Dillon, Reykjavik, Iceland

7:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.


Notable Matter:  Books crammed on a makeshift shelf between wall panels. This is common here. Most bars and cafes have loads of paperbacks.

Score for Iceland. Iceland is the first country since Argentina that I would actually live in if…it weren’t so goddamn cold. I hate the cold and it is freaking burr here. Less than 24 hours in and I already own a wool reindeer beanie. Because of the weather Argentina remains at the top of my ex-pat list but Reykjavik is a must visit.

When we arrived, I thought, “shit, why would anyone live in this hellhole and why am I here?” The area around Keflavik International Airport is brown and barren. It looks like Colorado’s Western slope, something Cormac McCarthy might imagine.

After a 45 minute bus trip we got to Reykjavik, which is an awesome city. Structurally German/Dutch, culturally Parisian. The landscape reminds me a bit of Vancouver – mountains, water, city, glaciers – but it’s not as modernistic or structurally intimidating as Vancouver, which I also love.

For those of you who are looking, Iceland is a great place to mate shop. It’s not like some cultures where the women are attractive and the men are small and wimpy looking. Both genders get high marks. Luckily for Icelanders, the Vikings only raped and pillaged the most attractive. Everyone speaks English which is a major plus since I don’t even understand the letters here.

We walk up the steps to Dillon. It’s on the second floor of a building. I love second floor bars, second floor anything. I like watching people without the risk of eye contact. Three attractive Icelanders stand outside, smoking. The woman follows us in, long blonde hair pulled back into a side pony tail. Icelandic pony tails hang low, directly down the back or to the side. Pony tails are a fashion piece. When women want their hair out of their face, they swirl it into a high sitting bun rather than throwing it on top of their heads in a sloppy pony tail like us lazy Americans.

The bartendress is very enthusiastic, eager to help. Most people here are. We sell our souls ($8 a beer) for pints of Viking. We sit, stare at the bookshelf jammed between two wall panels. It seems that everywhere we go we’re surrounded by books. It’s wonderful. Some of the bookshelves are organized by author, genre or color. Others, such as this one, are a complete mess. These books are arranged like British teeth, like someone closed their eyes, threw the books at the shelf and some magical gravitational force interfered, hooking them to it by spine, cover or flap.

Two tables of men gamble. One with cards one with die. Everyone wears wool sweaters. It’s May but cold as hell. The shops have darling clothes but I imagine women wear leggings even in the summer. Females with cankles shouldn’t live in Iceland as the only body part weather allows for exposure are the legs.

A foursome of men sits next to us. They too wear knitted wool sweaters. One looks like he stepped out of a 1980s ski bum movie. His name should be Soren or Sven or something like that but I don’t think those are Icelandic names and I have no interest in talking to him. Instead, my traveling buddy and I talk about attraction; how I may want a kid so I don’t have to worry about staying in shape for nine months; and how we disappoint ourselves by worrying about disappointing other people.

I go to the WC (water closet). I like the bathrooms here. They’re androgynous as all inanimate objects and locations should be. You can learn a lot about a country based on its bathroom culture. I like Iceland.

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Ashes to Ashes

May 23, 2011

I’ve tried to keep up with my churches and bars while traveling but it’s been challenging to say the very least.

Yesterday, for example, I spent the time I allocated for God following news updates about the freaking volcanic ash threatening to derail my travel plans to Iceland. Since I’m hopefully headed into the beginning of the rapture, which was supposed to start Saturday, I may have to read the Book of Revelation in Iceland. We’ll see about that. I’m more excited about wearing a Keflavik International Airport issued mask and goggles than reading the end of the Good Book.

I recently spoke at TEDx Lansing. I spoke about the ThumpMe project, what I learned from the Bible (to have faith in myself), etc. To prepare, I read through all of my ThumpMe entries. It’s interesting to see how, even though only five months have passed since the last entry, my thoughts have changed. Evolution.

If you did not read the original ThumpMe entries – the ones following my reading and interpretation of the Bible – you might find these interesting.

If I get into Iceland and ash doesn’t ruin my cheap traveling Toshiba, I’ll have a dive bar post for you Wednesday. Enjoy!

WooHoo! Suck — Despair, Job and Me

I thought about Job all weekend. There is, I’ll admit, a bit of an attraction there. He’s sort of like the diseased, depressed, sackcloth wearing dead guy that got away.

Predictably, I’m drawn to his despair, a unifying isolator that can supersede centuries, nations and ideologies but not the individual. When desolation brings Job to his knees, he says:

“I have no strength left to save myself; there is nowhere I can turn for help.”

