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.

Advertisements

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.

briefly, on being replaceable

As society further commodifies people, moving us from who toward what, it can readily be noticed that, while we lament how people have turned to cattle in so many ways in terms of the workforce, we have no apparent issue with turning people into hamburger in our personal lives.

Moo.

Continue reading

briefly, an opening day devotional

I bared my soul yesterday to a co-worker I hardly know at all. I did not realize it at the time. It is wasted if left there. It is possibly less-wasted here and is presented unedited.

***

Apr-3 4:20 PM

For me, it’s love. I stopped playing baseball when my parents moved us from Plover to Stevens Point (and the uniforms in Point’s Little League were generic and lame, while Plover’s were actual kiddie ML kits, stirrups and all. I was stupid; some things never change.)

I lost interest in baseball, then went to college in Minnesota, where I lived about three blocks from the Metrodome. The Twins, who were execrable for years, started making the postseason (Johan Santana, Torii Hunter, before Mauer and Morneau.) October baseball, and living in that for a month one fall, made me swoon.

I started reading the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel daily, following the Brewers, who were in those years, charitably described, utter and complete butt. I write and occasionally turn a decent phrase, so I got suckered into the writers there (Haudricourt, Drew Olson, Dale Hoffmann, then Bob McGinn, Cliff Christl and the Packers writers.)

Baseball somehow tied itself into the deepest part of my soul. It’s love.

***
Whatever noun connects itself to the deepest part of your soul–your natural talent or gifting, a place that sinks deeply into your conscious, a person who makes you feel like half-person, half-chasm without them–that noun is only there because it is rooted in love.
Don’t ever risk those nouns.

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.

waging war on salary

Everything is rooted first in an idea. Seldom are things what they are–seriously, it is what it is is a phrase that needs to be obliterated outright–rather, they are anchored by presupposition, predicate events, definitions, etc.

The present is inextricably linked to the past. Nothing exists in a vacuum. (Come to think of it, isn’t that a brilliantly redundant sentence?)

With recent fiat regulatory changes to the nature of pay for exempt (read: salaried) work authorized by the erstwhile presidential administration, then stayed by a federal judge in Texas, the nature of exempt versus non-exempt work briefly became a point of conversation. In short, exempt workers earning less than $47,476 in salary were to be paid overtime as though they were non-exempt (read: wage-earning) workers.

The first glance take by many was, ‘Cool! MONEEZ!’ And that would make sense, since, hey, who doesn’t like more money? In a sustained economic climate of flat average wages and inflation, it could be seen as government throwing the gray collared class a bone.

A deeper look at the matter, though, showed the rule change for what it is: a bureaucratic and logistical nightmare for businesses and employees. Employees who were not adjusted to above-threshold pay levels would essentially lose their exempt status, the trade-off for more money being meticulously tracking time as though they were not salaried at all. Employers artificially bumped entire sectors of their business, creating a new, unintended impact to the bottom line, putting some employers in a position where they had to cut payroll to keep the books level.

<.<

>.>

[Hmmm? Oh, I didn’t say anything. Sorry.]

***

These kinds of wholesale changes are almost unilaterally nothing more than cynical pandering. Attempts to jack the minimum wage don’t just cause headaches for small business owners, but they push entire segments of the workforce closer to poverty as the other mechanisms are triggered within the economy adjust to the new baseline. Flat wages lend themselves to flat revenues; starve someone long enough and they’ll eat anything that looks like food. (Hey, they’ll get your vote, too.)

And this is what happens when we fundamentally misunderstand wage and salary. This is neither an economic nor math problem: arbitrarily rewriting numbers higher–even for the most well-intentioned (assuming noble motivation) reasons–does nothing productive when we don’t even comprehend what it is being changed.

Salary and wage are ideas. Salary is more or less an allowance: rooted in the Roman military tradition of paying salt-money in exchange for continued service. It is a forward-thinking payment that sets out to make above and beyond work worth a person’s while. Wage, on the other hand, is a reward for work already done. It is recompense for the past.

Salary, in essence, buys off a person’s commitment to a standard schedule where it is made worth a person’s while to not be confined to a shift. Wage, in contrast, is offered with clearer baseline expectations. (Anyone else ever work in an environment where overtime was discouraged, if not penalized?)

Neither are necessarily bad: some people prefer income stability, while others prefer the budgeted schedule and the chance at making a little more here and there. Some employers prefer people to not worry about the clock, others need to maintain a bottom line. It depends on the business and type of activities within it.

