Out of Characters

Paul D. Dickinson, February 12, 1997


The gist of what the experts can tell you is this: (1) you're living wrong; and (2) insomnia can wreck your life, but it can't kill you. Sleeplessness is still a subject about which there is little consensus.

I've swallowed things on orders, all sorts of things, hopeful for a chemical vacation, but almost none of it has worked. Halcyon, Klonopin, Ambien, Xanax, Melatonin, Passion Flower, Valerian. You run your fingers down the laundry list of possible side effects--many of them truly terrifying--and you roll the dice. Ambien kept me up all night jerking violently, teeth chattering. Halcyon gave me two hours of violent nightmares and then left me flat on my back and wide awake, doing everything in my power to ignore the stiff aluminum balloon that was straining against the top of my skull. Melatonin gave me eye-crossing headaches.

I have strenuously avoided cable television and the Internet; diversions that far-flung, with that many absurd snags and crannies, would capture me wholly. Television has always terrified me. I know that such an obsessively lonely anchor would be the end of me. Whenever I find myself in a hotel room with a remote control in my hand, the entire world recedes and I am paralyzed. Perhaps that is the point, and perhaps it is therapeutic, but I remain skeptical. Recently, in a motel room in Illinois, I sat up most of the night watching Manson groupie Leslie Van Houten's parole hearing on Court TV, skipping up the dial to beach volleyball during commercials. When the sun came up I felt hung over and ashamed, and took my dog for a run to assuage the guilt.

Brad Zellar, March 5, 1997


Let me start by saying that there may be no prettier sight in this mean, mean world than the way a winning jockey tosses his riding whip to his valet at the cusp of the Winner's Circle.

While the tote board in the background flashes with the bet returns--win, place, show--the jockey puts out his own high-wattage smile. The grandstands might be empty; the horse may be the worst kind of dog--or soon to be dog food, even. The jockey may have spent all afternoon sweating in the hot box to make weight, or kneeling on the bathroom floor with fingers forked, for a speed-purge. But the previous two minutes have been...can the feeling be put into words? I mean, you try describing the precise sensation of your last orgasm.

Just before the radiant instant fades and the jockey returns to the world of the giants around him, he tosses that whip, and it is thin and balletic in the air. The motion is crisp, jaunty even. The instrument of victory takes wing. Sometimes the whip flips once or twice end over end, or twists, or both--but I have never once seen the valet drop it. The thing never hits the ground.

Michael Tortorello, June 25, 1997


Hmong New Life Victory Assembly of God

Basically, we're trying to focus on the Hmong people, trying to recruit them so that they know who Jesus is and what he's doing for our people. The service is all in Hmong. Most of the people who worship here are the older ones. Right now we have about 35 families.

In the Assembly of God we like to worship not just within ourselves. The Bible says if you don't praise the Lord, then the rocks and the mountains will praise the Lord. That is why we are so emotional when we pray. Some people are touched and are healed. We like to shout it out loud. We move around. King David liked to dance in the Lord's presence. We do that. We like to jump in the joy of laughter. We say praise the Lord, amen, and hallelujah out loud. We believe in speaking in tongues as a way of staying in the presence of God. We believe in faith healing. We've seen a lot of miracles.

From Wing Young Huie's Lake Street Project, reprinted in City Pages, September 10, 1997


The first time Mary Jo Copeland tells the story, you weep. You feel closer to God, any God, because you're closer to her. You whisper "amen" when she whispers "amen." You dig deep to give whatever you can. You even consider becoming a disciple....That's why she shares it with everyone she meets. The parable's protagonist is a 13-year old girl Copeland calls Maria. In the beginning she is sitting in Copeland's office at Sharing and Caring Hands in downtown Minneapolis. "Mary Jo," the little girl confesses, "a man hurt me. A man hurt me and I hate him."

"The little girl was raped," Copeland reveals, her lips quivering. "And I told her, 'Maria, we have to pray for the man who hurt you, because he is a sad, sick man'...The next morning, Maria came to me and told me she prayed for that man," Copeland concludes. "She said, 'Mary Jo, I prayed for that man because you asked me to.'"

But the second time you hear Copeland tell Maria's story, its power is stunted. The tears seem staged. The dramatic pauses become nothing more than spaces on a page. After the third or fourth performance, your stomach begins to turn: maybe because you want Maria's life to be more than a metaphor, or maybe because she seems less real, less alive every time Copeland drags you through her anguish. Then, without warning, the truth reveals itself. Maria is Mary Jo Copeland's lifeboat. The very act of telling the story both reveals and absolves her hypocrisy. Through characters like Maria, she can wallow in the pain of her own complicated history without disturbing her perfectly crafted persona. She can dredge up her harrowing childhood on a daily basis, remind the world of who has done her harm, and then--as Saint Mary--forgive and forget. By publicly exorcising her past, she can privately deny the contradictions driving her work and haunting her life.

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