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

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Let There Be Light

Museum Associates/LACMA
In the corner hovers a large white cube. It rests no more than two feet off the ground and lets off a subtle glow. You step in through the corner opposite it. You are sure that the cube is there, confident in its absolute solidity. Except you are wrong. There is nothing there. But there is. You see a white cube that you swear is plastic or well-polished marble where in fact there is only light.

James Turrell is an American artist who specializes in instillation pieces exploring light and perception. The L.A. County Museum of Art is currently hosting an exhibit that chronologues his work since the 1960s. On a visit to California for family and college visits, we stopped off for a bit of culture. Both my brother and I have been doing lighting design for our respective theaters, so an exhibit based entirely on light intrigued us. We expected something very much along the line of the luminescent cube: interesting and creative, but easily explained by a quick sweep of the room for the hidden projector (located directly opposite the cube, about 10 feet up). We couldn’t have been more wrong.

To attempt to describe any of Turrell’s works would be doing them an incredible discredit. Each room holds some trick of light that makes you question everything you have ever seen. There is a room that is entirely dark. No light at all. I thought I knew what darkness was, this incomplete blackness that obscures the view but leaves your eyes capable of sight. Nope, not even close. When they say you can’t see your hand in front of your face, they mean it. It’s enough to make your head hurt, in the best possible way.

The experience left me with more than a little bit of doubt. Not only about what is or is not real, which is something I deal with on a regular basis, but about what things really matter. In making light the central focus of the art where it is normally used to compliment it, you begin to wonder what you should really be looking at. Should it be the statue in the middle of the room, the shadows that fall at its feet, or the lighting instruments themselves? Or is it only when you consider all of it together are you truly seeing the art? And if those elements which are so often overlooked are in fact so important, what have we been missing in the world outside of the gallery?

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The House on the Hill

There is something out of place about the Zen music. This is not a place of calm. This is a place where energy is directly proportional to volume and movement and energy is never in short supply. The last thing one expects is silence. Yet among the moments of entropy a stillness has formed. Nothing overly dramatic, at first no larger than the marshmallows melting in a bag by the fire. As the first person notices it she takes one of those centering breaths the shaved monks made famous. She is followed quickly by another, this one remembering that music sets a mood. The Zen music is her contribution to the growing storm of calm. It builds to a critical mass as the final two join in. The entire porch is overtaken by yoga masters and Zen pupils. 

Only then do the others hear the silence. Without knowing why, they fall into it too.

Some people build retreats in the hills to find peace. Others export the city with them. There is a romanticism about hills that we seem unable to shake. The shinning city on the hill has been used and abused to such a degree that it’s hard to take it seriously anymore. Almost no one remembers that the reason we like hills so much is because it’s a lot easier to kill the people when you’re on the top of the hill than on the bottom. We rarely build atop hills for the defensive advantage anymore. Now we go for the view or the seclusion or for the power play. My house is higher than your house kind of thing. Nothing like a bit of unhealthy jousting to rationalize your architecture. There is something spectacular about a sunset on a hillside that almost makes it worth it.

This hill is nearly perfect. The family has been here forever it seems. We call it a compound, not because we have a fully stocked bomb shelter on campus, but because it can fit the entire family without too much trouble. Given our numbers, anything less than an acre would be a squeeze. When the gate shuts with us inside, the cars lined up along the drive, it’s difficult to find a silent space. If the dogs don’t find you, the children certainly will. You can get a picturesque view of the sunset over the California hills, but only if you’re willing to share it with a nine-year old or some llamas.

But we don’t come out here for the view, as spectacular as it is. The draw is always the family. We are an eclectic bunch, leaning closer to nerdy than anything else. Everyone has their thing, their spot, their job and they fall right back into the routine. Love here comes flavored with sarcasm and a nipple twister is as sure a sign of affection as any hug. There is an aggressive sense of competition that never reaches the level of true contest, but buzzes as an undercurrent nonetheless. The living room serves as the fulcrum for the entire operation. On a well-worn armchair sits the great man himself. We run on his schedule and only out here do you rediscover that going to bed before midnight can be so relaxing. The Internet is slow enough here to prevent any attempts at Netflix. That is enough to force interaction, but the need for food means there is always someone to talk to in the kitchen.

Coming here is the best way to remember what family time can be. More often than not things get awkward, but in the best possible way. Here the family stories are kept alive. The is a little bit of everything is here: artists, computer scientists, educators, actors, students, business people, and a rotating cast to fill in the gaps. If you sit here and listen you could learn to run the world. It is here that silence captures your attention.

The hum of this self-contained universe is so rarely interrupted that any break in flow is significant. It is here, where a family concentrates to share the sounds of a lifetime, that silence makes itself heard.