Monday, January 22, 2018

Phrase of 2018: Good for Good!

Historically, I have been awful at New Year's Resolutions. Before the spring season is over, I often forget that I even made a resolution. Resolutions are out as a tool for me. But, I still want to be a better person by the end of the year. How do I get to there from here?

This year I'm trying out a phrase instead of a resolution. The phrase de l'annĂ©e is Good for Good! It's kind of vague, yes, but that's because I had to fit a lot of idea into three words. The gist is this: Taking care of my self is important because it better enables me to serve and love others. Physically, I need to take care of my body through rest, nutrition, and exercise. Spiritually and mentally, I need to spend time God with through constant prayer, Scripture, and reflection. The end goal isn't self-actualization, though that's a bonus of being a Jesus-lovin-son-of-a-gun. The actual goal isn't me; the actual goal is to be more ready and fully capable of participating in God's plan. The Kingdom of God. The coolest thing.

This Good for Good phrase came to me in an embarrassing way. There have been multiple times in the last few months in which my kids wanted to play with me. But, I couldn't physically play because I wasn't taking care of myself. I couldn't get down on the ground or swing from the playground equipment because I physically felt too nauseated from my diet, or just too tired. I'm only my 30s. What a wakeup call. It got me thinking about other areas of my life in which I'm not giving my best because I can't. It's disappointing to realize a lot of people aren't getting the best version of me.

That's difference between Good for Good and resolutions I've always failed at, like wearing certain jeans or a certain jacket that used to fit in 2005. There is a more explicit purpose that I care deeply about. I'm trying to keep the phrase at the back of my mind when I make decisions. So far I've had mixed results, but I'm glad the thought it always there.

A few years ago our friend Jen gave Sam and I a copy of Marge Piercy's poem "To Be of Use" as a present. It was meaningful gift, and I've always kept it close. It says better than I could what I'm striving for. Here's a chunk:

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
Help me figure out how to be of use! What tips do you have?

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

2017 in 37 Questions

1. What did you do in 2017 that you’d never done before?
I read more than sixty books, which is definitely a personal record!

2. Did you keep your New Year’s Resolutions, and will you make more for next year?
Not quite. I intended to post something every day on Instagram that I was thankful for, but I stopped before February. It felt showy or braggy. However, In my journal and apps I did try to think of what I was thankful for every day. So I did try and stick with it throughout the year, just not in a public way. I'll try to keep that up in my normal journal in 2018.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?

Yes. Babies everywhere, all the time.

4. Did anyone close to you die?
My friends' dog, Shelby, died. She and I had been friends for more than ten years, and it was sad to see her go. It was comforting knowing she had basically the best dog life imaginable.

Chris Cornell, one of my top three all-time favorite songwriters and my favorite rock singer, died. While he killed himself, ultimately it didn't seem like an intentional suicide because of how his medications were off balance. Instead of trying to harm himself, he had been trying to keep his mood up and had been making plans with his family for vacation. He just lost his medical homeostasis. The whole situation was heartbreaking, and scary to me because Chris was a model of how be a person who successfully managed depression, suicidal thoughts, and made something good out of it. If your role model falls, what do it mean for you? I continue to pray to God for grace for Chris and for me and for everyone who struggles with depression.

Since we had kids, I think a lot about mortality and how we're in this circle of life and this long chain towards heaven, and it makes me feel too much. So, I try and just observe these depths from the edge and move on.

5. What countries did you visit?
Texas.

6. What would you like to have in 2018 that you didn’t have in 2017?

More times where I acted in love and lived for God's Kingdom instead of whatever silly whims of the day I had (junk food, being selfish, etc.).

7. What dates from 2017 will be etched upon your memory, and why?

May 29 - last day of a very big work project!
May 30 - the day of relaxation!
September 24 - the day Samantha broke her foot! In a weird way, this hardship was like a bizarro vacation that strengthened our marriage and deepened our love and appreciation for one another. It also gave me the chance to bond with our youngest boy, whom I didn't really get to see most of in the first half of the year!

