Strictly On the Record

Some thoughts on Mormons in The Triple Package

I just finished reading Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld’s new book, The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America. From the book’s jacket:

Despite America’s ideas about inequality, some groups in this country do better than others. [She lists the groups: Mormons, Cubans, Nigerians, Asians (Indian and Chinese), Iranians, and Jews.] Why do some groups rise? Drawing on groundbreaking original research and startling statistics, The Triple Package uncovers the secret to their success.

A superiority complex, insecurity, impulse control: these are the elements of the Triple Package, the rare and potent cultural constellation that drives disproportionate group success.

The fact that Mormons are included in this group is not surprising to me, or new, really, in contemporary thought. The group’s success has been observed and commented on extensively during the recent “Mormon Moment” (though I hardly believe ours is simply a “moment”). I was more interested in the authors’ observations of those three elements within LDS culture.

Before we get any further, let me say that I understand this book is “one of those” pop-psychology books, written by an author who excels at polarizing her readers and, in doing so, shooting book sales through the roof. I don’t intend on arguing her definition of success, her research methods,  or her selection of traits or groups. This is a counter-commentary to her commentary.

Superiority Complex

For the purposes of her premise, Chubenfeld (my portmanteau for author’s Chua and Rubenfeld, pronoun female) states, “Groups or individuals can be said to have a superiority complex only when they have a genuine, deeply internalized belief in their own exceptionality.”

Chubenfeld begins her observations of superiority in Mormonism thus, “Mormon superiority is, like Jewish superiority, historically founded on the idea of chosenness–only without the angst.” Chubenfeld goes on to give a fair synopsis of Church history while remarking on the elements of Manifest Destiny present therein. Granted.

After the history lesson, Chubenfeld spends a few pages in LDS doctrine, including revelation, Priesthood authority, missionary work, the nature of God, the Fall, family, and the Plan of Salvation. Again, she does a fair job, concluding, “Thus today, the Mormon sense of exceptionalism is focused less on American manifest destiny and much more on morality and mission.”

I’d say that’s accurate. All told, Chubenfeld’s section on Mormons is well done, even if it uses a few too many quotation marks. One point I’d like to clear up, though, is that while Mormons believe themselves exceptional, we do not believe ourselves superior. Perhaps the more accurate statement would be that Mormons believe our doctrine to be superior to all other doctrine–theological or otherwise. Because our doctrine is so closely tied to our identity, this can arguably be mistaken as a belief in personal superiority–a serious oversight. We do not believe a single person who ever lived on this earth to be inferior or unexceptional. We believe that all human beings are children of God with limitless potential. Additionally, Chubenfeld fails to note that unlike any other “success” group, Mormons are the only group that anyone can fully join–and indeed, we invite all to join. In contrast, I cannot become Asian or Nigerian at will, even if invited to do so.


Chubenfeld defines insecurity as “a goading anxiety about oneself and one’s place in society.” She writes, “Mormons were long persecuted.”

And that is literally all she has to say about insecurity in LDS culture. I’m not kidding. It’s a four-word sentence jammed into a paragraph on Jewish persecution.

For one, she could elaborate on Mormon persecution. That’d be easy enough, but not nearly as insightful as some of our other insecurities.

How about our anxieties about our personal and familial salvation and exaltation? How about exploring our unique repentance process? Our responsibilities to be “saviors on Mount Zion?” Or the struggles Mormons face living up to the injunction “Be ye therefore perfect?” Heck, even our insecurities about calllings?

Sure, this isn’t a book about Mormons. I get it, you feel obligated to spend equal amounts of time on each group. But this stuff is classic insecurity, and it demonstrates how valuable insecurity can be.

Impulse Control

Impulse control is pretty self-explanatory, but Chubenfeld defines it as “the capacity to resist temptation–including especially the temptation to quit when a task is arduous, daunting, or beyond one’s immediate abilities.” Interestingly, she cites the same marshmallow study that President Uchtdorf used in this conference talk on patience.

On the back cover, Chubenfeld praises Mormons as the champions of this trait, despite giving them only four pages in the book. Of those four pages, two discuss impulse control via the laws and programs of the church, and two oddly meander through “inner conflicts” of Mormonism that would fit better in the insecurity section.

Speaking of the insecurity section, likewise this section also fails to capture some truly fascinating and unique aspects of Mormonism and the Triple Package, such as, for example, our doctrine of free agency and its sister accountability. Or how about delving into the Mormon belief of “enduring to the end?” Or perhaps a treatment of grace as an enabling power? Or looking for a moment at our Addiction Recovery Program? Our provident living resources?

