A Provo playwright

Sunday was the closing performance of 3, the final play in Plan B Theatre Company’s Season of Eric.  Or perhaps I should put it #seasonoferic, social media being all the rage these days.  I already wrote from the heart about this marvelous year.  But last night we had a staged reading of the first draft of another new play.  And so it continues.

The new play is about 11th century papal politics, and right now, it isn’t very good.  This often happens.  Plays aren’t so much written as re-written, and this piece needs a lot of work.  Frankly, hearing the reading, I thought the middle third of the play was just flat boring.  This is not a good quality in a dramatic entertainment.  But the core is solid, the characters work, and all the problems are fixable.  So onward.

I’ve been writing plays, and getting them produced, for 36 years now.  I’m fifty seven years old; I turn fifty eight on Thursday.  And for most of that time, I was living and working in Provo, Utah.  There’s a general tendency for people in Salt Lake to think of Provo as backward, reactionary, conservative, old-fashioned, out of touch.  Hicksville.  All these criticisms/impressions are entirely correct; exceedingly well founded.  I live in Provo because for many years, I taught at BYU; my house is ten minutes from the campus where I worked.  It’s now ten minutes from the campus where my wife works.  I live in Provo as a matter of convenience and necessity.

And yet, I sort of love it.  It’s become home in the most personal sense of that word.  There are many aspects of Mormon culture that drive me bananas. But my ward is characterized by kindness, and my neighborhood is both nurturing and pleasingly eccentric.

Until recently, for example, we had one family in our ward that had these huge dogs; Newfoundlands.  The dogs were trained as therapy dogs, and our friends routinely took them to children’s wards in hospitals to interact with sick kids.  When my daughter was ten, she had to have surgery, a serious back condition, and our friends came to see her in the hospital, and brought their dog.  It was astonishing, to see how that visit transformed my daughter.  We’d see our friends walk the dogs down the street, and it was almost comical; the dogs looked more like bears than canines.  But they were endlessly gentle, the dogs.  I’m still moved when I think of our friends and their hundreds of visits to hospitals, and these huge dogs bringing joy to the lives of sick children.

There’s another family in our ward; good friends as well, from South Africa. And the husband is very active in local politics.  He is, of course, a staunch Republican.  But he could not possibly be more respectful of my heterodox Democratic stance.  He does tease me from time to time about it, but I tease him right back; we’re friends, in every sense that could possibly matter.  And I know he puts in countless hours working with city government on issues that affect our neighborhood.  Puts me to shame, to be honest.

I honestly think that living in Provo has made me a better playwright.  Such is the power of confirmation bias that all of tend to think tribally. And if our political tribe is ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ then we tend to think of ideas from the ‘left’ as self-evidently true and valuable and ideas from the ‘right’ as deluded or mistaken or perhaps even actively malicious.  But I have two tribes now.  One is my Salt Lake tribe, the family of actors and designers and theatre professionals who try,as best we can, to do some good theatre from time to time.

But my other tribe is in Provo, in my ward, where people try to raise their families and do their home teaching and find fulfillment in callings and service.

And bad playwriting is polarized, bad playwriting is all about heros and villains and people who are Right in opposition to people who are Wrong.  I’ve done it myself, and been embarrassed afterwards.  I don’t want to write that way, any more than I want to live that way.  I want to honor the best of both my tribes.  I’m Salt Lake and Provo.  A pretty conventional progressive and a Mormon high priest.  Both/and.

Spiritual Twinkies

Yesterday, one of the speakers in church talked about ‘spiritual twinkies,’ and how they differ from good spiritual nourishment.  In other words, some people substitute silly, shallow, faddish notions for actual gospel truth.  What we need, she said, is a commitment to solid gospel scholarship, found in the scriptures, and not fill our minds with the intellectually fashionable whims and caprices of ‘the world.’

It was a good talk, and I enjoyed it.  But the speaker didn’t really define her terms very well. She didn’t give examples of what she meant by ‘spiritual twinkies,’ or of ‘good gospel nourishment.’  It was probably just as well that she didn’t.  I think if you ask most Mormons ‘do you agree that we should avoid ‘spiritual twinkies’ and fill our souls with ‘substantive gospel nourishment,’ 100% would agree.  But if you got more specific about it, there’d be a lot of disagreement.  I think what you’d see is a massive display of confirmation bias.  I think everyone would say that their own pet ideas are ‘solid nourishment’ and that ideas they dislike are ‘twinkies.’  And we’d get all polarized, and once again American culture wars would seep over into Mormonism.

I remember two particular priesthood lessons, back to back, many years ago that illustrate my point.  In one lesson, the teacher talked about how important it was that we live by the standards of the gospel in all things, including our amusements, and that we should therefore never play with face cards.

I was outraged. I grew up playing hearts and euchre with my folks.  My Dad taught me gin and blackjack.  My grandfather supplemented the family income by playing poker for cash at the union hall.  He spoke heavily accented, immigrant-y English, and would pretend to not really understand the rules of poker, sort of shambling over to the table, looking pretty clueless.  But in fact, he was an exceptionally intelligent man, with the ability to compute poker odds in his head.  He’d clean up.  My parents love Michigan rummy and played pinochle with friends for years.  I love playing cards.  I still play hearts on-line.  So when this dweeb of a priesthood instructor quoted someone saying we shouldn’t use face cards, I tuned him right out.  Obviously, that was just his opinion; a spiritual Twinkie if ever there was one.

The next week, we had a different instructor. And he based his lesson on President Kimball’s ‘Don’t shoot the little birds” talk, and went on to talk about how hunting was probably inconsistent with a gospel-centered life.  This was in a Utah ward, and most of the guys in there loved hunting; went deer hunting every year. Uproar!  Outrage!  How dare he!  “My father took me hunting, his father took him hunting, his father took him hunting. Nothing, nothing has strengthened our family more!” And so on.

I don’t hunt; have never gone hunting in my life.  Can’t imagine wanting to, ever. The closest I’ve ever come to hunting is fishing, which I did do, as a kid, whenever Dad wanted to and I couldn’t figure out a graceful way to refuse.  I’ve always regarded fishing as the boringest sport on the planet Earth, right up to the point where you catch something, at which point it becomes the most disgusting. Do not see the appeal. So this anti-hunting lesson in Priesthood seemed very appropriate to me. I thought it was a great lesson.  Solid gospel nourishment, that one.

