The Year is 1929


Photo by Lucas Henry

Herbert Hoover, the president of the United States, has been in office for eight months. His firm belief in efficiency and the power of private industry steers the nation. Thanks to the eighteenth amendment, the possession of alcohol has been illegal for almost a decade, resulting in a new, divided culture of the law-abiding and the dissident. Thanks, in part, to the 19th amendment, granting universal women’s suffrage, the traditional roles between men and women have begun to blur.

The world is changing like never before. Within just a few years, the private ownership of automobiles has shifted from a privilege of the rich to a necessity of the working class. The American dream to go big or go home has taken the nation by storm, leaving those who can’t compete to fall by the wayside. Many of these “forgotten men” are those who are still suffering from “shell shock” from the World War. But in this big, big city, where everybody’s busy — a constant race against the clock — few have time to care for the weak. By day, in this age of sobriety, crowded streets, and assembly lines, the towers must constantly get taller as the world inevitably gets smaller.

But by night, when the bootleggers run the show, many rekindle the embers of trampled humanity through secret rebellion. While “flappers” sport scandalously short dresses and bobbed haircuts, the Charleston is the hot dance among the mom and pops. Swing music is an unstoppable sensation, inspiring its listeners to move in ways that are anything but predictable. As if in spite of the drab routines of Henry Ford, the dance floors are packed with spastic flailing of the limbs, crazy rolls from side to side, pointless leaps into the air, more energy than one can bear. Through the sweet hours of the dark, sacred night, responsibility gives way to the most fundamental American virtue: freedom.

That is, until the coppers show up. Then it’s either back to one’s proper dwelling place or to the slammer. Either way, the system will ensure that one resumes a proper role in society, because the governmental and corporate gods will not stand for those who defy them. Though the line between man and machine grows ever thinner, life must go on, come what may.

But in every crowd there’s a fellow or two who doesn’t know where he’s going. With his head leaning back, he thinks, “what do I lack?” as he’s pushed right along with the flowing. He thinks, “Maybe tomorrow I’ll figure it out, when life’s not so dreary and hot.” But when will he learn that the world’s gonna turn, whether he’s ready or not?

Every hero faces the same challenge: the quest to find and fulfill his calling in spite of the stifling circumstances around him. This is our challenge today.

My Dream Goes to the Gutter

These last few months have been a pleasure as I’ve watched my dream go to the gutters on the Echo Theatre stage in Provo, Utah. That was a figure of speech. There’s not actually any gutters on the set, though as you can see from these photos of our Saturday night show, the scenes I envisioned of dirty buildings, period costumes, dirty streets, smelly bums, and beautiful faces has now taken shape. (Photos by Lucas Henry)

Thanks to everyone who’s helped bring this production to life. So far it’s gotten a good review at Front Row Reviewers Utah. “The strengths of this show were the mostly believable New Yahk accents, the energy and movement and the fun story. The music, too, by Gashler, was fresh and fun. … You won’t be disappointed when you go see this production. Because this is a world premiere of a brand new show, I can’t stress enough my suggestion that you see this family-friendly fun show” (

On Thursday, our opening night, we had a full house, and I’ve only heard praise from the audience. The show runs until Oct – 3 (you can purchase tickets and get all the details here). Mention my name to get $2.00 off up to two tickets per group.

Reflections on this Year’s Timpanogos Storytelling Festival

IMG_3588 IMG_3582IMG_3590The Timpanogos Storytelling Festival – definitely one of the best parts of the year. On Friday I told at the “Timp Tellers” contest, a new feature in which five storytellers from throughout the nation compete for a chance to tell a twenty minute story with Donald Davis. I didn’t win, though I feel good about my performance and consider myself blessed to have been numbered among such talented people. Every teller was magnificent. The experience also gave me a gauge for how to win next year. Apparently the winning story needs a solid “Aww” moment and not just “Haha!” moments. The latter come naturally to me. The former … well, this will take some soul searching.

I heard through the grapevine that there was a tie between two of the contestants, which the judges had to figure out how to resolve. It’s certainly possible that I could have been one of those contestants (this happened at the National Storytelling Network Slam last year). It’s also possible that I had the lowest score. This paragraph is buying me nothing.

The best part about the whole affair was the food. I got to eat both breakfast and lunch with the national tellers, and the pastries were out of this world. One has not lived until one has had a real Danish. I also got to use the “storytellers only” bathroom, which was an honor in itself.

