Monday, August 28, 2006

The Beach Trip

Due to generally crappy weather, I didn't put up the pool for Toby's trip home, and he was aching for the water. Late yesterday afternoon, I decided to take a chance, so we got in the car and headed to Waveland, Mississippi, location of the beach nearest to our house. Waveland was also Ground Zero for the Hurricane Katrina storm surge. I had been along U.S. Hwy. 90 through Waveland and Bay St. Louis, but this was my first drive along the beach there. "Holy crap!" is an understatement, even an entire year after the storm. Waveland/Bay St. Louis used to be blue collar towns with white-collar enclaves right along the shore. Some of the houses along Beach Blvd. were quite lovely, though not quite as nice as the mansions that were obliterated in nearby Pass Christian. Anyhyow, there are only a few structures (perhaps 2 or 3) left from before, and none of the signs or landmarks that I used previously to navigate through the town and to the beach. For a half-mile or mile back from the shore, it's a maze of weeded-up lots and slabs, though many of the trees remain. There are even a few M*A*S*H-type tents set up, one of which is the local produce market.

Fortunately, Toby was oblivious to the utter devastation, and he had a wonderful time splashing around in the surf. The powers-that-be in Mississippi have done a yeoman's job restoring that beach, which is manmade and man-maintained to begin with. Also, the Gulfport/Biloxi casinos are reopening, which should pump some money into that area. It's nice to have the beach option back in the picture when the kids are home.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Toby in the house

This train was way overpriced, but it beats chasing real ones in the car. Posted by Picasa

To heck with the rain--I'm a-swingin' Posted by Picasa

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Daily Zen

Delusion conceives of things as
Existent or nonexistent,
As being real or unreal,
As born or unborn.
In an uncluttered place,
Concentrate your mind,
Remain steady and unmoving,
Like a polar mountain.
Observe that all phenomena
Have no existence,
That they are like space,
Without solid stability,
Neither being born nor emerging.
Unmoving, unflagging,
Abide in oneness:
This is called the place of nearness.

- Lotus Sutra

Saturday, August 19, 2006

First Impressions

Harsh Light Of Morning Falls On One-Night Stand's DVD Collection

It's interesting how we judge people by their libraries, CDs, iPod lists, and DVD collections. I noticed several years ago that the teenagers from the church youth group opened my CD case first thing whenever they got in my car. Evidently, I was okay. Must have been those Bob Marley discs. Anybody checking out the DVD collection in my house would go away scratching his/her head. We have everything from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" to "GoodFellas" to "the Looney Tunes Golden Collection."

So what's in your DVD collection?

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Long and boring

Recently, I've been trying to understand just what the hell goes on inside the heads of my mother and her freak show of a family. Whenever the topic of their faith has come up, I have argued that they are only quasi-Mormon, that they took bits and pieces of the LDS religion and its doctrines and shaped them into the H. family’s own worldview.  Upon reflection, I think what happened was that the family grabbed ahold of some formerly widely accepted doctrinal and unofficial, folk elements of Mormonism that have since been abandoned or downplayed by the mainstream of the church (but that still persist on the fringes), and has not let go of them.  In this essay, I will examine the H. family’s worldview, then look at LDS beliefs consistent with those views and how LDS beliefs have changed.  I will also examine my own views and discuss where I think the mainstream of the LDS church is.

A bit of biography before I proceed, I am a “less active” member of the LDS Church, and an unbelieving one to boot.  That was not always the case, however.  I have had periods of activity in the church, most significantly, from around 1991-2001.  Though I’ve always been deeply skeptical of certain aspects of the religion, it worked well for me during that 10-year period.  This essay really has nothing to do with the reasons for my disbelief. Moreover, I won’t touch on controversies like polygamy or the authenticity of certain canonized texts.  Hopefully, as you, my dear reader will see, it was, paradoxically, my own adult involvement in the church that allowed me to see that the organization does not necessarily share the H. family’s malignant outlook on the world.  It’s almost as if there are two Mormon churches–-theirs, and the one I knew during my active years.


