Thursday, February 28, 2013

Iblis-free for two weeks

He might have been lying, for all I know, but the dreaded Iblis told me, Wednesday night, that he and his dad are off to London as of Thursday.

"For how long?" I asked, trying to hide my delight.

"TWO MONTHS!" Iblis blared with an impish grin.

I made an exasperated face. "No, really-- for how long?"

"UH... TWO WEEKS," said Iblis.

If this is true, then thank Christ. That leaves only the goofy Sam and the pissy Maximus to deal with. Wednesdays just became a whole lot nicer. Two Wednesdays, anyway.


does death approach?

My Macintosh's monitor is gently but noticeably flickering. The problem seems to have started tonight, and I have a bad feeling that this doesn't bode well for my computer, which I received as a 40th-birthday gift in 2009. As a precaution, I may have to start backing up my data onto writable DVD-ROMs, just in case the flickering proves to be the harbinger of a sudden and total system collapse.

I would have thought that a Mac's typical life span is longer than four years.


a romantic pome

O do not sixty-nine and fart
for you may break your lover's heart

of all travails we must embrace
the worst is gas blown in the face
the buttock cheeks, whose false allure
produces rancid devil-spoor
they quiver now in evil mirth
as they prepare a vap'rous birth

O turn aside! O turn aside!
do not accept the hellspawn ride
through noxious nimbus, anus-flame
through 'bominations yet unnamed
beware the crack, beware the gas
beware the leprous, treach'rous ass
beware the butt hair, maiden fair
beware demonic derrières

O do not sixty-nine and fart
for you may break your lover's heart


Superman, via Twitter

From my Twitter feed come two articles about Superman:

From Pajiba: a Superman fan living in a Batman world.

From io9: the 8 incredibly gross powers Superman doesn't even realize he has. One of the defecation-related powers, mentioned at the end of the article, is that, with an almighty clench of his Super-anus, Superman can shit diamonds. Well... that idea isn't new. Elisson got there first. Seven years ago.



It's a strange thing, but when you are dreading something, and would give anything to slow down time, it has a disobliging habit of speeding up.
—JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Today is Wednesday. Over the past couple of months, Wednesday has become my least favorite day of the week. All of my least favorite students gather on Wednesday, which makes the day something of an endurance test. I've written about this before.

Perhaps I'm just a lazy, spoiled teacher, but I admit that I do prefer students who are well-behaved, receptive to new ideas, and relatively smart. It helps if they have bright, sunny personalities and are blessed with a sense of humor. Today's crop, though, are exactly the opposite of what I wish for: seventh-grader Sam is so relentlessly goofy that I have to explain everything to him twice or three times; fourth-grader Maximus is a little punk with an attitude problem who can quickly shut down if he's in an uncooperative mood; and fourth-grader Iblis... well, Iblis is loud, rude, and basically an asshole. I'm normally a smiling, energetic teacher, but on Wednesdays I, too, shut down. If I allow myself to betray too much humor, Maximus and Iblis will take that fact and run with it: if I joke around, they'll consider my behavior license for them to joke around, too. Give an inch and they take a mile.

I think the problem is that, with these three kids, I'm not so much teaching them as managing them, like a babysitter. That's probably what makes the experience so unpleasant. I'm reminded of the expression "like herding cats." That's what Wednesdays are like: herding cats. And occasionally wrestling them.

Today is worse than most Wednesdays, though, because I've got an e-meeting to attend in half an hour, which means the work day starts almost four hours earlier than usual. Lovely.


Wednesday, February 27, 2013

last night's dinner

Bacon bleu burgers (bacon and bleu cheese on the inside, therefore not easily visible) with sliced tomatoes, Korean oi-kimchi, feta sprinkle, and homemade cole slaw.

I used 6-ounce patties, which I divided into 3-ounce half-patties into which I stuffed the bacon and cheese. Quite delish. I might do this again tonight, in fact.


dinner on February 24

Two nights ago: spaghetti squash "pasta" with spaghetti sauce (sausage, mushrooms, tomatoes), garlanded by a light caprese:

I'm beginning to enjoy the contrast between lightly sweet spaghetti squash and salty, savory tomato sauce. The tastes work well together.


family values: God is dead

My brother Sean alerts me to the existence of The Nietzsche Family Circus, which randomly pairs Family Circus cartoons with quotes from the works of Friedrich Nietzsche. Very amusing. I hit "refresh" many times.


Tuesday, February 26, 2013


Charles Everett Koop, MD, Surgeon General of the United States from 1982 to 1989, dead at 96.


Health Update: Day 26

Weight: 293.8.

That represents a 7.2-pound loss since January 31, doing nothing but following Gary Taubes's regime. If you do the math, that comes out to a 1.93-pound loss per week, which is just about spot-on, as healthy weight-loss rates go. I still don't feel I have enough data points to start talking about trends; let's see where we are after two months. By then, I may have started exercising. I suppose my hesitation, regarding exercise, has something to do with seeing how right Taubes really is. According to him, the calories-in/calories-out paradigm doesn't work, and diet is more important than exercise. Exercise, according to Taubes, leads to increased appetite and overeating to overcompensate for burned energy. Cutting back on food, meanwhile, leads to increased lethargy as the body tries to balance itself out homeostatically. Altering the diet by eliminating carbs is absolutely key, in his worldview.

Seven pounds gone. Of course, when you're as fat as I am, seven pounds is nothing: we won't see a difference in how I look until I've lost several tens of pounds.

This is only the beginning. More to come.


get over it

I'm getting over a cold that came upon me two weekends ago (about February 16). It started out as a sore throat, then expanded to include a stuffy/runny nose, plenty of phlegm and coughing, and a slight fever. The cold altered my voice into that deep, sexy radio voice that I enjoy having while I'm sick, but as of today, that voice is no longer with me. All that's left, now, is the phlegm, for the most part, and a little nose-stuffiness.

"Isn't a week a bit long to have a cold?" one student asked me. I don't know. Maybe. I don't run to the doc and get antibiotics when I get sick; for the most part, I handle colds merely by treating the symptoms, and those symptoms take a while to disappear. I gobble plenty of vitamins; don't know what else I can do to toughen my immune system aside from getting outside more.

In any event, this cold appears to be departing me, like a demon bored of possessing a victim.


Monday, February 25, 2013

this promises to be a shite week

Monday (today): I'm off to traffic court to attempt to reduce the penalty (in terms of monetary fine and points) on a speeding ticket I incurred late last year. Once I'm back home, I've got to spend several hours working on a long-term textbook project for YB.

Tuesday/Wednesday: I'm very likely to teach that turdball Iblis on either or both days. I'll definitely teach Maximus, who can be a snotty little bastard, on Wednesday. Wednesday remains the worst day of the week for me. I must say, I'm sick of goddamn fourth-graders (both Iblis and Maximus are nine years old and in the fourth grade). What is it about that age that makes some kids so fucking uppity? I don't recall being such a whiny, disobedient shit when I was that old.

Wednesday: Mandatory YB staff meeting (for us textbook workers) to be conducted online, about an hour or so before I head off to work. These e-meetings are always a pain in the ass, and rarely seem justified. An emailed memo will do, thanks. A memo, at least, can be read at one's leisure.

That's a big load of shittiness front-loaded into my upcoming week. Can't wait for Thursday and Friday.


Oscar night

I made my Oscar predictions some time ago. Tonight, we'll find out how off my rocker I am. Here are my daring prognostications, along with a side-by-side, real-time comparison with the Huffington Post's Oscar predictions:

Best Picture: "Lincoln"
WINNER: "Argo." Surprise, surprise! I consider this a nod to Ben Affleck, who wasn't even nominated for Best Director. Ben, you done good.
HUFFPO PREDICTED: "Argo." (With a 92.7% probability of winning.)

Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis, "Lincoln"
WINNER: Daniel Day-Lewis. Comme prévu.
HUFFPO PREDICTED: Daniel Day-Lewis (99.6% odds that he would win).

Best Actress: Emmanuelle Riva, "Amour"
WINNER: Jennifer Lawrence! Amazing. She deserves it.
HUFFPO PREDICTED: Jennifer Lawrence.

Best Supporting Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman, "The Master"
WINNER: Christoph Waltz, "Django Unchained." I'm glad the guy won, and I'm glad Tarantino continues to be recognized, despite the controversial nature of his film.
HUFFPO PREDICTED: Christoph Waltz.

Best Supporting Actress: Sally Field, "Lincoln"
WINNER: Anne Hathaway, "Les Misérables."
HUFFPO PREDICTED: Anne Hathaway. HuffPo knows its stuff.

Best Animated Feature: "Brave"
WINNER: "Brave." Called it.

Best Cinematography: "Anna Karenina"
WINNER: "Life of Pi." I'm surprised the palace drama didn't win.

Best Costume Design: "Anna Karenina"
WINNER: "Les Misérables." Yeesh. I'm shocked at how well "Les Mis" is doing, given its tepid press and equally tepid viewer reactions.
HUFFPO PREDICTED: "Anna Karenina."

