April, 2015 Archives

A long time ago in Armenia

April 22nd, 2015

Recalling a visit to the most holy place I’ve ever been.

With the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide happening this month,

I’m re-sharing my personal experience at the memorial to its the slain citizens.

This story appeared in my first book, Spiritual Wanderer, from which this website gets its name.

The trip was exhausting. We were behind the Iron Curtain and at the mercy of the official Soviet travel agency, Intourist. It was 1984. The Cold War was showing no real signs of flaring up or calming down, and my intestines were wracked with what I liked to refer as the commie crud. I sat in a hotel in downtown Moscow, across the street from an enormous statue depicting Russian space flight and all I wanted to do was bend over the toilet. I felt worse than the embalmed body of Lenin who laid in state just down the street.

Our church peace mission, to come visit the USSR, was going along wonderfully up until that point. We were traveling to several different republics including Soviet Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia. But what struck me as odd, as totally incomprehensible, was the bizarre fact that here I was with my borscht coming out both ends and all the while American missiles were pointing directly at my butt as I heaved yet another peace offering into the politburo porcelain. I couldn’t get over the fact that I was one renegade soldier in South Dakota away from witnessing Ground Zero up close at the beginning of the end of civilization as we knew it. Then I puked again.

Earlier in the trip — or later, I can’t remember when — my priest-friend Ron and I were walking near Vladimir Lenin’s tomb singing John Lennon songs. It was surreal as we strolled along Red Square knowing we were some of the only Americans the Russian citizenry had seen up until that point. And there we were singing “Back in the USSR.”


Our trip was meant to be a non-political journey through the lands of our mortal enemy in order to meet normal everyday folks and say, “We don’t really feel like bombing you. Do you really wanna destroy us?”

Everywhere it seemed, I had to explain that all of us weren’t like our president. I became quite good at uttering my favorite phrase at just the right time, “Reagan nyet, Mir da!” Which roughly translated to “No, I’m not a Ronald Reagan fan and I prefer Peace to its alternative.”

It was a jolly good time, really. Knowing that I was probably being watched every minute of my journey. One guy tried to buy my pants, but I think he might have been a KGB agent just testing to see if I would dip my toes into the infamous black market. One night up in Leningrad — with the sun not really setting and it being light until after 11 pm — I ventured out into the public square around the hotel. After meeting some kids my age and giving them a few trinkets, including a “Say Yes to Michigan” t-shirt, the doorman at the hotel wouldn’t let me back in.

“Nyet, Ruskie,” he said pointing at me, implying that I was Russian and somehow not welcome in. I had heard about this earlier and knew that Soviet citizens weren’t allowed in the official tourist hotels due to some weird fear that perhaps we’d influence their thinking. Or that they’d try to rip us off. Anyway, the doorman was adamant about keeping me out even when I showed him my room key. I’m not proud of this, but the only thing I could think to do was repeat an old car commercial to show I was, like in the old war movies, a Yank.

“Look, I’m an American,” I pleaded. “Baseball, hotdogs, apple pie and Chevrolet … you gotta let me in!” I think that swayed him. No Russian kid would be that silly. He waved his arm gruffly and allowed me to walk in.


The highlight of the peace mission, though, was our trip to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. The city was beautiful and the people were very nice to us foreigners. Throughout our entire stay, Mt. Ararat was visible outside the bustling city. The mountain is the mythic final resting place of Noah’s ark and its rightful boundaries were hotly disputed between the Turks and the Armenians.

Outside of Yerevan, on one of the many hills surrounding the city, was a memorial to the slain Armenians. The early part of the 1900s was a rotten time for Armenia and our guides explained to us that 1/3 of the population was killed by the Turks, 1/3 emigrated and only a third remained in the country. This memorial was a powerful shrine to those who died.

It was an impressive structure that looked like an enormous unfolding flower, with giant stone or concrete arms where the petals would be. Inside, where the bud might be, was an eternal flame burning in remembrance. You could walk inside the memorial and stand around the fire.

Our group did just that, about 20 of us or so. And there — the furthest point I’d ever been from home — I felt the most powerful, otherworldly feeling I’ve ever experienced. It wasn’t just me either. All the people in our group, those my age up through retirees, felt the same phenomenon. We were standing there and the most overpowering feeling of sadness hit us all. A young seminarian in our group broke into a spontaneous prayer and later he was escorted out, arm in arm, by an old white-haired woman who was normally the life of the party. And they were both crying.

