Let’s get two things out of the way first:
1. This references two podcast episodes that contain content some AMV readers may be uncomfortable with: Sex. Language. Irreverence. Transsexuality. etc.
2. I am an assimilated American (although not fully). It’s likely you are too. But if you aren’t, this post isn’t for you.
Today I listened to the episode Marc Maron’s WTF comedy podcast that was posted this past Monday, a live episode recorded at The Bell House in Brooklyn. After doing his opening bit, Marc Maron brought out Ira Glass and they talked for awhile (about Ira getting drunk, actually) and then (at around the 40-minute mark; and again: content warning) they bring out Elna Baker who reveals that she is no longer a practicing Mormon and talks about why that is and what she has done (as in, you know, “rule” breaking stuff) since making that decision. It’s about what you would expect if you know anything about the three personalities involved. And I say that with fondness.
There is, however, an uneasiness there. Elna isn’t quite sure how to express things; Maron* and Ira Glass** go for the obvious jokes and show major unfamiliarity with Mormonism while still making comments and jokes as if they know what it’s all about. Once again the tropes come out — Mormons as the weird, the repressed, the naive, the stiff (and Elna certainly abets that. Water vault? Really? [on the other hand, I kinda think water vault is a cool concept — all those sins, proxy and otherwise, locked away in that water]), the other. Funny underwear***. Mitt Romney. Blah, blah, blah.
And while I’m tired of the totalizing tropes, I still found it somewhat fascinating. They really don’t know what to do with us. And, oh, I suppose I should be outraged about it, but perhaps being an assimilated American means that you can find a joke about baptisms for the dead being equivalent to necrophilia funny while at the same time feeling sorrow over the fact that so many outsiders can’t comprehend the beauty and brilliance of the practice. And I don’t mean to condescend****, but I can’t help feel some smugness over the fact that as an assimilated American I get to immerse myself in all these cultural products and enjoy them and even feel part of them (even if the assimliation is never fully realized — there always will be that unease) while at the same time having this whole other thing that’s mine.
Earlier in the week I caught up with the Writing Excuses episodes, including which involved a discussion with female-to-male transsexual writer Keffy Kerhli on gender roles and identity. It was a fascinating episode. And yet there was some slight awkwardness from Brandon Sanderson, especially in comparison to Mary Robinette Kowal. Look, major props to him for being open to doing an episode on the topic, but there were a couple of moments that showed some (very small) unease. On the other hand, Howard Tayler was totally not-awkward and expressed himself amazingly well in the comments section when, as was inevitable, the self-righteous (actually apparently non-LDS) Christian showed up.
Now we’ve said favorable things about both Elna and Brandon around here. In fact, it’s safe to say that some of us AMVers are major fans. And I don’t think that just because Elna leaves, that changes whatever achievement her book is. And I don’t think that Brandon being oh-so-slightly awkward changes the fact that just covering the topic on a podcast that has a huge mainstream Mormon audience is an achievement worth noting.
Both podcast episodes show evidence of the assimilation of Mormonism (and Mormons) into American culture. Both also show the uneasiness inherent in that assimilaton.
I was running errands (library, pharmacy, grocery) earlier this evening thinking about all this — these evidences of uneasy assimilation — while listening to the Current and after the whiny girl singing about love there was a pause, as I pulled out of the library parking structure, and then that familiar sharp chord (I knew it from the first note), and I turned the radio way up and there it all was — the crisp snap of Stephen’s drums; the melodic boom of Hooky’s bass; the piercing soaring of Bernard’s keyboard; the jangling of Ian’s guitar and his aching, baritone crooning — and I turned it up even more because if any cultural product put me into whatever tracks of assimilation I have wandered down it was this track. And as the chorus hit — the part where normally I’d sing along that love, love will tear us apart again — I was quiet because I just wanted to take it all in. And, you know, there was no unease. None at all. Still. After all these years. None. And beneath the rush of emotion, the rawness that still gets me every time, all was quiet. And when the last notes faded away (don’t ever fade away), I turned off the radio and, there in the grocery store parking lot, felt an odd gratitude. Because I know that whatever unease there may be between us and them (and us and us), I’m grateful to believe in something and be part of something that encompasses all of it. Which it does. And I say that without smugness or self-satisfaction. It doesn’t change the awkwardness here. But all of it is all part of this mortal life. And it’s also all part of the eternal.
NOTE: so it should be obvious, but let’s keep the comments focused on notions of assimilation and Mormonism and culture. I don’t want to hear about how you feel about Elna Baker or Brandon Sanderson or Marc Maron. Or how you feel about Brooklyn hipsters, conservative Mormons, stand-up comics, transsexuals, or fantasy writers. Let’s get past the obvious outrage or disappointment or whatever. That’s just as predictable as the unease.
*Yep. Maron. I figure after listening to more than 140 episodes of the podcast, I get to do that.
**Coincidentally Laura referred to Ira Glass in a post earlier today. Sorry, Laura.
***For the record Elna isn’t entirely wrong about what she says about women and garments, but she isn’t fully right either.
****That’s a Maronism, btw.