Monday, June 29, 2009

Mormons VIII: Miss Utah, Swine Flu, Dead Babies

It is the penultimate day of my journey back to San Francisco. It has been a long, meandering trip.

Barranquilla by minivan to Cordoba, truck to Turbo, launch to Capurgana, walk to Panama, xx? to Colon, bus rides up the Pan Americana to Mexico, the Swine flu tour of Veracruz, Mexico City, Laredo. An old friend and a few Pogues CD’s on the car ride to Austin and New Orleans, a barge to Natchez, a bike ride to Nashville, a road trip to Richmond, New York City, and Middletown, Connecticut, and an Amtrak ride up to Rochester, over to Chicago, and on to Salt Lake City.

I have traveled over three months and 8,000 miles, and I am now so close to San Francisco that I can taste the California current in the cold rain which I am told is highly unseasonable for a Salt Lake City June. My body is worn down and I know my immune system must be on the brink of capitulation. But I have one day left for Salt Lake City, my last pilgrimage site where I will embrace the role of camera-wielding tourist. I even read the guidebooks for this one. My plan must be executed with a marshal pace, I’ll leave the Clark W. Griswolds in the dust, yet must be time for whoever pops up during the day. There must be characters here in Salt Lake City, and I must find them.

The people and the religion that founded this Zion have weaved themselves into my life story. If nothing else, I owe it to the story to have a look around.

After two days and a night on the train, I got in just before 1am. I was met at the station with a cold steady rain and not the hotel shuttle I had arranged to pick me up. I called the hotel to see what the matter was, and the midnight receptionist was so friendly on the phone it was impossible to be angry even though he had no trace of my reservation. Maybe they had checked the central database after I had booked the room.

A couple hours out of Denver I started calling Salt Lake hotels. The first was not yet open. At the second a honey-voiced receptionist named Pam offered me an exorbitant rack rate, yet before hanging up I asked if there were any cheaper rooms. She paused, then asked me why I was visiting.

“Well, I’m coming to see the sites. My family isn’t from Utah, you see.”

Two short statements both true, but she was free to see whatever she wanted was some deeper meaning connected with my visit, a search for roots maybe, or a return to the homeland. I wanted her to see that I needed a cheaper room. This pilgrim was not about to spend 185 dollars at the Shiloh Inn.

“How much were you looking to spend,” she asked.

“Uhh, a 100 dollars… maybe I should look for another place.”


“What about 104 dollars,” she replied, “It’s our introductory rate.”

Open Sesame, a nearly full hotel knocks almost 40% off a single night for a guy who has come to see the Temple.

But eight hours later there is no reservation, no record in the computer of my conversation with Pam. The Shiloh Inn was either full, or did not take guests after midnight. The night clerk found me a room at another inn without a shuttle, so I only spent a few more minutes in the rain before a taxi arrived.

The breakfast buffet at the Crystal Inn was a more auspicious start than my arrival. I had slept through my alarm and woke with 5 minutes to get down to the lobby before the end of breakfast. I was resigned to scraps, frozen bagels halves and frosted flakes, but there was a fully loaded hot bar, fruit, granola, yogurt, fresh juices, and of course, local honey, this the state of Deseret. A banner overhanging the lobby announced the Miss Utah Scholarship Pageant, and there were 25 contestants rearranging little bits of food here and there on their plates while their families and the rest of us tried not breath too deep for fear of asphyxiating on overpowering hairspray fumes.

I sit down to tuck into some eggs and hashbrowns and I notice what’s been following me, though we’ve been onto each other for a while now. From Veracruz to Mexico City, Monterrey, Laredo, Nashville, New York City, Chicago, and now Salt lake, for the last 5,000 miles it has been keeping a few days behind, or to keep me of balance, skiping a few days ahead. Today it has caught up with me in the Crystal Inn, while I breakfasted with anorexic, hairspray huffing beauty queens.

The headlines of the morning Tribune screamed Swine Flu, or least they should have. They’re now printing H1N1 in place of Swine Flu. This is a mistake, first because the pigs are clearly to blame, ask the Egyptians, though more so because acronyms aren’t nearly as frightening as the prospects of rogue farm animals. It’s as if the print industry has already given up, how else are they going to sell papers if they don’t even try to scare people anymore. The hospitals weren’t even testing for Swine Flu in Salt Lake City as they’ve assumed all the cases are of the porcine variety.

With a map in hand I set out for the Genealogy Center where the LDS Church sponsors one of the most comprehensive family research libraries in the world. Between the Center and the Granite Mountain Records Vault a few miles outside the city and beneath 600 feet of nuclear blast proof bedrock, the Saints possess over 3 billion pages of family records. They are now working to digitize this vast collection, but for now the records are available on microfiche.

