Sunday, September 25, 2016

China A Decade Later

My wife is a flight-attendant, and this weekend she worked a trip to Shanghai.  This has put me in a deeply reflective mood, because it was exactly a decade and a month ago that I first walked the streets of Shanghai myself.  At the time I was a junior in college, off-track at BYU-Idaho, and my chief goal at the time was to get as far away from Rexburg as I possibly could--and boy did I succeed!

Late August of '06, I flew from San Francisco to Shanghai all alone, a wannabe-English teacher with only an Associates and no formal teacher training to boot, sent by a fledgling Idaho-based outfit called China Horizons--years later, the founder Jacob Harlan even apologized for flying me over all by my lonesome self; the company has since vastly expanded, and now does a much more admirable job of sending whole groups over together, such that their various teachers travel with a mutual support system already in place.  In those early days, however, I was quite solitary.  Not only was I flying solo into one of the largest cities on earth, but from Shanghai I had to figure out how to take a 12-hour train-ride west to AnHui Province, to teach at a private middle-school in the "small" town of AnQing (pop. 600,000).  If ever anything was the opposite of insular, barely-populated, middle-of-nowhere Rexburg, it was The Middle Kingdom: China.

But of course my Chinese adventure was about more than just escaping the oppressive smallness of Rexburg.  At the time I had been home from my mission to Puerto Rico for 2 solid years--and at that halcyon age, being home from your mission for as long as you were out is a sobering moment, a realization that every missionary you could have possibly known is home now, that the institutional memory of your very existence there has already been erased, that you either live on in the hearts of a few scattered Puerto Ricans or nowhere at all.  In short, the mission was no longer a thing I had recently done, had "just gotten home from".

In short, I needed a new adventure, something to reassure myself that my life hadn't already peaked at 21, that I wouldn't remain mired in memory, re-hashing half-remembered "glory days" forever, that there was still so much to look forward to.  What's more, I had to know that I was capable of doing such things--which was by no means a given for me at the time.  I was kinda shy and awkward growing up (in other words, I was a teenager), and frankly a bit of an unambitious home-body, yearning for something more yet still too trepidous to take any real risks.  Yes, I had risen to the challenge of a Caribbean mission at the tender age of 19--and grateful that I had--but that whole experience was still mostly financed and encouraged by family and Church, it was an expected thing that I should do. 

My sudden decision to go to China, then, was perhaps the first adult decision I made entirely on my own, took the initiative on my own, paid for on my own, accepted the risks of on my own.  And the risks were real--I even had a mini-panic attack on the flight over the Pacific, as I realized that I didn't know Chinese, I knew one in China, that I scarcely had cash in my bank account.  "Turn this plane around!" I wanted to scream, "I'm going to die out there!"

Fortunately I was sitting next to a retired newspaper reporter who was returning to China for the 6th time to teach English himself, and he quickly reassured me of how kind and friendly and hospitable the Chinese are (which proved to be true), gave me some advice, some pointers, some encouragement, even complimented me for being so daring at such a young age.  I don't remember his name and I doubt he remembers me (if he's still alive...), but I would love to thank him again--he sure did help me get off to China on the right foot.

In the years since my semester in China, I've roamed fairly widely, enough to consider myself a reasonably confident, seasoned traveler (if I do say so myself), one who is no longer intimidated by foreign customs and unknown tongues.  (I'm also a much more experienced and confident teacher, while we're at it).  International travel now feels familiar to me.

But then, everything feels familiar after China--when you are an American abroad, you can't get much more jumping-in-the-deep-end than the People's Republic. The scorpions on a stick, pig-feet, steamed-lilies, and fish and foul with their heads still attached for dinner; the family-names first and given-names last; the baffled way you and they regard each other because they prefer their water hot while you prefer it cold; the opinions kept private and the Tai Chi practiced openly; the collective refusal to remember the '60s; the capitalist communism; the oxen plowing in the shadows of sky-scrapers; the swastika as Buddhist instead of Nazi; the stiff-as-a-board beds; the hole-in-the-floor toilets; the every-which-way they are blunt where you are delicate and delicate where you are blunt; the way even the local Police Chief calls you handsome, and random teenagers want their picture with you; how you will never be quite sure if they are actually inviting you over for dinner or just being polite; their utter lack of personal space yet profound discomfort with actual physical touch; the chaotic order of their every traffic stop, how the mass of pedestrians weave through the oncoming traffic in perfect safety; the language with zero correspondence to the Latin alphabet, that grammatically formalizes the vocal-tones we refuse to admit exist in English too--take every last thing you are used to in America and reverse it.  I had to sink or swim, and with a little help from my new friends there--Chinese and American alike--I learned to swim.

