Saturday, March 24, 2007

Fog, Part II

It’s embarrassing how long it takes me to get back to things sometimes. I wrote “Fog, Part I” back in January. Part of it is just being slammed with work. But part of it is that often the first part of a piece comes quickly, but I can’t solve the problems in the second half. That’s been a problem here too. Who knows if I’ll ever get back to those Gilligan’s island pieces on Marx? That pisses me off. I had fun with Gilligan’s Island and Marx. I was going to talk about the meta-object field. I’m going to put that off one more time. Writing about my problems sorting and suppressing selected emotion really sets that up well. As always, figuring out the ideal order to attack a list is my central problem… Sigh.


Sorting is a task that relies entirely on short-term memory. Say you have a list of things to do. Perhaps you can remember them without writing them down. I certainly cannot. Well, so what, you ask, lots of people are like that. But, if you are looking at that written list, most people, especially those with a gift for organization, can sort that list of tasks in their mind. They hold the items suspended in their memory and shift them around until they find a satisfactory order. I used to do this all the time and just assign numbers to each item on the list. I can’t do that anymore. I have to physically re-order the list, look at it, and decide how well it meets the sorting criteria. I now try to avoid making lists on paper. Re-writing the list takes forever by hand. I can cut and paste on computer. Still, even then, this is a difficult process. My lists have to be very specially crafted. If there are too many items on the list, I won’t be able to order them. It takes too much time—far more time than I did before. But the process is further impeded.

Suppressing selected emotion

We make all our decisions based on emotion. For those among us who like to view themselves as fundamentally rational (and until this illness I was most assuredly of their number), this assertion can provoke resistance. That resistance is utterly unfounded. If a human being experiences damage to their amygdyla, the part of their brain that provides emotion, they begin to make disastrous decisions, because decisions are made on the basis of emotion. The portions of their brain that dealing with reason can be completely untouched and they will still make disastrous decisions. Reason is not at stake in decision making.

Those of us who are fond of being “rational” use reason as a discipline. We take our problem and how we feel about it and we interrogate that problem and those emotions using reason. That critical process can indeed serve as a foundation for making decisions. That said, what the process actually does is change how we look at a situation and, hence, how we feel about it. That said, I’m sure most of us can recall times in which our rational process tells us we should do something, but our emotions overpower that process and we instead do something that, while it feels good at the moment, we know at some cognitive level is the wrong answer. This is because the process of rational inquiry is not a reflex, a fundamental part of our nature. It is a discipline. Discipline is a pattern of behavior that we internalize. The point of that process of internalization is in a sense to reprogram ourselves to feel some way that we would not naturally. That effort can fail.

The principal technique of discipline is the suppression of selected emotion. We use reason to “rationalize” the process in which we are engaged. We analyze the situation decide which of the emotions we feel are the “correct” ones that should be privileged in making our decision, and then we suppress the others. It is this last process that has been severely impaired.

For example, I cry at movies now. I rarely cried at movies before the year 2000. Now I cry all the time. But what is truly embarrassing is that I cry at sappy movies. It’s not that I don’t think the movies are sappy. On the contrary, I know they are sappy and simultaneously feel revulsion for that sappiness, and distress that I am crying over such an obviously sappy movie! However, emotions tend to be reflexive. This is most evident with shame. Shame is a reflex that is triggered when others confront us with having exceeded our proper bounds. It is a shrinking, a desire to disappear. A frequent male response to an individual implying that a person should feel shame is violent anger. This response, however, is not made in place of shame. Rather, it occurs because the individual feels shame as a reflex, thinks about it and realizes they have been forced to feel something they do not want to, or worse, something that they ought not to feel because they have not actually exceeded their bounds. It is this experience that converts the shame into anger and so often leads to violence. When a film “tugs at my heartstrings” now, I have no defense against this. When I was younger, I cried occasionally, but it took something genuinely moving to override my strong will to suppress emotions that I did not wish to feel. Now, I feel it all, all of the time.

