Divas

My parents are in town this week, visiting, and my Dad and I had a long chat this morning, him reminiscing about his career in opera. My Dad was never an opera star, as stars go. He was like a good Triple A catcher; the best player on a high minor league team, with a long career and multiple call-ups to the majors. He sang at New York City Opera, at Chicago Lyric, at Boston Lyric, but he didn’t have a long European career, nor a career at the Met. He could have; I don’t have any doubt of that. He was a terrific bass-baritone, with a voice strong enough for Wagner, but lyrical enough for Mozart. And he was a fine actor.  So if the Scarpio got sick (in Tosca), New York City Opera could call my Dad, and he’d fly in and sing the role at a moment’s notice. Meanwhile, he had regular gigs with Kentucky Opera, back when, under the direction of Moritz von Bomhard, it was one of the best regional opera houses in the country.

But Dad never wanted a European career, or a career at the Met. He taught voice at Indiana University (back when it was either number one or two in any listing of American music schools), and loved teaching. He loved his life in Indiana, playing catch with my brothers and me, sailing on Lake Monroe, camping and hiking and enjoying his family. I don’t want to say that he wasn’t ambitious, exactly, just that his ambitions revolved around family and teaching and the Church, not opera stardom. As a singer and performer, he would rather be good than famous. People who mattered to him knew the high level of excellence his work regularly achieved. And personally, he was kind of a blue-collar guy. He’d been a sheet metal worker, and was a dab hand with a set of carpenter’s tools. And he brought that work ethic and lack of ego to his opera career. He was never a diva.

But boy did he know some.

And that’s what made this morning so fun. Mom and Dad and I sat together in our family room, and he told stories of the great opera singers he knew, both at Indiana and in his career, and how preposterous their ego demands could become. I’ve worked professionally in theatre for over thirty years, and I’ve known some egotistical and demanding actors. And I’ve stood in the wings and snickered with fellow cast members at the antics of diva-esque stars. But theatre divas can’t even begin to compare with opera divas.

Case in point: Madame M—-, a singer Dad knew at IU who turned to teaching after a long career at the Met. She didn’t have a car, or any means of transportation, so she took cabs everywhere. She’d call the cab company and she’d say, in her heavy German accent, “Peek me opp.”  And, sure enough, the cab would show up. She’d take the cab to wherever she was going, and then she’d sweep regally out, saying to the cabbie, “zank you very much.”  The cab company would then send a bill to the Dean’s office at the Music school, where one poor secretary had the responsibility of paying this singer’s bills for her, carefully deducting them from her paycheck. She did the same thing at clothing stores. She’d select a few dresses and walk out with them, with an aristocratic smile for the clerks at the store, who would follow her around, keep of track of what she took, and send the Dean the bill.

Dad told a new Madame M—- story, one I hadn’t heard before. Apparently, a colleague followed her into a lady’s room, and heard, coming out of Madame M—–’s stall, a most spectacular, lengthy and melodious fart. Then, after a moment, Madame M—– said, almost reverently, this: “schön.”

Dad told of the tenor who was singing the demanding title role in Verdi’s Otello.  As was often the case back in the day, he didn’t show up until the week the opera was to open; he’d walk through a dress rehearsal, then perform the next night. He showed up–the set completely built, the opera entirely staged, and saw that the door for his first entrance was stage left. He called for the stage director, and said, ‘in Otello, I enter stage right.’ The stage director pointed out that the set was completed, that there was no door stage right, and that he had been staged entering from the left. The tenor responded ‘in Otello, I enter stage right.’  And that was it. Tickets had been sold to an audience expecting to see this particular star. There was nothing to do except to completely rebuild the set that night, to give him a stage right entrance.

Another story, a favorite of mine: a soprano, arriving in Los Angeles for a gig, called her agent in New York and woke him from a sound sleep to demand that he call the driver of the limo she was sitting in to tell him to turn down the air conditioning. Obviously, she couldn’t be expected to, you know, actually talk to the limo driver herself. There are people who do those jobs.

A few years ago, I remember, my wife and I went to an opera. And before it began, we heard this pre-show announcement: “Miss _______ (the leading soprano) is ill, and not in good voice tonight. She has nonetheless consented to perform.”  I try to imagine, I don’t know, an actor like Ian McKellen or Patrick Stewart or Michael Gambon doing that. “Mr. Gambon is ill tonight. Nonetheless, he has consented to perform.”  The best actors I know would honestly rather die than let you know they were under the weather some night. The show must go on, and every audience for which you perform deserves your very best. That’s the theatre ethic. Not this opera singer. What if she cracked on a high note? Better for us all to know how courageous she was even performing.

Dad did, of course, also sing with other big stars who weren’t remotely divas.  He was good friends with James King, for example, a splendid tenor and a fine actor and complete professional. One of my favorite roles of my Dad’s was his John the Baptist in the Richard Strauss opera Salome, with the wonderful Nancy Shade in the title role. Most opera stars are perfectly reasonable people, dedicated to their craft and easy to work with.

But sometimes, a combination of ego, insecurity and selfishness leads performers to misbehave. And this was the final point my Dad made, chatting about divas this morning. He said he saw this over and over; a diva opera star would perform, and during the curtain call, you’d hear thunderous applause for all the other performers, and then, for the diva, a big fall-off.  “You can’t fool audiences,” he said. “They can always tell a phony.  They see through them every time.”  I’ve seen that too. The diva’s mask may look, initially, comic. But it’s pure tragedy every time.

 

 

Dizziness

For eleven days, now, I have been pretty well constantly dizzy. It’s especially bad when I stand up, or walk around. And I’ve been to a few doctors about it, and they pretty well agree about what’s wrong. What sucks is that it doesn’t seem to be terribly treatable.

Here’s how it’s been explained to me.  When people stand up from a sitting position, blood should rush to the feet, and we should all feel light-headed. But there’s a nerve cluster by the carotid artery that regulates blood flow. Blood vessels are sent a signal to constrict, reducing blood flow downward. Most people experience a drop in their blood pressure of a point or two, but it’s very minor, and mostly we don’t notice it.  We’ve all experienced that occasional vertigo when we stand too quickly on a hot day. But mostly, the human body has that situation covered.

But in my case, that nerve cluster seems to have been damaged, a kind of neuropathy, probably because I’m diabetic.  So when they take my BP from prone, then sitting, then standing positions, three measurements in rapid succession, they record a drop in blood pressure of sixty points or more.  And it lasts awhile; twenty minutes or more. And so I’m dizzy all the time, especially when I try to stand to do something.

And it sucks. It’s makes life pretty miserable. I’m directing a play right now, and rehearsals are an endurance contest, an exercise in just hanging on. Driving is possible, though difficult.  I do tend to drive like a little old lady; very carefully. My Mario Andretti days are over.  Except Mario’s 74 years old, so maybe I drive like him still!

