About Me: Themes That Matter
It’s hard to condense an entire life into a single blog post. Mine has been filled with adventure, mishaps, silliness, disappointments and triumphs. Since I’ve already created a biographical page for my web site, I thought I’d organize this one along thematic lines.
Theme One: Cognitive Dissonance
This was a theme that pervaded much of my childhood experience, and many of my attitudes as an adult have been tempered by my youthful responses to various issues I encountered as a boy. My parents came to the United States from Brasil when Mr. Eisenhower was president. The obvious reason for this was the fact that more opportunity existed in the US than in Brasil, but there’s an unspoken subtext to my parents’ flight from their homeland. They had a difficult marriage, and by the time I came into their lives, they were simply not getting along.
You and I Against the World
My father was the only son of Roberto Rabelo, the most famous evangelist in Brasil. He was the speaker for the Voice of Prophecy and had superstar recognition in that country. (Probably the only person with more fame in that era was the soccer star, Pele.) Growing up in Elder Rabelo’s shadow must have been difficult for my dad, as the expectations that everyone projected on him were quite lofty. I know this because the same attitudes get foisted on me by devout Brasileros who presume that I should be just like my exalted grandfather. When they find out that I’m not, their disappointment and disapproval is palpable. I’m sure my father chafed at this because the projected expectations annoy me, too!
This is my grandfather, Roberto Rabelo, the famous evangelist. Yes, I am named after him.
I was conceived during the Christmas holiday when Mr. Kennedy was president. My parents had a big fight, then got into “kiss and make up” mode, and nine months later, I made my debut. Shortly after I was born, my parents split up for good.
This is the earliest photo of me. I was two days old at the time.
This image comes from a set of professional photos taken when I was a baby. I’m fairly certain that these were done in Brasil, as my mother took us back there shortly after I was born.
My mother raised me and my older sisters on her own. (Truthfully, my very responsible eldest sister did most of the actual child rearing, as our mother had to work to support us.) She had several strikes against her, in that divorce was uncommon enough to carry a stigma in that era, she’s a bit darker skinned than average, didn’t speak English well and her education in Brasil meant nothing in California. That meant she had to work as a practical nurse while attending school to get her nursing degree. These were tough times for her. But our mother is a very strong-willed and determined woman. She wasn’t going to let anything stand in the way of making a better future for her children, even though she often felt discouraged andrefers to that era as the time of her “trials and tribulations.” I remember her telling me on many occasions, “Son, it’s you and I against the world!”
And it felt that way, too! We teetered on the brink of financial disaster. However, she really wasn’t alone. My grandfather always brought shoes when he visited from Brasil. My Tio Walter (Tio means “uncle” in Portuguese) filled our pantry and refrigerator more than once. I can remember him carrying four bags overflowing with groceries as he climbed the stairs to our apartment. My eldest sister rolls her eyes in disgust at the memory of getting Christmas baskets from the church, and I know that we qualified for a tuition subsidy when we attended school. Despite this good will, I perceived that the “rich kids” who attended our local church and church school looked down their noses at me because my father wasn’t around and we were poor. Even though these folk were supposed to be “our people,” I didn’t feel welcome.
This photo was taken at our Porter Street apartment in Glendale. Don’t I look tough?
I’m pretty sure this was my Tio Leo’s Chevelle, but what were my family members thinking, leaving two-year-old me up there by myself?
This was the living room of our apartment on Chevy Chase Drive in Glendale. My earliest memories come from this place, though I don’t remember these toy trucks at all, but the couch, the table and the telephone stand are familiar. This photo comes from 1965.
Here I am with my mother in 1966. I think this photo was taken on the grounds of the Huntington Library in Arcadia. I have only a vague recollection of being there.
Religion: Burn Me at the Stake
Because so many of the characters in my novels strongly believe in God, my readers rightly conclude that I’m devout. Though my stories are not overtly Christian, themes related to living a life of faith weave through the narrative and without them, my books would have no purpose. Though I rejected religion quite stridently in my teens, the roots of my pervasive and durable faith extend into my upbringing.
We were Seventh-day Adventists, which meant we attended church on Saturday, did not engage in secular social activities on Friday nights, didn’t dance, didn’t smoke, didn’t drink alcohol or carouse with members of the opposite gender. (Being forced to sit with girls was something done as a punishment for boys like me who misbehaved. The stupid adults in authority never figured out that much of my personal attraction for behaving badly was the chance to sit with the girls . . .) Eating the wrong way was a big deal, and prohibitions against pork, vinegar, spices and refined sugar were hugely important .
