Category Archives: Religion

Happiness, and Mormonism

My wife and I went out to dinner recently with some old friends. And we caught each other up on our lives and the lives of our children. And we talked about the Church lessons we remembered from MIA. Our teachers were good people, earnest and kind, and I know they wanted nothing for us but the best. And, because we’re Mormons, what they talked about were ideals. Serve a full-time mission, marry in the temple, raise your children with family prayer and family home evening and family scripture study. That was the way to achieve happiness.

Think of General Conference. Even the most cursory search through recent Conference talks shows how central ideals are to Mormonism. Richard G. Scott: “Do the best you can while on earth to have an ideal family” (achieved by studying and applying the Proclamation on the Family). David O. McKay: “I picture heaven as a continuation of the ideal family life.” Neil Anderson: “In this continuing spiritual commotion, the restored gospel will continue to carry the standard, the ideal.”

And we talked about that at dinner, my friends and I, how far actuality can stray from the ideal. My wife and I are happy together, and have been for 35 years, but our lives are hardly ideal. Though I’m still young enough that I should still be working, my health makes that impossible, vastly increasing the burden on her. There are surely people whose lives do fit a Church cultural ideal. But I don’t know very many. Mostly, I know people who are struggling. And I think of Sophocles, who had a favorite line that appears in many, if not most of his plays: “count no man happy until he dies, free of pain at last.” Pain, disappointment, heartache, sorrow are all constants of our lives here.

And they’re supposed to be. Our understanding of the plan of salvation–what we’re now supposed to call the ‘Plan of Happiness’–is that coming to earth would be difficult and painful and sorrowful. Listening to conference talks, it can seem as though we conceive of happiness with a paint-by-numbers literalism. Do these things, follow this path with exactness, and the result will be happiness. On the other hand, the story of Adam and Eve is, according to our own scripture, a metaphor for the necessity of agony and heartache and loss.

I don’t mean to suggest that Mormonism hasn’t come to grips with, for example, that horrific and lethal disease we call clinical depression. There have been many poignant talks on that grim subject in recent years. But too many friends and family members suffer from it for me to ignore it in any discussion of personal happiness. It doesn’t matter what gospel living boxes we check off. For some people, everyday life is agony. It’s not happy at all. And that doesn’t always end well. What depressed people need is help, lots of it, constant help and care and medical attention.

Mormonism is a religion of paradoxes. We believe in personal revelation; we also believe in revelation through prophets, operating within an organization. We believe in personal responsibility; we also have the strongest possible attachment to the importance of communities. We believe in salvation by grace; also the central importance of works. We believe in both sides of the justice/mercy paradox. But we still insist that there are rules to actual life, that doing certain things in a certain order will lead to earthly happiness. And that’s not always true.

And so when we hear sermons emphasizing ideals–ideal families, ideal commitments, ideal service, ideal lives–it can feel like we’re neglecting, you know, reality. I wish the advice we received were more practical, more rooted in reality. How do we keep from beating ourselves up when we don’t reach the ideal? How can we stop ourselves from spiraling downward into depression? How can we keep on keepin’ on, when times become difficult and burdens hard to bear? How can we forgive ourselves more, hold each other up, stop pretending everything’s great when its not?

Because, let’s face it, an insistence on ideals can be immensely damaging. We do get down on ourselves. We do feel inadequate, and inadequacy can depress. I have a relative, a wonderful young man, who recently suffered a professional setback. He’s absolutely distraught over it. He feels like a failure. He’s punishing himself, because he didn’t, he thinks, live up to the ideal of husband=provider.

I wish I could fold him in my arms and tell him that he doesn’t need to beat himself up, that he is loved and worthy of love, that we recognize the goodness of his heart, and his devotion to his children and his wife, that he isn’t a failure, or anything like it. But it doesn’t seem to help.

I’m a pretty happy person, I think. I love my family deeply, and we have a good time together, mostly. I’m happy because I met the right woman at the right time in my life. I’m happy because I figured out what I wanted to do with my life at an early age, and then got lucky professionally and was able to actually do it. I’m happy because the chemicals in my head are conducive to happiness. I do appreciate having a religious community I can call my own. That’s a lovely blessing. But I’m blessed in other ways too.

