Another Week Ends

1. Maybe you have already read this obituary from a Vermont newspaper; it went viral […]

Ethan Richardson / 10.19.18

1. Maybe you have already read this obituary from a Vermont newspaper; it went viral this week and for good reasons. It recounts the life of Madelyn Linsenmeir, and all the love that surrounded her as she struggled through addiction to opiates. Linsenmeir was 30 and the obituary, written by her sister Kate O’Neill, captures what so few obituaries do: a candid and honest portrayal of the person. O’Neill recounts the devastation and damage left in the wake of her sister’s addiction, but she also describes a loving, hilarious, fearless person, helpless to defend herself against her terminal illness. O’Neill describes the love Maddie had for her son, Ayden, and how that love still couldn’t provide the willpower to push her beyond her addiction:

Maddie loved her family and the world. But more than anyone else, she loved her son…She transformed her life to mother him. Every afternoon in all kinds of weather, she would put him in a backpack and take him for a walk. She sang rather than spoke to him, filling his life with song. Like his mom, Ayden likes to swim; together they would spend hours in the lake or pool. And she so loved to snuggle him up, surrounding him with her love.

After having Ayden, Maddie tried harder and more relentlessly to stay sober than we have ever seen anyone try at anything. But she relapsed and ultimately lost custody of her son, a loss that was unbearable.

During the past two years especially, her disease brought her to places of incredible darkness, and this darkness compounded on itself, as each unspeakable thing to her and each horrible thing she did in the name of her disease exponentially increased her pain and shame.

One of the differentiating characteristics this kind of obituary brings in the face of so many others of its kind is its assumption of the limits of willpower. O’Neill told the newspapers, “[Maddie] would have done anything for him, and that’s the one thing she could not do. Will is not enough to keep someone clean.” No one tells this story, how life acts upon us much more than the other way around. It is so much more comforting to envision life as a story in which we are director, producer, and star. But when any of us experiences such pummelling realism, the ones who understand you most will be the ones who also have lost something.

This theme is also the driving narrative of the most recent episode of This American Life, “Before the Next One,” which is harrowing, but also deeply consoling. The episode looks at various ways that schools and administrators and parents have hoped to protect their children in light of all the mass shootings, as well as what has been (and what can never be) avoidable. The last act follows Sandy and Lonnie Phillips, parents of a young woman who was shot in the Aurora, Colorado shooting, who now travel to areas where shootings have taken place to be a consoling presence. They aren’t the only ones. Turns out, there’s an entire community of fellow sufferers who tend to reconvene around tragic events, and their compassion is all the more real because they’ve lived it.

[Sandy] wanted to help these parents acclimate to their new reality. Looking back, Sandy says it was probably too soon for them to be out there trying to comfort other parents when they were still so raw. But the Phillipses said there was also a strong and instant sense of kinship that they couldn’t turn away from.

While they were there, they ran into parents from other mass shootings, too, parents from Virginia Tech and Tucson. These parents had lost kids suddenly and violently in places where they thought that they were safe. The Phillipses now had parents that they could lean on too.

This was the moment that launched the Phillipses into what’s become their life work. They could see the need. There are no experts on what to do when your child dies in a mass shooting. The only experts are the people it’s happened to.

2. We live in trying times, people, where the cultural and intellectual battle lines are as deep as they are wide. It’s hard to know where to turn for any kind of reprieve, where anyone might find some common ground, a neutral zone from all the feuding. Who knew that it would come through the little-known chaga mushroom and bacopa? Quartz offers this hilarious insight into the immensely seductive, highly lucrative, and bipartisan appeal of the human “wellness” project: “All the “wellness” products Americans love to buy are sold on both Infowars and Goop.”

Near the end of a profile of Amanda Chantal Bacon, founder of the “wellness” brand Moon Juice, the New York Times Magazine noted that many of the alternative-medicine ingredients in her products are sold—with very different branding—on the Infowars store. That’s the site run by Alex Jones, the radio show host and conspiracy theorist who has said that both the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School and the Boston Marathon bombing were staged. Moon Juice is frequently recommended by Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness blog, Goop;  it’s a favorite of Hollywood celebrities and others who can afford things like $25 “activated cashews.” Infowars, on the other hand, is a dark corner of the American right, heavy on guns, light on government intervention, and still very mad at Obama…All make similar claims about the health benefits of these ingredients, but what gets called “Super Male Vitality” by Infowars is branded as “Sex Dust” by Moon Juice.

And along the lines of mobs and divisions, this from the Onion: “This Angry Mob Is Never Going To Grow Until We’re More Welcoming To New Members.”

