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Posts Tagged ‘Simpsons’

For those perhaps seeking an ardent defence for your right to put up inflatable Christmas decorations (can we even call them decorations?) on your lawn, or festooning thousands of gaudy icicle lights from your roof, or otherwise uglying up the holidays with your over-the-top ornaments, I’m sorry to say, you won’t find it here.

That being said, nor will you find here an impassioned case for the traditional religious definition of Christmas, one that decries the consumer driven focus on Santa Claus instead of remembering the birth of Jesus Christ, mourning the fact that the  true meaning of Christmas may very well be lost forever.

Instead this post is a simple counterpoint to a holiday themed issue I raised last year, the issue of the changing language of Christmas; where it’s taking us, and whether or not we should be worried about it.

While I concluded last year that Christmas was, for better or worse, no longer a religious holiday, but instead a generic cultural holiday, as many diverse minorities choose to celebrate it in their own unique ways, I do believe that our culture has taken its rejection of the original roots of Christmas just a little too far.

In fact, one might go as far as to say that the language in both the public and private spheres this holiday is an example of cultural and religious tolerance run amuck, a veritable mine field of talking points that one should avoid lest they have some sort of holiday faux pas blow up in their faces.

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I pride myself on having a willingness to eat anything and everything while traveling abroad, but as I sat in the Foreign Correspondents Club in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, staring at the fried tarantula that lay on the table in front of me, I felt a lot like Bart Simpson licking his tongue across a subway handrail in an attempt to prove he had no sense of taste…I’m in way over my head here.

During a walk through the market earlier that day I came across a number of vendors specializing in cooking and selling a variety of things that are usually found on the bottom of someone’s shoe—from ants and crickets to maggots and beetles. These vendors offered me a very good deal, a medium-sized bag of bugs and creepy-crawlies of all shapes and sizes for one measly American dollar, and since I’ve had the need to take advantage of all deals and sales firmly ingrained in me through my Mennonite upbringing, I simply couldn’t pass it up. While I normally would save you from an extended description consuming insects, in later days the question I’ve been asked repeatedly is, “how did they taste?”

The longstanding joke, of course, is that it tasted like chicken, which everything seems to these days; but the truth is, it was much much worse than that. Fortunately for me the bugs had been fried, so at least they weren’t jumping around in my mouth, but that was the only positive that came out of the experience.

As I placed the maggot in my mouth I let it sit there for a second, not sure if I should just swallow it or if I dared to take a bite. My curiosity won out and as I bit down it felt like I had reached the Tootsie-roll centre of a Tootsie-pop, but instead of filling my mouth with the sweet taste of chocolaty candy, it filled my mouth with an explosion of ooze and guts. As I winced at the overwhelmingly awful taste, I couldn’t image how anyone would regularly eat those small critters. Then, as I popped a cricket into my mouth, I did, for a brief moment, wonder why I kept doing this to myself, a thought quickly replaced by the struggle to choke down an insect with an ample amount of legs and wings.

What I didn’t realize during this ordeal is that I had become quite a tourist attraction myself, as people from dozens of countries surrounded me in the market, snapping pictures of me like I was a Cambodian sideshow. I’m not sure why after all of this I was still intrigued by the prospect of eating a tarantula, but nevertheless the feeling persisted.

I bought two spiders, one for myself and one for an adventurous girl in my traveling group. This was not the first time I had lured some unsuspecting woman into a culinary adventure way over her head, as in previous journeys I had cajoled a young woman into eating a plate of cow brains with me, which resulting in her vomiting for the rest of the evening.

As I sat there, with the tarantula staring up at me from the table, I began to rethink my decision. But, there’s nothing quite like a little peer pressure and the danger of being bested by a girl to make you eat things you would rather avoid, and so with the agreement that we would chew the spider for at least thirty seconds before drinking anything, the tarantula went down the hatch.

