Sunday, April 28, 2013

A Post-Mormon Guide To Coffee

Coffee is my favorite part of the morning - hot, fragrant, and flavorful, a warm cup puts me in the right mood for the rest of my day.  Over the years, I have developed a few key principles that allow me to consistently brew good coffee using my trusty French press. 

These principles are:

1) Fresh coffee - the best coffee beans have been roasted within the last two weeks and are ground just before using.  This particular bag I discovered through a sample subscription service; I liked this particular brand so much that I ordered the full-size bag.  I am also a huge fan of Gimme Coffee, which originated in my hometown and then expanded to New York City.  

2) Filtered water.  Tap water in my city tastes pretty bad.  Bad tasting water results in bad-tasting coffee.

3) Proper measurement.  Sounds simple but I have messed up many pots of coffee because I failed to measure.  Right now, I use five heaping tablespoons for one full French press of coffee.  

4) Use water that is just off the boil.  Water that is too hot will result in bitter coffee, water that is too cool will result in a sour coffee.  Coffee needs to steep for four minutes.  

5) After letting the coffee steep for four minutes, press down the plunger and enjoy!  

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Growing Fruit In A City

          I grew up in the country and live in a city.  Growing up, we had blueberry, raspberry, and elderberry bushes, along with four gnarled old apple trees.  Moving to a large city, what I missed most about home was all of the green - the trees, the flowers, and the fruit trees.  
          Several years ago, I was lucky enough to move into an old bungalow on a modest city lot.  The previous owners had planted an orange tree; the fruit that comes off that particular tree is unbelievably sweet.  So, needing to improve the landscaping, which was composed primarily of strewn rock and sad-looking grass, we hired a company to plant fruit trees.  Most of the trees and bushes planted were unfamiliar to my Northern sensibilities - pomegranates, grumichamas, Cherry of the Rio Grande, lychee, and passion fruit.  A few of them remind me of home - blueberries and blackberries.  Either way, with the advent of spring, these trees are starting to bear fruit and I am starting to feel like less of a stranger to the city.  

Blueberry bushes, with small green fruits

Flowering blackberry bushes

The very showy passion-fruit flower

Flowering pomegranate

Friday, April 12, 2013

Grant Palmer Statement: Facts versus Faith

          Recently a statement, written by the historian and author Grant Palmer, has been making its rounds in the ex-Mormon communities. In this statement, which has been posted to MormonThink, Palmer describes several interviews with two anonymous higher-up leaders within the Mormon Church. These individuals claim that the Mormon leaders know the foundational claim of the Mormon Church is false but continue anyway because they believe the people need the church in their lives.
          Now, this is a statement that describes anonymous interviews that make a lot of unfounded claims. For this reason, although I do respect Grant Palmer’s writings, I am going to take all of this with a huge pinch of salt. For an excellent overview of the credibility of this controversy, I would suggest reading David Twede’s post “Rumor, Rumor, Every Where, Nor Any Fact To Think?” 

          As murky as this controversy is, I do think it raises an important issue: facts or faith?

          The Mormon Church is in a bit of a tight fix; its legitimacy rests on the shoulders of its founder, Joseph Smith, who lived in a recent enough era that there is plenty of evidence to suggest that he was not the man he claimed to be. The most notable example is the discrepancies between the numerous First Vision accounts. The official version states that Joseph Smith, as a fourteen year old boy, entered the woods to pray and was visited by Heavenly Father and Jesus, who told him that none of the churches were true and that he was destined to restore the one true gospel to the earth. This is the official version, which was written towards the end of Smith’s life. However, there are multiple versions, written by Smith, that vary in details such as his age at the time of his vision, who appeared to him in the vision, and what the message was. For such a keystone event – and an event that I would assume is unforgettable – Smith seems quite uncertain on the details.
          Most of the Mormons I have met who know the full version of Mormon history justify their belief on faith. Some point to the church as being a good institution. Others have the faith that all will be made clear in time. In contrast, ex-Mormons tend to point towards the facts: the inconsistencies in the origins of Mormonism and the lack of archaeological and genetic evidence for the Book of Mormon. These two mindsets go a long way in explaining why Mormon/ex-Mormon arguments are never very fruitful – people have different values.
          Personally, I am curious as to how all of this will pan out. Perhaps people will come forward and verify the allegations. Perhaps the controversy will die down. As it stands, right now this is a situation where people are trying to decide between the facts of the situation and their faith in Grant Palmer.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Caffeine Controversy: When Even The Insiders Can't Explain Doctrine


“Mormons don’t drink coffee or tea because caffeine is a mind-altering substance, right?  That’s what I was told.”

