Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Celebration

This past weekend, my wife and I traveled to Orange County (by way of Riverside County!) to celebrate her grandfather's 90th birthday with the extended family. Family gatherings are always an odd mixture of excitement and apprehension. On the one hand, you get to see people that you care deeply about, and likely haven't seen in quite some time. On the other hand, these are the people who know exactly how to get under your skin, and any theological or political differences that may exist between you can be much more difficult to navigate than they might be with other people. That our weekend went so well is a testimony to the fact that such differences can be overcome.

For myself, this was also an opportunity to meet my youngest niece and nephew — twins — for the first time, and to spend some time with my five other nieces and nephews who, despite my being married for nearly five years now, I've only gotten to meet three or four times so far (I have no such relatives on my own side of the family). Of course, with so many kids running around, it's hard to get everyone to stand still for a picture. In the literally hundreds of pictures I have access to (not only my own, but from my brother-in-law and mother-in-law as well), this is the best one I've got. Only the oldest nephew (entering his senior year in high school) is missing. This picture was taken during our trip to the Mission at San Juan Capistrano.

But, like I said, the main event was the birthday celebration. We met at Marie Callendar's and surprised Michelle's grandfather there. Both of his sons (his only children), all of his grandchildren, and all of his great-grandchildren were there. This man's not the type to seek out a gathering like this, but I think he enjoyed the attention nonetheless.

It was a long weekend, and unfortunately we had to return home to get back to our jobs on Monday morning, while my nieces and nephews (and their parents and grandparents) got to go to Disneyland! Sometimes life just isn't fair....

And somehow, although most of them were still around in Southern California for yesterday's earthquake, they apparently didn't even feel it! (I guess they were far enough away from the epicenter.) In any event, I'm glad that the news reports indicate that there wasn't any major damage or injuries.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Notes from Montreat Epilogue 3: Theme Music!

Believe it or not, I had actually planned to "leave Montreat behind" (in blogging sense) with my entry on Thursday last week. I spent the past weekend with my wife's family, including 7 nieces and nephews, to celebrate her grandfather's 90th birthday. But we got home really late last night, and I haven't had a chance to process the pictures we took from the weekend, so I'll have to get to that later.

But I discovered something this morning that no extensively chronicled account of the Youth Conference experience would be complete without. The theme songs (we had two of them this time!) are now available for download as MP3s! This is in addition to PDFs of lyrics, guitar chords, and more, which were already available a few days ago.

So, those of you who were at Weeks 3 and 4 of the Youth Conferences, as well as those who just want to know what the heck I'm talking about, can go to this web site and download both "Alive" and "Throw Open the Doors" for free.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Weekly Transformers Feature: Megatron Megabolt

This is perhaps one of the most bizarre Transformers ever made, with a pretty unusual history to match. Although the toy's most prominent mode is a head, this is not really a Headmaster, since there's no toy it becomes the head of... at least, not unless you get creative....

Obviously, I need to backtrack a bit. This toy finds its origins in the second season of the Beast Machines cartoon. At the end of the first season, both of the leaders, Optimus Primal and Megatron, destroyed themselves in a no holds barred battle. Of course, this situation didn't last long. Optimus Primal was already back to normal form by the end of the first episode of the second season. Megatron didn't have it quite so easy. In his quest to eliminate all organic matter from his body (obtained in the previous series: Beast Wars), Megatron had created a giant ship in the shape of a head that was intended to house his spark. Eventually, Megatron's spark did make it there, but that took a couple of extra episodes to happen.

Hasbro apparently decided that this giant ship that looked like a head needed to have its own toy. But they took some time in doing it. In fact, the toy didn't come out until the Robots in Disguise line, by which time the Beast Era was a thing of the past, so the bio put on the toy made it clear that this toy represented not the Megatron of the Beast Era, but the Megatron of the Robots in Disguise cartoon, who was an entirely different character. And, in an attempt to tie the toy even more closely in to the plotline of that cartoon, there was even an oblique reference indicating that the head was designed to replace the head of the Robots in Disguise version of Fortress Maximus. I'm guessing the toy wasn't designed to actually do that, but if you remove all the spider-legs from it, it actually fits reasonably well.

Of course, if it's a Transformers toy, it has to transform, right? (Don't answer that) So Hasbro created a robot mode for the toy, which more or less looks Megatrony... or at least, it looks more or less like the Beast Era Megatron it was originally designed for. It really doesn't look at all like the Robots in Disguise Megatron that the toy bio says it is. But, oh well. This robot mode is rather unusual among Transformers in that its hands are not in fists (nor are the fingers articulated, which is what happens for most non-fist Transformers' hands). Even still, this toy is one of the better articulated toys of its era (an era when articulation was becoming more and more important). Other features of the toy include a flip-up missile launcher (and firing missile, of course) and wheels on the bottom of the head mode geared together so that when you push it, the spider-legs move up and down, simulating walking. This is a toy with lots of play value.

Perhaps it's not surprising that such a fun mold was recolored a couple of times. The version seen here is the original. The second version was called simply "Megabolt," who was apparently an entirely new character (although this character has never actually appeared in any official fiction). The third version finally saw the mold used as the character it was created to be. Sadly, this version was only available in Japan, and is now almost impossible to find.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Notes from Montreat Epilogue 2: Unpacking

Well, I'm back home, and have been in the process of unpacking everything for about four days now. Although I'm still getting some of the books, computer files, clothes, and other odds and ends I brought with me back into a state of normalcy, I think I'm going to need even more time to unpack some of the experiences that I've had.

