Pruning

Several times a week, I drive by a real estate business that is set back from a main street. The parking lot, completely asphalted over, allows no room for beauty or style. The only decoration consists of four magnolia trees in front of the building. When the current owners took over, they had the trees pruned. Perhaps I should say hacked, butchered, disfigured. Once stately, the magnolias’ upper limbs were lopped off at the top of the roof. They look like awkward boxes on the heavy trunks. This year, valiantly, there are blooms, the beauty of survival.

My topic today is not what I started with on Friday. Sometimes I’m done writing days ahead. Other times, it comes together with some effort. This time, a complete change was necessary. The pruning image will serve in silence briefly.

When a friend wrote a long Facebook post talking about being hurt, the reason was missing, with a promise to add it later. When the truth was revealed, I was stunned. My friend, who is black, had read a fake post in which a church leader apologized for years of institutional racism. The mood of elation had changed from feelings of relief and joy to horror, sadness, embarrassment at believing—salt on the wound make sense her. Another friend made similar comments, as did others who posted about the events.

What happened was this: A former Mormon wrote the apology, accredited it to the head of the Church,  and then posted it on what looked identical to the Church website for news. The differences were subtle. I’m ashamed to report that he happens to live in Texas. A news article here gives the details, and the only point I’ll bring out is that he wanted to “spark debate.” Here’s where pruning comes in. It works if you know what you’re doing. If you don’t, disaster ensues. Perhaps he was trying to help black members, but the result was that he hurt them. Sometimes profoundly. That’s just bad business.

The timing of the piece is no accident. Last week Church leaders met with NAACP leaders and issued statements encouraging “greater civility and racial harmony.” The anniversary of a 1978 revelation in which the priesthood was extended to all adult males is approaching. An entire section of videos and essays has been added to the church website. The title is simple: Blacks in the Church. It is in that section that many of us need to spend some time.

This passage from Kirstie Ranger-Wayland, a young black woman who grew up in the church, served a mission, and married in the temple catches us: “Some believe that racism doesn’t exist anymore. While I feel the world has made progress, I’ve also felt the sting of stereotypes that some still hold. But I have hope we can continue to progress past racism by recognizing our assumptions and not stereotyping.” That seems so direct. For a number of years, Tamu Smith and Zandra Vranes wrote Sistas in Zion, originally a blog, now a Facebook presence, and worth reading. The trauma discussed after the fake news was revealed resulted in a long video posted on Facebook, but a common theme that several others expressed was a lack of desire to go to church yesterday.

Being oblivious may not be malicious, but it can seem thoughtless. I like to consider myself savvy. Years ago, speaking with a woman who grew up in Mexico, I, too, assumed she was a convert. She proudly said she had grown up in the church, her mother had served a mission and was a Relief Society president, as she herself had been. I would like to say I’d learned my lesson.

A friend told the story of young black girls being asked to go do baptisms at the temple early in the morning before school. White girls just blow dry their hair. (One of my black friends says I have wash-and-wear hair; she won’t travel without an umbrella.) Those girls couldn’t get their hair wet without—literally—either destroying work that had taken hours or spending hours getting it ready for school.

Maybe it is all about assumptions. Maybe if that man in Texas had simply written his letter under his own name, this never would’ve happened. They say people leave the church but can’t leave it alone. He hurt people. Yes, bad business. I hope we don’t, ourselves, by not thinking. I hope we correct others if they are thoughtless, or mean. It may take some courage. It’s the least we can do.

 

Goulash

Goulash is a savory mishmash of meats, vegetables, and spices. I like this definition from Wikipedia: “Its origin traces back to the 9th century to stews eaten by Hungarian shepherds. Back then, the cooked and flavored meat was dried with the help of the sun and packed into bags produced from sheep’s stomachs, needing only water to make it into a meal.” Yummy. Sort of a freeze-dried event apparently. This week, I present a mélange of suggestions from people who have said, “You ought to write about _____.” Resisting the urge to tell them to do it instead, and fearing that I couldn’t fulfill expectations or word count, I’ll try four.

