Provo, 1991

WARNING: This is a story that admits that some men, even Mormon men, are interested in having sex with women, and that some BYU students don’t keep the Honor Code. If these facts bother you, then don’t read this story; you will not enjoy it.

I wrote this for a writing class  in 1995. At that time I was inactive but recognized that my Mormon background would be interesting to my classmates.

I saw Ellen at a party in November of 1991, and she glowed with a dark and dignified sexuality. Jameson , a former roommate of mine, was throwing a 1960s-themed costume party at his house. Most of the guests wore thrift-store Woodstock cliché to match the Grateful Dead oozing out of the speakers in another room. Ellen stood tall over the kafkans and macramé in an A-lined gogo-styled minidress with a geometric black and white pattern. A matching scarf neatly pulled her strait brown hair back, except her bangs, which hung low over dark, small eyes made darker with makeup. She wore the white knee-high boots like she had born in them.  She looked, well, cool. In a room full of undergraduates hyper with the illusion of social release and the faint but palpable hope that the faded bell-bottoms and the pretense of being stoned might reveal something interesting in them that J. Crew and earnest discussions abut the Gulf War did not, Ellen radiated honesty. Her costume seemed to reveal something true about her rather than masking her identity. There was no trace of self-consciousness about her at all.

Of course, it is now impossible to look at that moment with real objectivity; the filter of the years between now and then and our common experience undoubtedly warp and color my memory. The truth is that I cannot remember Ellen ever being self-conscious about anything. We were once caught sunbathing nude by a National Park ranger, and she showed no sign of shame, defensiveness, indignation, or even titillation. The ranger’s over-polite request that we put clothes on seemed to strike her with the same moral force as a reminder to not feed the bears. Standing across the room at the party in her Nancy Sinatra boots, she may have exuded more complex and highly manipulated emotions, but if so, they are lost as I place that event in the context of our lives together.

My self-presentation was indeed more complex. I was dressed as Rod Serling in a vintage suit and a skinny tie. I had to tie my long hair back (ironically, knowing the number of wigs which would be worn that night) and I squinted and carried a cigarette with me. I planned to light it, but restrained myself.  At Brigham Young University, the center of Mormon ideology, even the lefty-cool crowd had its limits. I was fully aware of the irony of being more daring by appropriating a more conservative figure, and the cigarette was part of the effect. I had recently discovered post-modernism and my stance was completely self-conscious; and when Ellen made eye contact and smiled, I masked my eagerness and made a plan to make my way across the room without seeming deliberate.

I knew Ellen already, although not well. The previous summer, she had lived across the street from some friends of mine. I was working at a nearby scout camp and slept on their back porch on my nights off. I saw Ellen and her roommates often, but my romantic attention lay elsewhere. (With a lovely large-eyed elementary education major that thought she could save my flagging faith with understanding and tenderness. She was wrong.) One Saturday one of my friends took me on a trip up the canyon with two of his neighbors. They were Ellen and her roommate whom might have been called Lisa. Lisa (or, more accurately, the girl I think was called Lisa) was blonde and pale, awkwardly thin with a pointed nose and preposterously modern eyeglasses. I remember thinking that both girls seemed well connected with the lefty-cool subculture of Provo, but I remember nothing specific of our (or their) conversation. We drove up Provo Canyon to a reservoir and swam. Ellen had a boyish face with a square earnestness that, in itself, cannot be called beautiful—the word “comely” occurs to me, but I’m not sure why. She was (and still is) muscular with well-proportioned breasts and hips, and the one-piece swimsuit she wore emphasized her shape. We played with a Frisbee on the beach after swimming, and at one point Ellen tackled me and scrambled over me, taking the disk from my hand. As she straddled me with the Frisbee raised in one hand, she looked down at me and flashed a smile that extended into her eyes and down her neck. At that moment she was beautiful.

And it was that smile that I remembered as I pushed through the crowd and said, “Hey, cool dress.”

She smiled and looked me over. “Thanks.  What are you supposed to be, like Bobby Kennedy or Dick van Dyke?”

I had been doing this all night. “Rod Serling, actually.  The Twilight Zone guy?”

She frowned and looked away. “Oh, I get it.  Well, you do stand out here.”

I caught a hint of condescension, but I couldn’t tell if it was directed at the party or me. I pressed forward by asking how things were or some such thing.  She responded amiably about her artwork, and I remembered that I knew she was an artist, or at least an artistic type.  Then, after only a few sentences, Ellen leaned in close, her mouth against my ear, pressing her body against mine.  She touched the hand that held the cigarette and whispered, “I don’t suppose you have any more of these, do you?”

In the context of an off-campus BYU party, this question had more significance than one might imagine. Rather than a simple request for cigarettes, it was an admission of unorthodoxy. BYU was heavy with orthodoxy; to attend the university, you were required to sign the Honor Code in which you promised to live in accordance with the rules and standards of Mormonism. This included a prohibition on tobacco, alcohol, coffee, drugs, pre-marital sex, cohabitation, wearing shorts, and men with beards or long hair. Determining another person’s level of unorthodoxy was difficult and dangerous as a violation of the Code could result in expulsion from the university. In addition, there were different levels of unorthodoxy.  Many of the lefty-cools questioned and mocked the Code but complied with it out of a sense of duty or fear; there were those who only kept the part of the Code they felt morally obligated to keep, but might drink coffee or be  sexually adventurous without actually doing the act; then there were the violators—those  who did not keep the Code at all, or only to the degree which kept us from being kicked out of school. Ellen had just taken the risk of admitting to being a violator.

It was a risk because the true believers (known for some reason as Zoobies) saw it as their duty to report violations of the Code when observed. Furthermore, some of the more orthodox of the lefty-cool scene might report you—not out of moral indignation, but I believe out of shame and jealousy, punishing others for their own lack of moral courage (or excess of it I suppose, depending how one defines moral courage). Even if they didn’t report you, they would invariably drag you into a tedious conversation about the Code in which you would have to justify your behavior. Some found this a fascinating topic of conversation and debate—I did not.  Getting somewhere with a girl was hard enough without thinking about its relationship to my moral and spiritual status.

The rest of the pack of Chesterfields was in my car, which gave us a chance to leave the party and walk down the street. I lit the cigarette that had been part of my costume and handed it to her, and she smoked it casually, offering me a few drags along the way. We said nothing as we walked, but I felt at ease, grateful to be out of the crowded living room and in the crisp night air. I fished through the cab of my little pickup truck, found the pack, and we sat on the tailgate and smoked and talked.

I wasn’t a serious smoker. I had maybe four or five a week, usually in this very situation: as a means of establishing or reinforcing my status. It’s a good way of making contact because, while smoking is a dangerous Code violation, claims of addiction will help you avoid the full wrath of the Standards Office, the group of university bureaucrats (including student employees) charged with enforcement of the Code. Still, smelling of smoke creates suspicion since Provo offers few venues for picking it up second-hand. Looking back now, I realize I enjoyed smoking more than I admitted at the time.

Ellen blew some smoke out of the corner of her mouth and turned to look at me. “So, what’s with you?”

I started filling her in on my current situation. I was 22 and a junior, majoring in English and anthropology. I lived in an unfashionable building on 300 north, about six blocks from the university. She was also a junior and an art history major from Idaho. She lived even further off campus. We sat there in the cold for a half-hour, catching up on our common acquaintances and discovering new ones. (In Provo, one rarely needs more than one degree of separation.) The conversation moved easily, mostly because Ellen talked about herself and her artwork freely and with enthusiasm. I answered with a description of my readings and studies, about which I was equally enthusiastic.

Sitting this close, even with only the light of the streetlight, I was able to really see her. There was something mannish about her but it wasn’t so much her strong jaw or small, dark eyes; it was the way she held her body. She sat upright, shoulders back and tilted slightly, as if stretching some muscle. She exuded confidence with no trace of coquettishness or diffidence. I thought she was magnificent and exotic.

She was just such a change from the women I had dated during the previous six months. I had recently finished with Denise, the aforementioned future educator of the very young. I thought of Denise as the bubble-gum girl.  She has blindingly blonde hair, cut in a bob, and I think she favored blue mascara. I cannot picture her in memory doing anything but smiling at me, which is odd because I gave her little smile about. She was a Zoobie, but only because it was the path of least resistance.  She despaired of me, but at the same time was tolerant of my sinful habits as long as I seemed to be making “progress.” I spent most of my time trying to figure out why she was bothering with me at all as we had very little in common. I think it was her way of keeping her moral options open. She didn’t drink, but with me around, she could start any time. I was with her because she was funny and kind and in a strange, naïve way open-minded, but mostly because she let me touch her — and she enjoyed that, and I enjoyed pleasing her. But along with that was a cat-and-mouse game of desire and repression and guilt that left me dizzy and sexually frustrated.  In the end, it became clear to Denise that I was much more likely to corrupt her than she was to redeem me, so we parted company in a theatrical moment of tearful recriminations that resembled a drug intervention. I was sorry to see her go, but I didn’t miss having to try to read her chastity meter at any given moment.

And here was Ellen: she didn’t seem to have meter, but opened her life and experience to me just as she sat there, leaning into me when she spoke, looking down the street away from me as I spoke. It wasn’t so much what she said, although she spoke of her plans and ambitions and opinions—intimate stuff in its own right—but the fact that she spoke about it with the conviction and force of someone who knows they have wisdom and truth to share. Her low-pitched voice, slightly graveled, created a sense of ownership and belonging, and I felt privileged to be included in it.

