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Monthly Archives: January 2014

The Worst Best Picture Oscar Snubs of the 90’s

The Worst Best Picture Oscar Snubs of the 90’s

I recently learned that in today’s film classes, the 1990’s are regarded as a golden age of movies. Well, damn! This is proof that we are very rarely able to guess what history is taking place, when it’s taking place, even if it’s in the culture right in front of our faces. The 1990’s being a golden age of cinema? This is assuming academia is now under full awareness of the fact that the 90’s are the decade that brought Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay into prominence. It’s probably the worst decade in the long career of Martin Scorsese, who started the decade with Goodfellas but went the rest of it directing Cape Fear, The Age of Innocence, Casino, Kundun, and Bringing Out the Dead. Teen movies ripping off old literature got to be in vogue. Bruce Willis never was really able to follow through on the action star promise he began showing in Die Hard.

Into the void we enter the Oscars. They are still used as an all-time barometer of a movie’s true greatness, although for the life of me I can’t remember why that is. Well, it could have something to do with the fact that so many of them have been given out to so many undeserving movies. Alas, people still use the Academy Awards as a be-all for foretelling classic status, even though plenty have been given out to movies no one can remember. That brings us to what I’m writing about: The best 90’s movies that got shafted for the Best Picture Oscar. The criteria I’m using for this list is that they have to have been nominated for Best Picture during the 90’s but lost. That, unfortunately, leaves out plenty of movies that lost out on nominations in the first place for not being traditional Best Picture nominees, but that should only back up how stupid the Academy is. I’m not putting The Screwed Movies in any particular order, but do know that some of these film injustices were more outrageous than others.

Goodfellas
For my money, Goodfellas is the greatest gangster movie ever made. Sure, everyone love to quote the wisdom of The Godfather, but it’s Goodfellas which brings a sort of gritty darkness to the sub-genre. The movie gives us a viewpoint of the gangster world and just how surreal and weird it can be – violence is sudden and flash-quick rather than calculated; characters make wisecracks about people getting hurt and killed; and the movie manages the incredible trick of celebrating the gangster lifestyle at the same time as it shows us why living it might not be a very good idea. The way it’s crafted is something taught in film 101, from the careful tracking shots to the numerous improvised scenes. Yet, Goodfellas lost Best Picture to Dances with Wolves – a good movie, yes, but also one with a black and white moralistic viewpoint in which many of the important scenes feature underdeveloped, irrational characters.

Saving Private Ryan
This is the BIG one. Everyone knew the fallout would be brutal just seconds after the envelope was opened and Shakespeare in Love was announced as Best Picture. Steven Spielberg’s war drama – bookended by two of the greatest war scenes ever shot – changed the way we viewed war through a movie lens. Quentin Tarantino put it best when, expressing his admiration for Saving Private Ryan, he said it was impossible to look at the scenes from the old World War II classics the same way – the idea that 40 men could be wiped out in seconds in a hail of machine gun bullets was suddenly more real, and more terrifying. In spite of the brutal portrayal of war violence, Spielberg still managed to create a narrative about soldiers searching for their inner humanity in the midst of a surrounding carnage in which it might have been lost.

Pulp Fiction
I suppose it’s understandable why Pulp Fiction lost to Forrest Gump. Gump was a schmaltzy, heartwarming little movie whereas Pulp Fiction didn’t really do anything of note, did it? It only challenged the idea of structure linearity, brought on a whole new movement of daring independent movies, and littered the media scape with a giant slew of dialogue and scenes to poke affectionate fun at. The reason I consider Quentin Tarantino great isn’t because of all that, though; it’s because he’s a director who’s trained himself to create impact. Everything he writes in dialogue and films in scenes is created with the intent of really making it stick. Its been 20 years since the release of Pulp Fiction, and yet it’s still very easy for even the most remedial film buffs to quote Winston Wolfe, Honey Bunny, Captain Koons, and Marsellus Wallace. And none of those characters play especially large roles.

The Shawshank Redemption
The Shawshank Redemption got beat in Best Picture the same year Pulp Fiction did. Shawshank sort of plays around with us – is it a drama about life for an innocent man in jail? A critique of the system? It can’t really be referred to as a character movie, since so many of its characters are in and out. It took an observation from Roger Ebert before I was really able to think of a way to describe it: The importance of The Shawshank Redemption comes from its portrayal of integrity, and a man’s way of holding onto his in a place meant to break him of it. Main character Andy Dufresne spends 19 years shacked up in hell, and knowing his innocence allows him to keep finding a sense of purpose.

LA Confidential
Another one of the Academy’s classic fuckups, 1997 saw the ignorance of this movie, Good Will Hunting, As Good as it Gets, and The Full Monty in order to throw the Oscar at Titanic. Now, I loved Titanic, but that’s solely on its merits as a disaster movie. (I happen to love good disaster movies, and Titanic might be the best ever made.) In the process, the clear superior was this densely layered mystery/thriller about a corrupt Police department in Los Angeles. LA Confidential contained equally complex characters and plot, and watching it gives one the sense of the classic caper in that everyone has pertinent information they’re not privy to blabbing. This is a movie that demands a viewer’s fullest attention, and is frequently capable of holding onto it even through the repeated viewings necessitated by the labyrinthine series of events that can drive a moviegoer mad trying to put everything together. They don’t make capers like this anymore, not ever.

