Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Talk like a Mormon: Moving through the Ranks - Young Women

Just as boys progress through organizational ranks in the Mormon Church, so too do girls. Beginning at the age of 12, Mormons girls are said to be part of "Young Women's," short for "The Young Women's Organization." There are three ranks or groups within the organization. On Sundays, the three groups meet separately for classes. They also meet collectively with the Young Women's presidency within the ward, both on Sunday and for activites during the week (remember that "ward" is the word both for the local congregation, which is determined entirely geographically, and for the actual meeting house where the ward congregates). The presidency is a group of women chosen (or "called") by the ward leadership (the bishop and his councilors - all male) to work with and guide the young women. Young Women's President is a bit of a banner "calling," or position, within the ward. A woman would never aspire to it, since callings don't work that way. But most women, at least publicly, would be thrilled and honored to be called to the position, since it is pretty much expected that the young women they work with will regularly comment (at least at church) on what an example the president is to them. Each rank or group within the organization would also have its own presidency, chosen from among the young women within the group. The three ranks are:
  1. Beehive: 12- and 13-year-old girls are called "beehives." Since girls are never allowed to attend "Young Men's" (i.e., priesthood), or boys "Young Women's," I can't tell you precisely what beehives do during their classes. I do know that all of the young women have "values" that they spend a lot of time reciting: "Faith, divine nature, individual worth, knowledge, choice and accountability, good works, integrity." Each value has an associated color, so when the Young Women's presidency decorates for a ward event, it looks a bit like a gay parade of rainbows. As neophytes in the organization, beehives probably spend some time learning about the values - and learning to recite them endlessly in just the right order. For the mid-week activites, beehives tend to get paired up with deacons (12- and 13-year-old boys). These regularly occurring, social (and sometimes service-oriented) activites where boys and girls co-mingle are called "mutual" (short for "The Mutual Improvement Association"). Here's a sentence that correctly illustrates the ways these terms are used: "There's a new beehive in the ward - I saw her at mutual last night." Incidentally, beehives are not called by that name because of their preferred hairdo. The beehive is a symbol selected by Mormons for themselves (and, by extension, for Utah) because they regard bees as industrious workers. Why specifically the symbol is attached as a name for 12- and 13-year-old girls is probably best answered by a serious Mormon historian (or Wikipedia). Rest assured, however, that most Mormons themselves haven't given this a lot of thought; beehives are simply what girls in this age group are called because the Church says this is what they are called.
  2. Mia maid: 14- and 15-year-old young women are called "Mia maids" (the first word is pronounced "my-uh," like "Mayan" without the "n"). The term comes from M.I.A., which in Mormon parlance stands for Mutual Improvement Association (see above). Over time the acronym began to be pronounced as a word and spelled as a proper adjective. One would never call these young women "maids"; they are always referred to as "Mia maids." Again, I don't know exactly what they do in their meetings. It's probably telling, however, that young women would know at least some of the special responsibilites of young men (that deacons pass the sacrament, for instance), whereas young men don't know what young women do - in large part because there are no rituals, duties or assignments performed publicly by young women before the entire ward, as there are by young men. As a boy, all I really knew with certainty about Mia maids was that they liked to giggle a lot and alternately flirt with and mock teachers (that is, 14- and 15-year-old young men). But then, so did I...
  3. Laurel: Laurels are lovely, all fresh-faced and virtuous - at least in the Mormon imagination. Since they are 16- and 17-year-olds, they are young women in body and spirit, as well as in name. By this point you have surely already anticipated that I really don't have a clue what they do in their classes, either. My guess is they spend some time working towards an award, called "The Young Womanhood Recognition Award," which is a medallion worn on a chain. I know this only because occasionally during Sacrament meeting (the main meeting during the three-hour block of meetings on Sunday - the one where the entire ward meets together regardless of age or gender), laurels who have earned the award are recognized. Lucky laurels get to date upstanding priests (16- and 17-year-old boys who hold the priesthood), since dating is officially allowed beginning at the age of 16. Ideally the dates would be double dates (there is safety in numbers), and the laurels would find modest but pretty earrings to match their award medallions.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Talk like a Mormon: Ignorant and Ornery

Among the adjectives that Utah Mormons like to use, two in particular require some explanation and translation for the uninitiated: ignorant and ornery.

Ignorant - This one, which is usually pronounced "ig-nurnt" in the Utah dialect, does not mean what you think it means (or what any standard dictionary says it means). Rather, it is used to describe a person or action perceived by the speaker to be rude or offensive. As in, "I can't believe she said that you'd never get into BYU. She's so ignorant." Also, "We tried to get all our home teaching done this month, but that inactive member we've been assigned to wouldn't let us stop by. And it was really ignorant how he slammed the door in our face."

Ornery - This one means more or less what you think it means (or what any standard dictionary says it means), but its especially unusual pronunciation and wisespread currency will likely confuse you. It is pronounced "on-ree" in the Utah dialect, and it is very commonly used when someone is perceived by the speaker to be grumpy, short-tempered, or just out of sorts. As in, "I don't know what's wrong, but he's been ornery all day."

Sunday, August 14, 2011

A Crazy Mormon Family: Mr. and Mrs. P

I come from a family of six children, and my father also came from a family of six children. Six might strike the average American today as a large number of children, but when I was growing up six was a fairly average number in our community. A few of my classmates in school came from families with ten children, and one boy was somewhere in the middle of twelve. Twelve seemed large, even to us. But then, some of our parents had come from even larger families. The matriarch of one epic family that had homesteaded a lot of property in that rural area had given birth twenty times. People often pointed out that there was a set of twins in there. I guess the thinking was that nineteen pregnancies sounded more reasonable (or at least less noteworthy) than twenty. However you counted them, a lot of the children turned out to be trouble, and the children's children (who were my age) were generally feared at school. The patriarch and matriarch of this brood, which I'll call the P's, were thought by most people there to be crazy. And they were, as I learned personally.

The old couple, Mr. and Mrs. P, must have been in their sixties when I was a child, but they looked more like centenarians. They were nominally Mormon (they were members, and they made sure to have all of their children and grandchildren baptized at age eight), but they never attended church, and nobody went out of the way to try to encourage them to attend. They had built a tiny house on the opposite side of the valley from my parents' house, and I and all of the children in the area knew who they were even without seeing them at church. We knew because the family raised vast numbers of sheep, and they'd run their sheep on the road through town twice a year when they moved them up to the mountains for the summer and down to the river bottoms for the the winter. We also knew about Mr. P specifically because he would often drive around with a horse in the back of his pickup truck.

In case you aren't familiar with the regular transporting of horses, you should know that horses are pretty much never hauled in anything except horse trailers. You can ride a horse a decent distance if you need to get it from one place to the other. If you need to transport one a truly long distance, a horse trailer is large, safe, and not too high off the ground. It is conceivable, I suppose, that someone might try to move a horse in the back of a full-size pickup truck if there were no other options for a long-distance transport and if the pickup had a high cattle rack surrounding the truck bed to ensure that the horse couldn't fall out. Horses are smarter than cattle, so how you'd convince the horse to walk up into the bed of the truck is an interesting riddle to solve, but, assuming you could, the scenario is conceivable. Even then, horses are larger than cattle (bulls aside), so it would be cramped for the horse. But Mr. P regularly hauled a horse in the back of his truck, and what made it especially memorable for everyone, but for children most of all, was that his truck was a tiny, beat-up Japanese 2x4 that couldn't offer the protection of a cattle rack for the horse because the bed was far too small to fit a cattle rack. The only benefit for the horse to this crazy set-up was that 2x4s were, as a rule, lower to the ground, so the poor horse didn't have far to step up when Mr. P prodded it to get in. You might think that this would also mean the horse wouldn't have as far to fall when Mr. P took a sharp turn or hit the brakes. But I can honestly say we never heard of a horse falling out of the back of his truck. We also never heard a good reason for why he hauled a horse around in the first place.

