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I’ve been pretty worked up about the government shutdown, and more so now since it appears that we’re headed for default. Yesterday I let loose some thunder from the pulpit of my church about Republican lawmakers who had gummed up the works for everyone, yet still managed to pass some legislation, a bill that slashed funding for food stamps, knocking 3.8 million poor people off the rolls, mostly children and their mothers. (Republicans were captured on camera high-fiving one another after they managed to pass their bill.) I know some of these moms and children. I’m pretty sure they’re not going to get a magical visit to Wegmans from John Boehner or Ted Cruz when it comes time to go grocery shopping. I tried to moderate my remarks in church, stopping short of the Old Testament fury of the prophet Isaiah when he railed against “the powers that be” in his day:

DoesJesusReallyLoveMe coverWhat was the point of this book, really?

The point was to find stories—mostly stories that haven’t been told, stories that can help illuminate the difficult intersection of the Christian faith and homosexuality.

For those of us who grew up in the church and/or are in it today, stories are an important addition to what’s already out there in terms of theology. I’ve been criticized by some readers for not writing a more traditionally theological book. Well, I’m not a theologian—I’m a journalist. You can go out there and find some academic tome for nearly every point on the theological spectrum on this topic; no need for me to add to that. But what we do need—and what I was capable of adding, as a reporter and a writer—is more humanity and more stories.

Q: Is there a zombie Adam and Eve?

A: Yes. At least an Adam. And that, of course, would be Jesus. He is the first revenant. The first to rise from the dead and walk among us. Presumably he did not begin eating acolytes and chowing saints and lepers, but you never know. Yes, Jesus was the first zombie. If you believe in him, you believe in Z.

 

Q: How come Zombies don’t eat every part of a body before they move on to the next one?

 A: Do you eat all the toppings on your pizza, or do you pick some off? Do you always wipe your plate clean, or do you get tired of the pheasant compote in balsamic reduction after a few bites? Zombies are an amalgam of teeth, hands, gristle, and vague memories. Sometimes those memories take precedence over the logic of calorie intake.

“What’s king cake?”

Silence.

Five of us have come into the kitchen to refill our wine glasses. Four pairs of eyes are scanning me in confusion. The silence breaks with someone’s machine gun-like titter.

“You’ve never had king cake?” one of them replies, hand on her hip.

They have arrived. The NFL playoffs. Back in September, thirty-two teams had their football eyes on the prize. High hopes. Expectations. Experts making predictions. Boneheaded waiters and balding fathers playing football prophet and talking shit.

The Eagles will take the NFC East.

This is the year the Ravens will put it all together.

The Raiders will suck ass.

The Pack will repeat and Favre will hang himself from a sycamore tree.

Blah, blah, blah.

It’s now come down to twelve teams. The talk is over. In the AFC, the Patriots, Ravens, Bengals, Texans, Steelers, and Broncos will be taking the field. In the NFC, the Packers, 49ers, Lions, Saints, Falcons, and Giants will be in the hunt for the Lombardi.

It’s a thing of pure beauty.

Almost more beautiful than Tamron Hall.

Almost.

Let’s see what’s doing.

 

 

The Moody Coach and Mountain Jesus: The AFC

The AFC had a crazy year.

The Bills started off the season winning and had their fans forgetting Scott Norwood. But then the Bills remembered that they’re the Bills and began losing—badly. Their fans quickly remembered Norwood and started choking on chicken wings en masse.

Al Davis took a dirt nap and, surprisingly, Raiders fans didn’t tag and burn the country to a crisp.

The Jets and their fat coach stunk up the field and the world was a better place for it.

The Colts slowly died, week after week, and finally disappeared with a whimper.

Three of the six teams playing in the tournament weren’t considered contenders at the beginning of the year. The Bengals? Most people didn’t even know Cincinnati had a football team. The Texans? For years people have been picking them to finally sink the Colts and take the AFC South, and for years they sucked dog ass and ended up watching the playoffs from their couches like the rest of us poor saps. The Broncos? Good, god. John Fox is as dull as a pair of house slippers and coaches the most boring game of football in the league’s history.  I bet he only fucks in the missionary position.

Most football junkies picked the Patriots, Ravens, and Steelers to make the playoffs. They are who they are, and it is what it is. Solid players. Great coaching. No mystery. One of these teams will be in the Super Bowl.

Wildcard weekend will see the Bengals take on the Texans and Pittsburgh travel to Denver. I like the Bengals’ story. They played tough all year, and we saw promising rookie QB Andy Dalton make a name for himself. He very well could be one of the league’s premier quarterbacks of the future, football smart, with a rifle for an arm. Going on the road and winning in the playoffs is a tall order. Especially with a young team that has no post-season experience. But I like Cincinnati and see them squeaking out a victory. The Texans are good, no doubt. They have a good defense. But they’re injured and don’t have any character. This is not a winning recipe. Sure, they might take this game, but it will end for them soon after that.

Pittsburgh and the Broncos. The story here is about Tebow and his Jesus-ness. He loves Jesus. Carries him in his backpack. Takes him to McDonald’s. Tebow’s positive god light has the whole team reading sappy Hallmark affirmations and running to confession. It’s a lame story that has the ESPN gang and everyone and their mother saying stupid things like “divine intervention.” And that the Donkeys are winning because of Tebow’s heavenly ways and have made the playoffs because “something else is at work.” It is, by far, some of the most ridiculous crap I’ve heard, in or out of sports, in my lifetime. The truth is, Tebow sucks as a QB, the teams he beat were shit or gave the game away, the Broncos made the playoffs because the AFC West is pathetic. End of story. The Steelers are beat up but should win the game easily and end the Second Coming.  Thank god.

