This is the sort of thing Shane Mipod hears at the department luncheon: “Shane Mipod — Thomas Wheathrop, Associate Ble Mmmh Fffh in Baaa Rum Glurr.” Shane, a recent winner of the Jeep Prize for his graphic memoir “Amen,” has just been hired as an adjunct lecturer at Prestimia College. Shane’s entire resume exists in the previous sentence, unless you include 16 odd jobs and 24 credits from Laszlow Community College and some freelance work in graphic design. He’s a bright enough guy, but to say this is not his milieu would be an understatement. To say that he has no milieu at all would be more like it. How he got this job is the dean’s assistant raved about the book and the dean saw Jeep Prize on the back and called Shane up totally out of the blue and offered him a job. “Send us your C.V. right away,” the dean had said. “Just as a formality, of course,” and Shane, needing a job and never in his wildest dreams imagining that the dean of anything would hire him for anything, thanked him for the job, hung up the phone and yelled into the other room, “Honey? What’s a C.V.?”
“Isn’t that like a mobile home or something?” said his wife Honey.
“I think that’s an R.V.”
Here is a brief sampling of what could be on the aforementioned C.V., if resumes by Latin names included such things: waiter, assistant at a law firm (Shane types 65 wpm and is skilled at the dictaphone), assistant at an auto parts factory, assistant at a conglomerate he was unclear about the nature of, comic book sales, assistant at a startup felt-tip pen company, dog walker, nanny, and now, college professor. (Briefly, Honey will refer to him as her own private nanny and the professor.) Each of these milieus, if you will, has a considerably different bunch of people present. In each of these places Shane has wondered what he was doing there and in each of these places Shane has had moments of feeling like he totally belonged, but some of the places where you might think he belonged, basically anywhere where people look the most like him, which is to say not very extremely anything, places such as let’s just say Prestimia, where with certain exceptions one sees a lot of people in neutral tones, which are tones Shane is heavily invested in so as to better achieve a blending-in, a sort of you-can’t-go-too-wrong-with-neutral-tones-anywhere line of thinking, and yet these are the precisely the sorts of places where Shane ends up feeling the lowest sense of belonging. This lack of belonging anywhere in the world may explain Shane’s need for a spiritual fellowship, and it may also explain why the Mipods have tended to live in largely Hispanic neighborhoods. Shane suspects that the people in his neighborhood don’t think much about him at all, which only serves to emphasize his conundrum.
At the luncheon Shane is mostly quiet. He shakes a lot of hands and smiles and nods and thanks the two people at the long table that had read and enjoyed his book, but struggles to silence a third awesome from his mouth before it escapes. He may not be in his milieu, but is aware that these are not people inclined toward this casual type of enthusiasm. Randomly he hears other words, like pedagogy and canonical and colloquium and tempered but is unable to contribute much to the conversation in the way of fresh content. Occasionally he will hear a larger word, one like syllabus or even expedient that he can process into something tangible, but this is sporadic at best. Fortunately, one of the other adjuncts, a sculptor who works in air, knows this sort of virgin when she sees one, and invites him outside for a cigarette. Shane starts to explain to her that he doesn’t smoke, but she quietly stares him down into complying. “Neither do I,” she whispers.
Outside, not smoking, she says, “Here’s what you need to know.”
Shane’s thinking it would help to know her name, but is afraid to ask.
“The tall guy with the weird skin thing is the current Blog Laureate. He does not meet eyes with people. It’s not because he’s tall. The largeish woman with the turquoise pashmina is head of Cross-Departmental-Genre. She’s never not in a mood. The dude with the wool socks and sandals, I swear he’s just here to fill that stereotype, I don’t know what he does, but I know he’s sleeping with Bridget from the registrar’s office, and that he’s married and thinks no one knows but actually everyone knows. Which is something else you should know. Everyone knows everything, except what any of us actually do. You think that doesn’t make sense, which it doesn’t, nevertheless it’s true.”
He knows he should say something soon, but doesn’t know what.
“Oh and I’m the big old lesbian. Do you want to have coffee next week? I can fill you in more then.”
“Um, yeah, there’s more.”
Shane agrees to the coffee but musters the courage to insist she reveal her name.
“Marjorie Vision-Specter, sorry.”
“Marjorie, do we like anyone here?” is what Shane finally says.
