Confessions of an Anonymous Coward

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Behind the Zion Curtain

First of all, I ought to acknowledge that I got the title of this post from Pooflingers Anonymous--I don't know if Matt of PA invented the term, but that's the first place I saw it. (A commenter did use the phrase in a reply to a recent post here, but I had already decided to use it as the title of this post before that.)

So, anyway, like I said in the last post, I got back yesterday from a trip to Utah with my family to visit my brother for Thanksgiving. Utah is not one of my favorite places. And that's not just since I've become an atheist. Even when I considered myself a faithful Mormon (I seem to open a lot of sentences here with that phrase), I didn't like Utah. It seemed to me that while where I lived, most of the Mormons I knew were serious about their faith (not that I now think that's really a good thing either--but that's another matter), in Utah people were Mormon just because everyone else was Mormon. It was just the way things were, and it went largely unexamined. And anyone who didn't live the perfect Mormon lifestyle was looked down on at best, and more often shunned. No doubt there are exceptions, and I certainly haven't spent enough time in Utah to really have a broad base for my judgments. But that's the impression I've gotten in the time I have spent there.

Actually, this was more evident on a previous occasion when I was visiting my brother in Utah. At that time, I went to church with him and my family, and the whole lesson in the priesthood meeting was about dealing with non-Mormons, and trying not to make them feel unwelcome. At one point, when the teacher cautioned against the attitude that non-Mormons living in Utah were interlopers in a place intended for members of the church, one person protested, "But it's true!" This time, while I again went to church there with my family (again, I'm not quite ready to let them know about my disbelief just yet), there was no such blatant manifestation of the insular Utahn attitude, but there was still that feeling, that apparent expectation that everyone had to live the same lifestyle--not just with respect to the commandments of the church, but with respect to cultural matters as well.

(Oh, yes, by the way, another thing that happened during that same previous visit referred to above: A visitor from elsewhere was introduced, and the family member introducing him took pains to mention apologetically that he was a Democrat. I don't remember the exact wording, but some wag made a remark implying that while technically members of the church were not enjoined against being Democrats, Democrats would be punished after they died. Har, har. When my brother introduced me, he then added, equally apologetically "and he's also a Democrat"--which, incidentally, didn't happen to be true, but apparently my brother had assumed that if I wasn't a Republican I must be a Democrat...)

Another characteristic of Utah is a Pharisaical devotion to the letter of the Church's mandates, even when clearly in opposition to the intention. I've heard that, at least in some places in Utah, it was fairly common for young men and women to make a road trip to Las Vegas, get married, and then get the marriage annulled the next day--so that they could have sex and technically not be violating the "law of chastity", since they'd have been married at the time. I'm sure those who participate in such practices are very much in the minority, but that same kind of letter-of-the-law lifestyle, if not usually to such an absurd degree, does seem all too prevalent there.

I regret to say that my brother, since his move to Utah, has shown signs of coming into accordance with the dominant attitudes there. He's become rather sanctimonious, and obsessed with niggling adherence to rules. He berated my mother, for instance, for going shopping on Sunday when she just wanted to pick up some rolls and some paper plates so his wife wouldn't have to wash dishes after dinner--"A commandment's a commandment," he said, and the Sabbath must be kept holy. He has three sons, the oldest of which (who's currently six) is clearly extremely bright--and I kind of feel bad that they're going to be brought up in that kind of atmosphere. I don't mean that my brother's a bad father; he's a good person, and I'm sure he's trying his best...but I still wish my nephews weren't going to grow up amid the Utahn intolerance and self-righteousness.

(Actually, when I do come out as an atheist, my brother's the one who's likely to take it the most badly. My mother I expect to be horrified at first, but gradually accept it; from my brother I don't think I'll ever hear the end of it. I worry a little that he'll want to keep me away from his sons, under the rationale that I'd be a bad influence on them...but I don't think that'll happen, honestly. As I said, I think he's basically a good person, and while I'm sure he'll be upset about my atheism I don't really expect him to cut me off completely because of it.)

There's some irony, maybe, though, in the fact that my biggest criticism of typical Utahn Mormons has long been that Mormonism is to them more a culture than a religion--and now I've come to realize that that's really how it has been for me all along. (The observation has occurred to me previously that the criticisms one most frequently levels at others are often criticisms that often apply to oneself; I guess this may be one more example of this principle.) I never really fully believed in the church, but I fooled myself into thinking I did just to fit in with my family and my Mormon friends.; I'm oversimplifying. There's a lot more to it than that. But anyway, that's the subject of another post.

I had some thoughts on how the problems I see with Mormonism in Utah might be similar to the problems with Christianity in America as a whole, and might come whenever a religion comes to dominate an area too much. But it's getting very late, and I won't expand on that idea right now--maybe I will in a later post, or maybe not. In the meantime, though, I'd said I was going to make a post about my visit to Utah, and so I guess this is it. I don't know that I really have much of a coherent point here, so to summarize: Utah: Not my favorite place.

Monday, November 27, 2006

And Now For Something Completely Different

Well, I just got back today from visiting my brother in Utah. But while I intend to write a post about that, it's late enough that I don't really feel like doing that right now--I plan to make that post tomorrow (and, despite what happened the last time I said I'd try to make a post "tomorrow", this time I expect I'll actually do it).

