briefly, the 25th hour of parenthood

The 25th Hour is a novel by David Benioff–later adapted by Spike Lee into a film starring Edward Norton–a vignette of a man’s final moments of freedom before reporting to prison for a seven-year sentence. In those ultimate hours, he spends the evening with two friends, contemplates the choices that brought him to this point.

Tomorrow, wife and I send the girls off for their first day of 4K. Granted, it’s only three-ish hours a day, but it’s their first first day of school and, after this, they won’t have a last first day of school for at least 14 years. I will be approaching 50 years old then.

We spent years trying and failing to have children, then we ended up with the beans, and things were good. They weren’t going to school for years. Then Don August showed up, which was cool. Not easy, not by a long shot, but cool. Well, time being what it is, slipped away and here we are, toddlers who don’t toddle, armed with backpacks and heading off to school tomorrow.

We knew it was coming. We tried to prepare for it. And then, I realized that their last first day of school will be at least 14 years from now, and I will be approaching 50 years old.

And that’s when I realized my life is over.

I’ve been having a hard time reconciling myself to that fact. From here, it’s parent-teacher conferences, something resembling organized sports, extracurricular activities: for the first time in my life, I told the girls, sans irony, to get ready for bed because it’s a school night.

IT’S A SCHOOL NIGHT.

How did I get here?

Our adventures seem like they were eons ago. Weren’t we just in Kansas City? Wasn’t I just in grad school? Didn’t I write that incendiary column at the Northern Light last semester?

The only semesters that matter anymore are at a grade school attended by my children. If it wasn’t about me before, it’s definitely not about me now.

This is where I’m at. I’m done, and I have to make my peace with it. Maybe I’ll do a Coffee With Dead People on myself! Or perhaps it’s epilogomena!

Maybe I’m just being melodramatic–particularly to those who aren’t here (or aren’t here yet)–or some wiseacre who has been here before just reads this smiling and nodding, but there is an eerie sense of finality here that I was not anticipating, and I didn’t even necessarily feel when I was first introduced to my offspring or even when I got married. This is weird!

So, I will go to bed (I’m really, really tired, can’t you tell?) and wake up tomorrow (I took the day off for the occasion) and we’ll take pictures of the girls with their sign and we’ll take them to their classroom.

After that, we’ll probably go grab some breakfast: two dead people–with a cute, mulleted mini-me in tow–wondering how it all came to this.

And life will keep marching on.

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coffee with dead people: chuck barris

Chuck Barris died Tuesday in, of all places, Palisades, NY. The songwriter, author, television producer/emcee and cultural lightning rod was 87.

Most may not know that he wrote the post-Golden Age of Radio single “Palisades Park”, or that he worked behind the scenes on American Bandstand and was in no small part influential in the rise of what we know as reality television. Most know him in one of two ways: One, as the central character in the 2002 film adaptation of his self-professed unauthorized autobiography Confessions of a Dangerous Mind; or two, not entirely removed from the first, as the cracked-out host of the cracked-out late 1970s *ahem* talent program The Gong Show. 

He gave us any number of pop cultural icons and curiosities, launching the immortal Bob Eubanks from radio disc jockey to near-ubiquitous television presence for the better part of twenty years, to early exposure for a very youthful Paul Reubens, to giving David Letterman some of his earliest appearances as a celebrity judge on The Gong Show. He might not have been a kingmaker per se, but his work shaped a lot of American television culture to the present day.

Barris showed the world what an introvert looked like when faced with success, a national audience and a multi-camera studio. Or, perhaps, he really was cracking under the pressure of being an international man of mystery and assassin. Or, perhaps, drugs (a claim Barris vehemently denied to his death.)

The Gong Show was an early part of the lineup back in the days when USA Network ran blocks of old game shows every weekday afternoon. We lived in the suburban Twin Cities before cable became commonplace; my father got one of those enormous satellite dishes so that he could watch the Packers out of market. So, my brother and I were exposed to far more of the 1970s than I probably should have been.

And yet there we would be, in that ebullience known only to the young, dancing along to Gene Gene the Dancing Machine. Those memories are some of a scant few I have when my brother and I were both children. That joy still welled up when Central Wisconsin finally got Game Show Network and Gong was on every night at 10pm. That joy came back when I found Gene Gene compilations on YouTube last week.