Rather than focus on ideals, shouldn’t we instead talk about getting by, muddling along, doing what we can? I wish our cultural conversation were more honest, more accurate, more forgiving. As a culture, we seem to be capable of navigating a whole map full of complicated terrains and ecosystems. We are a culture of contradictions; a religion of paradoxes. And some, we cope with nimbly, with grace and elegance. We’re all going to fall short of our ideals. But let’s keep trying. When we fall short, let’s not mourn having missed an ideal. But get up, brush ourselves off, keep trying. And know that there are many others in the same situation who can help.

Why I stay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that is why I stay.

 

 

 

 

BYU, the Honor Code, and Sexual Assault

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loretta Lynn, and a feminist fix for Saturday’s Warrior

Last week, I reviewed the new movie based on the popular LDS musical, Saturday’s Warrior. It was a very personal review, one in which I genuinely tried to be honest and also balanced, judicious. And I blew it. My review missed the single most significant problem with Warrior, and one that the movie made no attempt to fix: patriarchal gaze. I’ll explain what I mean in a second. But first, let me talk about Loretta Lynn.

In the film, we’re meant to believe that the song Zero Population, sung by Jimmy Flinders and his pals, rose up the Billboard charts in 1974, reaching number one. As one friend put it, “Uh, Zero Population, one, Clapton’s Layla number two?” And in my review, I ridiculed the idea that a song about limiting family size could chart. I was wrong. I’d forgotten that there was, in the mid-seventies, a song about choosing to limit the number of children in a family. It was a big hit. It reached number one. It remains today one of the most important songs ever by a massively important artist.

It’s just that it was on the country charts, not pop charts, and it was by a woman, Loretta Lynn. It was her song, The Pill. Enjoy:

It’s a breezy little number, comically defiant in tone. And it’s by Loretta Lynn, the Coal Miner’s Daughter, the most decorated woman in the history of country music. Married at 15, a grandmother at 34, a champion of blue-collar women’s issues. Released in 1975, the song unleashed a firestorm. A lot of country stations wouldn’t even play it. But Lynn also received dozens of letters from rural doctors, thanking her for doing more to educate poor women about basic contraception than anything they’d ever done; their classes, pamphlets, visits. The song accomplished what they couldn’t.

What’s wonderful about The Pill is how triumphant it is. It reminds us how liberating having affordable, reliable, medically safe birth control has been for millions, heck, billions of women. It’s one of the greatest unsung advancements in human history. But of course, there’s also been cultural pushback against the idea of women taking charge of their own fertility, including, astoundingly, today. In the seventies, The Pill was a big deal, and it was very much an issue in the LDS Church. It isn’t at all difficult to find talks, from the pulpit, in General Conference, in which men told women they were to have as many children as they could possibly manage. I knew a woman who, back in the day, was denied a temple recommend because she told her bishop she’d gone on the pill. (I also knew an LDS couple who went on the pill, got pregnant, went to their doctor, and asked how this could happen, the husband hadn’t missed a day taking that pill. True story). That wouldn’t happen now, thank heavens. Those talks now read like the relics they are. And I’m delighted for it.

But back to Saturday’s Warrior. I’m a dude, I’m a guy, I’m an inadvertent avatar of Mormon patriarchy. And in my review of the movie, I missed what should have seemed obvious; all the talk about limiting the size of one’s family takes place in conversations between men. It’s Jimmy who’s the protagonist, who writes the Zero Population song and performs it, it’s Jimmy who rejects his father’s values, it’s Jimmy who has to recant and repent and reject his big popular successful song. And yet the issue at hand, the central issue of the entire play is a women’s issue. It’s not ‘is the position Jimmy takes on the abstract political issue of zero population growth viable.’ It’s ‘should women have the right to choose to limit how many children they will bring to term and bear.’

And raise. That’s in there too. Too often, it’s women, mothers, who feel like they’re in a boxing ring, pummeled daily by the pugilists ‘Too Much To Do’ and ‘Not Enough Time’ and ‘Not Enough Money’ and ‘Physical and Mental and Emotional Exhaustion.’ And of course men are in the equation. Men can and should be actively involved in child-rearing. In some families, that’s his primary role, leaving her to advance professionally. Certainly, if a married woman wants to take steps to prevent pregnancy, she should probably inform her husband, or even, if she wants to, consult with him, counsel with him, maybe. Up to her. There are surely as many ways for families to organize themselves effectively as there are families in the world (or Church, if we want to limit the conversation).

