I saw Guns N’ Roses at the Superdome many years ago. They were notorious for their late starts, and they did nothing to live down their reputation that night. We waited three hours for them to appear on stage. I guess Axl needed a fully fluffed aura before he snake-danced for us that night. Or maybe Slash and Duff were too busy snorting Grade-A Peruvian marching powder. Perhaps Matt Sorum and Gilby Clarke were still in disbelief after winning the rock n’ roll lottery. All I know is that the videographers prevented a full-scale riot when they convinced inebriated girls to flash the crowd. We enjoyed a two hour montage of female pulchritude on giant screen monitors while we waited. Russ Meyer would have been proud.
Then our heroes staggered onto the stage around 1 AM. For the first thirty minutes or so, they almost lived up to their hype as the then-biggest and best rock band in the world. But then we got two more hours of meandering solos, lumbering ballads, costume changes, and several of Axl’s famed temper tantrums.
I was exhausted, a tad disappointed, and slightly deaf when I limped out of the arena around 3:30 AM. So count me out when G&R finally cashes in for the full-scale reunion in a few more years.
ANYWAY, I suppose my Guns N’ Roses concert serves as an allegorical comparison to Harold Camping’s band of apocalyptic meatballs who’ve been running around for the past few weeks. Just like everyone’s favorite glam band, the Family Radio campaign scared some folks, but they undoubtedly annoyed millions more. Unless God is pulling some Axlesque backstage antics over his tour rider (I said no brown M&Ms!), I think the Rapture/Armageddon/Divine Monster Truck Pull O’ Doom is indefinitely postponed. Or maybe The Hand of God just needs a manicure first. Flinging thunderbolts produces some gnarly calluses. How many angels are needed to operate a gigantic emery board?
We’re a week away from commemorating the death and resurrection of everyone’s favorite Jewish cosmic zombie (and all-around swell guy). I loves me some Jesus, but I’ve spent most of my life at odds with organized religion. I didn’t deliberately seek an obstinate path, but I’m forever cracked when it comes to any sort of routine approach to worship. I go numb whenever anyone tries to talk me into any sort of regimen that involves putting on a suit, awkwardly congregating with a bunch of strangers, and listening to a listless and intellectually bankrupt sermon/money hustle. My eyes glaze over and my mind wanders off to topics that make cavemen happy (like fire, nubile women, explosions, picking up heavy things and putting them back down and picking them back up again, more fire, and beef jerky). So please do yourself a favor and count me out of your forthcoming Easter festivities. We’ll all avoid undue awkwardness and heartache.
Why the resistance? I suppose that requires a bit of exposition.
For the first five years of my life, I didn’t receive much exposure to religion. I don’t think my biological father was too keen on any activity that forced Mom to leave the house, so we didn’t go to church often. Instead, we were supposed to hang around the house and serve as his hand servants. For Mom, that meant cooking, cleaning, and plopping out a kid every 1.5 years. My brother and I served as beer gophers. My sister was a baby, so her cries for food and diaper changes merely served as a nuisance for him. Then we all took turns as his tackling dummies once he got sufficiently drunk and angry.
Shortly before my fifth birthday, Mom decided that we had endured enough. She told me that her breaking point was when I started crying around 5:00 PM, because I knew that my father was coming home from work. Mom called my grandfather, who sprinted from Louisiana to Oklahoma, beat the snot out of my father, scooped Mom and three little kids into his car, and drove us back to Alexandria. While I’ve always admired my grandfather for being the tough old goat who finally gave my father the severe beating that he so richly deserved (and rendering him a nonentity for the remainder of my life, save a handful of unwelcome visits over the past 30 years), I’ve always walked around with at least a twinge of guilt because I was the one who forced Mom’s hand when it came to ending her marriage. I realize that it’s not altogether rational, but there you have it.
ANYWAY, Mom decided that her kiddies needed some religion once we got back to Alexandria. She was raised Pentecostal and rebelled against it during her teenage years, hence her marriage at 17 and hightailing it out of Alexandria ASAP. But six years later, she decided that her kids needed to go through the same indoctrination that she had fought against heretofore. So we started attending Sunday services at the First United Pentecostal Church. I always described that first encounter as an experience akin to James Brown’s evangelical church in The Blues Brothers, except it was entirely white. The congregation jumped, shouted, ran all over the assembly hall, and spoke in tongues. G.A. Mangum’s sermon was chockfull of fire, brimstone, and eternal damnation. I had never experienced anything like this before, and I was terrified.
Well, so much for guidance and reassurance. When I explained my confusion with people flopping, jumping, and screaming to my Sunday school teacher the following week, she explained to me in a sugary sweet voice that those people were simply experiencing the wonders of the Holy Ghost. Furthermore, I was going to straight to hell because I refused to let the Holy Spirit into my blasphemous little heart. Because you see, I was already hellbound. She and several of the kids in my class had already told me that my whole family was damned because Mom was divorced. I guess she would have redeemed us all if we had just stuck around, remained punching bags for an ill-tempered addict, and dug through the trash for food scraps because my father drank up the whole week’s paycheck.
