Friday, November 23, 2012

God bless the world. Every single bit of it.

 By Felix Carroll

Maybe the mashed potatoes were already getting cold and the gravy beginning to congeal. Maybe the pressure to eat had dictated that the compulsory Thanksgiving Day prayer be abridged to pragmatic generalities.

“God, thank you for gathering us all here together. Um, thank you for this meal. And, God bless … um … the world.”

Ah, who am I kidding? Thanksgiving Day prayers these days are always a wobbly, discomfited sort of simulated entreaty to the divine — whether the potatoes are warm or have turned taciturn. Nearly half the crowd at that table is of the prayer-free variety. Another are “lukewarm” believers — their juries still out, their bets still hedged. Probably the only true believer — no more questions asked — is your Grandma, who’s 85, healthy even though she still smokes, and who threw up her arms years ago and allowed God to be her rudder.

So where does that leave the leader of prayer, the head of the household? He’s a hedger of bets with a slalom course of sensibilities through which to maneuver. The prayer needs to be something simple yet pithy, with just the right balance of joy, irony, and sincerity, if such a balance is possible without the cranberry sauce instantaneously combusting.

“Okay, then. Let’s say a prayer,” he begins.

Three of the non-believers had already launched into their meals. Shamefaced, their eager chewing downshifts into first gear, and they look solemnly at their folded hands, maybe taking note that their skin shows signs of dryness. “I need to put some moisturizer on these fins of mine.”

The leader of the prayer is listening to himself as he adlibs his divine petition, careful to steer clear of getting too Bible-y. When the prayer ends, maybe there’s a brief silence. He stares down at his plate.

“Did I just say ‘God bless the world’?” he thinks to himself. “That’s pretty lame.” And he’s right. If there’s a God, he’s probably rolling his eyes right now and thinking:

“Really? Is that the best you can do? ‘Bless the world?’ Okay, I’ll go ‘bless the world’ as you suggest. World: I bless you. How’s that? Why didn’t I think of that sooner? Now go stuff your face."

The leader of the prayer wishes he could have a do-over. He thinks:

“God bless the world — that’s the lazy man’s prayer, the prayer of the underachiever, the ‘Gentleman’s C’ of prayers. And it landed with a thud, didn’t it? Like unexploded ordnance. It’s the prayer of the automated age, geared to maximize metaphysical productivity while minimizing the outlay of time and trouble for the delivery of godly services. God, kindly bless this world if you would. Margaret, please pass the stuffing. Timmy, please cover your mouth when you cough. God bless the world. Jeez, I’m an idiot.”

One of the lukewarms is thinking:

God bless the world? Did I notice he said that with a twinge of impatience? His inflection was similar to ‘Junior, clean up your room.’ God, clean up your room. Hmm.”

Another of the lukewarms is thinking about it, too:

God bless the world. Nicely done. I noticed he was only making a suggestion to God. Sort of like, ‘No one is telling you what to do, God. It’s your world; we’re just renters without a lease.’ Cheers!”

Even a prayer as short as this has opened up an amphitheater of silent reflection in these beginning, awkward moments of chowing down.

“God bless the world,” one of the non-believers is thinking. “Did he just unearth a great existential ‘Duh?’ In other words, why merely give thanks for our good health, or why simply pray that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria trip over an electrical cord and land in a pool of angry piranhas? God, why don’t you go ahead and bless the whole dang thing? We don’t want to leave anyone out of our prayers because that wouldn’t be right, right? That would be wrong, right? Amen!”

Meanwhile, another of the non-believers is thinking: 

“How did primitive man pray? With one eye open, I bet. Had to. If they lingered too long with their eyes closed, by the time they opened them again they would discover everyone else had already lunged for the roasted boar.”

A lukewarm on the far end of the table is wondering how her good friends who flew to the Caymans for Thanksgiving are fairing right now:

“I betcha they’re not praying. No one in the Caymans prays after a tranquil day lounging on the beach like self-contained lava lamps of rum and cranberry. No one.”

Meanwhile, the leader of the prayer is biting into his meal, looking at grandma thinking:

“Man, it would be so much easier being like her, a believer. Look at her. She’s so at peace. She’s outsourced it all to God. Remarkable. Maybe I should take up smoking.”

All the while, Grandma is thinking of that first Thanksgiving so many centuries ago:

“How amazing that the pilgrims were aiming for the more congenial weather and rich soils of Virginia, but the Good Lord shoved them off course into the cold, rock-strewn wilderness of Plymouth. And what did they do? They froze their butts off, built shelter, shot some pheasants, started a fire, and gave thanks to our Creator. God bless the world? Damn straight. ... Wow, this gravy is superb.”

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Lost in Darth Vader’s head

Darkness is starting to set in, and we’re lost in the mind of a madman. We no longer hear the voices of others. We hear only the sound of our own feet clumping through the mud somewhere — by my reckoning — in the region of Darth Vader’s frontal lobe.

