Some thoughts about Charlie Hebdo

On January 7th, two heavily armed and masked gunmen broke into the Paris office of the weekly satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, and murdered twelve people, including the paper’s editor, Stephane “Charb” Charbonnier, and four cartoonists. If you’ve been following the news, you know all that already. I just have a few random thoughts to add to the already excellent coverage. In no particular order:

1) Most folks had never heard of Charlie Hebdo before these attacks. I certainly hadn’t. And so a lot of people in the US have checked out their cartoons and humor, and have been appalled by what they’ve found. A lot of the commentary has been of the ‘I defend their right to speak out and to publish, but why do they publish such scurrilous and offensive stuff?’ school.

I was about to go on a long description of the multi-layered nature of French satire, the way it resists easy readings, but all the reasons why the Charlie Hebdo cartoons are nonetheless deeply troubling, and not maybe all that funny. But Vox.com beat me to it, and in a much clearer and sensible way. So check this out.

I also can’t really think of an American equivalent. South Park, maybe, with Parkman? Beavis and Butthead? Then I thought of Donald E. Westlake’s final, posthumous novel, The Comedy is Over. Set in the 1970s, it’s about a comedian named Koo Davis, who has built his popularity on making fun of the anti-war movement. As such, he’s become the favored comic of the rich and powerful. And so a ragtag group of anti-war activists (loosely based on the Weather Underground), kidnaps him, demanding, not money, but the release of other extremists. It clicked a little bit for me; Charlie Hebdo is a bit like Koo Davis, a little.

Anyway, I certainly do believe that there’s a place for this kind of satire, and denounce the thugs who attacked the newspaper. But I do also sort of regret posting Je Suis Charlie on my Facebook page. Charlie‘s voice needs to be heard–all voices need to be heard, including, I believe, actively offensive ones–but I also reserve the right to disagree. And I don’t find their brand of humor particularly funny.

2) Also on January 7th, members of the Islamic terror group Boko Haram continued a massacre in Baga, a Nigerian town on the border of Chad, killing at least two thousand people, most of them women and children. A horrible massacre, and one undertaken for no rational reason. I would merely point out that the disproportion in coverage of the two attacks, in Paris and Nigeria, speaks for itself.

3) On January 11th, a ‘unity rally’ in Paris honored the seventeen victims (including those subsequently killed in the manhunt for the initial killers). Forty world leaders attended. President Obama did not, citing security concerns. He ought to have gone, or at least asked Vice-President Biden to go. It’s not that big a deal, but yeah, the US should have sent someone.

4) It hardly seems necessary to reiterate the obvious point that Islam is a peaceful religion, and that the few extremists who commit these sorts of atrocities do not enjoy wide-spread support among Muslims. A favorite conservative line recently has been to ask why moderate Muslims haven’t spoken up against terrorist atrocities, whether practiced by Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, or Isis. Two responses: first, many many mainstream Muslims have denounced these attacks in the strongest possible terms. But, second, why should they? I am a Christian, but I don’t feel myself particularly called upon to denounce the Ku Klux Klan. A Klan affiliate just burned down a black church, and yes, I do denounce that, because that’s a despicable act. But I don’t consider the Klan part of my faith community, not in any sense whatsoever. The Klan may consider itself a Christian organization, but that identification means nothing. They don’t, in any meaningful way, reflect the values or attitudes or doctrines or example of the Savior, values and doctrines to which I have chosen to give my life. We have absolutely nothing in common, except sentience and opposable thumbs. And I have my doubts about their sentience.

Two funerals

Over the past week, I had the privilege of attending two remarkably similar funerals, both celebrating the lives of remarkable, strong women. The first funeral was that of Betty Ann Green Mason, my wife’s mother. The second was that of Grete Margaret Leed Johnson, the mother of my best friend. Although I don’t believe they ever met, Betty Mason and Grete Johnson had a great deal in common. Both worked as bookkeepers, supporting their husbands while they were in college. Both husbands were scientists. My mother-in-law had five children, and Sister Johnson had six. Both women were active members of the LDS church, and both held many important callings in the Church. And both would have listed their profession as ‘homemaker.’ That label carries with it certain less-than-positive cultural assumptions, which in both cases would have been entirely inaccurate; they were both intelligent, strong, forceful, well-read and well-educated women, who made the decision to dedicate their lives to their families, husbands, children. Both women loved music, both became fine musicians, and both were asked to learn how to play the piano (and eventually, the organ), in wards where no one of the requisite skill resided. Both women loved a good joke, and both were voracious readers. And they both loved chocolate. My mother-in-law, in fact, asked that Sees chocolates be available for anyone who attended the funeral. She said she thought it might increase the turnout.

