It is the summer of 2005, the year of fear and loathing in America. Seattle resident Justin Raines wants to do something about the deplorable state of the human race. When his friend, Shelby Mirabeau, suggests launching a new world religion focused on accepting responsibility, Justin agrees only because he lacks a better idea. When their first laughable attempts at a launch fail, Shelby pushes Justin into an unholy alliance with Matthias Bender, the dark angel of American capitalism, who sells the idea of corporate religion to the skeptical founders.
Through guerrilla marketing techniques, Internet advertising, and unexpected support from one of Hollywood’s leading ladies, the religion—Ringing True— becomes a worldwide sensation. Still, the success is not exactly what Justin had in mind.
He finds himself tangled in a series of plots involving corporate politics, financial sleight-of-hand, and a porn star who wants a piece of the action. As their enterprise faces dramatic challenges, Justin and Shelby finally discover what really rings true for them.
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By ROBERT MORROW
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Robert Morrow
All right reserved.
It was a clear late-summer night in the Emerald City in the year 2005, and all across Seattle, from then-trendy Belltown to grungy Pioneer Square to the dark metallic venues in the industrial rehab of SoDo, the young were out in force for an evening of music, booze and bar food. Energized by a visible full moon and the rare appearance of clear sky, the lines jerked with the uncertainty of mating rituals, with aimless chatter into cell phones, with fingers dancing over keypads, and with nervous laughter far out of proportion to the quality of the conversation. Whatever one's sexual persuasion, it was a night designed to help a person forget about the great cultural divide, dismiss all thoughts of two faraway wars and lose oneself in music, brew and commitment-free romance.
Across the lake in the more sedate suburb of Bellevue, the town had pretty much turned over and gone to sleep once the doors of the big downtown mall had closed and most of the young had fled the boredom for the bridges into Seattle. But there in Bellevue was at least one member of that generation who chose not to hang out anywhere at all. This unique apparition was at present stretched on his belly on the living room floor of a sterile apartment carpeted and painted in perfect neutral, staring blankly into the screen of a laptop computer. The face bathed in dim white point seemed utterly blank. It was a good-looking face with soft brown hair, a hint of a dimple on the left cheek and deep, dark eyes—but a face minus the sense of adventure that animated the faces of his peers across the water. Looking more intently, a careful observer would have noticed the right foot shaking at the end of a long, lanky body, a sign of something unresolved beneath the placid surface.
At random intervals a cell phone chimed, indicating incoming communication. The young man invariably yawned, picked up the phone, glanced at the message with something less than a sneer and put the phone back on the carpet. Turning from the face to the screen, one could count at least seven open chat windows; looking down at the keyboard, one could see the flash of dancing fingers working effortlessly in response to the short bursts of information. To the inexperienced observer the speed of those fingers might signify a passion and intensity, but to Justin Raines, the owner of those fingers, it was just what you did. It was automatic generational programming: speed was a part of the package.
It was a bit past midnight and Justin was holding those seven five-word conversations with two friends from high school, three from college and two with people who had sort of dropped in from the ether. The only common thread linking the conversations was that all of them were completely devoid of meaning, fulfilling the sole purpose of keeping total boredom at bay.
Justin really didn't give a shit that one friend was unlucky in love or that a guy he knew in college had just sold his soul to go to work for an investment bank. He didn't care that he hadn't written a syllable of truth about what he was up to or what his plans were that evening. He was bored, pissy and felt entitled to be so. While he might have written instead of the existence of a profound dissatisfaction that had burrowed deep in his soul, he doubted that anyone cared, and anyway, the world he knew was not constructed to deal with soul-level issues. He had thought of spending the evening with a video game, but chose instead to adopt a passive aggressive persona to validate the self-pitying realization that no one gave a shit about him either.
Things were zipping along at a suitably mind-occupying pace when one of his ethermates signed out. Justin felt a sinking feeling in his tummy. Sooner or later all of the chat buttons would blink out, the cell phone would cease chiming and he would be left with nothing but empty screens and the great unidentifiable dissatisfaction inside. He had no plans for the inevitable then.
Justin was at the point where he was tired of figuring things out, in part because he never seemed to be able to figure anything out. He didn't want to think, he didn't want a plan, he just wanted to let things go to hell. They were going in that direction anyway, so he thought he'd go along for the ride.
