Monday, May 5, 2014

In Conclusion: Dear Believer

This post represents an end to this blog, and most kinds of serious discussion online.  Just over 2 years ago, when I began writing, I was optimistic that something would change; That I would find evidence or have a religious experience that would pull me out of the despair of atheism.  To date, this has not happened.  I hope it's evident how hard I've tried. 

The despair has become a stubborn resolve.  An acceptance of who I am, and the evidence as I see it.  One can only spend so much time chasing fantasies. 

When one spends a lot of time hoping to be influenced, one is exposed to a wide variety of life experiences and language.  One of the great benefits of an Evangelical upbringing is that disagreement is generally approached without internalization.  The "other" is certainly wrong, and any disagreement is not a sincere insult to me.  This defense mechanism is no longer there for me.  The attempts at empathy that once seemed harmless now feel condescending and cruel.

"Sometimes atheism is a person's best path to God."

"I don't think God is offended by disbelief, arrived at with honest searching."

"God believes in you, even if you don't believe in Him."

"You're following the Light, even if you don't call it that."

The lesson, it seems, is that I am wrong.  Will always be wrong.  Until I change my mind.  I can't put myself in situations to hear these things anymore.

Thank you to those who have interacted with me on this issue.  I've both made and lost friends and family over it, but the net result has been a positive.  I leave you with this video, which summarizes where I am and how I view the world (fear not, it's gentle).  Take care.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

We Are Cowards of Conviction

The past few weeks have provided many opportunities to ponder the contrast between conviction and action.  Between the World Vision debacle, the death of Fred Phelps, an episode of How I Met Your Mother, and the memories of past events, maybe more than ever I’ve become aware of the times when people truly BELIEVE what they say, and when they don’t.  Please bare with a few stories:

When I was a kid, my best friend's dad repeatedly went to jail for blocking the doors to abortion clinics.  Motivated by the conviction that every day, innocent lives were being taken, he acted on that conviction, even to the detriment of his own family.  To him, a conviction that strong required action, otherwise what good was the conviction?  His conclusion may have been wrong, but he acted on it.

Also when I was a kid, my parents were not gun owners.  My dad used to say, "If someone threatened my life, and I had the chance to shoot them, I wouldn't.  I know where I'm going when I die, but I don't know where they're going, and it's not my place to end their chances at accepting Christ."  Twenty years later, things have changed quite a bit.  2 Christmases ago, following the Newtown massacre, dad opined, "It's the idiots running around yelling "stop the NRA" that should be taken out and shot."  I tell myself he had no idea he was advocating the killing of at least one of his kids.  In any event, despite changing his mind, at the time he made both statements, he still hadn't gone out and bought a gun.  The conviction did not necessitate action.

The Westboro Baptist Church is possibly the most shocking hate group in the country.  And yet, there's a logical consistency to what they're doing.  If one truly believes, as they do, that God's judgment is being brought down upon the Earth, and the only way to save one's self is to repent and join their church, it makes sense to be as loud and visible with that message as possible.  From my vantage point, a belief in hell at all almost necessitates this response.  One of my ongoing disappointments is that for almost 2 years now I've been practically begging people to evangelize to me, with almost zero response (seriously, how many atheists do you know who are actively trying to believe in God?).  The closest anyone has come was a 75 year old man I'd just met on a claim at work.

I recently posted an article discussing the quandary of how the inhabitants of heaven could possibly be happy knowing that most of the people they know are suffering in hell forever?  One of my friends responded with this:
  " if someone truly believes in heaven and hell...this logic doesn't start applying in heaven, it starts now. it's actually more sociopathic and messed up now to be ok with someone going to hell, because now you actually have a chance to talk to them about if you're not and are just "ok" with messed up are you?"

