The God Question | Part Three

[Moral] practice has not been able to keep pace with the mind. Man has begun to say, “This is wrong, that is wrong.” Whereas previously he justified his conduct, he now no longer justifies his own or his neighbor’s.  He wants to set right the wrong but does not know that his own practice fails him. The contradiction between his thought and conduct fetters him.
-Mohandas Gandhi
Non-Violence in Peace & War, II-76

I don’t really understand myself,
for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it.
Instead, I do what I hate.
-Romans 7:15

The Problem of Me
In the summer of 1981, at the same time I was reading my friend’s pharmacology textbooks on LSD, I was also reading Gandhi. This was in part my Looking to the East phase. But it was also my looking within. I had begun to suspect myself as possibly my biggest problem.

That probably reaches back over my entire life up to that point. But over the last nine months I had come up against some unsettling indications that I was perhaps not the person I thought or hoped myself to be. The one I remember best had been the previous fall, when my friends asked me to help them with a proposed pot-growing operation. My gut told me was it was stupid and wrong, but the money that could be made turned my head. I was quite disgusted with myself over that. Why would I not only think but also act in a way so at odds with my self-professed values?

If I could be hard on myself in a very selective way, I was even harder on others, and also extremely defensive. I couldn’t take any sort of criticism; to me, it was always personal and never welcome. As a harsh judge of others, it seems I always assumed the same sort of harshness must have been behind the least bit of criticism directed at me. Underlying my assessment of myself and of others, was a complete lack of insight. I really did not get people. It followed that I didn’t get myself.

When I looked in the mirror, seemingly every part my persona had an opposing aspect. I was a clown who made others laugh but actually took himself far too seriously. I was violent yet peaceful, sensitive yet capable of being really mean, even to friends; serene and patient, yet plagued by anxiety and frustration; compassionate yet judgmental; wildly gregarious but often a loner, vain yet at times overcome with contempt for myself.

It wasn’t a pretty picture, fractured into these paradoxes, and obscured by shadows of unknowing. I wondered what do with myself. That summer I picked up a compendium of Gandhi’s writings. I thought initially that he could inform a decision I had already made to personally adopt a nonviolent lifestyle. Up until the age of 14, violence was part of my life. I chose that it would not be anymore. But in Gandhi there was more, a philosophy of living and working in the world that resonated with me. Non-violence does not sufficiently convey in English what he meant by Ahimsa. It was something greater and deeper than merely refraining from physical violence. It was peaceful and just action, not mere pacifism. It required much of the individual, from within the heart.

This is the only permanent thing in life, this is the only thing that counts; whatever effort you bestow on mastering it is well spent.
-Non-Violence in Peace & War, I-114

It also answered the militant Left and any others who saw violence and destruction as the only means to their utopia –  something I had only awakened to in the last few months in Seattle. And Gandhi insisted that freedom was for all, regardless of their beliefs or station in life.  Ahimsa met me where my desire for personal betterment intersected with my desire for social and political change – inner peace and world peace, so to speak.

However much I was taken with these values, reading about them and pondering them was as far as I got before I was distracted by life and the tumult of the next twelve months, and events that would send me in a very different direction.

* * *

House on Ronald AvenueI stayed with my parents for the summer, who had rented a daylight basement just across Bonner Park from the house on Hastings. Right away I started looking for a job. I had hoped to get on as a YCC crew leader, but was notified in March that I hadn’t been selected. I ran around to all the movie theatres in town, but couldn’t find a job. Dad told me that if I couldn’t get a paying job, I had to line up enough volunteer work to stay busy. That was the deal. I readily agreed, and right away went out to do it.

Missoula Art Museum

Missoula Art Museum

First I lined up a few shifts on the welcome desk of the Missoula Art Museum. We were showing a fantastic exhibit of the photography of Philippe Halsman. Between the exhibit and the hours I sat reading art magazines, my knowledge and appreciation grew, especially for painting and black and white photography.

Then I started serving at the Poverello Center, a NPO that served the hungry and homeless of Missoula. I would come and help with the food line they had every day at lunch. This proved a revelation to me. First, the admonition Gandhi made that we ought to live in service to others, that helping the poor was a special obligation, was now something I was suddenly able to practice every week. It also happened to have been what my parents and Church had taught me since I was little.

Second, it had a lasting effect on me. It was Christianity in practice. It was a direct and effectual expression of the way that Jesus said his followers should be in the world. I was struck by how I felt, giving my time and labor on behalf of others. It was awesome. I didn’t feel so bad about myself. In fact, while I was there, I didn’t think about myself. A year later this sense would revisit me and change my life forever.

The back of the Pov in 2012. A planned new building is scheduled to open in 2014.

The back of the Pov in 2012. A planned new building is scheduled to open in 2014.

I argued a lot with Mark. Daring to relate my dalliance with Gandhism, I was met with exhausting objections: it isn’t practical, it doesn’t work, they are hopeless ideals. I wasn’t able to defend something I had just begun to read about. I felt deflated. Back in Seattle (before or after the summer, I don’t recall) Mark also contended vociferously against altruism, that nothing humans did was truly selfless. I believed that we could act for the benefit others and against our own.

Well, of course I did. I hoped I was doing good, and not solely to satisfy myself. Just a little bit of good work did a heck of a lot to counterbalance how badly I felt about myself most of the time. It suggested that I had at least some good impulse, that I wanted to serve some higher purpose. Sometime in the past year, I had what I considered a revelation. I don’t know how it came to me, but it was the realization that bad people – selfish, mean, violent, treacherous – must be unhappy people. Which was the cause of the other, I couldn’t say, but happiness and badness couldn’t reside together.