From the tailgate, we could see the costumed partygoers leaving Jameson’s house.  Ellen said, “I need to get my coat.”

“Do you want to go get some coffee or something?”

She turned and looked at me like an old woman considering whether to buy a fish.  “No, not tonight.”  She stood up and smoothed her dress, tugging gently at the hem.  But you should come by and I’ll arrange a meal for us.”

Arrange a meal?”

She shrugged.  Next week Friday?  Do you know how to reach me?”

I said yes to both questions and we kissed, quite briefly, and she walked down the street toward Jameson’s house.  I had forgotten about the boots, and the matter of fact way in which she moved involuntarily brought the Nancy Sinatra song to mind, an association I still make to this day.

Comments

  1. What a fine, honest, evocative recreation of a time and place, Norbert; it takes me back. I can picture that building at 300 North, I can remember you with your hair tied back. I don’t remember being at this party–I suppose was at the one where they were having those earnest discussions about the Gulf War–but I can remember many others much like it. Did you ever know Scott? You guys would have gotten along swimmingly, perhaps. Anyway, thanks for recovering this little slice of life, preserved from so long ago.

  2. Egalite says:

    Great post, Norbert!! How did you stand being around so many mindless Zoobies for so long? (great word, by the way) I didn’t know Zoobies don’t wear shorts. I’m trying to imagine all those Zooby girls puffing through gym classes in floor-length dresses and sweat pants…NOT!! Agh, brain bleach! I bet they make a special exception for star “Mormon” athletes. Anyway, great post and I’m glad to hear there was at least one or two free thinking minds in Provo!

  3. Guenevere says:

    I had no idea that you were so dangerous.

  4. If you wanted to come across as lefty-cool to zoobie girls there was a much easier way: go to the U.

  5. MCQ, that is also a key strategy for cheering on sports teams who win BCS Bowl games and make it past the first round of the NCAA tournament now and then.

  6. you should write a memoir, that was fantastic.

  7. Fantastic essay, Norbert. I want to know more…

  8. You reveal a great ignorance of conditions on the ground in and around BYU/Utah County, Egalite…

  9. “Great post, Norbert!! How did you stand being around so many mindless Zoobies for so long? (great word, by the way) I didn’t know Zoobies don’t wear shorts. I’m trying to imagine all those Zooby girls puffing through gym classes in floor-length dresses and sweat pants…NOT!! Agh, brain bleach! I bet they make a special exception for star ‘Mormon’ athletes. Anyway, great post and I’m glad to hear there was at least one or two free thinking minds in Provo!”

    I liked this post, but the problem with any post like this one is that they tend to bring out the Egalites of the world who honestly believe being a “free thinker” is synonymous with violations of church norms; that all commandment-keeping members are “sheeple” who have never given any serious thought to their religion. It’s a real pet peeve of mine–one that ranks just behind the continued use of the word “NOT” with superfluous exclamation points.

    Again, though, that’s not a shot at the OP, which I enjoyed.

  10. True Scott, the benefits of attending the School of the Prophets abound, but none was more strange and wonderful than automatically being seen as exotic and dangerous every time you spoke to a BYU girl.

  11. Brilliant, Norbo.

  12. 15 years later and it still remains interesting to your readers.

    Go figure. ;-)

  13. I agree with Jimbob. What a disappointing note. Why the hard feeling for BYU students; why characterize the honor code as some form of anti-American police state; why glorify in your youthful rebellion? Unless you still wish you were there. Springsteen’s Glory Day’s comes to mind, perhaps.

    Sorry, I guess I am not a memeber of mutual admiration society so prevelant on this site. I just think this note reflects a deep spiritual immaturity–need to define self though percieved moral superiority over “zoobies” is indeed spiritually immature.

  14. I tend to agree with Tim.

    I am reminded of a couple of missionary comps who bragged at great length about their pre-mission sexual exploits and how many times they had to meet with GA’s or SP’s for permission to go on a mission.

  15. I can’t decide which is worse, the use of “NOT” or the use of “sheeple” . . . I reject both of you completely.

  16. So Norbert, did you sleep with her?

  17. 13-14:

    First, read the warning. Second, an honest recounting of one’s youth and sexuality is hardly what you are accusing it of being.

  18. JimBob, Tim, bbell,

    I can’t speak for Norbert, and wouldn’t presume to do so anyway, as he can speak better than I. But for my part, I see no braggadocio in this post; it is, on the contrary, a pretty humble contribution–it is as if Norbert were simply saying “this is how I saw and felt about things (or, more specifically, how I remembered seeing and feeling about things) at a certain time and place.” The fact that some of us shared some of those times and places, saw some of those same things and shared some of those same feelings, is bound to produce some fond reflections (which is not the same as nostalgia or longing). The fact that there were 20-somethings two decades ago who doubted and struggled and wondered about their place at BYU and in Mormonism is no surprise. The surprise is that a piece of 15-year-old writing can express it all so well.

  19. Kristine says:

    It seems tone-deafness (both receptive and expressive) is an occupational hazard of self-appointed judges.

  20. Accept, reject, whatever. We were all a certain age once upon a time and place. Who gets to decide who gets to live long enough to return and report? You? Ha ha. Let the man tell his tale for a change. He’s earned it. We all have.

  21. RAF,

    To be clear, I was responding to Egalite, not to Norbert. I have no problem with the OP, since I don’t see Norbert glorifying his behavior as much as simply providing context for it. Egalite, on the other hand, is essentially saying that the only “free thinkers” out there are those who flaunt disobedience to prophetic counsel, an idea which I categorically reject.

  22. Yeah, I don’t know why – but this essay makes me defensive for those who are/were honest enough to abide by the honor code and bristly towards those who dismissed the code, not because they had human failings and temptations but because they have smugly declared themselves to be lefty-cool because they haven’t been brainwashed (or something).

    Maybe I am just reading the condescension into it because I want to be offended? I don’t know.

    Norbert, did you mean to imply that people who followed the honor code were less intellectually savvy than the lefty-cools, or am I just being sensitive?

  23. Russell Arben Fox:

    Look at comment number 16… that is what is wong with this kind of post.

  24. Kristine says:

    No, what’s wrong is that some people don’t get the gentle, self-mocking irony of the OP. Norbert’s not asserting that “Zoobies” or the faithful were less cool than he, he’s letting us see that his 22-year-old self thought that. There’s a difference.

  25. IMO this post is just a story. Mormon prose. I don’t think that it provides any doctrinal insight or raises any points for conversation. I think its value is self-contained. Perhaps comments should have just been disabled on this one since most of them seem to detract from the value the OP contained.

  26. Tim,

    No, actually that’s what wrong with Danithew.

  27. Kathryn Lynard Soper says:

    I preferred wong.

    Excellent personal essay, Norbert.

  28. Well, it seems that Norbert was such a cool guy. Much cooler than the zoobies. While he was a student at BYU, he found someone rebellious who would smoke cigarettes and go nude sunbathing with him.

    But was he cool enough to break all the rules or just some of the rules?

    The post deliberately leaves the question open. So I thought I’d ask.

    BCC: permabloggers are quite smart and fully know that posting stuff like this is going to lead to questions and skepticism and disapproval from some places. The responses/comments you are getting are predictable and they are, in light of the post, quite appropriate.

  29. I love the wishy-washy quality of the defenders of the post. Sure, we all experienced youthful rebellion to some degree or another. And yes, we all have a story to tell. But why not come full circle and present a redeeming message–perhaps, I was a goof ball and I didn’t understand the values people around me held, and now I do and regret it. Ugh..

    I also get the “this piece speaks to a time/place and mindset” argument, but it results in rationalizing and justifying spiritual immaturity.

    Someone, anyone: what is the thesis of the note?

  30. Steve Evans says:

    Predictable responses, yes. Appropriate, no. You’re better, Dan.

    Tim, if you want a thesis, go read something academic. This is a memoir. Move along.

  31. At Brigham Young University, the center of Mormon ideology, even the lefty-cool crowd had its limits.

    lol!

    So, so true. I was at BYU at the same time, on the staff of the Student Review even. Here‘s where I recounted the tale of trying to find any kind of kindred spirits…

  32. It’s very interesting that many of you all are assuming this is memoir, not fiction. I wanted to leave that vague — I can see some of my readers find that grey space troubling, so I think I’ll leave that vague.

    Egalite: You have missed the point, although I have a feeling you are jut trolling anyway.

    Guenevere: If this is the Guenevere that used to get annoyed when we watched Benny Hill in that apartment on 700 North, then you were probably at a party very much like this one. And no, I probably wasn’t.

    MCQ: Not going to BYU but staying in Utah would have struck me at the time as leaving Cell Block C but still being in prison.

    Scott: Most of my friends would have shared your antipathy toward BYU athletics.

    As far as the criticism: While the narrator is not necessarily my own voice, his unwillingness to debate the honor code was part of my position at the time, and I’m even less fascinated by it now.

    I actually have quite a few of these pieces, so this could become a series. Maybe.

  33. Steve Evans:

    Fine you don’t like the term thesis–how ’bout: what was the author’s point?

  34. Tim, see above: it’s a memoir fiction story. If you don’t get the point, maybe there wasn’t one, and you should stop asking for one.

  35. p.s.: sorry to prove some commenters’ point that this sort of post brings out the naughty people who reminisce about having broken the rules at BYU. If it’s any consolation, I’ll admit that (unlike Norbert) I was a total nerd back when I was a naughty Zoobie.