Great. Not only had I already been pegged as hardscrabble white trash at school when my kindergarten teacher made all of the free lunch kids get in a separate meal line, but I was also destined for the fiery pits of hell. I was reminded of this every Sunday. The only time I caught a break from harassment was when I got to spend Friday nights and Saturdays with my grandparents. But the rest of the time, I was already persona non grata and I was five. I believed all of this shit, because I didn’t know any better. I’m amazed that I didn’t become a juvenile delinquent, addict, or attempt suicide at some point, but I think part of the reason why I stayed on the straight and narrow was because I didn’t want to give those bastards the satisfaction. But I’ll argue with anyone that our weekly dose of religious nonsense helped screw up the rest of my siblings and partially contributed to their subsequent issues with drugs and the law.
I spent the next ten years or so dealing with this crap on a weekly basis. There was a clique of kids whose parents were well-established within the church, and one of their hobbies was making me miserable on Sundays. Being a shy, awkward kid, I sat there like a pussy and took it for the most part. Kids are mean, vicious little bastards in general, but this particular batch of little bastards also got to incorporate the threats of damnation when they ganged up on me. Every little thing that I did at that church was scrutinized and nitpicked. I rode the bus to the church. The little bastards decreed that was because my mother was too busy wallowing in whoredom to bother to drive us herself. Maybe she just didn’t want to deal with a room full of judgmental assholes. But that didn’t matter; I was damned. We were too poor to wear suits to church, but the little bastards twisted our cheapness into me being disrespectful and irreverent. So I was damned. If I wore shorts to an outdoor function, I was damned. Unless it was a swimming party, where I was damned because I stripped off my t-shirt before diving into the water. I was also damned because I had a TV and listened to secular music. I was actually honest about that, unlike most Pentecostal families that kept their TVs in the closets when company came over. But I was damned.
Lessee, what else? The adult services continued to scare the shit out of me, and the spirit never compelled me to holler gibberish or flop around like a headless chicken. So I was damned. And then a few of the really vicious little bastards took to pelting me with spitballs or slapping me in the back of the head with hymnals, Bibles, or fists. The Sunday School teachers would let their antics slide (these were the golden boys after all), but I was the one who would get yanked up by the ear, dragged into the hallway, slammed against the wall, and screamed at if I dared to whip my head around or roll my eyes when I got harassed. And yes, my inability to sit there like Christ and take a beating without complaint meant I was damned. So I eventually learned to go into zombie mode while the little bastards tortured me. It actually turned into a valuable skill to utilize later when dealing with sadistic football coaches, boot camp, crappy jobs, Iraq, crazy girlfriends, etc. So thanks, little bastards! You were my preseason workout for the miseries of adulthood!
I finally put my foot down once I started high school. Football and weight lifting gave me just enough self-confidence to deal with the little bastards. I was still pretty small compared to my teammates, but I was more than capable of throttling the twerps at church. I brutalized a few of those guys, and I loved every second of it! I figured since I was hellbound anyway, I might exact some reciprocity on the way! Once I got bored with thuggery, I just started cutting Sunday School class. Then I told Mom I was done with it. When that didn’t work, I told her I didn’t believe in God. And when that didn’t work, I told her that the next time she forced me to go, I’d leave in handcuffs. She finally fell for that ruse.
I’ve had my struggles ever since. Anytime I showed even a passing interest in another church, the POA pamphlets and videos about the cultish nature of every other stinking denomination made their way home. Alright, fine. Y’all want it to be a zero sum game for my soul? You got it. I’m hellbound, so I won’t play ball with anyone. Happy? And every time I went back to church to placate Mom or the grandparents, someone would come up to me and make a dig about damnation before the Sunday service was done, which effectively ruined the day for me and swore me off religion for another couple of years. So it got to where I only went to that church for the Christmas concerts, the “Messiah” play, and Easter (which is when the congregation was on their best behavior, lest they scare off some potential new members with deep pockets).
And then I just settled into a period for most of my 20s where I was agnostic, bordering on atheistic. I was so angry that I relished every attack made on Christian fundamentalists, regardless of its merit. That’s why I listened to a lot of Norwegian black metal in the ‘90s. That’s why I jumped out of my chair and roared like a maniac when Marilyn Manson screamed “Who wants to go to Heaven with all those asshole angels?” He might be a schlocky cornball, but he struck a nerve for a lot of kids who were fed up with religious browbeating.