Because I didn’t like my mother’s SDA church in Glendale, when I hit fourth grade I went here, instead:
While I was growing up, I repeatedly heard that God frowned on any activity that might be considered “fun.” This meant that amusements “worldly” kids took for granted, like bowling, attending the movie theater, dancing and listening to secular music, were sure indicators of divine disfavor. The restrictions against fun were much more strict on Sabbath, where amusements like swimming and playing sports were also off-limits. It didn’t take me long to figure out that the prohibitions were valid only so long as the adults were looking, and worse, that the adults themselves did a lot of things they said I wasn’t supposed to be doing.
This is a prophecy chart that Adventists have long used to use to persuade people that the Judgment Day was near. Eschatology has always been the major means of evangelistic outreach among SDAs.
For anyone who didn’t grow up coping with a long list of forbidden things that were different from the normal social taboos, the exclusivity of my upbringing may be a little hard to understand. This huge list of “don’t do, don’t touch, don’t taste” is oppressive and I’m not surprised that so many people I knew as a boy abandoned Christianity in general, and Adventism in particular, once they became adults. The stifling intolerance and demand for conformity drove many young people away.
That also happened to me. Mr. Johnson was president when I realized that my mother was capable of telling lies, and not much older when some of the things the adults were teaching me raised questions in my mind that they couldn’t answer to my satisfaction.
I’d realized that adults couldn’t be trusted when this photo was taken. Pathetic, isn’t it?
For example, my Sabbath School and church school teachers, church leaders, camp counselors and nearly everyone in my family, insisted that Roman Catholics were servants of Satan who didn’t believe in the true God. The “wicked” Catholics were going to impose something called a Sunday Law on the whole world, which would force everyone to attend church on the wrong day of the week. (Of course, God’s “remnant” people would never attend church on Sunday!) These terrible anti-Christians were going to use this Sunday Law as a means to persecute God’s “faithful remnant,” which meant us, exclusively. That meant we’d have to leave the city and flee to the mountains.
I can hardly imagine a more vindictive way to insult other Christians. It’s one thing to remain faithful to biblical principles, but quite another to provoke irritation by beating other believers over the head with the idea that they’re going to burn in hell for attending church on the wrong day.
While this sort of thing terrified me, my eroding trust of adults made me suspicious that they said these things for the sake of scaring me into submission, rather than real concern for my soul. Before I’d even set foot in first grade, I’d developed a close friendship with a neighbor named Elizabeth, whose family was Roman Catholic. (I had sisters, so most of my childhood friends were female. I’ve always preferred the company of girls to the company of boys.) She treated me with far greater kindness than anyone in my own church ever did. Her mother smoked, but her mother was also much nicer than mine. Later, when I rubbed shoulders with Catholics and Jews in the California Boys Choir, I never sensed any desire from them or their families to persecute me. They didn’t care what I believed, as long as I didn’t impose my own views on them. Thus, what I’d been told about “worldly people” (that is, non-Adventist people) didn’t harmonize with my personal experience.
Then there was the problem of running to the mountains. I grew up in Glendale, which is a suburb located to the north of Los Angeles. Towering mountains surround the L.A. basin on three sides, and I spent a lot of time exploring the foothills of those mountains – on my own – as a boy.
By 1969, I’d learned how to find water in the hills and knew enough about rattlesnakes to clear the area beneath a chamise bush with a long stick before seeking shelter from the sun in its shade.
This is what my neighborhood looked like in 1972. I’d climbed every hill in this photo by then. The open space visible to the right of Glendale Academy’s gymnasium (center) was a swath of housing that had been demolished to make way for the Glendale Freeway. I used to play war games with neighborhood friends in the abandoned houses before they were torn down.
Running around in the hills gave me personal insight into the problem of survival out in the wild. Water is hard to find in the semi-arid region, and food is scarce. So, where would all these persecuted people find water, and what would all these vegetarian refugees eat? When I broached this problem with people in leadership, they told me, quite condescendingly, that God would provide for us just as he did for the children of Israel and Elijah. But, growing up so close to a city of millions in the Vietnam era, I had visions of massive, vengeful vigilante bands roaming the countryside, of helicopters and armored vehicles hunting us down. The Hebrews and Elijah didn’t have to deal with that sort of thing!
