Monday, February 25, 2013

I could really go for a good conference right now

Almost exactly a year ago, as I looked ahead to my impending graduation, I wrote a list of things I thought I would miss––and not miss––about college life. I said it would probably have to be updated in the future, but it actually turned out to be remarkably accurate as to how I feel now.

This fall though, I realized one thing I could have added to the "things I think I will miss" section. That is going to conferences.

Conferences in and of themselves basically embody everything I enjoyed about college with none of the things I didn't enjoy. You get to learn things––but there are no tests, there's constant activity, you drink gallons of coffee, you're around lots of like minded people, and it takes significantly less creativity and self-deception than usual to imagine you're important and have a purpose in life. On top of that, you get to travel, and spend a few days exploring a new place.

So, a few months ago, when a friend asked me if I'd like to go to a conference with her, I said yes. It was the Justice Conference in Philadelphia, and while I'd never been before, I'd heard and respected a couple of the speakers from other conferences. Also, it seemed likely that some people from Bryan––where I went to school––would be there, and since I haven't been able yet to make the 14 hour, $200 drive from my home to Dayton Tennessee since graduation, it seemed like a good opportunity to catch up with some of them.

So last Friday, we set out from Mansfield––on the opposite side of the state––and made the four hour drive to the house of a friend of a friend of a friend.

This would be a much more interesting blog post if something bad had happened. Fortunately, everything went very smoothly, and this post will remain on the mundane, informational side of the spectrum.

The drive went easily, the friends of friends of friends were very chill, the weather––while kind of nasty––felt warm compared to home. There was the odd adventure with parking and public transportation to be sure, but nothing really worth mentioning.

The conference itself was good, but honestly not particularly memorable either. The people I agreed with were people I'd heard before, and the people I disagreed with didn't say anything to convince me I should agree with them. It could be I'm just getting old and my intellectual plasticity isn't what it used to be, but that was how I felt.

Anyhow, it was an enjoyable experience for the most part. I got to catch up with some old friends (though not the ones I'd been expecting), make some new ones, drink lots of coffee, and think about some things that––while I'd thought about them before––are good to keep in mind (and hopefully more than my mind).

I think in the end my favorite part was the fact that the Pennsylvania Convention Center where the event was held was just across the street from the Reading Terminal Market. I think I ate my weight in ethnic food and cheese-steaks (I know Philadelphians aren't supposed to actually like cheese-steaks, but you know what? I'm not a Philadelphian).

So it was a good conference. Not a great one, perhaps, but a good one.'

Just what I'd been missing. 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

It's not my fault, I'm happy

While I sometimes like to imagine myself as a "serious" music fan, the truth is I only go to two or three concerts a year. Out of those, I can only think of a handful that I've really enjoyed. Despite various tribulations, including but not limited to fending off some sort of illness that's been with me the past couple weeks, nearly freezing to death in a crowed of hipsters while two street preachers spent an hour telling us we were going to go to hell, almost asphyxiating in a cloud of cannabis smoke, and my Mother getting into a fist fight, the Passion Pit/Matt and Kim concert I went to Monday was one of those.

I'd been listening to Passion Pit since 2010 when they were briefly on tour with Tokyo Police Club. Interestingly, my Mom was actually into them first, as a result of me telling her about TPC and her finding them online. While they're about as far on the electro-pop end of the spectrum as anything I listen to, I've always really enjoyed their music (it's a bit odd to say their I guess, since all "their" recorded stuff is really just the product of Michael Angelakos and his producer).

I guess the thing that usually bothers me about electronic music is that it sounds really good the first time you listen to it but gets old fast. Passion Pit was different in that way for me in that––despite being extremely sugar coated––it had a level of depth to the point that it grew on me over time.

Still, while I loved listening to their albums, they were never really high on my list of bands I'd like to see live––just because I felt it couldn't possibly live up to the records.

So driving to Rochester with a bunch of friends and standing in front of the doors of a place that looked like prison they kept Mr. Toad in in Wind and the Willows in the legendary Rochester cold an hour before the concert while some Baptist with a voice eerily similar to Andre the Giant lambasted us about the evils of alcohol, homosexuality, and apparently indie music, for an hour and a half was more my Mom's idea than mine.

By the time the doors finally opened, I was about ready to collapse and ended up heading to the Balcony. I think I made up some strategic reason why staying there for the first set would let us get closer to the stage in the long run to convince my friends to stay with me (my parents had run off long ago) but the truth is I was just exhausted.

The first set was Icona Pop, which was more of a DJish type gig than a band. Didn't hate it, but it was something I feel I would have enjoyed more in a club or some smaller venue. By the time they were done though, I finally felt decent enough to go down onto the floor, order a drink and squirm my way into the crowed near the stage.

