The irony is that I am always looking for the sun precisely where it is not.
Cryptic, I know.
The issue is that I was supposed to get out of work around 10 pm last night. That clearly did not happen. Instead of trying to drive home completely delirious around 3 am in the morning, I stole away into a call room and slept until morning, thinking that I could grab breakfast at the cantina at 6 am.
Naturally, I am disappointed.
So, for once, I decide to take my Fate into my own hands and drive to the nearby Peet’s Coffee, get myself a strawberry-vanilla scone and a nice big cup of coffee, and hot foot it to Torrey Pines State Beach.
I am enamored by this stretch of beach. For some reason, it feels like it’s out of place. Like you’re driving through this biotech industrial zone, some grotesque symbiosis of Orwell’s Ministries of Truth and Peace ominously prophesied Cassandra-like by Dwight Eisenhower himself, Republican extraordinaire, and all of the sudden you’re dropped off into a paradisial Californian beach. It’s this wondrous stretch of old US-101 basically surrounded by water on each side, before entering the suburban poseur-bouigoisie hell of Del Mar. It is the subject of numerous picture-postcards, worthy of being the study of many paintings. And if you look down to adjust your car radio or CD player, or answer your cel phone while you’re driving by, you could very well miss it.
So I park my car on the edge of the road, eat my scone, and sip my coffee, with the sun’s rising glare behind me. Staring at the sea, staring at the sand. I love staring into the seeming infinity of the Pacific Ocean, the cold, green-blue, brackish, briny sea roiling off into the hazy horizon, coming to this perfectly air-brushed boundary with the icy steel cold blue morning sky. I gaze at the seashore, watching the tiny figure of a woman in white who is herself gazing into the near-infinity of the sea, lost in thought. If I were a painter, I could make millions of dollars off of capturing that moment.
It is interesting to see just how many people come to this shore at 6 am, with the sun just breaking over the horizon. If I could somehow bottle up this moment, and in times of great stress and terror, just uncork it and escape even for the fifteen minutes it took me to leisurely swill my coffee, I would be a well adjusted man, quite possibly simultaneously making SSRIs obsolete.
I drove away back to work with a slight smile on my face.
As B once pointed out to me, it’s the simple pleasures in life.
And, because she happened to be the last person I spoke to before I decided to go sleep last night, I can’t help but think about M3 and all the inappropriate thoughts a man can have about a coworker who is engaged to be married.
Why do I insist on chasing phantoms?
I also, quite randomly, think of C and the bright bits of wisdom she has left me with (making me try to feel like I’m a part of something even when I’m by myself.) Why am I afraid to set my heart on something that might possible? (I use the term “might” quite generously. If the probability is non-zero, how much more hope does a simple man need, after all?)
And I discovered the other day that it was Eleanor Roosevelt who supposedly came up with the nice Hallmark-esque quote that I so enjoy: “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is mystery. Today is a gift. That is why we call it the present.”
I immediately hearken to “10:15 Saturday Night” by The Cure, although I’ve long stopped waiting for the telephone to ring. It seems that that long, dark tea-time of the soul hits me long before Sunday, and it’s kind of sad that I’ve forgotten how to enjoy a weekend on my own.
Usually, I take that 2 hours drive up to L.A. to see my parents and my brother, and even if they’re not around (since my brother has a girlfriend, and my parents have an unhealthy fascination with Native American casinos), at least there’s the dog for some company. So I haven’t really spent that much time down here in S.D. hanging out by myself.
Thus far, I have yet to find my niche.
In a fit of restlessness, and inspired by my explorations of the iTunes Music Store, I end up driving over to the Tower Records in the Midway area, which is happily open 24 hours a day. I haven’t really gone out there much past midnight, but it’s nice to know there’s somewhere to go when everything else is shut down.
Naturally I ended up spending quite a bit of money that I don’t have. I bought enough music to last me on a one-way trip from S.D. to S.F. if I so chose to head out there, but what with the holiday weekend coming up, I fear that that wouldn’t be the most pleasant of drives. I long ago swore off driving up and down California on holiday weekends after that one epic Thanksgiving where I nearly burst my bladder. (Ah, bittersweet memories of senior year of college, but I won’t go into them here.)
Ridiculously, I already have about a month’s worth of music on my hard drive (and yes I actually own the CDs, in case the RIAA is reading this) so God only knows I don’t need any more music. The size of my collection long ago outstripped the capacity of my iPod (I’m coming up on 60 GB, whereas my now ancient iPod is only 20 GB)
While at the Tower Records scavenging for random CDs I had previewed on iTMS, I slipped into a typical reverie. My cousin is getting married in about a month and a half, and naturally, my mom oh-so-casually asks me whether I’m bringing a date to the wedding. The answer is “no,” and of course she gets defensive about bringing it up, what with her passive-aggressively harrassing me to produce her some grandchildren these past few years. And I’m sort of resigned to the fact that, unless I manage to break out of my isolation cell and somehow grow emotionally and perhaps learn to trust people again, I’m going to live the rest of my days by my self. Not the worst fate in the world, and surely I have some adventures ahead of me nonetheless, but what disturbs me is that this state is in many ways entirely voluntary.
Meaning that if I had the strength of will, I could probably change and grow, and learn to trust, and learn to give of myself.
The key thing I need to learn and grow into is the almost alien concept that people actually like being around me. The mere thought of this leaves me laughing inside in disbelief, but without faith in this basic tenet, there ain’t no way anything is going to happen.
Pretty much since college, I’ve been in a defensive stance, not letting anyone past my emotional defenses. I made a few friends in med school, but I think a lot of that is simply the comradery of shared trauma. Not that I don’t have good friends from that bleak and barren time in my life, but the rest of my experiences merely reinforced my distrust of humanity. I probably met the worst people I will ever meet with whom I had no choice but to interact with. From here on out, while there are some unpleasant folks whose paths I will cross now and again, I pretty much get to choose who I work with, and I have little patience for assholishness these days. The concept of “my fist to your face” comes to mind whenever I ponder someone’s thoughtlessness and lack of understanding. (I swear I’m not a violent man. Not usually.)
The thing that sucks is that deep down maybe this is all just rooted in an elitist mindset. Fact of the matter is that I have limits with regards to other people’s idiosyncracies, and I think maybe I get annoyed too easily. I would say that the only person I can really stand is myself, but even that’s not true. There are days where I stew in self-loathing. Sometimes even weeks. Or months.
And then there’s this whole transferrence deal. Surely if I find most people annoying if I have to spend too much time with them, then they surely feel the same thing about me. Probably more so, since I’m likely more odious than most people.
Realistically, it’s just a deep-seated fear of rejection. Because chances are, people will find something they dislike in me long before I find something I dislike in them, and I don’t want to be the needy guy tagging along with someone who finds me annoying.
No one likes desperation.
And yet: how do you not act desperate when you are desperate?
What I need is a more bullet-proof ego, but I can’t see how to go about obtaining one without succumbing to self-delusion. I’m just not the kind of guy that everyone likes being around. I’m not the fun guy who’s always going to parties and always having a good time. Not that that’s my ideal in life, but I’m so not that guy that it’s not even funny. I think I probably spend most of my time brooding morosely on how fucked up the universe is and being pessimistic. Not exactly the ideal dinner companion, you know?
