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Posts from the ‘Writing’ Category

Joker (2019) and Mental Health

Joker has always been my favorite villain. Throughout the comic lore and the two Joker movies I saw growing up (1989 with Jack Nicholson and 2008 with Heath Ledger) the character was wild and unpredictable, a force of sheer anarchy, in d&d terms a Chaotic Evil. He sat on a billion dollar cash throne, just to torch it for fun. He had no ideology. He “just wanted to watch the world burn.”

Todd Phillips reinvents the character. His incarnation of Joker (played well by Joaquin Phoenix) is the victim of unspeakable child neglect and abuse at the hands of a psychotic mother. Phillips portrays him not as a supernatural force of chaos but the very regular and predictable outcome of a society that left him behind.

Until the 1960’s, mental health patients were placed in insane asylums (“institutionalized”) which were a cross between hospitals and prisons. But eventually, new psychiatric drugs hit the market which could help most of those institutionalized be functional members of society. This, combined with a human-rights-based pushback against asylum imprisonment, created a movement called Deinstitutionalization. Rather than house mental health patients in prison-hospitals, the government would fund “community-based mental healthcare” so that a local distributed network of doctors at small clinics could meet regularly with patients. For most, mental illness was no longer a totalizing thing. It was one illness among others, so why not be free in society, as long as the needed support system is there?

JFK signed the CMHA (“Community Mental Health Act”) in 1963. The asylums were slowly drained of patients and new distributed networks became available so that former patients could integrate into society well. However, unlike the jumbo asylums that could not be easily defunded, the community-based systems had their budgets cut annually. They were never fully funded anyway, and over time shrunk at the hands of austerity. At the same time, the cost of private medicine continued to rise. Mental healthcare was less and less available over time.

Notice that Phillips sets Joker in the 1980’s. This is intentional. During the Reagan administration the budget cuts to mental healthcare accelerated. Reagan repealed the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980 (passed during the Carter administration), allowing state-level austerity to continue to dismantle the system. What happens in the movie? Joker goes to his local mental health office weekly, checks in with his therapist, and goes on with his normal life. Until the city government cuts the facility. Joker asks his therapist, “how am I going to get my medicine?” “I’m sorry,” she replies.

Then, absent his medicine, Joker slowly but absolutely loses his mind. Many people are killed. His bizarre fantasies become grandiose and violent. The film picks up its pace at this point, and the rest is pure showbiz.

Phillips didn’t make a movie about the Joker. He used the Joker to make a movie about us, and about those we have left behind.

After deinstitutionalization and the decimation of community-based mental healthcare, many people with mental illness have become homeless, and even more have become victims of mass-incarceration (so, prison-hospitals without the hospitals). For example, it is estimated that 1/3 of Cook County jail inmates have mental illness. This is why, rather than hire another warden, a few years ago they hired a psychologist as executive director of the prison. This is the insane asylum, but worse: less funding, less treatment, less patient rights, less trained staff, and on an unprecedented scale.

Joker may seem to pose the question “How could someone become so far gone?” Instead, it poses the reverse: “How could we do this to them?”

Teenagers, Anxiety, Work

What has caused the rise in anxiety in teenagers?

The go-to answer for this question is social media. Instagram and Snapchat cause teens to compare themselves to one another. They then feel inferior because their hidden self is worse than everyone else’s performative self. This may be true in general, but I think people who answer the question this way don’t really understand how teens use social media or understand the bigger and worse problem lurking in teenage life in America in 2019.

School starts at, say, 8:00 and lasts until 3:30, for a total of 7.5 hours each day, 37.5 hours a week. But that is the bare minimum. Say you are in a sport: 2 hours of practice each weekday and 5 hours of Saturday are now consumed. Then say you work a part-time job. Teens increasingly need to work part-time jobs in high school in order to brunt the rising cost of college tuition (or trade school tuition, also rising). Even if they only work 10 hours a week, that’s 10 hours, gone. Now assume, and this is an understatement, that they have 2 hours of homework each night. Total everything up and this hypothetical student works 62.5 hours each week.

Compare this 62.5 hours per week with the average American adult work week of 44 hours and you may begin to understand the problem. Then realize that the US has the highest average work hours per week of any post-industrial, developed nation. If American adults are worked thin by their schedule, teens are destroyed.

This is not an exaggeration. My own case was clearly ridiculous – I did all honors and AP classes, was heavily, heavily involved in Student Council, was the leader of multiple other groups, did 3 sports for two of my years, worked a part-time job for two years, competed on the Speech team each year (all day Saturdays for 3 months), I volunteered in my “spare time,” and I was chronically over-involved at church. How I survived is beyond me. I was working 85+ hours most weeks. But the original analysis was not of me. It was of a random, probably slightly under-performing, teenager.

For some reason we do not see student hours like adult hours. We think of students sitting at their desk, in their unfulfilling classes, exhausted, burnt out from listening to absurd lectures all day… and we think this is different from adults sitting in their desk, at their unfulfilling job, exhausted, burnt out from listening to absurd lectures in meetings all day. No. They are the same. And students are even less able than adults to cope with high expectations and the ensuing stress.

