The Bicycle Tour, Part One: A Rough Beginning

As you will know, if you read the last post, I have spent the last month traveling around the prairie with my friend Scott Anthony Andrews, hawking his CD “Faith is a Bicycle” We had a couple of gigs in Regina, another couple in Saskatoon. Maple Creek. Eastend. Calgary and Edmonton. Selkirk and Winnipeg. And Fort Qu’Appelle. Mostly, audiences were small; sometimes tiny. I’m pleased to report that, at none of our stops did we outnumber those who paid to attend. I believe that is the generally-accepted standard of success for things of this type.

We performed at United Churches in these places – except in Fort Qu’Appelle, where we appeared at the Qu’Appelle Valley Centre for the Arts

To review: We were performing in churches; Scott was performing sacred music; Our Scott Sings / Ross Talks things had always been around religious themes. This Faith is a Bicycle Tour project was steeped in religiosity. So, in preparation for our first gig at Eastside United in Regina, I set to work writing pieces about faith.

I am not religious. I was raised in the United Church and have been involved in the church for much of my adult life – Sunset United Church in beautiful south Regina. When it comes to the United Church, I’m an insider, but with respect to faith matters generally, I’m on the sidelines. I don’t have a detectable spiritual pulse. I am interested in theological issues and have great affection and respect for many people of faith – some of my best friends are religious – but I would characterize myself as a practicing non-believer. When I write about these things, I write observations about – not expressions of – faith.

And. I try to be funny.

Sometimes, this combination of religious outsider perspective and attempted humour works. Sometimes, it does not work. Sometimes I sound like an earnest, respectful but amusing, fellow-traveller on the journey towards enlightenment. Sometimes I sound like a smug asshole.

I’ll let you guess which Ross appeared at our first gig at Eastside United.

Despite my good and respectful intentions, I delivered a performance that leaned towards offensive. I appeared to be mocking the faithful, ridiculing religious belief and suggesting that to be “spiritual” was to be, well, flaky. I dismissed much religion as “goofy” and “nonsense” and “toxic” and noted that “people who appear to be perfectly normal and rational can have a lot of whacky religious silliness rattling around in their skulls.”

I made fun of the notion of sin and the idea that Jesus DIED for those sins [“like we didn’t feel bad enough” I said]. I suggested that the reason that young people aren’t drawn to religion is because most churches prohibit sex – you’re not allowed to do that thing you most want to do. I used the expression “The Church of the Unscratched Itch” to characterize this self-defeating phenomenon. I belittled the difficult struggle the United Church has waged towards becoming inclusive of all sexual orientations and gender identities – saying that our discomfort with the subject was based, not on any religious principles, but on the fact that the United Church is very WASPy and uptight. We are  uncomfortable talking about sex AT ALL. We just wanted the conversation to end. “Okay  fine – gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered persons – you’re all in. Now, can we please talk about something else?”

I also appeared to dismiss strongly-held views of church members on social issues and environmentalism – saying that “we’ve dispensed with religious things that make us feel bad, like sin, and replaced them with a leftist political and liberal agenda – one that emphasizes inclusion, feeling good and sensible shoes.”

Now, all of this might have worked, had I done a better job at first establishing that I was actually a nice, likable guy and not an asshole – or had I been working towards some over-arching unifying view of spirituality that somehow justified all these cheap shots.

But no. I died.

I felt bad. Especially for Scott. This was the first stop on our nine-performance tour. Was he going to have to watch me die another eight times? His performance was great, by the way, as always. [If you haven’t bought the CD yet, let me know.] Scott was gentle in his assessment, suggesting that I could perhaps shorten things up, be a little less “preachy”, maybe stop calling the audience stupid, that sort of thing.

Our next stop was six days later at our home church – Sunset United, in beautiful south Regina. Blessedly, my role was somewhat reduced for this one, because we were sharing the stage with a swing choir called Cadence. I would do just a couple of bits and otherwise just act as M.C. for the event.

In the days after Eastside and before Sunset, I despaired. If only giving up were an option. It wasn’t. Scott was counting on me to accompany him on this three province tour. I had no choice but to pull it together somehow.

