In Which I Don’t Like a Thing Everyone Else Loves

Many of you know, but many of you probably don’t know that I grew up Mormon. That’s usually what I say, although that can give the impression that it was only a part of my life as a child, which isn’t true. I was a very faithful Mormon throughout my teens and into my 20’s. I attended BYU for undergrad AND law school, living in Utah for 7 years. I didn’t leave the church until I was 25, after a very long and very difficult struggle with everything I believed.

You’d think this wouldn’t matter so much in my life anymore. It’s over 10 years later and I’ve lived most of my adult life without it. But if you’ve had something be a part of your life/culture/etc. for so long it never really leaves you.

Now that I live in Boston where Mormons are a microscopic minority, I am often one of the first Mormons someone has met or many times the only one. When I go on dates or when I meet new people, when it comes up in conversation it inevitably leads to question after question. Whether I like it or not, I am still an emissary from Mormonism to the rest of the world and around here everyone wants to know a whole lot of things. 

Mormonism is absolutely a phenomenon and it’s hard to explain to people. People who have no trouble believing that a woman in the Middle East 2000 years ago was impregnated by God seem to have a lot of trouble understanding why other people would believe things that are equally ridiculous but not the same kind of ridiculous that they grew up with. Religion isn’t about being rational and it never has been, but we sure enjoy making fun of religions that have a different set of ridiculous beliefs than ours. So I’ve always been a bit defensive about it, even as a kid. People don’t come at you with pleasant questions but stupid ones. And Americans have enjoyed spreading rumors about Mormons ever since the church was formed. 

I’m particularly aware of Mormonism in pop culture because of this. People think they actually understand the church because of portrayals on television or elsewhere. I admit to watching every single episode of Big Love but only 25% or so of that show rang true even though the characters were supposed to have originated in traditional Mormonism before branching off for a more extreme fundamentalist sect. (Even writing traditional Mormonism makes me bristle. There are Mormons and there are fundamentalists and while the fundamentalists see themselves as Mormons, they’re not. This is also why reading memoirs about people who left fundamentalist sects doesn’t teach you anything about Mormons.) The language would be right sometimes then drastically wrong. The culture and climate would swing across a similar pendulum from yes-that’s-it to no-that’s-not-it-at-all. It never really sustained a feeling of correctness and instead would just do what they needed to do for their plot. 

But the biggest pop culture event recently has been The Book of Mormon, the musical from the South Park guys. I didn’t watch any South Park until I’d left the church, but when I did I watched it for years, I only stopped after Tessa was born and life got too crazy. And since everyone has been falling over themselves to say how great this musical is, and I’m a pretty hardcore musical nerd, I’ve spent the last four years waiting to see it.

It’s in Boston right now and tickets were finally cheap enough that I could snag a seat for around $50. I was really excited. For years people have asked me if I’ve seen it and I’ve said sadly that I haven’t and that I feel like I must be their perfect audience member and it’s really a shame.

So I saw it. And it bugged.

Let’s skip over the racism that had me feeling squirmy and uncomfortable for much of the show. Someone else has written about it quite well right here and I endorse their impressive takedown and won’t repeat it here.

But really, the show’s treatment of Africans and its treatment of Mormons are pretty similar. If you find it racist but still thought the Mormon stuff was funny, well, I don’t really know what to tell you. With both groups the writing ignores fact and settles for half-truth, plays heavily off stereotypes, and goes for the lazy joke. There. I said it. The musical everyone says is the funniest one ever wasn’t that funny.

I was disappointed. Because I know the wealth of possibility there is to make jokes about Mormons, whether they’re going to be light and loving or pointed and harsh. I know them all. But I’ve heard Mormons make better jokes about themselves. This was pretty much just the same jokes over and over: Mormons are weird, Mormons believe weird things. (Just like the Africans got the same jokes over and over: Africans don’t know anything, Africans will believe anything.) I don’t care so much about the vulgarity that has bothered people, I’ve seen (and enjoyed) far more vulgar episodes of South Park. I care about the jokes. They’re lazy. And I don’t go to comedies for lazy jokes.