Between this blog, Facebook, and my face-to-face communications, one phrase that I find I've used a lot over the couple of weeks I was in Montreat is "I've missed this." I've missed being around people who understand the significance of phrases like "Exit 64 on I-40," who know the goodness of My Father's Pizza, and who can talk at length about what David LaMotte is up to. I've missed early morning energizers that leave you exhausted and sweaty and messy and your glasses all fogged up, yet ready to face the day with enthusiasm. I've missed sappy theme songs sung every day (often multiple times a day). I've missed not feeling like I have to walk on eggshells around certain hot political and religious issues — not because everyone there agrees (for proof of this, one need only look at the mixture of friends who label themselves as "conservative" and "liberal" among those who've been added to my Facebook "friends" list over the past week), but because people are able to look past those issues and agree on the things that really matter. I've missed seeing buildings that I used to spend many, many happy hours in, and landmarks through which I've left my own mark on the city. I've missed Montreat.

But now I'm home. Of course, besides the memories and many, many pictures I've taken while there, I have a few more physical mementos of the occasion, too. I took advantage of the opportunity to pick up a Montreat car magnet and a David LaMotte bumper sticker. I have the gifts given to me by the Planning Team with the "Throw Open the Doors" logos on them. And I have what I'm calling my "Montreat Rock Collection." I briefly mentioned earlier that at the end of the week, we gave out prayer rocks to members of the Small Group. I currently have five such rocks. One will be sent to a Small Group member who sadly couldn't be present for the last meeting. Two of the others were from other leadership staff, as we did a similar ceremony among ourselves at the beginning of each week. The last two are from Small Group members — one for each week — that I happened to draw their rock as other members of the group had done. Likewise, four people out there have my rocks from these various occasions. It's one way of reminding us that we're all still connected, even though we're not all physically in Montreat any more.

It seems that I'm not the only one who's suffering from Montreat withdrawal. Many of the "status reports" on Facebook these past few days among my new friends say something to the effect of "I miss Montreat." Readjusting to the "real world" has been tough. But perhaps we can help each other. The prayer rocks are a great example. Those of you who have the prayer rocks with my name on them, keep those prayers coming! I can sure use them! I promise to do the same in return.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Notes from Montreat Epilogue 1: David LaMotte Concert

I stayed in Montreat for an extra day to see David LaMotte in concert. It's easily the only time I've only ever seen him in a dress shirt and jacket. The reason he wore such "nice" clothes on this occasion was that this concert was tied to a Patron's Dinner for supporters of the Mountain Retreat Association (although the concert itself was free to anyone able to attend). Before the concert began, they also introduced a short fund-raising video which included clips from the conferences I was attending for the previous couple of weeks (among others). That video is now available online. Check it out on Facebook! That the video was shown as planned is a testimony to the hard work of Montreat's Summer Staff, who had to deal with an unexpected technical problem. The light bulb in the video projector which hangs some 15 feet off of the ground had burnt out, and they didn't have the time before people would start arriving to get a ladder tall enough to change it properly, then test the projector out with the new bulb. So they wrangled a portable projector and scrambled to get the sound and video all working together in the last 40 minutes or so before the concert began. No one who arrived with the bulk of the crowd (and therefore didn't see all this scrambling in progress) would have even known that there was a problem!

David LaMotte's roughly hour-long concert included songs from across the spectrum of David's 18 years (so he tells us) of singing and touring. It's the first time I've ever heard a few of his songs live (even some songs that I know he'd written before the last time I saw him live about 9 years ago). One such song, "S.S. Bathtub" is a song from his children's album, recorded in 1998. It was especially cool when he interrupted himself while discussing a different song to talk to a small child in the front row (who requested "S.S. Bathtub") and, when learning that the boy would be three the next day, got everybody to sing "Happy Birthday to You."

Another noteworthy moment of the concert is when David sang his cover of Sting's "Walking in Your Footsteps." He did the same basic technique I described Jeffrey Harper using in my last post: looping various background sounds and stretches of music, and then layering them one on top of the other. I'm only sorry that I didn't keep track of how many layers David ultimately used. It seems like he must have had at least 10 going on at once!

Perhaps the most special bit for me was getting to speak with David briefly after the concert. There was a bit of a line, but after waiting 9 years, I wasn't in any hurry if he wasn't. He recognized my name, and even commented about how I was usually on the "other coast" and how we had just missed each other a number of times over the past few years. That made my day! Definitely worth staying an extra day in Montreat for!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Notes from Montreat: Finishing Up the Second Week

As I write this, it is Saturday morning and I'm sitting in the lobby of the Assembly Inn, talking with new friends as they get ready to depart from Montreat and head home. I'm actually sticking around for one more day to catch a David LaMotte concert, but will already be home by the time this appears on Monday morning. It's been an amazing two weeks.

I didn't make it to the Variety Show during my first week in Montreat, but went this past Thursday. It is traditional for the youth members of the planning team to host this event, and the youth for this particular planning team were more than up to the task. Just as we did when I was on the planning team back in 1992, they also got to lead in a couple of the morning energizers that Nick and Rachel usually did this week. The energizer that goes with "Istanbul" (as sung by They Might Be Giants) is a perennial favorite that I'm pleased to see is still popular 16 years later. In fact, that particular energizer might have been introduced at my conference, but I'm actually not sure (Obviously, I wouldn't have been the person responsible for that. If it was introduced during my conference, it would likely have been Steve Price that came up with it). That version of the song was released in 1990, so it's possible that a conference a year earlier (or two at the absolute most) might have come up with the energizer to go with it (indeed, it might not have even originated at Montreat at all!).

