Thoughts on Disney’s Maleficent

Disney's MaleficentThis is another post I started months ago (at least in my mind) and am finally getting around to finishing.

I probably wouldn’t have seen this movie had not family members insisted that Teresa and I needed to see it, offering free babysitting services so we could do so. As anyone with kids knows, one does not turn down such opportunities lightly.

If you read my review on Disney’s Frozen, you’ll understand my reticence to see this film. My patience for stories about misunderstood witches who are really good when an ignorant society as branded them as evil, has grown ever thinner. It seems that such stories have become an emerging genre in themselves. I mean, first we learn that the Wicked Witch of the West isn’t actually wicked. Then we learn that the Snow Queen isn’t actually wicked. And now we learn that Maleficent, the very queen of the night, isn’t wicked either? Are there no more wicked witches in this world?

The opening sequence was delightful. What’s not to like about a beautiful fairy girl in a beauty fairy world? I will tell you, though, that such high fantasy always gives me cognitive dissonance. That is, I like what I’m seeing, but my rational mind immediately exploits the impossibilities, which kills my suspension of disbelief. For example, I have no problem with fairy girls with ram horns. But when there’s only one fairy girl in the entire fairy world, I wonder, “Where are her parents? How does she brush her teeth? What does she use for toilet paper? Where did she learn English? Who does her immaculate makeup each morning? And why would the giants and dwarves submit themselves to her whims?”

I could look past all this, because the story had the tone of a fairy tale, and as far as I’m concerned, fairy tale logic, in its simplistic beauty, transcends actual logic. But the thing about fairy tales is that they’re just that: tales. Without the tools of cinema or theatre, fairy tales allow a storyteller to easily connect with an audience by compressing the complexities of life into digestible themes of good and evil, kings and peasants, love and hate. On the other hand, when you have the luxury of showing your stories, unless done very stylistically, the fairy tale convention can be at odds with the realness brought by the actors. Thus I thought the film was developing nicely until suddenly the narrator said something like, “Stefan told her it was true love … but it was not.”

I mean, I could see the characters with my own eyes. I could hear their voices. I could make my own judgements. It really bothered me when the narrator told me that what I was seeing was not what I thought I was seeing. From this point on, IMHO, the film shifted gear toward the didactic agenda I was dreading.

There’s nothing uncool about the theme of “judge not that ye be not judged.” In fact I’m quite fond of that theme, which, perhaps, is why I fell in love with Wicked when it first came out. The thought of discovering the untold back story of a misunderstood person is exciting. Paradigm shifts are fun. But after the film, Teresa made a keen observation. She said something like, “It’s ironic that the filmmakers press this theme about not judging the person you formerly thought was the villain. But in order to advance this theme, they think they have to create a new villain.”

She said it well. What was up with the villainous King Stefan? I mean, if the filmmakers were creating this story from scratch, it would be a different matter, but because this was a retelling of a classic fairy tale, one can’t just take a completely benign character and make him pure evil while taking a completely evil character and making her benign, without implying a certain point. At first you would think the point is that “no one’s purely evil, so don’t judge until you know the full story.” But that wasn’t the case with this film. As far as I could tell, the point was only that “Maleficent wasn’t pure evil, whereas King Stefan was.” So what are we supposed to learn?

In short, the filmmakers simply reinvented melodrama. But unlike Disney’s original Sleeping Beauty, where you can root for the good guys and boo for the bad guys, this new-age melodrama insists on being just stilted enough to be nearly void of philosophical content while still ambiguous enough to confuse one’s emotions.

As if the unwarranted villainization of King Stefan wasn’t enough to preach the theme that “your traditional concept of ethics and values are backwards,” we discover that the “good” fairies that take Sleeping Beauty under their wings are ignorant, dopey, and pathetic. We discover that every “evil” action Maleficent takes is only half-hearted and traceable to justified feelings of betrayal, and that, when she comes to her sensibilities, she has every intention of undoing her mischief. In short, we learn that good is actually evil, and evil is actually good … or that no one’s actually good, while some people are definitely evil.

What bothered me were the list of contemptible things Maleficent did that the audience was expected to dismiss. For example, there was a scene where some of King Stefan’s knights discovered the location of Maleficent. With the raising of her eyebrows, she proceeds to fling these guys into the air, play with them in sadistic ways, conk their heads together, then hurl them huge distances that, in real life, would almost certainly be lethal. These guys were just doing their jobs. They probably had wives and kids. How many daddies won’t be coming home tonight, because Maleficent thought it would be funny to conk their heads together and throw them a few hundred yards?

When Maleficent herself enlists on the adventure to sneak into the castle, knock out more guards, and rescue the princess, for me at least, the film reached the point of absurdity. The prince, of course, has no useful function in the rescuing of the princess. That would be sexist. Next, Disney’s new anti-cliches about love at first sight and kisses of true love no longer working like they used to … are becoming cliche. Though in fairness, I did think the kissing scene was clever enough and almost beautiful … in a deranged kind of way.

Lest I’m coming across as cynical, I really did enjoy the movie for the most part. Overall, it was fun, and I guess that’s good enough. I say overall, because, as with just about every melodrama, I hated the action scenes in the third act. So stilted. So devoid of meaningful ideas. So unreal. So boring. Yes, action puts me to sleep. I’m weird like that.