The great irony in his response is that for months, we had lunch together once a week, and not once was there an attempt at evangelism.  Allow me to share one of my very favorite quotes:

“I’ve always said that I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and a hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward—and atheists who think people shouldn’t proselytize and who say just leave me along and keep your religion to yourself—how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?
“I mean, if I believed, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that a truck was coming at you, and you didn’t believe that truck was bearing down on you, there is a certain point where I tackle you. And this is more important than that.”  - Penn Jillette

Now, I don't mean to suggest that all convictions should be followed (in fact, for some of you, I hope you WON'T follow your convictions).  Strength of conviction is not an isolated virtue.  But I think it's worth considering, do we really believe the things we say we believe?  And if so, what are we DOING about them?  Some of our convictions are difficult to implement beyond the voting booth.  But some are easier.
The thing that probably gives me the biggest rush is unexpected giving.  I prefer it to be anonymous, but it doesn't have to be.  Quakers use the word "leading" to describe the overwhelming urge to say or do something.  I have this experience all the time in regards to wanting to help someone, but I usually chicken out, intimidated by the difficulty of what I want to do.
Today, in honor of Fred Phelps and the sociopaths who intimidated World Vision into cowardice, I'm going to start working on something I've wanted to do for a long time.  I won't bring it up again, because that's besides the point.  But I encourage you to think about what your convictions are, and whether you believe in them enough to overcome the hesitation to act on them.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Forgiving a Ghost

My friend Mark wrote about forgiveness this morning.  My initial response was , "My quandary is who is going to forgive God, who may need it most, and deserve it the least, whether he/she is real or not."  While forgiveness as related to the Bible doesn't feel especially relevant to me, I am interested in the idea of how best to let go of unhealthy anger.  Because forgiveness isn't about the perpetrator, it's about the victim.

The way I process it, forgiveness is an emotional realization rather than a conscious choice.  In Mark's story, writing a letter of forgiveness didn't accomplish anything, certainly not forgiveness.  Forgiveness seems to be a point that's arrived at over time, sometimes unknowingly.  Eventually the wrongdoings of another no longer evoke emotions of anger or distrust, and that person can be approached with the same charity that's given to everyone else. 

One way in which atheism has been helpful to me is that the horrors around us are much simpler to process.  There are causes and effects, rights and wrongs, but no cosmic scheme that has to fit within the problem.  In retrospect, the Christian concept of forgiveness seems quite unhealthy.  As Mark wisely points out, instant forgiveness of any offense can't be reasonably expected.  Where I think Christianity puts the brakes on too early is in regards to forgiving God herself.

Many folks have written at length about how they've forgiven God.  But the underlying assumption is that God hasn't actually done anything wrong.  It's the perception of being wronged that required forgiveness, not an actually wrong act.  When a young child dies for no reason at all, anger at God is okay, so long as one accepts that God hasn't (or can't) done anything wrong.  I think this is victim-blaming behavior, and can't be healthy for us.  Even if God exists, and there is a divine plan, there has still been pain inflicted.  And how much more offensive to be harmed by a being that can supposedly do anything, loves infinitely, and has made astounding promises. 

For the believer, there are multiple places in the Bible where believers are promised things in exchange for their faith.  Metaphors like being able to move mountains, or that if one asks sincerely, they will receive what they ask for.  We all know this isn't true.  There are theologies built around how to justify God's promises being broken, but they're still justifications.  Promise made, promise broken.  Broken promises require a response; Can God be forgiven, and if so, what does that mean?

My process with forgiving God has been mostly subconscious.  Realizing I didn't believe, it was incredibly easy to let go of the problem of evil.  Evil wasn't a problem because I didn't have to explain why God lets things happen to good people.  What I did have to let go of (and still do) is the disappointment of realizing my paradigm was wrong.  I have found forgiving a theoretical being to be as difficult as forgiving a real one. 

As a poor analogy, my daughter used to sprinkle oatmeal and glitter on the lawn for Santa's reindeer at Christmas time.  When she learned that Santa wasn't real, she asked who ate the oatmeal, and why we had let her put food on the grass.  She easily transitioned from one paradigm to another, and understood why we let her have her fairy tales.  How much more difficult would it have been if she believed Santa had conversations with her in head.  How would she have reacted if her whole life we had given her letters from Santa, full of stories and rules written just for her?  I suspect the transition would have been harder, and she would have resented us for leading her along.