The Variety Show was particularly good this week, with many talented and entertaining acts. The show-stopper for me was an act done not by one of the youth, but by musician Jeffrey Harper. Throughout the conference, Jeffrey utilized a recording machine that enabled him to record a short bit of sound and play it in a loop. This made it possible to do, say, a bongo drum background while playing the guitar or the piano. For the Variety Show, Jeffrey layered several vocal elements, one-by-one, in front of the whole audience, until he was doing a full-fledged version of Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy." It was awesome!

Friday was the last day for the conference, and thus of my official reason for being in Montreat these past two weeks. Although most of the actual events were the same as last week (lessons, photo session for last Small Group meeting, candlelight service, etc.), the fact that I knew that I myself would be heading home soon added a bit of poignancy to the event. Then, at the end of the day, the Small Group Leaders, Planning Team, Work Crew, Summer Staff, and various other behind-the-scenes folks met for one last pizza party to celebrate the completion of not just this week of conferences, but of the "Theta" team's involvement. Lots of hugs and good-byes all around.

Then, on Saturday morning, folks started their way home. But it's not too quiet as I type this, since the "Omega" team and Small Group Leaders are already starting to arrive for their conferences, which will be going for the next two weeks. Part of me wishes I was sticking around to join them, but I'm also pretty tired of two weeks of such intense activity, so I'm ready to head home soon. Still, I hope that I can come back and do this again sooner rather than later. Nine years away from Montreat is far too long!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Weekly Transformers Feature: Ratchet

It's been a while since I've dealt with a Generation One figure, so this week I'm showcasing my favorite Generation One character of all: Ratchet. Ratchet is the Autobot's chief medical officer, and appropriately turns into an ambulance (or, at least, a van that's had ambulance markings stickered all over it). Ratchet plays a rather important role in at least two major arcs of the '80s Marvel Transformers comic. In both instances, he practically single-handedly defeats Decepticon leader Megatron despite the fact that, as a surgeon, Ratchet claims to have no skills as a warrior. Yay for brains over brawn!

A quick glance at this figure's robot mode, and most people will instantly ask the same question: "Where is Ratchet's head?" It's a fair question. Indeed, this rather pathetic excuse for a robot form has probably already led most of you to wonder, "Why is this guy Mark's favorite?" If the toy were all there were to Ratchet, I'd have to agree. This is definitely one case where nostalgia due to a character's fictional depiction overrides common sense when it comes to affection for that character's toy. But having already explained Ratchet's important role in the comics, perhaps a bit of a history lesson is in order. The original Transformers toys did not actually start out as "Transformers," but were in fact created for one of a couple of different Japanese toy lines that Hasbro brought to the United States. With the help of Marvel to create a unified storyline for these diverse toys, which only had the idea of transforming from one form to another in common, the concept of "Transformers" was created. Ratchet was actually created for the "Diaclone" line, which also gave us Overdrive, which I reviewed back in February. In the Japanese backstory for Diaclone, the robots were not actually considered sentient beings in their own right. In fact, the Diaclone robots were actually mecha, piloted by human beings. This concept shows up a lot in Japanese fiction, but was relatively uncommon in the United States at the time. In any event, although many of the piloted mecha of the Diaclone line did, in fact, have humanoid heads, it wasn't really considered all that big of a deal if they didn't. In the case of the mold from which we get the Ratchet figure, the Diaclone version came with a tiny figure that was supposed to sit in a chair just behind the windshield. That "chair" is still there in the Transformers version of Ratchet, but Hasbro attempted to give the robot a "face," by giving kids a dark sticker with a "face" that could be placed on the back of that chair to be seen through the windshield. You should be able to see that "face" if you click on the robot pictures to get the full-sized version. It's not very convincing, I agree, but that at least answers the question of where Ratchet's head is.

If nothing else, the Ratchet toy is notable for also coming with a "base" accessory, which the robot can ride on if one so chooses. Sadly, this was the only toy version of Ratchet available for quite a long time, and it's debatable whether or not this character has ever gotten a decent robot form. The BotCon 2005 version (scroll down after clicking the link to see the picture) isn't at all bad, but is one of the rarest and most expensive exclusives out there. Maybe someday when I win the lottery (which I pretty much never play, so that could be a while), I'll get one. There does seem to be some hope on the horizon, though. Ironhide, a character depicted by a recolor of this toy back in Generation One, is slated for a new toy in the coming months. It has been all but promised that Ratchet will be a repaint of that mold. If this is true, fans who have been waiting for nearly 25 years for a decent transformable version of Generation One Ratchet at an affordable price may not have to wait much longer.

EDIT: Long after I'd written this review, but before it actually posted (maybe only a day before, but still...), Big Bad Toy Store listed a new custom product designed to give actual physical heads to these toys. I have not yet seen pictures of what they look like when placed on actual figures, but fans may consider this custom project worth their time.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Notes from Montreat: Wednesday of My Second Week

Wednesday night of Week Four of the 2008 Montreat Youth Conferences will forever be remembered as "The Night the Bat Came to Worship."

It's not that bats are uncommon in Montreat. Quite the opposite, in fact. I remember a time during my freshman year that a bat actually flew into our dorm building, and was eventually chased out with a baseball bat (a tale we always referred to by simply saying two words: "bat bat"). We even had a bat fly into a worship service at the end of the previous week, but it didn't stay around for very long. But on Wednesday night, a bat flew in near the beginning of the worship service, and remained for pretty much the whole thing, flying around Anderson Auditorium. It just wouldn't be ignored. And for hundreds of youth and adults who may not already know that bats occasionally fly into buildings in Montreat, this was a noteworthy occurrence.