At some point when I was a boy, my father was assigned to be the "home teacher" of Mr. and Mrs. P, who now lived alone. "Home teaching" is a church-sponsored program whereby priesthood holders (that is, active members of the male sex over age 12) are paired up and assigned a few families to visit once a month. During their visits to their families, home teachers are supposed to give mini lessons about Mormon values and beliefs (there is even a yearly manual, with lessons outlined for the home teachers). Home teachers are also encouraged to get to know their families and to help them with whatever the families might need. The program ensures that Mormons stay connected, and that less active members (or at least those less active members who will receive home teachers) are visited and encouraged to reconnect with the church. In our rural setting, there weren't too many inactive members, but somehow or another my father was always assigned to them. This was probably because he managed to get inactive members to allow him to visit. His visits tended to be light on the lesson and heavy on the help, which probably explained his success. But he did always manage to work in a little talk about church.

Long before I was twelve I was my father's de facto home teaching companion. I'm not sure whether this was because the boys or men he was paired with were not reliable or because it seemed less odd to the inactive families he visited if he just brought his own young son. Whatever the reason, as a young boy of seven or eight I suddenly had up-close contact with the strange Mr. and Mrs. P. My father was assigned to the P's for over a year. We visited every month. At the end of each month, my father would have to give an accounting of his home teaching visits to the priesthood leader over his quorum (quorums are priesthood groups separated by rank, which largely corresponds to age). My father never missed a month or a family. So, once a month for over a year I got to visit that strange and infamous couple.

Their tiny house was perched on the side of a hill that was covered with sage brush. There were no trees planted near the house, as was usually done, although down on the flat to the side of the hill there were some old cottonwoods and pines. The house was far too small for twenty children, but that was because it had been built when at least half of the children had moved on. Still, you had to wonder where the other half had slept - and on what, as the place was sparsely and poorly furnished. Mr. and Mrs. P both smoked a lot, and so the house and its inhabitants reeked of cigarettes. That alone would have made them the wickedest people I'd met up to that point in my life (Mormonism forbids tobacco). But even more damning was the one thing that hung on their whitewashed walls: a certificate of divorce, which they had framed. I asked about it during one of our visits, and Mrs. P proudly explained what it was. I don't think my father realized before my asking about their single piece of art that the P's were divorced, and it must have made him wonder whether it was o.k. that they were living together if they weren't in fact still married. When I asked why they still lived together if they were divorced, my father apologized, but he didn't say that an answer was none of our business. Anyway, we didn't get much of one. Mr. P smiled but said nothing. Mrs. P just laughed loudly and said they got along better that way. I remember that she threw back her head when she laughed, and her long, grey, coarse hair shook like a horse's tail twitching to keep flies away. And I also remember that I could see that her teeth were brown when she laughed, and that she was missing a few.

My father spent a lot more time talking with them about hay crops and lambing and the weather than he did talking about Joseph Smith or the Book of Mormon. The P's didn't ever seem to need temporal help (spiritual help was another matter, but they weren't asking), so my father often brought them vegetables from his garden or eggs or milk. They genuinely seemed to like our visits, which were probably the only social calls they had outside their vast and sometimes violent family. Up close, I discovered that the old couple were even more eccentric than any of us had imagined, but that they were also hardworking and generous with what they had (my sisters and I got to raise bum lambs, courtesy of this family).

My father's and my home teaching assignment to the P's ended because the old couple split up. She moved in with a son near their old homestead, while he moved up somewhere north of town (where he lived exactly was unclear, although it may have been in a sheep herder trailer on another tract of land he owned). People sometimes spotted her walking on the side of the highway, and the rumors in town were that she'd gotten seriously involved with drugs of one kind or another. We'd see him driving around town from time to time, occasionally with an uncomfortable-looking horse in the back of his tiny pickup. Their house sat vacant for a few years, until one of their younger, calmer sons moved in. He wasn't as wicked - or as interesting - as his parents. He even became somewhat active at church. And my father wasn't assigned to be his home teacher.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Talk like A Mormon: Moving through the Ranks - Young Men

12 is an important age for Mormon boys. It is the age at which a male may be ordained to the first office in the lower or preparatory priesthood, called the Aaronic Priesthood (after Moses's brother Aaron, who, according to the Bible, was the first man ordained by God to be a priest in the temple). Mormon boys from the ages of 12 through 17 are said to be part of "Young Men's," short for "The Young Men's Organization." They are generally referred to this way only in the collective sense ("the young men" or "Young Men's"); an individual boy is not referred to as a "young man" when talking about his rank. (Mormons do use the term "young man" in the same sense that the term is used generally by the English-speaking world). Instead, an individual from "Young Men's" would be identified by the rank he holds within the Aaronic Priesthood, and ranks correspond to age groups. The ranks are:
  1. Deacon: 12- and 13-year-old young men are deacons, and they belong to the "Deacons' Quorum." Deacons have primary responsibility for passing the sacrament (the bread and water) during Sacrament Meeting on Sundays (think of Sacrament Meeting as Mormons' version of Mass). One deacon is selected by the men who work with the quorum to be the quorum president, and he in turn gets to select two counselors from among his peers. The presidency gets to design the pattern for the passing of the sacrament and to decide which deacon takes which part of the pattern (think of the the pattern as the equivalent of a play in a ball game: each boy passes the bread and then the water to a section of the chapel based on the number he is assigned). Mormons love efficiency, so there can be constant redesign and improvement of the pattern. Deacons also collect fast offerings. On the first Sunday of every month, called "Fast Sunday," Mormons are expected to go without food and water until the Sunday block of meetings has ended. As part of the fast, they are asked to give as "fast offerings" whatever money they would have spent on the meals (generally breakfast and lunch) they have skipped. They can do this at church (there are little envelopes by the bishop's office precisely for this purpose), but deacons are also sent door to door on that Sunday to collect the offerings. When I was a deacon, we were told not to look to see how much people gave, but it was easy to do since the envelopes were closed with a string fastener much like an interdepartmental office envelope. Needless to say, I peeked from time to time. I often noted how some inactive Mormons who never came to church and likely never skipped a meal would still let us come to gather fast offerings and would give a generous amount, whereas some holier-than-thou regulars at church would give a pittance, but would present it to us as if it was a great offering.
  2. Teacher: 14- and 15-year-old young men are teachers, and they belong to the "Teachers' Quorum." There are also a couple of men assigned to work with the teachers, and one of the teachers is chosen as the president, who in turn gets to select counselors. Teachers have two primary responsibilities, both relating to the sacrament. First, they take care of the preparation and clean-up of the sacrament. This means that they bring the Wonder bread to church and place it in the trays for the group of young men just older than them to break, bless, and give to the deacons during the sacrament portion of Sacrament Meeting. They also place the tiny cups (made from paper when I was young, but mostly from plastic these days) in the trays with the tiny cup holders, and then fill them with water. They place both the bread and the water trays on the sacrament table and cover it with a white cloth. Then, after Sacrament Meeting, they clean the trays and store them. As a side note, Mormons don't guard or babysit the leftover sacrament (as do Catholics their Holy Eucharist). Teachers just pour out the leftover water and dump the leftover bread. Except on Fast Sundays, when some of them (or at least some of my fellow teachers and I, when I was that age) would eat the leftover bread because we were SO HUNGRY! Second, teachers close the doors to the chapel when the sacrament is prayed over and passed during Sacrament Meeting. This is to discourage entrances to and exits from the chapel during this most sacred part of the meeting. Just the same, if someone has to go to the bathroom or has a crying baby, teachers let them by.
  3. Priest: 16- and 17-year-old young men are priests, and they belong to the "Priests' Quorum." As is the case with deacons and teachers, a couple of men work with the priests. What is unique about priests, however, is that one of the men who works with them within the quorum is the bishop of the ward, and it is the bishop who is the president of the quorum. The bishop will select two priests to serve as his assistants (first and second). Priests' primary responsibility is to break the sacrament bread and to say the set prayers that are delivered over the sacrament before it is passed by the deacons. Ordinarily Mormons do not use set prayers, but these particular prayers were revealed to Joseph Smith as special sacrament prayers, and they are recorded in a collection of his revelations called Doctrine and Covenants, which Mormons consider to be scripture. The prayers have to be delivered exactly as the prophet received them, except that the original prayer for the second portion of the sacrament says "wine" instead of "water" (early Mormons used wine for the sacrament until Joseph Smith received a revelation about food and drink called the Word of Wisdom, which forbade wine). I have to admit that I wondered a time or two when I was a priest about why God didn't realize that he was going to forbid wine when he gave Joseph the prayer that had to be recited exactly as written. It was almost as if God wanted to confuse us, or to see whether we were smart enough to substitute "water" for "wine" if we were reading the prayer from Doctrine and Covenants. Luckily, by the time I was a priest, printing and laminating were common with church members, so we could always use a printed and laminated copy of the prayer that only said "water." I figured God gave us printing and laminating in order to fix the confusion (or help the less smart priests). As Mormons like to say, God will never test us beyond what we can handle!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Talk like a Mormon: Garments, or, Mormon Underwear

