Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Doctor Handyman and the Horse Shelter

So, my first job as a certified Doctor: build a horse shelter.

Searching for ways to make money this Summer I posted an ad on Craigslist for a handyman. I figured I would get calls for small household jobs that someone didn't want to call a skilled contractor for. So, to my surprise, my first real call was from someone who wanted me to build a horse shelter for them. After debating whether this was too much for my first job, I decided to take it and it has been a wonderful experience. Below I will chronicle the last two weeks of building this shelter.

It started with a few days of internet research for plans and calls to my architect father to work out the details of how to build this thing as a one man job. The client wanted a shelter 12' x 12' x 8' tall.

Here is a list of materials I used:

4 4x4x12 weather treated lumber for posts
Quikrete concrete for the posts
6 2x4x12 for the top and bottom of the stud walls between the posts on the two sides and back
21 2x4x8 for the stud walls
9 pieces of 4x8 wood siding
12 2x6x14 for the rafters
14 pieces of 2x8 corrugated tin roofing
Rafter ties
Wood screws
Decking nails

The first major obstacle was how to get this material out to the job site which was a half an hour away and I have no truck. I ended up renting a truck at Home depot. They charge $19.99 for the first 75 minutes and $10 for each additional hour. The key here is to pick out and purchase the materials before you rent the truck. It took me about 2 hours to load the truck, get out to the site, unload, and return the truck. The charge was 29.99. Here is a picture of the materials at the site.

The first task was to stake the location of the holes as a 12 foot square. This involves staking a square with a stake at each corner each 12 feet apart. Then, to make sure you have a square and not a parallelogram, you have to measure the diagonal distance. The distance between the diagonal stakes should be equal. Using the pythagorean theorem, ( √(144" x 144") + (144" x 144") = 203.6 inches). I got the stakes to be equal at 208 inches. I thought that this was close enough. The owner of the land had a tractor with an augur bit, so he dug the holes in preparation for me to start the job. I found out when I showed up to work that I should have been more careful in my laying out the holes. They would not line up with a 12x12 square. I was able to line this up perfectly with when I set my 12 foot 2x4s in a square over the holes. Two holes had to be enlarged with a post hole digger.

With the holes dug, I began by building the walls on the ground. To do this I set two 4x4x12s 12 feet from the holes and 12 feet apart. I then cut the 2x4x12s to 137 inches (144" - 7' for the two 4x4s). I wanted the outside dimensions to be exactly 12 feet. Here is a wall under construction.

Once the stud wall was built, I put on the 4x8 siding. This involved putting one sheet on and lining up the edge with the 4x4. I then nailed along the 4x4 edge. Then, I had to move the opposite 4x4 until the top of the stud wall lined up with the siding (this was essentially squaring up the wall). Below is a picture of the two outside walls completely built, and the back wall without the siding.

Each wall is built at a distance from the dug holes, allowing them to be tipped over once, and then tipped up into the holes. This was the moment of truth. Could I tip the walls over and then up. My dad said it might be a bear to lift these walls, but that I should be able to do it. Well, he must have thought I was Hercules. I tried the first wall and, I'm sorry, but there was no way. I was able to flip over the back wall (without the 4x4s), but tipping over and up the side walls was impossible for me. Luckily I caught my friend Jonathan Martin on a free day and he came and helped. It was much easier with two men, but we still struggled with it. The hardest part was, after we had flipped the walls over, to tip the walls up and set the posts in the holes. This was made more difficult by the wind which wanted to blow the walls back over. Jonathan then held the walls while I placed diagonal braces on the wall and staked them to the ground.

I picture before we lifted the back wall.

With the back wall in place.

At this point, I could finally see that this was going to work. with the three pieces joined, the structure was fairly sturdy and surprisingly square. It was perfectly level from side to side and not far off front to back. As you can see in the picture, I attached one 2x6 across the front that would later make up the roofing header.

The next step was to level the front posts and pour the concrete. Leveling the front posts was actually quite easy. I placed a level on the side walls measuring level from front to back. I then used my car jack next to the front post to lift the post until the wall was level. I then poured sand in the hole and made sure to stir it around in the hole, coaxing it under the post. I then lowered the jack and the post stayed level. At this point, I mixed and poured concrete in the holes and allowed them to set for a day.

The next step was to construct the roof structure. First, I attached another 2x6 across the front wall to form the header and the support for the rafters at the front.

I should have learned from the wall lifting debacle, but I did not, and built the roof rafter structure on the ground. It was 14 feet from front to back and 147 inches wide. I nailed it together (which was made difficult by the fact that some of the 2x6s had warped slightly, including the ones that I had cut for the front and back of the roof structure). I got it all nailed together and went to lift it. It was a bear, but doable. Yet, in trying to tip it up to lean on the structure, I must have jerked and the wall started to twist, and then proceeded to fall apart and crash to the ground. I gave up on trying to build the structure on the ground and decided to build the structure in place on the roof. The hardest pieces were the outermost rafters that had the header to rest on in the front, but nothing to rest on in the back. I was able to work these into place. Here is a picture of the structure with the outermost rafters and the front and back of the roof structure.

