07.23.21

dune and racism

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:01 pm by Administrator

it’s been a while since i’ve revisited my top 10 list of favorite books, but i know that dune will make the list every time. and that’s despite the fact that i’ve grown vastly more sensitive to artistic representations of race and civilization. there’s a strong argument to be made that dune rehashes the conventional white savior narrative, but i’m inclined to believe that while frank herbert was surely a product of his times, we who experience the story in the present have the latitude to reimagine the story in any number of ways. in fact, it is our responsibility to reimagine all the stories we have inherited from generations past, in order to reinforce what is true and to dispel the antiquated notions that tend to lace any wisdom of old. this is true for the bible—a sordid tale of a tribe’s genocidal destruction of canaan, later expanded into a broader fantasy of ideological world conquest—and this is true for dune.

i want to anticipate denis villeneuve’s retelling of dune with some eagerness, but the casting alone has caused me no uncertain distress, and this has led me to question whether villeneuve has given any thought to the challenges facing the viewership of these times. i’ve written about this previously, but i want to offer my perspective again in a different manner. let me first start with a dungeons & dragons classification of dune’s major characters, using the lawful/chaotic and good/evil traits to characterize them. for those of you unfamiliar with d&d alignments, tough luck. you grew up in the wrong decade.

lawful good:

1. paul atreides
2. lady jessica
3. leto atreides
4. thufir hawat
5. gurney halleck
6. liet kynes

neutral/chaotic good:

1. chani
2. duncan idaho
3. stilgar

lawful neutral:

1. helen gaius mohiam
2. princess irulan
3. the guild navigators

lawful evil:

1. piter de vries
2. emperor shaddam
3. vladimir harkonnen

neutral/chaotic evil:

1. rabban
2. wellington yueh
3. feyd rautha

i’ll let you digest that list first. you might disagree with some of the classifications, but i’m sure most of us would agree that our friends in the atreides clan represent the lawful good of the bunch (not a bad apple among them except for yueh), while our free-spirited and anti-authority fremen are in the club of chaotic good people. the nastiest of the bunch are the harkonnens and their conspirator wellington yueh, all of whom prove to be elusive, traitorous, and inescapably evil in the chaotic sense of the word.

now, allow me to associate these characters with the ethnicity/race of the actor cast by villeneuve for his particular rendition of the story.

lawful good:

1. paul atreides (white)
2. lady jessica (white)
3. leto atreides (white)
4. thufir hawat (black)
5. gurney halleck (white)
6. liet kynes (black)

neutral/chaotic good:

1. chani (mixed/black)
2. duncan idaho (mixed/hawaiian)
3. stilgar (white/european)

lawful neutral:

1. helen gaius mohiam (white)
2. princess irulan (not cast)
3. the guild navigators (?)

lawful evil:

1. piter de vries (white)
2. emperor shaddam (not cast)
3. vladimir harkonnen (white/european)

neutral/chaotic evil:

1. rabban (white/filipino)
2. wellington yueh (chinese)
3. feyd rautha (not cast)

let me offer a few observations.

the lawful characters in dune are generally the power players. in particular, vladimir harkonnen, leto and paul atreides, lady jessica, and helen mohiam all have authority in the world of dune, and several of these characters prove to have special powers. all five of the actors playing these characters in villeneuve’s rendition of dune are white.

the actors playing the chaotic good characters (our free-spirited friends who end up being devoted followers of paul atreides) are interestingly of mixed race background and perhaps racially ambiguous. in saying this, i mean no offense to jason momoa and zendaya, whom i find to be tremendously attractive and very skilled in their craft.

by contrast, our chaotic evil characters—the clear villains of this story—are played by dave bautista (mixed-race filipino) and chang chen (asian). you won’t find whites or blacks in the chaotic evil camp. no, denis villeneuve’s team made sure that the story’s most duplicitous characters showed up a little yellow on the silver screen, in the tradition of everyone’s favorite star wars film phantom menace. in these trump-dominated times, i find it particularly interesting that a chinese actor was recruited for the role of wellington yueh—an outsider brought into the family and so trusted (a model minority no less!) up until the very moment that he stabs all of his white friends in the back (a betrayal of pandemic proportions!).

i do want to give villeneuve and his team some credit for casting mckinley henderson (a black actor) in the role of thufir hawat and duncan-brewster (a black actress) in the role of liet kynes. regardless, it’s pretty clear that our black characters play second fiddle to our privileged principals, who are universally and gloriously white.

for those who believe that villeneuve’s casting decisions represent a faithful translation of frank herbert’s original story, i want to remind you that dune is fantasy fiction, not a program on the history channel. no matter how you look at it, villeneuve’s dune features a racial hierarchy. one might argue that this is progress when compared to david lynch’s 1984 version, which had virtually no actors of color at all, but i am not sure that villeneuve’s new racial order represents any meaningful sense of inclusive diversity. to me, it’s a reflection of narrow-mindedness, a lack of imagination, and a total disconnection with the movements of our society.

i’d like to finish this entry by offering my own proposed casting assignments for dune, mainly using the actors identified by villeneuve’s team but with a few notable additions (actors i have some fondness for). can’t you see john boyega being a great paul atreides? if not, then why not? check yourself. boyega’s twice the actor that chalamet is.

paul atreides: john boyega
chani: zendaya (no change)
duncan idaho: chang chen
lady jessica: sharon duncan-brewster
gurney halleck: chiwetel ejiofor
rabban: ben mendelsohn
leto: ken watanabe
stilgar: stellan skaarsgard
piter de vries: david dastmalchian (no change)
vladimir harkonnen: jason momoa
gaius helen mohiam: michelle yeoh
thufir hawat: mckinley henderson (no change)
wellington yueh: timothee chalamet
liet kynes: javier bardem