So it has been for me with God.  While I can accept that the people who fed me the fables were sincere in their own beliefs, and believed they were doing what was best for me, it's easier to forgive them than to forgive the supposed receiver of my prayers, who turned out to be a ghost.  I imagine that eventually I'll realize my emotions have realized what my intellect already knows - being mad at an imaginary friend is ridiculous, and serves no purpose.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Cosmos and Conflicting Paradigms

My friend Daniel asked me to respond to his blog post this morning regarding Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Cosmos, and the mingling of faith and science.  As Dan has gone through seminary, I've seen a lot of familiar patterns, as the ideas he's tackling are similar to ideas I tackled going through philosophy and religion majors in undergrad.  We were both given fairly small truth boxes as kids, and the process of breaking out of them and finding a new paradigm to live under has been enlightening for both us, albeit at different times, and likely with very different conclusions.  While we grew up together in church since we were 2, faith itself wasn't really a focal point of our friendship.  Decades later, with him going into ministry, and me trying to figure out how to deal with atheism, we've found a way to talk about these things again, and it's been a lot of fun, at least for me.

As to Dan's blog post; He probably doesn't know it, but he's diving into some of the largest and most interesting areas of philosophy.  Epistemology is the study of knowledge.  What is knowledge?  How do we know that we know things?  Part of the study of knowledge is differentiating it with belief.  Knowledge and belief are not the same things.  A person cannot "know" something that isn't true.  A person can, however, believe something that isn't true.  All of us believe things right now that are complete nonsense; We just haven't figured it out yet. 

In Dan's post, he asks, "If scientific fact is true whether we believe or not, does that mean my faith - something I cannot prove or have tangible evidence for is automatically false?  Does the fact I cannot prove God created the earth mean it is not true?"

I would take the beginning of his question a bit further.  It's not just scientific facts that are true regardless of belief.  Everything that's true is true, even if you won't believe it.  This is just as true of God as it is of evolution, carbon dating, or the big bang.  God exists or doesn't.  The big bang happened or it didn't.  The difference between these two things is how able we are to test the questions, and come to conclusions that get anywhere close to knowledge. 

On NDT's show Cosmos, when he states something like, "4.5 billion years ago, X happened," the reason he can say that is because all of our scientific discovery, which has been accumulated by thousands of scientists over hundreds of years, all conclude the same thing.  Test after test confirms it.  Predictions made based on the original theories come true.  It's the beauty of the scientific method.  Scientists WANT to be proven wrong, because the whole point of science is to discover what's real and true.  Faith, or at least certain versions of it, operate in a quite a different manner.  The conclusion tends to be the starting point, and evidence is filtered or skewed to match the previously-reached conclusion.  The reason NDT mentions the flat-earthers, or people like Ken Ham, is because they're not doing science, they're doing faith.

I don't want to spend much time mocking the likes of Ken Ham.  There was a time when people like him where the dominant voices within Christianity, and thus deserved to be scorned for thwarting scientific progress in the name of silliness like humans riding dinosaurs and a 6000 year old earth.  Fortunately, the tides have turned, and large numbers are responding "YES!" to the question of whether or not faith and science can co-exist.

Tyson himself admits as much in this article:
"Rather than painting science and religion as diametrically opposed to each other, Tyson said that there are plenty of scientists who believe in God. “The issue there is not religion versus non-religion or religion versus science, the issue there is ideas that are different versus dogma," he observed.

He continued, “If you start using your scripture, your religious text as a source of your science, that’s where you run into problems, and there is no example of someone reading their scripture and saying ‘I have a prediction about the world that no one knows yet because this gave me insight.’”

“Enlightened religious people know this, and don’t try to use the Bible as a textbook,” he concluded.

Neil is exactly right.  One of the surprises people tend to find upon entering seminary, or grad school in religious studies, as that the most educated people of faith do not hold the same beliefs that the general religious population does.  You'll find very few young-earth creationists or Biblical infallibists in these places.  The reason is because those things don't hold up to scrutiny, and if one is committed to what is true, one has to be willing to let go of things that aren't.  But letting go of the idea that every word of the Bible is true doesn't necessitate abandoning one's faith, only re-shaping it, so as to be closer to the truth, and following the evidence where it leads. 

