Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Gorge Is Just... Awesome.

...and I know that word is overused. But if you've ever found yourself exiting the Mountain Parkway, plunging headlong into the blackness of the Nada Tunnel, only to emerge to a beautiful day filled with eastern Kentucky sandstone and sunshine, you understand what I'm talking about.

If not, then you're like I was just three short days ago. Growing up, my family had spent plenty of time hiking around some of Kentucky's best trails, forests, and caves. But on Thursday, my old friend Zach and I ventured somewhere I had been near dozens of times, but had never really gotten to explore.

The Red River Gorge is known the world over, particularly by climbing enthusiasts, for its cliffs, arch formations, and climber-friendly atmosphere. Less than 100 miles from my home, it is a place I often wanted to fully experience, but had never actually visited (much like the interesting fact that despite living most of my life surrounded by horses, horse farms, pictures of horses on horse farms, and people who ride horses for a living, I've never actually had the chance to get on one and ride). Zach, on the other hand, has been to "The Gorge" (as it's called by n00bs, like me) approximately 200 times in the past 5 years (his count being only moderately suspect simply because he is a climber, and climbers obviously have questionable levels sanity somewhat below average). Suffice it to say, he knows the area quite well. We only hiked a modest distance (because of my stupid freaking ankle) and found ourselves atop a rock formation known as Cloud Splitter (Latitude: 37.8375, Longitude -83.62056... in case you'd fancy a visit yourself) where we spent most of the day exploring a wicked-cool cave, praying, reading the Anglican daily liturgy (The Book of Common Prayer), talking about life, love, & other mysteries*, and generally enjoying the (literally) breathtaking spectacle before us. After building the fastest-lighting fire of all time (seriously, those chemically enhanced "fire-starter" logs have nothing on us) and a night beneath the stars (and airplanes, lots of airplanes) we awoke early, as campers are wont to do, dodged a spot or two of rain, and made it to Miguel's for omelets (we had already been there the day before for pizza... delicious) before heading home.

I've heard it said that "a day in the mountains is worth a thousand in the city."** Now I'm no math major, but I'm not sure how that exchange rate really works out, what with crude oil at over $130 a barrel and the declining value of the dollar... Anyway, what I mean is: I still like spending days in the city, because people live there, and people are really interesting. But every now and then, people can kind of get you down, and what you really need is to get away from most of them and spend some time with your Father in the extraordinary playground He's set up for you.

All of us, no matter where we live, can find ways to get outside, take in some sunshine and admire the creation around us - whether that's among the misty peaks of the Rockies, the town park a few blocks from your house, or just the trees and birds in your own backyard. It really is therapeutic... unless of course you hate good things, in which case you probably ought not to spend time outdoors, nor should you purchase the new Coldplay (review forthcoming).

So I'm not sure how many days I saved up with my trip into "The Red" (as it's known by the elite, climbers and the like), but I do know this: I got a chance to connect with God, with a friend, and with the place where blue sky meets sandy stone. I would also like to return soon, so please let me know if you're interested. Plus, Miguel's Pizza is seriously some of the best I've ever tasted...

* The 1996 release from contemporary Christian pop sensations Point of Grace, which may or may not have been the first record I ever purchased (insert shame here).
** See here for the blog post I'm referencing. It's the first one at the top. How can I say with assurance that it's the first one? Because it will literally never be updated ever again.***
*** I would like to preemptively apologize for the (extremely unlikely) possibility that Sara and Alli do in fact update their blog eventually.****
**** I would also like to state that these asterisk footnotes are a blatant rip from Steve Conn's blog (look at that link love)*****
***** But that's okay because he ripped it off that guy that used to write funny the funny column in The Echo (and no, I'm not talking about Steve... the other guy... Joe somebody).
Annnnnd, I'm done.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Pitchforks, Wine, and Battlefields: Why Critics Suck (for the most part)

I’ve never much liked critics. Corman and I were talking about them yesterday and he quoted some brilliant author who described (I’m paraphrasing) them as people who come onto a battlefield after the fighting has ended and shoot all the dead people. They’re mean little cusses, and what they do amounts to very little.

