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I’ve been an atheist since age fourteen.  Actually, if I’m being completely honest, I’ve been an atheist since I started pondering religion (probably right around the time my mother told me to put away my coloring book and start paying attention), but I was fourteen when I first heard the word.  Prior to that, I would go to church with my parents, and sit there thinking things like I’m not sure about this, does no one else realize that a lot of this doesn’t make logical sense and I can’t wait until I’m a grown up and I don’t have to go to church anymore.

When I first heard the word atheist, it was possibly the only moment of clarity I’ve ever experienced.  It was a so that’s what’s up with methere’s a name for it, moment.  It was really great to have a handy label, but at no point did I ever want to seek out other atheists for existential chats, or find people like me, or organize in any way.

The way I see it is, religion is an organization of people who believe the same thing getting together to discuss and learn about their beliefs.  Since I do not believe in a god of any kind and am perfectly content with that, why would I need to get together and talk about it?  How do you talk about a non-belief?  I’m fine with groups like the American Atheists just as much as I am with any religious group until people start proselytizing at me, but religion is no part of my life the same way non-religion is.  It seems like organizing in this way is just the same except the conversation is different.

Recently The Pew Research Center did a study on religion & public life, which has been getting quite a bit of press for turning up some interesting facts namely that atheists and agnostics did better on a basic religion test than most Christians. That makes perfect sense to me because learning about what people believe and why from a purely clinical researchy standpoint is fascinating.  I’m intrigued by religion and ritual because it’s intriguing, not because I buy into it in any way.  Though if I was spending an hour a week doing an activity, I would probably try to learn a few of the basic facts.

This study then led to a group of atheists, agnostics and humanists to get together and discuss the future of their movement, which went badly because they couldn’t agree on anything (it’s a bit tricky when your movement is based on non-belief rather than a set of rules and ideas).  Of course, I don’t want the Religious Right to somehow get prayer into public schools, but I also don’t want to go to meetings and pay dues to yet another organization where we sit around talking for hours and accomplish (probably) very little.

Since Religion is a man-made idea, why can I not seem to opt out?  Why does everyone have to be something? I mean, yes, I’m an atheist, but I’m not an emphatic atheist, it’s just that I don’t believe in god and it’s a handy word to bandy about because people know what it means.  I could just as easily call myself a non-theist (which is closer to my non-beliefs, I guess) or a secular humanist, or an evolution fan–who cares?  Why talk about something you don’t believe in?  Do you really have that much to say about it?

Often when I tell people I’m an atheist, they say something like, “what were you, what are your parents?”  Then I say Lutheran, and whoever I’m talking to seems to unclench.  A friend who slipped more and more into crazy strident religious territory over the course of our friendship once told me that since I had once, when I was like six, parroted back the words “I accept Jesus Christ as my lord and savior” I was ok— not going to hell.  My protestations that I didn’t actually believe what I had said, and that I have since rescinded that statement, didn’t seem to register with her.  I’d said it once, was not going to hell, let’s have some onion rings.

I won’t be signing up with any organized atheist group anytime soon, and perhaps this is just a further manifestation of my non-joiner personality, but I don’t think so.  I do like those bus ads though.

…just wish it didn’t say probably.

About ten years ago, I had my wisdom teeth removed.  As I was in the salad days of still being on my parent’s heath insurance, I got to go to an oral surgeon, get general anesthesia and painkillers afterward rather than trolling the internet for the cheapest medical care I can find or just crossing my fingers and hoping whatever it is goes away, like I do now.

Early in the morning I went to the oral surgeon, and the doctor (who has the largest hands I’ve ever seen on a human) cut out my three wisdom teeth while I  slumbered peacefully.  After that, as I was coming out of anesthesia, an incredibly annoying women wearing garish scrubs tried to keep me awake by telling me that Days of Our Lives was on.

“You have to stay awake,” she told me, “Look–Days is on!”

