just because i’m afraid you’re true
June 3, 2009
(from Augustine’s Confessions, Chapter 3)
I said my prayers tonight when I got in bed like always and, tonight, before I said my prayers, which I did at about 10:30 or so, with the lights off and my glasses on my pillow, like always, I watched the second episode of I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here and I watched that NBC special on the Obama White House after that, and I enjoyed them both, really, I ate Raisin Bran with extra sugar during the special, and as I started saying my prayers, which I guess I don’t really “say,” if you want to get technical about it, like if you put a microphone under my pillow to catch an objective record of my prayers you wouldn’t really get speech as we think of it with identifiable words and phrases, what you would get would be sound, mumbles and exhalations and deep chest filling inhales at certain moments, fear and trembling and all that but also hope and resolve and also repetition and all of this in the form of these sound fragments, this private language, and as I started saying my prayers I was having trouble focusing on them, partially because it’s so hot here even with the fan on, the fan making its fan noise which is distracting but also reassuring, which is why that female comic Angela on I’m A Celebrity… totally won my love forever tonight when she cried describing the comfort of listening to her partner snore next to her, but anyway I was having trouble focusing on my prayers partially because of heat and noise but partially because those shows I had watched were still in my mind and I had to get them out of it to focus on my prayers, which was hard, it’s always hard for me, clearing out my mind is always the hardest thing about praying or meditating or being happy or whatever, insert your belief system or lack thereof here, and I did my best to do this, to cleanse, and I said my prayers and it wasn’t the best prayer experience ever, it wasn’t, you know, a religious experience, ha ha, but I did what I needed to do and I felt better afterwards like almost always and ready to try to write but even still after this cleansing thing I supposedly did I was still thinking about the shows as I sat there in the heat and the dark and the fan noise and I think the part of the Obama White House special that I enjoyed the most was when Brian Williams and Barack were in the car riding together to go get lunch at the burger joint, the two of them in the presidential car with one camera real close in on them because there was no room to pull back any further, the frame shaking as the car shook on the road, the car making car noises because even the president’s car makes car noises, apparently, rattles and thumps, and so they were in the car and Brian Williams was in probably his most private moment with the president in the whole show, this real, special, authentic, verite moment with the two of them together, and so of course what Brian decided to talk to him about in this moment was watching television, like, so Brian in the lead-up to his question paints this picture of Obama in his bedroom late at night watching TV and flipping channels and seeing all of these people on the channels talking about him, the pundits and commentators all punditing and commenting re: Obama and Barack sitting there in his pajamas and flipping from channel to channel and just seeing them over and over again, and Brian asks him about whether he pays attention to them, whether he watches these people talking about him and how it affects him, and Obama does his trademark Obama chuckle and he tells incredulous Brian that no, he doesn’t watch them, he doesn’t pay them any mind, but then instead of totally dismissing them, he makes this analogy in which he compares the people on cable news shows and talk radio to professional wrestlers, these men who inside “are good guys,” he says, and who are playing these artificial roles because that’s their job, and he points this out sagely and wisely and with aplomb and yet of course he’s pointing out the artifice of punditry in the middle of this perfect TV moment of his which has been completely and totally constructed for the NBC television crew, a point which has been made by somebody from the press pool minutes earlier, but even though Obama and the pundits are in some sense exactly the same, even they’re both on a formal level these public personas performing in constructed scenes and situations for a mass audience, they’re also not the same, they’re different, they’re not the same if only because you believe him and you don’t believe them, if only for belief, the difference is as simple as that, the power of belief and how it can animate and transform things and make them different, and then I’m thinking how in English we use the same word, “host,” for a television presenter like Brian Williams and also for the bread which people put on their tongue and which based on belief can change inside them from bread into something more than bread, some other filling thing.
I was swimming in the ocean this past Sunday afternoon because swimming in the ocean is the thing in my life right now that makes me feel the most alive and good, to be in the water and be held by it and float and kick and dive, to be a small thing with other small things in this bigger thing, this biggest thing, that’s what I like, plus also as an added bonus it’s a really good workout, I think it’s doing excellent things for my core, but anyway, I was swimming and it was a sunny day this past Sunday after a week of rain and so the beach was crowded, the water was calm and glassy, the water here is almost always calm and glassy, I find, there are no waves, there is no surf, and it was a shallow day, really shallow, which has something to do with the tides which are mysterious forces beyond my comprehension like calculus, but anyway because of this combination of factors, for me to get at a depth where I could comfortably swim along a straight line parallel to the beach and not be obstructed by children and inflatable rafts, I had to go out pretty far, I was probably about 40 feet out, which maybe seems pretty far as a number but at that distance the water was still only about chest deep and it was so warm and it felt incredible and so I was swimming up the coast, measuring my progress by the hotels which dot the coastline and so I was swimming along and feeling happy and breathing and after I had been swimming for about a half hour or so, I looked at the beach and noticed this woman laying on her side at the edge of the surf and this cluster of people standing around her, maybe five or six people, and I was far out in the water and I didn’t have my glasses on but as I slowed to a crawl and watched the scene, I knew, I could tell after watching for just a minute that this was a drowned woman, it was, she wasn’t facing me, her face was towards the shore, but she was on her side in this weird, awful, contorted position and she was just laying there not moving at the edge of the water and the waves were lapping up around her body and then receding, and the beach here doesn’t have a gentle slope but has like a sharp, angular drop-off, like a 45 degree angle, and she was laying on this diagonal not moving and the group of people were clustered around her staring at her body and talking to each other and then another person ran up to them from somewhere off the beach and told them something and they talked about it and then one of reached in and touched her and she moved suddenly, she half sat up for a second and then she flopped back down and didn’t move and the person backed away and they kept talking and I was out there in the ocean treading water and watching all this, riveted, because what else is there to look at in the ocean, and as I continued watching and floating and kicking my legs to keep my heart rate up, I saw her move again and then again, not big movements, not getting up and standing and being okay movements, but small, awkward movements, writhing there in the surf, the waves lapping at her, and I just kept wondering, like, where is the ambulance, where are the paramedics, where is the lifeguard with his orange backboard riding up on an ATV to take care of her, but nobody came, and she kept moving there in the surf like that, twisting her body, and I looked up from her to the cluster of people and I thought I saw something but I wasn’t sure because of the distance and my bad vision and so I squinted and then I really saw it, I saw that one of them had a camera, a professional looking one with a big lens, probably an SLR or whatever, some abbreviation, and he was taking pictures of her with the camera and she was moving as he took the pictures, posing, making new positions. She wasn’t dying, she was modeling.