Adult members of the L.D.S. Church who have taken part in a sacred temple rite called an "endowment" ceremony are given underwear that they are told to wear for the remainder of their lives as a reminder of the ceremony and the promises (both to and from God) that are part of the ceremony. Note that they aren't told to wear that same exact pair of underwear for the rest of their lives. There are special stores, called distribution centers, that sell the underwear, and Mormons change their underwear as often as anyone else does.

Since the underwear must be covered by outer clothing, wearing the underwear also ensures modesty. Only adults may enter the temple to take part in the endowment ceremony (or "receive their endowment"), so Mormon children and teenagers wear regular underwear (and may, therefore, wear more revealing clothing than their parents, although this isn't generally encouraged). Usually the first time Mormons go to the temple (which is separate from a ward meeting house, where Sunday services take place) for the endowment is in preparation for serving a mission or as part of the marriage "sealing" ceremony. In other words, anyone who is serving or has served a mission should be wearing the underwear, as should anyone who has been married in the temple. It is also possible for single adults who did not serve a mission and/or have not married to visit the temple for the ceremony and receive the underwear, but this is a rarer path to follow.

Besides giving you some general information on the underwear, this entry will explain some terminology and exemplify some common ways Mormons talk about their underwear with one another. This entry won't explain any of the markings on the garments. There are two reasons that this entry won't explain the markings. First, there are countless internet sites out there that will do that for you. Second, and more to the point, this entry teaches you how to talk like a Mormon, and, outside of the temple ceremony, Mormons never mention or discuss the markings with anyone (even one another), since they consider them to be highly sacred and, therefore, appropriately mentioned only by those who are temple-worthy and only in the sacred space of the temple.

Garments: Mormons call their underwear "garments," short for temple garments. They never call them underwear, but they do treat them linguistically in the same way as underwear in that garments come in pairs. When not speaking about them in pairs, there is usually no article "the" placed before the word, unless speaking about them abstractly in a highly religious way. So, for example, both of these sentences would be correct, although the first usage would be more common:

  1. "Ever since I went to the temple and started wearing garments, I had to give away all my cute sleeveless dresses."
  2. "Those who have been endowed wear the garments as a reminder of the promises they have made." Note that it would also be perfectly fine to omit the article "the" in this sentence, but by adding it the speaker would be emphasizing the sacred importance of the underwear. As written with the article, the sentence would sound good in a Sunday school lesson.
"G's": Mormons, especially younger adult Mormon men who have just started wearing garments, will often refer to them as their "G's." As in, "I just put on a new pair of G's."

One-piece vs two-piece: Historically, garments were one-piece underwear that looked much like a union suit, but in the 1970s two-piece garments (a separate top and bottom) were introduced for men and women. Both are currently available. One-piece garments are stepped into through the neck opening and pulled up. Two-piece garments in many ways resemble a T-shirt and long boxer-briefs (for men) or a camisole and long shorts (for women). Note that for men who choose the two-piece garments, the garment top may show above the outer shirt without anyone's thinking there is a modesty problem. Why this is so is not entirely clear, but this special exception for men is probably because the top is so high, and because the collar would appear to the uninformed like nothing more than a T-shirt top (which it basically is). Note also that for women neither the one-piece nor the two-piece separates have a built-in bra, which means (brace yourself, women readers) that Mormon women wear their bras over their garments. And Mormon women always wear a bra (think about that on a hot day). Since Mormons have a choice about what kind of garments to wear (but not about whether to wear them), it's normal for them to express a preference. Almost all younger Mormon adults prefer two-piece garments, while older Mormons may have made the switch to two-piece garments or may continue to favor the one-piece garments they grew up with. It's also common for Mormons to call one-piece garments "one-piecers," and to call two-piece garments "two-piecers." (It's probably worth mentioning that I've also heard one-piecers called "onesies," as in what a baby wears, but I've only ever heard that funny term used by the irreverent.) A choice of fabrics is available in both versions, and people have preferences on fabrics, as well. The following sentences are also good, standard Mormon utterances:
  1. "My dad still likes his one-piecers, but I can't imagine dealing with the foldover trapdoor at the back when it's time to go to the bathroom! It's two-piece G's for me."
  2. "I picked up a new pair of two-piece garments, and when I got home and opened up the package for the bottoms I realized that they were cotton-polyester instead of the mesh fabric that I like so well. The top was mesh. Do you think the distribution center will take the bottoms back even if I've opened the package?"
  3. "It is stinkin' hot today, and my garments are bunching up around my bra straps something fierce! I wonder whether it would happen less if I wore one-piece garments."

Monday, June 13, 2011

Decoding "I Believe" from the Musical "The Book of Mormon"

This particular entry is less a story and more a service project directed at you non-Mormon lovers of musical theatre. Mormons are big (one might say immense) on performing service. For my act of service, I'll decode the song "I Believe" from The Book of Mormon.

The Tony Awards were presented last night, and The Book of Mormon won a slew of awards, including the one for best new musical. Since there is so much profanity in The Book of Mormon, there was a lot of guessing before the awards about which number from the show would be presented as the showcase song during the televised ceremony. It turned out to be "I Believe," a touchingly funny song sung by Elder Price after he reclaims his faith and recommits himself to his missionary work. As is true for many things in the musical, this particular number is a lot more enjoyable (and a lot funnier) if you understand the references. The creators of the show (who are not themselves Mormon) clearly did their homework, and in this particular entry I'll do yours for you (think of it as reciprocal service - yours to me can be sharing this post). Below are some of the more inaccessible lyrics from "I Believe," with explanations (and explications) straight from Sunday school (yes, Mormons have Sunday school as part of their three-hour block of meetings on Sundays).

I believe that the Lord God created the universe.
I believe that He sent His only Son to die for my sins.
And I believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America.
I am a Mormon, and a Mormon just believes.

The first two and last lines are pretty straightforward, but it's nonetheless worth noting that, whatever mainstream Christians may think about the soundness of Mormon doctrine, Latter-Day Saints do literally believe that God is the creator and that God sent his son, Jesus Christ, who took upon him the sins of the world and atoned for the sins of all mankind. But it's surely the third line that catches the attention of most folks. That third line is a reference to The Book of Mormon (the book), which purports to be a record of ancient Israelites who, guided by God, crossed the ocean and landed in the Americas. The book opens around 600 B.C. with a prophet by the name of Lehi (pronounced Lee-hi) who, inspired by God, leads his family out of Jerusalem to the Promised Land (that's what America is, after all). According to Mormon belief, Native Americans are in part descendents of these Israelites. Incidentally, the name of this blog you are reading comes from an L.D.S. children's song called "Book of Mormon Stories" that talks about these ancient Isrealites crossing the sea. It is sung to the beat of a pseudo-Indian (that is, Native American) drum rhythm. In retrospect, the actions that we were taught to do as we sang the lyrics when I was a child were a bit offensive. We patted our mouths quickly with one hand and held two fingers up behind our heads like feathers whenever the word "Lamanites" (prounounced "Lay-mun-ites," with the stress on the first syllable) came up in the song. Laman (Lay-mun) was a son of Lehi, and Mormons believe his tribe is the one from which Native Americans are descended.

