24 December 2007

2007's Christmastime Rant

The new issue of Wired magazine has an article explaining, using real science, how Santa Claus operates in our modern world. Part of it involves elves working for the NSA to find out who is naughty and nice. Apparently, the Patriot Act has helped out Santa’s endeavors a great deal. At least it’s good for something, right? And then there’s the part about scads of elves delivering the presents-- should they be caught by a child, they inject them with something that makes them forget, puts them to sleep and makes them dream of sugar-plum faeries. Which, strictly speaking, Wired people, is not really real science.

And while I kind of enjoy the image of presents being delivered by a covert, semi-corrupt government agency made up of tiny people in pointy shoes, this is the kind of crap that comes out every December and just drives me up the wall. I mean, is this necessary? Do we need to justify, under the guise of science, a fairy tale that we teach children in order to make sure they behave? How ridiculous can you get?!

Also, why is it that every time they do a story on the news that states the oh-so controversial opinion that Santa Claus may not be real, they have to issue a disclaimer to give parents an opportunity to shuffle the kiddies away for a few minutes. Freakin’ NPR does this! Which is patently absurd, because the only way a child young enough to believe in Santa Claus is ever going to pay attention to what’s on NPR is when you tell them not to listen. The rest of the time NPR just hums in the background as the dulcet toned white noise of the adult world.

Frankly, I think it’s irresponsible for major news outlets to, with a wink and a smile, play along with this myth every year from November to January first. They can’t talk about mall Santas, instead they need to talk about Santa’s helpers at the mall. Rather than talking about the real, tragic and terrifying consequences of global warming they jokingly give us images of Santa in a bathing suit and suggest that he might have to relocate soon because the polar ice caps are melting at a rapidly increasing rate. Of course, they neglect to mention that by the time Santa has to move, everyone and everything living on earth is done for, thus making a naughty/nice list moot. And while I feel for Santa in that moving an operation so large must be a difficult task, at least he won’t have to worry about setting up a functional toy shop because all the kids, good, bad, poor and rich will be dead! But thanks, Today Show for making jokes about Santa Claus in a speed-o rather than explaining the real and dire consequences of Global Climate Change. Really, I much prefer that children get a little giggle out of their morning news than begin to get some idea about how terribly the last few generations have hosed them—let’s wait until they’re old enough to not be able to do anything about it before we explain to them how their children will never get to make a snowman. Keep ‘em in the dark for as long as you can, that’s what I always say!

Which reminds me: Hanukkah. The festival of light. Eight freakin’ days for this holiday. Christmas is, what, one and a half? Hanukkah is eight days, but do any of the Gentiles out there know when Hanukkah even is? “It’s right around Christmas, right?” Right—but only if you count the entire month of December as being “right around Christmas.” Hanukkah has been over for two weeks! And yet, every time someone finds out you’re Jewish, I bet they still say: “Happy Hanukkah!” That’s like a Canadian saying to an American “Happy Independence Day!” on July 20! Get with the times, people. And, just for the record, “Happy Hanukkah” is not equivalent to “Merry Christmas.” Christmas is the big holiday of the Christian year, Hanukkah is, well, not so much for the Jews. So quit acting like it’s a fair trade, because it is not. You ignore the rest of their sacred holidays all year, and only acknowledge Hanukkah because you think its like “little Jewish Christmas” so when you say “Happy Hanukkah” they’ll give you the reciprocal pleasure you so desire and wish you a merry Christmas. Well nuts to that.

Why is it that every year around this time we start hearing complaints about greetings? “The ACLU won’t let us say ‘Merry Christmas!’” Bullshit. The ACLU is kind of all about letting everyone say anything they want—so long as it doesn’t infringe on the rights of others to do the same. What I don’t get is: what’s the problem with “Happy Holidays”? Pretty much everyone is celebrating at least two Holidays between the end of November and the beginning of January. There’s always Thanksgiving and New Years, if nothing else. Of course, if you’re not American and/or you are Chinese, you don’t really even have those two holidays—but as we showed in the 1940’s Americans aren’t too bothered by ignoring the rights of Asian peoples when it benefits the greater good. But then, that’s just one of the many ways we’re assholes.

So “Happy Holidays” is about as close to inoffensive to about as many people as you can possibly get. Some non-religious people even get irritated by “holidays” because it technically means “holy days” and, of course, there’s no such thing as a “holy day,” but frankly, those people are curmudgeons and need to buck up. Most non-religious people accept “Happy Holidays,” “Merry Christmas,” or even “Happy Hanukkah” for whatever ends it was intended. If it’s said as an attack, as it seems “Merry Christmas” increasingly is, then they’ll be offended, but if it’s meant nicely, it will be taken as such. It’s like when someone says “Bless you” after a sneeze. The worst is when I say “Happy Holidays” and someone corrects me with “Merry Christmas.” No, damnit, I said what I meant, now have some happy freakin’ holidays, okay?!

But, and I can’t stress this enough, why can’t we just say “Have a nice day?” Because, above and beyond anything else, each “holiday” is a day. And whether it’s a “holi” or not, I’m a big advocate of everyone spending each of their days happily. I feel like it’s silly to change the way we greet each other because some day we see as especially important is coming up. That’s like correcting strangers on your birthday when they say “Hi.” ‘Oh, no, sir, ‘tis my special day today and so I ask that you greet me appropriately with a ‘Happy Birthday.’ Now, try again.” And maybe there are people who do that, but I think we can all agree, that if there are people out there who behave like that, they are most assuredly douche bags.

The most heinous offense perpetrated around this time of year, though, are the people who want to “Take back Christmas” or “Put Christ back in Christmas” or “save Christmas.” What a bunch of hooey this is. You can’t take back something that wasn’t yours to begin with. This holiday has been celebrated for centuries, long before Christians co-opted it. And sure, it went by other names before, but all of the trappings of Christmas are pagan. Christmas tree? German tradition. They’d put candles on the tree because it was the darkest time of year and celebrate the return of the sun (that’s with a “u” not an “o”) using an evergreen, which was a symbol of how, even in darkest night, nature lives on. Yule log, stars, wreaths and gifts? All pagan. Even the virgin birth pre-dates Christianity. Ever heard of Mithras? Okay, maybe not, but the early Christians had. If anyone is going to take back the holiday, it should be the pagans. We should be celebrating Saturnalia or the earth’s axial tilt if we’re going back to the true reason for the season. But you know what? No one is going to do that. Sure, some of us staunch supporters of the separation of church and state might object to an unconstitutional establishment of religion, but we’ll also defend the free practice of your religion. Do some Pagans and tongue-in-cheek Atheists celebrate Solstice? Sure. And you know what? We can do it without taking away your Christmas.

There’s room enough this season for any freakin’ holiday you want to celebrate. Christmas does not need saving. The Constitution needs saving, sure, but Christmas is doing just fine. So, enjoy whatever you want to celebrate this time of year, I hope it’s wonderful. And let the rest of us celebrate whatever the hell we want to celebrate too!

Have a nice day.

18 December 2007

Why I should never answer the phone

Just moments ago, an older gentleman called the box office. This is an almost exact transcript of our conversation:

Me: Circle Theatre Box Office, this is Dave.

Caller: Hi, is this the Circle theatre?Me: Yes.Caller: Okay. Do you get matching funds from AT&T?

Me: Excuse me?

Caller: If I make a donation to you do you qualify for matching funds from AT&T? You’re a non-profit, right?

Me: Yes, we area non-profit. I’m not familiar with the AT&T matching funds set up and the person who could answer your question is not in the office right now. I can transfer you to her voice mail so you can leave her a message and she’ll call you back.

Caller: What’s her number so I can call her later?

Me: It’s 632--

Caller: Hold on, let me get something to write it down on.

[pause while he gets paper and I ponder why he would have asked for a number without having a way to write it down]

Caller: Alright. What’s the number?

Me: 632-2997

Caller [matter of factly]: 632-8557.

Me [gently correcting him]: No, 632-2997.

Caller: 5589?

Me [clued in to the fact that this man is hard of hearing]: No, 2. And then 9, as in the number after 8.

Caller: 45--?

Me: No, no. 632 . . .

Caller: 632-5?

Me: No. 632. Then another 2.

Caller: 632-2

Me: Yes. Nine. Nine

Caller: 632-855?

Me: No, 632-2 Nine, as in 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9

Caller: 1,2,3,4,5?

Me: No. Nine. En. Eye. En. Ee. Nine.

Caller: Eff Eye Vee Ee? 8758?

Me: No it’s—Let me put you on hold for a second, I’ll see if I can get better reception.

[places call on hold, makes gesture of frustration to non-existent gods. Takes off headset, picks up handset.]

Me: Can you hear me any better now?Caller: Hold on one second.


Caller: Alright.

Me: Can you hear me any better now?

Caller: So it’s 632-8597?

Me: No, no it’s 632

Caller: 632? We can agree on that?

Me: Yes. And then another two.

Caller: Four?

Me: No, six three two two [taking deliberate care to pronounce both twos exactly the same.]

Caller: 632-2

Me: Yes! And then the number nine.

Caller: Five?

Me: No, nine. The number after eight?

Caller: Eight?

Me: No, nine.

Caller: Oh, nine!

Me: Yes! And then another nine.

Caller: Five?

Me: No, another nine. Just like the number I just gave you. Between 8 and 10.

Caller: Nine. Is that right?

