Originally published in Boulder Weekly

June 2008

Here’s the type of person I am: if my best friend were bitten by a zombie tomorrow, I would shoot him in the head immediately. No hesitation. No wah-wah goodbye speech. None of that pussy crap. Just BLAMO! And I would expect the exact same treatment if I were suddenly zombified.

You see, folks, when the zombie apocalypse comes, there isn’t going to be time for sentimental nonsense. Do I love my mother? Of course. Did she read The Poky Little Puppy to me when I was 5 years old and make me peanut butter sandwiches with the crusts cut off? Yes, she did. Will I chop her head off with a machete if she rises from the dead and tries to eat my pancreas? You’re goddamn right.

This is by far the most frightening aspect of the whole undead paradigm, and it is why most people will not survive a zombie attack. Unlike other creatures in the horror genre, zombies are not faceless psychopaths or supernatural monsters that you can immediately disassociate yourself from. They are your homeroom teacher. They are the girl you took to prom. They are that sexy cousin who wore black fingernail polish and made you think naughty thoughts during family reunions. (Hi, Sandy! How’s Aunt Helen?) Anyone can become a zombie at any time, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it except blow their brains out when it happens and then go on with your life. This is why zombies are the perfect metaphor for modern culture and why I am slightly obsessed with movies that feature stiff-limbed ghouls that rise from the grave and stumble around in search of human appetizers. They represent the brain-dead khaki-wearing hoards you see every day lined up at Starbucks, twitching and grinding their teeth like heroine addicts because they haven’t yet had their caffeine enemas.

The first time I heard about zombies was in Sunday School. “Jesus called out in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.” John 11:43-44. Of course, nine chapters later, Jesus also rises from the dead. He doesn’t bite off a chunk of Peter’s ear or start nibbling on Mary Magdalene’s large intestine — BUT, right before he dies, Jesus makes the disciples eat their first communion, which is supposed to represent his body and his blood. And that’s pretty damn creepy when you think about it.

Now, before all you James Dobson Storm Troopers get your panties in a bunch, let me explain that I’m not saying all Christians are mindless bloodthirsty corpses. I know at least two or three Lutherans who have never tried to rip my skull open and eat my brains. However, there is definitely a lot of religious imagery in the Bible that coincides with zombie mythology (and don’t even get me started on vampires).

And I’m not the first to notice this correlation. There have been hundreds of articles and books written on the subject over the years. In 2006, Baylor University Press published a tome called Gospel of the Living Dead: George Romero’s Visions of Hell on Earth by Kim Paffenroth, an associate professor of religious studies at Iona College in New Rochelle, NY. (In case you didn’t know, George Romero is the director of Night of the Living Dead, the iconoclastic indie film that defined the modern zombie movie.) In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Paffenroth said, “I think zombie movies want to portray the state of zombification as a monstrous perversion of the idea of Christian resurrection.”

This statement may or may not be true, but the irony is that Paffenroth herself comes from one of the largest zombie factories in the country. Every year, colleges across America crank out politically correct, multicultural clones who inevitably end up transforming into the middle-age hipsters you see at trendy restaurants wearing $75 Che Guevara T-shirts and $400 blue jeans designed to look like they belong to a dairy farmer in Oklahoma. Universities are just as responsible for producing mindless automatons as television, video games and Hare Krishnas.

The point here is that our society is composed of countless theological/cultural/intellectual institutions that control our thoughts.

Personally, I belong to the zombie organization known as “The Media.” We take large, complicated subjects and reduce them to simplistic sound bites that are then forced onto the masses until the general population becomes so confused that they lock themselves in their suburban homes and eat mountains of delivery pizza and take Xanax and watch Oprah and cry themselves to sleep.

So go forth, American zombies, and find some delicious, juicy brains to munch on.

Denim Virgins

January 14, 2012

Originally published in the Umbrella Factory

August 2010

It’s not something I’m necessarily proud of, but when I was a young man, I used to masturbate with my clothes on. Late at night, while all the other teenage boys in America were either having sex or at least pleasuring themselves in the nude, I would flagellate the sinful bulge in the crotch of my Bugle Boys until I achieved an orgasm. I never actually touched my penis unless I was urinating or taking a shower.

I was twenty years old when I stopped doing this. That was 1995, the year I switched from briefs to boxers. It would be three more years before I worked up the courage to have sex with an actual female—and I kept my shirt on during the entire process.

To say that I was sexually repressed would be a bit of an understatement. Homosexual teenagers in Utah are sexually repressed. Muslim women in Iran are sexually repressed. I, on the other hand, had problems.

My father was a small-town evangelical preacher, and he believed in four things: Jesus, America, Nebraska Cornhusker football, and abstinence. In that order.

My first real kiss occurred the summer before my fifteenth birthday on a warm, starry evening at church camp. I was at the peak of my physical and emotional awkwardness, and had already resigned myself to a life of celibacy. That year, my body underwent an unholy transformation that can only be described as the opposite of the caterpillar-to-butterfly metamorphosis. My nose and ears doubled in size overnight, and my skin began to produce a strange, oily goop that could not be washed off despite obsessive showering habits and special-order skin-care products. To add insult to injury, my vocal cords couldn’t seem to decide whether I should be an alto or a soprano, so every time I tried to say hello to a girl, I sounded like a yodeling transsexual. I was a disgusting, greasy, inarticulate, pre-teen swamp monster.

And for reasons I still can’t explain, I constantly smelled like bologna.

The girl was also a freak. Her name was Susan, and she looked as though she had been raised in a windowless cellar by a family of Transylvanian vampires. Her skin was not just white; it appeared to be translucent. You could actually see the tiny, blue veins snaking through her hands, and I always wondered (though I never got the opportunity to find out) if, when she was topless, one could watch her heart and kidneys in action. The porcelain hue of her skin was made even more apparent by her mousey brown hair, which was parted in the middle and hung down like a mourner’s shroud over her sallow face. If she had possessed a sardonic wit or a clever sneer, Susan might have been mistaken for the cool Goth-girl type. But she did not have the confidence to be cool. She was timid and skittish and she rarely ate anything except buttered noodles because “exciting foods” disturbed her stomach. I fell in love with her instantly.

