briefly, returning to milwaukee, a place that does not exist

Last month, I took my birthday off and made the short trek down to Milwaukee by myself, where I visited the hospital where I was born (hey, I hadn’t been back since!), went down to the lakefront and explored the Saarinen-designed War Memorial and, of course, went to Miller Park for the last Brewers home game of the season.

Milwaukee is where I was born, where my extended family was for many years and where I find myself existentially renewed. I love that area deeply, but it is not my own. I wasn’t raised there; my experience of Milwaukee is almost entirely as that of a tourist. It is no different than having affection for Disneyland by virtue of having been there many times, but having never worked there or even lived in Orange County. (And there’s nothing wrong with that. I love Disneyland.)

Though Milwaukee is imprinted on me, it is not mine. More to the point, my Milwaukee does not exist. It was never mine.

A return to Milwaukee is, for me, a return to innocence, to go back to a point in my life where I could hope and dream for anything. It is ultimately a negation of my self, or perhaps an exercise in self-pity. The siren song of escapism.

I was raised in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, a mid-sized city almost directly in the middle of the state. My feelings toward it are mixed at best. Had I grown up in Milwaukee, my guess is that I would feel similarly toward it as I do my actual hometown. It’s easy to long for things as they exist in our minds as opposed to things as they are. We prefer the delusion of fantasy to the soul-crushing inevitabilities of the real. We prefer ideology to mutual understanding, selfish lust to selfless love. We prefer to escape the present for a romanticized nothing.

No one is innocent. Everyone has a Milwaukee, a Shell Beach, a Zion. And everyone has never actually been to those places, because the jurisdiction of those places end where the mind ends.

And within our own minds, lost and detached from real relationship with real people–fraught with love and loss and risk of both–is no place to be.

I love you, Milwaukee, but you are not mine.

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briefly, on the meaninglessness of cable news

While CNN rages on one side, and Fox blusters on another, both share an inauspicious culpability. We may call it the boys who cry news.

One screen shows BREAKING NEWS, though the news is not actually breaking: the facts were first broken earlier this morning. The other shows ALERT, even though the matter being discussed is not worthy of disrupting my day.

It’s enough to make one long for the pre-news channel days, when special report carried more significant weight than a show hosted by Bret Baier.

Then again, NBC broke into the programming schedule of affiliates nationwide to report on Steve Jobs’ death in 2011.
First tabloids imitate news, then news imitates tabloids, then we can’t tell the distinction.

The tyranny of the urgent, we must do this, have to do that, can’t get through today without the other thing. Cynically, the news channels shout ALERT! when there is no alert, begging us to pay attention in the hopes that we fall in line and pay attention to the next commercial break, for schmucks to hawk their cheap wares (or investment gold).

Certainly, there are serious, vitally important matters which demand the attention of concerned citizens everywhere. Ferguson, the Ukraine, Gaza, Iraq, China, Washington: from the McDonald’s in Missouri to the White House, all are deserving of the scrutiny of a free, intrepid press, as well as the free exchange of ideas and opinions as is afforded to a liberal democratic society.

Instead, we get Gretchen Carlson’s crazy eyes, Carol Costello a hair’s length from going berserk at any given time (a sight even funnier muted, as it is here in the workplace), blustering talking heads bloviating their biases. One needs not shout fire in a crowded theater (who can afford to go to the movies? And who really wants to?); merely put BREAKING NEWS above the crawl and you get the same result.

The modern era in the tyranny of cable news began as an expression of 9/11 anxieties and we are now beholden to it for everything, as evidenced by the incessant crawl, constantly pooping out new data for us to ignore.

New data for us to ignore. When the real news breaks, we respond not with outrage, but a shrug.

director’s cut: epilogomena: a prospectus

Throughout the month of December, two long-time readers are choosing some of their favorite posts to revisit celebrating five years of sailerb. This post is recommended by Andrew Burt, and I encourage you to visit and follow his blog, Snobbin. Enjoy! –b.

***

Originally posted November 16, 2011

One of the areas of research in which I take most pride from my time in grad school is in, um, something I made up. Kinda.

