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when character slaps you in the face
by joe procopio (@jproco)
pop culture

I've been rather revelatory of late in my writing. Nothing earth-shattering - I'm married! I have kids! I like the Hives! I smoke the rock! Big shmeal. In keeping with that tack, I'm also Catholic.

Me? The second generation Italian American born and raised in New York?

Go fig.

It's not like all this joexposition is setting up the most boring memoir ever (Working Title: "You Think You're Better Than Me?"), nor am I trying to be self-aggrandizing, self-effacing, wistful, cathartic, or whatever. I know that my best material is not about me, just as your best material is not about you. In fact, that should be the key to all good writing. Do I want to read about you? No. I want to read about me. And you want to read about you. Catch-22. Since I want to be a good writer and since no one else wants to read about you, I take the universal we-are-all-brothers-except-the-racists-and-the-molesters angle on it. Philosophical license.

So I'm Catholic, which is important to my story, which is about "you."

See, Catholics have one time a year when we step out. Ash Wednesday is the day we fly the liturgical freak flag. In the true tradition of religious mystery, this day when we reflect on keeping our mouth shut about our good deeds and praying on our own in a quiet room is also marked by walking around in public with ash on our foreheads. Very few of us actually do this, but all those people walking around a couple weeks ago with dirty foreheads - Catholics.

Or filthy slobs. I don't want to slight the filthy slobs.

I'm not a great Catholic. I'm not even a good Catholic. But I know what I am and I'm solid with it and I don't mince words or deflect. So it's not like I never go to mass because I disagree with the Church's stance on this or that or I'm the special kind of Catholic who grew up that way but has a real-world view of the nature of morality and religious intolerance in the 21st Century. I'm actually just straight-up lazy.

But on Ash Wednesday this year I happened to be downtown and walking back to a client site after an early lunch and I walked by the church and the bells were ringing and people were shuffling in. I realized it was Ash Wednesday and, what the heck, I couldn't think of a better way to spend the next 45 minutes than maybe taking a little of the edge off toward ultimately securing my place in eternity.

Total shrug move, but with the right intentions. Again, not a great Catholic.

The mass was delightful. The bishop was there. The bishop! That's like walking into Pure on your last night in Vegas and getting a drink spilled on you by Paris Hilton. But the thing is, when I went up to get my ashes, I didn't get the little dot like I was used to from back in Catholic School. I got the hardcore, old school full cross from hairline to eyebrow line and temple to temple.

This first manifested itself in the walk from the church back to the building. I got the stare, the stare you can feel as people walk towards you from the other direction, then when you look at them, they do that quick head-jerk thing like they just spotted the most lovely blue jay they had ever seen flying overhead and your appearance required no more of their attention than normal people. I refer to this as reverse hotness response.

It took me until I got back to the building and into a restroom to realize the magnanimousness of this spiritual representation. I'm looking in the mirror and it's... full on reverse Swiss flag up there. But I know from Catholic school that washing the ashes off or otherwise monkeying with them (like maybe reworking a nice smiley face), is a one way ticket to eternal damnation or a “character slap” by a nun.

Oh yeah, I had meetings all afternoon. And not the sit in the back and dream about being an X-Wing pilot kind of meeting, but the kind where I’m leading the discussion and everyone’s attention is focused on me.

Which meant everyone’s attention was focused on a spot directly above my left shoulder.

The first meeting brought it to the table quickly. Once everyone was seated, one of my guys pointed in the general direction of my forehead with a “Dude?” which gave me an opportunity to explain. They got it, but still wouldn’t look directly at me.

At the second meeting, it didn’t come up at all, and I let it ride.

The third meeting was a one-on-one with a woman I’m also friends with, and I know she’s a very religious Baptist so I knew she’d understand. She laughed at me.

The freaking coup-de-grace, however, was on the way home. By this time, I had honestly forgotten about my face, and I had two things to do. One: Go to the bank to deposit a check and sign a form for a duplicate title for my car. Two: Go to FedEx and ship an Internet return. Lucky for me, these two places happen to be in a strip mall right next to one another. But like an idiot I chose to go into the bank first.

So I walked into the bank with a mark of undetermined origin across my forehead and a plain-brown-wrapped package under my arm.

Bad: The security guard pretty much followed me around.

Good: Everyone was really nice and did everything I asked quickly and quietly.

So what did I learn from this? Not a lot. What can "you" learn from this? Precious little. However, I can tell you this. Sometimes you have to confront and proclaim who and what you are, even when doing that is a little humiliating. At the end of the day, anyone can call themselves a Catholic, but not everyone has the spiritual fortitude to be an ashhead.


Joe Procopio trades in pop culture and tech culture, allowing him to poke fun at so many things. He's written for a number of online and offline publications from the late, lamented Smug to the fancy-pants Chicago Tribune and also for television. He's a novelist, a shredder, a joker, and a family man. Scoff at joeprocopio.com or follow on Twitter @jproco.

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russ carr
3.3.08 @ 8:57a

You get looks because you're in the heavily Baptist part of the country, where they don't go in for that sort of thing.

St. Louis, being both heavily Lutheran and heavily Catholic, has few such gawpers. Now, granted this year I didn't get ash'd 'til evening, then went straight home for the rest of the night, but there were other years when I've gone to a morning service, and then proceeded with my day as if there were no charcoal smudge (Lutheran pastors being not-so-precise with the dispensation) on my brow.

The coolest Ash Wednesday? Killarney, Ireland, where I found myself in 1990. The girl I was with and I went with the little old lady that ran the B&B we were staying in. This was big, dark, gothic stone Catholicism. For the rest of the day you didn't see anyone WITHOUT ashes.

adam kraemer
3.3.08 @ 10:29a

This is why I rarely walk around advertising the results of my bris.

brian anderson
3.3.08 @ 2:59p

I usually have one moment in the morning when I almost tell someone they've got something on their forehead. I've caught myself in time so far, though, and like Russ says, I live in a heavily Catholic area.

I was making travel plans to the Southwest for late March with someone, and he said, "That Friday is Good Friday." I said, "Is it? Oh, yeah, it is, in the West." "It is in New York too." "...I meant west of Russia."

tracey kelley
3.4.08 @ 7:29p

Joe Procopio: Not Only Am I Catholic, But I'm Cooler Than You Because of It.

Awesome. Just awesome.

ken mohnkern
3.5.08 @ 12:37p

Joe Procopio: Not Only Do I Dream about Being an X-Wing Pilot, But I'm Cooler Than You Because of It.

robert melos
3.5.08 @ 11:14p

As a practicing Pagan and hedonist not much phases me. I was raised Methodist and as a young child I remember all the Catholic kids in school must've gone to the morning mass, because they had ashes. I asked my mother about it and why we didn't do that, and she explained about the ashes, and then asked if I'd want to get up early in the morning during the week to go to church to get ashes before school. She knew that answer was a resounding no. Of course as a Methodist I also went to church on Christmas and Easter. Actually I only went to church on those holidays, and on the Thrusday before Easter and the night beofre Thanksgiving. As a Pagan I actually attend circles/services more often than I ever did as a Christian.

Oh, and I'm cooler than you because I've danced naked in the moonlight. Not particularly for religious reasons, but you get the idea.


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