Finally, the Patriots and Ravens, the conference’s one and two seeds.  They have a bye this week and await the winners of the wild card round.  Brady and his receivers are flying high on offense, but they have a pitiful defense and this is why they’ll eventually lose. There’s nothing that their moody coach, Bill Belichick, and his massive football brain can do about it.  Prediction:  The Ravens—with Ray Lewis’ big mouth and Terrell Suggs’ piranha teeth—will go to the Super Bowl.  A nasty, swarming defense and an effective running game.  That’s the recipe.

 

Packing Heat and Killing Marino: The NFC

The NFC playoff picture is loaded with surprises. Who thought the 49ers, with their obnoxious coach, would be a second seed? No one. The Lions? Most of us thought that bloated pig Matt Millen had ruined the team for good. Guess not. The Giants? Hey, they’re a good squad, but the Eagles with their “dream team” roster were supposed to eat up the NFC East. Didn’t happen. The Falcons?  Well, that’s not too much of a stretch, but their spot was reserved for the Cowboys. And speaking of the Cowboys: I think it’s about time we bury these amateurs for good, or pray that their rich, hillbilly owner either splits or joins Al Davis. He’s looking more and more like good ol’ Al everyday. And that, my friends, is not a good thing.

Just win, baby.

The Lions are heading into New Orleans to get a beatdown like they’ve never experienced. It’s going to be ugly. The Saints have a lousy defense, but they have Brees and that ass-whooping offense. They’re deadly. They’re cool. They’re tenacious. Brees is a badass and I was thrilled to no end to see him squash Dan Marino’s single-season passing record. I don’t like Marino, just like I don’t like Mercury Morris, just like I don’t like Don Shula’s nose, just like I don’t like Miami’s pansy colors, just like I don’t like Miami, just like I don’t like the Heat and loved it when they got their asses handed to them in the NBA finals.

Shoo fly.

The Falcons are going into New York, where they’re going to get slapped around. The Giants are playing solid football coming off a perfect dismantling of the Cowboys last week. Watch out for the Giants. They can play spoiler.

I don’t have much to say about the 49ers. I can’t buy into them. I see a so-so QB in Smith, a good defense, and a cocky P.E. teacher for a coach. That being said, they’re not a second seed for no reason. But I’ll be smiling when they leave the field crestfallen. Especially Harbaugh.

The Packers are the Packers. They’re good. Real good. But like the Saints and the Patriots, they have a weak defense. I see them getting into a shootout or two. Probably not the way you want things to go (especially, against gunslingers like Brees and Eli Manning). But Rodgers is a pure killer and I see him taking the Pack to the Super Bowl where they’ll play the Ravens, win another championship, and Brett Favre will either be found dead or pack up his Wranglers and play in the CFL.

Let the games begin.

 

Time flies.

It seems like just yesterday I was depressed because the NFL players and the owners were in a lockout. Months of negotiations. Months of nightmares. It was an anxious time that had many of us lost and nervous. A year without pro football? The reality was a soul killer. I think I read somewhere that alcohol sales doubled in that time. I think. Well, I’m happy to report that that’s a thing of the past, the world’s a better place, and now we’re halfway into the season. As expected, it’s been a beautiful thing. Big hits. Quick slants. High drama. The Pack is undefeated. The Bills are winning. Peyton is broken. Tebow loves Jesus. Yeah! I’ve won some picks and have lost some picks. I’ve sat on my lazy ass for hours watching and yelling at the TV, texting people, calling them losers, and feeding my fat face like it’s nobody’s business. I’m bona fide. There’s a lot of football to be played, people. It’s a week by week deal. Anything can happen and probably will. Here’s a quick recap of what’s going on.

Cheeseheads and Dream Eagles: The NFC

I wrote a while back that by the time Aaron Rodgers hangs up his cleats he’s going to have a championship ring. Well, now he does and is looking for another one this year. The dude is a fantastic quarterback and in my opinion the best QB in the NFL right now. Better than Brady. Better than Brees. Better than all of them and back again.  Green Bay is my pick to win the Super Bowl. Right now they’re playing lights out. The Bears stink. Cutler is about as animated as a dead armadillo. Fuck Ditka. Enough said. The Vikings. They stink, too. They’re looking at a future with Ponder, who looks pretty sharp for a rookie and just won a shootout against Cam Newton, the NFL’s darling. Their season is over (2-6), the McNabb trade a big fat bust. Here’s the deal: I like Donovan McNabb. I think he’s a great ambassador for the game. Doesn’t walk into a club with a gun and almost blow his dick off. No DUIs. Nothing. But it seems his playing days are over. It happens. If I was his ass I’d get a job yapping it up at ESPN and hug up to Erin Andrews. And what about the Lions? Good god. I wrote on these very pages that the Lions would lose for all eternity. That the stench of the lousiest football jerk-off that is Matt Millen had doomed Detroit to wallow in fresh dog turds forever. But no. Something happened. The Millen root was lifted. The Lions are winning! They have a fine QB in Stafford, a madman in Suh, and a cornerback’s nightmare in Megatron. Megatron! They’re not up there with the Pittsburghs and the Green Bays of the league, but they can make the playoffs. There’s no doubt about it. Good for them, you know? They’ve been horrendous for millions of years. Suck it, Millen.

