Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Man with the Plan

“As man now is, God once was; as God is now, man may be.” -Lorenzo Snow

I'm always amazed when people criticize what they claim to be this so-called "ridiculous" statement of President Snow's and of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, scoffing at the very idea that any human being would dare to claim that such might be the goal of our existence. In fact, I heard a non-LDS friend of mine say so over the previous weekend.

Very well, then. Before I go further on this point, let's take a look at the other side of coin.

What do most other Christian denominations think the afterlife is going to be like? I have been acquainted with a large number of them in my travels, and a surprising quantity, in spite of what the Bible and their churches teach, don't believe in any afterlife at all. The ones who do believe in an afterlife have broken it down into two starkly contrasted perceptions:

1) Hell: where the bad people and L.A. Lakers fans go to roast forever in the fires of damnation and sorrow, much like a typical August day. All the while, compounding their torture and misery, they are forced to listen to death metal and must attend planning meetings. (Well, that's hell to me.)

2) Heaven: where the good people go to get fitted with a pair of wings and a halo, then spend eternity playing a harp and walking around on clouds and . . . well, that's really about it.

I believe that the Buddhists, for example, have a much cooler belief of the afterlife than do these other Christian churches. The idea of building up good or bad karma and then being reborn into a new life or as a new kind of animal has far more appeal to me than sitting around on a cloud playing a harp all day, every day - because at least it's progression of one kind and not stagnation.

By contrast, there is a Man with a plan, and he has revealed through his Latter-day prophets that there is much, much more for the faithful to do, and there is much more awaiting them in the great realms beyond than playing stringed instruments.

Not that there's anything wrong with stringed instruments. Because there isn't.

At any rate, the LDS idea of eternal progression is a mindboggling one for me. I don't know that I fully grasp the concept at this point. Nevertheless, however long it may take - in my case, we're talking tens or thousands of years at the very minimum - the goal of each of God's children is to one day, however far off, become like him, just as caterpillars are reborn as butterflies and puppies grow up to become dogs.

Not cats, though. They belong in hell.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

What's Wrong with Me?

A couple of years ago, a very distressed friend called me up on the phone and told me that he needed a friend he could talk to. Naturally, I told him that I had the time available for that, and he said that he'd come over within a few minutes.

When he arrived, he sat down in a chair, let out a deep sigh, and asked me one question: "What's wrong with me?"

Talk about your loaded questions!

No, seriously, he went on to explain that a girl he had been dating had just broken up with him, in spite of all of his efforts to make their relationship work. After analyzing things in his mind, that was the conclusion he had come to - that there must be something "wrong" with him that made her not like him back the way he hoped she would. I honestly do not remember how I answered my friend's question, but I do remember that we had a good discussion about dating and women - you know, two of the greatest mysteries of the universe.

I've thought of that experience a number of times since and whenever I've had to face a breakup of my own. My friend asked me a question that, I'm sure, many of us have asked ourselves after being rejected by someone. I don't think there are any easy answers to it - if there is even a good answer at all. "The heart wants what it wants," as the saying goes, and sometimes the heart wants really odd things or things that aren't good for it in the long run. The heart can plumb loco at times.

John Bytheway gave an excellent talk on CD, one that I refer to often when it comes to matters of the opposite sex and dating, in which he discussed the issue of likability. He said that an audience member from one of his firesides came up to him once and asked the question, "How do I make people like me?" The answer, he said, is that you honestly can't make people like you. There's that whole free agency thing, you know, that we all fought for in the preexistence, after all. Nevertheless, though we can't make others like us, what we can do is make ourselves likable. And there's plenty of good advice given in the scriptures on that subject, given in the form of possessing such qualities as kindness, charity, love unfeigned, humility, patience, etc.

In retrospect, another answer I might give my friend would not be an answer to his question at all but to ask a different question in its place: "What's wrong with this girl that she doesn't like my friend and see what a great person he is?"

Whatever the appropriate question(s)/answer(s) may turn out to be, I believe that self-improvement - i.e. making ourselves likable - is always a good idea. It's also a good idea not to give up trying to find that someone who will like us, warts and all - or there is the potential that opportunities will be missed. (Believe me, I know many people of my same age and in my same situation who, for all intents and purposes, have given up completely or at least appear to have done so.) When we find that someone, the rejections and the disappointments will fade into obscurity, while the "likability" can grow into love and other, greater things. If we do the very best we can, we have the promise that it can last for quite a long, long time, to boot.

