And Zen What Happened?

26 Apr 2006

It's tough to find decent friends when you're new in town. I'm tempted to include today's tale in my Tales of the Midwest series (at least in the online version, anyway). Strictly speaking, it's not a Midwestern story, though. It's more of a "Midwestern fish"-out-of-water story, with the fish being me.You see, it takes a substantial effort to shake off the influence of one's formative years, especially if that time was spent in theMidwest. I hadn't even seen the ocean by the time I was eighteen. So, things like religious cults were completely foreign to me, even at twenty-two. (Although, I suppose I've always viewed the Baptist church as a cult, more or less.)

Moving to D.C. is a study in immersion.From day one, you're inundated with a diversity the likes of which you've never experienced (unless you're from there, of course). On my very first day, for example, we saw Hari Krishnas dancing in their saffron robes on the grounds of the National Mall (the park between the U.S. Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial).I doubt most of red stateAmerica has this in mind when they imagine the solemnity of our nation's capital. (By the way, Kumar -- who is a practicing Hindu -- told me that Hari Krishnas are really just stoners.)

I loved that area of D.C., by the way.It was great to go running there at lunch time. We'd run down fromDupont Circle (where our office was), loop the White House, head down and loop the Washington Monument, and sometimes we'd cross the Arlington Memorial Bridge to Virginia before heading back to work. We used to joke that we should "tag the eternal flame" burning at Kennedy's grave site before returning to work (but we never actually did that).Once, I asked the White House secret service guys if we could go jogging with Bill Clinton in the morning (who, believe it or not, did jog a lot -- when he wasn't eating McDonald's cheeseburgers, anyway). The agent suggested that we shouldn't attempt to get close or someone might have to shoot us. (I don't think he was kidding.)So, we never got to jog with the prez, unfortunately.

If I sound like a health nut, well, I'm stretching the truth a bit. I attempted to jog those distances over my lunch hour. Often, however, I wound up walking some of the way and returning late (which required sneaking back to my desk). One time, my co-worker and I completely ran out of steam during one of those ambitious jogs toVirginia. We wound up walking all the way back from Virginia to Dupont Circle , stopping at the gym to change.It was a three-hour lunch, and we caught hell upon our return.

In time, though, we built up a group of five or six guys for these lunch time runs. That's around the time I first met Leonardo, a truly polymathic friend I kept for a few years. Leonardo embodied the term "Renaissance Man," more than anyone I ever knew. He was a professional chef, an accomplished euphonium player, conversant about a multitude of topics, in unusually tip-top physical condition, and entirely self-sufficient. Not bad for a practically homeless black guy. He made about $35,000 a year (in glorious tax-free cash) playing various instruments during weekday morning and evening rush hours at a Metro stop. Aside from those two hours Monday-Friday, his life was entirely free of any responsibility.

When he heard that we jogged at lunch time, he asked to come along one day. I don't think he ever tried running before, but he managed to effortlessly outpace the fastest guy in our group (who was a hardened marathon runner), and never even seemed to grow tired. Afterward (about a half-hour later, when the slow group caught up to the rest), he just stood there amused that the rest of us were so exhausted after the run.

Leonardo always thought out of the box, which was a quality I admired.I remember one lunch we had at the Cult Leader's house. She asked us to make the garlic bread while the others tended to other food.She handed us a baguette, and I remember saying to Leonardo, "What good is a baguette for garlic bread. You can only slice it into little rounds, and that's no good."

He'd brought his professional chef knives along, though, and in no time, sliced that bread up into long diagonal slices, perfect for garlic bread. Such absolute control with a knife, he was like Bill the Butcher in Scorsese's Gangs of New York (only, he wasn't a cold-blooded killer). How could a whip-smart guy like that fall in with a cult? And, oh yeah, what the hell was I doing having lunch with these weirdoes?

