Monday, November 24, 2008

Getting Lucky

I pick up beer cans along the side of the road and automatically crush them like I used to crush them when I was a bartender. It conserved space in the trash. If you put hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of empties into the trash every night, squeezing an aluminum can in the middle so it resembled a bow tie, made a big difference space-wise. Every time I pick up a can, I squeeze, and it reminds me of that.

I wonder what the neighbors think when they see me out there in my red, white and blue Giants jacket picking up litter. I used to be afraid to wear that jacket down here. The Giants are a northern team. A New York team. No one likes them down here except for the transplants. And you want to get along. It’s bad enough that I am a Yankee. Should I throw it in their faces? But then the Giants won the Super Bowl. So I thought I had a right to wear it.

It appears I am on a winning streak lately. Everyone I wanted to win, did. That never happens. Usually, whoever I’m going for loses. Maybe it’s because I have a soft spot for the underdog. Or I’m automatically turned off the person everyone else is following because it reminds me of cheerleading cliques and Nazis, mindless followers whose blue-eyed blondness can’t disguise their ugliness. That’s why I picked Jimmy Johnson to be my favorite NASCAR driver. You have to have one of them if you live down here—a favorite NASCAR driver. While everyone else is Dale Jr. obsessed (there is even a book out called St. Dale) I decided to go for the guy who no one, at least around here, wanted. Plus he wears a cowboy hat and I love a guy in a cowboy hat. Kurt puts his on occasionally, like when…hey, but that’s another story.

Yeah, so, Obama, Jimmy Johnson, the Giants, the Phillies, David Cook the American Idol, Mark Warner and even Tom Perriello, the long shot running against the good old boy, won. So I thought for sure that I was going to strike it rich when I found an old lottery ticket while I was picking up trash. But then I came to my senses and realized the likelihood of this crumbled up ticket found next to a coffee-stained credit card offer from Discover, being anything other than worthless litter, was nil. It was just a scrap of paper that had blown out of the back of someone’s pickup truck on the way to the Dumpsters with all the other garbage no one secures but thinks won’t go anywhere when they are flying down these country roads at sixty miles per hour. What do they think when they get to the Dumpsters and walk around to the back and see half their trash is gone? Do they put two and two together when they see me out there in my Giants jacket picking up litter? What do the drunks think? We’ve got someone on this road who downs a six pack of Miller Lite on his way to and from work and tosses the cans out the window so the wife don’t see. Three on his way to work, three on his way home. I know what he’s up to. I know all the tricks. I used to be a bartender and people admit things to bartenders. We’re kind of like doctors and priests.

Anyway, I’m pretty sure I know which house the drinker lives in because of the location of the cans. I also know where the guy lives who spits his tobacco juice into an empty soda bottle and then throws it out the window when it’s full. He’s moved down the road a bit since he’s seen me out there. He used to throw them closer to 40, where the road curves and no one can see, near the empty white farmhouse. I’d find a full bottle of brown spit, like what you’d imagine is inside a septic tank, about every other week. Now he throws them out the window when he gets past Effie’s house. I don’t do that section as often as I do here, my house, to 40. Here to 40 I stop and pick up litter on a regular basis. I get it on my way out. I keep a wad of empty Wal-Mart bags underneath my truck seat and if I see something, I stop and get it. I clean the rest of the road four times a year. That is what I committed to when I adopted it. They put a big sign out there on each end, “Adopt A Highway, The Van Cleave Family” and supply me with orange signs, orange vests and plastic bags. Sometimes neighbors help.

It’s a great way to get to know your neighbors. Not only the ones who help. But the ones who leave behind their mark. Like dogs. Like the spitter. We’ve found a rug, tires, a cell phone (picture this—someone takes a fit because he can’t get service again, bangs the phone on the dashboard, looks at it like it’s suddenly going to work, and giving up on that, finally throws it out the window where it hits an old locust tree and falls to the ground, cracked), fertilizer sacks, Skoal containers and many cellophane bags that once contained pork rinds. I know. It’s classic—what you’d expect redneck litterers to be tossing out their windows. But it’s true.