At the end of it all, while I don’t really have a problem with switching things up for the sake of a good story, in the case of this film and its associated fairy tale, there are unavoidable implications in doing so. When the closing credits began to roll, I found myself feeling utterly confused, almost amazed. The song for the closing credits (a downright creepy remix of “Once Upon A Dream”) was a perfect closure to it all. Love, we learn, is no longer innocent. People can no longer just fall in love and get married. It’s all infinitely complicated and mysterious. If you walk out of this theater feeling wholesome and inspired, then we have failed to burn our message into your cranium. Life … is … bizarre!

Disney’s original Sleeping Beauty, in all of its clear-cut melodrama, brings tears to my eyes. A good knight stands up against an evil dragon. It’s simple. And yet it speaks to my soul. It makes me want to be a better person. This modern retelling, on the other hand, which seems so indicative of modern culture — I’ve said it before, but I don’t know how else to say it — confused me.

My Adventures at the National Storytelling Conference

I wrote the bulk of this article months ago, but what with money to make, houses to clean, meals to cook, films to finish, musicals to write, parties to throw, and babies to entertain … well, is there really a need to finish this sentence?

On August first, I flew to Arizona to attend the National Storytelling Conference. I’d been invited to perform there for a showcase.

The first tragedy was that my good wife took it upon herself to teach me a lesson in responsibility. She warned me months in advance that she wasn’t going to take care of my travel and lodging accommodations. But I’d heard such idle threats before and had always seen her come through in the end. I knew that her sensibilities for planning and security would overcome her self-restraints — especially as deadlines approached — as my lackadaisical intolerance for such minutia would drive her crazy.

Only this didn’t happen. Less than a week before the conference, I realized that my plane hadn’t been booked yet, and I said to her, “You’re really not going to do it for me?” – “No!” she exclaimed. I couldn’t believe it. We were supposed to look out for each other! I hope she was happy as I paid a premium price for my tickets. I hope she knows the hundred plus dollars we could have saved by booking earlier will come directly out of her flowers and chocolates fund. At least I learned a valuable lesson: hire a real secretary.

The second tragedy was that the TSA folks necessitated the disposal of my beloved key chain pocket knife. So how was I supposed to fight off the terrorists? Oh well. Nothing spells security better than the disarming of law-abiding citizens, right?

When I picked up a rental car at the airport (thankfully, there were a couple rental cars that hadn’t been reserved … boy am I irresponsible), the clerk asked where I was going, and I told him about the conference. He asked what it was all about, and I explained, “Well, people come from all over the nation to tell stories.” – “And then what?” he asked. – “Well … they also talk about how to tell stories.” – “And?” – “And … that’s it.” – “Are these kids?” – “No, they’re adults.” In the silence that followed, I reflected with him on this bizarre phenomenon.

What was I doing with my life?

I was already down so much money (the conference itself wasn’t cheap) that, for sustenance over the remainder of the trip, I picked up a box of imitation Oreos. Thankfully, when I got to the Hilton hotel, where the conference was held, I discovered little hors d’oeuvres with which to supplement my diet.

Because I also don’t have time in life to read schedules, I learned that the last event for the day had just ended when I’d arrived. This whole affair was turning out to be quite silly. Though I guess it was okay, because I’d only actually paid for Saturday. I was just hoping to hang out with some cool people on Friday evening, not defeat any system … at least not entirely. Oh well.

The third tragedy was that, despite my every attempt to wing this whole thing and thus enjoy an exciting night as a bum on the streets of Phoenix (which I’d done before and had fond memories of), Teresa had actually come through in one regard. She’d reluctantly called her aunt the day before and arranged a room for me to stay in.

Well the thought of spending the rest of the day at her aunt’s house was too depressing, so at least I could still do some bumming for a few hours at the hotel. I picked up my attendee lanyard, because the lady at the booth hadn’t yet closed shop for the night. I discovered that the words “Saturday Only” were written on the lanyard with big ink letters. They didn’t have to spell it out for everyone to see. And as far as I could tell, I was the only one there who had come only for Saturday. I hid the shameful lanyard in my pocket.

After stuffing myself with more cookies and hors d’oeuvres, I did, in fact, find some cool people to mingle with as they ate dinner. I tried to appear too posh to stoop to buying dinner at a rundown place like the Hilton.

From our conversations, I learned that there was actually one more event that evening: the “story slam”. Apparently this was a competition that people had been looking forward to all year, and it came with a fair amount of clout. I was intrigued, but I was a Saturday only attendee …

Still, this wasn’t exactly a Fri-day event … it was just one little evening thing. I mean, I wasn’t planning on this. They wouldn’t want me to leave, would they?

To make the story short, the devil won the argument, and with the lanyard still cleverly concealed in my pocket, I went to the event. There were hundreds of people in the large conference room. The many contestants put their names in cups. Everyone was given the topic of “Fire and Light” for their stories. I actually wasn’t planning on competing, as I didn’t have anything prepared. But in the last minute, as inspired by a bit of peer pressure, I went over to the cups and added my name.

Throughout the event, some twelve to twenty names were drawn. As the competitors began to perform, I still wasn’t sure what I was going to do if I was called on. What stories do I have about fire? I thought of the story I’d told at the Utah’s Biggest Liar contest, about my adventure down the Mississippi river, in which I’d spent a sleepless night without a tent or a sleeping bag, hunched up by a campfire. It was an okay story, but I hadn’t won anything at the contest with it, and now I was up against national storytellers. Some of these people were the celebrities I’d admired year after year at the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival in Utah. I was feeling inadequate. I knew I didn’t have what it took.

Just kidding. I’m not in to the whole self-doubt thing. I know I’m awesome. If anything I suffer from overestimating my abilities, which had gotten me into some embarrassing predicaments in the past, and I did wonder if this would be a similar instance.

