Ever Been Stabbed?

For the past two years, I’ve been part of a non-profit company called Real Victory, which provides training in a cognitive behavioral model to probationers and parolees in the hopes of getting them to change their ways. I teach a series of six hour-and-a-half-long lessons over the course of six weeks that help people identify the basic principles that drive their behavior. Brigham Young University has been conducting a research study to determine whether or not the training reduces recidivism, and the results that have come in so far are very encouraging.

This has the potential to become a really big deal.

Spending time with people who have run afoul of the law has been a huge eye-opener for me. They are not the scary, snarling monsters I had imagined them to be. For the most part, they’re bright, engaging, and friendly. Yes, they’ve also screwed up their lives with poor decisions, but most of them desperately want straighten up and fly right.

Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done.

The national recidivism rate hovers somewhere around 80%, meaning the odds are stacked against these guys, Most of them will likely wind up in jail again. Why? Well, addictions are pretty hard to overcome, especially when you don’t have people around you who want you to stay clean. People who get dumped back out on the street end up going back to the only people they know and trust, and those people are usually the ones who helped them get in trouble in the first place.

There’s not much effective rehabilitation going on out there. The parole system is something of a joke. As one parole officer told me, “They pretend they’ve been good, and we pretend to believe them.”

People can’t just change what they do; they have to change why they do it. They have to change the way they think about themselves and the world around them. And most of these people have a seriously skewed view of the way things really work.

If you doubt that, read on.

In Utah County, where I teach these classes, about 2% of the total population is either in jail, on parole, or on probation.

2%.

Initially, that statistic seemed high to me, because I didn’t personally know anyone being processed through the criminal justice system. 1 out of 50 people are in trouble with the law? Can that be right?

Well, to help illustrate of how warped our perception of reality can be, I get each member of the class to offer a guess as to how many people in Utah County are either incarcerated or on probation and/or parole. I write their answers on the board and ask them to vote on which one they think is the most accurate.

I’ve never had them give me a number lower than 50%.

Usually, the guesses are higher than that. Some go as high as 90%, and nobody bats an eye. When I do the big reveal and tell them what the actual number is, none of them believe it. Then they rationalize it by saying “Well, my number is what it should be – because that’s how many people are doing what I’m doing and just haven’t been caught yet!”

If you think about it, though, it makes sense. The only people they know are people like them. In their world, everyone’s everyone either coming from or going to jail, and it’s almost impossible to imagine things being any other way.

Another question I ask them is how many of them either have been or know anyone who who has been deliberately stabbed. Usually, every hand in the room goes up. That’s just astonishing to me. They’re not living in the same world I am. They’d like to be, but they don’t know how to get there.

Teaching these classes hasn’t been particularly lucrative, but it’s easily the most rewarding job I’ve ever had.

Blind Dates and Beaches


An anonymous “Super Gay” commentator on yesterday’s entry insists you have to be “Mega Gay” to watch the movie Beaches all the way through. He’s only seen the first fifteen minutes, apparently. He’s “Super Gay,” but not “Mega Gay.”

He is also wrong. I have, in fact, seen Beaches, and I remain decidedly heterosexual.

How was this accomplished?

I saw Beaches in the winter of ‘89 in a cabin in Coalville, Utah. It was in the course of the most uncomfortable evening of my entire life – and that dreadful movie was the best part of it.

Some background is necessary.

I returned home from the Scotland Edinburgh Mission of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in September of 1989. Actually, to say I returned “home” is slightly misleading, since I came back to Salt Lake City when “home,” in my mind, was Southern California. My parents had moved to Utah right after I graduated from high school. I stayed in LA and attended USC for my freshman year. I did spend the summer up in Utah before I left for Scotland in ’87, but to call it “home” would still be a little strong.

But whether I thought of it as home, it’s where I spent the next year, since I had enrolled in the University of Utah as an English major. Why? Because my mission had taught me that all actors were going to hell, so I should try to find a new, more spiritually acceptable profession, like dentistry.

Anyway, my triumphant return from missionary life was marred by a bizarre spectacle: The girl I was dating before my mission flew up from LA to meet me at the SLC airport – and dump me. (By the way, that’s probably the best thing that ever happened to me, but it’s a story for another day.)

So, here I was, a stranger in a strange land, having spent two years out in the mission field, where you can get in trouble if you give a girl an extended handshake. Now I was supposed to create a social life in a place where I had no history, no friends, and no confidence. I had no idea what I was going to do with my life, and that, along with two years of enhanced abstinence, made me a disaster around the ladies. I couldn’t open my mouth around a pretty girl and string together a coherent sentence. Even the ugly ones were giving me trouble.

So my mother, in a well-intentioned but ultimately doomed effort, called a friend of hers to persuade her U of U son to invite me along on some sort of social outing. The son was a very nice guy, and he dutifully complied with my mother’s meddling. He called me up and told me that he and some of his friends were taking dates up to their family cabin in Coalville, and they’d even lined up some sacrificial lambette to be my blind date, and would I be interested in coming?

You can see where this is going, can’t you?

