Poetic Justice

Open Mic

Dear Will:

When my son Luke entered the seventh grade, he chose to attend what was then called the Orange County High School of the Arts, where he remained until his graduation from high school six years later. He loved that school, in no small part because of the extraordinary friends he made there. Luke was part of the creative writing program at OCHSA (now simply OCSA), which required that he participate in 10-12 hours of after-school instruction each week. Those supplementary classes covered playwriting, short stories, essays, poetry, and other writing disciplines. It was marvelous training, both enriching and enlightening. And Luke really enjoyed it. (Well, most of it anyway. Screenwriting was awesome. Modernism? Not so much.)

Every couple of months or so, the school hosted a poetry reading for its students, events which Dana and I attended faithfully. The readings offered a mixed bag to be sure. Several of the students were exceptionally talented, and we always looked forward to hearing their latest writings. But as you might expect, much of what we heard those nights was incomprehensible gobbledygook, filled with rushed expressions of teenaged angst and mystifying allusions to who-knows-what. The first time I attended one of the readings, so much of the work was so poorly written and so poorly read that I maintained a running internal commentary, chuckling to myself, criticizing their turns of phrase, and mentally demeaning them for being so “pretentious.”

Of course, I was the pretentious one. With time and perspective (and no small amount of coaching from my wiser, more understanding son), I came to appreciate just how hard it was for each of those kids to put themselves out there in that way—to experiment with new ideas, painstakingly craft a poem, and then risk derision by sharing it openly with a room full peers and ignorant strangers. In fact, what I came to appreciate most about those readings fills me with wonder even to this day: Those OCHSA kids were unwaveringly supportive of one another—not prone to the cruelty and sarcasm you might otherwise expect of a group of high-schoolers.

Not surprisingly, the lingering consequence of that unwavering support is a web of lifelong friendships—deep, meaningful associations which continue more than a decade since those aspiring writers first started practicing their iambic pentameter on one another. I was reminded of this just a couple of weeks ago when Luke got married and his best of friends were there to support him, many of them “kids” he has known since those earliest days at OCHSA. His “best man”? Paris, a girl he met in seventh grade who remains to this day the best friend he’s ever had.

It’s remarkable to witness such a tangible byproduct of mutual love and acceptance, to see what can be achieved when people are more eager to praise than to criticize. What would happen if we all—consistently—offered one another that same level of support and allowance when we might otherwise be tempted to judge and belittle? How might it change our worship services, for example, if we maintained that attitude during a dull talk or a poorly-prepared lesson? What if we made a habit of mentally applauding those doing a bad job at something we know we could do better? What might become of us as a people if we went out of our way to give one another the benefit of the doubt, to assume that most everyone is doing the best they can? Talk about poetic justice!

I think it would be transformative—an experiment worth trying. Let’s start Sunday.

PW

It’s a Long Time Till Wednesday

Wednesday

Dear Will:

I’m not getting any better at this stuff.

When my daughter Bryn was barely 19, she boarded a plane for New Zealand where she lived and worked for the next two years. Putting her on that Air New Zealand flight was traumatizing, especially as we faced hours and hours of radio silence awaiting word of her arrival. As fatherhood memories go, it is not one I treasure. (Fortunately, it all worked out.) Nevertheless, a year later I found myself once again standing in an airport about to send my daughter halfway round the world. And once again, it was tearful and traumatizing.

So you’d think that I might be building up a tolerance for such things. Alas, it is not so.

Last week my wife Dana and I drove to Utah to deliver Seth (our youngest) to the Missionary Training Center (MTC) in Provo. On Wednesday, July 26, he began his formal preparations to serve full-time in the Argentina Posadas Mission, which straddles the Paraná River as it runs between Argentina and Paraguay. He will be gone for about two years, during which time we will communicate with him principally through once-a-week emails. No big deal, I thought. I’ve known this day was coming his entire life. We can do this.

But on Wednesday at 2:15 pm, he disappeared into the MTC with his two ginormous suitcases filled with white shirts and other missionary essentials. And at 2:16 pm it really hit me: Wait a second. I have to wait till next Wednesday for word from Seth? But I want to know what’s happening RIGHT NOW. That thought has come back to me again and again every day since we said our good-byes. I’m not worried about his welfare (not yet, anyway—he’s in Provo, Utah, after all), but I hate being out of the loop. How does he like his teachers? What about the other missionaries he will be training with for six weeks before they fly to South America? How’s the food? What’s the routine? Has he thought about his over-invested and hyper-agitated father even once since we dropped him off? HOW IS HE DOING?!!?

