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Lukewarm

spit take

So it’s been about two and a half years since I was active in the LDS Church, and about eight months since the time I consider to be the point where I actually left the faith (despite having been inactive for a year and a half before that). I’ve spoken at length on this subject, especially recently on this blog, and I’ve no wish to beat a dead horse. Suffice it to say that, between what I’ve already said and a lot of research I’ve done in the interim, I cannot believe in the Church or take its claims at any sort of face value. My opinion of the Church in general now is basically this: an organization, mostly filled with people doing their best to be the best people they can be in the way they’ve been taught, that, despite dubious and/or peculiar beginnings, now exists as a force both for great good and great ill, depending on both the issue and the specific people involved. If there is divinity and/or goodness in the Church, it is there because some people in it seek to be good people; it’s not an intrinsic divinity. But it is there. If there is evil in the Church, it is because fallible people are in it whose opinions hold more sway than perhaps they should, and too much emphasis is placed on contradictory, nonsensical points. But, before I get too off-topic, the point is that I’m never going to be able to go back to being an active, believing, temple-recommend-holding member again. I know too much. However, the cost has been more than I expected.

Compared to a lot of ex-Mormons, my situation has been “ideal.” I didn’t have a wife or children to be torn apart from. I wasn’t serving in an active position in a ward (especially not one high up, like a bishopric or higher) when I found out the Church wasn’t true. I didn’t really even lose any friends, though that’s mainly because I’m not the kind of guy who has a giant amount of friends to begin with. And, with a few exceptions, most people’s reactions have been, “Believe whatever you need to believe. I’m not going to drag you kicking and screaming in either direction.” I had already fallen through the cracks of the Church’s inefficient midsingles program (my inactivity coincided with my 31st birthday, the point when I became too old for the YSA program, too single to really fit in to a family ward, and too “works on Sunday too much” to attend a midsingles ward), so in essence I got lost in transit, like somebody’s luggage that was supposed to go from Newark to Los Angeles, but instead ended up outside the LDS Church. And, for a while, my life wasn’t really different, other than a change of underwear and a few people on Facebook praying for my soul or whatever.

But I’ve lost the community.

Now, fitting into the LDS community was a not a thing I ever did, even when I was active, as many posts on this blog can attest to. And my current, shall we say, melancholy, is not because I’ve “lost the Spirit” or some such. I’ve actually felt what many would consider the Spirit on several recent occasions which are irrelevant to this post. However, as time has gone on, I’ve noticed a few patterns with people, and it has started to take its toll.

With people who are still members, even people who have remained my good friends, there now exists a bit of a wall. Certain subjects simply remain taboo. There are things I’ve found that I cannot share, simply in the name of preserving the peace, whether it be “anti-Mormon” material (especially if it’s, say, a non-partisan study from scientists who’ve had almost no exposure to Mormonism; how the heck would they have a pony in the fight?) or a funny bit of fluff that may be poking fun at a sacred subject, or experiences (good and bad) I’ve had since leaving that would’ve been impossible to have when I was still a member, or even just something incredibly insightful with the word “fuck” in it (yeah, I said it; please disregard this entire blog now if it’s important for you to do so). And, in return, I’ve noticed that people are a lot less prone to talk about Church-related stuff around me, even if it’s just something funny that happened in sacrament meeting, or a bit of wisdom that a bishop shared with them, probably also in interest of keeping the peace (and those who do share Church stuff with me are very transparent in their “bring him back to the fold” motive, though fortunately that’s been rare in my case). Neither my LDS friends nor I will ever be able to be 100% comfortable around each other anymore. That’s simply the nature of the beast. It does make things lonely, though.

So what about joining an ex-Mormon community instead? The problem is that what unites the ex-Mormon community is, by definition, opposition. People in it have to remain dedicated to that cause to remain a part of the crowd. What many members don’t realize, however, is that, unlike faithful LDS members, the status of “ex-Mormon” isn’t nearly as all-consuming as the status of “Mormon” is. For some people it can be, I suppose, and most who leave have to go through a period where they untangle themselves from what they thought was true for so long. But at the end of the day, we’re all people. People have different interests, likes, dislikes, personalities, and idiosyncrasies. One thing the Church does well is unite people under a (supposedly) positive banner. “Come to us and we will make you better,” they say. The ex-Mormon community cannot offer that same promise. Nor should it. Its promise is, “Come to us and we will show you that this Church isn’t the only way to be better, and you don’t have to accept or deal with all the other stuff that’s making you worse.” It doesn’t tell you how to be better, though. It’s not a philosophy. The paths people take after leaving the Church are as diverse as the people involved. Some find another Christian faith to follow. Some let go of Christianity but hang on to belief in God and/or divinity. Some end up in atheism. I think a lot end up in atheism because they’ve found out so many flaws with Mormonism that they can’t bring themselves to believe in anything after putting so much labor, blood, sweat, and tears into a system that didn’t ultimately live up to its own ideals. You can’t make a positive belief system defined by opposition to something not wholly negative, just like you can’t make a fair and balanced news channel from opposition to a political party that isn’t wholly negative (yeah, I went there too). And, while it can be important and even cathartic to get together with a group of ex-Mormons and let out all your issues and maybe have a good time, it’s not what appeals to me. Just as I’d be the guy in the back of a priesthood meeting thinking, “This whole thing is faulty logic at best, and I can’t just sit here and take it,” I’d be the guy in the back of the ex-Mormon get-together thinking, “I don’t want to drink. Coffee tastes like burned pizza. Yes, we all have issues with the Church, now how about that local sports team or shared cultural event?”

I don’t just want catharsis. I want community.

I wanted community within the Church, but couldn’t find it. Outside the Church, I don’t even know how to find a community. Within the Church it was automatic: these people who live near you are the people you’ll see every Sunday, and the people you’ll see in activities during the week. These are your friends, or at least a decent pool from which you can hopefully draw some friends. And you all speak the same language, too, figuratively speaking. You can walk up to a random stranger in Church and gush about how great Joseph Smith/President Uchtdorf/whatever is and already have something in common. Outside the Church, there’s no such thing. About all anyone has in common is weather patterns and how much it sucks to be tired or hungry. Within the Church-based support system, I didn’t really know how to make friends; outside it, I’m thoroughly and totally hosed. It doesn’t help that I’m now over 30, not in college, and work a job with a ton of night hours, limiting my time to go do a play or join some local community group or something.

I talked with a recent ex-convert (or however you term people who’ve recently left) who was advised to stay within the Church even if they didn’t believe anymore simply to keep that support system. After all, you sure as heck can’t call the elders’ quorum to help move your stuff, or have visiting teachers watch over your sick mother, or whatever, if you don’t both believe in the same religion (for starters, how do they even know you need help if you’re not crying about it in Relief Society?). I can’t live like that, though. I have to do what I believe is right for me, even if it means I lose those opportunities. It still hurts.

It also doesn’t help that, romantically, things are a lot more complicated now. Since my ideal relationship is no longer mandated by the Church, I’ve (potentially) had the option to reach outside those definitions and experiment a little. And no, that doesn’t mean I’ve been going out having one-night stands or anything, but it has meant that I’ve been able to go out with people without the immediate pressure of “will this person be the person I marry?” And while I’ve learned a lot, I wish that I could’ve done this ten or fifteen years ago, because I really do want to have a family of my own when I’m still young enough to keep up with kids, and spending time in relationships where I’m not focusing on marriage seems to be wasting time. Don’t get me wrong, the dating experiences I’ve had are very important to me, and I want to keep having them. But finding someone who wanted to marry me in the Church was already a giant challenge for me. Finding a girl who wants to have kids with someone my age or in my position who’s outside the Church seems nearly impossible, especially since finding someone with the same moral system as me suddenly got more complicated. I want someone to come home to, or who comes home to me, or we both come home to each other, or however the employment situation would work…look, I’m open-minded; the point is, I want to be with someone who is as devoted to me as I am to them, and that’s doubly hard to find outside the Church in an environment that doesn’t specifically push that narrative.

So there’s loneliness.

When your best friend literally can’t afford to see you. When the girl you’re sort-of dating has contacted you only once over the past week just to say, “Sorry about the rash,” (uh, out of context that sounds a lot worse than it actually is; don’t read into it) and normally all you talk about between dates is scheduling anyway. When all of these people who have left the Church keep complaining about how well-meaning ward members keep trying to bring them back, and you realize that you’ve heard maybe one peep from anyone Church-related for more than two years (I’m not complaining, really, but it is odd how clean of a break I made). When you go to a party with a bunch of ex-Mormons but don’t drink anything, and so haven’t been invited to another one since. When your sister who also left the Church tells you about great parties and get-togethers and so on that she goes to that sound like a visit to a foreign country without a guide.

When you’ve spent almost an entire week without human contact other than the work-based or store clerk type, and it hasn’t been the first time in recent history, nor will it be the last. When most people your age are too busy living their own lives to have room for you to be a significant part of it. When online dating hasn’t worked because your message gets lost amidst a sea of creepy guys sending inappropriate pictures. When the most social thing you do is talk over video games that haven’t been relevant in decades, spending hours and hours working on a series of videos and a website that, ultimately, will have ten viewers at most if you’re lucky, because you can’t, don’t know how, or are too scared to peddle it to a wider community, so you playact at running a popular series without any numbers to back it up. When people tell you all about their lives or problems, and you listen because it’s what they need, but you don’t want to alienate anyone with your problems, so you put them in a blog instead.

When you’re too Mo for the Exmo community, but too apostate for the membership. When you’re too introverted to just go to a bar or something, but you feel entirely out-of-place at a gaming/comics store or other nerd nirvana. When you like acting, music, and theatre, but never quite mesh with music or theatre people. Jack of all trades.

When you’re not hot, but you’re not cold, you’re lukewarm. And nobody wants that, not even God.

“So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.” — Revelations 3:16

What do I know?

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I was attending the LDS wedding reception of a long-time friend. While there I engaged in a conversation with one of my friend’s stepsisters: a young, vibrant, attractive, 15-year-old high school student who proceeded to tell me and my other friend at the table all about how she wanted to either go into cosmetology when she grew up, or spend some time doing professional equine sports (I don’t remember the exact field, but it was something along the lines of horse racing but with obstacles that the horse had to jump, kind of like a steeplechase but called something else*), which I thought sounded pretty cool. Later the conversation turned to dating and typical high school relationship stuff: you know, how a bunch of guys like her but she has to fend them off because she likes this other guy, etc. etc. and I joked that when she got out of high school she could just wear a fake wedding ring around guys that she didn’t want to deal with. She then gave me that withering “well, duh” look that only high school girls can give and said, “Um, when I get out of high school I’m gonna have a real wedding ring.”

That statement brought me crashing back into the reality of a culture that I had left behind years ago, where a young woman with great hopes and dreams of cosmetology and/or horse racing was also expected to immediately find a guy, settle down, and start popping out kids before she reached her 20’s. And with how many guys she said were always pursuing her, I’m sure that it would be no problem for her to find some fresh RM ready to marry the first girl that he goes on at least two dates with.

I bring this girl up, not to pick on her specifically, but to use her situation to address a larger problem. I’ve seen this story before. At first a woman will be happy that she’s fulfilling all of her godly mandates by having kids. But then she’ll start to think, “You know, I miss those times when I rode that horse through the steeplechase courses. Could I have been a good competitor?” The answer isn’t no, or yes, because she never got the chance. She had to sacrifice everything that she was for the sake of her family. The tragedy, though, isn’t that that’s what she had to do, but that she made that choice without even realizing what that sacrifice meant. She married so young that her brain wasn’t even done fully developing (which happens around 25-ish), and she went immediately into motherhood without even knowing what it was like to not be living with her own parents. The girl at this reception, who spent about ten minutes telling me a “hilarious” story about how much she sucked at Mario Kart the previous night (that was literally the entire story; most of the time telling me about it was spent giggling with her friends), was expecting to have a kid of her own before the end of this decade. It was so clear that this was her course in life that I got that contemptuous look usually reserved for the most obvious of dorks when I even hinted at her life taking a different path.

Most of my readers who are or have been LDS shouldn’t be surprised by this. This type of situation is by far expected to be the norm. Am I saying that everyone who got married young and chose motherhood over all their other interests was wrong, or misguided? Of course not. I can’t presume to tell anyone what would truly make them happy. I guess I’ve just been talking to, hearing from, or reading about so many women my age who did this when they were young, to the severe detriment of their marriages and family life, and it took them years to suss it all out (and many of them still haven’t), that it took me by surprise to hear that this mindset is not just still existent, but prevalent. Default, even. I wanted to take that girl by the shoulders and shout, “No! Don’t do it! Go buy a jumping horse (or whatever the term is), or study cosmetology! Find out who you are! Become a strong woman who knows who she is and what she wants! Then make the decision to find a good guy and have a family! Do it because you know it’s what you want, not because you’ve been told it’s what you should want!” But, of course, I didn’t. It wasn’t my place to steer a teenage girl I barely knew away from marriage in the middle of an LDS wedding reception, at least not if I didn’t want to get thrown out or something. And who knows? Maybe I’m being presumptuous and she’ll be perfectly fine giving up all her current hopes and dreams to become the attractive wife of a worthy priesthood holder. It’s not my place to judge (unless, of course, I’m doing it anonymously on a blog later; then it’s all good, right?). After all, what do I know?

What do I know?

I know that I spent a large chunk of my adult life not being able to live up to the ideals set forth in front of me by someone else, and it made me feel like less of a person by comparison. Even a cursory reading of older entries in my blog can attest to that.

I know that a culture dedicated to homogeneity on such a scale that one of the best-selling and widely-read non-official publications in it is based on trying not to feel guilty about not being good enough is a culture that doesn’t allow people to grow in positive ways.

I know that, since leaving the Church and its culture behind, I have better been able to define myself, what I want, how I feel successful, and what makes me happy. Sometimes it’s what the Church teaches. Sometimes it’s not. Often I have to tweak those definitions and seek advice from those wiser in certain areas than I am. But I can finally grow organically, freed from a cookie-cutter end goal.

I know that the leaders of the Church, at best, are mortal men trying to do what they believe is right and whose counsel is sometimes wise, but who don’t have the authority to tell me what is black and white, right and wrong, especially if what they are telling me is not what I know in my heart to be true.

I know that, if I’m wrong, then I’m OK with that, for I am learning things down this path that I didn’t even know I needed to learn, and I treasure the opportunity more than I can express.

I know that “Love thy neighbor as thyself” for many of us needs to also be “Love thyself as thy neighbor,” because many Mormons hate themselves for not being perfect, and it hurts them and everyone around them.

I know that some women have found supreme happiness in child-rearing. But many of those needed to get a few years of steeplechasing out of their system first to be able to decide who they really were and what they really wanted.

I know that, when I do eventually get married (which I still want to), I won’t be doing it because I was commanded to, or because I have a fear of dying alone, or I have to marry somebody in order to have children, but because I know who I am and what I want, and I will have found somebody who knows what she is and what she wants. Sure, we won’t be perfect people by any means, but our marriage will be built on a foundation of love, hope, and joy, knowing that out of a world of possibilities we chose to be with each other. Not because we were expected to, or because we thought we should, but because we wanted to, and we were old and experienced enough to know what that means.

Am I still Mormon? I guess I’m still technically on the records. But at this point I’m not going back. I’ve done enough research into the Church, its history, its policies, and its effects to know that I am done with this organization. What good it does is far outweighed by the damage it tolls, especially on people who don’t mesh with it, and the good that it does do can be found elsewhere. So no, I don’t consider myself Mormon anymore.

Am I still Christian? That’s a harder question to answer. At this point I’m skeptical of most religious texts in a historical and/or literal sense. I think it’s safe to say that I follow the philosophy of Christ as best I can, though I don’t limit myself to it (which is actually more a Buddhist idea, I’ve found), and the question of whether or not he is my personal savior or the Son of God and so on is, in reality, a moot question, as it doesn’t affect how I live my life or how I treat others. You can follow someone’s good example with or without literally believing in their divinity. And if he is truly the ultimate good in the universe, then I hope that my attempts to be the best person I can be will be looked upon kindly, regardless of whether or not they’re derived from a specific belief system (like the Calormene in The Last Battle, perhaps), even if the good I do consists of things like “play around with and love my nieces” or “post silly Internet videos so that my artistic roommate knows that someone values his work.”

Am I atheist then? No, I don’t believe so. While I find myself increasingly out of the Judeo-Christian tradition more as time goes on, there still exists a measure of spirituality in my life that I can’t chalk up to mundane or empirical evidence. I’ve received and acted on spiritual promptings, even as recent as within this past week. An atheist may argue that this kind of thing is a result of either physical external stimuli, or the power of suggestion/persuasion/emotion/what have you, and maybe they’re right. And maybe I’ll change my mind down the road, given enough evidence. But, for now, I choose to believe in at least some things.

I know that guidance can be found even in the most unlikely of places, if one is willing to search for it.

I know that I am far from a shining example of a selfless, pure, giving person, and that it’s a lot easier to spout all this philosophy then it is to live it. But I also know that I don’t have to be perfect yet, as long as I am willing to continue to learn and grow. There’s room for improvement all over the place. And as I live life and learn more, my philosophy will inevitably shift and change, like a tree shaped by the weather.

I know that some people will take issue with parts of what I’ve written. I know that I may get some differing viewpoints on Facebook, or here in the comments. If so, that’s great. Let the reader read both points of view and decide which one works for them. I’m not telling you that I’m right. I’m saying that I’m doing my best to do what I believe is right, but that definition is no longer dictated to me, nor is it set in stone.

During my first semester at BYU in the fall of 2000, I took an American Heritage class. The very first day, the professor put forth the idea that there is an absolute “Good” in the universe that all (morally) good ideas and philosophies spring from, things like “2+2=4” or “slavery is wrong.” He represented this “Good” using a tree trunk with a giant “G” on it, with various branches symbolizing different belief systems that nevertheless sprang from this source. He then introduced the idea of moral relativism, i.e. there is no “Good” that ideas are coming from, and that any idea is as valid as any other idea, and humans can come up with morals from scratch that go against the “Good” and believe that, for example, “2+2=5” or “slavery is fine” (never mind the fact that math is not a moral belief system, but whatever, BYU, amirite?), taking this idea to its final conclusion: that some moral system had to govern the others, and if it was completely man-made, then there was no guarantee as to whether it was good or not. This idea he termed “utilitarianism,” represented by a mechanical monstrosity that kind of looked like a tree, and was based on the idea of a purely logical moral system (e.g. John Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”). In later classes he went on to teach that the American Revolution turned out well because the Founding Fathers were not moral relativists, but at least tried to base the government in this “Good” (which increasingly became obvious as a euphemism for “God”), where the French Revolution ended badly because it was based in philosophies of men (utilitarianism), and how other failed systems of government (e.g. communism) didn’t work for similar reasons.