Over all, China was an important turning-point and confidence-booster in my life (and hopefully my students actually learned a thing or two from me also, as I faked my way through teaching them how to pronounce the letters V and L--and I do declare that you haven't lived till you've led a chorus of Chinese 7th graders in belting out "Yellow Submarine" and John Denver's "Country Roads").  And when I finally stood upon the Great Wall one brisk, bright mid-Autumn morning, it dawned on me: I might actually be able to do this whole see-the-world, seize-the-day, live-you-life-while-you're-still-young thing after all (it's probably no accident I married someone who chose to become a flight attendant).  While it is sobering to realize a full decade has now passed, it is supremely gratifying--even a relief--to note how full that decade has been.

But though I am now more sure than ever that there is still so much more to come, my wife in Shanghai today has nonetheless got me feeling nostalgic, so indulge me as I post the barest sampling of decade-old photographs:

The Jade Buddhist Temple in downtown Shanghai.
The very modern view from this very ancient temple.
The Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai.
The Great Wall of China in Beijing
At the Great Wall with my American roommate/co-worker/friend Ken Carlston.
I had, and continue to have, no idea who any of these people were.
Entrance to the Forbidden City.
Mishaps at a Chinese masseuse parlor.
At Guniu national forest.
This pic is one inspirational quote away from a Dental Office.
Hiking Tianzhu Shan.
That chicken had been alive only an hour earlier.
A mere sliver of the view from atop Yellow Mountain.
Me taking in said overwhelming-view that no camera will ever be able to capture.
That bridge, for scale.
The sacred Buddhist mountain Jiuhua Shan.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Part III of The Epic and Audacious Adventures of the NAUTILUS! and Her Gallant Crew in the 19th Century: The Geopolitical Perils of Sentient Automata and Additional Elementary Inquiries!

The ripening apples, the changing leaves, the crisp Autumn air, it can all only mean one thing: Guy Fawkes Day is coming!  And what better way to observe the anniversary of the Gun Powder Plot than by blowing up Parliament?  David W. Harris and I do just that in Nautilus! Part III--the high-flying sequel to Part II and Part I (the latter still free on Smashwords)--and boy did we sure had a lot of fun doing so!

From Amazon: "The brave crew of the Nautilus rescues the literal Underground Railroad at the behest of Vice-President Harriet Tubman! A certain London Private Eye takes the crew to the heart of Africa to face the mastermind behind the Martian plot! Dinosaurs in rocket-packs stave off the Napoleonic conquest of the Confederacy! And a ghost from America's past must rescue Queen Victoria from an adroid-impostress to the throne on Guy Fawkes Day! All this and more in Part III of NAUTILUS!, fan-fiction for history!"

We are now half-way through the series; at this rate, we just might wrap up by New Years.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Catcher in the Rye Revisited; or, Catcher in the Rye as a Christmas Novel

When I was a teenager I read The Catcher in the Rye.  I also read Catch-22, Tropic of Cancer, Dilbert comics, wore Chuck Taylors, and listened to The Doors, Queen, and Dark Side of the Moon.  I wasn't exactly original. (Teenagers never are).

But maybe originality is overrated--not to mention a myth--and the reason why J.D. Salinger's lone novel continues to sell in excess of 250,000 copies a year well over a half-century after its publication is because there is nothing original about its premise: a teenager hates his life.  Holden Caulfield's is the common voice of adolescent dissatisfaction, distilled down to its purest and most impotent rage.  Sometimes you don't need to read something original--sometimes you just need to know you're not alone, that there's someone else out there who understands.

Or Holden Caulfield is just a total spoiled brat, an epitome of unexamined privilege so devoid of real problems that he has to invent some to justify his narcissism, selfishness, and general dickishness.  Such, increasingly, has been the summation of a growing number of folks, in the surprisingly burgeoning sub-genre of Catcher in the Rye re-reads.

These various responses, in fact, had me a tad trepidous to re-read Catcher myself.  Even after Salinger's death in 2011, I couldn't quite bring myself to revisit Holden.  Some cherished childhood memories are best left in the past, I figured.