I proceeded to add the rafters and complete the roof structure. The next step was to put on the tin roofing. At this point I realized a design flaw. As I tried put up the first piece of tin which went lengthwise from back to front with the rafters, the tin would sag between the rafters making it impossible to secure it in place. I had to make a quick trip to Home Depot to get a 2x4 which I then secured between the rafters as a support for the tin. You can see these 2x4s in the picture of the finished roof structure.

Finally, I put the tin on the roof. I was dreading this, thinking I would have to actually climb up on the roof, using a piece of plywood for support between the rafters. Yet, it turned out that I could secure all of the pieces of tin from the ladder. I secured the roof with special tin roofing screws which had a metal and rubber washer to prevent leaks in the roof.

The last thing I did was to tie the rafters to the header and the back wall with rafter ties. Now the structure was very solid and I think will make a great place to loaf for the horses.

Here are some pictures of the final structure.

In the end, it was an immensely fulfilling project to actually build something and have the clients like what you built.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Response to a Former Student

I recently received an email from a former student of mine asking about my undergraduate experience at Antioch Community Church in Waco, Texas. The student had been attending there for the past year and was starting to question aspects of the church. Knowing that I had gone there this student asked for my thoughts. The following is my response with all names removed.

I started going to Highland Baptist my freshman year at Baylor (Antioch split off of Highland in 1999). Highland's college group was led by the current pastor of Antioch and was essentially like what Antioch became. I started leading lifegroups at the end of my freshman year. At the end of my junior year I became a section leader. In the Summer after my junior year the Antioch was started. I went to Juarez all four years, once as a participant, twice as a small team leader, and once as a big team leader. I was well on my way up the Antioch ladder and was planning on going to Antioch Training School (ATS, now called elevate).

So, why did I leave. Well, I started to get a little bit disillusioned my senior year. The excitement I had felt my freshman year was gone and I had been trying to get it back for four years. I hardly spent time with all of my best friends from freshman year because we were all in lifegroup leadership and were too busy to hang out. I had heard all of [the Pastor's] sermons and was hearing nothing new week in and week out. All of the pep talks about taking the world for Christ seemed to fizzle out in the face of reality and what had happened over four years. I was also burnt out from leadership. All of the previous things were contributing factors to my leaving, but none were the real reason.

The real reason was that Antioch had no use for me anymore. I had always been academically minded, but I started getting much more academic about my faith and my Bible study mid senior year. I started to want to pursue Seminary instead of ATS. Whenever I mentioned this to other members or church leaders, I got a puzzled look and sometimes they would answer like this: "Why would you spend three years in Seminary when you could be on the mission field in 9 months after ATS?" In general, the path that I saw God leading me in did not have a place at Antioch, or at least not a serious place. When I returned to Baylor after Seminary it was clear to me that Antioch was not the place for me.

Now, that is my background so you can see where I am coming from. It has been ten years since I graduated and left Antioch, and some things might have changed, but I still have a lot of friends who currently go to Antioch and I think the basic ethos of the church is the same as when I was there.

So, as to your specific question. I think that there is a great temptation for Antioch members to put on a show. I don't even think this is necessarily a conscious decision or action, but there is a lot of excitement and spiritual competition at Antioch, like, I want to be the greatest evangelist, I want to be the best worship leader, I want to be the best worshiper, I want to be the most free in my worship (like jumping, yelling, raising my hands, etc.), I want to be the best __________. I also think that the worship experience itself can take center stage and push a true pursuit of God off to the side. This was nowhere more clear to me than in the worship songs at Antioch. The playlist at Antioch mirrors pop radio. A song comes along and gets very popular. People cheer when the opening chords are played. The song is often called "anointed." Inevitably the song will get overplayed. Then, when the opening chords are played, there is a sort of collective groan in the audience. They have already moved on to their next anointed song. This seems to prove to me that worship at Antioch is more like a concert with the audience all hoping that the band will play their favorite song.

I try very hard not to question the motives of anyone at Antioch, whether a member or leader. I think everyone there is completely sincere in their beliefs and actions. Most of the people that I knew there were and are great people.

But, if I were to list my biggest concerns about the church, they would be as follows.

1. There is no serious attempt to understand scripture in context. Sermons that are "based" on a scripture passage, which is rare, are often used to promote previously formed agenda of the speaker rather than to attempt to understand that scripture in its biblical and historical context.
2. The church is based on absolute authority of the leadership above you. (you may not see this if you have not been a lifegroup leader). Essentially, the leader above you has the authority to guide your decisions and actions based upon his or her greater spirituality and ability to hear the voice of God. This is usually not done overtly, but more something like: I really don't have a peace about what you are wanting to do. I think you should rethink what you are about to do. God gave me this scripture (usually out of context, see number 1) that seems to contradict what you want to do, etc.
3. This type of authority is put in the hands of colleges students, some of whom can handle this type of authority, some of whom abuse it.
4. There are essentially three groups of people at Antioch: A) Superhumans (i.e., missionaries), B) Middle class (i.e., people who make a lot of money who can support missionaries), and C) everyone else (i.e., those who cannot do A or B, like a poor graduate student like myself).

Well, that might be more info than you asked for. I would be happy to chat in person with you sometime if you are in Waco, or if I am still in Waco this Fall.