Had I been an oppressed B.C. concubine or prophet, Job could have turned to me. I carry other people’s burdens well and identify (monthly) with the absolute collapse of spirit. However, if I had been around would Job have asked me — his new girlfriend — for help? Probably not. His unwillingness to share his feelings may have ended our relationship, but raises a phenomenal question: Why the hell is it so difficult to ask for help?

Read the entire entry here.

Puff the Magic Prophet – Ezekiel Sucks the Cactus

Mescaline is: “An alkaloid drug, C11H17NO3, obtained from mescal buttons, which produces hallucinations. Also called peyote.” (Definition provided by Urban Dictionary contributor, Adict). (Gist of this is how does one become a prophet)

This hallucinogen is obtained from cacti and special beans. I don’t know if mescaline producing cacti grow in the Middle East, but I assure you beans belonging to the Fabacae family are a prevalent food source in Middle Eastern diets and, based on his extremely bizarre visions, I’m going to guess Prophet Ezekiel fancied this particular food group.

Ezekiel learns he’s a prophet after four creatures with human-ish forms appear before him. Each of these forms has four faces — a human face, lion face, bull face and eagle face — four wings, straight legs, hooves (like a bull) and four human hands under each wing. Wheels with eyes sit next to them and there’s additional detail about subsequent wheels and fire, but it’s too confusing for me to explain. Despite Ezekiel’s descriptive efforts, I cannot imagine how these things moved or what they looked like.

Read the entire entry here.

Fa La La La La, La La La La, Liquor ­­– Holiday with the Jews

Ah, holidays. What could be better?

Holidays were created to celebrate dysfunction. It’s OK. All families are dysfunctional even the “normal” ones — it’s called denial. Don’t stress out about, enjoy it. You’re in good company. Jesus’ family was screwy too.

In the New Testament, four men give a version of the gospel. You can glean anything you want from any of them. I think Matthew is dryMark is dark and Luke is wonderful. His writing is interesting and he details good old family pandemonium.

Read the entire entry here.

Found: An Un-Preachy Preacher – Meet Preacher Mike

To my knowledge, Preacher Mike is the first church authority — sorry Mike, couldn’t think of another descriptor — to pay attention to ThumpMe.

For political reasons, I pretend to read many blogs, but I actually read Preacher Mike’s because it’s interesting and un-preachy (new word).

Preacher Mike (Mike Cope) lives in Abilene, Texas and teaches at Abilene Christian University. He’s also the vice president of the non-profit educational organization Heartbeat. TheHeartbeat What Really Matters project facilitates discussion about the things that matter — friendship, decision-making, social injustice. Cope joined the project after his young daughter, Megan, died in 1994.

Read the entire entry here.

Revelation. – No Time for Endings

Six months ago I played a damaging, ingenious trick on myself. I decided to write fiction. No more articles. No more journalism. Fiction. But fiction isn’t a career. It’s a lifestyle with no immediate returns. It’s founded on failure and takes incredible dedication, which is precisely why my intestines immediately inverted, I stopped sleeping and my heart retreated.

When I started writing, really writing and stripped myself of measurable success, which is single-minded and safe, the identity I created for myself when I was a child — pushing to grow up, get to college, make money, excel at everything — treading a path I thought would lead me to life, but exhausted me into oblivion, I didn’t find anything. 29 and hollow.

I decided not to read Revelation because I no longer want to see what’s coming. I’ll catch it when it comes.

Read the entire entry here.

*Let us clarify. By death, we mean the marriage can be dissolved for any of the following reasons: Large arguments; small arguments included but not limited to those concerning the agricultural categorization of a tomato and the merits of golf as a leisure activity or a sport; mid-life crises; general boredom and dissatisfaction with life; dirty dishes; ugly children; the discovery of anything that’s bigger, better and more interesting than what you have; drug allergies; delayed bi-curiosities and outside influence.

St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, England

Various hours

Chosen because…missing it would be like going to Rome and not dropping by the ‘ol Vatican.

Sigh. Watch this. Bride loses it because her husband’s family apparently doesn’t have the mental capacity to effectively participate in wedding day activities which, oddly enough, include a rousing game of the board game Clue.

Would you marry this woman?: Latest Bridezilla Meltdown! 

St. Paul’s Cathedral is gorgeous. I’m thrilled to go in. Until I learn the cost of admission, which is something like the equivalent of $36 U.S. if you want to get a view from the top. I bolt for the door. My tour guide grabs my elbow and forces me through the Capitalist gates. (Photo is the view from the top of the Cathedral. Can’t take pics inside.)

I’ve said this 1,000 times but opulence and a complete disregard for Jesus’ teachings – poverty, good will, helping others – is one reason I hate church as a walled institution. It’s the same reason I’m fairly anti-marriage – people get too caught up in flowers, budgets, color schemes and board games to think about what they’re doing, what it means and if it’s for them.

