Friday, December 22, 2017

The Favor that "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" Just Did for Me

This is my movie critique for "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" and by now I shouldn't have to even offer a spoiler warning. I'm sure everybody has seen it by now (May The Hype Be With You!). Before I get into the details, I will say that the following is after a few days of reflection following seeing the film, and much deliberation with those also that saw it to make sure I did, indeed, see the same movie that they did. The short version is: the more I reflect on it, the less impressed I am. My initial reaction may not have been "thumbs up," but the thumb keeps rotating vertically downward the more I think about it.

Let me launch my remarks by explaining the enigmatic title of this rant. You see...I love good stories. I've immersed myself in good stories all my life; not just Star Wars. As a father, I created elaborate myths for my children as bedtime stories, and as an anthropologist I recognize the potent influence that "sacred myths" carry in cultures around the globe. Star Wars was among the important stories of my youth, and my elation knowing that the films would be continued probably mirrors that of other adults who also sat in wonder back in late 70's/early 80's as the original trilogy unfolded on the screen before us. Beyond the movies though, I became a fan of the novels published for the Star Wars universe. The hundred or so volumes that I have in my collection isn't even complete! I'm still searching online and in used books stores to find both hardcover and paperback novels of stories dating to 15-17 years BBY (Before the Battle of Yavin; I know...I should give nerd warnings, at least). As with many things though, certain tales have something of a "shelf life." Keep them going too long, and nostalgia will likely keep up personal interest far beyond the tale's ability to remain compelling. When that happens, a disillusioning effect can set in which threatens to delegitimize the story that once so occupied your interest. To preserve the early affection for the story, something has to help you drop the interest in the present. In this way, SW-TLJ may have helped preserve for me the love I had for the old story, but not giving a damn where it goes from here. 

Rian Johnson, the director for this latest installment, appears to have been singularly interested in so breaking with the very saga that this film is supposed to fit into, that it breaks ties with nearly all of epic myth it was supposed to advance. Mind you, Johnson is under no obligation to follow any of the "fan theories" that have arisen since J. J. Abrams' "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" regarding Rey's parentage, Snoke's origins, Luke Skywalker's future, or where in blazes Maz Kanata found his lightsaber. He IS, however, supposed to realize that, as a director of a Star Wars film, he is the most recent steward of a saga that came before him and needs to outlast him. Johnson seems to have been vaguely aware of this responsibility and defiantly flipped it the bird (or Porg). I will offer some observations to support this as the film unfolded:

I do not agree with those that critique the humor in the opening battle scene. I did not find it out of place. On the contrary, the intensity of the film - I think - called for those moments of levy where they could be found. It Poe/Hux call supported the character of Poe as a hotshot pilot that is in need of learning the serious burden of leadership. One could imagine him smiling defiantly as, after requesting a triumphant flyby, is told from the tower "Negative ghost rider, the pattern is full." Visually, TLJ is stunning. Johnson can be commended for action scenes both with hand-to-hand combat and with flying machines. His color palette is inspiring and each shot could be framed as a poster. For me, the technical aspects are all laudable. But this is not a mere special effects film. It's SUPPOSED to be a mythic tale, a very human story, that merely used special effects to tell the story in a mythological universe (A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...).

Where I begin to take issue with Johnson is his treatment of nearly all of the characters, and the way their stories were SUPPOSED to fit in an ongoing saga. Luke Skywalker, as designed my Johnson, is unrecognizable from the optimistic new Jedi was left back in "Episode VI: Return of the Jedi."Apparently the turning of his student to the dark side has transformed him into a pessimistic old curmudgeon with no appetite to make a difference in the galaxy anymore. The beloved character that every fan was anticipating seeing since Abrams' TFA has turned into a nasty jerk growling "Get off my lawn!" to the bright-eyed and bushy tailed Rey showing up with his old lightsaber. Luke never appears to escape this attitude either. Though he eventually agrees to train Rey, his tepid and non-committal approach leaves the audience non-plussed by the Yoda cameo (we're CGIing puppeteering now? Johnson! You're killing me!). His decision to astral-project a final battle appearance makes more sense when you see that he'd never recover the gumption to actually leave his little haven and personally show up to act like he cares anymore. Johnson has invented some other "Luke" that is so divorced from the "Luke" of the novels and previous films that Lucasfilm should sue him for copyright infringement.

Tragically, the passing of Carrie Fisher meant her presence in the next episode of the saga should not be expected, barring some CGI magic. But of course, Johnson can't ethically do that since her death is so recent. She's not Peter Cushing, having been dead for enough years that reprising his role for "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" via CGI magic was within acceptable limits. Nor is Leah as minor a character in the saga as was Gran Moff Tarkin. You simply cannot CGI Carrie Fisher into the next episode with any ethical immunity. Therefore, it behooved Rian Johnson to offer her character a fitting death in this episode, which was entirely possible considering the editing and reshoots that were possible with nearly a year between Fisher's death and the film's release. It's not rocket science! The actress portraying Leah has died, so the character of Leah has to in THIS film! You merely needed to make it unfold in a manner that would offer the character the fitting, epic, and emotionally weighty end that it deserved. Instead she was blown into space so that in an odd "Mary Poppins" move, she could fly back into the vessel to be preserved for the future...a future that Carrie Fisher cannot participate in! Johnson dropped the ball on the Leah narrative as well.