Emotions tend to run pretty high at church camp. You gather a group of insecure junior-high students together at a secluded mountain commune, force them to listen to Christianized versions of popular rock songs every day, and eventually some of them are gonna crack. Of course, our emotions were supposed to be focused on Jesus, but sometimes they got sidetracked. The camp counselors called these moments “setbacks.”

Susan and I suffered our first setback at twilight behind a grove of aspen trees next to the chapel/cafeteria. There were about a billion stars in the sky that evening and the air smelled like fresh pine needles and I was nervous and sort of gassy because it was Taco Tuesday night in the cafeteria and I kept trying to release silent farts when Susan wasn’t looking and then I would wave them away before she could detect them. The sweat pouring off my face mingled with the lemon-flavored lozenge in Susan’s mouth (she suffered from numerous allergies that caused sniffles and fits of coughing), making our kiss both salty and sweet. Despite the flatulence and the sniffling, it was the greatest night of my young life. To this day, the smell of cold medication on a woman’s breath makes my heart quicken.

After that, Susan and I had setbacks every afternoon following lunch and usually right before bed check. Our encounters were only partly sexual; we spent most of the time holding hands, talking about our limited life experiences, and working up the courage to lock lips once again. It was the type of tongue-less, dry (except for the sweat, of course) kissing that only naïve romantics find erotic.

On the second-to-last day of camp, our secret rendezvous were uncovered by a nosey lunch lady with a wart the size of Krakatoa on her witchy chin. We were both required to meet one-on-one with the Head Counselor, a 30-somethingish man named Gene who thought he understood our generation because he listened to Bryan Adams and sometimes wore his baseball cap backwards.

I don’t know what Gene told Susan, but I was informed that my soul was in danger. Satan was everywhere, said Gene. He was in the music I listened to and the movies I watched. He was in my non-Christian friends at school and the Stephen King books that I read for pleasure. But most of all, Satan was in my pants. Whenever I felt sexual attraction or excitement, that was Satan popping up to say howdy. By kissing Susan behind the chapel/cafeteria, I was damning both of our souls to Hell. We would burn in a fiery pit for all eternity, and for what? A few, dry, lemon-flavored smooches? Was it really worth it?

“Yes!” I wanted to scream. “It’s worth it, Gene, you smug little prick! And by the way, Bryan Adams sucks!”

But of course, I didn’t say that. I was fourteen and not nearly as brave as I wanted to be.

Instead, I broke down and began to cry. I promised that it would never ever happen again. I was a sinner. I was scum. I was a disgusting, greasy, inarticulate pre-teen swamp monster who constantly smelled like bologna. Gene nodded in agreement. He put his hands on my shoulders and prayed for God to cleanse me of my evil desires, and when it was over, I blubbered a submissive, “Amen.”

That night, I stayed awake in my bunk, staring at the ceiling and trying to work up the courage to sneak out and meet Susan. Was she at our spot waiting for me? Dare I risk the wrath of God for one last kiss? Dare I? Dare I?

I did not dare.

Susan’s parents arrived early the next morning, and I watched them drive away from my hiding place behind the grove of elm trees next to the chapel/cafeteria.

I was a melodramatic child, and although I’d known Susan for a total of five days, I mourned our separation for almost a year. I built up our brief encounter in my imagination until it became an epic tragedy, on par with Romeo and Juliet—or at least Joanie and Chachie. Wouldst I ever findeth true love again? Me thinketh not. My parents both came from stoic, Midwestern stock, and they didn’t understand their weepy little son. It’s not that they were insensitive; they were simply incapable of talking about emotions or sex. I made several attempts to bring up the subject, but every time I approached my dad, he answered by clearing his throat and turning up the volume on the television, and my mom simply volunteered to bake a fresh batch of chocolate chip cookies.

This was why I didn’t understand my father’s reaction when he received a letter from my school requesting permission for me to attend a bi-weekly sex education class. The letter stated that we were to learn about penises, vaginas, condoms, and “heavy petting.” I didn’t know what half of those terms meant. I thought my parents would be relieved to pass along the responsibility of teaching me the birds and the bees, but that wasn’t the case. At the bottom of the letter, there were two options: (1) Yes, I agree to allow my child to attend this class, or (2) No, I do not agree to allow my child to attend this class. My father circled the latter with a red marker. Then, in the side margin, he wrote: ABSOLUTELY NOT!

When I brought the letter to my health teacher, he regarded me with pity and said that I could spend those bi-weekly hours in the library, where I read Spider-Man comic books while the alcoholic librarian, Ms. Dunkirk, sipped her “Irish coffee” and glared at me out of the corner of her good eye. I was the only student at Yuma High School who did not learn about heavy petting. Consequently, my petting skills are atrocious. Once, in college, I permanently damaged the right nipple of an unfortunate Alpha Phi in a horrible petting mishap. Her areola will never be the same.

My parents explained to me that sex should be taught in the home, not in the school. This is not such a terrible assertion. After all, there are countless sexual traditions and practices around the world that are probably best passed on to future generations by conscientious parental figures. My own family’s oral tradition was fairly simple: During a commercial break in the middle of an episode of Highway to Heaven, my father lowered his voice to a whisper and said, “When you’re with a young lady, remember that Jesus is right there beside you, watching you every step of the way.” I nodded, and we turned back to the television, where Michael Landon was zapping bad guys with his angel powers.

It’s incredibly difficult to have an orgasm while Jesus is watching you. He looks at you with those sad, blue eyes and scratches His beard and says things like, “That’s not where you’re supposed to put that,” and, “I’m telling my Dad.” Jesus is such a tattle-tale; that’s one thing the New Testament never mentions.

My father’s lecture served its purpose—I remained a virgin throughout high school and most of college. However, I was a denim virgin. For those who don’t know, a “denim virgin” is a young man or woman, usually a teenage Christian, who participates in the act of copulation while fully clothed. Bare genitals are not touched and no penetration occurs, although it is permissible to fondle the chest area as long as shirts are not removed.

The first time I did not have sex was with Karen Davis during my junior year of high school. She was a Lutheran cheerleader, and, therefore, an evil temptress, just like Delilah and Jezebel and Cher. Karen was the opposite of Susan—charismatic, blonde, the girl in the Noxzema commercials who doesn’t need Noxzema—and I was always worried that one day she would realize that I was a toad trying to pass myself off as a prince.

