Saturday, June 23, 2012

Gentes Testimonium

So on facebook one of the alumni from my high school started an event that was basically a high school reunion for the people that managed to get out of high school and still be a human being. That may sound like a weird statement to make, but then you probably didn't go to my high school. It's an uber-conservative, fundamentalist Christian, private education school tied directly to the church it shares a parking lot with. It was actually a lot like that movie Saved! which came out in 2004.

The event page then exploded, almost immediately, with comments and memories from different survivors, mainly talking about how silly the place was (to put it kindly, in most cases). But then some people started talking about their faith - their personal religious belief system - and started posting their testimonies. For those who don't know, your testimony is basically the story of how your eyes were opened and you accepted Jesus into you heart and blah blah blah.

There were a lot of ways I could've responded, and for the most part I responded with nothing (except once, but I was fairly restrained). And then for a laugh I thought I'd post my testimony, or the story of how my eyes were opened and I saw through all the bullshit. And then I realized the post would be way too long for facebook (and also not very funny), but not, incidentally enough,too long for my blog. I'd posted bits and pieces of this story around the internet in other places, but I don't think I've ever slogged the whole thing down in one gulp. Certainly I haven't done that here.

Before I go on, a little disclaimer: I don't really have a problem with other people's religion. I think it's fine, and in many cases that belief helps people live healthier lives. So if you're a follower of any given religion, please know that this post is not about your belief, nor is it meant to disparage your belief. This is about my belief, and what the hell happened to it.

There were two major events in my life that led to the moment I turned away from Christianity. The first major event started when I was six years old, and lasted approximately six years.
People claiming to be experts in the paranormal state that 3am is "Dead Time", or the hour when supernatural entities are at their most active. In the movie The Exorcism of Emily Rose they called 3am the "Devil's Hour" when demons are at their strongest. I strongly believe this to be true, whether it's ghosts or demons or whatever, due to my own experiences.

I guess I'm what you might call a Sensitive. I have a high level of empathy towards people, and will often get weird feelings in various places. When I visited Auschwitz this past month there were several places where I could "feel" the horrors of the place.
Anyway, when I was a kid we moved into a particular house in Santa Ana. I'm fairly sure now that the house was haunted. I say "was" because it seems to have been demolished and a new house built in its place (and I wonder if the haunting was part of the reason for that). Whatever the type of supernatural force that lived there was, it was also evil. Here's what happened:

It was a hot summer night. That kind of sticky hot where you're more likely to kick off the thin sheet you're sleeping under. My bed was situated next to a thin floor-to-ceiling window on my right that looked like it was made out of the bases of yellow glass bottles. About four feet from the foot of my bed was my bedroom door.

That night, I abruptly woke up. Something I sit up in bed and check the clock: 3am on the button. I look out my bedroom door and I can see into the next room just across the hall, and I see Something appear. This Something looked human, but slightly transparent and glowing like the ghost of Obi-Wan, except the glow was purple and like the weird glow you see around a black light. It doesn't so much illuminate as it appears to be swallowing light. And the Thing felt evil. When It appeared I felt a sharp chill, like someone dropped a sharp icicle sliver down the center of my backbone and I could feel my hair stand on end.
And then It walked into my room and stood at the foot of my bed, glaring at me.

I was so scared, so terribly afraid. And it felt like the oxygen had been sucked out of me. I tried to call for help, but I could barely gasp out a quiet whisper of a plea - I was that frightened.

The Thing looked over Its shoulder into the room it had appeared in, then back at me. It grinned, and then walked back into the other room and disappeared. Now that Its gaze was no longer directed at me, I felt I could move again. Being the terrified 6-year old I was, I dove under the covers and curled myself into a fetal position.
There was just one problem: because it was a hot summer night, my covers consisted of a thin bed sheet. And because my bed was right next to a window, I could see silhouettes through the sheet. That sharp, icicle chill running down my spinal column still hadn't abated, and when I dove under the covers the feeling intensified.
Suddenly, I see the shadow of a hand, like Thing from The Addams Family "walk" on the pointer- and middle-fingers the side of my bed in front of my face. And then the hand would walk back the other way towards the foot of my bed. Back and forth the hand did this, like it was taunting me to move. I just knew that if I did, the hand would grab me and my life would be over.
So I mouth a prayer to myself, over and over and over. "Please God save me. Please God save me. Please God save me." And I mouth, over and over: "In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to leave."

