson is the second best shooter in basketball history. Draymond Green is a human swiss army knife; does everything. He is the team’s best rebounder, best passer, best defensive player, and second best ball handler (after Curry). He’s also a terrific three-point shooter, when that’s needed. Andrew Bogut is an Australian center who starred at the University of Utah. A rugged rebounder and shot blocker who, as it happens, is also a marvelous passer. And Harrison Barnes is a young guy who would be a star for any other team in basketball, a 6’10 super athlete who can also shoot.

It’s a joyful thing to me, to see players this good mesh and blend their games so superbly. They’re fun to root for; easy to root for. Agreeable guys who are also wonderful basketball players.

I’ve been a basketball fan all my life. Heck, I’m a sports nut, and I’m from Indiana; of course, I love basketball. And I have no particular reason to root for a basketball team from Oakland. But I have gotten as much pure joy from watching this marvelous team play basketball than anything else I have done or seen or been part of. I’m so grateful to be alive to see them.

 

Saturday’s Warrior: Movie Review

I saw the new Saturday’s Warrior yesterday. Saw an 11:30 am screening, on a weekday, and the theater was mostly full. The Warrior phenomenon continues; 42 years, and it still packs ’em in. The movie is attractively shot and energetically acted, under the able direction of Michael Buster. There are a few new songs, mostly pretty good ones, and if older songs from the stage version have been cut, I didn’t miss them. The screenplay, by Buster and Heather Ravarino, has taken the original book, and with a few nips and tucks, trimmed and humanized it. Some characters are a bit more dimensional and interesting, and the Flinders’ family dynamic borders on believable. In other words, the inevitable changes needed to turn a stage musical into a movie were well conceived and executed, the music was generally well performed, and to the extent that Warrior works on stage, the movie worked better.

I know; this is all pretty grudging praise. I went to the theater expecting to enjoy myself, wanting to enjoy myself, thinking that after 42 years, my issues with the text would have dissipated. This turned out not to be the case. I found it a depressing, dispiriting experience. I left the theater feeling, as I have felt previously, the profoundest alienation from my own culture. It’s a musical about a Mormon family, about Mormon theology (or at least, Mormon folk theology), about Mormon culture. I’m a Mormon. I live in Provo, Utah; I taught for twenty years at BYU. And I recognized the familiarity of the conventions and constructs the text utilized. (Heck, I could sing, without prompting, every song in the show, except the new ones. Every P-Day on my mission, every single P-day. . .)

I’m a Mormon,. And nothing in that show is me.

(Crap. I’m doing it again. In 1974, my freshman year at BYU, my family home evening group went to Spanish Fork High School, and saw Warrior, then in its first professional run. And I was such an obnoxious jerk about it in the car home, I was never invited to another FHE activity the rest of the year. Dang. I don’t, I really don’t, want to be that guy.)

All right. Saturday’s Warrior begins in the pre-existence, with a terrific gospel song sung by Alex Boye. Boye is, as always, effervescent and charming, and while I missed the ‘who are these children coming down’ opening, I thought the new opening worked fine. And the various characters, pre-earth spirits, excitedly guess where they’re going and what it’s going to be like, and they make commitments to each other: ‘we’re going to meet and fall in love,’ and ‘I will be your big brother and look out for you.’ Okay, that’s popular Mormon folk doctrine (not the pre-earth existence stuff, which is canonical, but the ‘we met and fell in love there’ romantic version), and I don’t personally happen to believe it. It strikes me as predestinate. I especially loathe the notion that our decisions in the preexistence directly and specifically impact our mortal probations, and I especially dislike it in a text set in 1974. Although this is in no way implied in Warrior, it strikes me as a tiny baby step away from the fence-sitters heresy (which must itself be the subject of a much longer post). Still, I don’t mind a Mormon text that’s, let’s say, theologically adventurous. I’ve written a few myself (though that approach works better if employed transgressively).