Marjorie chuckles. “Actually we do, we like quite a few people.”
Shane is relieved, for the time being.
He returns home to Honey, who he met when he was floundering at LCC. Shane and Honey Mipod are devout believers. Honey runs the office at Church and “Amen” is more or less a chronicle of their early romance.
What they believe is kind of hard to explain, sort of a smorgasbord of beliefs, a big serving of Zen, a heap each of Judaism, Christianity and Hinduism, mythology, a lot of love thy neighbor, no Kabballah whatsoever, not even a little Scientology, not so much of the hell that exists in an actual and hot location, efforts at patience and tolerance and understanding and charity and forgiveness, a measure of doubt for good measure. Their motto, ‘We don’t pretend to know everything,’ is carved into a wood-grain panel on the front door. They are ardently against putting alcoholic beverages of any kind into the body, as they believe in living life consciously, although they tend to favor rituals for virtually any life change, big or small, one of which involves sacramental pot-smoking. For another example, purchases over fifty dollars call for a ceremonial bell-ringing, which does not go unnoticed at Wal-Mart, and is the sort of thing that calls their overall legitimacy into question for a lot of folks. What they believe doesn’t involve a person with a gender or a face, but it doesn’t not, either. They call their god G for one reason: it’s short. There was a period, at the dawning of the politically correct era, when members were encouraged to use variants of the pronoun ‘him or her’ as necessary, but this proved clunky and sometimes confusing, and failed to address the gender/non-gender issue anyway. Their church is just called Church. It has been derided as being too much of too many things, too little of anything definite, and way too new to count.
They don’t practice this perfectly, ever, but they always believe. If Shane does have a milieu, Church would be it, although he might like to think the world is everyone’s milieu.
Oh also, they lean mostly to the left, politically. The Mipods. Church-Goers, as they’re known, are free to associate themselves with any political party, and do not tend to lean one way or another as a group, although it is widely believed that they generally lean to the right, which is erroneous. They lean however they lean, which is many ways. Anyway, Shane’s book, remember it’s called “Amen,” has some strong religious themes, and follows Shane’s life from before he met Honey, when he was kind of a partier, albeit a quiet one who tended to go to a dorm party for an hour just to get a buzz and then go back to his room and doodle talking skulls, to meeting Honey in the quad on the campus of Lombard on a sleeting winter day when she was trying to witness for the Church but no one was spending any more seconds outside than they had to. Feeling her pain as much as a stoned guy is able to, Shane went and talked to her, and her being very obviously cute made his lack of gloves slightly more bearable, and so he agreed to go to Church that Sunday even though he was at the time, remember, kind of into skulls and beer. He was however, a virgin, which is something the Church recommends, and although it was hardly by choice, he ended up deciding to hold onto it after Church that first time, because it made sense to him that making love was not to be entered into casually, that there had to be more to it than what it sounded like coming from the closet in his dorm room, which was where his roommate Kip brought girls. Plus, truth be told, although he was horny, the idea of doing it only became more frightening to him as time passed. In the end, he didn’t hold onto it all that long, because within a year, he and Honey fell in love, married, had clumsy sex that was occasionally mind-blowing enough for both of them to want to keep doing it, he became a deacon at Church, dropped out of school and felt more hopeful about life than he could have imagined was possible without beer. What he had not expected was the backlash.
Out in the world, he and Honey find themselves at odds with people, find witnessing, which they were once so eager to do, painful, find themselves increasingly hesitant to mention that they love G the way they do, find that people are usually stunned to hear that the Mipods actually accept gays, that they are in favor of stem cell research, that they are against the war, that they are not fond of the president, that Shane once voted straight down the Green ticket. They aren’t so sure about abortion or the death penalty, they kind of think that life and death things aren’t really up to them, but Shane and Honey both have to admit that if anyone were to harm their child, born or unborn, they might at least picture that person bleeding to death slowly and alone.
