Six years ago today my dad died. It’s an event in my calendar like a birthday. I guess when it doesn’t seem important to remember I’ll remove it. A couple of hours after I found out he died I went to class. I ran into my Kierkegaard professor outside of the room. He asked how I was, not knowing my news.
I told him, “I just found out my dad died.”
He said, “I’m so sorry. Want to skip class?”
I said, “Nah.”
He said, “Okay, well let’s go in.”
He put his hand on my shoulder and sort of steered me into the room and treated me like a normal student during the period. He nodded to me as I left the room when class was over.
A few days later my news somehow made its way to someone in the administration and then that person emailed the entire school about it. Not great. What I found out is that you don’t want several hundred pastors in training to find out something painful happened. This is what I would describe as a worst case scenario.
Couple days after the email went out a friend who was not studying to be a pastor saw me and simply gave me a big hug and kept walking. This hug and the interaction with my professor were more healing and human than the contrived “pastoral care” BS that many other students tried out on me.
Whatever field you go into, don’t let them train the humanity out of you. Resist jargon at all costs. Listen or speak, ask questions or share your own story, be a silent presence or a busy distraction.
Whatever you do, be human.
Every vote counts. Decisions are made by those who show up. Refusing to vote is not a protest, it’s a surrender. Don’t boo, vote.
When our circle of reality is threatened, common sense aphorisms will be invoked in its defense. Pay attention to these today, of all days. An election is always threatening to the circle of reality because it's a liminal moment, a transition from one narrative arc to another. What we know to be true is called into question behind the veil of the voting booth, so we work extra hard to reaffirm our basic assumptions about the way the world works.
However, an election is also the highest liturgical moment in the circle of reality. Reality requires a “should-be” condition in relation to the present “is.” Sound like anything going on right now? Reality, as we experience it, is part of a meaning-making story told by those who depend on it for power. Those who cannot tell this story are the most vulnerable in our society. They also tend to be our scapegoats. That is, the vulnerable among us, who cannot tell our story, are blamed for impeding the “should-be” from being actualized in the present.
Questioning the value of our political apparatus is met variously with criticism of patriotism or privilege depending on their source on the right or the left. Each "side" strives to meet every threat and re-establish the circle of meaning that maintains reality. This is especially ironic with an eye on the left, because demanding the liturgy of reality be carried out according to plan ensures the vulnerable among us continue to function as a scapegoat—they are structurally necessary. Liberal social justice ultimately cannot address the condition of the vulnerable because social problems are necessary to the continued existence of our circle of reality.
I end up taking an existential view. Can society be a bit more humane for my friends living on the street? Can we show a little more mercy to those who need it? Are the policies we enact in this circle of reality hospitable to everyone? And that's how I vote. But I'm not confused about the limits of human imagination.
Our Gracious Source Code, who art in Amazon S3 Cloud Services, hallowed be thy file extension;
thy debugger come, thy executable be done;
on desktop as it is on smartphone.
Give us this day our daily download.
Forgive us our botnets as we forgive those who malware against us.
And lead us not to the Darknet, but deliver us from torrents.
For thine is the Internet, and the surge protector, and the Ghz forever. Amen
I don’t know why I feel the need to say anything about tonight’s debate. Or anything at all. I’m experiencing an unusually vicious onslaught of cynicism (which is significant, as I’ve got a high resting cynic rate), so I’m not sure what to say about the state of politics, or the social fabric, or my own ability to figure out how I feel about all things.
I have vacillated between what it means for a person on the far left (me, in this case) to vote in this election. I have been scolded for my privilege when I consider not casting a vote for Hillary. I have been called childish, foolish, idealistic, unsympathetic to the lives of women and minorities, and all other manner of accusatory names by those who consider a vote for Clinton and the Democrats to be the only option for someone calling themselves progressive in these excessively weird and troubling times.
I have tried to tell friends and acquaintances that my being further left makes it hard to stomach the Democrats' move to the center right. I have tried to explain to them that Hillary’s domestic policies and foreign decisions have made voting for her feel unconscionable to me. I am told that my critique of “warmonger” isn’t enough to justify my “protest vote.” I am told I’m making a protest vote.