In this sense he did exactly the wrong things. He killed off Luke, and kept Leah alive. I'll not try to dictate to Johnson what he SHOULD have done with Luke for the next installment, but the simple fact is that Mark Hamill is available for another episode and Carrie Fisher is not. Do the math! If it was necessary to kill off another original cast member to give it the necessary weight, it's pretty obvious where you have to go.

Rey represents one of the flattest characters ever to appear in Star Wars films (at least for this movie). She experiences nearly no growth or character arc whatsoever. Rey brushes close to the "dark side," but never once appears tempted by it. We're never - even once - on the edge of our seats wondering if she'll remain a good girl. The "force connection" between her and Kylo makes for what you think might be a budding love interest, but is ridiculously quick to emerge following their lightsaber fight at the end of TFA. Suddenly she's so certain she can win him back to the good side by batting her eyes and asking nice? The patronizing insult to fans doesn't stop there though. The entire film is predicated on the notion that the resistance vessel can stay just out of range for the First Order armada in a slow-motion chase scene that culminates in a ground battle.

About this ground battle... In 'Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back" this identical battle, with Imperial walkers spearheading a ground assault was explained by a Rebel "shield strong enough to withstand any  bombardment." In TLJ, no such explanation is given. Instead of snow, it's a planet covered in salt with red dirt underneath so the speeders kick up red dust in their wake. It's visually cool-looking, but has no reason to occur. Johnson appears to have a low opinion of the viewing audience, supposing they will be so wow'ed by the visual that they'll ignore all the other problems. Speaking of rip-off's from previous episodes: Kylo killing Snoke is a ripoff of Vader killing Palpentine also. But in this case, we really didn't care. If this is supposed to be a new trilogy, that's something you save for the third episode in the three.

Too much was resolved, and not enough remained to keep us interested. In 1980, I walked out of SW "The Empire Strikes Back" with a feverish need to see the next film, for which I would have to wait three years. Darth Vader had just revealed he was Luke's father, Han was frozen in carbonite and needed rescue, plus we were still awaiting an in-person appearance of the Emperor. At the end of TLJ, I find I have no anticipation of the next one. NONE! Snoke is dead. Kylo is still the bad guy. Rey lifts rocks with the Force now (apparently without needing significant Jedi training), Luke is dead (and so is Carrie Fisher), but Leah is not. Bottom line? I really don't care what happens next now. Rian Johnson set out to make something unique, and he has done that. He's made a Star Wars movie that sucks the anticipation out of the space between films.

In this way this film did me the favor of letting it go. My Star Wars film fandom now is set aside to my childhood wonders of yesteryear. As an adult, that needed to happen at some point. I don't deny it. I still enjoy the novels, because those writers can still spin a good yarn; all within the SW universe. The Star Wars movies, however, are now something I can live without. Other films will emerge that tell the great stories...the ones that really make me think about the grand themes of tragedy, loss, victory, sacrifice, redemption, and the like. I needed to the let the Star Wars film go, and Rian Johnson did me that favor. It was a tragic favor - a sad favor, but a useful one nonetheless.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Does the Constitution Protect "Hate Speech?"

When discussing the idea of "hate speech" the terms get more tricky that many are willing to admit. It's one of those terms that everyone thinks everyone else knows what it means so it can be used without qualification. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The meaning remains a moving target, so its use is less unhelpful to a decent conversation than many are also willing to admit. What exactly do you mean when you label something "hate speech," and to what it end have you chosen to label it that?

I recently heard the question posed as to whether the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution "protects hate speech." It's a question worth dissecting. The text of the 1st Amendment is:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Full disclosure: I am by no means a constitutional scholar or legally trained in any way. I only cite the 1st Amendment at the level of popular culture having to traffic in these terms as part of conversation. Just from my limited understanding though, a few clauses stand out that I'll discuss in the following paragraphs.

"CONGRESS shall make no law" suggests that this amendment is targeted at the limitations of government. It goes on to prohibit restricting the speech of its citizens. Interestingly, within the same clause is the restriction of government not to abridge the "freedom of the press." Certainly these are linked such that should one go away, the other is sure to follow. It would seem the authors were concerned that abridging speech or press is both a governmental temptation and tendency, such that disallowing that abridgment was the first of the amendments to the new Constitution. Absent from the clause is specificity concerning what types of speech or what outlets of the "press" are protected by this amendment. At the scholarly level, most likely untold volumes have been written on what restrictions can be left to the states since this amendment applies to the U.S. Congress, and I am by no means aware of all of those. This rudimentary review, though, is helpful for discussion.

In addition, "Congress shall make no law... abridging...the right of the people peaceably to assemble."  Of course, the operative term here is "peaceably." In fact, it's not just an operative term; it's a linchpin. When people no longer are "peaceably" assembling, then they're assembling NOT peaceably; meaning assembling in a manner that disturbs the peace, causing injury to person and property. Thus the big difference must be held forth of peaceable assemblies from non-peaceful assemblies. I'm digressing a little from the "hate speech" discussion, but I think the point is relevant to the conversation.

The "peaceably" qualifier appears to be the primary exception to the "free speech" protection. So long as a group assembles "peaceably" to express grievances (misguided or valid), Congress shall make no law to abridge that speech. Stepping away from the nuanced "weeds" of Federal vs State issues, and accepting that the 1st Amendment should serve as a guide to lower laws as well, it would seem that the abridging of peaceable speech by any legislative body holds dangers that the Constitutional writers sought to avoid. There is a way around that though: "hate speech."

