Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Maple Leafs forever

Well, the Leafs actually did it: they not only earned the number 1 pick in the NHL Draft Lottery for the first time since 1985 - when they picked Leaf legend Wendel Clark - but they actually held on to the pick and used it on the consensus top choice, Auston Matthews. I assumed that they would, but there was always that possibility that something would go sideways and that they might either trade the pick or pick the wrong guy, since that has been the pattern in Toronto for the past decade.

It has actually been a fun few months since the season ended for us Leafs fans - or at least since we knew we were getting the first overall pick. I, like many of my fellow citizens of Leaf Nation, lived with the fear that Toronto would drop to fourth place in a three-player draft despite having the greatest chance of getting the top pick, and that a team like Buffalo, or even worse, Edmonton, would get the pick. But the Leafs got the pick and the excitement has been building until this past weekend, when Toronto finally got the blue-chip prospect they have not had in two decades.

At the same time, however, I have fielded an unreasonable amount of harassment about my team's success, even though it came as a result of the ultimate failure of finishing last in the regular season. So many people take so much joy in watching the Leafs fail, and there is so much unreasonable schadenfreude from other fans at our suffering. I know the justification for their mockery: the Leafs act like they're the centre of the universe; they outspend other teams; they keep hiring bad coaches and general managers; etc, etc. But the reality is that there is no good reason to be a Leafs fan, judging by their history.

Why I chose the Leafs

In the past thirty years, there have been very few windows in which fans could legitimately have been excited by their team - or at least by the product on the ice. 1993-94; 1998-2002; and 2013. That's it - until now. I happened to have the misfortune of being ten years old in one of those windows, which is that time when children are very impressionable. I had (apparently) been an Oilers fan as a young kid, but I had not maintained that fandom; I needed to make my fandom my own. I could have picked any team at that point - Detroit was emerging; Pittsburgh was still dominant; Calgary had a good team; San Jose was an expansion team that had played some good playoff hockey; Anaheim was a brand new expansion team - but I settled on the Leafs.

The Leafs had almost made the Finals in 1993, aside from being thwarted by the NHL's instructions to make sure that Wayne Gretzky's L.A. Kings won their series; had the Leafs made the Finals, I probably would not have had my initial dalliance of being a fan of the Montreal Canadiens in the wake of their Cup win, the last by a Canadian team (and, interestingly, the last by a team with no Europeans on its roster). By the time the next year's playoffs rolled around, I had turned on the Habs - likely in part to having my championship hat stolen, but also because I just came to my senses and realized that I just could not be a fan of the Canadiens.

After starting the season with ten consecutive wins, the Leafs made it to the Conference Finals again in 1994, only to lose to the Vancouver Canucks, who then lost to the New York Rangers in the Cup Finals. But despite their loss, my fandom was sealed, and unbeknownst to my preteen self, I was setting myself up for decades of frustration.

At the draft that year, the Leafs made a trade that ranks as both one of their best and their worst when they traded Wendel Clark, who was coming off of a 46-goal season, to the Quebec Nordiques along with other players for Mats Sundin, who would be the core of the Leafs' hopes for the next decade. It was a great trade because Sundin was a once-in-a-lifetime player, but it was terrible because Clark was the heart and soul of the team.

The team lost in the first round to Chicago and St. Louis in the next two years, and it was abundantly clear that the window had closed. I was experiencing my first (though not my last) downward swing of the team, who then traded away any remaining stars other than Sundin and bottomed out over the next two seasons. It was disappointing, to be sure, but I had not been a fan long enough to really be able to understand the true depth of what was happening - that would come later.

The tide turns - temporarily

But in the summer of 1998, things started to turn around. The team switched from the Western to the Eastern Conference, so their main opponents were about to change significantly. They were preparing to bid adieu to Maple Leaf Gardens and to start at a new arena. Sundin was taking the mantle he had been given and he was starting to flourish. And perhaps most exciting, the team signed one of the best goalies in the NHL: Curtis Joseph.

I cannot understate how amazing it was to get a goalie like Cujo between the pipes. He had been a great goalie in his early years in St. Louis before becoming transcendent in Edmonton in a couple of legendary victories over the Dallas Stars. He was a bonafide stopper and arguably the third-best goalie in the league behind Dominik Hasek and Martin Brodeur, and he was now a Maple Leaf.

With Cujo and Sundin leading the way into the East, the team flourished despite a ragtag bunch of misfits on the team. There were enough character players to propel the Leafs to a playoff spot and to the Conference Finals, at which point they ran into an arguably never-better Hasek and lost to Buffalo. They would never get closer to the Cup Finals than they did that year.

Over the next few years, the Leafs were consistently one of the better teams in the league. The rest of the roster rounded out to support the team's two legitimate superstars, and many secondary players emerged as dominant role players and even as All-Stars. Tomas Kaberle and Bryan McCabe on defense; Darcy Tucker as a plucky antagonist; Gary Roberts and Alexander Mogilny as capable secondary scoring options; Tie Domi as the grown-up version of the baby with one eyebrow from The Simpsons. The team was as stacked as it had been since that 1994 team, and hopes were high in Leaf Nation.

In the five years after that initial playoff breakthrough in 1999, the team made the playoffs easily, but they could never put all of the pieces together for that one run. They faced and beat the Ottawa Senators four times in those five years, several of which still easily rank among my favourite all-time Leaf moments, but they could never get past the next team, whether that was the New Jersey Devils (to whom they lost twice in Jersey's path to the Finals) or to the inexplicable Carolina Hurricanes in the 2002 Conference Finals.

The Leafs were exhausted in that 2002 playoff run, having gone to seven games in both of the first two opening rounds. Sundin had been injured in their first series against the New York Islanders, but it was still disheartening to lose to Carolina, three of which - including the clincher in Game 6 in Toronto - were won by the 'Canes in overtime. Sure, they would have lost to the Red Wings in the Finals anyway, but Leafs fans knew that the window was likely never better than it was that year - and it probably never would be.

Cujo, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, signed with the Red Wings in his attempt to win a Cup - he never did, and he will likely always remain the goalie with the most wins to not win the Stanley Cup - and the Leafs, although still entertaining and successful in the regular season, were obviously no longer contenders.

They brought in Ed Belfour in goal, who had a surprisingly dominant tenure in his late 30s in the third act of his career. But despite some playoff heroics from the Eagle, the team could not make it past the Philadelphia Flyers in 2003 or 2004. Though Belfour's three shutouts and the Leafs' Game 7 victory in the first round against Ottawa remain some of my favourite memories, it was clear that the window for a championship was closed, particularly as the NHL prepared for a lockout of which the Leafs' management seemed unaware despite the fact that everyone in hockey knew it was coming.

The post-lockout doldrum decade

Unlike almost every other sensible team in the NHL, who had prepared for the impending work stoppage by managing the contracts of their players to expire before the lockout would have started, the Leafs had inexplicably signed players to contracts that ran over the course of the lockout and beyond, including the near-quadregenarian goaltender Belfour.

After the 2004-2005 lockout, the Leafs returned the core of their pre-lockout team to the ice, and, predictably, they missed the playoffs by two points. That loss marked the end of that team, including coach Pat Quinn, and a decade-long run of ineptitude that I would venture ranks up there in the all-time annals of sports futility; of course, it's not even the worst ten-year stretch of the Leafs franchise, which definitely belongs to the post-Sittler pre-Gilmour Ballard years of the 1980s.

