12.26.12

destiny

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:49 pm by Administrator

when i think about what interests me about a lot of social studies, i see in those aspects a common theme—that being the obsession, the vindication, and the constraint that we term destiny.

it’s been a long time since i last picked up menand’s the metaphysical club, but i continue to be surprised at random moments at how much the book has been formative in my own understanding of America’s intellectual history. of course many Western societies in the 19th century developed intellectual traditions similar to that of America’s, shaped as they were by Enlightenment-era dialectics that emphasized binary schisms: the schisms between the spiritual and the physical, between man and machine, between citizens and their government, and between individuals and their societies. what was unique about the American experiment was the evolution of a fixation on a certain sort of rationalism: an almost religious pursuit of empirically derived, unifying principles, to the rejection of tradition and mystical suppositions. it was a paradigm founded upon a certain distaste for European aristocracy, a horror with war, and an overriding necessity to rewrite history so as to define progress in terms of man’s self-actualization. it’s the latter aspect of America’s intellectual trajectory that we find at the root of its great enterprise of science and technological innovation; it is also the foundation upon which the industrialists and the global interventionists have defined their contributions to society.

what is so interesting about the unique milieu of the American discourse is our inescapable problem with the question of destiny. on the one hand, American rationalism was, from the beginning, deeply entrenched against the idea of predetermined realities, of royal lineages, of inherited greatnesses. America’s rejection of caste, clan, and eventually race as measures of entitlement were perhaps slow to be realized but nevertheless inevitable, as a result of its preoccupation with a bare and more biological sense of individual identity. the Scopes trial too presaged further reform of the American school system, as the country instituted in its forms of education what it most esteemed in its elder leaders: a cautious regard for the moral value of traditional religion, but a firmer commitment to the individual’s unconditional right to self-actualization. we still hear it in our elementary schools today—that no one is “destined” to be great, but rather we as free and willing beings can become anything we choose to be.

on the other hand, the political and cultural entities that were birthed from American rationalism are impregnated with a decidedly idealistic self-reference, in which destiny is not merely entertained but overwhelmingly presumed. the diction was in our vocabulary from the very beginning, in terms like “manifest destiny”. we still hear “America’s destiny” evoked in political speeches. our familiarity and fondness for the term goes beyond merely a sense of national exceptionalism; it suggests that America is not only uniquely blessed but also obliged to export its culture, in a missional sense. destiny in the political vocabulary is always a term of global repercussions. it is a term that defines the greatness of America by the magnitude and extent of its appeal beyond its borders.

hence, the real strangeness of “destiny” in our national consciousness—and its pivotal role in helping us to understand why we do what we do.

i was turned onto the very complexity of this matter two days ago, while watching “The Empire Strikes Back” with my son isaac. as of one month ago, he has become a true devotee of the Star Wars story, and since “Empire” arrived on Saturday he has watched the whole thing more than twenty times. i found it a poignant moment when i watched Luke’s extraordinary first duel with Darth Vader on the platform looming over the cavernal recesses of Cloud City. it was poignant because it was a battle between father and son, not unlike battles i have recently had with my son over his shock at his bedtime, which unshockingly is at 8 PM every day. in the scene, after Darth informs Luke that they are kin, Darth appeals to the nature of destiny when he tries to convince his son to join him. it is a glimmer of a destiny that is eventually fulfilled, when father and son do come together in episode 6 to vanquish the Emperor, thus freeing the universe from his stranglehold of evil forever.

Destiny is the glue that connects all the innumerable and precious parts of the Star Wars story together. it is the promise of greatness, the promise of eventual justice, that fuels the characters through their epic struggles. and Americans like me are powerfully moved by this idea of destiny, because it is a term that has been imposed on us but one that we have been discouraged from using for ourselves. this magic, this ethereal certainty, runs so counter to the utter pragmatism which governs the business of our everyday lives that we cannot help but to refer to “destiny” when we speak of our boldest ambitions, our wildest dreams. and when we do so, either we sound fantastical (as with Star Wars) or we sound visionary (like an American president).

given these reflections on destiny, i wonder if it is not irrational of me to describe America’s central preoccupation as being the mystification of pragmatism. “have we not become gods?” we speculated, when we exploded the atomic bomb. “are we not otherworldly?” we wondered, when we walked on the moon. “look at what we built from earth and rock, when we were constrained by no god, by no arbitrary rule, by no king,” we exclaimed, as we surveyed the empires we destroyed, the cities we raised up. we have wanted to believe that men who are free to actualize themselves will create something greater than the sum of their energies: a utopia.

these are the things i ruminate over, as i see my son embarking on his path through primary schooling. i remember the things i was told. you can be anything you want. you should believe in yourself. you will be greater than your elders. you can realize your dreams. it is the American religion. it is a philosophy that borrows from the vernacular of the mystical in order to eschew the contributions of the mystical. we call it humanism, or pragmatism, or self-esteem. as i once was, my son too will be confused by terms and stretched between schisms, eventually paralyzed by choices in his twenties. he will wander into the disillusionment of his late 30s, increasingly aware that because he believed both in free will and in predestination, fate itself became an unwieldy burden. destiny will be the thing he despises but cannot live without. he will watch Star Wars with his children, and it will strike him deeply, the knowing that despite how we debunk ourselves, educate ourselves, and socialize ourselves, ultimately we cannot escape what we are. we are a people who will replace one religion with another, and we will despise ourselves for it, not realizing how unnecessary all the shame and denial really are

