An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for July, 2010

A Taxing Situation

Property tax notices are out in our county. And grumblings rumble through the land. “How much is enough for the government?” “The government has a lot of nerve. Charging me for living in my own home!” Senior citizens are among the worse gripers because many lack monthly mortgage payments which include taxes. Spreading the pain over a 12-month period has advantages.

But while I object to many things for which federal taxes are spent, I am tired of the notion that property taxes are some sort of punishment inflicted upon us by a government gone mad. I value most of the services our property taxes fund.

In our county approximately 63% of our property tax goes for schools. Even though I don’t have children in school, I benefit when the children of my community are taught well and grow up to be productive citizens. I also don’t object to the approximately 6% of my taxes that maintains libraries, parks and recreation facilities. These all make our community a better place in which to live. Another 14% goes for a jail bond—and I do think we’d be wise to investigate less expensive ways to deal with criminal behavior.

About 14% goes for county government and 8% for city government. Here is where I see potential for savings. I live where the boundaries of four small towns, Bountiful, North Salt Lake, Woods Cross, and West Bountiful, intersect. Since two high schools serve this population, why do we need four mayors, four city managers, four city halls, four police departments and four fire departments? Why not unite into one large city and save on administrative overhead? Besides saving money, we’d save the confusion of different cities using different grid systems for street numbers.

I would join the Tea Party Movement in a heartbeat if they would quit screaming about taxes in general and look at specific ways to save tax money on the local, state and national level.

No Random Acts of Kindness

Saturday night I heard a large truck engine running in front of our house as I stepped out of the shower. I pulled on my pajamas and went outside to see the fire department aid truck parked in front of the house across the street where Jenny, a single mom with two young children lives. My next-door neighbor, also in pajamas, was in her front yard. She wondered if we should call the bishop. I thought we’d better go see if Jenny needed help with the kids. We entered the house to find our neighbor’s 16-month-old being attended by the firemen. She’d had a seizure. I offered to stay with the four-year-old while Jenny took the baby to the hospital, but Jenny’s aunt arrived on the scene before the firemen left and stayed with the older child.

The next day the baby was much better. The seizure had been caused by a high fever from croup and medication was controlling both the fever and croup. I was in my front yard when our ward Relief Society president stopped by to see Jenny. Sister President asked me what had happened. When I explained the events of the previous night, she asked why I hadn’t called her. “We had plenty of people here to help and didn’t need to bother you that late,” I said. She thanked me for supporting Jenny. I hardly thought my small attempt to be a good neighbor merited thanks from another neighbor. Is only the Relief Society President supposed to respond to needs in our neighborhood?

A sister in our ward recently confided that she doesn’t take an active role in offering help to people in need since she is no longer Relief Society president and doesn’t feel she has that authority. Our church is very efficient at meeting emergencies and caring for the needy. And church organization prevents duplication of services and keeps less prominent members from being overlooked. But the downside may be that our program inadvertently trains us not to take initiative—not to respond to needs unless directed by someone in authority. Maybe we need to remember that church programs exist to help us develop the skills and resources to act independently when necessary.

Going Down to Egypt

This week’s Economist magazine has a special report on Egypt which made me wonder if the United States is now following the pattern of less-developed countries. The Economist blames Egypt’s education system for much of the country’s economic stagnation. Egypt’s literacy rate has increased from 25% fifty years ago to 72% today—progress which still leaves it trailing developed countries. Both business growth and government efficiency are hampered by a lack of skilled Egyptian workers. Other problems that stem from a low level of education in the country include a high number of traffic accidents caused by people not understanding basic traffic laws, and a high mortality rate in hospitals due to staff not knowing basic rules of hygiene.

Egypt initiated a plan to increase education beginning in 1952. But the result has been to change from a system that provided an excellent education for a small percentage of the population to a system that provides a mediocre education to the majority of citizens.  To control costs, class sizes in public schools expanded to more than 60 students. Low teacher pay resulted in better teachers migrating to the Gulf states for higher wages. Other teachers supplemented their income by admitting to parents that children could learn little in their public school classes and offering private tutoring after hours.

Egyptian curriculum was rewritten to emphasize “nationalistic values.” Critical thinking was abandoned in favor of rote learning for tests. A survey by the Egyptian government this year found that 88% of households read no books, and 75% read no newspapers or magazines. For the minority of Egyptians who do read, 79% concentrate on religious subjects. Young Egyptians use the internet, but religion is the favorite topic, sports are second and scientific subjects are down the list.

I find this information disturbing, because I see American culture following the same trail. The No Child Left Behind mandates have placed a premium on teaching for tests in our country. Trying to make every child perform at grade level is leaving bright students bored and underachieving.  And it is our naturally gifted students who have the potential to innovate and solve our country’s problems in the future.