Karen and I nearly humped one another to death. This normally occurred in the front seat of my parents’ 1974 Ford Granada. We didn’t go to the back seat because that would have been a conscious acknowledgment of our sinful intentions. Instead, we pretended that each grope session was a freak accident that would never happen again.

After watching a movie or attending a local sporting event, Karen and I would drive down to Lake Yuma, which was actually a giant drainage ditch where all the gutter water in town flowed during the rainy season. We would sit in the parked car and talk about innocuous subjects, waiting for an opportunity to initiate some sort of physical contact. This usually happened in the form of tickling. Karen would bait me by saying something sassy and cute, in the vein of, “You’re such a weirdo.” I would respond with something incredibly intelligent, such as, “Oh, yeah,” and then retaliate by poking her in innocent, yet desirable anatomic locations (knees, tummy, hips, etc.). Karen would fight back by straddling me and grabbing my wrists. Giggling was followed by kissing, which was followed by necking, which was followed by Karen grinding on top of me like a wedge of cheddar on a cheese grater until I had an orgasm.

Yes, in my pants.

Afterwards, there were usually tears and apologies and promises that such a horrible thing would never happen again. Of course, it happened again about five times every week, until I finally graduated and moved to college.

In college, I joined Campus Crusade for Christ and immediately found an entire harem of denim virgins at my disposal. Everywhere I looked, there were sexually repressed Christians who wanted to make-out and then pray and then make-out some more. I became a complete slut without ever having sex. Sometimes I would not have sex with a girl and then not call her the next day. I was a Christian cad, a Protestant playboy. This went on until the youth pastor politely suggested that perhaps I should join one of the fraternities on campus.

At this point, I suppose I could have done some serious soul searching. I could have gone to the library and compared the theological arguments of C.S. Lewis to the atheist rhetoric of Bertrand Russell. I could have formed my own conclusions about the morality of traditional religious thought as compared to modern intellectualism. I could have done a lot of things, but I didn’t. Instead, I simply replaced my fundamentalist Christian beliefs with fundamentalist liberal beliefs. It was a fair trade, and I figured it would be easier than doing all that nasty reading.

I threw away my Amy Grant albums and started listening to Rage Against the Machine. I frequented dimly lit coffee shops, where I sat in the corner dressed in black and pretended to read Noam Chomsky. Very soon, I attracted the attention of a group of intellectual hippies who were amused by my conservative upbringing. I smoked pot and told them funny stories about my childhood, and we all laughed at my backwater family. I thought I was very clever and bohemian.

One day, following a protest march against either cruelty to animals, war, or pesticides (after a while, they all began to blend together), a glassy-eyed hippie girl invited me back to her dorm room, where she proceeded to deflower me. It was a painless, almost clinical experience, and afterwards I made the mistake of asking the girl if she had enjoyed herself. “Not really,” she said. “Next time, it would be better if you took your clothes off.” I looked down and realized that I was still wearing a tie-dyed t-shirt with a giant peace sign on the front.

I should have been embarrassed. After all, I’d just had my first sexual experience with a woman, and I had failed to remove my clothing, which is pretty much the most rudimentary part of the process. On the other hand, the world had not come to an end. Jesus did not ride down from Heaven on a white horse and smote my penis or anything like that. Therefore, I decided to ignore the girl’s criticism and focus on the two words she’d said that really intrigued me: next time.

All Dolls Go to Heaven

January 14, 2012

Originally published in Foliate Oak

September 2011

Something strange happened in the mid 1980s, and one day, every child in America went crazy for Cabbage Patch Kids at the same time.  It was like they were pod people, and the alien race that spawned them had contaminated our atmosphere with a virus, causing everyone under the age of ten to covet these freaky, pudgy-faced replicas of ourselves.  The disease spread quickly, and soon the entire country was infected.  Symptoms included a tiresome, whining noise produced by spoiled children, which increased in volume and frequency as the Christmas season approached.  To stop the whining, indulgent parents were forced to visit their local toy stores in search of these ugly, overpriced dolls and then present them as gifts to appease their annoying offspring.

But it wasn’t that simple.  Suppliers were unable to keep up with the rising demand, and it soon became apparent that—horror of horrors!—some children would be Cabbage Patchless on Christmas morning.  This was reported on the nightly news alongside stories of local homicides and babies born into drug addiction.  The cameras showed haggard-looking parents lined up outside of malls at five o’clock in the morning, their faces blue, their breath white.  When asked by the newswoman (it’s always women that report shopping stories) why they were torturing themselves for a toy, the parents looked woefully into the camera and said, “I just don’t want to disappoint my kids on Christmas.”

It was a competition over who loved their children most, and the winning parents received one excited squeal, followed by a lifetime supply of Xanax.

My sisters and I desperately wanted Cabbage Patch Kids for Christmas, much to my father’s chagrin.  He didn’t mind such a request from his little girls, but I think his heart broke a little when he discovered his son wanted to play with dolls.

“Oh, leave him alone,” my mother said.  “It’s just a phase.  He’ll grow out of it.”

But my father wasn’t so sure.  He’d seen my other phases: playing house with my sisters, singing along to The Sound of Music with my mother, embroidering pillow cases.  He would come home from work and ask if I wanted to throw the ol’ pigskin around.

“Just a minute,” I’d say.  “I need to finish this needlepoint pattern, and then I’ll be right with you.”

My father’s shoulders would sag and he would search out my brother, who was always up for a game of catch with an inflated animal carcass.

As a traditionalist, my father disapproved of many modern Christmas rituals.  Lights, for example.  He didn’t like those.  What did colorful bulbs hanging from your storm drains have to do with the birth of the Messiah?  There was no electricity in Bethlehem.  It was ridiculous to decorate your house with lights.  Also, it was a fire hazard.  And candy canes!  You didn’t want to get him started on candy canes.  Those J-shaped peppermint treats were an abomination that distracted children from the true meaning of the holiday.  Do you think Mary and Joseph were sucking on striped sugar molds as they plodded across the countryside on their way to the inn?  No, they did not.  Also, they caused cavities.