Best Director: Steven Spielberg, "Lincoln"
WINNER: Holy shit, it's Ang Lee!
HUFFPO PREDICTED: Steven Spielberg. Their stats gave Spielberg a 78% chance of winning, versus Lee's 21% chance.

Best Documentary Feature: "The Invisible War"
WINNER: "Searching for Sugar Man." Well, it was just a guess.
HUFFPO PREDICTED: "Searching for Sugar Man." Damn those HuffPo creatures! Damn their eyes!

Best Documentary Short: "Inocente"
WINNER: "Inocente." I can't believe I got this right.

Best Editing: "Argo"
WINNER: "Argo."

Best Foreign-language Film: "Amour"
WINNER: "Amour." Et oui!

Best Makeup and Hairstyling: "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"
WINNER: "Les Misérables."
HUFFPO PREDICTED: "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." Guess we both got it wrong.

Best Music (Original Score): "Lincoln"
WINNER: "Life of Pi." Well, damn. I was sure that John Williams was going to clinch this.

Best Music (Original Song): "Skyfall"
WINNER: "Skyfall." Easy prediction. Adele is the flavor of the month.

Best Production Design: "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"
WINNER: "Lincoln."
HUFFPO PREDICTED: "Les Misérables."

Best Short Film (Animated): "Adam and Dog"
WINNER: "Paperman."

Best Short Film (Live Action): "Death of a Shadow"
WINNER: "Curfew." Never woulda' guessed.

Best Sound Editing: "Django Unchained"
WINNER: A tie! "Skyfall" and "Zero Dark Thirty."
HUFFPO PREDICTED: "Zero Dark Thirty."

Best Sound Mixing: "Lincoln"
WINNER: "Les Misérables."
HUFFPO PREDICTED: "Les Misérables."

Best Visual Effects: "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"
WINNER: "Life of Pi." Wow. I would never have expected the Peter Jackson juggernaut to be stopped by some Chinese guy.

Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay): "Beasts of the Southern Wild"
WINNER: "Argo." Should've known better.

Best Writing (Original Screenplay): "Moonrise Kingdom"
WINNER: "Django Unchained." I should've gone with my gut on this one. Tarantino is a ferocious writer. The man knows dialogue, and should be giving Scriptwriting 101 classes to poor George Lucas.
HUFFPO PREDICTED: "Django Unchained."
ADVANTAGE: HuffPo, which is kicking my ass right and left in these predictions.

Having read some of the pro scuttlebutt, I'm going to assume that, in cases where my predictions go wrong, the likely winner will have something to do with "Silver Linings Playbook," a feel-good dramedy about mental illness that Academy insiders apparently adore. That's my only hedge for the evening, and it's not really a hedge: I'm sticking to my guns and holding firm with the predictions I've listed above.

Good luck to me!

FINAL COMMENTS: The Huffington Post explains its Oscar prediction algorithm this way: "Chance of Winning is HuffPost's synthesis of all this data [i.e., box-office gross, audience and critical rating, other awards] along with the latest prices from the Intrade, Betfair and Hollywood Stock Exchange prediction markets." That's a formidable method for making predictions, and I have to admit that it works a lot better than my often-blind intuition. Hats off to HuffPo and other insiders who did a much better job of predicting tonight's winners. My own track record tonight is a shameful 6 out of 24 predictions correct. HuffPo did a lot better; if we count up the "advantage" points, HuffPo gets 15, Hominid gets 2, and Neither (we were both right or both wrong in our predictions) gets 7.


from a former pastor

An old pastor of mine sent me a link to this video about a new treatment for glioblastoma, the form of brain cancer that my mother had. The treatment involves wearing a special cap that somehow targets and kills cancer cells, even causing brain tumors to shrink. The technology looks amazing. I have no idea whether the cap's effectiveness has been tested on a wide swath of the cancer-stricken population, but I can only hope that it represents a real improvement in brain-cancer treatment.


"Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome": review

"Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome" (hereinafter BSG:BC) is an hour-and-a-half-long 2012 TV movie that is part of the Battlestar Galactica franchise and takes place within the universe of Ronald D. Moore's rebooted version of Glenn A. Larson's original 1978 TV series. BSG:BC stands alongside other independent episodes like "BSG: Razor" and "BSG: The Plan." The newest addition to the franchise was initially broadcast as a ten-part series of short "webisodes," but the DVD/Blu-ray packet that I purchased from Amazon stitches the whole thing together into a single, coherent movie. The filmmakers' hope is that BSG:BC might serve—as did the 2003 miniseries that started the frenzy—as the pilot for a new series.

I have to say, I was wowed. The story is tightly written, with snappy dialogue and plenty of action. The special effects are movie-quality, as is normally par for the course with any Galactica-related project, although the overuse of the lens-flare effect put me in mind of JJ Abrams's "Star Trek," in which lens flares became something of a running joke. The music is once again by Bear McCreary, which gives the movie a familiar ambiance.

BSG:BC takes place during the tenth year of the first Cylon war. Front and center is a young Bill Adama, the show's fresh-faced protag, played by twentysomething Englishman (and Keanu lookalike/Matthew Broderick soundalike) Luke Pasqualino. Adama has just graduated from the military academy and is the top pilot in his class. He's cocky and ambitious, and knows only too well how good he is. To his great disappointment, he's assigned to pilot a large, unwieldy Raptor on the Galactica instead of the sleek Vipers he so yearns to fly. Even worse, he's assigned a drunken short-timer as a copilot, and given a mission he derisively describes as a "milk run": an errand to fetch spare parts from a shipyard. Things change, however, once the Raptor flies beyond DRADIS (i.e., radar) contact with the Galactica: his passenger, the beautiful Dr. Kelly, suddenly reveals she has new, secret orders for her pilots: they are to fly into Cylon space to rendezvous with a team there. They eventually reach an asteroid field where they make an impressive discovery: an entire fleet of colonial ships has been hiding out in Cylon space for months, waiting to strike deep into Cylon territory. All of the ships in this "ghost fleet" have been reported destroyed, and the real mission—the insertion of Dr. Kelly into a Cylon outpost to upload a virus—has yet to begin.

I won't reveal any more of the plot here; the story might interest some readers who are fellow BSG fans. Suffice it to say that BSG:BC contains plenty of action, amazing CGI set pieces (almost the entire film was CG, according to the DVD extras), and even one weird creature: the Cython, which is never actually named in the movie. At first, I was disappointed when this vicious, snakelike beast appeared; I felt it was a concession to the SyFy Channel's lust for tacky monstrosities (read: Sharktopus), and BSG is known for not showing alien life. But the Cython's existence comes with a mollifying explanation: it's a cybernetic creature invented by the Cylons as part of their ongoing attempts to fuse biological and mechanical parts into a single, smoothly functioning organism. It's also a clever bit of foreshadowing: later in the movie, we catch a brief glimpse of a new type of Cylon, one that is beginning to approximate human form, movement, flesh, and voice.

The CGI set pieces deserve special mention. The effects crew obviously worked very hard to show us a Battlestar Galactica in its prime, with a bustling hangar bay full of ships and people. Even the look of space is different: instead of the vast, empty blackness that characterized most of the BSG TV series, the skies of BSG:BC are full of asteroids (some of which even glow with laval fury), nebulae, and blasted ship debris. The exterior shots of the colonial fleet are formidable; the gun-studded Galactica is still spanking new and is the pride of the armada.

Amusingly, the show reuses cast members from the 2003-2009 series: I saw at least three returnees, playing very different roles from the ones they had played some years before. The level of acting by all the principals was quite good; there were no Shatnerian theatrics. Some actors, in fact, deserve congratulations for their comic timing, especially Canuck actor Ben Cotton as Coker, Adama's burnout of a copilot who is only looking to survive until the end of his mandatory second tour.

While BSG:BC has its flaws, it's an engaging story overall, and a proud addition to the BSG universe. I'd rate it somewhere between "BSG: Razor," which stands above it, and "BSG: The Plan" (ably directed by Edward James Olmos), a story that had its heart in the right place, but which didn't add much new information to the overall plot. However, when I turn to the question of whether BSG:BC should be the pilot of a new BSG series, part of me hesitates. Adama is something of a legendary figure; by giving his character a series that shows us his youthful exploits, we're demythologizing him, removing some of his luster and mystery. I'm not sure an Adama-centric series is warranted. BSG:BC works best, I think, as a one-off tale. It's better just to imagine Adama's further adventures.


Ave, John Mac!

John McCrarey puts me to shame and proudly blogs of his 6.5-pound weight loss after only a single week on his new diet-and-exercise program. Sincere congratulations, John!


Sunday, February 24, 2013

now available as a PDF for download

My long essay, "The Tao of Chance," is now available as a downloadable PDF.

See here, and print yourself a 13-page copy! It makes for good toilet reading.


for my goddaughter

Ruth blogs a bunch of humorous pics, one of which leaps out at me as perfect for my zombie-loving teenage goddaughter:



Ah'm tarred. Had only about five hours' sleep last night. One piece of good news to report, though: my longtime buddy Tom, still based in Seoul after all these long years, is now a dad, which makes the world a brighter place. So there's that.

