Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Book of Broadway

"South Park" creators go for easy laughs over hard truths.

The Book of Mormon, a musical from ”South Park” creators Trey Park and Matt Stone, has been the talk of Broadway and beyond since its premiere in March 2011. The sold-out show plays to a packed house at the Eugene O’Neill Theater seven performances a week with plenty of laughs and well-choreographed song and dance numbers that pay homage to everything from Guys and Dolls to 42nd Street to the Sound of Music. But while The Book of Mormon has moments of brilliance, it’s also fundamentally lazy.

I flew to New York to see the musical at the invitation of my college friend, Adam, who, like me, went to Brigham Young University and who is now, like me, a post-but-not-anti-Mormon. Adam served a foreign mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—I did not, but I was a Sunday School teacher for several years and am raising my children in the church. Clutching our tickets and ready for a hilarious send-up of our former church, we were the “sadder but wiser girls” of The Music Man with all the “let’s go to the movies!” excitement of Annie.

I’ll concede that perhaps we were not the intended audience. But I’m not quite sure who is. People expecting an attack on the Mormon faith will be disappointed—the writers treat Latter-day Saints downright fondly. It’s not sharp satire, it’s not effective parody, and with its prolific use of the F-word and other vulgarities, it’s not a show that will find ongoing life in high school drama productions, on cruise ships, or in homes with children (mine included).

My critique of the musical takes two forms—artistic, and thematic. Let me first say that I enjoyed the experience and laughed out loud throughout. The Book of Mormon is an essentially good-natured, but not particularly pointed Bildungsroman, and what subject could be more perfect for a “young man coming of age” tale than the ubiquitous, clean-cut, earnest Mormon missionary? But in the end, it’s not always clear whether the musical is a clever homage or a derivative formula with a cute but canned and unsatisfying message—the artistic equivalent of Diet Coke.

What is clear is that Parker and Stone love musicals—and they like Mormons. “Two by two, we’re marching door to door, ‘Cause God loves Mormons, and he wants some more,” the chorus of young missionaries sings in a rousing number that sets the tone for the play. This first musical number is good clean fun, with echoes of Loesser’s brilliant “Fugue for Tinhorns” that opens  Guys and Dolls (a more deserving “Best Musical” Tony winner). The scene takes some artistic license with the actual Mormon missionary process—the Elders  are told where they’ll be going while at the Missionary Training Center (in reality, the call comes before the missionary leaves, and increasingly, Elders do their MTC time at a training center in the country where they serve). These inaccuracies are distracting for those who know better, but forgivable dramatic license, especially when the larger picture they paint is true.

For example, “Turn It Off,” in which a senior missionary advises a newbie to put his inappropriate feelings into a box, then “crush that box,” was another number that spoke to both Adam and me. Like one of the missionaries, Adam is gay, so he identified with that aspect of the message, while I related to theological conundrums that Mormons have to compartmentalize or ignore (the frequent references to “Lord of the Rings” made me laugh—I have used Tolkien on more than one occasion to counter the Mormon argument that Joseph Smith simply couldn’t have come up with The Book of Mormon on his own).

But not all the numbers are so effective, especially in Act Two, where Elder Price, who feels that he has been sent to Uganda by mistake (he should have gone to Orlando), has a “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream.” This was the nadir of the show for me, both artistically and thematically. I could imagine Parker and Stone sitting around saying, “Hey, we need a big production number here. Let’s put in a South Park hell scene with dancing Starbucks coffee cups.”

Newsflash, boys (and audience): Mormons don’t believe in hell. Not even for apostates like Adam and me, who have left the church. The worst we could get is something called Outer Darkness—no spooky red Satan, no Hitler, and definitely no dancing coffee cups. Mormons may have guilt complexes that rival Catholics’, but one of the major selling points of the church, from a theological standpoint, is its extremely rewarding afterlife: Be a good Mormon in this life, and you get your own planet (the Celestial kingdom). Most good people, Christians included, are going to exactly the kind of heaven they already imagine (the Terrestrial Kingdom). Screw up in this life, and you’re still going someplace so awesome that if we knew about it, we’d commit suicide to get there (the Telestial kingdom, and I’m paraphrasing Joseph Smith himself here).

Another big gaffe—the portrayal of the mission presidency as rigid, unsympathetic characters who say things like, “Praise Christ” (I have never heard this particular phrase come out of any Mormon’s mouth). Underneath their helmet hair, mission presidents and their wives are charismatic, humble, hard-working, sympathetic, life-changing people. Ask any Mormon missionary (Adam included) about his or her mission president, and you’re sure to get glowing reviews. The church leadership calls truly extraordinary people to this important role.

Another aspect of Mormon culture that Stone and Parker did not grasp is that for aspiring Mormon missionaries, a foreign mission, even (or perhaps especially) to Uganda, is always preferable to a domestic one. A real Elder Price would feel shortchanged with a calling to Orlando, unless perhaps it were Spanish speaking. (The Singles Ward, a Mormon comedy, captures this trope for Mormon audiences when one of the characters is called on his mission to Boise, Idaho, eliciting big laughs and some sympathetic grimaces).

A word about the vulgarity: every popular play since Aristophanes has it, and so does this one. Whether you think it’s too much depends on your tolerance level for it. Do not expect the cleverly metaphorical sexual and scatological references of Shakespeare, but rather the constant, loud, and obvious profanities of the creators’ “South Park.”

Adam and I both decided that the musical was essentially a nice draft, but not something worthy of 14 Tony Awards.  In fact, we both want a rewrite. I think the musical would be much more culturally pointed for both Mormon and non-Mormon audiences if it were set in the Deep South (think Romney vs. Perry), and Adam wants the missionary group to include native Africans, South Americans, or female missionaries (no other modern musical would get a free pass for drawing such unreal gender and racial divisions). The baffling hell dream could easily be swapped for a dystopian vision of the Celestial kingdom where bizarre notions of planets and plural wives would be hilariously in context.

Were Adam and I setting the bar a bit high? What is a musical, after all, if not easy caricature, predictable story arc, and popular images set to catchy but familiar tunes? Or were we, despite our distance from the church as adults, not entirely able to tolerate a joke at our own expense? Perhaps we have to concede some ground on both points, but our expectations are not unreasonable. Musicals can be smart and true while being funny. And no one is more apt to laugh at an honest joke than its subject. This musical scratched out some obvious nuggets of humor, but Mormon life and the missionary experience are richly veined with un-mined absurdity. The world still waits for a Mormon Woody Allen.