12.24.12

the sopranos

Posted in Uncategorized at 6:18 pm by Administrator

my xmas present to myself this year was seasons 3 and 4 of the Sopranos. i’m gradually working my way through the entirety of the show, for the third time.

there are of course innumerable online surveys on what people consider to be the “best season” or the “best episodes” of the show. the episodes that seem to stand out on these surveys are the ones that accomplish more than plot movement; there’s something off-kilter or particularly dramatic about the episodes that people most remember. “Pine Barrens” and “College”, for instance, are literal excursions off the beaten path of customary mafia murders; and “Employee of the Month” strands us in the vortex of betrayal and revenge that victimizes the innocent. i think that these episodes, as poignant as they are, succeed only because they are momentary departures from what is otherwise a nearly perfect narrative formula. at its core, the Sopranos is the story of a family constantly on the verge of self-destruction, maintained only by the forces of tradition, fear of the unknown, and dumb luck—the irrational and weirdly compelling stuff of life.

on first viewing, i felt that “The Sopranos” was essentially the trial of Anthony Soprano, a man too complex to be simply judged as good or evil. Tony’s tragic, violent, and comic moments surprisingly connect us to him, enabling empathy where ordinarily stereotypes might have demonized him. the trial of Anthony Soprano was a challenging and intriguing experience for me; and i found myself at the conclusion of the show unclear as to whether he represented a great leader—as great as his circumstances would allow—or a victim and a victimizer.

on this viewing, because i know how the arc of each character will develop and close, i feel more “in the moment” so to speak, as i watch their lives unfold. i’m not trying to guess at who will rise or fall; and the police investigations, the criminal proceedings, and the rises and falls of various capos interest me less. i’m more attentive now to the episodes as self-contained stories, each written and directed by a distinct team, each with its own style of narration, plot development, situational humor, and perspective on the characters. as much as i’m watching the actors do their work, i’m enjoying how van Patten, Chase, Buscemi, and the rest of the creative team craft the stories. i’m realizing again that i simply can’t think of another show that succeeded so consistently and so richly in making us believe (to our utmost enjoyment) in the everyday lives of its characters.

12.22.12

your favor

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:45 am by Administrator

i was just a child, eager to please,
when you asked me what i wanted.
even before you asked the question,
you must have known how it would end

because you knew me: the boy
who first ate what he loathed
until all that was left on the plate
was a pile he had no stomach for.

so many times i was too full
for what remained; and so, it seems,
have i go on to have my fill of things
more disappointing than cauliflower.

one would think the lives of others
would have made me defer less.
for my peers heard your beckoning as well;
they felt you come, like a tremor in the air

and to the tremble of their conscience
they similarly made their oaths.
you asked them what they wished for;
you gave them things they enjoyed

and while they wanted for nothing,
while they pleasured in your favor,
i chose to keep your question with me,
close to my heart, unanswered.

i spent the years nursing your words
like they were a riddle to be deciphered,
like a test of my character, like a song
forgotten for lack of sound.

here i am. i have eaten the vegetables
before the meat, the waiting before words,
the laboring before rest, and the longing
that may never end in love.

and now i know that i’m of the kind
that will not have an answer for you
until the long night before a morning
that never comes.

only then might i surrender a wish—
and not the worthiest of all answers.

you asked a question. and i will ask for this:
a glass of brandy for the chill of night,
and you by my side
til the hour of the crossing

12.18.12

my muted reaction to new town

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:59 pm by Administrator

like many other people, i first heard about the school shooting in connecticut on friday afternoon. i saw the photographs of the children who were killed; i heard the accounts of what children and adults did to rescue one another during the incident; and i listened to Obama’s address to the nation on sunday night. like other parents, i did think about my children a lot this past weekend. i also reflected on some of the sociopolitical issues linked to this incident by the media, including care of the mentally ill, gun ownership, and our culture of violence.

in the end, though, i found only one thing about my reaction noteworthy. my response was muted. for a person who frequently has strong emotional reactions to dramatic stories, this sort of reaction tells me a few things about how i perceive the killings in connecticut. first, i was not shocked or surprised by what happened. second, i was not impressed by some of the more sensational details of the story, including the ages of the victims and the body count. and third, i was not moved by the reactions and the words of those who have publicly responded to the incident.

this does not mean that i can’t feel the tragedy of what occurred. rather, it tells me that i feel a discordance between my reaction and the reactions projected by the media. “this is different,” says the media. “this is fascinating, sickening, and incomprehensible,” says the media. “why aren’t you amazed?”

because this is not fascinating, or sickening, or incomprehensible, i say in return. because the world is ceaselessly violent. because this sort of violence is no longer unusual, not anymore.

i think that i could provoke myself to anger and indignation about a whole lot of things related to the Connecticut shooting. after all, i am vigorously opposed to gun ownership of any kind. and yes, i’m frustrated on a near-daily basis by how hard it is for me to connect my patients with the mental health services they need. and even beyond this, i continue to believe that the electronic media including social networking sites are to blame for cultivating an obsession with the sensational, an obsession which drives us to more and more spectacular forms of self-expression, including (but not limited to) facebook suicide posts, on-line bullying, viral acts of stupidity, and mass shootings.

and yet i don’t feel anger or indignation. is this because i don’t care? am i simply inured to the violence? am i so addicted to the sensational that i fail to be impressed by something that should be impressive?

