Ocean Eyes and Staying Warm

Owl City’s Ocean Eyes is one of my favorite albums, and when I search the internet for opinions about it, the well-argued ones are usually blisteringly negative, and the positive ones are usually vapid and full of spelling errors. For whatever reason, people don’t seem to dig deep into Ocean Eyes and connect with it the way I do, and I think the internet needs an opinion on the album that’s positive and seriously considered. Here we go.

Ocean Eyes came out in 2009, and I’ve listened to it on and off in the seven years between then and now. Though it was commercially successful, most reviews around the time of its release were negative, saying that it was sickly sweet or that didn’t have the depth to keep listeners around. Reviewers said that the album floated along on the strength of meaningless pretty phrases and catchy but repetitive instrumental melodies. These criticisms and worse are true of Owl City’s other albums (but Maybe I’m Dreaming is decent). Ocean Eyes, though, is serious and emotional behind its pretty phrases and radio-pop instrumentals. Continue reading

Thomas Rakowitz Finds His Way Home

Sometimes, when you least expect it, the right piece of music drops into your lap. I’ve been in an anxiety funk recently, with potential big things coming up. I’m sitting up writing this knowing I should sleep soon, but I just hit play for the second time on a new track from Thomas Rakowitz because it’s perfect for where I’m at right now and I needed to write about it.

Rakowitz, as you know from following any of the other things I’ve written about his work, has this uncanny ability to paint with his guitar. “I’ll Find My Way Home” is no different. The opening chords are sparse, slowly echoing into nothing before some arpeggios come in underneath. It has this feeling of going in circles, but not because you meant to. Every time they come back it’s that feeling of being lost on a trail because you took a wrong turn and you can swear you’ve seen this rock before. I swear I mean this in a good way.

I don’t know if that’s what Thomas was going for, but that’s what I felt. Each time the picking comes back in under the chords it’s slightly different, building to a moment of clarity at the end of the track that feels like a discovery. I got chills near the end of the song because I heard this hopeful shift in the tones, this anxious crescendo towards actualization. Everything just fits together in this manner that seems to evoke searching for something and the confidence that comes from knowing it’s out there, no matter what the journey’s looked like so far. It’s 7 minutes of self-reflection, and it’s exactly what I needed. Thanks, Thomas.

Listen to “I’ll Find My Way Home” below, and if you like that (you will) you can click here to get Thomas’s double album The Musings of Balance

Learning to Learn Again: Divinity and Dragon Punches

I’m at EVO right now. I’m writing in my hotel room, before I go out to see what Las Vegas has to offer to a curious explorer. I’m panicking because my laptop clock hasn’t updated and so it has me two hours ahead of reality, counting down the minutes before I shut down so I can make it to my bright and early 8 am Guilty Gear bracket tomorrow. I am probably not going to do well in Guilty Gear tomorrow. It’s a game that I like playing, but I didn’t put as much practice into as I did Street Fighter V and as we’ve previously discussed my dearth of a local scene in southeast Oklahoma meant that I was at the mercy of the online play and it was hard for me to get things going. It’s a game that’s so different from Street Fighter, my best game and the one I practiced more than any other for this EVO. The movement options and the way the game flows shift at a rapid pace and sometimes I feel like I can’t keep up. Sometimes I feel like I should just put it down and go back to what I know, because I may not be a top Street Fighter competitor, but I’d won more than zero games in it at that point. And so because I’m a fighting game genius and make good decisions, three days ago I dropped Leo, the only character I’ve ever played in Guilty Gear and decided to learn Sin (and yes it’s more than a little ironic that the pastor gravitates to a character called Sin). Maybe it’s because that’s who Dogura plays. Maybe because I’m remembering Jay Snyder’s word of advice: “Anyone who has an extra meter is cheap and you should play them.” But nonetheless I decided that I would give myself 3 days before my first live Guilty Gear tournament to learn a whole new character.

I’ve talked about my training mode experiences before. There I was talking about how I found joy in the work of getting better little by little, how I knew that even if I wasn’t going to ever be the best person in the world I could see myself getting better just by spending time in that familiar grid. But what I realized as I tried to learn Sin is that I don’t even know how to use training mode that well. My first thing I do when I learn a new character in any game is type in “[character] combos” or “[character] bnbs” or “[character] tutorial” to Google and just click whatever comes back to me. Then I spend a lot of time watching those videos, reading those articles and combo sequences, and trying to memorize and replicate them. Even my GOOD training mode habits are copied from James Chen’s video on how to use training mode. And I realized somewhere along the line that I wasn’t sure if I was actually learning anything. Because I could do all these sequences that were complicated for my skill level but as soon as I took them out into the wild I realized I was still just as overwhelmed as I had been before. And I would go on Twitter just to follow the events leading up to EVO and I would see people who were creating new things, inventing new things, those people who understood what they were looking for when they sat down with something new. And I found myself having to wait for them to do the discovering for me because I didn’t know how to start.

