the Mormon out of the Man

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“At what point will I stop talking about Mormons? When will it no longer be a part of me?”

I leaned back in my chair, a deep sigh escaping my nose as a I did so, and I couldn’t help but smile. “I don’t think that will ever be the case.”

“But I’m not Mormon anymore! I left! I’m not in it any longer!”

“Well, neither am I. In fact, I can’t seem to stop writing about it.” Internally, I reviewed the ways Mormonism was showing up in my life, even after my years away from the religion. In fact, I’d just finished my own memoirs, and I gave it a three word title, all three words easily capturing my story:¬†Gay Mormon Dad.

“It just makes me crazy. I don’t go to church. I don’t associate with my family. I don’t even live in Utah anymore. I just, I swear it comes up in conversation at least a few times per week.”

I laughed out loud this time. “For me, too. I mean, I do live in Utah, but it is constant. I choose biographies randomly, for example. Recently I read one about James Buchanan, the president before Abraham Lincoln. He was a terrible president, and, ironically, was probably gay. Anyway, before he led the country into Civil War, he actually sent an army out to Utah to confront Brigham Young and his followers. There was a whole chapter about how Young ordered the Saints to destroy their own lands so the army couldn’t get them, and how they later came to peace and rebuilt. I spent two days thinking about how that was the environment I grew up in. The prophet tells you to burn down your own house to defy the government, and you do it, and then he convinces you that it was what God wanted. That’s how I grew up.”

My friend rubbed his fingers over his temples, fighting off a headache. “That is the world we grew up in, isn’t it? It feels like brainwashing.”

I leaned back in my chair. “I once had someone, who is still actively Mormon, tell me that I was obsessed with Mormonism, that I couldn’t stop talking about it. He said that if I wanted to get out of the church, then I should just get out and let people who practice the religion do so in peace. He asked me whyI keep writing about it.”

“Well, what did you say?”

“I told him it’s still a part of my existence. It was the driving force of the first three decades of my life, and of my childhood. My family still actively practices. My kids’ mom grew up in it, and their heritage on both sides for generations was part of it. And it surrounds me here. The streets in my ¬†neighborhood are named after Mormon places. The government is predominantly Mormon, and the culture all around me. The very history of the place I live is all Mormon-influenced. If I talk about grade school, my grandparents, my college years, my mission, the births of my children, being gay, being a dad, dating, or where I live, they are all tied to and influenced by Mormons.”

“Well, fuck.” My friend said, and we both laughed more loudly this time.

I jabbed his shoulder. “I guess it is easier to take the man out of the Mormon than it is to take the Mormon out of the man.”

Our conversation shifted for a bit to current events across the country. Hurricanes were ravaging Southern coastlines, again. The children of immigrants were being told by those in power that they weren’t welcome here, again. Transgender people were being banned from the military, again. Racists were marching in the streets while public officials refused to denounce them, again. Public shootings were being reported daily in the news, again. Connections to Russia were being investigated and it felt like the Cold War, again. Women’s right to health care was being debated, again. It felt like all of the most dark parts of America’s history were showing up in politics and the media in the worst ways, and in the most public ways possible. It was exhausting.

“If we left the country, moved somewhere that felt safer and more accepting, like Canada or France or wherever, I bet we would still talk about being American, almost constantly. And we would talk about being gay. And we would talk about growing up Mormon. And being parents. We would always give voice to the things that inspire us, that shape and mold us into the people that we have become. And I guess that is brainwashing in its way, but I guess it is also just human culture, the way we tend to view things through our own eyes and experiences.” I rapped my fingers on the table gently as I talked, positing a different reality that somehow felt the same.

My friend laughed again. “I guess it is easier to take the man out of the gay Mormon American dad than it is to talk the American gay Mormon American dad out of the man… or something like that.”

“Hey, not so much the American part, but that sounds like an awesome book title!”

“Man, you do love to talk about yourself.” He jabbed.

“So do you!” I jabbed back.

And so do we all.

Ho Chi Minh City

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“It all for her, everything. She lucky girl.”

My Viatnamese Lyft driver, Tuan, beamed as he talked about his daughter, navigating the car through the mild hills of San Diego. I smiled back.

“How old is she?”

“Oh, she 12. Her name Lina.” He indicated a photo of her that he kept nearby of a beautiful young Viatnamese girl, black hair and bright smile. “Her mother and I, we work always just for her, just so she can focus on education, have a different life.”

I commented on how beautiful Lina was, and Tuan asked if I had children. I mentioned I had two sons, ages 8 and 5, and he laughed heartily.

“Oh, two boys! They so busy, I guess! Girls more focused, more emotional. You lucky.”

We both laughed.

When Tuan asked, I told him I was a therapist, and he gave a cooing sound for a moment, seemingly impressed. He went on to explain how he worked as a driver all day long, stopping only to eat and relieve himself, and how his wife worked impossible hours as a nail technician. “We both work hard, too hard, but it good for us, for our family. We take care of Lina.”

I looked surprised, raising my eyebrows slightly as we sat at the stop light. “With you both gone all day, who takes care of Lina?”

“Oh! I should have said,” he laughed again. “My mother and father, they live in home with us. Mother is 84, father is 91, but they in good health. They wake Lina, take to school, pick up and feed. We take care of them, they take care of Lina. Wife parents still back in Viet Nam, but we not visit, too far, 20 hours by plane. Lina want to go to Viet Nam all the time, but we cannot go. We cannot even travel California, too expensive, have to pay bills and raise family. Education what important.”

I found myself asking the obligatory American question, the same question any white person has of any person from another country, before I could stop myself. “Oh, how long have you been in the United States?”