I am told that my moral agency is nothing compared to my civic responsibility. I’ve been chastised for how they do or don’t line up in the eyes of those upset with me. But this is the new reality, the magnanimous duopoly. We are a people of A or B, of black and white, of love or hate. The middle ground is for no one.
I agree with this. The middle ground has proved itself inept. Really, that’s where we’ve been living for as long as neoliberalism has made our two major American political parties laughable mirrors of each other. However, admitting that the middle ground is useless doesn’t mean dualism is inevitable. Nondualism, theologically, politically, and socially offers us a three-dimensional way of being. Like the ship in space, we are not limited to forward or backward. We can also float up or down, shirking the bonds of earthly gravity in favor of choices not previously open to us.
You might say that I seem to have made up my mind about the worth of voting for Clinton rather than a minor party option who might offer what I believe to be more responsible and live-giving options on a range of issues. I mostly have, but I have my days. As Adam Kotsko recently pointed out, it’s giving this bourgeois, capitalist system I disdain a lot of credit when I so desperately seek a good candidate. If the system is as ethically bankrupt as I believe it to be, why not ride out the cynicism and vote for a candidate who I acknowledge is better in several key ways than her opponent?
It’s a logical point, albeit a relativist one I struggle to adopt. Holding my nose and marking a ballot for someone I believe to be directly responsible for military policies that left a lot of brown folks across the ocean—women, children, and men alike—dead is still a moral choice. And as I’ve never been one to prefer Mill to Kant, it’s one I’m not sure I can make. But I’ll admit to being unsure how to move as flawlessly as possible despite my being quite the flawed person in a tragically flawed system given power by an overwhelmingly flawed culture.
Nothing is easy here, at least not for me. I don’t begrudge you if it’s easy for you. I don’t give a shit if you’re mad at me because it is easy for you and hard for me.
I’ll probably watch the debates, if for no other reason than to be able to better articulate my own thoughts by engaging in (mostly) silent argument with the person speaking at the moment. I doubt they’ll put anything into focus for me except for, perhaps, my contempt for both candidates and my longing for a better political system that could and should produce a better servant leader. It won’t move me to the middle where most people say they live but so few actually do. Who can survive there anyway? Who’d want to? Not I. Give me the up, the down, the upside down any day. Duopoly and myself in the eyes of those who like the left, right, and middle be damned.
I guess I’m not patriotic. That’s what I assume, at least, when I find myself on my usual side of a controversy like the one that erupted recently when a school note involving the pledge of allegiance went viral.
The note was a waiver, sent home to be signed in case the parent/guardian wanted to opt their child out of reciting the pledge. On the paper, a disgruntled mother expressed her disgruntledness, while her brother-in-law, the child’s uncle, snapped a pic and shared it. The rest is news feed history.
The actions of the adults, and the thousands of comments found under internet shares of this story, point to a visceral anger that something is wrong with this country when nationalist traditions like the pledge are questioned. Those who don’t feel this way are deemed “unpatriotic.”
I am one of those who feel completely baffled and out of step with the vitriol. But I’m used to feeling out of step with current American sympathies. I’m a socialist. You know, the devil.
Any time I question our national obsession with capitalism, or our quickness to war, our sense of lofty superiority and international supremacy, or our constant failure of memory and imagination when it comes to our social ills, I’m immediately aware of who disagrees with me. Definitely those on the political right (Republicans, libertarians, alt-right, etc.), and often Democrats don’t like what certain folks on the far left have to say regarding the policies of our country (as well as the morality and ideology behind them). So I’m not surprised when something comes along that upsets large parts of the public but doesn’t bother me (and vice versa).
Still, this pledge thing bothers me; not because kids can opt out, but because it’s still being said at all. From a civics perspective, the pledge strikes me as both socially irresponsible given our global reality and naively jingoistic.