This group of friends had known each other since kindergarten. I was definitely the odd man out. They came and picked me up, introduced me to my date – who, as I remember, was actually quite pretty – and we drove for an hour, in which everyone talked amongst themselves in a relaxed and friendly manner. You know, the way normal people talk.

I just sat there.

I said nothing. I was terrified. I felt unbelievably awkward. I used the time to sweat a lot. I think I was literally shaking for most of the night. Once in awhile, my date or some other noble soul would ask me a token question and try to engage me in a conversation, but I always answered with a terse, one-or-two-word response. “Yeah.” “Uh-huh.” “Dunno.”

I wanted to die.

So we got to the cabin and everyone kibitzed for a while, and I stood around by the punch bowl and drank about six gallons of unspiked Hi-C. I think I went to the bathroom about twelve times. Then they started a movie, which, of course, the girls picked:

Beaches.

It was a welcome relief, because no one was looking at me, feeling sorry for me, or expecting me to talk. Everyone else took the opportunity to snuggle up and smooch a little. I stared grimly at the screen, determined not even to glance at the face of the date who surely now wished I would drop dead and make the evening more interesting.

Part of the reason the movie didn’t affect my sexual orientation was that I wasn’t really watching it. Sure, I was staring at it, unblinking, like a zombie, but my mind was racing. What do I say when the movie ends? What’s she thinking? What’s everyone else thinking? When will I get home? Will I ever get home? Am I going to wet myself? Should I go to the bathroom again?

Yikes.

I can’t remember the names of any of the people involved in this self-inflicted fiasco. I just remember thinking that I’d probably never make any new friends, that my life would never make any sense, and that if I was ever going to have a girl kiss me again, I’d probably have to pay her to do it.

You know how people complain about their blind dates from hell? Ever wonder who these blind dates from hell actually are? In the winter of 1989, it was me. I’m sure that pretty lambette will tell stories to her grandchildren about the Freaky Blind Date Guy Who Never Said a Word.

Life has gotten much better since that night, but, as you can see, my Beaches aversion runs far deeper than the average straight dude.

On Not Being Gay

I’m a slob. That’s why I’m not gay.

Seinfeld taught us that all gay people are thin, single, and neat. I used to be two out of three, but my piles of wrinkled clothing and the fast food wrappers stored in my car kept me from going over the edge. Of course, now I’m married and fat, too, so I’m straight for life.

I still fit a bunch of the gay stereotypes, though. I hate sports. When I lived in the dorms at USC, I used to do my laundry during the football games because all the washers were free. (My opposition to organized athletics has mellowed with time, but that’s not saying much.) I also dig musical theatre, which, I’m told, holds some appeal to the gay demographic. I sang in a choir from the time I was 11 to the time I was 17. I played the French horn in middle school, for crying out loud. If that won’t turn you gay, nothing will.

As a kid, I threw the word “fag” around as a generic epithet, like “jerk” or “doofus.” I had no idea what the word actually meant. Even after I finally found out, I still thought that actual gay people couldn’t possibly exist. They were make believe, like elves, gremlins or Eskimos.

I think I believed that until I was about twelve or thirteen, when I met, for the first time, a man who openly identified himself as gay. (It was at a choral festival, which is very surprising, as I didn’t think gay people liked choral festivals.) He was a nice enough guy and did nothing inappropriate, but he seriously weirded me out. He fit every stereotype – he was effeminate, swishy, talked with a lisp, the whole nine yards. That’s when I decided that gay people weren’t fictional – they were just exceptionally rare circus freaks, like Jojo the Monkey Boy or the Bearded Lady with an Extra Nose. It didn’t occur to me that people I actually knew in everyday life could ever think or feel like the creepy gay dude I’d just met.

I’m not sure when reality finally dawned on me, but it was a long time coming. I now have gay relatives, gay in-laws, and gay friends. This is probably no big deal to most people, but it all gets kind of messy when the Mormon Church gets involved.

The Church has always insisted that homosexual behavior is a sin against God, but it has struggled with how to deal with the temptation. Once upon a time, some leaders counseled homosexuals to get married to fix everything. Or play sports. Or pray harder. The message seemed to be that if you were more righteous, the temptation would go away. One friend of mine did all three, and, when nothing changed, he left the Church as he annulled his temple wedding the day after it happened.

He hates the Church. He hates life in general. He’s not a particularly happy guy.

The actual, official position of the Church gets misrepresented to some degree. I think it’s a bit more flexible than many realize. Yes, there’s no compromise on whether the behavior is sinful, but there’s also the reassurance that the temptation is not. That’s little consolation to some who see no acceptable outlet for their feelings, but it should be noted that it’s the same thing the Church asks of unmarried heterosexuals.

When I made this point to a friend of mine, he said, “At least the straight singles get pity.” If the Church is softening on this issue at all, it’s in this way – gays are starting to get pity, too. I’m not sure if that’s a huge step forward, as pity isn’t really my thing. I do think, however, that those who struggle with homosexual feelings and remain members of the Church are singularly remarkable people who are carrying a cross far heavier than any load I’ve been called to bear.

They don’t deserve pity; they deserve respect.