I had read enough to know that according to Buddhism, human suffering comes from selfish desires. When I turned for a few hours a week from my selfish desires to the needs of others, to help feed the hungry, I felt perhaps that was true. At the Pov I also met some Children of God who lived a vagabond lifestyle as ‘missionaries,’ denying themselves many physical comforts ‘for the sake of the Good News.’

This was not the end of the variety of spiritual paths I was presented with. In Seattle the Church of Scientology spotted me as a promising target, and I couldn’t seem to get away from them: three or four of my co-workers were Scientologists. In fact, I seemed to be wearing a t-shirt that signaled to all the major cults: “Easy Mark. Proceed with Confidence.”

Yes, the religious smorgasbord was spread before me. Yet for all my searching over the last couple of years; all of the different religious people, ideas, groups and cults I had encountered; the books I read, the hallucinations I had, the hours of pondering and debating, I was still in the dark. Neither the Catholics, the Protestants, Gandhi, Camus, Aquinas, the Scientologists, the Mormons, nor the Children of God had shown me the way out of my questing and confusion. And, right or wrong, I hadn’t latched onto anything that seemed to answer the problem of me. I was no better off, as far as I could tell.

One day I was standing at a bus stop in Seattle, wearing my Easy Mark t-shirt. A girl approached me with a clipboard and a pen. I knew right away that she was a Scientologist, and I knew exactly what she was going to say. This had happened a couple of times before. They ask you questions, and don’t even pretend to mark down your answers. The questions are meant to make you emotionally vulnerable to their recruitment pitch: “We can help you with that.” One thing leads to another and a few months later you are penniless and insane, awaiting the big alien invasion. In Portland once, I went as far as being walked to the downtown Church to get a personality test. But I got the heebie-jeebies and left.

“Hi! I’m taking a survey,” she said, flashing a friendly smile and standing about six inches closer than a complete stranger would. “Could I ask you a few questions?”

I am constitutionally incapable of telling someone to get lost. And saying no was just plain rude.

“Okay.” How was I thinking this was going to turn out? I don’t know, dear readers, I don’t know.

“If there was one thing about yourself you would like to change, what would it be?”

Only one? I thought. “Hmm, I’m not sure,” I lied. Now I just wanted her to go away.

“Isn’t there something about yourself you’d like to change?” The smile was fading.

I squirmed. Without even knowing me, she had my number. How’d she get it? I had a fresh incision from my chin to my belly button, and she was tugging at the stitches.

“Probably.” But I’m not telling you.

Her tone became impatient. “Like what?”

“Um…”

“Come on, all of us have something!”

I shook my head. Angered at my failure to comply, she walked away in a huff.

There were a lot of things I would change if I could, including knowing how to talk to someone like that without becoming flummoxed, and letting myself feel guilty for making her mad. Weak, slow on my feet, not knowing what a boundary was between myself and another person, not even a stranger. “No, thank you, I’m not interested, have a nice day,” would have sufficed. But no, one question from her and I need some medication.

Worse was the real answer to her question. I couldn’t have begun to put it into words, but the feeling plagued me of not being good, or good enough, or knowing what to do about it. I never killed anyone, or raped or tortured anyone, but what if what’s wrong with me is what’s wrong with other people, the people I judge, the people who anger me, shock me and repulse me with their outrages against my sense of moral order? If I can’t change, then how can they? I have no interest in becoming some kind of saint, but something is wrong with me. Maybe it means I’m in the same fix as the people who make the world so wrong. The people who made the world wrong a thousand years ago as well. In other words, the people who made me question the faith of my mothers and fathers. Where do I look next?

Who knows?

The Road to Emmaus #2 by Daniel Bonnell

The Road to Emmaus #2 by Daniel Bonnell

Part Four (coming soon)

The God Question | Part Two

Warning: drug use, scholasticism.

“Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders,” Jesus told him, “you will never believe.”
-John 4:48

The Knowledge Problem, or Doubting & Thomas

Let’s talk about Sunday mornings. Circa 1976, when I was twelve. There was fighting over the bathroom, lots of hollering. Bickering and jostling in the car on the way to church. Morphing from brat to boy, as we went from the car to the sanctuary.

I would sit through the Mass, bored, compulsively fidgeting, and occasionally entranced by the wondrous interior of the neo-gothic building. I would stare at the brilliant stained glass windows, which portrayed the saints, mostly as they were being martyred. I found the St. Lawrence window a little hard to accept. It showed a large grill ornately carved from solid stone, which I was told was the device on which the saint was, uh, fried, I guess. Broiled? Simmered to taste? They burned him. That seemed very cumbersome to me. Once I said out loud, “Why didn’t they just drop that thing on his head?” Very likely I was more suited to making martyrs than being one. The window of St. Stephen, my namesake, also fascinated me. He was being stoned to death. I had no idea who he was.

The Mass is beautiful, smells good and is gorgeously adorned, but I could make no connection between the rite and my life as it was the moment we walked out of the building back to the car to jostle and bicker our way home.

The warm feelings I often felt during the service were, I thought, the most you could experience of God. The only other time I felt anything like that sense of awe and coziness was watching sunset or the ocean. It was nice, but it didn’t answer any of my questions. It may have hinted at it, but it didn’t put me in touch with God.



Confronted with serious questions about the nature and character of the Catholic Church, at 13 I began to wonder how it was that I was to know anything regarding God. I really did not have anything to go on.

The following year I was back in Portland. Perusing my mom’s books, I first reached for the Bible. I turned to the Gospels, looking for the Jesus that so impressed me a few months before in Jesus of Nazareth. What I found seemed to be in a foreign language, incomprehensible. The words on the page were dead to me.