My memories of this experience are naturally hazy, but I remember being unable to speak thinking, why the hell would I want to watch Days?  I hate that show.  If I just quietly close my eyes and go back to sleep, she’ll never know… Finally she got so fed up with me, she forced me to get out of the bed and sit on a bench.  Then the doctor came in and told me that the EKG from when I was put under indicated that I have an irregular heartbeat.  Despite the fact that I was nearly unconscious, couldn’t speak and was still under heavy sedation, he asked me a number of pointed medical questions and advised I get myself a specialist.

When I woke up two days later, Map Fleece reminded me of this new and exciting medical condition to explore, and I set out in search of a cardiologist.  After echocardiograms, and discussions that included questions like “Do you get short of breath climbing stairs quicker than other people do?” and my response, “How in the world would I know how quickly other people get short of breath climbing stairs?” and laying out my entire travel history (this heart condition may be Mexico’s fault) it was concluded that, yes, I do have an irregular heartbeat.

I waited for the cardiologist to expand on this, and he simply shrugged and said, “We have no idea why.  Your heart is shaped correctly, nothing’s amiss there, you’ve just got this thing and we can’t figure it out.  If it doesn’t cause you any distress, then I’d say don’t worry about it.”

Always comforting words to hear.

Since that time, I’ve been kicked off my parents’ insurance and have not spent much time with doctors.  There was the stress fracture in my foot incident, which cost way too much money to have diagnosed and which completely soured me on medical treatment of any kind.  Thankfully, aside from a broken toe, and torn calf muscle, the last few years have been pretty uneventful.  Until the other morning when I was stumbling bleary-eyed through the bathroom on my way to make coffee and noticed that my face was twice its usual size.

My entire jawline was swollen in a way that made me look like a cartoon character.  I also had a splitting headache, earache and general sense of unease–though that may have been a symptom of the impending doom of paying for medical treatment again.  I immediately asked the internet what was wrong and learned that I’m probably fighting off an infection of some kind, or it could be cancer–have to wait and see.  As my ears hurt, I assumed that I just have a simple ear infection that a bit of amoxicillin can wipe out handily, but as my face has never grown to twice its normal size before, I was still a bit alarmed.

Gentleman Scholar kept giving me worried looks as I sat on the couch all day feeling sorry for myself and watching The Office, and finally after three days of large face I went to the University Health Center at my job (where I can go for free and get a $13 throat culture!).  By the time I actually made it to the health center, my face was back to its normal size, and the Nurse I spoke to was very disappointed in me.

“So it was swollen, here?” she asked.

“All through here, yeah.  I guess it’s gone now, but I couldn’t tell because I feel like I was getting used to it.”

“And this has never happened before?”

“No.”

“And you have no other symptoms?”

“My ears hurt a bit, and I had a headache, but that’s gone now.” I was starting to feel like I should have taken pictures to prove that I wasn’t making this whole thing up.

“If it happens again, you should come in while you’re still symptomatic.” She said, in a way that sounded like she was chastising me, even though the health center had been closed for the holiday weekend.

So yet again, I am a medical mystery.  Every time I approach a health care professional, he or she lectures me about not having health insurance, and then tells me “I don’t know what’s going on with you.”

They are not making a convincing case for spending tons of money insuring myself.

My grandfather went to the doctor about three times in his life.  He was a farmer who presumably got injured all the time (farming seems dangerous to me), and finally, when he was 88, his leg turned black for mysterious reasons and my grandmother forced him to go see someone.  I have no clue what was actually wrong with him because that wasn’t the important part of the story, as my grandmother told it.  The important part to me–he lived til age 95.

I’m a laid back person, I’m a bit proud of that fact, but I’m finding more and more that it gets in the way because I have little-to-no experience in standing up for myself.  It kind of goes along with the way that I cannot get deals from people in retail either when I complain about something defective, or just when I ask nicely, but extends into the rest of my life where I just cannot complain about anything and get satisfaction.

I was raised on the ethos of hard work–nose to the grindstone, take care of yourself and you’ll go far kind of thing.  Well, maybe you won’t go far, since my parents seemed to never want me to be anything more than middle class (perhaps not even comfortably middle class), but that should be all you want!  Ask for too much and you’re just greedy.  Because this is ingrained in me, I just stiff upper lip my way through life not letting things get to me, and now I’ve gotten to the point where when I try to get worked up about things and stand up for myself, it really comes off insincerely.

