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.


Do Not Ever Slap or Poke an Elder

October 31, 2012

While I was doing a little homework on the article preceding this one, I found a delightful article from the Ensign (the LDS church’s official magazine) from 1972. At the end of the article is this list of suggestions for young women who are serving missions. I can’t decide if we’ve come very far from that or not.

http://www.lds.org/new-era/1972/10/a-letter-to-girls-about-lady-missionaries?lang=eng

Suggestions to Sister Missionaries

Diet

Exercise for a few minutes every morning; then eat a good breakfast and do not piece before lunch unless you want to put on weight.

In some places you can save a lot of time by eating your hot meal in an inexpensive restaurant or boarding house.

Make weekly menus and shop for as long a period as possible. This saves time and money and you will not buy as many high-calorie treats.

When cooking, make enough at one time for at least two meals.

Do not have a food fad where you eat the same things every day.

Eat at least one hot meal per day.

If you are one pound overweight, it is too much. Take it off!

Instead of stopping at a bakery for a quick lunch, stop at the store and buy a yogurt, some cottage cheese, or some such prepared, healthy food. Carry an apple or raw vegetable to tide you over until dinner. (We always carried a spoon in our handbags for meals away from the apartment.)

When invited to dinner you do not have to say you are on a diet; just take small helpings, no seconds, and cut down the next day. This way you do not offend the host, and you can still accept invitations to dinner.

Never, never eat late at night! When you come home late after a discussion and you have not had time for dinner, eat a little salad or fruit and then go straight to bed and think how much skinnier you will be by not eating a large meal until morning.

Chew gum only in the privacy of your apartment.

Grooming

Elders’ most frequent complaints are about sisters’ hair. Have a neat and easy style—not too short or it will look like the elders’, and long enough so that it can be curled on Sunday and for special occasions.

Sleep on a satin pillowcase; this preserves hair style and also femininity.

Do not feel that because you are a missionary you cannot wear makeup. Do wear a minimum, but do not go completely without it.

Clothes

Buy clothes that are easy to care for.

Whatever your wardrobe or climate, put on clean underclothes every day (even if it means taking five minutes the night before to rinse them out).

Do not carry one of those suitcase handbags that sister missionaries are so notorious for. Carry only the essentials in a medium-sized one, and put pamphlets or books in a separate plastic or leather case. (They will not get dog-eared this way.)

Carry a combination rain-wind bonnet, some tissues, and a couple of disposable, scented towels in your handbag. (The towels are nice for freshening up during a day away from your flat.)

Spark up those drab colors with scarves and bows.

Miscellaneous

Learn how to make those quick, no-bake chocolate cookies for branch picnics.

Do not ever slap or poke an elder.

Expect and then allow elders to open doors, help into cars, put on wraps, and start your motor bikes. Do not ignore their efforts, but do not be obnoxious if they should forget sometimes.

Have a BNTE Week (Be Nice to Elders Week) where you either cook something good or do something nice for your district. If you do this, remember that this week especially you must work like a whirlwind so no one can say that you borrowed the Lord’s time. Make it a top week in service and in work also.

Always participate with the elders on preparation day. If it is something you cannot do, then at least be there to watch or cheer. This does wonders for mutual respect between elders and sisters.

If you get depressed, set aside a little time that day to do whatever raises your spirits. For example, spend extra time on your hair, take a long shower, schedule a time for meditation, and then pray earnestly for help from the Lord. Lose yourself in the Spirit and work very, very hard.


NPR Heralds the Missionary-Age Change

October 31, 2012

I’m not sure why I haven’t commented on the change to Mormon missionary-age requirements, but hearing NPR’s take on it got me thinking about it, and as anyone who has read my blog knows, I rarely pass up an opportunity to express my opinion. (National Public Radio is the public radio service of the United States.)

Since 1960 young LDS men have been eligible to serve missions at age 19, while women had to wait until they were 21. As of the recent LDS general conference, the age requirement has been changed to 18 for young men and 19 for young women, so long as they have graduated from high school or its equivalent. This is a pretty big change for a number of reasons.

