profane agnostic

Profane. adj. 1. characterized by irreverence or contempt for God or sacred principles or things; irreligious. 2. not devoted to holy or religious purposes; unconsecrated; secular (opposed to sacred). 3. unholy, heathen; pagan: profane rites. 4. not initiated into religious rites or mysteries, as persons. 5. common or vulgar.

Agnostic. n. 1. a person who holds that the existence of the ultimate cause, as God, and the essential nature of things are unknown and unknowable, or that human knowledge is limited to experience. 2. a person who denies or doubts the possibility of ultimate knowledge in some area of study. 3. a person who holds neither of two opposing positions on a topic: Socrates was an agnostic on the subject of immortality. adj. 4. of or pertaining to agnostics or their doctrines, attitudes, or beliefs. 5. asserting the uncertainty of all claims to knowledge. 6. holding neither of two opposing opinions.

We’re a little off the beaten path today. Just go with me.

For some reason, the definition of “profane” reminds me of an academic conference I recently attended. I’d given my little twenty-minute spiel, in the way we do; a guy in the audience, who had what Dave Eggers would call “creative facial hair,” was especially receptive and asked good questions. (Why do I keep making reference to Dave Eggers? I promise to stop.)

(As an aside: I use a lot of profanity in my day-to-day speech. Call me common or vulgar; I might be either one of those things. But I saw something on the internet recently that suggested that this fact might make me more likable and trustworthy to others. I’m going with that. Why? Because, fuckin-A, why else? My fictional protagonist also uses a lot of profanity. I sometimes worry that this will turn off otherwise reasonable readers. Then again, maybe they’ll understand that her potty mouth makes her more likable and trustworthy to others.)

Academic types bond over good questions. We love that shit. We sit there and secretly hope that someone will ask an unanswerable question, at which point we will respond with this line: “that’s a great question, though it’s a little outside the scope of my argument. What do you think?” And then the person will launch into a six-minute explanation of what s/he thinks. We live for it. I kid you not.

And if you don’t know how academic conferences go? I’ll tell you. We all arrive at a hotel, which is usually overpriced for what it is. We give fifteen-minute synopses (see “Synopsis,” only it’s different) of what lights our academic fires in the moment. We hope that someone will say something that we can write down, something that will change the whole trajectory of our thinking. Or, more realistically, we hope that everyone in the audience will tell us how brilliant we are. Egos stroked, we descend onto the hotel bar, where we drink beer and play a game called “spot the other academics.”

After the panel, during which I gave my Important Paper that Someone might Like to Cite Someday, I’d planned to attend what looked like a kick-ass group of papers on popular culture (my academic cup of tea)—I don’t usually plan to attend anything at these events, so even dog-earing the program and drawing a star in the margin meant something, at least for me. A friend and I stood in the hallway by the hotel elevator, waiting to get to where we needed to be and hoping for an escape route, when receptive-good-question-guy-with-creative-facial-hair approached us and said, in as many words: “There are only four people in my audience right now; it’d be great if you could attend my panel. I’m giving a paper on atheist conversion narratives, and it kind of connects with your questions about authenticity.” He wasn’t talking to my friend; he was talking to me.

Goddamn it, shit. Bloody hell, man, are you serious?

Now, this could be an opportunity for me to launch into my answer to the question of why academic-types so often seem like jerks (or, in the spirit of this post, “such fucking assholes”), but I think that probably deserves its own post. Instead, I’ll just give you a little narrative that will, I hope, show you that I try not to be one of those jerks.

Me: [thinking] Okay. Atheist conversion narratives? Right up my alley. I mean, I’m no atheist—I hate labels like that, as a matter of fact—but he had me at “conversion narratives.”

My friend: I’m bailing.

Elevator: BING. [people get on and leave the scene]

Me: I think I have to go to his panel. [thinking: I’d really like to go back to my room and work on my novel.]

My friend: Why, because he asked good questions at your panel?

Me: Yeah, and there are only four people in his panel, and I feel bad.

My friend: Good luck with that. We’ll get a beer after.

Anyway. I ended up in a panel that sounded great on paper: Literature and Religion. I mean, what’s not to love? In my own academic work, I do a lot with “literature and religion,” whatever the hell that means, so I thought it might be fun. But then I saw what the panel was really about. And I immediately fell asleep, way before anyone started talking.

Not really. But I definitely started to plan how I could get out of the room, which was just dimly-lit enough to be depressing and just warm enough to have a soporific effect, without anyone noticing or taking offense—I actually care about shit like that. Maybe my guy is talking first, and I can feign an important phone call and leave when he’s done. Nope. He’s talking last. Last. After various people ramble on about various things. Okay, next plan: I’ll sit here in the back and play with my phone until he gives his paper, at which point I’ll pay attention. Then I’ll ask a couple of good, hard questions—you know, return the favor—before I jet and get some beers.

