17 October 2008

Fray Bash - A Pilgrim's Progress

Fray Bash - A Pilgrim's Progress
10/17/2008, 7:48 AM

There's nothing like a song around the nighttime campfire to attune a person to the sense of earthly friendships and even higher powers. Everyone held hands as Sawbones picked out the first couple chords of Kumbaya and sparks drifted peacefully up into the sky. And when Appolonius flicked on the amp, the crowd swayed gently for all ten minutes of his solo, and distortion echoed through the fields below, drowning out the crickets for a time. Faces dance and blur in the flickering firelight, and shadows loom over everyone's backs. Facing inward there's a deep sense of unity and purpose to the gathering, but the moment can't go on forever, and when the song ends, the huge group breaks back up and spreads out into the night to seek their own answers, or back into the building to grab some more food and drink.

As the night air fills back up with noises and illegal aromas, some even seek to continue that sense of peace and togetherness, and the men and women with higher convictions hope to nab some converts while the spirit is still strong. A few pilgrims tread between the groups of the faithful, exploring their diversity of messages, and we follow one man tonight on such a quest. Like many of us, he may be young or old, we may know him or we may not, and as usual, it's hard identify him for sure, but this evening he is our Everyman, our Christian. He is a reasonable man. Will he find his way?

There are a few people who want to keep the sense of sacred fellowship alive right there by the fireside. Bright Virago soberly announces a prayer meeting for anyone who's interested, and half a dozen partiers choose to linger. A reasonable man is not offended by the idea, and given the company, he hopes for an interesting discussion. He even offers up the first conversation starter.

"So how do Christian ideals bear out at a shindig like this? We seem to have a lot of connection here, but not a lot of explicit Christian practice." He gestures at a basket of paraphernalia sitting on top of a bongo drum. "I feel filled with some manner of spirit, but I'm not sure if it's that Holy Spirit that I always hear about... Does it all work out?"

Demosthenes2 raises his hand. "Well, according to Paul's letter to the Romans, faith is the source of good acts, but, as I've argued, the converse must also be implied in that. Good acts are by their nature a manifestation of faith, even if it's of an unknowing sort. For good deeds, faith is implicit; it's part of the human experience. This is actually confirmed in official Catholic doctrine, that essentially says that holy acts evolve from the essential spirit, and that salvation can be found even without specific knowledge of Christ."

JV-12 interjects. "Your rational view is completely illogical. Paul's conversion was miraculous, and that's what's important. I'm sorry if you can't see the signs. Jesus is going to burn the evil rationalizers, and elevate his truest servants who figure out for themselves what to believe."

Daysman says, "I can see the signs!"

Revrick: "...and that's exactly why abortion is such a conflicting issue. Permitting it is an Antichristian act, but then so is refusing it. It removes the will to act from an individual, which is why the theology around reproduction is so divisive."

Ducadmo: "Actually, it's multiplicative. Times and times again, the squares keep rooting and the population grows quadradically. It's a power law. Ahem. 'All the people on the earth do dwell....'"

JV: "That wine! It was water a minute ago, I'm sure of it!"

"'Him serve with fear...'"

D2: "Uh, in a wine bottle?"

Days: "God knows who reads the signs! Praise Jesus!"

"'and for us His sheep He doth us take...'"

JV: "Praise God!"

Firstphonelicense: "My cat's breath smells like cat food."

Bright is sitting on a lawn chair, holding her face in her hands.

"'And shall from age to age endure...'"

A reasonable man wants to help her out, but even more reasonably, he just wants to get the hell away. So to speak.

Probably going inside would have been wise at this point, but just beyond the fire, over the ridge, there is arising a most enticing aroma. On top of exotic woodsmoke, there's the smell of slow-roasting flesh touched with the mouthwatering scent of bacon, and no reasonable man can pass by without finding out more. Our pilgrim wipes his chin, and heads off down the bank.

A homely scene opens before him. Just below view of the campfire circle is half of a 55-gallon split lengthwise and it's smoking lazily. Over it an enormous hog is spit ass to snout on a steel pole, turning slowly, as sizzling drops of liquid fat fall hissing into the coals. There's a rusty sprocket on the end of the rod, and it's rotated by chain driven by a small electric motor. Overlooking the gadgetry is a lumpy, affable fellow in a loose-fitting checked shirt and a crew cut. There's a Bud in his hand.

"Lookin' pretty good, this hog," says NickD, "should be ready in a few hours. Smells nice, doesn't it?"


"You look like a reasonable man."

"I am."

"Maybe you want to join me in a little song of my own? Been a long time up there with the campfire, and we got to get the barbecue just right, keep it low and slow. Join me now." Without looking to see if the visitor does join, Nick pulls off his shirt to reveal an ample chest with crusty brown streaks pulled across it, obviously painted with his own strong hands. He ties his shirt around his head, and grabs a long fork, and starts waving it enthusiastically around in the air. A reasonable man hightails it before Nick goes all Lord of the Flies on this thing. It's not the faith for him, but he makes a point to check out the buffet table in a couple hours.

Above the edge of the bank, not very far away, the glow of the campfire is still visible. Below, the slope continues for 50 yards or so until it reaches the edge of the stubbled cornfield. The hillside itself is overgrown with briars and sumac, and paths snake away from Nick's small clearing in various directions. The air is too nice to head right back up to the party, and so he chooses a path paralleling the hill. The way path splits and splits again, and he chooses forks at random. Although the muffled din of the bash is never quite out of earshot, and while he's got a general sense of orientation from the hill--even though he's not lost really--a reasonable man begins to worry a little about the exact route he's going to take out of the brush. He moves a little faster.

