“Let’s Go” for the Pokemon RPG purist: Novelty as a vessel for nostalgia

This is not a video game review; this is a meditation about the nature of our temporal experience. This is about coming to terms with the fact that you can’t enjoy something for the first time more than once, and appreciating the circumstances under which you actually can.

I played Pokemon Let’s Go Pikachu recently. I’ll get the mundane out of the way first: I chose Pikachu version over Eevee version because I knew in advance that you couldn’t evolve your starter in these games (I understand this game design choice, but I disagree with it). If I’d known about all the special moves your starter can attain throughout the course of the game, I’d have chosen Eevee. As it was, I ditched my starter Pikachu for an Alolan Raichu mid-game. The inclusion of Alolan forms in this game is representative of what I liked about it. There were enough deviations from the original Yellow version to keep the game from feeling stale, but it was also very, very familiar to me, a person who wore out Pokemon Blue on Game Boy Color and loved Leaf Green on the Game Boy Advance. Continue reading ““Let’s Go” for the Pokemon RPG purist: Novelty as a vessel for nostalgia”

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Days when the sky is too big

I visited Oklahoma last week. It was overcast and raining when I landed at the airport, something I was grateful for. A wide blue sky would only have amplified the gnawing homesickness I felt for my immediate surroundings.

Driving under a cloudless sky is particularly oppressive. With that vast blue expanse above, everything down here feels tiny. I’m driving a tiny car to a tiny destination to do some tiny thing, and all the while, an endless blue pool stares down apathetically. A sky wide open makes me feel like one of the rare clouds that dares to puncture the monotony – isolated, small, and fleeting. These feelings are true, in a way. They’re just not great for a return to a place where everything used to feel important. Continue reading “Days when the sky is too big”

Stability without stasis

Growing up, one of my favorite places was the back seat of my family’s minivan. It would probably still be one of my favorite places if it were around anymore. That seat meant familiarity even as the world flew by – I could fall asleep and wake up in a new state, and the seat was always there, my open backpack on one side and a Nintendo handheld and a couple books on the other.

The back seat wasn’t just a refuge; it was something I looked forward to. Uncertainty anchored to familiarity is exhilarating – it’s the promise of better things and of new adventures. Uncertainty by itself is exhausting. Airplane travel, for example, carries none of the fond memories or feelings of embrace that I associate with that minivan. I’ve never outgrown my fear of airplanes, hope as I might, and it always strikes me how different it feels from something so similar.

Continue reading “Stability without stasis”

Demetri Martin and the obsessively examined life

The pieces of media I wrote about in my last two enthusiasm posts, Owl City’s Ocean Eyes and the movie Hoot, are at least reasonably well-known even if most people are apathetic about them. But when I ask people about the subject of today’s post, Demetri Martin’s stand-up set If I, almost nobody has heard of it. To me, this performance is the pinnacle of the philosophical comedy genre I wrote about a while back in a post about DC Pierson. It’s a comedy show, as Demetri Martin is nominally a comedian, but it provides more introspection than laugher and that’s not a bad thing in this case.

Demetri opens the performance with this gem: “The unexamined life is not worth living. Socrates said that. I would just add one thing – man. The unexamined life is not worth living, man!” This is the tone of the show distilled. It’s obsessive self-analysis and urgent soul-searching, softened by deadpan humor. It rules.

Continue reading “Demetri Martin and the obsessively examined life”

“And We’ll One Day Tell Our Story”

I’ve been thinking about nostalgia a lot lately. Nostalgia, if Don Draper is to be believed, comes from a phrase meaning “the pain from an old wound.” It’s something that marks us, that can vividly transport us back to a moment, a place in time and space where we might have been different people. Sometimes that gets caught up in pop culture. We cherish these things that we’ve loved like holy relics because at one point in time, even just for ourselves, they were. There’s the feeling of understanding, of deep emotion, of a joy that needs to be chased down and (in its worst forms) protected at all costs.

That fanaticism is easily exploited, to the point where the powers that be might parade these things in front of us and expect us to love them in the same way simply because they are there. It is a constant ask to see these things that call back to our memories as if they were products and not stories. It’s an empty thing to see how we are expected to leap because we see something we recognize, not because those things are being used in service of a greater narrative. It’s such a cynical thing to pander to these old wounds without understanding the story of how those scars were etched into our bodies. There comes a time when it’s important to realize that the important thing that we are remembering is what stories those memories allow us to tell rather than the need to keep a flawless idea of the memory itself. The idea of new iterations “ruining our childhood” is continually upsetting. No one is taking those stories from us. They can’t.

The trap of nostalgia beyond empty repetition is that it keeps us focused on the wrong direction. We constantly look back, wanting to recreate those things we love with absolute perfection. We cannot stand the idea of things being different as if that somehow changes the essence of the thing. Instead, we should be looking forward, using what we’ve learned, what we’ve loved, to build a new story. We should look to how we use the familiar to change what we think is possible rather than running through another reboot that might not have the same heart as the first.