  36. @25: Yeah, maybe comments should have been disabled.

    Because, of course, it’s inconceivable that us guys from Podunk, USA might somehow wind up at BYU finding ourselves in awe of certain fellow (female) classmates.

    Good grief. If the OP is not stopped in his tracks, some might surmise that BYU shares traits with what passes for a typical university these days. The horror!

  37. Peter LLC says:

    Quick to the point to the point no fakin’/I’m cookin’ MCs like a pound of bacon.

  38. When I read the post, I missed the point that this was for a writing class and that it might be fiction. I’m sorry about that … I thought I was reading someone’s actual experiences.

    Look, of course it is obvious that there are people at BYU who break with the rules, who ignore and flout the Honor Code. To them it is a joke.

    My upset was that we have a blog that is so prominent in the Mormon blogging community, that is putting this kind of thing forward.

    But I thought it was a real account of a real person’s experiences.

    Even if it is not a true account, then I am still wondering what the point of it might be …

    Anyway, with the vagueness and ambiguity of whether this is actual and real, I don’t know whether to apologize or not. Obviously, I’ll need to read things more carefully in the future. For that, I am sorry.

  39. For what it’s worth, my response might be counted as proof that I found the account believable. Surely that is a good thing for someone who is writing a fiction, a short story.

    If that is what it is …

  40. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why Mormon art largely sucks. Any dissonance whatsoever and the artist has his bowels removed at sunrise.

  41. Here’s my question :

    We talk all the time about the dearth of Mormon voices in literature. But when I put out a story with what is perceived to be moral ambiguity, there are demands to know the point of the story. Now I’m no Updike, but come on now …

  42. Great photos, Chanson. And unless you wore that outfit with the bare midriff often, I think I was at that party.

  43. When I read the post, I missed the point that this was for a writing class and that it might be fiction. I’m sorry about that … I thought I was reading someone’s actual experiences.

    You’re not alone.

  44. I feel like there’s a bit too much condescension to the Zoobies in the voice of the writer himself, as opposed to the voice of the character; that’s probably my biggest beef with the story itself, which I mostly like quite a lot. Though I’m not always the biggest fan of the prose style (and, again, I think the writing voice described in some of these comments–seeing his youth through an older and wiser, though not necessarily more or less “faithful,” lens–would have worked a lot better than the voice that I feel is in the actual story), I really love the description of BYU/Utah County student-age culture, which is really honest, and, I can say, just as accurate a couple decades later. Good story; I’d love to see another rewrite twentyish years later (though, of course, don’t ever lose the original).

  45. Great photos, Chanson. And unless you wore that outfit with the bare midriff often, I think I was at that party.

    Thanks! I did not wear that outfit to many BYU parties, so it’s likely the same one. You can ask Spaff which party it was — he took the photo.

  46. John Mansfield says:

    It is kind of interesting the varieties of experience with something like BYU, or life as a Latter-day Saint. Some feel a tension in it, like in this story, and seek out sub-communities of the alienated where they can enjoy some kind of comradeship. Others are just really, really happy to be around all those swell Mormons and are only vaguely aware that there are some among them not sharing the unity.

  47. FWIW, I found the account believable, and I’m sorry to find the OP now backpedaling and suggesting that it’s more “interesting” to characterize his recollection as “vague” and perhaps entirely “fictional” …

    Whatever.

    We’ve all been there. Or wished we’d been there.

    As Mitt would say, “No Apologies.” As it should be.

  48. Kathryn Lynard Soper says:

    Norbert, referring to “my Mormon background” in intro is somewhat misleading if this isn’t your personal experience. We’re led to the assumption that what follows is literally part of your background.

  49. This story ain’t nothin, back in 2003, just to show the Honor Code how lame it was, I murdered a co-ed. Right in the Cannon Center. On Fast Sunday, late in the afternoon, when the lines are long and everyone is hungry. And I was (ironically) wearing a pirate costume. I smoked a cigar too, right there in the Cannon Center, just a few feet from where you pick up your mail and packages. America had just re-invaded Iraq and this co-ed was all talking about supporting the troops and other Zooby stuff like that, so I just killed her, kitty-corner to the little store where you can buy corn chips and Poweraid with your DiningPlus card. Zoobies are so conservative and mindless. Murderers think outside the box. And they kill co-eds. Right there in the Cannon Center.

    –Cannon Center Zeitgeist, 2003

  50. Badass, that’s not a bad story, but the tension is lacking. Maybe you could give the co-ed a name and talk about how your stoner older brother dated her before he came out and defected to Cuba, or something like that. You know, help your readers identify with the character and all that.

  51. Fair enough, KLS. This is based on my own experiences, with some license taken to emphasize a tone or theme, if you will. And, for the record, I don’t plan to defend the moral position taken by the narrator of the piece.

    chanson, that was fun to read.

    badass, you are a silly person.

  52. (36) I guess my point was that arguing over art is an exercise in futility. Some want a point while others argue it doesn’t need a point (the same arguements that have surrounded Picasso since day one). It polarizes the pretentious from the yokels and inevitably turns everyone into self-righteous A-holes – even people who really aren’t.

  53. Badass, you mentioned it was a Fast Sunday and you committed murder – and yet you failed to cannibalize your victim before the full 24 hours had passed.

  54. Norbert said from the outset that he wrote it for a writing class. I assumed it was fiction (or fictionalized) and was surprised that others assumed it was memoir. Not that it really matters one way or the other, but maybe it’s more about where the reader’s coming from.

    In any case, the piece is more vignette than story. The “point” is to evoke a sense of time and place and character. And BCC is a blog, not a church class, so whatever the story is or whatever the point is, it doesn’t need to have a moral (which it doesn’t).

  55. Maybe it’s because I was never there so it doesn’t bring back a flood of memories, but too me this piece doesn’t do enough either humorously or ironically or simply expressively and narratively to capture the dissonance.

    On the other hand, some of the descriptions of Ellen are quite nicely done.

  56. In any case, the piece is more vignette than story. The “point” is to evoke a sense of time and place and character.

    Exactly right, madhousewife.

  57. I am not trying to be difficult and I don’t want to instigate contentious thoughts. But of course the author has a message he wants to convey (that is, unless he is like my 6 year old and merely likes to hear himself talk). Fiction or non-fiction, there is still a message.

    From my read, the message is that rebelling against both LDS and BYU norms (and no, they are not the same thing) is cool and hip (I know, that’s proof that I was never “hip” simply by using the word). That, I think, is a misguided and immature message to trumpet.

    As for a call to turn off comments and halt criticism: Criticism is helpful to any author and sparks critical thinking about the subject. Isn’t that why we read BCC in the first place–to think through mormon culture and doctrine? I’ve enjoyed and learned from the comments of others, and hope that my thoughts contribute to the conversation.

    Finally, the note is indeed a well written “pager turner”; I just don’t agree with the undelying message.

  58. @(36 again) Of course I can’t tell if you were agreeing with me sarcastically or seriously . . . stupid shortcomings of the written language.

  59. Kristine says:

    Tim,

    Lit. 101: sometimes the point really is just to evoke a point in time. You know, the way sometimes painters paint a bowl of fruit with no discernible moral intent.

  60. Kevin Barney says:

    chanson, I’ve seen that picture before. That’s one smokin’ midriff! Somehow I doubt the honor code would be up to the challenge of warning guys off the badgirl SR editor.

    (Enjoyed the story, Norbert!)

  61. Kristine says:

    Not that I’m calling Norbert (or anyone else) a fruit…

  62. BTD Greg says:

    Interesting genre: pulp Mormon fiction.

  63. Alright… I get it. A yokel a-hole I am…

  64. 57 Yes, Criticism indeed made Dali a better painter, Michaelangelo a better sculptor, Scorcese a better filmmaker, and Radiohead a better band. The way I see it, art criticism, and criticism of the general population of art, always makes it better. Mainstream art is true art afterall ؟؟؟

  65. Eric Russell says:

    I, for one, find the story disappointing. The disclaimer hinted at some action but we got none. Hopefully there’s a part two.

  66. … while smoking is a dangerous Code violation, claims of addiction will help you avoid the full wrath of the Standards Office, the group of university bureaucrats (including student employees) charged with enforcement of the Code. Still, smelling of smoke creates suspicion since Provo offers few venues for picking it up second-hand.

    You two kids could’ve made that pack of Chesterfields last longer and avoided the SO with one of these babies.

  67. Mommie Dearest says:

    I enjoyed the comments (thus far) as much as the OP/story/memoir/vignette. This is kinda like Book Club!

    I was a BYU student with a closet smoking habit at times. There is always a non-conformist subculture at BYU that, philosophically speaking, ranges all over the map. Just like there is in the church. Just like there is at any given blog in the ‘nacle.

  68. 66
    W O W
    I am in awe.

  69. Wm Morris: like I said, I’m no Updike. :)

  70. Norbert, I’d like to ignore all the commentary (though I’ve read it) and just say thanks for providing some enjoyable entertainment. In the end, it doesn’t matter to me whether it was fictional or not, it felt REAL. Nicely done!

  71. Um, if this is the reaction to this story, it makes me wonder how ya’ll reacted to the post where I admitted I’d looked at porn as a teen.

    Norbert, although I never deigned myself cool enough to go to all those lefty-cool parties, I had aspirations. I get where you are coming from. And chanson, you are, no doubt, one of the many SR women I spent my freshmen year crushing on. Na ja.