The Sixth Sense
This might be my own personal preference coming into play here. The 1999 winner, American Beauty, is one during the decade I don’t have any real problems with. The Sixth Sense, however, was more than just a ghost story, at least to me. It’s one movie where the chilly, morose directorial style of M Night Shyamalan presented the theme exactly as it was supposed to. Far from being a supernatural story, The Sixth Sense is about the world from the point of view of its main character, Cole, a little boy whose supernatural gift makes him an outcast. Cole is basically living a life of isolation in a world where his peers write him off as “one of them.” Gradually, Cole comes to accept who he is through the help of a therapist who teaches him to integrate his condition into his everyday life. Forget the famous twist ending – concentrating on that is missing the entire point.

Beauty and the Beast
This is another case of me not having a big problem with the winner – The Silence of the Lambs in this case – so much as people considering the loser less of a movie, especially since that viewpoint rarely takes into account the Academy’s clear bias against comedies and animation. I also don’t fully buy into the popular view of Belle acting on a severe case of Stockholm Syndrome. At the very least, I think the view is grossly oversimplified. What I saw was one of Disney’s most independent-minded, courageous, and resourceful heroines. Belle refused to buckle to the town traditions, bargained for her father’s freedom, and had to use Beast’s servants – who were legitimately warm to her from her first appearance – as a communication buffer between herself and Beast. Eventually, she was able to bring out his good side. This was one of Disney’s last truly great animated movies.

Fargo
This movie, which lost to The English Patient, answered the burning question of what would happen if a movie was created that refused to define itself. Fargo at times comes off comedic, thrilling, senseless, and heartwarming, and all of it is engrossing.

A Few Good Men
Aaron Sorkin’s big breakthrough movie lost the Best Picture award to Unforgiven. Unforgiven is a great movie, but I always thought A Few Good Men got thumb-nosed a lot. Yes, A Few Good Men is schmaltz, but at least it’s well-done schmaltz that manages to carry its story through fantastic dialogue. It also doesn’t depend on heavy-handed melodrama, unlike some other movies that DID win the high prize (ahem, Forrest Gump). And anyone who claims they’ve never quoted the scene where Jack Nicholson finally answers Tom Cruise’s demands for the truth is just a liar.

Apollo 13
The astronauts of Apollo 13 were, in real life, stuck in one of the scariest and most desperate of situations imaginable: They were out in space, days away from Earth, with their very life support system running away from them. It’s a pretty difficult feeling to try to capture in a movie, all the more so when you’re trying to base all the suspense around technical difficulties and advanced mathematics. Although Apollo 13 features periodic cuts back to the NASA base and to the astronauts’ families, when director Ron Howard puts you inside Apollo 13, he REALLY puts you in Apollo 13, in a way few space movies ever have. Howard also captures the era, showing the indifference which greeted the Apollo crew’s original broadcasts from space to a public which had seen enough of it to be bored of it – only to become engaged by the fact that it might be possible for the crew to actually die in space. Apollo 13 lost to Braveheart. While the two of them are about equal in quality, Apollo 13 is definitely the more accurate in regards to its era.

Good Will Hunting
Another one of Titanic’s conquests, Good Will Hunting was an inspiring movie that turned the whole nerd trope of the 90’s onto its head. Main character Will Hunting, despite being a janitor at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is very content with his life on the outside. Then after his latest brush with the law, he’s placed with a counselor who challenges him. The payoff is a little on the weak side, but Good Will Hunting is one of those movies less about the whole than the sum of its parts. Ultimately, what Good Will Hunting is doing is challenging the idea of pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps toughness, eternal steely exteriors, and fear of intellectualism many blue-collar neighborhoods – including the one I was raised in – hold so close to their hearts.

Here’s the full list of winners: 1990-Dances with Wolves. 1991-The Silence of the Lambs. 1992-Unforgiven. 1993-Schindler’s List. 1994-Forrest Gump. 1995-Braveheart. 1996-The English Patient. 1997-Titanic. 1998-Shakespeare in Love. 1999-American Beauty. Braveheart is a bit of a wild card – I love it myself, but observers smarter than me don’t have the affection that I do for it. Considerable attacks can be mounted on Forrest Gump and Dances with Wolves, but the two I really save my ire for are Titanic and Shakespeare in Love. I actually love Titanic; I own it on video, but like I mentioned, I love it only for its merit as a disaster movie. The visuals are amazing, but the weak story is just another cinematic rehash of Romeo and Juliet while the only characters who come off like they might have the potential to be interesting – and who, you know, EXISTED ON THE REAL TITANIC – are mostly given throwaway lines in throwaway scenes. Shakespeare in Love, however, slammed the door on a lot of the respect that I had given the Academy Awards, and I never got it back. Take away the pretty Victorian scenery and all you get is the umpteenth love story, except in this case the woman is forced to play dress-up and the man is William Shakespeare, needing inspiration for his new play. Its been completely forgotten since then, and those who remember it now associate it only with Dame Judi Dench – whose eight-minute performance, to be fair, was the only thing in the movie worth watching – and Gwenyth Paltrow, the newest rich brat to think she’s qualified to offer pseudo-spiritual advice to the masses. At least she’s not as bad as Elizabeth Gilbert.

Why I Question

Why I Question

My annual catch-up with Nanette ended up waiting a few days. She had just flown in on a flight from Malibu, and those travel change climate colds don’t wait for anyone. So instead of doing the how-ya-been routine at Grace Commons per normal, we ended up going to one of the local coffee shops a few days later for the latest highlights.

At one point, Nanette asked me if there was a place in my life now that filled the question cavity left in my heart after leaving Grace Commons. There really isn’t, and distance has been the determining factor in my ability to find one. While some people have asked me why I don’t simply attend the Wesleyan place across the street and down a block – thus completely missing the point of what made Grace Commons so important to me, why I went, and my entire fucking belief system – I’ve run into a couple of potentials. One was a dead end because of distance and time. The other, which was located right on the UB campus, was a dead end because it seemed unwilling to tackle a lot of the big issues I have.

