Monday, July 1, 2013

Cowboy hats and Kanduras

When I was about five years old, I went to stay with my Dad in Oklahoma City. I don’t recall how long I was there, but to a kid my age it seemed like forever. I didn’t see my dad too much when I was growing up as he spent most of my formative years incarcerated. So, I remember these brief times with a certain fondness. Well, for the most part… My dad and his girlfriend lived in a tiny one bedroom apartment in Oklahoma City and instead of putting me up on the couch, I got a pallet on the floor next to their bed. One night I awoke to the sounds of a woman in distress. Someone was in the room with us and they were killing my dad’s girlfriend. Then I realized to my horror that it was not an intruder, though my dad was certainly doing some intruding. My very own father up there a mere three feet away, doing something unholy. I lay there embarrassed as I realized they were, “playing nasty,” as my mom called it and tried to imagine being anywhere else in the world. The next day my dad thought to add on to my humiliation by bringing me home a little cowboy get up, complete with miniature belt buckle and hat. I must have looked something like a pissed off Woody from toy story. Even then at the tender age of five, I realized that I did not identify with certain parts of my culture. Sure, I was born in Texas, but I would be damned if I had to be a little cowboy for anyone. So, fast forward to present day where I live in Dubai and I find myself more indentified by my culture than any other time in my life. For a city in the Middle East, Dubai is not what most of people think of when they imagine the region. Though there are quite a bit of things to remind you that you are most definitely not in Kansas anymore, it has a lot of the comforts of home. For instance, just down the street from my new desert home is a Texas Chicken. We call this Church’s Chicken at home, but for some reason there was a name change. My old friend, Starbucks is also on just about every corner as well. The same old businesses, but this time the clientele just dresses slightly different. Nothing like seeing a guy in a kandura waiting on a table at Red Lobster. Our world is getting smaller. One of the first things I had to do when I arrived was get my visa in order. This means I had to spend a few days sitting in the immigrations office where I had to pay for things like typing services where one person literally prints a paper and you have to walk it twenty feet to someone else that stamps it and sends you back. Here, while submitting my wife’s passport for her visa I was asked by the man behind the counter in all seriousness, “Only one wife?” I thought this was a joke till I looked at the guy next to me submitting his three wives passports. One of the things I have had the hardest time adjusting to is my sense of humor; or humour as they would spell it here. I have an extremely dry wit. And like any fine wine or spirit, it requires a refined taste. It seems that I also have a slight case of Tourettes, because even though I know my witty banter will fall flat, I can’t quite keep my filter on. Even worse is when I am not trying to be funny and people laugh. Misunderstandings like this are amazingly common here, where everyone believes their own culture supersedes all others. I have an unusual streak at work where I have made every woman I have worked with cry. It wasn’t long after I started working in my new office that I extended my streak. I was tasked with the training of all the associates in the new branch. My company uses SAP and so I spent most of my time in the beginning showing them the ins and outs of this system. This one Russian girl that I work with was having trouble remembering where a button was on the screen. I said in the middle. She still could not find it, so I went to her desk and pointed to the middle of the screen. “See, it’s right there, goofy,” I said in with a sincere smile. She turned to me and with all seriousness in her tone replied, “What is this goofy?” I then realized that she had never heard this English word before and so I tried to explain. “It means, funny or silly.” I had to leave the office for a few minutes and apparently when I did, she burst into tears. Turns out goofy is the equivalent to calling someone a fucking idiot in her language. So, I was scolded by my ass of a new boss for not being sensitive to others’ cultures. I have since learned that she will cry at the drop of a hat. Probably crying right now in fact. In Dubai, I live in a villa. Back home when I pictured a villa, I imagined it as some kind of Italian manse in Tuscany. But here this is what they call a really nice, cookie-cutter duplex. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a nice place and I need to live in a villa because I have dogs and need a yard, or garden as we now call it. This means I had to hire a gardener, because I am not going to do yard work when it is 125 degrees outside. Again I was reminded that I was in a new world when I interviewed a gardener named, Saddam Hussein. It was right there plain as day on his business card. Alas, ol’ Saddam was too expensive and I had to go with someone else. I guess celebrity gardeners are at a premium in Dubai. In recent years America has become obsessed with laser hair removal and such. This is not a problem out here. When I was a kid my dad asked me if I had hair on my back. Disgusted, I said no. He smiled and said, “You will, boy! Ha haaaa!” Last time I saw him, we went to a football game together and he kept pinching my back, trying to pull some back hair. Unfortunately for me, he found some to pull. Thanks Dad. I am not saying I am sasquatch hairy or even Seventies heartthrob hairy, but out here, I feel like a reptile in a world of mammals. Back in Dallas I ran with a running group with a girl that had a weird aversion to armpit hair; even on men. I remember her telling me this with such a grossed out look on her face. I immediately put my arms down until I realized she was the weirdo. I can only imagine what kind of conniptions she would go into in the Middle East. The best thing about Dubai is having dinner or just going out and meeting people. Once you get to know everyone, you find out that nearly everybody is from someplace else. In a party of ten, you can have seven or eight different nationalities. It’s a really unique experience. People are different yes, but they all want the same basic things out of life. I want to experience a little bit of everything. My wife is always telling me I rush through life and don’t take time to enjoy, but I am afraid if I hesitate long enough to savor, I may miss out on an experience. This time herein Dubai has blown by and sometimes it has just blown. I wouldn’t trade it for anything though.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