when i sift through the subconscious reaction i have to the killings in connecticut, i find many other unsorted images and memories there. i think of the “zero dark thirty” trailer, and how much i rejoiced in the sensational story of that killing. i think of suicide bombings in afghanistan. suicide bombings in israel and palestine. i think of the bullets that killed a bridegroom on his way to a wedding in iraq. i think of police bullets that killed an unarmed Latino boy in Orange County last month. i think of automatic weapons and bulletproofed SUVs, men in armor and masks killing women, children, reporters, and witnesses in mexico. i think of the hundreds of thousands that have died to avenge the attacks on 9/11. i think also of 9/11—that beautiful, nearly cloudless Fall day, when i saw a thousand people perish on live television, as the towers crumbled into a volcanic eruption of dust, one after the other.

i cannot react to one mass shooting without resurrecting the memories of a thousand other mass shootings, some depicted as just, others depicted as war, and still others depicted as senseless. whether sponsored by a gang, a cartel, or the American government, these are acts of violence done for pleasure, for country, and for justice. justice—our great obsession—is to me the overriding theme. guns are how we impose our justice, whether against terrorists, or against those who bully us, or against those who personify the idyllic lives that we never enjoyed. guns are how we make things right in this world. it is our lawful authorities that have taught us this; it is our movies and books that have reinforced this teaching; and it is our news media ultimately that proves that when men use guns to kill others, then—and only then—will the world stop to watch and listen.

i care. but i want the world to think that i do not care. its stories of shame should not be surprising or impressive to any of us. these stories should not tell us anything that we have not already learned about ourselves. these should be the stories that we bury as soon as we hear them, because they are nothing but resurrected pains, grudges, and injustices, come to haunt us again. there is nothing left, but to call this sin our own, to own it, and to move on in silence, and in humiliation

Game of Thrones (again)–a leadership analysis

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:40 am by Administrator

i imagine i have now completely confused my mom, who will never read “A Game of Thrones”. for the rest of you, don’t read this entry if you’re not done with book 5.

at the close of book 5, Westeros has a child king nammed Tommen, but in reality there are multiple viable candidates for the throne, including: Aegon Targaryen (the son of Rhaegar, whose identity and survival have been successfully disguised for sixteen-odd years); Daenerys Targaryen, widely believed to be the only surviving Targaryen; Stannis Baratheon, who persists in the delusion that he is royal material; Arianne Martell, who shares her father’s secret ambitions for a Martell queen; and Euron Greyjoy, the ruthless lord of the Greyjoys. even beyond these five obvious candidates for the throne, there are several characters that stand out among others as potential leadership material, on account of their qualities, their prominence in the story, or their lineage.

over the course of an insomniac night or two, i decided to rate the leadership potential of all claimants and pretenders according to my analysis of their qualities. the three categories i employed in my analysis were 1) legitimacy of claim, 2) strength of support, and 3) personal leadership qualities.

Candidates, in rank order:

1. Daenerys Targaryen: There can be virtually no question that Daenerys is the ultimate front-runner for the Iron Throne. As distracting and at times tedious as her narratives have been, GRRM has simply given the readers no choice but to concede that Daenerys is the best single candidate for the throne. She’s a Targaryen, which cements her claim; she has a sufficient army of Unsullied and free companies as well as the probable support of the Dornish, in addition to the prowess of her dragons; and she has demonstrated an internal compass regarding slavery and justice, a quality which makes her beloved to her subjects. There is only one attribute that compromises Daenerys’s candidacy to any significant degree, and that’s her barrenness. Per the prophetic words, Daenerys cannot birth an heir; and this promises that her tenure as queen will be tumultuous, if not brief as well.

2. Aegon Targaryen: Aegon’s claim could be considered stronger than Daenerys’s on account of his gender, except among the Dornish who rate birth order higher than gender. His support is weaker than Daenerys’s though, as his contingent is small and his identity remains a secret to the seven kingdoms. And while he is credited as having some strong leadership qualities (decisiveness, bravery, and intelligence), he’s otherwise a mystery. He’s sixteen and bold, if not reckless; that raises questions about his capacity for wisdom. For the latter two reasons, he can’t be rated at his aunt’s level; and it’s hard to imagine him being her equal as a monarch.

3. Tyrion Lannister: Tyrion’s personal leadership qualities are so obviously strong that they vault him to 3rd on my list, despite the fact that his claim and his support are relatively weak. Assuming that Tommen’s parentage remains cloaked, Tyrion would have the second strongest claim to the throne after his cloistered niece Myrcella, given that Jaime is bound to the Kingsguard. But Tyrion can only be considered a remote candidate, as one cannot realistically expect that a dwarf could ascend to the throne in GRRM’s universe.

4. Jon Snow: Assuming that Jon Snow is actually Jon Targaryen, bastard child of Rhaegar, his claim to the throne would depend on the quality of evidence regarding his parentage as well as the legitimization of his status by the throne. The former would require the testimony of Howland Reed and the benefit of the doubt from the acting king. Beyond these concerns, there are legitimate questions about Jon’s leadership qualities—his lack of ambition for the throne, most principally. Jon Snow may not make a good king, but he would make an ideal “Protector of the Realm”, if GRRM elects to transition Westeros to an interregnum or even a republic (gag).

5. Doran Martell: Prior to Tywin’s death, Doran Martell was probably the second most astute liege lord in the seven kingdoms; after Tywin’s passing, Doran is indisputably the wisest man in Westeros. He has no legitimate claim to the throne, which makes him an afterthought in this discussion.

