Happy Naked Trees

I split with religion at an early age. Being in the Unitarian church at the time, I suppose it’s arguable whether I ever had any religion to begin with.

I’m joking, partially. At a basic level, Unitarianism differs from other Christian sects in that it maintains that Jesus was not God. In other words there is no Trinity, only separate Units. This made it a good option for agnostics who needed to go to church to be accepted in society. At least that’s why we were there.

So then, at an early age I left one of the “easiest” churches over a drawing.

I actually recall very little about my days as a Christian. We’d dress up and go the church, which was a large and beautiful cathedral. Our parents would go to service, and my brother and I would go to child services. My brother’s four years older than I am, so he probably remembers a lot more about this but I wouldn’t know. We’re over 40 now, and we’ve never discussed it at all.

That’s not true; we had one brief discussion. I told him that I remembered his Sunday School class had built a submarine. He looked at me like I was crazy and said that never happened. I shrugged and took his word for it. The spiders had messed with my head a lot in those days, so the fact that I’d seen the submarine hull covered in blinking lights probably couldn’t be trusted.

But this really happened, and it’s my one distinct memory of Sunday School. Other than turning in tiny envelopes containing pocket change.

The “teacher” (babysitter, really) asked us to draw God. We were maybe five or six, and this woman wanted us to draw the ineffable. Sure, lady. Good plan.

In hindsight I figure that we were expected to draw Santa God: a friendly, bearded fellow in a robe, the pockets of which were filled with candy. You could take candy from him, but not from men in panel vans. There were rules about candy-taking.

I’ve always been a road-less-travelled guy, not because I’m particularly adventurous but because I scrutinize everything so closely that I tend to overlook subtleties like paved ground, the sound of many footsteps, and neon signs.

What does God look like? I pondered this with what little biblical knowledge I had acquired.

Exhibit A: God created Man in his image. From this I concluded that God looked like Adam. Adam, in my largely Polish subdivision, was a white guy with brown hair.

Exhibit B: Clothing came after sin. Adam was naked until the whole tree business, and he looked like God. Ergo God was naked.

Exhibit C: A dog is man’s best friend. God should totally have a dog.

My facts established, I grabbed some crayons and started to draw my masterpiece.

Picture of Naked God

Recreation of my masterpiece “Portrait of a Naked God (with Naked Dog)”.

Memory is weird. I clearly recall my reasoning, and although the drawing vanished long ago I have a general idea of what it looked like, but I don’t remember the specifics of the teacher’s reaction. I know that she strongly disapproved, and that most of the other kids drew robed men on clouds. There might have been a talk with my parents when they came to get me.

All I know for sure is that my logic wasn’t even refuted, just ignored.

So at the tender age of “very young” I broke with organized religion, because I couldn’t believe in a God that hid his shame.

Mitch Ryder & The Ann Arbor Heat

By noon today, it was so hot and humid outside that I was sweating in the shade. But outside I went, because an opportunity had been dropped right in my lap. The street outside my workplace was closed down for a free lunch concert by the legendary Detroit rocker Mitch Ryder, and my coworkers were just going to have to deal with the downside of a shared workspace.

Growing up, I listened to a lot of 60s rock. That’s what my brother listened to, and I always followed his lead. To this day I have no idea where he picked up the taste. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Who — we devoured any British Invasion music we could find. Inevitably this lead us to “discover” their influences like B.B. King, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry. We became hooked on music, and although our tastes have diverged we’re both continuing to venture into new musical territory.

Somewhere in our teenaged mutual explorations we stumbled on Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. It was my white-bread entry into the wonders of soul music. Ryder’s throaty wail soared over driving rhythms and opened up new pathways in my brain. By the time I could see “The Blues Brothers” I’d been fully prepared to appreciate Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles, because recordings from this white kid from Detroit had made it to my white suburb of Bay City.

So yeah, today I got a chance to hear a singer who’d opened my ears to a purely American sound. And although his body can no longer display his energy, his voice can still blow out speakers. For an hour I was a teen again, letting the sound move me. Or at least move my toes; it was way too hot to move anything more.

