Wednesday, October 28, 2015

On professional sports and fandom thereof

October is one of the best months of sports in the year: the NHL season starts; the CFL is in its playoff stretch run; the NFL is in full swing in its second quarter of the season; the NBA is gearing up during its pre-season; and Major League Baseball finally gets watchable for a few weeks. In Canada, the Toronto Blue Jays have been one of the dominant news stories of the past two months, and it seems like almost every move they have made since the beginning of August has been closely scrutinized - perhaps none more than Gibbons' choice to pull Dickey in the fifth inning of Game 4 of the ALDS - as fans, pundits, and the team alike try to construct and understand their piece in the greater narrative of this playoff run.

But even though I'm not much of a baseball fan, as I chronicled in this post entitled "On Baseball" from 2013, (in which I vowed dedication to the Minnesota Twins, which hasn't really happened yet and won't, now that my once-strong interest in the Jays has been renewed) I found myself paying attention to the fortunes of Canada's only baseball team because it has emerged as such a significant part of our national identity this year, as it did in 1992 and 1993. I, too, got caught up in the narrative of the Jays, and I have watched kids who are the same age as I was in 1992 and 1993 get caught up in the Jays fever, too. (And really, is it jumping on the bandwagon if I was a member of the Junior Jays club twenty years ago?)

I found my emotional investment in the team's fortunes increasing the further they made it into the playoffs, and I even started to find ways to watch the games. I found myself getting caught up in the personalities of the players and the minutiae of baseball statistics and the general enthusiasm about the Jays in spite of the fact that I have watched very little baseball over the past decade. I watched several games of the ALCS, including the series' concluding game and plays. I was ultimately disappointed by the Jays' loss in the ALCS to Kansas City, though certainly much less so than my friends who had waited two decades to have a competitive team again only to have their hopes dashed by the Jays' inability to hit the ball with runners in scoring position, and arguably more because of the emotional toll I knew it would take on the players and fans than as a result of how it would affect my life.

The communal nature and narrative of sports


I think the main reason I was caught up in the Jays' fever was because of the narrative it presented to an entire country. There was conflict, drama, tension, victory, interesting characters, and an epic bat flip. I recently taught a high school course in Creative Writing, and so I have been thinking about the idea of narrative anyway, but this particular circumstance has been a great example of what actor Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings movies) was referring to in this quotation in conversation with Grantland in March 2015: "I enjoy the drama of sports. I think the basic ingredients of any good drama have to do with relatively ordinary people being faced with extraordinary circumstances. How do characters act when everything goes wrong? How do they deal with stress, humiliation, injury, death, suffering, separation, and war? I see that in sports. I see people playing hurt, or playing hard even if they know they have no chance to win."

I tend to agree with Viggo - sports are compelling and invigorating at their best, and they provide opportunities for people to face extraordinary circumstances that would likely never otherwise face. Sports provides a communal experience that we can share and appreciate together, and it provides a forum for emotional expressions that many people otherwise might not choose to undergo. But what has become apparent to me over the past year, perhaps exemplified in this recent Blue Jays' playoff run, is just how far I generally am from the world of professional sports. I rarely watch sports anymore, and although I still know a lot of the players and the good teams in the four major leagues, I have less emotional effort invested in any sport probably in almost any time in my life since I started with sports when I was ten. In fact, most of the way I now interact with the world of professional sports is not by following it myself, but in reading writers who follow the sports. So what happened? As I considered this question, I thought of several different factors in my increasing disinterest in professional sports.

Functional reasons


1. Sports are no longer as much of a part of my identity as they were when I was younger. When you pick your team(s) as a kid, you begin to be identified with your team, and their successes and failures become associated with you. I remember that within the group of boys in my middle school class that we had most of the major NHL teams represented and that it was a point of personal pride when your team beat another boy's team. But the Leafs are no longer as strong a part of my identity, and neither is hockey. The Riders have remained a strong part of my identity largely because I lived in BC for several years, and so they provided a way to be connected with my home in Saskatchewan.

2. I didn't pick teams when I was younger. I picked the Riders as Saskatchewan's only professional sports team (and yes, the CFL is a pro league) and the Leafs in part because of Wendel Clark, who played his junior hockey in my hometown of Saskatoon, but I did not have connections to any other teams. I cheered for the Jays because they were winning, but I never did pick an NFL team or NBA team to claim as my own. I suppose if I had to I would pick the Green Bay Packers (a small market team and one of the closest to my current home), although a case could be made for the Seattle Seahawks (I did live in the Northwest for several years and had several good friends who were dedicated fans), but it always seemed a little disingenuous to just pick a team, especially when those teams were already successful. Maybe I felt like I needed to earn my fandom as they had. If I had to pick an NBA team, it would probably be the Portland Trail Blazers (small market, Pacific Northwest), but again, I don't feel as though I have much reason to do so right now.

3. The time, timing, and effort required to follow pro sports. I follow sports much in the same way that I now follow a lot of pop culture such as music and movies; at some level, it is significant to my experience to continue at least a tangential interest in the subject, even just for having a basis for social interaction (especially with the teens I teach), but I am far less able to spend intense time on sports (or forms of pop culture) as a pursuit. I grant that I have a far greater capacity than most people for following things from afar, as my memory and general bank of knowledge allow me to converse and even to analyze goings-on in different disciplines despite my lack of time employed in pursuing them, but I find that I just don't have that much time for sports.

In addition, most of the major events in sports happen between September and June, a schedule that tends to overlap perfectly with my busiest times of year as a teacher. I find that I am much more able to divert short bursts of attention to sports at particular times, such as the NFL playoffs or the first round of the NHL playoffs, but that any level of sustained interest is not feasible beyond a vague understanding of how teams are doing in general. This, by the way, is one of the main reasons that I can follow the CFL relatively closely: with a season that starts in July, only four games a week, and only nine teams to know, the CFL presents a very manageable body of information with a low amount of input required.

Professional sports and morality


4. The amount of money involved, both from the teams and as a fan. I think this issue was quantified for me during the last NHL lockout in 2012, as the squabbling about money really made me think about the sheer amount of money that is involved in professional sports and how little it really means out of the context of pro sports. a point perhaps most brilliantly illuminated by the Key and Peele sketch "TeachingCenter". I found myself less and less interested in pro sports because of the money involved and how much it both dehumanizes the players (by evaluating them by a value in dollars) and the fans (by requiring more money to be input to be a fan of an inanimate team), and I just don't want to put that much money into being a sports fan. Sure, I would love to see a Leafs game live someday (perhaps in a few years when they have a semi-decent team), but I don't want to pay hundreds of dollars to do it. This again is a reason I can still follow the CFL, as their players are far more accurately paid according to the amount of time and effort they put into their work; to wit, the CFL's salary cap is $5.05 million versus the NFL's is $143.28 million, and the CFL even has extra players on the field.

5. The morality of professional sports. This final factor might in some ways be the most significant, and it is tied into the money spent on sports as a moral concern. This became the most clear to me with the last NFL season, in which several prominent players were proven perpetrators of domestic abuse, one of the league's longest-standing franchises continued to use a blatantly racist image despite the protestations of most media, and the two teams that played in the Super Bowl were both accused and found guilty on some level of cheating. Of course, it's not just endemic to professional football, but that was the context in which it became most clear to me that there is a moral question that must be answered: at what point is our hero worship of professional athletes nullified by their personal choices? For me, those moral questions and personal choices have begun to affect my ability to enjoy sports significantly.

I know many fans who insist - perhaps accurately so - that it is easy to ignore those personal issues and just watch the game, but I tend to think that line of reasoning is equivalent to "just listening to the music and not the lyrics" or "it's just a movie - it doesn't affect me", as on some level there is a fundamental worldview that you are actively (or subconsciously) supporting by continuing to be a fan of professional sports. Note that I am not saying that the moral questions need necessarily to lead to relinquishing sports pro sports as a source of entertainment, but that at least that fans of need to be aware of the possible moral dissonance present and make a decision as to how to proceed.

This factor has mostly affected my interest in the NFL (as explained earlier) and Major League Baseball (what with the steroids and all), but not so much the NHL, even though it clearly has some (if not many) of the same issues. Also, this moral factor has not affected my interest in the NBA, which is arguably the most immoral of all pro leagues, with the highest salaries, significant recreational drug use, a history of referees fixing games, a widespread and celebrated attitude toward sexual promiscuity and some level of acceptance for domestic abuse, as I never tended to see the NBA as a particularly moral entity in the first place.