I chronicled the post-lockout year-by-year ineptitude of the Leafs shortly before they clinched their only playoff berth in the past decade since the lockout, and it is a motley tale of mismanagement. Future stars (Rask) traded away for quick fix-it solutions that we knew would not work at the time (Raycroft). Incandescent players (Kessel) acquired at the expense of future draft picks that turned out to be even bigger stars (Seguin). (Can we just outlaw any trades between the Leafs and the Boston Bruins by this point?) Inexplicable no-trade clauses awarded to players who clearly did not deserve them. Big trades made for players that we hoped would work out (Phaneuf) but who we secretly feared would flame out just like all the rest.

A brief respite of hope before...

But then, despite one of the worst front-office runs in all of sports, the Leafs inexplicably iced a compelling team in the lockout shortened 2013 season. They had a few younger players who suddenly came into their own, including a likeable young goalie in James Reimer. They had little of the baggage of the Sundin years or the other post-lockout years. And, perhaps most fortuitously of all, they only had to play just over half a season because of the lockout, which meant that they would not have the opportunity for their traditional late-season collapse.

We had a completely unexpected and unreasonable playoff berth in 2013, and I, like many Leaf fans, was slow to actually believe that things had changed. I was expecting the Leafs to be blown out by the Boston Bruins, and they were badly outplayed through the first four games, after which they faced a 3-1 series deficit. But then something happened - the Leafs came together behind goalie Reimer and inexplicably won Games 5 and 6 to force Game 7.

I was giddy, even though I knew I shouldn't have been. I was excited, but I also knew to temper my expectations if the Leafs ended up being blown out, which was a distinct possibility. But nothing could have prepared me for what happened in That Game. With a 4-1 lead with under ten minutes to go in the third period, I started to allow myself to think that this team might actually win the series - and then, it started to happen. One Bruins goal, then another, then another, and overtime - and then it was only a matter of time until it was over.

As suddenly as this surprising playoff run had come to life, it was over, and so were any hopes for that edition of the Leafs. Hope lasted through the first ten games of the next season, at which point reality set in again, and the sadsack Leafs returned to their loserly ways, again missing the playoffs despite a great season from Phil Kessel. Adding insult to injury was the fact that two players the Leafs should have had - Tyler Seguin and Tuukka Rask - were in the top four in scoring and goaltending, respectively.

The Leafs continued their downward trend the following season, including firing coach Randy Carlyle midseason. In just two years, they had again squandered any good will that short playoff run had encouraged their fans to give to them, and they were as irrelevant as they had ever been. But then something amazing happened - team President Brendan Shanahan started to make some changes behind the scenes to help the team develop.

A new hope

Shanahan realized in his first year that the team needed to be rebuilt from the ground up, so he started with the easiest place to make changes: in the scouting and drafting system, where the team would not be limited by the salary cap. He started bringing an analytics team on board, and he worked on improving every department of the team that had been broken for the previous decade before he made arguably his most important move: on May 20, 2015, the club announced that they had hired Mike Babcock as the team's head coach.

Babcock is almost universally acknowledged as the premier coach in the league, and for the first time in over a decade, the team had not only a top coach, but also an effective front office, and there was hope that things might change - and change they did. Starting on the first day of free agency, the team started to change its image as it dealt its best player, Phil Kessel; the team later dealt captain Dion Phaneuf mid-season.

The moves from the previous year or two have already started to pay off, and the Leafs suddenly find themselves flush with top prospects and with one of the better farm systems in the league even before this draft. The Leafs were so confident in their upcoming assets that they (over)spent a couple of picks for Fredrik Andersen, who is a significant improvement in goal and arguably a No. 1 NHL goalie, shortly before the draft.

Then, of course, came the draft itself, in which the Leafs not only picked up Matthews, but several other solid prospects, including my current hometown team's hero, reigning WHL scoring leader Adam Brooks. And, suddenly, despite finishing last in the NHL last year, the Leafs are now one of the more attractive destinations for players again, with a core of young players who could be dominating the league in a few years.

The excitement I feel about this team is arguably greater than what I have felt toward any other Leafs team in twenty years - this is legitimate excitement about the future of the team, especially in the context of the somewhat weak Eastern Conference. It is not difficult to forecast a future in which the Leafs are one of the top teams for several years and in which there is an actual possibility of being an annual Cup contender.

There is even an outside possibility that the team could sign one of the NHL's elite scorers, Steven Stamkos, as soon as this Friday, and even the fact that such a move is a possibility - whether it happens or not - is a positive sign of movement for a franchise that has had a long history of ineptitude. I'm trusting the Shanaplan, and it seems to be working.

It is enough of a positive sign for me to start committing to watching the team again. I am spending more time and energy on investing in knowing the team's young players, and I will again start watching Leaf games throughout the season. I know it could all come crashing down again, but I think this window of opportunity will outlast all three previous windows, and that there is a very real possibility that the team could be celebrating some serious victories in the next few years - maybe even a Stanley Cup parade.

Friday, June 17, 2016

The shadow proves the sunshine

San Diego surf-pop-rockers Switchfoot have been one of my favourite bands for most of my adult life. The California rockers are one of the few remaining vestiges from my days of Contemporary Christian Music in my active repertoire; lead singer Jon Foreman has been one of my favourite songwriters for well over a decade, and 2003's The Beautiful Letdown still ranks among my favourite albums of all time and one of the most influential on my life.

The band is still going strong after two decades, and they are set to release their tenth studio album - Where the Light Shines Through - on July 8. As you might imagine given my history with the band, I tend to pay attention when they drop a new album, so I have already started in the deep dive through the Switchfoot catalog in preparation for adding the new songs to my listening repertoire in just under a month. I am planning on writing a track-by-track initial analysis when I hear the album in its entirety, but I thought that it might be worth it to take the time and reflect on my experiences with Switchfoot over the years.

The Legend of Chin, New Way to Be Human, and Learning to Breathe (1997-2002)

Switchfoot is one of the bands that started just as I was emerging as a fan of music, so they hold a special place in my heart for that reason. I was in Grade 10 when I first heard of Switchfoot (which, by the way, has to rank among the best band names of all time in terms of simplicity, coolness, uniqueness, and establishing vision for the band's identity), and they still rank among the earlier bands that I adopted into my repertoire.

I think the first album I bought was Learning to Breathe, but I picked up the earlier two soon thereafter. I don't remember exactly when I first heard those albums - The Legend of Chin and New Way To Be Human - but I do remember being vaguely aware of their songs "Chem 6A" and "New Way To Be Human" from the ubiquitous Christian music samplers that were a staple of every church youth room from 1996 to 2002. (As an aside, I often see those albums in thrift stores, and I'm always slightly tempted to pick them up just to have a record of that phenomenon before they are forever lost in the sands of time. Actually, that would make a great blog post someday - ranking the CCM samplers. Maybe I need to go back to that Salvation Army and see if those albums are still there...)

I remember tangentially experiencing New Way To Be Human and Learning to Breathe through selected songs, but their music had not fully taken hold of me yet. There were some really incredible songs on those two albums, but for whatever reason, I did not invest much time or effort into appreciating them yet. Maybe I was far enough into my hardcore phase that these much poppier albums did not yet take root, or maybe I just had so much music that I was exploring at the time that I did not have the requisite attention to pay to any one band, but it took a little while for Switchfoot to lodge itself permanently in my consciousness - but they did so in a memorable way on one weekend in February 2003.

The Beautiful Letdown (2003-2004)

Youth Quake is an annual tradition in Saskatchewan in which the province's largest Bible college. Briercrest, hosts several thousand youth from throughout the prairies (and even the rest of Canada and the Northwest US) for a weekend in the middle of February. YQ has shrunk a bit now, but it was in its heyday in the late 90s and early 00s, and the conference was often able to bring in bands at their peak (like post-Southtown pre-Satellite P.O.D. in February 2001) to entertain the masses, along with some genuinely great speakers and a lot of cheesy now-probably-illegal-or-at-least-ill-advised silly youth group games. 

