Sunday, April 28, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 351: Biomythography - Note 92: Strange Bedfellows, Part IV

Strange Bedfellows, Part IV

Revival Unvisited

"So can we go somewhere?" I said. "I mean, together?"

Normally, it was hard for me to ask girls out. We stood in the swimming pool in neighboring lanes, though, and I was aware I looked trim and strong - at least the strong part. She leaned toward me. She had been flirting with me for a month. She seemed to enjoy pressing her breasts up against my chest or my back.

As a summer swimmer, she was fine. She had a good looking body. Her face was nice, too, blue eyes, brownish hair, and a smattering of freckles. Better, she had been grabbing onto me, pretty aggressively, at every excuse for the past two weeks. This was a case of me liking her but not having a crush, yet. Meanwhile, she had a crush on me that even I could see.

It seemed safe to ask her out.

"Where?" she asked. I had expected an outright 'yes' but she posed a reasonable question. Her open-mouthed, expectant smile was real. She kept leaning closer. We almost touched. It was me who leaned back a bit.

"A movie?" I guessed. Leaning back let me look her in the eye.

She nodded. A moment later, though, her grin faded. "I"ll have to ask my parents."

"Okay, yeah." It should have been an obvious thing but I hadn't expected it.

"They haven't let me go on a date before," she explained.

We were both fourteen. I hadn't thought of it as a date but that was partly because asking for 'a date' seemed paralyzing. Now I guessed she was right and a date was what I wanted. There was nothing wrong with us going out, even if our parents had to drive us.

Besides, we'd be alone at the movie, at least. And theaters were dark. I might be able to get a kiss before the show. Or after. Or something, anything. She would have to find a way to ask her parents, first. I had never seen them at the swim practices but from her talk about them, I knew it would be difficult.

Three days later, as I read a book in my house, the phone rang. My mother answered, as usual, The tone of her voice softened after a few seconds. I could tell she was speaking to someone she knew. Out of curiosity, I stepped out my bedroom door and walked to the foyer. My mother put her hand over the receiver.

"It's for you," she said.  


"It's a girl from swim team."

By the time I accepted the phone, I knew the voice to expect. She had never called me at home before. I was happy to hear from her, though. The sweet inflections of her speech sounded like her flirting in the pool. We exchanged friendly gestures for a few minutes before her tone grew more serious.  

"I talked to my parents," she said. "They don't want me to go to a movie. But they said I could ask if you'll come to the revival tent with me next week."

"What's a revival tent?" My heart sank. After I asked the question, I felt like the answer couldn't be good.

"You haven't been?" I could practically hear her eyes growing wider.

She spent a few minutes describing a baptist tent revival to me. Her minister was a hell-breather of sorts. His sermons were long-winded and strong on the element of damnation. At the end of it, we would all get baptised again. Well, for me it would be the first time.
It sounded awful. I tried to find a polite way to say no and I think I succeeded. She realized I wasn't baptist of any sort and she tried to make conversation about our different religions. My memory of our words is blurred, though, by my swirl of emotions and concentration outwardly on her feelings, inwardly on my awkwardness and, oddly, on my determination.

There was no way I would be willing to go to a revival tent. And it was not a date.

Later, my mother would tell me the girl had been very brave. I hadn't realized it until my mother mentioned it but, of course, it must have been tough to make the phone call. When we saw each other next, the girl and I did talk about religion, just a bit, but she blushed and changed the subject. Within a week, we were back to flirting again although at a bit of a remove, emotionally. She had to concede I was not a soul she was going to save.

She was the first young lady to offer me romance at the price of religious service. But she was not the last. Later, another high school girl would try to save me and, later, another. And after college, another. Although there should have been more temptation, I could never bring myself to pretend to any religion. Instead, I learned to be more out-in-front about who I was socially, sexually, and religiously. Although the best part of that had to wait for college.

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 350: Biomythography - Note 91: Strange Bedfellows, Part III

Strange Bedfellows, Part III

One Bus Ride

My book was Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids. My bus was Metro 31, a smelly but efficient single decker. My ride was going to take me from the bus stop at school all the way to Friendship Heights, the border between DC and Maryland. I clung to the bus handrail, standing, with a book bag hooked over my right shoulder. In my left hand, I flipped the pages of Lucky Starr. 