I just seems safer to keep my neuroses to myself. But safe never really wins people over. I think that life, and love, is all about how much you’re willing to risk, and without the risk of loss, there is no chance for success.
What I need is a psychiatrist, whom I can spill all these ridiculous fears to, who will tell me that this is normal, or more likely, that this is abnormal precisely in a way that they’ve seen before.
Naturally, all these thoughts spring upon me as I am beset by a rather attractive woman with whom I nearly collide with in the Pop/Rock aisles as I obsessively wade through the stacks and stacks of CDs. She patiently says “excuse me” and suffers me to pass by her despite my invasion of her personal space. I’ve seen her here before, actually, and it seems she’s a regular denizen of these parts, but there’s just no way in hell I’m brave enough to try to start a conversation with her, so I head out to the counter and pay for my stuff, leaving me to ponder my inadequacies.
I also ponder a woman I work with who has apparently recently hooked up with a guy I know, who once commented that I was way too nice. (The figurative gunshot through the head.) And then there is the woman who is engaged to be married with whom I can’t have a normal conversation because I am too enamored with her and I always end up stammering and looking like a total moron, an event that repeated itself once again yesterday as I passed her by in the hallway at work.
Some part of me is forever stuck in high school, or worse yet, junior high, and the rest of me is too cynical to ever nurture that romantic part of me into adulthood.
I think the only reason this bothers me so much is because of my overachieving attitude. I’m the type of person who knows that the easy way is the coward’s way. This is exactly the machismo attitude that shanghaied me into my current career. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love what I’m doing, but sometimes I wonder where I would’ve ended up if I had decided to forego the path not taken, and simply went with the flow instead.
I’m the type of guy who has to always do things the hard way. To quote a character from Neuromancer, “I never did like to do anything simply when I could do it ass-backwards.” This, unfortunately, tends to cause severe and sometimes unspeakable emotional pain, so I’m sort of trapped in this “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” type of universe. I suppose it could always be worse, and clearly I am not suffering as much as I used to (thanks mostly to the wonders of the pharmaceutical industry), but it’s still the same old dilemma. To sit here and suffer, or to take a risk and suffer.
One of these days, I’m going to have to learn a little about hope. Where to begin, I wonder?
Before work today, one of my chief residents was on one of the alternative music stations in town, which was bizarre and very cool. She won an hour to guest DJ and she broadcast her own playlist.
I didn’t really do much today. I did get out of work around 2pm, but then I decided to go to sleep for a few hours, and have basically been screwing around with the iTunes Music Store, randomly surfing tracks. Their collection is wondrously burgeoning. I even stumbled upon some tracks from a Filipino American boy band that some of friends were kind of into back in college. Odd.
There are lots of strange covers of pop songs out there as well. There are several versions of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” for example, and there is quite a lot of covers of the Police (“Message in a Bottle” and “King of Pain” are quite popular)—some of them reggae tributes, which seems to demonstrate a phenomenon peculiar to our post-modern world. Here is a band of Englishmen who appropriated the sound of the Caribbean, only to have it reappropriated back. It’s like taking an English phrase, feeding it to Babelfish to translate it into Japanese, then translating that back into English.
But what really arrested my attention were the playlists arranged by year. I only dared venture back to 1985, and they only have playlists up to 1994 so far. I have this odd habit of marking time by what songs are currently popular, and I was struck by how hearing certain songs would take me back in my memories and reawaken some buried emotions. You know how the sense of smell is supposed to be the strongest when it comes to how vivid it recreates memories? Well, I think my music sense has got to be in second place at least.
I started with 1992, and immediately I was immersed in the din and fire of the L.A. riots. I lived at least 8 miles from the serious rioting, although some vandals did decide to smash in the windows at the nearby Wherehouse, and one of the first places to go up in smoke was near my high school near downtown. That experience pretty much scarred me, probably in a more profound way than September 11th did. In a lot of ways, I think that’s when I started becoming really depressed, at least, that’s when I started having suicidal ideations. I guess I came away from that experience realizing that there is no such thing as security, that no one can keep me safe, that the people who are supposed to keep me safe, namely, the police, can’t be trusted, and that things I had thought should’ve been long extinguished, namely, racism, were alive and well, and there were no plans to fix it. No one wanted to unroof the crusty scabs that we’ve built our society on and drain the abscess that surely harbors the eventual downfall of Western Civilization. Instead, we just put on band-aids, and hope and pray that the problem will go away.
Going forward in time up to 1994 let me briefly re-live my high school years up to my freshman year in college, reminding me of my first romantic relationship and the ignoble way everything crashed and burned, eventually leaving me stumbling into greater and greater disasters. It is strange to think that I’ve known my friends from college for 12 years now, and have somehow managed to keep in touch, although I find myself unable to even answer e-mails these days. I’m thankful that they’ve been patient with me.
But again, I am astounded by the pattern recognition abilities of the human mind. I randomly decided to scan my Junk mailbox because Mail.app has been putting lots of non-spam messages in there, and I came upon an e-mail from an ex-girlfriend written a couple of weeks ago, and I can’t help wonder if I would’ve been primed to notice it if I hadn’t taken my little trip down memory lane on the hackneyed wings of songs.
But a reply will probably have to wait. I’m still digging through e-mails from April.
Now my philosophical and spiritual beliefs have been very murky these past years, ever since I found myself entangled within a crisis of faith. On one extreme, I do often feel that we live in an uncaring universe, on an ill-regarded planet, orbiting an unremarkable sun. We are victims of chance, the end results of a trillion, trillion, trillion dice rolls, random points along the lines that form the trajectory of the quadrillion, quadrillion particles spewed out from the Big Bang.
On the other hand, I can’t help but believe that there is a benign intelligence sitting behind the holographic illusion that we accept as Reality™, and that each of us is born with some purpose. The purpose need not be pure. It can be ignoble, or mundane. It can be tragic or ridiculous. But we all have paths predestined for us, whether by the Laws of Physics, or the Will of God. (And is there really a meaningful difference between the two?)
On a random Friday night such as this, after drinking one or two too many beers while lounging on the seashore amongst some of the smartest people I know (one of them quipped that there should’ve been a lightning storm floating above us given the amount of brain power concentrated in one place), I can’t help but ponder the age-old question: “What is my purpose?” I don’t know why I am gripped with this mania, believing that I am meant to do something great, or at least something of significant magnitude (good or bad, who’s to say?) Maybe it’s just the fact that my parents and my aunts and my uncles have constantly reiterated this mantra, blindly believing that I was destined for something beyond their ken.
It could all be an illusion.
But what is Reality™ but a highly detailed illusion perpetrated against your sensory organs? How do you know you aren’t sitting in a vat of saline, hooked up to a gigantic supercomputer that is feeding you sensory input. How do you know we don’t actually live in the Matrix?
The fact of the matter is that you don’t, and you can’t know, that there’s no feasible way to find out (unless you happen to work your way out of the Matrix with the help of people on the outside), and we may as well accept what we see, hear, and feel as having some semblance to the universe we live in.
I am a knight-errant searching for some kind of quest. The more impossible, the better. (I am nothing more than Don Quixote tilting at windmills.)
The more I think about it, the more certain I am that I am doomed to live the rest of my (hopefully relatively brief) days in solitude, on a hopeless quest to find the Holy Grail.