Please don't misunderstand me that I'm justifying those things as acceptable or attempting to ignore or trivialize them; rather, I am merely commenting on the fact that even I, who I would consider to have a somewhat heightened moral compass, find myself doing the very thing that I am asserting that people like me probably should not do and enjoying sports as a functional hypocrit, aware of the ways in which sports seem to contrast with my own morality. It's not that I don't think about it, but rather that I'm trying to determine what to do it, much as I do with being a fan of movies and television that include moral concerns both behind the scenes and in the media themselves.  I recognize the lack of consistency in the way I look at different sports, and I am still attempting to reconcile my own morality with that of being a fan of professional sports.

A conclusion of contradiction


Despite all that I have just written about the reasons I have drifted away from following professional sports, I still find myself a fan of sports in general who can easily be sucked in to the world of sports in spite of myself and/or my moral misgivings about some of the nature of the enterprise. I am a hypocrit in this regard, as I choose to not always engage sports on that moral level, and I would argue that, in light of the statements I have made, perhaps the only recourse I would have would be to eschew professional sports completely and to turn my back on the entire world therein. But for some reason, I can't.

There's still something deep down in my soul that cries out for the kind of fulfillment provided by following not only particular teams, but sports in general. There's something that is cathartic, that lets me "sound my barbaric yawp" in a way that nothing else does. There's an appeal to sports in the possibility of something incredible happening, like watching Bautista's home run and bat flip in Game 5 of the Toronto-Texas ALDS. There's an appeal in experiencing those emotions within a community and sharing those experiences with others. There's an appeal in watching other human beings exceed the limits that were previously understood to have governed their physical abilities. There is still a connection to my teenage self who watched SportsCenter every night and who learned all of the names and statistics and how those still matter now. There is still a sense of identity in being a fan of a team, which is probably why I still have a Toronto Maple Leafs logo on my lunch kit.

Perhaps this is the crux of my dilemma: the intellectual part of me wants to be able to quit watching professional sports, but the emotional part of me cannot. It's really not a huge jump from where I am to giving them up entirely - after all, I spend very little time and money actually watching and following sports - but that seems to be a significant hurdle nonetheless. Maybe it's because actively leaving professional sports behind is a much different step than just leaving it be, and I want to ensure a stronger personal conviction for that to happen.

So for now, I tend to think that I will continue along as I have been doing for the past three or so years: passively keeping track of professional sports with the awareness of the moral concerns and the possibility that an exciting event will override them. I'm not planning on pursuing fandom actively right now, and perhaps there even will come a point at which I am ready to turn my back on sports entirely, but this is not that point. Maybe in the meantime I can devote more attention to local and amateur sports in order to achieve some of that emotional connection and catharsis that seems to be welded to my core - or maybe I can just play more board games. But I know that on some level, no matter what path I take in both immediate and future circumstances that I will always get sucked back in when the Leafs make the playoffs - but at least it looks like I have a couple of years to work through this before that happens again.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

BoardGameGeek Top 100

BoardGameGeek (BGG) is perhaps the most authoritative site for one hobby online other than IMDB is for movies. Almost every committed hobby board gamer uses the site to track his or her collection, record plays, and find out information about new games to play. The site has been active since the year 2000, and although its interface is viewed as somewhat outdated, it really does provide a significant gateway into the hobby. I have used BGG extensively over the past four years as I have gone deeper and deeper into the world of board gaming, and I really appreciate the depth and breadth of information available on the site, as well as how it lets me track my collection and plays. I was thinking about my own journey through board gaming and the BGG site lately, and I thought that it might be interesting to see how my progress is going in terms of games I own and how many I have played, and I thought the easiest most accessible way to do that would be to look at my current status in terms of my status within the top 100 games.

One of the unique functions of BGG is that it allows gamers to rank games on a scale of 1 through 10 with 10 marking the best and favourite games. It then uses a complex algorithm to eliminate extraneous information and to attempt to consolidate consensus about a game into an average that can then be ranked. The resulting rankings then determine the order in which the games are displayed in browsing through the games, and Top 100 status is quite coveted in terms of advertising the quality of a game as a general point. Of course, as you might expect of a site with a relatively nerdy userbase, there have been many comments and criticisms about the ways in which BGG collects, organizes, and evaluates these rankings, and there is significant evidence to support the thesis that the system is both skewed toward more recent games as well as "heavier" more complex games, as the users of BGG would be more inclined to rank those more highly. In addition, a recent study of BGG found that the drop off in quality occurs not after the Top 100, but the top 700 or so, and the difference between the average ranking of games in the top three or four hundred is usually a matter of hundredths or thousandths, which is not very statistically significant. But in spite of those criticisms, there is still a value associated with the Top 100, particularly as a way for new gamers to see games that are generally highly regarded.

As I was considering the nature of these rankings, I have gone through the BGG Top 100 and grouped all of the games therein according to several categories depending on their status in my collection, the number of plays I have recorded (minimally meaning fewer than five plays), and my general level of interest in playing them in the future. I'll give the results and then some conclusions based on my findings. The games are listed according to BGG rankings as of October 27 (given in parentheses after each game) in each category as they stand in my current collection.

Categorizing the BGG Top 100


Owned and played significantly (19): Agricola (6); The Castles of Burgundy (9); Le Havre (15); 7 Wonders (19); Race for the Galaxy (24); Lords of Waterdeep (28); Pandemic (43); Star Realms (54); Ticket to Ride: Europe (64); Cosmic Encounter (69); Splendor (70); Patchwork (74); Codenames (76); Village (79); Galaxy Trucker (89); Jaipur (91); The Resistance (92); Glory to Rome (96); Ra (99)

Owned and played minimally (5): Puerto Rico (5); El Grande (26); Ora et Labora (48); Goa (57); Bora Bora (95)

Previously Owned (3): Power Grid (12); Dominion: Intrigue (22); Dominion (31)

Played minimally but really enjoyed and want to play more (17): Tzolk'in: The Mayan Calendar (17); Caylus (20); Keyflower (21); Five Tribes (34); Roll for the Galaxy (36); Trajan (38); Crokinole (41); Russian Railroads (42); Suburbia (46); Castles of Mad King Ludwig (49); Stone Age (51); Concordia (52); The Princes of Florence (63); Imperial Settlers (68); Ticket to Ride: Nordic Countries (84); Ticket to Ride (87); Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game (94)

Played minimally and not really interested in future plays (6): Twilight Struggle (1); Terra Mystica (2); Android: Netrunner (7); Eclipse (10); Chaos in the Old World (59); Summoner Wars (60)

Unplayed but on my "Want to Play" list (15): Caverna: The Cave Farmers (3); Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization (4); Mage Knight (8); Robinson Crusoe (14); Dominant Species (23); Battlestar Galactica (29); Tigris and Euphrates (33); Troyes (45); Tichu (67); Hansa Teutonica (75); Lewis and Clark (77); Space Alert (80); The Voyages of Marco Polo (85); Dungeon Petz (88); Alien Frontiers (97)

Unplayed but considering playing (18): Brass (16); Dead of Winter (18); The Resistance: Avalon (32); Eldritch Horror (25); Twilight Imperium (30); Nations (44); Railways of the World (55); Steam (56); Alchemists (58); Legendary Encounters: An Alien Deck Building Game (61); Age of Steam (62); Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective (65); Kemet (66); Go (71); The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game (73); Imperial (83); Here I Stand (86); Memoir '44 (90)

Unplayed and not interested at all (17): Star Wars: Imperial Assault (11); War of the Ring (2nd Ed.) (13); Star Wars: X-Wing (27); War of the Ring (1st Ed.) (35); Mage Wars Arena (37); Descent: Journeys in the Dark (39); A Game of Thrones: The Board Game (2nd Ed.) (40); Commands & Colors: Ancients (47); Paths of Glory (50); Combat Commander: Europe (53); Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage (72); Runewars (78); Shogun (81); Age of Empires III: The Age of Discovery (82); Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game (93); Battlelore (2nd Ed.) (98); YINSH (100)

Conclusions


I was quite interested to see some numbers that were quite different than I expected. I have currently played 50 of the top 100 games, which was higher than I expected. Of those 50, I have played just under half (22) many times, with the other just over half (28) at minimal plays with varying levels of interest, though 17 of those were games that I would definitely play again and would likely even purchase, with many currently on my wishlist. The 50 games I have not yet played divided roughly into thirds between games on my Want to Play list (15), games that I have not really thought about (18), and games in which I'm not really very interested (17) for whatever reason (mostly because of length, genre, or fiddliness, or some combination therein).

Of course, every time I go through the BGG list like this I tend to add a number of games to my "Want to Play" list, and this time is no different, as there are likely at least ten games that I will want to try as a result of this exercise. Of course, some of those games are ones that I want to try once for the experience (such as Twilight Imperium) rather than as a game to add to my regular rotation, whereas some are games that I expect will become part of my repertoire and collection at some point. My plays are weighted slightly toward games in the top 50 (27), but actually a little less so than I expected them to be, considering that I think that I have used the top 50 more consistently to add new games to my "Want to Play" list than numbers 51 through 100. It seems, though, that a few games have dropped down into the 50-60 zone from the top 50; there are also a number of more popular titles (such as three Ticket to Ride games, Star Realms, and Galaxy Trucker) that rank between 51 and 100, and those tend to be easier to play because of their broader appeal.