First the obvious difference is that young men can enter missionary service directly after high school, avoiding that strange sort of limbo between graduation and a mission, when you know you are supposed to be getting on with your life, but you can’t really do that until you know where and when you will serve your mission. As I mentioned in my book, Heaven Up Here, I graduated from high school when I was 17, so I had more than a year before I could leave on my mission. During that year, I worked two summers and attended three semesters of college, but I felt like I was just biding my time before my mission. My heart really wasn’t in school–and it showed in my grades–and I worked mostly to save money for my mission.

So in this respect, it’s a good thing for young men who are planning on serving missions. It will still disrupt education and work, but perhaps less so. On the other hand it will probably make it more difficult for some young men to save enough money to serve missions (they go at their own expense, with the church picking up the tab only for training and travel to and from the assigned mission), so less-affluent missionaries may have to delay their missionary service until they have the financial means to serve.

But NPR’s focus was on the lowering of the age at which female missionaries can serve to 19. In my view this is a much more momentous change, particularly because I know how Mormon culture has traditionally looked on “sister missionaries.”

When I was a college student and missionary back in the early 1980s, relatively few women served missions, as the church did not encourage them to serve, and most definitely did not create the expectation that boys had growing up that they would serve missions. The President of the Church in my youth, Spencer W. Kimball–whom we considered a prophet–made it clear that serving a mission was a commandment for young Mormon men:

“The question is frequently asked: Should every young man fill a mission? And the answer has been given by the Lord. It is ‘Yes.’ Every young man should fill a mission. …

“… Every man should also pay his tithing. Every man should observe the Sabbath. Every man should attend his meetings. Every man should marry in the temple” (“When the World Will Be Converted,” Ensign, Oct. 1974, p. 8).

Reading through President Kimball’s talk, I notice that there is not a single mention of women being involved in converting the world. That wouldn’t have crossed his mind, I would think, as it probably wouldn’t have occurred to me, either. In those days there were very few sister missionaries, and in my mission in Bolivia, most were serving nonproselytizing welfare missions.

The attitude a lot of people had then was that women served missions if they were 21 and had no prospects of marriage, for marriage was supposed to be the focus of young women, not missionary service. As the NPR reporter put it

At age 21, a woman is nearly finished with college, and historically there’s been pressure to marry rather than set out on an 18-month mission, which is optional for both men and women.

Sister missionaries were considered almost like old maids at 21. I know a sister missionary who despaired at 22 that she would probably never get married because it was getting too late. When I was in the Missionary Training Center, a sister missionary announced in our “culture class” that she was serving because she thought it would help her find a husband.

Over the last 30 years or so, it has become more socially acceptable for women to serve mission. No longer were sister missionaries considered spinsters-in-training at 21, but rather as a valuable part of the missionary force. Consequently, more young women had begun to plan on serving missions, and it became common to hear teenage girls talking about their plans to serve a mission when they were old enough. The shift in age requirements may reflect the church’s acknowledgment of this cultural trend.

National Public Radio (the public radio service of the United States) covered the story and rightly concluded that it signaled a big shift in attitudes towards women serving missions. It’s pretty clear to me that the church has decided that having more missionaries is at least as important, if not more, than marrying women young, and that is an unprecedented change.

In LDS theology, marriage between a man and woman is essential to exaltation in the highest level of the celestial kingdom (the Mormon expression for “heaven”). Indeed God is God because He is married. He is literally our Heavenly Father, who is married to a Heavenly Mother–together they are God and have spiritually begotten all human beings. For the leaders to  encourage young women to delay marriage in favor of missionary service thus has theological implications.

NPR interviewed a young woman, Hannon Young, who is a freshman at church-owned Brigham Young University (my alma mater), who was understandably emotional about the change.

“I wanted to go on a mission since I was 16,” she says. “And the thought of waiting two more years was really difficult for me. So, it was such exciting news.”

She is one of the rising generation that not only sees missionary service as a positive thing, but also has been planning on serving.  Her mother, Jane, opined

“I do think what it allows is for women — Mormon women — to have it all,” she says.