I put the Bible back and pulled another book out. It was a collection of writings by Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), derived mostly from the Summa Theologica, his 3500-page exposition of Christian doctrine. There, in Part One, under his treatise on God, I found his reasoned arguments for the existence of God.

Concerning the Divine Essence, we must consider:
(1) Whether God exists?
(2) The manner of His existence, or, rather, what is NOT the manner of His existence;
(3) Whatever concerns His operations—namely, His knowledge, will, power.

Concerning the first, there are three points of inquiry:
(1) Whether the proposition “God exists” is self-evident?
(2) Whether it is demonstrable?
(3) Whether God exists?

-Summa, Q. 2.

I took it to my bedroom, and struggled with it for some time, trying to draw out the answer, the dawning truth, the solution to the problem of knowing.

Thomas_Aquinas_by_Fra_BartolommeoI answer that, Everything which is raised up to what exceeds its nature, must be prepared by some disposition above its nature; …Hence it is necessary that some supernatural disposition should be added to the intellect in order that it may be raised up to such a great and sublime height. Now since the natural power of the created intellect does not avail to enable it to see the essence of God, as was shown in the preceding article, it is necessary that the power of understanding should be added by divine grace.

-Summa, Q. 12. Art. 5

Thomas holds that apart from God’s gracious intervention, the human intellect lacks the understanding it needs to see the the essence of God. What about seeing, perceiving God himself? How does one obtain this grace?

It seemed like a mirage. I could see the dim outline of what he was saying, but as I looked at it, the tangible and certain truth I needed would fade. I wanted something I could grab hold of, and his logical arguments weren’t giving it to me. His thinking was way beyond my grasping. Even if I could follow him, he could only help if I were trying to reason my way to God.

Too, Thomas was a product of the same medieval church that was so problematic for me. He endorsed one of the singular crimes of the Church, something unique neither to Catholic Christianity, medieval Christianity nor to Christianity at all:

I answer that, With regard to heretics two points must be observed: one, on their own side; the other, on the side of the Church. On their own side there is the sin, whereby they deserve not only to be separated from the Church by excommunication, but also to be severed from the world by death. For it is a much graver matter to corrupt the faith which quickens the soul, than to forge money, which supports temporal life. Wherefore if forgers of money and other evil-doers are forthwith condemned to death by the secular authority, much more reason is there for heretics, as soon as they are convicted of heresy, to be not only excommunicated but even put to death.

-Summa, Q. 11. Art. 3.

People_burned_as_heretics

Of course, not only Christian dissidents but infidels aplenty fell victim to the stake, the sword and the torture chamber: Jews, Muslims, pagans and the falsely accused. Poorly done, boys.

* * *

In the medieval world, called by some ‘the age of faith,’ I noticed that the supernatural was a present reality to those who believed, at times entering the natural realm in the form of miracles, visions and spirits – both good and evil. It seemed to me that if an angel or a long-dead saint, or Jesus himself visited you, your days of doubting and questioning were over. That would pretty much seal the deal. Of course, I doubted whether such events ever took place and did not expect any such visitation, but I did think it would sure be helpful.

This thinking led me to the conclusion that instead of philosophical or theological arguments, what I needed to settle the question of God’s existence and the truth about our faith was an experience, some glimpse of the other side, the eternal, the transcendent – hopefully real enough that my questions would be answered in a moment. It was like wishing I could fly, I sensed, but with a little more hope of the possibility. I was a dreamer, though, and this was likely just another dream. I never even made it a prayer.

In the absence of such a unlikely occurrence, I was left where I was. I wanted to believe, but more, I wanted to know. I remember about this time (eighth grade) reading Thoreau’s statement that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Wow, I remember thinking, I feel like that. I don’t want that to be the way I lead my life. If there was no God, and I never had an answer, and I was left thinking that my life had no apparent meaning or purpose, then that is exactly what my life would be: quiet desperation. The prospect was depressing.

Over the next year or two, I could no longer honestly make any profession of faith. During my sophomore year, Dad had strongly encouraged me, stopping short of insisting, to attend a youth group at the Catholic church that he and Jane had begun to attend. I did so for a few months, but when they stopped attending, so did I. This was the same time that I began to party, drink and use drugs. They were a nice group of kids, and the leader was a guy in his twenties who showed real caring for us but had little to offer someone in my situation. What does an apologetic for the faith sound like from someone who lends little or no authority to Scripture or to the Church? I don’t know. I never heard one.

At 16, I remember telling my girlfriend – who had been raised a Lutheran – that I was an agnostic. I told her my doubts started with the Church. By this time I had undertaken to look beyond Christianity for answers. With my exposure growing up to the counterculture of the 70s, I naturally looked to the East. I read some Buddhist writings. It did not, and never has, made much sense to me. It just did not resonate with me. I was thinking within mindset I was raised with. In fact, it made me skeptical of claims by Westerners to fully embrace and comprehend the traditions of the Eastern mind. It’s really very different. I freely admit: I didn’t get it. But I didn’t give up on it right away.

Further, I was also wary of New Age spirituality. A girl in English class once asked me in a dreamy voice, quite out of the blue, “Have you ever tried astral projection?”

“Have I what?”

“Traveled out of your body to the astral plane.”

“Uh, no,” I confessed. “Have you?”

“It’s like totally intense. You should try it.”

Given my desire for a supernatural experience, you’d think I might be tempted. But I thought she was loopy. I wasn’t entirely sure she had returned from her travels. Besides, I had my own travel plans.