But then last week at the airport, disaster struck: I lost the book I was reading (Vol. 4 of In Search of Lost Time--and boy, if there could ever be two more differing approaches towards remembering childhood than Proust and Salinger!).  Begrudgingly, like an amateur, I sauntered over to the Airport Bookstore & Minimart to find a replacement.  Amidst all those paint-by-numbers spy thrillers, hackneyed romances, formulaic fantasies, flavor-of-the-week best-sellers, cash-grab celebrity bios, petulant political screeds, insipid self-help books, and insidious Get-Rich-Quick schemes, I felt a sort of nausea fill the pit of my stomach.

That is, I was put in just the right mindset to re-read Catcher...which is why it startled me to find the book on the shelf!  What strange company for Caulfield to be keeping! How ironic to be so surrounded by "such a bunch of phonies," as Holden might say! It almost felt like some secret joke perpetrated by an irate bookstore employee.  I couldn't resist--I bought a copy.  Just finished it this afternoon.

Let's get something out of the way first: Holden Caulfield is indeed insufferable.  His critics are right.  But what his critics miss is that he is insufferable in the exact same way all teenagers are insufferable.  That is an incredibly rare feet--in most film, TV, and fiction, teenagers are idealized, articulate, a fantasy of what we liked to imagine we were like at that age, rather than a reflection of what we were actually like.  Ferris Bueller is who we wanted to be; but Holden Caulfield is who we actually were.  I suspect that much of the adult backlash against Holden is sheer resentment, for reminding us of how embarrassing we all sounded in our teens, which we've spent most our adulthood trying to forget.

But here's the other thing about Holden: he's also self-aware!  Multiple times throughout the novel, Holden mentions how he himself is a phony, duplicitous, inconsistent, and terrible.  Pay attention for those moments if you choose to re-read it.  Indeed, I dare say that a huge source of Holden's frustration and anger is his growing awareness--which, as a true teenager, he still lacks the vocabulary to fully express--that he is in fact inextricably complicit with the phoniness of the world!

And that I think is why the novel continues to resonate even today: because we all feel that same rage at our own inescapable complicity.  Our clothing is sewn by children in third-world sweatshops; our food harvested by exploited immigrant labor; our rubber comes from African and Malaysian slave plantations; our electronics from nightmarish Tawainese factories, built with rare-earth minerals mined by Afghan child slaves; our diamonds from genocidal warlords; our gasoline from hyper-destructive industries; our high standard of living from ruthless corporations; and so on and so forth.  In America, we are all spoiled, petulant, narcissistic brats, people who burn away all our many opportunities and invent problems to justify our misery--Holden, at least, is aware that he does so.  He is also one of the few characters in fiction who actively tries to disavow all his unearned privilege--and even fails as he tries.  The problem of privilege runs deep.

But then, his anger is not solely rooted in societal injustice, is it; early in the novel, we learn his brother Allie had recently died of leukemia.  Holden's grief, then, is of a kind with Prince Hamlet's--they are both morose, brooding jerks precisely because they are both grieving.  Grief has a funny way of stripping away our filters, dropping our defenses, making nothing feel like it matters anymore.  Holden isn't just the archetype for the raging teenager; he is also that of the grieving brother.

Nor do I bring up Hamlet arbitrarily (well, besides their shared spaces on every High School syllabi ever); a couple years ago I argued that Hamlet can be read as a Christmas play.  Remember that the latter takes place in the winter months; the ghost appears "against that season...Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated;" and that for centuries, the telling of ghost stories was a holiday tradition. As I pointed out back then, it is no coincidence that Dicken's A Christmas Carol is first and foremost a ghost story, that Joyce's "The Dead" takes place at a Christmas party, that Andy Williams' 1963 hit "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" boasts "There'll be scary ghost stories..."  Up till two short generations ago, the dead were as much a part of Christmas as the trees and mistletoe.

And like Shakespeare's Hamlet, Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (and I suspect this point isn't emphasized nearly enough) can also be read as a Christmas novel.  It, too, takes place in late December; Holden gets depressed at one point when he sees some men swearing as they put up a municipal Christmas Tree; his younger sister Phoebe is playing the lead in a Christmas pageant; she lends Holden some of her gift-buying money; and as had happened for centuries of Christmases, a ghost haunts the proceedings, that of the late Allie Caulfield.

I perhaps read The Catcher in the Rye a little too early in the season--it is really a Christmas story.  More precisely, it is a Christmas ghost story, in the same tradition as Dickens, Joyce, and Shakespeare.  Though a self-proclaimed "kind of an atheist," Holden nevertheless possesses Christ's same absolute impatience for "phonies"--or as the Savior put it, "Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!" (Matt. 23:13).  The novel's title even comes from Holden's dream of catching kids-at-play from falling off a cliff--that is, Holden wishes to be a savior to little children, "for of such is the kingdom of God." Despite all its casual blasphemy, this text is permeated with desire for a Christ.