During our conversation, Nanette once again presented me with the question many people, herself included, asked me a million times: Why? What is it that makes me, an outspoken disbeliever, attend this odd little church in an attempt to find some sort of spirituality? I gave Nanette my answer. It seemed like a reasonable answer, and at the time, it sounded convincing enough, at least in my own little world. Honestly, though, I can’t remember a single word of the answer I gave. A million times being asked that very question have resulted in about two million different answers, and that doesn’t even include the overlap. Through every iteration of the question and the explanatory statements I always struggled to come up with, I’ve been asking myself that very question. I hate organized religion, so what was the entire point of going into a registered presbyterian church during prime football hours? I would cite the old Catholic guilt theory, but I’ve never been Catholic.

Finally, I think I have the answer. Not one I was forced to improvise on the spur of the moment, but the thought-out, honest reflection that I’m really feeling. Of course, it came to me in the fashion of that perfect insult comeback in that I managed to think of it after our meeting, but here it is.

The first reason is that this world keeps putting the strain on us to pick and choose between either the wonder of knowledge and the wonder of imagination. Grace Commons was able to find a way to offer me both at the same time. I love the solid inarguability of those fun little things that give us greater understanding on the universe – maths and sciences – and am guided in large part by my vast imagination. And let’s face it, some of the stuff written in these holy books is pretty ridiculous. It doesn’t take an evolutionary biologist to see just how much of it was pulled from the air to go with what was thought to be scientific fact back in those days, and back then people believed that when it rained, the sky was obviously crashing to the earth. Yet, it’s my imagination which has been a primary source of comfort, companionship, and imagination for an enormous chunk of my life. I haven’t seen a science yet that has been a divinity killshot, and so I still remain open-minded about the whole god-actually-existing issue. Declaring a more positive form of atheism based on scientific evidence which – while disproving a lot of scriptures – has nothing to do with some all-powerful force that controls everything. Although I’m very skeptical and will ask for harder evidence than Jesus Toast to determine miraculous happenings, I’m still very open-minded about the idea of some supernatural being acting as a giant science puppetmaster. Ruling out the possibility of a deity just because another biological gap was scienced out of the equation would be going against something which, despite only being a part of my imagination, has still been enough to encourage me to better myself and reach for greater heights as a person.

We can call this my Mulder and Scully Node, in order to keep it simple.

The second, more important reason is that religion is a device people frequently use to find comfort and contentment if they’re doing it right. After I discovered Grace Commons, it didn’t take me very long to discover something odd about myself: I like my religious uncertainty. My inner peace comes from my right to ask big, mysterious questions about the nature of gods and religions and have them be taken seriously in lieu of the usual brush-off answers. I love to ask questions in Bible study groups and listen to their various interpretations of what one passage or character means to them. Questioning is my real religion, and I enjoy the uncertainty because it keeps me grounded and always in search of greater knowledge, both religious and scientific. Questioning is, ironically, how I manage to keep my peace and sanity in this odd little world. Some churchgoers pray or meditate or read through their favorite holy books. I ask difficult questions and demand answers beyond having a little faith, reading scriptures more, or the lord working those mysterious ways of his.

As you can imagine, churches that are able to provide me with such an outlet are rare and precious things. Most of them are exclusive worshipers of Cowboy Jesus who, when confronted with the big questions, will give out answers created to bring me closer into commune with the god they created themselves. I’ve never felt marginalized or pressured into conversion there. I was always free to be as critical as I thought was necessary. I felt a connection with the place that I had never had before at church or mosque because many of the others were damaged questioners themselves. Yet, they’ve always been able to challenge my perceptions of the scriptures, and the very idea of religion itself. I once asked Nanette what she saw in The Bible, since she accepted its logic imperfections, translation messes, and blatant plagiarism of other religions. She said, in a nutshell, that she saw a book about human beings and their imperfections and the consequences of their actions.

I once believed self-discipline and everyday prayer were the keys to getting on God’s good side. Now I’ve challenged and exploded everything I was ever taught about The Bible, which is okay since, you know, God doesn’t exist anyway. But there’s a wonderful irony in the fact that, during my misguided youthful attempts at being Mr. Altar Boy, it was only after going atheist and having everything I ever knew about my former religion wiped out by a wrecking ball that I started really thinking about and applying myself in a way reminiscent of the earliest followers of Christ.

If my old confirmation class had been like this, I might not have been scolded by constant parent/minister meetings. And I might have gotten something a lot more out of it than just resentment and contempt toward the Wine and Wafer Club and all those other brainless church traditions.

The Worst Travel Story Ever

The Worst Travel Story Ever

My arrival in Chicago went exactly as planned, and I rolled in on the Amtrak right at 9 AM on Friday morning, just as I was supposed to. Except it wasn’t 9 AM, it was actually 9 PM. And I wasn’t riding in on the Amtrak, but some charter bus service called Lakefront. Or maybe it was Lakeshore? Lakeside…. Lake…. Well, there was definitely a Lake prefix, that much I’m certain of. I’m also well aware that my starting this odd little journey was on a real train. Much as I would love to write off everything that happened as a nightmare, I have the train tickets in my suitcase to prove everything happened.

It would have been really cool to run around telling everyone how my Amtrak train pulled a sudden, Transformers-style morph into a charter bus in an effort to chase down Megatron. That fact that that’s not what happened, however, probably doesn’t make this story any less horrifyingly compelling.