In the meantime, having finished off the series of posts I wanted to make about callings (well, originally I'd really only intended that to be one post; it kind of got longer than I'd expected), and so having managed to post two days in a row after a very spotty schedule, I think I feel like breaking things up a little with something a bit more frivolous. Namely, a meme copied from N@ked Under My Lab Coat by way of Pooflingers Anonymous. I don't plan to clutter up this blog with a lot of memes, but I figure one can't hurt; there'll be a more serious post tomorrow.

So, here we go:

  1. When you looked at yourself in the mirror today, what was the first thing you thought? I suppose I probably did look at myself in the mirror today, but if so I don't remember what was the first thing I thought. However, if it was like most times I look in the mirror, it was probably one of the following:
    1. Hey, I'm good-looking. (Yeah, I admit I'm not without a touch of vanity.)
    2. Dagnabbit, I still haven't gotten rid of this gut.
    Or possibly:
    1. I need a haircut

  2. How much cash do you have on you? On me as in with me right at the moment? None. On me as in the pocket of the shorts I'm not wearing right now? I think about ten or fifteen dollars; I don't feel like counting it right now.
  3. What’s a word that rhymes with “DOOR?” The first one that comes to mind is "floor", but that's kind of boring. How about "dinosaur"? That may not quite rhyme with "door" depending on your dialect, but in mine it does.
  4. Favorite planet? Well, given that there's only one planet with which I have personal experience, I don't have a lot to choose from. Can we choose fictional planets? Because if we can, I might be tempted to choose Smintheus. Except that's from a book series that hasn't been published or even mostly written yet, so I don't know if it would count.
  5. Who is the 4th person on your missed call list on your cell phone? My cell phone just lists the last 10 received calls, whether they were missed or not, and of those 10 only one was missed. (And it was from "Name unknown".)

    But while I was up anyway to check that I went ahead and counted my cash for #2. Turns out I only have $5.50.

