December 23, 2008

Santa On Saxamaphone

Christmas and the surreal go hand in hand when living in Beijing. Yesterday I was greeted by the following scene in my office lobby: A Chinese Santa Claus, skinnier than Zhang Zi Yi after a three week therapeutic fast in Phuket, playing Christmas songs on his saxophone, accompanied by a circa 1983 boom box.

Christmas in China has become an industry of its own. When I moved to Beijing in 2000, Christmas was in fact a year round event, although perhaps unwittingly. It was not uncommon to see random holiday decorations plastering the walls of the kind of cheap, neighborhood eateries that I preferred to frequent. People did not necessarily realize what these Christmas angels and St. Nicks represented, they just liked the way they looked.

Fast forward a few years, and I began noticing that Christmas was becoming popular among Chinese youth, especially students and office workers. I asked a few people why Christmas was so popular and the most common answer was that Chinese people need an excuse to spend money.

The truth is, anything Western is increasing in popularity. I have never been really big on Christmas myself as an adult, finding it a little too commercial and hypocritical for my taste. But for some reason, seeing Christmas celebrated in China has always perturbed me. It seemed like some kind of violation of a sacrosanct Western tradition. At least in Korea, where they are even more Christmas crazy, a large percentage of the population is Christian.

The lowpoint for me came a couple years ago, while eating at my favorite Buddhist restaurant. The decorations were in full affect, including a Christmas tree and Santa hats. Severely annoyed, I asked why a Buddhist establishment would be celebrating a Christian holiday. The staff informed me they were not celebrating it as a Christian holiday, but as a secular one. This response miffed me even more, since then all you have left is a commercial holiday based around consumption and consumerism. Oh, the irony!

But I have come to accept Christmas in China. I have decided if it makes people happy, why should I complain. It really is no different than me celebrating Spring Festival or Cinco de Mayo. These are not my holidays, but I enjoy having an excuse to party. And any holiday that involves a Chinese Santa Claus on Sax can't be all bad. So Merry Christmas everyone!

Next stop Vietnam!

Lyric Of The Day:
Could I write a requiem for you when you're dead?
'She had the moves, she had the speed, it went to her head'
She never needed anyone to get her round the track
But when she's on her back
She had the knowledge
To get her into college
But when she's on her back
She had the knowledge
To get her what she wanted

'The Stars Of Track & Field'
-Belle And Sebastian

December 21, 2008

A Little Karma Goes A Long Way

I am relatively new to the blogosphere, having just recently started writing Dance With Sunflowers. I have begun following some personal blogs and am showing a new interest in reading the blogs and comments on large sites such as the NYTimes and Treehugger. I have been struck by the amount of negativity and vitriol that is being spewed on these sites. Many people seem more interested in insults and arguments then participating in any kind of discussion. Even when some people are trying to be constructive or share thoughtful opinions, their voices are often drowned out under a deluge of epithets and unwarranted attacks.

Perhaps the most inexplicable situation I have come across was how on one environmental forum--I am unable to recollect which one--the discussion was dominated by one individual. He posted to every thread, almost always negatively, and was constantly denigrating people, shooting down any idea he disagreed with, and spouting off a list of scientific 'research' to back up his claims. It made it impossible to have any kind of reasoned discussion on a topic, because people were always getting into an argument with him and responding to his personal attacks. And this was from an ardent environmental supporter. I am sure you have all come across the spittle and venom coming from the sports and politics blogs. But it really seems there is no place on the internet you can find respite from such antipathy. I have even received a couple of anonymous insults on my blog, which hardly receives any visitors at all.

I just do not understand where all this hate is coming from.

Allow me to share a story with you. Back when I was in grad school in Washington, DC, I was walking onto campus when I saw someone struggling to push his stalled car off the main road into a parking lot. I was walking past, thinking to myself "Sucks to be him" when I had a sudden impulse that I should stop and help him. So I ran over, and helped him push the car around the corner to a spot where it would be out of the way. He offered me his thanks, I said "No problem," and headed off to class. It certainly was not a big deal, yet that moment stuck in my mind, and really got me thinking.