  1. Acknowledging the highway maintenance workers we see and don’t think about. Those men (and yes, 96.8% are, not per Wp but here) keep us safe, build the roads, and risk their lives. While there are long periods of time during which no one seems to be doing anything on I-35 formerly or US 67 currently, the work gets done, and we are grateful. In general, none of us knows how it gets done. Another interesting question someone posed had to do with sewer systems. How do they work? Is it entirely by gravity? Of course, this can be easily answered: Mostly gravity, sometimes elaborate screw devices when there is not enough slope. Basically, it’s like water flowing to the sea, so water patterns via stream beds and such matter. Interesting stuff. We are oblivious until something happens.
  2. Another friend wondered why I didn’t look into the state of retirement these days. Asked if she is retired, she says, “I don’t know.” The question was intriguing. Back in the days when people worked for 40 years, went to their farewell, and died 3.5 years later, you knew you were employed until you weren’t. Now, I see older people working everywhere, not just as Wal-Mart greeters. The Bureau of Labor Statistics chart for ages of American workers in 2017 shows a median age of 42.2. That means half are younger, half older. For specific fields, it skews lower (restaurants, grocery stores) or higher (public administration, religious organizations). Regardless, every field has employees over 65. I know people who didn’t retire until in their 70s and others who have no plans to retire, ever. Since I have now taken on a paying job, I have to balance the rest of life around it. That may mean washing dishes instead of loading them into a shining new dishwasher when I want it delivered Thursday and can’t be here until the following Wednesday, but hey. I just don’t use the word “retired” at all and let it go at that.
  3. German words are easily mocked, in some circles. “Write about that,” someone said. This YouTube takes French, English, Italian, Spanish, and German pronunciations, and the German comes off as, well, harsh. Ambulance vs. Krankenwagen, for example. On the other hand, the German style of combining elements to make elegant and specific terms can’t be done in English. This list includes 20 excellent candidates. The first, Torschlusspanik, literally means “gate shutting panic” but translates as the noun “fear that time is running out to achieve life’s goals.” That’s poetic; others are beautiful or frightening, by turns. On this topic, I have a sweet anecdote. Almost 30 years ago, a friend came to town to see the Georgia O’Keefe exhibit at the Dallas Museum of Art, bringing along a German friend. After I nursed my baby, he sighed and fell asleep. She said there was a German word for that, but she couldn’t remember it. Weeks later, the word—and nothing else—arrived in the mail. I don’t remember the word, but somewhere, in some drawer perhaps, it lies waiting.
  4. Finally, the Boys Scouts are no more, or at least the name will change in February 2019. Lots of discussion, of course. My church is leaving, though not because of the influx of girls. As a world-wide church, it is no longer feasible to include scouting as the young men’s core program, per the official explanation. The New York Times wrote this: “The church had no scouting program for girls. Their church activities usually involved lessons in cooking, grooming, making handicrafts and learning the tenets of the faith, depending on the inclinations of the adults in charge.” Obviously, those people don’t know the girls of the church. I do, and I can promise that any one of them can do anything she puts her mind to, and cooking is not high on the list. Someone on Facebook noted that women rise to high ranks within scouting. Of course. A friend of mine was active on the national level and wrote the books. Troops and dens will be single gender, for those who have this concern. Another friend thought I should talk about the bravery of the church in being politically incorrect. All things considered, this is a sign of the times we are in. Nothing to be done. I wish them well.

So this is my goulash. I learned some things, had some fun. Hope you did too. You can write about that, later. Bon appetit!

f/8 and Being There

Every profession has its ordering principles: A physician must first do no more harm. A teacher believes that telling is not teaching. A writer learns to show, not tell. The phrase “f/8 and be there” comes from the world of photography.  The f/8 has to do with focus and speed. It could be described as the plainest of the choices of stops on an adjustable camera. The “being there” means great pictures often have a serendipitous “in the moment” quality, sometimes referred to as luck.

People have their own insider jokes as well. This one is a favorite as it involves programming logic, about which I know nothing except that “If…then” statements matter.