Me [almost too excited to speak]: Yes! And then seven.

Caller: Seven. Okay, good. And who will I be talking to there?

Me: Her name is Joni.

Caller [as if it were an entirely reasonable name]: Gorby? Like ‘Gee Oh Are Bee Why?’

Me: No, Joni. Jay Oh En Eye.

Caller: ‘Cause I’m wondering if you qualify for the AT&T matching donation thing and I think you do, but you’ve got some kind of number that I’ll need—

Me: Joni will be able to give that to you.

Caller: Well real good. Thanks.

27 November 2007

Heathens Take Manhattan: Part V: Prologue

I was up most of Monday night. Lots of yelling, mostly crying. A love triangle I had found myself in had reached its inevitable conclusion with me on the outside and the other two points forming a love line. They were my only two close friends and I made the mistake of falling for one of them. Ryan, Cindy and I were close. They helped me through one of the darkest, self-pity soaked periods of my life. And because I wasn't used to having a girl who liked me, even as a friend, I fell for Cindy. I thought I was in love. And, of course, she fell for the more attractive and confident of the two of us-- which was not me.

It shouldn't have, but somehow it did come as a surprise to me when I found out that they had become more than friends. It destroyed me. My world crumbled. In one fell swoop I had lost the only two people I trusted, the two people who meant the most to me. In my mind, my world had been as devastated as my mom's was when her husband of twenty-five years left her for a chamber maid in Pittsburgh. Oh, to be 19 again . . .

I got up after a long, sleepless night and poured a bowl of Cap'n Crunch. I still remember how it scrapped its way down my raw throat. I waited until it was late enough in the morning to call Cindy. As I dialed I turned on the TV in my bedroom. I listened to her phone ring while on the screen smoke was issuing forth from one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. No one knew what had happened, certainly no one knew why or had any concept of how our lives, all our lives, were about to change.

Cindy answered the phone; she said "A plane just flew into the World Trade Center." "I know," I said, "I just saw that." It was right then that a second plane hit. "That's crazy," I said, shaking my head. And then I turned off the TV. I didn't want it to distract me from the important issue I was dealing with.

Six years later, I don't remember a damn word of that conversation-- the conversation I forced her to have while the world was changing around us. It's no wonder that she still hates me. I do too. I'm not filled with the self-loathing bull shit I spent ages 6 through 21 stuffing myself with, but I am deeply ashamed about how I behaved that day. I’m reminded of a girl I used to work with who, when a friend of hers was found dead, exclaimed: "Another one of my friends is dead . . . why does God keep doing this to me?!" Part of it can be chalked up to the self-centeredness of youth, but it's no excuse. I was too concerned with my own life to care about the lives of thousands of others.

After I got off the phone with Cindy, I turned the TV back on. It was only then that some of the import of this day started to break through my thick shell of self-importance. I watched as two people, holding hands, did the one thing they could do, and leapt to their deaths. Of all the images from that day, that's the one that sticks with me most clearly. I'm sure there was no audio, but somehow I can still remember the sound of the impact.

I watched all through the afternoon. I watched the towers collapse, I watched as ash and debris chased hundreds of human beings down the street. I remember the replays, the five seconds of video that they began replaying around 10am and didn't stop for another two weeks.

A lot has changed since that Tuesday morning. We all know how the world changed, the thousands of lives lost, heroes made and killed in the same day, the fear and paranoia that gripped our country, the president who used it to drive us into a war and the unquestioning public who let him. At the risk of sounding like that self-centered nineteen year old, I've been through a great deal of personal change since then too, which understandably has received far less press coverage than the rest of the world.

Initially, I supported the president, goose-stepped my way down the street with an American flag on my arm. I had a "God Bless America" sticker in the window of my car and scoffed when a friend of mine said that "the things Bush is doing now will bring about the Apocalypse."

Gradually, though, along with the rest of the country, I started to come to my senses. By the time Colin Powell was on TV showing grainy photographs and claiming that this was proof of WMDs in Iraq, my reasoning had returned. One of the worst fights I've ever had with my mother was about the impending war. She asked what I would do if I were drafted, I told her there was no way I was going to be forced to go kill people just because that idiot wanted to go to war. She told me that I needed to respect the president, and if I were drafted, it'd be my duty to God and Country to serve.

It was around this time that my faith in both God and Country waned. I had been struggling with my religious indoctrination for a while—this was my "I just don't like organized religion" phase—but the events of 9-11 and everything that followed, told me that I couldn't just be a conscientious objector, I needed to decide what I really believed. And I found that I really just didn't believe and thus began my angry atheist phase.

To this day, I still love my country, but I loathe sentiments like "I love my country." Nationalism has been mistaken for patriotism—so much so that I can't even stomach the term "Patriot" anymore. I'm a Thomas Paine Patriot, not a George Bush Imperial Nationalist.

In the wake of 9-11, many Americans (who clearly missed the point) became more religious, more xenophobic. I, and an impressive amount of others, went the other direction. Step by step by step. Which eventually lead me to New York City.

The CFI conference was held in World Trade Center building #7. Up on the 40th floor, the first night of the conference, I looked down and saw what I assumed to be a construction site. And, of course, it is a construction site, but there’s much more to it than that.

The next morning, along with a group of future leaders of the secular movement, I visited Ground Zero. There's not a whole lot to see, but then I think that might be the point. Some of what is there is vitriolic rhetoric that turned my stomach. Maybe I'm wrong, but I feel like referring to those killed on 9-11 as "The Heroes of September 11, 2001" is disingenuous (which is not to say that many of them were not heroic). I guess "victims" just made it sound too much like we were victimized and we can't have that . . . it would make us feel vulnerable.

Up close, Ground Zero looks pretty much like any other snail's pace construction site. But it's not. Standing there, the tendency is to look down at what is there-- I forced myself to look up and see what wasn't there. The footage from that day ran through my head. I saw those people holding hands, I saw the smoke, heard the cries. Standing there, at the site of the defining tragedy of my generation (and possibly even our nation's history) I felt a profound guilt.

I've spent the last six years feeling guilty for how I acted on that day, but being there the guilt slammed into me like never before. I wanted to tell how sorry I was, but I knew there was no one to tell. The people I needed to apologize to weren’t there. So I let myself experience that guilt-- let myself wallow in it until it was all I could do to keep myself from screaming. It wasn't just the guilt of six years, it was the guilt of a wasted life, of wasting life itself when so many people had it taken away from them. The guilt consumed me, it overpowered me and I let it. I encouraged it. And then, I stopped.

While I will carry the shame of how I behaved on September 11th for the rest of my life, I needn’t be ashamed of what I’ve done since then, what I’ve become and what I’ll do in the future.

A lot of the way I've acted since that day has a lot to do with the way I acted on that day. Not to sound too Catholic or anything, but my guilt informs a great deal of my motives. On that day, all I cared about was myself. Now, my perspective is more global. And while I've been a loud mouth for the better part of two decades, it's only been in the last five years that I’ve been an activist. A lot of that, too, has to do with losing a belief in the hereafter,—when you believe only in the here, there is all the more motive to make the most of it and make a difference while you can.

Looking out at the buildings that should have been there, I made a vow to myself. I suppose if I were religious it would have been a prayer. But I told myself: “This is it. This is your chance. From here on out you can’t just fuck around. You’ve been here, you’ve had your little nadir point, now it’s time to do something. Existential crises are all well and good, but now it’s time to do something about it.”

I’m not going to pretend like it was some kind of epiphany—this wasn’t the fulcrum around which my life pivots. I wouldn’t have been there in the first place if I needed an epiphany to show me the way. Instead, I see it as a moment of rededication, like every time I tell my wife I love her. It showed me that this is important, that this life is important and that the causes I believe in are worth fighting for. It is hard and I’m often not very good at it, but I need to keep trying and I’m going to keep trying to do what’s right, to make my mark, and to help.

Heathens Take Manhattan: Part IV: My Generation

One of the best parts of my weekend in New York, and something I've just barely touched on so far, was getting to meet, and hang out with some of my fellow student activists from around the globe*. CFI flew a whole slew of us out and, sadly, I didn't get to spend a lot of time with everyone, but the ones I did get to know were awesome-- way more awesome, in fact, than those of you who aren’t them. Sorry, but it had to be said.

When I flew in on Thursday, Sarah was the only other out-of-towner around, so I gave her a call and she very easily directed me from airport to bus to subway to hostel. This girl had been in town all of two hours longer than me and she was walking around like a pro. All weekend, she was the one person who always knew how to get from point A to point B . . . I'm pretty sure that's her mutant power.

Sarah, being both a good traveler and a vegan, came equipped with a list of vegan friendly restaurants that we'd be near. Without her, it's entirely possible that I would have starved on the streets of New York. Actually, I take that back, without her, I would have never found my way to the streets of New York and would have starved sitting in LaGuardia, mulling over a map and trying to figure out just what the hell a "borough" is.

And then there was Alon. Alon met up with Sarah and me to see The Drowsy Chaperone (which he hated and Sarah and I enjoyed). Alon lives in New York, though he's originally from Micronesia. I'm not sure there's much I can say about Alon that isn't already destined to be in the history books . . . Let me just throw this little fact at you: The guy is 17 years old and a grad student in mathematics** at Columbia. He's a living encyclopedia. Just don't ask him to figure out how much you're supposed to tip . . . because he will-- to the eighth decimal point.