  6. What is your favorite ring tone on your phone? Never really bothered with ring tones; my phone just has the standard ringing sound it came with.
  7. What shirt are you wearing? At the moment, none, but earlier today, a dark green shirt. Then again, pretty much all my shirts are green. Makes St. Patrick's Day easy.
  8. Do you “label” yourself? Eh...not really, I don't think. Should I?
  9. Name the brand of the shoes you’re currently wearing? Again, at the moment, none. Earlier today I was wearing sandals (about the only time I wear actual shoes as opposed to sandals is when I'm teaching or at church), but I don't know the brand. Okay, I just checked: Sonoma, apparently.
  10. Bright or Dark Room? Right now, relatively bright, but usually fairly dark. I don't often bother to turn the lights on unless I'm looking for something or it's too dark to see, and given that I apparently have above-average night vision that's not very often.
  11. What do you think about the person who took this survey before you? I don't know much about her, but may add her to my blogroll.
  12. What does your watch look like? I don't own a watch. Well, that's not true. I do own a number of old watches ("old" as in from the 90s, not antique), but they're stashed away somewhere and I haven't worn a watch in years.
  13. What were you doing at midnight last night? Trying to sleep in the back of a truck with four dogs in it. And having little success in the endeavor.
  14. What did your last text message you received on your cell say? "VZW_FREE_MSG: Your VZW bill is ready to view on-line. Your current bal is $117.95, for acct ending [number redacted]. Visit or dial #PMT SEND to pay." Yeah, exciting, I know.
  15. Where is your nearest 7-11? According to the store locator, about three blocks east and one block south from my apartment.
  16. What's a word that you say a lot? Egad. No, seriously, I really do say that.
  17. Who told you he/she loved you last? Okay, as corny as this may be, my mother. Hey, like I said, I just got back from Thanksgiving with my family, so she and my father are the last people I saw.
  18. Last furry thing you touched? The dogs mentioned in my answer to #13. Though which of the four it was, I couldn't say (though I can rule out the smallest one).
  19. How many drugs have you done in the last three days? None, unless you're very liberal in your definition of "drug" and count things like chocolate. I'm not even sure within the last three days I've had any caffeine...
  20. How many rolls of film do you need developed? I think I have a roll of film somewhere I haven't developed, but it's old enough I'm not even sure it would still be good. For the last few years, I've just used a digital camera.
  21. Favorite age you have been so far? Um...heck, I dunno. I was always hoping the best times were just around the corner. Still am, I guess. We'll see how that turns out.
  22. Your worst enemy? Myself.
  23. What is your current desktop picture? The generic blue "Dell" screen the computer came with. I generally have lots of programs open at once on my computer; I don't see my desktop enough to care too much about customizing it.
  24. What was the last thing you said to someone? I think probably "See you", or possibly "Have a good night". (See #17.)
  25. If you had to choose between a million bucks or to be able to fly what would it be? A million dollars I think I might conceivably have the ability to eventually make on my own. It may not be likely, but it's at least conceivable. Flying, on the other hand...not so much. So I guess I'll take the flying. (Though really, if I could choose any superpower, I'd prefer shapeshifting.)
  26. Do you like someone? Wow. Is there anyone who really doesn't like anyone? That would be depressing. Unless by "like" you really mean "have a crush on", in which case, uh, maybe sort of, but it's more complicated than that, and not something I'm going to go into now.
  27. The last song you listened to? Heck if I remember. Very possibly the Pirates of the Caribbean closing credits music, given that that's what the family was watching on DVD at my brother's house last night, and I don't remember listening to any music since then. If that doesn't count, and it has to be a song I listened to just by itself, and not as part of a movie, then I really don't remember.
  28. What time of day were you born? I honestly don't know.
  29. What’s your favorite number? I think it used to be 513.8 for some reason, but now I think I'll say 5020. That is, if you're talking rationals...though I do admit to a certain fondness for surreal numbers.
  30. Where did you live in 1987? In 1987, I was in my mid-teens and still living with my parents in the suburbs.
  31. Are you jealous of anyone? Hm...jealous? Not really, I don't think.
  32. Is anyone jealous of you? Not as far as I know, and I don't know why they would be. At the moment, it's not as if I live a particularly enviable life. I intend to change that.
  33. Where were you when 9/11 happened? At home, I think, but I didn't hear about it until I got to campus for the lab I was going to teach (I was a teaching assistant that semester), whereupon the lab director mentioned it--as the reason why attendance might be low that day--apparently assuming that I already knew what she was referring to. I didn't, and after the lab checked the news on the web to find out.
  34. What do you do when vending machines steal your money? I don't remember the last time I used a vending machine. Well...I take that back. I don't remember the last time I used a vending machine for food or soda, if I ever have, but I have used vending machines for stamps and bus passes. I don't remember one ever stealing my money, though. I guess I've been lucky.
  35. Do you consider yourself kind? Yes. Of course, I may not be the most impartial judge of the matter.
  36. If you had to get a tattoo, where would it be? Hm. I guess if I absolutely had to get a tattoo, it would be on the sole of a foot. Hey, I like my skin the way it is.
  37. If you could be fluent in any other language, what would it be? I already am reasonably fluent in Spanish, but there are a whole lot of other languages I'd like to learn. I have a bookshelf full of foreign language dictionaries and "teach yourself" books, and am currently working my way through "Teach Yourself Welsh"--though that was chosen more or less at random from my collection, and doesn't necessarily represent that I want to learn Welsh any more strongly than any of the other couple of dozen languages I have books about. None of which really answers the question, I suppose, but then there isn't really a single answer to it; there are a lot of other languages I'd like to be fluent in, and I don't know that I could really pick one I'd like the most.
  38. Would you move for the person you loved? Yes. I think so.
  39. Are you touchy feely? I don't think so, but I'm not entirely clear on what the term means.
  40. What’s your life motto? So much to do, so little time.
  41. Name three things that you have on you at all times. A pencil, my calendar, and paper. This makes me sound somewhat more organized than I actually am.
  42. What’s your favourite town/city? I don't really have one. I'm considering moving to Vancouver when I'm done with school and have the means to do so, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's my favorite.
  43. What was the last thing you paid for with cash? the best of my recollection, a pair of special edition Tunnels & Trolls adventures. Not that I'm really into Tunnels & Trolls; in fact I played it for the first and possibly last time at a convention last week. But that happens to be what I think was the last thing I paid for with cash.
  44. When was the last time you wrote a letter to someone on paper and mailed it? I think that may have been last December. Unless you count queries to literary agents or submissions to magazines, in which case...somewhat more recent than that, but still not too recently. (I need to get back on that.)
  45. Can you change the oil on a car? I'm not much of a mechanic, but I could change the oil on a car if I had to.
  46. Your first love: what is the last thing you heard about him/her? To answer that, I'd first have to figure out exactly who my first love is. This is a bit of a complicated question; what differentiates an actual "love", per se, from a mere crush? And it's not a question I really feel like pondering right now.
  47. How far back do you know about your ancestry? Some relatives have traced my father's ancestry back along one line all the way, supposedly, to Adam and Eve. Needless to say, I am extremely dubious about these projections past a certain point. However, I think as far back as the 1700s or so it's probably fairly reliable. My maternal grandmother's ancestry has also been traced back fairly far; my maternal grandfather's, not so much. I've been making some attempt to trace that back on my own, but have been having a hard time getting back past his grandparents, who all separately immigrated to New York City from different countries.
  48. The last time you dressed fancy, what did you wear and why did you dress fancy? How fancy is fancy? If you mean fancier than church I don't know; I really don't dress up very often. In fact, the last time might have been at a close friend's wedding in New York City. (The fact that two consecutive answers have mentioned New York City is completely coincidental; in fact, this wedding was the only time I've ever been to that city, though I wouldn't mind visiting it again sometime.) I was one of the groomsmen, and, of course, wore a tuxedo. It being a Jewish wedding ceremony, I also wore, like all the males in the wedding party, a kippah (yarmulke).
  49. Does anything hurt on your body right now? Not really.
  50. Have you been burned by love? Hm...that's kind of an--odd question. Have I loved someone and not had that love requited (at least, not in a romantic sense)? Yes, certainly, but, as I said with regard to #26, it's rather complicated and not something I'm going to get into right now. Have I been betrayed by someone I loved? No, fortunately, I don't think I ever really have.

There. I don't think any of those answers ought to be too damaging toward my anonymity. (Sure, if certain people, like my family or the friend whose wedding I referred to in #48, read this they may be able to identify me, but I think the chances of them running across this blog are pretty much neglible.)

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Callings, Part 4

There wasn't originally going to be a part 4 to my post about callings--I thought I was basically done--but then I remembered there was one last part to the tale I'd forgotten to include.