That may be a bit of an overstatement, but clearly the church’s view of the role women play in the church has changed.

Jane says the new policy represents a philosophical shift in how Mormon women are viewed by the church — and by themselves.

“I think women will see themselves differently,” she says.

Hannon agrees.

“I think I do, because it’s empowering to think that they want more women serving,” she says. “It feels like a call to really join the ranks.”

Yet the church has been careful to remind sisters that they do not have the same obligation to serve missions as the young men do. Current church president Thomas Monson said recently

A word to you young sisters: while you do not have the same priesthood responsibility as do the young men to serve as full-time missionaries, you also make a valuable contribution as missionaries, and we welcome your service.

The policy change suggests to me that the church is beginning to encourage young women to serve, rather than merely “welcoming” their service. But this does not signal a sudden movement toward equal status and treatment for LDS women. Only men are ordained to the priesthood, and women in the church are called and serve under the direction of priesthood leaders. That’s not going to change.

But what is the reason for the new policy? Perhaps some statistics will help explain. At the end of 1980, there were 29,953 full-time missionaries. By 1990, there were 43,651, an increase of 45%. By 2000, the ranks had grown to 60,784, or nearly 40% over the previous decade. However, in 2010, there were 52,225, a decrease of 14% in ten years.

But not only the number of missionaries has declined, but also the number of baptisms per missionary, which has dropped by half from a high of 8 per missionary in 1989 to between 4 and 5 in the last few years. Together, these two statistics show that missionary work in the LDS church has not kept up with membership growth as a whole. (Church membership increased from 7,760,000 in 1990 to 14,131,467, or nearly 100%.)

What has caused the decline in missionary numbers? I don’t have any idea. My guess is that a lot of young men have been dropping out of the church in that year between 18 and 19, which would make sense because it’s the first time most of them will have been on their own, either going to college or making money. Perhaps two years of unpaid missionary service seems less attractive. I honestly don’t know. Whatever the reason, the numbers are down, and I am assuming the church did some internal pilot programs to see if sending missionaries out at 18 decreased the number of young men opting out.

Given the decrease in baptisms per missionary, it seems logical that the church would try to increase the number of missionaries serving, which is where the young women come in. Most LDS young women will not get married before age 19 (the average is somewhere above 22 for women), so the pool of potential missionaries has increased significantly, and indeed, the article notes:

Some 4,000 young women applied in the two weeks since the announcement. Overall, applications have quintupled — and fully half of them are women. Until now, only about 20 percent of missionaries have been female.

Given the total number serving in 2011, there were 11,000 young women serving as missionaries, or 20%.  Assuming that the number of young men stays the same, and I would bet it will increase, if young women constitute 50% of missionaries, that would add some 33,000 missionaries, for a total of around 88,000, or a 60% increase.

In the end, the new policy doesn’t so much reflect a change in status for women but simply indicates a need the church has for more missionaries. And who knows? Maybe young women make more effective missionaries than do their male counterparts, so we may see an increase in converts per missionary.

I’m happy for those young women who wish to serve as missionaries. My daughter is thrilled, though I have reminded her that this means she has less time to save up for her mission. Unlike the stake president the article quotes, I don’t envision a big increase in mission “romances.” Of course, I married a sister missionary, so who am I to talk?


Circling the Wagons

October 15, 2012

Over the weekend I had a conversation with a friend who has served on several committees for the LDS church putting together instructional manuals for priesthood and auxiliary manuals. We talked about how the Joseph Smith presented by the church has always been like George Washington, Superman, and Jesus rolled into one. He agreed with me that the portrayals of Joseph Smith have been far too slanted and unrealistic.

We discussed how a lot of people are shocked when they discover that the real Joseph Smith bears little resemblance to the correlated Joseph, and a number of people end up leaving the church because of the disconnect. He said that he’d worked with “probably more than a hundred people” who had come to him for help, but he gave them the same answer he gave me: Joseph Smith was who he was, but the church he founded is good and benefits the world.