American labor unions fought a hard-earned battle for the 40-hour work week, which led to new flourishing of family life and community engagement that had not been seen in America since before the Industrial Revolution. If, in another universe, we could cap student work weeks at 40 hours, what yet-unseen goods could our society gain? New social movements among teens, like a resurgence in the now-mostly-dead teen art culture? Would the emerging population of adults, ten years out, begin to perform better and more healthily at work? How would the next generation of young parents raise their kids, and what values of social participation in family and public life would be fostered in those kids? Speculation aside, I am sure that teen anxiety would no longer be the mammoth problem it is today.

The College Admissions System is the god of this age, and he has come to enter the temple of students’ very lives to desecrate what is most valuable, their time, by offering his sacrifice in them. He will sacrifice their friendships, their family, their schedule, even their mental health, to earn for himself the worship he demands. He knows no limits. He will rip out a teen’s proverbial throat and drink their proverbial blood. Will you, like the Maccabean Revolt of old, kill this god and wage war against his all-consuming, imperialist aims? By committing to a simplified, grace-filled lifestyle, you sign on to declare that the kingdom of this world is passing away with all its desires.

I’m pro-life. “Unplanned” is not worth seeing.

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Put aside production quality failures and Unplanned still does not work. Forget issues with lighting, camera angles, editing, pacing, colorization, any of it. Disregard whatever expectations you have of cinematography — because, let’s be honest, directors Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman of God’s Not Dead I & II fame are not trying to make a beautiful or sophisticated film. Meet Unplanned where it is at, which is not a film but a message-movie. Let’s focus only on the message.

I’m going to be generous here.

The argument against abortion in Unplanned is threefold. First, abortion looks gross. Visually you cannot watch it happen. To watch an abortion is to watch something bloody, gory, something alien to our sanitized suburban lifestyles. When you see an abortion on-screen you go, “Eww, gross.” It evokes a negative mind-body reaction. Second, the administration at Planned Parenthood is bad. Planned Parenthood makes profit-maximizing decisions and does not treat their employees well. They compare fetuses to french fries and soda, they speak in strict subject-predicate syntax and never use the passive voice, and they arbitrarily reprimand their employees (and later SLAPP sue them). Third, some people who stand at the Fence on Saturdays are good people who want to support women and provide them other options than having an abortion. Other people at the Fence are mean, but these certain ones treat women with respect and genuine kindness.

That’s all.

Grossness, Meanness, Kindness. These reasons can motivate any given person to become pro-life. I’m not denying that. And they come from Abby Johnson’s personal memoir. I see no real reason to doubt that these three reasons were significant in her conversion to the pro-life cause. (Though other aspects of the narrative are disputed). But they are unconvincing beyond sheer emotional appeal. Unfortunately that was not the case for the pro-choice arguments. As Abby becomes a Planned Parenthood advocate the audience is treated to many of the arguments that convinced her: (1) Women should have the right to choose, (2) Many women are in vulnerable living situations and can’t justify having a child, (3) Many teenagers are too young to responsibly raise children. These arguments can be easily diffused. Watch this: (1) Yes, but choices must be made in the moral-legislative context of democracy, so ultimately, we all must choose what we want our society to look like, whether pro-choice or pro-life. (2) Yes, which is why adoption matters. (3) Yes, which is why adoption matters.

I understand that the arguments are more complicated than this. But these basic argument-objection conversations were 100% absent from Unplanned. The movie didn’t go over any of them, at all. The only ones it attempted to address were that the fetus is a baby and that abortions are medically unsafe. (Neither of these are communicated fully in language, but they do get visually gruesome scenes). However, both of these objections are incorrect given the movie’s own reasoning. The movie depicts a 13 week fetus struggling against an abortion — this is Abby’s big conversion moment — but according to the oft-cited report from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the fetus cannot feel pain until 27 weeks, the third trimester, at which point most States ban abortion. The other point, that abortions are medically unsafe, was depicted with a young woman almost dying from a perforated uterus. However, medical complications from abortion are exceedingly rare. Honestly, let’s admit it, abortion isn’t an unsafe operation (for the woman!). Medical safety isn’t why we should reject it. We should reject abortion on other moral grounds — and anyways, if the whole argument is medical safety, then when medical science advances and abortion becomes less dangerous (for the woman!) than it already is, the argument gets even weaker.

So, Unplanned left me with a powerful emotional journey as Abby converted from the pro-choice to pro-life cause. That is an important testimony and a sign of God’s grace in her life, personally, and the power of God to transform anyone, whatever they are “complicit in,” as the movie interestingly remarks. Not “guilty for,” but “complicit in.” This is good language for discussing sin that we did not ourselves commit

Unfortunately, Unplanned failed to say really anything else meaningful about abortion.

Notice that I have avoided mentioning the technical, formal failures in this movie. There are so many. But in order to not look like a film snob who missed the directors’ point, I’ve withheld my specific critiques. And even now I won’t say them. Just watch the movie yourself, you will immediately, and I mean IMMEDIATELY spot them.

The production failure upset me, though, because abortion is a really serious topic. I believe that abortion is killing and that in the vast majority of cases such killing crosses a moral threshold into murder, so far past that moral threshold that it ought to be outright banned in nearly all contexts. We need a ban for the good of society at large and because abortion will have no place on the Mountain of God. This is eschatology in action, that one day all of humanity “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.” The scalpels, clamps and suction devices used in abortion will one day find a new use in the New Jerusalem, a use that builds rather than destroys life.

So when this movie does such an awful job, cinematically, it upset me. Poor filmmaking makes a mockery of its subject. The directors of Unplanned should have known better, tried harder, and done more with their (honestly good-sized) budget ($6m). Abortion deserves a serious film.