Amazingly, of all the bugs and insects I had eaten that day, the spider was by far the best. It had been lightly seasoned, so it actually had a flavor beyond that delicious spider crunch. As I chewed through the tough shell, I could feel the hairy legs in my mouth, providing an interesting sensation that set off my gag reflex several times. But, remarkably, the thirty seconds quickly came to a close, and as I washed down the remnants of a spider with tepid Cambodian beer I felt a distinct sense of satisfaction. At least I didn’t throw up.

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As the sweet scent of incense swirled around my head and the rhythmic chants of the Buddhist monks filled my ears, I began to feel terribly uncomfortable. I was shoulder-to-shoulder with throngs of devout Buddhists in a small temple in Bangkok, many of them deep in prayer and meditation. However, it wasn’t the devotees, their chants, their smells, or my lack of personal space I found unsettling, rather, it was the incessant gaze of the large, solid-gold Buddha that towered over me. While the statue aroused feelings of awe and wonderment in my soul, those feelings paled in comparison to the pain and sympathy I felt for the crowd of beggars I waded through outside the temple doors. The statue quickly became, for me, just another example of the misappropriation of religious resources, the investment in icons at the expense of people.

On Saturday, Dec, 19, CNN aired an interesting and provocative program titled, “In God We Trust: Faith & Money in America,” focusing on the governing influence of religion over how people spend their money. While it was nice to see representatives from all major American religious groups—although I could have done without the perma-grin, super pastor Joel Osteen—the conclusions were anything but revolutionary. In America, as one might expect, capitalism is often preached from the pulpit, and during this recession many influential pastors, imams, priests, and gurus have done their part in helping minimize economic despair and encouraging their parishioners to continue to spend within their means. The unexpected result for me, however, in watching this program was not these capitalist conclusions, but how it got me thinking again about how institutionalized religions use their many resources.

One of the primary motivations for my incessant traveling has been to observe and encounter religions in other countries; to learn what those people believe and to see how it affects their day-to-day existence. Surprisingly, the one aspect that I have noticed the world over is that religions—all religions—tend to focus disproportionately on investing in religious iconography, often at the expense of assisting the poor and marginalized among the religious population. That is, money is often spent on mega-churches, soaring cathedrals, towering minarets, statues, or other religious objects, while beggars continue to die right outside the doors.

This is not to say that religions, in general, don’t have an interest in caring for the poor. I have witnessed great compassion and support for marginalized populations inspired by religious devotion. Furthermore, I do understand the role of religious objects/buildings etc… in offering hope, support, and belonging. These religious icons are part of people’s cultural identity, a visible reminder that they are part of something bigger than themselves.

Nevertheless, my point remains simply this: couldn’t we find a better use for the estimated $160 million dollars worth of gold used to make that single Buddha statue in Bangkok, or the reported $1.245 billion dollars worth of gold in Vatican holdings, or the $1.2 billion dollar investment that prosperity-peddling pastor Joel Osteen poured into a new mega-church/stadium in 2005 (that his church is struggling to pay off)? I can only imagine the impact on world hunger, on the development of third-world economies, or on the reduction of unnecessary poverty-related deaths that could have been prevented with investing even a portion of this money into human wellbeing.

So”, as Kent Brockman says in one of the funniest Simpsons quotes of all time, “While you’re home today eating your sweet, sweet holiday turkey, I hope you’ll all choke … just a little bit.

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Apu: I have come to make amends, sir. At first, I blamed you for squealing, but then I realized, it was I who wronged you. So I have come to work off my debt. I am at your service.
Homer: You’re…selling what, now?
Apu: I am selling only the concept of karmic realignment.
Homer: You can’t sell that! Karma can only be portioned out by the cosmos. [slams the door]
Apu: He’s got me there.

