The frail beauty of curiosities without context

I wish I could regularly walk like I’m lost. I want to look up at the sky, meandering without purpose, instinctively slipping past the other people on the sidewalk – people who walk, like I do in actuality, like they had somewhere to be five minutes ago, especially if they didn’t. Walking like that deflects attention and precludes conversation. It’s practical, it’s easy, and it creates moments that are no sooner experienced than forgotten. Aware of the people around you, the storefront canopies overhead, and the incessant sounds of cars just a few feet away, nothing else registers. The noise is the experience.

With daily life often overflowing with nothing but background noise, I think about how constant awareness is not all it’s cracked up to be. Just be present, the internet told us a couple years ago, and your quality of life will improve. It certainly depends on what you’re present for, but I think in a lot of cases increased presence just means your head is filled with more debris than it would be otherwise. More context for a subject that has yet to reveal itself.

Because of the deafening level of white noise provided by 1) office life and 2) the internet, I’ve become fascinated by the idea of compelling things free of context (even ones designed to be that way). Iceland provided one such curiosity. In the gift shop of Reykjavik’s Harpa concert hall, I came across this beautiful boy, hilariously named “Fred.” There was nothing else – no indication of who Fred was or what intellectual property he was attached to. I knew nothing other than that I loved Fred. I was ready to believe that Fred was a standalone character that just existed to grace the three stickers in that gift shop, and nothing else. And the strange part is that the truth wasn’t that far off. Continue reading “The frail beauty of curiosities without context”

Advertisements

You have to live somewhere

“Semantic satiation” is the idle tendency to repeat one word or phrase over and over until you perceive it only as a collection of meaningless sounds. I do this enough that it stopped feeling foreign a long time ago; the thing I now find odd is how quickly I assign a name to it. As a word disintegrates into its constituent parts, immediately the sounds are replaced by words that still have meaning: semantic satiation.

I’m not sure if there’s a term for when this happens with thoughts, but that process still feels strange to me in a way semantic satiation hasn’t in a while. I recently went to Iceland for my honeymoon, and as my wife (!) and I traveled through disparate landscapes and stopped at one natural wonder after another, a single question kept bubbling to the surface. Why here? Continue reading “You have to live somewhere”

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”

This is a God Dream

The following piece was written for and dedicated to the Oklahoma Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church

If we’re going to call it a quest we should probably think about what that means
Because our words have more to say than the images they conjure in our heads
A quest is more than a fantasy of figures in shining armor returning triumphantly, a hulking beast laid slain in their wake
It often comes with a lack of direction
A time spent wandering, searching for anything that would lead forward
It means that above all, what makes this special is the beginning that leads to an end
All quests have the same starting point; we are offered a task and a purpose from God that we are willing to see through no matter what the cost

So that’s where we have to begin

We must realize that what is asked of us is much more than retrieving a goblet and bringing it back to a trophy case
We are asked to be the ones that help transform the world
Our quest that we embark on is at its core a rescue operation
We are sent to hear the cries of those who know there has to be something more for them
We are sent to bring hope and justice to those who feel chains tightening around them.
Chains of poverty, racism, discrimination and exclusion, an emptiness of spirit

We are sent forth as the heralds of the good news, that through Christ a better world is possible
And we don’t have to wait for it, we can begin building it now

So, we ask God to deliver us serenity
Deliver us peace
Deliver us loving
This is what we need today

And so, let the gospel be our map, our guide, our bread for the journey
Let this be our God dream, our imagination soaring to the limitless possibilities
Because we follow in the footsteps of the one who conquered death
The one who bends the impossible into reality
May we not quit
May we not settle
May we pick each other up when it seems like we cannot continue

But most of all may we never be satisfied to leave things as they are until we can truly and confidently say it is on earth as it is in heaven
May we be restless in our pursuit of the Kingdom of God
May we dream together with God to create a new thing
God, send us out to dream

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.

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”

Follow your passion, but don’t beat yourself up if you don’t have one

Successful people are always telling you to follow your passion, even if you don’t think doing so will allow you to pay rent. Don’t worry about the money, they say. Do what you love and the money will follow. This is 100% true, as long as you’re passionate about finance or fossil fuels.

Much of the advice young adults get about choosing a career and developing a professional life comes from people with a skewed perspective on what it takes to be successful, and this is a problem. When everything has turned out okay for you, it’s easy to tell other people that if they just be themselves and do what they like, everything will turn out okay for them too. It’s easy to realize that you’ve been successful at something, but it’s very hard to pinpoint why. And so when successful people try to articulate the causes of their success, they often fall on one fashionable, click-inducing reason: they followed their passion, and everything fell into place. They might say they got lucky, and they might know intellectually that success is partially about luck, but they don’t feel it. The outcome tints their view of the process, and they really believe that doing what you love leads to success and stability.

So what, you ask. Maybe people are advocating for following passions based on slightly irrational thinking – is that such a bad thing? Doing what you love is still a good idea, right?

Yes. I agree. But what’s not good is telling people that it’s only worth doing things you’re passionate about, and that’s often how this kind of advice comes across. When the theme of a motivational speech could be described as “doing anything you don’t love is selling out,” something is wrong.

It leads to people wearily insisting they’re passionate about some topic that might as well have been chosen out of a hat, because it puts enormous pressure on young adults to just be passionate about something (bonus points if it conveniently sets you up to make a lot of money). But in all the excitement over doing what you love, we’ve forgotten that you aren’t necessarily an awful person if you don’t have a burning desire to help underprivileged kids go to college or to save an endangered tree species. You shouldn’t feel like a failure if nothing particular comes to mind when guest lecturers and bosses and TED talk people tell you to follow your passion. Having a quirky mission in life and trying to turn it into money isn’t the only the only thing that makes life enjoyable, and it’s certainly not the only indicator of whether a person is worthwhile.