Recently, I wrote about every group having its snobs. More obviously, every group has its own vocabulary. Not long ago my brother was showing off his new collection of Beatles’ memorabilia which he’d bought thinking he was going to be leasing his house, which was built by Allen Livingston, the man who introduced them to the US with “I Want to Hold Your Hand” through Capitol Records. No, they were never in my brother’s backyard technically, but it is a good story.

His friend, a huge Beatles’ fan, enjoyed the conversation about the various items. Big Mouth Me offers this pearl, “I really don’t know anything about pop music since I stopped listening in about 1967. I’ve only listened to classical since then, really.” On one hand, that’s true. The depth of my ignorance is legendary, and continues to amaze. When Tom Petty died last October, I assumed it was that the NASCAR driver, who turns out to be alive and named Richard.

The friend, nonplused at my attempt at humor, said, “Well, you know, they included many classical elements in their music.” No, I didn’t know. In very fact, one scholar goes so far as to say they saved Western classical music. Howard Goodall, a classical composer in his own right, is not exaggerating when he says they revitalized, reinvigorated a genre that was dying. He explores the history of early 20th century music, explains how the Beatles looked for inspiration in elements people already loved intuitively, and changed pop music in the same process. My understanding of their contribution ended with “She Loves Me.” Sorry, don’t judge me. Watch this video for details; it is amazing. (He doesn’t include one of my favorite modern pieces, John Cage’s 4’32”, a period of silence performed here by the William Marx and here by NOLA the cat. If you must choose, go with the cat. I do understand the importance of silence in music, but…)

We agreed to take time to watch the documentary. What followed was my enthusiastic response, learning about a set of music I knew nothing about but using the vocabulary I had. The friend was perhaps a little astonished that I knew what the guy was talking about and could even anticipate some of the terms before he introduced them. For example, non-musicians know major and minor, but usually only trained musicians know about the term “modes.” The Beatles “Hey Jude” is in the mixolydian mode, for example. Here is a piece a friend had played the night before, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d minor BWV 538, sometimes called the Dorian.

The cool thing to me was that this is my vocabulary, and the friend wondered if I was remembering all this terms from school or what. In fact, these are terms I know and hear daily. The same night before, I’d played Alan Hovhaness’ “Sonata for Ryuteki and Sho,” full of Japanese traditional motifs.

Words. They’re what we have. If you are feeling like you don’t know anything, remember the words/language you know that someone who doesn’t know what you know doesn’t know. You’ll be surprised. My brother and his friend, both photographers, retain hope I will someday grasp that f/8 thing. We shall see.

Going Out on a Limb: A Truth, a Speculation, and Two Tributes

Going out on a limb conjures images of danger. Lost in Space is back, but I don’t think the robot-looking intelligent entity can be as persuasive as the original when it warns Will Robinson. Random opinion. I have three things to say: One I believe is true, the second is entirely speculative and probably isn’t true but has its own poem, and the third involves tributes. Maybe a balancing act would be a more appropriate image (incredibly cool video—I’ve never seen an act like this. We used to watch people balancing plates on Ed Sullivan, but this is amazing.)

The first thing involves our origin. We didn’t have one. Our intelligence or being or whatever you want to call it has always existed. Intelligence—like energy or matter—cannot be created or destroyed. When God tells Jeremiah, “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee,” we get a glimpse of the existence. When Christ responds to the disciples asking who sinned, the man born blind or his parents, Jesus responds that neither had sinned, again suggesting that the man had done nothing before he was born to cause his condition. That we do not remember anything previous should not affect our perception of its truth. If we remembered, then we would not be walking this life by faith.

Part two. Far more complicated. Someone once suggested that we were able to choose our gender, that our intelligences had none, and we were allowed to make that decision. This view is based on nothing that I have seen anywhere. It sounds plausible. We are who we are.

The word “epicene” means without gender. I saw it first when teaching an essay about the incidents in Tiananmen Square from 1989. The protest was long and involved mostly students, with a culmination of sorts in the capital. If you remember anything, it was the person known only as Tank Man, standing defiantly in front of advancing tanks. The essay mentioned an epicene voice over the loudspeaker, telling the protestors to disperse. I had no idea what it meant. The students didn’t realize I didn’t since I followed my grandmother’s dictum: Look it up. We learned together that day, my Latin- and Greek-aided vocabulary slightly wounded.

