Friday, August 31, 2007

My Dinner with Ron Jeremy

Ron, Craig, and Me at the Grill in Athens

It's 1am and Ron Jeremy is sitting in the front seat of my Mazda. This is funny for a couple of reasons - one being the fact that he's really too big to ever sit in a Mazda (I know what you were thinking when you read that last line, and you should be ashamed of yourself) and the other being that when I started driving at the age of 16 I never really thought one of my passengers would be a man considered by many to be the "Michael Jordan of Porn." To be honest, it's kind of blowing my mind. It's kind of a weird feeling to look at him and in my peripheral vision see my daughter's car seat in the back of the car. Don't worry - she wasn't there.

But even if she had been, there would have been no real reason to worry. Ron is not the enemy. This is not to say that I like what Ron does; on the contrary, I think porn is a misrepresentation of sex that is harmful to relationships, objectifies women, and is potentially addictive. That puts my views much more in line with the guy who's sitting in the back seat of my Mazda, my friend Craig, a pastor and one founder of, an anti-pornography web community that seeks to spread awareness of porn's harmful potential and to build relationships with those in the adult industry. Earlier in the evening, he and Ron shared a University of Georgia stage and debated pornography's negative effects (or lack there of if you choose to side with Ron), and after a late dinner downtown, I am dropping them off at their hotel.

It's pretty safe to say that Craig and Ron are on opposites of the spectrum ideologically, philosophically, spiritually, etc., and in our culture, it seems that most Christians are content to keep it that way. Sure, we all want Ron and people in the adult industry (as well as all other sorts who fall into the category of "sinners") to accept Christ and become Christians, but we also want to keep those same kinds of people as far away from us as possible as to not risk them dirtying up our own holy whiteness. Rather than engaging our faith, we often choose to keep it under lock and key to prevent someone like Ron from stealing it. We'll talk about loving while we condemn them to hell from across the street. So in this context, it's weird to see two guys such as these get along, much less ride in the same tiny Mazda. But again; Ron is not the enemy (though we often treat him as such). And while I would much rather have my daughter grow up in a world without the kind of movies Ron makes or the industry for which he works, I don't hate him or wish him ill. In fact, I really kind of like the guy.

But then again, Ron is a likeable fellow. Sitting at the table at this diner in Athens over dinner, Ron is very comfortable being the center of attention. And by the way he effortlessly slides into a well-seasoned schtick, I imagine that he is the center of attention just about everywhere he goes. If this were high school, Ron would be that guy who could sit at any table in the lunchroom (and possibly the kind of guy who would take the lunch money from guys like me. But I digress...). Ron is gracious and kind and polite, never complaining when people interrupt his dinner to get pictures or autographs or in the case of one cook from the back of the diner, bow in honor. He seems very genuine, expressing his honest opinions (carefully crafted to maximize storytelling impact) about whatever topic comes up or comes to mind, including Christianity and religion in general. Ultimately, Ron simply wants to have a good time, and he wants you to have a good time, too. In a lot of ways he seems really normal, and you almost forget that his job is to have sex with strangers with a camera crew at the ready.

The debate held earlier was great. It was sold out, and over 800 UGA students showed up, mostly to see Ron and get new photos for their Facebook profiles. Neither Craig nor Ron pulled any punches, both speaking passionately from opposing viewpoints; both guys were also respectful and courteous to each other despite their polar opposite viewpoints. Beyond the pros and cons of looking at porn, and beyond all the statistics both for and against, though, it is this genuine friendship between these two guys that is the most intriguing thing to me about these debates. Both Ron and Craig are unmoving when it comes to how they feel about pornography, but as quickly as the debate is finished they are no longer "opponents" and are simply two guys who will set each other up for jokes while taking any opportunity to make fun of the other. Craig even snatched Ron's pants down a couple of times on tour, a favor Ron has attempted to return. And when asked after the debate where he wants to eat dinner, Ron's response is simply, "Wherever Craig wants to go is where I want to go."

