When is Anger Useful?

I recently decided I wanted to learn how to livestream video. It’s really just an extension of my fascination with everything related to the indoor training app-video game-social network that is Zwift. So, I created a Twitch account and livestreamed my latest online race, a scratch points race in Season Two of the WTRL/Zwift Racing League. If you’re interested in watching the whole thing, the entire stream can be viewed here (it will eventually go away. This is also the link to my Twitch account in case any of you are interested in following that): https://www.twitch.tv/woundedwonders

I promise not many of my readers will find that stream of much interest, unless you want to see a first hand replay of what Zwift racing can be like. If you’re reading this post and you’re interested in getting involved with this Zwift thing, check out this recent blog post to learn more about the best community, known as The Herd: https://woundedwonders.com/2021/01/11/how-to-build-grow-a-community/

I’ve watched the replay of my own race now and am struck by the fact that my behavior really doesn’t change with the camera on. This is what and who I am when I’m exercising. Near the end, this is what and who I am when I’m competing. But first, Star Wars.

Do you remember the warnings Yoda gave about the Dark Side?

Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.

Yoda

If you can, recall the fateful fight scene in Return of the Jedi when the evil Emperor Palpatine is tempting Luke toward vengeance, toward anger, toward the Dark Side. For many of of us, the Star Wars characterization of anger resonates with the way we’ve been brought up. With the way we try to behave on a daily basis. Anger as temptation. Anger as harmful emotion. Anger as something to avoid.

I have worked really hard for my entire life to master my temper, to varying degrees of failure and success. I take great pride in what I perceive as my ability to keep an even temper in professional and family settings. And, from the time I was an 8 year old playing mod soccer, I’ve always found strength in playing angry. Even if my opponent was a good friend, I discovered that if I could get mad and stay mad I was stronger, faster, and more resilient. I didn’t even need to be angry with the other player for this effect to take place, but it always helped.

Through my teen years, I grew to relish the track meets, wrestling matches, and soccer games against trash talkers. The more trash they talked and the dirtier their tactics, the better I played. Because anger. I was also a huuuuge Star Wars nerd so often worried that while I wanted to be one of the good guys, I’d probably wind up being turned to the Dark Side if I was a Jedi. I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t have any midichlorians in my blood.

To this day I’m unsure if getting angry was really unlocking hidden strength. Perhaps simply letting go of my anger in a cathartic moment of athletic effort was what felt good. Maybe it was a release for the deeper, darker, more painful reservoir of anger that I carried daily from the far worse things than a questionable slide tackle or arm bar.

However, I live a pretty blessed life these days. I have so very much to be grateful for. I certainly get peeved when somebody forgets to put the cap back on the hot sauce, or when I spill coffee on a white shirt. But that’s nothing, a passing vapor if anything. I don’t think I have hidden rage that I need to release through competition.

And yet.

Here I was at the end of a indoor trainer-online video game-bike race when another player activated his “draft powerup” in an attempt to ride my slipstream to victory. There was less than 60 seconds left in the race and I was knackered. Ready to quit and coast to whatever finish that gave me. But seeing the digital avatar of somebody else trying to beat me pissed me right off. So I went full beast mode. Which is to say, while I could still feel the fatigue, I pushed it into the back corner of my mind and gave myself fully to the unrelenting pursuit of victory over this newfound enemy. I enraged and channeled my fury through the pedals of my smart trainer-bound bicycle and surged across the finish line ahead of each racer around me. Upon crossing the finish line I exploded in an embarrassing stream of jubilant profanity. And I felt good. A little sheepish that I felt good about the whole thing, but good nonetheless.

A short while later, I received a private message through the Zwift Companion App. The stranger I had defeated at the finish line.. the one I raged and cursed at as I conquered him… had sent me a congratulatory message of sportsmanship. Of course he had no way of knowing I had been mo-foing him just minutes before. His message was a virtual hand shake or fist bump, a gesture of respect and camaraderie between competitors after a hard-fought match.

I am certain I would not have shouted any profanity had this race occurred in the real world. But I have finished more than a few road races with a similarly visceral beast mode effort, often punctuated by a barbaric yawp at the finish line. Most people find my yawps to be unsettling. Probably due to social norms and civilization and society, etc.

And so I’m left pondering. When is it healthy to indulge in a bit of barbarism? When is anger useful beyond the short term benefit of adrenaline? I’m a strong safety at heart. There’s nothing sweeter than watching replays of Kam Chancellor demolishing opposing Tight Ends and Wide Receivers. However Kam’s career was cut short due to the violence with which he competed in the hyper-violent NFL.

It seems so much that is wrong in our world today is the result of ill-considered anger. It also seems there is so much wrong that ought to raise a righteous anger in people of conscience. That ought to foment change for good. But the bad guys always think they’re on the side of the angels, don’t they? As you ponder this, I leave you with a visual progression of the emotional journey of my recent race:

Beastie Boys Story: a Reflection

Although it released back in April of 2020, I only recently had the chance to watch Beastie Boys Story on Apple TV. A full viewing of the film evokes a panoply of emotional responses, at least for this 40-something longtime fan of the band. The most stirring moments come in the final third of the show, and I found myself reminded of the mindset I held when I wrote Infectious Delights a few weeks ago: https://woundedwonders.com/2020/12/22/infectious-delights/

After digesting my viewing experience of Beastie Boys Story over several meditative workouts (I talk about those in this post): https://woundedwonders.com/2021/01/15/the-gospel-of-rhythm-part-two-motivation/ I felt moved to compose a reflective response to the themes I found most compelling from this film.

image source: Apple TV Press Release

Imagine you’ve purchased tickets to sit in an elegant old theater in the heart of downtown so that you can listen to some of your favorite musicians talk. They’re not going to perform any of their music and they’re really not even going to play their music for you at all. That’s the premise and the delivery of Beastie Boys Story.