For my own interest and extended nerdiness, I also superficially examined the games currently ranked between 100 and 300 according to some more general statuses in my collection: owned, previously owned, played, Want to Play, and other. I also felt it might validate the sentiment about the lack of statistical difference in rankings to actually how a seemingly arbitrary ranking affected my collection. For games ranked between 101 and 200, I found that the percentages went down slightly from the top 100: 20 owned, 3 previously owned, 11 more played (for 34 total played) and 11 on my Want to Play list, leaving 55 games outside of my radar. For games ranked between 201 to 300, the numbers were a little lower still: 11 owned; 2 previously owned, 11 more played (for 24 total) with 7 on my Want to Play list. The conclusion here is that the rankings have affected my plays, but that part of the problem is that there are just too many games to play, and anything outside the top 100 tends to take less of a prominent place in my gaming radar. I'm still not disappointed in those numbers, particularly having played over a quarter of games ranked between 101 and 300, but maybe I have some more research to do on those levels after the first page.

I am overall very happy with my progress through the BGG Top 100. I have never made it a goal to have played all Top 100 games, but I have unofficially looked at playing many of those games as the mark of being an accomplished gamer. I think I can consider myself to be so even at 50% completion, considering that many gamers would not likely rank even that highly. I also appreciate that my journey through the top 100 validates my tastes as a gamer, as I have highly enjoyed many of the games in the top 100 (and even the ones I didn't really care for are more a matter of personal taste than of game design) even though many of them were not in the top 100 when I played them and enjoyed them. It's kind of like that moment when I realized that I liked good movies and that critics are actually right a lot of the time. I am not going to set any specific targets or goals for playing through the Top 100, but I am going to continue on my path of trying to continue to expose myself to good games; after all, life is too short to play games that are not that great.

The art of domesticity

Cooking has never been an art for me; rather, it has been much more of a functional activity. I have cooked my own food for fifteen years, but I have never either had to or chosen to explore much beyond the more functional food preparation I have learned and applied. In our house, my wife has usually been the more experimental of the two of us in any culinary escapades, while I have always taken care of most of the mundane routine tasks: doing the dishes; sweeping; vacuuming; laundry; garbage and recyclables; putting things away; dusting; and cooking functional meals (usually grilling some kind of meat with rice and a side vegetable). Cooking has mostly been a matter of function rather than fashion for me, and my goal has usually been to produce the most flavour with the least amount of work. But something has begun to shift over the past two months, and I have started to become much more domestically inclined.

Yesterday is a perfect example: after working on preparing carrots for a couple of hours, there was one point shortly before lunch at which I had three recipes going - Spiced Carrot Stew in the slow cooker, Moroccan Carrot Soup on the stove, and Carrot Nut Bread in the stand mixer - as well as dishes in the sink and laundry in the washer and dryer. In that moment, I realized that even a few weeks ago that I could not have imagined that level of productivity and multitasking in my domestic exploits, nor could I have imagined enjoying it as much as I have.

It's not that I never did anything of this sort before this recent foray into the domestic realm, as I would occasionally learn a new recipe or bake banana bread or brownies. For the most part, however, I have not worked at learning anything new in the kitchen, mostly because I find it much more difficult to do when I have other things on the go or when there is some pressure to do so, whether that is time or my wife getting "hangry". On the occasions when I was able to take some time and energy and learn something new, I really enjoyed it, but never so much so that I would begin to consider it a hobby. But perhaps something started to spark in me on Easter 2014, when my wife injured her ankle on Good Friday and I had to prepare the ham and scalloped potatoes for our Easter dinner; I have rarely felt so proud of something I had made as when an octogenarian friend said that they were the best scalloped potatoes he had ever eaten, and I started to realize that there might be more to this cooking thing than I had initially thought.

In late August, my wife started a (more than) full-time job, and I decided to take some time for myself with the proviso that I would take up most of the domestic activities in the meantime while I was not working. In addition to my regular routine, that has involved three activities that require significantly more creativity and effort: gardening; baking; and cooking - the latter two of which have been directly connected to the production of the former. These three have become quite significant both in terms of time and effort over those two months, and I would estimate that I have spent at least ten and as much as twenty to twenty-five hours per week learning these new skills and applying them in my pursuit of making delicious food.

As such, I have been responsible for harvesting most of the vegetables in our garden, including over ten pounds of zucchini, thirty pounds of carrots, fifty pounds of tomatoes, twenty pounds of onions, corn, hot peppers, cucumbers, beans, and more. I have baked several batches of zucchini bread, banana bread, carrot nut bread, and morning glory muffins. I have roasted over thirty pounds of tomatoes to use in tomato soup during the winter. I have tried new recipes such as Moroccan carrot soup, carrot soup with ginger and lemon, spiced chicken stew with carrots (sensing a trend here?), and coconut peanut curry chicken (the latter of which I saw on Facebook and went out and purchased a specialized ingredient to make). I have started to familiarize myself with our cookbooks, especially America's Test Kitchen, and make recipes such as: stir-fries; spaghetti with shrimp, lemon, and garlic; and sauteed chicken breasts with cherry tomatoes and olives. I made the turkey and stuffing for Thanksgiving. I even cooked and canned a double batch of ketchup.



It hasn't seemed like much from day-to-day, but when I list it all together it sure seems like a lot, and I have begun to realize just how much energy and effort it takes to engage in these exploits. I have had to learn and apply a new set of skills that have required a new set of linguistic understandings. I have had to learn to do several tasks at once and work on timing so that processes (that are sometimes very divergent) can end at the same time. I have learned how tiring and time-consuming this work can be, and how much energy it takes just to come up with new ideas (although, to be fair, my wife did find several of the carrot recipes listed earlier), and I have begun to have much more respect for people who have developed this skill set with a lot of hard work.

I have begun to see some results, even after this short period of time. I have noticed, now that I have baked loaves or muffins once (or more) per week, just how much I have improved in something even as simple as gathering basic ingredients. I am finding it much easier to understand what new recipes are asking me to do and to time things appropriately. I am much more able to prepare ingredients with ease, and I am much more confident in my ability to find and apply new recipes. I am now able to enjoy the process of cooking and baking much more, and I would say that it is moving from a mere function to something I am starting to enjoy maybe as a hobby, in part because of the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction it provides, but also because of the delicious food I have now begun to eat as a result. I am excited to see how I can continue to learn and grow in my exploration in the kitchen, and I am looking forward to continuing to share some of these benefits with others as I continue to learn more of the domestic arts.

Friday, October 23, 2015

On finishing

I am a man of "to-do" lists, and I have been since I was young; I still remember specifically asking for a notebook when I was eleven or twelve so I could contain my lists, most of which started off with "shower". I always have lists of things that need to be done, whether it's games to play, errands to run, posts to write, movies to watch, bands to investigate, people to see, or projects to finish, and it seems unfortunately that my ambition often far outscales my actual abilities. I'm usually really strong at finishing things when I start them - sometimes doggedly so and occasionally to my detriment - but there are a few things that I have started over the years that I just did not finish. Some things are relatively meaningless or insignificant - video games or TV shows I stopped partway through - but some represent tasks of deeper significance and meaning.

There are many reasons for not completing these different tasks and projects. It's certainly not a matter of not having time; I actually have hated using that phrase to describe not having finished work since I was in Grade 11. It's not a matter of desire, as I have had significant interest in completing many of these projects over the years. It's mostly a matter of circumstance, which manifests itself in many ways; on the one hand, there has been the need to focus on things of more immediate importance, such as church leadership, running summer camps, and managing my teaching career. But perhaps more importantly, the general level of transition and difficulty therein over the past five years has made it much more difficult for me to focus on some of these projects.

On the surface, nothing may seem to have changed - I still don't have a permanent job, for example - but I feel nevertheless that this is a new season for me and that part of what I have the privilege of doing in this season is working on finishing some of these projects. This post, then, is a declaration about what I see as part of the purpose of this season of my life in which I am working as a substitute teacher and not currently in any kind of leadership position in any capacity: to finish some of the things that I have started over the years, whether they are easy and relatively meaningless (as the first several entries on the list are) or they go much deeper and would be far more meaningful for me to finish (as are the later entries).