Barris was also an accomplished author. Confessions is one of my favorite books (certainly not for the faint of heart), and The Game Show King is one of the better memoirs I’ve read. After Gong went off the air in 1980, he largely disappeared from public life, moving to France before returning to the States in his latter years. He never fully recovered from the loss of his daughter to a drug overdose, and four years of consistent on-screen delirium will suck the life out of anyone, much less someone who never wanted to be on that end of a television camera.

He might not have been a saint, he might not have been responsible for the downfall of Western Civilization (at least not entirely), but he gave me some of my earliest and most favorite memories, and now the coffin of my childhood is fast running out of space for the added nails.

The end of both the film and book is an uncomfortably apropos way to conclude:

I came up with a new game show idea recently. It’s called the old game. You got three old guys with loaded guns on stage. They look back at their lives, see who they were, what they accomplished, how close they came to realizing their dreams. The winner is the one who doesn’t blow his brains out. He gets a refrigerator.

resolutions and resolve: dispatch from the bread line, day 19

The sun is setting on this 2,013th cycle of the Gregorian calendar, and our situation is growing more critical.

It’s becoming more and more obvious that The Man did me no favors by canning me when they did. The holidays have unquestionably slogged what should be an otherwise fast and furious job search. My concerns a week ago are being realized today, and I’m justifiably anxious as to how limited our options are becoming.

Here at the end of the year, millions of people set out to make changes in the hopes of the next year being better than the one that just ended. (Epilogomena manifested, perhaps?) Resolutions are for those who are tired of the status quo, and many of us are. That said, our resolutions are often in vain because we are enslaved to that state of affairs and, ultimately, prefer the stasis of ‘normal’ to the indefinable unknown. Our status quo got upended about three weeks ago, in this state of limbo, we are not afforded the luxury to resolve anything, we are only permitted to do what we can to merely survive.

If existence precedes essence, then what is this?

Once again, I am reminded that, like Penelope in the epic ancient drama, to wait is to defy convention. It takes a person of extraordinary resolve to hold out hope, even against all odds, for the best scenario to play out. Suitors came and went, easy outs presented themselves and exited accordingly. The strength to remain firm in conviction is extraordinary, particularly in our day. A resolution to maintain resolve, then, is perhaps the perpetual motion needed to reclaim our rights as masters of our own destiny.

Nothing really changes when the sun rises on tomorrow. New years are nothing new, winter will eventually give way to the warmth of spring and the cycle of life will keep on rolling. The persistence of existence contrasted to the machinations of supposed civilization show just how committed we are to the artifices of culture and normal. In vain we try to shape or renovate normal; Sisyphus will have a better chance at getting that rock to the plateau than we will to redeem normal. It’s still artificial, still a chasing after the wind. If anything, I’ve learned two lessons during a holiday season without an employer:

1) Truly, family and friends matter more than gifts or galas. Though the stresses of the job search have weighed on me, I have thoroughly enjoyed the blessing of being with family and loved ones, perhaps more so because our expectations were eliminated to begin with. The gifts we received were graces given and received in kind, and ultimately secondary to the fact that presence are more important that presents. (Feel free to groan. It’s OK–I lobbed that one up like a beer league softball.)

2) Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”

And he said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And which of you by being anxious can add [three feet to his height]? If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you.

“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” — Luke 12.13-34 [ESV, with selected recapitulation in brackets]

Long story short: Resolutions are overrated. Resolve isn’t.

We’ll make it through, and be better for it.

***

Dispatches from the Bread Line are week-daily blog posts until I’m employed again. If you must revel tonight, sip from the top shelf; you have 364 other days to guzzle from the tap.

My best wishes to you all for 2014. Thank you for making this one of my most gratifying years writing to date, and I’m excited for next year. Be back Thursday. –b.

in praise of lebron james, the postmodern athlete

It was hard to miss last week, given all the media attention drawn to Miami, Florida during the 2013 NBA Finals. In what will be remembered as one of the finest NBA championships in memory, the Miami Heat triumphed in seven excruciating, compelling games over the San Antonio Spurs. In case you’ve been in a coma, the Heat have this one player, a certain LeBron James.

James happens to be the singularly most talented player the NBA has featured since Michael Jordan. The writer recognizes and appreciates his talent and the skill he’s clearly developed since coming into the league out of high school in 2003. James can play and defend any of the five positions on the floor, and is virtually unstoppable; there is no limit to what he may accomplish with the balance of his career, which could reasonably be another 12-15 years.

And while many, like me, recognize his ability, few like him. Shouldn’t this be the kind of guy we want to rally behind?