Tuan grinned broadly again, the smile almost constantly on his thin face. “We be here almost 20 year. I met my wife back in Ho Chi Minh City, where we grow up. It hot there, too hot, California nice weather. I meet her on a date with another girl, she was dating my friend, but I like her. We get married and move to San Diego, bring my parents here. Have our daughter. We citizens now. Very happy family now, but we work too hard, I think.”

Tuan asked me where I was from, and I said that I’d grown up in the Midwest but that my current home was in Salt Lake City.

He laughed. “Oh, that place have lot of mountains and lot of Mormons. Big families, lots of kids!”

I found myself laughing back. “Yes, that describes Utah very well.”

We drove through several more lights as Tuan talked about the San Diego weather, the seasons, the tourists, and driving. I muttered a few questions from time to time, but had difficulty slowing my own thoughts. I found myself wanting to ask a hundred questions, but refused to ask any of them, thrilled at Tuan’s narration of his own story. I thought of recent immigration policies, of the vastness and beauty of the world, of the rhetoric and fear spreading through the Hispanic and African and Latino and Middle Eastern people I know in central Utah as they wondered what would happen to their families in today’s America.

We pulled up to my lodging, the little Airbnb I would be staying for the weekend, and Tuan gave me a hearty handshake. “You enjoy those boys of yours,” he smiled.

I grinned back. “Thank you, Tuan, it was a pleasure meeting you. Thank you for telling me about your family.”

“I am lucky man,” he said, “but must go back to work. You enjoy vacation in San Diego. Maybe someday I visit Salt Lake City. And maybe someday you visit Ho Chi Minh City, too.”

“I’d like that,” I said, and closed the door as he drove away. I gave a quick wave, one proud dad to another, and both Americans.

Why-oh-Wyoming

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“Now remember, just because he has a mustache, it doesn’t mean he’s 21. Make sure to card before selling alcohol. The risks are just too big.”

As the public service announcement ended and more country music came back on the radio, I looked across the vast stretching snow-swept plains that extended in every direction, rolling black and brown peaks in the distance, a few rocky outcroppings stretching into the sky. The sun was just coming up over the peaks and I could finally see the terrain, after a few hours of driving in the early morning darkness. Gusts of wind blew light drifts of snow across the road.

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I pulled into Rock Springs, Wyoming a brief time later, here for a work shift for a few days. As I stepped out of the car, the wind cascaded across me, biting and much colder than I had anticipated. January in Wyoming was a bitch, clearly.

I shivered and pulled my scarf tighter around my neck, nestling into my coat, and stepped into the nearby gas station, a local place with the god-awful name of the Loaf ‘n Jug, it’s sister station the Cum n’ Go right across the road. Yes, spelled just like that.

Half of the gas station/convenience store was devoted to the sale of liquor. I looked around, hearing more country twang from the loudspeakers, and saw several shelves full of booze. Hey, the locals needed something to keep them warm. Several dead animal heads hung on the walls over the shelves, deer and elk and a mountain goat or two. My eyes fell on one of the bottles of liquor, a cinnamon red of Fireball Whiskey, with a handwritten sign over it that said “Buy two bottles of Fireball, get a free fishing lure! Inquire at the desk!”

As I munched on my trail mix and sipped on my hot, and terrible, gas station coffee in the car, I realized I had thirty minutes before my shift began. I grabbed my phone and Googled Rock Springs, Wyoming, figuring I may as well learn about the city I was in.

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I read about how, in 1885, the Union Pacific Coal Department was able to hire Chinese workers at a lower wage than White workers, so they, of course, hired more Chinese. The White workers rioted in an explosion of racial tension, burned down 75 homes, and killed dozens of Chinese. I didn’t see a single report of a White person killed. I read how the local newspapers at the time had sympathized with the White man’s plight, and how 16 men had been arrested for the murders, but all were acquitted one month later, met by the cheers of their loved ones for their heroic actions. It was with a pit in my stomach that I thought of recent anti-Muslim, anti-Jew, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic content in the media, in the current presidential campaign, and I wonder, for the one millionth time in my life, if we have evolved as a species at all.

I read about local industries and businesses and politics, about forms of entertainment (shooting ranges and the rodeo), about the long history of the state. And before long, it’s time to step outside the car, back into the biting wind, and to prepare for another day of work, this time in a strange and faraway place.

Later, I check into my hotel, and the kindly front desk attendant informs me that I’m just in time for happy hour. I shrug. It’s a week night, and only 5 pm, “But the drinks are free!” she exclaims. “One hour only!”

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And so 30 minutes later, a grandmotherly bartender mixes me a rather strong Rum and Coke. I take a few sips and make eye contact with the severed moose head hanging on the wall in front of me.

“He’s a beauty, ain’t he?”

I look over and see a woman behind me that I hadn’t noticed before. She looks as though she just woke up, her hair disheveled and in her nightgown, a large pink muumuu that drowns her. She takes a large handful of Lays potato chips from a bag she is holding and somehow fits the entire handful of chips in her mouth, cramming them in and not missing a crumb. She has no teeth, so she makes large gumming noises as she munches down on them loudly.

“Um, the moose?” I look back at his marble eyes. “Yup, a real beauty.”

The woman finishes gumming her bite and takes a swallow of the pink alcoholic mixture from the cup in front of her. “I bet he’s been dead fifty years.”

I look at her as she takes another handful, and realize I have nothing to say except, “Yup.”

And this is my life right now, I think. Me and this woman and a moose head at 5 on a week night, drinking free alcohol in a hotel bar in frozen Wyoming.

I give myself a little mental toast and take another sip.