Buckle Up for the Bible Belt

This past weekend I went to Ohio to celebrate my Aunt Miriam’s 85th birthday. They drew straws to see who would put me up while I was in Ohio. Miriam’s son Paul and his wife Cindy lost, so I stayed at their house. I used to think the Bible Belt was just down south. To my dismay, it’s gotten wider. It now goes all the way to my Aunt’s house. She and her late husband George were both good Catholics, and like all good Catholics, they had a bunch of kids and grandkids. The party was just for family and they still had to rent out a public park to have room for everyone. It looked like one of those Christian revival meetings. I was the token Atheist.

The birthday girl and her kids.

Naturally, I couldn’t resist telling everyone at the party that they were completely wrong about God. Naturally, they couldn’t resist beating the crap out of me with their crosses and Bibles. Only kidding. They were very non-violent, but I did see a few of them taking the safety off their guns. They took turns telling me about their own personal conversations with Jesus. I told them that talking to God was fine, but that when God talks to you, that’s a sign of mental illness. They started praying for me. “Bless us, oh Lord, for the food we are about to receive, and please aim carefully if You decide to throw lightning bolts at Cousin Early.”

They gave up trying to convert me, but that didn’t stop me from telling any Jesus jokes I could remember. Did you hear about the burglar who thought the house he was robbing was empty, but then heard a voice repeatedly saying, “Jesus is watching you.” He got scared until he saw that a parrot was doing the talking. “I suppose you’re Jesus he said.” “No,” squawked the parrot, my name is Moses.” The burglar laughed. “What kind of an idiot names their parrot Moses?” The parrot replied, “The same kind of idiot who names their Rottweiler Jesus.”

Okay, this wasn’t the right audience for Jesus jokes. Who wants to talk Politics?

To my surprise, I wasn’t too much further to the left than most of them, except maybe on the issues of Gun Control, Immigration, the Death Penalty, the Economy, birth control, abortion, outsourcing jobs, separation of Church and State, the Wall, and, well, just about everything else. The only thing most of us agreed upon was that, contrary to whatever historians may say, James Buchanan was not the worst President we ever had. There was a new title holder currently residing in the White House.

Okay, so no more Jesus jokes or political talk. That still left me with me with plenty to talk about. Who wants to hear about Harness Racing, the Lancaster Barnstormers, or Women’s Flat Track Roller Derby?

Thanks for coming, Early. We’ll be sure to invite you to the next family function.

No wait, I still had my ace in the hole. After these picnics they always go back to someone’s house and sit around a bonfire in the backyard. Brother X and I tell stories about New York, and trade barbs about each other. They love that. They all just sit back laughing as we tell the most outlandish stories we can think of. It’s always the high point of the weekend, but Brother X couldn’t make the trip to Ohio this time. So, it was just me telling them my jokes as we sat around the fire. That saved Paul a lot of firewood, as everyone left quickly. I guess they all had church early in the morning.

Paul, Debbie, Linda, Aunt Jane, and a photo bomber.

I left Ohio with my Aunt Jane and two of her daughters, Debbie and Linda. (Another good Catholic, Aunt Jane has got 7 more kids back in Johnstown who couldn’t make the trip.) We went back to Johnstown so I could catch my train back to Lancaster early the next morning. Debbie and Linda had to work the next day, so I stayed overnight at Aunt Jane’s place, which turned out to be the buckle in the Bible Belt. My room looked like the Pope’s private prayer room. There were rosary beads hanging off anything that even resembled a hook. There were electric votive candles and statues of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and almost every apostle. Crucifixes were everywhere, and I think the ceiling was painted by Michelangelo. The bathroom had a holy water font.

Amazingly, I slept very well, despite the fact that the bed kept spinning around, and Jesus was watching me all night.

Pictures taken in the “Sistine Guest Room”.

Peace & Love, and all of the above,


With a Little Help from My Friends

Normally, I celebrate my birthday by going out to dinner with a friend or two. This year I celebrated a little early with 15,000 strangers. My birthday is August 19th, but on Saturday the 17th Lancaster hosted a free musical tribute to the 50th anniversary of The Woodstock Festival, and I decided to treat it as a birthday party.

The party was at Long’s Park, just a short 10-minute bus ride from my house. I’ve been there before, and I know that it is lawn seating. People bring blankets or those folding chairs that fit in a bag. I have a bad hip and I know that if I got down on the lawn, I might not be able to get up without help. So, to prepare for the event, I went and bought a folding chair. I also went to Subway and got a foot-long steak and cheese sandwich. They have a no alcohol policy at Long’s Park, so I made a half gallon of iced tea, which I stored in the freezer for a few hours, so it would stay ice cold all night. Then I went to the liquor store and bought some peach brandy in those little bottles you get on airplanes. I had no intention of going alcohol free at my birthday party, no matter what the park rules said. I have my own rules.