I believe that God has a plan for all of us.
I believe that plan involves me getting my own planet.
And I believe that the current president of the church, Thomas Monson, speaks directly to God.
I am a Mormon, and a Mormon just believes.

The plan of which Elder Price sings is the "Plan of Salvation," a central component of Mormon theology and a mainstay of the "discussions," or lessons, that Mormon missionaries present to "investigators," or those interested in hearing about the church. The Plan of Salvation maps out where humankind was before the creation of the earth, why we come to earth, and where we might go after death. In short, there was a war in heaven, and everyone who is born on this earth chose the side of Jesus over the side of Satan (who revolted against God and his firstborn son, Jesus). Because we chose the side we did, we are born and gain bodies. We are tested here on earth by having our memories of the preexistence removed from us. If we live by faith and do our best, then we may, because of Jesus's sacrifice, have our sins atoned for us and, in a resurrected state, return to God. There are different levels of glory after this life, and the best of the best (those who end up in the highest level of glory, called the Celestial Kingdom) may continue to progress throughout eternity, until they reach Exaltation. That is, they may at some point be exalted to become gods and goddesses themselves. Mormons believe that marriage between a man and a woman is so important because only through eternal couplehood is Exaltation possible. God, a loving father, wants his children to have all that he has. Since he has created worlds (including the one we happen to live on), the most faithful of his children might, at some point in the eternities, have that opportunity as well. If exalted, Elder Price (along with his eternal companion, his wife) would in fact get more than just his own planet; he would create his own worlds, his own humankind, and his own Plan of Salvation. Mormons know about all of this because there are, since the restoration of the true church by Joseph Smith, living prophets who continue to speak to and for God. Thomas S. Monson (Mormons are big on including middle initials or middle names when referring to church leaders) is the current mouthpiece of the heavens.

I believe that in 1978 God changed his mind about black people.
You can be a Mormon, a Mormon who just believes.

In fact, people of African descent could be Mormons before 1978, so Elder Price's line to the African warlord about his ability to be a Mormon would have been true even in 1977. Before 1978 black people could be baptized into the church and attend Sunday services. But until an official church proclamation in 1978, black men could not hold the priesthood (which is a lay priesthood, meaning all worthy male members hold some office of it), and black people could not enter the temple (the place Mormons go for the most holy rituals, such as eternal marriage). In other words, those of African descent had second-class status in the eyes of the church, and the greatest promise of all, Exaltation, was not available to them. The proclamation that did away with this inequity was issued by Spencer W. Kimball (note the middle initial), who was the president (and prophet) of the church in 1978. His proclamation is included in all post-1978 editions of Doctrine and Convenants, the book that contains modern-day (or latter-day) revelations (Joseph Smith's revelations make up the vast majority of that book). Black folks were singled out because they were believed to be the cursed descendents of Cain. Other peoples of color were not singled out. In fact, Native Americans and Latin Americans have historically been sought out by Mormons, since it is believed that these groups have the diluted but real blood of Israel in them (see above).

I believe that God lives on a planet called Kolob.
I believe that Jesus has his own planet as well.
And I believe that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri.
If you believe the Lord will reveal it.
And you'll know it's all true; you'll just feel it.

Joseph Smith did teach that God, who is an exalted man, has a physical presence (one we mortals can neither see nor truly comprehend), and that the closest planet to him is one called Kolob (pronounced Coe-lob, with the stress on the first syllable). For the more precise of you out there, you should note that Joseph Smith never taught that God lives on Kolob itself. Incidentally, there's a really beautiful part of Zion National Park (in Southern Utah) that is called Kolob Canyon. If that's what heaven looks like, sign me up for some Celestial glory (but don't make me take a wife!). As for the bit about Jesus having his own planet as well, I have to admit that that particular line confounds even me. Either these non-Mormon writers know something I don't, or they just went a little overboard. I will say that Mormons believe that God created many worlds (and many universes), and that Jesus is a co-creator. So maybe it's something to do with that. And now for the really interesting part: Missouri. Yes, Joseph Smith did teach that the Garden of Eden was in present-day Jackson County, Missouri, specifically in and around the town of Independence. (Obviously the flood that Noah survived moved things around a bit, and postdiluvian Old Testament events happened in ancient Israel. So Lehi and his family were really just getting back to their roots by crossing the ocean to the Americas.) When Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden they ended up in a place Joseph Smith called "Adam-Ondi-Ahman," which is in Daviess County (a few counties over). This area, which is today owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, is rolling farmland with a river running through it. I went there on a church history trip as a teenager, and it was there that I first saw fireflies (there are no fireflies in Utah), so it's a pretty magical place in my memory. The name "Adam-Ondi-Ahman" is supposedly from the ancient "Adamic" language (that is, the language that Adam spoke), and its meaning is usually given as something like "the place where Adam dwelt with God." Both Independence and Adam-Ondi-Ahman were gathering spots for Mormons in the early days of the church (they were forced from place to place a lot; Missouri was particularly unkind to the Mormons, with the governor of that state declaring war on them). Mormons believe that the Saints (that is, members of the church) will again gather in Missouri when Christ returns. Independence, in Jackson County, will be the New Jerusalem (this in addition to already being the childhood home of Harry Truman). And how, might you ask, can Mormons believe all this? Well, Elder Price gives a solid missionary answer. Mormons believe that you can pray to God and ask whether these teachings are true. He'll reveal it to you through a warm feeling, and when he does you'll know that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and that his teachings are true. You'll know that the book of scripture he brought forward, The Book of Mormon, is the word of God. You'll want to join the church he established. And if you want to go hardcore (converts are always the worst...), you'll probably want to prepare for the Second Coming (of Jesus) by purchasing land in Missouri, which could offer an incredible return on your investment: a whole planet of your own!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Talk like a Mormon: Moving Through the Ranks - Children

There are various organizations and ranks within the Mormon church, and each member belongs to an organization or holds a rank based on gender, age, and activity. Below are the organizations and ranks for children (yes, even children have ranks; the only people who escape classification within the church are infants up to 18 months, who stay with their parents for church meetings).

Nursery: This is where young toddlers from 18 months up to three years of age go during the first two meetings of church services (parents pick up their toddlers for the final combined meeting, called Sacrament meeting). Adult members are asked by the lay leadership of the congregation to help out in Nursery as their assignment. (In Mormon speak, the previous sentence would read as follows: "Adult members are called by the bishopric of the ward to serve in Nursery as their church calling.") Think of it as being asked by God to babysit for your neighbors. For the toddlers, Nursery is a one-and-a-half hour time of toys, snacks, and stories about Jesus (or about hungry caterpillars - it depends on which will make the majority of the kids stay quiet). Parents (ok, mostly mothers) of naughty Nursery children are summoned out of adult classes to come tend to the more serious problems.

Primary: At three years of age, little Mormons enter Primary. Boys and girls are kept together for Primary, but they are divided up by age groups, which are assigned various names. Like Nursery, Primary also stretches across the first two meeting times (about an hour and a half) of Sunday church services (which last three hours altogether). Part of Primary brings all Primary-aged children together for singing time and lessons from the Primary Presidency (adult women who are called by the bishopric to lead the organization because they are good with children - or because they deserve to be punished) about things like sharing your testimony (that is, your belief in the church). But children are also split up (for age-appropriate lessons) into groups according to their age, as outlined below. Each group has an adult teacher (male or female) who is called to sit with the group during combined Primary singing and sharing time and also much teach a lesson during small group time.
  1. Three-year-olds are called "Sunbeams." There's a terrific song that all Mormon children love to sing called "Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam." When I was young, I'd shout out the syllable "beam" in the word "sunbeam" and jump in my seat on that syllable when singing the song. Others followed along. It was irreverent fun, and I was scolded for doing it. I did it anyway.
  2. The next groups are all called "C.T.R." groups, which stands for "Choose the Right." There are various divisions of C.T.R.s, so you move through a numbering system as a C.T.R. for four years (until the age of eight). It used to be that when you became a C.T.R. you received a cheap little adjustable ring that had a green shield on it with the initials "C.T.R." It was considered a real rite of passage and a special gift. Boys weren't normally allowed to wear jewerly where I grew up, so I was over the moon with excitement when I got mine, and I wore it like Liberace. Now many adults where bulky silver versions of the rings. Even old, conservative Mormon men wear these adult versions now. Times do change.
  3. At age eight, you become what is called a "Valiant." This is also the age at which a person may be baptized. Like C.T.R.s, Valiants remain Valiants for a few years (until the age of 12), progressing through a ranking system (Valiant A, Valiant B, etc.). The name "Valiant" confused me when I assumed it. I had only heard it as a name for a prince in a Disney film, and I thought that if I received a ring when I became a C.T.R., perhaps I would receive a principality upon becoming a Valiant. No such luck.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Talk like a Mormon: The Smell of Intensifying

I've decided to supplement my bimonthly stories with short vocabulary lessons that will appear between the stories. This is the inaugural post of these vocab lessons, which I'm calling "Talk Like a Mormon."

