Thursday, March 28, 2013

Marriage Just Makes Things Easier

“Marriage just makes things easier.” 

          My husband and I were visiting with an old friend, a physicist who was getting serious with a woman, when he made that statement. In this particular context about marriage, our friend was talking about health insurance and child custody. He was serious about the relationship – and a person can always argue that marriage is just a piece of paper – but in this society, practicality dictates that two people who are committed to each other are better off formalizing their union by marrying. My husband and I nodded at what our friend was saying – marriage, the legal contract between two people, does make everything easier. Health insurance, child custody, property laws, immigration - these are some of the very tangible benefits that come when two people sign a marriage contract.
          My husband is a foreign national. He came to the U.S. for graduate school and stayed afterwards, working first as a post-doc, then as an engineer for a large company. Although he has always had a visa, there are certain hassles that are inherent to holding a work visa in this country. Several years ago, one of our friends, who was on an H1B non-profit visa, lost the funding for his position. He was given several months in which he could find a job or else he had return to India. Luckily, he found another position and was able to remain. But if he hadn’t, once his visa expired he would have been required to leave the country immediately, leaving all traces of his life behind.
          For me, marriage means that even if my husband loses his job and cannot find another one immediately, he will not be forced to leave this country. Marriage also means that we can share health insurance, which, in light of a serious accident I had several years ago, is a precious thing indeed.  I can always say that my relationship isn’t defined by a piece of paper.  Emotionally, it isn’t. But practically speaking, marriage allows us a certain protection, one that is barred to many other couples simply because of their sexual orientation. 
          It would be selfish for me to argue that other couples, who are also committed to a future together, cannot enjoy the same privileges that I take for granted.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Book Review: Elders

          The book “Elders”, written by Ryan McIlvain, features two LDS (Mormon) missionaries as they go about proseletyzing in the town of Carinha, Brazil. Elder McLeod is an American who is burnt out after eighteen months of proselytizing; he refuses to cater to the politics within the mission field and as a result, is characterized as difficult and unruly. Elder Passos, a Brazilian who joined the LDS church after the death of his mother, struggles to balance his faith with his identity. This story takes place against the backdrop of the 9/11 attacks and the American invasion of Iraq, a tension that is reflected in the hostiles attitudes towards Elder McLeod. Elder McLeod and Elder Passos are companions; the strict missionary rules require them to spend every moment together, a fact that results in a tenuous friendship between two unlikely people. These characters are boys that are turning into men, with all of the uncertainty that marks such a transition.
          Elder Passos is devout, overly-serious, ambitious about the future, and uncertain about his place in the world. He studies English in his spare time, hoping to attend BYU. Perhaps the most poignant moment came at a time when the entire country is watching Brazil play in the final match of the Latin American Football Championships on a Sunday, at the same time as church. The mission president, an American, has insisted that church cannot be canceled, rescheduled, or skipped. Looking at the mission president, Elder Passos sees “a man who could look at an entire culture and see a game, merely, who could look at a country-wide communion and see a crowd.” As a Mormon, Passos possesses a simple, sincere faith: he believes, with all his heart, that the teachings of the LDS Church are true.
          The conflict in this story centers on an investigator Josefina and her husband Leandro. For Passos and McLeod, the stakes are high regarding these potential converts: in them, the two missionaries see the chance to resolve their internal conflicts. McLeod seeks ‘faith as a principle in action’: to learn faith through the action of teaching others. Passos is seeks the potential convert, the ‘one star in a million, a golden elect’, as a way of changing lives, just as his own life was changed after the death of his mother.
          Most stories written about Mormons tend to go for the dramatic: all in or all out. Good versus bad. This is not one of those stories. Rather, this is a book that focuses on the small: the little gestures of friendship that are often misinterpreted or over-looked, the simmering doubts that never come to a full boil, the nagging worries and insecurities that accompany faith. The result was something quite beautiful, a story that lingered in the mind long after reading.