My original train was scheduled to depart from the Buffalo/Depew station at 11:59 PM on Thursday night. In other words, it was scheduled to leave on Friday morning. And what would you figure, I can honestly say that Friday morning was exactly when it left! I like to imagine the thinking of the people in charge of the trains running on time looked at the departure times and said Whatever, Friday morning is Friday morning, right? No one will ever notice the difference! The difference in question ran about nine hours, so midnight was seen and acted upon as a 9 AM departure. You may remember that 9 AM time from the first paragraph up there. So, basically, I was just pulling away from the Buffalo station at the very same time I was supposed to be pulling into Union Station in Chicago. There’s barely a difference, right?

Fortunately, I had the sense to call ahead and check my train’s running time, so I got to sleep in my own bed before departure. The next slated departure time was supposed to be at 8 AM on Friday morning. Up and ready I was, ever the morning person, eager to get to the station where the inevitable next delay would occur and last for an hour. It was 9 AM, as mentioned, when the train showed itself.

If there was a bright spot in this so far, it was that a million people abandoned their tickets, so the tickets I waited to buy cost about $70 less. They should have been free. Anyway, I took my usual window spot on the Amtrak, wide-eyed and optimistic in eagerness to once again view the rising skyline of Chicago in person. My giddiness lasted until I got up to make my first pit stop. Upon making my way to the back of the train, I pulled on the handle of one of the doors. It was locked. I turned to the other one and pulled it, and it was locked too. When this happens, the first thought that pops into the train goer’s head is to just move to the next car and use the bathroom there, but hell, those were locked too! Now, at this point, there still nothing wrong in my own little world. It’s unusual for all these bathrooms to be locked at the same time, but there are more people on the train than bathrooms, so hey, it’s possible, right? I tried a few more cars before returning to my seat. Odd, yes, but I didn’t think anything was off until the second time I got up and three more doors were locked before I finally got into one that was open. It was definitely weird. Were there potheads on the train and they all decided to get high at once?

Further use of the bathrooms resulted in me learning there were only three bathrooms open on this train, and two of them weren’t flushing. Amtrak definitely receives a credit for the sheer chutzpah of taking a hundred passengers out somewhere on a double-digit-hour trip, providing ample supplies of coffee, pop, and booze the whole way while subtly telling everyone they had to hold it in. Yeah, it should be pretty easy to guess how the whole episode ended. Two improperly working bathrooms meant two backed-up toilets which apparently no one on the train was qualified to do anything about.

The Lake Shore Limited, however, made steady progress through New York and Pennsylvania. In Cleveland, the usual half-hour stretch break was even waved because there were folks who had to get where they were going. After Cleveland, things slowed down a little bit. After Elyria, they slowed down a lot. Great, so now the passengers were forced to deal with a slow-going train without their bathroom breaks, and the people kept being up to the challenge despite the increasing frequency of train stoppages. I guess the boys at Amtrak were getting a little close to the Union Pacific running time, because the train began making constant stops to let the freight trains flow across our windows. This significantly cut back our progress to Sandusky, and by the time of the Sandusky stop, the train was creeping along like Solid Snake in a ventilation shaft.

It was between Sandusky and Toledo that we received the news: Amtrak had decided to give us up due to frozen track problems. Now, this isn’t the first time I’ve been forced to deal with frozen tracks on the Amtrak, but I do have to wonder: Aren’t there engineers available to take care of stuff like this in a timely fashion? The frozen vortex isn’t an excuse. This is the Third Coast. It gets cold up here. Freezing weather is a fact of life, and yet, every time it happens, Amtrak does the Sun Belt-drivers-in-snow routine and clams up. You would think no one ever had to deal with cold weather before. We were going to be thrown off the Amtrak and placed on charter buses which would go on straight to Chicago.

As the train got closer and closer to Toledo, we were given constant reassurances – and also complimentary beef stew – by the crew that Toledo was only ten minutes away, and that we would soon be off the train and on our way. After this experience, I now officially believe Amtrak’s ten-minutes away line is less a real measure of time than a way of keeping the passengers from rebelling and taking control of the train. We all knew the train could have been moving a lot faster than it was, and it really should have been. Yet, it insisted on rattlesnake shaking its way into Toledo, and those ten minutes must have been symbolic of something. Ten minutes until the next ten minute announcement, perhaps? I made conversation with the passenger in the seat next to me, who used a tablet to look up the precise location of Toledo. We were still 20 miles off when he did that. An Amtrak moving at even a halfway decent clip could have covered that in about 15 minutes.

During the snail ride into Toledo, I started to have my most vivid romanticized fantasies ever about bus travel. I had taken the Megabus from Chicago to St. Louis, after all, and it hadn’t been so bad. Perhaps I was a wee bit rash? Surely a bus, no matter how delayed, could be better than this. Well, when we finally pulled into Toledo, it was past 4 PM, and I immediately made my way to the bus. I got on, took a seat, and slammed my shin against the plastic foot stand. While that might have been a recoverable injury, I sat down by my window, and all those vivid bus fantasies I had got shot to hell. It was cramped. I mean, it was really cramped. When another passenger got on and sat down next to me, it was even worse.

The worst part of this, though, was the fact that the bus driver kept climbing on and off the bus. There was no way this could have served any possible purpose. At one point, he climbed off in order to open up more luggage compartments for checked luggage. And who the hell knows just what he was doing the other times? The bus got delayed for at least a half hour waiting around for this guy to find the damned accelerator. At this point, I was now physically holding myself down to keep from going completely mad, probably scaring the daylights out of the poor passenger next to me. So I tried keeping myself calm in the most effective way I could think of: Whisky. It was a good thing I had thought to store my flask in my jacket pocket before hopping aboard the train.

