Friday, December 13, 2013

It's Bigger on the Inside

“I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me.” 
 - Daniel Kahneman 

    “Places, please!” As I make this final call, the house lights dim and I slide into my chair, heart racing before the play even begins. Before me sits my promptbook, short marks etched into the page waiting only for my breath to jump alive onstage. These cues, with some minor support from the cast, bring a world to life. In our world, bombs can explode outside embassies without killing anyone, American tourists can escape the Communist police dressed as sultans, and weeks can pass in the blink of an eye. When we step into the theater, we leave behind reality and get lost in the world of the play. Indeed, we call it a play because it occurs so far outside of everyday life.
     Unfortunately, everyday life does not stop when I step into the theater, as much as I wish it did. I spend hours tweaking a light cue or working on a scene, oblivious to the world continuing on without me. Not until I step outside the theater’s walls do I discover a day has passed unnoticed. With that discovery comes the realization that I still have hours of homework awaiting me. I pay the price for my time spent playing with late nights and little sleep. Invariably some part of me regrets my choice in the morning, but nonetheless I head right back to the theater that afternoon. The play proves to be both its own gift and curse. The more I play the less time I have for work; the less time for work the more stressed I become; the more stressed I become the more I seek refuge in the playing. I always finish a show proud of the work I’ve done, but the cycle of play and stress leaves me exhausted.
     Ironically, when asked to work on the next show, I never remember the regrets or the sleepless nights. I recall only the joy of playing and the anticipation of doing it again. So, when called upon to work my second show and then my third, I eagerly volunteer. My remembering self fixates on the world of the play, where I can spend hours creating without exhaustion. My experiencing self pays the price for my enthusiasm, but it gets no say in whether I take up another project. I want nothing more than to dive back into another world, to create a space separate from everyday reality. I need nothing more than a few weeks off to catch up on my sleep. But I’ve accepted that creation requires some self-destruction, and I dive back in.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Calm Before the Storm

This reflection responds to "The Beast in the Jungle," a short story by Henry James.

    Sheltered in a cove between the turbulent surf of the freshman year and the intimidating depths of the junior, sophomores have their last sustained moment of calm before going out into the ocean of life. Georgetown sophomores need to take advantage of this calm in order to fail. They have a chance to dive deliberately into something new, still distant from any lasting consequences. They swim, safe in the knowledge that their proximity to shore allows them easy return from an unsuccessful endeavor, for there is nothing done during the sophomore year that can’t be reversed. While they have this safety, they should try new things, fail, and then try yet more things. Through these failures they will define the contours of their passions, discover and repair the hidden weaknesses in their skills, and figure out how to chart their future course. But unsure of the purpose of this special year, without the societal expectations of freshmen or the blossoming wisdom of juniors, they fail to recognize their opportunity until they sail past it. Believing that their journey lies ahead, they miss the critical work of sounding themself out.
    If sophomores fail to create their own charts during this year, they will find themselves adrift during their later years. Only when lost will they frantically draft their charts, all the while buffeted by the tough storms of life. If only something could serve as a lighthouse, to alert sophomores to the dangers of waiting too long to explore. Enter “The Beast in the Jungle” by Henry James. A poignant warning against putting off living, this novella should play an integral part in the sophomore experience at Georgetown. Properly framed, it would serve as a reflective touchstone to warn sophomores against waiting too long for the world to come to them. If presented at the beginning of the second year, it could ground a discussion about the purpose of the sophomore year. Hopefully, this discussion would save many sophomores from wasting their year waiting and encourage them to dive in, cognizant of their need to try and fail.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Required to Fail

First, let me profusely apologize for my unannounced and extend absence. I could offer up a number of excuses about this semester being busy (which it has been) or stressful (which it really has been), but in the end it comes down to a crippling writer's block coupled with an overwhelming desire for sleep. As I slowly begin to shift down my life into the proper gear, I will be writing again. I promise.