The sun stands still for the longest day of the year, and I can’t help but pause and reflect. There are less than 90 days before I turn 30, and for the first time in my life, I feel like I need a long-term plan.
A quest, if you will.
I have this portentious feeling that all those times that I’ve said “I’ll do it later” are catching up to me. “Later” has somehow become “now.”
I will trot out a little trite truism: “Now is a gift. That’s why they call it the present.”
This was one of those days that I wish I could bottle up and save for when times get bad. With my iPod as my personal soundtrack, I felt unstoppable. There were moments of such heartbreaking beauty that I felt that I could die.
Ever since talking with C made me realize that I had permission to enjoy life on my own, I’ve felt at peace. It was liberating to realize that, yes, these moments are real, even though no one else is with me to share them. Contrary to the popular opinion that the only things that are real are those that are shared, I at last recognize that these moments are the gold mined from the ore of life. I’ve had so many of these moments, these bittersweet moments of happiness that strike to the core of my being. The sun was shining down into the achingly blue sea, the sky was crisp, sharp, and clear with nary a cloud in sight. It was all very idyllic. My fantasy of paradise.
Tomorrow I go back to the real world, entwined in the delirium of work without end. Despite it being so close to summer, the days are never long enough.
I always forget whether it’s na or ng. I have this propensity for tacking on unnecessary -ng enclitics and eliding necessary ones. My cousins in the Philippines always find my mangled Tagalog highly entertaining.
But meditating on that phrase, I tried to see if I could parse it out. From the Tagalog that I managed to pick up from my parents, I always understood loob to have the literal meaning of “inside, interior.” I have a copy of the popular Tagalog-English Dictionary by Leo English and looked it up. Interestingly, the first definition is defined as “will; volition; state of mind; disposition; heart.” I’ve always thought that this definition was metaphoric. Obviously these are all internal states, emotions. Characteristics of what I would call, for want of a better name, the soul.
So this is my personal deconstruction of utang na loob: a debt of the soul. In this paradigm, one can think of Original Sin and its forgiveness by the crucifixion of Jesus Christ as utang na loob to God. But I digress.
My dad has always looked at the concept of utang na loob as a pernicious one. As I grew older and recognized the debts I have incurred to not only my parents, but my uncle and my aunt, my dad would laugh at me. “They own you now,” he would intone ominously.
You could almost say that my dad lives his life judiciously avoiding incurring this weighty debt.
I subsequently learned to think of this debt as a burden. The metaphors that frequently come to mind originate from Greek mythology. I think of Atlas carrying the world on his shoulders for punishment of his war against Zeus. I think of Sisyphus condemned by Hades to roll his huge boulder to the top of a hill, only to watch it roll down again, damned to repeat this futile cycle over and over again throughout eternity—a very vivid description of the existential hell that Camus envisioned.
I recall how in my mother’s family, the eldest member of each of the two generations before me have always sacrificed themself for the benefit of the younger members. My grand-uncle Blas died in the Bataan Death March, which provided my mom’s family with an indemnity from the U.S. government, allowing them all to go to school. My uncle Telesforo was the first to come to the U.S., joining the Armed Forces, and sending whatever he could back to the Philippines, and subsequently petitioning his younger siblings over to the States. Even today, he continues to send considerable sums of money back, perhaps even to the detriment of creating incentive to strive.
While I am not the eldest member of my generation, either here or in the Philippines, I am the eldest child in my nuclear family, and I felt compelled to follow this almost self-destructive example, which is consanguine with the myth of Sisyphus and the polyvalent concept of utang na loob. If I wanted to be portentious and grandiose about it, I could say that this particular debt extends back to World War II, spanning two generations, and still this debt will never be repaid.
This no longer distresses me as much as it used to. After being educated by Jesuits, I’ve sort’ve internalized the idea of being “A Man for Others.” The Jesuits emphasized a life of active service to the community, and my choice of profession is very predicated on this idea. The oath I’ve sworn binds me to the service of humanity, and in this way I live out my utang na loob.
Is it a curse? A badge of honor? I don’t know. It’s all these things and more, a window into the soul of the Filipino. I wonder if other Southeast Asian cultures have a similar concept, or whether utang na loob is an import of Catholic Spain, wrapped up in the trappings of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ as the price for humanity’s sins.
The closest thing I can think of in English that has the same sort of generational timescale is the weregild—the bloodprice, except that this seems to involve more vigilante-ism rather than self-sacrifice, although in stories, being a vigilante frequently ends up being self-sacrifice.
An example of where the two sort of intersect lies within one of my favorite movies of all time, “The Princess Bride”. I’m sure you all know Iñigo Montoya. (You killed my father. Prepare to die.) His monomanic vengefulness against Count Rugen seems to incorporate both utang na loob and the weregild. It is his utang na loob to his slain father that drives him to exact a weregild from Rugen.
It may seem that the two concepts aren’t very related, but the way I link them up is that they can be thought of assigning a price to a person’s soul, the weregild in a (mathematically) positive sense, utang na loob in a negative sense.
I find it interesting that my mind is unable to remodel the emotional trajectory of my life through at least the last 10-15 years. I remember being someone who was a perfectionist, inordinably hard on myself, always thinking that I was a failure, that I wasn’t good enough, that I wasn’t smart enough, that I’d never succeed. I recognize that a lot of this was in response to a mother who was excruciatingly demanding, who couldn’t stand things being done in any other way than her own, and who would just do things for me instead letting me do things my own way.
The humorous upshot of this is that I have never really learned to take care of myself. Granted, my Y chromosome already sets me up for a disadvantage, but I am generally oblivious to the squalor that I live with. I am awful at picking up after myself. (This is not to say that I’m dirty—I like taking baths and staying clean—but I am fretfully disorganized, and, well, messy.)
But in retrospect, I think this contributed to my attitude of learned helplessness. What’s the point of trying if they won’t let me do it my way?
The other thing that I think of is this crushing sense of, I don’t know, duty. There is this Filipino concept of utang na loob, which doesn’t translate well literally, but which figuratively means a debt that can never be repaid. I know I sound like a whiny brat, but I recognize that I am extraordinarily blessed. I basically had three sets of parents growing up, because my aunt and my uncle on my mom’s side never had kids. And, I suppose, like all Filipino parents have of their kids, they had extremely high expectations for me.
But what I want to get at is how I got to where I am now. The detailed mechanism of my path to, I don’t know, enlightenment, for lack of a better term.
I realize that, by definition, utang na loob can’t ever be called even, but when I finally graduated from med school and matched at my first choice residency, I made peace with myself. I’ve at last achieved this one goal that has chased me down since childhood, this single purpose for which I have lived my life since as far as I can remember. Up until that moment, I felt like my life was completely out of my hands, that other people had made plans for me, and that I was constrained by utang na loob to play them out. I felt trapped by my own warped sense of honor—in the last few years I knew at least intellectually that I could just say fuck you all and take off—I don’t know— into the frozen wilds of Alaska, or the anomie-ridden urban organism known as New York City, or the jungles of Central America. Jump completely off the track, and burn out like a firecracker, going out with a bang. I spent hours fantasizing about this, making insane plans of partying like a rock star until the money ran out and the credit cards were all maxed out, and I’d either go into hiding or off myself.
Instead, I chose the life laid out before me. Luckily, I actually like what I’ve gotten myself into. Otherwise I’d be royally screwed.