First Impressions Can Leave a Mark

Having an innate fear of fathers, I was particularly nervous about meeting Wendi’s dad. Fathers know what boys want to do with their daughters, and I didn’t imagine he’d enjoy meeting the boy currently wanting to do those things with her.
It didn’t help when Wendi told me that her dad referred to her first two boyfriends as Ick I and Ick II. I assume that the first one was merely Ick until the second came on the scene, but it’s entirely possible that the man suspected there’d be more Icks when he met the first one.
I already believed I was worthless (thanks, dad), so I figured on being quickly labelled Ick III. Maybe I’d even rate a new, worse title. Perhaps Smegma, the first of his name. Or the less poetic That Asshole.
I’d already met Wendi’s mom, who’d confused me deeply by being really nice and not grilling me at all. She flustered me so badly that I blurted things like “I’m perfectly willing to go on welfare to keep writing” and other winning phrases that parents like to hear out of their daughter’s suitor.
She never batted an eye, which only convinced me that she knew I wouldn’t last long.
Now I was going to meet Wendi’s dad. I sat in her dorm room, willing myself to keep my stupid mouth shut. When her folks arrived they were supposed to take us to the mall, where we’d have lunch. Wendi needed to pick up a new bra, so the mall seemed to be a good all-in-one destination. Besides, it was the early 90s; mall culture hadn’t been Amazoned away yet.
There was a knock at the door. I stood up, and my pulse tried to establish new blood speed records. I don’t remember Wendi’s dad coming in. All I know is that one moment there were pleasantries being exchanged out of my sight and then an angry Burl Ives charged me.
Burl Ives was a big part of Christmas for me. He’d done voices for a few animated holiday specials, he vaguely resembled Santa Claus, and he had commercials for his Christmas recordings that strongly implied he’d invented all holiday music.
And now he was backing me into a wall. Wendi’s dad was Santa, and Santa had scratched me out of the Good column.
Angry Santa

He seemed to suspect that I’d been naughty…

When angry Burl Ives had pushed me backward as far as I could go, he glared into my face.

“What are you doing to my daughter that she needs new bras?” he barked.
If you’ve ever wondered what goes through the mind of an animal staring into oncoming headlights, I can tell you with some degree of confidence. It’s an inarticulate mixture of bewilderment, fear, and helplessness.
Then he grinned and stuck out his hand. I took it carefully, as Wendi and her mom doubled over with laughter.
There have been times since then when my presence on the Good List has been debatable, but I’ve never dared slide onto the Naughty List. I don’t want to see Santa when he’s really angry.

Spider Attack in the Fish Store

Okay. So there weren’t spiders, and they didn’t attack, but that’s what my brain thinks happened. It may as well be true. At least the part about what didn’t actually happen taking place in a fish store — that is undeniably true.

Wendi wanted to get some plants for a new tank she’s setting up, so we went to a fish store in Ypsilanti after work. While she picked out plants, I wandered the store looking at the fish and other underwater critters.

I wound up at staying at one tank for a few minutes, watching an electric blue crayfish drag and shovel gravel out of its nest. At one point, while it was dragging a particularly large piece, it lost its grip and the stone slid back down into its nest.

The crayfish stared at the escaped gravel, and I swear to you it sighed!

Feeling embarrassed for the crayfish, I moved on into the salt water tanks. Here’s where the neat stuff is: corals, urchins, anemones, and other bizarre life forms.

The paths through that section of the store are narrow, so I was almost touching the tanks as I peered into them. That’s where the spiders attacked. Rather, that’s where I was not in any danger from things that were not spiders.

I looked into the tank at the level of my upper chest and saw a spider. An underwater spider with a tiny body and spindly legs about 4-5 inches long. Immediately panic set in, and although my eyes calmly pointed out that the label identified this as an arrow crab, the portion of my brain responsible for spider identification mustered all available wiggens units.

Desperate to avert an outright panic, my eyes veered to the tank on the right, where they had previously noticed a nice, safe sea urchin. What could be scary about a ball? “Spider!” shrieked my brain, and the troops of wiggens coursing through my body echoed “spiders!”

Not only was there an arrow crab sharing space with the sea cucumber, but there was another one in the next tank after that. I’d have to squeeze past all three crabs (spiders) to get out!

By then there wasn’t any choice. My eyes had thrown in with my faulty spider-detector and the wiggens were rapidly seizing control of my limbs. They guided me swiftly to the cash register, where Wendi had just bought plants, tank goodies, and a few more platies.

She handed me the bag to carry to the car. I didn’t look inside. If there spiders in there, I didn’t want to know about it.

An Honest Mis-Shake

There’s a restaurant down the street from work where you can get a shake made with two flavors. I was having a rough day, so I decided to have a shake with lunch.

EMPLOYEE: Can I get you something to drink?

ME: Yeah, I’ll have a coffee and hot fudge shake.

EMPLOYEE: Okay. You can get a second flavor with the shake. Did you want double hot fudge or something else?

