Confessions from a Confessional

Bless me father for I have sinned. It has been…..almost two decades since my last confession.  Where do I begin? I guess, for this to work, you would have to actually believe in a god.

I  sat there in that stuffy confessional where the air hung like a thick miasma of dry heat and sin. The burgundy velvet cushion crushed under the weight of my knees, and as I knelt there, I stared at the silhouette through a gold colored fabric, sandwiched between two layers of wicker screen . The room was small, and the walls seemed to draw in on me, crushing my body in a vice of Catholic guilt. In that room of iniquity, that den of wicked transgressions, I raced my teenage mind for sins, and finding none, I blurted out lies.

What sticks out most in my mind, is how strange the experience was of confession, and the church where we asked forgiveness. This was not the normal church we attended mass, and that always struck me as odd. It was uncomfortable to be in this strange church, as if I were a visiting football team changing in the home-team’s locker room, only feet away from their school’s seal painted on the floor. That grand church with its vaulted ceilings, the saints and archangels staring down from the ceiling, their painted eyes passing judgement before I made it into that wooden box of guilty admission, was hot. Too hot. I can remember the steam radiators lined against the outer walls clicking and hissing as steam passed through their iron gills. It was like a well versed interrogation tactic. Get the sinners in the church and sweat them, make them uncomfortable, so they spill their sins like diarrhea of the mouth, just so they can make a quick escape into the chill of autumn, or the unbearable humidity and heat of a Long Island summer. But there was something else I noticed, something that made me cringe every time we made our pilgrimage to this house of the lord. The acoustics were great.

Seriously, who wants to confess their deepest, darkest sins, when everyone in the whole church can hear it. So there I am, a young kid, kneeling in a church pew, ten, twenty pews away from the confessional booth, and I can still hear everything the sinner is relating to the priest. Most of us whisper, some don’t, but for the most part every one’s guilt catches up to them, and they try and whisper, so as to avoid the rest of the judging Catholics’ eyes as they exit the booth. It is like a walk of shame when that door opens. Instead of absolution, you feel dirtier, as if you bathed in your sins a second time, wallowing in the muck of Satan’s deeds. Just moving on the kneeler in this church, with only a dozen repenters to dampen the echoes, makes a noise that garners the attention of anyone within its four walls. So you sit still, quiet, hoping that your uncomfortable shifting does not interrupt the strange rituals that occur behind closed doors. And then it is my turn.

Standing in line against the wall, the wall where radiators click and hum. The wall which feels like a blast furnace from hell, perspiring my body head to toe. Standing against that wall, I get closer to the booth, and peoples sins are now transmitted crystal clear, finding their receiver in my ears, and I cringe, knowing everybody will hear my sins. And then, before I know it, I find myself in the confessional.

“Bless me father for I have sinned. It has been–a long pause ensues–two months since my last confession.” Imagine a drawn out upward inflection after the pause. A question more than a statement. I have, and never will, been good with remembering time and events in relationship to a calendar of dates. My timeline floats somewhere in space, it is neither linear nor regressive, but instead jumbled, chopped, fragmented, and only assembled when need be. Already off to a good start, lying about the last time I had confession. So there I was, sitting there in that booth, the heat overwhelming and uncomfortable, but I haven’t even told you the weirdest part about all this, the wall which hid your face, was open on the left vertical half of the wall.

That’s right, open. I sat in that booth, while I could see the priest’s legs crossed, as he bobbed his feet up and down in the air. His face was behind the screen at least, but from his knees to feet, I could see those black wool pants that were always part of the uniform. Let me illustrate this for you. I could have reached my hand around the wall, and waved at myself, seeing the silhouette through that thin veil of a privacy screen. On some occasions, the priest decided to sit the other way, so you could see his face. Face to face confession! Come on. Really. So I sat there, melting into the corner of that booth, trying to squeeze as far into the opposite wall as possible, so the angle of his sight and my eyes might not meet, blocked by the wall that only obscured half the priest, only this time not his head. And then we spoke.