In the Bible, the book of Joel 2:32 (chapter and verse) says "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." The book of Romans 10:13 says the same thing. The book of James 4:7 says "Resist the Devil and he will flee." I was taught in church and school that if you believe in Jesus as the son of God and renounce your sin, we can command the devil to leave in Jesus' name and he must obey.

That night presented two possibilities to me: The first was that the Bible was full of shit. The other possibility was that my faith simply wasn't strong enough. I wasn't a true Christian.

Following that dreadful night, for the next six years I became too terrified to fall asleep. That Thing never corporealized in my room again, but every night, without fail, if I fell asleep I would start having a regular dream, and then I would feel that sharp, icicle chill slide down my spine and the dream's hard to explain, but it would darken. If that makes any sense. And then It would appear in my dream, and I knew if I couldn't wake up fast enough, I'd never wake up again. And I would literally kick and thrash my way out of dream-sleep, clawing my way into wakefulness.  When I would wake up two things would always be similar about those nights: It was always 3am, and my bedroom door was always open. Even if I shut my bedroom door and made sure it was shut when I would go to bed, if I didn't maintain vigilance and fell asleep, at 3am I would wake from a horrific, terrifying dream and the door would be open.

Six years of self-inflicted insomnia is a hell of thing to do to yourself, even more-so as a six year old kid. I tried talking to my parents about it, but they assured me it was just my (admittedly vivid) imagination and they were only dreams. I tried talking to pastors about it, and they would pray for me or show me all the stupid Bible verses (that never did any good) about how to protect yourself from demonic forces and whatnot.
And because my pastors and teachers made it all sound so easy, that all you needed was belief, I grew up thinking it was all my fault. I didn't have enough belief for God to save me. And I was pretty desperate for someone to save me.
Throughout the years, there were various church services where the pastor would ask if anyone was ready and willing to commit their lives to Jesus. Not every time, but quite often, I would stand or raise my hand or walk to the front (if I could get past my shyness). I think I was the most saved Christian in my class. Well, "saved" being a relative term I guess. Not going to hell after you die doesn't mean much when you go through hell every night while you're still alive.

Eventually, I ending up saving myself. When I was 12, I got into a fight at school. Well, it wasn't much of a fight. A kid was acting stupid, I acted stupid back, and he threw a punch. I remember that it didn't hurt. But that didn't stop my vision from going red. I don't remember what all happened after that, but I know that several kids had to pull me off him because I was straddling his back and beating the back of his head with my fist like it was a nail I could hammer into the ground. I was pretty small and weak at the time (I'm sure six years of insomnia didn't help my growth and development), so I didn't do much damage, thank goodness. But I do know that if those kids hadn't pulled me off him I would've kept swinging my fist until I couldn't raise it anymore. It didn't matter to me if he was alive or dead or if I wasn't hurting him at all or if I was killing him. I just wanted to destroy something.
That kind of rage frightened me badly. I knew I had to get a grip on myself before I really did hurt somebody. But I couldn't get a grip on myself until I got a grip on my nights.

So I did some serious logical analysis (I know, "well duh". Keep in mind I was only 12 at this time). I realized that while I'd been terrorized quite nearly out of my mind for 6 years, I'd never actually been harmed by the Thing. Maybe it couldn't. Maybe it just liked the fear it created. I came up with a term for it, all by myself - I called it a Feeder Demon. I realize I'm not the first person to come up with the term, but the shoe certainly fit. It would create an emotion in somebody and then "eat" the emotion to sustain itself, like a closed-loop parasite. So maybe all I had to do to beat this thing was stop being scared. Easy, right?
I'm not sure what I did, or how I did it, but somehow I managed to take all my emotions - everything this Thing could use to scare me - and locked them away. Fear, Hate, Love, Joy, Anger, Sorrow. All of it. Boxed up and hidden where no one could use it against me.
Not exactly the psychologically healthiest solution, perhaps, but it worked. I started sleeping through the entire night. My bedroom door would still be shut when I'd wake in the morning.
And I never lost my temper.