My stopping for two minutes to help this guy meant a hell of a lot more to him than it cost me. It probably helped, at least a little bit, to put him in a better mood. If he ever encounters someone who needs help, he will be more likely to help out himself. And from that experience, I have realized that all our actions are connected. When you are nice to someone, you create a good feeling. You help put that person into a better mood, meaning they are more likely to be nice to others, who will in turn be kinder as well. One good action thus will live forever. In the same way, the negative energy you create will reverberate and endure forever as well. Before this experience, I had never thought too much about the concept of Karma, but now I understand it. It is not about every good action being revisited upon you in an equivalent manner, but it is about the infinite life span of our actions. The more positive energy you create, the more likely it is to return to you in some form at some time.

I am not sharing this story to be mystical, and I am certainly not trying to applaud myself. I try myself to be a good person and to spread good will, but I am often thwarted by my own personality. I can be quick to respond with anger or resentment to someone who lashes out at me. It is not difficult to rope me into an argument. I often fail to be the kind of person I would like to be.

But this brings me back to the blogosphere. I always try to communicate constructively and politely in my comments. Especially to strangers and especially when I am being critical of someone's point of view. I find it much easier to restrain myself and behave civilly, because I have the time to consider my responses and can temper my remarks with a judicial waiting period before clicking post. And yet what I am finding is people are using the anonymity of online communication to vent their anger and resentment in a naked and unbridled way they would never consider acceptable in their personal interactions.

So I urge any of you reading this, think about what you say and how you say it before sharing your opinions. Insults, rants, and personal attacks will not sway anyone to your side. And life does not always need to be about winning an argument or proving you know more than someone else. When you attack someone, it will only serve to sour their mood, and make them more likely to behave negatively towards others. So every time you behave with hostility, you are making our world a little more negative, a little more unfriendly.

Think before you post! Let's all work together to make the blogosphere a little more congenial and inviting for everyone.

Lyric of the Day:
Instant karma's gonna get you
Gonna knock you right on the head
You better get yourself together
Pretty soon you're gonna be dead
What in the world you thinking of
Laughing in the face of love
What on earth you tryin' to do
It's up to you, yeah you

"Instant Karma"
-John Lennon

December 20, 2008

Vegan Time Traveling

I was having a discussion with a friend of mine recently, and as discussions often do, the subject turned to time travel. The following ethical dilemma was posited: If you were to travel in time, as a vegan would you be prohibited from eating meat in your past time, prior to when you first became a vegan?

It is natural as a vegan to want to travel into the future, to a time when our more enlightened society has forever transitioned to a meat and dairy free existence.

But let's assume I use my time machine to travel to 1994. I was not a vegan then, not even a vegetarian. We used to mock a friend of ours who had become a vegetarian to lose weight and replaced meat in his diet with Doritos and Macaroni and Cheese. When I reenter 1994, will I be governed by my current world view, or my past world view?

Of course eating meat in the past will affect our present, in the same way our dietary choices today will affect our future. That is the whole reason I became a vegan after all. But which present will be affected, our current present, or an alternative reality present that is spawned by my voyage into the past? Am I ethically bound as a vegan to think about all these separate realities? At the same time, what is the point of time traveling at all if you are unable to eat bacon when you get there?

One of the rare examples of a question of physics and morality left unanswered by Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure.

December 19, 2008

Norwegian Wood came up on random play as I was writing this, suggesting that either life is not random, or I spent a long time to finish this review

I just finished reading Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami. It is not an easy book to encapsulate, nor to recommend. It is at times depressing, and at other times quite graphic.

The story revolves around Toru Watanabe, whose best friend committed suicide while they were both 17 years old. A deathly pallor hangs over everything, and each character seems to confront reality in his or her own unique way. Just like Kundera's Immortality presents a group of characters struggling with their identity in the face of their own mortality, Norwegian Wood likewise delves into the meaning of self when faced with life in a meaningless void. The novel is gripping in the way it portrays these tortured individuals who are never entirely comfortable in their own realities, and is certainly thought provoking, but it is not an easy read.

Sanity is an issue for several of the characters. Two have been voluntarily admitted to a kind of psychiatric retreat, and they repeatedly say the only difference between the people inside and the people outside is that the people inside know that they are crazy. Indeed, Toru's friends on the outside are just as peculiar and maladjusted to society as his friends inside, maybe even more so. Toru himself feels isolated, and has few companions at his university, and struggles with the direction his life should take. He battles deep bouts of depression, and often retreats into complete solitude. He finds no comfort in the people around him, who are continually exposed as hypocrites. The one friend he regularly spends time with has overcome hypocrisy by living live as selfishly as he can, a kind of Nietzschean superman who feels nothing but contempt for most of the people around him, and in the end is revealed to have a pointless, empty life.