When the term begins, it takes a few classes before Shane hits his stride. Because of his awareness that many of his students are already more educated than he is, Shane cannot help but feel concerned about what he has to offer. He has of course, never taught before, but he does know how to draw and how to write, and as it turns out, has an unassuming but natural way of talking about process without actually using the word process, which is one more word Shane knows primarily from another context. He knows what it means when placed in front of a word like cheese. In Shane’s class, process is called “This is how I do it, although you might do it another way, and that’s fine.” The class, which had filled up as soon as it was announced, is the talk of a certain brainy-geeky portion of the student body known to spend considerable time online and/or in comic book stores. Unbeknownst to Shane, they feel as though they are enrolled in the comics equivalent of class with a rock star, and it isn’t that Shane is unaware that his work has been well-received, but he doesn’t read reviews, spends little time online, drawing in any spare moment, and hasn’t done more than a handful of readings, which were all before “Amen” had come out. Also, he’s just kind of not terribly tuned in to how people see him. Shane’s feeling tends to be that people generally don’t see him at all, which perhaps had some accuracy before “Amen” but which has changed, and which Shane is more or less oblivious to. In some ways, Shane sort of wishes he were in the class instead of teaching it. He hadn’t gotten a lot in the way of art at Laszlow Community College.
So but nevertheless he is teaching it, and after the first few classes in which students are feeling a bit shy, he finally backtracks and gets everyone to start talking about who their favorite comic artists are, which breaks the ice because there are a few very different opinions about this and gets everyone all worked up and able to see that Shane is just another person who read Fantastic Four and The Tick when he was a kid and is someone who they don’t have to agree with or even to like in order to learn from, although they do, both, like him and learn from him. Over the term, his students’ work shows significant improvement, and Shane has the briefest moments of feeling that he may be in his milieu, or at least a milieu where he’s welcome to stop by.
One of his students, this kid Marque (pron. Mark), to describe him as awkward would be an understatement and not capture the precise components of his awkwardness, nor his particular charm. Marque is not lacking for friends, and from a block away you might identify him as something of a hipster, with kind of overgrown Beatle hair and thrift-shop sweaters from the eighties and a certain kind of tilty posture, that sort of posture that announces to the world the painful fact that the person in the somewhat slouchy but sort of inflexible posture is in a certain metaphorical way not exactly occupying the space that is his body, the kind of person who has a singular way of thinking but is unable to make that singular mind work properly within a human vehicle with moving limbs and such. Nevertheless anything hipsterish about Marque is entirely accidental. His sweaters are not actually from the thrift shop. They are new sweaters, hand knit by his mother, primarily involving wide stripes in combinations like bright orange and brown, with scratchy labels inside that say “Made Just 4 U.” Anyway Marque feels that he needs extra help and arranges to meet Shane at the campus coffee shop. As it turns out the kind of help Marque needs is not so much related to his progress in the class but is more personal in nature. Marque has of late been coming to recognize the disparity between his body and his mind, and admires the sense of serenity he observes in Shane, although Shane isn’t sure he’d agree unless by comparison to Marque, who kind of makes Shane look like some sort of Yoda. Shane, naturally, would love to invite Marque to Church but having read some of Marque’s wildly illustrated class work at this point, knows that Marque’s idea of god is that god is a bit of a jerk, which is an idea founded on his mom’s perpetual spiritual post-game analysis, if you will, of just about any event in their lives big or small, surmising that no event is untouched by the hand of the lord, really, not your more obvious miracles like healthy babies and not even your lesser miracles such as your dad staying sober for a whole twenty-four hours and not whacking your mom into the neighbor’s yard, which Marque sees not so much as a blessed day but what he suspects is to most people just a day. Not just that but Shane has some serious reservations about whether or not inviting a student to Church is appropriate. Shane suggests maybe cutting back on caffeine, based on having noticed that Marque tends to have with him at all times, a gallon-sized mug full of Coke, the kind truck drivers use, but really, he doesn’t suppose it will make a huge difference, or that Marque is prepared to make that shift anyway. The meeting is not especially productive.
So here’s Shane and Honey at the semi-annual Humanities cocktail party. Of course, there is no graphic novel department at Prestimia, which is why he’s been lumped into Cross-Departmental, which is where they lump everyone who doesn’t fit very neatly into any one department. Which right now consists of him, Marjorie Vision-Specter, and a floet. Malena Greer, the woman in the turquoise pashmina, is presently raving about Shane’s work, and although it’s clear that she doesn’t really get it, she is in the middle of explaining it to several colleagues. “The man simply blows irony out of the water,” she says. At this point Shane is not catching Malena’s meaning. In fact, his work rejects irony altogether, although he probably doesn’t know it. Irony is virtually nonexistent in his world. He recognizes that Malena in the pashmina means to pay him a compliment, but it is one he isn’t getting. “It’s meta-irony. It’s an audacious parody of the Church, satire on a whole new level.” The colleagues chuckle knowingly. They say things like, “God,” “Ha ha,” “Yes, yes,” and “Brilliant,” all in italics. The italics are practically visible above their heads. Not that anyone here talks any other way. Marjorie Vision-Specter and Shane Mipod being the unsurprising exceptions. Marjorie considers explaining, because she gets it, but instead just rolls her eyes to herself. She has never liked Malena, but she does like her job.