Right about this point I can tell that Chubenfeld is running out of steam.

The Underside of the Triple Package

This is the section where Chubenfeld suggests some downsides to the Triple Package. Where do Mormons fit in here?

“The Mormon superiority complex is no more invidious than any other–in some ways much less, because Mormonism has opened its doors to individuals of all races and made millions of converts all over the world–but it highlights a feature worthy of special attention. A group’s superiority complex isn’t always distributed equally among all group members. It can raise one class of people over another within the group.”

First off–thanks, Chubenfeld, for finally acknowledging within those em dashes that Mormons don’t really have a superiority complex. Second off, and this is the strange part, Chubenfeld goes on to argue that Mormonism treats its women as an inferior class. She does this in a “Well, yeah, officially they claim to believe in equality,” then whispered behind a hand “but really they don’t,” way. She can’t find a real juicy underside to our “superiority complex” because 1.) she wasn’t entirely right about it in the first place, and 2.) rightly understood, there is none. And so she must fabricate a dark side, settling on a hot issue (if unrelated) that will polarize and sell. Oh, and by the way, this is not an issue for faithful Mormons.

The remainder of the book discusses IQ, testing, and the United States as a Triple Package country, pulling examples from various groups as convenient and generally repeating what was written in earlier chapters. Oh, and an added splash of Tocqueville for authenticity, cause, you know, America.

So there you have it. The book is cookie dough–tasty, but not baked. It shouldn’t be the only thing you eat for dinner, and yes, it uses raw eggs, which can cause salmonella.

Artistic Sneak Attacks

I like it when authors, speakers, painters, and musicians sneak up on me.

Not in real life–that’s creepy. I mean via their creations.

My favorite talks, books, works of art, and pieces of music are those that begin unassuming–even boring–but subtly, persistently, build and build and build until I’m about halfway through the experience and I realize, “Whoa–I am witness to a great work!” and I look around to see if anyone else is noticing. By the end, I’m overwhelmed by the beauty of a performance that appears to be both effortless and arduous.


Challenge 3: Postcard

Send a postcard to an old friend, and write a 100-word message on it. What are some of the things you tell them that you wouldn’t otherwise have said? How does the picture affect the language?

Hey man,

My family moved away the summer before high school. It was a sudden transition punctuated with question marks. For a long time I’ve wanted to discuss it with you guys, but even now I wonder if I should. I want you to know why I disappeared.

I’ve thought of you and our little cadre often. What’s happened since then? I’ve heard that some good times were had, and I’ve heard that some things fell apart. I’d like to hear your stories firsthand and hang out with you all next time I’m in Phoenix. What do you think?

This was tricky for a few reasons. First, postcards? More like pastcards [ohhh!]. Modern technology means that I’d be more likely to Instagram or tweet or text the picture and message.

Second, old friends. How old is old? High school? No, I’m going to go  with pre-high school. Problem is, I haven’t spoken with any of those guys in a decade now. Wow–has it really been that long? With friends that have so much catching up to do, a postcard will not suffice. It can–at best–serve to reestablish contact, a prelude to another meeting

As far as the picture goes–I’d like the image to be one of all of us together as kids, but I don’t know if such a picture exists. In truth, I’m okay with a blank postcard.

I don’t know. Maybe I shouldn’t send this. What if Time is just playing alchemist with my memories? What if we weren’t as close as I thought? Like I said, it has been a decade, and they haven’t reached out to me. I’ll mull it over. It’ll probably be a while till I’m in Phoenix, anyway.

I want to ride my bicycle.

Today marks the first day of the summer bicycle commute. We spent Saturday picking out a beaut of a bike for Rachel, then riding to Georgetown and back. Excellent weather for that sort of thing.

Anyway, over the course of the ride I made one observation about the cyclist culture: cyclists are, by and large, incredibly considerate people.

A couple examples. My bicycle is the motorless Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and I am the American Caractacus Potts. It clinks and shudders and screeches and hums, and always pulls through with some loving attention from yours truly. After a couple hours walking the streets of Georgetown we came back to the bikes, only to discover that my front tire had gone flat. I pumped it up with our mini-pump, and it held–just a slow leak. I figured I could make it home with occasional pumping stops. As I stood up, a geared up bicyclist asked if we were from around here.

“Yeah, we’re from Alexandria,” I said, thinking he’d then ask for directions. Wrong.