I’m not sure if I believe in karma—at least as a universal law—but the problem, I was to discover as I embarked on a journey to a local elephant sanctuary in the hills surrounding Chiang Mai, Thailand, is that I’m pretty sure karma believes in me. So, as our van trundled along the serpentine, pothole-laden road, I had no notion about the lessons the universe would teach me that day. It’s just too bad those lessons would hurt so much…

  The concept of karma has always fascinated me. The idea that the effects of the thoughts I think, the choices I make, and the actions I take will be returned to me often makes me think twice about what I’m doing. While I don’t believe in any notion of reincarnation, as taught by most Eastern religions, I do think that the Buddha was on to something when he articulated the cause-and-effect nature of the cosmos. When we act, if those actions bring happiness or pain, we will have to endure those same results. So, if I act in a way that brings you pain (like the pain you’re experiencing now as you read my blog) I eventually will have that pain returned to me (oh god, please don’t make me read your blog!). Now, the Buddha noted that this karmic kick-in-the-ass was almost never instantaneous, and the deleterious results of one’s actions would reverberate through many future lifetimes, but nevertheless, I tend to think that for those lessons to stick, one’s penance must be paid immediately. 

   …After what seemed like an eternity, we finally arrived at the elephant sanctuary for Thailand’s unemployed elephants; victims of rapid industrialization, their cost and lack of utility sadly often resulted in abuse and neglect. It is at these rescue centres that tourists can both learn about this plight of the pachyderm in the modern world and also enjoy a jungle excursion on elephant-back. It is also here that I met my elephant, Lucy.

She waited patiently beside a tall, wooden platform, eager to begin her daily journey. Her wizened eyes conveyed a sense of wisdom and calm not often seen in the animal kingdom, she had clearly done this before. Her mahout (handler) encouraged me to purchase some food for Lucy before I got on so that she would have incentives to keep her going throughout our long trip. However, having already paid $15 for the hour and being the chintzy, tight-fisted bastard that I am, I opted not to purchase a $0.20 bag of bananas. There’s a whole jungle of free food out there, I thought, she’ll have plenty to eat. It was a decision I would come to regret. So, with that, I climbed up on Lucy’s back and off we went.

 As she traipsed down the narrow trail Lucy would frequently swing her trunk around, rubbing against my leg in anticipation of the treats she thought were sure to come. You might think I would have been moved by such a display, but alas her pleas fell upon deaf ears. Again, I thought, the plants are plentiful. It was as I pondered the availability of the jungle foliage that Lucy had her revenge….

                       

Her trunk lashed out quickly, grabbing a young, leafy, Pilang sapling that grew along the trail. Although young, this tree was already tall and had vicious thorns covering its branches. Tempted by the sumptuous leaves, and with very little effort, she uprooted the tree, pulling it down on top of me. Her mahout was able to get out of the way, but karma had other plans for me. The thorns immediately tore through my exposed flesh, raking long scratches down my arms and legs. I grabbed the branches to keep them off my face but was pierced by several malevolent barbs. In an apparent act of cosmic cruelty, the process of chewing continued to sweep the tree across me, whipping about like a torturous cat o’ nine tails. Then, as quickly as it started, it was over, as she dropped the tree and continued her journey undaunted, no doubt with a satisfied smirk on her face. The entire right side of my body was bloodied and bruised, my clothes scratched and torn, and, without wanting the universe to think I hadn’t learned my lesson, I quickly bought Lucy some bananas.

1 hour elephant ride: $15
1 bag of bananas: $.20
Karmic realignment: priceless

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Herman:  It’s a miniature version of the A-Bomb. 
The government built it in the fifties to drop on beatniks.
[Homer imagines a beatnik on the grass with a bongo]
Beatnik: Radiant cool, crazy nightmare
         Zen New Jersey nowhere…
[A group of beatniks snap their fingers in time]
[Homer flies overhead in a plane]
Homer: Put this in your pipe and smoke it!
[Presses a button, but the A-Bomb doesn’t fall]
Beatnik: How now, brown bureaucrat?
[Homer jumps on the bomb, and it falls with him still on it.]
[He cheers as though he’s riding a bronco]
[It explodes, bringing us back to reality]

 I was swept into Rishikesh amongst a torrent of orange T-shirt clad Hindu pilgrims. I had finally arrived at the yoga capital of the world and what was considered by many to be a crucial stop along the hippie trail. I was here in search of the laid back simplicity espoused by so many counter-cultural hipsters around the world. Unfortunately for me, I had arrived in Rishikesh during the yearly Kanwar Mela (Monsoon festival) and the crush of 300,000 Hindus greeted me as I stepped off the bus. In true hippie fashion, I had arrived in the city with no plan and no idea where to begin my exploration. In the words of Ned Flanders beatnik father, I had tried nothing, and I was all out of ideas.

