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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Hunger Games and History

I had a rare yet welcome experience this past week. I was able to read the book “The Hunger Games” over the course of a couple days and then quickly follow-up that read with watching the movie in the theater. The reason I call this experience rare (at least for me) was that it’s infrequent I get to experience such a moving and intricate story by book and then film so quickly in succession. Thus, while watching theatrical version, I was able to not focus so much on the plot or the turns and twists of the characters, but an attempt to follow the deeper themes of the story. 

At the very basic heart of the story, there is the idea of innocent human sacrifice under the ruse of an elaborately entertaining game to maintain control, or at least the illusion of control from the ruling class over the working class. My mind literally raced through all the times in my education over the years during which I had heard of similar stories - except in recollection those that I remember were in fact factual. Examples included (just to name a few): the gladiators of ancient Rome, the sacrificial practices of the ancient Aztec culture (most recently and entertainingly depicted in the movie Apocalypto), the story of Abraham and his son Isaac, and then even more recent cases of this such as the Crusades

Of course there are plenty more throughout history. In fact, I bet that if I looked hard enough I would be hard pressed to find a culture throughout history that did not have a similar practice interwoven throughout its history. Moreover, I realize I would certainly qualify as anything but an expert on any of these practices, but it certainly seems that each of these practices at the very least contained elements of an attempt at controling one's 'world' through the ending of human life.

Not only had I remembered all these stories, but also that there have been people throughout the ages who have at least attempted to understand them. Rene Girard was one such person that  I remember hearing about at least peripherally while in a collegiate philosophy course. If one were inclined, one could continue to read about this man’s thoughts here, but for the basic purpose of my understanding, he seems to think practices such as those mentioned above were developed to control the violent tendencies of humans that are brought about through desire -- desires which ultimately lead to conflict followed by scapegoating and violence. 

However, what struck me throughout the movie as it compares to this deeply woven occurrence throughout  the course of human history was not that it depicted one of these processes from the past, but that the story actually takes place in the futuristic good ole' English speaking United States – or at least what is left of it after a nuclear holocaust. I find so many times that it is so easy to look back at the practices of people of ages gone by and think sometimes to myself – “what could they possibly have been thinking?” and that “ah, we would never go so far in modern society…” But this movie encouraged me to think that just maybe we would, or even worse, maybe we already have

Monday, December 26, 2011

Ghosts of Christmas Future: Mr. Scrooge and I Share an Experience

Christmas is awesome. There are so many things to love about it - the list of course goes on and on, but one of the things I love the most is it seems to lend itself to reflection. Perhaps it's the cool air and seemingly innate instinct to kind of hunker down in Winter that encourages one to pause, and respond to the most-recent year's (or at least some past-years') events.

I spent the better part of an hour last night lying in bed just sitting, thinking, remembering, and replaying some of the thoughts that surround Christmas in my mind. Primarily, I was trying to pin-point why Christmas is so special. For some odd reason, during this process, my thoughts fixated on some of my favorite Christmas movies. The one film that stood out in particular was the disney version of "A Christmas Carrol." I would assume that most people are at least vaguely familiar with the character of Ebenezer Scrooge (from what was originally a Charles Dickens novel). I was struck because it seems the "spirits" which visit Scrooge in the story were in fact similar to what was happening to me - I was remembering the pleasantries of Christmases past, glowing in the joy of Christmas present, and wondering what kind of traditions and memories do I want to make a part of my Christmases future.

That was cool.

Taking that thought process a bit further, I realized that the conversion that Scrooge experiences in the story is one not unlike a conversion I know I could benefit from. Although I (at least) hope I am not as completely self-absorbed as Mr. Scrooge, I am certainly willing to admit that self-absorption is a tendency that I am enticed by. I certainly would not mean to suggest that doing things in one's own best interest would be inappropriate. However, I do mean to suggest that self-absorption does not have to begin and end those who are poor/less-fortunate (as it is in the story), but I can easily be self-absorbed with regard to all of those people with whom I interact daily.

No, I don't think I ever will have that Scrooge-like dramatic journey which leads to my repentance for years of cruelty, but the profound catharsis through which Ebenezer Scrooge learned how to live for others and not only for himself is one to consider. By simply breaking the circle of his ego, he had enabled the light of the message of Christmas to invade his soul and change him into a new man filled with joy and hope.

