"The only difference between a tax man and a taxidermist is that the taxidermist leaves the skin." ~ Mark Twain
The Varieties of Religious Experience
I've never been a religious person. Like most kids growing up in the Seventies, I dabbled in Buddhism and eastern mysticism as a teen, had a Shinto shrine in the corner of my bedroom near the 8-track stereo, a lot of dog-eared Allan Watts books on the floor, and Bruce Lee posters on the wall, because the cult of Bruce Lee was a religion in itself circa 1974. I think I secretly longed to be Chinese instead of German-Irish, but that's another story entirely.
The point is that no ascetic religious discipline, organized or otherwise, ever took hold of me. Not Roman Catholicism when my mother was married to a staunch Catholic (although I did find those Christmas Eve masses rather mystical), nor any of the variety of religions that her subsequent string of husbands and boyfriends and various loafers who made our living room sofa their home and habitat subscribed to. I did learn from that experience, however, that some of the lowest forms of the human animal cling tenaciously to religious doctrine.
Books. Books became my true religious discipline from an early age. In the organization of words, I found a deeply profound experience. To paraphrase Virginia Woolf, nothing in life really happens until it gets written down on paper and recorded for the ages. Contemplate that for awhile and I can guarantee you some sort of religious epiphany.
My girlfriend's father wasn't a particularly religious man either, not unless you count an adoration of beer and airplanes and Mel Gibson as transcendent. When he passed away last month at the age of 74, after what an obituary writer would call "a long battle with cancer," his wife scurried to the telephone the day after his death and literally phoned in an obituary to the local newspaper in the small Northern California town they called home for the last decade. This, line for line, is what was essayed and printed:
July 8, 1929 - Feb. 4, 2004
There will be no formal services held for Edward Matheson, 74, of Vacaville .
Mr. Matheson was born July 8, 1929 , in Somerville , Mass. , and resided in Vacaville .
He was a U.S. Air Force veteran.
Arrangements were handled by Vaca Hills Chapel.
What would Virginia Woolf say about that? A human life distilled to--well, you can't even say Ed was distilled to his essence because he was not. No mention of his son and daughter and grandchildren nor of his work as a TV cameraman in the Air Force, training that he hoped to parlay as a job in the real world of network TV when he finished his time in the service, a dream and ambition thwarted by the unionization of television cameramen.
Ed believed that Mel Gibson was "the modern day John Wayne," so it was strangely fitting that he died just when the controversy over Gibson's The Passion of the Christ was really heating up. I was invited by a few online venues to pen a commentary on Gibson's contentious film, but I passed with a mention that I was proud of the fact that such a film could be made without resulting in Gibson's public stoning. That is the cornerstone of my abhorrence of organized religion, a foundation that was cemented ten years ago when I was working as a video reviewer for a magazine devoted to adult films and videos.
I was reviewing upwards of twenty XXX videos a month, returning the screeners to my publisher every few weeks. Since I don't drive--a sacrilegious notion here in L.A. --I befriended a Russian-American cab driver who gave me discounts for the long haul from my house in the Los Angeles foothills to the publisher's office in the sun-blinded San Fernando Valley .
Vince was the cabbie's name. He was a barrel-chested man of sixty-some-odd years who had worked as a tour guide all through Russia and the Middle East for decades before coming to America . One day as I unloaded a box crammed full of adult videos from the trunk of his unmarked taxi cab, Vince blew a whistle between his crooked teeth and said, "If we took that to Iran we could both make enough money to retire."
Pornography, Vince explained to me, is not only illegal in most Muslim countries but mere possession, let alone production and distribution, is punishable by death under Islamic law, which makes one VHS of Debbie Does Dallas worth thousands of dollars on the Iranian black market.
"A few years ago, there was a man who came to Los Angeles from Iran ," Vince said, "and he began making naughty videos for the Persian marketplace. He starred in them and recruited other Persian women to be in them with him. He became big, very big, in the underground in Iran ."
Very big. So big that he became something of a cult figure, the Iranian version of John Holmes. He bought a house on the beach in Malibu and was living a life of delicious American decadence, which did not sit well with someone in the higher echelons of power in Iran .
An assassination team was dispatched to put an end to this black market foolishness that was an insult to Allah and all who follow His command and teachings. And so the man who defied his country's religious dogma was gunned down in his opulent beach house, his life violently cut short for daring to violate a religious code.
But that's just one of the varieties of religious experience, leaving a flavor in my mouth that sickens me like a communion wafer laced with arsenic.
Yet what I have just accomplished in this brief passage was to memorialize two human lives--perhaps three because I believe that Vince has since gone on to that big taxi stand in the sky--that most readers have never heard of. I have done what Virginia Woolf commanded, making someone's life real by putting it down on paper.
In the end, that's religion.
And The Passion of the Christ is show business.