Blessings in Christ,
Keith Reich

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Praise be the Big XII

In a shocking and dramatic move yesterday the big 12 was saved from apparent disaster. In my previous post I lamented the loss of the big 12 conference, submitting the the apparently imminent exodus of five schools from the big 12 (UT, A&M, Tech, OK, OK State), following the earlier week departures of Colorado and Nebraska. This would have left the remaining five schools (Baylor, KU, KSU, Mizzou, Iowa State) scrambling to find a place to play NCAA sports.

The Mountain West conference was interested in KU, KSU, and Mizzou. According to rumors, TCU was effectively blocking any interest the MWC had in Baylor because of their 14 year old grudge about their exclusion from the current big 12 conference. Baylor most likely would have landed in the Western Athletic Conference, needless to say a serious demotion from the big 12. Well all of these speculations are now pointless.

The details from behind the scenes negotiations to save the conference are still illusive, but apparently some well placed power brokers from the NCAA and Television networks made a desperate play to avoid the rapid move to mega conferences (like the proposed Pac 16). Their plan worked and the Big 12 was saved with its 10 remaining members. How did they do it? Money. The new television deal provides a sizable raise to all of the big 12 schools. According to reports, payouts will range from 14-20 million dollars per year, with the option of Texas to start their own TV network that could net 3-5 million per year. Even for the lowly Bears, this is a doubling of last years revenue of 7 million. The big 12 will now be paying out similar figures to the Big 10 and SEC.

So, what does this mean for Baylor?

1. More money, lots more money
2. Baylor will still be the whipping boy in the conference, at least in football (no one seems to be complaining right now)
3. Briles will be tested more in the Big 12 than in the WAC. We will see over the next few years if he can build a competitive program in one of the toughest football conferences
4. Texas has solidified its place as the big fish in the conference, even more so than before
5. Baylor 2012 will roll on unchecked
6. We will play all of the big 12 teams every year in football and twice a year in basketball

The big loser in this equation: Colorado. Colorado, seeing the apparently imminent dissolution of the conference and not wanting to be left on the outside looking in, jumped ship early to the Pac 10. Who knows what the Pac 10 offered, but whatever they offered seemed to be based on a Pac 16 including five of the powerhouse teams from the Big 12. They will not be able to offer any such thing right now, and their payout will be significantly lower than the new big 12 deal. Plus,
both Colorado and Nebraska have to pay a 10 million dollar penalty for leaving the conference. Whereas the significant pay raise for Nebraska should alleviate that penalty, the Pac 10 will not be able to offset that penalty for Colorado.

All I have to say is that there is a collective sigh of relief from the Baylor community right now. Hurray for the big 12 conference.

Friday, June 11, 2010

A Lament for the Big XII

Amidst all of the hubbub of the college football cataclysm this week, I finally got a chance to relax and accept the inevitable this morning. Baylor is going to be left out of a BCS football conference. This represents a major financial blow to both Baylor and Waco. See the article from which I quote:

"Waco will lose an estimated $196.7 million in annual total spending, $106.4 million in annual output and 1,677 jobs."

Yet, in all of this talk of money, I think we are missing a much bigger point. What is more important than the financial impact is the less tangible, but much more satisfying, emotional impact that football has on sports fans.

I grew up in Boulder as a Colorado Buffaloes fan. Even after my undergraduate stint as a Baylor Bear, there remained a soft spot in my heart for the Buffs. I was a teenager during the McCartney glory days which included a national championship in 1990 and a Heisman trophy in 1991. What I remember most growing up as a Buff fan was the Nebraska Jokes (one comes to mind now, that Nebraska is breaking up the Big 12 because their football program stunk after they had to meet Big 12 academic standards). Nebraska was our big rival. We would always play them as our last game of the season the Friday after thanksgiving. One particular thanksgiving game stands out in memory. It was during my seminary days in 2001. At the time Nebraska was 11-1 and seemed to be heading for a national championship. Instead Colorado racked up 62 points to trounce Nebraska 62-36. Chris Brown rushed for 198 yards and 6 touchdowns. It was glorious.

A second memory stands out in my mind, the 1998 victory of Baylor over in state Texas. It was the first major win for Baylor since my arrival at the school in 1996. I do not remember much about the game, but I remember rushing the field and tearing down the goal post. I think we were 2-9 that season, but that one moment made it all worth it.

Finally, my favorite sports memory of all time is Baylor's 2005 overtime victory over Texas A&M 35-34. This really was a classic for Baylor fans. At the time, A&M was ranked 16 and expecting to come into Waco and roll over the Bears whom they had beaten 73-10 the previous year. Baylor came from behind to tie the game. In overtime, A&M got the ball first and easily scored a touchdown putting them up by seven. On their possession Baylor struggled, but finally a pass from Shawn Bell found Dominique Ziegler in the end zone for 6. Then it all happened too fast. People, including the Aggies, were expecting an extra point attempt. Instead, Baylor lined up quickly and ran the exact same play with Bell rolling out and once again finding Ziegler in the end zone for a 2 point conversion and a one point victory. Once again, the fans rushed the field. Time went by and the most priceless moment was looking up at the stand from the field 15 minutes after the game and seeing all of the Aggie fans frozen in disbelief (yeah, I carry little love for Aggie fans). They were stunned and not one of them had moved a muscle.