I was up for a couple of hours last night, just thinking about this.  And of course, the first reaction, the immediate human reaction, is self-pity. Why me? Why this?  After fighting polymyositis to a draw four years ago, with the subsequent loss of muscle tissue and fine motor skills, now this?  It doesn’t, to be honest, feel terribly fair.

But why not me? What makes me so frickin’ special?  Everyone gets sick, everyone suffers, everyone dies.  That’s the reality of life on this planet. Being dizzy a lot isn’t that bad, considering some of the alternatives. God is great and God is good, but God isn’t particularly nice, nor gentle.  His divine plan includes hurricanes and tsunamis, malaria and smallpox, non-Hodgkins lymphoma and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. As He shouted to Job from the whirlwind, he populated this planet with behemoth and leviathan; monstrous creatures with unimaginable destructive power. And they’re needed.  And also the smallest of bacteria, which kill so many more, so insidiously. And they’re needed too. Why? Beats me. But arguing against His justice seems a trifle pointless.  We’re here to cope.

Meanwhile, I need to stop this cowardice and self-pity and get on with things. And I don’t mean major accomplishments. I mean cooking dinner tonight, serving my wife, who serves me so loyally and uncomplainingly. I mean making the bed, and tossing in a load of laundry.  I mean driving an auto-less ward member to a crucial appointment. I mean going to rehearsal tonight, and going again tomorrow night, and serving these wonderful actors who had the courage to audition for a theatre production.

I need a theme song, and I found one: Tommy Roe’s Dizzy. Preferably in a wretched punk cover.  Or oh-so earnest acoustic version. I can keep doing this: Youtube has dozens of covers.

Above all, I need to be able to laugh at this. When I texted one of my sons with the news, his reply was ‘I’d tell a dizzy joke, but I’m afraid you’d fall down laughing.’ That’s the spirit!  So, any dizzy jokes come to mind?  Is there a dizziness joke website, perhaps?  Of course there is.  (“I’d see a doctor about this, but I don’t know ver-ti-go”).

We’re here on earth to serve each other, and serve our families, and serve our friends, and forgive and love and serve our enemies, even. And you can’t get a note from teacher excusing you from that assignment.  We have to push forward, move on, show some courage and humor and get things done.

And that is what I intend to do. So no pity, please.  Laugh at me  and laugh with me, and tell me what I can do for you.  Deal?

 

Robin Williams: requiescat in pace

The great Robin Williams died yesterday, an apparent suicide. And the rest of the day, FB was a place of mourning.  “Captain, my captain.”  The Dead Poet’s Society was a movie my wife and I both loved, and that iconic line seemed a fitting epitaph.

What’s remarkable to me about Williams’ death was this: he was one celebrity you never read about being a jerk.  With most celebrities, you read about them and you say ‘well, sure, s/he was a good actor, but there was that time. . . ‘  Not Williams.  Instead we heard literally hundreds of stories about his patience and kindness with fans.  When we heard negative stories about him, they were almost entirely self-inflicted–he had a substance abuse problem; he suffered from depression. But he did not seem infected by self-importance; quite the contrary.  I think he loved performing, but I always sensed some insecurity there too; he also wanted us to love him.

We need to recognize that depression is a real illness.  My oldest daughter is a remarkably bright and funny and delightful young woman who I love with all my heart.  She also suffers from depression, has for years.  Her comment on Williams’ death: ‘there but for the grace of God. . . .’  Let’s reach out to those in our own lives who suffer from this debilitating and life-threatening disease.  My parents are a good example of this.  When they learned of my daughter’s illness, they both made a point of articulating to her their unconditional love and support and prayers.

Depression is poorly understood by many in our culture, and from time to time we hear people say ‘they should just snap out of it,’ or ‘cheer up, life is good!’ or similar inanities.  Or they judge.  One so-called Christian blogger, who shall forever remain nameless here, demonstrated his own lack of charity with a blog post that disgraced the entire internet.  (I’m sure some of you know who I’m talking about; if not, he’s not worth your attention).   But on the same day that I learned of Williams’ death, I also learned that a close friend has been diagnosed with cancer.  I consider both diseases, cancer and depression, equally dangerous.  Blessedly, both can be treated more effectively today than in the past. Neither should be taken lightly.

But, Robin Williams!  Oh my goodness, what a loss.  People forget that Williams was trained as a classical actor at Juilliard, that he turned to stand-up as an alternative to acting, to pay some bills.  His stand-up routine was hyper-kinetic, full of impressions and voices and accents and riffs of popular culture, a rush of mayhem, with only the loosest transitions between subjects and topics.  We talk about how comedy is timing, and Williams had exquisite comic timing, but at a rapid-fire pace.  Compare him to someone like Stephen Wright, or Jim Gaffigan, two comedians with, again, extraordinary timing, but who work at a much slower pace, sometimes getting huge laughs from pauses.  Comic timing simply means this: telling the joke so that the punchline registers without distraction.  Comic timing really means comic clarity.  And I think there was probably never a better talk show host than Robin Williams, probably ever.  He was just so astonishingly on.

Of course, he was also a fine dramatic actor; a three-time Oscar nominee.  The roles he’s best known for are the inspirational ones: Good Will Hunting, The Dead Poets’ Society, Patch Adams, Good Morning Vietnam, where he played unconventional-but-heroic men who transform stodgy institutions through the power of irreverence. But we shouldn’t forget that he and Steve Martin did Samuel Becket, Waiting for Godot, on Broadway.

Here are five movie roles where Robin Williams really stretched himself, five unconventional movies in which all his gifts were on display.

Williams’ first feature film was Robert Altman’s Popeye. It received brutal reviews when it came out in 1980, but I loved the stylization of both Williams’ performance and Altman’s approach to the material.  It was a live-action cartoon, brought to cheerful life by Williams, by Shelley Duval as Olive Oyl, and by Paul Dooley’s Wimpy.  Note Williams extraordinary physicality in the role; the walk, the quickness on his feet.

In 1982, he played the title character, in the film adaptation of John Irving’s acclaimed novel, The World According to Garp. George Roy Hill directed, and found a way to navigate the novel’s blend of magical realism and genuine melancholy.  The film is mostly remembered now for John Lithgow’s Roberta Muldoon, a trans-gender former football star, who becomes Garp’s closest friend, but Williams holds the film together, gives it heart and passion.

I was never a huge fan of What Dreams May Come, a film that a lot of my friends and former students loved.  It’s about a man who searches the afterlife for his dead wife, intent on saving her.  Compelling story, but I was troubled by the theological implications of the film, the notion that people who commit suicide are forever damned.  Especially ironic, of course, given Williams’ own death.  But this scene got to me when I first saw it, and it still has the power to move.

