My Red Phone

red-telephoneOne of life’s great pleasures is knowing stuff. This, I feel certain, is why people study sports. They sacrifice nights and weekends they might otherwise have spent at foreign films and craft shows; they eschew PBS in favor of ESPN; they listen to sports talk radio despite yearning for a little classic jazz. Eventually they specialize: one majors in baseball, another gets a master’s in golf; a third might do doctoral work on Julius Erving.

Some people cannot rouse themselves to such levels of self-motivated learning, and so they have children. One can hardly fail to become an authority on one’s own children; even the young, assistant parent can expound at length on sleep issues and the stuff that issues from Little Pookie’s intestinal tract.

But the problem with being an authority on your children is that no one cares. No one really needs or wants to know that strawberries give your baby a rash that can be treated only with a particular brand of hydrocortisone cream. They’re just smiling because they’re so damned glad their brains are filled with box scores instead.

What if you actually want your friends to listen to you? What if you want your advanced knowledge to be met with appreciation rather than tolerance? I recommend becoming an expert not on little Agatha or on the Brazilian soccer team, but on a practical matter that is a component of daily life: Car Repair. Etiquette. Computers. Wine.

In time, friends and family will learn to think of you first when confronting a question in the area of, say, lawn care, home maintenance, or sewing. And, no, the Internet does not spell the end of personal expertise, because, fortunately, most people are lazy. I myself have enough energy either to get the gravy stain out of my tablecloth or to figure out how to get the gravy stain out of my tablecloth, but certainly not both. So I reach for the phone to call my mother-in-law, Marcia Greenberg, M.L.S.R. (Master of Laundering and Stain Removal). But wait—should I call her even though it’s late and she’s got company? To answer that question, I need my mother, Judy Cohen, D.D.S.I. (Doctor of Delicate Social Interaction).

As for me, I chose food. I have a bit of accidental expertise in other matters—like the sports fan who takes in a few minutes of the Weather Channel before finding the remote. Occasionally I get to explain the difference between which and that; twice a year I get to excise  passive verbs from people’s cover letters. But 9 out of 10 times when that red phone[1] rings, it’s a cooking question.

How do you cut a cheesecake neatly? Can you freeze meat again after you’ve thawed it once? What kind of finger foods can be either hors d’oeuvres or dinner depending on how hungry your guests are? What was that recipe for green beans again? Is there a way to make challah so that I can serve it fresh for Friday dinner if I get home at four in the afternoon? Do you know an easy-to-make vanilla frosting? What would you make for vegans for brunch? What was that green bean recipe again?

I picture an old-fashioned red plastic dial phone that sits alone on a polished wooden desk. In reality I answer a black cordless phone that rings at least three times before I find it under the newspaper and a damp dishtowel on the kitchen table. It’s my mother/father/older sister/little sister/sister-in-law/brother-in-law/mother-in-law/best friend with a cooking question. Friends are coming for dinner—what kind of side dish would go best with that chicken thing but doesn’t require a trip to the grocery? I wedge the phone between my chin and shoulder and consider the question while scraping bits of bread dough off the kitchen counter. I always consider the question.

People are relying on me, after all.




[1] I realize the “red phone” image messes up my academic analogy, but doesn’t every professor secretly wish his or her field were of urgent, real-world concern? What Emerson scholar doesn’t envy the Economics colleague being interviewed on NPR about the global recession?


The Truth Spectrum

pngA couple of months ago, a satirical Internet post quoted the Pope as saying that the church no longer believes in a literal Hell.

I bought it for about four seconds—enough to say, “What!?!” rather than “Yeah, right”—because there was something so lovely about the way it was expressed:  “Hell is merely a metaphor for the isolated soul, which like all souls ultimately will be united in love with God.”

Sweet, don’t you think? That’s what I thought.

But then I remembered the Truth Spectrum™.

The Truth Spectrum™ is a highly regarded measure of religious attitude that I just made up. It has nothing to do with whether your scriptures are true. It just measures how true you believe them to be.

It’s simple, really.

“True!” You believe your Holy Text to be literally true. To put this in (seasonally appropriate) Passover terms, that means you believe God actually appeared to Moses “in a blazing fire out of a bush” and started talking to him (Exodus 3).

“True in a sense.” You believe your Holy Text to be true, but sometimes figurative or evocative rather than literal. “The waters were split, and the Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left” (Exodus 14:21–22)? OK, maybe not. But the parting of the Red Sea represents the power of God, which permitted the Israelites to escape from Egypt, against seemingly insurmountable odds.