07.21.21

the underperformance of our society

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:26 pm by Administrator

i was 13 when the berlin wall came down. i was 18 when i used email for the first time. and i was 20 when GM produced their first electric car—the EV1. from the pace of change i witnessed when i was a youth, i figured that society would undergo a major revolution by the time i was 40. i was convinced that we’d have cold fusion, a moon colony, gene therapies based on a fully mapped human genome, and near elimination of greenhouse gas production by 2010. didn’t we all? i mean, in 1984 i watched 2010: the year we make contact and figured (like everyone else in my generation) that artificial intelligence and manned planetary exploration were by no means stretch goals for that milestone year.

but here we are in 2021, and i’m looking back and recognizing that the two most furious decades of technological change in world history did not prepare me for the next two decades of almost complete stagnation. let’s face it: outside of a few medical innovations (antivirals for hepatitis c and monoclonal antibody therapies, as an example), nothing transformational has been invented since the year 2000. we’re still driving weapons of mass destruction every day (otherwise known as automobiles). we’re still flying in jet planes that are essentially identical what we flew in the 1990s. our TVs and computers are thinner, lighter, and faster but still do the same essential functions. we still kill one another with guns and missiles (the fabled laser gun still evades us), and we still die of cancer and heart disease.

more fundamentally, we really haven’t changed in the way that we use technology to better ourselves. there’ve been no innovations in technological deployment that have erased disparities in health outcomes among people of different races and ethnicities. people are still dying of malaria, starvation, tuberculosis, and HIV around the world. i mean, what exactly do we have to show for the last two decades of our existence? another 1.6 billion people on this planet. three majors wars in the middle east. an unfolding environmental catastrophe related to global warming and chemical pollution. oh, we have cryptocurrencies. that’s great!

part of me wants to be upset about this and blame someone. why didn’t you invent something important? why didn’t you keep the momentum rolling? why didn’t you get us off this planet? why didn’t you stop global warming? but the bigger part of me understands that i am an extension of this society that failed to progress in all the ways i expected. my frustration with our lack of what i might describe as progress is actually my reckoning with the arbitrary expectations of my childhood. the deeper and darker truth perhaps is that even the moments we thought of as heady and transformational back in the 80s and 90s were spontaneous and incidental to our journey as a species. really, we are less interested in change and progress than our history might suggest; and thus the most likely outcome of the next two decades is that we will continue to propagate more of the same. we will come to no true solutions. we will not right the wrongs. we will continue to multiply, even as the earth we reside in becomes less and less tolerant of our relentless and irresponsible existence.

so with this context established, i can tell you that reading about richard branson’s and jeff bezos’s recent trips into space is strangely galling to me. it’s galling because a part of me feels that i should be impressed. we should be impressed. but this feat is not impressive to me at all. in the context of what the world has gone through over the past year, it actually strikes me as trivial, socially inappropriate, and woefully excessive. what do these high altitude flights promise for humanity? what purpose have they served? we should have had a colony on mars by now. we should have made first contact with alien life by now. instead, we are celebrating a few minutes of zero gravity on a plane flight? it’s silly and sad at the same time. this is the best that humanity has to offer, after two decades of stagnation and futility. i’m disappointed, and i’m pointing the finger at everyone, and ultimately i’m pointing the finger at myself as well, because i figured so much would happen, but i did so little to imagine it, push for it, and actualize it. and this makes me wonder if our progeny and their progeny will look at us, the gen xers and millennials who fumbled the snap from the baby boomers, and accuse us of lacking the one thing most essential to innovation and progress: a dream

07.18.21

movement

Posted in Uncategorized at 6:44 pm by Administrator

this morning i tried out metamorphosis for the first time. it’s a studio workout that focuses on slow reps and continuous motion on a moving platform without any sustained breaks. it was a difficult session that i found particularly stressful on the core muscles and the glutes. i had to cheat on almost all the exercises, but regardless i found myself hyperventilating halfway through the 45-minute session and by the end i found myself dead-legged and thoroughly dehydrated. it was exhilarating.

i’ve found it difficult in my life to experience low-impact workouts that give me the opioid kick i’m accustomed to getting with fast tempo runs. now that i’m developing ankle and foot problems, i’m realizing that i have to stress my body in new ways in order to simulate that experience. the metamorphosis workout delivered that in spades. it did something more though; because it was a guided workout through movements that i could not anticipate, it was a body-centering activity for me, much like yoga but of greater intensity. when i run, my mind can wander, even though intense and focused thought is nearly impossible. but during this morning’s workout, i had to focus on my instructor and on the constant pain in my body. the experienced emptied my mind. it was not meditative, but in many ways it prepared me for a meditation. pain connected me to my body; my body connected me to the earth; and thus i emerged embodied and integrated. the experience made me realize how much more naturally i experience connection through kinesis, rather than through cogitation.

sometimes i reflect back on the many years i spent in the church engaged in mental activity that i once described as spiritual disciplines. i meditated on scriptures. i took the communion, imagining a man’s self-sacrificial mutilation and death on my behalf. i prayed prayers of penitence, and i prayed prayers of aspiration. i did almost all of these activities in what i have previously termed the “didactic position”—seated, silent, and still, facing a man (invariably a man) who functioned as a conduit to a higher power, receiving energy without exerting any, experiencing thought without any form of self-expression or release. all those years of consuming the body of christ, of consuming a concept of identity, of imagining life forms beyond the visible and the material—all of this was the hard mental work of aspiration, and it divorced me from the physical and the mundane, as it separated me from the self and from the universe. i called this consecration, but in fact it was alienation. what i practiced in the church was not spiritual practice at all. it was self-commodification, in the most capitalistic of ways; it was a weekly exercise in reframing the self, reconstructing the self, manufacturing conviction and feeling and belief to maintain a sense of identity apart from the body. how sad and ironic it is for me to realize now that the most natural way for me to feel connected to others and the universe is not outside the body but through the body.