For readers who wonder how I can write so fervently about non-believers like Garrick and Mariel, their dismissal of faith is rooted in the strident rejection of religion I experienced as a teen. Because I found so much hypocrisy and a need for institutionalized religion to impose authority, by age 13 I’d concluded that Christianity was all about conformity and control, even though I enjoyed attending the Eagle Rock SDA Church and respected the vast majority of people who made up that congregation. The example of saintly people from my home church – men and women who lived with integrity – lingered in my memory, despite my best efforts to turn away from the faith that gave them hope.
This image comes from my high school days. We boys weren’t supposed to have physical contact with girls, but this sort of thing was tolerated by the private school faculty as long as the touching was platonic. Here, I’m leaning against Susana, who is leaning on my friend, Jay, who is leaning on Lyndi. In this era, I felt strident and hostile opposition to any form of religion and religious authority.
For many of us who grew up under the constant threat and anxiety over an imminent, atomic attack, that era now seems like a bad dream from which we’ve awakened. The only concern I hear anyone expressing about nuclear weapons these days centers on what the U.S. government brands “rouge states,” whose nuclear ambitions create the justification for massive military spending. As a child, I thought nuclear weapons protected us from the communists, at least until I began seriously doubting the adults who kept insisting that this was so. Eventually, I wondered why anyone should develop and deploy these God-awful things. Worse, why did we needed so many of them?
Part of what made this whole anti-communism paranoia so ridiculous to me what the thought that anyone who had tasted “freedom,” as we knew it in the west, would be remotely interested in exchanging that freedom for subservience to the State. (Hence, the commies were going to bomb us into submission and claim the resulting wasteland as their own. This made sense?) “Free market” capitalism (if such a thing exists) and “freedom” are synonymous in the American psyche. Because communism represented a threat to capitalism, no one dared question capitalism any more than they dared question God. Faith in our economic system took on a mysticism that felt similar to religion, in terms of its demands for obedience and conformity. The subtext that unfettered capitalism always wrought tremendous benefit and “freedom” without cost was not to be questioned, ever!
Hence, supporting brutal dictators around the world, the atrocious war in Vietnam and the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction were justified because our society believed that we were locked in a life or death struggle against communism. This felt similar to the “remnant versus the world” paradigm I’d known as a child. Given that what the Bible says about money is completely contrary to the mystic belief system of unfettered market capitalism, any thinking person of faith should question neoliberal economics; yet the same people who imposed religious faith were also staunch capitalists, resulting in a strange blend of capitalism and Christianity, despite the strong dissonance between these ideas.
These are missile contrails from launches at Vandenberg Air Force Base. I saw many of these from our west-facing kitchen window as a child, and to my eyes, they looked like demonic writing in the sky!
So, why do I bring up this odious concept in a biographical outline? The threat of atomic warfare remains an ever-present reality, but when I was a boy, it seemed much more imminent than it does now. I once read a newspaper article that outlined the various targets for a Soviet missile strike against Los Angeles. There were more than 20 of these in L.A. County, alone. In essence, a full-scale nuclear assault against Los Angeles would incinerate the entire city, with me in it.
This map shows major targets for Soviet nuclear attacks against the State of California. Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Barbara, the San Francisco Bay area and Sacramento are all heavily targeted.
Here, a teacher is instructing kindergarten children on how to protect themselves during an air raid. This is the kind of insanity that was considered normal when I was a young child.
I can vividly recall atomic bomb drills when I was in kindergarten, roughly about the time when I began to mistrust adults. The mournful wail of the air raid sirens signaled us to seek shelter. We had to crouch down in the corridors with our heads at the junction of the wall and floor, with our hands laced over the backs of our necks and our legs tucked under our chests. This posture was supposed to provide maximum protection from debris (like glass from shattered windows) during the overpressure of an atomic blast, but I always thought we’d be trapped inside the building when it collapsed in a raging inferno.
Wildfire is a natural part of the chaparral biome, and some plants can’t seed without it, but watching my beloved hillsides burn made me terrified of firestorms. The combination of “fire and brimstone” preaching to which I was exposed, coupled with the hysteria about atomic warfare inspired frequent nightmares. This is what motivated me to leave my home state and move north. I planned my escape for many years before I was able to pull it off. For those of you who think I’m being paranoid and shouldn’t worry about things that will never happen, let me say that I really hope you’re right.
But I don’t think you are . . .
Strangely, my concern about atomic warfare pointed me back to Christianity. It’s a long and convoluted story, but as I began reading the Old Testament prophets for clues about the future, I found stunning testimony in 2 500 year-old words that detailed every aspect of nuclear blast and its impact on the environment and living things. How could the writers, who knew nothing about chemical explosions – much less nuclear ones – have described heat, blast, radiation sickness and the ensuing darkness that accompanies an all-out nuclear war in such astonishing detail? Intrigued, I kept reading.
