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Channeler surfing

The Lizard of Fun meets the Swami of Steve.

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Published 3/3/1999

The Lizard of Fun has donned a saffron robe and is sitting cross-legged on a woven grass mat. Looking blissfully spiritual, it’s chanting something that sounds like "Detroit-techno-eats-bananas-Detroit-techno-eats-bananas."

My nose twitches, and then the strawberry-scented incense burning in a small container balanced on its head makes me sneeze. The Lizard startles out of its trance.

"I’ve been to Ann Arbor," it announces. "I’ve been searching for enlightenment. I think I found some. Also some great new dills from Zingerman’s."

I wave the incense away with the copy of Phenomenews the Lizard hands me, and take a bite of the offered dill pickle.

"Swami Bananarama?" I ask, looking at the byline of "Ask the Swami," a column in the magazine. "Sounds like a girl group that only performs at ashrams."

But the Lizard isn’t paying attention. It’s muttering again, its eyes rolled back in its head. "If you seek spiritual enlightenment, send all your money to meeeeeee."

The Lizard of Fun is channeling something, but who or what isn’t clear. I swat it with the Phenomenews.

"Okay, okay, I’ll stop," says the Lizard peevishly, shrugging down to an everyday plane of enlightenment. "But you know, I could get rich doing that. People really listen to channelers, because they reveal the truth that nobody else will. Kind of like Linda Tripp."

I decide that if the Lizard is trying to channel Linda Tripp, it’s high time ("Oh, didn’t I mention there was a warm-up for the Hash Bash?" grins the Lizard) it sought some real divine guidance. Figuring the Swami is as good a place as any to start, I decide to contact him through more conventional channels: the telephone.

As it turns out, Swami Beyondananda (not Bananarama, unfortunately) is the alter ego of Steve Bhaerman, a former Ann Arborite ("Did you know that ‘arborite’ is another word for ‘Formica?’" asks the Lizard) who now lives on the edge of a forested canyon in Texas – that is, when he’s not doing Swami things such as writing a magazine column, traveling around the country doing comedy shows, or holding spiritual-growth workshops.

"Ah, so he’s one of those flaky New Age types," says the Lizard, rolling its eyes and wincing as a still-burning incense cinder lands on its tail. "Does he get air miles for frequent yogic flying?"

Sometimes those who resist things most strongly are the ones who really, deep down, want to accept that which they’re resisting – like the two guys who ran Exodus International, a Christian organization that wanted to convince gay folks to convert to heterosexuality: They ended up falling in love and leaving the anti-gay group to live together and raise a family.

I suspect the Lizard is like that when it comes to spirituality, so I ask the Swami what he thinks. Does the Lizard make fun of New Age ideas because it really wants to embrace them?

Of course, Bhaerman also pokes fun at the New Age movement, so he’s not really one to ask. In his comedy routines, he targets the pretensions and pomposity of New Age true believers. As he puts it, "The mirror of ridicule can seriously bust a trance." ("Isn’t that seven years bad luck?" asks the Lizard.)

Yeah, and nothing makes you come down faster from a self-deluded moment of grandeur than someone sneezing at the incense burning on your head, or laughing at the toilet paper hanging from your shoe.

So the Swami, who came to this planet as the official mascot of Pathways, the Ann Arbor spirituality magazine Bhaerman and a friend founded and ran in the early ’80s, is a convenient way for him to skewer the very folks who read the magazine (and still read his column in Phenomenews and similar papers). By making fun of them, he figures he also makes them more honest, in an emperor’s new clothes kind of way ("Hey, are you saying you don’t like my robe?" asks the Lizard. "But it was half-off at Value Village!").

The Swami also says some things Bhaerman himself would never get away with.

"Having an alter ego allows you to express your more anti-social feelings," says Bhaerman. "I’m a big fan of alter egos."

"So there," says the Lizard. "If I channel an alter ego, people will pay me big bucks to tell them they’re having bad hair days and that they look hideous in green."

I remind the Lizard that spirituality and making money aren’t supposed to go together. Bhaerman, who has occasionally run into some less-than-ethical factions of the New Age movement, agrees.

"I’m certainly not channeling Swami," he says quickly, and then explains that as far as he’s concerned, the only difference between channelers and schizophrenics is that channelers get paid for hearing those voices.

"You’re just jealous because the little voices are talking to me," says the Lizard. "I saw that on a bumper sticker. Now there’s a place to find enlightenment."

"Only if it serves dill pickles," I add. "Now, about that incense ..."

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