In other words, moral relativism = bad. Also absolute truth exists, and one should align oneself with it as opposed to making up one’s own truths.

I still…kind of believe this? What I think I disagree with is that this “Good” must equal “God,” or at least Mormonism’s definition of God, since through the Church much harm has been done (and yes, much good too, it’s not black and white). And I don’t think that “philosophies of men” necessarily means “devoid of good,” because I think that mankind is inherently good (though that doesn’t mean that I think all philosophies of men are that way). I also believe there’s a middle ground between absolute moral relativism (i.e. every idea is just as valid as every other idea) and dogmatism (i.e. we figured out/had dictated to us everything that you should do to make your life the best it can possibly be, and if you deviate then it’s impossible for you to be happy and/or good), but it’s one that’s increasingly swallowed up by black-and-white arguments. I bring this up because I can see some people wanting to accuse me of moral relativism, when in truth that’s not the case. When I say that what is right isn’t dictated to me or set in stone, I don’t mean that I’m not seeking what is right, but that my understanding of it is changing based on what I’ve learned and how I’ve progressed.

I know that I’m grateful for the chance I’ve had to learn this in my life, and to have the opportunity to be able to explore it without being locked into a marriage or other social situation within the Church that would’ve made this exponentially more difficult. And my heart goes out to those who have had similar faith shifts but have to remain within the Church out of a sense of obligation, or familial duties, or cultural ties, or because they believe that because some part of it is probably true then it’s worth weathering all the stuff that is harmful.

And finally, I know that a young girl should be allowed to pursue her own hopes and dreams in the adult world, and get to know who she is before getting married, so that she can truly be a whole person and have a happy home. And if her true hopes and dreams are all based around motherhood, not because she’s been told they should be, but because they truly are, then more power to her. Let her be at least old enough to make that decision. Let her be at least older than fifteen.

But what I actually said at the reception was basically, “Well, that’s a choice. Hey, is there any more cake?”

It was good cake.

*EDIT: It’s called Hunter Jumping! Not Steeplechase! I’ve edited the photograph!

Ode to January

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Well, it’s that time of year again. The time of year where everyone gets super-depressed because the holidays are over and now all we have to look forward to is a month of cold, dreary, boring winter, broken up only by a weekend of mattress sales disguised as honoring our civil rights pioneers. I bet if you took a poll, most people would list January as their least favorite month of the year (maybe tying with September for many students).

I disagree.

January is one of my favorite months of the year. It’s not because I love skiing or sledding or any of that. It’s not because I love freezing to death because the maintenance crew at my apartment complex hasn’t gotten on the ball to fix my heater yet. And it’s not because I hate the Christmas season and just want it to be over (which I don’t).

It’s because January represents all the best of what’s great about humanity.

Think about it. In ages past, at least in temperate climates, winter was a time of apprehension and fear. A family would hope and pray that the harvest earlier that year was bountiful enough to get them through the lean months. All people could do was huddle in their shelter for warmth until spring arrived, hoping that sickness or cold wouldn’t kill too many of them, waiting for the weather to grow warm enough to begin planting crops for the year ahead. The world had to shut down because it was too cold and snowy to do anything productive.

But now?

January isn’t the month anymore where everyone huddles in front of the fire, waiting for spring. January is the month where the house is cold and empty, because everyone is out in the world pursuing their schooling or work, and making their hopes and dreams into reality. Technology has advanced enough that we can actually afford to go out into the world and stay warm, and keep living our lives without worrying about running out of food, or catching pneumonia and dying.

January is the time when humanity starts working. People go to work, plan out their year, and start their business back up. People bid their families goodbye and go back into the world so they’ll have a family to come back home to. Content creators start making things again, after weeks of hiatus. TV shows start up again, websites start updating, news programs stop talking about holiday stuff and instead focus on what’s actually going on in the world. Performing groups stop preparing the hundred or so works (and innumerable variations on those works) focused on Christmas and instead can pick from everything else available in the world!

If anything, we’ve compressed all of what used to be winter activities into the last part of December, where everyone gets together to spend time with loved ones and remember the old year. But instead of staying indoors for three months, we almost immediately turn around and start living again.

January is the default. January is the time when we define what we are. January is where we set the theme for the year, that all other months are simply variations on.

February is January with a night of candy and chocolates thrown in somewhere.

March is January with a night of drinking (or leprechauns; whatever’s your poison).

April is January with lighter jackets and a week off (depending on what you do for a living).

May is January with greener grass.

June is when we take a break from January because we’ve been doing it for five months.

The environment and seasons may change during all these months, but the activity remains constant. January is where we begin everything, where we define ourselves.

January is humanity’s way of saying to the world, “You know your suggested start time of March or April? Yeah, you can take that suggestion and shove it! ‘Cause we’re good enough and advanced enough to take literally the coldest and harshest month of the year and make it one of activity, production, and progress! We don’t hide in caves or cottages anymore! We are masters of ourselves! We can accomplish great things! And we’re going to take this entire month and lay the foundation of the universe!”

So let’s love January. After all, without January, what would there be to celebrate during the rest of the year, other than crops and pneumonia?

The Player and the Doodler

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So my good friend Johnathan Whiting and I have been doing some Let’s Play videos on Youtube, where I play through a game while he watches and does some drawings, and at the end we post both the drawings and the videos. I think they’re pretty fun, but we ended up making so many videos that they were hard to sift through and watch, and it was nearly impossible to find the doodles associated with a particular game. So for the past two weeks or so I’ve been working on a website to host it all, and now it’s finally gone live:

http://theplayerandthedoodler.com/

Check it out, if only to support us! I’ve got a blog post in the works about the “why” of all this, but for now at least check out what we’ve done. Leave comments! Like things! Subscribe! All that Internet stuff!

Personal Apostasy? Or Personal Growth? My Journey

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So due to the recent hoopla over the new LDS Church policy barring children of same-sex couples from getting baptized, I posted a few things on Facebook, most notably that 1) if this policy were put in place some 30-odd years ago, there’s a chance that neither my siblings nor myself would’ve gotten baptized, and 2)I’m glad I don’t have to justify this kind of thing anymore, since I left the Church. I’m not going to say any more on that subject here, as there are dozens of good articles already floating about on the ‘web on the subject. However, as a result of the posts I did make, several people expressed surprise at the fact that I had left the Church and were wondering why. Long-time readers of this blog may already know that answer, but it’s spread out among several entries and may necessitate some reading-between-the-lines to get a true picture. So I thought I’d outline here the main reasons why I left as well as what that means for me in the future, as well as those people around me that my decision may affect. That way, if someone asks what my reasons are, I’ve got a place to point them to. I may repeat some things I’ve said in earlier posts, and this doesn’t cover everything I believe or have discovered, but it’s at least a good outline.

Most people who believe in the Church do so because they’ve received a spiritual witness. Many times in the Church I’d also received a spiritual witness. True, I have had my issues with the Church before, but most of them were due to either social/cultural problems or assumptions that I just wasn’t righteous enough to always have the Spirit with me to quell my fears and/or doubts.

You can throw arguments against the Church all you want until you’re blue in the face. Believers may take the hard-lined approach (“You’re not praying hard enough! When was the last time you went to the temple?”) or a more tempered approach (“Some things don’t make sense, but we’ll learn all the reasons in the next life,” or “That particular problem was because a flawed person was speaking his own mind; it wasn’t truly from God anyway. It wasn’t doctrine, just policy.”), but the fact is that most (if not all) of them inevitably fall back on how the Church makes them feel in order to keep them within the faith. I was reliant on this myself, through many hard years of personal pain and heartache, from being single at BYU even until I graduated, to basically getting barred from a ward because of my job requirements, to never really fitting in with the mainstream Church culture anyway, but through it all I still maintained my faith in the gospel, even if I had a lot of serious issues with the Church. My trials were nothing compared to others, really — who was I to feel bad about how I got treated by the Church? Even thought all I ever got from the Church were rebukes about how I was getting old and yet wasn’t married yet (maybe I should wear lipstick — no, wait…), I still maintained that somehow, some day, I’d be able to actually fulfill all the commandments. Maybe when I got married suddenly everything would be peaches and cream, ’cause I was finally doing what I was supposed to be doing and the Spirit would come crashing into my life like a giant burst of sunlight. All you married people know what I’m talking about, right?

The point is, I still had those spiritual experiences to sustain me. I’d felt peaceful in the temple. I felt a burst of (righteous) pride when singing in BYU choirs. I’ve felt that warm glow when in the service of others in a Church capacity. So how could I now turn my back on all of that, to take what I’d once believed and “throw it all away?”

Well, after years of marginalization and ostracism by the Church mainstream, and the observation that a lot of people that I respected and loved had started to leave the Church, I realized that I needed to seriously find out for myself whether or not this was all true. Therefore, I began my own analysis. Much of it is documented, bit by bit, in various entries on this blog, and I won’t rehash all that here, but let me detail the crux of the question I was seeking an answer for.

I think the first real moment of doubt happened, ironically enough, when I was on my mission. I’ve laid this out in a previous post, so let me quote myself:

“[…]let me share a personal experience that I’ve struggled with for quite some time. One day on my mission I was on an exchange with another young elder and Elder Proctor, a 70-year-old former vacuum salesman who was…let’s say…eccentric. He had a lot of crazy theories about the gospel and missionary work, and one of those was that “God bunches up the elect,” meaning that, in any particular city, God takes all the people that will accept the gospel and puts them all in the same neighborhood, and all the missionaries have to do is figure out wherever that neighborhood is and then they could baptize everyone all in one fell swoop. Most of the other missionaries (including the mission president) were somewhat skeptical of this approach, but whatever gets the work done, right? So in the city where he served he had divided the city into a grid and had one day spent hours on his knees figuring out where the elect had been bunched in the city, and had come up with map squares 8B, 14B, and the street Tío de Romero, and refused to tract anywhere else in the city since it would be a waste of time not working where the elect had been bunched.

Anyway, on this particular day, before we went out in the afternoon, he had us get down on our knees and pray for a minute to ask the Lord whether we should tract in 8B, 14B, or Tío de Romero. As the prayer went on I didn’t feel any super-strong prompting for any of those three places, but toward the end I thought, 14B? Maybe? Is that my prompting? It’s the best I have! So after the prayer, we all stood up, and Elder Proctor asked me, “So, Elder Parkes, where does the Lord want us to go?”

“14B?”

BZZZZT! Wrong!” Yes, he actually said this. He then asked the other elder, “What about you?”

“8B!”

DING DING DING! Correct! Let’s go!” And we went.

I was a bit nonplussed by this, but I normally would have chalked it up to just another silly thing that Elder Proctor did (he really was quite a character), except for what happened next. The second door we knocked on contained a bunch of out-of-work Bulgarians who didn’t know anybody and were truly humble souls. To make a long story short, all six of them had been baptized within a month and it ended up being Elder Proctor’s biggest success story of his mission. Every testimony meeting since then, Elder Proctor would get up, tears in his eyes, and tell the wonderful story about how the Lord knew they had been waiting to receive the gospel, and how they were going to head back to Bulgaria and spread the word of Christ in a country that didn’t have an LDS presence, and how it was truly a great miracle, and how strong the Spirit was in that room when “the three of us knelt to ask the Lord where to find His sheep, and we all got up and all of us knew where to go — well, two of us did, anyway — and then, with His guidance, we found these wonderful souls…”

I had been doing my best as a missionary. I was praying eight times a day or so (at least), studying my scriptures, doing my best to learn the language, preach the gospel, and serve those around me. True, I was far from perfect, but I was doing the best I could. How is it that I felt absolutely nothing and came up with the wrong answer, when the other two had such a strong witness and it ended up being such a success? Was I really that apostate, even though I had been doing my best? This experience, while such a wonderful spiritual witness for everyone else involved, probably tested my faith more than anything else I had experienced up to that point, including a pretty crappy childhood and teenage years, because it hit at the very core of my testimony: my ability to recognize and follow the Spirit.”

This. This was the problem. The Spirit was where everything was based. If the Church has the Spirit, no argument against it will matter in the long run. But once that was in doubt, then none of the rest of it could stand up as a whole. The best that could be done at that point would be to analyze each teaching from the Church separately, compare it to one’s own sense of morality, and decide whether or not it’d be a good idea to try. So any serious analysis of the Church’s claims to truth, power, and authority has to start (and, really, end) right there.

So I looked at my life. I sought out the times in life that I felt most at peace, and correlated them to what was going on in my life at the time. I then sought out others’ reports of when they feel the most at peace (or when they feel the Spirit the most, or whatever). What was going on? Was it because they were following the Church’s teachings? Could they feel that peace even when they weren’t following the Church’s teachings? Could I feel that peace even when I wasn’t following the Church’s teachings? That last one was hard to answer, as it was hard to separate my own emotions from any spiritual feelings or lack thereof. Did I feel bad not going to Church because all godliness had fled from my life, or because I had lost a social support system, was doing something contrary to what I had been trained to do since birth, and had convinced myself that it was inherently wrong and I should feel guilty? Did I feel good doing service because I was truly serving my God through my fellow man, or because I felt empathy with those who I was serving? Shouldn’t I feel the same sense of peace and joy in sacrament meeting that I would donating my time to a good cause (or just plain being nice to people in general)? Why does bearing a testimony reinforce my faith in the Church and the gospel? Because I’m testifying of something absolutely true and the Spirit is confirming it? Or because I’ve been told that that’s how I should feel, so that response comes out?

These questions couldn’t simply be answered with simple introspection, and I knew what the Church taught already. So I had to explore other options.

No, I haven’t been trying other religions to see how they feel (though I probably should if I’m being honest with myself and this journey). But I have been doing a lot of reading, pondering, exploring, and even some praying. And the core problem is this:

The Holy Ghost is broken.

The Spirit doesn’t operate the way that the Church says it should. Its manifestations seem arbitrary. The gossipy Relief Society sister feels it every second of her life, while some poor woman in the last row has never felt it, or doesn’t feel it nearly as strongly as the teary-eyed testimony-bearers she hears every week, but hopes to someday, humbly doing everything that she can to follow her beliefs. Some people pray about a certain new policy change in the Church, and they feel peace that the Lord is working through His prophets in the latter days, while others pray about it and feel that the policy is completely wrong (though they still believe in the Church as a whole because prophets can be fallible). If God is a consistent God, then what the hell is going on here? Is it that one group is made up of sinners and the other the truly faithful? (A chorus of members yells, “Yes!” or at least they do until they’re unexpectedly in the “sinners” camp despite not doing anything they believe was wrong.) Or could it be that some other source is supplying each group with the emotions they are experiencing? Is there more of gravy than grave about it?

Furthermore, if the Church is the only true and living Church, then their members’ testimonies ought to be something really special that can be found nowhere else. But members of all faiths believe just as fervently that the Spirit (or something equivalent) is testifying to them the same truthfulness of their religion. I’ve said this before assuming that there is probably evidence to that end, but this time I’ve got proof. If the Church is true, then the Spirit should testify of it above and beyond other belief systems, but if it only “has truth” (as is often preached of other religions in LDS doctrine), then that list of testimonies from other faiths makes at least a little more sense.

I prayed about the Book of Mormon. I’ve never received a testimony of it, not really. I used to have a strong belief in Joseph Smith (mostly because Truman G. Madsen really knows how to build him up). Most of the other stuff in the Church I’ve had a “testimony” of because I believed in the basics and the rest lay on top of them, with the hope that some day I’d receive something unshakable (Alma 32 and all that). But none of those really ended up jiving for me, not in the end.

The truth is, I feel the Spirit (or the feelings I once associated with the Spirit: peace, joy, empathy) when I’m serving others. Whether it be actual service (like donating food, time, or simply helping family members or friends), or perceived service (believing that temple worship is serving those beyond the grave, for example) — that’s where I think it comes from. It’s not anything uniquely Mormon, or even Christian: it’s the good feelings you get when you help others. And all good people can partake of this fruit, regardless of their creed. The Church doesn’t have a monopoly on this. Goodness can be found elsewhere. Everything good in the Church can be found outside the Church. Service groups can be found in other religious groups, or just religiously-unaffiliated organizations. If you want to donate money to the poor, or your time to a cannery, you are perfectly able to do so in this world without having to rely on a patriarchal system that may or may not be based on untruths. That same spirit that can be found in the temple can also be found in the home of someone you love.

I used to believe that the Church was a great organization filled with flawed people. Now I understand that it’s a flawed organization filled with great people. And, truth be told, Mormonism is filled with wonderful, loving souls. But, once again, they don’t have a monopoly on those people. (In fact, a recent study shows that atheist kids are actually more kind and loving, on the whole, than religious ones). If I want to be a good person, I can be one, regardless of where my beliefs lie.

I also believe that there are things beyond our ken. I have had spiritual experiences that I couldn’t just chalk up to simple emotion. I posted quite a bit on this topic recently (under point #4) and don’t feel the need to repeat myself. Suffice it to say, I’m still a spiritual person, even if I no longer define that spirituality in LDS terms anymore.

The bottom line is, if the Spirit doesn’t testify of the Church the way the Church says it should, consistently, then the Church isn’t true. It has truth, to be sure, but it isn’t everything it claims. So one must analyze its precepts one by one and try to apply what good they can find, without having to justify the harmful parts.

So that’s where I’m at. I haven’t found any other belief system to replace Mormonism. I may not find some codified thing that already exists. But I’m learning and growing. I’m exploring, instead of being dictated to. And I don’t have to explain why Church history is fraught with problems. I don’t have to go to a place every week where I’m admonished and condemned simply because I haven’t gotten married yet. (Relief of that pressure has actually led to some dates I’ve been on that have been more mature than any I’ve had in an extremely long time, if ever. And by “mature” I don’t mean “we went and had sex” or anything, but instead of concentrating on “will this person be my eternal mate?” it was more “here’s someone with whom I have things in common, let’s get to know one another.”) Most importantly, I no longer have to justify anybody’s prejudice or hate as my own belief.