ME: …

ME: Coffee.

EMPLOYEE: …

EMPLOYEE: Oh!

ME (grinning): Yeah, one drink.

It was tasty, but next time I’ll have a shake with the ice cream flavors of coffee and hot fudge.

Zombies, Cannibals, and the Meme Cycle

On May 26th, Rudy Eugene ate the face off Ronald Poppo. He reportedly did not respond to police intervention even when shot. The internet community immediately pointed to this as proof of a zombie attack, and shortly thereafter began berating itself for the joke. Isolated cases involving cannibalism kept this cycle of joke and lash-back shambling along for the next few weeks.

As a known fan of zombie movies (I once drunkenly extolled the virtues of a three-way fight between a shark, zombie, and half-naked diver to a room full of uninterested friends) it is inevitable that I will receive multiple forwards of any and all zombie related news. I thank even the umpteenth messenger, as I’m pleased that people think of me enough to relate information that may actually interest me.

This incident caught my attention and held on. I absorbed the jokes and the censure, the repetition and recrimination, and I pondered why this was such a familiar pattern that seemed so unusual. At length I worked out some explanations that make sense to me.

To start with, the assailant and victim were both naked. It’s not prurience that makes this important, although some of the comments made tittering note of it. Clothing makes us human. It represents our involvement in society and to some extent our status. An unclothed attacker strikes us an inhuman, bestial, and absent of reason.

Both men were identified as homeless, putting them on the fringe of society to begin with. Their lack of clothing symbolically confirms that they exist outside of civilization. Through the lens of status, they are not individuals but feral creatures.

The nature of the attack reinforces this theme. Beyond the question of why anyone would commit such an act, the victim was literally defaced. His identity was removed — no, consumed — by a man who’d lost his humanity.

Faceless Man

Face of the Unknown

Much is made of the attacker’s reported lack of response to bullets; it often serves as the foundation of the zombie jokes. It’s little more than a convenient hook, I think. We’re culturally used to hearing about drugs making people violent and insensate. I remember Toma coming to my high school to warn us with the usual sensational examples of drug-induced dementia: raging PCP super-junkies and bad trips that end in cooking babies.

And that’s when I realized that the whole incident sounds like an urban legend. “Did you hear the one about the guy who got high on bath salts and ate another guy’s face?” Except that urban legends have morals; they teach us a lesson about the dangers of being incautious or imprudent. Here we have the horrific aftermath without the lesson.

That’s the key, I think. We’re left wondering how this happened. What went wrong? How can we keep it from happening to us? So there’s fear behind the humor — an attempt to minimize the shock and frame it in a context we can understand and dismiss.

Above all we don’t want to know that we’re just animals, cloaking ourselves in the trappings of civilization. We certainly don’t want to realize that it takes an unimaginable act of mutilation for us to notice the homeless.

Death Awaits Me

I have seen my death, and I cross it at least twice every workday.

The intersection outside of the building where I work has been an all-way stop for well over a year. The traffic lights were “temporarily” taken out of service because of an extensive construction project on the next block.

Being a busy intersection in Ann Arbor, the lights never much affected pedestrian behavior in the first place. People cross whenever and wherever they damn well please. For now, though, at this instersection drivers are entirely at the mercy of the unwise crowd. I’m painfully aware of what damage a car could do to me, but even I just walk on through.  I don’t even pretend to watch or wait anymore but simply rely on drivers to accept their powerlessness.

Some day the construction will end, and the cars will regain the illusion of authorized ownership of the road. Shortly thereafter I fully expect to be creamed while blindly crossing against the light.

At least I’ll know that I had it coming.

Fathers Day

I have one good memory of my father.

This is not to say we only ever shared one good time. My memory has always been unreliable and skewed toward the negative, so it’s likely that there are several events that I’ve forgotten. So I have just the one good memory, and even that is tinged with awfulness.

For context, you have to understand our relationship. He appeared to believe that I was filled with lies, and I believed him to be unpredictably abusive. The Beta incident is typical of our interaction.

For those of you born after the heady early days of movie rentals, there was a format war for VCR tapes. It was somewhat akin to Blu-ray vs HD DVD. You don’t remember HD DVD? Never mind. The point is that my folks got a great deal on a Betamax player, precisely because Beta had just lost the war for home systems.

Anyway, the Beta incident began with my dad trying to hook up the player. He couldn’t figure out why the cable channels weren’t coming in through the VCR. I picked up the installation manual and looked through it until I found the answer. There was a hatch on the top that opened up to reveal a frightening array of dials. You were supposed to set and tune each channel individually in order for the Beta to read their signals correctly.

