Intransitive Gratitude: Feeling Thankful in a Godless World

I first published this on Thanksgiving 2011, and have decided to make it a Thanksgiving tradition.

If you don’t believe in God, what does gratitude mean?

I don’t mean specific gratitude towards specific people for specific benevolent acts. I mean that more broad, general, sweeping sense of gratitude: gratitude for things like good health, having food to eat, having friends and family, the mere fact of being alive at all.

I started thinking about this when I was watching the “Thanks for Skepticon” video that the Fellowship of Freethought Dallas put together, where they asked participants at Skepticon 4 to say what they were thankful for. Most of the folks in the video — myself included — took the question at face value, and spoke of our intense gratitude: for science and medicine, for friends and family, for jobs in an unstable economy, for trees, for the very fact that we exist at all.

But some participants — specifically PZ Myers and American Atheists president David Silverman — questioned the entire assumption behind the project. Silverman simply reframed the question: instead of saying what he was thankful for, he spoke about who he was thankful to. And Myers took on the entire enterprise directly. He said that asking people to be thankful for something was an attempt to “anthropomorphize the universe.” He said there were lots of things he liked — being alive, his wife, his kids, squid — but he wasn’t going to express gratitude to the universe, since the universe wasn’t capable of expressing any gratitude back.

Hm. Interesting point.

So this video — and the subsequent discussion of it on my blog — got me thinking: If you don’t believe in God, does it even make sense to say that you’re grateful for stuff? Not to specific people who did specific nice things — that kind of gratitude makes sense, obviously — but just general gratitude for the good things in our lives? Does the emotion of gratitude have to have a specific object, a conscious actor who made choices that affected our lives in positive ways? Or can we feel grateful without an object?

Is there such a thing as intransitive gratitude? [Read more…]

Our “Light the Night” Team Reached $9,000 – So I’m Eating Bugs!

Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Light the Night Walk logoSome joker really has it in for me. How dare they — donate money to a cause I care about, just to torment me?

Freethought Blogs has gotten into the Foundation Beyond Belief/ Leukemia & Lymphoma Foundation Light the Night game, and has started a virtual team! Even small donations help — it really does add up. For each $1000 we raise, I’ve promised to do a different forfeit or dare.

So recently, some kind soul donated $413 — the exact amount it took to get our total up to $9,000 — with the comment, “Bon appetit, Greta!”

Don Bugito logoAnd so, as promised, because we have raised $9,000 I will be eating bugs. I even know the place I’m going to do it: Don Bugito. (Of course there’s a hipster foodie source of edible bugs in San Francisco…)

And if we reach our team’s fundraising goal of $10,000… I will eat broccoli. Seriously.

Update on my previous dares: I’m having to do them somewhat out of order — largely because I’m focusing almost all my time and attention on finishing my new book (Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why), and some of these dares will take time. But I’m posting the ones that I can do as soon as I can do them. Because we raised $1000, I dyed all my hair purple and green, for Skepticon (pics coming soon!). Because we raised $2000, I will go to church. I won’t pray — that would be dishonest — but I’ll attend, and I’ll even be polite. (It’ll have to wait until after the book is finished, though.) Because we raised $3000, I will wear a Tea Party hat and make a ridiculous speech about health care. That’s coming up next. Because we raised $4000, I got a bubblegum pink manicure. Because we raised $5000, I will dress as a nun and sing the Leslie Gore song, “You Don’t Own Me” to a crucifix. Because we raised $6,000, I went vegetarian for a month. Because we raised $7,000, I will go vegan for a week. And because we raised $8,000, I will read and review Fifty Shades of Grey. Sigh.

What’s more: If you participate in the Light the Night Walk by just donating some money to our team and then walking up and down in your living room as part of a “do it yourself” walkathon — and you videotape it and put it on the Internet — I will personally donate $50 to the FTB Light the Night team. $50 per video, capping out at $500. (I’ll also post links to the videos on my blog.)

foundation beyond belief logoAnd if the entire Foundation Beyond Belief team reaches its goal of raising $500,000 in 2013, I will walk across the entire city of San Francisco, in the wildest outfit I can come up with. (With sensible shoes, though — I’m not stupid.) Yes, I’ll be doing my very own personal Bay to Breakers, with whatever friends and family I can sucker into joining me.

