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Saturday 29 March 2014

Pauls I have known (a lengthy "stub")

I saw on my LA home ward facebook page the news that Wm Paul died peacefully yesterday at the age of 96, per his adopted son (who was quite the obnoxious little brat when I knew him). He was also the adoptive father of one of the truly sad girls I knew while growing up in the San Fernando Valley. Anyway, his passing provides the impetus for this perhaps slightly weird and somewhat gossipy post… which ought to be rewritten at some point. (Good luck with that.)

Of the memorable Pauls I have known, first and foremost is my "middle-younger" brother. Last of the four of us born in New York, he apparently was the baby who could not tolerate car rides. Unluckily, we moved from Chicago to Los Angeles via Seattle (world's fair!) by car (visiting Mt Rushmore and "Jellystone Park" en route). He screamed the whole time, according to my parents. I have no recollection of this, but that may be because my desperate parents ended up drugging him in some fashion so as not to lose their minds.

One of my favorite memories of Paul in Canoga Park is his escaping the house at bath time and jumping on his tricycle and riding around the cul-de-sac stark naked, all while laughing maniacally. Most deliberately-posed photos of him show his manic smile.

He could and did get into everything. My dad ended up closing off his workbench with some kind of locked chicken-wire doors, but padlocks were never an impediment to Paul's inquisitiveness. He took apart all kinds of things. I do not know if he was able to put things back together with the same facility. That he was good with mechanical things was clear, and he ended up being the go-to Audio-Visual guy at Portolá Jr High while there.

He served in the Utah Salt Lake City South mission — he hadn't wanted to serve a foreign mission (not sure if it was a case of foreign languages not coming easily to him or just what),… but I don't think serving in Magna and Provo had really been what he'd had in mind. Still, he enjoyed his time there, what with members showering the missionaries with all kinds of then-unheard-of perks (free meals at member-owned restaurants, free dry cleaning, etc.). He was actually able to save money while on his mission.

He was fascinated by firefighting and ended up (iirc) becoming a volunteer paramedic for a time. He was precluded from getting hired by a hammer toe (though apparently he and others felt racial quotas were more to blame; otoh, he wasn't a vet and vets were justly given priority).

His love-life was non-existent prior to and for some while after his mission, to the point where I think my parents were wondering about whether he was gay. He met Dorothy and fell for her hard. They were as typically all over each other as could be (in a Mormon context) when I met her. The change was astounding to me. (Their relationship has had its troubling aspects in the ensuing years, alas, but they are still together.)

As for Wm Paul, there were two Paul Smiths in my LA home ward, both of whom customarily went by Paul, but by mutual agreement the one who was my first bishop in that ward, and who was the architect for our home ward chapel, was always referred to as "Paul A," and the other — well, I never, ever heard anyone call him simply Paul (except possibly for his wife Dorothy), but always William Paul. My mom and I carpooled with Dorothy to So. Calif. Mormon Choir rehearsals and concerts for years (my mom for far longer, of course).

Theirs seemed in many respects to be a marriage of unequals: Dorothy was well-educated; Wm Paul was blue-collar (I'm pretty sure he made his living as an exterminator); Dorothy was cultivated — a talented musician, and well-read; Wm Paul was a bit rough around the edges. Their adopted daughter used to tell me that she was afraid they'd divorce. Anyway, they stayed together; Dorothy died of brain cancer some 20+ years ago. While she was a bit "off" when I had the chance to see her not long before she died, at least she recognized me and we had a mostly coherent conversation.

I will save my most memorable moments with Wm Paul and/or Dorothy, as well as my dealings with their daughter, for a different time. (Weekend trip to the desert sales-pitch condo; trip up to Youth Academy.)

I know Wm Paul remarried and that his second marriage seemed to be happier than the first. My parents kept in close touch with Wm Paul (and Dorothy and then Melba) over the years. My dad served as a cubmaster with Wm Paul while both my brother Paul and Wm Paul's son Brad were Cubs. (Insert photo of the flag-raising here, featuring brother Paul's blindingly manic smile.)

Other Pauls: per above, Bishop Smith. I don't really have many personal memories of the man — I don't remember interacting with him as my bishop. My dad served either in his bishopric or as the ward clerk at the time. When we first moved into the ward, we met over in a strange little church building on (I think) Amigo Avenue. It had belonged to some evangelical group, I think. When our building on Topeka Drive went up, that building was sold to… not sure what kind of group, but some sort of free-thinkers or … well. All I know is that they painted a bunch of ritual symbols on the back wall behind the podium that they kept covered up with a curtain. It was our joy as Primary kids to look at those symbols with the black light on. Weird.

There was a little pastor's cottage adjacent to the church that served as the bishop's office. Supposedly after all the church work was done on Sundays, my dad and the others would sit around and play Pinochle and "diminishing bridge" (aka "oh hell"). Given how fond my dad was of pinochle, I don't find it hard to imagine that this was true (at least sometimes).

Paul A was married to Wanda, a… loquacious woman who to this day is not shy about giving her opinions (nor is she shy about administering "the garment grope"). Iirc, he died of a heart attack at or around age 56 following a fall from a roof in which he'd seriously ripped open a leg (with significant bleeding). (More re: his son Craig in another post.)

The only other Paul of note that I can remember at the moment is Elder Park, who served as my first zone leader when I got transferred to Lille and ended up struggling to survive my time with Sister H. He and the AZL, Elder Shane, did their best to schedule district work days and to otherwise provide support and relief. They lived on the 8th floor in the same building we did (on the 17th). Park was on his way home and left after my first month there in Mons-en-B (replaced by Elder King)… Park was definitely trunky at the end, but no surprises there.

Sunday 19 January 2014

Relative to Mother and Mormon Women

Midwest Pilgrims, Reflections on Kirtland Retreat, Sept 13-15, 1991 (slightly edited)

Probably the most difficult aspect of Mormonism for the religious world at large is its anthropomorphism of deity—that is, Latter-day Saints believe that human beings and God are of the same species; the difference between mortals and deity is essentially one of degree. In modern Christian feminist writing, care is taken to use neutral or gender-inclusive language when referring to deity; to them, God is neither male nor female, but rather includes and transcends all gender classifications. Much of the justification for this point of view is based on thoughtful analysis of the use of feminine images and metaphors in the Bible. More to the point, virtually all the very well-thought-out rationales arguing for inclusive language from the Christian feminists are even better used for LDS feminists in their quest to have the Mother In Heaven doctrine become a theologically viable part of belief and practice.

Despite its internally logical position vis-à-vis humanity and deity, Mormonism is plagued by its own insidious efforts to deny full equality to women. This is evident not only by the proliferation among Mormons of popular folklore-like "explanations" which erroneously promote culturally-imposed stereotypes about men and women, but also by its exclusion of women from ordination to priesthood. This last can be shown as never having been a revealed doctrine, but simply an unquestioned continuation of millennia-old sexist tradition. However, lack of priesthood ordination is really a secondary effect when one considers what Mormonism has done to its own concept of Mother in Heaven. Not only is the Mother not worshiped, She is not discussed, not acknowledged in any way as being relevant in any sense. Most Mormons don't pray to Her, know Her name, believe that revelation can come from Her or about Her. It is not even known if there is one of Her or more than one of Her.