The NFC South is all about Brees and the Saints. I like this team. I like the coach. I like his bunk knee. And more importantly I like their helmets. That’s right.  I said it. If all things stay the same they’ll take the division and make the playoffs eyeballing the Super Bowl. WHODAT! The Falcons are up and down. They have a decent running attack and their QB knows how to manage the game. That’s a good recipe for winning. This division is competitive and looks like it’ll be competitive for years to come. I think the Falcons can take the Saints. I think the Bucs can steal one from the Falcons. It just depends. And what about Cam and the Panthers? He’s no joke, and if he continues on the path he’s on we could be looking at the new kings of the South. Maybe even a championship ring. Same goes for Tampa. Why not? Like I said it’s a competitive division and that’s yummy for any football aficionado.

Right now, the Giants are the best team in the NFC East. They’re not getting much media attention, but are winning quietly. Eli knows how to win. It wouldn’t surprise me if they take the division which was supposed to be won either by the Cowboys or Eagles. The Redskins are another soul-sick team meandering around. That whole organization from top to bottom needs to be canned. Shanahan and his eye. The waterboy. The owner. All of them motherfuckers. The Cowboys are confused. Let it be known that their record doesn’t reflect how talented they are. Saying that, they’re in shambles. They look good one week and horrible the next. They just got their asses handed to them by the Eagles in front of god and everyone. It’ll be interesting to see how they react. They’ve been a favorite to take the East for years but have nothing to show for it. Mike Vick and the Eagles. When the season started they were the team to challenge the Packers. The press was all over their schnitzel. The ever moronic Vince Young (their back-up quarterback) dubbed them the “dream team.” That they were all that. But no. They weren’t. And they’re not. They just gouged Dallas, but they’re still hit and miss, and if their season goes to shit the Philly faithful will want Andy’s head. Despite their losing record, I think they’re going to make the tournament.

Okay.

Whodat.

McOver.

Ndamukong Suh.

The NFC.

 

Bad Necks and Chick Boots: The AFC

The North is a battle of two teams: the Steelers and the Ravens. They don’t like each other and will never like each other. And this makes for good football eats. The Ravens dismantled the Steelers earlier this year. They have a so-so offense, but the defense is solid, and I think it’s enough to get them to the Super Bowl. They can beat the Pats. If Flacco can step up his game and Lewis goes on a praying binge god knows what could happen. The Steelers are winning, which is to be expected. Typical story: they should get into the playoffs and make a run for the Lombardi. Ben is a playmaker and Polamalu is a monster. The Bengals are making a little noise. I like it. It would be cool to see them make a playoff run, but I don’t see it happening. Too young. Tough division. Pay no mind to the Browns. No one does. Well, except for those two drunk hot dog eating b-holes I met at The Palms last weekend.

“Go Brownies!”

The AFC South has been owned by Manning and the Colts. No other teams in that sad division have given them a fight in years. They all suck. In fact, this year the whole division sucks, including the Colts, who are minus the one person that makes them the Colts: Peyton Manning. Poor Manning. His latest neck surgery (he’s had three neck surgeries to date) will most likely have him sidelined for the entire season. There’s some speculation that he’ll never return to play again. If so, that’s horrible. Peyton is arguably one of the greatest QBs in the history of the league. He’s a great guy on and off the field. Let’s hope his days aren’t over. Anyhow, you can put your cashish on the Texans taking the division and going into the playoffs, where they’ll lose in the first round.

The Patriots are the team to beat in the AFC East. Brady is lighting up the field and has already thrown for a trillion yards. Must be those cute boots he’s walking in. Or the girl. Their defense is shabby, but as long as you have Tom throwing the ball you have a shot. The Jets. Jesus. I don’t like them. And it’s only because I don’t like the coach. Yeah, I know that’s ridiculous, but so what. They’ll probably make the playoffs. And that sucks. Buffalo! Who would have thought they’d have a winning record right now? No one. Not even Buffalo fans. I don’t think they’ll make the postseason, but they have a shot. Like the Browns, pay no attention to Miami. They’re the worst.

The AFC West has been owned by the Chargers, and they should take the division again this year. The Chargers are good. Rivers is a competitive bastard. But when they need to win they don’t. And won’t. Right now they’re a bit shaky coming off a pathetic loss to the Chiefs, but they have the talent to fix things. The Raiders don’t look too bad. McFadden is a punishing running back and they just got Carson Palmer in a trade. But he’s been sitting on his ass the whole year so we’ll see. They won’t make the playoffs. The Broncos are horrible, but they have Tim Tebow to save the day. Well, that’s what some people believe. Others believe he blows. I couldn’t care less. The Chiefs are not looking bad. They started off the season like crap, but have steadied themselves and won the last four straight games. Sweet.

So, there you go. This is the time of the season when things get really interesting. Some teams get it together and head into the tournament peaking. Others who started off the season winning fizzle out in November and December. Injuries. Spoilers. Flukes. It’s all at hand. Thanks for tuning in. Eat, drink, and remarry.

Go Brownies! 