I was going to drop acid. I was very interested, but I put it off for quite a while because I had reservations about it. I wanted to make sure it was safe. After I had already taken two trips, I decided  should consult a travel agent. In the summer of 1981, now 17, I returned to Missoula from Seattle, where I had moved in February. My friend Matt Crowley was a freshman at the University of Montana, studying pharmacy. I asked if he had any information about LSD. He loaned me two or three of his pharmacology textbooks, and I read very word they had about the hallucinogen. There were two things I wanted to learn. One, How dangerous or safe was it? And two, What kind of supernatural experiences had people reported after taking it?

I have only a vague recollection of what I read about the risks, but I concluded that the danger was mostly psychological, and based on my first two experiences, decided it wasn’t a concern.  Instead I fastened onto the users’ reporting they had “seen the face of God” or had some other opening to the cosmos or the eternal. My thinking was right out of the 1960s. What if there was something to it, what Timothy Leary and others have been claiming? What if the effect of LSD is to open an unseen reality to our conscious minds that we cannot see otherwise? Suppose it was the missing ingredient: “some supernatural disposition should be added to the intellect in order that it may be raised up to such a great and sublime height.” As far as my friends were concerned we were all doing it for fun. But known only to myself, I was hoping for something more: a spiritual experience that would lead to knowledge.

I never received the experience I sought. But that summer, I took acid with perhaps five or six friends. We were at the house of a friend who’s father was a minister. I found a small icon hanging on the wall near the front door. And I was hypnotized by it. It was an image of Mary and the infant Jesus. I stood and stared. Perhaps five minutes, perhaps twenty – who knows? In their shimmering faces I thought I was understanding something, connecting with something that reached across time, as if persons thousands of years and miles apart were suddenly face to face and knowing each other, smiling at each other, communicating without words. I believed I was looking into the infinite beyond. It made some kind of sense to me, and I told myself I needed to remember, after I came down, what it was I had just been shown or discovered or felt. But I couldn’t. It completely eluded me.

Is that how it is?, I wondered. Is experience always that temporary? Can it be just as much a mirage as Thomas’ logic, or Zeffirelli’s movie? Does it just dissipate like holy incense on Sunday morning? I know it was a hallucination. But how much more convinced would I be by any other sensory experience? Doesn’t every experience fade with time and doubt? Am I hoping for something that won’t actually give me what I need? Am I looking for the wrong thing?

Who knows?

Detail, The Conversion of St. Paul,by Caravaggio.

Detail, The Conversion of St. Paul, by Caravaggio.

Part Three…Part Four

The God Question | Part One

And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
-Matthew 16:18

But he turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offense unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.
-Matthew 16:23

From the age of thirteen to the age of eighteen, I wrestled with what to think and believe about God and the Christian faith in particular. This not a polemic or an apologetic or a critique or an argument. It’s just a story. The ending of it is not here; it will be here in a few months.

I was raised in the Catholic Church during a time of considerable change. It was the Vatican II church of the 60s and 70s, and my parents found themselves in the liberal stream of change and reform. Questioning official dogma, institutions and customs was inherent in the liberal tradition. So was a modernist (as Rome called it), skeptical view of the Scriptures. Eden was allegory,  Noah’s flood a fable. Its history was unreliable, many of the commandments outdated.

As liberals we accepted the conclusions drawn by the secular world: we believed in Darwinian evolution, the Big Bang and Freudian psychology. We went with general drift of the day, and mostly agreed with the cultural shift in values. After all, morality, in some arenas, needs to be updated to modern life. For example, why should premarital sex be considered a sin? Who says birth control or abortion or divorce are always – or ever – wrong? The very notion of sin is archaic. Hell is a preposterous conception in light of a loving God. In fact, psychology, medicine, and political and social progress offered more reliable, rational and scientific solutions to the human predicament than anything prescribed by ancient writ. When we look at the patriarchal, superstitious and pre-scientific worldview that formed the minds of the biblical writers, there is very little of what they wrote that can speak to us today. Yes, there are beautiful passages there, but we have to sift through the text to find what is inspirational and uplifting, and leave the rest. It is not, in its entirety at least, the divinely inspired Word of God.

I have told friends the religion I was raised with was defined more by what we did not believe than what we did. That may sound harsh, but it isn’t meant as a put-down. It’s meant to describe my experience. Though we affirmed many things that corresponded pretty closely with a secular-progressive worldview, when I asked if we believed one Christian tenet or another – the creation, Adam and Eve, the flood –  the answer was often No. But we did believe in God. That was foundational. We did believe in Jesus, and, even if the relationship might be strained, we did believe in the Church.

Where did this leave me? Well, let me spell it out. I have many friends who were raised in more conservative/traditional religious homes, both Catholic and Protestant, including fundamentalist homes. They commonly came to a point in their lives, if not as teenagers or young adults, then later in life, when they had to scrutinize their beliefs – those things that had been bequeathed to them as unquestionable certainties – with a more critical mindset. Usually this will result in walking away from faith or finding it strengthened by making it their own. They might become critical of the way they had been taught their faith, or adopt an easy bemusement toward the quaint backwardness of their parents and their church. I think they might not understand what an alternative would have been like.

So here is one. If the Bible is not a reliable source of information about what I should believe, and the Church is flat-out wrong in some of its bedrock doctrines, then what is my source, my authority? Me? How am I supposed to know anything regarding the faith, or what to believe? What is the truth about the most important things, and how do I discover it? This was at the root of my wilderness wanderings as a teenager.

The Historical Problem, or What if you are the gates of hell?
camelot 67It all began with King Arthur. Over my Christmas break in 1976, I spent a few days with my grandparents. At the time I was living in the country with my dad while Mom was away at grad school. I was 13. I watched the movie Camelot and was absolutely carried away by it. I watched it about three years later in a theatre and hated it, but when I saw it on TV, I was captured by the Arthurian story. When I got back to school, I spent the rest of the year in libraries consuming every book, historical or literary, I could find on the Arthur cycle. This led to an ardent interest in medieval European history and culture that lasted for years. I read up on the Norsemen, the Norman conquest, art and architecture, the Holy Roman Empire, Anglo-Saxon England, the Byzantine Empire and the Crusades. I read the poetic Eddas, the chroniclers, and the epic poems. I couldn’t get enough of it.