Here’s the poem, also titled “Epicene.”

Without form or light or time—

without eyes to see,

ears to hear,

without any thing at all—

*mens absque corpore,                                              *mind without body

thought not thing:

 

My epicene I

must have known

that the two opposites—

he and she—

were parts

of a whole,

neither without the other

all

 

Then said

(not saying: an inclination)

I will choose the one

not the other,

in an unknown wisdom

before beginning—

 

For they are either good,

both needed,

but

My epicene I,

if I know the gendered I

I am now,

chose what seemed

the better.

Unpoetically, I want to say that I’d rather be a female person than a male one. I like the other gender, a lot, and in many instances would rather talk to one than to one of my own sex. Femaleness has a wide range, of course. Here we have Nancy Kwan singing “I Enjoy Being a Girl” from Flower Drum Song. It’s a song that’s stuck with me, I think because of the line “A pound and a half of cream upon my face!” Not my thing.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have Mozart’s Queen of the Night, a powerful, cruel woman who’s got some of the best arias in the repertoire. Here Diana Damrau sings “Die Hölle Rache” (“The flames of Hell”) to her daughter, telling her that if she doesn’t kill her mother’s rival, she’ll be disowned. The performance here chills; the Queen’s eyebrows alone would scare young children.

Last week two remarkable women were in the news. Tammie Jo Shults, captain of Southwest Airlines Flight 1380, landed a damaged craft on April 17, 2018. You can listen to the back-and-forth between her, the co-pilot, and the towers here. Lots of folks reported her as having “nerves of steel.” That may suggest a steely demeanor, but I don’t hear that at all. It’s a woman, trained and capable, doing what needs to be done. (An aside—they call passengers “souls,” which I learned in the movie Sully with Tom Hanks.)

On the same day, in the evening, Barbara Bush died at age 92. She’d been married 73 years, longer than most people live. She and Tammie had little in common, superficially. Tammie Shults grew up near an airbase, watching the jets and knowing she wanted to fly. She was a pioneer for female aviators in the Navy. Barbara Bush, born in Manhattan, was the daughter of a prominent publisher who headed magazines such as Redbook and McCall’s. She was anything but demure, but her wit wasn’t acerbic, but wry and smart. My favorite story involves a reporter asking her weight: “Oh, I don’t know…I think about a hundred pounds.”

Deeper, they share the bonds of motherhood and faith, commitment and vision. Both deserve a tribute today.

One final point, and I’ll let you be. As women, we can follow dreams or have a legacy, not because we are better than men, but because we have a unique set of attributes that we bring with us spiritually and mentally. We can be pilots or patricians, we can sing an F above the staff in Mozart or balance a feather on a dozen branches. But we don’t have to be or do any of that, and that is really my point. What wonderful women there are in the world. No matter what we do, we can be wonderful, as well.

One Year: A Retrospective

Bluebonnet Syrup launched a year ago. The plan was to see if I could make a year and then quit. Good attitude? Probably not. Rather than quitting, I’m going to retrospect (no, not a real verb!) and add comments pro and con about a few columns.

In “Tom Sawyer Lives,” the topic is essentially fake news. Or should it be in all caps: FAKE NEWS! Regardless, I think people are more aware of the concept now, what with it being the topic of actual news. Some still post without checking, so I will be the one who Snopes it out. Sorry if it offends…

Someone once said, “Don’t tell me not to worry. Nothing I worry about ever happens.” Yet everyone worries. In “Not to worry,” I discussed my long history with apocalyptic non-happenings. Today happens to be another such date. What luck! In all seriousness, however, do look into emergency preparedness. Last night I watched a long interview with a man who writes about EMPs (nuclear electromagnetic pulse). Our civilization would end in minutes. Maybe I’ve watched or read too many post-apocalyptic offerings. I especially don’t trust the North Koreans who are currently saying, “OK, we quit now.” Just too pat. For real, go to ready.gov for information. Tornado season is upon us, if not nuclear war.