There is an idiosyncratic (and fun) way Mormons in the Intermountain West (Utah, Southern Idaho, Western Wyomong, Northern Arizona, etc.) intensify an adjective in a statement: the word "stinking." Although an adjective itself, "stinking" doesn't behave like an adjective (and definitely doesn't describe the smell of anything!) when used this way. Instead, it behaves like an adverb, intensifying the (usually positive) adjective it is placed before. Think of it as synonymous with the word "very." When pronounced, it loses the "g" at the end.

As in, "That Laura Ashley dress she wore to church was stinkin' cute." Or, "He is so stinkin' smart, those Jehovah's Witnesses don't stand a chance in a debate with him."

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

If They Don't Drink Coffee, How Do They Wake Up?

Mormons don't drink coffee. The reason they don't is something called the "Word of Wisdom," which is the name given to the 89th section of Doctrine and Covenants, which also requires some explanation. Doctrine and Covenants is a book of teachings and revelations received and written down by Joseph Smith (with a few notable exceptions at the end that have come from Latter-Day Saint prophets after Joseph Smith and have been added to the collection in subsequent editions). Yes, besides translating ancient scriptures from gold plates buried in the ground near his childhood home, Joseph Smith also wrote brand new scripture from scratch. His teachings and the revelations he received from God are compiled in Doctrine and Covenants and treated as modern scripture by Mormons, who proudly note that God is still speaking to man.

Smith's writings contained in the 89th section of Doctrine and Covenants begin by identifying the section as a "word of wisdom," and through popular synecdoche those words have come to mean for Mormons all the teachings about food and drink contained in the section, along with the clarifications on those teachings that subsequent church leaders have given. The prohibitions include alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea. Actually, the section itself says that "hot drinks" are prohibited, but church leaders after Joseph Smith have made clear that "hot drinks" means coffee and tea. "Hot drinks" doesn't mean soup. (A friend of mine once told me that she met a Mormon who wouldn't touch soup because of the Word of Widsom; I had never, ever heard of such a thing before.) Coffee and tea are prohibited, regardless of the temperature at which a Mormon might wish to drink them. The color in which they come doesn't matter, either - green and white tea are still tea, so they're out. Herbal teas, which don't actually contain tea, are fine.

Coffee is the one that throws most folks for a loop when they hear about the Word of Wisdom for the first time. Inevitably someone will ask why. Mormons will try to come up with pseudo-scientific reasons, but I think the best answer to that question is simply that God (or at least Joseph Smith) said so. Another common question is, "What about decaf?" The answer to that one is, "Avoid even the appearance of evil." Besides, neither Joseph Smith nor the leaders of the church after him have ever officially said, "You can't have caffeine." You probably find this confusing, and so do Mormons. On church-owned properties, such as Brigham Young University or the Missionary Training Center, no caffeinated soft drinks are sold or dispensed. A lot of Mormons take that to mean that caffeine is a no-no. But it ain't necessarily so. You can, for instance, find hot chocolate (which contains some caffeine) on church-owned properties. A lot of Mormons won't drink caffeinated sodas, but plenty will, and there are no privileges of church membership lost by doing so. Indeed, there's a joke that "jack Mormons" (think of the term as the equivalent of secular Jews) and in-the-know non-Mormons love that drives this point home: "What's the difference between members and non-members? The temperature at which they drink their caffeine." Lots of Mormons drink Coke. There's even a rumor out there that the church owns a lot of stock in Coca-Cola. And in the rural valley where I grew up, plenty of Mormons drank Mountain Dew - especially the young men. Mountain Dew was, in a way, a sign of rural Mormon masculinity, much like driving a truck jacked up high over gigantic tires, complete with a gun rack in the back window. In fact, the can of Mountain Dew would finish the look by being placed in the truck's cup holder. In my house we weren't allowed to drink caffeinated sodas. Well, we weren't until I was a teenager, when somehow or another my mother discovered and became addicted to Diet Coke. Then we were allowed. I myself went through a serious Dr. Pepper phase in my teens. And I was still allowed to pass (and, later, bless) the sacrament.

Since Mormons aren't supposed to drink coffee, it can take on the same kind of forbidden coolness that cigarettes or alcohol can for other teenagers. In high school, I belonged to a somewhat rebellious crowd, and we'd signify our cool (if careful) rebellion by casually mentioning to our peers that we drank coffee. A favorite place to go was the Village Inn (or V.I., if we wanted to sound especially cool), a chain of diners down in the city below that were open late. You can hardly imagine the kind of responses that would be elicited by a bit of conversation that sounded like this: "What did I do last night? Oh, some friends and I went out for coffee at the V.I." The listener's eyes would grow wide and breath would be sucked in, and the edginess and cool factor associated with the speaker would rise considerably. Coffee was bad enough to make you cool, but not so bad that you were written off altogether as one who had gone hopelessly astray.

I myself threw out the claim of drinking coffee a good number of times in high school, but the truth is I never really developed a taste for the stuff, and I still don't drink it. My preferred poison back then (and even now) was iced tea. In an area that was at the time probably something like 99% Mormon, I managed to make friends with the one bona fide non-Mormon in my age group (she came out as a lesbian right after high school, so my seeking her out was probably inevitable for a number of reasons). She was of Catholic stock, although her family didn't seem to practice any kind of religion. Why she and her family ended up in Utah, let alone rural Utah, is still a bit of a mystery. But one glorious mystery they did reveal to me was the pleasure of iced tea. This family took a special sinners' delight in providing me my fix each time I went over to their house. Once, when I was grounded, my friend even sneaked a big plastic mug of the forbidden drink to me. I convulsed the whole time I sipped it alone in my room, but my shakes were probably due more to my fear of being caught than any caffeine deprivation I was experiencing.

So, if Mormons don't drink coffee (or tea), how do they wake up in the morning? Why, with family prayer and scripture reading, of course. That's how we did it in my house. We also had herbal tea or Postum. (Now off the market, Postum was a coffee-like instant warm drink make from wheat. It was a hit in my family, and my parents still have a stockpile of it in their basement fruit room.) And on those truly bad mornings, when the eyelids won't open even for scripture reading, there are Mormons who might just start the day with a can of Coke or Mountain Dew. They just hope that the scripture reading doesn't involve section 89 of Doctrine and Covenants – or, if it does, that their caffeinated soda is ice-cold.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Organization Religion

Mormons are highly organized people. This cultural characteristic is probably a holdover from the early days, when the members of the church were forced from place to place: from New York they went to Ohio, then to Missouri, then to Illinois, and then finally to Utah. Tight organization was a survival technique. Brigham Young, who led the Mormons to the Salt Lake valley, has been called a modern Moses for leading his people on a great exodus through the desert to what they decided was a promised land. To accomplish the migration, Mormons stuck to a tight organizational model whereby they were placed in various "parties" and then as separate parties drove their wagons and pushed their carts all the way to the Great Salt Lake. Establishment Mormons today trace their lineage to individual parties that crossed the plains (you might think of it as akin to the Boston Brahmins citing the ships they crossed over on). I’m fifth-generation, but I’m not quite “Mormon Establishment” enough to be able to cite an ancestor who belonged to one of the very first parties who crossed the plains to Utah. Mine came a few years later.