At any rate, the 2003 edition of this weekend of adolescent Evangelical zeal had the good fortune of booking two bands: Canadian Limp Bizkit imitators Thousand Foot Krutch (who, despite having one of the worst band names ever, were actually quite entertaining at the time, when nu metal was still a thing and before they decided to go more mainstream with future releases) and Switchfoot. The reason why Switchfoot's booking was particularly fortuitous was that their new album, The Beautiful Letdown, was set to be released on the Tuesday after their Saturday show at YQ, and we were going to get a sneak peek at one of the buzziest albums in the Christian music world at the time.

Letdown had had a lot of positive press leading up to its release, as the band had moved from the CCM world into the mainstream by signing with Columbia Records. They had gotten a lot of exposure on the soundtrack for A Walk to Remember in the previous year, and their move into the world came at a time when Christian music was arguably at its early peak in terms of exposure and conversation thanks to bands like Evanescence and fellow San Diegans P.O.D. Switchfoot was just about to break through in a big way, and we were there to see history in the making.

Shortly after I arrived at YQ, I walked into the campus bookstore to see if I could get any good deals on music (as I was wont to do in my early twenties), and I was quite surprised to see that The Beautiful Letdown was on prominent display several days before the official release date, along with Audio Adrenaline's Worldwide (an album and artist that has has not held up nearly as well over the intervening years). I snapped up a copy before the store could realize if it should have been selling it, as I was set to interview the band before their show the following night and I knew that I wanted to have a good handle on the album for that interview. I listened to it several times that day, so by the time I talked to the band that evening, I was able to surprise them with some informed questions about the album.

The show itself was incredible, both as a rock show on its own and as a singular moment in my musical history as I watched this band become who they were meant to be, seemingly transforming in front of my eyes. It was like everything they had done was good up to that point, but as I watched lead singer Jon Foreman strut on stage with his Ernie Ball tee, I felt like I was watching history being made. It was one of those perfect concert moments that felt momentous, and I would argue that it was one of the seminal musical experiences of my life; the fact that I remember many of its moments with distinct clarity thirteen years later is testament to the significance of the show. The band played a lot of their earlier hits - many of which I was glad to hear at the time and about which I am much more thankful to have heard in retrospect, as they do not play many of those songs anymore because of their now rather large catalog of hits - but they also played a majority of Letdown, which helped seal the moment in time for me.

The album holds up both as a whole and as individual moments, and it remains one of the albums that I listen to when I need encouragement or just a bit of pep. "Meant to Live" is still one of my favourite rock songs, and "Dare You to Move" retains a special place as one of the songs that has meant a lot to my wife and me over tthe years. The song "Gone" has one of my favourite easter eggs at the end when Foreman sings "to the God who's not short of cash; Hey, Bono, I'm glad you asked" - a reference to a comment Bono makes in the live performance of "Bullet the Blue Sky" that U2 included on their 1989 album Rattle and Hum; I was, after all, a well-established U2 fan by that point. Each song on Letdown has been important to me at some point since the album's release, and I owe at least one significant friendship to my quest to evangelize as many people as possible with the brilliance of Switchfoot in the wake of its release.

Nothing is Sound and Oh! Gravity (2005-2007)

I was understandably excited for the follow-up to The Beautiful Letdown, Nothing Is Sound, which released in September 2005. It debuted strongly (number 3 on Billboard), but soon thereafter struggled on the charts because of the inclusion of an Extended Copy Protection that had to be installed in order to listen to the album. The band quickly responded publicly to the concerns from their fans, but it was too late: the damage was done, and Sound has become, in many ways, almost a "lost album" even among fans of the band; it's really too bad, considering that there are some genuinely great tracks among its ranks.

The album starts off strong, and it features a couple of bangin' tracks ("Stars" in particular), as well as one of my all-time faves, "The Shadow Proves The Sunshine". The last few songs are a little weak (which seems to be somewhat of a trend for SF albums), and the song "Easier Than Love" easily wins the prize for "that annoyingly overly poppy track in the midst of every Switchfoot album that I skip every time", but there was some legitimately interesting song writing happening here.

It was only just over a year later that the band unexpectedly released their final major label album, Oh! Gravity, on the day after Christmas in 2006. The timing and surprise release of the album made me, along with others, wonder if this was just a "burn-off" album to finish up the band's contract with Columbia and to get away from the labels after the mess of the release of Nothing Is Sound; I have never heard confirmation of that theory, but whether it is true or not, Gravity is in contention for my second-favourite Switchfoot album.

Letdown and Sound had started to demonstrate much more musical and lyrical maturity, but Gravity took it to another level. I suppose it makes sense, considering that lead singer and songwriter Jon Foreman was now entering his thirties, as opposed to the twenties during which he wrote and recorded the previous five albums. Aside from the typically intolerably poppy mid-album track - "Amateur Lovers" in this case - the album has a musical and lyrical depth that permeates all of Switchfoot's music but I think really shines here. "Faust, Midas, and Myself" is a particularly arresting track, and the video for "Awakening" is still one of my favourites to this day thanks to the comic stylings of Mr. Buster Bluth himself, Tony Hale.

I interviewed Foreman before watching the band play in concert in Saskatoon in 2007, and, aside from a somewhat testy response on his part to an ill-advised shade I made at "Amateur Lovers" (note to self: don't ever do that again), I really appreciated the chance to talk to him again after four years and to see how he was changing and growing as a songwriter. That tour also had an interesting wrinkle, as the band asked fans to vote on songs that they would play at each show for a live bootleg that they would record and sell at the same show; at the show I attended, the votes were for "Learning to Breathe" and "The Blues", two of Switchfoot's lower-key songs that I still rank among their best. If nothing else, that show demonstrated that the band could still rock out, and it further cemented my fandom.

Side projects, Hello Hurricane and Vice Verses (2007-2013)

After Oh! Gravity and the subsequent tour, the band took a slight break during which Foreman released four solo EPs themed around the seasons (between this project and Thrice's The Alchemy Index series, 2007-2008 was probably the height of the "sets of themed EPs" trend). The EPs showcased a more acoustic, tender side of Foreman that was hinted at through Switchfoot, but was difficult to realize in the context of the full band. The band released a couple of tracks in the meantime, but they were mostly taking some time to recover after their experience with a major music label; that is a phrase that will probably only make sense to audiophiles of my generation or earlier, and almost definitely to no one who started listening to music in the iPod age.

Almost three years after Oh! GravityHello Hurricane was released in 2009, and it marked the return of a slightly harder-edged sound for the band. The lead single, "Mess Of Me", was a ripping rock track, and the album featured a couple of other great tracks ("Your Love Is A Song", for example). Of course, the album was again backloaded with a number of slower, more somber and reflective tracks, and unfortunately, my main memory of that portion of the album was tied for years to listening to the last half of that album after watching the Saskatchewan Roughriders lose the 2009 Grey Cup on a “too many men on the field” penalty with no time left on the clock, so I was not able to appreciate the musicianship or songwriting like I should have been. I think I could probably listen to it now and not be sad - probably.  

Vice Verses came out two years later, and despite the fact that it was widely acclaimed, it has never really resounded with me like Switchfoot's other albums have over the years. It is easily the edgiest album in terms of the hardness of the guitar sound, which seems like it should be a draw for me, but I just never found my way into the album, other than a couple of tracks ("Thrive", in particular). Along with New Way To Be Human, it is easily the Switchfoot album with which I need to spend some more time; even given some extra time to appreciate it, however, I'm not sure if it will climb out of the basement for me.