I left the theater not more passionate about my pro-life convictions, but less.

Of me, as Ross

Ramrod straight I sat in that chair as my heart pounded away. The time came. There was a door in the corner of my eye, waiting for me to walk out, run away, do anything else with my late afternoon but this. I was tapping my fingers in some weird pattern, I don’t know what or why. A few in that small room might have been getting uncomfortable because I was making intense, sustained eye contact with each. Could they see my nerves? I haven’t said anything, but maybe my tells were obvious. Sometimes the tension gets the best of me. In this moment more than ever.

My therapy support group isn’t judgmental, so I don’t know why I panicked. In my journal that night I jotted down some ideas. Here’s the one I landed on:

But those words, those words, they carry the meaning of 20 pages compressed into three syllables: I am gay. The kind of sentence that should take 10 minutes to speak but comes out in seconds. Something so deeply buried in me doesn’t feel right to be released so fast. With a single clause the perceptions of me held by those in the room become completely out of my control — a bizarre feeling, seeing as I seem to spend all of my social energy on perception management. I lose a certain power when I become so vulnerable. The guys in the group took it well. They either said nothing or were affirming of me. Not in a theologico-sexual way. But of me, as Ross.

These guys are grace and peace to me. Coming out was the most difficult thing in my life and I’m glad to have had their support.

I’m gay. I’m homosexual. I’m a homosexual. I have homosexuality. I experience same-sex attraction. I’m same sex attracted. (That’s six ways to say something I have never said publicly before). I have been this way since hitting puberty, and in my life I have never been sexually attracted to a woman. Even once. I dated some girls along the way and had genuine emotional attraction to them, but that didn’t lead anywhere physically past friendship.

However, I have had consistent strong sexual attraction for other guys. You would think that this fact would have… tipped me off? To think, Gee, huh, maybe I’m gay? But that’s not how denial works. It took honesty and courage to come out to myself and that didn’t happen until the Fall of 2018. For years I had known about my sexual attraction to men but never realized the depth and exclusivity of these attractions. At some earlier points I had used terms like asexual. But I could not deny that I had sexual attraction going on. So maybe bisexual? But I could not deny that I simply did not have any attraction to women. Maybe that means I’m asexual with respect to women… and… um… and… and… that’s where the sidewalk ends. That’s when I couldn’t sustain the denial any longer. I began to recognize and name my same-sex attraction and tell a few trustworthy people.

My friends asked about my faith. After all — they reminded me — I am in seminary to become a pastor. The answer is complex, so I’ll write more in the future, but three things for now.

  • First, I believe that my same-sex attraction is a result of the Fall but is not itself sin. God intends marriage to be a male-female union, so I will not marry or date.
  • Second, my lack of opposite-sex attraction means that I am called to singleness which is celibacy with Christ. Thankfully singleness is better than marriage! 1 Corinthians 7:32-35.
  • Third, and the product of the first two points, I will find relational fulfillment not in one spouse but in a whole community of people, the body of Christ. I will pursue spiritual friendship by loving friends and being loved by them in the life-together of the local church.

As for pastoral ministry I see no necessary problems. Of course there are all the unnecessary problems. Like some who fear that I might infect them with my gayness. Nobody admits to thinking this but they do, you can tell. Or the outcry when I change some minor aesthetic detail (wall decorations, what type of stirring rods we use in our coffee, etc.) and the decision is attributed to my sexuality. Yes, these trivial things come up in church life. Or people who assume I will be political about sexuality all the time. Or others who think (groundlessly) that I will abuse their children. Or still others who run out of arguments and throw up their hands, saying, “We just prefer the other candidate.” I’ll deal with those responses as they come. But there are no necessary reasons why I would be excluded from pastoral ministry. I follow the example of singleness set by Paul and more importantly by Jesus himself.

I don’t care to defend myself. I don’t need to argue, though a close friend once described my love language simply as “debate.” Some people will stereotype me and others will flock to me, choosing me as their token gay friend. Both of these responses are frustrating but I will get over myself and deal with it. Some kindhearted people will thoroughly critique my use of the word “gay.” Okay. Kind of an in-house argument among us same-sex attracted Christians, so probably stop caring so much about that. Less kindhearted people will attack me for using “gay” as a pretext for their broader intent to malign and slander me. In the gentle authority of Jesus’s name please stop.

Instead, here is what I ask of you. Can you do what the gracious people in my support group did? Can you put aside for now your theories about what went wrong in my body (or my childhood development, or in my DNA, or etc. etc. etc.) and instead accept me? Not accept my actions as moral or reject them as immoral. Again, that is still a judgement, an evaluation. Can you be accepting of me, as me? Of me, as Ross?

I’ll lose Christian friends because they disagree with homosexuality. This makes no sense to me, as I do not have gay sex. But still I’ll lose friends. On the other side I’ll lose non-Christian friends because they will see my sexual ethics as self-repressive and hostile to other gay people. Rejected by some conservatives as too liberal, and by some liberals as too conservative, I’m caught in a trap I hate, defending a position I didn’t choose. Can you move past that with me? With me, as me? With me, as Ross?