Though it didn’t matter, because storyteller after storyteller was called up but never me. I admired the great and their spectacular performances. Only that’s a lie too. I was far too preoccupied with rehearsing my story, which I hadn’t told in many months, lest I were to be called on.

Finally, the emcee announced that there was only time for one more performer. “And that is …”

Everyone sat up in the edge of their seats.

Hearts were pounding.

Fingernails were chomped.

“… Stephen … Gah … ler.” (Only it was pronounced worse than that.)

I knew it. Okay, if it hadn’t have happened, I’m sure I wouldn’t have said I knew it, thus indicating that I didn’t actually know it, and yet … I knew it. This was clearly the doings of fate, and I knew the mischievous little man well. And now I had to win. The pressure was on.

I told my story. And here it is:

If you listened to the recording, you’ll know that the emcee spoiled my dramatic narrative by telling you that I won first place. Oh well. The fun part was when the judges announced that there had been a tie for first place, and the audience insisted that there be a recount. After the recount, the judges announced that they did, in fact, have a winner by a significant number of points. When the second place winner was announced (one of the national celebrities I’d often seen at the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival), she got pretty mad (in a fun kind of way) that there had been a recount. Then finally the emcee called me up. “Stephen … Goo … ler.”

And so that was that. For the rest of the conference, I enjoyed celebrity treatment. Some people invited me to lunch the next day, probed with questions, and eagerly ate up my advice, though I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t know what I was talking about. My Saturday performance went well, though it certainly wasn’t as exciting as Friday night had been.

Anyway, if the National Storytelling Conference Story Slam is any indicator, I guess I’m the #1 storyteller in the nation, at least until next year. If anyone else wants to give me celebrity treatment, I’m sure we can work out something.

Removed – or the Adventures of a Modern Transcendentalist

My friends and I shot this film back in 2009 at Salem Pond in Utah. It’s an adaptation of a play written by Teresa. My friend Randall McNair actually raised two ducks and built a fantastic puppet for the film. While the main edit has been done for years, rendering the project in HD turned into a nightmare of technical difficulties (I don’t even want to estimate the hours of minutia I put into it), and what with real life and all, Teresa and I have had three children before I finally got around to wrapping up this project. But I’m glad I did, because this is a fantastic little piece with a great message. And now I proudly present to you … drum roll … Removed – or the Adventures of Modern Transcendentalist.

Old Conservatives … the New Rebels

John AdamsEvery week or two, Teresa sets up a new display of library books by our front window. Recently I picked up a picture book titled “Those Rebels: John and Tom”, which tells the story of how John Adams and Thomas Jefferson teamed up for the glorious cause of snubbing the British. These guys were the flaming liberals of their time. They were also family men, church-goers, scholars, lawyers, and of course, congressmen. Best of all, they sported radically long hair and pony tails.

If “clothes makes the man”, I can’t help but wonder if the fashion of the time was an influential factor on the creation of such extraordinary beings. I mean, how can one don elegant tights, lacy jabots, fancy doublets, embroidered lapels, puffy sleeves, bold cuffs, and flamboyant hair and not just feel … awesome (albeit perhaps a little prissy)? On the other hand, even when impeccably dressed to the standards of our time, how could one in a nearly monochromatic suit and tie with a rank and file military haircut feel like a driving force in the universe and not like another brick in the wall? Perhaps even more stifling to the pursuit of excellence is modern casual dress in all of its lackadaisical stand-for-nothing mundanity, or worst of all, as Neal A. Maxwell eloquently put it, “the uniform of the noncomformists” in the form of piercings, tattoos, and other impediments that, far from proclaiming one’s nobility, pay homage to the gods of cool, a visual expression of contempt for traditional virtue, a declaration of allegiance to the mysterious “new world order” in all of its paradox, and a striking warning to any who see one’s “fearless” array that if circumstances warrant, one might just kill.

In the middle ages and for many centuries to follow, clothes really did make the man. The length and color of one’s robe would not only declare social status but one’s calling, whether a king, page, or priest. Colorful coats of arms and insignias declared allegiances, clans, or families. And who doesn’t love to relive an age of such clear-cut purpose through plays, movies, and renaissance fairs? Who doesn’t want to look and feel noble, powerful, brave, heroic?

My theory is that young people get mixed up in less-than-edifying counter-cultural fashion, society, and trends because of their innate desire to belong to a clan, or to be noble. The problem is, the teenage and twenty-something “clans” of our time are more often than not less than noble (though not to imply that the warring clans of the ancient Celts were necessarily better). They do not exalt, refine, or inspire. The next problem is that when these branded young people are inevitably forced to assimilate into the workforce and give up their wayward demeanor, thus ends, forever, the pursuit of outward nobility, supplanted by the ultimate outward conformity … until death. Of course, there’s still inner nobility, but who cares about that?

Therefore I have a proposal. Let young men be the conservatives and old men be the liberals. Being a “rebel without a cause” is nothing short of a philosophical illness. As I’ve had explained to me by many an art and music teacher, before one can break the rules, one must learn them. So why is it the young people who rebel when they’re not even mature enough to know what they’re rebelling against? Only when one properly understands the laws of man and the principles of the universe can one put forth a proper and meaningful rebellion, a la John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

And now you know why I’m growing out my hair … not to identify myself with the radicals of the 1970′s but the radicals of the 1770′s, not to express my disdain for the conservatives of our time but my adulation for my warmongering Saxon ancestors.

What’s that you say?