And that gives me more inner peace than anything else.

(While it’s true that conversion and deconversion are both emotional, not logical, sometimes it helps the thought process to see something illogical to force someone to examine their spiritual foundation. For any in those camp, check out Brother Jake’s videos. I found them recently, as in like last week, and I think they’re great. Nothing he says is technically inaccurate according to Church beliefs, though he does present things in a light that most members haven’t considered. Unbelievers will enjoy them, believers will probably dismiss them, but for anyone on the fence, at least check them out. You know, ponderize them.)

Think, McFly, think!

back-to-the-future-display

Today is Wednesday, October 21, 2015, and, as social media today will attest, the same day that Marty McFly and Doc Brown travel to in Back to the Future Part II. So I figured it’d be appropriate to share some short musings related to the subject.

This was one of, if not actually, my favorite movie trilogies, not just growing up, but today as well (and not just because my birthday, Nov. 12th, is the red-letter day in 1955 when the clock tower got struck by lightning). I love this franchise more than Star Wars, more than Star Trek even. There will probably always be a small part of me that, whenever people talk about “the present,” I will think of 1985 (hey, it’s like that Bowling for Soup song!). Time travel, in particular, has always been the sci-fi concept that I’ve found the most fascinating. This is probably why I also adore Quantum Leap from around the same time period, and may contribute to my love of Chrono Trigger as well. (You would think that it would make me also a big fan of Doctor Who, but, well…) The “What if?” scenarios are full of endless possibilities, both as forces for good and for ill. I’ve always found it more interesting, however, to see stories that deal with this on a personal level, rather than a global or historical one, and Back to the Future (along with the aforementioned Quantum Leap, usually) focus on this aspect a lot more than the ol’ “let’s kill Hitler” or “let’s prevent Skynet” that sometimes crops up in time travel stories. The story is kept small, mostly affecting some random teenagers and their subsequent families more than any far-reaching national or global scenarios (at least in the first movie), which works to its advantage. Keeping it small keeps the focus on the characters, and helps it become more relatable. Instead of being a far-out tale about the weird science-y possibilities and pitfalls of time travel, it’s simply about a normal kid trying desperately to still exist and get his dad to not be such a loser, and the questions it raises are about things that most people can ponder, not just nerds.

My early-life obsession with this movie and the potential it represents has led, I believe, to my propensity for introspection. As a kid, I was more concerned with what the future holds: if I could travel to 2015 or beyond, what great things could I find? Often at recess I’d pal around with my friend Dan Burk pretending to be time travelers from the future (inspired not just by this movie but also a little by Bill & Ted), coming back to this primitive 1990’s era where you had to use pencils and paper to do your homework: lame!

As I’ve gotten older, however, I have more of a tendency to look at the past, as most people do when they age. Being in your 30’s gives you the unique viewpoint of having enough in your past to truly see where you have been and what has shaped both you and the world, yet with enough time still in your future to have the opportunity to still live up to your potential. And I often ponder: what events in my life have shaped my future into what it is today? How many “punch out Biff” moments have I had, and where have they led me? If I could take to my teenage self, what advice would I give? Or, conversely, what would my teenage self think if he could see where I am now and what has happened in my life? Would he be proud that I’ve still kept up with my video game skills and I like the same type of stuff that he did? Or would he be disappointed that I’m still not married, not writing music for a living, and barely have enough money to scrape by, despite the large potential that I had? I think he may be disappointed, but perhaps not surprised. After all, I was a pretty smart kid; I think I saw where things were heading, even if I hoped that some day, somehow, my future teenage son would magically appear and help me find my density.

Every year I think, “This could be the one! This is the one where I finally meet that girl, settle down, and become an adult!” without having any idea how to get it to happen. My recent religious status has forestalled my usual venues for finding dates (I’m now far too non-LDS for any faithful girl, yet I’m still probably too LDS for most women outside the Church since I still won’t drink), and now I’m to the point in life where all my friends are either married or in the same have-no-idea-how-to-get-married boat that I’m in. Seriously, everyone, how do you meet people outside of YSA wards or bars?

As for my career, I’m working in a field that I enjoy, and I think that my teenage self would be happy with that, though with the hours that I keep and the relatively low pay/lack of advancement opportunities he may chafe a little. Also, I had always wanted to become a professional composer, but have had little progress in the field. I tried it for a year and a half, made about $500, and realized that, more important to success than actual musical aptitude was the ability to be a self-promoter, which is something I’ve never been good at (this also explains many of my dating problems).

Indeed, I probably have more in common with the original sad George McFly. Or, more likely, I have more in common with the George McFly that we never saw: the one from the future where he never got hit by the car or punched out Biff and Marty never was born. I may not be quite that much of an obvious loser, but I do suffer from similar self-esteem issues. Am I living in my own “bad future?” Was there a point in my past where I should’ve punched out a guy, or taken some risk, and become a far superior version of myself?

More importantly, is there still such an opportunity in my near future, and will I have the guts to take it?

Conference in a…nutshell? That’s not quite right. Some sort of nut-based analogy.

Walnut

This past October the LDS Church held its first general conference since I somewhat left the Church last summer, and, like always, I tried to listen to the whole thing (I missed part of Saturday morning’s session because sleepytime is good times). Long-time readers of this blog may know that I used to do a “conference in a nutshell” post every time one came along, running down a bullet-point list of things I wrote down while listening to the talks. This time I’d like to return to that general idea, but instead of just listing a whole bunch of things, I’d like to take just a few bits from conference and flesh out what I think and how I feel about them.

This past conference was a more interesting one than I think anyone was expecting. I wasn’t expecting quite the level of controversy that sprung up over the new apostles (three white guys from Utah?!? Apparently that’s terrible!), but I’m not going to talk about that, simply because I don’t really care. The brethren can call whoever they want to as apostles, and either it’s a call from the Lord, or the whole organization is uninspired anyway, so either way quit complaining.

1. The Ponderize Talk

I really hated this talk. Not because it’s necessarily a bad idea (the basic gist behind it is “memorize a scripture each week, and also, like, think about it a lot”), but because it was presented in such a way that you were forced to admit, “Wow! If I don’t do this just like this random Sunday School Presidency counselor said, I’m not as good of a person!” It’s one of the many examples from the Church leadership that espouses more the philosophies of Stephen Covey than any actual spiritual leader: do this highly effective thing that works for businessmen, and you’ll be a better saint. Instead of, “Here’s something that I’ve found works for me. Give it a shot, and if you and I are the same type of person it may work for you too, but if you don’t think like a businessman you’ll probably do better with a different way of studying,” we got, “This thing will work. I don’t care if you’re terrible at memorizing, or you’ve already found a way to study the Lord’s word that fits your life better. Everyone must do this. Also, I’ve coined a phrase so that your home teachers/bishops/annoying roommate at BYU will pound this concept into your brain until you have no willpower left! Buy the T-shirt!”

Seriously, he structured this talk in such a way that listeners had no choice but to accept this as the best thing ever. He started his talk with an admittedly good piece of advice about saving money, thereby drawing a connection in our mind that his next piece of advice was similarly sound. Then he gave examples that weren’t actually examples. “Nephi was a ponderizer,” he said, then quoted a verse that said Nephi likes scriptures (and not one that said Nephi picked one each week and memorized it). Then he addressed “objections” like this: “It’s too hard, you may say. But hard can be good!” Oh, OK, thanks, that cleared it up. And finally, he actually said, “Will you ponderize a verse of scripture each week for the rest of this month? For the rest of this year? Longer maybe?” with a pause after each question, so that everyone listening in had a chance to say, “Yes! I will do this thing I just barely heard about that has a catchy slogan!” without actually thinking about it. I imagine that hapless home/visiting teachers will be trying to do the same thing to their poor home/visiting teachees for the next six months, whether or not it’s actually something that will help them.

Please note: I’m not saying that the act itself is a bad idea. For those who want to memorize scriptures and ponder them, by all means, go for it. It’s just that the message was couched in the most blatantly manipulative way possible as a one-size-fits-all solution that drove me crazy. And that’s not even getting into the controversy that popped up immediately after the session, what with the “Ponderize” T-shirt sales and so on. Somehow, I believe that wisdom that fits on a bumper sticker may deserve some more scrutiny before I’m forced to make a commitment to do it.

Guys, the Church is not a business. At least it shouldn’t be. But attitudes and worldviews like those expressed via this talk are what worm their way into Church curriculum, then Church culture, that cause a lot of people to have a beef with the faceless, monolithic “Church” while still adoring the apostles on individual bases. Manipulating people so that they have to do this “righteous” thing or feel guilty about it, even though yesterday they didn’t even know it was a thing, is not a plan based on free agency. Just sayin’.

2. Pres. Monson finished his talk and sat down unsteadily

I don’t have a whole lot to say about this occurrence. I think it’s great that the apostles love Pres. Monson enough to catch him if he falls, yet let him retain enough dignity to finish his talk without literally holding on to him. I also find it odd that many people are taking this as a sign of supreme love and sacrifice and so on when it’s really just a demonstration of basic human decency (or at least I’d like to think that most of us would try to help an old man up if his strength failed). But what I find most interesting about this is that, though members online and off are all atwitter about this great spiritual experience and how wonderful it is that the Lord supported him with angels so that he could finish his talk, substantially fewer of them could tell you without looking it up exactly what the important message was that was so important that angels had to help him deliver it.

3. Skepticism is easy

I did not hate this talk. (In fact, I don’t think I hated any of the talks other than “ponderize” to be honest.) But it was this talk that raised some ire among the post-Mormon groups (of which I am an observer, but not really a member. Kind of like the Church itself at this point). Not because Pres. Uchtdorf was specifically targeting ex-Mormons (though he kinda was), but because he was painting their experiences with a broad brush that trivialized them more than anything else. If you want to know why people leave the Church, it’s almost never because they didn’t “choose to believe.” It was because their experiences didn’t jive with what they had been taught was true, and eventually that either breaks a person in half or causes severe cognitive dissonance. If you want actual examples, here are about 100 people or so who left the Church and why. Their individual reasons are all over the map, but you’ll rarely find one of them saying, “It was easier to disbelieve.” Many of them say “It made more sense to disbelieve,” or “I really really really wanted to keep believing.” And, while it’s true that, yes, some of them are jerks and unfairly disrespectful to the religion they left behind, the majority are just trying to follow their conscience. Pres. Uchtdorf made an analogy about unbelievers: “If we make no effort to believe, we are like the man who unplugs a spotlight and then blames the spotlight for not giving any light.” I bet a lot of those who left would reword it thusly, “We made all effort to believe, to plug in that spotlight. Imagine how we felt when we realized that the light bulb never got installed in the first place.”

What really made me take notice of this talk, however, was the attitude behind it and how prevalent it is in the Church. Or, more specifically, how even I used to espouse it. Come, dear readers, back in time to when I first started examining my own faith and Mormonism in general:

“Do you guys know what’s easy? Not being a member of the Church! Aw snap! You can do whatever you want on Sunday, you get to keep that 10% of your income instead of giving it up to build more chapels or whatever, you don’t have to worry about that whole dumb Word of Wisdom thing telling you what you can and can’t eat and/or drink, that one guy down the street who thinks Obama is a secret Muslim out to burn the country to the ground can’t tell you how to improve your relationship with God just because some other guy called him to be your bishop, and if you want to watch porn while drinking cheap scotch and swearing loudly, nobody’s gonna care! You arrive at your own morality based on your own experiences! You’re an adult, not some little five-year-old! You can figure this stuff out!

I’m (half-)kidding with those extremes, but a lot of people do leave the Church because it’s simply easier not to have to deal with a lot of crap that gets thrown at active members, whether it be requirements of active membership, outside criticism of the faith, inside judgement from nosy ward members, or personal disagreements with church leaders and/or doctrine. […]It’s a lot easier to say that the Church leaders are wrong, or misguided, or have a different belief system (and good for them), but in my life I’ll believe what I feel is right, than it is to say that maybe I’m wrong, even though I don’t understand why yet and possibly never will until I die. It’s easier, more rational, and from a purely intellectual standpoint, probably the correct thing to do.

Am I saying that everyone who leaves the Church because it’s hard is somehow a lazy bum or a hedonist? Of course not! Being a Latter-Day Saint is hard work, and I don’t just mean the physical things like going to Church, or tithing, or obeying commandments, praying, scripture study, service projects, home/visiting teaching, fulfilling callings, etc. etc. but a lot of the mental, social, and emotional wringers that people are put through in a lot of Church environments. I mean, where would you rather be: a place where people either look down upon you or (even worse) make you into a project to save the “one lost sheep” just because you happened to wear a slightly shorter skirt, or admit that you like video games, or once said that Ewan McGregor is damn smoking hot (and you’re also a guy)? Or a place where you’ve got a bunch of friends who couldn’t care less what your lifestyle is and accept you for whatever you are? I can tell you this: one of those scenarios is certainly much easier than the other one. But does picking the easier scenario mean that you’re somehow weak, or does it just mean that you’ve got a measure of sanity? Am I a lazy good-for-nothing because I didn’t join the Marines? I don’t think so.”

I made those arguments when I was still an active member (even though I hated going to Church for mostly social reasons). And, as I often do when trying to justify someone else’s opinion as if it were my own, I made quite a mess of it. I hadn’t really done any research into ex-Mormons or had an open discussion with any of them; I just said to myself, “What would make me leave the Church right now?” and extrapolated, based on what I had been taught within the Church, how those without the Church obviously feel. I thought I was being unbiased about it, hence the “Marines” line near the end: I was trying to sympathize with those who felt that way without realizing that most who have left don’t feel that way. It’s hard to be unbiased about something that you have no actual experience with. I actually got called on the carpet on this by someone who had left, and to her I responded, “This is what I see. Please correct me if I’m wrong.” It was an earnest request, even if perhaps I wasn’t quite ready for the answer.

Some within the Church who, perhaps, have some issues with it, can point to an example of someone who has left, who also is perhaps disrespectful, or hot-headed, or otherwise imperfect, and say, “See? If this is the kind of person that leaves the Church, then that gives me more reason to stay!” It’s easy to point at those people for justification. (There’s that phrase again: “it’s easy.”) But for every jackass who rails against the faith they once shared, there are more who simply up and left. Their upbringing and sense of morals is still part of their lives, and it probably always will be. They still believe in the spirit of what the Church professes, even if they can’t accept the letter of what the Church does. Staying true to a moral system when you no longer believe in the source of said system is not easy. But most people are decent. Most people are good. And most people who leave the Church do so because they can’t reconcile what they learn with what they’ve been taught in the Church. And when the best defense the Church gives is “Give Joseph a break! God knows more than a search engine!” it’s not much consolation.

Please note: I’m also not trying to trivialize those who join the Church despite opposition. Often they have an equally difficult time leaving behind their old life in pursuit of something they believe in more. That was the crux of a lot of Pres. Uchtdorf’s talk, actually: remaining faithful despite difficult circumstances. But don’t condemn anyone for taking a stance in accordance with their own conscience despite opposition, simply because that step is away from what you believe instead of toward it.

Neither is easy.

4. Spiritualism and The Spirit (not actually related to any specific talk)

I am not an atheist, in the sense that I don’t only believe in empiricism. I have had spiritual experiences that I cannot write off as pure emotion. I have felt what the Church terms “the Spirit” many times. But what I’ve realized more and more, especially since leaving, is that often the things I’ve felt spiritual about have had little to do with the Church specifically. That’s not to say that I’ve never had a spiritual experience in relation to the Church. But when I really examined my spiritualityy, I found that my truly powerful experiences have been, let’s say, perpendicular to the Church. In other words, when I feel the most peace, joy, and love, has had nothing to do with my standing in the Church, my amount of tithing paid, my scripture study time, or any of that. In fact, the times in my life that I have thrown myself headlong into trying to keep the commandments has usually turned me into a judgmental jerk who can’t stand the fact that anyone around me holds a different opinion. I hate being that guy. And it’s certainly not a healthy mindset.

My spiritual experiences have had to do with my amount of service and selflessness. They have had to do with what I can do for others. One of my most spiritual experiences on my mission occurred when I was serving in Cartagena, though it had almost nothing to do with the Church or traditional missionary work. One of our investigators was a poor Nigerian immigrant (I really wish I could remember his name) who was having some health problems one night, so my companion and I accompanied him to the hospital, along with our ward mission leader. I had to translate for him with the doctor (this was in Spain, and he only spoke English), and afterward my companion, the ward mission leader, and I were waiting out in the waiting room to hear if he would be OK. During that time my zone leader showed up and demanded that I go back out and do some street contacting. It was the end of the week, you see, and my companion and I hadn’t quite fulfilled our goal yet. I refused, because I really wanted to see if our investigator was OK and help him back home if he was discharged. This wasn’t what missionaries are supposed to do, though. Surely the ward mission leader could handle it (despite not speaking English). We argued back and forth and finally came to a compromise: we’d swap companions for the evening. My zone leader and my companion would go out street contacting (so he could count it toward our numbers), leaving his companion behind at the hospital.

I was left with his companion and the ward mission leader. Alfonso Sanchez, a man who I had worked with for quite a while, both him and his family. Of all the families on my mission, I felt probably the closest to them, having eaten at their house many times (it also helped that his wife reminded me a lot of my sister Annelise). And as we sat in that waiting room in a small medical facility in the town of Cartagena, he turned to me and said something I’ll never forget (though I’m paraphrasing it here): “Elder, I’ve been in this ward for a long time, and I’ve seen missionaries come and go. Many have been great, faithful missionaries, dutiful and true to their creed. But, perhaps only once every ten years, a missionary comes along that actually loves the people he serves. Elder, you have that love in you.”

I didn’t know what to say. For most of my mission, I thought I was a terrible missionary. It was all that my zone and district leaders could do to keep me out on the street every day. I didn’t study as much as I should have, I had a hard time keeping the rules with exactness, and I really really really hated telling strangers how to live their lives. But, for that brief moment, I felt like, maybe, I had done something important out there. Despite what the Church said I should’ve been doing, despite what my zone leader wanted me to do, despite the fact that that particular investigator never joined the Church (at least when I was there, though we did convince him to move out of a living situation where his roommates were pretty abusive) — despite all that, I followed my conscience and sense of human decency. For one moment, Elder Parkes the terrible missionary became something better. And that made the difference.

That’s a spiritual experience.

