Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Walked and walked and walked and walked.

In 1847, my great-great grandfather Hezekiah Thatcher and his first wife buried their infant son at Winter Quarters, Nebraska and headed west in the first wave of Mormon pioneers to the Great Basin. Hezekiah went on to become one of the most prominent early settlers; only Brigham Young was wealthier. In the late 1850s he made the largest tithing payment to that point in Church history and he and his sons formed the financial backbone of Cache County, establishing mills, stores, a bank, and an opera house. Brigham Young said of Hezekiah's remarkable sacrifices of personal wealth for the good of the Church, "I do not believe that any other man in the Church would have done it." His son, Moses, was called as an apostle and was known for his powerful speaking. Moses boldly reminded Brigham Young that it was not in keeping with the Word of Wisdom for ZCMI, the church's mercantile chain, to sell booze. Brigham Young agreed with Moses's forward-thinking and unpopular observation, and the practice ended as a result.

A typical Pioneer Day ancestral tribute, and every word is true.

I love Pioneer Day. I love Church history, and particularly the Utah chapter of Church history. I love the stories, I love the heritage, I even love the creepy Victorian decorations made of human hair and the jars full of flies in the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers Museum. But the question in studying your own religious history is: can you handle the truth?

In studying church history, many of my sacred cows have been tipped. The story of the heroic rescue of the 1856 handcart companies, for instance:

"The teenaged boys carried most of the exhausted company over the Sweetwater River." False. They carried many, but most of them walked across or rode across in wagons.

"The icy river was up to their thighs and they labored most of the day." False. The river was about ankle-deep and the crossing more likely took a few hours since they reached the river in the afternoon and were all over before the early winter dark set in.

"All the boys later died of complications due to their ordeal." False. They all went on to live healthy, productive, and long lives by frontier standards and there was no evidence that they died of causes related to the river incident.

"Brigham Young declared that that one act of kindness would assure those boys salvation." False. There is no proof that he ever said such a thing.

"None of the members of the Martin or Willie Handcart companies ever left the church." False. Many were furious, and some did leave the church, concluding that the Church leaders were uninspired.

In telling faith-promoting stories, we seek to understand our heritage. We want to know why embarrassing or disastrous events happened if God was at the helm. We seek for the best moments and magnify them. Sometimes we magnify them until they become false.

Back to my own family story -- here are the parts I left out. Hezekiah Thatcher arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847 and thought it looked like a miserable wasteland. Two years later, directly defying Brigham Young's orders to stay and help build Zion, he took off for the Gold Rush and quickly made a huge fortune in the hotel and restaurant businesses. Ten years later he returned to the fold in Utah and was obedient to the end of his life, but the family tradition of independence that he had begun was not always a blessing in the communally-minded Utah Territory. His son Moses, who was later made an apostle, was crippled by his addiction to opium as a painkiller. He defied the prophet Wilford Woodruff by publicly and vociferously refusing to sign the Political Manifesto. Though he was not excommunicated for his disobedience, he was subsequently un-apostled and died in semi-disgrace.

I didn't hear this half of the story until I was in college, and I was dismayed. These were not my "blessed, honored pioneers"! These were a bunch of stubborn cranks. They were so....ordinary.

But as I've allowed myself to absorb the entire truth, something new has happened. I realized that these cranky mere mortals somehow managed to make remarkable sacrifices in the midst of all their pettiness. One day they were like me, whining about the unreasonable demands of Sainthood, and the next day they were bravely playing their part in the miracles. And the day after that -- who knows?

The details of my family myth are no longer those of my childhood. No longer can I allow myself to believe that great epic suffering automatically forges men into heroes for the ages, as we often imply in our Pioneer Day tributes. But at the same time, I can no longer allow myself to believe that because I do not live in a time of great epic suffering, I am destined to be spiritually mediocre next to my ancestors. No longer are they more than human. No longer can I hold them at arm's length as freaky-good and say, "Whew -- I'm glad it was them and not me, because I just don't have what it takes to do something like that." Knowing their very ordinary shortcomings makes their accomplishments and sacrifices all the more powerful because the people doing them are like me. And the most powerful messages of their lives remain, even in the full light of truth.

"Great suffering has the power to amplify our goodness if we choose to let it." True.

"Ordinary people can do extraordinary things in the midst of their ordinary lives." True.

"God is at work, even in moments of disaster, confusion, and doubt." True.

"Sacrifice is not measured by agony, but by willingness." True.

"Your great acts of faith become the guideposts for your descendants, in spite of your warts." True.