About five years ago, I had just started running semi-regularly.  I bought a pair of proper shoes, and was up to about three miles on the treadmill.  I was feeling pretty smug about it.  Then one day, I felt an incredible amount of pain in my left foot.  I stopped running, started walking and it subsided a bit, but as soon as I tried running again, it became unbearable.  I switched to the elliptical machine and used my heel rather than front part of my foot, and it seemed to work out.

Later that night, I went to Target, and my foot started hurting so badly, I could barely make it out of the store.  The following morning, it was completely swollen and a lovely shade of greenish purple.  Because I never go to the doctor, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the situation, so I called my father.  My rationale was, he’s been running marathons for 20 years, certainly he must have had or seen something like this in his life before, he’ll advise me.  Basically what he ended up telling me was, “quit complaining, just keep running.”

This is not the first time my father has given me terrible advice, and my protestations that I couldn’t even get a shoe on my foot much less run in this condition were ignored in favor of repeating the same few words over and over “quit complaining, just keep running.”  So I decided to take my mangled foot to the doctor in the hopes that if nothing else, he or she would give me good painkillers (which usually give me a headache, but it’s worth a shot).  The doctor determined that it was a stress fracture, said there’s nothing he could do about it, and sent me home with a bill.

This is why I don’t go to the doctor.

Despite these setbacks, I’m trying to keep up with my quest to be a little less laid back and a little more assertive, but the problem is that I just keep forgetting.  A while ago, a car was parked illegally in my street, blocking part of the road in a way that was both unsafe and annoying. I remembered Jewish Friend telling me that she frequently calls the police for vehicular complaints, so I tried to do the same.

“The car is in the middle of the street!” I asserted.

“It’s not pulled over to the side?” the police man asked.

“Well, it is pulled over, but it’s a really narrow road.”

He just sighed, “We’ll get it when we ticket at 2am.” Then he hung up on me.

Are the police supposed to hang up on you when you’re not a deranged, hysterical person?  It seems wrong, and it hurt my feelings.

Last night at work, there was a huge booming sound on the roof followed by a power outage in half the building and a post-apocalyptic hum.  We lost the phones, and one of the children’s librarians came running down the steps saying, “we need to evacuate, there’s a smell.”  So my co-worker told me to call the fire department.

I scanned the phone book looking for the fire department non-emergency number.  Turns out that there is no such thing, and if you need the fire department, you call 911, which does make sense when you think about it.

So I made my first 911 call, feeling like at any moment I would be arrested for tying up an emergency line, and almost apologizing to the woman on the other end for wasting her time.  It was an emergency, we had a building with 100 people in it and no idea what was going on, but I still felt like well, I don’t actually see flames/no one is bleeding from the eyes, surely this doesn’t warrant a 911 call.

I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers the other day, where he discussed a couple very famous plane crashes and determined that a lot of the crash could have been avoided had the pilot in contact with the tower been a little more assertive and emphatic about the state of emergency.  While reading it, I scoffed at the pilots, amazed that while a plane runs out of fuel before crashing into John McEnroe’s dad’s house they would nonchalantly tell the tower “We’re low on fuel” instead of “We’re out of gas!  Emergency!”

I would never make it as a pilot because I probably would have done the exact same thing.

I’m a work in progress.

Two things used to drive me crazy when I was growing up:

  1. When relatives would look at my little brother, and remark, “Wow, he is going to be tall.”  This happened at every extended family get together, and I would listen to it seething with rage and think, I’ll show them, I’m going to be tall too!  Jokes on me, though I do feel taller than I used to, I’m still average height.
  2. When people would ask me if I played sports like my brother.

My extended family lived far enough away that we only saw some of them once a year. Since my brother was tall (or would soon be tall), it was assumed that he either did play or would play basketball, so they talked about that, then the conversation would  extend to college or professional sports, and they would talk as equals.  I don’t know if my family was just sports obsessed, or really bad at talking to kids, but they would always ask me if I played sports.  If I did, we would talk awkwardly about it because there really wasn’t much to say, and even in my more athletic days, I wasn’t very athletic, and I didn’t really care about sports; or if I didn’t, I get some kind of mini-lecture about not joining enough things, and then we’d talk about my brother’s sporty endeavors.