Oh, but Stephen, you simple, straying soul, you overlook that such men were properly dressed by the standards of their times. If Jesus lived in our time, he would no doubt be clean shaven.

My problem with this logic is that if following societal trends is, in fact, a virtue (not to mention the many paradoxes this stance brings up on the subject of religion), doesn’t that make those who set the trends some sort of pseudo prophets? I mean, if Jean Francois over in Paris, whom we’ll imagine is a card-carrying temple goer, makes the powdered wig popular again, a movement which eventually finds itself on the heads of the general authorities of the church,  was it improper for Jean Francois to wear a powdered wig before his own movement caught on?

Thus I intend to bring back colonial hair styles (but only for men over thirty), if for no other reason than it’s fun, and I don’t think God is going to smite me for it. Who’s with me?

In Which I Tell the Story of My Firstborn Son

Stephen and baby Percy GashlerIt’s that time again, the time in which I blog about the birth of my newest child … because someone’s got to do it. (It seems that keeping a good journal is the true mark of vitality. The thought of a hundred pushups seems so much easier than the mental exertion required by this nearly forsaken hobby of mine. Yet, as I lamented in my last post, too many of the precious stories of my life are slipping  into the oblivion of my past, so it’s time to buck up!)

Though our previous experiences at hospitals were all fun and games for me — delightful excursions from everyday life — there were some major downsides. First, in the case of my oldest daughter, Ariah, Teresa and I believe that an impersonal, lackadaisical system of rotating obstetricians led to a failure to realize that the giant bulge on Teresa’s left side wasn’t the baby’s posterior but her head.  When the problem was finally realized while Teresa was in labor, we were forced into an emergency C-section.

And boy did we pay for it.

With our second daughter, Aspen, notwithstanding the comforts provided by the hospital staff, we experienced the full havoc of our nation’s capitalistic birthing machine (in a franchise known for being among the most affordable in the nation). First, at thirty-seven weeks (now thirty-nine weeks is considered full term), the doctor insisted on stripping Teresa’s membranes (separating the water bag from the uterine wall) to get the show on the road. The next morning, Teresa’s water broke, and we checked in to the hospital.

She was immediately hooked up to an IV, an epidural, and monitors. Hours went by, and Teresa failed to go into labor. To stimulate labor, the nurses tried get her to take Pitocin. Teresa resisted this, because she knew that Pitocin significantly increased the chances of uterine rupture for VBACs (Vaginal Birth After Caesarean). More hours went by, and notwithstanding all the monitors, the hardly attentive nurses failed to realize that Teresa had developed a fever and an infection (from having had her water broken for so long without going into labor). The nurses, however, did succeed in ganging up with the doctor to pressure a crying Teresa into taking Pitocin.

When labor finally began, Teresa could feel absolutely nothing, because she was so drugged up. Together with an episiotomy, tongs, and a vacuum, the doctor extracted our cone-headed baby, gave us a brief moment for pictures, then sent the baby down to intensive care. As caused by Teresa’s infection, baby Aspen had developed something called Chorioamnionitis. Thus she had to stay in intensive care for five days, soaking in light from a bilirubin lamp. Teresa stayed with her.

And boy did we pay for it.

Now we didn’t hold anything against any particular doctor or nurse. We’d only worked with outstanding people. But especially as number three found his way into the oven, we couldn’t help but wonder if there wasn’t a better way than this sterile, dehumanizing, danger-inducing, bankrupting hospital system. Frankly Teresa was terrified of going through it all again … so much that she put off finding a provider, which got the ward council and family members breathing down our neck, threatening to do something terrible like financially assist us.

To be fair to our would-be benefactors, we were also as poor as dirt at the time, though I can honestly say that this fact was never our leading consideration for the path we eventually chose, which was to go with a birthing center. We’d heard a lot of good things about midwives, though we also weren’t exempt from the mainstream American attitude that hospitals were the way,  and anything less fell into the realm of “alternative medicine” with hippie practitioners, snake oil salesmen, and an overall regression into the middle ages.

Still, we did our homework. Teresa especially. Particularly influential was the documentary The Business of Being Born. While it’s not within the scope of this article to compare the benefits and risks of hospital births to midwife-assisted home births or birthing center births, we learned for ourselves that, in a nutshell, the American hospital-based birthing industry is, indeed, in many ways, unnatural, dangerous, and sometimes downright sinister. Despite all our technology, our perinatal death rates are actually higher than that of developed European nations that rely predominantly on midwives. I had never before considered this possibility.

So, to the disapproval of some well-intending people in our lives, we signed on with a birthing center, and finally Teresa found the personalized care she was looking for. Our biggest fear was still the possibility of a uterine rupture, especially if Teresa wasn’t going to be in a hospital. We scraped the Internet for every statistic we could find about VBAC uterine ruptures and tried hard to calculate whether or not we were putting Teresa and the baby in increased or decreased risk. Though the numbers seemed to be in favor of the birthing center, sometimes there’s just too many factors to predict a meaningful bottom line. The midwives we worked with had both witnessed uterine ruptures in hospitals (not surprisingly, caused by a reckless use of Pitocin) but never at non-hospital births (including VBACS). Especially considering all the hospital-induced complications and the associated risks we knew we were avoiding, we can honestly say that we believe we chose the safest route by sticking with the birthing center.

On the night of Tuesday, the fifteenth of July in the two-thousandth and fourteenth year of our Lord, Teresa and I were staying up late watching Lady in the Water (not the most moving picture but a brilliant idea with a fantastic score), hoping that the contractions she was feeling were the real deal. They were. So we threw our pre-packed bags, plenty of goodies, and our children into the car, then set out for the fun. While Grandma watched the kids, we checked in to a cozy bedroom in the birthing center. When the midwives first checked Teresa’s progress, her cervix was at six centimeters.