 

1. My brother and I loved to torture and kill things when we were kids. With a pair scissors we’d snip off the wings of butterflies and moths until only their stubby bodies were left. With the same scissors, we’d bring the “praying mantis” to its knees, its little body flopping forward from the sudden loss of its big head. Someone told us that caterpillars and worms grew back the part you lopped off. We tested one after another until lay scattered on the dirt like cigarette butts. Who would have guessed that with a sprinkle of salt a snail would bubble up and melt like the Wicked-Witch-of-the-West? In the summer, when you could cook an egg on the sidewalk from the heat, we’d take a magnifying glass and steady its pinpoint beam over ants. Smoke would rise as their little bodies shriveled up. Our backyard in Fresno, in old Armenian town, was chock full of fruit trees. Birds found it a good place for putting up their nests. We had Easter egg hunts all Spring long.

2. There is a Polaroid of us standing at the end of a walkway that stretches to the front porch of our house. We look just shy of school age, four and five years old. Shadows stretch from our feet, and on the curb in back of us a black Buick is parked. We wear tidy white shirts buttoned to the neck, roomy shorts, ankle length socks and shiny dress shoes. Our hair glistens as though a wet comb has just been run through it, and we are standing at attention with toy army rifles at our sides. My best guess is that we were on our way to Church, and with a few minute to spare our mother probably thought “how cute” and ran in to get the camera. We in turn fetched the rifles. Go ahead, mom—- you shoot first.

3. I felt sorry for the Jews, enslaved to the Egyptians that way, but I felt pretty bad for their enemies too. First, you had the flood; then the Tower of Babel. The people of Canaan and Bethel were all slaughtered, but worst of all is what happened to the citizens of Sodom: burned alive. When the Jews took a city, they even killed the animals, cows and goats and pigs, as though they had something to do with it. There were so many wars and killings I couldn’t keep track of them. Our Sunday school teacher taught us: “Thou shalt not kill,” and then we sang songs about the people in Jericho getting buried alive.

I was happy when Jesus came around. He didn’t kill anybody. Only himself, sort of.

4. Why were people afraid to die if they were close to God? The bible said they were going to the bosom of God. How many people could fit in one bosom? Maybe they were scared they’d suffocate in there.

5. On Thursday nights, we watched Wild Kingdom. Marlin Perkins was the fearless host of that show. He bravely stalked savage animals, all in order to give us a window onto their world. Sometimes he would show how beautiful the wild was; a field of Flamingos, all on one leg; antelope coursing over the plains like a river; giraffe with necks long as palm trees loping into the horizon where the setting sun was colossal and turned the whole sky blazing pink. Mostly, though, these were backdrops for what we all wanted to see: one animal killing another. I remember the lion waiting in the grass, crouched. How, low to the ground and with stupendous patience it crept and suddenly bolted. It pounced on the gazelle, went for its throat, and within minutes the bucking and kicking stopped, and all on the Serengeti was calm. Then it began feeding, remorselessly. The way it calmly stared at the camera, its muzzle all covered with blood, left no doubt: it had done what it had done, and it had the right.

6. Murder: when someone bad kills someone good.

Capital Punishment: what they do to murderers where the president lives.

Massacre: when a whole bunch of people gets killed at the same time.

Genocide: what they did to the Armenians.

Slaughter: what they do to animals (or people who they think are animals).

Execute: when someone shocks you to death

Suicide: when you kill yourself.

And now what happened to Robert Kennedy—-assassination: killing someone important.

It was in the newspaper, a picture of a man cradling Kennedy’s head in his arms. It reminded me of the way the Virgin cradled Jesus when he was pulled off the cross. A dark cloud descended over the whole school. The Mexican kids were so upset you’d think they were relatives of Kennedy. Some of the girls cried on their desks. Later, I learned that they like Kennedy were Catholic—all of them went to Catechism.

“The Kennedy family is cursed. I feel bad for Jackie,” my mom said.

Dad said the Kennedy family, way back, made their money “bootlegging liquor.” It had to do with how every bad thing you do eventually comes back to get you.  Martin Luther King died the same year on a balcony. King was the one who told us “I have a dream.” His face was child like, but his voice was big as a river. Even my dad said, “He was a good man, King.”

I’d barely heard of Robert Kennedy or King before they were assassinated. Now everybody talked about them. I was amazed at how important people became after they died. I thought it was unfair that they should become famous without being around to appreciate it.  My dad said it always went that way.

“Not only that,” he added, “but the meanest people live the longest.”

He named a few of the meanest people he knew, and said that they had strong “constitutions.”

Just like America, I thought.

I started and finished Jesus Angel Garcia’s new book, badbadbad, on a flight from Baltimore to California.  In those six hours, I read more sex scenes than I’ve read in the past five years.  It’s one of those books that will keep you from putting on your headphones and watching the lamely re-edited in-flight movie (something I’d never even heard of was playing on this flight).  Music runs through the novel  (go to www.badbadbad.net for the playlist) in a way that makes the book feel like a loud, thrilling, invigorating concert. A concert about sex, religion, music and violence.

I arrived at Steve’s house early in the morning. Our plan was to hit the lake early, catch some fish, and get out before the wind gathered up and froze us out. On the drive we counted four cars sporting Jesus stickers on their bumpers.

No Jesus? No peace. Know Jesus. Know Peace.

He died for me…I’ll live for him.

Got Jesus?

Have a Nice Day with Jesus!

I was raised Catholic and the first chance I got to ditch Father Lopez, his unholy stink-eye, and his evil band of moody Sisters I did. I was in the 5th grade. After three years of fear sermons I’d seen and heard enough and told my parents that I quit. Even at that early age there was something about Christianity that didn’t jibe with me. I found it depressing. I found it negative. I found it cruel and unsettling. And the people that packed Our Lady of Guadalupe on Sunday mornings with their cut-out smiles and scripted greetings? I thought they were professional hypocrites and full of shit.