I didn’t find myself very drawn in for the first few minutes of the show. It was, of course, missing my favorite member of the band. The one who was first to evolve. The one who pulled the group out of the douche-bro anthem muck of some of their earliest hits. And so, since the show was obviously missing Adam Yauch, I had a hard time engaging with Mike D and Adam Horovitz. I’ve never found them very relatable or likable, and that impression remained in the opening moments of the show.

They became a lot more relatable for me once they opened up and confessed remorse for the way they ditched the coolest early member of the group (Kate Schellenbach). While I found myself wishing they would have gone into greater detail about what they most appreciated about her friendship, I thought it was cool that they didn’t try to play their betrayal of her friendship as anything other than a shitty thing to do.

The show more or less progresses in chronological fashion with Mike D and Adam somewhat mechanically reading their lines from teleprompters as they reminisce about the history of the band. The times they screw up their lines and break character (so to speak) are the most relatable. This intensifies when it comes time to talk about the loss of their friend Adam Yauch.

They talked about the different types of friends you have. The party crazed fun to have around friend. The reliable help you move friend. We all know those friendship archetypes. Then they talked about Yauch. They characterized him as the unique kind of friend who inspires, energizes, and enables greatness that you didn’t think you had inside of you. The friend who makes you better and who makes you want to be better. While they didn’t say it in so many words, they essentially credited all that became good about their band and their music to their dearly departed friend Adam Yauch.

As Adam Horovitz struggled to blink away tears on stage, I found my own eyes welling up with emotion. It’s moving to see authentic grief in the eyes of a person missing their dear friend. But that wasn’t really why I got emotional at this part of the show. I felt an intense grief over past friendships that I’ve done poorly. As I watched the remaining members of The Beastie Boys mourn and celebrate their friend, I considered how many Kate Schellenbachs I have in my past. I wondered how many times I had missed an opportunity to be somebody’s Adam Yauch.

See, I don’t have a fraction of Yauch’s genius. Few do. But I am firmly convinced that I can be somebody’s Yauch. I’m firmly convinced that each of us can. Even in these COVID times where our in-person contacts are (or should be) extremely limited, we have many daily opportunities to inspire, elevate, energize, enable. We also often have opportunities to betray and abandon.

I’m no friendship guru. I don’t possess the secrets of how to exercise a Yauch-like influence in the lives of my friends. But I do pledge to try. And I pledge to keep my eyes and my heart open to spot the times my friends are being like Yauch for me. And to tell them about it. Because we need to see and name the beauty in our friends while they’re still around to enjoy our gratitude.

The Gospel of Rhythm Part Two: Motivation

Today is January 15, 2021. We are about halfway through the typical life expectancy for New Year’s Resolutions so it seems like an appropriate time to write about motivation.

While I have found great enjoyment in approaching weekly newsletter updates in a very eclectic and random fashion, I’m not sure if it’s been very useful to readers who may be interested in one specific theme, such as fitness and health. So for this week’s update I’m providing some breadcrumbs back to the earlier posts in this series regarding my personal journey towards better fitness and health.

In “A Year of Losses and Gains” I share a retrospective about my year of weight loss and fitness improvements: https://woundedwonders.com/2020/11/06/a-year-of-losses-and-gains/

In “The Gospel of Rhythm (part one)” I share some introductory concepts that I believe are essential to pursue your own health and fitness journey: https://woundedwonders.com/2020/11/12/the-gospel-of-rhythm-part-1/

I have, for nearly all of my life, required external motivation to persevere in anything. Fear of being labelled a quitter kept me involved with sports I didn’t enjoy as a kid. Fear of the parental consequences of getting an Asian F (you can google this term if you’re not familiar with it) motivated me to put in whatever last ditch effort was required to ensure at least an A- as a student. OK, at least a B, because I’m half-asian. In college, I vocally pretended to enjoy reading Shakespeare and conspicuously ensured a copy of Ulysses was left out on my dorm room desk in order to make myself appear intellectual and literary. Because I wanted to attract the kind of girl who was into pretentious literary types. Yeah, I was an especially obnoxious kind of poser.

Relatedly, I have only ever been able to stay motivated to train if I have a race on the calendar. There have been multiple sequences of January-May in which I run regularly in readiness for traditional races held in February, April, and May, only to let my fitness completely lapse in (the very best months in my region to run outside) June through September.

So, armed with this self-awareness, I pre-registered for at least one race per month between January – August of 2020, with the intention of signing up for September-December races sometime in June. My 2020 plan was to focus on running events while increasing my training capacity to pursue Olympic and Half Ironman distance triathlons in 2021 and beyond. As you can see below, I only managed to run in three of these races before all the rest were cancelled due to the global pandemic.

  • January 4, 2020 FSRC Resolution Run Series 5k: 24:18, 2nd in age group (it’s a small field)
  • January 25, 2020 FSRC Resolution Run Series 10k: 51:24, 2nd in age group
  • February 22, 2020 FSRC Resolution Run Series 15k: 1:15:16, 3rd in age group
  • March 21, 2020 FSRC Resolution Run Series 20k: cancelled due to pandemic
  • April 4, 2020 Run Super Ancient Lakes 25k Trail Race: cancelled due to pandemic
  • May 3, 2020 Bloomsday 12k: cancelled due to pandemic
  • May 17, 2020 Capitol City Half Marathon: cancelled due to pandemic
  • June 7, 2020 Seattle Rock n Roll Half Marathon: cancelled due to pandemic
  • August 1, 2020 Volcanic 25 Rail Race: cancelled due to pandemic
  • August 15, 2020 Tacoma Narrows Half Marathon: cancelled due to pandemic

If, in 2020, I had remained motivated to train primarily by upcoming races, I should have lost interest in regular running sometime around April or May, based on my prior history of demotivation. Instead, my training volume steadily increased throughout the spring and summer. And I’m pleased to report that at the conclusion of 2020 and commencement of 2021, daily exercise feels more like healthy habit than a dutiful effort of will. I’ve found my rhythm, and I believe it has a lot to do with motivation, both extrinsic and intrinsic.