In these years, Foreman also released two acoustic folk-ish albums with his side project Fiction Family that also features Nickel Creek's Sean Watkins. Not only did these albums further establish Foreman as a fantastic songwriter, they seemed to me to further emphasize the disparity between what Switchfoot seemed to be becoming and where Foreman's song writing prowess was best utilized. Switchfoot was much more of a rock band, per se, even when they were slowing it down, and although they were not overtly Christian in their lyrics, they were still very much a product of CCM; FF allowed Foreman to try something slightly different, which I think continues to be a valuable endeavor for him as a songwriter.

Fading West (2014-2016)

Switchfoot went quiet for a couple of years before suddenly releasing Fading West in early 2014. When I first heard the album, I was a little less than impressed with it: it was significantly poppier than the harder edginess of Vice Verses, and it seemed that Switchfoot was perhaps treading water thematically and musically for the first time. It seemed to me, however, that West lmight be one of those albums that would take awhile to really sink in, so I kept listening to it, because I thought that there might be something deeper happening under the surface.

I found myself pleasantly surprised after a number of listens - you know, the point at which that initial reaction starts to fade and you feel like you can start understanding what an album is really about - and I began to feel that Fading West was actually a positive and meaningful addition to the Switchfoot canon. I made the shift after placing the songs from the album into a larger Switchfoot playlist and realizing partway through that I did not notice a dip in quality between the new tracks and the previous albums; sure, it was more poppy than they had been since Learning To Breathe, but it seemed like a natural shift when I juxtaposed their new album with all of their previous work.

I also found that I was resonating more with Fading West on a deeper level than I had initially expected. There was somewhat of an ironic twinge to the album for me personally, as I was in the process of considering leaving the west coast for the prairies as I was processing these new songs, and I think that juxtaposition was particularly apparent as I experienced this album, which has continued to grow on me in the two-and-a-half years since its initial release. A lot of the album seems to center around the idea of searching for home and love and purpose, which has been a huge part of my journey in recent years, so I think that is why it has resonated with me at this point in my life.

I recently watched the documentary on the making of the album - also entitled Fading West and currently available on Netflix Canada - and the surfing and concert tour that inspired it, and I found myself really connecting not only with the music of the album (and the bonus tracks in the film) but also with the members of the band. Seeing and hearing the songs contextualized in their places and points of origin made them even a bit more meaningful, and I realize now that I am much more forgiving of the instances of overproduction knowing the circumstances they endured in making the album. It's still not my favourite Switchfoot album, but it has cemented its place in my heart.

Where the Light Shines Through (2016-present)

All of this reflecting on my history with the band brings me to the point at which I ask the key question that I have not yet answered: why does Switchfoot matter at all? What is it about these five floppy-haired Gen Xers who make music and tour and surf that makes them mean anything to me - or to anyone, for that matter? I think the best words I can think of to encapsulate why they appeal to me, and likely to so many others, is that Switchfoot, perhaps more than any other artist, demonstrates a hopefulness, honesty, and humility in their music and in their conduct that is refreshing, and they are earnest in seeking their place in the world.

This humility and humanity is ultimately where I connect with the band's music and their life stories. It has been meaningful to journey with them through my own search for purpose, and their songs have often given me hope and encouragement as I have spent time and energy seeking a place in my corner of humanity. They are exceptional even within the boundaries of CCM, as there has been an influx of cynicism both toward and within the industry as a result of overproduction and overpromotion, to the point that it's barely an industry any more.

But then there's Switchfoot, seemingly impervious to the problems of either CCM or the mainstream, continuing to do their thing and seeing where the waves take them (which is, I hope, on another Canadian tour in 2017). They've always lived up to their name, a surfing term that means to lead with the opposite foot and that they believe sums up the different perspective with which they view the world. I'm glad they're still in that place, and that they are still switching it up after all these years, and allowing us to ride the waves with them.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

In response to Orlando

It has been a weird week. I received an unexpectedly early break from my work as a substitute teacher starting last Wednesday, and I am likely done teaching for the year. I was not ready to be done, so I felt like I have been a little stalled out over the past few days; my wife, however, gently reminded me that three days is not nearly enough to constitute being in "a rut", and she also gently laughed at the fact that I would consider such a short time to be so significant in terms of my well-being.

This extra time and space has also given me the opportunity to really process what happened in Orlando over the weekend and the reactions that have been published and aired in the ensuing days. There are so many possible responses to Orlando, and I have felt as though I needed to write something before I finished off any other posts on which I have been working; it just didn't feel right to leave it unacknowledged. The enormity of the event has weighed on me in a way that I do not usually experience,, even in the wake of a tragedy like this and I have spent a not insignificant amount of time reading and watching the responses from various authors and media icons over the past few days, some of which I have collected here before expressing some of my own reflections.

Processing the response to Orlando

There were, of course, a wide variety of responses to the shooting, and they ranged from heartfelt outpourings of emotion to satirical rants; I think there has been value in both approaches, and I have included some of the primary examples of each type of response, beginning with the more biting, "pull no punches" takes.

I appreciated the candor of the many pundits and writers who expressed their disgust at the political opportunism, grandstanding, and insensitivity demonstrated by Donald Trump with his self-congratulatory tweets in the wake of the incident. Stephen Colbert reacted to Trump's comments on Tuesday with a signature piece that features one of the greatest audience reaction moments I have seen in a long time.

Seth Meyers eschewed his usual monologue on Monday to take "A Closer Look" at the shootings, before then taking another "Closer Look" on Tuesday at Trump's response and calling Trump out directly for the bigotry of his statements.

Samantha Bee was quite emotional (and NSFW) in her satiric takedown of the politics of gun control.

There were also a variety of heartfelt personal responses. Author and vlogger John Green, who grew up in Orlando, was visibly shaken in his regular Tuesday vlogbrothers video; he could not find many words to say, so he spent most of the video simply reading the names of the victims.

Jimmy Fallon resorted to somewhat vague platitudes that still had some emotional resonance.

Stephen Colbert's initial reaction, however, was I think the most genuine and meaningful message, and I was reminded of the closing words of Jack Layton's final letter to Canadians:

"My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world."

I have, of course, also been very interested in the reaction of people of faith (including Colbert) to the crisis, especially because I anticipated that I would hear a lot of rhetoric about Islam, homosexuality, guns, immigration, and all of those issues. I have managed to mostly avoid those incendiary voices, though I had to deal with one on my Facebook feed after I posted an article against Trump. Of the responses I have read from people of faith, I think I appreciated Rachel Held Evans' post on Facebook the most:

I have been particularly interested in the reaction of Relevant Magazine, who are headquartered in Orlando. Relevant aims its message at Millennials in the (Evangelical) church, and it routinely attempts to provide balanced dialogue on meaningful issues and space for people to wrestle through some legitimately difficult issues. Their coverage thus far has consisted primarily of news updates, though I am certain that much of their next issue (Sept/Oct) will focus on the shootings in their city over the weekend. They did post an article that included tweets from many prominent Christians from different ends of the political spectrum, and I think that they will continue to be one of the leading voices in processing the events from a balanced - and not reactionary or bigoted - Evangelical perspective.

A Personal Perspective

The first time I remember being aware of violence on this scale was Columbine, which occurred when I was in Grade 11. I remember the shock and vulnerability that I felt being a high school student when they were the targets, and even more so when it was revealed that several of the students who were killed that day were shot after making a confession of faith. The reality of that event became even more present just a week later when a copycat shooting took place in Taber, Alberta, just a mere six-hour drive away from where I was.

