I’ve just returned from a week-long stay in Utah, my longest visit to the Mormon Heimat in quite a while. My observations follow:
1) There was an African-American woman behind the Avis desk at the Salt Lake Airport when we picked up our rental car. She looked tired and stressed (but then, it was 10pm on a Saturday night). Six days later I saw an African-American man on the BYU campus. He looked glum (but then, he was dressed in a dark sweatsuit, and it was 70 degrees out). These two were the sum total of all the black persons I saw in a week of wandering around Salt Lake City and Utah Valley. (Live in the South for a while, and you begin to notice these things.)
2) The Sunday March 14th edition of the Salt Lake Tribune included a wonderful special section titled “Living the Principle: Polygamy on the Border”. It included a dozen fascinating articles, on the historical evolution of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the current authoritarian leader of the church, refugees from the main FLDS body and colonies they’ve established, and much more. It was excellent journalism. I can remember when the Tribune started all its investigations into Utah polygamists back in the early 90s; frequently, those articles often struck me as exploitive, and primarily designed to shine a spotlight on events or issues that someone presumably hoped would make mainstream Mormons feel uncomfortable (and thus sell papers). That’s not the case with more recent news stories, however; I think people have come to appreciate the integrity of and the challenge posed by the lives of the fundamentalists themselves on their own terms. Clearly, they’re not going anywhere. Just today the Tribune ran a story examining some of the ways in which the gay marriage debate is spilling over into the issue of plural marriage; however that debate is settled, I think it is indisputable that polygamy is going to be significantly “normalized” in the years to come. How church members will react to that development will be revealing and fascinating to watch.
3) The dating and mating rites of the young, horny and moral (and yes, I myself was two of those three once) in Utah Valley has merged with the internet economy in some pretty impressive ways. While driving to Provo, for example, I noticed a billboard for LDSDanceInfo.com; the billboard’s tagline was “MEET THE OPPOSITE SEX!” This struck me as an important and timely message for the youth of the church, and I hope a lot of young people respond to it positively. I was also moved by the ads for HotSaints.com (tagline: “Chase and Be Chaste!”).
4) During opening exercises while attending church with one of my brothers at his Sandy ward, Melissa had to take our middle daughter Caitlyn to the bathroom. The sacrament hymn began and ended; she didn’t return. The sacrament was passed; she didn’t return. She and Caitlyn didn’t make it back to our pew until the ordinance was over, but not for lack of trying–apparently, in my brother’s ward the doors to the chapel are locked at the beginning of the sacrament hymn, so as to impress upon the members the need to get to their seats and stay there. Melissa came to the foyer just as the hymn began, and so was prevented from entering (and no, they didn’t take the sacrament outside the chapel doors). Needless to say, she was annoyed. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of locks on chapel doors before. I guess it works as a policy, though.
5) Salt Lake City always has been a surprisingly good radio town, and I discovered during this visit an amazing station: KJQ, serving up “classic alternative.” Oh man–in a single afternoon I heard Information Society, Spandau Ballet, Alphaville, Duran Duran, The Human League, Elvis Costello, REM, The Police, Madness, New Order, Thomas Dolby, XTC, Thompson Twins, Adam Ant, Depeche Mode, and more…and the good stuff too, not just overplayed hits. It got me thinking about pop music in Utah. I’ve long thought that early alternative found an odd kind of home in Mormon culture; years later the sound and playlist of the 1980s seemed to continue to dominate Provo and SLC social scenes. I’ve no idea why this is; perhaps there is some interesting sociological factor behind it (that it lends itself to exuberant, non-contact dancing? that the Holland/Kimball era was the closest Mormon Utahns ever came to the mainstream before a retrenching retreat from pop culture set it? that it’s just about the whitest genre of music known to man?), or perhaps it’s just an accident of history. I don’t think it’s an illusion though; the week I visited Utah, SLC clubs were graced with a visit from Psychedelic Furs and the Church. Thank goodness I never threw out my thin ties…
6) Walking around the BYU campus was an odd experience. I found myself weirdly interested in snatching up a copy of the Daily Universe and reading the opinion page, hoping for some bonehead letter to the editor to mock. When we walked down the old mall of trees–about half of which are gone now–between the law school and the Talmage Building, I had to stifle a sudden desire to explain to my seven-year-old how the grounds crew vacuums up the dead leaves to prevent them from falling to the ground. I realized that I was actually suspiciously paying attention to the length of the shorts of the students around me, and counting the number of not-quite-goatees I saw. In other words, I felt my inner judgmental, paranoid, smart-ass self beginning to emerge. Fortunately we didn’t stay long. Weird. I wonder if it was just a flashback due to long absence, or a permanent part of my character? I hope the latter isn’t the case. But then, maybe you can take the boy out of BYU, but can’t take BYU out of the boy.