* * *
This phase of Justin's life had its origins in a decision made long ago, years before he was born. His parents had tied his destiny to college and he grew up with the idea that college was some sort of heavenly place where all the answers to all the mysteries of life could be found. College, college, college was drummed into his head ever since he could remember, and it was always, "of course he's going to college," as if the admission of any alternative would lead Jehovah or Zeus to strike the entire family with lightning bolts. His time and life were structured around getting into the best college possible, increasing the odds for a scholarship, and preparing for the various tests that marked the way. He hardly knew his parents as people—they were more like old-school football coaches constantly pushing, pushing, pushing for college, college, college. Both parents were successful, upper-middle class professionals who swore they owed it all to college. It struck him some time in high school that college was a lot more important to his parents than it was to him. It was their religion, not his.
His dad often cited statistics as part of the drumbeat of propaganda Justin had been hearing since grade school. "College graduates earn 55% more than high school graduates," he would say when helping Little Justin with his story problems. Little Justin was always in awe of such proofs, but Pubescent Justin started to wonder a bit without being able to articulate the wonder. By the time he emerged as Teenage Justin, he came to the conclusion that his dad was full of crap.
Still, Justin said nothing and just went along, in part because he didn't have a better idea and in part because he had no statistics to support an alternative position, something his father would have demanded, given his devotion to facts. The greater issue was that whenever he thought of an argument to defend his position or discovered something he thought he might like to explore, an overwhelming rush of self-doubt would rise inside him and choke off thoughts in their infancy. The only time Justin engaged in resistance was when his father pushed sports as a vehicle for scholarship, and even in that instance, the resistance was of the indirect variety. Rather than refuse to go out for the team and waste energy in pointless conflict, Justin would go to the tryout and display such thorough ineptitude that his father eventually backed off for fear he would be thoroughly embarrassed in front of the other parents. Justin was actually quite athletically gifted, but kept this a secret.
Eventually he did go to college, winding up at the University of Washington, which he chose for two reasons: one, he had heard Seattle was a cool place to be; and two, it was far out of driving range from the suburbs of Chicago, where his parents lived. His dad liked the idea because he was some kind of sales executive for the Mega Software Company, and his mom liked it because she was some kind of human resources person for the Mega Coffee Company, both with headquarters in the Seattle area. "We can come visit you when we go to Corporate," they said, closing the deal.
"Sure!" said Justin. Since they were footing the entire bill, he supposed he could grant them visitation rights.
* * *
The cause of his self-doubt and related aversion to conflict had to do with a mask Justin had adopted sometime during puberty. On the surface he seemed a pleasant, cooperative boy studying hard to validate the American Dream for people like his parents who believed in it as if it were gospel. However, beneath the mask was a very complicated person with millions of thoughts he had never shared with anyone, not even friends his own age.
Justin had concluded early in life that the world and practically all the people in it were insane to some degree, and as the only sane person on the planet, he had to work behind an elaborate façade to make it through each waking day. He viewed the world very differently than his obsessive parents or his I've-got-it-handled teenage friends, sensing that the reality on which they had based their lives and personalities was a very fragile reality indeed. He divined that all the pieces of wisdom shoved in his ears by teachers, broadcasters, entertainers, leaders and experts were astonishingly silly, even dangerous, and that their expert knowledge was anything but. These perceptions were accompanied by a profound sadness about the state of the world that he could not shake because he had no clue as to what to do about his sadness or with the world that was apparently causing it. The best he could come up with for the time being was a strategy to lay low, play the role handed to him and see how things turned out. Since no one seemed to want to hear anything that disturbed their sense of certainty and comfort—his parents with their success stories, his friends in their techno-driven universe, his teachers and their dogma—he stuffed all these impressions deep inside.
Later he would look back and wonder how he wound up with perceptions that differed so much from the norm. After dismissing the alien-from-another-planet theory, he concluded that it probably had to do with the realities of modern child-rearing. His workaholic parents regularly worked late and traveled constantly on business, setting up regrets they could enjoy later in life. During his pre-teens, he was always being dropped off somewhere, from school to day care to supplemental math lessons, according to the demands of parental schedules. Because he was constantly in motion, he never had the opportunity to truly connect with his parents, other children or the anonymous caregivers who viewed him more as a revenue stream than a human being. Faces and voices whizzed by him as if he were on a high-speed merry-go-round that never stopped. What he could not explain was why he never developed any sense of resentment toward his parents or why, despite the growing feeling that they and the others had lost all their marbles, he genuinely liked them all and wished them no harm. Perhaps that was due to the innate wisdom of a child; perhaps he was too busy to put much energy into victimization; or perhaps he was simply oriented to accept the hand he was dealt.
