Sweet Baby James

My two-year-old son and I have the same first name – James – and before too long, he’ll be too old to be rocked to sleep by a lullaby. That’s too bad, because he loves “Sweet Baby James” by James Taylor. He always nods off during the chorus:

Goodnight, you moonlight ladies
Rockabye, Sweet Baby James
Deep greens and blues are the colors I choose
Won’t you let me go down in my dreams
And rockabye Sweet Baby James

We already had four kids by the time James came along. And, as you may have guessed, James wasn’t supposed to come along. Yet here he is. He was a mistake who became a surprise who became a blessing.

We had already planned our lives around the idea of four kids in school. My wife was going to go back to work part-time; I was going to get rich, and everything was set. Then James came along and screwed everything up. We weren’t sure if we were going to forgive him for doing that.

The day he was born changed all that instantly. He came out with a full head of dark, scraggly hair – unlike all four of our other kids who were bald as ping pong balls upon their arrival. James also, unlike our other kids, had a hard time breathing for the first few days. We were told his prognosis was good, but he he had to be put in intensive care on a respirator, and we couldn’t hold him. The irony was thick on the ground – here was the child who’s arrival we had been dreading, and now we were terrified at the prospect of losing him. The day we were able to take James, healthy and happy, back home with us was one of the greatest days of our lives.

I think the hair was still helping matters. The dark hair was replace by blonde curls, again, unlike the four straight-headed kids who preceded him. Near his second birthday, my wife asked me to go get his hair trimmed, and, being an idiot, I gave very vague instructions to the SuperCuts girl, who proceeded to practically shave his head. My wife burst into tears when she saw the curls were gone, and they haven’t come back. It’s still a sore subject around the house, but, fortunately, we’ve found other reasons to love him.

He’s smart and funny, and he wants to grow up in the worst way. Last night, at a cousin’s house, he decided to imitate his older cousin by crossing his legs, but he couldn’t quit lift his right leg over his left. It was fun to watch him struggle with it. He’s obsessed with cars, or “bye-byes,” as he calls them, and given the opportunity, he’d watch Pixars “Cars” movie all day long. Sometimes, when my natural sloth takes over, I almost let him.

That’s a mistake.

This is precious time that we’re never going to get again. He’s the last one. I’m trying to remember that. I’m trying to enjoy the fact that he carries his little blue blankie everywhere; that his face lights up every time he sees a doggie or a kitty, that he calls all his brothers and sisters by name but still calls himself “baby.” He’s growing. He can crawl out of his crib now. He wants to grow up more than I want him to stay little, and nature says he’s going to win out in the end.

I’ve only got so many “Sweet Baby James” nights left.

The True Story of Richard the Bricklayer

Once upon a time – about a hundred and fifty years ago, to be precise – in a faraway land called Birmingham, England, there lived a humble bricklayer named Richard.

Yes, Richard laid bricks. It was a good and useful skill to have, since Birmingham was a big ol’ city that needed a bunch of bricks for its buildings and such. Of course, the job had its drawbacks. In nineteenth century Britain, the bricklaying trade didn’t offer a whole lot in the way of social mobility. Whether he liked it or not, Richard had resigned himself to the fact that he would likely be laying bricks for the rest of what probably be a short and difficult life.

And that would have been exactly what would have happened if Richard hadn’t married Maria Foster.

Maria (her name was spelled like the West Side Story Maria, but it was pronounced Mariah, as in Mariah Carey) stayed close to the rest of the Fosters after her marriage, so she was unduly influenced by the company they kept. This proved to be something of a problem in her marriage, since all of her family had fallen in with some unsavory characters from the United States, most of their unsavoriness due to the fact that they were Mormons.

Nowadays, when the Mormons get their claws into you and begin their brainwashing process, you pretty much just have to quit drinking beer and chasing broads. It’s really not that bad, all things considered. But back in the Birmingham of the 1850s, once you joined those loony Mormons, you had to pack your bags, sail across the ocean, and then get a covered wagon and march across the Great Plains, where you finally settled down with all the other Mormon crackpots in a worthless desert next to a big, salty lake with lots and lots of brine flies. That’s where these loons planned to build their Zion.

Maria was ready, willing, and eager to go.

Richard wanted no part of it. And, really, can you blame him?

Still, he loved his wife enough to strike a deal. Maria could join the church along with the rest of her family. Richard refused to be baptized, but he agreed to emigrate to the US on the condition that they had enough money to return back to England once Maria came to her senses.

Good plan. Alas, it was not to be.

As soon as they got to the East Coast, all of their money was burned up in a fire – a fire which they blamed on their young son John, who was given the name Foster as his middle name.

No matter who did it, the reality was what it was. Richard was stuck.

Westward ho!