Roy, from UCLA, is also a little tyke with a big brain. Roy is awesome-- even though he's also a math dork. He and Nidia (also awesome, also a math dork, only she has pink hair which Roy does not) both showed up at the hostel just as Sarah and I were heading out for breakfast Friday morning so the four of us ended up doing the city together. In Central Park we found a long division problem that someone had written in the dirt. All three of my companions stopped and marveled as if it were a hieroglyph found on the side of a mountain. I think they were actually more impressed with the dirt long division than they were with most of the things we saw at the MOMA. Math dorks are funny that way.

Somewhere along the way we picked up Ben (the George Harrison of math dorks) and Shalini (who is half my age and twice my IQ) and I found myself in the unenviable position of being the sole English major in a pack of math dorks.

We all made our way to the Natural History Museum where, after much struggle, we finally caught up with Alon again. Let me tell you, if you're going to go to the Natural History Museum, the way to do it is with a bunch of Freethinking math dorks. Freethinking math dorks with cameras, to be precise.

Now, rarely am I the smartest person in the room but I'm also not often the dumbest guy in the room. Hanging out with Sarah, Roy, Nidia, Ben, Shalini and Alon, I was, without question, the dumbest guy in the room. That experience was not to be alleviated all weekend until the flight back to Grand Rapids***.

At the conference I met a stunning number of new awesome people: the awesome Canadian foursome, Mara (another theatre kid!), Kristine (my fellow Overflow Room Bouncer), Chris (the revolutionary), Lucia (the Dawkins dork), Sean and Brett (our own little Okies), Byung (good ol' B), Roger (all the way from Edinburgh), Blake (who is just about the nicest guy you'd ever want to meet), and Tommy and Alex and Vikkey and Lisa and literally dozens of my brilliant (for Chris' sake, I won't say "bright"), and enthusiastic peers.

When you look at the Freethought movement, whether it’s CFI Michigan or any other group, it doesn't take a math dork to see that the average age is, well, closer to Paul Kurtz than it is to Alon and Shalini. Being at this conference and seeing so many young people who are dedicated to the cause and chomping at the bit to take on the world, made my little heretic heart pump with joy****.

This is a group of young people who absolutely defy the stereotype of the lazy, apathetic, self-absorbed idiots that our generation is so often clapped with. For the first time, at this conference, I felt really . . . hopeful, I guess, for the younger generation. When you compare the voter turn out for 18-25 year olds in the last election with the same age group thirty years ago, it’s fairly devastating. But that weekend in New York showed me that some of us haven’t given up. Most of the students I met were people who had taken the initiative to lead or, in many cases, start organizations at their schools. That’s no small feat. Adding that workload on to the already daunting tasks of school and work is a fairly quixotic endeavor and it’s so encouraging seeing so many Rationalist dreamers take it on.

As we parted ways on Sunday afternoon, I felt the same kind of feelings I had experienced years earlier when leaving church camp—only, instead of being filled with the Holy Spirit I was filled with a sense of community and purpose. We hugged all of our new BFF’s good-bye and vowed that we’d keep in touch. And I hope we do. I hope this new community we created over a long weekend in New York does have a lasting impact. I hope that as the new friends I made rise to fame and become the new voices of secular values that they remember me and, most importantly, give me expensive presents that they purchase with the advances from their book deals.

I totally promise to do the same when I strike it rich.

*Okay, mostly just the U.S. and Canada***** but Roger is from Ireland so, at the very least, there was transcontinental representation.

**I'm sure it's not just 'mathematics,’ but every time he started to explain what he studies my brain shut down and the Lollipop Guild song started playing in my head-- that's what happens when people talk math to me.

***Even my flight to Chicago was packed with Rhodes Scholars. The flight attendant was writing a dissertation on "Being and Nothingness" as she served drinks.

****Well, actually it was just blood. But it was joyous and freshly optimistic blood.

*****Which is a Native American term meaning: “Country that is much like America only with Socialism, better health care, gay marriage, and funny accents.”

20 November 2007

Heathens Take Manhattan: Part III: The Conference

Mark Twain said: "go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company."

For three days, I was in Hell. And I loved every minute of it.

On November 9th through the 11th, 2007, the Center For Inquiry/ New York City presented “The Secular Society and Its Enemies,” a conference which featured a veritable Who’s Who in Hell. For three days many of the world’s most brilliant minds gathered to laugh, drink and discuss the big issues in the new home of the New York Academy of Sciences, on the 40th floor of WTC Building #7.

The poetry was lost on no one as we spent the weekend discussing threats to the secular world while just out the window was history’s greatest example of a “faith based initiative.” And yet, there was very little mention of that fact. It wasn’t necessary. Even as we stood around and noshed on mini-quiche, the shadow of those two towers loomed as large as ever. Rather than putting a damper on the conference, though, it had a galvanizing effect. It showed us just how important the cause we are all fighting for is. This isn’t just an intellectual or philosophical exercise: there are real, devastating forces taking on secular society.

The first night of the conference featured honors given to Neil deGrasse Tyson (my new hero), Ann Druyan (the sweetest, most brilliant woman I’ve ever met . . . who also happens to have been married to Carl Sagan) and 17-year-old Matthew LaClair.

You may have heard about young Matthew who, last year, caught a teacher of his on tape saying in class (among other horrid things) that a student was going to go to Hell because she did not believe in Jesus. Because of Matthew, not only was his teacher exposed, but so was the larger problem in our public schools, where things like that often go unchecked. Matthew was given the James Madison Religious Liberty Award and then gave the kind of speech seventeen year olds, by all rights, should not be able to give. I’m jealous of his poise and eloquence. I’d hate him for it if he weren’t such a damned nice guy.

The evening ended with a rousing speech by Eddie Tabash that warned of “the threats of the religious right to our modern freedoms.” I believe someone referred to it as Eddie’s “scare the hell out of you” speech.

After the evening’s events were over, I went up to Ann Druyan (the first celebrity I dared approach), and told her I had just heard her on Radio Lab* and how her story of her love for Carl being sent out into the cosmos made me weep like a baby. Truly, it’s that part of science we need to stress—the beauty, the poetry of it** and the work of Ann and Carl is greatest asset we have to that end. Ann and I talked for a few minutes—she told me how much she admired me for going into teaching, said how that was the most noble thing a person could do . . . That’s a moment in time I’m keeping with me. Ann Druyan told me that what I was doing was important. I could have shat myself.

The next morning, my fellow young activists and I were put to work. Kristine and I were set up as ticket checkers at the door to the overflow room. Y’know, just in case anyone wanted to sneak into the overflow room, rather than sitting in the main room. As you can predict, ours was an important job. But, it did mean that I got to see everyone as they came in (the door to the main room was right next to the door to the overflow room). Not only did I manage to piss off Dawkins (he didn’t think it was funny when I asked to see his ticket) but I also stopped a man who’s had a fatwa issued against him from entering (sorry about that, Mr. Warraq) and I had a conversation with Alan Dershowitz about the Ten Commandments without realizing he was Alan Dershowitz.

Since we were guests of CFI (in that they paid for us, flew us out and arranged for our hostel stay) the other students and I were relegated to the overflow room. And actually, the view there, courtesy of a big projection screen, was much nicer than that enjoyed by many of the people in the main room. It was funny, too, because we all still applauded for the speakers as though they could really hear us.

Saturday morning was a series of panel discussions featuring the likes of Susan Jacoby (writer of Freethinkers, probably the best book on the history of secularism in America ever), Rebecca Goldstein (Betraying Spinoza), the poet and historian Jennifer Michael Hecht (Doubt: A History), Ann Druyan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Victor Stenger (God: The Failed Hypothesis, a wonderful counter-apologetic work), Richard Dawkins (as seen on South Park), Michelle Goldberg (Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism), Wendy Kaminer (Sleeping with Extraterrestrials which is the name of a book she wrote, not an activity that made her famous), journalist Damon Linker, and everyone’s favorite trial attorney, Eddie Tabash.

The panel discussions were each, in their own way, brilliantly fascinating and fascinatingly brilliant. Hearing very smart people disagree (at times, almost heatedly) but retain the intellectual integrity of the discussion is just awesome.

Perhaps my favorite part of Saturday morning was the panel (moderated by my hero D.J. Groethe) featuring Dawkins, deGrasse Tyson, Druyan and Stenger. The panel discussion itself was great and all, but the coolest thing about it was that during it, Paul Kurtz, the father of the modern Humanist movement and the reason all of us were there in the first place, came and sat with the rabble in the overflow room. Two seats down from me was the man who created CFI, the man whose words helped me put a label on what I believed when I had no clue what ‘Humanism’ even was. The fact that he decided that rather than sit in the front row of the main room and listen to the big headliners, he would sit with the students who couldn’t even afford to pay for their own stay in a hostel and watch it on a projection screen, told me everything I need to know about this man.

The rest of Saturday was kind of a mixed bag. Christopher Hitchens, unable to attend himself, sent a video interview, which unfortunately, was really hard to hear (at least in the overflow room). Then, there was the obligatory “Give us money” presentation, which, of course was very important, but mostly just frustrating to those of us who have no money. Luckily for CFI, those of us who don’t have money were in the minority at the conference.

The evening really picked up, though with a presentation by Peter Singer. More than anything, Singer made me feel really bad about only being a vegetarian. He was like that far away from making me feel guilty about eating vegetables.