I won’t be the only Freethought Blogger doing assorted forfeits and dares if we reach various fundraising milestones, btw. PZ Myers, Ed Brayton, and Avicenna are all offering themselves up as sacrificial lambs as well. (PZ has already blogged about tumor suppressor genes while naked and wearing a pirate hat.)

What’s more, fellow blogging network Skepchick is offering a bunch of seriously cool dares and offers for their own Light the Night Walk virtual team, including custom superhero drawings, custom cocktails, shaven heads, juggling videos, comic reviews, and more. Rivalry! Rivalry! We can beat those Skepchicks! Rah! Rah! Go team!

todd stiefelAnd Todd Stiefel — the Foundation Beyond Belief Light the Night International Team Captain, the guy who came up with the whole “Foundation Beyond Belief and the atheist community supporting the Light the Night Walk in a big way” idea in the first place, and whose Stiefel Freethought Foundation is doing matching funds for a big-ass chunk of it — has promised that if either the Freethought Blogs team or the Skepchick team raises $20,000, he’ll get a buzz-mohawk. (His hair isn’t long enough for a big one). And whichever team gets to the goal first will get to pick the color of his mohawk!

In addition to (or instead of) being part of our virtual team, you can actually take part in the Light the Night walk in your own city: as part of a Foundation Beyond Belief team, or as part of some other team, or just on your own. You don’t have to be part of an official team to be part of the walk — you can just register as an individual, either online or at the event.

So sign up! Be an official part of the Freethought Blogs Light the Night team! Get me, PZ, Ed, and Avicenna to do awesome, embarrassing, painful, or hilarious things against cancer! Let’s make use of human beings’ evolutionary tendency towards tribalism and group loyalty and pointless competition — and our tendency to treat irrelevant sacrifices as both a social bonding mechanism and proof of serious commitment — and turn it towards good! Go, team, go!

“Is He Gay or Straight?” Bisexual Eradication in “Modern Family”

modern family posterIn the last few weeks, I’ve started intermittently watching the TV show “Modern Family.” There’s a certain amount that I like about it, as well as a certain amount that I don’t. (Often the case with fluffy mainstream-ish pop-culture entertainment. I want it to divert and distract me, but it often winds up annoying me and tying my brain into knots. Fluffy mainstream-ish pop-culture entertainment largely exists to reinforce cultural norms — that’s what makes it fluffy and comforting and mainstream — and I generally don’t find cultural norms comforting, they generally annoy me and tie my brain into knots.)

So I was watching the “Yard Sale” episode (I’m watching the show out of order in syndicated re-runs) — and I wanted to throw my drink at the screen. And I’m not even drinking these days. I wanted to mix myself a drink, just so I could throw it at the screen.

The plot line that was making me mad: Teenage daughter Alex has a new boyfriend, Michael, who she brings to the extended family’s yard sale. Her mom Claire is worried that Michael is gay, and she calls in the gay uncles Cam and Mitchell for a consultation on the matter: the three of them observe Michael’s stereotypically gay behavior, and agree that he’s gay. We see a scene in which Michael is alone with Alex, continuing to act stereotypically gay, but getting very defensive when she asks him point-blank if he’s gay or not.

And for the 787,266,456th time in my pop-culture viewing life, I wanted to scream, “Did anyone consider the possibility that he might be bisexual?”

Why are “gay” and “straight” the only options here? When the grownups decided that Michael was probably queer, why did that automatically rule out the possibility that he might be genuinely into their daughter/niece? Why did nobody consider the possibility that he might be a queeny queer guy who likes girls?

I have known some very queeny bisexual men. I have known some very dykey bisexual women. I know some very queeny bisexual men in serious or primary relationships with women, and some very dykey bisexual women in serious or primary relationships with men. (I’ve also known some queeny straight men and some dykey straight women, but that’s a post for a different day.) Why does tagging someone as “probably queer” automatically mean that if they’re dating someone of the opposite gender, they’re deceiving themselves or flat-out lying?