The sad truth about The Book of Mormon is that Parker and Stone can get away with being lazy, because the audience’s expectations are so low. As the current political “debate” about religion has shown us, it’s still culturally acceptable in America to call Mormons a cult, and this musical, while generally kind to the church, plays into that backward mentality. “I can’t believe any intelligent person would believe those things,” Adam heard one woman remark as we left the theater, entirely missing the point of the musical—that all religions are equally delusional but harmlessly so if practiced with a pure heart. But another group began to say loud and effusive positive things about the Mormons they knew. “Mormons aren’t like that at all!” one woman said, glancing nervously back at us (with our blonde hair and blue eyes, Adam and I look as Mormon as we are—culturally speaking). Actually, Parker and Stone get Mormons pretty well. It’s just too bad they took the low road.

(Thanks to my friend Adam for suggesting this play, hosting me for the weekend, and providing many of the more clever quips in this review. As he notes, we make a pretty good team. Maybe we'll write our own musical version of The Book of Mormon someday.)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

An American Hero, an American Tragedy

I am called to a strange ministry. Whenever I fly, I know that at some point, someone who needs to talk about something painful will sit down next to me. We’ll exchange pleasantries, I’ll open my book or start working on my laptop, and that person will begin to talk. And talk. And talk.

I’m not complaining. I really do see my airline role as a calling. I’ve counseled people to work on their marriages, talked teens into giving their parents a second chance, advised people on difficult life decisions. Today, on the flight from Salt Lake City to Chicago, the doors were ready to close when a young family made their way down the aisle. The father was unshaven, clad in a filthy jacket and torn jeans. The mother was visibly pregnant and exhausted. The three year old daughter, still in her Disney Princess pajamas, was crying. “I hate this fucking airline,” the young man muttered, looking for help, ANY help, and not finding any as passenger after passenger refused to meet his eyes.

There was, proverbially, no room in the inn. No one was willing to give up a seat so the family could sit together. At last, one woman reluctantly relinquished her window seat and moved to a middle one so the mother and daughter could be together two rows ahead of me. But the smug young man on the aisle refused to give up his seat to the father, who ended up in the middle seat beside me.

I made some conciliatory welcoming comment about what a cute daughter he had, and how frustrating it must be to not be able to sit with his family. I asked him where they were headed. His eyes welled up with tears. “My sister was just killed in Afghanistan,” he replied. “We are trying to get to Arkansas for her funeral.”

He had come straight off a 12 hour shift in the copper mine in Ely, Nevada (which explained the stained jacket and jeans), then driven four hours to the airport in Salt Lake City. The funeral, with full military honors, would be on Saturday.

His sister’s name was Sarina Mills Butcher. She is an American hero. Sarina was a member of the Oklahoma National Guard who died when her convoy hit an IED. She would have been 20 next week. She joined the military so she could pay for her schooling—she wanted to be a nurse. Sarina leaves behind a two year old daughter, Zoe.

“Zoe—that means ‘life,’” I told him. His eyes filled up with tears again. We talked about life, the randomness of it all. He told me about his own time in Iraq, how he couldn’t help but feel guilty, like he should have been the one to die. Sarina was going to come to Vegas on her next leave and meet him there to celebrate her 20th birthday.

It was a sobering flight. I’ve lost people I love, so I know what it feels like—that initial stage of shock, the overwhelming sense of loss. “You have to be strong for your mom,” I told him. He nodded.  As we parted ways, I told him I would light a candle for Sarina. “Thank you,” he said, and shook my hand.

As I entered the terminal, I couldn’t help but notice the smug young man who had refused to give up his seat. I did not have kind thoughts for him. But I know we all make selfish choices sometimes, when we lack information (or sometimes even when we have information). In a way, I was grateful for his stubbornness, because I got to learn firsthand about a young mother who died too soon in the service of her country, to celebrate her life and to mourn her passing.

We’ve been at war for more than ten years.  The Roman poet Horace wrote “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” But there are few things that are sweet about the loss of a young mother.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

My Late Father

Seventeen autumns ago, we buried my father too soon in the frost-hardened ground. The night before his funeral, my sister and I went for a walk. The late afternoon sun blazed hot and bright in the cool air; the promiscuous trees flaunted every hue of crimson and gold against the brilliant blue sky. Beneath our feet, the sharp crisp crunch of leaves marked the passage of miles like a metronome.

After some time, we found ourselves at the cemetery where our father would be interred the next day, in a single plot beneath the shadow of mountains, overlooking the Great Salt Lake. The cemetery was a well-manicured oasis of green lawns and cool grey stones, a museum of the dead where stories were distilled into a set of dates: b. and d. My father’s story—b. Feb. 22, 1944. d. Oct. 23, 1994.

Seventeen years later, autumn has come late but brilliant to my town. At church, on the anniversary of his death, the gospel reading seems chosen for my fatherthe first commandment, and the second: "Love your neighbor as yourself"Jesus's elegant, simple solution to the enduring problem of Self and Other.

This second commandment was one my father intuitively understood, and every man, woman, and child he met was his neighbor. The practical result of all this love for others was that Dad was late to everything. It's not enough to give a homeless man your change. You have to squat down in your suit and tie, look him in the eye, and listen to his story.

Dad was even late for his own funeral. Given a terminal sentence of leukemia in the early autumn of his life, he “raged against the dying of the light" for three years, the time it took for mindless cancer cells to choke his formidable will to live and love.

I have felt his absence keenly through the years, on big occasionsat my wedding, when my children were born, when I divorced, when my books were publishedand at small ones.

Pathetic fallacy: the day we buried the sack of skin that was once my Dad, a cold winter wind stripped the trees of all their glory, brought leaden skies to weep over his casket as we said goodbye.  I could not help but feel that in this loss, God had forsaken me.

On this day, the day of his death, with my small son, I light a candle for my father, imagine him in a community of saints where he belongs. As we walk hand-in-hand from the church, I tell my son the story of a man who knew what it meant to love his neighbor as himself. This is my father's legacy to me, the true meaning of his life’s story. In his too-brief life, my always-late father learned (and taught his six children) to love other as self.  What greater story is there than this one?

Répands sur nous le feu de ta grâce puissante,
Que tout l'enfer fuie au son de ta voix ;
Dissipe le sommeil d'une âme languissante,
Qui la conduit à l'oubli de tes lois !—Cantique de Jean Racine, Gabriel Faure

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Cheap Chic

Finds for under $40
A fabulous new fall look for under $40
As a single mother with four tech monster children, once I’ve paid my phone and broadband bills I rarely have any money left over to spend on myself. Unfortunately, given my chronic lack of funds, when it comes to fashion, I’m a brand snob who only wants the best. Fortunately, one of my most formidable superpowers is an uncanny ability to create something from almost nothing. 