One day last month, I checked my phone messages on Sunday morning to find a call from a member of the Elders' Quorum Presidency asking me if I'd teach the lesson in the priesthood meeting that Sunday, and requesting that I call him back to confirm. Well, he'd made the call on Friday (and apologized for its last-minute nature), but I hadn't checked my phone messages and found out about it till that morning--so it seemed pointless to call him back now. On not hearing from me, I assumed he'd have found someone else by then.

But when I got to church, the president of the Elders' Quorum came up to me and asked me if I was ready to teach the lesson. I told him, truthfully, that I hadn't gotten the message until that morning, and while I'd read through the lesson just in case I really hadn't had time to do any preparation. As it turned out, though, he hadn't even read the lesson, so he still asked me to teach it, reasoning apparently that I was still better prepared than he was.

A lot of emphasis is put on the church on teaching by the Spirit. The inspiration of the Holy Ghost is supposed to be present while you teach, and you're supposed to be guided by its promptings. Church members invariably claim to be able to sense when the Holy Ghost is present and when it isn't; "I really felt the Spirit during your talk" is a common compliment. Naturally, the gift of the Holy Ghost is only available to those who ask God for it and who are faithful and believing. Which means that, if that doctrine were true, then as an atheist (even if I hadn't admitted to it and those at church didn't know about my atheism), I definitely shouldn't have had the Holy Ghost with me, and my lesson should have been completely uninspired. The fact that people still told me afterwards what an effective lesson I'd given, and complimented me on my insight, and that not one person remarked on the absence of the Spirit that was supposed to be such an important part of the process, is then perhaps rather telling.

The president of the Elders' Quorum asked me afterwards if I'd be willing to accept a calling as a regular instructor. Well, obviously I wouldn't really feel comfortable in such a calling, given that I don't believe in what I'd be teaching--but then again, as callings go there are worse ones (after all, I'd only be "teaching" people who already believed in this, anyway, not trying to persuade people who didn't), and it seemed unlikely I'd be left long without some calling (and while I could turn it down, that would be unusual enough that it might raise too many questions), so I agreed. So far, though, for whatever reason the calling hasn't officially happened yet, so I guess maybe I'll be left without a calling after all. Although I have to say there's some amusing irony in the idea of the ward unknowingly having its priesthood lessons taught by an atheist...

(A note about the previous post: There've been a couple of replies regarding the ethical issue of coming forward with my atheism after having been Young Men's President, saying that there really isn't any ethical dilemma involved, and that regardless of the trust the parents and church leaders of the ward may have put in me when I was in that position, and although it would have been abusing that trust to use my position as Young Men's President to try to sway the kids toward atheism, now that I'm not in that position and have no official jurisdiction over them there'd be nothing unethical about coming out as an atheist even if I do still have some unofficial influence over them. I've given the matter a little further thought, and really...they're absolutely right. As I replied:

Yeah...on further thought, you're right about the ethical issue. I guess I was just kind of clinging to that as an excuse; the truth is it's less about there being any real ethical problem than about my concern that the parents and church leaders might feel like I betrayed them--but I really ought to not be so concerned about what people think of me.

Still, realizing I shouldn't be concerned about it, and actually not being concerned about it, are two different things.

In any case, in time it ought to be a moot point...I suppose the Young Men will forget about me eventually. I certainly have no recollection of who was in the Young Men's Presidency of the ward I grew up in. Still...I guess I'm just kind of grasping at excuses, when at base the main reason I'm reluctant to come out as an atheist is for fear of the reactions of the people I know at church, and of my family. As I said, I know I ought not to be so concerned about what people think of me...but it's hard not to be. I do fully intend to go public with my atheism eventually...but it may be a while before I really feel ready for that step.)

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Callings, Part 3

Okay, guess it's about time for Part III of the Callings post. I'm living sort of dangerously writing this in my parents' condo in Utah with my family in the room, but what the hey; they're all watching the BYU/UofU football game and nobody's really paying attention to what I'm doing, so I ought to be safe.

(I will probably have more to say later about my trip to Utah, but I'll wait till after I get back. First, I want to finish the now-three-part post about Callings.)

When there's a lesson in church about apostasy, there's always a lot of talk about people leaving the church because they were offended. There are inevitably a lot of examples brought up of people who stop coming to church, or leave the church entirely, because they felt slighted in some way, or because they took exception to something their bishop said. From all the discussion, you'd think that's the number one cause of people leaving the church. Maybe it is. But I can honestly say that has absolutely nothing to do with my own deconversion. For the most part, I've gotten along just fine with my church leaders, and I've liked most of the people at church. Of course there've been some minor disagreements, but there's been nothing that's given me any sort of personal offense.

Up until very recently, anyway.

But I'll get to that in a moment.

I said in Part II of this post that after a long stint as Young Men's President, I was released from that calling and called as choir director instead, a calling which I was very glad to be released from this September. One thing I'd meant to mention but forgot was that my time as Young Men's President is another part of the reason I'm reluctant to come out publicly as an atheist just yet. In my time as Young Men's President, I built up good relationships with the teenage boys in the ward, and while I'm no longer officially in charge of me I think they still like me and look up to me--and it's possible that I still have some influence over them. Now, I know, you could say that in that case all the better; my coming out as an atheist would be setting a good example for them--which may be true, but there's another side to the matter, too, which is that their parents put their trust in me as Young Men's President to lead the kids in the right way, and even if I no longer believe that the church's way is the right way, influencing the teenagers in a different way still strikes me, in a way, as betraying their trust. It's a bit of an ethical dilemma, and I'm not really sure what's really right under the circumstances, but it is another reason (among many) I'm reluctant to come right out and tell everyone I don't believe in God just yet.