After god only knows how much longer, the bus finally left Toledo, and the rest of the trip, while uncomfortable, proved to be efficient. Mostly, anyway; there was some snailing along just before the bus climbed onto the freeway. It took us another four hours to reach Chicago, but Union Station was finally sighted around 9 PM…. And we couldn’t get to it because there was an ambulance parked in our zone. Although we were finally in Chicago, that held us up for another five minutes. It was only five minutes, and it was for a very good reason, but even so, five minutes after being crammed on a bus felt like an eternity. I had Cracked podcasts and Arnold Schwarzenegger movies to entertain me, but they didn’t make me forget how much my muscles hurt.

Getting off the bus felt like an injury recovery, but you can bet that this is a story Amtrak is going to hear about. Especially once I found out from another tablet-wielding passenger that the following Lake Shore Limited train the next day left on time.

Six Reasons Your Religious Conversion May Not Work

Six Reasons Your Religious Conversion May Not Work

I originally submitted this to Cracked. They never got back to me, so I’m assuming they didn’t go with it. They have strict rules regarding the subject matter…

Maybe you’re not religious. Or maybe you are. Let’s imagine for now that you are, but something about your religion – besides the wine and wafers – just isn’t sitting right. Maybe your questions about texts haven’t been answered to your satisfaction, or your minister likes the wrong football team, or you have reservations about that part of the service where your heart gets ripped out. Now, imagine you’ve put your soul into the religion market and found a buyer, and are ready to make the conversion to this new faith which corrects everything you hated about your old religion.

I have a little bit of experience doing this. At a point in my lifetime, I leapt from a religion I grew up following to a religion which was more resonant to me. Like most things in life, though, there were a few odd side effects of it which no one told me about, and I didn’t see coming. So before you put on the robe and shave your head, you might want to be aware of the following reasons why the divine light you’re envisioning might be the lamp of an oncoming train.

You’ll Try to Convert Everyone
You know those people who annoy you because they feel the need to tell everyone how awesome their religion is? Not necessarily evangelizing, mind you, but they just want to tell the world how cool it is to be them. When you first switch your religion, that’s you. Basically, you’re going to be that pothead who uses every excuse he can to tell you why pot should be legalized, except this time there isn’t going to be a legion of people who think the same thing. You’ll be trying to pimp your awesome new faith in every conversation you get into, no matter what the topic. Someone discussing who would win, Batman or Teddy Roosevelt? The winner is going to be your new god or prophet of choice. Duh!

While we know your newfound conversion is a real party for you, others aren’t going to share your feelings, and soon after the conversion ceremony – maybe like an hour or so, tops – they’re going to start getting fed up with your blatant attempts to bait them. When they start conveniently forgetting to send you the party invitations, there’s no shortage of heathens to turn to, and you’re suddenly going to be talking the theological talk to clerks, waiters, and that crazy homeless guy who wears his pants on his head. And those people don’t have the social protocols your friends and family have that prevents them from repeatedly punching you in the face screaming “WHERE’S YOUR GOD NOW?”

You don’t need any of them, though, because you’re making plenty of new friends in your brand new congregation! Right?

Your Congregation Expects You to Follow Their Version of Your Religion
Unless your potential new religion practices the ancient art of sadism, the first thing that will strike you upon your conversion is the love-bombing. Across all religions on the planet, this is one aspect that’s pretty universal. Love, peace, respect for life, and all those nice little things that make life worth living outnumber machete slaughter religions by a really, really big ratio. And if the people in your new congregation are any good at practicing the “be nice” messages, they’ll love you before the conversion ceremony. Hell, they’ll love you the second you make your first visit to the worship house as their guest.

The problem with changing your religion, though, is that to everyone who is a frequent visitor at your new religious temple, you’re just the n00b. Since you don’t have the years of practice behind you that most of them do, you don’t know anything. This is going to apply whether you converted after reading every book ever written on your new religion or you simply walked into the religious gathering place looking for directions to the local brothel. Even if your congregation is incorporating ceremonies into its services which clearly go against one of the religion’s main beliefs, you’re always the one who’s wrong.

Your fellow congregants are going to expect you to be on their side of every issue, political or religious, and it doesn’t matter how much evidence they have to support their views. If you have the audacity to even consider an opposing viewpoint, be prepared for a good, long lecture about how wrong the other guys are. It can boil down to one of the little religious differences that splits everyone into sects, or it can be political – one of my most vivid memories from my adopted religion is receiving the mother of all anti-gay rants after having the gall to express my political belief that gays should be treated like human beings.

Of course, this isn’t such a huge problem for converts to mainline religions. If one congregation decides you don’t follow your religion the right way, you just keep going until you find the congregation that thinks you do. It’s a wee bit more problematic for those who convert to less popular or understood religions – like I did – whose followers are well aware of the fact that they are frequently the only game in town. It’s their way or the highway, and if it’s the highway, you could be stuck without anyone to teach you the basic practices and rituals.

You’ll be Presented as The Convert
Whether or not they like you, there’s a reason your fellow congregants want you to sit down and shut up: You make a better spokesperson if you do. If you convert to a non-mainstream faith which is misunderstood and needs to hold occasional getting-to-know-you rallies to show everyone how they don’t actually demand firstborn sacrifice, you’re suddenly slipping into the role of the happy man who saw the light. In layman’s terms, you’re the mascot.

Being a good follower of a religion you weren’t raised practicing puts a real emphasis on that word, “follower.” Around people who don’t know anything about your new religion, you’re the guy who everyone will point to as a sterling example of a believer, because you made a choice to follow your new religion. If you say challenging or confrontational things about aspects of your religion that you haven’t been able to come to terms with, it’s easy for the other congregants to shrug you off. You’re just the brand new convert, after all, and you don’t know everything yet. Or you don’t understand what you know.