In the time since, it has almost become routine for new places to join the ranks of Oklahoma City, Jonesboro, and Columbine as place names that are synonymous with acts of unspeakable horror. In the past several years, Aurora, Sandy Hook, Charleston, San Bernardino, and now Orlando - among many others - have been added to the list, and as Colbert, Bee, and others noted, this kind of news has now been normalized to an extent that is completely unacceptable.

This recent shooting in Orlando has impacted me in a way that those others did not. Perhaps I was more desensitized or simply personally removed in the past, but this tragedy has really left me shaken up. I think a large part of why I'm struggling with it so much is that I have been much more sensitive to political vitriol in the wake of last year's Canadian election, and I have actively sought to process just how to deal with the hatred that is spewed in the name of Christianity toward many minority groups, several of which intersected in this event.

In the past few years, I have been examining my beliefs in regard to the relationship between the LGBT community and (especially Evangelical) Christianity, particularly as I have watched people I know and love struggle with this reality from many perspectives. I have been sensitized to the plight of LGBT people, particularly those who remain within the context of the church as they try to determine their place as followers of Christ in an institution that mostly rejects them. I have winced at the repeated comments that have been fear mongering about transgender bathroom use. I have found myself regretfully recalling times when I believed certain things or made comments or even used the term "gay" as a pejorative adjective, and it's still hard to come to terms with the fact that I likely hurt people I knew as a result of how I was insensitive.

I have found myself in a theological place about LGBT that is at odds with many of the people in churches in my current context, which is also the context in which I was raised. But regardless of your theology or ecclesiology about LGBT - which sounds ridiculous to even say, but I understand that many people who, like me, grew up in an anti-gay church culture need the time and space to process this seismic shift in culture and life - I think that the most important thing to realize is that this is a human tragedy for all of us - not just the LGBT community.

I also cannot abide the vilification of Islam, and I am ashamed that there are so many Christians who are wholeheartedly in favour of destroying an entire religion. I think that I fundamentally have to believe that Christ can draw anyone to himself both in spite of and through their worldview, and that it is not mine to determine how and why that happens. I tend to treat most of the voices in militant Conservative Evangelicalism with the same disregard that I have for any worldview that trafficks in extremism, demagoguery, bigotry, and hatred, and I pray that they encounter the living Christ despite the shackles of their upbringing.

I have also been disappointed in the rhetoric that has taken place regarding gun control, particularly insofar as it has been unequally yoked with Evangelicals in the US. Gun control might be one of the defining issues of this presidential campaign, and I continue to pray that there will be changes in the US regarding the availability of weapons. It has been time to make those changes for twenty years, and I believe that the church needs to rise up and lead in the charge against the proliferation of guns. I think it is possibly the biggest issue facing the future of the United States, and Canada is certainly not immune to the issue either. In most lists I have seen about the rates of gun violence, Canada is one of the higher countries in the developed world in terms of acts per 100,000 people, and we need to be equally vigilant north of the border.

But there is another response from Christians that I have found difficult - the non-response. I know it can be easy to just keep on going with our regular lives and gatherings and worship services, and that these are not easy issues to process - but we need to do so. It's easier to simply let these things be and to treat it like someone else's problem, but I cannot do that in good conscience. Besides following the news and the responses outlined earlier carefully, I did not feel as though there was much I could do myself, so I sent out a couple of messages to friends who I knew would be deeply affected personally, either directly or indirectly through people in their lives. And I have been praying.

So this is the next thing that I felt like I could do - to provide some thoughts that I hope will provoke further consideration and conversation from those who are interested in what I have to say. My hope is that I have inspired at least one person to rethink their own responses to this event, and that some of you may choose to consider how you will respond in the future when confronting these issues on either a personal or institutional level. I hope that my journey will make you think about your own journey, and that this might start a journey together toward healing.

Friday, June 03, 2016

Survivor: ranking the winners

Survivor: Kaoh Rong, the reality show's 32nd edition, wrapped up just over two weeks ago [OBLIGATORY SPOILER ALERT], and it was interesting until the end. It was the most physically draining of any edition of Survivor yet, with three medical evacuations that significantly shaped the course of the game, and it still had enough twists and turns in strategy to keep the game interesting right up to the last vote.

I enjoyed this season mostly in spite of the cast rather than because of it, as the game itself was so captivating to watch, what with Super Idols and Eliminating a Jury Member as new twists, and if nothing else, this season proved that there is still a lot of game left on the part of the producers of the show regardless of the cast they bring on. I was not satisfied with the end result - more on that later - but I thought this would be a good time to take a step back and to rank the winners of all 32 seasons of Survivor.

Game Theory

One of the joys of watching Survivor is the game theory that goes into playing and ultimately winning the game. The show's central conceit - that the players you have to "outwit, outplay, and outlast" and vote out are ultimately also responsible for voting for you to win - has made the social aspect of the game as significant - if not more so - than the strategic and the physical elements of the game. I would argue that the game is just as captivating now after 32 seasons as it ever has been, and that the sheer number of seasons and winners has only added to the intensity it takes to be named Sole Survivor.

With 32 winners of the show, there are 32 examples of how to win the game, and very few (if any) of the winners have followed the same path to victory. Each season presents a different level of challenge because of the people involved, the social dynamics therein, the environment, and even the twists of the game, and the best winners have been able to weave and wind their way through whatever the game throws at them to emerge as the Sole Survivor.

Archetypes of Sole Survivors

Despite the variation within the winners of the 32 seasons, there are still a few archetypes that seem to arise in the winners. Many winners exhibit more than one archetype, but most of them had one that was dominant in their winning season. I am grouping these archetypes into five secondary and five primary archetypes; I think that every winner has a dominant primary archetype and at least one secondary characteristic that accents their primary.

  • The Low Flyers - Some winners just fly under the radar, never being enough of a threat to vote out but also never being completely off the grid. They make it through to the end, and they're rewarded for their tenacity. Ex. Natalie White, Sandra Diaz-Twine
  • The Social Butterflies - Some winners have played the social game really well and have used alliances with great effect. Ex. Natalie White, Michele Fitzgerald
  • The Good Guys - Some winners are just "good guys" - people who others want to see win. Ex. Bob Crowley, Earl Cole
  • The Schemers - On the other hand, there are more than a few "villains" who have schemed their way to the top and who were constantly making moves throughout the game. Ex. Parvati Shallow, Richard Hatch
  • The Physical Dominators - Some winners were physically dominant forces throughout much of the game, which helped their case in the end. Ex. Tom Westman, Mike Holloway
  • The Beneficiaries - Some players benefit from the moves other players make (or don't make), or from intense dislike of other players. Of course, there is an element of luck to all Survivor winners, but the best winners minimize that luck element and don't allow themselves simply to ride others' coattails. As you may be able to tell, I have the least respect for winners for whom this was a major factor. Ex: Amber Brkich, Sandra Diaz-Twine, Michele Fitzgerald
  • The Opportunists - Although every winner has to have had some luck, a couple have been far better at taking advantage of the opportunities before them. Ex. Chris Daugherty, Danni Boatwright
  • The Managers - Some winners have been really good at managing others around them, particularly those in their alliance, and they have won as a result of their game management. Ex. Yul Kwon, Earl Cole
  • The Leaders - Some winners have been a dominant leader in their tribe and alliance from early on, so by the time it came to the final vote they had little work left to do to convince the jury of their game. Ex. Kim Spradlin, Tom Westman
  • The Masterminds - The best players were the ones who were in control of the game for most of the way through. They defined the game, manipulated the alliances, and made sure that the game responded to them. They can be Schemers, but they can also be Good Guys, and they are always two steps ahead of the action. Ex. Richard Hatch, John Cochran
Beyond those ten archetypes, there are a few general commonalities that most winners share. I say "most" because the original winner, Richard Hatch, could be seen as violating each of these five in some way, but I would say that most winners have conformed to these five qualities.
  1. You have to be fundamentally likeable. You cannot generally be a jerk or make camp life miserable and still win, no matter how good your strategic game might have been.
  2. You have to make your own moves in the game. If you can't point to at least one move you made to take control of the game, you're not very likely to win.
  3. You have to be a physical presence and never give up. You don't have to even win an individual immunity or come close, but you can't be seen as someone who didn't even try - that never ends well.
  4. You have to be honourable  in how you play, or at least not openly deceptive. You may be deceptive or blindside other players, but there has to be a sense of honour about what you're doing.
  5. You cannot be emotionally connected and be cutthroat. Time and time again, the issue of being too close to others who they then had to blindside has been an issue with the jury.
With those archetypes and characteristics in mind, here is my ranking of all 32 winners of Survivor. I have factored in their gameplay and their competition in determining the order, but I am also attempting to answer the question of who would win if all of these winners were put together on the island. I have separated the winners into non-equally-sized tiers based on their primary archetype, along with providing a short commentary as to why I ranked each winner in that particular spot.