During my teenaged years, one of my closest friends had a dad who was good with philosophical banter and using word pictures to help us understand a concept. One of my favorites was his example of a donkey carrying a bunch of cargo lashed together by a rope. He used this illustration whenever one of us (usually it was me) tried to create a false dichotomy or, through intellectual laziness (again, usually me), tried to force an either-or upon circumstances better suited to both-and.

My friend’s dad would stroke his beard and compel us to “Think of a donkey carrying a tremendous burden over a precarious mountain pass.”

Now, if you’ve seen Peter Jackson’s adaption of The Fellowship of the Ring and can remember the scene where The Fellowship attempts to cross The Pass of Caradhras, you’ve seen exactly the scene that my imagination would conjure in response to this invitation. Even though I was in high school several years prior to Peter Jackson realizing the imaginations of Tolkien nerds upon the silver screen.

“The burden on the donkey’s back has to be tied down by a rope, yes?” He would usually lick his lips in anticipation at this point. Not in a creepy way, although I fear I’ve written it that way. More of a quick moistening like a trumpet player getting ready to play reveille.

“In order for the burden to be secure, the rope must be taut… it must have tension in it, tied down at opposite ends of the load.” He always paused here and held our gaze, to ensure we were fully engaged in the discussion. We always were, whether it be over a bonfire or across the dining room table.

He would hold out his left hand and announce “this end of the rope is your interpretation.” Then he would hold out his right hand, spread as far apart from the left as his arms would allow, and proclaim “this end of the rope is my interpretation.” Then, he would pantomime pulling two ends of a rope apart: “And it is only when these two ends are in tension that the donkey’s burden holds together. We need both ends in tension, you see? It is only with both that things hold together. It is only with both points that we may find what is true.”

I’m reminded of this illustration when I think about the evolution of my extrinsic and intrinsic motivations to train.

I’ve often believed that intrinsic motivation is superior to extrinsic motivations. That doing something from external motivation is less authentic, less durable, less meaningful. And so I feel guilty when I act out of extrinsic motivation.

I’ve often held up intrinsic motivation as the utopian ideal, the form of motivation that we ought to have for anything that is worthwhile.

Here’s what I discovered for myself. I hope it may be of use to you, either to adopt for yourself or as a launchpad for your own examination of how and why to motivate yourself to persevere in anything worth sticking with.

Both-And

In case my clumsy attempt to relay the donkey’s burden illustration didn’t make it clear, I believe there are many ideas and circumstances that are best considered holistically. I believe there’s something about the way many of us in Eurocentric cultures think that defaults too easily into Either/Or fallacies, that forces one thing to be false in order for another to be true. Just as man cannot live by bread alone, I believe humans cannot persevere by one motivation alone. I believe the pursuit of perseverance must include an embrace of the both-and. We need both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation to really stick to something when it becomes difficult to stick with. To try to level up beyond one form of motivation is a fool’s errand. To try to remain stagnant with only one form of motivation is also folly. I believe we need to take advantage of motivations that work right now while remaining curious and receptive to new forms of motivation.

The Voice of God

I’m not sure exactly when I first discovered this experience, but it must have been at whatever point in my fitness journey that I was healthy enough to get out and run for more than an hour at a time. One component of my shift from extrinsic-only motivation into both extrinsic and intrinsically motivated training is the meditative state that longer aerobic zone workouts can induce for me. I feel like I can hear the voice of god in this state.

Alright, I don’t actually hear a voice. Ever. But I have to say that when I’m out on a long run (or long ride or long swim) and allow myself to do it completely free of other stimulus/distractions such as music, podcasts, training computer, I experience transcendence and clarity. I experience what I think of, what I believe to be, the voice of God. It takes at least an hour of aerobic effort, typically at a steady, rhythmic pace before this begins to take effect. By about minute 70 of a longer run I start to experience flashes of creative inspiration for a new story to write. I begin to recognize thinking errors from earlier in the day. Examples of miscommunication in which I assumed or inferred poorly about another person flash to mind accompanied by a deep conviction to reach out to apologize or seek understanding or express gratitude. Brainstorm inspirations to write a thank-you note or to check in on a friend throb through my consciousness in tempo with the beat of my feet upon the pavement (or trail). Wonderings and exaltations about beauty and meaning and purpose pulse in and out with each breath as I glide through the water or pedal up another hill.

It all evaporates within an hour of getting home, cooling off, taking a shower. But if I can make a note of even just one thought that occurred during that transcendent workout, it is always completely aligned with the person I believe I was made to be, the person I hope to someday become more like.

The Wanna-Be Influencer

Friends and family members have given me a hard time for some of my habits on social media. For example, I love to take and share pictures of my food. Yes, I’m that guy. Early in my fitness journey of 2020 I began to regularly post updates about various workouts to social media. This drew the sardonic ire of some of my perpetually unimpressed friends. My kids laugh at me: “Dad you post to instagram like you wanna be an influencer.” Here are some examples:

A facebook post in which I combine 2 screenshots from my Strava app to brag about the day’s workouts (as well as evangelize for intermittent fasting). I’m fully aware of the memes and mockery for the way crossfitters love to post their WOD to social media and while I’m not doing crossfit, I think I’m doing the same thing here. I find I am personally motivated by the sense of accountability I create for myself by sharing what I’m doing.

An instagram post in which I tag my favorite local bike shop and favorite maker of cycling shoes. I’m sure this is exactly the sort of post that makes my social-media-savvy teens cringe on my behalf. And I don’t care! I like the idea that a celebration and gratitude message might wind up on the feed of a business whose services I appreciate and enjoy. The more I publicly embrace my inner dork, the more free I feel to revel in the joys of healthy hobbies.

