Featured Guest, Kush Tavakoli, Talks about The Zen of South Park

Today’s guest blogger is Kush Tavakoli, a friend of mine from college. After we graduated his job happened to be in my home town of Atlanta so whenever I came home, it was great to always have him there. What’s more is that he’s become an integral part of the writing process for The Zen of South Park. He’s going to talk here about his thoughts regarding the book and his experiences working on it. Feel free to leave comments and questions for him or send him an email at kush@thezenofsouthpark.com. Without further ado, here he is:

It is difficult for a work of non-fiction to have an emotional pinball machine effect on the reader.  Religion is an old subject; Christianity, in particular, pervades every aspect of Western Civilization, and even texts that are pointedly anti-religious seem to necessitate religion as a foil to create their own meaning.  The complexity of the issue of religion is such that many, upon reading the book, will have their own preconceived notions on the subject.

In a sense, every person is a potential reader for a book on religion, because every person has beliefs that shape the way that he or she perceives and interacts with the world.  I was a potential reader.  As I read and edited the text, I felt the jerking about of my own proclivities (as Solomon calls them) in response to the messages he elucidates and expounds upon.  Given the fact that we have such preconceived notions, why do we have this pinball feeling upon reading a book that we might think can have little effect on an outlook on life, whatever outlook that is for us, that we have spent so much time considering, testing and revising, and ultimately believing in?

Part of this reaction is Solomon’s use of South Park as the medium for this discussion.  In our long conversations on the subject matter, his use of South Park as the driving force for the book was not just because of its outrageous use of religious subjects, imagery, and topics; it was because South Park actually deals with religion in a much more subtle, sensitive manner than we might discern on our own, because he had a genuine appreciation for their viewpoints, and because it provided a manner for him to explore and convey his own opinions through the underlying points made throughout the book.

South Park is outrageous.  The use of the word “sensitive” in the paragraph above did not refer to pillow talk sensitivity, but to the type of sensitivity one might have performing an autopsy.  What may look like violent mutilation of subjects as serious as pedophilia, crucifixion, global warming, homosexuality, and family, upon reading of The Zen of South Park, looks like careful removal and examination of critical organs of a living entity.  For a child to know that a heart is not shaped like a heart requires the picture of a heart; for an adult to sketch the heart requires the curiosity and discipline to extract and examine a heart for the first time.  For the viewer, witnessing  these gross surgical operations performed by a seemingly unsqueamish doctor results in knee-jerk reactions to the subject matter that more theological or purely rational examinations might not inspire.

It isn’t just that South Park is outrageous that results in these types of reactions.  The complexity of the operations performed by Trey Parker and Matt Stone are such that it is difficult, given the assumed attention span of the reader and the associated publisher’s requirements for the length of the book, to break them down, expose them technically, and convey their meaning – briefly.  Solomon is able to do this, but the speed with which the points are addressed is such that in a few sentences, the reader might react with vehemence to one point, only to find him or herself in staunch agreement later in the paragraph.

Even reading other nonfiction with the speed to point and outrageousness of subject provided by Solomon’s analysis of South Park, the reader might still not experience the feeling of being bandied about quite so forcefully if not for the gravity of the subject.  As mentioned before, every reader has thoughts and opinions on religion.  However consciously  pursued and actively coalesced, and with what degree of conviction, may vary from person to person, but we all have notions, ideologies, beliefs, religion; some framework for understanding the world around us, that this book will, to some degree, challenge.  This challenge provides that force.

When Solomon asked me to comment on his book in the context of my own thoughts on this subject, my first thought was on the specific experiences that have shaped my views on religion, but what I have realized is that the uniqueness of my experience is not as relevant as the fact that I have had an experience, and coming to this conclusion, I can only expect that we all have an experience.  South Park is a challenge, and in many ways, reading this book is an acceptance of a greater challenge: to explore these issues in such technical detail that we are fully exposed to our own spiritual anatomy.  Whether this challenge results in the rethinking of our beliefs, exposing notions hidden buried in consciousness, or a rough confirmation, the challenge is worth accepting.