Ron likes what Craig does. He says, "Craig helps the people who shouldn't be in porn get out of porn," but he is also quick to point out that you don't hear any of the big stars in the adult industry talking about how bad it is. It's always the ones at the bottom, the ones who maybe couldn't hack it. I would say that he's partially right about that; thus far, no huge porn star has come forward to agree with Craig or to publicly denounce the industry. At least not yet.

Ron is Jewish, but he says he's not particularly religious. He even has this routine about how he's praying to everyone to keep his bases covered. But it's clear that somewhere in him there is at least a small, growing desire to know the truth. Unprompted, he brings up some of his questions about Christianity. How can someone who kills someone simply accept Christ minutes before death and enter the gates of Heaven while someone of a different belief who never willfully harms anyone dies and spends eternity in hell? Don't we all ask these questions at some point?

And that's why his statement, "Wherever Craig wants to go is where I want to go," sounds more like a prayer of the heart than a declaration of where to eat. Sure, you can say he was just talking about getting some food, but maybe it goes a little deeper than that. Certainly, I'm not going to attempt to play armchair psychologist or take a swing at prophecy. But I will say that when I hear him say that it's hard for him to have long-term relationships or that true love is finding one person and growing old together, I can see that there is a lot more to Ron Jeremy than making porn. He has a Masters degree in Special Education, for crying out loud. But for 29 years he has been the biggest name in porn, and in that time he has become a pop culture icon. Everywhere he goes there are crowds of people who look at him with awe and admiration, and as Craig says, he's probably one of the only 54 year old men in the world who can walk into a club full of women and know with confidence that he could probably sleep with any of them later that night. For someone who is not particularly religious, you can understand why that life would be a hard one to give up.

In the grand scheme of things, I don't think these debates will change a lot of peoples' feelings about porn; if you loved it before you'll probably still love it afterwards. But I really think they might just help change Ron's life. It was really only about porn on the surface anyway; if you dig a little deeper, I think you would see that it's really about being willing to share in the lives of those who don't look like you or believe like you. To see what happens when we become discontented with hanging out at one end of the spectrum and decide to get our hands a little dirty. Not to fear losing our faith but to engage our faith, to put ourselves in a position to see our faith in action in the world around us. Hearing Craig talk about some of these experiences, I can only imagine how hard this is at times. I would also say it matters. It's not really about Craig, either - in this case he an example of someone who is simply willing to be at times uncomfortable so that through that Ron would one day hear God telling him how much he loves him. That's what this debate was about to me - the hope that Ron would know the truth for himself and that the truth would set him free. Seems like a lot of time and resources to spend on something like that, doesn't it? But that's the kind of precedent Christ has set for us - to pursue us at any cost.

But while that's my idea of a happy ending, that's not what today looks like. Today, I would have to say you're right, Ron - right now no big porn stars have left the industry. But still, I'm holding on to the hope that someday one will, and Ron, I really hope it's you.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

My Super-Sweet Summer Diary, Part 2

Road trips are a piece of Americana, I think, and that was part of the reason why I thought we should take Mark. Tourists come over here and they do the tourist thing, see the tourist places, and take the tourist pictures. I wanted Mark to see what we see - the bizarre capitalism of interstate truck stops, the gigantic fireworks shops in Tennessee, the miles of nothingness in the Kentucky landscape, and the neverending weirdness observed from the confines of one's vehicle. It was a highlight of my year - not so much the truck stops or the fireworks or the nothingness - but mostly the conversations, the camaraderie, and the flavor a SUV full of different walks of life has to offer.

I'm sure it's almost cliche for artists to say that they feel like most people just don't get them. But I guess there's a reason why things become cliche, and I suppose I can say I'm one of them. I generally don't feel like most people understand why a highlight of my year would be spending a lot of money on a road trip to no great place in particular with two guys I know well and one I just met. I just felt like we were supposed to do it, and my hope was that maybe I could catch a small glimpse of what it was all about later on (though I know that's not likely). Road trips emphasize the "now" of living, and I think for some reason I needed to experience some of that. Jonathan was nursing an injured hip (courtesy of some really aggressive tennis playing), so our 16-hour trip slowly turned into 19 as we stopped to stretch. But it didn't seem to bother anyone, and we were blessed with good conversation and good humor.

