Monthly Archives: February 2014

Life With No After: A Child’s Lament


This can’t end well . . .

Jesse had gone to bed happy, with a new book, ten minutes earlier. Yet here he was in the doorway of the living room, about to burst into tears.

Stifling my reflexive annoyance at his unscheduled reappearance, I said something comforting, like, “What?!” But he didn’t stop to explain; he just pitched onto the couch next to me, pressed his head into me, and sobbed.

I hugged him hard and did a quick mental scan. Was it the new book? No, the book was funny, a cockeyed look at world mythology. Was he anxious about something? There were no recitals or competitions on the near horizon. And he had a whole Sunday left before school started again. As far as I knew, life was good.

I let him cry for a little while—breathing slowly myself in the hopes that his ragged breaths would subside—and then I said, “Jess, what’s wrong?”

“It’s nothing. It’s stupid.” I waited. He spoke again. “You just die and then it’s over,” he said. “There’s nothing left.”

Honestly, I was relieved. This was not some new trauma that required doctors or therapists or Internet research in the wee hours. Death is an old, familiar topic for Jesse and me. As a little kid, he worried about how old he would be when Grandma died, and tested the edges of my matter-of-fact nonbelief. “But there could be a heaven, right?” I’m not the kind of person who could just say “right”—even to a six-year-old. I’d say, “Right, but there could be anything, if you look at it that way. We could make anything up, and it would be just as likely to be true.”

Maybe, for Jesse, that humorous book on mythology had the same brutal subtext: tell whatever stories you want, but that’s not going to change what happens in the end. Most of us, whatever we believe, have nights when the obfuscating cloud of daily distraction suddenly parts, and we glimpse the fact that we are—relatively soon—going to die. Without recourse to the promise of Heaven, what do we do? What do we say to comfort ourselves?

I try to remember that when I die, it won’t bother me at all: I’ll be dead. There’s something clean and reassuring about life with no after: no pain, no thoughts, no regrets, nothing.

So that’s what I told Jesse. And he said, “But what’s the point? If you’re just going to disappear?”

I started to say that he’s less likely to disappear than most people—he’d be leaving behind a haunting sonata or a great pop album—but then switched midway, unsure whether achievements really matter in the grand scheme, or whether, if you step back far enough, those are meaningless too.

The point is, I said, to make the most of your life now.

“But it’s pointless.”

Right, I sighed. So you might as well enjoy yourself.

This was preaching to the choir, so to speak. Evidence of Jesse’s exuberant days filled the house: pages of Mendelssohn sheet music in the printer tray, leftover banana bread he’d made on a whim, a penciled list of art projects to do with his little sister, at least four half-started notebooks with ideas for songs, and, on the piano (and under the piano and next to the piano), lead sheets for pop songs he was rehearsing with friends.

Jesse lives big. He has big dreams and big talent and makes big plans; he hugs with his whole body and he sings at full throat; his joy is sunshine happy and his fury is mine-shaft black.

And occasionally a big wave of grief washes over him when he realizes it’s not going to last forever.

He shrugged off my attempts at reasoned reassurance; he’s smart enough to know there’s no answer. That’s what he meant when he said, “It’s nothing.” It’s not nothing—it’s everything—but there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

Ten minutes later, the wave passed. As he headed back to bed, it occurred to me that, rather than getting up in the first place, he could have stayed there and cried quietly. That’s what I would have done. That’s what I did do, as a child. Instead he got up to tell me how he was feeling, to give and receive a long hug, to hear my voice. Making his sorrow—every human’s sorrow—a moment of connection rather than isolation.

I don’t know what the point of life is either, but it seems to me he’s getting it.

Why I Am Not an Agnostic

Mr. Gruff

Mr. Gruff, the grumpy atheist goat

Upon hearing me say I’m an atheist, several people have asked, “Now are you an atheist or an agnostic?” Which is sort of like asking someone who just told you she is a lesbian, “Now are you a lesbian or are you just experimenting?”

Obviously they want to give me—a person who seems nice—a nicer word. Atheist connotes a sneering cynic who thinks believers (and possibly love and puppies too) are stupid.

Also, atheism is a full-time job. No time for sports, kids, or cooking. Atheists spend their days making fun of believers, making up snarky aphorisms about religion, and complaining about the Pledge of Allegiance.

An agnostic, on the other hand, is just a regular person humble enough to admit what he doesn’t know. He’s not sure there is a god, but he’s not sure there isn’t. Believers with even the tiny bit of doubt can relate to the agnostic, which is why they sometimes helpfully offer me that label. They want me to be someone they can understand. They want me to be someone they can like.

First of all, I appreciate the effort. Second, I am tempted. Agnostic does suit my personality. I’m friendly. I appreciate the virtues of religion, and have no interest in convincing others not to believe. I tend to see all sides of an argument. I am keenly aware of the laughable difference between all that I know and all there is to know.

So why don’t I call myself agnostic? Because I see absolutely no reason to think that there might be a god. None. I don’t see some evidence for and some against. I see no evidence for and plenty against.