6. Bran Stark: Bran is a sympathetic character, but at the end of book 5 he’s not even widely known to be alive. Moreover, he’s been grafted into a heart tree and appears to be transforming into an otherworldly creature, which puts him on a dimension incompatible with the politics of King’s Landing. He has no conceivable claim to the throne, but his transformation under the tutelage of the “Children of the Forest” suggests that he has a nearly unlimited capacity for discernment, reach, and influence. If Bran can control dragons, it is conceivable that he could rule through a surrogate; but this would require a stretch of the imagination.

7. Petyr Baelish: Baelish has ascended the ranks from small-time accounting to Lord Protector of the Eyrie and Lord of Harrenhall, so his trajectory suggests a potential rise to higher power. However, his claim to the throne is inconceivable at this point, outside of marriage to Daenerys or to Margaery Tyrell. Baelish lacks the lineage and the friendships to make for any real cause, and his personage fails to inspire, to say the least. He’ll make a good power broker, but he’s gone as high as he can go in Westeros society.

8. Stannis Baratheon: Stannis has the single strongest claim to the throne, being next in line after Robert Baratheon in light of the illegitimacy of Cersei’s children, but his obstinate and unforgiving nature so compromise his ability to gain support as to make his claim irrelevant. Stannis is unfit to be a king, and he’s equally unable to submit to another king, which makes him an obvious candidate for demise in book 6 or 7.

9. Euron Greyjoy: Euron and his brother Victarion are caricaturish characters who are poorly crafted (in my opinion) and beg to be eliminated quickly from the story. They make this list only because of Euron’s ludicrous declaration of kingship.

10. Davos Seaworth: As unlikely as Davos’s prospects are, if GRRM is determined to turn Ice & Fire into a British history lesson, then Davos, like Jon Snow, would make a suitable Protector of the Realm, in the mold of Oliver Cromwell. Otherwise, Davos is an obvious candidate for some other heroic service, either in the King’s Council or as his Hand.

my predictions? it would be a disappointing move for GRRM to move Westeros toward a republic. it’s just mechanical, obvious, and overwrought all at the same time. on the other hand, simply installing a new royal line would be anticlimactic. for me, there are only two logical outcomes for the game of thrones: a return to the seven kingdoms, or a renewal of the ancient lineages. the latter, i feel, is the more intriguing. the First Men, the Andals, and the Rhoynar are the three historical societies of Westeros which birthed the seven kingdoms, and the realignment of the Westerosi under these three kingdoms of rule might provide the dramatic shift that the drama of Ice & Fire calls for.

i think the Targaryens will return to Westeros not to reinstall Targaryen rule but to bring an end to the rule of the great houses. Daenerys will be queen of Westeros but for a short time; she’ll rally the people against the Others and perish in the war between the forces of ice and fire. Her three-headed dragon will be fulfilled in the persons of Aegon and Jon, her two nephews. Jon Snow is the one of these three who will survive the war; he’ll rebuild the society of the First Men. Tyrion and the Tyrells will reestablish the kingdom of the Andals, and Dorne will reestablish its ancient connection to the Rhoyne. The Eyrie will be wiped out, but the Ironborn will survive. There’s only one character in Ice & Fire fit to marry the story’s great hero in Jon Snow, and that is Asha Greyjoy. Every epic story needs a great romance, and right now GRRM hasn’t written one…

12.14.12

random things

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:15 pm by Administrator

i was praying in my office before lunch, and i heard a prompting in my mind: “ask and you will receive”. lately, i’ve really only had one supplication, that being for God’s favor. i know it’s starting to sound very repetitive, but i just can’t emphasize enough how that one prayer has been changing my life. in any case, i felt that the prompting this morning was for a specific request, something discrete that God wanted to grant me. so i prayed for my dad. i prayed that God would give him a “knock him off the horse” vision of Himself. i prayed that after hitting him with that vision God would take away his cancer and restore him to complete health.

i’ve been praying for my dad my whole life. perhaps before my prayer this morning, most of my prayers for my dad have been indirectly for me—prayers for changes in my dad that would ultimately benefit me. but today, perhaps for the first time, i prayed for God to receive glory through my dad’s healing and sanctification. it’s a different kind of prayer. in a way, i’ve already resigned myself to my dad’s eventual death; but in the time that my dad has left, i want God to overcome the resistance and sin in his life, so that for a little while—just a little while—he might give God the worship that God deserves.

there’s no sense in praying for longevity. my Dad is going to die. i’m going to die. no one who’s ever been healed of a physical illness has gone on to live forever. if God’s going to heal something or someone, then there has to be a point to that healing. i want my Dad to be healed so that he might make things right with the Lord, reconcile himself to his family, and devote what he has to God before he dies. yes, i think i’ll be blessed if this happens; but it’s not the point of my prayer, not anymore.

i don’t know if God will answer this prayer. i certainly think that He can do this, if He chooses to. but i’m not going to put Him to the test. i don’t think it’s faith to declare that God will do something. i think it’s faith enough to believe that He can, if He wants to. like Daniel’s three friends in captivity said, even if God doesn’t deliver us, we will still refuse to serve another god.