Initially I couldn’t get settled because of the factchecking. Yeah, I know, it’s a musical not a journalism piece, but when your musical is all about a group of people and then gets all this stuff about them wrong, your joke doesn’t land as well. You actually make your jokes worse because you’re making a joke about a straw man version of the person instead of the person themselves when the actual person is just as ripe for joke-making.

So yeah, it was hard to settle. No, that’s not how missions work. And it’s not how the MTC works. And it’s not how mission companions work. No one (and I mean no one) actually wants a stateside mission. No one wears one-piece garments (they used to, it’s true, but we’re way way way past that). Mormons don’t have a hell the way other Christians do, and the one they do have they don’t call “hell.” Latter-days actually means now. No one says, “Praise Christ” like ever ever, in fact that would probably be found offensive if you actually said it in church. (The one fact they got right that surprised me was that they actually acknowledged that Joseph Smith was murdered, a fact that most people don’t actually know and that most people talking about wacky Joseph Smith and the founding of the church happily gloss over.)

All those errors didn’t have to kill the jokes. In fact, you could make better, smarter jokes about the actual facts. But that didn’t happen. I laughed 3 or 4 times, maybe. 

It bugs me because I spent money on my ticket and have spent the last four years being excited about this ridiculously overhyped musical. 

It bugs me more because I left that theater with a bunch of people who now associate Mormonism with this. People who were still laughing several minutes after the show was over, who couldn’t stop smiling because they’d been laughing at this stuff for a few hours. I’m an ex-Mormon, it’s true, I have plenty of very significant and very legitimate beefs with the church and plenty of them have to do with missionaries. But not one of them was in that show and I didn’t see anyone up there on that stage that I recognized. Instead we’re back to a place where pop culture has thrown out a version of Mormonism and it makes people think they know who Mormons are and how they work.

It means that when I sit down with someone who’s seen this show, they think they know where I came from and they don’t.

I have never seen a movie or tv show that gets Mormonism right to the point where it’s recognizable to me. I have read a couple of books. From a current Mormon, there’s the mystery novel The Bishop’s Wife by Mette Ivie Harrison. From an ex-Mormon (and I’m quite critical here, since ex-Mormons can go way overboard with bitterness and miss the boat) there’s Elders by Ryan McIlvain. And that’s my very short list. Both take some fictional license. But I could tell both were written by people who had grown up living the same kind of life that I did. They got the nuance and the little things along with the broad strokes. 

For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to write novels. I started when I was 13 or so and kept my writing hidden in a drawer or a plain notebook. That plan has been on pause since life is so crazy now, but as time passes and I think about what I do want to write when I start writing again, I’ve been thinking more and more that this is the thing I may have to write about. If no one else can give me the thing I want, then I need to make it myself, right? I was thinking that again last night as I left the theater. And I was thinking that I need to actually start it soon since my side projects are dwindling from many to a few. So I’m setting up a deadline, and telling myself to get to work on that. (Which, you know, might have been another–and some would say better–way to use up 1500 words.) 

So I guess I can’t be all angry at Matt & Trey and the Book of Mormon team. I didn’t get the experience I wanted (or the one I deserved, IMO) but I did get something that will hopefully be more valuable in the long run.

Spring & Summer Favorite Books

In my drafts folder right now is my write up of the Big Fall Books, which is a thing in the publishing world. But before I finished that, I realized I had to talk about some of my favorite summer books that I haven’t said as much about. I hadn’t realized I’d left out a whole bunch of books since my recent posts weren’t based on release date the way I normally do. So I missed a bunch that are fantastic or that I read after their release dates. (I’m playing catchup a lot these days.) Here’s some of the highlights from Spring & Summer to get from the library or hopefully still on the discounted new release shelf.

As usual, links in this post are Amazon affiliate links.