Emotions in the organization of a regular object-field

When making and dealing with organization, this is an enormous liability. Let’s begin with one of the most ludicrous situations that I have dealt with since the onset of illness. Imagine it’s 9 am. I’ve woken up. I’m groggy, owing to the medicine I take that deepens my sleep so that it is actually restful and benefits me (the disease makes me sleep very lightly and without the drug, my fatigue is far, far worse). I’m hungry. The floor is cold and I’m only wearing socks. My hands and feet have always grown cold very quickly, ever since I was a child. I’m hungry. The sink is full of dishes. Everything is filthy (I suffer from chronic fatigue and am a graduate student. Dishes are a very low priority in my life). There is a proper response. That response is (1) go find and put on your slippers, (2) wash a bowl, a spoon, a mug and the dirty parts of the espresso machine, (3) take your morning meds, (4) make a cup of coffee, (5) pour yourself a bowl of cereal and eat a banana so that you have some fuel in you and (6) do the dishes. I can tell you this with very little cognitive work, even now.

Now, if you read “Fog, Part I” you know that I often forget what I am doing while I am doing it. Add morning grogginess and you really have a disorganized twit. Say I look for my slippers and can’t find them. I go back, but the floor is sucking all the heat out of my feet and they’re freezing. So maybe I impulsively forget that I can’t find them and search again. I eventually get the picture that I’m not going to find them while the house is a mess and I’m groggy and hungry. I need to take some of the emotions off the table. But I can’t suppress any of them. So I start washing the necessary dishes to get caffeine into my system to counteract the grogginess and eat to dispel the hunger. But the dishes are revolting, so maybe I can’t stop doing them. So I do half the dishes before my feet have gotten so cold that I can’t stand it and impulsively break away to search for my slippers again. I’ve spent a lot of energy without eating and I don’t have much energy, so maybe I then sit down. I rest a little and maybe cry (like a girl) because I’m frustrated and don’t know what to do. Well, I still desperately need fuel. Did I wish the proper elements in that big (yet still incomplete) washing of dishes so I can actually do this? If I’m lucky, I did. Maybe I didn’t, so I have to put off eating and drinking coffee yet again to wash them. And God help me if I wind up out of milk, coffee or cereal. By that point I may go down to Starbucks for coffee and a scone. That is, if I’m not also out of money.

All of that and I can still teach you the Arab-Israeli conflict, how to interpret motherfucking hard texts by German theorists, or how to speak Arabic. The humiliation can be unreal.

Since I can’t suppress emotions, I have to balance them against other emotions. Say you’re a student who wants a letter of recommendation. I can promise until the cows come home, but I can’t suppress the urge to procrastinate very well, and I’m forgetful as hell. Procrastinate once, I’m likely not to remember that I need to write a student a letter again for a week, especially if I’m busy. I now try to get the student to meet me and write the letter with them. Since they are physically there and spending their time with me, my feeling of obligation to them will then outweigh the desire to procrastinate. It sucks for the student that he or she has to sit there while I write in order to get his or her letter. But what I do is interview them for good fodder for the letter while I write. Then I let them see the letter and also explain my strategy is writing it. They not only get to know what they’re getting, they get to be asked questions that frequently ferret out thing about themselves they wouldn’t have written in their personal statement, but then realize is gold. They also get taught how to write a letter of recommendation. The students love it. But I’m still humiliated by not being able to keep my word. Instead, I have to learn not to give it and say, “No, I can’t write this letter unless you work with me on it. I’ll blow it and you off without meaning to and you’ll be screwed.” Admitting that I am not capable of being responsible humiliates me more than I can say. It sure makes a mockery of being that noble Nietzschean creature with the right to make promises.