Well, that's how I see it. Unless movies and TV have lied to me, it will also come with a swelling of music and a sparkly vampire with bad hair and makeup and little-to-no acting skills.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Shuffling Off the Mortal Coil

For those who have followed my blogging through my older blog, Disconcertingly Choppy - and, let's face it, that may be as many as a dozen people - as well as those who know my family and extended family personally, then you may remember that my nine-year-old niece McKenna got a hamster, which she named Hammy, for Christmas. She was very excited about getting Hammy as a pet and has taken good care of him in the four months since that time. Around the house, it was not unusual to see Hammy rolling around in his hamster ball or just being held and cared for in McKenna's hands.

Well, a couple of days ago, Hammy left us. Someone, and I won't say whom, squeezed Hammy a little too tightly, and in an instant he became Peruvian food. (I've tried hamster twice - both times in Peru, in those "when in Rome" situations - and, incidentally, and it tastes like chicken. I don't recommend it.) McKenna, surprisingly, wasn't upset at the person who did this (accidentally, I might add), but was she was rather grief stricken by it and was somewhat inconsolable throughout the day.

Rather than have the traditional family home evening that night, we instead held a graveside service for Hammy, who was laid to rest in the backyard. McKenna talked about what a great pet Hammy had been, and we all bowed our heads in a moment of silence. As you may recall, this was on the same day as the explosions at the Boston marathon, and feelings were tender all around.

A wise person once said something along the lines of: "Death is an important tool. It teaches us to tell each other that we love each other."

I'm paraphrasing here, but I appreciate the sentiment. When tragedy strikes, and it will affect us all to one degree or another, it's often the only thing we can do. I believe it applies to all instances when we're affected by death - be it terrorism that takes human lives untimely, or unintentionally enthusiastic hugs, or everything else between and beyond.

And so, my friends, let me take advantage of this opportunity to tell you that I love you, collectively and individually. I realize that a blog is not the ideal means for doing this, so take it for whatever you may think it's worth. I'm not great at expressing it vocally, as my "love language" tends to be either spending quality time or performing acts of service, but please know that I am truly grateful for the relationships I feel the Lord has blessed me with in my life, be they family, friends, co-workers, or even acquaintances who may yet become lifelong friends.

Hammy would want it that way.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Schadenfreude (Gesundheit!)

Schadenfreude: "enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others"
 -Merriam-Webster Dictionary

For those not familiar with the term - and, let's be honest, schadenfreude is a fun word to say as well as to type - it comes from the German words schaden, meaning "damage," and freude, which translates as "joy." It is also not to be confused with the infamous Dr. Sigmund Freud, whose name translates roughly as "one of the most boring and difficult writers I've ever had to plod through during my college days."

I was reminded of the concept of schadenfreude over the weekend when I learned that Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers, aka Satan's favorite basketball team, suffered a season-ending injury when he tore his Achilles tendon in an NBA game. Not only did it end his season, but it could keep him out of the sport for up to a year.

My initial reaction was basically this: Good! He's a narcissistic jerk, and nobody deserves it more than he does. The Lakers have also been one of the biggest rivals of our hometown squad, the Utah Jazz, and I'll admit that, in the past, I have been somewhat pleased to hear whenever the Lakers have lost a game. They're all big jerks, in fact. So, they all deserve it.

Right? (sound of crickets chirping)

Another, much more local example of schadenfreude, I believe, is present in the BYU/Utah college sports rivalry, which tends to bring out the worst in many people - on both sides of the fence. Both Cougar and Ute fans believe that the other side is full of big jerks, and that justifies my unruly behavior toward them and means that whenever my team beats your team, I, as a follower of that team, am therefore also better than you, and I will rub your face in it whenever I can.

But only during football season. And basketball season - if the (_______) (Cougars/Utes) have a good team this year, that is. Then, we'll see each other at church Sunday, and all will be rainbows, ponies, and cotton candy once again.

Another important part of being a "true" fan (in some people's minds) of either side: Root for the other team to lose, no matter whom they're playing. Not only that, but they must lose by as many points as possible and be humiliated in the process. Victory means "we win, and you lose."

It's Schadenfreude with a capital S.

As someone who grew up as a Cougar fan and who was a Ute scholastically, I try to avoid these kinds of scenarios as much as possible - unavoidable as they may be. Frankly, they're just plain embarrassing. Not only do they bring out the worst in some people, they're really just silly and childish. I've already admitted to my basketball prejudice, so there is another reminder for myself that the same idea applies.

Be patient with me; I'm a work in progress. Odds are, so are you.

Fortunately, in real life, true joy comes from both bettering ourselves and helping others to become better, too. It is win-win, rather than a win-lose, situations that give us happiness and make us grow into better selves. In helping others, we help ourselves in the process.

It all sounds a lot like that whole Sermon on the Mount thing, doesn't it?