We’re in a corn maze, my boy and I, probably the size of about two acres. The maze is carved out to look like Darth Vader’s helmeted head. We had entered through the esophagus and took a quick right turn toward the cerebellum, perhaps a fatal mistake. We probably should have just stayed straight up the esophagus where free cider doughnuts have been reported.

 “Come on, let’s head along the edge,” I said. “It probably folds back in and accordions its way to the cider doughnuts.”

Assuming Darth Vader’s helmet is a snug fit, 10 minutes into the maze we’re somewhere in the vicinity of his occipital lobe, a part of the brain that processes visual information. This is what we see: Endless corn stalks and, up above, black crows belly laughing. Ten minutes is about all my boy could handle. He wants the cider doughnuts, not a fiendish, claustrophobic aerobic workout. I’m not going to backtrack. No way. You have to earn the doughnut. I imagine that years from now he will remember those words in times of crisis. “My father always said, ‘You have to earn the doughnut.’”

But for now, he’s saying, “Dad, we’re never going to get out of here.”

And thus begins an existential crisis.

"You don't know the power of the dark side," Darth Vader famously said in one of the six Star Wars movies. I’m in Darth Vader’s head, but he’s getting into my head.

We must be nearing a temporal lobe, because I’m feeling compassion for Darth. As a villain, he was way too complicated to pigeonhole, wasn’t he? He surely could understand that things are never totally black or white, good or evil. He was born into slavery to a single mother, from whom he was taken away. He earned the doughnut early on, per se, but it was that uppity Jedi Council — the “good” guys — that refused to harness and cultivate the goodness of this troubled, yet promising, young lad. Don’t be fooled: Yoda was an asshole.

We’re 20 minutes into the maze. We must be in the region of the hypothalamus, which helps control things such as temperature, mood and hunger. I say that because my boy reports he’s freezing, frustrated and starving. We’ve traveled several switchbacks and have come to a dead end. We can hear feint voices somewhere over that way.

“We should have taken the right turn back there,” my boy says.

No one likes a smart aleck.

"I find your lack of faith disturbing," Darth Vader famously said.

We backtrack and enter a new passageway, and the choice is left or right, black or white, wrong or right.

Yes, Darth got dealt a bad hand from day one. Do you recall what finally pushed him to the Dark Side? He saw a vision of his love, Padme, dying. She was the only person in this miserable, far, far away galaxy he felt he could trust. Plus, she was super hot. He loved Padme so much he would do everything he could to save her life. That makes him evil? Are you serious? Maybe Rick Santorum is right about Hollywood being run by godless elitists with no reverence for the family.

We take a right, and it turns out to be wrong: Another dead end. So we head the other way.

Darth’s was of virgin birth. So was he a Jesus figure fallen to temptation? Or does he represent you and me fallen to temptation? That would make sense, but the virgin birth doesn’t match up. Did George Lucas smoke dope?

The sun is going down. Maybe we’re somewhere in the pineal gland, which controls our response to light and dark. My boy’s mood is getting dark. I fear I’m losing his trust. We hit another dead end. It has a cluster of busted pumpkins. Darth Vader must have a brain tumor.

Ultimately, Darth Vader came back to the light when he sacrificed himself to save his son, Luke. We can only be saved by love. This is true. And redemption is available to all, no matter anyone’s past actions. But Darth Vader tried to love, remember? Padme? None of it matches up. No wonder he was a head case. Ah, forget it! Inside the dead ends of Darth Vader’s mind, I take matters into my own hands. I pick up my boy, and we plunge through the wall of corn stalks — smash, crash —through lobe after mysterious lobe of consciousness and stimuli and decision-making. “This is awesome!” my boy exclaims

Through Darth Vader’s skull we go until we tumble into the clearing near a river where we scare the pants off two bird hunters in orange vests. They look at us, startled. We look at them, relieved. They don’t shoot us.

Then we get the heck out of there. We left Darth Vader with doughnuts lodged in his esophagus.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

A return to the state of grace

Bless me Father for I have sinned against the state of New Jersey. It’s been 32 years since I last confessed that New Jersey is where I’m from. Even my wife doesn’t know the extent to which I’m from New Jersey.

But something happened recently, something profound. The power of Hurricane Sandy combined with the gale-force gallantry of Bruce Springsteen who finally hugged his greatest fan and political nemesis Governor Chris Christie. It all jogged loose a repressed memory of mine. Not really a “memory.” What is it? Let me think. ... 

What I may be trying to say is I desperately need to go public, arm in arm, with my long-forgotten first love: New Jersey — the place where I last wore diapers and first kissed a girl.   

New Jersey, they took me away from you — those parents of mine — and plopped me down in coastal Massachusetts in time for eighth grade. I arrived prepackaged in that distinctive South Jersey accent — war-der (for water), tawk (for talk) — and it played no small role in why I was pushed around and humiliated in front of my new fellow eighth graders.