Despite my skepticism towards the credibility of his followers I liked Jesus and his message. As a kid I prayed to Him constantly. Prayed that my family lived peacefully. Prayed that my father would stop drinking. Prayed that I’d finally kiss Anna Hernandez.

“And Jesus maybe tomorrow you’ll allow me to kiss Anna. Just one kiss. You know how much I like her.”

That prayer never was answered.

In fact, a lot of them were never answered.

I told Steve about my Christian background. That I went to some old church in LA called Our Lady of Guadalupe. That I hated it and wanted out. That the people that attended the church judged and fucked people over for six days and on the seventh day they clutched their worry beads and mumbled like babies. I told him that over the years I’ve mellowed my feelings towards Christianity. That I tried not to think of their bloody history or their blatant hatred of all things non-Christian. I told him that religion rarely crossed my mind but when I think of Christianity these days I think of Jimmy Swaggart, the insular musings of Rick Warren. I told him I think of naughty Ted Haggard and Stephen Baldwin.

“Baldwin? Isn’t he an actor? The one who called his daughter a pig?”

“No, that’s another Baldwin. There’s like ten of them.”

Steve and I have a system when we go fishing. It’s very simple. He fishes and I sit on my ass looking for wildlife. When I grow bored of that I read. And when that runs its course I take a stab at writing some fiction that’s void of plot and structure—all that technical business I learned in the stuffy English rooms of UNLV. At that time I was putting together a collection of creature stories. Snakes. Insects. Dogs.

A giant hog named Benny that lives in Barstow and dreams of eating.

A rattlesnake that kills a bartender.

An aging flying squirrel that takes his last flight.

Two stinkbugs that get pissed on by a dog.

A donkey that shits money.

A scorpion that sings.

Steve is a master fisherman. Has all the gear. Has a beautiful boat loaded with gadgets and blip machines. He reads the water, knows all the tricks. On this day he’d catch five beautiful big-mouth bass. Gorgeous fish painted in greens and golds. This was our first fishing trip since my return from my spiritual retreat where I ditched my cell-phone, truck, the Internet, all that. I was to pay attention to my damaged heart and soul and not my addictive mind that wanders in bad places. So that’s what I did. I hunkered down and returned to the desert bright-eyed and clear. I returned to the desert a better man.

Sometime in the middle of the day the Dr. Peppers got to me and I had to piss. Steve pulled us into a cove. After I was done I walked around lifting fallen tree limbs and rocks looking for lizards and whatnot. Then something caught my eye. It was a knotted sandwich bag that contained two stones and a folded piece of paper that had Bible passages typed on it. I picked it up and read the typed messages. I’d never seen anything like it. Whoever put it together wanted someone to find it. I was that person. I looked to see if anyone was around. Nothing. Nada. I raised my eyes to the sky. Just like I did when I was a kid. Blue skies running from the San Bernardino Mountains to Barstow.

But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on His name. John 1:12

Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Matthew 11:28

Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved. Acts 4:12

I showed it to Steve.

“Seems like Jesus is always around,” he said.

I sat on the shore, memories spinning up and over the mountains and sloping down into Rancho Cucamonga, Ontario. Here I was again. Back in California, my birth state. Here I was again twenty-five minutes from the desert where it all began. I came full circle. Jobs and girlfriends. Old songs and new ones yet to be named. Dog-eared books and divorce. Poems and rejection slips. From Jesus to Buddha. Sand and scorpions.

For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. Ephesians 2:8

I came home and put the bag next to my Buddha and my jade Trickster. They make a good team and look beautiful on my desk. The Buddha and Trickster a gift from a beautiful friend with a big heart. The “Jesus bag” a gift from a stranger that I will keep forever. Everyday before I leave the house I smile their way and open the door with the best of intentions. It’s easier that way.

Anyone who’s read even the first few pages of Genesis knows the Bible is riddled with contradictions and questionable behavior written about someone we assume to be an all-knowing and loving God. In the first two chapters alone, the authors can’t agree on what day plants were created, or if man arrived before or after the animals. Throughout the Old Testament, God assists in genocide, He burns people to death, and He orders severe punishments for seemingly innocuous crimes like wearing dissimilar clothing material or being careless with menstrual discharge.

Non-believers often seize upon the Bible’s apparent inaccuracies and atrocities when casting doubt upon God’s existence, and it’s difficult to argue with them. If these are the divinely inspired Words of God, why should there be any mistakes at all? Have such mistakes been placed there to test our faith? Is God’s mysterious behavior a conscious act on His part to separate His true followers from the pretenders? And if so, what would be the point of such a test? Surely God must know well ahead of the rest of us who will succeed and who will falter.

Questions of this nature have plagued man for as long as he could conceive of himself having been borne from supreme beings. Biological at the source, but philosophical in practice, nearly all of us carry doubts about the reasons for our existence. Are we here for some purpose? Is there order to the universe? Are we alone?

We do not want to be alone.

And so, in ways too numerous to count, we seek spiritual peace. Some of us read only the oldest, pre-Christian writings of the Tanakh. Others follow the iron will of the Catholic church, at least until one day some of them decide there is a way to be closer to God. Some of us move across the ocean, far from the original holy land, and find guidance in a reinvented Christianity with new holy lands much closer to home. We pay enormous sums of money to an organization founded by a pulp science fiction author and try to find the ancient alien inside each of us.