lately, i have been feeling sadness and regret about my health, and in moments of meditation i have tried to hold this person within me that is witnessing and anticipating my death. i am not as strong and healthy as i perhaps expected to be at this age. my left foot is ceaselessly in pain from plantar fasciitis. my left ankle has a degenerative lesion that prevents me from running the long distances i once enjoyed so much. my blood pressure is chronically high and exacerbated by stresses at work. my vision has been compromised by retinal tears; my teeth have premature bone loss from decades of periodontal disease; my hair is thinning; my lower back is painfully tight every morning i wake up. outwardly, i project health to others because i’m relatively fit. but what i experience of myself is aging, decay, and weakness. that often frustrates me, and i punish that weakness with the pain of exercise.

but what i experienced today was something a bit beyond the usual ritual of self-flagellation. there was a positive energy linked to the intimate experience of my own body, linked to the company of fellows engaged in the same progression of movements, linked to the voice of the instructor pushing me through the interminable minutes. we were a community of people breaking free of thought and embodying ourselves, in a manner that seems so rare in these times of constant conceptualization, commodification, and intellectual consumption. coming out of that experience, i was reminded of something my neighbor dave told me about his experience at spirit rock: a freedom from demons, an effortless connection with plants and animals, an experience of love not as aspiration and mission but rather as the utter acceptance of what is.

i know that my life needs to change. and in fact i am already changing. the universe is pushing me to recognize that the spirit i once imagined is no thing at all; the very idea of it implies a disembodied identity, which alienates human life from other forms of life, predisposes to the abuse of the self, causes great mental suffering, and is unnecessary to furthering compassion and love. what other lesson do we require for loving kindness other than the exquisite fragility of our bodies and minds and the inevitability of our pain and passing? if we more deeply tended to ourselves, i think we would understand better how our suffering leads to the suffering of others, and we could better appreciate how kindness for oneself invariably spills over into a love of others. this is a lesson i have not learned well enough. it is a lesson most of my patients have never learned, leading to their compulsions, addictions, and their unhealthy reliance on professionals like me, whose skills and approaches offer them no fundamental solutions. i tell my patients to move their bodies so that they can burn calories and manage their stress, when i know that what they really need is movement as practice—that which empties them of thought and identity, freeing them to do what is both natural and loving.

today, amidst the furious and raging tide of society’s great movements, i am moving against the current, moving against identity, moving against the prevailing ideas that seek to capture my mind. i am moving into the body and into the pain of my living and dying. there is no redemption in this pain. there is only the separateness that consciousness brings us, and the return to the universe that the body promises

07.07.21

regarding myself, leadership, emptiness

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:33 pm by Administrator

randomly i got a recruitment email for a position that is a bit out of my league, but it got me thinking anyways. so i pulled up the last copy of my CV and started updating it. my CV, i realized, is not very well formatted and has way too much narrative for the level of content i’m trying to convey. really, at the executive level, i need to be absolutely succinct and focused on the bottom line: revenue growth, membership growth, production trends, awards and distinctions, key partnerships. get rid of the details about the various projects i drove; eliminate the scientific publications that aren’t relevant to my career trajectory. make it clear that the impact i made was at a macro level and contributed to the kinds of achievements that make the news.

the current state of my CV very much reflects the kind of leader i am at this point in my journey. i’m embedded in management responsibilities, but where i really want to make a difference is in pushing the strategic priorities that can make or break the organization’s financial sustainability. there’s no doubt that i have a perspective, and i can defend my position as well as anyone. my CV reflects my strengths as a leader: my team coheres and produces results; i bring out the best in people; i push projects that make a difference for customers and employees. but the gaps in my CV reflect where i have had limited opportunities to grow: i have limited experience with developing external partnerships, and i haven’t interacted much with community leaders and politicians. more fundamentally, when it comes to running a business, i’m very into the mechanics of the business but not so naturally into the potential of the business. i used to think of myself as a visionary, but i’m not. i’m generally risk-averse and financially conservative. as an executive leader, it’s important that i partner with true entrepreneurs.

i know that there are people who go to work every day eager to produce results, to advance, and to tell a more and more fascinating story through their curriculum vitae. i’m not that kind of person. i am always ambivalent about my work. i am constantly evaluating and reevaluating my fit with the people i work with. while this may seem exhausting, it does allow me to grow, adapt, and reframe my approach in ways that are nearly impossible for my colleagues. what propels me through my career life isn’t ambition or a lust for wealth or power. no, it’s a much simpler thing: i’m just looking for my place in the world, the place where i belong. i’ve never found it, but i can’t stop looking because i need it that much. this is something that i’d never share in a job interview, because the american employer wants an employee who is driven by a mission, ambitious for advancement, and confident in the future. so even though i experience alienation in this society—alienation as described by my favorite marxist herbert marcuse—i put myself in a suit that says i have it together, and i pretend to be congruent with this society that is sick beyond belief. i pretend that i have a mission.