On this particular Christmas, my father decided he was against trees.  Not all of them, just the ones that inspired peace and good will toward men.  He refused to purchase a seasonal evergreen, insisting that decorating a plant and placing gifts under it was some sort of pagan tradition.

“Trees have nothing to do with the real meaning of Christmas,” he said.  “Why don’t we just sacrifice a goat in the kitchen or have a séance in the bathtub?  It’s basically the same thing”

The goat idea did not sound pleasant, but my youngest sister Cheri and I were intrigued by the possibility of talking to ghosts.

“But we could never get the whole family in the bathtub at the same time,” Cheri said.  “That’s ridiculous.  We should do it in the hall closet.  It’s creepier in there anyhow.”

“That’s not the point,” my father said.  “The point is…”

But by that time, we had stopped listening and were busy trying to figure out what to serve for the occasion.

“Do you think ghosts eat cheese?” Cheri asked.

“Only if it’s Swiss or Provolone,” I said.  “Not Velveeta.  Ghosts only eat white food because that’s what makes them glow in the dark.  Everyone knows that.”

My father tried to turn the conversation back to the subject of Christmas, but we would have none of it.  As far as Cheri and I were concerned, his reputation was already shot.  He’d tried to pull a similar stunt the previous Easter, claiming we shouldn’t paint eggs or consume marshmallowy Peeps because Jesus happened to rise from the dead on the same day the Easter Bunny came to town.  It didn’t make sense that we should suffer just because those two couldn’t get their calendars straight, and so we began an extended whimpering campaign designed to wear down our father’s defenses.  In the end, our mother negotiated a truce, and we ate Cadbury Eggs and chocolate rabbits while watching Jesus of Nazareth on television.  The Christmas-tree ban reeked of unfairness.  Our father was trying to persecute us for our religious beliefs, which were protected under The Bill of Rights or the Pledge of Allegiance or something old and important, and we would not stand for it.

Cheri and I couldn’t understand why we had suddenly been denied our annual tinsel fix; therefore, while my parents were away at work, we took matters into our own hands.  Neither of us could operate a chainsaw or heft an ax, so cutting down a wild fir from the forest was out of the question.  Also, we lived in the middle of the prairie, and the nearest forest was two-hundred miles away.  So, there was that.  We briefly considered breaking into our wealthy neighbor’s house down the street and stealing one of the three unnecessarily-large, pretentiously-bright trees from their imitation-brick castle, but decided that was just too Grinch-like.  Also, neither of us knew how to pick a lock.

Finally, our backs against the wall, we found an enormous tumbleweed in the ditch behind our house and dragged it onto the driveway, where we proceeded to defile the mummified shrub with florescent-green spray paint, our neighbors looking on in horror.  Afterward, we set it up in the living room and plastered it with every shiny object we could find.

When our mother returned home, she found us covered in glitter and swooning from paint fumes.  “I don’t know how I feel about this,” she said, hands on hips, staring at the gleaming spoons and plastic jewelry we’d taped to our palsied plant to make it sparkle.  “This is definitely not good.  We need to fix this.”So she put some popcorn in the microwave, and we spent the evening stringing it together to decorate our Christmas weed.

“What is that?” my father asked when he saw the prickly dead bush sitting in our living room, a star made from yellow construction paper duct taped to the top.  “You said you didn’t want a tree,” replied my mother.  “Well, it’s not a tree.”

My father grumbled, but he didn’t make us take it down.  And, that is how it came to pass that our family gathered together around a large, highly-flammable weed to open presents on Christmas morn.  Just like in the Bible.

To this day, I have no idea how my mother obtained our Cabbage Patch Kids in the midst of that psychotic media blizzard.  There were no toy stores in Yuma, and my parents were not the type of people who just up and flew to Chicago or New York City on a whim.  This was before the Internet turned holiday shopping into a national bidding war between desperate soccer moms and entrepreneurial computer nerds.  All my mother had was an outdated JC Penney catalogue and an overwhelming desire to please her children.  It was a Christmas miracle. Of course, they saved the good stuff for last, making us wade through a series of colorfully-wrapped tube socks and notebooks before we finally got to the cool presents.  I was so excited when I finally tore open the last package.

It was a boy!  But he didn’t look much like me.  He had black hair made out of yarn, and his eyes were large, blue, and incredibly creepy.  The expression on his fat face closely resembled Renaissance paintings of the baby Jesus, which seemed appropriate considering the circumstances.  He wore a flannel shirt underneath a pair of denim overalls.  On his feet were plastic tennis shoes tied with real string.  It wasn’t an outfit I would have picked for myself, but then again, as my father’s deflated expression indicated, parents couldn’t dictate their children’s desires.  If my son wanted to dress like a Depression-Era redneck, I wasn’t going to stand in his way.  I named him Jericho. Jerry for short.

I had a rather large collection of stuffed animals that were arranged in my room just so.  The dogs were on the dresser, the cats were posed above the headboard of the bed, the exotic animals (lions, tigers, monkeys, etc.) were lurking on the bookcase, and the aquatic animals swam around underneath the bed.  I rotated the stuffed animals that slept in bed with me in order to prevent jealousy and political infighting amongst the groups.

Jerry immediately became prince of my little animal kingdom and took his place beside me in bed.  After I explained the situation to the other stuffed animals and positioned Jerry in a comfortable spot on my right, my parents came to tuck me in.  They always tried to get through the process without answering a million questions, but I rarely allowed that to happen.

“Will Jerry go to heaven?” I asked.

“No,” my father said immediately.  “Absolutely not.  That thing is a toy, and there are no toys in heaven.”

“His name is Jerry,” I said.


“He prefers to be called Jerry and not that thing.”  My father made a familiar, strangling noise, which was something that often happened when he was talking to me.  I continued.  “Because I’m worried about Jerry going to hell.  He has a plastic face, and I’m afraid the fire would melt it off.”

“That thing is not going to hell either,” said my father.  His neck was starting to get red the way it sometimes did when the Nebraska Cornhuskers were losing at football.  “It’s a toy filled with stuffing.  It’s not alive.  In the Bible it says…”

“But what about the Scarecrow?” I said.

“The what?”