Then, in 2002, after a series of critical and box office bombs, Williams had an amazing year creatively, refashioning himself as an actor, with three films: Insomnia, Death to Smoochy, and One Hour Photo.  Those films gave him the opportunity to explore the darker contours of his talent.  In One Hour Photo, he plays the employee of a photo lab who becomes obsessed with a family who frequents his store.  The Williams who always seemed, perhaps, a bit anxious to please disappears; he gives a creepily unforgettable performance.  In Death to Smoochy, a dark comedy about a TV children’s show host who loses his job, Williams captures a Mafiosa vibe, while retaining a child-like vulnerability.  This scene, with Jon Stewart, is brilliantly funny, in context. Finally, in Insomnia, an early Christopher Nolan film adapted from a Norwegian original, Al Pacino and Hilary Swank play detectives tracking a serial killer, in a northern location where the sun never sets, driving the detectives insane.  Williams is terrifying as the killer.  So check ‘em out.  I think you’ll be astounded by his range.

I feel fortunate to have lived during the Robin Williams era in American entertainment.  I am so grateful for the years he gave us, and so sorrowful for his passing.  Goodnight, Mork.  And thanks for all the years.

The end of the Mormon Moment

Once again, cannibalized from my Sunstone talk.  The so-called Mormon Moment, and the way it ended.

The Mormon Moment was, at least initially, about seeming. Our world really did become a stage, it seemed, and we really did become players. We’re used to that anyway. From our first talk in junior Primary to Primary programs to the talks and testimonies we offer, we’re on display. We’re told to be good examples; we’re told to play missionary when in public. We’re told to testify to each other. We all know our lines, do we not? With Mitt Romney’s Presidential campaign, we felt it, the spotlight on our collective faces. We became a people defined by optics and soundbites, presentation and representation. The Mormon Moment was, in short, theatre.

That’s not to indict the carefully crafted ‘I’m a Mormon ads,’ nor, certainly, the people who appeared on them. But like reality TV, reality advertising consists of narratives carefully shaped and edited and presented. There’s a falseness there, right next to the sincerity and reality of the testimonies themselves. I’m a Mormon we said. I’m a painter, I’m a sculptor, I’m lead singer for a rock band, I’m a biker, and also, I’m a Mormon. We’re not all businessmen. We’re not who you think we are.

But theatre isn’t just an exterior art form. We offer carefully constructed simulacrums of reality that somehow also manage to dig under the surface of what we’re portraying; it’s representation, but at times it can become revelatory. Hamlet doesn’t exist; he’s a construct of language, given flesh by an actor, in a space. We see a production of Hamlet, and we marvel over the cleverness of the design, the careful blocking by a director, the specific line-reading choices of the actors.

But I remember sitting on a train in London after seeing a particularly fascinating conceptual approach to Hamlet, engaged in a spirited discussion with a group of students. One girl sat quietly, by herself. To draw her in, I said, “what did you think of it?” “I hated it,” she said, quietly. Taken aback, I said, “really? I thought it was fascinating; the period, the setting, the acting chops on display. Why?” “I didn’t care,” she said. “I should care. He’s trying to decide whether or not he should kill himself, and I should care a lot. And he only decides not to because he’s terrified that what comes next might be worst. Life sucks so much for him, he wants to off himself. And you’re all, ooo, the design, ooo, the acting and concept. And I didn’t care. Hamlet’s too important for aesthetics.” She said that, in that train, and in a flash I realized that she was right. I didn’t care either, and I should have. Form without substance should leave us indifferent. It’s the substance that harrows.

So the Mormon Moment was, in very large measure, about Mitt Romney’s campaign for President of the United States. And there’s no foodstuffs with more empty calories than a Presidential campaign. Really; it’s all about optics and sound bites, stump speeches and media manipulation. And so so many balloons. Slogans, carefully tested. Hope and Change. Change we can believe in. What was Romney’s campaign slogan? I had to look it up: “Believe in America.” In his first run for President, Barack Obama briefly chose not to wear a flag pin on his lapel, a refreshing moment of rebellion from the handlers and managers. Then that became a thing, and now the pin is ubiquitous. Romney changed costumes, losing the suits as too corporate. We started seeing him in Dockers and checkered shirts. Even when he wore a white shirt and tie, the sleeves were rolled up. “I’m ready to get to work fixing America,” the outfit loudly proclaimed. Mostly we saw Obama in suits. “I’m a black guy executive,’ the suits announced. “A black guy you can trust.” And weren’t both as bogus and phony as Rick Perry’s new glasses? As the ‘oops’ guy poses as an intellectual.

And so, we can look at the whole enterprise cynically, and say, ‘they’re both the same, what does it matter, they’re both phony and the whole thing is ridiculous. I don’t believe in Obama or Romney, any more than I believe that Axe body spray will make me more appealing to women.’  And part of you would be right. It really is all semiotic manipulation. We’re all good post-modernists, and share, as Lyotard put it, ‘an incredulity to metanarrative.’ The presidential campaign as performance art strikes me as a particularly rich field for that incredulity.

But that’s not all that’s going on. Under the outward form, we had to keep reminding ourselves, there really was substance. Let’s say you’re a young working mom, and it’s two o’clock in the morning, and your daughter is sick, feverish and headachy, plus her neck hurts. And you don’t have health insurance. And right then, right there, you’re faced with it, sick child, middle of the night, and you have two choices, and both of them suck. Both of your choices are completely, totally irresponsible. You can decide to take your child to the emergency room of a local hospital, and rack up a huge bill you have no possible way of paying, throwing already fragile home finances into even greater confusion and disarray. Or you can hope she gets better on her own. Maybe it’s just a late night kid’s fever, no big deal. Couple of Bayer children’s aspirin, and in the morning she’ll be running around same as always. Or it could be meningitis. And you don’t have health insurance. Two choices, and they’re both awful.

And that reality, that decision faced by millions of working poor families across the nation, that was what was at stake in the 2012 Presidential election. It wasn’t about slogans and balloons. It was about sick kids in the middle of the night. It was about cancer patients denied coverage because they’d been treated for acne when they were teens. It was about differences in policy with real world consequences. It was about that Mom, and that sick kid. It was as real as a punch in the gut. And one of the two candidates had gotten legislation passed that helped that Mom, and helped that child. And the other, it suddenly seemed, opposed it? And, of course, the irony is that the program Obama had enacted had originally been Romney’s idea.  But, Romney, after slogging through that Bataan death march of endless debates with insane people, had so compromised himself that the needed swivel to the left (which he executed with some dexterity), didn’t reassure.  And, of course, health care wasn’t the only issue in the campaign. It was about lots of things; Keynesian economics, foreign wars, regulation. But when it came to issues of equality? The choice was pretty stark, was it not?

The Mormon Moment had its ironies, not the least of which is that the media’s go-to person for explanations of all things Mormon tended to be progressives, most especially Joanna Brooks. In previous years, they’d gone to Jan Shipps, the ultimate inside outsider. And Jan did Mormonism a great service—put her name on the statue next to Colonel Kane and General Doniphan. But with Joanna Brooks, we had something even better than a inside outsider; we have an outside insider, bright as hell and articulate and insightful. I don’t, obviously, have the faintest idea who Joanna Brooks voted for. But does her writing not suggest a progressive?