The popular term of "hate speech" is nebulous enough to include both things that everyone can agree on and those things than no one can. Obviously it relates to more than speech that any one person hates. Even that is an argument that most don't employ. However, it seems that speech that is perceived as "promoting hate" can be labeled as "hate speech." Clearly I'd agree that speech in which someone actually says that they "hate" another because of color, country of origin, sex, religion, etc. can be labeled "hate speech," and is appropriately denounced as reprehensible. If only the term could be kept to that arena. Because the term has such potency, however, it has become an effective tool in attempts by some to silence those whose speech they simply don't like, or opposes their political philosophy. I've called this "power-shaming" in other writing.

The 1st Amendment, and by extension even lower legislative bodies, are restricted from abridging speech that peaceably assembles to air their grievances. Therefore the way around this, if dissatisfied with this protection regarding speech one does not like, is to ensure that those expressing such cannot peaceably assemble. This can be done by gathering where they do and making certain that the assembly is never peaceful. However, in doing so you run the risk of bringing greater attention to the speech you wish to restrict than they would have otherwise garnered, but the risk is worth the achievement by possibly attracting more support for the cause of restricting that speech. After all, if indeed the assembly is gathered to express speech that enough people hate, there will be little to no condemnation of the tactic needed to restrict the expression of "hate speech."

Thus the 1st Amendment can be made irrelevant to the question as to whether it "protects hate speech," since the "court of public opinion" will not pass judgment on those that can ensure that the assemblies for some speech is never peaceable. I consider it irrelevant whether I also hate the speech of some that assemble because I agree with the Founders that the dangers of restricting peaceably assembled speech are greater than speech itself. On the contrary, better to have "hate speech" addressed with competing speech that deconstructs and discredits it rather than to embolden it with delusions of "martyrdom." If "hate speech" is to mean anything more than "speech you hate" (which alarmingly and arbitrarily could include even MY speech), then the popular response should be to heed the warnings inherent in the 1st Amendment and overcome that speech with higher, more enlightened, more educated and better argued speech; not attempt restricting it in some "strong arm" fashion.

There is indeed some speech that I "hate" (i.e. prejudices based on racial categories), but I agree with the Constitutional writers that trying to silence it holds dangers we would rather not face either. Defeat them with your speech, for the first to result to force has lost the argument. I'm no pacifist. Meeting force with force has certainly been not only necessary, but a moral imperative throughout history. But when "hate speech" arises (1) make sure you know how to define the term, not assuming everyone knows what you mean, and (2) defeat the ideas in the manner it manifests (speech vs speech).

What is "hate speech?" No one - and everyone - knows, but it cannot merely mean speech that you hate, or speech that you don't want spoken. The definition is too fluid. Therefore the 1st Amendment has to protect it, so long as it can peaceably assemble. The government does NOT have to endorse it, but it cannot abridge it. The arguments that allowance makes government complicit in it must be discarded as transparently immature. Is there speech that I hate that is popularly defined as "hate speech?" Of course. But I'd hate the government more that was in the business of abridging speech it deemed unprotected based on movable categories.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Power-shaming and other weaknesses

The American cultural phenomenon of feeling perpetually insecure, and needing validation from others has become so commonplace as to rise to proverbial status. We're a nation wherein the most vocal need the most approval. Since they seem unable to self-validate, the strategy for gaining feelings of significance is too shame others over "low-hanging fruit" topics wherein the shamed will do backflips for absolution.

Polarizing events often generate binary thinking wherein someone must be vocally against it or else suffer the "power-shaming" of seeming for it. Seldom is this more visible that events concerning racial tensions that still exist. The many reasons for those tensions' perpetuity can be debated at another time, but among those is most certainly that: Those that benefit from power-shaming have no interest in seeing racial strife ever subside.

There is power to be gained and maintained in shaming others over matters they will labor tirelessly to escape shame over. Those that know me know that I am no fan of Donald Trump, and I have decried his "Trumpkin" followers on many occasions; however, following the recent events in Charlottesville, VA. news commentators have echoed repeatedly the dissatisfaction with Trump's denunciation of the "white lives matter" groups (I'm summarizing all the racist groups that gathered to protest the removal of a statue to Robert E. Lee). As much as I have been a critic of POTUS, I must sympathize with him in this regard. The power-shamers smell "blood in the water" now, and will never be satisfied with any level of denunciation he speaks against WLM groups. I've learned that the power-shamers have no vested interest in ever granting absolution and declaring you contrite enough to be forgiven for someone else's sins. Quite the contrary, Democrats, Republicans, and political activists yearning to gain advantage will continue nibbling away like mythic Piranha in a jungle river.

I see this on social media where binary thinking manifests in demands for greater and louder condemnations of something bad, or else risk being labeled as tolerating that bad thing. The "if you're not for us, you're against us" message was most on display during the 2016 election where Trumpkins on social media were demanding loyalty to Captain Hairdo or risk being labeled a "Hillary supporter." The assertion that any vote not for Trump was a vote for Clinton was heard with such rapid-fire regularity as to become something I never thought I'd ever experience: actual political disagreement with my own father(!). To be fair, my father is no Trumpkin (not in the crude, rally attendee sense), but that binary thinking of "it's either A or B...nothing else" invaded our discussions at the time and I really disliked it.