“The Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz was filled with stuffing, and he was alive.”  I paused to consider this.  “But he didn’t have a brain.  Maybe that’s the problem.  Can Jerry go to heaven if he doesn’t have a brain?”

“The Scarecrow is not alive either.”

“Yes-huh.  If he wasn’t alive, how would he be able to help Dorothy find the Emerald City?”

“That was a movie.”

“Lots of movies are about real stuff.”

“But this one isn’t.”

“How do you know?”

“I just know.”

“But how do you know?”

My father raised his hands in the air like a criminal surrendering to a SWAT team.  “That’s it!” he said.  “I’ve had enough.  I’m going to bed.”  He turned to my mother on his way out.  “You bought him that…doll, so you deal with this.”We watched him leave, and then my mother said, “Roll over on your stomach so I can rub your back.”  She sat on the edge of my bed.  I rolled over, and my mother ran her fingers over my back, which was relaxing and made me sleepy.

“Is Dad mad at me?” I asked.

“He’s just grumpy,” she said.  “Don’t pay any attention to him.”

“I’m still worried about Jerry.  Do you think he’ll go to heaven?”

“I don’t know,” she said.  “But heaven is a paradise, right?”


“And what is a paradise?”

“A paradise is a perfect place.”

“That’s right.  And, would heaven be a perfect place if Jerry wasn’t there?”


“Then there’s your answer,” she said.  “Now roll back over and accept your punishment.”

I rolled over, and she kissed me on the nose.

“Jerry, too,” I said.

She kissed Jerry on the nose, as well, and then left the room.

I was thankful for my mother’s reassurances, but I was still worried.  There was a hole in her logic.  In order for people to go to heaven, they had to be baptized.  My father had delivered numerous sermons on the subject, and he was adamant about it.  It didn’t matter what you believed, if you died without being baptized, you were going to H-E-double hockey sticks.  It’s possible that Jerry’s former owner had given him proper theological instruction, but I couldn’t take that chance.  I would have to solve this baptism problem, and fast.

My parents both worked full time, which left a two-hour window after school during which my siblings and I were left unsupervised.  It’s surprising how much mayhem you can cause and then cover up in one hundred and twenty minutes.  We once turned our entire basement into a medieval castle, stormed it, broke two lamps and a hair dryer, and still managed to have everything back in order before our parents walked through the door.  It was like a scene from Mary Poppins, except there was no duet between an uptight British nanny and Dick Van Dyke.

Two hours was more than enough time for me to baptize Jerry before my father came home.  I filled the bathtub with cold water and lit several candles.  I don’t remember what the candles were for now, but they seemed appropriate at the time.  I instructed my siblings to change into their Sunday clothes, and after I put on the finest clip-on tie in my collection, I brought Jerry to the bathroom.

It was a simple ceremony.  I asked Jerry if he believed that Jesus was the son of God.  He said that he did.  I pushed him under water for a few minutes, and that was that.

At least that would have been that if I hadn’t remembered the mob of unrepentant stuffed animals living in my bedroom.  There was Curious George and Scooby Doo and Harry Dog and Theodora Bear.  They were all heathens.  How could I have been so foolish?  I ran to my room and started hauling armloads of stuffed animals to the bathroom.  It was quite a collection of furry anthropomorphized sinners.  I rolled up my sleeves and got to work. I was cleansing the Cookie Monster’s soul when my mother came home.

“I see we’ve been busy,” she said as she stood in the bathroom doorway.  She looked at the pile of soggy animals in the hamper. “Swimming lessons?”

“Baptism,” I said.

“I see.  Are you done?”

“Two more.”

She thought about this for a few seconds, and then she took off her jacket and picked up the hamper.  “Finish up and bring them downstairs,” she said.  “You have a big mess to clean up, young man.”I finished baptizing Cookie Monster and Big Bird, and then I joined my mother downstairs, where the dryer was making a heavy plunk-plunk-plunk sound as it rotated.

“Are they okay in there?” I asked.

My mother nodded.  “They’ll be fine.  You get some towels and clean up the bathroom.  I’ll keep an eye out on your disciples.”

“Good thinking,” I said.  I ran upstairs to get rid of the evidence.

Off the Grid

January 14, 2012

Originally published in Eclectica Magazine

October 2011

In 1980 my father obtained a full-time preaching position at a small church on the Colorado prairie, and our family moved into a pink farmhouse just outside the city limits of a town called Fort Morgan. I was excited about our new residence, primarily because I expected to be living inside some sort of walled garrison, wearing a coon-skin hat and fighting off Injuns with my trusty musket. My pioneer fantasy was momentarily crushed, however, when I learned that the city had earned its “Fort” prefix during the 1800s, and since that time the local white men had shed their coon-skin headgear in favor of grease-stained baseball caps, which they wore as they trudged through the streets every morning on their way to work at the local sugar-beet factory.

Ours wasn’t a real farm, just a house at the end of a long, dirt driveway, but there was enough land for a chicken coop next to the garage and a small garden, to be tended by my mother. Still, my father insisted this was our opportunity to live “off the grid,” a phrase he often used after watching too many episodes of Little House on the Prairie. “Just imagine,” he said, “giant carrots plucked right out of the earth! Fresh eggs for breakfast!” We would weave our own socks with a loom and then beat them against a rock on laundry day. When baths were needed, water would be fetched in buckets from the well and soap would be made from lye and lard. Who needed expensive modern appliances? Material trappings were for those hedonistic Hollywood types who graced the covers of celebrity gossip magazines. No more glossy centerfolds for us. In fact, no more television or radio, either. From now on, songbirds would be our pop stars and sunsets our nightly news. We would study the beetles with the same passion and amazement that our peers studied The Beatles. At some point, we might even trade in our Ford Granada for a couple of prancing white horses and a wooden carriage. Could I wear a coon-skin hat? You bet I could. And maybe even a sweater made from coyote pelts to go with it. Anything was possible because we would be completely self-sufficient. Just like the settlers of ye olden days.