My hope in writing this post and making these things public is not to shame myself into finishing them or to feel guilty about not having them done. My hope is that sharing them may serve as a kickstart for myself, as well as a way for others in my community to connect with the goals themselves, or at the very least with the idea of having these kinds of goals. I have realized that one of the failings that I have had over the years is in not sharing these things as openly with the people around me, and that community, whether immediate or online, is crucial in creating space in which I (and we) push through adversity toward success. This, therefore, is my attempt to create some space for connection, encouragement, and intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to move toward finishing (at least some of) these projects.

Superficial media


This first group of projects are the lowest priority, mostly involving watching media or playing games. They mostly will not make a big difference to my life, which is probably why I have left many of these unfinished for so long. They are (mostly) the kinds of projects that can be accomplished simultaneously with other, more focus-intensive projects, since they (mostly) do not require exclusive attention to be paid in order to be accomplished. Well, the video games might, but the amount of emotional effort they require is minimal, so let's start there...

Video games: With so many games to play, it can be easy to get distracted and not finish a game, an occurrence which has happened to me too many times over the years. Although there are some platform games that I started and just forgot about (Donkey Kong Country Returns and DKC: Tropical Freeze; Mega Man 9 and 10), most of the games I have left unfinished are narrative games of some sort that require some level of attention to be paid to surroundings and some level of memory of the game in order to succeed. These are the kinds of games that it can be really challenging to pick up and play months later, so they just end up waiting for when I can start them again and then rarely do. Some are games that I just did not play past a certain point (The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks; Metroid Prime 3: Corruption); but there are a few that I legitimately could not finish because I could not pass a certain challenge or boss (Metroid Prime; Metroid Prime 2: Echoes; Star Fox Adventures). Then there's my white whale, The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, that I will finally defeat after 15 years using the alterations made to the 3DS version.

Television shows: Aside from shows that I deliberately stopped watching for various reasons (Heroes, Glee, The Office), I have a number of TV shows that I would like to finish at some point. For some reason, I did not watch Friday Night Lights after Season 2; at least I can watch the whole series on Netflix. I have yet to finish the final three seasons of Parks and Recreation for some unfathomable reason, and I've only just started the second season of the Star Trek: The Original Series. I did, however, finish The Newsroom a few weeks ago, so I'm making some progress, and I do not have any intensive dramas that I am currently following, so this seems like as good a time as any to catch up on these shows.

AFI Top 100: Seven years ago, shortly after the American Film Institute released their revised Top 100 list of movies, I wrote that I wanted to watch all 121 movies that appeared either on the original or on the revised list. I have revisited the idea, or at least mentioned it, several times over the past few years as an intention of mine, but I stalled out at fifty, leaving 71 to go - and some of them are still quite embarrassing to have not yet seen. It's not that I haven't had the opportunity to do so; I just haven't prioritized the project while simultaneously significantly lowering the number of movies I actually watch, leaving less room for an exploratory project like this one. This is easily the lowest priority of any entry on this list, but it's still bubbling in the background; maybe I can even get it done before the AFI revises their list again in 2017.

The lost seasons of Survivor: I have two posts that have been in draft status for two years that I think about four times a year, whenever a new season of Survivor premieres or concludes. These posts are about how I would rank the seasons and/or the winners and some of my thoughts on the series; the reason I have not yet posted them is because I have a bit of a hang-up about not having watched several of the early seasons. I have been a dedicated Survivor fan for most of the show's run, but I only started watching every episode consistently starting with the series' eighth season, All-Stars (which was won by Amber Brkich). I had watched most of the first three seasons, and then the next four coincided with the period of my life in which I did not watch any television at all, so I have never seen Marquesas, Thailand, Amazon, or Pearl Islands aside from a few episodes. I know, of course, much of the events of each series even without having seen them, but I still feel like I would need to watch them to really complete those posts properly. I think it would be interesting to go back and watch these so-called "old school" seasons in light of how the game has changed, particularly with some of the contestants playing right now in Cambodia in Survivor: Second Chance, the show's 31st season, so I might embark on this project in the background of some of the other projects that come later on this list.

Community Bead Sprites: I have not done much bead spriting over the past year - I think I have only pulled them out once or twice since moving back to Saskatchewan - but I do have several ideas for projects that have remained unstarted, in part because I wanted to finish the set that I was already working on. That set is the cast of Community as portrayed as 16-bit characters in the Season 3 episode "Digital Estate Planning". I have Pierce and Annie finished, so I only have Jeff, Britta, Abed, Troy, Shirley to go, along with Gilbert, Hilda, and maybe Cornelius if I'm really feeling ambitious. I think finishing this one might help inspire some of the other projects I want to do with Perler beads, so I'm excited to get back into it after a couple of years of relative absence.

Collating, collecting, and organizing


The second group, which are slightly closer to my core than the aforementioned media projects, are mostly focused on sorting and reassembling things that are disorganized at the moment. The effort in this level of projects is far more administrative than it is emotional, and these are easily the easiest to quantify in terms of time required. For the most part, these are the kinds of projects that I could just get done, as long as I take the time to do them, and many of these projects are in some state of completion already. They will not take much to finish, but they will feel really good to have done, so these mark the best places to begin.

Online registrations: I opened up this can of worms about a month ago, and I still have a few hours to go in creating a master list of all of the sites and apps for which I have registered, as well as my usernames, passwords, and other pertinent information for each site (including updating my address from my move over a year ago in some cases). I was astonished at just how many different categories of organizations are represented in this list, much less the number of organizations and businesses themselves, but I made a good start and this is probably the easiest project to accomplish in the whole list, so it's probably where I will start.

Contact Lists: The last time I had updated contact lists with addresses, emails, phone numbers, and other useful information was when I got married over seven years ago, so it's about time that I work on updating all of that information. It should be a little easier now that a lot of my people are buying houses and settling down, but it's still going to take some work to make a list of all of those kids' birthdays. Don't be surprised if you receive a Facebook message in the near future requesting some of those details (and maybe more) so that I can knock this project off the list.

Sorting my digital music: I spent time this summer going through my music collection and clearing out something like one hundred albums to which I no longer listened, so my collection is much more refined and accurate to my current tastes, but there is one area that remains disheveled - my music files on the computer. I have a lot of music in a lot of different places, and I have files that need to be deleted and reorganized and otherwise dealt with at some point. This is definitely an easier one to do, but it takes a level of concentration that does not allow for multitasking, thereby making it harder to accomplish in some sense.

Games Magazines: Since I was twelve years old, I have had a subscription to Games Magazine, a publication that includes word puzzles, visual logic, trivia quizzes, crosswords, and many kinds of other puzzles, as well as commentary on board games, video games, and other general nerdiness. In my first year of teaching, I started copying and collecting puzzles that would have some kind of educational appeal or application. I kept the binder organized for a couple of years, but I let it get out of order and I would like to take a few hours to get it back in order for future use whenever I have my own classroom again.

School Files: I have taught a lot of different subjects over the years at different grade levels in different provinces with different curricula, so I have a lot of files that I have created and accumulated during my years of teaching. I was able to make significant progress at the end of the last school year with my physical papers, but my digital files are still in severe need of some TLC. I also have a lot of files, both physical and digital, that I have procured from other teachers throughout my travels, that are in dire need of sorting. It might only be fifteen or twenty hours of total work, but it will take a lot of mental effort to do it well; still, it will make whatever teaching job I get next that much easier, so I should get cracking on this one soon.

The significant projects


These five final projects are the big ones, the ones that will take not-insignificant amounts of emotional effort, time, and wherewithal to do. They are hard to quantify, as several of them will require far more intangible work of thinking, reflecting, and feeling, which is also perhaps why some of them have remained incomplete for as long as they have. But these are also the projects that will provide me with the greatest sense of accomplishment and that seem to be the most necessary in order to move forward with whatever things I could do afterward.

Prophetic Identity: This is in some ways both the easiest and the most difficult project of this level, but it is arguably the most important, as well as one of the most challenging to qualify and quantify. In 2010, my wife and I had the opportunity to spend a week at Bethel Church in Redding, California at a conference called the School of the Prophets; I know it sounds a little wacky, but bear with me. We had spent some time listening to sermons from Bethel, reading some books, and generally being exposed to the world of the Pentecostal and prophetic churches. We learned a lot that week about the Holy Spirit and working with prophetic people in community, but there were two things that stuck out to me that I still have not yet done.

One was the final word I received from one of the leaders when she looked at my nametag and said that I needed to do some research into my family history and last name. The other was one speaker who talked about making a statement of your prophetic identity - kind of an equivalent to a vision statement for who God has called you to be and what He has called you to do. I have had some semblance of that kind of statement over the years, but I feel that I really need to take some time in prayer reading through words people have given me prophetically over the past six years to see what emerges as significant. I think this process will be important for me to unlock parts of my identity and destiny in the future - maybe even a linchpin for the rest of my life, so it might be significant. (And if this section made no sense, I would love to dialogue about it with you - seriously.)