The mad whirl decelerated considerably when Justin became a latchkey kid at the age of thirteen. Justin welcomed the change wholeheartedly, for it gave him time and space to think, reflect and try to figure out what the hell was going on in the world around him. Although he didn't think much of the learning that went along with college prep, he was passionate about learning when given the freedom to explore his own path. Mysteriously absenting himself from the ritual of hanging out with friends after school, he would rush home to throw himself onto his bed and into various books he checked out from the library. His secret studies primarily focused on human history, with occasional side journeys into philosophy, religion, psychology and literature. As it was not a particularly disciplined course of study, there were indeed holes in it, but Justin had always been more intuitive than most and used that intuition to form certain conclusions that partially satisfied his hunger. That hunger had to do with finding out why the people of his world had slipped into insanity and his readings gave him plenty of evidence that the insanity had been there for quite a long time.
During these teenage years, he developed a working theory that the cause of the insanity was extreme self-interest—people doing what they wanted to do at the expense of other people, their neighborhoods, their cities, their countries, even their world. What made this development remarkable to Justin was that he could see as clear as day that self-interest was nearly always self-destructive. He watched his parents become shrunken people in their single-minded pursuit of success, economic partners instead of a couple. Justin could see very clearly that someday the loneliness would eat them alive. He watched celebrities pursue fame and money without regard for how it distorted their personalities, isolated them from the world and transformed them into caricatures out of touch with whatever ability that brought them fame in the first place. And worst of all, he saw people all over the world hurting and killing each other to advance a cause or personal agenda, in defiance of the age-old wisdom that violence begets violence. Justin felt certain that self-interest had placed the world on the path to self-destruction, but he was just as uncertain as to what he or anyone else could do to stop it.
Despite this unusual penchant for deep thinking, people who met Justin at the time would have described him as a fairly typical representative of his generation. When he hung out with his friends, they all watched music videos, played video games and engaged in sexual humor. Like all his friends, he took to new technology with fearless ease. Although he usually hung back from the center of the action and did nothing to draw attention, he would occasionally jump in and defend others from the sadistic teasing that often went on in high school. Whenever a friend needed help with his homework, Justin was The Man. His only unusual feature was a slight stoop, as if he wanted to subtract a couple of inches from his six foot frame by adopting an attitude of humility. The only differentiating label ever applied to him during high school was the painfully generic label of "really nice guy," which wasn't much.
Unlike others in his generation, he never sought to express himself in e-journals, blogs, Emo music or confessional poetry, privately likening those routes to the sound of babies beating their high chair trays for attention. Unlike most of his fellow Americans, he was strangely immune to hero-worship, considering the worshipped and the worshippers as indisputable evidence of mass insanity. He found the pursuit of fame particularly appalling, and had Justin rubbed the magic lamp to make the genie appear, fame certainly would not have been one of his three wishes. This resistance to exposure, combined with his distrust of celebrity and strategic aversion to conflict, made Justin quite unlikely to volunteer to be the poor dumb bastard who finally stood up in front of the world to explain to them that they were all a bunch of frigging loonies.
And yet, in a little more than a year, that same figure now stretched out on a colorless carpet in a sterile apartment in Bellevue, Washington would do just that—and in prime time, no less.
Beyond the inner struggles and deep skepticism about his father's propaganda, Justin was strangely optimistic about going to college. He thought the change of scenery might help him find a way to transform his picture of hopelessness for humanity into something positive and uplifting.
As things turned out, Justin chose to enter college in the fall of 2001. Two weeks after he had moved into the dorm, a group of very insane people flew three planes into buildings filled with their fellow human beings.
For weeks after 9/11, Justin would crawl into his bed in his dorm room; go online with a set of headphones plugged into his laptop and watch replays of the second plane hitting the tower. His eyes would tear up every time he heard the guy with his achingly human New York accent shout, "Holy Fuck!" when the windows of the tower exploded onto the streets of Lower Manhattan. Like everyone else, he was appalled by the experience, but from a different perspective that he of course kept to himself. Justin didn't look at it as "somebody is doing this to us." He looked at it as "we are doing this to ourselves," and he was very, very sad about that.
Still, with the resilience of the young spirit, he found some relief in his studies. He was pleasantly surprised that learning could be a challenge, exhilarated to be in an environment where you could explore subjects in depth, and relieved to be free from high school where real learning was less important than passing entrance exams and finding a way to fit in. In his first two years at U-dub, he completed his general ed with a perfect 4.0.
Then the real world intervened.
Excerpted from RINGING TRUE by ROBERT MORROW Copyright © 2010 by Robert Morrow. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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