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Daddy Dogma

There are no facts, only interpretations. — Friedrich Nietzsche

‘You want some eggs with that ketchup?”

“Very funny, Four-Eyes,” Dad said, using the nickname he gave me when I got my first pair of glasses in junior high, a moniker he employs whenever he’s feeling disrespected. Never matter that he is the one who handed down the myopia and still has the same pair of Navy-issued gold frames he was wearing when the stork dropped me off at Balboa Hospital. “Anyway,” I said, cutting into my breakfast burrito, “you were talking about lamps?”

“No, not exactly,” said Dad, raising a brow and smiling crookedly in acknowledgment of my playful dig. “What I was saying, before you so eagerly interrupted to poke fun at your poor father with a wisecrack even older than I am, is that we, you know, people, are all like lamps, and we’re all plugged into the source — the source being the universe. The source is always there, but you’ve got to know how to turn on the switch.” He held my gaze for a moment and, just before he took his next bite of ketchup, he added, “Some people don’t even know how to plug in, let alone turn on.”

Now in his golden 50s, my father resembles a cross between Sean Connery and Ernest Hemingway. His thick brows are beyond restraint; like the granite buildings and asphalt streets of his hometown, Brooklyn, New York, his dark hair and neatly trimmed beard are speckled with silver. Throughout my adolescence, Dad — having strayed from his Catholic upbringing once the doctrine of guilt became too constricting — vigorously sought a dogma that fit his burgeoning spirituality. Around the time I began to drink legally, Dad settled on Religious Science, a loose ideology in which he could continue to shape his personal dogma. Also known as Science of Mind, Dad’s chosen faith offers him an amalgamation of only the positive stories, and none of the downers, of any and every religion ever documented as it has been compiled and interpreted by shiny, happy people.

One recent Sunday morning, I joined my father at his temple in Hillcrest. The congregation now calls it the Universal Spirit Center, but Dad has always referred to his place of worship as the Church of What’s Happening Now. At the beginning of each service, a member of the congregation reads an inspirational quote, which kicks off a relentless session of chanting, all of which is followed by three silent minutes of meditation. While those around me thought whatever people think when observing an interminable minute of silence in a crowded room, I pondered the concept of interpretation. Given the closed-eyed bliss on the faces around me, it was safe to assume that I was the only person in the building who had extrapolated a negative inference from the day’s motivational words.

The quote, which could have been written by Deepak or Covey, went something like, “All gifts are given, all gifts given are received, and all gifts received are returned to the one.” Parishioners nodded knowingly, as if the phrase had meant something specific to them. The first thing my jaded neurotransmitters did was replace the word “one” with “Nordstrom.” My dad breathed deeply, as if by inhaling he was absorbing some complex and otherworldly truth. All I had heard was a thinly veiled allegory of the coming holiday shopping season.

“The only meaning anything has is the meaning you give it,” Dad said, reciting a truism he gleaned from one of his myriad muses for deep thinking. His resounding baritone eclipsed the din of the bustling restaurant.

“You use that quote like a trump card, you know,” I said. “But, you’re right. Speaking of ‘meanings,’ what’s this about you wanting to find a psychic?”

“I have questions,” Dad said, making it clear by his tone that he wasn’t about to divulge the nature of his questions. He explained that he’d wanted to ask his friend Serena, a septuagenarian druid, but she was preoccupied with the illness of a loved one.

“All right, so don’t tell me why, but let me ask you this: Can’t a psychic only tell you what you already know? Don’t you think they’re all cold readers who are just highly skilled at gauging people? You know, like the guy at the carnival who can guess your weight because he has an eye trained for body mass.”

“A lot of them are shysters and charlatans,” my father conceded, “But there are other ones who are not — some of that energy is legit. I think they’re in tune to the vibrations in the universe that I know are out there.” I sipped from my Diet Coke and cocked a skeptical brow. Dad is shrewd in his dealings, refusing to take most anything at face value. In answer to my disbelieving stare, he said, “If you ask a question, whether it’s to the universe in meditation or to a psychic, you know the answer for the most part, but you’re looking for confirmation.”

“Dorothy had the power to go home all along, right?” I said, causing myself to wonder how many inspirational phrases are derived from the Land of Oz.

Dad was unfazed. He took a bite of ketchup-drenched omelet, washed that down with some iced tea, and said, “Sometimes before reading the quote at church, the announcer will say, ‘May you hear what you need to hear.’ Rev Kev may say something, and you hear the same words, but there may be a totally different meaning for you than for me.”

“Yeah, but I think people hear what they want to hear more than what they need to hear,” I said. “And a good psychic is the one who can figure out what someone wants to hear.” I thought of the half-dozen self-proclaimed clairvoyants I’d visited over the years and how each time I came away satisfied that I had received some sort of validation for my thoughts, opinions, and aspirations. My dad is able to derive evidence of goodness from almost any source, to locate the one positive thread in the most devastating tapestry.

“Joy is already inside you, but you need things to trigger it and bring it out,” Dad explained as we left the diner. “A long time ago, I was always thinking, what the hell is my raison d’etre , you know, my reason to live — it couldn’t be just to go to work and come home every day. Then, 25 years ago, something came to me during meditation, it was a woman’s voice — not really a voice , but when you meditate and contemplate shit, stuff comes to you, and this came to me in the sound of a woman’s voice — and she said, ‘Your job is to raise and educate your children.’ Now that’s done; you girls are all grown and doing quite well. So for a while, I’ve been thinking, now what?”

“And?” I asked, allowing Dad to open the car door for me. I waited for an answer while Dad settled behind the steering wheel and buckled his

safety belt.

“Well, what’s been coming to me lately are two words: love and service. Some people donate money or spend time on the back end, but I’m tangible, I like to touch whatever’s happening. Whether I’m volunteering for Special Delivery and bringing food to people with AIDS or helping a kid decide on a wish, I’m where the rubber meets the road. And nothing brings me greater joy in life than being a wish granter for Make-a-Wish.”

Immediately after speaking the words, Dad gushed disclaimers about the pleasure he derives from his grandchildren and that he also finds joy in all that stuff of life he thinks are supposed to bring him joy.

“You don’t need to explain yourself to me, Dad.” We arrived back at the church, where I’d left my car. He parked so that he could get out and give me a hug. In the tradition of his mother, who had a fondness for all things French, we kissed each other on each cheek and embraced. With my cheek still on my father’s shoulder, I said, “It’s like you always say, Dad — there’s no right or wrong, things just are, and the rest is left up to interpretation. You like helping sick kids. Even I can’t find anything negative about that. But drinking ketchup for breakfast? That might be something you want to ask the psychic about.”

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