As far as everyone who met me here in Seattle is concerned, I’ve always been a space cadet. Dealing with the shame associated with being unable to control the image people have of me with respect to my competence has been deeply humiliating. I was diagnosed in 2000 and I’m only beginning to come to terms with it this year. I choke far less often now, but I still have issues with it. Imagine taking a summer job with a variable schedule, forgetting to come in for a shift (welcome to short-term recall hell) and put off calling your boss for three days to explain because you are so ashamed that you can’t force yourself to face her. You must understand that I was the soul of responsibility before MS. The shame of fucking up is unreal. Moreover, I can’t suppress the shame. And shame makes you retreat from a situation. So I hide like a fucking ostrich with its goddamned head in the sand. People who do this are usually too stupid to realize that they will have to face it eventually. I know that I have to face it, but am powerless to suppress the emotion. It rules me. I am the slave of my fucking emotions. My only hope is to get really zen and okay with everything. Anyone who knows my personality realizes how difficult that is for me. I'm a pretty passionate guy. Detachment is not my strong suit.

Next time, the damned meta-object field. And music. I can’t handle music anymore either.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

I Was So Wrong About Lucas

Chris Davis just dropped me a line (old friends are working their way out of the woodwork, these days) and reminded me of this letter that established my ultimate geek credentials. Sadly, I was totally wrong about Lucas. I like my letter better than his new trilogy. But it belongs with that old Brett Favre post as an identity-confirming document.

September 2, 1999

Dear Charles,

Thank you so much for your letter! It was so nice to get one so soon after arrival. The trip to Ohio was largely uneventful and Cincinnati was far better than I expected. It turns out to be a rather artificial upper-class suburb with good customer service. The soy sauce is on the supermarket aisle marked "Mexican," but on the whole I can make do. As you predicted, there do seem to be a few used bookstores that look promising from the outside. Columbus truly mortified me, but I can make do with Cincinnati. We will see what temp salaries are available in the coming week.

I am drinking a creamy pint of Guinness. I love Guinness.

Okay, Star Wars. Well, I guess that I have to warn you that I am an unabashed Star Wars fan. Charles, on this topic, I am shamelessly partisan. I'm a little younger than you, so for me, Star Wars has been a formative experience. Star Wars was quite literally the first movie I ever saw. So, there will never likely be a Star Wars movie bad enough for me to dislike it. The saga is just too close to my core for it to happen. Not to say that it's impossible for it to get bad enough. Rather, it's just unlikely.

That aside, it surely wasn't the best of the bunch. But it did have some redeeming value for a die-hard Star Wars fan. To appreciate the better points of the movie, you have to see it in context. Like Star Wars, it's a first movie. But unlike Star Wars, Lucas knew that he would be able to make the sequels to The Phantom Menace. This makes a lot of difference in the comparative quality of the two films. You see, Lucas wrote the whole episode IV-VI storyline in a single sitting, realized that he had too much and then raided all three to make a single condensed story. In my own opinion, that is why there is a Death Star in both Star Wars and in The Return of the Jedi — when he was able to go on, he probably went on with a lot of his original script.

The Phantom Menace was written under very different circumstances. Lucas knew that there would be sequels, so he didn't replicate his original formula for Star Wars, which works well as a stand-alone movie (in my opinion). Rather, he fused a sort of James Clavell writing technique with a lot of glitz. I think you told me once that you had read some Clavell. Well, Clavell, while definitely fitting into the category that I think you once labeled as "throw away" can be a fascinating storyteller. But it takes him time to get warmed up. The first hundred pages are always hideously dry. But once he gets started, he can twist and plot with the best of them. Well, Phantom Menace is written in much the same vein. Lucas spends the time setting up very clever clues that will come in handy in the next two. I personally find the clues fascinating. What he doesn't do is give the first story the ability to stand independently. It will depend on its sequels. He tries to make it a saleable movie by going all Hollywood all over it: great action scenes, special effects and tremendous fight choreography. And it worked, to a certain extent. For those who were not bitter that this movie was going to make millions no matter what simply because it was a Star Wars movie, it was a good summer flick.

But it was a veritable mine of plot clues for the die-hard fan, which is where I had great fun. There's a lot going on beneath the surface of this movie. First, there is the issue of the Clone Wars, which are coming up. Remember Leia's holographic line in Star Wars, "General Kenobi, you served my father in the Clone Wars, now help me..."? Well, one can't help but notice that Queen Amidala is cloned. She doesn't refer to the girl who looks like her as her twin sister, so it seems likely that the woman who looks just like her is a clone.