I may need to add Catcher to the thin list of books I re-read every Christmas, the books that actually remind me of the "reason for the season"--namely, that because we are all, like Holden, such prodigal sons, because we are all selfish, wasteful, despicable phonies (and that never more so than during Christmas), we are all in need of a Savior more desperately than ever.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Venice, Copenhagan, Rekljavic

Look, I don't want no guff from you--because life is already so capricious and unfair as it is, that on the rare occasions where it is so in your favor, you learn to take the money and run.  Hence, when an opportunity arises to go on what is in effect an all-expense-paid round-trip to Venice--especially when you are a broke community college adjunct grad student--then you friggin' take it.  Because you are the sort of person who's not supposed to be able to do this; you are supposed to be at the whims of the market, not vice-versa.  Flying to Venice thus becomes a form of resistance: politically, economically, even cosmically.  

But hark, there is danger!   For you may be tempted to be a total hipster about it, and roll your eyes at the Gondolas, sneering that they're all just some overpriced, overrated tourist trap. Protip: Ride the Gondola anyways.  And elect to ride the small canals over the Grand Canal, too.  Even the most cynical among you won't be able to repress a smile, nor a sense of awe at this romantic place.  It is magical on purpose.
For some reason, it wasn't until I was physically walking the streets of Copenhagan that I suddenly realized I was visiting one of the haunts of my Mother.  She straight-up skipped her High School graduation, I recalled, to fly across the Atlantic with my Grandparents, to pick up my Uncle Tom from his mission to Denmark.  I also have ancestors from this corner of Scandinavia.  You will also note that all of these people I just mentioned are now dead.  Hence, as I wandered past the Little Mermaid statue, the colorful homes of Nyhavn, the Danish Royal Palace, the Christus, I couldn't help but feel how I was now stepping where they once stepped, seeing what they once saw--the spirits and ghosts fluttered beside me.

I tried to quote Kierkegaard there, but I was too happy (though it's not like Hans Christian Anderson is terribly cheery, either).  I'm from Washington, so the cool climate of Denmark felt especially like home--or is it the reverse?
In Iceland, everything feels primordial: the visible tectonic plates, the geothermal hotsprings, the moss-covered volcanic rock, even the language with letters unused by English since the composition of Beowulf, all make the island feel like a relic from the dawn of time, a vision of a young Earth.  The tour-guide may tell you that at a "mere" 18 million years old, the landmass of Iceland is, geologically speaking, an infant--but that is just another way of emphasizing how much older everything is than humanity, how we really are just guests. (Prometheus was filmed here with reason.)

Of course, such a recognition cannot help but make you feel younger, as well--and to take yourself less seriously.  Perhaps that is why the Icelanders, despite their general icy Germanic demeanor, were among the nicest and most helpful people I've ever met, especially when they didn't have to, especially when I needed it most (I almost got stranded at their tiny airport at the edge of the world, save for the kind airport employees who bent over backwards to get me rebooked). Iceland tops all those Human Life Indexes most deservedly.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Last Day