If truth has nothing to fear from investigation, the Christian should embrace science, and make the theological changes necessary to accept what is true.  My favorite bloggers are people who have done exactly that.  Benjamin Corey recently wrote an article on how Ken Ham damaged the cause of Jesus in his debate with Bill Nye.  Why?

"Ken lost because he didn’t produce scientific evidence to support his opinion. In fact, there were times in the debate where he seemed to spend more time talking about abortion, gay marriage and using the word “hijacked” than any focus on the issue of science. What’s worse, is he admitted that all of his science is based upon something I told you about before: adding up genealogies in Genesis as a method to dating the earth– which is not simply bad science but bad theology also."

Theologian John Haught's entire career is based around the idea that faith and science are absolutely compatible, and we should celebrate this reality.  You can read a sampling of Haught's work here.  You can also find many of his lectures on YouTube.

In conclusion, science and faith are certainly compatible.  The acknowledgement of this eliminates certain kinds of theology, as they are provably false, but this should only encourage the believer, as you're one step closer to truth, whatever the truth really is.  We should all be willing to let go of false ideas, believer and non-believer alike.  Science and philosophy help us do that.  We can cling to senseless faith if we want to, insisting that the interpretation of the Bible we were given as kids must always be true no matter what.  But if we do that, let's admit we're not really after the truth.  We're after certainty.  And if science has taught us anything, it's that certainty should be held with the most delicate grasp.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Catfish - an Intermission

My favorite part of Quaker meeting each week is hearing what people have to say about how they’re experiencing their faith.  And for multiple meetings in a row, I’ve really wanted to say something, but have felt like I’d be squashing someone’s joy if I said what I wanted to say.  I don’t know why, but I feel a strong pressure to be the prodigal son coming home, and when I can’t be that person, I tend to shut myself up, afraid of ruining the positive experience so many people have.  I hope I’ll eventually have the courage to speak off the cuff, but for now, this is the best I can do.

There’s a show on TV called Catfish.  It’s about people who are in online relationships with people they’ve never met in real life.  Most of them have never seen the face of the person they’ve been chatting or talking on the phone with.  In the show, the mysterious other person is tracked down, and introduced to their online significant other.  Most of the time, the mysterious online person turns out not to be who they claimed to be.  Sometimes they’re a different gender than they claimed to be.  Sometimes they’re overweight and afraid to be seen.  Sometimes they’re just mean people having fun at the expense of others.

In my life, God has been my catfish.  The relationship I thought I had turned out not to be real.  And like the people on the TV show, even if the relationship wasn’t real, the emotions I felt during that time were real, and have to be dealt with.  It’s an awkward situation.  I’m simultaneously mourning the loss of, and being disappointed in, someone who probably doesn’t exist.

The weight of the loss of God is with me all the time.  It’s like being a widow in a restaurant, quietly watching the couple next to you celebrate an anniversary.  All I want is closure.  To either discover that I’m wrong about God, or to accept the loss and let it go.  Of all the things I’m afraid of, what I’m afraid of most is that neither will happen, and I'll spend the rest of my life waiting for someone who never shows up.

In the week since I first wrote this, I've tried to distance myself from theology, and have found it rewarding.  The searching had its purpose, but I suspect that time is nearing an end.  At some point life has to be lived and not just analyzed.  The weight of the search has so overwhelmed me with unhappiness that it's made it difficult to tackle any other goals I have.  Food, for example.  I would love to be able to eat better and exercise.  But when there's such a heavy negative pull related to God issues, how do I turn away food, which is always a positive experience?  I need to take back some control of my mental health, and let go of the need for answers.  God, if she exists, ought to be plenty capable of making herself known.  I don't know why I've felt obligated to do the looking.  I no longer do.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Agnosticism Revisited

18 months ago I wrote about why I’m not an agnostic.  You can read that here if you want.  In the middle of writing another post a few months ago I accidentally discovered I might be one after all.  This post will be heavy on quibbles and semantics, so apologies in advance.