Of course, it wasn't called Utah when the first Mormons arrived in 1847. To them it was Zion. Mormons were and are big on finding (or forcing) parallels with Biblical Israelites. Brigham Young is the stand-in for Moses. The Great Salt Lake is the Dead Sea – and a river that flows into the Great Salt Lake was named by Mormons the Jordan River. The Salt Lake Temple is Solomon's temple. The Salt Lake Tabernacle (where the Mormon Tabernacle Choir – or “Mo Tab,” as Mormons affectionately call it – sings) is the tabernacle in the wilderness, where worship occurred before the temple was built. Even polygamy, it should be noted, was something Joseph Smith took from the Old Testament.

Once the Mormons arrived in their Zion, the church hierarchy again organized the population, using terms that still hold today. Larger geographical areas (throughout the world at this point, and not just in Utah) are divided into "stakes." This term was originally used because stakes are what hold a tent firm to the ground, and a tent is what the Israelites used for their tabernacle while traveling in the wilderness. Stakes in turn are divided into "wards," which are essentially local congregations. Wards meet in buildings that are called ward houses or chapels, and some ward houses are larger because they also function as stake houses or stake centers, where a combined conference of all wards in the stake may occasionally occur. When Mormons say they are going to the stake house, they don't mean Sizzler.

Because the boundaries of stakes and wards are set centrally by inspired church leaders, individuals do not choose which ward they wish to attend. Instead, Mormons are automatically members of the ward in which it is divinely determined that they live. In other words, just as you can't choose your family, you can't choose your ward – unless you opt to sell your house and move. And just like a family, a ward becomes close, in no small part because you spend so much time with your ward members.

But Mormons aren't only organized at the level of the community. There's also a lot of pressure to be organized at the level of the peer group and the individual. When I turned 12, I was, like all active boys of that age, ordained to the office of a deacon in the Aaronic Priesthood. The Aaronic Priesthood is called the "lesser" or "preparatory" priesthood (holding it is meant to prepare you for the Melchizedek Priesthood, which active adult men 18 or over can hold). Ordination to the Aaron Priesthood is a major rite of passage for Mormon boys, something akin to a bar mitzvah for Jewish boys. The analogy is particularly apt since the first office of the Aaron Priesthood, that of deacon, allows boys to take an active part in the administering of the most important weekly ritual: the passing of the bread and water (Mormons may not drink alcohol of any type) during the sacrament portion of the main meeting on Sundays.

Before church on the first Sunday I was eligible to pass the sacrament, the leaders of the deacons' group (deacons themselves) came over to teach me the carefully orchestrated patterns of passing. The plan wasn't unlike a secret football play dreamed up by the boy president of the deacons' quorum. We each had numbers that told us where to sit during the first part of the meeting, where to stand as the older boys who blessed the sacrament handed us our trays of bread and then water, and what pattern we'd branch out in to make sure that every person present got a chance to eat a little piece of that blessed Wonder bread and drink water from a tiny disposable paper cup. If you were assigned the number one position, you got to go up on the stand and serve the bishop (the lay leader of the ward), who, out of respect, was always offered the bread and water before anyone else. If you were a number three you took the front half of the left side aisles. If you were a number eight you did the very back overflow rows, where latecomers and moms with fussy babies sat. Just like a quarterback, the president of the deacons' quorum might assign you any number, so it was important to know the play well. Mess it up, and the whole holy ritual might look disorganized, and the bishop might have to stand up to ask whether there was anyone who did not have a chance to partake of the sacrament. No one wanted to be the cause of that humiliation.

New deacons were almost always given the number one position, and I am proud to say that this part of my story is not an anecdote about failure. I performed beautifully that first time as the deacon who served the bishop his morsel of bread and his splash of water. And I successfully served all other people (the speakers, the choir, etc.) sitting on the stand, as well. If the bishop did have to get up later that Sunday to ask whether everyone had had a chance to partake of the sacrament (because he suspected not everyone had), it wasn’t my doing.

Careful planning and organization were encouraged at a personal level, too. It was also at the tender age of 12, after being ordained as a deacon, that I was encouraged to start organizing my life with a day planner. Franklin planners (now called Franklin Covey planners) were all the rage at church when I was growing up in the 1980s. Just as you were expected to bring your copy of the scriptures each week to church, you also brought your day planner. This was probably a real necessity for a lot of members, since church meetings, church activities, and church obligations throughout the week were so numerous that they could literally take over a person’s life. It turns out that organizational skills are just as necessary for the survival of modern Mormons as they were for those pioneer ancestors.

Those same obedient youth who were using Franklin planners at church were also using them at school. I, on the other hand, found that the (totally awesome) Trapper-Keeper was working well for me at school, and already at that age I was interested in keeping my academic life separate from my religious life. So I didn't bring my Trapper-Keeper to church. I did bring my scriptures to church (that was non-negotiable), but I resisted the pressure to purchase the Franklin (even just for church use) and attend classes on how to use it. There must have been youth leaders who shook their heads sadly at my disorderly obstinance. I imagine them saying, in a meeting where they discussed the progress of each of the youth, "He thinks he can get by without one, and perhaps he can for now. But what will happen once he's an adult and has a job and a wife and children and a church leadership position?" Then a clich̩, much loved by Mormons, springs to mind: If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. And, ultimately, fail I did Рat least at organizing my life within the hard boundaries of Mormonism. My organizational skills, however, are what many a supervisor has called heaven-sent.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Mormons and Musicals

There is a new musical on Broadway called The Book of Mormon, and it can best be described as the perfect show for agnostics who love songs written by Oscar and Hammerstein and jokes told by seventh-grade boys. My partner and I caught a performance a couple of weeks ago, and we thought it was entertaining. I'm an occasional watcher of Comedy Central's long-running cartoon series South Park, which a few years ago offered a very funny treatment of the Joseph Smith story (recounted when a disturbingly perfect Mormon family moves in to the town of South Park). Because the South Park creators wrote and directed The Book of Mormon, I had high hopes for the show's hilarity.

It was outrageously funny in places, mostly in the first act. The "Turn It Off" number, with some terrific tap dancing done in the dark, was about the need for Mormon elders to bury their doubts and earthly desires for their two-year stint as missionaries – and for one elder in particular to bury his homosexuality. For obvious reasons it was a particular favorite of mine. So was "I Believe," a song sung by a doubting elder who regains his faith and lists the more interesting aspects of Mormon theology that he dutifully believes in. "I Believe" in two places samples "I Have Confidence" from The Sound of Music, and there are references to other Oscar and Hammerstein shows in the numbers (the "Uncle Tom's Cabin" bit from The King and I is alluded to in a part where the Ugandan Mormons retell the Joseph Smith story). The songs overall were terrific: catchy and fun and sung with a kind of gee-willikers earnestness that is laughable but endearing – and definitely Mormon.

Halfway through the second act, however, the total lack of constraint on obscenities and on taboos began to seem more like a liability than an asset to the show, and I realized that part of the reason the South Park episode about Mormonism was so fun was because television (including cable television) imposes some limitations. By the end of The Book of Mormon it became clear that even a musical about how misguided and potentially harmful religious constraints are can nonetheless benefit from artistic constraints.

Tickets for the show are expensive and hard to come by, but it's safe to say that this show's success is definitely not due to a high turnout by Mormons converging on the Great White Way. Like Jews, to whom they are often compared, Mormons enjoy musicals, humor, and attention (although, to be sure, Mormons' preferences in all three areas tend to be much simpler and more conservative than those of American Jewry). But this musical comedy about Mormons is not for Mormons. And, although Mormons wouldn't find them to be faith-promoting, the show's humorously deprecating references to the Joseph Smith story or to the stories within The Book of Mormon (the book) are not the real problem here. Instead, it is the show’s blasphemy and scatology that Mormons cannot abide.