I guess that’s why it was called a Beta.

So, like Charlie Brown running at the football, I told my dad what I’d read. He was furious. He swore at me for interfering, and he sent me outside to pick up sticks in the yard so he could mow.

I went outside and cleared the yard, front and back. That only took a few minutes, and it was much too early to go back inside. The TV was right next to the stairs, and he’d certainly notice me heading upstairs to hide. So I did it again, picking up even the most minute twigs I could spot. Half an hour later I figured it might be safe enough to risk going in, so I did.

Dad caught me, but he wasn’t pissed anymore; he was triumphant. He marched me into the living room to show me the TV. The picture came in perfectly.

“I figured it out,” he proclaimed. “You have to tune each channel in that top panel.”

This wasn’t an unfortunate aberration; this was my everyday experience. Nothing any of us did was right, even if it was, and he was the self-proclaimed genius who told us we were stupid. When he ran off with his secretary while I was in my last year of college, I was more than happy to write him off and start repairing my confidence.

Happy Sun

Smile. We’ll all be long dead when the sun explodes.

That was pretty much it for 20 years. Then Wendi found a message on our answering machine two weeks from the Department of Human Services of a county I hardly knew existed. It turned out that my father had applied for a fostering permit, and they needed to talk to his own offspring as part of their screening.

I wanted nothing to do with it. For one thing, I had elected to have no part in his life. I didn’t want to get involved. Additionally, I hate phones. No, that’s not right. I’m afraid of accidentally committing to something while talking on a phone. There’s a story in that, but I’m already on my second digression. I’ll explain that very particular phobia another time. Let it suffice for now that I do not make phone calls if I can help it.

The message nagged at me through the week. I’d sought help a few times in my adolescence, but nobody had wanted to get involved. Wasn’t my silence contributing to the problem?

A form from the Department of Human Services arrived in the mail. I could fill out the paperwork, assuage my conscience, and avoid using a phone! I read the form. The bulk of it obsessed on how well I was doing, and there was just one small space allotted for opposition to the foster application. That wouldn’t work for me.

By now I’d convinced myself that it was my duty to respond, but the safe route led away from the response I needed to make. Steeling myself, I dialed the provided number.

I got an answering machine. After rambling confusedly for a bit I left my cel number. Then I went to Wendi for comforting. Thinking about my father had wound me up, and imagining all of the ways that the phone call could go south had left me shaking. She calmed me down and sent me away again. Then my phone rang.

The county worker was nice enough, but I didn’t feel as though she believed me. She kept saying “That’s too bad” in a way that seemed well-worn and disinterested. I imagine she’s dealt with people who’d suffered neglect and physical abuse, and that mere emotional abuse is pretty low on her list of concerns.

Or, and this is a distinct possibility, I simply read into her responses what my head meat expected to hear. Regardless, she assured me that she would include my statements in her findings. This means that now there’s likely official documentation of my father calling me a “worthless piece of shit.”

But I do still have one good memory of him. I have to admit that.

Image of the tingler being extracted from behind a screen

Vincent Price removes a full-sized tingler from his “test subject”.

(image altered from screen capture of “The Tingler”)

I had just settled down to watch “The Tingler” on HBO. My dad wandered in and asked what I was watching. I told him, adding that it starred Vincent Price. To my surprise he sat down to watch it with me. A few minutes in, he asked if I wanted nachos. Did I?

We raced out into the kitchen, poured chips on a plate, sprinkled shredded jack liberally on them, popped them in the microwave for a bit, and raced back the living room with our goodies. Bing, pow, zap! A plate full of cheesy sadness!

We didn’t care though; we happily munched away as the glorious Mr. Price proved his theories on the physical nature of fear — by killing people, of course. The chips vanished quickly, and we raced to the kitchen for a second batch. Bing, pow, sadness!

It was after we’d eaten half of the second batch that one of us looked at the snack we’d prepared. The nachos were far more terrifying that any of the on-screen silliness that had been holding our attention. There were patches of green in the melted cheese. It had been moldy, and both of us were so fixated on a stupid movie that neither one of us had noticed until halfway through the second serving.

Feeling our stomaches churn, we pushed the plate aside and tried to enjoy the finale of the movie. We had to admit though, they’d been pretty tasty.

For that brief span, we were in sync. We acted as one with no friction, and we (mostly) had fun. That’s the father I wish I’d had more of. That’s the man I’d endorse for fostering a child — with the provision that he not be allowed to make nachos.