Worshipping Mr. Loh

Our personal deity is a 76-year-old Chinese guy

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Since religions no longer depend upon location and culture; since one can be a Lutheran Buddhist, or a Shiite Mormon, or a Neo-Pagan Universalist; since my wife and I both rejected the religions we were brought up with; since faith is now a matter of convenience rather than calling: Cathy and I have decided to ignore the existing religions altogether and worship our own personal deity. His name is Mr. Loh.

Regular listeners to the PRI radio show This American Life might recognize the name. In 1996, writer and performer Sandra Tsing Loh recorded a portrait of her 76-year-old father and the Malibu rock band that adopted him as a mentor. The band, Boy Hits Car, wrote a song about Mr. Loh and his apparent freedom from conventional patterns of behavior. In it, Mr. Loh walked the beach naked, sang his wisdom, and swam with dolphins-an image of her father that Sandra Loh found absurd.

For a while this idea, that an eccentric Chinese man could serve as a spiritual figure for a group of X-generation slackers, was a shared joke in our marriage. While we were looking for a parking space, for example, we would comment that Mr. Loh wouldn't need a parking space; he was beyond the need for parking spaces. At the same time, we recognized that Mr. Loh's ambivalence toward parking spaces was precisely what would make them appear. And so, when an exceptional parking space appeared for us, we began to thank Mr. Loh for loaning us his power.

When Cathy and I decided to buy a house together, we felt the need to create some sort of ritual that might help our odds in such a tight real estate market. We belonged to no church, so in an ironic gesture, we decided to build a small altar (left) for Mr. Loh. It had a Buddhist flavor. We lit candles and set out small gifts of food and alcohol. Then we solidified our intent by asking Mr. Loh aloud for his help in finding a house.

A week later we jumped ahead of all the other applicants trying to get into a beautiful old Craftsman-style house in Portland's hip Hawthorne neighborhood. Mr. Loh had come through.

Subsequent ritual prayers had similar results. Mr. Loh helped me get into a very competitive graduate school, helped our friend Heather's newborn go through several surgeries, and helped us to conceive in a single go.

For two people with little religious belief other than the feeling that Something Is Out There and We Are All Connected, this was a bit exciting. Because of our distrust of organized religions, we still didn't take Mr. Loh seriously, but at the same time he ceased to be a mockery. In moments of uncertainty, Mr. Loh provided a focal point for hope and decision, gave us a receptacle for anxieties, and, ultimately, got results.

Like all religions, ours has its rules. Offerings made to Mr. Loh must be somewhat in accordance with the request. For example, while asking Mr. Loh to help us find housing in a new town, we placed Monopoly houses, an old wasps' hive, a bird's nest, and several shells on his altar. Regardless of the request, alcohol must be present. Mr. Loh is a tippler.

Requests made to Mr. Loh must be serious but not ridiculous. For example, when Cathy won $72 on the local lottery, she attributed that to Mr. Loh's influence. But we wouldn't ask his help to win the $50 million Powerball. It would be presumptuous.

Over the course of three years, our belief in Mr. Loh has moved from ironic to partly heartfelt. Belief in Mr. Loh gives us a place to focus anxieties about the future; in a way it is a method of removing responsibility toward what we cannot control. At the same time, interacting with a god engages an attitude that things will work out and helps us to recognize the limits of what we can affect.

The Mr. Loh we worship now has little connection to the elderly Chinese man we once heard about on a radio show. I'm not sure what he has become, or what it is that we name 'Mr. Loh.' A belief in something? A trust in the universe? A superstitious need for a god? Whatever he is, he serves our purpose and helps us through times of stress. I don't know whether the positive results we experience are caused by some astral entity or by our improved attitude or just good luck, and I don't care. What we've got works for us, and that is what counts.

Steve Wilson is the editor of Motionsickness (www.motionsickmag.com), a quarterly magazine that aims to cover 'the other side of travel' -- everything from the adverse cultural impact of international travel to profiles of travel-industry workers to a critique of the mainstream travel media. This article is reprinted from Clamor (Nov./Dec. 2003). Subscriptions: $18/yr. (6 issues) from Big Top Newsstand Services, 2729 Mission St., Suite 201, San Francisco, CA 94110; www.clamormagazine.org