But even if you cut those elements, Mormons would still have their own preferred theatrical treatment of the story of The Book of Mormon (the book) for New York audiences. Each summer in upstate New York, near the boyhood home of Joseph Smith, the church puts on the Hill Cumorah Pageant. Named by Joseph Smith, the Hill Cumorah is the place he said he dug up golden plates, from which he claimed he translated The Book of Mormon. According to Smith, a man named Moroni (pronounced more-OH-nye) was the final prophet and writer on the plates (and, incidentally, the son of Mormon, the chief compiler of the records and the prophet in whose honor the book is named). Mormons believe that Moroni buried these golden plates around 421 A.D., and that he then appeared to Smith as an angel and in 1827 guided Smith to the place where the plates were buried. It was, conveniently, close to Joseph's boyhood home and, as later Mormons would discover, a good place for an outdoor pageant.

Pageants are to Mormons what passion plays were to European Christians a century or two ago, and Utah Mormons don't have to go east for their pageantry. In Utah there is the Mormon Miracle Pageant, which also features parts of the story of The Book of Mormon in a pageant that is performed right on the temple grounds in the small town of Manti (pronounced Man-tie). When I was very young, the young adults group in our ward (that's the Mormon word for congregation) organized a trip to the Manti Pageant (as we called it), and my sisters, who were young adults, took me along for the ride. Actually, it may be more accurate to say that they were made to make me along for the ride. My parents were big on sending me along as a very young chaperone on my sisters' outings and even on their dates. This one was just an outing, but there were also going to be plenty of young men heading to the pageant, which was a full three hours away going at full freeway speeds (and Manti wasn't even at the other end of the state; Utah is a big place). I remember being pretty amazed by the spectacle of the pageant – especially by battle scenes and by a death scene where they showed the spirit leaving the body. The special effects may not have looked as good to my older sisters, who seemed more interested in the various young men who were seated on blankets near us.

Mormon pageants are huge, outdoor productions, but Latter-Day Saints are also fans of good old fashioned American musical theatre. Every family I knew growing up loved Oscar and Hammerstein shows, and men loved musicals as much as women did. When I was in music class in middle school, the music and band teacher told us about a trip he and his family had taken to Salzburg, Austria, years back and the sites they had seen from the movie version of The Sound of Music. All of us – boys and girls – sat spellbound by his descriptions of these places we knew so well from the yearly screening of that film on television. Oscar and Hammerstein shows were so much a part of our lives that, strange as it might seem, no one had much to say to me when I was a young boy and would belt out "I'm Just a Girl Who Can't Say No" from Oklahoma. The only person who ever seemed particularly nervous about it was my mom, but she heard my rendition on constant rotation for about six months. Hearing a boy sing it once was one (minor) thing; hearing your own boy sing it day and night with saucy actions to the words was no doubt something else entirely.

When the high school did a production of an Oscars and Hammerstein musical, it was, far and away, the biggest (and, really, only) show in town. The entire middle school was brought to see it. So was the elementary school. My oldest siblings were in South Pacific, and my older siblings did Oklahoma. I saw both of those shows not only during evening performances with my family, but also during the school day when we took a cultural field trip across the street to the high school. I myself had a major role in Caroursel when I was in high school, and everyone at school and at church talked about it for weeks. The entire community showed up for the productions, and some standout performances are still discussed years later. Just as a winning play that sent the high school football team to state competition entered the town's lore, so too could a winning Ado Annie (my dream role, but, alas, because it had been done just a few years before, we couldn't do Oklahoma when I was in high school, and, even if we had, gender-blind casting was not allowed).

Oscar and Hammerstein shows are safe, but they aren't homegrown. So, as you might expect, industrious and devout Mormons have written their own musicals that incorporate Mormon themes and characters. My Turn on Earth and Saturday's Warrior are the two most well known and most popular, and both draw heavily on the Plan of Salvation. The Plan of Salvation is the Mormon teaching about the progression of each of us from a spiritual pre-existence with God to an earthly existence where we gain bodies and are tested (our memories of the pre-existence are taken from us, so it's not as simple a test as it might otherwise be!) and then to an afterlife where we are judged and, eventually, resurrected. It may not sound like the stuff musical comedies are made from, but Mormons love these shows. One of my sisters was obsessed with Saturday's Warrior, and she (and, therefore, I) could sing any of the songs from it by heart. They're not all cheerfully upbeat numbers, either; like any successful show, this one has trials and tribulations and dark numbers. For instance, Jimmy, the wayward teenager in Saturday's Warrior, starts hanging out with the wrong crowd, and of course there's a musical number about this. You might suspect that the song is about drinking and drugs and sex – you know, all the things teenagers might be tempted by. But in fact this very wrong crowd sings about something even more dangerous to a young man: a belief that overpopulation is real, and that it takes a serious toll on the earth and on humanity. I'm not making this up. It's unlikely if you live outside of Utah, Idaho, Arizona, or Nevada, but if Saturday's Warrior ever plays nears you, you must see this masterpiece. In the mean time, a staged film version was released a number of years ago.

The creators of the musical The Book of Mormon have said that they'd like to see their show play in Salt Lake City. I think that's more likely than a real Mormon musical (or pageant, for that matter) playing on Broadway. The Book of Mormon wouldn't have a long run in Salt Lake, but some people there would surely want to see it. Salt Lake now has a good number of non-Mormons and "Jack Mormons" (that's the term for inactive, non-practicing Mormons - you might think of the term as the Mormon equivalent of a secular Jew). But The Book of Mormon isn't a show that could be staged by high schools and seen by the entire community. And for the Mormon mainstream, whether in small towns or larger cities, if it doesn't pass the high school test, it isn't good entertainment.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

An Aptitude for the Truth

There was only one high school in the county where I grew up, and there was only one counselor in that high school to help all 400 or so of us figure out who we were and where we were headed after graduation. A lot of us weren't headed to college, and I don't think our counselor thought it was his job to change anyone's mind about that in the four years we walked those three halls. One thing he did do for every student, however, was administer a test in the sophomore year that told us what our interests and talents were, and what jobs we might be suited for based on those interests and talents.

Of course, a lot of us were going to end up doing what our own parents did, regardless of what the test said. When I was growing up in that mountain valley, there were still a lot of mink ranchers who sold to furriers, alfalfa farmers who ran cattle, and manual laborers who got hired on at the cement plant. Unless you commuted down through the narrow canyon to the larger towns below, there weren't many other local options. A decent number of my male classmates did end up settling "down below" (as we called the larger towns), and they've become salesmen and office workers and civilian employees of the government. My female classmates have largely ended up as stay-at-home moms and – if they do work – part-time cashiers, and you didn't need a test to predict that. My own mom stayed at home once she had children, and three of my sisters have as well. When my fifteenth high school reunion came around, I noted just how many of my female classmates listed "working in the home" or "homemaker" as their profession in the space on the questionnaire that we sent in to be shared. Rural Utah is a hard place to be childless, and an even harder place to be a mom who holds down a full-time, professional job outside the home. As we were often told at church, "The most important work you will ever do is within the walls of your own home." But based on the paths we followed as adults, what that prophetic aphorism really must have meant was, "The most important work you women will ever do is within the walls of your own home."

At that time in my life I had a few vague ideas about what I might like to do as a profession, and I had a firm sense that I'd go to college, as my dad had. But I didn't yet have a specific career in mind – or at least one I could admit to. I loved film and theatre, and I harbored a secret desire to act professionally. But even though I participated in the high school plays and musicals, I told no one about this desire. Mormons like musicals, but in my rural valley and in my father's house in particular there was a general perception that professional actors didn't lead lives that lent themselves to upholding church standards. Worse, there were a lot of "fruitcakes" among actors, who, according to my dad, played "let's pretend" so much that they would forget that right is right. So it was risky to be too closely associated with that dream. And since I couldn't pursue that dream (or, naturally, that "lifestyle"), I was genuinely curious to see what the career aptitude test might point me towards.