God the Mother's lot is even grimmer than the usual fare served to LDS women which constrains their freedom to choose their roles and which straitjackets their possibilities for service by imposing artificial constraints based on gender. Her lot is one where God the Father must protect Her name from being abused; She, although a goddess, cannot take what mortals can dish up in terms of disrespect without male protection. She is not allowed to talk to her children; they are not allowed to talk to her. She occupies herself with unending 1950s American middle-class motherhood roles—she's off in the celestial incubator having babies, rearing children, and is too busy with the spirit children to interact in any way with those children who have already moved into the test phase of their existence (mortality). Of all the ironies, this must be the greatest: LDS women are constantly told that women are nurturers by nature, but that our Heavenly Mother—ostensibly what all worthy LDS women are ultimately destined to become—our Mother is not on the scene to provide nurturing to her mortal children. “Maternal deism” best describes her relationship to us: she co-created us, but is too busy to be involved with her children who are undergoing the ordeal of mortality on earth.

According to the above scenario, the lot of nurturing mortal children is the exclusive venue of the Father. While there is no question that He does nurture us, it is obvious from both our rhetoric and practice (and that of the larger culture) that this particular lesson has not been divined by Mormonism in general—namely, that males can naturally nurture, too, and that that is a principal role of a god. Why is this not translated into our mortal lives and experiences so that men are expected to nurture and care for their children as well as mothers?

Part of the problem lies in the assumption, borrowed from traditional Judeo-Christian theology, that it is somehow solely a man's role to be the provider of food and temporal shelter. God's words to Adam and Eve as they were being driven from the Garden of Eden have nearly always been taken as prescriptive (that is, as a reflection of God's will with respect to gender roles) rather than descriptive of an unequally-yoked, dominant-submissive, telestial lifestyle. Never mind that Eve worked alongside Adam for their sustenance (Moses 5:1, also v. 3). Never mind that the picture of the family that the church insists is the ideal didn't have the possibility of even existing except among the well-to-do prior to the mid-20th century, and even now exists only in wealthy pockets of first-world industrial countries. The fact is that women work, have worked, and have been and are and will be providers for their families alongside men, just as they have been since the time of Eve.

Finally, the "ideal" LDS family consists of a father, mother, and children. But our daily relationship with deity is strictly that of a father and his children. No mother. How is it that we have been so accepting of this blatant imbalance?

There is a faint glimmer of hope dawning on the horizon: questions about Heavenly Mother are being officially acknowledged for the first time. The answers (or, rather, non-answers) at this time are not satisfying, but the fact that those in authority have recognized the existence of these issues gives cause for cautious rejoicing. Full emancipation for both women and men will not come about until Mormonism fully embraces the image of both a loving Father and Mother being fully involved with their mortal offspring. The ramifications of this realization will have a far-reaching impact on the everyday lives of men and women in and out of the church. Isn't it time that the church return to its role as a leader in the cause of individual liberty and a champion of the true relationship between deity and humankind? One can only hope so.

(Update, some 22+ years later: Pretty much nothing has changed. NB: I incorporated much of the content of this essay into a much larger work, "Issues in Contemporary Mormon Feminism," 1995.)

Wednesday 15 January 2014

IHAA: Packer womanhood

I Have an Answer

Questions to Gospel Answers

First published in Mormon Women's Forum, vol. 7, no. 1-2 (1996)

ANSWER: “There are basic things that a man needs that a woman does not need. There are things that a man feels that a woman never does feel. There are basic things that a woman needs that a man never needs, and there are things that a woman feels that a man never feels, nor should he. These differences make women, in basic needs, literally opposite from men.”† —Boyd K. Packer, “The Equal Rights Amendment,” The Ensign, March 1977.

QUESTIONS: Are women and men members of the same species? If so, how can one sex’s basic needs be somehow “literally opposite” from the other’s? What are the things that women feel that men shouldn’t feel? (Menstrual cramps?) What happens if a man feels something he supposedly “shouldn’t” feel? Does that turn him into a fake man? What if a woman feels something that she’s “never” supposed to feel? And how will women and men know if what they’re feeling is something they’re not supposed to feel?

President Packer continued, “A man, for instance, needs to feel protective, and yes, dominant, if you will, in leading his family. A woman needs to feel protected, in the bearing of children and in the nurturing of them… .”

Which men “need” to feel dominant? (Avoid them!) Why does a man “need” to feel dominant? Isn’t domination antithetical to true leadership and a characteristic of the “natural man” that King Benjamin says is an enemy to God (Mosiah 3:19)?

How is the protection a woman supposedly craves any different from the need for security and safety common to both sexes? Is motherhood somehow more under attack than meaningful fatherhood? Ironically, LDS men spend less quality time with their children than non-LDS men; it seems that fatherhood, not motherhood, is more in need of protection among the saints!§ Don’t men need to feel protected in the nurturing of their children? Certainly men who choose to spend time in non-traditional ways—as full-time fathers, for example—seem to need protection from the verbal attacks and sanctions from right-wing traditionalists!

President Packer: “When God created male and female, He gave each important differences in physical attributes, in emotional composition, in family responsibility.”

With the exception of gross biological distinctions, is there not an enormous amount of overlap between the sexes—emotionally, spiritually, intellectually? Where in scripture has God made the kinds of role assignments alluded to? Moses 5:1 indicates that Eve worked alongside Adam; Moses 5:3 indicates that their male and female offspring “began ... to till the land, and to tend flocks, and they also begat sons and daughters.” There does not seem to be quite the division of labor between parenthood and “earning a living” as modern-day rhetoric insists upon. (And, in fact, this division is largely a 19th century middle-class innovation, not at all a “timeless” nor “divinely-mandated” requirement.)

Is it any wonder that women are kept from equal privileges and access to decision-making power when so many men believe in a definition of “true womanhood” that all too frequently diverges from adult human behavior?

Finally, and most importantly, does God relate to us as members of categories or as individuals? Why then do we base practice and policy on frequently erroneous stereotypes and generalities, rather than on respect for individual needs and capacities, regardless of sex? Why does so much of current Church practice seem heavily invested in such simplistic categorizations? Does God truly place order above what is needful to help each of us progress as individuals? And why would order be in any way threatened by allowing individual women and men the opportunity to fulfill the measure of their creation? Should we continue to mindlessly follow the traditions of the fathers, even when they are demonstrably harmful to ourselves and others?

† Author's Note: Although published 20 (now 35+) years ago, this same kind of thinking is still prevalent in the Church today, as numerous conference talks and Ensign articles unfortunately attest.

§ James T. Duke, “Cultural Continuity and Tension between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and American Society,” Mormon Studies Conference, University of Nottingham (U.K.), 6 April 1995.

IHAA: God has a neck

I Have An Answer

Questions to Gospel Answers

First published in Mormon Women's Forum, vol. 7, no. 3-4 (1996)

ANSWER: “Either you represent the teachers and students and champion their causes or you represent the Brethren who appointed you. You need to decide now which way you face.” —Harold B. Lee to Boyd K. Packer, when the latter was first called to a position of significant responsibility in the Church Educational System.