When I was about four years old I lived in some apartments off of Harry Hines Boulevard in Dallas not too far from Parkland hospital where I was born. As anyone familiar with the landscape of Dallas knows, this is not the most reputable part of the city. It was 1979 and not as bad as it is today, but still seedy at best. Amidst the landscape of liquor stores, prostitutes, and biker bars was a little house across the street from my apartment complex where lived an angel. She was tall and lean and had short cropped brown hair. I don’t remember her name, but I remember spending a lot of time on the other side of the street that summer. I never went through the awkward phase where I thought girls were gross and covered in cooties. I always loved women and saw them as the fairer sex even as a child not even half a decade old. This one was older than me and was already well on her way to vixen-hood by the way she played my young heartstrings. I would go to her small house and knock on the door, listening for her footsteps through the sound of cicadas singing in the trees in her yard. This may have been my first crush. In fact I am pretty sure of it. Well, it was either her or Olivia Newton John. Check that. Had to be Princess Leia. One day my neighborhood beauty talked me into putting on her ballerina outfit and letting her take a Polaroid of me in it. It was a pink taffeta monstrosity that made me look perfectly ridiculous, but anything for love right? Somehow this photo ended up in the possession of my mother who put it on display for all to see. I thought it was long forgotten till one day when a kid I played with found it and took it outside to show off to everybody. I was ten years old then and I suddenly felt as if I had just donned that stupid ballerina costume again. I hate that my across-the-street fling’s name escapes me. Maybe it is the shame that was inflicted on me in the years that followed thanks to her cross-dressing fetish. Or perhaps it’s that my love for her lasted only until it was time for Underdog to come on. Either way, it was a lesson learned. Heartstrings sometimes sound discordant.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Songs I don't sing anymore part 3

Songs part 3

I have this memory of when I was in Japan and standing in front of this breathtaking temple in Kamakura. We had met a sweet little old lady that used to be an English teacher when she was younger and she found it fun showing us around her town and practicing her English for a while. She showed me the ritual to offer prayers at the temple which included slapping your hands together in order to frighten off evil spirits. It was really sweet that she wanted to share her culture with us, but I told her I could not participate in the prayer because I was a Christian and it would be wrong. I prayed to my God instead and went about exploring the area. This epitomizes my experience with Christianity. I was so egocentric and closed off, secure in the fact that I was right and since these people around me did it different, then they were obviously wrong.
Fast forward a few years to Brazil. I was on a bus heading into a pretty impoverished part of Sau Paulo with aspirations of doing the work of God. Here I was, my first time in the Southern Hemisphere and I wanted nothing more than to be used by God. I really believed that this mission would bring me closer to my faith. I guess it did, but in a way I didn’t understand yet.
It all started back at home with my pastor, a short man with a flare for the dramatic prepping us for the trip. We were told of all the miracles that would happen and how that old Devil was going to fight us tooth and nail. This is how it works. We would be told that every little thing from rain to bad customer service was part of the Devil’s plan to prevent us from doing God’s work in Brazil. At first, I swallowed the whole thing; hook, line, and sinker. Now I realize what a farce it was.
Once during a service at home, the pastor informed us not to do yoga because it invites demonic spirits to invade your body. He said the same of the Brazilian martial art, Cappagueo when we spotted a crowd watching the students dance on a sidewalk. I think there is a message somewhere in here about God not wanting us to be flexible. I wondered what would happen if you were trapped in a collapsed building and your body happened to be in some kind of yoga position. Are you just screwed then or what? Any old demonic spirit that happens by would be like, “Wow, what luck. I couldn’t possess this dude when he was sitting at his desk, but downward dog is something I can work with!”
When we were in Rio de Jinero we saw a man that was either mentally ill or more likely high out of his gourd. Without even stopping to help, the pastor pointed at him for the group to see, and said, “Demon possession.”
It was very matter of fact. We just kept walking. It felt wrong.
The people in the churches we visited were all very welcoming. Part of that may have been the fact that the pastor gave them a wad of cash at every service. I don’t know. It seemed that the congregations were all just simple people that were pretty much dirt poor. This was all they had. Us being there was actually a big deal for them. They would worship their asses off, jumping around and falling out all over the place. The pastor kept reminding us that even though we were blessed, these people really knew how to pray.
At the largest church we visited there was a woman whom it was pretty apparent was mentally ill. This is a source of contention with me as well. I have witnessed preachers who simply didn’t understand that some people are mentally ill and they call it demon possession. I mean, come on! This is the 21st century! How can people still be so closed minded as that? I watched as a group of people descended on this one woman. It was like that scene in Interview with the Vampire where the vampires in the Paris theater all feed on the girl in front of the audience. Here was this poor woman who had been told she was possessed by a demon lying on her back with her legs toward the seats and she had started her period as you could see from the blood on her jeans. How horrific that must have been for her.
The pastor’s wife, uttered the most ridiculous comment just then.
“Isn’t that just like the Devil to try to embarrass a woman like that when she is seeking God.”