I can’t personally judge homosexuals. When I see adulterers or thieves or liars, I know and appreciate the temptation that led them into folly. I have no similar context for understanding homosexuality. I’m tempted, to some degree, to do as Seinfeld did when George Constanza unloaded all his deepest, darkest, most depraved secrets to him. Seinfeld listened patiently, but afterward, he just said, “Yeah, well, good luck with all that!” and walked away.

That’s the temptation for a large number of Mormons, too. We don’t get it, so we ignore it. We become Ahmedinijad at Columbia University. There are no homosexuals in Iran.

That’s a huge mistake. God isn’t ignoring anyone, and neither should we.

Except Barbra Streisand. I loathe Barbra Streisand. I’m somewhat indifferent to Judy Garland, but I don’t know anything about her non-Oz work. Bette Midler is OK in small doses, but I’d rather spend eternity eating shards of broken glass than sit through Beaches again.

Two Movie Musicals

I watched two movie musicals this weekend. One worked; one didn’t. Which was which? You might be surprised.

It’s very hard to make a credible movie musical. On a stage, everything’s somewhat artificial, so when people spontaneously burst into song, it’s easy to suspend disbelief. Movies mimic reality far more closely, so filmed people who sing instead of speak always look, at best, slightly ridiculous. At worst, they look like total buffoons.

If you doubt this, watch the movie version of The Phantom of the Opera, AKA Buffoons on Parade.

Musical theatre snobs look down their noses at the collected works of Andrew Lloyd Webber, but I think they do so for all the wrong reasons. They think Lloyd Webber is a talentless hack; a wannabe Sondheim that one friend of mine dubbed “Andrew Lloyd Salieri.” Very clever and snarky, but this overlooks the fact Lloyd Webber is an exceptionally skilled pop composer with a gift for catchy melodic hooks.

That’s why I believe his most successful piece is Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, because it doesn’t aspire to be anything but a plain ol’ good time. Lloyd Webber only falters when he tries to gain the respect of the snooty purists who claim to hate him but would kill for his box office grosses. So he churns out dreck like Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, which are supposed to be Big and Important, yet both feel like high school term papers by teenagers with more ego than insight. Even in his worst shows, though, Lloyd Webber manages to produce some truly stellar melodies, like Superstar’s “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and Evita’s “Another Suitcase In Another Hall.”

That leads us to The Phantom of the Opera. On stage, it’s Webber’s best and worst show, all at the same time.

It’s the best because of the tunes, or, at least, the ones that work. The title track rocks, and “Music of the Night” and “Think of Me” are simple, effective melodies that linger in your brain long after the show is over. When the show tries to pretend to be some sort of grand opera, it becomes pretentious. Still, the haunting Gothic romance at the heart of the story ends up succeeding in spite of Lloyd Webber’s best efforts to drown it in a sea of bombast.

At least, that’s the stage version. In the movie, the story never gets a chance to come up for air. It’s all bombast all the time, and it’s deeply, intensely silly.

It doesn’t help that Lloyd Webber chose Joel Schumacher to direct this pile. Schumacher is the wunderkind who inflicted the movie Batman and Robin on the world, complete with the disturbing BatSuit with BatNipples. Schumacher’s Phantom is BatNipples put to put to music – big, stupid, cluttered, and noisy. Yet for all its frenzied motion, the show never goes anywhere. It’s painfully, agonizingly slow. Schumacher lingers on his extravagant, expensive art direction – which is stunning, indeed – and dazzles us with his clever camera angles and such, but he never bothers to engage you in the characters, most of whom are woefully miscast, including the Phantom.

Especially the Phantom.

Gosh, this Phantom sucks. First off, he can’t sing. Second, he’s better looking than Raoul, which gets the story exactly wrong. And when he takes off his mask, he looks like he’s had a really bad sunburn. That’s it. That’s the reason he’s a murderer and a lonely miserable outcast. He fell asleep in a tanning booth.

The irony is that the movie is entirely faithful to the stage production, which is one of the main reasons it fails. Schumacher has no idea why these people start singing out of nowhere, and he makes no attempt to compensate for the difference between stage and film. Instead, he shows us lots of pretty set dressing and hopes that will be enough.

Contrast that with High School Musical II, which my kids can’t stop watching, so I sat down with them to see what all the fuss was about.

It was a whole lot of fun.

It wasn’t great, ponderous theatre. It was light and fun, with very engaging actors and a whole lot of catchy tunes. Was it Sondheim? Heavens, no. It was an airy pop confection, and it didn’t pretend to be anything else. It also made allowances for why everyone is singing all the time. It worked as a movie, not just a musical.

I should admit that it helped that the whole thing was filmed at the Entrada Golf Course just outside of St. George, Utah, about five minutes from where our family used to live. Those red rock cliffs in the background were very familiar Southern Utah landmarks that look nothing like New Mexico, where the film was ostensibly set. When we went back to visit, some friends took my girls to go meet the High School Musical cast, and they came back with autographs. (They said that Ashley Tinsdale was very nice to them, but Vanessa Hudgens was kind of snotty.)

So, to sum up: enjoy High School Musical II. Skip Phantom. And beware of Sweeney Todd, the Sondheim masterpiece that’s getting the Tim Burton treatment this Christmas.