Scrapbooking my articles from the student press: This project has been around the longest of any on this list - anywhere between eight and fifteen years, depending on when my work was originally published. I wrote for the student press for seven years, and I kept every article that was published during that time with the intent of one day putting them all together in a scrapbook. I have wanted to scan in my early articles and to scrapbook them for future posterity, but for some reason, I have never brought myself around to doing it. This is probably my only really significant project with a lower time requirement and energy required, so it might be a good place to start for this level; plus, it might dovetail well with other projects listed here. I also think it will be encouraging and valuable for me to see just how far I have come as a writer over the past fifteen years, so I have a feeling this will spur me on as I pursue other projects.

Rebranding Life of Turner: My blog is in sore need of a reboot, and it has been for five years (at least). I have barely felt able to keep up content over much of that time, much less re-evaluating the whole site, but I have known for a long time that I need to take some time and rework this entire template from the ground up. I have also known that this project is more about the mental work, since it is now far beyond my ability and desire to actually design the site, unlike my days of mucking about in html code in the early days of my blog. I have realized over the past few weeks in which I have been writing more consistently how much this actually means to me and that I really do want this, so I'm actually putting a timeline on this project, as my hope is to have the new Life of Turner ready and launched by the end of January.

Pot O' Gold: The card game I have designed has mostly been sitting for a year after initial beta testing, and I did state that I wanted to have the revised version available for download as a print-and-play version by the end of this year. I'm not sure if that will happen, but I'm working on getting the site up so that I can get the files prepped so that Pot O' Gold can move past initial testing to the next stage of testing. I still think it's possible to have it ready for some kind of distribution by next summer, and I just want to get it out there so that people can play it; also so that I can start working on the other four designs I have in mind, which include: a very light (and likely heretically tongue-in-cheek) ecumenical card game; a family-style worker placement game with a summer camp theme; a strategic area control game with a theme of Canadian politics; and carrying on the work of finishing a strategic science fiction space mining game that a friend started to design before he passed away.

My (first) book: I have had the concept for five years and the title for almost four, and I even started writing a few chapters back in 2010. My (first, I'm hoping) book will focus on my upbringing in the church and my journeys therein, particularly some of my experiences being in leadership as a millennial in missional communities. No one has used my title yet, and although there are other writers who are disseminating their admittedly somewhat similar journies (Rachel Held Evans and Matthew Paul Turner come to mind), I have not yet seen anyone do what I want to do with my book, nor have I seen many people from my context (Evangelical millennial in Western Canada) do what I'm doing with this, so I think there will be space for me to move within this sphere. This is one of the hardest ones for me to not have yet finished, but I also realize that this book would have looked very different five years ago than it will whenever I finally finish it, and that having these extra few years of experience will be very beneficial for whatever it is by the time it's done.

It sure seems like a lot when I list it all here, but I feel strangely peaceful despite the apparent amount and level of effort and time that will go into the items on this list. Having them out there makes a difference for some reason, and I'm looking forward to posting updates on how some of these projects go as I now intentionally attempt to complete them. And now that I have written this out, I have given you the privilege and responsibility of being part of this journey, so feel free to check in with me about how any of these projects are going over the next few months, as well as to share the things that you are finishing.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Great Scott! - Turner's Time Travel Tales

Today is the future and has been named "Back to the Future Day" in honour of the date seen in Back to the Future Part II over twenty-five years ago. The internet has been filled with stories about the BttF trilogy today, including this serious evaluation of the science of the trilogy to the government of Canada getting in on the fun by issuing a recall for the Delorean. I haven't been able to stop whistling the main theme all day, I've said "Great Scott!" every time I could, and I watched one of my favourite early episodes of Chuck, "Chuck Versus the Delorean". I remember the originals fondly, as Parts II and III of the trilogy were released when I was 6 and 7 years old, respectively, and I remember watching them at a young age; well, I remember watching most of Part II since my parents edited out a number of the questionable scenes. I still enjoyed them, and I try to watch them every few years because they're just so much fun and it still holds up as one of the best movie trilogies even almost three decades later.


In the meantime, I have been thinking about how much I have always genuinely enjoyed time travel as a narrative and speculative device in science fiction and popular culture, even since I was a kid. I love considering paradoxes and impossibilities and theories and mechanisms and all of the permutations therein. I love the ideas of temporal paradoxes, time loops, causality, parallel universes, and ontological paradoxes, and I love debating them as if they are real. So in honour of this day, as well as my love of time travel, I present to you a list of some of my favourite media - movies, books, television shows, video games, board games - featuring time travel as either a narrative device or play mechanic - in (roughly) chronological order of when I experienced them. (Note: I did not ever play Chrono Trigger for the Super Nintendo, though the nature of this list is making me wish I had - and I may yet in light of realizing just how much I enjoy this time travel thing.)

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home - Star Trek's lone venture into cinematic comedy still stands out as one of my favourite movies from my childhood. In fact, it might be my most quoted movie of all time: "colourful metaphors"; "everybody remember where we parked"; "Computer!" (in a Scottish brogue); "Well, double dumbass on you!"; "How do we know he didn't invent the bloody thing?"; "Nuclear wessels" - and that's just off the top of my head. The time travel itself is hokey, but it didn't matter, as Star Trek was arguably never more fun than it was in San Francisco in 1986.


Star Trek: The Next Generation - Speaking of Star TrekTNG featured time travel in many of my favourite episodes: "Time Squared"; "Timescape"; Time's Arrow"; "A Matter of Time"; "Cause and Effect"; "Yesterday's Enterprise"; and of course, the series finale "All Good Things...". But perhaps none of those were as significant as Star Trek: First Contact, as the Enterprise traveled back and fought the Borg at the time when warp drive was invented. Picard was never more Shakespearean: "The line must be drawn here - this far, no further!"


Quantum Leap - I was a little too young to experience the show fully, but I remember seeing snippets of it as my parents watched Sam's adventures in a new body and setting each week. I feel like this will make perfect watching while I'm marking essays whenever it finally comes on Netflix, but for now, my only memory of the show was one episode in which Sam was part of a cast that chose to perform Hamlet a little unconventionally in 1969... (Why this is the only episode I remember is beyond me - it's just one of those little nuggets that sticks in your brain, I guess.)


X-Men: Days of Future Past - The X-Men cartoon series on Fox in the 1990s was one of my favourites as a kid, and this storyline in which Bishop returns from a Sentinel-driven future to change the past. X-Men featured time travel a few times, but this one sticks out as one of my favourites. The 2014 movie did justice to the original storyline, but this is the one to which I will keep coming back.



Isaac Asimov's Robots in Time by William F. Wu - A short series of science fiction books I read that feature robots traveling into various points in history. I have found the first two - Predator and Marauder - again in my thrifting escapades, but I'm still keeping a look out for the other four.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time for the Super Nintendo - It was little more than a cheesy gimmick as a skin for different levels in the last and best TMNT arcade-style game, but it was certainly a lot better than the third movie in which the heroes in a half-shell traveled to Ancient Japan.

12 Monkeys - Terry Gilliam's sci-fi head trip was gritty, enigmatic, and brilliant. It remains one of my favourite sci-fi movies to this day, largely because of Brad Pitt's Oscar-nominated performance and because of the film's bizarre narrative and visuals.


"Time and Punishment" from The Simpsons' Treehouse of Horror V - In the second segment of one of the best Treehouse of Horror episodes, Homer "fixes" the toaster and is suddenly able to move through time. Evoking Ray Bradbury's classic short story "A Sound of Thunder", the segment comically explores the ramifications of making changes to history. I was a huge fan of chaos theory thanks to Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park, and I still quote this episode frequently today.


The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask - Ocarina of Time is arguably my favourite game of all time, and I have played it through several times. The first time I played it, I was in awe of almost every moment, but perhaps none more than when you enter the Temple of Time and realize that you are now Adult Link. I loved being able to see the effects of time by traversing the seven-year gap between timelines, and I also really enjoyed how the sequel Majora's Mask also played with the idea of manipulating time within a three-day span - even though I still haven't yet beaten the game, a fact that will change soon.


Futurama - The animated series used a form of time travel as a core part of its show with Fry being cryogenically frozen for 1000 years, but several episodes used direct time travel. The early king was certainly "Roswell That Ends Well" in which Fry becomes his own grandfather, but it was arguably exceeded by other episodes such as "The Late Philip J. Fry" and series finale "Meanwhile".

The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day - I do remember watching T2 on TV as a kid, but I remember watching the first two movies in their full unrated entirety early in my university years. The first movie in particular is still a really interesting take on time travel, and the second uses time travel as a prop in one of the best action sci-fi movies after that. I wonder why they never made another movie in the series after that, though?


Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure - I missed this one somehow as a kid, but I remember renting 7 movies on tape for 7 days (wow, that dates me) and this was one of them. I found it to be an instant classic, and now I use it in my world history classes. SAN DIMAS HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL RULES!


Primer - This cult indie flick is well renowned in nerd circles for its extreme complexity despite its apparent superficial simplicity, its labyrinthine logic, its incredibly low budget ($7000), and one of the best portrayals of time travel in modern cinema. Just a quick peek at the visual guides that accompany the film will make your head spin.


Looper - Another indie cult flick that uses time travel as a mechanism for two versions of the same person to meet without the universe imploding. The appeal here, besides the science (fiction) itself, which was under the consultation of Primer writer Shane Carruth, is Joseph Gordon Levitt's incredible mimicry of his older self, Bruce Willis; also, Emily Blunt is wicked awesome. Looper was directed by Rian Johnson, who is perhaps most well known for directing the Breaking Bad episodes "Fly" and "Ozymandias", but who is on tap to write and direct Star Wars: Episode VIII.


Chrononauts - Finally we arrive at the board game section, with one of the first games I bought after becoming a true board game fan, Chrononauts. The game features a timeline that spans the 20th century that can be manipulated and inverted to create alternate events such as Hitler being assassinated in 1936 instead of opening the Olympics in Berlin. It is a fun, manic game, and it has a cheeky sense of humour as well as some interesting discussions for historians as to why certain events would be ripplepoints from their associated linchpins. There is also an Early American version that covers American history in the 18th and 19th centuries that can be combined with the base game to make a gigantic timeline.


But that's no longer the only time travel themed board game I own, as several games have used that theme and mechanic in the past few years: Temporum uses a constantly shifting timeline to take actions, and Legacy: Gears of Time involves "Antiquitects" traveling back through time to establish technologies in earlier eras to gain legacy points in the present. Then there's Loop Inc. coming out soon from a Kickstarter campaign, and T.I.M.E. Stories that was previewed recently at Spiel in Essen, and a new spin on Back to the Future subtitled An Adventure Through Time from one of my favourite teams of designers, Matt Riddle and Ben Pinchback. It seems that time travel is still well and alive on the tables, and I'm enjoying the renaissance therein - both as a metaphor and as possible destination in some of these games.

Doctor Who - It seemed fitting that I would leave the Doctor for last, but he is the only active current time traveler in my catalogue. I endured the first few series of the reboot under Russell T. Davies; even though I really enjoyed David Tennant as the 10th Doctor, I thought that the show was hit-and-miss and a little too kitschy for its own good, aside from a handful of episodes, which, like "Blink", were mostly written by Steven Moffat. Since Moffat took over for the fifth series, the show got really good, and I am really enjoying Peter Capaldi's 13th Doctor and Series 9 so far. For what it's worth, I think Series 6 was the best (The Impossible Astronaut storyline), followed by Series 8 (13th Doctor and Clara), Series 5, Series 3, Series 2, Series 7, Series 4 and Series 1, in that order (at least for now, I think; it could easily change tomorrow), with Series 9 having a chance to eclipse them all. But I suppose that time will tell. In the meantime, as the good doctor himself would say (at least in one incarnation), allons-y!

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Painting the country red

I, like many Canadians today, am both exhilarated and exhausted after a marathon (for Canada, at least) 78-day election campaign that capped yesterday with the Red Surge that saw the Conservatives purged from power as Justin Trudeau's Liberals swept the country. There are so many things to think about in the wake of the Red Surge as the Liberals swept the country to take power in the most fascinating election in Canada in over two decades, and there are many more people with a higher pedigree than mine who will be publishing think pieces over the next few days from all ends of the spectrum, but I feel that I need to share some of my initial reactions - even if only for my personal posterity and because tweets simply do not allow for nuanced dialogue. (Some would argue that blog posts are almost as useless and incendiary, but I'm going to choose to believe otherwise.)

Despite the general shock of the results, we should have seen this coming. Throughout Canadian history, the lifetime of a government is between nine and eleven years - two or maybe three terms - before a significant change occurs, and the few aberrations to that pattern are easy to explain. MacDonald was, well, MacDonald, but even he had a five year break due to a scandal in the midst of his time in office. Laurier won a fourth term, but he was exceptionally popular. Mackenzie King was ousted for five years during the depression and then won an election in 1945 after another ten years in office because of World War II. Diefenbaker didn't last as long because he moved too fast, and Pearson filled out the rest of his decade. Pierre Trudeau lasted originally eleven years before losing to Joe Clark, but his insolvency meant that Trudeau got one last shot at it. So history should have been a lesson that this would happen; on the other hand, I, like many others, thought that the turn would come slowly after a minority government (much like Martin's Liberals in 2004) at the eleven-year mark, not swiftly and with no remorse after nine years. So f history is any teacher, we're likely looking at Trudeau being in power until 2017 or thereabouts, so we're going to have to get used to him.

This is the fourth election since I started blogging - I just barely missed the June 2004 election - and each time I have recorded my thoughts in the immediate aftermath of the election; of course, this is also the first time I have not had to consider the ramifications of a Conservative win. In 2006, when Harper initially took office, I legitimately thought it was what was best for the country at the time, and I was cautiously optimistic about what a Conservative government could do in power. I feel almost exactly the same about Trudeau's win yesterday - cautiously optimistic - and I have a number of thoughts on different issues that have not only arisen from this campaign but from the past decade of Conservative rule. Here are the beginnings of some of those thoughts, in no particular order.

1. The end of the Harper era and Harper's legacy - For better or for worse, yesterday's events conclusively ended the twelve years in which Stephen Harper has been the dominant voice in Canadian politics, which tends to be dominated by distinct voices for extended periods. Harper ends his term as one of the dozen or so most significant politicians in Canadian history; I know this is an oversimplification and omits a few years at points, but the lineage of dominance in federal Canadian politics is essentially thus: MacDonald - Laurier - Borden - Mackenzie King - St. Laurent - Diefenbaker - Douglas / Pearson - Trudeau - Mulroney - Chretien - Harper. (The only one in there not to be PM was Tommy Douglas, but I think he merits mention along with Pearson.) I think this is a positive move for Canada and even for the Conservatives, and Trudeau's win means that he may emerge as the dominant voice for the next season.

It will be interesting to see what Harper's legacy is both in the short-term and the long-term, and though I tend to think that history will be kinder to him than the current climate is, I doubt that there will be many outside the Conservative Party that will remember him fondly. He acted as a lightning rod in many ways, and though I certainly concede that the level of disgust at the utterance of his very name was as inappropriate and uninformed as many of the attack ads run by his Conservatives, I just don't think he did a very good job representing and leading Canada on most fronts. That said, there are things that the Conservatives have done under his leadership that have had benefits for Canada, so it will be interesting to see how his legacy develops as tempers cool down.

2. The case for progressive conservatism - One of the relatively unwritten stories of this election has been the call for moderation within the right wing, seemingly because the Conservative Party itself either forcibly, subversively, or otherwise silenced or alienated those voices, many of whom chose to opt out of this electoral season. The "Red Tories", of whom perhaps Harper's original CPC leadership opponent Peter MacKay is the most famous spokesman, will be significant in wherever the CPC goes as they search for a new leader and perhaps a new direction, and it will be interesting to see if their voice will be heard within the party or whether a new movement to split the right will begin. Either way, my suspicion is that moderate conservatism, which is more traditionally Canada's style than the significantly more American Republican-ism that Harper's Conservatives have espoused, will become more influential and vocal over the next few years.

3. Regionalism - Regionalism is certainly still present in Canada - perhaps nowhere more obviously than the Atlantic provinces, in which the Liberals swept all 32 seats - but it is arguably less significant than it has been in any election since the two regional parties first started their grasps on their strongholds in the 1993 election. The Bloc Quebecois rebounded very slightly to 10 seats, but it seems that their general presence has been reduced to "sideshow", and leader Gilles Duceppe's loss will continue to enforce their relative non-significance on the federal stage. The prairies stayed staunchly Conservative, though pockets of red and orange in all of the major prairie cities show a shift in thinking there. The Liberals ended up with majorities in most provinces (except the prairies), so they do seem to be a more national party than the Conservatives ever were (even with their last majority government). With that said, one of the storylines that will be interesting over the next few years will be the way that "western alienation" will become a buzzword now that the PM is again from the East and the Conservatives will undoubtedly be using that term ad nauseam.

4. Evangelicals - A lot was made of how Evangelical Christians put Harper into power, and there was a lot of talk about how the Conservatives were the only Evangelical-friendly party due to anti-Evangelical comments and policies by both Trudeau and Mulcair. I tend to agree with John Stackhouse, who wrote that there was no true option for Christians in this election and that it needed to become a matter of conscience rather than of party affiliation. While Harper's language may have been friendly to Evangelicals, I do not see how his policies were compatible with Jesus' words in the gospel; this is not to say that conservatism is incompatible with Christ, but rather that this particular iteration of the Conservative Party should, if it hopes to appeal beyond a narrowing segment of Evangelicals, re-examine its policies and widen its stances somewhat.