Right. Sounds like a plan. Right?

What struck me, though, because I’m unable to truly tune out if someone is giving some kind of presentation (I’d never want to be rude that way, though I did check my social media accounts a couple of times in the course of all this, albeit behind the cover of the conference program), is that these people were conflating “religion” and “Christianity.” When this dawned on me, I looked again at the program. Oh, right. Two of them are from a university that wrote a job ad this year that would have been right up my alley . . . if only they hadn’t just fired a woman for marrying her partner.

So then I started thinking about that, as a young (seemingly impossibly young, at least from my thirty-something vantage point) woman was talking about the Trilogy and how it did or did not relate to Milton. You know, Milton. And, you know, marrying your partner and getting fired from a tenure-track job for it. And I heard various friends’ voices in my head, telling me how smart I am for not applying for that job, even though what the ad actually said, basically, at the end of the day, was that they wanted me to apply. I heard my own partner’s voice in my head, clamoring for equal rights and this and that. But ultimately, in the sanctity of this seemingly sealed room, I returned to this question: at what point in time did “religion” become the same as “Christianity?” And then I heard the young woman’s voice again. She was doing that thing that too many women do: she ended every sentence with a question mark? So then I started thinking about that and simultaneously wishing that I were anywhere else in the entire goddamn world, academic or otherwise. I started thinking more and more about beer. The things we do for kindness.

Anyway, dude with creative facial hair eventually got around to giving his paper. And it wasn’t bad, not really, but he played a little linguistic game in which “atheist” became the same as “agnostic,” and it bothered me, in spite of his visual aids, which included all of the books to which he made reference. He said something about wanting us to see how “dark the covers are.” It didn’t get under my skin so much because I identify as “agnostic,” but because he was so dismissive of both “agnostic” and “atheist”; he kept making it seem like they were the same thing, and he insisted on these faith-based arguments that I wanted to deconstruct, right there in front of what promised to become some kind of weird revival meeting. So if I’m following this, I kept thinking, agnostic and atheist are the same thing, and they’re both opposed to religion and Christianity, which are the same thing.

And it did: it became a revival meeting. I kid you not. I felt like I was in a surrealist painting at a couple of points, you know, the one where the clocks are melting. So after I asked my two pointed questions? I left and got some beers with people who know the difference between the two A’s that threaten Christianity—I mean “religion.” At dinner/beers I talked to a couple of young graduate students who needed to be reassured that, if they don’t feel like they’re doing it all wrong in the first year? They’re doing it wrong. Rites of passage. Anyway.

Hence “agnostic.” I’ll open this to you: what do you think “agnostic” means, aside from what the dictionary says? Can it apply to more than just faith/spirituality/religion/whatever-you-want-to-call-it?

Because I tell you what: lately, and in spite of my vigorous search for tenure-track employment, I’ve become agnostic about a lot of things, especially as they relate to higher education. What are we all about, anyway? Where we stake our claims to authenticity? What do we really mean when we say things like “digital humanities” and “critical thinking” and whatever else we might proclaim? Are these definitional problems, or conceptual ones? Let’s open that up to comments, too. Have at it.

For what it’s worth? I’m a profane agnostic. Define it however you want.



weird, adj. 1. Involving or suggesting the supernatural; unearthly or uncanny: a weird sound; weird lights. 2. fantastic; bizarre: a weird getup. 3. archaic. concerned with or controlling fate or destiny.

It all started the summer before seventh grade. Back then, in the early days of the internet, I had a computer that booted from a floppy disk and had a primitive dialup connection: I would click on “connect,” and then the modem dialed the number, which was followed by a series of clicks and screams before the ever-familiar whoosh: I was online. I became an addict, overcome by the realization that there was a whole world outside of the medium-sized midwestern city where I lived. My romanticized images of mysterious strangers in my pre-adolescent mind kept me in front of the screen for hours.

I communicated with my pseudo-friends on bulletin boards, which are now called “forums.” On these boards, I corresponded with older people about music, fashion, politics, and personal ideals. In retrospect, many of them had to be pedophiles and perverts: why else would a 30-year-old man ask me for my fifth grade class picture? Bill, as I will call him now, was one of these friends. A staunch Republican, he challenged everything I knew about politics, which was really quite simple for me back then: Democrats were good and Republicans were bad. Bill often tried to convert me to the dark side, but I resisted with such force and vigor that our exchanges did nothing but reinforce my beliefs. One of his favorite arguments was that women belonged at home raising babies, a sharp contrast to my own working mother and burgeoning ideas of womanhood and <gasp> feminism. When I raised this issue, he replied with Bible quotes; he was one of those literalists. In retrospect, I imagine him as the kind of man who quotes Leviticus as the primary reason why anyone who isn’t heterosexual and cisgendered will burn in hell. If I met him now, I would inquire about my slaves from neighboring nations. After all, what good citizen doesn’t want a Canadian slave? (I obviously mean no offense to Canada–please believe me.)