Richard, bitter and angry, nevertheless made the arduous journey west with the Mormons, and when he finally showed up in Utah, he made a beeline to Brigham Young’s doorstep to give the Mormon leader a piece of his mind. He demanded that Brigham and his fellow Mormons provide him with financial help to make up for the money that had been burned up back east. Perhaps he thought this was his ticket back to bricklaying. Brigham responded by saying he would be happy to provide assistance to a fellow church member. Richard, however was still an unbaptized heathen, so the church refused to help.

That was the straw that broke the camel’s back, both for Richard and his wife. She left the church, too, but they didn’t have the resources to head back to England. She, too, was stuck.

Not long after this experience, Brigham Young called on the entire Foster family to head up north and colonize the Bear Lake area, which was right along the Utah/Idaho border. They said yes, pulled up stakes, and headed north, all except Richard and Maria, who stayed in Salt Lake and told Brigham Young to stick it.

One summer, their son John Foster, the accused pyromaniac responsible for the whole predicament, was sent to live with his cousins in Bear Lake. He was past the age of 8, around which time respectable children were baptized, but he was still quite unaffiliated, which caused much consternation among his devout Foster relatives. So he joined the Church, much to the surprise of his family upon his return home.

Perhaps out of latent respect, or maybe out of sheer spite, Richard didn’t try to undo what the Fosters had done. On the contrary, Richard told John F. that now that he was a member, he was going to have to live like one.

He never got baptized himself, but Richard was scrupulous in making sure that his son paid tithing, attended his meetings, and stayed active, which he did throughout his life. He was the only child of Richard and Maria who had any connection to the Church, and he went on to become a prominent and prosperous businessman. Maria Foster became an alcoholic and died estranged from the Church, and the rest of her children lived relatively ignominious lives. John F.’s wife Rose later remarked that her husband was “the only member of that family that was worth the price of a bullet.”

John Foster was my father’s grandfather. I owe my legacy of faith largely to him.

Richard, therefore, was my great-great grandfather. I owe my geographical location to the fact that he cheerlessly followed his wife around the world, burned up his money, and then told Brigham Young to stick it.

On Being Hated

Thinking about my previous hatred essay, I came to realize that I’m usually on the receiving end of the whole hate thing. I’m somewhat impressive in the sense that over the course of my life, more than a few folks have hated me with a burning passion. Something about me inspires pure loathing that can last for years, even decades.

Case in point: For most of my childhood, I was in a performing arts group in LA called the Kids of the Century that sang at state fairs and such. We traveled to most of our gigs in rented buses, and Hank and Sheila – not their real names – used to share a seat near the front and proceed to make out in front of everybody. They were one of those gross, cutesy couples with the pet names and the Eskimo kisses and the slobbering. Always the slobbering. Being an insecure adolescent, and probably being somewhat jealous because I wasn’t making out with anybody either in public or in private, I mocked them every chance I got. I don’t remember what methods I used, but knowing me, I was probably pretty annoying.

Fade out, fade in. Several years after high school, I went to a Kids of the Century concert, only to see Hank and Sheila, now a happily slobbering married couple, sitting two rows behind me. It made me smile to see them again. I went up to them at intermission. Hank was very friendly, and we chatted amiably, but Sheila wouldn’t speak to me. When she saw me coming, she made a point of standing up and dramatically stalking off in a huff. I was unable to take a hint, so I caught up with her, but she still wouldn’t speak to me. She wouldn’t look at me. And all I was trying to do was say hello. I went back to Hank, who sheepishly told me that Sheila still hadn’t forgiven me for the way I’d made fun of her all those years ago, and she still talked about me with venom in her voice.

Keep in mind – I hadn’t seen Sheila for probably close to a decade. I hadn’t been talking about her. I hadn’t thought about her. Yet after all this time, she was, in the words of the Scottish poet, “Gathering her brows like gathering storm/Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.”

It was a bad scene.

I’m not justifying my adolescent behavior. I’m saying that, by keeping that hate alive for so long, she did herself a whole lot more damage than she did me.

To sum up: Languatron comes by it honestly.

Learning from Larry

I feel very sorry for Senator Craig. His career is over and his reputation is shot, not necessarily because of what he did but, rather, what he’s doing now. His revisionist explanations of the events in question are more than pathetic. He attributes his footsie with the guy in the stall next to him to his “wide stance” as he takes a dump? Please. For under-the-stall foot contact to occur naturally, Craig would have to poop with his legs at close to a 180-degree angle. Women who give birth don’t have that wide a stance.

Still, I should probably be grateful. Prior to the events of this past week, if I had wanted to solicit anonymous gay sex in a public restroom, I would have been at a complete loss as to how to do it. Now, thanks to Larry Craig, I’ve learned far more than I ever wanted to know on the subject.