QUESTIONS: Just as God listens to us, shouldn’t we turn our ears to God and to one another to hear? And just as God speaks to us, shouldn’t we face one another to speak? Prayer is two-way, not one-way. Why shouldn’t the Church be patterned after this divine two-way flow of information and communication?

Likewise, Jesus Christ is both our source of revelation and our advocate with the Father. Why can’t our leaders represent both the Brethren and those over whom they have stewardship? Why is such two-way representation seen as contrary to correct principles of “gospel management”? American political leaders ostensibly represent both “the government” as well as the interests of the people governed, and we claim that this system is inspired: why cannot this same inspired model be implemented in the Church?

Current procedures prevent the rank and file from speaking directly to leaders on the general level. If my local leader will not speak for me because he has been told not to, who will speak for me? If my local leader will not ask my questions for me because of their “feminist” or “intellectual” or possibly even “homosexual” nature, who will?

D&C 121 specifically enjoins those in authority to meekness (“teachableness”). As soon as any leader believes that he knows it all—that he is an “authority generally” by virtue of being a general authority (or leader at any level)—he will “exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of people, in varying degree s of unrighteousness” (v 37). Why? Because one of the chief-most components of unrighteous dominion is failing to listen and to truly hear (with the mind and heart).

Without the qualities of humility, meekness, empathy, and awareness, leaders are not capable of understanding the people they are to serve, nor of interpreting God’s will for those people in the most correct or beneficial manner. Further, when leaders dismiss real people’s real concerns as mere “hyperventilation,” they may be closing themselves off to significant information which can help shape the kinds of questions and concerns they should take to God for answers.

Good shepherds have to face their sheep as well as the Overshepherd. Our “file leaders”—those to whom we are expected to go for counsel—are being taught to categorize and pigeonhole both the problems members bring to them and the members themselves, rather than to listen with their hearts and minds and to seek for the guidance of the Holy Ghost. Elder Lee’s charge to stiffneckedness, still championed at the highest levels in the Church, is contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ and has been the source of much mischief and misery among us.

—Olivia “Are you talking to me?” Kallner

IHAA: Happy Mormon women

I Have an Answer

Questions to Gospel Answers

First published in Mormon Women's Forum, vol. 8, no. 3-4 (1997)

ANSWER: Mary Ellen W. Smoot was interviewed by the Ogden, Utah Standard Examiner a few months after her call as General President of the Relief Society. According to that interview, published on August 23, 1997, Smoot has three specific goals for Mormon women. First, “we need to learn to be happy in the era of life we are in.” According to the Examiner, “Smoot said women throughout the church are always looking for happiness in the next phase of their life: when they turn 16, or 21, or when they get married, or when they have their first baby, or when their children leave home. But …the sisters in the church need to make the best of the time in which they are living.”

Second, Smoot told the Examiner, she “wants LDS women to be more pro-active, especially when it comes to genealogy and journal writing. ‘I would like to see women get out of the mall and away from the television, and start writing their own story,’ she said about keeping a journal.”

Third, the Examiner reported, “Smoot wants Mormon women to be happy, and set that example for other women in the world. ‘I don't see women in the world as happy women,’ she said. ‘We need to learn to be happy women.’”

QUESTIONS: Has President Smoot talked at any length to her predecessors in the Relief Society General Presidency? If so, how could she possibly conclude that LDS women are spending their time in the malls or in front of the TV? Does she know that the majority of LDS women (even in Utah) are working outside the home to help support their families?

When did the true work of the Relief Society—caring for the needs of the living poor—get superseded by a preoccupation with genealogy? (It is easier to deal with ancestors than with the problems of those currently alive, yes, but the Savior served the living during his earthly ministry.) Is President Smoot aware of the connotations of the term “pro-active,” particularly when used by the head of an women’s organization dedicated to Christian charity and service? Does she understand how incongruous it is to use it in the context of journal-keeping and genealogy?

Further, will President Smoot encourage LDS women to use Relief Society as a time to share with one another the stories and experiences she is asking them to write about in their journals? Does she see LDS women telling the whole truth of their lives in their journals or simply the “happy” parts?

For whom are President Smoot's goals designed? Will she be able to transcend the white, middle-class, Wasatch-Front parochialism her comments evidence? Can her presidency expand its focus and goals to include the needs of women in second- and third-world countries? In short, will she come to grips with the root of many women's unhappiness—powerlessness—and the real problems they face, such as poverty, abuse, discrimination, and narrow definitions of women's roles?

Finally, was President Smoot chosen for her vision of LDS women being truly “pro-active” in making the world and the church a better place, or because she is “safe” and will do absolutely nothing that will threaten the patriarchal status quo? As was asked on a private LDS women's e-mail discussion group, will President Smoot act as a gatekeeper for men, rather than as a door opener for women?

— Olivia “on my way to the mall right after Jerry Springer” Kallner

IHAA: Faithful history

I Have an Answer

Questions to Gospel Answers

First published in Mormon Women's Forum, vol. 6, no. 4 (1995)

ANSWER: Faithful LDS historians and writers should focus on only those parts of Church history that are faith-promoting.

QUESTIONS: What does “faith-promoting” mean? What is inferred or implied when information is included, altered or withheld? For example, what is the effect on a person's faith when they find out that Joseph Smith had a gun at Carthage? Or drank wine? Or took plural wives without Emma's consent? How can one ascertain how this kind of information might affect someone's faith? How is it measured?

Do we accept as accurate a primary source, such as a diary or journal account, only on those points which coincide with modern practices and attitudes? Do we reject those same sources on other points if they clash with our expectations? Do we hold back some details because they detract from a particular image? What is the effect on faith when a history book is published containing misstatements or inaccuracies which have become quite widely known and identified as such, at least among well-read members? To whom are the publishers trying to appeal? Whose “faith” is strengthened? Whose faith is being judged as unimportant to consider?

Had the Church been forthright from the very beginning, standing for truth instead of fearing that our enemies would use that truth against us, we would not be having to deal with the compounded consequences at this late date, which potentially jeopardize the faith of a far broader spectrum of members than necessary. If the Church fails to tell a more accurate account of the truth in the face of evidence produced from its own archives, then the faith of better-educated saints may be damaged.

If the Church admits to the unpleasant and hitherto avoided “inaccuracies” in its own recorded history, then the faith of those brought up to believe the sanitized version may be damaged. At the moment, it seems the Church is adhering to its historical stance of “protecting” the untruth it has propagated on the grounds that it is “protecting” the faith of this latter category of people.†

The irony is, of course, that “the truth will out”: often the people whom the Church is presumably trying to “protect” learn about the things the Church is hiding. Isn't it better to learn the truth from the Church than from outside sources? Some saints are seriously shaken and leave, but the majority really do accept the humanity of the leadership in tandem with divine guidance and can deal with such “revelations.” Indeed, most people find it far easier to come to terms with the problematic aspects of our history than with the Church's continued efforts to cover them up.

