Monthly Archives: June 2013


Tonight, we’re having a party for my Dad. Roy Samuelsen, Hoosier, Norwegian, a remarkable opera singer, Viking, boat lover, sheet metal worker, bishop, and friend.

When I was a kid, my Dad bought a boat, a big old ungainly sailboat he christened the Viking Queen.  Our home was close to Lake Monroe, a big reservoir flooding the forest valleys of south central Indiana, and every spare afternoon, he’d hitch the Queen up to the family station wagon, and drive it down to a launching ramp.  And we’d sail.  The Queen was a ponderous craft, and my brothers and I were mostly reduced to taking turns holding the jib sheet, and griping about holding the jib sheet, while Dad would laboriously tack his way across the lake.  And then we’d find some inlet, and anchor, and swim for awhile.  That part was fine, but the sailing we found tedious–we were not big fans of the Queen.

But one school day, a Tuesday, I remember, the wind blew at gale force, and Dad couldn’t wait to take the Queen sailing.  It was rainy and cold and sharp, and as we launched, we could hear sirens calling all the other sailboats in.  Bad weather too hazardous for most boats was tailor-made for the Queen; I had never known that sailing could be so fun.  I’ll never forget that day, my cheeks and hands bright red with the cold, the rain frosting my glasses.  And we’d tack, and heel over, the bow crashing through the waves, spraying up onto the cabin in the bow.  My younger brother, Rob and I looking back at my Dad at the tiller, and we just . . . laughed, out of the sheer joy of the day, the wind, the sails, the old boat liberated.

I’ve come to think that that day captures my Dad.  First, the boat.  He got his first boat as a kid, growing up in Moss, Norway.  The backyard of his home was a beach; he grew up right by the ocean, the mouth of Oslo Fjord.  He had a small sailboat as a kid, used it to fish each day after school, named the Turid after his younger sister.  For a Norwegian, raising a family in land-locked Indiana was a challenge, but after the Queen, we had a succession of boats; sailboats, speedboats, pontoon boats. Waterskiing, sailing, swimming, zip sledding.  Every Saturday we went out on the boat, except in dead in winter.  Every day during the summer, basically.  Most Sundays, even.  I was the family nerd–sometimes, I’d bring a book, and while others swam, I’d read in the cabin. But, yeah, we all swam.

My poor Mom.  A lady’s lady, she made her own adjustments to a family with three active little boys, and the older little boy to whom she was married.  She loved to waterski, but she did it her way, carefully lowering herself into the water, and sedately finishing by sinking into the water, so her hairdo wouldn’t get wet and be spoiled. My Mom would have loved having a daughter, but no such luck, so she camped and hiked and swam and waterskiied, and in between tried her best to civilize the heathen natives.

What all this illustrates was the balancing act my Dad mastered throughout his life–a man of adventure and risk, but one who never jeopardized the family.  Early in their marriage, my Dad had a good job, a trade. That’s what Americans wanted, in the fifties, a good job at a fair wage. He was a sheet metal worker, and a good one.  And he liked it; he stayed friends with his old boss at the shop, Joe Creer, would always go see him when he went west.  But he had that great voice, that huge, velvety bass-baritone, and he wanted to perform too, a career as a singer.  He’d trained in Germany while in the US Army, and kept singing in college.  Finally, he reached a cross-roads, a one year graduate school opportunity in Indiana.  That became a faculty appointment, teaching voice at IU, at what was then becoming the finest music program in the Midwest, and arguably the entire US.

To major in music, to go to grad school, to pursue a career in opera; those were all risks.  And Dad had the talent to go further, to sing with an opera house in Germany, or to pursue a career at the Met.  I’m sure it crossed his mind.  But he didn’t like what an opera lifestyle would do to his family.  So he stayed in Indiana, and many (if not most) of his professional credits were with the Louisville Opera company, not Berlin, not La Scala, but Louisville.  That’s not to say he didn’t sail in larger ponds occasionally.  He sang at New York City Opera, with Chicago Lyric, with Boston Lyric.  But family came first.

Which is also not to say that his career was negligible.  Go to the BYU library, and see the archive where they honor him.  I have indelible memories of him singing; that huge voice and that commanding stage presence.  I will never forget his Flying Dutchman, and the ship’s bowsprite that came crashing down over the first few rows of the audience.  I remember vividly how brilliantly he sang and acted the evil Scarpio in Tosca. He became locally famous, in fact, for his spirited Star Spangled Banner at Indiana basketball games. (Combining basketball and America, in a uniquely Hoosier kind of patriotism). I even met my wife while hearing Dad sing.  In April of 1978, my Dad sang the role of the Savior in the world premiere of Robert Cundick’s magisterial oratorio The Redeemer.  I was in the chorus, and shared a riser with a pretty blonde soprano, from California. I said ‘hey, that soloist is my Dad.’  She didn’t believe me. But eventually, we went out. Next December, we’ll celebrate our 33rd year of marriage.

I was trying to use my Dad’s celebrity and talent to impress a pretty girl.  But I was more often embarrassed by him, especially in high school, when he had a convertible, and loved to sing Wagner at full volume while dropping me off at a play rehearsal.  My Dad is . . . boisterous.  He enjoys his life, lives it full bore, he’s an extrovert and bon vivant. He’s an old-school Wagnerian, trained to be heard over a hundred-piece orchestra.  I didn’t always appreciate that about him, but I do now.  I get a kick out of it, especially when he comes to visit my ward and I get to see all the heads whip around when the opening hymn begins and they hear. . . that voice.

But he’s a family man first and foremost.  I know you’re supposed to say that about your Dad, but in his case, it’s really true: his family is his life.  And that ‘putting family first’ was never just pro forma. He’d be out on a singing gig, away from home a week or two at a time.  Mom held things together.  But when Dad came home, he was home.  He’d grab his mitt, and he’d ask me and my brothers if we wanted to have a catch.  Growing up in Norway, baseball was not his game, but it was ours, and so he learned about it, throwing ‘moon balls’: pop flies.  He put up a basketball standard in the driveway, and we’d play hoops, 2 on 2.  We’d throw a frisby, or toss a football around, or roll around on the front yard grass and dog poop, wrestling.  I’m sure, after a couple of week business trip, he would have probably rather have come home and rested.  But it didn’t matter how tired he was.  He was home, and his first priority was to play.  And we boys loved it.

Every summer, we’d go on vacation, and he’d plan the route carefully, consulting his bookcase full of National Geographics.  We always went to Utah, obviously, to visit his folks and my Mom’s mom, and all the other aunts and uncles and cousins.  But ‘going to Utah’ could utilize almost any route, and we tried every possibility–swooping down south through the Panhandle, or shooting off north so we could visit Mount Rushmore and Little Bighorn.  And we always, always, stopped at every historical monument.  And generally pulled on our mitts and caught moon balls, at every historical monument.  Every year, without fail, we took a vacation out west, usually stopping at Hays Kansas half way there because that’s where the car generally broke down.  (Even car repair stops were an adventure–first priority was to find a KOA campground for the night, and second priority was a miniature golf course.)

And yet, re-reading what I’ve read, I realize I may be making him sound like a big buffoon.  But he’s also capable of extraordinary sensitivity and kindness.  I saw it myself a couple of days ago.  One of my daughters sat down with him, and told him of her life-long struggle with depression.  And he sat with her, totally focused on her, completely intent on really hearing what she was telling him.  And he told her how much he loved her, and how much he’d learned about her disease, and how grateful he was that she’d shared her pain with him.  It was a remarkable moment, and one that showed me a side of my Dad that we’ve all seen at times; the compassion, the unfeigned love.

My Dad turned eighty this month, and tonight we’re having a big party for him.  Norwegians particularly celebrate birthdays ending with zeros, and we’ve rented a reception hall.  In typical Dad fashion, he’s spent the last few days harrumphing about it.  Not wanting a big fuss. But we’re going to make a fuss, darn it, and he’s going to have to put up with it.  Because he’s our Dad, our remarkable big bear of a Dad.  And we will always love him.