The idea was to wean ourselves off the teat of mainstream society and eventually go underground. No bank accounts, no social security numbers, no way for Big Brother to track us down and tattoo barcodes on our foreheads. We were going to separate ourselves from the frills of secular culture by adopting a simpler, purer way of life. True, the world was falling apart all around us—satanic rock bands constantly screamed obscenities on the radio, godless communists threatened to obliterate freedom-loving countries with nuclear weapons, liberal intellectuals taught their students that human beings evolved from chimps—but if we could just maintain complete control over our tiny section of the prairie, perhaps our souls would escape the chaos uncorrupted.

In spite of my father’s histrionics (or perhaps because of them), there was a certain rustic romanticism in this proposed lifestyle that I found appealing at first. I’d inherited more than my fair share of my father’s delusional nature and fancied myself quite the heroic frontiersman, despite the fact that I was a small, sickly child who rarely enjoyed physical activities—what is commonly known in playground circles as “kind of a wuss.” My pioneer daydreams were indirectly connected to a collection of children’s books called the Little Patriot Series, which featured fictionalized accounts of notable figures such as Davey Crockett, Jim Bowie, and Sam Houston. I wasn’t quite old enough to read them myself, but I enjoyed the pictures and often forced my overworked mother to read them aloud before bedtime. While not altogether historically accurate, the novels were filled with tales of barrel-chested men who wrestled grizzly bears by day and slept under a canopy of stars by night. According to legend, some of these trailblazers could shoot the wings off a housefly at 20 paces and kill a mountain lion with a single, mighty blow to the kidney. The writing wasn’t exactly Pulitzer Prize material, but the authors knew how to turn a simile. Tough as nails, fast as a jackrabbit, strong as an ox. It was enough to excite the imagination of any red-blooded, semi-literate boy. Beholden to no man and afraid of no beast, these hardy patriots exemplified the spirit of American freedom and self-determination, and I wanted to be just like them. Or so I thought.

It turns out, living off the grid is a lot more arduous and boring than one might imagine. Chores were assigned, and I soon found myself being forced out of bed before sunrise to water the tomato plants or collect warm, poop-covered eggs from the feathered nether regions of manic hens. On Saturdays, when other children were watching cartoons in their footie pajamas, my brother and I were outside gathering icicles and buckets of snow, which would later be melted down by our mother for drinking water. The work never ended. As soon as you finished weeding the garden, it was time to shingle the roof or dig some postholes or make strawberry preserves in preparation for the upcoming winter. These tasks were neither fun nor patriotic, and I wanted no part of them.

Things seemed to take a turn for the better when my father decided to add a pregnant sow and a hut full of rabbits to our little ark. But my initial optimism dissipated when I learned what real pioneers did with piglets and bunnies. Apparently, Daniel Boone did not take cuteness into account when surviving in the wilderness. The rabbits were skinned and the pigs gutted, the meat either sold to neighbors or dried, salted, and made into jerky. This always happened, conveniently enough, while the children were at soccer practice or visiting relatives for the weekend. When we returned, the rabbit hut would be empty and the kitchen would be filled with the delicious, gamy aroma of stew.

Somehow it was decided that participating in the execution of four-legged mammals would be traumatic for the youngins, but watching poultry get slaughtered would have no adverse psychological affects whatsoever. Therefore, every summer the entire family got together and butchered a dozen chickens in the backyard. My job was to chase down the fat, headless bodies after my father decapitated them with an ax. Normally our chickens were slothful creatures that could barely be bothered to waddle a few feet for their morning feeding, but apparently all they needed was a good, swift whack in the neck to motivate them. Afterward, they flopped around for several minutes, beating their wings as they scampered blindly across the driveway like drunken Olympic sprinters, leaving behind a trail of blood and feces. The phrase “Running around like a chicken with its head cut off” took on a whole new meaning. I followed the headless cadavers until they ran out of energy and fell, seemingly exhausted, to the ground. Then I grabbed their weird lizard feet and dragged them over to my mother, who plucked the feathers and disemboweled their naked remains. Sometimes my brother would put one of the severed heads on his index finger and chase my sisters around the house with it. Chicken-head puppets, that’s what we called them.

But, alas, not every day could be as exciting as Chicken-Head Puppet Day, and I quickly grew tired of living off the fat of the land. Apparently, the land had become anorexic. Hard work and sacrifice were not what I’d signed up for. Staring down buffalos and fighting off Comanches were the adventures I was after. The fact that I would have soiled myself at the sight of either was beside the point. If I couldn’t have fun being a pioneer, why bother? Freedom and self-determination are nice in theory, but when it comes down to who’s going to castrate the farm animals, I think we can all agree there’s something to be said for shallow materialism.

I decided that my parents were holding me back. It was fine with me if they wanted to live like a couple of Dust Bowl hermits, but it wasn’t fair to force that lifestyle on their innocent, postmodern offspring. Why not join the 20th century and live a little? After all, I was fortunate enough to be growing up in the Golden Age of Spoiled Children. It was the 1980s, and juvenile greed was at an all time high. Everywhere I turned, my peers were holding their breath and throwing temper tantrums in an effort to acquire the latest incontinent doll or comic book action figure. Baby Boomer parents seemed powerless against such techniques. Advertisers picked up on this, and soon there were million-dollar marketing campaigns directed at pint-sized customers who did not actually have any money of their own. Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, Twinkies, Cap’n Crunch, Hot Wheels. How could a five-year-old afford such treasures? The goal was to loosen the parental purse strings by encouraging children to behave like jackals feeding off a lion’s kill. If we harassed the lion long enough, eventually it would grow tired of our yelping and abandon the Hungry Hungry Hippos carcass. Then we could fight amongst ourselves over what remained of the cheap, plastic cadaver.

My parents raised me to be an obedient child, but I was open to other options. The problem was, I didn’t have a role model. My siblings were all respectful and well-behaved by nature, traits that were of no use to me whatsoever in my new position as Generation X Brat. No, it was obvious that I would have to look outside my family for inspiration.

My mentor finally presented himself one day in the unlikeliest of places: the breakfast aisle at Safeway. This was where I saw a kindergartner named Tommy slap his mother in the face because she had the audacity to put oatmeal in their grocery cart instead of Count Chocula. When this happened, I was shopping for cereal with my own mother, who politely turned away from the scene and pretended to be engrossed in the list of ingredients on a box of Grape Nuts. However, unencumbered by good manners, I gawked at the little monster and took careful mental notes.