The problem with our culture's tendency to separate every issue into easy dualism (writ large as the two party political system) is that we're often quick to do away with nuance in favor of the snappiest soundbite. In this case, when someone says they don't like the pledge, it's the natural step for an opponent to say "well then you must not like America."
Which in my case is and isn't true. I guess we need some nuance.
The Pledge as Bad Policy
"I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
Though the pledge has gone through several iterations since its first, mostly permanent revision in 1892, this is the current one, last updated in 1954 to capitalize "Nation" and add "under God."
When it comes to the pledge, what we're talking about is a fealty oath, a demand by the State fulfilled by its subjects. The pledge requires loyalty, and unquestioning relationship to the flag and the specific form of government that it represents. The pledge doesn't beg our allegiance for "the best possible version of our Republic" or to "the basic precepts at the foundation of our Republic" but to the Republic itself. This, whether intentionally or not, makes the pledge a nationalist tool for keeping subjects in line whether the Republic is what it should be or not. The Republic is as it stands, and you're to pledge allegiance to it.
Hopefully it's obvious why such unquestioning nationalism is seriously problematic. When such beliefs have historically emerged as governmental structures, they haven't had the best track records. We don't often speak kindly of fascists, after all (except to cheekily note that they're good at getting trains to places on time).
This jingoistic turn is what separates the practices of saying the pledge from being or feeling patriotic. Patriotism, in its ideal sense, allows for careful and heavy criticism. You can love a place, feel a sense of ownership to it and pride in what it can be, and still be completely honest and aware of its failings. As noted above, the pledge doesn't allow for the kind of free thought, debate, or imagination that a healthy patriotism necessitates. Therefore, equating the pledge and patriotism just doesn't play.
The problem only grows larger when we consider how the conflation of the two has resulted in a terribly rigid sense of what it means to be an American citizen. The inflexibility, combined with the misunderstanding (or even willful ignorance), is what makes the dedication to the pledge dangerous to actual individual and social freedoms.
Justice Robert H. Jackson, writing for the 1943 Supreme Court majority decision to overturn a previous ruling which allowed students to be compelled to say the pledge in school, railed against the ideological orthodoxy which would force any American into a prescribed behavior at the expense of other more important, though less tangential, ideals. He wrote,
"If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us."
Prescribed orthodoxy is what makes the pledge a terrible idea in the first place. No formulaic, performative act can distinguish one citizen of a free republic from another—which is why the willingness to say the Pledge is a terrible assessment for political belonging. More than that, this is why it's antithetically American to support the pledge as that which defines loyalty. And if the pledge can't and shouldn't define loyalty, why have it?
The pledge is a false litmus for "true Americanism." This makes it problematic for all citizens over which it holds sway (which is to say all of us).
Unfortunately, the problems with the pledge continue, deeper and deeper down for religious persons. The show of parroted patriotism that is the pledge is one of special import to Christians. Because not only is a pledge of allegiance politically troublesome, it’s idolatrous.
The Pledge as Idolatry
When God sent Moses down from the mountain with a list of commandments, the first two are, roughly, "I am God" and "thusly, no worshipping some other god." For those keeping with the Judeo-Christian heritage, it still stands as an instruction not to worship that which is not God.
Unfortunately for nationalism, this provides a distraction from the necessary worship of the nation. It also doesn't make capitalism too happy, as capitalism demands the primacy of currency, with people and their innate createdness being secondary to their role as money-makers then money-spenders.
Benjamin E. Zeller used the recent Colin Kaepernick controversy to discuss Émile Durkheim's model of religion with the totem as the center. Our Americanism, our sense of civic religion, then, is centered on the flag, the "symbolic referent point for the nation’s self-worship." This symbol is given explicit power via the pledge. The flag is the symbol of the national god to be worshipped, the pledge its scripture, the national anthem its hymn.
Christianity gains its power from being a witness to the truth that Christ stands against the death dealt by national power in favor of the life offered by God. Peace and community are the eternal way, truth, and life. Rome will always only be the cross and the sealed tomb.