 My guide had managed to secure me a small hovel in the basement of one of the local ashrams (yoga/meditation school) that lined the banks of the sacred Ganges River. The ashrams, I discovered, offered both lodging and enlightenment…for a fee. A refrain that, I was to discover, accompanied all spiritual experiences in India.

Among my current travelling companions was a middle-aged woman, who, in her younger years, had travelled extensively across India. In the week previous she had regaled me with tales of the India of old; a country that lacked tourist infrastructure but welcomed guests; a country that was willing to guide any interested pilgrim along the path towards enlightenment… with the help of a little LSD. Now, thirty years later, she had returned with her daughter in search of the same feelings, experiences, and places she had once known. Her desire, I think, was to instil in her daughter the timeless values of the hippie lifestyle (whatever those were). Alas, she would not succeed in her task.

The next morning, I emerged, bleary eyed, from my monastic cell to partake in some mind-expanding, body twisting, yoga lessons. The lessons were relatively expensive (about $10/hour), especially for those seeking simplicity apart from material concerns. At the end of the hour, while I felt awake but no closer to enlightenment; my travelling companion was downright dissatisfied at both the cost and the outcome—or lack thereof. So we paid our exorbitant bill for the one hour session, with promises from the instructor that tomorrow’s session would continue to bring us closer to enlightenment…for the same fee.

 With that, and no real plan to guide me, I set off to walk a mile in a hippie’s shoes—or sandals I suppose—in an effort to discover other avenues of enlightenment wrought from simple living, meditation, and hair growth. After several uninspiring stops, I arrived at the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi—celebrity meditation instructor to the Beatles in the late ‘60s and an inextricable part of the countercultural hippie movement. However, as I discovered, that nonconformist utopia now lay in ruins, having been abandoned for many years after a sex scandal involving the Maharishi. Although it’s now closed to the public, greasing the palm of the gate-keeper with a few rupees will almost guarantee entry. Looking upon the dilapidated mess, I immediately felt that this ashram might epitomize my entire enlightenment excursion. My hippie travelling companion and I were several decades too late, the hippie era had been abandoned and had fallen into disrepair. The buildings here had mostly collapsed, the pathways overgrown, the meditation huts were full of liquor bottles and broken glass, and the famous Beatles room was most certainly decorated and painted long after the departure of the Fab Four. If enlightenment was available in Rishikesh, it certainly wasn’t here.

        

Departing the ashram, I stopped along the banks of the Ganges to procure myself a vial of sacred water (a river so heavily polluted that it has been deemed septic—no dissolved oxygen exists), the purpose of every Hindu pilgrims stop in Rishikesh (they keep the vials in their homes to procure blessings from Lord Shiva), and, with a deep breath, I dove back into the crowd for the two-hour, 600m walk back to the hotel, wondering if anyone has ever found enlightenment amidst those oppressive throngs of humanity.

After several days in Rishikesh, the confusion and dismay of my traveling companion was obvious. India had changed, and not for the better. What I had realized days previous, and what she was unwilling to realize, was that her idealized India, the India she wanted to show her daughter; her enlightening (and cheap) yoga sessions, her mind-expanding meditation moments, her enjoyment of the Beatles White album, almost certainly did not exist anymore… it might not have even existed thirty years ago. The problem for former hippies seeking to relive the glory days, I would wager, is that their countercultural experiences have, for my generation, become regular cultural experiences, just packaged and sold to us at a premium. A commoditisation of spirituality that has robbed India of its hippie essence, replaced with a bastardized capitalist interpretation. Unfortunately, enlightenment in India is no longer something sought, it’s something bought.

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