“If you talked into your hair dryer and said you were communicating with someone in outer space, they’d put you away. But take away the hair dryer, and you’re praying.”
I seeing miss my sweet, witty, intelligent, compassionate, bawdy, hugs & sloppy kisses friend, HUL. She gets back here (she used to live in Oregon) to visit when she can, and although it seems like there’s no distance between us when we phone or email or text, she lives 1300 miles away. And she is having surgery today. I will be thinking of her, and talking to her after the surgery as I’ve talked to her before and after her cancer diagnosis, commiserating about the shitty situation and brainstorming treatment options, colorfully cursing the brusque and clueless medical personnel she’s encountered and lavishly praising the smart, kind and competent ones.
I will not be praying for HUL. Nor will I be
* burning special incense for her
* anointing her head with oil
* finding a faith healer to perform a laying on of hands
* doing a Wiccan or Tibetan healing chant
* performing a Haipule or smudging ceremony 
* sacrificing a child
* using crystals to balance her energy
* casting a voodoo healing spell
* sending her to a Hakim (traditional Muslim healer) for Unani medicine 
Or singing her favorite soccer team’s fight song….or performing any of the rituals many human beings once somehow (and, sadly, still) thought might cause the gods/spirits/cosmic energies to look upon them with favor and cure their maladies.
What the heck. I could pick one of those things, or cover the bases and do ‘em all, as they have an equal likelihood of affecting the outcome of HUL’s surgery and subsequent prognosis.
HUL, righteously religion-free babe that she is, is not asking me, or anyone, to pray for her.
Not even moi?
Her first surgery will be done in a Catholic-run hospital. HUL told me the only activity resembling praying that she might do is to beseech the friend who’s picking her up after surgery to refrain from vandalizing crucifixes and the like, should said friend spot any Catholibilia  in HUL’s room.
HUL will not be posting the news of her illness and surgery on any social media sites. She wants to control access to this information and maintain a modicum of privacy. She also wants to avoid the jaw-clenching, energy-sucking vibes produced by People Who Mean Well ® and who express their sentiments, even to those of us whom they know are religion-free, via the hackneyed expression  , I’ll be praying for you.
She and I – and just about every atheist-agnostic-Bright-humanist-skeptic-freethinker on the planet – have commiserated over this phenomenon. We realize the expression is a kneejerk, cultural/social, nicety response, and that not everyone who says “I’ll pray for you” literally intends to do so. It’s similar to the way “How are you?” is used as a greeting – as a substitute or equivalent for Hi or Good morning. If you take that “How are you?” query/greeting at face value and actually talk about how you are,  you may be surprised by the WTF expression from the one who has greeted you and who now acts like they want to leave skidmarks as they flee from your discourse.
When it comes to being on the receiving end of I will be/I am praying for you, Those Of Us Who Think About Such Things mostly grin and bear it, with various degrees of enthusiasm and anemia. Here’s what we’re likely to say (even as this is what we’re likely thinking):
Well-Meaning But Ignorant Person: “I am so sorry to hear about your upcoming hammertoe surgery! I’ll pray for you.”
Us: “Oh, okay. Thanks for thinking of me.” (You’re going to pray…uh…yeah, knock yourself out…but…really…WHY? Am I supposed to thank you for doing…well, nothing…when what I could use is a casserole, or for someone to mow my lawn while my foot is in a cast?)
I know, I know, IKNOWIKNOWIKNOWIKNOW. People “mean well” (I’m trying to remember that great Lily Tomlin quote, something about thank goodness for kids, they never mean well). But those of us who are fond of reality don’t just shelve it in times of crisis. We we know about the efficacy  and therefore futility of prayer, to any one’s deities, for anything, and our bafflement at the announcement of the practice is often hard to disguise.
Skeptics more articulate than moiself have pointed out that while many religious people claim to truly believe that prayer can cure a variety of illnesses and injuries, they only pray for maladies that are generally self-limiting (and thus, they can attribute the cure to miraculous intervention).
I’ve never heard of religious believers petitioning their god to cause the boy with 3rd degree burns to grow new skin overnight (or even over the course of a few months), although I have heard them pray that the boy’s skin grafts will take.
An illness that gets better over time (and most do), a mood that improves, believers can and often do attribute these events to a “miracle” or divine intervention. But hard physical evidence – the burnt, necrotizing flesh, the amputee’s stump– is a slap in the face to the “power” of prayer.
My theory is that deep down inside, even the most fundy believers have reality check neurons (besieged, but not extinct), which occasionally whisper to them, “Now, let’s not get carried away, you know this stuff is just mumbo jumbo.”
How else to explain the fact that, while believers fervently and publicly ask their god to heal the spirit and speed the recovery of the Iraqi war veteran whose leg was blown off by an IED, or of the diabetic who lost a foot to gangrene, they do not pray for their god to regenerate these sufferers’ limbs. In the case of Christian believers, their scriptures are filled with stories of “miraculous” events and healings performed by their god, including restoration of sight to the blind and movement to a paralytic, instantaneous curing of leprosy and healing of a soldier’s amputated ear and so on. Why should the production of new skin or a new leg be so difficult for an omniscient, omnipotent, responsive-to-the-heartfelt-petitions-of-his-flock deity? Especially considering the fact that several species of our fellow animal inhabitants of our planet, including skinks, sea stars, conchs, and crayfish, can regenerate amputated appendages, and (presumably) do this without prayer.
“Oh great and merciful Poseidon, We beseech thee on behalf of our orange sister, that she be made whole again!”