i’m in two fantasy football leagues, and i made the semifinals in both leagues. i can’t help it; but i’m extremely focused on getting to the Finals in both leagues and then winning it all. i’m trying to look at this desire through the lens of my spiritual renewal. exactly what do i gain if i win either or both leagues? would my crushing victory somehow be life-giving to my community or to myself? do i need the trivial cash prize that we set aside for the league winner? alas, my life is full of silly little games intended to help me pass the time. sometimes, i disgust myself. thus, on the one hand, i crave victory, as i always do. on the other hand, i delight in the idea that the devastating feeling of defeat will be equally useful to God in sanctifying my greedy, selfish soul. Eli Manning and Cam Newton, do your worst! San Francisco defense, have your way with Tom Brady, who is quarterbacking both my teams!

i am in post-Game of Thrones withdrawal. as critical as i am of certain aspects of GRRM’s story series, i’ll admit that i remain deeply attached to the story universe of “A Song of Ice and Fire”. i wake up every morning vaguely aware that i am simply counting the days until the sixth book is published, which may be another year and a half from now. here and there, i get to thinking that i should just write my own version of book six for my own entertainment, since i can scarcely imagine waiting another two years to find out what’s going to happen next. of course authoring the next installment for my own pleasure would entirely be a waste of time, and it would make for very bad reading. and no other fans would be happy with my book 6.

after all, i’d probably end the whole epic story in about one hundred pages. after killing off all the characters previously invented, i’d turn Westeros into a parched post-apocalyptic wasteland, thereafter resurrecting the “children of the forest” to take over the continent. the “children of the forest” would interestingly look like an assortment of East Asians, Africans, and Latinos who would live peaceably with one another in perpetuity. one character, who would look and act remarkably like myself, would be the benevolent ruler of this great tribe, and of course he would be both wise and immortal.

12.12.12

two houses

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:58 pm by Administrator

during my vacation this past week, i spent a lot of time thinking about emptiness.

for me, there are two kinds of emptiness. there is the emptiness that connotes the very pit of boredom, the utter lack of inertia or energy—the emptiness of lifelessness. and, on the other hand, there is the emptiness that is freedom from stimulation and distraction—the emptiness of zen, so to speak. the former emptiness is nothing less than depression, while the latter is the gateway to bliss.

i have experienced both forms of emptiness, and there are two things i can conclude about them. firstly, the two forms of emptiness cannot coexist. secondly, both forms of emptiness are characterized by a lack of three things: 1) impending decision, 2) destination, and 3) diversion.

if one is trapped in a life of incessant overstimulation and task-orientation, as i am, one’s life is cluttered with all three of these “D’s”. there are always decisions to be made; there is always a destination in mind, whether short or long-term; and in the absence of stimulation, there is always a hunger for a diversion or distraction. the mind can become addicted to a terribly furious pace of activity. and in this society, electronically connected and constantly communicating as we are, this addiction can have pervasive effects on the body and mind.

i have mostly experienced emptiness as a terrifying and deeply demoralizing thing. this is the reason why, in my periods of relative depression, i seek diversion, in the hopes of ultimately finding a destination, so that my daily life can be filled again with decisions of importance. but i’ve experienced enough disillusionment and depression in my lifetime to recognize that my recurrent malaise is not truly a product of understimulation; it is rather a product of unrealistic expectations and unsustainable obsession. to heal, to rediscover life, and to relieve myself of the psychological stranglehold i adopted in my youth, i have to address my addiction to stimulation. i have to discover emptiness—the zen kind of emptiness—and i have to incorporate it into my daily life.

i’m no master of meditative technique, but i’ve found that two memories have been useful in helping me maneuever into a place of meditative relaxation. the first memory is of my first piano teacher, Nettie Goss. the second memory is of the house in West Haverstraw where we used to stay with Grandma Pep once or a twice a year when i was young. they are memories of two houses that i have kept with me, two houses where, even now, i am able to exist and become less of what i am, if not more of nothing.

Nettie Goss was my piano teacher when i was 8 and 9. she was elderly at the time, and she moved slowly and deliberately, much like the way she moved her hands over the keys. it never failed to impress me how she could produce such dynamic music with with such economy of movement. those fingers, wrinkled, knobby, and yet soft, just rested on the keys, and they simply drew sound from the strings beneath. and when i would attack the keys to provoke their sounds, with my wrists arched and my shoulders tightened to my ears, Mrs. Goss would put a hand on my shoulder, and she would tell me in that beautiful, gravelly voice of hers to just relax.

that is what i miss most about Mrs. Goss—her voice. it was a voice of a thousand seasons, uncountable feelings and wisdoms distilled and tempered into words that carried light humor but profound healing. she told me, in so many words, that i was not only talented at the piano but gifted as a human being. to this day, i remember sitting next to her on the piano bench experiencing nothing less than wonder at the way she was and the way she treated me.

a few years ago, i looked her up and found an obituary. she died in retirement in Florida. knowing that she is gone has somehow made my memories of her more vivid. i cannot remember her face. but a part of me holds fast to the sound of her voice and the moments when she would say the words that made everything all right. “very good,” she’d say, each syllable to the rhythm of the last three notes i’d play.

like Mrs. Goss’s home, the house in West Haverstraw remains in my memory as quiet and eerily peaceful, perpetually frozen in the shadow patterns of a dusty late afternoon. it’s ironic, because Pep’s home was usually full of noise and bustle. we would arrive after a 5-hour car trip, and then immediately people would start streaming through the door. the screen door would bang hard announcing yet another member of the family. nights were full of smoking and gambling and laughter. we ate spaghetti with big meatballs. after a few hours of pretending to be grown up, i’d find myself playing, fighting, and yelling at the other kids. there was incessant movement and always the expectation of raucous laughter. even my dad laughed at Pep’s house.