part of what is so difficult about being a working man in this time and place is that there is so little room to speculate on the true nature of things. really, work as an identity is totally meaningless, but who would ever admit to this? it would seem self-defeating. nevertheless, i question on an almost daily basis the routines and responsibilities that i devote myself to, because while there is some good i do, there is also so much suffering that i contribute to as a worker, a manager, a leader. it’s not merely the suffering of putting the self and others to work; it’s also the suffering of pretending that the work is sufficient when it is not. our society spills over with innumerable ideas about purpose, power, and the utter sufficiency of wealth. what drowns in this milieu is any appreciation of the basic life—the empty life. perhaps what furthers my alienation is that i have always sensed the intrinsic truth of emptiness, which makes me question everything that gives me excitement, pleasure, or a thrill. these feelings are deceiving. what is true beyond all speculation is the life that consists of breathing, of eating, of urinating, of sleeping, of waking, and of being present with the world—not just the human world but all the innumerable lifeforms that we share the air, water, and soil with.

indeed, my CV is a lie, and it always will be. it tells a story of where i have come from, and it implies where i’m going in order to complete my arc. it tells someone who doesn’t know me what value i can offer and what troubles i may pose. but when i look at my CV, it fails to tell the single most important thing about me: that i am a conscious being, birthed by the universe to experience consciousness as separateness, intended as a result of that separateness to suffer, so that as a result of that suffering i might bring back to the universe a deeper appreciation of all that integrates it. i was birthed by the universe so that in my separateness and reintegration i might be part of what holds the universe together, even as it is ever flung apart by the forces that spread all particles and matter across the unreached spaces. by living and by dying, i sense the profound tragedy of alienation, for which only gravitational attraction offers any solution. in this life, i am the comet falling to pieces as it careens out of the known universe; in the next life, i am what holds the planets in their orbits. in this life, i am a man who pretends that his whole life can be explained by his work; in the next life, i am empty, content to be absent of purpose, lovingly woven into the fabric of all the inexplicable things i once thought required an explanation

06.30.21

was harvard worth it?

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:08 pm by Administrator

on the heels of my last entry, i’ve been reflecting a bit on my own ambivalence about pushing my son toward an ivy league education. my mom thinks that i need to find him a niche hobby (i.e. lacrosse) and turn him into a standout in time for his college applications. i’m more inclined to stand back and see what he can do of his own accord. my son is remarkably bright, but more importantly he is extremely committed to being the best, and for that reason i think that he’ll be able to achieve most anything that he finds worthwhile. but i’m not so sure he’ll be able to game his way into an ivy league university, and moreover i’m not sure i want him to play that game.

all of that thinking of course has made me wonder if my harvard education was something all that special to me. here are a few observations i’ll offer from all that reflection.

1. the food was really bad.

at the end of my senior year, they made us go back to the freshman union for a meal and a survey about our college experience. i left one constructive comment that i underlined emphatically. for the amount of money we paid for room and board, the quality of the dining experience was absolutely atrocious. this was a particularly galling issue because harvard undergraduates at the time were not permitted to take a reduced meal plan; it was all or nothing. wellesley, MIT, and BU had either better food, more options, or more cost-effective meal plans. by senior year, i pretty much resorted to ordering pizza two or three times a week just to avoid the dining hall.

2. the quality of teaching overall was not good.

yes, we had our fair share of celebrity professors, some of whom enjoyed teaching and even fewer of whom were any good at it. i had one stand-out professor in a core class and an incredible visiting professor in chemistry from haverford. oh, and i cannot leave out henri cole, who changed my life over two semesters of a poetry seminar. but many of my lecturers were uninspired, and the teaching assistants who taught the sections frequently couldn’t speak english very well. in retrospect, i regret that i never took much advantage of office hours with my profs, but then again i never got the sense that they were very interested in undergraduates.

harvard is an R1 research institution. that’s great for students looking to land internships with star professors. i was more of a conventional book learner, so i sort of lost out.

3. i saw a lot of smart people flame out.

everyone who came to harvard was special in high school. then they came to harvard and they had to deal with being unremarkable. that was mostly fine with me, as i’d thought of myself as out of my league from the start, but for more than a few of my close friends, this was devastating. one of my draw mates couldn’t get into medical school, even though that had been his lifelong dream. another of my roommates realized at the very end of his college career that he didn’t want to do math anymore, even though he’d been a multiple time math olympiad champion and had essentially written the book on number theory by his junior year in college. they did fine for themselves in retrospect, but at the time it looked like their whole lives had run aground. the harvard experience didn’t help them achieve their dreams; it crushed their dreams.

4. the education was steeped in colonialist ideas.

i think i have to blame this one on the times. but even after putting together a dream team for their african american studies department, harvard never seemed to have a discrete plan for teaching multi-culturalism through their core curriculum. now we’re in the “diversity and inclusion” era, so anything i expected back then is already clearly passe. but i look back on what i witnessed there, and i’m still so disappointed by so many things. i am for example astonished to remember that charles murray was allowed to present his book “the bell curve” at the kennedy school, with no comment or response from the school’s administration. i actually attended the event and saw murray defend his belief that black americans lacked the intelligence of their white and asian counterparts. unfortunately this kind of pseudo-research was the norm back then, and the black students—isolated, misunderstood, and generally marginalized on campus—were left to deal with the repercussions with walk-out protests, letters to the administration, and silent pain.

i’m still not even sure that a university like harvard is the best place to get woke nowadays. there are people teaching and practicing critical theory in the communities most affected by systematic racism, and that’s probably not the kind of stuff that passes muster with deans who have a mandate to keep the peace (and raise money).

