Thursday, March 23, 2017

Limbic Politics, Then and Now

It all started with a news story about violent protests at a university after a cancelled talk.

"Who is this speaker?" I wondered. So I Googled the name and discovered that he is a celebrity among the "alt-right" crowd. As a self-described "provocateur," he delights in ridiculing the norms and standards of what he considers to be liberal America.

It's a strategy that has drawn him widespread attention, but has also led to his downfall. He recently resigned from Breitbart News after crossing a line that no one around him would dare to tolerate.

I watched a few videos of this fast-talking political pot-stirrer. I resolved quickly that we are mistaken if we try to find some logical consistency in his positions. He transgresses for the sake of transgression. He trades in outrage. He prods, he pokes, and he laughs a dehumanizing laugh.

In other words, this is limbic politics. 

With limbic politics, there is no effort to advance an agenda or correct a social problem. Instead, it appeals to a collective reptilian brain in order to create an emotional response. Fear and anger, and lots of it. All in the service of drawing attention, and nothing more.

As I watched these videos, my mind traveled back to another "provocateur" from another era: Morton Downey, Jr. When I was a teenager, I couldn't get enough of his television show. He smoked and shouted, often at the same time--and often in the face of a "pablum puking liberal." His insults came packaged in gratuitous vulgarities and even physical confrontations.

With so much unrestrained hyper-masculinity, it was a celebration of limbic politics.

As a teenager, Mort made me aware of enemies that I never knew I had. I remember him shouting at a death penalty opponent, saying something to the order of "AN EYE FOR AN EYE!" I tried using this line in a debate with a friend once. I even conjured Mort's vile and certainty. In response, my friend calmly alerted me to the fact that Jesus said "turn the other cheek."

Oh, well... Um.... MORT RULES!

After remembering Mort some, I checked around and discovered an outstanding 2012 documentary about his life and legacy.  Watching it was a trip down memory lane. But I also saw how Mort lived a life of grasping for stardom. Once his show gained notice, he made every effort to display his newfound wealth and status--to include living in Trump Towers. Let that settle in for a bit.


Just as quickly as Mort's star rose, it fizzled into irrelevance. He died of lung cancer in 2001. Now, I'm not sure that many people remember him. 

But we certainly do still see his limbic politics.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Sin Boldly! Or Bold-ishly...

I'm not a slogan-on-a-tee-shirt guy. But I might have to make an exception with this one.

"Sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ more boldly still," proclaimed Martin Luther.

It's one of those phrases that I have probably seen before, but is only now sticking with me. I came across this when re-reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship. 

For Bonhoeffer, Luther was certainly not saying anything like, "Go forth and sin, because nothing that you do or don't do will secure your salvation." Nope. There's more of a challenge embedded in this injunction. It's about plainly and honestly acknowledging our shortcomings, and trusting in the power of forgiveness.

"Take courage and confess your sin," explained Bonhoeffer, "do not try to run away from it, but believe more boldly still. You are a sinner, so be a sinner, and don't try to become what you are not."

Confessing. That's hard. Still, I am convinced that we are not punished for our sins, but we are punished by our sins. So having the courage to own a shortcoming and proclaim it to other people opens the possibility of liberation.

But to confess is to make yourself vulnerable, open to judgment, open to alienation. That's why we hope for a response of forgiveness, of embrace. It allows us to join together in our imperfection, to abandon any sense of our own perfectibility.

A truly loving community is defined by it's ability to forgive. In forgiving, we find solidarity in honesty and humility.

It all makes sense to me. It really does. But I tend to cling to my sins, to keep them securely to myself. After all, saying "I was wrong" is no small task. It's much easier to put up a front, to say "hey, I have it all together."

Meanwhile, on the inside, I am a complete and total mess.

Hey, does that qualify as a confession? Nah. It's only me bold-ishly sinning. I guess that I still have some work to do.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

"All people are strange in different ways"... Rest in Peace, Ed Whitlock

My heart sunk when I learned that Ed Whitlock had died. If you are unfamiliar with this remarkable athlete, read his obituary over at Runner's World. 

It begins...
Ed Whitlock, the Canadian runner who rewrote the 70+ record books and forever altered conceptions of human endurance performance in older age, died on Monday in Toronto, not far from his home in Milton, Ontario. Whitlock was 86. A statement released by family listed the cause of death as prostate cancer. 
n 2003, at 72, Whitlock became the first person 70 or older to break 3:00 in the marathon, with a 2:59:10 at the Toronto Waterfront Marathon. A year later, at 73, he lowered that 70+ best to 2:54:49. Over the ensuing years, Whitlock set age-group marks in the 70+, 75+, 80+, and 85+ age groups at distances from 1500 meters up through the marathon. Just last October, at 85, he ran 3:56:33 at the Toronto Marathon, becoming the first in his age group to break 4:00 and taking 28 minutes off the previous 85+ record.
Indeed, that marathon he ran last October put Whitlock back into the headlines. At around that same time, I drew upon Whitlock's life and example to organize an address that I gave to a group of cross country runners.