Now for some regrets: “On This We Agree.” I had such high hopes. I met Glenn Beck, who told me to contact his assistant because he was working on something similar. No response. Only, well, nothing. Beck did appear on a new PBS show called In Principle as their first guest; the episode is called “Echo Chambers.” He currently discounts all the goings on in Washington as distraction, suggesting instead that we concentrate on our families, our neighborhoods, and our schools. Sadly, he also thinks we have not hit bottom, with the final depth so low that we will have trouble climbing out. So, what am I doing? Trying to think globally and act locally. Last week I delivered a jar of pickles to someone needing electrolyte replacement. It turned into a meaningful—and I hope helpful—conversation.

On a more positive note was an unexpected favorite, my visit to a car paint shop. In the past year, I’ve had to scramble sometimes to find something to write about. The delight of a positive experience with people who are good at their work always inspires. And the paint I bought has been the best ever. Great news!

The eclipse. I found it hard to understand all the hype at first, the emotion, the excitement. And then I saw it. In my piece I tried to capture some of that confusion. Yes, it was a “You had to be there” experience. On the other hand, I’m looking forward to the next one on April 8, 2024. We can see it easily and well in Texas. I’ll be here, I hope, just older.

In some ways, I think “The Should World is one of the best essays of the lot. Although it’s somewhat harder to define, one of the problems with current politics lies in the insistence that things should be different than they are while discounting the basic realities of human nature. That’s too broad, admittedly. (And I have abandoned the tag “Polite politics” that was to frame these discussions. I won’t give details, but there has been some pain in the last year as well.) A survey to let you see what you are willing to give up for what you think is more important? A video game that lets you build that Should World and then see its flaws? I’m excited about either. Who can help design these? Let me hear from you. I am not kidding.

Bottom line: On I go. I have one more idea for next week. It seems to work out that way. Love to all.

Paris 2018

Cities have their own characters. Everything from sunshine to history to architecture to manners plays a part. So much of each comes together in Paris to make it a special place indeed. Well, maybe not so much sunshine in late March, but the city is beautiful in many ways. It’s also different than it was only a few years ago.

Much is the same, of course. People still smoke and leave cigarette butts everywhere. Young people apparently didn’t get the news that cancer kills. Dogs—often unleashed—remain popular, and their poop litters sidewalks. Pickpockets and buskers inhabit the Metro, one a plague about which one is warned at every stop and the other a delightful diversion occasionally. The boys gave one busker coin after coin; later they saw a pickpocket and discussed their plan for chasing him. Not recommended: The fainting girl left on the Metro was probably part of the scheme.

The monuments remain—Notre Dame stands as she has for centuries at the turn of the river Seine on the Ile-de-la-Cite, buttresses flying, gorgoyles leering, rose windows teaching. Some people even try to worship as cordoned crowds circle the nave. The even more magnificent stained glass of Sainte-Chapelle defies description although our 10-year-old traveler noted, “Now I understand why you wanted to see it.”

Little things, like locks on bridges with the keys thrown into the Seine, were there too. And people kissing.

Crowds and lines meant we spent a lot of time looking at other tourists and cobblestones. Versailles was especially troublesome, a two-hour wait and then a press of people worse than, well, whatever is bad. The picture does not represent the crowd; these people can actually move. Yes, beautiful ceilings.

The difference, as always, was the people. The French have a reputation for being rude, especially Parisians. I encountered examples in my two previous trips. Admittedly, you don’t go into Le Bon Marché and ask for An Evening in Paris that you used to buy for your mother at Woolworth’s, for the cobalt blue bottle, you see, even if your Soir de Paris sounds good. Eye rolling, hand gestures, sighs dismissed us as idiots. This time people pretended our French was good, and many more spoke English without hesitation. To a man the waiters were delightful with the children, making them laugh or helping them order. Women in stores were attentive and helpful.