I have rebelled some from my fundamentalist, Pentecostal upbringing; not so much as walked away from my faith–though I reject faith’s common definition qua Hebrews as adequate for the Christian experience, another conversation for another day–but have repudiated a lot of the things they strangely hold as non-negotiable. Amongst these things I’ve turned down, which may not necessarily be surprising based on prior work around here, has been any notion of eschatology, or the [Christian] study of the last things. That rejection actually took place close to a decade ago, but what I have noticed either in religious studies work or in a cursory glance at American culture, is that if the rise of fundamentalist Christianity 150-160 years ago bequeathed anything to America at large–and perhaps even beyond–is its anxiety manifested in its doubling-down on being right, courtesy doctrinal mechanisms like the rapture, tribulation, judgment, even, to an extent, hell.

If anyone doubts this, remember Y2K, An Inconvenient Truth, the bellyaching over the collapse of America, Occupy Wall Street, even in places as seemingly unrelated as the NBA lockout or when a popular show comes to a planned or unexpected end (respectively, cf., The Sopranos finale and, as of today, Community.) For in these, as well, there is an eschatological concern writ large. I suggest this is unhealthy, and christened it in 2009 as epilogomena: the morbid obsession we have with last things.

[Of course, Community remains on the air, somewhere between being a network afterthought and ignored by the public at large. Similar with cult shows Chuck, Heroes and Veronica Mars, amongst a slew of others I forget off the top of my head, when faced with an almost certain network axe, viewership gets very passionate and very defensive. Whatever shall we do without our favorite progrums? Also, see a few paragraphs below.]

In applying Paul Tillich’s emphasis on faith as the expression of one’s ultimate concern–a governing principle that really makes for great bedrock for a philosophical system–fundamentalists failed in expressing their ultimate concern as living out any sense of the Great Commission, rather, they were interested in being right about the way things were ending: neo-Pentecostalism itself was a manifestation of epilogomena in that its very existence was predicated on an [ultimately flawed] eschatological dispensationalist worldview through Joel and Peter in Acts: that the manifestation of the charismata was the beginning of the end.

Epilogomena, then, runs counter to existential notions of responsibility: obsession with the end negates ones efficacy in the present. In focusing on the conclusion, we abandon in the now, pleas to live with, say, compassion and justice in mind now are foregone in our desire for an expected conclusion, if Jesus comes back, and I’m in the movie house, then I’m not going! (Think about that for a moment: an expected conclusion. Aren’t we generally unimpressed with milquetoast endings?)

[One of my all time favorite YouTube clips outlining this can be found here. Still priceless, still the smoking gun against the Rapture.]

In the original work I did on epilogomena, I examined The Truman Show through this lens, arguing how the film itself was a, wittingly or otherwise, social commentary on endings. Indeed, this became the principal theme of the film as soon as we see Sylvia’s button. (“How’s it going to end?” I like your pin; I’ve been wondering that myself.) And what happens at the end of the film? All that experience, all the investment the audience had in the show, all the swag bought, advertising dollars raked in and cheering as Truman exits the stage, and the station goes off the air. Yeah, let’s see what else is on.

[EDITORIAL ASIDE: While I’m here, concerning the aforementioned fiat cancellation of Community, it should be noted that, according to reports, it was drawing only a fraction of the audience of the show airing in the same time slot on CBS, The Big Bang Theory. A show written for dorks getting trumped by a show about dorks. Imagine that. Guess who’s watching what? Or, more to the point, who watched what?]

[In case you didn’t notice, I was a huge fan of Community and not so much of Big Bang. The script since then has flipped: since the Dan Harmon-NBC-Chevy Chase fiasco, I, like many discovered TBBT in reruns and streaming. The real revelation there is that Kaley Cuoco is among the best comedic actresses working today.]

The main thrust here is that we as a culture have the endgame in mind more than we have any sense of bearings with regard to the present moment. We want to lose weight without effort, die rich while doing as little as possible now, have the rapture show up and get us out of this drudging existence, get as much money as possible out of franchise owners without regard to current economic context. Focusing on the ending short circuits our ability to be impactful or even remotely meaningful now. The ending then colors our perception of things now, if not outright manipulates them: see the myriad reports of tampering with evidence in global warming, Jack Van Impe and his ilk, saying anything and promising everything in order to win another term in office, abusing the scriptures to promote a doctrinal pyramid scheme, read the Cliffs notes instead of the book itself. At its core, epilogomena is Machiavellian scheming, that is to say, it is narcissism at its finest.In this culture, it is ubiquitous.

