Monthly Archives: March 2015

Casting Out the Sinister Minister (or How to Pick Your Sunflower)


I believe in god about as much as I do the tooth fairy (come on, TF, if you were real, you’d financially compensate adults who lost teeth, not kids; they’ll just waste it on crap).

But I must confess a love: televangelist Joel Osteen.

This should not be. As the son of an atheist — if there were an official atheist card, dad would have enlarged it to the size of a sandwich board — my earliest memories of TV Bible thumpers were from granny’s shitty 12-inch black and white television, which could hail only the local religious channel. It was CNN for sinners — Hell and Brimstone, 24/7. I would become an ordained minister just for the irony, though it will come in handy soon.

Then one day I channel-stopped on Osteen’s weekly sermon, broadcast to seven million people weekly in more than 100 countries. And though he looks like a TV weatherman with an unfortunate brush with Botox, I can see how he became the nation’s preeminent preacher. osteen

He got less godly.

Listen closely to the gospel from the Lakewood Church in Houston, the nation’s largest house of worship for Protestants (his flock, 43,000 strong, bought Compaq stadium, home of the Houston Rockets). Sure, he ends with a prayer and impossible promise: tune in by show’s end, and you will be saved. And don’t forget our book.

But aside from requisite idol worship, Osteen takes a largely untrod path to faith. He is nearly areligious. He does not use the word hell, or Satan. He invokes the almighty, perhaps, a third as often as other preachers, if that. No fires waging eternal here.

Instead, he talks about taking a righteous path. You could substitute “life,” “karma” or “Fortuna”  for every reference to god, and the message remains largely intact. He waxes not about the demon Lucifer, but the demon within. And just as present, he urges, is an inner angel.

More important, he recognizes religion as analogous, not actualized. He understands parable like a wordsmith. Osteen recently spoke about those circling the post-divorce drain: the depressed amd addicted, the broken-hearted and jobless. Not once did he lay blame, nor did he suggest, ‘You are being punished. You deserve this.’

Instead he did something canny. You are not broken, he urged. You are not damned. You are a super computer with unmatched processing speed. “Your software is just corrupt,” he said. “You don’t need to throw out the computer. You just need to find the virus.”

What a knowing tactic. I can see Maude attending service, yellow umbrella et al. If religion’s stratagem has been to nag until you submit, Osteen’s is to cheer until you conquer. He seems to sense that the realities of today don’t always reward the just and punish the wicked. Some days, you have to do it yourself. He seems one of the few behind the pulpit who understands that the only sermon that resonates is the one you tell yourself.

In a recent interview, a reporter asked Osteen about his glory gospel, why he refers to “the enemy” instead of Satan, why he does not engage in the cautionary tales of a vengeful, omnipotent father who has grown sick of his children.

“When I grew up, the Devil was a reason why I had a headache or got mad,” he answered. “I like to make it broader. Sometimes the enemy can be our own thoughts, our limited way of thinking. We can excel. But some people preach about Hell like you’re already going there.”

Amen, brother.

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Zen and the Art of Saddling

Aside from being dead before I hit 15 because there would be no insulin, I think I would have liked life in the late 1800’s.

Not for the gadgets, for crying out loud (a phrase I am bringing back). Or the toilet. Nor the lack of Skittles.

But the mode of transport. I don’t know what it is about the horse, but god I love it. So fast, huge, flaring, utterly streamlined, down the mane. All atop four toothpicks which, if even one fractures, likely kills animal and rider. How’s that for a harmonious ecosystem? Screw you, nature.

Still, I can’t help but be mesmerized. Mom and Dad used to tell the story of how, as a toddler, I took a pony ride once at a petting zoo. Round and round, I must have imagined myself an original member of the James Gang: ramrod straight, stern glower, tight jaw — until I saw my parents, who, unlike me, couldn’t keep a straight face. stern

Yet I remain that wannabe cowboy. Maybe that’s why I prefer motorcycles.

I use any excuse to ride. I ride to Teddy’s vet just to order his epilepsy meds, instead of calling. More times than I’d like to admit, I take off on the bike with no idea where I’m going. The way will decide.

Lately, the way has been a 50-mile roundtrip trek to Malibu along the Pacific Coast Highway, through San Fernando’s amazing canyon roads. It morphs from mountains to seaside, green to brown, and the temperature changes more than 25 degrees on the scoot from Valley to water.

But you can’t help but feel…alive. The terrifying reality of a bike is that it’s a terrifying reality. Driving a mile a minute is insanity enough. But on two wheels, with L.A. traffic that buzzes like an angry wasp, you realize that every trip, no matter how short or brief, requires your undivided attention. There’s a reason you never hear about motorcycle drunk driving. Sober, cars are threat enough.

