Sunday, January 22, 2012

So Long, Joe II

When I heard that Joe Paterno had been diagnosed with “a treatable form of” lung cancer, on top of a broken hip, I said to a few people, “He’ll be gone inside a year.”

As it turned, out he was gone much sooner, as in today. As I know from harsh personal experience, anyone that age being treated for cancer is rolling the dice, chances are the treatment itself will create conditions (pneumonia, most likely) that will kill the person rather than the cancer itself. And the doctors will shrug and ignore the fact that one of their patients just died. (At least that’s how they treated my father and us.)

Of course, this isn’t just a factory worker with four grown kids who passed on but a college football legend, saddled with a recently-tarnished image we’ve all been bludgeoned with for the past few months. I’ve pretty much said my peace on that subject in two previous posts. His passing changes nothing in that regard.

Hearing the news, I felt terrible. Sensed it was coming, but not that fast. Get ready for the armchair moralists and dogshit sports columnists to gear up their hype machines again, for more sermons on the mount from people you should trust about as far as you could throw. Writing can be a fairly enlightening and heroic profession, at times. But at other times, it presents people who aren’t good at communicating anything real, but are more than glad to infuse the culture with a type of easy, greeting-card mediocrity that so many people mistake as moral turpitude. For all the writers I’ve known, I don’t think there are any I would trust as great moralists, myself included. At least I’ll tell you as much, rather than pretend I’m wielding some magic wand that illuminates all I touch. I’m no more or less human than you are, and just as prone to getting things wrong.

People are going to remember the man however they want to. This man had a profoundly positive influence on me for decades. That sense of stressing intellectual pursuits, whatever else you do in life. In his case, he was giving free college educations to kids who were tremendous athletes. In return, those kids were given the opportunity to be part of a great college football program that brought in millions of dollars to the university. Some of those kids were so talented that they then took their skills, sharpened by him and his staff, and made their fortunes as professional football players. Some fell by the wayside, or never quite clicked with the program. Most did as noted above, got free college educations, which is nothing to scoff at, especially for impoverished kids from small towns and inner cities. And in Penn State’s case, they were openly encouraged to stay the course and graduate with a degree.

May not seem like much, but it is at that level, where those kids are treated like icons, and no doubt were to some degree at Penn State, too. But beneath the bluster, beneath the occasional flame-out and passing controversy, there was that steady line of graduates. This is Joe Paterno’s legacy, after all is said and done.

If you feel the need to tie in this awful Sandusky situation in with it, feel free. I do, too, but I keep it in perspective. Unless otherwise proven over the next few months or years, I’m going to assume that Joe did what he supposed to, report the situation to his immediate authorities, who then did nothing. I’m going to take his word for it that he didn’t really know what Sandusky was doing and had no knowledge of the 1998 investigation. If this is not the case, then now that he’s gone, it should be much easier for someone to come forward, an investigator or participant from either the 1998 case or this 2002 case, and state otherwise. My mind is surely open to that, or any, type of new knowledge and insight being shed on this case.

Even with that take on things, the Board of Regents still held him accountable and claimed the reason he was fired was because he didn’t do more in the situation. And I can surely see their point of view, given that he over-road their authority in the past and was guessing he could do it again, save no one was prepared for the media explosion when this story broke. What most people aren’t realizing is the Board of Regents is a voluntary organization; I’m not even sure if those people get paid. These are people, probably all of them alumni who want to still be part of the university, who have done pretty well for themselves in life, have successful careers in other areas, and joining the Board of Regents for their college alma mater looks good on the resume and the monument they’ve built to themselves.

People seem to think it’s some shadow organization of campus insiders pulling strings. No. It’s highly-visible alumni, and I gather many of them are going to clear out after this whole scenario, as they’re no doubt receiving a ton of grief over what they did from other alumni. I suspect that there will be some type of pardon for Joe issued by the Board over the next year or two over how we was let go. If you’re not part of the Penn State universe and having a hard time seeing that, then maybe you should grasp that there are two worlds here: the outside world, which has been a shitstorm of accusation and shame, and the Penn State world, where Paterno’s legacy over the past five or so decades looms large over so many things on that town, campus and state.

