Saturday, February 27, 2010

I Hear You Knocking


As we slog our way through the Winter that Refuses to Die, I’m doing my best to think warm thoughts.

The other day I recalled a drive I took with my parents to High Rock Park in Staten Island.

God only knows how many years ago this was, but I remember it was early Spring and we had decided to go out for a ride on a beautiful sunny day—remember those?

High Rock was a great choice because it was close to home, but the woods there are so dense and the wildlife is so plentiful, it’s hard to believe you’re still in New York City.

Our timing could not have been better. We had gotten there just when all the birds’ eggs were hatching and the air was filled with the nearly deafening chirping of what sounded like thousands of baby chicks making their debuts.

The noise was incredible. Living in the city, I’ll hear birds occassionally chirping, but these squawking newborns sounded like an orchestra.

All those new lives coming into existence gave me such a feeling of hope and serenity that whatever problems I may have had on my mind quickly evaporated.

There's not an anti-depressant in the world that could make you feel this happy. These were real tweets, not the stuff Twitter inflicts upon us today. My mother and I talked about that day for years afterward.

Birds were also the subject of Rev. Mark’s sermon at Trinity Church. I really don’t care for word the “sermon” because Rev. Mark doesn’t lecture or harangue—he really does talk with you, which is so unlike my experience growing up as a Roman Catholic.

I had gone to church on Wednesday for my regular lunch time service and Rev. Mark told us that his in-laws’ suburban home had attracted the attention of a seriously determined woodpecker.

No matter what these people did to rid themselves of this airborne nuisance, the woodpecker kept hammering away. Throughout the sermon, Rev. Mark would rap on the side of a pew—knock-knock-knock—to give us an idea of what it was like for his wife’s parents.

I wasn’t sure where he was going with this, but as usual, I was having a great time listening.

And then he tied it all together.

“God is doing the same thing,” Rev. Mark said, and rapped on the pew again. “He is knocking at our hearts. He will always come when we’re not ready and He won’t stop until we answer.”

It was a fabulous, moving talk and, much to my surprise, the knock that Rev. Mark told us about came to me a lot sooner than I expected—within in a few minutes, actually.

It was during the time in the service when we exchanged the sign of peace. I shook hands with every one around me and then stepped out of the pew to reach some people in the side aisles.

I noticed one man sitting by himself; he was African-American, dressed in ragged clothing and he appeared to be homeless or certainly down on his luck.

I hesitated. I’m not proud to say this, but I must admit that for a moment I was a little reluctant to go near this man. He seemed like the kind of guy you avoid in the subway, the kind you pretend not to see when you walk down the street.

I can’t be positive, but I don't think that anyone else was going near him either. And that’s when I picked up my step, approached this man, and put out my hand.

He stood up when he saw me coming and smiled broadly, revealing that several of his teeth were missing, and I thought that this was someone who really needed a handshake.

We exchanged a quick hug and I returned to my pew feeling as happy as I had been on that day in High Rock. The woodpecker had come knocking at my heart and I let him in.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ashes to Ashes

“Remember, O man, that you are dust and to dust you shall return” – Genesis 3:19

Each year there seems to be fewer and fewer people getting their ashes on Ash Wednesday.

When I was growing up, everybody and his brother made sure to get the black cross put on their forehead.

Of course, I went to Catholic school and going without ashes back then was kind of like wearing bowling shoes to Sunday mass.

I was going to skip it this year myself. I’m hardly in the running for the Christian of the Year Award, if there is one, and I feel kind of weird walking around all day with this blotch on my forehead.

But I wanted to keep up the tradition, since I was raised a Roman Catholic, after all--even though I am now going to an Episcopalian church. And the idea of being self-conscious convinced me that I should go ahead and get the ashes. If people want to give me weird looks, they’re more than welcome.

I also felt like I’m honoring my mother, who wanted us to observe the Christian traditions. I made sure not to eat meat today for that reason as well.