Again and again I came up against the ugly character of the medieval Roman Church. It was politically powerful, enormously wealthy, and sometimes callous, manipulative, merciless and cruel. It sought to control the minds of people and the fates of nations. In short, it was a complete bummer.

I  began to think of this problem in a whole new light when I saw something else on TV at Easter: Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth. I am not exaggerating when I say this was the single most important thing I ever watched on TV, and it was a singular milestone on the journey I am describing.

Simply put, this was the first time I ever saw Jesus as real, immediate, relevant or alive. Every Sunday morning I beheld him as a dead man hanging on a cross, and we read a mere few words from the Gospels. In six hours, I heard more of his words than I had in my whole life. The experience was profound for me because it was fresh. There wasn’t anything stale or statuary here. The flesh-and-blood man made sense. He answered something now.

The conclusion I drew from this experience would make all the difference in the next five years: If the character of a loving and compassionate God could be known, certainly no one has reflected that character better than Jesus. I still believed this when I came to question God’s existence. If there was a God, I thought, he was like Jesus.

Now I looked at the problem of the historical Church in light of this television Jesus I had just been confronted with. Now, not only the sins of the Church glared at us, but its very nature didn’t bear any resemblance to the small, mostly poor band of followers Jesus knit together with his message of love and hope. The disparity I now saw made the Church – both medieval and modern – seem that much worse. How was I supposed to believe that this was the same thing Jesus established with his own words 1,940 years ago?

That was about as far as my 13-year-old brain could take the problem. You might wonder why I didn’t simply embrace this new-found appreciation for Jesus and carry on. Because it was movie on TV, a fading memory, and it didn’t begin to answer my questions.  I was left wondering where this remarkable Jesus was in the world. In the Roman Catholic Church? In a book, or a miniseries? Is there a forwarding number?

Is he nowhere, dead and buried, and just a great guy with some great ideas? Or was he everywhere, alive yet unseen and actually God in the flesh?

Or is he just one of many standing in the religion pantheon, with Buddha and Mohammed and Moses? Pick your favorite guy and exit through the gift shop?

Who knows?

jesus of nazarethPart TwoPart Three…Part Four

Laugh Your Life | Part Two

Kick over the wall ’cause government’s to fall
How can you refuse it?
Let fury have the hour, anger can be power
D’you know that you can use it?
-Strummer/Jones
Clampdown

Free Radical

Situated with my friends, with a job and nice apartment in Ballard, I wanted to do more than work and watch movies. First,  I wanted to find and join some leftist activists. In particular, I wanted get involved in the No Nukes/antiwar movement. Somehow I was dissuaded. I became disenchanted by the prospect, or distracted, somehow. I only remember two small incidents; I can’t help thinking there must have been something more that I can’t recall. On May 3rd, there was a huge anti-war rally, and all three of us went to it.

Seattle Rally May 3 1981

At the rally, I talked with a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, the same group that had been at the center of a melee I was in the day before at First and Pike.The RCP’s stated goal: the violent overthrow of the US government by the end of the 80s. I wasn’t a communist, but I was certainly leaning toward socialism and was adopting an anti-capitalist attitude that made me at least somewhat sympathetic to ‘mainstream’ communists.  But the RCP’s  program of violence, even civil war, elicited no such sympathy. As my thinking became more radical with regard to change, I also was beginning to see the further one moved from the center, the less freedom was valued. The radical, the ideologue, far enough to the left or to the right, is no friend of the Bill of Rights. Those rights stand in the way of burning down the City and remaking it according to the Perfect Plan. My opposition to violence and basic belief in the Bill of Rights wasn’t going to make me a very good radical.

“Let me ask you something,” I said to him. “You want to take over the government. Make a new constitution.”

“Yes.”

“What’s your position on freedom of religion?”

He hemmed and hawed. “Well,” he said cautiously, “religion is one of the major problems in the current power structure.”

“People in this country wouldn’t  have religious freedom under your regime, would they?”

“No.”

That means forced renunciations or – for those won’t – prison, re-education, death.

“That’s what I thought.”

Turning away, I said to Troy, “At least he’s honest.”

I was thinking, Crap, I’m marching in the same rally with this goon. Someone who’d put a bullet through the head of everyone in my family, if he had the power.

It’s funny. That was a conversation that could just as likely have taken place in 1969. As in Missoula, there was this subculture frozen in time, as if Nixon were still president and bombing Cambodia, and J.Edgar Hoover was spying on them. The world was changing around them and the agents of change had parked themselves in a timeless echo chamber, with street theatre puppets, Grateful Dead concerts and Marxist dogma.

Around that time, I went to the office of the historic underground newspaper, Northwest Passage. I told a guy there my newspaper background and said I’d like to help out. Without showing the least interest, he said maybe I could help with production. I could check back later and he offered a time I could do so.

“Actually, I’m interested in writing, too.”

“Yeah, well, we’ve got plenty of writers.”

I went back and worked an evening on production, although I don’t remember it; I just havenorthwest_blog_pic2 crop letter that says so. In it I also say that all three of us wanted to work there in the fall. We never did, though. I suspect I didn’t really believe that I would get the opportunity to write. Even though the paper was known for accepting articles from readers, and getting a lot of submissions, now I got the impression they had more than they needed.