The H. family has always believed in the superiority of the caucasian race.  The word “nigger” was, and is, commonly used among family members, though my father forbade its use in our house (my mother refers to “the blacks”).  One of my uncles went so far (at least, according to his offspring) as to affiliate with the Ku Klux Klan in his distant past, and that same individual more recently has voiced at least some affinity for the “new order” white-supremacist movement.  My cousins tell the Klan story, then, with a wink and a nod, say “but we’re not supposed to know that.”  So consider yourselves not supposed to know that.  To be fair, the degree of racism varies among individual family members, and there are some family members I don’t know very well, so it’s possible that others have pulled themselves away from the toxicity of racism.

As for me, I must acknowledge that I bought into this racist worldview until my teen years.  One of the few things my father ever said that resonated with me was when there was a story about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on television, and I was in the room alone with him.  I may have been 11 or 12 at the time.  I made a racist crack about someone I had been taught was a communist anyway.  My father looked at me very seriously and growled, “if you achieve half of what that man achieved, then you would be great.”  He then left the room.  That really hit me hard.  I now consider King to be one of the greatest figures in American history.  Looking back, I really wish my father had been more assertive in disabusing us of the racial bullshit we got from my mother and her family.  Also, I associated with African-American kids in school, and found them to be, well, pretty much like me.  Finally, my natural disposition is mostly cheery and positive, which makes it hard for me to hold grudges, much less hate people.  So racism didn’t take root in my mind like it did in the members of my mother’s H. family.

From 1852-1978, the LDS Church, as a matter of policy, withheld its lay priesthood from men of African descent (women are still barred).  The precise reasons for the ban are unclear.  However, it is clear that Church President Brigham Young was an inveterate racist who believed that Africans bore the “mark of Cain” as a curse going back to the times of the Book of Genesis:  “The first man [Cain] that committed the odious crime of killing one of his bretheren will be cursed the longest of any one of the children of Adam . . . . [A]nd the Lord put a mark upon him, which is the flat nose and black skin . . . . Abolitionists cannot help it, nor in the least alter that decree.”  Because of this mark, according to Young, Africans could not obtain the priesthood until after every other group of people on the planet had it extended to them.  The “mark of Cain” theory was not official LDS doctrine, and it was not uncommon among white Christians during the 19th Century.  However, outside of the real wacko fringe, it seems to have had its most lasting effect in the LDS Church.  Certain scriptures in the uniquely Mormon Book of Abraham and Book of Moses were interpreted as supporting the notion of white superiority, making Mormon racism not just a matter of practice but a matter of hard doctrine.  In 1966, at the time the Civil Rights movement was in full swing, Apostle Bruce McConkie wrote that “Negroes in this life are denied the priesthood; under no circumstances can they hold this delegation of authority from the Almighty.”  I recall as a youth hearing that theory and the related theory that Africans were fence-sitters in the pre-existence struggle between the forces of good and evil.  It must be said, however, that some more liberal Mormons have theorized that the ban existed because the white Mormons were not ready until 1978 for people of African descent to hold the priesthood.

The doctrinal racism of the LDS Church was an ideal fit for the ideological racism of the H. family, which began joining the Church in the late 1950s.  Here was actual religious justification for the belief in white superiority.

Whatever the reason for the ban, it was ended by Church President Spencer W. Kimball in 1978.  McConkie wrote that people should disregard his own words, and Brigham Young’s, on the topic of African descent and the LDS priesthood, stating that “we spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.”  Current President Gordon B. Hinckley very recently chastised any church members who might harbor racist views, and I take him at his word. However, the leadership of the Church has never actually issued a statement or otherwise indicated that the priesthood ban was wrong.  McConkie’s statement is the closest thing I’ve seen to an acknowledgment of error from an official source; however, he later wrote that “in all past ages and until recent times in this dispensation, the Lord did not offer the priesthood to the Negroes,” thus suggesting that the ban was divinely inspired.