Teresa served as an emcee for a number of the tellers. She commanded the stage with her smooth, sexy voice. She probably won’t appreciate the former sentence.

Saturday began with an adventure. With the help of a good friend, I took the perilous 30 foot journey over flimsy galvanized roofing and up a wobbly latter onto the old roof of the Echo Theatre. There we fixed the improperly hanging banner for BUMS! the Musical … for the third time. Note to the wise: if ever hanging up a 10 × 15′ sign, make sure to thread the rope through every single hole. The first time. Believe me, it’s worth it.

Speaking of BUMS! the Musical, the show is coming along great. We’ve got a great director and a great cast, and I’m happy at how it’s all coming together. We open in less than two weeks … fifteen years after my first, little high school performance of it. These last two paragraphs have nothing to do with this post … but I wanted to record them anyway.

After Saturday morning’s rehearsal for BUMS!, my family returned to the festival, where Aspen, Ariah, and myself performed for the Utah’s Biggest Liar showcase. Four-year-old Aspen stole the hearts of the audience out of sheer virtue of her littleness and cuteness, telling about the time her baby brother fell into a chocolate cake and turned into a cake monster. Ariah (the first place and audience choice winner for the youth division) did fantastic with her story about a cheetah in ballet class. And I also felt good about my telling of my epic encounter with the Lady of Utah Lake and my discovering of Brigham Young’s beard card.

I’m going to list my favorite performances at the festival. First, Carmen Agra Deedy never ceases to blow me away with her storytelling. Her energy, characters, voices, and comedic timing are top notch. I want to be just like her when I grow up.

The most moving performance for me was by Eth-Noh-Tec, a husband and wife Asian-American duo. As one who’s usually not a fan of husband and wife duos, I was pleasantly surprised. They didn’t step on each other’s lines or digress to tedious banter (as I’ve seen with other duos) but told and acted out a beautiful and polished epic. Indeed, their performance, entitled “Red Alter,” was more than a story. It spanned many generations and characters in the legacy of a Chinese family who immigrated to California. Eth-No-Tec poignantly portrayed the characters’ dreams, struggles, prosperity, and long-suffering against European-American prejudice. The story reminded me of the book A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle (one of my favorite books) in the way it connected multiple generations into a single narrative. At the end of the performance, the wife revealed how the characters of the story were her ancestors. These brilliant storytellers illustrated, in perhaps the most human way possible, an important chapter of American history that often goes unacknowledged.

Bill Harley was a hoot, as always. For anyone who may have lost track of his childhood amid the soul-sucking duties of adulthood, I know the perfect cure: listen to Bill Harley.

The funniest performance goes to Donald Davis, hands down. He had everyone roaring as he told about his childhood confusion over the omnipresence and deplorable memory of the shopping mall Santa Clauses.

The spunkiest performance goes to Pippa White. That woman’s got style! Her plethora of dialects and characters, compounded by her unstoppable wit result in pure, unadulterated fun. (No one’s paying me to write this.)

I could go on, but I don’t particularly feel like writing all evening. Suffice it to say the festival is wonderful, and everyone needs to come. I believe that storytelling is such a profound art form because it is the pure transmission of intelligence from one brain to another. It doesn’t require a soundtrack, a set, special effects, or a budget. And because it’s such a cognitive activity, a brilliant listener is just as important as a brilliant teller. This is why storytelling isn’t as popular as, say, film. Film doesn’t usually require as much focussed attention from its viewers, making it easier on audiences. But for those who are interested in taking a mental journey, I believe there’s nothing quite as powerful as a good story.

One more thing: I was not trying to look like the Dread Pirate Roberts. Wearing all black when I perform has been a habit of mine for years for the reason that it better hides me as a puppeteer when performing behind  a black cloth. I’ve done it so much that it’s become my signature dress. The short mustache is for my role as the 1920’s American businessman, Mister Engerman, in BUMS! That being said, for my bio in the program, I wrote, “Stephen Gashler looks remarkably like Westley from the Princess Bride.” I did this in hopes that by beating others to the punch, they would spare me the tedium of comments such as, “Has anyone ever told you that you look like …” Boy was I wrong. To answer one and all, the answer is yes. However, while I’ve tried to be diplomatic, it’s time to set the record straight. I don’t, in fact, look like Cary Elwes. Cary Elwes looks like me.

P.S. Sorry the pictures are lousy. Teresa was obedient and turned off the flash. Someday I’ll convert her to the benefits of complete disregard for social propriety.