Now, understandably, that particular experience is certainly emotion-based. But it was still stronger and happier than anything else I had felt on my mission up to that point. For me, actually, most of my spiritual experiences both in and out of the Church have had a musical component to them. A certain piece of music can pierce my soul much more deeply and effectively than any talk by Boyd K. Packer (especially since he did his best to squash any kind of music in the Church that he didn’t like; look it up). An evening spent with someone you love doing something you love is time much better spent than an evening at a fireside with a stake president who tells you to get off your lazy butt and get married or start ponderizing or whatever. Not to say that such firesides are worthless or impossible to feel spiritually fed by (I think that mostly depends on both how invested you are in the topic and what the topic is), but diff’rent strokes for diff’rent folks. I cannot trivialize the great spiritual feelings others get in the Church any more than they can trivialize the great spiritual feelings I get when I drive to a rest stop near Delle, Utah, and contemplate the Northern Lights.

The Church preaches a lot of great things. Principles that, if followed, will make you a better person and help the lives of those around you. But it doesn’t mean that everything the Church preaches is the same. The same is true of most religions, philosophies, and lifestyles. It’s that discernment that I seek.

Spiritual experiences can still be otherworldly even if they’re not specifically related to Mormonism. I still remember the intense spiritual feeling I got the exact moment that my niece Ivy was born, even though I didn’t know that that was happening until much later. That wasn’t just an emotional response to something I was doing at the time (I was on my mission, and at that exact time we were trying to reactivate a sister who hadn’t been to church in a long time and still didn’t return after our visit). There is more to existence than just this life. I can’t prove that, and it is based on faith. So take it for what it is.

I feel like I’m turning out to be a terrible ex-Mormon. Oh, well.

5. Conclusion

It was interesting listening to conference as more of an outside observer than a participant. I felt that I could finally look at the talks, not in the light of “How can I start applying all of this inspired message from the Lord in my life?” but in the light of, “Wait, does this make sense? What message is actually being offered here? Is it a good one? What part of it do I believe will make my life and the lives of those around me better? What part of it is good advice? Is any of it non-applicable? Bad advice? Just some guy’s opinion?” I was finally able to hear things like how unbelievers “…are like the man who unplugs a spotlight and then blames the spotlight for not giving any light” and think, “Yeah, that doesn’t actually make any sense,” without feeling bad for “speaking against the Lord’s anointed.” And, even for an unbeliever, there were plenty of good messages to take away about how to become better people. In fact, some of them had more power with an eye of skepticism: examining the messages being taught instead of merely accepting them all meant that you really did figure out what would be helpful and good in your own life. For the record, Pres. Monson’s important message was to be an example and a light of goodness to those around you, a message I believe is equally applicable and good for everyone, regardless of your belief.

But I’ll be damned if I ever use the word “ponderize” in a serious setting.

Ten Years of Bloggin’

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Ten years ago today, I started a subsection on my Angelfire website dedicated to the Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers character Monterey Jack to just act as a sort of online journal. The first entry consisted of a picture of my head from my mission (seen above), a description of a random murder mystery thing happening that day, some rambling about starting a blog, and a quote from President Boyd K. Packer about music that I used to have on my AOL Instant Messenger bio.

Now, my face is a bit older and chubbier, my Angelfire site is basically gone, I haven’t been active in the Rescue Rangers community for several years (ever since it became obsessed with My Little Pony), Pres. Boyd K. Packer has passed away (this actually happened, like, last week; they haven’t even had the funeral yet), and I probably haven’t used AOL Instant Messenger for about ten years. But this blog has kept chugging along, though the entries have gotten far longer and more sparse since the beginning.

The last time this blog had an anniversary (five years ago), I mostly took suggestions from readers and did a completely random post. During the first five years most of my posts were fairly short and random: small thoughts, online quiz results, pictures I liked, and so on — basically, everything that people do on Facebook now (here’s a good example). In a post-Facebook world, however, those kinds of posts dried up and moved to social media, so instead of short pictures or fun little things, this blog evolved into giant essays, mostly regarding dating, religion, and/or philosophy derived from video games.

It’s kind of interesting, for me at least, to go back and look at some of those earlier entries. I haven’t felt like I’ve changed a whole lot over the years, but reading the stuff I was writing ten years ago definitely shows a younger viewpoint. Some of the problems I was having are still the same then as they are now (singlehood, in particular, has always been a staple topic of this blog), though my approach to them has definitely matured over time. Compare an early entry where I was mooning over Kim Isom like a lovestruck puppy (even though I still never contacted her literally until her wedding reception), to a recent entry where I finally decided to be proactive in my dating life. True, I’m still single, but I like to think that at least I have a more mature outlook about it now.

I think the biggest shift occurred around this entry (the post right after the five year anniversary, interestingly enough) which is when I finally graduated college. Nearly every entry after that is a big long analysis of something, whether it be gingers, Glenn Beck, reactions to terrible robberies, LDS culture and alienation (if you really want to know why I’m taking a break from the Church, that article is a good starting point), or even an in-depth analysis of why I make in-depth analyses. Not that nothing before that date was philosophical or rambly (or both), but I seem to have focused a lot more on that for the latter half of the life of my blog so far, which is also why I’ve made a lot fewer posts in the past five years than the previous five (44 posts after that one vs. 202 before, not counting the 64 posts that I copied from my childhood journal).

In any case, I’ll continue blogging on occasion into the future, mostly about topics that will probably not be of any interest to the vast majority of readers, but sometimes about raw emotional experiences that change people’s viewpoints about either me or the world. Pretty much just like how my life usually goes.

To close, here are some random stats (at least since I moved to WordPress in 2007):

  • 29% of my views have occurred on Saturdays
  • I’ve had over 80,000 views from nearly 16,000 unique visitors
  • The most views I ever got on a single day was March 20, 2013, when I got 1,062 views. This is especially baffling as I didn’t publish anything that month, and my most recent post at the time was a fluff piece about the TV show Arthur.
  • My top five commenters have been (in order): Johnathan Whiting, Kjersti Parkes, Marné Lierman, Haley Greer (now Smedley), and Nate Winder.
  • My most popular post: The Third Date Dump, with 12,033 views. I guess I coined a phrase? Or is it due to the link to an article on oprah.com that’s in it? Yeah, probably the second one. It’s still pretty impressive, especially since it was posted years after the runners-up:
    • My second most popular post: the results of my Myers-Briggs personality test, with 11,918 views, though more than 9,000 of those were in 2010, probably by people just looking for the test itself, or possibly just a picture of Michael Jordan or Frederic Chopin (since 2012 it’s averaged about 55 views a year).
    • My third most popular post: Mickey Mouse trying to commit suicide, with 4,922 views. I don’t quite know what to make of that.
    • My fourth most popular post: The meaning of Tarantella, with 3,127 views. Probably mostly from students studying the poem in classes.
    • Fifth and beyond are pretty close to call.

Happy tenth anniversary, blog.

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Chasing the Light

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Note: this post has been edited to protect some identities. It has also been formatted to fit your screen.

A few weeks ago I shared an article on Facebook titled “Sexuality and Singledom — Navigating with Clarity and Integrity” that dealt with the frustrations of single people in the LDS Church, especially relating to sexual matters (defined by the article as not just sex, but maturity and expressing romantic affection properly in general). A bunch of people commented on it with some great discussions, and I noted that I had a blog post percolating in my head about it about how much I related to various matters contained within, especially about how LDS singles were treated and how they, in turn, treat each other.

This is not that blog post.

At least, not the post I had originally intended when I shared the article.

When I go to a singles’ ward I see a bunch of people milling about, doing their best to play a game they don’t understand, with an end goal that nobody quite knows how to reach. Some do, and get married, but a lot simply just get old, then too old, then disappear. I’ve written extensively on that subject, and I’ve no wish to repeat myself, but I’ve been firmly in that latter camp for a while now. One of my problems is that normally the type of girl I’m actually interested in dating is not the typical LDS girl in the typical LDS atmosphere. You know the one, where everyone’s so concentrated on getting married that everything gets taken way too seriously, with people trying to figure out all the “rules” of dating and courtship as opposed to just getting to know each other and becoming close naturally. The one where, if a girl likes, say, video games, she has to keep it under her hat or risk becoming a pariah (this has gotten better with generations younger than mine). Sometimes I get on dating sites and I find plenty of attractive ladies who love all the same things I do and would be a great match…until I see the “Religion: Agnostic” or “Drinks Socially” or whatever attribute, and I have to say, “Well, so much for that.” If I hafta marry an LDS woman, then I’ve either got to settle or keep looking, apparently.

But, as I thought about it, I realized my frustrations lately have been more than simply related to dating and marriage within the Church.

Early this week I was talking with someone who let out more than a few disparaging remarks about my sister, who recently left the Church, including one pretty nasty one about my nieces (who, for the record, are eleven and twelve years old), and how they’re not turning out as well as other children because they don’t attend Church. (This despite the fact that they are the two best kids I know and are incredibly smart, well-behaved, talented, and all-around great, one of whom has won several academic awards to that effect.) I later relayed this to my sister, and eventually it made its way back to the originator, who was upset, as they didn’t even remember saying anything terrible; it was just a fact.

This type of attitude is fairly prevalent within the Church, of looking with disdain and/or pity to those who don’t fit in the mold. My sister suffers it because she left; I suffer it because I’m over 30 and single. However, that’s not all. I also came across a story of a bishop who told a mother of a twelve-year-old girl that she needed to go home and have the sex talk with her daughter ASAP so that he could ask her if she’d ever masturbated. Does that offend you? Because it does me. Especially since the parent isn’t present for the interview between the bishop and the daughter. And it made me realize that there was something wrong going on. Not just with individuals within the Church abusing their power, but with a system set up to force otherwise (supposedly) upstanding priesthood leaders to ask such personal questions to children clearly not ready for them.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it didn’t actually affect me. And it hadn’t for a long time. I no longer felt the need to decide one way or another, because the Church was no longer my home. You see, I actually probably left the Church probably about a year and a half to two years ago, about six months before my previous post on the subject of Mormonism, when I last attended church (or possibly August of 2013, which is when I stopped regularly attending). And since I did, I took such issues less and less personally, until they were virtually just another news item, like hearing about how those crazy Catholics did something or whatever.

During all this time, though, I still wore my temple garments, as all worthy Latter-Day Saints are commanded to do. After all that had happened earlier this week, however, I realized that, if I wasn’t actually going to Church and keeping those commandments, wearing the garments probably wasn’t a good idea, considering I wasn’t keeping the promises made when they were given to me. Not that I was going out sinning every day; mostly I was just committing all the sins of omission by not attending church, paying tithing, going home teaching, keeping the Sabbath Day holy, etc. I still was obeying the Word of Wisdom and the law of chastity, and I was still doing my best to be a good person. But I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to as a faithful Latter-Day Saint, and didn’t have any plans to repent of that attitude. They now represented something I wasn’t doing, and wearing them would probably be a little hypocritical, even if I was the only one who knew what I was wearing underneath.

So I boxed them up and bought some new underwear. And some new undershirts. Really, they were covering roughly the same area that the garments do, minus maybe an inch or two above the knee. I also bought a few tank top undershirts when the other ones proved to be really hot in the middle of the summer.

This past Wednesday I wore an undershirt and a pair of boxer briefs instead of the temple garments. And you know what? It scared the hell out of me. I was so afraid that at some point someone would notice, and suddenly condemn me to hell, or at the very least stop valuing my opinion. The first night I had several nightmares to that effect.

Today (Friday), I decided to wear the tank top under my shirt instead of a full-blown white tee. It was super-uncomfortable, though it wasn’t just the fact that the two straps over my shoulders felt like I was wearing suspenders. It also began to be uncomfortable on an emotional and mental level. I mean, I made a promise to wear the garments. Was I doing wrong? Was I really turning my back on the faith? I started feeling terrible about the decision.

Then I saw Inside Out, the new Pixar movie (you know, the one that forces everyone in the audience to contemplate their feelings). And the entire time during the movie all I could think about was what the impetus behind my decision was. Was it an act of rebellion? Was it truly breaking through long-held chains to greater freedom? Was it letting go of a safety cord to go drown in the deep? Much like in the movie, was it just my feelings being out-of-whack that forced me to make a rash decision?

I was acutely aware of the small straps across my shoulders, as foreign to me as the temple garments had felt when I first put them on nearly fifteen years ago. I eventually got used to those, and I kept telling myself that I’d get used to these, too, but it was such a change. Not just physically, but symbolically. When the movie ended I went home, opened that box, took out a pair of garments, and re-put them on, hoping that in some way, that would quell the unease and all that had seemed wrong would be right again.

It didn’t.

So I wept.

I wept because I could no longer go back. Not because I didn’t believe in repentance, but because I didn’t believe in what the garments represented anymore.

I had been sidelined by the Church. It didn’t have a place for me anymore, because I hadn’t accomplished everything I should have by this point in my life. In addition, there were a lot of things in the Church’s story that just didn’t hold up to scrutiny, and they had started to wear on me. But the Church was where the truth was, right? If I had a problem with the Church, wasn’t it actually me who had the problem?

I needed to get away, to think. I needed to go somewhere I’d never gone before. I needed to find my way in the darkness and chase the light.

So I did. Literally.

I changed back into a plain set of boxers and normal white undershirt. I put on some clothes over them, got in my car, grabbed a 64 oz. thing of Orange Crush and two bags of pork rinds from the gas station, and I drove west, my mind whirling with thoughts. The sun had barely set, and the light was still peeking over the horizon, bathing the western sky in a purple glow. Normally when I drive around to do some thinking I head into the mountains to the east, but this time I chased the light.

You’d be surprised how long a sunset lasts when you’re going 80 miles per hour toward it.

And as I drove, blasting remixes from Chrono Trigger, I pondered.

Today the Supreme Court decided to lift the ban on gay marriage all over the country. Millions of people, both gay and straight, rejoiced at this announcement. But the Church was disappointed. Disappointed that thousands, or even millions, of people could finally find their own happiness and live true to themselves.

I drove.

The larger, non-tank top shirt felt comfortable. I wasn’t thinking the whole time about how weird the straps were. I wasn’t thinking the whole time about how it didn’t represent something that I hadn’t been following for at least two years, if not long before that.

I drove.

The sky began to darken, though not as slowly as normal. I left Salt Lake County, driving past Tooele. I had never been out that far, at least not at the driver’s wheel. I seriously considered driving all the way to Wendover and spending the night in a motel room. I even momentarily considered finding some girl to hook up with out there. Why not? Certain things are legal in Nevada! If I’m no longer bound by the Church’s moral laws, can’t I just go crazy and try everything? Wasn’t it time I broke out of the adolescent mold of the LDS singles’ scene? My roommate Johnathan had previously mentioned that his YSA ward was doing an activity where you go to bishopric members’ houses with a date and have different parts of a three-course meal not only at different houses, but with different dates at each house! Is this how adults meet each other? Is this the way that people truly connect, through a weird activity hosted by men who had been single adults for two, maybe three years tops, and planned by an activities committee who were planning things like they were still in Young Men’s or Young Women’s?

The sky dimmed as I passed Grantsville and headed out into the unknown.

But, at the same time, I knew that hooking up with some random stranger wasn’t the answer. I never seriously considered that it was. Even putting aside the moral issues, I personally knew that making out with someone I didn’t love was boring and stupid, and sex would probably be similar. But just the fact that I had considered it at all showed that I needed something to change. Sex, sexual morality, and all related issues are entirely abstract concepts to me, since I have virtually no experience (nor have pretty much all the girls I’ve dated), and the way that singles’ wards ran had never been the way that I related to people.

But it’s not just an issue of morality. The history of the Church is full of skeletons in the closet. For the longest time I didn’t let any of it bug me, saying to myself that someday it will all make sense. Some day, perhaps after this life, all the weird and terrible things in the Church’s past would be satisfactorily explained, and I would say, “Oh, that’s why Joseph Smith married that 14-year-old without consent! That’s why the Church asks young 12-year-old girls incredibly personal questions about masturbation without their parents present! That’s why most of the members of the Church aren’t terribly accepting of outsiders (at least without trying to convert them) (and, before you get your hackles up, there are exceptions to the rule, though said exceptions usually have to stay quiet about it).” But things kept piling up. So I had to look at a different source in order to confirm that, yes, the Church is still true, regardless of all the earthly evidence that may point in the opposite direction.

Nearly all lights from civilization had vanished, with only a few pockets visible here and there to the south of the freeway. Only a few trucks and some large cars/SUVs hauling trailers were sharing the road with me.

“Wickedness never was happiness.” That’s what we have been taught in the Church. If that gets put to the test, that means that those who have left the Church and embraced values contrary to those it teaches are not happy. So what about all those gay couples celebrating today that they can finally, legally, be bound to their spouses who they love more than anything? Are they all secretly unhappy? Would they all be so much happier if they instead tried to go against their nature and submerge themselves into the Church, either marrying someone they’re not attracted to or staying single and alone? Does one lose the ability to feel joy the instant that coffee touches their tongue? Is looking down your nose at anyone in a strapless shirt/dress and forcing them to change so you can “avoid temptation” truly the pinnacle of joy?

But, on the other hand, there is good in the Church. So, so much good. People help each other. People teach and are taught so many beautiful principles, of service, of sacrifice, of love, and hope, and charity, and peace. Lots of Church members are truly striving to be the best people they can be. Sure, there are a few bad apples, but I think most are at least attempting to be good people. Could I truly turn my back on all that? Could I leave an organization that has the potential to do so much good? Does it matter what Joseph Smith’s wife count is when you’re carrying a pot of potatoes to a grieving widow, or whatever? I know that I’ve felt peace within its boundaries, at least on occasion, though it had been less and less as the years went on, and the occasions on which it manifested seemed somewhat random.

Can I find the Spirit elsewhere, or is it only in this organization that I slipped out of (and have felt like I’ve grown more tolerant and, dare I say, Christ-like by doing so)? Was it actually the Spirit, or just an emotional elation at belonging to a group and doing what I had been told God wanted me to do? Is “the Spirit” even a thing?

