The Meaning of Death, Part 2 of Many: Motivation and Mid-Life Crises

Part 2 of an ongoing series on the meaning of death in a godless world. The basic idea: In a world with no God and no afterlife, death — like life — doesn’t have any purpose or meaning except the meaning we create. So what meaning can we create for it?

When I was forty, I went through a classic mid-life crisis. No, I didn’t buy a sports car or have an affair with a much younger woman. Instead, I quit a high-ranking position in a lucrative career that demanded an enormous amount of my time and energy… and took a lower-paying job, with less stress and shorter, more flexible hours, so I could concentrate on my writing.

The only thing that wasn’t classic about my midlife crisis (apart from the lack of sports cars and younger women) was how conscious it was. I wasn’t deluded about it; I wasn’t trying to fool myself into thinking it wasn’t happening. I knew exactly what was happening. In fact, I ran with it.

What happened was that I hit 40 — and realized that I didn’t have an infinite amount of time to get my writing career off the ground. Of course I’d known before this that I was going to die — I’m not an idiot — but there’s a difference between knowing something intellectually and feeling it viscerally, having it shoved in your face. I hit 40, and I became aware — vividly, unignorably aware — that I was going to die someday… and that I didn’t want to be on my deathbed at 70 or 80, wondering if I could have had a serious writing career, and regretting that I’d never really tried to make it happen.

I’ve been doing professional freelance writing, mostly as a sideline, since I was in my twenties. I’ve known for a long time that writing was what I wanted to do with my life. But it wasn’t until I turned 40 that I got serious about making it a priority. Not just in theory; not just the kind of “making it a priority” that involves telling everyone you know what a high priority something is for you. It became an actual priority.

It became the kind of priority that involves making sacrifices. The kind of priority that means missing parties and movies and concerts because you have to spend that time working. The kind of priority that involves staying up until four in the morning to meet your deadlines, sometimes for several days in a row. The kind of priority that involves taking a job for less than half your previous pay… with all the sacrifices of comfort and pleasure and security that go along with that.

And I never would have done it if I hadn’t had my mid-life crisis wake-up call. I never would have done it if I hadn’t started to get panicked about how little time I had left to do it in.

In other words, I never would have done it without death.

I’d love to think that I’m the kind of person who would spend immortality doing marvelous things: writing novels and learning Latin, working in soup kitchens and becoming a championship ballroom dancer, reading all of Dickens and traveling to Madagascar. But I know that’s bullshit. I’m the kind of person who would spend immortality sitting on the sofa eating chocolate chips and watching “Project Runway” marathons.

Heck, I’m immortal. I’ve got all the time in the world. I can do all that Dickens and Madagascar stuff next week. Next year. Next decade.

I’m a very deadline-driven person. And death is a deadline.

I won’t lie. If I could magically be given immortality, I’d take it. I’d know without a doubt that it would be a terrible, unwise decision… and I’d take it anyway. The instinct to survive is too strong, too deeply-ingrained, for me to pretend otherwise. So I’m not saying that, given a choice, I’d choose death.

What I’m saying is this: Given that I don’t have a choice, given that death is an unavoidable and final reality, I’m finding ways, not just to accept it, but to use it to give my life meaning. The finality of death is giving my life motivation and focus. It’s driving me to accomplish things that I’d put off indefinitely without it. Death has turned me from a happy-go-lucky slacker chick with some vague creative goals but no real plans for reaching them, into an ambitious, determined woman with a clear sense of what she wants to do with her life and what she needs to do to make it happen.

And for that, I’m grateful.

The Meaning of Death, Part 2 of Many: Motivation and Mid-Life Crises


This piece originally appeared on the Blowfish Blog. It doesn’t talk about my personal sex life very much, but it does reference it a little bit. Family members and others who don’t want to read that stuff, use your own judgment.

I’ve been kicked by the wind, robbed by the sleet
Had my head stoved in, but I’m still on my feet
And I’m still.
-Lowell George, “Willin'”

Rebekah’s column in the Blowfish Blog on the F-word — frequency of sex, and couples negotiating same — reminded me of something I’ve been wanting to write about for a while. It’s one of the best pieces of sex advice I ever read, and I wanted to pass it along.