So can that be the standard?  If we agree with it, if it confirms us in self-righteousness, if it gives us a nice warm glow of moral superiority, then it’s obviously spiritual sustenance, but if it involves some petty practice, perhaps even a sin, that I personally enjoy committing, then any talk condemning it is probably a Twinkie. And cultural norms are affirmed, and anyone disagreeing is probably an apostate.

So maybe we should dig a little deeper into this question, this tough little Twinkie vs. Nourishment conundrum.  If all we’re doing is confirming our prejudices, then I’m not sure why we should bother even going to Church.  And I’m not entirely sure that the answer is something simple, like ‘read the scriptures.’  Because, let’s face it, you can find support for almost anything in the scriptures.

I agree that we should read the scriptures, and I do, every day.  Right now, I’m working my way through the Old Testament.  Really enjoying it, especially now that I’m using a different, better translation than the King James, and can mostly understand what’s going on.  But let’s face it, there’s a lot of crazy stuff in the Bible.  A lot of crazy stuff. I’m not sure how much spiritual nourishment we can get from the story of Lot and his daughters.  Or Elisha and the she-bears.  Or the entire pro-genocide book of Joshua.

So what exactly does qualify as non-Twinkie spiritual nourishment?  It seems to me really it’s just a few basic things.  Jesus, and his life and example and atonement and resurrection.  The restoration of the Gospel.  Continuing revelation. And the attempt to live a Christian life, according to the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount.  Forgive. Empathize. Live lives of charity and kindness and service.  Be kind, be reasonable, be gracious, be decent.

That’s all what nourishes me.  It’s also really hard, to live your life that way.  Forgive those who trespass against us?  Turn the other cheek?  Wow.  Seems impossible, sometimes.  But isn’t that the essence of the good news of the gospel?  Jesus Christ, and him crucified?  His example, his precepts, and the nearly impossible standard of goodness he did, in fact, require of us.

So here, tremblingly tentative and unsure, is a possible rule of thumb.  If someone’s sermon or lesson or talk involves asking something difficult of me, asks me to try to live my life in a way that I personally find really really hard, then that’s gospel nourishment.  Pretty much anything else is Twinkies.




Boxes of books

My daughter has been on a ‘clean up this dump’ kick lately, and tonight, she got going on our basement.  And she found three big cardboard boxes full of books.  She brought them upstairs, and my wife and I went through them, deciding which ones, after all these years, we still want to keep, and which ones we can get rid of.

Books are friends. Our house is filled to overthrowing with books.  The room where I work has four big IKEA bookshelves, each one filled close to full.  And a great book has to be treasured, preserved, loved.  I home-teach an elderly woman, disabled to the point that she’s effectively bed-ridden, but I love visiting her.  Her room is full of bookshelves and books, and she’s a thoughtful, interesting and intelligent woman; when we visit, we talk books.  And conversations can last long beyond the appointed time for home teaching.  She reminds me of my mother-in-law, another bibliophile of the first order.

So as my wife and daughter and I went through the books we had so carefully stored, and so carelessly forgotten, I was reminded of times I had completely forgotten.

One of the first books out was The Fate of the Persecutors of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Pitch.

I remember finding it in a used book store on 7th East in Provo (now long defunct), and taking it home and reading it, jaw dropping.  It was a wacky book, full of gruesome details about how everyone who was involved in the martyrdom of Joseph Smith had awful lives thereafter, and died in excruciating agony, of horrible diseases.  All of this, the diseases and the agonies these guys suffered, was recounted in voluptuous detail, with then a citation from whoever had told the authors the story.  The book was bonkers, and it turns out, BS.  But I was a college freshman, and I took it home and devoured it. I liked it so much, I took it to my grandmother (a former professor of library science, and the kind of dedicated bibliophile that puts the rest of us to shame), and she snorted in disgust.  She turned to an early page, and she pointed to the book.  “He cites this woman, you see?  Well, I knew her well; crazy as a loon.”  And she said, “this is just folklore, Eric, and a pretty nutty example of it.  I’m surprised at you for being taken in by it.”  And that exchange made me like the book even more!  I’ve loved Mormon folklore ever since. Still, I’ve outgrown it.

The collected poetry of Philip Larkin.  Keep.

I don’t remember when I first read Philip Larkin.  I am the most random, idiosyncratic and unsystematic of poetry readers–I love cowboy poetry no less than Lance Larsen, tend to dislike poets we’re all supposed to like.  I won’t read anything for six months and then go on a spree.  But Larkin amazes me; so grim, so honest, so completely unsentimental. Among other things, I didn’t know you could put the ‘f-word’ in a poem.  He did; not often, but when it was required. I kept the book, and I know I’ll be going on a Larkin binge pretty soon.

Nibley on the Timely and Timeless.  Kept.

Hugh Nibley is, I think it’s fair to say, the godfather of Mormon apologetics.  He was a man of extraordinary erudition, and he wrote book after book arguing for the historicity of the Book of Mormon.  It made him beloved.  But while a lot of his research has been effectively discredited, his occasional essays on Mormon culture still hold up.  He was a theatre guy too, loved good plays in good productions.  He wasn’t a literary critic, particularly, but he was certainly a cultural critic, in his own inimitable, irascible way.  I can’t believe I had this book in storage for fifteen years; it goes back on my shelves tonight.

Elizabethan Drama: Tossed.

A favorite anthology, consisting entirely of plays by Elizabethan authors other than Shakespeare.  I remember getting it in grad school, and being fascinated by Gammer Gurton’s Needle, and Tamarlane, and Cambyses: King of Persia. There was a time when such a collection would have been called something like ‘pre-Shakespearean plays,’ or something. Shakespeare was the only thing that mattered; everyone else’s work either helped us understand Shakespeare better, or helped us realize how much better Shakespeare was than anyone else.  That kind of bardolatry is passé in today’s academy (blessedly), but I remember with great pleasure a class I took in which we read and discussed all these plays.  Marvin Carlson taught it, and it was one of those great classes.  But I’m not a scholar anymore; send it away.