I started to live like a human being again (a weird emotionless one, true). I started doing better in school. I started to develop physically. And through it all I continued to feed on and regurgitate the extreme right-wing Christian Fundamentalism ("we put the mental in fundamentalism" could've been their logo) being taught to me at church and school.
Fast forward to the end of high school. I've got great grades, I'm accepted into a four-year private University with some kick-ass scholarships, and I'm a Believer. You know the type. I had a Bible verse ready for any situation. I could pray and worship with the best of them. Democrats were godless, Socialist sinners.

And then I go to this private four-year University, and boy-oh-boy was that an eye-opener. For the first time, my education and my religion weren't coming from the same place. Not only that, but my education had many different points of view, many different beliefs. My naive, innocent, virginal Christian self was a bit overwhelmed. It wasn't that I started going crazy in the opposite direction or anything. It was just the first time my beliefs were really being challenged.

And then the second major event that contributed to giving up Christianity as a belief system occurred. A very close friend of mine and I were hanging out, and he decides to come out of the closet to me, and tell me that he finds me incredibly attractive.
And to my eternal shame, my very first thought was, "Oh no, my friend is going to hell." It wasn't gratitude that he trusted me enough to reveal something incredibly personal (and for him, deeply shaming, since he was a Christian as well).  It was immediate judgment and condemnation, like a reflex action.

To my credit, my very next thought was, "Holy shit, I'm a dick!" I had no right to make those judgments, the Bible says "Judge not." I had no right to condemn, Jesus charges his followers to live with compassion and acceptance for their neighbors, relatives, and friends. But my upbringing taught me otherwise. Taught isn't even the right word. Brain-washed. That's the word.

And so I started doing my research. Casting off the shrouds of right-wing religious fundamentalism. The Bible was the first to go.  There's some value to the book as a manual for moral teachings, but there is so much that it gets wrong, and also, the God of the Old Testament is kind of a prick. The only person who ever really showed me the God of the New Testament was Jesus. All the other books were about teaching me how to believe in and follow the God of the New Testament.
And there's Science and Philosophy and Art, and they taught me more about life and living in four years than my entire K-12 religious schooling. I became, essentially, a deist. And I found myself in very respectable historical company.

That's the story. My heathen testimony. I know some people who keep praying that I'll find my way back to God, but they don't understand that I never left God. I just left them.
There were some amazing psychological repercussions from boxing away all my emotions, but I eventually got past it. I feel like a relatively stable human being now.

I'll still get those sharp, spine-icicle dreams from time to time, but they happen only very rarely any more. I usually wake up from them on my own with no problems (strong flight reflex, how's that for childhood development?), but sometimes a girl I happen to be seeing at the time will shake me awake. After one of those dreams once, a girl told me I was whimpering in my sleep. That sounds about right.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Úvahy o Praha

The last time I went to Europe I was too young to appreciate it, and really it was so long ago I barely remember most of it. I'm not so sure it was a sign of how I've grown when one of my first thoughts upon seeing Prague is, "This city has tons of Vantage Points!"

Once a nerd, always a nerd, I guess. The thought never really left me, but luckily I was drawn into the history, culture, and life of the city such that it wasn't my only thought about the city.