Rev. Mark at Trinity Church took care of me this morning and when I got to the office I saw some ashes had gotten on my nose. I washed those off, hoping that I wasn’t condemning myself to eternal damnation. (I was raised a Roman Catholic, after all.)

I quickly saw that I was the only person on my floor with ashes. On the way out, I spotted one of the maintenance guys in the lobby with the ashes, which I felt put me in pretty good company. A few hours later my doctor surprised me at an afternoon appointment when he walked in with the cross on his head.

“We’re one of the few people doing this,” I said.

"Yeah,” he said, “but then there are fewer priests.”

One of my co-workers caught me off guard today when he asked me what I was giving up for Lent, which kicks off today.

I had no answer for that one. I was so preoccupied with actually getting the ashes and keeping away from meat that the business about giving something up for Lent had slipped my mind.

During the day I kept forgetting about the ashes, so every time I went into the men’s room, I did a double-take at my reflection and thought “what the hell--?”

That happened one last time at the end of the day, while I was washing my hands at the sink. I was mad at someone, as usual, and I was thinking how I’d like to give this person an especially nasty piece of my mind.

Then I looked up and saw that cross of ashes, a reminder that I’m going to die some day. My hostile emotions subsided and I thought maybe I could give the anger up for Lent; it would be quite a sacrifice since I seem to be so comfortable with it.

Perhaps we should wear these ashes on our foreheads every day of the year instead of just one. This may sound morbid, but it can also be a celebration of life, depending upon how you look at it.

Maybe each morning we should mark ourselves in this way so that we’re constantly aware that life is finite, that the young will grow old, the old will pass away, and that getting angry only wastes the little time we have on this earth.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Fungus on the Family


Millions of people will be watching the Super Bowl on Sunday, but I won’t be one of them.

It’s unfortunate because I always enjoyed watching the game. I’m not much of a football fan, but, like a lot of people, I watch the Super Bowl for the commercials.

But this year I'm boycotting the game because of one commercial in particular--and it’s got nothing to do with the Budweiser Clydesdales.

No, I'm referring to a pile of propaganda being perpetrated by that allegedly “Christian” outfit called Focus on the Family. (Jesus, even their name makes skin crawl.)

They’re behind an ad featuring somebody called Tim Tebow (told you I wasn't a football fan) and his mother, where, according to news reports, she talks about how she ignored her doctor's advise to abort her fifth child and went on to give birth to the big time football hero.

What this little tale has to do with a woman's right to choose eludes me, but I wouldn't expect anything less from Focus founder James Dobson and his merry band of Christian jihadists.

After all, it was Dobson, a Bible-thumping homophobe, who said last October that only a resurgence of Republican power can “save America from national disaster." Apparently he had been in coma for the previous 8 years.

And Dobson also said "homosexuals are not monogamous. They want to destroy the institution of marriage." He went on to claim that the gay rights movement has "sought to implement a master plan that has had as its centerpiece the utter destruction of the family."

Gee, what a nice guy. Maybe CBS can sell ad space to the Klan next year.

Now I’d just like to pause here for a moment and say that on behalf of all my gay friends and family members, I am presenting Dobson and his followers with a 14 karet, solid-gold, four-alarm Kiss my ass!!

Please use it in good health.

This Tebow character actually puts Biblical verses in his eye black in the apparent belief that this makes him a good Christian. I guess he’s following Gerald Ford’s example of playing football without a helmet.

What really sickens me, though, is the role of CBS, which accepted this ad without allowing an alternative point of view.

For example, CBS rejected a 30 second spot by ManCrunch.com, a gay dating Web site based in Toronto. Published reports said the network claimed the company’s credit wasn’t verifiable and that the production values of the spot weren’t up to snuff for Super Bowl Sunday.

I don’t know what the truth is here, but I strongly doubt CBS would have aired the ManCrunch.com ad, even if the company had paid for it in gold bullion and resurrected Cecil B. DeMille to direct it.