Extremists in our country are pushing for state school curriculums to reflect their own “nationalistic values”—adjusting history to reflect their political bias (Texas), insisting that creationism be taught in science classes (Kansas).

I don’t know the current statistics for book, magazine and newspaper readers in our country, but I do know it’s on a decline. And while internet use is high, how much of what is accessed online is educational or even factual?

The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall–A Great Read

Brady Udall has created a polygamist patriarch who evokes reader pity rather than condemnation. Just imagine a man who comes home from work every night to have 27 children jump on him and four wives mad at him. I chortled through the first half of this novel—George said I even laughed in my dreams after reading myself to sleep. Midway through, I realized Udall’s book is more than humor. Anyone who has grown up in a large family or tried parenting one can identify with the strain in the households of Golden Richards. While few Americans practice traditional polygamy, let’s face it, many American families exist in a kind of serial polygamy which includes step-children and half-siblings as well as ex-husbands and wives. Anyone who has been part of a blended family will recognize the intense rivalry in the Richards family of too many half and whole brothers and sisters.          

My favorite character in the novel, 11-year-old Rusty—the neglected troublemaker—understands what the adults in his family do not: An eternity of living with people you can’t get along with in this life is not much of a blessing.

Udall’s fictional Living Church of God is a polygamous group that incorporates contemporary Mormon practices—Bible and Mormon scriptures in one volume, Family Home Evening, singing a hymn when tempted. Their answer to the question of why God asks them to live the law of plural marriage is that it teaches them to be unselfish and that doing difficult things is spiritually beneficial.

Their religious community comforts the polygamist families as they try to cope with the problems their life style creates, but God never steps in to help. For all their faith and attempts to keep His commandments, God pretty much leaves these characters to help themselves—and each other. Redemption comes to these people, not from God, but from the bond that unites them and from the satisfaction of doing their duty as they understand it.

Udall’s language and situations may be a bit edgy for some Mormon readers, but—Hey! It’s not a YA novel.

Social Mormon–An Oxymoron

Our home teacher, Brother Bleever, called for the first time in six months to make an appointment for a visit this week. I don’t fault our home teachers for their sporadic visits. Both have demanding jobs and large families. I know their limited spare time can be better spent with families needing assistance or at least with families more likely to attend meetings. But these home teachers have been fun and we’ve enjoyed their visits. Unfortunately, Brother Bleever’s fun-loving partner, Brother Lightheart, has been re-assigned and Brother Bleever’s new partner is his 16-year-old son, Earnest.

Earnest is the kind of Mormon boy who marks the days on his calendar until he can turn in his mission papers. He sat in our living room, not with the suffering face of a kid roped into going home teaching with dad, but with the resolute face of a missionary-in-training. Brother Bleever set it up for Earnest by asking why we didn’t attend church. I tried to pass it off with a flippant remark about having other things to do on Sundays. “Like what?” Earnest demanded. “I like staying home. I also attend the Zen Center quite often and sometimes the Unitarian Church.” They stared at me. “I’m ecumenical,” I said, trying to lighten the mood.

“Why do you attend other churches? What are you looking for?” Brother Bleever asked. “I’ve pretty well mined the teachings of Mormonism,” I said. “I find new thoughts in other places.” George chimed in, “I’ve always been taught that the Mormon Church accepts all truth.” That let us in for an Earnest lecture and testimony on the LDS Church as the source of all truth. Then Earnest waved his Ensign preparatory to reading the lesson. “Do you take the Ensign?” he asked. “No.” “Why not?” “Since I wouldn’t read it, I like to save the trees.” “Heavenly Father gave us the trees for a purpose.”

Had Earnest been an adult, I might have given him explicit reasons why I’m no longer into Mormon theology, but I am not willing to undermine even an obnoxious young person’s testimony. The lesson finally ended. We shut the door on our departing guests and looked at each other. What do we do if they want to come back next month?

When we moved into this ward two years ago, I thought we could be “social” Mormons—attending social events, helping with service projects, visiting teaching—and be accepted as friends and neighbors. But Mormons make substantial sacrifices of time and money for their faith. Naturally, they can’t accept the notion that people who don’t make the same sacrifices can lead good and happy lives. I’m afraid that for us, attending three hours of tedious meetings each Sunday is too great a price to pay for acceptance in our neighborhood.

Primary Reason to Shorten the Block

While visiting teaching last week, I listened to Primary teachers share the difficulty of controlling the ADHD, autistic, and just plain wild kids in our ward. Church policy now mandates two teachers per class which hasn’t helped the discipline problem, but has exacerbated the staffing problem. I heard hair-raising stories of teachers and presidency members spending the second and third hour of the block chasing 9-year-olds who improvise games of hide and seek or trying to cajole disruptive children from sharing time without touching them as per policy.  Theoretically, parents are supposed to be asked to step in when their child creates a problem, but apparently that doesn’t always happen—possibly because the parents have no more success controlling their kids than the Primary workers.