Like so many alumni, I’m part of both worlds. Far away from that Penn State world. I graduated, and aside from spending my summer after graduation there, then revisiting the place once for Arts Festival in the early 90s, I’ve had virtually nothing to do with the campus. They got enough money from me the first time around, so I’m not a donator, especially when I see what they’re charging kids now. I feel no burning need to attach myself to the university, but I do take some sort of pride in associating myself with the college, and am grateful for the time I spent there, as those few years opened me up in innumerable ways that I’m still learning from today.

Paterno and his legacy are tied into that feeling. Not his myth. His legacy … what he did … not what we think he did (or didn’t) do. I’m with a lot of people on this – he should have done more when that incident was reported to him. Everyone should have done more. They didn’t, and this thing turned into a shitstorm of epic proportions that brought down his career and damaged the program he spent a lifetime building. The sting for Joe was being fired after being a coach there since the early 1950s. Since the early 1950s. Imagine working for a place that long, rising so high, achieving so much … and one day, you’re fired over the phone … for doing what you were supposed to do according to school policy? It seems to me that had he contacted, say, the state police on his own back in 2002, doing so could have just as easily led to him being fired for ignoring school policy on handling such situations.

Either way, he wasn’t going to win this one. And if there’s one thing I learned watching Penn State football, you absorb the losses. Some of them stay with you the rest of your days, but you absorb them. You live with them. I still don’t know what happened in this situation, and I suspect Joe’s passing will have little to do with how this scenario plays out. In his last interview, a few days before he passed, he seemed to give a pretty straightforward account about what he did and why he did it. Either you believe him, or you don’t. There will now be plenty of time for anyone who wants to come forward and either prove or disprove what he claimed.

I feel awful today, as does any Penn State football fan. Most people don’t get to choose when they die, and I’m sure Joe would have chosen to live longer and try to clear his name in all this. But I don’t think there’s anything more he could have done, save to reiterate what he said in his last interview and stand by his words. He deserved a better way out, but as I could see with my father, chances are we will all deserve better ways out. My point being, there’s no easy way out of here, and if you think there is, you’ve been reading too many glowing obituaries where it seems the person was lifted to heaven by a gathering of angels, after the deceased muttered famous last words for his loved ones to live by, and they, bearing candles and warm, understanding smiles, watched him float free of all worldly cares to a better place.

No. Shit happened. Did not go according to plan. But it’s done. It’s for the rest of us to pick ourselves up and prepare for whatever life throws at us next. I’ll miss the man immensely, for those things he taught me in my life.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

And What of Heaven

That last post regarding a heavily-sedated four-year-old’s vision of heaven got me thinking. All right, so you can poke fun at this … but have you ever really thought about heaven? Does it exist. If so, what would it be like. And hell. Is there an afterlife. Is there one true religion.

Yes, the stuff of many a college dorm-room party debate, that time in your life when you will spend three hours getting into it with someone you radically disagree with just to see how far both of you are willing to go in terms of semantics. (And realizing that Born Agains will go all night on this shit, and you’re better off not going there at all with them.)

I can’t recall having a single debate like this in my post-college life. For that matter, aside from trying to reason with the girl who went Born Again on me and just got too impossible to be around, I didn’t really bother with this much in college either. I did have one friend who was deeply Christian – still is. But more of a hard-edged, not so typical Christian, who when not engaging in that stuff, has always been a very fun guy to be around. It’s because of people like him that I’m not as down on Christianity as many people suspect I would be. There are plenty of good ones out there, going about their lives, having faith, not being too obnoxious or arrogant. Whether or not I agree with them is another point. The ultimate point is they’re big enough as humans to want good people in their lives regardless of their belief systems.

That’s what irks me most about the Christian ideal of heaven. The concept that only Christians will go there. Honestly, that seems like a shit proposition and not some place I’d ever want to go. Forget about eternity. I’d have a hard time spending five minutes in a stalled elevator with a lot of Christians. Living in New York the past two decades, I’m constantly exposed to different cultures, people from different countries, languages of all sorts flying around, all day, every day, just this extreme mix of every type of person you could imagine. Live long enough in that environment, you sense that there are many things going on in this world to which you are not privy, or geared to understand because of your culture and how you were raised. I mean that in a good way -- it's a humbling thought, because those people from those different cultures should be looking at you and thinking the same thing. We can all learn a lot from each other.