So I heard about this study (and then went and looked it up and found it) where they had some people (not connoisseurs, but people who like red wine) try five “different” wines and rate their taste. Additionally, they used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure brain activity and measure “experienced pleasantness” as they tasted each wine. Overwhelmingly, the subjects rated the most “expensive” wines as the best-tasting. Additionally, the fMRI data showed that the most expensive wines also registered higher experienced pleasantness. In other words, opinions matched brain stimulus.

Here’s the kicker, though… There were only three different wines. One was a $5 bottle that got labeled twice, both as a $5 wine and a fictitious $45 wine; one was a $90 wine that got labeled twice, both as a $90 wine a fictitious $10 wine; the last was a control wine that was correctly labeled with its $35 price.

The study suggests that more than just pretending to have better taste, wine snobs might actually be enjoying more expensive wine better than the cheap stuff; not because it’s inherently better, but because they think it is and unintentionally (but genuinely) enjoy it more.

Is the human brain influenced not only by inherent value of an experience, but also the expectations, perceptions, and marketing surrounding that experience? Whether we like it or not, it seems so.

I've read reviews where Coldplay takes flak for almost everything they do, partially because of Chris Martin's songwriting, but also partially (I think) because of the great level of popularity they have achieved (their new album, for instance, sold 300,000 copies in its first 3 days in the UK alone). Indie critic sites like Pitchfork* pretty much bemoan everything Coldplay does, often referencing a disconnect between the band's huge popularity and its "gag-inducing" songwriting/influences/production. I'm sure that most of the Indie-critics out there would say that popularity really has no weight over the greatness or quality of a piece of music; and yet so many of them use that factor as grounds for an even more intense lambasting of something that has widespread notoriety. The same song that might have been labeled "mediocre" as a no-name's debut single now becomes an absolute "atrocity" simply because the artist has achieved great popular (if not critical) fame.

So I’ve come to a brilliant conclusion: critics are snobs. Big whoop. But I would actually like to defend critics a bit. The above study does help confirm some of the snobbery we have suspected for a long time, but it also tells us that we all are subject to marketing, media attention, and our own personal expectations. Because I love Coldplay, I will probably enjoy their new album more than if it had been released in identical form by some other band. Conversely, those Pitchfork critics hate it simply because it’s Coldplay, but it’s not completely their fault… it’s also the evil record company’s.

So those are my groundbreaking thoughts: critics are lame and record companies suck.

I’ll be doing my own post-battle shooting later this week with a review of Coldplay’s new album which I’m listening to right now.

* is a website that reviews music. They are the quintessential Indie-snob critic site. See TheOnion's hilarious parody where Pitchfork gives music as a whole a 6.8 out of 10.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Who Will Rescue Me From This Body of Death?

A man named R.D. Laing once said that life is a sexually transmitted disease, and the mortality rate is one hundred percent.

Overall, this is a disgusting way to think about God-given, God-breathed life. Approaching each day I live with that sort of attitude leads simply to despair. But there are a few elements of human life that I think Laing is hinting at here:

- The Fallen World: Sin is most assuredly at work in both the spiritual and the physical. We most often think about sin in the spiritual sense. But notice that in Genesis 3, God's description of the curse of the fall is almost wholly physical.

- Decay of the Physical: In life, we all must experience the reality of decay, the breaking-down of our physical bodies. In youth, there is a carefree enjoyment of the gift of good health; but even still, some of the young know only physical suffering. In age, there comes a sometimes gradual, sometimes rapid, deterioration of the systems and functions of the human body.

- Inevitability of Death: "All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full..." (Ecclesiastes 1:7a). Both Scripture and, even more vividly, our own human experience, tell us the truth of human mortality.

There have been many writers, thinkers, and artists that have contemplated all of this far more deeply and with far more eloquence than I, but I wanted to share these thoughts because my view of these truths has been sharpened in a strange way recently.