Anti-Mormons unnecessarily derive strength from the Church's dissembling. “If they lied to you about thus-and-so, don't you see that they could be/are lying about this-and-that?” is a powerfully persuasive argument. The Church is ultimately ill-served by its unwillingness to tell its own story as fully and as truthfully as possible, warts and all.

Finally, what does it mean when the Church places more value on public relations than it does on truth?

Update, 15 Jan 2013: Just a few weeks ago, the church began publishing on its official website some fairly frank essays or responses about the priesthood ban on blacks, the different versions of the First Vision, and so on… all information that has been widely available on the internet for at least a good long decade. Too little, too late for some people, no doubt… and possibly far too much for others.

On the Mother

First published in Mormon Women's Forum, vol. 3 no. 2 (1992)

It is not the Father's lack of any human virtue, but rather our culture's disvaluing of things female/feminine which makes a male-only God insufficient. God the Father is a perfect, whole person, encompassing all good traits. He does indeed nurture us, and that nurturing is well within the scope of his power and personality. But our culture has divided by gender and placed value on certain shared human characteristics. This so-called “male-female” dichotomy permeates our philosophies, our language and, ultimately, how we perceive ourselves and others. Whether it's “mind over matter,” “spirit over flesh,” “reason vs. intuition,” “rational vs. affective,” our culture has divided these paired concepts of human attributes and placed them into “male" and “female" camps. And nearly always, “masculine” attributes have been held in higher esteem than “feminine” attributes.

So long as our view of our Heavenly Parents is colored and slanted by our telestial culture's gender-based dichotomizing of human personality, we cannot perceive of both of Them as They are: perfect human beings, co-equal, possessed of the same traits in perfect degree, endowed with power and majesty in equal degree. As we now perceive Her, with our own attitudes influenced by our cultural, social, and linguistic heritage about the relative superiority and inferiority of male and female, our Mother is as nameless, faceless, and as powerless as mortal women. Only knowledge of and from the Mother will put an end to this false image.

Further, there is much evidence to support the idea that the blinders and biases of patriarchal culture have made and continue to make it virtually impossible for us to discern our Mother working in tandem with our Father on our behalf throughout history. Our scriptures and current LDS discourse reflect these same patriarchal blinders and biases.

The restoration of all things, still in progress, will include the restoration of the knowledge of our Mother's rightful place in our understanding and worship of God. In short, I believe God is and will ultimately be revealed to be bom our Father and our Mother, not one without the other. That, to me, is the only conclusion of the doctrine of eternal progression which logically explains and takes into account the individual capacities and desires of all human beings, whether male or female.

Tuesday 31 December 2013

Christian Feminist Gardening

First published in Mormon Women's Forum, vol. 6, no. 3 (1995)

There are all kinds of gardeners. Some don't like bugs. To them, anything that crawls or flies is viewed as dangerous and undesirable, so these gardeners tend to apply broad-spectrum, highly toxic pesticides to rid the garden of what they view as pests. The fact that good bugs get killed off along with bad increases the gardener's reliance on chemicals from season to season.

Some gardeners are aware that good bugs along with bad bugs will get killed by the broad-spectrum pesticides, but opt to use them anyway because it's easier, not so labor-intensive, and seems to answer the immediate needs of the garden.

Some gardeners plant the same things over and over again, in the same spot, year after year. They know or care little about hybridization and the value of rotation. They don't know what kinds of seeds and varieties are available. They tend to over-fertilize, pointing with pride to the flourishing, immense greenery—but refuse to see that the yield in actual fruit belies the appearance of growth. Ultimately they exhaust the soil, have lower yields, contaminate the water supply and increase the odds that blight or disease will wipe out the one or two crops they persist in planting.

There have likewise been unintentional and harmful consequences to using non-organic methods when tending Christ's garden. Employing harsh chemical treatments and injurious mechanized processes in the quest to force growth increases the risk of poisoning ourselves with the residues. Far too many people are refusing to eat of the tree of life because they fear it has been contaminated with the pesticide of institutional coercion and pride. Worse, far too many people have partaken of the fruit of the tree of life, only to find the worm of unrighteous dominion nibbling away at the core.

Good, unharmful, natural gardening isn't easy. Many problems can be overcome when gardeners talk to other gardeners—even gardeners younger than they, whose plots may be smaller. Good master gardeners listen to others with more expertise than they in dealing with particular problems, pests or fertilizers. Good master gardeners listen to the questions and problems of less-experienced gardeners before attempting to give answers or advice.

Good gardeners study and develop new seeds and hybrids. They don't scorn advice but seek it. They recognize the value of innovative approaches, of crop diversity, of using good insects to counteract bad insects, of careful planting and cultivation of natural pest- and weed-controlling plants. They value methods based on real-life, contemporary experience, rather than slavishly following past routines solely because "that's the way we've always done it in this garden." They are willing to discard traditional methods which have demonstrably proven harmful. They don't simply assume that the Head Gardener approves of such methods simply because those methods have been around for awhile, or because they are described in back issues of "Good Gardening Tips" from long ago. Some of those past "tips" have been toxic in the extreme.

Good master gardeners do not condemn new ideas and methods out of hand, but wait to see the quality of the fruit and the yield. They do not restrict other gardeners' use of tools and natural fertilizers and new seeds nor access to the garden itself—saying to some, "you're a woman, you should be happy to plant tomatoes; and by the way, don't touch the hoe," or "you're a man, you need to concentrate on corn, and leave the tomatoes alone." Good master gardeners garden for the joy of it and allow other individuals the same opportunity for finding joy in their own fields of labor.

Good master gardeners take seriously Christ's maxim, "by their fruits ye shall know them," rather than allowing capriciousness, prejudice and cultural bias to dictate what or who gets pruned or plucked up—and when. Just as God restrains the angels from plucking up the tares until this can be done without harming the wheat, good gardeners understand how easy it is to mistake wheat for tares, and how important it is to show equal forbearance. Good gardeners understand from the parable in Jacob 5 that even wild branches are necessary to the life and productivity of a tame olive tree.

Like any garden, Christ's garden can truly thrive only when diversity is understood and respected. Using organic methods may take some getting used to. Initially the yield may be a bit lower without use of fertilizers and pesticides. (Careful weeding and mulching make herbicides unnecessary.) Sometimes organic produce must be washed a little more carefully to get rid of "little visitors," and sometimes it doesn't look quite so good as the slickly-waxed, commercially-grown stuff. But there's no comparing taste, healthfulness or overall quality of the fruit.

Those who blitz Christ's garden with the poison of intolerance for fear of letting a few bugs in or a few weeds grow will certainly have some explaining to do to the Head Gardener. Only tending His garden with care and kindness will elicit the "well done" we each hope to hear from Him.

Monday 30 December 2013

IHAA: Obedience

First published in Mormon Women's Forum, vol 6 no. 1 (1995)

ANSWER: The first law of heaven is obedience. If a leader tells us to do something, we should do it; if it turns out that what we did was wrong, the sin will be on the head of the leader, not ours.