Check out this site, for a more entertaining (and thought-provoking) examination of…well…of why this question is – or should be, to any sentient being – so important: Why Won’t God Heal Amputees.
I get it; all of us who smite even the idea of prayer get it: in times of adversity it’s often hard to know what to do or say. Bad news makes everyone uncomfortable. You hear about someone’s misfortune, you care, you want to do something…but, think about it. That “something” you do, if it’s praying (or just saying that you will pray), is more about making you feel better than about what prayer might actually accomplish. Praying may provide you with the comforting illusion of having done something, but in fact you’ve done Absolutely. Nothing. Of. Substance.
If you really care, do something. Praying, or the secular version – “holding a good thought for you” – doesn’t count. Talk (and thought) is cheap; actions speak louder than – oh, don’t make me type it.
When HUL told me about her disease we cried and laughed and raged and cried and laughed some more. Here is what I will do for you, I told her, if you will let me, and if you need me to. The list is a work in progress, based in part upon what other kind friends, neighbors and co-workers have done for me in times of need. Like all such lists, it will and should be modified to fit the situation.
* Be there before, during and after surgery 
* Bring you healthful meals
“Get well soon, or more spam casseroles will be delivered to your refrigerator.”
* Clean your house, hold your hand, feed your cats (and scoop their litterboxes)
* Donate to reputable, efficacious  cancer research funds
* Send you links to really bad jokes and visual puns and baby sloth videos
* Rent you some DVDs for a Daniel Day Lewis film festival 
* Encourage you to document what you are going through…
About that last one. Although not a professional author, HUL is a pithy, articulate and entertaining writer, and I’ve urged her to record not only the logistics of her disease but her attitudes and reactions to it as well. However, I have promised to refrain from referring to her dealing with cancer as if she’s on some kind of spiritual excursion.
I just can’t help it: when I heard phrases like, “Tell us what you’ve learned from your journey with pancreatic cancer,” it makes me want to kick Oprah in the ovaries.
* * *
And Now For Something Completely Different
Department of Making It All Better
When I serve a dish containing Brussels sprouts – to anyone, but mostly to MH and moiself – I also serve champagne.
* * *
About Last Week’s Shirt
Receiving slightly less attention than the Rosetta mission’s landing of a probe on a comet was the PR meteor storm created by one of the project scientists. This scientist dude chose “the most important day in spaceflight since Curiosity landed on Mars” – a day when he was slated to be speaking about the project on a worldwide live-stream – to wear a tacky bowling shirt covered in comic book-style images of half-naked women.
Same dude also went on to describe the difficulty of the Rosetta mission: “She’s sexy, but I never said she was easy.”
Read this, for one of the more coherent takes on this brouhaha, including the dude’s  apology, and the (surprise!) internet-troll backlash aimed at those people  who called out the dude on his astounding inappropriateness.
“If you think this is just a bunch of prudes, you’re wrong. It’s not about the prurience. It’s about the atmosphere of denigration….. If you think this isn’t a big deal, well, by itself, it’s not a huge one. But it’s not by itself, is it? This event didn’t happen in a vacuum. It comes when there is still a tremendously leaky pipeline for women from undergraduate science classes to professional scientist. It comes when having a female name on a paper makes it less likely to get published, and cited less. It comes when there is still not even close to parity in hiring and retaining women in the sciences.”
(Phil Plait, Astronomer and “science evangelist,” from his Bad Astronomy blog)
Is that your comet probe or are you just excited to see me?
* * *
May your choice of bowling shirts be workplace-appropriate and face-palm-worthy-free, may well-meaning folks have no reason to pray for your recovery, may your cruciferous vegetables always be champagne-escorted, and may the hijinks ensue.
Thanks for stopping by. Au Vendredi!
* * *
 A Hawaiian healing ritual.
 A Native American practice involving cleansing a person with the smoke of sacred plants.
 The use of food and herbs to reestablish balance, based on a theory of wet/dry, hot/cold humors in the body.
 Yeah, I made that word up, but you know what I mean: crucifixes, rosaries, framed pictures of Jesus and saints and John F. Kennedy….
 and seemingly obligatory Facebook response to bad news.
 Like many a bewildered newcomer to American culture has done, and discovered that the Howareyou supplicant did not really want to hear about your latest triumphs and travails. Or, as one European traveler put it, “Why do Americans ask how you are when they don’t want to know? Why don’t they just say, ‘Hello’?”
 That would be: zero.
 Make sure your help is practical and actually wanted, and not yet another task for the afflicted to manage.
 HUL has friends lined up to help, and graciously deflected that offer…although she’s made me promise to fly out for her “Yay, I’m all better!” or “I need more treatment, so kiss my hair goodbye!” party – whichever one she throws.
 Check out any and all charities to make sure they are legitimate and use funds wisely (Charity Navigator and Givewell are just two of the organizations that provide such evaluations), and fuck the Susan Komen industry ’cause festooning your body with plastic pink crap made in China does not cure breast cancer.
 Do not underestimate the power of watching your favorite movies featuring your favorite, fine-looking actors – ’twas repeated showings of Last of the Mohicans, not the antibiotics, that cured my pneumonia, I truly believe, brothers and sisters (somebody say, Amen!).
 Nah, I won’t use his name. I don’t think he was evil or even (consciously) misogynistic, just incredibly puerile.
 Every sentient being with an IQ larger than their hat size and their heads out of the sand (and not up their asses) – which I assume is an accurate description for y’all.