Which raises the question: how did Senator Craig learn all this?

Think about it. These aren’t skills you just pick up at a seminar somewhere, especially when you’re a public figure who has to lie to those closest to you to keep your secret tightly under wraps. Yet Craig was quite accomplished at the signals necessary to get what he wanted, which suggests he’s probably had plenty of practice. Never mind why he did it. How did he know what to do?

I’m a well-educated guy with a Master’s degree, but the longer I live, the stupider I feel. Even in the realms of heterosexual, male/female interaction, I’ve made an utter fool of myself more times than I can count. I’m not sure if I ever made the right moves, or if I even know what the right moves are. My wife would have to tell you whether or not I’ve learned anything over the years. (And if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather you didn’t ask her.)

This problem extends to areas well beyond romantic relationships. For instance, I don’t think I could become a heroin addict even if I wanted to. Where would I go to find heroin in the Salt Lake City area? How much would it cost? How could I get the stuff and avoid arrest? And once I got it, how would I go about injecting it into my veins? There are clearly people who do this over a long period of time, but I have no idea where they get their information. I doubt Google would be much help.

Now I admit that this is just idle curiosity. All things considered, I’d rather not have gay sex or become a heroin addict. But I’d venture that almost 90% of everything I do on a daily basis wasn’t taught to me in a classroom setting. I’ve ruined two ceilings by “fixing” toilets directly above them. I’ve destroyed computers, clothing, furniture, musical instruments, lawns, cars, air conditioners, and credit ratings because of my woeful ignorance and complete lack of mechanical skills. Maybe if they taught me how to a mow a lawn in high school, I wouldn’t run over so many sprinkler heads. Maybe I should have taken auto shop instead of trigonometry.

Except I don’t remember any trigonometry, so it’s pretty much a wash.

On Hating

My six-year-old son hates school. At least, that’s what he screams on a regular basis. “I hate school! I HATE IT! I HATE IT!” He repeats this mantra every night before going to sleep. There’s usually some flailing involved, too. You get the idea.

Now I don’t think he really hates school. He’s all smiles when he comes home, and he looks forward to meeting his friends every day. Besides, hatred is hard work. It takes concerted effort, and, quite frankly, he’s a lazy kid by nature. I don’t think he’s up to it.

I know I’m not.

I’ve hated bosses and I’ve hated obnoxious actors and I’ve hated girls who done me wrong. But it never sticks. The last time I made the effort to really hate somebody over a long period of time was back in college. They were my dance teachers – the Landrums.

Bill and Jacqui Landrum.

They were pure evil, and I hated them with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns. Especially Bill.

Not that they cared. They’re big time choreographers in Hollywood – the last time I saw their name in the credits was for the movie “O Brother! Where Art Thou?” They’re both successful and confident, and my hatred didn’t faze them in the least. That’s how it works, you know. The hater damages nobody but himself, while the hated go on blissfully without caring. As my old boss used to say, hatred corrodes the container it’s carried in.

Initially, the Landrums and I got along well, despite the fact that he was this faux-European snooty guy who looked like an emaciated Arnold Schwarzenegger, and she was a forty-something Fran Drescher type who looked she’d had her face shellacked. I was a crappy dancer, and they were freaks, but I could live with that.

The famous – infamous?- Bill Landrum moment was when he was showing us the correct dance move to open and close our arms.

“You cannot just open thim like some veectim,” he would say with his untraceable Germanic/Mexican accent. “You must be a king! You must say ‘hello!’ “ And on ‘hello,’ he would snap his fingers, slap his pelvis with both hands, and then thrust out his arms and his ‘jewels’ with power and authority, all the while saying “Hello! These are my jewels! You don’ like them? I take them back!” And then he would snap his fingers again, withdraw his arms and pelvis quickly, and then bow his head with ludicrous solemnity. (At least, that’s how we all did it when we imitated him ad nauseum.) He was quite a character, that Bill Landrum, and I actually liked him once. (I didn’t like his jewels, though.)

I remember the exact moment when I turned on the Landrums. They had come to see a show in which I sucked out loud. It was Noel Coward’s witty one-act play “We Were Dancing,” and I played a zombie in it. The script didn’t call for a zombie, but I played one anyway. Bill told me my performance was “unacceptable.” And he was right. And I knew he was right. But I didn’t want to hear it.

So I had two choices. I could have sucked it up and gone on with my life, or I could hate him.

Two roads diverged in the wood, and I, I took the one that let me hate Bill Landrum with the white hot intensity of a thousand suns. The whole experience gave me an enlarged capacity for petulance that has not served me well in these subsequent years. Were I to meet them today, I’d apologize and try to bury the hatchet. But I’d probably still think they were loons.