But looking back at that campaign, I can think of two turning point moments above all others. The first came when President Obama made the appalling rookie politician’s mistake of telling the truth. “If you’ve got a successful business, you didn’t build that alone.” In other words: someone helped you, someone provided advice and capital, lots of someones pitched in to build infrastructure. What Obama dared suggest was that the Ayn Randian protean solitary genius, the Howard Roark or John Galt so loved by the libertarian right, is as much a figure of fantasy as Gandalf or Albus Dumbledore. His heresy was particularly resented by the likes of the Koch Brothers, rugged individualists who built their corporation entirely through their own hard work and enterprise, after inheriting a billion dollar company from their John Birch society founder Daddy, Fred Koch. Who got his start-up capital from Josef Stalin. True story. Still, they did it on their own! And bankrolled TV ad after TV ad showing President Obama tell businessmen that they didn’t do it on their own.

The President took a hit in the polls after that gaffe. But the more revealing incident came later in the campaign, when a Youtube video showed a clandestine recording of a speech Romney gave at a fundraiser in Boca Raton; the 47% speech. And the optics of that were particularly damaging. In the video, you can barely see Romney at all. Mostly, you see the backs of four people sitting in chairs. From time to time, we see a bartender in the foreground. The sound quality is patchy. And that all gives it the feel of authenticity. This, we think, is the straight scoop; this is what Romney really believes. Ignore the campaign; this is the real Romney.

It was devastating. It killed his chance of being President, I think. Because it felt real. Because it was real. There was no way to spin that video, no way to contextualize it to reduce the damage. And in a sense, the Mormon moment ended there, as the 47% video made its way from bartender Scott Prouty to David Corn at Mother Jones to Rachel Maddow to every major news outlet in America.  Mitt Romney lost control of the campaign narrative. From ‘sleeves rolled up, ready to go to work to fix what’s wrong with America,’ the narrative became, ‘I don’t care about nearly half the country, especially working class people.’ From ‘competent techocrat,’ to ‘arrogant rich plutocrat.’ The actor’s artifice revealed; it was that backstage moment when you discover that the magic castle is nothing but flats; painted canvas. It was devastating.

The 47% video was the beginning of the end to the Mormon moment. The Kate Kelly excommunication was the final death blow. No longer would the national conversation about Mormons be about Romney and all those nice grandkids and Jabari Parker and ‘gosh, did you know that Imagine Dragons and the Neon Trees are Mormon!” It became about excommunication, an old-fashioned, even medieval Catholic word, and how dismayingly oppressive it sounded to post-modern ears. What’s fascinating about the Kate Kelly case is the degree to which it became a battle between Ordain Women and Church Public Relations. It was, it seems, at least in part a fight over who would control the narrative regarding women in the Church. Ally Isom, from Church Public Relations, came on Doug Fabrizio’s show, and Fabrizio asked: “If women are raising that question, instead of being disciplined for raising that question, shouldn’t they be engaged in a conversation about it.” Ally Isom’s reply: “The conversation is not the problem. It is not what is being said. It is how it is being said.” In other words, it was always about style, about word choice, about presentation. It’s about the theatrics.

And it doesn’t matter who won. No one won. And that’s the reality under the theatrics: pain. Serious, debilitating pain. It hurt the Church. It hurt Kate Kelly. It hurt Hannah Wheelwright. It hurt a lot of us here. Here, on Mormoniconoclast, I imagined two women. One, a young professional, accustomed to being treated as an equal, who looks at Church culture and is overcome with cognitive dissonance. Result: pain, disillusionment, anger and frustration. The other, a woman who has never felt disrespected in the Church, but does feel disrespected by Ordain Women, who feels that her own life of faith and sacrifice is being slighted. Pain. Someone responded by positing a third hypothetical women, torn apart, sympathetic to both sides, pained at having to take sides, caught in the middle. Pain, and more pain. And civility erodes, and it turns out nobody controlled the narrative, the narrative became collateral damage. Families shredded, pre-mature faith transitions. People all over the Church writing The Letter. It was, and remains, awful.

So what’s next?  How will the next narrative read?  Is it time for retrenchment?  Time to double-down on engagement?  I wish I had something more profound to offer than ‘we will see.’

Preaching false doctrine

The preaching of false doctrine in Mormonism has been much in the news lately, what with the disciplining of Kate Kelly and (possibly) John Dehlin.  But that raises an issue, does it not?  What exactly is true doctrine, what constitutes false doctrine, how can we tell them apart?  And to what degree are our talks and thoughts and lessons and ideas the products of the larger culture that surrounds us, and to what degree are our thoughts genuinely inspired by God?

As I worked on my address for Sunstone last weekend, this idea, of the influence of culture on our theology, has been much on my mind.  So, if you’ll forgive me, I thought I would cannibalize my talk over the next few days, and give, over time, a truncated version of it here.  So here we go, with some really really obvious, undisputed, false doctrines that I have heard, either from the pulpit in General Conference, or in regular Church leaders, or in official materials published by the Church or by BYU.  Call it a ‘catalogue of cra-cra’ if you will; I tried to go for the really obvious ones.  Let me be clear, though; these are all doctrines that were once preached in our Church, but aren’t anymore.  Because they’re not true:

The all time champeen:  Black people can’t hold the priesthood because they were fence-sitters in the pre-existence.

No, it was because, unlike Adam, who was created by God and placed in the Garden of Eden, and whose children subsequently were all born with white skin, black people descended from monkeys, like Darwin said.  So they aren’t entirely human.

No, actually, in the pre-existence, there were three degrees of glory, three rankings of pre-mortal spirits, just as there will be a telestial, terrestrial and celestial kingdom in the eternities.  So celestial spirits were born into LDS families, and their test in this life is to prove that they (we) deserve to stay celestial. And terrestrial spirits were born into Gentile families, and most will just stay where they are eternally, but a few will embrace the gospel and move from terrestrial to celestial, and a few will make less good choices and end up telestial, but mostly they’ll stay where they are.  And telestial spirits are born into black families, and its barely possible that some of them will work their way up to terrestrial, but that’ll be it for most of them, except for a very few who’ll work their way up to celestrial, by joining the Church and being blessed by other peoples’ priesthoods.

The missiles that hit Iraqi targets, programmed by a guy in my ward, were inspired missiles; he was led by the spirit to program them that way.

The Ten Tribes of Israel are hiding in a cave, a really really big cave, located under the North Pole.  And one day, they’ll return, climb out of the cave, and they’ll have their scriptures with them, and guess what; they’ll compare them to our handbooks and manuals and, wow, perfectly correlated.

Masturbation leads to communism.

Space aliens are real. Of course they are.  If ‘many worlds have I created and redeemed by my only begotten son,’ then it stands to reason that there would be aliens.  And Earth would have to be a major tourist attraction.  The only planet wicked enough to crucify our savior?  They’d have to see that.

But Earth isn’t the only planet.  The Garden of Eden was on another planet, and then transported all its people here.  All the evidence for organic evolution (including dinosaurs) is real, it’s just irrelevant, because we humans came from a different planet.