In other words, my response to the ‘does Warrior preach false doctrine’ question would be ‘I don’t care.’ It’s built on a foundation of popular folk doctrine. That’s fine; it’s a work of imaginative fiction. I don’t actually believe in Hogwarts either, though I’d kill to teach there.

Now, I could take issue with this: Tod (Mason Davis), and Julie (Monica Moore Smith) pre-existently commit to find each other over on this side of the veil, and be together forever. Except Tod’s born in California, and isn’t LDS, while Julie is a Flinders, living in Colorado, and über-Mormon. Theirs’s the main romance in the piece. Okay, so Elders Kestler and Greene (Clint Pulver and Morgan Gunter, respectively, and as annoying in the movie as they were in the play) meet and teach Tod in San Francisco, and it turns out Julie is Kestler’s old girlfriend, so she meets him at the airport, and Tod comes with him (I mean, why would he?) for some unaccountable reason, so then they meet. And it’s all happily happily. My only problem with it is that Tod was this very cool hippie/guru/painter dude, who gets my favorite song in the show, a big age-of-Aquarius number set (I think), in Golden Gate Park. With the Piano guys! So what on earth would an awesome flower child like Tod see in a drip like Julie? I can’t see that they would have anything at all in common. But that’s a minor quibble. Plus: romantic attraction, who knows?

But, of course, that’s not the main conflict in the play or in the film. The protagonist is Jimmy Flinders (Kenny Holland), the oldest son in the Flinders clan. It’s a prodigal son story.

In the movie (and I applaud this change), the Flinderses are musicians. Adam Flinders (Brian Neal Clark) is the paterfamilias. The family has a kind of Partridge Family-like act they perform around town, and Dad also gives music lessons. We sense how non-lucrative all that is; the family home is smallish, and Jimmy shares a bedroom with multiple siblings. Terri, the Mom (Alison Akin Clark) is expecting their eighth child. Of course they all love each other, but we also see family tensions, child brattiness, too many people in too tight a space without enough money. What holds them together is music. And Mormonism. And by ‘Mormonism’ I don’t just mean religion; I mean a series of cultural considerations. One of which is, frankly, the expectation that we have large families; lots of children. Because there’s always one more waiting in the pre-existence. (Folk doctrine, folks. Not canonical).

So it makes sense that Jimmy not only is the star of the family band, he’s got his own side project too, a band called Warrior, with his best friend Mack (Carlton Bluford). Mack’s been reading Paul Ehrlich, about population growth, and Jimmy and Mack write a song together, Zero Population. Which they perform in public (desperately offending Ma and Pa Flinders). But which also gets them a record deal, with Capitol. And a west coast tour. It’s their big hit. And Jimmy, as good-looking lead singer/lead guitarists for popular rock bands who suddenly come into money tend to do, gets into drugs. Also groupies. Including, it seems, Mack’s girlfriend. Which Mack is surprisingly chill about.

So that’s all plausible, I suppose, and it makes for a strong central conflict, especially the drug stuff. His one connection to his family is phone calls with his crippled twin sister Pam (Anna Daines, probably the strongest actor in the cast). And yet, simultaneously, it’s not remotely credible. Because ‘Zero Population’ is such a ridiculous song.

Think about it. An earnest, preachy, on-the-nose song about a political issue like zero population growth becomes this massive Top 40 hit. (We even see a That Thing You Do montage, showing it climbing the charts). It’s not that rock can’t be political; see, for example, Muse, or Rage Against the Machine. Or Bob Dylan, or CCR. Many many many protest songs about Vietnam. Or something like Neil Young’s Ohio. Zero Population just isn’t the right kind of political song to be a big hit. It’s about a limited, fringe issue. It’s obnoxiously sermonizing. And it’s bad poetry. And it’s. . . .

