Viral Humans

Like many of you, I spent the morning chatting with friends around the nation, self-secluded folks holding their friends’ welfare in their hearts as the latest plague descends.

Life-long friends in Nevada. Colorado. Minnesota. Illinois.  And they’re all saying the same things:

  • This pandemic will change the way we live going forward.
  • Truth always floats to the top, eventually.
  • The Earth shrugs off humans as needed.

My buddy in Reno is a medical doctor (psychiatry) and believes we are a virus, ourselves.  This is not a new idea:

I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you’re not actually mammals.

Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not.

You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area.

There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus.

Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet.

You’re a plague.

-- Agent Smith (Matrix, 1999)

During our conversation, it occurred to me that humans have taught this viral concept to their offspring throughout the ages:

Genesis


Unsurprising, if God is truly Omnipotent. One of our Methodist ministers over the years, Larry Owsley, tells this wonderful story.

He’s a pretty bright guy, and was an advanced reader for his age when he climbed up into his grandmother’s lap and asked:

Can God do anything?

Oh yes, he can do anything, she said.

Can God seed the universe using comets containing DNA particles?

Her face turned red.  She thought for a moment.  Then said:

No, he certainly cannot do that!


My wife and I have avoided the fray, but we’ve heard about runs on toilet paper, guns, and especially ammunition.  Do you think all our bullets are produced in the U.S.?  That would be a logical assumption, but it’s a global business.

Send Lawyers Guns and Money …

The mayor of Champaign, Illinois recently signed an executive order banning alcohol and gun sales.

Back when Obama was first elected, I happened to be in a gun/vacuum-cleaner store — customers called it The Suck and Shoot — and the owner, a short fat man, climbed up on the counter and screamed:  “Get your guns now!  This bastard is taking your guns!  Better get your guns now!”

I live in East Tennessee, and that wasn’t surprising.  Having grown up in the Midwestern gun culture myself, I was not alarmed to see racks of machine-guns (semi-autos easily reconfigured) lining Mahoney’s Outfitters when I first moved to town.  Dan Mahoney, an Irish tenor with a beautiful voice, has soloed in our church choir for decades.  He doesn’t have to stand on the counter and scream.

Fear has already accomplished a stellar sales promotion.

A run on guns.

Whether we buy into the idea that humans are a virus or not doesn’t matter.

What matters is how we react to the situation. 

Call your friends. Call your loved ones.  Call the elderly in your church, parish, synagogue, or mosque. Let them know you are thinking of them, that you care.

My friends in Colorado and Nevada have millennial children nearly the same age as my own.  We know their characters.  This is their chance to shine, and we know how they’ll act.

There are a lot of good eggs in that petri dish.

Let’s pray they outnumber the grabbers, grifters, and scoundrels always emerging from the viral slime in troubled times.

 

 

The Lifers’ Club

The church I attend is extremely generous with its time, talent, and resources, but it wasn’t always this way.  When my wife and I joined in 1990, many of the congregants were “intellectuals” from the university (myself included) who thought highly of the impoverished, but didn’t do much to help them physically. We threw money at them, mostly.  Kept our distance.

After catching up on REM’s for a couple of years during blah blah blah sermons, I told my wife I was bored.

“Maybe if you got off your butt and DID something, things would get better,” she said.

Uh.  This is why I love her.  No one else stands up to me this way.

So I joined a group in our Pathfinders Sunday School class working the Appalachia Service Project, and that first year we repaired the Ferguson family home in Sneedville, Tennessee.   Mom worked at Hardee’s, Dad fixed cars out of the garage next to the house, and two male children attended elementary school.

Hank and AJ.

Our crew — and others throughout the summer — upgraded their home, which was in sad shape.  The Fergusons made just enough cash to put food on the table and clothes on the kids’ backs, but home repair fell outside the budget.  Appalachia Service Project’s motto is warmer, safer, drier.