Four great plays by Henrik Ibsen.  Back in the day, these kinds of anthologies were very popular among academic publishers.  We teachers would have to assign certain plays to our students, and take them from anthologies, since there wasn’t really any other way for kids to get hold of them.  But publishers didn’t want to actually solicit good translations, so they’d find some public domain (and very old-fashioned) translation, and publish four plays or so.  Those old William Archer Ibsen translations are very Victorian and British, which is not to say they’re worthless, but they’re why I’m doing my own, in an updated American idiom.  I kept this book, though, to inspire me.

I don’t want to go through every book we looked at tonight.  But every book was meaningful, led to memories and spurred conversations. Books can do that, and not much else can.


High school theatre

My wife reminded me last night that it’s been a week since I blogged.  Indeed it has, though for good reasons; I’ve been up against some deadlines on other projects.  But I’m back today, and glad to be.

Yesterday, I went to Herriman High School to judge the Region Four One-act play competition.  I was one of three judges, deciding which shows and which actors would advance to the state competition.  It was a fun day.  ‘One-act’ suggests a short play, forty minutes (or so) in length, but some of the plays we saw were cuttings from much longer plays; what my wife calls ‘the Cliff Notes version.’  So one high school did Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.  Not just forty five minutes of the play, but the whole play condensed to forty five minutes.

When I saw that I was going to be seeing a high school production of The Crucible, my first reaction was ‘someone shoot me in the head right now.’  This is not because I dislike Miller’s great play.  I love The Crucible, and grew to love it even more after playing Giles Corey (“More weight!”) in a good production.  But it’s a grown-up play, a play about politics and adultery and fanaticism and the way people lie to hide their own weaknesses.  And the characters are all, well, grown-ups.  Would high school kids be able to convey all that?  I needn’t have worried; the kids did it beautifully. Some projection problems (some of the kids’ voices weren’t strong enough to handle a big space), but strong emotional content, and an intelligently conceived production.

We were asked to rate the shows Superior, Exceptional, Good and Fine, with a strong suggestion from the Region supervisors that it would be seriously uncool of us to give any show a Fine.  They needn’t have worried; I gave six of the seven shows Superior ratings, softy that I am.  And yet, my two fellow judges were equally prodigal; the shows really were that good.

Some of the show choices were interesting.  One high school did a terrific job with Christopher Durang’s Wanda’s Visit.  Durang’s a wonderful comic playwright, who builds his plays around cartoon monsters–Sister Mary Ignatius in Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All to You, the Doctor in Beyond Therapy, the parents in Baby with the Bathwater.  Mostly he writes them for performance by his Yale BFF, Sigourney Weaver.  Anyway, Wanda’s Visit is outrageous; a nice WASP couple, Jim and Marsha, is visited by the husband’s former girlfriend, who is, as I say, monstrous, a completely horrible human being. Much of the comedy comes from Marsha, the wife, trying to stay polite while this awful woman destroys her home.  The girl who played Marsha was tremendous, absolutely great; disciplined, focused, and very very funny.  And the girl who played Wanda was terrific too.  I liked the show very much, while also aware that actors at this level don’t yet have the experience to capture every nuance of this kind of savage comedy.

An even stranger choice was the high school who performed David Henry Hwang’s The Sound of a Voice.  It’s a Japanese ghost story, about a mysterious woman who runs what appears to be an inn, but an inn from which visitors never ever escape. Turns out, she’s a witch, a lonely-but-deadly seductress. It’s a quiet play, with many short scenes, just two actors, very rooted in Japanese culture. The girl who played the witch was wonderful, elderly and hobbling in the earlier scenes, and then growing increasingly youthful and dangerous as the play progressed.  It was a trifle slow-paced, and I could sense a little high school restlessness in the audience as it progressed.  But I thought it was splendid.  Such a risky choice–what you’re risking is boredom–and such beautifully subtle work from the kids.

We were supposed to choose a single winner, and my fellow judges and I were torn between two plays that were actually very similar.  Several high schools chose to do big cast, monologue heavy shows, like Jack Hilton Cunningham’s Women and War. It’s just a series of monologues about the experiences of American women in wars fought from WWI to Afghanistan.  I get why it would be a popular choice–lots of parts for girls, and a chance to do good ensemble work.  It was interesting to me, though, how a show like Women and War could still have a single outstanding performance. Everyone was good, but one girl, playing a veteran of Afghanistan, was really sensational–matter-of-fact, non-melodramatic, completely grounded and emotionally devastating.

Another somewhat similar show (large cast, monologue-heavy, good parts for lots of kids), was Moises Kaufman’s The Laramie Project, about the murder trial and community impact of Matthew Shepherd’s brutal death.  It was beautifully directed, nicely acted, and I found it very moving; we eventually gave it first place in our rankings. Utah is a very conservative state, and I was delighted to see a high school willing to tackle that difficult a play, dealing with such sensitive subject matter.  Well done.

Overall, though, the entire experience was, well, uplifting.  We hear a lot about a current ‘crisis in education.’  About the challenges facing today’s youth.  About how tough life can be for this generation of teenagers.  And yet, all across America, kids are being taught by dedicated teachers. All across America, kids are trying out for the school play, and making friends the best possible way, by working hard together on a project all of you care about and consider important.  And teachers put in long long hours in rehearsals, building sets, coaching kids.

And of course, it’s not just high school theatre that’s wonderful and character building and educational and immensely important and valuable.  Kids are playing high school sports, tennis and volleyball and basketball and yes, even football, and good men and women are coaching and refereeing and administering, and other kids are joining the chess club or the math club or working on the school paper or raising cattle in 4H or working with Scouts or Explorers.  And kids are learning and growing and caring about good causes.

High school can be full of wonder and joy.  It can also be horrible.  But good people, caring grown-ups are busy at work every day, badly underpaid and under-appreciated, to help as many kids as possible to have great experiences, and minimize the bad ones.

My high school drama teacher changed my life.  Mary Forester, her name was, and she absolutely altered the course of my life.  I am who I am today, in very large measure, because she gave her life to building a great high school drama program.  So yesterday, in the tiniest possible way, I tried to give back just a little to that larger cause.

American education does face serious challenges.  But what I saw yesterday was something wonderful–a company of caring adults leading terrific kids to perform, to do something really hard really well. At the end of the day, I was completely exhausted.  But I’m not sure when I’ve felt better.

