Monday, November 23, 2009

Ethel the Brave

To: Abbottsville Fourth Ward
From: Donna Banta
Subject: Ethel the Brave

In the summer of 1992 a coworker tried to give me a kitten. When I declined she threatened to take it to the pound. I stood firm. After all, we already had a cat, and a dog, and two children. As the day wore on, my resolve weakened. I called my husband, Mark, and pitched the idea. He responded in the negative, just as he had when I suggested the acquisition of our first cat. I trudged to my car at quitting time, pouted through preparing the meal and moped during its consumption. Finally, I threw down my napkin and said, "Let's go get that kitten." The kids cheered, my husband rolled his eyes and we loaded in the car and drove through the Texas heat to collect a new member of the family.

We named her Ethel because our other cat was called Lucy. Perhaps parted from her mother prematurely, Ethel failed to grow large, and she retained that kitten-like characteristic of going limp when we picked her up. We'd sling her on our shoulders, drape her about our necks, or, most often, cradle her in our arms like a baby. When she opened her mouth to meow, no sound escaped, and we couldn't hear her purr. Although whenever we petted her we felt that comforting rumble. It was always there, only silent.

Happily none of these shortcomings interfered with her self esteem. She claimed her throne upon arrival, insisting that the high strung Lucy and our eager to please cocker mix, Libby, bow to her accordingly. Like Ethel Mertz in the Albuquerque episode, our Ethel remained center stage, merrily crooning Shortnin' Bread with Lucy and Libby as her back up acts.

Not that she didn't earn her stardom. Her bravery knew no limit. She protected our property against every manner of four legged intruder. Size was never an issue. When the neighbor's great dane wandered onto our porch she lunged through our front door like a flying ninja, and sent him whimpering in retreat. Likewise to an errant doberman who strayed into her territory. Occasionally she would rush inside wide-eyed and breathless, obviously on the heels of some harrowing encounter. I like to think that these events occurred in some other sphere, one that included time travel and spacecraft and light sabers. After all, this was a creature who could make a wad of foil windsurf across the carpet, and create an ergonomic hammock out of a pile of laundry.

Our son was her favorite in the family, and Ethel raised him well. She was his loyal friend, most reliable playmate, and a comfort to him in ways no human could provide. She even acted as disciplinarian. For example, rather than awaking to his mother banging on the door and bellowing, Marky was instead roused by Ethel, who patiently licked one of his eyes until it opened.

In 1998 my friend Debbie pet sat while we were away on holiday. When we returned Ethel had magically ballooned in size. Picking her up was like heaving a sack of grain. Marky was first to try, staggering backwards with a "whoa," then hoisting her into the cradle position. In our surprise we almost didn't notice. Then when our chatter died, we heard it. An audible purr. And later, a meow.

It was a good thing Debbie helped Ethel find her voice. Soon after our sweet cocker, Libby, passed away, and we adopted a West Highland White Terrier named Katy. Unlike Libby and Lucy, Katy had no desire to sing back-up. The scene shifted. Ethel was now opposite Katy in the episode where Vivian Vance and Lucille Ball accidentally show up on TV in the same dress, then belt out the tune Friendship while ripping the decorations from each other's bodice. (Nonny-Nonny-Nonny, HepHepHep) After a series of face-offs, Ethel and Katy settled into a queasy detente, and at times even shared the sofa--ever mindful of the invisible line drawn down the middle.

Marky left for college, then his sister Emily followed, and we moved from Texas to California. Upon arriving at our new home, Ethel at once secured the premises. When the neighbor's pit-bull mix menaced, she retaliated by hissing and yowling. When that didn't work, she flung her entire girth against the fence, much like Woody Allen when he tried to break down a door in Manhattan Murder Mystery. ("Must be one of those new doors.") Amazingly, the stunt worked. The mean dog never bullied when Ethel patrolled the perimeter.

Having tamed her new environs, Ethel divided her time between caring for Lucy in her declining years, keeping Katy fit via a series of physical challenges, and attending to her household duties, such as sorting socks, emptying the trash, and helping me knit. Her days were full.

Earlier this month, Mark and I awoke to find Ethel at the foot of our stairs crying, too weak to move. We wrapped her in a blanket and rushed her to the animal hospital. She purred in my lap for the entire drive. After a brief look at her vital signs, the veterinarian suggested it was time to say goodbye. It seemed that our Ethel's amazing heart was failing. We cradled her in our arms one last time, then waited as she slipped peacefully to sleep.

Dear members of the Abbottsville Fourth Ward, please do not trouble yourself with Ethel's temple work. She requires no baptism, no washing and anointing, no endowment or sealing by proxy. I'm quite sure she isn't hanging around the spirit world hoping to become a Mormon. (I know her too well.) But then, if you insist on doing all that crap, be my guest. Lord knows, I can't stop you. I'm just saying it's unnecessary. While I've no idea what awaits humans after death, I am convinced that all pets go to heaven.