All of these memories are gone. Money has trumped rivalry. Sure, Colorado, Texas, A&M, Tech, OSU and Oklahoma will all get more money in the Pac 10. Nebraska will get more in the Big 10. But the rivalries are gone. Furthermore, is there any hope of creating new rivalries in a new conference. What real rivalry can come between Washington and Texas, or A&M and UCLA. Or, if Baylor were to end up in the Wac, what real rivalry will they have with Hawaii? Also, how long will these conferences last? What happens when the next big conference next door comes up with a better offer? What is happening here is setting a bad precedent for college football.

Conferences used to be regional. Sure they were about money, but they were also about fostering and creating rivalries and thus, compelling football. Does anyone really care about a Texas Tech vs. Oregon State game? Conferences that stretch from Seattle to Austin don't seem to make sense. Sure, I have heard the travel argument about fans getting really stoked about road trips from Texas or Colorado to Washington and LA. But really, besides a few wealthy boosters, how many fans are regularly going to travel to the west coast to see their teams play?

In the end, big money and mega conferences are threatening to destroy much of what has always made college football great.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Baylor's Identity Revisited

My wife commented last night about my last two blog posts (which I would point you to for the discussion) and how I failed to make my opinion known. This tendency is a holdover from my teaching sensitive issues (religion) to college freshmen. In my classes I try and illuminate issues, especially controversial ones, from all sides while trying to keep my opinion to myself. This helps the students think for themselves and form their own opinions and beliefs.

Yet, I will attempt here to elucidate my opinion slightly more than I have done in my previous posts.

Baylor may be facing an identity crisis so soon after our last identity crisis seemed to have ended with the retirement of Robert Sloan. Now, the Big 12 conference is about to collapse and Baylor looks to be one of the schools left out of the party. Texas, Tech, A&M, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Colorado seem to have places in a new mega conference, the Pac 10, while Missouri and Nebraska appear to want to bolt for the big 10. Where would Baylor go in all of this and what would it say about our identity?

Should Baylor pursue an invite from the Pac 10? Should Baylor try to join a second tier conference like the WAC or Mountain West? Should they try to create a league of middle America academically elite schools as proposed by Mark Osler at Osler's Razor? What do these decisions say about Baylor's Identity?

First, I can say that I only know Baylor in the Sloan and post-Sloan Era (he took over in '95 and I came in '96). Baylor, since I have arrived has been one of growth: academically, in student body, and in campus size. Baylor has seemingly wanted to get bigger, better, and more highly ranked in all areas. I must say that both of my stays at Baylor as a student have been remarkably positive.

In some ways, all of this growth is a good thing. Baylor's reputation in the country seems to have been on a constant rise over the past 15 years. Other than the basketball scandal seven years ago, Baylor seems to be thought of highly by many people across the country. Much of this is due to our successes in Men's and Women's basketball. Anything that increases Baylor's national reputation is usually good for my two diplomas.

Yet, where should Baylor go from here? I will list a few things that I would like to see, and a few things that should stay the same (or go in reverse).

Things that should stay:
1. Baylor's strong Christian and Baptist character.
2. Baylor's commitment to teaching excellence. Many schools that strive for academic excellence among its teachers, usually measured by publication record, lose some great teacher's who just don't want to publish. Baylor needs to find a way to attract good teachers and good publishers, preferably both in the same person.
3. Baylor should continue to seek professors with a strong publication record and to encourage publication.
4. Baylor press should continue to grow. When I came to Baylor, one hardly knew Baylor had a press. Now, Baylor press is widely recognized as a reputable and worthy publication house.
5. Baylor must not lose its warm faculty/student relations as sometimes happens with big research universities.
6. Baylor should strive to reduce faculty to student ratio.

Things that should go or be reversed:
1. Student Body size. Every year Baylor boasts the largest freshman class ever. Baylor's big boast while I was an undergrad was that at Baylor, a student was a person with a name, not a number like at the other Texas schools in the Big 12. We could lose that.
2. Tuition costs: since I came to Baylor in 1996, tuition has tripled. Now, I know that things get more expensive, but tripling tuition in 14 years seems extreme.
3. Buildings: I think we have built enough to last a while. The only exception I think is the tearing down and rebuilding of some of Baylor's eyesores or buildings that do not fit in with the Baylor look. Examples: Tidwell, Sid Rich, Mars Mclean Science, Castelaw, Moody Library, Hankamer and Cashion.

I think Baylor should strive to be among the top tier of religious schools in the country, becoming an academically elite institution with good sports programs. Schools to emulate would be Notre Dame and Duke (although Duke is not known for its Methodist heritage and Baylor should remain characteristically Christian and Baptist).

As far as the conference Baylor competes in, I would definitely say that in a major conference like the proposed mega Pac-10, Baylor would find little in common with its conference colleagues. Perhaps Baylor should seek a conference more akin to our goals and heritage.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Baylor's Identity

What is Baylor University? The recent talks of a major shake up in the big 12 conference is once again pushing members of the Baylor community to ask the foundational question about the identity of our university.