Off to take a nap. Or to watch "Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome," my proud new DVD acquisition.


Saturday, February 23, 2013

Arthur Conan Doyle: Wildean humorist

As I mentioned previously, I'm working my way-- on my smart phone-- through the complete collection of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes series. I've finished A Study in Scarlet and am now in the first chapter of The Sign of the Four, which begins by portraying Sherlock Holmes's operatically massive addiction to cocaine. Because this is the post-Civil War late 1800s, Holmes doesn't snort his stash: he injects it in his forearm, heroin-style. Watson, being a medical doctor, strongly disapproves of Holmes's drug addiction, but can't help admiring the man himself. Doyle has a good eye and ear for the sophisticated emotional relationship between the two residents of 221B Baker Street, and it shows in his dialogue.

Here's an exchange that I found funny. Holmes has just wowed Watson-- again-- by deducing that Watson had gone to the post office to receive a telegram. Watson then says:

"Would you think me impertinent if I were to put your theories to a more severe test?"

"On the contrary," [Holmes] answered, "It would prevent me from taking a second dose of cocaine."

Heh. I definitely see where David Shore got his ideas for the Vicodin-addicted Dr. House, a character based almost entirely upon Sherlock Holmes.


salade grecque

I should warn you now that I hate onions. Hate 'em with a passion bordering on battle frenzy. As I've gotten older, I've come to recognize that certain dishes require onions, but my palate hasn't changed so much that I've made my peace with that evil vegetable. Onions don't make me cry; they make me angry. I often resent their sneaky-bastard presence in foods like hamburgers, pizza, and spaghetti sauce. At the same time, I've resigned myself to the fact that onions occupy a proper place in salsa and pico de gallo, in Korean tang (savory soups) and jjigae (stews), and in other places besides.

So this evening, I grudgingly conceded that Greek salad needs red onions. See below.

I made a creamy dill dressing and spooned that on:

Iceberg lettuce (just using up leftovers), Italian tomatoes, black olives, red onions, cucumbers, feta, green onions, and black pepper. The result was good, but way the hell too oniony. I should have sliced the onions super-thin with my mandolin, then chopped them into itty bitty bits, then used only half the amount of onion I had originally used. Ah, well. Live and learn.



A thoughtful student of mine came back from a cruise to the Bahamas and brought me a souvenir gift: a wood-carved shark done up in segments and affixed to a soft "spine" that allows the shark to flex and undulate when handled. Nifty. Here are two pictures.

Pretty awesome, eh? He's a good kid, this student.

[A bit of trivia: Hai is Japanese for "yes," but also German for "shark."]


Friday, February 22, 2013

witnesses to greatness

Perhaps a lit expert could help me out, here.

A couple weeks ago, I saw, via Instapundit, that The Complete Works of Sherlock Holmes (with an Introduction by Robert Ryan) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle* was being made available for free Kindle download, so I seized the opportunity and downloaded that puppy onto my phone. I've just finished reading the first-- and relatively short-- novel, A Study in Scarlet, which introduces us both to Dr. James Watson and to Mr. Holmes himself. Watson narrates the book's first part, which takes place in London; the story then shifts radically to Utah in a protracted flashback that occupies most of the rest of the book. The flashback offers insights into the characters that were involved in the London-based murder mystery, and often sounds like an extended diatribe against the evils of Mormonism. The novel ends by shifting us back to London and Dr. Watson.

This is the second old novel I've read on my phone. The first novel was a translation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (reviewed here). What 20,000 Leagues and Scarlet have in common is narration by the second fiddle: Aronnax's thoughts on Nemo and Watson's thoughts on Holmes, respectively. So my question for the lit scholars is this: was it common storytelling practice, especially in the 1800s, to tell a story of greatness through the eyes of a humble narrator? Is this a literary genre of some sort? Or am I merely picking up on a tried-and-true narrative technique that was in use thousands of years ago and is still in use today?**

*I could be very mistaken, but the AC Doyle byline appears to be part of the collection's title (think: "Monty Python's The Holy Grail" and not "Monty Python's The Holy Grail"), which is why I've italicized it here.

**I can think of other second-fiddle narrations: "Farewell to the King," starring Nick Nolte, comes to mind; as does "Amadeus," starring the brilliant Tom Hulce as Mozart and the stupendous F. Murray Abraham as forever-inferior Salieri.



So... that's how much I lose during the day, eh? I weighed myself before going to work earlier today and got a result-- after two poops-- of 294.4 pounds. Tonight, after teaching six hours and having consumed only a single 12-ounce mug of green tea, I weighed myself and saw 292.6 pounds. Wow. Awesome. So, just doing what I do all day at my job (which is mainly talking while seated), I can lose almost two pounds in the space of about eight hours (six hours' work plus two hours' commute).

I'm beginning to wonder, though, what time of day offers the most "legitimate" weight for weigh-ins. In the morning, after I poop? (I have no trouble pooping, and often do a two-parter poop in the mornings.) The problem there is that I know, even after two poops, that there's still more cargo in my intestines, waiting to be offloaded. How about at night (10:30PM), when I'm back from work and can poop while pooped? Won't I have lost too much weight, then? Then there's the question of my weird mealtime schedule. I certainly don't want to weigh myself too soon after eating, but how long should I wait?

292.6 pounds is great news, because it represents a nearly nine-pound loss from the original January 31 weigh-in (301 pounds). But it also feels somehow unearned: I normally eat almost nothing while I'm at work, for fear of engendering a Poop Reaction (whenever I eat, I tend to want to release a herd of war slugs soon after), so weight loss is only natural, and doesn't occur with any real conscious effort on my part. How "legit," then, is a nighttime weigh-in? Am I cheating? Or is this more a case of "Weight is weight. Don't overthink this"?

I imagine some commenter will tell me simply to set a routine weekday and time, and just stick with that. Establish a statistical baseline and be consistent. Daytime weigh-ins shouldn't be followed by nighttime weigh-ins. Make sure your body is in the same state at every weigh-in. I'd agree with this hypothetical commenter that that's good advice.

For the time being, I think I'll stick with daytime, post-defecation weigh-ins on Mondays. But I may peek at my weight late at night, on occasion, just because I'm curious.


double dose

This week has been hellish. I've had to teach Iblis two days in a row-- a new first, and not a happy one at that. This is what comes of getting complacent: I had resigned myself to teaching Iblis only on Wednesdays (I can normally expect that all of my bad kids will come on Wednesday; Maximus was a bit of a terror yesterday, too), but the child with the helter-skelter eyes seems to treat his weekly schedule in a manner that's as ADHD as he is: he now shifts the days he comes seemingly at random. It used to be that he would come to YB on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, but this week he skipped Monday and is doing a Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday thing. I asked him why he was doing this, and he shrugged. No plan, apparently. No reason. Just because.


I never teach Iblis on Thursdays because Lily usually has him. She, at least, has a reliable schedule. But I can now look forward to Russian roulette on Tuesdays and Wednesdays: Iblis might appear on one or both days. As the Irish joke goes: Lovely; fuckin' lovely.

Teaching Iblis and Maximus has somewhat soured me on the whole YB experience. I now find myself having to manage kids instead of simply teaching them, which brings back unpleasant memories of my bad old days as a high-school teacher. That, plus the Christmas party thing ("Attendance is required!"), not to mention the money thing from last November... I'm starting to see the signs, and the signs are saying, "Get out while you can!"



So I saw the trailer for the remake of "Evil Dead." It seems that the new filmmakers have kept some of the swooping-demon camera work but have sucked the movie dry of any campy humor. And among the young cast members I saw no heir to the great Bruce Campbell.

Sam Raimi must be spinning in his grave.


Thursday, February 21, 2013

quirky marketing

Charles offers a nifty acronym for my weight-loss project: QUARK.

Quest Undertaken to Achieve a Renewed Kevin.

I like it. I will adopt it.

So let it be written. So let it be done.



Gord Sellar on why he's leaving Korea.

My own experience-- eight years in Korea-- was generally much more positive than Gord's, but I think the mad Canuck makes some good points in his rant. True: there are assholes in Korea, and they can make life miserable. At the same time, there are assholes in every country. Koreans living in America have cargo pallets of complaints about Americans; many of those complaints are legitimate. The question, I suppose, is: what sort of assholery are you culturally programmed to tolerate? So Gord is leaving the peninsula for Parts Unknown, but I guarantee that, wherever he goes, he's going to meet some assholes.

UPDATE: Gord has de-linked the post in question; the above link now redirects to a different rant about rude Koreans.


Wednesday, February 20, 2013

caprese, Hominid-style

When I say "caprese," I don't just mean basil, mozzarella, and tomatoes drizzled with balsamic vinegar.