We will get over it, I suppose; parents always do. But for us first-timers, our previous experiences with Bryn have proved wholly inadequate. Anxious doesn’t even begin to describe our state of distress. Our plight is exacerbated by the fact that Seth’s departure leaves us as empty-nesters for the first time, with no one but Barnum, the Moron Dog, to comfort us. So far it isn’t working.

What does comfort me is this: I know Seth’s cause and I know his heart. And I see firsthand the impact that the gospel of Jesus Christ has on the lives of those who embrace it. Faithless cynics might assert that the Church should keep its beliefs to itself, that traveling the world in search of new members is somehow inappropriate. But I see these things from a very different perspective. As bishop, I have the unique privilege of seeing the lives of new (and longtime) members of the LDS Church from behind the scenes. I see darkness dissipate as people accept the teachings of Jesus and allow His Atonement to lift their spirits and heal their broken hearts. And when that darkness lifts, I see their lives transformed by light as hope, faith and truth inform their choices and fill their beings. It’s glorious.

Seth will offer all of that to the people of Paraguay and Argentina. Most will have no interest. But those who listen earnestly and embrace his message will bless his name forever. If my wife and I have to suffer a little separation anxiety in the interim, it’s a small price to pay.

But do we really have to wait till Wednesday?

PW

How Things Work When They Don’t

antique-vacuum

Dear Will:

When it comes to home maintenance and repairs, I’m what they call in the trades Really Bad At It, or Utterly Useless, for short. You might recall, for example, how I somehow managed to destroy a fairly-new reverse-osmosis system while trying to fix a small leak under the kitchen sink. I could fill this page with other humiliating examples of my ineptitude, but let’s skip over that formality and go directly to this week’s confession: I’ve done it again. The legend continues.

As always, it started out innocently enough: I was simply trying to do a little vacuuming—a low-skill assignment for which even I am qualified. I might even go so far as to claim a certain degree of competence in the field of Automated Dust Removal. But as I was maneuvering out into the upstairs hallway, I became aware that the family Hoover was no longer Hooving. “This thing sucks,” I hollered at my wife, Dana. “It’s supposed to,” she offered cheerfully. “It’s a vacuum cleaner.”

Diagnosing that there must be something obstructing the brush mechanism, I set about disassembling the intake unit. I figured I just had to remove a couple of screws, clear out the obstruction, and put the thing back together. I can work a screwdriver, I thought. How hard can it be? Right? Well, more than a dozen screws later, I finally had it opened.

It took me little time to clean out the brush and intake, but getting the base to snap back into place proved a little trickier—especially when I discovered that a small, metal bracket had joined the loose screws scattered about me. I knew where the bracket belonged, but getting it back into place appeared to defy several physical laws while tenaciously affirming the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Soon I looked like Jim wrestling a crocodile on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. And the croc was winning.

Well, of course I never got the thing back together (see: Thermodynamics, Second Law). Within an hour Dana and I were standing in the aisle at Costco pursuing the only sort of appliance repair that works consistently for me. And then, as fitting punctuation to an evening squandered, we spent most of the time at Costco fingering her iPad and ordering a new vacuum from Amazon instead.

The new machine (not a crocodile, but a Shark®) arrived a couple of days later. Seth offered to take Sharknado out on its maiden run, and when he was done we were shocked to see how much gunk it had managed to collect. Walking around the house afterward, we noted how different the carpet felt—like it was brand new. Hmmm. (Let that thought swirl around your head for a little bit.)

So it turns out the old Hoover really did suck, but unfortunately not in the manner that it was supposed to. Who knows how much grime has been accumulating over the past many months, or how long, for that matter, we had been shuffling around in it? Ewww. So in the end, my failed repair work may have been the best thing that has happened to our carpet since it was installed.

And thus emerges the familiar pattern in another embarrassing tale: Something goes wrong, and in my attempts to make it better I make it much, much worse. But in the end—somehow—I end up far better off than I could ever have been had disaster not struck to begin with. Happens all the time. I’m pretty sure Paul wasn’t thinking about carpet cleaning when he said that “all things work together for good to them that love God” (Romans 8:28), but on the other hand, isn’t it curious how much good comes from the bad stuff we unintentionally make worse? Interesting how that works. Carpet Diem!

PW