SCOTUS, judgment, and grammar

When the Supreme Court Windsor and Hollingsworth rulings came down yesterday, the internet blew up, predictably.  I tried not to get dragged into any of the various Facebook fights, but after going on to Scotusblog and reading the decisions, I thought I had formed a reasonably informed perspective.  So I wrote this:

I’ve read both decisions and the dissents.  Unsurprisingly narrow rulings, with Hollingsworth v Perry primarily focused on issues of standing, while Justice Kennedy’s decision in Windsor (the DOMA decision) declined to overturn the entire statute, but dealt specifically with federal implications.  DOMA was written with the intent to discriminate–to deny an historically marginalized group of people full legal status.  5th and 14th Amendments–Congress doesn’t get to do that. Good decision.

When I got on Facebook this morning, someone I don’t know had messaged me:

Your an apostate unfaithful Mormon

His note really bothered me, because of the punctuation errors.  ‘Your’ is possessive–his note implied that I owned ‘an apostate unfaithful Mormon.’  As it happens, I don’t own anyone, apostate or not.  He should have used the contraction: ‘you’re.’  Plus, there really should have been a comma between ‘apostate’ and ‘unfaithful.’  So I posted that response on Facebook; responding to the grammar, and not the content, of my unknown detractor.  And was pleasantly surprised at the positive FB response.

The content–you’re an apostate–isn’t really worth responding to, frankly.  I’m secure enough in my faith to not care what a stranger thinks of me.  I thought the Supreme Court decided both cases properly, because I read them, read the dissents, and found the decisions persuasive.  I have no legal training; I’m not any kind of authority in constitutional law.  But I like reading Supreme Court decisions.  I rather like the prose.  I even like Justice Scalia’s prose, though I rarely agree with the substance of his comments.  I thought this analysis was pretty interesting; I did find the federalist arguments in Windsor rather off-putting.  But reading a Supreme Court case, and agreeing with its logic, does not, to my mind, label me faithless.  I’m not naive enough to not know that many of my LDS friends might disagree with my assessment of SCOTUS.  But other LDS friends agree with me.  Surely legal analysis is an arena in which we can agree to disagree.

For a lot of people who I think of as friends, yesterday was a day of great rejoicing.  It was a triumphant day, a day for celebrating.  For other people who I also think of as friends, yesterday was a day of mourning.  There are people I know and love who are strong advocates for marriage equality, and there are other people who I know and love who are equally strong advocates for traditional marriage.  And as even Scalia’s dissent suggested yesterday, both sides are exceptionally quick to judge.  Pointing fingers, calling names, shouting each other down does not, to my mind, contribute to civilized discourse.

This Cracked article offers one perspective on yesterday’s rulings. If you are married, straight, religious, and believe that homosexual conduct is morally wrong, yesterday’s decision will . . .  not affect you in any way whatsoever.  I generally like Cracked, but with all due respect, I know people who will not find that argument persuasive.  For some people (intelligent, thoughtful, moral people), the DOMA decision marks another attack on the institution of marriage, an institution which they believe to be the bedrock of civil society.  I understand their concerns.  I sympathize.  I think marriage is really important too.

But I also think of this in personal terms.  I have spent my life in the theatre–teaching theatre, acting, directing, writing.  I don’t know how many theatrical productions I’ve been personally involved with, either as director, actor, dramaturg or playwright.  It has to be in excess of three hundred.  Add staged readings, and the number doubles.  Add shows seen and reviewed, and it doubles again. I have worked with hundreds of actors, designers, directors.  Which means, I have met a few gay people in my life.

My father was an opera singer.  He’s retired now, but still loves opera.  If the right role came around (the Commendatore in Don Giovanni, perhaps), he could certainly handle it vocally, though he might struggle a bit physically.  When I was a kid, one of my Dad’s closest friends was a man named Carl, a short, explosive German pianist, who was my Dad’s favorite vocal coach and accompanist.  Carl was a welcome guest in our family home every Thanksgiving and every Christmas, and frequently in between.  My brother and I were given the responsibility to mow Carl’s lawn, a terrible job, actually, because Carl wouldn’t think of it until the grass was a couple of feet tall, and mowing took forever.  Well, Carl, a close and treasured friend was gay.  And that fact was certainly no secret to anyone.  Nor did it, in any sense, matter.

So yesterday, when the DOMA decision came down, my tendency was to think of it in personal terms, to think of Carl and his never-ending romantic woes, to think of close friends, straight and gay, who have met someone they love, who have married, who have welcomed children into their homes and families.  I’m a playwright.  I respond to situations personally.  I don’t think in terms of an abstraction–an ‘institution’– damaged; I think instead of friends, and their families, blessed.

So let’s deal with each other civilly.  Let’s try to keep the volume down.  If we disagree, let’s decide to remain friends afterwards.  And above all, let’s use good grammar.  There’s no excuse for incorrect punctuation.



Reykjavik: A Review

Last night, Plan B Theatre Company in Salt Lake featured a staged reading of Richard Rhodes’ play Reykjavik. I found it a fascinating-but-flawed play, followed by an absolutely riveting discussion of the play, by Mr. Rhodes and local playwright, Mary Dickson.

The play is a two-hander about the nuclear arms reduction summit meeting between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in October 1986, held in Reykjavik.  That summit very nearly resulted in both sides agreeing to the complete elimination of all nuclear weapons.  In the play, we see the personal and political tensions between Reagan and Gorbachev play out, as the two men work towards something both of them very much wanted, a comprehensive agreement.  They came close.  It nearly happened.  But in the end, one word scuttled the agreement.

That one word was ‘laboratories.’  The ’72 ABM treaty prohibited the development and deployment of defensive missile systems. Reagan, though, was utterly entranced by the possibilities of SDI, the Strategic Defense Initiative, otherwise known as Star Wars. He had been seduced by Edward Teller’s vision of a space shield protecting mankind, in technology as the final protector of human life. Problem was, it didn’t work.  Still doesn’t.

Gorbachev’s proposal was that the US agree not to deploy or field-test SDI–to limit all research on SDI to laboratories for the ten years following the agreement.  Reagan wanted the agreement to eliminate that word ‘laboratories.’  He wanted the language of the agreement to remain ambiguous enough that the US could run tests on SDI without violating their agreement.  And although both men were willing to sign an agreement completely eliminating all nuclear weapons, that word, ‘laboratories,’ and the possibilities for SDI research and deployment it represented, scuttled the talks.  In the end, Reykjavik represented, not a break-through, but merely progress towards one.  The summit was not meaningless, but it was certainly much less meaningful than it could have been.

The play was in part sponsored by the Utah Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.  I think probably most folks in the house are opposed to nuclear proliferation.  Rhodes is a Pulitzer Prize winning author of books about atomic weapons, an expert in the field.  This is his first play, however.  Although I liked the production very much, and loved the actors–Robert Scott Smith and Jason Tatom–who played Reagan and Gorbachev respectively, I thought the play itself was somewhat flawed. One would hope that a two man play about those two world leaders would reveal them as equal: equally forceful, equally eloquent, equally misguided, perhaps, but also equally sensible and clear-headed.  I did not find this to be the case.  The conflict between them seemed overbalanced in favor of Gorbachev.

For that audience, in that venue, it’s perhaps understandable that this would be the case.  I’m a liberal–I don’t think much of the Presidency of Ronald Reagan.  And in this case, it’s infuriating to think that something as foolish, unworkable, and pie-in-the-sky as SDI could wreck as far-reaching and important an agreement as the one proposed at Reykjavik.  I came away from the play pretty angry, not at Rhodes obviously, or the production or cast, but at Ronald Wilson Reagan.  Old 6-6-6 himself.  He had an opportunity to achieve something utterly remarkable.  He sabatoged it–he’s the guy who said ‘no.’  And for what?  For Star Wars.  For something worthless.

That’s ultimately my takeaway from the performance–that it wasn’t well balanced, that it was a play that made Reagan look foolish and Gorbachev look wise.  But the reality is that Reagan’s optimism, his sunny outlook, his preference for fantasies over facts–all the stuff that made Ronnie Ronnie–all made a Reykjavik breakthrough possible.  Only Ronald Reagan could have said, as he does in the play, ‘well, why don’t we just get rid of them all?’  Only Gorbachev–already in the middle of something as extraordinary and idealistic as perestroika–would have said yes.  So of course something dumb like SDI would be the thing that would break up the deal.

