Tuesday, January 20, 2009

25 Random Things as Revealed Through Facebook's Forced-Confession Meme (and now in legible format!)

25. First, and by way of concession, I'm pretty sure it's not possible to say anything random. I'll just have to try to write a list of things that have a logic that I can't discern.

24. I've been together with Heather for a few years shy of half of my life now. We met our freshman year of college and got married right out of college (I was 20). I wouldn’t have had it be any different – we’ve really grown into adulthood together and I feel like we understand and are committed to one another in a way that requires that kind of shared history. But I know that we were also extremely lucky, since we could have just as easily (actually much more likely) grown apart as we grew into ourselves. And if either of my kids tried to pull a similar move, I would do everything in my power to stop them.

23. Speaking of kids, Elena and Jasper mean the world to me. I especially love how much they love each other, and hope that never changes. Not much more to say about this, mostly because they are too exhausting to say much about.

22. I come from an large family. I'm the fourth of nine (7 boys and 2 girls). There was a brief time when I shared a room with four of my brothers. All of my sibilings are brilliant and a little infuriating, opinionated, well-read and shade somewhere to the left of eccentric. I am both invigorated and a little depressed when I get to spend time with them now that we’re (mostly) all adults. Lots of us have literary aspirations, which only make things worse (on the logic of the family see the serial blog novel that my sister and I have been writing on and off again – lately mostly off. You have to read the comments b/c that’s where half the story is).

21. When I was around 7, I bet my older brothers 20 pounds of chocolate that I would be a spy when I grew up. I still regularly consider joining the Foreign Service. When I was going through one of my periodic disenchantments with academia and when it was timed with one of Heather’s periodic disenchantments with lawyering, I actually took the Foreign Service exam – passed the written test, but failed the newly instigated –- and I’m not making this title up – Qualifications Evaluations Panel. It’s a little like being told that the Committee to Award Achievements in the Field of Excellence has turned you down. Oh well –- I’m giving academia another serious go instead.

20. Before I wanted to be a philosopher (my aspiration from 14ish on), I wanted to be an archaeologist or a classicist. Simultaneously, and to this day, I also wanted to be a spy (see above), and a writer.

19. Even though (probably because) I love to write I have terrible writers block (it grew out of my conscience which speaks to me in the voice of my mother). In addition to the aforementioned often interrupted collaborative serial novel, I have fragments and the beginnings of a novel (a Mormon murder mystery), a screenplay(based on a philosophy text, so it must be good), a collection of poems, two philosophy books and a couple of articles, innumerable short stories, quasi-autobiographical scribblings, and a sort of novel masquerading as a religious text and centered around the re-emergence of Prometheus (I wish I were lying about that last one –- it also features the great philosopher/poet Sapphocrates). Some of them are more complete than others, but I don’t have much confidence any of them other than some of the philosophy stuff will see the light of day.

18. I tend to be prolix.

17. I have a long-standing adoration of Greek mythology and classical culture. When I was 7 I spent a lot of time trying to work out how both Greek myths and Mormonism could be true. I had decided that Zeus must have been an angel, but never really worked out the point of the difference (see Hölderlin’s Der Einzige). When I was 12 I decided that I wanted to write a historical study of how the Roman Empire paved the way for Christianity. I started to do “scholarly research” –- my dad’s a professor so I had access to Brigham Yong University’s 5 million+ volume library –- and quickly became overwhelmed. I’ve been afraid of scholarly research ever since.

16. I’m a little bit afraid that I’m going to be highly disillusioned with Obama and/or (and more likely) the Democrats for some stretch of the next 4 years. This makes me anticipatorily sad.

15. Although I come from a very religious background, I am always genuinely shocked when I learn how foreign atheism to most Americans (and how few Americans are atheists). It just seems like the common-sense, default position to me now…

14. Despite my atheism, I have a deep and abiding love for a folk-figure I’ve invented: Unca’ Jesus. Unca’ Jesus is the version of Jesus who quit the whole Messiah thing in the Garden of Gethsemane (“Father, thy will scares the bejeezus out of me...”) and went back to being a middling carpenter (he has permanent scruff in place of a genuine beard). There have been talks of a sitcom featuring his bumblings (which he gets out of through reluctant use of his Jesus powers), but they haven’t gone anywhere.

13. I wish I were more patient, and less ambitious. I’m getting there.

12. I recently entered an aphorism writing contest, and I really want to win.

11. I once gave a total stranger the shirt of my back. Granted, it was because this total stranger was highly intoxicated and in my car and I wanted to get him out so I could go home and go to bed. But still…

10. When I was 15 I spent a semester living in Mexico (my Dad was doing research there while on sabbatical). My parents gave me way more freedom in exploring the cities we lived in (1 month in Mexico City and 4 in Saltillo, now known as “Little Detroit” thanks to NAFTA and it’s proximity to the U.S. Border . . .) than I think was rational. I am grateful to them for it.