Like Breathing

I don’t have a magic number of days for when the practice of physical exercise became like breathing for me in 2020. I know that I started the year leaning heavily on the support of a monthly race calendar that I believed would keep me accountable to maintaining a regular exercise schedule. I know that by the time races started being postponed/cancelled due to COVID in March, I was a good 3+ solid months in to a weekly schedule of running 2-4 days per week and spinning/cycling 3-5 days per week. I honestly didn’t examine my motivations too closely until November of 2020 when I started to write about this journey. That was when I discovered that moving while sweating had become a lot like breathing for me. It’s just something I do now. Every once in a while something comes up that pushes me beyond the scheduled 1 day/week of rest. And when I get to the end of that second day of rest in a week and get back on my bike it feels like I’ve been holding my breath and can finally exhale-inhale again.

I’d love to try to force a perfect analogy between exhale-inhale and intrinsic-extrinsic motivation here. But I suppose that would defeat the point of the donkey’s burden illustration. We don’t need a perfect analogy. We do need to breathe. Oh, and as of January 15, 2021 I am registered for exactly zero races in 2021. And I’ll be ready to conquer the 70.3 the moment races become a thing we do together again!

How to Build & Grow a Community

“The Herd is a welcoming, inclusive and supportive place for people within the virtual cycling universe. Virtual cycling is wonderful, and can be challenging, especially in the beginning. We are here to help you. Check out www.theherd.club for more information.” (copied from The Herd FB “about” page 1/11/21)

I have spent just over a month becoming thoroughly engrossed with a new-to-me community known as “The Herd” and the “Herd Racing League.” I wrote about the effect some members of this community had upon my enjoyment and engagement with my first foray into Zwift racing here: https://woundedwonders.com/2020/12/04/real-fake-riding/

Since then, as I’ve begun making friends within The Herd, I’ve been thinking about what a special group it is. The Herd began only two years ago amongst a very small cadre of cyclists. As I’m still very new to the group, I don’t know the extent to which the founding members knew one another “in real life.” From what I can tell it is a love for cycling that forms the foundation of the relationships. In the span of two years, The Herd has grown from what must have been an intimate collaboration amongst a handful of friends to over 10,000 members. As one of the new members of the group, I’m astounded by the fact it is 10,000 members strong yet somehow makes me feel seen and known in the otherwise anonymizing world of online interaction.

Anybody who has spent any time online at all over the past (weeks, months, years, decades) will be familiar with how toxic, caustic, and disturbing many people become once they feel shrouded in the anonymity and distance of online interaction. The thing is, this isn’t a quirk of the online world. From my first-hand experiences as a leader and as a follower, anytime the group size is larger than six or seven people, things start to get difficult. Even with small teams of a dozen people who are united in purpose in pursuit of a shared mission and vision, without careful and intentional work by all members of the team, the uglier sides of human nature threaten to overwhelm our more noble instincts.

So I am blissfully ignorant of what kind of work is going on behind the scenes with The Herd and The Herd Racing League. It’s very likely, given the sheer number of people involved in both groups, that each group has a small army of volunteers working feverishly to preserve the perceptions and experiences I am rapturously writing about. Such as:

  • No False/Ugly Posts! I’m not aware of any group rules which explicitly prohibit the topics which seem to bring out the worst in many facebook users (such as politics and religion). Yet those posts just don’t seem to happen. If they do, they are quickly removed before I see them.
  • No Multi-Level-Marketing Scams! I subscribe to a number of cycling-related FB groups, including one which is specifically intended for buying and selling: and each of the other groups I subscribe to gets routinely spammed by people trying to sell their essential oil/amway/snakeoil crap. Again, it may well be that The Herd has highly active moderation which I am blissfully unaware of, but I’d like to believe it might just be a group that is now 10,000+ strong of quality human beings.
  • Kindness! The Herd doesn’t really have many rules that I can find. Just their first and most important rule of kindness. And you know what? It shows. I am certain I’ve asked the same question that has been answered countless times before and I’ve not yet been flamed for it, nor have I received a well-deserved but snarky response such as “HERE LET ME GOOGLE THAT FOR YOU.” Participants in The Herd seem to understand folks are asking questions in part because they’d like to know but also in part because they’d like to connect, interact, engage with others.

While these are by no means novel concepts, here are a few of the things I’ve noticed about The Herd that makes it a compelling, engaging, inclusive community. If you’re not interested in online bicycle riding and yet are still reading, perhaps you may find this part applicable to your book club, work group, fantasy football league, or church.

Regular Opportunities to Team: We have the chance to sign up to be a part of a Team Time Trial every week. Each week is a one-week-only commitment so it’s a highly attractive way to get involved and to get to know 5-8 other riders with similar fitness level. I have enjoyed racing the TTT with three different teams over the past month and, while it’s rewarding to team up with people I feel I already know a little bit, each new team assignment = new potential friends. The fact we are competing together in shared pursuit of a common goal seems to accelerate the icebreaking/get-to-know-you period.

Recognition by Name: One of the traditions after each TTT is the writing and publication of Ride Reports. It’s fun to see the captains of each team stretch their writing muscles, and I must say it’s tremendously rewarding and motivating to see your own name in print! This example covers both techniques as the members of the team are listed/tagged at the start of the report, and their exploits and shenanigans are also immortalized in the prose of the write up. While it’s as simple as calling people by their name and stating something unique that they contributed, these Ride Reports really build a sense of community and camaraderie.

Member Spotlights: A number of people involved with The Herd post livestreams of their rides and races. These are a fun way to learn about a course before you’ve ridden it and I imagine a fun way to develop one’s skills and confidence as a youtuber. Going several steps beyond livestreams of their own rides, The Herd has a group of amateur sports commentators who collaborate each week to stream their color commentary on the races of 3 different Herd riders. I’ve gotten a heck of a kick out of seeing my name and online avatar pedaling along beside one of the featured racers during one of these episodes. Taking the time to produce and share video content and commentary in which members of the community get to star really transforms the community experience.

BADGES? YES WE NEED SOME STINKIN’ BADGES! ok it’s actually matching kit. But I think the idea holds true. While I might roll my eyes and make a snarky comment when I see a family in matching t-shirts at Disneyland, I’m always a little envious. I love a good t-shirt which makes me feel extra enthusiastic about the chance to buy and wear jerseys/shorts/bibs/socks that match the group I’ve joined. I think I’m enthralled by the notion of running into another group member out in the wilds of a “real life” bike ride. I also really, really like the sense of belonging that comes with having and wearing a matching sport uniform. For those seeking application to other settings, I feel the need to emphasize that talent matters. The Herd has some supreme graphic design talent behind their matching gear. If your team doesn’t have talent like this, hire some!