We weren’t able to finish the movie, but we did bring a book (The Scarlet Pimpernel … which is every bit as good as the plays and movies). Teresa, however, was soon unable to pay attention as the contractions got stronger. What followed was a long, arduous ordeal (for her, of course, but myself a little bit too). For an unknown reason, she had painful cramps in her lower back the whole time, and she asked me to massage her … for hour after hour. It was long, hard work!

Finally, it was close to five AM, and I was still massaging her as she paced around the room. Between contractions, she said, “I don’t think I can take anymore of this. I want to go to a hospital.” We’d both known she was going to say this. From the books we’d read together, we’d learned that every woman would say this at least once. Still, I told the head midwife that Teresa was at her endurance threshold, and the midwife nodded knowingly.

In what seemed like only seconds later, the baby was coming out. And out he came! While Teresa squatted, it was just a few pushes before the baby was in our hands. He actually started crying while still passing through the birth canal. He was one tiny, little hombre, though perfectly healthy.

And then there was no more pain (relatively speaking). Teresa held a little man in her hands, and she’d done so completely unmedicated, without any tools or interventions, with full control of her body, and without anything to come between her and the spiritual high that follows a natural birth. Unlike in the movies (or real documentaries we’d seen), Teresa never screamed, cursed, or even groaned. She may have moaned a little, but it really was just a little. She’d born it all with the dignity of a saint.

The midwife later told me that in just about every case, when the woman hits that point of hopelessness is precisely when the ordeal shifts downhill and the baby comes out. It think there’s something profound about that. Only in one’s darkest moment is the way out revealed. JUust when one has given everything, the second wind kicks in (in other words: deus ex machina).

A few hours later, one of the midwives came to us with a birth certificate. “Do you have his name picked out?” she asked. Teresa and I held a brief counsel. With The Scarlet Pimpernel on our minds, we discussed the name Percival. I having played this role in a musical, and both of us having been fans of the A&E film, we adored the character of Sir Percival Blakeny and liked the idea of passing on this romantic ideal to our son.

Though there was more to it than that. While I was performing in this play (and Teresa was performing in another play), the two of us were facing many personal obstacles in our lives and marriage (in some ways analogous to the trials faced by Percy and Margeruite). About the time that that Teresa conceived was when we really overcome these obstacles together.

But there was more to it than even that. The character of Sir Percival Knibble-Knobben from my novel and musical The Bent Sword, as conceived and role-played, back in high school, by my good friend Patrick and later performed by my good friend Will, represented some of our favorite people. Like Sir Percival Blakeny (whom I hadn’t yet discovered when The Bent Sword came together), Sir Percival Knibble-Knobben/Flowermander is a lighthearted, friendly, yet manly knight … who isn’t afraid to express his feminine side :-).

Some objections we’ve heard to the name Percival is that it sounds silly in our modern world. Teresa and I have no objection to this. We like silly. A further objection is that Percy, as he’ll usually be called, sounds weak and effeminate, that he’ll inevitably be made fun of for it. This is probably true. Though I don’t think that’s any reason not to go forward with the name. What good do we do for the world in catering to the idiocy of elementary school bullies (not that we’ll ever subject our kids to the horror of public school)? The cultured, on the other hand, know that Percy is a name that entails one who’s courageous, swashbuckling, unbreakable, selfless, cunning, brilliant, good-humored, yet mysterious and unreadable to all but to those who know the depths of his soul.

Still, if we really loved our son, would we give him more of an unassuming and mainstream name, something that’s clearly masculine and fits right into the crowd? Well, there’s the “boy named Sue” principle. While the rank and file Tom, Dick, and Harry’s of this world will be overlooked, the Percy’s, out of necessity, will be required to become extra manly. In fact, perhaps it’s the Percy’s who are most likely to be become the bullies. Of course, I can’t say whether or not Percy Gashler will resent the choice of his parents or not (if so, he can always change his name), but if he’s going to turn out anything like me, he’ll enjoy dropping jaws by overturning the first impressions that will proceed him as one who’s less than manly with the sheer majesty of his character. If there’s one thing I love, it’s a good paradox … infinitely more fun than meeting a Butch who acts just like a Butch.

Most importantly, it’s Sir Percival who wields the glorious bent sword in the sky (AKA The Big Dipper), the symbol of all that’s potentially glorious but whacked out of shape. Percy, my son, may you join me in my quest to find the humor and celebration in this silly world of mortality as we help liberate the captives and journey together … on to the stars.

Immortal Beings are Real

The pearls of my past are ever threatened by the oblivion of forgetfulness and the corroding apathy of time. The angel on my shoulder is always telling me to write, record, share. The devil insists that tomorrow will always present a better opportunity to do so, when what matters today is that I sleep a little longer.

I fell to this deception during sacrament meeting today. “Lie back in the pew,” the voice said. “Close your eyes, and in a state of relaxation, you’ll be in a better frame of mind for connecting with God.” And so my consciousness sank into inner recesses, where all sorts of interesting images and disjointed ideas began to present themselves in an almost mystical web. This must be spirituality, I thought. I’m almost comprehending something. I’m almost transcending.

Minutes later, I jolted into consciousness, suddenly aware that I’m none the wiser. With all my faculties firing, the truth became shamefully obvious that enlightenment is only to be found in sobriety.