The Last Day
[A Fiction, Of Sorts]
With a hop and a bounce, Scott Eckles straitened his tie as he followed the nurse confidently out the waiting room.  While her back was turned to him, he briefly placed his fists on his hips in the Superman pose, for he had read an article online recently that claimed doing so can spike one’s testosterone, and in turn one’s self-confidence.  His stride made clear: something big was about to happen. You’ve angled the bait, now set the hook! He remembered to tell himself, though he hadn’t fished in years.
“Mr. Eckles, please have a seat,” said the doctor distractedly. Scott sat down across from him rim-rod straight in a power-pose, smiled widely, and waited.  The doctor for his part avoided eye contact (a submissive tick, Scott had read), his hands folded on the desk, his lips pursed—so Scott seized his chance.
“So, Mike!” he said, taking charge of the conversation and creating his own luck, “Have you thought any more about that opportunity I told you about?”
The doctor snapped awake, “Sorry?”
“The Ameriway opportunity!” said Scott, “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten! I told you all about it our last visit. It’s hands down the hottest multi-level marketing plan in America today.”
“In America…?”
“Did you check those brochures I left with you last time? Now, I’m no doctor,” chuckled Scott, “But, lawsuit insurance! Doesn’t that practically sell themselves?”
“The…”
“Now, now, now, I know what you’re gonna say, you already have malpractice insurance. Requisite of your profession, I know, I know, I’ve read all about it. But how much does malpractice insurance pay you back, I ask you!”
“Pardon?”
“That’s precisely the genius of it!” said Scott with real enthusiasm, “I sell you lawsuit insurance, and you sell it to two just two others—just two others, mind you!—I automatically collect a portion of the premium from you, and you likewise collect a cut from the two under you.  As I’m sure you’re aware, most MLMs require up to eight or even twelves recruits before you start collecting what’s yours, but with Ameriway it’s only two.  Now you invite those two to sell it to just two more, as well. It's never ending, that's the genius of it! And from the four under those two, then the eight under them—and pretty soon we’re both rakin’ in the dough!”
 “Mr. Eckles, I…”
“It practically sells itself, don’t it?  I mean, it’s something absolutely everybody needs, right?  No scented candles, no oils, no meal plans, no vitamins, no useless products shoved down your throat like all the others (believe me, I’ve tried ‘em all), just the sheer peace of mind that comes of knowing that you’ll never have to pay for a lawsuit again!  In our easily offended day and age, that ain’t nothing to bat an eye at, now is it.  A single lawsuit, man, it could just ruin a man—and then everything you’ve built up for yourself, your big house, your boat, all those sacrifices you made to make it through med school, swoosh, gone like that.”
“Boat…?”
“Just call up just two other of your ol’ buddies from med school,” enthused Scott, “And have them call up two more of their buddies from med school, and bam—not only are you covering the costs of your Ameriway premiums, but you’re pulling in something on the side, all without working at all! My goodness, you swing this right doc, and you could finish paying off your med school loans in no time!  Imagine, just imagine with me, life without student loans, doc, I know you've dreamed of it.  And maybe, maybe, you could even retire early!”
“Mr. Eckles, if I may…”
“Now, you may just call this a ‘pyramid scheme,' but let me tell you, there’s not another multi-level marketing plan like it. I have an old friend, Harry Wilcox, who, after networking for One Health, was n.f.l…”
“…huh?”
“N.f.l., ‘No Friends Left,’” Scott quickly clarified, “He’d driven off everyone in his potential network. He'd gotten mixed up with those One Health folk in the wrong way you see—which really is a scam, I’ll have you know—you know, those folks trying to rope everyone into health supplements, preaching the sky falling about how all the nutrients that have been sucked out of the ground by  pollution and pesticides—I mean, it’s true and all, and I certainly use their health supplements (for what folks never realize is that MLMs really do have the highest quality products around, ya know!), but One Health was going about it all wrong, their network was in shambles, and Henry got the worst of it.”
Scott was a master of over-sharing details to keep the customer off kilter you see, and Scott could see that it was working on the doctor when the latter could only stammer, “Who...what?”
"Anyways, my friend Harry, he was broke as a joke, bank was gonna foreclose on his lovely duplex, his wife and college sweetheart was gonna leave him and everything, but then he started with Ameriway just a year ago, and can you believe he’s already pullin’ in 10 grand a week? A week? Even for a doctor like yourself, you gotta admit, that’s a pretty hefty chunk of change!” Scott paused for emphasis.
The doctor here rushed out, “Yes, Mr. Eckles, I have your—”
“Yes, yes, the tests!” said Scott happily, “Yes, thank you so much for doing those for me! You came very highly recommended from my wife’s friend, you know. That pain in my lower back, well, it ain’t been killing me or nothing, but it hasn’t left me alone for weeks now, I tell you what.  In fact, one good turn deserves another!  Doc, why don’t Emily and I invite you over for dinner?  We can you treat you and the misses to a good ol’ fashioned barbecue, and talk more about these exciting opportunities over some nice sirloin steaks…”
 “Mr. Eckles, you have three months.”