For the record, I do think gaydar is a thing. It’s not a magical thing, it’s not like some psychic connection queers have with each other: it’s more of an unconscious adding-up of lots of personal and cultural signifiers, it’s very culturally determined and it does go wrong. But yes, I think queers probably are, in general, better at figuring out who is and isn’t queer. (Although I’d be very interested to see research testing this theory.)

But queer guys can like girls. Queer girls can like guys. Even very classically queer girls and guys can like girls and guys. And we’re not even getting into people who are gender-queer, gender-fluid, or don’t identify on a gender binary… and who have all sorts of orientations in terms of what genders or lack thereof they’re attracted to. Not to mention people who are traditionally gendered, but who can be attracted to people who aren’t. Queerness comes in lots of different flavors: simple homosexuality is only one of many.

I think this bugged me even more than it might have because “Modern Family” is supposedly all about breaking down standard gender and family expectations. It’s supposedly all about how modern American families aren’t Ozzie and Harriet any more (not that they ever were): they’re commonly blended, multi-racial, mixed-generational, adoptive, and/or same-sex. And yet here it is, reinforcing the tired old notion that everyone is neatly divided into two groups, gay and straight, and never the twain shall meet. Eradicating even the possibility of bisexuality along the way.

One of the things that sucks most about being bisexual is not being recognized by either straight or gay people. It sucks having it assumed that having sex with both women and men means, at best, that you’re confused or experimenting or trying to find yourself. It sucks having it assumed that if you’re in an opposite-sex relationship, you’ve sown your wild oats (and have renounced any right to be part of the queer community; that if you’re in a same-sex relationship, you’ve finally found your true gay self. It sucks having past relationships seen as false, depending on whether they were with the same gender you’re with right now.

It sucks to be treated as invisible. It sucks worse to have even the possibility of who you are be eradicated.

(And yes, I know. This is fluffy mainstream-ish pop-culture entertainment. It’s just replacing an old set of cultural norms with a new one. It still bugged me.)

Godless Perverts Social Club Dec. 3 — and Godless Perverts Holiday Fun Time Dec. 14!

Godless Perverts Banner

The Godless Perverts have all sorts of fun things planned for December! We hope you can join us! And save the date for February 1 — we have another Story Hour coming up!

Tuesday, December 3, is the next Godless Perverts Social Club — the casual, hanging-out social arm of the Godless Perverts empire. Join us every first Tuesday of every month at Wicked Grounds, San Francisco’s renowned BDSM-themed coffee house, for an evening of conversation and socializing. Community is one of the reasons we started Godless Perverts. There are few enough places to land when you decide that you’re an atheist; far fewer if you’re also LGBT, queer, kinky, poly, trans, or are just interested in sexuality. And the sex-positive/ alt-sex/ whatever- you- want- to- call- it community isn’t always the most welcoming place for non-believers. So please join us on the first Tuesday of every month for an evening of conversation and socializing. All orientations, genders, and kinks (or lack thereof) are welcome.

Wicked Grounds is at 289 8th Street in San Francisco, near the Civic Center BART station. There’s no admission, but we ask that you buy food and drink at the counter, or make a donation to the venue. Wicked Grounds has yummy food and drink options ranging from full dinners to coffee and tea, with lots of snacks and baked goods and other light nosh in between, and some of the best milkshakes in the city.

Then on Saturday, December 14, we’re having have our very first Godless Perverts Holiday Fun Time! It’s the most blasphemous time of the year! Save the date for the sexiest and most sacreligious holiday party in the Bay Area! Come celebrate/ desecrate the midwinter holiday of your choice — whether that’s Christmas, Chanukah, Solstice, Kwanzaa, Saturnalia, Yule, or some “return of the sun” holiday we’ve never heard of. Or just have a good time for no good reason other than that the weather is getting cold and dark and crappy, so feasting and forming social bonds is not a bad idea. Axial tilt — it’s the reason for the season!