Reykjavik was a break from realpolitik.  Only Reagan, only Gorbachev could have achieved it.  I think that might be a dimension the play misses, that sense of idealism, of two world leaders who met, however briefly, in the clouds. Glasnost and perestroika were as iffy and quixotic as Reagan’s ‘morning in America.’  What we saw in the play was two hard-headed negotiators trying to get the best deal they could.  I think you could have written pretty much the same play about a business merger, or a legal arbitration.  But these two guys sat there at a table and said ‘let’s dump our nukes.  All of them.  Both of us.’  And nearly made it happen.  They seriously considered something that has to be seen as a utopian fantasy.  Of course it took a different, competing utopian fantasy to derail it.

In the post-show discussion, Mr. Rhodes talked about how the play came to be.  He was reading the transcript of the negotiation, and it struck him as inherently dramatic.  I can well imagine that feeling.  What a treasure trove of materials, that transcript must have been!  But, Mr. Rhodes was advised by Paul Newman, who urged him to colloquialize the language.  With all deference to Paul Newman, I beg to differ. I don’t doubt that the jargon of diplomatic language might make some of the text unclear to audiences.  Well, so what?

I think of the film Zero Dark Thirty, for example. There were scenes in that film where the characters spoke entirely in ‘intelligence community jargon,’ scenes where I didn’t understand much of what they were saying.  It didn’t matter, not at all. In fact, it added to the film’s sense of authenticity, gave it almost a docu-drama feel.  Perhaps even a better example might be David Hare’s great play, Stuff Happens, about the build-up to the Iraq war.  Hare builds most of the play around actual conversations, transcripts.  In scenes where no transcript existed (but in which Hare knew what had been decided), he had to make up dialogue, but it had to sound like the rest of the play.  It’s a brilliant play, in part because of the jargon.  Audiences do not have to understand every word spoken by actors in a play.  It’s fine to not understand something.

Of course, Hare was writing for the British National Theatre.  He could afford a cast of forty actors.  Reykjavik is a two-actor play.  But I think that simplifying the language may have been a mistake. I wanted to hear what they actually said.  I wanted that sense of authenticity.  I would have liked the play better if I would have had to work harder to get what they were talking about.

Mr. Rhodes, in the talk-back, also mentioned that an early draft had had more characters, including Richard Perle, who he described as an Iago. Yeah, I bet he was!  Well, what would Perle have represented except realpolitik itself?  What could Perle have done at Reykjavik except scuttle any agreement?  When I heard he’d once been in the play, I immediately missed him.  Perhaps an unspeaking actor, hiding in the shadows, coming forward to whisper in Reagan’s ear?  You wouldn’t need to have him do much.  But that contrast between Perle’s pragmatism and Reagan’s rosiness might have given the play another, I think somewhat needed, dimension.

The ending of the play was also a bit weak. Reagan and Gorbachev finish their conversation, and the audience applauded.  The play was over.  (Really, it’s over when Reagan says ‘no.’)  But then came the last scene, their pro forma press conferences.  Rhodes likes the press conference scene–he told us he did.  But it gave the play a distinctly anti-climactic ending.  Solution: put the Press conference scene first, open the play with it.  Wouldn’t that be a spoiler alert?  Not really.  After all, we do all know what didn’t happen at Reykjavik.

Anyway, it made for a fascinating evening in the theatre.  I rode up with two friends, and we talked about it all the way home, about disarmament and its possibilities.  There are too many warheads today, too many missiles in silos, too many possibilities for a human error obscenely and unimaginably devastating in its consequences.  I desperately want this play to succeed, and not just as a piece of theatre.  I want it to help the world disarm.  A lofty ambition, but one worth working towards.

Mad Men: final curtain

It’s hard to know what to say about this penultimate season of Mad Men.  What my thoughts kept turning to, though, was the Presidential candidacy of George Romney.  This was not a 60’s historical event that Matt Weiner and his co-writers actually referenced on the show, but it’s from the same time period: 1966-68.  Bear with me: this will become relevant.

George Romney was governor of Michigan, a successful businessman (credited with saving American Motors), and a popular and moderate Republican.  In the winter of ’66-67, he was the overwhelming favorite to win the Republican nomination for President, and the favorite to defeat Lyndon Johnson for the Presidency.  He was a bit gaffe-prone, and his campaign had some early stumbles–still, he was a strong candidate, his biggest weakness being foreign policy.  And since the Vietnam war had become such a huge issue, he needed to get up to speed.

Wikipedia’s Romney article does a nice job covering the campaign.  In August of ’67, Romney said, “when I came back from Vietnam, I’d just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get” while announcing his opposition to the war.  He went on to question the whole ‘domino theory’ rationale for the war, and declared that, if elected, he would end it.

That word, ‘brainwashing’ ended his campaign.  It destroyed him politically.  As a Republican (and remember, Republicans were by no means all conservative back then; liberal Republicans had been at the forefront of the civil rights movement, opposed by Southern conservative Democrats), he was saying the unsayable.  There was no legitimate reason for the US presence in Vietnam.  The reasons being offered, by the White House and Pentagon, were lies, ‘brainwashing.’  Propaganda.  Our boys were dying to no good end.  We were wasting their lives, wasting our moral standing in the world, wasting our national ethos.  We were victims of a lie.  This war (and remember, in 1966, it was still a very popular war in Middle America) had no purpose, no rationale.  Those unwashed rebels, at the Berkeley Free Speech movement and the Students for a Democratic Society, Mario Savio and Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman,and the kids at the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, they were right.  The majority, the short hairs, the good kids, the cheerleaders and football captains, the mainstream, us; we all were wrong. And the essence of the 60s (which Madmen does show), the undeniable fact that the war was very popular, and almost nobody wanted their kids to fight in it, was build on a foundation of hypocrisy.

George Romney’s Presidential campaign ended, in essence, because he told the truth.  The mainstream consensus, about Vietnam and about the fight against international communism, was simply not true.  We’d been brainwashed, sold a bill of goods.  We’d been advertised to.  And we’d bought it.

Mad Men, set in that same period, the early to mid to late 1960’s, is in part a look back at that whole world, at the brainwashing taking place, at the comfortable middle-class values being exposed as falsehoods.  The show itself is about a world of lies.  Don Draper, the main character, is a creature of lies.  Even his name isn’t authentic–he was born Dick Whitman, and took the name Don Draper by stealing the identity of a dead soldier, killed in Korea. Newly minted, Draper moved into advertising, becomes creative director for the ad agency Sterling Cooper, and, as it grows, eventually a partner at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

But he was born Dick Whitman, an orphan, raised in a whorehouse.  He was badly physically and sexually abused as a child.  His childhood was utterly hellish.  And, as Dick Whitman, he’s married to a woman in California, a marriage his New York wife, Betty, doesn’t know about at the beginning of the show.  And he cheats on Betty all the time.  And then, caught, he divorces her, marries Megan, cheats on her too.

And of course, Don Draper works for an ad agency, selling dreams and fantasies, selling products by spinning tall tales.  In one episode, Sterling Cooper has a client, Dow Chemical, which has come under attack for creating napalm.  Their media guy, Harry Crane, meets with Dow’s execs, and proposes a Dow Chemical Family hour TV special.  Lots of singing and dancing, MCed by Joe Namath.  With Ann-Margret. I remember those variety shows, lots of singing and dancing and sketch comedy. The Dow execs think its a terrific idea.  Don thinks it’s great too, and Harry gets a big pat on the back for thinking of it. For glossing over napalm, with lame jokes and stale music.

As Mad Men‘s last couple of season’s progressed, Don developed a nasty hacking cough.  The character smoked like a chimney (all the characters did), and we sense the onset of cancer or heart disease. No such plot point ever developed, but the cough became emblematic of Don’s larger cancer, the lies that define him metastasizing within.  The biggest of his lies are his many many affairs, his complete inability to stay faithful to any of his three wives, or his mistresses. For most of the show, his children remained unaware of his adulteries, until the moment when his oldest daughter, Sally, caught him in flagrante delicto.  He tries to paper over his shame with more lies, with obviously transparent lies which she sees right through, but she’s clearly disgusted with him, and we can hardly blame her.