When we were finally home, we were expected to embrace all the “miracles” we had seen and to keep the same energy with our home church. It was a little much to ask of me. I suppose I was setting myself up for disappointment by reading Joseph Campbell on the plane, but the best times I had in Brazil had nothing to do with the services. I think the greatest night for me was when we snuck out of our hotel room and followed some beautiful jazz music around the corner to a restaurant in Belo Horizonte. That, and having wine and cinnamon-sugar bananas in a restaurant along the beach in Rio.
It’s funny that we had to be so secretive about having a glass of wine. Somehow, any alcoholic beverage has become taboo in the Pentecostal church. Yet every single person with very few exceptions had booze in their home or were avid drinkers away from church. Once I was even bitten on the calf by a girl I went to church with who had imbibed five too many at a Christmas party while trying to help her to sit up. Though to bring it home, I do believe I shouted out, “Jesus!” Good times.
Everything is a spirit. If you drink, you have a spirit of drinking on you. If you are into anything that takes your time away from religious things, you have a spirit of whatever on you. I even heard once that there was a and spirit in the air. Of course most of this nonsense is because they don’t take the time to understand something first. I skipped a service once where we had an anti-Harry Potter rally. Are we that afraid that kids will take a fairy tale with some legitimate values in it and hold a mini witch trial in our church? Most of them that would rally behind such and agenda do not even understand why they hold the holiday traditions they believe are so holy. What the hell does an evergreen have to do with Christ for example?
Religious history is always an interesting topic for me. There is so much more we have in common than we don’t. Tolerance and compassion are often left out of the equation when if you look real close you can see the common threads that bind us. Being removed from my old setting I can see that now. Looking at Christianity from a step back, I can see the links to beliefs more ancient. See the Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient Sumerian/Akkadian story about the great flood myth. This was written 800-1000 years before the Jewish Torah. Yet, the story of Utnappishtim is eerily similar to that of Noah.
There are many more examples of things I learned that seemed borrowed from earlier religions. And of course they are, but does it really matter? No. Along the way in my journey, I realize that the who is delivering the message isn’t as important as what the meaning is. I love the diversity in religion and cultures. It is beautiful that we are all the same and still different. We as humans waste so much energy focusing on what is different about us than what we have in common. We all want the same basic things out of life. It is really obnoxious that I would tell someone they have to receive it the same way as I do. You can’t ask every single person with different cultural values to interpret things the same. I believe there is some right and some wrong in just about every religion, but what that is may be subject to personal values and traditions.
I said earlier that I believe we have souls. I think it makes sense. We are this energy a collection of experiences. It seems like such a waste that in such a blink of the cosmic eye, we would end with nothing to show for it. Why even exist at all if there is nothing more? I am not saying that there is necessarily a Heaven we go to, but maybe we go back to the source. Maybe if we are all part of a God, and that god lives through us, then we as that energy return to the source.
I took a test online once where I answered a series of questions about my core beliefs and it was supposed to tell me which of the world’s religions my views most aligned with. Imagine my surprise when it told me I was ninety-nine percent neo-pagan. I thought that was hilarious. After being a Star Wars fan all my life, I find out that I believe in the Force. That’s basically what it told me. I guess I can dig that. I am not sure if God or whatever is out there even has a personal relationship with us. It’s kind of cocky to think that every thing we do on this little speck of a planet is of keen interest to the creator of the universe.
After we returned home from Brazil with our pocket full of miracles, I found myself being urged on to tell the church how amazing it was and really sell the spiritual struggles we had. That part was easy. I did struggle. Over the next few months, I came to realize that I just didn’t belong there anymore. I would sing and I couldn’t get the same feelings that I had before. It seemed wrong to fake it, which is what my pastor was asking of me and I could not ask of myself. So I made the decision that it was time to move on to the next leg of my journey.
I spent the next few months trying out different kinds of churches and even different religions all together. I went to a Baha’i church and that was really eye opening after coming from a Pentecostal background. The Baha’i believe that there is something sacred in all the world’s religions. It can be a little chaotic when you have all these traditions trampling over each other in a service, but it is a beautiful thought.
Another place that I found really interesting was the Universal Unitarian church. Similar to the Baha’i, they hold a reverence for all things holy, but teach from a Judeo-Christian tradition. The message of the sermon was right on. The music no so much. I guess I was ruined after my former church. The music is so moving. You can’t really get that kind of soul using a pipe organ and a hundred white people with hymnals.
I think if I had to choose a favorite place that I visited in those months would have been the Buddhist meditation center. The gathering was held in an old house in Oak Cliff, Texas where several families would gather to meditate and have a meal. A friendly bunch, they all were happy to see us, where except for the Baha’i no one really paid us much attention. We went to the new members class where we were to learn all about Tibetan Buddhism. The teacher said something that really had an impact on me. He told us that while they encouraged us to become Buddhists, they would be just as happy if we took something from them and incorporated say, meditation into our own traditions. I could not imagine hearing that from the pulpit. Never. Then he went on to tell us how the Buddha popped out of the side of a woman and lived as a prince in India. Why do all religions have to have a hokey origin story?