A few weeks after we took the test, the counselor met with each one of us individually in my class of just over 100 to tell us our results. It must have been a considerable undertaking for him. Like nearly every person in the county, he was a member of the church, and I've wondered whether it troubled him that the test didn't ask questions that might determine a women's interest in and aptitude for sniffing out poopy diapers or packing the perfect snack pack to keep a baby interested through all three hours of Sunday's church meetings. Actually, it was probably better that the test didn't contemplate such an ending, because those poor girls who weren't identified as promising future stay-at-home moms would probably have suffered a lot of discomfort in their post-test conversation with the counselor. I myself can attest to the intensely awkward discomfort a student could feel when the aptitude test results were not in line with normal expectations. In my particular case, the results were of the type that dare not speak its name. And I don't mean that they were inconclusive.

When I was called in for my individual meeting with the counselor to go over the results, I could tell that something was wrong. He was normally a mild and pleasant man, soft-spoken but direct. He was chubby and moved a bit slowly, but as was expected of any man there he had a firm handshake. He also always looked a person in the eye, which meant he sometimes caught his students looking up at his hair to confirm the rumor that he wore a toupee. He knew my older siblings, who had all gone to the same high school, and he and I had had a brief meeting in my freshman year to go over my results from one of those achievement tests that schools were required to administer from time to time. He had been friendly then and had seemed genuinely pleased with my results. He knew from that meeting that I was planning on college. But when he opened his office door to let me in for our discussion of the career aptitude test, he looked a little nervous – and a little confused. After giving me a quick and surprisingly loose handshake, he motioned hurriedly (for him) to the chair that sat across from his desk, and he shuffled back to his own big, worn chair behind the desk. He opened my file, paused for a moment and took a deep breath, then took out a copy of the results, looking off to the side of my head and baring his teeth in a tight, uncomfortable smile. As he looked over the print-out, he said, quietly, to some spot at least two feet to the left of my face, "You'll, ummm, you'll notice when I give you your copy that on the top it lists the kinds of activities you seem to do well and the kinds of activities you seem to enjoy. And then, uh, on the bottom it lists three possible career choices for you to consider. You know, based on your talents and your, uh, your interests. The thing about this test is it can reveal interests that you yourself haven't necessarily thought of. And, ummm, so, then, it looks like you might want to consider the following three, uh, professions." He paused for what seemed like an eternity, and cleared his throat. "The first one is, uh, actor. You might want to consider being an actor." There was a pause. "You know, you, uh, you were very good in 'Carousel.' My wife and I just loved that production last term."

I could feel my heart start to pound and my face start to flush. Part of me felt pleased that this test had picked up on my innermost desire and said I should consider it - and that the counselor remembered me from "Carousel." But I didn't want him to think I actually wanted to become a professional actor, because by knowing that he might know so much more. "Oh," I said, "Well, that's very unlikely. I'm not really interested in that as a life. What are the other two?" I asked.

He now looked even more uncomfortable, and I could see small sweat beads forming below his strangely perfect hairline. I was getting more nervous by the second. His eyes moved down to the print-out for confirmation, then back to that spot somewhere to the left of my face. "Hairdresser, and, uh, interior designer," he answered quietly.

I'm sure I gasped, and I must have closed my eyes, because I remember the room going dark and muttering into that darkness in my head the word "frig" over and over. (Good Mormon youths never, ever said the "f" word; our substitutes were usually "frig," "flip," or "frick," and even these substitues were not to be used in polite company.) The other two possible professions that were listed had exposed me even more! No wonder the counselor seemed so weird. Both he and I had thought the test was going to identify my interests in order to guide me in the classroom, but what the test really did was identify my interests in order to guide me in the bedroom. I had been outed by a friggin' career aptitude test!

I opened my eyes. He looked back at the paper, then down at his desk as he handed me my results. I mumbled something about college and other plans, grabbed the paper, and hurried out of that office. As I remember, I went straight to the bathroom and tore the results up into little shreds, which I flushed down the toilet. Needless to say, I didn't share the actual results with my classmates or my parents. Instead, I said that the test indicated that I should consider becoming a lawyer or a writer or a professor. And, indeed, those were the paths I explored once I got into a college classroom. As far as my bedroom is concerned, of course, the test was very accurate in its implications. But it was wrong on at least one count: playing "let's pretend" in the bedroom ultimately just wasn't in me.

Saturday, April 2, 2011


While I was living in the Boston area, I dated a man who was a reporter at the Boston Globe. One evening he took me to a party where there were a lot of young reporters from the newspaper. At one point during the evening the people I was speaking with brought up Mitt Romney (who had been governor of Massachusetts and was at that point assumed to be the front runner for the Republican nomination for U.S. President in the 2008 race). The conversation turned to his religion and whether America would elect a Mormon, when suddenly a young woman from across the small, crowded room turned towards us with wide eyes and a knowing smile and said, “Oh my god, aren’t Mormons such weird people? What a f**ked up religion!”

Upon hearing this young woman’s brief but forceful summation of Mormonism, I immediately thought of a talk I heard as a teenager by Gordon B. Hinckley, late "prophet, seer, and revelator" (or, to put it in layman's terms, late president of the church - Mormons call their leader by the the title "president" if they are using his last name, but they generally speak about him in the third person simply as "the prophet"). In this talk, President Hinckley said, “Profanity is the attempt of a feeble mind to express itself forcefully.” I don’t think the line was his originally, but I associate it with him because that's where I heard it - and because I liked it when I heard it. So with words of the prophet in my head, and with – I must admit – some enjoyment in my soul at the awkwardness I was about to make this young woman feel, I smiled and said, “I grew up Mormon.” And then I laughed.

The young woman apologized profusely, and in subsequent conversation I found her to be a warm, funny, and insightful person who had a lot of good questions about the church. Her mind certainly wasn't feeble, but her knowledge of Mormonism was. No doubt the fact that I’m not a practicing Mormon (I was there as the date of a gay man she worked with, after all) helped us get around her first greeting. My date was less forgiving than I was, however. Such sentiments are never good party conversation when you don’t know the other guests well, but what made him even angrier was that this young journalist at a major newspaper would say such things (no doubt thinking them was less of a problem). It's probably also worth mentioning that my date's beat was religion.

This type of situation happens a lot, and potentially offensive first remarks don't always spring from total strangers who don't know my background. Last summer my partner and I joined his old college friends for a few days up in the Adirondacks, where we stayed at a cabin owned by the parents of my partner's college roommate. These parents were there the first night of our stay, and over dinner the father, who knew my background, turned to me and asked, "So are Mormons really as creepy as they seem?" Honest to God, that's what he asked. There was a moment of silence while I processed the question - and while everyone else looked down at their plates, as if whatever dish we were eating was the most interesting thing they had ever seen. After a few seconds, I replied, "That's probably a hard question for me to answer, since I grew up Mormon and all my family is Mormon." Someone then tried to change the topic of conversation, but there were more questions about Mormonism, my family, and their relationship with me. The rest of the questions, by the way, were much kinder.

There are almost always a lot of questions about my background from people I meet at parties, or on vacations, or in other social settings where one's guard and the stakes are lowered. It's very predictable, and my partner always laughs now when it happens. He knows that as soon as someone in a social setting realizes I'm Mormon or feels comfortable enough to bring it up, we won't be talking about much else - and he sometimes says as much to inquisitive new acquaintances. If they ask whether I'm offended by the questions, or whether I'd prefer not to talk about it, his reply is that I don't mind, and that in fact I like talking about it. And that's true.

For the first 23 years of my life, I was surrounded by Mormons. The church or aspects of it were constantly present, wherever I was or whatever I was doing. And now in my regular life I think and talk about the church only when someone asks me about it in unguarded conversation. I suppose in a way growing up in a religion and in a religious community and then choosing to move out and move on is an experience that's a bit like choosing to move to another country where a different language is spoken. It's not that you want to go back, and it just isn't practical to speak your old language in your new country. But when someone wants to hear about your homeland or to try speaking your first language with you, it feels nice to go to that home you carry within you for just a few minutes. Short, controlled visits are fine; a permanent return is impossible.