Easter in Winter

2013-03-29 15.33.30We spent Easter Weekend in central Finland. On Good Friday, I left the family behind and went out skiing on a frozen lake.

We have had clear weather for the last few weeks with very cold nights and mornings and temperatures coming up just below freezing during the day. It has been a cold March, and although the spring solstice has come and gone, we are definitely still in the throes of winter for Easter.
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What’s your Apocalyptic Prophesy Writer Name?

If you’re like me, you’ve done some theoretical writing prophesying about the apocalyptic last days, but you don’t feel like your own name would give your writing the weight — the gravitas — that it deserves.

So here’s a way to come up with your own Apocalyptic Prophesy Writer Name:

the last airport where you had a layover + a random object in your junk drawer

So be on the lookout for my study of the book of Isaiah and the numerology of the middle initials of the Quorum of the 12.

By Schipol Thumbtacks.

You’re welcome.

Gospel Doctrine lesson 11: “The Field Is White Already to Harvest”

The lesson manual lists a dozen sections for study this week, but I thought I would focus on section 4 because of its significant place in Mormon culture.

As a missionary I resented having to memorize and recite D&C 4. It seemed to me to encourage conformity and thoughtlessness. As I’ve had more experience with a variety of religious traditions, I can see that the memorization and recitation of scripture is a nearly universal practice. I may resist the internalization of a text for the purpose of sharing an internalized belief, but I should probably recognize that as an aspect of religious practice.

D&C 4 is a fascinating study in a text appropriating existing texts. In other words, the section uses language extracted directly from other sources and in the new context gives it new meaning. Many of the phiases from the section that we associate directly with missionary work come from sources with less specific meanings. [Read more…]

The Pedagogy of Sunday School Part 2

In my second year of teaching high school English, I was offered a unique semester class: 25 boys from a local juvenile detention center would be bussed in for a few classes day, including grade 10 English. Since that class would move me from part-time to a full contract, I agreed.

It was explained to me that a sheriff would remain in class at all times, and he would take care of discipline. I knew instinctively that that was a terrible idea: I would have to control the class or I would have no role there. But without the usual external motivations of good grades and happy parents, how could I exert enough authority to teach? [Read more…]


We didn’t see it coming. I went to publish something half-remembered that I had polished up into a post, and discovered it would be the 5,000th post.

So let us pause, and think about what is gathered here: research and rants, conversations and confessions, history and hysterics, polls and provocations. [Read more…]

From the mailbag

An actual question I received in an email:

From what we’ve read Finland is a secular and socialist country. How do members of the church protect there (sic) families and stay strong in the gospel there?

Here is my response:
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Gospel Doctrine Lesson #4: “Remember the New Covenant, Even the Book of Mormon”

Notes, commentary, and questions for LDS Sunday School teachers using the ‘Doctrine & Covenants and Church History’ manual. Feel free to share your thoughts or ideas regarding the lesson in the comments.

 The Book of Mormon is as important closed as it is open. Its power and meaningfulness derive as much from its origin story as it does from the content of the book itself. As a result, it behooves us to look at this origin story as closely as we can.

The complexity of the historical context of the period can lead is in many directions, but a 1988 Ensign article (‘A New Prophet and a New Scripture: The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon‘ by Kenneth W. Godfrey) provides detail and comes from a source with which class members will be comfortable. (If you want to get into details about the process of translating, ‘“By the Gift and Power of God”‘ by Richard Lloyd Anderson (1977) goes into hats and seer stones and all of that.)

There’s a lot to talk about, so I’ll hit the bits I found most interesting: [Read more…]

The Pedagogy of Sunday School (part 1)

I was recently called for the fifth time as a Sunday school teacher, and once again I am very pleased. I teach professionally — mostly high school, mostly English and humanities — and I find the process of preparing and delivering a lesson comfortable and enjoyable.

Because my professional obligations having shifted in recent years, I have been thinking more about the way we teach and the way we learn in Sunday School, applying the same pedagogical concepts of teaching literature to high school students to the teaching of Sunday School. Today I will talk muse a little about methodology and outcomes.

I generally teach Gospel Doctrine in the same way I teach a literature class. We have a text and we are looking at the text’s apparent purpose and its methods in pursuing that purpose. As I generally do with literature, I make the assumption that the text is successful, doing an analysis of the text rather than an evaluation.

