Oh My Heck, It’s Another Conference Diary

The reason there was no traffic this weekend is that it was general conference and everyone was inside watching it on TV, or at least pretending to watch it for the sake of their roommates.

But if you only watched it on TV, as opposed to being right there in the Tabernacle, well, buddy, you haven’t lived. Since you weren’t there (or at least I didn’t see you), I’ll give you my account of the Sunday morning session.

9:11 a.m.— Three NewsNet reporters — Adam, Samantha and Marissa — and I arrive at Temple Square, dressed professionally and ready to do our journalistic duty in covering conference. Adam promptly breaks the clip off his press pass.

9:14 — We enter the Tabernacle and sit in the press section. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir has finished its rehearsal for the “Music and the Spoken Word” broadcast. Clay Christiansen is making a hideous noise on the organ by playing two notes on two different keyboards that were never intended to be played simultaneously. We wish he would stop. After, like, a million minutes, he finally does. What was he doing, tuning it? It sounded terrible, but he was doing it on purpose. Maybe he was trying to blow the rats out of the pipes, I don’t know.

9:42 — During the “Music and the Spoken Word” thing, announcer Lloyd Newell introduces an organ solo, and I silently hope it’s going to sound better than whatever that rat-blowing thing was. Newell says the piece is “the ever-popular ‘Prince of Denmark March.'” I am dubious as to the “ever-popular” part, but the piece sounds pretty nice. As I listen, I close my eyes and try to picture the Prince of Denmark marching somewhere, but instead I fall asleep.

9:48 — I notice that the journalist sitting in front of me has a cool little computer/planner/organizer thing. Through the time-honored journalistic practice of looking over the guy’s shoulder, I see that one of his tasks for Monday is to “call Elder Marlin K. Jensen.” He is also supposed to call a guy named Troy. To me, it seems more likely that he will accomplish the second task than the first.

10:10 — During his talk, President James E. Faust mentions some cows that were starving on his grandfather’s farm during the Depression. It occurs to me that I am also very hungry. “As hungry as a cow” seems like a good figure of speech to put into circulation.

10:13 — A cameraman from a certain Salt Lake TV station shows up, 13 minutes late and dressed like he’s about to go paint somebody’s house. He sets up his camera, shoots approximately two seconds of tape, then packs up and leaves again. Maybe he’s going to get something to eat. Maybe he’s “as hungry as a cow.” (See? It works really well.)

10:29 — Elder Neal A. Maxwell makes a joke about his almost-bald head, and everyone laughs.

10:36 — Elder Maxwell makes another joke, but this one has a lot of big words in it, and only the smart people get it. I am not among them. I believe it is safe to say that neither is Adam, who is still trying to fix his press pass.

10:38 — Elder Maxwell quotes the apostle Paul about people who want to “eat, drink and be merry,” and it occurs to me that I’m still hungry. “As hungry as a heathen” seems a little better than my previous attempt at a new colloquialism.

10:47 — Elder David E. Sorensen mentions “cattle” in some context. I briefly consider going back to the cow thing again, but decide against it.

11:02 — Sister Susan Lillywhite Warner begins to speak. I mean no disrespect toward Sister Warner, but how did “Lillywhite” become a name? Isn’t “lilly-white” an unflattering way of describing a person? How did that make it to namehood, while “Pastywhite” and “Sissyboy” are still considered rude?

11:17 — Elder Richard G. Scott begins to speak — on morality, oddly enough. Listening to him is not nearly as terrifying in person as it is on TV, because in the Tabernacle, there’s no way he can stare right at you, his words piercing your soul even when you haven’t done anything wrong. (Well, I guess he COULD stare at you, but he could only stare at one person at a time, and what are the odds it would be you? I mean, come on. Quit being so paranoid, man.)

11:25 — Adam continues to work on his press pass, but it seems doubtful that he is going to repair it.

11:30 — Elder Scott counsels young men to go on missions, and young women to “follow the inspired counsel of President Hinckley in the October 1997 conference” on the subject of whether or not they should go on missions. If you are like most guys, you probably remember President Hinckley’s counsel as being: “NO MORE SISTER MISSIONARIES!” However, that is not entirely accurate. (I believe his original quotation was not in all-caps.)

11:50 — The audience is surprised that President Hinckley has done a “question-and-answer” type of talk, and has even mentioned Larry King, and yet has not addressed the issues of President Clinton’s immorality or the editing of “Titanic.”

11:52 — Somewhere, for the 1,000,000th time, a journalist describes President Hinckley as “media-savvy.”

11:58 — Conference ends and Adam’s press pass is still broken. This is a major black eye for the NewsNet organization, even worse than last week, when we called all female BYU students “girls” in a graphic on the front page.

12:14 — We find the lunch provided by the church for all media personnel, and we gratefully partake. Good thing, because some of us were as hungry as … oh, never mind.

This was the fourth time I'd done this sort of thing, and it had actually become rather popular -- people were e-mailing me a few days before conference to ask if I was going to do it again, and I was happy to be able to say yes.

The only problem is that I had to write it really fast. In addition to writing three legitimate news stories about three speakers at the session I attended, I had to write this thing -- all in the space of only a few hours. I usually have the luxury of working for at least a week on a column, but this one appeared in the paper with a few words that I would have changed if I'd had some more time. Nothing serious; just a syntax issue here and there.

The version you see above is actually the slightly-better-written version, with the changes I WOULD have made in the newspaper if I'd had more time to revise it. Again, the changes are subtle, and not worth mentioning, so I'm not going to.

