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Atheist Dad

One of the reasons I can make a living writing kids books is that I don't sentimentalize kids. They're not little puff-balls to me. They're not noble savages. They're like adults who've downed a pint of bourbon and twenty-five espressos: kinda drunk, and very, very alert. So very much more capable than our coddling society believes. There were twelve year-olds commanding guns at Trafalgar.

Their brains are lit up, exploding, incandescent. Passions you and I, half-comatose adults, can't even recall, because to remember them in detail would be to experience them all over again and our brains won't hold that much pressure anymore. That boiler would blow. We'd scare ourselves if we started to feel the world the way a middle-school kid feels it.

Savages. Not in a bad way, really, but not noble, either. A ten year-old is ten years away from his first glimmer of moral sensibility. (Fourteen years in my case, but then I was . . . what's the opposite of precocious?)

Have you ever, in the last 20 years, wanted a woman the way you did when you were fourteen or fifteen? Hell, have you wanted a candy bar the way you did then? If you say yes, then you are either young or have a very poor memory. From about age 10 to about age 19, you're gripping a stripped power line in either hand. The condom full of cocaine in your stomach has just popped and the customs agent is looking at you funny. A little unstable? A little shaky? A little bipolar? Crazy much?

Be all of that, and add 50% to the IQ. Like you're already driving a Ferrarri, pedal to the metal, but now you're burning nitrous. Remember the scene in 2001 when Dave is going through the wormhole and you keep getting flashes of his face and his wide-scared eye and he's shaking and turning colors? Like that.

My son, poor kid. Toss in obsessive-compulsive disorder, not really funny, but kind of. I have a bit. My wife has more. Kid was doomed by DNA.

He suffers the curse of sentience: the awareness of his own mortality. He's been on the death watch for years now. What if you die? What if I die? Every night when he goes to sleep. Just like I've done every night of my life. Like I'll do a few minutes from now. What if this, what if that? And we don't let the kid drink, (we're kind of conservative that way) so it's harder for him.

Ah, for God and heaven. Damn, that must be a nice dodge. Not that it works for long, I've never noticed that Christians are particularly blase about the Big D. But it must be nice for the believers to be able to poo-pooh the whole death thing, pretend it away. "Actually, son, it will be a happy time: you'll be with Jesus. Like visiting Grandpa's house, but Jesus will have better cookies." Like my kid would ever fall for that.

As I am a practicing heathen, I'm stuck with the phenomenologists' answer: you don't experience death. By definition, you don't ever experience your own death. You experience the whole play, all three acts, but for the final curtain you are, sadly, absent. This sophistry is wonderfully comforting to a ten year-old, as I'm sure you can imagine.

I explain that the thing to fear is not your own death but the death of someone you love, because that is not a bullet you can dodge with a philosophical sleight-of-hand. (Some reason I feel the need to paint that happy picture?) I admit under questioning that I seldom fall to sleep without worrying. Usually about the kids. Occasionally about the "check engine" light on my dashboard. Damn, parenthood is fun. Every fucking night. What if? What if?

I tell him the only thing that really helps when contemplating something awful, is to walk it through, imagine it in detail, make it real, and then see how you would survive. Absorb it. Face it. See how you would go on. Imagine your survival in as much detail as you imagined the tragedy.

Lovely conversation to be having with a little boy, don't you think?

But of course the flaw in the logic comes when he asks you whether you could imagine losing him. Whether you could imagine surviving that. And right there is where it sticks. Because now you either have to lie or tell the truth. And both answers, all possible answers, are betrayals.

You want to keep your kids not just safe from pain, but safe from the knowledge of the inevitability of pain. You want to rewrite the laws of the universe to make it a bit kinder for them. But when the little genius is cross-examining you, you realize you're trapped, and in the end you can't change the facts, and can't even put much of a coat of paint on them.

The smart blows away the camouflage. The OCD grabs the facts and works them like a guilty nun with a rosary. You're ten and know absolutely everything about Apple and Google and dick-all about life. Yeah, you could die, Your mom could die. Your dad has nothing to offer by way of amelioration but technicalities and evasions and some weak macho bullshit.

All sorts of pain will come your way during your lifetime, kid. That's the deal. You're going to live a life, not a fairy-tale. And there's not a hell of a lot Dad can do about that.