Right beside the door of the Center there is a desk occupied by a Walmart-style greeter. “Hello! I can just tell you’re a first timer!” the woman with a white beehive hairdo said.

Beaming, she offered me a first timer’s-VIP name sticker and called another white haired woman who directed into a room with a surprisingly helpful introductory film.

The film even included a line that hinted, however obliquely, what the LDS intends to do with all of this genealogical work. In LDS Temples, the Saints conduct post mortem baptisms as a part of their sacred rites. This practice drew some scrutiny when it was reported the church was baptizing from lists of holocaust victims. I am impressed with the backdoor effort, though I wonder if they realize what they are getting into here. One of my ancestors was the last man to be ordered branded by the state of Tennessee, our long line of sinners might need any help they get with the celestial parole board. They might prove regrettable picks as eternal neighbors.

I climbed the stairs to the North America record hall where I sought some concrete connections to “Uncle” Walker. Three years ago, based on a conversation with a living uncle, I had pegged the Grey Eyed Man of Destiny as Grandpa Walker. It did not take genealogy to discover he had no children of his own—that was a matter of the historical record. But what about his brothers and his sister, or even his parents brothers and sisters, where can I find a Walker that fits into our tree? There is a great x4 grandma Walker who was born in Virginia. It’d be nice to have more than speculative ties. I have spent too much on this little tyrant to find out that my great grandfather made up the connection to add luster to his own legend.

After a half hour it sank in why I was the youngest person here by a solid three decades. Genealogy is slow, tedious work requiring geriatric patience even when the records are available. Going back the holes in the county records swallow entire generations. In the colonial period and the in early republic, churches were often the sole repositories of vital documents. Churches were also typically made of wood, and many burned. A burned down church in North Carolina had stymied my paternal grandfather’s pursuits of our family tree, though the Walker line supposedly ran back through my father’s mother’s line.

Even if I had the whole day, or week for that matter, I’m not sure what I would have found what I was looking for. There were no records for Davidson County births in the 1820’s, but I had the names of William Walker’s brothers and sister along with her husband with whom she moved to Kentucky. I checked both Paducah and Louisville, different accounts placed her in both cities, yet nothing jumped out. I searched the lines I suspected that might have linked us in Virginia, again no luck.

Genealogy is not just tedious old fart work, turns out it is also depressing. Where the church sees opportunity, I just found endless lists of forgotten souls. With a few names, locations and dates, one can reel the microfilm and squint through record after record of the reproductions of barely legible scrawl. Some of the poor penmanship had a morose quality. Instead of buzzing through the names, I stopped and read a few. There was a reason for the sad ink, many of the records were for babies that didn’t survive their first day. As a historian I should have realized that records were kept for living and dead births alike, and that infant mortality was extremely high in the time before antibiotics and the germ theory of disease. There was something about reading these records that hammered in both points, and after this little discovery I had a hard time just zooming through the records in search of a single last name with noticing all the dead babies, dead leaves on the family tree.

The sadness of the premature loss was not only evident in the wilted penmanship, but in the abruptness of the half completed records. Judged by the motley styles, these were probably filled out by the grieving fathers themselves. The yellowed reproductions are stuffed 8 to a slide and serve as the only evidence of a child who may or may not have taken a first breath outside his mother’s womb.

If William Walker is in fact a relation, I will have to slog through hundreds of more reels to prove the connection. I didn’t have the stomach for it, and it wasn’t the mission for my only day in Utah.

I crossed the street to Temple Square, which was geared something in between a tourist attraction and an establishment presentation of the Latter Day Saints. The skyline as viewed from the entrance to the square was an impressive juxtaposition of ancient and modern. The towering white granite of the six-spired Temple and the rooftop garden atop the matching granite of the LDS Conference would have been at home on the Mesopotamia plain, yet both buildings are framed by the vertical lines of Salt Lake’s modern skyscrapers that rise up around the square. The silver, turtle back dome atop the tabernacle might well have dropped down from outer space.
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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Mormons VII: A Note for the Faithful

Before I post my report from Salt Lake City, I’d like to explain my position a bit further regarding my longstanding interest in Mormonism. I’ve been impressed with how many Mormons have tuned into my blog, and this little foreword is for you. If you are not of the new chosen tribe, and if I haven’t offended you previously on the subject, no need to read on. Check back in a couple days.

Religion is a delicate subject, but an important and fascinating one, especially in a country that embraces a plurality of faiths. I do not mean to be disrespectful of the sacred, yet as a historian this can be tricky, what I may see as historical narrative, others see as god given truth. There is no bridging this divide; critical examination necessarily runs counter to the lion’s leap taken by believers in the miraculous.