Along with the aforementioned components (which you see ringing the plate), I've got a salad in the middle composed of leftover iceberg lettuce, tuna mousse (tuna, cream cheese, garlic powder, onion powder, black pepper, olive oil, Italian seasoning), sliced cucumbers, olives, bacon crumbles, hard-boiled eggs, green onions, and feta. The sauces: balsamic vinegar and pesto for the caprese; balsamic garlic dressing for the central salad. The pesto came from a bottle, and was positively awful. It was probably the most acidic pesto I've ever tasted. Too much vinegar* or lemon juice or something. I would have been better off making my own, despite the expense (a large Costco bag of pine nuts costs an insane twenty bucks).

Still, despite the bad pesto, the salad was most excellent. No, I didn't eat the whole thing: I've doggie-bagged half of it. For tomorrow. And given all the extra tomatoes and olives and cukes, I see a Greek salad in my near future. I just need to buy a red onion.

*I normally wouldn't even mention vinegar in association with pesto, but this bottled pesto tasted positively vinegary. And it was runny, too-- way too runny for a proper pesto.


tonight, my sweet... ah, tonight!

Tonight, my love, we dine on caprese. The local Wal-mart, astonishingly enough, had actual, healthy-looking basil leaves-- not enough to make pesto with (to buy large bunches, I'd need to hit a Wegmans), but certainly enough to lay out a decent salad. I've already got the tomatoes, the buffalo mozzarella, and the balsamic vinegar.

Of course, this will be Kevin-style caprese, which means I'll be adding extras like hard-boiled egg, olives, tuna, and cucumbers. A picture will come your way tonight. Enjoy the wait.


see what I mean?

After two robust poops, I weighed myself this morning. Lo and behold:

294.5 294.0 pounds, a net 6.5 7-pound loss since January 31.*

Now, why can't that happen on the official weigh-in day...?

*This is, admittedly, still barely within my daily plus/minus fluctuations of 5 to 6 pounds. We'll talk if/when I manage to hit 290. 290 will represent real loss.


"Paleo" skepticism

Here. Choice quote:

Some of our nostalgia for a simpler past is just the same old amnesia that every generation has about the good old days. The ancient Romans fretted about the young and their callous disregard for the hard-won wisdom of their elders. Several 16th- and 17th-century writers and philosophers famously idealized the Noble Savage, a being who lived in harmony with nature and did not destroy his surroundings. Now we worry about our kids as "digital natives," who grow up surrounded by electronics and can't settle their brains sufficiently to concentrate on walking the dog without simultaneously texting and listening to their iPods.

Another part of the feeling that the modern human is misplaced in urban society comes from the realization that people are still genetically close not only to the Romans and the 17th-century Europeans, but also to Neanderthals, to the ape ancestors Holland mentions, and to the small bands of early hominids who populated Africa hundreds of thousands of years ago. It is indeed during the blink of an eye, relatively speaking, that people settled down from nomadism to permanent settlements, developed agriculture, lived in towns and then cities, and acquired the ability to fly to the moon, create embryos in the lab, and store enormous amounts of information in a space the size of our handily opposable thumbs.

Given this whiplash-inducing rate of recent change, it's reasonable to conclude that we aren't suited to our modern lives, and that our health, our family lives, and perhaps our sanity would all be improved if we could live the way early humans did. Our bodies and minds evolved under a particular set of circumstances, the reasoning goes, and in changing those circumstances without allowing our bodies time to evolve in response, we have wreaked the havoc that is modern life.

In short, we have what the anthropologist Leslie Aiello, president of the renowned Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, called "paleofantasies." She was referring to stories about human evolution based on limited fossil evidence, but the term applies just as well to the idea that our modern lives are out of touch with the way human beings evolved and that we need to redress the imbalance. Newspaper articles, morning TV, dozens of books, and self-help advocates promoting slow-food or no-cook diets, barefoot running, sleeping with our infants, and other measures large and small claim that it would be more natural, and healthier, to live more like our ancestors. A corollary to this notion is that we are good at things we had to do back in the Pleistocene, like keeping an eye out for cheaters in our small groups, and bad at things we didn't, like negotiating with people we can't see and have never met.


To think of ourselves as misfits in our own time and of our own making flatly contradicts what we now understand about the way evolution works—namely, that rate matters. That evolution can be fast, slow, or in-between, and understanding what makes the difference is far more enlightening, and exciting, than holding our flabby modern selves up against a vision—accurate or not—of our well-muscled and harmoniously adapted ancestors.

The paleofantasy is a fantasy in part because it supposes that we humans, or at least our protohuman forebears, were at some point perfectly adapted to our environments. We apply this erroneous idea of evolution's producing the ideal mesh between organism and surroundings to other life forms, too, not just to people. We seem to have a vague idea that long long ago, when organisms were emerging from the primordial slime, they were rough-hewn approximations of their eventual shape, like toys hastily carved from wood, or an artist's first rendition of a portrait, with holes where the eyes and mouth eventually will be.

Then, the thinking goes, the animals were subject to the forces of nature. Those in the desert got better at resisting the sun, while those in the cold evolved fur or blubber or the ability to use fire. Once those traits had appeared and spread in the population, we had not a kind of sketch, but a fully realized organism, a fait accompli, with all of the lovely details executed, the anatomical t's crossed and i's dotted.

But of course that isn't true. Although we can admire a stick insect that seems to flawlessly imitate a leafy twig in every detail, down to the marks of faux bird droppings on its wings, or a sled dog with legs that can withstand subzero temperatures because of the exquisite heat exchange among its blood vessels, both are full of compromises, jury-rigged like all other organisms. The mantid has to resist disease as well as blend into its background; the dog must run and find food as well as stay warm. The pigment used to form those dark specks on the mantid is also useful in the insect immune system, and using it in one place means it can't be used in another. For the dog, having long legs for running can make it harder to keep the cold at bay, since more heat is lost from narrow limbs than from wider ones. These often conflicting needs mean automatic trade-offs in every system, so that each may be good enough but is rarely if ever perfect.


Recognizing the continuity of evolution also makes clear the futility of selecting any particular time period for human harmony. Why would we be any more likely to feel out of sync than those who came before us? Did we really spend hundreds of thousands of years in stasis, perfectly adapted to our environments? When during the past did we attain this adaptation, and how did we know when to stop?

Just a warning not to follow any newfangled, trendy ideas too religiously, I think.

(With thanks to Lee on Twitter.)


Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Health Update: Day 19

Today, I'm sad to report a weight of 298.2 pounds, which represents a 1.4-pound gain. As I mentioned last week, fluctuations of up to 5 or 6 pounds in a single day are normal for me. Earlier in the week, I had weighed in at 295; today, I suppose this weigh-in caught me "mid-bounce," statistically speaking.

I haven't started exercising yet (in fact, I've been sick since yesterday), but I suspect that, once I start, I ought to see some weight loss in earnest.

I can say that, in general, my headaches have decreased in frequency, but my energy levels have also dropped: I find myself drowsy and wanting to nap more often than was the case two weeks ago. That kinda sucks.

Not sure how faithful I've been to the "30 grams/day of carbs" rule. I've tried very hard to stick to it, but carbs may have snuck in through things like meat sauce (specifically, barbecue sauce for pulled pork) and tiny boxes of Valentine's Day candy (my lame-ass rationale: 30 grams is about an ounce, and those jellybeans definitely weighed less than an ounce, so they fit within my daily allotment). At the same time, I know for sure that my carb consumption has plummeted since I started this regime: no more canned soda (except the occasional diet drink and pitcher of sugar-free Kool Aid), no fruits or fruit juice, no maple syrup or cookies or bread or pasta of any sort. Lots more cheese, though.

We'll see how this goes, I guess. It could be that my body is fighting what's happening to it. It could be that exercise is really the kickstart that I need-- something to get the metabolic engine in gear.

One other thing: the no-carb rule is making my culinary life boring as hell. I'm only beginning to recognize the extent to which breads, pastas, and sweets are my friends.

Don't mind me. Just moaning and groaning aloud.

UPDATE: at 11:50PM, my weight was down to 297.7. Go figure.


the Tao of Chance

Some days back, I rented "Being There," a 1979 film starring Peter Sellers and directed by Hal Ashby. I had seen bits and pieces of "Being There" before, but had never sat down to watch the entire movie. The story centers on Chance the gardener, who tends the Washington, DC, estate of the Old Man, an unnamed character who dies at the beginning of the film. Chance looks upon the old man's corpse without registering much understanding or deep feeling, and the housekeeper, Louise, initially yells at Chance for not grasping the significance of the Old Man's death. Louise quickly repents of her anger, though, for she recognizes that Chance has the mind of a child, and that he is absorbed by only two things in life: gardening and TV. She tells Chance that she and he will both have to leave the home, and she bids Chance farewell. Chance soon finds himself on the street, and the rest of the movie portrays Chance's misadventures as, like his cinematic descendant Forrest Gump, he finds himself inadvertently walking the halls of power and prestige, with-- eventually-- thousands of people hanging on to his every word. Chance's encounters with people (business magnates, Russian diplomats, and even the US president) are characterized by how charmed his interlocutors are at his simplicity and honesty. Time after time, people mistake Chance for someone more profound than he actually is, not realizing that Chance's constant retreats to the metaphor of the garden are a function of the fact that gardening, and TV, are all that Chance knows.*

A few days before I saw the movie, I read my fellow blogger Steve Honeywell's review of it. Steve understood why people thought this was Peter Sellers's greatest performance, but he was frustrated, I think, by most viewers' reactions to Chance: like the characters that Chance encounters in the film, many viewers also take Chance to be a profound being, one perhaps touched by the divine-- a Christ-figure, or in Steve's language, a "Zen Buddhist saint, a person who is purely and totally in 'the now' because he has no effective mental past and no real conception of the future." Steve then asks a crucial question in which he summons me, djinn-like, to provide an answer:

But how saintly is [Chance] if he got that way through no design of his own? How much wisdom really falls from his lips if he doesn’t understand the wisdom himself (Kevin, I expect an answer on this)[?] The final (and I admit, truly wonderful) shot of the film only emphasizes this impression.