It was charming to see David Stern rig the lottery in ’03 to allow that James be drafted by his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers, but the Cavaliers provided him minimal help in the seasons James shouldered the burden of a team, fanbase and city that hasn’t seen a championship since the days of Jim Brown. (As a native son of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I empathize with the misery: the last championship in the 414 was the 1971 Milwaukee Bucks, led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson. Then again, the Packers are the state’s team.) James did lead the team to the Finals almost by himself, along with a guy nicknamed ‘Boobie’ who caught fire in the postseason and a bunch of others virtually unknown in casual fan circles. James even signed an extension to keep playing in Cleveland, a good faith move that was never fully reciprocated by ownership, and when the time came for James to choose where to go, he chose to join fellow star Dwyane Wade in Miami. He even took a paycut to do it. The best player in the league chose to make less money to put himself in the best possible position to succeed.

Hey, if the grass isn’t getting very green in your backyard, and it’s primarily because your roommate insists on peeing all over it for years, don’t you owe it to yourself to explore other places to call home? Hence, ‘The Decision’, a poorly-thought out, poorly-executed disgrace of a television special where James was to announce what he was going to do with the next stage of his career. (At least it extorted some money out of ESPN to help subsidize the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.)

Hence, an hour all parties involved (with the exception of the Boys and Girls Club) probably wish never happened: at this point, Sports America turned its back on James, Wade and Miami. The underdog we loved, the kid who was to be the savior of Cleveland created a supergroup in South Florida. So, when Miami beat Oklahoma City last year, they did so against the prevailing headwinds of a groundswell of support behind a supremely talented and likeable Kevin Durant–who will likely have the distinction of being in a Jim Kelly position when it’s all said and done. (That is, Jim Kelly, the Hall of Fame quarterback for the Buffalo Bills and not Jim Kelly, he of the legendary afro and jive talk in Enter the Dragon.) And this year, they wore the black hat against a San Antonio Spurs team with good guy and the new greatest power forward of all time Tim Duncan, a hobbled Tony Parker, née Longoria, the rotting corpse of Manu Ginobili and Danny Green as ‘Boobie’.

Truly, this series was full of the kind of drama only the theater of sport provides; the kind of prime fodder which fuels the wet dreams of any number of short-sighted and self-important sportswriters. And this particular era in basketball history is now officially LeBron James’ to define.

One would think that he would be a little more careful about the way in which the benchmark by which all future ball players will be defined would go about his business, but that assumes a cultural and even epistemic framework that doesn’t seem to fit so well anymore. Jordan was careful about how he went about his business and, to be fair, he was benefitted by a time when athletes weren’t scrutinized every waking moment of the day. So was every legend who played basketball before.

The modern age gave way to whatever came after, and LeBron is the athletic apotheosis of this age of whatever. King James is the postmodern athlete.

Under the weight of constant scrutiny, he finally wins the big one twice, and stands with his trophies adorned with a defiant scowl. His victory speech? “I’m LeBron James from Akron, Ohio. From the inner-city. I’m not even supposed to be here. That’s enough. Every night I walk into the locker room and see a number 6 with James on the back. I’m blessed. So what everybody say about me off the court don’t matter. I ain’t got no worries,” proclaimed LeBron Camus.

Many of us looked on and cringed, but this is the epitome of our time. LeBron isn’t ushering in the new spirit of the age, he is a product of it: endowed with uncanny ability and the self-awareness to proclaim it. After winning two titles in a row, is he not entitled to say what he wants?

No, he is not Jordan: Jordan worked very, very hard to become the Ruthian figure he is considered now and did not have the raw talent James can take for granted. Jordan was a fierce competitor, James wasn’t so interested in beating his rivals–Jordan is famed for saying how much he wanted to destroy all comers, including his otherwise friends–as playing with his buddies and seeing what they could do together.

We’re seeing what they can do, and we don’t like it. In reality, the problem isn’t with LeBron James; we, rather, are the problem.

I wrestled with this as the series unfolded, particularly when the Spurs crapped away Game 6 at the outset of the fourth quarter: here we are, openly choosing sides against the most talented player the NBA has seen in 20 years. Why are we choosing contra James? The Spurs were never compelling during their four championship runs before, what do we gain from cheering for the demise of the greatest? It’s the Iliad inverted, where Achilles’ downfall is to be celebrated rather than mourned or observed for the cautionary tale that it is. It’s epilogomena, placing a rooting interest in the aging Tim Duncan before his career comes to a close. It’s Schadenfreude the likes of which is found within dorks at the school’s playground when a bully gets his (or hers) or typically reserved for the Yankees.