But it’s women, uniquely women, who grow another human being inside their bodies. It’s women, uniquely women, who give birth, who descend into the valley of death and struggle heroically out again with babies in their arms. I’m a guy. My understanding of what pregnancy and childbirth, those human experiences are like, my sympathetic feeling, remains one that’s essentially abstract.

It’s so weird to me, in retrospect, that Saturday’s Warrior, a play that’s fundamentally about pregnancy and birth and family is so cluelessly patriarchal. Or that it took me so long to notice.

In the spirit of Loretta Lynn and The Pill (and One’s on the Way, and Rated X; she talked about sexuality and childbirth in a lot of her songs), all that hardcore, grounded in life, hardscrabble, lived-experience, down and gritty feminism, let’s fix Warrior. And let me add; this is completely inappropriate, for any writer to offer to fix another writer’s work. I should be ashamed of myself. I am ashamed of myself. Call it a thought experiment, call it a writing exercise. Call it me being a jerk. I still think (or have convinced myself) it’s worth doing.

The protagonist pretty much has to be either Jimmy’s Mom or his younger sister, Julie. I’m voting for Julie.

So what if. . .

Julie promises Elder Kestler she’ll faithfully wait for him, then immediately starts dating other guys. There’s a wonderful little scene in the movie between Julie and her Mom where she tells her Mom she’s gotten engaged, only she approaches it clumsily, and Mom thinks Julie’s telling her she’s pregnant. Well, okay, what if she is?

Immediately, she has a decision to make. Could be a nice song there; she wants to go to college, she has some career plans, and she’s not in love with the baby’s father, who has nonetheless offered to Do The Right Thing By Her. Can she even consider terminating the pregnancy? Given her upbringing, probably not. Should she go ahead and marry the guy? The thought fills her with dread. What should she do?

What if she decides to go all Juno, carry the baby to term, give birth, and then give the baby up for adoption? I think, given her family and given what we know of her character, that would be the most plausible scenario for her. And then we get the scene in the pre-existence, where little Emily is waiting to come to earth a Flinders, and Alex Boye has to tell her there’s another loving family who wants her, and who will raise her, who she will love as deeply as she would love her parents-by-biology. That is, of course, entirely true, the power of adoption, plus it undercuts the play’s theological squeeginess nicely. Unneatens it. Messifies it. (For some reason, I’m in coinage mode today).

Probably, to make it work, you’d have to create another subplot, with this couple, nice folks, in the preexistence, imagining a huge family (‘ten children, no, fifteen, no, twenty!’). And then they come here, and meet, and nothing. Wham; infertility. And we see them cope with that struggle. And then . . . baby Emily. Handed to them, by the play’s protagonist, Julie. Who says goodbye. And then resolutely gets on with her life. Which means her relationship with Tod, I guess, but she comes to him as an older and wiser and sadder and stronger repentant new woman.

(You probably would have to cut some of the Jimmy subplot, like maybe the whole Zero Population song, to fit all that in. Gosh, what a shame that would be.)

I think it would all work. It wouldn’t be anywhere near as popular, of course, and wouldn’t make any money, and I should probably be shot for even doing this. But it does seem to me that any text about pregnancy, or family size, or birth control needs to be from a woman’s perspective. Not mandates from the patriarchy. Insights, from actual women warriors.

 

 

Saturday’s Warrior: Movie Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The freeloader myth

One of the great mysteries of contemporary politics has been how ubiquitous and enduring the conservative narrative remains that Barack Obama is a uniquely sinister figure, a Muslim socialist terrorist-coddling America-destroying catastrophe. Often expressed in anguished cries of ‘our country can’t survive four more years of this,’ it’s frankly comical. Which explains the omnipresent “Thanks, Obama” joke.

President Obama was elected in the middle of a financial crisis of historic dimensions, which he had nothing to do with creating. His Presidency has coped with the crisis aftermath with resolution and intelligence. The economy is recovering, growing, creating jobs. By any estimation, he’s done a good job. He’s been an excellent President.