We’ll have food, drink, entertainment, and adorably stupid icebreaker games (entirely optional). Plus we’ll be giving away door prizes of atheist books, dirty books, and porn from Greta’s years as a porn reviewer. Blasphemous costumes, sexy costumes, awesome combinations of the above, and other festive garb are encouraged, but by no means required.

The Godless Perverts Holiday Fun Time is happening at the Center for Sex and Culture, 1349 Mission St in San Francisco (near Civic Center BART), on Saturday December 14, starting at 7:00 pm. It’s a benefit for the Center for Sex and Culture. Admission $10-$20 OR a yummy holiday treat to share. We’ll provide food, but we’d love to add your holiday specials to the buffet. No-one turned away for lack of funds or cooking skills. Hope to see you there!

Also, save the date for February! On Saturday, February 1, 2014, the Godless Perverts Story Hour returns to San Francisco — livestreamed as part of the Freethought Blogs Con online conference! This reading/ performance event will feature Juba Kalamka, Dana Fredsti, Virgie Tovar, Simon Sheppard, Kate Sirls, and hosts David Fitzgerald and me me me! The format’s going to be a little different from our usual story hours — we just have a two-hour time slot for the online conference, so we’ll have seven performers in a row… followed by a Q&A with all seven, taking questions from both the online and the live audiences. It’ll be at the Center for Sex and Culture, 1349 Mission St. in San Francisco (near Civic Center BART). Festivities start at 7:00 pm ***SHARP*** (again, this is being livestreamed as part of the online conference, so none of this “we’ll wait for stragglers to come in and actually start at 7:10″ nonsense, if you’re not there by 7:00, you’ll miss the start of the show). $10-20 sliding scale donation; no-one turned away for lack of funds; benefit for the Center for Sex and Culture.

If you want to be notified about all our Godless Perverts events, sign up for our email mailing list, or follow us on Twitter at @GodlessPerverts. You can also sign up for the Bay Area Atheists/ Agnostics/ Humanists/ Freethinkers/ Skeptics Meetup page, and be notified of all sorts of godless Bay Area events — including the Godless Perverts. You can even RSVP on the Meetup page for the next Social Club, if you like to RSVP to things. Hope to see you there!

The Buffalo Game

buffaloI’m going to be at Skepticon for the next few days, and I know from experience that I pretty much never blog during a conference. So let’s play a game! Let’s play the Buffalo Game.

The Buffalo Game is simple: You replace one (or sometimes more than one) word or name in a band name with the word “Buffalo,” to comic effect.

The genesis of the Buffalo game: We were at a concert at the Fillmore, which is plastered with classic poster art from old Fillmore shows. Someone noticed posters for Buffalo Springfield and Buffalo Tom, and asked, “Why do so many band names have the word ‘Buffalo’ in them?” When pressed to give more examples, they (I don’t remember who) said, “You know… um… the Rolling Buffaloes.” And it went from there.

Some of my favorites, to get the ball rolling: Sonic Buffalo. Public Buffalo. 10,000 Buffaloes. The Backstreet Buffaloes. Daft Buffalo. Rage Against the Buffalo. Buffalo (Not Buffalo). Buffalo Wuffalo Wuffalo. In some cases, you have to decide which word to replace. Is it Death Buffalo for Cutie, or Death Cab for Buffalo?

More?

(This has nothing to do with the topic of the post, but I’m going to keep mentioning it in every post I write for a little while: The news from the Philippines in the wake of Haiyan is getting worse and worse. The death toll is rising, and thousands are without shelter, food and medicine. The Foundation Beyond Belief’s Crisis Response is supporting the relief and recovery efforts of Citizens’ Disaster Response Center. Please help if you can. Even small amounts add up.)

Secular Meditation: As It Gets Easier, It Gets More Difficult

I’m running into an interesting paradox/ conundrum/ thing with my secular meditation practice.