  72. Also, great job, Norbert! I liked it.

  73. Molly Bennion says:

    Norbert, your comment in 41 was almost as good as your story. Sorry it had to be said.

  74. Guenevere says:

    –If this is the Guenevere that used to get annoyed when we watched Benny Hill in that apartment on 700 North, then you were probably at a party very much like this one. —

    This is she. And yes, I remember a party pretty much like that one. ahh, youth.

    I remember your longish hair and tie dyes, which at BYU at the time were like a code. A code for something. I just don’t know what.

  75. Kristine says:

    “Alright… I get it. A yokel a-hole I am…”

    Tim, sorry–I was the a-hole; I didn’t mean to be quite so condescending. I suspect you’re like most (Mormon) readers–the preference for didactic writing is widely distributed and not necessarily unsophisticated.

  76. Finally, Tim, I don’t think that the narrator can be described as cool and hip (as he himself notes, actual cool is effortless) and it should be noted that the cool/hip woman in the piece is the person to whom he is sexually attracted which can cloud judgment. So, there’s that.

  77. 67 I realize I’m probably completely wrong. I just feel bad for Tim and Danithew because I’m usually standing in front of a Picasso painting thinking to myself ‘This is smurfing retarded, what’s the point?’ So I can relate to them. And yet I understand Kristine and RAF because when I play “Okay I Believe You, But My Tommy Gun Don’t” by Brand New, and my Country-loving friend doesn’t stand up and applaud, I feeel the strong desire to slap him. Its bad enough in real life, but on the internet people even become more bloodthirsty in their commentary. But yes, I’m probably wrong.

  78. Calling something “smurfing retarded” has to be offensive to someone, but I’m not sure exactly who.

  79. Actually, I got totally pulled into the story, every one of the million little pieces….

    But then, I went to Weber State, which means I was shunned by both the lefty cool folks and the zoobies completely. Being far out there at Weber State meant you took an afternoon class.

  80. 78 Just Sarah Palin

  81. @58: I’m not sure what you want me to say. I’m fully prepared to give this post the full Raymond Carver treatment that it deserves, but apparently the consensus is that none of us ever actually stooped so low as to imagine ourselves alive in one of his short stories. Because apparently that would be a big bad thing. Thank goodness there were no hot sexy things at BYU.

    FWIW, any other random small good things you might recall from your youth simply never happened. Look over here. What I’m holding is a standard issue neuralyzer.

  82. 152:

    Ha… maybe that is why my wife (BYU theater major) hates it when I listen to her music or watch movies with her. ;)

  83. Chanson – did your family live in White Plains (NY) many years ago?

  84. Cynthia L. says:

    Here, here, Eric Russell, #65.

  85. Kathryn Lynard Soper says:

    #80, that was beyond crass.

  86. I was reading this as a true story and wondering 1) if Ellen was now Mrs Norbert and 2) what brought Norbert back to activity. Fooled me completely.

  87. Cynthia L. says:

    You all must have HATED American Graffiti.

  88. considering an exit says:

    Fabulously written and engaging. Thank you.

  89. Chanson – I already found the answer to the earlier question. No worries.

  90. What’s interesting to me is that even though Norbert takes some pains to show that the narrator is trying too hard to be cool (see John C’s excellent comment in #76) in the context of its publication — the discourse boundaries of the bloggernacle, the BCC brand, the haters and players and iron rodders and the liahonites and all manner of Mormon personalities in this space — and especially in the context of the background of the self-mythology of many of the founding members of the bloggernacle (much of it centered around The Student Review) and the tradition of mixing fiction and fact in stoner/boundary crossing memior (On the Road to Heaven), this is so totally a hip move (and all this, of course, under the veneer of Gen X slackdom and internet geekery).

    Or in other words, in the bloggernacle — it is hip to be kinda uncool and marginally marginal.

    For a fascinating, nuanced look at the BYU Honor Code, see the bead posts at: http://caucajewmexdian.blogspot.com/

    (unfortunately James doesn’t seem to use tags or categories so I can’t link to the series directly).

  91. Oops — I forgot to work a Banner of Heaven reference in, but I’m sure you all are fully capable of doing so yourself.

  92. William,
    I have no idea what you are talking about. Honestly, I can’t parse comment 90 at all.

  93. C Jones says:

    #92
    and I was just now thinking– thank goodness for Wm Morris’s comments in this thread :-)

  94. I was at the Y the same time as you, Norbert … and I wonder: were you the young man with flowing, coffee brown hair who kept it back with a (leather?) head band? 5′ 10″ or so. Slight build. Sartorially, a little hipster. A real air of sprezzatura.

    If so, you were my first crush.

    * sigh *

  95. Norbert says:

    No, Silus, I’ve never had a slight build. (The success of such a costume would definitely be fiction.) But that was sweet.

  96. #86: I was thinking the same things, along with wondering what music the lefty-cool Norbert listened to.

    Really liked the story, it brought back memories of visiting Provo parties from SLC in college, and of the BYUites who occasionally attended our fraternity parties at the U. It is an odd subculture and an interesting one that exists, I think, very few other places. Thanks for the memories, Norbert.

  97. marginally marginal

    Isn’t that the same as saying “mostly mainstream”?

  98. Ignorant Sage says:

    As someone who attended BYU from ’93-’99 (with that two year mission gap of ’94-’96), I think this piece is brilliant.

    I think it captures the general feelings/atmosphere of Provo, and the variety of feelings re: the honor code. While it does so from one point of view (necessarily), I don’t think it does so “overbearingly”.

    First, it is clearly a personal point of view. Second, and contrary to some commenters as well, I think the author’s voice provides just the right amount of subtle “time separation” from the writing that one is never entirely certain what author’s current point of view is; only what it was at the moment of the experience. In fact, it is part of what builds the tension to me – part of me kept wanting to know more; about him and Ellen, about his own self-confidence, about his and here academic/professional future, about his future relationship to BYU/honor code/Mormonism. I thought that was all very well done.

    Except for the last line of the story, which does so too strongly, I think, and which would be my only significant criticism really from a writing point of view. Unlike the rest of the piece, it feels ‘forced’, or like something written for a project.

    Anyway, I thought it was very well done.

  99. @60 Kevin, you’re too kind. The reality is that (as the orthodox will be pleased to note ;) ), the BYU honor code was extremely effective at keeping the faithful away from the most obvious forbidden fruit. ;)

  100. Norbert says:

    Thanks for that, Ignorant Sage. I’m rubbish at endings.

  101. 97 Actually, I think its the same as saying Mainly Mainstream . . . OH!

  102. Just seems sad that smoking makes some feel “cool”.

    The “cool” image, however, wasn’t all his/our fault, as Hollywood, movie stars, and ads (etc) certainly did (and do) all they can to build this illusion.

    Similarly, sex is a powerful force usually treated with a lack of concern as to whether (or not) it is moral issue.

    I found Norbert’s essay especially interesting in that it brings up these two biggies in life–the health and moral codes we choose to follow.

    I do not think of health choices (such as smoking) as indicating a spiritual weakness. Sexuality, as it appears, can be (do we “hit and run”, or are we responsible with this immense power for happiness and sorrow, and good or evil). Even so, both are unavoidable influences in our life, and our choices are important and life changing.

    One offends (or strengthens) our health, and the other (potentially) presents a more bumpy, or smoother, life. For better or worse, both can bring life-changing result.

    Thanks, Norbert, for bringing these familiar subjects of youth into a discussion-provoking mode.

  103. Russell:

    Not at all.

    The mainstreamed don’t think of themselves in terms of marginality. That’s pretty much a hipster and/or liberal academic preoccupation. Note that I’m not talking about a vague sense of not fitting in or the wanting to keep up with the Joneses when I refer to marginality.

    Marginally marginal seems to me a perfectly cromulent way to express the bittersweet, want-to-but-don’t, doing-it-maybe-ironically-or-maybe-not but at the very least want to be seen doing it flirtation with the underground or the marginal or the taboo or the rebellious that Norbert’s piece tries to capture (and I guess in that sense, he captures it rather well — even though he was too chicken too frame it or perhaps it was less being chicken and more the bloggish way of knowing what will generate comment ).

  104. merkin4 says:

    I had the misfortune of living in single-student off-campus housing in Provo while not a BYU student (job in Provo, needed a place to sleep and park the truck while looking for cheap digs). Amazing what passed for “honor code violations” and what didn’t. Had a roommate who would regularly steal my food. I started keeping it in a box under my bed, and would still find him going through it, pilfering such items as he wanted. Wasn’t a problem. He even had the guts to tell me that King Benjamin said it was my responsibility to feed him. But, have my fiance in the living room area past 10 PM and you’d think the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were at the door. Outright theft was fine, having a member of the opposite sex present was not.

    Quite sad that a reference to smoking can be so vilified, but the moral imperative not to be a schmuck should be so brazenly ignored.

  105. Latter-day Guy says:

    Enjoyed the story; despaired of the comments. I suppose my reaction to the latter is something like, “This is why we can’t have nice things!” but modified to “This is why we Mormons will never have/create art!”

  106. William

    Marginally marginal seems to me a perfectly cromulent way to express the bittersweet, want-to-but-don’t, doing-it-maybe-ironically-or-maybe-not but at the very least want to be seen doing it flirtation with the underground or the marginal or the taboo or the rebellious that Norbert’s piece tries to capture

    Honesty requires that I acknowledge that that’s pretty much an entire decade of my life, right there. Except that it doesn’t capture the self-loathing. Gotta fit the self-loathing in there, somewhere.