I’ll tell you what it is. Zero Population is one of those issues conservatives imagine liberals embrace. Ehrlich’s Population Bomb is the kind of book that conservatives like hating. And I suppose it’s possible that, in 1974, some liberals somewhere quoted it positively–though I was an insanely political aware 18 year old in 1974, and I never heard of it until P. J. O’Rourke made fun of it in the ’80s. Ask me, though, as a card-carrying liberal, if I think the planet is over-populated, and I’d probably say ‘yes.’ Ask me what we should do about it, and I have no idea. I do have four children. Because that’s the number of children my wife and I decided to have.

It’s such a bad song, and it’s so central to the plot, that it warps the whole text. And there’s no middle ground possible in this story. The turning point in the film is Jimmy’s refusal to sing his one big hit, at which point he returns to his family. That’s the implication: to repent, he has to embrace everything his family stands for, including their politics. The notion that he and his father might agree to disagree–“Look, this is what I believe about population growth, but I still love all my siblings, and also thanks for helping me kick my drug habit, Dad”–is just impossible in the world of this text.

I was glad that the film chose to depict Mack as a decent guy, instead of pure villainy. I’m glad that Jimmy’s conflict included something real, like drug abuse. By trimming around the edges, Buster made the film stronger than the play. Some of the songs are pretty, if you don’t mind Carpenters/Bread/Harry Chapin soft rock. I went to the movie hoping to come to terms with a piece of Mormon culture that I’ve struggled with. As you can see, that didn’t happen.

Here’s what I do believe: you can be a good, active, believing, practicing Latter-day Saint, and still be a liberal, still like hard rock and gangsta rap, love R-rated movies and television, and still support such political causes as, I suppose, zero population growth or gay rights or a woman’s right to choose. Or global warming. And not believe in any of a variety of pre-existence folk doctrines. That’s where I stand. And, sadly, that seems to place me in opposition to a well-intentioned piece of popular Mormon culture like Warrior. But I’d rather not think that way. Michael Buster is a friend of mine, and so is Doug Stewart. (So, for that matter, is Carlton Bluford). I wish the movie well. I was glad to see the house so full. I’m just not part of its audience. And that’s okay too.

Pinewood Derby

I don’t follow auto racing, but I did enjoy Kyle Busch’s appearance on Colbert last night. He’d just won something called the Sprint Cup, which somehow involves driving a car really fast–I don’t entirely understand it. But he seemed like a bright and agreeable young man. And then Colbert challenged him to an auto race, involving Pinewood Derby cars. And I felt a little tug of nostalgia.

I say this without pride, but I do believe that I was the worst Pinewood Derby father in the storied history of that competition. Pinewood Derby, you see, is something Cub Scouts do with their Dads. It involves Dad and Cub carving a race car out of soft pine, painting it, and then getting together with all the other Cub Scouts and their Dads and racing the cars against each other. A Pinewood Derby track is just a straight track downhill; you perch your cars on the top, a lever releases both cars simultaneously, and at the bottom, judges watch carefully to see who won. Perfectly simple.

Hah.

So when my oldest son, Kai, was old enough for Cub Scouts, this was an activity that was much anticipated, talked up by Cub leaders and wildly excited little boys. I knew about it, of course; I’d been a Cub Scout, after all. I don’t remember if we did Pinewood Derby or not, but I had friends in school; I wasn’t a complete ignoramus. So when my son brought home a car building kit, my initial response was that this was going to be fun. A father/son activity; educational and enjoyable. Build a car together. It didn’t seem all that challenging.

To turn a block of pinewood into a race car requires, of course, tools, and the ability to use them effectively. That leaves me out.  I can’t build anything, or repair anything. As a Boy Scout I did earn Home Repairs merit badge, because my Dad (who has mad carpentry skills), figured (correctly) that home ownership was likely to be in my future, and that I should know how to do some basic repairs. He was also the counselor, and apparently, I replaced enough light bulbs (my one skill) to get the badge. And that merit badge has served me well. Just yesterday, a stair rail broke, and I knew exactly what to do. I Googled ‘handymen-Provo’ and found a guy who knows how to fix stair railings, and watched with great interest as he did a thoroughly professional job of it. That’s my attitude towards carpentry; I think it’s good for the economy to pay people to do it for me.