3. The religion and culture writer Jonathan Merritt wrote an op-ed for the New York Times this past Sunday that begins with a quote very familiar to Mockingbird readers. Merritt, who’s got a new book coming out this year about this topic in particular, is discussing the loss of religious language in contemporary discourse, not just among the secular in an increasingly secular society, but also amongst Christians themselves. This observation is reminiscent of Simeon Zahl’s observation around the doctrine of “sin,” and how such a rich framework has been reduced to so shallow a cultural meaning. Merritt discusses how this situation perpetuates the idea that religious belief is facile, and thus requires the re-introduction of such language through “new, persuasive words.

That toothy televangelist keeps using spiritual language to call for donations to buy a second jet. The politician keeps using spiritual language to push unjust legislation. The street preacher keeps using spiritual language to peddle the fear of a fiery hell. They can dominate the conversation because we’ve stopped speaking God. In our effort to avoid contributing to the problem, we can actually worsen it…Christians in 21st-century America now face our own serious “rhetorical problem.” We must work together to revive sacred speech and rekindle confidence in the vocabulary of faith.

4. Not-so-surprising workplace insight from the Atlantic about the inefficacy of employee surveillance in producing employee productivity. The idea is not original: it’s the same philosophy undergirding the Elf on the Shelf and the Fitbit. If you can monitor how you’re doing in small increments, if you can hold yourself accountable with real-time, on-the-ground info, improvement is an inevitable outcome. Not so fast!

In general, studies of surveillance suggest that it can increase workplace stress, promote worker alienation, lower job satisfaction, and convey the perception that the quantity of work one generates is more important than its quality. In an analysis aptly titled “Watching Me Watching You,” the British anthropologists Michael Fischer and Sally Applin conclude that workplace surveillance creates “a culture where … people more often alter their behavior to suit machines and work with them, rather than the other way around,” and that this tends to erode their sense of “agency.” That is, the constant surveillance of employees diminishes their capacity to operate as independent thinkers and actors.

Worse yet, some studies suggest that workers who sense they are monitored have lower self-esteem and are actually less productive. In fact, Anteby told me, those of us who do “cheat” on the job often do so in retaliation for the very lack of trust surveillance implies: For example, some TSA employees he observed wasted countless hours finding clever ways to evade the surveillance camera’s roving eye. So while surveillance can be beneficial under some conditions, it’s unclear precisely what those conditions might be—or whether there are limits.

5. Funny one, from McSweeneys concerning “Humblebrag Injuries”:

I got food poisoning from the complimentary snacks in my Uber Black.

I passed out from dehydration doing a 20K charity triathlon — involving running, cross-country skiing, and filing the necessary paperwork to form a 501c3.

My dog — which I bought from a breeder using income from my job that I got through an unpaid internship that I got from my mother’s business connections and financial support from a trust fund, which also paid for the college that I attended thanks to admissions leniency for legacy students, an expensive private SAT tutor, and the financial and racial privilege my parents needed to live in a college-preparatory suburban public high school district — bit me.

6. Finally, before I go, let’s a take a good long look at the cell phone. It seems only appropriate after just having had a conference about distraction, especially in the season when all the companies are releasing new products. Maybe your life is chaos, the world is going to hell, and the noise on the radio is hurting more than helping–have you considered the Google Pixel 3? This guy is. And even if you’re not, you’ll never read a phone review so insane…

The world is on fire but the new Google Pixel 3 — a Good Phone, which I do recommend you buy if you like Android and can afford it, although its updates are mostly incremental— in my pocket is cool to the touch…

“We’re doomed,” a colleague texts me on Signal*. A push alert from a well-regarded news site has more details on the alleged murder and dismemberment of a Saudi journalist. On Nextdoor, several neighbors report that their drinking water has tested positive for unsafe levels of pesticides. The Citizen app prompts me to record video of an angry naked man rampaging in the shit-strewn streets of San Francisco. Facebook is hacked and our information is out thereEveryone on Twitter is angry, you f***ing cuck. You idiot. You tender, triggered snowflake. Everyone on Instagram is posturing, posing. You are less beautiful than they. The places you go are not as interesting. You should feel bad because you are worse in every way. The world is dying; come see it, come see it.

I don’t recall exactly when my phone became such a festival of stress and psychological trauma, but here we are.

Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh but that camera! That screen! The Lens feature that can tell me what I’m looking at — what kind of plant it is or what kind of animal it is or what information is captured in a business card so that I do not have to go to the library and I do not have to enter it in or even remember it at all. I don’t have to remember! Okay, Google, I don’t want to think about it. Okay?

BONUS TRACKS: Our own Charlotte Getz and Stephanie Phillips guested on the always wonderful Crackers and Grape Juice Podcast to speak about their book Unmapped.  Longtime Mbird contributor Nick Lannon was interviewed on the Ministry Minded Podcast about Sports, Law and Gospel. And on a brand new episode of The Mockingcast, RJ, Sarah and Dave try to make sense of corporate surveillance, opioid obituaries, and electrocuted barbie dolls.