The reality is that we are a very contradictory bunch: we love a good underdog story, but Americans aren’t underdogs. We loathe the empire building of sports teams while never understanding that America is an empire of its own. We hate corporate America but can’t do without our daily Star*ucks. (I can safely speak for myself when I say that I can do without bad, overpriced coffee, but you get the drift.) We love LeBron…as long as he’s in a small market and has to really work for any success.

No, LeBron is the hero here. He is the only one who can truly control his own destiny. We hate him (as in sports-hate) because he has something we generally don’t: the ability to shape the universe to his liking. Existence, for him, precedes essence. And, given the opportunity and the desire, he will opt out of his contract a year from now and return to Cleveland, to home and to our good graces. The narrative isn’t ours to dictate; in the same way that we’ve eschewed the old values and norms, for better or worse, we must respect the decision to want to succeed and the fact that he has done so should silence our ultimately unwarranted whining.

This is the postmodern age, and LeBron James is the postmodern athlete. We dislike him, not unlike the bully, because we dislike ourselves. Instead, we should appreciate the fact that he has overcome the burden of the talented and has come into immense and inordinate success becoming of his talent.

It’s a celebration. Enjoy yourself.

epilogomena rises

[Before proceeding, I would apparently be remiss to not mention that, since I’m touching on subject matter pertaining to a certain film which was released in theaters this weekend, what happened in Colorado was horrifying and despicable. As if the Denver area hasn’t suffered enough over the past fifteen years, or even the past few months, for that matter. Prayers go out for the families affected and for appropriate justice for the perpetrator. –b.]

The ads pimped it for months now, the posters, the web ads, everywhere, you couldn’t ignore it. Epilogomena at the box office. You undoubtedly saw it if you watch television, surf the interwebs or otherwise are in any way media savvy. They preyed upon your curiosity, and it will garner them millions of dollars in box office revenues and untold millions more in royalties, licensing and, finally, home video sales.

THE LEGEND ENDS.

I have not yet seen The Dark Knight Rises, but I thoroughly enjoyed the first two installments of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. Epilogomena could have, in fact, been telegraphed by the first film, indeed, the climactic third film plays off the inaugural title: why else Batman Begins? And I, like many others, look forward to seeing how the trilogy concludes, that is, when I have some liquid assets that can be burned at the box office and not in my gas tank. Still, the fact remains that the entire ad campaign predicates itself on the fact that our culture can be stoked and swayed on our anxieties over how a particular noun is going to end.

And we apparently will pay roughly ten bucks to find out. Endings make for big business.

A similar phenomenon happened earlier this blockbuster season with Joss Whedon’s The Avengers (forced in England to be rechristened as Marvel’s Avengers Assemble, to the confusion of most of us in America, but to my lasting appreciation for those like myself who don’t view pop culture as necessarily disposable) was released and crushed sales records, as it is in itself a form of epilogomena in that it took five major tentpole films–and post-credit Easter eggs, now de rigueur for Marvel, for the patient–to form a supergroup of a movie. (I haven’t seen that yet, either.)

[Those Easter eggs are an exercise in e, too, now that I think about it.]

So, epilogomena is big business, as The Truman Show tacitly informed us. We will pre-order tickets for it, abandon our lives and apparently truck our small children to a midnight showing to satisfy our morbid fetish with what happens to Batman. This morning, scores of adherents went to church and were told that the end of the world was imminent, or were, under bowed head and closed eye, asked to raise their hand if they didn’t know where they would go if they died tonight. Batman becomes a salvific figure–one reviewer of the film mentioned a potentially-deliberate allusion of the protagonist to the Messiah–in the same way that many view the Christ event as substitutionary atonement. The only difference is the color of the cape.

And all of this is entirely consistent with American culture throughout history; an unnamed Unitarian minister, via cultural critic Neal Gabler:  “We have seen it out here in the West, where beside our rivers and lakes our towns expand; the first petal it puts forth is the Church—the second is the theatre.”