Noah didn’t just have to find two of every kind of animal, he had to find the two most righteous of every kind, ‘cause, see, the animals were wicked too. So Noah had to find the two most righteous tigers and crocodiles and squirrels.  The ones not stealing acorns, presumably.

If you’re a really really good missionary, you’ll be blessed with a super-hot wife.

When we die, we’ll go back to our pre-earth offices, and the in-box will be full.  (I can’t imagine a more depressing vision for the after-life).

Cain still lives.  He’s Bigfoot.

American Indians who join the Church end up with lighter colored skin than their non-LDS-but-still-Lamanite relatives.

People born when I was born, say around 1956, were a special generation, saved for these the latter-days.  We’re meant to prepare the way for the second coming.  We’re Saturday’s Warriors, we children coming down, coming down like gentle rain through darkened skies.  With glory trailing from our feet as we go . . .

Except maybe not, because my kids, born in the 80s, were told exactly the same thing about their generation.  So I think my generation probably blew it.

San Francisco is ripe for destruction, like Sodom was, because of all the gay people who live there.  San Francisco is only being spared because of all the righteous Latter-day Saints who live there.  But not for much longer.

San Francisco and New York.

San Francisco and New York and Los Angeles (Hollywood).

And we’re getting pretty worried about Salt Lake City.

But reparative therapy, involving large amounts of basketball and also electro-shocks administered while watching gay porn, will help, if you suffer from same-sex attraction.

God wants you to turn in your roommates, BYU students.  If your roommate is doing something he or she isn’t supposed to be doing, the sin will be on your head.

Playing cards inevitably leads to much more serious sins.  Like coffee drinking.  And tobacco chewing.  And even, maybe, s-e-x.

Polygamy is, let’s face it, an eternal principle.

Polygamy is necessary because, let’s face it, women are naturally more righteous than men.

No, polygamy is necessary because a lot more men than women died in the war in heaven.

No, polygamy is necessary because a lot more men were unrighteous in the pre-existence, because women are inherently more righteous than men.

President Obama is the anti-Christ, here specifically to destroy America.

And Kate Kelly is off the res?

Here’s my final point, though: we’re all human beings, and therefore, to some extent, crazy. The cultures we live in tend to be tribal and tend to be suspicious of outsiders, the other.  The gospel exists to help us all overcome cultural biases, embrace the genuine brotherhood/sisterhood of all of mankind.  I undoubtedly hold to prejudices ever nuttier than some of these.  So let’s move forward, embracing the all-inclusive love and forgiveness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Sunstone

This Saturday night, I will be the keynote speaker for this year’s Sunstone Symposium.  This is a tremendous honor, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity.

So, what’s Sunstone?  Here’s a link to their website.

Well, let’s see, it’s a magazine, a really interesting one, with lots of articles that will really resonate with you and other articles that don’t resonate at all, but that’s okay.  They publish short stories (they run an annual contest, and publish the winners), plus personal essays, doctrinal essays, historical essays; all sorts of stuff.  They also publish plays, and have published a number of mine–8, I think, but I could be wrong.  Once a year they sponsor the Sunstone Symposium, and there are all these awesome sessions where all sorts of fascinating topics get raised and discussed.

Sunstone is a home for people who don’t feel at home with mainstream Mormonism.  Except a lot of the people who congregate there are pretty mainstream Mormons.

Try it this way.  If you’re a Mormon, and you’re lonely and full of doubt and scared and you feel totally alone, totally out on a limb by yourself, and no one in your ward seems to even get why you feel that way, and you try to tell your home or visiting teachers and they are really super nice, but give you that look, like what on earth is wrong with this person, Sunstone is for you.  Sunstone is where you’ll find a community.

That’s not to say that Sunstone is for disaffected Mormons, though there are disaffected Mormons who come.

When I was first hired at BYU, Sunstone asked if they could publish one of my plays, Accommodations.  I was thrilled, and they did a dandy job with it; it looked great in the magazine, with illustrations that I loved as well.  I’ve been published there many times since.

I have also spoken there many times in the past, though never as keynote speaker.  I’m only able to go to my session this year, sadly, due to health concerns.  But I love the place.  Just love it.

If you have a chance to catch any part of Sunstone, please, do, you’ll be glad.  I’m speaking at the University of Utah Student Union.  There’s a banquet, and then I’ll speak, around 7:00.  I look forward to seeing some of you there.

Gay mormons: two opportunities for conversation

When I was a kid, every Thanksgiving and Christmas and Fourth of July, we’d have a big family dinner, and, in addition to my folks and my brothers, we’d invite another man, Mr. Carl Fuerstner.  He was a musician friend of my Dad’s; a brilliant pianist, an accompanist and coach.  Whenever my Dad had a new opera role to learn, he’d call on Mr. Fuerstner to help him with it.  Mr. Fuerstner was short, balding, and very German, with a thick accent and abrupt manner.  He had small hands and short, stubby fingers, I remember, which amazed me because he was such an amazing pianist.  I would watch him and wonder at how he could move his fingers so quickly.  Anyway, I grew up thinking of Mr. Fuerstner as a kind of bad-tempered, generous, funny, Teutonic uncle.

He was also really bad at things like keeping up his house and lawn and car.  His car was always a wreck, and he never mowed his lawn.  He’d call my brother and I, and we’d get the gig of mowing it, but he waited until it was essentially a hay field, and took forever to mow properly.  But he did pay pretty well, as I recall.  It was just part of who he was; a brilliant musician, with a big lawn he never mowed.

And Mr. Fuerstner was also gay.  And we also knew that about him, that he was Dad’s gay musician friend.  He always had a guy living in his house with him (usually a much younger guy, and never anyone with lawn care skills), and that was also just part of who he was.  We didn’t think anything of it.  Mr. Fuerstner was German, a great pianist, bad at lawnmowing, and gay.

So when I was in high school, and my friends would engage in the thoughtless, routine homophobia of insecure adolescents in the mid-1970s, I was always pretty puzzled by their vehemence.  Gay people=Mr. Fuerstner.  A harmless old German guy.  Not a threat to anyone or anything.

I’m a Mormon, and for a long time, that same reflexive homophobia I remembered from high school has been part of mainstream Mormon culture.  I remember the seminary lessons: San Francisco was the latter-day Sodom, and God had only refrained from destroying it because of a handful of righteous Mormons.  That kind of nonsense. And I’ve also seen Mormon culture change, at least some, to, at least, a recognition that sexual orientation isn’t something people choose.  And I think that the change of attitudes we’re seeing is, in part, because more Mormons know more gay people.  If you’re a Mormon, and someone you love dearly is gay, it’s harder to cling to attitudes filled with hatred.

Dialogue’s a good thing.  Talking to people, in a respectful, non-judgmental way, is a good thing.  So I want to tell you about two opportunities to engage with a dialogue about and between Mormons and the LGTB community.