My mission: find five distinct outfits that could fit in a backpack (I’m headed to New York in a couple of weeks, and I like to travel light).
Cute but conservative

The rules: 
  1. The clothes had to be washable.
  2. They had to make me feel like a comfortable cross between Sailor Moon and Condoleeza Rice—in my life, I routinely transition from soccer field to boardroom with just minutes to spare.
  3. They had to meet a $40 budget.  
Yes, I will be running this meeting!
Yep, you heard me. I had exactly $40 to spend clothes for myself this fall. I started with one piece—a funky black and pink BCBG Max Azria knit poncho/skirt I inherited from a friend who has lots more money than me and amazing taste in clothes (cheap chic fashion tip number one: never turn down your friends’ hand-me-downs!) 

Three hours later, I had assembled the following:
  1. Black leather Nine West knee high boots, Deseret Industries, $5.00
  2. Hot pink Betsey Johnson tights, Ross, $5.99 (also included black herringbone patterned tights, not pictured)
  3. Pink polka dot Italian scarf, Ross, $3.99
  4. Adrienne Vittadini black scoop neck sleeveless dress/jumper, Ross, $13.99 (clearance)
  5. Black and white striped elbow length Talbots t-shirt, Savers, $2.39 (I used my 20 percent off coupon when I recycled a bag of clothes).
  6. Pink Ralph Lauren short-sleeved cardigan, Savers, $4.79
  7. Channeling my inner Sailor Moon
  8. Fun crocheted necklace, yard sale, 25 cents

Grand total: $36.40. With a long sleeved black t-shirt and a pair of black Ann Taylor slacks I already own, I am totally set for the Big Apple—and beyond!

Skirt or poncho? You decide!
The fun thing about these pieces is that they can go from casual to dressy, from edgy to conservative, depending on how I combine them. And they illustrate why I shop almost exclusively at thrift and consignment stores—for big brand fashions at budget prices, you are not going to beat a second-hand shop.

But this Thursday, I won’t be wearing any of these outfits. I’ll be all dolled up in a little white dress (for the 
second time) as I sign copies of Little White Dress: Women Explore the Myth and Meaning of Wedding Dresses. Proceeds benefit the Boise Valley chapter of Dress for Success. See for more details about how your second-hand clothes can give women a chance at a first-class life. Happy fall shopping, y’all!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Dumb Boys

On chick lit, genre problems, and Nietzsche

Friday night, I was engaging in a bit of retail therapy at Savers, attempting to absorb, mitigate, ameliorate the gut punch that had crossed my Facebook newsfeed an hour earlier (the L-word! He used the L-word! About that 20 year-old!), when my phone rang. "I need some guy advice," my friend Katie said.

"Not sure I'm the best person at the moment," I replied, "but shoot."

You should know that Katie is a studying neurobiology at a prestigious university. She is also a 6' 1" drop dead gorgeous model. The fact that she a) has guy trouble at all and b) thinks that I can help her with it is hugely amusing. She proceeds to tell me about a 23 year-old fellow student of hers, who is kind of cute, in a nerdy sort of way, and they've kind of gone out once or twice, and he texted her last week and wanted to hang out on Friday, and she had this reception she needed to go to, so she called and asked if he wanted to go with her, and he said, no, he would rather hang out in his underwear and play xbox.


"So are you telling me that this guy cannot even get off his couch and put on a pair of pants for you?" I asked, stunned.

"Yeah, I guess that's what I'm telling you," she sheepishly replied.

"Do I even need to give you advice at this point? I mean, if he's really hot, and you just want to hook up... But this is not boyfriend material, Katie."

"That's what I needed to hear," she sighed.

Why is it always so easy to tell other people? And so hard to tell ourselves?

Back to the 20-year old and Facebook. My current theory is that I keep avoiding the hard truth about the situation because I'm still stuck in the life-narrative requirements of a genre I don't even like—chick lit. (Curse you, Bridget Jones!)

Here’s the chick lit book pitch: They met in college and were a perfect match. They did everything together, from watching Beavis and Butthead to studying Boethius in Latin (okay, not a major selling point) to rock climbing at sunset. Everyone—friends, professors, family—assumed. But he didn’t love her. He loved a hypothetical construct of a woman who was serving a Mormon mission in Uganda (note to editor: Too close to current plot of sold-out Broadway musical?).

She never said a word. She wrote an essay about thunderstorms, which in certain lights, might have been construed as metaphorical. Then she developed an entire theory of Platonic friendship based on the relationship, which would later, like so many of her hard-won theories, be proven dead wrong.

When his fantasy girl came back, he married her, and reality hit, hard. He stuck it out for ten years.

When her hypothetical construct of a marriage unraveled after 13 years, she ran away. To him. He was--it was--just the same. Minus the Platonic part.

They lived in different cities, were both seeing other people. But…

In life and love, timing is everything.

The truth is, there is more than one reason things have not (and will not) work out for us. Those reasons are personified by the 20 year-old, and the type of 43 year-old man who, given the choice, chose her. Maybe we can blame genetics, maybe status seeking, maybe Hugh Hefner, for this all-too-familiar midlife crisis male trope (yeah, he also has a hot, impractical car, to match the hot, impractical girlfriend).

I am not a 20 year-old hottie. I'm an attractive, accomplished, talented, successful, almost 40 year-old woman. I'm raising four children, earning a doctorate, working 8 to 7, and even pursuing my own passions--writing and music--in my spare time (midnight to 2 a.m. on Wednesdays).

I don’t have time for dumb boys, any more than Katie does.

I am truly fortunate to have plenty of close male friends, and I value their intellect, wit, and the way they stroke my ego once in a while. But after talking to Katie, I realized that this friend of so many years is not really my friend. If he were, I would not have felt that need to flee to Savers when he announced his love for his 20 year-old girlfriend on Facebook (though on the plus side, I found this awesome vintage Diane von Furstenburg dress and a pair of $5 leather boots that look new!).

Take that, chick lit! I'm in the wrong genre entirely. I assert, once more, my desire to live my thoroughly examined life in the philosophy section of the library.  Because if there’s one thing I learned when I was a 20 year-old, in graduate school, it’s that there are few sports more enjoyable than taking down an entire philosophy class of dumb boys and making them cry for their mamas.