Let’s talk about Ross. Ross likes to watch movies, especially Westerns and Thrillers. (Bonus points for Western Thrillers). Ross does dumb talent show performances, calls them “art,” and then refuses to explain their true meaning. Ross goes to college where he studies philosophy and ministry. Ross complains about the dining hall at school but appreciates it in secret. Ross gets riled up and wants to make everything a debate, because that’s somehow the way his mind is wired. Ross used to run Cross Country but out of laziness no longer runs or exercises at all. Ross cares about the migration crisis and wants to learn Spanish so he can be helpful to a Chicago-area immigrant ministry. Ross loves Junior High students and in many ways still is one. When he is angry Ross shuts down instead of lashing out. When he is sad Ross isolates himself and waits for it to pass. When he is humored, you will hear it, whether you are in the same room or not. Ross loves Jesus and has found more meaning in that relationship than in all others combined. And so Ross loves the Bible, because Jesus loved the Bible, and Ross wants to be like him. Ross sometimes runs out of socks and has to wear used ones twice. When it gets bad, he just goes to the store and buys more socks. That should solve the problem, he thinks.

Guys, this is me. I’m more than my sexuality. I’m more than my coming out narrative. I’m more than the prejudice and invective that mindless people hurl at gay folk every day. Forget all that. Can you love me? Can you love me, as me? Can you love me, as Ross?

Thank you for your understanding. Thank you for your grace. Above all, thank you for your friendship. To me it means everything.

Love,
Ross

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Thanks Todd for the photos!

Thanks Tim, Stephen, Josh, and Steve for helping me write this post!

The 15 Best Essays

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Photo: the bloggods say that you need at least one photo per post, or people won’t click the shareable link. I assume this is doubly true if the word “essay” is in the title. Here’s some random photo last fall of me, living my best life now, incarnating the TGC aesthetic at a game of laser quest, disheveled, probably pretending not to be out of breath. 

Here are 15 essays that I consider the best.

  1. “Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell (1946)
  2. “This is Water” by David Foster Wallace (2005)
  3. “Friendship” by David Whyte (2015)
  4. “The Last Enemy and the Final Victory: Singing the Blues with Jesus” by Michael Horton (2005)
  5. “How to Be an Artist” by Jerry Saltz (2018)
  6. “The Will to Believe” by William James (1896)
  7. “How an Algorithm Feels from the Inside” by Eliezer Yudkowsky (2008)
  8. “Anger” by David Whyte (2015)
  9. “Discipleship Isn’t as Exciting as Youth Ministry Makes it Seem” by Timothy O’Malley (2018)
  10. “Amateur Sociology Considered Harmful” by Ozymandias (2016)
  11. “The Christ-like Gaze in Film” by Brett McCracken (2018)
  12. “The Categories Were Made For Man, Not Man For The Categories” by Scott Alexander (2014)
  13. “Shop Class as Soulcraft” by Matthew B. Crawford (2006)
  14. “The Ethics of Elfland” by G.K. Chesterton (1908)
  15. “Can We Compare?” in One True Life: The Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions by C.K. Rowe (2016)

 

UPDATE: I added links. Most are direct to the essays. 3, 8, and 15 are links to the books’ Amazon pages.

 

Honorable Mentions

  • “Advice” by Neil Gaiman (2013). Not an essay but… it could be transcribed into one.
  • “Crony Beliefs” by Kevin Simler (2016). I fell in love with an earlier version of this post. He has since revised it into something more specific. If I could get the text of the original, that would go on my list.
  • “How Do You Make Life-Changing Decisions?” by Ryan Holiday (2012). Was very helpful for me in high school, but now I recommend Kevin DeYoung’s book Just Do Something to everyone.

 

Fall, friendship, and experiencing God

As I drove back to college from my parents house today, my route wove through an aimless countryside. Along the way were Pumpkin Patches and Harvest Pickings, Apple Orchards and Tree Farms. My parents and I stopped at one together and bought cider, jams and apples. We even had our picture taken:

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Seeing the fall in action ushered my mind to a moment in one of my favorite books. David Whyte’s collection of short essays, Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words. In his meditation on Friendship, he writes this:

Through the eyes of a friend we especially learn to remain at least a little interesting to others. When we flatten our personalities and lose our curiosity in the life of the world or of another, friendship loses spirit and animation; boredom is the second great killer of friendship. Through the natural surprises of a relationship held through the passage of years we recognize the greater surprising circles of which we are a part and the faithfulness that leads to a wider sense of revelation independent of human relationship: to learn to be friends with the earth and the sky, with the horizon and with the seasons, even with the disappearances of winter and in that faithfulness, take the difficult path of becoming a good friend to our own going. (73-74).

One of our main goals as people is to experience transcendence. This is true of everyone, even, awkwardly, of those who deny that the transcendent is real. To see a mountain that dwarfs us in size. To look out on an ocean whose end is the horizon. To look injustice in the face and say “No, you will not remain,” only for, to our surprise, our words to make themselves true. To understand our world in a way that bring us if only for a moment far beyond our normal, small lives. To look up at the color-changing leaves of a tree and tremble under the weight of overwhelming beauty.

For the believer, these everyday moments point to something outside of themselves. They sign God to us, or his glory, or the meaning he declares over our lives. For the nonbeliever, these moments of transcendence are puzzling. Even though nothing exists out there, beyond us… we still experience the “out there” in our own lives.

These are “the surprising circles of which we are a part” and “the wider sense of revelation independent of human relationship.” We have the option to see them around us — or we can shut them out. If only we have eyes to see, ears to hear, hearts to understand.