I suppose that’s the only answer an honest person can give because Joseph Smith wasn’t a particularly truthful or moral man. When I said I thought the church should at least acknowledge Joseph’s humanity and make him less of a figure to be spoken of in awe, my friend said he had tried many times in his committee assignments to make that same point and get the church to open up a little about who Joseph Smith was. But he said that he got absolutely nowhere with the church or the committees.

So, for the time being, the church appears to be taking the Boyd Packer approach: “Some things that are true are not very useful.” In my view, this is a mistake, but then I don’t imagine the church cares what I think. At some point, more than a few Mormons will be confronted with their church’s real history, and a lot will be shaken in their faith, perhaps enough to leave the church.

To me, this circling of the wagons suggests that church leaders do not yet understand just how completely they have lost control of their message. Several leaders mentioned “exaggerated or invented” information on the Internet, presumably as a warning to members not to believe what they read (this is the Chico Marx defense: “Well, who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”). Of course, the problem is that a great deal of information is neither exaggerated nor invented; worse yet, I can imagine that more than a few people who heard those talks will be thinking, “Hmmm, I wonder what he’s talking about,” and venture out into the demonic recesses of the Internet.

In the long run, the LDS church has no choice but to open up if it wants to survive as a belief system and not just an institution. For the time being, however, it seems to have chosen to circle the wagons and pretend that the official, squeaky-clean version of itself is the correct one.


Fearless Predictions for LDS General Conference

October 3, 2012

10. Richard G. Scott will stare soulfully into the camera and plead with you to do (or stop doing) something.

9. During choir numbers, the cameras will focus on minority choir members in an attempt to show diversity.

8. Someone will refer to the podium being made out of Gordon B. Hinckley’s walnut tree.

7. Boyd K. Packer will say something bizarre about sexuality.

6. Henry Eyring will get choked up with emotion at least once.

5. A female speaker will express her gratitude for a religion that reveres and exalts women.

4. A general authority’s relative will be sustained as a new general authority.

3. There will be at least one talk about the church’s political neutrality, and it will not be given by Craig Zwick.

2. Dieter Uchtdorf’s face will be the brightest object in the conference center.

1. Thomas Monson will use a passive triplet, mention a widow (bonus points for including canaries), talk about a funeral or a visit to a hospital, and tell a story from his childhood about a model train or a dead sailor.


Damn It, Sucked Right In Again

September 25, 2012

I feel kind of stupid for letting myself get sucked back into the pointless bickering between apologists and critics of the LDS church. I’m not going to do that again.

Back when I was an “apologist” on the old alt.religion.mormon page and the FAIR/MAD board, I learned some valuable lessons. First and foremost is that there are good, honest, intelligent people on both sides of the divide, and I made friends among serious apologists and hardcore apostates alike. The second thing I learned is that, despite the rhetoric, it’s not an important battle over the souls of men. It’s just a bunch of opinionated people arguing over a message board.

The odd thing is that I’m usually not involved in these disputes anymore. I just don’t care enough. I have never contributed to MormonThink, and I rarely read anything from the FAIR/FARMS/MI crowd. It’s just not an important part of my life anymore. And yet I let myself get worked up over a silly essay from someone I already knew was a bit of a crank, and I instinctively sided with the apostate in a dispute with the church. In all honesty, I don’t really know if David Twede was trying to get people out of the church. I take his word for it, but I’m so far removed from the issue I can’t say anything definitive.

I don’t know Lou Midgley (though I saw him once in the lobby of the Maxwell Institute), nor do I know Scott Gordon. But I said a few unkind things because I was upset about things that happened. I stand by my analysis of Midgley’s attack on C.L. Hanson, but I think she handled it with far more grace than I did by just making light of it. I hope David Twede can work things out to his satisfaction. I don’t know his motivations, but I do know that the information he has provided on MormonThink is accurate and honest.

As for our visitors from FAIR, this is the first time I’ve had any interaction with Allen Wyatt, and I didn’t think his comments were “mean” or anything like that; I’ve known Steve Smoot for several years, and though I rarely agree with him, I’ve never had any hostile or unpleasant interactions with him. I hope that my responses did not come across as heated or angry, as they were not.

In the end, arguing over Mormonism is all “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” There’s no point.