The timing of Mormonism compounds these tensions of faith and fact. Joseph Smith established the Church of Latter Day Saints in the first half of the 19th century, so the bulk of the Mormon creation myth is subject to an historical scrutiny not possible with older faiths like Judaism and early Christianity.

As a student of American history, I couldn’t resist exploring the Mormon narrative and the character of Joseph Smith, perhaps the most underappreciated character in American history. Yet because the more colorful dimensions of Joseph Smith— Joe Smith the drinker, gambler, con artist and womanizer extraordinaire—are aspects not easily incorporated into the latest prophet of Jesus Christ on Earth, the history itself is necessarily provocative to the believer. The Mormon story of the New World, though sufficiently ancient to be safe from the historical record, does little better against what we know of pre-Spanish America.

If the historical examination weren’t bad enough, I also bring an echo of the Gonzo journalist to my subject matter. This is where the ice of objectivity begins to crack—I am putting myself into the story, and I’ll push a little if I think someone’s going to add to the tale. It probably doesn’t help noble objectivity that the people out there willing to talk to a guy with a notebook in hand at religious sites are either recruiting souls or are total nut jobs.

So there are obviously limitations to my approach. Sometimes I stumble onto a story, sometimes the fanatics find me.

In the case of the Latter Day Saints, it was a bit of both. For those of you who read this blog, you know that the Mormons first found me in grade school. Years later the hamsters and I drunk dialed an LDS ad. Several years after that I spent my last month in Slovenia with two missionaries, themselves converts to the new gospel as revealed by Joseph Smith.

There is benefit to this Gonzo route. While I have a rough sense of what I am after, I’m not setting out to prove anything. The stories are the experiences. This doesn’t like much, but with this approach I’m abandoning years of schooling and professional training. From high school themes to my first college newspaper assignment, to my first paid clip, I’ve been encouraged to write and think as a determinist. Determinists make a thesis and then seek out the facts to prove the thesis is correct. It is a method hoisted on professional journalists and academics of all stripes in this country. Not that everyone takes the bait, yet most cannot afford not to, it pays to write the story an editor expects or with the slant de jour of the academe.

Thank goodness this little forward isn’t supposed to go anywhere. I respect believers of all faiths, maybe even Scientologists, even if it doesn’t always come off that way.
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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

New Museum, Old Tricks

As you might have guessed from the dead space here, I’ve been in a bit of a rut lately. Where does the self-doubting writer turn for a pick me up?

This time a trip to New York City and the conceptual art world did the trick.

I went to the New Museum for their exhibition Younger Than Jesus, a collection of works from 50 artists under the age of 33 from 25 countries. The exhibit promises to demonstrate how the best and brightest are defining the latest generation from atop the shifting foundations of the information age.

A worthy aim, but the execution is lacking. For a museum dedicated to being at the vanguard of the global art scene, the curation of Younger Than Jesus relies on a tired sensationalist formula. Had PT Barnum latched onto Dada, they’d call this show retro.

I understand that an exhibition looking to engage the i-generation must embrace the conceit of making art out of the internet. Unfortunately, the internet inspired art was the weakest link in a suspect show in spite of the reaches made in the curators’ descriptions. The placards were more ambitious, sometimes more interesting, than the pieces they introduced.

Take Gutherie Lonergan’s Myspace Playlist, composed of two side-by-side video screens playing looped clips of teenagers’ video introductions from the social networking site. I was seized by the question off limits to critics of conceptual work. What was Lonergan doing that makes this art?

According to the curator, the work is “based on the appropriation of material that he finds online and reconfigures and re-presents in ways that speak to the issues of identity, originality, and creativity in the digital age.” A squat to the floor revealed that these “quasi-anthropological documents” demonstrate the “world altering paradigm shifts in the nature of self presentation.”

Myspace and Facebook have scrambled the delineations of the social and private spheres, paradigm shift or no. It does not take an artist to make this point. Perhaps a careful observation of the paired teens, using their webcams to project into cyberspace, reveals some clever little ironies unique to the medium. Yet there is nothing in the presentation of this footage that enhances the content or suggests the artist's mastery of this driftwood churned out of the cybernetic sea.

I wonder if an art student could have submitted this work for a passing grade. Maybe so, but there are more appropriate forums for Lonergan’s work than a university or, for heaven’s sake, prime museum space in SoHo. Youtube might have been the better fit.

A rule of thumb for the exhibition: the more suspect the concept, the longer the rectangular placard. Some of the postmodern run-ons stretched down to within inches of the floor.