But, boy, was that not true of the other Cub Scout Dads in my son’s pack. They didn’t just cut the wood so it looked vaguely automobilish. They used lathes and mitre boxes and power sanders. Their process involved all sorts of even more exotic tools, which they owned and knew how to use. They had copies of the official Pinewood Derby rules, and knew, to within a micron, what the cars weight limits were. They melted lead, and poured it into cunningly prepared recesses in the chassis of their cars. And their boys helped, presumably, in processes involving happy, involved hours of father/son interaction. They built wind tunnels in their basements, and experimented with variously aerodynamic car shapes.

Me, I was just trying to keep the wheels to stay on. That’s harder than it sounds. And my poor son sat patiently, making suggestions and pitching in. We did have a good time painting the darn thing. It looked menacing, I’ll tell you. We did a bunch of coats of paint. Our car looked . . . amateurish, but hey, we did all the work ourselves. Building the car was frustrating, to me, because I didn’t know what I was doing and didn’t have any tools, and wouldn’t have known how to use them if I did have some. Basically, we used a rather dull kitchen knife. Good thing pine’s a soft wood.

So, anyway, came time for the Pinewood Derby. And I desperately hoped that Kai wouldn’t be embarrassed. I hoped we wouldn’t finish last every race. I hoped our car would at least look kinda cool. I hoped Kai, at least, would have a positive experience, or at least remember it afterwards with some fondness.

We finished last in every race. In fact, we never once made it to the bottom of the track. Basic gravity should have allowed us to at least finish, but the wheels kept falling off. It wasn’t just that all the other cars looked faster than ours, they even looked cooler. In fact, all the cars were seriously badass looking, except for ours. And then they ran, so smoothly, so beautifully, so darned fast.  It was a pathetic, humiliating morning. And afterwards, Kai was busy comforting me. That’s how awful it was; my eight-year-old son kept patting me on the back, telling me not to cry.

And the other Dads. Oh, my gosh, the other Dads. If they’d been jerks about it, if they’d crowed, or bragged, or laughed, or mocked, I would have understood. It would have been more satisfying, because I would have had people for which I could have worked up a good healthy hatred. But no; their reaction was much much worse than that. They were kind. They were compassionate. They made numerous helpful suggestions. They took pity on us. They offered to fix the wheels, until it was discovered that it was against the rules. They honestly couldn’t have been nicer.

(And when they weren’t being nice to me, they were busy comparing notes. What was the optimum molten lead placement? Could I see your air tunnel? Was acrylic-based paint more aerodynamic than water-based? Jerks).

And so, that Sunday, I couldn’t bear the thought of going to Church. All those other Dads, all of them Elders, all of them members of my quorum. I knew that if I went, they’d keep on being nice about it. They’d make reference to it in Priesthood, and would derive a gospel lesson from it; ‘the Parable of the slightly slower Pinewood Derby Car, and also poor Brother Samuelsen’s.’ Kai would have to deal with it too, the good-natured ribbing from the boys in his Sunday School class. Kai was, even then, an extraordinarily mellow and kind-hearted guy, and I knew he’d find the humor in the experience quickly enough. That was all we needed, after all; to laugh it off. But I wasn’t capable of it. Not that first Sunday. Not a chance.

Nor the next Sunday either. Too soon.

Nor the next Sunday, as it happened. The whole thing still rankled. And I remained filled with indignation. I mean, how dare they? The nerve of it, them being all friendly and helpful and kind! Outrageous!