Oh, and with respect to my erstwhile theory or Platonic friendship, I fear that Nietzsche had it right: “A woman may very well form a friendship with a man, but for this to endure, it must be assisted by a little physical antipathy.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Voir Dire

When telling the truth hurts

I’m squirming on a polished pew in the back of a wood paneled courtroom with more than 100 people I have never met before in my life, most of whom have the same goal I have: To get out, quickly, by any legal means necessary. In the room’s center, a massive black shape with white hair—a caricature of a figure called “Your Honor”—has absolute power over our lives for the next six weeks.

Here’s how jury duty works: Everyone seated in this room has a hard luck story. And those with the best (or worst) stories get to leave. People have come prepared—with notes from their doctors, employers, sick grandmothers—documentation of sole proprietorship, of cousins’ weddings, of nonrefundable autumn vacations.

His Honor is not particularly sympathetic to most of them.

As I listen to story after story, my heart sinks. I mean, these people are experiencing hard times that would give Dickens pause! Like everyone in the room, I’m weighing the relative merits of each tale of woe: Potential loss of dream vacation does not equal, on the moral scales of justice, potential loss of six weeks of income at the first job this person has held in two years. It seems that everyone is a sole caregiver, a project manager, the family breadwinner.

One single mother whose state assistance is about to run out stresses that she needs to look for a job, and fast. She is not released from service. But she only has two kids, I think hopefully to myself. And I have four.

The woman who speaks just before me has the perfect pitch: she is leaving Monday on a mercy mission to Africa, where she will work with children affected by HIV, and the trip has been planned for more than a year. His Honor scrutinizes the visa, gravely nods his head. Excused. That one will be hard to top, I think, and for the first time in my life, I’m nervous about the prospect of speaking in public.

I’ve got two angles here—personal, and professional. I can see that my colleagues’ professional narratives just aren’t swaying the crag-faced man in the voluminous robes. So, thinking like any good rhetorician, I decide to tailor my message to my audience, leading with professional (the weaker argument) and ending with the sucker punch personal.

The irony is that I am not aware of just how hard my own situation is to myself until I articulate it in front of a hundred strangers.

After explaining that I’m a key employee at my company (blah blah blah), I say, “And I’m involved in a custody case. I have an evidentiary hearing on September 26. And I’m representing myself.”

Speaking those words, I feel myself collapse on the inside, as if a microcosmic black hole has pierced my heart.  I feel tired, afraid, old. I’m no longer worried about whether or not the judge will excuse me from jury service. I’m worried about my sons, their devastation at their father’s abandonment, my increasing exhaustion as I try to walk the razor’s edge of demanding career and even more demanding family obligations, alone. One slip, and…but I cannot slip. I must not slip.

I don’t know what the judge says. All I hear is, “Excused.” I run to the jury holding pen, turn in my red badge. When I reach my car, I collapse in great gulping waves of tears.

Because I have one of those lives. The kind that get you excused from jury duty. And in a couple of weeks, like it or not, I will be standing in a similar wood-paneled courtroom, arguing, as Robert Frost did, “for heaven and the future’s sakes.” No crag-faced white haired judge can excuse me from the ancient sacred duty motherhood has imposed on me. I cannot bear it. I must bear it.

Voir dire means to speak the truth. And today I think, if asked to speak the truth, Cassandra-like, I would describe life as an infinite series of small betrayals.

At four I learn that bumblebees look soft but sting hard.

At nine, that the petrified forest is not a majestic grove of stone trees, but a pile of broken rocks.

At 19, in my Human Anatomy class, that we are nothing but sacks of meat (we probably taste like chicken).

At 30, in an arbitration proceeding, that the good guys don’t win.

At 35, that love is conditional.

At 39, that fathers abandon sons (Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?)

And I know, as I think about these truths, as I contemplate the overwhelming absurdity of human existence, that more inconvenient truths are in store for me. And I also know that I will survive them, like I survived this day and its awful gut-sucking pain, until I don’t. At that point, I won’t care either way.

Ask any brave explorer or doer of deeds for the truth and they will tell you this: When you’re faced with a trial of any shape, size, or complexity, the only way to go is through it. Unless someone with the power excuses you, as His Honor excused me. Those fleeting moments of grace—those rare times when we are excused—are to be cherished and treasured. Even when the cost is so high.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Moral History

Two books that shock the conscience

One of the true joys of my existence is when the universe conspires to bring me two profound books on a single theme. Like variations on a haunting, timeless melody, William Vollman’s sweeping Central Europe and Alan Heathcock’s explosive Volt both explore the moral history of a place through multiple characters’ experiences.

It doesn’t matter whether the place is real—Central Europe’s World War II era German and Soviet frontline—or imagined—Krafton, Alan Heathcock’s quirky and quintessential Midwestern town that never was (but that every American will recognize). These authors have laid out with painstaking craft and heartbreaking skill the conditions that exist in the ever-shifting every-man’s land that exists between good and evil, right and wrong, joy and sorrow.  And in both books, the settings are as much a character as the morally ambiguous creatures who inhabit them.

Vollman’s book found me, as most of my books do, in a thrift store a few years ago, shortly after I had returned from a trip to Hungary and shortly before my marriage of 13 years ended in the emotional equivalent of the Dresden firebombing. Despite the fact that Central Europe had won a National Book Award, it somehow ended up at the back of my book queue, only to emerge in January of this year.

Central Europe is a loosely connected collection of novellas and short stories, all sharing a common theme, and all telling the story of World War II through the eyes of artists who lived through it: Composer Dmitri Shostakovich, filmmaker Roman Karmen, artist Kathe Kollwitz, poet Anna Akhmatova; and military commanders who fought it (the last German Field Marshall Paulus, Soviet General and defector Vlasov, and most hauntingly, SS Obersturmfuhrer Kurt Gerstein, who acted as a “witness for God” to the atrocities of the Holocaust). 

An anonymous first person narrator(s), possibly KGB and/or German Intelligence, connects each story, as does the elusive and lovely Elena Konstantinovskaya—Roman Karmen’s real-life wife, for whom Vollman imagines a love triangle with Shostakovich—and the sagas of Siegfried and Parzival that shaped Germany’s national conscience (and Hitler’s uncompromising, cruel regime).  “Parzival killed the Red Knight for us. In our name, bloodstained tank treads will soon grind down the corn. Tod wird als Freund erkannt.[i] Don’t shun the shock! Grind out more gold for him! He knows how to make it red,” Vollman’s narrator (in German uniform) says.