Out of sheer survival instinct, I Judas-kissed South Jersey goodbye in my mind. Sayonara cheesesteaks, Philadelphia Bulletin, and boardwalks. I played dead while my peers pinned me down to extract my r’s from cars and bars and stars. I would go on to root for Larry Bird even though I kept my Julius Erving newspaper clippings hidden away in a tin box. I would deliver The Boston Globe and even befriend the red-headed boy who lived in the lighthouse.

But where am I from? The answer had always stumped me — and plagued me. You have to be from somewhere, otherwise you must painstakingly construct from spare parts your own authenticity. You have to be from somewhere or you’re a ghost; you slip in and out of your own skin without anyone ever noticing.

In truth, I'm from an alphabetical fraction between points A to B: a lonely, hardly hospitable land I call New Jersachusetts. While I was in high school, the zoning laws of New Jersachusetts called for complete and utter self-pity and no further construction beyond the circumference of my upper torso. I would spend my teen years at point B, feeling like a foreigner who begs for spare change in the byzantine streets of my classmates’ life-long shared experiences. I would think about all those friends I once had at Point A — now going to proms together, and smoking pot together, and seeing concerts at the Spectrum together, and living like the broken heroes of a Springsteen song — and I would wonder if they remembered me. Pity, I say.

As the teen years gave way to the 20s and my boots wandered the country, as I formed friendships with holy saints and fellow eccentrics, a choice had to be made. Where was I from? I couldn’t explain New Jersachusetts, so I picked my poison and settled on this myth: Well, let me tell you where I’m from — a tiny salt-soaked fishing village on Cape Cod Bay where men still have anchor tattoos, and I would spearfish lobster and work on draggers and the Red Sox rule and you wouldn’t last a day there, buddy.

“Really? That’s funny because you don’t have a Massachusetts accent.”


New Jersey, please understand that Massachusetts was merely a misbegotten mistress. Denying you is like denying my heart contains a left ventricle. My mind wandered from you like a prodigal son from the merciful father. I broke our covenant made upon my birth. Embrace me now even before I can utter a full confession. Embrace me like Bruce Springsteen embraced Chris Christie the other day, the two drawn together in shared tragedy. Whisper “Thunder Road” in my ear and make it all better.

I’ve seen the aerial footage of your busted up barrier islands. Somewhere down below, in Sea Isle City, two blocks from the boardwalk, sat the sun-kissed row house owned by my late grandparents. When I was a boy, the house was preserved in a soothing brine of seaweed, sea salt and taffy. Into dusk, my grandparents would sit on the front porch in creaky-old rocking chairs back when grandparents sat on creaky-old rocking chairs on front porches. They’d rock in unison like two skiffs on a heaving sea of memories that weren’t all good. In old age, they wordlessly agreed to secure themselves to each other for ballast.

I spent sunburned summer days there. Seven years old, I couldn’t take my eyes off that beachy billboard set tall against the sky above the T-shirt stand. The billboard had that iconic Coppertone ad of the blond, tanned, pigtailed little girl whose bikini bottom was getting tugged at by a black terrier — the result of which revealed the cute little girl's preserved little white tush.

My sister Jennifer and I earned and then cashed in our skeeball tickets for toy spiders and ballerinas and Army men. We ate lemon Italian ices, and we’d ask the lady at the fudge shop if we could try “some samples.” It all happened down there, but down there has been shoved over there by a deadly hurricane, and now down there is nowhere, but it’s closer to home than New Jersachusetts.

In our inland home of Wenonah, everything was postcard perfect like the town in “The Truman Show,” only it was real. Oh, Wenonah, don’t get me going or I’ll flood New Jersachusetts with tears — tears as sanctifying as those of Chris Christie after Bruce’s embrace, and as sad as the now-skeletal boardwalks that once burned our bare feet.

But can I stop myself? Last year my siblings informed me that someone started a Facebook page called “You Know You’re from Wenonah if …” . My old buddy Michael Morgan, now living in Virginia, wrote a long account of a recent trip back to Wenonah he took with his children. He visited the tiny town library and posted a photo of the Hardy Boys’ book The Secret of the Caves. In the photo, his finger points to a name on the sign-out card. It’s my name (my name!), written in my careful, fourth grade cursive. I've never been so careful. There it is: Proof that New Jersey still holds claim to me.

This week I’ve been wandering the streets of New Jersey by means of Google Earth. I want to go back in person. I want to say I’m sorry to my former self as I spend a day, from dawn to dusk, walking gingerly upon its streets, haunting the home that haunts me.

Leave it to the lone resident of New Jersachusetts to long for a place at the very moment it’s been blown to smithereens.

But what can I say? I’m from New Jersey. Sue me.