“Tell me your sins,” he would say. Tell me your sins? My sins? I would race through my mind, thinking, hemming and hawing. I had rehearsed this when I was in line against the horrid wall of radiator hell, but now I froze, like a teenager having recited how he would ask his crush out, only to get up to her and drown in a sea of self-conscious uncertainty, mumbling something incomprehensible and then running away in an awkward fashion. Whispering as low as I could, knowing everyone out there in line would hear my confession, I started. Of course he always told me to speak up, and I would just continue to whisper, like a passing birds call on the wind miles away.

My sins. I questioned so much as a teenager, as a child, I didn’t really believe in god, finding my the answers to my questions only created more questions. I was probably fifteen when I really committed to that, and for the next three years found myself just going through the motions. So here I was, thinking of sins that I didn’t believe I committed, and I was supposed to come up with something, anything. So, I did what any self-respecting teenager would do, lie. I created sins on the spot. I spewed forth a whole host of venial sins. Sins that were pathetic. “I lied to my parents about going out with my friends; I stole chips and cookies from the pantry when my parents had already said no; I said the lord’s name in vain,” you know, things like that. There I sat, lying to a priest about my sins, making them up as I went along. The coup de grâce of this act was always, “I lied.” Which I had just done. So yeah, confession was somewhat of a mockery for me, but what was I to do, I was a good kid.

I really was a good kid. I didn’t do much to incur the wrath of my parents. I was liked by my teachers. I didn’t really cause trouble in school. My rebellion was philosophical, my differences were and are with society, rules, religion, discrimination and a whole host of other inequalities; hence being a humanist and atheist. But Catholicism makes you feel guilty, as if sin from oozes your pores. If it is enjoyable, it is a sin. That is my take on religion. Now don’t get me wrong, I am glad I was raised with religion, it taught me valuable lessons that, and I have a strong understanding of right and wrong, morals and ethics, but that is where my appreciation of religion ends. I was strong enough not to drink the Kool-Aid, and as a result, live a very fulfilled life without someone else informing me how to function.

In the end, Catholic guilt still sticks with us all, even if we are recovering from our early years indoctrinated in the church. As my friend’s pointed out in my early college years , I draped–and still do–a napkin over any unfinished food on my plate. This act is not conscious, but subliminally done, and when I realized I did this, it became apparent that you can’t strip away all the years of sinful regret in such a short time. Because, some where in Africa, there is a starving child that would eat that food.

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A Generation Raised by Hanna-Barbera

As someone who is on the tail end of Gen-Xers, I find myself drawn to the plethora of cartoon shows which are throwbacks to my childhood. Now, I am not referring to the crappy, computer generated Saturday morning cartoons that children watch today, unwittingly participating in a farce of this beloved tradition, which blossomed in the late seventies and took off in the early eighties. Clad in our one piece, zip up, feety pajamas, with some beloved character clad across the white torso area—the same pajamas that zipped up many a child’s penis inside its devilish teeth, as we screamed for relief, the only form of such aid, a quick tug. I equate this terror to aligning a dislocated patella. You don’t tell the patient you are doing it, or give them advanced warning, you just lull them into conversation, and snap, a quick yelp, and then they realize there is no pain, the look of excruciating pain actually preemptory, as their psyche anticipated searing pain to overcome their body which was never delivered. Anyway, I digress, back to Saturday morning. We sat glued, fixated on the screen as Hanna Barbera characters, Scooby Doo, GI Joe, Transformers, Muppet Babies, Snorkels, The Smurfs and so many others became essential to our survival as children. These shows became a daily tradition, a routine which became necessary for our weekend to begin. Friday night may have been the official start to the weekend, with our parents in the other room, huddled around the television waiting to see who shot J.R. or if on Falcon Crest, Cole would awaken from his coma, but Saturday morning cartoons made the weekend real. We sat in front of the crappy, nineteen inch screen with whatever sugared cereal was in the house, and became hypnotized by whatever was on at that time. We didn’t need our parents awake, we had cartoons to guide us. We were sucked in by shows like Pryor’s Place, where Robin Williams co-starred as a vagrant. We were a generation of Muppet Babies, and Muppet movies. Cartoons were part of our lives, and as such, it makes sense we accept them in our adult life.