Liu Chang’s Buying Everything on You was accompanied by an especially long placard. At least the process was evident behind Liu’s work. Liu approached individuals on the street and offered money for everything on their person, purses, keys, cell phones, jackets, underwear. The artist then took these possessions and laid them out on plinths. Absorbed in the curators’ thorough explanation of where to find the art amidst the detritus of faceless hipsters, I fumbled my pen and just managed to bat it away before it fell on the nearest plinth and merged with the exhibit.

Where my eyes saw junk, the curator found, “arrangements that call to mind both taxonomical research and funereal rites…a snapshot of contemporary consumer proclivities in an era when personal and social forces encourage us to define ourselves by the things we own.”

Consumerism wants me to identify with the shit I am buying.


My snickering was premature. The omniscient voice on the placard was just building to the punch line. The artist, it explained “is providing us a portrait with an empty center: while his subjects may be defined peripherally… they necessarily remain elusive.” No double speak here, the hipsters have eluded the display table, we have only their knick-knacks, and knickers, to gawk at.

It’s a pity Liu didn’t collaborate with Chu Yun, Chu took no chances that her subjects stay put—she drugged them. The curator lists the medium for Chu’s This is Danielle as a female participant, a sleeping pill, and a bed. As advertised, a naked woman slept fitfully under a white comforter in a white bed in the middle of an exhibit room.

This piece merited the longest rectangle of all. The placard explains that the work “utilizes an economy of means to evoke a rich panoply of associations… the participants…are less real life, modern day Sleeping Beauties than islands of enviable calm. Unperturbed by the frantic pace of contemporary life, or by the exhibition around them, they seem to exist in a charmed atmosphere. There is an inherent irony in the participants’ supernatural tranquility: That they are only able to maintain their state of sleep with the assistance of sleeping aids, suggests that, perhaps, their state is not one of relaxation, but of withdrawal and extreme vulnerability. Provocative, and slightly sensational, This is XX not only brings up questions concerning the role of the female body in the history of art, but larger ones that ponder the museum as a platform for self-display. Furthermore, in the context of this exhibition, This is XX can be read as a counterpoint to, or even a protest against, the stereotyping of this generation as hyperactive and hyper-aware.”

I was sitting Indian style next to the bed so I could copy the end of that paragraph without my legs falling asleep. As I turned my head back to the bed, where the mattress was now at eye level, XX, in this case a mid-twenties, ivory skinned brunette, elbowed at her comforter so that for a moment I pondered a half moon of nipple and a satellite freckle adrift on a heavenly breast. Provocative, and slightly sensational. I have spent sweet time pondering the role of the female body in the history of art, though perhaps I haven’t given conceptual art a fair shake.

It was almost as if Luke Fowler’s short film, what you see is where you’re at, was included as a preemptory rebuke for the curmudgeons who hadn’t been softened by the throws of the sleeping beauty.

The placard in the dark screening room explained that Fowler, “frenetically pastes together footage- much of which has been exhumed from obscure sources—in a manner that evokes rather than explains, his subjects.” I sat in on the last five minutes of the film, and yes, nothing was explained. There was nothing to explain, no subject, no image at all, just occasional grains that flickered as light passed through the overexposed film. The evocation would follow, my reward for waiting for the credits and through to the next loop of the film. It opened with a shot of a brick building, a dreary London skyline, another brick building, and then a cut into a lecture hall with the conclusion of some sort of presentation, circa 1970. A student came to the microphone placed in the aisle to ask the man behind the podium if he expected the audience to accept his rambling and incoherent presentation as art for arts sake and simply applaud him. The lecturer/artist replied “You have been culturally conditioned for a very different sort of lecture.” This line was met with wild applause from the audience. He then goes on to chastise the questioner for having the presumption to challenge the artist or the art.

I’ll spare the details of four other exhibits--a melted chair, three record players stacked on the floor, a wall sized panel in a single hue of an Adobe Photoshop program, and an Atari-style throwback video game. I liked the video game, though I’m skeptical of the curator’s conclusion that, “the compositional elegance…simplistic objectives and Spartan graphics are redolent of a simpler time.”

One sensationalist in this baffling collection struck a chord with me. Brendan Fowler, a musician and conceptual artist, exhibited a show poster with the text of a back and forth between Fowler and a band called AIDS WOLF. Fowler had made a poster for a show he was supposed to do with the band, where he calls out AIDS WOLF for having a horrendous and stupid name.

The band took offense at this tongue-in-cheek attack, and posted a barely literate diatribe against Fowler and the “edumacated (AIDS WOLF’s spelling) trying to pull one over on the pleebs.” From there it spirals into the ever more ridiculous, with Fowler’s mocking commentary of both AIDS WOLF and himself providing the laughs to the end.

Unlike the curators, one gets the feeling Fowler never takes his own bullshit too seriously.
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