Back then, though, I was far less enlightened. I devised a whole host of ways to irritate them, particularly Bill. I remember once he told us to hold out our arms at our sides so we could just barely see our hands in our peripheral vision. Like a jackass, I stretched out my arms out at well over a 180-degree angle, far too widely to be seen in my periphery. Bill came up to me and said something like “Jeem, you can’t see your hands!” And I said “Yes, I can! See?” And then I wiggled my right-hand fingers, as if to cutely wave “hellloooo!” Bill, flummoxed, just said “Fine. You’re special,” and walked away in a self-righteous huff.

The nastiness increased, and so did the audacity of my defiance. I remember when we all had to stage our own dances, and I did mine accompanied by PDQ Bach’s classic “Little Bunny Hop Hop Hop.” I hopped like a bunny and hit myself over the head with a cardboard tube. I’m not sure I kept a straight face, but they sure did. They were less than pleased.

And then, of course, there was the infamous moment that I will never forget, even though I wasn’t there to witness it. I had stopped going to their class by this point, but my crank-calling Esteemed Colleague I mentioned two days ago showed up at my invitation and, after dropping my name and asking if I was there, proceeded to dance to the carnival music coming out of his own boom box. When confronted, he introduced Bill to a little stuffed raccoon and said “Say hello to my little raccoon.” Bill wasn’t interested. After being forcibly and profanely ejected, My Esteemed Colleague opened the door again, and his little raccoon, a wind-up toy, came scurrying across the floor.

The next hour, I arrived at Landru’s class a minute or two late, and everything came to a screeching halt as my friends turned and stared at me to say, almost in unison, “Uhhh, Jim – what the HELL was THAT?!!” One classmate said, “At first, it was just kind of surreal, but when he came back the second time, we thought he might have a bomb.”

I’ve enlisted My Esteemed Colleague’s peculiar talents for equally baffling stunts in later years. When Tuacahn came to LA for auditions for our 2001 season, I asked him to come and audition. The season was as boring and white bread as humanly possible – “Oklahoma!” and “The Sound of Music” – and he came in and did this wild improvised monologue about ball bearings that were running through his veins. He then burst into song, singing something of his own composition with the lyrics “You don’t believe in the Prime Directive? How did you ever get into Starfleet?” There was some pseudo-dancing and writhing involved, too. I had to leave the room because I was laughing so hard, mainly at the stony faces of the other producers and directors who had no idea what to make of this guy. When I came back in, I instantly offered him the role of Captain Von Trapp, which nearly gave the director of “The Sound of Music” a heart attack.

I’m sorry, what were we talking about again?

On Request: Weird Mormon Stuff

It looks like I’m taking requests now.

I received the following message at one of the various goofy billboards I frequent.

Do you take requests for your blog? If so, I’d like to read something by you on a particular aspect of Mormonism. The concept that we are in essence training to be gods of our own worlds which we create. I find this so fascinating, and I’m surprised whole books haven’t been written about it.

This concept poses so many interesting questions.

Yes, it does, but it’s a whole lot more boring than that. Church would likely be more exciting if it were a series of “God training sessions” where we landscape planets and divvy out Spock ears. Instead, the “training” we receive is how to be more like Christ, which is essentially the same kind of training that most Churches provide for their members. The idea is that through Christ, we can become, in Biblical terms, “heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ” ( Romans 8:17 ) The mechanics of this inheritance – planets and solar systems and such – are rarely, if ever, discussed.

For instance, if people who have died have since become gods of their own worlds, do these worlds represent extraterrestrials? Or are their worlds in some seperate reality?

Probably the former, although I’m not sure if I understand the distinction. Certainly they would exist in worlds apart from this one, as Mormon scriptures state the following:

“And worlds without number have I created; and I also created them for mine own purpose; and by the Son I created them, which is mine Only Begotten.” (Moses 1:33)

I think traditional Christian theology, which also posits the existence of heaven and angels and things not of this earth, would be more likely to view these things as existing in a separate reality, whereas Mormons have the audacity to locate God and His creations within time and space.

Would any potential extraterrestrials then owe humans fealty since we become their gods?

That’s not how it works. The fundamental unit of the gospel is the family. Your father on Earth is the father of your body, but God is the father of your spirit. We will always be subject to Him, and we will always be part of his family. Those on other worlds He has created are His children, too, and He will always remain their God. In crude terms, we don’t get to muscle in on His territory.

Do Mormons then believe in the possibility of extraterrestrials?

Yes, although Joseph Smith has said that “there are no angels who minister to this earth but those who do belong or have belonged to it.” That would seem to preclude a lot of traffic between worlds. In addition, Mormon theology suggests that these other worlds are very much like this one, since, like Earth, they are inhabited by the children of God. From my perspective, that doesn’t leave a lot of room for flying saucers and bug-eyed monsters.