By themselves, I don’t think either of these events dissuaded me from activism. Perhaps they damped my enthusiasm, though. At 16 I had been welcomed warmly by the small cadre of peace activists at the University of Montana, even though all I had to contribute was my enthusiasm and commitment. But Seattle had thousands of activists, splintered into their little constituencies, none of whom, I thought, would care that I wanted to write for their cause. That’s what most of them were already doing themselves.

That's right: Katherine Hepburn. Letter to Dad & Jane.

That’s right: Katherine Hepburn. Letter to Dad & Jane.

Another factor was the anger and pessimism I sensed. Perhaps I was projecting, but for a town that was firmly of the left, where they held political power and cultural dominance, Ronald Reagan really had a lot of folks in a lather. Things seemed pretty rotten, I suppose, if your goal in life was turning America into one big petroleum-free food co-op with no national defense.

But not so bad if you concentrated on the positive, like getting high and doing The Pogo.

Prior Engagement
My interest in writing wasn’t in any way diminished, and I have a note recording my first serious thought about filmmaking. On April 22, Mark and I had a conversation about writing and making a film. I got very excited about the idea, but I had no idea what it would involve.

April 1981

April 1981

That conversation never developed into a script or anything beyond. But it was the impetus for me to start some screenwriting, which I believe I first put my hand to in the fall. What’s most interesting about my note is that I immediately worried that if we went forward with such an idea (making a film), it could scuttle or delay our Europe plan, and interfere with my seeing Anna. I was trying to stay focused, but having such a hard time!

Mark and Troy both knew that regardless of what I was doing in Seattle, come summer I was going back to Missoula. Classes let out at Cornell, and Anna would be returning on Memorial Day weekend. At some point though, Mark decided he was coming back for the summer as well. Troy and I didn’t care for the idea. We thought it might be hard to make ends meet, especially if we didn’t land summer jobs as we hoped. But he wanted to go, and felt sure he could at least get some work from his mom.

We returned to Missoula on May 28th. Our manager at the King Cinema said we could have our jobs when we came back. She probably couldn’t have promised it, but we did go back to work there when we returned to Seattle.

We had been in Seattle for only little over three months. Already it looked as if our plans had little hope of success. Our earnings did not exceeded our expenses, and our whole plan depended on saving money. Beside that, without any of us knowing it, our resolve was so precarious that only one change of circumstance would be enough to chuck the whole idea aside: something like a falling out, or a girlfriend or another idea.

A better idea.

Laugh Your Life | Part One

Dear Steve, Happy Valentine's Day! I couldn't resist this card! Just want you to know that I love you even though I think you're taking the steps too soon. And - there is a safety net, don't forget. Much love from all of us - Mom

Dear Steve, Happy Valentine’s Day! I couldn’t resist this card! Just want you to know that I love you even though I think you’re taking the steps too soon. And – there is a safety net, don’t forget. Much love from all of us – Mom

Living in Seattle is like being in love with a beautiful woman who’s sick all the time.
-Anonymous

But oh, that magic feeling, nowhere to go
Oh, that magic feeling, nowhere to go
Nowhere to go
-Lennon & McCartney

In mid-February, 1981, I dropped out of high school. The plan my friends and I had hatched was this: move from Missoula to a big city, make a lot of money, then travel around  Europe until it ran out. Pure genius, right? A high school dropout like me would find it a cinch to make and save loads of money in a short time. The only puzzle is why others don’t follow this simple sure-fire plan.
Cosmo Motel SeattleAt first we thought we would move to Boston – I don’t remember why. But we settled on Seattle, in part because Troy’s mom lived there. None of us knew much about Seattle, but that only added to the sense of adventure we had about the move. It was anticipation that distracted me from the consideration that at only 17, I was leaving a place I loved more than I realized, for a place I didn’t know, away from parents and friends.

Cosmo - 1976 map

Before shouting, “Hi, Seattle,” make sure you’re in Seattle. -Mick Jagger

We drove the 480 miles to Seattle on February 19. None of us had a car, so a fourth friend drove us. Between us we had $400. We stayed 3 nights at the Cosmopolitan, at that time a cheap downtown motel situated along the Monorail line on 5th Avenue. (It’s a King’s Inn now, and not to be confused with the condo tower on Virginia Street.) We took acid and walked around downtown, then back to the Cosmo where we passed several hours that swirled with hallucinations, buffoonery and maniacal laughter. My only previous visit of note to the city was in 1978 for the King Tut exhibit that was confined to the Seattle Center. Thus my first look at my new home was through a kaleidoscopic window of imaginary color and light, melting, erupting and shimmering in the cold winter night.

* * *
After the Cosmo, we stayed in the apartment of Troy’s mom, Sharon,  and his younger sister. We were there about five weeks. It was crowded. Sharon was gracious, but it must have grown annoying having us at such close quarters for so long.Troy was first to land a job, and I was second. The difference between the job he was able to land and mine ought to have glared at me as the obvious first clue to the consequences of quitting school. Troy began work proofreading multimillion-dollar contracts for a re-insurance company. It paid an excellent hourly wage for an 18-year-old just out of high school. I went to work at the Ballard McDonald’s. A couple of weeks before that I had been hired to call people while they were eating dinner, try to sell them frozen meat and fish, get yelled at and hung up on. I was humiliated and relieved when I was fired after my first shift.

Mark got a job at a downtown movie theatre. Once one of us had a job and a paycheck, we got our own place. We rented a 3-bedroom walk-up in a four-plex in Ballard, on 20th Ave NW near 58th Street. At $345, the rent was on the steep side, but it was spacious and we each had our own room. Our landlord, whose name was Wen Lee, spoke little English and would come to regret renting to us, we dubbed Obi-Wen, the Jedi Landlord.