Opening Night: Clearing Bombs

Opening night. Normally a time for nerves, for anxiety, for all kinds of personal crazy.  Superstitious rituals, trying to remember shows that bombed, and what omens presaged disaster. But last night, I was calm, as my wife steered our car out the driveway and down the street.  And perfectly cool five minutes later, when she turned the car around and went home, because I’d left our tickets on the kitchen table.  And absolutely collected, when, for the second time, we headed off north. And even pretty mellow when I arrived at the theater, and realized I’d gotten the time wrong, and we were way way early.

So maybe I was a smidge nervous.

Wednesday night, we had a preview performance, attended by many friends from Sunstone.  And one audience member said he was anticipating an evening about as exciting as a night spent watching bread dough rise.  Because Clearing Bombs is a play about macroeconomics.  And the track record for plays in which two guys in suits spend ninety minutes arguing economic theory is . . . actually, I don’t think there are any other plays that do this.  Never heard of any, at least.  But the prospect of it must seem pretty grim.

But that’s what I’d written.  In 1942, John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich August Hayek spent a summer night on the roof of King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, protecting the building from German incendiary bombs.  That fact, basically one sentence in Nicholas Wapshott’s book Keynes Hayek, had absolutely captivated me when I read it three years ago, and I’d turned it into a play, heaven knows why.  Another audience member suggested that Clearing Bombs isn’t a particularly compelling or accurate title; I pointed out that my original title was Keynes and Hayek Argue on a Roof, so Clearing Bombs was a big improvement.

But here’s the thing: this is probably really egotistical of me, but I do actually think the play works.  It was never my intention to write an economics lecture.  I’m a playwright–I wanted to write an effective drama.  I wanted to write a play that would engage an audience for an evening, that would be thought-provoking and emotionally wrenching, that would entertain.  And, my gosh, I had wonderful actors: Mark Fossen, Jay Perry and Kirt Bateman can act in anything and everything I write for the rest of my life, as far as I’m concerned.  And boy was the scenic design, by Randy Rassmussen minimal and spare and evocative and great.  And Phillip Lowe’s costumes perfectly captured the age and the characters.  And Jesse Portillo’s lighting design is mysterious and quietly powerful.

And Cheryl Cluff’s sound design was simple perfection.  Okay, so, two links to the sound: this, from the pre-show music; quite possibly the sickest song from the 40s.  (And yes, I do know that Eminem has a “Run Rabbit Run” song too; which also works for my show, actually).  And, again from the pre-show music: this gem. The song is Vera Lynn, but the imagery is from Dr. Strangelove; the final bomb montage. I’m completely serious: Cheryl Cluff is a genius.

So I had great support.  Great cast, great team of designers, world’s greatest stage manager, Jen Freed.  None of that guarantees that the play will work. I directed it; if it fails I have no one to blame but myself.  But I do think it works, and after last night, I think it works even more. As one very kind elderly woman told me as she left the theater, “it’s better than Downton Abbey!”  High praise indeed!

But if it works, and I do think it might, it works because ideas matter.  Because we human beings, irrational and emotional and arbitrary and prejudiced and foolish and biased and culturally blinkered though we are, are sometimes, every once in awhile, capable of thinking at a very high level, and expressing quite profound ideas in prose that crackles.  And ideas can change the world.  And Keynes and Hayek were thinkers on that level.

In the 1940s, everything seemed to be in flux, and it seemed impossible to imagine what the outcome might be.  Two great totalitarian ideologies, Hitler’s National Socialism and Lenin/Stalin’s Communism were literally slugging it out to the death.  Of the 70 million deaths caused directly by World War Two, 30 million of them took place in the fighting on the Eastern front, many of them civilian deaths.  Unimaginable slaughter outside Stalingrad, unendurable suffering in the death camps in Poland and Eastern Europe.

To many in the West, the events of the 30s, including the world-wide economic catastrophe we call the Great Depression sent a clear message: capitalism was doomed.  Market economies could not provide for even the most basic of necessities.  Winston Churchill gave a focus to British energies–the task at hand was to defeat Hitler.  Do that first, and we’ll sort out the rest of our problems afterwards.  Excise that evil, and let’s see what good might result.

Keynes’ great insight, in the midst of the horror and bloodshed of war, was to embrace irrationality. What is money? he theorized.  A necessary convention. It didn’t need to rest on any foundation, it didn’t need to rely on anything.  It’s a convenient fiction, a game we all play, and embue with a meaning it actually lacks.  So we can pump ‘money’ into an economy and if we do. we’ll create something tangible–prosperous businesses and households. At Bretton Woods in ’44, Keynes even proposed a new currency: the ‘bancor’. Close enough to ‘bitcoin’, I think.

But if money is nothing, if ‘money’ describes nothing tangible, then what’s to prevent unscrupulous governments from manipulating currency (as Hayek had seen Austria do), and quietly use a central bank and economic planning commissions to seize power?  And so Hayek sounded an alarm. He tried to resurrect a ghost that Keynes thought he’d exorcised; he tried to re-constitute laissez-faire.

Keynes thought investors were crazy, full of ‘wild animal spirits’ and that that was a good thing, very much to be encouraged. (Part of me wonders how Keynes would have responded to the drug-fueled, excessive, exuberant, misanthropic animal spirits on display in The Wolf of Wall Street).  Hayek thought monopolies and trusts and the super-rich would still be sufficently guided by enlightened self-interest to allow wealth to trickle-down, and that anyway regulating their businesses was the first step towards tyranny.  But Hayek believed that, because he’d seen it; the spectre of Hitler shadowed his thought.  Both men were trying to figure out what could or should come next, when the shooting stopped and the blood soaked fields of German and Poland and France and Russia and Austria finally found rest.

What did result was something neither of them really anticipated and neither would really have quite approved of; the ramshackle, jury-rigged, inefficient, fabulously productive combination state; half free markets and half socialist.  The modern social welfare state, as found (with small but significant differences) in Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, France, Poland, Great Britain, Canada, The Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, and the list continues. A kind of state without progenitors or theorists, one that just happened, delivered by parliamentary governments, and still resisted in the US, because of the built-in and intentional inefficiencies of our Constitutional checks and balances, which always will give conservatism (caution, prudence, patience, leery fearfulness) a political advantage.