What surprises me about Whyte’s comments is that friendship helps us get outside us. Friendship and its “natural surprises” can condition us to see a bigger world. A world that is open to what may be outside it, whether we like that possibility or not.

Thinking it would be fitting to the topic, I sat outside to write this post. But within a few minutes, I was too cold and had to retreat to the Student Center fireplace. Even after almost twenty conscious years of living through the Midwest winter — which bottoms out at negative 20 most years — I always forget the cold. This is because the knowledge of cold and the experience of cold are two different things. Six months of warmth is not enough to make me forget that it gets cold in October. But that length is enough for me to forget what the cold feels like.

In the same way, we who believe can know that God is real. And those who do not believe can know that God is not real. But we all feel, we all experience, we all sense God. The changing seasons, of which Pumpkin Patches and Apple Orchards are reminders, remind us to look beyond ourselves. So, too, does the tumult of ordinary life with friends challenge our gaze to drift higher and higher.

14 ordinary things that made me smile this week

Because not every post on this forlorn blog needs to have a controversial thesis, here are 14 ordinary things that made me smile this week. The photos are unrelated to the post but just enjoy them because why not? They are from Paris back in May. For the record, Paris did not make me smile. But each of these 14 things did!

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1. The breakfast shop on campus was “out of large coffee cups.” I sputtered “out of… out of… out of larges? out of large… cups?” in a voice very similar to the Valentino White Bag lady which probably sounded rude but whatever. I was laughing the whole time as I filled my medium-sized coffee with cream and sugar.

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2. A Junior High student mistook me for someone her own age. We were at a get-together for several of the area youth groups. One of the eighth graders I lead found someone from a different church but his same school. I decided to step into the conversation because it looked interesting and anyways I was bored. “Did you know that Bobby has a crush on you?” he said. “Oh, I had always thought that!” she replied. “Oh yeah, Bobby, of course he has a crush on you, yeah, you didn’t realize that? It’s so obvious!” I commented, pretending to know who Bobby is or anything about him. “Do you have Mrs. Livingstone this year?” she said. “I wish. She is the best teacher ever!” he replied. “Oh man, if there’s any teacher I could choose to have, it would be Mrs. Livingstone,” I commented, almost absentmindedly parroting their conversation. “Oh, I didn’t realize you go to our middle school!” she exclaimed with some excitement in her voice. Then, a beat. “I’m a junior in college. I don’t go to your middle school,” I said, satisfied in both my acting ability and my youthful deportment.

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3. A professor in one of my classes has crazy quotes all the time during his lectures. We created a google doc to record them, which will remain a secret to him until the last day of class. Given his general m.o., we think it will be received well and with humor. The latest quote was a parable along the lines of: “A mother is walking through the forest with her children, when suddenly a pack of skunks comes up ahead. She yells out, ‘run children!’ and they all pick up a skunk and run away. ” We are not sure what this means.

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4. Our men’s Bible study group at school is called Men Under God, abbreviated as MUG. The leadership team decided to order coffee mugs with the logo printed on it. Though five dollars the lesser, I am satisfied.

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5. We went on a bike ride with some junior high students. Jon was faster than the other riders, especially the adults. His dad was also with us. When it was his turn to lead the group, Jon kicked up the pace and we were dying. “You should really maybe think about slowing down just a tad bit if you want” his dad said, feebly. When Jon did no such thing, his dad called out again, more passive-aggressively, “Any time you want, you can do that whole ‘slowing down’ thing I mentioned earlier.” Jon slowed down a little bit, but soon picked back up. His dad was the verbal equivalent of my reigns during a trail ride when my horse will not keep proper spacing — check and release until it understands the pace I want. Not that Jon is a horse. He is a 7th grade boy. This whole episode reminded me of the horrible education system I was forced to endure (and am still enduring) that has held me back from the pace I have wanted to learn. Because we do education at large groups at once (28-34 per teacher in my school growing up), it is mass produced and I was always at the fastest end, even in the highest classes. 15 years and counting of tedium. Of check and release until I “get” the pace the school wants for me. Not that I am a horse. I am a 21 year old man. That I made this connection to something as mundane as fast bicycling made me grin, at least.

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6. After leaving the bike ride, I turned right from the forest preserve because I didn’t feel like waiting for the left arrow. Then, as I drove in the opposite direction of home for about 10 minutes, I saw a Half Priced Books store. Sounds like my kind of thing. So I went, parked, and walked to the front. A lady is with her ~ 8 year old son looking at some movies in the clearance section. I walked up, also wanting to see the selection of cheap flix, and realized that the lady is Kate from my church small group with her son Isaac! Her other son, who is in the junior high group with me, is around the corner looking at books. We said hi and everything. What are the odds? I was just randomly there.

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7. A great comparison between my sometimes-chaotic program at school and sidewalks. I made the comment that nobody ever sat down and decided how our 5 year M.Div. program “works” from a Student Life perspective. They figured it all out academically, but nobody from the Housing, Dining, Chapel, Campus Life, and most critically, Financial Aid departments ever worked it out. So, the students have from time to time started our own precedents, which the next grade followed, and eventually those became Norms, which even later became policy. My philosophy professor compared this to the sidewalks on campus. None of them make sense, because they are just the result of people stomping the grass dead. Then some administrator realizes that the dead muddy trail from building to building looks bad, and said, “hey, lets pour some concrete in here,” and now they are sidewalks. In a system with no plan, the community will fill in the gaps.

