Megachurch Expedition


Last Sunday, a friend and I made the trek to Orange County to check out Rick Warren’s megachurch, Saddleback.   I have to admit, I knew nothing about Rick Warren until I wikipedia-ed him post inauguration…and I definitely wouldn’t call myself “a believer.”  Strictly morbid curiosity.

Really, it’s everything you’d imagine an Orange County megachurch to be.  That is, it reminds you of tract houses and Disneyland. It’s all spacious and clean and new and meticulously efficient – and crawling with super friendly people.  Our first stop was the New Visitor parking lot where there is coffee, donuts, and shuttle busses to drive us to the “worship center.”  (Saddleback is big enough for shuttle busses AND trams!)  On the bus ride/mini tour, a church volunteer explained all the buildings and tents we passed: rock and roll, teen, kids, 20-30s, gospel, Spanish, etc.  The worship center itself really felt more university-like than religious.  Yes there’s a big cross, but there’s also people sitting on bleachers, a colorfully lit stage that reminds me of The Tonight Show, tons of A/V equipment, and huge monitors.  Bizarre.

The extent of the weirdness really started to sink in when the big Christian rock band on stage started playing their first song.  This extremely peppy bald guy danced on to the stage and got everyone to stand up and clap to the beat.  Literally jaw dropping.  It didn’t get all gospel dancing crazy, but people were definitely singing along with their eyes closed, and the ones who were really into it would hold up one of their hands – like they were trying to answer a question in class. (gotta find out what that’s about.)  Eventually Pastor Rick came out and it’s all preach, pray, song, repeat for 2 hours.

Overall, it was a little creepy and unnerving, but not quite in the way I was expecting.   I guess I was (unfairly and ignorantly) hoping for more fire and brimstone, open intolerance, or an old-school exorcism.  And Pastor Rick wasn’t even the uber-cultish mesmerizing personality I hoped for.  He was casual, a little funny, with that regular guy vibe.

It’s hard to put my finger on what made it so weird.  I think part of it was just how many people are there.  The bathrooms and parking lot maze really look like a stadium or amusement park or a mall.  And, the look and feel isn’t overtly religious, it feels mass produced and impersonal – despite all the super friendly people welcoming you.

It’s clear they really want it to be a church for EVERYONE.  They try so hard to make it as easy as possible.     So, for example, the sermon explained what Pastor Rick said at the inauguration was really just 6 simple steps to “national revival.”  He makes a point of  using all these cute, hard-to-forget phrases: “GRACE is god’s riches at christ’s expense,” “the middle letter of sin and pride is I,” “the heart of all your problems is a problem in your heart.”  They even hand out a little hole-punched worksheet for everyone to fill in, so we’re sure to remember the sermon!  It’s religion-lite – sweetened and simplified so it goes down easy.

Definitely the strangest Sunday I’ve spent in recent memory.

White Elephant

It’s the holiday season, which means young professionals everywhere are trying to navigate a strange new tradition: the office White Elephant party. Or – who can waste a small sum most hilariously on a gift no one wants?

In all nerdiness, I love the White Elephant. It’s just too funny. We start with the standard benign holiday gift exchange and pump it up with competition, stealing, inside jokes, and booze. It’s like Xmas on steroids. For those not familiar with the rules, let’s review. Co-workers who only marginally know each other agree to limit themselves to a low dollar amount to buy the best or funniest gift that money can buy. You’ve got 2 options: unwrap a gift or steal one that’s already opened. Stealing rules vary by group. If nobody steals, it’s just an awkward gathering of near-strangers with shitty presents.

For White Elephant, you really can’t say whether it’s better to give than receive. There’s tons of competition of both sides. Because it’s so public, your reputation is at stake. There’s pressure to be the one who brings the most “on” gift — like the adult diapers that perfectly capture the office’s sense of humor. Then, there’s the competition of actually going home with the best gift. There’s the combo of luck and craftiness (like gambling) that makes it so much fun.

This is all top of mind because a friend of mine had a disastrous first White Elephant experience. The gift really wasn’t bad in comparison to the rest (lottery tickets, picture album, booze), just different. He brought an unusual design-y coffee cup. Think museum gift shop.