It is also, at its core, anti-philosophical: the Socratic method is to uncompromisingly follow toward the truth, wherever the path may lead us. Bacon reinforced this with the scientific method: to follow through toward a conclusion, affording us the opportunity to be wrong or, worse yet, to fail. Using an uncertain future to dictate the present is nothing short of manipulation. Now dictates the future. Always has, always will.

The sooner we get this straightened out, the sooner we can start to rebuild the walls of a crumbling civilization.

[Since my first academic work on Epilogomena, similar work has appeared everywhere from Scientific American within a month of my original presentation to Andy Greenwald’s Breaking Bad closing recap at Grantland just this fall, to River Song’s persistent teasing in Doctor Who. ‘Spoilers!’ Greenwald, for the record, is outstanding reading. Lots of interested and interesting people are keying in on the concept, in which case I say welcome to the end of the world party! Might I suggest reading my work concerning the Culture of Panic? One goes hand in hand with the other.]

director’s cut: empty chairs

Throughout the month of December, two long-time readers are choosing some of their favorite posts to revisit celebrating five years of sailerb. This post is recommended by Jon Gibson, and I encourage you to visit and follow his blog, Confessions of a Recovering P.K. Enjoy! –b.

***

Originally posted July 16, 2013

Our daughters were born early–earlier than the appointed early date on which they were supposed to be extracted–and, as a precaution, they spent some time in the neonatal intensive care unit. For nearly two weeks, we traveled the bowels of the local hospital, learned the ways of and gained insight into the inner workings of the hospital, nearly burned the skin off our arms from elbows to fingers with hand sanitizer and frequent hand washing, and discovered that the myth of hospital food, at least in that place, is a sacred cow that needs to be turned to chuck eye.

(For the record, the best club sandwich in town can be found in the Atrium Cafe at the west entrance of the facility. And the hands-down best house roast coffee is at the north entrance’s coffee shop. Sumatra and Ethiopia, together in roasted bliss? Yes, and amen, and blow that sho-fricking-far.)

[Both are still very much true.]

When the Sirviopocalypse first found their home in that high-security, highly-germophobic environment, wife and I looked around and found one of the most dichotomous rooms we’ve ever seen, compassionate and caring people, along with those who cling to despair as a way to keep hope alive. While, of course, I cannot go into detail, we were informed several times by the NICU staff that they liked having our girls there because they were relatively low maintenance. Their problem was with developing a suck reflex, while other little lives were having serious troubles getting started, wrapped in bandages and wires embedded, inserted and taped down, the slightest beep from a monitor sending staff at a powerwalker’s pace–running is verboten–to a bedside.

Along the way, we became familiar with several of the parents who were there, including the mother whose little boy was next to Girla. A kind of community of suffering and despair formed there, though we never actually learned her name until the day the twins were released to come home. At first, she would give that courtesy smile to us, and it’s hard not to infer into it that completely understandable parental envy of knowing that those girls are only here as a formality. But my heart broke for her and her little boy, born far too soon, fighting to develop and grow and catch up with the rest of the month-olds; her, reading religiously to her son, sitting at his side for hours on end. The father, back home, working and traveling at some length to spend even a few moments with his child when he could. As we grew more familiar, that smiling-through-the-teeth gave way to genuine warmth. She even caught herself laughing at a few of my jokes I was making with my wife and the nurses there and that community of mutual struggle and despair gave way to mutual strength and camaraderie.

[A search for his name online proved fruitless. No news is good news, I suppose. If you are so inclined, please make a donation to the Ronald McDonald House Charities next time you’re at McDonald’s. And, if you’re against big fast food, get over yourself for a moment, buy a fricking cheeseburger and donate the difference. They allowed little boy’s mama to be close and that, to me, is more awesome than the mystery of what exactly makes up Chicken McNuggets.]