The ending offers little in the way of hope either. Life is lived until death, and their is no magical plan for happiness. The only sanctuary may be to find love, but love is fleeting and tortuous and convuluted and our own need to be wanted and understood too often gets in the way of our ability to return that love.
Gripping the reciever, I raised my head and turned to see what lay beyond the phone box. Where was I now? I had no idea. No idea at all. Where was this place? All that flashed into my eyes were the countless shapes of people walking by to nowhere. Again and again I called out for Midori from the dead centre of this place that was no place.
It is easy to get lost when we have no idea where we are or what direction we are headed, and when the road map presented to us directs us to keep moving forward but gives us no answer as to why we should go there or what to expect when we arrive. But for Toru, and all the characters in Norwegian Wood, that is the type of journey they are on. They can only hope they have a nice cold cucumber to enjoy along the way.

December 17, 2008

The Best Example You Will Ever Find Of The Phantom Menace Syndrome Apart From The Phantom Menace Itself

I would like to use this space today to heartily recommend that you begin reading The Wheel Of Time series of books, by Robert Jordan. I would like to say that they are among the greatest books, of any genre, that I have ever read. I would like to tell you that if you enjoyed Harry Potter, than you will be even more enamored by this complex fantasy epic.

I came across the first book of the series, The Eye of the World, while I was in high school. I had always loved reading, loved stories, and more than once had tried my hand at writing a novel of my own. But it was after The Eye of the World that I first seriously entertained thoughts of becoming a writer.

So I would like nothing more than to urge you to toss whatever drivel you are reading right now, whether it be Shakespeare, Joyce, or Hemingway (or this blog), and grab a book that is truly compelling.

Unfortunately I cannot. The first four or five books in this series became a part of my life in the same way your favorite cousins from Pennsylvania who you only see twice a year are a part of your life, the same way your winter boots are a part of your life. You wish you could play with them everyday forever, but you always have to say goodbye and wait until next time. That is how it was with these books. I would savor each new volume. After plowing through the first few hundred pages in two nights, I would force myself to slow down, because I knew it would be at least another year before a new one came out. And once I finished, a long slow wait would begin. Each time, when the next volume was released, I would read through the whole series from the beginning so I was fully primed for the latest one.

But gradually, things began to fall apart. Book five was not quite as good as book four. Book six was undeniably sub-par. By book seven, I approached each new book with an increasing sense of hope mixed with dread. Would this book be better than the last, or would it be even worse? By books nine and ten, the experience of reading these stories had become almost tortuous, all the worse because I could not put them down, just like you could never turn away from a loved one suffering from a debilitating disease.

These characters had become a part of my life, and I had no choice but to see them all the way through no matter what the outcome. It was so maddening. What had gone wrong? What had happened to Robert Jordan, the best fantasy writer since Tolkien? What were his editor's thinking. The last two or three books were so bad, they reminded me of my own nascent attempts to write novels in high school and college. It was nonsense. It was preposterous that someone had thought to publish someone's first draft and package it as a finished novel.

As the years went by, the pace of their release slowed down. I read book eleven probably four years ago. That's right, book eleven! Jordan began releasing several prequels in the meantime, none of which I have read. I was only interested in finishing the main series, and hoped that through some miracle the story would be redeemed before the end. At one time, he had been a masterful writer. And I was not alone in this belief. Anyone I ever encountered who had read these books loved them just as enthusiastically. I had never heard a bad word. At least until book six.

I found out today that Robert Jordan died last year. I had been wondering when to expect the next book, and did a google search, and discovered the bad news. He had apparently been suffering from a terminal form of heart disease for some time.

My immediate response was to wonder if this disease could be part of the reason why the series had so tragically deteriorated. I have no answer, and I am not sure it matters. According to his publisher, another author has been commissioned to finish the series, using the notes and manuscript that Jordan left behind. Book twelve was always intended to be the final book.

I hope that the final book will approach the quality of the first several. But even if it does, it cannot repair the damage caused by the second half of the series. And if the final book is a triumph, it will always be bitter sweet for fans of the series, since the series's rejuvenation could only come about after Jordan's death.