5. the legacy is meh.

i used to joke about this a lot more, but harvard sports really suck, and that affects how i see the school in my rear view. i mean, i’m sure they’re still stellar at badminton, squash, and fencing, since those kids were smart enough to find niche hobbies (a grandmother’s wisdom), but most alumni care about football and basketball. back when i was in college, there was a big debate on campus about whether the school should lower its academic standards to improve its sports (which kind of shows how racist we were back then), but the real issue was that harvard was too cool to invest in something as mundane as a sports program. sports—like fraternities, food, and real mentorship—are an important aspect of campus life at a lot of colleges, but harvard didn’t feel like wasting its time on these kinds of things.

6. but the name helped me get into medical school.

that and my 3.9 GPA and my 38 MCAT score got me into medical school. i’m grateful for that. and for sure the harvard name is all that you’ll need to land the investment banking gig of your choice or a spot at a prestigious law school. but for most people that aren’t going into medicine, law, or business, the harvard degree is perhaps a novelty and a plus on your first job application and little more than that. after that, you’ll get whatever follows based on what you achieve on the job.

here’s a fun fact: some of the best doctors i’ve ever worked with are foreign medical school graduates (FMGs). there’s absolutely something to be said for the doctors that work their butts off and scrap for every opportunity in order to break into the profession. my college draw mate sure didn’t have that in him.

so in conclusion, i don’t want to say that i regretted my college education. but i’m not going to encourage my son to go to school where i did. given the kind of competitive guy that he is, he may go through the rest of his life with a chip on his shoulder if he doesn’t end up at the most prestigious university in the world. that chip might just be the best thing for him. i peaked at age 18 when i got into every school i applied to, and nothing since then has ever quite felt the same. i don’t want that for my son. i want him to go and get it, a real education, something that he values and uses for the rest of his life because it brings him joy

06.28.21

netflix, race, and where i belong

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:11 pm by Administrator

for me, this past year has been the year of netflix. what a truly awesome product, by the way. i subscribed back when i just wanted to replace blockbuster, but now of course it’s all about the streaming content. and even beyond the entertainment value of the programming, netflix has allowed me to peek into culture itself, in a way that no other medium quite enables. i can veritably see the changes in our times through the lens of netflix.

all that being said, the vast majority of the programs i’ve watched on netflix have not been very good at all. even the movies and shows that i’ve mostly enjoyed have been little more than fluff, in retrospect. here and there, i’ve followed some dynamite shows, like dark (probably one of the top five tv shows i’ve ever followed) and babylon berlin (the most expensive tv show ever made). coincidentally, both of these shows are german, which gets to a totally unrelated point that i need to make: i want to live in germany someday. i just feel that i belong there, with other overly serious, beer-drinking environmental activists.

in any case, most of the netflix shows i’ve watched have been fairly bad, but nevertheless they reflect where society and culture seem to be moving. for instance, i really admire shadow and bone, a beautiful production that features an asian lead, a few strong characters of color, some gay love scenes, and a nice commentary on racism. but for every show like shadow and bone, there still are way too many shows featuring the glory of whiteness and only symbolic gestures of diversity and inclusion (not that DEI in and of itself can even suffice as the price of entry nowadays). and this is where netflix brings me down even as it helps me pass the time: our best stories, even our fantastical ones, are still reimaginings of history, and history as we commonly accept it is still about white rulers, black outlaws and slaves, cowardly or duplicitous asians, and gangster latinos. netflix, of course, isn’t the only sign of the times. don’t even get me started on game of thrones (white savior woman served by neutered black men) and denis villenueve’s dune (completely unnecessary remake featuring powerful white people, a traitorous asian doctor, and vaguely ethnic fremen who will of course lay down their lives for their white savior timothee chalamet). beyond being sickening, it’s just tired. flat out fucking boring.

i’ll leave how to restore equality to the people who make a living out of it. i’m cynical it can be accomplished, but i’m trying not to concern myself with the burden of problem-solving. here’s the thing that i’m really fixated on: for storytelling to get better, we have to get better at dealing with race. i mean, forget about refining our storytelling so that we can do justice to the reality of human suffering. i’d like to contend that our entertainment is insufficiently entertaining when we rehash all the terribly denigrating tropes over and over and over again. honestly, enough with the historically inaccurate retellings of the roman empire, feudal europe, and colonial america! give me some fresh narratives about society’s ironies and illnesses! we all need more quentin tarantino and jordan peele, if absolutely no one else has the creativity or the balls to step up to the plate.

so that’s the odd place where i find myself nowadays. i am no longer adequately entertained by the stuff that i was raised to enjoy. i wish i could be more in sync with my society, more deeply integrated and assimilated, because life is just easier when you’re tracking with everyone else in it. but i’ve felt it all along, now more than ever before, and it just needs to be said. these times lack imagination. these times are painfully boring.

the other night, we got together with some friends in the neighborhood, and i found myself in a conversation about the quality of the school system, and whether private schools were better for our kids than public schools, and whether some people at such and such company were getting ahead more because of their race than for their merit. i was totally lost; i barely said a word. but this is my cohort now, according to george packer. i’m a “smart american”—the consummate hypocrite of american society. i care about equality but only insomuch as that care doesn’t get in the way of my childrens’ educational opportunities. i care about social justice but only until it starts to affect the quality of my neighborhood or the price of my home. “smart americans” dismiss patriotism but secretly don’t deny that they need the police state to secure their upward ascension into the top 1-2% of earners in the nation.

it’s disgusting.

i don’t know whom i have anything in common with anymore. i’ve been reduced to defining myself by my netflix program preferences (dark dystopian thrillers), my sports allegiances (philadelphia or death), and my bucket list (living in germany, writing a book, doing stand-up comedy). nothing i used to stand by has much meaning for me anymore—my socioeconomic standing, my religion, my political affiliation, my fear of environmental catastrophe. i want to have an authentic and life-changing conversation with someone, but first i have to find something in my culture as a point of reference that is solid, powerful, and true. there’s nothing like that anymore. it’s a wasteland of our own making, filled with lies about our origins and grotesque patriarchies and power structures, all doused in racism and violence. and there just aren’t enough good stories to pull out of that potpourri of shit