After that, D.J. Groethe conducted an interview with Richard Dawkins (which was recorded for Point of Inquiry, one of my three favorite podcasts***). I was kind of disappointed initially—after all, I’ve heard Dawkins interviewed a whole bunch of times, but I’ve never heard him lecture. While I still would have liked to hear him lecture, the interview ended up being the best I’ve ever heard with Dawkins. He was very candid about his role in ‘the movement,’ freely admitting that his approach may not be the best. If only all of his detractors were able to hear him like that, maybe then they’d see that he’s not the arrogant monster they paint him as. Then again, probably not.

And for those of you who aren’t jealous of my weekend already, get this: Saturday night, I got to have dinner with Richard Dawkins! Yes, My Dinner with Dawkins will be an event I cherish and gloat about for the rest of my life.

Of course, it wasn’t just me and Richie—that’s what he likes to be called****-- sitting around a table chewing the fat. It was actually a few dozen of us student leaders sitting around with Richie in the backroom of a pub in the financial district, chewing the fat. He wanted to hear about our groups, what we were doing, what challenges we faced etc. He didn’t say a whole lot, except to ask a question or two (can you believe he didn’t know what a bong is?) and offer words of encouragement. Still, having Richard Dawkins’ ear for even a few minutes is a pretty damn cool thing.

On Sunday, there was a panel on the next generation of secularism in which a few of my new friends took part. Not to be all generation-centric or anything, but I’m really glad they had that panel discussion because I don’t think we can overstate the importance of this younger generation. We’re the ones who are going to keep this movement alive decades down the road. It was nice to see so many people over the weekend that understood that fact. And exciting to see how brilliant and eager that younger generation is. But there’ll be more on that in Part IV.

This conference made for one of the most amazing, intellectual stimulating and exciting weekends of my life. And, I got to be a total fan boy all weekend around people who are just as geeky as me. I mean, this was like going to a Star Trek convention and having Gene Rodenberry buy you a drink as you sit and talk to Nemoy and Shatner. Ann Druyan touched me! Her thoughts are in space (literally) and she freakin’ touched me!

Thanks to this weekend, I can die happily. And, if it turns out we’re all wrong and there really is a Hell, at least I can look forward to great company.

*For those of you who aren’t familiar with Radio Lab, let me just tell you: It is the BEST thing on NPR since This American Life. Please, do yourselves a favor and check it out at http://www.radiolab.org/

**As Dawkins wonderfully describes it, saying that the utilitarian view of science is what is important is like saying that music is good because it exercises the violinist’s right arm.

***See the first footnote for the other two of my three favorite podcasts.

****No, no he doesn’t. Don’t tell him I said that he did. And if you’re reading this, I’m very sorry Professor Dawkins, sir.

19 November 2007

Heathens Take Manhattan: Part II: New York, New York

While I enjoyed spending time in New York City, I didn't fall in love with it the way I did with Paris. Part of that might be that I didn't get to see a whole lot of the city. Didn't make it to Magnolia Bakery for a cupcake, didn't see the Statue of Liberty, didn't get to see Spider-Man web-slinging his way through the streets. Part of it, too, might be the fact that I speak the language there, and that always takes away a bit of the charm . . . When I was in Paris, if someone had said, "Hey, you're not allowed back to Michigan, you're going to have to stay here," I would've smiled, ordered a celebratory crème brulee and then made arrangements to have my cat mailed to me. While I liked visiting New York, I wasn't quite ready to move there.

Some people fall head-over-heels for NYC. And while I can see why they would, it just didn't happen to me. If I had found one in a shop, I would have bought a t-shirt that said: "I Like But Am Not Sure I'm Ready To Commit To NY." Paris was love at first sight, NYC was someone I'd like to date for a while and see what develops.

That being said, there's no other place like NYC.

Times Square was awesome. I just love being in a place where people are actually fighting to get theatre tickets. And there are literally dozens of shows to choose from. I happened to see "The Drowsy Chaperone" on the night before Broadway virtually shut down because of the stage hand's strike. There's no way I can describe "The Drowsy Chaperone" without it sounding really lame (including the fact that Bob Saget was headlining) so I won't even try, except to say that I had a blast. And there was a song about a monkey-- which was worth the price of admission alone.

I love the restaurants in New York, too. There was a choice of vegetarian restaurants within walking distance of the hostel I was staying in. In Grand Rapids, I have to create my own burrito in order to have something on the menu that I can eat; in New York there were options . . . loads and loads of options. We went to a vegetarian pizza place called 'Cafe Viva' a couple of times. The food there was brilliant. As were the spinach and feta croissants from the little bagel shop across the street which was run by an adorably brusk group of people of indeterminate ethnic background.

While we didn't get to spend nearly enough time at either, we did manage to hit the MoMA (which I'm told stands for "Museum of something something") and the Natural History Museum.

The MoMA had a special exhibition of George Seurat sketches and paintings. And while they were really cool to see, it did mean that I had "Sunday in the Park with George" stuck in my head for the rest of the day. They also happen to have Andy Warhol's soup cans, Van Gogh's Starry Night and a whole shit load of other stuff you've seen on posters in college dorms and young hipster's apartments. There was one Jackson Pollock painting that I've seen reproduced a number of times, but until I was right up next to it, I had no idea that beneath the paint is a whole mess of thumb tacks, keys, cigarettes and other folderol. So cool. One of the highlights for me, though, has got to be the series of photos that Edward Muybridge took of a horse running. These photos (cool as they are in and of themselves) and the technological advances Muybridge had to make to take them, were a major step on the road to the creation of movies. What can I say? I'm a big dork.

Natural History Museum is one place where I definitely need to spend more time next time I'm in NYC. What a treasure trove that place is. I mean, narwhal skeletons hang from the ceiling. Freaking narwhals! And we didn't even get to check out the Hayden Planetarium which almost certainly would have made me squeal with delight.

The hostel we stayed in was nice. We were on the fifth floor with no elevator. The beds were uncomfortable, the room was balmy, there was an almost complete lack of functioning electrical outlets and the pillows were about as thick and fluffy as my stomach is tanned and muscled. Having never lived in a dorm or been in the military, I couldn't say how the experience of sharing a room with eleven other co-ed virtual strangers and only one bathroom compares, but I imagine there are more similarities than there are differences. And yet, it wasn't bad. Kind of neat, actually. Now, had I been staying there another few days or had the bed above mine been occupied (yeah extra pillow) my memories of it might not have been quite so pleasant, but I mostly had a good time in the hostel.

I feel like I've done 'city' now. Like going to the top of the Eiffel Tower, city-ing is one more thing I can check off my list of things to do before I die.

NYC is the paragon of city-ness and now that I've done it, every other city will just be a pale imitation. I love Chicago, but it doesn't have the same level of city-ness. It's a nice try-- still leagues ahead of Grand Rapids-- but it lacks that singular experience of "I'm in the city" that New York has to offer. I'm a little disappointed, actually, I feel like I peaked too early . . . I haven't done Vegas or L.A. or, I don't know, St. Louis or Seattle*. Not that I expect to be disappointed by those places now, I'm just saying that for whatever else they have to offer, they won't be able to compete in their level of city-ness.

New York has got 'city' covered. Try as they might, no one else is ever going to be able to compete.

*Cities outside North America don't really count-- their city-ness is entirely different. They aren't all aspiring to be New York City, they seem content to just be what they are.

02 November 2007

Mistaken Identity

"I saw someone who looks just like you!"

Apparently, I'm the least original looking person on the planet. About once a week, someone will tell me that they saw someone who looks just like me somewhere (you'd think with that kind of universality I'd be able to get more modeling jobs . . . ).

For instance, there was the guy who used to frequent the gay bar who wore a monocle, a cape and carried a walking stick and looked just like me according to several of my friends.

Then there was the guy that Catie spotted walking down the street in Easttown, who, even though he looked just like me she knew he wasn't me because he did not walk with my elegance. Seriously. That's what she told me. If that particular doppelganger lacks my level of grace it's hard to believe he's even able to stand upright.

And there was the high school senior, according to Amy, who looked just like me that was recently crowned Homecoming King. Clearly, much like my own spot on Grand Rapids Christian High's homecoming court lo those many years ago, if this poor bastard does look just like me, his coronation was the end result of a cruel prank perpetrated upon him by a large portion of the all-hating student body*.

Most disturbingly is my double in Ohio whom Rose spotted shushing a child while sitting in a Catholic mass.

With my likeness being so horribly abused, do you suppose I could sue for defamation of character?

"You remind me of . . . "

Maybe this is something that happens to everyone (I don't know, I've only ever been the one person) but it seems like people are always telling me what celebrities they think I look like.

Just this last Wednesday at the bar I was told by one person that I look like Will Ferrell and by another that I look like "James Dean . . . if he were, like, a dad." Huh? Oh, and as a bonus, one guy told me I sound like Nicholas Cage.

Some other great comparisons that I've heard are Errol Flynn (because we both had goatees at one time!) and Ryan Reynolds, one of the titular guys from TV's Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place. And while I both appreciate the artistic and cultural significance of Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place and agree that, in fact, Ryan Reynolds is an attractive fella, one must acknowledge that only one suffering from Magoo like myopia could ever compare me to this.

Oh, and have you noticed how none of the people I'm compared to look anything like each other? Apparently, I'm like Martin Sheen who looks exactly like Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez even though the two of them look nothing alike.

