Category Archives: Personal

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.)


Some thoughts about Charlie Hebdo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two funerals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day after New Year resolutions

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

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

But I digress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey, it could happen!


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

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

But boy did he know some.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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