It all started at a small public library, about three blocks from our apartment complex inFalls Church, Virginia.With no car and little income during our first month there, there wasn't much to do for entertainment. In no time, we discovered this cool little library. My wife signed up for a meditation class there, as advertised on a bulletin board.(Turns out this was all just a guise, of course, to recruit people into the cult.)Reluctantly, though, I said I'd attend, too. (Not "reluctantly" because I was wise enough to see it for what it was (a cult), but because I wasn't into the whole meditation thing.)

During the first class, the Cult Leader sat in the front of the room and said, "And now, we meditate." The whole class closed their eyes and did whatever people who meditate do. I just sat there looking at everyone, feeling like a complete dork.I waved my arms a few times to see if anyone was watching. They weren't.So, I quietly got up and tip-toed out of the room.As luck would have it, I stumbled upon a huge, permanent book-sale section of the library. Paperbacks were a dime, hardbacks fifty cents. Fuck meditation; this was a great sale!

So, for the next week or two, my wife would attend the cult meditation group (still unaware that they were recruiting followers of the "Great Rama"), and I'd hit that amazing book sale. For four or five bucks, I'd usually bring home an entire grocery bag of books (many of which I still have).(I meant the grocery bags in that last sentence. I saved them all.)One time I found a vintage copy of "A Tree Grows inBrooklyn" -- hardback, original dust cover. Don't ask me what it's about; I didn't recognize the book from my graduate-level studies in literature.I recognized it, naturally, from my childhood studies of Bugs Bunny. Seemed like a good investment at the time, for a whopping fifty cents. According to eBay, I have a much better chance of selling Pokemon collectibles than ever realizing a profit on that thing.Still, it looks good on the shelf.

I've not yet kicked the book sale habit, by the way.However, I've stopped any such speculating for investment purposes. And, I've stopped buying any books that are excessively long, no matter how important they are in the grand scheme of things. Just last week, I passed on a fifty-cent copy of The Brothers Karamazov .(BTW, if any of you have read Monstro's blog, he's currently pouring his soul into a work that'll make Dostoevsky's masterpiece look like The Pet Goat.)

Being new to town, we didn't have many friends at the time, and I think that played a part in our nearly falling in with these weirdoes. Our first attempt to make new friends in D.C. went south fast thanks to our idiot roommate, J-Lo. J-Lo was my wife's "bestest friend" in college. She always seemed like a free-spirit, quasi-slutty party girl to me. (I'll have to return to her in a separate post, as there are many amusing stories there.) On to J-Lo's tragic flaw ...

For my wife's birthday yesterday, I gave her aDVD of the 1989 hit movie Say Anything. (Like most of Cameron Crowe's movies, they're usually equally enjoyable to both men and women, an admirable quality of Crowe's amazing writing ability.) So, we watched it last night. Remember the character played by Lili Taylor -- John Cusak's friend who was completely hung up on a guy named Joe? (Cusak's character says to Joe, "She's written 65 songs ... 65. They're all about you. They're all about pain.")Well, that was J-Lo's problem exactly ... The guy was even, coincidentally, named Joe.

So, as I was saying about our first attempt to establish social friends in D.C., J-Lo blew the whole thing. We were invited to a "beers of the world" party inAlexandria at the apartment of one of my wife's co-workers.Long story short: J-Lo got blitzed, barfed all over the girl's apartment, and locked herself in the bathroom hysterically crying about "Joooooooooooe."I'll leave it to you to guess when the next time we were invited to hang out with that crowd was.

By the time J-Lo sobered up, we were back to square one -- new to town, and completely friendless. In short, we were perfect targets to be actively recruited by these cult nutjobs.Make no mistake about it: This was one fucked up cult.They preyed on young, 20-something professionals, usually through things like meditation classes, yoga classes, or other such activities commonly associated with new-age thinking.

One thing I find amusing about the so-called new-age is that, while a lot of it is anti-Christian, many people in that demographic have no problem at all with eastern religions. If Christianity is such a joke, then why is Hinduism any better? (Actually, I do think Hinduism is cooler, given all of the colors and animals involved. Why am I now thinking of Apu telling Homer, "Please do not offer my god a peanut!"?) But I digress. As you know, I'm a major skeptic.

