Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Warden and 401

[I've written enough stories at this point that I'm not able to keep track of what ones I've told. Paul, my supervisor and the lead pastor at church, says there's nothing wrong with hearing the same story twice though. So if you've heard this one before, maybe you'll enjoy hearing it a different way.]

I drive back and forth between Toronto and Westport every weekend. Most weeks I leave on Friday around 7 PM and make it to Westport by 11. I have a stack of podcasts I listen to, I catch up on new albums, and I spend a lot of time thinking and praying. Driving forces you to do things that don't require your eyes or your hands.

Every time I leave, I pass the Howard Johnson at Warden and the 401. I notice it every time because I've stayed there once and it was a particularly memorable stay. It was a LAN party for a gaming clan I was in. Translation: It was a real life event for people who I had only met on the internet.

I spent a lot of time playing Counter-Strike through middle school and Grade 9. On an average night, I'd spend about two hours playing and then another hours on our clans forums sending chat messages back and forth. I was in middle school so I was obnoxious, but somehow I talked to enough people that I became reasonably well liked in the community. I'm attributing it to me but really I just connected with the nicest, most Christian people on the entire internet and they were nice enough to put up with all of my stupid rants and various other shenanigans (man....I said some stupid things now that I think about it).

But I'd never met any of them in real life. I only knew them by their game names and first names (if I talked to them a lot). I knew they lived in places like Little Rock, and Indiana, but I had no idea what they looked like (this was before webcams were really common). I wanted to meet some of these people just to disband with some of the mystery. Somebody from Toronto started organizing an event. Him and I got in touch a little bit and we figured out what was happening. He was going to host it at his church, then they cancelled on him because they didn't like the content. Something about a game with guns and shooting at a church didn't go over well with somebody. It was understandable but a bummer.

This guy was resourceful though. He found a Howard Johnson with a conference room that would rent to us for a reasonable rate. It was at Warden and the 401. We set a date and some of our friends from the Midwest made plans to drive up. My dad booked a hotel room in the Howard Johnson for that night. My friend Nat and I started planning our trip up. My sister came with us so she could go prom dress shopping with my dad. I counted the days.

When we arrived, we slowly opened the conference room door after hearing voices behind it. Nat went first.

"Is this the cTs lan?"

"It sure is!" a middle aged looking guy responded. It was Postal! I couldn't handle the excitement! We rushed to get our stuff set up and start playing games with these people. I jumped up and down as we rushed down the hall.  I think we had about ten people. It took me two hours to stop smiling like an idiot. I had talked to these people for so long and now we were sitting in a hotel room playing games and yelling at each other.

It's hard to communicate how cool this whole thing was. Even as I sit here and describe it, I am smiling about the whole experience even though it happened eleven years ago. It was so amazing to meet these people that I had been talking to for months and months and playing countless hours of games with. It was so good to just spend time in the same room together and enjoy the game we had all been playing individually at home. To pick up on personality quirks that only show up in real life. To see desktop wallpaper and monitors and headsets. Hearing people's voices and their off mic chatter. To eat pizza together and watch stupid videos around someone's tiny monitor. I was so incredibly psyched about the whole thing.

Then before I knew it, it was 3 AM and we had to vacate. We cleaned up the room, packed up our stuff, and went back to our hotel rooms. That was the last time I'd ever see those people. A few months later, I was banned from the clan for saying some inflammatory things about the leader and generally just being a tool. A few years later the clan folded without further meet-ups in Canada. The lone cTs LAN in Canada remained my only physical experience as I played games with these people.

But damn was it a good one. Good enough that I remember it every time I drive by the Warden exit on the 401.

Friday, February 13, 2015

On Learning what's "Relevant"

After a week of school, I head home to Westport to work at my internship over the weekend. This back and forth will be the movement that defines life for the next couple of months and I'm already learning how to make it better. I arrive home, take a seat on the chair and my mom offers me a beer. We sit down (my dad is there too) and catch up on what has been going on since I saw them last. Usually it's not much (I go to class, I sit on my butt, we visit Jason and Victoria, I leave Toronto. Pretty routine stuff) so we often end up discussing what I am learning in school.

In these moments of recollection, I realize how little I remember of what I've been lectured to about this year. It's usually one or two big picture concepts from class. I can't retain everything in one shot. From my class on the Gospel of John, the thing I remember most is that John describes two kinds of faith in his narrative. From youth ministry, it's that retention rates for para-church organizations are abysmal. I can't give you examples, and I often can't give you a rationale but what I can give you is application.

Over the last couple of months I have slowly been noticing this trend. I remember things which I can immediately apply to my life. I forget things which are not deemed relevant at the time. I remember the bit about low retention rates from youth ministry because I immediately thought of camp and how we also have super low retention rates. The jump from receiving that information to applying it to a situation I already understand took about ten seconds. Instantly it was locked away in by brain forever.

This is normal right? You pay attention to "relevant" information that is around you and then you filter out all the other stuff. They teach you to do this in university by assigning a stack of readings that only a small percentage of people can actually complete and comprehend. Then you have to decide what is important and what is not. In your daily life you also do this. You remember bits of conversation which speak of something relevant to your own experience, and then you forget everything else.

I notice a physical reaction in myself when I am listening and when I am filtering. There are two separate experiences of it. The first is where I deem information to be irrelevant. I start to get antsy and day dream about what else I am going to do when I get to wherever it is I am going or when I get a chance to do what I want to do. I think about tasks and plans which will be carried out for me in my time. "I'm going to work on that reading when I get home so that when I leave on Friday I won't have much to do" while the person that I'm standing with is telling me about the unique challenges of their church ministry. The second is where I feel awkward because the subject matter makes me feel uncomfortable so I tense up, feel that knot in my stomach, and try to ignore what is being said so that I don't have to absorb the awkward exchange happening in front of me.

Both of  these feelings actually just serve to confirm the information I've already absorbed and block out any new information. I am presently reading a book by Eli Pariser called "The Filter Bubble" and it points to the fact that this is increasingly a problem for people because web-based services avoid presenting us with information that is unfamiliar or uncomfortable. They seek to give us information that we "like" so that the things we look at are more and more relevant to us. This is done at the expense of new and novel information that might help to change our perspective or help us to learn important new things. That's not to say we all need some new paradigm shift in our knowledge, but blocking out conflicting views because they make us uncomfortable is not going to allow us to grow or change.

This week I tried practicing this. I was listening to "The Current" on CBC (a show which deals with current events and news) and a segment came on about anti-vaccination parents. I already knew the interview was awkward because someone I follow on twitter had made mention of it. The second of my two ignorance reactions kicked in, but I decided to pause and release the tension and let the interview go instead of flipping to something more comfortable. I didn't reach some epiphany, but I did listen to the whole interview and heard what was happening. That was a new thing for me.

I'm also practicing avoiding the first reaction in my readings. When I read books for school, I usually skip through the "boring" bits because they aren't written for me. I want to hear what I want to hear instead of what the author is actually trying to communicate. As I sit down to read now, I have decided to try and pay more attention to the "irrelevant" bits in an effort to learn more.

This process is hard and not immediately rewarding. I can't point to a place where it has paid off yet. But I think in the long run it will be better. It opens up the possibility that I might absorb some new information that I otherwise would have missed, because it is outside of my experience. At the very least, I am becoming a better listener.