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.

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#TrustTheProcess

Sam Hinkie was innocent.
Or at least as innocent as someone with that much control over someone else’s livelihood can ever be
Imagine training your whole life to be good at this one particular thing
And the only person who wants you to use your gifts doesn’t want to actually do well with them
Hey pal, I’m trying to lose as much as possible to cheat the system and I think you’re our missing piece”
Do you take that deal?
Do you make the tacit admission that you’re better than most but among the best of the best you’ll only ever be a space filler?
At best the answer to a trivia question?
And yet Sam Hinkie asked over and over for people to say yes to this offer.
He told them to trust the process
To know that they must be bad so eventually someone can be good
It just might not be you.
It probably won’t be.
Sam Hinkie remains innocent because he never pretended to be anything else
But this is what the process demands
The churn of those who were never all that remarkable and who no one will remember

The worst day of my life came with a greeting card
It’s hard to really articulate this particular brand of misery
Of going to finally accomplish something for which you’ve been working for half your life
Of taking the last step to obtain something that you believed was your purpose, your reason for being, the means by which you got out of bed because you believed yourself remarkable
And then a small group of people in an ever shrinking room tell you you’re not special.
Not only are you not special, but you may as well be worthless
You were a fool to think that you belonged here.
You are made to endure the slings and arrows of those who have never met you for far too long
You leave that room broken. You might never recover.
And then you go home, wait a week or so, and check the mail
And those people who have told you that you are not good enough, that you have no value, have the audacity to send a card
A serene nature scene adorns the front, and on the inside is just the names of those who destroyed you, and a simple phrase
Trust The Process
As if that is supposed to bring comfort
Sure, you have fallen down the stairs, but you got to the bottom SO FAST
As if I needed to be torn up to become anything of value

Trust the Process
It is a cousin to the watchwords of the well-meaning but unhelpful
Everything happens for a reason
It’s all part of God’s plan
Trust The Process


It is hard to climb out once you have resigned yourself to being a part of the churn of the unremarkable
It is hard to see that you are not as broken as they said you are
It feels like defeat to attempt to join in the process that crushed yourself
It does not always get better.

But what I have learned from the bottom, I carry with me
If this is a process, it means this is not the end.
There are still things in motion
There is still hope that might be waiting
There might be brighter things coming
I reject the processes that aim to add to that great churn
But there must be a process by which we drag ourselves out of it
We will make something worth remembering
We will become remarkable
One step at a time.
That, I can trust

Aliens Exist

The government says they have alloys from another world

I have no clue what that means or what those would look like

They’re probably just something that seems a little different from what we’ve got already

But a little difference is all it takes for something to be “out of this world”

I hope that what it all means that it’s a little less weird for me to be convinced that aliens exist.

Because they have to, right?

How arrogant do you have to be to look at all there is, all this undiscovered, uncharted, unexplored space and say “No, actually, it’s just us. It always has been”

There’s no wonder to that, no longing to venture into the unknown to discover something that may have always been just out of reach

Or even better still, to meet that hand that has been stretching towards the infinite for God knows how long

To give it something to hold on to, a welcoming embrace

A chance to hear what it means to be something else entirely, and share our own existence in return

Maybe we don’t have to look all the way to the outer reaches of space to find that

Maybe it’s just comfort to believe that somewhere above that star-spangled blackness, someone is looking back

Maybe I look to the stars so when I feel small it can be by design

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

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

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.

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.