This brings about some interesting possibilities. First, the ability to manipulate the Force has been made genetic. Now, at first, I balked at this because it tended to undermine the mystical nature of the world. It fits under Schiller's old rubric of disenchanting the world — there is nothing that science cannot explain. I've never been fond of that in life or in fiction. However, the possibilities of cloning, if the Clone Wars are done well (which, I admit is still an "if") are irresistible. Anakin is the galaxy's highest concentration of mitocholians. This means that he has become the ultimate weapon. Imagine churning out armies of Anakins trained in your very own ideology... To Palpatine, our megalomaniacal soon-to-be-Emperor, the possibilities are irresistible. He who controls Anakin (or at least his only good tissue sample) controls the galaxy. Assuming of course, that you can control Anakin. But, this is Palpatine we're dealing with. You know how well he thinks he controls people. In all fairness, later events do seem to bear his assumptions out.

Which brings us to Palpatine's motivations. What exactly is it that he wants? After all, it's rather odd that the Senator from Naboo would want the Trade Federation to swallow his homeworld. That's treachery par excellence, and okay, it's par for the course for the character we know to be the Emperor, but what does he hope to gain from the liquidation of his political power base? What does the Trade Federation have that would tempt him to sell the constituency that keeps him in power? Knowing Palpatine's overweening ambition, we know this isn't a simple Trade Federation bribe to a corrupt official to betray his people for short-term gain. Moreover, the Trade Federation Viceroy and his adjutant tell us that Darth Sidious cut a deal with them, not vice versa. Palpatine has something waiting in the wings.

My writing partner, Briggs, thinks that the Trade Federation has the capacity to exploit Naboo's very hidden technology. Naboo is a small, pretty and peaceful world with few weapons. It's clearly not a mover and shaker in the Republic. But they do have this little technology that they developed on the side that keeps the Queen intact — cloning. Well, Palpatine sees that they lack vision and the one think that rankles him more than anything is a lack of vision, because it's the one attribute on which he prides himself the most. Palpatine will show them the true value of this technology.

But Palpatine is a politician. He doesn't know anything about technology. But, the Trade Federation, already interested in creating mass armies, does. But, the Trade Federation is just a bunch of merchants looking to turn a quick profit and have only created these armies for the purpose of extortion. They, too, lack vision. He will show them too the true nature of their resources. In exchange for the paltry payment of Naboo on a silver platter, the Trade Federation will develop this technology for him. The rumor is that there are already carbon copies of Darth Maul that are on ice for Episode II.

The thing to remember is that while Lucas always casts his movies as if they were about the good guy (in this case Anakin and Obi-Wan) the movie is really about the bad guy. Lucas is better at anti-heroes than at heroes. After all, his own philosophy of heroism is "They were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Naturally they became heroes." Well, realistically, how appealing is that? Yes, it has sales appeal because you, the viewer, can also be a hero under this logic. But the problem with the approach is that it means the heroes will never be truly extraordinary. Villains, on the other hand, are unique individuals — aberrations. But, since the common man is not supposed to identify with the villains, the villains can have talent. That's why Darth Vader and the Emperor have always been more appealing than Luke and, to some extent, even Han Solo. The extent to which Solo is appealing is that he is, in the world of Princess Leia "a scoundrel." This trilogy is cast as the downfall of Anakin, but, frankly, my bet is that it will come off as the triumph of Palpatine.

All this brings us back to Palpatine, the Phantom Menace hatching out phantom menaces (the word "phantom" also meaning "copy" or "clone" as well as "hidden" or "ghostly"). Palpatine's genius is Roman. He is a short-term opportunist driven to imperial expansion by dreams of personal glory. But Gretchen North was very shrewd to point out that the Republic is very German and Palpatine's rise to power much more mirrors Hitler than it does Caesar or Augustus. Note the fact that the leader of the Republic, referred to as "The President" in Lucas' own novelization of Star Wars (which is worth a read in its own right) is now referred to as "The Supreme Chancellor." I don't know enough about the rise of Nazi Germany and the fall of the Weimar Republic yet (but I'm more interested than ever, now, and I was pretty interested before), but Gretchen tells me that it was achieved through legal maneuver. Palpatine will rise the same way. Remember Darth Sidious' dark response to the Trade Federation Viceroy's question, "Is that legal?"'