And since people will one day become gods, which means there will be more than one, does that make Mormonism a form of polytheism?

That’s the accusation, but it’s misleading.

There are two distinct ideas that invite the “Mormons are polytheists” label. The first is that Mormons reject the traditional definition of the Trinity, which states that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are all the same person, or, at least, that they are three people and one person at the same time, or of the same “substance.” The traditional creeds define this one-in-three, three-in-one relationship as inherently incomprehensible, which is fine by me, because it makes no sense at all. To my mind, the Trinity is a shortcut; it allows Christians to affirm their Monotheism and still acknowledge three different Gods, but it does so by an indefinable intellectual fiat.

Mormons believe that these three are, in fact, three distinct people, and all three can rightfully be called God. However, they also believe these three are infinitely more alike than they are separate, and that all three are completely united in purpose, power, and authority. There aren’t three separate agendas in play, and each member of the Godhead can speak for the other. In that sense, the Father is the only God, since both the Son and the Holy Ghost exist solely to do His will. So, despite objections by Trinitarians, we’re essentially monotheists in terms of how we worship.

This, however, is a bit of a tangent from your question. The second concept that gets Mormons into trouble, which is the one you raise, is that if people can go on to become like God, then there must be a number of Gods, perhaps an infinite number, who are distinct from the God who is our Father. This is more or less accurate. It’s essential to note, however, that we will never cease to be subject to our own Father and God, so the existence of these other Gods and other families has no bearing on our own faith and religious fealty. Some have more accurately defined Mormons as “henotheists,” which means devotion to a single God while acknowledging the existence of other gods.

Is this the purpose of the possibility reincarnation?

No. Mormon doctrine rejects the idea of reincarnation entirely. We do believe in an infinite soul with no beginning and no end, but the trajectory of that soul is linear, not circular. Nobody gets born into mortality more than once.

That each life we live is a class in the school of Earth, and we become gods when we graduate?

Kind of. Mortality is very much a “testing ground,” but what we’re learning isn’t necessarily how to govern planets. It’s how to be more like Christ. And, I should note, it’s a test all of us ultimately fail without Christ’s sacrifice.

Since the Mormons believe that God resides on Kolob, is the God of either Kolob or Earth formerly a mortal being who similarily achieved godhood after living many lives and graudating?

Take out the “many lives” part and you’ve got the gist of it, although we don’t know the details. One church leader penned the couplet “As man is, God once was. As God is, man may become.” He didn’t elaborate beyond that.

Incidentally, that couplet was lifted by “Battlestar Galactica” in the second part of the “War of the Gods” episode.

What is the God/Earth/Kolob relationship? What is Kolob like? Where is it, do astonomers know? If so, why haven’t Mormons suggested aiming Hubble there? If they did, is there hubble telemetry of Kolob?

We don’t know jack-diddly about Kolob, other than the fact that it’s a star, not a planet, and it’s the star “nearest unto the throne of God.” (Abraham 3:2-3) A handful of Mormons who are loonier than me have made some wild guesses as to where or what it is, but there’s just not much hard info.

How did the Mormons develop this belief?

Mormons believe that the era of revelation didn’t end with the original apostles. These doctrines are all the product of modern revelation to modern prophets.

Didn’t the Mormon faith pre date the popularization of the idea of beings on other planets?

Probably. Joseph Smith was talking about this stuff back in the 1830s.

Anyway, I’d like to see you tackle this on your blog.

How’d I do?

The Lost Art of the Crank Call

In these times of strife and tumult, I lament the fact that my own children are growing up in a world where caller ID has effectively destroyed the art of the prank phone call.

We called them “crank calls,” although “prank” is a more accurate but less alliterative description. I began with the old standards: “Is your refrigerator running?” and “Do you have Prince Albert in a can?” (It was years later when I finally learned that Prince Albert is a chewing tobacco. This call was usually less than successful, but crank call etiquette demanded that you at least make the attempt.)

I was satisfied with my Prince Albert-level crank skills until about the 6th grade, when I met An Esteemed Colleague who showed me the true potential for the havoc you could wreak with a simple phone call. Under his expert tutelage, I helped my My Esteemed Colleague hound an innocent man into utter madness, ultimately destroying him – or, at least, forcing him to change his phone number.

His crime? He answered the phone with a cheerful “Howwwwdy!” It was funny.

We called him Joe Howdy. We never spoke when we called, although My Esteemed Colleague once taped Joe Howdy and played his own words back to him, so that he could say “Howwwdy!” to himself. High comedy. When Joe finally changed his number after we had called him umpteen times and hung up, we combed the phone book trying to find out what the new number was. The problem was that he wasn’t listed as Joe Howdy, so we had to find his number, match it with his real name, and then call information to find out what it was. We even tried calling information to backwards engineer the process, yet no operator was willing to tell us the name of a person if we could only provide a phone number. We’re lucky we weren’t slapped with a restraining order.