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Robert Mugabe is a Worthless Asshole

As some of you may know, Robert Mugabe, former and unfortunately-now president of Zimbabwe, has been reelected (although using this word here is the equivalent of shitting all over the concept of elections) by a landslide after a run-off in which he ran unopposed. Why unopposed? Because his opponent who won the original election (Mugabe refused to stand down), a proponent of democratic change and running on that principle, stepped out of the election after 90 of his supporters were murdered by Mugabe’s forces and boycotted it generally because it was wrong and unfair.

Mugabe will be president of Zimbabwe for nearly three decades, and he is a giant piece of undemocratic shit. Look, democracy may not be the greatest or most viable system out there – some of the greatest Greek philosophers insisted that it was an enlightened monarch (that is to say, a Philosopher King) – but in a country that has elections, you should abide by the results, not be a giant piece of crap and a big baby when you lose and then use the military to force decent voter turnout in a sham rerun against no one because you murdered his supporters.

The world is shaking its puny, polio-ridden, malformed wrists in a less than menacing fashion. The African Union opposes this. Ooooo. Ban Kee Moon is not happy. Ahhhh. President George W. Bush has threatened sanctions and UN action. Yikes. Desmond Tutu, archbishop of Cape Town, wants international forces to restore order and the new rightful leader of Zimbabwe, officially ending Mugabe’s 28 year reign. I doubt that will happen, but it raises fascinating questions.

On the one hand, I think that the world should intervene because if a just and democratic world (though you could hardly call it that) doesn’t stick up for the oppressed everywhere then what good is it pretending like we do. On the other hand, should we respect states’ rights and not interfere in internal matters that aren’t bordering on genicide or genicidal (not that we even do that when we should). Frankly, I don’t think there’s any consistency to the action based on principle. Only on interest. That is to say that we would only be interfering physically in Zimbabwe if we had some serious reason to oust a government that didn’t support our endeavors. But this isn’t Cold War geopolitics anymore so even those interest-principles are harder to come by. In short, it’s a complicated series of events and interests that would lead to interference in Zimbabwe and though the world may shake its fists at Mugabe’s unjust and undemocratic treatment of the populace, it probably won’t do anything.

Do you think the world should interfere? How should it do so? If not, why? Are principles reason enough to invade or just kick Mugabe out? What if the U.S. had to act unilaterally? Is this the U.N.’s job?

Status Update: We’re no longer moving in where we thought we were – realized it wasn’t such a good decision. We’re now staying in a Kimpton hotel in downtown San Fran while we continue searching. Cyrus is here and we will search about, having left Sunnyvale because our friend came back home. Any suggestions on where to look or live? We’d love some help.

Nolan’s New Batman Film, Dark Knight, Pre-Selling Out

I’m really excited to share this fact with you: Dark Knight, the most highly anticipated Batman film of all time, is selling out like crazy three weeks before the movie opens. I for one, share the absolute excitement of the movie-going public about this film. The cast, from Christian Bale to Michael Caine to, of course, Heath Ledger, looks simply phenomenal, and I can’t wait to see every single one of the them – except Maggie Gyllenhaal (though I hope she impresses me).

For the record, I hate actor switches that aren’t accompanied by some kind of acknowledgement of the fact, like in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air when suddenly Aunt Viv was a totally new person from one season to the next. What’s that about? At least when the daughter on Rosanne was switched out and came back Rosanne says to her, “Where the hell have you been?” I love internal jokes referencing something that we all noticed anyway. Somehow I doubt we’re going to get the same for Katie Holmes to Maggie Gyllenhaal. I used to have a huge crush on Katie Holmes during Dawson’s Creek but I don’t know what happened to her recently. She got weird and distant and sucky. Hmm…

So Dark Knight is selling out like crazy and it looks spectacular. I honestly feel like I can’t wait and like I’m going to wet myself (but that’s more of a day to day problem than Dark Knight related). I love Batman – the only non-superpower superhero – and the reason I loved Batman Begins is because it explained how an ordinary man came to have extraordinary abilities that were not supernatural. Plus, it was bad-ass. This Batman series is sensational (and it’s not even officially a series yet), especially when compared to the first four, which were all only worth watching because of the villains (Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito, Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey).

Do you have advance tickets? Are you excited? What are you looking forward to most about it? Do you think it will live up to all the hype?