CBS also refused to air a gay-themed GoDaddy ad, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Hmmm, do I sense a theme here?

Under the Bush nightmare, CBS spinelessly rejected issue advertisements by liberal groups.

In 2004, the network turned down Super Bowl ad by The United Church of Christ, which welcomed gay and lesbian Christians and an anti-Bush ad from the liberal group Moveon.Org.

Ideally, there should be no politically charged ads of any kind during the Super Bowl. It really is just a game.

I think we all deserve a break from controversy for one day so we can drink beer, eat unhealthy food and watch funny commercials. Oh, yeah, and watch some football, too.

But CBS crossed the line on this one and I’m not going to play along. I’m sure the network is in no danger of going bankrupt because one hairless guy in Brooklyn decides he won’t tune in. It means a lot to me, however.

I happen to be a Christian, too, and while the fund-a-mental cases blather on about “values” at every conceivable opportunity, I have some values of my own. And they’re telling that what CBS is doing is wrong.

During a game in September, Tim Tebow had “Mark 8:36" on his eye black, which says "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?"

Yes, what profit, indeed?

I’m sure going to miss those Super Bowl parties. And I’m really going to miss all the other ads that will be broadcast during the game. But at least I’ll be able to look at myself in the mirror. And I’ll still have my soul.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Duty Free


My service as a juror in Kings County Court came to an abrupt end today.

I had been picked (screwed?) with 7 other people to sit on a civil case involving a car crash. We had expected the trial to go on for at least the rest of the week.

But just after the attorneys made their opening arguments, Judge Solomon—yes, that’s his name--stopped the proceedings and sent us home.

We were told this morning that the two parties had settled their case and our services were no longer needed. It was very difficult not to do a Homer Simpson “woo-hoo!” in court and run out the door, but I managed to control myself.

Our court officer, Ralph, told us that people who seem really determined to go ahead with a trial often lose their nerve upon seeing the jury.

“They realize that it’s serious,” he said, “and they think, ‘hey, I might get nothing.’ ”

Judge Solomon told us that we wouldn’t be called for jury duty for another eight years—when I’m 60 years old—unless, he added, “we have a spike in crime.”

I was wondering where I would be in 8 years, but then I recalled the words of a guy in one of my film classes at Hunter College. I was 20 at the time and I was speculating about where I would be in the next five years.

"Just make sure you're above ground," my classmate said.

So now after all my complaining and agita about jury duty, I got cut loose in two days. My father used to tell me that I “get big headful of steam” about things and my mother always warned me not to “get into a state” over something. You really should listen to your parents.

On the positive side, I got a brief, but close-up look at the justice system and I met some very nice people.

Chief among these was Ralph, who has been on the job 38 years. A thin balding man with one of those little rattails—he dismissed any idea of shaving his head like yours truly—Ralph was a real character.

He told jokes, gave little tidbits of gossip, and discussed the news of the day. Ralph told us to stay away from the water cooler in the hall because it hadn’t been cleaned in years.

“You have to be really desperate,” he said.

Today, while we waited to be dismissed, Ralph sat down to tell us his life story. He had been a school teacher in 1970 and he loved it, but he wasn’t making enough money.

“I thought as long as I’m going to be a lion tamer,” he said, “I might as well be a policeman.”

When we were dismissed, Ralph escorted us down to the clerk's office by way of a special staircase.

He said these stairs kept going for several stories below ground level because the courthouse had been built in the 1950s and it had been designed to house people in the event of a nuclear war.

“There are dorms and showers,” he said. "You could get lost down there."

When we returned to Central Jury I looked around at all the unhappy people waiting for their names to be called. I recognized the look on their faces; I felt the same way just a few days ago.

We all received letters thanking us for our “participation and contribution to the delivery of justice.” I don’t feel like we accomplished much of anything, but I’m not going to argue.

“See you in eight years,” Ralph said. “I’ll probably still be here.”