But what reading of the text do we favor? As J. Stapley pointed out there are different approaches, and I am certainly interested in offering flavors of all of those readings. In the end, my job is not to offer a single reading of the text, whether that reading be my own or the authoritative reading.

As a literature teacher, I want students to develop their own reading, supported by the following:  [Read more…]

Breaking the fourth wall of conference

Amongst other things, General Conference is a sort of theatre, with specific conventions expected from the genre. The use of the teleprompters, the darkened background, the cadence, the structure of talks: we all know what we’re getting and very few conference talks depart from that formula. There are many reasons for those conventions – some are technical requirements, some grow out of our love for tradition, and some are an extension of our anti-liturgical fear of distraction in religious spaces.

(Are these conventions just the ethos of conference, or is there a written guide for those who speak or pray in conference? And if there is a written guide, when did President Packer write it?)

One of the most pronounced conventions of conference performance is the presence of the fourth wall. The speaker is standing in front of  thousands of people live, but besides laughter, there is no response from them. I imagine the houselights are low if not entirely out and the lighting needed for the broadcast make the audience invisible to the speaker. The use of the teleprompter gives a semplance of looking around the room, but the moments of intimacy come from the speaker’s interaction with the camera, not the live audience. [Read more…]

On trying to recognize a Mormon from afar

I belong to a current events discussion group. Once a week, we get together in the back room of a bar and talk about the week’s news. It’s generally non-partisan — they are an international and politically diverse group united largely by the fact that they all read several news sources a day, mostly in several languages. Many work or have worked as diplomats.

A few weeks ago, we were talking about the American presidential race. One participant turned to me and said, ‘As a Mormon, what can you tell us about Romney that is hard to understand otherwise?’ (Of course everyone knows I’m Mormon as I sip my Coke Zeros in the presence of beer and cider enthusiasts week after week.)
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“You are so much more than the worst thing you’ve ever done.”

I just read this excellent article about Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles which exists to give jobs to ex-cons. There’s a lot to take away from the profile of Father Gregory Boyle and the company he founded, but this took my breath away:

There was a theological point: “I always have a funny story at communion time that underscores that no one is perfect, and that communion is not for perfect people but for hungry people,” Boyle told me. But that probably matters less than this: The girls were rapt. After Mass, they came to him and lingered as long as they could. He spoke to each one in turn, as if she were his favorite niece: “You are so much more than the worst thing you’ve ever done.

Boyle is speaking to girls in a detention camp, but don’t we all need to hear this? The greatest danger of sin, the adversary’s greatest tool, is that we’ll be defined by our sinfulness and look away from God, lose hope of repentance and redemption. The wages of sin are real, and we need to confront them and see them for what they are, but we also need to keep them in some perspective.

And so I will steal this. I will say this to the young men I teach on Sundays. I will say this to the inactive members I hometeach from time to time.

And I will say this to my own sons as they struggle and misstep and wander into the darkness of sin and self-loathing. But mostly I will say this to myself as my past folly continues to swirl around me and those I love, sometimes obscuring my view.

It’s the old mantra: I am a child of God. I have value. And I am so much more than the worst thing I’ve ever done.

The greatest threat to my family

During a recent priesthood lesson, the teacher asked this question:

What do you think is the greatest threat to your family?

I think he misread the question, or misinterpreted the question: I think he meant to say, what is the biggest threat to the family, as in the institution, and then we could all produce our various social bogeymen and parade them around. But by posing the question the way he did, my answer was so quick in my mind and so strong that it felt like some sort of inspiration.

The biggest threat to my family is me. [Read more…]

A groovier Christmas hymnal

When I posted about putting together a collection of groovy Sabbath music, I mentioned that I had made a cd of interesting covers of the Christmas songs in the English LDS hymnal. Here I offer a slightly modified version of that cd. These may not be to everyone’s taste, so feel free to post alternatives in the comments.

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The gentleman doth protest too much, methinks (redux)

I posted last night about the controversy surrounding Orson Scott Card’s novella Hamlet’s Father. My sources for information about the book were herehere and here. Card has posted a response to the reviews of the book, challenging some of the assertions of the reviews on which I was commenting. I had not located his response in my research. I pulled the post of the blog until I had a chance to look at his response and consider what an appropriate post would look like.