So I would like to be able to recommend that you read The Eye of the World, but I cannot. Because once you start, you will not be able to stop. You will become deeply entranced with a whole new world, a rich epic of marvelous adventure and powerful characters. And then you will become disappointed and frustrated as the story declines, to the point that you will probably wish you never started in the first place.

What a tragedy.

December 14, 2008

Betrayal Is A Thorny Crown

Prior evidence to the contrary, I have never really had a passion for poetry. I like the romantic poets, especially Keats, but even with them I am only attracted to a few of their most famous works. The bulk of their poems I find inaccessible. When I write my own poetry, it is more as an exercise in language than any deep attachment to the process.

What I do enjoy are epic poems by Homer and Dante and Milton, as well as the verse of Shakespeare's plays. Even when the language is dense and dated, if the writing is driven by character or story, that makes all the difference for me.

Maybe I have not been looking in the right place, but modern poetry has never drawn much interest from me. I am open to suggestions if anyone has some poetry they especially want to share with me. Until now, though, I have been entirely underwhelmed by even the most famous poets of the last century.

Except for songwriters. My favorite poetry all comes from music. Perhaps it is an unfair advantage, because being able to combine lyrics with music obviously provides for more of an emotional impact. Someone like Michael Stipe or Kurt Cobain can write nonsensical, even unintelligible, lyrics, but you marry it to the right tune, and you get magic. It will bore its way into your soul.

Yet somehow I believe that with the best songwriters--Elvis Costello, Lou Reed, Liz Phair--their lyrics transcend the music and work just as well by themselves. All my favorite songs are based on the words much more than the music.

Just recently, I have become deeply entranced by the music of Jenny Lewis. She is the lead singer for Rilo Kiley, but she has also put out a couple solo albums. She's a supreme story teller, and able to capture an emotion with just a few lines. Her song Rabbit Furcoat feels like a four minute feature length movie.

From the song "Melt Your Heart":
When you're kissing someone who's too much like you
It's like kissing on a mirror
When you're sleeping with someone who doesn't get you
You're gonna hate yourself in the morning

It's bound to melt your heart
One way or another
It's bound to melt your heart
For good or for bad
It's like a valentine
From your mother
It's bound to melt your heart
From the song "The Absence Of God":
And you're not happy but you're funny and I'm tripping over my joy
But I just keep on getting up again
We could be daytime drunks if we wanted
We'd never get anything done that way baby
And we'd still be ruled by our dueling perspectives
And I'm not my perspective
Or the lies I'll tell you every time
From the song "You Are What You Love":
I'm fraudulent, a thief at best
A coward who paints a bullshit canvas
Things that will never happen to me
But at arms length, it's Tim who said
I'm good at it, I've mastered it
Avoiding, avoiding everything
And from what I am convinced is the happiest break up song of all time, "Breakin' Up":
It's not as if New York City
burnt down to the ground
once you drove away
It's not as if the sun won't shine
when clouds up above
wash the blues away
The truth is, I do not know that much about Rilo Kiley and Jenny Lewis, other than how fantastic their music is. I do know that other members of Rilo Kiley have their own side project called the Elected, so perhaps Jenny Lewis is not responsible for all the lyrics. But I am not going to take the time to look up all the liner notes myself. I will instead just recommend all of you to take a listen for yourselves. Just make sure you pay attention to the lyrics.

Lyric of the Day:
Betrayal is a thorny crown
you wear it well
just like a king
revenge is the saddest thing
honey, i'm afraid to say
you deserve everything

-Breakin' Up
Rilo Kiley

December 12, 2008

The Most Preposterous Pleasurable Pop

You may have noticed that people, especially the media, love lists. I certainly have. So in a blatant attempt to drive more readers to my blog, I have come up with my own version of a Top 10 list.

What follow are the 8 greatest TV creations ever conceived. These shows are so deliciously bad, only a true connoisseur of entertainment can even begin to appreciate them.