Our other methods were less harassing. My Esteemed Colleague would call people and tell them there was a problem with their phone system and demand that they scream their phone numbers into the receiver to calibrate the sound. Other times, he would call and ask if the household received their gift subscription to Reader’s Digest. If they hadn’t, My Esteemed Colleague would profusely apologize. Then, to make sure they didn’t miss out on the latest issue, he would read it to them over the phone until they got bored and hung up.

As phone technology improved, so did the crank calling methods. Conference calling allowed us to call two random people simultaneously and listen in as they argued between themselves, sometimes fiercely, as to who called whom. This didn’t work very often, because it required both parties to answer the phone at almost exactly the same time. But when it did work, boy howdy! (Not to be confused with “Joe Howdy.”)

You would think that puberty would have taken care of the crank call fetish, but it only expanded our ambitions – and My Esteemed Colleague was always several steps ahead of me. He once called right-wing loon Wally George’s talk show to expound upon the “wheat substitute” called “hosla” being developed by UCLA scientists. George hung up on him quickly, but only after berating him mightily and triggering a loud explosion sound over the radio.

He later called a radio program called Loveline to complain about his girlfriend, who was too “stiff” and “unyielding.” He kept the pseudo-psychologists on the phone for a solid two or three minutes before confessing that his girlfriend was, in fact, a cardboard box. He then yelled the word “Scrotum!!!” into the phone, but the tape delay dumped it before it got on the air.

When I went to USC and he went to Dartmouth, we had limited resources to speak to each other, because long distance calls were expensive, and the Internet was only a crazy dream. So, as a cheap means of communication and/or entertainment, he would call me collect every so often, but never with his own name. Back then, collect calls weren’t automated, so I would receive a call from an operator saying something like “Collect call from “Rat In A Box Nuggets,” will you accept?” As we had arranged in advance, I would always decline, but I’d do so with a chuckle. My favorite was the collect call I received from “Frog Hopkins Joe Joe Joe Joe.” Ahhh, good times. Those are joys my own children will never know.

I shouldn’t complain. The Internet allows a new outlet for anonymous stupidity, and it’s one I have used to great effect. Still, even the Internet has gotten more sophisticated. Once upon a time, my sister used to go into lesbian chat rooms on AOL and write stuff like “I think women should stay home and take orders from men,” and then sit back and watch the flames commence. Now such boorishness gets ignored or filtered out. Yet, incredibly, there are still ways to annoy, to bother, and to waste time. As one door closes, another door opens.

It’s just tragic that, on the telephone, Prince Albert has finally been let out of his can.

Andrew Fogelson’s Magic Kiss

So I’m watching the extras on the “Superman: The Movie” DVD, and up pops Andrew Fogelson, billed as head of marketing for Warner Brothers from 1978-1980. Suddenly, in my mind, I’m back at Calabasas High School; the year is 1985, and Andrew Fogelson is not happy with me.

Calabasas High School is nestled in a corner of the San Fernando Valley, and it boasts such illustrious alumni as Ricky Schroeder and Erik Menendez. (I knew Ricky Schroeder, but not well. I don’t think I ever met Erik Menendez, though, but that’s OK, because Erik Menendez kills people.) Other alumni include Stallion Cornell and Andrew Fogelson’s two sons. One of those sons shared the stage with me in the Calabasas High School production of “The Music Man,” a show in which I was cast in the lead as Professor Harold Hill.

Some background: “The Music Man” is the story of a traveling salesman – that Harold Hill guy – who goes from town to town and sells the locals all the instruments and uniforms necessary to create a first-rate boys band. He does so by promising, in turn, to stick around and teach the band how to play. The problem is that he “don’t know one note from another,” and he skips town with his money before he has to lead the band. However, in the course of the play, Harold Hill falls in love with Marian, the local librarian, and refuses to leave, even when he’s about to be exposed as a fraud. The best line in the show is when Hill tells Winthrop, the librarian’s young brother, why he’s sticking around.

“For the first time in my life,” he says,” I got my foot caught in the door.”

He’s then handcuffed and dragged before the town council, where he discovers that the angry residents are preparing tar and feathers. When all is lost, the boys band unexpectedly shows up, all decked out in their uniforms, and they stumble their way through the Minuet in G, which, as unpolished and discordant as it is, still impresses the children’s parents, who forgive Hill everything, and everyone lives happily ever after.

The Music Man is one of the musical theatre classics – a hokey old masterpiece that still gets pulled out of mothballs every year by high schools all across the country.

