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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Worst Night Ever: Mormons! On a Boat!

Posted by Erik Henriksen on Tue, Jul 16, 2013 at 9:44 AM

WORST. NIGHT. EVER. It was exactly like this.
  • WORST. NIGHT. EVER. It was exactly like this.

For Blogtown’s continuing Worst. Night. Ever. series, you, the readers of Blogtown, sent me to the the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' 22nd Annual Portland Regional Single Adult Conference—specifically, the “mixer” part of said conference, which took place during a two-hour cruise on the H.M.S. Portland Spirit, a stalwart and seaworthy (or at least riverworthy) vessel. Why did you do this? I have my suspicions, but we’ll get to those later.

PART I. Some Things You Might Not Have Known About Me

1. As Marjorie mentioned in her post, I grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah. JEALOUS?

2. No, I’m not Mormon. Both of my parents were raised in the church; both of them left it long before having me and my sister. They raised me and my sister agnostic—which, for me at least, basically worked out as an atheism starter kit. At this point, the closest thing I have to a spiritual icon is Carl Sagan.

3. I’ve got plenty of stories that people outside of Utah usually find entertaining; most of them involve what it was like to be one of the very, very few non-Mormon kids in my elementary school, and my middle school, and my high school. There are others that detail my grandmother realizing Joseph Smith could have very well just made up the Book of Mormon—she had this realization while reading The Lord of the Rings and realizing Tolkien had just made up Middle-earth—and what it was like to have my ninth-grade girlfriend glance nervously at her CTR ring whenever things started to get even close to awesome. Also, fun high school drinking stories! (Mormon kids can drink.) Anyway, buy me a beer sometime, I’ll tell you all about it.

4. Considering I didn’t go to church services or anything growing up, I guess it’s not surprising that I managed to never learn much about the church’s tenets until after I went away to college. Growing up, I knew Mormons had a lot of babies, but didn’t know why (THEY ARE TASKED BY GOD TO BRING DOWN SOULS FROM HEAVEN!); I knew my buddy Chad had a poster that showed Jesus in outer space, but I figured that was beause Chad knew everything was cooler in outer space (not because GOD LIVES ON ANOTHER PLANET); I knew that when when our scout troop ran our scoutmaster’s garments up a flagpole on a camping trip, it was funny because hey, look, underwear on a flagpole (only realizing years later that they HIS MAGIC UNDERWEAR THAT PROTECTED HIM FROM EVIL). Likewise, it wasn’t until much, much later—when I read stuff like Under the Banner of Heaven and The Executioner’s Song—that I realized how critically and suspiciously Utah is viewed by those outside its borders: as a desert haven for weirdos.

PART II. Some Overly Generalized But Still Fairly Reliable Things You Might Not Have Known About Mormons

1. They are prettier than you. They don’t drink alcohol or coffee. They don’t smoke. They go to bed at reasonable hours. Those are three things that have an incredible affect on one’s physical appearance. For those unaware of this—for those, say, who live in Portland, and thus largely see people who smoke all the time, drink booze and coffee instead of water, and who go to shows rather than going to bed—visiting Salt Lake City and looking at the people around you can be a profoundly disconcerting, even humbling experience. (Did I mention their churches have gymnasiums in them? And they’re, like, encouraged to use them?) Alas, there’s an Aryan uniformity to it—something that, given the church’s steadily changing racial dynamics, I have to imagine is diminishing—but there’s also no way around it: As white people go, Mormons are an intensely physically attractive people.

2. They are nicer than you. Just incredibly polite! They smile a lot. If there are more pleasant people to make small talk with, I haven't met them; again, to generalize, Mormons are a talkative people who're also good listeners. Family and community are major priorities in the faith, and it shows: These are people who know how to interact with people, and maintain eye contact, and carry on conversations. Again, if you’re used to how things are in Portland, being around people such as this can be disconcerting. But once you get used to it, it's great!

3. They are exceedingly welcoming. Well, okay, that depends: The Church of Latter-Day Saints’ official stance is that they accept lesbians and gays, but only if they don’t act gay; it wasn’t until 19781978!—that African American men were allowed to have the same rights as white men; and women are still pretty much out of luck when it comes to being treated equally in the church—sorry, ladies! (Also, regardless of whether or not the church formally recognizes it, polygamy still occasionally happens. This mostly occurs in the more rural parts of Utah, but sometimes even in the comparatively "liberal" Salt Lake City. Make of that what you will.) But it should be pointed out that these exclusionary, outdated, and closed-minded stances are hardly monolithic; it’s worth taking a look at, say, the heartening website of Mormons for Equality to get a better, more well-rounded look at the varying social beliefs that exist within the faith.