I guess my wakeup call was when my grandfather died of cancer in 2001. That moment for me wasn’t a spiritual reawakening out of fear (after all, I’m hellbound, right?). It was just a realization that if there is an afterlife for good and decent people, then he had to be one of the people who got to punch that ticket. And if he couldn’t pass the pearly gates, what chance did the rest of us have? Anyway, I just had a feeling of peace when we were burying him. I knew he had to be somewhere better than here. And that began my stumbling, fumbling path towards where I am now. I wasn’t even deterred by old G.A. recycling the same old fire and brimstone riff during my grandfather’s eulogy. What used to terrify me now just sounded like a CC DeVille guitar solo: a bunch of screeching and no substance. It was almost quaint. Almost.
I try not to go down the rabbit hole with wacky religious demagogues anymore. There have been a few exceptions over the past 10 years. I loved screwing around with the crazy, homeschooled fundamentalists camped out in LSU’s Free Speech Alley. These wacky creeps look just like some of the miserable lot that hounded me during my youth, and they follow the same playbook as the Westboro Baptist idiots – verbally berate all passersby and try to get some sap to engage in an argument with them. They’re probably praying for a physical altercation and the ensuing lawsuit, because I couldn’t figure out how these people ate, unless they got a “love offering” from the rest of their cult. I always took the road less traveled when it came to these boobs. Instead of screaming in protest or just ignoring them altogther, I would wait until they accosted some hapless student and then I’d holler, “No, wait! You convinced me! Take me home with you!” When they’d screw their faces in confusion and mumble, “huh?”, I’d screech “Only kidding, assholes! I heart Satan!” or something equally obnoxious.
These days, the only time things get awkward is when I have to deal with family members who want to argue that the Earth is 6,000 years old. I never understood why faith and science had to be mutually exclusive, but progress is the devil for a lot of folks around here. And why does it matter if I view most of the Old Testament as allegory instead of literal interpretation? I’m damned anyway, right? And I’ve given up trying to discuss the subtleties and nuances of Muslims I met overseas, because we all know that they’re just a bunch of barbaric savages who want to enslave and kill the rest of us, right? Why the hell should I have the audacity to offer eyewitness accounts of people who fly in the face of that preconceived notion? Based off my experiences, the only differences between an Islamic vigilance squad and the people who made my childhood utterly miserable is a lack of state sponsorship, a hesitance to throw stones (have some conviction, you pansies!), and whole lot of denim and hairspray. But what do I have to go by other than my lying eyes? I’m damned anyway, right?
So there you have it. Y’all enjoy your Easter. I’ll celebrate mine alone. It’s for the best.
A couple of weeks ago, my brother, his girlfriend, and I took a short trip with Mom through LaSalle Parish. She showed off an estate sitting right off Highway 84 that recently went on the market. It consists of a picturesque two story house, a shop building, and a massive garage. All of that is perched atop a fairly steep hill, which overlooks several acres of oak and pine. It’s quite lovely. I never pry Mom about her finances but I hope she and her husband can acquire it, provided that the price is reasonable.
After taking a look at the property, we drove into Jena and had lunch. We passed by the estate as we drove back to Mom’s home in Whitehall. Mom interrupted her conversation with the rest of us and said a quick prayer out loud, which I will roughly paraphrase as, “Lord, please deliver us this home if it is according to Your will. Amen.”
“Geez, Mom! Isn’t that kind of selfish?” I asked. I was only halfway teasing.
“Hey! I made sure to ask for only something that He will deliver by His will! Besides, our house is tiny and our yard floods every time it rains! It will be nice to have a bigger house and a hill that lets the water run off!”
“But that still seems like a copout,” I retorted. “If I follow your logic, I can pray for anything as long as I drop in the ‘by Your will be done’ disclaimer. Doesn’t that add a lot of clutter to God’s day planner?”
“This sounds like one of your oddball thoughts. I don’t follow you,” Mom sighed.
“Check it out. I’ll give you a slightly more exaggerated example. ‘Dear Lord, please allow me to marry a Playboy Playmate with more curves than Horseshoe Drive and legs longer than the Lake Ponchartrain Causeway. But don’t deliver me just any bubble-headed blonde bimbo. Give me one with brains, personality, and a soul. By Your will be done. Amen.’”
“Okay, that’s just silly,” she muttered.
My brother piped in. “Is it? Maybe there is a girl just like that who’s waiting for Wayne. He’s smart. He’s been around the world. He’s not like most of those cheesy guys who usually marry those broads.”
At this point, I turned around in my seat and told him, “You and I rarely agree on anything, but that is a damn good point. It might be the most salient point you’ve ever made.”
“Thanks!” he gushed.
“You two boys are just silly,” Mom snapped. “I can’t believe you’re making light of this.”
“C’mon, Mom,” I pleaded. “That’s all I know!”