I learned vocabulary words from Bill; he was the first person to call me “insatiable.” Of course, being twelve years old, I had to look “insatiable” up in the dictionary, and quickly changed my internet handle to “The Unsinkable KB.” Another word he used was “precocious,” but I was offended by its definition; he hand’t been the first to use that one. I wasn’t a child—at least I didn’t think so. I felt like a grownup and wrote like a grownup, and was irritated by the fact that I had no rights because I wasn’t one. I wanted to skip the whole terrible transition and go immediately from childhood to adulthood.

I received hate mail from a neo-Nazi once. I admit it: I frequently railed against the evils of the American government on a bulletin board dedicated to alternative music, but was caught off guard by, “I’ll sink you, you fucking bitch. Suck on this, you stupid whore!” The email was signed “Zeig Heil,” which I had to look up in the encyclopedia. This set off a whole chain of emotions and stomach aches. I was afraid of this faceless Nazi—would he find where I lived and hurt me? Would he hurt my mom because she worked or my dad because he was a Democrat? I felt a deep sense of shame, not for being critical of the government or for expressing what I saw, at the time, as capital-T Truth, but for partaking in what I knew was a grownup endeavor. Little kids had no place on the boards and I knew this, but I was finding myself—or at least some incarnation of the adult I wanted to be—on those anonymous pages.

I didn’t tell my parents about the hate mail. I was deliberately secretive about my online time: it was mine, and those people (maybe minus the Nazi) were my friends. I did tell Bill, who responded by scolding me for posting such opinions in the first place. He suggested that I visit him in Louisiana, but told me not to tell my parents. I felt oddly creepy at this prospect, but promptly asked my parents for a plane ticket. They were understandably horrified. I remember lying on their bed, with my dad in the rocking chair and my mom perched next to me on the mattress, listening to them explain that Bill might be a Bad Man. I was apoplectic. Dammit, I knew I never should have let them into my secret world. I knew in my heart that Bill was not a Bad Man—my naïveté betrayed my status as a child. My stomachache betrayed my inner conflict about him. I didn’t know, then, to trust my gut.

To our credit, all of this was in the early nineties, before anyone knew about internet creeps. My parents began to monitor my online endeavors more carefully and encouraged me to associate with my existing group of live friends, who bored me to no end. Why couldn’t they be more interesting? All they cared about was pop music and the cute boys in our grade and reading Seventeen. Why couldn’t they see what was really happening in the world? The Persian Gulf War was in full swing, and they didn’t care. They had no knowledge of Nazis, didn’t know whether they were Democrats or Republicans, and exhibited no interest in psychology or philosophy or things like the nascent LGBTQ rights movement. What good were those friends, other than for bike rides and board games?

I began to read the encyclopedia. Not straight through, as I had no desire to know everything, but bit by bit. I began with horses, which I loved, and quickly progressed to England, Wordsworth, Plato, American politics, and music. When it came to music, the encyclopedia was disappointing, as it only covered the classical genre, which I already knew a little bit about thanks to my musical mom. My interests were far broader; after all, I had just discovered New Wave. Bill, with whom my communications had dwindled, began sending me mix tapes in an attempt to convince me that he wasn’t a pervert. I didn’t care about him anymore, but the tapes invigorated me. As I tore into the padded envelope that arrived each week, a small squirt of adrenaline would hit me as I inserted the cassette into my boom box. As each song played, I would memorize the melody and mentally tie it to the song title. Talk, talk. The year of the cat. Sweet dreams are made of this. I do not want what I haven’t got. I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. Voices carry.

My parents were tolerant. My face-to-face friends began to think I was weird. Why didn’t I care about Top 40 radio anymore? Why didn’t I want to play Barbies? What was the matter with me? What kind of dork reads the encyclopedia and sits by herself in her room listening to strange music, anyway? When their lines of questioning became too painful, I retreated all the way into my room, where my stereo understood me, and became a true introvert (alternately, “a teenager with an attitude”; you decide). I got myself a guitar, pair of Doc Martens, an asymmetrical haircut, lots of black T-shirts, some eyeliner, and a Walkman. A new nonconformist, I took back the adjective “weird” and made it my identity. The more black I wore and the more people didn’t understand me, the less likely they were to ask me annoying questions about myself. This contented me and became my way of life until those dreadful middle school years were replaced by smoking pot and playing guitar in a rock and roll band.

But high school is another story.