The first is a film, a documentary: Far Between. It’s being made by my friends Kendall Wilcox and Bianca Morrison Dillard, and it’s full of wonderful interviews with gay Latter-day Saints.  Please check out their website.  They’re trying to raise money to finish the film via a Kickstarter campaign, and are close to making their goal.  From what I’ve seen of the film, it’s wonderful, honest and real and decent.  Please, if you can support Kendall and Bianca, there’s a link. Help them change the conversation.

At the heart of Kendall and Bianca’s film are interviews with gay Latter-day Saints.  That’s also at the heart of Ben Abbott’s wonderful play Questions of the Heart.  I’d like to be able to say that Ben is a good friend of mine, or that I’ve seen his play and thought it was wonderful.  In fact, though, we’ve never met (except on Facebook), and I haven’t seen his play.  So why am I recommending it, why am I calling it ‘wonderful’?  Because many many many mutual friends, people I trust, have seen it, and not a single one hasn’t found it wonderful.  When an old friend from Indiana (and a person of taste, education, intelligence and sophistication) calls me out of the blue and talks for forty-five minutes about how great this play is that she just saw, I take that seriously.

Ben’s play, like Kendall and Bianca’s documentary, is built on a foundation of interviews.  Ben’s approach strikes me as similar to that of Anna Deavere Smith, the playwright/actress/activist who used interviews to create such marvelous works as Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. In the latter play, she interviewed various people involved in the Rodney King riots, and created a play around those interviews, playing all the various characters herself.  (West Wing fans probably remember Smith best for her role as Nancy McNally, President Bartlett’s National Security Advisor).  Anyway, Ben does that too; plays the Interviewer, and then each of the characters.

Ben Abbott is touring Questions of the Heart this fall.  Here’s his website. He’s starting the tour in Laramie, Wyoming, but you can see from the itinerary where else he’s playing.  So far, it doesn’t look like there’s going to be a Utah performance, but maybe we can find a date and venue for him here.

I applaud Kendall and Bianca, and I applaud Ben.  I think both of these projects are tremendous, and well worth supporting.  Anything that can advance this important conversation is worth doing.  I hope you can join me in giving your support to both.

Pain

I’m feeling it, every day, in my small corner of the internet.  We’re hurting. We’re troubled.  We’ve lost something we fear we may never get back.  Paul wrote to the Corinthians that “the eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of thee, nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.”  With Kate Kelly’s excommunication, some of us feel as though the Body of Christ just suffered an amputation.  And pain lingers.

Imagine a young woman in the Church, happily LDS, bright and ambitious.  I knew many such women in my twenty-plus years teaching at a university.  Let’s suppose she goes to college, graduates, finds a job in her field.  At work, she’s treated professionally, as an equal to others in her group or team or company. Occasionally, she may experience casual sexism, but there are places to lodge complaints, and complaints are taken seriously.  Perhaps she marries, and with some dexterity performs that delicate balancing act between work and family.  But then there’s Church, where empowerment seems more distant, even unattainable.  Why do men, only men, make the key decisions?  Is a biological imperative, reproduction, really equivalent to institutional governance, as the rhetoric suggests?  Why cannot mothers hold their babies when they’re blessed?  Why doesn’t the Relief Society President sit on the stand, with the other ward leaders? And boy, does modesty rhetoric grate on the ear. Petty complaints, perhaps, but suggestive.  And so this: Is this what God wants for her?  This can’t be right, can it?  And in that cognitive dissonance, there’s great discomfort, shading in time to pain, shading further into outrage.

But this hypothetical young woman is from the internet generation.  She’s used to social media; she’s used to organizing on-line, she’s used to chat rooms and Twitter and websites and Facebook, and Facebook groups. And she discovers other people who share her discomfort and pain and outrage.  There’s a forum for her.  There’s Segullah and Exponent II and Feminist Mormon Housewives.  And there’s OW.  And she makes friends (“I’m not alone!), and meets new heroines.  And the institutional church has no equivalent space for the kinds of conversations she longs for.  And those on-line communities are empowering.  And one heroine, for many, is Kate Kelly.

1 Corinthians 12 has been a scripture oft-cited over the last ten days, those wonderful words about the body of Christ, and our interdependence and when “one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honored, all the members rejoice with it.”  And Kate Kelly’s excommunication feels like the unnecessary excision of a crucial body part, feels like a misguided institutional effort to silence a voice that may be heterodox, but that has provided great comfort to many.

And it hurts.  Oh, my gosh, it hurts.

But Paul also wrote this, in the same epistle, to the same Corinthians, right there in the previous chapter to the one I just cited:

But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.  Every woman that prayeth with her head uncovered dishonoreth her head, for that is as if she were shaven. . . .

For a man ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man.

For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man. (1 Corinthians 11: 3-9)

 

Paul, for all his wisdom and insight and inclusive vision for a Church open to all, was also kind of a sexist jerk. I mean, of course he was.  He lived in the first century CE.  He was a Roman citizen.  People from the past pretty much always look like sexist jerks to us.  Unrighteous dominion is a universal temptation, especially, as Joseph Smith pointed out, for Priesthood holders (D&C 121: 33-39).  Sexism, institutionalized sexism, is our heritage and our burden. We’re making some progress.  We have a long way to go.
That’s one way to see it.
But look at this another way.  Another hypothetical woman, another perspective.  This second woman is every bit as smart, every bit as tough-minded, every bit as thoughtful as my first hypothetical woman.  But she’s not troubled by LDS sexism.  She doesn’t even see it; she’s not convinced it exists.  She’s been active in the Church her whole life, and it brings meaning and peace and fulfillment to her. Her husband treats her as an equal, and from her point of view, so have all the men in the Church with whom she’s interacted. She’s had leadership positions in the Church, and remembers those experiences with great fondness and affection.  She feels at home in the fellowship of the saints, and in the sisterhood of the Relief Society.  To her, Ordain Women is home to malcontents, to troublemakers. Doubt is something to be overcome, not voiced.  Stop complaining, and do your visiting teaching.  And to her, the very existence of OW, or of other manifestations of Mormon feminism are laden with disrespect, not just to LDS men, but also to women like her.  When you say the Church is manifestly sexist, you’re calling her entire worldview into question.  You’re essentially saying she’s stupid. Or weak. Or unperceptive.  It’s an insult, finally.  God has spoken; we’re a church built on revelation, so follow the prophet, and you’ll be happy.  Again.
We’ve heard those voices too, haven’t we?  And if we’re Christians, if we’re genuinely trying to be disciples of Christ, can’t we see that second perspective is not just subjectively legitimate, but that it also comes from a place of pain?  That women who oppose OW feel disrespected, belittled, that they are as legitimized by the pain they’ve endured as the women who support it? 
We all need to forgive.  We all need to repent.  The way out of pain is Christ’s atonement, freely offered and freely accepted.  
This is tricky, because we’re talking about two different perspectives, two different world-views even, and one seems supported by the institutional Church, and one seems to have just been categorically rejected by it.  If you’re a liberal Mormon (and I am), and you live in Utah (and I do), you know how much of a minority you are.  I love my ward, but I can’t pretend that they regard me as anything but an amiable eccentric.  It’s a role I’m happy enough to embrace.  But without the internet, I don’t know how many real friends I would have locally.  So it’s easy to feel like a persecuted minority. And there’s unrighteous pride in embracing that label too enthusiastically.
But Jesus knew rejection. Nazareth was a poor village, a couple of miles from one of the richest cities in the world, at the time, Sepphoris.  As a carpenter, he probably got work in the big city–the poorest of the poor, working for the richest of the rich.  He knew rejection, he knew inequality, he knew disrespect.  “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” was not just a put-down, it was a deliberate, contemptuous insult.  He was Jesus.  Of Nazareth.  A nobody, from nowhere.  And he called for us to turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile.  To forgive.  Unconditionally.  
My grandmother was a BYU faculty member back in the 60s, and one day, she discovered, completely by accident, that her assistant was making more money than she was.  She went to her Dean with this news, and he told her that it was because he was a man, supporting a family.  My grandmother was a widow, with five children at home.  She protested, and then he smiled at her condescendingly and said ‘women’s libber.’
She suffered that insult, and I know she found it devastating.  And she had four daughters, and all of them earned advanced college degrees, and worked professionally.  But she never considered herself a feminist, and would have found OW troubling. Nobody fits perfectly any template, and life’s always more complicated than we can suppose.