#8 Boy Meets World:

I think one key to the kind of uber entertainment that cannot fail but become a cultural phenomenon is that there must be little or no sense of reality. The jokes are so bad, the acting so hackneyed, the story lines so shameless in their attempt to manipulate that no one would ever think to themselves "Yes, this is exactly what it's like to be a teenager." But at the same time, everything they do must be one hundred percent sincere. Everyone involved thinks they are making a relevant, touching, humorous work of art. Put all these ingredients together, and you end up with Boy Meets World. Best episode: Any one with Corey and Topenga

#7 Land of the Lost:

A show sophisticated enough that Will Ferrell himself is doing the remake, Land of the Lost realized that there was something that people would love even more than dinosaurs, aliens and cavemen. All three of them together. Thanks to a dimensional portal, Rick Marshall and his children stumble into the land of the Sleestak, where danger lurks around every corner and nothing can save you from the seventies fashion menace. Best Episode: The first one with Dopey the Dinosaur.

6. Sabrina The Teenage Witch:

A family of witches. A sarcastic cat. A 1960's television show transposed onto a teen sitcom. Is it any wonder this show ran for seven years? Mixing the fantasy of Harry Potter with the humor of TGIF, Sabrina showed that even for a witch, when you are a teenager, the most important thing is fitting in. Best episode: The one with Britney

#5 Saved By The Bell: The College Years:

No teen show has ever transitioned more smoothly into college. Zack and AC were growing up, but the show retained the same sensibility that made the original such a classic. Even with the new characters to breathe some freshness into the story lines, the heart of the show was as always the relationship between Zack and Kelly. Best Episode: Their marriage in the final TV movie brought closure to one of the best TV love affairs of all time.

#4 Charles In Charge:

The show went through several transformations. The Pembroke family only lasted one season, as did Charles' girlfriend, Gwendolyn Pierce. The second season brought the Powells and Charles' mom. But the most reliable change was that as we grew older, Buddy Lambeck kept growing dumber. And there can be no argument that 'Charles In Charge' is the best TV theme song of all time. Favorite episode: The one with Meg Ryan

#3 Small Wonder:

Stellar acting, gee whiz special effects, and cutting edge scripting combined in one definitive moment in the 80's, resulting in Small Wonder. Even today, you will watch Vicki the Robot and stare in disbelief as you contemplate how something so tremendous could ever have gotten made. Best Episode: The one with Vanessa, the evil robot version of Vicki

#2 Saved By The Bell:

The show started as Good Morning, Miss Bliss, was set in Indianapolis, and included Mr. Belding, Zack Morris, Screech Powers, and Lisa Turtle. Year two saw the whole school move to Bayside High School and witnessed AC Slater, Kelly Kapowski, and Jessie Spano join the cast. In that moment, television history was made. Best Episode: Zack Attack

#1: Days Of Our Lives:

Eternally frustrating, as almost nothing ever happens in any given episode, the greatest television show of all time provides viewers with the ultimate luxury. You can miss weeks, months or even years of episodes in a row, and yet pick up the action again after 15 minutes. Any one who doubts the magnificence of Days need be reminded of only one thing: Marlena was possessed by the devil, until John Black saved her by performing an exorcist. The best part, after 40 years, it is still on the air. Favorite Episodes: The year when Marlena was possessed by the devil.

Lyric of the Day:

It's my gradual descent
Into a life I never meant
It's the slow fade of love
"A Man-Me-Then Jim"
-Rilo Kiley

December 9, 2008

Alex The Talking Parrot

I recently listened to a Fresh Air interview with Irene Pepperburg about her research with Alex, an African Grey Parrot. Over the course of 30 years, in similar fashion to Koko the gorilla, Pepperburg trained Alex to speak, the only difference being that parrots do not need to use sign language. By the time of his death in 2007, he had a vocabulary of 150 words, could identify colors and objects, and could use his vocabulary to respond to new concepts. You can watch some examples of his abilities on YouTube.

The story of Pepperburg and Alex reminds me of a book I read a couple of years ago entitled, When Elephants Weep. It chronicles a great deal of research conducted over the years on animal behavior, looking specifically at instances that indicated that animals are capable of experiencing a wide variety of emotion. The chapters are divided according to emotion, beginning with those easiest to identify, such as fear and love. By the final chapter, the authors are providing much more controversial examples, such as bears taking the time to appreciate a sunset.

What struck me in both these stories was the resistance that these scientists have faced from the scientific community at large. Many scientists vehemently oppose this kind of research, even though it is based on scientific data and observation. Is it really any surprise that animals share the same kinds of emotional capacity has humans? Where do these scientists think human emotion evolved from? And how does the fact that animals are intelligent and capable of emotion somehow make me less human?