Honey is somewhat intimidated by Malena for any number of reasons including her pashmina, but makes an attempt to pipe in. “Um, well,” is about all she has a chance to say before a man dressed in a clown costume carrying a bunch of balloons, obviously lost, peeks in the doorway.
“Perfect!” says Malena. “That is the perfect representation of what I’m talking about.” She pronounces “the” as “thee” but with at least three Es, maybe four. In fact, no one in the group really knows what she’s talking about now, but what Shane doesn’t know is that they are very good at acting like they do.
Honey has no idea what the clown could possibly be representing perfectly in this discussion, but tries to finish her original thought. “I’m not sure… it’s just that… will you excuse us for a moment?” Honey pulls Shane over to the punchbowl. “Baby, I don’t think it’s my place to testify here, but I don’t think these people are feeling you, and I don’t much care for hearing the story of our love referred to as a parody.” Shane concurs that they seem not to get it, but reminds Honey that he’s new and doesn’t want to jeopardize his position, seeing as how they’re trying to save for their future baby’s college fund. A little known fact is that the prestigious Jeep Prize is simply a Jeep and a thousand dollar honorarium. Which was another word that someone had to explain to Shane was for his purposes the same as “money.”
“I’m just thinking about little Shanoney,” he says, and Honey backs off, but with an “Alright,” that doesn’t sound like it’s really all right.
When they return to the conversation Malena is still dominating, finishing a sentence with “and that is everything that is wrong with religion in America today.”
Shane quietly asks about the part of the sentence he missed. Malena in the pashmina says, “Everything your work disavows about religion, the exclusivity, the bizarro rituals, the sexual dark ages, the right-wing plotting…”
Honey blurts out, “‘Amen’ isn’t a disavowal.”
Malena actually takes a breath before she speaks, simply because this seems unthinkable. Finally, “Surely you’re joking.”
“No,” Shane says. He goes on to politely explain that his work is not ironic, that it was his attempt to carry the message of love and hope that he has received so plentifully through the Church, and that he is currently feeling grave concern that he has failed.
Malena still does not understand. She thinks he is being ironic saying he is not ironic. She laughs loudly, tossing her pashmina back over her shoulder. “HAH!” It is only when none of the colleagues, now visibly uncomfortable, take her lead that she begins to realize the lack of irony in Shane’s irony.
Marjorie tries her best to explain to Malena the meaning of the word sincere without being sarcastic, but Malena, a linguistics professor, doesn’t much appreciate it. “Yes I know what sincerity is, thanks — you.” Malena is hoping that the S on the end of her thanks and the brief pause after it that indicates that she does not know Marjorie’s name, goes unheard.
At this point, Malena is rendered temporarily silent, and when she finally excuses herself, the colleagues scatter.
Shane gets fired the following Monday, in the form of a terse email.
Things have come to our attention that call into question the relevance of your position here at Prestimia, and as such we regretfully and respectfully request that you remove your personal belongings from your office at once and return your key.
Shane doesn’t have an office, or a key.
“I think I just got fired, can you come look at this?”
“Hm. Yeah, I’m pretty sure you are fired. I think this is one of those letters that tries to say something by saying nothing.”
“What ‘things’? What are things?”
“I’m not sure, but apparently you have been fired for them.”
“Can they do this?”
“I don’t know.”
“Am I irrelevant?”
“I don’t think of you that way. I find you relevant.”
“I’m in the middle of the term. What about my students? Do you think this has something to do with the party last week?”
Honey plays back the awkward conversation in her head. “Oh, no, this is my fault.”
“I made you tell them you weren’t ironic.”
“Oh, don’t be ridiculous.”
“No, think about it.”
“You can’t fire someone for their religious beliefs.”
“Hence the mysterious ‘things.’”
