Thursday, December 17, 2009

"As you say, Sir"

For my midday entertainment, I am in the middle of a BBC series called "Jeeves and Wooster", starring the inimitable Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. I quite like it, mostly for the linguistic play that is continuous throughout every episode. Trillium walked through the family room a couple of days ago, watched for a few minutes, and walked off, muttering something about none of the characters having any admirable qualities at all. She had missed Jeeves, of course.

Jeeves, according to the story line, is a Celt, although we are never told from which part of Celtic-dom he was from. He has no Scottish brogue, none of the Irish lilt, and no Welsh aspirated consonants. We might therefore suggest that he hailed originally from Cornwall, but who knows? He is a gentleman's gentleman, a valet who watches over Bertie Wooster's circumstances with decorum and long-suffering. He is well-read, linguistically acute, and invariably has a grasp of any given situation and the manner in which any afflicted soul might be extracted. Hardly anyone realizes the genius of the man, save at the very moment of distress.

Britain continually pokes fun at itself, particularly on the subjects of class, nobility, and wealth. "Jeeves and Wooster" exploits every aspect of the cold war that exists between the classes and the sexes. Bertram Wooster and his friends are young fops who have hardly two synapses to rub together. Whenever Bertie takes a situation in hand, he invariably makes the mess increase exponentially. The matrons of the production are invariably portrayed as malignant shrews who realize that the only power they have left in the world comes by way of bullying everyone around them. Bertie's aunts constitute the embodiment of British cynicism. The patriarchs are men who are used to being obeyed in every venue except in their own homes. They have some wisdom, but they are mostly governed by bias, prejudice, and tradition. The single young women are either love-smitten fluff-heads or calculating predators waiting for the moment to strike.

In the midst of social chaos, Jeeves is the only level-headed character on the stage. He knows exactly how things should be done in order to restore sanity, but he is, in the end, only a valet. Therefore, every thing he does is subtle, a careful nudging of the rudder here and there, until all is righted. He is a singular voice of reason in a company of lunatics.

Now I find this series endearing, perhaps because it deals with the world as it is in a jocular fashion. In 44 minutes I can enjoy a "reality" show that is far more entertaining than 44 minutes of the raw stuff available through channel surfing.

If I want to watch young women in a perpetual state of cluelessness, I can turn to Channel 53 (VH1), Channel 55 (MTV), or Channel 59 (E!). If I want to see the foolishness of bigotry, tradition, and wrong-headedness, I can immediately switch to Channel 48 (MSNBC) or Channel 42 (HLN). If I want to see young men grasping the wrong end of the stick, I merely need to focus on Channels 34-37. If I have a craving for the angst between the sexes and generations, I can spend time watching Channel 30 (TLC), Channel 31 (CMT), Channel 46 (Lifetime), and Channel 60 (Style). I do not, however, ever come away edified by any of this.

So for the time being I will stick with "Jeeves and Wooster". After that I will probably have to turn to "Get Smart"

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Galileo versus DaVinci versus DeMolay

Last night, Trillium and I watched Ron Howard’s latest Robert Langdon movie “Angels and Demons”. It wasn’t bad; typical Hollywood fare, though, I am afraid. There were lots of chase scenes and a rather stellar explosion at the end; dozens of people died, generally at point blank range. As a result, the visual impact of A&D was far greater than the “Da Vinci Code”, and considerably less cerebral. We watched the special features section on the DVD where Ron and the boys tried to explain why that was the case. Ron Howard wanted to do a movie that stretched his directorial skills; something that was different from the “Da Vinci Code”. He asserted that he had never been interested in doing a sequel of any kind because that implied doing the same thing over again. But He and Dan Brown agreed that something different could be done with “Angels and Demons”; they never said what the different thing was and why it could be done. I am prepared to tell you, however.

The fact of the matter is that A&D was the first of the three Langdon novels that have been written; the “Da Vinci Code” being the second, and the “Lost Key”, published earlier this year, was the third. The “Lost Key” concerns itself with the esoteric aspects of Freemasonry as expressed in the architecture of Washington DC. While the Masons in the story are almost entirely sympathetic characters, the rituals of the fraternity are graphically represented. Were I a Mason, I might have been a little disturbed at the manner in which the Masonic symbols were rather starkly presented, most of which without explanation, without laying out the underlying history from whence the symbols developed. One comes away from the book asking one’s self, “How could these intelligent, well-educated men engage in what appear to be medieval barbarisms”. Frankly, I believe that Dan Brown’s intent was that we would walk away with that question ringing in our ears. Does Dan Brown have any personal antipathy toward Freemasonry? I doubt it. He is a story teller who found the Masons far too tempting to pass up.

The “Da Vinci Code” explored the legend of the Holy Grail in Gnostic terms. The Gnostics were primarily 2nd Century advocates of the “secret” knowledge that explained the origins of Christianity. The notion that Jesus Christ was married to Mary Magdalene has been around for hundreds of years. Some ancient texts suggest that he was also married to Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, the friend whom Jesus raised from the dead. That these women bore him children as been part of Gnostic literature for nearly 2000 years, almost since the foundation of the Christian Church in the meridian of time. Dan Brown was not introducing anything new, but he was revealing ideas that had been suppressed for generations for being heretical to Traditional Christianity. The Catholic Church took umbrage at Brown’s presentation of the Gnostic literature as fact, and was not any less distressed at the rather malignant portrayal of certain segments of Catholic culture. Does Dan Brown have any personal antipathy toward the Catholic Church? I doubt it. He is a story teller who found the Gnostic legends far too tempting to pass up.

“Angels and Demons” treats another secret organization, the Illuminati, and the involvement of such men as Galileo, Bernini, and Raphael. The underlying tension in the story is that which seems to exist between science and religion, some of which played out four hundred years ago in the life of Galileo. The irony of Brown’s theme, however, is that of all of the denominations of traditional Christianity, Catholicism is far more at ease with scientific research and discovery.

Much of this attitude derives from the writings of one of the finest, if not the finest, theological minds that has ever graced the Catholic Church: Saint Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican priest who lived during the 13th Century. His “Summa Theologica” came to inform almost all Catholic philosophy, a work that is based on the Aristotelian approach to truth, the same philosophical approach that informs modern science. Prior to the 13th Century, the greatest Catholic thinker was probably Saint Augustine, a neo-Platonist who lived during the second half of the 4th Century and the first half of the 5th Century. For eight centuries, from Augustine to Aquinas, the Catholic approach to doctrinal philosophy followed in the same path established by Augustine in his “The City of God” and “On Christian Doctrine”.

When the Protestant Reformers sought for recognition, they essentially rejected Thomas Aquinas and Aristotelianism, and turned to the kind of Neo-Platonist approach that Augustine had advocated. For five centuries, from the 15th Century to modern times, the conflict between Protestantism and Catholicism has been fundamentally the same as that which naturally existed between the Greek philosophers, Aristotle and Plato. Therefore, Protestants tend to be far more offended by scientific thought than are Catholics. Hence, to find in Brown’s Camerlengo, the advisor to the Pope, a rabid Platonist, a reactionary to Aquinan thought, is almost too much to swallow. Brown overstepped himself a little there.

The “Da Vinci Code” is a far more cerebral volume than is “Angels and Demons” and while it does have some action, the real power of the writing is in the pursuit of the Grail legend. “Angels and Demons” is more of a thriller, a story that takes place during a twelve-hour period, an hour by hour race to save the lives of the four Cardinals and to find the anti-matter bomb. The Illuminati legend is not as richly important as was the Grail legend and as a result, there is not as much philosophy to discuss. The books, therefore, differ radically in their pacing and focus. Ron Howard perceived that difference between the two novels and saw how “Angels and Demons” could be a “different” movie. The irony here is that although the movie is different from the “Da Vinci Code”, it is very much like every other action/adventure movie that Hollywood has cranked out in the last thirty years or so. It will be interesting to see whether Ron Howard can perceive another “difference” in the “Lost Key” that would compel him to direct the third movie.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Love Over Parklane West

A week or so ago, I finished watching the third season of “Psych”. I actually like the series. The concept is interesting: a fellow who has such observation skills that he can resolve mysterious crimes with great ease. He, of course, is faking his psychic talent, but his detective abilities are off the chart. There is in the series a wonderful tension, however, one that has been used to good effect in many previous shows and will no doubt find expression in future productions. The protagonist, Shawn Spencer (played by James Roday), is secretly interested in the junior detective of the Santa Barbara Police Department, Juliet “Jules” O’Hara (played by Maggie Lawson). As it turns out, Juliet has some mutual interest as well, but any opportunity to explore their feelings is usually frustrated by the other characters or the plot of the story. The third season ended with a forth-right Juliet suggesting that maybe they should pursue the romantic situation a little. This, unfortunately, was overshadowed by the fact that Shawn was at that very moment, in the middle of a date with his high school sweetheart, Abigail Lytar, a girl that he had originally left in the lurch many years before. Shawn wants to take Juliet up on her offer with all of his heart, but he cannot bear to embarrass Abigail again. Season Four continues in that same spirit.