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8. My friend Keegan found it funny when I sent him the link to some vines I was watching. The viner’s voice sounded just like his. He texted back saying “Oh my goah Ross thank you 😂😂”. It was this one.

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9. We had a department BBQ with my fellow wannabe philosophers. I got to stir the fire up to make s’mores. It made my flannel smokey. Everybody needs a go-to smokey flannel in the fall. It also reminded me of camp, and wow does that place beat Suburgatory any day. I wish society could revert to the days when everything in town was within walking distance. Less concrete poured probably also means more natural areas, which is conducive to my denial that modernity is suffocating our world. But anyways. Smokey flannel. S’mores. Fire.

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10. A friend came to my dorm apartment and made Indian food for my roommate and I. It was just a rice dish with some spice in it. My friend isn’t Indian nor does she know how Indian food is made, I think. But it’s okay. We talked about the doctrine of inerrancy. I like that.

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11. My micro-TA job for the semester is to guide the presentation groups for Intro to Philosophy. I met with the first group this week. One guy didn’t have the textbook, and was struggling to figure out financial aid. (He has also missed classes because he has thrice gotten stuck in the bureaucratic black hole that is Trinity Central). Being the admin of the textbook selling group on facebook, I connected with someone selling the book and bought it for this guy. He didn’t understand why I would buy him a book. “It’s a gift,” I said. “Oh, I’ll pay you back,” his words rushing out. “That’s not how gifts work,” I said, confused. This left me feeling like a Gideons Int’l guy but for philosophy.

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12. One of my campers from Timber-lee was at Trinity this week. He goes to some private Christian school, which sent the whole sophomore class on a college visit together. All eight of them, about. I did a double take when I saw him — Isaac, of all people — sitting just across the aisle from me at Chapel. Then at lunch I showed him the greatest secret of all in the Trinity cafeteria. Take two cookies, and ice cream, and with them make an ice cream sandwich. (It’s the little things that make college life bearable).

Seeing Isaac reminded me of the fun that we had that week. It was a junior high group, so, naturally, we spent almost every free minute gathering sticks in the woods and making a catamaran to try to cross the lake. We also did a lot of dancing. It was the first round with Gus, Foster, and Jake, three of the best humans I have ever met. (This summer I had the God-given privilege to be with them again). I also had one kid who I requested for my cabin named Colin, who thought I was the coolest thing ever. (Helpful for my ego especially after the events of the previous week). I have nothing but happy memories from those days. It reminds me of an Andy quote from The Office finale. He says

I spent so much of my time here at Dunder Mifflin thinking about my old pals, my college A cappella group. The weird thing is, now I’m exactly where I want to be — I got my dream job at Cornell — and I’m still just thinking about my old pals. Only now they’re the ones I made here. I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good ol’ days before you’ve actually left them. Someone should write a song about that.

But in this case, it was 100% obvious at the time that I was, in fact, in the good ol’ days. I enjoyed every second of it, and seeing one of my friends from that week was the sweetest reminder I could have asked for.

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13. I went to a rummage sale at a Catholic church in town. They had something like 600 purgatory-years worth of merch, if someone had stolen it all. (Thus, I have reached my two purgatory jokes per post limit). A giant circus tent filled with goodies, along with the entire church gym and all the classrooms. I walked away with two books, two movies, a winter coat, and a director’s chair, all for $18 bucks.

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14. Last one. Tonight at the combo-youth group mixer night, we played a variant of dodgeball where you had to dance the entire time. And if you got out, you became a member of the opposite team. The second variant here is useful, but the first was just hedonistic joy. I danced for about 35 minutes straight while dodging and throwing foam balls. This was more cardio than my usual weekly dose (none). It was gorgeous.

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Here’s to another week, filled with not-too-special moments which, taken together, make our daily lives memorable, enjoyable — and ultimately, livable.

The Berlin Holocaust Memorial: Dehumanizing, haunting, and larger-than-life

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The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe  by architect Peter Eisenman was built in 2003-04 in the urban center of Berlin. The abstract, grayscale memorial occupies the space of one city block with rectangular prisms (“stelae”) rising out of the uneven ground. Stelae are situated into a row-column grid, though slightly uneven. The stelae are mostly the same height, but as the viewer walks to the middle of the field, the ground sinks to reveal deeper “heights” of the concrete blocks. The memorial is controversial, yet not an outrage or a scandal; it presents the subject matter in a way that reasonable people can reasonably disagree. And disagree they have. However, despite the at-times divided public reaction, the memorial makes a memorable and effective impression on the viewer through its desolate presentation and uneven construction.

Eisenman’s design was selected in 1997 as the replacement for a previously selected memorial which received backlash from the city’s Jewish community. After years of stalling from politicians maneuvering to avoid losing public support, and eventually the Bundestag itself taking on voting authoring for the project, construction began in 2003. It was not long until the press reported that anti-graffiti-coating company was also the company that produced Zyklon-B, the hydrogen gas that was used to kill millions of Jews in the Holocaust — to understandable outrage. The decision was made to proceed with the construction anyways — also to outrage — and the memorial opened on May 10th, 2005, near the 60th anniversary of the end of the war.