So Steve has very kindly given me a metaphysical mission. I see this mission as having two phases, each answering a different question. The first question is: is Chance, as portrayed in the movie, really a Christ-figure or a Buddhist saint? The second question is Steve's own question: how much of a saint/divinity can Chance be if he doesn't understand what "wisdom" he utters, and if his wisdom, far from being earned, comes through "no design of his own"?

1. Christ-figure? Buddhist saint?

Christ-figures are fascinating subjects. They appear often in stories and movies: Melville's Billy Budd has been interpreted as such a figure; more recently, JK Rowling's Harry Potter and the Wachowski Brothers' Neo (from "The Matrix") have been viewed through a christic lens. Some Christ-figures have, arguably, appeared before the Christ himself: the Suffering Servant image in the book of Isaiah ("by his stripes are we healed") has been retroactively interpreted by Christians as a prophetic reference to the coming of Jesus.

I think, though, that we need to set some ground rules when talking about Christ-figures. What does it take to be classified as one? I'd say that it takes more than the ability to perform miracles: a Christ-figure must walk a sort of via dolorosa, and must do so for the sake of all humanity. Strangely enough, just such a figure is visible in Charlton Heston's movie "The Omega Man," a zombie-apocalypse film based on the novel I Am Legend (and later remade into the movie "I Am Legend," starring Will Smith in the Heston role). In "The Omega Man," Heston's character, Dr. Robert Neville, is one of the few people to survive the zombie-virus outbreak. Because he is a scientist, Neville, who is immune to the virus, uses his own blood to create a serum that can counteract the effects of the virus and restore the infected zombies to normalcy. In this version of the story, however, the zombies are sentient and are led by Mathias (Anthony Zerbe in fine, evil, B-movie form), who rallies the infected against Neville. The zombies eventually kill Neville by casting a spear at him while Neville, having just given his serum to a group of uninfected people for replication, is standing in a public fountain. The spear strikes Neville's side; Neville slumps into the crystal-clear water and dies, arms spread wide in a beatific gesture reminiscent of Christ on the cross. Blood and water flow.

Robert Neville is a true Christ-figure. He hits all the right notes: if "zombiism" symbolizes human sinfulness, then Neville, with his immunity, is inherently pure and naturally free from the shackles of sin. His solution to the problem of sin comes through the redeeming effects of his own blood, thus making his serum a kind of sacrament. Neville's gift of blood is for all of humanity, which now stands awash in sinfulness. Some among the sinful will accept the serum/chrism; many won't. Neville, standing in that fountain, also makes the ultimate sacrifice in a spirit of imitatio christi. His dying posture seals the deal, reaffirming the Neville/Christ analogy. (Note, too, that "Neville" comes from the French neuve ville, or "new city," itself perhaps a biblical reference to a new phase in human/cosmic history.)

Resurrection imagery may also be a factor for Christ-figures. Harry Potter was killed by the Avada Kedavra curse: as the celestial Dumbledore tells Harry in Heaven's anteroom (a sort of cleaned-up version of London's King's Cross station-- "King's Cross" itself being a significant hint at Harry's Christlike nature), the young man is free to move "on"-- i.e., heavenward-- if he so desires. This means Harry is definitively dead, although he has the power to, like a bodhisattva, turn back from Heaven's gate to complete his unfinished work. Dumbledore has also told Harry over the course of Rowling's seven books that Harry is a being filled with love, and this self-sacrificial love is what makes him powerful. Christ's life is characterized by universal love; this, it seems, is an essential component of a Christ-figure. Harry is also carried forward by a sense of mission that is crystallized in the fifth book (Order of the Phoenix) when he hears the prophecy about himself and realizes that he will be-- must be-- the one to take down Voldemort.

Meanwhile, Neo's path in "The Matrix" cleaves to a christic death-resurrection-ascension paradigm. Neo's character, as conceived by the Wachowski Brothers, follows something of an intertwined, double-helical path, simultaneously tracking both the Buddha's enlightenment and Christ's fulfillment. But Neo qualifies as a Christ-figure not only because of the resurrection moment after Trinity(!) revives him, but also because he can perform miracles, and because he operates in a spirit of liberating love for all enslaved humanity. Once Neo realizes who he is and what he's about, he moves forward with a sense of deep purpose. As a being who confounds the rule-bound nature of the computer-generated Matrix (perhaps symbolizing the sin-shackled nature of the world), Neo is Christlike because he is a death-transcending, messianic figure of promise.**

So I would contend that, to qualify as a Christ-figure, a character in a story or a movie should possess most of the following qualities:

•ability to perform miracles
•self-sacrificing courage
•all-encompassing love for humanity
•messianic (i.e., revolutionary/paradigm-changing/leadership) potential
•a character arc that follows a via dolorosa
•a sense of mission
•resurrection/resuscitation and other prominent tropes (crucifixion/sacrifice, etc.)

The three characters mentioned above, Robert Neville, Harry Potter, and Neo, all possess at least five out of seven of the above traits. I've charted everything out below:

Robert Neville Harry Potter
love for humanity
messianic potential
via dolorosa
sense of mission

But by the above standards, Chance is not a Christ-figure. A Christ-figure tends to be proactive and purpose-driven, whereas Chance is more of a benevolent witness to, and sometimes inadvertent participant in, the events occurring around him. Chance, being of simple mind and heart, cannot be said to be possessed of a sense of mission: he has no agenda. He is a compassionate being, true, but the film provides little evidence that Chance's compassion is synonymous with a conscious, all-embracing love of humanity. As I noted earlier, Chance's two foci in life are gardening and TV. Chance does have one distinctly Christlike trait, of course: he performs miracles-- two, in fact. The first and more obvious miracle is his walking on water, as seen in the final moments of the film. The second miracle, somewhat less obvious but present all the same, is the heart-healing that Chance brings to most of those whom he meets. Almost no one is immune to Chance's charms. But unlike Neo, Harry Potter, and Robert Neville, Chance undergoes no via dolorosa, and he certainly doesn't die a self-sacrificing death, nor does he harbor much, if any, messianic potential (although it may be that the millions of TV viewers who saw his on-camera interview might be willing to follow him to the ends of the earth). In all, Chance violates the christic paradigm in too many ways to be considered a Christ-figure. His concerns and his compassion are too parochial in scope to make him christic. It may be that Chance, taken purely on his own terms, qualifies as some sort of divine figure-- one miraculously untouched by the restrictive laws and doleful vicissitudes of nature-- but Chance's character defies any obviously Christian interpretation.

Is Chance, then, more of a Buddhist saint? There are two primary paradigms when considering Buddhist sainthood: the Theravada notion of the arhat, and the Mahayana notion of the bodhisattva. Buddhism arose as a response to the empirical fact of human suffering in all its forms, great and small. It acknowledges that being is both process and interrelationship, which immediately implies that there is no permanence or inherent self-being (aseity, to use the proper term) to be found anywhere. Even the apodictic realm of 2 + 2 = 4 is subject to the unalterable laws of interdependence: there can be no 2 without 1 or 3, and each number immediately implies the rest of the number line, just as a single flower implies the entire universe.

The arhat is nothing more or less than a person. He is not a deity. At best, we might consider him a teacher or a guide, leading us across the world to the one-person bark that we must row ourselves to cross the great river of ignorance. In Theravada thinking, this sort of person represents a saintly ideal, incarnating within himself the Buddhist virtues laid out in the Eightfold Path: right views, right intentions, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. There is a "self-propulsive" aspect to Theravada Buddhism: you don't get where you need to go unless you yourself are willing to make the effort. As with the christic paradigm discussed above, then, we see that proactivity is a crucial component of this form of Buddhist sainthood.