I’ve been meditating regularly, almost every day, since April of this year. Unsurprisingly, as I continue to do it and to be a little more experienced with it, it’s been getting easier. Specifically, it’s become much easier to just sit still for twenty minutes, forty minutes, an hour. When I first started this practice, some of what I wanted to get out of it was, quote, “the ability to sit still” and “the ability to not constantly be either in motion or feeding my brain with stimulation.” And I’ve been getting that. When I started out with this, simply the act of sitting or lying still for twenty minutes or more was sometimes — okay, often — irritating and frustrating, a weird blend of boredom and restlessness with anxiety and wanting to ignore or escape whatever was coming up. I am now much more comfortable simply sitting quietly for longish stretches of time: not looking at my phone, not reading a book or a magazine, not surfing the Internet. I am much more comfortable now with just… being. And that’s true whether I’m meditating or not.

But there’s an interesting paradox/ conundrum/ thing. As the “just sitting or lying quietly for twenty minutes or more” part of meditation is getting easier… the actual “focusing my awareness on one thing, on my breathing or a scan of my body or whatever” part is getting more difficult.

See, back when the mere act of sitting quietly was enough to make me bored or restless or anxious, that boredom or restlessness or anxiety would snap me awake, make me realize that my attention and focus had drifted, make me realize that I needed to return my focus to my breath or whatever. Now that I don’t have that little alarm going off every minute or so, I’m finding that long stretches of my meditation sessions are taken up with… well, just spacing out. Thinking, or letting my thoughts drift, or rehearsing conversations, or writing essays in my head. All of which are perfectly wonderful things to do (well, except for the “rehearsing conversations” bit, more on that in a later post) — but none of which are actually meditating. None of which are focusing my awareness for a sustained period on one particular thing. I’m certainly glad to be more comfortable sitting still and spacing out… but that’s not what I want to be getting from meditation. Or rather, it’s not the only thing.

And without that little bit of anxiety or restlessness regularly creeping in and making me notice that my awareness has drifted, it’s more difficult to notice… well, that my awareness has drifted.

As the practice has become easier, it’s become more difficult.

I’m not sure what to do with this. I suspect the main thing I need to do with it is just notice it when it happens. Certainly with other aspects of meditation, I’ve gotten better at it with practice, and I suspect that with practice, my brain will find some other way to notice that it’s drifting.

But maybe I need to look at other meditation forms. Lately I’ve mostly been doing the breath meditation, which has a lot of advantages, but which does have the disadvantage of being more physically static than other forms. I might need to move to forms of meditation that are more in-motion: a walking meditation, or the body scan and moving my attention from one body part to another.

Not sure. Thinking out loud here. If you have experience with meditation… thoughts?

(This has nothing to do with the topic of the post, but I’m going to keep mentioning it in every post I write for a little while: The news from the Philippines in the wake of Haiyan is getting worse and worse. The death toll is rising, and thousands are without shelter, food and medicine. The Foundation Beyond Belief’s Crisis Response is supporting the relief and recovery efforts of Citizens’ Disaster Response Center. Please help if you can. Even small amounts add up.)

On Being Totally Vegetarian for a Month: My Leukemia & Lymphoma Foundation Light the Night Challenge

So as regular readers may know, I recently went totally vegetarian for a month. It was part of a fundraising effort I’m doing for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Foundation’s Light the Night Walk: the Foundation Beyond Belief is a “Special Friend” team, I’m the FBB International Team’s Honored Hero for 2013, plus Freethought Blogs has a virtual team that’s part of FBB’s giant mega-team… so I’m doing all these dares and challenges as our team reaches assorted fundraising goals. One of those dares was to go vegetarian for a month… a month that was over on November 8. (We’re currently at $8.587, by the way — if we reach $9,000, I will eat bugs, and if we hit our $10,000 goal, I will eat — shudder — broccoli.) Here’s my report.