The next group up was Matt and Kim. I'd looked them up online that morning, and honestly their music video left me wondering what to expect and kind of wishing my parents weren't in the same building––even if they were a long way off and getting themselves into way more trouble than I was.

The set started, and wow. Great show. In fact, I have to say Matt and Kim were probably one of the best live shows I've ever seen, and I really started to feel good for the first time all day. They're really not the style of music that I listen to or would consider buying, but when it comes to stage presence, some people just have it. They do.

By their last song, I was feeling good enough that I convinced the people around me to link arms and charge as close to the stage was we could, landing us pretty near front and center for the beginning of Passion Pit.

Now, when I was a kid––as in like four years ago––I seem to remember etiquette for indoor concerts being as follows: You go in the bathroom to do drugs (An ethical standard of behavior immortalized in the lyrics of the band Fun). Apparently America has changed since the days of my comparative youth. As soon as the lights went down for the final set, the cough drop wrappers of suspicious white powder came out, the lighters flared up, and by Passion Pit's third song, the frontal third of the crowed had developed it's own de facto atmosphere of illicit smoke.

There was a time in my life when this would not have phased me in the least. But, being as I am now, done with college, marginally employed and trying to become fully employed, beginning to feel the weight of a repressive and unforgiving society on my shoulders; a society in which men like Andre the Giant with his OKJV Bible out front form political coalitions and back legislation which corporate America, unfettered by the 4th Amendment as regards performing invasive tests upon my body without any reasonable suspicion then feels obliged to take a step further; I beat a hasty retreat for the back of the auditorium.

In the end, the sound-scape was actually much better in the back behind the mixing board where I ultimately sought refuge with a few of my similarly concerned friends. This, as it would turn out, was a good thing, as Passion Pit––despite all my doubts about digitally created music being performed live with real instruments––sounded great. Michael's voice was unbelievable (almost terrifyingly unbelievable), the two synths + guitar, bass and acoustic drums had presence––even on the most produced sounding songs, and I, was glad I came. It was a great experience, and I think for the first time in a couple weeks I was really happy. Maybe not quite as happy as the people in the front, but then, that's not really my fault is it?

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Prayer Rehab

Just slightly less than two years ago I was gearing up to leave for DC to go to a conference I knew absolutely nothing about. The name––Global Prayer Gathering––and that I'd been required to sign up for it as part of the class I was taking as a precursor to spending the summer in the Middle East were about the only facts I could recall about it when I pulled my little roller suitcase down the hill from my dorm to the waiting line of vans at an ungodly hour of the morning to make the stuffy nine hour drive from little Dayton TN to the District of Columbia.

The first reason I knew nothing about it was I'd literally been too busy that semester to focus on anything happening more than a few hours in advance. It was my junior year, i.e. the year I took all the classes I had put off as long as I could but was afraid to save for senior year because I knew I might not pass them the first time. I was taking 19 credits worth of the those classes, and on top of it was recovering from a spring "break for change" trip in the Baltic that had been anything but a "break" and had just started writing for the school newspaper.

The second reason I knew nothing about it was sheer indifference. It was a conference. So what? It was about prayer? I'm sad to say that peaked my interest even less.

Coming of age in a staunchly reformed circle, I had a hard time fitting prayer into my own theological universe (or maybe it would be more accurate to say I had an easy time excluding it). If God is both omniscient (all-knowing) and omnipotent (all-powerful) and exists in all time and space at once, doesn't that make asking him to change something kind of irrelevant? I realize that misses the point of reformed theology by a wide margin, but it worked well with the somewhat grim sense of determinism I developed as an older teenager. And some unpleasant experiences I'd had over the previous years seemed to confirm my skepticism toward the whole idea.

So arriving in DC that afternoon, I described my attitude as "apprehensive." Far from deserving apprehensiveness though, GPG exposed me for the first time I could recall to an atmosphere and attitude of prayer that I found deeply attractive. Something about being with a thousand other people, who were not only passionate Christians, but also highly intelligent professionals who spent 51 weeks of the year in law offices across the globe––and then chose to spend their one week together by praying––was very compelling to me. I realized that weekend that a part of prayer can be about communion with other people. And that was the first step toward comprehending (not just knowing) that it's about communion with God's will. Not necessarily changing it (although if you believe it does that it's fine––my jury is still out) but communing with it.

Over the next summer this understanding became much salient as I was in situations––by myself, and even more often with others––where praying became more of a priority than it was in my "usual" life as an American college student. On a bus going through Jordan that July, a mentor of sorts from back at school who was visiting asked what my biggest take-away from the experience so far had been. I remember saying something like the importance of prayer in daily life (and then feeling bad that it wasn't something more dramatic, which is odd).