But some time two years ago, I made peace with myself somehow. I can’t find it in my past blog entries, how exactly I came to that feeling of serenity, how I came to the conclusion that I’m done, as far as those plans were concerned. That from here on out, I’m living out my own dreams and schemes, and if they don’t like it, they’ll have to deal with it.
The whole sense of learned helplessness, though, I really haven’t figured out yet. I mean, I’ve figured out exactly how it exerts its destructive force on my life, from my simple vice of procrastination, to how I refuse to take control of a situation and how I always let someone else handle it, to how I can sit for hours and days and weeks and months and years utterly miserable for no good reason and just dwell in it, swim in my own psychiatric filth, wallow in major depression.
If I could choose the one thing about me that I could get rid of, it would be my propensity for depression. It’s kind of ridiculous how many cumulative years of my life I’ve spent living underneath this black, ominous cloud, how much time I’ve spent in onerous turmoil, how much time I’ve wasted just feeling awful, with no way of getting out of it. It is probably a blessing that I did decide to go into medicine, because I doubt I would’ve even recognized this insiduous force in my life if I hadn’t been forced to study it. It may sound bizarre to all you lucky ones who have never experienced it, and it may sound quite trite to anyone who has dealt with depression, but I found it wonderfully liberating to realize that I have a diagnosis. That there is a disease process occurring, and it’s not just all my fault, and that I can be helped, at least to a degree.
I suppose I have a long way to go, though. It’s been two years in this place and I haven’t yet found myself a psychiatrist (which is characteristic, since I am the king of all procrastination.) While I haven’t felt suicidal in a long time, I realize that it’s probably pretty dangerous not to have a professional in my corner. I’m not going to win this fight on my own, not with an enemy like this, not when I’m my own worst enemy.
But I would like to learn how I disabused myself of my perfectionist tendencies. I used to be one of those nerdy kids who everyone would hate because I would strive to screw up the curve. I had the potential of becoming what they call a gunner in medical school. Sure, it’s easy to explain because I kind of crashed and burned during the end of my undergrad years, and then didn’t get into med school three years in a row, but if anything, all that did was reinforce my sense of inadequacy, fed the fuel of my perfectionism. This actually translated itself into a lot of displaced anger. For at least the last three years of medical school, if I wasn’t depressed, I was full of rage and anger. I’ve never hated so many people with such depth and detail before, I’ve never wanted to kick the crap out of so many people in my life, and I’ve never come so close to actually doing it, until those last few years. And I especially hate that time for turning me into that kind of person: hateful and filled with displaced rage.
Now part of the improvement is that I rarely work with such odious people as I was used to in medical school. Most people I meet are happy, friendly, and conscientious. They try to do the right thing, for the most part. Now I’m not saying I’m surrounded by saints and angels, but the sense of rancor just isn’t there. I don’t know if it’s simply the fact that I’m older, and I just don’t care any more.
And it’s not the recklessness of rage that I’m feeling anymore. I think I’ve come to grips with some Taoist principles, or maybe at least that Alcoholics Anonymous prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.
I guess a lot it, though, was this past year, for which, despite how horrific parts of it were, I am grateful for. For once, I have survived something that has been kind of harrowing and have not felt drained of life. It all started with my dad having a heart attack, a plaque rupture right into the left anterior descending coronary artery, the one they nickname the widowmaker. He went into congestive heart failure, and I remember the sense of panic and raw fear that corroded my soul. I can’t even remember how awful I felt, those days are just these bled-out memories. I remember the sequence of events, but I can’t remember exactly how I felt, I can’t re-create that emotion. And thankfully, he did well, and continues to do well, but it was kind of mind-shattering, that someone I’ve almost never seen sick before, that someone who has spent a greater portion of his life taking care of sick people, was sitting in the ICU with his O2 sats dropping despite increasing oxygen, and with his chest pain worsening despite maximal medical therapy. I remember that awful moment, when I was at my dad’s bedside with my brother, and I saw this defocused look come over my dad’s face, this bleary-eyed look where he couldn’t really see us, where he wasn’t really awake, and even though I had only finished my intern year at the time, I knew that look. It was the kind of look that makes clinicians go “oh shit,” the kind of look that makes some people go look for the defibrillator and some pads, or at other times, makes you look for family members so you can clarify resuscitation orders, and I remember how much it hurt to have to hold that feeling stoppered inside myself, not wanting to tell anyone exactly how I felt. I had to just kind of stand there pretending not to be worried so I wouldn’t freak out my brother, and while my mom has been in nursing for longer than I’ve been alive and probably knows that look too well, I didn’t want to tell her either.
That was just the prelude.
There is one memory that, even now, when I think about it, it makes me teary eyed. There was an 18 month old kid in hematology/oncology who had some weird tumor taking up almost all the space in his chest, so that he was constantly short of breath, and he was too unstable to try another round of palliative chemotherapy, and in any case, his parents didn’t want him to suffer any more. So it was up to me to make him comfort care and start the morphine and Ativan drip. And I remember working through the night, without a blink of sleep, not feeling a goddamn thing, until the morning broke and I got out of that ward, and the tears just started leaking out of my eyes and I didn’t have any strength to stop them. I cried all the way home until I fell asleep in exhaustion. Even as I write this, I think of that kid, and my eyes blur a little bit.
I know for a fact that there wasn’t one goddamn thing I could’ve done to keep that kid from dying, that he was as good as dead when I met him, but it still hurts even now, for complex reasons that I don’t even want to think about right now.
Then it kind of got worse. Because even when it’s the 20th time you watch someone die, even when you think you’re emotionally detached, when you’ve come to grips with the idea that all you need to think about are the numbers, and code status, even when you resolve to yourself that you don’t really give a flying fuck, even when you accept the fact that you have no idea what you’re doing and they’re all going to die anyway, when you’ve balled up your ego into a tiny wad to hide in the corner of your fraying soul, trying to protect yourself from that sick, squishy feeling clutching at your entrails when family members are weeping all around you, looking at you for some smidgen of hope, and you know that you are completely empty-handed and even when you refuse to apologize for it, even when you learn to shrug at how inadequate you are, even then, Death knows exactly where to hurt you. I came to a point where the scope of repeated tragedy was so beyond my petty personal concerns, that I didn’t even have time to worry about how stupid and inadequate I was. Even when I’d get yelled at for doing something wrong, it just failed to register. Death ran circles around me. All the little fiddling I did with people’s medication, all the small heroics I tried my hand at, did nothing in the long run (except for one perhaps miraculous case for which I did nothing but make a few phone calls and gape like a moonstruck imbecile.) I like to think that maybe, just maybe, in the short run, that what I did mattered, that maybe at least a few people will remember some of the trivial kindnesses that I could muster, bedraggled and sleep-deprived as I was. All I could do was try and give some minute comfort. I’m not certain that I even succeeded at that, but all I can say is that I tried.
In the face of all that, my stupid little insecurities and shortcomings don’t mean diddly-squat. I am what I am, and I try to muddle through each day and try to learn something about what it means to be a physician, and perhaps even to learn something about what it means to be a human being, but all my petty concerns are pretty much buzzing annoyances that bite my brain once in a while before I swat them away.
All I can do is tend my own garden, my own little patch of the universe. All I can really say (at least when it comes to my work) is that I tried and am still trying. (Because clearly in my life, there are still some things that I am way too chickenshit to take a chance on.)
