Solving for X

Dear Will:

We’re doing geometry. Or I should say, Seth is doing geometry. His old man, meanwhile, is staring at a page full of triangles and barely familiar symbols (AB||CD, anybody?) and thinking to himself: “Did I really know this stuff once?”

Probably not. I do remember enough about the ninth grade at Goddard Junior High School to recall my teacher’s name, and I may even have received a reasonably good grade. But I also remember that even before I left high school it was clear to me that I hadn’t really managed to catch the geometry wave. So it is with no small amount of trepidation that I respond to Seth’s desperate request for help with his homework.

I stare dumbly at the page. Nothing clicks. I resort to the standard parent fallback ploy of reading through the textbook in a vain attempt to relearn what once I must have known, but I’m missing the foundation necessary to make the examples comprehensible. So I take to asking Seth questions of my own, and suddenly it is as if Seth were helping me with my homework. His patience wanes.

Then, a breakthrough: I review Question 22 and it occurs to me that it can be solved using algebra. Algebra! I remember algebra! I think I can even DO a little algebra! Clearly more excited than Seth, I set to work, cross-multiplying happily and even deploying something I think we used to call the FOIL method. I proceed a little awkwardly, with uneven jabs and starts, but before long it’s clear that I have calculated my way to the right answer. And I can prove it! Alas, Seth has long since given up on me and headed off to get ready for bed. I consider high-fiving myself but think better of it.

Still, I’m amazed. I learned my algebra from Mr. Burgess almost 40 years ago. Nevertheless, there was the FOIL method (or whatever it was called), tucked somewhere in the folds of my brain, waiting to be teased out of hiding during an hour of father-son bonding over homework. And the rules that applied when I was learning algebra in 1973 or 1974 still apply today. If I had been given that same problem by Mr. Burgess, x would have equaled 14.5, just as it does tonight.

That’s the singular beauty of math—or, at any rate, the kind of math that an English major like me can understand. There is always a right answer. In just about every other discipline there is an element of subjectivity, so that personal preference or judgment or opinion play an important role in determining what’s right or what’s true. And that truth might change as new theories are tested and new facts established. But with math, 2+2 will always equal 4, today and tomorrow and for generations to come.

There are other absolute truths much more important than those that govern algebra, of course. The existence of God, for instance, and our divine relationship to Him. The eternal purpose of life and the Plan that governs all human existence. The divine Sonship of Jesus Christ. These things are absolute, unchanging and unaffected by one’s personal opinion or belief. And just as the laws of mathematics can be proven, so can the eternal truths I’ve mentioned.

Years ago, Spencer W. Kimball gave a discourse (highly recommended) in which he said the following:

We learn about these absolute truths by being taught by the Spirit. These truths are “independent” in their spiritual sphere and are to be discovered spiritually, though they may be confirmed by experience and intellect (see D&C 93:30). The great prophet Jacob said that “the Spirit speaketh the truth. . . . Wherefore, it speaketh of things as they really are, and of things as they really will be” (Jacob 4:13).

The prophet Moroni put it even more simply: “And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things” (Moroni 10:5). All things. Absolutely.

Except for maybe geometry. I’m still not so sure about that stuff.


To Be Honest, It Was Up To Him

Dear Will:

My grandparents lived in a large home on a quiet street in a small town in western Wyoming. It was the home my mother grew up in. It had a lovely front entryway which opened into a spacious living room where you would have found the first piano I ever played.

One of my sisters taught me a simple song on that piano (you might know it yourself). It’s played with the knuckles of one hand, only on the black keys. To play it requires no training and even less talent, but I remember how magical it was to produce music from that big, grand piano. I immediately told my mother that I wanted to learn to play.

To be clear, this was not a historic moment in the annals of music. Although I could more or less keep a beat, I wasn’t much of a prodigy. And like any normal, low-talent kid, I didn’t like practicing. I liked the idea of playing the piano, of course; I just didn’t care for the work required to play it well. Although I can still play to this day—and even have come to enjoy it—I never learned to read music well enough that I could ever perform for anyone but myself. Forty years removed from five brief years of lessons, I still play like an eighth-grader who needs to practice more.