          I was sitting with a group of students waiting for class to begin; we were talking about our different obsessions.  I brought up my coffee obsession – I spend a lot of time and energy thinking about brewing methods and roast qualities.  This discussion then segued into the Mormon taboo against coffee and tea. 
          My classmate’s statement was entirely right – at least, correct according to the interpretation I grew up with. 
         “I grew up thinking that it was the caffeine in coffee and tea that you needed to avoid – we were also told to avoid caffeinated sodas,” I said.  “But now caffeinated soda is OK.” 
          The proscription against coffee and tea owes to the Word of Wisdom, which proscribes against the consumption of hot drinks.  I said as much to my classmates.
          “So no hot chocolate?” said another classmate.
          “We-e-ell…no, hot chocolate is OK.” 
          Mormonism is confusing, even to people who grew up in it.  The reason that Mormonism is so confusing is because it changes all the time and once it changes, there is a collective denial that the policies were ever any different.  A more serious example would be the priesthood ban on blacks; until 1978 black men were banned from holding the priesthood, a policy that effectively barred them from the majority of church life.  Church officials have never offered an apology or explanation for the ban.  Nor have they refuted the words of earlier leaders, who taught some truly reprehensible teachings on race in the name of God.  There is just a collective denial.  
         While conducting research for this post, I came across a commentary in the Deseret News about the caffeinated sodacontroversy.  The author began by saying that everyone knows what the stance is on Coca-Cola, that the Word of Wisdom doesn’t specifically mention Coca-Cola.  She then tells an anecdote from her childhood where her mother poured caffeine-free Coca-Cola down the drain, to “avoid the appearance of evil.”  The author’s conclusion was that she would still avoid Coca-Cola.  Reading this article brought back memories of a youth camp counselor who told our group of girls that she would not marry a man who had touched a cup of coffee.  All of this must seem very silly to outsiders but following the Word of Wisdom – whatever the current interpretation may be – is a serious issue within Mormon circles. 
         I grew up thinking that caffeinated soda was bad, a teaching that was echoed by the members around me.  In her memoir “Book of Mormon Girl,” author Joanna Brooks writes that she felt like a “root beer among colas.”  Brooks was raised to avoid caffeinated sodas; she writes about being a child at non-Mormon birthday parties, worrying about finding the root beer among cola drinks. 
Then, somewhere along the way, caffeinated sodas became acceptable.  Perhaps it was the Monson effect - the current church president drinks a lot of Pepsi.  Perhaps people became used to the idea of caffeinated sodas.  But all of this was unofficial.  Then, last summer, the Mormon Newsroom released a statement saying the Word of Wisdom only applied to coffee and tea, creating a huge controversy within Mormon circles.  
          As a Mormon, I was a pretty anxious personality.  Now, based on the fact that I can’t even explain the rationale behind a policy that is so integral to Mormonism, I am beginning to understand why I was so anxious.  We were raised to take this all very seriously.  We were promised that Mormon doctrine was infinite and unchanging.  But whatever it was that we were supposed to do and why, we really didn’t know.  Or rather, we did know, at least until someone came along and told us we were wrong. 
         We just knew we had to follow no matter what.  

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Ted Talks: Julia Sweeney

I found this video a couple weeks ago and loved it.  The comedian Julia Sweeney was raised Catholic.   I hadn't realized that Catholics also have an age of accountability but her realization on the subject was uncannily similar to my fears about baptism.  (There is also a fantastic anecdote about meeting with the Mormon missionaries!)

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.