But while Mormons’ attitudes on race, gender, and sexuality can be best explained as “fucked,” most organized religions' attitudes are fucked. I’m certainly not excusing it—as both a kid and an adult, I’ve had big fights with Mormon friends and family members over the issues above—but I will say that on a face-to-face basis, I've consistently found Mormons to be open and kind, and it's often hard to reconcile the individuals I know in the church with the church's general positions. I might despise the church's stances on social issues—I'll resist going into a whole Richard Dawkins spiel, but I generally view religion as a detriment to society and humanity—but when it comes to individual people who belong to the church? They make a point of knowing and being nice to their neighbors, even if their neighbors are godless heathens. They'll take interest in what you have to say! They'll be cool with you hanging around, even if you haven't been baptized. They'll invite you to stuff and give you lots of food! Yeah, I might’ve had a few girls in high school who were forbidden to see me due to their parents’ disapproval (and there were, nearly always, two parents in their houses, unlike in mine), and I certainly ran into a few pricks who could give less of a shit about being Jesus-y and singled me out as the one dumb soul bound for Hell. But whether it's due to the church’s focus on community or their relentless recruitment (Book of Mormon!), I've found they’re usually happy to have anybody around, even if they're different. Granted, I'm a white male, so.

Anyway, the result of all this? By the time it was clear what you guys were voting for, I was... kind of looking forward to it? Leading up to Friday night, my attitude could be summed up thusly: “Oh no! Two hours on a boat making small talk with beautiful, friendly people? DEAR HEAVENLY FATHER, HOW WILL I SURVIVE?”

PART III. The Booze-less Cruise

No, I didn’t tell the people on the cruise that I was doing this for a Worst. Night. Ever. First, it takes a while to explain the concept to people who don’t read Blogtown; second, telling someone “I’m here because some dicks on the internet thought this'd make me miserable!” isn’t exactly going to make their night out looking for love go any better, nor make them feel anything but shitty about themselves. (As a bunch of single people belonging to an obsessively family- and procreation-focused faith, I'm guessing they’re already feeling kind of weird about the whole "single life" thing.) So I told the people I talked to that I was originally from Salt Lake (true!), that I'd been living in Portland for a while (true!), that I wasn't currently involved in the church (true!), and that I went on the cruise to get to know people (technically true, though I left out the part about it not exactly being my choice to do so).

I was greeted at the dock by two or three married couples, all of whom were around 50 or 60 and, I gathered, responsible for putting on this event for the benefit of those who, unlike them, were single. They took my money ($23! cheap!), and one of the men asked my age, telling me I barely qualified to go onboard. (I later gathered that no one under 31 was invited.) He told me I was in good shape since it was "about 75 percent ladies on there!" and wished me luck as I got on. Thanks, old Mormon dude trying to get me some chaste action!

I was on the younger side of the cruise's 100 or so participants; most of them had already settled into groups by the time I boarded, presumably because the cruise was only part of the weekend's conferencing. People hung out on the boat's promenade deck and main deck; I spent most of the time on the former, because did you know Friday evening was very pleasant and downtown Portland is beautiful at night? (Cruising slowly up the river for an hour, then back down for an hour, gives one a pretty spectacular view of the city. OH GOD, WHAT A TERRIBLE NIGHT.) On the main deck there was a non-alcoholic bar with a very patient bartender (true, it was $3 for a club soda, but hey, free refills, so I went crazy), seating for the older people and those wanting to chat, and a dance floor playing LDS-approved jams. ("You can put in songs you want to hear, and they check them against the list," one girl explained, laughing. "And if it's approved, they'll play it—but if it's not approved, well, then you shouldn't have put it in!") In addition to the B-52's "Love Shack" and something that I assume was a Josh Groban, guess what else is on the approved list?

"I can't believe this is on the list! Am I doing it right?" giggled one girl, who sidled up to me doing her best Psy while I was ordering a club soda on the rocks. Then a dude I'm assuming was her boyfriend ran up, defensive and paranoid, looking at me like I'd just seduced his woman. So maybe those two, at least, hit it off at the conference? Anyway, if you'd like the true experience, I suggest pouring yourself a stiff club soda, cranking your speakers up, and hitting "play" on the above video before we proceed. Then picture a whole lot of white people who don't dance very often, most of them fairly old, doing their best to kick it Gangnam Style.

