An invitation

Memorial Day 2017. I have an invitation for you. Today asks us to remember those who lost their lives in wars. Part of the grief from their loss is that they did not have time. They left a legacy of honor, yes, but their time was cut short, leaving not enough of themselves behind for us to treasure. Let me introduce you to a few people who had a lot of time and who changed the world.

In 1996, a former oil engineer named Andy Hildebrand invented Auto-Tune, a computer program that corrects pitch and timing in recordings. Singers and instrumentalists who don’t quite get a note right can have their performances, well, fixed. Before its advent, studios had to re-record tracks or manually adjust them using synthesizers. All of that ended in a flash with Auto-Tune. Someone told Hildebrand he’d ruined Western music.  Time Magazine called his invention one of the 50 worst of all time—up there between DDT and Red Dye No. 2. Love or hate it, we are so used to it that Auto-Tune isn’t going anywhere. But here’s a little interesting tidbit: Andy Hildebrand failed first grade. He struggled through his academic life until college, where he found a passion for science and decided to work hard. He was also a musician, a studio flutist at 16 so something of a prodigy in fact. Science, music, and an invention that changed everything, but I doubt you know of the man.

Next, a sad note, and bittersweet. A teacher of mine—for I think that’s how she would prefer to be remembered—died in 2015 at age 98. Her name was Louise Cowan. She’d thought her age rather amusing when she turned 90 and continued to lecture until a few months before her death. Dr. Cowan was unusual in many ways. An intellectual, a reformer, historian, critic, writer—no single word catches her aura. Thousands of Dallas teachers have taken her classes. Many more community members have felt her influence through lectures at the Institute of Humanities and Culture and other Dallas venues. And her little tidbit is this: She majored in music as an undergraduate. A singer, she decided to abandon it all because she was only adequate, not the best. The Dallas Festival of Ideas and all those Pegasus statues you see around town stem from her influence. She was brilliant, a word that gets thrown around too much. We admired her but knew we wouldn’t catch up with her, not in this life.

Now, your invitation: Write. You’re groaning. Why? Legacy. Not many people have heard of Andy Hildebrand. Fewer have heard of Louise Cowan. Both have left a substantial legacy. Neither is a celebrity in the strictest sense of the word. And it doesn’t matter. This fabulous story is about a man who survived World War II. He didn’t write it, and he couldn’t now, probably. But his son has done it.

Lots of things that you do don’t count as writing. Texts (where r u?) and emails (Check ur messages) are examples. No one sends letters anymore; that’s accepted. But you don’t need to write a book either. That cliché about everyone having a book in them? Doubtful. But stories, definitely. A BYU series called The Story Trek goes around the country collecting stories. They knock on doors, often, and find no one home or willing to talk. What a sad thing.

Recently, I was in line at the bank. Yes, sometimes, you really do have to be inside. A woman next to me was worried about getting some checks to Ireland. We chatted about the reasons why for a few minutes. Her daughter lost her husband a few years ago. Last summer, she married an Irish pastor whose wife left him 17 years ago. The details were fascinating. I told the woman she should write the story down. She was thrilled with the idea. Apparently, she hadn’t thought of doing so.

We document everything these days. If you’re under 30, chances are your wedding album is online and probably includes a videography. Physical photographs are so 20th century. When you’re gone, we can watch videos or listen to voicemails, but these are too painful most of the time. Think of the scene in The Sixth Sense where Bruce Willis’s character’s widow weeps through his wedding toast. I’d rather have my folks smile instead of watching me say “Ummm” 20 times.

Most people doubt their specialness. The familiar “I was born…I went to school…I worked at…” are not stories but facts. Write about your first day of school, your favorite job, the time you met your partner. You are more interesting than you think. Today honor those who didn’t have a chance to live. The poppies which symbolize their sacrifice cover us all eventually. The poem from which those poppies come passes the torch to us. Don’t be lost. Write yourself down.

To See Once More the Stars

Words seduce. Last week, as I struggled to decide on a butterfly-parrot-tropical leaf fabric to cover four kitchen chairs, I invited the young man who had carried another bolt to add his advice. This was his response: “This other one is like sunshine. In the night, I can imagine it bringing that light into my kitchen.” That was all. I sighed, smitten, and bought my 1.5 yards of a material forever made magical by his words.

I heard lots of coarse, uncivil words last week at our local civic theater, spoken by an older woman in a romantic comedy. Shock value, presumably, was the purpose. She was refined and rather dear, the actress with dimples and grey hair bound up jauntily. The words she used to describe her guest’s ex-boyfriend will not be repeated here—use your imagination. Sunshine in my kitchen they were not.