And then to imagine this monochrome world of people of only one religious faith, who are there only because they put their money on the right horse, and very often in life positioned themselves as arrogant power mongers, be it politics, money or exploiting the religion itself to obtain both? As opposed to countless millions of others who had different faiths, but lived good lives, gave freely of themselves, put the needs of others in front of theirs, basically lived as good and pure a life as they possibly could? No. This concept gave me trouble in those heady college days, and it’s a dealbreaker for me now. If faith in Christ is the only door, forget it, that’s a door I won’t even bother to touch, based solely on the miscreants I’ve seen in my life who have exploited their faith for financial and political power, or just made a mockery of their faith with their arrogance and stupidity. Satan can read this back to me at the gates of hell whenever I go – I’ll nod my head and say, yep, that about nails it, oh dark master, please hand me my pitchfork.

Honestly, I’m not even sure if I believe in an afterlife these days. The older I get, the more it seems to me that when you die, that’s it, the end. I mentioned this to a friend once on the phone and he said, “Doesn’t that prospect frighten you? Doesn’t it make you feel like there’s a lot more you need to accomplish?” I thought about it and said, no, doesn’t frighten me because look around, every animal dies, it’s our shared fate, it’s what we’re supposed to do. As for accomplishments, shit, man, I’m not going to be around after I’m gone, so why waste a minute worrying about legacies and however many people carry around your memory? It won’t be doing me any good, whether I’m dead in the ground or on some mystical journey.

I believed in the sense of afterlife as reward or punishment for what we do on earth. In other words, I’ve seen plenty of people thrive on earth in one way or another, who I know are essentially bad people, and plenty of people struggle on earth who I know are essentially good people. So I pictured the afterlife as a settling of the score, one way or the other.

You have to be young and fairly untested by life to see the world that way. You live long enough, you see bad things happen to good people, good things happen to bad people, bad things happen to bad people, good things happen to good people … on endless repeat, in our lives, with no logic to it. If someone you dislike suffers some hideous accident or illness, it surely doesn’t pay to see that as some sort of divine retribution. As if that horrible thing happened just because you don’t like the person. God help you if pray/wish for shit like that to happen. It’s bad luck. The same thing might happen to you next year.

And all those people you picture having questionable morality who are wealthy, or famous, or beautiful … don’t kid yourself. They’re just people. From what I’ve seen, that sort of material success does a number on people, often turns their worlds upside down, and leaves them duty-bound to present this fa├žade of pure happiness, power and fulfillment. It’s high profile insecurity. You should always doubt someone putting forth that image. Because it’s not human to be that way all the time. It’s an illusion, shown to you for a reason, more than likely intimidation, and most people will bite and never question it. Their real power is not that illusion, but presenting it makes them feel better about themselves, it’s part of the game they play.

The most financially successful, driven people I’ve seen in New York, it seems like the one thing they have in common, once you scratch the surface, is being troubled. For one thing, above all else, they love that sense of power money brings them more than anything, or anyone, in their lives. Rest assured, the people in their lives sense this, and there’s anywhere from an uncomfortable gap to outright psychosis flowing from the wake of that divide.

And driven people never have enough. They’re never happy. They’re never satisfied. If they got $10 billion, they’ll convince themselves they need $20 billion. It’s how they see the world, with the insecurity we all feel regarding how other people see us, how we see ourselves, too. It explains billionaires and the 1% concept we hear so much about. That TV show Hoarders? It’s pathetic, focusing on people who have small homes filled with junk. Your average millionaire has an entire life filled with excess and material nothingness that make those hoarding houses look like a sample of feng shui design. Those are the real hoarders in our world, yet we’re trained to quietly ignore this, or even worse, respect it.