The Christian, therefore, cannot both accept the primacy of Christ and that of the state. The pledge is an acknowledgment of servitude above and beyond all else. Reciting it is, then, idolatry to the Christ follower.
This isn't a new concept, as the first Supreme Court challenge to the mandatory recitation of the pledge stemmed from Jehovah's Witnesses children refusing to say the pledge in school in 1935. Yet despite its age, the controversy is still fresh. It's so fresh that stories of people sitting during national anthems, or refusing to say the pledge, or politicians advocating fierce returns to Americanism continue to be front-page news.
The worship of the flag and the Republic for which it stands is at a fever pitch. There is no sector of American life untouched by the call to worship the Americanness of all things. Entreaties to "make America great again," to say the pledge without question, and to sing the national anthem with sacred reverence all require modern Christians to declare dual allegiances, using frighteningly similar religious and civic liturgies to do so.
The pledge is such liturgy. It simultaneously claims to be a marker of truth and of identity couched within truth. It demands that the flag be both witnessed and the cause of witness. This demand places the flag, for those who pledge allegiance to it, at the right hand of the empire which flies it. All of which makes unflinching nationalistic dedication hard to square when you also claim to worship a carpenter who said caring for the poor and sick, who said loving for God and neighbor, matters more than a flag and the Republic for which it stands ever will.
: It should be noted that this ruling is what makes it ridiculous that a school or teacher need to send home a note to give permission for a child to opt out and not say the pledge. While it's helpful that the note gives parents and children an awareness of their rights, it's unfortunate that it's needed. They don't have to say it now, no opting out necessary. Thanks to a later ruling from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, children under its jursidiction (Alabama, Georgia, and Florida) don't have to stand for it either. (According to Snopes, the school in question sent the notice home in compliance with Florida law, which requires children know their right to refrain from saying the pledge and requires parents know they can excuse their child from saying it. Even though a teacher can't compel them to say it in the first place.)
: Not only is this in keeping with the right to dissent protected by the First Amendment, it's pedagogically sound when teaching children anything as belief-based and intellectually complex as allegiance. Young children aren't fully capable of understanding what allegiances are, and we shouldn't be asking them to swear to anything based on the assumption that they'll support a specific brand of nationalist ideology in the future (which keeps with the sound method to "never teach a child anything you'll have to unteach them later"). To do so is to support indoctrination, something easily accomplished with young, impressionable minds. The Hitler Youth program was successful for a reason.
: I absolutely do not mean to imply that "religious persons" and "Christians" are to be conflated here or in any context, nor do I intend to imply that the pledge is only religiously problematic for Christians. It's just that my context is Christian, and I can't speak for my Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. brothers and sisters. But I'd like to think that any of those who feel the divine life trumps the life of empire would agree with what follows.
: That this controversy has emerged from the world of American sport adds a layer, as the idolatry of the American state has intertwined with the idolatry by Americans of professional sport, particularly American football. The worship of both ride waves of liturgy, each with their own means of consecrating that which is most holy: the flag, the game. In recent years, the worship of these two pillars of Americanism have merged into codependent parts. Tom Suttle notes exactly this in his excellent recent piece.
“America is already great.”
From the incumbent party in the White house, this is the refrain we’ve heard again and again in the run-up to the Democratic National Convention and at the DNC itself. In politics, I guess you take whatever opening your opponent gives you.
Except the reality for tens of millions of Americans is that the United States is not great. They are left out and left behind. They turn on the news and talk to their friends and don’t recognize the world they live in. The economic recovery of the last eight years has been a recovery for everyone but them. Their life expectancy has dropped for the first time in American history. Their children will do worse than they have done, not better. Their rates of incarceration are rising year after year. The family, formerly one of the most stable units of social cohesion, is in tatters largely due to economic unrest. The church offers them nothing. Their wages are flat, their healthcare is expensive, and their jobs are drudgery. On one side of the political divide they’re called idiots and on the other they’re spoon-fed a constant diet of fear.