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Hopes and Dreams

In improv, we play a game called "Musical" in which we create - you guessed it - a musical. However, instead of having the three hours' length of a Les Misérables or a My Fair Lady with which to make Broadway magic happen live, one of the challenges of this game is to condense (cram?) the plot and songs for a musical into an eight- or 10-minute short-form delivery.

Impossible? You might think so. But somehow, we make it happen time and again.

Anyway, one of the key elements of putting together this kind of "Musical" is the inclusion of a protagonist, who sings what we call a "Hopes and Dreams" song to state what he/she wants out of life. Lo and behold, we spend the next seven minutes or so making those hopes and dreams become a reality.

Real life, unfortunately, does not always turn out this way. What we hope, dream, and, quite often, yearn and pray for does not come to pass, or at least it does not transpire in the way we expect it would.

One of the best examples of someone's expectations not being fulfilled, at least in my mind, is illustrated by a rather poignant - and heartbreaking - scene in the movie (500) Days of Summer. The protagonist, Tom, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is desperately in love with Summer, played by Zooey Deschanel. In the scene I refer to, the screen shows a side-by-side comparison of Tom's expectations - I daresay his hopes and dreams - of an encounter with Summer, with the other half of the screen showing what really takes place. The problem is that the "Principle of Least Interest" (something I actually remember from college; you can Google it if you want), which states that the person who cares the least about a relationship has all of the power, is at work here. Summer is not as interested in Tom as Tom is interested in Summer, and, in the side of the scene depicting reality, he is disappointed time and again as his expectations of her loving him back are unmet.

I identify with this scene because the same sort of "great expecations" (if I can borrow a phrase from Dickens) scenarios have played out in my head multiple times only to be crushed and destroyed by reality. I'm sure that many of you could say the same of some of your own experiences. The Principle of Least Interest can be a harsh teacher but a teacher nonetheless.

However, I don't think the answer is to stop hoping and dreaming, for, as Shakespeare wrote in The Tempest, "we are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep." To also borrow a line from Ryan Shupe and the Rubberband: "When you dream, dream big; as big as the ocean blue. 'Cause when you dream, it might come true." Anyone who ever accomplished anything worthwhile has followed this train of thought and see it to its fruition.

Something Tom learns at the end of (500) Days of Summer - and this is a SPOILER ALERT for those who still want to see the film - is that summer is followed by autumn. In Tom's case, his relationship with Summer is very literally followed by meeting a girl named Autumn.

The application, as I take it, is that one unmet expectation does not necessarily mean another unmet expectation. In other words, it's still good and worthwhile to hope and dream, even though some people come into our lives to wake us from those dreams or even serve as nightmares of a sort. Granted, we have to wake up from those dreams and go to work and be patient as we try and try again, but there is a happy song waiting at the end of your show. Or my next improv show.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Happy Accidents

It was about eleven years ago when I got bit by the acting bug. I had done some theater in the past, including a handful of plays, and I had even taken an Acting 1010 class as part of my studies at the University of Utah. But I had never really got into the theater until I was cast alongisde my brother Ben in My Fair Lady at Rodgers Memorial Theatre in Centerville.

Being in a musical was an all-new experience for me, and not just because I played four different roles in the show. It quickly became my favorite acting experience up to that point. I relished the opportunity to act, sing, and dance all in the same production for three nights a week, and I made some great friendships in the process.

As the musical was wrapping up, I had fully been bitten by the bug, and I eagerly looked forward to participating in another show. I learned of tryouts for the theater's next production, Brigadoon, and I attended my tryout with great enthusiasm. To my surprise - and, I'm sure, to the surprise of many of those who knew me - I was cast in one of the lead roles.

However, over the course of the next week, a strange kind of pain gradually developed in my chest. A few more weeks passed, and the ache got worse and worse. I learned that I had torn my right pectoral muscle on one of the last nights of performing in My Fair Lady, and, after about a month of rehearsing for my new role in Brigadoon, I was forced to drop out of the musical so that someone else could fill the part.

I was upset, I cursed my rotten luck and the timing of it all, and I was in a great deal of pain, to boot. Fortunately, physical therapy and time helped my body to heal, though I watched the run of my missed musical opportunity come and go with envy and bitterness.

It was at this same time that a friend of mine took a beginning improv skills class and invited me to attend a performance put on by him and the other members of his class. I had seen a little bit of "Whose Line Is It, Anyway?" on TV, but I had never previously been to a live improv show. It was amazing.

I soon learned that this theater was offering Improv-oke - a combination of improv and karaoke - nights, during which attendees could volunteer to come up on stage and perform along with the actors. I went to one of these and was called up to participate in a game of "Da Doo Ron Ron," and somehow I was the last person standing for this game for three weeks in a row.