*****

Being totally vegetarian was less difficult than I’d thought it would be. I’m close to vegetarian anyway (I sometimes call myself “vegetarian-ish”): I eat some meat sometimes, but not that often, and only certain kinds of meat or under certain circumstances. The exceptions I typically make are: meat that I consider to have been ethically raised (pasture-raised or grass-fed); local specialties when I travel (barbecue in the south, Buffalo wings in Buffalo, that sort of things); bites off of other people’s plates; times when I’m having serious problems with food due to health issues (when I was recovering from cancer surgery and having all kinds of weird appetite and digestion stuff, I gave myself permission to eat any damn thing that seemed appetizing and that I thought I could keep down); special occasions like Thanksgiving; and fish pretty much any time. So as it is, I eat meat, including fish, maybe once or twice a week. Cutting out that once or twice a week was not that big a deal.

The things that were actually challenging about this:

1) Times or places when I ordinarily would have eaten meat — such as food places that had meat I’d usually be fine with. When I was getting lunch at the foodie haven in the Ferry Plaza, I felt sad about all the “meat I consider to have been ethically raised” options I was passing on. I ordinarily take advantage of those when I can, since they don’t come along that often, and I felt sad to be missing one of my chances.

2) Not taking bites. Even at times in my life when I’ve been harder-core vegetarian, bites of other people’s food have pretty much always been an exception for me. It was sad to pass up those tastes.

3) Meat going to waste. This was very difficult indeed. I ordered a vegetarian crepe for dinner at a conference — a chicken crepe, actually, which I asked them to leave the chicken out of — and they forgot to leave out the chicken. Ordinarily I would have eaten that chicken with zero qualms. I have some ethical issues about eating meat at all, and giant ethical issues about eating generic meat raised in agribusiness factory-farm horror shows — but I have much bigger ethical issues about meat going to waste. The thought of that chicken suffering and dying just to be thrown in the trash… no. But I’d made a commitment to be strictly vegetarian for the month, so I stuck with it, and had them pitch it and make me a chickenless crepe. It didn’t sit well with me, though.

(I go back and forth about what this rule means at buffets, by the way. But I’m leaning towards not eating meat — if meat at a buffet goes to waste because I didn’t eat it and other vegetarians didn’t eat it, maybe they’ll serve less meat next time.)

4) Remembering that fish is not a vegetable. Even at times that I’ve been closer to the vegetarian end of the vegetarian-ish spectrum, I’ve almost always been okay with eating seafood (except for squid and octopus — they’re way too smart and sentient for me to feel okay about eating). Looking for the seafood options on a menu is almost reflexive for me. It was hard to remember, “Oh, yeah. Vegetarian. That means no salmon, no oysters, no scallops, no fish sauce.” That wasn’t a sacrifice so much (although it was at times — passing up oysters, sigh) — it was mostly just hard to remember.

So has this experience persuaded me to go totally vegetarian?

I don’t think so — but it’s definitely persuaded me to go more vegetarian than I currently am. I know myself, and I know that if I vowed to never to eat meat again as long as I lived, it would immediately become the one thing I wanted to do more than anything. (That’s what’s happened in the past when I’ve tried to go totally veg — and when I fell off the wagon, I fell off big.) I have enough complicated emotional issues with food as it is — I don’t want to add another one. If I was at a really amazing restaurant with a really amazing meat dish, I think I’d eat it. And I think the “meat going to waste” thing is always going to be an exception for me. Watching that chicken get thrown out was the one time in this experience when I actually felt like I was making a morally bad choice.

(And yes, I am morally fine with eating bugs. Which I’ll be doing if the Freethought Blogs team raises just another $413 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Foundation!)

But for the most part, this was easy enough to do that it seems silly not to do it more. For a couple/few years now, my general approach to meat-eating versus vegetarianism has been a “harm reduction” approach — I don’t feel a need to entirely eliminate meat, but I want to reduce the harm done by eating it — and I’m still pretty good with that. But I do think I want to slide my “vegetarian-ish” dial closer to the “totally vegetarian” end of the spectrum. I think I want to make eating meat even more of an exception than I already do: maybe once or twice a month instead of once or twice a week. I think that even at restaurants that have meat I consider to have been ethically raised, I’m not immediately going to leap at “Here’s my chance! That’s for me!” — I’m going to look at the vegetarian options, and give them at least as much weight, if not more. I also want to reconsider my “local specialties” exception: travel is stressful and eating local specialties is sone of the ways I handle that stress, but when I look carefully at the ethics of it, I don’t think that’s important enough to counter-balance the “agribusiness factory-farm horror show” thing.

