1. Needing to choose a topic for a research paper in English class, Paco asks for ideas. It’s not so much that he will accept any of our ideas but more that he needs to go through the process of hearing and discarding them so that he can feel increasingly certain the topic he already has stashed in the mists of his brain is going to be the best one. Thus, he asks us for ideas because he needs the conversation to help him trust the soundness of his own thinking.
Wandering into the kitchen shortly after he’s already shot down my suggestions of “the privatization of space travel” and “the practical uses of drones,” Allegra shouts an offering: “CULTS!” We muse for a bit about the existence of cults in 2018 and how it feels wan compared to the front-page, fear-driven, deprogramming-for-hire cult culture of the 1970s and 80s. Allegra’s stance is that cults are definitely still part of the national conversation in this modern age — since there’s a “vegetable cult” on Gilmore Girls, a series she’s currently watching in its entirety for the third time;
2. When I met with the new public television station manager the other day, she asked about my kids’ relationships with PBS, and while I was able to point to the children’s programming when they were younger, and I was able to offer up Paco’s love of cooking shows and Rick Steves, I had to admit to her that our 17-year-old has never been attracted to images flying through the air — to this day, she often announces, hastening the death of her mother’s heart, that she doesn’t like movies. When she was young, I craved the chance to sit in a theater, so when she was five or six, one of my students and I took her to see an Ice Age film. Setting the tone for all future movie viewing, Allegra spent the first twenty minutes sitting backwards in her seat, watching audience members watch the movie, after which she asked to go to the bathroom twice, after-after which she asked to leave because she wanted to play outside. In summary, she’s never been a strong “watcher,” except of people in dark rooms. That noted, she has, over the years, found shows that keep her attention, like Hannah Montana and Pretty Little Liars. And, of course, we must not forget her much-beloved Gilmore Girls, which taught her all she knows about cults;
3. Cults were such a big thing when I was growing up that I chose to do a major research project on them in ninth grade; as we tried to come up with a topic for Paco’s research assignment the other day, I yanked the kids down memory lane, recalling that, my topic firmly committed to, I had written to a Congressman requesting information about cults — because of course an elected representative would be an excellent source for alarmist information — and he mailed me a thick envelope of pamphlets about the dangers of and escape from cults.
At age 15, getting mail from a dude with a head of thick, wavy hair and a far-flung office was about the most glamorous thing that had ever happened to me, except for all the days after school when I’d raced home to watch re-runs of the 1950s Mickey Mouse Club because I was obsessed with the serial included within the show called Walt Disney Presents: Annette; it starred Annette Funicello stretching herself to play a character named Annette, a poor, orphaned country girl who had recently moved to the city to live with her rich aunt and uncle. WOULD ANNETTE WEAR THE RIGHT CLOTHES? WOULD SHE GET A BOYFRIEND? These questions left me breathless.
Glamorously armed with pamphlets from an elected official, I ended up doing well on both the written and oral portions of my cult report, so pretty much
4. I’ve been listening to the podcast Heaven’s Gate this week, which is about the cult members who committed suicide in San Diego in 1997 — although they didn’t regard it as committing suicide but, rather, releasing themselves from their “vehicles” so they could board a UFO following the Hale-Bopp comet. It’s fascinating storytelling for a variety of reasons: the host of the podcast was, himself, raised in an End Times evangelical cult, so his exploration of this topic has layers; as wack as the members of Heaven’s Gate seemed for thinking they could board a spacecraft by killing themselves, the podcast makes the point that ANY religion is wack when its beliefs are unpacked; the podcast has all sorts of voice recordings of the leaders of the cult, along with interviews with members who got out before death day and surviving family members who, all these years later, explain what it’s like to live with that legacy;
5. In the early 1980s, when I was maybe 13 or 14, there was a knock on our front door one afternoon. When I pulled it open, there, on the other side of the screen was a striking blonde-haired, blue-eyed guy — cuter even than Luke Duke on The Dukes of Hazzard, if such a thing were possible. Pushing open the screen door — I didn’t want our interaction to feel like a Confession — I greeted him, my eyes locked on his high cheekbones and lanky form. Gravy, but our kids would be beautiful. The corners of his eyes crinkling, he opened easy, asking how I was doing, noting how fun the neighborhood kids seemed, complimenting our gardens.
In short order, the topic changed. Softening into vulnerability, he started pondering life’s challenges, admitting that, at one point, he’d been struggling. But then, just when things were at their darkest, he found a new group, a group that accepted him with all his failings, a group that gave him a home like he’d never experienced before. Ever an attentive listener when strangers get vulnerable, I nodded sympathetically while discreetly fluffing my bangs, leaning casually against the door jamb, and remembering how Annette always jutted her torpedo breasts high and proud to indicate rapt attention when a man was speaking. After a few minutes, my fiancé apologized for taking up my time but said he felt we really had a connection; he wondered if it would be okay for him to come back a little later to “rap” again about his amazing friends who banded together under the name of Hare Krishna. Maybe I’d like to meet them. Maybe my brother and sister would like to hear a bit about his friends, too. Would there be a good time for that?
When my dad got home an hour or two later, I let him know that if a Nordic god showed up at the front door again, I’d be available, and he should just call really loudly down the stairs for me. He had to be loud because I might have the channel called MTV turned on at max volume, but I for sure needed to talk to the guy at the front door. So CALL LOUDLY. Interested, Dad asked a few follow-up questions. In my innocence, I mentioned learning more about the Hare Krishnas, at which point my dad did an impressive test run of his loud voice when he barked, “The Moonies? That guy was a Moonie! Nope. No way. You don’t need to talk to him again.” I gave him my best “But, Daaaaaad, he wasn’t wearing freaky robes, and he had all his hair, so he was different,” yet he remained unconvinced.
Later, there was a knock at the front door. Quickly, heeding the advice pouring from Pat Benatar’s Juilliard-accepted soprano — “You better run/You better hide” — I raced to turn down the volume and creep stealthily to the bottom of the staircase.
Above me, the footpiece of the La-Z-Boy snapped into its cradle, and a moment later Dad trundled down to the landing that split the levels of our ranch house. The door opened. My dad’s voice was stern.
Mortified, eavesdropping as my dad broke up with my fiancé, I skulked in the basement —
wishing I could catch the tail of a passing comet and glimpse the face of Eternity.
Typing: 22:34 + 35 minutes before I started the stopwatch
Editing: Well, I mean, I spent at least an hour in the basement looking for a copy of that cult report but only finding mentions in my ninth-grade diary
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