Donald Trump is vile. He’s a cartoon character, a melodrama villain, a charlatan, an incarnation of cynical political gamesmanship, and very likely a fascist who would be an epic disaster for the United States and the world. But he has tapped into a truth that speaks to a huge segment of the American population: America is not great for everybody. This is a truth liberals should recognize (and do when it suits them). But here they do not. Why?
Because liberals lack the basic empathetic imagination to recognize this, blinded as they are by their own ideology of inclusion. The pain felt by people who support Trump expresses itself as racist, nationalist, jingoistic, misogynistic bullshit, and so it is dismissed by liberals. But of course it takes that shape! People are using the only language they have been offered to voice their frustrations.
Liturgy defines a space in which participants may grope and gesture toward truth. “Make America Great Again” is a counter-liturgy offered by a fascist demagogue to a public looking for any meaning, any answer outside the status quo offered by technocratic, neoliberal priest/politicians bowing and supplicating themselves before the vengeful god of The Market. The truth Trump’s liturgy points toward is this: “Our country does not feel 'great already' to the millions of wonderful people living in poverty, violence and despair.” Yes, it’s true this counter-liturgy is chanted by a death cult, but I guess the bad tan and worse hair are too distracting for people to notice.
It is vitally important that the social and economic pain identified by Trump be met with real solutions (something Trump and the Republican Party are incapable of). But Liberals think they're exempt from understanding Trump's appeal to hurting people because they hate Trump and everything he represents. So they have offered no compelling alternative to business as usual, which is exactly what Hillary Clinton represents.
Look, Hillary Clinton will win this election because she’s tough as nails. Her campaign is a juggernaut and Donald Trump is a joke. She’ll get things done. Republicans are terrified of her because of her political acumen. She will govern effectively and stand as an important symbol for woman and girls for decades to come.
But mark my words, over the next eight years there will be another economic downturn. Liberals will still have offered no voice to people whipping in the winds of abstract, inhumane domestic and international economic policies which primarily seek the ever-increasing accumulation of capital and the enrichment of faceless corporations at the expense of masses of under-educated, economically depressed people.
The situation will get worse, not only for current Trump supporters but for Clinton voters as well. And Democrats will be left holding the bag this time, not Republicans as in 2008. Then a real politician will rise to take advantage of the liturgy first chanted by Donald Trump.
Logan messaged me to tell me, somewhat excitedly, that he'd heard an ad on an old podcast episode for a magazine. This magazine specialized in very short stories, and would, shockingly, pay up to $1,000 per published submission. We were amazed. We both like to write short stories. We both like $1,000. Unfortunately, in the midst of our glee he checked and saw that they weren't taking submissions because the publication died two years ago. We were, understandably, not amused. So here's a very short story I wrote back in 2012, one which I could have submitted back then to this now-defunct pub had I been aware that such a thing was possible. It's titled "Tragedy."
Yes, it was oval. Still, he disliked the name and the carelessness of it. Names were important. Names were supposed to mean something. This office was supposed to mean something, and here it was with a name any five-year-old could have thought up. The leather of his chair gave the slightest protest as he leaned back, carefully lacing his fingers and lowering his eyes to the speech on his desk. He sighed to no one, picked up the piece of probably important paper, and slowly set it back down.
It didn’t matter. None of it mattered. Not when the leader of the free world couldn’t hold it together. She wouldn’t leave, but it would be better in some ways if she did. Of course, a failing marriage would be disastrous for his reelection campaign manager—he made a mental note to send that guy a ridiculous Christmas bonus—and the ensuing media field day would be politically insurmountable. Still, there were no pretentions left. She was never waiting up for him in the wee hours when the grip of the job quietly receded long enough for him to stumble to their room, sip from the tumbler of scotch he kept bedside, and drift off into a fitful, troubled sleep. Sharing a bed kept up appearances, but nobody who actually saw the charade bought it. Still, what was public office without appearances?
