Sunday, September 09, 2007


Yesterday we went to two parties: One a typical Mormon gathering, the other a typical non-Mormon gathering.

The first was the baptism of a friend's daughter. First was the service (very nice, although I wondered when someone started into "What do you think the Holy Ghost's real name is?"--that was a little beyond normal). Afterward, as is traditional, everyone went to the next room and had treats. As usual, they served water (we were in the church building in the Elder's Quorum room--carpeted, so no red koolaid or soda). Also typical, all the food was the kind you can hold in your hand--no dishes to wash. They did have cake, but it was served on napkins with plastic forks, not at all out of the ordinary for Mormons. The gathered crowd was also typical: all ages of people, from elderly to newborn, with at least as many children as adults (maybe more). Everyone was dressed in Sunday clothes, mostly worn familiarly and not starched or brand new, but also not old or worn out or stained. The men wore ties, but without the stiffness that men sometimes take on when wearing ties. The children were happy, busy, but well-behaved. Everyone stood around or opened folding chairs and chatted with each other, with plenty of talk between different ages of people, even if they weren't related to one another. None of the adults looked uncomfortable with the children, and nobody thought twice of our four in hand. Everyone seemed to be connecting with one another. They socialized for about half an hour, and then the party dissolved into minivans and suvs and went home--the family of the girl who was baptised (including grandparents and cousins) admittedly retiring to the girl's home for a family dinner (at which probably 20 people sat and ate, I would guess). The whole event lasted an hour, from 4:00-5:00pm. I went to a less-populated room and visited with several people one-on-one while I nursed the baby under a blanket, but not by any means in private, and nobody even batted an eyelash.

At about 7:30, we showed up for the other party, hosted at a lovely house in Boulder by one of Tim's professors. The crowd was a mix of grad students, conducting professionals, and professors. There was a great variety of foods, all served on nice china, with desserts served on glass plates. We weren't the only family there, but we easily doubled the number of people in any space at one time, and the four blonde children caused something of a stir. The one other mother there with a baby had retreated upstairs to nurse. There was a huge variety of drinks in metal buckets full of ice, both soda and "not kid friendly" (alcoholic). The hostess was very skilled in an etiquette book kind of way, and took great pains to introduce her guests to one another and visit with each person. Her house was perfect, there were chairs for everyone, and she was social. But in a spare moment, I looked over and she looked sad. (At a mormon gathering, someone would have pulled her aside and asked if she was feeling well, but nobody did). All the food was pretty, and tasty. Even the sliced peaches came with the label "Organic; Picked today"--and they were good. (I could have eaten the whole bowlful, but I refrained.) Everyone was drinking except us. We had gingerale, which made the kids instantly hyperactive and me grumpy. The other guests had to keep lifting cups of wine out of reach of the two-year-olds, who seemed to think it was soda or fruit juice. Everyone was friendly and nice. I was surprised, in a gathering of Tim's colleagues, to have to explain (like I do at every other gathering in the world) that Tim is a musician. I hadn't realized that academic musicians don't gig, making Tim something of a rarity. I suspect that academic musicians are as far separated from gigging musicians as Creative Writing Professors are from professional authors. They don't live in the same world or even speak the same language. We usually excuse ourselves around the time peope start acting like they've had a couple of drinks. Just as we did that, the kids wanted cupcakes. Before anyone took a bite, Tim asked, "Are these safe?" Everyone who had been watching then (and only then) noticed what was going on and said, "Um....No." The cupcakes were spiked with liquor and coffe beans. It immediately reminded me of Tim's song, "Cupcakes can kill you. They're made of death...."

So, two parties, both successful for what they were designed. But I realized some things.

One was that alcohol no only isolates you from your own real self, and your senses, but also from other people. Alcohol makes it impossible for people to truly connect to one another. Yes, drinking is a social thing. In fact, for almost everyone in the world, it's the only social thing. But it actually prevent truly Social things from happening because there is no society formed by people who are "socializing" by drinking. They don't know each other and they don't know themselves. So, while serving alcohol at a party is intended to make people relax so they can socialize, it is actually counterproductive. Very few people at the second party actually KNEW each other, even though they spend huge amounts of time together. They certainly don't understand anything about Tim except that he doesn't drink. Both Tim and I really wanted to sit and talk to each of the people there and find out what they think and what they know, what they like and dislike, who they are. But that's impossible to do with someone who is drinking. The alcohol prevents the level of intimacy required for people to connect with one another.

Another thing I realized is that Mormons are unusually free to have compassion. If I looked sad at a Mormon social gathering, half a dozen people would pull me aside to make sure I was okay, and they'd follow up the next time they saw me. They do this not to pry, and not to gossip, and not from duty, but from an honest concern for the people around them. I got the sense that that would be a taboo behavior in non-Mormon gatherings. How odd....

I came away from the second party saying to myself, "Why don't Mormons have parties like that?" It wasn't very long that I realized we do. All the time. More frequently than any other people do. It's just that when you have a party, you invite maybe twenty or thirty people you want to be with. For a Mormon woman about 55 years old, those people you most want to be with will start with your spouse, your 5-9 children, their spouses, and each of their 3-5 children, and that makes 25-65 people, right there. And that's just family. Fills up your whole house. And we have these parties once a week in close families; once a month otherwise. Complete with food and desserts and drinks (but no alcohol, of course). The fact that 95% of guests to parties are family completely defines how Mormons have all parties. For example, dress is casual. People don't really rsvp for things. Invitations are extended in person, over the phone, announced online, or even assumed. People bring kid-friendly foods (not just alcohol-free, but stuff kids actually like to eat). Often foods are fingerfoods to spare the women from washing literally hundreds of dishes. Any dishes used are assumed to be disposable, and nobody even thinks twice if the dishes are mismatched, even at semi-formal affairs. And everyone expects to do things that allow people to truly coonect with each other, whether that's talk, play board games, play sports, or watch movies or sports together. It's the Together that's the key, and the connecting--long term. Mormons like to know whats going on in each other's lives. They talk a lot about kids, having kids, raising kids, funny and terrible kid experiences. Mormons even do such outlandish things as talk about birth stories and nurse babies with men in the room--and the men join in the talk and jokes (they have birth stories, too, since they watch the person they love most go through childbirth many times). There are taboos at Mormon parties, of course--anything you can't say or do in front of a verbal, inquisitive five year old is off limits, even if the kids are out of the room.

So I realized once again that I'm living in Colorado culture, but I'm entrenched in Mormon culture, which is just as distinctly different than most of the world as Amish culture is.

When I was in college, one folklore professor said that many folklorists refuse to study Mormons as a folk group because so much of their culture is actually proscribed by the Church. i knew right away that the folklorists are wrong. They said you can't have a folk culture without a folk quisine, and Mormons don't have one.

The problem is, we do. And it's not just defined by the Word of Wisdom (no coffee, tea, alcohol for ingesting, no tobacco for people at all; should eat fruits and veggies in season, meat sparingly all the time, and use grain, including wheat for the staple of the diet and barley for drinks), which is proscribed and therefore not "folk". It's also not defined by the teachings about food storage and how to use it. The Mormon folk quisine is defined, like the parties, by the family. The foundation of the quisine is making a lot of food (to feed a family of 9 or more), quickly (because the women have lots to do each day besides cook), and on a tiny budget (because women are supposed to stay home and raise the children, so families have a single wage-earner), while still using food storage and following the word of wisdom and the teaching to have a garden.

For us Mormons, cupcakes are kid food.

No comments: