I do not get to travel as much as I would like. My work doesn’t require much travel, which I know is a blessing, but seeing new and interesting places is the one luxury I would like to afford. I would guess that my wife and I take a big trip (by big I mean out-of-state) maybe once a year. Often we look for running races based on the city we want to visit. This is how we came to visit such places as Hartford, Connecticut (beautiful) and Stinson Beach, California (beautiful totally differently). It’s a great excuse to get out-of-town, and if it’s a long race you can justify eating whatever you want, like an entire pizza. Double bonus!
Part of me, however, has come to dread our annual trip, specifically when it comes to chatty fellow travelers wishing to know where I come from. Sometimes this has to do with a touch of panic/anxiety that I live my life around. It comes and goes, mostly based on how much exercise I get during the week. Commuting by bike helps. Mostly, though talking about where I am from opens an emotional can of worms that I don’t want to deal with in the course of a flight. I could take the easy out, say that I am from Wyoming or Alabama. Those are places that I know well enough to avoid having to tell people that I am, in fact, from Salt Lake City, Utah.
Sometimes, I will pretend not to speak English, or fake sleep. If neither of these things work, I will not hesitate to straight up lie about the land of my birth.
When I am traveling with my wife, which is usually the case, she is the one talking to people. This happens almost wherever we go: on planes, on 5:00 AM bus rides to the beginning of half-marathons, waiting in line to get beverages at the gas station. Everywhere she goes, if she doesn’t yet have a friend, she will make one by brute conversational force. It’s one of the things I love most about her, the same situation that shuts me down will open her up. Yet, if we are out-of-state and the topic of Utah arises, like night follows day will come the joke “How many wives do you have?”
I hate this joke with every fiber of my being.
Not only is this the oldest, lamest, saddest comic material ever, but I and every male Utahn has heard this same joke enough times that the sounds cause physical pain. Do people ask Southerners if they still own slaves, or Texans if they ever shot a man at high noon? The “Joker” has been speaking with my wife for like an hour, why would he ask this most poisonous of questions to her husband in front of her face? For our global friends, is this a particularly American thing? Can citizens of the world make small talk without me wanting jump out of a plane?
The thing is, I love Salt Lake City. It is a great town, especially if you like outdoor activities. We have a decent economy, great cultural venues, light rail public transit, an active art and design community, and a pretty even balance between conservative and liberal world-views thanks to Utah’s flagship university being up on the hill. Once you get out of Salt Lake’s boundaries things get different fast I will admit, but I came here in the 90’s to go to college and I don’t really want to leave…
Now, I don’t have any pioneer ancestors and maybe I would feel differently if my sweet great-grandmother was a sister-wife, but she wasn’t and I don’t. I feel like Joseph Smith is reaching back through time to give me a panic attack every time a chatty stranger wonders about the coordinates of my birth. On a related note, I am deaf to pioneer stories. I am pretty sure the mid 19th century was miserable for everybody. That might be a whole other blog post.
There are a couple of old chestnuts dusted off by Mormons today to try to explain away the practice of polygamy, which I am sure smarter people than I have debunked at length, so I will not try to list them. What concerns me most is the need we have to find excuses for this practice, one which the current LDS church has not officially forsaken. Polygamy is still the first thing Americans think about when they hear the word “Utah”, and that is literally and figuratively a damn shame.