I have noticed in recent years that there are more and more adult cartoons on television. From Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, which has given us The Venture Bros. and Robot Chicken, to shows like the Simpsons, Family Guy, Futurama, Archer, and Bob’s Burger, it is no wonder these have become beloved staples of our tv watching routine. For those cartoon lovers, much like myself, who frantically watched Jonny Quest, The Venture Bros. has picked up that tradition. Satirizing this favorite staple, their critique of the show, and its unadulterated version of a strung out Dr. Venture, who was also a boy adventurer and now has psychological problems from all the near death adventures, much like Jonny, is perfect and spot on, speaking to this generation.

New cartoons on Saturday morning lack imagination, and have no cultural value. Even Loony Toons, who showed the occasional accepted racism and bigotry of the time, had cultural jokes which transcended children and allowed the adult in the room to chuckle at Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Bob Hope as chickens in Foghorn Leghorn cartoons. A whole cartoon was a Barber of Seville Opera with Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, now that is amazing. Or take the references to Milton Berle, who is more famous for his third leg which reportedly was like a baby’s arm holding an apple. Either way, cartoons have devolved to the crap that children watch now. I am thankful that pioneers have found their way to make the adult cartoons that feature David Bowie characters and make pop cultural references to the eighties. Archer, may be crude at time, but the frequent jokes alluding to Archer’s proclivity to obscure references of which comes from his reading materials and strange knowledge of facts is amazingly witty. If anything, these cartoons draw us in, because as children, our cartoons treated us as if we searching for something more than banality. Pop culture was injected into our shows, and we drank it up with a straw.

So as I write this, my collection of The Venture Bros. DVDs in the other room is calling my name. I want to find footy pajamas that fit me, cut the feet out—because they were always too hot to wear—and get a heaping bowl cereal. Maybe Boo Berry or mouth cutting Captain Crunch. There is always the ever beloved Cookie Crunch or Apple Jacks, and wistfully, I would shove my hand deep into the bottom, hoping to find the jelly octopus which I would throw against the sliding glass door, and watch it walk down as gravity worked its wonder. We are a generation of cartoon fanatics, and they will always be part of our routine, maybe not Saturday morning, but somewhere in our lives, they help mark the time of the week, and bring us back to a moment in life which we wistfully yearn for, even if we don’t realize it.

Five Things You Cannot Un-see at the Mall

The other day I went to the mall. It is a rare occurrence, but occasionally I will find myself plying the wares the many different stores offer in their glass cubicle enclosures, like human fish tanks of consumerism. As I wandered down the antiseptic looking open corridor which runs down the center of the structure like a spine, all the wings just ribs connecting this concourse of pedestrian traffic, I saw many sights and wondered how this ever appealed to my youthful self years ago.

When I lived in Old Town, Maine over ten years ago, it was, and still is, the edge of civilization, the last bastion before the frontier. If you traveled any farther north on Interstate 95 you would travel miles upon miles before passing an exit, and even then, there was no guarantee a town would be waiting for you. So the Bangor area was where masses congregated, the night life of the air, the pulse of the great white north. It is where people from all Northern Maine shopped, because, lets be honest, if you’ve been to areas like Fort Kent and Presque Isle, you would understand. With that said, if you were bored and had a lot of time on your hands, you might just find yourself becoming a mall-rat at the Bangor Mall…and unfortunately, I had a lot of time to kill.

So as I walked around the Maine Mall in South Portland the other day, I had a lot of time to kill, and observe the tomfoolery that occurs in these bastions of retail panacea, and cringe at many of the sites.

Before I even entered the doors to the mall I noticed an unusual character worth note, and is number five on my list.