How does Chance measure up to this ideal? Can Chance truly be described as mindful, for example? In a sense, yes: he is very attentive to the lives of plants, and seems, on some pre-intellectual level, to radiate a tranquil, compassionate bonhomie that relaxes his interlocutors and keeps him more or less in tune with his social surroundings. Without a doubt, Chance is calm and centered and kind. But at the same time, Chance's limited intellect keeps him both naive and unaware. Early in the movie, a newly homeless Chance walks into a group of street toughs who threaten him. His response to this threat is to bring out his remote controller, taken from the Old Man's house, and to click it in an attempt to "change the channel," so to speak-- that is, to make the toughs go away. Chance seems blandly surprised when the boys don't disappear, and this surprise indicates the extent to which our protagonist has divorced himself from reality. That's as far from Buddhist virtue as one can get.

How does Chance fare when viewed through a more Mahayana Buddhist lens? Before we tackle that question, we should stop and do a bit of background work on Buddhism. Although Theravada is arguably the older form of Buddhism, "closer to the Buddha's original teachings," as some Theravadins proudly claim, Mahayana is without a doubt the more popular, widespread form. In this form of Buddhism, the saintly ideal is represented by the bodhisattva, a being that stands at the threshold of nirvana but, instead of stepping across that boundary into bliss, turns around in favor of compassionately helping others across. This form of Buddhism is less about "self-propulsion" and more about emphasizing the compassionate connections that bind all sentient beings together. Why does a Mahayana monk do what he does? "I do it for you," is the monk's answer. In the West, one of the most famous expressions of Mahayana thought is Zen Buddhism (about which I've written here, and about which style of meditation I've written here). Zen is the Japanese designation for Ch'an; this style of Buddhism has its origin in China, a country and culture in which Buddhism underwent a rather fundamental makeover. As Noss and Noss write in the 1984 edition of Man's Religions:

The general religious attitude in East Asia differs from that of India in important respects. While India tends to give the value of an illusion to nature, or at least yearns to triumph over it in thought, the Chinese and Japanese do not do this easily. They have cultivated an aesthetic appreciation of nature, which, even apart from Buddhist and Taoist influences, has reached such heights of satisfaction as to make the East Asian want to prolong life in this world as long as possible. Nature is a real and not deceptive structure of forms and forces, and it displays sublime order and beauty in both action and being. Some Chinese (like Chuang Tzu) might qualify this, seeing nature as pointing beyond itself and signifying the operational presence of the only wholly real entity in the universe-- the mysterious Tao. But even this view has had the effect of intensifying appreciation of nature.

Noss, John B. and David S. Noss. Man's Religions, 7th Edition. New York: Macmillan, 1984. (p. 232)

Some scholars refer to the India/China contrast in terms of world-denying or other-worldly (Indian) versus world-affirming or this-worldly (Chinese) religious perspectives. Zen Buddhism takes a decidedly Taoist route in its advocacy of present-orientation (to which Steve Honeywell alluded in his review), naturalness, spontaneity, and harmonious flow. Where does Chance fall on this spectrum? Is he a world-denier or a world-affirmer? From what I observed above, it seems Chance is a combination of both: blissfully unaware, yet simultaneously (paradoxically?) in harmony with his circumstances.

My own encounters with Zen monks, however, lead me to believe that Chance is nothing like them. Monks are the products of hard work and study-- of deliberate action. They may labor to attain a state of non-attainment, but their lives are always, always characterized by disciplined striving, notions of wu-wei notwithstanding. Chance, by contrast, simply is. He has attained nothing because, as the housekeeper Louise points out in the middle of "Being There," when she sees Chance on TV, Chance was simply born to be the way he is. If anything, I take Louise and her sharp awareness to epitomize the Zen ideal: like many Zen monks I've met, Louise is blunt, perceptive, and unflaggingly truthful.

Could it nevertheless be that Chance is still, somehow, a bodhisattva? One characteristic of a bodhisattva is that he radiates compassion wherever he goes. This radiation is automatic, not necessarily willed. Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, is a perfect example of this. As my old Buddhism prof humorously explained, such cosmic beings are like dispensers, doling out doses of compassion automatically, volitionlessly. Chance certainly qualifies as a bodhisattva in that respect, and it's also obvious that his compassion, though perhaps unwilled, is nonetheless genuine: significantly, Chance cries when his rich benefactor, Benjamin Rand, dies in his bed. (This stands in contrast to Chance's numb, affectless reaction to the Old Man's death at the beginning of the film, and indicates that Chance's character has evolved, even if only a little.) But if a bodhisattva's job, like that of Christ, is to provide compassion for all sentient beings, then we again run into the problem that Chance's concerns are parochial and rather mundane-- not cosmic in the least.

I conclude, then, that Chance can be classified neither as a Christ-figure nor as a Buddhist saint of any type. Although he possesses some Christlike and Buddhalike traits in tantalizing quantities, Chance cannot be summed up in either Christian or Buddhist terms. His character doesn't map well onto either religious template.

But if we insist on mapping Chance onto some religious template, then I would suggest out-and-out Taoism. As I mentioned above in talking about Zen Buddhism, Taoism emphasizes such aspects of the world as naturalness, harmonious flow, spontaneity, and present-orientation. Taoism's deepest insights are of the wordless, nondiscursive, yet painfully ordinary sort: "The Tao that can be talked about is not the eternal Tao." Simple, plainspoken Chance clearly demonstrates his oneness with the Tao in true magico-religious Taoist form at the end of the movie: by walking on water, like the legendary Taoist sages of old who rode the clouds, hopscotched along mountaintops, and survived pounding waterfalls unscathed, he shows that his non-mastery of the world is itself a sort of mastery. Like Bodhidharma, the First Patriarch of Zen Buddhism (and an Indian saint reimagined the Chinese way) who famously crossed the Yangtze River on a reed, Chance has no argument with the still water of the lake on which he stands, so the lake doesn't complain when he stands on it.

Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu are both concerned with how a sage should act; they see the sage as the embodiment of certain Taoist virtues. From Chapter 33 of the Tao Te Ching:

Knowing others is wisdom;
Knowing the self is enlightenment.
Mastering others requires force;
Mastering the self requires strength;
He who knows he has enough is rich.
Perseverance is a sign of will power.
He who stays where he is endures.
To die but not to perish is to be eternally present.

Taoism may not be a perfect fit for Chance, but it comes close. Look how the above verses end: "...eternally present." Is this not the core meaning of being there? Whether Chance is even capable of making the effort to know himself and others, whether he is able or unable to master himself, whether he even knows-- consciously-- that he has enough is impossible to determine. But as my friend Nathan notes in his magnificent review of "Being There":

For one thing, the aptly-named film is a testament to a tremendous human need: the need for others to “be there” for us. All of the silliness that gets in the way of this and that hurts us, personally and collectively, could be pared away, the movie is suggesting. All Chance does, apart from speak in the language of the garden, is to “be there” for others; this fills some of them with an intense loyalty to him that overrides on more than one occasion even sexual jealousy. At the same time, the scoundrels of the movie–not so much the street gangsters in the opening scene as the suspicious journalist, the philanderer attorney who wants to enter politics, and the back-room politicians themselves–come off looking very bad indeed in comparison.

Chance is, if nothing else, present to the people around him. Like the Taoist notion of the Uncarved Block, or Chuang Tzu's tales of the Stinky Tree and the Great Yak, Chance simply is, and maybe that's enough.

2. "No design of his own"

Can one be a true saint if one has done no deliberate work to attain sainthood?

Chance epitomizes the Taoist ideal of wu-wei (non-doing, non-action): there's a sort of deliberate non-deliberateness about him. Chance can carefully examine a tree in front of the White House and conclude that it's sick and in need of care; at the same time, his lack of intellectual complexity means that he faces every human encounter with a fresh, open, and happy mind. Chance is untroubled by the world, but not through any effort of his own. His "enlightenment," such as it is, comes without exertion on his part. He was simply born that way. As Louise bitterly observes while watching Chance become a celebrity on TV:

It's for sure a white man's world in America. Look here: I raised that boy since he was the size of a piss-ant. And I'll say right now, he never learned to read and write. No, sir. Had no brains at all. Was stuffed with rice pudding between th' ears. Shortchanged by the Lord, and dumb as a jackass. Look at him now! Yes, sir, all you've gotta be is white in America, to get whatever you want. Gobbledy-gook!

This is by far the most accurate perception of Chance in the entire film, which is why I consider Louise the movie's resident Zen master. She cuts to the heart of the matter, which is that Chance is as stupid as a box of rocks. "Being There" is a comedy, and one of the movie's fundamental jokes is that people ascribe to Chance virtues that they read into him. Again consistent with Taoism, Chance is an empty vessel, a protean field of potential: he can be anything to anyone. And that is, perhaps, the film's central irony: if Chance is, in reality, an "absent presence" wherever he may be... is he truly being there for anybody? Pluck Chance out of Benjamin Rand's posh residence and plunk him down in the midst of urban blight, and Chance will produce the same effects on the downtrodden citizenry as he does on the rich and privileged. Why? Because Chance is a mirror, not an actual presence.

This may fit the idea that we shouldn't consider Chance human. Perhaps Chance is more of an angel, an uncomplicated being with an immutable nature that emanates spiritual warmth-- a being at once there (visible and audible) and not there (ethereal and intangible). Nathan, in his review, hints at this possibility when he writes:

In the movie’s events, God plays no role, but Chance effects more change than anyone, and so Chance is in effect a character foil for divine interference in human affairs–a role that is part of a tradition going all the way back to the ancient Greek playwright Menander, who personified Chance in a position formerly reserved for Olympian deities.