But in a world of lies, telling the truth is what becomes dangerous.  George Romney told the truth, and it destroyed his career; Don Draper eventually tells a truth, and it nearly destroys his.  All the characters on Mad Men lie, and their lies echo the larger lies of late 1960’s America.  All the male characters are the most appallingly sexist pigs, for example, but it was a sexist society, in which women were meant to be decorative and subservient.  And yet, the truth of the matter, which is that all the men who work for Sterling Cooper could go away and the agency would survive just fine, as long as they kept Peggy Olson and Joan Harris, becomes the secret nobody dares speak aloud.  And yet, at the end of the final episode, there’s Peggy moving into Don’s office.  The show is blatantly racist, and yet Don’s constant troubles with secretaries ends when he finally hires Dawn, the firm’s first black hire.

So truths can emerge, if they do so quietly.  Ted Chaough (played, marvelously, by my former student, Kevin Rahm), can fall in love with Peggy, but once he declares that love, he dooms it.  Don lands the Hershey chocolate account, by telling a sentimental (and false) story of Don Draper’s imagined idyllic past, but by that time the accumulated weight of all the lies over all the years threatens to choke him, and he tells Hershey’s appalled execs of Dick Whitman’s actual childhood, and the real importance of an occasional Hershey treat to an abused and unloved orphan.  And they can’t take it, find it embarrassing and off-putting, and the other Sterling Cooper partners agree it’s time for Don Draper to take an unspecified leave of absence.  Don Draper, the spinner of comforting falsehoods, always had a home in advertising.  Dick Whitman, orphaned and abused, has to go away.

And so, in the last moments of this extraordinary sixth season, Dick Whitman takes his poor, disillusioned, troubled, basically decent daughter to the home where he really grew up, and for the first time, tells her the truth about who he is.  And she looks over at him, startled and amazed.  And he looks at her with a kind of resigned love.  And Joni Mitchell sings “Both Sides Now” and Mad Men says a momentary goodbye to the ’60s.

I originally thought this was it, the final season.  Turns out I’m wrong, it’s got one more to go.  They’ve got a lot to live up to, though; the indelible, unforgettable images and metaphors and scenes.  The agency party, where an exec loses his leg to a riding lawn mower.  Roger Sterling’s LSD dreams.  Ken Cosgrove shot in the face by wild account managers at Chevrolet.  Joan’s excruciating decision, and her fierce and humiliated triumph over bosses who forced her to prostitute herself.  Peggy’s rise to power, from secretary hiding a shameful pregnancy to de facto head of creative.  Ted Chaough, who only showed up the last two seasons and came to dominate the show, a decent man who betrays his own decency, and ends up exiled to (sigh) California.  Megan Draper singing Zhou Bisou Bisou.  Roger Sterling, who never once had a soul, and Bert Cooper, who only pretended to have one.  The horrid Pete Campbell, who nonetheless occasionally managed to be the conscience of the show.

It’s been a great show, a great ride, a magnificent exploration of the lies at the heart of the American Dream, and the truths those lies conceal, a show about a deeply damaged deceiver, which concluded Season Six by telling a sad and painful truth. American television, American narrative art has never seen anything better, and precious few shows will ever be its equal.  Can’t wait for Season Seven.



Passing notes in Church

(This was really an excellent sacrament meeting–outstanding talks on the Book of Mormon by all three speakers, plus a fine musical number.  My wife and I find it easier to pay attention, somehow, if we pass notes back and forth).

Wife: She’s a really good speaker.  When she’s a little older, she’ll be something else.

Me: Agreed. Love her passion and confidence.  And I note that the Book of Mormon seems to be the assigned topic.  Two outstanding talks by women, which makes sense, given the Book of Mormon’s plethora of compelling female characters.

Wife:  Maybe the reason there are so few female characters in the Book of Mormon is because they were all being good.  Men get mentioned more, because they were always screwing up and needed to be included as bad examples.

Me: I’m sure that’s it. So the few named females in the B of M (see Isabel the harlot) are the exceptions.  Priesthood session v. women’s conference.

Wife: I mean, even Sariah doubted, so she’s included.  And the queen of the Lamanites was sort of iffy at the beginning.  The exception is Abish, and she’s kind of important in a story about bad guys.

Me: Exactly.  Plus she’s only ‘Abish.’  Not full out ‘Ab.’  Kind of lukewarm.  ‘Ab . . .  ish.’  Ab is Reformed Egyptian for ‘stomach,’ or ‘guts.’  As in ‘brave, gutsy.’  Unable to ‘stomach sin.’  So she’s ‘kinda brave, sorta gutsy.’

Wife: Wow.  I got nothin’.

Me: Really, studying the Book of Mormon, it helps to be fluent in reformed Egyptian.  “Nephi.”  ‘Ne’ means ‘knee,’ as in someone always kneeling in prayer.  And ‘phi’ means ‘pi’, prays in a circle, all around, in every direction.

Wife: ‘Teancum?’

Me: ‘Te-an’ means ‘teen.’  He was very young, in other words.  And ‘cumin’ is kind of a hot spice.  So ‘hot-headed young man.’  I can do this all day.

Wife: ‘Ammonihah?’

Me: I knew you were going to give me Ammonihah!  ‘Ammoni’=poisonous cleaning fluid.  But ‘hah’ is a diminutive.  Actually, the technical word is ‘risibleminutive.’  ‘Turns previous prefix into a punch-line.’  He considers himself poisonous, dangerous, a guy who’s going to clean things up.  But really, he’s a joke.

Wife: ‘Pacumeni?’

Me: Very tricky, very complicated Reformed Egyptian name.  ‘Pacumen’ actually means ‘insatiable yellow mouth, consumer of dots.’  But the final ‘i’ suggests transformation, or ‘turns blue when fruit is consumed, becomes all powerful.’  So ‘insatiable yellow mouth, turns blue, becomes powerful, when fruit of the gospel is consumed.’ Or, more simply, ‘the power of repentance.’

Wife: ‘Sam?’

Me: To understand this name, we need to reference the Old Testament, and the story of Moses and the burning bush.  You may recall that Moses asked The Lord, when He spoke through the bush, what the Children of Israel should call Him.  And He answered, “I am what I am.  Tell the people ‘I am’ has sent you.”  But in Egyptian, what he said was ‘Sam.’  To quote the eminent theologian and Egyptologist, Theodore Geisel: Sam. I am.

Wife: ‘Moriantokishgiblemuelantumr?’

Me: Wo, hard one.  An approximate translation: ‘He who sits by side of the stream, complaining that the water is too cold to swim across, plus fish are yucky, plus that frog is staring at me funny, so you guys go on ahead without me, no really, it’s okay, I’m fine, I promise.’

Wife: No etymology for that one?  I’m disappointed.

As I said, it was a very good meeting.  And we did pay attention, I promise.



Immigration reform

News is supposed to slow down for the summer months.  Late June, July, August, we’re supposed to spend our days watching baseball games, eating hot dogs, taking the kids swimming.  These are meant to be relaxed, bucolic months.  There’s a reason Jon Stewart took the summer off to go make his movie–there’s too much going on, politically, in the winter.  Congress especially is supposed to take it easy.  Let our Congressperson maybe show up to a Fourth of July parade, catch a foul ball at a minor league park, catch a trout for a photo op. Do we really want them, you know, working on stuff?

But they are, darn it.  And so the House continues to pass nonsense symbolic bills (like rescinding Obamacare for the 80-jillionth time, or their big new abortion bill), that won’t ever even come up for a vote in the Senate.  And the Senate’s working on immigration.

As John Oliver memorably put it (and boy has he been a terrific substitute on the Daily Show), immigration reform is an issue loved by Republicans, because they think voting for it will get them Hispanic votes, and also by Democrats, because it actually will get them Hispanic votes.  A group of Senators called the Gang of Eight has a bill out now, being debated, possibly gaining support.  John McCain and his old pal Lindsay Graham, Jeff Flake and probably 2016 Presidential candidate Marco Rubio have, in a spasm of bi-partisan cooperation, joined forces with Chuck Shumer, Dick Durbin, Robert Menendez and Michael Bennet, and are pushing for an immigration measure.  So while we consider the very real possibility that Lindsay Graham isn’t actually a conservative Republican senator, but rather the name of a Hooters’ waitress McCain met in Tempe, let’s take a look at the bill.