It’s an interesting thing realizing that you don’t know how to learn, that you only know how to copy and paste what’s come before. I mean, sure I could tweak, or know what kind of stuff doesn’t fit my style but it was seriously hard to admit that I wasn’t a creator, that on day one of a new thing I would be useless because no one could show me where to go. I’m a person who never really had to learn stuff in school. It came to me naturally and that would get me through just fine. I was learning new information, sure, but I don’t know if I learned to do it for myself. I don’t know if we do a good job of teaching people how to learn. We give them stuff to copy and paste back on a test but that sense of discovery might be lost, or it least it was on me.

I wonder if the church falls into similar traps. I wonder if people are aware of that tendency to copy and paste what someone else discovered, tweaking and discarding as they see fit. I see myself as a good preacher and teacher but am I giving people tools to figure stuff out and discover? These are the things that I started thinking about while I was flailing, trying to get Sin to work for me. How do we learn to learn?

When I stopped having to read things for classes and started reading things because I wanted to, I found myself going on chains. Something that popped up in one book that lead me to find a book on another subject and then I would start talking to friends about everything that I was reading and I found myself understanding things more. Maybe there’s a collaborative effort to learning, that is to say that it can’t be done in a vacuum. I can smash against the computer dummy all day but I won’t know how it all works unless I go play a real person. Likewise, I don’t think theology works in a vacuum either. I can see myself as that great preacher and teacher but if no one is willing to talk about the things I bring before them I don’t know if I learn or articulate my thoughts as well as I do banging on my keyboard trying to find the right words late into the night. We need each other. We need to ask each other questions, we need to find out why things feel a certain way and that only happens when we take what we’ve thought about alone into conversation with other people.

I remember back in college and grad school I would study with friends who were in in wildly different disciplines from me. We did it just to have that human presence across the table, even if we didn’t say much to each other. But every now and then one of us would have a breakthrough and start spouting off big points and exclaiming the pieces that had just fallen into place. And most of the time the other person would respond with something from their own discipline to say “I can say big words about stuff you don’t understand too.” But sometimes we would hear a version of the phrase, “Tell me more about that,” and we’d be off to the races. I lived for those moments because we got to build on a burst of an idea together. And I see that as a fundamental part of how I understand things now.

So I’m excited to be at EVO 2016. I’m here with thousands of other people and while I may not end up being in the top 8 at the end of the weekend, I’m with thousands of people who (whether they know it or not) are giving me opportunities to learn and grow. This is an opportunity of a lifetime to interact with people from all over the world brought together by these games, this community, and we can all leave better for it. And maybe I’ll figure out what it means to learn along the way.

Secret Project Episode 4

This week on Secret Project, Travis and Jeff discuss The Indigo Girls, 1 Kings, and examining our privilege as it relates to history.

Song this week: “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” by the Indigo Girls

Join the conversation by following Jeff and Travis on Twitter at @jmesquire and @wtewton respectively or email us at secretprojectcast@gmail.com

As always, thank you to The Midnight Sons for our theme song “Variable” from their album Descartes.

Secret Project Podcast Episode 3

Sorry this is late! For some reason my brain said, “You know what you can probably do in the middle of the woods with limited internet while you’re in charge of almost 200 kids? Edit and upload a podcast!” Turns out I was wrong. 

This week on Secret Project, Jeff and Travis discuss Luke 7, Miguel, and how we define ourselves in light of something we have nothing to do with.

Scripture Luke 7:36-8:3
Soundtrack: “Adorn” by Miguel from the album Kaleidoscope Dreams

Thanks as always to The Midnight Sons for our theme song “Variable” from their album Descartes.

You can reach Jeff and Travis on Twitter @jmesquire and @wtewton respectively, or email us at secretprojectcast@gmail.com

Secret Project Episode 2

Welcome back to Secret Project! This time Travis and I are talking about Bob Marley, Luke 7, being hope rather than just talking about it, and what happens when helping does more harm than good.