And then I went back to the U.S. And, astoundingly, disappointingly––and almost immediately––back to my old attitude of relative indifference toward prayer, toward communion with people (in fact I actually thought I disliked people for several months) and communion with God. This lasted till a good friend sent me a book called A Praying Life. While I honestly don't remember enjoying the book all that much, it did a lot to help refocus me on the importance of prayer, not only to the people you're praying for, but also for yourself. And I managed to pray more often for a few months after that.

And then my relative indifference happened again.

So this rather long post isn't to talk about how much prayer has changed my life, or how good I am at praying, or anything even remotely along those lines. Instead it's as much for me as anyone else. Prayer needs to change my life. And I need to be better at praying. Not because God's plan depends on it, but because I depend on it as a person who––even if I can't always see it––desperately needs communion with God, and secondarily but importantly, with other people. 

So, in conclusion, I'd like to ask for your prayer as I strive to make that very act and posture a more important part of my life. Also, if you're reading this and there's anyway I could pray for you, I would love to, and it would paradoxically help as much (the Christian faith seems to be full of paradoxes doesn't it? And I can't say I like many of them. That one I think is a good one, though.)

Also, I thought I might post a link to a "prayer resource" (names like that sound so cheesy to me for some reason) that is hosted by an organization that has a very special place in my heart, and that deals with issues and places that I generally find interesting. I will be trying to work through it for the foreseeable future. I guess I could think of it as prayer rehab.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Seven Observations After My Month-Long Caffeine Fast

Yesterday marked the accomplishment of my goal to fast from caffeine for a month. As I said in my post five weeks ago, the effect that caffeine has on me, especially in the area of metabolism, is something I've wondered about for a long time. So I think it's now a good time to look back at some of my observations. Naturally they're extremely anecdotal.  

Also, for the numerically observant among you, my fast was actually just shy of a month, since I spent the first three days trying to gradually ween myself off it. That didn't really work at all, and it leads me to my first observation:

1. It doesn't really matter how much caffeine I have, at least as far as how I feel is concerned. I spent the first three days scaling back, and even though on the third day all I had was a cup of green tea, I didn't get any withdrawal symptoms at all (headache, fatigue, depression, etc), leading me incorrectly to believe that it would be an easy transition. Then the next day I skipped even the green tea, and by two that afternoon, I was feeling about three feet below the floor. So, as far as my "dependency" went, I don't think it mattered whether I had 40mg, or 400, just as long as I had something. Now, I also know if I drink far too much caffeine, it will have other, non-mood related effects like not letting me sleep, which brings me to my second observation:

2. Sleeping was slightly easier. I know that one seems obvious, but it's also true. We're not talking a huge difference or anything, but there was one. I normally (as in when I've had caffeine) can't ever take naps. While this was still difficult, and I still felt as terrible as usual when waking up from them, without caffeine, it was a least possible. That in a less obvious way connects to my third observation:

3. Fasting from caffeine made me feel less "in control." One of the best things about caffeine is obviously that it gives you some direct, immediate action you can take when you feel tired and don't want to be. Without caffeine, if you get tired, it's just like: "Well, this sucks." On the other hand though, this being able to do something is completely contingent on your actual ability obtain caffeine, which leads me to my paradoxical forth observation:

4. Fasting from caffeine made me feel more "in control." I can think of many, terrible times back when I was a caffeine dependent when I'd end up in situations where it wasn't immediately possible to get caffeine. Just try going on a road trip with one of those rare people who doesn't share or understand your need for stopping somewhere that makes decent coffee. It's really terrible, because you feel the normal fatigue coming on, and then there's withdrawal on top of it. For the past month, I've never had to worry about those situations. That was definitely at least a small load off the back of my mind––which kind of segues into my next observation:

5. I think I was slightly calmer and able to focus better. I normally have a very hard time watching TV or reading for more than a few minutes at a time (which is why bookmarks and DVR are very important to me). Without caffeine, I feel like it was slightly easier though. That was surprising to me as I used to think the opposite was true. I'd often even drink a large cup of coffee before going into an all-day exam. I'm sure that was for the more pressing reason of making sure I stayed awake and didn't go into withdrawal while I was in the middle of some gosh-awful essay question, but looking back now, I wonder if it was a wise strategy. Though it's harder to put a finger on, I also feel like I was slightly more relaxed, or dare I say, peaceful, which is interesting in light of the next observation:

