Category Archives: Personal

Why I stay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that is why I stay.





BYU, the Honor Code, and Sexual Assault

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday’s Warrior: Movie Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pinewood Derby

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nor the next Sunday either. Too soon.

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

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

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

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




The Zen of hospitals

I’ve been ill.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



The Rose Exposed

On Saturday, I was involved in one of the coolest arts events of the year. The theatre company where I do most of my work, Plan B, is housed in the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center; one of six resident companies that share that facility. Well, on Saturday, we all arrived in the morning and spent the day creating works of art, which were then performed Saturday night at 8:00. The event was called The Rose Exposed.

All the works shared a theme: Dreamers. Dreamers refers to kids who, as small children, were brought to America by their undocumented immigrant parents. Now they’re here; they speak English, consider themselves American, have never known any other country. But they are not American citizens, and cannot get, for example, a Social Security card. They’re stuck. As is a piece of legislation, the Dream Act, that would allow them to become citizens; it’s stuck in Congress. Can’t get out of committee or to a floor vote. Which it would certainly pass. Thank your Republican congressmen for that. Anyway, ticket proceeds went to Art Access, an organization that explores and documents Dreamers’ lives.

Anyway, my contribution was a play. X, Y and Z are young Dreamers, late high school, early college age. And Z has earned, but cannot accept, a prestigious fellowship, because he doesn’t have a Social Security card. So his friends, X and Y, are searching various government databases to see if there’s some form, some process that will allow for an exception for their friend. Three actors, Latoya Rhodes, Tyson Baker and Anne Louise Brings, directed by my good friend Mark Fossen. And they all did superb work. Honestly, my only regret about the whole thing is that, during the performance, I thought of a Donald Trump joke that would have killed, if only there’d been time to insert it. Dang.

The whole thing began with a short film by David Evanoff, with a Star Wars scroll introducing the companies, and then backstage footage of each of the groups rehearsing. I love Dave’s work, its mixture of eloquence and impudence, and the opening film set the stage beautifully for what would come.

Next up, the Gina Bachauer International Piano Foundation, featuring a wonderful young pianist, David Horton, performing the Third movement from Leopold Godowski’s Sonata. Played with beautiful sensitivity and, of course, remarkable skill.

Three of the companies at the Rose are dance companies. And as always, when I see dance, I wonder why I don’t go to see dance events more often. Dance is so remarkably beautiful. Anyway, next up was the Repertory Dance Theatre’s piece, to a Ravel toccato, performed by Anastasia Magamedova, featuring guest artist, Melanie Paz, who is herself a Dreamer. It was a piece of extraordinary precision and beauty, creating a series of tableaux, morphing then into the next set piece.

My friend Julie Jensen also wrote a play, for another resident theatre company, PYGmalion. Magamedova played again, this time Debussy. PYG’s play was about the idea of Dreaming more generally; Bijan Hosseini, Tamara Howell, Tracie Merrill and Aaron Swenson (terrific actors, who I very much regret not having had the chance to work with professionally. Yet) built the play around monologues about the dreams parents have for their children. Not specifically about the political issue that had brought us all there, but that doesn’t matter; it was a lovely piece, and I enjoyed it immensely.

Next up, another dance company, Sweet Beast Dance Circus, with an imaginative piece about Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden. It was sweet tempered, warm-hearted, and very very funny. Loved their use of a wheelbarrow and a long rope, which their Lucifer seductively wrapped around himself. Wonderfully acted and danced. Their music was a Schubert Impromptu, performed by Magamedova.

My piece, from Plan B, was next. I thought it went well. I was exceptionally well served by my director and actors. Could the piece have been perhaps a little too on-the-nose thematically? Could be, but I’m not going to worry about it. David Horton wrote and performed the music for our piece, and it worked spectacularly, especially the way it sparked Mark Fossen’s director’s imagination. Gave the piece a final mood of melancholy that fitted the evening perfectly.

The final dance number was by Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, accompanied by Horton performing six short Schoenberg pieces. The dance was itself in six parts, each a solo number featuring a different member of the company, broken up by the entire company marching in lockstep perpendicularly across the stage.

The evening culminated in a performance by Magamedova of William Bolcom’s The Serpent’s Kiss, one of those amazing rag pieces he composed. It’s a fun, showy piece of music, and it brought the audience to their feet.

But, then, the whole night was spectacular. Can you think of a better way to spend a Saturday night? To see five original works of performance art, saucy, profound, amazing, moving. And all for the best of causes. I am so honored to have been a part of it.