Now comes the binary thinking as part of the power-shamers' arsenal. You're either AGAINST allowing such WLM groups their free speech rights, or you're for them in some unspoken way. I even read some suggest that "free speech" is a white man's invention, as though "liberty" is just a white-privilege code term for condoning oppression. Full disclosure: one of my favorite archaeologists was made famous killing Nazis, and I'm prone to feel satisfied doing the same. BUT I also realize that the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is a messy thing, and "liberty" means that people can do and say things you don't like. That government empowered to restrict speech I DON'T like today may use that power to restrict speech I DO like tomorrow.

But those that seek power by shaming others cannot be bothered with discussions of the value of liberty regarding "free speech" or freedom of assembly. The good that is maintained by enforcing the 1st Amendment (even when it allows speech we find horrific) outweighs the evil spewed by those saying things we hate. Thus the power-shamers MUST be ignored. They have little concept of liberty and freedom, having never matured in their thinking to the level of appreciating what can transpire in its absence. I once told someone at an inner city college "I don't subscribe to white guilt theory." The horror on their face was telling. I had taken away their power to manipulate me into jumping through hoops seeking absolution that they will never grant.

Regarding the WLM groups in Charlottesville, their freedom of speech and freedom of assembly can be defended while denouncing what they assemble to say. This will not be enough for the power-shamers, who essentially have become the new "bullies" that want to dominate the playground. Unwillingness to play their game just seems to hasten their aneurism, but I'll just sit back, light up the cigar and watch the fireworks anyway.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Struggling with What about Faith?

In this millennial malaise of spirituality gobbledygook, one is not considered a "deep" person unless they have, at some point, "struggled with their faith in God." In response to that, I must quote the most frequent and annoying refrain from my old theology professor at Dallas Theological Seminary:

"What does that even mean?"

Dr. Glenn Kreider often found me flustered with his incessant demand that I be more specific and define the popular and ambiguous terms I threw out, thinking they had legitimacy simply because I had heard them so much. Evangelical rhetoric gets imbedded in our psyche and vocabulary sometimes, and extricating it from those mental burrows can be like a Cesarean Section without the glorious payoff. Phrases like "God has a plan for you," or "all things work together for good" prove as empty as they sound when crashing against the breakwater barrier of life's rough experiences. Responding to such platitudes with "I don't know what that means," may have got me wondering at the time Is this guy an idiot?, but after a while it was clear I was the idiot than needed to start thinking about what I was saying before I said it.

Struggled with faith?
...I don't know what that means.

What do you mean when you say "struggle." It seems that the post-modern, sexy, accepted definition is to have "struggled" with whether or not there is a God at all. Somehow life gets in the way of the faith claims of their youth, so they dabble in the "Ring" of atheism and return from Mordor with a customized version of their personal spirituality. This is seen as credible faith because it not only is post-struggle, but also reflects the triumph of western individualism. The "first world problems" of "finding my own voice" is among the new spiritual disciplines that ranks up there with fasting and alms-giving. So in the quest for inventing my own spiritual identity (complete with Café Press customized t-shirt slogan), it seems necessary to pass through the crucible of thinking that God does not exist. This is what it means to "struggle" with one's faith in many circles.

This meaning must be rejected though, for the same reasons that many postmoderns reject other aspects of western societal evolution. The triumph of individualism has done us no favors in the faith community. All other expressions of the human condition hold a necessary communal component, but with matters of faith we declare it a "private matter." This has not worked to our benefit. The "struggle" should not be to, having been "baptized" in the waters of atheism (or at best agnosticism), emerge "clean" from inherited assumptions, clothed only in new ones that I can invent. Instead this "struggle" should be to learn and grow within the arena of faith; not assuming that growth is possible outside of it.

Instead of "struggle" meaning whether or not to believe in God, it instead should be whether or not to believe certain people.

From someone that has undergone considerable "struggle," I can tell you that it never occurred to me to doubt whether God existed. It never even occurred to me doubt whether the God of the Bible was the God who is. Josh McDowell's "evidence" and Lee Strobel's "case" were never persuasive with me. I simply didn't need convincing. What I learned over time, though, is that the bull$#!% peddled by many religious entrepreneurs is as hevel as it is harmful. God might always be true and constant, but people can be full of crap!

Nothing about life's experiences suggested that God might not exist. After all, I've had many conversations in which people ask, "How can you believe in God with so much ugliness in the world?" To which I almost always respond, "Indeed with so much ugliness in the world, how do you explain the existence of beauty without Him?" Life's experiences, did however, illuminate a path whereby I became skeptical of much that people say about God. I've learned that many thrive in the religious industry (particularly American Evangelicalism) by asserting things about God and our interaction with him that the Bible does not explicitly teach. God is true, but people can be full of it.

When "faith is shaken," it's not required that faith itself topple over; only that those things that are indeed shakable be shaken off. When disappointing events of 2009 (a.k.a long story about almost becoming U.S. Navy chaplain) rocked the tectonic plates under my faith assumptions, I was asked by a colleague what I believed anymore; to this day I'm glad I answered:

"I believe in God the Father, almighty maker of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ his only begotten Son our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and buried.
He descended into hell and on the third day rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven where he sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty,
from where he will come to judge the quick and dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting...

...all else seems like meaningless speculation."