Thankfully, our preacher, Bridgett Green, had the grace to accept the bat's presence--even incorporating a mention of it that worked quite nicely with the theme of taking risks: "It is a risk to preach with a bat flying over your head, but it's a risk I'm willing to take!"--which injected a bit of humor into the evening which released a lot of tension.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Notes from Montreat: First Half of My Second Week

As I write this, it's Tuesday night of my second week in Montreat. There's not much point in going through the play-by-play of what this week is like, since so much of it is the same as last week. The actual youth are different, of course, and so I have a new Small Group to lead, and it's certainly not quite the same experience as last time. But I think the group is starting to come together pretty well. The real challenge has been dealing with some expected meeting space issues.

As I indicated last week, my Small Group is meeting on the third floor of the Winsborough, which is one of the lodging spaces owned by the conference center. They're trying to get the place cleaned this week, and so they actually arranged to have no one living in the building this week. But somehow or another, the Small Group assigned to that location didn't get relocated, so when I came out of the building on Monday morning, I surprised a couple of housekeepers who didn't expect anyone to be around. Then, later in the day, I found the building had been locked when I needed to get back in! Upon learning of this, I spent the next hour tracking down the people I needed to talk to in order to get the situation straightened out. I was then able to arrange to have the building left unlocked for the hours of the day I knew I'd need it. Then, on Tuesday, as we arrived for our afternoon meeting, we found that something that had been done as part of the cleaning process was leaving an unpleasant odor (kind of like burnt popcorn), so we moved the bulk of that meeting outside to the parking lot. We'll see what adventures await for the rest of the week!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Notes from Montreat: Friday

Friday is the last day of the week-long Youth Conference, and as such is always a bit of a bittersweet time. There's a lot of fun to be had, pictures to be taken, addresses to be exchanged, and so on. But all this is happening for the very reason that we all know that the week is near its end, and everyone will have to be going home soon.

The morning energizers paid homage to the energizers of the rest of the week by combining bits of lots of them into a medley. As each new clip started, another Planning Team or Leadership person came onto the Anderson Auditorium stage to join in. By the end of it all, we were simultaneously worn out yet more awake than we had been previously. It sounds contradictory, but I've been through it enough to say that it really does seem to work that way.

Another tradition on Friday of the Youth Conference is to bring out any members of the upcoming year's Planning Team to announce next year's theme. After a brief video clip depicting many of the ways in which the world is broken and needing as much help as God can give it, the team announced that the 2009 Montreat Youth Conference theme will be "World on Fire."

Between the five years' worth of Youth Conferences I attended in high school (1988-1992, inclusive) and the youth conferences I've attended in other capacities as an adult, I figure I've been to about a dozen of these weeks by now (sometimes more than one in the same year, as will be the case this year, as well). Each week, although different, is an experience I don't want to see end. I sympathize with those who aren't quite ready to go home yet. Yet it's our job in the last Small Group session to get the youth ready for that journey. The entire point of going to the conference is to prepare young men and women for the realities they'll face outside of the conference. In that vein, we attempted to tie the week's theme together and prepare the youth for their return home by talking about "Doors to Opportunity." The "Threshold" groups-within-the-group were asked to create a commercial or slogan on the concept, and came up with some very creative ideas. This group was demonstrating a "Let's Make a Deal" style of commercial: "Will you take the trip to Las Vegas or the Mission Trip?"

At the beginning of the second Small Group Meeting of the afternoon, we took about a half-an-hour to make sure that everyone who had their cameras was able to get pictures taken with the group. Since my wife Michelle was with me, she was able to handle the cameras while everybody from the group got to be in the picture. I'm still not sure how I'll handle this next week, since she's had to return to California already. I guess I'll need to make some friends outside of the Small Group circles! Since this was to be our last meeting, we also had a time to write affirmations and encouragements in each other's journals that we had been using for the week.

Another of the ways that we prepared the youth for the return home is by participating in a closure ceremony. Each Small Group member (youth and adult) puts their name on a rock with a Sharpie. After the rocks have been mixed up (and the ink has been given a chance to dry!), each member takes a rock. Whoever's rock they choose (they can't keep their own) will be a person that member is to pray for as they return home, and they are to keep the rock as a memento of their time at the conference.

After the Small Group meeting officially ended, members took some time to hang around and take more pictures and exchange e-mail addresses, but the conference wasn't quite over yet. After one last recreation event, the final worship service was held. As is the tradition with Montreat Youth Conferences, the final worship service is a candlelight service. After the sermon and a few songs, everyone in attendance is given a candle, and we gather around Lake Susan, where more songs are sung and a final liturgy is read. It hasn't always been the case that this was the very last event of the conference, but it was certainly done that way this year, and I have to say that I think it's very appropriate to close things out this way.

The Small Group Leaders and Planning Team, as well as a few other important staff members, then gathered one last time for a party in which everyone is recognized for their contributions, and we celebrate the successful completion of that week's activities. We also say a lot of good-byes, since a lot of folks head home the following morning. I'm one of those who's sticking around for another week, and Saturday was a welcome day of rest after some long days with little sleep. I'll need to gather that energy in order to do it all over again!