But what Keynes and Hayek did achieve was remarkable. They defined what the issues would be for the next seventy years.  They, together, wrote the agenda.  And since politics is really just economics dressed up with balloons and parades and brass bands and slogans, they remain at the center of our political debates even now.

I lucked into a great subject for drama.  I lucked into the perfect producing entity, the perfect design team, and the perfect cast, to carry it out.  If the play works, it’s more by luck than design.  But we playwrights have to embrace good fortune when it comes our way. Dionysus is, and always was, an untrustworthy deity.




A wedding

On Saturday, I went to a wedding.

It was actually a ring ceremony, the couple having been married previously, by Queen Latifah.  Seriously: at the Grammys.  So this was a kind of ‘reading each other our vows’ kind of thing, an exchange of rings, followed by a reception.  But it was really lovely, just a beautiful event.  Many many tears were shed, a few of them by a sentimental old fool of an uncle.  That would be me: my nephew Spencer was half of the marrying couple, marrying Dustin, a wonderful guy we have all grown to love.

The ring ceremony was held at the Gallivan Center in Salt Lake, a place I had never previously visited.  It’s sort of an open square, with a small conference center in the middle, next to the skating rink. The skating rink alarmed me, passing it; I had a brief moment of panic, wondering if we would be expected to skate.  I never could ice skate, not even a little bit, and I think if I were try to it today I would just, you know, die.  But no; we were in a nice reception room, with lots of exceedingly uncomfortable chairs, just like most weddings have.

I got there way early.  My son and I had gone out to dinner, but he needed to go home and change, and his apartment is not handicapped accessible, so he dropped me off. So I got there in time to watch Betty Who practice.  Betty Who’s song “Somebody Loves You” had provided the music for Spencer’s Home Depot proposal video, a video that had gone viral and made Spencer and Dustin famous.  She had become friends with them, and was singing at the ceremony.  She finished practicing, and I ended up chatting briefly with her; mostly a ‘you sing beautifully,’ ‘thanks!’ kind of conversation. She was lovely; gracious and humble.

Other guests began arriving. My wife and daughters came; my son showed up, now dressed appropriately. The reception hall filled up. Everyone wearing their finest, looking happy.  As always with wedding events, I knew approximately a third of the people there.

Music started up.  First, an instrumental version of Christina Perri’s lovely “A Thousand Years.”  We didn’t hear the lyrics, obviously, but I know the song well, and rehearsed them in my mind: “I have died, everyday, waiting for you, darling; don’t be afraid, I have loved you, for a thousand years, loved you for a thousand years.”  Beautiful lyric, beautiful song, and perfect for the event.  As the music played, members of the wedding party started coming down the aisles, in pairs.  Lots of them; this couple is very loved, by many people.

Then, another instrumental; this time, the music introduction to Macklemore’s “Same Love,” the song played at the Grammies when they were married there.  Again, a wonderfully appropriate selection.  The lyrics may have seemed tendentious to some, but this was just the music; perfect.

Finally, Betty Who sang.  Her song, “Somebody Loves You” is an upbeat dance groove; for the wedding, she sang it like a ballad, just guitar and vocal.  It was . . . I’m running out of synonyms for beautiful.  Check a thesaurus: it was radiant.  Exquisite, lovely.  Resplendent.

As she sang, Spencer and Dustin came down the aisle.  They read their vows to each other.  And I think probably both of them would say that they’re not writers, not eloquent, but I thought both vows were eloquent and simple and perfect.  Heartfelt.  I can’t remember all they said, but I do remember Spencer saying ‘I will always be kind,’ and I know he will be, he is, that’s him, that’s Spencer.  A kind man, a gentle man, a joyous and generous man. He was weeping, and then Dustin read his vows, promising to be tender with Spencer’s heart, and maybe he was weeping more, and so was I and so were Spencer’s sisters, standing there, and so was everyone else.

And then they were done.  And we sat there a little, not sure where to go, not wanting, really, for the feeling to pass.  And the reception was in another building, and we went, and there was dancing.  But hardly any chairs, and the ones there were uncomfortable, and so we left.  I don’t really dance anymore.

But it didn’t matter.  We’d seen something lovely, we’d been part of something splendid and human and real and moving. Two wonderful human beings joining their lives together forever. And I thought; if ever there was a time to just be happy for people.  Just a time to be joyful.  Completely, wholly, uncomplicatedly, unambiguously happy.

It’s expensive to be poor

Some recent experiences have caused me to reflect on this sad paradox; it’s expensive to be poor.  It’s not just difficult, frustrating, a grinding slog.  It’s really expensive.  It costs a ton of money to be a poor person in America.

It’s two in the morning, and your kid has a fever.  She’s miserable, and can’t sleep, barely has the energy to cry.  Until very very recently, you had two alternatives, both of them entirely irresponsible.  One is, you hope for the best, use wet washcloths on her forehead, hope the fever goes down.  Pray it’s not meningitis, something really serious.  Or second, you take her to the hospital, rack up a bill you have no way of paying. Both choices are wrong; both could leave you with serious negative consequences.  Obamacare helps, unless you’re unlucky enough to live in a red state, a state that has refused the ACA’s Medicaid expansion.  Then you may still find yourself in the bad ol’ days when an emergency room was your only alternative.  But if you’re lucky enough to live in a blue state, you can get Medicaid. Or buy insurance on the exchanges.  There are some alternatives.

If you’re poor, you can’t afford a nice car.  You probably drive a clunker.  Probably it gets bad gas mileage (an expense).  Probably it breaks down more often (repeated body blows of expenses).  If a cop sees you, you might get pulled over and given a fix-it ticket.  Fix the car (an expense), and take time off work (an expense) to go to the police station to show that you’ve fixed it, or pay the ticket, pay a fine.  And you have to have a car to get to work, because most places in the US, public transportation is minimal.

If you’re poor, you don’t eat as well.  For one thing, you’re probably working more than one job, so going home to cook a nice meal is one more exhausting task at the end of an exhausting day.  Fast food’s easier, but not as good for you, and frankly, kind of expensive.

You probably have crappy housing, if you’re poor.  Right now, it’s really cold out–if you’re poor, you’re more likely to need to keep water flowing (an expense) through the pipes at night so they don’t freeze up and crack (big expense).  Your house probably doesn’t have good insulation, so your heating bills go up.  Appliances break; more expenses.