Our version was originally supposed to be directed by some artsy woman who’s name I don’t recall, but she was summarily replaced when Andrew Fogelson, the big time Hollywood producer of such cinematic tours de force as “The New Kids” and “Just One of the Guys”, deigned to step down from his lofty studio pedestal to grace us lowly high school weenies with his presence. He had never directed anything, as far as I knew, but he was a Hollywood bigwig, and that was enough to recommend him as the new director of “The Music Man.”

From the outset, it was a disaster.

Fogelson arrived at the first read-through with his very own entourage, which consisted of several leathery-faced woman who paced up and down the room smoking cigarettes. Put simply, they were script doctors. It was their job to “update” “The Music Man” to give it a hip, Eighties sensibility. They did this by adding a couple of hemorrhoid jokes and butchering the ending, thereby destroying the entire integrity of the piece.

It was decreed that the new, hip, 1985 ending would replace the “foot caught in the door” line with an all-new, ridiculously craptastic speech that began as follows:

“Tell me, Winthrop – have you ever heard about the Magic Kiss?”

I was then supposed to tell this cock-and-bull story about the Legend of the Magic Kiss, which I don’t remember – it probably involved elves or vampires or something. Anyway, the gist of the thing was that sometimes people got magic kisses that made all their dreams come true and set the whole world right and made lollipops and rainbows fall out of the sky. This provided the set-up for the actual Magic Kiss, which Marian the Librarian plants on me just as I try to lead the boys band at the end of the show. After the kiss, the band inexplicably plays with perfect virtuosity; I become the triumphant hero, and everyone with an ounce of common sense works very hard to keep their brains from exploding.

It was flat-out awful.

The Magic Kiss demonstrated that this Fogelson guy had absolutely no respect for the material he was directing and even less understanding of the principles that made “The Music Man” such a success in the first place. The original ending was consistent with the show’s basic themes – it was a gentle valentine to the small Iowa town where the author, Meredith Willson, had spent his own childhood. This Magic Kiss drivel was a bizarre, insulting non sequitur – the equivalent of having Harold Hill team up with Batman at the end of the show to go cruise for chicks. Which is a pretty good idea, now that I think of it.

Anyway, I made it clear, in my surly, I’m-16-years-old-so-I-know-everything manner, that I was not pleased. When my direct pleas to forego the changes fell on deaf ears, I tried to stir up an insurrection among fellow cast members. When that proved ineffective, I was reduced to making as many snide little comments during rehearsal as possible. My favorite was when the choreographer said something like “There’s no reason this show shouldn’t reek of professionalism!” and I shot back with “Oh, there’s no question it’ll reek.”

Yes, I was a jerk. But I still think I was right.

I should have been fired and replaced, but, to his everlasting credit, Fogelson put up with my whining, and we forged an uneasy truce as we slogged ahead. The one thing he didn’t do was actually rehearse the magic kiss scenes until about two days before the show opened. He didn’t want to give me a chance for more subterfuge until the last possible moment.

I remember that fateful night as if it were yesterday. Fogelson was about ten feet in front of the stage, pacing nervously. He was carrying a portable microphone in one hand and a mini-speaker attached to said microphone in the other. He barked orders through this tiny box with relentless impatience and a barely contained fury.

As I recall, I was going out of my way to make sure life wasn’t easy for him.

The entire cast was onstage for the final scene of the show. Everyone watched as, at the appointed time, I strolled over to Marian the Librarian so she could, for the first time, pucker up and magically smooch me. This would have been an awkward moment even if the script hadn’t sucked, since I was 6’4” tall, and I had to lean down and kiss my 5’ 2” leading lady. I was in handcuffs and I couldn’t grab her in a Gone-with-the-Wind style clinch, so I had to stoop downward like some lobotomy patient for no reason other than to reach her enchanted lips. I was like a handcuffed giraffe making out with a penguin. If only the magic kiss had provided her with 12-inch lifts!

Anyway, I went through the motions with the least amount of enthusiasm possible, and everyone knew it. I rolled my eyes, mumbled my lines, and smirked my way through the whole thing, and I think we did it a couple of times that way before Fogelson lost it.

“No! NO! NO!!!” he shrieked, his voice amplified by his tinny little sound system. “I have HAD IT! I have ABSOLUTELY HAD IT!” He was seething now, and the little drops of sweat were beading up on the top of his bald-yet-very-tan scalp.

He allowed himself a moment to dramatically gather himself before walking up to the stage and motioning me in to speak with him face to face.

“Now you listen to me,” he snarled. He spoke in a low, unamplified voice, but it was still loud enough for the rest of the room to hear, and every word was punctuated with a steely, controlled rage.