So where am I now? I can honestly say that I don’t know and I have never been more comfortable with where I am spiritually. My eyes are open to receive. I can’t ignore that if you look at most religions and get into their mythologies, you can’t really believe what you are hearing. I read a funny poster about Christianity which really just makes you laugh when you consider what people are asked to believe. It said, “Christianity. The belief that a cosmic Jewish zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him that you accept him as your master, so he can remove any evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magic tree…yeah, makes perfect sense.”
This pretty much sums it up. I think most religions can be reduced to this kind of craziness. I want to take the best of what religion has to offer; unity and love. It should include tolerance. We use it as an excuse to inflict hurt and pain on others way too often. As I continue on my spiritual journey I hope to get some of the answers to the questions I have. Why are we so afraid all the damn time? Why does my boss think that dinosaurs are a concoction of the Devil to test the faith of people? And most importantly, why do old school charismatic preachers all have initials for names?
Can I get an Amen?

Friday, April 22, 2011

Songs I don't sing anymore part 2

Part 2:

Probably the most beautiful and profound song I know is Imagine by John Lennon. I used to hear this song when I was in the church and I would feel a pang of guilt for enjoying it. It resonated with me in its stark revelations. Imagine there’s no Heaven…It’s easy if you try…I wanted to hate it because religion was my salvation. But, deep down inside I knew it was not. Nothing in this world has divided people more than their faith. If only it were as easy as imagining it and then living it.
Religion is a deeply personal thing. It is a taboo subject to question why we believe in the things we do. I flinch when I think of rubbing someone the wrong way with my opinions; but that’s just it. This is only me, my thoughts and understanding. As I would not expect someone else to force me into their way of perception, I too would not try to force my beliefs on anyone else. I guess it’s safe to say I let God speak to me in his own way. I think it is an extremely cocky thing to think that we have it all figured out after a couple of thousand years; you can’t squeeze the infinite into a box like that. While I believe that we all have souls and there is something past this existence, I don’t really know what it is. Is it based off of good and evil deeds? I don’t really think so, but I am not so brash as to tell someone they are wrong for disagreeing with me. I guess that’s why my experiences in the church shaped me the way they did. I have come to believe that yes, God is within. Maybe we are all just extensions of that energy that is god. The Hindu greeting “Namaste” is just that; the God in me acknowledges the God in you. It’s a beautiful thing. Even Christian theology acknowledges that God is within. Why is it then that we are always seeking a new experience when that presence is within all along?
I went through a lot of changes in my years in the Pentecostal church. Imagine how bizarre it is to come from a background where you respect God to one where there are strict rules based in fear. There are basically two different kinds of Pentecostal churches; ones that are rooted in old world values where everything in the material world is of the Devil and ones that are a little more relaxed in their approach, but still have similar core beliefs. A lot of the old school ones still rave about rock-n-roll and believe anything on TV that is not on a Christian program is evil. The church I was going to had recently begun changing to something more progressive, though it was still very old fashioned. The most obvious thing that stuck out was how the people looked different.
Why is it that the church’s goal is to reach out to society, but then fails to do so by not acclimating to the times? And of course most of the rules and traditions are thrust upon of women. It is very similar to radical Muslim beliefs where the woman needs to cover herself up in order to help out the men who would lust after her. My pastor once said that if women all wore burlap potato sacks, then men would find that attractive and I believe him. Still too many times I heard preachers giving an extra warning to all the young girls in church to remain pure. “Oh, and you boys too,” they would say with a wink. Women could not wear pants. When I asked why, I would hear varying answers, but most of them having to do with gender roles being observed. Sometimes I would hear people citing Bible verses in which they could justify their positions. Most of them were old testament laws that they would cherry-pick for what fit their preferences. I don’t think too many people realize that if we held true to all of them, then men would be wearing “dresses” today as the robes of the times look more akin to what we would think of as dresses today.
Most of the women, who would not cut their hair would instead pile it up in top of their heads and use enough product to open a hole in the ozone layer. Many of them did not have pierced ears and most did not wear any kind of make-up. This was a shock to me as my grandmother used to always say, “A little paint never hurt any old barn.” It was never truer than when I first went to that church.
I was always a liberal thinking person before I went to church. This changed as I became more involved. In the past, I had gay friends, but this was discouraged. Maybe not openly, but the gist was that if someone was not willing to get right with God, then you should have nothing to do with them. The church was especially harsh on gays and lesbians. I guess it’s because if you prefer your pews to be filled with people of less than average intellect and let’s face it, they breed more often and at a younger age, you have more control of people’s lives and they teach their kids not to question tradition either. Gays and lesbians challenge that thinking. They are not going to procreate in most situations and if they can’t “repent” of the sins that make them who they are, then they have no place among the regular people.
I object this to philosophy, totally. There were many people who I went to church with over the years that were and are plainly gay. It must be especially hard for those people trying to honor the traditions of their families and deny who they are. Most often they would end up leaving the church and feeling like they had fallen away from God. People would even pray for them to not be gay anymore. Whatever your inclination to this great debate, I believe people are born gay. I denied this for years as I sat there drinking the proverbial Kool-Aid, but it is true. If you believe that God makes all of us, then he made some of us gay. And I believe that homosexuality has been shunned by religion as it has is because it is hard to grow a church when you do not have children. I never want to hear the word, “fag” again from a pulpit. It is a word of hate that I used to use as a casual chide and am now ashamed of. I was wrong. I am man enough to say that. If God is love, then what does it matter what form that love takes on? It’s too precious a thing to tell someone they can’t have it because they are different than you.