Ethel Banta

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Word From The Bishop -- Doubting Mormons

To: Abbottsville Fourth Ward
From: Bishop Paul Zimmerman
Subject: To those who doubt

Over the past year, some have shared their doubts with me about the church and its leaders. A few even confided that they might leave the faith. This would be a disastrous decision. Imagine Sundays without pantyhose and white dress shirts, Easter without General Conference, Christmas without tithing settlement. Not to mention an eternity spent as a lonely eunuch in one of the lower kingdoms. Not a pretty picture is it? Instead, why not consider the following strategies for remaining in the one and only true church.

Become a Cafeteria Mormon.
After all nobody can eat everything on the menu. So partake of what you can, and don't worry about the rest. Perhaps you aren't much of a journal writer, you don't have room for a year's supply, you enjoy an occasional "R" rated action film, and you have a non-LDS State Farm agent. No worries. So long as:
1. You don't tell anyone.
2. You don't start watching Big Love.
3. Your omissions do not include tithing, fast offering, church meetings, visiting teaching, home teaching, church callings, temple attendance, talk assignments, the word of wisdom, gay marriage protests, more than one ear piercing, splits with the missionaries, church magazine subscriptions, wearing your garments day and night, General Conference, Amway, BYU football and scrapbooking.

Learn to differentiate whether a General Authority is speaking for God, or speaking as a man.
For example, when President Monson advised members to be nice to old ladies, he was speaking for God. But when Apostle Boyd K. Packer detailed the mechanics of masturbation, he sounded more like a man. When President Hinckley told members to read the Book of Mormon, he spoke for God. However, when Bruce Hafen of the First Quorum of the Seventies suggested homosexuals pray away the gay, he was probably just voicing an opinion formed by his own experience. When you divide the General Authorities' statements in this manner, they begin to make more sense. Of course we must remember that whether speaking for God or as men, our church leaders must always be obeyed.

Stop expecting church leaders to be perfect.
Are you perfect? If not, who are you to judge? Maybe Joseph Smith slept with other men's wives, and made up the whole first vision thing. Maybe Brigham Young ordered a blood bath in Southern Utah. Maybe Spencer Kimball let that crook Mark Hoffman swindle the church out of thousands. But they were prophets and you're not. When you are fit to stand before God and your peers and proclaim yourself  a perfect person, then, and only then, may you criticize The Brethren.


Bishop Z

If you would like to stop receiving these e-mails, close your eyes, click your temple slippers together three times, and repeat, "There's no place like Sacrament Meeting."

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

LDS Stake Single Adults

To: Abbottsville Stake Single Adults
From: Ricky and Mindy Foote, Stake Single Adults Leaders
Subject: Swinging Seventies Party is Cancelled!

For the past few weeks Mindy and I have devoted all of our time, talent and resources to serving the single adults in our charge. We've listened to your concerns, and welcomed your suggestions. We've even implemented a few. For example, we waived Mary's curfew so she could report to the hospital for her shift after the dance, and, at Ned's request, we added I Honestly Love You to the play list. We've prayed for you nightly, left Swinging Seventies updates at your homes and work places, and otherwise knocked ourselves out bringing this together. Did any of you know that I downloaded Bread's Greatest Hits onto my iPod? Or that Mindy was up all of last night finishing our Sonny and Cher costumes. Suffice to say we've magnified our callings. So how are we thanked for our efforts? With a slew of verbal bile from a bunch of vicious, hateful, mean-spirited ingrates.

Why is it, Mark Crawford, if you so desperately want to be deleted from the e-mail list, that you not only completed The Official Worthiness Questionnaire, but also added some not very funny embellishments, then turned it into a blog? (By the way I forwarded it to your mother.)

As for Jordan Bean, you may have been my pediatrician, and yes you gave me Cookie Monster band-aids, and took my teddy bear's temperature, but that does not give you the right to disobey my God-given authority! Furthermore, I don't appreciate you asking me to bend over for a new series of inoculations, nor am I amused by your suggestion that I perform a colonoscopy on myself.

Thank you, Elaine Miller, for circulating that photo someone took of me at your son's sixteenth birthday party. For the record, whatever anyone thinks they might see in my swim trunks was nothing more than a bunching of fabric magnified by pool water. Isn't it enough, Elaine, that you laughed when they poured the hot cider onto my crotch that evening?

Finally, to my Mother: Perhaps the Lord did inspire you to save my Scooby-doo underpants for a special purpose. But he did not intend them to be sold on E-bay. Nor did he want the rest of you to engage in a bidding war over them.

Righteous indignation has its place. Jesus throwing the money changers out of the temple. Likewise his admonition not to cast pearls before swine. Or, in this instance, Mindy and I refusing to serve a bunch of pathetic, over the hill, twisted losers who can't get their own dates.

So put away your afro wigs, earth shoes and any hope of fun this Saturday night. The Swinging Seventies Party is cancelled. Instead, I expect all of you to stay at home, read your scriptures and ponder your commitment to avoid all loud laughter, light mindedness and evil speaking of the Lord's Anointed.--Meaning Me!

Compose your conclusions in essay form and submit them to me no later than 5 PM Sunday.