There's a slight problem in theMidwest, I guess.Missouri, after all, is officially nicknamed the "Show Me" state. That suggests pure skepticism, right?You need proof of things before believing them. However, that somehow doesn't apply to religion. Take a look at this map showing religious adherents in the USA.See how the darker colors seem to be mostly in the middle (in the Red States)?So, how can one explain the seemingly contradictory existence of (1) stereotypical Midwestern skepticism and (2) unusually concentrated faith?

Personally, I see it as hypocrisy. (We're proud of how skeptical we are. You can't fool us. But, oh yeah, praise the Lawd, brotha.) While I may have escaped the religious mumbo-jumbo, I never did shake the skepticism.So, when Cult Leader finally began to reveal her purpose in befriending us, she didn't find us as receptive as she'd hoped. And, I wasn't very diplomatic about it, either.

For example, when she told us about how her great Zen Master Rama would "infuse things with his light," I went on a long tirade about how selling light constituted his being a utility, and thus subjected him to certain monetary taxes. (I wish that was an original thought, but I learned that one from my dad. Dad used to work at a water company, and he angrily explained this concept to the manager of a restaurant once when I was a little kid. The restaurant manager had charged our family for water that evening, and Dad was extremely ticked off about it.)

But, I did also come up with a few smart-ass comments of my own invention. For example, one day I returned to the meditation group holding a large sack of paperbacks from the book sale.They were all preparing to leave and the Cult Leader was wowing her small gathering with tales of miraculous happenings at some swami's house.

"Swami so-in-so can manifest ash!" she said.

People were oohing and ahhing about this.Seriously ... A bunch of 20-something professionals eating this stuff up as fast as Cult Leader could dish it out.

I said, "What do you mean 'manifest ash'?"

"Oh, well, he just manifests it."

"Yeah, but, you mean ash just appears out of nowhere? I mean, what does that mean?"

"Well," she said, "it's a miracle."

"Listen, lady," I said. "In my book, manifesting ash is no miracle. I mean, you should see the dust in my apartment, and I don't know where that comes from, either. But, I'll tell you what would be truly impressive ..."

"What?" she said.

"If the guy could manifest cash. Now that would be a true gift."

Needless to say, Cult Leader didn't like me.

My wife's always been more open-minded about a lot of this stuff, though. So, we kept hanging out with them for another week or two. Eventually, though, it became evident that this wasn't simply a group of social friends who like to meditate. They gave her a two or three-page legal document that they asked her to sign. It was a really scary paper that outlined what their relationship was. Why this was even necessary, we never found out. But, the paper contained provisions like, "Our group is not responsible for your way of thinking, or any lifestyle changes you may make as a result of the relationship." It went on to indemnify the group from any attempts by the signer's family members to hire "deprogrammers."

As interesting as a discussion would be about the fact that there are actually people in the world whose job titles are "deprogrammer," I think that it's simpler to note that our relationship with the Cult Leader ended right there. Which was too bad, as they really were some nice people (even if they were completely and utterly insane).As I said, it's tough to find decent friends when you're new in town.

Original Comments

Below, are the original comments on this post. Additional comments may be made via Facebook, below.

On May 2, 2006, Simon wrote:

This is the problem, once you leave school and move to a new city, how do you make friends other than through jobs? (And i thinks the social and workplace world do not mix).

Our cults down here worked differently, they seemed to try and target teenagers, and I got invited to a few of these things when I was younger. I had the sense not to go.

Contact / Connect

Connect on Facebook  Connect on LinkedIn

Hawthorne Crow YouTube Account  Hawthorne Crow Flickr

Or, drop me a line via my web development company's contact form. :-)

Need a Web Developer?

Thanks for visiting my personal blog. I develop web sites for a living through my company Array Web Development, LLC. If you need a business web site, pay my business web site a visit and contact me through there anytime.