  107. (A different Tim–guess I need a better handle)

    Lived on 300 North (like real? fictional? Norbert) for a year, and just south of Center for two years. Great BYU student wards there, and somehow I missed all the rebelliousness. Granted, I was there fifteen years later (2003-2005).
    The ward furthest from BYU was a very cool place to be. I had one hometeaching companion, just back from military service, who complained about all of the “hippies” in the ward. I loved it. But no major honor code violations (at least among BYU students), and nothing I knew about that would’ve resulted in disfellowship or excommunication. Good people; humble, diverse, interesting, a lot of artsy people. Older than the average BYU student (and so definitely less likely to fit the zoobie mold).

    If you wanted to find BYU students with honor code problems, you had to go closer to campus–usually to the nicer condos, etc. The one ward I was in that was close to campus and included nicer condos had many more honor code issues than the old house/apartment wards further south. Maybe because so many people in the far-south wards weren’t actually BYU students, and so went to church because they wanted to and not because they had to.

  108. Left Field says:

    When it comes to moral turpitude, there are few things that exceed the feeding of bears in a national park. However in this case, it is clear that the ranger’s proscription of nude sunbathing *was* a reminder not to feed the bears.

  109. Good point, Left Field. I hear they can smell women menstruating.

  110. Oh, me too, Russell.

    Although I had the fortune of going to Berkeley and with it the novelty of being a more-conservative than the liberals; more liberal than the preppie future law student English majors golden boy transfer student token Mormon. I can only imagine the horribly self-righteous or equally horrible pseudo-hip rebel turns I would have taken at BYU.

  111. I can only imagine the horribly self-righteous or equally horrible pseudo-hip rebel turns I would have taken at BYU.

    Self-righteousness and pseudo-hipness there was aplenty in Provo and around the SR offices, back in the heady days of 1990-1993. (Though don’t forget the self-loathing.) I look back on much of it with bemusement, and not a little of it with embarrassment. Still, there were some moments worth proudly remembering, all the same.

  112. I can only imagine the horribly self-righteous or equally horrible pseudo-hip rebel turns I would have taken at BYU.

    Self-righteousness and pseudo-hipness there was aplenty in Provo and around the SR offices, back in the heady days of 1990-1993. (Though don’t forget the self-loathing.) I look back on much of it with bemusement, and not a little of it with embarrassment. Still, there were some moments worth proudly remembering, all the same.

  113. I’ve been mulling over this post and the comments (including mine) and how this unfolded.

    The maybe-this-actually-happened-or-maybe-it-didn’t is a bit too cutesy and coy. I hope it’s not going to be the basis of similar posts in the future. It has too much of the whiff of BoH. Write fiction or provide stories about personal experience – fine – but let us know which we are actually reading. The suggestion that this might be a depiction of reality – but maintaining deniability – it’s a bit of an unhealthy game with your readers.

  114. Ah man! I was so hoping you were him … because he was dreamy. I still remember passing him, from time to time, in the Wilk and on the Quad — and just standing there in a stupor.

    Oh well … some day … 

  115. Chad Too says:

    I don’t have much to say about the OP other than I’m immediately taken back to that time and place so if that was the point then Bravo. Somehow the nude sunbathers never found their way over to the HFAC tunnel where we broadcast journalism majors spent our entire lives. The only things we got high on were diesel fumes.

    I played the journalistic-neutrality-and-objectivity card a lot back in those days… it was a convenient excuse to let others take the lead on the controversies of the day. Inside I was all root-root-root, but I never had to put anything on the line.

    Cue the self-loathing…

  116. Kristine says:

    Danithew, have you been under a rock for the last 10 years? Everybody who’s anybody is writing maybe-possibly-semi-fictionalized memoirs. There’s no reason a blogger can’t explore that genre, and no reason you as a reader can’t take a step back from it and just take it for what it is.

  117. Danithew, I’ll restate the point I made earlier: if a Mormon can’t write a story that makes the reader feel uncomfortable because not all of the dots are connected for them morally, then we are doomed. And re-read the disclaimer, please.

  118. “it’s a bit of an unhealthy game with your readers”

    I’m not seeing why it’s either unhealthy or a game. People should be free to write what they choose without someone interpreting it as advocacy of the behavior of the characters in the story or insisting that it be neatly labeled. Honestly, why do you care? Does it make your hair stand on end more if it’s pure fiction or if it actually happened?

  119. John Mansfield says:

    It reminds me of one Memorial Day weekend when the newspapers reported that three people had died in various incidents at Lake Mead. I read that and thought “Wow, people must have been having a lot of fun.” Or a year ago, when I learned that a cousin was shot dead at a skateboard park. Did his death increase the prestige of the park? What self-respecting skateboarder wants to hang out at a park where there is zero possibility of being shot? Not that any particular person wants to die, but there has to be the possibility of violence, and if there isn’t a cold body occasionally, such as my cousin’s, then the possibility isn’t there.

    Then there are the bursts of comment flirtation that come up with some frequency. How much philandering in deed as well as word is mixed up in that?

  120. O.J. Simpson was innocent of all charges. But sitting there in Florida, being past his athletic prime and having no endorsement deals – he decided to write a psychological thriller. It would be a hypothetical work, titled “If I Did It.” Some people would say that this work was in fact a confession. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

    Predictably, the Goldmans howled. What is their problem? Such unenlightened cretins. O.J. is above all that. He knows that their complaints are a perfect example of why the families of murder victims will never create great art.

  121. Persecuted Mormon says:

    Danithew,

    If you’re beyond seeing the differences between this and OJ’s desire to sell a book, then there is no help for you . . . or Mormon art if there are more people like you in the Church.

  122. Kristine says:

    danithew,

    Seriously??!

  123. danithew,
    You are extracting the Michael.

  124. I don’t think it’s possible to write an “accurate” memoir anyway. Our memories are so colored by our current life, and we remember such strange bits and pieces of the past. I’d rather have someone admit their bias and tell their story, then pretend they have some sort of personal no spin zone going on…

    my freshman year room mate at college smoked YUCK. Isn’t there a smarter, less stinky, less life threatening way of being a rebel?

  125. Listen, I know it’s an extreme example.

    The point is that if the account is real – there’s a potential gambit/maneuver going on here – and if that is the case – some people feel that they are being mocked/derided.

    I’m also being critical of the mention of great art in this context. There’s no great art going on here. If people react negatively to what you wrote here in the comments – it doesn’t portend a lack of great art in the future for the LDS world. That’s ridiculous.

    If it’s just fiction, say so. If it’s not, what’s the point of pretending it might be?

  126. You don't care says:

    Everybody who’s anybody is writing maybe-possibly-semi-fictionalized memoirs.

    And losing book contracts because of it, and raising all kinds of ruckus with Oprah’s readers. Just because they’re writing it doesn’t mean everybody is okay with being fooled.

    The Mormon bloggosphere relies on a candid expression of belief and some confidence that readers can trust writers to be honest with us. How would we feel if we learned that Tracy M has been faking it, that she is happily married to a mid-level government official who has never been unemployed? How would we feel to discover Kevin Barney is a doctrinal Mark Hofmann who has been surreptitiously planting faked scholarly conclusions in his articles? Or even that he had never been a nearly nude art model, posing for us now just to see how far he could pull our collective leg?

    You should not be flaying danithew. He might very well have found in this story the identical values you find, if he had not felt betrayed by the possible trickery. A simple disclaimer of “this may or may not be entirely autobiographical” would have been enough. I was a lot more sympathetic to the character when I thought it was Norbert’s personal history than I am now that I feel suckered by the coy “maybe it is, maybe it isn’t” angle.

  127. There has been much mention of “mormon art” on this thread. What is mormon art, and how is it distinguished from art created my mormons?

    In my mind, mormon art seeks to uplift and insipre–as that is the root of our doctrine. I still am not sure how this article provided any inspiration… Art created by mormons, on the other hand, is no different than art created by anyone else. There is no moral or spiritual requirements.

    We read above, that criticism of this article is the reason why mormon art cannot flourish… I just see any basis for this comment.

    Again, well written and insightful. My only gripe is that the message is distracting from who and what we want to become.

  128. Danithew,
    Going very specifically to the first question, who cares if he slept with her? How does that alter the piece? If it is real, it makes me think that Norbert is someone who screwed up a bit as a dumb kid. If it is fiction, I’d think the same thing. Don’t we take it for granted that dumb kids do dumb things and that we were all dumb kids? I’m not accusing everybody of having engaged in unmarried sex, but certainly we were tempted by it and just as certainly we did things as kids that we have regretted and moved past since.

    Are you concerned that there may have been some free thinking, free loving undergrad goddess at BYU at some time? Do you think that by talking about such a person Norbert is besmirching BYU? By sympathizing with faux-rebels, he is doing the same? I’m trying to understand whence the angst?

    I don’t think Norbert is JT Leroy or the drug guy on Oprah. I also don’t think he’s OJ, even if he did sleep with some potential girl outside of marriage.

    Tim,
    Their point is that if everyone insists on having every point spelled out to them (ala McNaughton Art), then the art will remain pedestrian because it won’t be allowed to access the mystery and wonderment of real life in its imitation thereof. If you want your moral dilemmas wrapped up in 22 minute packages, watch Full House.