What is your hair?

With increasing frequency, people have been referring to me as a redhead lately. Don't get me wrong, I love redheads and I take no offense at being called a redhead except that I DON'T HAVE RED HAIR! I even kind of wish I did, but I don't! So why in hell do people call me a redhead? Even other redheads have included me when referring to "us redheads." Really, I'm flattered but you're bringing down the redhead movement by trying to induct me. I can only hurt the cause.

Also in hair related news, an older gentleman at the bar the other night told me that I had gorgeous hair. I know that doesn't really fit with the whole mistaken identity theme I'm working with, but frankly, I was flattered and I wanted to share it with you anyway.

*Of course, there's always the possibility that, in fact, he was voted into the office of king (which, for the first time I'm realizing is exceptionally ironic) because he's a good person and people like him because of his work ethic and sparkling personality. Then again, we are talking about a high school so the cruel prank theory holds more water.

28 October 2007

Big Apple Beware!

Because the Center for Inquiry is completely awesome, they're sending me to New York City for the weekend of November 8th through the 11th to attend a big, huge, ridiculously amazing conference.

I've never been to New York City before, so I was wondering if those of you who have spent time in NYC could give me some pointers. The conference is in building seven of the World Trade Center and the hostel that they're putting me up in is, I'm told, pretty near there so I guess Lower Manhattan is going to be where I'll be spending most of my time.

Any 'can't miss' sites that you can direct me to? I mean, I want to do some of the typical touristy stuff (see the Statue of Liberty, maybe catch a Broadway show, buy a prostitute in a green dress and talk to her all night, go to Time's Square and yell "Yatta!," get mugged etc.) but I'd also like to do some not-so-typical touristy stuff (hit bars where famous people died, visit cool cemeteries, buy used books etc.).

Please pass along your advice and suggestions (either email me or post it as a comment), I'd greatly appreciate it. And if you have any friends in NYC who might be interested in showing me the town, feel free to put me in touch with them too.

14 October 2007


I remember the exact moment I became an Atheist. Most people don't have that-- that single moment of conversion. A lot of Christians do, the "born agains" all do. Most of them will happily recount for you the exact moment in time when they were "saved."

I met a guy at the mall one time-- an older guy named Charles. Charles took it upon himself to proselytize to me, even though I had probably logged in more hours in the church than he had. I was a student a Grand Rapids Christian High who had been forced to go to church twice each Sunday since birth*. I also went to Sunday school each week and was forced (until my protests grew too loud for my parents to bother fighting against) to take part in weekly Cadets** meetings. There was little Charles, a new convert to the wonderful world of Jesus, could tell me about "the good news" that hadn't already heard a dozen or so times.

Luckily, Charles wasn't from one of those churches were they stress "theology" and "thinking," oh no, he was from one of those "feeling" churches. Which, suffice it to say, as a member of the Christian Reformed Church, I was not well versed in.

He told me about the day he was "saved": One day, Charles recounted, he was in the bathtub and all of a sudden he got a warm sensation (no, really, that's what he told me), he felt like everything in the room was glowing. It was the Holy Spirit and Charles knew-- he just knew-- that it was the Holy Spirit and that he had just been saved. Charles then relented from whatever unspecified sinful ways he had been indulging in and opened a Yamaha shop. I remember that he clarified that it was bikes, and not keyboards or keyboards and not bikes, but for the life of me, I can't remember which.

After sharing his story, Charles asked if I were saved. Stupid, stupid me said: "I guess so." Charles and his Holy Spirit don't 'guess.' You know you are saved or you know you're damned. So Charles decided that because I couldn't specify the date, time and tub in which I was saved, I needed to be prayed for. Right there in the mall. The middle of the mall. At closing time. The security guards were making the rounds as the employees locked up their stores and the last few customers filtered out.

Had this been the middle of the day with more people around, it would have been less of a spectacle, but since there were very few other people milling about we were the main event. As Charles laid his hands on me and prayed with his head tossed back (the better to reach god with, I guess), the empty mall became one giant echo chamber for Charles' efforts to save me. He fervently prayed for my soul, that I might "know the sweet love of you, dear Jesus and take in your spirit to transform [my] life" for all the employees of Woodland mall to hear.

Of course, at the time, I was a Christian. Y'know, except for the part where I had serious doubts about the authenticity of the Bible and didn't really think of God as anything but something to yell at when life sucked, I still considered myself a Christian. This was during my "I just don't like organized religion" phase. Which means I still went to church, but I didn't like it. If I could find Charles again, I could really give him something to pray about now.

A few years before I met Charles, I had my own conversion experience: my siblings and I were gathered in our basement as our father berated us for some awful sin or another. Perhaps we had said we'd rather watch "The Simpsons" than go to Youth Group-- something terrible like that. Already by this time, Dad had become less threatening to us and more ridiculous. Especially when he was trying to be righteous. This was around the same time that he started watching videos which blamed the Jews for the terrible state our country was in and when he had our house declared "The Church of the Second Chance" so he wouldn't have to pay property tax. Being the smart kids that we were, that whole 'honor thy father' thing was getting pretty tricky.

Anyway, he was pointing out some speck in our eyes while ignoring the Viking long ships in his own when he pointed up at the ceiling and said "the big man upstairs isn't going to be very happy with you."

My older brother (always the quickest wit in the group) replied, "There's a guy upstairs? What, is he taking a bath or something?"

My father didn't find it very funny. His sense of humor had been killed off by years of hate and impotence. But my siblings and I loved it. We embraced the idea of a mysterious and uninvited figure hanging out in our bathroom. We named him Bathtub Jeff.

We would caution each other not to incur the wrath of Bathtub Jeff. I always pictured him as a fat bald man, (with blue skin for some reason) scrubbing his back with a toilet brush and just barely able to cram himself into our tub. I imagined him yelling at us from the bathroom to "Knock that off!" as he struggled in vain to get himself out of the tub, displaced water sloshing over the side. But, of course, Bathtub Jeff couldn't get himself out of the tub. He kept slipping back into it, getting more frustrated until finally he'd stop his struggling and exhaustedly settle back into the tub, muttering something about those "damned kids downstairs."

The moment Bathtub Jeff was born was the moment I became an Atheist. It'd be the better part of a decade before I'd admit it (even to myself) but the creation of Bathtub Jeff is what planted that seed. Something clicked in that moment and suddenly the notion of "the big man upstairs" was silly. It was absurd to think that there was this bloated being, looking down on us with disapproval but unable to do anything about it. Bathtub or no bathtub.

Maybe Charles and my bathtub related conversions (him to and me from) are karma's way of keeping balance. Maybe that's just Nature's way of making sure everything stays in tune . . . Or maybe an old man made a tinkle while taking a bath and he misinterpreted it as a divine intervention. I guess we'll never know.

*Actually, when we were little my twin sister and I didn't have to go to night church and instead would stay home watching "Charles in Charge." I think it's safe to say that I learned at least as much from "Charles in Charge" as I would have in church.

**The Cadets, for those of you not from the Christian Reformed Church, is like the Boy Scouts for Calvinists. We didn't just have to earn merit badges; we were predestined to earn them.

13 October 2007


I have sorely neglected this blog. But then again, so have you. I think we both have to share the responsibility for my failure.

In an attempt to rectify that, I am posting most* of my old MySpace blogs to this site and will be using Bathtub Jeff as my primary blogging destination from here on out.

Enjoy the archives and look for more new material coming some day other than today.


*except the non-irrelevant material, such as my classic review of Star Wars: Episode One ("Seriously, what's the deal with Jar Jar? And why the CGI Yoda? He's standing behind a desk, for crying out loud, that's what Muppets were made for!") and the like.

21 September 2007

Archive: Bitch!

The show started fifteen minutes ago. I'm sitting in the box office, but we are no longer open for ticket sales because, again, the show started fifteen minutes ago.

A woman walks in. She comes up to the window.

"Can I help?" I say.

"I need to get in," she says.

"Do you have a ticket?"

"No, I need to buy one.""I'm sorry, but the box office is closed for the evening."

"You won't sell me a ticket?""No, I can't. The box office is closed down.""There are empty seats in there?""Yes.""And you won't let me go in?" "Well no, the box office is closed, I cannot sell you a ticket.""Well then I'm just going to go in." She leaves the box office and starts heading toward the door into the house. I hop up and cut her off.

"M'am, you don't have a ticket, you can't go in.""You're being ridiculous. I'm ten minutes late and you won't let me in?""No, m'am, the show started fifteen minutes ago, I can't sell you a ticket and you can't go in without a ticket. We have another show tomorrow, you could come back then." "My children are in there, I'm going in. I can either give you twelve dollars or I can just walk in, those are you options."

'How the fuck did she become the one in the position of power?' I think to myself, 'This is not how it works. You show up fifteen minutes late-- that does not entitle you to a free seat! And I'll be damned if I take your twelve dollars because in your head then I'll have kept the money and I refuse to have you think I'm as much of an asshole as you are!'