I’m thinking it will probably suck.

No Peace for the Wicked

Al Gore winning the Nobel Peace Prize is just as significant as Halle Berry being the first black woman to win Best Actress at the Oscars.

Remember Berry’s groundbreaking victory? According to her, it wasn’t just Halle Berry who won. It was “every nameless, faceless woman of color who now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.” What a great lesson! A truly awful actress1 can win an Oscar in order to make nameless, faceless women2 of color feel better about themselves. The Academy Awards are always silly and self congratulatory, yes, but shouldn’t the Best Actress award go to someone who could credibly be called the year’s best actress?

And shouldn’t a “Peace Prize” go to someone who furthers the cause of peace?

Al Gore has done nothing to further the cause of world peace. Actually, he’s done less than nothing, or, that is to say, he’s done positive harm. The alarmist nonsense he peddles is designed to cripple the industrial economies of any nation that buys what he’s selling, which will lead to more strife between nations, not less.

At least terrorist thug Yasser Arafat gave lip service to peace when he got his prize. Al Gore does not bring peace, or even pretend to do so. He comes bearing a green, carbon-neutral sword. He wants us to dismantle American industry to “limit CO2 emissions” and keep those dirty, inconvenient little Third Worlders trapped in their pristine, unspoiled, undeveloped – read “impoverished” –innocence.

Arguments about the science of Global Warming end up devolving into a battle of credentials and not of facts, which discourages honest discussion and allows Gore and Co. to declare the debate over and label anyone who disagrees with them as something akin to a Holocaust denier.

No, I’m not a scientist. I don’t play one on TV. However, I’m going to make an irrefutable scientific statement with which no one can disagree.

The climate is changing.

Everyone who has ever lived on the planet could have truthfully made that statement, too. It has ever been true. It always will be true. We do not live in a static environment.

So Gore takes a true premise – the climate is changing – and extrapolates a massive social agenda with astoundingly far-reaching consequences, demanding colossal expansion of government power.

If you accept the premise, you have to accept the agenda. If you agree with the problem but disagree with the solution, you’re Goebbels.

But there are so many other solutions, and many would be more effective. You know what would really cut down on carbon emissions? Level New York City. Or gather up all the cars and bury them somewhere by Yucca Mountain. Shut down all the power plants. And while you’re at it, close the hospitals. And if that doesn’t work, there’s a quicker, more efficient way.

Genocide. Just kill lots of people. That’ll do it.

Actually, the economic consequences of shutting down carbon emissions is little more than genocide on the installment plan. Denying the positive effects of industrialization to millions means many more of them will die early, painful deaths. In contrast, limiting carbon emissions may or may not have any effect at all on global temperatures. Even if Gore’s right – and that’s a HUGE if – the costs outweigh the benefits, which are all theoretical anyway. The carnage and death that these policies have wrought are all too real.

If Al Gore continues to get his way, the nations of Africa will remain unindustrialized and riddled with disease, squabbling and murdering to gain control over ever-dwindling resources. Why? Because if they were to burn the fossil fuels necessary to bring their countries out of the Stone Age, they’d heat up the globe and force Ghandi Gore to turn up the air conditioning on his Gulfstream private jets.

This is what the Nobel Prize committee calls “peace.”

Gore and the whole Global Warming movement make me sick to my stomach.

_______________________________


1In the interests of intellectual honesty, I must admit that I have not seen Monster’s Ball, the film for which Ms. Berry won the award, nor do I have any desire to see it. Why? Because I have seen Bulworth, Die Another Day, and the three X-Men films. Ms. Berry is wretched in all of them. There’s a pattern there. If she, in fact, defied all laws of nature and summoned forth one credible performance, she would have drained her tiny reservoir of talent completely. She clearly didn’t have any leftover for Catwoman.

2Isn’t it odd of Berry to refer to “nameless, faceless” people, regardless of their color? Or is this the new, politically correct way to refer to what elites used to call the “little people?”

Worm Man II: Fox Man Returns

Once there was a super hero named Worm Man. He had a super speed mode car plane boat. Fox Man came back to attack the city. Worm Man did not know how Fox Man came back. Fox Man brought his Mega Sword. He knocked down a building. But what could Worm Man do? He could be Fox Man’s friend. Yes, he could.

So he walked to Fox Man and he said “Do you want to be my friend?”

“Yes, I want to be your friend.” But then Fox Man thought – should he be Worm Man’s friend? Then he decided yes. So they built a house and Fox Man built a house, too.

The next day, Fox Man went to play at Worm Man’s house. There was a bad guy that made Fox Man when he was bad, but he did not want to be bad again so he went to attack the bad guy. The bad guy went to jail. So Fox Man went down the street and knocked on the door and they jumped on the tramp. They played tag.

“Thanks for being my friend. That made a difference in my life.”

The end.

Remembering Gref Dafflebaum

Sadly, Google can only find two lingering online evidences of the delightful Finnish sitcom Gref Dafflebaum, considered by many to be the finest Scandinavian situation comedy since Bunion Thunder. Yet it was only three years ago when Gref references were plentiful – he had his own tribute page, a raging discussion on the Cinescape board, and even memorabilia sales on eBay.