9. I started taking college classes when I was 11, which gave me the nickname “Doogie Howser” –- too bad I didn’t know that show.

8. I became interested in philosophy through two things that happened pretty much simultaneously, around the time I was 14: For some reason, I decided to start reading Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. Around the same time, I had the chance to attend a seminar on Hellenism that Martha Nussbaum was giving to the faculty at Brigham Young University. Imagine my joy when I encountered Heidegger and discovered that I could mix my classicist snobbery and love of existential provocation!

7. My greatest temptation is dilettantism (so much so I’m not sure it’s really such a bad temptation…)

6. I am a technophile.

5. If left to my own devices, I would probably spend all day surfing the Internet and playing video games. Sadly, I so rarely have the time to be left to my own devices.

4. I am a horrible manager of time. For example, I’ve been trying to multitask: writing this list, cleaning my house, getting all the gadgetry and gizmology involved in WebCT for this semesters courses up and running, and putting license plates on Heather’s car this morning. All of this is just preludes to the things I’d really like to do (except this list, which has been delightful –- combining my love of the Internets and writing with my hatred of being laconic), but I won’t make it through the multitasking stuff.

3. When I started writing “Heather” in the previous example. My fingers wrote “Heidegger’s” on auto-pilot. I only just noticed that I had written “putting license plates on Heidegger’s car this morning” after I had taken a hiatus to work on cleaning the house.

2. I am overly proud of the diversity of things I listen to on my IPod and on my Pandora station, despite the big gap of no country (sorry, not for this old man) and not much hip-hop. I do like hip-hop, though I don’t know much about it. And I just really can’t bring myself to like much country (although I do like some pop with subtle country influences).

1. I let my ideological commitments sway my aesthetic judgments more often than I’d like to admit. I also let my aesthetic sensibilities commit me to more ideologies than I’d like to admit. These two statements are not contradictory –- they are dialectical.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Ideas Man and the Mormons Act V, scene iii (In which Ideas Man spends too much time talking about Hegel and Ideas Girl has an accident)

Scene iii (mostly scenery and background, in the manner of Tennessee Williams.  A little plot at the end)

After I sent my letter leaving the Church, I spent a few days shopping it as an op-ed piece to papers in California and Utah.  With no interested parties, I set it aside and kind of forgot about it.  The qualification is crucial though.  

I've mentioned at other points in this blog (or maybe it's on my facebook status updates, which play an increasingly large role in my writing life) that, although my sense of my history as a Mormon has remained important, the sorts of concerns that occupy many Mormons have become increasingly distant to me (this plays a big role in the "detattched familiarity" that I talked about in my previous post).  

It's hard to express any more precisely what I mean by this (although I recognize that this is far from clear) --- let me try one other way of phrasing this.  For most of my adolescence and my undergrad years (during all of which I was questioning the doctrine of the church), questions that pertain to religion, broadly construed,  occupied a lot of my intellectual attention.  This was probably also true during my first few years of graduate school, during which time (with the exception of my first year) I'd left the fold entirely --- but it became increasingly less true, and such questions were pretty much entirely unimportant to me while I was working on my dissertation, and even less important still in the post-grad days.  In other words, all in the space of forming opinions which I still pretty much hold, I've managed to go from being obsessed with certain questions to struggling to understand why anyone would be interested (I was genuinely puzzled recently to learn that only 9% of Americans are atheists or agnostics . . .)

But that only concerns propositional questions about religion.  Mormonism tends to be a pretty non-doctrinal religion --- it doesn't place nearly as big an emphasis on beliefs as it does on actions --- although exactly what "action" means here won't necessarily be intuitively obvious, and I would say it places an even bigger emphasis on belonging (group cohesion here being defined first in terms of shared history and secondly in terms of collective action).  And if assent to certain doctrines isn't necessarily the biggest deal, faith of another sort --- faith in the truthfulness of the church (which isn't a propositional kind of thing) --- is.  And here's the thing about that:  when I so myself as very much part of the fold, very committed but doubting and questioning made me experience a real disconnect from this faith and this disconnect bled into that sense of being part of the group.  In other words, at the time of my life when I was intensely engaged with Mormonism on an intellectual level, I very much experienced my belonging to it as a wholly negative thing (I don't mean negative here as a value judgment but in a dialectical way). 