This comes from a recently divorced woman, a divorcee, a social pock-mark but hey, I went for ceremony when I didn’t want it and though I don’t think it impacted my marriage, I certainly let the grand idea of a wedding as well as outside influences and second hand experiences occasionally sway dealings within my marriage.

I wish more people – myself included – would go beyond the pomp. Beyond churches as symbols, holidays as economic bustiers and weddings as events.

Perfect example: The Royal Wedding. My trip to St. Paul’s happens a few weeks before the wedding, but for the next few weeks, the cathedral haunts. It’s on every news channel and in every paper, commentators speculating on guest list dust ups, Kate Middleton’s relationship with the church and her ability to look like a royal by W-Day.

I hope the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have a lovely life, I really do, but standing in St. Paul’s Cathedral, listening to reporters say things like, “Oh look at them, you can just tell they’re in love” is like nails on a chalkboard. How is marriage between  man, woman and, for believers, God, everyone but the bride, groom and God have an opinion?

I suppose the trip up St. Paul’s stairwells was worth $36 but I leave feeling the same way I do after exiting many wedding receptions. What is the point?

I must admit that I would have thoroughly enjoyed the royal wedding had I been invited, the Syrian ambassador to the U.K. hadn’t had his invitation renigged and the lovely princess sat me between him and her drug and booty loving uncle, Gary Goldsmith. That’s the kind of pomp and circumstance I look for.

Royal Pain in the Ass

April 29, 2011

Bladebone Inn, Bucklebury, England

8:30 a.m. through ENTIRE DAY

Notable Matter: Old woman dressed as the Queen of England; royalists; racing ducks; trotting sheep; old men dancing around, bells on ankles, hankies in hand.  

“The beer tent will open at 10 o’clock with the duck race,” says the Royal Wedding announcer who has been talking about beer since 8:30 a.m. with good reason. We’re – myself, a few residents of this tiny town and 30 media hacks – are waiting to pack into a tent sheltering a massive TV to watch two strangers get married. It’s disturbing.

I’m sitting across the street from the Bladebone Inn in Bucklebury, England, the hometown of queen-to-be/duchess/whatever Kate Middleton. From my vantage point under the tea tent, I see the following:

Morris Men, a group of crazy old men wearing colorful rag jackets and white tights for the purpose of dancing in a circle and waving hankies. I don’t get it.

Royalists. Equally as nutty as the Morris Men, this international crew obsesses over the royal family going so far as to plan vacations to destinations where they might get a glimpse of the family, places like Bucklebury on the day of the royal wedding. I had my first encounter with these people last night. Man and wife. Woman dressed in red, white and blue, easily mistaken for a fat, American housewife on the Fourth of July. Last night she placed her half-pint of Guinness between the legs of a stuffed, royal wedding teddy bear.

Animals and blimps, namely ducks that will spend the rest of the day racing one another.

Young men drinking from well thought out BYOB backpacks. I get them, would love a Foster’s, bitter, anything really.

Police. Is there really risk of a riot?

Bookies, for the duck and sheep races, naturally.

Announcement: “The duck race is starting. MSN and CBS from the U.S. have each sponsored a duck. We thank them for their sponsorship.”

The papers have been full of this whole royal wedding to-do for weeks, examining every possible wedding/relationship/royalty angle including the type of toilet the new couple will use in their honeymoon suite (it’s an original Crapper).

The Sun, a British tabloid, hired African rain dancers to prance about yesterday in hopes of avoiding this dark day and ominous clouds. I’m freezing my ass off. I don’t think the dance worked.

What do I think of this whole shebang? I think it’s stupid but no one cares about my opinion because I’m a yank and the U.S. doesn’t have a title laden social hierarchy so we therefore have no class. Or so I’m told.

These people are lunatics. I must get to the beer tent. I have to get to the bottom of this insanity.

?

Village of Needham, England

11:10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.

Chosen because…it’s a Church of England church and has really cool tombstones in the church yard. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the official church name and it never opened for service.

I have a tiny little pea brain and can’t remember much of what I’ve written or read for that matter, which makes writing about the Bible without text or consistent church services fairly difficult. However, I do remember some things. I remember that Jesus and maybe God, are supposed to be with me at all times. I think that’s crap not because I make dumb decisions and find myself wallowing in sorrow wondering what the hell happened but because during this 2011 quest to experience as many churches as possible, I’ve had the damndest time actually being admitted to service.

I try this nameless church, which is surrounded by “Night of the Living Dead”-like gravestones but it never opens for the 11:15 a.m. service. I try everything short of knocking. No answer. Instead, I walk the grounds searching for ghosts, reading church bulletins and watching the cop in the adjacent Needham Coronation Village Hall parking lot talk to a female speeder who is wearing exercise attire, a rare sighting in England, and a blonde bystander who clearly wants to test his authority on a more personal level.