I believe that a great deal of what attracts us to religion is what also scares the Hell of us. The fact is no matter how great your faith, you have no idea what happens in the afterlife; and perhaps you won’t till you’re dead. Maybe never. Not understanding something is the most common motivator for hate. Instead of getting to know people, we just call them wrong for not agreeing with us and move on, justified in our hate. I would look around sometimes and wonder why most of my church was white people when the community that the church was in was very racially diverse. I have come to understand that ignorance breeds fear and fear breeds hate. Once you have convinced yourself that you are in accord with the wishes of God, you can justify anything you want to. It is really a sad thing. In my later years in the church I suggested we teach a religion class where we would learn what the other Christian denominations and various world religions believed. I was met with incredulous stares. What a stupid thing to want. When you are secure in your fortress of certainty, you are really just shut off from the rest of the world. I still hear people make blanket accusations about the faiths they have no idea about as if they were really learned and had a PHD in philosophy. It is almost always way off the mark. I mean, come on. If you truly believe that Allah is a different god than that of the Old Testament then you haven’t been paying attention. It really is a xenophobic way of life.
In the beginning, I felt more comfortable. I loved my pastor and he became a surrogate father figure to me as my own father had never been available to me as a kid. He was the one that decided that their church had to change in order to grow. Whenever a new person would come in, everyone would be very friendly, but it was obvious that these people did not blend into regular society. It was hard to encourage different people to join your church when you had no diversity to begin with. He was old-fashioned in his thinking too, but I believe he knew deep down that something was amiss. He died of a heart aneurism suddenly and this changed things in our church.
One of the women we went to church with said she spoke to my pastor’s parents and told them that she thanked God for taking him when he did before he could do any more damage on Earth. She was always self-righteous and talked of all the souls she had saved. I tell you this, she may have scared a few people into going to church, but she has done more damage by herself to the image of Christianity than just about anyone I know. She epitomizes the “creepy Christian” that boils everything down to a Heaven or Hell issue when it doesn’t have to be. I was offended more than I realized by those words and it showed me the stupid side of my religion. This changed my perception a great deal. People are people and we make a lot of dumb decisions in our lives. I think we give the Devil too much credit. And certainly God doesn’t go around snuffing out the lives of people he doesn’t want to go to Hell. That would be a hell of a sermon.
I always struggled internally with my faith. Too be blunt, I just didn’t buy it. I wanted to. I even fooled myself into thinking I had these experiences. I really and truly believed that I spoke in tongues. But every time I would find myself in a situation where I had to witness to someone, I always had this feeling in my gut that what I was doing was wrong. It was against my nature. I am not saying that I don’t believe in God. I just don’t know anymore. When I sang, I felt a connection with something eternal. It was the only time I felt like I was worshipping for real. The words didn’t matter so much as the spirit in which it was meant. But when it was just me talking to another person about what they needed from Jesus, I felt like they could see how phony I was. I didn’t even believe in what I was saying. I was lying to myself. It took me a long time to come back to who I was.
Even though I came to believe that my place was not in the church I was in, I don’t regret a minute of it. I needed that time to figure out things for myself. I learned so much and even though there were more than a few knuckleheads out there, I met some of the most wonderful people that I still count as dear friends. I don’t think any one of the people I went to church with acted out of anything but genuine empathy for everyone. Even though I disagree with the tenets of the faith, the basic idea is a good one. I just can’t agree with the forced conversion. You shouldn’t be coerced into affiliation with a faith to love and care for your neighbor. That kind of defeats the point in my opinion. Yes, love to all, but if you don’t sign up, then you will burn in eternal torment. That’s a little contradictory if you ask me.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Songs I don't sing anymore: part one


Part one

With hands open to receive
With eyes open to believe
A sojourn begins
I am lucid
I am surreal
With spirit unbound
And soul unleashed
Colors exhale from me

I wrote this poem in an airplane on my way to a mission trip in Brazil. I was part of a group of people from my church going to spread the word of God to those in Brazil where my pastor had grown up as a kid. I had an important role in the group as I was a prominent member of my church choir and was required to sing songs in every church we visited.
This was a difficult time in my spiritual maturity. In the years prior I had started to travel and was exposed to several different cultures. I was also taking religion and history classes in college and in light of a lot of the information I was taking in, I was internally questioning the way I perceived my religion and Christianity in particular. I was going to Brazil looking for a religious epiphany. That’s exactly what I got. Just not the way I expected.
When I was a kid we never went to church. It is safe to say that we didn’t really have any solid beliefs. Though we all claimed to be Christians, we never really talked about it. We didn’t even go to church on Christmas and Easter; the two must-go days of the year. My aunt Joye used get angry when I asked her why our family never went. She said we don’t have to go and compare ourselves to the Jones’s to be Christian. Now, I realize that she was just not a religious person, but didn’t understand that herself. She let her guilt about what society made her believe was her obligation to her faith turn into anger.
It’s funny, but the only times I went to church on a consistent basis was the time I was in a children’s home at ten and thirteen and when I went with my best friend John to his church. John’s family attended a Korean Baptist church. I enjoyed the latter a great deal more because someone who attended the church owned a donut shop and brought a ton of leftovers for the others to eat. It was bizarre for a white kid to go to church with them and hear everything in Korean, but luckily the Sunday school was full of kids that spoke English as their primary language.