The bus jerked to a stop at Tenleytown. A dozen people got on. Another burst of a dozen clambered in, too, a lot more than usual. I had to guess there had been some sort of event downtown and it must have ended not long ago. I sighed and tried to let the fresh faces slip past me. 

Although a seat had opened up for a moment, I missed it. I had to remain standing.

Of course, everyone getting on had to find places to stand, too, but there was room. For a minute or so, I drifted between asteroids with a ray gun wondering what to do about the bad guys. Around me, the other passengers settled into their positions. 

"What does the pink triangle mean?" asked a brash voice, a woman. "Is that a civil rights pin?"

"No," said the man holding the rail across from me. "It means gay rights."

Usually, no amount of talking would rouse me out of a book, even if the story was kind of crap. This time, though, a hush fell across the bus that was so dramatic, I looked up. My head turned first to the young, attractive black woman who had asked the question. She wore a fashionable tan jacket, big earrings, and she looked sort of rich or at least well put together. A few feet from her stood a thin man in a denim jacket. He looked disheveled in a deliberate way. 

"Are you?" the woman asked, her eyes going wide.

"Yeah," said the man. 

While I replayed the entire conversation in my head, trying to understand, the crowd of black women from Tenleytown backed up the aisle. They pressed as far away from the man as they could. A few seconds later, the nearby white riders and one Chinese-American man took their cue. They retreated from the gay protester in the opposite direction. Even people in their seats shuffled their feet as far away as they could from touching the gay, brown-loafered feet. One brunette woman twitched in her spot. After a moment of agony, she got up and dashed to the front to join the black women. A younger brunette, curlier-haired college student leapt into her spot. 

In a few seconds, I was the only one left. Every other passenger had moved as far away from the gay man as they could. 

I glanced forward. The prettiest black woman stared at me with wide-open eyes and made a frightened, come-hither motion. In other circumstances, I would have swooned to see the gesture aimed at me. But not then.

I glanced to my side. The gay man, in his denim outfit and close-cut beard, stared at me expectantly. Expecting what, I wasn't sure. 

I took a step. I shuffled a second step, too, towards the black women. But then I glanced to my side again. The gay man looked so disappointed, I stopped. Now I didn't know what to do. 

Here, I should probably mention I was thirteen and didn't know what 'gay' was. It seemed to be something bad. I gazed to the back of the bus, where the white men and women had clustered. All of them seemed a little wild eyed. They were giving me warning looks. About what? Something. I was the only one who didn't know.

We came up on the next stop. Most of the bus riders kept staring at me to see what I would do. Enough time had passed, though, I had begun to feel impatient. I figured that, whatever these people were up to, it didn't matter. Pretty often, I had discovered, it really didn't. And this guy was clearly just a guy. 

I backed up a step. After a moment, the gay man stood a little closer to me and I noticed he smelled kind of perfume-y, for a guy. And sweaty, too, like he had just marched for a mile or two, which he probably had. But he was in a jean jacket. And I was in a jean jacket. 

Then he leaned even closer.
Was he trying to scare me? Was he trying to get me on his side? What were people being so weird about? Fuck them all. Fuck every single one. I opened up my book. The Lucky Starr series is not very good. I started shoveling through the prose like a post-hole digger within sight of the last fence post in the row. In the silence, someone cleared his throat. The bus stopped. More people got on. Slowly, in my dim awareness of the outer world, I heard the normal noises of the bus resume.   

When I got home, I asked my parents as I came through the door, "What does gay pride mean?" 

My father turned sort of pink around the ears and wouldn't answer. That was a response I hadn't expected. He lit up another cigar and wandered off, mumbling to himself. 

"Do you know what it means?" I asked my mother in the living room. 

"Well, it's men who may be a little confused," my mother said, not quite knowing how to put it, "but they deserve rights, too. Everyone does."

"Well, yeah."

"Why do you want to know?" she asked. This was maybe the beginning of her suspecting I was gay (although also still in dire danger of getting girls pregnant) for the next few years.