My original post took for granted what was independently reported by several sources: that Card’s re-write of Hamlet makes a link between homosexuality and pedophilia. I do not have the book, and so, given Card’s protest, it is unfair of me to make that assumption. It will be interesting to see what other reviewers say about the issue.

However, I would still like to respond to Card’s decision to rewrite Hamlet and the thematic issues involved in this project which he has undertaken. [Read more…]

A decade abroad

Ten years ago this month, I left the United States. I didn’t abscond with the church funds, run off with a senator’s wife, or kill a man. I explained my decision to move abroad in my first post at BCC:

I left the United States in August 2001 because of a serious case of restlessness. I was 31 and single; I had just finished my MA and thrived as a high school English and Media Studies teacher … but the restlessness haunted me. I considered several options, all of which left me with a stupor of thought. Then I heard about international schools and off I went to Finland, never having been here before. After two happy years I married a Finnish Mormon and we moved to London, planning to globe hop until our feet itched no more. The birth of twins and the ensuing chaos cured us, and when I was offered a job back here, it smelled like a blessing. And, dear reader, so it has been.

Four years and two more kids later, it’s still all good. As I’ve considered this moment and what it’s meant for me over the last ten years, I have no regrets. That’s not to say that life would have been miserable had I stayed in the US, but I like the life of an expat. I’ve found a balance between going native and remaining obstinately American, being connected to the various communities around me and yet apart from them at the same time. The interplay between culture and behavior, both in individuals and groups, still fascinates me as much as it did when I first went abroad as a missionary some 20 years ago, and as I’ve gained language skills and some cultural friction here, it becomes more intriguing and rewarding.

This is as true for my Mormon experience as it is generally. The casual visitor to a Helsinki ward would recognize the church as they know it most places in North America. The wards are large and stable with core families, many second and third generation members and return missionaries, unlike so many of the branches I’ve visited in other parts of Europe. Visiting on any given Sunday, one would be forgiven for repeating the familiar mantra, ‘The church is the same wherever you go!’

Except it’s not. [Read more…]

Summertime & Suit Coats

Some years ago, when I had just started in the bishopric, I was conducting sacrament meeting on a hot summer day. We meet in a storefront chapel with no air conditioning, and it was warm in the chapel. I think I was the only bishopric member there, and we had a visitor from Frankfurt who was sitting on the stand. As I stood to announce the speakers after the sacrament, he leaned over and handed me a note. It said that I should announce that brothers could take off their suit coats if they wished. I just stared at the note for a minute for two reasons: first, my Finnish was terrible at the time and spontaneous announcements were a bit of a trick. Second, I was not wearing a suit coat myself.  [Read more…]

I am a terrible member missionary

We’re on summer holiday, but I dropped by the school to check on something. In my mailbox I found a gift from a student. It was the eighth bottle of wine I received this year. Clearly I have failed to make my status as a Mormon known to my students. It’s not their fault: the only clues to my Mormonism are a BYU diploma on the wall and what they perceive as an eccentric interest in herbal teas, neither of which signify any meaning to my international students.

I’m afraid this is not an isolated incident. A few years ago, I had a former student email me, a bit out of the blue. She had graduated about six years before, but I remembered her well. She had been a stage manager when I directed the school play, and we had a fair number of quite serious conversations. In this email, she explained that something had happened to her that she wanted to share with me. As you’ve already guessed, she had joined the LDS church, and she wanted to share her testimony with me. She wrote that the gospel would help me find the answers and (I remember the quotation very well) ‘leave my confusion behind.’ I sheepishly returned her email, explaining that I had been a member of the church when she knew me, although perhaps not very deeply involved with the church at that time.

So: please share your failures as a member missionary. Think of this as the anti-missionary moment.

Sitting on the stand

I’m in the bishopric, and have been for six years. Every Sunday, I sit on the stand, and it often feels ridiculous. I can see my wife and four sons in the congregation, and she is in constant motion, never really listening to a talk, doing a stellar job of keeping everybody happy and reasonably reverent. And I sit.