The first day I removed a ceiling tile and about two gallons of dead bugs poured out onto the white kitchen table cloth.

Fast forward thirty years.

My wife and I happened to be in Sneedville a few weeks ago, visiting relatives.  We asked about the Fergusons.

“Both AJ and Hank work for Mahle in Morristown,” they said.  “Making specialty parts for NASCAR racing.”

These types of jobs require engineering knowledge and pull in good money. AJ has already purchased a farm and home outside Sneedville.  He’s married and has a son in high school.

A freshman standing 6’6″ weighing 240 pounds.

Chandler Ferguson, Freshman, #55
Chandler Ferguson, Freshman, #55

Our crew was just a tiny piece of that success, but it still brings tears to our eyes.  That was the first of our fourteen ASP years, each with a story like the Fergusons.  Since then  I’ve been a part of local, national, and international service projects.

But it’s not about me.  I’m just a tiny cog in the vast machinery of Christians working together, heads down, mouths shut, hearts open, wallets ready.

And one of the best local ministries now blessing my life is Kairos, an international prison ministry working in ten countries and thirty-six US states.

Texas welcomes Kairos into every one of its prisons because it drops the recidivism rate — those returning to prison after release — to 10% if the resident attends monthly Kairos sessions.

According to the latest study by the US Department of Justice
According to the latest study by the US Department of Justice
Kairos Statistics
Kairos Statistics

Three weeks ago I attended a Kairos One-Day Retreat with sixty-six residents of NECX, a maximum-security prison near Mountain City, Tennessee housing 1,800 inmates.  I sat next to two gentlemen, Harold and Larry.  Both had attended Kairos Weekends — similar to Emmaus Walks — earlier in their prison lives.

Harold’s old prison name was Thumper.  Why?  If anyone looked at him funny — or if he thought you looked funny at him — you got thumped. Inmates asked permission to cross the threshold of his jail cell.  One fledgling guard actually quit his job after Thumper threatened to kill him and all of his family.

Incarcerated three times, Thumper’s last conviction was for homicide. After decades of trying everything that doesn’t work (drugs, alcohol, several world religions, violence, gang life) he eventually came to a Kairos Weekend, met Jesus, and felt he could not turn his back on Him any longer.

Not this Thumper.
Courtesy of Walt Disney Enterprises.

Reclaiming his given name, Harold cast Thumper into the dust bin of history.   Then went to the phone and called the prison guard.

While telling me this story, Harold whistled and a young dewy-eyed officer came over.

“Yeah, I quit when Thumper said he would kill me,” he said.  “But now I’m back at work feeding my family.”

“Because Thumper no longer exists. “

Larry is also a lifer — a euphemism for those serving a life sentence — and he told me he helped organize The Lifers’ Club.

Then he told me what they do:  a) publish a monthly newsletter supporting each other and the community; b) build a positive reputation with the local and regional citizens by giving back through public and community service; c) strengthen public awareness about truth in sentencing, uniform sentencing, and appropriate parole guidelines.  And the final plank?   Lifers' Club Charter


Lifers pool their limited resources to help others. 

They’ve purchased wheelchairs for handicapped kids.  Clothed and fed the homeless.  Purchased backpacks and sent money to impoverished kids trying to attend school.  Larry rattled off all they’ve done the last six months, but I couldn’t write them down fast enough to enter them all here.

Furthermore, they’ve put together a correspondence course — outside of any help from the state — to help each other cope with life in prison.

How to Survive Life in Prison
How to Survive Life in Prison
The Lifers' Club Course Contents
The Lifers’ Club Course Contents

I read through the course as two of my creative writing students contributed chapters, and it’s extremely well-written with excellent advice on how to improve yourself once you know you’re spending the rest of your life behind bars.