The churches here look the same. Cold. Ominous. Hard. The church bulletin is worn, the pre-Photoshop era graphics faded, text bleached. Among other things it says:

“1 in 5 older people skips meals to save money for heating.”

And: “Surely I am with you. Always to the very end of the age.”

I wonder if either are true, know the second isn’t. Babies get raped, children die and I can’t get into service. God is either flat out cruel or he has a fantastic sense of humor.

I Want My American Red, White and Blue

I don’t know about everyone else, but I hit a cultural sensitivity breaking point when I’m away from home for more than a month. I never have them during critical periods in travel. I won’t breakdown if I miss a train, can’t understand someone or am bamboozled into eating disgusting cuisine such as pig ear. No. My inner child throws tantrums during the most civilized, insignificant points in my trips, proving that like God who would let me in a church if he was with me every minute, maturity and cultural sensitivity are sporadically with me.

Sometimes I just loose the plot which is a snobby British way of saying I freak out and act like a child. Take the f(*#&^% savory biscuit incident. I calmly handled throwing used toilet paper in open trash bins in Colombia, a practice that doesn’t sit well with a germaphobe, but finding graham crackers in England prompted a hissy fit.

I’m too tired and hungry to go to the grocery store after my failed church experience but I go anyway because I have to eat. I turn into a five-year-old when I’m hungry so this is a bad decision. Before I get in the store I start cursing the English, silently of course. What kind of a country makes people check out grocery carts? It’s only a stupid pence or pound or some other frustrating, misshaped currency but it’s the principle – the wasted act of actually getting change and renting the trolley – that sets me off. I also hate all of the change currency bursting the seams of my wallet; the stupid “hiya” greeting (are you welcoming me or about to karate chop my face?); looking the wrong way when I cross a road; and walking to the bar to order a drink. I also can’t stand English castles. They’re nothing to look at and neither is Buckingham Palace, which is a glorified government building.

This sweet employee tries to help me, asks if the graham cracker is a savory biscuit or a sweet one, brings another employee into the conversation. I try to be calm. They’re nice, trying to help but they’re slow and cannot comprehend this long, sweet, brown cracker that breaks into two halves perfect for smooshing melted chocolate and a heated mallow. I want to tell him to shove his savory biscuit up his British ass but that’s insensitive so I do the mature thing and take my anger out on my shopping mate, who spends the next 20 minutes hiding out in an aisle far, far away from me.

Always to the Very End of the Age

Somewhere in me lies a culturally sensitive person but where she is, I don’t know. Maybe she’ll reappear in a few weeks, after I refresh myself in the states and head back out on the road where other things will amuse me until they become familiar. Maybe I’ll find her the next time God stays with his believers and, as the bulletin suggests, lets me into a church.

I can’t believe that God is with believers at all times and I’m starting to believe I may lose interest in traveling, seeking new experiences, using toilets outside of America and adapting to not having everything exactly as I want the it second I want it.

If we’re not with ourselves all the time, how can we let anyone else, least of all a controversial, possibly fictious figure be with us 24/7?

El Porton, Bogotá, Colombia

3:15 p.m. to 4:15 p.m.

Notable Matter:  Foreign animal head (oxen?), canteen, horseshoe and bull fighting paraphernalia above bar.

Describing a dive bar to someone living outside of the U.S. is difficult. Not because class division doesn’t exist – it does – but because independent retailers and restaurants are the norm, not the exception. A dive bar in the U.S. is a neighborhood bar everywhere else. Like our dive bars, they tend to be dark, lack windows and fill with interesting characters but they’re not competing with chain restaurants and flashy facades so they don’t slide into the category of slightly sketchy.

It’s no secret that Americans fear Colombia. The only thing we know of it is drugs and violence. Thanks to U.S. intervention, again, in Colombian policy and the acceleration of Mexican cartels, Americans view Colombia more favorably than before but when compared to what we’re comfortable with – large, shiny, safe, new things – it remains a dive country.

I wasn’t afraid to travel to Colombia but I didn’t want to go to a dive bar alone. I could handle the unknown city, but feared the unknown bar. I thought I might get kidnapped, which is not only stupid but extremely egotistical as there’s nothing about me or my life that would be of any value to a kidnapper in Colombia or anywhere else.

I planned to travel to the south side of the city, an expansive mass exiled from all tourist maps, with some natives to check out some dives as described by me and interpreted by them, but those plans fell through. I almost used this, two attempted purse snatchings and a small run in with the police as an excuse to can the Colombian dive bar experience but then I would have lost to fear and we can’t have that.