That message of conversion in itself if one worth contemplating. However, since Christmas is traditionally a Christian Holiday, I encouraged myself to take the message delivered by Mr. Scrooge one step further. His conversion, and hopefully the many small ones which I will undergo throughout my life, are modeled most poignantly by what Christmas was at its inception. It was a God who in the most pragmatic of ways deflected Her ego and had at Her interest the needs of all of us. James Farfaglia wrote...

- "... if our greatest need had been knowledge, God would have sent us an educator. Had that greatest need been technology, God would have sent us a scientist. So too had our greatest need been for money, God would have sent us an economist. Had our greatest need been for pleasure, God would have sent us an entertainer. Because our greatest need was for forgiveness, God sent us a Savior."

... and through this, demonstrated the exact type of love that we need most and the type we are called to by the Christian celebration of Christmas. And thus it is with this understanding of Scrooge's conversion that I will look forward to the "Christmases future" with hope. That I will be able to continue to recognize that I do have a tendency to be self consuming, but that I will also know to continually remind myself how to direct my love and outward.

As always, thanks for reading :) A very special Merry Christmas to you all. AMDG

Sunday, July 24, 2011

My Next 30 Years

Cool. I had my 30th birthday a couple weeks back. So now what? Keep living like I have been? Pull a Tim McGraw and eat a few more salads and not stay up too late? Eh, I am looking for a little more perhaps.

There are a million things I'd like to do - but what is the one thing that really stands out?

I think after much thought that the thing that I really want to do over the next thirty birthdays is continue in my search for meaning and purpose. Not that my first most recent thirty have been meaning/purposeless - it's just that it took me nearly a quarter century to determine and begin to understand what the more important things are in life.

So yeah, where do I intend to go and how do I intend to accomplish this ongoing search? Well, I guess I can't be too sure, but there is a semi-dated yet pertinent example from the movie City Slickers that is worth reading. In the scene, Billy Crystal opens into a cynical monologue in front of his son's grade-school class about the mundane - the mundane that is so easy to let become a part of life -

"Value this time in your life, kids, because this is the time in your life when you still have your choices. It goes by fast. When you're a teenager, you think you can do anything and you do. Your twenties are a blur. Thirties you raise your family, you make a little money, and you think to yourself, "What happened to my twenties?" Forties, you grow a little pot belly, you grow another chin. The music starts to get too loud; one of your old girlfriends from high school becomes a grandmother. Fifties, you have a minor surgery -- you'll call it a procedure, but it's a surgery. Sixties, you'll have a major surgery, the music is still loud, but it doesn't matter because you can't hear it anyway. Seventies, you and the wife retire to Fort Lauderdale. You start eating dinner at 2:00 in the afternoon, you have lunch around 10:00, breakfast the night before, spend most of your time wandering around malls looking for the ultimate soft yogurt and muttering, "How come the kids don't call? How come the kids don't call?" The eighties, you'll have a major stroke, and you end up babbling with some Jamaican nurse who your wife can't stand, but who you call mama. Any questions?"

Comical, but here's to hoping that is the opposite of what I'm looking for. For, from my green 30-year old perspective, there seems to be very little meaning in that existence at all. As adequately describe above, chasing other people's dreams is a trip to dissatisfaction - and it certainly doesn't yield an understanding of life's meaning and personal purpose.

Throughout the reading years of my life-time I have come across some shorter quotations that that do describe the meaning which I think I'm looking for -

- "In these bodies we will live, and in these bodies we will die, but where you invest your love is where you invest your life!" - Mumford and Sons band

- "There is nothing in the world that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst of conditions, as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one's life... For he who has a why to live can bear almost any how." - Victor Frankl

- "There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning." - Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey

- "We'll all be forgotten anyway, so we might as well be effective... and the only thing that finally matters is to be effective in the way we love." - Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia

Yeah, that should be it - a big investment in love. Just like my boy J.C., simply the best example there is of living a life of simple, practical love - I want to continue to expand my understanding and practice of a love that is ever expanding... "that is always patient, always kind, and never boastful."

If I do that, I hope to instead of "find(ing) a world of happiness without the hate and fear" that Tim McGraw describe, I'll help create one.

As always, thanks for reading :)

Friday, May 27, 2011

Life in the Ordinary: A follow-up consideration to my recent hike on the AT

So while I was reading what I had written recently about the my AT hike - specifically about it being something other than ordinary, I had the odd realization that paradoxically there was also something about the ordinary nature of the trip that was so neat.

Again, let me explain.