And it’s awful. A Washington Post story today has the details–predictably, the focus is on ‘border security,’ and every possible provision for citizenship made as difficult as possible, to fend of inevitable charges of ‘amnesty.’

Specifically: the fence on the Mexican border gets finished, then gets bigger, and also gets more high-tech, with lots of drones and electronic surveillance equipment.  We waste spend 30 billion to hire more border patrol agents.  Plus the National Guard would be deployed along the border.  Oh, and drones–we’re going to deploy drones.  Plus the bill provides for the training of armadillos, coyotes and eagles to spy on  people and run them down. Also, to get genetics labs to clone anti-immigrant jackalopes.

I’m kidding about the last two.

I mean, seriously, are we at war with someone?  Border patrols, electronic surveillance, National Guardsmen mustering, a massive fence–isn’t that all pretty, uh, Soviet?  Do we want to build a new Brandenburg Gate, in Nogales, maybe?  The Berlin Wall was a disgrace, but also a revelation–it showed how badly people wanted to leave East Germany.  Our wall reflects equally badly on us, though, doesn’t it?  Showing how badly we want to keep people out, if they’re of an ‘undesirable’ ethnicity?  Draco of Athens gave his name to a word, meaning a preposterously disproportionate legal code.  But ‘draconian’ doesn’t just mean ‘unjust’–it also can connote ‘foolish, ineffective, pig-headed.’

All this nonsensical emphasis on border security is only necessary politically.  There’s no rational need for any of it.  We don’t have a huge continuing problem with illegal immigration, especially not from Mexico.  Our economy is getting stronger, but unemployment is high, and Mexico’s economy is doing much better.  The Obama administration has deported lots of folks, and the numbers of people slipping across the border is lower than in decades.

Plus, you know, illegal immigration is only a problem because our legal immigration system was broken.  Back in the years when thousands of immigrants poured over the border every month, the reason they had to was because the government put strict limits on green cards.  Basic economics 101–when there’s demand for labor, and a supply of laborers, they’re going to get together.  Put up a twenty foot fence, they’ll bring a twenty-two foot ladder.  The easiest way to solve the problem of illegal immigration?  Issue more green cards.  Give one to anyone who wants to work here.

And then, if they want to stay and continue to participate in American democracy, make that possible too.  Get rid of 90% of the red-tape blocking citizenship.

Plus, you know, only about half of illegal immigrants in the US are from Mexico.  There are, more or less, eleven million people here illegally.  This Wikipedia article has the stats–they’re from all over, including Canada, (and our northern border isn’t one anyone seems concerned about).

So eleven million.  In what sense would it be a bad thing for those people to become citizens, pay taxes, start businesses, employ people, buy stuff?  In fact, the economic impact of full amnesty would be positive.  The CBO vetted the current bill: said it would reduce the deficit by 200 billion.  I think we could use that amount of deficit reduction, especially if we didn’t immediately spend that savings on useless and foolish ‘border security’ measures.

I’m the son of an immigrant, and feel pretty strongly about this.  Immigration is the lifeblood of our nation, its greatest strength.  Immigrants grow our economy, and participate to our cultural diversity in untold ways.

As bad as this Senate immigration bill is, as foolishly focused on non-issues like ‘border security,’ just wait ’til it gets to the House.  An already awful bill will either fail (not a bad thing, that, actually), or become so much worse that it would be better if it did fail.

So let’s junk this Gang of 8 nonsense, and come up with a better bill.  And when we do, let’s make it a full-amnesty bill.  Let’s say that up front.  Amnesty!  Yay!  Amnesty now, amnesty in the future, amnesty in the future!  I think we should raise that flag every time anti-immigrant nativists shriek, at full voice, ‘but they’re here illegally!’  Right now, on the hard edges of the far-Right, the only coherent policy proposals echo Mitt Romney’s famous call for self-deportation.  Either kick ’em out, or make life for tough for them that they leave on their own.  In what possible sense is that American?


Telling a big story

The essence of commercial television story-telling is that nothing can ever change, but every episode has to create the illusion of change.  I Love Lucy: case in point.  Every episode involved Lucy trying to carve out a career for herself–usually in show biz.  The template: Lucy decides she wants to become, say, a playwright.  Ricky, her husband, tells her not to.  She tries anyway, and makes a comic mess of it.  She confesses her failure to Ricky; he forgives her.  Every episode. I mean, there were obviously changes, the most significant being the birth of Little Ricky in the show’s second season.  But essentially the show was about Lucy, and especially  Lucille Ball’s extraordinary gift for ditzy physical comedy. It also leads us inevitably to consider the nifty feminist twist at the heart of the show: I Love Lucy was about Lucy, a talentless woman desperate for her gifted husband’s approval. But it starred Lucille, a brilliantly talented woman who dragged her much less-capable husband behind, in her wake.  Nothing ever changed, except, in time, the gender assumptions it so brilliantly deconstructed.

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. Didja ever see the episode of Home Improvement where Tim offends his wife, and has to ask his neighbor, Wilson, for advice on how to make amends?  How ’bout the episode of Cheers where Sam and Diane almost hook up, but don’t quite.  You ever see the Bewitched where Endora enchants Darrin, makes him do something goofy, and Samantha has to provide a counter-spell to set things right?  Or the Big Bang Theory where Sheldon misses really obvious social clues, and is lucky to have Penny to set him straight?  While the other characters dress up like comic book loving dorks?

Multiply times ten thousand.  That’s television; that’s the narrative content of nearly all mainstream television programming. Change threatens, but in the end, Niles Crane’s love for Daphne remains unrequited, Archie never actually evicts Meathead, and Alex Keaton still lives with his hippie parents.  The Enterprise will always survive the latest threatening alien encounter, Matt Dillon will cope with the latest creep to pass through Dodge, Joe Friday and Bill Gannon always make the arrest, Perry Mason always gets the accused guy off (and finds the real killer), and Dr. House always finds a cure for the mysterious disease, which never turns out to be lupus.  We watch, mostly, because we like the characters.  And, in part, because it’s fun figuring out who-dun-it.  Even M.A.S.H. did this, featured the illusion of change without actually changing all that much.  Actors would leave, and so characters would go home (or, memorably, die), and the new characters were almost always more interesting than the ones they replaced, but still, it was a show about wisecracking doctors keeping soldiers alive in Vietnam Korea.  It was never not about Hawkeye Pierce, M.D.

But James Gandolfini just died.  Tony Soprano just died.  And I thought about the meaning of that remarkable show, and what strikes me as an utterly remarkable new entertainment phenomenon.  In recent years, we’ve seen something brand new.  We’ve seen the beginning of the long-form, extended narrative, anything-may-change television show.  The kind of television narrative with a beginning, middle and end, not just middle, eternally and forever. The Sopranos seems a particularly seminal example. It was a show where anything could happen, any change was possible, any character might die, any misfortune may befall them.  And that show, and a handful of others like it were generally regarded as the best shows on television, the critics’ darlings, the Emmy winners.  They’re the water cooler shows, the ones you talk about in the break room and at the dinner table and on dates.

Mad MenBreaking BadThe WireBattlestar Gallactica. The SopranosDeadwoodLostGame of Thrones.  I’m making a distinction here between shows where the point is the over-arching narrative, and really good shows where things do change some, but that are essentially episodic: St. Elsewhere or Hill Street Blues or NYPD Blue or The West WingThe West Wing had a narrative–President Bartlett faces scandal, runs for a second term, deals with the kidnapping of his daughter. But what we remember isn’t the Big Story, it’s the incidents–Sam getting schooled by Ainsley, who then gets hired by Leo, or, on Big Block of Cheese day, when CJ learned valuable lessons about cartography.  It’s not until the final season,when the show really did turn on the Santos/Vinick Presidential race, that narrative took the upper hand.

I wrote a couple of days ago about Game of Thrones, which led to a conversation with my son.  We talked for nearly an hour about the show: who’s up, who’s down, who seems ascendent and does the Stark clan have a chance anymore, with Robb Stark dead.  It occurred to me that the entire conversation had been about narrative, about the larger, overarching story.