A reaction to Elder Packer’s death

Elder Boyd K. Packer of the LDS Church’s Quorum of the Twelve passed away on Friday. He was a man greatly revered by many many Mormons, not just because they were uplifted and inspired by his apostolic message, but because of acts of personal kindness he performed. I never met the man personally, but I have many friends who did, and they recall him with tremendous affection.

It’s important to remember that. Because Elder Packer was also one of the most controversial figures in contemporary Mormonism. He was certainly beloved, but it would be stretching the truth to say that he was universally beloved. I remember many years ago, my dear Grandmother, a lifelong, deeply faithful member of the Church, told me that if Elder Ezra Taft Benson of the Twelve ever became President of the Church, that she would leave, she so detested him. In time, he did, and she didn’t, though sustaining him was teeth-grindingly difficult for her. By the same token, I know people who told me that their future membership in the Church depended on President Monson outliving Elder Packer. Since that has now happened, I suppose it means that I have friends who won’t be subjected to that particular trial of their faith. So that’s a relief.

What I want to do, and I hope it’s not too inappropriate, is to pass on some observations about Elder Packer that I’ve heard from friends over the years, neutral stories, to present, perhaps, a more nuanced view of the man. He was, I think it’s safe to say, neither hero nor villain. He was a staunch Mormon conservative; I am an equally committed Mormon liberal. I tried not to overreact to his, ahem, less temperate remarks, but I do admit to feeling wounded by him, at times.

But he was also a painter, an avid if somewhat untrained landscape artist. I have a friend, a very celebrated LDS painter, who painted with him. Elder Packer didn’t have any illusions about the quality of his work; he painted for his own pleasure. But, by golly, when he painted a horse, it darn well looked like a horse, and when he painted a tree, it looked like a tree. And his best work attempted to honor ordinary people who gave their lives to service; a laudable subject for any artist.

Elder Packer also loved to work in wood. He carved birds and other animals, then painted them; they looked amazingly lifelike. He carved a wooden Noah’s ark, full of carved miniature animals, mostly for his grandchildren. Here’s a link to some images of his work. I’ve seen the ark; a friend got permission to bring it to a gathering of Mormon artists. It’s beautifully done.

In one of his most famous (or notorious) talks, he addressed the subject of the Arts and the Spirit of the Lord. It’s not a talk I’m fond of, and that’s a shame, because I am an LDS artist, and I know the talk was intended to be inspirational. I regret that I didn’t find it so, and that’s not uniformly the case for talks by General Authorities on the subject of art; President Kimball’s talk A Gospel Vision for the Arts changed my life. I’m not, I hope, immune to being inspired.

Elder Packer’s talk, however, came at least from an informed perspective. He was an artist; he knew the struggles and difficulties we all face in trying to make art. My difficulty, however, was with the way his remarks insufficiently appreciated the subjective nature of art, the way in which different audiences respond to different works of art. I’ve seen works of LDS art that some of the audience found tremendously inspiring and that other members of the same audience disliked intensely, or even found offensive. It simply isn’t true that art is either ‘spiritual’ or ‘wordly.’ And I think it can be damaging to insist on that particular dualism.

But let that go. In this talk, Elder Packer talks about the work of a painter named C.C.A. Christensen. Here’s what he said:

I do not think Brother Christensen was a great painter, some would say not even a good one. I think his paintings are masterful. Why? Because the simple, reverent feeling he had for his spiritual heritage is captured in them.

I have since seen the Christensen paintings, and I agree with Elder Packer. There is a reverence to them, despite how ineptly they are, at times, drawn. In fact, my reaction to the exhibit of Christensen works was, if this is possible, a reverent giggle. I mean, some of the human figures were ill-proportioned, with one arm much longer than the other, and all the figures strike awkward poses, and in the Hill Cumorah painting, Joseph holds his arms close to his body, like a rabbit. But I also responded to the open sincerity of Christensen’s work. So Elder Packer and I had that in common.

Elder Packer was also an avid birder. I don’t know why people who follow that particular hobby call it ‘birding’ instead of ‘bird-watching,’ but they do, and Elder Packer was fond of it, and good at it. I’ve never birded, and have no interest in beginning that hobby, but I can certainly respect those who do. Birds are extraordinary creatures, and to want to follow them around, listen to their birdsong, haunt their habitats, strikes me as a worthy and fascinating pastime.