But I don’t see any need to hate these people, or feel sorry for them, as if that would matter to them! That’s their thing in life, to be that obsessed with this one narrow, exclusionary sense of power, the same way a Born Again may view his religion as the ultimate show of power, the afterlife.

So I realized that sense of reward or punishment in the afterlife that I placed so much value on when I was younger was counterfeit. We all receive plenty of rewards and punishment in our lives. If you don’t think you’re being rewarded, try life with no legs, or blind, or suffering from a debilitating mental disorder, or living in a tin shack in a third-world slum. There are any number of variables going on in even the most humble life that are rewarding and life-affirming. I’ve learned to value those things, like personal health and sanity, solitude, the ability to sit and think, to have a warm place to go when it rains, people I can talk to when the world gets to be too much, food when I’m hungry, water when I’m thirsty. Little things that you never think about that are huge, paramount, when you don’t have them. And as noted, everyone passes through darkness in some sense, even if it’s something as basic as family members dying, or loneliness, or no sense of purpose, or a sense of purpose you can acknowledge will destroy others. These things are not lost on folks we perceive as “having it all” even if it never shows.

You have it all when you have your health and sanity. Or at least that’s what I believe as I get older, and see people a few decades in front of me lose grips on one or the other, sometimes both due to the ageing process or circumstances beyond their control.

I just have a hard time picturing that sense of making it through this world, experiencing all the good and bad, the successes and failures, and then at the end, bang, tunnel of light, here’s your harp, here’s a set of wings … welcome to heaven. At least I can’t picture that scenario (or the opposite) as a human now, knowing what I know of the world, knowing what I know of myself, that if I immediately became an angel, but was otherwise as human as I am now, all I could think would be, “Man, that angel with the nice ass is giving me such a hard-on … my wings are getting tired … this is heaven, and I can’t even get off a good shit … does anyone ever feel bad around here … would it be all right to tell another angel to go fuck himself?”

There would need to be a transformation of some sort. What I could get my mind around? That concept I mentioned in the last post of our spirits leaving our bodies, and entering a place where only the strength and beauty of our souls mattered. That appeals to me. Not this crazy bullshit with harps, wings, pitchforks, sea of flames, etc. I don’t care if The Bible tells me so … much of the Old Testament and hefty chunks of the New can be traced to previous creation and savior myths that existed long before they were written, so I have a hard time going with all of it as literal truth (although when I do read The Bible, I appreciate its wisdom and poetic vision, particularly the Psalms). Again, if I got this wrong, and all those writings preceding The Bible by millenniums that the book directly emulates is just pure coincidence, Satan, please clip this portion of the post and read it back to me in that hissing baritone of yours while anally impaling me on a red-hot spike. I’ll understand, I’m giving you tacit approval right now. Laugh as I howl in eternal agony, as you have for millions of other smartasses who thought you were a myth.

The soul leaving the body is the only thing I could possibly believe in at this point in my life: it makes sense. And I’m not even sure if it makes enough sense, that when we die, we don’t just drop over dead, and that’s the end for each of us. I’m just as willing to believe that, too. (I’ve never had ghostly visitors from my past fade back over my bed one quiet night and whisper, “You’re wrong about that, Bill, change, now.” Will surely keep you posted if such a scenario transpires.) Our bodies betray us over time, and any pleasures we pursue in the physical world, sooner or later, lose their value. Spiritual enlightenment is the one thing that never seems to grow old, or become something it wasn’t meant to be, or encourage us to be greedy and needful at the expense of others. I can see pursuing that, in any form, religious or otherwise, but again, cannot see the point in limitations and rules that would degrade that freedom. Breaking free from the body, it seems to me, would be the ultimate freedom.

I remember in grade school how the teachers would ask us what we wanted to be when we “grew up.” And it was always the same: football player, fireman, nurse, movie star, etc. Either these jobs tied into the concept of service or celebrity. Because that was what we were taught to respect – still are, I’m sure, if you were to talk to kids. The reality is most of us get these weird jobs that no kid could possibly imagine, that we do only for the money and some small sense of purpose. Senior Vice President of Global Relations? Chief Information Officer? I can rattle off dozens of screwy, self-important titles I’ve seen over the years, some of them longer than this sentence. Things a kid could never imagine and would laugh at (until he saw the six-figure annual salary … at which point he’d stop being a kid). The point being, adulthood is nothing like we thought it would be, even when we were in college. Especially in college … when we all had these perfect visions of ourselves doing exactly what we wanted and being rewarded accordingly.