The most stunning example was on our last night. The big boys and their dad went to climb the Eiffel Tower, or some such adventure. Mom, baby, and I were to go back to the apartment via the Metro. How people in wheelchairs navigate Paris remains a mystery. We saw one elevator that descended exactly 6 steps. The hundreds of others offered no apparent assistance. By that time, I had walked almost 42 miles and climbed almost 51 flights of stairs, per my phone. Perhaps I looked old holding the base of the stroller, but as we began the first flight of stairs down into the Metro, a young man asked if he could help. We happily agreed. He was with a group and they left as if it were not a big deal. Walking a long distance to the next level, we joked that it would be really nice…and then there he was, a middle-aged man asking if he could help with the stroller. Yes! Another long walk, with a conversation more humbled, we did hope for yet one more person. This time a rather older man asked if he could help. We said yes, merci. Notably, all these conversations were in English, so French mothers must know where the elevators are, or don’t attempt a late night outing with a stroller. But all in all, we were so amazed with these events, casual, friendly, matter-of-fact, but magnificent, that we will never forget this part of Paris.

I hope to go again, with a little warmer weather, a little less drizzle, a few more tartes aux citron, but I can’t imagine a happier ending. Vive la France!

Forks—and Knives—in the Road

 

A word about clichés: We like them. Like ruts, we feel comfortable about them and don’t think too closely about them unless compelled to do so. “Coming to a fork in the road” is appropriate this time of year as students prepare to graduate high school and enter what we laughingly call the real world. The thing is, of course, that while we may visualize a fork as having two branches, usually there are many. Consider Houston’s Micheal Brown who applied to 20 colleges and was accepted at all of them, beginning with Stanford and ending with Harvard. Full rides to each. He was originally hoping for Stanford but now (of course) isn’t sure which to choose. It’s a fabulous story that I urge you to read.

You know Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.” It looks simple enough, but the poet himself warned about its hidden irony. It was written for a friend who had trouble making up his mind and then tortured himself with second thoughts after making a choice. The two paths are “really about the same,” and we can’t tell what will happen one way or another. And when there are 20 potential paths, well, good luck, Micheal.

“Knives in the road” are another matter. (Special thanks to my brother for this image.) It isn’t a cliché, and references are hard to find. Jane Paech, an Australian food writer, blogged at knifeandforkintheroad.com for a time. Quite beautifully, I must say. The Waukesha, Wisconsin, police blotter reported a machete in the road, and according to the caller, it appeared to be “brand new.” Now whether the machete was actually in the road or on it, we aren’t told

Knives cut. A simple choice no longer exists; that which was is gone. Yes, we may still have choices, but none of them may be what we would have liked. I was reminded of Superman’s dramatic reversal of Lois Lane’s death in the 1978 movie. She’s been crushed, and we see him pull her from the wreckage, cradle her body gently, and grieve. Then he says what we all say when faced with tragedy: No. Superman turns back time, for just a few minutes, and saves Lois. Impossible physics aside, it’s the only time I remember that he did something that might be considered selfish.

Rather than go further with generalities, I think I should write more about Christopher Reeve, he of Superman fame. Actually a fine actor who trained at Julliard with Robin Williams, in Noises Off, he receives a bit of acting instruction from Michael Caine. Perhaps more to your taste would be Somewhere in Time. Too sad for me, but a cult favorite with a great soundtrack.

In May 1995, the horse he was riding in a competition refused to make a jump, and Reeve was thrown forward, breaking his neck. The description of his injury is much more graphic, which I won’t share, but you can read a report from the news here. He was left a quadriplegic, unable to walk or breathe. In April 1998, his first autobiography came out, Still Me. Indeed, his life changed, but he continued to work as a director, writer, and activist.

Everyone I know has faced a knife in the road. Divorce, death, debilitating accidents are obvious. Loss of a pregnancy—or three—(again, read how important Micheal Brown is to his mother), failure to pass a crucial exam, job changes, health issues, assaults, perhaps the list is endless. Saying “No” becomes pointless. So we put ourselves at the junction, wave away the lost, and move on. Robert Frost gives himself “ages and ages” to see the difference. I don’t think we need that. Perhaps just another tomorrow will be enough. Christopher Reeve considered death for an instant after the accident, and his wife told him “You’re still you” and that she loved him. On he went for nine years. Acceptance can bring tears, perhaps more than the initial shock. I don’t want another knife if the road. I even know the ones I fear most. For now, I’ll just thank Christopher Reeve for going on.