“Oh challenge accepted, I can have you turning a profit in two—”
“No, no, sorry, I mean, you have three months.  That’s all.”  And with that the doctor let loose a flurry of jargon and medicinal explanations that did nothing to clarify anything for poor Scott Eccles save the fact that he had only three months.
“Now that’s not funny, doc…” Scott finally said.
“I sent the tests to lab twice, just to be sure,” continued the doctor, “I even sent them to the University hospital, but each time the prognosis came back the same: you have three months. Maybe four.  I'm incredibly sorry.”
Scott shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “So, you’re not coming over for dinner on Friday…”
“I'm afraid I will not.”
“Listen, I may need a second opinion—”
“I pray to God that it’s different.  But it won’t be.”
“Should I, um, exercise more or…”
“Won’t make a difference.”
“Pills I could…”
“None exist.  None even under development.”
“Treatments…”
“Experimental.  Long shots.  No proven success rates.  Not covered.”
“I have very good health insurance…”
“You might as well not for all the good it would do.”
“So what should I…”
“Get your affairs in order.  Call old friends.  Reconcile with old enemies. Make love to your wife. Make peace with your God if you have one.  Fly to Paris.  Visit Venice.  Whatever you must do.”
Scott slowly started from his chair. “But surely there are…”
“There aren’t.”
“I can pay you anything…”
“Wouldn’t matter.”
A pause. “So what you’re telling me…”
“Mr. Eckles, I’m profoundly sorry this happened to you, I can run the tests a third time if you want…”
But Scott Eckles was already wandering out the office.
Between the office and the front door, Scott Eckle’s thinking underwent a shift. Not a gradual one, he had no more time for that, but a seismic cataclysm across the landscape of his mind.
By the time he passed the door frame, he was desperately trying to remember his Ameriway sales pitch, for it drained from his tongue like lake-water through fingertips. By the time he got half-way down the short hallway, he’d forgotten it completely, and many other ones besides.
As he re-entered the waiting room, he was desperately trying to recall the last time he’d been fishing—was it with Uncle Russ when he was 10 or Grandpa Keller when he was 11?
As he passed the chair he’d bounded from but minutes earlier, he tried to remember the different types of lures.  And as he passed the copy of Business Weekly he’d been ruffling through earlier, he tried to remember if he’d wanted to be an astronaut or an archeologist as a child. And as he passed an old woman reading a Readers’ Digest, he tried to remember what was the last book he’d read that wasn’t for a class or a sales seminar.
And as he stepped outside, some bored kids hanging outside snickered, for he’d been running his fingers through his hair and the strands of his comb-over were now sticking up high in the air. Scott turned abruptly to face them—not in anger, but bewilderment, for though he seemed to remember being a child, he couldn’t remember what that was like.
­­­__
As the congregation began to slowly break into parts as the first verse progressed, David Warner, a young grad student home on break, entered from the west foyer and sat quietly in the back row for possibly the last time.  He wore a weary old white-shirt, an un-cinched tie, some wrinkled slacks, and the first sprouting stubble of an attempted beard—and though he refused to tell another soul about it, he was in the throes of a full-blown faith crisis.
            And he hated it—not because he felt the faith of his fathers actively slipping away per se, but because of the horrid cliché that he felt himself becoming.  Heavens, he had actually uttered aloud “I’m on a spiritual journey” just the other day!  Even though it was only to himself alone, he couldn’t stop cringing at his own banality.  Goodness, what was next, bookmarking anti-Mormon websites?  Posting to Reddit?  Writing angry letters to Church HQ, refusing to “consent” to be a listed member of this church (as though we didn’t have actual rape victims to speak of consent)?  Gag.  He’d come across an ex-Mormon blog wherein some tool cited Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs as his chief consoling comfort as he exodused the church.  Serious, not even Neon Bible, The Suburbs!  What is it about leaving the Church that renders folks as schlocky, sappy, and sentimental as the church they are supposedly rebelling against?  He had spent so much of his 20s resisting becoming yet another sanctimonious, self-righteous, preachy stereotype that it irritated him to no end to feel himself becoming a sanctimonious, self-righteous, preachy stereotype anyways.
__
            With a start, Scott Eccles awoke; it appeared he had fainted on the hood of his car, still parked under the tree in the shade.  His keys were still in his hands.  A thinnest of sweat had collected on his brow, his upper-lip.  As his mind slowly collected, he briefly considered the possibility that this had all been a dream.  He calmly considered how the shadows of the leaves weaved across the windshield before him, the sun peaking and shimmering through, all while the branches gently waved in the wind, almost as though counting...a moment gone...and another...and another--
      Scott Eckles leapt to his feet and ran away from his car in a wild panic.
__
            He already knew the normal litany of reasons people leave—had rolled his eyes at those who had done nary a day of real research in their lives had the nerve to be blindsided after a rough afternoon’s worth of googling: how the Church really did deny black people the priesthood until 1978; how Brigham Young really did say some very racist things; how Joseph really did lie to Emma when he started polygamy.  Some of those polygamist wives were uncomfortably young, and not just for the time-period.  The fascimiles in the Book of Abraham are really from the Egyptian Book of Breathings.  Mountain Meadows was indeed a massacre.  There really is a lack of financial transparency in the church.  BYU is just, well, BYU.  And so forth.