So I honor these ordinary people who, with greater or lesser motivations, walked 1,300 miles to this desert and became my ancestors. I don't know if they traveled cheerfully or grumpily (no family history ever says, "Great-Grandpa George whined his way to Zion"), but I do know that they ultimately chose their faith over creature comforts. They may have first chosen the church because it offered them a ticket to America where they could escape poverty and own land. Many European converts joined the church for this reason, just as many people join the church today because of its remarkable welfare system. But somewhere along the way they all found their faith and taught it to their children, and that faith has dripped down to me, purer and more satisfying because it was filtered through the plain gray rocks of their ordinariness. Plow, plant, harvest, repeat. Swallow your pride. Keep your cow out of Brother Hyde's garden even though his pigs ate your lettuce patch last week. Try to not smoke your pipe so often so you don't smell bad in the temple. Teach your children to be better than you are.

These are some other ordinary heroes of my family who walked across the plains between 1847 and 1869.

Robert Reeder who was part of the Willie handcart company and lost his father, David, and sister, Caroline, on the journey. George Seamons, who at age 15 lost both parents and a brother in his trek to Utah. Anna Cajsa and Charles Anderson Frank from Sweden, who were married on the plains. Jonathan, Abigail, and Nancy Jane Taylor Smith, Elizabeth Patrick Taylor, George and Alice Hancock Done from England; Johann, Anna, and Elisabeth Naef from Switzerland.

I don't know their whole stories or what they were really like. I don't know if they were better or stronger than your pioneers. But they are mine, and their best moments have become my mythology. One day I will get all of their stories straight, from their very mouths. Until then, most of the details will remain hazy, but the picture is clear -- it is a picture of faith, hard won.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A fool and her money are soon parted.

I collect pretensions. Random trivia from PBS specials (peanuts aren't really nuts). Archaic words (firkytoodling). And Shakespeare plays. In fact, as of last week, I am just three plays away from having seen every one of Shakespeare's surviving plays (or four, if you include Two Noble Kinsmen).

To help me complete my collection, I need y'all to be on the lookout for Utah productions of the following:

1) Cymbeline (Sharon's seen it and says it sucks beyond belief)
2) Antony and Cleopatra (I could have seen it last year and sanely refused to pay big bucks to see what everyone said was a stupid play, but I now regret stifling my inner snob)
3) Titus Andronicus (I may not have the stomach for this bloodbath -- maybe I'll have to content myself with an "all but one" boast?)

I was sitting by my brother during the intermission of Lear, proudly telling him and his wife that I had seen all Shakespeare plays but four.

"Which ones do you have left?" he asked.

"Well, Pericles, for one," I replied.

"You've seen Pericles," he said.

"No, I haven't. Don't you think I'd remember if I'd seen Pericles?"

"You've seen it."

He was right. I had seen it. I have zero recollection of it. Seeing forgettable plays is a ridiculous and irresponsible way to spend my money, but the allure of the complete collection is becoming irresistible as I approach the finish line. As I shell out $40 to see Timon of Athens, I think how great it will be to be at a party playing that what-have-you-done-that-no-one-else-here-has-done game and say, "I've seen every Shakespeare play." All heads will turn. Men will suddenly find me fascinating. I will win the wiseguy tiara and wave modestly to my adoring public. Morning news shows will interview me, and my advice will be:

"Never ever let anyone drag you to Henry VIII."

However, my latest rare Shakespeare acquisition was actually very good: Coriolanus. It's playing this season in Cedar City and if you have the opportunity to take it in, you should. It's been used as propaganda by both Nazis and Communists and was banned by Allied forces for several years in post-WWII Europe. In fact, most citizens of modern democracies hate the play with its proud patrician protagonist (say that five times fast). I'll spare you the full review, but if you just can't get enough of my hot air, head over to the Shakespearean Festival blog, where I left a loooong comment on the play.

As a pompous old codger once said, "Brevity is the soul of wit."

And so I end.

The rest is silence.


Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Ladies and gentleman, we have a new alpha male in the ward dating pool.

He did it! Our official ward comedian, Ryan Hamilton, made it into the finals of Last Comic Standing! Only thirty-something were chosen from the thousands who auditioned in England, Canada, Australia, and the US.

He was smart to go with his speed dating bit. "Emotional Whack-a-Mole" is brilliant. Brilliant!

At Farrah's request, here he is performing. As funny as Sinbad, circa 1992? You, America, shall be the judge.