I am trying to learn to embrace the universe with open arms, and trying to learn to stay in the sunlight whenever I can. Everything else that comes my way is, I suppose, just icing on the cake.
(Update 6/12/2006: I corrected utang ng loob* to utang na loob. Thanks, Issa!)
I’m too lazy to look it up, but I can’t help but feel that there is some cognate root shared by these two words.
I believe that we are the only animals on Earth who can think of things that aren’t real, and even better, strive to make these thoughts actually real nonetheless. We shape the world into how we want it to be, for better or for worse.
The only difference between this and magic is that with actual magic, you don’t have to sweat the details. But what if that’s what wizardry really is? What if it’s simply knowing all the details? Like Arthur C Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Like Schmendrick the Magician from The Last Unicorn said, “That is most of it, being a wizard—seeing and listening. The rest is technique.”
So I meditate once again on the value of the genre of fantasy. Thanks to writers like China Miéville, I think I can see how the genre can become an agent of social change, fantasizing about much more than simple escapism. It can be, in a way, a complete deconstruction of the actual world we live in. In a fantasy world, except for maybe the conventions of the genre itself (which also probably need deconstructing), there is very little than you can take for granted. Nothing can really be assumed. Everything eventually needs to be made explicit. This discarding of assumptions is the very act of deconstruction, and it is necessary to write good fantasy.
Sure, Tolkien railed against allegory, and perhaps it becomes too facile to simply make 1:1 relationships between your fantasy world and the real world, but I think there can be value in metaphor. By definition, because this is fantasy (and not science-fiction), certain elements of your story are never expected to be plausible, no matter how advanced technology ever gets. Complex fantasy can never be completely transliterated into the real world. But in a world where you can’t assume anything (meaning, you can’t assume that your reader will intuit what you are thinking), characterization becomes even more important. I think this is where fantasy can shine the most: the characters frequently get faced with extraordinary tasks, but good fantasy will let the characters actually take on these tasks, and either succeed, or maybe fail. Deus ex machina is simple laziness. It is characterization that will really pin down your world and make all the various rules of magic, all the fantastic cities, mountains, seas, and continents worth investing in.
Given that, in many ways, fantasy demands deconstructing our assumptions of the real world, it becomes easy to translate various real world problems into similar situations that characters can interact in. Again, it doesn’t have to be a 1:1 correlation, but you’re likely to get the point.
Anyway, my mind is flickering in and out, so I’ll stop here for now.
But I had another of those heartbreaking dreams where you wish it were true, but then you wake up and then realize quite sadly that you were just dreaming. Those kind of dreams actually used to fill me up with hope, until I realized that they were just dreams, and they never came true.
And then there were the disturbing dreams. I realize I have severe phobia of cockroaches. When I was 6 years old, I was all by myself in a hospital conference room, when a huge cockroach skittered across the room, freaking me out to the point where I was screaming and screaming and screaming, it wasn’t until I had tired myself out from screaming that someone came to rescue me. Looking back, I sort of wonder what kind of effect that experience had on my psyche.
The one time I can recall this phobia seriously affecting me was one of my trips to the Philippines. Of course they have those enormous cockroaches the size of mice, and they can fly sometimes, and I remember having to meditate in order to be able to go to sleep with those things on the walls of the room I was staying in. Of course, I ended up having nightmares about gigantic cockroaches the size of elephants (reminding me tangentially about the spice worms from Dune) and I think I ended up screaming in my sleep, which was unfortunate because I was sharing the room with two other people who were quite disturbed. Naturally, they thought it would be quite hilarious to put a dead cockroach in my bed the next night.
I still overreact to the sight of them, which I find ironic considering the sorts of atrocious things I’ve seen in my brief life thus far. I have had literally pints of blood spilled on me. I have seen grotesque cancers eating away at people’s faces. I’ve been barfed on, shat on, pissed on. I’ve gotten pus all over my clothes. I’ve seen dismembered body parts all over the place. And, really, I wasn’t really bothered by the little house lizards that crawl all over the walls in the Philippines. (Although I am disturbed by their dismembered, yet moving, tails.) But cockroaches will make me scream like a little girl.
Still it’s not as bad as an ex-girlfriend’s extreme phobia of birds, which makes her actually avoid certain places. I can handle cockroaches if I concentrate. But I have to concentrate.
So naturally, I also dreamt of cockroaches last night. Lots of them. Hundreds and thousands of them, crawling all over me. I may have screamed in my sleep, but these days I life by myself (albeit in an apartment complex) I remember realizing that I was dreaming, and I was able to wake myself up.
Maybe this was just a manifestation of my resolution to be more in control of my life. Faced with one of my (although quite uncomplicated) fears, I broke the spell. If real life were only that easy. If only the fears that kept me from getting what I want from life were as simple to conquer as cockroaches.
Don’t worry. I won’t get all Bruce Wayne-ish and start dressing in a cockroach costume. I’m not that crazy. At least not yet.
I have developed the habit of coming home from work and making a beeline to my bed. I seem to be running out of gas much too early these days.
The flipside is that I end up waking up around 9pm, unable to go back to sleep. Usually I sit in front of the computer making my rounds around the blog ring, but I really only frequent Boing Boing, digg, Slashdot, and the front page of del.icio.us (which I actually find less useful than their previous format, but what are you going to do? Oishii is a good alternative view of del.icio.us) and on the occasion that they have a new post, I find Damn Interesting, well, damn interesting. And if I’m not feeling too depressed and don’t mind getting assaulted by the farcical but deadly antics of the Bush administration, I tune in to Atrios from time to time, although despite the marked presence of the blogospheric Left, I’m starting to feel that the U.S.-as-we-knew-it is gone forever.
But today I decided to take a different tack. It all started with a trip down to the Coffee Bean for some sweets that essentially served as my dinner. (The last time I cooked myself a meal that involved more than pushing buttons on the console and pressing START was a long time ago.) I should know better than to pump myself full of sugar.
In a brief rush of mania, I felt the urgent need to go see the ocean. If you don’t count the brief view of the Pacific off of the I-5 just south of San Clemente, I really haven’t seen the ocean for two weeks (which seems a forever ago.) I found myself in OB, idling on the end of Newport Ave listening to the waves crash. But the sugar rush eventually wore off. I felt myself feeling lost and apprehensive for unfathomable reasons.
Driving aimlessly through the streets of Point Loma, I found myself wondering if this was going to go on interminably. (It didn’t help that I found myself passing 7-11 after 7-11, as if I were caught on some endlessly repeating street.) Meaning, would I, 20 years from now, find myself doing the same thing in the middle of the night, aimlessly driving by myself through random neighborhoods looking for God only knows what?
I suppose that that’s what I’m dreading. Times like this, I find myself only able to contemplate the two extremes: chaotic, catastrophic, uncontrolled, devastating change, or deadening, mind-numbing, soul-killing sameness. For some reason, I can’t imagine what it would be like to be somewhere in between: a controlled, planned change in my way of life, taking things one step at a time, considering and revelling in every moment.
I guess it’s because I’ve gotten too used to everything being completely out of my hands. Learned helplessness. I blame my mother for being too overprotective. Oh well.