For most of my life, I was a lukewarm Catholic. My childhood attendance at Mass was reluctant, and once I left for college, I swore I’d never go again. But then I married a Catholic woman who gently encouraged me to return. Soon enough I’d fallen back into the routine and gradually became immersed in the community of my church, chairing fund raising events, playing basketball in the school gym, hitting the links with some of those same buddies. On Sundays, the Father would select a story from the Bible, usually the New Testament, and deliver a homily that challenged parishioners to be tolerant of their fellow man. Judging by the various conversations I either participated in or overheard among my friends there, most folks listened politely to the Father and agreed with him on principle because he was, after all, discussing the Word of God. I don’t know many who studied the Word with any level of detail, though. Being a member of the church was simply a fact of life, no different than a native Bostonian being a fan of the Red Sox.

My rejection of Christianity and organized religion in general coincided roughly with the election of Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI on this very day six years ago. Ratzinger’s positions on homosexuality and condom use caused me to reexamine my own, and coupled with America’s (too) slow acceptance of gay rights, I began to seriously doubt the authority of religious figures whose basis for morality was scripture I already knew contained many structural and moral ambiguities.

I became angry with the Church for what I perceived to be hypocrisy. The Vatican coddled ordained sex offenders but condemned a wide swath of humanity who chose to employ birth control or engage in consensual sex with adults of the same gender. But soon I realized these individual political positions were symptomatic of my larger problem within organized religion, which was to conceal prejudice behind the unassailable rules of a magical supreme being. And it wasn’t just Catholics. Or Christians. Or believers in various Abrahamic religions. It was anyone who brandished spiritual belief as a weapon, no matter the source material.

And once the curtain fell, all the absurdities I’d ignored for years mushroomed into unavoidable obstacles. How could adults in the 21st century, with so much information and contradictory evidence at their disposal, still believe in a magical man in the sky? When did we decide it was acceptable to merge pagan symbols like bunny rabbits and colored eggs with the rebirth of God’s zombie son? Why did Christian Americans, so proudly individual, so unworthy of charity and state support, advocate a spiritual belief system whose core message was eternal salvation? How on earth could capitalism and Christianity coexist? Even thrive?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I doubt I ever will. But after a period of spiritual readjustment, I realized those answers were not important. The path to personal enlightenment and self-actualization was not to understand why others do the things they do or believe what they believe. And it was certainly not my place to judge others for what they believed.

What matters to me is what I believe. Nothing more.

Every one of you reading this has been blessed with the miracle of life, with consciousness; you are privileged to be a member of the only known animal species on earth capable of asking such questions. But with that privilege comes a curse, the knowledge of your own mortality, and the possibility that life is nothing more than a tiny, accidental mutation of cosmic evolution.

Navigating such a universe is not an easy task, and none of us should be blamed for the paths we choose to peace, as long as those paths don’t infringe upon the rights of others.

When I think of my own path, I think of Genesis 2 and 3, which introduce the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate the fruit from this tree, which opened their eyes to their own nakedness. In return, God banished the two from the Garden of Eden and cursed them to a gritty, mortal existence. Their rebellious behavior constitutes our original fall from grace.

But to me, in these opening chapters, the Bible tells me everything I need to know about Christianity. Given the choice between nuanced knowledge and simple bliss, between rebellion and obedience, I’ll take the rebellious knowledge every time. In my estimation, humankind’s questions about the nature of itself, our rejection of the status quo, our ever-upward understanding of our tiny-yet-significant place in this beautiful universe, is the true miracle.

Grace isn’t something from which we’ve fallen. Grace is something to which we aspire, that we strive toward every day. If we ever manage to get there, ever so humbly, God will be waiting for us, a welcoming smile on his face.

Because in the end, God is us. He’s the best we have to offer.

That any of us have to offer.

You.

Me.

Anyone who aspires to grace.

Please explain what just happened.

I just caught some kind of sickness and had to play a concert. My voice kind of went out halfway through the show. After the show, I arrived at Houston airport at 1 a.m. My flight is at 7a.m. Good times…

What is your earliest memory?

Throwing up through my fingers in Sunday school class with my hands over my mouth, trying to stop the vomit. My efforts were unsuccessful.

 

Things you’ve said under your breath.

Things people have said with their last dying breath.

Things that drive people to drink.

Things that made Jesus think, “Maybe I’m in the wrong line of business…”

Things you can only find in Detroit.

Things that make you jump for joy.

Things that make people jump from the Golden Gate Bridge.

Things that get stuck between your teeth.

Things you’ve stuck in your ear, up your nose, or up your butt.

Things that change from ugly to beautiful.

Things that frighten you.

Things that enliven you.

Things to help raise your credit score.

Things to help lower your cholesterol.

Things organisms have done to adapt & survive.

Things that make certain men become priests.

Things that make certain women wrestle alligators.

Things serial killers think about.

Things you find in a dead man’s pockets.

Things you find in your own pockets.

Things named after Greek Gods.

Things people have done in the name of God.

Things that cause acne.

Things that cause cancer.

Things to consider before having a baby.

Things to consider before joining the French Foreign Legion.

Things you’d do if you had wings.

Things you’d do if you had the Green Lantern’s power ring.

Things to help clear your aura.