It hit us pretty hard, just how mournful that place was. Sure, we were acutely aware of war and genocide; after all, that’s why we were on the mission in the first place. But there was something more. The deep, internal, visceral sadness that swept over us was an undeniable message that we were in the presence of something bigger and more powerful than ourselves. Sure, the horrific events that the memorial stood for had happened 70 years prior, but the emotion swirling around the grounds was as real and pervasive as if the genocide had just occurred.

I still haven’t come to understand exactly what we were feeling that day in Yerevan, but I haven’t probed too deeply either. I imagine other people have witnessed the same effect either there or in other holy shrines around the world. My guess is that the best thing to do, is honor those remembered by such shrines and then not stick around for too long afterward.

There was a sense, inside, that we were somehow intruding. But we were also forced to experience something that we weren’t expecting, or used to feeling.

In the end, the message I got — soft yet clear — was if we don’t fully remember our abhorrent past in all its shameful detail, we’re more likely to repeat or simply gloss over our tragedies.

I’m not sure if I’ll ever experience such a powerful, otherworldly emotion. I’m not sure if I want to either. But I feel lucky to have had such an experience.

April 24, 2015 marks the 100 year anniversary of the beginning of Armenia’s Genocide.

To read more about it, visit the Wikipedia page addressing the issue of the 1.5 million slain Armenians.


Go Rent Better Call Saul

April 3rd, 2015

You’re lucky; you can binge watch it instead of waiting for each episode like I did!


Anyone else watching Better Call Saul?

The spinoff from Breaking Bad is sort of a prequel to all the hullabaloo surrounding Walter White and his shenanigans as he broke from being good to being very, very bad. Except he’s not in this at all.


But several of the people Walter associated with in Breaking Bad are here, depicted several years earlier. First up, there’s Saul Goodman, obviously, the ne’er do well lawyer. Bob Odenkirk plays Saul, but he is now called Jimmy. Or, he was called Jimmy; we’re dealing with the past here.

We get a quick glimpse of him in present day (hint: remember back in “Bad” when he went on the lam and said something like, “best-case scenario, I’m managing a Cinnabon in Omaha?”). But then the first season is taken up with his back story. And it is riveting television. We even get a hint as to how he got his new moniker, Saul Goodman.

Vince Gilligan, the creator of both shows employs his old wonderful cinematography to wonderful affect. The long, slow pans, the color palette, the dead space between dialog, all of these and more make for great, iconic storytelling.

I want to say that if you miss Breaking Bad, watch this show. So I’m going to. If you miss Breaking Bad, watch this show. It’s definitely not as dark, certainly not as evil. And there’s a lot more fun mixed in with the drama too.

Jonathan Banks reprises his role as Mike  — everyone’s favorite stoic, old, disgraced cop. His past is poignant, deep and serves as a duel narrative throughout this first season. I can’t get enough of the guy.

There is at least one drug dealer we remember from earlier (or, uh, later) and rumors abound as to cameos by several other Breaking Bad figures. Odenkirk was a bit cagey about who’d show up — but what else would you expect from “Saul,” telling CinemaBlend:

“Here’s what you need to know: the writers have a board in the writing room, and it has all the characters from Breaking Bad on it. Like, little characters who just walked through or were referenced. So if you go into that world, I think you’ll see four or five of them. I don’t have the number in my head, but you’ll see more, or hear about more. Sometimes it’s just a reference.”

New characters show up as well. Michael McKean is Saul (or Jimmy’s) brother. He isn’t quite part of society, but he used to be. It’s a far cry from his days as Lenny on Laverne & Shirley, or even his rocker in Spinal Tap.

Rhea Seehorn is fantastic as Saul’s friend Kim. You may remember her from the short-lived Whitney, but she’s been in lots of other things too. Smoldering is the best adjective for her, but it’s a smart, suffering, creative smoldering.

There’s a ton to see and yes, even feel in the first ten episodes. Surely they will be re-shown and available for more viewing after the season finale this Monday. It’s already been renewed for a second season and I just can’t wait.

Do yourself a favor and binge watch this show. It’s addictive as its meth-fueled predecessor, or, uh, successor.