Externally, this was because it alienated me from the very conservative milieu of the extremely, comfortably, affluently Mormon high school that I went to:  not necessarily by the answers I was coming to, because I didn't really have answers, but by the fact of having questions at all (the very act of questioning --- even a non-skeptical inquiry into the meaning of things --- implies a lack of faith in the church --- I have been sitting on a novel involving this point for about 12 years. . .)  Internally, I experienced this alienation as let's say a crisis in that faith:  were they right?  Did I not belong?  But I certainly felt like I belonged.  Why else would I devote myself to these questions?

When I stopped devoting myself to such questions, the crisis simply dropped.  Of course, I didn't have any faith in the church, but that also meant that I was able to come back to my shared history and cultural background in a more positive way.

Let me come back to the notion of action here:  there's a certain archetype of the non-practicing Mormon that prevails in Mormons' --- and many ex-Mormons' --- consciousness of themselves:  the so-called Jack Mormon.  I'm told the meaning of the term is changing to just mean anyone who was once Mormon but isn't any more, but it used to have a more precise meaning:  it denoted somebody who wasn't a practicing Mormon, somebody who drank (alcohol, but also coffee, which is a no-no, too) and smoked and swore and didn't go to church on Sunday but who sort of felt like they should live by the rules; someone who wasn't exactly a believer but certainly wasn't a disbeliever either.  You can be a Jack Mormon and still belong to the church in a very real way.  A friend of mine, whose beliefs were much more interesting than the outline of the Jack Mormon I've given above but who was willing to play the part, did quite well for himself occupying that niche in the neighborhood I grew up in --- he gave the men of the neighborhood an excuse to feel good about themselves when they went to play golf or tennis with him (they were doing the Lord's work).

To return to the subject of action, I would also say that the Jack Mormon's actions can only fall so far outside of the norms of Mormon behavior to remain a Jack Mormon, and this is one of the reasons why the precision of the term is disappearing.  The behavior of the Jack Mormon, although quite scandalous to a Mormon, would probably strike anyone outside of the Mormon Church as quite moderate, conservative even (I mean neither of these terms in their political senses, obviously).  Contrast this with, let's say (although the names here are less precise and more a matter of convenience) --- the fallen Mormon or the bad kid.  Now, although the Jack Mormon is allowed in the community, it wouldn't do to make it too obvious to youngsters that they are as a matter of course, so you need to draw a clear line in the ideological sand (to conceal the actual, far murkier line).  When youngsters cross that line, as many of them inevitably will, they experience a certain vertigo.  Lots of them mistake a minor drop off from the straight-and-narrow road into a little ditch for an abyss:  and so they plunge into it.  With the difference between the Jack Mormon and the Fallen Mormon, we're talking about the difference between the kid who drinks on the weekends and the kid who does hard drugs:  the kid who fools around with her boyfriend, and the slut.  Because the official party line that gets enforced is that there is no difference between the two, the one quickly turns into the other.  The fallen Mormon or the bad kid is like the Jack Mormon in that they still have faith in the church, but their actions have fallen too far outside of the norm to continue to (obviously) belong to it.  Of course, such actions still do belong to the norm, but their re-patriation will inevitably be more violent.

I didn't really fit into either of these categories.  My behavior was probably pretty close to that of a Jack Mormon, but you never would have guessed it.  The high school that I went to was preppy enough to have a two-niche system:  the football players/cheerleaders were one upper-echelon niche, of course, but a certain brand of the honors/college prep kids were pretty close to equally "in" --- there was, of course, a lot of overlap, and to be really cool you probably had to fit into both cliques.  But, as a rough rule, it's fair to say that there were more bad and Jack Mormons in the football/cheerleader crowd (by which I mean that there were a few --- it was marginally exceptable) than in the college prep crowd (where there were none --- it was totally unacceptable).  Since I hung out with the squeakiest of the squeaky clean, where I like to think that I occupied a niche that I pretty much created, my perception was that my survival depended upon seeming to be equally shiny.

And, the truth of the matter is that that way of approaching the world shaped me a lot.  I still lead (and pretty much always have led) a very conservative life.  Although there have been some "funny" misunderstandings between myself and various Mormons close to me as to what constitutes a conservative lifestyle , when it comes right down to it, my daily life isn't much different than that of the people I grew up with (as the facebook attests to) --- most centrally from the perspective of Mormon ideology, my family life is both at the center of my daily life and very traditional (not at all patriarchal, but even among Mormons the meaning of patriarchy is slowly changing).  I don't buy into the family-values ideology at all, but it continues to define the kind of family that by both habit and personal inclination I actually have ended up having.