As discussed in that post from 2012, agnosticism is not just a state of being unsure or confused.  It’s a philosophical position that the question of “does God exist?” can’t be answered one way or the other for a variety of reasons.  One reason would be that the scientific method requires tangible things that can be tested.  God(s) are by most definitions not part of the physical universe, and therefore can’t be tested.  Should God(s) show up and talk, as described in various religious books, that would certainly be something that the scientific method could use.  But they don’t, so they can’t be tested in that manner. 

My agnostic realization is more philosophical than scientific.  When we discuss things in our every day life, most of the time we’re talking about something with which we have real life experience.  We can talk about coffee or sports or sex because we have experience with these things.  With God(s), I’m not sure the language we use is so accurate.  What, for example, is omniscience?  We have a vague idea of what we mean by it, but we don’t have any real life points of data.  An adult knows more than a child, a computer “knows” more than an adult, but none of us has seen or met anyone with knows everything about everything all the time.  Same goes for omnipresence and omnipotence.  We’ve experienced varying degrees strength and presence, but nothing close to what would be defined as being able to do anything, and being able to be everywhere at once.  So when we speak of these things, are we saying anything sensical?

The response to the ontological argument for the existence of God gives us another way to view agnosticism as an appropriate position.  To steal from Anselm, the ontological argument goes like this:

  1. Our understanding of God is a being than which no greater can be conceived.
  2. The idea of God exists in the mind.
  3. A being that exists both in the mind and in reality is greater than a being that exists only in the mind.
  4. If God only exists in the mind, then we can conceive of a greater being—that which exists in reality.
  5. We cannot imagine something that is greater than God.
  6. Therefore, God exists.


There are many reasons the argument doesn’t work (presumably a 50 foot zombie that eats babies would not be made greater by existing in reality instead of just the mind), point number 2 being the most discussed.  Most theists would not claim that they fully comprehend God.  They have rough outlines of what they God is, but not so much knowledge that they’d be comfortable saying they “know” what God is.  This lack of clarity is an example showing agnosticism is how people operate in real life.

Douglas Gasking had an interesting (and mostly sarcastic) critique of the ontological argument, postulating that the more difficult it was for God to create the universe, the greater accomplishment it would be.  The greatest challenge would be to create the universe while not existing.  The universe exists, therefore God does not exist.

Most definitions of God(s) also contain an element of being infinite.  We certainly don’t have a real grasp on what infinite is.  As the old riddle goes, if there’s a library with an infinite number of books, and you take one off the shelf, is it still an infinite number of books?  The existence of the infinite is still a debated topic among philosophers and mathematicians.

So, if we can’t be sure we know what we’re talking about with any of the defining characteristics of God(s), how can we make positive statements such as “God exists” or “God does not exist”? 

For now, even if I accept that I’m an agnostic atheist (agnostics still don’t believe in God(s)), it doesn’t change anything but the label.  But labels are fun, and useful for clarification.

If you had to give yourself a label, what would it be?

Friday, January 24, 2014

Taking Yes For An Answer

When Rob Portman, Republican senator from Ohio, changed course and announced his support for gay marriage after learning that his own son was gay, my initial reaction wasn’t very positive.  “How convenient,” I figured.  “People have been trying to advance the cause of gay rights for decades, and only when it affects you directly are you finally convinced?”  I didn’t think very highly of Portman’s change of heart.  Real character change shouldn’t require the issue being so close to home.

Surprisingly, my gay friends didn’t see it that way.  Having likely seen this change occur in multiple before, usually people they know, it wasn’t news to them that personal experience is often the motivator for changing one’s outlook.  They were happy enough to have the senator’s vote, and weren’t very concerned about the sincerity of his turnaround. 

This week I’ve seen a much more public display of this dynamic on display in the blogosphere.  One of my favorite bloggers, Benjamin Corey, wrote a very nice article apologizing to the LGBT community for his past behavior.  You can read it here.  The comments on his blog are mostly other Christians agreeing that they too had behaved badly, and agreed with the apology. 