My faith has since been brought back to some greater sophistication, though I still find recitation of the full Athanasian Creed a challenge. Nevertheless, the faith "struggle" was never whether to believe in God, but instead whether to believe in the lines fed to me by people; lines about "God's will" for my life, or lines about how "prayer works," crap about how if I'd just "surrender to God's will," pray a certain way, or discover the "special" words of the Scriptures (I swear a lot these Bible "secret" peddlers learned their methodology from B-movie clichés depicting witches with their books of spells!). The faith "struggle" was not about belief in God; but belief in people.

Outlining more of the life experiences here that have served as tough spiritual "earthquakes" would be neither appropriate nor brief (something about brevity as the soul of wit), but sufficient are they for making a credible case that, having listened to them all, my therapist might now have a drinking problem. Again, I assert that when faith is shaken, what remains is the faith that cannot be shaken. It is not necessary, no matter how expected it might be by millennial peers, to lose faith in God altogether. On the contrary, the analogy of the dross scraped away from molten metal applies. Those "impurities" can take the form of spirituality slogans fed to the faithful in youth camp, or memes perpetuated on social media, but metallurgy is not about discarding the molten material altogether, but refining and making it stronger.

Struggle with faith? What does that even mean?

How about a "struggle" to refine faith one's into something that keeps standing when all else is shaking lose and toppling over. That's what I mean when I say it. After all, my first world problems don't really compare to the challenges faced by those saints of the past that maintained The Faith in spite of real losses and heartbreaks that can't even relate to the present spirituality culture.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Legacy Activities

Father’s Day is an opportunity to reflect on the influence, attitudes and customs passed on from our dads. I saw my Facebook newsfeed flooded with images of fathers and children during memorable times and events, many of these pictures clearly taken back when Kodak was still selling rolls of film in the checkout line at the supermarket. Whether for mothers or fathers, children declare there appreciation for parents often by recalling some specific activity in which the immaterial DNA of the parent’s influence were passed on to them. For Mother’s Day memes about how “mom let me lick the spoon” were commonplace and heartwarming. 

These times we spent with the parent, focused on their presence and influence, make significant contributions to the legacy they bequeath to us. Legacy activities can take the form of routine or non-routine tasks, but it’s the way we specifically associate it with them that makes it so powerful. For my mother, many legacy activities could be listed, but the one that springs most quick to mind is tennis. Playing tennis together (at 75, she’s still a court regular) afforded her opportunities to affirm her confidence in me as a young man, critique my character or laugh over life’s lessons. Tennis holds that special place in the category dedicated to “mom memories.” 

For my father, the legacy activities are also too numerous to give a comprehensive list. Chopping wood, lake vacations, watching him demonstrate genuine piety in church all make the “top ten,” but probably the most potent would have to be hunting. Through the ritual of deer hunting (and all the ancillary activities it requires: hunter’s safety course, range time, packing, travel, hiking, camping, woodsmanship, shooting the deer [most often missing], cleaning the deer and eating it at home), I got to see the various aspects of my father’s character when no one was looking. I can say that the man who sat faithfully in the pews of North Valley Baptist Church was the same man that held me as I shivered in the morning cold, awaiting the sunrise atop Ycatapom Peak. The Trinity wilderness brought out no such “other side” of him that could supposedly emerge when no one was around with whom he had to maintain appearances. The man just - flat out - had integrity. 

I noticed it as a young lad, and am still unpacking it to this day. Hunting was the chance for me to see what my father was “really like,” and it did not differ in the least from what the church folk or business associates saw. My admiration of him was grown and cultivated in the rocky crags and lush forests of the Poison Canyon basin, removing our hats to pray each morning before the day’s hunt or when meals were ready at camp. To this day, if my faith seems unreasonably unshakable, you can blame it on those shivering mornings on the ridge as the sun peeked over the eastern horizon. It was then that my father would wave his hand at the mountain range before us, gesturing that I take it all in, and admonish me to remember the awesome God that made it all. The legacy activity of hunting was the “classroom” in which my father delivered among the most powerful and lasting lessons. 

After moving to Texas, I wanted to do the same for my two sons, but Texas hunting is a very different animal than it was in northern California. Public land hunting is few and far between, so without incurring the expense of a deer lease (or having a landowner friend), the legacy activity was going to have to be something else altogether. Enter…Spartan Race!

Although prior to 2012 we had done some camping, and visited pretty places outdoors, we hadn’t fully immersed ourselves in an activity that would repeat over time to really bond over. In December of 2012, we volunteered at our first Spartan Race and ran our first one the following year. Since then over 20+ occasions have seen my kids and I braving the various obstacles that the course designers could erect in our way, along with mud and fire to create both dirty thrills and epic pictures for social media. I became aware that this was becoming our “Legacy activity” when we weathered a Spartan Race “Hurricane Heat” together (a four hour compilation of endurance and team-building tasks that truly tests each individual at physical, mental and even spiritual levels). 

Before my son, Joshua, went into the U.S. Navy in 2015, my father generously provided a hunting trip for himself, me, Joshua and Elijah to enjoy together. The four of us traveled to a ranch in the Texas hill country for a controlled hunt wherein the boys were able to harvest their first deer (one buck and two does each). It was such a fantastic time, and was very meaningful for all of us. It was, however, my father’s legacy activity provided for them. This diminishes it in no way at all. We all enjoyed ourselves completely, and I was particularly proud of the boys for the marksmanship and maturity they showed during the entire time. 