Those of you who do not believe in God are likely shaking your heads at this. Why, you wonder, look into the fairy-tale writings of the Hebrews for revelations about the future? If that’s your position, I’m not offended. But let me ask you some important questions. Given that we’ve actually used nuclear bombs in anger already, we know their effects and have an abundant supply of even more powerful weapons at our disposal, what rationale supports the idea that we’ll never use them again? Has human nature fundamentally changed since Hiroshima and Nagasaki suffered atomic attack? Have we seen a decline in the number of armed conflicts in the world? Is the United States, presuming we’re “good” and don’t engage in unilateral warfare, alone in possessing the capacity to initiate a nuclear war? Are the nation states who currently possess such weapons morally constrained against their use in a national emergency? (If so, why develop them in the first place?)
Answering “no” to those questions underscores the inevitability that nuclear weapons will be used again, and likely on a greater scale, since more weapons are now available to potential belligerents.
For those readers who do believe in God and maintain that he would never permit humanity to destroy itself in this manner, why then did he reveal that this is precisely what would take place well over 2 500 years before humanity had the capacity to build an atomic bomb? Why do the biblical descriptions of coming destruction invariably involve fire, which is the primary destructive agent of a nuclear explosion? Why the details about radiation sickness? Why the worry from Jesus himself about pregnant women and nursing mothers? Why the details about darkness and a slow, lingering death?
If you want to know more about these things, don’t ask me. I recommend that you pick up a modern translation of the Bible. Despite what the KJV Only crowd screams, any mainstream version that you can understand will do. (Avoid the Schofield Reference Notes, as they will lead you astray. Don’t pick up a cult Bible, either. Stick with the text, and nothing more than the text.) Though I normally recommend that novices read the scriptures beginning with the Gospel of John, if you’re interested in eschatology, start reading the Old Testament prophets. Read Joel and Zechariah first. Read through Isaiah and Ezekiel before you read Daniel. Read those Old Testament prophets before you ever touch the Book of Revelation, as Revelation will make no sense, otherwise. Don’t listen to the preachers, evangelists, don’t read books about the apocalypse. Just focus your mind on what the scriptures actually say, and you’ll discover a truth that will chill you to the bone, once you understand it. If you’re sincerely looking for truth, I am confident you’ll find it.
But don’t despair. I have hope, and you can, too!
The social turmoil of my childhood influenced my attitudes toward racism and civil rights. From what I’ve experienced with people of different languages and cultures, I’ve come to believe that racism exists all over the world in various forms . The variety from Brasil, with which I’m familiar because it’s so prevalent in my family, works something like this: The lighter your skin color, the better you are. It doesn’t matter if my skin isn’t milky white, so long as it’s lighter than yours, I’m better than you.
My family members had a number of cherished and unmentionable racial epithets they’d reserve for black people, Asians, Indians and especially, Mexicans. The latter group was considered the “lowest of low” because they were “lazy.” (I’ve often wondered on what planet these “lazy Mexicans” exist, because I’ve never met anyone from Mexico who was lazy. Truthfully, every Mexican I’ve ever known has consistently maintained a stronger work ethic than most white people.) This was another issue that I recognized as morally wrong from a very young age.
When I was young, the people in my home town were ALL white skinned and overwhelmingly Protestant.
Let me tell you about my home town. For most of its history, Glendale has been a refuge for white people. Incorporated as a town in 1906, most of its early inhabitants were of British, Scots and Irish descent. As Los Angeles grew, the town developed a reputation as an exclusive enclave that kept “undesirable elements” (anyone who was non-white) from settling there in three major ways.
First, incorporation permitted local residents to insulate themselves with restrictive covenants and absolute control over which businesses were granted operating permits within city limits. Realtors set prices for new subdivisions that were beyond the means of anyone in the lower, socio-economic strata, in order to “protect property values.” Finally, the realtors, city officials and the police had an unstated policy of intolerance toward anyone of color. There was even a rumor going around that the police would escort people of color to the boundary of Glendale and Pasadena, where black people were permitted, if they were seen in town after sundown. I’m not sure this is true, but it’s an oft’ repeated rumor. The only exception to this involved people of Japanese descent, prior to the Second World War.
Don’t believe me?