My most important job on the stand is to do nothing. I find that every time I move, everybody looks at me to see what I’m doing. So I sit still and wear an expression of interest in the speaker, occasionally doing something that looks like taking notes or reading a sacred text. And I wear a suit. Wearing a suit is an important part of sitting on the stand.  [Read more…]

Something I’d like to hear in a Sacrament Meeting opening prayer

“We know there are parents among us today who have, in their efforts to get their children to church, cajoled, begged, threatened and physically wrestled to get them into church clothes and/or outdoor clothing, violating most of the principles of good parenting and basic human morality in order to bring small children to a meeting that is not intended for them but through which they must behave unnaturally; these parents who have rushed to church but still come late to face the disapproving glances of others who will say coming on time is a matter of planning (but how do you plan for a child throwing his shoes out the third-floor window into the street below, taking a crap on the kitchen floor as we are walking out, or slipping on the ice and having a geyser of a bloody nose?), and with their own behavior fresh in their minds, to have to sit through all of the verses of ‘Love at Stinking Home;’ parents who will spend the sacrament meeting monitoring sacrament tray etiquette, breaking up fights, doing toilet trip escorts, looking for stray crayons, whisper-reading books and trying to stop someone from singing ‘Shake Your Money Maker’ while everyone else sings ‘I Believe in Christ’;

Bless these parents, that against all odds, they might feel something of the Holy Spirit today.’

On being lost

This last week I lost one of my kids. The five year-olds and I leave school together and walk through a square and down a pedestrian-only street about 500 yards to the bus stop. One of the boys had stopped for a moment to play in a snow pile and the other and I walked a little further along and stopped just around a corner to look in a shop window.

When I looked back, the first was gone. I wasn’t too worried as the area is fairly self-contained and not terribly busy, but then we started walking again and couldn’t see him at all. And then, way up by the bus stop, we saw a flash of his blue woolen hat, and we ran to catch up to him. He had just run out of a store and headed to the bus stop, obviously looking very hard, and I started shouting his name, but he was clearly panicked, literally running back and forth on the sidewalk trying to sort out what to do. People standing around him looked at me, this giant American shouting on the street, but then the light changed and he ran across the street toward another bus stop we sometimes use. His brother and I ran after him, shouting his name, but he just couldn’t hear us, probably sobbing himself and deafened by the adrenaline. He was running down the sidewalk in a frenzy, and I just ran and kept shouting his name. Just as he was deciding whether to cross the street again, a woman stopped next to him, knelt down, said something and pointed toward me. Finally he looked back and saw me and ran toward me. I gave the woman a wave and a thank you, and knelt down to hug my hysterical son. [Read more…]

How to create a fake investigator

In my mission, they were called investifakers; I preferred inventigators, but the name is immaterial. At certain times, companions and I deemed it necessary to report that we were teaching an investigator who did not exist. I built up considerable talent in this creative endeavor, and now I would pass my experience and knowledge on to any who might find it useful.

Before I begin, I need to acknowledge those who gave me so much. Of my four companions who were ‘older’ than me, three described having created investigators. (My trainer, a steadfast fellow who went on to become AP, never mentioned having done so: he was merely willing to round any segment of an hour up to the full hour and was generously inclusive in the definition of street contacting [including playing chess in the park and video games in an open arcade]). Truly I stood on the shoulders of giants. [Read more…]

On nature

I: September

One Saturday, I went hiking with a friend in the forest just beyond the city. We walked for about ten kilometers, up and down hills and through swamps and along lakes, all of the time in forests of birches, the white trunks rising high above us and the leaves shimmering in the wind. It was that moment between late summer and early autumn, when the coolness and dampness have settled in but before the leaves have changed. Any man’s thoughts are apt to turn to higher things in such a place, and given that my friend is a Lutheran priest, I was not surprised that he wanted to talk about religion when we stopped for lunch. But I was surprised by how he started.

‘Of course, nature is very important to you Mormons.’


‘Is it?’ I asked, more out of curiosity than denial.