QUESTIONS: What is the point of having a conscience, what is the point of receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, if we are willing to overrule both conscience and Spirit in deference to a human leader's commandments? An earthly tribunal at Nuremberg found the excuse of "I was only following orders" morally bankrupt. Why would a heavenly tribunal find such a rationalization any less reprehensible?

Obedience is "the first law of heaven" onhj when it is defined as "obedience to correct principles." Is blind loyalty to leadership more important in the eternal scheme of things than loyalty to righteousness and godliness? Is there any virtue in being obedient to evil, in doing what one knows in one's heart to be wrong? Isn't such "obedience" tantamount to denying the Holy Ghost?

Sociologist Stanley Milgram's famous experiments clearly showed how willingly most people relinquish personal responsibility for their actions. Most people obeyed orders even when those orders went counter to their own sense of justice and morality; afterwards, they were quick to shift all culpability to the authority figure.

The desire to duck personal accountability seems to genuinely characterize mortal human behavior; if we are expected to "put off the natural woman" in this life, then is it not required of us to take responsibility for our own actions, to "act and not be acted upon"? Isn't it more courageous and Christlike to stand for what is right and good, even if we risk the displeasure of leaders, censure or punishment, or even death? What is a life without integrity? Can we become godlike if we fail to act according to godly principles?

Finally, who besides Jesus Christ can take on someone else's sins? Isn't it the ultimate presumption for a fallible mortal, no matter his position, to promise that "if you do what I say, God will hold me responsible for what you do"? Has God ever ratified such a rash claim? If we believe and act on such claims, we are putting our trust in the arm of flesh, searing our consciences with as a hot iron, and dooming ourselves to spiritual infantilism.

If we are to progress, we must learn to discern right and wrong for ourselves; we must learn to negotiate the grey areas, cope with ambiguity and make hard choices according to our own best knowledge and judgment, rather than continually defer to others, some of whom are only too happy to acquire more and more power and control over others. If a leader's orders cannot pass the litmus test of personal conscience, we obey such orders at the peril of our spiritual integrity, and possibly our eternal life.

The war in heaven was all about our agency—our freedom to choose good or evil. Perhaps, then, it is more accurate to say that it is freedom to obey, and not obedience itself, that is the first law of heaven. Ultimately, to obey evil is to negate God's plan of eternal progression. Did we win that war in heaven only to lose it here on earth?

—Now if only I could get my kids to do what I say without question!

IHAA: Women & Priesthood

I Have an Answer

Questions to Gospel Answers

First published in Mormon Women's Forum, vol. 5 no. 4 (1994)

ANSWER: The gospel has been the same in every dispensation. There is no precedent, scriptural or otherwise, for women holding the priesthood.

QUESTIONS: Does the Church still believe in the Sixth Article of Faith ("We believe in the same organization that existed in the primitive church…")? If so, then how is it that women in the modern church are excluded from positions of ministering authority and leadership? More and more compelling evidence is coming to light that a number of early Christian women among the Gentiles held positions roughly comparable to that of the modern branch president or bishop; that they actively participated in such priesthood ordinances as the administration of the sacrament, baptism and the laying on of hands. The "greetings" found in Paul's epistles mention in passing women who are given the titles of deacon, overseer (or elder), and even apostle (Junia, "of note among the apostles," Romans 16:7). Headstones and inscriptions found in the earliest, Christian burial grounds mention women as priests and elders.

In Old Testament times, what are we to make of Deborah, a prophetess who was the judge in Israel for 40 years? (See Judges 4-5.) Or the prophetess Huldah, to whom the high priest turned for revelation from God during the reign of King Josiah? (See II Kings 22 and II Chronicles 34.) By what power and authority did they act? Where are their counterparts today?

Our own latter-day history is fraught with contradictions and ambiguity vis-a-vis women's relationship to priesthood authority. Women wear the robes of the priesthood in our own temples, and use the same words as men to pass through the veil into the Celestial Room. Surely these are nor empty rituals or words—? Moreover, what are we to make of myriad diary and journal en¬tries that explicitly connect 19th century LDS women with priesthood?

If we still believe in the Sixth Article of Faith, shouldn't we make use of the Ninth Article of Faith (" …we believe that God will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God") to effectively deal with these inconsistencies?

— Mother of a questioning soon-to-turn-12 daughter

Sunday 29 December 2013

IHAA: Steadying the Ark

I Have An Answer

Questions to Gospel Answers

First published in Mormon Women's Forum, vol. 5 no. 3 (1994)

Answer: To question or complain about church programs or policies is the same as "steadying the ark. " It shows a lack of faith in God and in the leaders God has chosen.

Questions: Are church leaders infallible? Do all church programs work well? Are there never times when it is appropriate to say, "this program or policy is having a negative effect on me, my family, my ward, people I know"? Is it inappropriate to provide feedback or crucial information about local conditions that decision-makers in Salt Lake might not be aware of? Is it wrong to ask questions in a church that began with a question?

The story of the daughters of Zelophehad (Numbers 27) seems instructive. These women stood to have no inheritance whatso¬ever in the Promised Land, so they went to the authorized leader, Moses, and presented their case. Moses had never thought about the inequitable situation he was on the brink of inaugurating. But instead of chastizing the women for their "presumption," or scolding them for faithlessness or accusing them of not sustaining him as the prophet, he took their concerns to the Lord. The result was a re¬working of the inheritance laws to take into account female posterity. (Not necessarily the greatest system from a modern point of view, but far better than the original plan.)

It is an integral, essential part of sustaining our leaders to give them honest feedback. It is important for leaders to know the kinds of questions for which we (women in particular) desire prophetic, revelatory answers—not because such answers cannot be found privately and personally, but because the impact of such questions and answers extends far beyond the private and personal.

As with the story in Numbers 27, women's concerns may otherwise never enter into male leaders' consciousness if we stay silent. We are not asking general authorities for their fallible, mortal opinions about doctrines and practices, but rather, we are providing honest feedback to and asking questions of our leaders in the hope that they will respond like Moses and take these concerns to the Lord and receive real answers.

If asking our leaders to ask God about things which have a broad-ranging impact in the lives of the members of Christ's church is "inappropriate," then what in the world is the point of having modern prophets at all?

— A modern daughter of Zelophehad

A View from the Bench

First published in Mormon Women's Forum, vol. 4 no. 3 (1993)

Imagine, if you will, a basketball team with both men and women listed on the official roster. Some of the women are naturally athletic and talented and have diligently practiced and memorized the game plan. Indeed, the coaches and managers have encouraged the women to develop their playing skills as much as possible. Consequently, some women play as well as the best men. At game time, however, the team managers—all male—allow only men on the court. The managers tell the women that it is much more important for them to be cheerleaders than it is to be players. (The managers even pick some women to be the head cheerleaders, but the managers still have to approve the cheerleading routines.)

When some women complain that they don't like cheer-leading and would much rather play, they are told various things: "basketball has always been a men's game"; "you are naturally suited to be cheerleaders, not players"; "we don't want you to get injured out there on the basketball court"; "you play far better than the men so the men really need to have the time on the court." If some women ask why they were encouraged to develop their playing skills if they weren't going to be able to use them, or if they still insist they could be of more value to the team by playing rather than cheerleading, the managers tell them that "you will be better able to train the next generation of basketball players," or "what you're saying is that you really don't like basketball," or "you don't really want to be on this team."