The child was sitting in the fold-out seat for toddlers at the top of the grocery cart, a perch for which he was obviously too big. His fat thighs barely fit through the wire slots designed to hold them, and his mother had to keep one hand on the cart at all times to prevent it from tipping over. The other hand was busy fending off the constant barrage of kicks and punches the boy directed at the woman despite her quiet protests. “Stop that, Tommy.” “Put that down, Tommy.” “Please don’t punch Mommy in the throat again, Tommy.” I was amazed. Up to this point, I’d been under the impression that the adults were in charge of the planet, but this underage tyrant proved who was really in power. Tommy ruled his household with an iron sippy cup. When he wasn’t physically abusing his mother, he was shrieking and throwing stolen Skittles at passing customers. “I’m so sorry,” said the mother after a piece of red candy bounced off the permed head of an elderly woman. “He’s normally not like this.” The old lady looked at the boy sitting in the grocery cart, his pudgy hands and face covered in rainbow carnage, and she nodded kindly. It was all too obvious that little Tommy was like this all the time, and his mother simply made excuses for his horrible behavior. Somehow the innocent angel that emerged from her loins just a few short years ago had transformed into a Third World dictator with a sugar addiction. And his mother had been assigned the unenviable position of public-relations director for the regime.

After the old woman moved on, Tommy’s mother smiled apologetically in our direction and then bent down to retrieve a box of oatmeal off the bottom shelf. When she stood up, Tommy reared back and clocked her right in the kisser. This was no playful tap, either. It sounded like someone had smacked a chicken cutlet with a spatula. “Chocula!” the kid screamed. “I want Chocula, stupid!”

My mouth dropped open. Surely this full-grown woman would not stand for such treatment. She would rip the tiny prince off his wire throne and beat him with a bag of oranges. She would pull down his pants and paddle his bare hindquarters with a meat tenderizer until he apologized. And then she would light him on fire.

But that’s not what happened. Without a word, Tommy’s mother meekly returned the Quaker-inspired breakfast food to the shelf and selected the creepy vampire candy instead. The despair and resignation in her eyes as she did this resembled that of a concentration camp victim or a woman who had been trapped for months in a serial killer’s basement. Clearly, this woman had been broken. Tommy seemed to understand this, and to complete the humiliation, he smiled and kicked his mother directly in the vagina.

A whole new world opened up for me in that moment. I realized I had been a fool. An ignorant, chicken-chasing fool! All this time I had been living in the past instead of embracing the future. Hard work and self-reliance were no longer part of the American Dream. These days it was all about gluttony and emotional manipulation. When you wanted something, all you had to do was point at it and scream until it became yours. If that didn’t work, one shouldn’t be afraid to throw a punch every now and then to remind the parental units who was in charge. This was oedipal warfare at its finest.

From that point on, I decided my days of being a pioneer were over. Sleeping late, watching television, eating junk food—this was the true birthright of my generation, and I was ready to collect. As far as I was concerned, Davey Crockett could keep his stupid coon-skin hat; I wanted an Atari.

If it were actually possible to kill someone with kindness, my mother would be the deadliest military weapon on the planet. She could wipe out the whole of Eastern Europe with a polite smile. A few heartfelt thank you’s would sink Australia. Compared to my mother, Gandhi was just a skinny a-hole wrapped in a bed sheet. Mother Teresa was a poser. I have rarely heard her utter an uncharitable word about anyone. Once, after reading an article about a serial killer who had murdered half a dozen prostitutes in the Chicago area and then had sex with their lifeless remains, my mother put down the newspaper and said, “Well, he sure does have a nice smile.”

I knew my mother loved me because she said so constantly. In fact, as I grew older, her affectionate demonstrations were becoming something of an embarrassment. Sure, it was acceptable to administer a casual peck on the cheek before bedtime to help bolster my courage against the various closet monsters, but it was not okay to lick one’s finger and then attempt to remove some imaginary smudge from my face while friends snickered nearby. The woman had no boundaries.

In the past, I’d considered my mother’s love a source of shame to be endured, but now I saw her devotion for what it really was. A bargaining chip. Her children’s happiness was my mother’s primary concern in life, and I planned to exploit those maternal instincts for all they were worth.

The fact that she was under a lot of stress worked in my favor. Living off the grid was taking its toll on my mother, who by this time was looking after four young children and operating a small petting zoo, all with limited resources. While my father had been adamant about our frontier lifestyle in the beginning, like me he grew tired of the tedious work that went along with it. More and more, he began to focus his energy on bringing salvation to the masses, an activity he enjoyed because it allowed him to escape the confines of our house. If he wasn’t at church delivering sermons on the Apocalypse, he was driving up and down the numerous dirt roads surrounding Fort Morgan, reminding the local citizens they were going to hell. Many advised him to do the same. Eventually, these heavenly road trips took him further away, to neighboring cities and counties, where he brought the good news to far off lands, such as Sterling, Holyoke, and Laramie. He returned late at night, tired, grumpy, uninterested in household maintenance or monetary problems.

Meanwhile, my mother was trying to hold our small, gridless estate together. A farmer’s daughter from rural Minnesota, she was no stranger to hard work, but this was more than she could handle by herself. The garden provided a few salads in the summer and chicken eggs made for nice breakfast omelets, but it was not nearly enough to feed a family of six. On top of that, there were a variety of unplanned expenses that kept popping up. My father’s income was sufficient to keep us afloat, but it was not enough to cover emergencies. And there were always emergencies. Car engines stopped running and kid noses started. Mechanic and hospital bills piled up. The bank kindly bounced a few rubber checks for us, but despite all that elasticity, the money never stretched quite far enough.

I wasn’t much help. After the encounter at the grocery store, I became increasingly lazy and difficult to deal with. Whenever my mother asked me to perform even the simplest of chores, I would groan and roll my eyes as though she had requested one of my kidneys. Every task became a burden and the person who asked me to do it an oppressor. My attitude rubbed off on my well-behaved siblings, and soon I was the leader of a small, whiny insurrection. Together we protested our indentured servitude with furrowed brows and pouting lips, a guerilla army of Che Guevara Jrs who refused to take out the trash.