Friday, March 22, 2013

An Outsider's Perspective Of Mormonism

          I am guilty, even now, of assuming that never-Mormons can never fully understand Mormon culture. Some of this attitude is a result of some of the questions and assumptions I have heard over the years. For example, a couple weeks ago, I had someone ask me if Mormons were allowed to celebrate Halloween. But, as with many things, I have been unduly harsh in my judgment. It is true that Mormon culture is confusing, with a lot of Mormon-specific terminology and beliefs. However, sometimes outsiders can see things that insiders, with their limited perspective, cannot.
          Last week I wrote about re-reading the book “Under The Banner of Heaven” by Jon Krakauer. This is a book that centers on a religiously-motivated murder; the Lafferty brothers, who were raised in a strict Mormon home, ultimately went back to a more fundamentalist interpretation of Mormonism that included polygamy, prophecy, and blood atonement. Krakauer used this example – and examples from other modern fundamentalist groups – to draw a connection between the actions of fundamentalists and the origins of their beliefs in early Mormon teachings. The first time I read “Under The Banner of Heaven” I missed a lot of details, owing to my limited insider’s point of view. Fast forward a decade, during which my perspective on the Mormon faith shifted more towards an outsider’s point of view, and I began to see things I had been unable to see before.
          I grew up with a highly white-washed, saccharine view of Mormon origins. Everything was painted in black and white: Mormons and non-Mormons, good and evil. The good Mormons and the mob that persecuted the Mormons. But life is more complicated than that. Instead of black and white, most of life is painted in varying shades of complexity. People are a mixture of good and bad intentions, a fact that seems to be reflected in an outsider’s view of Mormon history. Mormons (and ex-Mormons) have something to prove about their history. Never-Mormons do not, which allows them a valuable impartiality.
          And so that brings me to my main question: can outsiders truly understand Mormon culture? It appears to me that the answer is yes, that outsiders can see things about Mormon culture that, as insiders, we don’t see. The more I travel out of Mormonism, the more I begin to see my past struggles with a clearer eye. I never had to struggle with balancing my faith with unsavory Mormon history; I only discovered the alternate history after leaving. I did, however, struggle to make sense of the rationale behind the priesthood ban on blacks. I remember struggling with the idea that access to Heaven is only granted as a result of Mormon temple rituals and that only by getting married and having children would I be allowed into Heaven. Specific rituals and beliefs struck me as being an arbitrary requirement that had nothing to do with how good or bad a person's heart was.  I remember struggling with the idea that faith in the Mormon Church was the only way to truly be happy, when the reality was that it made me miserable. Now that I am out, I am recognizing the mental gymnastics that I had to put myself through in order to align my own personal convictions with the teachings of Mormonism.
          Yes, there are a lot of misconceptions out there about Mormonism. But the truth is that the outsiders who take the time to listen and research end up coming away with a far more complete assessment of Mormon culture than many insiders, with their limited perspective, can manage.
          Myself included.

Sunday, March 17, 2013


          This past week I had the good fortune of going to Big Bend National Park, where I was able to stock up on some much-needed nature and solitude. Big Bend is located in a remote area of western Texas and borders the Rio Grande. With its combination of desert terrain and mountains, it has a wide sampling of ecological diversity. While at Big Bend, I saw hares and javelinas, cactus and creosote. 

The Rio Grande - the opposite side of the river is Mexico

The view from the Pinnacles trail

          I really enjoy the music of Don Edwards, who sings about the lives of cowboys. Traveling through the flat empty plains of west Texas - and hiking some of the trails around Big Bend - I began to understand his music a little better. One of Don Edwards' songs, called Coyotes, has the phrase

                Sit out under the stars of the Milky Way 
                And listen while the coyotes howl

          With the dark skies of Big Bend, I was fortunate enough to see the clustering of stars, with the characteristic dark band of clouds, that comprises the Milky Way. 
          And that night, the coyotes howled. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Re-reading Under The Banner of Heaven