It’s from lesbian sex adviser JoAnn Loulan. Now normally, I’m not a big fan of Loulan; she’s a bit too fixated on slotting people into sexual categories for my taste, she’s insisted that butch/femme is a universal concept that applies to all lesbians whether they like it or not; and she’s said some outrageously harsh and stupid things about bisexuals. But this piece of advice has always stuck with me. It’s one of the most useful ideas about sex that I’ve ever heard… and as my sex life has changed and shifted with the years, it’s only gotten more useful.

The idea is this: To have a sexual encounter that’s pleasurable for both (or all) partners, you don’t need to start out being aroused or excited or in the mood.

You just need to start out being willing

You need to start out willing to be aroused and excited and turned on. You need to start out willing to have sex, and to have a good time doing it. You need to be willing to be seduced… and to seduce. You don’t have to start out in the mood; you just have to be in the mood to be in the mood. If that makes sense.

I think this is good advice for anybody. But I think it’s especially good advice for those of us who are getting older and whose bodies aren’t as quick on the draw as they used to be. It’s especially good advice for long-term couples who have been together a while, and who aren’t as instantly excited by the mere presence of a sexually available person in their bed as they once were. And it’s especially good advice for busy, stressed-out couples who are scheduling and planning sex to make sure they make room for it in their lives.

Let’s take a closer look at that last one. Scheduling sex in advance is advice that’s often given to couples whose sex life is flagging. But it also gets a bad rap. It’s seen as unsexy, unspontaneous, clinical even, to have sex, not because you’re “in the mood,” but because it’s in your datebook.

But when you let go of the idea that you have to be “in the mood” to get things started, then scheduling sex suddenly gets a whole lot easier. When you start reframing a willingness to be in the mood as a version of being in the mood itself, a pre-scheduled sex date seems less like a cold duty and more like a tingly, long-anticipated treat. Like sitting down to dinner at a fabulous restaurant that you’ve had reservations for for weeks.

To make this work, though, there’s something you have to let go of.

You have to let go of the idea that sex should be perfect at all times, a splendid erotic ballet between perfectly harmonized bodies and souls. Specifically, you have to let go of the idea that the transition from not-sex to sex should always be fluid and graceful, the idea striking both parties like lightning at the exact same moment, the way it does in the movies.

A scheduled sexual encounter, between people who aren’t yet aroused but are willing to be, will sometimes start out a bit awkwardly. When one or both of you doesn’t quite have your motor revving at full throttle yet, there’ll sometimes be a few jerks and hiccups before you get going. You have to be willing to let that awkwardness happen, and trust that once things get going, it’ll pass.

So the thing to remember is this: Even if you’re not in the mood when you start, starting to have sex can get you in the mood. And like most things, this gets better and easier with practice. The more you let yourself be willing to be excited even though you’re not quite excited yet, the more natural and graceful it feels  and with the Pavlovian self-training of time and experience, your willingness to get excited feels more and more like the actual excitement itself.


Untested by Definition: A Rant on Alternative Medicine

I blogged about this a little while back, but I made the mistake of burying it in a carnival announcement, and it kind of got lost in the shuffle. So I’m re-posting it as its very own post.

Skeptico’s piece on the lack of testing in alternative medicine really hit it out of the park, I thought. And it reminded me of something I’ve been wanting to say for a while about conventional versus alternative medicine.

In her never-ending attempt to be fair, Ingrid has pointed out that alternative medicine is untested somewhat by definition. Once an alternative treatment gets some good, placebo-controlled, double-blind, peer-reviewed, replicable studies showing that it works, it’s no longer “alternative” — it’s conventional medicine by definition. (The use of meditation to reduce stress is a good example.)

But in fact, I think that’s the whole point. The dividing line between conventional and alternative medicine isn’t any particular opinion or theory about treatment. The dividing line is whether or not it’s been carefully tested, using the scientific method, to minimize the effects of human error and bias as much as is humanly possible.

What I don’t understand is why practitioners and promoters of alternative medicine think that’s a bad thing.

Alternative medicine boosters often accuse conventional Western doctors and medical researchers of being close-minded, biased against any theories and opinions other than their own. But the whole point of science (including medical science) and the scientific method is that it acts as a screen against bias and preconception: an imperfect screen, to be a sure, but a screen nonetheless. It’s an extremely humbling, often disappointing process.

Of course doctors will sometimes have initial skepticism about new ideas. Medical providers are human, with the universal human attachment to being right. And initial skepticism about new ideas — not close-mindedness, but skepticism — is appropriate in medicine, and indeed in any scientific field. But medicine does change and move forward, quite rapidly these days… and it couldn’t do that if medical researchers and providers were consistently mulish and intractable about considering new theories and treatments. Medical journals are loaded with new ideas — some of them radically new.