What I was thrilled to find were three other guys like me - three other dreamers. I tend to dissect myself a bit harshly and way too often, and I usually count my idealism as more of a character flaw than an asset. Why I do that, I'll never know. But here were three other idealists, three other visionaries who look out at our culture and want to get their hands dirty. They want to be forces of change in a positive way instead of hiding behind the fortress walls of our gated neighborhoods and tightly-nit homogenous social groups. To be lights in the world instead of just kicking back and reading the Left Behind books while waiting for the rapture. I see people who want to help other people, and I found myself wanting to be more like all three of them.

We talked a lot about music, a lot about culture, and a lot about faith and art. We wondered aloud at the questions the intersections of such things raise, questions about the necessity and/or effectiveness of a "Christian music industry", the responsibilities of being a Christian and a musician, and what it's supposed to look like to be servants to our families, friends, communities, and churches. We talked about the things that hold us back, the things we tie ourselves to - credit card debt, social addictions, whatever keeps us from being free to go as God leads. And we wondered aloud if a little record label like Rebuilt could put something positive into this crazy, broken, debt-guilt-and war-riddled culture we live in.

I wouldn't say the earth shook on that trip (except maybe that one time that Jonathan absolutely crushed the ball of a Par 4 hole). In fact, I'd say I have more critical questions about my life and my occupation than ever before. But as we arrived back in Athens a few days later a little worn out from the pace of the trip, I felt nonetheless encouraged. The longer I do this, the more I have come to appreciate encouragement - it is my manna that helps to keep me going. Having no real tangible means to judge the relative success or failure of Rebuilt Records, I take encouragement from the words and actions of others who are compelled to do something in this world. You know, the kinds of things that seem to only make sense to the ones doing them. The people that do things because they felt they ought to and not because they can foresee the ultimate impact or result. The ones who meet someone's need simply because someone needs something.

I've been reading a book Jonathan loaned me called Finding Common Ground, and it speaks a great deal about having the attitude of a sower rather than always looking to be a harvester. We always want to be there to rake it all in, to see how our flowers bloom or how our portfolio accrues because that's more fun and more sexy. But the point in the book is that we must continue to put in the hard hours of sowing in our lives instead of just always looking to rake it in. I know - that seems like common sense - except we don't live that way. When I was a senior in college, I looked at the freshmen class and thought, "Why would I bother getting to know any of these folks; I'm going to be out of here in nine months anyway." What I missed, apparently, was some really great people in my life. Anna, a great Rebuilt supporter, and I are pretty close, I'd say. At least I feel that way. She's important to me. She was in that freshman class, and while we talked some and knew each other, it wasn't until years later that we really became friends. And now that I know Anna, I wish that I had those years because she's pretty terrific.

The trip to Michigan re-ignited that desire in me to keep doing the hard, unsexy work of building relationships, of looking to meet the immediate needs of the people in my life, and to keep trusting that all the time, effort, and drama are in fact making a difference. That is how people's lives change.

And this has never been more concrete than when my neighbor began cutting my grass for no real reason. More on that later...

Monday, August 20, 2007

My Super-Sweet Summer Diary, Part One

I really should be asleep right now - it's late (after midnight) and I'm tired, but for some reason, the second I put myself horizontally into bed, my mind turns on and the hamster wheel starts turning. I think tonight's culprit for the spinning wheel is that Mark Wahlberg movie I just watched with my father in-law. After a really good first half hour (a very Bourne-esque half hour at that), the plot somehow ended up in front of one of those machine guns and was pumped full of ridiculously big holes. I could have sworn I was watching a remake of Shwarzenegger's 1980's classic "Commando with all the scenes of Marky Mark running across wide open spaces and dodging the bullets from about five dozen enemies with bad aim and a helicopter with mini-gats putting hundreds of rounds in the air at one time. And you know he shot down not one, but TWO helicopters in this movie. But hey, it was called Shooter for a reason, so I should've expected something like that.