6. Looking back on this past month, I think it was easier for me to become more depressed, and at times when I wasn't expecting it. I won't go too deep into this one (mostly because it's ground that I'm probably not qualified to tread on) but if you've read much of this blog, you know I've tended to struggle with depression many times in my life. I've never taken any kind of medication for it––at least not one that's been prescribed, that is. I also know that it's a problem, and probably one that isn't best solved through some kind of chemical intervention. At the same time though, I've always felt that there were some things that helped, and caffeine was one of them. That was one big reason I was so apprehensive to embark on a fast from it till now. Now when I said more depressed, I don't mean I was depressed more often than I usually am, and I would definitely not say that just not having caffeine in any way caused me to become depressed. But there were a few times this month when bad or disappointing things happened that would normally tempt me to depression, and I feel like I plunged a lot deeper a lot faster than I can really remember before––and not in the same order of events that I've come to be used to. Now, actually, I had some pretty serious disappointments this month, so it's entirely possible that the correlation I'm mentioning is really just a product of coincidence, or more likely, me wanting to make this post more interesting. But it seemed like it was there, so I thought I'd mention it before coming to my final observation––and ironically, the only thing that I really set out to observe:

7. Fasting from caffeine did nothing to help me gain weight. On January 4, I weighed 133 pounds. After five weeks of protein shakes, bench presses, stuffing myself with obscenely gluttonous amounts of food, doing no aerobic exercise, and consuming no caffeine save what I may have ingested through chocolate or the odd mixed drink, it was February 1st yesterday, and I still weighed 133 pounds. 

So yesterday, when I headed out of the office to move my car before I got ticketed, I swung by my favorite coffee shop, Soulful Cup and picked up a small, black, regular coffee. I was honestly a little curious to see what would happen. I've read that after two weeks of fasting, your nervous system reverts to a state of "caffeine-naivity" and I was well past that. I drank about half of it, and then went back to the directory I'd been working on.

I didn't go crazy, as an old friend I'd met at the coffee shop suggested might happen, but I did have one very interesting experience. I've often felt that getting caffeine––or anything that your body really wants––causes something to happen in your eyes. And I've talked to and watched interviews with other people who have confirmed this. Almost like an "opening up at the back of your eyes" as someone put it. Like everything looks slightly brighter.

Well, between fifteen and twenty minutes after drinking the coffee, I looked up from my computer and stared at the light, neutral toned wall of the cubicle I was sitting in, and in a fraction of a second––I'm talking like one or two frames in a 29.97fps video––it suddenly got lighter. To try and put it in quantitative terms, it was like setting a DSLR display to live view and then jogging the aperture from f.8 to f.5.4 without making any compensation to the shutter speed or ISO. Everything literally got brighter.

And he lived happily ever after, to the end of his days.


Friday, February 01, 2013

I sort of feel like this is my fault

With my other sister who just left the country.
This evening after work I went out for pizza with my uncle and cousin. I was going to spend the evening out with friends like I lately often have on Friday nights, but this evening my other sister, Maryah, was leaving for Honduras––and I wanted to say goodbye.

Driving home took a little longer than usual as the roads were still bad, though not nearly as bad as they were earlier today when a surprise snow squall hit and all the thawing snow froze back on the roads. I'd taken the Quattro I usually drive to the mechanic this morning because a wheel-bearing went bad so I was in my parents 2-wheel drive car with summer tires. Safe to say, I didn't get above 3rd gear the whole 22 mile trip to Corning and had to slide backwards down at least one hill before taking an alternate route.

I finally got home though, only to find that plans had changed and my parents took my sister to the drop-off point an hour and a half early. Instead of arriving an hour before they left, I'd missed them by seconds. So that was sad.

I hope she has a good time though. She's on a mission trip with a group from a church we attended many years ago. She's with some of the best people I can imagine, but still, you should keep her in your prayers.

Certain members of my family were in an uproar about me traveling around the Middle East a year and a half ago but seemed fine with her going to Honduras. I'm personally convinced though, from my extensive––and apparently entirely futile––study of current events, that anywhere that people speak Spanish is statistically about twice as dangerous as the worst neighborhood in Beirut.

Not that traveling in any "developing country" is really that dangerous. In a way I think you're much safer. Governments of developing countries are loath to have Americans get killed. They lose millions of dollars in USAID money whenever it happens.

That's not to say there aren't other reasons your chances of getting shot or raped in Chicago are much higher than in Kabul, but I think it's a reason. What has our government got to lose if you get killed? Only political talking points to whatever special-interest group can best leverage your untimely demise to into the storyboard of their next attack ad.

Anyways, enough with the politics.

Isn't it crazy that two of my sisters just left the country?

Maybe I'm delusionally conceited (actually that's not even a maybe––I'm sure I am––the question is only whether it has any bearing on my present line of reasoning) but somehow I feel like this is all my fault.

I spent a lot of my life afraid to really do anything because I was always told that I had to "set a good example" for my younger siblings. One thing I did eventually do though was travel. So now, to see them doing the same thing, even with much higher purposes than I had most of the time, it makes me wonder if this was somehow my doing.

At least it's not a bad thing. In fact, I'm convinced it's a very good thing.

It's just a lot all at once.