“Cause there’s a bicycle shop across the street there where you can get your flat fixed.”

“Awesome, thanks! I think we’ll make it home, though.”

He nodded and took off, and we realized that he had been waiting there all the time while I pumped, just to make sure we knew where that shop was in case we needed help.

Twenty minutes into our ride home we pulled off the path for water and a pump. As I was pumping, another cyclist rode by, slowing down, and called out, “Got everything you need?”

So this is me, thanking cyclists everywhere for being upstanding folk, and this is me, adopting the cyclist code myself.

Aware and Active

We’ve been watching a show called “Suits” lately, and one of the lines became a catalyst for a few other thoughts I’ve had rattling around in my head lately.

In the story line, Harvey Specter, a cool, Danny Ocean-like lawyer, has just exposed a cheating businessman in a high-power trading firm that Specter represents. The CEO of the firm fires the employee immediately, and addresses Specter:

CEO: Harvey, I want you to know that I knew nothing about any of this.

Specter: Dean, when I was thirteen years old my little brother was getting bullied by a kid in the neighborhood. One day I confronted the kid’s father. He told me he didn’t know anything about it. You know what his problem was? It was his [gosh darn] job to know.

The guys playing in my fantasy baseball league drafted a league constitution before the beginning of the season. Here are a few lines that follow one of the league rules:

Though the ESPN system will let you break this rule in various ways, the commissioner will not. Repeated abuse of this rule means you’re trying to cheat or being lazy. Either is bad.

When I was on my mission, those companionships that were given access to cars were instructed to keep an accounting of the miles they drove. They were allotted a certain amount of miles every transfer (six weeks), and if they reached or exceeded their transfer allotment, they were to park their cars and walk or bike for the remainder of the transfer.

Some missionaries thought they could get around this rule by building up speed, then shifting their vehicles into neutral and “coasting” till they ran out of kinetic energy, then shifting back into gear and repeating the process. It’s an unsafe and impractical venture in general, and is actually illegal in some places.

In one zone conference, my mission president stood up and said, “Elders and Sisters, coasting is bad–in cars and in life.”

So here’s the life lesson. For those things that matter most–our families, our work, our passions, our talents, our salvation–being wise stewards requires that we be both aware and active. In many cases, ignorance–while blissful–is not an excuse.

Something: The Musical

I’ve got a new goal in life: I want to write a musical.

Yes, a musical. Start to finish. Script, lyrics, and music. I’ve been thinking about hobbies lately, and, more particularly, what are mine. I figure I’ve got a ton different activities that I’m relatively good at and enjoy, but I think I kinda sorta maybe want to consider narrowing my hobbies down a bit, so that I can really perfect one or two of them. High on the list are music and writing, followed closely by sports and family history. I’ve always enjoyed writing–a gift I believe came from my dad–and I’ve always enjoyed stories–a gift I believe came from my mom and her mother. Music has always played an important role in my life, indeed, at one point I made a concerted (no pun) effort to make it my career. I have fun playing sports, and feel it is important to maintain my health into my old age. I’ve recently come to enjoy family history research and the satisfaction of the spirit of Elijah.

I was thinking about those first two hobbies, though, when the idea of a musical presented itself to my mind. I’ve toyed with the idea of writing a novel, and I’ve considered putting my hand to more serious songwriting–a musical seems to be the perfect fusion of the two.

I don’t think it would be a grand one. Probably not too clever, and probably not too polished, but it would be honest and tasteful. Very much like my life.

Nationals 4, Padres 0

Today has been (arguably) the best day I’ve had out here in Virginia. We started out by doing some bike shopping for Rachel, who will be starting her bicycle commute next week. The shop we visited was a little store/repair center tucked away on the waterfront in Old Town. We walked in, perused the displayed bikes, but kept coming back to a bike with no price tag near the entrance. As we were admiring it, an older man in a mechanic’s smock approached us and started chatting with us about the bike. Turns out, he was the owner. He happily answered all our questions and brought out a bike for Rachel to test ride. She LOVED it. We’ll return next week and perhaps take the plunge in purchasing.

When we returned home we wolfed down some food and took off for Nationals Park on our bikes–yep, we went to a baseball game. The weather was splendid and our seats were excellent. Shaded, relatively close, nice breeze. Scott and Kiersten Jackson came with us, and we all enjoyed the victory. We didn’t really get to see any stars (Harper, Strasburg, etc.), but we got to see Jayson Werth (who’s having a good year) hit, and Tanner Roark pitched a superb game. I expected more from Andrew Cashner of the Padres, but his performance was lackluster. The loss isn’t entirely his fault; he suffered from two fielding errors in the first.