He had toured the temple during the open house and had been struck by the mural in one of the endowment rooms covering three walls, clearly representing the beauty of the natural world just outside of the temple: birch forests, rock outcroppings and the occasional native fauna. (I believe murals representing the local landscape are common in the small temple designs.) He said, ‘It must be wonderful to worship in such a room.’ I agreed that it was, although I was unsure about the actual role of the room in the temple worship. I assume it is meant to represent the tellestial world, or the world in which we now live — but it is green and lush, full of life and beautiful, with nary a thistle or thorn. If you add to that the nearly religious devotion of Finns to their forests and the products thereof, I imagine that for most people in that room, the mural represents more of an Eden than a vale of tears. [Read more…]

On faith and healing

Jerry is schizophrenic.* He is able to live on his own when things are going well, although he is unable to hold a job or do much more than manage a daily routine. He is medicated and regularly spends time in a facility. He is a member of the church and for many years I was his home teacher.

One day at church, another ward member said that if Jerry prayed and fasted he might be cured. With enough faith, he said, we could do anything. This young man offered to give Jerry a blessing, which frightened Jerry. Jerry agreed to a blessing if I would give it. The other man suggested an anointing and blessing for the healing of the sick, but after having his options explained, Jerry elected for a blessing of comfort instead. My blessing was a plea for calm and peace in Jerry’s soul as I felt spiritually directed.

My first reaction was to be angry. It seemed to me that this young guy, long on abstract faith but short on actual experience with suffering, had planted a seed of false hope and possibly self-incrimination in the heart of a very sick man. Aside from that, my experience had taught me that a belief in the unseen was a tricky subject for Jerry because of his condition. And yet there was nothing really wrong with what this man had said. It was factually true. In theory, I did believe in the power of faith, that Christ made the lame walk and the blind see. Was my anger a manifestation of my weak faith? [Read more…]

Mad props for Ecclesiastes

I stumbled across Ecclesiastes because of a reference in a novel about a year ago, and I’ve read it from  front to back several times since. It reminds me of a TS Eliot poem, whirling around with its repetitive motifs and images, asking questions without answers, providing what seem to be contradictions. The pessimistic tone, the positions it takes which approach a sort of existentialism, these speak to me. Since the book only got a passing reference in Sunday School last week, here’s a few favorite passages for people to comment on:

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. (1:2) [Read more…]

Local, individual initiative and authority

Generally, I would like to see local leaders and individual members exercising more influence over the manner in which the church operates locally than they usually do. We go through the huge rigmarole of prayerfully choosing people for callings, sustaining them and setting them apart. This process, which at least in theory requires divine inspiration and the authority of the priesthood, is used for every calling in a ward, from bishop to activities committee member to building cleaning supervisor to Sunday School secretary. If the only function of a person with a calling (leadership or teaching or anything else) is merely to operate out of a manual or enact policy to the letter of the law, then this is all a waste of time. The process suggests a belief in the ability for individuals to receive some sort of spiritual guidance for their callings, or at least give the benefit of their experience, and then too often we require them to act out a script of a church policy handed down from an authoritative voice. It doesn’t make sense. More decisions about how the church operates within the scope of the core principles of the gospel should be passed further down the line. Leaders should help those under their stewardship make compassionate and otherwise value-laden decisions, not make the decisions for them. [Read more…]

A groovier Sabbath

I home teach some young single guys, and for Christmas I put together a CD of interesting covers of the Christmas songs from our hymnbook. Last month, they said it would be great to have a rockin’ Sabbath album for the rest of the year. As I thought about it, it seemed to me there were a fair number of songs on my iPod with religious themes. Despite stories about Mick Jagger on an airplane or witnessing demonic possessions at concerts, rock and R&B musicians have explored Christian and more generally religious themes in a way that is inspiring and thoughtful. I decided to put together a playlist from my own collection, and I set up some rules:

  • the artist must be known for secular music generally, so no Christian rock or gospel choirs, as groovy as they might be.
  • the song had to be devotional, however vaguely, and with a minimum of irony. ‘Say a Little Prayer’ doesn’t qualify, nor does ‘Jesus, Etc.’ or ‘Dear God.’

Here’s what I came up with: [Read more…]

Why not do it myself?

I recently read Preach My Gospel because I was asked to give a talk based on something in one chapter. What I found was what everyone had said about it: it is a concise, easy to follow guide to teaching people the teachings of the Church. Anyone with the desire to do so could carefully and prayerfully read the book and be prepared to tell a non-member what they need to know what the Church says they need to know in order to be baptized.