Top Picks

 Spring & Summer Favorite Books Spring & Summer Favorite BooksKitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal. If there’s a book that I’ve been a big evangelist for recently, it’s this one. It had good buzz but I was worried about the title, it sounded like a light little ladies’ book. It’s not. It’s a book all about food and people who love food. And even more specifically than that, moments in your life where a meal or a dish has some kind of impact on you. While the central figure of this smart and lovely novel is up-and-coming chef Eva Thorvald (in Minnesota/Iowa/the surrounding areas, of course), she is the protagonist of only one chapter. Each one finds a different character in crisis, in a moment of decision, at a crossroads of their life. And the book dances through these scenes with agility, grace, and depth. It’s a real joy to read, one of those novels with a thrill that you just can’t impart to other people, you just have to tell them, “Read it, you should just read it.” (Bonus: it has recipes sprinkled throughout the story.)

 Spring & Summer Favorite Books Spring & Summer Favorite BooksBetween the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. In the book world, this has been heavily hyped. But I know that the book world isn’t always overlapping with the rest of the world. So in case you missed it, this is the most important book of the year. That isn’t an exaggeration. Believe me, I heard so much hype about this book and I’m very skeptical of hype. But it is everything everyone says it is and more. I listened to the audiobook, read by the author, but I also wanted another copy, a paper copy, that I could hold in my hands, that I could underline and highlight and write notes on. Coates, who is well-known for his incisive essays at The Atlantic here writes a long message to his son about race and what the American Dream really is. It leaves you changed.


 Spring & Summer Favorite Books Spring & Summer Favorite BooksThe Ambassador’s Wife by Jennifer Steil is already being turned into a mini-series starring Anne Hathaway, so you’d better read it soon or else you won’t read the book first and we all know it’s better if you read the book first. You can see why she chose this part in this book when you read it. Miranda is an artist and free spirit, but her life changes drastically after she falls in love with the British Ambassador to a (fictional) Middle Eastern country. No longer living as she pleases but under guard, things are very different. But this drama turns much more dramatic when Miranda is kidnapped, held hostage, and forced to find away to stay alive in the most dire circumstances. An interesting novel with an interesting main character. 

 Spring & Summer Favorite Books Spring & Summer Favorite BooksLost Canyon by Nina Revoyr stuck in my head like nobody’s business. A book I’d heard nothing about from an indie press I didn’t know, it was a pageturner that I developed a full-on addiction to. I pitch it as a modern Deliverance that adds gender, race, and class into the mix. Not just a study of testosterone under pressure, but a look at how we look at each other and how we push our limits. Gwen, Oscar, and Todd don’t know each other but they all know Tracy, their tough-as-nails trainer who invites them on a grueling hike. Things don’t go as planned. But well before you’re in nailbiting territory, this book gets you in the thick of these people’s lives, their goals, their broken dreams. They should really make this one into a movie, too.

Magical Realism/Fantasy

 Spring & Summer Favorite Books Spring & Summer Favorite BooksHugo & Rose by Bridget Foley is not the first book I read by an author I actually knew. And fortunately, it joins the group of books by someone I know that were really good. The thing is, that when you know the author you read with a sense of anxiety that you won’t like it and you’ll have to pretend you like it or find something nice to say about it when you can’t think of anything. Thankfully Bridget killed it. I’d love to hear this one in a book club, it has so much of the truth of that mother drudgery of life at home with small children. But Rose escapes that life every night when she closes her eyes and dreams of Hugo and the Island they’ve explored together since they were little. And then one day Rose sees someone in her waking life who is Hugo but isn’t and from there it’s a steadily growing twisty-turny plot until a huge climax. Do not be fooled by the sweet cover. There are real stakes in this book, the likes of which you rarely get in a story about a suburban stay-at-home mom. And the magical realism element gives it a fantasy twist. 