In June of 2017, however, I had the chance to provide the boys a special time of MY legacy activity: Spartan Race. My older son, Joshua, was home on leave from the Navy, and my father was visiting as well. The timing was perfect. This is was also the final Spartan Race that I’d have an opportunity to do with Elijah before he entered the United States Marine Corps in just a few short months. Three generations of Otts attacked the course, and I was amazed how strong my 77 year old father showed himself to be. We started and finished together. 

Spartan Race has provided those moments with my boys that I once upon a time ascribed primarily to hunting. By becoming a legacy activity for my sons and I, it created chances to share values of endurance, attitude, resourcefulness, patience, discipline and servanthood. This time my father joined us, making it a monumental memory that will stick with us for the rest of our lives. Thank you, Spartan Race. You did us right.  

Monday, May 22, 2017

2017 Austin Spartan Race SUPER Review

     As enterprises grow in success and popularity, they naturally expand their following, attract new participants, and enjoy widened exposure. They also must contend with the evolving expectations of those that have become so used to their business model as to expect smoother experiences with each new encounter. This last weekend I observed interesting dynamics at play when participating in the Spartan Race SUPER, held in Burnet, TX (west of Austin), in the Texas hill country. I have written race reviews before, scoring the race company and their performance. In this piece I will include my observations of participants as well.

     Spartan Race (SR) continues to be the leader in Obstacle Course Racing (OCR), a recreational industry that has grown at an unprecedented pace. Many companies has come and gone with the creation of this business niché, with some having national prominence and other remaining localized in their regional markets (i.e. Tough Mudder has had national brand success, while Thunder Dash remains specific to the Texas hill country). The documentary "Rise of the Sufferfests" can be found on iTunes, and it seeks to do justice to some attempt at explaining the popularity of this exploding sport. Far from a mere "mud run," OCR includes tasks and obstacles that challenge the entire body, along with the will, the attitude, and the determination to overcome personal limitations and apprehensions of various types. Claustrophobic? Here's a culvert to crawl through. Acrophobic? Climb this two story tall cargo netting. Think you're a quick runner? Carry this heavy object up the hill. Think you're strong because of your gym weights? A few miles on uneven ground through the hills can bring the much needed humility. Total fitness and attitude calibration are the name of the game.

     For many (myself included), OCR long ago became far more than mere recreation or an excuse to exercise. It became a living analogy to so many of life's struggles, that participating in them ranks up with some of the other personal disciplines people use to hone the spirit and enliven the soul. It's not mere exercise any more than fasting is mere dieting. Strength of the inner person occurs along with the adversities found in difficult events like this, and the thought is: If I sign up to overcome challenges like these, perhaps it's training me to better face the challenges of life that I didn't sign up for. 

     I ran my first Spartan Race in 2013, and was quickly hooked. Since then I've participated in over twenty Spartan Races and other OCRs, often volunteering as well in order to pay for my registration in what can be an admittedly expensive pastime. Having seen the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, I can safely say that my observations of these events is based on experience; both comparative and longitudinal. Over the years I've developed some categories for evaluating each event, and I'll apply them to the "Austin" Spartan Race held in Burnet, TX on May 20th. My race evaluation has come to include five categories of significance to me. The list is, of course, open to expansion, but these have been key areas according to my experience. The list described below is pasted from an earlier review:

"Our evaluation score is based upon five categories or experience that we comment on to each other as we work as volunteers, run as racers together, and then later debrief about after the event. These five categories are:

  • Staff - Were the event staff friendly, professional and patient? Were they accommodating of needs for water, food or bathroom breaks? Did they make an effort to help us volunteer together? At registration, were they warm, welcoming and organized?
  • Logistics -  Did the event seem organized and well thought-out? Were sufficient materials brought to meet the attendance demand? How well were staff supplied with materials to perform their tasks (shirts, medals, radios, water, etc.)?
  • Obstacles - Were they well-constructed? Did they offer an athletic challenge? Did they need explanation or were they self-explanatory? Was there a penalty for failing the obstacle? Was it also safe while being difficult?
  • Trail - Was the course designed for a decent trail run? Did the outside venue (ranch, field, stadium, etc.) allow for the run itself to be part of the challenge with topographic variety (hills, canyons and plains)? 
  • Festival area - Was the atmosphere electric and exciting? Were examples of obstacles constructed for contests and practice? Were exhibits, vendors, restrooms, showers, start and finish lines laid out in a sensible way? Were start and finish line experiences exciting and satisfying

On each of the above categories we offer 0-20 points, resulting in an accumulated score out of 100 points (making a letter grade easy to calculate)."

     At the outset, it must be shared that Spartan Race had deviated from the setup at Reveille Peak Ranch that they had fashioned in years past. This change affected all areas of the event, both in enhancing the experience and creating new challenges. High praise goes to Spartan Race for being willing to make such a change at all. Change involves risk. While it avoids boredom and predictability, it also generates new difficulties.

