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Monthly Archives: March 2013

The Easter Story of an Emergent Agnostic/Atheist

The Easter Story of an Emergent Agnostic/Atheist

The plaster cast felt like a glove, and it was about as tough. If I had molded it into a more grabby shape, I probably could have played hockey in it. I couldn’t help but make fun of the absurdity of a solid, hard plaster cast of my own right arm. It was to be exhibited on an artistic interpretation of the Stations of the Cross, some kind of Jesus-related thing I had never heard of until a couple of weeks previous. Over the preparation for the exhibit, I also helped mold and paint little crosses.

The Stations of the Cross wasn’t a concept I had any kind of attachment to, at all. It sounded like another bit of Christian dogma my pastor had not bothered to teach me about in confirmation class. At least, I didn’t remember being taught anything about it. Considering that I hated confirmation class and had been seething quietly through what I considered an elaborate initiation ritual which would allow me full membership into my church’s wine and wafer club, I was concerned with getting just enough info to pass the final than actually learning anything. Confirmation class was a course I spent two years sitting through, after all, when no one I knew could offer a remotely satisfying answer to the question: WHY am I being denied what is obviously a very important sacrament of Christianity until I listened to my minister’s blah blah blah-ing for two hours every freaking Tuesday for two freaking years? Apparently I had missed a commandment somewhere along the line. Thou shalt have no other gods. Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt take a two-year course to determine thine communion worthiness. Yeah, sounded about right.

Well, my inquisitiveness took its toll. Seven years after my confirmation, I had ditched Christianity entirely for a whole new religion. Three years after that, I ditched religion entirely. One of the instigators of my religious walkout was that everyone was dying for me to be able to perform rituals and recite passages on command, like some kind of dog/parrot genetic mutation. I was – am – an atheist, in large part because of these unbending dogmas I was being taught, and in even larger part because I had a bad habit of asking just where these rituals were written out in the Bible. The people I was questioning had an even worse habit of telling me the church does it that way because the church has ALWAYS done it that way. Grace Commons, my faith community in Chicago, was a breath of fresh air when I stumbled into it because here, at last, was a community which was challenging the very fundamental core of religion. The questioning of old religious tenants didn’t keep them from partaking in some of the rituals, though, so I saw no harm in partaking in the preparation and execution of the Stations..

Grace Commons being Grace Commons, they needed to give the Stations of the Cross an artistic spin. I was game and, truth be told, a little eager to see if I could get away with a little bit of stealth blasphemy. We created 15 stations with our own metaphorical spins on the traditional imagery. In the third station, in which Jesus fell for the first time, we created a drawing of a cross being pushed over by a montage of images of the world’s suffering and injustices, and propped back up with another montage of positive images of things which prop people in times of need. The tenth station, in which Jesus is stripped, was a board covered with red paint and black fabric. The fourth station, where Jesus met his mother, was a hand drawing of Jesus and Mary consoling each other.

I had a grand old time creating the exhibits. While creating the little clay crosses, I was given artistic license to create them however I saw fit, long as they were crosses. So I made a bunch of kooky-looking traditional crosses, some Celtic crosses, and one slab of clay on which I carved the word “CROSS” in large, commanding letters. I painted them however I saw fit, and I also created a weird little mold of my hand. Still, while I was doing these things, it was more out of my enthusiasm for being a creator than out of any attachment I had to Christianity. I had no feelings toward the Stations of the Cross one way or the other. As far as I was concerned, they were just another unwritten faith tenant the church had culled from the air in order to control the masses by promising some extra brownie points with God. My mother was more excited for my participation than I was. The Stations of the Cross had been something she knew while growing up as a Catholic. She was more appreciative of rigid religious observances and routines than I was, even though she’s a bit of a religious upstream swimmer herself.

The big day came, and I walked in fully prepared to make a few observations and maybe crack a few jokes. Basically, I was expecting to be at least mildly underwhelmed. I had never been particularly moved by the religious displays I had seen everywhere growing up, after all. Maybe it was just a result of the fact that everything about the killed-for-my-sins idea seemed was so distant, or that the questions I had surrounding the entire doctrine had wrecked it for me, or that I had been numbed by the imagery, but the common images always left me with a rather blase attitude. Well, my visit to this display felt a lot different. It WAS different, in a few ways. Instead of the redundant imagery of Jesus going through his crucifixion, the imagery in the Grace Commons Stations felt current, relevant. The focus of the Stations were rarely on Jesus, and few of the Stations featured his likeness at all. I saw the first Station (the condemnation of Jesus) with its portrayal of mob violence, and it clicked. My sense of cynicism had departed by the second Station, a painting of a man grieving the loss of his firstborn child, a metaphorical representation of Jesus being given the cross he had to bear.