but i remember a late afternoon, when Poppy was still alive and on dialysis, and when everyone in the house was napping. i am standing right where the kitchen meets the dining room, seeing light filter through dust through the window across the room. there is noise outside, but inside it is totally silent, and i am the only one awake. i am happy, but in a muted sort of way. it is a slow and vast swell of happiness, perhaps better described as well-being. this is a place where nothing about me matters except that i am among family.

there are moments when i am stricken with an overpowering sadness. Poppy and Pep have died, as has Rosefrances. that house belongs to someone else now. the rhythm of life, wrapped around those visits north, has changed. it is as if the passage of time has prevailed against the bonds of family and love, and the tide has washed me up on a foreign shore, far from everything i have loved. there are moments when i feel lost in life, like i have wandered far from home and cannot find my way back.

but there are moments when i am in that house again. i find emptiness, and i feel the pleasure of that emptiness. it is not the emptiness of loss. it is the emptiness of freedom, of unburdening, of deliverance. i do not remember what i was, nor do i need to. even at thirty-seven, i still see the insides of that big, old house the way i once did. more than any other place i have lived in, it was my home, and it always will be

12.10.12

Game of Thrones, after Book 5

Posted in Uncategorized at 6:11 pm by Administrator

{Spoilers}

i read all five published books in GRRM’s series over the last six weeks. that’s about 5500 pages of reading revolving around an innumerable number of characters great and small. the continent of Westeros has been razed and then pillaged again about three times over; tens of thousands of people have been murdered, raped, flayed, and tortured, and there are now three self-proclaimed kings, two pretenders to the throne, and a godless horde of “Others” waiting beyond the Wall to make the whole game of thrones entirely irrelevant.

the journey has been epic, exhausting, and annoying all at the same time. as GOT has been my life for the past month, i feel a need for a personal debrief.

one aspect of GOT that is fairly unique is that the story is related through a semi-first-person narrative, told through the perspectives of dozens of different characters. it’s “semi-first” because it’s actually third-person limited, but the scope of each chapter is limited to the events surrounding one character, and the narration is delivered in that character’s unique voice.

this narrative device is extraordinarily challenging for a writer, because he’s got to maintain consistency of both plot and context while managing various character perspectives. meanwhile, the author has to use the character voice to develop the character itself; if he fails to do this, one or more of his character perspectives will weaken, as they become stereotypical in their actions and responses.

there’s plenty of action to go around in “A Song of Ice and Fire”, and GRRM’s prose is passably good (and at times extraordinary), but i think that he genuinely struggles at points to keep his characters interesting. it strikes me that there are times when he uses a character voice like a blunt instrument to advance plot. moreover, the narrative style illuminates two salient characteristics of his story universe that are simply impossible to dismiss: 1) his female characters are not credible, and 2) his “colored” characters fall conveniently within conventional ethnic stereotypes.

it could be argued that GRRM’s point was to create a pseudo-medieval universe within which chauvinism and racial bias are unavoidable, but i think the problem goes deeper than that. GRRM can’t compellingly write a female perspective; nor does he appear capable of elaborating a non-white counterculture that doesn’t look overtly tribal. thus, as the series proceeds, the reader must become increasingly aware of the similarities between “A Song of Ice and Fire” and certain histories of Western Civilization, as conceived by other white men.

in any case, i feel a need to make note of my reactions to some of the character perspectives. i class them according to “hero type” and “villain type”, as most every character falls into one or the other.

VILLAIN TYPE

1. Cersei Lannister: Cersei and Ramsay Bolton are the two characters offered to us as prototypically evil characters. Of the two, Cersei is the one who gives us a narrative voice, and her perspective is particularly prominent in book four. Her descent into paranoia and delusion seems dark and malevolent at first, but it eventually comes apart in an almost farcical display of hysteria toward the latter half of book three. By the time we revisit her in book five, she’s devolved into nothing more than a stereotypical witch. Her chapters, initially promising, later become wordy and obtrusive.

2. Jaime Lannister: In contrast to Cersei, Jaime persists through the series as a compelling character, and his perspective favorably evolves over the series. GRRM uses Jaime very deftly to probe the history of the Lannisters, the identity of the Kingsguard, and the nature of both leadership and war. in my opinion, Jaime’s chapters demonstrate the very best of GRRM’s storytelling ability.

3. Arya Stark: Arya is problematic for GRRM because she’s both a female and a child. The common theme running throughout her narratives is her vengeful anger, but after the third or fourth reiteration of this it becomes evident that Arya’s character will never be fully human. Perhaps it’s scarcely a surprise then when she begins her process of becoming a Faceless Man; she’s essentially a faceless character.

4. Theon Greyjoy: Theon’s chapters become quite interesting over the course of books 4 and 5, as he struggles internally to grasp his core identity in the aftermath of Ramsay’s debilitating psychological torture. His deconstruction makes for very fascinating reading at points, and his chapters sustain book 5, which is otherwise a very plodding affair.

5. Victarion Greyjoy: As one-dimensional as characters get, Victarion functions purely as a plot engine. He is as mirthless a character as he is a perspective, and he requires a lot of willpower from readers pushing through his ceaseless, repetitive ruminations on brother-envy and power-hunger. Would that the Drowned God could just take this man—and quickly.

