Monthly Archives: September 2009

Karen Armstrong Rocks the JCC

Between the end of the craziest week and the start of the nuttiest weekend in my recent history (Expo for Independent Arts, the kickoff for KFJC’s fundraiser, and my post-Expo house party were all Saturday), I insanely decided to squeeze in a lunchtime lecture at SF’s Jewish Community Center. It turned out to be one of the most sensible things I’ve done all year.

Karen Armstrong isn’t just another take-it-or-leave-it, “Jesus is groovy, if you feel like it” modern theologian, pathetically tailoring the age-old rigors of spiritual practice to a noncommittal, consumerist public who can’t be bothered to pencil the transcendent into their busy schedules.

Nor is she by any means a church authoritarian. As a young girl I read her autobiographical “Through the Narrow Gate,” chronicling her seven brutal years as a nun in a spartan, pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic order in the early 1960s. The church’s refusal to accommodate her epilepsy and severe food allergies (she was supposed to Learn from the Suffering) shattered any delusions she might have had about the virtues of blind obedience.

Ensconced in a religious institution myself at the time, I admired the honesty of her questioning: not hostile to the church’s stated values of faith, hope, and charity – but not willing to put up with their strong-arm crap, either.

Imagine the smile on my face when, some 20 years after reading the book, I heard her strong, calm, scholarly voice on the radio shortly after 9/11, explaining the finer points of Islam to an under-informed public. She had become a sought-after authority on the subject of world religion.

Having won the prestigious TED Prize in 2008 (recipients are asked to unveil “One Idea to Change the World”), she’s now at work with religious leaders and followers on the Charter for Compassion , a credo uniting the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic principles of “universal justice and respect.”

Some highlights from Armstrong’s talk on September 25:

— The word “belief” originally meant “to love.” It was only in the 17th century that the word attained its modern meaning of holding to a particular idea. The Greek credo – “I believe” – meant more a state of engagement and active investigation, a commitment to finding truth rather than allegiance to a foregone conclusion.

— Religion is about practice and dedication to behaving a certain way. Intellectual understanding or enlightenment is meant to follow the hard work of practice.

— “Love” as it’s used in the book of Leviticus (a legal text) didn’t demand that you had a personal liking or affection for someone; it meant more a simple sense of respect and looking out for the other’s interests.

— Religions are full of metaphors and paradoxes. The verses of the Koran are all metaphoric; the paradox of the Christian trinity is meant to be a meditative exercise; the Jewish tradition of the Midrash (inventive commentaries on Hebrew scripture) provoke investigation on the part of the student. All of this communicates the need for contemplation and intellectual questioning as a component of spiritual practice.

— True compassion requires risk and research. We have a moral obligation to understand the other’s mindset.

— On public dialogue: The classic definition of Socratic “dialogue” didn’t mean a fight in which one side won. In true Socratic dialogue, both sides end up admitting they know nothing! You must go into dialogue prepared to be changed.

— Ensuring the well-being of others is our best security.

Destination: Hooters!

It’s Friday night on Labor Day weekend, and  San Francisco is now utterly emptied of interesting people with social lives and disposable income who either went to Burning Man or some place of natural beauty to barbecue meat products with their myriad attractive friends.

 One wanders the deserted streets; one is filled with existential dread; one channels Peter Lorre flinching into his trenchcoat lapels in billows of nocturnal port-city fog; one’s quest for amusement begins to lean towards the bizarre, the venal, the stupid.  One develops strange cravings for being in a multiplex shopping center on the outskirts of Detroit, drinking pitchers of beer, gnawing buffalo wings served to you by plasticky-looking sorority chicks with their knockers and cheekage jiggling out of their uniforms, and screaming with others at a Berlin Wall of outsized HDTV screens, with no particular sense of remorse or wondering if there could be anything more to life than this.

 One finds herself alone at Hooters in Fisherman’s Wharf.

 “In God’s name, WHY?” a friend texted me.

 “I just feel like having a bizarre experience,” I texted back.  And really, I was in the mood for some fried food and beer, and perhaps the shrill mortification of a lonely engineer dude chatting me up.  It would be slightly better than boredom.

 It took an hour by MUNI to get to Fisherman’s Wharf — and the bus ride more than anything else was what made me deeply question my grip on reality.  Fisherman’s Wharf is an area that strikes dread into the heart of every San Franciscan — more than The Loin, more than The Point, more than the Marina, fer God’s sakes.  When we’re forced at gunpoint to take our relatives there, drag them through the herds of porcine picture-snappers lapping up traffic-cone-sized ice creams, to shrink from 140 decibels of Sheryl Crow screaming IF IT MAKES YOU HAPPYYYYYYY out of the waiting room of Salty Sam’s Seafood Barn, to try to talk our loved ones out of getting their own images emblazoned onto XXXL hoodies with the words Alcatraz Psycho Ward underneath it, all we can think is:  This is what I moved here to get away from!

And yet, the heart has its own reasons.  I found myself at Hooters, checking out the scene that I hoped would be as jarring and alien to my San Franciscan psyche as a naked safari through outer Chad.