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Trip Planning in California

Well, we think that we’ve found a place to live, but the difficult part is that we can’t move in until about July 3rd. Rather than waste money on a hotel in a city we’ll be in for the next year, we thought we may as well take this opportunity (the opportunity being that we’re not paying rent to live somewhere) to go visit some other destination or friend. Lucky for us, we have a wonderful friend, Thuy, in a wonderful city, San Diego, who has opened her home to us. We are thinking of driving down the coast from San Fancisco on highway 1, which is supposed to be one of the most beautiful and scenic drives there are. Last minute tickets also seem to be pretty cheap – anywhere from 140 to 75 dollars depending on the direction. Cyrus (our cat) adds a hassle to the whole program but if we drive he can chill in the car with us and if we fly then he’ll just have to deal. I would have boarded him but you need proof of vaccinations to do that and I just didn’t bring those with me in the first suitcase load of stuff to San Fran. Silly me.

So, everything seems to be working itself out okay and San Francisco is a great city. I can’t wait until we get settled in a bit more and I can return to steadily working on The Zen of South Park, my project which misses me a great deal. And I miss it. I’m also looking forward to providing you all with regular and quality posts once I get settled properly. Don’t worry – we’ll return soon.

South Park Tonight: Fingerbanging and Negroplasties

Tonight’s got a double episode of South Park coming your way, and it includes two great episodes, “Things You Can Do With Your Finger,” and “Mr. Garrison’s Fancy New Vagina.” I love them both.

In the first, note Cartman’s attitude and approach towards God. Not only does he believe that God has ordained him for what he is to do (start a boy band) but he challenges God, even demonstrating his fright after doing so (he calls God a pussy and then insists he was just kidding).

In the second, we get a great look at religious identity when Kyle complains that he has never felt Jewish but actually tall and black, proceeds to get a negroplasty only to realize that he will always be himself genetically, even if he can alter an outward appearance – an interesting comment on sex change operations, no doubt.

These episodes are each fantastic in their own right (especially when we watch a scrotum get cut open during a real sex change operation), and I recommend you watch them both and think about what they are saying about religious identity and man’s perceived relationship to God.

Did you watch them? What did you think?

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Topical Tuesdays…on Wednesday! – Self Publishing

First, an apology. As some of my loyal readers (and for the record I love you all) will notice, this promised Topical Tuesday is not happening on Tuesday. It’s Wednesday (to be honest – I’m in San Fran so it’s still Tuesday here but since it’s Wednesday on the East Coast and most people on the West Coast won’t read this blog until Wednesday, here we are). Low and behold, you will also know, as a loyal reader, that I have just moved to San Francisco and so my life and schedule (and internet access) are a little thrown off. Please forgive me for the aberration in posting.

That all said, don’t forget to check out Chandler’s blog for more on this week’s Topical Tuesday subject, self publishing. I assure you it’s more informed than my own opinion. And here we go…

Self publishing is a challenging matter and Chandler’s point remains crucial: a self-published author has not been selected for publishing. The author has chosen to avail him or herself of the services of someone else’s abilities to print. That means you’re responsible for what happens (generally speaking) after said availing.

There are, of course, some benefits to self publishing. One is that, if an author is having trouble getting a book published, self publishing is a way to prove that the book can be successful. With a proper ad campaign (self-funded, of course) and good promotion, you can sell a lot of books (pending you convince people to buy your book). You can sell copies out of the trunk of your car after a book signing or talk. You can sell them over the internet and with an isbn number through Amazon.com. All of these things and more are possible and you could sell a crapload of books this way. If your goal is to be published, a publisher could be greatly incentivized by your book’s success and agree to give it a go through real publishing. So, in this sense, it could be a means to an end.

As far as money is concerned, first books and writing in general don’t yield a lot of money. Very few people become Stephen Kings or Nora Roberts. Most of us make next to bubkes doing this. If you self publish, you could be responsible for some money up front (I don’t know the details). Fortunately, if you get a lot of copies of your book (and some awful publishers like PublishAmerica don’t let this happen so be careful and as Chandler warns, make sure you know what you’re signing) by running a large print run at your expense and keeping the copies, you get to keep all of the profits if you sell them. That means that the harder you work to promote and sell the more direct fiscal benefits you see. In the world of publishing houses, they reap the financial benefits of your promotions (aside from meager royalties) and you only reap the benefits of a book thoroughly sold which increases your odds of being published again – a noble gain, no doubt.