I remember my wife and I seeing trailers for Lost.  It looked intriguing, and when we talked to friends, it seemed like the kind of show we might enjoy.  But we never watched it.  We decided it was ‘the kind of show where you have to see all the episodes, from the beginning.’ And then it was in its second season, and it seemed like too much trouble to bother with. But that’s kind of a compliment, in a way.  We wanted to see the whole story unfold.  Other great shows, shows we love enough to purchase on DVD–Fawlty Towers, Grimm, Pushing Daisies, Firefly–you can sit and watch one episode and be perfectly satisfied.  But try that with Battlestar Galactica.  You won’t know what’s going on, and you won’t much care about the characters, not after one random episode.

Nearly all TV shows do have something resembling a master narrative. Every episode advances that main story, while also standing on its own as an episode.  To take one example (a good, not great piece of commercial entertainment), Burn Notice. Jeffrey Donovan is a former CIA agent, burned and involuntarily retired.  He gets together with his friends to solve various peoples’ personal problems, but he’s also intent on discovering why he was burned, so he can get his old job back.  So every episode, there are moments that advance the ‘Michael v. CIA story-line’, but mostly it’s about that episode’s single conflict–about someone in Miami who “needs our help, Michael.”

That’s a normal structure for most television series. But the shows I’m singling out here are shows in which the master narrative is the main thing, in which the larger story is the entire point.  On Mad Men, Don Draper has accounts he’s working on, but that’s not why we watch the show. We don’t actually care if he gets the Chevrolet account.  We want to know what’s going to happen to him. We’re caught up in his self-destruction. We want to know what’s going to happen with Ted, and Peggy, and Pete Campbell, and Roger Sterling, and Joan.  We follow the story of the ad agency, Sterling Cooper, and we look in on all its story lines and characters.

I think, in part, these shows are historical and political in ways normal television is not.  In Battlestar Galactica, we were always aware of the various political alliances of the characters, of their religious affiliations and what they meant, in both the Cylon and human histories unfolding before us.  That’s absolutely true of Game of Thrones, obviously.  On Breaking Bad, it’s a quieter family dynamic, but no less about the acquisition and retention of power, as was also true in The Sopranos.

What was the first show to do this?  What is the first show, in the history of television, to make a master narrative the point of the entire series?  One answer, of course, was Shakespeare, who brought the same broad narrative sweep to Richard II, Henry IV parts one and two, Henry V, Henry VI parts one two and three, Richard III.  But who did it first on television?

I’m going to propose a candidate: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.  It was about a space station, located by a worm hole, close to the newly liberated planet of Bajor.  Bajor had been held by the Cardassians, who are still around.  The Ferengi had a presence on the space station, and were always sniffing around, and there were constant conflicts with the Maquis.  On the other side of the wormhole were the Dominion, who wanted to wield power from another quadrant in space.  It was an amazing show, especially after the first season, when the master narrative involving war with the Dominion and the Cardassians began to dominate the series.

DS9 was always my favorite of the various Star Trek series, and its broader narrative sweep was the answer.  It started in 1993, and closed in 1999, which was also the first year for The Sopranos.  I don’t know if The Sopranos was in any way based on DS9, but they were doing the same thing, really.  Telling a big story.

It’s an awesome innovation.  To paint on a huge canvas, to compose a whole suite of symphonies, to write, not a novel, but three trilogies.  The Lord of the Rings took three four-hour movies to tell its Big Story.  But Battlestar Galactica took 73 one-hour episodes.  And then, when the whole huge story was done, they stopped.  That may be the most remarkable innovation of all.

Academic liberal bias: nope

When I was in grad school at Indiana, I was generally considered the token ‘conservative’ among the grad student population.  I know, you probably think that’s weird.  It was weird, to be thought of as a conservative. Which meant, of course that I was ostracized by all my fellow grad students and professors, who were intent on indoctrinating me with their East Coast, radical ’60s liberal, borderline communist ideology.

Actually, none of that happened at all. At all, ever. The main reaction my fellow students had to my supposed ‘conservatism’ was . . . I don’t remember that they had any reaction to it.  Mostly, we were all trying to pass really difficult classes, write papers that might have a chance of publication, work on our dissertations and responsibly teach the undergraduate classes to which we were assigned.  Political indoctrination?  Never happened.  We were learning theatre history and theatre theory, and we were reading tons of difficult texts and trying to make sense of them.

What did happen was that I saw plays in production that I would not have been exposed to as a BYU undergraduate, plays I had been led to believe were ‘worldly’ and therefore morally and spiritually dangerous.  I remember specifically having been warned, at BYU, against David Mamet.  Then a friend of mine, a fellow student, directed a production of American Buffalo, and seeing it changed my life.  It was wonderful, compassionate and powerful.  Later, I saw Marvin Carlson’s terrific production of Marat/Sade–again, an incredible encounter with Artaudian theatricality.  So, yes, I did grow and advance in grad school.  I did learn, and it did change me. And I will be forever grateful.

Okay, but still.  Nationally, college faculty members tend to be more liberal than most Americans, and it is therefore an article of faith on the Right that colleges are indoctrination factories, intent on corrupting (with liberal nonsense) the Youth of America.  In fact, the beginnings of movement conservatism are often said to date from 1951, and the publication of William F. Buckley’s God and Man At Yale.  Buckley, as a conservative undergraduate at Yale, felt marginalized, felt that his religious beliefs were under attack from his professors.  And he was willing to name names–cite specific professors and quote their attacks on his religion.

But that name naming is both the strength and weakness of the book.  Obviously, it was pretty cheeky for a kid like Buckley to call out specific big-deal profs.  But his evidence was anecdotal.  And that’s been the way it’s always gone since–the evidence of specific anti-conservative bias is always anecdotal.  ‘So and so said such-and-such.’ Oh, conservatives will also cite some polling data.  But numbers don’t pack the punch of a good story, and good stories aren’t hard to dig up.

I could do that too, actually. I had one professor at Indiana who challenged my Mormon conservatism directly and openly, in class.  He never let me get away with anything.  I would say something in class, and he’d say ‘okay, we heard the Mormon point of view.  Is that really what you think, Eric?’  He even said to me, once, ‘you’ll never progress as a playwright until you set aside your religious beliefs.’  We locked horns all the time.  And when I think of that professor, my eyes get all misty–he’s one of the most important influences ever in my life.  I know if I saw him today, we’d talk, and we’d argue and we’d disagree.  And we might even quarrel.  And then he’d clap me on the back with a great smile on his face, and ask about my wife and family, and we’d probably go out to lunch.

He was, in a word, a teacher.  A fine one.  And like any great teacher, he pushed me, to think differently and more deeply, to reconsider previous positions, to defend a point of view, to cite evidence–always evidence–and to hone and polish my arguments.  That’s what good teachers do.

Anyway, this supposed ‘indoctrination’ of conservatives probably does happen occasionally, because teachers are human beings too, and make mistakes.  But are universities entirely liberal-indoctrination-factories?  No.  And in a new book by a prominent sociologist, Neil Gross, some solid evidence emerges.

The book: Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?  Gross combines polling data, hundreds of interviews, and even developed a little experiment.  He submitted fake grad school applications; in half, the prospective (fictional) student described working in Republican political campaigns, and in half, they worked on the Obama campaign.  He discovered no difference in acceptance rates–political affiliation just wasn’t a factor.  Gross says that, yes, professors self-identify as liberal more often than they do conservative, about 2 to 1.  But evidence suggests that it has little effect on teaching.  23 percent of faculty self-identify as conservatives, and Gross’ evidence suggest that those faculty are the ones most likely to bring their politics into the classroom.

Basically, what seems to happen is that people come to college with strong political views already in place, and tend to choose their majors accordingly.  If you’re a liberal high school kid, you’re more likely to want to major in the humanities, for example.  But as professors, that’s not so important.  Nearly all college professors say classroom political neutrality is a very important value for them.

But faculty aren’t nearly as important as they used to be.  When I was in grad school, me and my fellow students all hoped our PhDs would lead to tenure-track jobs, and, we hoped, to publication and to tenure.  And for the most part, we did get jobs.  Faculty jobs did exist, and my friends and I did get them.  Of course, the fact that I was at Indiana helped–it’s a very highly respected program.  But the track existed–PhD to tenure track job to tenure. When I was hired at BYU, well, hey, I got my job too.