HERO TYPE

1. Jon Snow: For all the fascinating context surrounding Jon Snow’s mysterious parentage, the Wall, and the myriad creatures beyond the Wall, Jon Snow is a character who alarmingly suffers from some neglect as the story proceeds. His chapters become a succinct blow-by-blow accounting of various power transfers at the Wall; it’s as if Jon’s promotion to “Lord Snow” officially terminates his credibility as a conflicted son of Stark. it’s clearly evident that Jon has a large role to play in the final books, as he’s the one character who most fits the “hero” definition, but at the close of book five, he’s more of a Stannis-type than we’d like to admit.

2. Tyrion Lannister: From the outset, Tyrion Lannister is given to the readers as the purported “most interesting man in the world”. His combination of deformities, intellect, biting wit, and transcendent spirit are obviously formulated to make him a narrative centerpiece, and indeed he’s the most highly represented viewpoint in the books. in large part, Tyrion’s perspective succeeds, and i think this is why “A Song of Ice and Fire” overall succeeds. the reader feels a great deal of sympathy for the counterintuitive hero, and his voice remains both entertaining and compelling throughout. one wonders if in fact this is GRRM’s most natural narrative voice; it is the only perspective which might have functioned as the centerpiece of a single-narrator novel.

3. Sansa Stark: Sansa’s perspective is doomed from the start, and her chapters make for the very worst reading in the novel. granted, she’s intended to be a naive idealist in the mold of her ill-fated father Eddard; but despite tragedy upon tragedy, Sansa really fails to develop or transform in the manner you would expect of an impressionable adolescent divested of her family, her privileges, and her friends.

4. Brienne of Tarth: It is not surprising that the one female perspective which is not consistently annoying happens to be that of a manly woman. Brienne has a one-track mind, she keeps dialogue minimal, and she is exceedingly loyal. that makes her an easy character to write, if not a particularly fascinating one. i think i speak for many when i say that i’d very much like to see the incipient romance between Jaime and Brienne actually materialize in some shape or form; it’d give us a much fuller experience of Brienne.

5. Davos Seaworth: Davos, the most honest man in Westeros, nearly falls into the trap of being a one-dimensional fall guy, but thankfully GRRM introduces him to Wyman Manderley in book five, who sufficiently stretches Davos’s loyalties as to make him credible. Davos is consummately likable, and he appears to bring out the best in Stannis Baratheon. i think Davos’s full potential can only be explored if he takes on a new master at some point.

6. Daenerys: If Tyrion is “the most interesting man in the world”, then Daenerys is purportedly “the most interesting living being in the entire universe”. she seemingly has it all: Targaryen blood, a claim to the throne, unburnable skin, great beauty, and of course dragons. why is it then that her chapters are almost impossibly tedious? the prose in her chapters is overly laden with sensory detail, as if to inflate her sexual mystique to utterly mystical levels. at times it reads like adolescent fantasy fiction of the worst kind, as our dragon princess falls into steamy affairs with various dark, well-muscled, mysterious men. i think of it as GRRM’s ploy to keep female readers engaged, but to me it only succeeds in repeatedly breaking the pace of the story while also provoking disturbingly antiquated notions of race and gender. honestly, i found myself wanting to skip right past any chapter with her name by the time i was halfway through book two.

it’s almost too obvious that Daenerys will become the queen of Westeros at some point. whether she does or does not eventually claim her birthright, many readers probably will find that they care less than they expected to.

12.06.12

picking sides

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:55 am by Administrator

before a meeting today, my administrator and i were alone in an office shooting the breeze, and conversation came around to the recent election. at first the conversation was very casual… but then she got around to talking about how the country’s “going to sh*t” and i found myself silently in quandary as she pressed me for signs of agreement. to her, the ascendancy of the Democrats, the dominant voice of a liberally-minded media, and the legalization of marijuana are three signs of the nation’s progressive decline.

i deftly steered the conversation back to the meeting’s agenda and managed to avoid an outright debate on the hot-button political issues. but be that as it may, i think i would have enjoyed a more probing discussion on the subjects she raised; i just wasn’t sure that she would be able to understand my angle on the discussion.

after all, it’s not the issues that matter to me so much as the cultural foundations that they infer. “liberal” and “conservative” are labels that are painfully simplistic to me; and from generation to generation, a viewpoint can be regarded as liberal or conservative, depending on the milieu. the same goes for Democrats and Republicans. Republicans used to stand for big business; but now Democrats are bailing out the big banks. the two political parties of the United States don’t seem to mean much nowadays. as much as the Republican showing has been criticized over the past six months, the Democrats have been nearly as bad at conveying any meaningful message regarding their values and vision. like i’ve written previously, this recent election was about substantive issues but featured two terribly inadequate candidates. 2013 will be the most anticlimactic inauguration i’ll have witnessed in my entire lifetime.

in any case, i don’t consider myself liberal or conservative, nor do i consider myself politically situated. more often than not, i find myself trying to figure out whether i am comfortable with an American basis of political perception. over the past decade, the most alarming development i’ve recognized is the “us versus the world” theme that has grown prominent in our national discourse. in the 80s, it was “us” the free world that Reagan embraced; in the 90s, it was “us” the forward-thinking civil societies of the world that Clinton appealed to; but nowadays, it is “us” the United States, an isolated nation in evident decline struggling to reassert itself as the leader of some fictional free world. our discourse has become as self-absorbed as it has become frankly delusional. my administrator today wondered out loud why in the world Iran’s government should despise Americans. that she could not imagine a single answer to this rhetorical question captured for me the essence of what it is to be trapped in the American framework of perception. “we” still think of ourselves as a model of enlightened demoracy; we still struggle to recognize that the traditional nation-state paradigm is dissolving, and there is a post-Cold War paradigm emerging that agitates against the traditional lines between East and West, modern and third-world, civilized and (Islamic) tribal. the emerging recognition of transnational crises in the making—global warming, an impending global oil shortage, and international drug empires—make the nationalistic paradigm defunct, if not counterproductive. but here we are, America, the city on a hill. to the end, we claim our exceptionalism, Fukuyamaesque in our extreme myopia, the defenders of democracy to the last.