"That's not really how it works--" I begin to explain."You're being ridiculous.""Okay, no, I'm not. This is how it works. It's not ridiculous, it's business. We are closed, therefore I can't sell you anything. Everyone else in there showed up on time and paid for their tickets--" "I'm going in."At this point, I wanted to push this five foot nothing woman to the ground and say "NO! GODDAMNIT! YOU ARE NOT IN CHARGE HERE! You are rude and mean and I hope your children hate you! If you had asked nicely, I would have let you in right away and that would have been it, but you fucking DEMANDED it as your fucking RIGHT as a fifteen minute late ASSHOLE to get to see (most of) the show for FREE! If I could, I would slap your parents for teaching you that you are somehow special and entitled to equally special treatment when you arrive late and act rude! Not only are you not special, you are an awful human being and I hope that ill befalls you! And because you are a rude and mean lady, no one will be there for you and your funeral will be more sparsely attended than Willy Lohman's!"

In a desperate struggle to assert some power I say, "Fine, you can go in, but understand that we would not normally allow this." We both know it's a futile gesture, my pretending like I'm the one letting her go in. She walks past me the way I imagine she would drive past a pile of roadkill that she herself ran over a week prior-- she's vaguely disgusted by it, but still proud to have been the killer.

I stood there for a moment, feeling as powerless as a eunuch in a whorehouse. How the hell did that just happen? Who the hell was that woman? And was I being ridiculous? I have often in the past let people into the theatre without tickets after the box office closed WHEN THEY ASKED NICELY. Hell, it didn't even really have to be all that nicely, they just had to ask. This woman told me: "I'm going in and that's that."

Was it ridiculous of me to put up a fight? Well, sure, probably. Was I on a power trip? Yeah . . . I guess. But really: Can you blame me?* I mean, what a bitch!

*Yes, yes you can.**

**But seriously, have you ever heard of anything quite so bitchy before in your life?
I didn't think so.

15 September 2007

Archive: Hear Yee, Hear Yee

A month and a half ago I got a phone call.

"Hi, this is Carrie from Schmirch Fabrics*, Lynne Brown Schmepper** gave me your name as someone who might be interested in an acting job," the voice on the other end says.

"Oh. Okay, sure," I said.

"We're having a picnic and we need some one to dress up and make an announcement. And we'd pay you to do it." Carrie said

Even though I don't understand at all what she's asking me to do, I do understand that she's offering me money so I say: "Alright. When and where?" We set up a time for me to come in a meet the group of people Carrie refers to as "us" (who's us? what us is this? I never really found out).

About a month later, Carrie calls me again just to make sure I'm still planning on coming in. I tell her "yes," and blow yet another opportunity to find out exactly what it is that I've agreed to do. This happens partly because she called while I was suffering from my massive sinus infection and I, for a period of a week and a half or so, hated life and partly because, as a general rule, I'm bad at stuff.

Last Friday, I went to meet with Carrie. I went to the Schmirch Fabrics office, told the receptionist that I had an appointment with Carrie and then sat down in the holding area, reading all about upcoming events in the September 2005 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. Turns out, I missed what promised to be a totally awesome Aerosmith concert two years ago. How will I find the strength to go on?

Carrie walks into the room to greet me. When I see Carrie, I wonder if Schmirch Fabrics is breaking child labor laws by employing this fourteen year old child. She ushers me into the conference room to meet everyone. "Don't worry," she tells me, "there's only going to be seven of us."

Seven women ranging in age from the fourteen year old Carrie to 50ish. A whole range of shapes and sizes. As diverse a group as you can get from seven Dutch women who work in the office of a fabric and upholstery company.

As I walk into the room I hear titters of "Oooh, he's tall!" and "Oh good the costume will fit!" and "Oh, the beard will work great!" It's weird to be ogled like a piece of meat. It's even weirder to be ogled like a piece of meat that someone wants to put in a funny hat and a pair of fake boots.
So I sit down at the head of the table and say 'hi' to everyone, more confused than ever about what it is they want me to do. It was like a scene from The Office, with the party planning committee interviewing entertainers for the big Christmas party. If only there had been a Pam in the room to share in my embarrassment for everyone else in the room.

"Has Carrie told you what we want you to do?" asked woman 3.

"Uhm, not really," I admitted my cluelessness.

It was then explained to me that what they needed was someone to announce their Renaissance themed office party, so they wanted me to come in in a week, put on some Renaissance garb and read a proclamation to the assembled Schmirch Fabric employees. 'Oookay,' I thought, 'sounds simple enough, if not altogether kind of ridiculous.' "Oh, alright, sure," I said. "Have you ever done anything like this before?" asked woman 5.

"I mean, I've acted before . . . I've never done something like this, exactly, but I've worn purple tights so it's not like I'm unaccustomed to looking silly in front of crowds of strangers." This inspired more giggling.

"Oh, we won't make you wear tights," said woman 2. I was kind of disappointed. Not because I love wearing tights or anything, but because, frankly, my legs look really good in tights. I'm just saying.

Anyway, woman 7 pulled a sheet of paper out of her folder and slid it over to me and then woman 4 said, "We don't want to put you on the spot here, but would you mind, y'know, standing up and giving us a reading, maybe?" Now, in an audition (which this ostensibly was), I generally expect to have to, y'know, audition so asking me to read is not so much 'putting me on the spot' as it is asking me to do the thing that I was asked to come in and do. So, I take the script, I stand up (more titters from woman 5 and 7, who came in late and as such didn't get to marvel at my height earlier) and I look at the script.

Because, of course, it's all Renaissance-y, it's typed in some Renaissance-y font which is good, because if it were in a more readable script, I wouldn't have understood that it was supposed to be Renaissance-y and would have read it wrong. The script begins "Hear Yee, Hear Yee." Yup. "Yee."

So, I start reading the script in my big Renaissance-y voice and the titters begin again "Oooh, my!" "It sounds even better than I thought it would!" I read about half of it and the titters grew to a crescendo so I stopped. "Oh that's great!" "Thank you for doing that!" Clap, clap, clap, applause, applause, applause.

"Alright, great! That's going to be just perfect. Just perfect." says woman 5.

"We've got everything set, the only question is, how much to pay you. I don't want to put you on the spot, but how much would you normally get paid for something like this?"

Because I'm Dutch and because I've been poor all my life, and because my family ever only talked about money as a problem, I'm really bad about talking about money. It makes me very uncomfortable. Especially when it comes to evaluating my value. 'How much would I normally get for something like this?' Something like this has, to my knowledge, never really been done by anyone ever. It's like asking "How many people are usually killed in a Martian attack?"
I yammered out some "ye--err--idunn--uhm" and, sensing my continued cluelessness and discomfort, young little Carrie came to my rescue and said "How about $50 dollars?" Honestly? I was hoping for more. Not that I deserved it, but I've gotten used to getting paid $100 an hour for gigs and I thought maybe these people were just clueless enough to over-estimate my worth. And they did, just not as much as I would like them to. Realizing that $50 for three minutes of work was probably more than fair, I took the offer.

Yesterday, at 9am, I drove down to Schmirch Fabrics. I met Carrie and was scuttled off into the conference room yet again. She quickly drew all of the curtains and, motioning to a series of plastic bags and a box formerly used for stationary, she says "There's your costume stuff. I'll give you ten minutes or so to put it on. I'll knock before I come back in." I start pulling things out of the bags, fearful that without having taken a single measurement from me, or even asking what size I wear, a costume has been picked out for me. I was fairly certain that this was going to fit about as well as the infamous Cap'n Crunch outfit I wore for Schmeritage Theatre Groups '02 production of Hamlet.

I needn't have worried, though. These women are used to upholstering large pieces of furniture, so finding the right amount of fabric to cover my orangutan-like physique was no problem. The costume fit fine. And while I had been expecting something Renaissance-y, it turns out their idea of Renaissance-y is much more in keeping with my idea of Pirate-y. The inside label of the shirt actually called it a "Buccaneer" shirt. Granted, it wasn't a very tough looking pirate, but a nancy pirate is still a pirate.

Once I was all pirated up, I opened up the stationary box (by which I mean both that it was once used to hold and transport paper products and that it was itself immobile) and pulled out the hat contained therein. This supposed Renaissance-y hat looked like an Indian Jones hat with three ostrich feathers attached to it. It was neither Renaissance-y nor particularly Pirate-y, but it was most definitely big pimpin'.

I was coached by woman 5 on exactly how to conduct myself, then Carrie came back and taught me how to do a page (they wanted to have me do it so that no one would recognize the voice) to tell everyone to gather in the warehouse by the time clock in five minutes. While we waited for the right time to do the page, Carrie went and got Steve. I don't know why she got Steve, as his only purpose seemed to be joining Carrie and I in the conference room, gawking and making me feel very uncomfortable. I'm awkward enough meeting new people, but meeting new people while hiding in a fabric company conference room and wearing a pirate costume and Indian Jones' pimped out hat is about as 'awkward turtle' as you can get. He didn't even have any questions for me. And of course, the only question I had for him was "Why the hell are you here? Can't a guy dress up like a pirate in peace for five minutes?!"

So, time came to make the page. I successfully managed to work the type of multi-line phone that I send five hours a day operating, impressing young Carrie once again with my mad skills. Then, she lead me to the back hall way and up a metal staircase to a grated floor where I was to wait for her signal and then head out to the balcony and begin to read my proclamation.

As I stood there, fully exposed to members of my awaiting audience (probably the thing that makes me most uncomfortable as a performer is having audience members see me in costume when I'm not supposed to be seen. It even makes me uncomfortable when other actors are seen by the audience before it's time. I'm talking to you, John Schmoley.) I heard the people below speculating on what was going on. "Maybe it's someone dressed as Santa" one already drunk employee suggested. Apparently, she had seen my boots, or maybe the red pirate vest I was wearing, or perhaps even my beard or my girth and decided that, in fact, I was not a pimpin' pirate, but Jolly Ol' St. Nick. "Come on out, Santa, and get it over with!" Sweet Jeebus, I was being heckled before I even started!