“Nuh uh!” says Shane, but they know it’s really Yuh huh.
The Mipods don’t know what to do now. They pray, but that’s obvious. They perform the ceremonial job-firing dance, which involves burning the pink slip, or in this case, a printout of the terse email, in a ceramic bowl labeled “work.” (Kept on a shelf next to the other ceremonial bowls they burn things in and then dance around, including one labeled “miscellaneous.”)
They go to church. They bring their prayer request before the congregation, asking that they open up new opportunities to witness, that they open up new opportunities for work best suited to their desire to provide for the unconceived Shanoney in a way that compromises neither their spiritual beliefs nor their need for “a few nice things from J.C. Penney, nothing too much,” and to bless everyone at Prestimia College, “especially Malena Greer, who seems like she needs it more than anyone.”
Some time goes by. The Mipods are the kind of people who may be certain about how prayers are answered in their own lives, but posit theories about whether or not their prayers for others are addressed by the big G. In this case, there seems to be little they can identify in the way of response from god at all, for a while. No work comes their way, although during this time, Shanoney is conceived in the form of twins, which they recognize as a blessing in spite of god not sending a Penney’s gift card along with them. So the Mipods posit theories all the way around this time. “Maybe G figures we don’t need to be showed who to witness to,” posits Shane. Upon glancing at a lottery winner on TV, “Maybe it’s a numbers game,” posits Honey. Upon no word about Malena Greer whatsoever, “Maybe G thinks we don’t need to know,” posits Shane. “Or maybe we’re supposed to follow up?” Honey posits back.
Shortly after Shane’s firing by terse email, Marjorie mentions her outrage at the incident on her Livejournal, recounting, at some length, her memory of the cocktail party conversation that preceded and apparently hastened the demise of Shane’s academic career, ranting about art and freedom of religion and freedom of speech and admittedly mixing in a few other issues of her own (why bad lesbian dates are worse than bad gay dates, details about what’s wrong with her HMO, and how, “just for example” very few people appreciate art made of air) for good measure.
Marjorie, who writes all these things on her Livejournal because she believes it to be private, is wrong, because everyone knows you can Google a phrase and get sent to a private livejournal, which is what happens when someone at one of the news blogs, looking for something else entirely, lands on Marjorie’s Livejournal and immediately links to it, which is picked up by a news outlet, at which time it becomes one of those little stories that ends up being big news, kind of like when one person says Elian Gonzales and another says Elian Gonzales and then so many people say Elian Gonzales that even people who mostly avoid the news eventually hear someone say Elian Gonzales, maybe in conversation, and so everyone around the world except for maybe third-world countries very quickly learn who Elian Gonzales is, which is all to say that Shane Mipod is, in this way and for a while, Elian Gonzales. The Mipods are interviewed by many people, and to many people they testify. They say things like, “We hold no bitterness toward Prestimia College, even though we probably could, and maybe should, we don’t, because part of our faith is to show compassion and understanding towards everyone at all times, and plus, we believe that some things happen for a reason, which in this case is pretty obviously so that we can share our hopeful message to many more people than we could just the usual way we do which is just by walking around and talking to people one at a time or if they come by church and talk to us or whatever.” They learn the word “forum,” and it is suggested that they become televangelists, which they consider and reject on the basis of that never turning out to be very cool. Instead they start a blog of their own, “Blieve Blog.”
The next time they go to Church they thank the congregation for answering their prayers about witnessing.
Unfortunately what ends up happening is that Shane and Honey and their fellows in the Church are misunderstood by people everywhere now.
One day Marque shows up at coffee after Church. Shane welcomes him with a hug. Marque does his best to lift his arms up and place them around Shane’s back, so it’s a hug in name only, but for Marque it’s not nothing.
“I’ve been following all the hoopla, and I realized how you got your mellow,” Marque explains. Shane says he wishes now that he’d mentioned it to Marque that day at the café but that it didn’t feel right.
This seems to Shane like one of those if-you-reach-one-person-you’ve-done-your-job kind of moments, even though really Marque is just as drawn in by the cute girl handing out the sticky buns, but which, if you think about it, is kind of how Shane came in. “Look, Honey,” Shane says, pointing to Marque and the sticky bun girl. “I feel like it’s coming full circle now.” It’s a happy day for the Mipods.
Except for them being broke and having no college fund for Shanoney.