Food Photos! Even though I’m super appreciative of how on-topic the Herd FB feed remains, I truly adore the off-topic tradition of Herd members posting photos of the delectables they’ve recently baked. While the team and community-building impact would certainly be greater if these pies and pastries were shared to taste together, there’s still a bonding effect that seems to take place when people share images of what they’ve created, and what they eat. I think it’s the willingness to share the product of one’s creativity (whether you feel it’s creative or not, it is!) creates a sense of vulnerability and thus community-building.

I firmly believe that all of us (introverts and extroverts alike) are meant for community, connection, relationship. I’m grateful to have found this online community of bicycle riders, racers, and bakers. I continue to contemplate how to apply my enjoyment as a participant in this group towards becoming a better friend and perhaps making a stronger community in my region once we’ve found our ways clear of the pandemic.

A Prophylactic for the Sunday Blues

A confession: despite the many, many blessings I ought to be counting, I am often susceptible to the Sunday Blues. It’s especially insidious when I start feeling them on a Friday, when the weekend has only begun! I don’t even hate my job and after a wonderful two-week winter break, I had every reason to be looking forward to Monday with eager anticipation as I’d finally be able to interact with my students again! Maybe I can blame the lack of daylight that Dark December haunts us with in its waning days. Maybe I can blame the fact I won’t actually be seeing my students in person on Monday due to our ongoing pandemic and distance learning setting. Those may be factors but the reality is, the doldrums were upon me.

So it brought me great joy when Heather suggested we sneak away for a quick camping and hiking trip this weekend. Her love for the outdoors and willing spontaneity may just be the first part of what initially made me fall in love with her back in late 90’s Bellingham. We weren’t dissuaded by the rainy conditions (and rainy forecast) so we loaded up the trusty truck camper and made our way up Highway 101 to our favorite area: the Olympic National Park.

It was a dark and story night. Ok it was technically still afternoon when we rolled in to our campsite at the Staircase Campground in Olympic National Park. It had been raining hard, like rain of biblical quantities, for several days and the clouds were still angry at 4:00pm.

After an all-night deluge, we woke up and enjoyed our morning coffee and tea as day slowly began to break. Yeah it still looks like night in this photo but it was 7:30 am!

The trail was muddy but we enjoyed excellent morning light with several moments of actual sunshine as we hiked the Beaver Flats area.

So it seems from a sample size of one that an effective prophylactic for the Sunday Blues is to get outside to camp and hike no matter the weather! Doing so with the love of your life probably helps a little too. We’ll be testing this theory next weekend at LL Stub Stewart State Park in the great state of Oregon.

My Favorite Shows of 2020 (part 1)

Just a few of the shows that have gobbled entire gigabytes of data this year

2020 has been a year of prolonged solitude for many of us. While I have found great opportunities for personal growth and improvement throughout this year, I’ve also missed out on some of my favorite pursuits such as going to the movie theater on a dad-and-daughter (or son) date, taking my wife out to see live music at our favorite dive bar, and participating in races and fun runs around our region. One pursuit that hasn’t changed for me in 2020, however, is my love for copious consumption of tv and movies on Netflix.

This isn’t a post in which I will make any claims or arguments about which 2020 shows were the best or anything like that. I might do that later, but for now, this is simply a quick ramble about the some of the shows I enjoyed most in 2020. They may not even have been released in 2020. They may not necessarily even be the shows I spent the most time with. However a quick google search did take me to this fascinating blog post about visualizing Netflix viewing histories: https://medium.com/analytics-vidhya/data-analysis-visualisation-of-netflix-viewing-history-565cefe288fc

After reading that, I now want to learn more about https://github.com/ and how to code my way into turning my voluminous Netflix viewing history .csv into usable data. But I digress.

Dexter is an old Showtime series that’s been available on Netflix for quite some time. Sadly, its time has nearly run out as it leaves Netflix on December 30. This show is a guilty pleasure because of how trashy it often is. Whenever a show that has very little reason to include gratuitous T&A shoehorns a bunch of T&A into an episode it feels desperate and pathetic. Dexter is guilty of that at times, but not as often as GoT. This show with a horrifying premise was one of my favorite comfort food shows of 2020. I rewatched the entire run twice over the span of the year, largely due to Michael C. Hall’s masterful lead performance.

In case you’ve missed all of the buzz about Schitts Creek you really owe it to yourself to give this show a solid watch. And I do mean give it a solid watch. I was turned off and thus turned it off at my first attempt as every character in the introductory episode is SO. DAMN. UNLIKABLE. Trust me on this: keep watching. If you have any sort of humanity in your heart, you will fall deeply in love with this hot mess of a family. 2020 was the year that Schitts Creek joined my pantheon of The Office, Parks & Rec, and Supernatural: comfort food shows I will always rewatch over and over and over and over and… you get the idea.

2020 was also the year of the podcast for me. And as a result, I found a delightful podcast hosted by Joel McHale and Ken Jeong, which inspired me to revisit this old favorite. We watched Community religiously when it originally aired and I’ve got to tell you: this show holds up really well. And my goodness, what a powerhouse of talent they had as a cast. Yes, it’s often a mean-spirited sort of humor and yes, some of the jokes might instigate a SJW Cancel Crusade in 2020, but just like an entire tray of Totchos (you know, nachos made with tater tots instead of chips) has nothing I need and everything I want, Community makes me feel warm inside even though a binge usually leaves me feeling like I should have taken a break a couple of episodes sooner.

Thank you for taking the time to read this week’s post. I’m completely off my typical Thursday/Friday posting schedule right now. I blame the holidays, and intend to get back to normal with a new update this Friday.