I fell in love with this city. With a good pair of shoes, it's very walkable, but the public transportation is also highly efficient.
It was a medieval city that managed to avoid destruction during World War II so much of its architectural history remains intact. It's become an interesting meld of past and present, with tourist sites and local secrets, and it just felt good to be here.
There's maybe 12 dollars of beer at our table right now.
Another plus about Prague is things run generally cheaper here. A half-liter of beer (if you avoid the touristy pubs) costs between 25 and 40 Czech Crowns, which is less than 2 bucks. The food is also quite delicious, but you should probably be a fan of meat and/or potatoes.
I'm sure there's some down-sides to Prague, but god only knows if I ran into any. Apparently the winters get bitter-fucking cold.
Winter Prague by Edgar Barany
The Fringe Festival showed me a great art scene in the city. The theaters also have a cafe/bar, so when shows end the party can keep going. I've always wanted to be able to pull off my costume, wipe off my make-up, and step outside and immediately have a drink with the people who've sat through a performance. Wish granted!
Prague is quite the smoking city (which isn't really a problem for me), so if you don't like your clothes smelling like cigarettes consider yourself warned.
See what I mean about Vantage Points?
I'm going to miss Prague. I'm going to miss the wonderful people I met and got to share my week with. I'm going to come back. Soon.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Aktualizovat z Prahy

Greetings, world, from a different corner of the internet, today!

I'd been hoping to give you an update from Prague a lil' sooner than today, but life is pretty fucking crazy over here. Now that we got our first performance out of the way, however, I'm hoping I can give you a few more updates ere I return to the States.

First things first: the show.
Following our final rehearsal for Venus and Adonis before we left, I felt really confident in our play. We tell a great story, the abstract elements provoke some thought, and the thing moved smoothly. When we got here, though, I started feeling the pressure ramp up. For one thing, there's posters with my face on them posted all over the city. It's a weird feeling, walking around a foreign city and sporadically seeing your face taped on a wall.
Guy Roberts, our host and head of The Prague Shakespeare Festival, has worked his ass off promoting our show. He's a PR machine. He's also, incidentally, a kick-ass individual. But, he'd also never seen the show. He was putting a lot of blind faith in our ability to show up and do something amazing.
The final bit of pressure was that, well, when we originally staged the show I start the play completely naked, facing away from the audience. Through the course of my actions in getting dressed, the audience may get a glimpse of dick. The day before I left, I check the Prague Fringe site, and our show is advertised as having full frontal nudity. Er... So when I meet up with my director in Prague the first thing he says to me is, "So they've been advertising our show as having full frontal nudity." Okay, after he said "hi" it was the first thing. So we changed the start of the show just a bit. When the lights come up, I'm greeting the audience in a pose reminiscent of The Vetruvian Man. It's honestly not too bad (though I guess I can't speak for what the audience thinks). The weirdest part of it all is when the audience walks in, the front of the stage is covered in a plastic sheet we're projecting faces onto. As the play starts, I walk in between the projector and the sheet so my shadow gets thrown on the screen. I hit my pose, Venus rips the screen away, the lights come up, and the show begins. What's weird (and funny, I admit) is my shadow hits the screen at exactly the right height so my penis is in the same spot as the mouths of the projected people. And there I am, a shadow with his arms thrown wide, like I'm getting blow jobs from a whole bunch of random faces.

The really good news is that opening night went really really well. The audience seemed to love it, and we got a pretty kick ass review in The Prague Post. The after-party was a holy fuck-balls avalanche of drinking in a German beer hall that's been around since 1499 followed by a stumbly trip to a vodka bar.

But that also means you might have to wait until later to get a pictoral rundown of the first couple days. It's 3:30 in the afternoon here and I'm still a wee bit hungover.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Vilia Miretur Vulgus

"Let base-conceited wits admire vile things,
Fair Phoebus lead me to the Muses' springs."
--Christopher Marlowe

A little less than a year ago Tom Bradac, the artistic director of Shakespeare Orange County, approached me about an interesting opportunity: He was working with Guy Roberts, artistic director of the Prague Shakespeare Festival, to bring an adaptation of Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis to Prague to perform in the Prague Fringe Festival (which is next week, crikey!). In addition to being an actor for SOC, for the past eight years I've also been the technical director for the company, in charge of facilitating all the technical needs of each production. So my initial thought was that Tom was asking me to handle the technical aspects of the show.