            He’d long had a list of ready-made responses to each of these objections, viz: the Lord chooses weak, faulty human beings, not saints, to run his church, and if the Lord can use such imperfect men to do his work, then that gives hope for us too, does it not?  Besides, insisting on the perfection of church leaders—whether in defending the faith or attacking it—is a form of idolatry.  Furthermore, he had oft preached (to himself if no one else), how both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young stated that their greatest fear was that the people would blindly follow the prophet without seeking a confirmation by the Holy Spirit for themselves that what they spoke was true, and thus their minds would be darkened and thus dragged themselves down to hell.  Moreover, Mormon polygamist wives were among the foremost suffragists of the western U.S. at the time—in fact, Utah Territory passed woman’s voting before Wyoming—complicating the entire supposed anti-feminist framework of critiquing Mormon polygamy in really interesting ways, he had said.  And folks who brought up Mountain Meadows always seemed to conspicuously ignore the Missouri Extermination Order.  No one actually knows what the Book of Breathings are--calling it a funerary text makes no sense.  He had no defense of BYU, but then, he was a Utah fan anyways.  As for the cries of religious hypocrisy within the church, well, what church didn’t have those?   So he kept telling himself.
 __
            Though he had lived here for years, Scott Eccles quickly became disoriented as he wandered the side-walks.  Oddly, it did not occur to him to pull out his phone for directions.  He now found he knew this area only by the blur of landmarks as he drove them by, or pauses at traffic-lights, or how hard he hugged each curve of the road.  But on foot, the streams of faceless strip-malls suddenly had faces; they became unfamiliar, strange, new.  Frightened, he broke into an unpracticed jog.
__
But lately, he had to confess—the uncomfortable history was getting to him.  And the mental gymnastics he had to play to defend the faith of his fathers was getting to him.  And the viciousness of the recent changes to Handbook 1 was really getting to him—in fact, the draconian nature of the thing had sent bubbling to the surface all those age-old doubts he thought he had long quieted for good--only this time, there was none to deliver him.   And frankly, if the church said David was wrong, he was no longer sure he wanted to be right.
And of course the good old fashioned religious hypocrisy, ubiquitous though it may be, was still getting to him most of all.  He remembered getting picked up by Scott Eckles outside the Del Taco by the strip-mall to go home-teaching, and as they passed a panhandler on a corner, this Scott guy went off on a long rant about the laziness, unthriftiness, and sinful entitlement of the homeless, how they had none but themselves to blame, how they expected money for nothing—all within the same breath as he tried to recruit David into whatever this week’s hottest pyramid scheme was.  “Do this right, and you’ll never have to work again!” Eccles had said with a galling lack of self-awareness.  David’s Dad had later instructed him to just laugh it off, to bear with him as the Lord God bears with us (though rumor had it that his Dad had then angrily shouted at Brother Eckles over the phone to leave his son, his impressionable, teenage, only son, the hell alone or else).  And for years, David had done precisely that, and though he often cringed for him, he had never taken Scott Eckles seriously again.
Though if Scott Eckles had been a singularity, mayhaps he could have dealt with that.  But Scott was a type, not an outlier; the mere fact of him being on the Bishopric was sign enough of a tacit sort of institutional approval for whatever it was that Scott represented.  Did the Lord really inspire the Bishop by his Holy Spirit to pick him as a counselor?  And did the Stake President really feel inspired to call and anoint the Bishop?  And who called that Stake President to serve?  And up and up the ladder he went, and he wondered, and feared.
__
 The sun was particularly hot today, which was unusual this late in the Fall.  Yet Scott Eckles did not think to remove his suit jacket, nor loosen his collar, nor remove his Sunday shoes, no matter how they blistered as he staggered down the broken pavement.  He was profoundly uncomfortable, but he was experiencing a primal, unthinking need to feel every part of his aching body, lest he never felt any of this again.