To the question of whether all of this elevates the movie or debases the religious gathering, I answer, yes. Ultimate concern, friends. Ultimate concern. Why else the outrage over what happened on opening night? How is it any different from a madman shooting up a church on a Sunday morning, or an Islamic fundamentalist sect bombing an opposition mosque in the Middle East? To violate the sanctity of sacred space is unacceptable (just ask the Clan MacLeod.) All acts which are fundamentally un-human and morally deficient, but nonetheless telling. Nolan’s statement, though overall an appropriate extension of condolences, included the following: “The movie theatre is my home, and the idea that someone would violate that innocent and hopeful place in such an unbearably savage way is devastating to me.

And the faithful will undoubtedly be back next weekend, and perhaps throughout the week. Anytime the doors are open, it used to be said of the faithful religious. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if it’s a disposable rom-com, an epic conclusion to a well-executed trilogy of films or a film to which everyone already knows the ending (and has already seen it, no less!) If it has an ending, we want to know what it is. And we will order our lives in a way which allows for us to make it happen.

Epilogomena has risen, epilogomena has risen, indeed.

in passing

“We’re traveling in opposite directions. Every time we meet, I know him more, he knows me less. I live for the days when I see him. But I know that every time I do, he’ll be one step further away.” — River Song, Doctor Who, The Impossible Astronaut (2011)

We are always in the passenger seat of our own lives.

I don’t mean that in a God-is-my-pilot type of way, but the really, really deep truth is that life moves really, really fast. Sometimes, the trip takes us through beautiful country, sometimes it’s endless stretches of corn fields and the occasional neon barn cross, others road construction when the closest burg with a semi-functioning bathroom is 237 miles away. (Turn up the music and clench the legs until they cramp.)

I suffer from periodic episodes of wanderlust, so the governing idiom of this entry isn’t helping matters. There is a strong and growing stronger feeling in my head that I want to be on the road to work and, instead of getting off at the Campbell Ave. exit, keep driving. I’ve been to and seen a lot of the country, and certain parts of the nation beckon for me, while friends and family are now scattered across the four major time zones and beyond.

Distance, though, is arbitrary: I have friends and family with whom I am very close and they are miles or states away, while those close in proximity have tended to be more distant. Seldom do we find that the people nearby are near.

In reality, we are people who hitch a ride with one another for a while, and all we do is pass through each others lives. We have this notion–wonderful, idealistic proposition that it is–that our friends will always be with us, our family will always be there and that where we’re going is completely worth the trek getting to it. I’m not here to say that this is ridiculous or impossible, it’s not. However, even the most intimate friend, the one one loves, is only with a person in passing.

The ’27 Yankees eventually became the 1930 Yankees, which eventually became the 1966 Yankees, while the 1971 Brewers eventually became the 1982 Brewers, who became the 2001 team who became the 2011 club. Glam rock bands tour the world with only one original member, others have the decency to give up the ghost. Great stories come to an end. Everything ends. Teams relocate, business collapse, athletic legends retire, bands break up, radio stations change formats, marriages end one way or another, authors stop writing and churches get assimilated into the satellite borg while becoming Sunday morning television-watching hotspots. And you and I will, too, end.

In the meantime, we travel. I’m not so cynical as to say all we do is enjoy the scenery and the occasional conversation, but eventually, the destination is reached. The race is run. That which begins must conclude.

Ironically, it is the finitude of life which gives rise to immortality. The timeless, memorable (both for better or worse) nouns are such because they are merely segments of existence. In the same way, the more prolific nouns are often prone to being cheapened: the same band that recorded Achtung Baby recorded No Line on the Horizon. Dave Chappelle had two transcendent seasons of his sketch comedy series before bailing out on season three because he wasn’t pleased with his own work. The same writer who penned The Green Mile wrote scores of second-rate novels and stories in addition to some of his best work. (For my money, my favorite work by Stephen King is On Writing. I don’t think he is a particularly great writer, but that was engaging and memorable far beyond much of his oeuvre. Go fig.) Soderbergh should have stopped making movies after Ocean’s Eleven. The aura around Robert Johnson is that his complete recorded work fits on two compact discs, while Elvis, the king of rock and roll, descended into self-parody before he was done in on the throne.

The moral of these cautionary tales is that some is good, and more is seldom better. The sure path to being remembered is to realize in what we do with our lives that we are temporary. To recognize that we have limits, that each of us has an exit that must be taken to reach our respective destinations. We drive and are driven, we bring people along for parts of our sojourn, we are responsible for the company, making sure we have enough gas money and that the mixtape is suitable for the long haul.

