Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Yogurt Jesus.

So, I have been reading things lately, in case you were wondering. I finished Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood and Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Nifenegger (Yes! Meh.). And am getting ready to start The Warmth of Other Suns here shortly. I've just been kind of lazy about formulating an opinion about them, because, really.

Anyway lately I've been thinking a lot about Yogurt Jesus.

As anyone reading this blog knows, I was raised in a pretty virulent strain of Baptism. My parents were raised Catholic and somehow, at some point before I came along, ended up becoming Baptists.

Becoming a Baptist is a weird and unusual thing. Right? Like, someone could convert to Christianity or Islam or whatever, but converting to a particular strain of Christianity is kind of oddly specific. Especially the oddly specific sect of independent Baptism, which is sort of like being, I don't know, transubstantiation seems really far out, I'd prefer having strychnine in my tap water and handling snakes!*

*Actually that's certain branches of evangelical Christians. Most Baptists believe the Age of Miracles has passed, but still think that God steps in now and again to Do Stuff, which is not classified as a miracle, because Doctrine.

My maternal grandmother is pretty darn Catholic, but like the sassy kind of Catholic, not the weepy, black-mantilla kind of Catholic. I really do believe that her Catholicism gives her a great deal of comfort and solace, so I don't knock it. She's also kind of a queen bee in her church (early Mass, median age is 73. Except for the week I was visiting, when I knocked the median age down to like 72 and 3/4).

So even though I would normally react like a scalded porcupine to anyone trying to proselytize me, I think Grandma does it because she really, truly thinks that I would be much happier (and probably also married to a doctor and magically tattoo-free) if I converted. So, coming from a place of love and all that.

Grandma used to send me regular Catholic care packages as a child, including outdated copies of Our Daily Bread and plastic rosaries, the kind you can pick up for a dollar next to the cash register at a lot of the stores in Florida.

This made my mother apoplectic with rage. I don't know what part of her conversion was a road-to-Damascus thing and what part was a rebellion against her mother, but probably a pretty equal mix. This was one of those classic The Thing Is Not Just The Thing moments. The rosary was not just a tacky plastic rosary, but a symbol of years of familial strife and mutual antagonism. It was like a smart bomb stamped with a blurry Virgin Mary medallion. Mom would usually intercept these and chuck them out, but one package got through.

Grandma sent me a picture of Jesus.

For those of you not familiar with the finer points of the great Baptist vs. Catholic debate (Banana pudding and shellacked hair vs. the Whore of Babylon), you'll notice that in Baptist churches the cross is empty, Jesus having departed to kick some ass and root for your home team from up on high, like this guy.

This, according to Baptists, is Real Bad. Because the Baptist Jesus is not a weenie, and he would totally smash that cross and then pick his teeth with it, probably while walking away from an explosion and not looking back. But the Jesus that Grandma sent me was definitely the Catholic Jesus, with sad liquid eyes and a narrow face like a beautiful, doomed consumptive. Or it may have been heartburn from the flaming, thorn-encrusted heart he was sporting.

Anyway, since I was about eight and knew that Jesus was kind of a big deal, thanks to my thrice-weekly Baptist churchgoing (not counting excruciating outings with the youth group, in which I was routinely menaced by Lucy, a girl who purported to be my age but was roughly the same size and heft as a Yugo and had a nasty habit of giving you Indian burns), I put Jesus up on the wall of my bedroom.

Until one day he was gone.

I searched for Jesus everywhere, until I got the quivery feeling that there was possibly a supernatural explanation behind His disappearance. Did Jesus hate me? Had he sensed the stirrings of skepticism that I was experiencing during sermons? Had he found out about my habit of drawing cigarettes in the hands of the illustrations in my Awanas book? (Admittedly a really odd habit, since no one I knew smoked.)

The mystery behind Jesus' disappearance wasn't solved until a few hours later, when I opened the kitchen trash can to throw something away and discovered Jesus, His divine face smeared with strawberry yogurt and smelling kind of like tuna fish.