"Because I didn't know," I answered. In retrospect, that was probably not the most helpful response to her ears. But it was the truth.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 349: Biomythography - Note 90: Strange Bedfellows, Part II

Strange Bedfellows, Part II

Next, the Pinko

"You're a commie, ain't you?" said an older boy.

We stood in the mulch next to the asphalt playground. It was the spring of 1972, or pretty close, and it was sunny and mild,a perfect noontime for games. At the end of our touch football scrimmage, I had said something as we walked off the blacktop. I don't remember what it was but it stopped him. So I stopped.

He poked me in the shoulder and I poked him back. He was the class bully, more or less, and we had fought a few times, though he had mostly given up on fights. (In retrospect, he was a pretty good kid, well behaved except for his perfect teasing skills. He was just big and smart. He was our best athlete at a time when it made him the leader on the playground.)

"Commie or pinko," he insisted. "If you're against war, you're a pinko. Against church, you're a commie."

I felt ashamed but also enlightened. At last, I understood what a pinko was, sort of. And I probably was one. And I was also everything else bad, I knew, although I always seemed to end up being those things without meaning to be.

In the 1960s and 1970s, what folks would shout at an atheist was most was, 'commie.' As a non-believer in elementary school, I got called that, plus 'red,' and 'pinko.' I'd heard those names before, starting years earlier, due to my voicing of support for civil rights. By the time I was nine, I was ready to accept I was some of the bad things, even though I didn't understand the terms. 'Pinko' in war and civil rights seemed to mean I was a sympathizer the idea of basic fairness. Other people were mad about it.

He shook his head at me and walked away in disgust.


I didn't comprehend the context, of course. I didn't understand the epithets. My friends and I used some of those phrases ourselves because adults did. The fact that some kids could use the terms accurately seemed weird. One boy, Stanley, knew what "fuck" meant when he was eight. Another, Mike, knew what a "pinko" was by the time he reached fourth grade. I didn't know the cultural history behind any of it. None of us did, really, even the boys who were fairly savvy.

It's not that we were completely ignorant - but mostly, yeah, we were. 

Sunday, April 7, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 348: Biomythography - Note 89: Strange Bedfellows, Part I

Strange Bedfellows, Part I
The Non-Believer

When I was six, my grandmother decided to take me to her church. We stood on her screened-in porch before the trip. She tidied pulled out the crease in my pants. She straightened my collar. 

My parents had brought me to her house for the weekend. They already knew my grandmother felt it was scandalous that they hadn't taken me to get baptized. She had warned them of her intention to take me to her church. Forewarned, my father decided to prepare me. In the car on the way to her house, he reminded me of all the philosophical arguments he had drilled into me about logic being better than religion.  

His reminders:
  • Grandmother and her church members would probably say, everything has a creator and therefore the universe must have a creator. My father taught me to reply, 'Well, who created God, then?' If he exists without a creator, then things exist without someone to create them. Otherwise, God must have a creator.
  • God permits evil and natural disasters. Therefore, he isn't good. If he exists at all, he doesn't deserve worship.
  • The concept of omnipotence creates logical paradoxes. My father reminded me, 'Can God create a rock so heavy he can't lift it? If he can't lift it, he's not omnipotent. If he can't create it so he can't lift it, he's not omnipotent.'
  • The problem of hell. My father didn't need to remind me of this one, actually. Punishment forever, whatever the cause, is a moral horror. No one can condone it. At the age of six, the problem was maybe more obvious to me than to my father, who was accustomed to hearing the concept.
  • The lack of evidence. This was a tough one for me but my father encouraged me to let people try to present evidence. My problem (because I was six) was I had only a vague idea of what good evidence might be. (If three good friends pinky swear it's true, is it evidence?)
Fortunately, my grandmother realized she couldn't debate me, partly because my logic was good, and also because I had almost no understanding of the world. It didn't make sense to argue. In her eyes, the real path forward was to put me into a church environment to see if I could be lured in by the kindness of the place. At least, I think that was her plan.