And you likely live in a crappy neighborhood.  And maybe your neighbor’s a drunk.  Maybe he’s a criminal, an ex-con.  So maybe your wife (or girlfriend) comes home, and your drunken ex-con neighbor starts hassling her.  You intervene, and he threatens you and her, then starts throwing punches.  You fight back, and maybe he’s injured.  The emergency room reports it to the cops, and you find yourself criminally charged.  Oh my gosh, the costs start mounting.

An attorney’s fees. Bail. If you’re in jail, you can’t work; no income.  Phone calls from the jail are collect only, at like 25 bucks a minute.  Especially if you’re black or Hispanic, the presumption of innocence goes right out the window.  You’re assumed to be the aggressor. You’ll find the criminal justice system entirely against you, every step.

Specifically: the cops can arrest you without charging you with anything, and hold you for 72 hours without charging you. That’s 72 business hours–Saturdays and Sundays don’t count towards it.  So that’s up to 5 days work you miss, and you probably lose your job.  Then, instead of filing charges, the DA can just ‘open a file’ and hold you for another 72, three more lost days of work.  Bail is usually a thousand dollars, if you can get it bonded; who has that kind of money lying around?

Okay, so, where do you get the money?  Car breaks down, or water heater, something essential, and you suddenly need to come up with a thousand bucks–where can you get it?  Or bail, or attorney’s fees.  What do you do?  Payday loans, title loans?  It’s possible to borrow quite a bit of money with no credit or with lousy credit, if you don’t mind paying usurious interest rates.  Say 500% APR?  So you get sucked into that whole money grubbing racket.  And yet . . . those places, scummy though they are, are the last resort for poor people who need a lot of money fast.

Government agencies can help, and do.  The Earned Income Credit is one incredibly helpful program intended to help poor families, which really does. Food stamps; incredibly helpful.  Unemployment insurance; a badly needed pittance.

I’m only scratching the surface, I think.  But being poor in America doesn’t just mean not having money or resources.  It’s expensive. The mythology is that America is a land of opportunity, a nation where poor people can bootstrap it up to success and prosperity.  Mostly nowadays, though, what we have are barriers.  You get slammed down, every time you struggle your way even a little bit up. And it doesn’t have to be that way.  We could make it easier, less expensive, more hopeful, to be poor.



Reading the Bible

I don’t usually talk about my New Year’s Resolutions.  For years, when asked, I would say that I had the same three resolutions: to exercise every day, to lose 50 pounds, and to quit smoking.  Since I don’t smoke, and never have, I figured I could be certain of batting .333.  And as a baseball fan, a .333 average is darn good.

But this year, I decided on a different resolution. I’m going to read the four books of Mormon scripture this year, all four. The Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price, all of them, in one calendar year.  On Sunday, I got started.  Put on some music–the Lower Lights.  Great band, known for doing bluegrass/country versions of hymns.  Like this.  And this. Love the music, love the arrangements.  And I got started.  Genesis 1:1.

I decided not to use the King James version of the Bible for my study this year.  I decided to use the Revised Standard version.  You’re going to laugh when I tell you why: it’s because of a play.

I was reading a terrific play; Howard Brenton’s Anne Boleyn.  Another of those great plays I’ll probably never see in production, sadly.  It’s a play, obviously, about Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife, but its also about her legacy in England.  It argues, with justification I think, that Anne may have been as responsible as anyone for England’s transition from a Catholic to a Protestant nation.  And I know what you’re thinking–’duh.’  Henry had the hots for her, and the only way he could get a divorce was by declaring himself the head of the Church in England.  But Anne was the person who gave Henry a copy of William Tyndale’s The Obedience of a Christian Man, the most explosive Protestant tract of the day.  The play argues that Anne knew Tyndale (not implausible), spoke of him to Henry (likely), and that Henry’s subsequent conversion was sincere (could be, as much as the religious convictions of any psychopath could be sincere).

Anyway, the play Anne Boleyn is set in two periods; obviously the Tudor reign of Henry, but also the later Stuart rule of James.  And James has this conversation with Dean Lancelot Andrewes and Dr. John Reynolds.  Andrewes was a Church of England bishop; Reynolds a Puritan.

JAMES: How will you translate the Greek word Ecclesia?


REYNOLDS: Congregation.

JAMES: Hah hah!  A world of difference!  Church meaning an institution of the state; Congregation meaning a meeting, higgledy-piggledy group.  How to translate Presbyteros?



JAMES: Priest; ordained by a bishop.  ‘Elder’, an older man in a congregation.  And in Corinthians, the Greek word ‘Agape?’  Faith, hope and . . . .

ANDREWES: Charity.


JAMES: Charity, yes, public responsibility, alms, civic rectitude. But ‘love’ can go anywhere, lead to loose talk of ‘love of God’ and this and that, a path to heresy and darkness.  Hu, hu, hum. Hop. (Pause).  In my Bible, there will be ‘church,’ ‘priest,’ and ‘charity.’

What a lovely scene.  And I love how this scene–and the whole play–depicts King James.  A vulgarian, a man of gross personal habits and crudity of expression, a disgusting man in many ways.  And a terrible king, not because he was gay, but because he was unable to see faults in his ever-changing court favorites, leading to no consistency of policy, leading to justice by caprice and chance, arbitrary in his judgments and terrified of conspiracy, scared of his own shadow.  But for all that, an intelligent, well-read man.  A man who knew his Greek, and was completely conversant with theology.  And a new authorized version of the Bible was a great achievement, the crowning accomplishment of James’ reign, (which was otherwise rather devoid of accomplishments).  The ‘epistle dedicatory’ that appears in the front of the KJV may reek of sycophancy, but it’s not entirely unjustified–England needed that book.

But ‘church,’ ‘priest’, ‘charity.’  Brenton’s play reminds us that translation is not an exact art, and that every translator’s culture leaves its residue on every page. I’ve done some translation myself, and while I try to work with integrity and fidelity to the original text, I also have my agenda.

I’m not dissing the KJV.  I love the language of that translation, archaic and (at times) inaccurate as it is.  There’s a solemnity and reverence in it that I would be loathe to lose.  At the same time, the English language of 1611 is not the language we speak today. I’m looking forward to reading Ezekiel and actually having some idea of what he’s saying.  Not to mention Paul.