I FREAKED. As early as eight, I already had a sneaking suspicion that deep down, despite my rather limited dossier of sins, I truly, richly, deeply deserved to go to Hell, if for no other reason than I was convinced I was headed there anyway. Now it was indisputable. I was, as our flamboyant preacher put it, dangling from a corn cob above Hell. God, who was everywhere, had definitely seen the picture of His beloved Son in the trash, covered in curdling dairy.

I dug Jesus out and rinsed off the yogurt and coffee grinds as well as I could, while weeping. The glass had cracked, too, so even if I put Jesus back on the wall it was going to be obvious that something had happened. I couldn't hide it.

I don't really remember what happened after that, my tiny brain being so traumatized that it must have wiped the record. I dimly remember my father telling me that it was the wrong Jesus, but I think my brain conjured up that image, my Dad being an also vaguely omnipresent but never actually there presence. There was, of course, no right Jesus, since Baptists didn't really believe in pictures of Jesus (which actually makes them Muslims, and when they figure that out they will probably self-immolate in anger and confusion).

The episode of Yogurt Jesus left me deeply troubled and confused. Having nowhere to seek counsel, I walked the half-mile to an abandoned garden in the back of a shabby apartment building. The garden had a weeping willow that hadn't been trimmed in a long time, so you could crawl underneath the branches and effectively disappear. I sat on the icy mud underneath the tree and slowly ate a stale bun.

I'm really sorry, I said. Our preacher always talked about the still small voice, but by eight I had already started giving up on getting an answer, so I wasn't even that disappointed when the only sensation I felt was of mud seeping through my jeans.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Quality time

So, I'm back from my hiatus, having (mostly) moved into my new apartment, which means now I spend a lot of time stubbing my toes on unfamiliarly-placed furniture and being unable to find things, since my goal of keeping things neatly put away in drawers results in my forgetting where the hell I put them. I really do hate moving, having had to do so much of it as a kid, but there is something about having to reorient yourself that makes you pay attention to things in a new way. I theorize that this is behind the reason my hamster compulsively moved her bedding to a new corner of the cage every few days.

But, one cool thing about my new neighborhood is that I'm within walking distance of a little movie theater, so yesterday I took myself to the movies. It was an impulsive decision, so I was limited to what happened to be playing right then, but I'd been meaning to watch We Need To Talk About Kevin for a while anyway, and it was a great way to avoid having to unpack yet another box.

We Need To Talk About Kevin is a movie that manages to fail despite the presence of two excellent actors (Tilda Swinton as Eva and John C. Reilly as her husband, Franklin) and Ezra Miller's (as teenage Kevin) epic bone structure. Hobbled by intrusive and nausea-inducing camerawork, unnecessary flashbacks, a disjointed narrative, and several cringe-inducing and overstyled scenes that look like the editor had just discovered iMovie, it's a difficult movie to sit through, and not because of the subject matter.

We Need To Talk About Kevin is based on Lionel Shriver's epistolary novel of the same name, written as a series of letters from Eva Khatchadourian to her husband, Franklin. Ambivalent about her pregnancy, Eva, an intrepid traveler and author, finds herself resenting her difficult son and her nesty husband, who insists they move to the suburbs. Kevin is a horror from infancy, colicky and combative, and becomes increasingly sadistic as he gets older.

Young Kevin (played by Jasper Newell) would make a good Damien understudy. His behavior is so over the top and the film makes him so menacing that you expect him to crab-walk down the stairs or vomit split pea soup over a priest at any moment, which makes you wonder why they don't pack him off to Fork Union or a psychiatrist. Forget troubled teen, this one looks like he'd give Dahmer a run for his money.

This had always bothered me about the novel, too. Kevin's always been a sociopath, which makes him more of a force of nature, like an avalanche or a tiger, than a child, and his eventual actions seem inevitable, which kind of tanks any feelings of suspense. Miller does what he can with the film's limited material, but he may as well be rubbing his hands together and twirling a moustache as he plans his coup de grace.

That's not to say the film doesn't have impact. It does, especially when the director gives the shaky camerawork and clunky visual metaphors (seriously, how many times do we need to see Eva scrubbing red paint off of her hands? She feels guilty, we get it.) a rest and lets the actors act, which unfortunately doesn't happen as often as it should. Instead, the acting takes second place to the cinematography, which drains the film of the visceral impact it could have had.