And later, as a Russian, he remarks sadly, hinting at a failed relationship that is never fully explained, “Once upon a time I found beauty, but beauty left me.” Vollman’s prose is by turns poetic and prosaic (as when he describes the siege of Stalingrad), depending on the needs of his narrative. The strength of his characterization is most evident in the Shostakovich stories, including a Cold War encounter with the American piano prodigy Van Cliburn. The renowned composer can never complete a thought: “Well, well, well, well. Perhaps we both…But I really…Anyway, their speeches make my ears vomit,” he says to his wife, trying to explain his refusal to join the Communist Party (years later, Shostakovich capitulates).

As Vollman tells it, the moral history of Central Europe is bankrupted by death and destruction, by the firebombing of Dresden, by 20 million Russian civilian and military casualties of World War II and more than six million murdered Jews, and finally, by the utter existential despair captured in Shostakovich’s Opus 110.
“I wanted to tell the moral history of a place,” Boise author Alan Heathcock said at the premiere for his debut short story collection, Volt, published by Graywolf Press this year. Heathcock was explaining the decade-spanning evolution of the all-American town at the heart of his collection. Krafton is so perfectly realized that you can picture yourself standing outside the bar where the deer crashed into the mirror, or shopping at the town’s small grocery, or battling the urge to snooze through one of Pastor Hamby’s sermons.

It’s hard for me to understand why Central Europe is called a novel, while Volt is billed as a short story collection—both books employ a similar narrative structure. Vernon Hamby and town Sheriff Helen Farreley both figure in several of Heathcock’s stories, loosely connecting them thematically. The reader first encounters Hamby as a young boy, sent on a horrifying mission by his father, while Helen embodies the morally ambiguous nature of human existence.

The craft and care that went into these stories is truly breathtaking. But sometimes you read a story or novel and notice the craft first—think Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow or Dave Egger’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. In Heathcock’s case, the stories function first as stories; the author’s extraordinary command of language and metaphor never overshadows the story itself. My two favorites (which I could argue are essentially the same tale told from different points of view) are “Smoke” and “The Daughter.”

In the first story, the reader meets a 15-year old Vernon Hamby, who learns a harsh truth at a young age when his bloodied father appears outside his window and asks for his help.  “Maybe awful things is all God’s got to remind us he’s alive. Maybe war is God come to life in men,” Vernon thinks, echoing Vollman’s sentiments. Vernon has a very postmodern encounter with Roy Rogers, who advises the boy to sing a song, “just to smooth off the dark edges.” (I talk to Lawrence of Arabia all the time, so this scene made perfect sense to me).

Young Vernon is left with a moral quandary—how can his father, a “good” man, be responsible for the death of a stranger? “The Daughter” also deals with accidental murder; with careful foreshadowing, Heathcock lays out the circumstances that lead a daughter to cover up her mother’s misdeeds.  “’What we need is a monster for our maze,’ Evelyn said. ‘A monster to gobble up little boys.’” When a child goes missing in a corn maze, no one suspects Evelyn’s mother Miriam.

The tough moral questions are not usually right vs. wrong—it’s wrong vs. wrong that plagues us, with varying degrees of seriousness, throughout our lives. Heathcock deftly flips a switch and shows us our best/worst selves, as negatives, outlined in fierce black and white. A father kills his son. A father kills another father. A woman kills a child molester. Another woman kills a child. A son goes off to war and dies, and his parents, confronted by grief, cannot make sense of the world anymore.  We see ourselves in Krafton’s denizens, and seeing ourselves, we are left afraid, without consolation.

Life is an endless series of peach pies and corn mazes, movies and church picnics. Except when it’s not. “I ain’t well neither,” says Sheriff Helen. “Maybe none of us are.”

Monday, August 8, 2011

Little White Dress

On Creating a Book in One Day

When I was nine years old, while other girls were playing with Barbies, I used to create my own books, magazines and newspapers for fun. My mother would give me a sketch pad and some markers, and I would disappear for hours. Usually my self-published opuses were themed—one memorable broadsheet purported to be from the fourteenth century. As I recall, it included ads for rat poison, a human interest story on a family who lost six children to the plague, and a lengthy obituary section, complete with “engraved” portraits (so I was a bit off in my Art History chronology!).

I still like creating books and magazines.  Only now I use InDesign, Illustrator, Photoshop, and most recently, the Adobe sketch tool on my iPad, which takes finger-painting to a whole new level. That’s only one of the reasons I love my iPad—another is that it has taken my reading enjoyment to a whole new level as well (for the future of books, see this TED talk from Push Pop Press

When I posted about thrift store wedding dresses two weeks ago, the incredibly cool facebook responses switched one of those proverbial little light bulbs on. “Let’s create a book in one day,” I said to my friend Elaine Ambrose. Elaine was the only person I could think of who would say, “Sure!” instead of blinking several times and politely trying to excuse herself from the conversation. I had worked with the pig-farmer’s daughter turned author and publishing maven on one or two previous projects, and I can tell you that if producing a book for print publication in one day is possible, Elaine and I will be the people who do it.

The book is called Little White Dress. And the book creation event is today. Local authors will gather at Elaine’s house for a writing group on steroids (or at least wine). We’ll be joined by friends from all around the globe in a project that promises to shed some light on that enduring question: “You paid HOW much for a dress you wore only one time?!?” (aside: men, I think this book is actually being written for you. If you really want to know a woman, think about her relationship to her wedding dress).

(Another aside: Is it, like, ironic or something that I will spend the entire morning in mediation trying to resolve differences with my ex-husband about our divorce agreement? When it comes to reading and interpreting that thing, he is Ruth Bader Ginsburg to my Scalia).

So the dress itself didn’t work out for me. But life has a funny way of taking you in unexpected, even delightful directions. I can’t wait to see how this one turns out.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Happily Never After: On Thrift Store Wedding Gowns and Second Chances

As I was making my weekend thrift store rounds (a quasi-religious practice), I couldn’t help but notice the yards of shimmering white fabric and gauzy tulle adorning chipped smiling mannequins in the windows of, respectively, The Salvation Army, the Youth Ranch, and St. Vincent dePaul.

 It’s wedding season. And I was not the only woman gawking, in that ironic but wistful manner only the sadder-but-wiser girl can convey, at the ridiculous but iconic costuming that is still, to this day, at the heart of every girl-turned-woman’s personal fairy tale.

