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Six busy weeks coming up, including a week unplugged at the beach, a speech to the UU General Assembly in Minneapolis, a visit to Camp Inquiry in New York, and moving. Rather than let the blog grow all weedy, I’ll run a few of my own favorite posts from long ago.

Words Fail Me
First appeared Sept 28, 2007

woody and diane

Love is too weak a word for what I feel – I luuurve you, you know, I loave you, I luff you.
WOODY ALLEN in Annie Hall

I was born in the Sixties. My first two kids were born in the Nineties. But try to name the decade my youngest was born in, the one we’re in at the moment, and you’re left muttering clunkers like “the first decade of the twenty-first century,” or sounding like Grandpa Simpson by referring to the “aughts.” It’s called a lexical gap, a concept for which a given language lacks a concise label. German is said to lack a precise word for a person’s “chest,” while English speakers are left speechless when it comes to Fahrvergnügen.

When I first heard Alvy Singer struggling to express his feelings for Annie Hall, I thought it was just for laughs. But I’ve begun to struggle in recent years with precisely the same lexical gap — so much so that I’ve almost entirely stopped telling my wife and children that I love them.

Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

The problem is the overuse of what was once, I suspect, a more sparingly-used, and therefore more powerful, word. The fact that Paul McCartney’s only response to the problem of “silly love songs” was to sing the phrase “I love you” fifteen times in three minutes seems to prove my point.

As a result of using “love” to express our feelings about everything from self-indulgence (“I love sleeping in on Sunday”) to food (“I love Taco Bell’s new Pizzaburgerrito”), I find the word “love” now entirely inadequate to describe the feeling engendered in me by my wife and kids. I don’t love them. I luuurve them.

No no, come back. I’m not going to wax rhapsodic. I’m zeroing in on a practical, lexical problem, that’s all.


impressive clergyman

Mawwiage. Mawwiage is what bwings us togevah today. Mawwiage, that bwessed awwangement, that dweam wifin a dweam. And wuv, twu wuv, wiw fowwow you, fowevah.
IMPRESSIVE CLERGYMAN from The Princess Bride

Whenever I think of the reasons I luuurve my wife, I recall an event I attended two years ago — a debate between an atheist and a theist. I described the scene in PBB (pp. 96-7):

When the discussion turned to morality, [the theist] said something I will never forget. “We need divine commandments to distinguish between right and wrong,” he said. “If not for the seventh commandment…” He pointed to his wife in the front row. “…there would be nothing keeping me from walking out the door every night and cheating on my wife!”

His wife, to my shock, nodded in agreement. The room full of evangelical teens nodded, wide-eyed at the thin scriptural thread that keeps us from falling into the abyss.

I sat dumbfounded. Nothing keeps him from cheating on his wife but the seventh commandment? Really?

Not love?

How about respect? I thought. And the promise you made when you married her? And the fact that doing to her what you wouldn’t want done to you is wrong in every moral system on Earth? Or the possibility that you simply find your marriage satisfying and don’t need to fling yourself at your secretary? Are respect and love and integrity and fulfillment really so inadequate that you need to have it specifically prohibited in stone?

I first dated Becca because of conditional things. Non-transcendent things. Had she not been so unbearably attractive to me, had she not had the most appealing personality of anyone I knew, had she not been so funny and smart and levelheaded, I wouldn’t have flipped over her like I did. It may sound off to say it this way, but she fulfilled the conditions for the relationship I wanted, and I, thank Vishnu, did the same for her. I asked her to marry me in large part because of these not inconsiderable things.

But then, the moment I asked her to marry me, something considerably more transcendent began to happen between us. She said yes — and I was instantly struck dumb by the power of it. This splendid person was willing to commit herself to me for the remainder of her one and only life.

Holy (though I try to keep this blog free of both these words) shit.

bexNo, I am not waxing, dammit, I am making a point. We were moving into the unconditional, you see. She had moved from being one of the many attractive, magnetic, funny, smart people I knew to The One Such Person Who Committed to Me. See the difference? And then, once she actually took three small packets of my DNA and used them to knit children — well, at that point, it became hard to look at her without bursting into song. I’m still not over it. What was a strong but technically conditional love moved decisively into unconditional luuurve.

So yes, there are things beyond the seventh commandment that keep me from cheating on my wife. Like the hilarity I feel at the thought of finding any other woman with any amount of those conditionals more attractive.

As for the children…

You’re an atheist? So then…you think your children are…just a bunch of…processes?
JEHOVAH’S WITNESS at my door last year

Last week a radio interviewer asked about my kids, with mild facetiousness: “So how about your own kids? Good kids, ya love ’em and everything?” In addition to the pure silliness of answering such a question, I fell head-first into that lexical gap once again — and the resulting three seconds of dead air probably did me no favors with the audience. I finally sputtered something about them being amazing kids, terrific kids, but it fell short, as it always does, of my real feelings.

I don’t make up for this lexical gap with the kids by telling them I luuurve them. Instead, almost every single day, I tell them, “I do not love you.” And they smile and say, “Oh yes you do!” — and all is understood.

kidsThey know in a thousand ways that I am transported by being their dad. They’ve become accustomed, for example, to the sudden realization that Dad is staring again. They’ll get that prickly feeling and turn to see me lost in a contemplative gawk. They’re very good about it, usually returning a smile rather than a roll of the eyes, which I think is very nice of them.

Recognizing that the love of our children is rooted in part in biology — that I am, in part, adaptively fond of them — does not diminish the way I’m transported by contemplating the fact of them, and of our special connection, of their uniqueness, and of the generational passing of the torch.

But it’s interesting to note that, unlike my relationship with Becca, this meditative gawking began on day one. The order of things is reversed. My marriage started in the conditional and added the unconditional. I loved her from the beginning, but only slowly came to be so completely slain by her.

Kids, on the other hand, begin in the unconditional and add the conditional. From the moment they emerged from my wife — seriously, reflect on that for a moment — they were unconditionally wonderful to me. They were half me and half she. They were our connection to the future. Etc.

Gradually we formed additional bonds based on their actual attributes. They are smart as whips, wickedly funny, generous and kind and fun to be around. But that’s all frosting on an unconditional cake. Marriage, on the other hand — if it goes well — starts with frosting and gradually slips the cake underneath.

So yes, my kids are “processes,” whatever that means, and so is my wife. But they are also the main reasons I wake up grateful and filled with meaning and purpose every single day.

(Wax off.)

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.