8. What was your biggest achievement of this year?

I tried my hardest and was content with that.

9. What was your biggest failure?
Being selfish.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?

Let's just say I can never look at John Wick and Oreos the same way again.

11. What was the best thing you bought?
I bought Sam a little French press and burr grinder for fancy coffee. She is a coffee drinker now due to the two young kids situation and we wanted something fancier than the K-cups. This way she can make fancy coffee every day, and I get to play with the manual burr grinder on a weekly basis. I sniff it every few seconds like a weirdo because that fresh ground coffee smells so good.

Personally, I bought myself an Xbox One right after one of the busiest seasons of my life. In the six months since, sitting down in the garage and playing games has been a great source of relaxation. Since you asked, the games I played were

12. Whose behavior merited celebration?

Sam, for being a gracious and amazing mom for two wild and crazy guys. My parents, for always being willing to help us out with the boys so we can go out for a quick bite to eat or a date. Eric and Jodi Posadas, who handled many difficult trials this year with faith and grace. All the awesome people who helped out Hurricane Harvey victims.

13. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?
I was pretty sad that we as a nation had to have conversations about whether or not we thought Nazis and rapists were doing bad stuff or not. Thankfully, we as a culture decided we were against racism and sexual assault.

The other behavior that depressed me was how many people decided they couldn't be friends with anyone who had differing political opinions. It reminded me of a quote from Edgar Mitchell, an American astronaut who had this to say about the view from space:
You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.'
14. Where did most your money go?
Most of it went to mortgage and food, which means I am thankful that we had a house and food! Proverbs 30 says, "Give me neither poverty nor riches! Give me just enough to satisfy my needs." So, getting by is a good place to be.

15. What did you get really, really, really excited about?

Endless Shrimp at Red Lobster with Sam! It was our first night date in forever, right after a busy season at work, and we just got to enjoy one another's company.

16. What song will always remind you of 2017?
The theme song from Justified.

17. Compared to this time last year, are you: a) happier or sadder? b) thinner or fatter? c) richer or poorer?
Everything is the same!

18. What do you wish you’d done more of?
Spending time with friends and going on dates.

19. What do you wish you’d done less of?
Eating mindlessly.

20. How did you spend Christmas?
The week leading up to Christmas, we'd pile the whole family in the SUV and go look at Christmas lights. We would come home and have a Christmas light turning on ceremony for the boys. They would run around in the yard for a few minutes and then it was bed time.

Sam's dad came down for Christmas eve and Christmas morning. Sam made us a great Christmas Eve meal, we all drove around to look at lights, and then we watched Christmas with the Kranks.

Christmas day was the usual family lunch at my aunt and uncle's.

21. Did you fall in love?
Always.

22. What was your favorite TV program?
Justified, Twin Peaks

23. Do you hate anyone now that you didn’t hate this time last year?
They hate us cos they ain't us!

24. What was the best book you read?
I happened to make a list!

25. What was your greatest musical discovery?
Motorhead and Nina Diaz.

26. What did you want and get?
Busy season at work to end, time with the family, an Xbox One, naps. Lots of stuff!

27. What did you want and not get?
I always think I'm going to win the lottery for some reason, even though I never play.

28. What was your favorite film of 2017?
Wonder Woman was up there. The Big Sick was fun because it was a small, non-serialized movie. To Have and Have Not was probably my favorite movie that was new to me this year. North by North West was very good. Get Out.

29. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?
We didn't actually do anything on my birthday because Sam had just broken her foot. I might've actually been sick with a throat thing.

30. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?
Nothing. That's not how contentment works!

31. How would you describe your personal fashion concept of 2017?
"Can I still button these pants?" and "Is this ironed already?"

32. What kept you sane?
God, sleep, exercise, loved ones.

33. What political issue stirred you the most?
The need for more civility in our discourse.

34. Who did you miss?
Uncle Ronnie

35. Who was the best new person you met?
Not really NEW people per se, but I did get to know my coworkers much better. I really like my coworkers.

36. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2017.
Life is little things all added up together, so be good in the little things.