If you would like to stop receiving these e-mails, watch this:

Friday, November 6, 2009

How I Finally Left Mormonism

To: Donna Banta
From: Annie Christiansen
Subject: The Big Picture

For years I stayed in because of The Big Picture. Every time my vision wandered, my friend, Margaret Spencer, was there to help me refocus. Margaret was a Liberal Mormon. An "in the church but not of it" type. The sort of Mormon that the LDS authorities bar from positions of influence, but love to have around because she makes them look cool. According to Margaret, if I delved beneath the church's stodgy outward appearance (for example its scripture, doctrine and leadership) I would somehow find in its underpinnings an inner hipness. I would see The Big Picture, an image so huge it escaped my notice. Strange. I was an art professor, but I couldn't appreciate The Big Picture.

I had not planned to participate in the Abbottsville Second Ward Talent Night. Two hours of ward talent, starring Brother Bixby in his grass skirt and coconut bra, hardly seemed an appropriate venue for my art work. Then Margaret sang her Big Picture refrain and I agreed, in hopes of finally seeing for myself. I brought three of my paintings to the church that evening. One was promised to a collector, another slated for a gallery, and the last I intended to give to Margaret Spencer's daughter, Barbara.

The church lady in charge ushered me to some easels in the foyer, a space otherwise dedicated to the Relief Society Mystique. Quilts, embroidery, hand made clothing and the like spilled off tables that lined the walls. In the room's center stood the shrine to home canning. Not art in the classical sense, but exquisite nonetheless. Countless kitchen sessions with my mother taught me to respect those obedient slices. Not a single peach or apricot strayed to the surface, a wonder that would command the attention of every sister who passed. It was, in fact, already drawing approval from the few who milled about.

Margaret arrived on cue. No surprise. Even though she was in the Fourth Ward, she never missed a Second Ward activity that featured me. I waved her over, and Barbara as well, who followed after her mother with her knitting bag. I confess I have always been curious about Barbara. Her good looks and intelligence attracted a host of male admirers, including my son Sean whom she considered her "best pal." Yet she again chose to spend Friday night with her mother, and her knitting. Of course, I wasn't allowed to ask, nor was she to tell. So I shrugged off my suspicions and gave her the painting.

At once Barbara threw her knitting on the foyer sofa and hugged me. Her pink sweater was baby soft against her cheek, and her hair smelled of lavender. I gazed at the work that was now hers. The little Tuscan cafe had one customer that afternoon, an elegant woman with her book. For some reason I saw Barbara, and painted her instead. Margaret approached with eyes brimming, and joined our embrace. A rush of emotion overwhelmed me. Perhaps this was The Big Picture. Sisterhood. Community. A family of like-minds.

When we parted I saw the room had filled. Margaret and Barbara stepped back to allow others to view my work. Somebody said, "oh my what pretty pictures." I said "thank you." Another person asked, "where'd you paint that?" I answered, "Venice." He said, "down in Southern California?" I said, "Italy actually." "Italy? Oh my heck." The warmth of the past few minutes drained from my being, and dread crept into its place. The members of my ward family were doing their best to include me, I knew that. But I also knew that I did not belong. I searched for Margaret. She had fallen into a conversation with some ladies by the canning table. Barbara perched on the sofa, wrapping yarn around needles with acute gravity, as though dismantling a bomb. I turned toward the door, and considered sneaking out.

Instead I was confronted by my bishop, Russ Meeker, a spare man unburdened by nuance who, at twenty-seven, lacked both experience and confidence. So blessed, his management style boiled down to abrupt interrogation, barking orders, and simian thrusts of his chin. Our conversation still screams in my brain.

BM: "Who gave you permission to do this?" Me: "What? Paint?" BM: "A picture of a Catholic church?" Me: "I was in Rome." BM: "Your husband tells me you go places like that. Is he here? I'd rather talk to him." Me: "These are my paintings, that makes me the person to talk to." BM: "This girl in the restaurant, what's she drinking?" Me: "A beverage." BM: "Well it is totally unrepresentative of our young women."

At this point the bishop paused and issued a smug grin that reminded me of a certain squirrelly freshman in my Art Appreciation class. "Don't get me wrong, Sister Christiansen. I happen to love art. In fact, we just had dinner at the Warners. Now that her kids are grown, Sister Warner has taken up painting. She's done some marvelous pictures of the Provo temple . . ."

While Bishop Meeker raved over Sister Warner's oeuvre, I returned to my painting of the cafe. This time it seemed larger, and I saw myself there, basking in the Italian sun with my book, drinking my whatever. Maybe Barbara would join me, Margaret too if she liked. But there was no room for an adolescent bishop whose creative expertise was rolling earth tones on walls. He no longer belonged in my picture.

I told the little twit to piss off.

Then I gathered the painting promised to the collector, and the one going to the gallery, and I left. For good. As I pulled away from the church, Margaret appeared in my rear view mirror, waving me back. I watched as her image grew smaller and smaller, then disappeared.

More later,

P.S.  Ha! At least the Abbottsville Second Ward doesn't have an e-mail list!