Once I had been given the opportunity to perform improv myself, I was hooked. I was not great at it at first, and I made several mistakes (I still do), but I kept coming back to it. I took a class with some of my friends and learned the ropes, putting on a few performances with the Village Idiots in Bountiful. A couple of years later, I tried out for and was accepted into ComedySportz in Sugar House and Provo, which gave me the chance to perform in a semiprofessional environment for the first time and to learn from some of the best actors in the state. In 2008, I learned that a Davis County-based troupe was being formed at a familiar location: Rodgers Memorial Theatre.

In the six years since I had had to drop my role in Brigadoon, I had not tried out for anything else with this theater, and, in the back of my mind, memories of my earlier injury and the accompanying fallout still lingered. Nevertheless, I took a chance and returned to my former stage in a different capacity. I found a home with this new troupe, which was named the Improvables, and I have been with them ever since, including a move over to CenterPoint Legacy Theatre in 2011 and an expansion to Playbills' Theater in 2013.

One of my friends recently blogged: When one door closes, another door opens. As far as musical theater and improv goes, that had certainly been the case for me. Through a happy accident, I discovered improv 11 years ago when I had nothing left to lose, and because I took a chance on myself and on it, my life has been the better for it. In fact, I don't think I could ever go back to musical theater - at least not permanently - knowing what I know now and having had the experiences I have had with improv.

This very thought occurred to me just the other night when my Improvables colleagues and I put on a memorable show that included a broken vase (my fault), mouths full of Peeps candy that had three of us nearly tossing our cookies, and water all over the stage and mostly all over me through a game of "Spit Take." And those were just three of our games for the evening's performance.

Why do we do it? you ask? It's hard to explain in a few words, but improv is never the same, and that fact alone keeps me coming back again and again. As the song goes, there's also "no people like showpeople," and my fellow improvisers are among my very best friends today.

Whether or not I excel at what I do is debatable, I suppose, but I try my best at it and give it my all. It's not often for me to toot my own horn, but (honk! honk!) I have been humbled over the years to have had a handful of audience members approach me to say that I was their "favorite" performer. I continue to look forward to each new opportunity to make a nincompoop out of myself in public, and I hope that it is something I can continue to do for years to come.

Monday, April 8, 2013

More Thoughts on "The Kingdom of God or Nothing"

I was prepared to write some additional thoughts on my previous post, which was about the Proclamation on the Family, but then general conference weekend came. And on Saturday afternoon, Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles delivered the following talk, which is, I believe, one of the all-time greatest conference messages of our time:

It's a perfectly stated message, and it leaves no room for doubt or debate. He reaffirms the principles taught in the Proclamation and the Church's stance on marriage. Then, he goes even further, talking about the Plan of Salvation and its purpose; our roles in it as Father in Heaven's sons and daughters; and how Satan, the father of all lies, has been trying to disrupt that plan from the very beginning and has been trying to get us to misuse our bodies, as well as to seek out "counterfeit companionships" that will thwart that plan.

But you're a homophobe and a hater, some will say (and some have said). Why do you seek to impose your religious beliefs on people who just want to marry the person they love?

The best way I can answer that question is with an additional thought that I had while listening to Elder Bednar's message: The plan, as its name implies, is the great Plan of Happiness. As Alma taught his son Corianton, "wickedness never was happiness" (Alma 41:10). Likewise, Mormon, observing the sorrowing of the Nephites of his day, recorded that "the Lord would not always suffer (his people) to take happiness in sin" (Mormon 2:13).

In other words, it is impossible to do something sinful, whatever that sin may be, and to be happy in the long run. By its very nature, sin is a temporary, empty, and "counterfeit" form of happiness. Thus, taking a stand for what always has been, is, and always will be right - eternal marriage between a man and a woman - is not an act of hate but, rather, an act of love for the eternal happiness and well-being of others.

Well, that's what I get out of it.

Finally, that all being said, I would like to reiterate something my stake president, Pres. Beard, shared with us in Sunday School during a recent ward conference. The entire focus of his hour of instruction was on those who deal with same-sex attraction and how we should treat these people. After all, they our in our neighborhoods and wards, some may be in our families, and others are in our schools or workplaces. As a theater person, I have many friends and associates who fall into this category.

The prevailing idea behind Pres. Beard's message was: compassion. We need to love those who struggle with this attraction - but that "love" is not to be confused with accepting homosexuality as an "alternative lifestyle." If we see bullying going on, we need to stand up and put a stop to it. We need to fellowship these members and never shun or ignore them, for it is possible to live a chaste life and to be an active - and happy - member of the Church.