By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
These aren’t ordinary humans. The more than 1,000 folks gathered at the Radisson Hotel near LAX last week are willing to wait hours on end, suffer through boring speeches and endure endless chanting — all for a hug. Not just any hug, mind you, but a sacred embrace from a small, heavyset holy woman from India named Sri Mata Amritanandamayi (“Mother of Immortal Bliss”). Her friends call her Amma, which translates to “Mother.” The 50-year-old guru claims to have given more than 21 million hugs.
I get in line at 6:30 p.m. A host asks me if I’ve ever received “darshan,” which is Amma-speak for a blessing in the form of a “tender, healing embrace.” Since I’m an Amma virgin, she hands me a fluorescent-orange, circle-shaped sticker. “Amma likes to know if this is your first time,” the host explains.
“Amma gives those with orange stickers extra-long hugs!” one hug junkie beamed. A woman wearing an orange adhesive admits that she’s been hugged before.
I can’t wait for my life-altering Amma hug, but I have to. Another line to pick up my “darshan token” awaits me. Mine reads, “351 to 400,” which means that after 350 people have pressed their bodies against Amma, it will be my group’s turn.
Every new religious movement needs a famous follower. Amma will have to settle for indie-rock guitar god J Mascis. Dinosaur Jr.’s front man is a hardcore Amma devotee, so much so that he schedules his tours to coincide with the holy woman’s itinerary. I don’t see Mascis anywhere, but I do catch a glimpse of record producer Rick Rubin.
Around the convention center, Amma volunteers have set up numerous merchandise tables to sell all things Amma — pens, magnets, calendars, T-shirts, window decals, dolls and 8-by-10s. (My favorite picture depicts a Photoshopped Amma hugging a blue baby Krishna.) One sign points to “the most fragrant way to donate.” For three bucks, you can purchase a coconut and carry it around all evening, only to eventually hand it back to Amma as a sacred offering. Or, for a mere $250, you can buy a pair of sandals, upon which Amma will personally place her feet. According to the saleswoman, Amma acolytes take home these sweat-dampened shoes and build an altar around them.
While I’m wondering if all the money goes to help the needy, as is claimed, the Holy One arrives. Amma wears a flowing, white cotton robe and sits cross-legged on a stage in front of a large, framed picture of herself while a bearded swami lays down some teachings. He tells the story of the materialistic man who’s so upset when a truck knocks the door off of his Lexus that he doesn’t even notice his arm is also missing; when this fact is pointed out to him, all he can think about is his lost Rolex. The easily amused crowd delights in this parable. I want my hug.
Next, there is much chanting and music. Amma violently swings her arms in the air as she sings through a headpiece microphone à la Britney Spears. The songs are pretty good, except that each one lasts about 20 minutes too long.
Around 10 p.m., high-ranking converts herd the first 100 embracers into a line. I watch a few folks receive the darshan. Many of them immediately pass their hug onto a nearby loved one. A few cry tears of joy. One just-hugged woman enthuses, “It really opened up my heart.”
Near midnight, I’m finally allowed to enter the darshan line. I’m forced to walk the last 10 yards toward Amma on my knees. Devotees manhandle me ever closer. A man tells me to remove my glasses. I never learn why.
I am now mere feet away from the goddess-like being. What’s going to happen? Will I experience everlasting peace and happiness? Will I wet myself?
Amma puts her arms around me,
positions her mouth next to my right ear ‰ and says something that sounds like, “ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma.” After about 10 seconds, a robed disciple shoves a flower petal and a Hershey’s Kiss in my hand. It’s over.
Disappointed that I waited five hours for that, I walk over to a friend of mine who received the hug two years ago.
“You don’t really feel it for a couple of days,” he informs me.
I hope he’s right, because right now I could really use a hug.
Appetite for Destruction
The world’s largest termite is 20 feet high and 60 feet long. At the Los Angeles Zoo last Thursday, during the final hours of the termite’s three-day L.A. tour, children ran into the big bug’s anus and scurried around inside its belly. They pitched baby termites into plastic cups with miniature catapults. And then, when they got bored, they left through the termite’s giant open mouth. Anus to mouth to anus to mouth. They ran in endless circles in the summer heat.
Of course, the Termidor termite is not an actual termite, but a yellow-and-brown inflatable one. On the road for several months now spreading the virtues of odor-free, liquid Termidor, it travels in its own purple truck with a roving flea circus of science exhibits, including a half-eaten Masonic Temple accounting book sandwiched in acrylic, a National Geographicmagazine wormed through and through, and two live colonies blindly devouring two cardboard houses. Perched just outside the zoo entrance, beyond the meerkats and giraffes, the termite’s as big as a house and filled with hot, muggy air. Its head bobbed in the breeze. Its feet swayed. The greenhouse effect in the abdomen was intense. Doesn’t this bug come with air conditioning?