It was now past 10:00 PM, and as I came upon the extremely small town of Delle, Utah (which I didn’t even know existed until tonight) about 50 miles west of Salt Lake City, I noticed that the sign said, “Next Services: 66 miles.” “Yikes!” I immediately thought, “I’d better turn around here, or I will be forced to get a room in Wendover!” So I exited the freeway, into a nearly-deserted truck stop with a giant sandy parking lot next to it, containing a few semis whose owners were undoubtedly catching a few hours of sleep before their next shift. I pulled into the lot, about a hundred feet or more away from any other vehicle, turned off the car, opened the sun roof, and sat on the raised compartment between the seats with my head sticking out of the roof. It was late June, and it had been an incredibly hot day, over 100 degrees, so even at night the temperature couldn’t have been lower than 80. The freeway was still relatively busy, and I could see at least five cars in either direction at any given time, but other than the lights from the passing cars and the gas station about 200 feet away, there were no lights other than the stars and moon. A gentle breeze was blowing through my hair. And, as I sat there, contemplating my future, I decided to pray.

I didn’t kneel down. I didn’t fold my arms, I didn’t even close my eyes. I didn’t start by saying, “Dear Heavenly Father, I thank thee for [whatever], please bless me with [whatever],” etc. I simply laid out my thoughts to the heavens. I asked if there was a Father, and if He was listening. I voiced my concerns with the Church, and my fears of leaving the Church. I voiced the frustrations of being treated as a child by adults who, in many ways, were less mature than I, but since they were married they were put over me. I voiced how scared I was of leaving the Gospel safety net, afraid that once out there I would never be able to feel the Spirit, or even true joy, again. I voiced how, until now, I had been sitting on the fence so hard that I had chain-link marks in my posterior, but when it came to the garments-on-or-off decision, it had to be an active decision every single morning: am I in or am I out? Not just for appearances to others or outward actions, but personally, intimately, and spiritually. Where was my heart? Where was the truth?

It took half an hour. Countless cars whipped past. Whoever was running the truck stop locked it up and went home. Doubtless some groggy trucker looked out their windshield, wondering what some guy was doing in the parking lot with his head sticking out of the sunroof. Through it all, I kept searching, pondering, and praying.

And you know what? I got an answer/came to a conclusion, depending on how you look at it.

It wasn’t to stay in the Church.

It wasn’t to leave the Church forever.

It was to find out for myself, through experience, where the truth is. To separate myself from what I felt was wrong and find what was right. To be true to myself, undivided, whole. And if that meant leaving the Church, and taking those scary steps out west, into the unknown, then that’s what it will take.

I need to chase the light.

Does it mean dating those agnostic girls who love video games? You betcha. Does it means I’ll go off the deep end and get drunk every night, whoring it up? Not at all. I probably still won’t touch alcohol (if I can stubbornly refuse to eat mushrooms for 32 years for no good reason, alcohol should be simple to avoid even without a religious excuse), and promiscuity isn’t really my thing either. Really, as far as my daily life goes, it’ll mostly mean a change of underwear. I’ll still go to work. I’ll still have the same friends (I hope). I’ll still stream silly video games on my “The Player and the Doodler” page, and play Pathfinder, and have big Super Smash Bros. tournaments with my nieces. I’ll still not go to church every week, just like the past two years. I can still have spiritual discussions. Many of my friends and/or family may stop talking to me about a lot of topics, which is OK.

I don’t know where the road will take me. It may take me back to the Church in the end. It may take me somewhere else completely. Tonight the road took me to Delle, Utah: a place I didn’t know existed but am eternally grateful for. But I can’t grow if I’m stuck in the same place I’ve been for at least fifteen years, if not my whole life. I can’t keep living a life divided. One foot in Zion, the other in Babylon. One foot in an oppressive organization/religion/business, the other in the freedom to explore and learn.

As I lowered my head back into the car and began the drive home, the northern sky briefly lit up in a brilliant flash of color and light. It was like a gigantic lightning bolt, or rather, it was more the shape of a lightning bolt symbol you may see on signs and such, but instead of being white it was a deep reddish-green, if that’s even possible. It flitted across the sky and had disappeared almost before I could register that it was there. Apparently the Northern Lights were so active tonight that they could be seen much farther south than usual, and that’s what I had witnessed. And because I was out in the middle of nowhere, with barely any lights or pollution around, it was easy to see and absolutely beautiful. Had I stayed in Salt Lake, I would have missed it completely, even if I was outside looking up.

Beauty beyond anything I had ever seen. All because I decided to venture into the unknown and chase the light.

Generation Geocities

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So there have been a bunch of articles written recently about a certain age group that has been struggling to pin down its own identity. Caught inbetween the cynicism of Generation X and the hopeful optimism of the Millennials, this group hasn’t been able to embrace the ideals and concepts of either side. These are the people born between about 1978 and 1983 or so (or everyone who was college-age when 9/11 happened, basically). I like to define it in my personal life as everyone between my sister Annelise (who was born in 1976 and is most definitely a Gen Xer) and my good friend Sheldyn (who was born in 1985 and is quite Millennial). I have aspects of both of them, culturally speaking, but I can’t really say either of them are of “my generation”, even though fewer than ten years separate the two. And though you may not know either of the people I’m talking about, if you belong to this group  you can probably think of people you know that were born in those years and probably feel the same way about.

As a member of this group, I identify pretty well with most of the points listed in those articles linked to above. As a kid we had computers but not the Internet (unless Prodigy or AOL counts). As a teenager the Internet existed, but was still in its primitive stage (the whole thing looked like this, basically). And as a college student everything was a giant mishmash of technology as the world struggled to adapt to the innovative revolutionary advances that had just become available but hadn’t settled down in a streamlined format yet. Everyone in my freshman dorm had a computer, but almost nobody had a laptop, and those that did have one had ones where the battery life was 2 hours, tops, and there was still no wifi, so they had to cluster around the ethernet ports scattered about campus with their network cable like hobos huddling together for warmth. Culturally we weren’t as white-bread peppy as those after us, what with their “High School Musical”‘s and their “Katy Perry”‘s and so on, but we weren’t quite as angsty as the Nirvanas and Nine Inch Nails of the early-to-mid-90’s, either. These articles go pretty in-depth about where we “fit”, culturally and technologically speaking, so I won’t rehash it all here.

What I find most intriguing, though, is an unspoken thread woven throughout these articles. Every single one of them has been written by someone in that generation! Most people on either side of us lump us together with either the Gen Xers or the Millennials, even though some of those articles are a few years old. There has not been a cultural zeitgeist to unify us other than through negative space that nobody else can identify. All the other generations have been named fairly early on and by those outside it: the name Generation X was popularized by a writer of the baby boomer generation, and, oddly enough, both Millennial and Generation Y (the previous name for the Millennials that never quite stuck) were also coined by baby boomer writers. And good luck getting anyone not inside this group to care about it: I have talked to baby boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials, and none of them really care about or can even identify with our lack of definition. Gen Xers just see how tech-savvy we can be sometimes and lump us in with the Millennials, whereas Millennials see how familiar we are with a pay phone (or some other similar obsolete technology) and push us upstairs to a previous generation.

We have to define ourselves because nobody else will define us.

Even within the group, however, we’ve had a hard time pinning down what we are. Every one of those articles give completely different names to our group (Xennials, Generation Catalino, the Oregon Trail generation, “The Lucky Ones”, and so on), and almost all of them list entirely different cultural touchstones that define us, though they agree much more on what the previous era ended with and what the next era began with. There also seems to be a bit of a divide on whether or not we are a lucky/good/happy generation or an unlucky/terrible/cynical one. This, I think, relates to everyone else’s lack of concern about defining us. People are notoriously myopic about their own composition and identity. What’s important in one person’s upbringing may be a complete unknown in somebody else’s, and without someone on the outside saying, “This is an important cultural touchstone to this group,” it’s hard to come up with a consensus on what defines us. We’ve got “This is what we aren’t” down pretty well, but the “This is what we are” has yet to be pinned down, assuming that it can be.

But really, in the end, isn’t that our true defining characteristic? That we can’t be defined? We keep saying, “We’re a bit of this and a bit of that, but we’re not all this or that.” We’re tech-savvy, but not beholden to technology. We appreciate cynicism without embracing it. We’re optimistic, yet wary. We define ourselves by both our nostalgic past like Gen Xers, and our bright future plans, like the Millennials (as a side note: my personal belief as to why Millennials aren’t defined by their nostalgia is because the kid shows of the late 90’s and the pop culture of the early 00’s wasn’t worth being nostalgic about, as most of it was pretty terrible). So far, our search for a cultural identity is our cultural identity. All we know is that there’s something that separates us from those above and below, even if we don’t know what it is.

Our era was characterized by old meeting new. Everything was a giant hodgepodge. You could ride your bike wherever you wanted to around your neighborhood, but you still had to buckle your safety belt. Fax machines and pay phones coexisted with instant messaging and email. You could get on the Internet anywhere, as long as you had charged your laptop and could find an ethernet port to plug into. You couldn’t instantly share photos with all your friends, but you could share your terrible Geocities site filled with animated GIFs, blaring MIDI files, and goofy quotes. Heck, for the first few years of this very blog it was hosted on Angelfire, of all places. Angelfire!

That’s why I propose the name “Generation Geocities,” not just because Geocities was a thing when we were coming of age, but because Geocities represents what we really are: the prototype generation for the new social and cultural revolution. In Geocities you could see the beginnings of what the Web would become: people trying to share their lives and interests with their friends (and potentially complete strangers), yet it didn’t have nearly the power and panache of Facebook, or Instagram, or Pinterest, or whatever social media platform you prefer. It was untried and raw. Everybody’s website looked terrible, but at the same time everything seemed much more personal and sincere, since market research, SEO, and other business practices had yet to be invented or adapt to the new web-based way of thinking. That’s why that Space Jam website I linked to earlier looks like it was designed by a 12-year-old: the playing field was level. Nobody knew what was going on.

So in comes our generation, not steeped in the non-computer traditions of our forefathers, yet old enough to be innovators ourselves. And so we grabbed onto Geocities as ours. We latched onto AOL Instant Messenger as ours. Napster, dial-up, ska music (remember 1997, the summer of ska? That was ours.) — all things that we thought were great, yet lasted for only a brief instant. Somebody had to be the ones who defined themselves with this new technology that no longer exists. Everything that could have defined us was so quickly superseded by more streamlined and professional versions of itself that almost nobody outside of our demographic even remembers them anymore. Compare this to today, where Facebook has been virtually unchanged since at least 2007. Sure, the layout has changed several times, but at its core it’s still the same basic deal. Smartphones have been the same on a fundamental level since the first iPhone came out. I’d say that the last fundamental game-changing technology that has come out has been the smartphone, and most of the gadgets that have come out since then have been tied to it in some way. As a result, technology has been somewhat stagnant. Culture has been the same way: nostalgia is such a big thing for Gen Xers that the Millennials and the rising post-Millennial generation are basically just living through the exact same TV shows and movies as their parents. Movies are now multi-part epics that span several years. Things have staying power now. Everything has been polished and streamlined.

Geocities represented something new and untried; rough and full of promise, yet so quickly obsoleted by something better that it barely registers as a blip on the radar, and nobody that wasn’t involved with it even cares that it existed, except to note the newer thing that it led to.

That’s us.

And maybe the reason that nobody else cares about our identity is that we have none that nobody cared about but us. All we know is that we’re different.

We’re not quite breakfast. We’re not quite lunch. But we come with a slice of cantaloupe at the end. You don’t get everything you get with breakfast or lunch, but you get a good meal.

Chrono Trigger: Why A Redheaded 17-Year-Old Katana Wielder Is Actually You, and the Important Lesson That You’re Not The Center of the World, But You Can Change It Anyway.

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(Note: the following post contains spoilers for Chrono Trigger: a Super Nintendo JRPG from 1995. If you haven’t played it, stop reading and go play it. No, seriously, go play it. Why are you still reading this? I can wait. It’s on Wii Virtual Console or, like, Android, for $10 or something, though apparently the Android version is based on the DS version, which is a good port though it adds some bonus dungeons that suck and makes Frog lose his King James accent, sadly. From this point on I’ll assume you’ve played it, as Chrono Trigger deserves to be in the general consciousness at least as much as, say, Star Wars does, if not more so.)

I’ve never made it a secret that Chrono Trigger is my favorite game of all-time. In fact, it is so good that for a long time it fooled me into thinking that JRPG’s were one of my favorite genres (that’s “Japanese Role-Playing Games” like the Final Fantasy or Kingdom Hearts series, as opposed to “Western Role-Playing Games” like Skyrim or Mass Effect which I actually do like a lot more in general). To this day I can count on one hand how many JRPG’s I actually enjoy, but Chrono Trigger stands head, shoulders, knees, and toes above all of them, maybe even on one of those pedestals on a hydraulic lift that can raise it even higher. And while there are about fifty kajillion reasons why (intriguing plots, time travel, cavewomen, a frog that speaks with an inexplicable Shakespearean accent, etc.), today I’d like to focus mostly on the razor-thin balancing act that is the protagonist of our story: a 17-year-old redheaded katana-wielding teenager with a single parent (and at least one cat) named Crono (so named because “Chrono” is six letters and the game only let you use five letters for names).

First, let’s provide come background information on RPG’s in general. Role-Playing Games are so named because you, in at least some small way, control how a certain character or characters develop. The level of control you have depends on the game, as does the amount of immersion into the role. For example, many modern-era JRPG’s have fully fleshed-out protagonists who have their own personalities and make their own decisions; you just basically tell them where to move outside of cutscenes and what attack moves to use in battles. This first type of RPG protagonist is barely immersive at all: you’re not supposed to identify with the character, you’re supposed to witness their story and maybe have a hand in some parts. Even in some stories where you have at least some control over their personality (such as Mass Effect where your choices boil down to choosing between “be a righteous hero” and “be a hero who’s kind of a jerk sometimes”), it’s still not your story. You just, as the player, have some influence on how it all plays out, and usually you have a lot more say in what skills/abilities you want the protagonist to develop than what kind of person you want them to be.

The second type of RPG protagonist is the one where the character you play is supposed to be your own surrogate. Games such as Skyrim, or most MMORPG’s, or pretty much any game where you craft a character at the beginning, fall into this category. Many of these games are based on a Dungeons and Dragons model, where you make up all your character’s attributes and personality traits, and while they can be immersive, it’s much more difficult to tell a wonderfully plotted, coherent story with good pacing and side characters, etc. More often these type of games end up being open-world sandbox games, where you can go around and do whatever quests you think your character would do (or whatever quests will get you the best rewards, if you care more about the gaming system than the role-playing aspect). Characters may react to your decisions, but usually only on a superficial level at best, so that all types of people can throw themselves into the protagonist role and not feel alienated by it.

There is a third type of RPG protagonist, however, that for lack of a better term is normally called the “silent protagonist.” This type of character is an attempt to blend the other two: the character still has a backstory and personality, but doesn’t actually say anything in order for the player to more closely identify with the character. A good example of this type of hero would be Link from the Zelda series (though whether or not that makes Zelda an RPG series is debatable, considering that you have no control over what kind of a person Link is or what he can do outside of “how many items/heart pieces/whatever you’ve picked up so far”), or Serge from Chrono Trigger‘s sequel Chrono Cross. This is a hard type of character to pull off, however; too much personality or backstory and it’s just the first type of protagonist that just happens to be inexplicably mute (and therefore the player doesn’t identify with them), but too little backstory or plot influence and the protagonist could virtually be played by a wet napkin with a sword and some magic spells, for all the importance they have on the story (and therefore the player doesn’t particularly want to identify with them, or if they do they’ve got to fill in all the gaps themselves). But the best example of this type of protagonist, and the one that most people hold up as the most triumphant representation of how to pull off this character, is, of course, Crono.

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The reason Crono works so well as a protagonist is that he’s enough of a cypher to pull you in to his place, yet he has enough influence on both the plot and the characters that you really feel like you’re experiencing what he is. The stakes are high, people’s interactions with you feel genuine, and you honestly feel like you are the person who is in this spot. And they pull this off with one main genius technique that I love, which is: Crono is not the focus of this story. This is not Crono’s story. But Crono is the heart of the story. Let me explain with a few examples.

The game opens with Crono’s mom waking him up just in time for the local Millenial Fair (so called because we’re in 1000 AD), and reminds us that our childhood inventor friend Lucca has an exhibit there. That is literally the entire backstory we get for Crono, and it’s all revealed within the first minute of the game. He doesn’t end up being some sort of pre-destined hero with a prophecy about him, his dad isn’t revealed to be a long-lost knight or the Prince of Darkness or something, and his hometown isn’t even destroyed by the main villain. All we know is that he’s the kind of person who would be good friends with someone as awesome as Lucca (and make no mistake: she is awesome), which I think fills in the blanks pretty well. I’d say that most of us would love to be the type of person who would be good friends with someone like Lucca (and later on, the type of person that Marle would want to hang out at the fair with), so that’s one point for wanting to identify with Crono right there.

65827-chrono-trigger-snes-screenshot-lucca-s-newest-inventionsHowever, from the moment Crono runs into Marle at the fair, the game stops being about Crono, and, with two or three important exceptions, the game is never about Crono again. Oh sure, he’s still the protagonist, but the story doesn’t focus on him anymore. At the fair the focus becomes Marle’s wonderment at the fair, then Lucca and her invention, then saving Marle in 600 AD, etc. It’s really other characters making your decisions for you. But the game does it in such a way as to make you feel like you’re really deciding to do those things. It’s like the old adage that you can make someone do anything you want them to do, as long as you can figure out how to make them feel like they came up with the idea. For example, when Marle disappears into the past near the beginning of the game, you have to make the conscious decision to follow her. From a game perspective, it’s obviously the thing you need to (and Lucca won’t let you leave the screen until you do it, saying basically, “Hey, YOU brought that girl here, YOU help us get her back!”) but when you do it the characters in the game praise your decision so much (Lucca’s dad compliments you on being such a “fine lad,” and when you do end up finding Marle she can’t thank you enough, in a more personal way than the standard video game “Thanks for rescuing me! Here’s your reward of 200G!” or whatever) that the player begins to think, “Hey, yeah, that was pretty noble of me, wasn’t it?” Thus you identify with Crono more. Two points.

OK, so you arrive in 600 AD, though you don’t know what’s happened yet, and it’s apparent that Crono is just as confused as the player is, as most of the NPC’s in town are, like, “What are you talking about, ‘Millenial Fair?’ Shut your pie hole!” (the “pie hole” line is actually in the game). He reacts as any of us would, but it’s clear that the NPC’s are reacting to him and not just spouting generic lines for the most part (even though, technically, they are just spouting the same lines over and over). Throughout this part (and, indeed, most of the game, though it doesn’t approach this level of “WTF just happened to me?” until 12,000 BC), the player discovers what’s going on at the same rate as Crono, and at about the time you figure it out, people stop treating you like an idiot for asking dumb questions (this would be at about the time when you follow the clues to head to the castle to find Marle).