Well, I’m imaging a teacher asking that same question, and some kid responding, “Let’s cut to the chase. Adulthood is over-rated – I can tell by the look on your face. The right question to ask is, what do you want to be when you die. And I’m thinking, a wave on the ocean, the wind on a summer day, the sun on your face, a drop of rain when the fields are dry, the look in a dying dog’s eyes as his master pets his head for the last time, the sound of our laughing when we’re playing in the schoolyard, a blue star, water flowing, the first cherry blossom in spring, the last leaf to fall in autumn.”

I can only imagine the stunned silence, followed by howls of laughter from the other kids. But the one constant in my life is the next step ends up being nothing like what I thought it would be, for better and worse. Can’t see why the afterlife would be any different, assuming it’s there.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Heaven Is Real(ly Strange)

I may not talk about this much, but I had an out-of-body experience.  In fact, I’ve never referred to the incident as such, but have since realized that’s exactly what it was.

I had my tonsils out some time in the early 1970’s.  I can’t recall the exact year – most likely 1970-72, as I had them out “early” and had the operation the same time as my slightly older sister.  As with most things in my childhood, I’m sure the explanation of why we both went in together was economics: my depression-era parents did everything possible to save a buck, which also made sense with my factory-working father supporting seven people.

The out-of-body experience occurred just after the operation.  I was high as a kite.  I didn’t know this at the time – I would later learn this when I sampled magic mushrooms in college and found the effects to be quite similar (and wonderful).  When I first came out of my slumber, I had the sensation of lying on grass on a sunny day.  The thing was, I was on a gurney in an operating room.  The weirder thing was, I was convinced I was lying vertically, against the wall, relaxed, but somehow suspended vertically on a patch of soft grass … I swear I could even smell the grass.  I leaned my head forward, but didn’t fall off the gurney.

It didn’t end there.  A few second later, I became aware of my body rising, slowly, over the hospital room, so I could see my sister on the gurney next to me, a doctor making notations on a chart, nurses putting away instruments and such on a tray.  It was at this point that I remember feeling very scared – this wasn’t right.  I was afraid I was going to fall.

Coinciding with that “falling” feeling was the realization that the anesthetic was wearing off, and my throat was on fire.  I felt immediately slammed down onto the gurney, no longer vertical, no longer on grass, and my throat felt as though someone had stabbed it with a dagger.  I started crying, hard.  A nurse said, “Look, William, your sister is doing fine.  It doesn’t hurt that much.”  And I looked over, and she was surely at peace, probably as high as I had been, but as noted, whatever good shit they had pumped into my system, man, it was no longer working.

And that’s where it ended.  I’m sure I wailed for a good 15 minutes longer, wore myself out with the weeping, as kids do, then dozed off, awakening a few hours later in our shared hospital room to parents and ice cream.

Do I attribute this to some mystical experience?  No.  I attribute it to drugs.  Really good drugs.  The kind of drugs that alter reality and fill you with a sense of peace.  I wouldn’t have had that experience without the drugs.  Brother M has assured me, as a wayward teenager, he had many out-of-body experiences in less clinical circumstances.  I remember the fall-out of one, him standing in the living room at two in the morning covered in clods of dirt, vines and weeds after running his car into the side of a hill, claiming he had just missed hitting a dog.  We later learned he thought he was driving an airplane through a corn field, and the corn cobs were balls of light.  He had been driving on a non-descript portion of Route 61 and simply drove over the rail into the side of a hill.  Luckily, there was a hill, otherwise he would have been flying for real.