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It is worth sampling even a few of the reactions, as catalogued by PBS Frontline. Michal Bodemann criticized the memorial for existing at all, saying that a constant focus on Germany’s racist past is used as a shield against Germany’s racist present. Julius Schoeps writes, “I find it regrettable that they decided on a design that can stand for everything and for nothing.” Ilka Piepgras comments that an effective memorial to an atrocity like the Holocaust should overwhelm and overpower one’s emotions, though even that cannot be enough to match the true tragedy of the events. She claims that the Berlin memorial fails to do this, and asks, “Shouldn’t it be disturbing rather than inviting a picnic on its stones?”

Conversely, Heinrich Wefing praises Eisenman’s work, calling it “a new type of memorial”: a beautiful abstraction that “does not dictate what its observer should think or experience.” An American critic of architecture, Nicolai Ouroussoff, claims that the memorial “conveys the scope of the Holocaust’s horrors without stooping to sentimentality — showing how abstraction can be the most powerful tool for conveying the complexities of human emotion.” Many more have opined on the success or failure of the memorial, in proportions that do not seem to overwhelm each other.

The memorial, in my brief experience, successfully and lastingly impressed upon me both the dehumanization at work in the Holocaust, and its grave extent. Though often cited in criticism of Eisenman’s design, I found the lack of names, or placards, or designations, or really any other words at all, to be disturbingly plain. The barren stone bespoke a time in the not too distant past when humans themselves were reduced to barren, lifeless bodies — alive, but only in a strictly biological sense. In the same way that the stelae are “memorials” only in the strictest sense (after all, they would not memorialize anything in particular without the whole field being given a title), the Jews had become “humans” only in the strictest sense. In every other way, they were reduced by the Nazis to the status of mere animals. I found this aspect of the memorial compelling and haunting, even nearly three months later.

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The uneven, disorienting construction also left a substantive, lingering impression. As I walked deeper into the belly of the memorial, the ground itself shifted and sank. Rather than have the blocks grow higher and higher (though that was partially happening), Eisenman had the floor sink from beneath the viewer. Viewer may be the wrong term, for in an all-encompassing, larger-than-life experience like this, I became a more than a viewer: a participant, all of me caught up in the remembrance of the murdered Jews in Europe. As the floor sank, so too did the depth of the dehumanized concrete reveal its true depth; as the Holocaust progressed, so too did the depth of dehumanization become more and more pronounced and intentional.

To create a memorial that is not just viewable, but inhabitable, is to create something on the border. Not the border of “void and monument, between vague symbolism and a denial of interpretation,” as Tom Dyckhoff wrote in the London Times. No, more than a void, the other pole of the tension is tangible experience, something that could do much to help regular people remember the tragedy of the Holocaust.  

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The Sky Garden in London but also urban policy and land use

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The Sky Garden at 20 Fenchurch Street occupies the top three floors of the “Walkie-Talkie” building. Designed by Uruguayan architect Rafael Viñoly in the early 2000’s. The project was delayed for years because of concerns that the building’s ugly construction would ruin the visual appeal of nearby spaces. In retrospect, this concern was certainly true. The building also has numerous flaws, the worst being an Archimedes Heat Ray effect on the neighboring buildings and roads that shoots temperatures up to 196 degrees Fahrenheit and earned the tower the nicknames “Scorchie-Talkie” and “Fryscraper.” The Daily Express reported at one point that the building causes dangerous wind-tunnel effects on the surrounding streets, raising concerns over public safety and working conditions for public sanitation workers.

Not the least criticized is the Sky Garden itself. While sky is acceptable, does garden describe this space? The view of London is blocked by steel support beams at every angle. Is it truly a public space if only open by appointment, for 1.5 hour slots, until 6:00 pm, at which point the public is carted away for the “paying clientele to enjoy the twinkling lights over cocktails?” These issues, writes Oliver Wainwright in a review for The Guardian’s architecture section, make the experience feel more like “an airport terminal, jacked up in the air.” For my part, I felt similarly out of place in somewhere that claims to be “a unique public space” and “an open and vibrant place of leisure” (per the building’s website).

The mere existence of the Sky Garden, however, betrays a deeper tension felt in all public (or “public”) spaces in a hyper-capitalized environment. To Wainwright, the Sky Garden is “the “public park” used to justify building such a vast office block on the edge of a conservation area,” and yet even then is “not the public park that was promised, but another private party space.” He claims that the purpose of the space is to provide a justification for otherwise non-public spaces, the offices taking up floors 1-34. Worse yet, it is only “the catering concepts which make the whole thing viable.” In other words, the space does not exist for, and does not continue to operate because of, the public space that it provides.

Conversely, Peter Rees, the city’s then-chief planner, thinks that the space is designed for socializing. The lurid imagery in his comments are worth quoting in full:

“The secret of the City’s success is having places to gossip,” he told me [Wainwright], describing the financial capital as “a cluster of beehives on a compost heap.” “The honey is the gossip,” he said. “It’s how business gets done: the result of the bees rubbing up against each other by chance. So it’s very important for business that people can party as close to their desks as possible. We are taking every opportunity to create the party city in the sky.”

To Rees, the Sky Garden has nothing to do with money, or maneuvering through otherwise- impassible red tape, or successfully completing another project for the architect’s portfolio and future commision prospects. Social space! It’s how business gets done!