The series “Chuck” also has a similar unrequited love tension. Chuck Bartowski (played by Zachary Levi) is smitten by one of his federal “handlers”, Sarah Walker (played by Yvonne Strahovski). Sarah is constrained by her job; Chuck is constrained by his shyness. The truth is that they both want to find some common ground, but any attempt to do so is broken up by Sarah’s partner, Major John Casey (wonderfully played by Adam Baldwin) or by the nefarious plot lines. Everyone wants the relationship, but everyone knows that it would ruin the show. What a conundrum!

Last night I finished another novel by Alexander McCall Smith entitled “Love Over Scotland”. This book is the third in a series called “44 Scotland Street”. In my opinion, McCall Smith hasn’t written anything finer. The books are engaging, the characters charming, even the most annoying person has redeeming qualities. One of the protagonists is a young woman named Pat who is an assistant at an art gallery run by Matthew. Matthew is painfully shy, even though he is extraordinarily wealthy. Through the first two volumes of the series, and most of the third book, Matthew has one distress after another as he watches Pat suffer through her trials and tribulations. He is inclined to care for her, but he doesn’t want to be misunderstood. Toward the end of the novel, both Pat and Matthew realize that there may just be a chance for them together. When that realization appeared in print I almost shouted out loud for joy. McCall Smith had set me up, of course, and I was particularly susceptible to his ruminations on love. I wish to share a few of the most poignant with you.

Antonia, a new character in the series, is a writer of novels about ancient Celtic saints, who has endured a dreadful marriage and is finally coming into her own. She is flat-sitting her friend’s apartment while the latter is off doing anthropological work on the Malacca Straits pirates (a most entertaining adventure, I might add). She briefly meets a six-year old named Bertie, a gifted linguist and accomplished saxophone player. Here is her reflection on her encounter:

She thought back to that little boy, to Bertie, and now she saw what it was about him that made him so appealing: he spoke the truth. Candour was so attractive because we were so accustomed to obfuscation and deceit, to what they call spin. Everything about our world was becoming so superficial. All around us there were actors. Politicians were actors, keeping to a script, condescending to us with their brief sound-bites, employing all sorts of smoke and mirrors to prevent their ordinary failings from being exposed…. Light, clarity, integrity. Every so often one saw them, and in such surprising places. So she had seen it in that peculiar conversation with the little boy on the stair. She had seen candour and honesty and utter transparency. But you had to be a child to be like that today, because all about us was the most pervasive cynicism; a cynicism that eroded everything with its superficiality and its sneers. And a little child might remind us of what it is to be straightforward, to be filled with love, and with puzzlement.

When I read that, I wanted to be a child; I didn’t want to be part of that adult world that manipulates the truth to its own advantage. I wanted to be straightforward, filled with love.

Sometime during this past week, Trillium asked me about the title of the book, “Love Over Scotland”. “What does it mean?” I told her that I did not know exactly, but I was certain that Alexander would get to it eventually. He did, and it raised some questions in my heart and mind. A paragraph after Antonia’s thoughts about Bertie, she thought about another character in the book, Angus Lordie, a man she initially found absurd; in this she was somewhat justified.

When Dominica came back, Antonia thought, I shall do something to show her how much I value our friendship. And Angus Lordie, too. He’s a lonely man, and a peculiar one, but I can show him friendship and consideration too. And could I go so far as to love him? She thought carefully. Women always do this, she said to herself. Men don’t know it, but we do. We think very carefully about a man, about his qualities, his behavior, everything. And then we fall in love.

I wondered if that was what Trillium did 42 years ago. It had never occurred to me how exactly she made that decision to be my wife. If Alexander McCall Smith is right, if that is the way women choose those with whom they fall in love, then I have not received a greater compliment in my entire life.

Right at the end of the book, Pat and Domenica are talking about a wonderful thing that Matthew had done for Big Lou, the woman who owned the coffee shop down the street:

“And was Big Lou pleased?”

“Very,” said Pat. “She hugged him. She lifted him up, actually, and hugged him.”

Domenica smiled. “It very easy,” she said. “It’s very easy, isn’t it?”


“To increase the sum total of human happiness. By these little acts. Small things. A word of encouragement. A gesture of love. So easy.”

The book ends with a dinner party in Domenica’s flat where Angus reads one of his poems. It is about maps, geographical and personal. Here are the final lines, which speak for themselves.

Old maps had personified winds
Gusty figures from whose bulging cheeks
Trade winds would blow; now we know
That wind is simply a matter of isobars;
Science has made such things mundane,
But love – that, at least, remains a mystery,
Why it is and how it comes about
That love’s transforming breath, that gentle wind,
Should blow its healing way across our lives.

Love, unrequited or not, is worth the effort.

Thursday, October 29, 2009


I watched the first hour of a movie last night. I decided that I was too old to watch the rest in one sitting. I will try again later in the week. The story line was mildly interesting. A young man, somewhat reminiscent of Orson Wells played by Thomas Jacob Black, wants to make an epic movie, but the whole project quickly begins to fall apart. By the time I got to the 59:48 point in the film, the soundman and one of the other production assistants had been brutally murdered. “A fine movie for Halloween,” I said to myself. Then suddenly, I realized that I recognized one of the actors. I was not certain who it was, but I knew that I had seen him somewhere else. The interesting thing was that the character seemed completely out of his element; that is to say, I was suspicious that his normal venue was not high drama. I stopped the movie to look at the case and discovered that I was right. The fellow normally plays outrageous comedic characters in the movies. Those of you who are his fans already know that Thomas Jacob Black is professionally known as Jack Black, the star of “Shallow Hal”, Nacho Libre”, School of Rock”, and many other comedies. In filming “King Kong”, Peter Jackson did little to disguise one of his major stars. He correctly surmised that Black’s acting talent in a serious drama would be sufficient to persuade the audience that “Carl Denham” was in the movie and not Jack Black. For my money, both Jackson and Black succeeded.

Oddly enough, I thought about the notion of effective disguises throughout the whole night. I probably dreamed about it, too, but I cannot recall everything that my brain serves up to me during those magical hours. I decided, however, that there have been four times in my life that I have disguised myself so effectively that no one was certain who was beneath the disguise.

The first time happened when I was twelve or thirteen years old. The community where I grew up had long before decided that if they wished to minimize the ancillary damage associated with Halloween they had to get the kids to a party with high-energy activities so as to burn them out before midnight. They were only marginally successful. During my thirteenth year, mother and sister thought that it would be funny to dress me up in a frilly dress that had been handed down through the family and, with the application of copious amounts of makeup and a wig, pass me off as Judie’s cousin who was visiting for the holidays. I was equipped with the usual prosthetics (oranges) and taken down to The Oaks where the party was raging. I was shy, somewhat demur I suppose. Judie had no trouble introducing me to all of the kids. I don’t remember what kind of costume she was wearing, but it didn’t make her shy or demur. The charade went on for about an hour and then I couldn’t take it anymore. It wasn’t the notion of being a cross-dresser; that word hadn’t even come into the language yet. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy not being recognized; I love a mystery as well as anyone. It was the way that the boys, my closest friends, were looking at me. They thought I was a girl. They looked at me as if I were a girl. I did not like it. I wondered if I had ever looked at a girl the way those boys were looking at me. I wondered if girls were aware enough to know how boys looked at them and if they knew what those looks meant. I decided as a young teenager that there must be a better way to appreciate women than merely ogle them.

The second effective disguise took place while Trillium and I were living in Garden Grove, California, as relatively young marrieds. We were invited to go to a friend’s house for a rather large party; scores of our close acquaintances were going to be there. I thought to go as Frankenstein’s monster, but that would have been typecasting and not much fun. I couldn’t manage shy and demur under those circumstances. Then Trillium came up with an idea. “Why don’t you go as a pile of leaves?” She brought an orange sheet, pinned hundreds of paper leaves to it, and then stuffed twenty or thirty large balloons underneath with me. By crouching down and shuffling along, my costume and I were no more than three feet tall. Just as we got to the front door, I climbed underneath the sheet, waited until Trillium was safely inside, and then rang the doorbell. Our hostess was startled by my appearance. I did not say anything, but she invited me in anyway. I made my way over to a corner and waited…. and waited…. and waited. After about an hour I gave it up. My costume was more than effective. No one had any idea who was beneath the sheet. On the other hand, I was starting to get cramps in my legs from crouching down. Additionally, I had not been able to talk to anyone the entire time, nor had I had any refreshments. A great costume, probably the best ever invented, but my brain had made promises that my body couldn’t keep. At least no one was ogling me.

The third instance happened at Purdue University. I had been responsible for helping to organize a “50s” dance for Halloween. I had all of the appropriate records and the DJ equipment. In order to make the event more fun, the committee announced that the famous DJ “Wolfman Jack” would be at the party. I eventually acquired all of the appropriate clothes, wigs, and facial hair to make the disguise work. The party started and for an hour and a half I introduced all of the records using the famous “Wolfman Jack” gravelly voice. Throughout the evening everyone around me was asking “Where’s Zaphod? He’s supposed to be in charge”. One of my conspirators, probably Trillium, spread the rumor that I had come down with the flu and was home sick. Eventually I stood up and said with what was left of my voice, “Well, I’m done!” Everyone was surprised and fun was had by all. I quit because the wig and the facial hair were driving me crazy. I was hot and sweaty from the wardrobe as well. “How does Robert Weston Smith do this every night?” I asked myself. Adding insult to injury, I was stuck with WMJ’s voice for about two weeks thereafter.

