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.

Premiere! Thomas Rakowitz: “The Illusion”

This is the first time in a while I wished I had access to Myspace-esque autoplay functionality so I could just play the “This is a woooooooorld premiere” sample from “i” over and over while you read this. Go here and just listen to the first eight seconds a few times.

I’m beyond thrilled that I get to be the one to deliver the first single from Thomas Rakowitz’s album The Musings of Balance. Longtime readers will know that I discovered Rakowitz as a featured artist on Brian Altano’s Misanthrope and became enthralled with his guitar work, noting that it completely changed the sonic landscape in which Altano could play around and made for an even better experience. Rakowitz has released a couple of albums and a steady stream of one-off tracks since then, showcasing that he hasn’t lost a step and is (somehow) getting better and more adventurous with each release.

Which leads us to “The Illusion,” an early look at what’s to come on The Musings of Balance. This track is one to keep you on your toes as it moves along. The beginning seems liked it’s setting up for a prog track, with a drum and riff combo that gave me flashes of Coheed and Cambria’s “Time Consumer.” This little theme continues, adding in a loose-sounding bass, slapping every note to give it a bit of jangle to go with some fat low-end texture. Rakowitz’s layered vocals add an air of something impending coming just behind the next chord progression.

And when that finally arrives in the chorus, we get something that takes the familiar groove that Rakowitz has been playing with and completely transforms it into a blast of chords, familiar enough to be a stepping stone from what was built up before but adding a new kick to the track as a whole. Combine that with a brief solo to rise above the sludgy riffs before plunging back down into a heavy outro and you’ve got a recipe for a roller coaster ride that knows just how to play on your expectations without giving you too much time to rest. You can check out “The Illusion” below and check back here in a few days for a full review of The Musings of Balance before it’s released on March 16th.

Tuesday Two-Step: Tetherball & TW Walsh

Woo it’s been a bit since we’ve done one of these!

Nashville’s Tetherball has a way of combining smart indie-pop with an almost doo-wop sensibility on their new single “Social Jedi.” The guitars take you along “tumbling down this ladder” right behind the vocals while the drums keep you snapping right along with it. It’s a brisk little tune that felt like it was over too soon, a testament to how much I wanted to play around in the sound. Check out the Pac-Man themed video below and get a little more of a taste of Tetherball when the EP Pheromone Flood comes out February 26th.

We’ve also got a new video from TW Walsh, formerly of Pedro the Lion.  “Fundamental Ground” kicks off with the line “I’ve been in this room for way too long.” The song feels haunting in a way that expresses the melancholy of not going anywhere even as you search for something bigger out there, that base thing that must be holding up everything else. Walsh’s vocals have an uncertainty to them that plays up this theme.  Check out “Fundamental Ground” here and pick up TW Walsh’s new album Fruitless Research when it releases this Friday.

Reflect

I WROTE THIS ONE IN THE SKY WE’RE LIVING IN THE FUTURE

Now we see in a mirror dimly but then we will see face to face

What are we looking for?

What are we hoping to see reflected back at us?

Are we looking to see the divine, somehow captured in our own visage?

I mean, that’s the image we were made in after all.

Or maybe we’re desperately hoping that God looks more like us, that we can be ourselves and know that we’re still doing okay

But that dimly lit reflection, that fog on the mirror that develops after we clean ourselves up keeps us from seeing the whole picture.

Because it’s dangerous to say that God looks like me

Because then God can’t be you, or anyone else. In that reflection only lies saying what God cannot possibly be and I don’t think that God works.

It’s not about seeing ourselves in God but being able to know that there is a divine spark present in us

Maybe the reflection we need isn’t our own face but to examine what we need to see staring back at us.

And eventually we’ll stop looking at ourselves to find that, transfixed by our own reflection, and go become that mirror for the world.

Reflecting back the beauty that was always there.

Anatomy

So they say it’s kind of like being a body

That we’re all connected together but we have different parts to play

Eyes can’t see without hands that can’t move without feet

Each one with a different role to play that allows us to function as we were intended

Roles that we were designed to fill, that we can fit into perfectly if only we can find out what we are.

Maybe we are eyes, looking forward, examining things, finding what lies ahead for each of us

Maybe we are those ears, listening to others, processing perspectives that may not be our own

Maybe we’re a thumb, helping to hold on to things that we can’t bear to let go.