So. Anyway. I was released as choir director. The following week, as it happened, was the first Sunday of the month, and that usually means "fast Sunday"--a day on which members of the church are expected to refrain from eating two meals, and to donate the money they would have spent on the meals (at least) as a "fast offering", which is put to humanitarian uses. (At least, that's the theory; I'm not completely sure what it actually gets used for, although I think the church probably is being earnest about that.) Also, on fast Sunday, the usual sacrament meeting becomes a "fast and testimony meeting"--in lieu of the usual talks, members are given the opportunity to come up and "bear their testimonies", proclaiming the personal spiritual confirmation they've supposedly received as to the truth of the church and its doctrines. At least, that's the theory; in practice, they usually talk more about their recent experiences than about their "testimonies", per se.

Anyway, having just been released as choir director, I figured I'd take the opportunity to say something--mostly because I didn't want people to feel sorry for my release; I wanted to make it clear that as far as I was concerned, this was a good thing. So I got up and said, essentially, that I wanted to thank everyone who'd supported me as choir director, but I didn't want them being sorry for my release; this was never a calling that I enjoyed, and I didn't think I was ever that good at it, and there was no reason to regret the fact I was released. I hoped those who had supported me as choir director would go on to support whoever was called in my place, I said, and ideally that some of those who didn't come to choir during my tenure would consider supporting my successor, as well.

(As a side note, when there was eventually a new choir director called, the same guy who'd objected to my changing the time of practice from 5:00 to 4:00 called for an immediate vote to get it changed back. He was, again, roundly outvoted, being the only one present who preferred the 5:00 time. "Oh, well," he said; "I guess people get set in their ways"--as if the only reason people weren't voting for 5:00 now was because they were used to 4:00, despite their having voted to change the time to 4:00 back when practice was at 5:00. Gaah. I think to this day he's still convinced that the 5:00 time is really best for everyone and that I changed the choir practice to 4:00 only for my own personal reasons. Ah, well. I don't want to seem too hard on him, though; despite his personal quirks and stubbornness, and his apparent conviction that his own preferences and opinions are always right, he's really not that bad a guy, and overall is generally fairly good-natured. No, there's someone else in the ward who's made a much worse impression on me...but I'm getting to that...)

So far, so good. Except that there was another change in callings coming up soon. It turned out that a week or two later the bishop was due to be released--he'd been in that calling for five years, so this wasn't much of a surprise. We'd find out after his release who was going to be called in his place.

The old bishop was an Argentinian immigrant who spoke less than perfect English--he mangled members' names enough that one of his counselors once joked (in allusion to a part of the temple endowment ceremony) that when you entered the ward, the bishop gave you a new name. He seemed forgetful and occasionally a bit confused about what was going on and who was supposed to do what, but overall he clearly cared about the members, and his heart was certainly in the right place.

I'm not sure I can say the same about the new bishop.

Oh, I've been told he's a friendly guy with a great sense of humor, far, I haven't seen any of that. So far, in everything I've seen of him, he's impressed me as an officious boor who cares more for his own importance than for the good of the ward members. Granted, maybe my opinion is a little colored by what he said in his first talk as bishop, but I think even if it weren't for that he's done nothing to show the wonderful personality that others have said he had.

What did he say in his first talk as bishop? Well...see, that's where that bit I said at the beginning of this post comes in. He talked about the importance of the choir, and how there should have been regular musical performances in the ward, and how he was going to make sure there were in the future. And he talked about how callings were inspired by the Lord, and how they were something you should enjoy, and if you didn't enjoy your calling there was something wrong with the way you were doing it.

Did he intend to direct this specifically at me? It sure sounded like it. Either of those things alone--about enjoying callings, and about the importance of choir performance--could have been just meant generally, but the fact that he said them both together like that certainly seemed like a direct response to my "testimony". Now, nobody else brought the talk up with me, and as far as I can tell no one else saw it as directed at me; it did occur to me that maybe I was being too sensitive. But on further thought, I really don't think so. Obviously I'd have my own recent experience more freshly in my mind than anyone else, so I'd see the connections better, and what he was saying certainly seemed to be responding directly to what I'd said. Maybe he didn't mean it that way; maybe he just happened to be talking about things that related directly to what I'd said a week or two before; but that seemed an unlikely coincidence.

But if he meant to prick my conscience and make me see the error of my ways...well, he was barking up completely the wrong tree, and not only because of my atheism. If this had happened when I still considered myself a faithful Mormon, I'm pretty sure his talk would have had about the same impression on me as it did now. Was he unaware that the lack of choir performances had been not due to my choice, but because the bishopric had told me to take the summer off? (Or was he aware of that, and was his insistence that there should have been more choir performances instead intended as an attack on the previous bishopric? Actually, that would have been even worse, so either way it was an ill-advised thing to say.) As for the claim that everyone should enjoy their calling--again, even when I still considered myself a faithful member, I wouldn't have bought that line of goods. I'd had callings before I hadn't enjoyed, and I certainly didn't think it was because I was doing them wrong; there were things people needed to do, whether they enjoyed them or not. I don't think the idea that you should enjoy any calling because of the spiritual satisfaction of doing God's work--which is what I gather he was trying to say--would have convinced me then either.