Since President Obama’s call to increase the number of STEM students has focused attention on the role of education in shaping society, the question arises as to what purpose education serves in our society. As the leader of the nation, the President must concern himself with the needs of that nation and naturally sees education as a tool for societal improvement. To that end he has focused his energy on repurposing education to meet society’s needs. While this aim appears laudable, it ultimately confuses the tendencies of education with its true goal. A real education provides the means for an individual to reach their fullest potential. Rather than acting as a mechanism for societal change, education’s ultimate goal is the self-actualization of the individual. Education tends to improve society, but only insomuch as fully actualized people tend to greatly benefit the society the live in.

If we want education to serve the serious purpose asked of it by the world, to prepare women and men for the work of moving civilization forward, it must be allowed to revel in a spirit of play. In order to help people reach their fullest potential, education must occur outside of ordinary life. It must be freely undertaken without any interest in material gain; indeed education must absent itself from any thought of immediate usefulness. Education requires play because education requires failure. Only through failure can you discover what works, and what doesn’t, for yourself. Lest your first failure dissuade you from trying again, it must not have lasting worldly consequences. Play protects education from those consequences and in doing so provides it with the space to undertake its work. The problem begins when our crusaders, ignorant of education’s true purpose, attempt to short-circuit this process. When the focus of education shifts from the individual to the needs of society, utility corrupts its playful nature. It changes the questions from “How does my knowledge enhance my understanding of myself and the world?” to “How is my knowledge useful?” Utility imposes consequence upon education and draws it back into the real world. Once thrown into the ordinary, education loses the play elements which make possible its work.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013


There's a lot that can be said for the beginning of the school year. It's an end to all of those projects you promised yourself you would finally get done this summer, only to leave with half-empty rooms still unpainted. It's a chance to see friends again and make new ones. It's a return to regimen after months of pushing back the alarm or not setting one at all.

This particular beginning presents a new set of challenges and offers new rewards. Two of my best friends have not moved back alongside the rest of us. Others have remained on campus, but they have become just as distant. And, as always, one must settle into a routine which invariably will fall apart during the first week of classes. At the same time I get to reconnect with professors and classmates; resume projects left fallow over the summer; and dive into new classes. One of those projects is stage managing the fall show, which is shaping up to be a great challenge and a great reward.

The title sophomore comes from the Greek for "wise fool." As I assume that mantel, proud that I could figure out half of that translation without Wikipedia, I am trying to be conscious of the places where my wisdom falls short. In seeing the incoming first years I am reminded of my early moments here and am trying to resist the temptation for my advice to become preaching.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Martyr Poker

The third in a series of three responses to The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse.

Georgetown students suffer. They suffer greatly. They suffer often. Or at least this is the impression one gets from listening to us in Lau on the weeknights. Our day consists of nothing but work and class or so it seems. It’s as if we are striving to be busier, more miserable, and more sleep deprived than the next person. Not all of us are guilty of this martyr poker (although I certainly am some times), but it is a pervasive attitude throughout campus. I don’t believe most of what we suffer qualifies as true grief, but I think Joseph’s advice to Plinio is just as applicable to us. Serenity is not childish and it’s not escapism. We should strive for serenity because it is the way to share in the perfection and beauty of the universe. I don’t completely agree with that, but I think Georgetown could use a bit more serenity (if not for beauty, then at least for sanity’s sake). Halfway through first semester one of my friends pointed out the game of martyr poker we were all playing. Once I was aware of it I noticed myself, and almost everyone else, playing it everyday. So I tried to stop. When I didn’t try to out-suffer my peers I found that I had more time and energy to actually do my work and I felt much more content. The less I complained, in fact, the better I felt. Then I could calmly attack my work without worrying about what others thought or were doing. I had found some version of serenity. I think if more Georgetown students tried something similar to Joseph’s advice they would more content and more productive. Possibly just plain happier. But more importantly, I think it would foster a more positive atmosphere on campus that would encourage people to do better work and be better people. 

Thanks to Michelle for the term 'martyr poker.'