 

The Gift of the Ring

Venice Beach, strolling with my brother’s family, brought sights not available in Texas: street art, performers, Muscle Beach, palm trees, white sand beaches. We were on a quest for a toe ring for my sister-in-law, a person as close to angelic as anyone I’ve ever met. In her demeanor, approach, interactions with others, she embodies kindness and grace. I was invited to shop for a ring as well.

We came upon a quiet little shop, at the end of a line of much noisier ones. It whispered of the 1960’s with its tie-dyed hangings on the walls and loosely draped sundresses on the staff. Calming, even though we didn’t particularly need to be calmer that afternoon.

Sure enough there were some plain little rings in good taste, silver and gold. Silver tarnishes and is often real; real gold rarely finds its way onto toes. Preferences were discussed, and I opted for the gold look while Katie decided on silver. In the scheme of human events, of course, we took it all rather seriously.

Because Katie had initiated the ring hunt, she went first and quickly found an item to suit. Then it was my turn. It should be noted that I’m not known for my ability to make decisions on purchases. It can take me weeks to decide on a shade of white paint for woodwork trim. Choosing a red for a wall once took me a year, though only minutes to realize it was awful and had to go.

After trying several little specimens, I found one that I liked. Another of my quirks is that I must weigh a purchase for value versus need, so I had to ask, “How much does it cost?”

What happened next was, and remains, one of the most striking responses I have ever heard:

“Your friend has paid the price.”

The look on the woman’s face suggested that she had a way with words and chose these carefully. There were certainly other possibilities: It’s been paid for; it’s free—your friend already paid. No cost to you. Don’t worry about it.

Any of those would have served to communicate the information: surreptitiously Katie had arranged to pay for my ring as a gift. No other phrase would have had the impact of the one that hung in the air, given confidently, with sincerity and dignity.

I was speechless. Stammering, I said that yes, thank you, I’d love to have the ring—simple, elegant, a thoughtful reminder of a trip to the beach.

The phrase “Your friend has paid the price” weighed on my mind and my soul, however. Today, the day after Easter, it puts me in mind once again of the Savior’s Atonement. No matter what we do, with one exception, the Savior has paid the price of our redemption. His gift waits for us until we choose it for ourselves.

After some time passed, I realized that there was a second level of meaning in this transaction. As I sat there trying on the ring and then deciding what to do, the saleswoman and Katie waited, wondering. Surely they hoped I would accept the gift. The one paying, the one accepting payment, understood so clearly what was happening, but until I knew of the offer, and until I accepted it, there was doubt of my intent. What if I had said I didn’t want it, without asking the price? Disappointed, they would have exchanged the purchase price again. I might never have known. Generosity, love, wasted.

For those of us who have felt the need for repentance, the price paid exceeds our mortal comprehension. Real pain was involved. Accepting forgiveness and acknowledging that another heart has understood, bearing for eternity the proxy weight of debt, allows us to love the One who made it all possible. As dear as that price was, the heavens rejoice when one of us repents and accepts the gift, a supernal sacrifice that we cannot completely understand but can accept with deepest gratitude. He was and is our friend who has paid the price. With our lives we can thank Him.

Beethoven’s Fifth

Every group has its snobs. Each group forgets that it has its prejudices. Gladly, we can learn from our mistakes, and in this particular failing, we can sometimes receive a simple reminder and not a bump on the head.

We were a group of young musicians that year, long ago. We’d been playing or singing with varying degrees of instruction and diligence for little more than a decade. We knew and loved the great pieces of classical music. We thought we knew them, more accurately.

The Chicago Symphony was coming to Austin, and we were most eager to hear them. In Texas, the opportunity to hear fine groups, when we were young, came rarely. Not to slight local groups, or indeed the ones we ourselves played in, but we knew that we were in for a treat. Chicago. Perhaps the best symphony in the world.

We sat down and opened our programs. In a word, we were disappointed. Here we had the best symphony, and the featured piece was Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Our eyebrows raised, our foreheads furrowed, our hopes fell. It’s a great one, to be sure. We’d all played it or, for the singers, heard it. We had laughed at PDQ Bach’s version (One of the narrators here is Gifford Nielsen, a member of my church and a famous quarterback who once was asked to speak when I was scheduled. Imagine. He was gracious about it, as was I. 1981, San Angelo, Texas. Another story, as we say.)