Unless they do that, it seems unlikely that they would again form government soon, as this election, much like Obama's election in the US, seems to have shown that Evangelicals, while still a statistically significant group, do not seem to be able to win elections as they did with both Presidents Bush. I am further hopeful that churches find a way to dialogue with their new MPs, and that both the NDP and the Liberal parties soften their stances and that there are people of faith - all faiths - who are able to find space to dialogue within their boundaries, rather than alienating them all; in turn, I hope that Christians (particularly Evangelicals) like myself who find their values in more socially progressive parties are able to help create space for dialogue within all parties.

5. The NDP - Much will be made of the NDP's catastrophic losses in this election and how Tom Mulcair should resign as the party leader, and perhaps there is some validity to both of those claims, but I think the conversation will be more nuanced, particularly within the party. Mulcair ended up with perhaps the worst possible scenario at the onset of this election: status as a frontrunner in his first election as party leader. The party played it safe when they needed to take risks, and Mulcair - even though he was still polled as the most trustworthy leader from any party - does not seem like he will ever be in a position for people to actually select him as Prime Minister. On the other hand, I think that it's entirely possible that Jack Layton would have been PM today if he had not passed away shortly after the last election.

I doubt that the NDP will ever form government, but I'm not sure that's a bad thing; the trick will be how to re-establish themselves as a significant third voice. In the end, many of the NDP losses were collateral damage as a result of general disaffection from Canadians with the Conservative reign, and the NDP and Mulcair did not do enough to distance themselves from this recent past. They got caught in a position in which they have not been comfortable - part of the governing establishment as the Official Opposition - and I think that they will have more success again being an outsider of sorts. I do think, however, that Mulcair should and will resign, and that the party really needs to evaluate its direction. My suggestion is to push hard toward the left, merge with the Greens, and bring on Elizabeth May as party leader - but I don't think we live in a world in which that could conceivably happen. Whatever happens, the party needs to do something, because this campaign did not help instil confidence in their ability to be a part of the governance of Canada, and it may have done more to alienate possible supporters (such as myself) than to endear them to joining the cause.

6. Electoral reform - A lot was made in this election of "strategic voting" and the faults of the first-past-the-post system, with both the Liberals and NDP promising some form of electoral reform during the campaign. We've heard this song and dance before - remember the Conservatives promising to reform the Senate before taking power? - but something tells me that it might stick this time. I imagine that Trudeau will soon repeal the Fair Elections Act, but that the conversations about significantly reforming Canada's electoral system for the first time in four decades will actually take place. I don't know if it will actually happen in this term since that means that the Liberals would have to gain significant votes to form government again (I'm still a cynic in many ways), but I hope that it could happen in some form. I was happy to see the highest voter turnout in over two decades, but I think that some level of electoral reform is still necessary.

7. An end to "dead cat" politics - I have been heartened that it seems that part of the move away from the Conservatives has happened even within the party due to the use of incendiary and "dead cat" politics, such as the niqab issue, that are intended to distract voters from the real issues. I have no illusions that this change in government will end them entirely, but I have hopes for a higher dialogue from this point forward. The last three major shifts in Canadian politics - Trudeau's Liberals, Layton's NDP, and even Harper's early (2004-2006) Conservatives to some extent - have been much more positive and on point, and I really hope that we never descend to the depths that this campaign took us to as a country. I, along with many Canadians, was legitimately embarrassed by members of all parties during this campaign, so I sincerely hope and believe that this ugly chapter is behind us.

8. International reputation - The shift is already apparent with the way that the world has responded to Trudeau's victory, with many governments sensing a return to a more traditionally Canadian way of doing things on the international stage. Harper's reputation as a hardliner left him on the outside of much of the dialogue, and Canada had become a pariah; whether that reputation was earned is not clear, but it was certainly there aside from ardent pockets of support in countries such as Israel and Ukraine whom Harper had forcibly supported. Trudeau should certainly be able to trade on his name to make progress across the globe - his father, after all, is one of the only Canadian leaders most people could actually recall - and it seems as though he should be able to restore some of that lost faith from the rest of the world, starting with the upcoming conference on climate change this December.

9. First Nations - A record 10 Indigenous MPs were elected, including 8 from the Liberal party, so there is a possibility that issues to do with First Nations people in Canada may be more significant. Trudeau has promised a number of reforms to the existing systems. Harper and the Conservatives did make some progress - formal apologies for Resolute Bay and residential schools, the Truth & Reconciliation Commission - but there is much more to be done, including calling a Commission on Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women. Canada can be, and should be, a leader in the move toward restoration with Indigenous peoples across the world, and this is a crucial time for this dialogue.

10. Prime Minister (designate) Justin Trudeau - Lest you believe that I am sold out and pro-Trudeau from what I have written, I need to set the record straight: I have significant and serious reservations about him as our Prime Minister, enough so that I could not bring myself to support him through a vote for his party. He made a lot of promises that will be hard to keep, and his fiscal strategy seems risky at best (arguably an understatement). I'm concerned about some of the policies he has used within his party that evoke memories of the Conservative intolerance for dissent, and some of his "progressive" ideas seem ill-informed and difficult to manage. As aforementioned, I am cautiously optimistic about the Trudeau era, understanding that, while there is a significant upside to the possibilities under Trudeau, there could be an even worse downside. But whatever happens in either the near or distant future, I think that this was the right decision for now, just as I still believe, despite what happened through the rest of Harper's tenure, that electing him in 2006 was the right decision at the time.

Canada needed change, and it came much more quickly than I had imagined it could; as a result, I'm much happier with the Canada that I woke up to today than the Canada that we were 79 days ago, and I have more hope now than I did before this campaign began. I am hopeful that social media will be a lot friendlier now and that the rhetoric will die down significantly. I am hopeful that Canada will begin to return to its place on the world stage. I am hopeful that relationships with Muslims, Evangelicals, First Nations, Conservatives, Socialists, and Liberals can be restored and that love, not fear, can be our shared language. I am hopeful that Canada can reclaim a leading role in discussions about human rights and climate change. I am hopeful that the next generations can see a change in politics and not dismiss it as the same old stuff. I am hopeful that the future Conservative leader can work with others and moderate the party's intensity. I am hopeful that Canada can be fiscally responsible and return to its reputation of "peace, order, and good government". I am hopeful that wounds can be healed, and that restoration and reconciliation will characterize us rather than hatred and alienation. I am hopeful that Canadians will no longer feel ashamed of their government, and that this is an ebenezer for us as a nation as we move forward into the new Canada. And even now, we can take the first step together, tonight, as we cheer for the Blue Jays.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Confessions of a former fatty

When I see people I haven't seen in a while, the conversation usually seems to follow a fairly scripted pattern from their side of the conversation, aside from exchanging a few pleasantries: "It's great to see you"; "You're looking good - have you lost some weight?"; "How did you do it?"; "Why did you start?"; and "Wow! Good for you!" Yes, it's true that I have lost weight - since this time last year I am carrying about fifty fewer pounds on my admittedly short and stocky fame - and I thought, given that this upcoming Tuesday marks my first anniversary on this journey, that I would recount some of my journey and my reflections therein to answer those questions, as well as a few more that may arise along the way. In fact, I want to dedicate this post to everyone who has been so supportive and positive with me over the past year on this journey; I know it's cliché to say this, but I legitimately feel as though I could not have done this without you. Now that the sappiness is out of the way, here's my story.

For my entire adult life, I had weighed in well above 200 pounds, usually around 230 or 235. But that has changed over the past twelve months, and the last time I weighed as little as I do now was when I was in my first year of university - almost fifteen years ago. I weighed 180 pounds when I graduated from high school at seventeen years old; I lost some weight and was down to 165 pounds by that Thanksgiving (likely because I was learning how to cook for myself), but I then ballooned to 215 pounds by the end of that year (likely because I was cooking mostly quick and fatty foods). Over the next decade and a bit, I kept that weight on and added pounds every so often to end up in that 225-230 range fairly consistently; I think I hit 240 once, but I have never been really invested in monitoring my weight, as evidenced by the fact that I cannot remember ever owning a scale. I never thought too much about the food that I was eating, either in amount, quality, or quantity, and aside from a couple of short-lived attempts, I rarely engaged in any kind of habitual physical activity; my body was like my car insofar as I did minimal maintenance and mostly ignored its internal workings as long as there weren't any audible or visible issues demanding my immediate attention.