Now, I have sense of humor about all of it—what teenager doesn’t feel alienated, dejected, angry? It’s a universal plight, albeit one with the power to draw us together in our feelings of separation. Somewhere in the time continuum, most of us discover who we are. We follow rites of passage, and we grow up. If we remember what it’s like to be a struggling teenager, we might be less likely to say asinine things like, “I’d do it all over,” or, “I’d love to be fourteen again.”

I wouldn’t. Once was enough for me.


Scarfn. a long, broad strip of wool, silk, lace, or other material worn about the neck, shoulders, or head, for ornament or protection against cold, drafts, etc.

It’s funny. The ways in which we define ourselves. The list of words we generate when someone asks us who we are. Who are you? someone asks, probably in not-as-many words, and we scroll through a list of possibilities before answering. “I’m a [noun], who [verb] and [verb]. I enjoy [noun or verb]. People say I’m [adjective].” This is how it goes. It’s the elevator speech of identity. What we leave out is, maybe, as important as what we say.

A year ago, I thought I had forgotten how to be creative, so I left that adjective off of my list. I’d given up playing music, which I’d been passionate about before–hell, I pretty much stopped listening to music, too, at least in any kind of serious way; I’d discovered internet radio, and that was okay for a couple of years. It got me through a comprehensive exam and the draft of a dissertation. I wrote a lot of words. But I hadn’t written anything creative, other than a couple of meager short stories and some nonfiction for a class, in nearly six years. Seventy-two months. Two thousand, one hundred ninety days. Whatever, I’m not a mathematician; that’s not one of my nouns. But you get where I’m going.

I had, or so I thought, completely and thoroughly devoted myself to the narrow world of the academy, where I began to forge a career. And I’m still forging that career. Don’t get me wrong. I’m forging that career, and “teacher-scholar” is one of my favorite compound nouns. Add the adjective “creative” in front of it, and I think it’s a winning combination for me.

I digress.

I’m also a novelist now. I was once before, too, back all those years ago when I was fourteen and wrote, with a blue ballpoint pen in a series of college-ruled notebooks with teal covers, what I now call “the bad YA book.” I was on vacation with my parents. At fourteen, a vacation with parents is a nightmare; it doesn’t matter where you are or what you’re doing; you’d rather be anywhere else and doing anything else. So I stuck my Walkman headphones on my head and wrote, wildly, in the backseat of the car, on the couch in the cottage, on the train, in bed. I wrote with fury and single-minded aggression. The story asserted itself in my head and demanded that I write it. I think the bad YA book is in a box in my parents’ basement.

The same sort of thing happened when I took fiction writing classes as an undergraduate, when I took the graduate-level essay-writing class. The story has a way of taking over.

Anyway. I like to think that my most recent incarnation as a mystery novelist grew out of the university asking me to teach a few creative writing classes and the fact that I finally allowed myself to (read: could) read for pleasure again at about the same time. But it didn’t; that’s not where it originated. If I’m honest about my creative process, it’s a lot like it was (ahem, cough) years ago. My protagonist had to have been brewing for a good long time, and yet she’s not me; her list of words is different from mine, when someone asks her who she is. One day, she decided that I needed to let her out, to tell her story. And she emerged in a frenzy. I wrote with fury and single-minded aggression. I forgot to do things like eat and return phone calls. Social media became a distant memory. I dreamed of my characters at night, and I grieved for them when they were gone, when the novel was drafted. So I went back and visited them–I mean revised.

I’m on book two now.

The moral of this little story, I suppose, is that I’m a writer, as well as a list of other things. I think of my many noun-identities–teacher, scholar, partner, maternal figure to dogs-and-cats, musician, foodie, critic, powerlifter, feminist, person, and, as of today, blogger (of all things, and the list could go on forever but I believe in being kind to my audience)–as a collection of scarves. I like scarves; I own a few scarves. They’re one of few items of clothing I own that aren’t black or gray or jeans (though I do own a black and gray scarf, and I often wear it with a black or a gray shirt and jeans). I have a friend whose exact words, the first time she saw me in my muted-green scarf, were “you’re wearing a color!” She’d reached out and touched the scarf. Said she liked it, and that I should consider wearing more colors.

And you know what? Now I have scarves in a few colors. One is red and has skulls on it. I like that one a lot.

Sometimes I want to wear the same scarf two days in a row. Sometimes I want to change scarves in the middle of the day, after the one I’ve been wearing gets itchy or starts to smell funky or I spill my coffee on it.

Sometimes I wear the same scarf for days on end, even if it’s itchy and stinks and is riddled with spills. Usually that’s my “writer” scarf. It’s gray, and I like to wear it with jeans. I ornamentally wrap it around my neck, shoulders, or head, and it protects me from the cold.