Their life together was crumbling, a shell of its former vital self, but he was polling through the roof in an election year. Probably for only a few minutes more, though. He chuckled at that. How different the situation would be if she left like he knew she wanted to. He still loved her in ways, though maybe that emotion was a residing sense of what a good and virtuous husband should feel. He was never unfaithful or cruel, and, in rare moments, was actively kind. Still, he couldn’t help changing; it’s what presidents do. At first, she had tried to understand the pressures of the position, but as time passed the effort was forced, then simply wasn’t there at all. He thought about that for a moment, but not intently. There was only so much room for ruin in one morning.
The impeccably polished brass buttons of his navy blazer caught a strand of light as he shifted in his chair, crossing his right leg and tugging at the crease of his pants. There was no need to get comfortable; any moment, someone would tell him it was time to go, time to deliver chaos with poise.
“We should be going. They’re waiting.”
The walk was brisk and sure, though he wondered why it felt so slow. It must have been an illusion, a consequence of little sleep and self-medication. The door was opened for him, and he stepped into the harsh light of day. He avoided the garden when possible. She loved the flowers, and she often spent hours here humming to herself and forgetting him.
He solemnly stepped to the podium, feeling solemnity was the proper social response (though he wished his mind was clearer so he could be sure), and leaned in toward the microphone.
He started to speak and momentarily forgot the right words. They were never his words, and it was easy to forget. He began his speech, hoping he had recovered quickly enough.
“Today, we are marked by tragedy. Our pain is great, and our dead will be avenged. However, we must not allow our righteous anger to make us too eager for dangerous action. We must be careful with tragedy.”
Last week at Network Coffeehouse I spoke to a man who had been released from DOC (Department of Corrections—aka prison) the week before. He was released with all his earthly possessions in a backpack, a list of services around Denver, and a voucher for clothes. After he was released, he hooked up with a woman who quickly disappeared with everything he owned.
My impression was that he knew no one, had no real connections in Denver, and wasn't sure what he would do next except check in with his parole officer.
Two things occurred to me while speaking to him.
First, the irony of his experience. For many people living in homelessness, the major factor contributing to their condition is an inability to connect and attach to other people. Ironic, then, that this man had trusted someone who immediately contributed to making his condition worse.
Second, except for his short time at Network the night we spoke, the Church was absent from his life. He didn't indicate how long he spent under the tutelage of the state and I didn't ask. But I wonder, if he had had a relationship with a church while he was behind bars, would he have found himself in the predicament he did a week ago? Perhaps he still would have found himself on the street. But with a community to turn to, maybe a lost backpack would not have been such a concern.
To visit the prisoner, the stranger, and the poor is called righteousness by Jesus. According to the author of Matthew, to fail to visit these is to invite eternal fire (Matthew 25:31-46). And yet, the church is largely absent from the people and places Jesus calls it to be.
Of course, some efforts to visit the poor do exist. Network Coffeehouse is one. United Methodist Committee on Relief works worldwide to ease the suffering of people experiencing disaster. Denver itself is host to several efforts by churches to feed the hungry and clothe those in need. But these groups serve to highlight the absence of individual Christians and organized ecclesial bodies in the public sphere, witnessing, encountering, and bearing up under suffering.
Where the Church is clearly called by Jesus Christ to be, there instead exists a sucking vacuum. Into this conspicuous absence the most vulnerable people in our society are pulled. There, they are preyed on by demonic forces: drug dealers and cartels pushing meth, crack, and heroine, sex traffickers enslaving adults and children alike, pay day loan organizations and their capricious usury, day labor centers doling out work without appropriate wages, jails that increasingly charge fees for the most basic amenities. And then there's my friend at Network who simply needs a pair of pants. Standing against this force we have burned-out case managers, parole officers, a few people compelled by religion to serve their neighbor, and the odd person here or there who cannot help but find themselves among the poor and suffering. It is not enough.
The bulk of the Church, the living body of Christ, Jesus' hands and feet supposedly animated by the Spirit of God? A barely audible whisper at best. Unaccounted for, unseen, and unheard. Absent.
The last few weeks or months I’ve been having this conversation with myself, with friends, with my therapist about how I would like to find some “lightness,” some way to experience things with a little less gravity. I wish I didn’t take everything so seriously. That’s what I’ve been saying, at least.
