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Calvin and Sobs

A frigid winter, a sick dog, and an iPhone app called Pocket God prompt thoughts of John Calvin and an escape to the Caribbean. But can paradise make reality any less miserable?

Shalom Auslander
April 07, 2011
(Jonathon Rosen)
(Jonathon Rosen)

Bad news, folks. I’m afraid John Calvin may have been right: Things suck, and they’re not going to get better, because you suck, too.

I’m paraphrasing.


Of all the religious nutters to have been right about the nature of God and existence, Judgin’ Johnny C. is the worst one. Mohammed I can deal with (what happened between Isaac and Ishmael is their own shit, Mo; leave me out of it). Buddha would be great, of course, a hell of a lot better than the God of either Testament, Old or New. But if Calvin and Sobs was right, we’re all fucked.

My conversion began back in January, when my son downloaded Pocket God, a popular iPod app. “Infrequent/Mild Violence” warned the iTunes store, which was significantly better, I figured, than he was going to get with the non-pocket God. I sat beside my son on the couch, my dog Duke in turn beside me, and watched the boy play. Here’s the game: You play God, and you either torture or feed a group of endlessly hopeful Islanders. You are neither rewarded nor punished for your rewards or punishments, and there’s an endless supply of Islanders. I’m not sure, to this day, what the point of the game is. Good God, bad God, let’s call the whole thing off. It was snowing outside, though, again, as it seemed to have been doing every day since August, and watching the little tan-skinned Islanders on the iPod screen gave me an idea.

“Let’s get the hell out of here,” I said to my wife.

Duke looked up at me, thinking we were going for a hike.

“H word,” said my son without looking up from his screen.

“Where to?” asked my wife.

“I don’t care,” I said. “Somewhere warm.”

And so began the long wait for the beginning of March and our trip to a small island in the Caribbean. We watched as the snow piled up outside, as one storm passed and another arrived; icicles formed along the roofline so quickly that I couldn’t keep up; one grew so large that when at last it fell to the ground, it took out a section of our fence with it.

“Crap,” I said, looking out the window.

“C word,” said my son without looking up from his screen. I could hear the poor Islanders screaming in agony.

“Why are you being so mean to them?” I asked.

He shrugged. “It’s more fun,” he said.

The week before we left another series of storms blew across the Northeast, cancelling flights and shutting down highways. But when the day came for our trip, the skies were finally clear, the roads finally passable.

We arrived a few hours later in paradise, in Eden. The beaches were pristine and empty, the people friendly and helpful.

“Hello!” said the beaming taxi driver.

“Welcome!” said the sparkling hotel receptionist.

“Aye, Mon!” called Roger, the delighted beachside pot-dealer.

We had a wonderful few days. The trip was half over. This is where Calvin comes in.

I like Calvin because he didn’t mess around. Calvin was cold. He’s pure, unvarnished, unapologetic, religious extremism. He’s theological Jägermeister—not a little depravity, but total depravity. Unconditional election. Irresistible grace. Hardcore. His theology, basically, comes down to this: You suck. Totally. And there’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t pray to make things better, you can’t repent to make things better, you can’t do shit. It’s predetermined, and this is the predetermination: Frequent/non-mild violence, pervasive misery. utter disappointment. Rated 18+, if you live that long. If life seems to get momentarily better, it will soon get monumentally worse, because all your sins are belong to us. Homeostasis is a bitch, Mankind, but get used to it; the game started before you got here, and we’re not changing the rules now.

I admire that kind of honesty.

I bought a shitty little car a while back. “It is what it is,” the salesman said.

“A shitty little car,” I said.

He shrugged. “I ain’t gonna bullshit you,” he said. Paraphrasing Calvin. Slightly.

I was standing in the hotel bar when the first voicemail message came through.

“Duke,” said Suzanna, “is vomiting.”

Duke is 12-year old, pretty old for a Rhodesian Ridgeback. We buried his older sister a few months ago, and Duke hadn’t been all that interested in life lately. The best part of the movie was over, it seemed, and Duke didn’t want to stick around for the damned credits.

Suzanna is a tech for our vet, and she has been our dog-sitter ever since Duke was a pup. I phoned her back and left a message.

On the television above the hotel bar, I saw the word “Flood.” More storms were pounding the Northeast—snow, rain, the usual, just a lot more of it.

The following morning, Suzanna left another message. Duke’s eyes were yellow, as were his gums; she was worried about his liver, and wanted to know if she could bring him in for a few tests.

Sure, I said.

Later that morning, my neighbor emailed to tell me that our road had been washed away in the floods.

Away? I asked.

Away away, he replied.

Why are you being so mean to them?

It’s more fun.

The last day of our vacation, it rained. I spent the afternoon in the hotel bar, trying to write. Roger, the delighted beachside pot-dealer, joined me at my table with some of his local buddies; he had become something of a friend over the past week or so. I told him about Duke, and about the road that had washed away, and about our trip being over, and how I was dreading the flight home: TSA always stops me, I explained, because they think my name is Islamic, when I’m actually Jewish.

“That’s why they stop you,” he said.

“Because I’m Jewish?”

“Who do you think,” my jovial islander friend asked me, “was behind 9/11?”

“Me?” I asked.

They all nodded.

We arrived home at midnight. It was raining.

“Goddamn it,” I said.

“D-word,” said my son.

We parked at the bottom of the road, and I carried the bags, one by one, up the washed-away road to the empty house; Duke was at the animal hospital, being kept alive on an IV drip; his liver and pancreas, said the vet, “needed a rest.”

We buried Duke two days later. The excavator trying to repair our road was kind enough to dig a grave for him, in the frozen winter woods behind our house, beside the grave of his older sister.

“Build a man a fire,” said Calvin, “and he will be warm for a day; set him on fire and he will be warm for the rest of his life.”

Fuck you, John, I thought.

The following day, my son asked me if he could download a new game called Plants Versus Zombies.

“What happened to playing God?” I asked him.

He shrugged. “It got boring,” he said.

Well, I thought, there’s always that. Even if Calvin was right, and it sure seems like he might have been, there’s always the chance, slight as it is, that God will just get bored and leave us alone.

And the Islanders rejoiced, and they sang, and they danced, and there was much happiness in the land, for God had logged off, and didn’t even want the free update.

Yes. There is always that.

Shalom Auslander is the author of Foreskin’s Lament and the novel Hope: A Tragedy. He is also a frequent contributor to This American Life.

Shalom Auslander is the author of Foreskin’s Lament, Hope: A Tragedy, and most recently Mother for Dinner. His new memoir, Fehwill be published this July. He writes The Fetal Position on Substack, so make that seven Nazis.

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