One time when I was at church with John, I was approached by a young man that I can only assume was an evangelist in the making and he started to witness to me. I guess he needed the practice. He started to talk to me as if I had never even heard of God and told me all the great things Jesus was going to do for me in Heaven. I thought this sounded great except for the whole dying part. When John joined us he started to switch off and double-witnessed us. He was a real dynamo. He finally stopped for a second and with a squinted eye and his head cocked to the side, said, “Say you just died and are standing at the Pearly Gates. St. Peter holds out his hand and says, “Whoa man, you can’t come in here yet. Tell me why I should let you into Heaven.”
It sounded like getting into a nightclub, but I went along with it.
“I guess I would tell him that I tried to live my life as a good person and uh, that I love Jesus and stuff.”
“Yes!” he exclaimed in the corny way that only a youth minister can. “And what else?”
I wasn’t sure what to say.
“That um, I followed the ten commandments as best I could and told everyone else about God?”
“That’s exactly right!” he said with a fist pump. Arsenio Hall was really big at the time and I am almost certain he did a, “Woof woof!” along with it.
The youth minister guy made the whole thing seem corny. I felt some kind of connection with the God, but I was always made uncomfortable by guys like this. People who are overly obsessed with their religions always freak me out a little. The people that are always telling you how to live your life and worship seem the most likely to have a head in the freezer or dogs talking to them on behalf of God. I call it the anti-witness. These creepy-Christians that have no idea how they come off when they get into your face and start in on you. Even if you’re standing in church at the time, they will still find you and creep you out.
A couple of years later I began to worry about not going to church. I was living in a house where my mom and her boyfriend sold drugs. There were a lot of sins just laying around for me to see and I used to pray that all this would end and I would have control over my own life. That’s what I craved more than anything; more than the love of my mother, more than food, more than anything. I was constantly moving. We would lose everything in drug busts or evictions and I just wanted an island of stability where I would not be washed away by the tide of my parents’ mistakes.
I prayed every night before I went to bed that my mom would not die from an overdose, that her boyfriend, Bo would not kill her, that we would not have to move tomorrow. I prayed that the cops would not find us. Both my mom and Bo had warrants out on them and anything as simple as a traffic stop could mean the end of life as I knew it. I had given up a great deal as a teenager. I was late enrolling into school and a truant officer was looking for me and my mom. She was afraid to enroll me because she might go to prison like my dad. So I became a drop out. I prayed that God would deliver me from this hell.
I was so scared all the time. I had no friends. I really didn’t have any family. I felt guilty about always asking for favors from God without giving back anything, so I walked across the street to a little church and I approached a man who was loading his truck next to a side door and struck up a conversation with him. I asked him about going to church there and he went into his sales pitch without ever stopping what he was doing.
“You been saved, boy?”
“Yes?” I figured that was the right answer.
“You been baptized and saved? You better be boy, ‘cause if you ain’t, you going to Hell!”
He got in his truck and drove off without waiting for me to say anything else. I gave up on the church idea for a while.
I continued on with my life after that and was completely happy for all I knew. I ended up moving out at seventeen and met the girl who would become my wife at eighteen. It was slightly before I got married that religion came into play for me again. In October of 1995 I found myself sitting on a pew in of all things, a Pentecostal church. My experiences in religion had been relegated to a few Baptist churches here and there, but never a Pentecostal one. I had no idea what to expect. See if you can follow this; my wife’s, sister’s, mother in law went to this church and she had not only talked her daughter-in-law into coming to church, but soon my fiancé and myself.
I must say it was a culture shock for me. There were so many rules to follow and I had been told this was a progressive version of a Pentecostal church. The men were not allowed to have facial hair or wear their hair long. The women could not wear pants, make-up, cut their hair, or jewelry. It seemed that they were locked into a time somewhere in the fifties for men and the 1850’s for women. I was not used to people shouting out during sermons and standing up to rally the preacher, but this seemed normal to them. I was just about as uncomfortable as I could be except for the music. The music was what drew me in. And you better believe that Pentecostals love music. I couldn’t take my eyes off the youth choir singing a black gospel song with talent. The girl singing the solo sounded like a Mariah Carey starter kit and I just sat there, slack-jawed. Pentecostals take pride in the music as they often say this was the Devil’s job in Heaven and so he hates when people play and sing their praises to God.
I didn’t know much about Pentecost when I arrived, but if you listened for more than five minutes to just about every sermon, you could figure it out. The religion is centered on the Day of Pentecost where a group of Christians from different regions and dialects all prayed together till God filled them with the Holy Spirit and they all spoke in tongues. Pentecostals call it the, “Holy Ghost” and it is a required experience to know salvation. Most of the other Christian denominations have their own opinion about speaking in tongues, most agree that it is not required. Most of the people that I have spoke to think Pentecostals are crazy people who dance with rattlesnakes and drink venom because of some PBS documentary where it shows an offshoot of the church doing just that. I have never seen anyone drink poison at church, but they did believe in gifts of the spirit which the foremost was speaking in tongues.