Infectious Delights

“Good things as well as bad, you know, are caught by a kind of infection. If you want to get warm you must stand near the fire: if you want to be wet you must get into the water. If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life, you must get close to, or even into, the thing that has them.”

I love this quote from C.S. Lewis. I love just about everything he ever wrote. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were the two most influential authors of my formative years as I turned to their fictional worlds over and over and over again for adventure, inspiration, and comfort. This line, however, came not from Narnia but from the text adaptation of the type of show that was the precursor to podcasts. They called it radio.

I was reminded of this beautiful quote from Mere Christianity by the talented John Mark Comer in his December 6, 2020 Advent teaching on the topic of Joy. You can watch or listen to it for yourself here: https://bridgetown.church/teaching/advent-2020/joy/

As I thought about the way this C.S. Lewis quote made me feel when I heard Comer reference it, I thought about friendships and the way I get to understand a little bit more about the nature of good things from the examples of my friends. Now, this isn’t intended to be a ranked inventory of friends, and I didn’t want to take the time to seek my friends’ permissions to use their names so I’m going to anonymize this piece. I hope it remains readable. I suspect that if you know these friends, you’ll know who I’m referring to immediately. I further suspect that if you don’t know these friends, you may find the same qualities in other friends and acquaintances of your own. If you do, tell them about it. It’s far too easy to express the critical observations we have about the people we are connected to and far too easy to neglect to share the ways they are glorious and wonderful.

“If you want joy… you must get close to… the thing that has [it].” Joy is a word that can feel too religious or hackneyed, especially around the holidays. There have been too many well-intentioned but wrong-headed homilies that attempt to divorce joy from happiness, for example. If you were to ask me to think about what it means to be joyful, I would very likely default to religious and hackneyed sunday-school answers that involve words like perseverance and faith and trust. Those aren’t bad things themselves, for sure, but I’m not sure they capture the real meaning of joy.

Through listening to the Bridgetown podcast that I linked above, I found myself appreciating the explanation of joy as an emotion that includes and also transcends the sensual. The word delight stuck out for me. Several images leap to mind when I think of delight. And as I click through those images in the ViewMaster of my memories, I feel gratitude for what these connections, relationships, friendships teach me about delight. About joy. And hopefully because I’ve been fortunate to surf in the wake of these friends’ delights, I’ve caught enough of it, been infected enough by them, to pass along something similar to those I love.

I made a new friend recently. We’ll call him B. We met through the social-networking part of a fitness tracking app that we both use (Strava. You can find my profile through this link: https://www.strava.com/athletes/7649215). B and I sometimes train together in outdoor swimming, cycling, and running. He’s an elite multisport athlete and thus capable of much greater speed and distance than I, but makes no complaint about swimming or cycling or running at paces that I can manage. That’s pretty special in itself, but it’s not why B comes to mind when I think of delight. Each time we get together to swim/bike/run he expresses his enjoyment and appreciation for my company. And I can tell that he really means it. There’s an earnestness in his eyes when he articulates the delight he finds in our conversations. To be clear, the conversations are on bike rides and runs. We don’t talk much in the water! B’s ability to revel in his enjoyment of a simple conversation with a new friend as we run through the woods gives me a picture of delight that serves as an instruction manual in joy.

I have another friend who we’ll call K. K is the kind of guy that I really admire because he knows how to do just about everything. He can find a broken camp stove that’s spent the past twenty years rusting away in the woods and fix it to better than new. He can troubleshoot seemingly any mechanical problem. He’s a skilled outdoorsman who can shoot and fish and hike and ski. He’s also an excellent conversationalist and a generous person. If we were picking teams for a zombie apocalypse, K would be a first round draft pick. But the reason K. comes to mind when I think of delight is because of his daughter. Sometimes when it’s dark outside and we’re sitting around a campfire, K’s daughter will sit down next to him and hold his hand. The look of adoration that comes over K’s face when this happens is beautiful and wondrous and he makes no attempt to disguise it. K. delights in his daughter’s friendship and affection. That this human swiss-army-knife of a man is so wordlessly expressive in his fatherly love is an inspiring primer for me in delight. In how to do joy.

G is the third and final friend I’m going to write about today. He illustrates delight in several ways. When a perfect cut of A5 Wagyu is placed in front of him, the tip of G’s tongue sticks out between his lips as he smiles and rubs his hands together in anticipation. When he takes the first sip of a perfectly crafted cocktail of gin and Chartreuse and Luxardo, the twinkle in his eyes is pure delight. While G is an exemplar of joyous delight when he’s enjoying the finest in food and wine, he’s most in his element not when he’s consuming but when he’s sharing. G takes such visible delight in providing hospitality for others. His generous spirit is as expansive as it is inclusive and the enjoyment G takes in observing his guests’ enjoyment is the very picture of generous delight. Of joy shared. He’s the most infectious font of delight I know. I like to dabble in the art of hospitality and credit my friend G for any welcoming warmth I show in opening my home to others.

Thank you for taking the time to read through these reflections of mine. I hope they may serve as a kind of leaping-off point into your own examination and exploration of delight. Every day I grow more and more convinced that we are meant for relational connections for so many reasons. One of them is just this: I understand joy more deeply and am capable of a greater array of delights because of the examples and inspirations of my friends. May you seek and find delight in those you know well, as well as in those you are just starting to meet.

School Friends

When I was in high school I was so incredibly blessed. I had such wonderful friends. My friends were kind, and creative, and adventurous, and funny, and serious sometimes too. We talked about nothing and we talked about everything. We dreamed out loud together.

When we weren’t busy at school or at our part-time jobs, our hours were filled with laughter and adventure together. We took impromptu trips to the coast where we surfed the frigid waves of the Washington coast. We rode our bikes everywhere. We watched second-run movies at the local dollar theater. We got coffee and milkshakes after midnight at Denny’s. We drove to Snoqualmie Pass for midweek night skiing. We spent entire days waterskiing on American Lake. We went skimboarding at Dash Point and Chamber’s Creek. We rolled the windows down and played our music loud.