Someone’s favorite restaurant is Chick-fil-A and I suspect she’s hiding her little fast food habit just like the boozer is hiding the empties. We picked up enough Chick-fil-A trash to fill a large Hefty bag alone and there are no Chick-fil-A fast food places in this area. I believe that indicates it’s coming from one person, and not the general traffic passing through. I imagine this is one big mama who is having two dinners every night but no one knows. She works in Roanoke, in an office, perhaps in the accounting department at the hospital, somewhere near the mall, and she picks up an order on the way home, shoves it in before she gets there, throws the trash out the window when no one is looking and starts the Hamburger Helper when she arrives. “I’m famished,” she says.

Oh, you can find all sorts of things out there that tell all sorts of stories. We even found the kitchen sink. Okay, it wasn’t actually the sink. It was the sink faucet. Whatever. Point being, there’s a lot of crap out there and everyone should go out and pick up the stuff in their neighborhood and then we will all be winners. Lottery tickets or not.

Monday, November 17, 2008

How Sarah Palin Turned Me off Religion

Being a Christian is not synonymous with being a good person, just like being a Muslim is not synonymous with being a terrorist.

The Jesus freaks blew it. For a while there, they were making progress. I thought, this is nice, sitting there in the Baptist church down the road where Pastor Lonnie spoke right to me and Mrs. Pastor Lonnie dabbed at her eyes with the corner of a hand-embroidered hanky. But God never said anything. Not in so many words. Oh, I was open about it. I looked for signs and coincidences that could be construed as messages under just about every rock one could turn over. Electric bill went down? That must be God because I’m reading the bible now. Tire got a flat? Must be God testing me, seeing if I was going to kick that old tire and take God’s name in vain. Could have been worse. Could have been a blow-out and I could have careened across the road and down the kudzu-entangled embankment stopped short only by an old oak tree many feet in diameter. That’s God watching me because I go to church now.

I was open-minded all right. I wanted it to be real. And like always, I was passionate. I gave it my all reading the bible even though, to be honest, it was boring, and some of it was, quite frankly, ridiculous. Nonetheless, I underlined words and turned over corners. I called the church ladies to ask questions. I went to bible study. I even considered checking out what was meant by getting saved. Does something actually have to happen? Do I need some sort of a lightening bolt to hit me in order to be saved? Or can I just declare my salvation? Announce, “I am saved,” and that’s that, like someone says, “I am lactose intolerant,” or “I am Irish?”

Oh, there were some things that bothered me. Like I heard there’s something in the bible against gay people. How could this be? These are good people, the bible readers! I thought, God, they know not what they do. (See! They were making progress!)

Okay, I thought. Let me think this through. How could I work with this? How could I make this align with my values and ethics when I know it’s not right? Because I’m not going along with human beings hurting other human beings. Even indirectly.

I decided if someone started talking hate to me about gay people, and hate to me is as seemingly benign and simple as praying for someone to change, implying something is wrong with them, I would hope, by then, they’d know me and like me and respect me enough not to shut me out. Because I’d speak up. I’d talk of my love for Cousin Eric, the classic gay hairdresser, and how I haven’t had a good haircut since the day he died. And how Cousin Jeannie and her partner raised a wonderful young man who is married now to a lovely young woman and who is a valuable member of society, in law enforcement, nice to everyone, the kind of child every parent strives to raise. Nothing bad has happened. No traditional marriages have been hurt in the making of this movie. Only good has gone on. Perhaps, maybe if I couldn’t actually change their minds, maybe I could chip away at it a little. Maybe, just maybe, God wants me to be an influence and that’s why I’m here at the church counting all the squiggly lines in the acoustic tiles up above Pastor Lonnie’s head when I could be out riding my horse.