In extreme cases – like evangelical religions – you’re basically supposed to act the role of a salesperson. You’re saved now, right? And don’t you want everyone else you know to be able to share in your heavenly bounty? Sure, maybe you really did convert because you decided the promise of a nice afterlife was only available to the guys next door, but I can guarantee no one switches religions because the aspect of bugging the heathens appeals to their sense of morality. Unfortunately, lifelong followers of evangelical religions all seem to think an ex-unbeliever’s lost-soul-found-soul story is a dynamic sales pitch.

You Won’t Learn About the Small Rules Until After Conversion (and you’ll try to adhere to them, and they’ll make you crazy)
You may already know that Hinduism is a major world religion with over 900 million followers, and that Hindus hold cows in very high regard. You might not know that Hindus make a major deal out of getting their ears pierced. They have a big party called Karnavedha where they shove a thorn through someone’s ear and ease the pain by spreading hot butter across it. Taoists seek harmony with nature by taking the occasional aimless walk.

Religions love to dish out reward, punishment, karma, and whathaveyou. They love doing it so much that each one has an endless list of regulations and approved practices for everything from prayer absolution to shoelace tying. There are so many that following them all is impossible, and not all of them are culturally savory – even the strictest members of the congregation put fingers to ears and yell “lalala I can’t hear you!” when you mention the less popular ones. Some of them can’t be followed because new discoveries and thoughts have been made through time. Others have been wiped out because local laws decided they weren’t humane enough. Some actually contradict other laws in the scriptures. But none of that is enough to stop you from trying to follow them all.

This really isn’t your fault. The thing about religious converts is that they tend to be sincere about their practices, at least if they’re not converting for familial reasons. The little rules that tell you how to practice, no matter how strange they sound, are among the things that make your religion a way of life for its followers. More importantly, if a religion is afterlife-based, heaven’s landlords will love you for doing what they like and hate you for doing what they hate, and since you’re bent on them liking you, who are you to argue? It’s exactly why Cat Stevens quit music and didn’t denounce the Ayatollah’s fatwa on Salman Rushdie after becoming a Muslim – it’s possible he just didn’t know any better. If the scriptures say thou shalt suck alcohol through nose straws, you’re not going to think twice about shoving those fast food bendy straws right into your schnozz.

Some of these rules tend to get obsessively minute. They’ll give you commands about thoughts, bathroom behavior, pet ownership, and which side to sleep on. After my conversion, I frequently ate right-handed despite not only being a lefty, but having a deformed right arm which has trouble pulling off certain day-to-day duties. Eventually, there comes a point where you have to trust your god, your universe, or whatever higher power you believe in is forgiving enough to let your reward actions cancel out your sin actions. If they’re not, you’ll be in for an obsessively crazy life as well as an unpleasant afterlife.

People You Know Won’t Get Over Their Stereotypes
Stereotypes, for better and worse, are a fact of life. There are stereotypes for everything – race, body type, kind of sex partner, the list just goes on. So you better believe there are stereotypes to attribute to those of faith! Everyone knows that if you become a Pagan, you have to spend copious amounts of time explaining to your neighbor that you do not, in fact, worship the devil. If you’re a Confucian, you have to tell everyone that you don’t actually worship (or even necessarily believe in) a god. If you turn to Sikhism, it’s time to prepare those lectures about how you’re not a Muslim, and if you’re a Muslim, you have to assure your neighbors that you’re not planning to blow up their houses.

It’s a free country, so you’re free to follow whatever religion you want and tell your peers all the great things about your faith. Then they’ll be free to ignore everything you say and insist to everyone that you’ve joined the religious psycho squad. What about the children?!

Yeah, people in general just aren’t the learning sort. Be prepared to face the evil eye a lot if you’re not involved with a mainstream religion. After all, learning lessons involves going out and, you know, learning and expanding your mind. Who wants to do a silly thing like that when you can just place a person you’ve known and trusted for years into a mental “us against them” compartment under the “them” section?

There are conversion stories written by people who have even been disowned by their own families. I was lucky in that my own family – who raised me practicing a mainstream religion – was really cool about my conversion. My mother even says that it was a learning opportunity for her which she wouldn’t change. The rest of my neighborhood, well, let’s just say they didn’t share that same outlook.

You Won’t Stop Thinking Up New Questions
So okay, you’ve taken the eternal sacred vows of your new religion, and you know the practices now. You’re finding good and decent folk over at the local worshipping hole, and they don’t seem to mind your holdover heathen characteristics. You’re surviving all of the initial conversion waves and everything looks bright as the divine light for a long and productive stay in your new soul home, and possibly its afterlife.

Then one day, as you’re about to step into the artificial lightning machine for a ceremony, you hear a familiar soft whisper: “Psst, hey kiddo, something’s not right about this, and you know it!” That would be the manic raving of your conscience, here to spoil the party again. It’s not very comfortable following this Nikola Tesla religion, which is odd, because it’s the thing that talked you into giving it a shot in the first place.

If you’re converting to a new religion because you had problems with your old one, chances are you started listening to those voices in your head saying your old religion wasn’t working out and that you needed to break up with it. When you set sail toward the religious horizon, you’re doing it to get those voices to shut up. Inner peace or the search for a greater spiritual plane and anything else is basically a side effect to that; will a new religion answer questions about your old religion in an acceptable way? Despite the obvious logic failure in play here, you can’t help it because if you were raised in your old religion, it’s the only guiding philosophy you’re familiar with.