He asked me if I wanted to play the part of Adonis. What the... Hell yeah, I did!

There was just one hitch. Well, hitch-ish. I realize that self-perception nearly always differs from how others see us, but Adonis in the play is essentially a sex-object Venus throws herself at. I've never viewed myself as a sexy hunk of man-flesh. I don't see myself in the mirror and think, "yeah, I'm what the ladies want."
Granted, this is a play. It's not real, it's pretend. So actually being a sex-object isn't necessary.

But I'd be lying if I said it wouldn't nice.

So I thought that for this play, part of my process would be to examine some of the physical things about me that I felt could use some improvement and work on them. It wasn't necessary, but it also couldn't hurt right? Especially after my director told me that I'd be starting the play completely naked.
At the same time, however, we started rehearsals 6 months before the performance dates. I didn't want to undergo some crazy workout and diet regimen that would drive me batshit crazy for ten months (I started this at the end of August). When you see actors in the movies undergo those crazy workouts (like the actors in 300) they have three advantages over me: a) they are provided a trainer, b) they are paid to do it, and c) very often they can devote themselves to it like a  full-time job.
I already have a full-time job, and while it can be fairly active, it won't ever result in six-pack abs (not that six-pack abs are the goal, mind you. It's just an example. Geesh). And since I didn't want to drive myself crazy and/or miserable following a maddening diet or gym schedule, I thought to myself, what are small, achievable changes I can make that can provide the best possible results? And what I thought I would do is track my progress. So here's me in August last year:

Warning: topless fuzzy male.

You'll probably notice two things right off the bat: I need to clean my mirror and I'm pretty lousy at taking pictures. Okay, so objectively speaking, I'm not obese. There's a little jiggle in the middle and the saggy jaw has always bugged me, but really, not too shabby. So here's me today (literally today):

Now with cleaner mirrors!
Alright, so there's some visible difference! I'm a little flatter in the middle with more muscle definition through the chest and shoulders. I'm not sure what I'm doing with my neck in my profile pic, but my face is a little thinner also, it seems (though genetics will have damned me with a saggy jaw for the rest of my life). How much work did I do?

Not a whole lot, really. I took a lot of my cues from The 4-Hour Body by Tim Ferriss.
The changes I made were fairly small, but very significant. Ferriss' book mentions, quite often, the MED: the Minimum Effective Dose.
"If you need 15 minutes in the sun to trigger a melanin response, 15 minutes is your MED for tanning. More than 15 minutes is redundant and will just result in burning and a forced break from the beach. During this forced break...someone else who heeded his natural 15-minute MED will be able to fit in four more tanning sessions. He is four shades darker, whereas you have returned to your pale pre-beach self. Sad little manatee. In biological systems, exceeding your MED can freeze progress for weeks, even months." --from The 4-Hour Body [emphasis mine]
I haven't seen much change in my weight. Weird, right? I took more than an inch off the circumference of my waist, had to drill a new hole in my belt so I could tighten it more, and I jiggle a lot less when I run. When I started this project, I weighed between 212 and 215 pounds (depending on the day/scale). The last time I weighed myself (less than a month ago), I was about 207-210 (difference of scales). And I only lost about 5 pounds in 10 months? This little detail is what frustrates so many people who don't see much change in their weight when they get a gym membership.
The big difference is to focus not on weight loss but weight recomposition.

If you're interested in finding out more specifically what changes I made, drop a comment. But what's most important to me is that because these changes were small they were also easy to keep doing. So while I'm incredibly pleased in the results of my little experiment for this role, it won't stop here. There are still some small changes I would like to make (and giving up beer is not, was not, and will never be one of them), and so the improvement is on-going.

Well, I'm jumping on an airplane tomorrow to go to Prague (stay tuned for updates from that little corner of the world), but I wanted to share my little project with you for your enjoyment. If it provides a lil' bit o' inspiration as well, then that's good too.