That's not to say that this bishop's unpleasantness would have turned me away from the church if I hadn't already turned away for unrelated reasons. I don't think I would ever turn away from something I really believed in due to personal affront. If he'd come along when I still considered myself to believe in the church, I would still have been a bit offended by his talk, but I think I would have chalked it up to human frailty, and the like, and I wouldn't have left the church just because of a boorish bishop.

On the other hand, now that I don't still believe in the church, he's certainly done nothing to make me want to rethink that.

(As for the BYU/UofU game...currently the score is BYU 14, Utah 17. Whoops...make that 23, and probably soon to be 24 (Utah got another touchdown just as I was typing that sentence). My family are all BYU partisans, and were fully expecting BYU to win, and they aren't really happy with this turn of events. I, not being a sports fan in general and not having any particular love for BYU anyway, really couldn't care less.)

Monday, November 20, 2006

Losing My Cover

Well, I'm trying to update more often than I have been, but for most of the last week I've been out of town without internet access. Part III of the "Callings" post--the part where I finally get to the point--should be coming soon. But in the meantime, there's something else I wanted to make a brief post about.

Like I said, for most of the last week I've been out of town without internet access. More specifically, I've been at a convention. Now, the convention was relatively close to where I live, but not close enough to make it really feasible to go back and forth daily between the convention and my apartment--about thirty miles, which given that I live in a big city with heavy traffic means a fairly long trip. So I got a motel room (the cheapest I could find near the convention center, which is why no internet access). I also thought it would be handy to have a laptop computer at the convention--which, unfortunately, I don't. My parents do, however, have a couple of laptops, and I figured they'd probably be willing to loan me one.

Now, as it happens, although the convention isn't all that close to where I live, it's much closer to my parents' house. It's also fairly close to where I work, which is near my parents' house. So, on hearing about the convention, my parents (well, mostly my mother, who's still trying to get me to move "back home") wanted me to stay at their place during the convention and, failing that (since their place was much closer to the convention than mine but still not exactly within walking distance), they at least wanted to pick me up from work on Wednesday and drive me to the convention center--and to pick me up after the convention and drive me back to work and then home today. I assented to this; it was a bit more convenient for me than taking the bus, anyway.

Now, one of the things that's fairly common knowledge about Mormons is their "magic underwear". That, of course, is a disdainful term used to mock the concept; faithful members of the church never call them that. To them, they're sacred temple garments--generally called just "garments" for short. But the idea is that there are special undergarments which have been blessed and which members are supposed to wear constantly (excepting of course when showering or swimming or engaging in other activities during which it would clearly be inappropriate). I've mentioned the garments before in another post, and as I said then, even before I'd finally accepted atheism I hated wearing the things, and found rationalizations not to. Now, the only time I wear my garments is when I expect to be around Mormons I know who know I'm (nominally) a member of the church and who might notice their absence. Yes, they're underwear, but it's sometimes possible to see their contours through one's outer clothing (I've heard the neckline of the upper garment called the "Mormon smile"), and it's far from inconceivable that someone might notice if I'm not wearing them.

Well, if my parents were going to pick me up and drive me to and from the convention, I figured I'd better make sure I was wearing my garments at the time; if they noticed I wasn't wearing them, it would be kind of hard to explain it away. To make a long story short, though, there was somewhere I thought I had a pair of garments stored that it turned out I didn't, and I ended up being at work with my bags for the convention sans garments after all.

As it turned out, my parents, despite spending several hours with me (mostly after the convention; it was late enough I stayed at their place overnight before heading back home), never noticed my lack of garments. So I guess I dodged that bullet. Still, I'm not ready yet to let them know I don't believe in the church, and that's the closest I've come so far to blowing my cover--due, appropriately, to a lack of a certain covering.

Of course, there will come a day when I'm ready to come out as an atheist, and then things like this won't matter. Until then, though, I guess I've got to be a little more careful...

Monday, November 13, 2006

Callings, Part 2

Well, I said the previous post was intended only as some background information to the post I'd intended to make. This is that post. Or...part of it, anyway.

I've been in the ward I'm currently in for almost seven years now. My first calling in this ward was as the second counselor in the Young Men's Presidency. The Young Men's Presidency is, basically, the organization in charge of teaching and guiding the teenage boys in the ward; as the second counselor I was the third and last man on the proverbial totem pole, with both the president and the first counselor above me. (In larger wards, Young Men's Presidencies can also include a secretary, and there can also be instructors separate from the presidency themselves. This is not such a larger ward.)

That didn't last long, though. The first counselor moved away, and I got moved up into his place. Then the other ward that had been temporarily sharing our meetinghouse while theirs was under reconstruction moved back into their own now-reconstructed building; while they were here, we'd had a joint Young Men's program, and the fact that the Young Men's President was a member of the other ward meant that once the other ward was no longer meeting with us...well, I ended up as Young Men's President.

The calling certainly had its ups and downs, but overall I didn't mind it. For all the calumny that's often heaped on them, I kind of like teenagers; sure, they can be intractable at times, but I don't think they're nearly as bad as they're made out to be. And while there were certainly aspects of the calling I didn't like--like trying to organize weekly activities--I actually enjoyed getting to know the Young Men, and building relationships with them.