I suppose a fair number of Mormons assume at least tacitly that Brigham Young and his successors were simply wrong and go on about their business.  I would guess that most Mormons assume that God had His reasons for imposing the ban, then removing it, and that questioning the actions of a prophet like Brigham Young is heresy (“speaking evil of the Lord’s anointed” is a violation of a temple covenant).  That does raise the uncomfortable question whether consistency or inconsistency mean anything at all, but that’s a subject for another essay.  In any event, African-Americans participate in the Church just as white people do, and, as President Hinckley recently suggested, racism is now simply unacceptable.  One of my racist cousins, however, argues that Africans are still inferior because the priesthood was withheld from them until 1978.  A statement from the Church officially repudiating the doctrine underlying the priesthood ban would help disabuse “soft” racist Mormons of their racist ideals, but I doubt it would do much good with my so-called relatives.  Moreover, it would mean officially renouncing a doctrine that was put forth and fiercely defended by men who are believed to have been prophets of God–-something I doubt the current leaders of the Church will ever be inclined to do.  In the end, the Church has moved from officially racist to officially un-racist--albeit without a formal repudiation of the former, doctrinal racism--something that is inconsistent with the H. family’s worldview.

Conspiracy theories and secret combinations:

The H. family for as long as I can remember has believed that the government of the United States is controlled by the grand conspiracy currently known as the New World Order.  A few years ago, my mother told me that her father was a believer in the anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which was proved to be a hoax in 1921.  The Protocols, seem to be the granddaddy of all conspiracy literature.  I have heard virtually no anti-Semitism from the H. family, with the exception of the wacko ex-Klan uncle.  Indeed, they believe that the Jews are God’s other chosen people, and that Israel should be defended.  But the point here is that the H. family’s conspiracy beliefs have a long pedigree.

Moreover, members of the H. family tend to view the world in Manichean, good vs. evil terms (and, evidently, I am evil).  My mother frequently quoted Jesus as saying something to the effect of “he who is not with me is against me.”  A very rigid sense of judgment and a feeling that those who disagree are evil are both symptoms of paranoid disorders, when taken to an extreme.  One tendency of paranoid people is belief in conspiracy theories.  Individual members of the H. family show other signs of clinical delusional disorders, to varying degrees, so it’s possible that their belief in conspiracies is based in a mutually shared psychiatric disorder, I don’t know.

The Book of Mormon warns of “secret combinations,” and the canonical Doctrine and Covenants warns of the “evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days.”  Moreover, local mobs in various states, and the United States government itself, opposed the LDS Church for the final 60 years or so of the 19th Century, mostly over polygamy.  See Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145 (1878).  Mormon history thus left the LDS Church of my youth obsessed with the notion that it was subject to persecution.  Indeed, Mormons in overwhelmingly non Mormon areas are occasionally subjected to persecution.  See Santa Fe Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000).  Additionally, Joseph Smith supposedly prophesied/predicted (I suppose I should look it up) that the persecution of Mormons would intensify as the end times approached.  Mormonism developed in relative isolation from the rest of American society–-that was the whole point of the move from Illinois to Utah, to be left alone.  A group that has developed in isolation could tend to develop serious distrust of outsiders.  The notion that a large, societal power like the LDS Church could be subject to persecution must seem preposterous to an outsider, but it’s a part of the legacy of Mormonism.

The critical theory concept of the metanarrative may assist in understanding the popularity of political conspiracy theories among Mormons.  Thanks to Hank Rearden for turning me onto this concept, and to Captain Mike for his comments on the subject.  The Wikipedia (okay, so this is not an attempt at an academic dissertation, but the Wiki offers a concise definition, so let’s go with it, okay?) states:

A metanarrative can include any grand, all-encompassing story, classic text, or archetypal account of the historical record.  They can also provide a framework upon which an individual’s own experiences and thoughts may be ordered.  These grand, all-encompassing stories are typically characterized by some form of “transcendent and universal truth” in addition to an evolutionary tale of human existence (a story with a beginning, middle and an end).  The majority of metanarratives tend to be relatively optimistic in their visions for humankind, some verge on utopian, but different schools of thought offer very different accounts.