Teresa’s Bob Ross Party

downloadYesterday Teresa and I through a Bob Ross party (her belated birthday party). As no one else whom I know has actually done, we followed along to Bob Ross’s instruction in an episode of “The Joy of Painting.” A group of eight of us made our own landscape oil paintings. I have two oberservations:

(1) Oil painting is not as easy as Bob Ross makes it look, especially if you don’t have top-of-the-line painting supplies to work with. If you’re going to do it, buy the expensive brushes that won’t bunch up on you. (2) You can’t have too much white paint. Mine turned out more like an acrylic painting, because we didn’t have enough white paint to cover my paper, so the paint didn’t blend the way I wanted. I also couldn’t add the highlights I wanted. (3) There really is joy in painting. I could totally get into this.


My Painting


Teresa’s Painting


Made by the group out of the leftover paints


Perfection through Imperfection

bigstock_Failure_Grunge_Text_3728194-1It’s believed that the moon was formed when a protoplanet smashed against an infant earth, causing a large portion of earth’s matter to spew into space, which formed into the moon. This is what put the earth on its tilt. Were it not for this tilt, which gives us our seasons, much of more of the earth would face extreme heat or extreme cold, and life as we know it would be radically different … if there would be life at all.

But to pre-Galilean thinkers who were sold on the idea that everything in the universe was perfect, the idea that the earth was on an imperfect slant would have been blasphemous. If the definition of perfect is “without flaw in every way and having always been such,” then nothing is perfect. At least on the macroscopic level, everything, from the brightest white giant to the smallest flea, became what it is from baser elements and processes in conditions that are less than ideal.

But who sets the ideals anyway? As was contested in the days of Galileo, do spots on the sun make the sun less perfect? If so, in what ways is it less perfect? We now know that the sun’s spots are caused by concentrated lines of the sun’s magnetic field as they jut out into space. Such a magnetic field exists on earth as well and is crucial for the deflecting of cosmic rays that would otherwise cause harm to the earth. Thus the sun’s spots are not signs of decay like on a banana but indications that the sun is actually more perfect, exhibiting a natural phenomenon that is crucial to our existence.

If we define perfection as “pretty at first glance”, we’re bound to be disappointed, but if we set better criteria and look at the bigger picture, much of the universe (perhaps all of it) is more “perfect” than the ancients could have comprehended. And at the heart of it all is a paradox: perfection is achieved through imperfection.

Recently I’ve had the pleasure of watching one of my plays emerge from the sea of creation. Characters that were formerly nothing more than imaginary friends are now taking faces and voices. There will be a set, costumes, and an audience. My dream will be passed on to hundreds.

I asked myself, “what of my former attempts to produce this play? What of my former drafts? What of my other works that still haven’t seen the light of day or have fallen by the wayside? Has it all been for naught?” Of course not. Without the former drafts, my characters would be less formed than they are now. Perhaps they’d be missing limbs or (worse) have flat personalities. If I had gotten my wish and produced this play in college, the end result wouldn’t have been nearly as polished as it is now.

Every culture in the world has its version of the hero’s journey. The hero sets out on a quest. He meets opposition. He fails. He tries again. He fails again. While each attempt seems to push him further from his goal, miraculously, he’s actually getting closer, until BOOM! Climax. The whiny teenager has become a Jedi. The galaxy is saved.

It’s ironic that while this formula is at everyone’s heart, and we spend so much of our time fantasizing about it in the forms of stories, books, movies, and video games, we don’t often apply the formula to our own lives. At least I know I haven’t. When I plotted out my life as a boy, I demanded pre-Galilean perfection. Failure wasn’t an option. Even recently, as I’ve looked back over the last decade or so of my life, while much of it has been good, I’ve also been disheartened at missed opportunities, dead ends, and failures. I’ve failed to realize that like the sun’s spots, these “imperfections” really aren’t bad but are pieces of a grander plan. Perhaps like the earth’s tilt, my “failures” have been crucial for my ultimate good, or like the discarded drafts of my play, my previous attempts (while seemingly fruitless at the time) have actually made me what I am today. Without getting fatalistic, I can earnestly say it’s all for a reason.

No one wants to hear a story about a hero who never faced challenges or disappointments and always achieved his goal on his first attempt. When we reach the end of our mortal sojourns, I believe our most valuable possession, more than knowledge or experience, will be our personal narratives: the stories of how we gained our knowledge and experience. So let’s make them good and ripe with failure. There’s no other way to become awesome.

