Monday, November 16, 2015

How It Must Have Happened

The Reverend Roy Herberger, pastor of St. Columbia-Brigid Roman Catholic Church in Buffalo, New York, wanted to put up a funny sign. "Everybody likes funny church signs," he thought, so he went to Google where he found a lot:




One sign in particular, though, struck close to home. He prided himself on keeping tabs on his congregation, and he knew it included a lot of remarried parents. Weren't some of those kids struggling with stepparents? he wondered. Shouldn't he show some support? "I sure as heck will!" he declared, and he went outside and put up this sign:

Within seconds the church's phone was ringing off the hook. Catholics don't support gay marriage! the callers screamed. This is blasphemy! Are you crazy? Are you saying it's okay for gay couples to raise kids?

Naturally Rev. Herberger was shocked. He didn't mean anything like that! He was just providing encouragement to the children in his congregation who had, say, a regular dad along with a new stepdad.

Embarrassed, he raced outside and added a clarifying line:


Still, the phone didn't stop ringing. "Are you saying God and Joseph were dating?" Old Lady Blandings screamed. "I'm trying to come up with a reason why you think Jesus' two dads should have gotten married," yelled Willie Grimshaw, a local plumber. "But all I can come up with is YOU'RE A MORON."

Rev. Herberger quickly jogged outside, and he changed the message to this:


"I'm a little confused," said "Tiny" Mike Gastrudo. "Are you saying the two dads never had sex with each other, or stopped having sex with each other?" "So everything's cool if the two dads don't have sex with each other?" asked a furtive, anonymous voice. "Can they still, like, come on each other's chests?

This time Rev. Herberger sprinted outside, and he rewrote the message to say this:


The first phone call he answered was supportive. "Thank you so much for the comforting message, Reverend," said parishioner Ida Rae Thompson. "I thought the church would frown on it if they knew I left my Cremona for weeks at a time with a guy I met at Skunky Junk's." The fifty-odd calls that followed, though, used words like "heretic" and "burned at the stake."

Rev. Herberger was at his wits' end. "I'M LOST!" he yelled to God. "I'M CONFUSED! PLEASE, GOD, HELP ME! GIVE ME A MESSAGE! SEND ME A SIGN!"

A parishioner walking by heard the plea and decided to get back at the Reverend. In his most booming voice he shouted, "I can't! I'm too busy having sex with some random guy who used to hang around with Mary!"

Rev. Herberger freaked out. Was that really God? he asked himself. Or had the flap driven him nuts? Had he gone stark, raving mad? It didn't matter. He was finished. He'd been broken in two, flattened, humbled. The previous Rev. Herberger didn't exist any more. But then it hit him like a bolt of lightning: wasn't that what religion was all about? Letting go of one's ego so Our Lord can take charge? He took down the message and replaced it with this:

The Reverend admired his handiwork and put the spare letters away. Just as he was locking up the church for the evening, the phone started to ring, and he thought, "Wait."

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Movie Review: The 33 (SPOILERS)

I wasn't looking forward to The 33, the new film about 33 Chilean gold and silver miners trapped by a cave-in starring Antonio Banderas. Set almost entirely underground, how could the film not be claustrophobic? With an all-male cast, how could it explore humanity? And with the ending already known, how could there be any suspense?

I needn't have worried. Director Patricia Riggen has shown a masterful hand in alternating the bleaker scenes with lighter stories that oftentimes elicit more about the human condition than the times that try men's souls. While some may quibble with the liberties Ms. Riggen has taken with the story, one can hardly argue with the result.

One somewhat-fanciful subplot involves Gonzalo, a frustrated chef who'd turned to mining to support his family. Faced with mutiny in the face of yet another day of dehydrated food, he breaks out his knives and hits the burners. Working day and night -- and alienating friends and family in the process -- he discovers his true self in the face of adversity and leaves us on the edge of our seats as we wonder if he could possibly succeed in his quest for that elusive third Michelin star.

Though the mature souls in the audience chafed, the teens cheered wildly when some of the men started a cappella singing groups and made it all the way to the Underground Grand Nationals. It certainly added a light note to an otherwise dark tale, but I personally could not have cared less when the Cave-in Canaries finally bested their rivals, the Slowly Asphyxiating Swingles.

Those worried that the film would be a cold-blooded study of mortality will be heartened to hear of a recurring thread where Montanares, an aloof, confident miner, ties the other thirty-two to a bed to explore the thin line between pleasure and pain. Is S&M still fun when it's a rough working man who's submissive? Don't ask: just look at the cat o'nine tails fashioned from battered workboots and the grin on Coquimbo's face.

My favorite character may also prove to be the most controversial. Valdivieso, a withdrawn bachelor from the slums of Antofagasta, barely said a word before the cave-in. In the face of death, though, he blossomed. He worked day and night chiseling out a vein of rhinestone to transform his overalls into a glamorous gown, then entertained the men at night by lipsyncing to disco classics. Sure, some stalwarts in the audience will grumble that hitting a rock can't actually sound like cowbell, but there were definitely tears in my row when the drill broke through the wall of mud and sunlight hit those sparkles. Even the most macho of the miners resisted the urge to rush out to his anxious loved ones long enough to share those final, redemptive lines of "We Are Family."