The fourth instance actually happens every morning when I get up and look at myself in the mirror. “When did this all happen?” I say. “Where is the guy who used to look back at me out of the mirror? This guy looks like he is wearing a fat suit, and it is really life-like. Someone should get an Academy Award for this!”

I guess that I am now officially in disguise at age 67. We had friends visit us a couple of years ago, friends whom we had not seen for more than twenty years. The first words out of Velda’s mouth were, “Why, Zaphod, you haven’t changed a bit! You look just like you did when you showed up on our doorstep in 1961!” I replied, “Why, Velda, you have really changed a lot. Back then you could actually see with those eyes!”

I went with the Young Men and Young Women in our neighborhood to visit Temple Square a while back. I was sitting off to the side, listening to one of the lady missionaries give her little lecture, when I was approached from behind. “Dr. Beeblebrox? Hi, I’m Seth Jones. I was in one of your classes at the University two years ago. This is my wife Jan and our baby boy, Jamie.” I said that I was happy to see him again and wished him and his family the best. On the spur of the moment I asked him how it was that he recognized me from across the Tabernacle with my back to him. “Oh! That’s easy! No one has a head shaped like yours, especially from the back.”

Who knew? I guess I am going to have to eat foods that will pad my skull if I really wish to be incognito.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Non-Singers in the Choir

When Trillium and I were young married students attending Brigham Young University, we lived in Springville, Utah. The fellow who directed the Church choir taught music at the high school and was one of the most masterful directors I have known throughout my long life. Trillium and I joined the choir along with our friends David and Jennie. I was a tenor in those days and delighted in attempting to live up to our director’s expectations. I sat next to David who, for all of his enthusiasm, was completely tone deaf. He was almost continuously off-key, but he forged ahead with great gusto. David’s clarion call of non-conformity did not go unnoticed by the director and he spent much time working with the tenors so as to get some sort of semblance of correctness from us all. I think that David was oblivious to his lack of talent and I am certain that he wondered who was singing amiss that our leader was spending so much time with us. Oddly enough, by the time we were to perform, David had managed to get within a third or a fifth of where we were all supposed to be and our director had achieve sainthood.

From time to time I have performed with other choirs and ensembles wherein someone was not quite with it. In some cases that fact was strenuously pointed out without mercy and with very little patience. Often the offender would not return after a few sessions. I knew for myself that with some effort, even the most egregiously tone-deaf singer could be whipped into line. I fear that some of these other directors and leaders did not achieve sainthood.

There have been two other talented men who have demonstrated much of the same kind of patience and kindness towards those who would be singers. Years ago I met a fellow in Southern California who had a specialized group called the Grandland Singers. Douglas Brenchley was one of those individuals who had so much enthusiasm for music that no amount of dissonance could wear him out; at least that was the case in my presence. I remember sitting in one of his choirs in the MacKay Building at UVSC when the person announcing the program mentioned Doug by name stating that my friend was capable of making broom handles sing. Being somewhat shaped like a rather stout broom handle I enjoyed the compliment. Doug has since retired from service at UVSC, but he still has occasional opportunities to lead young men and women into rather stellar performances. The notable aspect of his tenure was even though he had a premier choir that one had to audition for, yet there were at least two other choirs that anyone could join and perform in. Everyone who wished to raise their voices was allowed to do so, even though the chandeliers would shake and the fine china would rumble.

In our congregational choir here in Orem I have had the pleasure of being directed by Gordon Jessop, a cousin of Craig Jessop who for a long time directed the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. I have watched Gordon closely and can testify as to his patience in attempting to get 35 people all singing off the same sheet of music. No one in my life has been as kind to an offending singer as is Gordon. I rejoice to be in his company. Two of my daughters and one of my grandchildren presently sing in the choir and after the first of the year I will be able to rejoin the group.

I have thought about what I might do if some unthinking soul were to put me in charge of a choir again. I have come up with a solution. Everyone can participate in this system

May we all be as creative and as tender-hearted to the gifted and to those less gifted as those who inspired this program.

Friday, October 9, 2009


I was caused to introspect today, in part because I finished a book that I have been reading for the last week or so. I usually read just before going to sleep, but the author captured my imagination so much last night that I had to finish the book today. It was a tough read; about 300 pages after the 230 I had already put away. I am an inveterate reader; I have been since I was a child. Of the books that I have in my library, I think that it is safe to say that I have read 95% of them. There is something wonderful about watching another mind work until, of course, the story becomes so fascinating that the read becomes vicarious living, as did the final half of this book.

I write as well as read. I think that some people have concluded that I write because I love the sound of my fingers pattering away on my keyboard. Hence, both the length and the unintelligibly of my pieces. The truth is that I think that I have meaningful things to say, perhaps even unique things to say, and I wish to preserve them. I started out by producing reference books. I did many of these. After composing my 1200-page doctoral dissertation, I began a project of research that ended up as an eleven-volume glossary of J.R.R. Tolkien's invented languages. Since I could not remember for very long any one of the entries, I put each linguistic element into a computer file and eventual printed them all off. The main set of seven volumes can be found in libraries all over the world, even though there are less than 200 copies of the work. It is a wonderful thing to walk into a major library where my books are prominently displayed and recognize them for what they are.

I compilied other reference works after that, having to do with my professional pursuits. Again, there was a relatively small audience, but it tickled me every time I walked into a room where one of these rare volumes was shelved.

I have written poems and short stories, some of which have actually seen the light of day, published by people other than myself. I am grateful when editors have understood and valued my take on a notion. I have delivered papers in conferences throughout the United States, in Canada, and Great Britain, many of which have been published by appreciative audiences and societies. A Google of my full name will produced a list referencing about half of what I have done during the past fifty years. The results of this sort of search will produce a six to ten-page printout. I have thought myself fortunate to have lived in a day where I can write about blood diseases, art, music, and scriptures and have those ruminations be accessed by hundreds of people located in more than fifty nations around the world. It is easy to get just a little giddy thinking about the potential. However, my reading today snapped my emotional chain just a little.

Joseph Fort Newton, a prominent Mason, has stated,

"Time is a river and books are boats. Many volumes start down that stream, only to be wrecked and lost beyond recall in its sands. Only a few, a very few, endure the testings of time and live to bless the ages following. Tonight we are met to pay homage to the greatest of all books--the one enduring Book which has traveled down to us from the far past, freighted with the richest treasure that ever any book has brought to humanity. What a sight it is to see five hundred men gathered about an open Bible- -how typical of the spirit and genius of Masonry, its great and simple faith and its benign ministry to mankind."

I read a portion of this quote in Dan Brown's latest novel "The Lost Symbol", the book that I finished today. Dan only quoted the first three sentences in Newton's opening paragraph and was intent on making a point just a little different from that of its author. I thought that it was important that you feel the spirit of the original. I am not a Mason, but I know a great deal about its history. I have had close friends who were Masons, others who were members of the Eastern Star, DeMolay, and Job's Daughters. They invariably have been good people with high standards in their dealings with their fellow men. All of these observations about Freemasonry, however, constitute an unavoidable aside.... Pardon me for that.

After reading John Fort Newton's quote in Brown's book, I think that I had a bit of a reality check. I projected myself fifty years into the future. Which, if any, of my scribblings will remain among the children of men? Some of my works are nicely bound, but I am afraid that they will not endure the ravages of time. Time and again I have been reminded of this fact and yet I am inclined to forget it. I cannot bear the reality. In the end, the ruminations and philosophies of men, mine included, will fade on brittle paper, crumble and fall away into the elements from whence they come. Who in this world would see to the copying of anything that I have written? I have concluded that probably no one in their right mind would do so.

If my writing will not endure beyond a generation, what will be the significance of my life, the things that I have learned for myself, ideas that I wished to instill in the hearts and minds of other? I would like to believe that they are worthwhile, that I am worthwhile, that every sentient being on this planet is worthwhile. I have concluded that there is only one thing that can be done. I have shared as a parent; I have taught as a teacher. These I have done with joy; I may still do so in the venues left to me. If I have done well, something of myself has been imparted, one candle lighting another, that candle perhaps eventually igniting the wicks of hundreds of other candles. The only mortal legacy that we have to offer is a little point of light, a solitary life, one flickering flame that with a little effort can be the means of driving the darkness from this lost and fallen world.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Where Everyone Else Has Gone Before

Saturday, Trillium and I went to see Star Trek at the dollar theater. In some respects, this was a first for me. I had seen all of the other Star Trek movies within the first or second showing of the films on the first day of their release. I am a Trekkie! So what! The fact that I did not see the movie during the first week (as did my two sons) did not particularly distress me. I thought "Good for them; good for me!"