Over the past 48 hours, the limitations and imperfections of my own physical body have been made very apparent. Not only did I badly sprain my ankle (I heard ligaments popping out of place at the time I injured it), but also a quite potent virus that has gotten into my system. Saturday night, I spent hours icing and elevating the unrelenting throbbing in my ankle. The next morning, I awoke to violent stomach pains, resulting in some fairly unpleasant occurrences throughout the entire day yesterday and an inability to keep any food or drink down (I'll leave it at that). I found myself immobilized, sleeping for short periods, unable to focus on any real thought or conversation, and with a pounding headache to boot. As I write this morning, some of the stomach pain has subsided, but I can feel a tingling soreness in the back of my throat that tells me I will probably be coughing for the rest of the week.

I say all of this, however, not to complain. In fact, I am even now reminded of how thankful I should be that these are the only things with which I am suffering. I have a feeling that within the next few days, my sickness will be gone, and my ankle will hopefully feel significantly better. One of my friends who is currently battling cancer, who has already experienced all these symptoms and more for the past several months, and who has a long month of chemotherapy treatments ahead of her - she, if anyone, would have a right to complain.

Rather, I am now simply thankful and thoughtful. Sickness and injury can give us a more concrete way of pondering the idea of a final sleep, a concept I often find far too abstract to wrap my mind around.

My thankfulness is twofold:
- I am thankful in the short-term, for the physical provision that the Lord offers me even now. I am thankful for His healing and his sustenance.
- I am thankful in the long-term, for the physical restoration that the Lord will bring about. He "will transform these humble bodies of ours into the likeness of His glorious body" (Phil. 3:21) and "the body that is sown perishable will be raised imperishable" (1 Cor 15:42).

"Just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven." (1 Cor 15:49)

For a long time, 1 Corinthians 15 has been one of my most cherished passages of Scripture. It offers hope of a kind that no other earthly leader can. Obama may promise change, but we know that his sort of change can only go so far. Christ promises that "we will be changed" (1 Cor. 15:52b) and that we will be clothed with the imperishable.

Who will rescue me from this body of death?

Friday, June 6, 2008

Please Refrain From Reading This Post

…trust me. It’s way too long and crappy. The last paragraph is the only place that even starts to be good, and it’s rough too.
There, I covered my behind from any judgment you might make about me or my writing. I can now continue free of care:

You know, I’ve been thinking a bit lately about this blog thing.

How many times have I opened up my browser, clicked the link to my own blog, and stared disappointedly at the same old post that’s been there for a month? More than I care to say. Every time I see that I haven’t updated, it makes me want to update less. What do I have to say right now? Frankly, until this week, I had essentially put my brain in sleep mode, at least in terms of the things I normally ponder almost perpetually: faith, music, politics, life, people, justice, Frisbee, and food.

So maybe those last two I ponder simply to the extent of a desire to be experiencing them at most every hour of the day. The others, I’d say, tend to command a level of depth in thought that, quite frankly, I’m not really smart enough to maintain for more than a few minutes at a time. Seriously, though, I think I’ve been afraid to post because I think I don’t have anything to say that’s insightful enough to share with you, the reader. This is not to say that I haven’t been thinking at all for the last month. Maybe what’s been happening has simply been too personal or, more likely, too undeveloped to put into writing.

But that’s often my problem. Writing only comes naturally when I begin to do it. The desire to begin is almost never there. So here I am, starting an entry once again; and once again, I have to get things underway by metablogging. In my opinion, the only thing more lame/pitiful than writing about writing is to write about… just that. You see, the more you start to think about thinking, the more layers of thought you find yourself caught thinking. The only real way to redeem such a feedback loop of thought is to think critically about the loop in which you find yourself, which only makes matters worse. Try this:

Think about yourself thinking. Do this for a moment, and suddenly, you will feel quite silly. When you start to feel silly, you have become keenly aware of the fact that you are now transcendentally thinking about thinking about thinking. But just before you attempt to articulate that sense in any meaningful way (even to yourself), the moment has slipped away below countless layers of thought. You quickly re-set your feet in reality, by wiping clean the slate and thinking about something else. This all will happen in the course of about 10 seconds.