As a kid, I was involved with plenty of other things: I was a figure skater, I was a Girl Scout, I took piano lessons and later played flute until junior year (first chair); in high school I was Future business Leaders of America Vice-President, I was yearbook co-editor–there was plenty of “joiny” things for us to talk about, plus I was always an avid reader/movie watcher/story writer.  All this was rendered useless because I hate and am no good at basketball.

I imagine that once of my brother’s major grievances is having to talk about sports all the time as well, cause it’s really bizarre, but I’m finding that it’s still continuing.

When Gentleman Scholar and I moved into our current apartment, the first floor apartment was empty, and Elderly Neighbor lived on the third floor.  He had since moved to the first floor, and Hip Young Couple are in the process of remodeling the third floor getting ready for their move in.  Elderly Neighbor being on the first floor, means that his living room is right above my “home gym” i.e. treadmill and tv in the dusty basement.

I ran into him on the stairs a while ago, and he mentioned that he could hear the tv.  “Oh, I’m sorry,” I told him, “I can turn it down.”

He waved away my concern, “It’s not a problem, I’m usually watching tv, or on the internet, so it doesn’t bother me.  How much do you run a day anyway?”

I told him that I was presently training for a 1/2 marathon, and he practically slapped his knee with glee, “I knew it! I knew when I heard you down there, I told myself ‘that girl is training for something’.”  Then he bombarded me with questions about my daily mileage, how many races run, how I started doing this, etc.  These are all questions I have no problem answering, but it seems to be all he cares about anymore. I’m half expecting him to come scampering down the stairs next time I’m running and monitor my breathing technique.

When I used to run into Elderly Neighbor on the stairs, we would talk about librarianship, or my cat, or just random other stuff–now it’s all running all the time.  What am I training for?  Is usually the big one, and when I say “nothing right now” the look of disappointment on his face is alarming.  I mean, I guess I’m always training for something, but nothing I’ve registered for, and that doesn’t seem to be exciting enough for him.  It seems like he would be unimpressed if I told him that I just like running.

I guess talking about books, movies, travel, librarianship, or anything else that I’m interested in/good at just isn’t going to happen, and I should accept that, and I should avoid him as much as I can.

The House of the Seven Gables is adorable, as is pretty much everything in Salem, MA.  Hawthorne never lived in the House, but he speculated about it and wrote his collection of short stories about it.  The property that the House is on also now has Nathaniel Hawthorne’s boyhood home– the historical society bought it, sawed it in half, and moved it over for historical tourism convenience.

The  seven gables tour is rad because it has secret passages (yay for secret passages!), Misc 205narrow, winding secret passages behind concealed doors, but it is less rad because it really has very little to do with Nathaniel Hawthorne.  It mostly deals with the Turner family, who lived there for three generations, and then the philanthropic woman who paid to have the house restored for touristic purposes.  The tour of   the Seven Gables House is guided, unfortunately, our guide was woefully sub-par.  The tour of Hawthorne’s boyhood home is self-guided, but much more interesting.

I read Young Goodman Brown and The Scarlet Letter in school and there was a little discussion about Hawthorne’s life, but I didn’t realize what a reclusive and rather strange man he was.  At the age of about 10-years-old, he suffered a minor injury, which should have had no lasting consequences.  He then lived as an invalid for the next ten years even though physicians could find nothing wrong with him.  I re-read his Wikipedia article recently, and noticed that the first 20 years of his life are just glossed over.

There were a couple of  ancient women whose job it is to sit in the boyhood home and answer questions.  I asked one about his period of seclusion, and she just scoffed and said, “yeah, he was kind of a wuss.”

I love old ladies who just don’t give a damn.Misc 209

Hawthorne also waited until he was 36 to get married, and married a woman who was 32.  Neither had been married before, and knew each other for five years before making it official.  So Hawthorne was a plodding, meditative man– not one to rush into anything.

Also in Salem is the Custom House, where Hawthorne worked, and the inspiration for his story– The Custom House, which usually serves as an introduction to The House of the Seven Gables.