The Sound of Silence

leaf with rain droplets - Stock ImageI’ve found an inability to write many articles lately, not because I’ve lacked topics of which I’ve been passionate about, but because as soon as I begin to internalize such a topic, and my mind lists off the arguments that support the side of my favor, to my annoyance, I also think of counterarguments. I realize that I’m no longer content to let a limp, half-baked argument stand before the unchallenged approval of my tribal allies. On the contrary, if I have anything to say, it must be be able to stand on its own before the scrutinizing gazes of ideological rivals.

And so I go full circle and strengthen my initial arguments. But then, by the seventh sword of Gray Skull, my counterarguments speak out against my favoritism and demand equal treatment. The end result: my thoughts cancel themselves out, and I have nothing to say. Except this thought now, which both my arguments and counterarguments see perfectly eye-to-eye on: we waste a great deal of time trying to solve problems that don’t, in reality, affect us. At all. That is to say, while it’s probably a distortion to claim that society does not, in fact, exist, I believe the proper way to look at society is not as an entity in and of itself but as a replication of individuals and families. If, therefore, problems are solved on the individual and familial level, I believe that so-called societal problems will also vanish.

Thus, while the question of how to treat minority X may not be a bad one, a better question is, “What can I do for my neighbors?” While a decent question may be, “What is the ideal relationship between citizens and government?” A better question is, “How can I teach my children to govern themselves?” While it’s okay to ask whether or not women are being treated fairly in society, it’s certainly a better use of time to ask one’s self, “How can I make my wife happy today?”

Thus I’m content for now to put aside the large questions that can’t be answered and focus on a life that must be lived. To quote the Gospel of Thomas, “Jesus said, ‘If one who knows the all still feels a personal deficiency, he is completely deficient'” (67).

A Defense of the Mormon Mind

HumanmindHere are some thoughts I composed in response to an online debate. In an effort to be non-contentious (and to spare strangers the burden of reading a novel), I’m posting them on my blog instead.

I find it funny how points of minutia are turned into all-or-nothing arguments. How often, at church, do the exact age of the earth or the origins of race come into discussion as topics pertinent to salvation? In light of the arguments for the need of science to adapt and refine, why criticize religion for doing the same? Religion was never meant to be in the business of answering “how”, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find many Mormons who view nineteenth-century speculations that rightfully belong to the realm of science as final. BYU has a fantastic evolutionary biology program, because Mormons aren’t afraid of discovering truth, whether or not it appears at first glance to be scripturally-supported. Of course there are exceptions to this rule as we’re all only human. But Joseph Smith defined the word Mormon as literally meaning “More good.” If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report (including any and all scientific data that sheds greater light about the origins and destiny of our planet), we seek it out. Whatever you think of Joseph Smith, nearly every section in the Doctrine and Covenants came as a result of asking a question and seeking an answer.

Much has been said of cognitive dissonance. But every time you point a finger, four point back at yourself. What about the cognitive dissonance that would come from abandoning a moral framework, a purpose to life, a family bond, a tie to our ancestors, a world-wide force for good, a personal accountability to God, and a quest for eternal progression and perfection … solely on behalf of the appearance of intellectual incongruities? There is no scientific principle or historical fact that I can’t learn and internalize as well within the church as without it. From my experience, this so-called Mormon thought-policing doesn’t exist. Yes, church isn’t an appropriate place to discuss contraversial history or the latest in string theory any more than lobbying for Rand Paul is appropriate at a Democratic rally. But those who really understand the Gospel know that the acquisition of knowledge and truth is entirely up to the individual. Are we going to search for information that fits within our world view and be skeptical of information that doesn’t? Of course. Everyone does this, because anything less would be unscientific. We have to stick with what we know, not what we don’t. People stay in the church because of an abundance of evidence that the fruits of the church are good.

Furthermore, it’s ironic how these appeals to the finality of science are, in themselves, nothing short of religious. Can science tell me how to live a fulfilling life, how to raise a family, or how to build a strong society? It’s possible that the answer to all of these questions could someday be yes, but in the mean time, are we going to live out our lives as lab rats? In his documentary “The God Delusion”, the famous atheist Richard Dawkins makes the argument that children are wired to receive instruction from their parents, because children can’t afford to learn through scientific observation. E.g. a child cannot test whether or not it’s a good idea to crawl off a cliff. To use this same logic, what if Dr. Freud concludes that sleeping around is perfectly natural and acceptable, and a few years later, everyone’s dying of STD’s? Do we not all need a roadmap that transcends the latest worldly opinions? Science is a terrible epistamology for determing moral frameworks. To state otherwise is nothing short of a religious opinion.