If the women have the audacity to ask the team managers if they've asked what the team owner thinks about the way they're running the game, they are accused of trying to undermine team morale, of really being "for" the other team. (Some women who like cheerleading accuse the women who want to play of wanting to force all women to play. And of course, men who don't want to play or would rather lead cheers don't fare well either.) Many cheerleaders and male players are quick to come to the managers' defense and say that "of course the managers have consulted with the team owner—it's the owner's team, isn't it?" But the managers themselves never answer the question directly, so the women who want to play still don't know if the managers have ever asked, or if the owner really is responsible for their not being allowed to play. As these women continue to ask, the managers will occasionally instruct some of the male players and coaches to escort the "uncooperative" women out of the playing arena, take back their uniforms and equipment, and scratch their names from the roster entirely.

The game is not yet over, and the other team is making points. When the other team gets too far ahead, perhaps the managers really will think to ask the owner if it's okay to use some of the team's best players on court, even if they are women. Or maybe the owner, having been directly informed about what's going on by those who don't think the policies are fair or in the team's best interests, will finally have to intervene directly by retiring some of the most closed-minded managers, or by sending a memo.

Is this any way to run a basketball team?

Friday 9 August 2013

Under the Umbrella

First published in Mormon Women's Forum Quarterly, vol. 5 no. 1 (March 1994)

When the Relief Society lost its financial autonomy and control over its own curriculum, its heritage was obscured and its ability to fulfill the broad vision of its original mandate was eviscerated. But women were told that becoming a correlated part of the church would place the Relief Society where certain men in authority thought it belonged— "under the umbrella of the priesthood." An interesting metaphor.

An umbrella serves to protect those underneath it from rain and sleet and snow. But how efficaciously an umbrella serves its purpose depends for the most part on how it is held. If the person holding the umbrella is mean-spirited, that person will not care if the other person is getting wet and sometimes will act in ways to ensure that the other party gets wet. Other times, without any ill-will or evil intent, the person holding the umbrella is simply oblivious to the needs of the other party. Sometimes the person holding an umbrella simply doesn't know how to hold it in the best way, and the other person gets poked in the eye along with getting wet.

Holding an umbrella is a big responsibility and can be hard to do. I have not always successfully held an umbrella—especially when I've tried to hold it for someone much taller than myself, or for a small child, or when it's been especially windy out. How encouraging to know that women in times past have held umbrellas perfectly well! Yet most men in authority have been adept at ignoring both this fact and the fact that women today have as great a need to hold onto the umbrella as be protected by it. (And that men often need women's hands-on help in holding umbrellas in the storms of life.)

I have found that the best way to share an umbrella, when possible, is to have both parties underneath hold onto it. This is an especially good method among adults: doing so minimizes the risk of poked eyes, and maximizes the chances that the things that really must stay dry will stay dry. It also allows the holders to "even out" the wetness, if such must occur, and to selflessly give up part of the protection if they believe the other person's needs are greater than their own.

It is hard to do much of anything to avoid getting wet except to ask for greater consideration, and ask repeatedly if necessary, if one doesn't have any direct control over the umbrella. When the Relief Society was unilaterally placed under the priesthood umbrella (this was not something Belle Spafford et al. requested—evidently these spiritually sensitive women didn't realize they needed protection), the impact on the local and general levels was enormous. There have been clearly negative consequences for women having to seek human male approval for projects that used to be decided upon by women and the Lord; by having no control over the purse-strings; and by having men in charge of women's curriculum. This last in particular has resulted in the silencing of women's voices within the Relief Society itself: our recycled manuals have hardly any women's voices or experiences in them. It's all male discourse; nearly all of what few women's stories have been included are told in a male voice and from a male perspective.

In short, the net result of placing the Relief Society under the umbrella of patriarchal priesthood has been to transform it into an organization of women that is run at the behest of and by permission of men—men who select the nominal female leadership. The best we've been able to hope for, under the circumstances, is that the men who run the Relief Society (generally and locally) are inspired. Sometimes they have been. Sometimes they most definitely have not been. Some men have insisted on holding an umbrella over women's heads even when the sun is shining. Sometimes some men have decided, even in the midst of a thunderstorm, that it's no longer raining and have walked off with the umbrella, leaving the umbrella-less women to fend for themselves. And then these same men criticize women for taking shelter elsewhere when the correlated Relief Society cannot meet their needs. What then? It seems past time for us to "get a grip" and regain the control we have lost.

In hopes of sunshine and parasols…

Sunday 21 April 2013

The budding pseudo-archivist complains

I wish someone would explain to me why it is that airlines rarely seem to print the year as part of the date on their boarding passes. With print-your-own passes, this is not such a big deal (since the date is usually included on the passes themselves, but if not, there's often a timestamp from the printer to rely on), but dealing with old, tangible, airline-issued passes are a problem. I have a stack of boarding cards with semi-valuable trip information… but having to track down the travel years that I'm not completely sure of is a big pain.

Is the "no-year" some kind of security feature? Or a limitation of boarding pass printing devices? Or is it a choice of the outbound airport? There are a few airlines with years included… but not for every airport, looks like. I've come across little documents pointing to trips around the same dates for different successive years. As with illegible receipts, I may simple have to note what incomplete or legible info there is, if any, and then toss whatever it is into the recycling bin with a philosophical shrug of my shoulders. (I am getting better about this.)

Obviously it would have been much smarter for me to have been entering all the data immediately after the fact, but that is not the reality I am dealing with now, alas. Tracking travel dates has involved first wracking my brain, guessing whom I might have notified about the trip based on the destination (when the boarding pass is not clearly just for a layover airport)… and then looking through my email accounts using whatever search-term info I have (i.e., partial date, airline name, etc.). Tedious. However, when I come across a relevant email, it's usually chock-full of other kinds of details, so I guess that's a good thing.

— Given the felicitous results of an email search, one might ask, of course, why I don't just start out by going through my "sent-messages" first. Well, silly billies, that would not necessarily advance the goal of getting rid of the tangible papers, right? Right? (Ummm….)

Saturday 20 April 2013

Receipt-mapping©

Per my previous entry (goodness, some 15+ months ago! oy!), I've been entering old receipts into Excel before tossing them, the idea being that they will help jog my memory about all of the events and details that I should have written down at the time, but rarely did. There are a few receipts that have, in fact, served this purpose, and others — well, OK, the vast majority — which will simply end up serving as testaments along the lines of "I was at this place on this date." (Or at least somebody in the family was there, likely me but possibly Mr Mo; I try not to worry about this too much. I'm the fanatical receipt-and-paper-keeper, after all.)

Anyway, I'm starting to look at the more global comings and goings aspect of receipt-keeping, which I have hereby christened "receipt-mapping." (I would like to think that this term is original with me, but somehow I imagine other people have come up with this before, even though all I've been seeing from searching on Teh Google are references to accounting software mapping for receipts, which is not the same thing. Breathe here.) This is an easier idea and process to deal with than trying to write out rich and eloquent blog entries about the "detail-jogger" receipts, though I expect to do that as well (frequently, in fact — such is my goal). At some point I will have to look around for an easy app that can deal with all this data in a graphically appealing way.