So anyway, the very drunk host (who happens to be everyone’s boss at the party) picks this gift and is really loud about his distaste for the cup. We’re talking “Who brought this shitty gift? I can’t believe anyone paid $25 for this?” etc. Totally rude in normal gift giving, but not unheard of in White Elephant. So, our friend defends the gift, which becomes some kind of drunken debate among the entire party…which turns the coffee cup/our friend into THE joke of the party. Red faced, public mortification.

So in a normal gift exchange, this wouldn’t happen all out in the open. It’d all be in our heads. You would say thank you and mumble something about how unique or useful it is, put it in the closet and probably bring it to your office White Elephant party next year.

That’s the beauty of White Elephant. It takes everything we think about when we give and get gifts, and throws it out in public.

Insight from a drink menu

Working in marketing, we love us some labels to sweepingly categorize and stereotype a group of people we wish to sell to.  We especially like to piggy back on the societal trends of the day by making up acronyms or words from combining other words  (see shopportunistic, Yuppie, DINKs, etc).

The other night at post-work “Ladies Night” drinks I came face to face with the perfect marketing word for the trendy segment of our generation in LA – behold, The Eco-Tini.

As defined on the drink menu:

VeeV Acai Spirit, Fresh Cucumber, Fresh Mint, Simple Syrup, Soda

(VeeV Acai Spirit is a carbon neutral certified spirit and $1 of each bottle sold goes towards green iniatitives)

Hilarious.

As defined by me: 

Sex and the City aspiration with a dash of conscious consumerism/responsibility

She’s your mid-twenties girl in a hip city (LA, NY, and now Chicago will do – thanks Obama.)  Her POV on  friendships, men, and work/life balance was heavily influenced by the ladies of Sex and the City (on TV during her formative teen years).  However, just running after the glossy SATC totems (designer shoes and clothes, an apartment she can’t afford) is not exactly what the zeitgeist ordered anymore.

So now we have tons of former fashionistas hitting up Santa Monica and Hollywood organic farmers’ markets and looking for the perfect aluminum water bottle…while balancing a freewheeling, hedonistic early twenties.

Self-contradiction is tough, but it does breed creativity.  A few Sundays ago in the New York Times, some media certified Eco-tini made the argument that couture is actually sustainable because it’s a lasting investment.  Whatever helps you sleep at night.   

 

Thanksgiving = A Break from Selfishness

Oh Thanksgiving, an all-American parade of bizarre rituals built on a shaky moral foundation. There’s just so much to talk about! As the intersection of old world lore, messy mixed families, raging consumerism, big time sports, and faith, it’s the most uniquely American 48 hours. And don’t get me wrong – I totally dig it.

But for the post-college crowd, returning home for the holidays brings another tradition that we’re not so psyched about: loss of independence. Ironically, this uniquely American holiday unleashes some very un-American values – sacrificing one person for the whole, deference to elders, censorship, etc. Ok, maybe just American values of another time – or the ones we don’t trot out on 4th of July.

Coming home for Thanksgiving means not being in control for a few days. Back with our families, we’re just one of the group – and we’re definitely not the decision-makers. We’ve got to go along with the family agenda if we want to avoid the dreaded holiday scene making. It’s expected – and it’s just easier.

So, we all do our assigned task in the prep work (like a good little assembly line). At the dinner table we gloss over our lives with family-friendly veneers (to keep the extended relatives out of our hair) or bite our tongue when the “real” adults start talking politics in a way we don’t agree with. And then we end up at family movies that no one really wants to see (except Mom).

But where I really notice my suspension of selfishness is when it comes to the god stuff.  My family happens to be very religious – and I’m not at all.  The jig is up – everyone knows I’m a non-believer and basically live my life in exact opposition to their world view.  But come holiday time, it just seems wrong to go against the family religious beliefs.  It’s time to play along.  So I obediently dress up and come along to church and sing our family’s traditional grace at the table.  If I had it my way, I would go nowhere near the Thanksgiving church service, and I would save the musical grace tradition for only the family members with decent singing voices.  But for the days surrounding Thanksgiving, it’s just not up to me.