Some bad words last week too: impeachment, treason, coup. Troubling, at best. Frightening, regardless of any political perspectives. It all caused me to remember a time when those of us of a certain age had more hope. For all the violence, turmoil, protests, the 1960’s were also a time of change, we believed, for the better. One element of that future was the original Star Trek. For three years we watched as men and women took to the stars. Their values, their loyalties, their intelligence suggested that our time would come, built on the progress we were making in civil rights and space travel, an odd but effective pairing. Then in the summer of 1969, a man stepped on the moon. We were on our way.

So last week, I thought of a poem of mine that no one has seen or heard. It’s about space travel. Two people have hired Elon Musk to take them around the moon, and the trip happens next year. Sadly, the SpaceX program has had a few too many explosions for my taste. Had I thought ahead and saved up those millions it will take to go into space, I doubt I would risk it all to risk it all. (2021 update: Applications are now closed for the 2023 trip.)

Dante’s Inferno ends with his re-emergence not just to the earth but to the heavens that surround it. Henry Wordsworth Longfellow translated the lines like this:

We mounted up, he first and I the second,

Till I beheld through a round aperture

Some of the beauteous things that Heaven doth bear;

Thence we came forth to rebehold the stars.

That “rebehold” seems unwieldy. The Italian riveder Dante uses means “to see again.” You know this root—remember arrivederci, “to see each other again,” the only Italian word most of us can say reasonably well. The much better translation, then, is “To see once more the stars.”

My poem doesn’t deserve to be on the same sheet of paper as anything by Dante, but rather than talk about last week’s politics or pandering for laughs (I will keep the young guy’s seductive words), I am sharing this unread poem with the last words of one of the greatest works ever written as its title. Enjoy.

To See Once More the Stars

We were sitting around in the hot tub, talking about people, as usual

When suddenly the sky darkened, silently, for only a second.

(I get goosepimples even now, thinking about it.)

We were sitting talking about pitiful affairs, stupid moves, junk,

When the Stealth flew over, with its push of power, black beautiful, whipping

Prideless opponents should they even try

Anything. Jack said there must be an air show at the field

And wasn’t it real quiet?

That’s why they call it Stealth, I absently reminded.

The great being turned, and I wondered, just as silently,

Why I had not, by now, seen

The surface of the blistered moon

With my own two eyes,

Having only recently realized

That I never will.



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“Ain’t anybody in front of me?” A man called out to me from his pickup, a large white affair high off the ground. I was trying to wrangle three little boys into an average minivan, and I didn’t quite understand him. “What?” He tried again: “Ain’t anybody in front of me?” Finally, I understood. He didn’t want to run over some other little person but couldn’t see well enough to know if one was in the path of his mammoth machine. “Oh, no, we’re good. Thanks!” He rumbled on, and I was left to sort out the metaphor.

A few days earlier, I had sneaked a peak at the final season of Downton Abbey on British television. (It’s not illegal and not very expensive.) The Dowager Countess was in a battle for home rule of the local hospital. Her foe, Isobel Crowley, had taken the opposite tack, in favor of government assistance for the greater good. Maggie Smith’s character had a particularly telling line: “Does it get cold on the moral high ground?” Of course, Mrs. Crowley could only purse her lips and carry on.

Things are rough these days. Both sides in our country, the liberal left and the conservative right, believe themselves to be on the higher moral ground. My brother calls me every time there is a mass shooting. I often respond by sending off the latest abortion news. We have periods of time when it’s best just to be silent or voices will be raised. All is not lost, however; we’ve almost agreed to oppose capital punishment. In his work as a photojournalist, he once covered an execution and was changed forever. While I have no personal or anecdotal experience, evidence seems to suggest that capital punishment is not a deterrent. Pondering these two lofty perspectives led me to some new considerations.

My proposal seems almost too simple: Life itself is the higher ground. Could we agree on that principle and work toward solutions that don’t involve Constitutional affronts?

Is there anyone whose heart doesn’t ache when innocent students die at the hands of a crazed shooter? Yes, there are many guns in this country—112 per 100 residents by one count.  In spite of that fact, gun ownership is actually down since 1978. Yet the United States is not first in gun-related deaths but 14th. Suggesting that’s a good thing is a weak argument, but the vast number of gun owners are careful, concerned, and conscientious. Changes can be made that do not affect their rights.

On one hand, we can improve the systems already in place for gun control: background checks, better security at high risk locations, training for specialized police units, waiting periods, Internet loopholes closures. The NRA already offers liability insurance for gun owners as protection against suits arising from accidents. A legislator from New York introduced a bill that would require liability insurance for all gun owners. Opponents warn that criminals wouldn’t get it anyway. Of course not. They’re criminals. But parents might secure their guns more carefully if they knew they could be sued if their gun was used in a crime their child committed. It’s a radical idea that no one may like, but the same was true of automobile insurance when it was new.