On the flip side of all of this are two issues that I see. Number one: you’re not really published in an elitist way and your book is probably not all over Barnes and Noble bookshelves. And number two: you could pay more money up front and not really get paid by a publishing house. There are other issues but these are two that I see.

At the very least, before self publishing read your contract carefully and make sure you’re not getting into a mess you can’t get out of – or at least get out of with your book.

What do you think about self publishing? Are you self published? Was it a good or bad experience? Are there other pros and cons that I didn’t talk about that you think should be brought up?

Status Report: San Fran is great and I’m loving the city. This was our first day apartment hunting and we’ve seen some stuff we liked. We feared the worst before beginning but think that we’ve found some great things and are not worried about working out a positive situation. We are staying in a friend’s apartment 30 minutes outside of the city (Sunnyvale) and it’s quite nice. His car is a great bonus for apartment hunting. Cyrus, the cat, did not have a great trip in and was pretty upset all through the night (disoriented, still a bit drugged, upset by the move) but today he seems pretty normal and his usual self. Tomorrow we check out more apartments – I’ll let you know how it goes.

Interview with Ex-cult Member, Tifany

I’d like to introduce everyone to Tifany Lee. Tifany is currently a musician preparing to record her third album. You can check out the first two at her MySpace page or her website tifanylee.com and look forward to the third. She is also the editor of Heroine Magazine, an excellent publication that she is bringing in part to her new blog at tifanylee.wordpress.com. Tifany’s fascinating experiences in a cult make her this week’s guest blogger. I hope that you enjoy what she has to share with us and take the opportunity to ask her questions about whatever you’d like. Without further ado…

What’s the name of the cult you joined?
Trob (The Realization of Being)

How old were you when you joined?
19

Why did you join?
I was a freshman in college at University of Washington freaking out about what I was going to do with my life. I had made some questionable decisions and my romances had failed miserably. My sister was having issues of her own – my mother had taken her to a medical doctor and a shrink to no avail. I told her about the mother of my best friend who I had known since middle school and a strange school that she ran. I suggested she try that as a last resort. When I came home for the summer a month later, my sister was transformed. She was completely over the crisis, but more than that, she was happy. And she had never been happy her whole life. She was always kind of mopey. But now she was confident and friendly and I was sold immediately. I started the work and became a more focused student than my sister ever was; she would touch in from time to time after that.

What did the cult offer you that your life wasn’t giving you?
Meaning, purpose.

Did the cult fulfill its promises?
Yes, for a while.

How long were you in the cult and why did you leave?
I was there for 11 years, till I was 31. Then, the founder had a stroke and her right-hand woman – the president of the school – began to make accusations about the founder. There was a fight for power and it left me sick to my stomach. It was a positive thinking cult with a dash of scare-you-with-the-devil kind of stuff and she started to accuse the founder of being manipulative. Actually, evil. She told us that we had been a cult all along. This infuriated me. I had defended the school to everyone in my life for not being a cult. It took me a month to sneak out because I had so many responsibilities at the school, but when I finally did, a mass exodus occurred. I had been kind of the star of the school. I was going to make the school famous when I became famous – that’s what they told me and believed. I read cult recovery books that say that members rarely get out. People escape if one of three things happen: an authority figure dies or gets sick, there is a power struggle, and something else that I forgot because it didn’t pertain to me. I recognized the cult tactics on every page: public humiliation to break you, build you back up with their ideals. It’s kind of like building a robot. I think our cult was a mild version – we weren’t physically sequestered from society we were only encouraged to have relationships that didn’t interfere with the school. It was all hidden behind a veil of love and support. That’s how it was all done – with love.

Do you still feel that certain things are missing in your life that the cult claimed it would have given you?
It was a miserable failure. I have spent the last years repairing the rift with my family who, though they never threw me out of the family or anything like that, thought I would never leave the cult – ever. But I did find my music there. I’m not sure if I would’ve ever written a song if I wasn’t in the mindset of being free to live any dream I wanted. And the president worked tirelessly to make me a better performer and made me take risks that, while they were for the good of the cult only, I marvel at now. I wrote, produced and starred in the biggest fundraisers for the school – these improv musicals that we ran at 7 Stages, 14th street playhouse, the woodruff arts center. we would rent them out and run ads on the radio and in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution and pack the house. So, I have a strange gratitude. My struggle with my work now is that everything I did back then was steeped in the teachings and now I struggle with what I believe in.