Staff - My experience with Spartan staff has been a history of professionalism and efficiency. Certain challenges arose with this race, tough, that can be noted here, without it having tarnished the entire experience. For volunteer check-in, at 0530 Saturday morning, we were told that for this race it had been decided that volunteers could not both volunteer and race the same day. This was contrary to not only the volunteer confirmation email received days before, but to the policy maintained for all the years of Spartan Race leading up to this. Because of my affection for Spartan Race, it gave me no pleasure to witness the near mutiny that was about to unfold before my eyes as volunteers in line began murmuring that this policy change now defeated the reason for being their at all. Faced with the possibility of holding this event without volunteers at all, the staff called their superiors for clarification. Because of the quick reversal of the policy (averting their abandonment), I now believe this was more likely miscommunication between staff than an actual policy change. Nevertheless, even with these early hiccups, professionalism prevailed among staff that graciously assigned us to the finish line (my favorite place to work at the course!). Our immediate supervisor ("Matt"), was brand new to the company, and it was my pleasure to bring him up to speed on the SR ethos and what we needed to accomplish in that area. I must admit, as a Spartan volunteer "veteran," I sometimes might presume too much in taking the lead. In this case though, it helped smooth the operation.
Staff score: 17 points

Logistics - The change in venue setup (still at Reveille Peak Ranch as with previous years, but at an entirely different section of the ranch this time) created opportunities for course creativity. In previous years, parking and festival areas were separated by over a mile, with buses and trailers used to haul participants between them. The inconvenience of that had long since become an expectation and we just knew that our walk to the bus stop would be followed by a short ride to the festival area, and that returning to our vehicle following the race (or retrieving forgotten items midday) would have the same barrier. This year, however, parking and festival area were in the same area (no buses!). This was a tremendous benefit. In addition, when an unexpected storm arose (creating legitimate safety issues), SR could advise participants to "return to your vehicles" since parking was so near.

     *[A word about the weather] Over the years, Spartan Race has successfully walked the fine line between holding a tough event while keeping racer safety paramount. Others have not been so successful, with injuries occurring because of collapsed obstacles at Warrior Dash or even fatalities at Tough Mudder. When a freak storm arose (not unheard of in the Texas hill country), nearby lightning required the temporary suspension of event activities (from obstacles on the course to computers at registration). SR has not "coddled" its racers (some of which can seem rather dainty nowadays), but lightning and other serious safety threats (like extreme heat in Temecula, CA a couple of years ago) will trigger safety protocols that any responsible company will already have in place. In defense of SR, they have to err on the side of caution for things as serious as lightning strikes within one mile of the course. On the other hand, many participants were Texas regulars that know how such weather can be gone as quickly as it came, so many ignored the admonishment to "return to your vehicles." Yes, this annoyed some SR staff, but we knew we assumed the risk for staying nearby the registration tent to continue the check-in process once operations resumed shortly. I will say though, I observed some rather ugly human behavior among the crowd, and the growth of SR's popularity has both attracted new participants that need to learn to "Spartan Up!" as it relates to the challenges of entering the event, as well as some long time Spartans that have seemingly "gone soft" in terms of the smooth process they expect now, lacking patience with even the slightest of inconveniences (tsk tsk!).

In all, from parking direction to volunteer coordination, from food and shirt supplies to safety protocols (even water stations were thoughtfully frequent on the course!), adapting to challenging conditions that arose, SR was still pretty good "on the fly." Some online whiners on social media notwithstanding, the Saturday SUPER (the SPRINT was held on Sunday, but I was not in attendance then), was nicely organized and carried off well.
Logistics score: 18 points

Obstacles - SR introduced new obstacles for this course that I've not encountered before. Some of which focused on upper body strength, for which I'll need to train much, MUCH more if I can expect more of the same in the future. The sandbags were much heavier than previous years, replacing the "pancake" with heavier, more awkward sandbags that were a challenge to lift and balance. Not enough can be said, though, for the genius of constructing the barbed wire crawl over several hills of rolling mud (but dried dirt in the late afternoon; perhaps a running firehose spray could have enhanced that). It created an epic and tough experience that slowed our progress and sapped the energy (exactly what it's supposed to do!). Later in the afternoon, the dunk wall had lost quite a bit of its water, so that it wasn't necessary to "dunk" under the water to duck under the wall (which sort of defeats the obstacle name). The new obstacles offset those deficiencies though, making a good overall challenge.
Obstacles score: 18 points

Trail - Reveille Peak Ranch is a lovely venue, and it's almost impossible to have a boring trail there. However, because of the predictability quotient within the last few years of SRs held there, this year could have suffered such a fate. Because of the location change, however, it had the opposite effect. Exciting and long, this was a super SUPER! The uneven terrain, the winding pathways, the scenic views... rocks, and cactus, and hills...ON MY! SR outdid themselves, with the trail direction taking on backcountry roads, over structures that arched above driveways, through dense forest and unexpected thickets. The trail designer was really on their game.
Trail score: 20 points

Festival area - Because of the setup change, the festival area was significantly different from previous years at Reveille Peak Ranch. Before, the large pavilion and nearby lake was a welcome gathering place and backdrop. This year those were not available. That was the trade off for the convenience of parking near the festival area. While the pavilion and lake were missed, the festival area was as thoughtfully laid out as any other SR I've been to. The elongated festival shape, however, created some issues that I had noticed before at other times: (1) restrooms were at the far end of the longer festival shape, seemingly creating quite a trek with you're "doing the dance," or (2) the elongated festival shape created seeming "dead space" where vendors and gathering places (such as the Biggest Team tent) were not within ear-shot of the main stage music or announcing. Having said that, however, it appeared they had even more gathering tents and more vendors than ever before, with several obstacles (not just the finish line sequence) next to the festival area so that spectators could cheer on racers and take photos. The challenges were a fair trade, though, for the change of trail design that relocated the festival area.
Festival score: 18 points