In preparation for Saturday's jaunt, I had watched all of the Original Series (all 79 episodes)and first six of the Star Trek movies. What a waste of time! The opening scene of the movie saw to that. The dingbat Romulans and Spock obviated any advantage that I might have otherwise gained in the enjoyment of the movie. The whole Star Trek universe had its reset button pushed and everything, just about everything worth knowing about Star Trek trivia, was dumped into the trash can. Was I upset? Not at all. Now the boys at Paramount can do anything they want, assuming that anyone would be interested in a newly created worldview of the 23rd century. Most Trekkies like to argue about the sharpness of the blade of Kodos the Executioner and how many tribbles can dance on the head of a pin. All that is mercifully behind us now.

My hesitancy to going to the theater in the first place was borne out shortly after the previews began. The sound was loud, disruptive, and the dialogue was almost impossible to distinguish from any other sound effect going on. When I buy the DVD, I will sit down in the family room and suit myself as to the auditory intensity. I walked out of the theater somewhat more stunned than entertained.

Having said all of the foregoing, did I like the story? Not bad! The new actors have not yet become endearing, probably because they could all be my grandchildren. The fellow that played Doctor McCoy, Karl Urban, worked, however, even though they had him saying some really cheesy lines that only DeForest Kelley should have spoken. His personality worked, as did his mild southern accent. I was intensely amused by the series of events that supposedly gave him the nick-name "Bones".

Zachary Quinto's Spock was okay. A little too emotional, I suppose, but that was an integral part of the story. It took a long time for Leonard Nimoy to settle into the part that made him a SciFi icon. Nimoy really didn't have him down until the first movie. The charm in this piece, though probably the most disturbing, was the love interest between Spock and Uhura. That was really inexplicable, but worked nonetheless. It was certainly better than the unnerving romance between Scotty and Uhura that took place on Bill Shatner's watch in the fifth movie.

Chekov and Sulu were hard to picture, but the accents worked, sort of. Sulu's hand-to-hand combat joke worked, not once but twice. Who knew the Romulans were packing blades? Scotty was funny, but not in the James Doohan way. That was a breath of fresh air. Bruce Greenwood's Christopher Pike was the stable focus of the movie; great casting, good acting. Spock's parents didn't work for me, probably because I liked Mark Leonard so much as the quintessential Vulcan.

The Kirk persona must have been deeply troubled by his father's death at the hands of the Romulans. I had great difficulty trying to equate the two Kirk's. And I thought that the depiction of the reprogramming of the Kobayashi Maru scenario was sophomoric and not nearly as clever as it should have been. The Kirk of TOS would have been far more subtle and devious. As a treatise on a young man crawling back from a series of social and academic blunders, I thought that the story worked, but it was not James Tiberias Kirk.

Casting Zoe Saldana as Nyota Uhura was a stroke of pure genius and was completely in keeping with the casting of female actresses throughout the Original Series. She had Nichelle Nichols' edge as well and her persona would have persuaded any red-blooded American boy in the 23rd century to study linguistics.

Will the boys at Paramount come up with another movie? Could be, but I hope that the characters settle down a little.

Friday, September 18, 2009


I have been a fan of Alexander McCall Smith for a good many years. Like many readers, I was introduced to his prose through “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency”, but I have since consumed much of his other publications as well. The Botswana series is consistently delightful. The characters are endearing, filled with genuine sentiments, simple in an exalted way. I thought that the other series would bring as much pleasure as the first. In some respects that has been true.

The protagonist of “The Sunday Philosophy Club”, Isabel Dolhousie, is not nearly as charming as Precious Ramotswe, not nearly as innocent, nor is she filled with the same sort of joi d’vivre. She is, however, a moral philosopher and therefore the narrative of each novel is filled with an exploration of moral dilemmas, usually on an extremely personal level. I am afraid that some of Isabel’s moral choices disturb me, but I suppose that was McCall Smith’s intent. The application of moral values is far more difficult a process than the mere discussion of them. A discussion frequently becomes heated; the application frequently is humbling.

The “44 Scotland Street” series is considerably less-high flown than “The Sunday Philosophy Club”. The female protagonist is considerably younger than those in the first two series, a young woman still pursuing her education at the University of Edinburgh. The delight in this series revolves around the eccentricities of the other characters in the story. The twenty-year-old Pat MccGregor seems to be the only normal person in her world. Everyone else is wonderfully odd. I suspect that every personality quirk that Smith has ever encountered in his life is finding voice in this series. None of the characters are depraved, but all of them have some sort of bizarre trait or weakness that speaks to some aspect of the human condition. The reader never feels sorry for any of them, but rejoices in having come to know them.

The fourth series, “The 2 ½ Pillars of Wisdom” is comprised of three volumes: “Portuguese Irregular Verbs”, “The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs”, and “At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances”. The titles reveal something of the spirit of the books. Of all of the writings of Alexander McCall Smith, I found these to be the most appealing to me. In the first place, the protagonist, Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, is a linguist whose moderate claim to fame has been his 1200 page work on Iberian philology. He has not received the accolades that he thought that he deserved for his masterpiece and therefore engages in somewhat paranoid thought and activity. Inasmuch as my own particular claim to fame also involved a 1200 page masterpiece, a three volume work on J.R.R. Tolkien’s creative linguistics, Professor von Igelfeld’s circumstances resonate within me. Igelfeld is clearly demented and borders on insanity, yet he has his moments of insight. I rather suspect that the protagonist’s personality is a concatenation of every academic that Alexander McCall Smith every met, including, no doubt, much of his own personal experience as a university faculty member. The three books are a monument to the frustration and dangers of living in the “ivory towers” of academe.

All of this came to mind this past week as I watched the opening episodes of “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” that has been airing on HBO during the year. The BBC had brought the series to life, with Jill Scott portraying Precious Ramotswe. I had not realized how invested I had become in the world that Alexander McCall Smith created in his series set in Botswana. The BBC did the only reasonable thing by filming the entire series in southern Africa. Smith’s vivid description of the land and the people prepared me for the production. I have to confess that I had not been watching the first episode fifteen minutes before three little tears had appeared at the corners of my eyes. In many respects I felt at home. Part of the feeling came from several years of reading the books, remembering the undeniable love that Precious had for her homeland, a pure and natural patriotism that did not involve politics. It was her connection with the land and all living things upon it that delighted her. The other sensations for me had to do with two separate occasions in my own life when I lived in areas that were visually similar.

As a little boy, I spent my summers in Imperial Valley with my grandparents. My Grandfather Gaskill was a rural mail carrier in Calipatria, California. Throughout the 1950s I spent hours with him driving about the surrounding farms on dusty roads delivering mail in his old right-hand drive Studebaker. Some of the living conditions of the Mexican farm laborers were not much better than those just outside of Gaborone, Botswana. Notwithstanding their visual poverty, the men were universally friendly to my grandfather, delighting in the mail that he brought to them from their families far away. The spirit of that time and place was duplicated in the filming of Smith’s stories. I suddenly found that I had come to love Botswana as I loved my own grandfather. It was a surprising connection.

Many years later, I spent two years or so among the people of southern Mexico, living with them, teaching them. At that time, the country was deeply divided between the very wealthy and the extremely poor. A middle class was beginning to appear in those days, but the vast majority of the people were living in conditions not much different from those portrayed of Botswana. Notwithstanding the great deprivation in material goods, the Mexican people were loving and kind, full of hope and pure desire, not unlike that which the BBC managed to capture on film in their series. The Mexican people were deeply patriotic for much of the same reasons given for Precious Ramotswe’s patriotism. They loved the land and all things that dwelt upon it. I came to feel the same way.

I will watch the rest of the first season during the weeks to come. I am hopeful that my mind and my heart will continue to be as engaged as they were in the beginning. It is a precious thing to be enabled, to find commonality with places and people a half a world away. Great writers bring people together.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Three Muses

Trillium and I had the opportunity to be in the company of one of the icons of the College of Humanities last Thursday. Richard G. Ellsworth served in the English Department while I was working on my Bachelors and Masters degrees at Brigham Young University. After completing the purpose for the which we spent an hour and a half with him, our conversation turned to another of the faculty members with whom I had had a close working relationship. I was saddened to hear that he had died a year ago, that I had been unaware of his funeral. I would have liked to have attended. For the last few days I have given thought to the great teachers in my life, those who had shaped my own teaching style. Three immediately came to mind.

Dean Bruington taught music in Chino, California, first in the whole city school system and then later only at the High School. I took my first lessons in the clarinet from Mr. Bruington during the fourth grade at Richard Gird Elementary School. I have no idea how long it took me to get passed the rather odious sounds that a neophyte woodwind player makes on his way to limited proficiency. The extraordinary thing of it was that Mr. Bruington tolerated all of it, from all of us, for the next three years. I am certain that we had concerts, perhaps the parents came to them, perhaps the students at the school came. I remember none of it. I suppose that neither the parents nor the students really wanted to either. No doubt hope sprang eternal and they all anticipated that by the time we all went to the Junior High School, more than passing progress would have been made.