And so I think of all the treasures I’ve lost — meaningful events, profound realizations, tender mercies, vivid dreams, priceless utterances from the mouths of my babes — and the price at which I’ve irreversibly exchanged them (usually for a few extra moments of drunken sleep … sleep I would have been better off without), and I’m left to mourn the untimely disintegration of my life. For what do I have from my thirty past years if not memories? What else matters?

There’s something profound in the principle that the “the glory of God is intelligence” (D&C 93:36). More than power, possessions, or accomplishments, what matters most to God isn’t what he has but what’s he’s learned and experienced, which ultimately shapes not only how he acts but who he is.

And with that preface, it’s high time I add an important memory to my sacred vaults. A few weeks back, Ariah and I went on a Mormon pioneer trek reenactment with our ward. This was my third such experience, as I always jump on an opportunity to don a cowboy hat and get rough and dirty as I pit myself against the elements. And more than that, in comparing myself to my pioneer fore-bearers, how could I turn down such a remedial challenge and consider myself a man?

Not that it was in any way a challenge. In fact, as I’ve been exercising fairly consistently, I was in such good shape at the time of this last trek that I ran laps around the entire company as they pulled their handcarts. I must have looked pretty cocky (though hopefully the ridiculously anachronistic sombrero I was wearing made up for that). The only real challenge was when we parked our handcarts and setup camp in the middle of the day … the very hot day. Because there were only so many miles to traverse in this kiddy course, we were left to kill time in the middle of a desert.

I did get in some quality daddy-daughter time. Though I could only take so many of Ariah’s spontaneous games, and she could only take so many of mine. Another pastime was in observing insects. I just walked over to a particular bush, cleared away the thorns beneath me, had a seat, and watched. There’s so many marvelous, little creatures in this world. Spiders, ants, moths, beetles, and species I’ve never even seen before. They’re everywhere, coexisting in a cosmopolitan world completely separate from our own. It seems someone’s made a little home in virtually every patch of earth. Bugs. They’re awesome.

But my real takeaway from this event was an impression. I had this impression as I heard stories about pioneer heroes (notably Ephraim Hanks) and as I pondered on the supernatural events reported by so many of these nineteenth century saints. My impression was that immortal beings are real. And I think that’s about one of the most meaningful impressions anyone can have. If the immortality of the soul is a reality, and people from beyond the grave have actually communicated with mortals, and if the nature of these communications were as the pioneers said they were … well then … to possess such a knowledge would be far greater than anything the libraries of the earth could produce, because it would be knowledge that transcends earth.

I don’t have this knowledge. I don’t know for a certainty that death is not the end. But I do not believe it is. Especially during this event, I was touched by what was to me such a rich drove of evidence that immortal beings are real, and that, with an eternal perspective, the way we live our lives, and the paths we choose to follow, matter a great deal.

But that’s rudimentary. What really impressed me was a need to become a better man, a sanctified man, one with whom, if circumstances require, immortal beings could commune. Far from merely realizing the reality of God, I want to be an instrument to God, a servant in this great work of salvation. The folly in getting too existential about the nature of God, the nature of ourselves, and even the nature of reality, is that we may fall into a circular and life-consuming trap of unanswerable questions, thinking we’re somehow gaining intelligence in the process. In reality I believe we’re only burning precious time, missing out on the great work we were sent here to perform. It seems that for the most important decisions we make in life, such as who to marry, what college to attend, etc., we can never know what the right answer is. Sometimes believing is good enough … perhaps the only way. Yet we can have profound assurance that the path we’ve chosen is right from the fruits that follow it.

The glory of God is intelligence. I can’t speak for others, but in my little life, nothing has opened my mind, expanded my horizons, endowed me with understanding, given me reason to pause, reflect, and treasure more than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This stuff is real. Those who came before, suffered greatly, and gave all, weren’t liars. They honestly experienced what they said they did. I believe that. And they weren’t nutcases either. They were minds and souls that had been touched by a burning light, a light than fosters intelligence and action, not ignorance and complacency. If anything is real and if anything matters, then this is it.

Immortal beings are real. I really believe this. And it makes all the difference.

Come see my plays for free this weekend!

South Utah County Players Short Play Festival Spring 2014If you’re looking for a free and spectacular date night, tonight, tomorrow night, or Saturday night, there’s a free short play festival in Payson at a park, put on by the South Utah County Players, featuring, among other plays, a new play by the beautiful Teresa Gashler, my twice award-winning “Codgers in the Night” (the epic struggle of an old man to escape from his rest home), and my never-before-seen tribute to Jane Austin fans: Becoming Mr. Darcy. Are you really going to turn down hilarious, thought-provoking entertainment at its finest .. and cheapest?

All empty marketing rhetoric aside, in my humble opinion, there are few things better for the soul than a short play festival in a park on a warm weekend in May. Be there or be somewhere better.

Get the details at the Facebook event: https://www.facebook.com/events/774669595890991/?notif_t=plan_reminder

Of Citizens of Zion and Builders of Zion

Christ Washing Peter's Feet, Ford Madox Brown“The man who does only those things in the Church which concern himself alone will never reach exaltation. For instance, the man who is willing to pray, to pay his tithes and offerings, and to attend to the ordinary duties which concern his own personal life, and nothing more, will never reach the goal of perfection” (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Fielding Smith, 123).