One of Ben’s friends at the Friendly Atheist blog shared the article on that site.  The difference in the comments is striking.  In addition to the usual masturbatory comments about how any shift to the left should logically lead to atheism, a number of people attacked Mr. Corey for his apology, accusing him of being too late to the party, and finding multiple ways to be offended.  These people are for me the equivalent of who fundamentalists are for Benjamin Corey - an offensive extreme of an otherwise reasonable conclusion.

If the whole point of advocating for social causes is to change the minds of those we disagree with, why is it so hard for us to take yes for answer when people finally do change their minds?

Monday, January 13, 2014

Adjusting Death - A Memoir, Chapters 1-4

Death is a real bitch.  As an insurance adjuster, my involvement with death on a professional level is less about the existential issues that plague me in the evenings, and more about the nit and grit that accompany sudden death within the home.  Death at work takes it out of its romanticized form and forces you to confront it down to the smallest detail, along with the family members forced to deal with the aftermath.  The following are the stories of the four death claims I’ve had the privilege/misfortune of handling.

Claim 1: The Drunk

In the claims world, when a new claims comes in, the first thing most adjusters do is look at the summary description of what happened.  Shortly into my tenure in the property department of my prior employer, I received a new claim, clicked on the summary description, and read “Cause of Loss: suicide.”  

Insurance policies are pretty specific documents.  They operate in 2 ways.  Either they cover everything unless specifically excluded, or they cover nothing unless specifically stated.  With buildings it’s usually the former, and with personal belongings, usually the latter.  When this claim in, having never handled one like it before, my first thought was “why would someone file a claim for suicide? What’s suicide got to do with property?”  Without reading much further into the details, I picked up the phone, called the number, and asked to speak to Mr. B.  Very politely, the woman who had answered the phone replied, “I’m sorry, my husband committed suicide a few months ago.”  I’d asked to speak to the dead guy.

As Mrs. B. explained why she had filed the claim, it was hard to imagine having had a worse evening than she had that night in December.  Her husband was drunk again, and this time was threatening to kill her.  She locked herself in a bedroom and called the policy.  It wasn’t the first time.  Too drunk to know better, and knowing the police had been called, he stumbled downstairs and out into the front yard, still waving his gun around and yelling.  According to Mrs. B., when the first police lights were visible on the street, her husband walked around to the side of the house, screamed something at the police, then shot himself in the head.

Having had a few months between the suicide and the filing of the claim, Mrs. B was remarkably composed.  By the time she finished her story, I’d forgotten why we were on the phone. Eventually she got to the point. “So, I just got a quote for replacing the piece of siding with the bullet hole in it.  And there’s the clean-up bill of course…”  The clean-up bill.  For his brains.  That had been on the walkway next to her garden.  When the clean-up company came, they figured the most practical thing to do was to use a hose to spray his brains into the dirt, then shovel the dirt out in a wheelbarrow.  Apparently your average wet vac is not designed for such purposes.

My job, as always, was to figure out what I could pay for under the insurance policy.  It turns out, bullet holes are not excluded under the policy.  While damage done on purpose IS excluded, since the widow is the only person benefiting from payment, the claims department decided not to enforce the exclusion.  How nice of them.  Policies also do not cover dirt under any circumstances.  I made my call to clean-up company and asked for a copy of their bill, hopefully without mention of the dirt so I could pay the whole thing.  As death claims go, this would be the easiest.

Claim 2:  The Old Man

Mr. C was tired of his family members calling him all the time.  He was convinced that they only called to see if he was still alive.  He was really old, after all.  So he told them to stop.  A week later, you can guess what happened.  Mr. C died in the most unfortunate of places.  6 weeks after his death, his body was found just inside the front door of his tri-level home.  His family had apparently decided 6 weeks was long enough, and asked a neighbor to check on him.  The neighbor didn’t have to knock on the door to know what happened.  Rotting human is a smell one never forgets.

The front door wasn’t a very convenient place for Mr. C to die.  The human body is not polite as it decomposes, so not only did Mr. C’s corpse stink the place up, his liquids went down the stairs towards the garage, and down the heating duct next to his body.  The heat was set at “old man lived here,” which is not a low temperature.