How many people were in the cult? Was it local, national?
It was based in Atlanta with international students – my sister is in Brazil until she quit several years before I did, there were a few Hong Kong students, French, people scattered across the States, but for the most part it was Atlanta. There were about 500 peripheral students, and 40 hardcore, of which I was one. It was a fast growing organization several years before I arrived – they were renting out the civic center for events with messages of positive thinking and had about 2000 students. Until the president/my best friend’s mom became a leader and introduced reasons why people were not getting what they want. The founder said “you are a precious adorable angel” and deserve to have whatever you want. The President introduced psychology with the Devil as to why people didn’t materialize things.

Did the cult had a particular leader? Was this person particularly charismatic?
They were the sweetest people I had ever met.

Did the cult have weird doctrines and teachings?
Pretty standard stuff for a cult – we approve if you follow us and you are evil if you disagree. The bulk of the work was all the positive thinking stuff that Oprah is covering lately. I guess you could call it the re-packaged brand of bullshit that all religion has been peddling since the beginning of time.

Were there any doctrines about end-times?
My best friend (who was also the resident reincarnation of Satan because she always spoke her mind) took the revelations class where they studied revelations in the new testament but she didn’t understand much and it caused her anxiety about dying.

Do you think that the people who began the cult did so out of conviction or to manipulate others?
Absolutely not. And I still feel that the founder is sweet and true. I think that either the president got drunk on her power over other people’s lives or she went crazy. or maybe she was crazy. She believes everything to this day and touts herself as a life coach on the internet, riding on other people’s success. One of her students – the Hong Kong one – made millions of dollars over the years so the president gets the credit.

Did you have to pay to be in the cult or give up anything like contact with friends and family?

You had to pay for privates (one on one sessions – the most coveted and expensive way to learn), the group classes. There was the 7 emotional attachments that you had to let go to be free and then you could move on to the advance classes when J or L got the word from God. We all could talk to God but we all trusted J and L more when they listened. And you were expected to tithe, of course. I bartered most of the time I was there – I helped out in the office. My duties as teacher (I taught the children and teen classes) and producer were volunteer.

Are you a religious person? How so?
I have never been a religious person. I was baptized Presbyterian because my Ma liked the idea of predestination. But my parents aren’t religious either (though my Ma is falling into a primitive Baptist cult now).

Do you believe in God?
I did while I was in the cult, very much so. Before and after that, not so much. It was comforting when I believed that he was there. But my belief evaporated. It materialized and evaporated almost on its own.

Are you a spiritual person? How so?
I have been searching since adolescence. I explored my Cherokee background and learned about the Native American way of life – my 2nd cousin is a medicine woman and named me. I got into new age stuff after that – crystals, tarot, drugs have been a spiritual journey for me.

What else can you share with us about the experience of being a cult?
When I got out of the cult I saw how much everything is a cult. Everything we choose to identify with shapes our thinking. This war seems absurd to me because it is just cults fighting cults. But I do know the power of faith and what lengths a person can be manipulated to – there is no limit. The most hope I see in the present is that the person who wrote the manifesto for Al Qaeda has renounced his belief that violence is the answer – literally the guy who wrote the book. I forget his name damnit. When I read that I knew that Al Qaeda’s time is limited. It will be destroyed from within; maybe that’s the only way.

What advice would you offer others about being in a cult?
Think for yourself.

What did you think about South Park‘s Super Best Friends episode?

The Super Best Friends episode was obviously a take on Scientology and the weird alien where everybody killed themselves. But, surprisingly close in the premise at the beginning – tell people they’re unhappy (not really hard to convince them in the first place) and then don’t let them leave without talking for it so long
that they get tired of arguing and decide to stay.
Of the super best friends – the mormon dude? Really? He’s a cult leader, or at least I always thought so. In that case, David Blaine will soon join the superprophets. The joke they made about Buddha not believing in
evil – funny, and true. I most identify with Buddhism after leaving the cult because they don’t really believe in God either. It’s kind of like 6 of this, half dozen of the other – so ambiguous that it can never be wrong.