Tier 5: The Beneficiaries

My lowest-ranked winners all have one thing in common: they are primarily beneficiaries, whether that is of the decision of a dominant player, a poor jury, or even a weaker cast. As you can probably tell, I have far less respect for players who do not control the game, especially if they are beneficiaries of someone else's moves. Many of them are low flyers and social butterflies, which I tend to value less than strategy and outright leadership in respect to game theory. There are times when this combination can be a valid strategy, as seen by the fact that this is the largest group of winners, but I tend to not have much regard for it.

32. Amber Brkich (Season 8, All-Stars) - Maybe Amber does not deserve to be here at the bottom, but I see her as the ultimate beneficiary - both of Boston Rob's affections and of a key strategic mistake by Lex. I do not have much respect for her gameplay, and the main reason she won was that the jury just didn't want Rob to win.

31. Michele Fitzgerald (Season 32, Kaoh Rong) - It's not just recency bias acting out here, but I think that Michele was a very weak winner - so much so that I was absolutely shocked when the votes were revealed, as I had assumed that she had no chance of winning. It's a week later, and I'm still not quite sure what happened, other than the jury picked the wrong person, as Aubrey played a far stronger game. For what it's worth, I think that Aubrey is one of the top non-winners of all time, along with Amanda Kimmel, Cirie Fields, and a few others.

30. Jud "Fabio" Birza (Season 21, Nicaragua) - Fabio was helped by competing in what was perhaps the weakest season of contestants. He ended up as a "good guy" winner, but he mostly won by default, as the lack of strategy in Nicaragua was causing long-time fans like me to wonder whether Survivor was done. It turned out just to be a dud cast.

29. Vecepia Towery (Season 4, Marquesas) - I did not see most of this season, but the fact that Vecepia's win was largely due to the unexpected "purple rock" twist, which made its first appearance here, knocks her down, as does the fact that hers was an early season, so strategy was still being learned by all players.

28. Jenna Morasca (Season 6, Amazon) - I did not see a lot of Amazon, but I did watch the final few episodes of this earlier season, which is when Jenna started to play the game. As with other beneficiaries, Jenna was aided by the play of a dominant strategic player - Rob Cesternino, who is often considered to be one of the best to not win the game - a key immunity win (at three, when she eliminated Rob), and a generally unlikeable cast.

27. Tina Wesson (Season 2, Australia) - Don't take this as much of a criticism of Tina as it is of the jury of The Australian Outback, one of the most entertaining seasons to this day. Colby should have been the clear winner, and Tina was more of a spite vote to keep him from winning than anything.

26. Sandra Diaz-Twine (Season 7, Pearl Islands) - This was the last season I did not watch at all, but I feel confident in placing Sandra in this category based on what I have read about the season. This season was more about the Outcast twists and Rupert and Savage than anything else, so Sandra did not have to do much outplaying - just mostly outlasting.

25. Aras Baskauskas (Season 12, Panama) - This is another of my perhaps more controversial placements, as Aras was seen as one of the early "golden boys" of Survivor, and he did win a few immunity challenges. However, most of his season came down to strategic moves by Cirie, physical dominance by Terry, and the general wackiness of Shane and Courtney, so there was not much that pointed to Aras' winning other than the fact that he was the last one there - very much a beneficiary.

24. Ethan Zohn (Season 3, Africa) - It's not that I think that Ethan was a particularly poor or undeserving winner; it's more that the game has changed so much since Season 3 that his performance pales in comparison to the winners ranked above him. He was a low flyer, a good guy, and a beneficiary of Lex's play, and I doubt he would win now - he's just far too likeable to take to the end.

23. Natalie White (Season 19, Samoa) - This is probably the ranking for which I would get the most heat, as others might rank her higher, but I cannot give her much more credit for her win than this, as her win (like Amber's in All-Stars) was much more due to avoiding giving the win to a dominant player (in this case, Russell) than it was about her play. She did convince Russell to take her to the end - which seemed like a mistake even before the vote - but I can't justify putting her above the other winners.

Tier 4: The Opportunists

These players were not the dominant players throughout much of their seasons, and they did not play great games from beginning to end. They made it to the final seven and then had a combination of lucky events, some key immunity challenge wins, and a key strategic move or two to win them the game, and it would be difficult to see that circumstances would allow them to repeat those victories.

22. Bob Crowley (Season 17, Gabon) - Bob was easily the most unlikely winner of Survivor - a 57-year-old high school physics teacher whose signature fashion trademark was a bowtie. He benefitted from one of the most unlikeable and mean-spirited casts of any season of Survivor, which meant that his positive outlook and unexpected challenge dominance were quite refreshing.

21. Danni Boatwright (Season 11, Guatemala) - It might be hard to believe, as Guatemala was already five years into Survivor's run, but this was the first season to feature a hidden immunity idol. This season featured one of the least strategic casts of all 32 editions, and I think that most of its contestants would be very ineffective with the advances in Survivor over the past few years. Danni won because she used a twist to win a challenge with great effectiveness as well as a strong social game, but she was not a particularly strong winner.

20. Chris Daugherty (Season 9, Vanuatu) - After All-Stars, Survivor felt like it needed more of a hook, so it really started to flog the "social experiment" angle with its initial tribe divisions. Vanuatu repeated the most obvious division that had been used in Amazon: men and women. It seemed like a better idea in concept than it was in actualization, but it was interesting to see how the two genders differed in their approaches. The season was a little on the weak side until the final seven, when Daugherty, the lone male among six females, managed to turn the tables and use a combination of immunity wins and alliances to win the season.

Tier 3.5: The Physical Dominator (The Outlier)

19. Mike Holloway (Season 30, Worlds Apart) - Mike was one of the hardest winners to rank on the Survivor winner spectrum; on the one hand, he did dominate and define his game, and he deserved to win his season; on the other hand, he was the beneficiary of a very weak strategic, social, and physical cast. He was the first pick in our Survivor draft as the potential winner, but he had many moments where that win was in doubt, including almost every vote after the merge. He just kept winning Immunity, so he made it through to the end, but as a result of his strange path, I can't rank him any higher than this.