The guy’s family lived out of town, which made my job easier.  I met the clean-up company in the driveway, where I was cautioned to wear a mask.  I should have listened.  Entering the house, the smell-that-one-never-forgets almost floored me.  If you’ve never had the pleasure, imagine a dead raccoon wrapped in an airtight plastic bag for a week or two, and then imagine you open the bag and stick your face in it really quick.  It’s kind of like that.

Once I’d recovered from the smell, I asked where we should start.  The tech pointed at my feet and said, “well, he died right there.  The anti-microbial spray should be dry by now.”  I looked down to find I was standing on wood sub floor, as the carpet, pad, and underlayment had all been removed in a radius of about 8 feet in each direction.  So too had the carpeted stairs been taken out leading to the garage, and the ducting under the house.  This was the only physical damage to the home.  If only that were the extent of it…

Talking to the tech, I learned that dead body smell isn’t something that goes away with a few open windows.  Most of the time, companies will clean and paint every surface of the house, clean every item in the house, and throw away anything made of paper.  As for the paper, Mr. C’s family told me that they had taken a box of important papers back to Seattle with them after coming down to deal with the funeral arrangements.  “Now that the papers have been here for a few days, our house smells like his house,” his son told me.

Claim 3:  The Son

With claims 1 and 2, my arrival on site happened after the worst of the mess was taken care of.  Not so with claim number three.  Immediately after receiving the claim, I got a call from the homeowner.  “Can you come out here right away?  The clean-up people are here, but I don’t want them to get started until you’ve documented the damage.”

The house wasn’t far from the office, so I got there within half an hour.  The clean-up crew was standing outside in their full body hazmat suits, looking ready for the apocalypse.  The owner took me outside, and explained that his son had shot himself last night, and damaged the carpet.  His son, I learned, was in his 20s, and for reasons unknown to me, had chosen to kill himself at his parents’ house, in his childhood bedroom.  The scene in the bedroom was surreal.  Trophies were still on the shelves, sports pennants were on the wall, and the bed looked like it was made for a 10 year-old.  While the son’s body was gone, the mess he left behind was not.  Someone tried to cover it up with a kid’s blanket, but it didn’t really work.  I quietly measure the dimensions of the room so I’d know how much carpet needed to be replaced, and come back downstairs.  The family seemed to be in shock, so they weren’t very emotional, and seemed to understand the claims process.

A few weeks later, my own shock came when I got the bill for the clean-up.  To take the carpet out of one room and dispose of the biohazard material, the company was charging over $14,000.  I looked at the itemized bill.  $400 per small box of carpet.  $100 per hour for labor.  20% overhead and profit (a charge only owed to general contractor who coordinate sub-contractors).  I called and yelled at someone at the company’s main office, but their lines are well rehearsed.  "Well, you see, brain fluid is clear, so it can't always been seen with the naked eye, so we have to make sure we....blah blah blah."   I had three other companies write my comparable bids for the same work.  The highest was $5k.  None of that mattered.  The company wasn’t backing down, and had mailed their bill to the grieving dad.

Most insurance companies make exceptions in the case of suicide.  Biohazardous materials are specifically excluded from coverage.  So is intentional damage, as mentioned earlier.  But nobody wants to be on the news because they denied some grieving father’s claim, so we cover these things anyway.  If that changes someday, companies like this will be to blame.  I certainly wasn’t going to call the guy and tell him we weren’t going to pay the bill.  I’m sure the clean-up company counts on this.  Shame on them.

Claim 4:  The Realtor

My most recent death claim is also the most interesting.  A local realtor, having been convicted of some kind of mortgage impropriety which resulted in his license being taken away, decided he didn’t want to live anymore.  As a realtor, he had a magic box which gave him access to any listed property with a lockbox on the door.  This realtor scoped out an empty house, then went shopping.