Each Station was questioning me, and leaving me challenged; challenged about my ideas of injustice and sin; challenged about my role in fighting them; challenged about how I might have been a contributor. Many ideas which I held to be black and white in the past were being stirred up and tinted in grey. My mind searched for answers and coherent thought with each display as I moved along, and I began to withdraw into myself in a way I had done very few times in the past. By the 14th Station, a display of Jesus being placed into the tomb, I felt drained and somewhat broken down. Station 14’s display was that of a ghostly white face, against a white background, with a translucent white shroud covering it, inside of a pitch-black room lit only by a small flashlight which was there only to illuminate a real prayer, written by a Jew during the Holocaust, asking for the captors to be forgiven of their sins.

Station 14 was the point where I finally tore up. I choked up and fell silent and, in dire need of a breather, I returned to the area where the service had taken place. My thought had now overwhelmed me to the point where everything was now blending together and being replaced by a raw, unnamed emotion. As a handful of others slowly filed into the room after me, all I did was sit and watch the candle flames perform their silky tango. It was a half hour before anyone was able to say anything, and it was only once everyone had processed what we just saw that our usual post-service chirpiness started filling the room.

The traditional pictures of the Crucifixion had never affected me. Having seen them since a very early age at which I wasn’t able to understand what they were, I didn’t realize they were supposed to be affecting pictures of a suffering deity, and so I never had any feelings toward them one way or another. And now I was sitting here, with a series of images seemingly disconnected from the event, moved in a way I had never been by anything religious. Of course, it wouldn’t send me running to dunk my head into the baptismal font, but after many years of religious instruction being hotly questioned and abandoned, I couldn’t help but feel like something was finally working.


A Review of Premium Rush by a Former Bicycle Messenger

A Review of Premium Rush by a Former Bicycle Messenger

Premium Rush won my heart so thoroughly with its opening monologue alone that it would have taken a galactic screwup for me to be completely put off it. Reviewers have made a lot over one small line in said monologue: “I like to ride. Fixed gear. No brakes. Can’t stop. Don’t want to, either.” Its been called smarmy and ridiculous, but I doubt much of the bicycle messenger community shares that opinion. I worked that dangerous and punishing job myself on the Chicago circuit for several years, and in my official capacity as a former messenger (no, we don’t call ourselves couriers), I can honestly say the opening monologue – which actually rambles on for a couple of minutes – wouldn’t be a better summary of a messenger’s job had I written it myself. Yes, it’s a movie, and so writer/director David Koepp is naturally prone to taking some Hollywood license with it. But he also captures enough of what life is really like for this unique breed that I wondered if he had ever made his living as a messenger himself. By my estimation, the accuracy rate of the portrayal of messenger work in Premium Rush stands around 80 percent.

If Koepp didn’t work as a messenger, then it’s eerie that he was able to write it so well. I notice a lot of reviewers tend to look at the script of Premium Rush with an air of disbelief, naturally thinking Koepp was writing in the drama of “messing” as he pleased. Messing, though, is a job in which the real life might be more unbelievable than anything based on it. The main character in Premium Rush, Wilee, rides a fixed gear bicycle. Fixies, as they’re called, are track bicycles made strictly for racing. Fixed gear means the gear is directly attached to the chain, to the bike can only move when you peddle. They’re made with an emphasis on lightness and speed, so most of them don’t have brakes; the ones that do have only one brake. Fixies are possibly the most insanely dangerous bicycles on Earth even if you know what you’re doing, but some messengers really DO use them, although the practice isn’t common. Also, people who have been messengers for any serious length of time do have multiple stories about getting hit by cars, doored, and flipped over their handlebars. There was an early scene in Premium Rush where one messenger makes a phone call from a freight elevator, showing that in many buildings messengers ARE segregated from the business public and made to go through the back. (This isn’t good for the messenger; freight elevators are very slow, and since almost all messengers are contractors, time is money. The messenger union once held a strike outside of one building on LaSalle Street in Chicago because it was easy to spend 20 minutes waiting for the freight. Another building, on Wacker, tried making messengers go through the freight for a few months, but that experiment was quickly axed when the businesses in the place complained that delivery slowed to a crawl.) Messengers frequently eat, drink, and make phone calls on the peddle. Ripping off motorists’ mirrors really is a way messengers frequently attack drivers if they’ve been pushed too far, except in real life we don’t use our locks to do it because they’re bulky and mirrors aren’t the most tightly bolted part of a car. We know there’s no consequence for such a thing, ever, because who besides the driver will care? Yes, it’s possible Koepp might have written everything believing he was just making the movie more exciting, but take it from the pro: THIS STUFF REALLY HAPPENS.