So, I could take the highway past work tomorrow and end up eventually in Louisville, or I could follow the old route 66 up to Chicago (…but why?) or follow it south and west to Santa Monica. Or I could realize that I’m not the one driving, and those who are riding with won’t always be there, while others were left a few exits back and others still yet to come along.

And, sometimes, we realize the people we thought we were traveling with, like River Song and the Doctor were really just heading the other way and that what we thought was a destination was really a rest stop. Sometimes, the stops along the way are the most meaningful parts of the trip because they were not the destination.

In short, this too shall pass.

POSTSCRIPT: Upon further review, this post is reminiscent of and thus now linked to my work on epilogomena. For more, read here, here and here. –b., 9.55 pm

romance in the age of mindless hook-ups

We are a civilization, whether or not we realize it, obsessed with narrative. We have a desire–I know not if it is inherent or merely deeply entrenched in our collective psyche–to be a part of a story, to write our own stories, to be subject to things like fate, destiny, divine ordination. Being a part of the story, or feeling like the work is being written as we go about our business, gives us a sense of security, knowing that we are congruent with the wishes of a higher order.

Such notions are, by definition, romantic. We are a romantic people, and romance is not exclusively the province of roses and doe-eyed adoration of an ideal partner, living happily ever after. Romance, rather, is the sense that we are a part of something transcendent, part of a story.

That said, ‘romance’ carries many connotations, including the commonly understood boy-meets-girl kind of romance we have pimped to us every 14 February, or the sense some of us have of being a person of purpose or destiny, or the awe one feels when seeing the ocean or the Grand Canyon for the first time. It’s the sense of connectedness with something. With someone.

What is often too overlooked when we think of romance is that, often, what is at its essence most romantic is merely companionship. And mere companionship is much, much more than simply going the same direction for a segment of life’s journey.

“You could come with me.” — the [Ninth] Doctor to Rose Tyler, Doctor Who

“It is not good that the man should be alone.” — God, Genesis 2.18 [ESV]

Even the very creation story–note the noun–has embedded in it the need for a companion. Adam is not complete without Eve, and God is incomplete without a partner in creation. Those who argue for the trinity–umm…that might be another topic for another day–would go so far as to say that the triune God demonstrates the need for relationship as an a priori principle.

Also note that it is not merely enjoyable to have a person around, but there is imperative language in God’s caption: it is not good that the man should be alone. Male gaze aside, when we lack deep, meaningful relationship in our lives, we are not only incomplete, but something less than good. While there is something to be said for the classic American rugged individualist ethos, no one has done anything of meaning, be it historically, mythologically, culturally or otherwise, in a vacuum.

Maris had Mantle, Dr. Frankenstein had Igor, Tristan had Isolde, Brutus had Cassius, Jesus had disciples, Jordan had Pippen, David had Jonathan, Michael Corleone had Tom Hagen, C-3PO had R2-D2.

Great stories are built upon great relationships. Even Chuck Noland had Wilson.

Doctor Who is a great example of the need for companionship. A Timelord whose entire civilization and planet was wiped out, the Doctor travels through time, but is perpetually lonely. He lives forever, but that immortality comes with the curse of existential isolation. While he is a superior intellect on his own, what allows the doctor to persist throughout the ages (and 11 incarnations spanning six decades on television) is who: the companions. He doesn’t fall in love with them–Rose Tyler excepted–but it’s the relationship and the commitment that allows ordinary people to do extraordinary things.

If you’re feeling like you could do more and be more with your life, and you’re not able to figure out why things are in neutral, take a look around and see who’s holding you back. There is no romance to be found in mediocrity.

“Cross your heart to take me when you leave; Don’t go without me.” — C’est la Mort, The Civil Wars

“Just don’t leave.”True Love Waits, Radiohead

In the moral inversion of modern culture, we do not seek the companionship which would lead to extraordinary things, but rather seek our own gratification. The culture reflects this sea change in relationality: songs and stories as a crude reflection of a pathetic sum of poorly- and cheaply-crafted club anthems, random hook-ups and walks of shame, all under a chemical haze. Even a song about marriage betrays the dispensable nature of a mate. (Looking at you, Bruno Mars.) The story no longer is about anything approaching epic, but about getting from one weekend to the next as efficiently as possible. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The stories which endure, lives which are made extraordinary, are not set in parties or clubs. Even Casablanca‘s pretext is chapters of relationship and co-existence before Rick encounters Ilsa in his Moroccan nightclub. (And Rick never ended up with Ilsa. Not to mention the loyalties formed amongst Rick, Sam, Renault and Laszlo.) If Han Solo never returned, the Death Star wouldn’t have been blown up (and, we would have never found out that Vader was Luke’s father.) Charles Foster Kane dies alone, his life a cautionary tale of pursuing wealth and power while leaving friends and loves behind.