But both funerals were very well attended, and in both cases, extraordinary sermons were delivered by the children of the deceased. And both funerals included quite extraordinary amounts of affectionate laughter. I laughed until it hurt at my mother-in-law’s funeral. A few days later, I laughed again at the loving family stories Grete Johnson’s children shared with us. In neither case, though, was the laughter mocking or cruel or off-putting. We laughed until it hurt, because we hurt. We laughed out of love, because of the human foibles of strong women we adored. We laughed, in addition to shedding tears.

Laughter can bring people together, or it can push people apart. Humor can express genuine affection, but it can also dismiss, cruelly, people on the margins of any culture. But what I find remarkable about Mormon funerals is the degree to which they’re characterized by healthy, inclusive, joyful laughter. We mourn, to be sure. But we also honor the deceased by remembering experiences we shared together. Grete’s youngest son, Richard, told a story about a time when he and his mother, on their way to a youth conference in Chicago, took a wrong turn, and found themselves in what seemed to him an exceedingly dangerous neighborhood. He was imagining their car’s location marked by yellow crime scene tape, and homicide detectives wondering about the identity of these two victims. Meanwhile, his Mom was busy looking at a city map. Then she looked over at him, grinned, and said ‘isn’t this fun?’ I remember that woman too. I spent many Sundays and vacation days at her home, growing up, as her son, Wayne, and I hung out. I remember how welcome I was always made to feel. I remember her strength and courage. I also remember dreading the times when she would join family games of Clue. She was the kind of woman who played board games to win. No ‘losing on purpose to the kids’ nonsense for her! I certainly never could beat her. At anything.

At my mother-in-law’s funeral, her son, Shawn, emptied her purse at the pulpit, and used the items therein to discuss different aspects of his Mom’s life. The first three were all chocolate. But then he read letters her children had written to her, and the sage advice she’d offered. The fact that the letters were quite bogus didn’t diminish their impact; it was a lovely, funny, loving talk. And Shawn insisted that he was her favorite child, admitting, however, that all his siblings thought they were the favorites. (And then the Bishop, presiding and not missing a beat, identified himself as her favorite bishop!)

I’ve attended many Mormon funerals in my day, and they always share certain similarities. One is humor; affectionate, kind, family stories with a funny twist. Another is an overall sense of faith. The idea that we’ll see our loved ones again, and that they’re going to see their own family members, long deceased and beyond the veil, is just assumed. We don’t have to really preach it much. Instead we just testify. But it’s not–how to say this?–defensive in any way. It can feel that way sometimes in some funerals, that scriptures are offered by the minister–who may not even know the deceased all that well– not to reassure or comfort, but to assert. But in Mormon funerals, the talks are often–usually–given by family members. There’s no sense of a possible angel-winged, psalm-singing heaven. It’s more personal. Betty went home to Maughan, her beloved husband. She’ll see him. Grete Johnson went home to the beach, in Denmark, where her husband proposed. To wait for him to join her.

We celebrate the love we shared, the family ties, the funny stories. And we do so in utmost confidence.  We’re not really saying goodbye. More like ‘see ya later.’  And there’s music and prayers, and then a really good luncheon.

Yes, after the funeral, the local ward serves a luncheon for the bereaved families, and the food served is pretty well de rigeur: ham, a salad, and funeral potatoes. Yes, funeral potatoes are always served at Mormon funerals, and though I’ve heard them mocked as one of the tackier manifestations of Mormon culture, I think they’re darned tasty. I mean, the main ingredients are potatoes, cheese and sour cream–what’s not to like? But no two funeral potato recipes are the same, and that’s also pretty Mormon; we do all serve the same food, but always with a uniquely personal twist. (I make mine with frozen hashbrowns, store-bought, and cream of chicken soup, and always add green onions). The potatoes are probably really unhealthy, but they’re comforting, and delicious, and that’s also a Mormon thing; we privilege yumminess over nutrition, and then count on us all not smoking to pull us through.