After conversion, everything will be great for awhile. Then people from your new congregation will start showing their human sides, scriptures will be bickered over, and sometimes people will start preaching values which go against what they were saying back when you were just a religion shopper. Scriptures will raise questions not answered to your satisfaction. The minister will be a fan of the wrong hockey team. You’ll have reservations about the part of the service where you stick your hand in a cage with an angry cobra. You’ve now gone full circle, and are right back where you started. Yes, there are plenty of people who find happiness and fulfillment in the religions they converted to, and some religions don’t make such taxing demands. But before you commit your eternity to a brand new religion, be sure you can weather out a few waves of doubt, or you’ll learn that eternity’s timespan is surprisingly limited.

My 2014 List of Things I Hope Go Extinct

My 2014 List of Things I Hope Go Extinct

I know that at some point around New Year’s, it’s customary to write up a list of the greatest triumphs of the past year. I, however, am a contrarian prick, and so I’m going to do the opposite and present this list of things I hate that I would like to see die off in the next year.

The University of Buffalo Chemistry Department
It’s bad enough that the textbooks and equipment alone cost a truckload of money for anyone to be able to take this course. After getting all them, you have to purchase a damned computer code in order to have any access to the homework assignments, and you have to turn in all your work by a certain date. Yes, that’s important in schooling, but after a certain date, they cut off the acceptance of any and all assignments, leaving people who weren’t able to get their book on time with no options to get them in. It’s nice that the lab equipment doesn’t cost much to replace if it gets lost or broken – I lost a burner lighter which only cost me $.26 (yes, that’s cents) to replace – but no other college course on Earth apparently places its students at every possible financial disadvantage only to fail them so they have to go through it again the following semester. This isn’t education, it’s class warfare.

The Olympics
Ohhh…. So we have a corporate-sponsored series of sporting events based on an ancient Greek sporting tradition which mangle and maul the originals so much that the ancient Greeks would never recognize them. They’re known to cause host cities to shut down small businesses, destroy large chunks of poor neighborhoods, cause nationwide debts, and hold cities under martial law, and it’s only NOW, with Russia’s new set of anti-gay laws, that people are finally waking up to the fact that the International Olympic Committee is basically a corporate terrorist organization. The presentation is beamed in over tape, and many of the sports that get shown are flash events anyway. Yet, despite all this, we continue to pick and choose heroes who will be forgotten after two weeks, and hold them up to some torchlight of sporting purity under the assumption that god and country are the only things on the mind of a bunch of young, hormonal kids whose training in many cases left them depraved of a real life. You wonder why Michael Phelps smoked marijuana. I’m angrier at the fact that he believed he had to apologize.

Architectural Rules
Freedom Tower in New York City is now officially the tallest building in the country, even though Chicago’s Sears Tower has more accessible floors. A panel of architects gave the designation to Freedom Tower because of a ridiculous technicality with which Freedom Tower’s antennae – which is exactly what it is – was counted as part of the building. If it looks like an antennae and functions like an antennae, it doesn’t take a jump to a conclusion so much as a small step. All the architects on that panel would have to be New Yorkers, because New Yorkers never miss an opportunity to whip out their dick substitutes whenever they can to show everyone else why their city is the most overprivileged, self-absorbed, elitist city on Earth.

McDonald’s
According the the Mickey D’s bigwhigs, it’s easy to live on their salary if you just hold down a second job and give up on a few essential payments. Apparently, heat payments max out at $50, health insurance is only $20, and $100 will cover all sorts of luxuries like groceries. They also took the time to tell their employees that it’s always nice to tip the nanny, and presumably the limo driver which poor people can apparently afford. According to Forbes Magazine, an authority on money, has this to say about Mickey’s lack of reality:
http://www.forbes.com/sites/janetnovack/2013/07/23/mcdonalds-minimum-wage-budget-ignores-tax-credits-food-stamps-and-reality/

Religious Inspirational Stories About Disabled People
It’s bad enough that our society insists on turning people with very real day-to-day physical challenges into inspirational tokens for other people who use these stories to feel better able themselves. Bringing some sort of god into it, though, is one of the most despicable things that can be done. If this god is brought into it in a negative way, that means the disabled person is being punished. If it’s in a positive way, then it’s often a portrayal of a person receiving sort sort of extra heavenly reward, which trivializes what some of these people have to face. I have a very deeply held suspicion that the people who buy into this tripe are doing it out of less sympathy than reassurance; after all, if someone sees a disabled person doing something you wouldn’t ordinarily think a disabled person was capable of doing, it gets him off the guilt hook about the fact that there are a lot of ways we make the everyday lives of the disabled more difficult.

Bottled Water
The United States has the best tap water available on the planet, and this is how elitist we are: We bitch about it endlessly to the point that even the biggest tree-huggers in the country advocate buying it with huge extra expenses in wasteful plastic bottles. Then we trick ourselves into thinking the corporations who provide them are personally sitting at a spring brook, trying to coax the water into those bottles instead of doing what they really do, which is simply running the plain tap water through a few extra filters. Of course, fluoride gets brought into the discussion as being the silent killer despite the fact that there’s plenty of it in our toothpaste and tea, and its presence has dramatically reduced recorded instances of tooth decay. I study nutrition, and my prof – who, by the way, works in the official capacity as a scientist for my school, with a lab and everything, and who has run the tests – was blunt about the fact that everyone’s fluoride paranoia doesn’t hold water. No matter how many idiot students she gets who try to argue with her about it.