Things you can clear out of your orifices.

Things you should always buy generic.

Things you’ve always wanted to know, but were afraid to ask.

Things associated with winter.

Things associated with summer.

Things you’d do if you only had a week left to live.

Things you’d do if you were President.

Things the atom bomb thinks before going boom.

Things the flower bud thinks before going bloom.

Things they put into processed meats.

Things you do during the five stages of grief.

Things you’ve learned from the Bible.

Things you’ve learned from the National Enquirer.

Things to say while sexting.

Things you should never say to someone who’s depressed.

Things you forget.

Things you desire.

Things you’ve done while under the influence of drugs.

Things you’ve done while under the influence of love.

Things that make you go “Hmmm…”

Things you see when staring up at clouds.

Things your pets do when you’re not around.

Things you can smoke.

Things you can recycle.

Things behind the sun.

Things to make your car run better.

Things you find alongside the road

Things you find washed up on the beach.

Things you build.

Things you compete for.

Things you do when you’re alone in your room.

Things Van Gogh thought just before cutting off his ear.

Things that go in one ear and out the other.

Things you can burn.

Things you can save.

Things to say to get a girl wet.

Things to say to get a guy hard.

Things to say to get kicked off jury duty.

Things you can carry.

Things you can hide.

Things that decay.

Things that rejuvenate.

Things made of plastic.

Things made of corn.

Things put into time capsules.

Things put into compost piles.

Things that live under your skin.

Things you find around Jim Morrison’s grave.

Things that remind you of Buddha.

Things that remind you of Judas.

Things your doctor won’t tell you.

Things your parents won’t tell you.

Things your lover won’t tell you.

Things your best friend won’t tell you.

Things the major corporations won’t tell you.

Things the government won’t tell you.

Will never tell you.


Click here to see the author recite this piece.


I swat at a mosquito flying near my ear and feel it hit my palm. It flies off toward the window and joins the black throng of mosquitoes there. The window is nearly a third covered with a vibrating mass of hungry little bloodsuckers. Far more mosquitoes than I’ve ever seen in one place, breeding in standing puddles of brown water outside the building. It smells like a burst sewage drain, and every so often there’s a gurgling noise and bubbles surface through the thick grass. Texas is still hot in September and it might reach a hundred today. The heat serves this vile stink to us on a dripping tray of humid air.

Almost everyone has her shirt pulled up over her nose.

This is where we inmates line up to eat.

“Hey Roommate! You gonna eat your wings?” Peaches shouts past the women between us in line, her face surfacing from the folds of her shirt only long enough to get my attention.

Wings. The main course of today’s menu. Through a process called “Bastard Brokering,” large institutions, like this prison, are able to purchase lesser quality food for a cheap price. Apparently, if a factory turns out a load of chicken wings, seasoned and packaged, for say, TGI Fridays, and for whatever reason they’re rejected, they hit the bastard market. A glut of something on the market means cheap prices for the government, means wings are for lunch today.

“No,” I say to Peaches, “I want eggs so I can’t get them for you.”

Everyone knows you can’t have two proteins. But they ask anyway. You know, The Hunger. It trumps reason.

Sara, who’s my life raft, my best friend here, stays close as the line edges toward the door, closer to the window where through the mosquitoes we can see women at tables that have already gotten their trays.

“What’s in the bowl?” I ask Sara. “Can you tell?”

“Looks like cous cous,” Sara says. We do this wishful thinking joke.

“Yeah, probably has roasted garlic and fresh herbs,” I say and we laugh as the slow moving line continues its snake towards the steam tables.

In front of us, a group starts loudly comparing shoe sizes.

“I got the smallest feet,” says Renee, a very young Mexican woman, can’t be much older than eighteen, her long dark hair a mass of curling iron ringlets, her eyebrows tweezed bare and replaced with a thin lines.

“Yeah, that’s why you my lil shawty,” says JoJo, the tall black woman next to her. JoJo has been down for more than ten years and is infamous on compound. She makes a nonchalant effort to press her body close to Renee without drawing officer attention, though the closest C.O., Officer Partyhair, loves JoJo and is known for being right in the middle of inmate drama.

Partyhair is an albino black woman with just a few strands of this light-reddish hair that she combs straight up and shellacs to her head, on the very crown she pins a large fake hair-bun thing. All loopy like one of those stick-on gift bows.

“I got some big feet,” says JoJo, lifting her chin kind of up and sideways while she winks. “An d’you know what that means, Mami.”

Renee blushes, looks down at Jo-Jo’s feet, and nods as if she agrees that Jo-Jo might actually be packing.

“What was it like in the unit when that whole thing went down with Jo-Jo and Sylvia?” Sara whispers, referring to the recent fight between Jo-Jo and her ex longtime girlfriend. Apparently Sylvia found out about Renee and she sneaked into Jo-Jo’s room and shredded the afghan she’d crocheted for Jo-Jo. It was black with a huge playboy logo. This is a big deal. Crocheting a blanket for someone is serious.

Actually, crocheting is kinda serious.

Everyone does it. Probably because it’s an effective consumer of hours. I make bookmarks. Tediously crafted with a tiny hook and thread, each one takes exactly a half hour. I timed it. I need to know exactly how much time each one represents. They are tangible increments of this experience. I was sentenced to seventeen thousand, five hundred and twenty crocheted bookmarks.