On the other hand, changes need to be made for better mental health care, often cited these days as a major contributor to gun violence. Many psychiatrists do not accept insurance; only 55% accept private health coverage, compared to 89% of other kinds of doctors according to a 2010 study. While there may be no easy way to induce higher participation rates, insurance companies need to recognize the problem and either pay more for mental health services or provide better patient access via vouchers or reimbursement procedures.

Valuing life, though, has deeper implications that are more far reaching. Might reducing abortions be done some way other than legislating a reduction in availability?

November is National Adoption Month. One worthy goal of this designation is to highlight the need for adoptive homes for the 100,000+ children in foster care. However, only a small number of those children are infants. Before abortion restrictions were eased, 9% of children were released for adoption by their mothers at birth. That figure is now only 1%. One source cites the ratio of parents waiting for babies at 36 for every baby that becomes available. Yes, foreign adoptions are still possible, though reduced dramatically by the Russian ban. But the cost is staggering: Holt International advises parents to budget $30,000 minimum for an adoption in China, with an upside figure approaching $50,000. It’s time for adoption to be preferred over abortion.

What else is at stake? Capital punishment is legal in 31 states. Yet in 2016, 20 inmates were executed in the entire country. If it is intended to be a deterrent, it’s not particularly daunting: over 3000 inmates are sitting in death row cells across the country. Even setting the legality aside and acknowledging the risk of executing the innocent or mentally deficient, the process continues to grow more difficult as methods of death decline in efficacy. Currently, a shortage of sodium thiopental limits the number of lethal injections possible. Drug companies have, in effect, taken a stand against the use of their products for ending human life. Technically, other methods are available. In 2017, I do not believe we as a country have the stomach for electrocution, the gas chamber, a firing squad, or hanging.

What might be the result of all this? It would be very bold indeed to suggest that a society that values life might actually lead to a reduction in gun violence, abortion, and capital punishment. It hasn’t been tried, but it’s time to let the moral high ground be common ground.

Two Images

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Balance bike

Two images­: A 12-inch, orange bicycle with no pedals and a door slamming in Oregon loud enough to be heard in Texas. The words for today are balance and resilience. Neither comes easily.

The kid’s bike I saw last week looked odd. The little boy on it was four, his mother said, and the balance bike allows him to learn to ride without training wheels. She thought it was a great deal. His feet touched the ground, propelling him along at a respectable speed. That which looked pointless was actually a boon. Training wheels actually delay riding a bicycle because they give a false sense of balance. Tricycles are imminently balanced, but you can’t do much with them. Kids are anxious to make the transition. Training wheels never quite transform a bicycle into a four-wheeler, with that bit of wobble always in the background. Balancing takes time to learn, and taking off the training wheels puts the rider back at square one: there is not much skill needed to learn to work the pedals and balance must be relearned. Hence, balance bikes require more effort to move but offer greater returns in skill levels and gliding fun. I learned something.

When one of my sons was on his mission near Eugene, Oregon, he wrote us about a person slamming a door. It happened all the time, of course. Proselyting missionaries of all faiths are used to that. When I read his report, I had the experience of hearing and, if you can imagine, feeling the impact of that door slam 1400 miles away. We like to think of the positive impact that a mission has, perhaps particularly for young men. They get to travel, perhaps learn a language, study, meet people from all walks of life, and on and on. What I had not known was the power of rejection. They put on a suit and look like most of the foot traffic in downtown Dallas. They put on the nametag and are suddenly a threat to the peace of most of the people they see. People throw things at them, curse at them, make appointments with no intention of keeping them, slam doors in their faces, and on and on for two years. No obvious Google links for the bad stuff. All the negativity, all the disappointment, all the rejection must have an effect, and it’s something I’d never considered: resilience. So I learned something else.

These words, these images kept coming to me this week. Both involve an ability to adjust to change, whether physical or mental. So many things could be extrapolated, of course, but not today. What I will leave for now is more simple. Looking at things I thought I understood (training wheels) or considering conditions I perhaps discounted (slammed doors or being despised as exclusively negative) can change with the right insights. Opportunities abound. Sometimes it’s good to hear a different perspective. That’s not particularly profound or different, but for this week, it’s enough.

Parable of the King’s Bridge

What follows is not an op-ed piece but a short story that more or less wrote itself. They do that sometimes.

Parable of the King’s Bridge

And it came to pass that the Old Man, foul for protection, foolish by design, became tired and longed for rest.

“I shall lay me down under the overpass there by the Federal Building,” he said. And he took his pack and his Thermos and he went to the place where the walkers passed above him, from one building to the next. He laid himself down, and he saw there was a vent from which poured warm, sweet air into the January chill. And it was good.

Each two hours did the Old Man, putrid for defense, sick by misfortune, move himself carefully away from the path, for officers of the law enforced the decree that no man neither any woman should lie on the vents or streets of the city. And so it continued throughout the day.