  129. I found this post kind of depressing, but I have no idea why. Maybe because it’s so far away from my own experience.

  130. I am not asking for everything to be spelled out… and good grief, enough of the condesending attitudes (watch Full House?).

    I am only trying to point out that “message” and “art” do not have to be mutually exclusive. And that the very existance of mormon art does not depend on advocating or sympathizing with breaking commandments (i.e., smoking, looking down on people who want to do what is right, nude sun bathing with someone not your spouse, “touching” your girlfriend). Why am I the only one who sees this? Am I really alone?

    Mystery and wonderment can be realized through uplifting and inpirational content… it does not have to come from, for lack of a better example, a urine soaked crucifix.

  131. 1. I think danithew takes the comparisons way too far, but he is not entirely wrong to use the word coy. I’m all for a certain measure of narrative and narrator ambiguity, but coyness does seem to me to be an issue in the bloggernacle as is authenticity of experience. I’m not saying we go all Junior Ganymede*. Litmus tests are sooooooo boring and accomplish very little (if anything). Nor do I think that we need to add disclaimers to every personal post. But as I mention above, especially considering the current state and history of our little community here, framing can make a huge difference in how a post, especially one that may or may not be self-aggrandizing and self-disclosing, is received. And I don’t think anything is gained by being coy.

    That said: fundamentally it doesn’t matter whether or not Norbert did all or nothing of the above. The work can be judged on both moral and artistic levels — both are valid and inextricably muddled and mixed in Mormon culture. And that holds true for even those who want to judge solely on an artistic basis.

    2. All this talk about Mormon art and what can be tolerated and allowed or flourish or not is very tiring. I invite all of us (myself included) to put more effort in to direct engagement with specific works and multi-nodal, critical and personal and creative, field aware, generous but rigorous, sustained and suistanable reactions to such works.

    3. I welcome more data points to this era in Mormon history and place. I don’t feel like I missed out. There’s no doubt that Berkeley was the right place for me, it forged the radical middle stance I sorta represent. But I’m serious about this. I’d do it myself but I don’t have the background for it — the closest I came was entertaining Elders in Bucharest in 1993 by playing two strings on a beat up guitar and singing a song about taking a girl to the, awwww crap, I can’t remember what it was called now. Ivy something. Club that was in a house that had a tower. Anyway, about taking a girl there and to the BYU Dairy and wanting to marry a rich girl with bangs who wore flower print dresses with lace collars. There’s was probably also something about a ska concert. I was just riffing off all the stories and anecdotes I’d been hearing from the missionaries who had attended BYU for a year or two prior to being called to Romania.

    Now that the political wounds have faded somewhat, I’d love more vivid cultural portraits of the time.

    4. Related to this: what has become of the Zoobies? If any of them are like some of the members around my age I have met over the years, I’d say that a lot of them have gone on to live much more nuanced (and also good — and good is not to be dismissed) lives than the jokes let on. If I was a creative writing instructor I’d ask Norbert to rewrite the piece from the perspective of Denise. But since I’m on the record as not being super enchanted with Creative Writing programs, I won’t do that.

    * Which is not to totally dismiss what those gentlemen are doing. There’s sometimes some funny and interesting stuff there and I am sympathetic to some of their concerns and preoccupations. Although they didn’t seem to want to come out and play very much when I commented there from time to time in their early days. Alas.

  132. nesquik405 says:

    I thought the OP was an interesting though challenging piece, a portrait of a particular social corner in a particular place.

    But early comments ruined it for me–“I was lefty-cool, heh-heh, part of the great rebel club.”

    LDS art needs enough leeway to let characters do bad things (readers, that’s your job) but, in the end, it has to come off sympathetic to what faithful LDS accept to be right and true (writers, that’s yours).

    To that end, we have a lot of rich material. As an author, I would seize on the girlfriend with the moving chastity meter, the LDS kids trying to act stoned or drunk, the mission comps who bragged on their exploits, the commenters who bragged of their closet smoking habits, even the food-stealing, Honor-Code-wielding roommate. Why do any of these people act this way? What are the inner needs that drive the behavior? (“I’m Mormon. I can’t drink. I feel like I’m missing out.”) Do they find what they’re looking for? Or do they reach some kind of dead end?

    I think one of the faults of modern literature–and I’m talking the New York market–is that it never plumbs down to these whys.

  133. Norbert says:

    I seek no deniability; I have confessed to nothing more here than being self conscious, callous and uninterested in morality as a young man, and I have changed the story to make the self consciousness, callousness and disinterest more explicit. If it would make it easier to wag your finger at me as a person by saying it was true story, than fine — wag away. If the fictional elements make this an empty exercise for you, then fair enough.

    There are elements of life, even Mormon life, that are not uplifting or inspiring. Again, I’m not claiming this is great art, just that it is a reflection of what I experienced and observed as a Mormon.

    Man, you guys would hate my stories about being a missionary…

  134. I found this post kind of depressing, but I have no idea why. Maybe because it’s so far away from my own experience.

    Which really, I think anyway, gets to the heart of the complaints voiced by Danithew and others. I find it very hard believe that anyone commenting here actually thinks either that Norbert is producing great, ground-breaking art, or that he is committing a crime along the lines of O.J. Simpson writing his ha-ha-made-you-look-memoir-confession. No, what I think it really comes down to how we tell stories about where we were and what we felt. Norbert wrote a story which recreates a historical time and place and mood. Not a wholly admirable time and place and mood (William Morris’s comments above skewer that idea), but nonetheless a time and place and mood that more than a few of us can really sympathize with and enjoy, because we shared some of that (partly self-fictionalized) time and place and mood. But of course, many more people didn’t–because they weren’t there, or they were there late or earlier, or in any case didn’t feel the same (again, by no means necessarily wholly admirable) longings or frustrations or doubts–or at least, didn’t tell themselves the same stories about those feelings. Which is all just a long way of saying: creative writing is subjective, ain’t it?

    Some people have some experiences and write some stories about them (I did), and others do otherwise. To those who insist that no one at BYU in the early 90s could have or should have experienced things this or that way, or that anyone who was there and then shouldn’t ever be coy about what they experienced in that time and place, then I say: hey, write a different story. Which is allowed. When a post starts out saying it was originally written for a creative writing class, you should probably assume that the author isn’t aspiring to objective journalism.

  135. Norbert says:

    fundamentally it doesn’t matter whether or not Norbert did all or nothing of the above.

    Well, that was my assumption, and that why I was coy.

  136. Ah, but see all my comments above about the particular history of and active discourses in the Bloggernacle, Norbert. Fundamentally, the content of the story doesn’t matter so much in relation to historical fact. But the coyness and the presentation and the fact that it’s being published here at BCC combined with the content of post can’t help but signal certain things. Coyness is not nice around here, but it can keep you from doing the things you really want to (assuming, of course, that what you were hoping to do was elicit more slices of life and memories and some recognition, of yeah, that’s what it was like, rather than have us blather on and on again about appropriateness and Mormon art and disclosure and memoir).

    This is why I write liner notes, btw. That comes packaged with it’s own self-loathing/aggrandizing/mythologizing, of course, but hopefully it also demystifies somewhat as well.

  137. And, of course, one should never rewrite Morrissey lyrics to make a point.

  138. Peter LLC says:

    When a post starts out saying it was originally written for a creative writing class…

    Which it doesn’t, by the way. Unless all writing classes are creative writing classes.

  139. You don't care says:

    The post didn’t start out by saying the story was written for a CREATIVE writing class. That would have been enough warning to disarm virtually every criticism.

  140. “There’s no great art going on here.”

    Admittedly, I know next to nothing about great art, but I have to agree with Danithew here. And all the arguements that those who don’t see the amazing art in Norbert’s story are Full House loving neanderthals don’t really appeal to me.

    Just a question: If the OJ comparison was a terrible one, then could we compare this “maybe it was me, maybe not” attitude to, I dunno, say Paul H Dunn? I imagine that if Mr. Dunn had said “the following story I am going to tell you did not in fact happen, but the morals can still be applied to real life.” no harm no foul. People feel betrayed and foolish in these circumstances. I’m just sayin’

  141. “my freshman year room mate at college smoked YUCK”

    I’ve *heard* of smoking Marlboros, Virginia Slims, and even a little Mexican Red Hair, but I’ve never heard of smoking YUCK. Does anyone know where I could score some?

  142. Norbert says:

    152, the difference is that I am not trying to inspire anyone.

  143. I realize the difference, I don’t think its relevant. Readers still feel betrayed.

  144. Steve Evans says:

    All this sturm and drang over a harmless story. Get a life, you haters. Seriously. If this is what you are wasting your time today complaining about, step away from the keyboard and go scrub the toilets or something else more productive.

  145. Norbert, your disclaimer essentially tells the reader that if they don’t like what follows it’s because they aren’t mature enough to handle the honest facts of sexual desire and disobedience. To me that has the same tone of condescending hipster rebelliousness that the main character flaunts in a story you wrote 15 years ago.

  146. Kristine says:

    KLC–do you know Norbert? Would you _ever_ say something like that to someone’s face? Do you really want to be making sweeping judgments of character based on *two lines* of text??

    I guess the folks who say that Mormons are more uptight about smoking than unchristian behavior have it more right than I would have thought.

  147. When a post starts out saying it was originally written for a creative writing class…

    Which it doesn’t, by the way. Unless all writing classes are creative writing classes.