Here, then, are my 3 "Whitlockian Wisdoms"

1) Focus On What Matters, Avoid "Fiddle-Diddling"

Let's just say that Ed Whitlock's training routine was not particularly conventional. He didn't have a coach, trainer, or much of a plan. What he did was run for 3 or 4 hours a day around a small cemetery that was roughly 100 meters from his front door. Loops and loops and more loops.

It seems both repetitive and boring to me. But the image of this trudging octogenarian ought to be a reminder that to run well one must run often. Simplicity. It's a virtue for a reason. All of the stuff that hovers on the periphery of running risks cluttering our view. Sometimes, the running part of running gets lost. As Whitlock puts it....

"I don’t follow what typical coaches say about serious runners. I’m not sufficiently organized or ambitious to do all the things you’re supposed to do if you’re serious. The more time you spend fiddle-diddling with this and that, the less time there is to run or waste time in other ways."  
2) Running Will Always Be There For You

Ed Whitlock's competitive running career had three stages. He ran in high school and college until an Achilles injury and an engineering job took him away from the sport. He resumed running in his 40s, in part out of concern for his youngest son Clive, who at age 14, decided to run a marathon. After the pair crossed the finish line at 3:09, the father continued running and training. Four years later at the age of 48, Whitlock ran his personal record time of 2:31 at the 26.2 mile distance. He soon stepped away from running again, only to return after he had retired from his job. Then at age 74, Whitlock achieved what is arguably his greatest accomplishment, completing a marathon in an eye-popping time of 2:58:40. Just for some perspective, that averages out to a 6:48 per-mile pace.

While the years might pass by, and while our priorities might shift, we can always return to running. The payoff is not just a trim figure and increased blood flow. Instead, the running life offers a stage for us to achieve, to strive, and to struggle. Ed Whitlock found meaning in pursuing records in his 70s and 80s. Why? Because he could. Good enough.  

3) Embrace Your Strange

If you have ever run with other people, you know the truth of this Whitlockism: "All people are strange in different ways."

Out on the roads and trails, everything is inverted. That is, what is on the inside--sweat, snot, and... stuff--sporadically appears on the outside. There is no hiding what you really are. This is probably why so many of my running conversations are more real, more profound, and more honest than in "real life." All of this confirms that I am, without a doubt, strange. And it is comforting to see that my friends are as well.

So today, let's celebrate our strange together, holding close a memory of Ed Whitlock--the man who just runs and reminds us to just run too.

Happy trails, friends.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

A Big Day for SFU Men's Basketball!

This past Saturday, the Red Flash won a thrilling playoff game. And then they showed up on ESPN. Check out "the shot" if you haven't seen it already (it's at the 2:24 mark).

Now it's on to the NEC championship game against Mount Saint Mary's. I'm traveling to Emmitsburg tonight to watch. If SFU wins, they head to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991. So it's been a while.

But beating Mount Saint Mary's will be no small task. The Flash are 0-2 against the Mount this year. Still, we have some serious momentum headed into this game and a surprisingly good record on the road.

As our local newspaper observed....
 Over a five-year span from the end of the 2007-08 season until midway through the 2012-13 campaign, the Red Flash went 7-73 on the road. 
You read that right—7-73, which sounds impossible in college basketball. 
To understand why this year’s Flash team is so special, why it is on the cusp of just the second NCAA berth in program history, let’s get back to the road record. 
Saint Francis has won seven conference road games this season. A program that won only seven times away from home in five years not that long ago has won seven conference road games in the past 66 days.
Let's hope that the trend toward success on the road continues.

Irrespective of the result, though, I am very proud of this team, players and coaches alike. Our head coach, Rob Krimmel, is a friend from way back in my college days. We had a few classes together and now we both work here. All throughout this time, we have maintained a conversation about athletics, academics, family, and all sorts of other things.

When Rob rose to become our head coach, I knew that he would have success. I was right. Because I'm always right. Humble too.

The game will be on ESPN 2 if you can't make it to Emmitsburg. So tune in and cheer along with me.


Monday, March 6, 2017

Spring Break Means.... Making Tofu?

Homemade tofu--just like mom used to make.


Guess what I did? I made tofu. Really.

The first time I had tofu, I was in the Marines--and it wasn't a form of punishment. Instead, a friend had turned me on to an alternative way of eating, which included eliminating the consumption of meat, dairy, and refined sugar. In its place, I was eating more whole grains, vegetables, beans, and things like tofu.