Maybe we’re a stomach, taking things in, breaking them down, making them possible to consume and provide energy.

But what Paul didn’t talk about is the days where you feel like an appendix.

Feeling like no one understands your purpose.

Maybe you don’t quite get it either.

That you feel like you’re an unsung hanger-on.

But even in those days, there’s a purpose.

The appendix is a safe-haven for the bacteria that help out in digestion, in taking the food and drink that we take in and turning them into energy

When they get pushed away from their homes by some outside force, the appendix welcomes them in.

And I know this is a little more gut science than you find in most poetry but it needs to be said that even this organ that for the longest time seemed to exist only to cause pain and be removed has value, has a purpose, has a reason to belong to the body.

And on those appendix days, I hope I remember that. Sometimes it takes a long time to discover a purpose, a reason to realize you belong, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

The body needs all of us, no matter what we decide we are.

Lights Will Guide You Home

I’m fascinated by lighthouses

With all the advances we’ve had in technology there’s still a need for these pillars to shoot these radiant beams out over the water

To show that there is a safe place waiting for people

A port in a storm.

Built to hold up against the wind and the waves that rock ships and brace against the foundation of the lighthouse itself.

Because somewhere along the line people realized that all of these other things can fail

But the light? The light never does.

Gasping for Air

Continuing my lectionary poetry project, this piece is based on Mark 1:1-11

Listen. Did you hear it?

There was a sound of expectations rending apart, something heavenly being split open

The divide that was between us and what is much greater than us has been smashed and from the looks of it I don’t think we’re putting it back together that easily.

And as we look to see what could have possibly made that hole in the heavens all we can find is a tiny dove.

A dove and a voice are all we get to see as proof that this rending, this tearing, this schism is worth seeing.

And these  two guys that say all I have to do is get in the water. That it’ll wash everything away, let me start fresh

I tell them they’ll have to hold me under a while. I’ve got a bit more grime on me than I’d like to admit

The water is so cold. You’d think it would be refreshing for what it claims to do but all I can feel as I wade in is my chest tightening up as the chill bites at me, working its way up my bones.

They plunge me beneath the surface and I’m underwater for what feels like forever, like they took my joke about my grime all too seriously. Everything feels like it’s closing in around me, the icy water seeming to freeze, encasing me in this mistake. I was simply too dirty to get clean.

Light. I see glorious light as I’m brought up, terrified, soaking wet, gasping for breath as if I thought I’d never get the chance to feel air in my lungs again.

I hear something in the distance, barely audible over my own distracted panting. Something about someone being “well pleased.”

Am I any different now? Has anything changed? All I can think of is surviving this frigid bath I just undertook.

But as I haul myself out of the water, I feel the light on me again and I am warmer than I’ve ever been. And when I look down at my arms, still dripping from the water, I see a shine that I haven’t noticed in a long time.

Discovery

When you think about it, the Magi were just First Century paparazzi.

They heard from someone else the location of someone important

They showed up unannounced, unexpected, and interrupted someone’s private moment

They come to worship, nominally. They come to adore what they’ve found

But in reality I think they’re here to prove that this star is just like us.

I can’t help but wonder if Mary and Joseph ever knew a peaceful night while they waited in Bethlehem, snuggled up close to God

I wonder if between the constant flow of people who those shepherds had shown the way, moving out of a lowly stable to finally find room at an inn, and the crying of a helpless Lord if they had time to rest.

I wonder if they asked God to maybe turn off that star that burned brightly overhead for just one night

And here these people arrive. Because of that same star.

“We thought we would find a king here, so here we are!”

And they rejoice, exuberantly yet briefly, and leave these gifts

I wonder if Mary and Joseph appreciated the sentiment but wished they would’ve all just brought gold instead of the other stuff.

And we call this an Epiphany.

We call this a moment of insight, a spark of realization

This idea that a star could be just like us

That God could be more than something far away

That God could be with us right here and now

It’s having all these words, these prophecies, these tales of something that is to come and in one moment having a realization: It’s all true.

And the Magi slunk back to their own country, warned not to make that short trip back to Jerusalem to let everyone know what they had found.

Unable to sell those people on the story they worked so hard to uncover.

And yet there is still joy on this day of Epiphany

Because we can still discover for ourselves what awaits us underneath yonder star.