This question has been asked, and I suppose answered, very recently with the controversy surrounding the presidency of Robert Sloan. Sloan, among others, proposed what they called Baylor 2012. While there is no one succinct statement about the goal of Baylor 2012 (at least not on the website), the general goal seems to be to raise Baylor to the rank of a top tier research university while retaining its Baptist and Christian heritage.

One of the most tangible changes that have occurred under this vision is the size of the campus. Since I began as a freshman in 1996 the following buildings have been built: the Student Life Center, the Garage Mahal (with the spires), the Business school garage, the Daughtry Garage, the Collins garage (yes, when I started Baylor only had one parking garage), the panhellenic center, the monster science building, Truett Seminary, the Mayborn Museum, the Law School, the Athletics training facility, the indoor practice football field, the Tennis complex, the Baseball and Softball parks, press boxes on the stadium, a new faculty building, North Village residential center, Brooks village residential center, the new bear pit. I'm sure I have missed some, but those are just off the top of my head. It seems as if the campus has doubled since I came to Baylor.

What does all of this have to do with vision 2012 and the Big 12? Money. In an attempt to achieve the broad goal of Baylor 12, the University has needed to raise huge sums of money to build state of the art facilities. Some, perhaps a large amount, of that money has come from our membership in the Big 12. Even though our football teams suck, we still share in some of the proceeds of successful football programs like Texas, A&M, Oklahoma, Nebraska, K-State, etc. Every TV appearance and every bowl game appearance by any big 12 school nets Baylor money.

So, if Baylor gets left out of the conference reshuffling, one of the first things to go will be some cash flow. This in turn could provide one major obstacle in achieving Baylor 2012.

Yet, would that be a bad thing. It comes back to a question of identity and how Baylor's identity is connected to our conference membership. Do we belong in a mega-conference of 16 teams like the possible new Pac-10. Does Baylor share much, with regard to our identity with schools like Texas, Washington, Arizona and Arizona State, Cal, UCLA, etc.?

I would direct you again to Mark Osler's blog, Osler's Razor, for an interesting take on a new conference made up of schools a little bit more like Baylor.

However this whole conference shakeup pans out, one thing is certain, it should cause members of the Baylor community to think about the University's identity and determine who we want to be as a University.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Baylor and the Big 12

There has been a lot of talk this week about a possible shakeup of the major NCAA conferences, most strikingly, the dissolution of the Big 12.

Nebraska and Missouri are courting invitations to join the Big 10, and the Pac 10 is looking to gobble up six remaining schools from the Big 12: Texas, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Colorado.

If both of those scenarios play out, it will leave the remaining four schools of the big 12: Kansas, Kansas state, Iowa State, and Baylor in limbo.

As a long time Baylor fan and twice alumni (BA and Ph.D.), I have a vested interest in the outcome of the current discussions.

I came to Baylor as an undergraduate in the inaugural year of the big 12, 1996. It has been a roller-coaster existence for Baylor in this major conference. On the bright side, Baylor has performed very well in sports overall in the conference. In the last seven years, we are third in the conference with 28 regular season and conference tournament wins behind only Texas (55) and A&M (30). We have had national championships in Women's Basketball and Men's Tennis. Our Men's Basketball team is on the rise with its two tournament appearances in the past three years, a sweet 16 appearance this year, and the NIT championship game last year.

Yet, with all of this success, the one glaring problem is that of football. Come on, it is Texas. Since the league's inception in 1996, Baylor has not been able to muster more than five wins in a season or more than three conference wins in a season. We have racked up a 13-43 conference record. We are also on a 15 year bowl drought, last playing in the Alamo Bowl in a loss to Washington state in 1994. The inability of our football program to gain any meaningful ground since joining the conference has prompted some discussion among fans of moving to a less competitive conference, say the WAC or Mountain West.

That discussion goes something like this: would you rather stay in the big 12, a conference where we have been unable to compete in football and have failed to make bowl eligibility in 15 years, or would you rather play in a "weaker" conference like the WAC and have the opportunity to win conference championships from time to time and play in bowl games more seasons than not. The thought is tempting after watching our team get beat down season after season. Even in seasons when it appears that we have a good pre-season outlook, like this last season, something happens to shatter fans' hopes and dreams (like, tearing of Griffin's ACL this last year).

Yet, the flipside is the money. Baylor gets loads of money from the Big 12 and would suffer a tremendous pay cut in a move to a second tier conference.

Well, it appears like the decision might be made for us rather quickly. Baylor and the Texas state legislature are pushing for our inclusion in the Pac 10 invite at the expense of Colorado, but who knows the outcome. What I do know, is that a dissolution of the big 12 would mean a lost of many of our schools' major rivalries: Texas, A&M, and Tech most notably.

In an interesting proposal at Mark Osler's blog, Osler's Razor, he suggests the formation of a new conference made up of private schools with excellent academic records from the middle of the country yet who also have serious sports programs. He calls this a sort of "ivy league" of the country's middle states. The conference would include Baylor, Rice, TCU, SMU, Tulane, BYU, Airforce, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, Duke, Navy, Army, William & Mary, UVA.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Lament for 24

Two shows that revolutionized my TV watching ended two weeks ago. One, LOST, ended brilliantly, One, 24, ended wretchedly.