The concert started at 7:30, but I got there early to enjoy the sandwich and a “Lancaster Iced Tea.” The first thing I noticed was that there were a bunch of food trucks there, and most of them had cheese steaks, so next time I don’t have to bring food, just bring a chair and the contraband liquid refreshment. The spiked iced tea was perfect, by the way. I knew it would be. I experimented all week with different liquors and the peach brandy turned out to be my favorite mixer. (Vanilla brandy came in second.)

It was interesting watching the concertgoers arrive. It had to be the oldest crowd ever to attend a rock concert. Almost everyone had found a tie-dyed shirt somewhere in their closet for the occasion. Ladies had flowers in their hair and peace symbols and flowers painted on their faces. At the original Woodstock, Arlo Guthrie looked out at the crowd and made a comment, “Lotta freaks!” These people didn’t look freaky, at all, though. Lancaster has a half-dozen colleges and a dozen tattoo parlors. The average person on the street here looks 10 times freakier than anybody who was at the concert. The concert audience just looked like very normal people going to a 60’s costume party at the senior center.

By the time the concert began, I was well-fed and working on my third Lancaster Iced Tea. I only had one problem. This was the first time I used the new folding chair I just bought. It turned out to be very low to the ground. I still might need help getting out of it, especially if the peach brandy iced teas kept going down so smoothly.

Twenty-five musicians gathered from various local bands quickly shuffled in and out in different combinations to recreated non-stop sets of the Woodstock songs played by Sly & the Family Stone, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, Blood, Sweat, and Tears, Jefferson Airplane, The Who, Santana, Country Joe and the Fish, The Band, The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and it ended with the Joe Cocker version of I Get By with a Little Help from My Friends. Then, they all came out on stage for the encore, Woodstock, a song written after the event to commemorate the festival.

I wasn’t surprised that the entire audience seemed to know all the words to the 50-year-old songs, but I was amazed at how incredibly well the musicians played these songs that were hits long before most of them were even born. They all sounded surprisingly like the original artists. When the producer’s wife, Patty Grabowski, came out to perform, I figured it was just a favor to his wife, and I wasn’t expecting much from her. Then, she nailed the Grace Slick songs White Rabbit and Somebody to Love. Later in the show, her daughter brought Janis Joplin back to life with outstanding renditions of Me and Bobby Magee and Piece of My Heart.

During the night they also recreated some of the stage announcements from the original Woodstock. They made a “public service announcement” to stay away from the brown acid, and that got a laugh from the crowd. The one that got the biggest laugh, though, was when the producer came out to solemnly inform the crowd that, “From now on, it’s a free concert.” Later, they acknowledged that because there were a handful of young people in the audience, they didn’t do the infamous “Gimme and F…” cheer before they performed the Country Joe & the Fish song, Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die, Rag. Also, the since the weather was beautiful, so there was no crowd chant of “NO RAIN…NO RAIN.”

Then came the moment of truth for me as the concert ended. I pushed on the arms of the chair and to my great surprise, I sprung to my feet with no problem. I guess the lubrication helped. Maybe I’ve found a new arthritis remedy. I better go get some more peach brandy before they make it a prescription drug.

Thank you, Lancaster, for a great birthday party.

Peace & Love, and all of the above,


I Believe

I’m currently working on a screenplay about our 15th President, James Buchanan. The setting shifts back and forth between the present and 1863. How do I get the audience to believe that they are going back and forth between the present and 1863? I can’t. But I don’t have to make them actually believe it. Audiences are conditioned to “suspend disbelief” in order to enjoy the show. If you tell, or somehow show them that it is the present, they will go with it. If you dress the actors in clothes from 1863, the audience will “play along” and accept that it is 1863.

In a wintry scene, their reasoning minds might know that a stagehand is sprinkling white confetti on the stage from above, but when they learn to suspend disbelief, the audience will enjoy the “snowfall.” In the theater, in movies, audios, or in reading, we need to be able to sometimes disengage our reasoning mind and engage our imagination in order to enjoy it. Basically, there is an unwritten covenant between authors and their audiences. You suspend your disbelief for a couple hours and I will give you a couple hours of entertainment.


Did you clap your hands and say “I Believe” when Tinkerbell was dying?

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who wrote the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, invented the term suspension of disbelief in 1817. He wanted you, sitting in your comfortable easy chair, to clearly imagine the anguish of the cursed mariner drifting far at sea “with water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.”

Wikipedia defines the term suspension of disbelief as a willingness to suspend one’s critical faculties and believe something surreal. It is the sacrifice of realism and logic for the sake of enjoyment.