It was otherwise a fairly routine place, save for the day we’d come in to find that one of the beds would be gone, the whiteboard chart cleared off, chairs empty. Only two conclusions then can be made: one, the baby is healthy enough to come home, or, the baby wasn’t. Either envy or dread, neither particularly comforting nor virtuous.

And then, one day ten days ago, our place there was vacated. We gathered our things, said our goodbyes, told little baby next door and his mother we were rooting for them both and praying for continued health and development, and then made our exit. It felt more like a walk of shame: eyes all on us as we made our way out, parents and nurses smiling along the way as we passed little babies found through no fault of their own in most precarious positions, feeling guilty for being released from that place. The double doors never took so long to close and open. How can we leave a place filled with so many emotions, so much struggle? It feels like betrayal in a way, even though we’re not doing anything wrong. We celebrate the lives with which we’ve been trusted, and the sleepless nights, poopy diapers, cursed burp cloths that are never anywhere to be found, impending medical bills. We count it all joy because of the babies we’ve been hoping for over the past four or five years of wanting, trying and failing.

[Girlb ended up having to be readmitted to the pediatrics unit, after she developed early stages of NEC. She was there for a week, undergoing ‘bowel rest’. You can imagine how horrifying it is to be a parent there with your new baby, and not being allowed to feed her. wife, the trooper that she is, and being the far stronger half of our marital union, endured many nights of screams and cries. I could barely handle one. Girlb shows no signs of NEC and is probably being Dragon Baby right now. We are grateful.]

Any evidence we were there is all but gone, but our hearts very much remain with those, both new and old, who still are fighting for their lives. I extend my gratitude to the nurses and physicians who tended to our little girls, as well as the parents who were gracious enough to share their lives with us as we endured together toward everyone’s well-being.

There are myriad new parents in that hospital who will never know the despair of seeing a little one on a respirator and having fat emulsions; they may never even know these babies and parents are there in a sequestered room deep within the hospital. They will come and go, going about their lives worrying about a scratch or a bruise, having never pleaded with God to intervene in dire circumstances when an infant balances on the edge of life and death. They are blessed by being so fortunate, and cursed by being naive to the suffering of other parents who are not afforded such unheralded luxuries.

We had to be there, but we didn’t have to be there. As a result, we fall somewhere betwixt the two, perhaps the most difficult place of all.

[Every time we drive by the hospital, we say a prayer and think of the parents who are, especially now, suffering with the anxiety of a little life in the balance. Before Thanksgiving, we drove by and were both particularly hard hit by the realities of NICU life, especially during the holidays.]

[Also, still no word on our neighbor boy as of the reposting date. No news remains good news. If you are a NICU parent or veteran of NICU stays past, I salute you and pray peace for your family and health for your little ones.]

I spent parts of today working on a post. That post was not materializing as I had hoped, so, instead of trying to polish that poop into something that would never resemble a diamond, I trashed it, because I respect myself as a writer and, more importantly, I respect you as readers.

Be back soon with something worth your time. Cheers.

briefly, the first 100

Over the weekend, this little blog space reached a milestone: 100 followers.

In finance, they say the first million is the hardest: after that, each successive million is easier to earn than the last. In the same way, once I hit 100 subscribers, now I’m seeing regular new adds, from places the world over.

Among the highlights for me have been getting Freshly Pressed–‘running with scissors’ continues to get hits months after the fact–the one time I got noticed by a bunch of fairly militant atheists a few years back, the time a long-time friend told me my blog was unworthy of his time, defending a good friend from a dire situation, and, of course, the kind words people have commented or e-mailed me privately, along with the conversations some posts have generated along the way. Feel free to comment your personal favorite posts, if you’re so inclined. I’d love to see what you liked!

In short, I’m overwhelmed. It’s gratifying and humbling to know there is an audience who appreciates the vast–some might say ADD-level–array of topics I try to cover as thoughtfully and critically, with a dash of honesty and humor and as much goodwill as possible. Thanks for following, for reading, for liking on facebook–click the box to the right if you haven’t yet!–and for sticking around. You are all very much appreciated.

On to the next 100. From there, who knows?

Regards to you all the world over,

–b.