I use all this as preface to a review of a book a friend recommended that I just read over the New Year’s weekend: Heaven Is for Real by Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent.  Burpo is a pastor from the midwest, and Vincent a professional writer who co-wrote a book with Sara Palin, among other conservative-leaning books.  The book is written from the point of view of Burpo, so I’m guessing he told much of the story to Vincent, and she edited this into an acceptable book format.  At least the book has that feel of colloquial first-person account with an agenda.  Burpo is set up as a working-class everyman with a heart of gold and “hey bud” writing voice, thus we get the impression as readers after about 15 pages that if we disagree with him, there must be something really wrong and bad with us.  (Vincent knows her trade well, emotional manipulation that the unsubtle and converted will not sense.)

The gist is Burpo’s four-year-old son, Colton, visits heaven during a near-death experience he had after his appendix burst, was mis-diagnosed, and he wasn’t operated on until the situation had grown into a life-or-death proposition.  He never flat-lined at any time in the experience, but claimed to have visited heaven nonetheless, where he met God, Jesus, a grandfather he never knew, a fetus his mother miscarried (that he miraculously also knew nothing about) and various other angels.  He even met Satan, apparently, but was too spooked to try to physically describe him.  (I’m wondering if anyone’s shown him a picture of Simon Cowell since?)

It was a bad read, to say the least, cost me $5.00 on Amazon Kindle, but that’s a fiver I won’t be getting back.  Still, mission accomplished.  Colton and Vincent sold another copy, have no doubt sold millions of copies as this is the exact sort of hokum that’s bound to be a hit with a Christian reading audience who, even if they have their doubts, will feel some type of warmth in the story of this humble father, who had already lived through a year of tribulations (nearly going broke due to various health issues of his own, while his garage-door installation business fell by the wayside, during his and his son’s physical problems), and then slowly realized his son had a mystical experience.

How mystical was it?  Put it this way.  If I did my weight in magic mushrooms, with The Wizard of Oz in Blu-Ray on repeat, Dark Side of the Moon blasting from the speakers of my stereo, I couldn’t have come anywhere near this.  Little Colton said he was in heaven for only three minutes, but he packed a lot of shit into those three minutes.  Meeting the man in charge, his Son who died for our sins, family members he never knew, and got to experience the technicolor glory of heaven, where everyone has wings, either stays a child or reverts back to how they looked at 25. 

Let’s start with Colton meeting “Pop” – his paternal great-grandfather who died in a car crash in his early 60s, decades before Colton was born.  The “great-grandfather” – like everyone else in heaven – appeared to be about 25 year old as he was given that body again after his car crash.  Old people … suck, in heaven.  Heaven would be crawling with the elderly if people entered heaven at the age they died.  It would be like a senior citizens home.  Heaven would smell vaguely of piss and clorox.  We can’t have that.  It has to be me more like MTV.  Everybody’s young.  Everybody’s beautiful.  Isn’t that heavenly?

This man Colton met in heaven had many identities to many people.  Why would this man/angel not identify himself by his real name, then simply state that he was the kid’s great grandfather?  In the context of this man’s after life, he’s more than likely in heaven with his own parents, grandparents, great grandparents and possibly some of his children … why would he identify himself to this kid as “Pop” in this context?  He wasn’t “Pop” to Colton.  He would probably only say, “Your father is my grandson.”  Which would probably blow the kid’s mind, as he’s being told this guy who looks younger than his Dad is his Dad’s grandfather … who died decades before he was born. 

Lest we forget “Pop” was now a  25-year-old man in perfect health, with wings … think about that when you try to identify your parents in heaven, assuming you’re all lucky enough to get there.  Your mother and father are going to be 25 years old and in perfect health, just as you shall be.  My Mom was pretty good looking in her time.  What if I don’t know it’s her and hit on her?  According to Colton, I’ll still have a physical body and will apparently have the same urges, and need to shit and eat, too, I guess?  The mother thing alone would freak me out.

And why would we have any physical attributes in heaven when it seems like the most logical explanation of heaven would be our spirits leaving our bodies, which are in the ground rotting (or incinerated) as countless exhumations have proven, which only served to drag down and cloud our judgment in life?  It seems like leaving our bodies, in and of itself, would be a pretty apt description of heaven … why all this dumb, childish shit thrown on top of it to make it seem like a Disney cartoon on acid?  Oh, almost forgot … it’s because we’re talking about a four-year-old boy stoned out of his mind piecing together bits of his sub-conscious the way we all do when we dream or get high.