I say all of this nice stuff about looking forward rather than back as I get ready to mourn a building this evening. Union, the coffee shop and church that I both attended and worked for while I was in seminary, is closing the doors on its original location on Dyer Street in Dallas. And as much as I just talked about the physical thing being less important than the stories we use it to tell, it still hurts to lose a space that was such an important part of the last five years of my life. It’s a space where I can point to the table around which I met some of my best friends. It is a space in which I can stand on the stage where I learned how to tell better stories. It is a place where I saw an image of what the church could be as it was lovingly painted with each member of the community adding a little piece of themselves to make something new. It is the place where I always knew I could feel like I was at home, even after I had been away for a while.

I’ve joked with some friends over the past year that I feel like the Ghost of Union, someone that floats in and out unexpectedly, that some people know the lore behind and some don’t. Ghosts have anchors to places, and when that home on Dyer Street closes its doors it is hard not to think that I’m losing one of mine. But here’s a thing I’ve learned about Union: Union is made up of our stories. It is beyond a place, if we’ll let it be. So as Union starts a new chapter in a new place I will still mourn Dyer Street. But I know that they take those stories with them and they’ll make new ones that wouldn’t be possible anywhere else.

“And we’ll one day tell our story/of how we made something of ourselves”~Lucius “Two of Us On The Run”

Paraments: A Holy Saturday Meditation

No one else can see this.

Alone in the sanctuary I move from pulpit to altar to lectern

Exchanging bare wood for the white paraments of Easter.

The sanctuary is uneasy when it’s left unclothed

Maybe it’s because we only leave it that way once a year

On the day where we remember that God died

On the day the light goes out.

It doesn’t feel right. It shouldn’t feel right. But it’s reality

But  now, we can begin again.

The sanctuary refuses to stay bare forever.

It refuses to stay blank for long.

When the congregation files in tomorrow I hope they see something beautiful

Life returns to a place that desperately needs it.

The smells of creation filling this sanctuary as I drag in lilies that we had to hide on Friday.

And the cross, so recently a symbol of death and decay stands triumphantly empty, silhouetted by white blossoms and buds still waiting to bloom.

New life continues to grow

And so I keep moving from one place to another around the room, transforming a place that was left barren not a day ago into a place where life is found again.

I wonder if this is what God felt like

Working and preparing a display of new life in a place that had so recently been barren

No one else can see this

But we have to make ready anyway

Millennials in an Alternate Reality

Millennials are the worst. They are entering the workforce at increasing rates and soon they’ll be the ones shaping the future. They are the largest demographic in the United States, and because they are the worst, everything is going wrong.

When millennials were growing up, only the winners received trophies. Their dispassionate fixation on results over process is a byproduct of this broken trophy-distribution system. Maybe if we hadn’t overemphasized the importance of final outcomes, millennials could enjoy the journey without thought of the destination. But it’s too late; millennials know that effort is only worthwhile if leads to a W.

When they were kids, millennials were told that only truly exceptional people could do exceptional things. Today’s twentysomethings never had to give up on being an astronaut because they never dared to imagine it. They’re very rational, but they’ve forgotten how to dream.

Millennials, defying even the most conservative estimates, are the most technology-averse generation since the Great Depression. Their comparatively poor social skills are likely a result of their tendency to isolate themselves from the effortless connectivity of modern technology.

Millennials understand that no one person is truly unique. Their parents constantly reinforced this theme, and as a result, millennials are bystanders – they expect somebody better or smarter to come along and do all the things that need doing.

A common refrain among millennials is “follow the money.” They are financially successful, because they eschew fulfilling careers for jobs more suited to their skills, but their careers are often marked by hesitancy. Because they generally do not believe they are special, they feel unprepared when it comes time for them to assume leadership roles. They often instinctively suspect that promotions are clerical errors or practical jokes. They accept unhappiness because they have never expected better.

This generation the least self-aware in recent memory. They’ve earned the nickname “the You generation.” Despite their stunted interpersonal skills, they are fixated on the well-being of others to a fault. Ask a millennial about his likes and dislikes, about her aspirations, and you will receive a blank stare. How can millennials be happy if they don’t know what they want? How can we continue to create art and music and literature if the largest demographic in the country has no concept of self to express?

Millennials are great employees. Just don’t try to have a stimulating conversation with one.

Always Forward

Always Forward

Romans 12:1-12

I was watching Luke Cage on Netflix the other day and something really stuck out to me in those first few episodes. Luke Cage, if you aren’t familiar, is a TV series about a superhero that opens the show trying to live a normal life in Harlem. He didn’t want his powers; they were forced upon him in a failed experiment while he was in prison. So he attempts to live a quiet life, sweeping hair in a barbershop and not making too much noise. The shop is owned by a man known simply as “Pop” who serves as a role model, almost father figure not just to Luke but the whole neighborhood. His shop is a sanctuary away from the constant struggle of life in New York, a place where even the fiercest blood rivals can sit down for a moment of peace. Pop lives by a motto that stayed with me for the entirety of the show and I couldn’t get it out of my head when I sat down to write this. It’s these two simple words: “Always Forward.” He would go on to say it many times, sometimes making sure to add in a reminder to never go backwards but the emphasis is always on forward progress.  Continue reading “Always Forward”

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 “Ocean Eyes and staying warm”

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.