The problem is that workers and managers alike also seem to misunderstand this as much as, if not more than, government bureaucrats and the wage-hike cheerleaders. Salary is not designed to be abused and make people work 50-70 hour work weeks; that is an abuse of workforce and bad faith. Similarly abusive are environs where workers are either subjected to repressed wages or otherwise obligated to work overtime on a regular basis.

Simply jacking salary or wage numbers doesn’t address the actual problems however far beneath the surface. Raising the exempt overtime threshold, or the minimum wage, does not reconcile anything.

If anything, it amplifies fundamental misunderstandings and makes bad situations worse: a jerk of an entrepreneur who expected 80 hours of work per week from an exempt employee for $40,000 will expect that much more from someone when they have been required a nearly 20% raise by bureaucratic decree. That same jerk will either cut working hours or workforce entirely when wage obligations reach an unsustainable level. These are not merely math problems: they’re philosophical problems.

The part about Smith’s Wealth of Nations that people seem to overlook is that the name of the book has nothing to do with capital or capitalism. He’s pretty clear on this point, before laying out–in most comprehensive detail–his capitalist treatise: the wealth of nations is in the goodness of its people. The title is an irony. And, while I quickly veer away from the partisanship and rancor and cause all gradation of grundy such as whenever terms like ‘capitalism’ or ‘socialism’ are implied or invoked, the point I’m making is that if we understand what we’re dealing with, we stand a far better chance of actually solving problems, and doing so together. Further, I believe this is particularly true in matters of compensation.

A good and wise business owner will treat her employees with goodness and wisdom in all respects. Granted, this doesn’t happen much, but when the conditions are such that ownership is obligated to conform to a standard, the ability to demonstrate goodness or wisdom is also  necessarily restricted.

So, then, this is how we ought to interpret broad-stroke regulatory changes like the one currently stayed: as a capricious restriction on our ability to be better. The bigger check makes for stronger chains. The law brings death, and that which is dead is connected to nothing at all.

Graves have no roots. Those in them don’t get paid, either.

briefly, on getting used to very long commutes

For the past ten months, my day job has gotten me up at roughly 5 AM, on the road somewhere between 6.15 and 6.30 (or, umm, not, see also: morning, this) and in the office’s door before an 8 AM start.

At first, this was great! I love driving (when gas prices aren’t as prohibitive as they have been for the past ten years) and traveling and figured this would slay the avian wanderlust and provide opportunity to clear my head going in and coming back.

It was a lie–noble, but a lie nonetheless. And it worked for a while; it was great to be back amongst the gainfully-employed and I did indeed come to work focused and the drive home was cathartic.

When summer gave way to fall, and fall to winter, that eager approach gave way to prolonged yawns, frustrated stumbles out of bed, and that 70-mile drive from point A to point B became familiar, boring and countered any sense that it could be a good thing.

I hate the drive to work now. I like what I do–moreover, I very much like the team I work with, and I very much like getting paid–but I’m up too early, here too long, go home too late and get to bed later than I should.

Then there are the beans. Those wild, weed-esque beans. I’ve missed so much in missing three hours a day to the road. They grow faster, miss me more, get that much more hyper when I get home and just want to breathe for a moment (and wife-mama needs to .)

Well, our circumstances are changing. We just had an offer accepted on our first home and in a few weeks, I’ll be roughly two-thirding my commute.

I spent a long lunch today signing roughly 1038945790183470985 pages of paperwork with our lender and celebrated the fact my hand didn’t fall off with one of those deliciously generic cheesesteak sandwiches at the nearby mall. Behind me, in between sizable bites of chicken teriyaki sandwich and malt vinegar-laden fresh fries, was a toddler and her mama. I overheard one of those sentences virginal to all save the parents of littles, something along the lines of, ‘Don’t eat that off the floor! That’s icky!’

I could hear wife-mama saying it. I could hear myself saying it. And I smiled, in the way only bittersweet parents who sacrifice far too much of their time for their families know how. I’ve missed so much of this, the insanity of child-rearing, the naive madness of children. Days of the month lost to the road.

I turned, and saw mother and child, seated at a tiny table, turned back to the doors and made my way back to my car, to the road, to work.

The sacrifice is worth it. For many reasons–for three, for one, for all of the above.

Even so, I miss my kids.