Sometimes we need to use both our reasoning mind and our imagination to get the most effect from a story. If we are watching a murder mystery, we use our reasoning mind to gather the clues, but we must use our imagination to suspend disbelief that the “murdered” actor is not really dead, or that the famous detective is just an actor.

We can be thrilled watching a magician saw a woman in half, though our reasoning mind knows (or at least hopes) that the woman is not really cut in two. We know that she will be back for the next performance. We must suspend this disbelief, though, to be able to enjoy the magic and the illusion.

More than 60 years ago, I was an avid fan of comic books, especially the DC comics, which featured Superman, Aquaman, Batman, Green Arrow, and other superheroes. To enjoy a comic book, we need to suspend disbelief and accept the character’s amazing, and often quite unbelievable, skill set. We know that man can’t fly, but we accept that Superman can. We know that man can’t live underwater, but we accept that Aquaman can. We accept an unrealistic premise in order to enjoy the story.

Places of worship are theaters in a way. In them, we are also able to suspend our disbelief and fully enter another world. It takes conditioning and practice, though, for us to be comfortable enough to lower our reasoning and boost our imaginations. Not surprisingly, those raised by Christians can easily adjust to the theater of a church, but they are not conditioned to equally accept the different customs of a synagogue or a mosque. Those raised by Jews can adjust to the theater of a synagogue but find themselves unable to adjust equally to the different ways of a church or mosque. Those raised by Muslims can adjust to the theater of a mosque, but not much else.

A Muslim man can imagine that if he died killing Christians and Jews he would be rewarded in paradise with dozens of virgins. Christians, Jews, and Atheists all think that this is absolutely crazy. A Jew or Muslim might abstain from the delicious taste of pork, lobster, or shrimp, because of what he is told in his Bible, Torah, or Koran. Christians and Atheists find that a bit crazy, even though Catholics once believed they would go to Hell if they ate a hot dog on a Friday. Christians believe that the wafers and wine served in Communion are transformed (transubstantiated) into the body and blood of their Savior, Jesus Christ. Jews, Muslims, and Atheists think of this as crazy, and maybe just a bit cannibalistic. Scientist just disavow it. Wine has a certain percentage of alcohol, while most people’s blood (except mine, of course) has a lower level of alcohol. “Transubstantiated” wine retains all the alcohol content and properties of wine, not blood.

Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, Christian Scientists, and Scientologists – they’re all bat shit crazy, according to everyone who is not themselves a Mormon, Jehovah Witness, Christian Scientist, or Scientologist.

Atheists believe that all the world’s religions are crazy, and, reciprocally, all the world’s religions believe that Atheists are delusional. Many people don’t even accept that anyone could honestly be an Atheist. “There are no atheists in foxholes,” they have decreed. The Atheists counter that everyone in a foxhole must, in fact, be an Atheist, because if you truly believed that an all-powerful supreme being, who loved you, held your life in His hands, you would defiantly stand in the open and just dare the enemy to waste their ammunition trying and kill you. Picture that scene in Dances with Wolves, when Kevin Costner’s character, dreadfully worried that his injured leg will soon be amputated, decides instead to ride his horse back and forth in front of the enemy lines, actually preferring that a bullet will kill him instead of a surgeon.

Dances with Wolves

In religion, you are supposed to substitute imagination for reason. It’s called having faith. The hardest parts to believe require the strongest faith. Faith is more than just the suspension of disbelief, though. It is also the firm belief that what is imagined is the actual reality, and all too often, unfortunately, they believe it is the “only true reality.”

I’m an Atheist. Most likely, you are not. You think that I may be headed down the Highway to Hell. Whereas, I don’t believe there even is such a place. The problem for Atheists is that they are unable to suspend disbelief when it comes to religion. They can’t turn off their reasoning mind, and, so, they don’t get the same warm fuzzies that everyone else gets. They can’t enjoy it the way everybody else can. It’s a curse, and a blessing.

People think that because Atheists don’t believe in God, they don’t believe in anything. That’s not true. I don’t believe in a lot of things, but I do believe strongly in the few things I do believe in.

I believe that two hands working are far more powerful than a thousand hands clasped in prayer. Madalyn Murray O’Hair taught me that.

I believe in the separation of Church and State. Our American Founding fathers taught me that.

I believe in Love. The Beatles taught me that. I don’t really believe that Love is ALL you need, though. Food, clothing, shelter, a few drugs, and some beer may prove useful, too.

I believe in trusting everyone, but always cutting the cards. My Mom taught me that.

I believe in enjoying every moment I possibly can. My Dad taught me that.

I believe that we should all live and let live.  Lancaster taught me that.


Peace and Love, and all of the above,