Thurs. Feb. 19 – Missoula-Seattle/Cosmo Motel
Fri.              20 – Cosmo Motel
Sat.             21 – Cosmo Motel
Sun             22 – Sharon’s – Dave (our driver) left
Mon            23 – Job hunting begins – slowly.
Fri               27 – Hired – Pacific Meat Co.
Mon  March 2 – First nite – fired
Mon             9 – Troy started work/ my interviews
Thurs         12 – McDonald’s – orientation meeting
Fri              13 – First day. Grueling and grubby.
Sat             21 – Mark starts work at theatre selling concessions.
- my notebook, 1981
* * *
I found Seattle in 1981 glittering and gritty, grass-green and pavement-gray. I saw similarities to my hometown of Portland, but it was bigger and in some ways better: It rained less, at least in that year. It was circled by water and mountains, and I was intoxicated when I caught the salt-sea air. Downtown clubs like Wrex and the Gorilla Room shook with local bands like Student Nurse, the Refuzors and the Fartz. There was so much more than we were used to, especially for Mark and Troy, who hadn’t lived in towns bigger than Missoula, MT or Corvallis, OR. There were art-house movie theatres, restaurants of every kind, music stores that blew our minds with thousands of records. There were Broadway shows, big rock concerts, under-21 clubs and bookstores I could lose a day in.
Seattle Ent 75
But we were broke. So, living in Seattle, for me at least, was like being invited to a banquet but not permitted to eat. I remember standing around outside the clubs, but I don’t recall ever going in. There was a cover charge, and I wasn’t about to pay money to get slam-danced.  I probably missed some good music; mostly I missed the early 80’s Seattle pre-grunge punk scene. Almost any of the interesting things we would’ve wanted to do cost money and we didn’t have much of that.

Theatres & the Absurd
I hated working at McDonald’s. Mark told me I could get on at the theatre, so in May, I applied there and quit McDonald’s after five weeks, when I was hired by the King Cinema. It was a single, 900-seat movie house, supposedly the biggest in Seattle, at 6th & Blanchard (currently the King Cat Theater). I worked concessions mostly, sometimes tearing tickets and cleaning the lobby. We were open all day, opening around noon, and usually not busy until Friday and Saturday nights. The rest of the week, it was very slow.
The Way We Were: the King when it opened in 1974.

The Way We Were: the King when it opened in 1974. It’s the laughter we will remember.

When I started, we were showing Roman Polanski’s Tess, certainly one of the most visually beautiful movies I have ever seen. Two, three, maybe half a dozen patrons would come in, and once the concession counter and lobby were clean, we kicked back until they emerged 3 hours later. It’s good thing we liked movies, because it was the one form of entertainment that was wide open to us, any time we weren’t working. It was at least one table at the banquet we could eat from. All we had to do was have Gigi, our manager, call the manager of most any theater in town, and ask them if we could have a pass into their show. We could see about anything we wanted. Good and bad, we saw dozens of movies. I saw more new movies that year than any other in  my life: Reds, Gallipoli, Prince of the City, Body Heat, Blow Out, An American Werewolf in London, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Time Bandits, True Confessions, Pennies from Heaven, American Pop, Excalibur, Whose Life is it Anyway?, Ragtime, The Hand, Wolfen, Eyewitness, Fort Apache the Bronx, Taps, They All Laughed, Arthur, The Border, Cannery Row and more. If we really liked a movie, we went back and watched it again. We must have seen Breaker Morant five times. (I saw the big summer movies when I was back in Missoula.) And the ones that showed at the King Cinema Mark and I saw over and over, until we could recite large sections of dialog: Tess, Absence of Malice, On Golden Pond, Bustin’ Loose.

We also made it to art houses like the Harvard Exit where we were dazzled by stunning and strange foreign films, including some foreign and Hollywood classics. The two that stand out in my memory: Lawrence of Arabia, and a truly bizarre, wonderful and labyrinthine 1965 movie from Poland, The Saragossa Manuscript. (For a great slide show of Seattle cinemas, go here.) We saw some lesser known films, like Breaking Glass and McVicar. I saw a great documentary on James Agee.Nineteen Eighty-One, in my mind, was and remains the year of the movie. In the year and a half after I left the King, I saw only two movies.

* * *
I’m a little lost lamb
in the heart of the city

-Nick Lowe

At the outset we had no friends in Seattle. The only people we met were those Mark I worked with at the theatre, and they became our new friends. It was a diverse group of people who ranged from about age 17 to their mid-twenties. We had the good fortune of meeting some excellent people who made our lives richer than they would have otherwise have been. Some of them we only saw at work, but at least half-dozen we saw after hours all the time. We went out to shows, and sometimes partied together. Interestingly, of our dozen or so co-workers, three or four identified as Christians,  a young married couple were LDS, and another contingent hailed from the Church of Scientology, including a guy who taught Scientology classes. There was no shortage of lively and stimulating discussions about religion and the meaning of human existence.

In fact, I was thinking about these things all the time. For that, I needed some mental space – a lot of space – and time alone with the these thoughts I was wrestling with. I would not happen upon that kind of space until a year later, but as long as I kept these thoughts to myself, I could manage some reflection.

But Mark, well, he crowded me. He didn’t mean to. He would draw me into long debates that lasted into early morning hours in which I would put up lame defenses of things I may have wanted to believe, but which crumbled under his persistent and unrelenting arguments. When we first arrived in Seattle, Mark had given me Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, which I read the first week at Sharon’s. This essay was nothing less than a blitzkrieg against my liberal idealism and fuzzy agnosticism. I came face to face with the flat-out assertion that our existence is absurd, a result of the collision of our desire for reason with an unquestionably unreasonable world. In a godless and absurd universe, the only real question is suicide. Life, death and everything in between leave us without any claim on hope. But suicide is not an option: paradoxically, the absurd man must reject the “invitation to death” in favor of a life lived on his own terms.The only thing to do is rebel against the absurdity of the world, and live life to the fullest, in “my revolt, my freedom, and my passion.”