“There were pieces of yarn everywhere,” I tell Sara, “It was fucking crazy, she threw it down from the second floor into the common area. Jo-Jo had to clean it all up and I think they put Sylvia in seg.”

Lesbian drama is about as interesting as it gets around here. I mean, as far as cliché prison experience goes. This is a camp. The lowest security style of the Federal Institutions. Not much fighting here, no shanks, no riots. The only way to get your ass kicked is to mess with somebody’s girlfriend.

Nothing gets a women riled up like love.

***

I see there are are fresh tomatoes on the cold table and make my way over while Sara is contemplating peanut butter. I am thrilled to find fresh food and start to pile them high next to my two white eggs when the unmistakable accent of Lieutenant Quejano shouting behind me halts my tomato piling.

“HEY, INMATE! YOU TUCK IN YOUR SHIRT THERE! SHOW SOME RESPECT!”

I freeze and become conscious of only the fold of my shirt between my waistband and the skin of my waist. Only once I determine beyond doubt that my shirt is intact do I dare to turn, ever so slowly, as if I am not really looking towards the vocal tirade but maybe just checking the soup over here. I don’t want any soup, but I can now see who’s scrambling to tuck her shirt in. One handed. Tray in the other. It’s Facelift.

Facelift came from New Orleans, but hasn’t said why she’s here. I suspect she is in her mid fifties, although she might have another decade in mind. Her hair is unnaturally dark, and her face is pulled so tight towards the tiny scars above her ears that her eyes have permanently narrowed, her cheekbones stick out and her lips are just two thin straight lines that strain to open when she talks. Today they are painted red. I’ve only had a couple of short conversations with her, but she managed to bring up her lack of having a facelift both times.

“My family has really great genes. Good hair, good skin, no wrinkles…” and once, even less subtly, “I’ll bet you think you’re older than me.”

I didn’t.

Strange, the things we try so hard to hide become the most glaring, the most obvious things about us.

I attempt to return to my tomatoes, but am again interrupted.

“ARE YOU EYEBALLING MY PACKAGE, INMATE? WHY ARE YOU EYEBALLING MY PACKAGE?” Quejano shouts at another woman, a woman called Princess, who turns pink then a traumatic shade of red.

She’s short, probably five foot three, but she still has several inches on the extremely diminutive Quejano. Looking at his “package” would be both a physical and emotional stretch for any of us.

“ A cockroach…” she starts.

“WHAT?? ARE YOU CALLING ME COCKROACH?”

“No, sir. A cockroach. I saw a cockroach behind you, sir.”

“YOU DIDN’T SEE NOTHING THERE. THERE ARE NO COCKROACHES HERE. YOU GO!” His straight arm raises and his miniature hand shoos her toward the door she was only trying to get out of anyway.

Even after a year here, it’s a struggle for my brain to process this shit, I still try to make it make sense, complete the picture with logic, like those emails you can read even though there aren’t any vowels in the words. But it doesn’t work here. There is way more missing than just vowel sounds.

I realize now that I’m foolishly standing, mouth agape, looking right in Quejano’s direction. I’m no longer even trying to look at the soup having been so completely aghast at the fact that he actually just saideyeballing my package.

Just as he’s a second away from eyeballing me, I whip my body around as if I had been in motion this whole time and turn my head to find Sara, who is sitting and waving like mad for me to join her at the table.

“What the hell was that all about?” she comments more than questions. “That guy is fucking insane.”

“I know, right? It would be weird to run into him on the Outside.”

“He probably lives alone in some tiny basement apartment, never throws away his newspapers and puts together model warplanes when he’s off.”

“Yeah, I bet he looks at clown porn,” I add. “And jerks off in his uniform.”

“Oh yeah, definitely that,” Sara says, “he definitely does that…and we’re beside ourselves laughing as four women slide into the table next to us and hold up their hands, palms out to pray.

“Oh, Lord Jesus, Master Lord Jesus,” one begins.

Sara and I look at each other with artificially straightened up faces that threaten to crack up into total hysterics. The newly saved like to pray loud, like to be seen praying. It’s the other side of the social spectrum here, the opposite of the dating scene. But not so different, there’s still the latching on, the need for completion.

“We thank you oh, Lord Jesus, Master Jesus, for this bounty…” she continues at top volume. The others nod their heads and emit moans of concilliation.

Here’s how Sara and I give thanks: By laughing instead of crying and by pretending that we are eating Al Fresco in SoHo instead of here in this revolting cafeteria.

Sara acts like she is going to flag down Partyhair to bring us a couple of macchiatos. We start howling again at the thought of even saying “macchiato” to Partyhair. She would probably think we were calling her a derogatory name and we would end up in seg.

We diligently wait until Quejano is gone before we try and leave. Just incase. We scrape our plates and stack our trays not far from where Jojo and Renee are sitting, Partyhair perched on the edge of their table whispering conspiratorially like she’d rather be an inmate. “I always thought you could do better than that Sylvia,” we overhear. So does Facelift who looks up from where she sits, alone in a far corner, spooning soup through red lips that barely open.

Me and Sara pull our shirt collars up over our noses before we push open the door to brave the mosquitos and the rest of the day.

Although I like the way Joel and Ethan Coen try to circumvent the scandal of standing toe to toe with John Wayne’s ghost (might as well be Jesus) by emphasizing that their True Grit isn’t a remake but a literary adaptation of the Charles Portis novel, I’d like to take a crack at measuring the Coens’ 2010 effort against the 1969 True Grit anyway.