37. A quote that sums up your year.
"Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don't plan it. Don't wait for it. Just let it happen. It could be a new shirt at the men's store, a catnap in your office chair, or two cups of good, hot black coffee." - Dale Cooper (Twin Peaks)

Thursday, December 14, 2017

My Favorite Places

I'm sure every person on the planet has places where they feel the most home. In random order, here are my top ten places:

The Tarantula Lounge: My garage is my ideal hangout. It's got a giant tv, video games, a giant Texas flag, great speakers for whatever music I happen to be into at the moment, my pleather recliner I've loved for six years, my bass amp, cool mood lightning. I don't know how it could be any cooler. Oh wait, I do know. I could have friends come hang out in it, which I also love to do. Long live the T Lounge.

Jazz Clubs: This may be heresy to purists, but in my mind the jazz club is as essential to jazz as the music itself. There's something special about being in a low lit, low-ceilinged room, a candle flickering on every table, people in suits and cocktail dresses, heads bobbing. It doesn't get cooler.

Dive Bars: There is a time and a place for fancy cocktails, but my Texan heart belongs in a dive bar. Cheap, bottled beer. Bartenders that know you. A jukebox. A pool table with questionable symmetry and torn felt. Neon signs. Cosmetic damage to everything. That sounds great every night of the week.

Comic Stores: Awesome for browsing and finding new stuff to like. In my experience, the staff of any comic store is knowledgeable and (mostly) friendly, and all kinds of weirdos are welcome. I like it when everyone feels welcome.

Used Book Stores: If I have some spending money and time to burn, I could browse a used book store for hours. You get more bang for your buck at a used book store, plus every item has a story. I like seeing what some kindred spirit underlined or decided to include in their marginalia.

Libraries: Like a used book store, but everything is free! The downside of libraries is creepy guys looking at weird stuff on public computers.

Diners/Cafes: A diner is the dive bar of food. Unpretentious, cheap, greasy, and awesome. I'm also partial to a cafe, which is like the jazz club of breakfast foods. You still get your bacon and eggs, but it's classy and maybe someone is reading poetry in the corner, or talking quietly to a love interest. Cafes have more of a mystique.

Museums: My top kind of museum is an art museum. Natural history/science is a close second. Museums are basically giant declarations that culture matters and that art can makes us feel and learn. That's great! I love to be challenged and inspired and reassured that truth and beauty matter to all of us.

Lake Cabins: Of all of the bodies-of-water kind of people you can be, my wife and I are both lake people. Our dream is to retire to a lakeside cabin. Oceans look awesome but are intense, rivers are cool but (mostly) small, whereas a lake is quiet, permanent, and peaceful (unless you are in something with "Devil"  or "Spring Break"in the name, probably). I've only stayed in a cabin by a lake a few times, but 100% of those times are great memories.

Walks: I love walks. No idea when this started, but I feel at ease just walking around. Parks, urban streets, the wild, the beach, old cemeteries, museums, just slap some shoes on me and point me in a direction and I'm good to go all day. Optimal walks have my family and my dog.

If any of these things sound good to you, please let me know and we'll go experience them together!

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Favorite Books of 2017

I read more than 60 books in 2017, and it was a blast. Below are my favorites. These are books that I read in 2017, not ones that were published in 2017:

Batman: Earth One by Geoff JohnsJohns is one of my favorite comic writers because, like Kay above, he is big-hearted. This imagination of the Batman origin is gothic instead of grimdark. It's all about doing the best with the hand you're dealt. Great Batman, great comic.

Batman: Mad Love and Other Stories by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm. The titular story is a depressing one that most readers can relate to, at least to a certain degree – sometimes we love someone despite our best judgment, consequences be damned. Mad love. That mad love defines Harley Quinn and Joker, Joker and anarchy, Bruce Wayne and his cowl. This is a great collection from some of my favorite comics writers.

Catching the Big Fish by David Lynch.
This year I watched all of the original Twin Peaks television series. As a result, I became very interested in the man behind the project - David Lynch. In this very short meditation on creativity, Lynch offers glimpses into his creative process. The title comes from this: "If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper."