As far as we could tell, the order of events went like this: The realtor parked his BMW in the garage of the empty house and shut the garage door.  He taped a note on the front door of the house that read, “Dead body inside.  Call the police.”  He then went into the bathroom, where he put two tabletop barbecue grills in the bathtub, and filled them both with charcoal.  I found out later that due to current emissions standards, the old trick of running a hose from your exhaust pipe into the car or garage doesn’t work anymore.  The realtor consumed most of a bottle of Jack Daniels, snorted some heroin, lit the grills, and waited for the end.  Two days later, a prospective buyer discovered the note and called the police.  The police contacted the homeowner, who lived in the house next door, unaware that a corpse had been inhabiting his rental property.

There is no moral to these stories.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Christmas Ache

The ache was there again this year.  Settled down beneath the more present and relevant feelings, the ache gnawed, “something is wrong.  something is missing.”

I have unfairly great memories of Christmas as a child.  All my memories of it are in the same house, with the same people.  Each year, at around 6:30, the four of us kids would tip toe downstairs to the living room, where the tree was always lit just dimly enough to cast a glow on all the presents; The presents! Most of them newly placed since the night before.  Eventually mom and dad would saunter down the hall, all of us still in pajamas.  The youngest of us that could read would read the entirety of the Golden Books version of the Christmas story.  When it was over, dad would pick the baby Jesus figure up from above the grandfather clock, and set it in the manger above the fireplace.  One by one  we would take our stockings down from the fireplace, and each of us would watch the other discover what was inside.  We savored the excitement, drawing out each step so that it wouldn’t end any faster than it had to.  After breakfast, which always included an amazing souffle, we nestled back into our couch seats for round after round of gift giving.

Dad was a Christmas master.  Married to my mom, who hated surprises, didn’t get most jokes, and bought her Christmas presents from the lists she insisted her loved ones complete for her, Christmas was dad’s day to go nuts.  There were years we received presents he’d found for us 7 or 8 months earlier; A favorite sweater from the gift shop of a museum we’d visited, a CD of whale sounds because one of us expressed interest in a whale this one time, or the last piece of my mom’s antique book collection.  It took dozens of phone calls to book stores across the country, but he’d found it.

Christmas had the potential to change your adolescent life.  On Christmas, you could go from a kid with no Nintendo, to a Kid With A Nintendo!!!  It’s hard to imagine now, but in the 80s, that was a huge change in one’s quality of life.  On Christmas, your NFL pennant collection might finally get complete.  The final Dairy Queen Blazers glass might be in one of those boxes.

20-25 years later, the strength of emotion that came with anticipating and experiencing Christmas doesn’t exist.  There’s nothing in the adult life that comes close.  But what is it about those feelings that made them so irreplaceable?  Why is it so hard to transition from the receiver to the giver, and try to make memories for my kids the way my parents did for me?  Isn’t that what I’m supposed to do?

My running theory is that as a child, you are repeatedly shown how much you are loved.  It is abundantly clear that your happiness has been thoroughly considered, and deemed worthy of fulfillment. Contrast that with what we do as adults.  We discuss amongst ourselves who we still “have to get something for,” or “which ones you’ve got covered” while “I’ll handle them, them and them.”  And because that’s how we treat others at Christmas, we’re confident that’s how people are thinking about us.  And so we start to wonder how many lists we’re on; for how many people have we reached “Need to get something for them” status?  And it’s not about getting their present.  It’s the hope that at least for a few minutes, somebody thought of us, and our happiness, and found it worthy of fulfillment.

I think the Christmas ache is the loss of childhood.  It’s the realization that nobody loves us like they did when we were young.  That we’re not the center of someone’s universe, not the person someone is staying up late to find that last antique book for.  The things I had as a kid - the family bond, the shared anticipation, the companionship of a personal savior - those things are gone.

But I think the ache has had its last year.  Being able to name it has made it lose its power.  My dad set a great example of how to do it right, and I think I’m up for the challenge.  I tried something new this year - getting presents for a few people that wouldn’t be on my “have to get something for” list.  It helped me understand my dad’s love of Christmas, as the reward for giving the unexpected gift is immediate and lasting.  Next year , having named and rejected the ache, I’ll be ready to set my kids up for their own Christmas ache.