Just ahead, the scrub rises to a scraggly little stand of trees, and he stumbles into a grove of sorts. Are those voices? He rubs his eyes.

"…with Thought She spurs the swords afield
and with bloody thrusts mere heroes die
for Her mind upon the battlefield.
Possessed of naught but mean ideals
the men war beneath Her grey-flashed eye
and tiny Victory scampers about Her thigh
consummating in Her stead the bloody yield.
With a passing thought for what mortals feel,
she calls Her companion nigh."

A statuesque woman in ivory and silver claps appreciatively at the conclusion of the poem. Our hero has, he realizes, been holding his breath. The speaker has been reciting in front of the tree. Lit by Galatea's flashlight against the black background of shadows, and poised with her right arm upraised, Artemesia like a figure out of a Baroque painting. She breaks the mood by making an annoyed face. "Calls her companion nigh!" she repeats. A reasonable man might, under the conditions, have thought she indicated himself, but as he rises, a dark shape swoops from the trees over his head, and alights on Artemesia's shoulder. No, this isn't the right faith at all. He turns back, moving quickly.

Eager to return to old barn, he takes the first uphill fork, and then the next, and it's with no small measure of relief that he stumbles onto the lawn again, seeing the comforting glow of campfire not far away. So happy is he to be in the open, that he doesn't immediately notice Thomas Paine* and Archaeopteryx, who are pulling on some contraption of ropes and pullies. As if things needed to get any weirder.

"What on earth is this all about?"

"On earth? Careful with that language."

"Why are you two wearing goat leggings?"

"Aren't you in one of the skits too?"

"Nah, I'm walking around looking for a little spiritual enlightenment. Seemed like that sort of night."

"I got just the thing," says TP, and he yanks on the nearest rope. This pulls a catch of some kind, and a large, black-painted wooden clamshell drops forward roughly out of the darkness, brushing some bushes and hitting the ground with a thump. A human figure steps forward, and as the distant firelight frames out a shadow or two, it's obviously a female, smoking a cigarette. The effect is something between Boticelli's Venus and Bonham Carter's Marla Singer.

Arch is giggling uncontrollably, and ThyGoddess smiles patiently at him. "Shut up," she explains. She looks down at our hero. "Who are you, worm?"

"Look, I'm just trying to be a reasonable man here, but this is--"

"Silence! Hmm, come closer."

Now, a reasonable man might very well be tempted to do so, and she seems pretty nice for all the effort to stay in character, but there's something about how hard Arch and TP are trying to hold in their laughter that makes him suspicious. That and the rock with the chains draped over it. He secretly hopes no who wanders over this direction is dumb enough to make a sexist remark.

"Uh, thanks anyway, but I'm really looking for a more personal sort of enlightenment. Er, maybe something less pagan."

"Foolish mortal!" She relaxes her shoulders. "You'll catch the skit, won't you?"

"Yeah, sure."

And so he walks into the yard amongst the groups of spiritualists. He can see Bright's study group still over there by the fire, and by the occasional sounds breaking through. JV-12 is evidently now fighting with Daysman over the theology of lucky pennies. He sees Appolonius again, riffing now about flaming swords, karma, and conspiracies like a beat poet with a dirty mind. Maybe he's doing a skit too? To lend drama to his delivery, Appy has peeled his shirt away, and is pouring Burgundy all over his pale chest. He looks like a primal phoenix in purple and gold, and an older man with black plastic-rimmed glasses and huge arms is listening intently to every word and underlining things in a notebook forcefully enough to tear through the page. A reasonable man keeps going, but he can't keep from peeking over justoffal's shoulder as he slinks by: there's a little pyramid drawn on the page with an eye over it, and around that are crabbed some random notes. "9-11 = shit metaphor! obv!" is circled, and "ZION: THE KEY?!?" is in neat capitals and underlined.

Not far ahead are two large groups arguing another kind of faith entirely. Inexplicably, it's faith in the system. Our hero has to pass between these gangs to get back into the building, but as he gets closer, it's apparent that only one is talking at a time, while most of the others on either side are trying to extract the next round of contradicting factoids. "He's owned by ACORN, letting homeless faggots vote," Jack steps up and says without enthusiasm, as Angelo F. (indignant), Kazillions (puzzled), and Urquhart (smirking, drunk) check their emails for form letters, and a couple of malformed trolls bang their fists on plastic toy keyboards. "He supported 92.4% of Bush's policy initiatives," DallasNE shouts back into the gulf, and tartuffe types furiously, while Michael Ryerson sits on his rock and stares angrily at Demcon and Laurie Ann, who are trying to take up maneuver into the space between the groups in a way that can only be annoying to everyone. A reasonable man ducks his head and runs through this nonsense fast as he can, with his fingers in his ears.

Panting, he finally makes it back to the banquet hall, with only two Canadian men hovering beneath the light keeping him from the relative sanity inside the barn. He can tell that they're Canadian because they're so damn calm and succinct as they study the human condition. A reasonable man finds this sort of thing appealing, but he fears he's learned enough spiritual lessons for one night. If daveto were shorter or Schadenfreude thinner, he couple probably just sneak by, but he dutifully steels himself up for their inevitable parting shots.

Dave takes his mood in stride, and looks pityingly at our man. "Rough night?"

"Spiritual quest. It's been a little strange."

"I can help out," says Schad, grabbing his lapels. "In fact, I am confident of exactly three things. One is that I'm smarter than you. Two, god doesn't exist. There is no three."

And how can a reasonable man argue with that?


*Probably this is a neat trick, akin to bumping into Borges. What a fortuitous garden of forking paths that was.


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