Earlier this season, I entitled a blog post "Salute to 24." That was in the middle of this 8th and final season of the mostly brilliant show. Season 7 was abysmal and seasons 5-6 were pretty good. Seasons 1-4 were amazing. My previous post talked about what made the show great, namely the rules of 24. I thought season 8 was back on track, following the rules and giving the audience what they had come to know and love. I also knew that they had announced that this was the last season of the show and I was excited about how the show would end. My wife and I speculated about such endings that would satisfy us.

Such and ending would go something like this: First, Jack would have to die. The show and Jack are one and the same. Without Jack, no show, without the show, no Jack. The fact that the show is over, yet Jack is still out there somewhere is inconceivable. There is no "quiet life Jack." If he is not fighting terrorists, he IS not. Second, Jack should die doing something heroic, saving the world for the umpteenth time. A self sacrificial death would have been the perfect ending for 24.

Yet, what do we get instead. The last several episodes of 24 were a character assassination of our beloved protagonist. The show broke rule number one, which I quote from my previous post:

"First rule of 24: Jack is always right. Jack has an infallible moral compass. Everyone else gets conflicted from time to time, but Jack is steady and never has to debate a decision. He just knows what to do. So, you can determine the relative goodness or badness of any character on 24 based upon their current relation to and opinion of Jack."

In the last several episodes of season 8, Jack clearly loses his moral compass. We see Jack heartlessly execute Dana Walsh (yeah she deserved it, but not like that), brutally torture and disembowel a Russian operative, tear through a Russian diplomat's security crew before impaling said diplomat with a poker (OK, we didn't actually see this, only the aftermath and the embeded poker in the stomach of Novakovic), and finally, bite off the ear of Presidant Logan's chief enforcer. Jack lost his way.

The show gave a feeble attempt to repair the damage they had done by having Chloe stop Jack from assassinating Russian Premier Suvarov in favor of pursuing more legal means of retribution. Yet, it was too little, too late.

There were a couple of nice moments in the finale between Jack and Chloe and between Jack and President Taylor, but far from anything that would redeem the train wreck. We are left with a fugitive Jack, a shell of a man, a far cry from the hero we had come to know and love.

So, I must lament the show's ending. Here's to rewatching seasons 1-4 and remembering the glory days.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Truth, Fact, Story, Myth

As a religion professor, one common topic in my classes is the topic of truth. Interestingly, whenever I ask students to define the word "truth," I often get responses like the following:

"Truth is something that happened, something you can verify by reason or science."

I then ask students to define the word "fact" and get a nearly identical definition. In our modern world, truth has been reduced to and equated with fact. Fact is an interesting word. It comes from the Latin and is a participle of the verb facio which means to do or make. The perfect passive participle, factum, means something that has been done, something that has happened. That is almost spot on with the modern definition of fact. I quote the modern definition from the Online Etymological Dictionary:

1530s, "action," especially "evil deed," from L. factum "event, occurrence," lit. "thing done," from neut. pp. of facere "to do" (see factitious). Usual modern sense of "thing known to be true" appeared 1630s, from notion of "something that has actually occurred." Facts of life "harsh realities" is from 1854

In the modern world (I use the term "modern" in its technical sense as the world from about 1500 on with its focus on reason and science as opposed to the medieval and ancient worlds which focused much more on revelation and mythology as sources of knowledge) truth = fact. Only things that can be verified by reason and science can be considered "true" in the pure sense. One can see the beginnings of this movement in thought in Descartes Meditations on First Philosophy. Now, I am no Philosopher, and this is I am sure an extreme oversimplification, but Descartes method was to doubt everything he could not prove until he found something that he could not doubt, which led to his famous dictum "Cogito ergo sum" "I think therefore I am." Descartes could not doubt that he existed because he had thought.

The Modern world, with its culmination in the Enlightenment, swallowed whole the notion that only things that could be proven by reason and science could be called true, and this comes across in my students' definitions of truth. Yet, there is increasing uneasiness with the reduction of "truth" to mean only "fact." Certainly fact is contained in truth, but not all truth can be contained in fact. Truth is a much broader concept.

One vehicle for truth with is largely devoid of fact is that of story, and its Greek antecedent, Myth (μύθος). In an interesting definition of myth by Theon, a first century progymnasmatist (teacher of preliminary exercises of rhetoric), he states, "myth is a fictional story that images the truth" (my translation). Myth, or as it is more commonly translated in this context as "fable," then is said to be a fictional story (the Greek word is ψεύδος (our root for pseudo meaning false)) which tries to image, or represent in an image, the truth.

Before the modern era, story was often thought to carry the truth. Take for examples the teachings of Jesus. Much of Jesus teaching is in Parables, which I would argue follow almost exactly Theon's definition of "myth" or "parable." Jesus told "fictional" or "false" stories to illustrate great truths. For example, Jesus could have expressed the truth of "love your neighbor as yourself" in merely propositional language, and he did. Yet, to drive this truth home and really make it powerful for the hearer, he tells the parable, or, dare I say "myth" of the Good Samaritan. So much of Jesus teaching comes in the form of these "fictional stories that image the truth" yet so much of modern Christianity relies on "fact" as its basis. Modern Christianity, it seems, has swallowed modernity whole (except for a few aspects of modern Science). Yet this is a topic for another post.