Then, from below me, I hear Carrie whisper calling to me "Dave, go. Go." So, I stroll out to the balcony and twelve feet below me are all twenty employees of Schmirch Fabrics. And Steve and women 's 1-7 had already seen me. 'Well, dozen Schmirch Fabric employees,' I thought to myself, 'prepare to be amazed!'

As instructed, I walked up, blew the dollar store trumpet I had been given, set it on the ground next to me, then removed my hat and gave a big bow to the citizen of the Schmirch realm below. I pulled the scroll out of my belt and, as a juxtaposition to the pimpin' pirate look, I read out the scroll in my big Renaissance-y voice. Then, I bowed again, turned and left. Never have I left a crowd quite so dumbfounded/ put out to have had their precious fabric related work time interrupted for something so ridiculous.

Back in the conference room, Carrie informed me that "Everyone is so excited now! They can't believe they have to wait a week for the picnic!" "Well, great," I said. "Sounds like it's going to be a lot of fun," I lied. She tossed me $50, which, of course I will be reporting to the IRS as earned income, and asked if I needed to see her for anything before I left. I told her I didn't think so, thanked her, offered up my services should she ever need another bearded pirate, to which she smiled politely but offered no kind of empty affirmation that she might, in fact, call again and then she left me to change back into my street clothes.

'Do other actors do shit like this?' I thought to myself as I boxed up Indy's plumed hat. 'Hell, does anyone do shit like this?' I kind of figured they probably don't. But, hey, I got fifty bucks for dressing up like a pirate, when was the last time any of you schmucks did that?
Yeah, that's what I thought.

*the names have been changed to protect myself from liable charges.

**Thanks, by the way, Lynne.

08 September 2007

Archive: Braces?!

When I went to see my would-be oral surgeon, first we addressed the issue of my wisdom teeth (decision: take the bastards out) and then he discussed what to do about my vestigial baby tooth (see Impacted Wisdom).

There are three possible solutions:

1) Leave it, let it be and pray* it doesn't lead to pain, misery and loss of other teeth further down the road; 2) while I'm under having my wisdom teeth out, he can take that one out too and then eventually when the baby tooth rots away we can stick a fake one in its place; or 3) I can see an ortho, have the baby tooth removed and then pull the correct tooth into place with braces. Yes, braces.

The latter, Doc explains, is the best solution for my teeth. The best solution?! See, I have a hard time seeing that because (and I'm about to reveal one of those universally known but seldom voiced truths): Adults with braces are the saddest, most hated minority on the planet**. Adults without teeth are less embarrassing to look at.

And while I'm not judging any of you out there that, as adults, have had braces, I will say this: I hate you.


Let me try that again: being around you makes me uncomfortable. And it's not just me, it's everyone who has any ounce of self-respect. If you are over the age of 18 and you have braces, every other person you encounter feels sorry for you and wishes not to be near you. I didn't want to have to say it, but if I didn't, who would? I know it hurts to hear, but that doesn't make it any less true.

Perhaps my hatred of adults with braces stems from the fact that when I was younger my dad's mistress (in her early 20's) got braces. And of course, I had to see her every week in church with those ridiculous metal scaffolds in her mouth. Perhaps that's the root of all this venom, but I don't think so. I think that just allowed me to tap into this, perhaps, single universal truth: Adults with braces are to be hated and scorned, pitied and possibly even shipped off to special colonies for as long as they have braces so as not to expose any regular people like you and me to the horror.

I tell you, if an adult with braces were a circus freak, I would actually be so repulsed that I'd skip their cage and spend twice as long looking at the more dignified freaks. Like Lobster Boy or the Human Torso.

The idea that I might have to be that pariah walking around with metal on his teeth who's unable to eat Peanut M&M's for a year has me reeling. I would sooner vote for President Bill O'Reilly, Vice President James Dobson and their Chief of Staff Toby Keith than get braces.

Part of that may be my vanity. Despite the fact that I'm a bizarre looking man with the physique of an orangutan who lacks the ability to properly dress himself, I'm still a very vain person. I can handle knowing that I'll never have any sort of muscle tone or even sleeves that fit right but the idea that I might have to have braces is just too much for me.

Seriously. Braces?! There is no god.

* I wanted to interrupt him and say "Thank you sir, but I am not a praying man," but the way he kind of sneered when he said it made me sort of love this man. Ironically, of course, this is the course of action I ultimately chose.
**and I say that being a member of at least one other hated minority.

25 August 2007

Archive: It's hot in here

It's been a hot summer here in Michigan. Maybe not the worst on record, but still pretty damn hot. Here's the thing: all summer, I've been hearing complaints about the cold. Just one more of the joys of house managing.

Unless you're in an outdoor amphitheatre at noon in July, theatres are cold places. This is universally true for both playhouses and filmhouses. If you go to see Julius Flaxbarr on Venus, bring a sweatshirt. That's just the way it goes. In point of fact, movie theatres were the first major industry to embrace climate control so if you've been to one at any point since Birth of a Nation was released, you may have noticed that that the room is cooler than it is outside (or warmer if it's cold outside).

Apparently, a lot of people are not aware of this. And because of their ignorance, I get to hear them bitch. I'm a house manager, it's what I do.

At my theatre, the A/C is run through a computer that I don't have access to. It's not even in the building. Since the theatre is part of a college campus, I have to call down to Campus Safety when we have a problem with the A/C and then they have to call the on-call maintenance person. While some of the maintenance people can access the A/C from their home computer*, many of them have to drive from their homes down to campus to do anything about the problem. Suffice it to say, it's not the most expedient process around. And when 800 old person nipples are poking through 400 old person shirts, expediency is of the essence. But, even if I call when I get the first complaint (which, of course, you never do because that's a woefully small sample group) it can take between ten minutes and half an hour (at best) before something happens. In the meantime, they continue to bitch. At me.

And this has been going on all summer. There were nights when, during intermission, people would actually line up at the box office to issue their complaints about the cold. Invariably, the conversation went like this:

First cold patron: "Hey, it's really cold, could you do something about that? I mean, it's freezing in there."

Me: "I'll call right now, it should get better very soon."

Second cold patron [referring to previous patron]: "Were they just complaining about the cold? Because it is freezing in there, could you do something about it?"

Me: "Yes, I've made the call, it should be getting better shortly."

Third cold patron [referring to previous patron]: "Were they just complaining about the cold? Because it is freezing in there, could you do something about it?"

Me: "Yes, I've made the call, it should be getting better shortly."

Fourth cold patron [referring to previous patron]: "Were they just complaining about the cold? Because it is freezing in there, could you do something about it?"

Me: "Yes, I've made the call, it should be getting better shortly."

Fifth through Two Hundred Forty-Third cold patron: "Were they just complaining about the cold? Because it is freezing in there, could you do something about it?"


'But, oh wise and wonderful Dave,' you ask, 'why not find a more permanent solution rather than putting yourself through this routine night after night, destroying your will to live and your tenuous grasp on sanity until you are locked away in an institution, defecating into adult diapers and chewing your own lips off?'

Don't think we didn't try that, oh delectable and clever reader. We asked maintenance to up the temperature level at which the air kicks in. "Okay," they said and adjusted the A/C threshold ONE WHOLE DEGREE! Miracle of miracles, that one degree made all the difference in the world! Thank you, you brilliant and efficient keepers of heat! What would we do without you?!

. . .

Yeah, so when that didn't work, they actually came down to the building to assess the situation. Turns out, the sensor that tells the air when to kick in was blocked. Blocked, and then heated by a monitor that was set in front of it. Let's all take a moment to thank the numb-nuts who set that little rig up, shall we**?

Armed with that knowledge, the situation was corrected. Kind of. You see, as soon as the audience's collective testicles were able, once again, to exit the abdominal cavity they had sought shelter in, the actors started to complain about it being too hot. DISCLAIMER: I love the cast of the show in question. Almost all of them are really great people as well as great performers. I mean no offense to any of them in particular or in general. I'm sure it was startling, after three weeks in the space, to all of a sudden find themselves not performing in an ice box. They worked very hard during the show, sang, danced and all that stuff I will never be able to do, and they did it all in Victorian garb. But, it's not like these people had never been on stage before. It's not like any of them had any right to expect that after a three hour show during which they sang (Sondheim, no less) and danced in heavy costumes under hot lights that they wouldn't get HOT! Hell, the top of Act II was a song about it being hot! I'm not really a method actor, but it could have worked for them.

The best part is, after we had raised the temperature and the actors started complaining about the heat, the audience didn't stop complaining about the cold. Yeah, that was a fun weekend in my world.

So, okay, that's all taken care of. That show departed, a new one came in and they actually, honest to Dog, fixed the temperature. Do I still get one or two complaints about the cold every so often? Yeah, sure, but in greatly reduced numbers and with greatly reduced frequency. And there are more people seeing this show, so statistically that's an even more significant a reduction. Instead, I have to deal with incidents like the one I had last night.