P.S. Jerry L. Van Marter of the Presbyterian News Service did a series of articles on aspects of this past week of the Youth Conference, as well. He's paid a lot more attention to the details of the keynote messages than I have done, and he's had access to some better pictures (I'm just grabbing the opportunities with the camera as I can get them!), so you may want to take a look.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Weekly Transformers Feature: Megazarak

Last week, I talked about an exclusive that was intended to be distributed at the 2004 Official Transformers Convention, but wasn't quite ready in time. This week, I'll talk about the exclusive that actually did make it to the convention. Megazarak is a recolor of the Armada Megatron mold. The story goes that Megazarak is a Decepticon from an alternate reality (the Transformers saga has quite a lot of those!) who was responsible for the total destruction of almost every single Autobot in his own reality (that's not so common!). I imagine that a creature capable of such a feat would make for a rather interesting villain in the stories, but sadly, the only story that exists for Megazarak is a rather short comic that was only available as part of the brochure given at the convention itself, and I've never had a chance to read it (although a short summary is available here).

Having originated from an Armada mold, Megazarak comes with a smaller Transformer, in this case named Caliburn. However, as was the case with Sentinel Maximus, the smaller Transformer is not generally referred to as a "Mini-Con," as the Armada versions would have been. Indeed, Caliburn is referred to as a "Micromaster," although I expect he could just as well have been called a "Targetmaster" (you can see one of Caliburn's weapon modes attached to Megazarak's arm in the picture above. Note: Ape-Linq is called a "Mini-Con" on Sentinel Maximus' packaging, but almost nowhere else. Caliburn, on the other hand, is never called a "Mini-Con," despite the Mini-Con insignia that Caliburn retains as part of the original mold).

Megazarak turns into a kind of tank, while Caliburn can transform into a wheeled-buggy with blasters. Although the electronics have been removed from this mold (as is common with most convention or club exclusives), there are still a number of spring-loaded gimmicks that can be activated if you plug Caliburn into various hardpoints on Megazarak's surface. While these features make for a fun toy, they don't translate very well into a series of pictures, so rather than bore you with that, you'll just have to take my word for it!

Notes from Montreat: Wednesday and Thursday

By the time Wednesday comes in a Youth Conference week, most of the Small Groups are getting to know each other fairly well, but after a couple of straight days of intense activity and little sleep, pretty much everyone is fairly tired. This is where the energizer leaders come in. It is their job every morning to make sure that the conferees (and their leaders!) are awake enough to not fall asleep during keynote. The energizer leaders for Weeks III and IV are Nick Reed and Rachel Harrod. Here you can see them at the beginning of the day about to lead the group in some eye-opening activity.

We play games in Small Groups, too. The theme of the day was "Open the Doors to Our Hearts," and dealt a lot with the idea of taking risks. Perhaps I was thinking in this vein by finally playing a game that I knew was really popular with the youth, despite some constraints of a rather small meeting space. The game is called "Never Have I Ever." Basically, whoever's in the middle says something they've never done (such as, "I've never been to New York") and anyone who had done that thing has to get up and find another seat, while the person in the middle grabs one of the vacated seats. Whoever's left without an available seat must think up something they've never done, and so on. It's one of the more action-oriented games we've played (perhaps why it's so popular).

Wednesday was our free afternoon, and besides my mom and Ruth having come out earlier, our friend Maria (formerly of Fuller, but now working on her PhD at Duke) came over from Durham to Montreat to spend some time with my wife and me. It was good to catch up, and to have a fairly quiet day away from all the activity. I've been loving it all, but it has been rather tiring!

By Thursday, I think everybody was a bit worn out, and the energizers were mercifully low-key. Here's a picture of three of the high school-aged Planning Team members as they got ready for the morning activities. From left-to-right, that's Sarah Paulson in the blue, Sarah Are (yes, the daughter of Tom Are) in the grey, and Jerry Kivett in the green, surrounded by conferees ready for the morning fun!

The Thursday theme was "The Church Door," and we started the process of turning our attention back home. What is the church supposed to be like? How do we fit into that? The scripture passage for the day was the scene from the gospel of John where Jesus washes his disciples feet, and we were asked to do a kind of "foot washing" in our Small Groups. Although I had made plans to use a section of creek near Lake Susan for this purpose, it ended up raining right at the time that I would have taken the group out to the creek. Thankfully, I had a "Plan B" handy, since the Planning Team had given us a pack of baby wipes to use for this purpose. It's not the same thing, but at least it enabled us to do something resembling a foot washing, and I think that at least some of the group found it meaningful.

Although my Small Group Leader duties are officially over most days by 4:00 pm, I've been involved in a number of other things, and generally haven't gotten to bed until midnight-ish each night. Some of the time in between has been good for updating my computer with all the pictures that I've taken over the course of the day. I've only been able to use the barest fraction of the pictures here, but it's still leading to much longer blog entries than I'd anticipated going in. I wonder how things will turn out next week when I go through this whole process again! But at least for now, it seems best to just "fit in" an extra entry....

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Notes from Montreat: Sunday Night - Tuesday

As far as the Montreat Conference Center is concerned, this is Week Three of the 2008 Youth Conference. There are six such weeks throughout the summer, broken into two-week groups. Although each week gets a new crop of youth and their back-home advisors, the leadership and planning team are the same for each two-week block, rotating out with a different group after that two-week block is over. The first two weeks are the "Alpha" team, Weeks Three and Four are "Theta" and Weeks Five and Six will be "Omega." I'll be a Small Group Leader for both weeks of "Theta."