“Isn’t that simply beautiful?” one woman sighed, turning to the rest of us as she reverently fingered the ivory silk charmeuse of one gown, retail price $850, Goodwill price a mere $45. It was, we agreed. Simply—minus the 423 buttons, the elaborate train, and the slip large enough to hide six or seven children—beautiful.

Actually, it was ridiculous. Let’s face it: wedding dresses are ugly. White is a bad color for just about every person on the planet. The implication behind the color—that the person wearing it has not had sex yet—is simply unrealistic in the age of on-demand birth control. And yet women everywhere spend months or years planning their big days, spending sums of money on a dress that could provide drinking water wells to third world villages, all in the name of an archaic ritual that has little meaning for the modern world.

(God bless gay marriage, by the way—maybe FINALLY someone will bring some taste and style to the costuming of this silly ritual).

But really, is there any article of clothing more tragic than a thrift store wedding dress? A wedding dress in a thrift store, by implication, is no longer a cherished thing. The story behind the dress is, implicitly and explicitly, we did not live happily ever after.

I did not live happily ever after. But when the sorting was done, and the boxes were packed, I couldn’t bring myself to toss the dress. I was not the sort of girl who gave much thought to my wedding day. I let my mother plan most of it. But I did know exactly what I wanted in a dress. I designed it myself, and my mother, a skilled seamstress, sewed it to my exact specifications and measurements. The dress was matte ivory silk (not white! Not that I couldn’t have worn white, symbolically speaking!), a bodice of the finest Venetian lace, sleeves and neckline trimmed with pearls.

I felt like a princess in that dress, on that day. It was the happiest day of my life. But 13 years later, we woke up to find that happily ever after was too much work for both of us.

I’ve almost reached what would have been my 16th wedding anniversary. On facebook, my friends are posting anniversary pictures of themselves in poofy white gowns, surrounded by their embarrassed children, standing beside their sheepishly grinning husbands.

I’ll never be able to post that picture. But I dug up the dress, tried it on, smiled to find that it still fit after four children and all those years.

Will I ever wear another off-white dress on a day of goofy rituals? I can’t say right now that I see the attraction to that particular fairy tale. These days, I prefer the one where Cinderella breaks through the glass ceiling. But if I do decide again to don the costuming of love, I’m pretty certain of two things: 1) I will love someone enough to wear a silly dress for him (this is no small amount of love), and 2) I will buy the dress at a thrift store. Because every wedding dress deserves a second chance. 

Monday, May 23, 2011

Ad hominem--(spoiler alert! The Anarchist Soccer Mom is actually a Libertarian)

Ad Hominem
In the Sandbox of History, Mudslinging Won’t Win Points for Either Side

Conservative bellwether Andrew Breitbart looks like the Hollywood liberals he loves to hate. With his wrinkled khakis, long greying hair, and addiction to name-dropping ("Would you believe Rob Lowe is a Conservative? What about Gary Sinise?"), he would fit right in at a Hollywood liberal function--until he opens his mouth. To hear Breitbart talk, you’d think conservatives are waging some kind of holy war for the hearts, minds, and souls of Americans. At stake, he says, is our very concept of freedom. And besides, it's fun to make fun of liberals.

Andrew Breitbart is an asshole.

The worst thing is, he’s on my side. And this essay is about why a rude comment like the one I just made should never, ever be part of a meaningful political dialogue.

I have a bit of a confession to make: I'm a closet conservative with strong sympathies toward libertarian political views (yes, rumors that I sang the National Anthem at Raul Labrador’s Tea Party Endorsement Rally are entirely true). When it comes to questions like the role of government, income taxes, choice in education, and the environment, Breitbart and I probably agree on just about everything. But after hearing him speak at an Idaho Freedom Foundation celebration last week, I found myself more than a little uncomfortable with his methodology—if only because it’s so lazy.

Of course, conservatives aren’t the only ones resorting to ad hominem attacks (though the six-year old bully in me wants to point out that we are better at it, thanks to a long tradition of knife-tongued commentators like Rush and Ann Coulter). In fact, Breitbart and his liberal name calling counterparts personify what is wrong with the political climate in America today, where ridiculous sideshows about the President’s birth certificate take precedence over serious matters, like, say, national security.

I’m willing to bet that most Americans, like me, are sick and tired of all the mudslinging in the political sandbox. It's no wonder people on both the left and the right have left the playground in disgust. People like Breitbart are not debating—they’re demagoguing.  

Here’s a thought for Mr. Breitbart and others like him: maybe the people you’re calling stupid have thought hard about their erroneous opinions. Maybe they care as much about America as you do—they just have different solutions. I have several close friends who are ardent supporters of President Obama’s agenda. They point to the success of Scandinavian socialism as a role model for what America could become if we successfully balance a social safety net with the incentives-based regulated capitalism. These are not “stupid” opinions and observations. I trust that my liberal friends have thought about their political positions as hard as I have thought about mine.

What characterizes political discussions with these friends is the positive energy that comes from sincere, respectful people who value diversity and appreciate that the problems facing our nation are complex, with no simple solutions. I think listening to liberals and considering their opinions is way more fun than baiting and eviscerating them. We tacitly agree to disagree about issues, but we share a sense of respect, mutual ethics, and appreciation for diversity. Sometimes we even learn something!

I think Breitbart and his friends may be on the wrong side of rhetoric, but they are on the right side of history. A big federal government will not solve our dependency on foreign oil—companies like Dynamis Energy will. The government cannot fix healthcare, they appear to be unwilling to reign in the national debt (the single biggest threat to our national security), and they refuse to enact meaningful immigration reform laws.

But we have forgotten that most liberals and conservatives want the same thing: life, liberty, and happiness. That we disagree about how to attain those worthy goals should not be hijacked by pointless ad hominem attacks. One thing I really admired about President Reagan was the way he treated other people. Reagan-loving Conservatives should take a page out of that leader’s book. Stop using “liberal” like it’s a dirty word and start listening to what liberals actually have to say. We might be able to share a sandbox again—and forge compromises that will lead to meaningful change.

Monday, March 7, 2011

A Tale of Two Gymnasiums

I went to church today in two different gymnasiums in Provo, Utah. If you know anything at all about Provo, you’ll guess correctly that one of them was a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The other was Saint Francis Catholic Church, a growing congregation that serves a multi-cultural community.

