Fear and Anger in a Mountain Desert

January 25, 2014 § Leave a comment

You may have noticed, in other places, that there’s a pretty big grey area between someone’s resting mood and throat-clenching rage. People find creative ways of expressing their frustration when they need to, and then go on their merry way. People are quick to show they’re pissed, not because they enjoy a state of anger but precisely because they don’t enjoy it. Letting it out lets it go.

But when you’re here in the Intermountain Desert of Utah, watching wagons circle in on themselves in a tight, opaque spiral, you realize that the wagons are there to keep Utahns from having to get frustrated in the first place. If you’re constantly protected by an adversarial cultural barrier, your moments of displeasure should be few generally; and since the pioneers in a perpetually harsh environment expect everyone to require the protection of the pack, moments of displeasure toward other human beings should be rare indeed. We’re trapped on a perpetual exodus, say the wagon circlers, so obviously we’re all trapped in here together—why would you need to get annoyed with anybody?

This attitude makes for some pretty interesting interactions if you don’t buy into that fearful bullshit. If you’re one of the people who has the gall to believe that the world is not a harsh, scary place, and other people are not out to smash (or worse, question!) your way of life, then this need to avoid being angry, frustrated, or annoyed with another person just doesn’t seem necessary. When you are displeased with something someone does and you say so, something happens with people here. A switch is flipped in them when they see you’re not going to play along with their definition of politeness. To be sure, that definition is really nice most of the time, and I welcome the warmth that strangers dole out to each other here. But not every day, and certainly not when they’ve fucked up my drink order, or they’re gabbing with a friend holding my credit card when they just need to swipe it and let me get out of there. In those situations, I say anything at all, and I get the cold shoulder, the icy stare of “oh, you’re in a hurry, huh.” That grey area between just-muddling-through and you’re-dead-to-me just isn’t present.

Try it the next time you’re in Salt Lake for Sundance, or to ski. Don’t seek it out by any means, but when you’ve got a legitimate case to be mildly irritated, stay alert and express it. See what happens. I guarantee you’ll at least be entertained at the sight of grown adults not knowing what to say or do.

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The Cult of Pair Bonding

January 22, 2014 § 2 Comments

The women’s bathrooms in Utah’s only major airport have doors on the stalls that open inward. They are also crowded together like mailboxes in an apartment building: enough room to do your business and scram. To give you an idea of how small they are, there is barely enough room in front of your knees when you sit down to put your rolling carry-on. To a T, all of the women’s bathrooms in Salt Lake City’s airport are like this. I have no complaints about the size of the stalls in the men’s bathrooms, and I’m 6’3” tall. This is how deep the Cult of Pair Bonding goes in Utah.

Of course, Mormon women and men are beseeched to marry young and pump out enough kids to last through the End of Days, since that’s right around the corner anyway. But one quickly realizes upon stumbling on the wagon circle here in Utah that it’s not just young Mormons who feel the urge to procreate. That’s another examination for another day, though, because right now I’m interested in the intermediary step: pairing off with someone close to your age and of the opposite sex. Since it’s seen as a waypoint along the journey to full reproductive compliance but carries none of the obligations and responsibility, it’s an even more popular option than full-blown babymakin’. And the culture here normalizes such pair bonding to an astonishingly consistent degree. Being in a relationship myself when I moved to Utah, I was struck by how often grocery store checkers, baristas, Best Buy greeters, etc. all referred to my partner and I as “you guys,” never looking at merely the first person who walked up, or the one with the credit card in hand.

But back to the bathrooms. Why are they so small, and why do they all open inward? The answer, of course, is that you’re obviously not travelling alone, because you’re a woman, and your husband is watching the kids and the bags out in the hallway. You don’t have to rely on yourself, because this is Utah, and you couldn’t be independent without being castigated or outcast, so chances are, you aren’t. The stall doors in the men’s bathroom, of course, sometimes open outward, because after all, men can sometimes go on business trips and still belong here. But as far as female travelers go, why would you ever be traveling alone?

I once ate a deliciously huge breakfast by myself in Chicago. I sat at the counter, read the paper, chatted with the chick behind the counter, paid my bill, and left. No one thought it was weird, creepy, or that I was a loner in some way. If I did the same thing at my favorite breakfast place in Salt Lake, I would be liable to be thought of in all of those ways. It is hard enough in this bold Frontier to be one’s own person when it comes to romantic relationships, standing on one’s own two feet emotionally and psychologically so that the partnership can be greater than the sum of its parts. To see Utahns laboring under the added pressure brought by the Cult of Pair Bonding is simply heartbreaking. How can any of these relationships truly allow their participants to grow as people, I wonder, when they are seen first as such a desperately needed waypoint in their journey?