          I have stated multiple times that I was in my mid-twenties when I found out that Joseph Smith had married multiple women, including teenagers and women who already had husbands. Although this is technically true, I find that my story of enlightenment about Mormon history is considerably more complex than I had realized. It is true that I did not learn these facts in church. While re-reading Jon Krakauer’s book Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith
, I discovered that these facts were hidden in plain sight, if only I had taken the time to look. 
          The first time I read “Under The Banner of Heaven”, I was in college and only a few years out of Mormonism. I remember reading the gory details of this book – the tangled messes of polygamous families, the horrible downslide of the Lafferty brothers, and the devastating murders of Brenda Lafferty and her infant daughter – and dismissing them as having nothing to do with the mainstream Mormon church that I grew up in. My primary reflex was to dismiss anything to do with polygamy as being not-really-Mormon. My secondary reflex was to dismiss any account of Mormon history written by a non-Mormon. These reflexes were there in spite of the fact that by that time I was an atheist who had made the conscious decision to leave the Mormon Church.
          On page 5, Jon Krakaeur states

“The religious literature handed out by the earnest young missionaries in Temple Square makes no mention of the fact that Joseph Smith – still the religion’s focal personage – married at least thirty-three women and probably as many as forty-eight. Nor does it mention that the youngest of these wives was just fourteen years old when Joseph explained to her that God had commanded that she marry him or face eternal damnation.”

          I did read this book when I was younger and yet the details about Mormon history, including Joseph Smith’s polygamous past and some of the more violent aspects of the early teachings, went straight over my head. There were a lot of details that I missed the first time around – the full import of the early teachings about polygamy, the more unsavory aspects of the early leaders, the connection between the early teachings about polygamy and modern Mormon fundamentalists, and the brutality of the blood atonement taught by Brigham Young. The first time reading this book, I ignored the history because it didn't agree with the lessons I grew up with. I also think that I ignored the history because I needed to protect myself. It is not an easy task to examine the short-comings of the religion you grew up with.
          The truth is, reading this book was an uncomfortable experience. There was a lot that was familiar, even within the story of the Lafferty boys. I was raised with a pretty literal interpretation of Mormonism; my father is the type of person who takes the words of the leaders at face value. The visions and revelations of the fundamentalists described in this book are eerily similar to the visions and revelations described by the early leaders. Within this book are the stories of people that took the words of the early Mormon leaders in a very literal sense and twisted them into a violent conclusion.
          I too was raised to take the words of the leaders at face value; to recognize that commonality, no matter how different I may be, is a profoundly uncomfortable feeling.
          Nowadays, the Mormon leaders are very careful about what history they do and do not teach. The majority of Mormons, including the ones I grew up with, are just people that are trying to live a good life according to the standards expected of them. The majority of them will live decent, upstanding lives. No one talks about polygamy anymore and the more radical teachings of the early leaders are being buried under a carefully constructed amnesia. But the words of the leaders are, according to the Mormon teachings, the words of God himself. This is the lesson I learned. This is also the lesson that the Lafferty boys learned.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Book Review: Your Inner Fish

          What makes us human? This question elicits answers on multiple levels. Some people frame their humanity in the context of religion. Others choose to frame their humanity in the context of their relationships with other humans. Neil Shubin, paleontologist and evolutionary biologist, chooses to frame this question in the context of evolutionary biology. In his book “Your Inner Fish”, he examines the commonalities found between humans and the entire spectrum of organisms found on earth, as well as offering a compelling portrait of a scientist at work. 
          Neil Shubin is famous for leading a paleontology expedition that discovered fossils of the Tiktaalik, which is a fishlike creature with a rudimentary wrist. The Tiktaalik, with its blend of fish and tetrapod features, is considered to be the missing link between sea creatures and land creatures. Part of this book is an accounting of the author’s expedition to the Arctic Islands where he discovered the Tiktaalik fossils. Regarding these expeditions, he says “Most people do not know that finding fossils is something we can often do with surprising precision and predictability. We work at home to maximize the chances of success in the field. Then we let luck take over.” As he shows, fossil-hunting expeditions are a combination of back-breaking work, educated guesses, and serendipity. The Tiktaalik, with its unique combination of fish and tetrapod features, is a glimpse at how sea creatures made the shift to land. This accounting alone makes his book a valuable treasure. However, Neil Shubin chose to delve further, by showing us the many commonalities that humans share with a wide spectrum of species. 
          Teeth showed up in the fossil record very early on; they were found attached to the impressions of soft-bodied jawless fish. As Shubin explains, the process by which teeth develop – the result of interactions between two different layers of tissue – has been adapted for the production of other organs, including hair follicles, feathers, and mammary glands. The author’s explanation for this startling array of adaptations is: “This example is akin to making a new factory or assembly process. Once plastic injection was invented, it was used in making everything from car parts to yo-yos.” In this vein, the author goes on to describe the evolutionary origins of our bodies, describing everything from the anatomy of our head to the development of our inner ear. 
          This is a book that offers a peek into what makes us human. More than that, this is a book that opens our eyes to the beauty of the world around us. 