I remember that there was a music room for the band and orchestra at the Junior High, which was a tremendous improvement over the cafeteria at the elementary school. Whereas in the cafeteria we sounded like we were playing in a cavern, in the band room we were able to focus every musical error right into our own ears. Junior High was a desperate time for teenagers passing through the early stages of puberty and the music was not helping a lot. At the High School, the music facilities were housed in their own building very far away from the rest of the academic buildings and twice as far from the sports complex. It was a new campus and the Board of Education had anticipated the arrival of all those they had heard in the cafeteria during the previous five years.

Mr. Bruington, however, had confidence in us. We were a small school, with a marching band of about seventy or so, an orchestra of about sixty, and a swing band of about twenty-five. I played either clarinet or tenor saxophone in the three main venues. In the concert band (which was what the marching band was called when it wasn’t moving), I sat in the first chair of the front row just to the left hand of Mr. Bruington while he conducted us. I have to say that while I was a pretty good clarinetist, good tone and control, I was not particularly gifted in the ability to sight read. I would go home with new music and try to figure out what was going on with the notes on the page and usually failed miserably. On those days when we were to practice the piece for the first time, I would sit in my chair, scrunched down a bit, and would fake my part for a while as the rest of the band blithely went their own way. Eventually, I would hear that which I should be doing and then I usually could play it perfectly. I played clarinet by ear. Mr. Bruington tolerated that for about five weeks in my first semester as a Freshman. I remember vividly the day my formula for faking my way through rehearsal came to an end. The band was at full throttle, I was whimpering my way through the fingering of the new piece, when suddenly Dean Bruington stopped everyone with a wave of his baton. He looked down from the podium and said, “Zaphod, I can’t hear you. I can hear every other person in this room, even ones that I really would rather not hear, and yet though you are seated just two feet from my ears, there doesn’t appear to be anything happen with that instrument of yours.”

The eyes of the other sixty-nine members of the band were focused on me. I explained that I had spent hours practicing, trying to figure out what I should be playing, but had not been able to work it out.

“So you thought that by not playing that you would somehow be contributing to the success of the band.”

I said that must be it. Fourteen year olds will agree to just about anything when everyone in the room is looking at them. Then Dean Bruington said something to me that went down into my heart like fire.

“Zaphod, listen to me well. If you play so that I can’t hear you, I can’t help you get any better. Play your mistakes loud, own up to them, and then I can help you get it right.” The next three years were glorious.

When I came home from Mexico and began my schooling at Brigham Young, the first religion class that I took was from a fellow named Ivan J. Barrett. My practice in all of my classes was to sit in the front row of the classroom slightly to the left of the podium, a hangover, I suppose, from my days as a clarinetist. Ivan was the most dynamic teacher I had ever met. He was constantly in motion, stalking the front section of the room like a tiger in a cage. He had a habit of demonstrating aspects of the lesson with his person. If the subject of the day’s lesson involved a prophet standing on the wall of a city and condemning the inhabitants thereof, he would jump up on the top of the table where his notes were and begin shouting at us, pointing his finger at us one by one, as he called us all to repentance. I vaguely remember him throwing something at someone at the back of the room who had fallen asleep, but that may have been in my health class where the teacher was far less dynamic.

Ivan J. Barrett was a short fellow with the body structure of Lou Costello, but with none of Lou’s self-depreciating shyness. Frequently, as he was marching up and down next to the front row, he would propound a stimulating question or make a stunning declaration of some kind about the passage of scripture that we were reviewing and then point to one of the students in the third or fourth row and say, “What do you think about that, Brother Jones? Hmmm?” For the first few weeks there was generally a marked silence in the room, everyone holding their breath to see if Steven Jones could come up with an answer that would satisfy Brother Barrett. Someone trapped beneath that penetrating glance of Ivan’s eye generally reacted as if they were an insect that had just been mounted in a collection. The front row seemed to be exempt… for a while. I remember that on many an occasion after the first month, Ivan Barrett would pause directly in front of my chair and skewer someone a few rows back, point his finger, ask his question, wait for the response, and then when everyone was preparing to relax he would drop his eyes to mine and bellow, “Oh? Interesting! What do you think of Brother Shepherd’s answer, Brother Beeblebrox?” And then he would grill me for three or four minutes about my opinion, with a bit of whimsy playing on his lips and a sparkle in his eyes. I never fell asleep in his class even though it was just after lunch and there was no air conditioning in the room.

In my own teaching, I picked up not a few of Ivan’s mannerisms, the misdirected glance being one of my favorites. I brought into my pedagogical style a lot of his flamboyance and I think that my students rather enjoyed it, for the most part. I remember once, though, that someone in one of the groups I had been teaching came up to me afterwards and said with a bit of a huff in her voice, “You sounded just like a Baptist preacher!” I had not been trying to be just like a Baptist preacher; I had known a lot of Baptist preachers growing up and none of them had ever inspired me to teach like they did. I guess that I was the next best thing; I was a Barrettist preacher. I think that Ivan would have just laughed out loud at the suggestion that he taught like a Baptist minister.

When I began my Masters program in the English Department at Brigham Young University, I was given John Edward McKendrick as my Chairman. I think that I took every subject that he ever taught at the University. I met with him frequently in his office as I was approaching my defense and the completion of the rest of the requirements for the degree. There were three things that were particularly unnerving about Jack McKendrick’s office. First, there was hardly any room to negotiate pedestrian travel in his office. Almost all of the floor, the entire desk and all furniture, save for two chairs, were always filled with piles of papers, books, and other detritus so that the visit was always accompanied by an impending doom, a potential flood of printed works, an ineluctable wave of wood pulp. Richard Ellsworth said that he himself was afraid to go in there without some sort of flotation device. The second point of intimidation was that on the back of the office door there was mounted a full-sized color photograph of Bela Lugosi dressed as Dracula with a caption that said, “I vant to bite yourrr neck!!!!” I seldom looked at that door while visiting with Jack, but the terror was almost as bad facing in the opposite direction.

Professor McKendrick did have one piece of furniture that was entirely unencumbered with student papers or books. He had a low stand, within arm’s reach, upon which was a Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (Unabridged). As we would talk about my various projects, from time to time he would hold up his hand and say, “Just a moment, Mr. Beeblebrox, I want to check something.” He would then mutter something in relation to a word that I had just used in the conversation and open “The Dictionary”, run his finger down a couple of columns until he had found what he was looking for. “Hmmmm!” he would say with his back to me, “It seems that you have escaped this time!” Then he would turn back to me with exactly that same expression that I knew was on the picture behind me. The first couple of times this happened to me, I was almost beside myself with fear. After a couple of weeks of this, however, I was so depleted in adrenaline that when he did it to me again, I just started to giggle, and then to laugh right out loud. He laughed right along with me and for the first time I knew that Jack McKendrick was on my side and that he did not want me to fear the system that I had become a part of. He frequently caught me on my use of words, but, as it had been with Dean Bruington, I never made the same mistake twice.

All three of my great mentors have passed away: first, Dean Bruington many years ago, then Ivan Barrett on the 16th of August 1999, and finally Jack McKendrick a year ago, almost to the day. I miss them and grieve a little because I did not know when they passed out of this life. I think that I would have liked to have said goodbye before they were put underground. Some of what they were, however, lives on in me when I have occasion to teach. I hope that there are some of my students who may remember some of my borrowed mannerisms, and be inclined to implement and perpetuate the same, not for my sake, but for the sake of students everywhere.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Titipu and the Devil

Last Friday Trillium and I left Orem for parts northern, specifically the lovely little valley of Logan, Utah. We have visited a couple of times before, usually in connection with some sort of activity that happened to be scheduled there. Several generations back, however, portions of my family used to spend vast amounts of time there, primarily because that is where they had their homes. Portions of the valley are named after the portions of my family who themselves were blessed with the nominative gift. These are beautiful little communities; clean, well-kept, and apparently filled with cheerful, well-adjusted, human beings. One wonders why other portions of my family moved elsewhere.

Our jaunt to Logan was part of the weekend celebration of Trillium's birthday, a chance to get away from the "everyday" into the "once-in-a-while". We stayed in Providence, which was not named after my family, in a bed and breakfast called the "Providence Inn". Everything happened just as the proprietors said it would during the two days we were there, so I am somewhat encouraged about future forays. There is no reason for me to reveal the number of birthdays Trillium has experienced; she would rather not be reminded. In fact, after today's celebration she said to me, "We need not do this again". She meant, I assume, the lighting of the candle and the singing of the hymn, and not the trip to Logan.

Trillium has always loved opera. Early in our marriage, I discovered that buying LPs of works by Belleni and Verdi for her brought about extraordinary expressions of gratitude. "La Traviatta" is one of her favorites. With all of this in mind, in an attempt to do something wonderful, I made arrangements for us to attend the Utah Festival of Opera that has been held in Logan for these past 17 years. Several operas are performed during the months of July and August. During this season, the Company put on "Camelot", "Carmen", "Cavalleria Rusticana", "Pagliacci", and "The Mikado". I chose to take my wife to this last, to the penultimate performance.