Whatever Chance's ontological status, we need to separate the moral worth of Chance from the moral worth of Chance's words. We commit the genetic fallacy when we dismiss a claim or argument because of its provenance, i.e., its genesis. If a crazy or stupid person says that the sun is shining outside, and the sun is indeed shining at that moment, then that person is right no matter how stupid or crazy he or she might be. It would be wrong to deny the claim by saying, "You can't trust what that person says; he's crazy!" So: can a simple gardener dispense saintly wisdom? Of course he can. But is Chance himself a saint, despite the fact that he has done nothing to attain his beatific state? This is a harder question, to which Taoism may provide an answer.

We'll start by noting, again, that Zen Buddhism takes its cue from Taoism. It uses the simple, often discourse-subverting language of Taoism to express truth, which means that Zen Buddhists frequently utter perfectly obvious inanities. As blog-friend Lorianne wrote in 2004 in reminiscing about an exchange between her and Zen Master Dae Kwang during her precepts-taking ceremony:

ZMDK: Your new name is Won Jin, which means Original Truth. So, Lori, what is this Original Truth?
L: (claps hands)
ZMDK: Is that all?
L: Your robe is gray!

And a moment later:
ZMDK: Yeah, my robe is gray: that’s plain old ordinary truth... but is it Original Truth?
L: Of course it is!
The above exchange echoes the simplicity of Chance's gardening metaphors. When the US president asks Chance for his opinion on the nation's economic future, Chance offers conditional optimism ("As long as the roots are not severed... all will be well in the garden"), refers to the progression of seasons, and ends with an allusion to the assured return of spring. Is Chance speaking truth-- even Original Truth? I should think so: Chance is responding to the demands of the present moment in the only way he knows how. By the Zen reckoning (which is a close cousin to Taoist reckoning), Chance is a Buddha. But then... we all are. So this is nothing special.

Because Taoism lifts up naturalness as a virtue, it is enough, in the Taoist way of thinking, for something simply to be what it is to express its harmony with the Tao. There's no need to overthink things, no need to bring ego into the mix. Happiness comes not from recognizing that we are all part of a great flow: it comes merely from flowing. From the Taoist perspective, then, a figure like Chance, who placidly yields to all circumstances, embodies harmony with the Tao. Chance may not fit the template of a Buddhist saint or a Christ-figure, but his words of wisdom (holy wisdom? foolish wisdom?) spring from the present moment and are consistent with his inner nature, and that's a dynamic one finds in Taoism.
Nothing in the world
is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
nothing can surpass it.

The soft overcomes the hard;
the gentle overcomes the rigid.
Everyone knows this is true,
but few can put it into practice.

Therefore the Master remains
serene in the midst of sorrow.
Evil cannot enter his heart.
Because he has given up helping,
he is people's greatest help.

True words seem paradoxical.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 78
Like the characters Chance meets, we viewers are at liberty to perceive Chance however we wish. He is a blank slate, an Uncarved Block, a mirror reflecting his surroundings. He could be an earthbound divinity, or merely a person favored of God, because as we all know, God protects the insane and the simple.*** "Being There" would never have worked as a comedy had it taken a more "Mr. Bean"-like approach. If Chance had fallen victim to a soul-crushing series of mishaps-- attacked by a gang, smashed by a car, spurned and mocked by the rich and powerful-- we wouldn't have had the same movie. Not at all. Can Chance be considered a saint? From an explicitly Christian or Buddhist standpoint, I'd say no. But from a Taoist perspective, Chance simply is who he is: a being at one with the Tao. And as a mark of sainthood, maybe that's enough.

*This makes it strange that Chance so often relies on gardening imagery to express himself, but almost never quotes anything from television.

**Both Robert Neville and Neo have been subject to critique as Christ-figures, however, because of their gun-toting, violent ways. How Christlike can these characters be, after all, if they personally participate in the annihilation of their fellow sentient beings? There are several ways to answer this critique. One is to shift the messianic paradigm slightly so that Neville and Neo are viewed through a more apocalyptic filter: the Christ we meet in the Book of Revelation is far less meek and mild than the Christ of the gospels, and he is more in tune with ancient currents in Jewish messianism, in which the mashiach was seen as more of a powerful political leader who promised an upheaval of the temporal/terrestrial order; any reference to a "new heaven and new earth" was meant politically, not metaphysically. Another way to answer the critique is to take all the weaponry symbolically, the way academics do when considering a symbol like the sword in Indian thought and tradition. In India, the sword represents that which cuts away ignorance and unwisdom, leaving only unburdened, unfettered enlightenment. Sword-brandishing deities are not inciting violence; to the contrary, they are holy threshers, cultivating wisdom. There may thus be a symbolic sense in which Neo's and Neville's guns serve the same purpose: they can be viewed as releasing the foolish from their bonds of foolishness. All the same, it is perhaps because of this tendency toward cinematic violence (even Harry Potter has employed magic in a violent, combative manner, including two of the three Unforgivable Curses, and not against his arch-enemy Voldemort) that I did not include moral purity as one of the christic criteria.

***In fact, a theistic reading of "Being There" would note the invisible divine hand at work, lovingly and protectively smoothing out every path before Chance treads on it.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Pope Fiction (a repope-st)

In honor of His Majesty, the outgoing Pope Benedict XVI:


sleepy Saturday

It seems I skipped a day of blogging! I guess I must have been tired, yesterday, because I put myself down for a late-afternoon nap and woke up at night. Yikes. Eight straight hours of teaching must be getting harder for this old bird. All the more reason to jet back to a land where the daily teaching schedule is no more than three or four hours, the pay is great, and the vacations are extended.


Saturday, February 16, 2013

a better use for butternut squash

Et voilà, mes amis: soupe crémeuse aux tomates et aux courges musquées. Creamy tomato and butternut squash soup, topped with shiitake mushrooms that were fried in butter and olive oil enhanced with salt and garlic.

Disappointed by how the squash "pasta" turned out the other day, I repurposed my remaining butternut squash by peeling it, chopping it up, and tossing it into salted water, where it boiled a few minutes. I then added a 9-ounce can of tomato paste to the mix, got out my immersion blender, and blended everything until even the most recalcitrant clumps had disappeared. I added a goodly amount of heavy cream (which has almost zero carbs, even in large quantities), some onion powder, salt, black pepper, red chili pepper (Korean gochugaru), and dried basil, and stirred the whole mess by hand with a wire whisk.

The result was fantastic. Perfectionist that I am, though, I wish I had added some bacon crumbles, chopped green onion, and a light drizzle of Parmesan cheese to pretty the photo up.

And damn if I didn't long for a huge baguette, sliced up and buttered. That would've been the perfect accompaniment.


language Nazi hunter

If there's anything a language Nazi loves doing, it's taking down other language Nazis. On my Twitter feed, I saw that Manhattan Prep just linked to an article by Amanda Green at titled "11 Common Words You're Probably Mispronouncing." While the article's premise is interesting, the article itself either (a) gets the facts wrong or (b) doesn't indicate that you're actually mispronouncing the word in question. I'm going to reprint the article below, with my comments and criticisms appearing in red. Shall we begin?

11 Common Words You're Probably Mispronouncing
Amanda Green

Ever feel embarrassed when you don't know how to say a word? Don't be. Even the most fluent English speakers—and, ahem, political figures—stumble. Besides, pronunciations change over time. See if you've been mispronouncing these common words.

1. Seuss

Pen names don't always make things easier. Theodore Geisel's college buddy Alexander Liang made a rhyme to teach you the right way to pronounce it:

"You’re wrong as the deuce/And you shouldn’t rejoice/
If you’re calling him Seuss/He pronounces it Soice" (or Zoice).

KEVIN'S COMMENT: The moment I saw "Seuss," I knew that Green was going to offer "Soice" as the correct pronunciation. It is German, after all. I've rhymed "Seuss" with "Zeus" since childhood, so perhaps I stand corrected. I've never heard a recording of the man pronouncing his own name, though, so I'd say the jury's out until I hear that recording.

2. Kibosh

Let's put the kibosh, pronounced "KY-bosh," on saying this word like "kuh-BOSH."

KEVIN'S COMMENT: Wrong. "kuh-BOSH" is perfectly legitimate. Check your sources before writing, Amanda!

3. Celtic

An initial hard (k) sound is the standard, but linguists say the (s) sound emerged as far back as the 17th century. Still, you'll sound ridiculous (but correct!) if you bring that hard (k) to a Boston Celtics basketball game.

KEVIN'S COMMENT: I have no idea what Amanda is saying here. So is "seltik" a mispronunciation or not? The only thing that's clear is that the team is called the "seltix," probably because they're so popular they sell tix.

4. Comptroller

This word sounds just like "controller." If you're tempted to pronounce that silent (pt), please comptroll yourself!