Speaking in Code

November 8, 2013 § Leave a comment

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” —that is all / Ye know on Earth, and all Ye need to know. (Keats)

This ad appeared in the alternative weekly in Salt Lake City. It’s a vertical-spine half-sheet newspaper funded by advertising, the kind you’ll see covering the latest anarchist indie dance-pop duo in your city like white on rice. In Salt Lake, the City Weekly occupies an important space: when the wagons circle up, there’s little leftover for the rest of us.

But sadly, that doesn’t mean it pays equal attention to the world outside of Utah and the place in which it sits. It’ll still feature baby-related things in its annual “Best of Utah” issue, still targets a related subset of Utah’s dominant demographic (the “rebellious” kids of homogenous Utah Mormons), and still carries ads that demographic would easily understand and normalize.

The first thing I propose most of us would think upon seeing this ad is, “What the hell is it for?” and maybe immediately afterward, “Sisters? What?” I guess that because that’s what I thought. Especially when you start to read the smaller type, and you read the words “per syringe.” Whoa, this shit is serious, and medically related somehow. But this ad is way too glitzy, polished, and commercial to be solely a medical service, not to mention features two blonde-haired, blue-eyed white women who are clothed and photographed to appear naked. So it can’t really be an ad for a doctor’s office, right?

That’s what we all might think upon first seeing this ad in an alternative weekly paper—the only printed source, I immediately add, for public discussion of any kind of nontraditional, pierced, tattooed, titillating, or thrillingly dangerous subject matter in the great state of Utah. That’s what we might think, and it contains some shock. But that’s nothing compared to shock we’re about to feel, once we a) really start to think about this creepy ad and b) realize how normal it is made to seem.

Take the two women first. Their whiteness and their nude-implying photography. So already, we have to dynamics: the politics of belonging, and sex. Whatever these people are selling, they want you to be turned on by the these seemingly naked women, and they want to deploy classical, unrefined, blunt aesthetics of human beauty. They want to use the power of those aesthetics to solicit your drive to belong: this is the apotheosis of beauty, so don’t you want to look like them?

At this point, the ad is already problematic, even if we’re still confused as to what it’s actually selling. But take a look at the hook text—the marketing engine of the advertisement. “Look More Like Sisters,” the ad offers. It was at this point that I even noticed—by design, no doubt—that the two women were different ages. So, since one is supposed to be the other’s mom, whatever this company is selling is targeted at older women, promising to make them look like their daughters. Weird, on the face of it, at least.

But in Utah, “sister” isn’t what it might be in many other states (solidarity in the black community, a nun, maybe a hippie/Wiccan thing, etc.). It’s what female Mormons call each other.

“So,” I thought as I stared and realized this, “that’s the code.” There’s an extra layer of the Politics of Belonging to this advertisement. With this product, you’ll look more like sisters than mother and daughter, but could you also look more like….a Sister?

Picture this: you’re a 50-something Mormon woman from West Jordan, Utah, whose biggest disappointment is (disgustingly) your own daughter. She now lives 13 miles north in downtown Salt Lake, has 15 tattoos, 6 piercings, and works as a graphic artist (printmaking), and waitresses at a fancy restaurant. She’s a disappointment for all the usual Utah reasons: she’s 35, single, drinks alcohol, actually has casual sex with people, and is very vocal about her desire to never get married and/or make babies. But you’re sad, because you’d like a better relationship with her.

So you start perusing the City Weekly, if only to get an exciting taste of the verboten, if not to find some inspiration as to how you might actually bond with your daughter. And then you see this ad. It’s that exact moment the creative in the ad agency that created this image was hoping for: the woman gets the idea to get a little chemical cosmetic procedure done, to feel and look younger and maybe (the logic is always a little fuzzy when it comes to advertising) try to feel closer to her daughter. As an added bonus, the concept of sisterhood seals the emotional deal, undergirding the entire mental transaction with a sense of belonging, familiarity, and social sanction.

Can advertising define a major part of a place’s culture? Sadly, it can. And when ads that trade in female body insecurity assault the eye in this country, we’re at least able to handle such assaults as being peripheral to our core values about a place. Milwaukeeans don’t see an ad for botox in the Shepherd Express and see some reference to beer, cheese, farming, deer hunting, or the packers in it. It’s just an ad for botox injections. It might be problematic in the Politics of Gender sphere, but it would never try to access cultural key terms. The same is true for the Boston Phoenix (may it rest in peace) or the New York Press, or LA Weekly. But in Utah, such a trashy and halfhearted cosmetic procedure is advertised as an establishment product. It almost makes you think people just can’t resist throwing a coded reference to the wagon circle in there.