So the possibility that my destiny lies almost entirely within my own hands is in many ways completely terrifying, and it pains me to think that some people would die to have this type of freedom. It’s not that I don’t want it, it’s just that I don’t know what to do with it.
The instinctual thing to do that I learned from my father is to run away.
It’s easy to blame things on your parents.
Clearly, I am simply avoiding responsibility.
But getting back on the freeway, I thought to myself, what do I need right now? Water. And a chance. No, even better, water, and hope.
I’ve come to realize that hope and despair are not really opposites of each other—they are quite intimately tied together, merely two different ways of looking at the same thing. If I had a penny for all the times that I hoped and wished for certains things to come true, only to have my hopes dashed to pieces, I would have at least paid off my educational debt by now. So hope is never a promise of happily-ever-after.
Hope is about running on fumes. When you’ve got nothing left, when you’ve given your all, and you ain’t got no mo’, all you’ve got left is hope. Without it, you might as well give up, sit still right where you are and rot. Without hope, there is no point.
Hopelessness, which generally degenerates into apathy and abject depression, is nowhere near the equivalent of despair (despite the fact that etymologically, despair pretty much translates into no-hope, although not exactly.) Hopelessness is the state you find yourself in when you have learned helplessness, when you’ve accepted the idea that whatever you do won’t make a difference, so you may as well not try. Despair is pretty much hope when the needle on your gas-tank is way past empty, the fuel indicator has been lit for the past 60 miles, and there are no gas stations for the next 100 miles. Despair is when it seems like there’s no way in hell that your hope will possibly come true, and yet you can’t let go of that hope because it’s all you’ve got. Charles Bukowski said it best when he said that “if you don’t have much soul left and you know it, you still got soul.” Despair can be excruciatingly painful. Learned helplessness and depression is about not being able to feel any damn thing at all.
I guess that’s what can be hard about lifting yourself out of depression. The way out is the same way as the way in, so you have no choice but to pass through that stage of despair again. So you can either choose to be hopeless and numb, or hopeful and suffering. I think it takes quite a while before you succeed in filling up that gas tank of hope, and sometimes it’s just easier to stop hurting.
But, as Sting and the Police sing, “Only hope can keep me together. Love can mend your life, but love can break your heart.”
So I thought about simple hopes. Like, for example, the hope of quenching your thirst. It has been literally 18 hours since I drank a drop of water, and I am damn thirsty. So I thought about how great it would be to get a drop of water onto my dry lips, letting it moisten my tongue and my parched throat. That’s my other metaphor for what hope is. If I could bottle that shit up, I’d make billions.
So after about half-an-hour spent driving around randomly wasting oh-so-precious gas, I went to the supermarket. Being the non-tap water drinking snob that I am, I went to Ralphs to buy some water. There is nothing in the world, especially for someone like me, like actually getting what I want. Such a simple thing. And all I had to do was get it. And what really is the difference between a simple thing and a complex thing, other than how long it might take me to get where I want to go?
What I’ve got to instinctually understand (and it’s not enough to intellectually know this) is that I can make a difference. That I have agency in this world, and that I can get what I want if I use what knowledge and experience I do have to make rational plans for getting what I want. And by relying on my courage and perserverance to stick to that plan. It’s no magic formula. And it’s not just about suffering (although there may be quite a bit of that nonetheless.) It’s not just about having a road map and knowing where all the places are. You’ve got to actually plan your route, visualize your destination, and then go.
It’s always the beginning that’s the hardest. It’s like getting out of the sinkhole that is depression. The greatest suffering is in the beginning. But then it gets easier.
It’s too easy to get discouraged, to get turned aside by things interpreted wrongly, to have doubts, to second-guess, to just stick with what you know for sure, even if all you know for sure is how to be numb and empty and helpless.
I’ve spent a huge part of my life in this particular metaphysical place, and I know it’s time to move on. And not by random acts of (mostly mental) violence which frequently have calamitous results and which land me in places I never intended to go. For perhaps the first time in my life, I’m going to try to take complete responsibility for everything I do, without flagellating myself for all my perceived and real personal flaws, and without blaming Chance for my missteps. (I am suddenly reminded of a quote from Thomas Edison: “I haven’t failed. I’ve found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” But then there is the sarcastic wisdom of Homer J Simpson: “Trying is the first step to failure.”)
So, in a twisted interpretation of Nietschze himself, I have to learn not fear failure. Because failure is either fatal, or it isn’t. Either way, there’s no point in worrying about it.
As Cicero once said, ”Dum spiro, spero” or as my ancestors may have said it, ”Hanggat ako’y humihinga, may pagasa pa.” As long as I can still breathe, I can still hope.
OK, I didn’t mean to make my last post sound ominous. Maybe it’s because tomorrow is June 6. (You know, 6/6/06. I don’t think the Devil really gives a damn about the vagaries of the Julian and Gregorian calendars, so it probably doesn’t have any significance to him, although it may very well have significance to some Satanist or nihilistic terrorists a la Columbine.)
But, yeah, I’m obsessing on that imagery of the Unhealing Wound, and I realize that I haven’t been taking good care of myself. The way I’m living my life (specifically, the way I’m eating and not exercising and not getting enough sleep, and all that) gives me another good 15-20 years tops, which, in all honesty, seems like plenty, but I suppose I should make sure those years are good ones, and that none of them involve cardiac catherization or cracking my chest open to sew in some bypass grafts.
I wonder about the chicken-and-the-egg problem: does your emotional state determine your state of physical health, or does your physical health determine your emotional state, and clearly the two things are intertwined, and while it looks like this is an insurmountable task, to eat healthy, and to get in shape, you know what K’ung-fu-tzu said, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step and all that.
The other thing that I was pondering during my trek down the I-5 this evening are noctilucent clouds, basically clouds that form way high in the atmosphere that glow in the dark becauses they’re so high they’re actually still getting sunlight. Some tie this phenomenon to global warming (which is on my mind because of “An Inconvenient Truth”) but I think the jury is still out.
Still, I don’t think I can tell the difference between a noctilucent cloud, and clouds that glow because they’re reflecting the ambient light from the surrounding city. I’ve frequently been bedazzled by this effect as a child during the summer, when it’s like 11pm and the sky still looks like twilight. At least that’s what I’m pretty sure the phenomenon is caused by. I could be wrong.
Have I ever told you that I’m not looking forward to my 30th birthday?
I wonder if maybe the main reason why guys don’t listen to their sixth sense is the fact that most of the time it tells us completely freaky stuff over which we have no control over.
You know how I’ve been pondering this feeling of potentiality? I seem to lost my grip on it. Maybe it’s just that it’s gone, but I kind of feel like it’s still there, just out of my grasp.
Maybe foreboding? I don’t know. I just watched “An Inconvenient Truth” at the Arclight yesterday and I’m pretty much resigned to the fact that we’re all screwed. Although I am tantalized by the idea of Al Gore running for President in 2008, something I know he has publicly disavowed.
Yeah, there’s this sense that all this potentiality is on the move. Great things are afoot, way over my head, out of my hands. I am a single dry leaf caught up in the raging windstorm of time.