5.) Oddities

Like entering a circus or an old fashioned carnival, the mall seems to attract the characters which PT Barnum would have drooled over. Although it is not my intent to judge or make light of certain fashions, I noticed the mall seems to attract a certain demographic in large numbers. The individual I noticed the other day would stand out anywhere he went, but it wasn’t for his dress, but the whole package. As he stood outside the food court entrance, his baggy pair of basketball shorts falling off the second pair of basketball shorts underneath, and the long baggy tank top that he wore, the outfit was three sizes too large for his wiry muscular frame. His hair, standing straight off his head about nine inches, as if gravity had stopped working and was now operating in opposite fashion, was dark brunette in color, and looked like Eraserhead from David Lynch’s cult classic about a dystopian dark future. But again, this was not the oddest thing, and neither was the child size backpack he wore with both straps fastened. No, it wasn’t that at all. What struck me as odd, the strangest things of all, was how he walked around with a fifteen pound hex dumbbell. And along with carrying this weight he performed sitting tricep presses straight up into the air high above his head. It seemed irrelevant to this young gentleman that everyone in the food court was staring at him as he performed a workout with a single weight, and the whole time I observed him, he never switched arms, but continued on the left arm, over and over again.

4.) Where have all the arcades gone?

One of the best things about hanging out at the mall was the arcade games. I grew up during the revolution of gaming. Pong and Atari, Colecovision and Commodore 64, Nintendo and Sega, these were the gaming systems that defined my generation’s gaming experience. 8-bit arcade games were everywhere, and even in bars, adults found themselves drawn to their flashing lights, the idea of gaining top score stroking many an individuals ego, their initials forever etched in the memory of that cpu, like George Costanza and his obsession with Frogger. So why is it all the arcades have disappeared? Is this a telling trend that video games are  only to be enjoyed in the home atmosphere, where teens shamelessly down bottles of Monster Energy drink while chowing down on some cheese curl?. I know that bars like Arcadia in Portland, Maine and many others in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York, find an audience swarming their bars to play retro arcade games that harken back to our childhood. I still find myself playing 8-bit games at home on my computer, or try to beat Zelda in record time, finding all the hidden extras, or defeating it without any. Even to this day I try and beat Contra without the secret code that we all have ingrained in our memory– more vivid than that first time we kissed or took that first fateful shot of rotgut stolen from our father’s stash of whisky. So where have all the arcades gone? They are not at the mall, and that is something I envision every time I walk past the crappy retail store which now occupies the space that was once painted with black walls and ceiling, the dark lights glowing on the walls, illuminating neon paint, as the sound effects of tie fighters blowing up the death star rang through the air.

3.) Kiosks

I am not sure when Kiosks became a year round occurrence. I am sure if I kept a journal throughout the years I could pick out a time and watch the spread from there. Like a virus, the kiosks spread from one end of the mall to the other, as these itinerant peddlers of crappy wares found space in the center concourse of the mall. Cutting this pedestrian area in half, it is now a gauntlet of heavy pressure salespersons constantly honing in on those who seem the weakest and most likely prey of consumerism in our society. Locking eyes with one of these displaced hucksters is certain doom, and their brain focuses on you like a homing beacon, leaping in front of you as if throwing themselves in the path of a bus to save an elderly woman crossing the road further down the line. You are filled with self loathing and regret that you did not just dodge or dip out of the way, a quick pivot like a basketball player with the smoothest of moves. Instead they trap you in their toothy smile like a tractor beam, and you become hypnotized by their sales pitch. It is not yourself you have to worry about, but who you are with, your hope that they have enough fortitude to fight off the barrage of congenial platitudes that swirl around their head in a dizzy mist of obfuscation. It is like they are Jedi’s telling you these are not the droids you are looking for, but instead you need a buckwheat neck pillow or you should buy a calming mint liniment. You walk away dizzy and confused, but somehow you now own a collection of standup comedy DVDs from Bob Marley, even though you think his acts are boorish and crude.