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Odyssey

2:15  PM PDT - Passengers begin boarding the strange vessel. We are greeted by smiling figures who must be gods of some sort. They shepherd us into tight rows and run through a strange ritual involving much hand-waving and few words. None of my fellows take notice.

2:45 PM PDT - We take to the sky in what I'm now sure is the belly of some large beast. The small child in front of me seems to be the only other human aboard. We both look through the beast's translucent scales onto the shrinking fields below. Every other passenger is apparently unable to see throw the skin and stares down at brightly colored religious texts with pictures of floating, bouncy circles floating in water. It seems to calm them.

3:05 PM PDT - A disembodied voice informs us that we are returning to our departure point. Something about smoke on board. If I remember correctly smoke means fire, but the voice assures us everything is okay.

3:55 PM PDT - We arrive back in what seems to be an exact replica of the place we just left. As if by instinct the passengers form a line at a nearby altar. Praying to the deity of flight, perhaps. I follow, hoping to discover some way of leaving this strange place.

3:58 PM PDT - I approach the altar. The red-clad priestess assures me that we will take care of you. I do not who this we is, but they must be the ones in making this all happen. I can't fathom what they have planned for us. She hands me numerous slips of paper. One, she insists, is worth much money and the others will grant me passage home. It looks like no money I have yet seen in this strange land, but I accept it and await further instructions.

5:20 PM PDT - A small group of passengers is plotting some sort of revolt against our (I'm not sure if they are guards or guardians) watchers. It seems to largely consist informing them of how outraged they are and then walking away. I am unsure what purpose it serves, but have long since ceased questioning this culture. I go to find pizza.

UPDATE 8:00 PM PDT - The younger ones among us have grown restless. I believe they are hungry and wish to forage. They are eying the elders, sizing them up it seems. I think now's a good time to find a new seat.

UPDATE 9:12 PM PDT - A strange sound emanates from the ceiling. The sounds are quite soothing and they seem to be lulling the majority of the passengers into what can only be called a stupor. One of the priests distributes some type of ration. It appears to be edible.

Seattle Rain

When they realized what was actually happening, the first thing they did was blow the bridges. The thought was that by trapping the infection inside the city limits an evacuation could proceed without the need to carefully screen every person. Unfortunately, the infection had already spread far beyond the arbitrary county line, necessitating intense screening at all of the embarkation points. Far worse, however, was the wreckage from the bridges blocking the channel. What was a five-minute stroll from the assembly areas to waiting ships now became a three-mile slog through infested streets to reach the few unblocked transports at the mouth of the sound. I would have said “I told you so,” but I was a little busy fighting my way through the remnants of Seattle’s lock system to comment on any of my superior’s decisions at the time.

We had been stationed with the Army Corp of Engineers to ensure that the locks leading from the harbor to the channel stayed open and zombie free during the evacuation. It seemed a little counter productive to us, given that the four bridges downstream were nothing more than inconvenient scrap metal at the moment, but we set up our perimeter and held tight for two days. When we realized the evacuation had fallen apart and we’d been classified as expendable, a corporal who we fished out of one of the salmon ladders was kind enough to share that lovely piece of news, we figured it was time enough to go. Anyone left loaded up into the inflatable dinghies salvaged from a barge caught in locks. The last memory I have of the Pacific Northwest is zombies bursting out of the salmon shoots in the damn. I never found out if the living dead can be surprised, but they sure looked like it just then.