23-CT4-20-07--025-e31Sometimes the game is really subtle about having you make the right decision. For example, Frog’s introduction consists of him jumping out of nowhere and slicing a snake-woman in half, then uttering some immortally awesome lines like “Lower thine guard and thou’rt allowing the enemy in.” Lucca freaks out because he’s a frog and Frog responds, “My guise doth not incur thy trust… Very well, do as thee please. But I shall save the Queen.” Sure, it totally butchers the English language, but it lays out Frog’s awesome character really well. So on one hand you’ve got a really awesome swordsman (err….swordsfrog) whose goal is the same as yours, and on the other hand you’ve got your childhood friend who’s freaking out about it for the most superficial of reasons (she doesn’t like frogs). The game then asks you what to do. Once again, from a game perspective it’s obvious what you have to do (go with Frog), and the game doesn’t let you proceed until you do. But they could have easily done something a bit more lazy like have Frog appear in a tavern somewhere and say, “Thou seekest the Queen? I also hath taken it upon myself to fulfill such a noble quest! Let us joineth our forces,” or something equally butchered. The decision is still the same, but with this type of presentation your mind is made up by considering what would be best in the game (“taking this character would sure prove to be an advantage in the upcoming dungeon”). But the way the game actually portrays it, it’s Crono being the peacemaker and voice of reason (“Come on, Lucca, calm down. This frog guy looks competent, sounds awesome, and just chopped a snake woman in half! What better help could we ask for on our way to save the Queen?”). It’s subtle, but the game is putting you in Crono’s shoes to make this decision, as opposed to just having you the player make a sound gameplay choice.

(Also, after he joins your party, the first thing Frog says is, “Mayhap a hidden door lurks nigh? Let us search the environs,” which is one of the most delightful lines uttered in a video game ever. It’s lines like these that make me prefer the SNES translation of the game to the DS one, which, while more accurate, left out Frog’s accent and made him a lot more bland.)

40-CT4-27-07--064-45dThere are tons of little decisions like this sprinkled throughout the story that you feel like you’re influencing events more than you, as the player, actually are, which serve to draw you into the narrative through Crono, even though his influence on the plot is minor at best. Other characters make the important decisions: Lucca convinces you to save Marle, Marle takes you home, Marle makes the decision to run away and lead the party into the ruined future, Marle is even the one who actually makes the decision to save the world from Lavos and kick off the main plot, and most of the rest of the game is spent either solving other people’s problems, or accompanying them as they solve their own problems. Every playable character has their own story arcs and moments in the spotlight, and while some are better realized than others (I’m looking in your direction, Robo), they’re all nevertheless well-rounded, fleshed-out characters who drive this plot to many wonderful places that I won’t get into now. But absolutely none of these plot points (including the endgame of finally defeating Lavos) are about Crono at all. In fact, beyond the intro, the game is only about Crono two more times, but both of these times are important to distinguish Crono as a character beyond “nameless RPG protagonist like you’d create for Skyrim or something.”

Let’s take the first moment: the trial scene near the beginning of the game. After the diversion to 600 AD to save both Marle and Queen Leene, you go to the castle in the Present to take Marle home (as a side note: I love how absolutely nothing pertinent to world history occurs in the Present. It just happens to be the time period where Crono, Marle, and Lucca are from, and the only plot that happens there (then?) relates to specific character arcs, not to the main “saving the world” plot.), and, as a result, get put on trial for kidnapping the Princess (Marle) by the chancellor. This sequence is brilliant for a lot of reasons, but for our purposes it puts the player once more squarely in Crono’s shoes. You see, no matter what the outcome of the trial is, the game afterwards continues exactly the same (plus or minus a few healing items you get in prison). So the game designers found an opportunity to make your choices at the beginning of the game actually have consequences without derailing the plot, and by framing it in this giant showpiece of a trial, they inflated their importance to make you, the player, take it seriously.

imageedit_1_8140213552Crono’s guilt (or innocence) is based entirely on seemingly inconsequential actions taken during the very first part of the game, when you’re at the Millenial Fair. During this part of the game, most players are still new to the game and most probably treating it like any other RPG, where you go everywhere, interact with everything, talk to everyone, and generally collect loot while getting to know the world, following the general adventure game/RPG advice “Take everything that isn’t nailed down or too heavy (and anything that can be pried loose is not considered nailed down).”
In most games this type of behavior has no influence on the story or gameplay other than item/information collection or mandatory plot advancement, or if it does it’s immediately apparent (for example, stealing will immediately set guards after you or something). But all the evidence brought up in the trial is based in things that you did during that beginning sequence, from good (e.g. helping a girl find her lost cat), to bad (e.g. eating a guy’s lunch when his back is turned) — things that most players did without even really thinking about it. Nothing is brought up that you didn’t have a hand in: nothing from Crono’s backstory, or from cutscenes that you didn’t have control over (except maybe when Marle got sent to the past, but even then you were the one that brought her there). In essence, you are put on trial, not just Crono, and the sentence directly involves your character and your actions. And directly afterward, when you get sent to jail, you get to decide whether or not to try to escape, or wait for your execution (that Lucca breaks you out of). This is the only dungeon in the game, by the way, that has this type of branching path: every other dungeon offers only one ultimate way through it. And it’s also the only dungeon in the game that Crono can do alone. To repeat: the only dungeon where you get to decide how to tackle it is the only dungeon that stars a solo Crono…i.e. you. How many points are we at on the “you are Crono” meter, again?

That pales, however, to the magnificence that is the Ocean Palace disaster and its aftermath. This is where serious Chrono Trigger spoilers come into play, and if you’ve read this far without playing the game, then I’m dead serious: stop reading now and go play this game! Are we good? Good.

32-CT-2933Let’s fast-forward the game to 12,000 BC, just after the party has rescued Melchior from the floating Mt. Woe. (I told you to go play the game. Now you’re probably totally lost if you didn’t.) Schala comes to the gritty Earthbound village to plead with you to stop her mother from awakening Lavos and killing everyone in order to achieve ULTIMATE POWERTM. Unfortunately, she then gets forcibly taken by Dalton to go to her mother to help her kill everyone (why do people love Schala again? You’d think she’d just say “no” or something. I know it’s her mother, but it’s the fate of the world at stake! Grow a backbone, woman!), and Melchior laments that all life is doomed now. Crono, however, steps forward and shakes his head “no” (since he doesn’t talk and all). Melchior asks, “You’re willing to challenge the queen?” and Crono nods “yes” while Crono’s theme song (AKA the main Chrono Trigger theme) blares in the background. This is significant. In every other instance after the trial, the plot has been forwarded by somebody else saying, “we should do this!” whether it be another party member like Lucca or an NPC. This is the very first time since the Millenial Fair at the beginning that the game has actually had it be Crono that makes the decision to save the day. And since the game has been subtly manipulating the player into Crono’s shoes throughout the whole game, it really feels like a defiant and heroic moment, not just for Crono and the party, but for the player as well. However, this is made even more significant by the events that follow, in what is probably one of the best (if not the best) scenes in video game history.

So Crono and company head back to Zeal and use the transporter to head into the Ocean Palace to stop the Queen from awakening Lavos and destroying everything. However, they are too late, and despite your best efforts, Lavos is summoned. This is the first sucker punch to the player’s gut of several that happen during this scene. The epic battle against the ultimate horror that is Lavos begins… and he immediately KO’s the party without so much as breaking a sweat. Punch number two. Then the mysterious prophet appears…and is revealed to be Magus! What? Punch number three! He’ll finally have his revenge on Lavos, which he has been planning for years! It proves entirely ineffective, and the #2 antagonist of the game, who is also one of the most powerful mages in all of history…is taken out by Lavos almost as an afterthought. That’s number four! Already this sequence has been a powerful one in showing just what Lavos is capable of and how screwed everyone else is.

120-CT-3033So what happens next? Crono, who has already been KO’ed once by Lavos, when he was still at full strength and had his party backing him up, rises to his feet, beaten and battered and all alone. At this point, you control only Crono. The other members of your party don’t get up. Magus doesn’t get up. Schala, who is also there, doesn’t get up, The Queen, who is perched on top of Lavos, just laughs at you. But you do the only thing you can do: try to fight on. Your party members scream at you, saying there’s nothing you can do; give up now. But you know you’ve gotta win, or at least do enough damage to be able to retreat and regroup or something. But no, Lavos screams and shoots a beam at you or something, and you literally melt into nonexistence. Crono is dead.

You’re dead.

But the game continues.

Schala uses the last of her power to get Magus and the other two party members to safety. Lavos erupts from the Ocean Palace and destroys the Kingdom of Zeal and basically the entire world. There are maybe ten to twenty people left on the entire planet. The remaining two members of your party wake up in the last village left, guarded by the pendant that Crono was holding for Marle but that he gave up right before he died. This is all told in cutscene, and this whole time you, the player, are probably hoping that, OK, now you’ll switch to Crono, who didn’t actually die but got sent to another time or dimension or something, and you’ll have to do some sort of solo dungeon or something to rejoin the rest of your party.

Then the ultimate punch lands.

The gameplay punch.

The “choose who you want to be in your party” screen comes up, and Crono (who up until now was permanently the first party member)…doesn’t show up in the menu.

This is the saddest moment in gaming history.

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So let’s talk about this for a minute. First off, the pacing in this sequence is absolutely brilliant. The climax builds with such an energy of hopelessness, but yet, spurred on by that one moment from earlier when Crono himself agreed to save Schala and the Queen and his theme music blared, you still hold out that sliver of hope (that, and you know the game’s not gonna have a downer ending, I mean, come on!). But, after Crono dies, everything quickly goes south. The “Lavos erupts from the ground” animation, previously only seen in 1999 AD (also know as the freakin’ Apocalypse time period), is used here to destroy Zeal, which then crashes into the ocean and causes a giant tidal wave. The destruction of Zeal and its aftermath has no music playing; just a giant crash, followed by the sound of water rolling out in a wave, on a totally black screen (which I argue is more effective than even the prettiest rendering with today’s graphics would be). It allows the player to finally breathe and relax after this huge sequence, and it also allows all the facts of what just happened to sink in. Then, after the most dramatic moment of the entire game, you get kidnapped by the comic relief villain Dalton and you go through this silly little segment aboard the Blackbird, where a boss runs away because he’s afraid of heights, and Dalton gets mad because the wrong theme music is playing, and you even have the chance to pull the old “help my cellmate is sick open the door!” routine, which gets especially silly if, say, Robo is the one to do it.

This sequence helps not only relieve the tension of everything that just happened, but it finally gives the party an unequivocal victory: an out-and-out villain is defeated, the team gets a flying time machine, and there was a lot less at stake. (Consider that this is the first outright victory the party has had for a while: the last major dungeon before the Ocean Palace was the Tyrano Lair, where an entire species got wiped out by Lavos, and before that Magus’s Castle, where you stopped Magus from waking up Lavos but didn’t actually defeat him.) What’s more, it gets the player used to operating without Crono as the main character. It, in essence, helps you realize that, despite the game putting you squarely in the role of Crono and then killing him off, the game continues. The story continues. Because the game isn’t about Crono. The game isn’t about you.

It’s bigger than that.

But even though you’re not really important by birthright, or by circumstance, or even by tragic backstory, you are important through the choices you’ve made and the people you’ve influenced. It’s at this point in the game where the plot virtually stops because the party wants to get Crono back. Marle especially (since she’s the romantic lead and all), but Lucca too, and everyone else to lesser extents. What’s especially brilliant about this is that you don’t have to save Crono. At all. You can just go ahead and defeat Lavos now, or do some endgame sidequests to prepare yourself and then defeat Lavos. The world can be saved without Crono, as long as those left can finish what he started.

37-LP_CT_7-15-07_--_067However, the game really pushes you toward saving him, and I don’t think anyone didn’t save him on their first playthrough. The sequence is appropriately epic yet at the same time personal: breaking all the laid-out rules of time travel thus far and climbing a post-apocalyptic mountain filled with Lavos’s offspring, yet involving winning a doll from the fair and talking to Crono’s mom (which you don’t have to do at all after the first minute of the game up until now). And it’s an emotionally wrenching scene when you finally do save him (you go back to the frozen moment in time where he died and switch him out for the doll that looks like him), especially if you bring Marle or Lucca along, but I especially appreciate the fact that, if you don’t bring either of those two, whoever’s in the party is basically all, “Hey, cool, Crono’s back; now can we get on with saving the world, please?!?” Because, once again, Crono’s not important. None of the endgame sidequests involve him at all, and you don’t even have to use him even if you do bring him back from the dead (though you should: he’s still probably the best character in the game in terms of combat). And if you do use him, you can throw him back to the second or third character spot, which you couldn’t do before, and in fact must do in some of the sidequests (some, such as Robo’s, require that particular character to be in the first party member slot). He’s not the protagonist anymore, and he’s barely even in the game at this point. The player has hopefully moved beyond identifying solely with Crono and is able to look at the world and other characters through different eyes now.

28-LP_CT_8-18-07_--_055This even extends to the endgame after defeating Lavos, which, while it begins with Crono waking up again, eventually moves to the last night of the Millenial Fair. The only controllable part of this section has Crono and Marle walking around the fair talking to various people, and interestingly enough, you’re actually controlling Marle, with Crono following behind: a reversal of the beginning of the game. The cycle is complete, and you can now leave the world of Chrono Trigger in the hands of the characters who inhabit it.

So what does this 5,000-word essay amount to in the end, other than the fact that I really really love this game? Firstly, it amounts to the fact that Crono really does embody the best of all RPG protagonist types. The story is focused and character-driven, like the first type of protagonist, yet you’re put squarely in Crono’s shoes and can’t help but identify with him, like the best examples of the second type. Secondly, it shows the masterful work involved in sucking the player into a storyline that is so carefully crafted that you can kill off the main character 2/3rds of the way through and have it be an emotional moment, instead of a “oh, come on!” moment. But most importantly, I think it teaches some life lessons that I kind of summed up in this post’s title but would like to reiterate.

Everyone is the protagonist of their own story. But most fictional stories have a protagonist who is the focal point of the story or a sideline observer who’s just the storyteller. And so most people, in real life, tend to think of themselves as one or the other: either the most important person simply because they exist, or some nobody that doesn’t really influence much. Just because we’re not a “chosen one,” or the focal point of the world, or even anyone famous, doesn’t mean that we don’t have the power to change the entire world, if we can find the right way to do it and get the right people to support us. Or better yet, find the right people to support. Lucca and Marle aren’t supporting Crono; Crono is supporting Lucca and Marle (and Frog, and Robo, etc.) You don’t have to be the most important person in the world, or even in your own circle of acquaintances, to be the most important person in the world to at least one or two other people.

The game’s not about you. But you choose how it ends.

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…the hell is Mormonism, anyway? Part 4: Personal Conflict

bom

This post is going to be hard to write, but before I begin I want to say this: it has been a while since I’ve attended church, and much longer since I’ve actually been a legitimate member of a ward (since last August, to be precise). This is due to a few things: one, I got too old for the YSA ward (I turned 31 last November); two, I don’t want to go to a family ward until I’m married or at least engaged in order to avoid well-meaning but ultimately insulting questions about my dating life; and three, this sign that greeted me when I attended the mid-singles’ ward for 31 to 45-year-olds:

midsingles

This picture was taken in the foyer where this particular mid-singles’ ward meets. I blurred out the ward name just in case, but the rest is as I saw it. Some of these kind of make sense (the age & marital status requirement, maybe the bishop interview, being a home/visiting teacher), some of them are a little extreme but whatever (like attending an orientation meeting…seriously, what ward have you ever been to that requires an orientation meeting? Is this church or is this a university?), and some of them are just plain over the line (have a letter of good standing from my resident ward bishop?!? What if I just moved in, or want to come back to church after some inactivity? I guess I’m not allowed to; I don’t have a letter of recommendation. Once again, this is just to be a member of the ward, not go to the temple or attend BYU or be the bishop or anything.) I have to work many Sundays since I work at a hotel, and the other two people in my department usually cannot do Sundays, due to one of them being in his bishopric and the other doing tech for Music and the Spoken Word (the MoTab broadcast from the LDS conference center) on alternating Sundays. There are times when I’m able to attend church 6 out of 8 weeks in any given time period, but there have been lots of times where that just wasn’t possible, and I can’t plan them in advance, let alone make all of them fall in the two-month period after this orientation meeting held every other month (which I haven’t attended yet).

The point is that, in perhaps the only ward where I may have been able to at least fit in without being too old and/or too single, I’ve already been confronted with a giant list of requirements before even being considered to be a regular ol’ member of the ward. If the Church wants to work on retention, perhaps posting a big list like this in a ward targeted toward a group where people are fairly likely to go inactive anyway is kind of a step backward. Just sayin’. So I haven’t been back to church ever since the Sunday when I took that picture, which was several months ago (I can’t remember the exact date now, but I want to say December, maybe?). And I haven’t actually been a member of a ward since about the time I last posted about this subject.

In any case, all of this is merely the preface, so you know where my spirituality has been and can harshly judge me accordingly.

A whole lot has changed since I started this series of blog posts about Mormonism, both in my own life and outlook, and in the Church as a whole. Various movements such as the “Ordain Women” movement have been gaining steam, and while I don’t ever think it will accomplish its stated goal, it has caused a whole lot of people to turn a more critical eye to a lot of things that members have been taking for granted. More and more people that I love and respect have been forced to confront some unpleasant things both about the Church’s past and its current policies and practices (and even some doctrines), and, as a result, have either left the Church entirely or grown completely disillusioned with it even though they still attend out of social pressure, or a desire to avoid conflict, or the faith that at least something about the Church has to be true, since they’ve felt the Spirit before in some capacity related to Mormonism.

I feel like I’ve been caught squarely in the middle of all of this. I’ve had people on all sides of this conflict confide in me (mostly because, as the youngest of a very outspoken family, I know when and how to keep my mouth shut and just keep nodding), and (most) everyone has valid, logical points supporting what they believe. The problem is conflicting worldviews and attitudes. You can go and quote General Authorities at someone all day long, but if that person doesn’t believe that said General Authorities are inspired (or that they’re just speaking as men instead of inspired prophets of God, an issue which has come up a lot recently, to the point where Pres. Uchtdorf gave a talk about it), then how will that be convincing? I’ve said it before: the basis for faith cannot be in logic. But with that said, let’s explore a few things about the Spirit and how it may affect different people.