These are the tensions of place in a corporate-capitalist environment: that no spaces can exist without business interest, and that nobody will unilaterally take on the cost to provide those spaces, even if they are “how business gets done” on a macro level. Who is incentivized to do this? The companies that refuse will have more capital on-hand and will survive as the fittest. Non-excludable and non-rivalrous goods are the orphaned children of the free market, picked up, much like actual orphaned children, by government and taxpayer dollars. The essential tension is that we need what Rees describes, but in the market only have what Wainright describes.

This is at great odds with the pre-industrialized world and indeed the pre-industrialized West for thousands of years. But before we mourn the loss of the Greek areopagus or the Roman Forum, we should recognize the great opportunity at present for land conservation and the expansion of public parks. This can only happen by reunderstanding, at a conceptual and a policy level, the idea of use and of land use in particular. Cities that could benefit from a new understanding of land use — Hong Kong, San Fransisco, Zurich, Sydney — will have to overcome major incentives hurdles that have for decades created an economic environment doomed to housing policy failure. To create spaces like what Rees envision for the Sky Garden, cities will need to rezone land for housing (thus also slowing urban sprawl), expand public transit, create new business corridors for the widening of the urban job density, and so on.

However, even if all these problems were to be solved at once, and Ross’s ideal urban policy world was created, it would not be enough. The more foundational question that has to be asked is, do we, not corporations, but do we value common, unowned spaces enough to give of ourselves to preserve them? Not through taxes, but through time, energy, and the humility to pick up trash left by others? This type of civil service, rather than the power politics that consumes churches today, is the truly Christian route to replacing Sky Gardens with a hospitality in place.

On being in London during the Royal Wedding

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The best view of the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, Duke and Duchess of Sussex, was ours. Because the couple decided to host their ceremony in St. George’s Chapel, in Windsor — rather than the traditional venue, Westminster Abbey — there was little to no activity in the city of London concerning the wedding. To the extent that I paid attention at all, the most I noticed was a single, sad t-shirt booth selling clothes with “I was in London during the Royal Wedding!” printed across the chest. To be in London during the wedding, as we were, is indeed the best view because it is no view at all.

To be my wedding-watching grandmother, or any average American, is to have a worse view. Why do Americans, in particular, have such a fascination with the Royal Family? I assert that the British Monarchy is a mediating image, propelled by a larger culture rooted in Spectacle — to draw from Guy Debord’s 1967 seminal work The Society of the Spectacle. To live vicariously through the social images of another culture is to experience, in an even more American sense than normal, the malaise of modern industrialized life.

So, the wedding. While I thankfully cannot describe it firsthand, I find from other sources that the total cost was around 32 million pounds sterling. Meghan Markle’s dress was a “double- bonded silk cady cushioned by an underskirt in triple silk organza,” not to mention the 16-foot long veil, the gold jewlery, a diamond tiara, etc. William wore military attire to reflect his membership in the British Army, and his time served in Afghanistan in the early 2000’s. The Archbishop of Canterbury — whose parents met while serving as personal secretaries to Winston Churchill during the war — presided over the ceremony.

In the 1980’s, the wedding of Princes Diana and Prince Charles was a superbowl-level event for television; after Diana’s tragic death in 1997, her funeral was similarly publicized. Tabloids have for decades sprung upon the Royal Family’s youngest new additions, the birth of royal babies, as was the case in 2013 with Prince George and in 2015 with Princess Charlotte. We can expect the same for the forthcoming child in early 2019. One professor of history in a CNN interview even claimed that the American fascination with British royalty “has been alive pretty much since 1776,” and that almost “as soon as we severed ties, we were back to being fascinated — captivated really — by the royal family.”

Such events as the recent royal wedding image the good life for American audiences in a different way than British audiences. The key difference is the American folk narrative where anybody could wind up at the top of society. While this was not confirmed by the recent wedding, where Meghan Markle, though of mixed race, was raised in an upper-class Los Angeles family… it was confirmed in 2013 with Kate Middleton’s entrance into the family, who was essentially a social nobody before accidentally and unwittingly beginning to date Prince William. I remember at the time hearing the comparison made all day between Kate Middleton and “any of us that it could have happened to!” though of course that is nonsense. Where the British from their youth understand the strong role that socioeconomic Class plays in deciding your ultimate role in this world, Americans pretend that Class does not exist and so fantasize of elaborate weddings, grand receptions, life in a fairy castle, and so on.

The fascination with British royalty does not begin or end with the American Dream. Though propelled by The Dream, it exists in another social space divorced from The Dream by the malaise of everyday under- and middle-class life in America. This is the space where, as Debord claimed, “passive identification with the spectacle supplants genuine activity” because our relations to one another are mediated by images rather than just existing in their own right. In this transition, which is only possible after the rise of a nation-wide media culture, nothing is authentic and everything that we consider real is a symbolic representation of what lies behind it. Famous actors become sex symbols, important musicians attain cult-status, Royal Family members are stars of a soap opera, and politicians are reduced to boogeymen.

This smokescreen effect extends not just to politicians, but even to politics itself, where no true debates happen in the 21st century, only minor tinkering among policy wonks. True change is impossible in a system where R&D does not mean research and development but rather Republican and Democrat, parties with major incentives to race to the center and thereby eliminate any possibility for radical change of the system that they sustain and which in turn sustains them. In a world where we are defined by our relationship to brands, to parties, to celebrities and generally to symbols, we all have a bad view to the Royal Wedding.