The impetus for this particular blog entry is looking through one of the spreadsheets for the "perfect" detail-jogger receipt with which to start my glorious renewed blogging effort. One receipt for early August 2007 sort of qualified — it's a receipt for a hotel (http://www.hotelvela.com) stay in Trento, Italy, along Autostrada A22 just as the Italian Alps start to really live up to the name, en route to Munich where Mr Mo and Larry (his business partner) were working for AutoScout24 at the time. The hotel was kind of a dive, but there was a restaurant (of sorts) on the premises, and it was late enough in the day that pretty much anything was going to be acceptable. (That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.)

Now what I don't remember (and will take a bit of other digging to figure out) is if I did the drive alone, or with Eliza, or with Mr Mo (pretty sure I didn't do it with both Mr Mo and Youngest). I know that I did the Quinson-to-Munich-via-Italy drive at least twice, and did another similar drive with Mr Mo en route to Berlin not very long ago. I think that once I've finished entering (ha! ha!) and then sorting the entries by year, such questions will be somewhat easier to answer without having to resort to other means — such as asking Mr Mo or Youngest, who may remember, or who in the case of the former would have the business receipts handy — or handier.

(The fact that I have the Trento hotel receipt suggests that this was a solo drive or a drive with Eliza. I do know, however, from an entered receipt for entrance to the Munich Mineral Museum — entschuldigen Sie, 'Das Museum Reich der Kristalle' — a few days later, that this was a "going-to" trip, not a return trip. … And as I have utterly no recollection of a return drive, I'm guessing I ended up driving Larry's car and leaving it there, and then flying back sometime later — after, now as I think of it, after I drove over to Walldorf (near Heidelberg) to interview at SAP. Would I have done so in Larry's car? Hmm. More mysteries to solve! — Indeed, no end of mysteries to solve.)

So! To the mapmobile, as it were. Bis bald…

UPDATE: Looking at the Hotel Vela's website, it's clear from the per-person price list that two of us stayed there.

Sunday 15 January 2012

My, um, little project

My immediate family knows, and probably a fair number of friends do, too, that I am a bit of a packrat. (Oh, come on now, there is no reason to ROFLYAO.) So I have started a project to get rid of things — well, okay, in particular, to get rid of papers. How I have chosen to do so may elicit a few more guffaws, but hey — other people (who shall remain nameless) choose to use their leisure time in ways that I consider wasteful(!!), so I claim the right to waste my leisure time in whatever way I choose.

So here's my choice: I am recording the bare-bones information for a fair number of papers (receipts in particular) before I throw them away. Let's put it this way: doing so makes it possible for me to throw them away, and guess what: I've been able to recover a lot of personal history and fill in some gaps by doing so. This is important to me, given how ... surprisingly gapacious my memory can be.

I've already gotten rid of many kilos' worth of paper at this point.

A couple of things I want to mention in passing: WTF is it with practically all airlines that they do not print the effin' year on their boarding passes? How is leaving off the year a good idea in this time of overwrought "security" procedures? I have a lot of boarding pass entries on my spreadsheet(s) that will require cross-checking with other sources. I do not like this.

The same is true for SNCF train tickets, only with these it's at least theoretically possible to find the date from the "composter" stamp, assuming it's legible.

Speaking of legible, the other major thing I've discovered is that... there are a whole lot of receipts that are pretty much completely illegible now.—And by completely, I mean that holding them at angles to the light and using a magnifying glass doesn't reveal anything useful (and just takes up time). I hate the (lack of good) thermal print technology that produced — and still produced — such abominations. Bad! Bad!

I may always wonder about those events which may now be forever lost in the sands of time, but I'm happy to have been able to revisit, however briefly, some extraordinary moments in my and my family's past (some of which I will doubtless elaborate upon in this blog).

Hooray for paper trails!

Monday 9 January 2012

Driving France's "death road"

The road between Villard Notre Dame and Villard Reymond in the French Alps west of Grenoble and south of Vizille is the scariest road I have ever driven, period, and I have driven some very scary mountain roads (to say nothing of driving on a bridge in Costa Rica in the late 1990s that we had to help repair first in order to get over it).

Just getting up to Villard Notre Dame was hair-raising: an extremely narrow road with scary overhangs...



... and especially having to get through a single-lane, poorly-maintained, dark, rock-strewn tunnel:


The death road itself hadn't been maintained in years:


There was at least—at least!—at thousand-foot sheer drop to our right for a significant stretch, and more than once I was sure that our right-side tires were not 100% on the roadway. But we couldn't back up, couldn't turn around, could only press forward hoping that the road would not get any narrower because of rockslides and all. Had there been any further obstruction, we would have had to hire some kind of heavy-duty helicopter to airlift our car to a safe place. Or abandon it forever.

The moral is, if you arrive at a road with a gated entrance, and there's a sign there that says “if you take this road, your auto insurance is not applicable,” you should really, truly take a different route, no matter how much you hate the thought of back-tracking.


(Photo: Another of the roadsigns that should have been a clue to reconsider our route: "Uncertain viability. Travel at your own risk and peril.")

Note: A shorter version of this story was posted as a comment on Dark Roasted Blend on 2007-08-16 (World’s Most Dangerous Roads, part 4). Photos are stills taken from this video.

Sunday 8 January 2012

The dam vidange (2008)

Every 10 years the water & power authorities are obliged to inspect any dam in France higher than 20 meters (65 feet), and this means draining the reservoir down to the dam's footings ("vidange" = "emptying"). Here are the dam photos, with a few literalesque French-to-English captions thrown in for your reading pleasure absolutely free!

Behold the dam in summer 2007, he is full of the water:


Behold the dam during vidange. The water, she is gone down 40 meters (130+ feet)! Note well the dark water line at the top of the dam (and also see where the line of the trees, they stop at the top-left of the photo):


A little further away from the dam, summer 2007; see the line of buoys of warning across the waterway!:


The same place, after vidange:


The front of the Quinson dam:


And looking up over the dam (remember, he was full up to the line of trees before the vidange!):


We then drove over to a little town about 8 km (5 miles) away called Artignosc, where the official "Lac du Quinson" is located (the "lake" in Quinson is just a place where the river widens), and lo! Here was the view from the main (okay, only) bridge into town over the reservoir canyon:


And then, looking toward Quinson Lake (Artignosc): all of the without-trees area of white in the distance, was entirely underwater before the vidange:


Smack-dab (okay, this is really not French at all) in the middle of the lake is the old bridge—the former main bridge—that used to cross the Verdon River up until the early 1970s. It was covered in stinky mud and lakeweed. (By the way, lakeweed when dry is like very, very brittle excelsior.) The entire lake area looked like another planet entirely:


In addition to inspecting the structural soundness of the dam, authorities hauled out all sorts of debris:


This once-every-10-years "vidange de retenue du barrage" was so cool! For my final shots, here's looking at the Verdon River on the other side of the dam. (Sorry about the power lines in the first shot below, but I really liked the light in this scene; by the time I got low enough to shoot again without wires, the light had changed; someday I'll get around to photoshopping the lines out.) Recreational boating and so on was not disrupted for lucky Quinsonnais vendors, but the tourist season in Artignosc (boat and kayak rentals, fishing, etc.) was cut short that year.