At the same time, prosperity has not blessed everyone, and for a lot of people, the last seven years have been terribly difficult. Hence the phenomenon of Donald Trump. People are angry, and that what they’re angry at can be summed up as ‘whoever’s in charge.’ Presidents make for easy targets, and voter anger is growing. And those who are feeling it, and those who respond by embracing Trump, tend to be white, rural, working class and poor.

The National Review’s Kevin Williamson took a stab at explaining why. Which, of course, since it’s TNR means an explanation compatible with movement conservatism. Guess what? It’s their fault:

It perpetuates a lie: that the white working class that finds itself attracted to Trump has been victimized by outside forces. It hasn’t. Nobody did this to them. They failed themselves. If you spend time in hardscrabble, white upstate New York, or eastern Kentucky, or my own native West Texas, and you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy, you will come to an awful realization. Nothing happened to them. There wasn’t some awful disaster. There wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence — and the incomprehensible malice — of poor white America. The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.

On top of all that, they’re dying. The death rate among white is rising. Suicide, alcoholism and opioid abuse mean that the US is unique among all industrial nations in having a sizeable sector of the population with a rising death rate. And counties with high death rates among whites also tend to swing Trump’s way electorally.

Which means that Trump’s candidacy isn’t about the supposed power of reality-show celebrity, it isn’t about the cretinous stupidity and foolish cupidity of uneducated folks, and it probably isn’t much about xenophobia and racism. It’s built on a foundation of desperation and fear and panic and hopelessness. I’m not saying that Donald Trump has any solutions to any of this. He doesn’t. But when he says he’s going to make America great again, that’s enormously appealing to people who might otherwise give up. And when conservative talk radio talks about the Obama apocalypse, it resonates. In their towns, communities, homes, life can seem pretty daggone post-apocalyptic.

But, I have to say this: National Review is wrong. The analysis in this odious article is wrong about absolutely everything, except for one sentence. What the rural poor need is precisely what the urban poor need: opportunity. Everything Williamson describes–the breakdown of families, the drug and alcohol addictions–are symptoms, not causes. In fact, Williamson’s entire article is an exercise in arrogance and false judgment; blaming the poor for their misery. The Book of Mormon offers this riposte:

Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just. But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind? Mosiah 4: 17-19

Start there. Start by refuting the way modern conservatism preaches a gospel of selfishness, the false Ayn Randian world-view of heroic achievers and worthless moochers, the 47% canard. Poor people, white or black, are not freeloaders. As Paul Krugman points out: “the argument that the social safety net causes social decay by coddling slackers runs up against the hard truth that every other advanced country has a more generous social safety net than we do, yet the rise in mortality among middle-aged whites in America is unique: Everywhere else, it is continuing its historic decline.”

What’s the answer? First and foremost, we need to recognize the sad truth that income inequality leads inexorably to opportunity inequality. The codified selfishness embodied by anti-tax fanatics like Grover Norquist, the faux compassion of Paul Ryan’s condescending description of a social safety net that becomes “a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency,” any and all explanations for poverty that blame it on the poor have to be immediately and emphatically rejected.

What’s needed are jobs, and to qualify for those jobs, education. Improved public schools, in which teachers are respected (and compensated like the dedicated professionals they are), and creativity and imagination are fostered and encouraged and rewarded, in which every child has a computer and internet access, let’s start there, in our inner cities and in our outer small rural areas. And yes, absolutely, provide social safety nets: food stamps and housing help and health care and child care for working moms.

It will mean, politically, raising taxes. It means telling the truth about trickle-down economics–which is that it doesn’t. Nothing trickles down, except misery and despair. It means abandoning, forever, the myth of welfare dependency. It means investment. It means giving people a hand up when they need it, a chance to better themselves. It means that those who rail against taxing those who have prospered in this economy need to be called out as the cowardly traitors they are.

Do you think corporate taxes could, or should be lower? (In fact, I do). All right, Mr. CEO. Here’s a list of five struggling communities. You want a tax break? Build factories in any two of them.