    Peter LLC and You don’t care catch me in a mistake. They are correct, the OP says “writing class,” not “creative writing” class. I apologize. (Though I suspect that if Norbert had explicitly said that–which is what I, perhaps incorrectly, read him as saying–then the thread would mostly have developed in this way anyway. But then, I was one of the people who was caught up in Norbert’s recreation in the first place.)

  148. Kristine, I’m not sure why you have assumed the role of hall monitor in this discussion. But no, I don’t know Norbert, and yes, I would most certainly say that to his face because I don’t see anything approaching a sweeping judgement of character in what I wrote.

    I agree with Wm Morris that the story and the post have problems of tone and presentation, and to me the tone of the disclaimer is hard to ignore. That says nothing about Norbert’s character, the future of Mormon art or the fact that apparently Steve Evans has already cleaned his toilets.

  149. Steve Evans says:

    I guess I’m fine with someone saying “Norbert, I see some tone and presentation problems in your post” and working forward in that way, as a constructive criticism. But your #145 doesn’t really do that, now, does it? If you want to be heard about tone and presentation problems, KLC, work on your own first.

  150. Kristine:

    I don’t understand the need to overstate and essentialize in your comment. I do think KLC deserved a bit of a rhetorical slap down, but to move things in to making generalized statements about Mormons seems like fomenting for no good reason.

    Steve:

    Calling someone a hater is no different from calling someone a scold. And no story is ever harm-less. Norbert invites us to take it seriously. He invites the sturm and drang with his coyness. How productive such sturm and drang is is always mixed, of course, but there’s been some good activity here.

    To suggest that piece isn’t meant to be charged with resonance and meaning is ridiculous. The question is only how we react to such signals. Telling people to get a life is pretty meager discourse.

  151. The post presents a short story or vignette in which two characters share and act out their mutual scorn and disdain for basic Mormon standards.

    The story ends without any sense that the scorn or disdain has been removed or dissipated or gone away.

    If this account is semi-autobiographical or autobiographical – and the narrator is the author – that scorn may even still be current and alive in the writer.

    We don’t know for sure – but there’s nothing there that indicates otherwise. Unless we just assume that writers on Mormon blogs could never be contemptuous towards their own religion and traditions – not exactly an assumption the ‘Nacle experience bears out.

    Anyway, when read by a Mormon in the context of a Mormon blog, that kind of treatment might raise some alarms with some people. That’s what we’ve seen here.

  152. Steve Evans says:

    Wm, meager is all I have to offer, as you know. I don’t have a problem with good activity (as I think you also know). And so my comment was probably not addressed to you.

    Although I am sure you do need to get a life. I mean, who doesn’t.

  153. You people type too fast. #149 is right on target and more what I’d expect*. And #148’s defense deserve to be taken seriously, although I think there was a lack of charity in KLC previous comment.

    *Not that Steve ever has to live to my expectations. I personally disagree with much of the Steve-bagging that goes on. The dude deserves some goodwill.

  154. Kristine says:

    BCC Admin=hall monitor, especially when the comments are at the level of a sophomore English class

  155. Are you guys all smoking crack?? Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. It’s a short story- and a well-written and evocative one at that. If the perceived morality of it offends you, click somewhere else. Norbert, nor any writer for that matter, is not required to run his creative expressions past CES. This the kind of reactionary crap that makes the outside world think Mormons are all nuts, and makes our claims of being part of Mainstream America look hollow and ridiculous.

  156. The post presents a short story or vignette in which two characters share and act out their mutual scorn and disdain for basic Mormon standards.

    True.

    The story ends without any sense that the scorn or disdain has been removed or dissipated or gone away.

    Very true.

    If this account is semi-autobiographical or autobiographical – and the narrator is the author – that scorn may even still be current and alive in the writer.

    Yes, it may, but it doesn’t really follow that it does. Or why it would bother you so much.

  157. KLC, I was imitating those clever little disclaimers on This American Life. But I like being called a hipster!

  158. nesquik405 says:

    What Danithew said, #151.

  159. 152,
    You don’t even know if you’ve been betrayed. Also, why would you feel betrayed if Ellen didn’t exist (or if Ellen and Denise were the same person or if Norbert was Ellen or whatever)?

    I just don’t understand this reaction.

    I never said this was great art. It is what it is. But to demand Norbert give you more than he gave is a bit silly.

  160. But I like being called a hipster!

    I used to want to be called one of those, but then I found out I’d have to get a new wardrobe, listen to Phish, and subscribe to Harper’s, and as the Honors building had copies available for free I just figured it wasn’t worth it.

  161. Russel, Utne Reader, not Harpers.

  162. Oh sure, Tracy, like I’m going to go around reading the Reader’s Digest of alternative literature. Gosh, you are so square.

  163. LOL!

  164. From another point of view, the original story is rather reactionary. It all depends on what you view as the dominant messages/discourses in society and which cultures you are privileging with your attitudes.

    Perhaps the radicals are those honors code spies. Or the Zoobies who have cast off the pallor of angst and the need to rebel.

    Now I’m stupid or silly enough to take either of those claims and hold solid to them. But wild essentializing claims on either side don’t really follow from the reactions to this story given the particular signals and histories I’ve outlined above.

    All we need now is someone from JG to try and pin Norbert down and the cycle would be complete.

    But my primary takeway is this: I’m completely serious when I say I’d like to see more data points. The only sad thing is that any future writings will be influenced (perhaps in their creation, but certainly in their reception) by this discussion — although that wouldn’t be a bad thing if the method of expression was more clearly fiction(alized).

  165. And thus we see that Wm invariably tries to turn all things to his out-of-control desire for more Mormon literary fiction (which he’ll then trash and call middlebrow, of course).

  166. Crap, the only BYU student I ever knew who smoked was a cook down at the old Village Inn Pancake House, next to the Roberts Hotel between 1st and 2nd South on University, where I worked when I was a junior in high school. And he was definitely not very cool–just an overage student with a smoking habit, who said he realized that being dishonest about smoking was a worse violation of the Honor Code than the smoking itself.

    I guess BYU was a duller place 20 years earlier.

    But, as to Zoobies–at Provo High School we called BYU “the Zoo” and all the students, no matter how cool, were “Zoobies.” So, Norbert, you were a Zoobie too!

  167. Is that where the term comes from? FWIW, I remember struggling to find a term for mainstream students that wouldn’t sound condescending.

  168. the closest I came was entertaining Elders in Bucharest in 1993 by playing two strings on a beat up guitar and singing a song about taking a girl to the, awwww crap, I can’t remember what it was called now. Ivy something. Club that was in a house that had a tower.

    I love that building, though I prefer it as a meetinghouse more than a dance club or a boarding school for troubled youth.

  169. Persecuted Mormon says:

    Tim says:
    “mormon art seeks to uplift and insipre–as that is the root of our doctrine.”

    Tim, this narrow conception of “art” strangles creativity and ignores the fact that countless Mormons don’t always have uplifting and inspiring experiences in this culture, and in the Church.

    Surely you recognize that a Mormon may want to express the cultural/doctrinal aspects of Mormonism that make him/the viewer uncomfortable?

    While the ultimate end of Mormonism is uplifting an inspiring, it doesn’t mean there aren’t ugly speed-bumps along the way.

  170. Mommie Dearest says:

    Dangit I have a life and it won’t wait. But I read this mornings exchanges with my jaw hanging. I didn’t see scorn or disdain for standards in the original piece, I saw a couple of people in a time and place where they didn’t exemplify the norm expressing themselves, and the whole point, to this reader, was just to make an examination of exactly how that took place in one small period of time. It was very well done in that it held my attention for the duration and it transported me back to Provo and that world of young people struggling to find/make themselves.
    The only thing that bothered me was that cigarette, and that was because I know so much about the truth of tobacco addiction. But I didn’t harangue the rest of you with my theories of pack-year habits and how many times an former BYU student will try to quit before they actually succeed, yada, yada, yada, because…well, it would have been like a threadjack. And the cigarette/smoking was true to the story.

    Perhaps it would be helpful to point out that an active, temple-going member can read this story and be ok with it and even sympathetic with the characters and not be committing any sin. At all.

  171. 159 I guess I don’t know where I’ve demanded anything at all from Norbert. Norbert is free to write as he likes, I don’t have any problem with that at all.
    The betrayal comment was more of a reaction to Kristine’s incredulity that anyone might be less than amazed by the sheer genius that Norbert displayed in writing this peice. I was saying why I feel a person might not like it. If anything I think it should be taken as constructive criticism by Norbert if he were looking to publish in the future. I think that it should probably be labeled either fiction or non-fiction – if nothing else to help the poor bookstore clerks find shelf space for it.
    Trust me, it wasn’t a criticism of the prose at all. All I’ve said regarding the work itself is that I think claiming it to be great art is probably a stretch. But hell, its a thousand times better than I could write, for what its worth.

  172. Or in other words, my criticism was of the marketing of this work, not the content.

  173. Persecuted Mormon:

    I quite like your name…

    But is the art you describe “mormon” or is it merely created by mormons or are about issues/experiences that are common among mormons?

    I never said that this post is without value, I just said that I disagreed with its message, or the message I took from the it.

  174. Just for the sake of completeness: labeling it a creative writing class wouldn’t have necessarily changed the reading of it either — it could have been a creative nonfiction course.