I think that’s all bullshit.
I’m trying to like myself. Even love myself. And right now, tonight, one thing I accept about myself is that I am not graced with “lightness.” I don’t take things lightly. Most things seem stupid to me. A room doesn’t brighten when I enter it. I like dark comedy, inappropriate jokes, depressing fiction, journalism and documentaries that reckon with the profound brokenness of the world. I love my friends and everyone else can take me or not.
Lightness may visit me if it will. I do not plan to struggle to seek it out.
It occurred to me that people like me. Not everyone, but many people do. And I don’t think they like some version of me who carries a particular lightness out into the world, because I never met him. I don’t think that ever occurred to me before, that people have encountered me as I actually am, and they have accepted me.
Time for me to accept myself, too.
A couple weeks ago, I flew to Portland from Nashville by way of Chicago. I went for work, and now I’m back. I apologize for the lack of Beard updates, but between my cross-country shenanigans and Logan’s fatherhood which is actually a thing that can legitimately take up your time, we just haven’t been able to make it work. But we’ll get back on schedule somehow, mostly because we’re proud of the site. We’re happy with what we put out there most of the time, and we’re especially happy when it makes someone else happy. Or reflective. Or less stupid. Any impact will do.
I knew the flight would be long, so before leaving I stocked up on several podcast episodes, both backlog eps from my favorites and a few new shows I’d been meaning to try. I’d heard great things about Song Exploder, so I found a few episodes I knew I’d like based on the artist featured and downloaded en masse.
I got through a few before arriving at the Long Winters’ John Roderick talking about the song “The Commander Thinks Aloud.” I rested my head on the stiff cushion and listened to John, which I do regularly on his podcast with Merlin Mann, “Roderick on the Line.” It’s hilarious, and smart, and all the things two people talking to each other should be. Logan and I should take notes.
I listened to John talk about the song, both from a technical perspective and from an emotional one. He described what went into recording the instruments and what philosophy guided the lyrics. The song is about the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster, in which a crew of seven were killed upon reentry as their shuttle disintegrated. In the interview, John reveals that what the commander is thinking aloud is (and I paraphrase) that all he wanted was to bring back a message. A message that says, “I saw the everyday minutia—boys and girls in cars, dogs and birds on lawns—and from up there, up in space, it was simple. It was borderless. Up in space, we humans were doing our best work. We were taking it all in and understanding what matters. And I wanted to tell you that.”
But he didn’t get to. There was a problem. The astronauts knew something was wrong, but not to what extent. That’s because NASA knew to what extent, but wouldn't tell them as they believed the crew couldn’t risk the fix. So they all had to hope for the best. And upon reentry, the ship burned up and splintered apart, killing all aboard. And the message was lost until John sung it to us.
Song Exploder ends the episode by playing the song you just heard about. By this point, I had lifted my head forward to gaze out the airplane window. Stretching for miles I saw an undisturbed, thick blanket of clouds save three giant scars upon its surface. Mounts Hood, St. Helens, and Rainier rose up to remind me of the earth below. They challenged my moment of forgetting where I was, my desire to imagine that I was disconnected from life on the ground. John began to sing in my ear, over and over, “The crew compartment’s breaking up. The crew compartment’s breaking up. The crew compartment’s breaking up.” I realized I was crying steadily, for the joy of the borderless miles, for the death of the crew years ago, for the people down below who I loved or knew or did not know, for the minutia of my own life. I wanted to tell anyone, everyone, how perfect the snowy peaks and blue sky and marshmallow clouds were, way up here. That’s all I wanted to bring home to you.
Hi, Beardos. Trying figure a way to reconfigure life so I might continue involvement in the Beard. I'm not sure how to do this with a wife, two kids under three years old, two jobs, the ordination process, and various other family commitments. Doesn't seem possible, frankly. At least it doesn't seem possible to me.
If you have any advice or encouragement or just want to let us know you'd like to see this thing continue, I'd love to hear it. Check the About page for contact info.