Donald Trump’s actual proposals, on his website, won’t help. He’s all bluster, with no real ideas. But we could enlist him. I think it’s possible he may actually care. In any event, the success of his candidacy is remarkable, and, if it leads to genuine change, could be a positive thing. But he shouldn’t be President. What we need are people in office committed to actually helping poor people. That’s the bottom line.

Let’s just recognize that the poor are still among us. And they’re dying. And their poverty is, absolutely and inequivocally, Not Their Fault.

Risen: Movie Review

Boy, this one took me by surprise. Risen is shockingly good, a low-key, grim and dusty Easter movie, a film that deals with the subject of Christ’s resurrection quietly, unsentimentally, and is all the more effective for doing so. It’s a film that confidently strides a line between naturalism and transcendence, a film where the miracles of early Christianity are treated matter-of-factly, without fanfare. It’s a Christian film, intended for an audience of Christians. As a (I hope) practicing Christian, I found it powerfully inspiring. I also respected its craftsmanship, the meticulous research into the first century of the Christian era, and the powerful acting of its outstanding cast.

Joseph Fiennes stars as Clavius, a Roman military tribune (the rank between centurion and legate), assigned to Palestine, 33 CE. He’s an efficient and effective military leader; respected by his soldiers, intelligent, organized, unsentimental and tough. He’s also sick unto death of death. His business is death, whether putting down a zealot uprising or supervising a crucifixion, and we sense his disgust with it, how the stench of dead bodies fills his nostrils. In one conversation with his immediate supervisor, the prefect Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth), he is prodded to speak of his dreams for the future; a farm outside Rome, marriage, a family: peace. But all that seems like the most distant pipe dream. He does pray, he tells Pilate, but only to Mars. Why bother with any more distracting beliefs?

Every day, it seems, he’s summoned to headquarters, so Pilate can give him another assignment. Secure the body of this crucified Nazarene. Place a guard over the tomb. And then, of course, find out how on earth that body managed to disappear. It plays like a police procedural, with Clavius doggedly tracking down every clue, every hint, every possible witness. And he’s assisted by a younger subordinate, a second-in-command-in-training, Lucius (Tom Felton. Yes, Draco Malfoy’s in the movie, using his father’s name).

And then, his investigation leads him to Mary Magdalene (Maria Botto). And from there, to a room in which the Twelve are gathered. And with them, of course, is Yeshua  (Cliff Curtis).

And Clavius remembers crucifying him. He remembers every detail of his face; he knows its the same man. Now, impossibly, alive. Alive, not even badly hurt. Scars, perfectly healed, in the right places. And he can barely process it. He knows that what he’s experiencing is impossible; he also knows it is, in fact, actually happening. Yeshua is risen. How can that be?

I love that Jesus is called, accurately, Yeshua in this film. And I love that he’s played by Curtis, a wonderful, veteran actor, who has spent his career playing various ambiguous ethnicities–a Colombian, an Arab, a Latino, the Dad in Whale Rider. In fact, he’s Maori, from New Zealand. He’s not Jewish, but his look works in this film. At least, he’s not the blonde-haired Scandinavian Jesus image my own Church so overuses. Curtis’ Yeshua has a wonderful, welcoming smile, an openness to and insight into all his disciples. In his encounter with Doubting Thomas, for example, he doesn’t so much scold him as tease him; a lovely choice. And Clavius, still unravelling a mystery, but now one with greatly expanded elements, essentially, unimaginably, goes awol. Doggedly tracked by the ever-loyal and efficient, but now seriously baffled Lucius.

It’s a film that describes the most familiar events in the Christian world. It tells a story I’ve heard since early childhood. And yet it’s also a film I found constantly, shockingly surprising. The emphasis on Clavius, this outsider, this tough, cynical professional soldier, is what holds our interest. It becomes more than just a faith-promoting story; it’s also rather a nifty mystery. Either way, though, it works.

In part, this is due to the actors; Fiennes has never been better, giving Clavius a wonderful combination of command and vulnerability. Felton and Firth are also both terrific. (As my wife said, leaving, she didn’t much like Pilate, but she felt that she understood him at every turn). I also loved Stewart Scudamore’s generous, impetuous Peter. And I loved the no-nonsense, straightforward direction of Hollywood veteran Kevin McCarthy (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Waterworld, The Count of Monte Cristo), who gives the film a consistently gritty look, and just the right, unfussy pace and rhythm, and manages to tell that familiar story without needless sanctimoniousness or adornment.