Honestly, I wasn’t sure what to expect of a Catholic church in Utah Valley, where the population self-identifies as 96% Mormon. I found the same service I would encounter anywhere in the world, on the Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time. We sang, we stood, we sat, we kneeled. In a community of Africans, Koreans, Hispanics, we recited the Lord’s Prayer together and said, “Peace be with you” to our neighbors, who were as likely to be wearing jeans and t-shirts as their “Sunday Best.”

The gym had been transformed for the service with an altar and crucifix. The Stations of the Cross adorned the walls. Near the front was an image of Saint Francis, and Mary with the infant Jesus looked on from one corner. The candles and vestments, the altar servers and liturgy, all spoke of oneness, of a truly catholic faith.

Later I went to a service in the religious tradition in which I was raised. The Latter-day Saint ward my brother attends is housed in one of the older church buildings. Like the Catholics, the Mormons boast that you can attend a service anywhere in the world and feel right at home, a claim I have found to be generally true. Like the Catholic service, the Mormon service follows a strict pattern, beginning with a congregation-member leading a hymn and a prayer. After the bishop conducts ward business, the sacrament is blessed and taken “in remembrance” of Christ’s sacrifice. On Fast and Testimony Sunday, ward members then have the opportunity to share their feelings about their faith—what evangelicals call witnessing.

The standard Mormon testimony consists of three parts: I know that God lives and that Jesus is His Son, I know that the gospel was restored to the Prophet Joseph Smith in the latter days, and I know that a prophet of God leads the church today. Members will also often talk about the importance of eternal families, or some other gospel principle, sharing their gratitude for church teachings and stressing the positive impact the gospel has had on their lives. After the testimonies, a song and prayer conclude the Sacrament service.

In my brother’s ward, I looked like everyone else. Mormons dress up for church—men wear dark suits, white shirts, and conservative ties (you can spot the rare liberal male members because they wear colored shirts and green suits with trendy ties). Women wear dresses or skirts, plenty of makeup, and have carefully coifed hair. Children—there are plenty of them—are dressed in matching outfits and wriggle in their seats while their parents scold them in hushed whispers. The whole event bears some resemblance to a late 19th century upper-class British cricket match, minus the entertainment.

There are no images of Jesus anywhere in the sanctuary.

The climax of the Catholic Mass is Communion, when the priest recites the ancient prayers that transform bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. “This is our faith,” he says—and at its root, all Catholic dogma, doctrine, and teaching rests on that single moment, when Christ told his apostles, “Take, eat. This is my body.”

In contrast, the Mormon Sacrament is blessed early in the service.  The talks which follow are as likely to be about food storage as they are about the Savior. I know many Mormons who have a sincere desire to know Christ, and who seem to find what they need in that second gymnasium. But for me, the weekly fashion show wasn’t enough.

This is why I am no longer a practicing member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They/We are good people. They/We love family, church, country, and God. But where they/we differ is on that last point. I want the mystery and majesty of the Trinity. I want to surround myself with symbols of an ancient faith. I want a modern day gymnasium to become a place where a miracle that has been happening for thousands of years continues to have relevance in my life.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Who Needs Adverbs? Life, Death, and Beauty in Ken Rodgers' Passenger Pigeons

Ken Rodgers taught me to write without adverbs.  He loathes them, those lazy lounging “ly” words that let the verbs get away with murder. I found just one offender in Rodgers’ latest lean and sinewy collection of poems, Passenger Pigeons (it’s on page 43, and it works hard, for an adverb).  Rodgers excels at communicating—with strong verbs, whenever possible—the essence of two essential things: nature’s immutable, infinitely variegated beauty, and death’s heartbreak/horror/joy (yeah, you heard me—I said “joy.”).  

Since it deals with lots of big, uncomfortable stuff—death, war, heartbreak, loss, Joseph Stalin, for starters—this little book can be tough to chew on--no amuse-gueule here. But the stringy parts are seasoned with lines of sheer beauty, especially when Rodgers juxtaposes life’s little, banal horrors with nature's impartial and placid beauty. In the first poem, “La Luz Canyon” (which I can and will argue, with fists if necessary, tops Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill”), the themes of change and permanence settle around the reader like aspen trees shedding their leaves in autumn. In the Spartan, elegant “Japanese Poetry” (perhaps the most succinct description of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder ever written), nature provides a respite from “memory’s black scent of death” (p. 40).

I like words that make me uncomfortable (“Jap Camp/Hard words/Bleak words/Jap” p. 12); words that challenge me (“small asteroids delivered by the god of cuckoo clocks” p. 16); words that force me to look them up in the dictionary (“Lenticular clouds glower over the front behind the town” p. 46). I like images that pile around me (“Arrow leafed balsamroot/stabs the noon-day light/devoured by a vast tyranny of yellow” p. 28); that drift like snowflakes {“And the light    a subtle syrah/Like rubies” p. 6); that come on sudden like a Texas thunderstorm (“And the glass shards on the piazza/And the shattered hands of baby dolls” p. 32, in a poem with the delightful title, “Are Disney Stars Selena Gomez and Nick Jonas an Item?”). There are plenty of those kinds of words, those kinds of images, in this book.

Don’t be afraid to die. More importantly, don’t be afraid to live, to see, to experience the aching, transcendent beauty of your existence.  That’s what I took away from this powerful collection, a lifetime’s work, from a man who has, at times, been afraid to live—but is not afraid to find the words to tell about it. As long as those words are not adverbs.

Monday, February 21, 2011

A letterpress, life, and other stuff

In March 2007, I loaded my two oldest sons and their gear into my beat up but beloved teal green Volvo station wagon and pointed myself in the direction of California. I was driving to Hollywood to pick up the 35th birthday present I had purchased for myself: a vintage cast iron Craftsman tabletop letterpress, fully restored, currently in the possession of a big shot casting agent who never had any time to play with it.

In those days, whenever I wanted a toy—a new serger, a thermal heat book binder, a set of fancy design software, or in this case, a 250 pound cast iron letterpress—I would sell enough stuff on eBay to purchase it. I never felt entirely comfortable asking my husband for money for what he plainly considered my “frivolous” pastimes. “Are you busy?” he would ask, the minute I sat down and started to design a new paper pattern or work on a customized alphabet book for one of the children. “We can buy those things at the store,” he’d say, scowling whenever I pulled out the serger and started to sew a jacket or pair of pants made from recycled vintage linens for our baby girl.

He just didn’t get it. So I stopped asking and found ways to purchase the things I required all by myself.