Toe First

I walk past El Porton, a small white building with a large door blocking the crooked hole serving as an entrance, and grab a safe lunch special at an American looking French sounding restaurant. When I leave, I give myself a pep talk. I’m on a side street in the middle of the city. I’m tired of being on guard 24/7 and weighing my commitment to church and alcohol. Is it more important to follow through on the blog or remain sober for the three mile walk home?

El Porton is across the street from an old bull fighting stadium, one I wouldn’t have gotten into if I hadn’t poked my head through a crack in the door and grabbed the attention of a police officer. One I wouldn’t have had to myself if I’d snubbed my curiosity. I remind myself Bogota is a city, that as long as I respect it I’ll be OK. I walk into El Porton.

I fall into the bar because like the rest of the country, the steps are surprising and uneven. The tables are white, plastic, covered with red and white checked table cloths. The table numbers are written on the white wall in black marker or crayon. The room is long. A young woman comes from the back to take my order. I assume it’s a family business. Mom follows the girl and yells to dad when I ask if I can take pictures. For some reason I obtain manners in foreign countries that I don’t have at home.

The walls are sparse, signed bullfighting photographs with curled edges huddle near the door and behind the bar. The family doesn’t understand why I’m here but we don’t talk so it doesn’t matter anyway. I stare at a poster. Looks like a harmonica man is coming to town. I watch the military or the police or some other protective force patrol the street outside the bar. These protectors are everywhere, including the parks where drugs are sold. I wonder what, exactly, makes people feel safe.

Fear is necessary response, but a wasted emotion. I wish more people would challenge fear of the unknown. It would be great if we examined what we fear before moving onto what we know. It’s interesting to think what would happen if church goers and administrators had to talk to atheists, Buddhists, etc. before studying the Bible.

Iglesia Nuestra Senora de Lourdes, Bogota, Colombia

10:30 a.m. to 11:00ish a.m.

Chosen because…easier to find than the grocery store.

Bums. Old women. Volunteers. Pigeons, thousands of pigeons. Shoe shiners. Teenagers. Assholes. The Iglesia Nuestra Senora de Lourdes in Bogota, Colombia sits in the middle of the city and people and animals, including the rat fink pigeons, move around it. If religion is supposed to be a life fixture, this is exactly what it should look like – a quiet, stable entity a person walks through when she needs it and past when she doesn’t.

I was in Bogota and am now in London because I’m interested in Bogota. And London. Respectively. Bogota was there and so was I. This type of collision is endemic of my life. I’m also fascinated with Central and South America though Colombians don’t consider my favorite country – Argentina – part of South America. Apparently it’s too European. Do dogs releive themselves on sidewalks in Paris?

I wander to mass after two unsuccessful trips to the grocery store. It’s around the corner but I don’t undersand directions in any language so I walk around the neighborhood until I tire of right turns and venture left outside my door, find the grocery store (needed cash) and Lourdes square (pastry, chronic coffee, people watching). Traveling is wonderful if not exhausting and overwhelming.

Bogota is fairly easy to navigate once you accept the fact that one in four streets are marked. Though tired and annoyed, I don’t turn to the Big Guy for help. I eat a pastry instead, accidently elbow the waitress in the crotch. Though embarrassing, this dislodges my mental block and I start seeing Bogota. The toothless trashman; the rows of shoe shiners polishing wing tips, heels and workboots; the seemingly headless homeless man on a bench; the teenagers vacuuming eachother’s necks with their mouths; the man on an ice cream cart in the middle of the square dinging a bell he’ll tap for the next eight hours; the man using a fruit vendor’s macheette to trim his belt. These things. All marvelous and so much more appealing than the dirty streets and broken cobble stones I saw before, the grocery story I didn’t.

A man hands me a brochure. Shiny. The paper equivalent of the tacky shrines constructed in random places all over the city – bus stops, street corners, malls. I don’t understand a word he says, walk into the church. He follows, whistles at me, tries to jam a crucifix in my hand. I refuse, hope he’ll quiet since mass is occurring. He rips the paper out of my hand, yells at me and leaves.

I can’t focus on mass. I’m overstimulated, which is one of the most distracting, besutiful things about traveling. I could focus on the church but that’s not the way my mind works. I can’t pull my eyes from the woman in front of me. She dressed herself according to color completely disregarding texture, content to let corduroy, plaid and striped beiges crisscross her body.

Even though concentration is impossible, I feel everything. I stand. I repeat the Lord’s prayer, something I learned when I was a child. I watch faces, feel memories, loath the contact point between butt bone and pew.