I did have the weirdest vision yesterday, though, in that twilight time when you’re not really asleep, but you’re definitely not awake either. I dreamt about the Unhealing Wound in the Land, a deep ragged scar in the icefields of Antarctica, opening up into the empty Void. The Messiah dives into this scar, sealing up the Wound, and leaving an unending trail of ice behind him, layer upon layer upon layer. In the distance of the Void lies the Singularity, a huge Black Hole that is the source of the Universe’s sorrow. The Messiah gets sucked into the Black Hole, spaghettified by tidal forces, broken up into elementary particles. This occurs exactly at the Event Horizon, and so appears to be frozen in time for all observers outside the Black Hole. The spreading wall of ice follows him down as well, obliterating the Void, but getting sucked into the Black Hole as well, likewise freezing in time at the Event Horizon.
So this is the state of the Universe, the obliterated Messiah transfigured in eternity at the Event Horizon, with the wall of ice holding the Void in check.
I had a few more weird dreams early this morning as well. I think maybe that’s what setup my mood of disquiet. Ah well.
I was inspired by this meditation on racism, which describes the well known evils of over-generalization.
And I got to thinking how people-of-color’s outrage at white privilege will be a never-healing wound.
For one thing, there are way too many white people out there who don’t even acknowledge the fact that there’s a problem. Yes, Virginia, there is racism out there. Sure, we’re not getting strung up on ropes or kept out of diners, but it’s there all the same. When otherwise educated people can still stupidly characterize an entire ethnic group as lazy or stupid, you’ve got to realize that we’re nowhere near a solution.
Now, the trickier part are the white people suffering from so-called white guilt. They are, on one hand, people who are enlightened enough to acknowledge that there is a problem. But they are also (OK, OK, I recognize the irony and yes, hypocrisy, of over-generalizing here, but language just ain’t efficient enough to mince words) prone to taking offense too easily when they are accused of “just not getting it.” Yes, I know you’re on my side, but, frankly, I’m not going to be the one to allay your guilt. What’s done is done, and I’m glad you own up to it, and I’m glad you have the strength of character to admit it, but forgiveness is not forgetting, and you know what, you’ve got to come to grips with things on your own. I’m not going to the salve that eases your soul.
It is, on a sociological level, a lot like a relationship between two people. I mean, who hasn’t been in a relationship where you were used or betrayed by the other party? It’s the same thing, you go on with life, you let it go. You don’t necessarily forget it, though. That betrayal, that abuse, is now part and parcel of your life, and even if the betrayer and abuser sincerely mends their ways, you can’t just go ahead an disavow that part of your history just to make that person feel better. What’s done is done. Deal with the consequences.
That said, is it possible that racism and all the bad feelings associated with it ever disappear? Probably not until we’re done with dividing people up into races. That’s probably at least one good thing about globalism—the gene pool widens considerably, and maybe in a few generations, we will all literally be one color, and this kind of bullshit won’t matter anymore. Oh, don’t worry, there’s lots of other kinds of discriminatory bullshit to wade through anyway.
Yes, I agree, it’s a little too facile to connect the stance of eminent intentionality with fascism, but I look at eminent intentionality as the antithesis of deconstruction, the bread and butter of post-modernist and post-colonial literary criticism.
And the fact is that deconstruction democratizes text. By giving parity to the receiver, it allows for a negotiation of the text’s meaning.
One of the common responses to the idea of the multiplicity of meanings is derision. Some hardliners will ask the question, “How can text have more than one meaning?” Others will take the pragmatic standpoint and ask “What’s the point of discussing something if everyone has a different interpretation—if the there are as many readings of the text as there are readings?”
Let me explain with a parallel process that occurs in modern science.
We live in a world where the standard theory of quantum mechanics is accepted as fact (as much as anything can be accepted as fact in this day and age) One of the possible interpretations of this model is that there are many actual realities, the extreme form of which is known as the Theory of Many Worlds. (The antithesis of this, which kind of parallels eminent intentionality, is the idea of a single underlying reality, incidentally espoused by such noteworthies as Einstein, who, turns, appears to be wrong about certain, tangentially-related aspects in this regard) Now, only one of these worlds is experienced by any particular observer. This also can lead to the apparent chaos of having as many versions of reality as there are observers. But the fact of the matter is, because quantum mechanics specifies probabilities that a certain event will be observed, there will be a certain subset of realities that are extremely similar among a similar group of observers.
In other words, while it is possible that no one’s interpretation of reality, or of the text, will agree with another 100%, chances are you gather together enough interpretations and you will come up with some kind of common ground.
From this common ground you can have some kind of fruitful discussion.
In theory, this is how democracy works. The politics hacks and extremist elements of society will have you believe that “it’s my way or the highway,” but I think that if you are pragmatic and don’t grasp onto unprovable dogmatic dictums, most people can come to a certain understanding of reality.
These same extremist elements will find such “compromise” unacceptable, but it’s not really compromise. It’s accepting the version of reality that most sane people also accept. The problem is that our culture’s idea of discussion and debate focus so much on polarization that the assumptions that underlie the common ground (and there is always common ground, otherwise it would be completely impossible to talk at all) are never made explicit.
That’s what I think is the beauty of deconstruction: you have to make what is assumed explicit. With eminent intentionality, there is no real way to do this. You are forced to accept the author’s intent as the final word, when frequently, the author is sometimes unaware of their hidden influences and biases. (As an example, people of color frequently discuss the unconscious assumptions that white people have as the evidence of ongoing racism. Sure, it’s not the same as getting a hose turned on you, or getting lynched, or being sold as chattel, but it’s still there, and ignoring it won’t make it go away.)
From this standpoint, you can see why it’s possible to make the conceptual leap that eminent intentionality is compatible with fascism. If you are forced to accept text, meaning, messages, from on high without being able to gainsay, interpret, or reframe them, if you are constantly being told what to do and not to ask questions, is this not totalitarianism? I mean, I agree, it’s not a one-to-one correspondence between critical theory and the practice of politics, but you’ve got to be able to see the connection there. Is not the whole democratic process dependent on deconstruction? When you see a television campaign ad, aren’t you forced to try to figure out what the guy is saying, where he’s coming from, what’s he really mean? When a Republican like Brian Bilbray is buoyed by negative attack ads against his Democratic opponent Francine Busby, and Bilbray states deadpan that he has nothing to do with these ads, they are funded by a separate organization, he does not condone them, and yet he does nothing to stop them from airing, are you going to take the stance of an eminent intentionalist and take him for his word?
I’m sure politicians with dictatorial aspirations would appreciate the eminent intentionalist stance. I think a working democracy needs a little bit more critical thought, though.
What is the most likely explanation is that the only thing I’ve had to eat (at least since 11am) is practically pure unadulterated sugar. Never underestimate the fact that sugar is actually quite a potent psychotropic agent.
So the main reason I woke up today (after crashing out around 2pm, having been at work for a decent 30 hours) was to get a new fan, one of those Vornados, because (1) my apartment doesn’t have AC and (2) these things are pretty compact and I don’t have a lot of room. During these summer months, my apartment gets blisteringly hot, mostly because I have an insane amount of computer equipment always on.
So I get in my car and make my pilgrimage to that blessed land of geekery, and the bane of my financial existence, Fry’s Electronics. Now most Fry’s, especially this Fry’s, tend to depress the hell out of me, partly because I have no disposable income and can’t afford anything, but mostly because there are some sad individuals who hang around these type of places, and I’m not sure if it’s sympathy or antipathy that I feel for them. Maybe because I identify a little too well with the stereotypical geek.