When Dixie Went West

October 4, 2013 § Leave a comment

There is a definite connection between the Mormons and the South, one historical and the other philosophical. But there are also subtle differences that have refracted into stark contrasts. Historically, the LDS Church felt a kinship with the Southern bloc, and then the Confederacy, since it saw the federal government as representing the Northerners who had persecuted and driven out Mormons in each of their successive homes. Indeed, the only black emigrés to Utah in the 1840s and 50s were slaves that Mormon southerners brought. Brigham Young looked on the Union-Confederate fight with glee, expecting it to be the skirmish that sparked the great cataclysm leading to the Mormon-benefiting End of Days.

Things did not work out well for Young there, or for the ideology that the Mormon settlers hoped would allow them to break away and form their own country of Deseret. As the church continued its global activities, its connections and affinity with the South diminished. But its mind is still very much where the mid-19th century South’s was for a long time, and to some extent, still is.

Although the church was officially opposed to slavery, Utah Territory was open to the practice for its first 15 years. So, you had the legal extortion of human labor by force delineated along racial lines. Via polygamy, that other of the “twin evils” of Westward expansion according to Abraham Lincoln, you also had the other, hidden and private, side of American chattel slavery: androcentric sexual subservience. In terms of lived experience, the most salient feature of slavery in the American south was through sex. Black people, men and women, were assumed to be sexually bestial, with all of the attendant animalistic surging of desire and libido. Black men were assumed to be rapists in waiting, and the excuse for virtually every lynching was a black man’s having raped a white woman. Conversely, black women’s putative lasciviousness was the excuse for white southern men to exercise their “birthright” and rape black women. If the subtler kind of attraction was preferred, a white planter might seduce or convince a female slave to become a kind of “mistress,” where physical force was not necessary, but the power relation could still classify the act as rape.

All of the features of southern sexual politics during slavery I just described applied perfectly to early Mormon polygamy. We know from the dealings of the modern-day FLDS church (Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints), via their sectarian origin story and how they profess to keep to their time-hewn practices, that 1850s and 60s Mormon polygamy was predatory in its structure. As the practice continued, girls were “married” off earlier and earlier, until children the age of 14, 15, and 16 were commonly imprisoned by a 50 year-old man who already had a harem of 6 or more under his control. In this way women were used as concubines, but with the added benefit of procreation to grow the flock of faithful. Again, this would be a perfect description of white male practices in the antebellum southern slavery.

The similarities become less profound and far-reaching, but no less striking, from there. The “hospitality” that southerners are known for, which is ultimately nothing more than an unremarkable though noted manifestation of human compassion that you find in every culture, has a hollowness that takes no pains to hide itself. The same is true of a particularly aggressive and projected friendliness that native Utahns possess. It is a veneer, gilding the drudgery of public interaction in a pleasant exterior, and greasing it for a quick and smooth passage in . . . and then out of the present moment. Indeed, its smarmy, slippery style is even more lazily concealed than in the South. There, you have to present some kind of contrarian political, economic, racial, or even cultural view (the city slicker from New York, for example), and you’ll see the veil of southern hospitality fall away forthwith. In Utah, all you have to do it not play along. Get a perky, aggressively feigned “hi there!” from someone in customer service, or even just on the street, and don’t feel like replying in kind? Try responding with a low, friendly, but uninterested “hello.” and see how quickly that wagon circle closes you out.

Continuing on, the similarities between Utah and the South become more nuanced. The ideology of a separate country-within-a-country, with its own separate culture, holidays, history, religion—indeed, Utah often seems one of these United States in economy only—is a subtle mosaic it’s only easy to see from very high up. In July, Utah makes a modest effort at participation on the 4th, inaugurating the state’s firework month with enthusiasm, but little true commitment. That strong emotion of belonging is unsheathed on the 24th, Pioneer Day, a Utah state holiday. A holiday that truly evokes a circle of wagons, Pioneer Day celebrates the arrival of the first Mormon wagon train into the Salt Lake valley. There’s a huge monument near the spot where the train first beheld the brown, inhospitable expanse of a mountain valley desert. It’s creepy. But every July 24th, even this writer’s feelings of by turns tepid and apathetic nationalism are offended by the maudlin displays of celebration—and way, way more fireworks—for Pioneer Day than for July 4th. The imbalance instantly reminds the historically conscious of the South’s longlasting avoidance of July 4th celebrations of any kind after the Civil War. Instead, former Confederates celebrated “Decoration Day,” at the end of May, Stonewall Jackson’s birthday. July 4th, fascinatingly enough, became the “black” summer nationalist holiday in the South; Decoration Day (though originally founded by former slaves in Charleston!) became the white.