 Spring & Summer Favorite Books Spring & Summer Favorite BooksEmber in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. I don’t read a lot of fantasy. I read hardly any capital-F Fantasy, instead sticking closer to magical realism in literary fiction. But I heard enough people say this book was good to give it a try. A Young Adult novel, the first in a series, it actually held my attention instead of putting me to sleep. A dystopia with lots of worldbuilding, an evil empire, a rebel force, a school for soldiers, and a spy servant, there’s a whole lot going on but it works well. It took me a little while to really get into it, but I’m now super curious about where this book is going next. 

 Spring & Summer Favorite BooksSpeak by Louisa Hall is a good one to go to if you got into Alan Turing after The Theory of Everything. Turing is a hot commodity lately and this book is just so intelligent and so fascinating that it’s worthy of having him as one of its main characters. This is one of those multiple narrative books that covers a span of hundreds of years, from the diary of a teenage girl on a ship to America in the 1600’s to the last thoughts of a robot that’s been shipped off to a warehouse where its batteries will slowly deplete, it follows scientists and non-scientists through journeys of communication and human thought. It is about robots and what it means to be human, it’s about how we think and how we communicate and what really matters in our lives. 


 Spring & Summer Favorite Books Spring & Summer Favorite BooksSmaller and Smaller Circles by F. H. Batacan. I love reading international crime novels, and Asian crime novels tend to be my favorite. This book is a huge hit in the Phillippines, and we have only the tiniest bit of Filipino literature in translation here in the US, so I was very excited to read this book. It’s absolutely a knockout, a well-plotted thriller with excellent characters. The unlikely detective is Father Gus Saenz, a priest who also happens to be a forensic anthropologist. Both local and national law enforcement are corrupt and suspect, so when Saenz is brought in to consult on a series of murders of young boys in a massive dump site, he can’t trust anyone in power. Batacan also gives us Payatas in great detail, the 50-acre dump that supports a huge community of impoverished people who pick through it to survive. A serial killer novel with a setting you definitely haven’t seen before, fully-drawn characters, and a worthy plot.

 Spring & Summer Favorite Books Spring & Summer Favorite BooksThe Night Sister by Jennifer McMahon finishes up the list. McMahon is one of those authors whose books I kept reading over and over again even though they never quite did it for me. She’s a master of page-turning but I almost always found the climax unworthy of the buildup. Until recently. Something changed with her previous novel, The Winter People. She’s shifted to supernatural and horror instead of the straight thriller or crime novel and it’s a change that suits her talent well. The Night Sister is really, really creepy and lets McMahon do what she does best: take you on a serious ride. Set in an abandoned motel, Amy has just brutally killed her family. Piper and Margot, her childhood friends, know secrets about the motel they promised they would keep, but if they’re going to stay alive they may have to break their promise. *insert creepy music* 


Favorites from Spring/Summer that you’d like to share? 

The Reasons I Changed My Name. And Changed It Back.

The Reasons I Changed My Name When I Got Married

  1. It was a symbol that we were a single family.
  2. A sign of love and devotion.
  3. Almost every woman I’d ever known had done it.
  4. I’d planned to change my name my entire life.
  5. I wasn’t far enough along in my career for my last name to be widely recognized.
  6. To make it clear I was the mother of my children once they came.

The Reasons I Changed My Name Back When I Got Divorced

  1. It was mine.
  2. I missed it.
  3. Turns out, no one cares if I have a different last name from my kids. Forms aren’t any harder to fill out, conversations aren’t more confusing, life isn’t tougher.
  4. I’d never taken the time to really think about changing it when I did it the first time, and now that I had time to think about it I realized it was the wrong choice.
  5. F—- the Patriarchy. 
  6. If I get married again to a feminist who wants to take MY name, it’d be nice if it was actually mine.
  7. During all those years when I was waiting to replace my name with another one that I imagined would be a better one, I didn’t realize what I had and how much it meant to me.
  8. People call me “Mrs. Severson” or “Graham’s Mom” or whatever, but that’s okay. People call you things and it doesn’t change you. What matters about my name is what I write down and how I identify myself.
  9. Changing your name, even when your name is recognized and you’ve started to build a career with it, is okay. It’s called “rebranding” and these days it’s pretty common, so I wasn’t afraid people would forget who I was.
  10. It was a symbol of reclaiming myself.
  11. I realized that I wanted to be just one person and stay that person. I will not change my last name again.
  12. I like being at the end of the alphabet. And having the nickname J-dub or J-Wo or whatever someone comes up with tomorrow. And telling people it’s “bury as in bury the hatchet.”