2.) Foodcourt Food

I remember when the foodcourt had places you looked forward too, because, hell, when you are bumming around the mall, Sabarro or Taco Bell is the way to go, along with a big Slush Puppy from Auntie Em’s or Orange Julius. A tall Mountain Dew and crunchy taco used to get me by for hours, but now, fast food chains I have never heard of dominate or local food joints. I don’t know, I love sushi, I eat it at some of the best places I can in the greater Portland area, but there is something unsettling about buying sushi at the mall. This is not a judgement against the workers or owners of these locations, but it just seems wrong. A big triangular slice of greasy cheese pizza is what is called for when palling around the mall. What about a hotdog from Orange Julius with a slice of american cheese and bacon? Or how about just an Arby’s Big Montana sandwich, replete with the Horsey Sauce and potato cakes, all completed with a side of uranium yellow dipping cheese sauce–now that was classic mall fair. But now we find sushi restaurants, local soup joints, fast casual burger shops, and local Italian fair taking over the perimeter of the seating area. It is as if they are trying to give the mall a conscience, giving it the ambiance of Portland, even though the mall is in South Portland. Let’s be honest. I don’t go to the mall to eat at one of my favorite restaurants from the Old Port and gentrified Portland. If that was the case I would get in my car, drive back north, and swing into Pai Men Miyake for Sushi and Campari. When I go to the mall, I want the guilty pleasure to be just that, guilty, but I guess we can’t have that anymore, so I will save my slice of cheese pizza for another location, and not the pizza place that is no longer Sabarro.

1.) Black Friday (aka Consumer Insanity)

When did Black Friday begin? The crazy lunacy that encompasses this crazy-ass holiday of its own, seems to have spun to a legendary status that is an accepted part of society. As if people need the newest television or a DVD marked down five dollars, they become rabid animals, foaming at the mouths, throwing all convention of politeness out the window. It seems that people are hard wired to search out deals and purchase, or execute, with no question on whether or not they really need it or even want it. What happened to the Sear’s Catalog Wish Book? I remember pouring through page after page, putting a circle around what I wanted, and my brother the same, our initials next to our wishes so my parents knew who wanted what. There was no guarantee that we would get what we wanted, but we wished for transformers, G.I. Joe figures, or those awesome D battery powered robots that just wheeled around the hardwood floor–and you better hope you have a hard surface for it to operate on. Now, we have the ultimate devolution of humanity as people scrap and fight over  televisions and DVD players in big box stores, while the snarl of parking begins on Thanksgiving night, that holiday now nothing more than a prequel to Christmas Consumerism. I have visited the mall a few times on Black Friday, and it was interesting, depressing even, and as throngs of people crowd stores, I am reminded that the weightlifting Eraserhead, thin man, sitting in the foodcourt, pumping a weight over his head clearly out of place outside the context of the gym, is the normal one while the hoards of people threaten each other over the newest toy their child needs.

Malls, like video games, were great in the eighties and early nineties, but as time moved on, and the consumer evolved, so too do this space, and it became less and less appealing to me. I guess I will just buy my clothes and L.L. Bean, at least the animals there are taxidermied.

The Fickle Entity of the Mind

I, at times, have a flighty memory. I am unsure if my mind believes the information to be unimportant, or has to push other tidbits of my cache into the garbage heap to make room for more, but either way, my brain can feel like a grain bag with a small puncture. I try and compensate for this by writing little notes, small ones, especially on the run. A word here, a word there, a small phrase. That is all well and good, but when later comes, and I pull out the paper, without the context of the moment, I wonder, what the hell does “Albatross Latvia” mean.

This seems like my curse. I am smart–it is not conceited to say so–I graduated magna cum laude for my bachelors, and when I am finished with my masters thesis this month I will have a 3.74 GPA. So it is frustrating that I can go into a movie theater, walk out when the film is complete, and a few miles down the road not recall what I just saw…at all. Now this isn’t a medical problem. I don’t have a condition. My brain seems to be selective in what it holds. I am great at trivia and trivial pursuit, so I don’t lack in that department with knowledge, but there are things that I just don’t remember. One area is conversations.

If you know me, then you know that we may have the same conversation many times over during our friendship. It is not that the last discussion wasn’t important, or I didn’t listen, but we may talk about this over and over again. I have gotten into the habit with good friends starting conversations with, “tell me if I’ve told you this already,” and they are good about it, only occasionally goading me on with a wry smile. My poor wife though, she humors me, and doesn’t tell me I’ve told her. I have probably repeated some stories fifty times, and she just lets me go, rambling on as the words pour from my mouth. And there is purposeful repetition.