In a similar vein, Utahns from the southwestern portion of the state have a proud moniker for their region of Zion: “Dixie.” Weather forecasters, farmers, politicians, and even a college in the city of St. George all refer to their region as Dixie. Claimed by white physical presence in the mid-1850s, Mormons first started growing that infamously southern crop, cotton. It has been known as “Utah’s Dixie” for more than a century. The southerness of the name was neither lost on anyone nor inadvertent. It represented, and still does, the subtle rooting of southern-mindedness in this expanse of mountain desert.

So here we are, in the Intermountain West, staring at that regimented and formidable of tightly circled wagons. Since the Mormon culture embedded in Utah’s DNA contains the crucial element of group oppression ideology (more on the similarities between Mormonism and Judaism in a future post), there will be no Civil War to subdue Utah’s southerness. They succeeded where the South failed: for Utah will always be able to exist on its own, remote, isolated, and other. And that’s just the way Utah prefers it.

On Economic Insulation

July 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

The economy in Utah is one of its more curious features. It is oddly disconnected from the ups and downs of the national US economy, which is both surprising and utterly expected. Such detachment mirrors the self-imposed otherness of a society and culture that likes being ensconced in a wagon circle, and wants to keep it that way. As many parts of the country were still mired in a deep-to-substantial recession in early 2012, Utah’s economy was humming at a subdued but respectable pace. Hiring and housing sales were among the strongest in the nation. According to the Utah Association of Realtors, as of April 2013 the state’s close home sales were up 12% compared to April 2012, with a YTD median sale price increase of almost 15%. This growth is strong and long-lasting. I floundered about for an explanation.

There were several facile explanations that reeked of agenda. Some have said that it is merely the intersection of politics and policy, creating a uniquely business-friendly capitalist atmosphere. This explanation is untenable for two reasons. Firstly, such features are like the icing on the cake—they are easy to identify and catch the eye, but they do little to define the texture of the experience. They sound good for a pithy explanation, but words don’t motivate wallets. Secondly, government is simply not that powerful in America. We live in a time and place that is capitalist first, and a democracy second. Money and profit motivate real sociopolitical action here; ideals smell and taste sweet but are incapable of moving modern hearts.

After speaking with several disinterested observers with enough experience living here to tell, I’ve come to the conclusion that a combination of geography and the LDS church take the credit. The Wasatch Front area is simply the biggest urban cluster for miles in any direction, the closest major city being a full day’s drive away. Competition for services is limited, and if you want a new aluminum roof put on your house, you only have a couple companies you can call. So there is a real isolation that keeps the economy local, and ownership interests are (for once) in the same city that the businesses are operating in and hiring from. At the same time, you have an institution with globally competitive cash reserves based in Salt Lake City: the estimated $30 billion-rich LDS Church. This massive amount of money is hierarchically organized from an office complex in Utah, which obviously means that a good deal of it will inevitably benefit its immediate surroundings. This massive amount of money insulates Utah to a certain extent.

So how does all of this change how people live here? In a word, provincialism. The isolation here is not just cultural, it gets to the bedrock of what being an American in the 21st century really means: money. While the rest of the country is mired in the stagnation of the new normal, Utah coasts in its bubble of a 20-year delay on pretty much everything. (There are still billboards advertising asbestos and lead paint testing, and smoking cessation hotlines are still a thing.) All of this information about Utah’s economy is shocking to the outsider. But once you keep in mind Utah’s first social priority—closing ranks—it is utterly unsurprising. In the back of its macro-mind, Utah is actively planning for the apocalypse. And when the country’s financial system eventually does collapse, Utahns can deploy that dual-loyalty they have perfected since the 1890s (when polygamy was finally banned by church papacy). They will cease their jingoistic flag-waving, pick up their insulated, isolated economy and say, “I told you we had it right.”

On the Conditionality of Friendship

May 28, 2013 § Leave a comment

When your world is on a war footing, the definition of “luxury” shifts unhealthily. Things that were once nice respites from drudgery are now indulgences to be avoided at most costs. Inside a vast wagon circle, there are no lingering moments to be relished—there are enemies out there, after all.