These were the friends I was certain would be my best friends for the rest of our lives. I had another, far more numerous set of friends back then as well. At the time, I thought of them as my School Friends. School Friends were classmates and they were teammates. We shared interests and often had incredibly deep conversations during group work time, at lunch, or on the bus trip to/from a track meet, wrestling match, or soccer game. We would always get to the end of the school year and write something like “Keep In Touch” in one another’s yearbooks. 

I often felt a sense of melancholic lost opportunity with my School Friends. A “what if, if only” sort of feeling. What if I had the courage to invite one of my School Friends to join my group of best friends on a weekend surfing or hiking or camping trip? I never did because I was scared of messing up the chemistry of my group of best friends. Plus, I always carried an insidious fear that my best friends were just really kind souls who tolerated my presence: and I didn’t want to test that tolerance by introducing more people to our group. Of course the perspective that comes with middle age reveals just how foolish and unfounded those fears were but they were petrifying at the time.

If only I had been less absorbed in my own fears and insecurities, if only I thought just a little bit more of others and less of myself, many of those School Friends would certainly have become lifelong confidants. 

I hadn’t thought about my high school dichotomy of friendship into Best Friends and School Friends for years until a couple of weeks ago. I teach high school students. We have been in a 100% remote learning situation for the final quarter of last school year and now for nearly the first half of this school year. So every school interaction is over some form of electronic media. I was on a 1:1 call with one of my students and the conversation turned from the final draft of her Economics essay to how she was coping with a remote learning senior year of high school. She talked about how she was grateful to be able to have a flexible schooling schedule that accommodates the two part time jobs she holds, but then paused and said “I didn’t think I would miss my School Friends as much as I do.” I asked her what she meant by that, and she discussed the various ways her closest circle of friends have managed to stay in contact during the pandemic, and then reflected on how she’s realizing how much she had taken the hallway, classtime, and lunchroom conversations with School Friends for granted.

I realized then that I’ve never been alone in making up strange taxonomies of friendship in my head. We all have relationships with different levels of frequency, intensity, and duration. The thinking error I’ve often been guilty of is in putting off any meaningful generosity, invitation, or embrace until a friendship levels up from School Friend to Best Friend. And so, I asked my student if I could share a challenge with her in response to her reflection about missing her School Friends. She consented, so I challenged her to pick up the phone and contact a few of these School Friends she was missing. Let them know they’re known, and valued, and missed. I asked her to imagine how wonderful and encouraged she might feel if she received that kind of call (or text or DM or whatever) from one of her school friends. She lit up (I suppose: it was a phone call, but I could hear it in her voice) and enthusiastically agreed to take action on this challenge.

Teachers often make great actors. You know the classical origin of our word hypocrite, right? The original hypocrites weren’t liars or parents or teachers who said one thing and did another. They were actors. They played a role on stage. And so in that sense of the word I’m often acting in the role of teacher as the best self I wish I was, the best self I hope I can be for my students. I think I gave my student sound advice and a worthy challenge. And, in the modern sense of the word, I’m a total hypocrite as well because when do you think was the last time I picked up the phone to reach out to somebody I’ve worked with, or gone to school with, to let them know I value them, miss them, admire them? I bet you know the answer: I haven’t done such a thing in ages.

So, if you’re reading this, chances are you found this little blog post of mine because of social media, which is our 21st century way of simulating connections with others. While I don’t think our simulated connection is a bad thing at all, I’d like to use this simulation of relationship to say to you, dear reader, dear old School Friend, Co-Worker, Happenstance Acquaintance, I appreciate you. I miss you. And I hope we can find a way to hang out together in person someday soon after we’ve defeated this pandemic.

Real Fake Riding

I participated in my first Zwift event today, and I’m completely smitten with everything about it. While the video game aspect of riding in an online peloton of fellow riders was certainly enjoyable, I think the instant camaraderie was what really hooked me.

Before the event began, the 100+ racers bantered through the app’s chat interface. I quickly learned I had found my way into an event organized by an virtual bicycle racing and support group that calls themselves “The Herd.” When I asked about it, over a dozen people welcomed me as a newbie, and began MOOOOOing at me. It would have been pretty unsettling in real life, but over chat it was kind of charming.

Once the event began, it immediately became clear the only thing “beginner” about this event was the short distance. The eventual winning group raced off ahead, never to be seen again. I was committed not to really race this event as I had already put in a challenging workout earlier in the day, was scheduled to also run immediately after the “race” and am planning on a 21 kilometer trail run in honor of the Xterra Train Run World Championship this Sunday. Not nearly the same elevation but 21 kilometers in the foothills is still a serious endeavor. Anyway, I stuck myself in with what felt like a well organized group and away we went.

Just like would happen in a real world event, the mostly good-natured call outs began after mile 4 or so. The folks who weren’t taking their turns pulling the paceline got reminded to take their turn out front. That’s right, the program simulates drafting so it’s a very noticeable lesser effort to draft behind a lead rider. Except in Zwift land there’s no need to fear a nasty peloton mass crash event. Your avatar just clips right through the one in front if you get too close.

I’m a sucker for data charts. Here’s the timeline graph of my beginner’s race today in Zwift. I love being able to review the relationship between my heart rate and power output. My legs felt just about exactly the same after this virtual event as they would have after putting out the same effort outdoors in the real world.

I’ve been fascinated with Zwift for some time now, but have been biding my time until I could find the right “smart trainer” on the used market for the right price. I was so stoked when I found a highly recommended model in my local bicycle classifieds that I made my family take a detour on our way home from Thanksgiving Weekend camping to pick it up. The thing connects to my computer (or smartphone/tablet if you prefer) over bluetooth. The app plays nicely with my heart rate monitor, which allows all of the data in the aforementioned timeline graph to be tracked over time.

