On Games

This is a meditation on how games can change our life, or perhaps how games are life itself.

There is quite a bit of text here, so if you don’t have time to read it now, I recommend saving it for later using a web service like Pocket. I also have cross-posted to Medium.

Other posts in this series include On Notifications (!)On Questions (?)On Decisions (/) and On Fantasy (^).

*

I grew up on an abandoned cow ranch on the leeward side of Oregon’s coastal mountain range. Christened by the previous owners as Mountain Shadow Ranch, what was mediocre habitat for cows turned out to be fantastic for at least three things: first, trail running, as a certain one-mile loop was my primary way of engaging with the luxury of acreage that my family was fortunate enough to have. Second, paintball, which was not really something I enjoyed because it hurt but my younger sister nevertheless bought all the equipment for the two of us so she would have an excuse to cause me pain without getting in trouble.

The third thing Mountain Shadow Ranch was good for was cats. Lots and lots of cats.

When I was young my family adopted a few felines for the fun of it. These domestic cats had the entirety of Mountain Shadow Ranch to themselves. They chased mice and climbed trees and colluded their next scheme from the confines of our (their) ramshackle barn.

And, thanks to the feral cats coming from the nearby county park, our cats had kittens. Lots and lots of kittens. Thanks to the basics of biology, the Nyquist family eventually found itself taking care of thirty-plus cats.

A dark cloud the color of a coyote’s nose and the shape of the Lotka-Volterra equation formed over Mountain Shadow Ranch. I will spare the more gruesome details to simply say that thanks to the basics of ecology, the Nyquist family eventually found itself taking care of zero cats.

Some nights you can hear the coyotes howl at the moon and the cattle laugh from the grave: “Told you so.”

*

A thought to get your wheels turning:

This suggests a general characteristic of the nature of play that is reflected in playing: all playing is a being-played. The attraction of a game, the fascination it exerts, consists precisely in the fact that the game masters the players. Even in the case of games in which one tries to perform tasks that one has set oneself, there is a risk that they will not “work,” “succeed” or “succeed again,” which is the attraction of the game. Whoever “tries” is in fact the one who is tried. The real subject of the game (this is shown in precisely those experiences in which there is only a single player) is not the player but instead the game itself. What holds the player in its spell, draws him into play, and keeps him there is the game itself.

— Hans Georg-Gadamer, Truth & Method, p. 106

*

After being home to no cats, Mountain Shadow Ranch now again can be called home for one cat.

One cat with the appearance of a dove and the playfulness of a dolphin — so white, so fluffy, so pure, so innocent that neither my parents nor my younger siblings could decide on a name for her. Therefore, in lieu of a proper name, she was christened “Special Kitty”.

Special Kitty is so special that, in the never-ending chess match against the local coyote pack, she is strictly an indoor cat. To potentially put Special Kitty in harm’s way is such a direct violation of her specialness that — well, it can’t ever happen.

The Nyquist family house is Special Kitty’s domain, so much so that when I — a stranger to her — came home for the holidays, I was greeted with a passive-aggressive turf war. It began with Special Kitty swatting at my heel as I sat at the dinner table or worked on the computer. The turf war escalated quickly, as Special Kitty began to sneakily creep into the room I had “moved into” and defecate under the bed.

It did not end there. Some of Special Kitty’s acts of unhospitality were simply so outlandish I just feel uncomfortable broadcasting them over the internet: meow-eww.

At the end of the day, however, Special Kitty is just another housecat. And in the neverending battle between Kaleb and the cat, I have discovered her one true weakness: shiny things.

It was amazing how much a little piece of silver string could turn our resident princess into pure animal. It became prey and predator like — an opportunity to dominate, a threat to exterminate. A simple jangle of this string, and it was Game On.

I was as fascinated by the cat as the cat was by the string, so in a fit of pre-holiday boredom I made a video montage of this phenomenon. (Now, I suppose, I can check off “impulsive cat video” from my Internet bingo card.)

*

As a youth minister, I am notorious for experimenting with new game ideas. I put a lot of value into the first half hour of our time together, the time spent in the gym before the “discussion” or “lesson” part of the night.

Now that I am in my second year at Ravenswood Covenant Church, there are some games that I have firmly introduced as Ravenswood Student Ministry traditions.

There’s “Save the Queen”, a combination of team dodgeball and Kubb. Another crowd favorite has been “Extreme Bananagrams”, mostly because of that one time it all came down to a single letter tile. We have “the Annual Paper Airplane Challenge”, where the golden airplane is rewarded to the team with that can achieve top scores in speed, distance, accuracy, design and the legendary battle mode.

(The co-champion of the 2nd Annual Paper Airplane Challenge, who I will refer to by her YouTube name dieunko, made a video about her victory. Check it out, and by the way if you subscribed to her channel it would make her day.)

My career as an experimental game designer started my first week as a summer camp counselor, when I was tasked with the responsibility of entertaining eight kids who signed up for “Ninjas.” To fulfill this task, I created a two-hour-long role-play where my rather honorable ninjas were tasked with the singular duty of keeping the camp staff accountable. This duty was achieved by sneaking around the facilities and targeting lone staff members in an abbreviated, martial-arts inspired, flash mob routine. The kids loved it, and in future weeks I found myself not only leading new “ninja” cohorts, but being on the receiving end of some as well.

(“What’s Ninjas?” I had asked the program coordinator. His response: “I dunno. Just go with it, and for bonus points see if you can keep it politically correct.”)

I think many youth ministers fall into what I call the “attractional model” of youth ministry. The “attractional model” sees games merely as candy-coating for the so-called “real stuff” — the theological lesson or discipleship moment. Get the kids in the door with fun, and get them out the door with something substantial. I suppose the logic is valid.

But in my own personal model of youth ministry, the games are more integral to the entire experience. It is within a game like “Extreme Bananagrams” where pre-existing relationships are temporarily suspended, as best friends find themselves dueling each other and complete strangers find themselves now having to communicate with each other in order to win. In a game like “Ninjas”, the youth achieve a fleeting five seconds of role reversal as they swarm an authority figure, accompanied by what is sometimes a precious injection of self-esteem for an eleven-year-old boy who only knows the bottom of the social ladder. In a game like “Save the Queen” I find myself tackling adolescent misogyny as the boys struggle to accept their turn to play as the imaginary Queen, and there is that moment of what I hope is female empowerment when everyone realizes that the fate of the game ultimately rests on the quick wit and agility of what was originally thought to be just another “damsel in distress.”

Games, I believe, transform relationships by scaffolding relationships with a set of laws and values foreign to everyday life.

I am not looking too much into this, I swear.

*

I live in a house on the north side of Chicago with six other guys. We call our little community “the Cardinal Deux” — which, in turn, is named after the original “the Cardinal” where we lived in the year prior, which in turn was named ad perpetuam memoriam after the cardinal that flew into our window and died soon after impact.

As we later said, “the name just hit us one day.”

I am reminded, by the incessant meowing I hear as I draft this meditation, that I don’t live with just six other guys, but a domestic cat named Esther. A tuxedo cat in appearance only and a tiara cat in spirit, Esther has forsaken all forms of cat etiquette for the sake of manipulating her humans to fulfill even her slightest whim.

Each morning, she interrupts our sleep simply to so she can be fed an hour or two before any of us have even thought about about having breakfast. Each afternoon, she makes it impossible to watch TV until she has been fed again. However generously and frequently we feed her, it simply is not enough for her insatiable appetite.

Esther was once a drug addict as well. Last year, when she sprained her foot, the veterinarian set her up with a prescription of painkillers. Esther’s direct owner (the rest of us are just her roommates or perhaps slaves) was responsible for administering these painkillers, which Esther took a liking to. After three weeks, Esther’s foot was visibly better to us roommate-slaves, but when Esther’s direct owner came home her “limp” would magically reappear, part of a successful scheme to appeal to his sense of sympathy and secure more another dose of painkillers.

Esther may even get a sadistic joy from her manipulation. To make my case, I testify to a scene from last summer, when she caught a grasshopper that was jumping around the backyard. She gnawed on it for a little while, amputating one of it’s legs. What was prey became play, as the grasshopper began to hop around our kitchen with limited mobility, and Esther would chase it down in a rigged “cat-versus-grasshopper” game.

*

I play games with my youth group in order to scaffold these middle schoolers with a new set of relationships, one that transcends cliches and popularity and the sort of things that divide middle schoolers.

But maybe games don’t work like that.

I mean, look at Russia. It feels like the Sochi Olympics were only the day-before-yesterday. The Olympics are supposed to be the games-to-end-all-games, the ultimate arena of competition, the one time and place the world unites. And Russia was doing a pretty good job of it, with that cool Opening Ceremony and the sense that the last snow of the Cold War had finally melted.

And then, boom, Ukraine.

*

Given the terrific reputation we have with cardinals, one of our female friends connected the men of the Cardinal Deux with a cardinal who (after being caught in her backyard and playfully gnawed on by her dog) needed a new home.

We accepted, christening this new cardinal with the sort of name that makes “Special Kitty” sound inspired: “Red”. Thanks to the efforts of one roommate in particular, we were able to accommodate Red with a regular diet of seeds and grapes, delivered directly to his cage — a cage furnished with a food bowl, water bowl, perching branch and mirror.

Of course, not every resident of the Cardinal Deux took so well to having a cardinal dwell among us. The mere presence of Red drove Esther absolutely insane, awakening her primal instincts, transforming her spirit from that of mere housecat to wild lioness.

Except Red was in a cage, and as long as he remained in a cage, so was Esther’s spirit. And so Esther just sat in the kitchen all day, staring at Red in the cage, as Red stared at himself in the mirror.

*

I wrote a mediation a while back about fantasy. I concluded the post with a cliff-hanger, the unsupported claim that fantasy done right is a place where our desires can be restored.

I promised to explain what I meant by that, and here it is:

Fantasy is the experience of our desires playing a game.

Analogous to how games transform relationships by scaffolding relationships with strange rules, fantasy transforms desires by scaffolding desires with a strange world — be it a strange world with boy wizards or the virtual world of video games or the daydreams inside our head.

Desire is a fundamental part of being human. It sometimes gets a bad rap, because people are quick to assume unfulfilled desires should lead to discontentment. I think this is unfair, as it is often the case that unmet desires are what drive us to begin some of the best adventures. Instead, the problems commonly associated with desire is usually not inherent to desire itself but rather with the distortion of desire away from things that are good and in proper portions.

That is philosophical language to describe an idea that may not be philosophically sound, but it is nevertheless how I have begun to see the world over the past many months.

*

As I’m drafting this little piece of this meditation, it is the evening of Valentine’s Day. I am spending the night solo not necessarily because I am single and alone, but because I am winding down from the first day of a planning retreat for a conference where we are asking the question of how do we educate and empower thousands of high school youth with respect to some of the pressing social justice issues of the day. (If you know me, you know I’m super excited about this opportunity — but it is a sign, I fear, that I might be married to my work).

I am, of course, well aware of number of friends, colleagues and acquaintances who are celebrating the night with their romantic interest. Some of the dates going down sound so gushy and wonderful and full of horse-pulled carriage rides it all sounds a bit like a fairy-tale. A real life fantasy, one that might seem a bit more like a dream come tomorrow morning.

“Dating”, of course, is often considered a game in it’s own right.

Growing up, I had a friend who managed to live in the liminal space between hipster and bro. He once recommended Neil Strauss’ “The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists”. I can’t say I actually ever read it, but the title (emblazoned in gold lettering, adorned with silhouettes of women in seductive poses, all on the faux-black leather cover) is pretty telling. Trying to get a date, or at least a hook-up for the night, is a type of game — a game, just like any other game, composed of rules and strategies.

And, ladies, this gaming goes both ways. I’ve seen the cover of your Cosmopolitan magazines: “We found your future boyfriend: 23 great places to meet men!” “50 ways to seduce a man (in 1 minute or less)”. “Drive him crazy: Tips To Make Him Stand Up & Take Notice”.

(…has any other guy out there had nightmares of empowered women, and when I say empowered women I mean empowered by Cosmopolitan tips and tricks, finding us in our secret hiding places, seducing us quicker than the time it takes to properly introduce ourselves, and then using our undivided attention to drive us crazy simply for the sake of it? This sounds like the greatest security threat to the entire man-nation.)

Even among my many roommates, who are (ahem) more gentlemanly than Casanova, dating is still a game. A considerable portion of roommate-bonding is done through talking about how to decode body language, how our latest dates went, how we should best follow-up, and which girls each other is still interested in (and who is off-limits for the time being).

For those of us in more committed relationships, there is still an element of strategy in figuring out how to bring the relationship to the “next level”.

Dating is a game: some of us are masters, some of us are novices; some of us are naturals, some of us could use some practice. This is not to disparage dating, I am just stating the facts and perhaps even celebrating the whole institution a little bit.

But my instinct suggests that there is something that Neil Strauss nor Cosmopolitan nor even my roommates will tell you:

You aren’t just playing “the game”, “the game” is playing you. Before you successfully pick up a single woman, seduce a man in under 60 seconds, or bring it to the next level, you have already been enchanted by the game. You have been driven by a will to win before you have driven someone else into your arms. The thirst for victory is one part your nature that desires a companion, another part a culture that celebrates those who are winning “the game.”

“The game” is one part an actual game, another part fantasy. The setup perhaps begins in early adolescence, when we let our desires run wild with our first run at MASH or our first celebrity crush. “The game” develops further when we watch our first love movie or read our first love story, when we have our first schoolyard crush, when we participate in our first scripted romance such as the prom. Far from lust (the self-defeating desire for a desire), sexual fantasy is the rather innocuous process of experimenting with both relational desires and erotic desires in a safe environment, seeing which desires fit and which desires don’t and which desires need to be modified.

Somehow, even when the rest of you grows up, it feels like “the game” can always bring you back to feeling like a fourteen-year-old.

Probably the most fascinating part of “the game” for strategy nerds is that rarely you will find two players who are playing with the exact same understanding of the rules. There are different ways to win, ranging from a long-term relationship, to a one-night stand, to an ulterior motive, to no set goal at all. There are different expectations of how to communicate, of how far is too far, of how soon is too soon. There are a plethora of possible gender roles and a spectrum of sexual orientation. There are countless strategies of game play, with some eligible singles relying on the “thick market” of a dating website or app; while other people still rely on parents or religious authorities. Apparently, according to how Juan Pablo blew up my news feed last month, not even the reality TV dating shows cannot codify the rules to a single set of rules.

So “the game”, as it were, is not one single game but rather many, many games.

*

I wanted to write something about the Hunger Games here, but seeing as I have not read the books and only know the plot through the movies that are already out, I decided against talking about how a story — where a game is created that has kids are killing kids as a form of building national pride and distracting the various districts from the very real problems in society — is a great testament to the powers of a game.

Somebody else who has read the books should write that blog post. Please send me a link when you do.

*

All fantasies may very well be games, but of course not all games are fantasy. Some games are just too real.

At the 1972 Munich Olympics, terrorists from the Palestinian group Black September took 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team hostage. Worst fears were realized as all 11 hostages were eventually killed, 9 of whom were killed at the Fürstenfeldbruck NATO airbase, as German authorities pretended to agree to Black September’s demands that they be able to escape with the hostages, and the following ambush eventually crumpled over itself, casting a dark shadow over the remainder of the XX Olympiad.

As tragic as this event was, even it could be considered a game. The Munich Massacre has been analyzed through the lens of “game theory”, the study of strategic decision making. What were the motivations of the actors involved? What were the decisions were available to them? What possible outcomes may have been achieved?

One conclusion:

“Both actors [the German government and the Palestinian terrorists] were oblivious to the other’s constraints and were locked in a non-solvable situation from which neither could deviate. Hence, the German government, guided by a zero-sum game strategy, with no communication and information about the terrorists’ strategy and lacking decision-making powers, tried and failed to force a solution at the airport.”

— Reuben Miller, “Game Theory and Hostage-Taking Incidents: A Case Study of the Munich Olympic Games” p.31

Game over.

*

The epic stalemate that was Esther versus Red ended abruptly one morning, when Red was found dead, his corpse sideways in the food dish.

We, of course, had to investigate whether or not Esther had somehow struck in the night. But there were no signs of violence or trauma. Even if Esther had gotten her claws in the cage, there would have been no way she could have reached as far as the food dish that had become Red’s deathbed.

Esther was acquitted of criminal charges, but I am not so sure she was completely innocent. Red, remember, was a wild animal who one day found himself in the jaws of a curious canine, only to find himself soon thereafter stuck in a cage as another domestic animal salivated over his presence.

My autopsy: with his world confined from sky to cage, his only companion being his reflection in the mirror and the menacing cat who just sat there and stared, Red just lost the will to live.

My prescription, if I may be so bold: with his world growing so small and oppressive, the one thing that could have saved Red would have been a game.

*

The human resources world is abuzz right now with “gamification” — the process of turning otherwise dull, unattractive work into small, pleasurable games. Wal-Mart, for example, has successfully trained 75,000 of its distribution center workers on safety regulations by turning what would have been a 30-minute webinar into a daily series of 3-minute games.

In an interview with Forbes magazine, Adam Penenberg (author of Play at Work: How Games Inspire Breakthrough Thinking) cited science to explain the allure of the gamification phenomenon:

“A game is, at its root, a structured experience with clear goals, rules that force a player to overcome challenges, and instant feedback. Every day life is usually anything but. Because games offer clearly articulated rewards for each point players score and new level they achieve, they trigger the release of dopamine, a hormone in the brain that encourages us to explore and try new things.”

I do not work in a big office or anything remotely like one. Nor are my tasks routine or even straight-forward. Without human resources breathing down my neck, or co-workers to compare my productivity to, it is pretty easy to slack off and become unaccountable to the work that I do, even if on my better days I really do believe in the mission and vision of the various non-profits I work for.

Therefore, at the beginning of each work week, the first item on my to-do list is to figure out my to-do list. I may spend up to 10% of my working hours each week just figuring out what I have to do in the week ahead.

It feels a bit like unboxing a board game, shuffling the cards and putting all the pieces where they belong, all before the first roll of the dice.

Even my to-do list app has gotten in on the gamification trend. At the upper-right corner of my Todoist screen is a little colored circle signifying my “Todoist Karma” score. Every time I complete a task or otherwise use the app effectively, I get karma points. But every time I postpone a task or leave something incomplete, I begin to lose those hard-earned karma points.

Right now my karma score is 6,974, bestowing upon me the rank of “Expert”. I am on track for in April seeing my score rise to 7,500, levelling me up to the rank of “Master”. The ultimate goal, of course, is 10,000 — the rank of “Enlightened”.

*

I went for a run on Friday afternoon, the second day of spring and the first day this year the temperature hit the high fifties. The run was a “fartlek” — a speed play — where I threw in short bursts of speed to help blow off some of the rust that my body seems to have accumulated over the winter.

The loop I took circled around Lane Technical High School and the neighborhood parks that straddle the river. I saw kids out and about. Some kids were playing “organized” sports like lacrosse or rowing, under the supervision of coaches who may be more competitive than the kids themselves. I saw multiple games of basketball: the games in the parks were drawing a large and multiethnic crowd of youth, while one other game took place in an alleyway where the basketball hoop was positioned over the garage, the game being played by a small cohort of pale teenagers in collared shirts and dresses, likely the children of a conservative immigrant family looking for a way to connect in spite of the smothering shelter of their home.

Other youth were skateboarding around, the very landscape of the city transformed into a game. As a runner playing a very similar game, these were the ones I related to the most, even if we probably would not hang out any more than a brief moment on the sidewalk.

The sight of all these youth playing games was remarkable, not because it was a new sight but because it had been so long since I had seen last it. Winter had kept so many of these kids indoors, but now that the sun was shining and the entire weekend was before them, they embraced the outdoors in the only way they knew they could that would also keep them out of trouble: playing games.

At the alleyway entrance, about fifty meters away from the Cardinal Deux, there is a little speed limit sign that has been posted by one of our neighbors. LIMIT 15 MPH.

As a runner, I know exactly what 15 MPH is: the legendary 4-minute mile pace. When I was in high school and college, I could run a quarter-mile and almost a half-mile at 15 MPH pace. I would like to think I can still make it close, even though the working world has significantly cut into my leisure time available for working out.

On Friday, like many days, as I ran by the LIMIT 15 MPH sign to finish my run, I hit the lap button on my watch and picked up the speed, shifting gears in rapid succession attempting to make it as close to 4-minute mile pace that I could muster for that day.

When one runs that fast, less oxygen than usual makes it to the brain and rationality is suspended in favor of the more basic mental functions, like breathing and heartbeats.

Is life a game?

Or are games life?

Doesn’t matter the difference, I respond, as I cross the finish line for again one more time.

 

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On Games

On Fantasy

It was the first week of the semester and my roommate using his last few moments of freedom from deadlines to play video games. One of the installments of Final Fantasy, specifically. It was a gorgeous game, perhaps using every ounce of the graphic card in the cutting edge console. The in-game architecture stood stretched toward the sky, a sky that had luminescence of the ocean at sunrise, as the idealized-human avatars battled their way through a series of foes, one bad guy popping up at least every minute. Although I personally had never played any of the fourteen games in the Final Fantasy series, I remember sitting mesmerized as I watched my roommate tromp through a world that was at once beautiful and hostile, believable yet impossible.

When asked if I wanted to start a file of my own, I compared the seriousness of my syllabus to the frivolousness of this fantasy. I immediately declined.

^

I laugh in the face of escapists. “Afraid of a little reality, are ya?”

As a teenager, I did not indulge in science fiction nor fantasy. My primetime entertainment diet consisted of reality TV competitions, the evening news and the occasional sitcom. I made it through Book 3 of the Harry Potter series before I got bored of the tantalizing sensation of imagining myself as a fly-on-the-wall pupil at Hogwarts Academy.

The summer of 2007, the one before my senior year, I read Don Quixote, a 17th-century novel about a man, Alonso Quijano, who reads so many romantic novels on chivalry that he falls in love with the idea of becoming a knight himself. This fantasy transforms the way he sees the entire world, so that his tired and skinny work horse becomes the wonderful steed “Rociante”, the common farm girl Aldonza Lorenzo becomes (albeit not to her knowledge) his destined love “Dulcinea del Toboso”, some innocent windmills become hostile hulking giants, and Alonso Quijano himself becomes “Don Quixote of La Mancha”.

It is one of the few books I can remember laughing at. Impressive, of course, seeing as the humor had to survive not only translation into English, but centuries of historical and cultural change.

That same summer, I was in Chicago for the first time. I was on a experiential learning trip where I was being exposed to all sorts of social issues, issues like gentrification and mass incarceration. Our group visited sites like Cabrini-Green and the Cook County Department of Corrections.

That same week was the U.S. premiere of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. While my friends back in Oregon donned their wizard garb and lined up for the midnight showing, I may have silently laughed from the pedestal of my nitty-gritty reality. “What a bunch of modern day Don Quixotes.”

^

The world is a beautiful and broken place. We might not be able to define things like love, joy and peace, but we do experience them from time to time, and certainly we know when these things are lacking. There seems to be a simple goodness in the complexity of life, even if it only teases a great many of us.

Because the world is beautiful, why would we want to be anywhere else then here?

Because the world is broken, what could be more important than trying to fix it?

Why in the world would we want to escape into the impossibility of fantasy?

^

The image of my college roommate playing through Final Fantasy burned itself on my mind. Scenes of the game would be on mental replay throughout the entire semester and the next. What I thought was a mere diversion for him had spawned a whole set of questions for me.

This particular roommate may have been a video game enthusiast, but he was able to put the controller down and enjoy life as it was. There seemed to be nothing of real-world evil in his time spent fighting the forces of evil. Even if most of the characters in the game were astonishingly physically attractive and would qualify as a sexy date for any of us mere mortals, I do not think my roommate was playing in order to succumb to lust. If anything, his hours spent in the realm of Final Fantasy seemed to reinvigorate him with a joie de vivre for the rest of his week.

What was the function of fantasy in my roommate’s life?

Why in the beautiful, broken world does fantasy exist?

Was I being too harsh on fantasy?

While I pondered these questions in the day, I had recurring dreams at night. Specifically, dreams of tunnels.

In my dreams, I would wander through the world as I normally knew it, as if I were awake. But suddenly, I would stumble upon a tunnel, perhaps in a nook or sometimes in the alleyway between two buildings. Of course, this tunnel was meant to be traveled through, even if it was only as big as a crawl space. Once I made it through the tunnel, I would find myself transported. To a party, to a puzzle, to another country.

These tunnels were not mere escapes, they were places between places. Like a wardrobe in a spare room, or Platform Nine and Three-Quarters, what I thought was lifeless was an opening to a world beyond my limited imagination.

Why could I not keep the tunnels out of my mind?

^

The next year, I successfully convinced my on-campus neighbor that we were working on a tunnel between the basement of her house and ours. What was a simple story turned into a faux construction project (consisting of a draped cloth on the wall, traffic cones and chalk writing cautioning “Under construction — do not touch!” She never bothered, of course, to check if such a tunnel had made it over to the dark corners of her basement. Yet, she believed in its existence, sometimes asking my perplexed roommates when they came over if they had taken the tunnel. It was only on finals week, on the cusp of receiving our college degrees, that I finally revealed to her that the whole thing was a farce.   

^

People ask me why, as a fourteen-year-old, I gave up on Harry Potter at Book 3. The series was a literary rite of passage for my generation, and I stopped not even halfway through the tunnel.

My answer has always been: because I choose reality over fantasy. But, upon recent reflection, that answer is not the whole story.

Reading Harry Potter, I was never enchanted by the magic. Rather, what cast its spell on me was the near-adult independence these youth had. The fact Harry got to go on life-or-death adventures with his closest comrades. And, as the casting director for the movie series confirmed, Hermione seemed cute.

As a part-time youth worker, I spend a lot of time trying to understand the mental processes of fourteen-year-old boys. And, if I can crack the code of what was going on in my fourteen-year-old mind at this time, I think what led me to put Harry Potter down was because I thought I could make this fantasy world of Hogwarts my own reality. I could make my own independence. I could make my own adventures. I could find my own Hermione.

I became my own Don Quixote.

^

I am a curmudgeonly realist who thinks fantasy is a type of escapism which is a type of cowardice. Take the world as it is, only as it is! Fantasy fuels that capitalist insatiability for more / more / more.

My gasped logic breaks down, however, when faced against the imagination of an innocent child. A child for whom fantasy is normal. For whom, fantasy is a part of growing up.

So, the new logic becomes: hopefully, we never stop growing up. And so, hopefully, we never outgrow fantasy.

^

Why is the world a beautiful yet broken place? Because (and, here, I borrow from Daniel Bell Jr.), we suffer from desires that are fundamentally distorted.

We suffer from greed – the desire for the absolute.

We suffer from lust – the desire for a desire.

We suffer from pride – the self-defeating desire for the self, which ultimately is the desire for nothing at all.

I’ve undergone a paradigm shift. The way I see it, in a world such as this, fantasy is not merely a coping mechanism. Nor is it an exercise in “what-would-I-do” problem-solving, any piece of fiction or non-fiction can serve that purpose.

Rather, if I may venture an exploratory thesis, fantasy done right is a place for us to restore our desires.

  ^

What do I mean by that? Like anything with a reference to Harry Potter should be, the final installment of this series of mediations is going to have to be a two-parter. If you get impatient for “On Fantasy, Part II”, go back and check out the rest: On Notifications (!), On Questions (?), and On Decisions (/).

On Fantasy

The distance between home and home

[Warning: this is a blog post that doesn’t resolve itself. It comes with no tidy ending or wrapped up in a witty conclusion, it is just documenting experience and that’s just fine because I’m only a twenty-something, after all.]

There is a petty dissonance down the middle of my mind, about 2000 miles wide, roughly the distance between home and home. And I know I’m not alone in this.

On my 1.5 mile bike commute to work, I see two Subarus. First, a Forester, with an Oregon license plate. Second, an Outback, that while its owner has traded the Doug Fir plate for an Abe Lincoln, the rear window still prominently features a “Heart-in-Oregon” sticker.

I have not met the owners of these Subarus, as much as I want to. I want to ask them if they have also noticed that, from a road-side perspective, our state (2) has beat out the more likely contenders by a function of population and osmosis: New York (0), Texas (0) and California (0). I want to ask them why they too have decided to play the Oregon Trail in reverse.

Nobody truly knows what makes an Oregonian an Oregonian, but like these Subarus I have through little ways resisted assimilation to the city I have found myself in. I still have my Oregon’s Driver’s License. My shipping address, which changes from lease to lease, is different from my billing address, thanks to parents who have stayed put. Even though I walk by Alderman Ameya Pawar’s office on the way to picking up groceries at Jewel Osco, I still am registered to vote in Oregon’s 1st congressional district. I have a sticker on my laptop that proudly proclaims my tribal, er, state identity to the whole coffee shop.

Not that Chicago is a bad place. I really do like Chicago actually, or at least the neighborhoods I have spent time in. I like that just about everything I need is walking distance, I like the fact that there is always something going on, I like having centrally located train stations and airports that make the nation and world readily accessible.

If I had to, I could settle down and live here and be happy.

I could start buying things, like furniture, that do not fit into checked luggage.

So what’s holding me back?

Do I think Oregon just simply scores as the better place? — No. Places are not meant to be quantified.

Do I miss going on runs through forests with elevation changes? — No. Because I’d just as easily miss run-by-witnessing the quirkiness of people made possible by Chicago’s density of population.

Do I just like being different? — Maybe. But even so, that is probably less a weird psychological-ego thing than it is an Oregon cultural artifact.

What I think it comes down to is this: Oregon simply has shaped me in more ways than Chicago has. From the way I think to the way I dress to the way I spend my time and money. If tomorrow I were go and spend a year in New Orleans, or in Tanzania, or on the moon, I would tell people that I am from Oregon. Not Chicago.

I am not complaining about my current situation. I am here by choice, as opposed to the refugees and exiles who are here as a last resort. Nevermind that the “who am I/where am I” question is much easier than the “who are we/where are we” question: a surprising number of my friends have fallen in love not just across state lines but over international borders, and are having to figure out these questions not only in tandem with another but through concrete decisions.

So, as disorientating as it may be, the incongruence between home and home may actually be a normal part of the human experience. A formative part, even.

Maybe there is not supposed to be a right answer. If there is, however, I suspect it is not found by asking “which place should I call home” but rather “did I show up today, or did I run away?” At the very least, we are more likely to know how to answer the latter question.

That all said: my Oregon driver’s license, my state-issued identification card, expires this August. Under ORS 803.355 (and yes, I did look this up), I can only renew if I intend “to remain in the state or, if absent, to return to it.”

Not that the DMV employee is going to ask. Besides, I am confident I could make a legal case for my intention to return to Oregon in the eight-year period I would extend my domicileship, mostly revolving around the fact I see myself going to grad school sometime in the next eight years and that decision is probably going to shut the door on Chicago and there will be a transition period in which Oregon is the only place I could call home.

The more important question is this: am I going to continue resisting assimilation? If growing up in Oregon taught me anything, it taught me the importance of celebrating the places we find ourself in, whether the mountains or the valleys or the coast or the city. I am thankful for this lesson, but how shall I best thank the teacher?

By snubbing the Illinois driver’s license, am I showing up or am I running away?

I have no clue.

I am curious to see what I decide.

The distance between home and home

I work at a church and this is what I do

I came back to Chicago this fall on a hunch, not knowing exactly what it was I would be doing but that whatever it was, this was the city to be doing it in. For those of you who have connected with me solely through watching social media feeds,you might have caught onto the fact that I have become involved, both as contributor and steering committee member to Young Evangelicals for Climate Action. And while that all is plenty fun, the “day job” I have found myself in is no less interesting.

Since September, I have been serving Ravenswood Covenant Church as their student ministries coordinator, aka “the youth guy.” It dawned on me the other day that, beyond conversations with close friends, I have not been doing much blog-sharing on this experience and that there is really no good reason for that. With that said, consider this the first of many reflexive-reflective posts during my time at Ravenswood Covenant, getting the curious up to speed on what exactly it is I am doing, the lessons I am learning, and perhaps how you can participate.

To start, however, I know no better way to get people up to speed than a set of frequently asked questions.

The last time Ravenswood Covenant had an established youth program, I was in high school myself. So, when I entered the youth room for the first time this September, with MXPX and WOW 2005 CDs strewn on the floor, it was pretty much like stepping into a time capsule. A time capsule whose walls I wanted to paint a different color.
The last time Ravenswood Covenant had an established youth program, I was in high school myself. So, when I entered the youth room for the first time this September, with MXPX and WOW 2005 CDs strewn on the floor, it was pretty much like stepping into a time capsule. A time capsule whose walls I wanted to paint a different color.

How did you hear about this gig?

Last spring, actually, when one of my college housemates had been offered the job but turned it down to more appropriately focus his energies on rebooting the North Side Youth Collision project, a high-energy monthly gathering of area youth groups (including Ravenswood). Somehow the Ravenswood position piqued my interest, but I quickly dismissed it as impractical.

Simultaneously, I was in the process of signing a lease with some friends for a place that was only walking distance away from the church. I sublet-ed my share of the rent out while I did a summer in Portland, but not before at least checking out this church. It was confirmation Sunday, and when I came back I told my new housemate [different guy then the one who had turned down the job] that I could conceivably see myself volunteering with their youth ministry.

So, during the summer, when that housemate saw a fresh job posting for the position placed online, he forwarded me a link. By that point, I had grown more interested in part-time work (“it opens one door without closing all others,” I thought) and sent in a resume.

What was on that resume?

Three years of summer camp and a mouthful-of-a-degree called “Conflict Transformation: Concentration in Religion Studies.” (To clarify, I had a double major; the other was Global Studies.)

Year-round youth work in an urban setting has been dramatically different from summer camp in the outdoors. And while most 23-year-olds in positions similar to mine have just finished a “youth ministry” degree or have an eye towards a seminary internship, my degree was in the abstract underpinnings of how religion interacts with society. None of the methods or know-how or other wisdom on how to do this the right way.

Whether from camp to the city, or from the theoretical to the technical, there have been times I have felt woefully under-qualified or at least mis-qualified. I am consistently having to remind myself while I have gone to the opposite end of the spectrum, it is still the same spectrum.

I am by nature very conservative in claiming something as God’s providence. There are things I simply do not want to pretend to know. But for whatever reason, I feel like I am in the right place at the right time, as much as it surprised me that I am now working directly in a church context.

What is the church like?

Ravenswood Covenant is a 125-year-old congregation, the outgrowth of a care facility for widows and orphans and immigrants in what was once a Scandinavian neighborhood. Instead of being a ritualized reenactment of the way church was done in the past, as older congregations are liable to do, it feels more like the rings of a tree that show every year of it’s history, as the church has soaked up the neighborhood like a sponge. There is Swedish deep in the archives and Spanglish scattered throughout the pews.

I really do like the church. It does church well. Besides having a rich and interesting history, Ravenswood Covenant comforts the needy and convicts the comfortable. God is glorified by our gatherings.

I am usually pretty busy on Sunday mornings, chasing down students and all, but if you ever want to come for a visit, just let me know.

100+ years ago, this was the youth group. Things have changed.
100+ years ago, this was the youth group. Things have changed.

What is the youth group like?

The first thing people notice is that it is majority female. I have had a couple guys show up to our youth programming, but never more than one at a time. For the sake of gender equality I would love to see this number be more like, say, 50/50 but in the meanwhile I thank my lucky stars for growing up with sisters and then mutter something about opposite ends of the same spectrum.

Most of the youth are also deeply Chicagoan. Furthermore, a number of the students, many of whom have come through neighborhood outreach programs, are first-generation church go-ers – they are not steeped in sheltered church culture. Through hearing the student’s stories each week, I feel like I have already gotten closer to the city than I did during four years of school.

How long will you be there?

Good question. It is a transition period for both me and the church. I still have some residual wanderlust that comes with being a global studies major, and we will see if that desire dies out or asks to be paid back with interest. Nonetheless, I am certainly closer to the beginning of my time with Ravenswood than to the end.

Look forward to more updates.