Well, not really. But I figured that wasn’t the time or place to argue about it. And Mom is (somewhat) justified in praying for this deal to come to fruition. Her home is small and the yard does flood every time there’s a heavy rain. It would be nice if they could acquire that big house on 84. I just know that I’d be uneasy about requesting divine intervention when it comes to real estate transactions. Like I noted earlier, on a good day I tend to view God as a deity with a pretty full plate. On a bad day, I feel like we’re an abandoned science project. This planet is chockfull of ugly and selfish people who won’t stop hurting themselves and each other, and we use the flimsiest pretexts to justify our awfulness. Tell me how we’re any nobler than a terrarium that went neglected during Spring Break.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Jesus and Buddha and Shakespeare and Einstein and Hulk Hogan and all of that jazz. Nevertheless, most of us stink.
ANYWAY, I do know that I rarely pray for myself these days. Whenever I do, it’s pretty brief. My most fervent praying/begging/bargaining with God has always been for other people, like when my best friend was deployed to Iraq in ’04, which was an absolutely bloody and terrible time over there. Then there were my dealings with a soldier in Iraq last year. He was standing right next to his battle buddy, who was vaporized by a mortar. He looked like he was about to become unhinged, possibly suicidal. I didn’t eat for a week; I was so scared for that kid’s soul. As far as I know, he’s okay now…as much as one can be when you deal that type of horror.
And then there are my recent petitions for my grandfather, which most of y’all are well aware of by now. They’re putting a feeding tube in him today. I’m highly ambivalent about that, but it’s not my call and I’m not fighting the people who made that decision. More than anything, I just want an end to his agony.
Now that’s not to say I haven’t made exceptions. When I first got to Iraq, I prayed for strength to endure whatever came my way. I guess those were answered. And I did last week when I was vomiting with the force and speed of a shotgun blast, and then when I had a nasty blackened funk hanging over me. I’m much better now, so thank you Tiny Baby Jeebus.
Most people are surprised when I tell them that I didn’t do a lot of praying in the bunkers, when I had a scary near-miss with a mortar out in the open, or when I was in a chopper taking incoming fire. It was too late for absolution when those types of things happened.
You never knew when it was coming. If it was your time, then your ticket would get punched JUST. LIKE. THAT. At least that’s what I hoped for. I didn’t want to bleed out while I tried to cram my guts back in. That would have been the worst. But you couldn’t spend every waking minute worrying about it, so I just pushed it to the back of my mind. I honestly spent more time worrying about how KBR would screw us over on a daily basis and if LSU would ever get a competent quarterback than I did worrying about death and damnation.
So I’m not holding my breath waiting for God to answer my latest smartassed prayer request. And besides, I have a general rule of thumb when it comes to meeting hot babes. If she’s an 8.5 or higher, I’m probably not even going to bother. She’s either already taken or she’s heard it all before. And most babes who are considered to be “most beautiful” have no personality or humor whatsoever. They never needed to develop it. Their whole identity and worldview hinges on their physical beauty, which is ephemeral. And most women are already insane for the most part, so reality doesn’t matter to them most of the time. So why in God’s name would I want to deal with some hot neurotic mess?
Tiffany, I think we shared “a moment” at Comic-Con. Have your people contact my people and we’ll do lunch.
Yesterday I felt lower than I have in a long time. One of my oldest friends must have sensed it, and he reached out to me. I hung out with him and his family last night. As always, our conversation ricocheted between weighty and inane topics. We compared our respective ordeals with dying family members. We had a lengthy debate about God and scriptural interpretation. He took potshots at my pathetic love life, all of them richly deserved. His wife tore apart my manuscript (again, an ordeal that was richly deserved). I made fun of his recent hand injury, which resulted from errant swordplay. Then we argued about the artistic merits of the newest Iron Maiden album, Christopher Moore’s Lamb, and Garth Ennis’s revision of The Punisher. I drove home with a lighter heart.
Today was a bit better. I destroyed myself in the gym this morning. That’s always a great stress relief. This afternoon, I sat outside and basked in this glorious spring weather. I listened to Lucinda Williams, went through my daily readings in the Bible, and read a chunk of Confederacy of Dunces. I’m almost feeling normal again.
Praying definitely helped. I rarely pray for myself, but I made an exception today. I just asked for some understanding and patience amidst the chaos and sadness that’s hanging over my family right now. Then I made sure to give my mom and grandmother crushing bear hugs and tell them that I loved them, because I don’t do that nearly as often as I should. And I’ll probably do that to all of my friends and family going forward, so don’t be alarmed. While I get angry and disillusioned with a lot of people and situations on a daily basis, there’s one thing about every single stinkin’ one of you that I love – you’re alive. I love all of your lives. We only get one, and no one knows when it could be taken away. I know that’s probably just some vacuous truism, but my year in Iraq and the past two weeks really brought that point home.
And there you have it. Today was pretty good. Hopefully tomorrow is a little better. And so on.