In addition to my natural disinclination to spend any time or effort on thinking about or working on my physical self, in that time span, I have had fairly constant transition and stress; as you might imagine, watching my weight and physical activity usually ranked low on the list of priorities. I also just got used to living as a fat guy, so it wasn't really an issue for me; in fact, in some ways, I liked being bigger, as it gave a little more heft to my presence, since I am short (5'8") and otherwise not physically imposing. I was not unhappy with myself, other than observing occasionally that I should probably do something about my weight at some point, and I had no health concerns arising from my weight, aside from being less fit than I wanted to be. And it's not like anyone I knew really considered me "fat" - probably more in the "plump and jolly" category - so there was not any external pressure, either. Plus, I could unironically pull off wearing Hawaiian shirts in public. At any rate, it wasn't something I had really considered as that important - more like one of those "I'll get to it someday" kind of things.

So what changed? Perhaps subconsciously, I started thinking about being in my early thirties, or started thinking that it was finally time to do something about my physique, or even about the fact that I was planning on having kids at some point in the not-too-distant future. But my impetus for beginning this journey was much more direct and simple: I saw a good friend who had lost eighty pounds in the previous ten months using the MyFitnessPal app. Seeing him, along with observing the success that two other friends were having by using the app, gave me enough of a push to start. I didn't really have a rhyme or reason for starting or a purpose in mind other than the fact that it just seemed like a good thing to start doing, and I figured that it was as good to start at that point as it would be at any other time; I had, after all, just moved to a new city and was starting a new job and making new friends, so it seemed like as good a time as any to start using this app and to see where the journey might take me.

MyFitnessPal features a simple interface that allows you to track the calories you eat, including as the various amounts of fat/sugar/carbohydrates/etc. that are part of those calories, as well as the calories you burn during exercise. You can use the recipe calculator to put in information and see what your recipes come out to for each serving, and you can scan barcodes and (hopefully) have an instantaneous response outlining just what it is that you're eating. There is a social aspect to the app, as you can allow friends to share information and view their diaries, as well as many more self-measurement aspects incorporated into the framework of the app. It's not a lot different from many of the other apps available; it just happens that this is the one that had begun to get traction among various people in my life, and so I naturally gravitated toward it. The main feature that I appreciated was how user-friendly this app was and that the learning curve was almost non-existent, which helped eliminate one of the barriers that I had always perceived as blocking any attempts to start losing weight: how do you actually measure caloric intake and set appropriate goals?

I was deliberately very gentle with myself as I started on this journey; after all, one of the biggest mistakes that people make is stressing out about their end goal and torpedoing themselves before they really even start. With that in mind, I reasoned that if all I did for the first month was to learn how to track my food intake that I would consider it a success. I had to set some kind of goal in order to set my daily limit, but I set it very lightly at only one pound per week. But then something happened on my first day of tracking that surprised me: I ate smaller portions, and I stopped eating when I hit my limit of 2200 calories for the day. I was genuinely surprised at how I instantly became aware of my eating habits and how I made a lifestyle transition seemingly overnight. Within the first week of tracking, I was already monitoring portion sizes and making decisions based on my caloric limits, which is far more than I thought I would do, particularly that quickly.

I started to notice a physical change soon thereafter - within a couple of weeks, actually - but I didn't really think much of it until I traveled in February to visit friends in the city in which I had lived for the previous six years. Over Christmas, friends and family had observed some weight loss and told me that I was looking good, but their reactions were overwhelmed by the reactions I had from friends I had not seen since August, and that trip was when I started to feel really good about what I was accomplishing. I weighed myself for the first time in months, and I realized that I had lost around twenty pounds - an average of about five pounds a week. I began to notice that some of my clothes were starting to feel a little billowy, and I had to start replacing my pants. I saw myself in some of the pictures we took and realized for the first time just how lean I was starting to look - and I felt really really good. I began to really appreciate that I was accomplishing something significant, and my early success gave me the push to keep on going and to be much more intentional about the next step of the journey.

For the first time, I considered that I might be able to get to a certain point in this journey, so I set a goal weight and some targets for getting to that point. By the six month mark - around Easter time - I had lost fifty pounds (or somewhere close to that mark - I had not actually weighed myself before I started, so I'm guessing what my initial weight was) and six inches from my waist. I continued my wardrobe renewal by replacing the professional shirts that were now too large around the shoulders, and by the end of the school year, I had replaced almost every piece of clothing I had owned six months previously. But perhaps the moment that my transformation really crystalized for me was when I had to go to a high school graduation in June and I realized with a sudden shock that I did not have a suit to wear, since my suits fit a person who was a third larger than I was. I began to realize that this was now my new normal, and that I was no longer that same fat guy I had been at the beginning of the school year. (Also, oddly enough, no one at the school at which I was working - staff, parents, or students - commented on my weight loss until one parent did in June. I know it's a little different when you see someone every day, but I still think it was strange that no one commented on me losing fifty pounds from the start of the year.)

Over the summer, I managed to keep my weight constant between 183 and 185 pounds, which is around what I currently weigh. It seemed discouraging at first to have no further weight loss despite continuing to observe limits on calories that should lead to more pounds being shed, but when I thought about it further, I realized that it was not discouraging at all for several reasons. First of all, I have made it through several months that have included two weeks of holidays eating rich food and drinking various calorie-laden beverages, a week of working at camp, and six weeks of unemployment that could have been a catalyst for undoing all of the progress I had made. Second, I have slightly decreased my level of physical activity in not working (aside from that week of camp, of course), so it's entirely possible that my possible weight loss is just being offset by burning fewer calories. Third, I have not done anything to intentionally increase my physical activity, so I have not been attempting to burn any other calories. And fourth, I just might have reached a (the?) point at which my body reached a kind of equilibrium in this process.

I'm really not sure where things will go from here, particularly if I have reached a kind of balance point in my weight. I still have weight that I know I could lose - particularly around my midsection - but it seems that, at least for now, that I may have hit the point at which merely monitoring my intake will not be enough to keep losing. I am likely going to have to take the next step and start finding ways to be more physically active, something that has always been challenging for me. I have never been very physically active or confident - even as a child - so it's going to take some emotional and mental fortitude to change that in myself. I'm considering several different options, but I need to remember to be as gentle with myself in starting my journey toward fitness as I was in my journey toward losing weight. The process is the goal, not the end result, and the main goal is that I feel positive about myself along the way, which I mostly do, although I do have difficulty at times looking at pictures of myself pre-loss; I just need to remind myself that those pictures are still me and that there is nothing of which to be ashamed in being a bigger guy. It's not always easy, but I'm getting better at it.

I'm still not focused on a goal weight; I have a weight I would like to be in mind, but it's not a deal breaker for me. If, in the process of learning how to be more active and fit, I end up losing some weight, I'll be happy; if I happen just to lose some of my belly fat and add muscle instead, I'll be happy; and if it turns out that I'm just genetically predisposed to carrying some love handles with me, then I'll be happy. I know that pursuing fitness will be easier now, partially because I have already done a lot of the hard work, partly because I am already feeling more positive about even being in a gym and not nearly as self-conscious about my body, and partly because, hey, I'm carrying around fifty pounds less when I'm exercising. I know I'm not going to have washboard abs or rippling biceps, but I don't want them either; my goal is to be more healthy and fit, and any weight loss or muscle tone that comes along with that is okay by me.

I do know that whatever happens in the future that I am much happier now with my physical self and my habits than I was a year ago, and that I have made some really healthy changes. I don't eat a lot of candy, pop, or chips anymore since I think about them in calories, I am eating much more healthfully, and I snack very little in the evening. I eat smaller portions, and my wife and I often share a meal when we go out, meaning that we actually get to eat out a little more often since we are saving money as well as calories. I'm still enjoying the food that I eat within my daily limits, although I often exceed my limit slightly on the weekends, in addition to the one or maybe two days a month on which I far exceed my allotment because of special events like holidays. I find that I am purchasing and wasting far less food, and my recent foray into the domestic arts has likely been at least in part inspired by my desire to keep making good choices.

I'm still tracking my intake on MyFitnessPal, of course. I know I could probably stop, since I think I have a firm grasp on portion sizes and estimating calories, but I'm choosing to continue logging in the food I eat each day, as I think it will continue to help me be mindful about my journey. And that's the most important thing for me to remember: this has been and continues to be a journey. I have been fortunate to not have felt overwhelmed by this undertaking over the past year; in fact, there have been only a handful of times that I have found it really hard not to continue eating. It has mostly been very manageable because I focused on the next step of the journey and not on all of the ramifications and possibilities things that could go right or wrong or sideways. So I'm just going to take the next step and see what will happen as I explore and experiment with being physically active, just as I have over the past year with watching what I have been eating. My hope is that in a year's time that I can say something as positive as this post about my journey therein, and that I can encourage others on whatever their journey might look like along the way.

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