To be clear: I really don’t think much about whether god exists. I enjoy those British-accented books in which brilliant evolutionary biologists (for example) brilliantly articulate arguments against god. I’m grateful they did the work, grateful that all that complex reasoning sits on my shelf, like a little intellectual battery pack. But for my own beliefs, I don’t really need it. My atheism derives naturally from a few simple observations.

(1) the Greek myths are obviously stories. The Norse myths are obviously stories. Joseph Smith and L. Ron Hubbard obviously just made that shit up. Extrapolate.

(2) life is confusing and death is scary. Naturally humans want to believe that someone capable is in charge of everything, including an afterlife. But (2a) wanting doesn’t make it so.

(3) the holy books that underpin some of the bigger theistic religions are riddled with “facts” now disproved by science and “morality” now disavowed by modern adherents. Extrapolate.

(4) child rape

 As for the argument that “god” isn’t an actual being capable of or interested in preventing (4) but instead is a sort of cosmic life force, well . . . then we’re not really talking about theism anymore.

That’s it. Not some long, tortured debate. To me it’s clear there is no god. Or rather, it’s clear that god is made up. Of course God exists—He’s the most powerful, most fascinating, most cited, most represented fictional character ever created.

So I guess what I should really call myself is a . . . mytho-theist. Does that sound better?

Search Limits

In honor of Valentine’s Day, a piece that I wrote nine years ago (!) for the Times Union. Enjoy, while I rest from the enormous effort of not editing my 34-year-old self. (OK, I couldn’t resist a few footnotes.)

♦ ♦ ♦


Would have led me to this guy?

I just signed up with I made up a screen name and created a profile and entered various search criteria to find the perfect guy for me within 10 miles of my ZIP code.

Did I want to post my profile, the Web site wondered? No, thank you. It’s not that I’m shy or unsure of myself, it’s just that I’m … married. Happily married, with two[1] mostly lovable kids and a mostly delightful life. I have no desire to find a new man; I just have a desire to Internet date.

I never really dated before I met the man I would marry. I didn’t even really date him: it was at college, and we proceeded straight from hanging out to staying in. Having never dated, I flatter myself that I would be good at it, that I’m good at talking, listening, and flirting, that I’m pretty darn cute. I imagine the lost thrills of all the first dates I never had, the suspense of meeting a new possibility across a candlelit table.

And then I imagine being bored silly. Until recently, my dating fantasies were always trampled by the parade of tedious guys I’d picture myself having to humor and gently rebuff before I’d find one who was worth a second date. I may be a friendly flirt, but I’m picky.

Then came Internet dating, which offers the promise of front-row seating along the parade route, from which vantage point (comfy in your pajamas) you can pick out the one or two potential mates who have real potential. If you start by reading profiles and exchanging e-mails, it seems, you can weed out the ones with no sense of humor or just no sense, the ones with politics that repel you or interests that baffle you.

First, you create your profile, an exercise that primarily teaches you how unreliable everybody’s profile must be. Even trying to be honest (without, of course, mentioning the husband and kids) was hard: Do I show my best self or my worst? Am I “curvy” or “average” or “a few extra pounds”? Do I say I read the New Yorker or do I say I’m almost always an issue[2] behind and I always skip the poems and I usually make it about halfway through the Seymour Hersh pieces, and to be quite honest the first thing I turn to is the movie review in the back?

I skipped ahead to the search. I want someone local, 30 to 45 years old, at least college-educated, left-wing politics, nonreligious. Up popped three pages of profiles, and, gleefully, like a kid in a very creepy candy store, I clicked on each photo. No smokers, please, no New-Agers, no sports freaks. Nobody meek. Reality TV? Tom Clancy novels? I don’t think so.

But wait. There is a problem with finding someone this way, a problem represented by the man in the living room reading to our boys. The man who made a life with me, the man who made my life. If we’d seen each other’s profiles in 1989, we probably wouldn’t have made it to the first date. The problem with Internet dating—and this is true also of Internet shopping and Internet research—is that when you enter your search terms, you limit your search by what you already think you want, by your idea of who you are and the person you could love.

But what if you’re wrong? What if there’s a 29-year-old with uncommon wisdom or a 50-year-old more youthful than I? What if there’s a philosopher artist with a great sense of humor who never made it through college? When I met my future husband, I didn’t want someone who spent Sundays watching football, preferred a diner to a bistro, thought of reading as work. He didn’t want someone who hated competitive sports, knew books were superior to movies, thought of card games as work. I didn’t want someone who yelled when arguments turned ugly; he didn’t want someone who cried when they did.

We got each other, though, somehow sensing qualities that we would never have known to look for. We got each other, and magically, 15 years later, he’s learned[3] not to yell and I’ve learned[4] not to cry. Which is all well and good for me to say. A 19-year-old can afford to bet that, with time, a good man will turn into a perfect match. At 34, I’m not sure I’d have the patience to rely on chance either. At least not chance alone. So to all you Albany-area Liberal, Very Liberal, or Nonconformist 30- to 45-year-old guys who have rejected organized religion and are searching for love, good luck, and try to keep an open mind. And, “justjustin17,” if you’re reading this, e-mail me. I think we could be friends.[5]

[1] Now three.

[2] Or five.

[3] Mostly.

[4] Mostly.

[5] Didn’t email. Yet.