     A final score of 91 would still warrant an A- according to the standard grading scale at my university. Did SR encounter challenges because of weather and a different setup? Of course! But the problems were either overcome, or offset by the other advantages that arose. Some may think my scoring biased because of my longstanding, and unapologetic loyalty to Spartan Race (my 2014 "open letter" to Spartan Race conveys sentiments I still hold), but indeed they've developed a track record with my family and me that carries significant weight. Some of the critiques I've seen on social media already seem written by those forgetting these events are (1) an outdoor sport, or (2) conducted by companies that MUST make money to continue holding them (we've already seen many OCRs rise and fall in the short lifespan of this sport). In light of the personal adversities we encountered (injuries to both person and property) over the weekend, the entire trip proved an "endurance test" that challenged the attitude and the resolve to "Spartan Up!" and push through to make epic memories. Spartan Race serves as a living analogy to life and perseverance - even during the trip to get to the event itself and return safely home - and I'm glad they're successful enough to keep going. I look forward to many more to come.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Season of Spiritual Training

New Year's resolutions abound among those hoping to improve themselves. And why shouldn't they? The turning of the calendar is a fitting milestone for setting new goals. Many of these goals, however, typically revolve around health and wellness, fueled by a desire to look or feel better in the next year than in the last. Again, legitimate motives all, that manifest themselves in new memberships to gyms, clubs and CrossFit "boxes" across the landscape. Yes, there is a percentage of these resolutions that will not survive beyond January, but that does not negate the value of setting new goals and striving to be stronger, healthier, better. Will that gym or warehouse be a little less crowded on February 15th than it was on January 5th? Perhaps, but those resolute to train themselves for a better life are not among the attrition numbers. They endured through initial struggles to develop healthier habits. 

A time is quickly approaching in the Christian calendar, however, that affords us the opportunity to focus on an even deeper type of training that the new gyms and workout regimens should point us toward; a time of training the soul and spiritual for the various ebbs and flows of life. 

The Apostle Paul suggests to his readers in Corinth a parallel between physical and spiritual training...

Do you not know that all the runners in a stadium compete, but only one receives the prize? So run to win. Each competitor must exercise self-control in everything. They do it to receive a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run uncertainly or box like one who hits only air. Instead I subdue my body and make it my slave, so that after preaching to others I myself will not be disqualified. - 1 Cor 9:24-27

And then hints to his apprentice that an analogy can be drawn between physical and spiritual exercise...

But reject those myths fit only for the godless and gullible, and train yourself for godliness. For “physical exercise has some value, but godliness is valuable in every way. It holds promise for the present life and for the life to come.” This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance. In fact this is why we work hard and struggle, because we have set our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of believers. - 1 Timothy 4:7-9 (NET)

The time of Lent, the penitential season leading up to Holy Week and Easter (the highest point in the Christian year), is an opportunity to make "new year's resolutions" concerning our spiritual training regimen. For many, the assumption that physical improvements would require intentional effort is a given, but then assume that spiritual improvements will somehow evolve naturally. Do we really expect that spiritual "fitness" requires any less volition and effort? On the contrary, while some seem to have a natural metabolism for health and fitness, requiring less effort than others to be slim and trim, no such equivalent exists for the human soul. Everyone must be purposeful regarding spiritual fitness that grows with discipline. 

Means of spiritual discipline have been well celebrated over the whole of Church history. The most obvious of these is fasting: the self-denial of food (the most basic of human needs) for the sake of prayer, and training the physical appetites to be subordinate to our "appetite" for the message and presence of God. It's a good practice when customized to each person's ability and readiness. The main regulation from Scripture about it is secrecy. The conversation topic of "what are you giving up for Lent" needs to be abandoned. Consider Jesus' own words concerning this...

When you fast, do not look sullen like the hypocrites, for they make their faces unattractive so that people will see them fasting. I tell you the truth, they have their reward. When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others when you are fasting, but only to your Father who is in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you. -Matthew 6:16-18

Don't tell anybody! Just train on your own. This is not the time to brag about spiritual disciplines the way that many flood social media with "progress pictures" of the muscles they're developing. Physical exercise can be public, but spiritual exercise should not be. 

Fasting is only one of the disciplines that one might pursue though. There are disciplines that take away from one's life (abstaining disciplines like fasting, silence, frugality, secrecy, and solitude), and disciplines that add to it (engaging disciplines like fellowship, study, celebration, service, and sacrifice). The point is to break from the normal pattern and push one's self in ways you haven't before. If you're a bit of a recluse, then engaging disciplines like fellowship and celebration may be your spiritual "CrossFit," straining all your instincts to be around people more when you just want to be alone. On the other hand, if you're a big people person, solitude and silence may be the "weight reps" that truly build your strength of soul. If "retail therapy" is frequent for you, then frugality may be the thing that makes this Lent more meaningful than ever. If you save every penny, then the sacrifice of offering beyond your norm may be what finally helps you "break a healthy sweat" concerning spiritual matters. The point is to know what discipline will specifically develop greater depth for you this Lenten season as you approach it with purpose, wanting the benefits not only for this life, but the next as well. 

I have disciplines that I know will develop the strength I still need (no, I'm not going to tell you what they are), and you must find what those are for you. As the season of Lent quickly approaches (Ash Wednesday is March 1st!), let's give consideration to what disciplines we might engage, just as we did for the New Year's resolutions to start getting fit. We've all heard that "summer bodies are built in the winter," but consider when the soul is built that can withstand the "winters" of life. Let's start thinking now about what "gym" we'll start running to when Lent comes around.