Confused?

You’re probably not as confused as the admins on the old Cinescape Classic Television bulletin board, which Languatron invaded a few years ago. After being banned from every other respectable board, Langy was trying to find a new audience for his wild-eyed theories that Ron Moore drinks the blood of flatulent virgins and Universal Studios controls the weather. So Lang landed at Cinescape.com, and I, along with several of my fellow Lang battle veterans, followed him there to make his life miserable.

The Cinescape folks got pretty grumpy, because amid this sudden explosion of Langy flame wars, no one was actually discussing classic television shows. We were, in the words of the admins, “wasting valuable bandwidth.” This had clearly never been a problem before, as the board was getting about three posts a month before we arrived. Still, to avoid being banned, it was important that we temper our anti-Lang rhetoric with some actual discussion of long-cancelled TV shows.

So, on a whim, I wrote a post that said “Anyone else remember the show Gref Dafflebaum, about the guy with the limp and the unibrow? What a classic.”

It all snowballed from there.

Suddenly, everyone was remembering specific details about this obscure little treasure. There was, of course, the limp, the unibrow, and assorted other physical oddities. There was the best friend character who was always stuffing hams down his pants. There was the infamous “Hats” episode, which everyone hated because it had too many hats.

The admins got pretty angry. They insisted that we were making it all up, and our silly banter was eating up valuable server space that should have been devoted to conversations about The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Sanford and Son. They threatened to kick us off the board unless we stopped fooling around.

Suddenly, a tribute page to the Gref Dafflebaum series appeared online. It featured an episode guide, a few reviews, and this picture (left), identified as a screen capture from one of the actual Gref shows. The caption to the picture read “Dafflebaum! You have report for me? Yes or no?”

How could anyone doubt Dafflebaum anymore? The verdict was in – Gref was for real. We were vindicated at last. After all, you couldn’t make up something like that.

Astonishingly, the admins still weren’t convinced. They needed proof. Physical, tangible evidence that Gref Dafflebaum wasn’t just a fignment of our deranged imaginations.

And the proof came.

An actual Gref Dafflebaum lunchbox came up for sale on eBay.

The bidding was fast and furious. We were clearly not the only ones with a fondness for our limping, unibrowed Finnish friend. Sure, a skeptic could say that the lunchbox was a crudely Photoshopped forgery, but skeptics also think Elvis is dead. Who are you going to believe – a skeptic or a guy who puts ham sandwiches in a lunchbox so he can stuff lunchmeat down his pants? Huh? I rest my case.

In the end, it was all for naught. Cinescape didn’t buy it. We were all summarily banned, and the Cinescape board eventually disappeared. At least Lang was banned, too, though, so we actually accomplished something.

Now that the dust has settled, the memory still brings a tear to my eye. How could anyone doubt the majesty of Dafflebaum? After all, I know Gref is for real. Real, I tell you! I know this!

And how do I know this?

I won the bidding on the lunchbox.

It arrived shortly after the bidding ended, and it’s in mint condition. I still have it. I sleep with it. I bathe with it. I keep it close to my heart, along with cherished memories of Dafflebaum’s finest moments, like the time when his shoes fell into a vat of pasta.

It’s not as good as Bunion Thunder, but it’ll do.

All Hail Foodleking!

Foodleking has arrived.

For those of you who don’t know him, which would likely be all of you, I want to take a moment to introduce you to someone who is one of my very best friends in the world.

I’ve known Foodleking since I was six years old, when I first moved to Southern California. He became especially prominent in my life because we attended the same church and the same school. Growing up, I had school friends and church friends and artsy fartsy friends, but Foodleking crossed over into all of them. (Not so much the artsy fartsy, actually. He’s not really artsy, although he would probably admit to being somewhat fartsy – more so as he ages.)

As a result, almost all of the experiences that I’ve recounted in this blog have included him, too. Foodleking was a firsthand witness to the Majesty of Springsteen, many of my Brushes with Greatness, and the Horrors of the Order of the Arrow. (He, unlike me, is a real live Eagle Scout. My mother told me that if I didn’t follow in Foodleking’s footsteps and become an Eagle, I would regret it for the rest of my life. Based on that criteria, the rest of my life has yet to begin.)

There are innumerable Foodleking stories I could recount, and I probably will as time wears on. My entire childhood is filled with them. We carpooled and trick or treated and played on the same little league teams together. (He was a good athlete, though, and I wasn’t.) We chased the same girls. (He caught them, though, and I didn’t.) We did the same drugs. (He didn’t do any drugs, though. Fortunately, neither did I.) I’m sitting here trying to remember specific incidents, but it’s impossible to narrow it down. It’s like trying to single out experiences you have with a brother, which, essentially, is what Foodleking was and is.

He was in the car with me when I got pulled over for driving 101 miles per hour. He broke into the Missionary Training Center in Provo with me to give another one of our friends a contraband TV Guide. As a groomsman at my wedding, he made a thinly-veiled crude toast about part of my anatomy that went over everyone’s head but mine. (I’ll leave that one to your imagination.)