Luckily, they didn’t have any Vornados (at least none that I was willing to pay for, because, frankly, I am not going to pay $79 for an electric fan, no matter how stylishly retro-futuristic it looks) so I didn’t have to throw down any filthy lucre.
Now what happens next is that I notice a hunger pang burning in my epigastric region. There are two options at this point: I can either take an H2 blocker with or without a PPI to get rid of this acidic feeling and go back to sleep, or I can get something to eat. After a ridiculously long internal debate, I decide to actually get something to eat, the next obvious question being, what.
I end up aimlessly wandering to the strip mall containing the Coffee Bean and Borders Books. Who should wander by but my sister’s ex-boyfriend. Trippy. Turns out he is moving in with the sister of his brother’s girlfriend who happens to be a medical student whom I worked with now starting her residency. OK, I know, antecedents, shmantecedents. The law requires me to preserve anonymity, so there.
Anyway, I end up going to Borders and spending $100 on music and books. Not exactly what I intended to buy. What are you going to do.
But what struck me was when I headed up of the bookstore, ready to go home and crawl back into bed (because, lucky me, I get to go to work tomorrow.) In the still, fetid summer air, I got this sense of, I don’t know. Potentiality. Possibility. Maybe a Garden of Forking Paths, if you will (and if Borges will forgive me.) Now, I’ve gotten this feeling before, and it’s never led to any good, frankly. Mostly because I’ve always let that potentiality just sort of leak away. I’m not really that good at snatching up opportunity, at grabbing for things that I want. For better or (more likely) for worse, I’m the kind of guy who figures that whatever I need in my life will be within close reach, and I’ll eventually always end up whereever I need to go. Some call this “lack of ambition.” I like to think of it more as tending the garden.
Who knows how different my life would be if I never read Benjamin Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh.
But I find it fascinating how physics and Taoism frequently have congruent imagery. Taoism uses the metaphor of a river flowing downstream quite frequently to describe the Way itself. The Way is potentiality. And discussions of the Laws of Thermodynamics frequently involve the metaphor of a river. Everyone can intuitively understand that rivers flow from higher to lower elevations, and energy flows exactly like that. The technical physics term potential energy describes this very energy. Not the actual energy of the flow of water, but the possible energy that would be released if that water were allowed to flow.
My interpretation of the Way is that grasping at things that are out of your reach is like trying to go too far against the free energy gradient. Sure, getting what you want in life takes energy, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but I can’t help but think that so much sorrow in the world is caused by using too much energy to get somewhere or obtain something without ever considering the possibility that you might not like it there when you get there or when you get whatever it is what you want. And so we spend all this time dissipating this potentiality skittering hither and thither, trying to find happiness like it were hiding in some actual place, some object or achievemnt, or in another person.
When it’s actually always in reach.
Or so the Taoist sages say. I personally wouldn’t know. I suspect they’re right, but I haven’t quite figured out the Way yet.
Supposedly, what you find by staying still instead of running around like a chicken with its head cut off is that you can actually get reach pretty far. There’s something magical about it that actually mimics bizarre phenomena in the quantum universe. Consider, I don’t know, a photon. Consider an energy well like the Earth. Science fiction writers will frequently refer to it as a gravity well. What they’re referring to is the fact that it takes energy to shirk off the influence of Earth’s gravity, a lot of energy, in fact. But once you’ve reached escape velocity, it actually doesn’t take that much energy to get farther and farther. So popular science writers and science fiction writers will use the three dimensional image of four dimensional space-time where Earth sits at the bottom of a pit with steep sides that eventually start levelling off at the top.
Now quantum objects exist as waves, according to Erwin Schrödinger, and traditionally, a photon sitting at the bottom of Earth’s gravity well would be a waveform extending from one wall of the pit to the other wall of the pit, except that the actual wave equation would show this isn’t true, and that the waveform actually extends throughout the entire universe, it’s just that the actual probability that it will be outside of the gravity well is a whole hell of a lot less than the probability that it will inside the gravity well. Except that photons do escape. Tunnel through, in fact. This is quantum tunneling. (As I understand it. I could certainly have gotten the whole thing all fucked up.)
So metaphysically speaking, I kind of think of a person’s potentiality like that. And particularly their reach. You may think that you’re never going to influence anything outside your tiny little patch of the universe, but once in a while, something gets out there and changes the world.
Now I’m not literally saying that you should stay still and never go anywhere and just kind of rot there in your own spoor, but what I’m saying is that you’ve got to give it a lot of thought why you want to expend that energy getting out of that gravity well. It’s an investment with uncertain returns, and frankly, one piece of the universe is as good as the next when it comes to finding happiness. I’m not saying that personal growth isn’t good (although cynicism sometimes overtakes me and I can’t help quoting Tyler Durden: “Self-improvement is masturbation. Now, self-destruction…”) But personal growth is more related to rooting yourself in one spot and growing tree rings rather than traversing the map superficially, never really leaving a trace. Sure, there’s a place for ephemera, and it’s crucial to have a sense of wonder and curiosity intact, but I have this feeling that it’s extremely different to find lasting happiness by always looking for novelty.
Hmmm. Why does it sound like I’m trying to talk myself into something that I’m afraid of?
Right now all I’m going to do is revel in it. And just let the river find its way to the Sea.
I find Jeff Goldstein’s diatribe elevating intention as the sole arbiter of meaning continue to be highly entertaining. (I posted about this earlier. I am also wondering what in the hell happened to Thersites? Anyone? Anyone?) Now, granted, I never formally studied deconstructionism, nor delved into literary criticism farther than a dilletante would go, but nonetheless, I find deconstructionism extremely useful in understanding not only literature but history as well. There is also something of a kinship between deconstruction and the now non-intuitive leading edge of theoretical physics. What both Derrida and Einstein (and Schroedinger, Heisenberg, Planck et al) have in common is the fact that they have deliberately thrown away many things that we would otherwise consider axiomatic.
This is the main reason why intention cannot be the sole determinant in the meaning of a text. Most sane authors do not make explicit what they would otherwise hold to be axiomatic, and would expect their readers to understand these are axiomatic, but everyone knows that, given enough time, social conventions change, and what is axiom today may quite easily be invalid tomorrow, and yet there is no reason why meaning should be lost. The only way to preserve meaning, however, is to make explicit these so-called axioms and the only way to do this is to examine context.
This is extremely useful in post-colonial theory, because most of the literature examined in the neo-colonial era is fraught with racist and nationalistic assumptions that white writers assume their white readers already know, but which often times will be completely alien to anyone else. We are not just talking about the fraying of meaning under the lens of multiculturalism, however. The fact of the matter is that convention is completely arbitrary, and deconstruction tries to make what is unspoken explicit.
Even worse, most authors aren’t even completely aware of their ingrained biases. (There are white people who will continue to insist that the only form of racism is active, overt racism, when in fact what most people of color decry these days is the institutionalized form of what James Madison would call “the tyranny of the majority.” If one needs a non-racial example, one can examine the ongoing cultural debate among the heterosexual majority over the issue of homosexuality to see something similar.) It is here where deconstruction excels, by bringing what is unspoken and unconscious into the discussion. Does it necessarily displace intention? No, intention always has relevance to the text, but much richness and nuanced meaning is preserved in the interpretation if one also considers the context, or perhaps you might call it the paratext.