I first met Katy Wilson on the deck of the USS Essex a few years before the Outbreak. She was commanding a Marine Expeditionary Unit out of Camp Pendleton which had just finished up an six-month deployment in the Indian Ocean. They had been taking part in the U.N. peacekeeping mission along the demilitarized zone between China and India, acting as a mobile reserve and helicopter base for UNMICA (United Nations Mission in Central Asia). I had been assigned to her unit as a combat psychologist, part of new Defense Department program to help diagnose combat-related mental illness before it became too advanced, and expensive, to treat. After the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the military had been swamped by the number of returning service members suffering from PTSD. It took a number of embarrassing scandals and a few unfortunate incidents to make the brass get serious about treatment. The last few recovery clinics were just emptying out when India and China decided to have at it. By the time the U.N. decided to send in peacekeepers, a number of people had decided it was better to provide care at the source than after the fact. Which is why I got to move from my air-conditioned office teaching command and combat psychology at the Academy to the sunny South Pacific. I was to spend the three weeks before they arrived home evaluating the Marines and developing standard practices for extended deployments. My first stop, after the head, was to discuss my assignment with Colonel Wilson.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Ode to the West

A journey is a story
It opens on a cast of characters
Baking under a dusty sun
Follows their arc like the shallow parabola
Of the old truss bridge right outside of town
And concludes with a sigh
Under the evening rains

The barbed-wire fences run 
Alongside the tracks for miles 
The wooden posts blending seamlessly 
Into the hills which tower 
Over the tracks like sentinels 

Slain, the watchers fall away
To reappear along the horizon
Folding over each other like
A child’s drawing, edges perfect
Curved unending into sky

Endless, spotless 
The heavens blend from gray 
To blue 
Dotted only by the dust 
Of a tractor, alone in the fields 

The silence of the pastoral world
Broken only by the whistle
Blown as a warning to wary
Cars, impatient in the heat

The peace inside is just as fleeting 
While small feet scamper by 
Voices from the wall proclaim 
A stumbling narrative of artichokes and garlic 
Mingled with corrections and apologies 

They ignore the iron pistons
Drawing black liquid from the black soil
Which rise and fall in time
To music known only to them

Sleeping alongside these giants 
Are infinite rows of greenery
Arranged like the barcodes
Awaiting them on the shelves
First lettuce, then olives 
And the ever-present grape 
Growing where no grass ever could 

Soon the entire valley is full up
Food for a nation moist
– Leaves glistening in the slow-setting sun –
Covers the floor, mountain to mountain
Checkered by poverty and pickups

Nearing the first cluster of cities 
The cars race alongside the tracks 
Where once they were victorious 
Now they fall behind 

Through the windows
Orbs of light dot the horizon
Reflecting off the opposite side
Multiplying out to infinity

As the train trundles on 
The changing of the guard 
Families replaced by singles 
Spreading cream cheese 
On bageled substitutes for dinners missed 

Mount the bunk
Careful not to lose your head
Watch out for the one with the cape
Follow the swordsmen fleeing his mother
Lights out


With the morning comes
Vibrant greens and blues
The tracks float above the lake
As half-awake breakfasters munch

Before the orange juice
The plains spread out ahead
By the French toast, mountains
Slowly, then quickly
And then the ground falls away

Clinging desperately to earth
Surrounded by empty wilderness
Filled with sentinel pines
Small patches of children
Guarded by towering elders

Alternating tunnels and trestles
Wrap around the peaks
Each darkness brings new
Scenery and foliage
Dryer and darker

Descent, unnoticeable 
Brings crossings and lumberyards 
Playgrounds and backyards 
Too-short fences fail to hide 
Private lives scattered in the grass 

Rust mingles with water
Along rivers long marred by industry
Reclaiming stolen beachfront
One bolt, one rivet, one weld at a time

Islands herald the northern points 
Ships grow longer than trains 
And bridges multiply 
Another of countless valleys 
Familiar to settlers from ‘49 

The squeaking, which disappeared
One stop past home
Has surfaced as the train slows
Past spotted cows and fields

Clouds here are rich 
Thick, textured by breezes 
Off the sound – not bay – 
The southern blue speckles 
Amber-tinted grays 

Some clusters rise
Others finish their last beer
A final fact floats down the car
Houses replace fields
Telephone lines, pines

We follow one final curve 
Past the fishermen casting low 
The half empty parking lots 
Suburbs mixed with farms 
Before the drizzle coats the windows