This is an ordinary light post at the corner of Jackson and Maryland streets in Glendale. Its design reflects an historic architectural theme in my home town. It looks quaint and kind of pretty in an early Art Deco way, until you come in for a closer look.
This is the base of that same light pole. Yes, those are backward-facing swastikas adorning the pedestal. Some people claim that these are Chinese symbols of good fortune, but I grew up in Glendale and I don’t recall any Chinese people living there at the time. These posts were installed in the 1920′s, before most Americans associated the symbol with Nazi policies, but I remember the pervasive racism of people who lived in my home town and I don’t buy the Chinese good-luck argument for a minute.
There were no “people of color” living in my neighborhood until after Mr. Marcos declared martial law in the Philippines, and our area became swamped with Filipino refugees. They were the first non-white people I’d ever seen actually living in my home town, and when they first began to arrive, cries of “There goes the neighborhood!” were rampant. But these well-educated and hard-working people soon prospered in the area, and eventually met with acceptance. The next wave of immigrants from Armenia faced the same vitriol and discrimination that the Filipinos endured a decade earlier.
My family was racist, and so was my home town. When I watched the flickering images of the civil rights protests on television during the 1960′s, I never heard any of the adults I knew decrying the cruelty of police against the protesters. That seemed very wrong to me. These folk who were getting hosed down and attacked by police dogs were Americans, weren’t they? They weren’t criminals, either.
The people on the ground are getting a high-pressure bath, courtesy of the Birmingham Fire Department. I was horrified by imagery of this kind. In fact, it STILL bothers me!
There were two additional factors that set my mind against racial hatred. The first involved basketball. My mother was an avid Lakers fan. We watched every televised Lakers game that wasn’t broadcast on the Sabbath, and often drove to Inglewood – a scary, black neighborhood southwest of Los Angeles – to see the Lakers from the smoky cheap seats at the top of the Forum. There, I quietly watched my secret childhood hero utterly dominate the game and wished I could play basketball that well.
Now, my mother adored Jerry West, and to be fair, he was one of the NBA’s great players. She hung a poster of him on the back of my bedroom door, but while his poise and skill were impressive, watching him play did not give me the same sense of awe I felt toward the Lakers’ power forward, Elgin Baylor. He was not only an outstanding athlete; he was also a man of principle. I couldn’t say anything about this because admiring a man of color was not permitted in my household while I was growing up.
Elgin Baylor had a commanding presence on the basketball court. He was astonishingly big, powerful, confident and graceful. I admired the way he dominated the boards and seemed to hang in the air while other players were leaping up and down in a fruitless effort to stop him.
The egalitarian ethic that is supposed to pervade Christianity – where we are not to distinguish among nations, gender, class, language and social position – actually worked against the prevailing racism steeped into my upbringing. I attended Glendale Academy, an SDA school within walking distance of my home, for 12 years. Glendale Academy had buses that brought students from all over the region, which meant that I went to school in a very integrated environment. My favorite teacher was a black woman named Mrs. Weekley. (I absolutely adored her.) In a place where I mixed and made friends with other students from different backgrounds, the racism of my childhood could not persist.
I know he hates this picture, but this is the earliest photo I have of my best friend, Xavier. We’ve been like brothers ever since we were 13. Our friendship has endured a lot of adversity, but we’ve remained close over the years.
The main lesson I learned about racism is that it can only exist in an environment of ignorance and mistrust. Once we begin to see one another as people sharing a common humanity, rather than categorizing others according to differences, it becomes impossible to hate whole classes of fellow humans by virtue of their skin color, culture, language or ethnicity. The first time someone mentioned, “You’re friends with that black kid,” I had to stop and think about it. I’ve never considered Xavier “my black friend” any more than I considered Elgin Baylor a “black athlete.” There’s no need for an adjective in either case. I admired Elgin Baylor because of his athleticism, skill and willingness to stand up for what’s right. I care about Xavier because of his intellect, his good character and his consistent support over the more than 40 years we’ve been friends.
I’ve heard several times that when my readers empathize with Brenna as they get to know her and learn to love her, the racism I describe projected against that character in the Deveran Conflict Series books bothers them. They don’t understand why the Tamarians, the Kamerese and the Azgar despise her people so much. One woman told me that she doesn’t understand why anyone would act in such a hateful manner toward a character she considers so kindly and noble. That fact underscores my point. It’s hard to hate people you care about, and if we all cared about one another, we’d live in a very different world where a lot less would be wrong.
Robert Luis Rabello’s Amazon Page: https://tinyurl.com/yxspdt3n