  • Show Notes!
    • Our text for this episode is Luke 7:11-17
    • Travis’s music selection is Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry”
    • The book Travis mentions is Toxic Charity by Robert D Lupton
    • As always thank you to The Midnight Sons for our theme song “Variable” off their album Descartes
    • You can talk to us on Twitter! I’m @jmesquire and Travis is @wtewton. Or you can email us at secretprojectcast@gmail.com
    • Please note that we did the first 4 episodes all in one go so even if you have great ideas for us, unless it’s something I can do in post-prod, you won’t see the results of that until episode 5. Thanks for understanding!

Secret Project Episode 1

Welcome to Secret Project! It’s a podcast from myself and Travis Ewton about music, theology, and culture and the places they meet up.

Why Secret Project? Well there’s two reasons. The first is that I referred to this as Secret Project on social media because I have a bad habit of scheming and not actually making a thing and so I didn’t want to commit to an identity before I knew it was going to happen. The second is that when we sat down to record, Secret Project sounded to us like a band that would have toured with Minor Threat and that DIY ethos of getting a message out through music seemed like what we were trying to do with Secret Project so we stuck with it.

The goal is that we want to soundtrack the lectionary, to look at music and how it relates to scripture and more importantly, what conversations they inspire us to have about our culture.

Secret Project will normally release Tuesdays and Thursdays but after our initial recording session I worked on editing this one because I was super stoked about this and wanted to share it as soon as possible. So you get Tuesday’s Secret Project today and then we’ll get into our usual schedule. It’ll be hosted here on Irrational Confidence for a bit while we look into other hosting solutions.

I hope you enjoy Secret Project, and feel free to get with us on Twitter (@jmesquire and @wtewton) or email the show at secretprojectcast@gmail.com. Here’s the first episode!

Topics Discussed: 1 Kings 7:8-24, Kevin Abstract’s “ECHO” and handling grief.

Thanks as always to The Midnight Sons for our theme song “Variable” from their album Descartes

A Toast

Weddings are a day for bloated, overwrought metaphors.

Love will be compared to any number of things and about half of them will make sense.

Because the truth is we’re all searching for something to help us explain these feelings that seem to make everything alright.

It’s magic to begin with and so the words that we would use otherwise suddenly become meaningless, our tongues tied into the same knots our hearts make in those moments in which we find ourselves overcome by this intense joy.

And most of the time we don’t end up saying anything at all

But I’m a poet, and bloated overwrought metaphors are kind of my thing so you can’t expect me to stop myself, can you?

For the two of you it’s obviously a bicycle.

Two separate yet similar entities that are bound together by something much more solid.

But that’s the easy one. So’s the one about wheels with spokes bound to something at the center.

The real meat is how hard it is to go backwards. Spinning pedals in reverse futilely with no resistance, but no momentum.

Stopping and weakly kicking your feet at the ground trying to get a few inches back. It’s almost never worth it.

I hope that the two of you realize how much more fulfilling it is to go forward, to explore, to go somewhere new.

I hope you realize that even when you feel resistance you’ll know that’s the only way this thing moves

But most of all, I hope you enjoy the ride.

So here’s to Robert and Rachel, may you never run out of trail to explore, and may you always enjoy getting there together.


There is Joy in the Work: Divinity and Dragon Punches

So as you may have heard me scream about for months on various social media platforms, I’m going to Las Vegas in July to compete at EVO, the largest fighting game tournament in the world. This is A Big Deal for me and so I’m going to write about it hopefully more than just this leading up to it and maybe do a couple of posts or vlogs or something from the event and a big post-mortem when I get back. That’s the plan at least.

On any given night you have at least a 60% chance of finding me in the following configuration: I’m sitting on the couch, with my dog curled up around my feet, going through something on my phone, with my laptop open on the cushion next to me. And on my lap is my trusty weapon, a big hunk of plastic, buttons, and wires that I trust to lead me to victory against an onslaught of strangers. Or at least it can help me figure out what in the world Justin Wong is doing in this video that I can’t seem to make work for me. Or maybe I’ll finally go through this frame data app that I’ve been told will make me a better player and figure out what it actually means so when I ask the guy next to me at the tournament, “Is that move safe?” I’ll know what it means when he says yes or no instead of just nodding sagely like I didn’t even need to ask in the first place. But mostly I’ll post up in the training mode of Street Fighter V and throw my Karin against the Ken I set up as the punching bag, trying to make magic out of these button presses.