Still, there’s something to being aware on the drive. How often can we say we remember a car drive we took?

A few things I’ve learned on the bike:

  • Nothing smells as good as spring jasmine.
  • Everyone smokes weed in their cars.
  • A comfortable dry heat is bullshit. A microwave gives off dry heat. It will still pop your Orville Redenbacher.
  • Everybody is pissed off.

That last lesson I learned recently coming back from the PCH. I was idling at Vanowen and Balboa, a half mile from my house. Then I heard something.

“Hey!” a woman in a wheelchair yelled. “HEYYYY!!!!”

She was trying to roll across Vanowen, where an SUV douche sat at the corner. He was gunning his engine, trying to bully the Kia to make a turn on red. It did, and douche was next. But he wasn’t bothering with the crosswalk, only northbound traffic. And his jacked douchemobile was too high to see the wheelchair.

“I’M CROSSING!!!!” the woman screamed.

I put the bike in neutral and was about to get behind the woman and push her across. The other nice thing about a bike: people tend not to honk at someone in a helmet and leather. You never know. They could have a criminal record. Or muscles.

Feigning both, I begin to step off the bike. Traffic can go around.

Suddenly the woman’s legs began to work. Both, scuttling on the pavement, arms churning. Kind of like a frenetic beetle upended. I’m not sure if her butt was paralyzed, cuuuuuuz her arms and legs seemed to work just fine. And she was definitely gaining speed.

When the SUV driver finally saw the woman, he stopped gunning the engine. Fine, I’ll wait 10 seconds, though I really should pay homage to work. He, too, was caught off guard at seeing the miracle of her working legs.

Once the woman knew that douche saw her, she did something odd. As she neared the corner, she began to coast. Legs back up, feet in footrests, arms in her lap. Looking at the driver. Fuck you, Mr. Escalade. Wait for me. Once she reached the curb, she seemed to take a particularly long time to roll up the sidewalk slope. Maybe it just seemed long, because she probably could have picked up the wheelchair and placed it on the curb.

Cadillac must have thought the same thing, because he screeeeeeched out of the intersection when she finally made it curbside. I kicked the bike into first and, dumbstruck, puttered home.

That’s one way to remember the ride.


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Piglet Love and the City Surf

I have needed the dogs nearer of late. To feel visible. Or, more accurately, I have needed to be nearer to them, though for the same reason.

They do not care my reasons, of course. All they know is I’m around. They see me.

And they’ve taught me. Man, they’re onto something with this whole backyard thing.

I used not to give it much thought, their everyday world. Hire a lawn guy. Install a dog door to kick them out and not feel guilty. Repair the fence when the Santa Anas show me she’s boss.

But there is more to it than that. So much.

Because of daylight savings time (come on, Indiana, pick a side), the sun sets on the yard around 6 p.m. And because that’s dinner time, that means unbolting the dog door, calling them in, pouring the dog food, preparing for the night.

But I walked out recently, apparently so quietly they didn’t hear me from the side door. And suddenly, I realized: Their world is kind of wonderful.

I could hear the train that bristles by at Balboa and Roscoe. I heard the rising traffic on Sherman Way as people began the buzz commute home. I smelled the Anheuser-Busch brewery two miles away (it’s the smell of grain after it’s been processed of its sugar and before it’s fed to cows). Planes droned the Van Nuys Airport, awaiting their turn.

It was…alive. Particularly when Teddy and Esme realized a real human being! was outside and sprinted around the corner to greet me as if I had been gone since Christmas.

But it was too late. I had felt it, the city surf, in its high tide. I would discover there are low tides as well. After 9:15 p.m., you can hear the gentle hum of the night owl traffic, though rarely a honk. The single prop plane — what do you think up there, at once above and below the heavens, alone and aloft? The train’s whistle now more a melancholy wail than a churn. Just as alive. Just in deeper breaths.

And so is borne tradition. If I’m home, I’m back there at 5:35 p.m. The dogs have learned there’s no need yet to lose their shit over kibble. They know; their landlord is going to want to be in that chair, which has to be positioned just off the porch, at cement’s edge, to catch the sun’s full and final rays, to tell it good night and see you tomorrow. And they must assume I’ll bring the Mellow Playlist. Because I will.


They still don’t care my reasons. I guess they don’t need to. All they need to know is that they have new company at the shore of the city surf, where you can smell summer on the way, feel a warmth that’s beginning to linger, hear a heightening hum and still curl into a lazy, sun-drenched ball of fur that says dinner maybeontheway but what’s…the….rush?

What better place to be sure?


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