And after I had congitively dissociated myself from the church, I was far more comfortable seeing the way I lived as having been positively shaped by my Mormonism.

What does this long aside have to do with our place here in Act V, scene iii?

It defines the sense in which I could only kind of forget about the letter I had written.

What I'm trying to make clear is that although on a daily basis I hardly ever think about issues relating to my Mormon upbringing, in either my personal or intellectual life, it nonetheless shapes me in ways that are difficult to define.  Prior to asking to leave the church, I would have admitted this cognitively, but I don't think that I would have had as good of a sense of what it meant.

One other bit of personal/family/cultural history to explain the present moment:  something that I allude to in my letter (see scene ii).  I come from a big extended and immediate family:  my mom is one of 8 and my dad is one of 6.  Adding in their spouses, I have 24 uncles and aunts, all of whom are (or were) Mormon.  Of those, 3 have been excommunicated from the Mormon church, as has my mother.  My mom, one of her sisters and that sister's husband were all excommunicated for writings and speeches, and all of these were to varying extents, let's call them "public" or "event" excommunications.  Another one of my uncles was excommunicated in lets say a "private" or "ordinary" excommunication:  he was excommunicated for cheating on his then-wife.  One of these 4 folks is back in the church as a good and faithful member (one of these 4 excommunications didn't really challenge Mormon morality):  any guesses?  The other 3 remain excommunicated, and they have all coped with it in different ways.

The reason I bring this up is that when my uncle whose excommunication was "public" tried to describe the feeling, he said that it felt like a sword had passed clean through him and then been (equally cleanly) pulled out.

That's not a bad description of how I felt, except of course, I had done this to myself (a cynic could remark that although my relatives hadn't done it to themselves they might have asked for it.  That's a different question...)

I felt exactly as I had before I sent my letter out.  I felt the same.  I was equally happy with Obama's victory.  I was moved by the aftermath of his victory, by the palpable sense of disbelief and hope that the country was changing, and by the inability of the folks on NPR to pretend not to be ecstatic.  I was delighted that Stevens lost even it was close and was able to occupy myself by following the Minnesota recount.

But all of this proceeded with another part of my self seeming fundamentally altered in a way that is difficult to describe.  I didn't dwell on it (I didn't have the time), but it nonetheless dwelt within me, this change.

Of course, I'm enough of a Hegelian to know that the interior always wants to express itself but enough of a Kierkegaardian to think that the way it expresses itself might not resemble its interior life.

So, one evening I was out later than usual (let's say 8ish, which is the dead of night as far as I'm concerned).  I had just finished the graduate seminar I taught and was at a reception for a visiting scholar at one of my colleague's houses when I got a call from Ideas Woman, Esq. who was holding down the Ideas Fort.  She asked if I could come home early b/c the kids had been shaken by an odd incident.

A few minutes earlier, Ideas Woman had been putting Ideas Boy, B.A.(B.Y.) to sleep when she thought she heard something outside.  Now, Toledo is apparently ungodly windy and we have some rather large trees near our windows, so we often get branches tapping on our windows, and she though that that was what this was.

But Ideas Girl (who insists on being in the hallway right outside the nursery door if no one else is home when one of us is putting Ideas Boy to sleep) opened up the door and said:

"I'm scared.  Someone's outside."

"It's just the wind."

But with the door open, Ideas Woman could hear more clearly and she could definitely tell that someone was knocking on our door (did I mention that our doorbell doesn't work?)

"I'm sure they'll go away."

POUND!POUND!POUND!

After making herself presentable (Ideas Boy isn't yet weaned) she went downstairs,  grabbed the phone, and hit 911 (but didn't hit send) -- unless you think she's paranoid keep in mind that they had been out there for some time at this point --- also we only had one car at the time and no lights would have been on up front so it wouldn't have looked like anyone was home).  Ideas Boy was now wide awake and Ideas Girl was trailing behind her (although she was supposed to be "winding down" before she went to bed.)

It was --- you've guessed it --- the Mormons.

It wasn't just the missionaries, who we occasionally get, but an older man also --- this has happened before also (perhaps we'll get into that in scene iv).

"Didn't you hear us knocking?"

"What were you doing?  Can't you see I was putting the kids to sleep?"

"Sorry."

Pause. Pause.

Ideas Woman:  "Ok, bye."

She takes the kids back upstairs.  Ideas Boy, B.A.B.Y is wide awake and Ideas Woman turns her attention to Ideas Girl.

"Um, Mommy . . . I had an accident."

That's right, the Mormons had made Ideas Girl pee her pants.  So much for family values.

(coming up in scene iv --- more letters in which Ideas Man is informed of what a terrible mistake he's made).