Divided soul

The confessions of a lapsed Catholic altar boy.

FIVE BLOCKS. Either way you traveled from my church and parochial school, you were five blocks from liquor. After Saturday evening mass, it was the parishioners' folly, the inebriate reminder that while Jesus might be on their minds, in their hearts, and on their lips, he was most definitely not in their pint glasses. And so whichever way they turned, they knew that they could once again find fresh material for the next trip to the confessional.

Having attended Catholic schools from the wee days of kindergarten until college, it was this short walk from Jesus to the watering hole that always struck me as the ultimate paradox. (Even shorter still when you consider that Christ's blood is served up as communion wine.) Or, to put it another way, being inculcated with the knowledge of our fallen, inherently sinful nature—thanks a lot, Adam!--made it that much easier to sin. And as I came to realize at an early age, the mask of righteousness served to nicely conceal this dark dichotomy within.

My wink-wink relationship with the Catholic faith began when my grade school principal—a wonderfully humane barrel of a nun who cursed beneath her breath and made fun of the retarded cashiers at the U Village McDonald's—took me under her wing for some reason. Being her favorite pupil, it seemed, gave me special license to sin.

Thus sanctified and protected, I became the chameleonlike Goody Two-shoes every grade-school brat aspires to be, at one turn calling for a game of illegal tackle football on the cement playground—ouch!--at recess, then winning the third-grade spelling bee back inside the classroom. Sure, I believed in God, but given such vivid sermonizing about the existence of Hell, figured I might as well raise a little.

THE GOOD MIKE initially wore lime green slacks and boat shoes to high school, becoming an honor student, captain of the cross-country team, and editor of the school newspaper—pleasing to parents and God.

The bad Mike set very different goals, including a personal challenge one summer to discover how many mini-marts in the Greater Seattle area would supply him with underage booze—13, it turns out—with a fake ID card. This Mike enjoyed seeing how many cans of beer he could drink before the fall tolo or how many little trick-or-treaters he could nail with eggs on Halloween.

A more devout Catholic would've felt burdened with guilt for such debauchery, but not this loophole-seeking joker. I simply shrugged off my sins by resorting to the adage we'd been taught so well: Namely, that Christ forgives every sin—no matter how big—so long as you ask. And I always asked, just as every hard-boiled hardball left my hand, to wipe the slate clean as each egg exploded on little tearful Tommy's Toughskins.

Despite this delinquent behavior, I still made it to Mass every Sunday without fail for my first 19 years, a streak that lasted right up until I smoked my first bowl in college. It was then that a deep appreciation for pretty girls, the Grateful Dead, and liberal politics set in. Coupled with the church's steadfast opposition to gays and the right to choose, it became clear that I had strayed from the path to Mt. Sinai.

ORIGINAL SIN MADE a big impression on me, as with so many kids raised with G-O-D in the driver's seat. And while being beaten over the head with a Bible during my formative years created a strong moral foundation, it also portrayed—in equally indelible terms—how easily one might slide into the pleasures of immorality. So then, as now, I wondered—how can we be strong enough to resist the forbidden fruit when we bear this taint, this division, within our souls?

I know I'm not, and I'm suspicious of those who are—or claim to be. Those upstanding, patriotic heroes who run for president and are revered by the church remind me of the Good Mike and all his hypocrisy. But neither can I respect the Bad Mikes out there, who flaunt their misdeeds for easy publicity and shallow shock value. Instead, it's those brilliant, hardscrabble eccentrics, the necessary cynics of our culture, who allow us sinners to make it through another day knowing that life—no matter how flawed—is worth living. Jesus is still all right by me, but I've found different role models for my (mis)behavior.

In a perfect world, with a perfect soul, I'd be the man who has his Catholic cake and eats it, too, the fun-loving father who bows his head in adoration just minutes before swilling down a hearty supply of postconfession pints five short blocks away. But, more likely, I'll settle for the role of holy has-been, steadfastly maintaining an ambivalent faith, still retaining a distant relationship with God, while skipping the sermon for a better seat at the bar.

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