One person can feel the Spirit when they read the Book of Mormon, and from there extrapolate that everything else about the Church is true, holy, and sacred, down to holding the requirements for a mid-singles’ ward that some bishop made up as inspired and infallible. One person can feel the Spirit when they read the Book of Mormon but find some niggling, or even serious, issues with the Church and how it’s run, but feel they have no other option than to support it, since they did receive that spiritual witness, and thus be torn apart for the rest of their lives. One person can try to feel the Spirit when they read the Book of Mormon but nothing comes for them, despite their very best sincere efforts to do everything asked of them to receive that witness (and don’t say “well, they just need to clear up some sins or something,” like I have said in the past, because some people I know who have a testimony also do some very un-Christlike things in their daily lives without a second thought, where some of the best, most giving, loving people I know still haven’t been able to receive that spiritual witness). One person can feel the Spirit when they read the Koran, or the Talmud, or Richard Dawkins (though I’ve never actually heard of that last one happening). How does one reconcile all of these issues? Who is right and who is wrong? Oh, say, what is truth?

Testimonies have to be personal. You cannot tell, when hearing someone testify about anything spiritual, whether that person is speaking the truth, is self-deluded, or is just plain lying. LDS doctrine says that the Spirit will help you discern the truth, but if the Spirit seems to be testifying about conflicting things to different people, then there becomes a problem with relying on it. And what’s more: what is the character of the person testifying to you about the truthfulness of the gospel? And what is the character of the person who has left the Church? There are jerks, gossips, and just plain horrible people in the Church who nevertheless tout their spiritual experiences every time they have the chance, and there are wonderful, loving, kind, nearly-perfect individuals who cannot do so honestly and therefore have had to leave the Church (at least mentally and spiritually, if not physically or socially). Personally, I think of my Elder Proctor story (though if you read the post in that link keep in mind that a lot of it no longer accurately reflects what I believe outside that story). He was a man who was deeply flawed and unwilling to do a lot of things that he was otherwise commanded to do, but he still apparently received spiritual guidance when he needed it. Why him and not others? What is the arbitrary distinction? Was there truly a spiritual guide to help him find those people, or was it simply somewhat of a coincidence that he took to be divine providence? The answer cannot be objectively given. Therefore, testimonies have to be personal. Since that is the case, allow me to bare my soul to the anonymous internet about some of these issues in a very personal way.

I’ve been a member of the Church since I was born (or I suppose since I was eight, if you want to be pedantic about it). Our family was never a perfect LDS family, mostly because my dad was gay at a time where that was far, far less accepted than it is now, both in society at large and especially in the Church. I’m grateful that he tried to overcome it (for the simple reason that if he hadn’t, I wouldn’t have been born), but at the same time he suffered a lot and was not a happy, loving man, though I did learn tolerance through that whole experience. My mom did her best to raise us up in the Church, but considering the great drag factor on that that was my dad, she had to worry far more about keeping us fed and dressed than making sure that we had good testimonies. Therefore, my experience with the Church was very hit-and-miss growing up. We went to Church every Sunday and I attended most activities when I was a teenager. But I never felt that I fit in with anyone there. Most of the stalwart, faithful members and their families were either condescending and mean to me or creeped me out a bit, and the only ones who I felt real connections with were also on the fringes. A lot of that may have more to do with culture than doctrine, but it still colored my perceptions.

Throughout it all, though, I believed it was true. I told myself that I knew it was true. And still today, no matter what, I know I have felt the Spirit within the Church. That is a personal truth, not an objective one. But what it has told me remains a little more muddled, as I have explored previously. The weird thing is that when I get into hyper-LDS mode where I go gung-ho about being the best possible Saint I can be, attending all my meetings and activities, trying to keep the commandments, doing service projects and home teaching, etc. etc., I can become as judgmental as most of the people in the Church that usually drive me nuts. If I made a commitment to, say, keep the Sabbath Day holy, and I come home and the TV is on or something, then it makes me really angry. Not just for myself (as I could just leave the room), but the person watching the TV is a member of the same church I am! His soul is in danger! I’d better do my best to help my fellow man and strengthen my brother in the gospel! This is especially true of missionaries and even broadly and openly taught to be correct (once in the MTC an elder in our district was wearing the fuzzy lining of his trenchcoat instead of a normal suitcoat (because it was freakin’ January), which is technically against the dress code even though it was indistinguishable from far away, and a random MTC administrator saw it and proceeded to chastise…his companion for about ten minutes, for letting said elder get away with it).

I don’t want to be that person. I hate that person. I hate myself when I am that person. So I don’t want to be that person, and I don’t want to do what I do to become that person. Which means doing my best to live the teachings of the Church. I would rather go to hell as someone I like than go to heaven hating myself.

But I still believe in a lot of LDS doctrine, and I want to believe all of it. I want to have an eternal family. I want the peace that I’m taught the gospel brings. So I’m stuck in the lukewarm spot, and I get spewed out of everyone’s mouth, to paraphrase Revelations.

This has even caused problems in my dating life. I’ve been on LDSSingles.com for a while (with little success), but recently I joined OKCupid and have found a lot more people that I am a lot more interested in. And virtually every single one of them that I believe I’d be happy with is not a member. This extends to my real life as well in many ways. I’ve said before on this blog (though I can’t find it right now) that one of the best experiences of my life happened when I took a cruise a few years back and one night just was hanging out with my cousin Kat, her husband, and a bunch of their friends. None of them were members (and most of them were getting more drunk as the night went on, and before you ask, I was emphatically not getting more drunk as the night went on; no matter what I believe when it comes to Church doctrine, I still have moral standards that I hold quite dear and will never compromise on, even if I let other do what they believe), but I felt more accepted and happy with them than I’ve ever felt at any Church activity or sacrament meeting or FHE. So I’m too non-LDS for the active members, but too LDS for the nonmembers. There’s that lukewarmness again.

That’s my conflict. On the one hand: live a life within the gospel that I am told will lead to eternal happiness and where I have felt the Spirit before, but where I don’t get along with anyone, can rarely feel the Spirit these days (even before I stopped attending, church was always a chore), and have to be someone I’m not and/or someone I hate. On the other hand: be true to myself, find people that I can get along with and love, join the path that most people I love and respect have joined, and find more happiness there than I’ve had before, but turn my back on everything I was taught growing up and possibly lose out on exaltation (assuming the Church is true). In the past I’ve simply adopted a “wait and see” attitude, but inaction is still a choice, so that stance becomes increasingly untenable unless I completely isolate myself from everything, which I find myself doing more often but no longer wish to do.

I still don’t know what to do. But if crunch time is coming up, at least I’ve got my thoughts laid out.

More Dating Woes And So Forth

angry janeway

I don’t know what I want in a woman. Or a relationship. No idea.

As a single guy in his early 30’s who’s never been able to hold on to any relationship for more than a month, I’ve got a fairly diverse dating background. True, I haven’t dated nearly as much as maybe I should have throughout my dating career, but between the women I’ve dated, women I wanted to date but never did, women who wanted to date me but never did, and even just friends who happen to be women, I’ve come to the stunning realization: I don’t even know what I’m looking for anymore.

Last time I came to this realization, I tried to codify some attributes of a desirable mate in a list (before thinking too much of this list, keep in mind I wrote it seven years ago). This ended up being a bad idea for several reasons. First, any girl (well, OK, two girls) I dated who then found that list automatically compared herself to it, which kinda screwed things up between us. Second, as times change, people change, and a lot of the things I found important at the time are now no longer important, whereas now new things are important. Third, it becomes a lot easier to dismiss a woman who otherwise would have made a wonderful partner if she doesn’t live up to some pre-approved set of standards (kind of the same as the first point, but from my point of view instead of hers). Maybe a woman has some quality that you didn’t even realize you were looking for until you found it, or she has other great qualities that make up for a lack of something on the list, or a woman that fits all the attributes is either impossible to find and/or wouldn’t be interested in you anyway.

The point is, I don’t do lists anymore. But it does leave me a little blind when it comes to the dating scene. Without anything terribly concrete to guide my brain, I’ve got to trust my heart and perhaps rely on it a little too much, which often is a problem because I don’t trust my heart to make good decisions. My heart likes to flip-flop based on the silliest Seinfeld-ian things, and I end up breaking off a relationship that could’ve had potential, or (more often) falling for women who, in the end, would not be good for me, nor I for them.

The problem is, I don’t know what kind of woman would be good for me.

It’s really hard maintaining even the desire to go out and date when you’ve got nothing really to guide you. I mean, sure, there are some pretty obvious things to look out for and avoid (“no puppy-stranglers,” for example, or “not a lesbian”). Lately it seems most of the women I’ve dated have been between “women I’m attracted to (not just physically, but overall)” and “women with whom I have much of anything in common,” though I’d rather not get into too many details on a public blog like this. I know that a lot of guys go for broke on the attraction angle and just live with the fact that many, if not most, of their hobbies and interests will be separate from their wife. I’m not sure if I can do that, and I’m also not sure whether I should keep searching until I find someone with whom I share a lot of interests and a mutual attraction, or whether I should let one go to focus on the other. That’s not necessarily settling as much as it is rearranging priorities (especially since a lot of my interests are, like, really niche interests, at least as far as most women in LDS culture are concerned).

The other problem with dating women that have similar interests to yours is that the little differences tend to be more problematic than the big differences between you and someone else. Take, for example, the silly example of Star Trek fandom. If someone I was dating didn’t care too much for Star Trek and liked, say, So You Think You Can Dance more, I’d be all, “Yeah, OK, that’s fine, different strokes for different folks.” But if she liked Star Trek: Voyager way more than Star Trek: The Next Generation, then OMG it is ON!!!! Nobody badmouths Picard or praises Janeway in my home, b^#&@!!!

Now, realistically, that isn’t a deal-breaker, but it is a fact that almost every nerdy girl I’ve dated recently has been waaay into either Doctor Who or the recent rash of comic book movies, neither of which really holds my interest (for reasons I can delineate probably a little too specifically), so it’s been hard to bond over similar interests when really, they haven’t been that similar after all. Once again, I could overlook all of these things if an attraction existed independently of them, but when you’re trying to build a relationship with someone using these similar interests as a starting point, it ends up not working at all. (It also doesn’t help that most nerdy girls I’ve dated have also had little to no experience in the dating realm either, and I’m not exactly the best person to teach someone how to be a good girlfriend after they’ve had ten or twenty years of non-experience.) So if building off common interests isn’t the place I should start, what is?

There’s that oft-quoted passage from Alice and Wonderland, where Alice asks the Cheshire Cat which road she should take, and he responds that it depends on where she wants to go. When she admits she doesn’t know where she wants to go, the Cat then replies that then it doesn’t matter which road she takes. That’s how dating has felt for me for a while: when I’m not even sure what kind of relationship I’m looking for, how will I know if I’ve found it?

I have no conclusions to draw from all of this. I just wanted to share.

Love: The Shifting Paradigm

paradigmshirt

It’s been an extremely long time (about a year and a half or so) since I’ve done a post about being single, dating, relationships, and all that jazz, despite my last post on the subject (The Third Date Dump) becoming at least somewhat popular and even entering the lexicon of some of my friends. Some of that has been due to a desire not to screw up or bias women that I’d been contemporarily dating (nobody wants their dirty laundry aired, even if names have been changed, as anyone who knows the two probably can figure out what or who the blog post is talking about). But even a bigger part has been that something strange has changed since the last time I posted. It was kind of a slow process, but the playing field is a little different now than it has been, and I’m not quite sure how to proceed.

Long-time readers of this blog know that I’ve done quite a bit of complaining/soul searching/whatever on the subject of being single and dating. Almost all of it, however, have placed me in the helpless victim column. You look at almost any post in the category and you can see that I’m either blaming my failures on something else or lamenting my inability to gain whatever undefinable skills are necessary in order to succeed with women or making elaborate excuses (or just simply complaining). In pretty much all of those cases, wherever I had put the blame, the underlying theme was similar: this is how things had been, how they are, and how they will always continue to be. You will always be alone because you aren’t attractive to women (whether physically or mentally or financially or whatever) and, barring something utterly miraculous, you’ve just got to get used to it.

That was how I saw the world. It also isn’t true.

The woman I was dating when I made the “Third Date Dump” post didn’t dump me on the third date. Or the fourth. Or the fifth. We actually had a pretty good thing going for quite some time, and I was actually the one who broke it off. Since then I’ve been in a few more relationships, and all of them have either been broken off by me or ended mutually (or at least it seemed that way on my side). What’s more, I’ve been informed that a few women that I haven’t dated have been interested in me nonetheless. I’m not going to go into any details, but this represented a whole new mindset for my dating habits that has just begun to coalesce into something more powerful than I’ve ever had before.

More broadly, I’ve noticed in the past year and a half or so that women’s attitudes toward me have changed, at least generally speaking. Part of this might be due to the fact that I’ve now turned 30, and then 31, and the women in my life are somewhat more mature than all the 18-21-year-olds from my YSA wards. Part of it may be that I’m living on my own, in a situation where I feel I’m in control of my life and at least somewhat satisfied with how things are going. Part of it may be due to the de-mystification of women for shy guys (not those shy guys) that has been helped along by things like Facebook (seriously, I could write a whole blog post about that topic alone). And part of it may be that I’ve been starting more and more relationships with online dating, where at least everyone’s there for the same purpose, so you never have to perform the surreptitious ring-finger glance or start flirting with someone until their boyfriend shows up. But there’s more to it than that, and it has much more to do with me than it does with anyone else.

One of the hardest ways to start a relationship with anybody is from the pity side, where the person is only going out with you because they feel obligated or just want to be nice, or whatever interest they may have had gets squashed pretty quickly once they get to know you. This has happened to me a lot, as I assume it has happened to most people that make it to their 30’s as singles. The problem comes when you get stuck in a mindset that every relationship you start will be that way. That every date you go on is doomed to the Third Date Dump (if not sooner). Then, when it isn’t true, you see it that way anyway and try to pre-empt the pain of breaking up later, in effect ruining whatever budding relationship you may have been building. And if both the man and the woman have this mindset despite being quite attracted to each other, why, that’s the saddest thing of all. I even wrote a song about it recently as part of my most recent “52 Weeks of Music” project, about the assumption that all relationships will end before they begin and the missed opportunities that result. It’s stifling. It’s painful. It’s damning, in the old sense of the word (i.e. hindering one’s ability to progress). It leaves one powerless. And it totally sucks.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Believe it or not, most people are attractive to somebody. I have seen some of the strangest people somehow get married, but when you see the spouse you go, “Oh, oh, OK, no, that makes sense. That works, somehow.” And a big difference between those who succeed and (some of) those that don’t is that some people never try (or make a token effort every once in a while, expecting failure). They’ve bought into Hollywood’s notion that either a white knight or some sort of Zooey Deschanel pixie dream girl will swoop in and fix everything. Or even worse, that since that type of thing is not going to happen, no relationship will ever work.

What’s the difference? Confidence. Confidence that, yes, somebody out there will find you attractive. A lot of people will find you attractive. And you have to assume that this is the default case. You don’t have to fight an uphill battle with literally everyone you date.

This isn’t arrogance. This isn’t that one douchey guy who thinks he’s God’s gift to women. That’s swinging the pendulum a little too far in the other direction. Assuming that every date you go on will end with your date hopelessly in love with you is just as out-of-touch with reality as assuming that every date you go on is a pity date, or just a “friend thing.” This is just operating from a different viewpoint. You may still have failures, relationships that don’t work out, and even maybe some pity dates. But it’s much better to assume a relationship may go somewhere even if eventually it doesn’t, than to assume that a relationship will go nowhere even if eventually it could’ve.

And here’s the kicker: it’s the very act of recognizing this, and changing your attitude to fit it, that makes you even more attractive! And this applies not only to men, either. I’ve seen women who own their lives and make something of themselves vs. those who are just piddling around waiting for a man to fix them (or waiting for a man for them to fix, putting him in her debt), and the former are much more attractive (to me, anyway). It doesn’t guarantee success in love, but it at least makes success possible and more likely.

For some who may be reading this, all of this seems pretty obvious. But for others it may seem pretty hard to believe. It’s certainly been my major sticking point for many, many years. And it’s a viewpoint that’s really hard to shake. It’s a scary viewpoint to shake, because it destroys victimhood and instead fosters responsibility. The old catchphrase from Spider-Man is “With great power comes great responsibility,” yes, but the inverse, “With great responsibility comes great power,” is not only just as true, but much more useful. Responsibility doesn’t just mean that it’s your fault if it goes wrong, but that you have the ability to make it go right. And it’s a lot easier to focus on the first part of that sentence than the second, especially for me and people like me when it came to dating.

So, in the end, what does this mean, in terms of how I will proceed in my dating life from now on? I’m not quite sure yet, because fundamental shifts in viewpoint tend to take a while to shake out bad habits, but so far it’s helped me realize that a successful relationship is indeed within my grasp, and it won’t take a miracle. Indeed, the real miracle is this change in my way of thinking. (A pessimistic part of me would say that it would be a second miracle for me not to fall into my old ways of helpless victim thinking before I actually see any success, but ignoring that part of me is essential to this working.)

I’m not sure this blog post made quite the point I was planning to make, but I like the point it did end up making, so I’m sticking with it.

P.S. One more thing that shows how my way of thinking has changed: I realized that I’ve stopped using the term “girls” and started saying “women” when I refer to people I date. I’m not sure exactly what that portends, but I think it’s a good thing.

52 Weeks of Music! For the third time!

I guess I hadn’t mentioned this on my actual personal blog, but over on my music site I’ve started up the 52 Weeks of Music project! Long-time readers of this blog may be aware of my previous two attempts (kind of; during the second one I didn’t actually write anything), but this time I’ve got both the equipment, time, and motivation to make it happen. Head on over and check it out; it begins in earnest the first week of January!

http://parkesmusic.wordpress.com/

and

http://parkesmusic.wordpress.com/about/

Warning: if you go look at my two older projects you’ll find a lot of broken links. The new one does not suffer that problem, however.