In the end, I think that many today are clamoring for "truth" that is not limited to fact, truth that can only be expressed through story.

Dorky Television

My wife and I recently visited her family in South Texas and had several conversations with family and friends about television watching habits. While there was some overlap of the shows we liked and the shows others liked, one thing became devastatingly clear: Brooke and I are complete dorks. We watch all of the Dork shows and very few mainstream shows.

Here is a list of our current and recent dorky shows that we love that all fall into the sci-fi/fantasy genre.
Battlestar Galactica
True Blood

In a conversation on the way back from vacation, we came to the following conclusion about why we are such dorks. It is because we are both intense lovers of story, of myth. Story and myth can convey many truths that science and fact cannot (see my last post on Lost). The sci-fi/fantasy genre can convey these truths because they are not bound by the modern "fact only" mindset. In this genre one can bend the rules and allow typically mythological elements that are not acceptable in other genres. For example, your run of the mill crime or hospital drama has no place for a mythological figure like a Jacob from Lost or for a perfectly humanoid robot like the skinjob Cylons on Battlestar Galactica or the 15th century prophet figure Milo Rambaldi from Alias. These mythological elements help the creators tell stories that are not possible in other genres and often allow these shows to communicate truths more profoundly than in other, more fact bound, genres.

Consider some of the greatest stories in Western Literature: The Illiad, The Odyssey, Dante's Divine Comedy, The Lord of the Rings, the German Faust, Paradise Lost, Alice in Wonderland. Consider also some films that also carry truth through a mythological framework: The Wizard of Oz, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Star Wars Trilogy, The Matrix Trilogy, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, V for Vendetta, Lady in the Water. All of these stories conveyed their truth and message through a mythological framework.

It is not that one cannot tell a great story without a mythological framework, it is just that mythological stories touch the listener in a way unlike more fact bound stories and are often able to communicate truths that effect him or her in a different and profound way.

So, though I am a Dork, as revealed by my TV watching habits, I a proud to be one.

Moderns and Postmoderns on Lost

It appears, as I predicted to my wife that it would, that the Lost finale has created a dividing line between those with modern sensibilities and those with more "postmodern" sensibilities. I use the term "postmodern" here with some trepidation, because no one really knows what the term means and the connotations are myriad. The very fact that postmoderns feel the need to label themselves and the age we are in as postmodern, is in itself a very modern way of thinking and speaking. Yet, I will focus primarily on one aspect of what falls into so-called postmodern thinking: that is the suspicion of the idea that all truth can be reduced to "fact," something that happened, and can be verified and proven by science. Instead, postmoderns rebel against the idea that all truth must be conveyed by "fact" but instead see truth coming through a variety of vehicles, one of those being "Story" (I hope very soon to blog about the relationship of fact, story, truth, etc.).

The dividing line I am talking about is one of those who loved the ending of the series, and those who hated, or at least disliked it. Those who loved it usually loved it as a story, as the perfect resolution of the story that had been told about these characters we had come to know and love. Those who hated it usually did so because it didn't answer all (or really any) of the lingering mysteries and questions which arose during the show's six seasons. For a humorous and well done video about these unanswered questions go here.

I would propose that those who loved the finale for the story it so masterfully concluded did so out of a postmodern sensibility that cares less about the truth carried by "fact" (i.e., the mysteries of the island), but rather cares about "truth" carried by story. Some of the most profound mysteries and truths of the world and human nature were communicated by the story Lost created and could not have been explored more powerfully, or even at all, by fact or science. For example, these themes come out of the Lost narrative and display profound mysteries, truths, and messages: Predestination and destiny vs. Free will, Love, Community, Afterlife, Death, the power that moves and animates the world. None of these themes would be greatly affected by knowing what the numbers meant, or what is the relationship between electromagnetism and the light, or who built the three toed statue. All of these questions are fascinating, but are not integral to conveying the meaning and the truth of the Lost mythology.

I would propose that those who hated the ending of Lost, because it did not answer all of the questions and mysteries of the show, do so out of a thoroughly modern sensibility. For a Modern, only truth that is verifiable as fact and science can be considered valuable. Thus, the ending of Lost, which failed gave verifiable proof of fact for every question which arose during the series, was a supreme disappointment. Not only did the show not answer these questions, it left no means of solving these mysteries on one's own. People can continue to theorize about these questions, but no definitive, scientifically provable answer can or ever will be able to be given. That mystery is intensely frustrating to the modern and thus clarifies the difference of opinion with regard to the finale.

Lost Finale

Many people have attempted to make sense of the Lost Finale, one of the most anticipated television series finales in recent memory (Only the Sopranos comes close in my mind). I have read many recaps and responses to the finale and will make no attempt at a systematic or even full discussion of the finale here. Instead, I would point you to my favorite response, which of course, is that of my wife and her inclusion of Travis Prinzi's response which I loved.