In short, Elder Packer was a nature lover, and I am not one; he was a fly fisher, and I have never once fly fished; he was a painter, and I can’t draw a stick figure that doesn’t look ridiculous; he was a work carver, something I’ve never once even tried, for fear of lopping off a finger. He served in the military, and I did not, he understood some scriptures literally which I understand metaphorically. And so on. But he was also a teacher, and so was I. He was an active and faithful Latter-day Saint, and so am I, I hope and believe. He was a conservative. I am a liberal. There were times his words inspired me, and I’m grateful for that. There were other times when his words infuriated me, and I’m grateful for that as well, as they helped me sharpen and clarify my thinking.

I’m amazed at how much I’m going to miss him. I’m also grateful that President Monson remains the President of the Church. Rest in eternal peace, Boyd Kenneth Packer. And thanks for your ministry.


My parents and their 60th

I haven’t blogged for over a week, largely because of computer problems, but also because I was out of town. I was back home, in Bloomington Indiana, celebrating my parents’ sixtieth wedding anniversary. We had a lovely time, culminating in a big party, with singing (including numbers by my brother’s talented kids), and also a tribute by, uh, me. And I rather thought that I would publish that tribute, and do it here. So here goes:

“In many respects, the most remarkable thing about my parents’ 60 year partnership is that they ever met at all. My Dad wrote once that they were brought together by Adolf Hitler, and by a brutal murder, and there’s honestly a lot of truth to that. Imagine this:

Mary Lou Thorne, daughter of a Salt Lake grocer, became a nurse, and lived and worked in Salt Lake City. She never married.

Roy Samuelsen went to sea at 15, and was a popular member of the Norwegian merchant marine fleet. His singing delighted his fellow sailors. Eventually, he retired to Moss, Norway, and worked for years in the glass factory there. He never married.

It’s easy enough to construct alternate life histories for them both, in which they lived more or less happy, but entirely separate lives, with an ocean and continent, not to mention language, culture and nationalities, keeping them apart. Eternally and finally apart. And alone.

Because what I find myself unable to do is to imagine either of them marrying someone else. This is, of course, in part because of my innate prejudice towards my own existence on this planet. But they seem so peculiarly well-suited to each other. They are people of complementing strengths, perfectly balanced, leaning together like the support legs of the Eiffel Tower.

And they’ve continued to grow together, adjoining giant timbers in a forest. Dad: bluff and hearty. Mom: more contemplative, though in fact my father has grown introspective in recent years. They are not today the people they were 60 years ago. They’re refined the parts of themselves that most rely on the other. They are, singularly, a pair.

And it was indeed the brute forces of world and local history that drove them together. The ravages of Hitler’s occupation of Norway drove my grandparents, post-war, to the unimaginable step of leaving Moss, and coming to, of all places, Provo, Utah. The murder of Harold Thorne, salesman and prospective grocer, drove my grandmother, Lucile Thorne, to the home of her mother, Mary Markham, teaching school in Provo, Utah. Youthful boy-craziness led to the final step, my Mom and her friends’ decision to join my Dad’s Scout troup on a trek up the mountains, crashing a camping party. (And whenever my Mom would tell me the story of that Scout hike, she had an expression on her face that admitted to a teenage rebellious naughtiness for which she wasn’t, in retrospect, even a bit repentant).

My Mom wasn’t ordinarily a party girl, however. She was a bookworm, a scholastic over-achiever. Dad was an entertainer, probably intriguingly foreign with his Norwegian accent, with some modest skill on the guitar, a love of American folk songs and cowboy movies, and a voice like spun velvet.  They clicked, pretty much immediately.

And so, after his army stint in Germany, Mom and Dad were married, in the Salt Lake Temple, on May 25, 1955.

May 25. I took the liberty of looking up that date on the internet. Sixty years ago, on May 25, the biggest news was the first ascent of Mount Kangjenjunge, the third highest mountain on Earth. A tornado clobbered Udall Kansas, and a crazed fan broke into the home of Frank Sinatra, because he’d written a song he hoped that Frank would record. On the radio, hits included Mitch Miller’s recording of The Yellow Rose of Texas, and Bill Hays singing The Ballad of Davy Crockett. But number one, in May of that year, was Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock. My Dad won’t appreciate me saying this, but it’s true: my parents’ marriage and rock and roll both turn sixty this year.

Sixty years. I’m enough Hoosier to look up the basketball results, and saw that the Philadelphia Warriors won the 1955 NBA championship. That same franchise, transplanted to Oakland, plays for the same championship now. The Warriors defeated the team from Fort Wayne Indiana, run by a Hoosier businessman named Fred Zollner, who built car pistons. Hence the team’s name: not the Fort Wayne Pistons, but the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons. That team’s star player was Mormon royalty; Mel Hutchins, from BYU, whose sister, Colleen, had three years earlier been named Miss America. My Dad once told me privately that in his opinion, my Mom was a lot prettier than Colleen Hutchins.