For the most part, my mother endured this behavior with infuriating grace, patiently smiling whenever I misbehaved, reminding me that I was a good boy at heart, even though I had become rotten, like a jar of mayonnaise that had been left in the sun to spoil. I observed her reactions and decided my initial conclusion had been correct: my mother’s love was an ocean. Its depths were infinite. If I happened to miss a wave of affection every now and then, it was no big deal. I just had to wait around for a few minutes, and another would come crashing at my feet. The way I saw it, my mother owed me a great debt. If I had never been born, she would simply be a crazy woman who darned socks and occasionally deboned chickens. My endless demands for time and attention gave her existence meaning. The least she could do in return was to buy me things and cater to my every whim. After all, I was her son. And she was my meal ticket.

Several months passed before I returned to the grocery store alone with my mother. At the time, we were on a mission to purchase cake ingredients for my sister’s upcoming birthday, and my mother was in a rush because she also needed to visit the bank and the post office before they closed. I decided it was time to have my mother’s love appraised and find out exactly what it was worth. If things went well, I would be setting myself up for life. All I had to do was lay a little groundwork, and my future would be filled with the bounty produced by my parents’ desperate attempts to buy my affection. The toy box would overflow with the fruits of my whimpering. Candy would appear every time I stuck out my bottom lip. On my 16th birthday, there would be a new sports car in the garage, and two years later I would drive it to an Ivy League campus, where, after a few guilt-inducing sighs, my parents would write a check for the tuition. Sure, they might have to take out a mortgage or two, but wasn’t my happiness worth a little soul-crushing debt? I thought so.

Therefore, with a lifetime supply of M&M’s and a Harvard education in mind, I followed my mother through the grocery store, waiting for the opportunity to ambush her. The occasion presented itself when she stopped to ask a woman in a red smock where she could find the birthday candles. The employee was in her mid 30s, plump and matronly, with thick glasses and the type of short, no-nonsense haircut commonly worn by women whose grooming habits have been streamlined by a houseful of children. I figured having an additional parent around would only help my case, as it would cause my mother to feel as though she was being judged by a jury of her peers.

The woman was stacking reading material in a tall, wire display case. At the top of the display, there was a comic book called Richie Rich, an illustrated story of a wealthy blonde boy who lived with a butler and, for some inexplicable reason, always wore a red bowtie with blue athletic shorts. Like Archie and Casper, I considered Richie Rich a juvenile comic that was beneath my literary standards, but that wasn’t the point. It was the principle that mattered here. I needed to dig my foxhole and dig it deep.

I pointed to the comic book and said, with the most entitled voice I could muster, “I want that!”

My mother glanced down at me and patted my head. “Not now,” she said. “I’m in a hurry.”

This infuriated me. How dare she dismiss my desires with such flippancy. Who did this woman think she was? I grabbed a handful of her shirt and yanked. “But I waaaant it!” I said. “I want it now! Right now!

The look that came over my mother’s face was not the defeated, submissive expression that I’d hoped for. In fact, I had only seen this particular horrified grimace on one other occasion, during a Fourth of July barbeque, when she accidentally stepped in fresh dog shit while walking across a neighbor’s lawn. “That is just disgusting,” she’d said as she scraped the foul-smelling excrement off the bottom of her shoe with a pencil.

There were no pencils in sight this time, but the look my mother gave me insinuated that I, too, needed a good scraping. She bent down close to my ear and said quietly, “I said no. That is the end of this discussion. If you don’t like it, you can wait in the car.”

She stood up and apologized to the woman in the smock. “I’m sorry. He’s going through a phase.”

The woman waved her hand dismissively, as though shooing a fly. “I have five of them at home,” she said. “Believe me, I know how it is. They’re always going through a phase.”

The two women laughed, and my face burned. What was going on? They were supposed to fuss over me and attempt to gain my favor. What had happened to maternal instincts?

Sensing this was a pivotal moment in our relationship, I decided to call my mother’s bluff. Wait in the car, my butt. She was just showing off in front of her new friend, but I’d show her. I’d show the both of them.

With a long howl that could be heard all the way in the produce aisle, I turned and kicked the display case with my foot. I’d meant to topple the thing in dramatic fashion, but given that my foot was about the size of a Milano cookie, all I did was jiggle it a bit. “I want it! I want it! I want it!”

My mother rolled her eyes and excused herself.

“No problem,” said the woman in the smock. “You take care of business, honey.”

My mother is five-feet tall and weighs 95 pounds soaking wet, but she’s not exactly what you’d call a fragile woman. When she flung me over her shoulder like a bag of cat food, I was so surprised, I forgot to scream. We were through the automatic glass doors before I got out a good wail, and by then it was too late. She opened the car door, sat on the passenger’s seat, and placed me facedown across her lap.

“But you love me!” I bawled.

“Yes, that is true,” my mother said. And then she proceeded to spank me in the Safeway parking lot in front of the entire world.

It was only three swats, distributed lightly and without anger, and the tears that followed were formed from embarrassment, not pain.

“I don’t know what has gotten into you lately,” my mother said. “But I am very disappointed in your behavior. This is not the well-mannered little boy that I know. I hope you clean up your act soon, but if you don’t, I can do this as long as it takes.” Then she kissed me gently on the forehead and closed the car door.

After she was gone, I rubbed my skull vigorously to remove all traces of her kiss. The nerve of that woman, administering affection after nearly beating me to death. She would pay for what she’d done. I wasn’t ready to admit that I’d been in the wrong, and so I ignored the scene I had made in the store and focused on my punishment. I sprawled out on the backseat and placed my right hand on my forehead, palm-side up, pretending I was dying from heat exhaustion, even though it was a mild day and my mother had cracked the window before she left. When I shriveled up like a raisin, she’d be sorry. Then she would understand why a mother was supposed to give her child anything he asked for.

I remained dead until my mother returned with a bag of groceries. She placed the bag on the passenger’s seat and told me to buckle up. I did, but only after sulking first. My mother sighed and removed a Richie Rich comic book from the grocery bag. “You can read it after you’ve finished doing all your chores,” she said. “And not a moment sooner.”

I crossed my arms over my chest and stuck out my bottom lip. “That’s not even the right one,” I said. My mother rolled her eyes and drove us home.

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