It would be so much better if kids could start figuring this out later. You know, when they'll have the advantage of philosophy, declining hormone levels and Scotch.

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“Atheist Dad”

  1. Blogger Ruth Anne Adams Says:


    As a Christian mom, I'd be a liar if I taught them resurrection without crucifixion. You don't get to the other side without going through the suffering.

    My mom taught me "offer it up." That's the idea that suffering all alone is a useless and debilitating event. Suffering that you join with Christ's suffering on the cross is redemptive.

    With one of my children, she hung perilously close to death in those early weeks. I was floundering. My husband said "We have to trust God's will. He won't give us more than we can bear." I bit back "and what if that means picking out a little white coffin?" He told me "if that's God's will, we'll learn to accept it." And at that blessed moment of release, I knew he was right. And my daughter turned around that day, too.

    Sometimes people are intrigued why a kid with a prosthesis is no huge thing most days. After you've almost lost life, a limb is just a limb.

  2. Anonymous bookfraud Says:

    as a relatively new father (10-month-old boy) and a long-time heathen, i seriously appreciated this post. when you talk of a child's desires and our wired-in need to protect them from pain, i thought, "yeah, that's me."

    actually, i seriously appreciate this blog. thoughtful, well-written, coherent, unlike 95 percent of the blogs out there.

    where have you been hiding, and how come there's not 200 comments to each entry, like at "things white people like"?

  3. Blogger Transplanted Lawyer Says:

    You told your son the truth. You couldn't have done him a better service than that.

  4. Anonymous Anonymous Says:

    Good news dept.: I'm with transplanted lawyer.

    Bad news dept.: antonyms to precocious are... backward, half-witted, slow-witted, feebleminded, imbecile, imbecilic, idiotic, moronic, cretinous, delayed, dim-witted, simple, simple-minded.

    Amelioration dept.: I've been reading your blog(s) for a long time now and I don't believe for a minute that you're any of those antonyms.

  5. Blogger amba Says:

    imagine it in detail

    Problem with that is, what you imagine in detail is never, ever what happens. Noticed? The definition of trouble, and of life, is that it always blindsides you. Spend decades worrying about cancer, then die of a heart attack. You've wasted all those decades.

    IMO, it's better to say, "Trust that you will be more ready than you know. You are equipped to cope. We've been dealing with this shit for millions of years or we wouldn't be here." Instead of imagine ahead, think back to a time something unexpected and bad happened. Notice that you survived. You coped. You can trust that that capacity will kick in as needed. And then forget about it and go ahead. Enjoy the reasonably trouble-free times, don't mess them up worrying.

    But then, no way: y'all have OCD.

    Mark Twain said something like, "I've been through terrible things in my life. Some of them actually happened."

  6. Blogger amba Says:

    Hobbit, how come you left out "retarded"?

    My favorite, though, is "neotenous." It's Latin for "I won't grow up!"

  7. Blogger Michael Reynolds Says:

    Ruth Anne:
    I didn't know that about your family. That must have been a kick in the teeth. I'd have the same reaction you did, I think: prosthetic? Who gives a damn as long as they're alive?

    The aforementioned son was 2 months premature, so we were worried, but at the time I didn't really know him. Which sounds odd, I guess. But because he was early I hadn't done any of the classes, no one warned me about anything, so I recall that my first concern was that he seemed to have a pronounced cone head. I was standing there thinking well, okay, so he'll be a conehead, we can deal with that.

  8. Blogger Michael Reynolds Says:


    First of all, congratulations on the new kid. Let me answer your biggest question right up front: no. No, you will never catch up on your sleep. It's best just to accept that.

    Second, thanks for the very kind words.

  9. Blogger Michael Reynolds Says:

    I appreciate that. I don't know if the truth will set us free, but it's all we've got.

  10. Blogger Michael Reynolds Says:

    Oh, I'll cop to simple-minded. I just hide it well. Underneath it all there's not much more going on with me than a simple desire for peace and quiet. Well, that and burning ambition to control the world.

  11. Blogger Michael Reynolds Says:

    But then, no way: y'all have OCD.

    And in my case the Jew gene as well. I'm still expecting Cossacks to come burn the shtetl.

  12. Blogger amba Says: