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.

 

On Games

In Boston’s aftermath

As a runner who studied the sociology of terrorism as part of his undergrad, I think I need to say something in light of recent, appalling events. It won’t be much. Words cannot reverse what has happened, but maybe they can point towards a possible direction, a different place set forward in the horizon.

Running, we know, is an intimately personal act. It is an act of mustering the motivation to lift your body from a state of rest. It is breaking your body down in order to make it stronger, it is choosing to be strong when your body has broken down.

In addition, running is an incredibly political act. (Not in the sense of elections and legislation, but in the sense that politics is the art of the public.) Save for treadmills and indoor tracks, running always takes place “out there” and relates the surrounding place to the runner.

Runners are vulnerable. Sometimes we are with a group, but often our sense of commitment means we go it alone. In the city we watch out for cars and in the country we watch out for cougars. The nature of the sport means we tend to be under-dressed and a little fatigued. Many times we have done an “out-an-back” long run where have turned around and realized that we are miles away from home, often with no cash, no identification, no phone. The only security runners have are our legs — and the fact that we trust society to let us freely go about on our little exercise ritual.

Runners are disruptive. Runners may be vulnerable, but runners have a certain power. Runners redefine what sidewalks and gravel roads and city parks and out-of-the-way trails are good for. Our routes are like arteries on a map, infusing meaning into the landscape around us. Running is a performance, a play of biological code and cultural script. Running is an act of presence, of being multiple places almost at once, witnessing the world around us at many miles per hour. On our favorite, out-of-the-way runs, we might stumble across a high school couple making out (sorry) or a slightly more offensive offense (like that one time I busted a drug deal at seven-minute-mile pace).

Runners are achievers. There are a special few endorphin junkies who are runners just for the feel of it, but for the most part runners lace up their shoes with some goal or challenge in mind. Many runners can point to a personal record or a particular day that they are proud of. Even if the runner falls short of an arbitrary goal, they have succeeded in going out and trying. Olympians and first-timers alike can inspire the human spirit – if passersby take a moment to step back and notice.

The reason I bring this up, in light of yesterday’s events in Boston, is because even if the blasts occurred among bystanders, many of whom were not runners per se, these particular victims were there to celebrate a runner they knew and in some way part of the running spirit.

And terrorism, the sort of act witnessed yesterday, is not just homicidal mania. The heinous crime of terrorism is also a political act. As the cliche goes, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” Certainly that doesn’t make it right, as terrorism is neither morally sound nor tactically effective (non-violent protest is always more effective, ethical and sincere). But it helps us understand the event and shape our response.

Almost every marathoner represents hundreds if not thousands of hours of training. A marathon itself is the sum total of this hard work and sweat, in addition to the volunteer and staff commitment that make the event possible. To witness the finish line of a marathon is to see the focal point of millions of hours of hard work.

Never mind that the Boston Marathon is an amateur event as opposed to mere recreational race. Although it is not the Olympics, individuals still have to qualify for the Boston. It is difficult to just “sign up” for the race, one has to truly be committed to the sport. Hence, amateur,  rooted in the word amore, the word for “to love.”

Never mind that the Boston Marathon is a integral part of the Patriot Day celebrations, something I admittedly don’t understand but Bostonians certainly cherish.

We do not know who the culprit behind yesterday’s horrible act is. But we do know this:

With the string of moments it took for them to assemble an explosive device, they attempted to steal away the significance of millions of hours. They attempted to replace love with hate. They attempted to pervert the public spirit.

Let us make sure that, whoever it is, that they fail. Let us reject categorically the twisted worldview that made a senseless act make sense to this particular group or individual.

Let us mourn the dead, care for the injured, lament what could have been.

But let us not sacrifice one inch of meaning to the false gods of fear. Let us continue to celebrate the human spirit, seeing that in a runner (like any athlete, or any person striving towards a positive goal of any sort) we can be better than base, deranged and pathetic. We may not be perfect, but we are not soulless.

So for those of who run, or cheer those who do, let us keep lacing up our shoes. Let us carry the weight of tragedy, let us look over our shoulders to be on guard for obvious threats, and then let us go, and go strong.

Vulnerable, disruptive, achieving: let us keep running.

Even before the explosions, the American Red Cross was at the Boston Marathon, supporting the running spirit by providing volunteers and working at aid stations. They were quick to respond and continue to put their muscle into this tragedy.  I consider myself more of a rational giver than an emotional giver, so as odd as it is for me to impulsively add a handful of dollars to an organization with a $3.5 billion budget, for whatever reason I threw out all calculations and did it anyway. I cite my frugal donation not to boast, but rather to challenge you to consider doing it too

In Boston’s aftermath

A season for letting the darkness in

I have felt this Advent season in my knee.

(For a primer to Advent, the weeks before Christmas that are often confused with the Christmas season, see here and here.)

As a runner, I am always competing against myself to be in the best shape that I can be. It is a lifestyle thing, of course, and I simply do not know if I could survive living in the city without such an outlet.

I had strung together a couple seasons of solid training, ready to take the end of autumn bundled up yet faster than ever. There was a bounce in my stride I had not felt in years.

There was also an ache in my knee I had never felt. Not once. This is strange. Perhaps it is nothing. It will pass. And so on I went, running as usual, sometimes taking a day or two off each week to aid recovery.

Someone else, happening to watch my stride, called me out. “Kaleb, you’re limping.”

In a moment, expectations for the future collided against the realities of the present. As much as the honesty was liberating, the outlook was frustrating.

A perfect intro, perhaps, into the Advent season.

A knee is hardly anything to complain about. Health is fragile, and I am fortunate to be in good health. Even with a limp, where one leg did most of the work and the other merely provided balance, I still probably could beat you in a foot-race. Even though, if the past has been any indication, I would not be able to walk straight for the next 36 hours.

But this limp has been more than a symbol, more than a metaphor of Advent. It has been synecdoche, an intimately felt expression of a much larger darkness that pervades our world as-is. It has humbled me, slowed me down enough to the point of acknowledging the darkness.

(It has slowed me down in both the figurative and literal sense – being reduced to running laps around the park near my house, so that if I have to quit the run I can just walk back, I have seen the same homeless guy trying to sleep on the same bench multiple times each day.)

Darkness in the Sky

You do not need to be caught up on the news to get a sense of how dark the world is, even though some of the news of recent days has been especially dark. There is darkness on the streets, in our families, between neighbors, within our bodies, throughout the planet. A darkness so big that to cite specifics would be inexorably reductive.

This is not the sort of darkness that contrasts with the astonishing good of the world, not the sort of darkness to help us better appreciate what we have. It is blatantly deceptive to refer to these rips in the fabric of our being as mere shadows that help us know there is light.

We try to pass the blame for the darkness. If only I had been there. If only such a law was passed. If only other people were not so ignorantIf only, if only, well, perhaps this is just dumb luck.

Some of us try to create alternative realities where the darkness does not exist. Some of us look to the past, as if the darkness was not there. Others of us look to the future, as if we can overcome the darkness on our own merit. But instead of shining light into shadows, we set caustic fire to the tears and rips and create even uglier things.

We think our willpower alone with be enough to save us. We think we can keep running, and that strange ache turns into a full-fledged limp.

This is nothing new. It goes back throughout places and eras, it includes the first Advent, that long, intra-testamental period of darkness that eagerly anticipated divine salvation.

A nation looked for a messiah to overthrow its oppressor. The prophets had told them one was coming, and the pundits had said the messiah would come with a very militaristic type of willpower, but willpower nonetheless.

What the nation got was a defenseless infant. Born to a nervous, teenage mother and a dumbfounded, adoptive father. Born in the back of some hollowed-out space meant for livestock. It was an event that happened under the nose of emperors and revolutionaries, who while basking in their artificial light missed what shepherds and magi saw emerge out of in the darkness.

It is not a cute story. It is a story that should send chills down our length of our spine.

The optimist, the enthusiast, the leader in me wants to skip ahead to the celebration of Christmas. But that is not the season we are in.

Advent is a season of hope. But hope is not blind optimism. Hope listens. Neither bum knees nor baby kings sneak up on those who hope.

A roommate and I recently attended the Chicago Children’s Choir concert under Cloudgate (aka “the Bean”). They sang a number of traditional Christmas songs – Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Silent Night and such. But they closed with a fascinating one-two punch that may be the most true-to-Advent songs I have heard this year.

The first was One Day by Jewish reggae singer Matisyahu (“I know some day it’ll all turn around because / all my life I’ve been waiting for / I’ve been praying for / for the people to say / that we don’t wanna fight no more”), followed by Revelations 19:1 by gospel worship leader Stephen Hurd (“For the Lord our God is mighty / Yes, the Lord our God is omnipotent / The Lord our God He is wonderful”).

I don’t know if I am to chalk this up to some vision of the artistic directors, or the subversive power of children to speak truth to the pervasive darkness, but this juxtaposition of taking-the-world-as-is and worshiping-God-as-is lingers.

Advent, I am coming to find, is a season for letting the darkness in. Because something greater than ourselves has come – and is coming – in a form so surprising as an infant. We won’t find it in the distractions of forced celebrations or utopian visions. We will only find it in an authentic sense of hope, and even then, it will not come when we planned, nor will it be what we thought it was.

It only comes once a year. Let us embrace it while we can.

A season for letting the darkness in

This Week in Football, and Thoughts on Synergy

Save for the Olympics and whatever bowl game the Oregon Ducks get into, I almost never put the effort into working my schedule around televised sports. Just not my jam.

But Monday night, one of the low-key evenings in the life of a fresh college grad, in addition to a few mindless e-mails to send off and a simple word document to create, I figured I might as well catch the Packers versus Seahawks football game. A nice, civilized contest of Midwest brawn versus Pacific Northwest brute, that I would be sure many of my friends would be talking about.

And then this happened:

 

Unless you somehow missed all the ensuing news coverage, you would know that his not just a matter of game-ending frenzy wrapped up in an ambiguous call. Rather, it came in the midst of a strike on the part of the NFL Referees Association, and the season so far has been carried out by “replacement refs” of dubious credentials.

The NFL reached a deal with the “real refs” just in time for tonight’s game, the Browns versus Ravens. But it got me wondering, what was the big fuss?

There were two sorts of sports pundits in Monday’s post-game coverage. About half were so excited that they had something uniquely interesting to talk about the words just spilled right out of their mouth, the other half were so irked by what had happened that, when it was their turn to speak, they spoke impromptu jeremiads. One pundit, trying to establish how much of a “real deal” this was, said something to the affect of the NFL being a “multi-billion dollar enterprise, with millions of dollars resting on each call like this being made.” Another simply said, “the shield has to defend itself.”

Between the lines, I felt like each of this latter group of men, each of whom have spent years and careers as fans, players, coaches, and now commentators, were saying “my life is wrapped up in something that is looking a lot like a fraud.”

There is a brand-new pigskin hanging around our front room. Recently, when I came back home, exhausted from a solid workout, I laid down on the couch and picked up the this official, composite-leather, not-incredibly-round ball. I realize I speak from my own prejudice as a runner, where the sport is as simple as getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible, but as I palmed “the Duke” I was struck by how lifeless it seemed.

Lifeless, of course, compared to the fan-packed stadiums, the enthusiastic cheerleaders, the calculating coaches, and the players’ incredible feats of athleticism. Lifeless for something that a third of the country takes as a national holiday one Sunday each February. Lifeless for something that, at least at the high school level, has become a medium for entering into larger social issues – think of the non-sexy parts in Friday Night Lights, the race relations of Remember the Titans, and I have to give a McMinnville shout-out to the self-explanatory Quarterback Princess. With so much energy and passion surrounding the game, it seems strange that the football just by itself can seem so dull and unanimated.

It is easy to become disenchanted.

It is easy to become cynical.

It is easy to want to analytically break everything down to component parts.

The same gamble the NFL is took with replacement refs is the same gamble governments take when politicians act contrary to the law, or the law works contrary to the people. It is the same gamble churches and other religious groups take when betraying the truths they supposedly preach. It is a gamble of legitimacy, that the whole shebang might be exposed as a dirty power-play to manipulate the imagination of the masses.

Which may be true, although I sincerely hope against it in every case. What I want, instead, is to believe that synergy exists, and that synergy can be put to good cause.

I think of the human body as a perfect example of synergy. Our bodies are something like 65% oxygen, 18% carbon, 10% hydrogen, and then a bunch of other trace stuff. But you cannot say that we are nothing but these elements – there is something fundamentally different between a human body and a water puddle with a block of carbon on the side. Rather, these atoms are in relationship to one another in such a way that they create something of greater value (that is, the human body) than what they would have been on their own.

I am currently reading through Christian Smith’s rather dense but apparently important book What is a Person?. In chapter one he makes quite the argument for personhood, saying that the human person is not simply the human body, but rather the formula goes something like person = human body + cultural context + rational thought + a bunch of other things. And there is something about the “person” which is greater than all of these things combined.

Furthermore, I think that when two human persons become united in marriage, the whole process of “two becoming one” is less 1+1=1 and more 1+1=3. That is, neither partner really gives up their individual identity, but now they have created a new, shared identity that exists as a dynamic addition to who they were originally.

(Hm. This may be the most-off topic rant about the whole Seahawks-Packers touchdown debacle.)

Just like how the institution of marriage is synergistic, I think the institutions of sports and politics and religious affairs are synergistic. Imagine that lifeless football laying in my front room, in the hands of a much more skilled player than myself, on a proper field and perhaps even with a proper crowd. The oddly shaped ball, which kind of resembles an uncomfortable turd, becomes a key part of what is not just a multi-billion dollar empire, but a game which (in varying degrees) is a meaningful part of many of our lives.

All the more reason then that the NFL needs qualified refs on the field maintaining order, to keep the football from being lifeless, meaningless leather. All the more reason government need qualified politicians maintaining law and respect, why sacred places need qualified priests to keep sacraments alive and devotees in worship. When all the pieces come together, something magical happens, synergy happens.

Call it all an illusion if you want, but don’t complain when I call you a puddle of hydrogen and oxygen.

The important thing, of course, is not whether or not synergy exists, but what the synergy is directed towards. This is, I think, a test of the true mettle of a leader and their organization – not the component parts of her or his organization, but how they make those component parts work together and for what purpose. Governments can join in unjust wars, churches can become overly judgmental, and football leagues can needlessly sacrifice the beauty of the game for a quick dollar or two.

But, unfortunately, some leaders cannot get to the step of deciding what to direct the synergy towards, because they are stuck making decisions that jeopardize the existence of that very synergy. They get hung up on some details and neglect others. This goes beyond the decision to hire lousy refs in order to minimize expenses, but also what takes place in corrupt politics and cult churches.

I guess what I am getting to is this. If you are a follower, and we all are followers sometimes, accept the reality of synergy. Don’t say “it is nothing but,” because that contributes nothing but cynicism to the discussion. And if you are a leader, and we are all leaders sometimes, accept the responsibility of synergy. Cultivate it, direct it. Do something good with it. Please.

This Week in Football, and Thoughts on Synergy

“…your first memory of feeling really connected with nature.”

For her philosophy class at Oregon State University, a friend asked me, amongst many others, to share “a story about your first memory of feeling really connected with nature.” A few months later, I still wonder what the public school professor’s reaction to this musing of an essay was.

I remember going for early morning summer run, as a high schooler, through the valley-side foothills of Oregon’s coastal mountain range. This is where I had grown up, the terrain was familiar. Due to something unusual going on that day, however, I had been forced to schedule my daily run much earlier than usual. The orange and purple of the sky, illuminated as it was by the sunrise, drew elongated shadows through the vineyard-covered hills. Oddly enough, the beauty of this moment was not my first experience of connection with nature, but rather the feeling of alienation. This passing magnificence weighed me down with an unusual sense of futility. I wanted somehow to “use” this sunrise, to capture it, to share it. But I could not.

Right now, I attend an evangelical Christian college in Chicago. One of our general education requirements is in ethics, considering perspectives both within and outside of our faith tradition. Accordingly, I took a course in environmental ethics. The course was taught by a philosophy professor who specializes in theology and a physicist who specializes in climate dynamics.

There is a myth that permeates popular evangelicalism that the world is just a trashy holding place for souls that hopefully will stumble upon the secret of escaping into heaven. As many have noted, it is a line of thought that gives way to crass utilitarianism, something I had all-too-obviously fallen victim too. If there was one takeaway point from that class (at least from the Christianity unit), however, it was that God created the world to be good, but that human sin has subjugated the world to cursedness. The ethical component was that in anticipation of the eschaton, we humans need to start living into the divinely-ordained role of those trusted with the care of nature that we are a part of. Especially in the western world, where we have treated creation like a candy bar wrapper (save, of course, for a few parks and preserves here and there).

I internalized this worldview shift, and the reward was soon fruitful. It was a good warm spring day for a run, so I laced up my running shoes and set out for some miles down River Park: a long narrow greenway along the north branch of the Chicago River. There were a few white clouds in the sky, some blossoms in the tree branches. In the distance were city skyscrapers, which are awe-inspiring in their own way. At my feet, however, were the flat concrete trail and the stench-filled sewer drains that can be especially ripe during the first few warm days of the year. The gentle, odd mix of the majestic and mundane somehow led to an epiphany moment, where simple ideas took on the power of experienced truth. “Nature is cool. This is enjoyable. It is not perfect. That is okay. Nevertheless, we have work to do.” The echo of my ethics course could be heard as my mental monologue further proclaimed in complete academic-ese: “Look at this tree! What non-instrumental value!”

I have come a long way since then, developing a deeper appreciation for the wonder of nature, often while on the run. I would realize how running, by reanimating a genetic ritual was a sort of quasi-spirituality, an experience with one’s inner nature (this is with a shout-out to the fantastic book, Born to Run). I have now had sunrise runs that are rather euphoric. My desire to see the thriving of landscapes and life would deepen (although, I must confess, I still am unsure how to translate this into consistent personal action). But it was this moment, thanks in part to a changed attitude, on a pleasant yet mundane Chicago afternoon, that first allowed me to step into nature, in a way the majesty of an all-too-perfect Oregon sunrise was too overwhelming and daunting to allow.

“…your first memory of feeling really connected with nature.”