06.25.21

holding myself, and four americas

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:07 pm by Administrator

there is no doubt that the toughest part of my job nowadays is managing my own feelings about the job.

my feelings rise and fall, twist and pull, crescendo and flame out, as they always have. when i am mindful, i hold these feelings and i can move out of them. but when the feelings are strong, they are slick and powerful like writhing snakes; i lose my hold and i have to grab them again. in the space of an hour, i can hold and then lose hold half a dozen times, and in the meantime i revolve between being consumed by a feeling and being free of it. the hardest feeling to hold is anger. i have spent so much of my life enjoying the experience of anger, letting it have me through and through, like lightning through my veins, like pure pleasure itself. it sometimes seems almost impossibly difficult—but nevertheless i have learned to hold even anger, like the snake charmer or (perhaps more apropos) the bull rider.

there is a transactional part of me that feels indignation when i give and do not receive, when i experience injustice of various kinds. it happens frequently enough that if i cannot hold that indignation, i can fall into a relentless anger. when i am this way, i am reminded instantly of my father and his family, who were consumed by their passions. they were religious people; they were stubborn people; they were opinionated people. their blood flows through my being, and it takes everything in me not to succumb to the karma that they have passed on to me. but i have learned this at least: principles are meaningless. they are the lines i draw in the sand so that i can exercise violence when i am crossed. ultimately, there is no truth that matters except the truth that relieves my suffering. when i perceive something that makes me beholden to my rage, i am no agent of justice; i am simply a slave to my anger. there is no point in being a transactional man, and no one wins when i keep score. someday, i will lose everything that i am; but until that day comes, i will hold the ego that seeks to enslave me. i will hold him, and i will keep holding him, until death relieves me of him.

my wife asks me how i will contribute to justice in these times if i choose to focus on my suffering, at the expense of principle. i tell her that a drowning man cannot save others who are sinking in the sea. my life raft is my sanity—that shred of consciousness that exists apart from the ravage of my work, the cruelty of my world, and our collective obsession with generativity and purpose. let me live. someday, when i am strong enough to swim with another person in tow, i will lend a hand. but i’m pretty sure that when that day comes, i’m not going to pick that person on the basis of color, creed, or background. i’m going to grab the person closest to me, because everyone around me is sinking. everyone is suffering.

recently i read george packer’s essay about four americas (atlantic), and it was a hard read for me. it was clearly his intention to mock up the four camps in the most stereotypical manner possible, which on the one hand made them easily recognizable and on the other hand made them patently oversimplified. i saw many problems with the broad depictions he offered, and this was most clearly manifest in my inability to clearly situate myself within any one group. i might appear to be least compatible with the “real americans”, since i loathe donald trump and sarah palin, but on the other hand i do believe in this country and in the importance of protecting it with a well-funded military. with my generally progressive social views, i may not be a classic fit in the “free america” camp, but i clearly hold to many libertarian values (free market economics, smaller government, and unrestricted access to firearms). i am certainly sympathetic to the “just americans”, as i am frustrated with white america’s ongoing marginalization of bipoc and lgbtq segments of society and am happy to see the fight taken to them for the first time in this nation’s history. and lastly, i might appear to be most naturally aligned with the “smart americans”, even though i believe that the idea of an american meritocracy is laughable because of the systems we have created to secure the privilege of those who have no merit.

i’m not averse to typological systems, but in these ferocious times, i genuinely hesitate to align myself with any particular camp. i can say a few things for certain. we need to clearly define what it is that we want to undermine. racism unfortunately has no clear and universally accepted definition. on the other hand, it may be possible to define bias and prejudice in actionable ways. we have to define these anti-social psychological phenomena in specifics, assess for them systematically at all levels of employment in the public sector, and treat them in order to reduce their impact on our society. this vague discussion on what racism is has only succeeded in provoking conflict and retaliation; to force meaningful social change, we have to accept that unconscious racial bias—this national scourge—is a mental illness we all share to some degree. it can be identified, it can be treated, and it can be diminished. there’s neuroscientific research to support this, and it’s about time that we reframed what it is that we’re dealing with.

i also think that we need to separate the concept of capitalism from the conversation about systematic injustice. after all, feudal aristocracy fielded the most egregious systematic injustice the world has ever witnessed: authority by birthright. there is no doubt in my mind that for an expanding segment of the world, capitalism offers a form of personal freedom that is relatively unique in the history of mankind: the opportunity to commodify oneself. one may argue that there is nothing new about this (prostitution is the oldest occupation by some accounts) and others may argue that self-commodification is intrinsically dehumanizing, but i’ll argue the contrary viewpoint: that commodifying oneself is the most powerful and transformative way to change one’s relationship to society. she who commodifies herself is no longer defined by her family of origin or her race, unless these are intrinsic to her commodification. by commodifying oneself, he can go anywhere in the world where that commodity has meaning and value; and by virtue of global capitalism, that kind of migration can be limitless.

like i’ve written before, global capitalism is responsible for the racial diversification of american society, which in turn has made systematic oppression of racial groups quite possible. and global capitalism has magnified the economic and social inequalities resulting from this oppression. but capitalism isn’t what channeled racial diversification into systematic racial oppression. that story goes deeper, into the judeo-christian and imperial histories of western’s europe’s bigoted aristocrats

06.23.21

why i believe in bitcoin

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:29 pm by Administrator

i’m not a “hodler” so to speak, as i don’t own bitcoins, but i’m indirectly investing in the space. in fact, i would call myself a believer and a relatively new convert to the cause of de-fi. i would not pretend to be an expert in bitcoin mining and smart contracts, but here are a few reasons why i’m nevertheless very committed to the future of cryptocurrency.

