November 21, 2012

I was thinking that most religious traditions have purification rituals. Native Americans have kivas and such, Christians have baptism and penance, and Mormons have washing and anointing that we can become washed clean from the blood and sins of this generation.

But how do we become washed clean from the blood and sins of Mormonism? I know a lot of ex-Mormons who hold residual guilt for things they said and did as Mormons. I know I have my own regrets. Maybe it’s time for a purification ritual for me. Here are some ideas:

Dusting off my feet in front of the MTC or the temple.

Making a burnt offering of old garments or books.

Sacrificing a pork shoulder to my smoker.

Treat each day as a clean slate without any Mormonism in it.


Educated Fanatics

November 14, 2012

I’ve been reading a book about the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979, when radical Islamist students stormed the US Embassy and took 66 Americans hostage, ostensibly to demand the return of the exiled Shah, who had been admitted into the US for cancer treatment. Later the hostage-takers acknowledged that the events had nothing to do with the Americans or the Shah but were about destabilizing the moderate Bazargan government and consolidating power for radical Islamists, both of which goals were accomplished. I am not making a statement about the justification for the assault but simply reporting what the main actors have said themselves.

The hostages all say pretty much the same things about their captors: these were educated young Iranians–at least in terms of having formal study–but who viewed the world through a hopelessly naive and dogmatic prism of religious extremism. Americans thought it was ridiculous for the captors to call the embassy a “den of spies,” but the students seemed genuinely to believe that every activity in the embassy was dedicated to destroying Iran and its new regime. Every embassy employee from secretaries to Marine guards to the cultural attache was accused of being a CIA operative, and many were beaten and threatened with execution unless they confessed. The rough treatment of the hostages, including solitary confinement, long periods of being bound and blindfolded, not being able to speak to each other can mostly be explained by their captors’ fervent belief that they were dealing with evil people who were torturing Iranians and plotting to make Iran part of their empire. They couldn’t fathom that most of the embassy staff was involved in mundane activities, such as processing visa applications and running the motor pool.

One Army warrant officer jokingly said he had been in charge of a “wheat mold” program to destroy Iranian crops, and later several hostages were beaten and interrogated about this insidious attempt to ruin Iran’s economy. Another was asked about his role in the 1953 overthrow of the Mossadegh government. He replied, “I don’t know anything about it. I was ten years old at the time.” The hostage-takers were sure that they had God on their side and that the rest of the world would soon embrace their radical Islamist vision of heaven on earth. One captor rapturously predicted, “The American people will revolute!”

As I read these things, I thought of the numerous politico-religious fanatics who have crawled out from the woodwork lately, who see everything in the world as some kind of Satanically inspired effort to destroy all that is good in the world. Thus, a call to stop bullying gay children becomes an insidious plot to recruit children by homosexual pedophiles; a modest attempt at healthcare reform is the first step towards a Stalinist system of repression; adoption of any moderate or liberal social or economic policies is worthy of execution; and sending children to a Labor-party summer camp is morally equivalent to mass murder. These are some examples of extremism a friend of mine shared from a Mormon message board where I used to post.

Yes, I know most of these folks are just trolls, but some of them actually believe the crap they spew. As much as I would prefer simply to mock these idiots, I recognize that there is a dangerous edge to them, as fanatics tend to sacrifice their values ostensibly in the service of those values. The hostage-takers, for example, espoused freedom, faith, and morality but engaged in theft, torture, kidnapping, and other crimes. They thought their behavior was entirely justified, even though it violated the tenets of Islam, as some of their hostages often reminded them. The same potential exists among some of our crazier Mormon-rightwing fanatics. I have no doubt that, in the service of liberty, they would be happy to deprive their enemies (liberals, feminists, gays, immigrants, and so on) of their liberty. For instance, we’ve seen efforts over the years not only to deny gay couples the right to work benefits but also the right to work in the military and in public service. In the effort to “protect the unborn,” these folks would force women to go through pregnancy but without the resources to care for their children; they have used humiliation, intimidation, and plain hatred in their quest to celebrate the dignity of human life.

But these people are just like the hostage-takers: they believe fervently in a reality created by talk radio and extremist Mormon rhetoric, and they reject any facts or information that conflicts with that reality. Unlike them, I am happy to let them vent their nonsense. As the recent election showed, their vision of America is not appealing to most Americans, even Republican voters. What worries me is that too many right-wingers are responding not by thinking about what changes they need to make to become politically relevant again but by talking about civil war and secession. One of my coworkers said he thinks the only solution is revolution: “I’m ready.” A more extreme example is the Mormon woman in Arizona who ran over her husband with her SUV because he hadn’t voted, thus dooming the world to four more years of Obama.

I know, most conservatives do not have such warped thought processes (I am a conservative Republican, by the way), but there are too many crazy people out there.

Love, Reign O’er Me

November 9, 2012

I heard a quote today that I quite enjoyed from Pete Townshend’s Psychoderelict project:

“If you’re going to be introspective, at least do it in public.”

That’s how I feel about this blog. I’ve probably been too revealing of myself–well, not probably, definitely. Maybe it’s just that I feel a need to be understood and belong. Growing up, I always felt disconnected from everyone around me. Part of that was self-imposed, but part of it was that I just didn’t fit in, couldn’t understand what was going on around me well enough to become part of it. I have a report card from second grade on which my teacher has written that I’m an intelligent child but am “often in his own world.” I recognize now that this comes from my mild version of Asperger’s Syndrome. So I was always detached from others–a loner who craved connection and friendship, an introspective person who nevertheless expressed his thoughts to anyone around.