"The Mikado" was the ninth collaboration of Arthur Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert of a total of fourteen. It opened on the 14th of March 1885 at the Savoy Theatre in London. It ran for 672 performances, the second longest run for a musical production up until that time. By the end of 1885 there were over 150 companies performing "The Mikado" all over Europe and America. The opera has enjoyed immense continuing popularity during the past 125 years. Of all of the songs performed in the production, three have reached iconic status: "Willow, tit-willow" sung by the tailor Koko; "Behold, the Lord High Executioner", sung by Koko and the men in the chorus; and "Three little maids from school are we", sung by Yum-yum, Peep-bo, Pitti-sing, and the girls in the company. The latter is certainly familiar to any who have seen the film "Chariots of Fire". The story line is delightful, hardly a moment passes in the work that does not advance the whole theme.

UFO's production was magnificent, from the orchestra to the company of players. The role of Koko was played by Michael Ballam; Yum-yum by his daughter Vanessa. Much could be said of each of the other performers, but suffice it to say that none of the ensemble, from the leads to the chorus, was unequally yoked. There was a perfection to what they did Friday night which is seldom found in more accessible productions. What was clear was that all of players were enjoying themselves immensely, rejoicing in their performance and relishing every moment of the two and a half hours we were all together. I do not know for certain, but were I to guess, the unity of the cast and the joie d'vivre which they exuded, derived primarily from the presence of Ballam himself.

Michael was the founder of the Utah Festival of Opera and remains the Director. His vision helped produce the Ellen Eccles Theater where most of the UFO performances are staged. There is no finer venue anywhere; not the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, not the Pantages Theater, not the Shubert Theater, magnificent arenas all, where Trillium and I saw the likes of the "Phantom of the Opera", "Les Miserables", and "The Secret Garden". I estimated that there were about 1500 in the audience Friday night, all with a wonderful view of the stage and without any hindrance of the music or dialog.

The theater was built in 1923 and served the community for decades as the Capitol Theater. It was completely remodeled in 1993 and opened as the Ellen Eccles Theater. The stage is 70 feet wide, 36 feet deep, and 65 feet high, allowing for magnificent and imaginative staging. The sound system in conjunction with the natural acoustics of the building is without parallel. It is also called the Cache Valley Center for the Arts. All of these things combined with the energy of the company to make our evening at the opera a memorable one.

Another word about Michael Ballam. For those of us who belong to The Tribe, his face is as familiar to us as any in the world. In conjunction with his familiarity in general, I would like to relate a little anecdote. Years ago, I attended a conference of religious educators held at Brigham Young University. The topic that year was the New Testament. During the opening session, all of the attendees were seated in the Marriott Center anticipating a stimulating introduction to the week's activities. For some reason, I was seated on the floor of the MAC about ten feet from the grand piano. At a certain point in the program, bearded fellow sat down at the piano and was introduced as Michael Ballam. At that time I had no idea who Michael Ballam was, and inasmuch as he was bearded I could not readily see his facial features, even though I could easily see him. But when he spoke........!!!!! a thrill went through my whole system because I knew exactly who he was and why I knew the voice so well. He then sang "O Divine Redeemer". I do not know how many people were in the building, but it was nearly full. There was no noise of any kind while Michael sang. It was as if the entire world, every aspect of it, physical and spiritual, had stopped to witness the premiere symbolic testimony as to the mercy and compassion of the Lord Jesus Christ. When Michael finished, the silence continued for what seemed to me to be a very long time. It was as if we had all been given a few moments to digest what we had just witnessed. Michael withdrew and the conference continued. I remember nothing else of that six-day conference.

So now I sit here at my computer at least 25 years later, making connections with a man whose hand I have never shaken, but who has affected my life profoundly. I hope to have the opportunity to meet him some day. Maybe Trillium and I will go back to the 2010 season. Maybe we will go to the Cafe des Artistes after the show and wade through the hundreds of people there just to look him in the eye, to see up close that wonderful twinkle that is certain to be there.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Ghosts in the Music

I had another dream last night. Trillium and I went off to the upper mid-west to visit people that I had known almost fifty years ago. We stayed in a home where we were most welcome and as the morning passed there were more and more people who were directly related to the people I had known. They were cordial and seemed to know how I fit into their relatives’ lives. My friends were not there, however; I guess that they had all passed away. The next generation of family members was grateful for the role that I had played in their ancestors’ lives, but they were subdued. I was not uncomfortable; I simply was no longer an active part of what once was. I was like a ghost, even though I was still alive.

Nanci Griffith wrote a song years ago called “Ghost in the Music”. It’s a great title but the lyrics don’t live up to its promise. The reason that the title came to my mind in conjunction with my dream is almost obvious. There are songs that I have long since identified with certain individuals. I sing those songs partly because I have always liked the music and the sentiments, and partly because I have always liked the people I associated with them. Thus, Cat Stevens’ “I Wish I Wish” is inseparably connect to Jon Woodhead; I cannot think of the one without thinking of the other. The works of Maurice Ravel are inseparably connected to RaNae Merril; I cannot do anything about that. The performances of Johnny Murad and the Harmonicats are so engrained in my childhood that I cannot hear anything by them without immediately thinking of my own mother and father sitting in the front room of the Mariner’s Cabin in Carbon Canyon where I grew up. There are nine songs now that are inseparably connected with the Forest for the Trees, my two daughters and son-in-law with whom I have learned to sings those songs in a unique way. The odd thing about these associations that I have made is that they are “ghosts in the music”, save perhaps for the F2T2 songs. The people that I connected with the songs and the reasons that I did so have long since lost their life. The songs may not have changed, but my friends have and many are self-conscious about the fact.

Each of my children has songs associated with them, usually songs that I sang for them when they were young children. I have written songs for each of them at some point as they were growing up. As I look back on the music and lyrics I am not impressed; I don’t think that I was a very good songwriter; my children have become better than the songs were. In these cases, I am the “ghost in the music”; the person I was when I sat down to compose what I thought was something wonderful for my little children. I am fretful today that I wasn’t better at my craft at a time when I was trying to put into words and music how I actually felt. A hint, a “ghost”, is all that is there; the substance is gone. It makes me feel a little melancholy.

I have written pieces for Trillium over the years for much of the same reasons that I wrote songs for our children. I wanted to preserve something of our life together in music and lyrics. I have invariably liked the most recent song better than all the rest that I had written before. Thus, “A Cloud of Angels” is currently the piece that causes my emotions to come to the surface almost immediately. The guitar work is the best that I have ever composed; the words still deeply moving to my soul.

Several years ago, I was given the opportunity to make a presentation at a large conference on the effects of poetry, how sounds and words work together to touch the hearts and minds of others. I chose six bits of poetry. I read the Chaucer’s “Prologue to the Canterbury Tales” in Middle English to help the people in the room realize how beautiful poetry can be even when one is not even consciously aware of what is being said. I next read the first ten quatrains of the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge to demonstrate how powerful language can become when it is purposefully structured. I followed up with Emily Dickinson’s “To Make a Prairie” which is the quintessence of brevity, worth repeating here:

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee.
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

I resorted next to “The Tuft of Flowers” by Robert Frost, perhaps the greatest American poet to have ever lived. I cannot read this piece aloud without losing control of my voice at some point. Dickenson’s poem is whimsical; Frost’s is profoundly reflective of the human condition. I ended my portion of the presentation by singing Trillium's “A Cloud of Angels”. This was several years ago, the song freshly written; the power of the music, the lyrics, and the singer all very much alive; there were no ghosts. I am afraid that the audience was defenseless before me at that time. I had prepared them academically and emotionally to be connected with me at the very moment that I wished to share something profoundly intimate, something otherwise inexpressible.

Seven years have passed since I wrote “A Cloud of Angels”. It is probably about time to compose another piece for my wife. I hope that I am not over the hill (or under the hill for that matter), compositionally speaking.

Dreams are like ghosts coming to visit the place where they once lived. No matter how hard one tries, one can only just barely be there. There is no substance, only memory. Perhaps in the resurrection there is hope.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

If Trees Ring in the Forest and No One is There to Record Them, is There Still Music?

The title to this entry is so precious, so radically funny, that I am quite certain that no one will get it until the end. The word play is outrageous, the puns are painful, and, on the whole, the sentiment is an inside joke of enormous proportions. I will end up killing a dozen birds with one stone.

At first blush, there is the obvious nod at the old philosophical conundrum: “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it does it make a sound?” The whole of the argument regarding the answer to this question has to do with definitions. Believe it or not, grown adults have spent vast amounts of time and resources attempting to answer the question. Is “sound” something that can only exist when there are humans about, or animals, or other sentient beings? Is there a difference between “sound” and “noise”? Whole nations and kingdoms have risen and fallen while attempting to resolve the issue. What if the sentient being is deaf? What if he “feels” the vibrations with his feet? Is that still “sound”, even though he did not hear it with his auditory nerves? What if, instead of a tree, the thing making the “sound” was a dog whistle? You would not hear the pitch, but the dog would. Was there a “sound”?