But it never even got to that. McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate. And if that is not the most contradictory thing to be, a McCain/Palin supporter who loves Jesus, I don’t know what is.

Maybe I should say, “How the Republicans Turned Me off Religion,” because they’re the ones who picked her to represent them. Christian extremists hijacked the Republican Party and the GOP let them in order to get votes. That’s one of the reasons that Karl Rove made McCain pick Palin. (The other being the insulting and miscalculated belief that any pair of breasts would get the Hillary votes.) The funny thing is, the Republican Party was always known to be one for smaller government. But with the religious extremists at the helm, and their choice of Palin to represent American citizens in the second highest office, I think it is safe to say that we would have had more government intrusion and not less. If it was up to Palin, she would ban abortion, some forms of birth control, sex education and books she doesn’t think I should read. She is not tolerant of religions that are different than hers and believes that Jews, as well as the picked-on gays in the bible, should be converted. She took a citizen’s land by eminent domain (legal stealing) to build a hockey ring and fires people left and right if they don’t adhere to the will of the lipsticked pit bull. Her whole mode of operandi is “my way or the highway.” Her husband even belonged to the Secessionist Party and there was talk of Alaska breaking away from the United States and going on its own. Basically she’s a bully. But that’s okay as long as you believe in Jesus.

Just because someone is against abortion and refuses to believe the science of evolution, doesn’t necessarily make him a good Christian. What happened to the Ten Commandments? What about just plain old being good?

There are a lot of things a good Christian does. But I’ve not been seeing much of that lately. I’ll tell you what a good Christian doesn’t do. He doesn’t incite violence against a United States senator by spreading rumors and smiling smugly when supporters scream, “Kill the terrorist!” A good Christian doesn’t lie, sling gossip or call someone names whether it’s over the picket fence, by forwarding hateful e-mails under the guise of warnings that no one checked for truthfulness or by publishing TV commercials that are blatant lies in order to instill fear and hatred for the other candidate. There are bible stories about this. I think it’s called bearing false witness.

A good Christian doesn’t complain about giving the poor “a handout” because a good Christian knows that being poor is not synonymous with being lazy. Here’s what’s ironic—Palin doesn’t believe in sex education, most birth control or aborting the resulting accidental pregnancy but she doesn’t want to give the 17-year-old mother, who perhaps doesn’t come from a financially secure and supportive family like her daughter does, “a handout.” What happens to all these babies? They certainly aren’t going to be adopted because according to the most recent numbers I could find online there are already 115,407 children in public foster care in the United States right now who are waiting to be adopted. And no one is doing it. Oh, I get it. That’s the older ones no one wants. The 17-year-old girls should give up their cute, cooing babies before they reach the terrible twos. Hey, that works out! Don’t let them have education, birth control or the choice to abort and then take their babies!

Maybe, this whole thing would be a moot discussion if ignorant people like Palin would stop butting in and let people get educated and protect themselves in the first place.

But this story isn’t about abortion. It’s about how the Republicans are giving Christianity a bad name. What happened to “Thou shall not kill?” A good Christian is not a warmonger, uninterested in stopping the killing of human beings, as soon as possible, because he has a chip on his shoulder and paybacks are a mother. As McCain is. Wait. Now that I’m thinking about it, how come it’s not okay to abort fetuses, even microscopic embryos that aren’t viable, specks smaller than a pimple, perhaps even products of rape or incest, but it’s a-okay to kill someone from another country because we think we have a good reason? More hypocrisy. I’m tired of it.

The crazy thing is, Obama has been accused of not being a Christian at all, when he is the one who is the good one out of all of this. A true, good Christian. He reminds me of how Jesus kept his cool and behaved like a gentleman when things got really bad. He did not attack anyone’s character or make up lies like McCain did because all he cared about was winning an election. That one, as McCain disrespectfully called Obama, practiced what he preached.

No wonder people are turning away from religion if McCain and Palin are the role models the conservative Christians are touting. And no wonder the Republicans lost.