The book reeks of this sort of “stacking the deck” bullshit.  As if Colton “went to heaven” so he could later prove it only to his father, who was the only one who called his grandfather “Pop.”  I’m not sure if Burpo and Vincent are smart enough to recognize this.  A lot of what went on in heaven seemed to happen only so that little Colton could then relay this information to his father, who would immediately sense the connection to his own life, as if the kid’s recollection in and of itself, even if he had nothing to tell his father that would make any sense to him, wasn’t good enough.  It was only valid when his father deemed it so.  I take it that if Colton had told his father of things he saw that his father could in no way personally verify, Colton would probably still be seeing a therapist year later.

The reason Burpo focused on “Pop” being in heaven was that “Pop” never went to church that much, therefore there was doubt as to whether “Pop” had accepted Jesus as his personal savior.  Little Colton, after his trip to heaven, was adamant that everyone had to accept Christ as his savior, otherwise they wouldn’t get to heaven.  I guess he’s lucky they were in the midwest, because I could only imagine little Colton busting in on a bunch of Jews sitting shiva for a much-loved family matriarch who had just passed on, and slipping into his “must accept Jesus” routine … they’d have drop-kicked the mini-savior straight through to Utah.

Of course, we later find, just days before his crash, by chance, “Pop” had attended a Christian gathering and had asked to be saved.  Christ, does it matter?  The guy’s in heaven, again, no need to stack the deck with this inconsequential tent-revival bullshit story that magically coincides with little Colton’s stipulation on how you get to heaven.  It’s just this sort of bizarre deck-stacking that’s so questionable that anyone with a rational mind can only read something like this, shake his head and think, “How many people reading this book are going to willfully or conveniently not even spend a second thinking of moral questions like this?”  And I mean morality from a writer’s point of view … knowing that you are foisting bullshit of one sort or another on a reading audience.  I’ve done it, and have felt terrible afterwards.  On a scale like this?  I’ve done some pretty screwed-up things in my time, so help me God, but nothing this shameless.

The most horrifying incident of this comes with the miscarried sister Colton never had.  He meets her in heaven.  She’s a little girl now.  I gather meeting a bloody fetus with wings might have been a hard one to pull off, unless Colton had glimpsed a Nirvana album cover when he was three and somehow worked this into his vision.  So let’s make her a little girl.  NOT a 25-year-old girl, like all those millions of elderly people who have died but ka-ching themselves back to their physical prime.  I take it when you die as a child, you stay that same age.  If you die as a fetus, as countless millions have since the advent of legalized abortion, then we’ll spin the magic wheel in heaven and make you an attractive little girl.  Always attractive.  No room in heaven for homely girls.  Every boy and girl who was aborted has to be a vision of loveliness. 

No fat people in heaven either, I’d imagine.  If you were 25 and the size of a house, I suspect the Man Upstairs will place you on that heavenly diet plan that allows you to drop 95 lbs. in a nanosecond.  Fixes your teeth while He’s at it.  Colton also specifically stated no one has glasses in heaven.  Not sure why?  I guess the concept of angels with wings … and glasses … doesn’t work with Jesus.  Or wheelchairs.  Or arm or leg braces.  And I guess if you lived with some physical deformity, poof, magically gone.  We can’t have The Elephant Man greeting people in heaven.  Rita Heyworth and Patrick Swayze, sure.  But not some guy who looked like he had a giant testicle on the side of his head … but probably had a heart a thousand times more pure than most people on earth.

The concept of aborted fetuses – as opposed to miscarried – is not broached.  The assumption being any woman who has an abortion is most likely going to hell, along with guys who kiss each other, and Jews, you know, all those people who have horns on their heads (if you look hard enough … I wont’ get into the sideline of the kid mentioned in the book who saw haloes over some people’s heads, but not others).  Unless she accepts Jesus as her personal savior.  I can only imagine that conversation in heaven, when an aborted fetus, now an 8-year-old girl with wings, approaches the mother, who later found Jesus, and asks her, “Mom, remember me?  You aborted me when I six weeks old in your womb.  How do you like them apples?”  (As the polka song says, in heaven there is no beer, but this woman will surely crave more than few.)