About a year ago, Foodleking, Mrs. Foodleking, and his growing family – four kids at last count, if I’m not mistaken – made the trek up to Utah to pay us a visit. He’s quite the grown up now with a real job and everything, but no matter how long we go between visits, it feels like no time at all. We just pick up where we left off.

Much seems to have happened in that intervening year, however. According to his Blogger profile, he now lives in Afghanistan, working as an excavator in the fashion industry. This seems like quite a departure from his previous career, but I’m sure he’s the best darn fashion excavator the Afghani fashion industry has ever had.

So, Foodleking, welcome again. Feel free to correct my stories when I screw them up.

“When Do You Suck?”

Since I’ve told you two stories of people who loathe me – one here and one here – I thought I’d complete the trilogy with what is, perhaps, the most bizarre I-Hate-Stallion story ever. It’s also, fortunately, the one with the happiest ending, so I’ll put it down here for posterity and then start talking about non-hate crap for a little while.

In the year 2000, I was the Artistic Director at the Tuacahn Center for the Arts. Having just come off of Tuacahn’s most successful season ever, due in large part to the stunning success of their recent production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, I was the one primarily responsible for ensuring that the next season would equal or exceed the year before. (It didn’t, but that’s another story.) The shows on tap for the summer were Fiddler on the Roof and one of my all-time favorites, The Music Man.

If you’ve read this blog from the outset, you know I have some colorful history with that particular show. Yet the summer of 2000 ensured that Andrew Fogelson’s Magic Kiss would pale in comparison to my 21st century Music Man experience. (Yeah, I know. The year 2000 was technically the end of the 20th century. Do you want me to finish the story or not?)

There are two new characters who figure prominently in this story – a husband and wife I’ll dub Ozzie and Harriet. Ozzie worked for Tuacahn as a company manager, and that year he was given the assignment of casting director as well, which was the first mistake. The directors of the show ended up having the last word on the casting, anyway, so no matter how often Casting Director Ozzie crossed swords with these guys – and it was often, indeed – the directors always got their way in the end.

Harriet also worked for Tuacahn, too, albeit on a seasonal basis. She had just played the narrator in Joseph in 1999, and she was absolutely dynamite. She was very pretty, and she had a smoky, powerful voice that sounds great in both pop and legit pieces. She was also an accomplished dancer and choreographer, and after the success of ’99, the Tuacahn Board decreed that Harriet would be cast as Marian the Librarian, the lead of The Music Man, prior to any auditions or the hiring of any other staff.

That was mistake #2, and boy, was it a doozy.

I got to know Ozzie fairly well, since I worked with him on a daily basis. I quite liked him. Even through all the weirdness that I’m about to describe, we got along just fine. However, I was barely acquainted with his wife. To this day, I cannot recall a single interaction with her that lasted more than a sentence or two. (That’s important for later, so keep it in mind.)

The biggest casting challenge we faced was the role of Harold Hill, the titular “music man” from the play in question. Ozzie was insistent that an old friend and Tuacahn alumnus from the previous year be cast in the role. At the time, that idea didn’t bother me – the guy in question was, in fact, really good, and I cast him as Sitting Bull two years later when I directed Tuacahn’s production of Annie Get Your Gun. The director, however, didn’t want to go there. In his mind, Ozzie’s friend was wrong physically for the role, since he was short, stocky, and bald. This difference of opinion proved to be a huge sticking point throughout auditions, since we went through at least half a dozen different Harold Hill candidates, all of whom fell through for one reason or another. (One even got a contract and almost signed on the dotted line, but then he got a better gig and all was lost.)

Now during all this time, I must admit I had a secret, burning desire to get back up on stage again. I would have loved to play Harold Hill one more time, and doing so onstage at Tuacahn would have been a dream come true. I did not, however, raise this idea throughout auditions. I was a producer and an administrator now, and nobody even considered me as an acting possibility. But when auditions were over and Harold Hills kept dropping like flies, I foolishly decided to throw my name into the mix.

Ozzie was clearly nonplussed by the idea, but he asked me to audition for him, nevertheless. It was a terribly awkward experience to leave the office, walk a few yards to a nearby piano, and sing for this guy I saw every day and worked down the hall from. It didn’t go well, and he essentially told me, in polite but no uncertain terms, that I was out of my mind.

Yet time wore on, and we still didn’t have a Harold Hill. So, still secretly obsessed, I called the director. He asked me to audition, too.

That one went better. Not great, but better. “There’s a Harold Hill in there,” the director said, “but it’s clearly been a long time since you were on stage, and you’re a little rusty.” That was hard to hear, but it was an honest assessment. The last time I’d been in a show had been six years earlier, and it would be quite a risk to bet the success of an entire Tuacahn summer season on my performance.

But then fate intervened.

The director’s first choice for the role of Harold Hill was a prominent Salt Lake actor of some renown, who, alas, would not be available for the final two weeks of the summer. After my audition, the director decided that he could cast the Salt Lake guy as Harold Hill, and that I could step in to the role at the end of the season to finish out the run.

Ozzie didn’t like it, obviously, but the one who went ballistic, and who had never figured into the equation at all before this, was Harriet.