Of course, in light of this research, the efforts of activists to win government recognition for animal rights make even more sense.

Lyric of the Day
Our ideas held no water
But we used them like a dam

Missed The Boat
-Modest Mouse

December 7, 2008

If Only The Olympics Were Year Round

The other day, I was going to my office and saw the elevator doors standing open. The arrow was pointed up, so I hurried to catch it. When I got in, I noticed two other men were also headed towards the elevator so before pushing the button for my floor I held open the door for them.

Upon getting in the elevator, one of them brushed past me so that he could hit the button for his floor, in the basement. This was no accident. He knew that if he hit the button first the elevator would go down instead of up, and so he pushed in front of me in order to do so. I could only shake my head and smile.

Anyone who lives in Beijing can attest to countless similar examples. What to Westerners are simple acts of courtesy--holding the elevator door, waiting in line, yielding to someone in front of you, waiting for someone to get off the bus before you push your way on--are rare events in the Chinese capital. If you cannot shrug off the many instances of public selfishness which you encounter on a daily basis, then your time in Beijing will be a long, slow countdown to bitterness that will only end with your grateful return to a civilized world.

But there is another aspect to China that is not as obvious to the visitor. Whereas in public, with perfect strangers, people may behave atrociously--it is a rare week I do not witness two strangers getting into a shouting match--among their friends, Chinese people are extremely generous and kind. A Chinese friend will consistently embarrass you with his or her generosity, and from our Western perspective it can actually be quite awkward. I cannot count how many kidneys I have had offered to me.

I once got run into by another biker while pedaling near Wang Fu Jing. Of course the woman saw a foreigner and tried to blame me. A crowd gathered and the police were called in, even though neither of us were hurt. I had to go to the local police station where no one spoke English. They called an off duty officer who could speak English, and he asked me several times if I had a friend that could speak Chinese that could come down to the station.

This was in the middle of the afternoon on a Thursday. All my friends were at work. But he kept prodding me to call someone to come down to the station. Later, after observing the way Chinese people will drop everything to go and help a friend in need, I realized for this police officer, it was only natural that one of my friends would leave work to come help me translate with a traffic cop.

The lesson is you can never judge a foreign culture. Just acknowledge that it is different and try to understand it more deeply. It is no better or worse than your own culture. What seems normal to you, like taking a vacation on your own, may seem outrageous to a Chinese person. And what seems outrageous to us, like the left turn lane cutting off oncoming traffic as soon as the light turns green, may be an everyday occurrence in Beijing.

December 6, 2008

Genocide Porn

I suspect that like me, many of you are regular readers of the New York Times. There op-ed columnists are among the most popular in the country. But amid all the partisanship and narcissism, the one writer that is consistently tackling serious world issues in an even-handed and illuminating manner is the one most likely to be ignored.

The National Geographic Adventure blog just ran a very interesting interview with Nicholas Kristof. One especially compelling exchange had to do with why perhaps Kristof slips by less noticed compared to his more bombastic peers like Friedman, Dowd, and Krugman:
NGA: Do you ever worry that you might overwhelm your readers or turn them off somehow? You know, maybe someone’s drinking his morning coffee, reading the paper, and he finally throws up his hands and says, Enough! I can’t handle Kristof this morning.

NK: Sometimes I worry about writing what might be called, frankly, "genocide porn." Darfur is so painful a topic, and so brutal, and so graphic that it becomes almost titillating. I worry about that when I pile on horrifying examples. But I don’t know any other way to get people to actually act—and maybe write a letter to the White House.
I always find his stories quite courageous. He consistently writes about issues that lack commercial appeal in a serious and informative manner, hoping to have an impact. He does not get involved in the red vs. blue back and forth that characterizes most of our public discourse, and which quite frankly is more likely to drive up readership and ratings. And he has not been afraid to insert himself into dangerous areas and complicated issues without having a preconceived notion of what kinds of answers he will find.

Go back and read about the way he dealt with the illicit sex trade in Cambodia and the young girls that have been exploited to gain an idea of what I am talking about. Here is his archive page on the New York Times.

The Fly

Of all the things of I have ever written, this is what I am most proud of:


Who am i
to kill a fly?
For though a fly
knows not it dies,
and to say goodbye
makes me sigh,
it would be a lie
for me to try
and separate that fly
from i.