And of course doctors can be biased and even arrogant. But how is that not true of alternative practitioners? They’re every bit as biased to believe in their theories as conventional practitioners, every bit as likely to succumb to confirmation bias and cherrypick positive results while ignoring negative ones. And they don’t have the advantage of having placebo-controlled, double-blind, peer-reviewed, replicable studies to back up their arrogance and show that their results aren’t just confirmation bias at work.

Which, again, is kind of the whole point. If the only difference between conventional and alternative medicine is that conventional medicine has, by definition, been carefully tested using the scientific method… then how is alternative medicine the better choice? How is it anything other than the Galileo fallacy in action?

And as Ingrid has also pointed out: Doctors and medical researchers, probably even more than other scientists, could give a rat’s ass about being personally proven wrong if it means getting at the truth. Because the truth is what’s going to help them treat their sick, suffering, and dying patients. Ingrid is an HIV nurse, and if it could be conclusively shown that homeopathy, or Reiki, or acupuncture, or even for Pete’s sake prayer, could cure HIV or even alleviate it, she’d be all over it like white on rice. The reason she uses the treatments that she uses is that they’ve been through the trial by fire: they’ve been carefully tested and shown to be effective. If there were a set of placebo-controlled, double-blind, peer-reviewed, replicable studies showing that HIV could be cured or effectively treated by sprinkling holy water on goat entrails, she’d be right there on the Catholic goat farm with the sacrificial knife.

But again, if there were a set of placebo-controlled, double-blind, peer-reviewed, replicable studies showing that HIV could be cured by sprinkling holy water on goat entrails, then it wouldn’t be alternative medicine. It’d be conventional medicine, by definition.

Because conventional medicine, by definition, is medicine that’s been shown to work.

Untested by Definition: A Rant on Alternative Medicine

Friday Cat Blogging: Violet’s Blue Eye

And now, two unbelievably cute pictures of our cat.



At last, at long last, we have photos of Violet that do her justice. Violet, as you can see, is a strikingly beautiful cat; but she’s very hard for us to photograph. Our apartment doesn’t get much natural light, and when we use the flash, (a) it makes her just look like a big black lump, and (b) she closes her eyes against the flash, thus obscuring her most distinctive feature — the heterochromia (different-colored eyes).

But Ingrid found her sitting in the back windows, and got these two stunning pictures of her. I asks ya. Is that a beautiful cat, or what? The second one with the heterochromia is obviously spectacular; but I actually like the profile a little better. It makes her look so noble.

And once again, I need to share with you our Violet’s Blue Eye song:

Why don’t you scritch me like you used to do?
Why do you treat me like a worn-out shoe?
My fur is still furry and my eye is still blue
So why don’t you scritch me like you used to do?

That is all. Thank you for your patience.

Friday Cat Blogging: Violet’s Blue Eye

Hypocrisy or Bigotry — Which Is Worse? Huckabee and Guiliani on Gay Rights

Via the HRC:

“Unless Moses comes down with two stone tablets from Brokeback Mountain to tell us something different, we need to keep that understanding of marriage.”
Mike Huckabee

“It’s the acts, it’s the various acts that people perform that are sinful.”
Rudolph Giuliani on homosexuality

There are so many different ways I could go with this.

I could go with Huckabee’s snarky, smirky Brokeback Mountain reference. I could gas on about how “Brokeback Mountain” has become the new “Adam and Steve,” the default catch-phrase for when people want to make bigoted jokes about gays.

I could also point out how wildly inappropriate the Brokeback Mountain reference is. I mean, did he see the movie? Did he think it was a ringing endorsement for gay people denying their sexuality and getting into heterosexual marriages? The whole point of that damn movie was that gay people staying in the closet ruins lives — not just their own lives, but the lives of their wives and their families and everyone around them. To make a “Brokeback Mountain” joke in support of a “traditional marriage” position is clueless to the point of delusion.

And of course, I could go the “laughably hypocritical” route on Guiliani’s comment. The twice-divorced, thrice-married, adulterous Giuliani, lecturing gay people on their sinful sex lives? Please.

But that’s not where I want to go with this. Instead I want to pose a question that kept me and Ingrid entertained for hours:

Which do you think is worse — craven hypocrisy, or close-minded bigotry?