But academia is changing very rapidly, and while the job track does exist, it’s very seriously eroded.  Salon just published a terrific article by Jeffrey Williams, in which he uses Gross’ book as a starting point to a larger discussion about the real crisis in higher education.  Today, three quarters of faculty are in impermanent jobs.  Faculty float, from job to job, from school to school, in lower-paying part-time faculty jobs. Don’t let ‘part-time’ fool you–often these adjunct faculty have very heavy undergraduate teaching loads.  And in those jobs, they face a terrible Catch-22.  They have a workload that makes research and publication incredibly difficult, but without impressive publication records, it becomes harder to land a tenure-track position, which are anyway disappearing.

The reasons for this are obvious–colleges have lost traditional revenue streams, especially state schools, where legislatures find higher education a lower funding priority.  Another response, of course, involves tuition hikes, leading in turn to students graduating with impossibly high levels of student loan debt.  Let’s not kid ourselves–higher education in this country is in crisis mode, with few solutions in sight.

(I could point out that colleges seem perfectly willing to pay loads of money for football coaches. Check this out.  The University of Texas could hire fifty assistant professors for the amount they pay Mack Brown.  But I suppose that money wouldn’t be available, in Texas, for something as unimportant as professors.)

And, of course, this supposed ‘academic liberal bias,’ the notion of bias, the idea of it, that’s also one of the problems. If state legislators believe it, believe that profs turn kids into liberal humanist atheists, they’re unlikely to pony up for higher education.

As Williams’ suggests in his article, colleges have also become internally de-centered.  The core of the university used to be the faculty.  That’s not true anymore.  Nowadays, the core of most universities are administrators.  They’re the most highly paid, and they’re the ones with de facto job security.

This isn’t all bad.  Most of my professors taught grad classes exclusively.  A 1-2-1 class load was considered pretty normal–one class in the fall, two in the winter, one in spring or summer.  Undergraduates were almost entirely taught by guys like me–grad students.  When I came to BYU, and discovered that my work load was a 4-4-2, my IU profs were appalled.  But BYU always believed that professors, the most experienced and knowledgeable teachers on campus, should have a significant undergraduate teaching load.  Personally, I loved it.  I loved teaching, and I loved teaching freshmen.  And I managed to publish too.

So if the de-centering of higher education means professors teaching more undergrad classes, I think that’s fine.  But if it means the end of tenure, and the administrator-driven erosion of academic freedom, well, that could be disastrous.

In any event, this ‘liberal professors indoctrinating students’ nonsense has political and educational implications, and we can’t push back against it strongly enough.  There was a time when American higher education was the envy of the world.  That’s becoming less true, and trend seems to continue.

Universities have historically been built on three great pillars: tenure, academic freedom, and faculty self-government. As education continues to evolve, we have to make sure we don’t lose absolutely fundamental educational principles.



Game of Thrones

It’s hard to say anything new or interesting about Game of Thrones.  Fan sites proliferate, and theories abound regarding which of the warring Westeros clans will end up ruling.  When I first got hooked on it, I thought British history might provide a clue.  After all, the two main families the story follows are the Starks and the Lannisters–read House of York vs House of Lancaster, and we’re back at the Wars of the Roses.  The Starks are from the North, the Lannisters from the Midlands, and early on in the first season, the reigning monarch, King Robert Baratheon, a bluff and hearty sensualist could plausibly have been based on Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV).  And there’s a high medieval feel to it; tournaments, some semblance of chivalry, bear baiting, dynastic marriages.  But there seem to be many other influences.  The Dothraki seem based on Genghis Khan’s Mongols, the Ironborn feel really Viking to me, and the Great Wall to the north, obviously, could refer to, well, another Great Wall.

Basically, the show is about seven families competing for one throne.  It’s about politics.  It’s about scheming, fighting, alliances formed and betrayed.  It’s also about medieval warfare–it’s really exceptionally, brutally violent.  But it’s addictive, in part, because of the Game itself–which family will win, who will end up ruling?  Watching the third season, I couldn’t help but notice that an actor named Will Tudor was in one episode, playing an exceedingly minor character named Olyvar.  Felicitous name, that.  Olyvar’s a character about as prominent in this series as Owen Tudor was in British politics ca. 1399–I therefore predict that Olyvar’s grandson will eventually ascend to the Iron Throne.  And that his granddaughter will become England’s most formidable monarch.

Or, you know, get eaten by a dragon.  ‘Cause I don’t really recall a lot of stuff about dragons in Shakespeare’s history plays.  Shame that; woulda been nice to see what Shakespeare could have done with dragons.

But that’s one of the fascinating things about Game of Thrones.  It’s a fantasy series.  There’s magic, there are witches and magicians and also, sort of, zombies, and there are definitely dragons.  But this isn’t like the Harry Potter universe, where magic is used to stir the soup.  Magic is rare in Westeros.  Right now, end of the third season, the dragons haven’t done all that much.  That’s not to say that the dragons are irrelevant, or unimportant, or uninteresting–it’s more like they represent potential. At some point, Daenerys Targaryen, Mother of Dragons and the Dothraki Khaleesi will come to battle against the other armies of Westeros, and when she does, the dragons prove formidable.

But decisive?  Who knows?  After all, Daenerys’ dragons aren’t the only magical elements in play.  Stannis Baratheon also has magic on his side; the priestess Melisandra, who seems to practice fire magic, including, apparently, the ability to raise the dead.  And if Jon Snow ever makes it back from the North to help his half-brother, Robb Stark, he may bring zombies along too.

I’m a little constrained here–I don’t know if y’all reading this know the show.  Or have read the books–which I have not done.  And if you haven’t seen any episodes of the show, I’m not sure how to advise you.  Saturday Night Live memorably spoofed the show, in a skit in which Game of Thrones employs a thirteen-year-old boy consultant.  His job: to make sure there are naked women in every possible scene.  The show has been accused of sexism for that reason, with good reason.  So you know your own viewing preferences–be warned.

And yet, there are tremendously powerful female characters as well.  Daenerys is incredibly compelling, as is Diana Rigg, as Olenna Tyrell.  And of course, Cersei Lannister’s an amazing and strong character, though pure evil.  And Brienne, the blonde Amazon warrior, is a great fighter, and a wonderfully rounded character.  Her relationship with Jaime Lannister is one of the most interesting in the show.

So who is going to win?  Who will emerge victorious?  If you’ll forgive a little fan-boy speculation:

The Lannisters are in power now, end of Season Three.  They’re rich and powerful, and Tywin is one tough old man–advised by the evil but brilliant forces of Cersei and Jaime.  But King Joffrey is a disgusting, cowardly, vile, creepy little twerp.  Ultimately Kings have to rule, and he’ll never prove up to the task.  The brightest and best of the Lannisters, Tyrion, is also the one they never pay attention to, because he’s played by Peter Dinklage.  I think he may ultimately desert his worthless sister and vicious father.  And who knows about Jaime?

We all like the Starks, and root for them.  But Robb Stark, for all his virtues, always struck me as good at tactics, but not at strategy; exactly the kind of general who wins every battle, but loses the war.  And when he was betrayed and murdered, it was shocking and disturbing, but not terribly surprising–we all saw it coming a long way off.  The Starks, however, still have their brightest members alive and kicking: the youngest–exiled Arya and crippled Bran, both of them children who seem capable of broader strategic planning than their brother ever seemed up to.  Or their Mom: Catelyn, (the amazing Michelle Fairley) was also capable of the most appalling strategic blunders.

As for Stannis Baratheon, he’s got religion on his side, and magic, but he’s a lightweight.  He’ll be the first to fall, I suspect.  And the Tyrells are interestingly untrustworthy, but their scheming won’t lead to power, I think.  Wealth, and influence, yes.

No, I really think it’s going to be Daenerys.  What an incredible character.  She’s grown, from a weak and frightened child, forced to marry by her brother, a terrified bride to a warrior husband.  She learned to love, she became Dothraki.  She’s learned how to inspire, how to conspire, how to lead. She’s the finest natural leader of all the clan captains.  And she has dragons to fight for her.