Ryan Hamilton on Comedy Central

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Thursday, July 05, 2007

Bye bye, Bob.

Of late the nation has been mourning the retirement of Bob Barker, but I have been cheering. Why, you ask? Well, pull up a La-Z-Boy and I'll tell you....

It was summer 1998, and we, the BYU Writing Center tutors, were road trippin' to sunny Cali, golden tickets in hand. No, not the Chocolate Factory: The Price Is Right. The glitter! The kitsch! Only our ringleader was a fan of the show, but we were all American enough to know that we were on a pilgrimage to one of the greatest and oldest shrines to Consumerism. Truly a holy errand. Would we win a dinette set? A boat? Eternal youth? A "Hi, Mom" on national television? The possibilities were endless.

We lined up outside the studio on that hap-happy day in our specially-made t-shirts (see picture). Even the most jaded were all bounce and giggle as we got our name badges and were interviewed by the Enthusiasm Judges outside the door.

Judge: "Why do you want to be on the show?"

Normally Sullen Male Coworker: "Because, you know, it's just, like, an American institution! And I want to meet Bob Barker! Woo hoo!" [demonstrates his Price Is Right bounce-and-clap]

Of course, Normally Sullen Male Coworker was not ultimately chosen as a contestant because, despite his articulate enthusiasm, he lacked big bouncy bosoms.

We filed into the studio and.....

....it was tiny. And dim. "This can't be right!" we muttered to each other, but sat down obediently anyway. After twenty minutes Rod Roddy appeared in his satin leprechaun jacket and tried to cheer us up.

"Are you excited to be here, folks?"

"Yay! We love you, Rod!"

"What was that?"

"We LOVE you, Rod!"

"Well, save some of that love for our host, Baaaawb Barker!"

The stage lit up, the crowd went wild, and I was transported to the dimestore Babylon of my childhood. Out stepped the good old boy of daytime TV, all white teeth and hair. I felt dizzy. Was this reality? The game proceeded like a hazy dream. Yadda yadda Barker's Beauties! Yadda yadda [insert racy comment here]! Yadda yadda come on down!

However, the trippy fun was interrupted as Bob threw a tantrum on Contestant Number Three, who had failed, like Contestants One and Two, to win anything.

"All right, folks, this is pathetic. In the entire history of The Price Is Right there have only been two shows in which no one has won a SINGLE THING. Did you hear me? Only TWO! If you don't start winning soon, we're going to have to scrap this show and retape, because America won't tune in to watch a bunch of LOSERS!"

He continued in this vein until we had all resolved to 1) locate the Hand of Opportunity and 2) bite down on it like rabid dogs. Again the cameras rolled.

"And our next contestant....Caitlin Andreason -- come on down!"

Our friend Caitlin gleefully trotted down the aisle and onto the stage to represent ol' BYU before the nation. We knew she would do us proud, as she was as intelligent and witty as she was buxom. The dirty old man looked her over and noticed her t-shirt.

"Ohhhh, dear," he said. "This shirt is a problem." He turned to the stage crew. "Hey, we're going to need our legal guy out here -- they've used our logo on their shirts. You didn't get permission, did you?"

Caitlin was looking a bit panicky.

"You know that's trademark infringement, don't you?"

"Um, I guess..."

Bob was clearly enjoying her distress. He refocused on her bosom and read the small print.

"Hmmm. Well, audience, it says here that the BYU Writing Center loves Bob Barker. I guess if they really love me, maybe we can let them off the hook....this time."

He smiled slyly and we exhaled in relief. I sent her a psychic postcard: "Grab the toupee and run!" but apparently she didn't receive it.

Bob must have felt our righteous indignation, because he behaved from that point on and Caitlin went on to win the first prize of the show -- a $300 china set with an ugly sailboat pattern. Not too exciting, you might say, but she saved the whole audience from the wrath of Bob and the lowest circle of Loser-dom.

And thus we see how a small band of Utah yokels can win out, in spite of a cranky old devil pickled in his own hair gel. How they can restore faith in The American Dream, The Free Lunch, The Fifteen Minutes. Come to think of it, with our Norman Rockwellian wholesomeness and our legendary pluck, perhaps we Mormons should hijack this all-American institution now that ol' Bobby has passed on to his shuffleboard days.


Vote Mitt Romney for New Host! He may waffle on core moral principles, and he may strap his dog to the top of the car, but he's never strapped his AUNT EDNA to the top of the car -- not even after she was completely dead. And no one's better at turning losers into piles of money.

Plus, that hair's got real potential.