__
Also, saying there are hypocrites in other religions no longer hand-waved away his doubts either; for the unstated, unsettling implication of that assumption was that this Church, the one that claimed to be “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth,” really was no different than any other church.  Moreover, his doubts were rooted in far more epistemological problems: spiritual experiences were by definition “subjective,” argued his atheist friends.  He in turn responded that all experience is subjective, that’s just Descartes 101, Plato's Allegory of the Cave covered the first week of class.  But we still trust in our faulty experience, because we literally have nothing else to go off of.  We all dive out of the way when a car careens at us; we all walk by faith it turns out, and see through a glass darkly.  But also, once again, saying that all experience is subjective does not dismiss the fact that his religious experiences were still just that—subjective.  Merely diagnosing the problem did not make it go away.  Just because we all walk by faith did not make faith valid.  In fact, what was even harder than his relentless atheist friends were the religious ones, yes, the surprisingly high number of faithful ones he met in grad school!  Catholic, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Jews, Muslims, Orthodox—they never even attack his own Mormon faith or try to convert him like some angry, defensive Baptist, no, they were just happy to have fellow believers in such a secular world.  Yes, they all really did go to Church on Sunday, for they as well had had spiritual experiences of their own that kept them coming to Church, in spite of all the Nietzsche and Foucault they had read.  These were good people, doing the best they could; which again revived the long evaded question of, well, why are their religious experiences less valid than mine?  What of any of us?  Could he really say in all arrogant assumption that he really had “more truth,” a “greater fullness of the gospel” than they?  A Church with Scott Eckles in it?  Even if he could, how could he prove it by other means than this same vaguely defined, “subjective” religious experience?  Could they not all be right together?  Could they not all be wrong together?  Was any of this true?  Did any of this matter, ever? 
Mechanically, habitually, David Warner partook of the bread of the sacrament, and he feared he felt nothing—moreover, he feared this would be the last time he would ever touch it.  Leaning forward on the bench, rubbing his face and clenching his chest, he made a final silent prayer: God, if there is a God, if there was ever a God, I need a sign and a wonder. 
__
So many thoughts, sales pitches, and memories had already drained from his pores, that it was with a most curious and vague sense of recognition that he paused before the Stake Center.  That had been why he had worn his suit that morning, was it not?  So as to not need to change between the doctor's office and church?  Why had it not struck him as unusual that the doctor would ask him to come in on a weekend?  These were not lucid thoughts mind you, but only a rushing stream of impressions.  Without either wanting or not wanting to, his feet stumbled towards the entrance; he gripped the door-handle hard, trying desperately to feel it as familiar.
__ 
 Then the Fast and Testimony meeting began, and the first up to the stand was Scott Eccles.  David’s heart groaned within him.  He might not even wait until the end of the meeting—for if this were the best sign the Almighty could deliver him, then, he told himself, then this indeed was the Last Day, Great and Terrible, of his association with the LDS Church.
__
 But nothing felt familiar.  Not the carpeting, not the white-brick walls, not the correlated art that hangs in literally every North American chapel.  Not even the faces of the congregation, no matter how much they stared back at him in apparent recognition as he paced down the aisle, no--with a shock and catastrophic regret he had never felt before, he realized he didn't know any of them.
__
 Yet even as he muttered these thoughts to himself, David could not help but absently note how ruffled Scott Eccles appeared—his comb-over more obvious than usual, his face more haggard.  Standing awkwardly before the podium, the words did not come to him, as they usually did, as they always, monotonously did.  In fact, an increasingly uncomfortable silence fell upon the congregation. 
Then he erupted, in convulsing sobs that filled the chapel.  Hot tears streamed down his face, his cries reverberating through the feedback in the microphone.  He crumpled forward onto the podium and continued to cry out loudly, showing no signs of ceasing.  His shoulders, his whole being, shook terribly.  The Bishop jumped to his feet and attempted to help Scott back up to his, but Scott only slid off the podium and continued wailing wildly and recklessly on the floor.  Even the crying babies fell silent as all the congregation sat transfixed, an awful knot twisting in their collective stomachs.  All they could make out from his distant sobs, was, “We’re all gonna die, we’re all gonna die, we're all gonna die..” over and over and over and over.
___
The responses varied across the ward.  Some left Sacrament early, in a disturbed and distraught haze, and wondered if they would be back next week.  Others felt a profound pity for Scott, wondering what meal they could possibly bring him and his family, even fully aware of how little such a gesture might mean—both to him and themselves.  Still others couldn’t help but feel a dash of resentment toward Scott, who had so ruined their one desperately needed hour of peace a week. And some were just grateful that something new happened at Church for a change.
Each person responded individually, and in their own way, to the scene in Sacrament that Sunday, according to their gifts and experience.  As for David Warner, he sat in absolute silence the rest of the meeting.  After the Closing Prayer, he stood up slowly, deliberately, and ignored all greetings as he paced out to the Parking Lot.  His eyes watered as he walked to his car, like they hadn’t in years.  He gazed up at the sun peeking through the trees, as the branches swayed in the breeze, and his soul swooned within him, and he brought his fist up to his teeth, and with a swelling in his breast he whispered, The Church is true, the Church is true, thank God Almighty, the Church is true…