My Star Dust Melody

Dear Will:

It just might be that we were the worst tourists in the history of New York City. And if not the worst, then for sure we were somewhere in the Bottom Ten.

We were the ones riding the S51 bus on almost a full loop because we boarded it on the wrong side of the street. We were the ones at 2 a.m. who wandered ourselves into a dead-end and had to escape over a chain-link fence somewhere in a Naval compound on Staten Island. The ones who showed up on Saturday to see Joshua Bell at the Lincoln Center, only to discover that the tickets were for the previous night? That was us too.

The most appropriate symbol of our week in New York would probably include an image of the four of us, standing on a street corner staring dumbly at my cellphone, trying to figure out if we were pointing uptown or down, heading someplace we couldn’t get to without making a connection somewhere else. Our feet ached all the time. We were edgy and cranky, usually disoriented and most always sweaty. When you go to a place like New York, you don’t ever want to be “those people.” Well, we were those people.

Which is why the afternoon we spent on the High Line stands out as a miraculous bit of Divine Intervention, a merciful gift from God to the undeserving. If you’re not familiar with the place, the High Line is a park built on what used to be an elevated train line. It’s mostly a stylized walkway—or maybe a strollway, to be more accurate. And it has a completely different vibe than the city below. It’s calm—calming. For us it offered a soothing break in the action after several days of trying somewhat futilely to get from wherever we were to somewhere else.

And that was even before we heard it, wafting through the air along the platform like a future memory. We had just finished a modest picnic of sandwiches from the Chelsea Market when we heard something beautiful, unmistakable, alluring—familiar and comforting in a way that only a favorite melody in an unexpected place can be. I grabbed my daughter’s arm. “Bryn,” I whispered, “do you hear that?” It was a single soprano saxophone, gently riffing on “Star Dust,” the old Hoagy Carmichael tune that Reader’s Digest once called (with good reason) “the best loved song of the 20th Century.”

The music pulled us down the path toward a lone musician. There was no audience, not so much as a small group of listeners. And yet it was so lovely! Now I’m not ordinarily the sort to do such things, but when we arrived at the place I couldn’t help myself. I reached for Bryn and we started to dance. I’m such a horrible lead and we were in such a public place that I soon lost my nerve, but the impulse was irresistible because the music was so beguiling. We swayed and let the music work its magic as Mitchell Parish’s lyrics slipped easily into mind: “Tho’ I dream in vain, in my heart it will remain: My Star Dust melody, the memory of love’s refrain.”

When the song ended I threw some money in the musician’s hat and thanked him. “That was wonderful,” I told him. “I love that song. Thank you.” He thanked me himself—get this—for blessing his day. Imagine. Remembering it now makes me want to go there again—right now—and simply sit and listen. As I think about it, I definitely should have left more money in that hat.

That experience reminds me of the pledge, learned first as a child but not fully embraced until I became an adult: “If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.” That man and his music were all of those things. Which is as good a reason as I can think of to spend a little time strolling—and listening—and maybe even dancing—seeking something lovely on a Sunday afternoon.


Moving Rocks

Dear Will:

I’m sitting on the deck of a cabin next to Bear Lake, near the border of Utah and Idaho on Highway 89. It’s not a bad way to pass a Sunday morning: the air is cool, the sky is blue and painted with lazy, drifting clouds. Inside the cabin, my sister-in-law is making her signature blueberry pancakes, enough to feed three generations worth of descendants who have gathered to celebrate my in-laws’ 50th wedding anniversary.

My letter-writing proceeds in disjointed bursts. I am easily distracted by various children, the sons and daughters of my nieces and nephews, mostly—the great grandchildren here at this celebration of posterity. The door from the cabin swings open and (sometimes) shut, over and over, as the kids chase each other to and from and around and through the jungle gym here in the yard. I’m amazed that there is hardly any sign of the contention you might expect to see in a schoolyard—the fun is effortless; the laughter comes easily.

It’s remarkable  to observe that these kids are such good friends, to see how they play for hours and hours as if they are Pals For Life. Of course, many of them are— first cousins who know each other well. Others, however, are new acquaintances, but still they demonstrate that mysterious blood-bond that somehow connects relatives who may see each other only briefly every few years or so. Put strangers together and it will take a while for children to tentatively set themselves to play. But bring together cousins for the first time and comfortable familiarity prevails almost immediately.