The entry at 11:50 may require some explanation. When President Hinckley appeared on "Larry King Live" a few weeks before conference, King asked him his views on the Clinton/Lewinsky thing about a thousand times, as did some of the callers. In addition, a Utah video store was in the news at that time because it was offering to edit out the naughty parts of your "Titanic" video for only $5 (which seems like a bargain to me -- anything that makes the movie shorter, you know), and a caller actually asked President Hinckley about that. You know, because since the video store is in Utah, the LDS Church must be responsible for the editing, right? President Hinckley didn't tell the woman who called about "Titanic" that she was an idiot, but I'm pretty sure the thought crossed his mind (though perhaps in a nicer way).

And the entry at 11:52 is sort of a private joke. It works by itself -- if you've ever read anything about President Hinckley, you've probably seen the phrase "media-savvy" -- but it also works on another level. On the front page of the Daily Universe issue in which this column appeared, I had one of my legitimate news stories, about President Hinckley's Sunday morning talk. And guess what phrase I used to describe him. It was fun for me to do something on one page of the paper, and then make fun of others for doing it on another.

This column prompted a couple angry letters. The first came via e-mail from a woman who subscribes to a "Mormon humor" e-mailing list. This column was sent out to everyone on that list, as had a few other "Snide Remarks" columns in the past (this was done with my permission). She evidently didn't care much for this one:

Nope, not funny. Sounds like conference was a bore. It was inspirational for me. I cannot remember one in the last 50 years... (is that 100 conferences?... I guess so), that was as motivational. I'm sorry it was only funny, or a bore for you.

It is clear from reading my column that I found conference to be ONLY funny and nothing more than that. Because surely those 1,000 words I wrote regarding ONE session (out of five) sum up the entirety of my feelings on the matter. Surely it is impossible to find humor in something AND to also be uplifted by it. Surely the general authorities themselves don't even make jokes.

I replied to this woman and asked why she was on a "Mormon humor" e-mailing list if she doesn't like humor regarding Mormons, but I got no response.

Two days after this column was published, I received the following letter in the mail -- the real U.S. Postal Service mail -- from Lee Bartlett, a relatively high-ranking BYU official. (He was some kind of sort-of vice president, or something like that.) As usual with these angry letters, see if you can spot how many unjustified conclusions he jumps to. Make a game out of it; it's fun!

Dear Eric:

I am writing to tell you how offended I am by the mockery of General Conference and General Authorities in your column in today's Daily Universe. To trivialize the significance and belittle the eloquence of Elder Maxwell's message is unconscionable, to mention only one of the six that you named. I have seldom read such a sustained stream of disrespect. [How did he arrive at six as the number of people I belittled? That's how many General Authorities I mentioned -- and of course mentioning someone is the same as belittling them.]

You are a very talented and often very funny writer. I have regularly laughed out loud when reading your column.

You also seem, at times, to be a model of undisciplined talent. One of my creative heroes, a man named Bill Bernbach, once made the observation that where communication is concerned, the presence of talent can be more dangerous than the absence of talent. "The talented person without discipline has the ability to reach the destructive shores more quickly than the person without talent."

That most of those who attended or tuned in to General Conference were spiritually uplifted by the experience may be news to you. But it shouldn't be.

And if you can't discern the potential of your words to offend and smack of sacrilege, there is a real gap in your sense of appropriateness -- or a real disdain for those of us who look to General Conference for instruction and inspiration. If my reaction surprises you, or is not what you intended, that simply illustrates my point. [There's some fine, air-tight logic there: "If you don't agree with me, that merely proves I'm right."]

By the way, what was your point?

Lee Bartlett

One expects self-righteousness and narrow-minded conclusion-drawing from BYU students. But one would like to think the administrators would be beyond that. One would also think they'd be above making personal attacks on someone's spirituality based on something they wrote in the newspaper. As has often proven to be the case at BYU, I guess my assumptions were wrong.

Nearly two weeks after this column was published -- long after the statute of limitations on getting offended had expired -- the Letters to the Editor people received this e-mail. The writer also sent a copy to me, the lifestyle editor, and BYU President Merrill J. Bateman (I'm not kidding). It was printed in the Oct. 20 issue of The Daily Universe:

I am personally offended that we have individuals of the character of Eric Snyder [The point where people misspell my name is usually about the time I stop paying attention.] and those who support and encourage his childish apostate attitude and behavior, associated with Brigham Young University. Why would any person or organization promote such an open disrespect for the Lords anointed? Why would such irresponsible journalism be tolerated except to mock those called to serve the Lord and the mission of this great university? And then do so under the disclaimer of "Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the student body, faculty, university administration, or Board of Trustees or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints". While they may not "reflect the views", they do have a far reaching impact on those who read the Daily Universe, both member and non-member alike. If this is the best that the Daily Universe can do, please allow me to recommend the censure of Eric Snyder, Heather Hemingway and their managers for their part in this rubbish.

Michael S. Roberts

Heather Hemingway was dragged into this because she was the lifestyle editor at The Daily Universe. She actually had absolutely NOTHING to do with my column, but it was printed on the lifestyle page, so I guess it's guilt by association.

By noon the day this letter was printed, I had received seven or eight e-mails from people defending me and wondering what this guy's problem was. The opinion editor got another half-dozen or so, a couple of which he printed. He also got a couple letters bashing me, including one from the girl who didn't like the Zimbabwe joke.