Over the past few years I’ve heard several cyclists scoff at Zwift, usually with some kind of deprecation about it being “just a video game” and since they’ve added races, the critique of the races being fake achievements because they’re online has made a certain kind of sense to me. After all, if it’s online, people must be cheating, right? Here’s the thing, maybe it’s the pandemic and the fact I haven’t been on a group ride in over a year now, but I think what’s enthusing me the most about this new training tool / video game is the social connections. I don’t know nearly any of the people, but just like the connection you feel when another rider says “nice bike” at the mid-ride cookie stop, the opportunity to ride alongside other people (via online avatars) while chatting or competing or simply waving is pretty darn cool and I’ve realized it’s just what I’ve been needing. And those connections, those achievements? They’re real even if they’re virtual.

It reminds me of a conversation I recently had with one of my students about “school friends” and “real friends.” But that’s a post for another week!

Here I am after running in our 39 degree weather (for real! outside! alone) immediately after my Zwift race. You can see my indoor bicycling setup in the background if you can make it out amongst all of the basement clutter.

Oh, one more thing. Even though I wasn’t racing, I admit I still sprinted a little at the end. I came in 45th out of a field of 127. Which is ok with me since I wasn’t racing. Right.

Grateful for Grace

I have recently been reading, and re-reading, a beautiful little book “Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God” by Brian Zahnd. It was recommended by a dear old friend of mine and I am so grateful for the recommendation. This book evokes a variety of emotions for me. On my first read, feelings of gratitude and comfort washed over me as I enjoyed the way the author’s conversational style gently picked apart the centuries and generations of misreadings that have misled so many to imagine their god as an angry, vengeful old asshole in the sky.

On a second read, those same passages evoke feelings of remorse and regret as I reflect upon the innumerable ways I have harmed others as the result of my own misreading and misimagination of my god as an angry and vengeful misanthrope. I regret how many times I have acted and spoken in arrogant certainty to and about others. I regret how easy it was for me to believe in a simplistic, narrow, and out-of-context misreading of a couple of lines in the bible as some kind of divine mandate to exclude or judge or combat others. Particularly others on the margin. Others already vulnerable and wounded. I regret how easy it was for me to, right after taking a simplistic, narrow, and out-of-context reading of bible verses that suited my bigotry, to pivot to the need for the hermeneutics and exegesis of scholarly experts in order to maintain some coherence between logic, rationality, and the brand of faith I was subscribed to.

Both reactions are, for me, incredibly important in my personal journey. I’d be a liar if I told you I often feel like my journey has been one of continuous improvement over the previous twenty-plus years of adulthood. Sometimes, when I look back on my 18-year-old self, and recall how deeply he felt his laughter, and how passionately he pursued his beliefs, I wish to go back in time to know those days of striving valiantly. 

But the thing is, every arch-villain thinks he’s striving valiantly. I don’t think there’s any such thing as the nefarious bad guy who steeples his fingers and cackles loud and long as he relishes his villainy. The bad guys genuinely think they’re daring greatly. They think they’re striving valiantly against cold and timid souls. They think they’re the hero in the story. That’s what I thought, anyway, each time I’ve been the villain in somebody else’s story.

And so, while in the midst of the periodic existential angst that is my 2020, I’m grateful I’m no longer as certain as I was in the days of my youthful zealotry. As I grow more and more convinced of the toxic effect certainty has for my intellectual, emotional, and spiritual growth, I’m reminded of an article a mentor shared with me early in my career. It was originally published in the Harvard Business Review in 1991, and introduced me to the notion of double-loop learning (and thinking). Here’s a link to the article, you should read it, especially if (like me) you’re among the legion of hypocrite educators whose life work is learning yet who are so resistant to, well, learning: https://hbr.org/1991/05/teaching-smart-people-how-to-learn

Back to Zahnd. Here’s a snippet from his first chapter: “It’s true that we can piece together a mosaic of a malicious God by selecting the most gruesome passages of the Bible. But this doesn’t mean we have revealed God as he is. Sometimes the Bible is like a Rorschach test: our interpretation of the text reveals more about ourselves than about God.”

Sometimes the Bible is like a Rorschach test

Now I should tell you that the first lightning-bolt inspiration this line gave me was to go back and give Alan Moore’s Watchmen yet another read. I mean, it’s the character’s NAME and I never thought to read the panels that showed his mask as changing based on how the other characters are reacting rather than how the character is thinking/feeling/doing. And then… what about re-reading it with his mask changing based on how the reader (that would be me) is thinking/feeling/doing. Fourth wall, broken indeed! But I digress, and have likely lost any readers who are not nerds. Even though everybody’s a nerd, just in different stages of actualization. 

Sometimes the Bible is like a Rorschach test

My second lightning-bolt inspiration from this line came to me at mile 6 of my run the other day. Most people who call themselves christians would say they believe people are fallible. In fact, that belief is pretty foundational to christian doctrine. Most people who call themselves christians would also say they believe (or want to believe) the Bible is infallible. Inerrant. That’s a major piece to christian theology as well. So if we trust that people are (sometimes/often/always) wrong, how can we also be so smug with our “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” bumper stickers?!? And brothers and sisters, even though I think I’m too classy to put that bumper sticker on my car, it’s been plastered across my forehead (metaphorically) for most of my life. 

So this is where I’m at in this loop of thinking and learning. And it brings me to gratitude for grace. I’m so grateful for the grace that my friends continue to demonstrate towards me each time I’m brashly in the “doom loop” of my own certainty. I’m grateful for the grace of my spouse: her love is tenacious and kind and consistently the image of our God’s character for our children, and for everyone who knows her. I’m grateful for you, dear reader, for making it through to the end of this post. I leave you with these prompts to ponder:

  1. After reading the HBR article “Teaching Smart People How to Learn,” identify something you’ve resisted learning that you will revisit. I recommend starting with something you have less ego invested in. In my case, it was easier to reflect honestly in the realm of physical fitness than it was in the area of teaching or faith. 
  1. Contemplate certainty. What do you insist remains unquestioned? What are you willing to reconsider? Why? What does this say about your values and aspirations?
  1. Please, for the love of God, if you’re making mashed potatoes today: LEAVE SOME LUMPS IN!