At first, I couldn't stand the spongy tastelessness of tofu. But with time and creative cooking, I developed a "taste" for it. I learned that tofu is good at absorbing other flavors and that it works well in things like a veggie stir-fry.

Still, tofu was a means to an end and not an end in itself. As a healthy protein source, it was fine. But tofu by itself... no thank you.

This changed, slightly, when I had some actual "fresh" tofu. There were little shops on the island that made their own tofu, from the soybeans to the final coagulated lump. Once I had some, I was surprised by the hearty texture and distinct taste--yes TASTE--of this food product.

I haven't had this sort of tofu since leaving the island. Instead, I have been limited by what I can purchase in grocery stores.

Then a short while ago, I found this recipe for homemade tofu. Over the break, I gave it a whirl. And I made a mess. But I also made a nice slab of tofu.

I do not have the taste memory to compare it with the Okinawan variety. But my homemade tofu has been far ahead of anything that I have eaten lately.

Indeed, this is what spring break is for me now. It's kind of like going to Daytona Beach. Only instead of the ocean, sun, and sand, I am enjoying a processed soy product mixed in to a vegetable medley. Same thing.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

On Quieting the Chatter

It's day one of my social media fast.

I signed off last night, not before learning that my friend Doug Thompson will cross the Tiber and join me in this Lenten exercise. In his words, Doug hopes that the time away will help him to "figure out my writing practice and clear my head of the chatter."

The chatter. Yes, the chatter.

It's a safe bet that this morning, my feeds would have been clogged with Trumpian chatter. An address to Congress will do that.

I know that this stuff is important, but I don't need Facebook to follow along. I listened to an NPR podcast this morning, which adequately summarized the address. I also read some articles. Most predicted that, despite the measured tone, this is not a "pivot" moment for the president.

OK, so good enough, right? I have passed my "informed citizen" test.

In a pre-Lent world, though, I would have kept going. I would have scrolled down, further and further. The result? Anxiety. Lots of anxiety. And misspent time. Lots of misspent time.

But it is Lent. And as a result, I just have quiet. I remember this from last year. Almost as soon as I deactivated my accounts, it was as if I could hear myself and the world around me for the first time. After a while, that silence became normal, even though it didn't start that way.

It's sort of like the first few steps of any run. Legs and lungs begin to move beyond the norm, making me painfully aware of the muscle strain and labored breaths. Soon everything evens out and conversations can be had, music can be listened to, and scenery can be admired.

But those first moments... here is where I am most attuned to what running does to the body.

Similarly, in these first few moments of my social media fast, I am seeing what the chatter did to my sanity and productivity. Today, as I wrote and read, I had nothing else to colonize my attention. All I have is a messy book manuscript that refuses to write itself.

Maybe I should have given up writing for Lent? Oh well. Too late now.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Another Lent, Another Social Media Fast

Remember when I said that I was giving up running for Lent? I also said that I was starting Lent early. Well, Easter came early too because I'm back on the roads--at least for now.

My only problem is that there are those who insist that Lent actually begins this Wednesday. I suppose that means that I will need to select something else to give up for six weeks.

So I'm going to take a rest from Facebook and Twitter.

I did it last year and my relationship with social media improved as a result. The time away taught me that I didn't need to be tethered to my laptop or phone throughout the day. For a while after my social media fast, I stuck to a schedule where I only looked during certain times of the day.

But then the primaries happened. And the general election. And college football. And a list of other excuses that I can deploy in justifying my bad habits.

I need to do better. Never have I imagined drawing my terminal breath and thinking "Gee I wish I would have watched more cat videos and taken more quizzes about Saved By The Bell."


The hope is that the break will restore some sense of social media balance. To be clear, I'm not leaving Facebookistan permanently. This is just a vacation, intended to allow me to return with a fresh perspective on how I can best use this tool. Social media can bring real value to my life, if I control it instead of it controlling me.

Still, for as much as I look forward to opportunity to reset my boundaries, I will miss my friends both new and old. It is telling that I have never physically met Paul Putz or Chris Beneke. And yet, because of social media, I teamed up with both of them to write some stuff about things.

As for this blog, I will keep posting at least once a week if not more often. However, I expect that fewer people will be reading it over Lent, since the bulk of my traffic comes from Facebook and Twitter.

Accordingly, if you would like to keep up on my posts over Lent, please join this blog's email list...

Between Jest and Earnest Email List

And if you want to get in touch with me, please email, call, or text.

You will still also see me on Strava and Untappd over the next few weeks. The former keeps track of my runs, while the latter keeps track of my beers. Priorities. I know mine. It just takes six weeks away from Facebook and Twitter to figure them out.