One of these sad redefinitions of luxury in Utah pertains to friendship. It goes like this: A meets B, and everyone gets along swimmingly. They go out for drinks, meet each other’s boyfriends, girlfriends, partners, friend circles, etc., and then try to schedule regular visits. Then, A and B reach a juncture. Maybe B never had a boyfriend, but she suddenly gets one. Or A expresses an opinion that B doesn’t like. At that moment, it becomes clear that A and B set their boundaries in different places. Whichever one in the pair is Utahn sets his boundary more or less where the edge of the wagon circle is. Things are just easier that way. The other person has made it clear that her boundary (between acceptable/unacceptable, ethical/unethical, safe/dangerous, In/Out of the world we build for ourselves) is wholly independent of where the wagon circle is. Instead of an actual disagreement causing a rupture in the friendship, it’s a foreseen one that does.

Have you ever heard someone say out loud that because they are now dating someone you’ll be “seeing a lot less of” them? In other words, blithely declaring that they have no interest in even trying to avoid the most common pitfall of immature young adulthood?

Or perhaps you’ve gotten together for drinks with your significant other and another couple on multiple occasions. You have tried your best to make it known that you are neither interested nor committed to staying in Utah for very long. Then, when it comes up in conversation that no, you are not interested in buying a house here, because you, once again, are not settling down here, they give you defensiveness in response. Real, live, defenseiveness. Has that ever happened to you? That people you’ve seen socially and are truly relaxed around would turn their criticism on you when your choices are different from theirs? To your face?

These things and more have happened to me here. It’s not the experience of them that is the most troubling. Again, it’s what’s behind the experience. With such a well-developed wagon circle functioning as a giant barrier reef keeping all the predators at bay, it’s easy to take friendships for granted. Especially friendships with people you wouldn’t often meet in your everyday routine. Since everything you need is inside the circled wagons, everyone you love, everyone who matters, why waste time worrying about those “other” friends? Having friends from the East Coast or from California is a luxury.

On Being “Nice”

May 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

Aside from it being surrounded by beautiful mountains, the first thing that outsiders notice upon coming upon the wagon circle in the inter-mountain desert is that the people here are so “nice.” They smile, hold the door, change lanes to give space to mergers, say “man” affectionately from male to male, and are all too happy to get lost in a side conversation. All of these experiences are, in fact, so common that it’s difficult to imagine a cultural Utahn expressing anger at all, however legitimate it might be. But, once that visitor to the wagon circle moves closer and closer to its edge and peers over the tops of the wagons, healthily addressed anger seems like a warm fire we want to escape the cold to.

The “niceness,” is, of course, a front. It helps to disarm, to wheedle, and to get one’s way before other circumstances can come to define the interaction. Ordering a cup of coffee and want to get moving? Her smile and polite questions will make you feel bad for saying you just want to get your caffeine and go. Engaging in a more intimate kind of exchange, like, getting your house painted? You had better devote a few minutes of personal conversation with the painter about his kids or some shit, otherwise there’s a good chance he’ll “accidentally” drip paint into your garden for being so “mean.”

But why is that surprising? We all know Southern Hospitality is just as much of a front, as is Northern brusqueness—it’s all just a little act we’ve agreed upon as the way we should conduct ourselves in public. It’s surprising here because there is no complexity or depth to this particular lie of “niceness”—you’re either nice and play along, or you don’t. If you just want that damn coffee and want to get going, you’re clearly not in the wagon circle, and you are by definition just visiting, regardless of what you might have to say on the matter. At least other public performances have release valves to be able to understand—and even still interact with—people who don’t feel like keeping up the act. In Utah, once you aren’t “nice,” you’re mean, and you’re consequently other-worldly.

Take a recent radio commercial for a payday loan center. This particular place thinks it deserves your business because, as the ad says, “we’re nice about it.” Parodying a typical experience at one of the “other” payday loan centers, a woman with a bad imitation of a Boston (that’s right, nowhere near Utah) accent curtly demands to see documents, ID, paystubs, etc. They won’t charge you late fees right away, while the lady at the other place says that you simply “should have thought about that befoah.” In the imagination of the Utah marketing firm that wrote the commercial, the mean old lady at the “other guys’” payday loan center is an East-Coaster, full of hatred for her fellow human being and without care for the plight of people who need to borrow against their paycheck. The hidden message there is “we’re local, we’re Utah; we won’t enforce our strict demands as they are written, instead we’ll enforce them with a smile and a handshake.”

Niceness, it seems, is a requirement to join the wagon circle. But of course it’s not a niceness based on respect, honesty, and fealty to emotions, however unsavory they might be in the moment. It’s a niceness based on outer appearances only, and its razor-thin tolerance for alternative definitions betrays the aggressive defensiveness of a coiled wagon train with guns trained on the world.