On the car trip, I napped. In the pews, I dozed off, too. My grandmother tried to keep me awake. In an effort to please her, I strove to be alert. My time in Germany with nannies there had taught me to keep still (or else get a smack) but no one could quite make me pay attention, it seemed, if I wasn't doing anything.

My only memory of the actual church was the struggle to stay awake. When everyone around us started to rise, my grandmother took my hand. That woke me more completely and made sure I waited for others to leave our bench. She led me at a leisurely pace down the aisle toward the exit.

"Well, I'm going to go off with the ladies, now," my grandmother announced as we approached the main doors.

"What do the ladies do?"

She shook her head at my question and instead introduced her own line of thought.

"You are going to go to Sunday school," she said. "Won't that be fun?"


"It's fun. You'll see."

At that point in life, I didn't mind school - the reverse, really. Schools, since the age of two, were places where I met and played with my friends. Even better, the classes were sometimes interesting. At their worst, they were rest periods between my games outside.

The church had built its school in the attic. The young woman in charge, wearing a blue blouse, led me up a narrow staircase to it. In my mind's eye now, as an adult, the classroom spaces look like an afterthought added on much later. The church had decorated the area well, though, with dark wood paneling in some spots and olive green paint on the main wall. The seats were sized for children, mostly, and the partial attic had been divided into four quarter sections for different activities. The mothers in charge had bought mats, alphabet blocks, and bins of play equipment.

I am not sure how the argument started.

There were eight or nine other children. The Sunday school teacher asked questions about what everyone believed, which seems odd in retrospect. It could mean my grandmother asked the Sunday school teacher to talk with me and this is the way she decided to start.

At any rate, I said, "I'm an atheist."

If you can imagine a thirteen year old bookworm wearing wire-rim glasses, her blonde hair pulled back tight in a bun, dressed like an adult but still looking like a child even to younger children, that was the Holy Babysitter I faced. She seemed smart and sure of herself. She decided to hold a debate with me.

We proceeded through my father's list, almost in perfect order. When I said "Who created God, then?" she seemed shocked and had no other answer than God was exempt from needing a cause. Like a good six-year-old student of logic, I pointed out that meant the universe needed no cause, either.

When we discussed the paradoxes caused by omnipotence, she said my example was 'silly,' which seems fair. But when I asked for an answer, she turned to the other children for a while to move them away into other activities, lest listen to us too much. Also, maybe she wanted to think.

When she returned, she folded her arms and said I should believe or else I'd go to hell.

"Do good people go to hell just if they don't believe?" I asked. 

"Yes." Her response was immediate. Yet, after she said it, her expression fell from stern to sad, almost crushed. She didn't want it to be true.

"Doesn't that seem mean?"

She gave me a worried look. Arms still crossed, she tried to talk about infinite goodness for a while. It's a concept I find attractive even as an adult. As a child, it was certainly something I wanted to be true. I think she could see by the expression on my face that she was making progress at last. 

"He is the best, the goodest, the nicest." She pointed all around the school, as if to indicate how beautiful it was. "If you could see Him, you would want to be his friend. You'd want to stay with Him forever."

I didn't have a counter-argument and, from her point of view, I calmed down. But when she kept talking, I started looking at the covers of the books around me. One of them said "Hymns" and I asked if that's how she spelled God's name: Hymn.

"You can read?" her eyes widened.

I had been reading for years. To her, this was a welcome revelation. She had reached the point of wondering what to do with me now that I had been intrigued by the idea of infinite goodness. In a few seconds, she searched for and found a  big blue book called The Bible Story. It had short words on the pages, printed in big letters. She held it open for me. I started reading. She put it in my hands. I sat down to turn to the next story and gawk at the illustrations.

Half an hour later, the Sunday School leader called me over to the rest of the children.

"But I'm reading," I protested.

Here is where I joined the other kids and my memory ends. I suppose I found playing with the children boring that day. 

So this is sort of the story of my grandmother's strategy. And my father's. And the tactics of the Holy Babysitter, bless her. But in a way, it wasn't my tale except as the tiniest soldier in a spiritual battle. I didn't have my own plan. What I have left from the incident is this slightly embarrassing memory of my grandmother's church.

It may have been embarrassing for my grandmother, too. She never took me back.