Upon consideration, there was much about this hiking experience which was oddly similar to nearly all other 'new' things I do in my life - meaning that it was (like most other new experiences) at the start understandably exciting, interesting, and invigorating. For example, each oddly placed and sharply jutting rock, each uniquely colored plant, every lunge over a downed tree, and of course the panoramic views – everything really just made you feel in some way stronger or more enthused than you were previously.

Like other things though, these 'new' attractions lost their luster after a day or so - those same rocks and downed trees now had become much less than ‘invigorating.’

However, I do not mean to imply that the experiential nature of the hike was somehow diminished. In fact, in retrospect I think it actually got better. This is because I began to realize where the actual memorable experiences could be found – ironically in the ordinary events.

Sure, the ‘Kodak’ moments continued to be the panoramic views and the unique rock formations, but the things I remember most without having to pull up a photo are that which took place during the steps between the breath-taking views. I can clearly recall the simplicity and joy of making breakfast in the tent and bumbling over the ‘misplaced’ rocks and cracking jokes or sharing views on life with my friend.

Yes, it’s true – it is these unremarkable moments where the memories lie.

And so, again after some consideration, my understanding of the experience on the AT is translatable to life in general… Perhaps it is the ‘other than ordinary’ events in life that provide the framework for meaning and memory to be found in the ordinary.

As always, thanks for reading. :)

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Other Than Ordinary: Short Thoughts On A Long Hike

"The core of mans' spirit comes from new experiences."

— Chris McCandless

Every year, thousands of folks from Maine to Georgia set out on hikes along the Appalachian Trail. The length of planned hikes span the entire spectrum of a couple hours to a couple months – and that is just the way it should be. This is because one of the coolest things about the trail is that it is as long as (if not longer than) you want it to be and just as short – with everything in between. A wilderness experience exactly fitting to your comfort level is at your ‘toe’tips, and does not have to be limited by your age, physical condition, or prior experience.

So, just like all those other folks, I too just returned from an ‘extended stay’ hiking trip on the AT myself – and decided to write a little reflection on the experience. (I love writing in this regard because it seems to enrich my experience by contemplating it and then trying to describe it to other people.)

Not to worry, this won’t be another treatise decrying the materialistic nature of today’s society, the information overload that we experience daily, or some self-pining for the ‘simple life.’ Those kinds of comments are too common and in my opinion obvious and alienating.

On the last day of the hike, in the rain and wet, I kept asking myself one simple question, “why hike at all?” Seriously, why do people anywhere go out and seek solitude, remove themselves from the comforts of home, and push their own personal envelope to challenge themselves?

I could only come up with one answer: because it’s something other than what is ordinary.

Let me explain.

I read an inspiring book quite a while back by Donald Miller called A Million Miles In A Thousand Years. Like most books, it seems your brain remembers a couple key points (if you are lucky) and then also whether or not you enjoyed the reading. Well, I definitely did, and the point which I remember was the encouragement the author expresses to live your life as a story – one that is worth telling. So, in my own words - don’t be satisfied with the ordinary.

There are so many things in my life which I do because they make sense and they are comfortable – and I’d be surprised if I was alone in this regard. Now don’t get me wrong, I think most comforts we seek daily are good, it is just sometimes nice to push yourself in the opposite direction, to purposely test your mettle and ‘man-up’ to your own little challenges here and there. To add some flare to your story!

I think this quote from the book kind of sums it up:

- “Part of me wonders if our stories aren’t being stolen by the easy life.”

Well a hike on the AT is anything but the easy life!

So that’s it. As you are out on the trail smelling like bad Chinese food, your legs are feeling like you just completed a marathon, you are sweating as if you were sitting in a sauna, you are also all the while smiling because you are challenging yourself in ways that will certainly kick your story up a notch.

And so, just like I realized on this particular long hike, I will continue to search for ways to something other than ordinary – and I hope anyone who reads this will do just the same.

As always, thanks for reading. AMDG J

Monday, May 2, 2011

An Hour Late, But Right On Time: Considering My First Marathon Experience

Yesterday, I finished my first marathon. 26.2 whole miles traversed in one attempt in nothing but a pair of shoes (well, and a few other choice pieces of clothing of course). I could go on and on about the rigors of the training or the hours spent doing something other than what I ‘wanted to be doing,’ but I want to focus on one aspect of my experience that was so impactful for me.