Friday, February 15, 2013

Susan B. Anthony & Me

Susan B. Anthony was born on February 15th, 1820, 165 years before I was born. I have always had a deep admiration for Susan B. Anthony, one that goes beyond the simple coincidence of sharing a birthday. Even as a stubborn pre-adolescent girl with tangled hair, I understood the huge debt I owed to the early women’s rights crusaders. The fact that I vote, possess an advanced degree, and have the luxury of controlling my reproductive decisions is all a direct result of the women’s rights movement. I take these rights for granted and yet they were hard-won victories. 

Susan B. Anthony’s primary crusade was to obtain the right for women to vote. She never saw this dream come to fruition, dying before the 19th Amendment passed. Susan B. Anthony also fought for equality of pay, a battle that we have not yet won. Even today, women are paid only 77% of what men earn. Over the course of a lifetime, this inequity can mean the difference between financial security or insecurity.

On the Stephen Colbert report, Lilly Ledbetter made the following observation about pay inequity:

I was making 40% less than the three white males doing the exact same job that I was. That was a devastating hit for me because that meant my overtime pay was incorrect, what I had legally earned under the law. And it also meant that my retirement would not be correct. […]

This goes on for the rest of your life. It’s not just my pay, my overtime pay, that my children and my family had to do without. This also goes into my retirement now. [..] Now, when my retirement checks go into the bank, I get 40% less than what I should.” 

Pay inequity is not an issue reserved solely for academics or activists; pay inequity is an issue that cuts into family security. Within this country, there are millions of households that depend on a woman’s paycheck. There are millions of children that are able to eat because of their mother’s salary. If a woman is only making 77% of her male counterparts, then this is an inequity that filters down to the home.

On January 15th, Elaine Dalton, who is responsible for overseeing all Mormon girls between the ages of 12 and 18, made the following statement in a BYU devotional

"Young women, you will be the ones who will provide the example of virtuous womanhood and motherhood. You will continue to be virtuous, lovely, praiseworthy and of good report. You will also be the ones to provide an example of family life in a time when families are under attack, being redefined and disintegrating. You will understand your roles and your responsibilities and thus will see no need to lobby for rights." 

Elaine Dalton is one of the few visible female leaders in a religion that has been designed to keep all authority out of the hands of women. Every decision that a woman leader makes within the Mormon Church can ultimately be over-turned by the male leaders in charge. This is a skewed and unhealthy dynamic – and yet, the impetus for change is nowhere to be found. There is simply a refusal to admit the problems. Utah is the worst state for pay inequity: the average working woman only makes 55 cents for every dollar the average working man does. This is a statistic that cuts into the well-being of children and families: every household that depends on a woman's salary has to make do with 45% less.

I don’t believe in fighting simply for the sake of fighting. However, I do believe in being realistic. There are still a lot of battles remaining before we can call ourselves an egalitarian society. To deny this reality – and to actively discourage young women from aspiring for a better reality – is oppressive at best, dangerous at worst. What about when these young women grow up and have families? What if they never marry? What if their marriages crumble or their spouses leave or they find themselves in an abusive situation? What if they end up being the sole breadwinners for their family? What will happen then? By empowering women to be the architects of their own lives, we empower all of society, families included.

I wonder what Susan B. Anthony would have to say on the matter.