I have always been a learner through repetition. The only way I can learn something well is by beating it into my head. I have the tenacity and the patience though to learn that way. People amazed me in college, reading the academic journal article only once, and then remembering every little phrase from it. Not. Me. I would read the article, and then go back over it, and then take notes, and then reread the notes. It was always work for me, but pleasurable work. I remember when I did archaeological work in class. We poured through box upon box of pottery sherds from the Richard’s and Nevin’s site in Blue Hill, Maine. I spent hundreds of hours working on these materials with other students in my group. I learned so much about prehistoric pottery this way, I will never forget it.

So for me, memory is a fickle beast. It traps in some, and lets others flit away on the wind. Sometimes I see my mind like a dandelion puff-ball. All the little white seeds just ready for a gust to send them scattering to the wind. Other times, my mind becomes an iron trap, sealing in certain memories, that I will carry forever. And then sometimes, past times kick through the door of my mind, barging in, taking over. So as time goes on, I am sure I will keep writing down little hints to guide my mind. But like Uncle Billy who put string on his fingers, I too will forget the string is even there, or what it is there for. Because, when you have a shitty memory, you have to be elaborate in your mental notes, or you end up wondering, what the hell is “damned romance” or “thunder road”  in reference too–found recently in my notes page on my cell phone.

The Philosophy of Durden

Everybody wants to be Tyler Durden, even if it is only for a short moment of time. No person alive wouldn’t want that much confidence to well up inside them on occasion and course through their body like a surge of epinephrine, enlivening their inner powerhouse. You want to sit back and say “Fuck it” with an utter calm and coolness that even Frank Sinatra himself could not conjure. We all want the theoretical and philosophical underpinnings that fueled Tyler and gave him his cool, to truly believe the devil be damned attitude rather than a mask we wear. This cool, to look abject danger in the eye with an ambivalence and apathy, is reserved for only those with Ubach-Wiethe disease–but yet they didn’t choose that. In the End, everyone wants to have control over themselves with the fuck all attitude that Tyler Durden lived with.

As the Boeing 777-300 takes off from Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow, the Aerflot planes shakes uncontrollably with an extreme shudder of seat, wall, floor, and myself. This feeling–unusual in my flying experience–I wonder to myself, what would my last thoughts be if this hunk of metal dropped out of the sky like a molotov cocktail thrown off a building, bursting into a ball of flames among the trees and apartment buildings on the ground below? Would my last thoughts be of my wife and dog waiting for me at home? Would I think fondly of my family, and smile about the memories? Would I feel apathy or regret, anger or sadness, fear or confusion, denial or terror, or, would I ride that plane down to the ground, like Slim Pickens straddling that nuke down to the USSR, as he dropped the bomb on those cold war Ruskis. I wonder if in that moment, my inner Tyler Durden would materialize, and I would have some insightful pithy saying, forever etched in time, to spit in the eye of death and say “give me seconds please.” One could only hope, because, well, at that point, you can’t change the outcome.

I guess the true cool, the real hip, the James Deans, the Frank Sinatras, the Tyler Durdens, they accepted, instead of denied, moved on, instead of regretted. I think in the end, it is that acceptance of the inevitable which defines the coolest of the cool. Hell, when the world collides with Melancholia, I hope to be sitting on the lawn of some house, its verdant lawn stretching down to the crashing ocean, with my friends and family by my side, my wife and dog right next to me. Drinking the most expensive bottle of rye whisky ever made, we will sit there sipping manhattans made with ruby port, and I’ll dress in a black suit, black tie, white shirt, with dark cruiser sunglasses on, my bare feet feeling those soft, flexing blades of grass between my toes. I will watch the earth spin into oblivion with a coolness reserved only for the classic hip.

In the meantime, I will settle for plane flights with free wine served from the flight attendant’s cart. But, in the event the world spins out of control, I should stock up on whisky. I mean, you never know who might crash the party.