After the game we rode back home, and here I am. I’d be more descriptive, but I may have gotten a little sunburned. The day was worth the burn.

North Carolina Easter

A few weeks ago we had some friends invite us to summer with them in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Okay, not actually summer. I recently heard of someone using summer as a verb and wanted to try it out myself. Turns out, that’s a really expensive verb, and we don’t have the ca$h money for such word choice. Road trip. They invited us on a road trip to the Outer Banks. It would have been fun, but we ended up declining the offer. The stars weren’t aligning–in fact, the stars looked like a line of first graders at the zoo. Anyway, one of those unruly stars was my opinion of North Carolina.

On a traditional atlas, the state of North Carolina reaches from roughly 75° W to 85° W. On the Aaron Taylor Map of the United States, however, the state of North Carolina spans about half that distance–the western half, to be precise. North Carolina is not sandy beaches and ocean breezes. North Carolina is loping foothills and smoking mountains. Pardon me, Smoky Mountains.

North Carolina is not splashing through briny surf; it’s romping through shady woods. You don’t run into the ghosts of aviators; you run into the ghosts of Cherokee chiefs. North Carolina doesn’t smell of seafood; Essence de la Caroline du Nord is a mixture of fresh rainfall and the pages of old books. North Carolina doesn’t have lighthouses. North Carolina has creaky bridges over creeky creeks. There is no algae in North Carolina; there are blackberry bushes and poison ivy, reminders that the land is still sweet and still wild. There are no dune buggies, only Cadillacs from the Eighties. And there is a dog named Magic.

So we declined the invitation to the Outer Banks. We spent Easter weekend, however, in North Carolina.

Rachel and I got off work early on Friday so that we could spend the afternoon driving down. Fueled by dried mangoes and the audiobook version of Born to Run (an excellent book about ultra-running), we made our way westward through the Shenandoahs and down across the state line. The scenery of the drive came straight out of The Red Badge of Courage, except that we were flanked on both sides by purple wildflowers instead of Civil War infantry. We stopped for gas shortly after crossing the state line, and upon opening the car door I immediately recognized the scent of North Carolina, as distinct as anything.

Our first stop was Steven and Janet’s home. I hadn’t seen Steven in over a decade, so I was happy to be reunited with him. It was also my pleasure to meet Janet for the first time. They have a lovely home and I felt very welcome there. As we were sitting and talking, I realized that Rachel and I were not just sitting at Steven and Janet’s piano–we were sitting at Grandfather and Grandma’s piano! The bench cover gave it away. We adjourned to play a card game later in the evening, and I found myself sitting at another familiar piece of furniture–Grandfather and Grandma’s dining table! It was a nice touch and made me smile.

After the card game was done, we left for Aunt Becky and Uncle Dave’s house, where we’d stay for the remainder of the trip. I rode with Uncle Dave, and Aunt Becky rode with Rachel. I’m finding I like Uncle Dave more and more with each interaction. As a boy I was a bit intimidated of him; I don’t know why, I just was. In recent years we’ve developed a healthy rapport at weddings and family gatherings. This time around, though, I was overwhelmed by his warmth and friendliness. We chatted like good friends, and I actually preferred his company to all others (excluding Rachel, of course). Don’t get me wrong, I loved spending time with everyone, but it was Uncle Dave who really clicked this time around.

We pulled into the Melonakos garage, and again, on opening the car door I was bowled over by the nostalgic smells of the garage–cut grass, mechanics, old sports equipment. One thing I love about going back to the Melonakos home is that things don’t change. The lawnmower was parked where the lawnmower  has always been parked. The shoes were where the shoes have always sat. The home layout and furnishings have remained almost exactly as they’ve always been. Walking through the house again was like walking back in time. Just the sound and smell of the stairwell was enough to bring tears to my eyes, and as I approached the main floor and glanced over the banister at the living room, I fully expected to see six or seven little boys crowded around a small television in the corner by the fireplace, furiously smashing buttons on their SNES controllers and calling for next. They weren’t there, and the game system and television were gone.

Rachel and I stayed in Laura’s room. The first thing I noticed was the set of scriptures on the nightstand. A quad with “Dr. Keith T. Stephens” inscribed on the front. I smiled, remembering how important the “Dr.” was to Grandfather. I slept on the side of the bed next to the bookcase, and couldn’t help but marvel at the books I saw. Treasures from my childhood. These were the very books I had read for summer reading programs past. Not just the titles–the physical copies. It was another happy reunion.