No Matter the Wreckage by Sarah Kay. This poetry collection is simultaneously accessible, beautiful, playful, and profound. It reminds me of a Mike Schur show (The Office, Parks & Rec, The Good Place) in that it’s smart, full of heart, bittersweet, and open to the world. Kay isn’t jaded or pretentious (even though she’s been a poetry celebrity since she was 14) – she waves her heart like a flag, rallying all of us to live more fully.

Old Man's War by John Scalzi. My dream blend of sci-fi: space battles, politics, religion, cosmologies to make you think about your own preconceptions, and heart. OMW centers around John Perry, an old man nearing the end of his life. In this, once you hit a ripe old age you can enlist in the space marines. You are legally dead once you enlist, and you never come back to Earth. You say your goodbyes and head on up into space, and no one on Earth quite knows what happens next. The title refers to the senior citizen enlistment, but also Scalzi’s meditations on the fight against death and disappointment and loneliness that we all inevitably face.

I both enjoy and recommend the following, although they didn't get a five-star rating:

The Batman Adventures by Dini/Timm. Comic.
Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary. Coming of age YA.
The Expanse series by James S.A. Corey. Space opera.
Farewell My Lovely by Raymond Chandler. Masterful noir.
Patsy Walker, A.K.A. Hellcat! Vol. 1: Hooked On A Feline by Kate Leth. Hilarious comic.
Thrilling Cities by Ian Fleming. Travel writing from James Bond creator.
Wolverine by Claremont/Miller. Meditative, gorgeous comic.


Sunday, December 3, 2017

Observations on Making Stuff

While I can't guarantee that this was my most prolific year for both reading and creativity, it has to be close. I read 63 books (and counting), wrote more than fifty book reviews, journaled consistently, had a short story published, hosted three separate podcasts, and participated in National Novel Writing Month. My biggest takeaways, besides loving all of it, are:

Creativity is an upwards spiral. The more we read and write, the more we can read and write. Creativity is more like love and less like farts in that the more we make, the more there is. Creativity is like farts in that we don't need to share everything with everyone all the time. Best to leave some mystery.

There is time. I'm not a guy that's into life hacks or being productive. I do think we need to be mindful about the choices we make. We get the idea that we "just don't have time" for things we want to do. That's not accurate. While we don't have time to do everything, we do make time for what is most important to us. Maybe we don't even realize what's important to us, but it's there in our decisionmaking. Don't feel bad about some vague dreams that didn't get realized; feel good about what you did for the things that truly mattered most to you. To make an idea a more manifested real thing, shuffle priorities.

Share the love. I have had more fun this year supporting artists that I appreciate than ever before. This has included supporting friends' pursuits, interacting on social media to encourage artists that I like, and pursuing more group-based projects.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Top Ten Country Songs

My wife and I were recently on a little road trip, and it afforded us the time and space to have fun little conversations life usually doesn't give you a chance to have. We talked about dream houses, future vacations when our boys grow up, and country music. We worked pretty hard on our top ten lists of all-time favorite country songs (not necessarily best or most popular or any other qualifier).

For me, country music is about prideful screwups. A prideful screwup is someone who is proud of their allegiances (town, state, religion, occupation) and also regularly screws stuff up (relationships, drinking too much, not working enough). It's like the blues in that way. Even though the twang and the South may not be universal, the themes of country music are universal. So, without further adieu, and here is what I came up with, in random order:

Chattahoochee by Alan Jackson - I was elementary-aged when this song came out, but the nostalgia and fondness in this song rang true to me before I even had good old days to look back on. I didn't grow up like the songwriter, but I do feel that same fondness for my teens, where I learned "a lot about livin' and a little 'bout love."

Diggin Up Bones by Randy Travis - I remember riding around in the backseat of my parents' Oldsmobile and this song being on the radio all the time. I'm pretty sure my parents liked this album that they even bought the cassette. This song is a great example of a prideful screwup somewhat enthusiastically enjoying wallowing in misery. Been there, Randy!