“Hi-eeeeeee!” cheered the hostess from behind a 25-foot bank of Hooters merchandise, flipping her black hair around to reveal the Hooters merch that wasn’t technically on sale.  “You kin sit ennywhere you like!”  I got the feeling she’d been told to talk as much as possible like text messages.

I took a seat at the counter a few places down from a Lonely Engineer Dude and started flipping through the menu.  The place was about one-quarter full and business didn’t seem to pick up as the evening progressed.  You know it’s a shitty economy when not even jiggling collegiate cleavage can entice gainfully employed men to spring for some fried mozzerella and pitchers of Pabst.

Strangely, my taste for fried bar snacks and brew had waned after the bus ride, so I went with road food instead.  I can highly recommend the Hooters key lime pie ($5.95 or so) which has an inch or so of divine citrusy cream cheese on top that goes down really well with freshly brewed coffee and the nine or so different basketball games you never knew were happening simultaneously on parallel planets.

I took a look around.  The scattered Lonely Engineer Dudes numbered about three; there were about four Gangs from the Office (that included several women).  There were two couples there who, it was obvious from the coy french-fry-picking and awkward eye contact going on, were on first dates.  Way to go, brah!  Those dating tips from Maxim are so, so solid!

The oddest sight was an Indian man, his sari-wrapped wife, and their young daughter, fixing their gazes with great concentration on their plates of curly fries.  At what point had the gentleman realized the mistake he’d made?  Something told me the concierge at the Holiday Inn would have hell to pay.

I fixed my formidable female-sizing-up skills on my waitress, whom I felt obliged not to oggle in the name of sisterhood.  (The truth was — though I am not that way inclined — I wanted to oggle all of them.  The surroundings and the premise of Hooters, maybe by extension our whole culture, beg you to oggle.  Offered-up breasts are the currency of fashion magazines and reality TV, not key lime pie and basketball games.  The whole Hooters situation is so odd you just want to stare, if not from attraction, from twisted fascination.  I mean — sheesh — there they are.  And it’s not like a strip joint where the whole point is to stare.  Ostensibly you’re just here to eat barbecue burgers and watch the game, you’re conducting a legitimate business transaction.  So how much are you really, morally allowed to stare?  Sometimes I’m so glad I’m not a guy.)  The Evil Queen in me wondered:  will she still be cute at 35?  Still cute after she’s had a few kids, a few years of life on her feet?

No, of course not, I assured myself cattily, then stopped:  How do I know who she really is?  Maybe she’s fascinating.  Maybe she grew up in a war zone.  You don’t know.

Hooters must be so much like high school.  You put on a face, and everyone puts on the face, so there’s this whole “fronting” culture that everyone’s scared to violate — only here, crack the wrong smile and it’s not just the uncool side of the cafeteria for you.   You could lose your job, or get moved to a crappy shift, or whatever.

Jesus, what a nightmare.

Misty of the Key Lime Pie could very well be cool, accomplished, and self-aware once past her maidenhood, but not as who she’s allowed to be here.  The hair-tossing and leaning on the last syllable of her sentences probably rake in the tips, but they will only take her so far.  I just hope she realizes it.

Which got me wondering:  at what age do they “retire” a Hooters waitress?  A Google search on this didn’t reveal much except Flickr pages of (rather unsavory) ex-Hooter girl parties.

I wish I had some outrageous incident to report from going there, but the truth is, Hooters is disappointingly wholesome — at least the watered-down, live-and-let-live SF version.

While every other restaurateur in this town now sees fit to wallpaper his eating establishment with retina-scorching wide-screens (“Hey honey, let’s go out and further lower our IQs tonight!”), SF Hooters only has the little analog boxes.  How are we supposed to drool?

The Hooters menu is cute, with self-effacing jokes about what loveable, we-can’t-help-it lech-bag characters the entrepreneurs are.  And — what is this world coming to?! — you can now order “healthy dining” options approved by a board of dieticians.  The healthy-dining feature is promoted by the cartoon Hooters owl dressed as an MD and giving you a sidelong “Say, let’s play doctor!” glance at the bottom of the menu.

No merry bands of knuckle-dragging apeshits tackled me to the floor.  The Lonely Engineer Dude kept his polite distance.  The women at the office workers’ tables seemed to be having a fine old ironic, post-feminist, what-the-hell kind of time.  Everyone treated the girls with respect and the male management just seemed bored and understandably itchy about all the empty seats.

I left the girls to their Labor-Day doldrums and wandered through the empty wharf again.  I’ve always been somewhat grateful that Hooters has kept a presence in our gay little town; it acts as flypaper for the kinds of guys who go to Hooters, keeping them safely out of my clubs and bars.

But the dickwads I’d come to gawp at, and perhaps taunt cruelly, just weren’t there.  There were only genteel fleece-vesters having a playful laugh.  My quest for a big, smelly pile of hypocritical mainstream sleaze had come a cropper.

But now at least I know where to take Mom and Dad for some really good key lime pie.