When I leave the trashman is gone. The ice cream man remains. The pigeons crapping along the right side of the church are now on the left, ceding to the “Done sangre regale esperanza de vida” blood donation tent. I consider released my blood into a bag but I’ve had the foreign needle experience and decide against it. Besides, if religion is like the churches in which it’s preached, the opportunity will always be there. Right?

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ft. Collins, Colo.

10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.

Chosen because…went for Pentecostal but service times didn’t suit my needs so swapped it with another “al” denomination.

Well I Never

I’ll never stay in Colorado. I’ll never read the Bible. I’ll never go to church. I’ll never get married. I’ll never get divorced. Never say never. Lesson learned.

Since the Redeemer Lutheran experience, I’ve put my pissy pants on every Sunday morning, bitched and moaned all the way to church and resisted pre-service temper tantrums. But when I left St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, I was calm. Like abnormally, once-in-a-lifetime kind of calm. Why? Because it turns out that I’m getting dumber, not smarter and for that I’m grateful. I’m so sick of thinking.

Age: The Great Eraser

I don’t know anything about Episcopalians and that’s fine as knowledge taints experience. I love the church interior. Basic. A few stained glass windows. A cross draped in white cloth hanging from the ceiling. This is the first church I’ve been to with organ music, which I love. Very traditional. Love that too.

Service starts. A choir cloaked in white, wooden crosses hanging from necks, floats down the aisles. Priests or whatever take the stage. There are many. They have hoods on the back of their white robes. I’m not in the deep south or Michigan. I wipe KKK from the brain. During meet your neighbor the preachers step into the aisles, shaking hands as they go. I like this but am trapped between an old woman in a powder blue suit and a crabby note taker who nearly clips my toes every time she pulls down the prayer bar.

Most of the congregation will be chillin’ with God soon. Perhaps that’s why the preacher chose John 3:1 – 17. Here’s the story. This arrogant dude, Nicodemus, meets with Jesus at night because he’s ashamed to be seeking advice from a lowly country boy but he needs counsel so he does it anyway. Nicodemus thinks he knows everything but in his later years, after Jesus dies, he doesn’t say anything. He kicks his know-it-all attitude, which suggests that as we age we either lose our minds or realize we don’t know a damn thing about anything.

I believe it’s the latter. I’ve realized this in my own life, particularly within the last few months. I’ve ripped the blanket off some of my more gregarious opinions and stereotypes, but I still use “you’re wrong, you’re just wrong” when backed in a corner during arguments. Turns out I’m usually wrong, which I hate especially when my mom hauls out the dictionary as backup. You can’t argue with Merriam.

Never Say Never

I didn’t want to go to church, assumed it would suck, thought “I’ll never enjoy this” but like I said, it really chilled me out. I liked the sermon but I also didn’t feel any pressure to share my non-existent relationship with God with other people. I’m not sure I’ve gotten that from any other church.

Example. Rather than harping on Bible studies, the pastor focused on Foyer Groups, groups of eight-to-10 people who meet for dinner etc. to get to know each other. I like that. I need friends but I don’t want the Bible getting between us.

I never thought I’d use the prayer bar or reply to the preacher as outlined by the bolded text in the leaflet, but I did it. I kind of want to get baptized so I can receive communion. But I’ll never do it. I’ll never stick with organized religion. And I’ll never say things I don’t mean. Ever.

L Capitan, Walden’s Lounge, Holly, Mich.

Guest blogger and dive bar lover Amber Shinn takes us on a hatch ride through the seedy spots of Holly, Mich. Though El Capitan was a disappointment, when it comes to dive bars, the Midwest always delivers. When one dive bar closes, another opens.

Turning to the oracle Google with loose bar search terms, the divine inspiration that bubbled up in the http tea leaves was a definition of dive bars from Playboy:

“A church for down-and-outers and those who romanticize them, a rare place where high and low rub elbows — bums and poets, thieves and slumming celebrities. It’s a place that wears its history proudly.”

Sufficient a nudge to barhop in my old hometown, the “historic” Village of Holly.

Growing up, Holly was bipolar on booze: In the early 1900s, Holly was graced with a visit from Carry A. Nation, a pre-prohibitionist who traveled around the country with a hatchet to chop up bars and rescue folks from their sinful boozy ways. After the bang-up bar tour from Nation, Holly toasted the visit with a historic marker and an annual festival. Eventually, participants dressed up as barmaid harlots, activists and gangsters to reenact the smashing spectacle. The festival’s most popular attraction: A beer tent.

I’ve got a soft spot for dive bars. They’re a sanctuary where people go to shut the cabin door on the wolves in the heart’s wilderness. I imagine a safe watering hole in the savannah for animals with bumps and bruises, a quiet home where the buffa-low roam to sip silently and reflect, without being asked to smile so everyone else feels comfortable.