And I am re-thinking seafood. During my vegetarian month, whenever I pondered the question of fish, that line from Nirvana’s “Something in the Way” kept popping into my head: “It’s okay to eat fish, ’cause they don’t have any feelings.” And I kept thinking, “Okay, Kurt, fine, you have a point, that’s not very consistent or evidence-based.” (Although I also kept thinking about the line, “And I’m living off of grass and the drippings from the ceiling,” and realizing that I don’t want to go there, either.) I might have to research fish neuropsychology a little bit to decide where exactly I want to draw that line. (Maybe no to regular fish, but yes to shellfish?)

I’m still okay with my harm-reduction model of eating meat. But if I can reduce that harm even more than I am, I don’t see any reason that I shouldn’t.

(In another Leukemia & Lymphoma Foundation Light the Night fundraising challenge, I’ve promised to go vegan for a week. I haven’t yet decided when I’m going to do that, but it’ll be soon. I’ll post about that when it’s done.)

Two Different Ways to Be a Good Person

Thinking out loud here…

I was talking with a friend the other day, who was telling me about someone in their life who was doing some stuff that was profoundly screwed-up. My friend said (paraphrasing here), “The interesting thing is, I know they think of themselves as a good person.” Which, of course, almost everyone does — even terrible people think they’re good people. Almost nobody thinks they’re a bad person. Almost nobody is a cartoon villain, rubbing their hands together and cackling over their beautiful wickedness like the Wicked Witch of the West.

And I said — it having occurred to me just then — that it seemed like there were two very different ways of thinking of yourself as a good person. There’s the standard way that rationalization works: you think of yourself as a good person, so when you do something bad, your brain immediately rushes in to start rationalizing and coming up with explanations, often convoluted, for why what you did was actually acceptable and even positively virtuous. It’s not even so much that you think of yourself as being good: it’s more that you start with the assumption that you’re good, and go from there. You think of being good as something you are, a solid and essential part of your nature.

And then there’s the way of thinking of yourself as a good person that involves constantly questioning and doubting. It involves the understanding that you aren’t, in fact, always good. It involves constantly asking yourself, “Am I doing the right thing here?” “Did I do the right thing back then?” “Could I have done something differently that would have been better?” It involves the understanding that being good is hard. It involves the understanding that being good sometimes involves making the least bad of multiple bad choices. It involves understanding that being good means being closer to the good end of a good-bad spectrum… and trying to shift yourself closer to that end. It involves constantly examining the question of what it means to be good: in general, and in any given situation. You think of being good, less as something you are, and more as something you do… and thus as something more fragile.

(Of course, it’s not a simple matter of “there are two kinds of people in the world, some people do one thing and some do the other.” I think most of us do both of these at least sometimes.)

I think the second way involves actually being good, while the first way mostly just involves thinking of yourself as good. But the second way does have its downsides. Self-questioning and self-doubt can easily be taken to a degree that’s paralyzing: you can get so worried about doing the right thing, it can keep you from doing anything at all. It can lead you to letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. And it can lead to low confidence, low self-esteem, not recognizing the degree to which you are good and have done good and continue to do good. It can lead you to obsess on all the ways you’ve been weak or lazy or selfish or simply failed. As messed-up as it is, the psychological process of rationalization is essential: we’d be paralyzed without it. (I often come back to that saying from Hillel: If I am not for myself, than who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I?)

Not sure where I’m going with this. Just thinking out loud. Thoughts?

The Trickster Spirit Who Planted a Joint in Our Apartment, or, The Stupidest Religious Belief I Ever Had

The scary thing is? I actually, seriously believed this.