Above all, though, it’s a great TV show.  It’s amazingly complex and interesting.  I mean, it has 200 characters, and seems completely willing to introduce new ones anytime.  I came to it late, but I’m utterly addicted now.





Duel with the Devil: A review

On January 2, 1800, the body of a 20-year old Quaker woman named Elma Sands was fished out of a well in Lispenard’s Meadow, half-way between downtown New York and Greenwich Village.  A respectable young carpenter, Levi Weeks, who lived in the same boarding house as Miss Sands (and was thought to be courting her) was charged with her murder.  The resulting trial was one of the most publicized and sensational of our early nation’s history, not least because of the subsequent history of two of Weeks’ attorneys, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.  That murder, trial and history are the subjects of Paul Collins’ riveting new book, Duel with the Devil.

Collins begins in New York, in the summer months of 1799. And he begins with water.  New York water was famous for its terrible quality; shining brass pumps provided city-dwellers with ample quantities for washing up or dowsing fires, but you certainly didn’t want to drink the stuff, not if you didn’t want to get sick.  For a breakfast beverage, New Yorkers might enjoy a new-fangled invention, powdered instant coffee; some old Dutch residents enjoyed hot chocolate.  But for most city dwellers, you were better off with beer.

The summer of 1799 was infamous as well for yellow fever. This summer was particularly hot, and its marshy meadows were home to New York’s infamous mosquitoes.  Philadelphia was wracked with epidemic, and New Yorkers feared the illness would spread.  Writes Collins, “New Yorkers . . . rolled up their newspapers to swat away the July mosquitoes, and wondered what on earth it could be that was killing Philadelphians.”  All hoped for an early frost–there seemed to be a confounding link between nippy weather and urban health.

At least one of Manhattan’s shakers and movers, Aaron Burr, thought he could at least deal with the water problem.  He felt that the springs feeding the marshy Lispenard’s Meadow could supply water of a purer quality than was found in the city’s wells, and had founded The Manhattan Company to build the pipelines that might provide it.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Catharine Ring and her husband Elias ran a respectable Quaker boarding house in Manhattan. Her tenants included a young carpenter, Levi Weeks, and his apprentice, William Anderson.  Also boarding there were two young Quaker women, Mrs. Ring’s sister, Hope, and cousin, Elma Sands.  And the most recent tenant was a disagreeable older gentleman, a cloth merchant named Richard Croucher.  Weeks was friendly enough with the two single girls, but didn’t seem interested in formally courting either of them, and Elma was anyway rather sickly, and spent much of her time alone in her room.

Levi Weeks, though, would have been something of a catch.  His brother, Ezra Weeks, was an architect and contractor, and Levi his chief carpenter. Together, they had landed the Manhattan Company contract, building wooden pipelines to provide water for the city.  They had also built some of the finest homes in the city, including the new mansion occupied by the town’s most illustrious citizen, the former Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton.

Collins skillfully recreates the atmosphere in the town, as Elma Sands’ body was found, and suspicion landed on Levi Weeks.  He describes in some detail the painstaking investigation by the Prosecutor, Cadwallander Colden.  In 1800, the idea of a professional police force, with detectives and standards of evidence and secured crime scenes had yet to take hold.  Any investigation had to be done by the Prosecutor, and that meant Colden.  And he did a good job.  There were no witnesses to Sands’ death, but a great deal of circumstantial evidence seemed to point to Levi Weeks, and the newspapers were sure they had their man.

But Weeks had friends in high places.  Hamilton was grateful to his brother Ezra for designing and building his house.  In fact, he still owed money on the house, which Ezra Weeks was willing to forgive in exchange for his legal services.  And Aaron Burr knew the Weeks’ brothers from their work for the Manhattan company.  Weeks had a third attorney as well, Brockholst Livingston, a younger attorney, well known in the city and more experienced in criminal law than his famous co-counsels.  (And don’t you regret the days when parents were willing to give their kids awesome names like Cadwallander and Brockholst.  Even Elma’s full name was Gulielma).

Collins’ account of the trial is riveting and detailed.  The court recorder, William Coleman, was an expert at shorthand, and after the trial, was permitted to publish the court transcript, as a supplement to his income.  His book would become the first published transcript, the fullest record of a trial in US legal history.  So Collins has a lot to work with, and his eye for detail is astounding.

Above all, I was struck by what a factor sheer human exhaustion was in the trial.  The judge had other cases on his docket, and wasn’t about to allow for recesses or breaks of any kind.  And Colden’s case was entirely circumstantial, which meant a lengthy parade of witnesses, each presenting another link in a narrative chain that would lead, inevitably, to only one possible conclusion; that Elma Sands had been murdered, and at the hand of Levi Weeks.  At three in the morning of the first day of trial, Colden was still not finished, and so the court recessed, but only ’til ten the next morning.  The next day grew lengthier and lengthier, as Burr and Hamilton and Livinston tore apart the Prosecution case.  When finally, at four in the morning of the second day of the trial, Colden was completely wiped out by fatigue, and the Defense not much better off–the jurors must have been near catatonic.  Both sides were so tired they told the judge they would forego closing arguments.  And the jury was out for just a few minutes; ten minutes in one account, two in others.  Their verdict was clear, and inevitable.  Levi Weeks was not guilty.

Having dealt with the trial, Collins then solves the murder. It turns out that most of the evidence of Weeks’ guilt came from a single source; the other boarding-house tenant, Richard Croucher.  It was Croucher who had spun devastating fables about Weeks for the local papers (including his supposed ‘engagement’ to marry Miss Sands), and Croucher whose trial testimony was eviscerated by Alexander Hamilton in cross-examination.  And it was Croucher who would be convicted within a few months of raping a thirteen-year old servant girl in a different boarding house.  Collins’ case isn’t air-tight, but it’s strong enough: Croucher had motive and opportunity, and a dangerously demented past.  Croucher was almost certainly the killer of Elma Sands.

There’s another possibility, though, which Collins mentions but does not explore much.  And that is Elias Ring, the boardinghouse proprietor.  Court testimony implicated him as having a clandestine affair with Sands. We’re two hundred plus years after the fact, but I found myself disappointed that Collins rather ignored Ring as a plausible alternative suspect.  Certainly, he was more plausible than poor Levi Weeks, whose relationship with the girl never seems to have moved beyond platonic.

Poor girl. That was one of my thoughts reading the book–sympathy for the unfortunate victim. And yet, of all the characters in the book, she’s the one who comes least vividly to life in Collins’ otherwise capable hands. Not his fault–we just don’t know much about her. A nice girl, a less-than-fully-committed Quaker, somewhat sickly, kept to herself.  Raped, almost certainly, by her landlord, (or at least seduced by him), then murdered by a fellow tenant.  What a sad short life.

The rest of the book is as fascinating as the trial scenes themselves.  The Burr-Hamilton duel gets a chapter all its own, with the main emphasis on Hamilton’s conduct, deliberately missing with his one shot, as Aaron Burr shot him dead.  We also get the subsequent histories of the main actors in the tale.  The Sands case was thought at the time to be crucial to the career of Cadwallander Colden.  But losing it doesn’t seem to harmed him at all. He became Mayor of New York, and founded the city’s first scientific foundation.  Brockholst Livingston eventually became a US Supreme Court Justice.  Ezra Weeks built the first and finest hotels in New York, and died wealthy and respected; even became good friends with Colden.  Burr killed Hamilton, then was tried for treason, and when finally, years later, he was able to return to New York from foreign exile, he eked out a meager living as an early practitioner of family law.

As for Levi Weeks, he became restless post-trial, moving further and further west and south.  He ended up in Natchez Mississippi, where he became the architect who designed Auburn, the first Southern Greek Revival plantation home and the model used for many others.  Go on the Auburn website, and it mentions Levi Weeks as architect, without mentioning that he had previously been the defendant in New York City’s first big public and notorious murder trial.

He even gets a day.  April 21st is Levi Weeks day in Natchez. Celebrating the town’s greatest architect.

Anyway, Paul Collins has written a compulsively readable, fascinating, extensively and impressively researched book, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.  If you like real-life murder mysteries, or early American history, or just a really good book, give this one a try.