I’ll grant you that I loved this film in large measure because it confirms my own beliefs. You may react differently. Still, I’m also a film guy, and this is a wonderful film. As Christian films go, in its own quietly effective way, this is a far better film than, say, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, or those old sword-and-sandal epics from the 50s; The Robe, for example. I liked it a lot as a movie. I loved it as an affirmation of my faith.

 

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.

Hah.

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.

 

I

Kim Davis

The best things about the Kim Davis story have been the memes. Kim Davis, in case you were busy discovering water on Mars, is the Kentucky county clerk who has refused to grant marriage licenses to gay couples because, she says, of her deeply held religious convictions. Anyway, the memes have been terrific. A few favorites: Harrison Ford, holding up a sign reading ‘didn’t much care for Star Wars, did his job anyway.’ Freddy Mercury: ‘did not in fact like fat-bottomed girls, did his job anyway.’ And one featuring Congress, reading ‘US Congress, didn’t want to do their job, did . . . oh, wait, shoot, this one doesn’t work at all.’

Still, mock-worthy though Davis’ refusal has been, it’s not entirely risible. Religious liberty is an important constitutional principle. Marriage is an important institution. I wasn’t going to write about her at all, frankly, but after her visit with Pope Francis was confirmed, I thought I would toss a few random thoughts into the old Blog-Generator 2000©. With no particular coherence, and in no particular order, then:

1) Neither her physical appearance or the redneck-cliché look sported by her husband are fair game, or deserving of commentary. But her marriage history is relevant, though not for reasons often presented by our fellow lefties. Her personal story needs to be seen in the context of a conversion narrative. Once lost, now found; once a sinner, now repentant, right? Of course, there’s no reason to doubt the sincerity of her beliefs, and I think her history makes her stance more coherent; she’s been saved, in her mind, in both a spiritual and secular sense. Her life really has changed for the better, in measurable ways, because of her conversion. We should respect that.

2) I wish I could believe that Pope Francis’ visit with her was in the spirit of Jesus ministering to sinners and publicans. (While there has been some dispute about whether this visit actually happened, the Vatican has now confirmed it). This is an exceptionally cool pope; pro-science, deeply concerned with poverty and an opponent of capitalist greed. But he’s still a Pope, however progressive he may seem on a range of issues. On gay marriage, though? Not so much. This is who Francis is, this is what he stands for. Like every other pope ever, he’s infallibly fallible.

3) Let’s be very clear about what the SCOTUS decision in Obergefell did and what it did not do. It did not create new federal law. It did not ‘legislate from the bench.’ It was not a case of ‘five lawyers in Washington redefining marriage.’ The Supreme Court did exactly what it’s supposed to do: judicial review. It found laws banning same sex marriage unconstitutional, violative of the Fourteenth Amendment. That decision did have the effect of legalizing gay marriage across the country, that’s true. But there’s a small but significant between saying ‘you have to stop preventing’ these sorts of marriages and saying ‘you have to allow’ them. They add up to the same optics; deliriously happy folks celebrating their mutual, and now official, commitment. Those optics are also the main reason that public opinion on this issue has shifted so dramatically. I mean, come on.

4) But precisely because SCOTUS did find preventing gay couples from marrying unconstitutional, Ms. Davis was absolutely obligated not to unilaterally overrule their decision. Which, by denying licenses to gay couples who showed up in her office, she was attempting to do.

5) It’s perfectly obvious that Judge Bunning, the guy who jailed her for contempt, absolutely didn’t want to do that. He gave her every opportunity to comply with the Court’s decision. He made every effort to accommodate her beliefs. Her recent actions, which are to provide gay couples with marriage licenses with her name removed, are probably also illegal. This case is not over; she could easily find herself in jail again, for contempt.

6) Can we agree that the footage of Mike Huckabee’s aide physically preventing Ted Cruz from going up on stage and sharing in the ‘solidarity with Kim Davis’ photo-op love is one of the funniest takeaways so far from this political season?

7) I’m setting the over/under on how long before Kim Davis is a Jeopardy question at 18 months.