Susie arrives and I put down the computer. She holds in her tiny fist a wooden car. As she climbs up into my lap, it occurs to me that I only learned her name yesterday. I believe she is my nephew Randall’s daughter, but I am not certain. Her age? One, maybe? On Friday night my buddy was Ethan, a precocious two-year-old (is there any other kind?) who took me by the hand to show me around. He and I spent a happy half hour moving rocks from that pile over there to this pile over here. Ethan belongs to Rob, a nephew whom I haven’t seen since his wedding seven (or so) years ago.

Ethan and Susie and I are tied together by a seemingly flimsy thread: One is the grandchild of my wife’s sister, the other of her brother. And yet the tug of love and connection I feel for them is undeniable. How can that be? What is it about family ties that generates that sort of spontaneous closeness? Why is it that we can see some people at work or in the neighborhood almost every day and hardly know them, but when we see an uncle or a cousin, even for the first time, we become intimate almost instantaneously?

I think the prophet Malachi has part of the explanation. You’ll recall, perhaps, that Malachi talked of multi-generational bonds as being an essential component of God’s eternal plan. He said that one of the vital roles of Elijah the Prophet was to “turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers” (Malachi 4:6). Malachi was making reference to an ineffable pull that stirs within us, causing us to look back over generations and feel a bond with those who came before us and a yearning for our children and their children and their children, for generations to come.

After all, God wants it that way. The First Presidency has said that “the family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children” and that “the divine plan of happiness enables family relationships to be perpetuated beyond the grave.” When we gather as family—at a cabin in the mountains or simply over a pot roast on a Sunday afternoon, we are doing the will of God. And when we put down the computer to play with a wooden car or move rocks from one pile to another, we are answering a call that comes from afar and resonates throughout the eternities.


The Secret Organization of Inanimate Objects

Dear Will:

I have this theory that the seemingly inanimate objects around us are not inanimate at all. In fact, I believe they’re all part of a super-secret syndicate of people-haters. I can’t prove this beyond a shadow of a doubt, but I think there is sufficient circumstantial evidence to suggest that they talk about us behind our backs and even have clandestine meetings while we’re asleep. That they’re out to get us there can be no doubt.

Exhibit A: The Whirlpool Dishwasher, a perfectly serviceable unit which has served us unfailingly for years. Recently it started leaking—almost imperceptibly—enough that you couldn’t ignore it but not so much that we felt compelled to do anything but wipe it up, like sweat from the basketball court after two players tangle fighting for the rebound.

Big mistake. That little puddle was the opening salvo, a shot across the family bow to warn us of potential misery to come. “Give me some love and attention,” the Whirlpool was saying, “or else.” That was it: our momentary opportunity to appease the syndicate with elbow grease, frustration, and several wasted trips to Home Depot. And when we failed to show sufficient care or interest, when we didn’t take things seriously enough, the dishwasher activated the Secret Organization of Inanimate Objects (SOIO) and declared war.

A couple months after it piddled on the kitchen tile, Whirly let loose with a smoke-bomb that stunk up the whole house. The circuit board was completely fried. Next thing I knew I was online researching dishwashers and spending several hundred dollars on a replacement. I even had to reshape the opening under the kitchen counter to accommodate the new one. The war had begun.

So was I surprised last night when my wife’s aging computer refused to boot up properly? Not in the least. Such is the typical escalation of unscheduled expenditures that SOIO unleashes. (They don’t call it SO-I-Owe for nothing, right?) My wife is at the Apple Store right now spending hundreds more that we do not have. All because I was inattentive to the needs of a dishwasher.

Here’s the problem—and it’s a HUGE problem. In my experience, the out-of-budget spending that comes as a consequence of appliance warfare always come in threes. Always. It’s as if that particular stratagem is codified within the SOIO equivalent of The Art of War. These are always the circumstances in which we discover a slab leak or a broken timing belt, when the roof has to be rebuilt or the water heater explodes. Guaranteed. So I’ll be awake into the night worrying about what’s next.

Unfortunately, I know going into it that the next breakdown won’t be the toaster oven. Oh, no. These things always get MORE expensive as they progress. In that sense, the busted computer is supposed to be the THIRD thing, not the second. But it IS the second—which is why I’ve never dreaded a SOIO onslaught more than this one. What’s more expensive than a computer?

Well, put it this way. I’m afraid it may be time to start walking to work.


Jesus said: Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on.  Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them.  Are ye not much better than they?

Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? And why take ye thought for raiment?  Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?

Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat?  or, What shall we drink?  or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? . . . for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.  (Matthew 6:25 – 33)