What I would like to do is clear up some misconceptions about the finale (at least from my point of view) and to point out a couple of interesting elements of the episode that I have not seen discussed elsewhere.

Misconception 1: the nature of the flash sideways reality (there are actually several misconceptions here).
Many people are confused by the flash sideways. This is understandable considering that the producers and all of the commentary this season led viewers to believe that the flash sideways was an alternate reality, one made possible by the detonation of the nuclear bomb in the last episode of season five, "The Incident."
In a supreme twist, the flash sideways is anything but an alternate reality, one that exists instead of the reality we have been watching for five seasons. No, the flash sideways is what another blogger has referred to as a "flash upwards." I like that terminology and will thus borrow it from here on out. What the flash upwards refers to is Lost's version of the afterlife. That is the most simple way to put it. This leads to misconception 1-A: when does this reality occur? This reality does not occur beside the given reality, it is outside of it. I would say "after it," but that is not really correct. There is no time in the flash upwards. It is not related in time at all to the shows earthly reality. Many people seem to want to relate the time in the flash upwards to the timeline of the show, and this simply doesn't work or have any meaning. This concept of a timeless reality seems to be one of the hardest things for some people to grasp. For a discussion of how this might work, intellectually, see Augustine's discussion of God and time in his Confessions Book 10.xii ff. Misconception number 1-B about the flash sideways reality is that it is purgatory. While this is not entirely wrong, it is mostly wrong. Purgatory is a place for the purging of sins and for becoming holy enough to enter paradise. There is no purging of sins in the flash upwards. It is not about becoming "worthy" or "holy" enough to move on. Rather, it is about remembering and letting go. If anything, the purgation of of sins happened to all of our beloved characters on the Island and in their earthly lives. No, the flash upwards is not purgatory, it is about remembrance and letting go. The only relation to purgatory is that both occur in the afterlife. Misconception 1-C about the flash upwards is that is it "not real" or is in some way imaginary. Christian, if we are to believe his words to Jack in the church, clearly refutes this view. He claims that he and Jack and everyone in the church is real. This is not some imaginary dream. It is as real as the lives all of the characters lived. This is just the very real step after death for all of these characters. Misconception 1-D, and I use the term misconception lightly here, for the show does not give us enough evidence to be clear here, is that the flash upwards reality is a "creation" of the Losties. Christian does say that "this is the place you all made together so that you could find one another." Many people have made a really big deal about this, claiming that the flash upwards only exists for the people in the church, because they "made" it. In my opinion, this is a misconception. I believe, with no rock solid evidence, that the flash upwards reality in general is the afterlife of all people. What the Losties "made" was their memories of each other and the ability to find one another and move on together after life. For a helpful analogy to the flash upwards, see C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce, which, I believe, paints a similar picture of the afterlife.

Misconception #2: One could only awaken and remember when confronted with one's soulmate. A nice idea, but one that becomes absurd when followed through. This misconception has led many to mock and even be angry at Sayid's awakening in the arms of Shannon. Surely Nadia was Sayid's soulmate, right? Of course, but if we take the soulmate view, then Jack's soulmate was partially Locke (he had a brief flash of memory with him), partially Kate (he had a little longer flash with her), but ultimately, Jack's soulmate was his father's coffin. Any fetishes for that? Also, Kate's soulmate is Claire giving birth, and Ben's soulmate is Desmond beating the crap out of him. Really, a better explanation is that moments of intense emotion and enlightenment on the Island are responsible for the awakening, not necessarily one's soulmate.

Finally, I will note a few peculiarities that I have not heard discussed, but I think shed light on the flash upwards reality.

First, time in the flash upwards reality is not linear in the same way as the earthly reality. Consider that Locke and Sun end up in the ER at the same moment, but this does not appear to be possible given a rigid timeline. Sun's timeline goes like this. She and Jin land at the airport, check into the hotel, the next morning they are confronted by Keemy and taken to the restaurant where Sun is shot. So, Sun would arrive at the ER the day after flight 815 landed.
Locke on the other hand lands at the airport, reports back to work, presumably the next day when Sun is shot, is fired, visits Rose at the temp agency, is assigned a job as a substitute teacher, gets to know Ben and plays along with Ben's attempt to seize the principal position at the school, only finally being run over (or under) by Desmond. Yet, he arrives a the ER at the exact same moment as Sun. Interesting, time in the flash upwards is a little bit bendy.

Second, when Ben and Locke have their conversation outside of the church, Ben has totally changed. At the beginning of the finale, we see a shot of Ben who is still beat up from his encounter with Desmond. His hair is short, and I believe (not having a DVR) that he is still in a sling. When we see him outside of the church, he is fully healed and has longer hair. So, physical reality in the flash upwards is also a little bit bendy. Locke is also different in that conversation. Clearly, he is able to walk, but he also bears no remnants of the physical trauma caused by the accident, which he still had in his awakening conversation with Jack. Finally, Kate arrives at the church in her black cocktail dress, but when we see her in the church, she also has changed. It appears that once people are awakened in the flash upwards, time and physical reality are pliable.

Thus, the flash sideways is truly real, but physical and time laws do not behave as they do in the earthly reality. Hope this adds to your understanding of the Lost mythology, or at least provides fodder for further conversation.