Thursday 5 January 2012

The 1994 Northridge quake

The Northridge† quake was terrifying, even though I was living in Pittsburgh at the time. We were in the process of moving to the Boston area, and my husband had been home for the Martin Luther King Jr holiday weekend. As I was taking him to the airport, I turned on the radio for the traffic report, and instead heard news of a major earthquake affecting Northridge, Reseda, Tarzana, etc.— in short, places I had grown up in, and where my parents and siblings still lived.

When I got to the airport, my heart in my throat, I tried to call my family. The recorded message for the 818 area code was "Due to the earthquake in the area, your call cannot be completed as dialed." So I tried calling my brother in Santa Clarita; the recording for that area code: "Due to the mudslides in the area...."

My parents and siblings had all tried to call me while I was gone, but (@#!) the cassette tape in my answering machine had run out. (So much for my serving as "Communications Central" during emergencies!) It was hours before I was able to talk to any of them, but thankfully they were all OK. I was glued to TV coverage from the instant I got home (well, OK, from the instant I discovered that my answering machine tape had run out).

My parents' house sustained about $50K of damage, mostly from the chimneys exploding through the upstairs walls of one bedroom and the sitting room — but every wall of the house needed replastering (ironically enough, only one window broke). They were lucky: they had earthquake insurance (though with a $20K deductible); their house was one of seven out of 14 on their block still habitable; and they were able to get contractors in right away to fix the damage. (Other people waited for months and months.)

My siblings' homes escaped with minor damage — I think one of my brothers had a hot water heater fall over, and my sister lost part of the cinderblock fence in their back yard. However, it took awhile for gas and electricity to be restored in several sectors, so (if I recall correctly) most of them ended up going over to my parents (whose power was restored quickly, and whose gas was still in service, amazingly enough).

Since then, all my sibs have put (annoying) baby-locks on all cabinets and drawers, and battened down their water heaters and large pieces of furniture. I don't think anyone has anything heavy or loose mounted over their beds.

I was not able to go to California until sometime in November that year. Even then, 10 months later, there was still a lot of visible damage in some parts of the San Fernando Valley. Most striking to me was the damage to the main parking structure at Cal State Northridge: the pancaked concrete parking levels and the bizarrely twisted steel railings were astonishing and very sobering to behold. Such sheer power! (The library and many other buildings were still closed, and lots of classes were being held in the many trailers and temporary buildings dotting the campus.)

Even so, this wasn't "the big one" (catastrophe still pending).

† Turns out that the epicenter of this 6.7-magnitude quake was actually at the corner of Reseda Blvd and Strathern Street in Reseda — only two long blocks from my sister's house!

Monday 2 January 2012

The 1971 Sylmar earthquake

On February 9, 1971, I was nearly 16, in 10th grade at Taft High School, and living in Tarzana in the southwestern part of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles. By 6:00 a.m. on school days, my older sister and I were supposed to already be up and getting ready to leave for an early-morning religion class, but we were still lolling in bed when the shaking started about a minute after 6. As there had been a fairly significant tremor around the same time about a month before, I planned on just "riding it out" in bed. As the shaking got stronger, however, my sister screamed, "Get up, you idiot, it's an earthquake!" (No duh.) Whatever semblance of calm I had had at the time evaporated, and I jumped out of bed.

She and I ran out of our room to the top of the stairs, where we met our brothers coming from their rooms (our bedrooms were on the second floor — ours was one of the very few "non-ranch-style" houses in the neighborhood). We could hear our next-door neighbors screaming over the deep sound of the quake itself and the sound of things falling or breaking. Our chandelier (on a long chain over the staircase) was swinging back and forth, hitting the walls. I yelled a prayer for God to protect us just as the electricity failed and the lights went out. Being plunged into near-total darkness was in some ways scarier than the shaking itself.

We all made it down the stairs and joined our parents (who came from their bedroom on the ground floor) in the guest bedroom next to the garage — this was a preplanned meeting place for just such an emergency (chosen because there was no second story overhead). We cowered together through the aftershocks until daylight had fully established itself. We knew that school wouldn't be held that day, but I can't remember if my dad ended up going to work downtown or not. (I rather doubt it.)

Our house was spared much damage — a couple of cracks here and there, and maybe one cracked window. Power was restored fairly quickly, and the first televised reports started coming in about the VA hospital in Sylmar that was hard-hit (accounting for most of the deaths)... and of the collapse of an overpass under construction on the I-5 en route to Santa Clarita. (The pickup truck that was squashed under the fallen segment of overpass remained there for months and months afterwards — a very grim sight.)

(As an aside, our Mormon bishop had just finished the graveyard shift in Santa Monica and was on his way home on the I-405. Just as he reached the crest and could see the brightly-lit panorama of the Valley before him, the earthquake struck. The Valley went totally dark, and then fires from broken gas mains started flaring up. He hadn't felt the earthquake, so he had no idea whatsoever what had happened — he thought the U.S. was under attack or somesuch. For someone with serious cardiac problems, it's amazing that he didn't have a heart attack then and there.)

Later that morning, a friend and I made our way down Ventura Boulevard, marveling at the cracked streets and shattered or cracked plate-glass display windows. Not a shop or store seemed to have been spared. We ended up at our local grocery store, Food Fair (later Theeee Movies of Tarzana), and helped re-stack boxes and cans. (For safety/liability reasons, we were not allowed to help clean up the aisles where bottles of cooking oils and dressings and jars of jams and jellies and peanut butter had fallen and broken. What a mess! —This was before plastic bottles were widely used, by the way.) Food Fair was the first store in the Valley to re-open that day (at around noon).

Meanwhile, there were great fears that the Lower Van Norman Dam on the north side of the Valley was going to collapse. Authorities were draining it as quickly as they could, but 300,000 people in the surrounding area were ordered to evacuate. Thankfully, the dam held, though it was damaged beyond repair. The huge broken slabs were visible from the freeway for a long time afterwards.

Schools were closed for three days to allow for thorough inspection, and of course when we returned to school, the earthquake took up a lot of class and social time for several days thereafter.

I remember two sizable aftershocks: one was during the early-morning religion class. When it started, we all ran outside. And there, on one of the patches of grass behind the church, a young tree was shaking violently back and forth — a very vivid image. The other memorable aftershock occurred when I was in 7th-period art class on the 3rd floor of Taft's C-building. The teacher yelled "drop!"—which I and all the other students did... but the thought occurred to me then that getting under one's desk when the floor was likely to drop out from under one didn't particularly make a whole lot of sense.

Those few moments of hard shaking in the darkness, accompanied by an other-worldly, loud and penetrating deep sound, was one of the scariest experiences of my life... but also one of the most interesting and exciting.

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