So maybe it’s not just the weird family dynamics and traditions that can make these holidays feel so different than every day life. We’re playing a whole different role at Thanksgiving – the dutiful supporting member of the group.

But hey, I guess we have every other day of the year to be totally selfish – at least for another few years. And that is something I’m very thankful for.

New York is a FRIENDLY town.

Greetings from New York City. The Big Apple. The City. Blah blah blah blah. There are a whole lot of stereotypes surrounding this great city of ours. First and foremost, is that all New Yorkers are arrogant assholes who are always in a rush and don’t have the slightest concern for anyone else. Harsh? Yes. True? APPARENTLY. Now, I don’t mean to knock the city that I love, but some people just fit the stereotype so well, my faith in stereotypes is renewed.

Exhibit A: The Food Emporium, Upper West Side. The Upper West Side is a lovely place to live. A quieter place than both mid- and downtown. A good place to raise a family, if you’re into that sort of thing. A good place for TERRIBLE DOUCHEBAGS WHO USE THE C-WORD LIBERALLY. It all began at the self-checkout line. You know, the line that is automated to make lives easier and save the company money, but then has to be supervised by a real live person because it breaks everytime you use it, thereby costing more time and money? Right. So. Being the good thrifty consumer that she is, a friend of mine was at the self-checkout counter, filling out one of those shopper savings card forms. It was a small form, asking for a few basic pieces of information: name, address, phone number, e-mail. Enter: 30-something professional waiting in line.

30-something douchenozzle: Are you REALLY going to fill that whole thing out right now?

My Friend: It’s going to take me longer to talk to you about it than fill it out, so… (turns and continues filling out the form.)

Douchenozzle: Bitch!

Granted, my friend’s response was a bit snippy. But certainly not snippy enough to warrant the last comment, or the following…

(Douchenozzle approaches the next open checkout counter. Walks over to my friend, gets all up in her face.)

Douchenozzle: You, lady, are a CUNT.

WHAT?! Excuse me?! Did that guy just call my friend the C-WORD?!?!?! I, being the atypical New Yorker, am rather meek and prefer to avoid confrontation whenever I can. Today was no exception. But as we walked out of the grocery store, I started to think about all of the things I could, and should, have said to him. “Excuse me, SIR, did you just call my friend a CUNT? How would you feel if I called you a petulent douchenozzle? For no reason. What makes you think that your time is so goddamn precious that getting delayed a mere 30 SECONDS is going to make the FREAKING WORLD EXPLODE? You are everything that is wrong with this city, and you are the reason that there are people in the world who hate New York. Congratulations, asshole.”

But I didn’t say any of those things. Instead, as we were leaving, my friend gave him a friendly, “have a good night, sir”.

Defy stereotypes. Kill ’em with kindness.

Anyway, the situation I encountered at the Food Emporium begs a few questions. Who the hell is this guy? What’s his backstory? Where does all this aggression come from? What has this man gone through that makes him such an insufferable dickrocket? Well, allow me to speculate…

This guy is a lawyer. Mid-sized firm, decent salary. He is 34 years old. He lives in a modest one-bedroom on the Upper West Side. He went to a good school and had dreams of making bank handling big-time corporate lawsuits. He is currently drowning in paperwork and wishing he had followed his CHILDHOOD dream of becoming an astronaut.

I like to think that at least SOME of this is relatively accurate. In which case, it is somewhat explanatory as to why this dude is so damn ANGRY. But it’s not the whole picture. There’s a theory that, overall, the reason so many New Yorkers are so bitter and angry is due to scarcity. Scarcity is a concept that can be applied to any region, but we New Yorkers are arguably more attuned to scarcity than anywhere else in America. Scarcity of space and time, in particular. You see it in the subways, the bodegas, in midtown at lunchtime. THERE ARE SO MANY PEOPLE and there is just not enough space. And time? Forget it, no one in New York has any goddamn time, the little worker bees. With such constraints on space and time, New Yorkers become tightly wound balls of stress. When these constraints reach a boiling point is when you see incidents like the one I’ve described.

And when I thought of all of this, I was glad I hadn’t yelled at him. It’s not his fault he lives on a small island with millions of other people. Sort of.