One of the amazing aspects of the Kairos Ministry is getting to know inmates and Lifers who are actually freer we’re talking between the ears here — than half the folks you meet on the street who eternally lock themselves into personal self-constructed hells — anger, unforgiveness, bad finances, bad relationships, drugs, alcohol, dead-end careers, poor diet, no exercise, insufficient sleep, ad infinitum.

Since I’m at the prison a lot — two creative writing classes and four Kairos prayer-and-shares a month — I’m getting to know what kind of homes produce Lifers.  And that’s ugly.

To my amazement, Lifers I’ve met remain positive, even hopeful. Here’s an example from one of my creative writing students who grew up in a home that most of us would not survive.  Yet, through Christ, he has gained another view over twenty years of incarceration:

One man's childhood memory...

I don’t know about you, but when I read stuff like that, my own problems are diminished, and my faith is strengthened.

We may be free, but do we cherish it?

Do we free-world folks increase the value of our freedom by taking time to help others not-so-lucky? You don’t have to go into a prison to do that.  There’s more than enough work to do, as folks in need appear almost everywhere we look — often on the same block where we live.

We are designed to think outside of ourselves, according to our Creator:

Hebrews 13:1-3

We all can lift ourselves.  By simply lifting others.

While living up to the standards of the Lifers’ Club.

The Perfect Prison

When I was twenty-three, I found myself unemployed, and living in my girlfriend’s room in her parents’ beautiful brick house on the South Side of Chicago in an affluent white neighborhood slipping into descent after the M.L.K. riots of 1968. They kept me upstairs and visible, with girlfriend relegated to the basement.

Chicago during 1968 M.L.K. riots.
Chicago, summer of 1968.

I remember wandering the streets day-after-day-week-after-week begging for work, sliding in and out of tawdry bars – sticky-floor flyblown dives I’d never venture into for a drink on my own – but places I now prayed would hire me because I’d just spent my last $250 attending “Professional Bartender’s School” and earning a “Professional Bartender’s Certificate” after spending a week pouring colored water out of fake liquor bottles into appropriate glasses.

Armed with this “certificate”, I wandered into dozens of Chicagoland watering holes, but no one would hire me. Sheila’s Puke Shack owner S. Hardnutter threw me the stink eye when I dangled the Professional Bartender Certificate in front of her narrow eyes, then pointed toward the door.


Each night I’d limp home on sore feet and sit on my girlfriend’s bed and despair.  I remember a lone tear running down my cheek one night, followed in a few seconds by spontaneous laughter because Iron Eyes Cody – a pure-blood Italian, we found out later – currently starred in an environmental television ad as an American Indian saddened by the rape of the land, a single tear running down his cheek, which miraculously prodded Americans into picking up trash.

Iron Eyes Cody
Iron Eyes Cody

Swinging for the fence the next morning, I took a train downtown and hit all the major bars on Michigan Avenue, earning a ubiquitous thumbs down. Fingering the last $10 in my pocket, I stood at the corner of Walton and Michigan Avenue, eyeballing The Drake, where visiting Queen Elizabeth bedded down.

Too classy for my zero experience.

Looking southeast — across the street at the old Palmolive Building — I saw the Playboy Club‘s flashing siren lights. Shrugging off the gut instinct to stop wasting time, I walked inside and told the smiling bunny at the door that I needed to see the human relations rep.

Who turned out to be my girlfriend’s sister’s best friend.

“You’re in luck!” she smiled. “We need a bartender pronto, and you can start Monday morning. Get here at ten for an orientation on lunch, which starts at eleven.”


The Playboy Club turned out to be a mixed blessing. Although I was able to rent my own place and start saving, the nature of the business fired up already simmering jealousies.

I’d graduated from college the previous December with an English degree and accepted the only job I could find – once again through nepotism – when Future-Mother-In-Law told me about a job opening at her school, a junior high in Chicago Ridge.