Unfortunately, the sky rained all Saturday, so we weren’t able to enjoy the outdoors like we would have hoped, but we enjoyed our time indoors. We played with Amy, Katherine, Michael, and Lindsey.  I sorted through some family history records. We watched some playoff basketball with Steven and Janet. We practiced a choir song for Sunday. We played cribbage and Abstracts. And the popcorn was delicious.

We woke up to a beautiful Easter morning. I mean, gorgeous. I mean, breathtaking. I mean, glorious. Rachel, Uncle Dave, Aunt Becky, and I left early for choir practice. Rachel and I fell in love with how spaced out the properties were. While I can’t really see us settling in North Carolina, I did resolve to buy a small cabin there someday. I want my children to know North Carolina, at least a little bit. The ward was very welcoming to Rachel and I. I received many compliments on my bow tie, and an older woman name Roberta approached me between meetings and asked if I was Karen’s oldest son. I was pleasantly surprised that someone would remember my mom, and proudly replied that no, I’m Karen’s second oldest son. I would have chatted with her more, but I had to take some Easter pictures outside for Laura in Brazil.

Easter dinner–lunch–was excellent. We had turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, stuffing, rolls, asparagus, and salad. I know, it sounds like Thanksgiving. If you think about it, though, Easter is about giving thanks for the Atonement and Resurrection of our Lord. I was stuffed. Shortly after eating we all went outside for the kids’ Easter egg hunt. We loved watching the kids darting around on the grass snatching up the eggs. We particularly enjoyed watching Lindsey, a little unsure of herself (she doesn’t have a lot of experience yet), but nonetheless excited about the goings-on.

The conclusion of the hunt signaled our time to leave. We said our goodbyes, took some pictures, and began the long drive back to ol’ Virginny. Rachel was attacked by a stomach ache, so I drove us just about the entire way.

We left North Carolina wishing we could stay; but then, that’s how it always is. We felt blessed.


Militias and Me

Quick nod to current events–some cattlemen in Nevada have made headlines lately in protesting the acquisition of their property by the Bureau of Land Management. As I understand it, the BLM is claiming the land–which the cattlemen have grazed and lived on for over a century–for conservation purposes. The cattlemen believe the BLM is overstepping its authority, and doesn’t have the right to the land. The cattlemen have threatened to defend their land with firearms and their lives, if need be. Tensions escalated to a standoff in which no shots were fired and the BLM backed down.

Which brings me to my thoughts. Several state militias were mustered in support of the cattlemen, including the Arizona State Militia. They did not engage; they provided recon assistance and support by their presence. Just so we’re clear–militias are not affiliated with the United States military. They are not members of the armed forces. They are not the National Guard. They are not Reserves. They are simply volunteer, paramilitary organizations. In some cases they are sanctioned by the state government, but in many cases operate independently. They receive funding largely from private parties, and members typically supply their own gear (including firearms). They run trainings for emergency preparedness scenarios (providing aid for natural disasters), wilderness survival, and yes, basic combat operations.

Like many Americans, I share a somewhat romantic view of militias. I see my founding fathers. I see skills and service. I see honor and courage. I see the defense of home and family, of conviction and order.

On the other hand, I can also see how militias can easily devolve into militant gangs, vigilante radicals, and oppressive regimes. They are not always led by George Washingtons, and they are not always comprised of Davy Crocketts.

For a moment, let’s pretend I have three hands.  On the other other hand, in the event of an environmental emergency or collapse of freedom or violation of security, I’d align myself primarily with the Church. I’d follow it’s cues. If it said, support the government, then show me the way to the recruiting office. If it said, meet at the stake center to unload some welfare trucks, then there I’ll be. If it said, sit tight and ration your food storage, then it looks like we’ll be cookin’ beans. If it said, circle the wagons and reform the Mormon Battalion, then here’s my gun.

Would I like to participate in the trainings that militias offer? Yes, I think so. Will they really offer that much more regarding survival skills than what I’ve already gained as an Eagle Scout, or that I couldn’t pick up on my own? Probably not. Are they more organized–better capable of mobilizing in emergencies–than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Definitely not. Am I hesitant of joining the right-wing extremist nut-jobs that I’d invariably find scattered among a citizen militia’s ranks? You betcha.

Thus for me–at this time and in this place–the cons of militias outweigh the pros.

Doing my Duty

Dish duty, that is.