Harriet proceeded to unload to everyone who would listen about just how awful a performer I was, ignoring the fact that she had never seen me perform. She insisted that I’d schemed to make this happen from day one, which, given the history of the casting process, was demonstrably untrue. Still, she proclaimed that I was “unworthy” to be on the same stage with her. She also suggested, somewhat perversely, that one of the main reasons I wanted to play the role was so I could kiss her onstage.

I’m jumping ahead here, but I want to state, for the record, that kissing Harriet was unarguably the least erotic experience of my life. I’ve described it to some as the Opposite of an Affair. In a real affair, two people try to hide their mutual attraction as they secretly indulge their forbidden passions away from the prying eyes of the world. With Harriet and me, two people who were repelled by each other were forced to press lips together in full view of nearly 2,000 people per night. I can remember counting the seconds until I could end the faux embrace, and I always felt relieved when the fireworks in the background gave me the cue to release her so I could breathe again.

The thing that was so baffling about this experience was the depth of her animosity toward me. Some observers tried to describe this as Stallion v. Harriet, but the truth was I didn’t know Harriet. I had barely spoken to her. People say with regard to fights that it always takes two to tango, but I don’t believe that anymore. Harriet was very good – and very angry – dancing solo.

The problem got worse as the summer wore on and my debut drew closer. I was already suspect among the cast, since they were Labor and I was Upper Management. It didn’t help that Harriet spent the weeks and months leading up to those dreaded final performances tearing me down to all her fellow castmates. I don’t think I was imagining the icy resentment I felt every time I came in contact with one of the actors. They were convinced, in the absence of any evidence contrary to Harriet’s rants, that, because of me, their show was doomed.

My own apprehension began to grow over the summer, and if I could have found someone to take my place, I would have. Because despite how ill-used I felt, deep in my gut, part of me began to believe that Harriet was probably right.

In may seem trivial now, but at the time, I made the subject a matter of fervent prayer, and I asked my dad for a father’s blessing, in which he assured me that all would be well and I would feel calm and relaxed when the time came for me to perform my role.

Anyway, to cut to the chase: it was a smashing success. I wasn’t just adequate. I nailed it. To everyone’s surprise – especially mine – I hit it out of the park.

I’ve never had more fun in my life than I did the first night I went on stage. As I had arranged with the bandleader a few days earlier, I took the tempo of “Trouble,” the show’s signature piece, up several notches. Harriet stood in the wings in tears, saying over and over “He’s ruining the show! He’s ruining the show!” But the overwhelmingly positive audience reaction said otherwise. The trepidation of the cast melted away instantly, and I felt as calm and peaceful as I’d ever felt in my life. I did well that first night, and I did better with each performance. It was a thrill. It was also the last time I’ve ever performed on stage.

Perhaps the greatest accolade I received was from one of the young kids in the cast, who came up to me near the end of the run and asked, simply, “When do you suck?”

I told her I didn’t understand the question.

“When do you suck?” she said again. “Everyone said you were going to suck, but you didn’t. You’re really good. So when do you suck?”

High praise, indeed.

Still, throughout the run, Harriet refused to speak to me, even to say hello. We would come offstage after making moony eyes at each other, and then the brick wall would go up and she’d stalk off into the wings without looking at me. It was strange, but it was just something I had to accept, like the weather. Everyone else was exceptionally kind and generous, and I had a wonderful time.

Finally, on closing night, after all was said and done, I found myself alone with Ozzie, who, I note again, had been surprisingly pleasant throughout all of this. So I took the occasion to ask a question.

“Ozzie,” I said, “I didn’t want to say anything while we were going through this, but now that the show’s over, and all of this is behind us, I have to ask: what do I have to do to make peace with your wife?”

Ozzie’s face darkened. “I don’t know,” he said. “You two have a lot of $%^& to work out.”

I almost laughed. Fact is, I didn’t have anything to work out with Harriet. You work things out with people with whom you have relationships. I work things out with my wife, children, family and friends. I don’t work things out with brick walls I don’t know.

I think it was two years ago that I received a lengthy Christmas card from Harriet, in which she apologized for how she had acted and said some other nice things I don’t remember. Glad to see she worked it out. I hope things are going well for her.

But I’m left wondering: what is it about me that inspires this kind of stuff? Is it my dashing good looks? My love of fondue? My loose bowels? What?

Manny, Moe and Jack: A Lesson in Anger Management

The past two days have been General Conference for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Over the course of five two-hour sessions, the leaders of the church give instruction to the entire membership, and it always leaves me with a determination to be a better guy. (It’s also a delightful weekend, because it’s broadcast on TV in Utah, so the whole family gets to watch church on television in their pajamas.)

Anyway, the talk that really captivated me was Church President Gordon B. Hinckley’s sermon on anger. I’ve commented on anger and hatred in this blog before, and an anonymous writer has criticized me for my embrace of Ann Coulter, due to her angry ways. President Hinckley’s talk brought me closer in agreement to his/her way of thinking, and I thought I should take a moment to mention that.