Which leads to this scenario:

Let’s say I have a friend who has seen my interaction with the church, and who I have talked to about my feelings about the gospel, and he says he would like to know more. Why would I call the missionaries? [Read more…]

Where have all the Lamanites gone?

So here’s how this started: a Mormon friend of mine had never heard living people referred to as Lamanties, as in ‘our Lamanite brothers and sisters in Mexico.’ He’s Finnish and has never lived in the States, but still: I thought using the term ‘Lamanite’ to refer to indigenous peoples of North America, South America and/or Polynesia was fairly basic in Mormon culture. (I’m no social scientist, so forgive my clumsiness in dealing with these terms.) I grew up with the word ‘Lamanite,’  hearing it from people my parents’ age. I’ve tried to recall whether I heard it used by BYU students or missionaries other than ironically, but I can’t remember much from those years other than ironically , so who knows? Certainly, the leadership of the church referred to those populations as Lamanites throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. I assumed that if they stopped it was probably because of the DNA controversy of the last few years.

With a hypothesis and a song in my heart, I went to lds.org, and I did a search for the term ‘Lamanite’ in General Conferences. The church magazines are online starting from 1971, so that was my beginning point. I got 120 hits, and then read through them to see if the talk referred to Lamanites in The Book of Mormon or Lamanites being alive and well, so to speak. (I ignored the ‘News of the Church’ entries.)  I found 26 references to contemporary Lamanites [1]: [Read more…]

Beer-drinking Mormons

I recently went to a sauna night at a church member’s house, and another member, very active, shows up with a can of beer. Really.

It turns out it is 2.8% beer, and he says drinking this isn’t forbidden by the Word of Wisdom because a grown man cannot get drunk off of it. He claims lots of Mormons do it. The host amiably disagrees, but he drinks no-alcohol beer. I’m skeptical as well, but I drink home beer and sima (which translates as mead), both of which have extremely low alcohol levels. I believe most Mormons here do, and in fact sima was served at our wedding reception in the stake center with no raised eyebrows. Another brother present drinks none of the above, citing the ‘appearance of evil’ concept.  Later, I ask a very orthodox friend, and he says he doesn’t drink 2.8%, but he doesn’t think it is forbidden, and he mentions that his father and brother imbibe.

Is it possible for five Mormons to have different ideas about what the Word of Wisdom means, and yet they all believe they are keeping the Word of Wisdom? Is it significant that all five are very active life-long members? How about the fact that all five conduct temple recommend interviews? [Read more…]

Provo, 1991

WARNING: This is a story that admits that some men, even Mormon men, are interested in having sex with women, and that some BYU students don’t keep the Honor Code. If these facts bother you, then don’t read this story; you will not enjoy it.

I wrote this for a writing class  in 1995. At that time I was inactive but recognized that my Mormon background would be interesting to my classmates.

I saw Ellen at a party in November of 1991, and she glowed with a dark and dignified sexuality. Jameson , a former roommate of mine, was throwing a 1960s-themed costume party at his house. Most of the guests wore thrift-store Woodstock cliché to match the Grateful Dead oozing out of the speakers in another room. Ellen stood tall over the kafkans and macramé in an A-lined gogo-styled minidress with a geometric black and white pattern. A matching scarf neatly pulled her strait brown hair back, except her bangs, which hung low over dark, small eyes made darker with makeup. She wore the white knee-high boots like she had born in them.  She looked, well, cool. In a room full of undergraduates hyper with the illusion of social release and the faint but palpable hope that the faded bell-bottoms and the pretense of being stoned might reveal something interesting in them that J. Crew and earnest discussions abut the Gulf War did not, Ellen radiated honesty. Her costume seemed to reveal something true about her rather than masking her identity. There was no trace of self-consciousness about her at all.

Of course, it is now impossible to look at that moment with real objectivity; the filter of the years between now and then and our common experience undoubtedly warp and color my memory. The truth is that I cannot remember Ellen ever being self-conscious about anything. We were once caught sunbathing nude by a National Park ranger, and she showed no sign of shame, defensiveness, indignation, or even titillation. The ranger’s over-polite request that we put clothes on seemed to strike her with the same moral force as a reminder to not feed the bears. Standing across the room at the party in her Nancy Sinatra boots, she may have exuded more complex and highly manipulated emotions, but if so, they are lost as I place that event in the context of our lives together. [Read more…]