Meanwhile, my newly married Dad had a job in Joe Creer’s sheet metal shop. And I suppose somewhere in the back of his mind, he may have hoped that maybe, the music classes he was taking at BYU might, possibly, turn into something more. The dream of an opera career must have beckoned, as a fantasy, all the while he worked construction. I suspect that neither he or my Mom had ever so much as heard the word “Hoosier.”

1955. And in the future, Wagner and Puccini and Verdi, concerts for kings and princes, New York City Opera and the Boston Lyric and Houston Opera, a life spent projecting that voice, that astounding voice, over full orchestras.

And Mom there for all of it, while, fully independent, pursuing her own career as an astoundingly innovative school teacher.

How did they do it, how did they pull it off? Separate careers, lives always together, each of them the other’s biggest fan? Not just sixty years together, but sixty years together, unified, united.

Almost everything I can think of to describe it comes across as banal, clichéd, banal.

‘They never fought.’ Today, they insist they rarely did. That’s a tribute to their unity; their marital disagreements have become, over time, forgotten and unimportant, trivial. But they were, and are, tough, independent people; of course they had some corkers. I remember being the intermediary a couple of times: “Eric, please tell your father. . . ” “Eric, please inform your mother. . . .”

‘They worked hard.’ We tell young people this, that marriage is hard work, and I suppose it is. But what I mostly remember was a whole lot of fun. I remember the laughter, the bad jokes, the puns, the goofy songs and long board games. Marriage is work. If it’s not also fun, why put the time in?

‘The gospel united them.’ And it did, of course it did, in a hundred different ways. I hope the Lord will forgive me if I say that the foundation of our family was much more about basketball than the Bible, much more playing catch than piety, much more about waterskiing than worship. We were a camping, hiking, boating bunch. And every summer, we’d take a family vacation together, and every summer, a car or boat would break down, and we’d have to improvise. We got darned good at it.

And Mom. . . .

Mom found the right balance, always. She was a lady, entirely feminine, in a family of boys, and somehow, she handled it. She loved waterskiing as much as the rest of us, but she did it her way. She didn’t want to muss her hair, and would carefully lower herself into the lake, ski with evident enjoyment, then drop the skis and allow herself to settle into the water, hairdo intact. And we’d help her aboard.

Let me finish with that image, Mom skiing with delicacy and daintiness. That signified her accommodation to her reality. And my brothers and I profited from both feminine and masculine tropes; books and learning and culture AND nature and competition and aggression, both from them both.  Because my Dad’s world was grand opera, and don’t make the mistake of doubting the sensitive artistry of his use of his vocal instrument. Or my Mom’s competitive nature, or the steely strength of her will.

Both worlds, both sets of values, from both parents. And now, in the twilight of their shared life and love, what’s left is iron. Iron wills, iron commitment, iron convictions, iron strength.

For sixty years together, 3 children, lucky 13 grandchildren, I give you life well mastered, lives well lived.

Roy and Mary Samuelsen

Mom and Dad.








































































Another attack on standardized testing, and a history

I know, I know, I’ve written enough about standardized testing. It’s May, Spring, time for the thoughts of young people to turn to love and who they’re going to take to prom. And also time for every kid in America to take a whole bunch of government mandated multiple guess tests. Which means time for yet another rant from me.

Jon Oliver did a funny bit on testing last night, pointing out the ridiculous lengths to which the education establishment is going to sell testing, including videos based on popular songs. I’ll link to his show later. Meanwhile, larger and larger numbers of parents are opting their kids out of testing. Good for them! Opt out! Or, kids, there’s no law that says you have to test honestly. Flunk ’em on purpose! Anything to invalidate already invalid results.

Educational mandated testing is to me the rarest of government policies. It’s a bi-partisan failure–President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative is as poorly conceived and foolish as President Bush’s No Child Left Behind. It’s also a policy that does nothing but fail. It has no positives; there’s nothing, absolutely nothing positive that can be said about it. It generates wholly bogus data, which is then used to implement entirely punitive and ineffective responses. It doesn’t work, and never has. And never will. You want to improve education in America? Step one: get rid of all standardized tests administered to children. Federal, state or local; get rid of all of them. Step two: fire anyone who works in education who favors test-based reform. Start there, and then let’s talk about what might work. Doubling teacher salaries would be a nice start.