United States Congress
This is the thing that probably goes without saying. Congress voted quite repeatedly to get the Affordable Healthcare Act repealed, let the government shut down because they wanted to piss all over each other’s territories, and took good long vacations in the middle of a financial crisis. It continually amazes me that there are people who want to grant these thieves more power. We all want the ability to see Congress as a united body with the best interests of the American people at heart, but that has never, ever been the case. Congress has never been anything more than a group of individuals, all representing their corporate overlords, whose purposes upon election are to settle their own petty squabbles.

Yahoo Mail
It’s pretty bad that Yahoo had to ASK the majority of its employees to switch to its own email service. It’s even worse that only about 25 percent of their employees decided to actually make the switch. Yahoo was my first email, and I’m in the process of making the full switch. Yahoo is slow, half the time it doesn’t want to delete the emails you want deleted or even take you to your emails at all, and when it made its last switch months ago, it still feels the need to let you know about the differences by taking its users to a screen trumping the switches after you log in. It’s also slamming spam emails into the top of your mailbox nowadays which advertisers are obviously paying them to do, since they can’t be deleted.

Facebook Video Game Requests
My god, Facebook has more video games than are buried in a New Mexico landfill, and it wants you to know about and play every last one of them. When one of your friends gets addicted to a game – hell, IF they’re actually playing them at all, and knowing Facebook, it’s a strong possibility they’re not – you’ll inevitably start getting the invitations to play right along with them. There’s no way to completely turn them all off at the same time, so they’ll all be there to clog his feed. And the right to play the video game comes from you conceding all your Facebook information to some outside source, so, people, no, I’m not interested in joining your game.

The Fashion Media
The absurdity of this doesn’t strike you until you really think about it. Author John Steinbeck once said that the reason socialism never caught on in the United States is because everyone thinks they’re temporarily embarrassed millionaires, and nothing is a better testament to that than the fact that there’s an entire wing of the media dedicated to what kinds of clothes people are wearing. When you tune in to the fashion reports, they always seem to revolve around the latest works in one particular show with supermodels in an exotic location. When it gets beamed through to you, the models are always dressed up in weird space designs that never seem to actually show up on a market where they’re accessible to us lowly knaves. They tend to get made up for one particular model – or at least a single body type – for one show before being thrown aside and never seen again. If they do get onto the market, they’ll be so expensive that you could afford to not just buy a whole wardrobe for the price, but get it tailored to your personal specifications. The media takes it upon itself to then stand off to the side throwing thumbs up or thumbs down along with snarky comments about what they would have done with the outfit to make it more palatable. Somehow, this is thought to be important, even though everyone knows all these outfits are either single-wear outfits or too expensive for anyone to ever buy them. There’s no way to justify the existence of fashion reporting, since high-end fashion is something no one will ever have to worry about.

An Everyday New Year

An Everyday New Year

Okay, I’m a real oddball. I make those ridiculous things known as New Year’s Resolutions, and more and more, I keep them even as they grow more outlandish and grandiose. They help me keep track of the things I’ve wanted to do and have accomplished in what timeframe, and what I have left to do. This year, I want to re-sculpt my boy, get my grades up, find a new focus as a writer and continue sending out more work, and visit another place I haven’t been before. I had some high goals last year, but I managed to reach every one of them.

However, this whole New Year’s-is-magic thing is something I’m never going to understand. The whole process only has relevance because it’s so close to Christmas and, by proximity, it gets the shit advertised out of it. Yes, folks, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are more corporatized holidays, but unlike every other corporatized holiday, there’s no real sound basis for it. Valentine’s Day – which I outright rebel against – at least celebrates love. What’s New Year’s? A new beginning? If people were actually serious about the whole new beginning thing, they wouldn’t be saving their self-improvements until then anyway. Even though I make resolutions, I know full well in advance what they’re going to be and how they’re going to help me reach a higher plateau. I don’t create them on some wistful December 31 whim, yanking them from the air because that’s what people are apparently supposed to do. Doing that is probably why so many people keep their resolutions for about two weeks.

So if you pull your resolutions out of the equation, just what the hell is this? Sometimes you get invited to a party. It’s nice – hang out with your buddies, have a few drinks, stay up late, kiss someone at midnight. An all-around good evening, really…. And nothing you don’t do at any point earlier in the year. Hell, for people in their 20’s, that’s basically the after-work schedule. The only difference I can spot is that you’re a lot more uncomfortable on New Year’s, because you’ve decided to trap yourself in some tight-ass tuxedo for no other reason than because, hey, that’s what it is to be an adult, right? Also, you’re boozing on overpriced champagne instead of beer, wine, or whatever cheap spirit is your signature.

It’s a pricier night out is what it is.

I found myself at the Buffalo ball drop a few times, which was nice because the fireworks display at the Electric Tower is very beautiful and choreographed to the classic rock music that is the city’s signature musical sound. The best New Year’s Eve I’ve experienced in my life was on December 31, 1997. My family went to see the Buffalo Sabres that night, and we ended up watching Sabres goaltender Dominik Hasek tie the all-time record for number of shutouts in a single month when the Sabres beat the Ottawa Senators.

Besides all the hype, the calendar starts all over again, whoop dee do. The Earth starts another revolution around the sun, which is a meaningless statistic considering how much we bend and maul the calendar to fit our own personal convenience. Even the most accurate measurement of time on Earth, the atomic clock, is so accurate that it actually manages to overshoot the mark.

I prefer literally any other holiday. Martin Luther King Day, Presidents’ Day, Independence Day, Easter, May Day if this country ever grows enough of a fucking brain to start observing it…. New Year’s is, to me, nothing more than another day in the life. I’ll still happily accept party invitations, but don’t expect me to get too worked up about how awesome the magic of New Year’s is.