Be it oppressive boredom of factory work, the instability of a changing economy, loss, fear, shame, the need for connection, a quest to find the grace of human kindness amid strangers—to me, the inevitable tough cards everyone is dealt at some point in life feel easier to hold in a dive.

Oh Captain, My Captain

I braced myself for the roughest Holly bar I knew: L Capitan. ElleCappeyTan.

Known as the “El Cap,” stories of long coke rails snorted off the bartop and Harleys snarling in the back door and roaring out the front made it a perfect dive bar. Wearing boots I hoped made me look taller and tougher, I practiced my cold-fish pout-sneer in the rearview mirror. Parking by the railroad tracks on a Friday afternoon while it was still light out, I came early to reduce the likelihood that I’d get beaten up, robbed or shot.

I kinda hoped I’d get just a little bit beaten up, robbed or shot.

Deep breath. Around the corner, out of the icy alley, squint in the bright snowlight at the bar window. I found the sign and my heart sunk. There was no toasting surly sea captain. The fearsome El Cap had become Broadstreet Station. I was looking at a railroad-themed café bar with tidy awnings and board touting some mayo-slick white bread nightmare.

Feeling jilted, I stomped back to my car, but realized in eyeshot of my bumper that I still wanted a drink. Besides, me and my danger blueballs wanted a salve and an explanation on the castration of El Capitan.

It Takes a Lot to Laugh, But it Takes a Train to Cry

Dark tunnel, deep fryer, snowy stomp on damp musty carpet to Walk Like An Egyptian. The perky whistle of the Bangles high-hoed me along the brass bar to my seat. TVs cycled bouncing Keno numbers as my eyes adjusted to the dark and found trains and station memorabilia on every wall.

No patrons, just a ponytailed bartender.

Slumping into a barstool, I ordered a draft PBR as the prospect of meeting a big bearded biker or wise grey-haired bikeress with a vest full of stories from the road faded.

I leaned in: “Didn’t this used to be the El Cap?”

He leaned in as well, too close: “It was.”

I leaned way back for effect, silently blaming him for the empty bar: “Huh. This place isn’t as…rough.”

Ponytail then shared vague rumors of the rowdy Neverland I’d missed. Nothing I hadn’t heard. When a new owner bought it a few years ago, the old crowd moved on. It was safer and tidier now. Benign.

Over his shoulder was a hand-painted mural on the back wall. In it, I saw the face of the reformed Capitan, who swapped the sea to be a train conductor. Neutered and chained to a life of peddling O-bombs and lotto, he was leaning with his head in his hands, waiting, watching. Dying a slow bored death.

Two bucks on the never-been-snorted-or-danced-on bar top, I left with the same dread that bustled me out of town when I left for college. Fearing I’d have nothing to write about, I called my brother for a recommendation.

Girl Scout Cookies

I peeked into Walden’s Lounge, a squat cinder-block bar. Exploits of Charlie Sheen hummed over a waft of Windex, and up at the bar sat the cast of characters I’d been looking for: Bearded bikers, wheezy old men and even my lanky, pierced brother. The bar was tended by a goth-ish woman in pigtails, selling beer and Girl Scout cookies for her kid. Success.

I sat in the middle, watching the grey hairs nudge each other whenever the bartendress bent over. Which was often. Maybe intentional.

Moving in a slow indoor-outdoor orbit, the bikers brought back a comet tail of cigarette vapor, grousing over the smoking ban. When the grumbling arc of the conversation swung past sin taxes, the bikers campaigned loud on the equality platform of “shit taxes:” taxing toilet paper. We seven at the bar chimed in with toasts, votes and poo-puns before simmering back into silence.

Hard to tell the age of the woman behind bar. As we talked about jobs, I guessed she was younger than me, but looked older. After receiving emancipation at 16, turns out she was forced to leave her spot as a server (“not a dancer,” she clarified) at Déjà Vu Showgirls — per the request of an uncle who spent time there. The exasperation in her voice came from her 16-year-old self, I heard her go back in time. In an unexpected twist, that uncle was an undercover FBI agent, investigating illegal gun-running in Flint strip clubs on prostitute-heavy Dort Highway, and feared his cover would be blown.

With a one-armed hug, my brother headed back to work. I stayed behind, and signed on for a box of Thin Mints.

When kids stop believing the “you came from a stork” bit, parents are forced into the dreaded sex talk. I remember mine. It involved a picture book with a skinny male cartoon grinning on top of a lying on top of a fat female cartoon. I can’t remember if she was smiling. Both were naked. Traumatizing.

Dad was conspicuously absent for this conversation, but both of my parents discussed kids and religion, how they would handle it, etc. I knew dad attended Catholic school  — he has the scares to prove it — but before I started this project, I had no idea mom had faith in God. She doesn’t anymore.