Come to think of it, I have just such an eighth-grader right here in my own home. Although we don’t have an entryway and our living room is much more modest than my grandparents’, we do have a grand piano where Seth slumps each day to suffer his way through 15 or 20 minutes of unenthusiastic practice. Occasionally, he might even give off a subtle hint that he would really rather be doing something else. He might pause mid-song, for instance, and say, “I hate the piano” or “I HATE the piano!” or maybe even “I HATE THE PIANO!!” In fact, he goes so far as to set a timer lest he play even one minute beyond his prescribed time. All of which makes him a pretty normal eighth-grader, if you ask me.

Except for this:

On Saturday night my wife and I were sitting in the Carpenter Center during intermission of Musical Theatre West’s production of 42nd Street. (Highly recommended, by the way. Our friend Zach Hess plays one of the leads and he is fabulous.) As we waited for the show to resume (it was around 9:30 p.m.), my phone rang. It was Seth.

“I just realized that I forgot to do my practicing,” he said. “Do I have to?”

Excuse me? What sort of eighth-grader, left home alone on a Saturday night, calls his parents to admit that he has not gotten around to doing the thing he hates the most? A lesser 13-year-old—which is to say, just about any other 13-year-old on the planet—would simply have watched a little more TV and then slipped off to bed, knowing that no one would ever know whether he practiced or not. But not Seth. Throughout his 13+ years of life, he may not have become a concert pianist, but as you can see he has become something much more remarkable than that. Actually, I misstated that. He hasn’t become anything. Rather he has remained that which he has always been: a model of integrity and honor.

As for Saturday night, I was so impressed by his honesty that when he asked Do I have to? I told him it was up to him—at which point he promptly hung up and went back to watching TV. Proving, I suppose, that for all his integrity, he’s still a pretty normal kid.

Makes you kind of proud, to be honest.


Come and See

Dear Will:

When I was in college I had to read The Brothers Karamazov—all 913 pages worth. Because I was taking a full load of classes at the time, I ended up reading the book in daily, 20-page chunks over the course of nine or ten weeks. By the time I got to the end, I could hardly remember how the thing began.

So you can imagine how little I remember today. In fact, the only thing I recall even vaguely is a single chapter—a self-contained short story embedded within the larger narrative—a well-known piece entitled “The Grand Inquisitor.” It’s been 30-some years since I read it (so don’t hold me to this), but as I remember it, the essence of the story is this: Jesus returns to earth during the Inquisition, and in response to his many miracles the religious leaders—get this—sentence him to death. (I know: We’ve heard this before). They don’t really need Jesus anymore, the Inquisitor tells Him. They pretty much prefer life without Him.

Compare that reaction to the one found in the first chapter of the Gospel According to John, wherein we read of how Jesus came to know some of the men who would later become his closest friends and disciples. The passage describes a day on which John the Baptist was talking to a couple of his disciples. As the Lord passed by, the Baptist declared (in reference to Jesus): “Behold the Lamb of God!,” at which point the two disciples left John and went to follow Jesus instead:

Jesus turned, and saw them following, and saith unto them, What seek ye?  They said unto him, Rabbi, (which is to say, being interpreted, Master,) where dwellest thou? He saith unto them, Come and see. . . . One of the two . . . was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first findeth his own brother Simon, and saith unto him, We have found the Messias, which is, being interpreted, the Christ. (John 1:35-41)

I don’t know about you, but I would hate to be that Inquisitor dude—someone so caught up in life-as-I-know-it that I fail to recognize the best thing that has ever crossed my path. How much better to be Andrew, a man who knows a good thing when he sees it, one who is quick to follow good advice, eager to do what’s right, willing to tell others when he has found something worth sharing. Who wouldn’t rather be like that?

Even so, I find myself wondering: When was the last time I dropped everything to follow good counsel? How often have I overlooked or ignored or flat-out rejected an invitation to “come and see”? And when was the last time I made a point to share something truly meaningful and important with a friend?

Well, today I’d like to try to remedy that. Today I want to get in touch with my Inner Andrew and share with a friend something truly meaningful and important: This coming weekend (October 6 and 7) is the LDS Church’s semi-annual General Conference. During that Conference, you can hear from a living prophet of God and 12 real live apostles. They will speak truth and inspiration, the sorts of words that will help lead you to eternal happiness.  You can watch them from your favorite lounge chair, either on the BYU Channel or via a live online stream.

I can’t think of any better way to spend a few hours on a weekend. Come and see.