The permanent teacher was taking a year off after giving birth, and a succession of substitutes tried and failed to make a stand with her students, kids from blue collar families with moms and dads who worked long hours and didn’t have much time to spend with their offspring, so they threw money at them instead. Blue collar kids accustomed to bullying each other in the absence of parental guidance.

At six-foot-four-two-hundred-twenty-pounds I became substitute number seven immediately following Christmas break. That semester – my first in a classroom by myself – gave me the confidence to carry through the rest of life.

Years later I chatted with a man at the airport as we waited for a plane, and during the conversation we uncovered the fact we’d both taught junior high English on the South Side of Chicago.

“How long did you last?” I asked.

“One year,” he said.

“What did you do after that?”

“I quit, joined the Marines, and went to Vietnam for a vacation,” he said.


That semester I taught English to kids with names like “Toots” and “Doobie” and was required to coach 7th grade girls’ basketball; unfortunately, the 8th grade girls’ basketball coach was a conniving blonde bombshell who sensed the unease in Future-Mother-In-Law and went right to driving her nuts by sitting next to me during games, flirting whenever FMIL was in eyesight, and wearing a string bikini to the Indiana Dunes when the three of us accompanied a busload of kids at the end of the school year.

FMIL hadn’t really taught long, this being her second attempt. She’d left the profession in her early twenties to raise four children through high school while her husband, a prince, worked at US Steel.

During her free time all those years she soaked up daytime television, eventually becoming brainwashed by sexy-soap-opera-actors teaching her to trust no one – especially me – while the hot blonde simultaneously poked out of a white see-through hand-crocheted bathing suit on blazing Indiana beach while Little Richard sang Tutti Frutti from the top of a telephone pole.


When the junior high job ended and the bartender’s school landed me in the Playboy den of iniquity, my days with girlfriend dwindled.

A clean-cut Iranian floor manager named Sami started me off in a service bar out of sight from the public with liquor bottles in overhead racks, a double-sink, an ice machine, mixers, and a cash register at the end of the stainless-steel counter. The bus boys were Palestinian, the cooks Mexican. If you learned early on to treat the women right, all worked smoothly.

Bunnies would approach this portal with drink orders, and I’d pile beverages on trays before they sashayed on high heels and kidney-pinching bunny suits back to thirsty Joes elevated to Playboy Key Holders with an annual credit card fee.

The bunnies were kids like me, trying to eat under roof while putting themselves through school, putting together a stash to make a move in life, trying to survive the dollar-draining nature of the big city. There were long ones, tall ones, big ones, brown ones, black ones, round ones … crazy ones.

We were kids.
We were just kids. Laurie Proffitt, center, has enjoyed a successful photography career for decades.

And although I stayed true, my girlfriend came to visit during lunch one day — at my request — and stood in the doorway of the little service bar as I mixed drinks and piled them on bunny trays. As each female appeared, we talked business, and I often called them by name. The window I pushed drinks through revealed bunnies from their waists to their chins. Neither girlfriend nor I could see hip-tags or faces.

“How do you remember their names?” asked girlfriend as she gazed open-mouthed at the exposed set of breasts arching into the bar window.

“See that mole?” I said as “Carla” arrived with an empty tray. Having grown up on a hog farm in Western Illinois, I was not especially enamored with big breasts, though I admired their magnetic ability on the average Joe’s iron head.

Blood boiled up the chin of girlfriend’s face, onto her cheeks, then up her forehead, and with a turn of her heel I was suddenly alone in the Windy City, bereft of my only reason for being there in the first place.

The Mole
Carla’s nefarious mole.

Several months later, I’d worked my way up to the “night shift” at the main bar and enjoyed meeting out-of-town folks in the midst of convention bacchanals, though many of the women — upon reaching alcoholic euphoria —  lashed out with tongues more lascivious than any deranged Roto-Rooter man ever wagged.

One night, just after midnight on a slow shift with few people at the bar, management uncloaked in their black suits and fired every bartender on the floor.

Except me.