1. bitcoin is elegant. in its design and execution, bitcoin captures the essential properties of what money ought to be. its total supply is forever defined and unchangeable; as a finite resource, it is resistant to currency manipulation. in these respects, it is distinctly superior to all fiat currencies that we commonly use.

2. bitcoin is a network. beyond the technology and the programming, bitcoin derives its value from its rapidly multiplying network effect—the proliferation of users who progressively decrease barriers to acquisition and use. the speculative fervor that so many observers are skeptical of is a secondary result of the power and influence of the community that is committed to mining and acquiring it.

3. the bitcoin community is deeply committed. sure, there are those who have piled into the crypto space because of the volatility and spikes in its market price, but even when the speculators clear out, there is a core group of “hodlers” who are strictly buy and hold for deeply personal and philosophical reasons. these bitcoin believers are more ardent than your usual stock pickers and market investors; their passion is striking and certainly a differentiator for bitcoin.

4. hodlers share my passionate disdain for central banks. much of what fuels hodlers’ commitment to bitcoin is the patent manipulation of fiat currencies, enacted with impudence by central banks to deliberately and progressively devalue the savings of working people. inflation is a by-product of central bank policy, and while some economists may argue its virtues, it is inimical to people who cannot directly benefit from inflation-protected assets. thus, inflation is the engine of coercive capitalism; no other force in society so compels people to remain in the workforce, swimming against the tide to preserve wealth that is constantly being eroded by economic forces beyond their control. central bank currency manipulation is oppression. bitcoin is the cleanest and most straightforward means of circumventing this form of autocracy.

5. bitcoin skeptics have no compelling argument. even the contrarian voices that criticize bitcoin do so with scant arguments and unjustified presumptions. chief among these are gold bugs, who offer nothing beyond the usual rhetoric that bitcoin is disproportionately associated with illegal transactions and has limited commercial applications. these are biases, not analyses. i’ve weighed all the common arguments against bitcoin and have found nearly all of them to be driven by traditional assumptions rooted in pre-internet paradigms. overwhelmingly these skeptics are old white men who are clearly struggling to keep up with the times.

6. governments are trying to regulate, control, or extinguish bitcoin. while many would view this as a threat to bitcoin’s long-term case, i view this as a strongly bullish signal. governments seek to clamp down on what they cannot control, and generally speaking the things that governments struggle to control are reflections of authentic and enduring human needs. personal liberty, marijuana, alcohol, the free press, and religious practices are all notable examples of subversive practices that governments around the world have tried to regulate, quash, or extinguish because of their pervasive appeal. bitcoin is in good company. it resonates deeply enough that it can outlive its political opponents.

what i find refreshing about bitcoiners is that many of them really don’t care about short-term volatility or the opinions of celebrity investors. they know the virtues of the tool that they hold, and moreover they believe in its eventual widespread adoption. that vision of the world—a decentralized financial system—is something they view as both moral and inevitable, and as such they are resilient in their approach to the market. i find that beyond inspiring. it’s close to religious zeal, except that it’s rooted in reason and objective reality.

i bought on the recent dip in prices, and i will keep buying with a 5-10 year window in mind. in the short term, the price may go anywhere, but this volatility is noise. there is a secular bull market ahead of bitcoin; i just can’t see any other outlook. i believe that there will be a point when bitcoin exceeds $200,000 a coin—and that may not even be the end of the run. more importantly, i think it is inevitable that bitcoin will ultimately arrive upon an era of lower volatility, when it steadily paces inflation and becomes “digital gold” in the purest sense

06.15.21

the irony of weekends

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:42 pm by Administrator

i found myself considering early on monday morning that my weekends are oddly more exhausting to me than my weekdays. obviously this is not because i am outwardly more active on my weekends. it’s because i’m mentally more active on my weekends, for reasons that are not intuitive but are nevertheless very clear upon some reflection.

during my average workday, whether i’m seeing patients or doing administrative work, i’m mentally active and often thinking very hard for most of the day. however, i would never call this sort of thinking obsessive in any way. the structure of meetings, interviews, and conversations naturally forces me to move from one subject to the next, to the degree that i’m rarely dwelling on a single fixation for more than a few minutes at a time. and as i move from one meeting to the next, or from one conversation to the next, i’m reacting to a whole new context, which forces me to abandon one train of thought for a new one. this kind of reactive, frequently disrupted, and continually adaptive thinking can be tiring but is rarely activating in a persistent way.

on weekends, by contrast, there are sometimes few barriers to continual, focused, and unbroken fixative thinking. in the absence of structured interactions or sustained conversations with others, i can easily fall into obsession, and i often do. whether it’s about money, sports, religion, or the future, it’s a pattern of thinking that takes me deeper and more intensely into analysis, computation, and calculation; it’s thought that propels more focused and more specific thought, until i come to the point of perseveration. in some situations, that kind of perseveration can trigger anxiety, panic, high blood pressure, or full body tension. and thus i can go through a solitary day without doing much of anything and yet can feel veritably exhausted and wound up by the time night falls. to counter this, i begin to rely on things that disrupt my train of thought—alcohol, naps, and exercise. it’s undistracted thinking that runs me into the ground. for whatever reason, i’m predisposed to obsession; and i’m neurologically wired to handle obsession very poorly.