After my prayers tonight, when I sat here in front of the screen in the dark and tried to think of things to say to you, I realized this thing about myself which was that even though on the one hand, I pray every night, and even though on the other hand, I really love and care about and am so interested in celebrities, I’ve never once in my life prayed for a celebrity, it’s not something I can ever remember doing, not for anybody, not ever, which I don’t know why I haven’t exactly, since like I said there are celebrities I care about, that I think about more than a lot of people I really know, and I always hear in the tabloids about all the awful things that happen to them, the bad things in their lives that happen because of them being celebrities and also just because of them being human beings, too, and even though to pray for them wouldn’t hurt me or cost me anything at all to do, well, I don’t know why, but I’ve just never ever felt the need or desire to do it, but tonight on I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, I kind of felt the need, since of course the only important scene in the episode was the scene in which Spencer was baptized by Stephen Baldwin in the river in the jungle, this scene taking place after the food challenge in which Heidi in this Fear Factor-lite “torture chamber” compared herself to Daniel in the lion’s den and Spencer sank to his knees in front of the two hosts and prayed to Jesus for success in the upcoming competition, prayed that he could totally kick his wife’s ass at finding wooden stars in the dark in order to win loaves and fishes for his team, so then Spencer asked Stephen Baldwin to baptize him in the river, taking him up on an offer made during a big speech earlier in the episode, and Stephen Baldwin agreed, grinning, and Stephen Baldwin, like Heidi Montag, is the kind of Christian who we hate because, I mean, God, they’re so obnoxious about their faith, they wear it like t-shirts and baseball caps, they shoot it out of foghorns and car stereos, and this is the thing we’re supposed to hate, me and you, since if you read this far you’re surely a sensitive and private and deep and intellectual person, too, just like me, honestly, we’re supposed to hate this kind of religion, this showy, in-your face, double barrel evangelism, this American performative spirituality, it’s supposed to make us feel icky and gross and it does, I mean, at least it makes a lot of people feel like that, like, when even someone as seemingly awful as Janice Dickinson protests this television baptism as a perversion of faith, as something which is wrong on some deep and real level, you know, like, yuck, and of course all of the preceding is assuming that the obnoxious faith that’s being crammed down our throats is in some way genuine and true and real, is in some way good, which is a thing we can maybe believe about Stephen Baldwin (who seems like an ass not really because he’s a Christian but because he’s a Baldwin) or Heidi Montag (who comes from this small town upbringing and had a brother who was in the army and died falling off of a roof in the snow), but which of course is an assumption that is very difficult to make about Spencer Pratt, a person who doesn’t ever really seem genuine or true and who really doesn’t seem good, doesn’t seem at all concerned with any notion of “good,” secular or spiritual, besides good entertainment, qualities which makes him an amazing television character but maybe somewhat frightening as a real person, although of course who knows him as a real person besides Heidi, not me, not you, and so in the scene Spencer and Stephen Baldwin were in the river and right up until the baptism, Spencer was making stupid jokes, not taking the thing seriously at all, like his baptism was going to be like doing a keg stand or something, extreme spirituality, bro, and then it happened and as I watched Stephen Baldwin dunk him into the river, this tiny dunk which just lasted a second, I was reminded of Sister Wendy talking about Piss Christ and how she said she didn’t see it as blasphemous, she saw it as this maybe cheap and easy but also provocative and kind of powerful reminder that we live in this age where faith and belief have lost a lot of their meaning and their position in the culture, and I just watched Spencer being baptized by Stephen Baldwin on TV and he came out of the water and all the other celebrities cheered for him and they seemed genuine and I just don’t know what to think about it, what to believe, that’s the problem, like this is the thing about the death of the Author, right, is that we can see whatever we want to see in this text, we can decide what to believe, but the thing is, I don’t know what I want to believe about the Spencer Pratt baptism that I watched on TV, I don’t know whether I want to believe that Spencer is on some level genuine about his faith (as I believe Heidi is, for all her put-ons and posing), that even if he isn’t a true believer, whatever that is, that still in the water as he was dunked under by Stephen Baldwin he felt something inside of him, I don’t know if I want to believe that or whether I want to believe it’s all just another completely fake scene, a staged play that’s been created to make us feel something in order to create a reaction and drive some plot, some eventual outcome, or whether I want to believe it’s both, some kind of insane postmodern performance art evangelism, like Michael Haneke making an infomercial of The Purpose Driven Life, and I don’t know whether I want people in the audience to read the baptism as a true expression of contemporary faith that they can take something from or whether I want them to read it as an exploitation of belief, as some dangerous falsehood, I don’t know what would make me feel better and more comfortable, which kind of reading, but at the very least I think the fact that I have to question these things and that this TV show has made me question them is a good thing, a productive thing, a thing that I want my TV to give me, but in the end, I still don’t know. It’s a surreal life.