Now we find ourselves at an international crossroads. The inhabitants of the British Isles would be inclined, at this point, to say, “This is the stupidest thing I have ever been forced to contemplate!” and they would walk off and never give the chestnut another thought. If they were from Wales or Cornwall and you raised the question again, they would hit you with a cudgel. It is hard to say what a Canadian would do. An American, at this juncture, would immediately want to turn to the dictionary to resolve the problem. As it turns out, the definition of the word “sound” in Webster’s New International Dictionary stipulates that in order for there to be a “sound” an auditory processing organ has to be involved. With that definition in hand, I would ask the philosopher five more questions: “What if, instead of a human being, there were an operating tape recorder in the forest when the tree fell? Would there be no sound at all at that moment, if there were no one to hear it at the time? Would there be a retroactive “sound” if someone chose to listen to the tape? And what if no one ever listened to the tape? Would that mean that there is no sound on the tape? At this point, your brain should be responding to this issue the same way that Tim Burton’s Martians responded to the music of Slim Whitman.

Tree rings are fascinating. Trillium and I went to Fisherman’s Wharf for our fortieth wedding anniversary. We rode over and back on Amtrak (Trillium’s little gift to me) and we did anything and everything that Trillium wanted to do while we were in San Francisco (my little gift to her). We drove up to Muir Woods in Marin County for one of our day hikes. Some of the Sequoias are more than 250 feet high. The redwoods in Cathedral Grove are more than 1200 years old. The park has a cross-section of a giant redwood, showing the tree rings for many hundreds of years, labeled with various historical events. One wonders if that particular tree heard any of the goings on that have been since pinned to its innards. Each ring represents a year and it is possible, with an extremely good magnifying glass, to determine the particular ring that represents the year that you were born. If a ring is thick, the rainfall and weather were favorable for tree growth that year. If a ring is thin, then the circumstances were less favorable. The ring for year of my birth is notable for the tremendous stresses that the environment suffered, particularly toward the middle of July and even more pronounced the closer the tree grew to Pomona, California.

On the night of October 7th, 2007, eight months after we walked by the thing, a 180-foot tall redwood, seven feet in diameter, fell during the night. I assume that someone noted the descent, since they sent me a bill. I wrote back that I hadn’t heard a thing so it must not have happened.

Yesterday was the anniversary of the birth of two of my daughters, Jen and Shy. They were born twelve years apart and they have the rings to prove it. Trillium and I went over to Shy’s house in the afternoon to take a card to her and to wish her plenty of subterranean water supplies and root nutrients. In the evening we went to Jen’s house for chocolate cake and Oreos. The cake was three years old. I counted the rings. They are both doing pretty well, considering how old they are.

How much do I have to say about The Forest for the Trees before the joke finally dawns? We have chosen our music for our next performance. We will begin with Cat Steven’s “Trouble”, followed by “The River is Wide”. The middle will be graced with Shy and Not-Quite-So-Shy singing “Gulf Coast Highway”. Jen and I will render “Long Black Rifle” in order to give the audience time to realize that hardly anything more exiting is going to transpire during our set. We will finish with our best piece, “Bright Eyes”. If no one comes to the party, will there be “Still Music”?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

All Along The Injured Coast

I am a confirmed bibliophile, and I don’t mean just the Bible. I am a book lover. I watched an episode of Star Trek yesterday called “The Court-martial”. The long and the short of it was that Captain Kirk had been accused of something he didn’t do and was haul up before a panel of officers to determine if he should be dismissed from Star Fleet. Kirk’s attorney is Sam Cogley (played by Elisha Cook, Jr.), a man who despises the computer and depends solely on the written law as it is contained in printed books. I am not as far gone as Sam Cogley, but I have never read a book on the computer, even though I have access to many thousands. I have been tempted to buy a “Kindle” from Amazon, but even though the Kindle is shaped like a thin book, I cannot figure out how to turn the pages.

The bottom line of all of this is that Trillium and I have thousands of books piled up around our rather large house. I have put in large wall cabinets and have bought oak book shelves to put the books in and on, but no matter how much I double-stack them all, I can never seem to get enough room to get the books all off the floor. I decided this week that I needed to do something about it, so I started in the family room, figuring out the most efficient way of arranging them so that I could easily find any book in the library, even though a specific book might be located behind another on the shelf. All proceeded swimmingly until I became tired of the sound of shifting books and the incessant sneezing. I decided to double-dip my time by listening to music. I had recently brought the CDs up from the dungeon, so the possibilities were all in front of me. Wondrous things transpired!

The first CD that I listened to I had bought more than ten years ago. I have been an Art Garfunkel fan for a very long time and I bought the recording without any preconceptions, except that I knew that it would be good. There are thirteen cuts, all pleasant, but three just knocked me out while they were playing; I had been knocked out when I first listened to them twelve years ago. The title of the CD is “Songs from a Parent to a Child”. Some are old folk songs, others were written by modern composers like Cat Stevens and James Taylor. The sixth cut is a song by Marc Cohen, “The Things We’ve Handed Down”, a song that struck me in part because of my relationship with my father. The tenth cut is “Lasso the Moon”, a piece written by Billy Simon and Lowell Alexander. The chorus is angelic, especially because of Garfunkel’s ethereal voice. The instrumental work is magical, mainly because of the artistry of Jimmy Webb at the piano. The eleventh cut is “Dreamland”, written by Mary Chapin Carpenter, a singer/songwriter for whom I have some affinity. I had heard Mary sing this song before, but without the amazing guitar and mandolin work of Eric Weissberg. I was so taken by these three pieces that I cut two audio CDs for “The Forest for the Trees” to see if they would like to sing them in the future. If they don’t, I will.

Today I continued rearranging books and again the dust and the book shifting badgered me into pulling out another CD. It may have been some sub-conscious thing that made me chose “Paul Simon’s Concert in the Park”, but I certainly was not openly thinking of Simon and Garfunkel when I put the CDs in the changer. I just happen to like the drum riff at the beginning of “The Obvious Child” which was performed by about 20 percussionists pounding away on their drums, guys like Mingo Araujo. Cyro Baptista, Dom Chacal, Sidinho Moreira, and Grupo Cultural OLODUM. The crowd must have gone crazy when they started up; I about go crazy when I hear it on the stereo. The show-stopper for me, however, was the first cut on the second CD, “The Coast”. I include the words below, knowing that without the music they are not nearly as effective. I have edited the lyrics just a little, cutting down on the repetition a touch. The lines and images are for me, in conjunction with the music, pure Simon and worthy of any wordsmith anywhere.

The Coast

A family of musicians took shelter for the night
In the little harbor church of St. Cecilia
Two guitars, bata, bass drum and tambourine
Rose of Jericho and Bougainvillea


A trip to the market
A trip into the pearl gray morning sunlight
That settles over Washington
A trip to the market
A trip around the world
Where the evening meal
Is negotiable, if there is one.

We are standing in the sunlight
The early morning sunlight
In the harbor church of St. Cecilia
To praise a soul's returning to the earth
To the rose of Jericho and the Bougainvillea
If I have weaknesses
Don't let them blind me now
Summer skies, stars are falling
All along the injured coast

Don’t try to understand it as a whole. I don’t think it is possible. The phrasing and the music are interwoven in such a fashion that the words become little strobe lights, little flashes of intensity that almost blind the mind. I have the studio version of “The Coast” in my play list, but for my money it is not nearly as compelling as the performance in Central Park. By the way, I do not think that there is a better rhyme in the English language than that between “St. Cecilia” and “Bougainvillea”, but I can’t tell you why.

Saturday, May 30, 2009


This past week Truman G. Madsen died. I have known him for a long time, and like the many other famous people I have known for a long time, he didn’t know me from Adam’s off-ox. When I first started teaching many years ago, Truman was one of those individuals who was frequently asked to address congregations of religious educators in order that they might be benefited from his experience and wisdom. I don’t think that I ever took exception to anything I ever heard him say; I generally took exception when other people took the things that he said out of context and tried to beat me senseless with them.

At the height of his career, Truman was a professor of “Fried Froth” at BYU, as President John Taylor liked to refer to Philosophy. Truman made something more substantial out of the ruminations of self-instructed men. Frequently, those self-interested, meandering thoughts, regurgitated generation after generation by teachers and students alike at universities around the world, became springboards for something of true import and, best of all, even comprehensible when illuminated by his inspiring enthusiasm and clarity.

I am not certain how many books and articles he has written over the years, but he was prolific. I checked the Deseret Book website a few moments ago and he had 14 titles still in print that they were offering to the public. Amazon had 69 books and 6 DVDs in their listing. Brigham Young University has 7 of his addresses at the university available, beginning in 1965 to 2000. The following is a listing of some of the books that have gained some notoriety during the last forty years or so according to one website.