If that was difficult for you, try to do it in writing. This will clarify the absurdity of the whole process in that it leaves the thinker/writer altogether inarticulate. That is, he or she simply cannot articulate nearly as quickly as he or she can observe that articulation, which as he or she proceeds to observe, is equally inexpressible, except to begin to describe it in words as these I have written for the past two and a half paragraphs, only to be left with words like “absurd” or “silly” to describe the whole situation.

One useful thought occurs to me, however, and that is, in the form of a question, “Why does a thought have to be useful in order to be a valuable thought?” I can think about things for a long time about which someone might say, “this is not a helpful thought.” But is this not an over-pragmatized definition of the validity or worth of a thought? Do my thoughts have value only if they lead to some “useful” end? Who says whether something is “useful”?

The concept of “value” is somewhat problematic. When you look it up in my Mac’s onboard dictionary, you cyclically connect to three words: importance, attention, and significance. This latter concept is a bit more helpful in that it ties to the concept of meaning, or rather ties fairly closely to usefulness. So value, by definition, does have something to do with usefulness. But what is “useful”?

This is interesting too: try looking up the word “useful.” Here’s the definition I get: “able to be used for a practical purpose or in several ways.”
This definition is somewhat problematic in its use of the root word to clarify meaning. For fun, let’s see how it defines the root word: “take, hold, or deploy (something) as a means of accomplishing a purpose or achieving a result.”

Hmm. These definitions seem only to lead to more definitions. Okay, bear with me for the next few minutes as I take us down a definition path. The bolded words are words that I will seek to define. Italicized words are ones we’ve already attempted to define (and thus, are somewhat of a dead-end, or perhaps more accurately a feedback loop, in ascertaining meaning). When I put a word in ALL CAPS, I will save that word for later because it seems important. Remember, if this gets a bit tedious, I already warned you not to read this post. Really, you can skip to the last section of definitions (capitalized ones) if you like, and just trust that I have more or less faithfully pursued definitions to that end. The choice is yours…

Here goes:

Useful – able to be used for a practical purpose or in several ways.
Use – take, hold, or deploy as a means of accomplishing a purpose or achieving a result
Purpose – the reason for which something is done or created or for which something EXISTS
Create – bring into EXISTENCE
Reason – a cause, explanation, or justification for an ACTION or event
Cause – a PERSON or THING that gives rise to an ACTION, phenomenon, or condition

Result – a consequence, effect, or outcome of something
Consequence – a result or effect of an action or condition
Effect – a change that is a result or consequence of an action or other cause
Action – the fact or process of doing something, typically to achieve an aim
Aim – a purpose or intention; a desired outcome
Outcome – the way a thing turns out; a consequence
Intention – a thing intended; an aim or plan
Plan – a detailed proposal for DOING or achieving something
Achieve – reach or attain
Reach – attain or extend to (a specified point, level, or condition)
Point – a particular spot, PLACE, or position
Attain – succeed in achieving
Intend – have as one’s purpose or objective
Objective – a thing aimed at or sought
Seek – attempt to find
Find – discover or perceive
Discover – find unexpectedly
Perceive – become aware or conscious of; come to realize or understand
Realize – become fully aware of as a FACT
Aware – having knowledge or perception of a situation or FACT
Knowledge – FACTS, information, and skills
Situation – set of circumstances in which one finds oneself
Circumstances – a fact or condition connected with or relevant to an EVENT or ACTION
Understand – perceive the intended meaning of
Meaning – what is meant by a word, text, concept, or action
Mean – intend to convey, indicate, or refer
Indicate – point out; show
Show – be or allow or cause to be visible
Visible – able to be seen
See – perceive with the eyes
Convey – transport or carry to a PLACE