The first evening of "Throw Open the Doors!" was on Sunday night, and was pretty much just an evening of introductions. After the event in Anderson Auditorium where the planning team and leadership introduced themselves, there was a recreational mixer in the parking lot of the Howerton Dorm (a building where I used to live for half-a-year while I was student at Montreat College, and where all of our meals as college students were served). In keeping with the theme, participants were each given a colored piece of paper with a key drawn on it, as well as other various images. Throughout the event, the recreation leaders would ask people to group up with people with the same color, or perhaps with the same Disney character, or some other feature on the paper key. This would enable them to get to meet as many new people as possible in the short time allowed (A leader made a comment at one point about one of our small group games being like "speed dating," and the description seems apt here, as well. After all, these are mostly high school students, and you just know they're checking out where all the cute guys and girls are!).

On Monday, the conference began in earnest. The theme for the days was "Doors of Possibility." I personally appreciated the opening keynote message, in which the co-keynoters both related their experiences at Montreat in the past: how excited and uneasy they were about their first times at a conference, but how meaningful Montreat became to them. Then they also shared their nervousness at taking on the new role as keynoters. They could easily have been telling my own story.

After keynote, we broke into Small Groups for the first time. Eight groups at a time met at various doors around the auditorium, and from there dispersed to their meeting spaces. When it came time for my group to meet, I was up front carrying a sign with the number "37" on it, and when all the conferees assigned to my group were there, we began the nearly straight-up journey to the Winsborough. I've decided that if there isn't a bumper sticker that says "Montreat: God's Stairmaster," there ought to be!

I'm not sure how much to share about my small group experience. As a group, we've already had a couple of pictures taken by the conference photographer, but those aren't on my camera, and so I don't yet have access to them for posting here. I've noticed that pictures for Weeks I and II are already available on the Montreat 2008 Youth Conferences web page, so I'm hoping that these will be available there in a few weeks.

Moving on for now to Monday night, the evening event was a collection of lots of different games available to be played by the conferees. There was Giant Jenga, a Hungry Hungry Hippos Tournament, a Shadow Dancing wall, chalk drawings, and more. Musician Jeffrey Harper seemed to enjoy visiting with the conferees and playing Twister and Hungry Hungry Hippos!

Tuesday's theme was "Broken Doors." We were told in advance that this would be the "heavy" day when we talked about sin, and how the world is not what God intended it to be. I have little doubt that the day was pretty rough for a lot of the conferees, especially those who I've heard about who've suffered recent tragedies. I can only hope that the discussions were an occasion for healing, rather than adding to the pain. We've certainly tried in our small groups and in the keynote and worship services to balance out the message with the hope that God brings.

The Tuesday evening event was a return to much more light-hearted fare: a "drive-in" movie showing of Monsters, Inc. on the hillside just to the side of Anderson Auditorium. I didn't stick around beyond the first half-hour or so, but it looked like a lot of fun. It's a great movie, and was an amazingly appropriate choice given the door-related theme.

Because I'm in Montreat, rather than the West Coast, I'm a bit closer to my folks in Kentucky than I normally am (a bit less than 400 miles instead of 2000!), so my mom and my sister took a special trip down to see my wife and me. My Small Group Leader duties have prevented me from spending too much time with them, myself, but they joined us for worship on Monday night, and Michelle was able to spend the better part of Tuesday with them. Here's a picture of us at dinner on Tuesday night.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Notes from Montreat: Before the Conference Begins

Well, we made it! And although I have to come down to the lobby of the place we're staying to pick up internet access on my computer, I can still access the blog. Of course, at the time this is being written, the conference has barely started yet! Whether I'll continue to have free time enough to to make regular updates is still up in the air.

Michelle and I arrived in Montreat in the late afternoon on July 4th, pretty exhausted from the long flights and little sleep we'd gotten the previous night (in fact, I didn't get any sleep the previous night, knowing we had to leave the apartment to get to the airport a little after 1 am!). We're staying at the Assembly Inn (the view of the city above is courtesy of our room's window). The Assembly Inn is the Montreat Conference Center's main place of residence for conference attendees. For most conferences, anyway. The Youth Conferences are so huge (roughly 1000+ youth and their adult sponsors each week) that it's going to be mostly just the leadership and small group volunteers (that's me!) that will be staying here for the next couple of weeks (there are some youth in the Inn, but mostly they'll have to find other places all over the city--college dorm rooms, the conference center's other inn: the Winsborough, private residences).

By about 7:00 pm (local time, which is three hours later than the Pacific Time I'm used to), we were able to walk around town a bit, and I showed Michelle a lot of the main buildings of the conference center and the college that I attended for my BA degree. Most everything was closed down, of course, due to the July 4th holiday, so I had to settle for this cute little bunny rabbit outside of the student center (Someone would probably be upset to know that we just let it nibble at the plants without trying to stop it!). Nature thrives at Montreat. Very different than the Southern California locales in which Michelle and I spend most of our time these days.

Saturday was the day that most of the Small Group Leaders actually arrived. I'm sure that Michelle and I got here a full day earlier for the simple reason that, even catching the first plane of the morning from LAX, we were unable to arrive in Montreat before 2:00 pm the same day, and 2:00 pm was when Small Group Leader training began. These sessions helped me in two ways: 1) Quite a few of the "veteran" leaders affirmed that this year's Small Group Leader manual, written by Jeff-Peterson Davis, was one of the best-written manuals they'd ever used, making their (our!) jobs much easier; 2) I found I was able to "enter in" and enjoy getting to know the other Small Group Leaders fairly well. On this count, I suppose I shouldn't have worried. I've always found this to be true in conferences of years past, as well. But since it's been so long since I've been at one of these conferences (not to mention never having led one before!), I wasn't sure.

