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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Many, many years ago, in the springtime of my now-autumnal life, I worked for a man who was the first atheist I ever knew. Or if not the first I knew, the first who was blunt and open about it. He didn't care how anyone else thought, except that if someone said something like, "if there's a heaven," he'd say, "There's no heaven. When you die, you die." Not as if that's what he believed, but as if that's what he knew to be the truth.

He was the funniest person I ever knew. Not only could he tell long, involved stories that were funny all the way through and then hilarious when he got to the punch line at precisely the right moment, with exactly the right timing and inflection, but his daily random conversation was peppered with funny ad libs. He never tried too hard, reaching for the line that would make you laugh. It was just there, part of his verbal DNA.

He was smart, too. He ran a business that shouldn't have been a success but was, mostly because of his personality but also because he had an instinct for what people wanted, even if they didn't know it themselves. He was a salesman who told me, "Our job isn't to make the sale. It's to give the customers what they really need." He worked nearly as hard as talking someone out of buying the wrong thing as he did talking them into the right thing. Harder, probably, because the other came so naturally.

He was a good man. He believed in people, and he believed in doing right by them. He was also cynical, in the way intelligent people must be cynical. You can't see the world as clearly as he did and not be a cynic. He had a sense of what human nature was capable of, in every sense. He condemned evil actions and evil motivations, without believing that "evil" as an entity, tactile and measurable, existed at all. But he treated people with the respect they deserved, just for being human and doing the best they could.

He was an atheist, but Thanksgiving was his favorite holiday. It was, he said, the only "no-guilt" holiday, the only one where the only obligations were the ones you made for yourself. He could be grateful for all that he had, without believing in God, or whomever other people express their gratitude toward. I think of him every year at this time, and I always remember him with gratitude, for what he did for me and for the kind of person he was.

After several years together, he fired me. It was the right thing to do, although I didn't think so at the time, and we didn't talk for many years afterward. I wasn't very good at doing the job. I had ascended to a level above my capabilities, at least at that time in my life. I was costing him money, which meant it was affecting other employees. Late in his life, we reconciled, somewhat. I'm glad we did, and I'm fortunate to have had him as a mentor and friend during years when I needed just that.

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