I had to figure out why I’d so badly bombed. After a lot of feverish, late-night ruminating, it came to me. I suck. I’ve always sucked. My big mistake was thinking otherwise.

It was in that “I suck” state of mind, that I composed a piece that I delivered as my first offering at Sunset.

It is called “Janet’s Story”, for reasons that will become evident:

For most of my life, I didn’t do much public speaking. I didn’t have any confidence – for good reason. Any time I did speak in public, the response was tepid. Polite at best. At worst, annoyed and vaguely offended. I have a sense of humour that is not always funny.

That all changed about 16 years ago, right here in this sanctuary. It was the spring of the very first Benefit Concert for Regina’s Anti-Poverty Ministry. Somehow, I found myself on the planning committee. I am terrible at planning anything and worse at being on committees – so being on a planning committee was a special kind of nightmare. But church is where you do things you’re not very good at. I wanted to contribute in some substantive way, so when it came up that there would be a reception after the concert – well, I jumped at that. How hard could that be? Get people to bring baked goods, get the Church ladies to make coffee. A breeze.

The weekend before the concert, I got up at announcement time and I made a request that congregation members bring some goodies for the reception. I wanted to make the announcement entertaining, tried to play on the word “dainty”

That announcement changed my life.

That was the first of what became known as “The Dainty Speeches”. People loved my announcement. They thought I was just the cleverest, funniest guy. I became known to everyone as The Dainty Guy. Many people did not know my real name. Many still don’t. On the strength of that first announcement, I became the go-to guy at Sunset for anything that involved talking. I did about six more Dainty Speeches. I pop up at announcement time, whether I have anything to announce or not. I’ve MCed retirement parties and farewells and tribute nights. I’ve spoken at weddings, during services, at faith gatherings during Lent. I even gave a sermon. I write a couple of blogs now. I quit my job. All of this can be traced to that fateful morning when I asked for your dainties.

It was because of the reputation that grew from those dainty speeches and the confidence I gained from it that I agreed to partner up with Scott for this Faith Bicycle Tour.

Well, we had our first stop last weekend at Eastside. Scott did a wonderful job. The songs are great and he performed them well. My part went okay – but something wasn’t quite right. For some reason I wasn’t connecting with the audience quite the way I’d like.

In the following days, this vague sense of unease grew into a frenzy of self-examination. What has happened to me? Have I lost my Dainty Guy mojo? Forever?

Then, I sat down this morning and wrote the first draft of this monologue. That first draft outlined my early triumph in the baked goods procurement business and how I’d gone from that to what I was now describing as a humiliation at Eastside. I suggested that perhaps I had misinterpreted the response to the Dainty Speech – maybe it was all a terrible mistake – I’m really no good at this.  I wrote a heart wrenching tale of existential crisis. It ought to have been entitled From Dainty to Disaster. I thought it was beautiful, though dark. Personal, yet universal.

I read it to Janet, my wife, and awaited her praise – both for the quality of the work and for my courage in telling my story.

“Are you out of your mind?” she said.

That wasn’t the response I was expecting.

“You don’t like it?” I asked.

“You absolutely cannot do that piece. People will think you’re crazy.”

As she was describing in detail how I could not possibly deliver my pathetic and self-indulgent, mid-life induced idiocy, I had an epiphany. I love it when that happens. I realized what had gone wrong last week at Eastside. I had worked very hard on my pieces for that night – and, like today with the first draft of this thing, I was very pleased with the result.  But, last week, I had not run my script past Janet – because she’s been laid up by a concussion and I didn’t want to bother her.

I have always run things past Janet and she frequently saves me from myself – because, although I’ve been blessed with many gifts, judgement is not among them. It turns out that Janet is my Mojo. I can’t be Dainty without her.

So, much to Scott’s relief, I have jettisoned most of what I worked so hard on, and I have started from scratch. Janet will henceforth have the final say. The future of this project is now safely in the relatively competent hands of a woman with a head injury.

You just sing and play, Scott. We’ll be fine. Really. Trust me.