I’m always impressed with the children’s programs when I visit non-LDS churches. Non-Mormon kids are not expected to sit quietly with arms folded for two hours. For one thing, the services are shorter than two hours. And the children’s worship service is geared to children. Short verbal lessons are accompanied with hands-on activities—toys to share, dancing as well as singing about Jesus, painting—no Sunday best finery to keep clean. Older children help organize younger children for active games. In nice weather children spend time outside enjoying God’s beautiful world instead of sitting on folding chairs in a tiny room and being shushed for a lesson that goes on and on and on.

It’s unlikely that the Mormon tradition of equating quiet with reverent worship as well as the limitations of space will ever allow a Primary program geared to the needs of active children. A reasonable alternative is shortening the time for children to sit quietly. Possibly the problem of staffing as well as the difficulty of keeping kids quiet for a full three hours every Sunday will eventually force a cutback to a two-hour block. For years I’ve maintained that mandating all General Authorities to take a one-year hiatus every three years, return to their home wards, and serve in Primary would cut the block time immediately—if not sooner.

And would anybody care if Sacrament Meeting were followed by one adult class instead of two? It wouldn’t much matter which one was kept. The Sunday School and the Priesthood/Relief Society lesson topics—even the quotes from General Authorities are about the same. Cutting that third hour would probably make both Primary children and staff enjoy a more spiritual Sunday. And adults who snooze through the latter portion of the block could nap more comfortably at home.

Public Transit–Getting There Is Half the Fun

Riding public transit during going-to-work and coming-home hours is pretty boring—at least if you live in Bountiful, UT. Passengers on those runs are predictable– men in suits and ties reading their scriptures, women in dresses avoiding eye contact with other passengers, university students with headphones zoning into worlds of their own.

To experience a Shakespearean breadth of characters, the bus must be boarded at less busy times—times when people ride to reach appointments other than daily work. Recently, when the bus pulled up at my stop,a young woman stood on the steps arguing with the driver. I reached around her to deposit my fare and sat on the nearest seat. The woman finally coughed up another dollar, plopped down beside me, and kept arguing with the driver. She was a Medicaid recipient and qualified for half-fare. The driver insisted she needed an official reduced rate punch card to receive the discount. Her Medicaid card was not sufficient. A mind-mannered young man holding a toddler sat across the aisle and tried to calm her down. Could they be together? She looked more the type to have a tattooed, bandana-wearing boy friend than this quiet fellow.

The woman continued to harass the driver. “Every other driver accepts my card. I’ve never had a problem before. How long have you been driving?” Had the driver been a Zen practitioner or had any training in dealing with irrational passengers, he would have ignored her and the trip would have been less interesting. But he argued back. “I’m only following orders. I don’t care what other drivers do. You need a punch card to get the discount.” His defensive voice inflamed her outrage like a splash of gasoline. “I’m taking your number and reporting you! You’ve got no f____  business over-charging me!”

With that outburst, the driver pulled over and ordered the woman off the bus. The young man with the child stood up, but the woman refused. “You can’t kick me off. I paid!” “You can’t swear on my bus. Get off!” “I’m not swearing now!” Arms folded against her chest, Ms Belligerent’s eyes dared the driver to touch her. My money would have been on Ms Belligerent if the driver had tried to bodily eject her. He must have felt the same way because he pulled back into traffic and proceeded towards Salt Lake. Ms B beamed in a flush of triumph until the driver picked up his phone. He spoke in a low voice and Ms Belligerent transformed into Ms Subdued. The toddler on Mr. Mild Manner’s lap dropped a pink purse on the floor. When Mr. Mild reached for the purse, he dropped his open soft drink. Brown, sticky liquid gushed from the can creating a sugary pond in the aisle. “You’ll get us in trouble,” his partner hissed as she opened a diaper back and handed him some wipes. Mr. M handed her the baby and mopped away at the floor until we reached Salt Lake where the driver pulled over and a security officer entered the bus and asked the former Ms Belligerant to come with him. Mr. M picked up the stroller and followed her off.

“What do you want to bet, those two are not legally married?” the women across from me speculated. I don’t know. If he was just a boy friend, he was probably rethinking the relationship. Anyway, their antics provided enough diversion to make me forget the sticky fluid under my feet until I tried to stand up at my stop and found my shoes stuck fast to the floor.

Charles Dickens got ideas for his novels while walking through the streets of London. Modern novelists can enjoy the parade of humanity from the relative comfort of a bus seat.