I started playing fighting games when Street Fighter II came out on the Super Nintendo. I wasn’t really drawn to any particular character but I loved playing the game with (and most of the time beating) my dad, my friends that came over, anyone who would pick up the controllers with me. I had no idea what I was doing but those moments of victory after proving myself to be better than whoever sat next to me were worth so much. I fell out of the scene until I was in high school, when Street Fighter II came back as an HD Remix. I got my first arcade stick for Christmas that year and would take it to friend’s houses, finding new games to play with them and trying to be the best again. This continued in Street Fighter IV and all its variations, as I finally found a character I loved in Cody and wanted to be more than just the best of my friends.

So I would spend long nights in the training mode working on special cancels, combos, this whole new world beyond mashing the heaviest punch and kick I could find and hoping my opponent would walk into it. I saw that grey and red grid in my sleep in college, where I spent game after game trash talking my roommate, goading him into playing one more round where I would thrash him again. I started watching streams of EVO and other events and saw what these professionals could make their characters do and it felt like an art form. I loved every second of it and it made me want to work harder. Once I got to seminary, the copy of Street Fighter IV that lived on my laptop was a place I could retreat from stress and work. I would go to that familiar zone, working on muscle memory for my combos, working on my movement, it became a discipline that was almost spiritual in that I would play games, either win or lose and find myself in an intense self-examination phase as I tried to get better.

Eventually I decided to take my show on the road. I wanted to compete locally, so I found a place in Dallas that hosted a fight night and went thinking the work I had been putting in would lead me to the top. I got to the venue, played some casual games before the tournament started and won most of them. As they called my name to come play my first tournament game I felt confident, like nothing was going to stand in my way.

And I got worked. Just completely stomped in ways I could have never imagined. I went 0-2 and was out fast. I left without seeing who won, or playing any more games. I just wanted to go home. Maybe I didn’t know these matchups as well as I thought I did. Maybe my character wasn’t that good and I needed to learn someone else. Maybe I was just trash garbage and I had no business playing.

But when I got back into training mode, that familiar grid, all of those concerns melted away. I could just press buttons and learn something again. There was joy in the work that it took to get better. So when I went back I didn’t win the tournament again. In fact I only won one game, but it was against the player that eliminated me the last time. I learned something. I got better. There was joy in the work.

I would love to say that this was a story to how I rose up to dominate that scene and became someone to be feared in the fighting game community. But it’s not. I’m just a middling player at best who loves playing these games. And in those moments with my dog curled around my feet as I try to make my Karin do the same kind of things Mago’s or Justin Wong’s does I feel at peace because I know I will get better. When my fingers slip on those tricky links, when the moves just won’t come out the way I think they should, the way I see them performed on the screen, it is easy to get discouraged. It is easy to think that I’ll never be Mago, I’ll never be Ricki Ortiz, I’ll never be Justin Wong. But the point is not to be them, the point is to enjoy the process of playing these games, of learning what went wrong and doing it better next time.

I can’t go to a lot of live tournaments. There’s not exactly a thriving scene in Wilburton and most local-ish game nights are on nights I have church work or on weekends where I can’t travel so I can be there for Sunday mornings. That grid and online games against strangers comprise most of my practice. I had a rare day off so I went to a game night and got to play against real people. I didn’t do great, I ran into my problem matchups early, but when I hit my big Karin combo that I’d spent all that time in the Grid working on that ended with her laughing in my opponent’s face, it was hard not to crack a smile. There is joy in the work.

The first year of being a pastor has felt a lot like those days in training mode. I go out, I preach, I teach, I learn, I do something in the community, I talk to my congregation, I try to meet their needs and eventually I come and try to put it all together. I try to see what I can do to be better, to serve in a way that shows love to others and changes lives for the better. There are moments where I can look at what I’ve done, or see what my congregation has done together and feel the utmost joy knowing that we’ve accomplished something. There are sermons that I finish and know that God was present there. And sometimes I make mistakes, and I have to work out what went wrong and what we can repair. Sometimes there are habits I need to break in order to be more effective. Recently I went up to the big dance and found out that I didn’t know the matchup as well as I thought I did. I gave it my best based on what I had worked on and found out it wasn’t good enough. And I admit that every now and then I have those moments where it feels like a character crisis, and I wonder if I need a bigger change than a smaller tweak. But then I remember those moments, that there is joy in the work, that there is joy upon joy in getting to share this grace that I have found with other people, and I think that maybe it’s time to get back to that work. Because if there is joy in the work, there is work to be done.