This quote stung me in Elders Quorum today. I wondered how many times in my life I’d viewed the work of my personal salvation as summed up by an ordinance check list, a Sunday school roll, a ritual of nightly prayer and scripture study, and the canary copy of a donation slip. I think there’s a pivotal threshold between the Terrestrial person who’s good and devout, but whose goodness doesn’t extend beyond his nose, and the Celestial person whose goodness leads to a natural connection, empathy, charity, and service toward others. I think there’s a fundamental difference between a mere citizen of Zion, who enjoys the amenities and associations of the Gospel, and a builder of Zion.

“Never refuse to serve. … This course brings joy and peace, and at the same time those who serve receive the greatest blessing. The teacher gains more than the one taught; the blessing returned to us when we accept a call to work in the Church is far greater than the blessing we can impart to others. He who refuses to perform any labor or shirks responsibility when it is given him in the Church is in grave danger of losing the guidance of the Spirit. Eventually he becomes lukewarm and indifferent to all duties, and, like the plant that is not cultivated and watered, he shrivels up and dies a spiritual death” (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Fielding Smith, 123).

President Smith sums up the crisis our world is facing today. I think more often than not, people don’t leave the church and lose their faith because of a great sin or a philosophical qualm, but because of boredom. The formality, repetition, time, and exertion the church requires of us is hardly appealing when compared to the non-committal allures of electronic entertainment.

Then there’s the camp of us who know we can’t let go of our faith and commitment but are still turned off by a perceived loss of freedom that would come with full investment in the church. We prefer back rows. We never read the lessons. We only speak when called upon. We may or may not accept a calling. We don’t go out of our ways to talk to people, because we don’t want to threaten any personal bubbles. We preach “live and let live” as we pass the time checking Facebook on our phones. When church is over, so are our Sabbath days. Off go the ties, on go the TV’s. Our salvation is secured at the absolute minimal requirements.

Lame. With a capital L. And a capital A. Actually, the entire word is in caps, bolded, and underlined, with Impact font, size 18 point, and five exclamation marks as if written by an eleven-year-old girl typing her first email.

The Gospel’s either true or it’s not. Supposing it is true, I want to be a builder of Zion, not just a citizen. I want to be a saver of souls, not just some dude saying, “Whatever, man, it’s all good.” I’d rather be cast into dungeons for Christ’s sake than enjoying a Sunday afternoon chill. I want to be able to come to a tree, and knowing the mobs are after me, be able to fall asleep in an instant, because I’ll know that my heart is pure, my cause celestial, and my fate in God’s hands.

To me, that’s what happiness is. And now having written this post, I’m feeling guilty about not having contacted my home teaching families. I’ve got work to do. Good day, ladies and gentlemen.

The Benevolance of Grandmas

giotto_angelAfter Teresa and I returned from a lovely excursion in St. George, we went to pick up our children from Grammy and Gramps, whom we were shamelessly exploiting for their free babysitting services. Upon our arrival, Grammy did the following:

  1. Fed us a gourmet lunch
  2. Presented both girls with new pairs of shoes
  3. Gave Teresa 1 shirt and 2 dresses that allegedly didn’t fit herself … allegedly
  4. Gave us a container full of sugar cookies
  5. Gave us frosting and sprinkles for the sugar cookies
  6. Gave us three hot shortbread cakes, fresh out of the oven
  7. Gave us strawberries and a container of whipping cream for the cakes
  8. Gave us the rest of the cake batter so that we could make more at home
  9. Helped us carry it all to the car
  10. Waved us goodbye until we were completely out of site

How could anyone not love such a woman? Posterity will need to remember their Grandma Gashler.

My Review of Disney’s Frozen … Long After Anyone Would Care

Disney's FrozenSue me, I’m a late adopter of cinema … which has its benefits. If you can train yourself to not care about movies until after everyone else stops caring, you’ll never have to pay a premium price for tickets. In fact, you’ll never have to pay for tickets at all, because by then you’re bound to have a friend who owns the film on Bluray and is happy to share (I’ve tried to adopt this model of waiting till afterwards for discounted prices with Christmas, but my wife has yet to buy into it.) Plus, the 1st Law of Steve declares, “If everyone else is into something, give it no attention whatsoever.” Knowing it would only be a matter of time before my five-year-old daughter would twist my arm into watching this film, I followed this law to a tee.

Though there’s another reason I was hesitant to watch this film, and no, it had nothing to do with a cryptic gay agenda. It was because I doubted my ability to sit through another musical about a close-minded society suppressing Idina Menzel’s magical powers.

With that in mind, I found it hard not roll my eyes when young Elsa was told that because of her destructive magical powers she must lock herself in her room (we might as well just say closet … more on the gay thing later), shut out all of society, and cease to be herself … forever. It was just another iteration of Disney’s so-formulaic-it-hurts setup for character development, the convention of “I want to be normal just like everyone else, and I’m trying my best, but for reasons completely beyond my power, society is telling me I’m not normal, and they must be right about me.” Now where have we heard that before? Oh yeah, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Alladin, Pocahontas, Hercules, Mulan … I’m just going to stop there. So … utterly … boring.

That being said, I was pleasantly surprised at how non-judgmental Elsa’s parents were. They never once told her that she was a disgrace to the family or that she would never amount to anything. They almost seemed a little too perfect, so perfect that they couldn’t possibly hold major roles in the story, as if they were about to be killed off.

Yep.

I only have good things to say about Anna’s character. She was delightful, and I was glad that she was the true protagonist, because Elsa, all things considered, wasn’t actually a character at all. She was an archetype: the tortured victim of society. Her character couldn’t develop without detracting from the didactic edge the film required in order to takes its place among Disney’s other volumes of the “be true to yourself” theme (you know, that theme they’ve been preaching for the past twenty years).