American Citizenship–Then and Now

Most of my ancestors immigrated to the US from England, Denmark, and Norway in the 1850s and ‘60s to “gather to Zion.” As far as I know, they all entered the country legally, but I have no family stories of either my great-great grandparents who arrived as adults or my great-grandparents who arrived as children applying for citizenship. Did immigrants automatically become citizens in those days or were they granted permanent status like modern green card holders without becoming naturalized citizens? Back then, it didn’t matter, I suppose—unless they wanted to vote.

Currently, it matters economically as well as politically. While green card holders can stay in the country indefinitely, they become ineligible for Social Security benefits after seven years—no matter how long they’ve worked in the country.

I wonder if my Scandinavian great-great-grandparents ever learned to read and write enough English to have passed a naturalization test. And how could they have learned enough US history and government for the test? I suspect many natural-born citizens might falter if asked how many amendments the Constitution has or who is next in line for the presidency after the vice-president.

I currently tutor a Mexican immigrant who is working for citizenship. The process is quite arduous. Besides demonstrating competency in speaking, reading and writing English, immigrants must understand the basics of American history and government. The process is also expensive–$675 per applicant—quite a sum if a whole family must be naturalized—and the money is not returned if the applicant fails the test.

No matter the cost and the work involved, immigrants want to pass the test and become US citizens. America now, as in the time of my immigrant ancestors, is seen as the land of freedom and opportunity. Salt Lake City is hospitable to both immigrants and refugees. Catholic Charities, the International Rescue Committee, Deseret Industries, the English Skills Center, and other organizations exist to help newcomers to our country learn the language, job and cultural skills. My non-English speaking ancestors were all women who had to enter plural marriage to be taken care of in America. Modern day organizations are a big improvement.

Noxious Weeds and Other Battles of Mortality

Our son Techie and his wife rented a house with a huge yard in Western Washington and proposed to grow their own food by the “sweat of their brow.” But bamboo shoots, infiltrating from a neighbor’s yard, covered every part of their garden area that blackberry bushes hadn’t claimed. The lawn mower balked at cutting a blackberry patch surrounded by a bamboo jungle, so Techie bought a machete and spent weekends commando-whacking bamboo. The bamboo rose to the occasion, digging in and sending up replacement shoots ready for the next weekend’s attack. Just like the Taliban, they knew they could outwait Techie.

Our daughter-in-law proposed a pet goat to solve the problem. City ordinance allowed a pet goat. The neighbors approved a pet goat. The landlady did not.

Techie went online and found that anything can be rented—even goats. He signed a three-week contract for three goats—hoping the landlady would not show up during that time. On a Saturday morning, a truck drove up, unloaded three goats, and sped away. Two goats bounded for the blackberry bushes and started chomping. The smallest goat refused to eat, but Techie thought it would cooperate once it got used to its new surroundings. The hungry goats drew the line at eating bamboo shoots over six inches high although they were quite willing to devour new shoots in the areas Techie had clear cut.

Three days later the blackberry bushes were disappearing, but the bamboo remained—and a dead goat lay on the front lawn. The non-eating goat had obviously not gotten used to its new surroundings. Techie called the agency and was told he owed them for the goat.

Techie gave up the idea of a half-acre garden plot and built grow boxes. Unfortunately, moles found a way to penetrate the impenetrable boxes and carrots, beets, and other root vegetables stealthily disappeared before harvest time.

Techie’s dad recommends putting carbide in the mole holes and dropping a match inside. I suggest they simply declare victory and leave the field to the locals. Signing up for a weekly delivery of vegetables from a local truck farmer has got to be cheaper and safer than renting goats and blowing up moles.

Please Help Me, I’m Stuck

George and I like moves—especially the planning—although the actual process can be pretty wearing. Relocating has broadened our world far beyond the world of our parents who spent their lives in the same neighborhood. Granted, we’ve not had the in-depth friendships that take years to develop, but we’ve met more people, tried more jobs, and probably antagonized fewer neighbors by not overstaying our welcome.

Getting unstuck from places is easier than getting unstuck from unskillful behavior—behavior that doesn’t get us what we want.  Comfort, if not contentment, comes from always reacting the same way. For years I’ve played unskillful games including the Blame Game, “If only George would/wouldn’t. . .” the Guilt Game, “If only I had/hadn’t . . . “ the Please Boost My Self-esteem Game, “I really did that well, didn’t I?” and the I Know Best Game, “Well, I think you should . . . .”

These games are actually pretty fun or I wouldn’t do them, but they’re really not where I want to spend my life. Spinning my wheels in the same old rut is not providing me with more useful skills—and I’m too tired to move again—so I’m seeking new perspectives to get me unstuck. Even in a relatively homogenous state like Utah, a smorgasbord of different cultures, philosophies, and religious ideas exists. Getting unstuck without the hassle of selling and packing may be the best game of all.

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