Joseph Smith the Prophet
Eternal Man
Defender of the faith: The B. H. Roberts story
Christ and the inner life
Five Classics by Truman G. Madsen
The highest in us
Four Essays on Love
Reflections on Mormonism: Judaeo-Christian parallels
The Radiant Life
The Life and Teachings of the Prophet Joseph
Presidents Of The Church: Insights Into Their Lives And Teachings
Jesus of Nazareth (Volumes 1-4)
The Sacrament - Feasting At the Lord's Table
The Temple: Where Heaven Meets Earth
The Concordance of the Doctrinal Statements of Joseph Smith
Revelation, Reason, and Faith: Essays in Honor of Truman G. Madsen
How To Stop Forgetting and Start Remembering
How to be Loved and Beloved
B.H. Roberts : the Book of Mormon and the atonement
Philosopher and the Quarterback
The Commanding Image Of Christ
The Temple in antiquity : ancient records and modern perspectives
Joseph Smith among the prophets
House of God: The Promised Blessings of the Temple
BYU Studies Vol. 10 No. 3, 1970 - Institute of Mormon Studies
Joseph Smith - Ein Prophet?
BYU Studies Vol. 13 No. 4, 1973

As I browsed through the Deseret News this morning I came across a tribute to Truman Madsen in which the author referred to Truman as the “Lion of LDS Letters”.

“What a winsome title,” I thought. “Maybe it’s even apt.”

Being of a rather fanciful frame of mind, I wondered what my epitaph composer would come up with when I shuffled off my mortal coil.

There may be some justification for a glorious title of some kind. I have written as much as anyone on the planet about the invented languages of J.R.R. Tolkien. There have been more than twenty books and about fifty articles published during the last 25 years or so that have had my name affixed to them. I have given papers all over the United States and Canada at conferences and conventions on Tolkien’s linguistic genius, and even appeared at Oxford University for another one of my erudite takes on Tolkien’s style of writing. The Tolkien Society of America graced me with one of their Honorary Doctorates several years ago and the Elvish Linguistic Fellowship gave me one of their annual awards for work that I had done on the “Father Christmas Letters”. At one point I was the undisputed authority on the languages of Middle Earth. One day many years ago, I became somewhat flushed with the reception that some of my writings and addresses had generated and effused to Trillium how wonderful it all was. She, the well-grounded soul that she is, carefully, but quickly put all of my hyperbole into perspective.

In reference to a recent article that I had written for “Mythlore” she said, “Zaphod, what is the circulation of ‘Mythlore’?” I said that I supposed that it was in the neighborhood of 1200 to 1300 copies, sent throughout the world to individuals and libraries alike.

“Now,” she continued, “during the next 20 years or so, how many people do you think will sit down with a copy of ‘Mythlore’ and peruse your deathless prose?” Being conservative, but loyal to the journal of the Mythopoeic Society, I said that I would estimate maybe as many as 10,000 people might devote a little time to the subject.

“Okay, I will give that to you, my dear,” as a smile began to play upon her lips. “Can you give me an idea as to the population of this planet?” I estimated the total to be about 6.5 billion.

“So, the relative importance of your wonderful little piece of word-smithery and the readership thereof…?”

Well, this past week also marked another milestone in my sojourn in obscurity. I began reading Christopher Tolkien’s latest addition to his father’s posthumous works, “The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrun”. I had always considered myself to really be quite informed about J.R.R. Tolkien’s life and letters (I can tell you what “J.R.R.” stands for). I had managed to read just about everything available on the man prior to 1982 when I received my PhD on his works and I attenuated that research for the next 25 years. Both my Masters and Doctorate degrees focused on Old and Middle English language and literature in an attempt to understand precisely what Tolkien was about in his creative works. I dabbled in Welsh, Finnish, Gothic, Old Icelandic, and a variety of other languages and bodies of literature because I knew that he had at least a passing interest in them. Reading Christopher’s introduction to the “Legend”, however, revealed to me again how woefully ignorant I have been regarding J.R.R. Tolkien’s career and expertise. I told Trillium after I finished the introductory materials that I felt like I had successfully explored what I thought was Mount Tolkien, only to discover that I had merely taken a few steps out of the Valley and had ventured only a short way into the Foothills.

So, what is the gist of all this?

I have decided to come up with my own epitaph, one that reflects that which has been bestowed upon Truman Madsen. While my long-time acquaintance may indeed be the “Lion of LDS Letters”, I have decided that I have become the “Titmouse of Tolkien Trivia”.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Time Enough at Last

Early this morning I had to make a presentation, one that potentially could have great bearing on the lives of those who live in our neighborhood. It was a presentation that I had spent the last week working on, sometimes in the evenings, sometimes throughout the day. It was a topic that had captured my imagination and burned like fire in my mind. Computer files were involved; translating .csv files into a workable format for MS Word Tables. When I finished all of my preparations, burning CDs and printing hardcopies of the resultant tables and the instructions as to how to use them, I was exhausted. I then spent a great deal of time trying to figure out the best way to present an hour's worth of material in less than 15 minutes. I fussed and agonized about it.

This morning I woke up at 2:30 and really could not get back to sleep. When the alarm went off at 5:30 I was certainly ready to get out of bed. In between, during those three hours, I had a series of dreams which seemed to represent a degree of chaos and frustration in my life. In one scene, my office at the Institute had been boxed up in a haphazard way and everything that I had a place for, was out of place. My office has always been a place of order and peace, a haven for me and my mind, and to have it in disarray was disturbing. In addition, I apparently was expected to prepare a lesson in the midst of all that clutter and deliver it in short order. Needless to say, when I finally realized it was all a dream, I was relieved.... sort of. I think perhaps the thought of having to make the presentation at 6:30 on a Sunday morning in a venue that I had not experienced before, was a little too unnerving. Needless to say when the time for the presentation came, it went off without a hitch and several of those in attendance commented on how effectively the material had been presented in such a short period of time.

Was there a message in my dream? No more than what is self-evident. Much of my office from the Institute is still in boxes in the garage, five years after I brought them home. I guess I really don't have a good place to put the little decorations that made my office my own. At some point I am going to have to dispose of the stuff that I treasured because my students had given them to me. Maybe I can no longer afford to have the clutter in the garage. My den is cluttered enough. I think that I have too many outward reminders of my life and not enough changes in my heart and mind because of the people who gave those things to me. I am going to do better. If the whole house were to burn down and every memento lost in the flames, how could I remember what those people meant to me, or even that I knew them at all? I have to be a different sort of man,one worthy of the friendships those trinkets represent. Perhaps I have to be a better man because of the presentation I made this morning, that I, most of all, should be motivated to be what the presentation addressed.

The other scene in my dream this morning had to do with my glasses. I was ready to make my presentation, everything perfectly in order, when my glasses broke; the ear pieces fell off so that I had to resort to holding them up to my eyes by sticking my index finger on the bridge of my nose. Inconvenient and unnerving. In order to give you a sense for what I felt I will review a Twilight Zone episode that I first saw many years ago. It was called "Time Enough at Last".

A fellow named Henry Bemis, an inveterate reader, is mocked by his family and associates for the types of things that he regularly reads, and even for the fact that he reads at all. Without going into the rest of Rod Serling's agenda in this story, let me just say that in the end, the world is destroyed by atomic warfare, and he is the only person left alive. He had been eating lunch in the bank vault when World War III was fought and lost. He is initially distressed to find himself alone until he discovers that the city library has been spared, with all of the hundreds of thousands of books intact. He is overjoyed, finally having the opportunity to read anything and everything he desired without interruption and criticism. It was then (you guessed it) he inadvertently broke his glasses.

I rejoice in the power of literacy, the ability to hear the minds and hearts of people whom I could not know because of the distance of time and space. To lose that ability because of clumsiness or any other accident was and is horrifying to me. I suppose that is why of all of the Twilight Zone episodes I have seen, that is the one I remember the best.

I feel the same way about losing what little mental capacity that I have through stroke or any other brain damage. In some respects this capacity is like a pair of spiriutual glasses. I wouldn't want to break them. The world likes to mock the way right-minded people think and attributes their morally-based views to some sort of mental aberration. The world also has no hesitancy to explain away faith-oriented approaches to living one's life as the product of a frenzied mind. I would rather not give them any opportunity to explain away why I feel the way I do about serious and sacred things. Were I to have a physical aneurysm of some kind, and were able to maintain my conscious faith, I suspect there would be those cynics who would avow that the wrong part of my brain had been damaged, that had the part that supports my faith been destroyed, there would have been an immediate improvement in my overall performance as a human being.

I am glad that I have eyes to see spiritual things or that I have spiritual glasses, if you will. I can discern the minds and hearts of those around me by reading the things which they have chosen to record, weighing them against those things which I seem to know intuitively. I can watch the world as it interacts with itself, learning to distinguish those things which bring peace and harmony to the world and those things which do not. In simple terminology, I can learn for myself to distinguish between good and evil. I am glad that I am a man of faith, one who believes in the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man. I can look at my own existence, my place in the world, with depth perception, both sets of eyes functioning properly.

I have retired from the workplace. I have, indeed, "time enough at last" to do the things that I really want to do. I hope that I can always remember that those things that I want to do require me to have "glasses", by which I can see how to set my life's "office" in order, that I might be successful in achieving my heart's desire in peace.