I suppose that the Bible serves as the basis for the metanarrative most familiar to Americans--the story of humankind’s creation, its fall, the apprenticeship of the Hebrew people with the moody God of the Old Testament, and its redemption through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, with the Book of Revelations thrown in at the end to scare people into repentance (I guess).  The Mormon metanarrative, adding the Book of Mormon, the Book of Abraham, the Book of Moses, and the Doctrine and Covenants, extends the Biblical one both spatially (into the Americas) and temporally (into the preexistence and the afterlife, in detail).  LDS founder Joseph Smith was intellectually curious, and he asked questions about various aspects of the overall Christian metanarrative, and about the history of that metanarrative in the Americas, that adherents to Mormonism believe God answered through revelation.  The Book of Mormon is the text most relevant to belief in conspiracy theories--in the book, there is a centuries-long struggle between the light-skinned Nephites (who maintained their Judaism and later became Christians) and the darker-skinned Lamanites (who invented their own faith).  The Nephites and Lamanites came from the same lineage of immigrant Jews, but the Lamanites were given dark skin (up pops race again) as a curse upon the founders of their tribe.  The Lamanites ultimately prevailed and became the “principal ancestors” of the American Indians, though DNA testing has not confirmed their Hebrew ancestry.  There are periods of relative calm in the book, and, at various points, bands of Lamanites join the Nephites and vice versa.  The climax of the book is Christ’s visit to the Americas shortly after His crucifixion in Palestine.  As I have mentioned, the book recounts a lengthy struggle between the Nephites (good) and the Lamanites (bad).  It’s essentially a Manichean struggle between good and evil, with no real middle ground.  Also, the Nephites on occasion fall prey to conspirators, and, as I mentioned above, the book warns of “secret combinations.”  Mormondom therefore provides fertile ground for conspiracy theories involving the struggle between the forces of good and evil.

As far as Mormon belief in political conspiracies, the rubber hit the road in the 1960s and 1970s in the figures of Apostle (and, in his declining years, Church President) Ezra Taft Benson (a blood relative of my wife and children, so let's take it easy on him, 'kay?) and BYU’s W. Cleon Skousen, though it must be said that their conspiracy theories never worked their way into the hard doctrine of the LDS Church.  These were the Cold War years, and Communism was a perfect fit for conspiracy theorists.  Krushchev, after all, did say that they would bury us.  Benson was sympathetic to the far-right John Birch Society and its political aims.  Anyhow, here’s a representative quote of Benson’s regarding conspiracies:  “Now undoubtedly Moroni [in the Book of Mormon] could have pointed out many factors that led to the destruction of the people, but notice how he singled out the secret combinations, just as the Church today could point out many threats to peace, prosperity, and the spread of God’s work, but it has singled out the greatest threat as the godless conspiracy.  There is no conspiracy theory in the Book of Mormon--it is a conspiracy fact.”

Skousen’s self-published “The Naked Capitalist” (1970) became something of a bible for conspiracy theorists.  The book is actually a review of eccentric Georgetown Professor Carroll Quigley’s Tragedy and Hope.  My mother had a copy of the book, and I remember reading it and coming away totally unconvinced.  Quigley alleged that the Western world had been controlled by groups of bankers and other capitalists up until the 1930s or so, which he thought was a good thing.  Skousen essentially linked Quigley’s capitalist “round table groups” (the Council on Foreign Relations was a prominent group) to the Communist Party, and argued that the conspirators’ wealth should be confiscated and that they should be vigorously resisted.  Not only did the conspirators control the Communist Party, but the Democratic and Republican Parties too.  “Richard Nixon is NOT a communist,” I recall telling my mother.  Skousen’s theories are still around, most notably at the National Center for Constitutional Studies (  Notably for conspiracy theorists, Bill Clinton paid tribute to Carroll Quigley in his 1992 acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention.