Friends in Low Places by Garth Brooks - Besides his weird face mic and lightning shirts, the other awesome thing about Garth Brooks was his string of great sing-along songs. Low Places is such a good sing-along song that even the recording features a sing-along. I love the sheepish acceptance of being a contented screwup in this song.

Night Life by Willie Nelson - Willie is one of the historic gods of songwriting to me. His guitar playing was heavily influenced by Django Reinhardt, famous for his loose "gypsy jazz" style of nylon-stringed guitar playing.  This song features that loose feel, as well as Willie's gypsy nature.

Take This Job and Shove It by Johnny Paycheck - Not only is Johnny Paycheck one of the best songs for any singer or rapper or pro-wrestler, it is also the perfect name for a guy who is fed up with his crap job. I've had all kinds of jobs, from toilet scrubber to attorney to day laborer, and there has definitely been a day or two where I fantasized about turning this up to 11 on my work computer and walking out, never to return.

Give Me Back My Hometown by Eric Church - The Outsiders is one of my favorite albums to come out in the last few years, and "That's Damn Rock & Roll" from that album is one of my favorite rock songs, mainly due to the foot stomping, headshaking backing vocals of Joanna Cotten, who tears up a backing track as well as Merry Clayton in The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter". "My Hometown", though, is a great pure country song. That feeling of being haunted by an ex, and everything changing because of your memories - that's pretty universal.

Even If It Breaks Your Heart by Will Hoge - The Eli Young Band made this song popular, but songwriter Will Hoge sings this song about following your dreams and your guts like he's singing for his life. In a way, I suppose he is. I've been obsessed with song since the first time I heard it.

I Saw the Light by Hank Williams - Hank Williams is in my triumvirate of favorite songwriters, along with Bob Dylan and Dustin Kensrue. His lyrics and song structures are simple, but they've endured for decades and decades because they're so good. "I Saw the Light" is a fantastic country gospel song, and it just came from an offhand comment Williams made about seeing city lights from the backseat of a car on the way to the next show. He wasn't particularly religious, but he knew the phrase "I saw the light," would sound great in a song. There you go. I could spend all day talking about Hank Williams songs ."Honky Tonkin'", "Hey, Good Lookin'", "Your Cheatin' Heart" and "Move it On Over" could easily be on this list.

I Wish I Felt Nothing by The Wallflowers - The Wallflowers were typically filed under "Alternative" when this album came out in the mid-90's, but this is a country song about loneliness and I've loved it for twenty years.

Ain't Nothin' Like by Brad Paisley - This song celebrates the simple but profound joys of normal family life better than any other song I can think of, which is a very country thing to do. It's the song equivalent of the tv show "Friday Night Lights".

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Mass Effect: Andromeda

This post contains major spoilers of the video game series called Mass Effect. Don't read or listen if you don't want to get spoiled!

My all-time favorite video games series is Mass Effect. This trilogy of games, released from 2007 - 2012, was published during the Xbox 360/Playstation 3 era of gaming. This means the games were very big and would take dozens of hours to complete and voice acting was television or movie quality.

The concept of the Mass Effect games is conventional - humans begin exploring space and encounter many races of aliens. Some are friendly and some are not. Sentient life faces a life or death threat and must decide whether they'll work together or not. Sex, drugs, murder, and money all get in the way of what's important. Don't they always.

Part of what made the trilogy so special is that the game's maker, Bioware, gave gamers the ability to live out an epic space opera over the course of three games and six years. Events and characters in the first game impacted events and characters in the second game, and so on. Depending on how you played, you could be a renegade leader with a small, brutal team that let the equivalent of the UN die and enacted the genocide of an entire sentient species (or two or three). Or, you could a paragon, a leader dedicated to higher values and the savior of sentient species around the planet. The squad that you had spent hundreds of real-time hours with on adventures could live or die. Talk about immersive!

At the end of the series, you could lose. The life or death threat you face could extinguish all known life. But, the progress you made in defeating the existential threat could save all life in the future. Is that a win, or a happy ending? Who knows!