It never gets dark in heaven, according to Colton.  There is no night.  I’m assuming it never rains either.  It’s like a sunny day in southern California, all the time.  So if you love the night, or the smell of a rain shower in the summer, or gently falling snow, forget it, those things never happen in heaven.  It’s always sunny, light breeze, low humidity, 75 degrees.  When the angels aren’t flying around, they’re skateboarding down by the pearly gates.

I’m not even going to get into Jesus.  The picture with this week’s post is a painting by a girl named Akiane called “Prince of Peace” that appeared to her as the face of Jesus in a vision.  (If you go to her website, you’ll find she has a pretty nice enterprise set up for herself, selling prints of her various visions for tidy sums.  And good for her – it is amazing that someone at her age has the artistic talent to do the things she’s done.  May as well get rich off it.)  In the book, a big deal is made of little Colton rejecting every picture of Christ as not being authentic … until he saw Akiane’s painting of Christ on a website.  Funny, how both their visions of Christ subscribe to the cosmic surfer dude portrayal we’ve had fed to us over the course of centuries by Western artists to represent a Jew from the Middle East.  I would expect Christ to look more like Danny DeVito or Groucho Marx, but I guess He really must look like Dennis Wilson, Kenny Loggins, or any number of guys you’d meet at a Yanni concert.  (It can now be told: Jesus is Andrew Gold.)

We also find later in the book that Colton has grown a little too attached to his vision of heaven.  There’s a situation noted in parking lot, with Todd Burpo becoming extremely upset when his son darts out into parking lot near major traffic.  When asked why he keeps doing things like this, even though he could be killed, like the rabbit run over in the middle of the road that Todd points out, the son replies, “Oh, good!  That means I get to go back to heaven!”  Todd says, “You’re missing the point.  This time, I get to heaven first.  I’m the dad; you’re the kid.  Parents go first!”

The chapter ends on that note.  But wouldn’t Colton’s no-nonsense, just-the-truth-as-I-see-it reply have been: “Well, I hope you die real soon, Dad.  I can’t wait to go back to heaven!”

Colton also gets into the apocalypse, which is coming, according to him, in our lifetime, as he sees his thirtysomething father fighting off demons and bad people with a sword, on earth.  I’ll leave this one alone, save to say if you’re at all familiar with Charles Manson’s views on Helter Skelter, his vision of the apocalypse, about the only things little Colton was missing were race wars and hippies in dune buggies, otherwise he and Charlie were on roughly the same page.

I don’t know where to begin or end with this.  I can understand if you’re a Christian, you pick up a book like this, it makes for a great gift, chances are whoever you’re giving it to isn’t going to freak out and throw the book in the trash.  They’ll read it, nod sagely, have their faith reinforced in some small way, and feel all warm inside in that way these small things are supposed to.  That’s a great marketing plan, and as usual, I tip my cap to Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent for grasping the concept somewhere along the way.  Burpo claims the book was not written for financial gain, and I believe him.  I’ve met more than a few pastors in my time, and this is how they are, basically humble people going about their lives, hardly making any money at day jobs, and tending to their congregation in all their spare time.  It doesn’t bother me that he’ll more than likely use the money to help his church and community.

I’m more interested in Colton, who appears to be a normal boy now, growing up in the midwest, not having any more visions, just going about his life.  I can only hope he goes through a phase.  That Midwest kid phase.  Going to Slipknot concerts.  Becoming a goth for a few months one summer.  Getting into some shit.  Multiple facial piercings.  Having issues with parental authority figures.  Resenting how his visions were turned into a book, that caught fire and became a bestseller, thus making it all seem cheaper than just a pure vision of heaven a small boy had.  I don’t doubt the kid had a mystical experience.  But we all do at times, thanks to drugs, whether taken recreationally or clinically in a life-threatening situation.  Strange shit happens when you’re high.  Books like this happen when you come down.