Tier 3: The Managers

With this tier, we are starting to get into the realm of players who could conceivably be considered "better" winners, and I think that almost any of these players could replicate their wins in other seasons. I find it interesting that this tier also marks the approximate cut off for the size of many Survivor casts (16 to 18), so I feel that it is appropriate to move into the better winners at that point. Several of these players were low flyers, but they were always behind the action and in charge of their game.

18. Earl Cole (Season 14, Fiji) - Though Fiji is widely considered to be one of the worst seasons of the show from almost any angle, Earl was the first unanimous jury winner, and he was a great manager of a number of unpredictable personalities.

17. Natalie Anderson (Season 29, San Juan del Sur) - The second edition of the "Blood vs. Water" twist featured all-new players and immediately became one of the most forgettable seasons in Survivor. It was one of the few seasons for which I had to look up the winner, which should not take away from Natalie's performance. Like Mike in the subsequent season, she played a dominant game and deserved to win, though her competition was exceptionally weak, but unlike Mike, she did have a lot of strategic and social moves that helped propel her to victory.

16. Sophie Clarke (Season 23, South Pacific) - Sophie spent most of her season managing Albert and a much more balanced Coach, but she was clearly the brains behind the entire operation the whole time. She was a low flyer, but she had a quiet dominance and deserved her win.

15. Denise Stapley (Season 25, Philippines) - In a season that was dominated by at least four other personalities - Malcolm, Lisa, and returning players Mike Skupin and Jonathan Penner - Denise was a deserving winner. She knew when to stay quiet and to let other players take the forefront, and she was a constant strategic force.

14. Yul Kwon (Season 13, Cook Islands) - Yul was perhaps the ultimate manager, as he had to manage a number of unpredictable factors in game development: the unfortunate division of tribes by race; the unexpected challenge dominance of Ozzy that pushed him to the end; and a very unexpected Final Three. He beat Ozzy by a vote of 5-4, but he deserved his win.

Tier 2: The Leaders

There have been a few seasons in which there has been one dominant player who has led a tribe from the beginning and defined the game socially, physically, and strategically. We're starting to get into the really good winners here.

13. J.T. Thomas (Season 18, Tocantins) - J.T. played the perfect game: no votes against him, unanimous jury votes for him, Sprint Player of the Season, beloved by his tribemates. He is the ultimate golden boy of Survivor, so it's hard to put him even this low; then again, the competition was a little lower that season, so just outside the top ten seems about right. After the distasteful cast of Gabon, the entire season of Tocantins was refreshing, and J.T.'s win was especially satisfying. I doubt he could ever repeat it, but it was a dominant winning performance in a more mature season.

12. Kim Spradlin (Season 24, One World) - Kim was a great winner in a terrible season - one of the worst. Still, she dominated socially, physically, and strategically from pole to pole, which is no small feat given the oddball cast she had to manage along the way.

11. Tom Westman (Season 10, Palau) - Tom was the first true Leader to win his season, and he did it in a dominant way. He managed to put enough other alpha players (particularly Ian) around him, and despite a couple of moments of doubt (such as the longest Final Immunity challenge ever), he won handily in the Final Two thanks to Ian's bowing out. By the way, Ian is still very high on my list of players I would like to see play again.

Tier 1.5: The Exceptional Low Flyer

10. Sandra Diaz-Twine (Season 20, Heroes vs. Villains) - I really wanted to rank Sandra's second win a lot lower than this, but I just could not justify ranking her any lower considering the level of difficulty and the mastery with which manipulated the low flyer archetype in this heightened strategic season entirely comprised of returning players. She did what no one ever thought possible - winning Survivor a second time - though the main reason she won was because of ill will toward Russell and his primary ally Parvati, who should have won a second time. I grudgingly respect Sandra's accomplishment, so I'm ranking her in the top ten - for now.

Tier 1: The Masterminds

9. Brian Heidik (Season 5, Thailand) - This was one of the few early seasons I didn't watch, but from everything I have read, I'm not missing much, as Thailand consistently ranks among the less palatable seasons. Heidik was, in many ways, a more devious Richard Hatch, and he had a lot of deals and double deals that could have backfired on him at any time. I doubt he would do as well now, but his performance is still good enough to rank at the bottom end of the top tier.

8. Todd Herzog (Season 15, China) - Though Todd was assisted by one of the all-time bonehead Survivor moves - James being voted out with two idols in his possession - he did earn his win in China. He had some strong competition once the tribes merged, but he played his alliances very well - enough to rank him in the top ten winners.

7. Tony Vlachos (Season 28, Cagayan) - Tony is perhaps the epitome of a late-run Survivor winner: a Schemer and a Mastermind, but also a Social Butterfly and a Physical Dominator. Tony had the benefit of a relatively weak cast, but he also played the game harder than almost any other winner except perhaps Mike Holloway. Like Mike, Tony had a moment or two when his game was in doubt, but he played a strong all-around game and deserved his win and his spot in the top ten, especially as he was arguably the most entertaining winner of the show.

6. Rob Mariano (Season 22, Redemption Island) -  In many ways, Rob's accomplishment was the definitive Survivor victory - he dominated the game physically, socially, and strategically, and he outplayed his castmates more than almost any other winner ever had. He won almost unanimously in the jury, and there was only one Tribal Council in which he was in trouble at all. Sure, Rob was playing for his fourth time, but that was more of a liability than an asset, since they should have known his game by that point.  Some people would dock him for taking four tries to win, but he should have won on his second try in All-Stars. I had ranked him as high as second with this performance, but I settled on sixth because, even though his performance was dominant, there was no way he should have ever made it as far as he did, as he was the beneficiary of a terrible strategic cast.

5. Richard Hatch (Season 1, Borneo) - First of all, let me state for the record that Hatch is arguably the ultimate Schemer and Villain other than Russell Hantz, and that his conduct on the show and in life indicate that he is not a pleasant human being. That said, he defined Survivor as a strategic game, and he understood how Survivor worked in a way that many players still seem not to get after 32 seasons. His performance was masterful, even though he almost lost, and he is, in many ways, still the measure for all Sole Survivors.

4. Tyson Apostol (Season 27, Blood Vs. Water) - I give Tyson a lot of credit for his victory in this season, which included not only half returning players but also the inclusion of loved ones in the game to give Survivor its most compelling narrative arc yet. The level of difficulty was high with the players who were returning and the high emotional stakes, and Tyson managed to keep his cool and manage his social game very well, along with making some strong strategic moves. I think I also give Tyson more credit because of his improvement from previous seasons in which he made social and strategic blunders, which made his victory in this season that much more impressive.

3. Jeremy Collins (Season 31, Cambodia) - Jeremy had been one of the few bright spots of San Juan del Sur, so I was excited to see him play again in this "Second Chance" season that featured players voted in by the fans. This was one of three seasons (along with All-Stars and Heroes vs. Villains) to be entirely comprised of returning players, which upped the difficulty significantly, but this season featured a new alliance system of "voting blocs" that was far more dynamic and interesting than any other season - and Jeremy navigated all of the personalities and game shifts brilliantly.

2. John Cochran (Season 26, Caramoan) - Cochran played a perfect game - the second in Survivor history - earning no votes against him during the game and unanimous votes for him before the jury. Cochran earns extra points for degree of difficulty in this second "Fans vs. Favourites" season, as seasons with a significant number of returning players are more challenging. He also earns respect for being a dominant strategic game force from beginning to end and winning Immunities despite his nebbish appareance, which likely has contributed to him being one of the most likeable winners of Survivor.

1. Parvati Shallow (Season 16, Micronesia) - Parvati, the "black widow", was the best winner for her performance in her second season, the first to feature the "Fans vs. Favourites" theme. She manipulated everyone equally in her win: men and women, new and returning players, enemies and allies, and produced the most masterful performance in all 32 seasons. The fact that, despite this win, she almost won Heroes vs. Villains only two years later further cements her reputation as one of the best all-time Survivors, period.