The H. family ate this stuff up, as did a good many LDS Church members.  Benson was a prominent Church leader, after all, and Skousen was a professor at the Church’s own university.  Moreover, the struggle between “Godless Communism” (which was, in fact, evil, in practice if not in theory) and Western Democracy seemed to mirror the Nephite/Lamanite struggle in the Book of Mormon.  However, a good many Mormons were unconvinced.  For instance, in a 1971 edition of the very unofficial Mormon review Dialogue, BYU’s Louis Midgley shredded Skousen’s arguments one by one, then chastised Skousen:  “The effect of The Naked Capitalist is . . . to direct the attention of the Saints away from the gospel and to form a cult . . . .  Such a radical and false ideology, no matter how cleverly packaged and rationalized, does not teach us to love or neighbors or forgive others; it does not open us to the sanctifying effects of the Spirit.

Ezra Taft Benson’s mental state deteriorated during his tenure as Church President, and Apostles Hinckley and Thomas S. Monson effectively took control of the Church.  Around the same time, the Communist Bloc collapesd.  I can’t recall hearing any conspiracy talk from the pulpit since then.  Under Hinckley, the LDS Church has attempted to avoid being too closely affiliated with any American politcal movement, though the majority of Church members in this country side with the Republican Party.  A few years ago, one high-ranking Church leader even said that it was acceptable to be a good Mormon and a Democrat (Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid is an active Mormon).  That sentiment is absolutely unacceptable to the H. family.

Stages of Faith and Mormonism According to Randy:

Thanks again to Hank, this time for turning me on to James Fowler’s theory of six stages of faith. Looking at Fowler’s theory, I see the H. family firmly entrenched in stage two, which is very literal, linear, anthropomorphic, and unforgiving, while I, along with most Mormons, was somewhere in stage three, at least from 1991 to around 1999 or 2000, when my questioning began in earnest.  Fowler’s third stage, synthetic-conventional faith, involves socialization, integration, and conformity, and the doctrines, dogmas, and practices of one’s faith tradition become an “inseparable factor in the ordering of one’s world.”  Authority derives from the top down, and the internalization of the system may become so entrenched that objective evaluation becomes impossible.  I do not wish to imply that intelligent, thoughtful, curious people cannot live happily at stage three; I do not believe that is at all true.

Anyway, my own, fully adult involvement with the LDS Church began when I hit a low point in my life, shortly after I began working as a lawyer.  Typical to the manichean, dark/light piece of my mind, I reached a point where I wanted to drive out my “dark side.”  I tore into the New Testament, and was, metaphorically at least, on fire with what I read.  The Jesus I came to know was not a racist or a conspiracy theorist, though in Mormon teaching, Jesus is the moody, sometimes vindictive God of the Old Testament.  Even Paul’s writings were music to my ears, in spite of their misogyny and homophobia.  The focus is on love, forgiveness, humility, and service.  I returned to the faith of my youth.  The church I saw had African-Americans in it, and even honest-to-God liberals.  One branch president would frequently disregard Old Testament scripture as “simply wrong” because it is inconsistent with everything else we know about the nature of God.  It didn’t take long for me to see that this was not the angry, racist, conspiracist religion of the H. family; rather, on the local level, at least, it was a pretty reasonable group of people.  Sure, ths authorities in Salt Lake sounded authoritarian and controlling--and, of course, obsessed with sexuality--and their Utah-centric programs have to be adapted beyond recognition to meet local needs, but the local people here were more relevant to my own life than were the leaders in Utah.