“You’re going to do it again,” he said, matter-of-factly. Oh, how he would have liked to rip my head right off of its neck! “You’re going to kiss her,” he insisted, “and you’re going to love it. You’re going to pretend it’s the greatest kiss you or anyone else has ever gotten. You’re going to do it right. And you’re going to stop putting me and everyone else through this crap. Do you understand me?”

I nodded sheepishly, and I went back and took my mark. All the breathing in the room seemed to stop. Dozens of onlookers waited anxiously to see what I was going to do next.

The scene began. I dutifully loped over to Marian, bent over, and kissed her on the mouth.

I paused.

Then I threw my hair back, raised my arms, and shrieked “HOT DAMN!!!” at the top of my lungs.

Andrew Fogelson threw down his microphone and box on to the hard linoleum floor, which made a loud “SCRONCH” sound as he stormed out of the room.

I don’t remember much after that. I know he must have come back in and the rehearsal went on, because I ended up performing that stupid scene during the two-week run of the show, and in retrospect, the 1985 Calabasas High School production of The Music Man was actually not that bad. The hemorrhoid joke worked, too.

But I made damn sure that Hollywood producer Andrew Fogelson would never hire me for a role in “Just One of the Guys II.”

Mormons Aren’t Victims

In the state of Missouri, up until 1976, it was legal to shoot a Mormon on sight.

Actually, it probably wasn’t, because more recent murder statutes would have taken precedence over the so-called “Extermination Order” issued in 1838 by then-Governor Lilliburn Boggs. That order read, in part, as follows:

The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary for the public peace.

In terms of practical application, by the late 20th Century, the order was little more than a silly “blue” law, like laws against spitting on Sunday or whistling past graveyards. No one was shooting Mormons in Missouri in 1976. But the Extermination Order was still on the books.

Those not of my faith may not have heard this before. They may not know how many times the Mormons were driven from their homes or how many saw their own children murdered before their eyes. They may not know of the cities and temples they had built with their own hands at great personal sacrifice, only to have them razed to the ground by bloodthirsty mobs. They may understand that the Mormons wound up in Utah because they fled the United States, where President Martin Van Buren had told them “your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you.” They slogged West to find a place where, in Brigham Young’s words, “the devil can not dig us out.” They settled in the desert of the Salt Lake Valley because, frankly, it was a place that no one else wanted. (Having lived through many a Salt Lake winter, I can see why.)

Mormons tell these stories among themselves, but they do so without bitterness or resentment. It’s part of our history, and we’re proud of our ancestors who sacrificed so much to preserve our faith. At the same time, we try to look forward and not backward.

The Latter-day Saints who braved the elements to cross the plains in the mid-eighteenth century sang a song that is still popular among modern LDS congregations. It’s called “Come, Come, Ye Saints.”

Some excerpts:

Come, come, ye Saints, no toil nor labor fear;
But with joy wend your way…

Why should we mourn or think our lot is hard? 
’
Tis not so; all is right…

We’ll find the place which God for us prepared,
Far away in the West,
Where none shall come to hurt or make afraid;
There the Saints will be blessed.
We’ll make the air with music ring,
Shout praises to our God and King;
Above the rest these words we’ll tell–
All is well! all is well!

Most of the people who sang this song had suffered horribly as a result of manmade and natural disasters. But, like Job, they refused to curse God and die. They chose, instead, to sing of joy and celebration.

In other words, this is not the song of victims.

I offer this as information as a historical context for those of you who might be tempted to see the new movie “September Dawn,” which opened in theatres two days ago. The movie dramatizes the horrific events surrounding the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857, in which 120 innocent people were butchered by a handful of Mormons who may have sung the song but not absorbed its lessons. They weren’t interested in wending their way with joy. They were frightened and paranoid. They had suffered; they wanted someone to pay. So they did an utterly evil thing. And, to this day, the wounds from that event haunt the families of both victims and perpetrators alike.

Given the amount of abuse the Mormons themselves suffered, and the thousands of lives lost, it’s remarkable that this one hideous incident of revenge stands unique in Mormon history. You’d think, if terrorist-style massacres were, in fact, rooted in some secret, unspeakably evil Mormon doctrine that these kinds of slaughters would happen more than once every 150 years.

The film, which I have not seen, reportedly attempts to equate Mormons with al Qaeda Muslims, which is exactly wrong. Even in the early days of the Church, the Mormons weren’t interested in retaliation. That’s why they trekked across the plains in the first place. They went West to leave their grievances behind.

It doesn’t matter, really. The movie is getting savaged by the critics, and it is unlikely to set the box office on fire. It’s a bit like the extermination order in 1976 – it’s there, yes, but no one is paying attention to it.

So now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to Church, where I will wend my way with joy with five screaming young’uns who are still angry that I made them bathe this morning.

Spewing stuff since 2007