So … utterly … boring.

Not that the whole film was boring. Honestly, I enjoyed most of it. I loved how there didn’t seem to be a villain, how the conflict revolved around extraordinary characters (with a notable exception) rather than the usual stilted struggle between moderately good and insanely evil. (More on this later.)

Though I have to put my foot down on the unrestrained magic system. There were no checks and balances, no consequences, no thermodynamics. Where did Elsa get the energy to create all of these icicles? How many calories would she have had to consume in order to accidentally freeze an entire lake and cast a perpetual storm over her kingdom? How on earth could she not only output enough hydrogen-di-oxide to build a gargantuan palace but simultaneously craft each molecule into something not only structurally sound but so aesthetically masterful that it would taken a team of architects years to have even drafted? What did she eat while reigning in her barren palace? I’m all for fantasy, but there has to be some semblance of plausibility (or at least consistency).

I mean, if you were Elsa’s parents, and you realized your daughter had magical ice powers … unlimited magical ice powers, why on earth would you shut her up and tell her to think normal thoughts when there’s so much potential for capitalization? You could open your own ski resort in the summer. You could absolutely level the snow cone market. You could take on the armies of the earth with blizzards and ice missiles. Especially when we learn that Elsa not only has the power to bring snow to life but to create giant abominable snowmen in the twinkling of an eye. Why not create an army of these monsters and conquer the world? Because this is a kid’s movie, and Elsa’s not evil? Well, haven’t you heard that with great power comes great responsibility? As long as there’s suffering and injustice in the world, I hold that anyone who’s not actively using their unlimited ice powers for benevolent military campaigns is unethical.

And what’s with the idea of magical powers being something you’re either born with or not? What does that do for the human spirit? How could Elsa possibly develop any real talents or character virtues when she had such incredible instant gratification at her fingertips?

Moving on. Most of the music was charming. “Let it Go” was amazing. Though as soon as the trolls started singing, my wife and I looked at each other, both of us having the same thought: “this just shouldn’t exist.” The trolls were just … lopsided. As clever as a postmodern twist of friendly trolls who are interested in your dating life is, they just didn’t fit in with the rest of the film. Though the movie, as a whole, wasn’t very cohesive to begin with, which was my biggest issue with it. It seems the modern approach to these “family” films is to throw in something for everyone: action sequences, slapstick comedy, witty dialog, romance, drama, passionate musical numbers, silly musical numbers, heroism, villainy, etc., and to assume that the “story” is what happens somewhere in-between. Only this never works. The result is always a hodgepodge of brilliant moments and worthless moments, both engaging and disengaging, occasionally touching, but overall doing little for the soul. I compare it to a disjointed essay in which the author is so tangential that he fails to present a real argument. Who does that?

My case in point: when Prince Hans turns out to be a traitor. So much for a character-driven conflict. “How does this happen? It’s as if someone just completely rewrote your characteristics for the sake of creating pointless drama, regardless of everything you ever said or did before this point” (“How Dead Man’s Chest Should Have Ended“). So … utterly … boring. From this point on, the movie was all downhill. As is typical with most every Disney or Pixar film, as we enter the third act, and character development ceases while action takes over, as the bad guys become unreasonably bad, and there’s no real moral decision for the good guys to make, I find myself ready to sleep. It doesn’t matter how hard the blizzard beats down, or how far separated the boy and girl are, the mere existence of this stilted action is, for me, equivalent to answering exactly how and when the dramatic question will be answered. It ironically kills any suspense I might have been feeling. I’m not saying action has no place, especially as we near a climax, but for heaven’s sake, lower the artificially jacked-up stakes and get back to humanity, not whether or not Sven the reindeer will survive a sudden catastrophic plunge into an icy lake.

Oh, and Sven, I hate to break it to you, but you’re such a late addition to the roster of Disney’s super-intelligent animal confidants, with nothing whatsoever to add in the way of character, that no one cares about you.

As for you, Olaf, another addition to Disney’s roster of short, non-sequitur-spouting comic reliefs … you pass.

I thought it was funny how the movie copied, almost to a tee, the “kiss of true love without actually knowing who your true love is” dilemma as in Disney’s Enchanted. And speaking of stilted, wasn’t it amazing how Anna’s slowly-infecting ice virus decided to leap from taking virtually no effect to transforming her entire body into a solid mass of ice within a split second … just at the right time? And the way she transformed back from a solid mass of ice into human flesh within a few seconds … sadly, this doesn’t appear to be possible. From what I’ve read about cryonics (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cryonics), the damage the ice crystals would cause to cell tissues during thawing is irreversibly fatal (at least according to modern science, which can hold its own against eighteenth century magic any day).

Lastly, the cryptic gay agenda. Does it exist? Let me pose another question: how could it not exist? With this issue being perhaps the most heated of our time, and considering that it seems Disney writers are only allowed to write about “being true to yourself,” it seems they would have had to have written a very different story to avoid drawing parallels to modern gay rights issues. But do I think the writers intended to incorporate this theme? Absolutely. In my opinion, it’s obviously in there. Do I care? No. As I’ve mentioned, the film can take its place among a plethora of other Disney films with nearly identical morals. Some themes are universal and can be interpreted in many ways, and whether or not this film gives a certain edge to a modern social climate or whether we care to let it take effect is a matter of personal interpretation. The theme I gathered was a good theme. That said, it’s still …

So … utterly … boring.

As a more practical moral, my wife summed up the movie with this: “And thus we learn: don’t deal with your children’s problems in stupid ways.”