I work at a church and this is what I do

Missing the Jungle for the Trees

When it comes to technology, I feel like I fall somewhere on the spectrum between savvy and Luddite. I have been faithfully using a Kindle Fire throughout this year, mostly for light web browsing and listening to various podcasts. But to date I have been too reluctant to actually buy any e-books for the Kindle Fire, even though that really is what the device is optimized to do. There is just something that does not seem right about dropping cash for a file so small that it could fit on a floppy disk, and in ten or so years has the potential to end up in the same graveyard of obsolete technologies.

But there is a work-around. Amazon offers a bunch of “classics” – popular books whose copyright has expired – for free. Enticed by the sound of free, I first read G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy this winter and then moved on to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle for the spring and summer.

Deciding to read The Jungle was a bit of a whim. I knew I had been in Chicago for some time and felt like I was overdue to read something that was from and about Chicago. Between high school U.S. history and a number of vintage posters hanging around the city, I knew that Sinclair’s 1906 novel had a significant impact on Chicago history. Convinced as anyone getting something for free needs to be, I clicked to download another e-book written before the advent of the computer.

Like many non-English majors starting out to read a classic novel for fun, I probably spent more time the first few months telling people I was reading The Jungle than actually sitting down and reading it. Often the conversation went something like “Oh, isn’t that the book that exposed the meatpacking industry?” I nodded yes, because by Chapter 3 Jurgis Radkus, Lithuanian immigrant and newlywed, had already gotten his first job at Brown’s slaughterhouse in the Packinghouse district, and I figured the gruesome depiction of twenty-five thousand cows, pigs and sheep being turned into food with mathematical efficiency was only going to get worse.

“The shriek was followed by another, louder and yet more agonizing — for once started upon that journey, the hog never came back; at the top of the wheel he was shunted off upon a trolley, and went sailing down the room. And meantime another was swung up, and then another, and another, until there was a double line of them, each dangling by a foot and kicking in frenzy — and squealing.”

“They don’t waste anything here,” said the guide…”They use everything about the hog except the squeal.”

“The floor was half an inch deep with blood, in spite of the best efforts of men who kept shoveling it through holes…”

“The people of Chicago saw the government inspectors in Packingtown, and they all took that to mean that they were protected from diseased meat; they did not understand that these hundred and sixty-three inspectors had been appointed at the request of the packers, and that they were paid by the United States government to certify that all the diseased meat was kept in the state.”

Not even halfway through the book, however, Jurgis finds himself fired from the meatpacking plant, Chicago corruption being such that he has been blacklisted from the entire industry. The machine he was so excited to be a part of is now grinding against him. I was baffled – “if he’s not working the meatpacking industry anymore, then what is this book really about?”

Every jungle has rivers.

Each plot arc, I began to realize, was another episode in a disappointing cycle of hope hitting frustration into despair. A rent-to-own housing plan turns into a penniless eviction, a free man in the free world winds up in jail, his teenage sweetheart dies giving birth, and his precious three-year old son falls off the wood-plank sidewalk and drowns in a mud puddle. Heartbreak pushes Jurgis to escape the city, but the Illinois countryside spits him back out to the city. A fun night as the entourage of a millionaire playboy turns into humiliating verbal abuse, an entry into political cronyism ends with one misstep. Even Jurgis’ close relation, the confident and capable Marija, caves in to the pressures of “just getting by” and turns to prostitution.

And somehow, this story of immigrant life in and against the city got missed. The book that inspired the masses to support the “Meat Inspection Act” and the “Pure Food and Drug Act” was not about the food on our tables or much less the humane treatment of animals, but rather the humane treatment of humans. While certainly these consumer advocacy programs were good things, how was it that we were not equally moved to do stand up for the rights of people like Jurgis?

Sinclair, I recently discovered, lamented the public hermeneutic of selfishness through which The Jungle was received – “I aimed at the public’s heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

One character of note is the pretty young lady (found on Location #3158 on the Kindle edition) who, as a person of privilege and could easily of stayed in her own high-class bubble, choose to listen to stories of grit instead of escapist fantasies or the 1906-equivalent of reality TV foolery.

“They were rich people who came to live there to find out about the poor people; but what good they expected it would do them to know, one could not imagine…Elzbieta was glad to have somebody to listen, and she told all their woes–what had happened to Ona, and the jail, and the loss of their home, and Marija’s accident, and how Ona had died, and how Jurgis could get no work. As she listened the pretty young lady’s eyes filled with tears, and in the midst of it she burst into weeping and hid her face on Elzbieta’s shoulder, quite regardless of the fact that the woman had on a dirty old wrapper and that the garret was full of fleas.”

This is no 21st-century novel. Sinclair espouses an outdated breed of socialist thought, and the portrayal of Chicago’s African-American community shouldn’t have been cool then and isn’t cool now. Neither of these inadequacies disturb me as much as how many people read this best-selling book and how few seemed to have gotten the larger point.

What will happen when the 21st-century equivalent of The Jungle is published? For those of us who have the choice – are we going to be “pretty young ladies” (or gentlemen), willing to listen, cry alongside, and speak up for the oppressed voiceless? Or are we going to repeat the incomplete sympathies of the past, glimpsing into slaughterhouse horrors and thinking only about our own kitchen tables?

That equivalent may be a book, a movie, a live performance, something downloadable onto a Kindle, or even a person met on the street.

It would be shame if, once again, we missed the jungle for the trees.

Missing the Jungle for the Trees