KEVIN'S COMMENT: Not so obvious. See here. (And didn't Amanda spoil the joke by writing "comptroll" with two Ls?)

5. Cache

Maybe it's because it's one letter short of "cachet." Maybe it's just more fun to mispronounce. This words [sic] sounds just like "cash."

KEVIN'S COMMENT: Huzzah! No disagreement here. Personally, I'm annoyed by people who rhyme "cache" with "sashay." A cache is a stash, and should rhyme with stash.

"Cache" rhyme with "stash"
Stash your cash in a cache
But if say "cashay,"

6. Chicanery

This word meaning "deception by trickery" is aptly tricky to pronounce. The beginning (ch) sound is "sh," as in "Chicago." The French pronounce the word "shih-connery," which makes it easy to remember the definition. However, Americans love a long (a) and tend to pronounce it "shih-cane-a-ree." Choose your own adventure.

KEVIN'S COMMENT: So... "Choose your own adventure" means... no one's actually mispronouncing this word? Then why the fuck list it?

7. Banal

You'll be the butt of the joke if you pronounce this "BAY-nul." It's "buh-NAHL."

KEVIN'S COMMENT: Lusciously, sexily wrong. See here. Mnemonic: Going anal is never banal.

8. Affluent

If pronouncing it "a-FLU-ent" is wrong, some people don't want to be right. The stress on this word is supposed to be on the first syllable—"AFF-lu-ent." But stressing the second syllable became so mainstream that dictionaries started validating the pronunciation in the 1980s.

KEVIN'S COMMENT: So, uh... what's the verdict, Amanda? You sound like a disappointed prescriptivist. If so, I sympathize: I, too, stress the first syllable, and am sad about the mainstreaming of this second-syllable mispronunciation. But reality moves out from under our feet, so hard-line prescriptivism is impossible to justify. Metaphysically speaking.

9. Forbade

Pronunciation quirks and mistakes happen when people try to read and speak by the rules. Too bad the English language doesn't always make sense. The past tense of "forbid" was originally supposed to be spelled and pronounced "for-bad." But then people started spelling it "forbade" and rhyming it with "made." Now linguists say the word sounds archaic any way you say it. Most people use "forbid" as a past or present-tense verb.

KEVIN'S COMMENT: Again, I have to ask: what's the verdict? According to this source, "fer-BEYD" is legitimate.

10. Boatswain

Okay, so maybe this word's not that commonly used. But now that you know it's pronounced "bo-sun," you might find more reasons to work it into conversation.

KEVIN'S COMMENT: No dispute here. I never mess with brawny nautical men and their briny nautical terms.

11. Niche

When this word was borrowed from French in the 17th century, it was quickly Anglicized to rhyme with "itch." But in the 20th century, more people embraced a true French pronunciation and decided to pronounce it "neesh." Both are correct.

KEVIN'S COMMENT: So, once again, Amanda highlights a non-mispronunciation. Brava!

When I review the above list, I see that I have no disagreement on precisely two entries. Amanda Green! Don't go around telling people how to pronounce words until you've thoroughly checked your sources! Take it from a real language Nazi.

Speaking of language Nazis...


Friday, February 15, 2013

étude for tongue

Recite this poem to give your tongue a workout:

Ed edited it
Ed edited it
Ed edited it
Ed edited it

Ed edited it
Ed edited it
Ed edited, edited, edited it


from Chris Dorner's manifesto

Hillary Clinton. You’ll make one hell of a president in 2016. Much like your husband, Bill, you will be one of the greatest. Look at Castro in San Antonio as a running mate or possible secretary of state. He’s (good people) and I have faith and confidence in him. Look after Bill. He was always my favorite President. Chelsea grew up to be one hell of an attractive woman. No disrespect to her husband.

Gov. Chris Christie. What can I say? You’re the only person I would like to see in the White House in 2016 other than Hillary. You’re America’s no shit taking uncle. Do one thing for your wife, kids, and supporters. Start walking at night and eat a little less, not a lot less, just a little. We want to see you around for a long time. Your leadership is greatly needed.

Still no official word on whether the body found in the burning cabin belongs to ex-LAPD officer Chris Dorner. I've been slogging my way through Dorner's 23-page manifesto; I'm on page 19 right now. In the previous pages, Dorner spent some column-inches saying his goodbyes and paying his respects to people who have had a formative influence on his life: friends, drill instructors, commanding officers, fellow cops.

I find this manifesto riveting, despite its many typos and gaffes. It really is a window into Dorner's headspace. At one point, Dorner argues fervently in support of an assault-weapons ban and decries the loss of innocent life during the mass shootings of the past year, never quite acknowledging the irony that he plans to use powerful weaponry to stalk and kill cops and their innocent loved ones. At another point, Dorner, who knows that he's on the path to self-destruction, wryly notes:

It’s kind of sad I won’t be around to view and enjoy The Hangover III. What an awesome trilogy. Todd Phillips, don’t make anymore Hangovers after the third, takes away the originality of its foundation. World War Z looks good and The Walking Dead season 3 (second half) looked intriguing. Damn, gonna miss shark week.

This is crazy, crazy stuff. If you haven't read Dorner's manifesto for yourself, you should.


ya' hear that, Wooj?

Some years back, Wooj and I got into a debate about how much of a polluter America is. Well, Wooj, get a load of this:

Sixteen of the world's top 20 most polluted cities are in China. The New York Times reported just a couple weeks ago that Beijing's air quality ranked a "crazy bad" 755 on a scale of 0 to 500.

The country has been building a new coal plant almost every week and plans 363 more, and China now emits almost twice as much CO2 as the U.S.

Eat it, Wooj.


Thursday, February 14, 2013

protuberant Valentine's Day greetings, ladies!

Ladies! Lovely, voluptuous, curvaceous ladies! Happy Valentine's Day! And now that I've gotten you in a sufficiently romantic mood, I show you this:

Good God, you've got filthy minds! Personally, I thought it looked like an elephant's trunk!

And speaking of elephant's trunks, I've got a dirty joke for you:

A man decides to have elective surgery to enhance his penis size. He goes to the doctor, who shows him a list of options from modest enlargements to cannon-sized members. "That one!" the man cries.

"What, the elephant's trunk?" the doctor asks.

"Yes! Yes!" says the man with absolute conviction. "That's what I want for a cock!"

The doc shrugs. The surgery is performed. The man walks out of the hospital with an elephant-sized bulge straining against his pants.

The man goes to a posh dinner party. The chatting guests pass around a large bowl of baked potatoes. When the bowl reaches the man, his elephant's trunk reaches up from under the table, plucks a potato from the bowl, and ducks out of sight.

"Good God!" cries a female dinner companion. "Do that again!" The man obliges: the trunk appears, plucks a potato, and ducks out of sight.

"You've got an amazing cock!" the woman coos. She leans over and whispers, "Could you do that one more time? For me?"

The man grins sheepishly. "I wish I could," he says, "but I don't think I can stuff another potato up my ass."

By the way, the phallic piece of vegetation you see above is the result of pushing a butternut squash through my new spiral slicer. Just FYI.



Here's a pic of tonight's (Wednesday night's) meal: butternut squash "spaghetti."

I think this meal ended up looking better than it actually tasted. I'd rather make a Korean juk (porridge) out of the squash than slice it up as vegetable pasta. The taste really didn't work tonight, and neither did the texture. Back to spaghetti squash, yeah?



A full, unabridged copy of Christopher Dorner's 6000-word manifesto can be found here.

Chris Dorner is the ex-LAPD cop who was fired from his job in 2008 after an investigation concluded that he had falsely accused a fellow officer of abuse. Fuming for years, Dorner finally snapped and vowed revenge against the people-- and their families-- who, in his mind, had done him an injustice. Dorner killed Monica Quan and her fiancé; Quan was the daughter of the police captain, Randal Quan, who had defended Dorner at his hearing but who, in Dorner's opinion, had provided only a lackluster defense. Dorner also killed fellow cop Michael Crain and shot Crain's partner, injuring him. Dorner then led police on a merry chase that turned into a massive manhunt involving thousands of law-enforcement personnel. Even actor Charlie Sheen became involved: it was discovered that Dorner had praised Sheen in his angry, rambling, errata-ridden manifesto. Sheen publicly addressed Dorner-- "Call me!"-- in the vain hope of securing a peaceful resolution.

As of this writing, it may be that Chris Dorner is now dead. He apparently barricaded himself in a cabin in the San Bernardino Mountains near Big Bear, California, and killed a police deputy in a gunfight. The cabin has been burned to the ground, and while the remains are still too hot and smoldering for police to enter, initial reports are claiming that no one exited the cabin (aside from two hostages who had escaped earlier). Authorities expect to find evidence of Dorner's charred remains inside.

Dorner acquired a fan base on social-networking sites like Twitter-- people who saw Dorner as a hero for "stickin' it to the Man." Unfortunately, Dorner is a cop killer and a murderer of innocent women, so the hero-worship seems, to put it politely, unwarranted.