History is a battlefield, as is the term ‘feminist’ itself.  For some of us, Nauvoo means ‘The Beautiful’, cradle of revelation, home to the first sealing ordinances and a great vision of eternal progression.  For others, Nauvoo means a place of secretive, immensely creepy polygamy.  And for still others of us, Nauvoo means. . .  both.  Both/and.

We’re trying to find our way, as a Church, as a worship community, as participants in an immensely rewarding and frustrating trans-cultural conversation. Can we still find a way to press forward?  To forgive, to admit we don’t know all the answers, and to confess to ourselves that we’re in pain, and that pain is perhaps the one thing our Savior knew most intimately.  Let’s embrace Jesus.  Of Nazareth.  A nobody from nowhere, and Savior of the world.  Both/and.  And move, perhaps, a little ways towards healing.

My favorite calling ever

The Mormon practice of lay ministries has come under scrutiny lately, because of what we’ve been referring to around here as, ahem, the recent unpleasantness.  Still, callings are a fairly unique part of Mormonism.  Pretty much everyone gets to serve.  We get ‘called’ to do some job or another, called by our bishop, usually, or occasionally by our stake President.  I’ve had callings since I was a kid.  Some of them were really interesting, callings where I was asked to do something I thought I might be good at and others where I struggled. That’s true for most of us, I think.

Once, for example, I was called to be ward membership clerk.  It’s an exacting calling, requiring a certain level of computer literacy, meticulous organizational skills, and a laser-sharp attention to detail.  Any of you out there who know me: does that sound like me?

At all?

There was one sister who I transferred in and our of our ward four times, entirely by mistake. The bishop got copied on all my transactions, and he finally called me and asked what I had against Sister (?).  Of course, I didn’t have anything against her.  I was just trying to tell the computer that she’d had a baby.  That computer program didn’t like me, and I didn’t like it, and that’s all I’m going to say.

The one benefit the calling had was that I got to look up my own records, where I learned that I’d died in 1991.  There I was, listed as ‘deceased.’  I informed the bishop of this, and he told me that it didn’t get me out of speaking that next Sunday.  Nor was I excused from paying tithing.  Being dead didn’t seem to confer any benefits at all that I could see, so, reluctantly, I informed the computer that I had not, in fact, passed on.  It asked me if I was sure.  Yep, pretty sure.

But by far the awesomest, funnest calling I ever had in my life involved my one and only time in the Primary.  I was called as Primary Temple Coordinator.  This was a calling unique to our ward, the brainchild of the Primary President, but an exceptionally good idea, in my opinion.  My job was to prepare a weekly presentation on the temple for the kids, during something called Sharing Time.  Sharing Time was for learning Primary songs (all of which are amazing, especially “Hinges,” the best song ever about elbows, vertebrae and knees.  “I’m all made of hinges, ’cause everything bends, from the top of my neck way down to my ends.”  What a great song.)  Sharing Time was also for stuff like recognizing kids who’d had birthdays. Stuff like that.  Well, in my ward, they carved out five minutes for me to do a temple spiel.

What I did was go in with a picture of one of the 143 LDS temples world wide, plus a globe of the world. I would point to the picture, and ask the kids which temple it was.  Then we’d look on the globe for where it was.  Then I’d show them where we were, in Utah, on the globe, and we’d make a big deal of how far it was to that temple.  And then I’d give a little lesson about temples; just very short and to the point.

Primary kids are between 3-12 years old; wonderful ages.  Kids that age are so amazingly, alarmingly honest.  For one lesson, for example, I brought in my wedding pictures; me and my wife standing outside the Oakland Temple.  I asked the kids “who do you think this is, in this picture?”  Answer: “It’s you and some lady!”  Another kid chimed in “you were a lot skinnier then!”  Sadly true.  Then I said “the lady in the picture is my wife, Annette.  Sister Samuelsen.”  “She’s a lot skinnier in the picture too,” said the kid.

The Primary Presidency kept a list of which kids had gotten to do things in Sharing Time, and they gave me suggestions about who hadn’t been called on for awhile and should therefore be recognized.  I worried a little that the kid I was supposed to call on wouldn’t volunteer.  No need.  Kids are basically narcissists; every kid could be counted on to volunteer for everything. I’d say “who wants to show me where this temple is?”  And every hand would go up: “me! me! me! I want to!”  Of course, they never had the tiniest clue.  And then you’d say “see, this is the temple in Switzerland.  Where is that on the globe” and they never had a clue about that either.  You’d work with them.  You’d show them where Switzerland is, and where Utah is, and, wow, look, how far apart they are!  But I’m not sure if the kids put it together.  One kid did.  I said “see how far away Korea is,” and he said, “how long would that take in an airplane.”  “A very long time,” I assured him.  (Like I knew!)  “How many days?” he asked.  The kid sitting next to him gave him a contemptuous look.  “Four,” he said confidently.  “It takes four days to get to Korea.”  All the other kids went ‘ooo.’  I decided to just let it go.

But of course kids are also the non-sequitur kings of the universe.  Once, I remember, I asked where the temple in the picture was, and one tiny little girl was jumping up and down, waving her hand, ‘me, me, call on me.’  She was, in fact, next on the Primary list, so I called on her.  And she said, proudly, loudly, confidently, “I just got new shoes!”

I loved the kids’ energy.  Of course, they’d just come from a 75 minute sacrament meeting, an endless time of just excruciating boredom, I imagine.  At least, that’s how I remember it, when I was in Primary. So Sharing Time was a time to get out the wiggles a little.  Getting to spin a globe probably looked comparatively fun.  Not as fun as singing and doing the motions for “Hinges,” but not half bad either.