So, no, I’m not a fan of testing. But the reason I hate testing, the reason I have such a bone-deep, utter detestation of it, is far more personal. You see, I was a SCAP kid. I was a six-year SCAPPIE.

1969. The summer of love. The year of the moon landing. The Beatles put out Abbey Road, and John and Yoko were married, Led Zeppelin put our their first album, Charlie Manson was arrested, and Rupert Murdoch bought his first London newspaper. And I started 7th grade. I entered Binford Jr. High School, in Bloomington Indiana. And the first thing we did, was take the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, required for all new students that year, and most especially for those enrolled in SCAP.

The official name of the program was Secondary Continuous Advancement Program. SCAP. The idea was that learning should be fluid and continuous, cross-disciplinary and tailored to the advancement of each individual student. I remember, in Geometry, for example, we learned formulas and equations, but we were also told to create works of art; we were supposed to create really pretty geometric forms, and graded on our aesthetic achievements in that regard. I remember making this really awesome looking flattened oval thing. I thought it was great. It failed, because, said the teacher, it wasn’t complicated enough. His aesthetic was baroque; mine, neo-classical. For that, I got an F?

The key was testing. Lots and lots of testing. And we weren’t graded according to how well we mastered the material; we were graded according to how well we did as compared to how well we were supposed to do, based on the tests we’d taken.

When I was in college, I took a basketball class. I had played basketball for hours every day of my life, growing up. I figured ‘easy A’. On the first day of class, we had a shooting test; we had to take 30 shots from different spots on the floor. I got red hot, and hit 28. Then I learned that we’d have to take the same test at the end of the semester, and that our grade depended on how well we improved. Which is how I flunked basketball my freshman year of college.

So it was with SCAP. I was a voracious reader as a kid. Read most of Dickens in fifth grade. And I’ve always been good at taking standardized tests, a completely useless skill, not widely shared, except my kids have it too. They all test really well. Anyway, I remember taking a spelling test. There were 40 words on the test; I spelled 38 of them correctly. And I got a D.

A D. On a spelling test. And I happened to look over at the test sheet for the kid in the desk next to mine. He’d gotten 29 words right on the exact same spelling test. And he’d gotten an A. A for him, D for me, on the same test. Even though I’d only missed 2 words, and he’d missed 11.

And I stared at his paper. And I thought, ‘it’s true. I’m not making it up; it’s really true. They really are out to get me. The teachers at this school, they genuinely don’t like me, they actually do have it in for me. I’m not being paranoid. Here’s proof. It’s real, and it’s personal. And there’s nothing I can do about it.’

I was a weird kid anyway. I was tall and skinny and awkward. I had a nerdy vocabulary, and I tripped and fell down a lot. I got beat up all the time; I was just used to it. But I’d always gotten along pretty well with teachers. But that spelling test, that was a turning point. Suddenly I knew, with absolutely incontrovertible evidence, that teachers hated me too. That everyone, literally everyone, was out to get me. 2 wrong: D, for me. 11 wrong: A, for him. You can’t make it clearer.

Of course, now I know that it was just SCAP. That’s how SCAP worked. I’d gotten a D on that spelling quiz, because my test scores indicated that I should have been better at spelling than the other kid. I was a reader; I shouldn’t have missed those 2 words. My teachers didn’t hate me; they were trying to challenge me. But no one explained any of that to me, and if they had tried, I wouldn’t have listened. What I did was just quit. I just didn’t bother with school work, at all, ever, in any class, from that day on. I withdrew. Instead, I wrote stories. I day dreamed. I snuck books in and read on my own. And at lunch, I’d play 4-square, unless Jeff Tate and Eddie Deckard caught me; then I just got beat up again. Did I ever turn them in? Of course not. Tell a teacher? Why should I tell a teacher anything, ever? They hated me too. And I could prove it.

Google SCAP nowadays, and you get the Security Content Automation Protocol. Or a French car manufacturer. But the basic idea of SCAP lives on. Test kids, use the data to create curricula. Challenge kids, again based on data derived from testing. Okay, I don’t think anyone nowadays teaches geometry using aesthetic criteria. But I look at modern education reform, and I think: it’s SCAP. It’s all just more SCAP. And we’re making modern kids SCAPgoats. (Okay, sorry).

And it makes me sick. It’s damaging. It’s bad teaching. It doesn’t work, and will never work. Teaching is an art form, not a science. It’s humanism writ large. Modern education reform wants ‘good teaching,’ but with all actual human interactions removed. But teaching is, above all else, love. Get rid of every test ever created, and figure out how to love. And maybe then we’ll get somewhere.

Here’s John Oliver. (Language warnings.)