    And considering some of the reactions to Coke Newell’s On the Road to Heaven (fictionalized memoir) and Elna Baker’s The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance, I think Norbert has done us all (or at least me) a favor by illuminating what may very well be a major theme and tension in Mormon letters over the next decade (yes, it already had been c.f. Terry Tempest Williams), especially if the popularity of creative nonfiction/memoir holds, if BYU’s MFA in creative writing program takes off, and if national publishers start taking more of an interest in creative work written by Mormons.

  175. Okay, I lied. One more, for Justin:

    The Ivy Tower

  176. Another post by an Ivy Tower intellectual.

  177. Yes, it may, but it doesn’t really follow that it does. Or why it would bother you so much.

    Norbert, it’s possible you’re just being petulant – but that end response in comment #156, in my opinion, strikes at the root of the problem. You concede it’s possible you felt or still feel contempt for basic LDS beliefs – but refuse to be definitive about it.

    “Coy” certainly seems to be the appropriate word.

    To answer your question though – it bothered me so much because I expected a permablogger at a big Mormon blog (BCC: or any other) to be respectful of LDS and their beliefs. That just seems like a solid de facto standard that ought to exist. Maybe, at this point, so many years into the blogging experiment we’ve all been a part of, I’m silly to maintain that expectation or to protest when I feel that expectation is not met.

    Life moves on.

  178. or, Danithew, you’re wrong, and the perma and the post are in fact actually respectful of LDS beliefs, and you are indeed being silly as to your expectations…

  179. Don’t make me sick my cousin Amri on you, Steve. The Morris power is strong in that one.

  180. Maybe Steve. Or maybe not.

    I’m not really willing to say one way or the other. :)

  181. Wow, this discussion went crazy since I last saw it. Still, in spite of all the unnecessary unpleasantness, some good points are raised. I don’t see any need to tear Norbert or his story apart, and all this zeal seems a bit over-the-top to me, but I do think it’s worth noting some of the things that people feel the story gets right or doesn’t. I do feel, as I said before, that without some more context, the story (not just the character) reads as pretty condescending towards the “Zoobie” types; that may not have been what the author intended, but, at least for, me, that’s what comes across. I think there’s a sense of ironic distance between the voice and character insofar that he seems to recognize that he was immature and uncomfortable (at least to a degree) in his own skin, but I don’t sense any sort of condescension towards the “lefty-indie” sensibility, which I think is unfortunate; as a result, the story comes across to me as celebrating rebellion and condemning conformity in a too-simplistic way. That’s not really the focus of the story (the focus–the girl and the setting–mostly work really well, and there are some really fine moments in the descriptions), but for me it’s what lingers as the aftertaste. Again, I don’t know that that’s what the author intended, but, if other people felt the same way reading it, that may help to account for some of the extreme reactions here. I do think that there’s definitely a place for naturalism in “Mormon art” (however that might be defined), but I think this story invites a moral reading because the story itself–and its narrator–emphasizes morality. I hope Norbert doesn’t take this as an attack on his talent or his work–I thought it was a good and interesting and engaging story, and that with a few improvements it would enter the realm of something-I’d-publish-good (if I had any sort of say in things that were published anywhere, that is).

  182. Or, danithew, I expect someone who frequents BCC to know what I’ve written in the past and give the benefit of a doubt.

  183. Peter LLC says:

    I don’t see any need to tear Norbert or his story apart

    Indeed, since love will do the job just fine.

  184. Thanks for the feedback Davey.

  185. Peter LLC ftw, as usual.

  186. Norbert, I’ll take you up on that. I’ll read stuff you’ve written in the past and see what I can learn from it.

  187. Latter-day Guy says:

    In my mind, mormon art seeks to uplift and insipre–as that is the root of our doctrine. I still am not sure how this article provided any inspiration… Art created by mormons, on the other hand, is no different than art created by anyone else. There is no moral or spiritual requirements.

    So based on your criteria this would qualify as Mormon art? If so, Tim, then clearly we have reached a parting of the ways from which there can be no return (and no forgiveness… in this life or the next).

    We read above, that criticism of this article is the reason why mormon art cannot flourish… I just see any basis for this comment.

    Not at all. That’s just a bald-faced straw man argument. Re-read Ronan’s #40: “And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why Mormon art largely sucks. Any dissonance whatsoever and the artist has his bowels removed at sunrise.” Ultimately, whether one likes the story in the OP is beside the point. The real issue is the LDS tendency to judge a piece of art (of any variety) more by what is not in it, than by what is. (That is, a movie with no swearing, no sex/nudity will frequently be considered “good” based largely on that criteria alone, disregarding its artistic value one way or another.) On the most recent of the posts on depression hosted here, “Portia” made a very insightful remark:

    We countenance talking about grief, depression, and anger only when they’re safely in the past tense…

    Similarly, we have a hard time dealing with art that challenges us, that probes our beliefs, unless it all wraps up with an Ensign-worthy resolution. Consider, from the same post, “Beatrice’s” harrowing account:

    Sometime while I was pregnant with my second child and suffering a particularly bad depression, I was praying in my daughter’s room because my daughter was sick with something I didn’t even know what it was and she kept screaming during the night (my husband was out of the country at the time), and at the time I just wanted some confirmation that God was there and he was mindful of me, as the saying goes. But no, nothing. Not a thing. And I remember thinking, “Unlike me, the imperfect, lacking-perfect-knowledge parent, who wants to comfort her screaming daughter but just doesn’t know how–God is ignoring me.” And at that point I stopped crying and stopped petitioning and I just said, “You know, one of these days I’m going to be well again. I’m not going to feel this way anymore. I’m going to be normal and do all of the things I used to do, but I will never forget that at this moment, when I was begging for your help, you left me alone.”

    Now, understandably, that kind of account won’t be published in a Church magazine, but that does not mean that the themes it treats are unworthy of being explored — even though they may not be as “inspiring” as the “Jesus of Gondor” painting.

  188. Ignorant Sage says:

    “Zoobies” and “Zoo” comes from the fact that “important” guests to the University are driven around on those little golf carts. They are shown how both the University and the students are both well manicured and presentable. The whole place is like a little zoo where “outsiders” (whether from Salt Lake, other Universities, or foreign ambassadors/consuls – they get a lot of those visits) can come and see “Mormons” in a “natural-like” environment.

    You really never noticed the golf cart visitors?

  189. Steve G. says:

    I enjoyed the OP a lot. It was well written and reminded me of that other excellent piece Norbert wrote about being a teenager going to a stake dance. While I was never a rebel during college (unless you count huge UNO parties with girls in my apartment that lasted well into the morning hours) while attending Ricks College, I certainly saw a lot of rebellion and hypocrisy going on around me. This piece reminded me of that time and place, and gave me a bit of perspective on the more rebellious students on campus. Thanks Norbert, I hope the comments don’t discourage you from writing more of them.

  190. Mark B. says:

    Ignorant Sage lives up to his name. : ) “The Zoo” was in use at least as early as 1970, when I was a senior in high school, and I may have heard it a year or two earlier than that.

    That was long before any of those golf carts showed up on campus to ferry the disabled or elderly around campus.

    Those folk etymologies will get you every time.

  191. What the hell is a midriff, and why do we only speak of bare ones? Why don’t we ever say, “Man, I took a seriously painful shot from a racquetball right to my midriff! Sure, my midriff wasn’t bare, but it still stung!”

  192. 190 Undoubtedly. In fact by 1980 the term was so mainstream that the German Heavy Metal band The Scorpions had caught wind of it, and decided to write a song dedicated to the Zoo.

    I meet my girl, she’s dressed to kill
    And all we’re going to do
    Is walk around to catch the thrill
    On streets we call the zoo

  193. Kristine says:

    “Kristine’s incredulity that anyone might be less than amazed by the sheer genius that Norbert displayed in writing this peice”

    Oh, please. I was incredulous at the self-righteous silliness of those demanding to know whether to denounce Norbert for being the sinful protagonist of the piece, or for posting a possibly fictionalized account to a blog. I am now not only incredulous, but stupefied.

  194. 193 I’ll admit, that comment was probably a mischarecterization.
    I did feel that there were moments in there when you were trying to beat people over the head with ‘culture’. Or at the very least, getting a little too frustrated with us uncultured folk.

  195. Kristine says:

    Nope, not this time. I save my snobbery for music posts :)

  196. Persecuted Mormon says:

    I would just like to clarify, as a Ute, that ANY student at BYU is a “zoobie.” Any perception of “coolness” is negated by the fact that you chose to go to BYU.

  197. Eric Russell says:

    Likewise, any perception of “righteousness” among yewts is negated by the fact that you chose to go to Utah.

  198. Persecuted Mormon says:

    Zoobie Characteristic #1: Self-righteous judgment of people who do/did not to attend BYU.

  199. “You really never noticed the golf cart visitors?”

    Yes, at many colleges and unversities.

  200. Just couldn’t handle this post sitting on the edge of 200 any longer.

    Sorry.

  201. Loved this piece. I’ll never forget walking to class on several different occasions and having a faculty member cozy up to me. “So, how are you this morning?” Fine. “What’s your name? Where do you live?” I wish I could say it was just because my long red locks were so ugly but the whole thing felt a lot more sinister at the time. Having long hair back in the early 90’s made you a target.

    Everyone has to figure out who they are. Many people in Provo think they already know but I didn’t for most of my years there. Getting to know a lot of people like Ellen was really fun for me. One of the biggest lessons I learned back then is that its a good thing to let people live their own lives while you live your own.

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