As I’ve discussed, Mormonism has, in practice, for the most part, rid itself of the racism and conspiracism that constitutes the H. family’s worldview.  That is undeniably a positive development.  At the same time, the Church has put the squeeze on intellectuals who call into question the official version of Mormon history, or who delve into “the mysteries of the kingdom” in their studies.  In Mormon parlance, the operative term is “correlation.”  The Church’s correlation program is a massive attempt to ensure that the teaching of doctrine and history is entirely consistent with the current beliefs of the Church.  Whatever doesn’t fit is discarded, whether it is factually true or not.  With the wacko right and the intellectual left pruned, the Hinckley-led LDS Church is positioned pretty much on the right-hand side of the mainstream of American life. The Church's shrill advocacy of the marriage amendment is seriously disappointing, as is its cluelessness about, and hostility towards, its GLBT members generally. However, the same could be said about the Bush Administration and various other institutions.


My own drift from Mormonism began when my children were diagnosed with autism.  Watching them, I realized just how little we understand about the human mind and how people are wired in different ways. With a developmental disability in the house, the linear progression model of life that is prevalent in Mormonism no longer applied to my family.  Our local congregation had no idea what to do with us, as we really didn’t fit into that linear mindset.  Whatever, we just didn’t feel welcome there, though the leaders of that congregation remain friends of mine. Around the same time, I was assigned to teach a Sunday school class of older teenagers, which required me to think about hard doctrine for the first time in a long time. One Sunday, I began a question, “now, when Joseph Smith wrote, um, translated, the Book of Mormon . . .”  This is NOT the way an LDS Sunday School teacher phrases a question, and it was quite unintentional.  Reflecting on that, and with the catalyst of the experience in my home, I reexamined my belief system and found that the LDS Gospel just didn’t fit where I was in my life.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Parental bragging

We spent the weekend in our usual hotel in Alexandria, Louisiana, where we take our boys to play in the water and/or with the elevator. They had the indoor pool area closed yesterday afternoon for a wedding, so DW, Toby, and I splashed around until about five minutes before the ceremony, then we had to improvise for a while. We ended up running around a McDonald's playland, something we haven't done in a while. Toby laughed and laughed as I chased him around the place.

This morning, we took Adam to the hotel, and, for the first time, played in the hotel's outdoor pool. It was a wise choice. After about half an hour of our normal routine, Adam started having me get out of the water, then he would pull my hand and push me into the deep end (7'). He would then run all the way across the enclosure and grab onto the fence. He would see me swim to the ladder, and he would start the whole thing all over again. This happened several times. DW commented that it looked like he was using me as a proxy for what he himself wanted to do. Our kids tend to do that. So I took his hand and pulled him after me a couple of times, then pushed him up and to the ladder. Then I picked him up and threw him in all by himself. I made sure he landed about 2 feet from the ladder. I threw him in several more times, each time a little further from the ladder. Now, get this--Adam swam to the ladder! Mostly he dog-paddled, but it was the first time I've seen him move, on his own, in a coordinated fashion while holding his head above the water. I suppose most parents take this kind of thing for granted, but this is a freakin' huge big deal for Adam, and for his parents.

Cell phone photos

I finally got my cellphone configured to e-mail photos. There was some kind of funky thing with Sony Ericsson previously, but today it was easy to get it all fixed. So here are some recent photos of my kids I took with the cellphone. It takes the pictures much faster than my digital camera, so it catches the moment a little better.

Toby is learning how to operate the elevator. This particular hotel has only two floors, so he is learning that you push the "2" button when you're on the first floor and the "1" button when you're on the second floor.

Toby loves watching the elevator doors open.

Adam shopping for trains. The version of the Thomas the Tank Engine trains that are sold only at Target (according to the packaging) are perfect for Adam's small hands.

Adam riding in the cart.

Thursday, August 10, 2006


The commentary on these terror-alert icons is hilarious. Any readers from Austin, Texas, might find a little surprise.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Toby in the water. Posted by Picasa

Saturday morning outing

our destination Posted by Picasa

Smiling Posted by Picasa

Adam dumped a handful of sand on his father. Posted by Picasa

Adam leaves a surprise for the next children on the slide (okay, I brushed it off). Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Not exactly James Dean

mid-life rebellion
psychadelic subconscious
good scotch, fine cigar