I'll be leading Small Group #37 both weeks, and we'll be meeting on the 3rd floor of the aforementioned Winsborough. It's not a space I've ever considered, and oddly, one of few spaces in Montreat that I can't claim intimate knowledge of. I did stay in the Winsborough with a Youth Conference group back in 1991, but I don't think I've ever been up on the third floor before. Anyway, I was able to get in the room on Sunday night and set up a bit, although I think I'll need to move a few things around Monday morning (today, from the standpoint of the reader, but I'm having to get this all written Sunday night, since I know I won't have time tomorrow morning!), since the small groups are said to be 32 members strong this week (That's nearly twice the normal size, and I already know that there are only 25 chairs in that circle in the picture. There are more chairs in the room, but I'd hoped to have a table set up off to the side.).

The conference started Sunday night with a "preview" of upcoming events. The theme for this year's conference is "Throw Open the Doors!", so it seemed appropriate to close with this picture I took just as that event was beginning. Hopefully, I'll have a chance to debrief on how the first couple of days went by mid-week.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Weekly Transformers Feature: Sentinel Maximus

Seeing as today's the Fourth of July, it seemed appropriate to go with a red, white and blue Transformer. There are a few of them to choose from. Most Optimus Primes would qualify, but I thought I'd do something different. For those who don't know, Sentinel Maximus was an exclusive created for the Official Transformers Convention in 2004. But this is definitely a case of things not turning out according to plan. Without getting into a lot of messy details that non-Transformers fans won't care about and that Transformers fans have heard way too much about, this toy wasn't ready in time for the convention itself, and the company that ran the convention lost the license shortly thereafter. Hasbro then saw to it (at their own expense, by all accounts) that Sentinel Maximus was shipped to as many people who had bought it as they could get mailing addresses for. Although it does seem that a few people who paid for it before the convention were still, sadly, unable to get it (apparently a few folks had moved between the time they purchased Sentinel Maximus and the time Hasbro was able to finally get the toy ready), it is thanks to Hasbro's efforts that most fans who had purchased Sentinel Maximus were able to get the toy eventually.

Like all convention exclusives, Sentinel Maximus is a repaint of an earlier toy: in this case, Armada Overload. But the designers were ambitious with this exclusive version. You can already see the remolded head in the robot picture above, but to explain further, I need to back up a bit. The Overload mold was, in some measure, an homage to the headmaster concept. The head of the toy comes off to form another part (technically, it's another Mini-Con, but I said I was done with those, so we'll just ignore that fact). But instead of simply transforming from a head to a smaller robot, this part also transforms to a separate vehicle. The little red truck you see up front in the picture to the left was the part that formed the head in Sentinel Maximus' robot mode, and the rest of the toy forms the trailer.

Now, if you just take the truck, and transform it into a robot, you can see that its head was also remolded, when compared to the head of the original version that came with Overload. This little robot is called "Ape-Linq." This is actually the first time that a convention exclusive character was given a second toy (although Hasbro added the hyphen this time around for some reason). Whereas Sentinel Maximus' remolded head resembles Optimus Prime's (or, more accurately, Primal Prime, but that's a long story), Ape-Linq's head is clearly based on the original Apelinq (who was actually just a straight Transmetal Optimus Primal repaint, but this version is clearly intended to homage Apelinq, not Primal). (NOTE for non-Transformers fans: Optimus Prime and Optimus Primal are two distinctly different characters. At least most of the time... Yes, it's really confusing....)

Ape-Linq has a couple of other tricks, admittedly just inherited from the original mold. Besides his vehicle mode (here's a better picture of just the vehicle), he also transforms into a weapon that can be held by a larger robot, making Ape-Linq a rare combination Headmaster and Targetmaster (i.e., a weapon that turns into a small robot. I really need to get around to reviewing a Targetmaster one of these days...). Unfortunately, since turning Ape-Linq into a weapon requires removing Sentinel Maximus' head, and it doesn't really fit in Sentinel Maximus' fists straight anyway, this mode doesn't get used too often....

The original version of this mold, Overload, was created to merge with both Armada Optimus Prime and Armada Jetfire to form a super-powered robot. Since Sentinel Maximus was created specifically for a convention, no analogous match-up exists with other toys, but if you happen to have both of those Armada toys, Sentinel Maximus is still perfectly capable of combining with them (and this would actually provide a way to use Ape-Linq's weapon mode!). I actually have very little from Armada, and even less of those larger-sized toys, so I can't demonstrate such a match-up here. However, I decided to play around with the fact that Hasbro eventually released the toy with the words "Official Collectors Club Exclusive" on the package. A few years later, Fun Publications, the new company behind the Transformers club and conventions, released a club exclusive based on the Armada Jetfire mold: Astrotrain. Although Astrotrain is a Decepticon, and therefore an enemy to the Autobot Sentinel Maximus, this gives me a chance to show off Sentinel Maximus' ability to carry Astrotrain around while in vehicle mode. Now we just need an excuse to do an exclusive based on Armada Prime (I'm not holding my breath), and we're good to go!

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Preparing for Montreat

Tomorrow, I'll be catching a plane for Montreat, NC, where I'll be for the better part of the month. I will be volunteering as a Small Group Leader for two one-week Youth Conferences. I've already arranged for the usual Friday Transformer updates to be posted on their regular schedule. Monday and Wednesday posts will depend, in large part, on two factors: 1) What kind of Internet access I am able to get in this valley within the Blue Ridge Mountains, 2) How much free time I have between my Montreat duties. If I am able, however, I hope to post updates on what the Youth Conferences are like, and possibly some pictures.