this brings me back to a point i considered recently: that i miss church gatherings not because of the practice of theology or identification but rather because of the rituals they impose on my weekend life. prayer interrupts trains of thinking. listening to people interrupts trains of thinking. being compelled to reflect on what i’m thinking about disrupts my thinking. for me, as for many, it is easier to experience a disruption of thinking and a return to reactive thinking when one is intentionally engaged with others, and i think that effect is even more pronounced when the gathering itself is designed to interrupt thought and introduce reflection of a specific kind. in a sense, that is one of the uniquely therapeutic offerings of religion: a communal experience diametrically opposed to the activating, obsessional stimuli so ubiquitous in our society, including social media interactions, television programming, and other content consumption that triggers and accelerates the mental machine.

it would be an oversimplification to contend that thought itself is the enemy, but if i have learned something through meditation, it is this idea that conceptual identification of all kinds is work—intense, constant work that exhausts the mind and the soul. to believe in something is never effortless; it requires attention, reiteration, and reinforcement. real rest for the mind and soul requires more than a break from a routine or a chance to get away from others; it requires a sustained interruption of thought trains, a slowing of the mental process, a deep resistance to triggered and obsessive reflection that leads one inwards. rest is outward focus: the simple acknowledgement of what is immediately manifest. to come into that presence sometimes requires ritual, practice, and great skill. but more than anything, it requires a real awareness of the hunger of the mind, this addiction to deep and obsessive thinking that has no end and no object at all

06.09.21

talking to my dad; talking to myself

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:46 pm by Administrator

when my dad was at the age that i am at now, it was 1986, and he was entering a new chapter of his life. he’d just sold his home of ten years and moved to his dream house, a home he would later refer to as his “castle”. he was trying out a korean church for the first time, an experience that would initially intrigue him before eventually disgusting him. in some ways my dad was beginning to mellow out, though he still had moments when he would throw temper tantrums and break random things in the house. we watched top gun together in the theater; we played tennis on weekends; i was not yet beating him consistently at chess. my dad was living the life of a suburban family man.

it is hilarious and odd to think that i am as old as the man that he was back then. if we were to talk now, two middle-aged men with wives and children, what would we talk about? my dad was an avid conversationalist when he was in the right mood, though intense conversation invariably exhausted him and left him in a bad mood for days. i remember him talking to his friends about english grammar, american customs, and my achievements. he avoided talking much about religion and politics, and i think this is because perhaps he felt vulnerable or at a disadvantage when these were the topics of conversation. my dad talked at length about the things that he did know or found particularly peculiar; i was a subject that he knew well and found peculiar.

in brief, there’s no way i could imagine having a normal conversation with the middle-aged version of my father. i like to talk about current events, politics, and sports; i don’t particularly like talking about english grammar and american culture. the one interest we might have in common is our children; but even here, the conversation would be one-sided. he’d brag at length about the remarkable attributes of his son (myself), while i would barely have an opportunity to mention my observations about my children, whom i find delightful but also ordinary. i understand it better now, that my father’s obsession with me was unusual and unnecessary. the lives of middle-aged men do not have to revolve around their children, as i have personally discovered for myself.

i would feel so hard-pressed to offer advice to my dad, but i’m not sure he would listen. there were very few men he respected, and he required reasons to respect them. aside from the obvious advantages of hindsight and prescience, i’m not sure i’d have much to offer him as a mentor or guide. nevertheless, there’s so much advice i’d want to give that man, that proud new homeowner and father of a straight-A son.

i’d tell my dad to do therapy. do it, go deep with it, and really wrestle with the trauma and bitterness of your past. learn mindfulness. explore meditation and yoga. try new things and put yourself in new situations, to put some distance between you and the unloved child that you once were. i’d tell my dad that he wasn’t happy enough, and that happiness was imminently achievable, and moreover happiness was his personal responsibility. my dad believed he was a victim of his family of origin. i’d tell my dad that this belief, to a great extent, is a lie of his own making.

i’d tell my dad to make copies of that manuscript on english grammar that he authored (and that his friend in korea conveniently lost). i’d tell him to broaden its scope, to make it a book not only about the mechanics of language but also about the personal stories behind the various idioms he learned and struggled with over the years. my dad had an amazing story of immigration to tell, and it was a story that he wanted to tell.

and lastly, i’d tell my dad to find the right kind of community for him. he wasted too many years with religious people who absolutely confounded him with their magical thinking, irrational judgments, and passionate convictions about stupid things. nothing angered my father more than people who were absolutely convinced of their righteousness. if only my dad had found a couple good friends who enjoyed singing sad songs and hiking lonely trails, i think he would have suffered less.

what’s funny about this, when i think about it, is that i’d probably give the same three pieces of advice to myself. in fact, undoubtedly i’m projecting onto my father the very things i wish for myself. i am cynical of therapy, even though i know it would help me. i want to write a book of personal essays, but i lack the commitment or perseverance to do so. i can sense that i haven’t yet found a community of like-minded people, as i myself have wasted too much of my life with religious people. there’s another dimension to living that i haven’t explored because the context or foundation wasn’t created for that exploration. i am sure that my middle-aged son would tell my middle-aged self that i need to live a little more, instead of spending my years plugging away at a job i don’t love while relentlessly cleaning the house on evenings and weekends.

i so wanted my father to be happy, all the while knowing how unhappy he was. i am not as unhappy as he was, but neither am i a particularly happy person either. i don’t think i’ve made a lot of bad decisions in my life; but i’ve avoided making some important and good decisions, all the same. i wish my father’s life could have been much different, which draws attention to the fact that i really do wish my life were a lot different as well.

today, i think of my dad without sadness or regret, and i realize that when i look into his life, i see my own. that is how i know that he really is gone

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