And then the fourth Sunday, I realized that I was being an idiot, that it didn’t matter, and that I needed to get my sorry butt to Church. (It’s possible that my wife may have helped me reach that realization). And so I went, and of course all the guys in the quorum couldn’t have been nicer. They assumed I’d had the flu or something, and were glad to see me again. And I realized that they really were nice guys. Just better with their hands than I was.

Still, it’s hard to even think about Cub Scouts or Pinewood Derby, or the prospect of building things. Even today, assembling things gives me the heebie-jeebies. I’m just not good at construction, and that’s okay; I have other strengths. There are people who are good with their hands, who will do it, for cash. And that’s okay.

See, my problem with Pinewood Derby wasn’t that I suck at carpentry. It’s that I was poor. If only we could have purchased a race car. . . .

 

 

 

The Zen of hospitals

I’ve been ill.

And being ill, placing one’s life in the hands of medical professionals, subjecting oneself to medical tests and invasive procedures and the routines and protocols of a modern American hospital can be a humiliating and abasing experience. It certainly leads to self-absorption, a preoccupation with me me me, a focus on what body parts hurt and how much and whether the pain is worse today than it was yesterday. You have the time and leisure to indulge in almost comical amounts of self-pity. You tend to whine a lot, frankly. You know you don’t look attractive, and you don’t feel much obligation to behave attractively. You feel rotten, and don’t much care who knows it.

If I am a Christian (and I certainly try to be one), I need to strive to be a Christian even when feeling crummy. That gets tricky because Christianity is essentially other-directed–do unto others. As a Christian, I remained obliged to look for opportunities for service. Can be hard, when you’re weak as a kitten, and almost wholly dependent. Which is why, as a basic hospital-spiritual-survival strategy, I found my mind turning more and more to the teachings of the Buddha, and to the Four Noble Truths, bearing in mind that my acquaintance with Buddhism is almost hilariously shallow and my understanding of it preposterously limited. I have done a little reading; that’s all. A little meditation. But if the basic orientation of Buddhism is that worldly existence is fundamentally unsatisfying, well, try checking into your local hospital.

I am not, by the way, going to make the usual gibes about how inedible hospital food is, how uncomfortable the beds, or how bossy the nurses. In fact, the biggest surprise was to discover that hospital food (at least as provided in Utah Valley Hospital), has suddenly and shockingly become delicious. I was provided a substantial menu, with dozens of tasty choices, which I ordered via room service. The food was fresh, well prepared, beautifully seasoned. Ordering meals became the highlight of each day. I thought my hospital bed was remarkably comfy (aside from not being able to move around much, because I was hooked into so many tubes and gadgets), and I thought the staff were all, without exception, kind and thoughtful.

It’s just the routines that get to you. The hourly checking of vital signs. The beeping of the IV drip, and all the other noisy implements of healing. The DVT-prevention squeezy stocking things on your legs 24-7. The constant need by the staff to draw blood, to measure urine output, to dispense various meds at maddening intervals. The infuriating infrequency of doctors’ visits, and the excruciating pace at which medical information is dispensed. A hospital stay can come to feel like a relentless assault on your dignity and autonomy. And even though all those nice people are actually engaged in a project you actually do support (keeping you alive), it’s so easy to become peevish and resentful.

What you feel, in fact, is dukkha. The physical and mental suffering associated with aging, illness and death. But, and this is crucial, Buddha taught that we grow only when we accept dukkha, and grow beyond it.

So. There was one morning when I’d had a particularly tough night’s sleep, and hadn’t managed to keep the previous night’s dinner down. I was hungry, and I was cranky. And the nurse came in and suggested that I order breakfast. It took around 45 minutes for meals to arrive, and there was a medication she wanted me to take in about 30 minutes. And it was important that I not eat until after I’d had that med. So the timing seemed propitious, and so I ordered. One breakfast menu item was for french toast, which looked tasty; it also looked mild enough for my poor stomach. So I made the call. That was the routine; this one medication, followed by a yummy breakfast.