I’d been looking for a letterpress for a while. When I was a seventh grader, all the other girls took home economics. To my teachers’ astonishment—they had formed a certain image of me based not entirely unfairly on my long blond tresses, the number of ballet classes I took each week, and my corresponding penchant for twirly skirts—I decided on a whim to sign up for shop.

Letterpress was my favorite. I loved taking the tiny ink-stained 10 point font lead-cast letters from their trays and setting them in neat rows, creating order out of chaos, meaning out of randomness. The first thing I ever printed was a bumper sticker slogan that pretty much summed up my nerdy ways: “Keep on Tolkein, and Frodo Lives” (the only reason I didn’t print it in Dwarves Runic was that we didn’t happen to have a rune font on hand).

When I was setting type, my hands were occupied with a task that connected me in a real, tangible way to the rich past of my favorite material object: the book. I would imagine myself in a filthy, crowded, 15th century printshop, its wooden trays crammed with hand-cast type of varying shapes and sizes, loading composing sticks with type, my arms smeared to the elbows with ink. I could see myself hunched over, stitching hand-cut quartos by candlelight. Each printed text was magic, containing within its carefully typset pages the power to transport its reader to another, better world.

Flash forward to California. On the drive down, I became suddenly, violently ill. I’m the sort of person who refuses to get sick on principle (I’m also deliberately not too assiduous about washing my hands, but that’s another story). I couldn’t keep anything down, and my head ached so badly that I couldn’t string two thoughts together in a sentence. I can hardly remember retrieving the letterpress (the boys must have helped me do it). Afterwards, I somehow made it to the Aquarium of the Pacific, where I had promised to take the boys.

When we got to the Aquarium, I called my husband. “I can’t make it to your mom’s,” I moaned. “I have to get a hotel in Long Beach.”

“You aren’t that sick,” he said. “Besides, you didn’t budget anything for a hotel. And I’m not paying for it.”

That was that. I lay down on a bench, my skin like ice in the warm California sunshine, and prayed to God to take me right then and there. I imagined that my body had become liquid mercury, that I was slowly melting/freezing/melding into the park bench beneath me, until I could no longer feel where I began or ended. I don’t remember anything else for a few days, when I woke up hungry and blinking in the bright sunshine at my mother-in-law’s beach house in Dana Point. I was alive, and more to the point, I had my letterpress.

On the 12-hour drive back to Idaho, I did some thinking. And this is what I thought: I am 35 years old. I have accomplished every goal I set for myself. I married the handsome magna cum laude law student in the temple. I bore him four beautiful, brilliant children. I earned a fluffy masters degree that makes me look like I’m smart. I am miserable, and I want to die.

What did I really want, back in seventh grade, when I took that shop class? Did I want a house, a home, a husband? I don’t think I did. I think I lived and planned and dreamed my whole life based on the things that other people wanted from me.

So when did I decide that I was so unacceptable to the people around me? Why did I spend my whole life pretending to be someone I wasn’t?

And the truth is that I have no idea. Maybe we all do this—maybe we are all just acting, like Shakespeare said, and all the world’s a stage.

But for me, living a life like that is a lie. It comes down to the difference between Plato’s first form—the essence of a thing, as it exists in the mind of God—and the second, a mere image, a mirror of true reality.

I want to know—not the answers—but the questions. I want to stand in a field surrounded by sky and practice the verb “to be.” I want to listen to the wind and see ghosts and dance beneath stars. Above all, I want to be present in my life. It's not much, but it's everything.

If you want to use my letterpress, you can--contact the bricolage girls who are its current babysitters.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Requiem for a Deer Hunter

My NPR Three Minute Fiction Entry--599 words, one joke, and not one but TWO crying characters.

            We went to lunch on Saturday, the day Buddy Cooper died.  My Dad’s sunburned head was dusted with a soft silver peach fuzz.  I listened as he chanted the litany of leukocyte counts and chemotherapies, the cancer patient’s catechism, while my cousin Maria's hands fluttered. 
            Maria was translating for my Aunt May, who was born deaf.  How do you explain leukemia to a 58-year old woman who doesn't even know what a cell is?
            All Aunt May knows is the Miss Deaf America pageant.  She was Miss Deaf America once, before she married Rex who cheated on her and broke her heart and left her with nothing but two hearing daughters.  But that is an epicycle.
            Epicycles are what the ancient astronomer Ptolemy used to account for the observable erratic motion of the stars supposedly fixed in their crystal spheres.  Though the explanation worked in a convoluted fashion, the whole system was based on the false premise that the universe revolves around the earth.  Astronomy has no more need of epicycles, but they are still marvelously descriptive of human nature.
            At 11:30 on Saturday morning, my grandmother, alone in her mauve-carpeted living room, felt suddenly ill.  She went to the front windows and pulled back the lace curtains, looking up at the mountains.  She knew then what we would all learn later: that Buddy Cooper was dying.
            “It’s not so bad, really,” my Dad, an ex-Marine, quipped as Maria signed. “You know what I’ve always said—I may be slow, but I’m weak.”
            I smiled at the well-worn joke, but May looked confused.
            “I went to church once in Provo,” May signed to my father. “I met a man who looked exactly like you, and his father was from Kentucky, like your father.  He might be a bone marrow donor for you.”
            I don't know if that's what May really said because I don't speak her language.  I read once that American Sign Language, contrary to what most people believe, is much more than just a sign/word equivalent for English.  It's actually a highly complex language with a grammar that resembles Navajo more closely than our own. 
            My Dad smiled sadly as Maria translated.  “It has to be a close relative,” his hands said haltingly.  “Like a brother or a sister.”
            “Then I can donate?”  May asked, her dark eyes filling with tears.  No, she couldn't. Her father, who died before she was born, was not my father's father, who died when my Dad was seven of a massive heart attack, just like Buddy Cooper. You see how there are epicycles, and they explain everything. 
            I concentrated on the ice cubes in my water glass, wondering as I tried to freeze the tears coalescing in the corners of my eyes what kind of heat was released as something melted.  Was it heat of condensation?  Vaporization?  No, it was heat of fusion. 
            Mom leaned over and whispered, “I wish that he could just say it.”
            Say what?  She can't say it either.  Death is always unexpected, even when you've spent your whole life preparing for it.
            Buddy Cooper, age 56, in perfect health, had just killed his buck.  “Get help,” he told his young grandson, unable to drag the majestic animal himself.  The boy ran in the direction of the others.  When they returned, they found him on his back beneath a tree, as dead as the deer he had killed only minutes before.  When his wife heard the news, she said quietly, “He was doing what he loved.”
            There are worse ways to die.