I was left in that calling for several years--until about a year and a half ago, in fact. Then the bishopric started asking me questions about how I'd feel about possibly being choir director. At first I thought they were going to call me as choir director in addition to Young Men's President--which kind of worried me, seeing as my time was short enough as it is--but as it turned out the plan was to release me as Young Men's President (I had, after all, had been what was probably an unusually long time in the position anyway) to call me as choir director. I was still apprehensive--sure, being Young Men's President was a time-consuming calling, but I was used to it, and I even kind of liked it, and being the choir director didn't seem like the sort of thing I'd like at all. But, well, you're not supposed to refuse a calling, after all, so I said that, well, I wasn't sure I'd be any good at it, but if they really wanted me as choir director, I supposed I'd be willing to do it.

And I did.

And I hated it.

This did not come as a surprise. I hadn't expected to like the calling. It's not my sort of thing. I honestly think that the bishopric had expected me to enjoy the calling--but they didn't know me as well as they thought they did. Yes, I'm musically inclined; I sang in the choir. (Though I was usually late to practices.) Heck, I even write my own songs. Yeah, I like music. But liking music does not equate to liking leading a choir. There's a lot more to leading a choir than that. You have to pick out the songs the choir is going to perform; you have to schedule the practices and performances; and worst of all you have to, well, try to direct people. To get them to pay attention during the practices; to get them to come to practice in the first place; to get them to sing what they're supposed to sing and not sing when they're not supposed to sing. You have to lead them. Leadership...isn't my thing. At all. And okay, sure, being Young Men's President, I was leading the Young Men, I guess, but that was different. For one thing, well, they were teenagers; I felt a little more comfortable being in a position of leadership over them than I did over choir members many of whom were significantly older than I was. And for another...well, the teenagers were easier to deal with than some of the choir members.

(There's one member of the ward in particular who was a real pain to deal with (and who had been choir director himself in the not-too-distant past, so you'd think he'd have known better). I had some requests for the time to be changed from 5:00 to 4:00. I brought it up at choir practice. He complained incessantly; 5:00 was obviously better for everyone; nobody could possibly want to change the time to 4:00; why was I doing this? But some people had approached me about the 4:00 time, so I put the matter to a vote (by e-mail). 4:00 won. He never seemed to believe the vote was fair, and in fact asked aloud at the next choir practice just who had voted in favor of 4:00, apparently meaning to insinuate that I was just changing the time for my own personal convenience. (Which was very far from true; going through all the hassle of trying to get the time changed was anything but convenient for me.) I wasn't sure what to say about this--since the vote hadn't been done publicly, I didn't really feel at liberty to tell him who had voted for 4:00 without those people's permission--but fortunately some of them spoke up on their own to tell him they had favored 4:00. He complained enough, though, that some months later I finally gave in and said that, okay, maybe I hadn't made things clear enough in the last vote, and after all there were some new members in the choir now, so we'd try it again. Again, 4:00 won, though again he didn't quite seem to believe I'd really conducted everything fairly. In his mind, it seemed, 5:00 was better for him, therefore it obviously must be better for everybody else too.)

Still, I tried not to show that I hated the calling as much as I did, and I think for the most part I succeeded. Not in being a good choir director--that's not something I was ever cut out for--but in not making it obvious how much the calling vexed me. And I tried to do as well as I could in the calling, even though it was clearly not something I was ever really going to be good at. I did get a lot of compliments about the choir, and though I have no way of knowing for sure how sincere they were I tend to think most of them were genuine. I replied that it really wasn't me that deserved the compliments; it was the choir members themselves--and I meant that. I had no idea what I was doing as choir director, and if the choir was performing well, certainly very little of that success could be laid at my feet. (At one point last year there was a special stake musical event, in which as one of the acts I directed a bilingual joint performance between our ward's choir and the choir of the Spanish-speaking ward that shares our building. The person putting together the program for the event included a brief biographical blurb for each of the performers (that is to say, the soloists and the people playing instruments, not each individual member of the choir), and asked me what I wanted included about me. I said that I didn't think I should be included at all; I wasn't really performing, just directing the choir. Later on one of the choir members came up to me and told me he thought I should have been listed in the program with the other performers; I told him I had actually requested not to be...)

But it wasn't the fact that I wasn't good at it that made me detest so much directing the choir. I can certainly enjoy trying things I'm not good at; heck, I don't think I'm a particularly good artist, but I still try to do my webcomic. I just don't like being in a position of leadership; I don't like directing people...and that, more than anything else, far more, really, than the music, was what being a choir director was all about. It was my calling, so I'd make the effort, I'd try to do my best...but I hated every minute of it, and hoped desperately to be released from it soon. I wasn't really expecting to be released any time soon, though...after all, I'd been in the Young Men's presidency for about four years before they finally released me from that.

I did get some respite at the beginning of the summer. One of the counselors in the bishopric took me aside and told me that they had decided to give the choir the summer off. Instead, the ward music chairperson would be arranging for soloists and small groups to provide musical performances for the meetings. They had made this decision, he told me, to leave me more time to concentrate on finishing up my schoolwork. I wasn't sure it was really going to make a significant difference to my schoolwork, but heck, I wasn't about to argue. (Especially since by this point I'd finally come to terms with the fact I didn't really have any reason to believe in the church or in God, so I maybe wasn't as motivated to try to do my all in my calling as I used to be. Though, really, even if that hadn't been the case, I probably still wouldn't have put up an argument here.) If they wanted to give me the summer off, I'd take it.