“There is truth in this.” You believe that your Holy Text contains some historical, scientific, and even ethical errors. But you can ignore those and focus on the wisdom to be found there: the psychological truths of, for instance, how the oppressed sometimes resist their own deliverance, “their spirits crushed by cruel bondage” (Exodus 6:9), and how great leaders are sometimes reluctant leaders: “Please, O Lord, make someone else your agent” (Exodus 4:13).

“I can make some truth from this.” You believe that the text in question is fictional, but still useful. As far as you can tell, Exodus is about one people’s escape from slavery so they can go have slaves of their own (see Leviticus 25). But you feel the resonant imagery and dialogue—“Let My People Go!”—can still help you teach your kids about liberation movements and human rights.

“Bullshit!” You believe you should teach your kids about liberation movements and human rights by talking about, um, liberation movements and human rights. No need to sift through ancient, patriarchal, sectarian, demonic mumbo-jumbo. “Every first-born in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the first-born of the slave girl who is behind the millstones; and all the first-born of the cattle” (Exodus 11:5).

That’s it. That’s the Truth Spectrum™: from simply “true” to simply not.

The Truth Spectrum

Since this is a spectrum, one doesn’t necessarily land squarely on one of these spots. For instance, you might think I would be standing smack in the “Bullshit” camp, but you’re forgetting I majored in Comparative Literature; I can make truth from anything. And sometimes it’s useful to have a place to start.

Even so, I stand a notch or two farther to the “Bullshit” side than where I started. People move over time. And so do peoples. A majority of Greeks at some point probably thought Zeus actually turned himself into a swan. Even then, I’m sure there were people crying, “Bullshit! Leda made that up.” One should never assume that everyone in a certain era is at the same point on the spectrum. All the way back in the 12th century, Maimonides said of Genesis, “The account given in scripture is not, as is generally believed, intended to be in all its parts literal.” In other words, “true in a sense.”

Maybe one day the Catholic Church will officially move from “True” to “True in a sense,” but right now—though individual Catholics around the world may waver—it’s sticking with literal miracles and a literal Hell and the literal transformation of a cracker and a sip of wine into the body and blood of Christ. Not a symbol or reminder of Christ—his real flesh.

Now that’s taking a stand against metaphor.

“Sorry, Honey . . .”

Athena Captures a Centaur (Botticelli)“Sorry, honey, God’s just pretend,” I said once to a child of mine.

Which child and when—those details have left my head. But the sentence stuck. I liked how it both stated a fact and expressed a wistfulness about that fact. No one is in charge, but life might be easier if Someone were.

Last week, writing to a friend who was advising me on a book pitch, I said it again. I hoped (I wrote) that my memoir about raising atheists would give nonbelieving parents the encouragement they might need to say to their children, “Sorry, honey, God’s just pretend.”

Writing back, my friend suggested that I add, “I think.” As in, “Sorry, honey, I think God’s just pretend.” My “claim to know the unknowable” made her uncomfortable. I don’t have proof that God does not exist. Should I really state as an absolute truth, as she put it, “that which we cannot know”?

Should I?

Consider the following:

“Mom, are monsters real?”

“Well, honey, some people think they’re real, but your dad and I believe that monsters are just pretend. When you get older, you can decide for yourself what you believe.”

This, of course, would never happen. On the contrary, it would be perfectly acceptable—even predictable—to say, “Don’t worry, honey, monsters are just pretend.” And it works if you’re not reassuring a child, as well; no one would raise an eyebrow at “Sorry, honey, Athena is just pretend” or “Sorry, honey, fairies are just pretend.”

So we can assert the nonexistence of things for which there is no evidence. Even if we have no absolute proof that they do not exist.

Monsters and fairies and Greek gods may seem like frivolous examples, in no way equivalent to God. But they are logically equivalent. They just aren’t culturally equivalent. Most grownups (today) don’t believe in Mount Olympus or fairies or monsters; to state that they don’t exist is to state the “obvious.” And (to state the obvious) the same is not true when it comes to God.

More to the point, they are not emotionally equivalent. People who believe in God usually care whether He is real. Sometimes they care a lot. To dismiss unapologetically something that someone else cares about is just . . . rude. I suspect that the whiff of the impolite—or at least the impolitic—is partly what made my friend wrinkle her nose.

I don’t want to be rude. Which is why I would never say, “Sorry, honey, God’s just pretend” to a niece at her bat mitzvah or to an athlete in a post-game interview.

But to my kids, who are trying to figure out what to believe? Absolutely.


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