Of course I could not begin to accept the premise, even if his solution sounded fine. The world is insane and nonsensical on its face, but that does not force upon me a surrender to this fact as the ultimate and defining truth of my existence. Not everything is absurd. Some things do make sense. Many things are beautiful and good, and if nothing else, as rational beings we have survived by constructing a reasonable reality – if even in our minds – that we can cope with.

If I were certain there was no God, then this premise of the absurd might make sense. But if I am not certain, I cannot choose to live as if this absurdity were inescapable: it might be have an escape. I just don’t know what it is. Knowing about God, if that were possible, would sure help.

Despite my rejection of Camus’ statement of the human problem; despite the apparent seriousness of my thoughts; despite the high unlikelihood of success in Seattle; despite my occasional loneliness and fairly constant confusion, I was, in my day-to-day life, taking Camus’ advice: I was kicking at the wall, I wanted to kick it down, I was taking everything life had to offer, I was trying new things, I was looking for a girl to keep me company, I was feeling my passion and letting it rise, I was drinking whiskey and smoking the herb, I was laughing, laughing every day, laughing down the dead-end street, laughing my life.

We all were laughing, that’s just how we were, how we are, the three of us. We looked at the situation we had put ourselves in, saw the absurdity of our own mistakes and missteps, and we thought it was funny. We laughed our lives.

Down? No, not yet, anyway.

sisyphus-1549 titian

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain. One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
-Albert Camus

Friends for Life

I have been writing for almost a year about a time of my life when the two most important people were my best friends, Troy and Mark. Both of these friendships have hit shoals at times, and looked like they were sunk. But 33 years later, they are not. The two guys I met at Hellgate High School when I was 16 years old are still my friends. I trust they always will be.

I want to say this because what I am publishing in the next months might cause a reader to wonder. So I want to say at the outset that I love my friends and I am grateful for all the times we shared, good and bad.

I first talked with Troy my freshman year, in the spring of 1979. I walked into the Lance office, where Troy served as the news editor, and told him Todd Hess, the student body president, had agreed to create a new office, that of school historian, and I had been named to the post. Instead of laughing at me, Troy told me to sit down. He took out a steno pad and asked me a few questions and made notes of my answers. Then I left. I’m guessing that’s when Troy laughed. Really, I didn’t want or expect an article. I wanted a look at the newspaper office. I wanted to work there.

In the fall I met Troy again. He was now editor-in-chief and I was student in Journalism 1, the prerequisite to serving on the staff. Over the course of the fall, I found myself with new friends, all in J1 or on the staff, including Troy. One new friend was J1 classmate Dave Larson. In the winter, 1979-80, I became acquainted with Mark, Dave’s close friend. Mark already knew Troy from a class or two they had together. I also remember the first conversation I had with Mark. In the hall outside the Lance office, I was telling Dave I thought taking acid was out of the question for me. Everything I had heard about it freaked me out. It was scary and dangerous. You could lose your mind, jump out of a window. Mark chimed in, telling me that it wasn’t dangerous if it was clean, i.e. not laced with other drugs or contaminants. The acid generally available in Missoula was clean. I should think about it. I wasn’t convinced, but I did think about it.

That may seem a little shocking, especially to readers who are too young to remember when drugs of every kind were ubiquitous in the schools and on the streets. We could get pretty much anything we wanted, and I mean anything. Yes, many of my friends and I used drugs. It was as commonplace as teenage drinking and more common than teen pregnancy. Teenage drug use in the US reached its peak at that time. It was a different day, before Nancy Reagan’s ‘Just Say No’ campaign. So it wasn’t that strange that I would stand in the hallway of our school talking about dropping acid like it was a new diet. Nor was it strange that the person putting in a good word for it would become one of my best friends.

Now the three of us knew each other, and six months later we were fast friends. We formed the Alliance, moved to Seattle, hitchhiked thousands of miles, landed in Midwestern cities far from home, got married, had kids, had our estrangements and reunions, fought and argued and laughed and lived through some real adventures together. Now we all live out west again, and Mark and I are only miles apart.

X Ray Specs Ad 1973 cropI find it hard to explain how our friendship formed, other than to state the obvious: we liked each other. We were not the same, though in some ways we were, but I think we liked the ways we were different, and over time we changed owing to our friendship. Also, we were willing to conceive our idiot plans, convince one another of their merits, and proceed as if they made perfect sense. Or: we were willing to go along with them even if they amounted to the conceptual equivalent of X-Ray Specs: Yeah, they probably won’t work, but wouldn’t be cool if they did? Order me some!

I feel like we’re army buddies. Not war buddies, but friends for life on account of having huddled together for a night, homeless and hungry in a Tornado Alley thunderstorm – and having known each other for just as long as we’ve known ourselves.

Keep in mind, if you should read these posts, nothing is meant to disparage my friends. Yes, we were all fools, and fools together. We’re all agreed on that. Yet our folly was shared, and we seemed to have grown from our common experiences. As I see it, there is not blame; more, there is amazement that we came out alive and still friends. All, I believe, is forgiven if not forgotten. But I am recalling these long-ago stories knowing that my memory is not always accurate, but hoping that what I write is true to the recollections I now have, and what my experiences meant to me then. I hope it is also true to our friendship, which means more to me than anything I might write.

In writing this out, Mark and Troy have given me their permission, without knowing what I was going to write. They put a lot of trust in me. I hope, while being as honest as I should be, to not make them regret it.