December 3, 2008

Miming Doesn't Pay

To show everyone what a brilliant teacher I am, here is an excerpt from an essay my student wrote. He is a Korean 8th grader. The assignment was to write a five paragraph essay on the best way to achieve success:
The last simple, but important element is that it is realistic. It should be something that the person has a chance of doing. Yes, that might sound brutal and discouraging, but a person from a farm has no or almost no chance of becoming a professor in Harvard University. Also, no one should ever dream of living a happy, rich and comfortable life being a street mime.
I take full credit for this display of genius. I hope everyone can learn from his sensible advice.

December 1, 2008

Waiting For The Raven King

Susanna Clarke took over ten years to write her first novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. So the five years I have been working on mine seem like a pittance.

It was time well spent. You can read any review and find the basic premise: England of the early nineteenth century watches as two magicians battle to revive the lost art of English magic. A cross between Jane Austen and The Lord of the Rings. A Harry Potter for adults.

It is much closer to Austen than to Tolkien. We open on the English countryside, at a meeting of the Yorkshire Society of Magicians. Except these are not practical magicians, but theoretical. The last English Magician who could actually do magic disappeared over 200 years ago. No, these magicians merely debate and squabble over what magic used to be like, back when the Raven King still ruled the north.

That is, until a gentleman from Hurtfew Abbey named Mr. Norrell, shocks all of England by proving himself capable of casting spells. He comes to London as the only practitioner of English magic, but soon gains a rival, the younger and more handsome Jonathan Strange. Together they alternately excite and horrify London society as they battle to return English magic to glory.

The comparisons to Austen are just. Two qualities especially stand out as exemplary. First, is the description. The houses, the clothes, the manners, the social hierarchy, all are explained in rich detail. A delight and a humor gives the entire affair a serious levity. The greatest effort is made to infuse a narrative history into everything. The absence of magic can only be fully appreciated when juxtaposed with all the memories of England's glorious past. An example:
Upon the instant, bells began to toll. Now these were nothing more than the bells of St. Michael-Le-Belfrey telling the half hour, but inside the Cathedral they had an odd, far-away sound like the bells of another country. It was not at all a cheerful sound. The gentleman of the York society knew very well how bells often went with magic and in particular with the magic of those unearthly beings, faeries; they knew how, in the old days, silvery bells would often sound just as some Englishman or Englishwoman of particular virtue or beauty was about to be stolen away by fairies to live in strange, ghostly lands for ever. Even the Raven King--who was not a fairy, but an Englishman--had a somewhat regrettable habit of abducting men and women and taking them to live with him in his castle in the Other Lands. Now, had you and I the power to seize by magic any human being that took our fancy and the power to keep that person by our side through all eternity, and had we all the world to chuse from, then I dare say our choice might fall on someone a little more captivating than a member of the Learned Society of York Magicians, but this comforting thought did not occur to the gentlemen inside York Cathedral and several of them began to wonder how angry Dr Foxcastle's letter had made Mr Norrell and they began to be seriously frightened.
Second, even more impressively, is the way she uses character to drive the story. These are characters in the fullest sense of the word, each with his or her own idiosyncrasies. The heroes are not trying to save the world. The villains are not out to do evil. An excessive pride afflicts every male character of a certain social standing, almost as an afterthought. Clarke wants us to know that to be a gentleman in the nineteenth century means being elevated to a place of privilege that has nothing to do with your character, and that elevated status makes it impossible to escape a heightened egotism. The main antagonist, the man with thistle down hair, is a fairy, and so his motivations and ideas about right and wrong are quite foreign to us, but nothing in his character is especially malicious. He cannot help his capriciousness any more than Mr. Norrell can help his infuriating pettiness or Strange his melancholy temper.

Casting his shadow over the whole affair is the Raven King, the long departed king of Northern England who was the greatest magician to ever live. Legends of his exploits abound. Clarke has created an entire mythos, a lattice of folk tales and memories and place names and even whole geographies that have been left behind by John Uskglass, and everyone lives in either fear or expectation of his return.

Like Don Quixote and other massive epics of their ilk, the story is filled with digressions, interludes and side stories, not to mention a copious amount of footnotes. Every character has a story to go with him or her, and every story is filled with character. She allows the story to meander over its first two thirds, as we become fully immersed in this world, and then drives it to a furious conclusion.

Every one of you should read this book.