Concluding thoughts

It took me a long time to finish this post; I think I started drafting it in the wake of Cochran's win on Micronesia, which was now a full three years and six Survivor seasons ago. I found it very difficult to cement which winners should rank where, and I continued to shuffle them throughout the process. I am happy with my final rankings here, however, and I think that organizing the winners in tiers according to primary archetype was the key to me finalizing this order of winner. But even though I still think I could look back on this list after next season and have at least a half dozen winners whose ranks I would shift up or down, I think I'm close enough to a final distribution to justify publishing my list after so long.

As I reflect on my list of winners, I did notice an imbalance of men at the top and women at the bottom, as only two of the top ten and seven of the bottom ten were women. There is an imbalance of winners in terms of gender - eighteen men to fourteen women - but that does not account for that distribution. I think the main reason is that the women who win tend to use strategies that I think are less powerful, such as being Low Flyers, Social Butterflies, and Beneficiaries. I realize that there is a competitive imbalance and that many female players see this as the only way they can win, but I also point to examples like Kim and especially Parvati who prove that women can dominate the game strategically.

I also find it interesting that my top four winners were all returning players who won seasons that featured at least half the cast as returning players. I think that I value the winners more when their season presents a greater challenge, and seasons with a large proportion of returning players do present much more of a challenge just by the nature of game theory - after all, there are not many games that I play once and feel like I have mastered, and I'm always more confident on subsequent plays; then again, Survivor is not an ordinary game.

Another point that came up for me repeatedly was that I tended to value players who had not dominated their season far less than those who were central to the action from the start. Though there is something to be said in terms of the nature of the editing of the show in terms of the ways in which events are spliced together to make compelling episodes, I do not think that the edits have made a huge difference in my choices, since most winners did receive edits that showed their skills, and most casts have corroborated those edits as mostly ringing true.

There is another interesting conversation to be had  in the wake of this list, which is figuring out who were the best players to not win Survivor. My ranking of several winners was based largely on the performance of other players in their particular season and how their actions may have determined the final outcome, so I think that creating a list of those kinds of players would be interesting, and it would be really interesting to see those players in a different kind of "All-Stars" edition that focused on strategic play, rather than fan votes or representation of different styles of play. I would similarly be interested in an edition that brought in the "challenge beasts" who have dominated physically, or or an edition that focused on social manipulation; perhaps there is even a theme in which that is the division of tribes.

I do think that it would be interesting for Survivor at some point to conduct an "All-Winners" edition, which is an idea that has been bandied about for several years. I would be especially interested in such a season if they were to focus on the players who have played once and won once; By my count, there are 17 of those players, which would be a great amount to play in a season (assuming that one does not want to play again). I would not be surprised such a season is in the works in a few years.

I was also pleasantly surprised with the overall quality of play of the assembled group of winners. Although there were ten winners in that bottom tier, there were relatively few (between three and five) that I thought were not deserving even in the context of their season and that I would not consider to be strong winners. Survivor has a strong legacy amongst reality shows of being the toughest to win, and I think that assessment holds up now, especially after all of the different ways that these 32 winners have been crowned Sole Survivor.

Despite a few dud seasons (as many as eight, depending on who you ask), Survivor is still going strong as an entertaining reality show, a fascinating sociological experiment, a hallmark of physical achievement, and as a intellectually stimulating example of game theory in practice. Even after 32 years, I am amazed that there are still new ways that winners find to win, and that the game still feels fresh and vital, so I'm excited to see what happens next season with "Millennials vs. Gen X".

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

On dental hygiene and inbox management

I had an appointment to have my teeth cleaned yesterday. Getting your teeth cleaned is not a fun thing: it's awkward and slightly invasive and uncomfortable and at times painful, especially when they hit that sensitive spot on your gum line that makes you recoil and suck air through your teeth - you know that moment all too well. The whole process does not take very long - under an hour - but it feels like much more of an inconvenience than it actually is, and I'm certainly glad that it happens only twice a year.

As I sat in the dentist's chair waiting with little more to do than think and apply the suction hose as necessary, I was considering how the process was kind of a metaphor for my life at this moment.  As the hygienist used the different scalars to scrape the plaque from on and between my teeth, I was thinking about how the process of having my teeth cleaned was similar to the other experience that I had started earlier in the day.

I did not get a call to teach yesterday, which has been a fairly rare occurrence over the past two months. As often seems to happen on my unexpected days off, I got through the housework I needed to do early, so by mid-morning, I found myself with a bit of extra time and a lot of choices as to how I could spend that time. As happens occasionally, I ended up on a journey I had not anticipated; this time, it was not into the annals of my blog or into my email history - it was into my message inbox on Facebook.

Although I had been intending to weed through my messages for awhile, I was daunted by the enormity of the task - at least until I just started doing it. I had not gone through my Facebook messages for over two years, according to the time at which the messages seemed to become more sporadic, indicating that I likely went through them at that point. Before I knew it, I was a couple of hours in, and sure, it was awkward and slightly invasive and uncomfortable and at times painful, but it was manageable and it was not nearly as emotionally straining a process as I had expected it to be.

My inbox was, as I had expected, an odd mix of communications from the past two years: notes from parents and volunteers from my last summer directing camp; reactions from friends when we notified them of our move in 2014; prophetic words in response to things I had posted; arrangements for dinners and coffees; requests for prayers for my friend Jordan over the last year of his life. Some conversations were very brief, while some featured dozens of entries going back several years; most featured a combination of meaningful and mundane, prophetic and profane, sacred and superficial, but all were pieces of who I have been over the past couple of years to some extent, even in the way that I have interacted with others.

It felt really good to go through all of those messages, whether it was deleting the meaningless messages, archiving the meaningful ones, or deleting entire conversations. While on the one hand, I did remember a few things about the past few years as I went through those messages, I felt that I did not need a record of all of those interactions going forward. I managed to get my inbox and archives edited down to under a couple of dozen conversations in each, and I feel much better about how manageable my Facebook messages are going forward.

I  find, however, that this kind of maintenance is often overlooked in terms of significance to one's health, and that I often do not do the work I need to do to keep up with my own . Over the past few months, I have spent time intermittently going through similar processes with my email accounts, blog posts, and other social media platforms, and I always feel much better in the wake of such an escapade.

In the end, it only took a couple of hours to go through those messages, and now I'm set up for success for the foreseeable future, as long as I keep an eye on my inbox and do not let it clutter up again. It's kind of like the feeling when you not only get your teeth cleaned, but when you also do the follow-up appointments for filling in cavities or dealing with any other issues that have arisen in the time since your last appointment - especially when you decided not to go to the dentist for a long time (I once went nine years between appointments, so I'm probably lucky that I still have most of my teeth.)

But here's the thing about dental hygiene: although it is necessary to floss and brush and use mouthwash every day, it is just not possible to go without those semi-annual cleaning appointments. I can do my best to keep my mouth healthy, but no matter how hard I try, I cannot entirely prevent plaque build-up, and that's okay. Part of me taking care of my dental hygiene is taking the time out of my regular schedule to go sit in that chair for an hour and endure that uncomfortable process.

In the same way, I feel like I cannot entirely prevent the build-up of old messages in my inboxes. I can do my best to keep up with things - just like flossing, brushing, and rinsing each day - but life keeps going ahead, and there will always be a few things that slip through the cracks - and that's okay. I just need to remember to take time a couple of times a year to make an "appointment" to do that necessary inbox management.


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