Genetic research has not disproven the Book of Mormon. There is overwhelming evidence that Joseph Smith possessed gold plates, just as the resurrection of Jesus Christ is one of the best-attested facts in ancient history. It’s not science that contradicts these points, it’s religion, a religion that believes that such fantastic claims could not possibly be true. While this is a perfectly understandable belief, my point is that pure religion is not un-scientific anymore than what’s often deemed as science is non-religious. It is a matter of faith to say that we know that all life evolved from a single cell on earth. This appears to be plausible, but there are so many unknowns. How do we account for the anomalies of the Cambrian Explosion, for evolutionary advantages that appear out of order, for the apparent introduction of a new species every million years or so, and then the sudden cessation of such upon the arrival of humans? Perhaps a better question is how do we explain how these facts seem to mysteriously align with Genesis 1?

When you look for contradictions, you’ll find them. When you look at the bigger picture, there is so much harmony. Photons that mysteriously behave in consequence of human will … evidence of paralellel universes that could be interacting with our own … the question of what it was that could have incited the big bang … a mind-blowing number of expolanets that could harbor life … the nearly-perfect calibration of Earth … the fact that only 5% of the known universe is even observable … It’s not just that the universe is wide-open for the existence of transcendent beings or that no one can disprove their existence. Those aren’t good arguments for faith. It’s that either way you look at the universe, you’ll see what you want to see. Science presents us with little more than an open book with which to define our purpose and destinies. We can’t escape religion. We can only choose what to put our faith in.

Rather than branding everyone who hasn’t abandoned their faith for your faith as brain-washed simpletons, tell us what we could actually gain — not lose — from leaving the church. I’d love to know. Statistically, being Mormon makes me pretty well off as far as health, income, education, and happiness. Mormons report among the highest of answered prayers. Mormons, in contrast to much of the religious world, present an anomoly where higher education does not result in decreased faith. Mormons live longer. They’re among the most charitable. They’ve introduced a huge number of invdentions and scientific advances. There’s something good going on here, and I have yet to learn of anything better.

Socialism, Capitalism, and Parenting … What I’ve Learned

monopoly-manIf ever you’re in question of whether capitalism or socialism is the better system, I suggest the following experiments:

Experiment 1

  1. Have lots of babies; the more the better.
  2. Wait a few years.
  3. Tell your children to clean their room.
  4. When, instead of cleaning their room, they lie on the floor, pout, and procrastinate for endless hours, motivate them by offering a guaranteed and fixed allowance, your generous and non-discriminatory compensation for the working class, for which they, of course, should be grateful.
  5. When, after they receive their allowance, they continue to lie around and do nothing, motivate them with speeches about the good of the family and the evil of the individual. Promise them more and bigger benefits of which they’re fully entitled to solely on behalf of their births, and urge them to zealously give back to the welfare family.
  6. When, after receiving said perks, they continue to lie around and do nothing, and you realize that your house is sinking into a bog of chaos, it’s time to administer some good, old-fashioned discipline. So as to prevent them from predicting patterns, inconsistently switch between guilt-inducing talks, vociferous shouting, and endless varieties of chore charts. Of course, all the while continue to pay them their allowance, of which they’re fully entitled to in your enlightened, egalitarian household.
  7. When you grow exhausted of policing your children and discover that your tactics have only made their behavior worse, still continue to pay them their allowance, buy them whatever they demand at the grocery store, and show your kind-hearted benevolence by letting them essentially rule your household, because after all, the working class should have the say. Accept that they will grow up to be brats and propagate the abuse cycle.

Experiment 2

  1. Complete steps 1 – 3 of Experiment 1.
  2. When your children don’t clean their room, don’t pay them.

Wives who force husbands to shop for clothes

Tonight Teresa insisted that she wanted to be my fashion consultant at the University Mall in Orem. I insisted that I absolutely detested shopping for clothes, and she parried this with my oft-quoted motto: “do what  you hate”.  So we went to the mall, and after she had selected a pile of shirts for me to try on, we found out that the dressing rooms were locked. Teresa flagged down an employee, who fetched a key with which to open the dressing rooms. As we waited, another guy got in line behind us. Teresa said to him, “Hey, you’re trying out the same shirt that my husband is.” I added, “Only your wife isn’t forcing you like mine is.”

He responded, “Actually, she is.” Then he pointed to the employee who was opening the dressing rooms. “She’s my wife.”