But the luncheon is also the time for sharing memories, a time for wonderful conversations. At Grete Johnson’s funeral, we remembered a time when she went with my Mom to see the bishop, walked into his office, and said ‘this ward does not have a Cub Scout program for the boys, and it needs one.’ The bishop (who was also Grete’s husband) promptly called the two of them to start one. They had no idea how to do that, but that never stopped them; it doesn’t usually stop strong Mormon women, who are championship quality improvisers. And I still remember how much fun our Cub Scout activities were. At Betty’s funeral, a number of people remembered her homemade lemon ice cream. (I know what you’re thinking, and you’re wrong; it’s amazing).  For years, while her husband was the High Priests’ Group Leader, they had an annual ice cream social at her home. Then he was released from his calling. But the ice cream socials continued for years. She hosted them because . . .  I guess basically because it was her recipe, and nothing else would do. (And while that story was being told, we all ate . . . lemon ice cream. As delicious as ever).

I love Mormon funerals, and am privileged to have been able to attend two remarkable ones over the past four days. Two strong Mormon women have returned home to their Father, and also to their Dads. Two mourning families shared laughter and tears and food and conversation. Two wonderful lives were celebrated. Even death can be a blessing.

Day after New Year resolutions

Happy day after New Year! How’s 2015 working out for you so far?

So. New Year’s Resolutions!  I mean, yes, New Year’s Day is kind of an arbitrary and silly holiday, limited as it is to those of us in cultures that use the Gregorian calendar, which is itself sort of random and weird, what with its Roman origins and all. Some months named after Roman gods (Mars, Janus), Etruscan gods (Apru, Maia), and Roman festivals (Februaris), while others are just Roman numbers; September (month seven), October (month eight), November (month nine) December (month ten). Which I love, the fact that our month nine is named ‘month seven’. But the Romans had to cram in two months named after ruthless murderous war-mongering dictators. Hey, for Nordic types, July and August are pretty brutal, especially if you live in a desert, which I do.

But I digress.

New Year’s Resolutions. And we do make them, do we not? Because it’s a ball-dropping-on-Times-Square, Dick Clark Ryan-Seacrest-celebrating, kiss-the-girl-and-pour-the-bubbly New Year, we feel prompted, if not actually compelled, to engage in some healthy self-improvement. And for years, I’ve had the same three New Year’s resolutions: To lose fifty pounds, exercise every day, and stop smoking. Since I don’t actually smoke and never have, I figure the worst I can to is 33%, and hey, .333 wins the batting title!

This year, though, I’ve decided to do something new. Instead of New Year’s Resolutions, I figure I’ll try Day After New Year resolutions, lower case. I’m not realistically going to lose a lot of weight. I mean, I’ll try, but nobody really ever loses weight. And I already didn’t exercise yesterday. And I still don’t smoke. But these, these I maybe could manage.

1) In 2015, I will blog four times a week.

I haven’t blogged for a couple of weeks now (family stuff, plus illness), and I’ve missed it. I like blogging, I like communicating with my readers (whoever you are, and bless you for reading!) And this way, I give myself a couple days off a week. I think this one’s attainable.

2) In 2015, I will read all four LDS standard works.

I’ve done this before, and I enjoyed it, and that was using the KJV, which has such serious limitations. This year, I’ll find another translation.

3) In 2015, I’m going to do something nice for someone, anyone, every day.

Just something. I’m going to look for opportunities to help someone, encourage someone, toss a bum a sawbuck or open a door for someone with packages, anything really. Just try to brighten someone’s day.

4) In 2015, I will finish, and send to a publisher, two books.

I’ve been working on a novel for years; time to finish it. I’ve been working on a book of essays about Mormonism: ditto. This is a year to finish things.

5) In 2015, I will exercise every day, and also lose twenty pounds.

Hey, it could happen!

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.