Naturally, I was jacked at the release of Premium Rush, a movie which featured a messenger as the hero! Unfortunately, my euphoria was knocked out a little at the beginning of the movie because of the attitude of the main character, Wilee. Mercenary attitudes are common in messing, but Wilee acts like one of the anti-heroes from 90’s movies. It’s a point against the movie because it makes him unlikable, and shows that the only reason he’s the hero is because Premium Rush needed a hero. So anyway, here’s this perfectly ordinary bicycle messenger named Wilee, who gets sent to a location to pick up an envelope and make what is supposed to be an everyday run. As he heads out, a guy in a fancy suit walks up to him and starts demanding the envelope. See, he REALLY NEEDS it! Wilee, being the honor-bound and noble messenger, of course escaps him and is off to make an average run as part of his $80-a-day job. This scene, by the way, is one that requires suspension of disbelief from messengers. If someone wants a package off a messenger THAT badly, he’s getting it, no questions asked. No matter how committed, all messengers know there’s no such thing as a package worth dying for, and I knew one or two people who had no reservations about outright destroying packages out of frustration themselves, though it was extremely rare.

Anyway, things kick up a notch when Wilee hits the road and douchebag suit is now following him in his car! He just doesn’t give up, even when Wilee jumps into the other lane to ride into traffice coming at him. (This happens in real life.) Koepp makes some astounding chase sequences though the movie, and there are some incredible stunts. The chase sequences make Premium Rush fun, and it occurs to me that, had the chase alone been the whole movie, it would have been a wild ride and ended a lot better. In fact, Premium Rush could have spotlighted a day in the life of a bike messenger, and it would have been very exciting.

That’s ultimately where Premium Rush goes wrong. A lot of reviewers like to point out the whole thing takes place in real time, but it certainly doesn’t feel like real time. Real time is when the entire movie follows one character for the whole 90 to 120 minutes spent watching it. Well, Koepp and his co-writer, John Kamps, get credit for the realisation that, had Premium Rush followed Wilee through this one delivery, it would have been shorter than the average sitcom episode. So how does he get around the problem? By creating arbitrary contrivances, of course! After a few minutes of the first chase, the movie then decides it should probably try to develop the bad guy. Now, the bad guy chasing Wilee, Bobby Monday, is so over-the-top that he would have worked better without a background. But not only does Monday get a background, he gets a backstory which would make us sympathetic to him had he not been so over-the-top. He needs what’s in the envelope to pay off a gambling debt before his loan shark knocks him off.

Oh, yeah, Monday’s a cop. So Wilee can’t just go running to the Police. To the screenwriters’ credit, he thinks of that, but that plan is abruptly axed when Monday shows up at the station Wilee visits to file his complaint. After he escapes the station, the whole movie goes nuts. Wilee has to outrun Monday, a particularly zealous bicycle cop who is also out to get him for, well, I don’t know. (Seriously, the only crime Wilee committed was riding on the sidewalk. As much as pedestrians whined and threatened to call the Police at messengers who got too close, the cops DON’T CARE. Especially not the officers who are also on bicycles. The only time they’ll say anything is if the messenger is dangerously close to running them over, and even then, we’ll get off with nothing but a stern warning.) Wilee also goes to return the package from where he got it because he’s angry. (Would never happen.) Alas, one of his messenger buddies gets it first and now Wilee, guilt-ridden after finding out what the package would mean for the person who originally called for it, has to race his pal to get it back.