What gripped me the most about the trilogy was the gameplay, the exotic worlds, and the camraderie of your team over several years. However, the ending was bittersweet at best. In the last game, as mentioned, things get dark. There's not necessarily a great ending that you can end with. While the drama is exciting, I wanted something with a little more hope.

That's one of the reasons I was glad to hear that a spinoff of the original series would be released in 2017. Like many avid Mass Effect fans, I was excited about the new game and anticipated its arrival for years. Unfortunately, the game was largely panned. It's widely accepted that the game was released too early - weird bugs abounded in the game. Players' eyeballs would randomly pop out of their heads, limbs would go miss, and characters would randomly fly out of their spaceships into the cold vacuum of space. Not a great followup to a beloved series.

However, Bioware released substantial update patches to the game to fix most of the glitches. Six months after the games' release, I bought a used copy for $20. After spending dozens and dozens of hours playing, I love it.

Andromeda is a much more positive game than the original series. In this game, you play as Ryder, one of several thousand colonists who slept for 600 years in stasis as "arks" (giant colonizing ships) carried several alien species to a new system - the Andromeda system, in order to colonize new places and start new lives. It's a game primarily about exploration and, I would say, hope.

In the game, Ryder is the son or daughter or the human Pathfinder, the person responsible for finding new homeworlds for humanity. (Each species has their own Pathfinder.) After a brief encounter with alien technology, a hostile alien shows up and mortally wounds both you and your father. Sacrificing himself, he gives you his helmet so that you can have the oxygen you need to have a chance at living. You do live, and you find out that your father designated you as the new Pathfinder. No pressure!

The nature of the original games was defense - you were trying to deal with an existential threat to humanity. The nature of this game is exploratory. You meet new alien species, you explore majestic exotic planets, you make peace among hostile settlers.

Along the way, you encounter things almost too big for the human mind to comprehend. During the game, you encounter leftover technology from an alien species that seems to have evacuated Andromeda. They've left their tech everywhere, and it is much more advanced than humanity can comprehend. However, its presence is unsettling. What were they doing? Are they watching you? Its similar to Arthur C. Clarke's Rendevous with Rama. There are also blisters of dark matter called "Scourge" popping up in space, seemingly interfering with the ancient alien tech. Were the aliens good or bad? Did they cause or create the Scourge, or did the Scourge chase them out? Were they enemies? Who won?

Towards the end of the game, the gamer discover that the ancient aliens created the species you meet in Andromeda. While it's a shock to the gamer, it is more of a shock to the alien species. Can you imagine finding out that aliens created humanity? Does that change your understanding of God - what if He is just an advanced alien with a sandbox? That's a question that religious humans have to struggle with in the game. Does it matter who your Creator is, or does it matter more what you think of your Creator and your purpose?

Ironically, the fact that Andromeda was a flop builds in my favorite feature of the game - there is no sequel! The game did so poorly that it appears Bioware isn't continuing this story that they spent years on. There will be no Andromeda 2 or 3. While I spent hundreds of hours playing the original Mass Effect trilogy, the fact that all of your decisions mattered came with a certain amount of pressure, especially considering that your decisions could lead to your squad dying years later, or even the obliteration of life in our solar system. On a meta level, knowing that Andromeda was its own contained experience gave me more freedom in choices I made. That's a nice thing to have in a game about exploration and hope.

The game ends on a high note - you've pushed back the hostile aliens and united all other known species in a new intergalactic melting pot. You're home!

Who were the ancient aliens who made the tech you find? Who made the Scourge? Who knows! You can't know everything in life - all you can do is your best. You make the best decisions that you can, you make peace around you, and you live with an open posture, enjoying the time you have. You look around and enjoy the jungle planets and the desert and the stars. That's what happens in Andromeda, and that's why, in a way, it was my most enjoyable Mass Effect experience.

It's hopeful. Does the gamer know for sure how things will end? No, but neither do we! And doing our best in spite of that is beautiful.