The talk also called to mind one of the seminal episodes of my life, which I want to recount here. I’ve changed the names of three of the main characters herein to Manny, Moe, and Jack, not because these three guys are real-life Pep Boys or in any way peppier than the average dude, but because it would be inappropriate to use their real names. This story is much like the one with the girl who harbored a grudge against me for years, except the impact of what I’m about to share with you has been far more significant.

Once upon a time, Manny was a good friend and something of a mentor. We went into business together, and, for reasons that were important then but now matter little almost fourteen years later, I fired him.

I’ve never been divorced. If I were, I imagine the experience would be similar to what happened back then. The split was acrimonious; angry words were exchanged, and the fallout intensified as everyone we knew took sides. I mentally prepared a list of talking points as to why I was in the right and Manny needed to go, and, in turn, Manny and those on his side had their own list, and the battle raged for quite some time thereafter.

This story, however, is not really about Manny. It took awhile, but Manny and I have finally made peace with each other. I ran into him several years after the fact and the encounter was entirely pleasant. After that, he wrote me a very kind note that indicated that, while certainly he wasn’t happy with the way things went down, he harbors no ill feelings toward me. Now, when I think about Manny, I do so only with fondness.

This story is primarily about Moe.

Moe and I were friends, too, but somewhat tangentially. Like me, he went to church at the USC ward, but I showed up there just as he was finishing his degree. Consequently, many of my good friends – including Manny – knew Moe well, but I had relatively little firsthand interaction with him. He was something of a larger-than-life figure and a legend in the USC Ward, and I often regretted that I had missed the opportunity to know him better.

I had one exchange with him, however, that foreshadowed what was to come. Moe had served as a counselor to the USC Ward Bishop, a man who would later have a profound and positive impact on my own spiritual life. Moe, however, used the occasion of a church party to accuse this Bishop of something terrible. He also labeled him “an evil man.” I was somewhat taken aback by this, but Moe’s reputation was such that I accepted his words at face value and was wary of that Bishop for longer than I should have been. In retrospect, I now see that Moe was a fiercely loyal friend, which is why so many people loved him. Conversely, he could be a bitter, bitter enemy.

About eighteen months after I fired Manny, a letter arrived in the mail from Moe. It was fifteen pages, single-spaced, and to say it took me to task for what I had done would be a gross understatement.

It was a full-frontal assault, accusing me of a myriad of real and imagined crimes, comparing me to everyone from Iago to Judas to Satan himself.

Yet this was no Languatronic goofball rant. Moe is a very bright guy, and his letter was exceptionally well-written. He meticulously and brutally assembled the evidence to prove I was a monster, a vindictive destroyer of other people lives. He cited the opinions of scores of nameless people, “more than I knew,” who were disgusted with my tyrannical behavior but, unlike Moe, were too cowardly to call me to account. He ascribed the worst possible motives to every single one of my decisions. And all of it was couched in the language of the Gospel, calling down fire from heaven to punish me for my sins.

It was filled with a cold fury the likes of which I have never seen before or since.

I responded to the letter as dispassionately as possible, trying to dispel some of the more ludicrous accusations and feebly attempting to get Moe to think better of me. It was troubling to me to think that I had an enemy, someone who took pleasure in my failures and actively sought my destruction. Even worse, I was sure Moe had persuaded a large number of people I thought were my friends that I was, indeed, evil, and that, while some of what he said was clearly preposterous, much of it was rooted in the truth.

It took some sleepless nights and plenty of soul searching, but I determined that the only way to rebut his accusations would be to live my life as honorably as I could. No one who wanted to believe the worst of me would be persuaded otherwise by a letter or a debate or a confrontation. In retrospect, the letter has proved to be a blessing, as it toughened my skin and gave me the strength to live well, regardless of what others thought of me. It was, however, a very painful way to learn a valuable lesson.

It was also not the end of the story.

A little over a year ago, I met Jack and his family. Jack is a business partner with my brother-in-law, and his family and my sister’s family are very close. We were at Aspen Grove Family Camp, and I had the opportunity to get to know Jack, and I found him to be a bright, engaging, fun-loving guy.

So I was pretty startled when, one afternoon, Jack took me aside and said, “we need to have a discussion about Moe.”

Back in California, Jack and Moe had been in the same church congregation in the intervening years, and they had become good friends. Because of Jack’s association with my family, however, Moe took occasion to tell Jack about the letter, even quoting from it at length. (Thankfully, I destroyed the letter shortly after receiving it, so I would have been unable to do the same.) Not too long ago, he told Jack how proud he was to have sent it, and, according to Jack, Moe is still convinced that I’m a demon, and his rage toward me has not diminished with time. If anything, over the course of more than a decade, it has intensified.

I asked what I could do. My options were limited. Unlike my relationship with Manny, there was little or no prior friendship to repair. There was nothing to apologize for, because the situation at issue had nothing to do with him. Jack told me there was nothing I could do. Moe wore his anger as a badge of honor. All I could do was live my life and hope for the best.

If I were to talk to Moe, all I could say is that I forgive him for hating me. And that would probably make him even angrier.

I wish I could resolve this. Moe has since moved to Utah and now lives about a half hour from where I live.