Did I just ramble through two paragraphs off my original point? I guess I did. So anyway, plot contrivances are just one of the ways Premium Rush pads its length. The other is flashbacks, which are in there for the sole purpose of telling the story that could easily have been told just as easily chonologically. In doing this, the filmmakers give themselves both a gimmick and a way to get around the inconvenience of having a gimmick. It’s certainly nice to know what the story is, but the way it’s presented destroys the flow of the movie. There’s a chase, then a flashback, chase, flashback, chase, flashback. Virtually every switch of a scene feels disruptive, especially during the action sequences because here you are, just enjoying yourself and tuning out when you suddenly have to turn the switch back on to pay attention again.

Want more contrivance? Wilee is also having girlfriend problems. Apparently his best friend, Manny, is moving in on his girl because the girl (who, by the way, is a messenger) thinks Wilee is out of his freaking mind. Manny is also a messenger. See, the difference is that Manny isn’t out of his freaking mind like Wilee is. We know that because he uses a proper road bicycle with real shifters and brakes! So, through the course of the movie, we see these three knotheads call each other while making their runs almost constantly. (Doesn’t happen, at least not with messengers who use phones provided by their services. Messengers DO makes phone calls on the fly – it’s damn near required to be able to pull that off – but the calls are only with dispatchers.) Does boy get girl back? When has the hero of an action movie ever been left hanging for nookie?

Half of Premium Rush, I was rooting for Monday. That’s how bad this sucker is with its characters. After all, Monday had the mob on his tail and we don’t know what the hell some other person wants with the envelope until later. When Wilee made his inevitable heel-face turn, I wasn’t sure I believed it. Maybe that could be seen as more length-padding desperation – Koepp and Kamps were so stuck that they made the mistake of trying to develop the guy we’re supposed to hate.

Once my messenger years were behind me, I felt a little conflicted about walking away. On the one hand, I’ll never have the kind of personal freedom offered by messing again. On the other, since it’s a poor-paying contract job, I walked away with a mountain of debt in taxes and medical bills, the latter of which I haven’t even started to repay, and was glad I wouldn’t see them rise more. I’m also now afflicted with a series of cumulative old injuries upon which my body – especially my wrist and ankle – will never be the same. Ultimately, I’m glad I’m not a messenger anymore, even if the economy did force me to move back home. Yet, there is an understandable appeal to the lifestyle. That also sums up my feelings about Premium Rush; some truly wonderful points, but the experience just didn’t feel worth it to me.

Be nice to your messengers.

Blood Pressure

Blood Pressure

I’m beginning to think my body hates me for something. As I’ve said before, I have a rare blood type and am therefore a regular donor over at the local branch of the Red Cross. Last year I started receiving frequent deferrals because my blood lacked iron. I did some digging about bodily nutrition, though, and once I learn just what the problem was, I finally learned an effective way to counter it. Unfortunately, our bodies tend to evolve and develop, and with its first line of defense against the needle gone, my body has found a second way to stay safe from the vampires: High blood pressure.

Naturally, this new development drove me right back to my nutritional research to see if I could pinpoint a problem. What I learned was that I’m actually getting my blood pressure routine mostly right. I exercise regularly, every day. Although I’m not Mr. Healthy Eating Choice, I do watch what goes into my body. While I’m an alcohol enthusiast, I don’t actually drink that much of it. My cardio exercise routines have been slipping lately, though, because the weather has been less than permitting, and a couple of days before my Red Cross appointment, I did enjoy a beer upon completion of well-written essay I was working on. These aren’t huge indiscretions, though. I still try to get out for exercise whenever I can, and my alcohol consumption is still largely minimal.

The big mistake I may have been making is my caffeine intake, which is comparatively massive. I drink several cups of coffee a day. This isn’t good for my blood pressure, and I don’t think it’s particularly good for my muscle growth, either. I know I have to cut back, but for now it’s easier to merely say that. Doing it is another act, seeing as how I happen to really, really like my coffee. Maybe it’s my old soda addiction cropping up to haunt me in a different corporeal form, but the idea of giving up my daily black go-get-’em nectar doesn’t appeal very much.

I’m making another effort again in another couple of weeks. Hopefully I can manage to knock off some of my caffeine intake and get my bicycle repaired in order to actually be eligible this time. We’ll see.