Test Post for music

I’m trying to find a good host for MP3s since my old one went belly-up. Let me know in the comments if this song plays for you:

Is there a Doctor in the house? (Attempt #6,924 to get into Doctor Who)

LotsoDoctors

(Note: this post will contain spoilers(!) for the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary episode “The Day of the Doctor”.)

So over the years I’ve had quite a love/hate relationship with Doctor Who. I’ve tried to get into the show several times, but every time I try it’s never quite grabbed me like it seems to have grabbed about 80% of nerds (especially female nerds) I talk to nowadays. I’ve tried exploring exactly what about the show that drives me crazy, but I’ve never been able to correctly pinpoint it (and whenever I’ve tried, somebody on Facebook has always pointed out why my opinion is wrong and why I should feel bad for having it). I really, really, have wanted to like the show (for one thing, it would make my dating life easier), but sometimes you just don’t like something despite all indications that you should (coincidentally, something that’s also applicable to my dating life). But every so often, I watch another episode or special or what-have-you to see if this one is the one that makes me say, “Yeah, OK, I can overlook its flaws; it’s a good show.” It is in this spirit that I watched the much-anticipated 50th anniversary episode “The Day of the Doctor”. Has it changed my mind about the show?

Well, no. But I think it’s helped me figure out why.

Let me be fair: I absolutely loved about 60% of the special. All of the Doctors were great (John Hurt included) as well as, surprisingly, Billie Piper (which is no mean feat because I hated Rose. It’s clear now that that was more due to the character herself than the actress, as she did a fantastic job here as “the conscience”). The other characters ranged from adequate to embarrassing (but I’ll get to that in a minute). The special effects showing the actual Time War and the devastation being caused all across Gallifrey were (mostly) amazing as well. As for the writing, most everything concerning the main plot of the special (that being the fate of Gallifrey and what exactly he did to end the Time War) was great. The no-win scenario has been examined many times before in fiction in general and sci-fi in particular, and it’s even more compelling when 1)it’s on such a huge scale, and 2)technically we’ve already been dealing with the aftermath of what happened for eight years already. This has been such a central part of the Doctor’s character throughout the entire post-reboot story that the dilemma has a lot of weight to it and it has shaped who the Doctor has been, even if it’s been ever so subtle. Probably one of my favorite moments in the entire special is when Ten and Eleven are being their goofy selves and the War Doctor asks why they act like children when they should be acting grown-up. And they both just give him a somber look. No words are needed, because the answer is both obvious and heartbreaking. I’m glad they got a completely different actor to be that Doctor instead of just making it Paul McGann or something (though I like Paul McGann, don’t get me wrong) because of the symbolism. The War Doctor is really the protagonist of the story, and Ten, Eleven, and all of the other players are really just acting in a morality tale for him (up until the ending at least). Even a fair bit of the lighter stuff worked pretty well, like the bit where the three Doctors are trying to figure out how to open the door via the most ludicrously complicated method ever, only for the door not to be locked. And the ending was fan-freaking-tastic.

It’s when we get away from that central story and the themes surrounding it that the special starts to fall apart (for me at least). There were two major flaws here that perfectly illustrate why I haven’t been able to get into the franchise as a whole.

First of all, the monsters. I’ve never seen an episode where the monsters have been truly terrifying or, indeed, have been able to take them seriously (though “Blink” came the closest). Take the Zygons in this story. First of all, they look stupid. Second, their motivations aren’t all that clear other than “let’s take over Earth for some reason!” Third, their particular dilemma is resolved in a typical Doctor Who way that I hate: the Doctor(s) point their screwdriver(s) at something, causing the plot to be instantly resolved! And in this case, the resolution (causing everyone in the room to forget whether they’re Zygon or human) doesn’t even make sense, both in logistics (oh no! I can’t remember if I’m human or not! Oh wait; can I turn into a red tentacle monster? I can? I guess I’m a Zygon then!), and as a means to resolve the plot (well, since I can’t remember if I’m Zygon or human, I guess I’ve lost all my ambition to take over the world, plot over). I know that in this particular case the whole Zygon thing was meant mostly to set up some MacGuffins as well as draw some parallels to the main plot (which actually worried me: I was afraid that somehow the Doctor(s) would get the idea to mindwipe all the Daleks in the same way or something equally stupid).

The problem is that so often the focus of Doctor Who episodes is on the silly monster of the week and the weird dilemmas that they cause for our heroes (and very few of them are much better than the Zygon story here) that I can’t take them seriously, even if there’s good character stuff in between the lines. The Daleks especially suffer in this regard, and the only moments I was pulled out of the story happening on Gallifrey were when the Daleks themselves were onscreen, slowly milling about yelling “EXTERMINATE!” You know, you can give a squirrel a machine gun, have him go on a murder spree, and give him the dialogue of the Joker, but at the end of the day he’s still just a squirrel with a machine gun and on a certain level he’s going to be impossible to take seriously.

Let’s take a parallel example from Star Trek. In the first season of The Next Generation the creators of the show had built up the Ferengi to be the Big Bad Guys that our heroes had to contend with, much like the Klingons had been in the original series. But when the episode that first featured them aired, it became clear that these villains were not threatening at all, what with their resemblance to little goblins, and their flapping arms like the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz, and their silly laser whips, and just their overall goofiness. So the creators, seeing that they weren’t working as villains, slowly morphed them into comic relief (for better and for worse), and instead introduced the Borg in the next season to be the real threat. I feel that Doctor Who‘s approach would have been to feature the Ferengi in thirty more stories and have everyone talk about how horrible they are (and maybe even show them killing some guys and whipping some children and drowning poodles or something), even though they still look like silly monkey goblins.

When Doctor Who gets away from the Monsters of the Week I think it usually does much better. For example, a recently-recovered second Doctor episode titled “The Enemy of the World” (which I haven’t actually seen, but I did watch a fairly thorough review/recap of it) features the TARDIS crew landing in the year 2018, where a dictator named Salamander (yeah, I know) who resembles the Doctor is in charge, and the main focus of the plot is whether they should support the rebels opposing Salamander or not. I thought the plot was engaging, and the clips that I saw looked pretty good (mostly thanks to Patrick Troughton’s fun take on both the Doctor and Salamander), to the point where I’d like to watch the episode itself if I can find it. There are no Daleks, cybermen, or any other alien threat; just people.

Speaking of people, this brings me to the other major flaw that keeps me from really getting into the show, and I freely admit that this one’s a little more subjective, but the way the show often handles historical figures irks me quite a bit. In this particular special the whole plot with Elizabeth I was one that I found insufferable (and not only because it tied into the dumb Zygon plot). Often it feels like the historical plots in Doctor Who play out like somebody’s weird fan fiction. “Hey, let’s have the Doctor go meet Queen Elizabeth I because he’s a time traveler and all that! Of course she falls in love with him because he’s just awesome! Also, there are aliens! Oh, and the Doctor also helps Vincent Van Gogh overcome some personal demons (and aliens!) and when he battles some ghosts (or, more accurately, ghost aliens) in Victorian England of course we have to have Charles Dickens help him because it’ll be cool!” I know this type of plot doesn’t happen all the time but it does pop up quite a bit (especially since one of the core tenets for the show at its inception was to teach kids about history) and it’s just silly. Quantum Leap had a rule that Sam Beckett would never leap into or interact with anyone famous (except for maybe a quick cameo), to avoid this kind of silliness (a rule which the network made the writing staff break in the last season to try to buoy up sagging ratings, which resulted in some pretty stupid episodes like Sam leaping into Elvis). Even Star Trek, with its myriad of time-travel stories, usually avoided the “cast meets historical figure and hilarity ensues” plots unless they were their own made-up historical figures like Zefram Cochrane (the sole exception I can think of is when they met Samuel Clemens, and that wasn’t a very good episode anyway). It also doesn’t help that usually these historical figures in Doctor Who are written with the same sensibilities as late 20th-century or early 21st-century British people.

There are a few other minor niggling things about the show that irk me (such as the “ooh, the Doctor’s in town; excuse me while I swoon and ask him to take me to the moon for lunch” opening we had here, which most recent companions have a variation on. Which is a shame because, aside from that scene, Clara seemed to be a solid character, even though I haven’t seen any other episodes with her), but those two are the big ones, I think, especially the first one. And it’s clearly a subjective thing: obviously most Whovians are able to take the Daleks and other, sillier aliens (such as the Slitheen, which probably turned me off to the show faster than any other single thing) more seriously than I can, or at the very least overlook these problems; but as much as I’ve tried, I can’t. It’s like the problems I have with anime: as much as I try to enjoy the great story and/or characters of many animes, I can’t get past the problems I have with the art style and limited animation.

It’s a good show. I just can’t get into it. Sorry, guys. Now please tell me why I’m wrong.

25 Things that Drive Me Crazy About Buzzfeed Lists

There have been a lot of lists popping up on Facebook lately: the top 25 things you’re sick of hearing when you’re single, or signs that you’re an introvert, or reasons that <insert washed-up teen star> shouldn’t have been allowed on <insert music awards show> while doing <insert made-up word that apparently all the darn kids these days are using>. But there’s something wrong with these lists…:

1. Animated GIFs

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Every one of these lists is full of animated GIFs, usually of celebrities making weird faces or being sassy. C’mon, internet. Haven’t we grown since 1996? Your point gets across just as well without a picture of Snooki gasping, especially if the “animation” is the camera moving slightly to the left, then resetting every three seconds.

2. Uhhhhhh….

Actually, that’s it. The lists are inoffensive otherwise. It’s just those horrible GIFs that make all these lists look like they were put together by a fourteen-year-old girl on Geocities. I just had to get that off my chest.

…the hell is Mormonism, anyway? Part 3: Basis

(Note: I’ve decided to turn the “…the hell is Mormonism, anyway?” series into more of an occasional, on-going analysis with no set endpoint instead of a series of essays leading up to an ultimate goal, for a few personal reasons. I hope nobody is disappointed.)

A certain article popped up on my Facebook news feed today regarding the Church and its beliefs, coming from an author who seems to have become disillusioned with how things are run and presented, and nitpicks on some of the things in the Church that don’t really make sense. Normally I would just roll my eyes and move on, but the person who posted this article on Facebook (who shall remain anonymous for now and is not the author of the article) is someone important to me, so I felt like I needed to say something more on the subject. Unlike my previous posts on the topic of Mormonism, I’ll be revealing a little more of the basis of my own beliefs instead of just raising questions for discussion.

I find it ironic that the author of that post titles it “Obedience and Cherry-Picking”, because he seems to do a lot of cherry-picking on his own. Some of his “facts” are just nitpicking at semantics (such as the difference between “continuous” and “continuing” revelation, or whether or not Christ organized a church since he only used the actual word “church” like three times in the NT, despite, you know, organizing and teaching apostles and seventies, instituting rituals such as the sacrament, etc.), whereas others are based on widely-held beliefs within the Church that aren’t actually doctrine (such as some of the things he says about the temple ceremony and what it literally means) or are outright not true (the Church doesn’t claim to have the “fulness of truth” but the “fulness of the Gospel” which is very different). These things alone cause me to believe that there may be some other sides to the argument than the ones this author is presenting. If he wants to subject the Church to scrutiny, then it behooves us to subject his arguments to the same level of scrutiny.

But all of that ignores the larger problems with both that post and the ideas behind it. The website from which it comes is called “LDS Common Sense” which sounds like something that is good and makes sense, right? The problem is that a lot of religious beliefs, including many from the LDS church, don’t make a whole lot of sense. Some things are inconclusive, where others fly in the face of how the world works as we understand it. Applying “common sense” (which I will define as lining up all the causes and effects that are currently known in a way that we can understand without questions) to Church teachings just won’t work, at least not for all of them. It would be like a toddler trying to explain to another toddler how calculus works. If the Church is true, then by our own admission we can’t explain all of its concepts. Otherwise, what would be the point of faith?

Is that a cop-out? Maybe. Could it be true? Possibly. How can we tell the difference? Is there a way to distinguish between faith in something true yet not-understood and simple willful ignorance? Well, that’s the same question I asked in my earlier posts about Mormonism, and the same answers still apply (spoiler warning: they involve heavy use of the term “Holy Ghost”, something I felt a distinct lack of when I read that earlier article, as in I actually felt a little darker while reading it). Most of that, however, has been said before and probably won’t do much to change either side.

Something that I do believe deserves a little more scrutiny by both parties is something I mentioned earlier: namely, widely-held beliefs in the Church that aren’t actually doctrine. It is my personal belief that many of our “beliefs”, especially ones touted by ex- and anti-Mormons, aren’t actually our beliefs, but our traditions and/or speculations. An experience almost every missionary has faced involves someone wanting to come up and Bible-bash with something he once heard about Freemasons or whatever, and most missionaries don’t bite (and the ones who do rarely accomplish anything). Would it be so hard, however, to actually put in the time to research such a subject, at least enough to be able to point out enough logical fallacies in the anti-Mormon argument to leave it up to faith to reconcile the difference? Not to be able to prove that naysayer wrong, per se, but to be able to understand the topic enough so as to not ignore it entirely?

There is a lot of willful ignorance in the Church today, and many members aren’t actually sure what they believe. This is certainly not unique to Mormonism; indeed, most religions face the same problem, and the fact that the Church stresses scripture study so much is indicative of both the awareness of this problem and the solution to it. Knowledge is power, after all. If members today would step up their study of the gospel instead of coasting on half-remembered lessons from Sunday School (taught by people who half-remember their lesson from twenty years previous), some of these misconceptions may be weeded out. People may scoff at that one teacher who teaches from “Saturday’s Warrior” like it was a section of the D&C, but how many of us (including myself) are guilty of the same thing, even if it’s to a lesser degree?

Of course, another problem with scrutinizing our beliefs is where to get our information from. It’s understandable that people who are legitimately trying to understand our beliefs pull from sources both pro- and anti-Mormon in order to gain a balanced perspective. After all, both the Church and its detractors have their agendas (the Church wants to be portrayed in as positive as a light as possible, while its detractors desire the opposite), so the best way to find the truth is to compare notes and see what matches up, right? This would be true, assuming religious knowledge and truth were empirical in nature, which they are not. However, does that mean we can point-blank ignore all detractors due to our faith overcoming all shortcomings in our arguments? Also, how can we be sure that all the information we find is accurate, no matter which side it’s coming from (and it’s true that some sites sympathetic to the Church nevertheless possess and pass on inaccurate information)? I’d refer you to the answer I gave a few paragraphs above (the one that says “Holy Ghost” in it), but for bonus points I will point out that almost none of the links that that author gives to support his claims are actual official declarations of Church doctrine, and the ones that are are either semantics-arguing (such as the “continuous”/”continuing” point I mentioned earlier) or are arguments like “The Church says this [link], which some members believe means A, but I think means B, and B is wrong.”

The main beef the author of that article has is that we are expected to blindly obey, because we believe that the brethren give us God’s word. That in and of itself is one of those misunderstood doctrines, and indeed flies in the face of what the Church actually teaches. We are asked to confirm everything we’re given with a spiritual witness, even if it’s a commandment we don’t logically understand. The Primary song is “Search, Ponder, and Pray” not “Hear, Listen, and Obey”. That said, there are a lot of members who do just blindly obey, but one must not confuse that attitude with what the Church actually teaches. Even some things that may never make sense in our lifetime (such as some of the Church’s more controversial stands on things like blacks and the priesthood, or gay marriage) we are asked to pray about and seek a witness for, not just “shut up and obey”.

I also believe that the author makes the Church out to be far more arrogant and self-serving than it is. One of his assumptions, and I quote, “First, if such a conduit [referring to revelation to the prophet and apostles] existed, the Lord hasn’t been putting it to very good use.  According to one of the prophets who supposedly had such a conduit, the Church is meant to be a light to the world, yet instead it has become an exclusive light meant for only those who fit a certain contrived convention.  In other words, the verse that says God loves all His children equally and sent Christ ‘not to condemn the world’ but to save it (John 3:16-17) is less important than the dogma stating that revelation is only for those worthy of it according to LDS law.” This “dogma” doesn’t exist, at least not in the terms he puts forward. It’s true that revelation is only for those worthy of it, just like a driver’s license is only for those worthy of it, or a kid’s video game time is only for the kid who is worthy of it by emptying the dishwasher. Revelation is not exclusive to the Church (while doctrinal revelation has always come through God’s appointed prophets, other kinds have not). About the only things we actually claim is that we have the fulness of the Gospel (once again, not the fulness of truth), we have divine authority to perform ordinances (which we are trying to do for everyone, not just those who “fit a certain contrived convention”; that’s what work for the dead is for), and we are doing our best to follow Christ’s example (which we fail at a lot because we are human). Anything more is putting words in our mouths (or at the very least quoting personal opinions instead of “dogma”). Also, to say that because the Church doesn’t have an answer for all social problems; therefore, it can’t receive revelation, is a sub-argument of saying that God doesn’t have an answer for all social problems and therefore can’t give revelation. The Church does what it can for those suffering in the rest of the world, and the only reason that the Church emphasizes proselyting missionary work more than simple service and welfare missionary work is that a person’s spiritual well-being in the afterlife is more important than their temporal well-being here (and that is Christ’s teaching). And it does a lot for service and welfare outside its own membership. Just because it can’t do everything doesn’t mean that there’s no divinity in it, unless you make the same argument about God Himself (which I suppose you could do, if you were atheist or believed in an uncaring God).

I could go on about other specific arguments, but I’ll leave that up to others if they wish, as I simply do not have the time, energy, or knowledge to do so properly, and I also feel like I’m repeating myself and rambling a bit. But I do want to give one last thought regarding applying logic and/or common sense to Mormonism, as that site name implies.

If one assumes that the only way to discover truth is through empirical and/or logical means, then the only possible belief system one can hold is atheism. Literally nothing else makes sense as humankind understands it. However, nobody’s testimony is based in logic, but in faith (see the “babies trying to teach calculus” analogy I made earlier for why a testimony cannot be based solely in human logic). Spiritual knowledge must come from a spiritual source. Trying to apply a logical progression to our belief system may be a fun pastime and an interesting perspective on things, but it cannot be the basis of anybody’s religious belief system (unless, as I said, they’re atheist).

And that is why that article doesn’t affect my belief in the Church. As for receiving and recognizing that spiritual witness, well, that’s a discussion for another day.

Stagnancy

skyrimhours

(I was originally going to make this a long diatribe about life and stuff, but I figured the title and picture above sum it up pretty well. Draw your own conclusions.)

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