To better understand my disconnect to religion, I interviewed both about their experiences with organized religion as well as their hands off approach to helping us find it.

Here’s what my mom had to say. (She said I misquoted her in a past blog. Bad journalist I suppose. We’ll see what she has to say about this one.)

Me: Did your parents raise you with religion?

Mom: For part of my life but it wasn’t the whole household. My mom was the one who started going to church when I was probably eight-to-10. I believe it was a Lutheran church. I kind of feel like this was an out-of-the-blue decision but I’m not sure. I went with her but I can’t remember if my siblings went.

My dad wasn’t ever interested in any religion. I feel like he was raised Italian Catholic and probably went to Catholic Church as a kid but I’m not for sure. I feel like he was neutral about church.

I don’t remember religion being a part of my life before that but I went to a Catholic Church with my aunt and uncle and I also went to Catechism class.

Q: You went to Bible camp with that Lutheran church and got saved. Can you talk about that?

A: I was saved at camp, which means you accept Jesus Christ. It was the most exhilarating emotional experience I’ve ever had in my life to this day.

The camp counselor, who was a teenage girl, asked me if I was ready to accept Jesus Christ as my savior. We were by ourselves and whatever words were said. I agreed to do it and it was like a rush of beauty that ran from my head to my toes.

I always had a very strong faith back from when I went to Catholic Church with my aunt and uncle and had a very strong belief in the whole Christian thing. I should have died then! I would have been guaranteed a place in heaven!

Q: What were your first thoughts of Jesus? Did you ever fear religion?

A: I don’t remember but I remember that at times I felt like I had a holy presence at the foot of my bed but they looked like the pictures that are on Catholic funeral cards (laughs) so I don’t know if it was spiritual or an overactive imagination.

I wasn’t fearful of Jesus, but I was fearful of going to hell.

After we stopped going to church, I held onto my beliefs. I said nightly prayers and for extra brownie points I would always pray to God to bless everyone I cared for and everyone in the world and I’d put myself last because I thought that was good manners.

Q: Did you feel faith had a positive impact on you?

A: Yes. I liked being a good girl and I’m sure it kept me out of trouble. One of my dad’s favorite expressions, as we all know, was Goddamn and I literally cringed whenever he took the Lord’s name in vain. All I know is that it (faith) personally made me feel good.

Q: What happened?

A: I had a strong belief until I went into high school and then our family started falling apart, started splitting, which in turn made other bad things happen in the family. It was dark and chaotic and I think I just quit saying my prayers and thought, what’s the point?

Q: So that’s it? No more religion?

A: I don’t know. I feel like I’m not an atheist or an agnostic. I’m a confusiest. I’m confused because I do believe it (faith) works for a lot of people and sometimes I do believe there’s got to be this greater something but there’s so many unanswered questions in the Bible that I just can’t really go by that.

Q: Did you and dad talk about religion before you had kids?

A: Yes. You know dad is a wounded former Catholic schoolboy so you know he had a pretty tainted view of religion but we both agreed that religion was a choice our kids should be able to make when they were mature enough to fully understand it.

I think when you start taking kids from birth and going to any kind of church, they’re just raised to believe something because their parents believe it. We wanted our kids to understand the different choices.

Q: I don’t remember you taking us to church so how did I have the opportunity to see the church side of things?

A: I think you were all asked at a certain age if you wanted to go. I think you and Taryn (sister) experienced some churchiness with friends.

I didn’t feel like going to church because I was unsure what my beliefs were and I thought, ‘How can I guide my children one way or the other?” I felt that would be extremely hypocritical on my part.

Q: What impact did this decision have on your kids/family?

A: I really feel horrible about the times I saw my kids have embarrassment over their lack of knowledge over really basic things like who is Jesus (laughs) and why do we celebrate Christmas.

Q: Are you serious or messing around?

A:  I’m serious. I do regret not exposing you guys to more but if I still had that opportunity now and was raising you kids, I still don’t know how I would do that. You don’t just dump your kids into church and say have fun. It would still be a slippery slope for me. I regret exposing you to more of it but I don’t know how I’d do that without believing myself. Besides, I always wanted a trio of heathens to join me.

Q: So how do you deal with things when life is challenging? Specifically as it relates to your kids?

A: Heavy drinking (laughs).

Q: What if one of us kids died tomorrow? What would happen to us?

A: Boy I really wrestle with this one. I want to believe there’s a forever after so we can all be there together someday. I just don’t know.

Q: What if I become a nun? Will you still love me?

A: That will never happen. They won’t have you.

Q: That never crossed your mind?

A: Yeah like it crossed my mind that I’d be an astronaut.

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