And as I read this year, I’m going to stop and read aloud.  I want to imagine myself sitting on hard ground by a campfire, listening to a tribal elder recite aloud.  I want that sense of myth and wonder.  I want to re-imagine the Bible as oral history, transmitted mouth to ear, over millennia.  “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth. The Earth was without form, and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.  And God said “Let there be light.”  And there was light.”

And in the background, banjos. And fiddles. And harmonicas.  String basses.  And tight harmonies, thirds and even seconds, in the vocals.

I’m going to read the scriptures this year.  I’m going to put on my jeans and sandals, and wear my rattiest shirt.  And I’m going to hear it in my mind. Congregation.  And Elder.  And Love.


The budget deal

The big Washington news this week was the announcement of a budget deal between Paul Ryan, who chairs the House budget committee and Patty Murray, who chairs the Senate committee.  I’ve been checking out the details of the bill, as best I can, and from what I can see, it’s awful.  Exactly the wrong thing for the country right now, likely to hurt people and further weaken our economy.  It’s also probably the best that could be hoped for, should pass, and some version of it likely will.

First, the good news: House Republicans and Senate Democrats might actually agree about something.  The most dysfunctional Congress in US history might actually accomplish something.  One of Congress’ constitutional duties is to pass an annual budget.  They’ve punted on it for years, keeping things afloat with a whole series of continuing resolutions.  The idea that Paul Ryan and Patty Murray actually sat in a room together without permanently rupturing the space/time continuum is, perhaps, cause for some very very quiet huzzahs.  yay. rah. hurray.  awesome.  I can’t even bear to capitalize.

I don’t want to get into what’s wrong with the entire bill. No stimulus for the economy, cuts in vital programs for the poor, no cuts in military spending to pay for it, the back of the hand for federal employees.  It’s a rotten bill.  But here’s one specific: 1.3 million Americans will lose their unemployment benefits on December 28. Merry Christmas.  Murray fought for an extension of those benefits.  That turned out to be a deal-breaker for Ryan, and that extension is not part of the bill.  Democrats will try to pass such an extension as a separate bill.  Prediction: it will pass the Senate, and not even come up for a vote in the House.

Just as hospitals cause illness and trained medics cause war casualties, many (probably most) Republicans believe that unemployment benefits cause unemployment.  Because some unemployed people receive up to 40% (yes, 40 whole percent!) of their previous salaries as unemployment compensation, they’re not motivated to look for a job.  Or, as Paul Ryan once famously put it: “We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains of their will and incentive to make the most of their lives.”

Welfare dependency is a favorite conservative meme; by giving people food stamps and housing benefits and unemployment insurance, we’re creating a permanent underclass of people uninterested in working.  Talk to conservatives about this issue, and I promise, you’ll hear all sorts of anecdotal evidence: “my brother-in-law/cousin/guy-that’s-dating-my-niece/neighbor/guy-I-heard-about-on-Fox is this worthless bum who can’t be bothered finding a good job.  McDonald’s is hiring.  Flip burgers if you can’t do anything else.”

Lots of economists have investigated this question, and concluded that there’s something to it, that welfare dependency does exist, that some people really would rather get food stamps and live in subsidized housing than work.  It happens.  Its effects, however, are tiny.  Most people on unemployment/food stamps/other kinds of welfare really really hate it, and only receive such benefits for a very short period of time.  Ending unemployment benefits is going to hurt lots of people, and there’s no evidence that it will do any good whatsoever.  There are still three job-seekers for every job.

I love this song by the great Stan Rogers. “Well, I could have stayed to take the Dole, but I’m not one of those. I take nothing free, and that makes me an idiot, I suppose.” The song is called “The Idiot” and I love it’s defiant spirit.  “The government dole will rot your soul.” But I don’t see this as an anti-welfare song.  Rather, it’s how it feels to face the possibility of welfare.  It’s a song that says ‘I’ll do any job, anywhere.”  That’s the attitude of the huge huge majority of poor people in America.

I vividly remember a time when I was in grad school in Indiana when my wife and I learned about a government program that would help us pay our winter heating bills.  Our apartment was poorly insulated, and we were cold most winters.  So we went to a local welfare office to apply for this heating bill subsidy.  I was in grad school then, working two jobs and taking a full load of classes, and we had three small children at home. We were assigned a case worker, and she went over our circumstances with us.  It turned out, we were poor enough to qualify for absolutely everything. Food stamps, housing, medicaid; we qualified for everything.

We ran out of there.  I mean it; packed up our stuff and took off.  It terrified us.  We did end up getting the heating subsidy, for just one winter.  But mostly, we weren’t so much offended as we were frightened. We were doing fine, we thought.  We paid our bills–we were hanging in there.  I was a grad student, for heaven’s sake; making provisions for my future.

And in my experience, that’s how most people see it.  Most folks are under-served by federal and state agencies dealing with the poor, not because those agencies are incompetent, but because it’s kind of humiliating to apply for aid, and you end up only applying for the minimum you need.

I’m not saying welfare dependency is a myth.  I do say that worrying about it is a poor guide to policy.  We’re the richest nation in the history of the world.  And we have children who don’t have enough to eat. That’s kind of disgraceful, is it not?





Junior High

I went to a play reading last night; a new play by my friend Matt Bennett, intended for public school performances, about school bullying.  The play was lovely, and will do a lot of good when performed in local schools–and he’s got a grant to do just that. But in a way, I wish I hadn’t gone.  Anything about junior high brings back some pretty stark memories, and I probably made kind of a jerk of myself, inappropriately venting.

Junior high, though.  Man. “Who trusted God was love indeed, and love Creation’s final law, tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw with ravine, shriek’d against his creed.”  Tennyson nailed it; that’s junior high. The creed of Christian civilized behavior, fervently believed by idealistic teachers, love indeed, but under that, in kid-world, pure savagery; unremitting violence. I don’t know how anyone survives it; I really don’t.  There are a lot of junior high kids out there right now who are being bullied and attacked and still hang in there, courageous and amazing.