Living Another Life and Living Mine

For two weeks I played pretend. I had the kind of normal life most bloggers have, or at least something approximating it.

I drove a minivan. I dropped the kids off at half-day camp. I worked at the dining room table whenever I got a free minute and took work calls in my bedroom. I stayed in a house with 4 (four!!!) bathrooms. There was a dog running around, and a pool in the backyard that we played in each evening as the sun got low. There were other adults around so someone could run point on getting the kids lunch or taking them to the bathroom. One night someone even put the kids to bed for me while I went out. 

It was a quick visit to the life most other “mommy bloggers” have. (I hate that term, but it shows no sign of dying.) I have never really had that life, I’ve had bits and pieces of it at one time or another, but it never materialized the way I thought it would. 

I feel the distance from that life more than I should. It feels like opposition more than it should. Especially when people buy houses with big backyards and celebrate anniversaries and take vacations. (Vacations! Besides a couple of weekends away that I squeaked out back when I was married, I haven’t had a real vacation since my honeymoon. And even that was just a 4-hour drive away.)

I am working on feeling the distance less. I am trying to compare less and focus on my future. But that’s hard.

I told someone the other day that my life feels like it’s finishing a chapter. Then they asked, “So what’s the next chapter?” 

I have no answer for that. If there’s anything I know, it’s that I can’t say how things are going to go. I never could have predicted the last 10 years. Even if I caught a glimpse of a couple things on the horizon, nothing has gone the way I thought it would.

How can I say what the next chapter will be? 

I honestly don’t even think about what it’ll be. I know some things I want to accomplish, I know some things I’d like to be lucky enough to get, but I also know that none of that is a guarantee even with a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. 

8 years ago I thought I knew exactly how my life was going to play out. I won’t make that mistake again.

I take things a day or a week or a month at a time. Just little steps forward, occasionally a step back, then some more little steps forward. My eyes are on my feet, not the road, trying not to slip, trying to stay steady.

Not knowing what’s going to happen is actually one of the things I like about my life right now. And there are a lot of things I like about my life right now (independence, career, city life, time with my kids, time away from my kids) just like there are things I don’t like (loneliness, no vacations, debt, bad dates).

Who knows if one day the minivan life will be mine? Maybe it will. I can’t rule it out. I can’t even rule out the possibility that I’d love every minute of it.

Mission Impossible: Dude Nation

Last night I went to a movie. I don’t get to do that too often, so I try not to be too picky. If it isn’t a movie for children that I am seeing with my children, I’m usually good to go. Last night I was on a date, he’d mentioned wanting to see the new Mission Impossible and that was totally fine by me. 

So here’s the thing. I am not particularly militant about my entertainment because it would mean I could watch very little. Most of what we have to watch, especially in movies, is very heavy on white guys. But I felt that, in this day and age, there’s probably a little more gender parity. And in the first few minutes of the movie I thought, well why don’t I see if that’s really true.

So I counted the number of women in this movie with speaking roles.

The thing about this movie, and most action movies really, is that the parts can pretty much be filled by any race or gender. They aren’t heavy on character development, they just need bodies. Occasionally when a bankable actress is on board with one of these projects they’ll actually flip the gender of the main character with no damage to the story. (Example: Jodie Foster in Flightplan, although I’ll warn you, reading articles about how the movie was more “sympathetic” with a mother than a father might make you slightly stabby.) In a franchise you get an actor in and they stick, obviously, but any character new to the movie is basically a blank slate. With just 4 returning characters, that left lots of room.

I started counting. 

And as I’m sure you can guess, the results were not happy-making. If they had been it would’ve been fodder for a pleased tweet. Instead, it’s a post. So yeah.