I was Primary Temple Coordinator for about a year, and I loved every second of it. I think that any calling involving working with little kids is pretty awesome.  My wife and I also shared a calling once as Nursery Leaders, which was also pretty fun, if a little more meltdown-intensive.  Nursery is for kids aged 18 months-3 years.  There were lessons we were supposed to teach, and the Church manual for the Nursery lessons is amazing.  We taught lessons like “Trees show how much Heavenly Father loves us,” which is completely true, and good for all of us to contemplate.  The kids never paid attention, of course, but they got to draw leaves with crayons, which their parents were required, on pain of excommunication, to display with magnets on the fridge.  So we had something tangible to show for our efforts.

Of course, let’s not sentimentalize the kids involved.  I love children, but let’s get real: six-year olds are narcissists, and 18 month olds are sociopaths.  So you have to stay endlessly alert. But they’re also amazing, with an incredible capacity for love and affection, and also unrelenting selfishness. They’re us, in other words.  Human beings, in miniature.  Whose heart wouldn’t be captured?

 

 

Supporting Obama

I haven’t blogged for over a week, and I apologize.  My parents were visiting, and I just thought I’d give myself a little vacation.  But I’m back now, energized, I hope, for more commentary about Mormonism, politics, culture, and baseball.  Eclectic ‘R Us.

As I said, my parents were in town, and as often happens, my father and I got into it a little about politics.  I should point out that I admire my father immensely, like him and enjoy his company, all that.  But as he’s gotten older, he’s become increasingly Tea Party-ish in his political views, which, of course, I’m really really not. Meanwhile, NBC News aired their big Brian Williams interview with Edward Snowden, and it got me thinking about President Obama. And I also had a chat with my son recently, in which he asked how those of us who are genuinely progressive can possibly continue to support his President, whose actions on civil liberties are so disappointing, and so essentially indefensible.

My Dad, of course, thinks this President is the worst President of his lifetime.  He thinks that for lots of reasons, some of them valid, most of them not. What I suspect is that there’s a link between the fact that he despises this President and how much he watches, and likes, Fox News.  But I don’t want to blame Fox for everything.  My Dad’s 81, but he’s a thoughtful and intelligent guy; he’s perfectly able to dismiss some of Fox News’ worst excesses.

But still.  My Dad thinks that President Obama has been an incompetent, lawless and feckless President.  He thinks Obamacare is a disaster, and will lead to the worst excesses of socialized medicine.  Dad knows quite a bit about Norwegian health care, for example.  He was serving a mission in Norway when he had a heart attack, and was told that a simple EKG would take months, but that they would put him on a waiting list for it.  Instead, he got permission to return home early, and received life-saving medical treatment immediately here, in America.  My Dad also thinks that this President’s foreign policy has made America weaker, has damaged our standing in the world, and that Putin is playing him for a chump.  And President Obama’s handling of the economy has been a disaster. Worst of all, of course, is the federal deficit and debt, which Obama’s federal spending spree have driven completely out of control.

And there you go.  And not all that is wrong.  Most of it is, of course, but there’s just enough truth to it to make it plausible.

And meanwhile, I think the Snowden interview showed how far this President has gone in violating American civil liberties, how he has continued the dangerous and inflammatory rhetoric of the War on Terror we remember from the Bush years, how the use of attack drones have been operationally effective, but strategically a disaster.  I voted for President Obama–voted for him twice, and I do not regret either vote.  But I have my own disappointments with this President.  So I want to defend him.  I want to defend the policies of a President who I agree with on enough issues to feel good about supporting.  But I’m still uneasy with many aspects of his Presidency.

What’s needed in this conversation is nuance, an agreed upon set of facts, and a presumption of good will.  Not so easy to come by when talking to a Tea Party supporter.  And that’s particularly true when the Tea Party supporter in question is someone you love.

We have to remember that no President (or politician) has the freedom to do anything s/he wants to.  Presidents have to operate within the constraints of their time and place.

To give an example, I rather admire the Presidency of Dwight Eisenhower.  Moderate Republican, sensible man, built the interstate highway system, enjoyed a humming economy through most of his Presidency–there’s a lot to like there.  But one of the great blots on his Presidency was the ascendance of Senator Joe McCarthy, and that shameful episode in American history known as McCarthyism.  President Eisenhower thought McCarthy was a drunken buffoon–despised the man and most of what he stood for. And when McCarthy was waving sheets of paper with names, he said, of State Department officials who were Communists, Eisenhower knew perfectly well that it was all a lot of nonsense, that it was just a typical McCarthy stunt. But he couldn’t really ever say so.  Anti-Communist hysteria had such a firm hold on our country that taking on McCarthy directly would have been political suicide.  Plus, you know, we were in an existential struggle with the forces of the Soviet Union–it’s not like there wasn’t a genuine ideological battle to worry about, however preposterously we may have overreacted to it.

By the same token, President Obama can not afford to be painted as soft on terrorism.  And let’s face it, the first responsibility of any President has to be to keep the country safe.  That means that almost any President is likely to value security over civil liberties, if a choice has to be made.  I think the Snowden revelations have been really devastating and powerful and important, and personally, I consider Snowden a patriot and a hero.  But I also understand why this President feels he has to call Snowden a traitor, why the NSA still has essentially carte blanche to read our tweets and emails, why data mining continues, why these egregious violations of the Fourth Amendment continue unabated and why Obama continues to defend them.

By the same token, while I despise drone warfare, I understand why it’s so appealing to a President.  If we have intelligence about a possible terrorist attack, I understand the appeal of being able to do something about it.  And a drone is surgical (comparatively), and if an unmanned drone is shot down, the President doesn’t have to make a tough phone call to grieving parents.

It’s also a disaster.  The only way to defeat terrorism as a tactic is to win the hearts and minds of people who are on the fence regarding religious extremism.  Nothing is going to drive them into the hands of terrorist organizations faster than having these deadly flying things killing their fellow countrymen.

So what positives can we bring to a conversation about Obama?  Well, first of all, Obamacare works.  It’s not perfect, but it’s so much better than the status quo, and it will help even more people get health care going forward.  When America and Europe were both clobbered by the world-wide financial crisis, President Obama (mostly) stood up against those arguing for economic austerity, which is why our economy recovered better than the economies of almost any other country.  What was needed was stimulus, and if the Obama stimulus was too small and somewhat misdirected, it did happen and it did work.  He saved the US economy at a moment when that economy seemed very much at risk.

Ignore the Fox News talking points: Benghazi, IRS-gate, the supposed ‘illegalities’ of the administration delaying a few pieces of the complex Obamacare puzzle.  Obama has faced a Congress dominated by ideological extremists and unwilling (even uninterested in) doing anything at all to help the American people.  He’s stood up to them when needed, and gotten a lot of much needed legislation passed.

He’s not a great President.  He’s been a very good President, top third among all Presidents ever.  Give him credit where credit is due.  And feel free to point out his shortcomings.  Friends tell friends the truth, too.