I have basically no positive memories of seventh grade at all, and only a few positive memories of eighth grade.  Eddie Deckard and Jeff Tate–and I’m going to use their real names, I think it’s empowering, and if you’re reading this and know anything about what happened to them, like the federal prison in which they’re currently incarcerated, drop me a line–made my life hell. Eddie Deckard was short, dirty blonde, a vicious little sociopath, a thief and a thug and a criminal mastermind. I had this great jacket–very warm and comfortable–I loved that jacket.  He stole it (I told my Mom I lost it), and then stole its replacement.  Stole my bike. Stole my lunch money–I didn’t eat lunch one day at Binford junior high.  Just handed it over.  Deckard was head of a largish gang of angry and stupid white kids, and Jeff Tate was his chief enforcer–a huge kid, the kind who can grow a full moustache at twelve.  Tate liked it when you fought back–he’d kind of grin and he’d say ‘hey, good for you,’ and then he’d pulverize you.  He was smart enough to prefer body blows–bloody noses and chipped teeth and black eyes got noticed. I know he broke ribs; one whole winter, I could hardly breathe, walking home. He’s the guy who held me down while Deckard carved a swastika on my arm with a switch blade, but I respect him for first trying to talk Deckard out of it–he thought a flesh wound was sure to be noticed. But it wasn’t. I saw to that. Went home, slapped on a bandage, made up some story for my Mom.  I never told.  It never occurred to me to tell.  I would sooner have flown to the moon than tell a grown-up. If you told, that was a death sentence–everyone knew that.

Mostly, you hid.  A good day was when no one noticed you at all–loneliness being far preferable to violence. I discovered the school library, checked out books, spent my days reading.  I don’t recall ever doing any school assignments in my classes; I just sat in the back and read, and if the teacher called on me, would mumble something. My grades were pretty bad, and my parents were worried, but I couldn’t possibly have cared less.  Good grades got you noticed.

And good grades weren’t possible, I decided. The school had started this thing called SCAP. The Secondary Continuous Advancement Program. The S in SCAP stood for Secondary, but Satanic would have come closer to it; it was Exhibit A in Failed Education Fads. (I say that, but I actually have no idea what SCAP was trying to do, or how it proposed to do it).  I know part of it involved these standardized tests, the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, I think they were called. We took ‘em at the beginning of the school year, and then our grades were determined, not by how well we did in our classes, but by how well we did as compared to how well the Iowa tests suggested we were capable of doing. I was a smart kid and a reader; I think I probably aced the Iowa tests, and thereby screwed myself royally.  I remember early in the seventh grade school year, we had a spelling test.  25 words.  I got a 23–missed 2.  And on my paper was a grade: D-minus.  I looked over at the kid at the next desk: he’d gotten a 16–missed 9.  And the grade on his paper was B-plus.  He’d missed 9, I missed 2, and I got a D and he got a B-plus.

And I thought to myself: it’s true.  They really are out to get me.  I’m not just being paranoid–this school really does hate me, me specifically, me.  I’m not imagining it; there’s proof.  And I looked around, and I could see that my 23 was the highest score in the class, and my D the lowest grade.  So I thought: fine.  Okay.  They hate me; I hate them.  That’s the last time I do a school assignment.  And as I recall it, it was.  That’s probably not entirely true–I probably did occasionally try, a little.  But I don’t remember it, trying in school, ever, at all.

(Did a teacher, seeing my confusion and how upset I was, kindly take me aside, explain the way the grading system worked, encourage me, tell me that grade just reflected how bright I was, and how much they wanted me to work up to my potential?  Heck, I don’t know. Maybe. If so I don’t remember it. That did happen in 8th grade, as you’ll see.)

I’m not going to bore you with my revenge fantasies. I do know that I’ve never trusted authority figures ever since junior high.  They say there are in any culture Chiefs and Indians: some people are natural leaders, and others are good followers.  Me, I’m a medicine man.  I don’t lead and I don’t follow well.  I sit back and observe.  And when I step forward, it’s to entertain.

Quick revolutionary aside: there’s a big debate in education circles over testing, over the mandatory federal and state standardized tests kids take basically every grade level, upon which funding and teacher raises and salaries depend.  If I could speak to every kid in every school, K-12 in America, I would say one thing: fail that test.  Fail it on purpose.  Those tests mean nothing to you, and failing them will not impact your life in any significant way, and the people administering them do not have your best interests at heart.  Fail them.  All of them, every year.  That’s the monkey wench that will destroy the educational establishment, and it needs destroying.  It’s SCAP, times fifty. Educators love their faddish notions, and build programs around theories; stop them. We know what works.  Free teachers to teach. Period.

Anyway.  There wasn’t a day in junior high when I didn’t think about suicide. Couple things saved me; one was Indiana basketball.  I could go out in the driveway and shoot away my anger and frustration.  The other was this: I met one good teacher.

Kenny Mann.  Mr. Mann.  He was the English teacher, and he was kind, and he gave us an in-class writing assignment (and mirabile dictu, I did it), and talked to me after class and told me it was very good, that I had talent as a writer, and did I have anything else I could show him.  So I gave him the first forty pages of a novel I’d started, and he took it home and read it and told me the next day, ‘wow, that was really good!’ Which I’m sure it wasn’t, but I just glowed.

When I finally finished Junior High, and went to High school, I discovered that Mr. Mann had transferred there, and so he was both my eighth and tenth grade English teacher.  And he got me involved in the school paper and in the school creative writing magazine, and introduced me to the school drama teacher, and I started acting.  That’s all it took.  One good teacher, caring about a kid.

Look, adolescence is tough, and some kids negotiate it without difficulty and some kids really struggle.  And junior high school teachers should be, all of them, nominated for sainthood.  But there are things that can be done to make it safer and easier.  A strong anti-bullying policy is a good place to start, but schools need to be aware that kids will probably not report being bullied. You’re going to need an entirely different level of vigilance, probably for, at least, grades 4-9.

I would also give junior high teachers the authority to identify the Eddie Deckards and Jeff Tates of the world and summarily execute them, but that’s just me.  Seriously, though, a Deckard does need to be identified and dealt with pro-actively. Does the jacket he’s wearing look a lot like the one that really skinny kid wore yesterday?  Check it out. Bear in mind: his victims will almost certainly not self-report.

And I’m rooting for Matt, and for his play, Different=Amazing. I think it might do some good.  Some. It won’t fix junior high, though.  Not sure that age is entirely fixable.