here’s the thing: i think that there are places in the world where intellectual and cultural rebirth can synergize, where postnational thinking can creatively happen. i just don’t see it happening at American universities, where postnational thinking is still leftist, where organic discussion about the future of technocracy is grossly mislabeled. i wonder if the hot spots in the world necessarily must in countries that have grown exhausted of their modernist ideals; places that have abandoned the construct of nationalism, either because of poverty, war, or revolution gone awry. i think of mexico. i think of brazil. i think of south africa. places that have tasted industrialization but been so ravaged by its effects as to be pressed toward the cutting edge. when i think of the green movement in Germany, i get excited; and when i see Mexicans talking frankly about the legalization of drugs, i am intrigued. when a “developing” nation embraces the restriction on carbon-gas emissions, i get interested. there are places in the world ready to graduate from the traditional and restrictive sense of their histories; they are ready to imagine themselves part of a species at risk of self-destruction or extinction.

it’s the manner of discussion and the delusions about ourselves that so intrigue me about the American political arena. because the things we set up as litmus issues of conscience or ethics really don’t matter. it’s the ideas about ourselves, however narcissistic or insane, that drive us toward war, generation after generation. these ideas—this “us versus them” stationary ideal in our diction—are the things that are tragically, comically, and terribly American. and i’m wishing, for myself and my children, that we’ll graduate from this nonsense and rally around something better

12.05.12

Lessons from fantasy football

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:59 am by Administrator

i started doing fantasy sports in 2001 with basketball, and later i got into fantasy baseball while i was at hopkins. as much as i liked both sports, i didn’t so much as try fantasy football for a few years. the NFL season is only 16 games long; it struck me as the most fickle of the fantasy sports—a game of random achievement for casual fans.

six seasons later, i still feel that way. but while my interest in fantasy basketball has largely nosedived, i still feel some residual interest in fantasy football. for me, i think this has something to do with the attachments i develop to my fantasy NFL players, an attachment that i don’t experience with baseball or basketball players. on the one hand, it seems counterintuitive, in that i only share about 15 or 16 weeks with my fantasy football squad, while one can “own” an NBA player for 80 or so games. but on the other hand, it makes sense, in that every game that an NFL player gives you is vital. you remember the breakout performances, as well as you remember the dud weeks. when one guy’s game is the difference between a win and a loss in your league, you can develop fanatical loyalty to a guy in a matter of a couple hours.

i for one will always feel a special connection with Arian Foster, whom i traded for a week before the start of the 2010 season, when he was a relative unknown. Arian got me the 0.96 point margin of victory in the 1st round of playoffs that year; he put me over the top in a 5.6 point win in the 2nd round; and he was the difference in my 0.02 point Finals victory. you can’t go through a ridiculous playoff journey like that without becoming a believer.

but there is the darker side of fantasy football, and it’s one that i’ve discovered by being a fantasy player. the fantasy game is about buying talent, moving talent, and moving on from talent. even in keeper and dynasty leagues, the key is to know when it’s time to dump a guy who’s just past his peak; the younger talent is always the better investment. Phil from Ultimate Fantasy Football did generations of calculations on breakout running backs, and his analysis was right-on more often than not. the running back in his 3rd year has breakout potential; past the fifth season, he’s already on his way out of the league.

it’s sort of sad to me to consider that just a few years ago i was excited about guys like Lamont Jordan and Travis Henry. i thought Leon Washington would be a big hit in the league. Steve Slaton looked like a guy who was going to make the history books. but most of these guys are done, and Leon is rapidly fading from relevance. NFL players, depending on their position, have a 3-4 year window to establish themselves and win a big contract. if they don’t get all the big breaks during that window, and if they don’t put together a few big games, then they’re rapidly supplanted by the next class of draft picks. no matter how talented they are, there’s only so much time they’ve got to cash in on their assets; there’s only so much physical damage they can accumulate before the scouts essentially put them out to pasture.

in the past seven seasons of fantasy football that i’ve played, i feel like i’ve cycled through three or four generations of skill players. i researched their stats, i took chances on their prospects, and i watched them rise and fall. it’s new every year, and at the same time it’s becoming a more and more sober experience. watching these young twenty-somethings fight for it, succumb to injury, and fall into the ranks of the forgotten has been, beneath it all, a dark reminder of my own mortality. by football age, i’m already twelve years past my prime and at least five years past usefulness. and yet i’m not too old to find a way to cash in on the terrific rise and fall of young men punishing other young men in the pursuit of brief glory and fame.

at some point, i wonder, will i pick my final class of sport heroes to follow into the field? i feel like i can’t keep recycling the lives of real people for much longer. at some point, i think i’ll have to recognize that the young will always have their games to play and their battles to win, but eventually there will be no way for me to believe in those battles, or to justify those sacrifices, or to delight in that transient glory. because the passing from relevance just becomes more and more about passing from life. picking the survivors from the victims—it’s what we do. how odd, that we call it fantasy

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