JointThis happened when I was eighteen, the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college. I was deep into my New Age woo phase: Tarot cards, astrology, reincarnation, Aleister Crowley and Robert Anton Wilson and just about every other piece of stoner bullshit spirituality that crossed my path. I was living in Alaska for the summer with my boyfriend, and we were getting pretty well baked pretty much every day. We had an assortment of joints that we’d pre-rolled from an assortment of stashes, and in order to keep track of which joint had been rolled from which stash, we marked them with little colored dots on the ends.

So one day we were going through our little collection, deciding which variety we wanted to enjoy… and we came across a single joint with a blue dot on the end.

And we freaked our shit.

See, we couldn’t remember marking a joint with a blue dot. We vividly remembered rolling joints from three stashes: one we’d marked with red dots, one we’d marked with black dots, and one we’d kept blank. Neither of us had any recollection of marking a joint with a blue dot, and we both had clear — well, okay, “clear” is perhaps not the right word, let’s say “vivid” — memories of having rolled joints from three and only three stashes. We couldn’t for the life of us think where the blue-dot joint had come from.

And so we came to the most obvious conclusion — which was that a friendly trickster spirit had planted the joint among the rest of the joints, and had marked it with a blue dot to confuse us.

I kid you not.

The alternate conclusion — that we’d rolled the joint and marked it ourselves, and had simply forgotten about it, what with being BAKED OUT OF OUR MINDS JUST ABOUT EVERY SINGLE DAY — we rejected out of hand. We didn’t remember doing that. Therefore, we hadn’t done it. Therefore, friendly trickster spirit.

I’m not sure that this story has a conclusion, other than the obvious ones: most parsimonious explanation, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, wishful thinking (we really liked the idea of the trickster spirit, it was entertaining and gave a touch of amazement to our everyday lives), etc. I mostly just think it’s a funny story.

So if you ever had religious or spiritual beliefs, what’s the stupidest one you ever had?

Saturday Night’s Alright For Biting

My brain does weird things sometimes. When I’m engaged in a project, it will often find itself an irrelevant little side project — often musically-themed — and get very fixated on it. A list of songs that can be sung to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas”; a list of songs in which the word “heart” can be replaced with the word “head” to comic effect; a cat-themed song parody. And the more important the main project is, and the more deeply immersed I am in it, the more obsessively fixated my brain gets on the side project.

Thus far, during the writing of “Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why,” I have written two — not one, but two — cat-themed song parodies. I’ve already posted the lyrics to “Love Me, Love Me, Love Me — I’m A Kittycat!” Today, in honor of Comet, I bring you Saturday Night’s Alright For Biting. To the tune of Elton John’s Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting. (If you need an explanation of what Comet is like for context, you can find it in Hell’s Kitten: Learning to Love Our Play-Aggressive Cat. And yes, the cats eat venison. Special novel-protein diet.)

Saturday Night’s Alright For Biting

Comet yawning with teethIt’s getting late and my teeth can’t wait
Mom, bring my favorite chew toy here
It’s eleven o’clock and I wanna rock
Gonna bite your ankles and your ears

My mama Ingrid’s nose and my mama Greta’s toes
Are begging to be chewed on here
My sister looks cute in her little white boots
And lots of my spit in her fur

(chorus)
Now give me some of your cheese and yogurt
I’ve had it with your venison
‘Cause Saturday night’s alright for biting
Get a little chomping in

Gonna do some dangling with my dangle toys
Gonna chase a beam of light
‘Cause Saturday night’s the night I bite
Saturday night’s alright to bite
To bite
Meow, meow, meow, meow

Comet and Talisker on swivel chairWell, my sisters look like they wanna play tonight
I’m looking for a kitty who will tussle and fight
I can chase them down the hallway in a wild stampede
I can leap up in the air and then I’ll claw your knees

A couple of the things that I like to bite
Are shoelaces and fingers and a bug in flight
I’m a juvenile delinquent of the feline class
And if it’s full of water I’ll knock over your glass

(chorus)

Saturday, Saturday, Saturday
Saturday, Saturday, Saturday
Saturday, Saturday, Saturday night I’ll bite