DO – perform (an action)
EXIST – having objective reality or being
Objective – not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts
Reality – the world or the state of THINGS as they actually exist
Be - exist
FACT – a thing that is indisputably the case (an instance (occurrence (event)))
PLACE – a particular position or point in space
Position – a place where someone or something is located
Locate – discover the exact place or position of
EVENT – a thing that happens (take place; occur)→ all three definitions for “happen,” “take place,” and “occur” all lead back to each other
HAPPEN – (alt. definition) ensue as an effect or result of an action or event

ACTION – the fact or process of doing something
SOMETHING – a thing that is unspecified
THING – an object that one need not, cannot, or does not wish to give a specific name to
SOMEONE – an unknown or unspecified person
PERSON – a human being regarded as an individual
Individual – a single human being
Human being – a man, woman, or child of the species Homo sapiens
Man – an adult human male
Woman – an adult human female
Child – a young human being
OBJECT – a person or thing to which a specified action or feeling is directed

Thus, after a quasi-exhaustive exploration of meaning beneath the concept of "usefulness," the resultant and elemental concepts are (surprise, surprise):
- ACTION (verb)
- PERSON (noun, pt 1)
- PLACE (noun, pt 2)
- THING (noun, pt 3)
- OBJECT (nouns, all)
These, as you must already know, are the most basic building blocks of language. Because all nouns can function grammatically as subjects and objects, and because all subjects are objects in and of themselves, language conveys, at its most basic level: ACTION & OBJECT.
Such concepts are all rooted in the concept of EXISTENCE.

Therefore, in my (very) crude exploration of our language, no thought can actually be deemed “not useful” other than the thought which has yet to be thought. Some might argue that a thought does not actually have existence in the same sense as people, places, and things. But Plato would say that a thought, or IDEA, has “eternal existence” as a pattern of which individual things in any class are imperfect copies, and in such a sense, has a more “real” existence than any noun. But then again, that’s Plato. Here is perhaps where my argument breaks down.

But I’ve yet to make an argument! I got ahead of myself. I will conclude (finally) with this:

Usefulness or purpose is almost inseparably tied to existence. I believe, as many of you do, that existence has come from an Uncaused Causer, or rather, God Himself. That is, however, an argument for another day. Assuming God has created us, He has done so implicitly giving us (and all other existent things) purpose, usefulness, and meaning.

So maybe the things I have to say don’t have much use to anyone, but they will almost always be more useful when existing as opposed to not (i.e. “unwritten”). Words have some level, however small, of inherent use and purpose. This use only comes alive when the words themselves do. When a writer articulates, he or she implies meaning, purpose, and value, as long as the words are somewhat definable and ordered. In this way, value is tied directly to the one articulated simply based on his or her act of ordered articulation. My words have meaning because I give it to them by writing them, although the meanings of words do objectively transcend my existence, and ultimately are determined by the eternal God. But at the most basic level, I convey meaning that is at least partially or imperfectly tied to my own existence. I digress, however, and perhaps it is more helpful to think not of my words, but God's.

When God articulated (spoke) the world – all people, places, and things – into existence, He placed within all of this inherent meaning, purpose, and value.

Even as the words fell from His lips, existence for us all happened, and with it, a value given implicitly by He whose existence goes beyond value. What a priceless existence we lead.

To Him be the glory.

PS – Take all of this to its logical conclusion for a moment. No longer must we concern ourselves with living a life that is (pardon my slight sarcasm) “purpose-driven.” All humans lead a purpose-infused life whether they like it or not. The best we can do is to try to live with a keen awareness of the purpose we already have, and the glory that every knee and every tongue, if not now, then, brings to Him that spoke its existence. From the most righteous to the most evil, each of us ultimately brings God glory as beings created, sustained, and restored (or judged) by Him. I am free from the concern of my own value or purpose, for it is hidden within my existence, over which I have no authority. The authority of Christ achieves for me a value and purpose that goes unsurpassed by anything I can conjure up on my own. “I am His.” No other statement can convey a higher value. No other reality can exceed this truth in worth.