My room door was ajar; I could hear what was going on in the nurses’ station. And suddenly, I heard a man start yelling. From pain, frustration, fear? I will never know. He went on and on. He screamed, over and over. My breakfast arrived. It sat on my table. The man kept yelling. I knew that the nurse didn’t want me to eat until she’d given me my medication. I knew why she hadn’t come; I could hear this poor guy. And resent him, because I was really getting hungry, and the food smelled delicious. And still, the man yelled.

So: major annoyance and anger. Where was my nurse? Where was my pill? I wanted to eat, darn it! French toast! With syrup! What’s up with this jerk, yelling his fool head off? I wanted my doggone breakfast! I wanted it NOW. That’s how you get in hospitals.

I thought: ‘dukkha.’ So I closed my eyes. I thought about what a perfect opportunity this was to exercise muscles, like ‘humor’ and ‘patience,’ that are too seldom used. I closed my eyes. I don’t want to say that I began meditating, exactly, or that I was praying; not really. Sort of a combination of both. Just trying to clear my mind, trying to focus on this poor man, clearly in deep distress, and the poor nursing staff desperately trying to help him. I ignored my cooling breakfast; I ignored the room clock. I crossed my hands across my chest and I just tried to get my head right with God, frankly. Let the time pass; let the moment linger. And I started to count my blessings.

Yes, I thought, I’m ill. But I have good doctors, a diagnosis, a prognosis, a course of treatment. I’m going to get better–conditionally better, to be sure, but better enough to continue to do the things I love, maybe even make myself a little useful.  I am married, I thought, to a wonderful, strong, smart, funny, kind-hearted woman. I thought about her, my wife, and how much I treasured her love. I remembered when we were dating. I remembered good times we’d shared. I began to think of my children, each of them individually, and how grateful I was to have these smart, funny, clever, decent, good people in my life. I focused on each child in turn; I thought about great experiences I’d had with each one as they grew into adulthood. I thought about students I had taught, and how much I had learned from them, and how inspired I’d always been by their wonderful questing minds.

An hour and twenty five minutes after my breakfast arrived, my poor, harried nurse came in with my pills, full of apologies, which I waved off. I asked about the distressed man I’d heard; was there anything I could do to help? She said they had it covered. Another nurse came in, and had to take my vitals; another had to draw some blood. And then, finally, I was able to enjoy my breakfast. And it turned out that cold french toast (washed down with brackish milk) tasted just fine. I enjoyed that breakfast immensely.

The First Noble Truth of Buddism, is, of course, dukkha; dissatisfaction. But the Fourth Noble Truth is the possibility of liberation from dukkha, through correct conduct and meditation. (And yes, I know, I’m a bumbling neophyte). Still, to that tiniest of degrees, I found a way to reconcile my paltry and inadequate understanding of a religion I have barely studied with my own faith, one I so falteringly practice. And I found some measure of peace, some tranquility.

And this: while I was in the hospital, I was visited by two men in my ward, young family men, fathers of small children. One was my home teacher; the other, his neighbor. And they visited me, and gave me a blessing, a blessing of peace and healing. And what was so remarkable about that extraordinary act of kindness was that it wasn’t remarkable at all. It’s just what we do, we Mormons. And that sustained me, that blessing, and its efficacy, and their faith and humble beneficence. And that, in turn, helped me through the Crisis of the Late Breakfast. It put my querulous selfishness into a truer perspective.

I was mostly just an inert lump in a hospital bed, waiting for medications to reverse a deadly infection, waiting for a miracle; a quotidian miracle to be sure, the miracle of modern medical science. Still, I needed a miracle, and I got one, a miracle called ‘antibiotics.’ I also needed strength, and faith, and patience, and still do. And I’m grateful, endlessly grateful, for my time in the hospital, for words of prophetic counsel, from Buddha and from my ward. All truth is helpful, all principles of truth are blessings. And God’s hand steers the helm.

 

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