Now, let’s take a minute to talk about cults. A cult usually pits their philosophy against the outside world and likes to segregate their members from the outside population. Usually some religious leader uses these tactics as a control mechanism over their followers. After going to a Pentecostal church for twelve years, I feel like I have come out of a cult. We did not live in a compound or anything, but I still felt like I was not plugged into normal life during my time there. It seemed that every moment of the week was scheduled for some sort of church event. A lot of good Christians go to church for forty minutes to an hour on Sundays. We had Sunday morning, Sunday night, choir practice which was basically a service where you could wear normal clothes, and Wednesday night church. All of these services could take three or more hours. Then there was the rest of the week filled up with church outings and picnics, church concerts and road trips to see other churches. It left very little association with people who were not like-minded.
I don’t have a problem with people who prefer the company of other people who share their values and views, but when you never let yourself see the rest of the world, you can lose perspective. This is what happens to people in cults. It is not long before they believe that the ‘world’ really is against them and if you can’t convert people, then you should wall yourself in like the when the Jews at Masada did as the Romans came. It harkens to the Branch Davidians in Waco. I know it is extreme, but it doesn’t take much to become extreme where religion is concerned. When people think that God is leading them, they can do some pretty horrible things. Look at the Crusades, or the Salem Witch trials, the turmoil in Israel, or even 911. Some people let themselves be led to dark places thinking they are doing the will of God.
In my opinion most people are afraid they are committing a sacrilege if they question why they believe in the things they do. In most societies, people simply believe what the people around them do. They learn their values from family and their community. Tradition plays the biggest part in religion. In the parts of the world where education is an issue is where you will find some of the most religious people. It is all some of them have. It also makes them easy to be manipulated. In some cases, we can see this here in the United States. Areas where people of limited intellect simply believe what they are told rather than to internalize why they feel so strongly about an issue. Is it because they truly believe in an evil that is trying in subterfuge to cause death and destruction or that they have just heard this opinion from a pulpit of some kind all their lives? There is a comfort in the familiar. It is scary to question your religion. Guilt and fear are the true archangels here.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Mark Twain and Bloody Pants


Recently I decided it would be a good idea to join a local writer’s organization where I could network with other writers and perhaps make some new like-minded friends. Well, that or get drunk trying as the old stereotype of writers usually holds true. I paid my members dues online and looked to see what sort of workshops or discussion groups they had in the works. I was too late to get in on some of the workshops I really wanted to try, but they had a four week course about Mark Twain coming up. This sounded great to me. Twain has always been a writer that I knew I would enjoy, but I had not really read too much of his stuff. I decided this was a good chance to check off some things from my list and I headed off to my first meeting.
Most of the meetings for my new group were held in a local book store, upstairs and hidden away from the rest of the customers. I made my way back there and met with the lady who runs the group. She told me that I was early and then went about setting up a little coffee table with a tablecloth. She then produced several boxes of half eaten crackers and cheeses, accompanied by some anemic looking bottles of half drank wine. I didn’t care much for the crumbs and such, but the wine was promising. It was still early, but I waited till the first of the group’s regulars arrived.
The first person I met was the man that would be leading the discussion on Twain. He was easily twice my age and wore a flannel shirt and hiking boots like he had just come down from the mountain to have this little talk with us. He was accompanied by his wife, who it took me a minute to figure out was not his sister as their appearance was strikingly similar; both of them sported rather remarkable noses of the hawkish variety. A very proud feature to be sure.
The next person I met was a tall man in ill-fitting clothes. He was very quiet and polite. Next to him sat another man whose whole makeup screamed sensitive writer type. He had a little sweater tied about his neck and a spoke in a soft-spoken manner with his face squinted up as if he were about to sneeze. At this point I noticed someone had placed another bottle of wine on the table. Well alright, I thought, until I noticed that it was called, “Fre” and was apparently alcohol free. I chuckled inwardly. I didn’t want to offend anyone, but I really wanted to say that wine without alcohol is really just a Capri Sun.
The final member of the small group to enter was this disheveled man who appeared to be in his early fifties. He took the open seat close to me and sank down in the recliner that had been moved into the circle of chairs around the coffee table. His appearance was at once alarming and intriguing as he had his left hand in a splint with his index finger pointed out. Under his arm was what must have been the world’s first spiral notebook. Its rings were all rusty and the paper had long ago turned from yellow to a dingy brown. I imagined that he kept the rough draft of his ‘manifesto’ in there.
With everyone in place, the speaker began to discuss the readings we were going to go over. I looked around confused. I know I was the new guy and all, but no one was going to even acknowledge the fact that Mr. Manifesto was completely covered in blood? I mean what the hell? He looked like he had just waded through a slaughter house. It was quite disturbing. Maybe this was the norm here. Let’s talk about Mark Twain and hope we are not the next victim of our friend here. My mind whirled about, trying to imagine logical scenarios where one would get covered in blood and perhaps not even notice. Nope. There was nothing.
I winced whenever Bloody pants went for another slice of cheese. Perhaps he would not agree with the interpretation of the reading and just gut who ever was closest to him with the short, but sharp knife laying there on the cutting board. That I happened to be closest to him didn’t make me feel any more comfortable. Instead, he carried on as if his appearance was the least interesting thing about him and argued about every point.