A modest estimate of how late I finished after my ‘time-goal’ is about 1 hour. If you had asked me at mile 13 how I felt about this, I’d probably have given you a terse censorable response about how pissed I was that I wasn’t performing at the level ‘I felt I was capable.’ What happened over the course of the next 2 miles, and then thankfully carried over for the rest of the race, was something very special for me indeed.

I got over myself.

I somehow was humbled by 13 or so miles of self-induced pain and realized that I needed an attitude adjustment – or I don’t think I would have made it the next 13.

I realized that just finishing in a reasonable time would be just as fulfilling because the only person who was really concerned about such issues was me. I thought to myself, “Come on Joe, this is your first marathon, RELAX! There will be many opportunities to get a better ‘finish time.”

This realization allowed me to focus on so much more, on the truly incredible things that were going on around me. I realized that there are many more people than I can count who would do many (if not anything) to be able to even compete in such an event. I also realized that just participating afforded me a profound lens into human nature that one doesn’t normally get to use - that thousands of people around me were all willing to work toward a difficult goal and really push themselves - going beyond a reasonable concept of effort to reach said goal. And then thirdly, the amazing nature of support that so many volunteers exhibited, who could have otherwise enjoyed a very pleasant Sunday – but instead came out to perform such undeniably important yet small things to assist strangers/runners/athletes accomplish ‘something.’

In retrospect, if I had been too focused on 'keeping my pace' to finish on time, I am sure I would have missed all of these things. Recognizing these and more allowed me to enjoy the rest of the race more than I thought possible – all except about the last 1.5 miles when I was really hurting – and do so with a smile on my face at the wonder all around.

I could go on and on about how this experience transcends the actual nature of the race itself… but I’m sure you can do that just as well as I can.

On Friday, I quoted Emil Zatopek – a famous Czech runner – on my facebook page who said:

- … If you want to experience something, run a marathon.”

At that time I skeptically hoped he was right. One day later, I am happy to say that he was right on.

As always, thanks for reading :) A.M.D.G.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Is there anything enjoyable about training for a marathon?

What’s the best part of running?

Yeah, I know… that’s a loaded question. I bet most people, upon reading that will answer the same way I did for so many years: nothing – or perhaps you like the hours of boredom spent putting one foot in front of the other.

I’m kidding of course. I actually really enjoy running these days. Admittedly, I don’t think I ever thought I would write that sentence. However, over the last few months while training for a marathon, I have found there is an odd peace that comes with the rhythm of stepping along down the road with only you and your thoughts to keep you occupied. In this same way, one of the best parts of having this opportunity to train has been listening to the radio.

I’m not talking about # # . # FM or some other music station; I’m talking about radio programs that are specifically produced for the listener’s education and/or entertainment.

Now, I know what you are thinking – the concept of listening to those kinds of radio programs went out of style somewhere around the age of the hippies – probably about the same time TV was developed. I’ll concede that point, yet over this time period I have found there are a few things you just can’t get from TV that oddly enough, these radio programs provide.

Podcasts are where it’s at. These things are so available these days, you can literally download a piece on nearly anything you can imagine. I have listened to a 2 minute parody on Charlie Sheen’s latest antics to 20 minutes on the folly of the BCS to 60 minutes on why cats are such intriguing animals.

Part of the beauty – there are no commercials, it is just listening and thinking from start to finish.

This kind of sheds light on one of the other things that annoys me about TV – you have to sit and watch, w/out the availability to do much else. Sure, people are walking on treadmills at the gym watching TV these days, but you have to be inside a gym and walking on a treadmill.


With the radio/mp3 player, it is so easily portable. You can accomplish so much while learning something – you can run outside or do laundry inside, or really whatever it is you do.

However, the most enjoyable aspect of this medium of information versus TV has been the engaging nature of the radio. It’s the same reason that we get so much more out of “reading a book over merely watching the movie.”

I know in my mind that I am not really having a 2-person conversation while listening to these podcasts, but the nature of not being able to see the presenter – only listen – invites one to use their imagination to construct that scenario in your mind.

I can’t really remember that last time I left the couch after watching something on TV where I actually felt like that really had an impact on me – it seems that since with TV you aren’t required to use your imagination at all, you just don’t remember things nearly as well. I feel like I can remember nearly everything I have listened to over this training period, and with minimal effort.

I no longer dread the 3+ hour long runs which are required during the training regimen that I dreaded before I started this program. Crazily, they are almost enjoyable now…

Relax, I said almost.

Thanks for reading J