This is also why betrayal is such a prevailing theme in cultural or religious narrative: the violation of a relationship elicits pathos from the third party. Fredo betrays Michael, Vader turns against the Emperor, Judas kisses Jesus, Absalom revolts against David. Whether we realize it or not, the romance of a lasting relationship is inherent throughout history, and particularly when it is turned on its head by insurrection. We are shocked or offended by betrayal because we uphold and value lasting, committed relationships.

Loyalty, then, is also taken for granted, until that kind of dogged commitment becomes the exclamation point. We are seldom truly committed to each other; more often than not, our closest ‘friends’ are those whom we tolerate the most. That is, until we tolerate them no more, at which point BFFs part company. We are no more companions than those who share the same row of seats in an airplane. When the destination is reached, we get our carry-ons and head for the baggage claim. One of Inception‘s most powerful shots is when the crew has arrived at LAX, and they disperse from baggage claim with little more than surreptitious glances at one another. To anyone else at the airport, it’s a bunch of people ready to get going. The audience knows better.

Finally, it’s not about the longevity of the relationship, but about depth and shared experiences. What convinces a person to not want to leave? What causes a person to stay? Years of knowing a person can and does get readily trumped by authentic understanding or by sharing life together. In fairness, these are not designed to be formulaic: rarely are all three present, while years can bring understanding or shared experience, experience and understanding can happen fairly quickly. Experience and years can go together, but two may never truly understand one another. Two may share years and have deep understanding, but may never share life together, creating a tragedy of ‘what if?’s. The presence of all three creates lives which are truly blessed.

“The pain now was the happiness then.” — Anthony Hopkins as CS Lewis, Shadowlands

And, when the time comes that a dear friend or love is taken from us, we hurt. We feel betrayed by the story or the author. Romance is a double-edged sword, as Hopkins’ Lewis so aptly puts it. Lewis is a tremendous example of all of the above: in a short time, he discovered a person who turned everything upside down. Joy Gresham was a friend and eventual love who deeply understood him off the bat. They shared life for a short while and she succumbed to cancer. The entire experience shook Lewis to his very core.

Loss, like betrayal, is a devastating thing, because the story goes on.

We take our health for granted until it is taken from us. We take our good times for granted because we exist so effortlessly when things are going well. Gratitude, a virtue seemingly non-existent in these times of disposable ecstasies, is only exercised when we’re bailed out of trouble. It is pain which, as Lewis put it, is a megaphone to a hurting world. Things are not right when we suffer: romance, that great and terrible fiction, endures in the loss of a loved one. That state of affairs is not right: companions ought not die. Life, experience, understanding–these things are often taken for granted until they are noticeably absent.

And we want those closest to us to come with us, to share life together in lasting–romantic–community, knowing full well that that which begins must necessarily end. Yet, we are not, in relationship, living in epilogomena but seeking to make the present moment as close to eternity as possible. This is where many Christians stumble, in seeking the blessings of eternal life–born again with the end in mind, mind you–we fail to realize that eternity is right now, and that there is no romantic quality to our relationship to God through Christ. Years go by with no understanding or extraordinary experiences, perfectly mediocre existence. (Bonhoeffer would be mortified at how the cost of discipleship has become thoroughly Walmart-ized: cheap, and cheaply made. And the time in the Sunday morning checkout line drags! I digress.)

We end up heartbroken because, when we love a person, that person becomes a part of one, and one of the other. And the pain of loss only reminds us that we had some wonderful chapters. But the story never ends, we go on, as do those we love, as we are their enduring legacy. Thus, we are to love both courageously and carefully.

So this is a call to reconcile ourselves to companions, to romance and to share life with one another courageously. To rediscover that we are a people capable of extraordinary things if only we bid farewell to the creature comforts of our current mediocre state. This Valentine’s Day, we should remember that the legend of St. Valentine’s is, indeed, romantic: giving his life so that others may live, and never backing down from his convictions. In fact, romantic love then is nothing more than the teaching of Christ: a person demonstrates no greater love than to lay one’s own life down for those whom one loves.

In the meantime, I have one request:

Come with me.