The house is open, the show hasn't started yet, everything is going fine. The volunteer working the concessions stand waves me over and I see there's a lady waiting at the stand who is clearly the subject of whatever problem I'm meant to resolve. Before I can even speak, before the words, "how can I help you?" have even formed in my brain she says to me "It's not as cold in there as it is out here, is it?!" There's real venom here, I note to myself. I explain to her that it's a separate system and it's a different temperature inside the house***. "Last time I was here we left at intermission because it was SO COLD!" She's eyeing me like a Tauntaun that she wants to tear open and climbing inside for the warmth. "We've fixed that problem, the temperature is just right in there now," I explain. "Well it is SO COLD out here that I sent my husband to the car to get a blanket!" How does she want me to respond? 'Uhm . . . awesome?' 'You finally came prepared you raging harpy?' Instead I tell her to let me know if there are any problems and ask that she enjoy the show.

Astonishingly, after she actually WENT INSIDE THE THEATRE she didn't complain anymore. Not that preemptive harpy-ism isn't useful at times, but could you cut a brother some slack here? Geez.

Here's the real kicker, though: on Thursday night, when I was in class and consequently not house managing, we had a campus-wide electrical burp. The lights flashed and that was about it. But somehow that little electron indigestion caused the computer system that runs the air to go all screwy. While the air in the lobby and the green room kept working, the air in the house didn't.

Ideally, in a touch of My Name is Earl style karma, every single one of those bastard asshats that had bitched to me all summer about the theatre being too cold would have been here Thursday night. I realize, of course, that that was not the case and many innocent people suffered but, if even one of the people who came up to me doing exaggerated "burr" gestures or bit my head off about the cold before they even sat down was in the house on Thursday, it was all worth it.

In conclusion: Next time you go to the theatre, be it a movie or a live performance, BRING A GODDAMN SWEATER!

*Because that TOTALLY makes more sense than giving direct access to the people in the goddamn building in question.

**That and the decision to make the air disbursement system into a series of massive phalluses that hang down twenty feet further than they need to and spoog frozen hate directly onto the balding heads of our patrons.

***I don't really know why they keep it so cold in the lobby, and frankly, I don't care. I pick my battles and the lobby just doesn't rank.

05 August 2007

Adventures in House Managing

And here I thought finding a tube of Vicodin in the theatre was going to be my exciting house managing experience this month . . .

Last night, like most Saturday nights, I was working. House managing at the other theatre I work at, not the one I'm at all the time. The show is a kid's version of Sondheim's Into The Woods (I think the only difference is that they only do the first act, but I'm not really sure). All of the actors are kids and the audience is made up of their friends, family and other families with kids. Y'know, a kid's show.

I hate kid's shows.

Now, more than ever.

Normally, the worst part of the kid's shows is (you guessed it) the kids. Kids are a problem because, well, they're little and they get in the way, but also because they're much harder to wrangle than adults are. It's harder to get them to sit and stay in their seats. It's also harder to keep them from bringing candy into the theatre (a big no-no). And, of course, parents with little kids are always late and generally don't buy tickets in advance. Yesterday was no exception.

Since our audience was almost entirely teen-agers or parents with little kids, that meant none of them had the forethought or willingness to make life easier for everyone by purchasing their tickets in advance . . . because of that, a show that was supposed to start at 7:30 actually started at 7:50.

This has happened exactly twice in my long and illustrious career as a house manager: Once a couple of months ago when the entire sound system was fried and we had to set up a new one (and by "we" I mean other people who know things about stuff) and last night. There wasn't anything I could do about it, but sit back and try to keep the people calm. So it goes.

Just as we were selling tickets to the last couple of people in line, a young floppy haired fellow came in. He was tallish and thin with Crocks on his feet and on his face he wore the unholy spawn of Elton John's and Bono's sunglasses. We sold him a ticket, but I did make sure to tell him that normally if he showed up 20 minutes after the show is supposed to start he'd be out of luck. I told him it was very unusual that we were starting this late and he assured me that it was unusual for him to show up that late. So, okay, I get him into his seat just as the show is starting and everything seems to be copasetic.

Turns out, the fun was just beginning.

Here's what happened: Just as I was wrapping up my tight 10 minute intermission (actually, I was ready with 1:32 left to spare) one of the ushers grabbed me and said "Someone just told me there's a guy passed out in there and they think he's drunk."

Now, I've had drunk people in the theatre before (often actors) and usually it's not a big deal. Passed out is a new one for me. I said to the usher "Oh fuck. Where is he?" She brings me into the house and shows me to him. Luckily, our drunk is right near the door because, you guessed it, it's our floppy haired friend who bought his ticket at the last minute.

So, I walk over to him and tap his shoulder "Sir? Sir?" Nothing. I shake his shoulder: "Sir? Sir?" Still nothing. I can see that he's breathing so I've got that going for me, but otherwise he's totally unresponsive. I've seen plenty of drunk people before, I've even seen people passed out before but this guy was (almost literally) comatose. Shit. I walk around the other side of him and see half a bottle of Heineken sitting next to him. 'How the hell--?'

Now I'm less worried about him and more pissed off.

One of the other ushers comes up to me and says she knows him; she went to high school with him. "Alright, help me wake him up." She kneels down next to him and really gives him a good shake. Doesn't even change his breathing. Meanwhile, all of the kids around there are freaking out (and many of their parents) so I say, "we've got to get him out of here. Help me carry him."

I lift this drunken waif out of his chair and only once I've gotten one of his arms slung over my shoulder does he wake up at all. He mutters something and I start moving him out. On my way out the door, I turn to the crew and say, "Go ahead and start the show."

"Alright, good idea."

"Not you," I tell the drunk.

So, we're moving out to the lobby and he's starting to make more noises. While I'm relieved that at least he's awake-ish, I'm filled with the knowledge that this dumb ass will likely puke all over the carpet or, more likely, me. I hate him even more now. Luckily we get him plopped down on a bench in the lobby without any regurgitation happening.

Priority One: Make sure he's okay. He tells me he's fine, I offer and ambulance, he declines. I explain to him just how not fine he appears to be. No really, he tells me, he's fine. How much has he had to drink? Three beers. Which means he's either a lightweight or he's not counting the other things he's been indulging in. Alright, can I call you a taxi? No, he lives just around the corner. Is he sure? Yes, he's sure.

Priority Two: Kick his ass. "How old are you?" He starts to get mad. 21, he tells me. I ask for his ID. Yup, he's 21, as of a month ago. "Where did this beer come from?" "My pocket. I got it at the fucking beer store." I skillfully avoided swearing at him until this time. I wanted to seem professional or something. But once he's introduced it into the conversation, all bets are off.

"What the fuck are you doing bringing a beer into the theatre? For a fucking kids show?"

"I do it all the time, I thought it would be okay," he says.

"You show up drunk to a goddamn kids show, you pass out in the theatre, scaring the shit out of a bunch of little kids and you think that's going to be okay? We don't even allow water in there, why the fuck do you think it's going to be okay to bring in a beer?!" I'm not yelling, instead I'm getting quieter, more intense. In my head I'm a badass and he's too drunk to know any better.

"I dunno. What's the big deal?"

What's the big deal?

"Get the hell out of here. Just get the fuck out." I'm using my big man voice and pointing dramatically at the door, the way my dad used to when he wanted the dog to get out of his chair.

Drunky McDrunkerton staggers to his feet.

"Can I at least have my ticket and one of them booklets?" I hand him a program and tell him that he has his fucking ticket. "Are you going to be here tomorrow for the-- this show," he says, gesturing to the other show on the program (its summer rep so there are two rotating shows).

"No, and you shouldn't be either."

"I'll be here," he says defiantly.

"If you ever show up drunk here again I will call the police. Now, please, get the fuck out of here." He staggers out the door and into the street where he is immediately hit by a car.

Okay, not really, but wouldn't that have been a kicker?

26 June 2007

Archive: How I became Pro-Life

The phone rings.

I answer.

Me: Hello?

Recorded Voice: Hello, I'm calling to conduct a survey about abortion. If are not interested in taking part in the survey, simply hang up.

Me: [doesn't hang up]

R.V.: If you consider yourself pro-life, anti-abortion, press 2.

Me: [doesn't press 2]

R.V.: If you consider yourself pro-choice, pro-abortion rights, press 9.

Me: [still listening to make sure I have it right]

R.V.: Again, if you are pro-life, press 2 and if you are pro-choice, press 9.

Me: [presses 9]

R.V.: [now much happier] Thank you for being pro-life!

Me: Huh?! [presses 9 again]

R.V.: We at Right to Life of Michigan are excited to have you. Through this survey, we are building a coalition of 5 million households. We have a wonderful opportunity to repeal abortion rights. We have enough votes in both the House and the Senate--

Me: [hits again 9.]

R.V.: We at Right to Life of Michigan are excited to have you. Through this survey, we are building a coalition of 5 million households. We have a wonderful opportunity to repeal abortion rights. We have enough votes in both the House and the Senate--

Me: [decides to hold on so I can speak to a real person and fix up this egregious error]

R.V.: If you would like to make a contribution to help us take away the rights of women,* press 6.

[long pause while I wait for another option.]

R.V.: [silence]

Me: [mashes down 9]

R.V.: Thank you for agreeing to contribute to our cause! You'll be receiving a mailing from us shortly!

Me: What the--? But I didn't--! I PRESSED NINE! NIIIIIIIINE!!

*this may not have been the exact words the recording used. But then again, it may have been.