I imagined what the earlier part of the day must have been like for Bloody. I saw him going into a 7-11 and waiving to the now terrified attendant. I conjured images of him taking out the trash and laying a particularly heavy and squishy trash bag down on the curb and issuing a dare with his eyes at the trash man as he gingerly picked up his trash. At the end of the class I finally found myself at a breaking point. I decided that I had to be the one to ask what was going on here.
“So,” I began awkwardly and with a nervous “don’t shank me” smile, “What happened to you?”
“I ran my hand through a miter saw” he replied.
Okay, sounds reasonable, thought except that the wound on his hand was several days old. My little question was enough to prompt some of the others to ask about the injury, but we all steered clear of the blood pants. I gathered through listening to them talk that our hero was some sort of a handy man. That really fit the mold for me. A friend of mine commented when I told him the story that he was obviously not a very good handy man. I never mustered up the nerve to ask for an explanation of the blood.
This was all in the first class. I felt like I had garnered enough gold from that class alone to make it worth my while, but on the second night there was someone new there. He was in his late seventies I would wager and had the typical crazy old man eyebrows that you somehow don’t notice grow right down over your eyes to go along with the scraggly white Hemmingway beard. I introduced myself and he turned and grabbed his throat and wheezed in his best Tom Waits, “I’m Paul.” That’s right, he was missing his larynx.
Now I would have thought that a guy that had such difficulty talking would not want to hold court like he did, but there was almost nothing that he didn’t want to croak about. As with the others in the class he was extremely well-read and intelligent. Way more so than me in fact, but it was hard to listen to him. He would hold down the plastic stopper in his neck and growl out a few words at a time. Sometimes he would not have held it down right and a horrible sounding neck fart would accompany his words. On one long winded point what could only be phlegm shot out across the table in the center and my eyes quickly darted down to my plastic wine cup in horror. I guess when you can’t talk on the phone or order at a drive through, times like these when you can talk are real important.
So I learned a lot about Twain in those four classes, but I found myself more interested in the people around me than any of the characters in the readings. It was great. Did you know that if you use the word, “Dickinsian” in a sentence, you sound infinitely more intelligent? What an interesting world.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Rites of passage


There comes a time in every young man’s life where he is awakened to sexuality. For me it was early on; too early in fact. I was caught fooling around with a neighbor girl when I was six. We were both naked and horizontal in their driveway while the rest of the neighborhood kids played, oblivious to what we were doing. I used to go on little trips to the park and to get ice cream with this girl’s family. That all stopped after I was dragged by my arm across the street by her dad. After the door closed, my mom laughed about it. She thought it was funny.
“Guess I got nothin’ to worry about, huh?” she had said. I spent the rest of the week looking out the window at the other kids playing while I listened to my Jungle Book record and covered a serving tray with tin foil trying to be Perseus, from Clash of the Titans. This while searching for little glass beads that the person who had lived in the house before us had strewn all about the back yard.
I got so bored that I did the unthinkable and cleaned my room from top to bottom. This earned me a special reward when my mom and her boyfriend Curt woke me up in the middle of the night to find that I was covered in Star Wars toys. It is one of my favorite memories of my childhood. And this had all happened because I had proven to be straight. I didn’t mention that I had learned all I knew about sex from seeing my mom and Curt go at it with the door open. I didn’t even call it sex. I knew this peculiar act as, “Playing dirty.”
Jumping forward to when I was seventeen I got to hear the words that every young man dreams of. “Jason, I think it is about time you started having sex.”
Now as provocative as this is, you most definitely don’t want to hear these words coming from your mom. I guess she had some sexually active teenage girl in mind. I don’t know.
At this particular time in my life I was pretty much lonely. I had no friends because we had just moved and I wasn’t in school. I pretty much just stayed to myself and listened to music and read books. My mom wasn’t around much, as she was always off getting high with her boyfriend, so she must have thought that a little female companionship was just the cure for my impending social ineptness.
My mom was famous for saying things like this off the cuff. One time, years later while visiting me and my wife she saw the hand-me-down coffee table that she had given us. It was a large blocky thing more like a dining room table that was eighteen inches off the ground. Then she turned to my sweet little wife and asked, “So you ever get up there and dance for Jason?”
This incident embarrassed Samantha terribly. Of course she had not done that. We ate off that table. Then I cringed as the mental image of my mother undulating about my eating space came to mind. We eventually got rid of that table.
This diarrhea of the mouth runs in my family as does the obvious rite of passage of teen sex. While, I had unfortunately lost my virginity at the tender age of thirteen, I had not delved into more titillating practices that usually have French names such as ménage-a-trois. Upon learning this and on one of the rare occasions where my dad was actually not in jail, he suggested that we drive to Mexico to remedy the situation. He seemed genuinely hurt when I told him I didn’t want to do that. I guess in some twisted way he thought it would be a great father-son bonding moment. Nothing like sharing a whore with you father, I always say. You know, you never want to see your dad on the other end of Chinese finger cuff. Alas, I declined and was happy to do so.
Funny as it is I did not grow up to be socially awkward. At least I don’t think so. I may have inherited my parent’s great oratory discretion however. I have often forgotten to put things through the mental filter before the words escape my lips. I have learned the hard way that once it is out there, you can’t get it back.