When I was about 10 years old, my brother bought a copy of The Who’s Quadrophenia, a “rock opera” about Jimmy, a young mod in the 1960s struggling to find his place in the world. (Coincidentally, there was a mod revival in Southern California when I was in high school.) I didn’t know anything about faces, tickets, leapers, or rockers, but I understood. The story was pretty simple: Jimmy, alienated from his family, friends, school, and life, becomes a mod to fit in, to be part of something bigger than himself. As Jimmy, Pete Townshend writes:

Brighton is a fantastic place. The sea is so gorgeous you want to jump into it and sink. When I was there last time there were about two thousand mods driving up and down the promenade on scooters. My scooter’s seen the last of Brighton bloody promenade now, I know that. I felt really anonymous then, sort of like I was in an army. But everyone was a mod. Wherever you looked there were mods. Some of them were so well dressed it was sickening. Levi’s had only come into fashion about a month before and some people had jeans on that looked like they’d been born wearing them. There was this bloke there that seemed to be the ace face. He was dancing one night in the Aquarium ballroom and everyone was copying him. He kept doing different dances, but everyone would copy it and the whole place would be dancing a dance that he’d only just made up. That’s power for you.

But, as everything does, the mod style fades away and even the “ace face” is “newly born” to a more pedestrian fate.

He smashed the glass doors of this hotel too. He was terrific. He had a sawn-off shotgun under his jacket and he’d be kicking at plate-glass and he still looked like he was Fred Astaire reborn. Quite funny, I met him earlier today. He ended up working at the same hotel. But he wasn’t the manager.

When Jimmy sees the ace face working as a humble bellboy, he asks him:

Ain’t you the guy who used to set the paces
Riding up in front of a hundred faces?
I don’t suppose you would remember me,
But I used to follow you back in ’63.

Disillusioned, Jimmy steals a boat, takes some pills and some gin, and ends up stranded on a rock in the sea.

So that’s why I’m here, the bleeding boat drifted off and I’m stuck here in the pissing rain with my life flashing before me. Only it isn’t flashing, it’s crawling. Slowly. Now it’s just the bare bones of what I am.

A tough guy, a helpless dancer.

A romantic, is it me for a moment?

A bloody lunatic, I’ll even carry your bags.

A beggar, a hypocrite, love reign over me.

Schizophrenic? I’m Bleeding Quadrophenic.

Although I was never a tough guy, this was me: a mess of contradictions, disappointment, and hopelessness.

On some level, I knew I wouldn’t ever fit in, but I found the uniform of belonging in my religion, Mormonism, with its emphasis on strict rules of behavior and a dress code of white shirts and ties. I’m convinced that in many ways, Mormonism has become much less of a religion than it is a fashion statement and a cultural attitude, just like the mod culture.

Why should I care
If I have to cut my hair?
I’ve got to move with the fashions
Or be outcast. …

The kids at school
Have parents that seem so cool.
And though I don’t want to hurt them
Mine want me their way. …

Why do I have to be different to them? …
Why do I have to move with a crowd
Of kids that hardly notice I’m around?
I work myself to death just to fit in.

I did work myself to death to be a good Mormon, and at least on the surface, I fit in. I could have said, as Jimmy did,

But I’m one.
I am one.
And I can see
That this is me,
And I will be,
You’ll all see
I’m the one.

I played this part for some 40 years, even though underneath I was still the same lost soul with “inappropriate” desires and thoughts. Even when I wasn’t at church or on my mission, I tried to force my life into the box the LDS church prescribed for me. During graduate school, I had become fascinated with philosophy and literary theory, but I put those things away as I settled into the working life I was destined for (my patriarchal blessing called it the “workaday world”).

When I finally figured out that Mormonism wasn’t true, I was devastated, not only from shock and disappointment, but because I knew that I was a middle-aged man who didn’t have a clue who he really was. One day I was listening to Quadrophenia in my car and heard Jimmy’s desperate cry:

It’s easy to see that you are one of us.
Ain’t it funny how we all seem to look the same?

This will probably sound ridiculous, but I wept in my car, knowing I’d buried myself under the Mormon uniform I had adopted, so much so that I couldn’t see the “real me,” whatever that was. I not only looked the same as just about every other Mormon, but I thought and acted the same way. But it wasn’t me, not even for a moment.

I began searching my soul to understand what I really thought and felt underneath the Mormon uniform I had adopted. I’m not sure it’s been good or bad that I’ve done much of my search in public, but at least I have a record of where I’ve been and where I am now. Part of coming to grips with myself is acknowledging that the Mormon me is part of who I am, whether I want it or not. I’m at peace with all the facets of me, and I think there are more than four.

In the end, Jimmy wants only to drown in a sea of love.

Let me flow into the ocean
Let me get back to the sea
Let me be stormy and let me be calm
Let the tide in, and set me free.

That’s where I am these days, I think: “I want to drown in cold water.” I’ve reconnected with myself not just by introspection but by making connections of friendship and love with others. That’s what was missing in my Mormon life: honest connections with other people, but then you can’t expect to be honest with others if you don’t know who you are in the first place. I’m still pretty screwed up in many ways, but I know myself a lot better than I used to.

Thanks, Pete. I owe you. And thanks to the friends I have made on this amazing journey. I love you.

How Romney Will Recover

November 8, 2012

After a long and exhausting–and ultimately unsuccessful–campaign for the presidency, Mitt Romney has made the following to-do list.

10. Catch up on “Pretty Little Liars.” He’s been dying to know if Aria will end up with Jason or Ezra.

9. Commission paintings for his car elevators.

8. Kick Todd Akin’s ass.

7. Find new uses for Ann’s riding crop.

6. Fulfill his dream of opening for Taylor Swift.

5. Do a guest spot on Sesame Street.

4. Lift weights with Paul Ryan.

3. Start a charity for depressed Republicans.

2. Ponder the wisdom of the “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” essay.

1. Challenge the results of the election using “unskewed” results.