So I had a summer blessedly free of choir responsibilities. Near the end of the summer, though, we started to gear things up again. All the more urgently because the bishop had complained about the lack of musical performances over the last few months, apparently having forgotten that the bishopric had told me to take the summer off. (The performances that were supposed to have been organized by the ward music chairperson never materialized, probably largely due to the fact that the ward music chairperson was at that time quite pregnant and not in much shape to be organizing much of anything.) So, we were to try to get the choir going again as soon as possible.

Except that didn't end up happening. Or at least, I didn't end up doing it. Because a week or two later, I was told I was going to be released. In retrospect, it seems likely now that the reason was because someone had recently moved into the ward who the bishopric thought could do the job (not that there had been any real shortage of people in the ward who would have been better at it than me before that, but apparently the bishopric had thought otherwise). At the time, I didn't care why I was being released. I was just glad to be getting out of that horrible calling, much earlier than I thought would happen. I didn't even care much what calling I'd be getting next (it seemed quite likely I would be getting another calling soon...that's usually the way things work). Almost anything would be better than being choir director.

This is not the end of the story I was planning on telling. However, it is once again becoming quite late, and I think I'll leave off here for now. Some time in the near future: Part 3.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Callings, Part 1

Okay, this is the entry I said I was going to make "tomorrow"...three weeks ago. Uh, yeah. Okay, things have been busy for me, and it's not just this blog that's getting neglected; I'd barely updated my LiveJournal in the last few weeks either, and I said a few entries back that I had my own webcomic? Well, I haven't gotten around to updating that since August, though I plan to try to finally do that this weekend. (I think I can say that without too much fear of revealing my identity, since three-month hiatuses are, alas, not all that uncommon in the webcomic world.)

So. Anyway. First, a little background to this post. One of the things that the LDS church prides itself upon is its lack of paid clergy. From activities directors to Sunday School teachers to bishops and beyond, all of those who serve within the church do so without pay, generally while also holding down a regular full-time job. (I'm not entirely sure how it works for the upper echelons, the General Authorities for whom church service essentially is a full-time job, but my guess is that they're retired and living off their savings and pensions--though I'm sure the church pays their travel expenses, and wouldn't be at all surprised to find out it gives them some sort of cost-of-living compensation that isn't officially considered a salary.) Moreover, most of the positions--with certain exceptions, such as the church presidency, the apostles, and stake patriarchs--are only for a limited duration; bishops, for instance, generally only serve for about five years, and lower positions can be of much shorter duration. I think the common assumption among church members, though it's seldom explicitly voiced, is that the fact that positions in the LDS church aren't careers eliminates, or at least reduces, the venality and corruption that's likely to taint ecclesiastical service when money is involved.

I'm not so sure that's true. I've heard stories of corrupt bishops embezzling the tithing money from their wards, or funds that were earmarked to go to humanitarian aid or other causes--I don't know how often it happens, and I don't really think it does happen that often, but it does happen. And even without money being involved, there's still plenty of politicking and jockeying for position from people who apparently just want the power of the positions, or just want to feel important, or have similar stimuli--money's certainly not the only motive for misconduct (1 Timothy 6:10 notwithstanding). Maybe the fact that LDS church positions aren't paid does reduce the amount of corruption, if not eliminate it entirely--but I'm not completely convinced that even that is true. There's a famous maxim, sometimes believed to have originated with political scientist Wallace Sayre but now usually repeated in the wording Henry Kissinger used, that "academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small." I wonder if the same might apply to politics within the LDS church.

Even if it doesn't, though, and even if the lack of paid clergy does reduce corruption--and maybe it really does; I'm not really convinced one way or the other--it most certainly brings other problems with it. The thing is, people don't achieve church positions by their own choice. They're always assigned to those positions by their ecclesiastical superiors. The usual terminology used is that the person has been "called" to the position in question, and the position itself is referred to as a "calling". When a person is dismissed from a position, he's said to be "released from his calling". The idea, of course, is that it is God who really chose the person for the calling, and that the bishop or stake president who "extended the call" is merely acting on divine inspiration; the right person for every calling, however lowly, is ultimately determined by God Himself. Almost any duty or office related in any way to the church is considered a calling, though sometimes the line can be fuzzy--on one occasion I was released from a calling (as the editor of the ward newsletter for the student ward I was a member of as an undergraduate) that I had never been called to in the first place, because apparently the bishop hadn't considered it a calling at the time I was first asked to do it.

Now, obviously this isn't to say that people don't aspire to certain callings, and even try to manipulate their church leaders so that they'll get them. I'm sure that happens. But it also very frequently happens that people are given callings they don't want, or don't have time to fulfill, or (supposed divine inspiration aside) simply aren't suited for. It's possible, of course, to turn down a calling; if the bishop asks you to serve as the ward financial clerk, he's not going to force the issue at gunpoint if you say no, and it's not even going to make you considered unworthy to take the sacrament or attend the temple. But turning down a calling, while permitted, is highly deprecated. After all, God is behind the calling, so if you turn it down you're not just saying no to the bishop, or whoever it is who's extending the calling to you; you're flouting God's will.

Um...okay, well, all that was supposed to be just some background information prefatory to some description of my own callings in my current ward, but it's late enough that in the interests of getting something posted I think I'll go ahead and post this as is as Part 1. Part 2 of this post will be forthcoming...well, I won't promise it'll be tomorrow, but in less than three weeks, anyway.