The final numbers: 8 women who spoke. (9 if you include the opera singer singing, but I don’t, really. She didn’t get a closeup or have her Italian translated so she remained background.)

To give you a little context, more than 8 men speak IN THE FIRST FIVE MINUTES OF THE MOVIE. 

And it’s even worse than that. Of the 8 women who spoke, only 2 had lines that were more than filler like “Stand by,” or “Yes, sir.”

Only 1 of them appears regularly throughout the movie as a main, named character. 1 woman.

There are 13 men in this movie who are named, central characters. But 1 woman.

2 government agency heads face a subcommittee of senators in a hearing. Everyone in the room is a man. (I know women sadly only make up 20% of congress, but you couldn’t make room for one lady in there?)

This happens over and over again, to the point where nearly every scene without our 1 woman is a scene made up completely of men. And when she’s there, she is the only woman in the room time after time. And yes, she’s kickass and mysterious, but she feels an awful lot like token eye candy when every single other person is a dude.


The second (and only other) woman with decent lines should matter, but unfortunately she remains unnamed “Record Shop Girl.” This is part of the deal with action movies, of course. There are many, many unnamed characters with parts like “Lead Biker” and “Drone Technician #1.” But there are only 7 women among these hordes, and it gets to the point that it starts to feel like a very strong and unrecognized bias or a conscious choice. I lean towards the latter, especially since every lady in this movie is pretty darn gorgeous, even the one woman who’s supposed to be an older character, the wife of a head of state, is ridiculously gorgeous. 

It seems pretty clear that you’re not looking to put any women in your movie, and when you throw a handful of them in there, they’re mostly just to look at. When it comes to your other needs? Dudes.

Security guards? Dudes.

Assassins? Dudes.

Politicians? Dudes.

Lab techs? Dudes.

Airplane pilots? Dudes.

Power plant employees? Dudes.

Police officers? Dudes.

People behind a desk? Dudes.

Bodyguards? Dudes.

People here to kill you? Dudes.

Your boss? Dude.

Your nemesis? Dude.

The movie was fun, quite jaunty and light considering how much chasing and fighting there was. But once I started counting, it was rather depressing. Which is why I don’t make this a regular habit. 

Many people criticize the Bechdel test, including me. (For a movie to pass the Bechdel test, two female characters must appear, speak to each other, and have that conversation be about something besides a man.) But it remains necessary when so many movies don’t even seem to acknowledge that women make up half of the world.

To be honest, I got in this frame of mind in the first place not because of this movie but because of the previews. They were VERY heavy on dudes, including several period pieces and some true stories. And the thing about period pieces is that they are almost always about white dudes, since it was white dudes who had all the power for most of history and we still tend to fall into the pattern of assuming that these are the stories that matter. Those stories just get boring, honestly. I didn’t get excited by any of these previews. Tom Hanks is a white dude who saves the world. Leonardo DiCaprio is a white dude who is in the wilderness. Michael Fassbender does a Steve Jobs impersonation that looks decent but still doesn’t make me want to spend 2 hours watching a movie about a guy who seems to have been a raging asshole. Daniel Craig is James Bond and there’s a whole bunch of dudes, with the occasional cut to a hot chick. (I liked the one for Black Mass, which was of course filled with white dudes, and sadly it appears that Benedict Cumberbatch will join the long line of actors doing terrible–no, seriously terribly terrible like it may be up there as one of the worst–Boston accents in movies.)

The trailers were sending me a clear message that this was a dude movie, which is why I thought to undertake counting the women in the first place. But as I said earlier, I honestly thought it would turn out okay. It’s not a period piece. It’s not a movie where gender plays any real role. (Although I did wonder how long it will take for us to have a gay action movie hero who doesn’t get involved with the mysterious hot chick, but the mysterious hot dude. I would totally go for that even if it means more dudes!) 

It looks like nothing has changed at all during my years away from the movies. And honestly? That doesn’t get me super excited about going back.