Looking at it now, I feel like my summer has kind of been like that Marky Mark movie. By the time the credits are beginning to roll, the lights have come up a bit, and I'm looking around wondering what the heck just happened. Here are a few items of note:

In May I drove to Grand Rapids, Michigan to play some golf with two friends and a guy from Australia. Okay, the guy from Australia is a friend, too, but it seemed like the opening line from a joke so I couldn't resist. Plus, we hadn't actually met before he flew around the world to spend a couple of weeks living in my spare bedroom. His name is Mark, and he runs the very cool nonprofit indie label Small House Records in Melbourne. On the day Mark arrived, I convinced Al the Rebuilt Intern to drive to the Atlanta airport to pick him up, partly because I like the company and partly because I was taught that the buddy system is the best way to stay safe. This would be especially important later on after Mark's midnight arrival was pushed back to about 2 AM when a homeless(?) man threatened my life in the atrium. I guess if I found a stranger in my living room at 2 AM, I'd be a little upset, too. Details are a bit sketchy, but in my best guess, he thought I was going to rat him out for living in the airport. I say that because he told me a story about how some very bad things happened to a white guy who told the cops he was living in the airport.

Needless to say, I was glad Al was around to have my back while we waited for Mark to arrive. Hartsfield-Jackson airport is kind of a miserable place in the middle of the afternoon - much less in the darkest hours of the night - and I can't help but think about how I ordered some food from the Krystal on Concourse A before boarding a flight only to have the nice lady behind the counter stop me mid-order so she could text message someone on her cell phone. It was amazing; I couldn't be mad.

After having someone threaten me with "very bad things," I wasn't mad then either. Just a little terrified. We put some distance between ourselves and the potential for bodily harm and waited as patiently as possible as we could for Mark to land. Of course, if things were a bit uncomfortable for us, they were by this point absolutely insane for Mark. Not only had be been traveling for about a day and a half (including a 7-hour layover in LAX, his first-ever taste of American soil), his plane had spent about two hours circling Dallas while a storm passed on. When he finally got off the plane, I think he had been awake for so long that he really had no idea who he was anymore, or why life was supposed to mean something in the first place. He did like the big "WELCOME TO AMERICA!" sign that Al and I had made before we left Athens. For some reason, the travel-weary folks on that flight didn't seem to share our excitement. Maybe their lives had been threatened by someone living in the Los Angeles Airport.

I let Mark sleep for a bit the next day, but after traveling a gazillion miles and stopping at two of our finest airports, what we really needed to do was cram ourselves into my wife's 4Runner with two other guys and take a 16 hour road trip. True, I'm not known for my impeccable foresight. Our destination? Hackfest 2007, a golf marathon fundraiser held by Fireproof Ministries, the parent organization to Rebuilt Records (the label I manage). The crew? Well, Mark and me, of course, and Paul Reeves and Jonathan Rich. We met up with Paul at Smith's Olde Bar in Atlanta for the very cool 500 Songs for Kids charity event. 500 Songs is a nonprofit that raises money for a handful of children's charities in the Atlanta area, and for this event, they took RollingStone's list of the 500 greatest songs of all time and picked 500 different artists to perform them. 50 artists a night for 10 nights. It was ridiculous. I was fortunate to have Bob Dylan's "Visions of Johanna" on the same night at Jon Black (who had a Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young song) and Paul (who had some old song that I've heard a bazillion times but can never remember who recorded it). The place was packed and the vibe was really fun. It was great to see so many folks put their individual spins on songs everyone new, and to do it for a good cause was the cherry on top.

After picking up Jonathan and crashing at Jon Black's parents' place, we turned the 4Runner north and slightly west and drove through Nashville, Indianapolis, and on to Grand Rapids. And that's where the story will pick up next time, kids...

It's got to go somewhere, right?

I've been trying really hard in this election season to remember the things the internet has taught us: 1. Don't read the comments...