Here’s the thing. I don’t believe for a moment that Giuliani actually thinks homosexuality is a sin. He supported civil unions and domestic partnerships when was mayor of New York. Hell, when his second marriage was breaking up, he moved into the apartment of two gay friends. He did a Victor/Victoria drag show with Julie Andrews. He’s far from the most enlightened person on the planet when it comes to LGBT issues; but I doubt that he has anything against us personally.

I think his move to the right on LGBT issues is purely pragmatic. He wants to be President. He thinks he has to suck up to the far right to accomplish this goal. Gay-bashing is the quickest, easiest way to do that.

Huckabee, on the other hand:

I am quite sure that Huckabee means every word of it. His entire record speaks of passionate homophobic bigotry, fueled by a particularly virulent form of close-minded religious fundamentalism. When he said that “homosexuality is an aberrant, unnatural, and sinful lifestyle,” I have no doubt whatsoever that he meant every word.

So here’s my question:

Which is worse?

The close-minded, true-believing bigot — or the craven, self-serving hypocrite?

My thoughts:

From a purely ethical standpoint, I think the true believer has the stronger position. Their bigotry is evil, it’s harmful — but at least it’s sincere. It’s not held simply for selfish gain. It’s internally consistent.

But from a purely practical standpoint, I think I’d rather have the hypocrite in public office.

Because you can change a hypocrite’s mind.

If someone is taking a bigoted position purely to advance their self-interest, all you have to do to change their mind is shift the political scales. Mobilize your forces. Make alliances. Get better organized. Convince the hypocrite that their self-interest would be better served by sucking up to you instead of your opponents, and they’ll be your new best friend.

It’s much, much harder to change the mind of a true-believing bigot. If their bigotry is a consistent, integral, fundamental part of their view of the world and themselves, changing their mind about their bigotry requires them to rewrite their entire life story. Very few people are up to that.

And while internal consistency can be an admirable trait, it’s not so admirable when it comes at the cost of shutting out the world around you. Prioritizing your own belief system over human reality is really just another way of being self-serving.

Then again, as Ingrid points out:

If you do succeed in changing a true believer’s mind, chances are that you’ll have them for good. The ranks of LGBT supporters are filled with former bigots who changed their minds when their friends, their colleagues, their children or grandchildren, came out as gay. And their newfound tolerance is as strong — and as sincere — as their old bigotry.

Whereas the craven hypocrite who makes nice with you today will toss you like last week’s leftovers the minute you become inconvenient.

Just ask Giuliani. And the gay friends who took him in when he needed help. The friends who he’s now calling “sinful” — because he wants to be President.

Hypocrisy or Bigotry — Which Is Worse? Huckabee and Guiliani on Gay Rights

Dry Spells: A Reply: The Blowfish Blog

I have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog. It’s a reply to a piece by fellow Blowfish Blogger Rebekah Skoor on dry spells, periods in your life when you’re not having any sex — and worse, don’t want any. The culprit in this particular case seemed to be time and stress and overscheduling. And since I’ve been there myself (and still go there off and on), I wanted to write a reply about some of the things that have worked for me. It’s called Dry Spells: A Reply, and here’s the teaser:

But honestly? The thing that’s helped most of anything is that tired old couples-counseling workhorse: scheduling and setting aside time for sex.

I know. Scheduling sex sounds so unsexy. And when you’re not in the mood to have sex anyway, the last thing in the world you want to do is block out time for it in your datebook.

But I’ve found that it works — for two big reasons.

Reason One is purely practical, purely a tackling of the symptoms. If I wait until my life settles down to get back in the mood, I’m going to wait a very long time. At the rate I’m going, my life will probably settle down when I’m in my coffin. I have to schedule time for the things that matter to me — otherwise, they’ll never happen. And that includes sex.

But Reason Two gets to the actual heart of the problem.

To find out why I think scheduling sex can get to the heart of the problem in a sexual dry spell, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Dry Spells: A Reply: The Blowfish Blog

Friday Cat Blogging on Saturday: Lydia and Violet Snuggling

And now, three cute pictures of our cats.




Lydia and Violet don’t snuggle very often. (In fact, lately Violet has been hissing at her sister a lot, and taking swipes at her, and generally being a bitch.) So when I caught them snuggling on the sofa the other day, I had to take about a million pictures. These are the three best ones.

Friday Cat Blogging on Saturday: Lydia and Violet Snuggling