“You were the only one not stealing,” said Sami. “We’d been sending in people to sit at the bar and observe for two weeks now. What these dirt bags do is ring up a lower amount than they sold, then put the remainder in their pockets. Oldest trick in the book.”

One of those rounded up and kicked out of the revolving door was Howie Wong, the first bartender Hugh Hefner picked for the original Chicago Playboy Club on Walton, not far from his mansion on North State Parkway. Howie was taciturn and unfriendly, so I never knew him well.

But three months later I was walking down a side street and above a newly-painted door an electric sign flashed:  Howie’s.  Taken aback, I stepped inside and there were the six recently-fired bartenders, along with Howie at the cash register, preparing to open their new digs. Turns out they’d pooled their purloined cash – Howie dipped for decades – and opened this business. Together.

“How’s this going to work?” I asked. They just smiled and shrugged their shoulders. Six months later Howie’s was history, naturally.

Which brings me to the point of this essay.

Prisons would be more effective if we piled like-minded criminals atop one another.

As the world lurches toward nationalism and the rule of authoritarians, we need a way to deal effectively with run-away dictators.

Imagine islands – the Aleutian archipelago comes to mind with its Alaskan fresh air breeziness – islands exclusively housing like-minded criminals. Redneck Racist Island harboring Dylann Roof wannabes. Female Redneck Racist Island next door, ten thousand Rosanne Barrs separated by churning seas and hungry flesh-eating fish.

The Aleutians
The Aleutians

Black Racist Island covered with Al Sharpton wannabes. Criminal Mexican Island.  Catholic Priest Pedophile Island. White Collar Embezzler IslandWhite Collar Crook Island. Rapist Island. Man-Trapping-Liar-About-Rape Island.

Ad infinitum.

The unending torture of individuals imprisoned under these conditions would test the “cruel and unusual” clause under the Eighth Amendment, but this treatment would be justified due to its effectiveness and ultimate benefit to society.

Can you imagine a self-aggrandizing, constantly lying, narcissistic blowhard in a green parka – absent makeup – wielding a hand-ax, a book of matches, and some fishing gear, and marooned for life on a frozen slag heap in the middle of an ocean with hundreds of other convicted narcissistic blowhards and a few Kodiak bears on Russia Money Laundering Island?  A pleasing and peaceful thought, indeed.

Perhaps the perfect prison doles out the perfect punishment.

For those of you who bless your children by reading to them, check out “The Girl Who Trod on the Loaf” by Hans Christian Andersen. It’s the story of a girl who loves pulling the wings off of insects, but her bullying comes to a bad end:

An evil spirit soon took possession of Inge, and carried her to a still worse place, in which she saw crowds of unhappy people, waiting in a state of agony for the gates of mercy to be opened to them, and in every heart was a miserable and eternal feeling of unrest. It would take too much time to describe the various tortures these people suffered, but Inge's punishment consisted in standing there as a statue, with her foot fastened to the loaf. She could move her eyes about, and see all the misery around her, but she could not turn her head; and when she saw the people looking at her she thought they were admiring her pretty face and fine clothes, for she was still vain and proud. But she had forgotten how soiled her clothes had become while in the Marsh Woman's brewery, and that they were covered with mud; a snake had also fastened itself in her hair, and hung down her back, while from each fold in her dress a great toad peeped out and croaked like an asthmatic poodle. Worse than all was the terrible hunger that tormented her, and she could not stoop to break off a piece of the loaf on which she stood. No; her back was too stiff, and her whole body like a pillar of stone. And then came creeping over her face and eyes flies without wings; she winked and blinked, but they could not fly away, for their wings had been pulled off; this, added to the hunger she felt, was horrible torture.

"If this lasts much longer," she said, "I shall not be able to bear it." But it did last, and she had to bear it, without being able to help herself.

The perfect ending for a bully’s sad life.

Similar to an immortal history book full of verifiable facts, I reckon.