(The "banned song" deal is nothing new; as a 13-year-old who was persona sort-of grata at an awkward church dance, I remember "Bedrock Anthem" skidding to an abrupt halt right after Weird Al used the word "vino.")

Out on the weather deck—did I mention that the cruise was really pretty?—I started by hanging out on my own, but was soon approached by a few groups of women, all of whom were very nice! Small talk abounded; after finding out I currently wasn't attending church (and hadn't attended any of the other conference's functions), I was invited to several other events, and yes, I was invited to dance, presumably because ladies of all religions look at me and know, deep in their ovaries, Now there's a man who can Gangnam Style. I politely declined all of the invitations, but still had some perfectly fine conversations, including one with a dude in his 40s who was, officially, one of the evening's "hosts"—but who was accused of being a "chaperone" by one well-endowed woman who made reference to her "life preservers" as we left the dock, and who, in any other situation, I would've sworn was at least tipsy. ("I'm not a chaperone," he insisted. "You guys... you guys don't need chaperones!" Still, I suspect he would've been one of the dudes to cut the stereo if I'd put on Biggie's "Nasty Boy." Or "Bedrock Anthem.") Dude later saw me elsewhere on the boat and shouted, glad to see me. "Erik!" We high-fived as he passed.

Most of my time, though, was spent talking to one woman in particular—maybe a decade older than me and sweet and good-natured ("Life hasn't really worked out like I planned!" she'd say, laughing, or "I don't know what Heavenly Father's plan is for me, but I'll find out!"), she told one of her friends who approached that she'd "finally found somebody fun to talk to." Also, she was awesome because she used to be a ghost hunter. I repeat: SHE USED TO BE A GHOST HUNTER. Hey, question: Do you think it would be kind of amazingly interesting to hear a former ghost hunter talk about how, exactly, hunting ghosts affected and informed her deeply held religious beliefs? Because YES, IT WAS.

Anyway, a few more chill conversations, one high five, and two hours later, we arrived back at the dock. "It is now one a.m.!" proudly announced one of the hosts over the microphone, and an excited cheer went up. Everybody got off the boat—there didn't seem to be a lot of goodbyes, I'm assuming because the rest of the cruise's participants would see each other the next morning for their sacrament meeting and box lunch in Lake Oswego—and I headed home. Got a burrito at a food cart, ate it while drinking a beer in my apartment, watching an episode of Cosmos on Netflix. (Seemed appropriate.) MY, WHAT A TERRIBLE EVENING.

Part IV: So. Let's Talk About You For a Minute

Why did you think this would be so unpleasant? Is it because you thought, “Ha ha, Mormons are weird and dumb”? Is it because you thought, “Ha ha, that’s something I’d never do, I’m gonna make someone else do it"? Is it because you read Marjorie’s description and decided to ignore it when she noted I grew up in Salt Lake City—or failed to deduce that, in doing so, I might've figured out Mormons aren't as strange as everybody thinks they are? I'm genuinely curious why you guys voted the way you did.

Actually, the voting process for this Worst. Night. Ever. reminds me of when you guys sent Alison to the Oregon State Fair—like “Eww, gross! The fair! Fat people eating funnel cakes!” But then it turned out that the fair is kind of great? As you might've known if you'd ever gone?

I’m starting to think Worst. Night. Ever. has turned into less of a good-spirited bit of sadism and more of a really weird glimpse into how you guys’ brains work. If that's the case, your brains seem... kind of xenophobic? A little knee-jerk? For fuck's sake, you could have sent me to Camp Cascadia, which sounds truly terrible, like a cursed nexus where all the people who've worn out their fluoride conspiracy theories are currently playing pretend activist on a mountain. That would've been awful! That would have been interesting to read about! But instead, you're left with yet another Worst. Night. Ever. that boils down to, “Well, that was marginally uncomfortable, and yeah, I would've rather been doing something else. But it was mostly pretty okay—even enjoyable!" This is getting boring, guys. Are you sick of reading the same Worst. Night. Ever. pieces over and over yet? Then vote better. Start in a couple of hours, when the poll for Wm. Steven Humphrey's Worst. Night. Ever. goes up.

PART V: In Conclusion

Well, that was marginally uncomfortable, and yeah, I would've rather been doing something else. But it was mostly pretty okay—even enjoyable! Especially compared to that time I accidentally moved into a house where everybody else who lived there was a Scientologist.

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