In the end, the film's brilliance is in taking what could have been a claustrophobic caveat and transforming it into a life-affirming epic. When you finally see sunlight again, the film's lessons will stay with you: family comes where you find it, real homes don't need front doors, and even when you're facing silicosis you can still be fabulous.

Friday, November 6, 2015

The easiest way to describe my childhood is to list everything it lacked, which was basically everything. You know how if you had disgusting sex with some dude who smelled of Paco Rabanne you'd hate that scent for the rest of your life? If that was your only odd neurosis, well, it would be manageable: there just aren't that many guys who wear Paco Rabanne. But if you had gross sex with a guy who wore Levis, another who loved the outdoors and a third who loved rock music, then here's a hard fact you need to face: you're going to have to deal with it or go live in a box in the yard.

My mother had a different, perfectly rational explanation behind everything I never had. I didn't have fish until I was sixteen years old because she gave me fish when I was a toddler and I spit it out. Onto my high chair. "That showed me!" Mom crowed proudly for the next fifteen years. "You sure didn't like fish!"

That struck me as a weird little pick-and-choose decision. She continued to serve us Rancho Chucko -- a family invention of french bread topped with ground beef, canned mushrooms and Velveeta -- every Sunday without weighing my disgust.


I could have vomited it all over our shag carpeting and it wouldn't have made any difference. "You must have a touch of the stomach flu," Mom would have said. "I'll make a double batch next week."

There's a simple explanation for this conundrum: my sister Barbara Ann loved the shit. That was all that mattered. She was the oldest, and somehow before Sue and I were born she'd managed to wrangle control of our family.

I looked to Sue for backup, futilely believing that two votes against one might provoke some kind of change. "The bread is crunchy," she said, blithely ignoring the greasy meat, neon cheese and mushroom juice. "I like crunchy bread."

I have to preface the next story with a disclaimer: I'm not particularly thrilled that my mother was tied to a chair. I'm no big fan of kids, though, so it's not awfully difficult to justify it to me, whether or not violin practice is involved. Yes, it was simply abominable that her parents forced her to do something that promoted dexterity and creativity. Reprehensible! Child abuse! Somebody should have intervened so that poor girl could have watched game shows for thirty hours a week like the rest of us.

Unfortunately, the side effect was that my mother just couldn't stand to hear violins being played. While we probably wouldn't have gone to Italian restaurants otherwise, we might have listened to classical music. Which was now off the table, because Rachmaninoff didn't spend huge amounts of time on his Marimba Symphony.

I was flipping the TV channel one night when I stumbled on the opera Samson et Delila on PBS. I was instantly transfixed. I'd never seen or heard anything like it, and it was like a whole new beautiful world opened up in front of my eyes. Right around the time Delila started to dance, though, B.A. appeared and spun the channel to Family Feud.

"I was watching that," I protested.

"Forget it," B.A. countered. "Nobody wants to watch fat people sing."

I looked to Sue for support. "I'm going to go read a book," she said.

We had a lot of salad when I was a child. "Cool," you say, picturing kale and dried cranberries and balsamic vinaigrette, without realizing that until just a few short years ago "salad" meant a quarter of a head of lettuce plopped onto a plate. I wasn't a fan until Mom suddenly, inexplicably made friends with another single mother and we went to her house for dinner. We stared awestruck at the lazy Susan in the center of the table festooned with dozens of multicolored bottles of various shapes and sizes.

"What is that?" Sue whispered.

We watched as one of the other kids opened a bottle and poured some of the contents on his lettuce wedge. "It's some kind of salad lubricant," I guessed.

The other kids noticed our reluctance to partake, and soon a curious look had spread across the family. "You've had salad dressing before, right?" one of the kids asked.

"We have it all the time," B.A. lied. She twisted off the cap of one bottle and watched in amazement as a half-cup of Thousand Island glopped onto her lettuce wedge. She tried a bite and then, still trying to feign disinterest, shoveled it into her mouth at blinding speed.

The other kids looked to me for confirmation. "We eat plain lettuce with nothing on it," I said. "I have never seen this before in my life."

And then all eyes turned to Sue. "We've eaten something very similar," she said.

That's it, I think. I'm alone. Sue smiles innocently; it's another compromise. She's good at it, and she's proud of it. She's the middle child, and that's her job. I don't say much throughout the rest of the meal, and quiz her for details later. She didn't want to make trouble. She didn't want to embarrass Mom.

And really, is it all that different from mayonnaise?

Rancho Chucko

     1 pound ground beef
     1 can sliced mushrooms
     1 package Velveeta processed cheese
     1 loaf french bread, sliced horizontally

Brown the ground beef in a frying pan. Spoon onto the bread along with the mushrooms and the cheese. Broil until bubbly and somebody screams, "OH HOLY GOD, NOT THIS CRAP AGAIN!!!"