Although the Youth Conferences were a very important part of my story while growing up, I've never been a Small Group Leader before, and it's been nearly a decade since I was in Montreat last. I'm simultaneously excited and nervous about the prospect. I'm not entirely sure why I keep finding myself drawn to various kinds of youth work. I never considered myself very much "in tune" with youth culture even when I was a part of it myself, and I have little doubt that the youth of today are quite a bit different than the youth of my time (from 16-20 years ago, depending on how you count! In fact, this year marks the 20th anniversary of my first trip to Montreat.). Also, I still consider my last church job (a part-time youth position in a largely Filipino Methodist church just over five years ago) something less than successful.

But before that job, I did have a couple of reasonably successful internships working with young people (the latter of which was explicitly a youth position, although not with high school students), and I've prepared for this experience by reviewing the Small Group Leader Manual I was provided with—which, I should note, was written by Jeff Peterson-Davis, who was one of the music leaders (along with his wife Kerri) back when I was a Planning Team Member for the Montreat Youth Conferences of 1992—and have found the materials fairly easy to understand.

Perhaps God's trying to tell me something? I don't know. But I have been trying to be fairly intentional (perhaps it's more accurate to say I'm "renewing my efforts") about putting myself in a position where I can find ways to use the gifts I've been given and take advantage of opportunities that arise. I've been concerned about having stayed in the same job so long that I've allowed my church experience to become rusty, but feel that I can't continue to use my (otherwise legitimate) need for a stable income as an excuse to keep me from being more involved in ministry.

Indeed, the timing of this trip to Montreat is rather interesting, coming on the heels of the PC(USA)'s 218th General Assembly, during which Bruce Reyes-Chow (who was kind enough to leave a comment on that blog entry linked in the previous paragraph) was elected to serve as Moderator. On the day that I arrive in Montreat, there will be a reception for Reyes-Chow in Anderson Auditorium that will be open to the public. I've never met him personally, but several of my Facebook friends have indicated that his election is a hopeful sign as the PC(USA) navigates some fairly troubled waters in the months and years ahead, and perhaps I'll get a chance to thank him personally for the words of encouragement he gave me. (OFF-TOPIC NOTE: No doubt some of my readers are curious as to my position on certain of those "troubled water" issues. All I'll say for right now is, whatever side you're on, don't assume that I agree or disagree with you fully. I think both sides of these debates have stuff to answer for, not the least of which is an apparent inability to take the other side seriously.)

But as far what God's doing with me and Montreat... well, it's fairly solid Presbyterian theology to assert that God can (and does) work through human beings, in all our brokenness and ineptitude, to achieve God's purposes. I truly hope that this proves to be the case here, as I take a step out in faith and hope to serve.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Special Transformers Feature: Transformers Club Topspin

I got my 2008 Transformers club membership figure, Topspin, yesterday. Only about a week later than the first folks started to talk about getting theirs, which isn't too bad. Naturally, I had to go ahead and toss a note up here talking about it (I even had to preempt my already-planned entry for today, but since that one's time-sensitive, it's going up as an extra entry tomorrow). Here you see the plastic bag the figure came in, with the figure not yet removed. We can't allow this situation to stand! Out it comes!

Like the previous club combiner figures, Topspin uses a fair bit of colored clear plastic. While I definitely think that this makes these figures unique and attractive, I do share the concerns of some fans that this type of plastic may not be as strong as others. I have no conclusive evidence that clear plastic is, in fact, more brittle. That's just the prevalent fan theory. But having already had a breakage incident with my Barricade figure (which uses the same mold as the upcoming final part of the club combiner, to come out one year from now), I'm not eager to see that trouble duplicated with these expensive-to-replace figures. I guess I'll just have to be careful.

This mold is (perhaps inexplicably) my favorite of the Energon Combiner limb molds (which all of the club combiner toys have been recolored from. More on that below). I just think it manages to look nice in both modes, and has a weapon that, while not a proper hand, at least has discernible digits and a discernible thumb for the combined form. If I had my way, the club would be offering all-new fists and footstands for the combined form, but I'm not holding breath on that one.

Unfortunately, my specimen seems to have a flaw. You probably can't tell in the above picture, but this close-up shows that Topspin's face has a crack in it! I can't recall whether anyone else has had this particular problem or not (or, at least, can't find the reference I think I recall, so it may have been talking about something else), but it's a disappointment nonetheless. Thankfully, I expect I'll be getting another copy from a friend of a friend, since I helped pay for his trip to BotCon.

The Topspin mold has previously been used for Blackout and Stormcloud, the two helicopter limbs from the Energon combiner, Bruticus Maximus. Just like the combiners of Generation One, the Energon combiners were designed to have interchangeable limbs, so with three Energon combiners to choose from, the club didn't have to re-use limbs the same way that the original Energon versions did. What they've done is use the two unique limb molds from Bruticus Maximus, and the two unique limb molds from Superion Maximus. A lot of folks wish that the club had used at least one limb mold from the remaining Energon combiner, Constructicon Maximus, for a variety of reasons. I'm glad they didn't. Neither of the limb molds from that combiner are as good in their individual robot forms, in my opinion. Your mileage may vary, of course.

Here are the four figures we've gotten so far, eagerly awaiting their final member (at which point I'll obviously have to find a new spot from which to display them!).

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