It wasn’t that we were thinking it was trite, exactly. Perhaps we were hoping for the emotional roller coaster of Shostakovich, the warm and subtle harmonies of Brahms, the mysterious drama of Mahler, or the wit and energy of Hindemith. Bruckner even, who still confused us a bit. Beethoven, we thought, could be played by anyone, well enough.

And then we heard the first notes. Familiar, yes. Expected, no. The director and the performers knew something about this piece that we did not. Call it talent or experience, depth or height or width. It didn’t matter to us any longer. The Chicago Symphony gave a performance of such clarity and beauty, apparent even to some foolish young musicians, that we could scarcely breathe. (You can watch Sir George Solti and the Chicago here, years later, of course.)

Obvious lesson: Don’t be snobby. Listen (or look or read) with an open mind. Perhaps the inclination fades with age, but that is certainly not a given. A friend told me of an incident in which a couple he was with looked at a room full of people at a fine restaurant and declared that no one was there. Two hundred perfectly nice people but none who were anybodies.

The second lesson is less obvious but more important: The ease of the way has little to do with the importance of the destination. As familiar as the Fifth might be, and as little difficulty as it demands of the player, its message transcends its ease. We must never take for granted that anything—events, decisions, works of art, advice, principles—is not useful or wise or excellent simply because it is accessible or obvious or easy. And that, my friends, is one way beauty can be truth.

 

The Old Folks’ Gym and Stephen Hawking, RIP

To begin with, the place is a palace. Years ago I went to a venue I thought was The Summit, a warm, high school pool with older women doing water exercise class. Unimpressive. When I told someone who recommended it to me two years ago, she responded that I most surely had not been to The Summit, the new one, and I must get over there the next day. I did, and it stunned me: High end finishes in the locker room and showers, fabulous pool with a vortex area and separate hot tub, a ballroom, pool table room, movie theater, snack center, greenhouse, tai chi classes, water aerobics, yoga, floor exercise classes, a stunning metal tree in the reflecting pool, and on and on. Outside trips about town and to Ireland and Italy. Important note: the minimum age is 50.

Who are we? Diverse apart from age. Lots of members are in their 80’s. Scars abound: replaced knees, hips, hearts, puncture-looking wounds from gall bladder or appendix removals. Most are retired. I speak to women who were teachers or therapists, engineers or accountants. More than you’d think have tattoos; heavily into butterflies are these ladies. All seem intent and attentive, polite, not at all afraid.

When I decided to write about the gym (I don’t actually go to the dances), I wanted to think about aging, but something else happened­­ first. Stephen Hawking died March 14 at age 76, decades after his disease could have taken him. He was an atheist, looking to science as the great explainer. Although he once used the phrase “the mind of God,” he later walked it back. “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail,” he told the Guardian. “There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.” As if your brain is what you are. He has been wrong before: about galaxy formation, about the disappearance of material in black holes, about the impossibility of finding the Higgs boson. His thoughts on the ill-advised search for alien life, the possibility that artificial intelligence will end human life, and the need for humans to leave Earth within 100 years remain unproven.

I turned that age when people are universally considered old (per the government at least), and I had a distinctly spiritual impression that my life here is limited, that there is more to come, and that it will be better. Sort of The Memo, but felt—not seen—and deeply comforting. It feels right to share this news with you, regardless of your age. The growing older part hasn’t been any easier; my last cortisone shot to the knee hasn’t helped a bit. I’m losing the ability to remember faces. What else? I forget. But I’m not afraid.

Plenty of atheists and agnostics come to the gym, along with the Christians and Jews and Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus. Asking any of them if they’re afraid of death, or of the dark? It just isn’t done. They don’t show it if they are. Perhaps they received The Memo as well. That’s how they act—living life, loving life—as if it mattered. I don’t believe Stephen Hawking blinked out of existence, and perhaps he doesn’t either. RIP would be meaningless if he did, but how much better to have peace before the resting.