Nevertheless, the Old Man grew ill from the rotted gall which passed for wine, consumed for warmth and comfort and an ancient desire. In the fourth hour of the afternoon, the man roused himself not from the way but remained while the watch kept its rounds.

And it came to pass that an officer of the law remarked to his fellows that the man seemed too still and might have left this life for another, which should be a blessing to the Old Man who smelled and ranted and hungered and drank the vile poison of his choosing. The officer called through the heavens and asked for the help of his brothers and sisters in touching this miscreant who stirred not.

Answering his call, other officers of the law careened through the concrete canyons of the city and inquired of their brother what had come to pass. For it was forbidden of both rich and poor alike that any should sleep beneath the bridge from one building to the next, and none should partake of the warm sweet upsweep of air.

And the first officer said that the Old Man might have slipped from this life and should be moved so that his body would not further offend those who elsewise should walk in the way.

A sister officer set her face in stone and said that she would wake the man if the dead could be waked. And she went and shook him harshly and called a name, though she knew not his. The man roused not. And another officer, a youth, began to the see that the man was but ill. And the first officer said that the man should be taken to the porch in the city wherein worked physicians who might care for him for a time before he was returned once more to the streets where he would dwell for the rest of his days.

And it came to pass that the Old Man was taken up into the officer’s vehicle and the air was allowed to enter so that his stench should not remain within it. And the officers left with the man to take him to the care of the physicians who would learn his name and give him broth and white sheets and implore him to get himself to a shelter for the rest of the harsh winter. Yet the Old Man would not go. He remembered the sweet warm air and could not yield himself to the effluvium of the shelters though the city should plummet into the depths of cold and ice.

And it came to pass that another man, from his high window in the canyon of steel and glass and concrete, watched the hours of the Old Man. “I thank all powers that be that I am not as that Old Man in the street,” he prayed. “For I cleanse from me the sweat of my brow and bathe my body each day that I live, and I drink not the contamination that enters his body and passes vilely into the gutters of the city. I taint not myself with herbs that are not of exquisite refinement. And I sleep not under bridges.”  And through the day, he sought his papers with diligent concern and called heartily and happily upon his brothers and sisters throughout the land. And he worked his puzzles and games upon the game master that blinked and blessed him although for the sake of secrecy the sound was not had.

And it came to pass that the fellows of the man high above the street remembered that it was the day on which he celebrated his birth. And they did give thanks for his presence among them, bringing all manner of fruits and meats and sweet things to consume. The man ate and rejoiced and was glad. And the man did strive not to sleep after the feast for such was forbidden.

As the day was ending, the man and his fellows made light of the Old Man, fetid by choice, who had been removed from the grate of redolent air. And they said he must know not the laws of the city which forbade that he should sleep under the bridge. And the man, whose birth would be further extolled with the partaking of effulgent glasses of golden nectar in the hours of twilight, said with mirth that the man knew not the eleventh commandment.

And the man reached low into his leathern pouch and removed a placard onto which had been engraved: “11. Thou shalt look busy.”  And the laughter was loud in the company of those who sat with the man.

Yet in the night the man dreamt of white bedclothes. And he saw himself and all his fellows covered with their sepulchral stillness. And in the dawn the man vowed not to waste his time upon the earth, but to do good. He would seek out the Old Man from below the bridge and offer him of his silver and lift him gently, when next he saw him. And he would carry him unto those who could serve him meat and fruits and warm drinks. His thoughts were kind and righteous toward the man, for he had forgotten the smell, fetid for protection, awful from neglect. His vow seemed sure though he shared it not.

But lo, in this day was the leaving of the princely head of his fellows, and all was in preparation. Again were brought the fine meats and things of rich sweetness. The man remembered himself once more and wondered if he himself might gain in power and influence with his fellows. He uttered high words and praise, full of much feeling, about his own great deeds, and inscribed them to those who reigned above him. And his vow of compassion was forgotten when he was found worthy to advance in station, to the unknowing sorrow of many unto whom he might have done that which was good.

Yea, as the years passed, it became time for the Old Man to go down to his grave. Death came for him as all knew it might, on a cold night as he lay himself under a bridge. And there were none to mourn him as he joined his generation of paupers beneath the earth.

In his old age, the other man was not taken down to the street or cast out under a bridge. And when he went down to his grave, he joined the Old Man beneath the earth, the Old Man having been there for many years. In the days before his passing, the man had grown weak and silent, in spite of his wealth and former joys. He remembered not in what paths he had failed though there were many.

And as his days grew short, he cried out, “What lack I yet?” Though he heard not a voice, his eyes fell upon the words of the inscription which he once thought held such wisdom: Thou shalt look busy. Lo, he could do so no more. And the commandment with no number, yea, the one more great than them all, came to his mind: Thou shalt love. For he had loved those by whom he was surrounded but believed, as he grew near his end that he could have, and yea, surely, he could have loved more.