"I will make it legal," Sidious responds.

But like all megalomaniacs, Palpatine's virtuoso strengths are countered by powerful weaknesses. As Luke points out, he is overconfident. My choir teacher, Mrs. Herbold, once said that you need ego, or you'll never get the guts to get on stage. But once you're on stage, you have suppress your ego utterly, because it will do nothing but interfere with your good judgment.

"Control, control! You must learn control!" chides Yoda.

You see, Master Yoda will be the first to tell you that the future is murky and hard to predict. But not Palpatine. "I have foreseen it," he whispers, sure of his own clairvoyance. But the Emperor is not particularly clairvoyant. He's dead wrong in Return of the Jedi. You see, Palpatine has the nasty habit of filling in the gaps in his vision with what he wants to see. During the period in which he is on the rise, Palpatine has no equal. That seems rather clear in looking at Lucas' ridiculous Senate. Moreover, the Jedi are refined and elegant. Remember Obi-Wan's line about "a more elegant weapon for a more elegant age." This is the height of the Republic and Couruscant is the bright center of the galaxy — the capital of a more elegant age. The Jedi in their gilded council chamber are no match for Palpatine. This is an age that, because of its refinement, is vulnerable to one thing alone: ruthlessness. There is no good man ruthless enough in all the Republic to counter Senator Palpatine. It's not that Palpatine is so gifted. Rather, it's that there is no one in that era who is able to stop him. His ludicrous Death Star plans to control the galaxy and the lack of security to defend these vital weapons show just how overconfident he can be. A shrewder imperial mind (a mind like Augustus') would have put his faith in a strong governing apparatus and disciplined military. It's cheaper, more effective and less risky.

But megalomaniacal villains need plans with flair and Augustus' approach is just too practical. It may work, but Augustus' genius is too understated to have any appeal to a Palpatine. After all, Julius is the one that we really remember, despite his errors. Think back to Gaul: the province revolted, a revolt that Julius had no other option but put down with brute force. He still didn't garrison the province afterward. What kept it from revolting again? Pure dumb luck that Julius had managed to terrify the Gauls into compliance. The province wasn't properly nailed down until the reign of Augustus. The fact often slips by unnoticed, but Caesar was a showboat. He made mistakes. There were sixty assassins involved in the plot to murder him (that's LX, folks). Yet Caesar never suspected. Imperial Rome was always abuzz with assassination rumors. Given the fact that some knowledge of this had to be out there, how on top of things was Caesar really? All success is a combination of luck and talent. Well, Julius had some talent, but he had very healthy doses of luck. The luck made him a demigod instead of a forgotten consul. Who remembers Crassus, Pompey and Sulla?

Megalomaniacs care more about their fame than anything else. They want their brilliance commemorated. I remember my ex-roomie (now seminarian) Mark showing me a Batman comic where the villain, as always, leaves Batman to die in some complex trap. Batman, who frequently gets caught, manages to wiggle out. The villain, who is then captured, bemoans the fact that he simply didn't shoot Batman dead when he had the chance. "Why do I have to have such flair?" the villain wailed. But the only reason that Batman is alive is that all his opponents are megalomaniacs who make mistakes. I'm not a Batman fan so my facts may be wrong, but the one who actually gets him, Bane, is the only one who isn't a megalomaniac. I'm made to understand that he takes the easy kill. Batman is sloppy and is used to taking advantage of gargantuan mistakes. Bane gets Batman because he doesn't make any.

Well, Palpatine has his overweening overconfidence to contend with. Note that he underestimates Amidala at every turn. Darth Sidious dismisses Amidala as a guileless child who can be easily controlled. She disappoints him. Moreover, there is some question in my mind about whether or not Palpatine's machinations were aimed at rising to the Supreme Chancellorship. Briggs and I contend on this point. Briggs thinks he planned it. I think that it was short-sighted opportunism in the finest Roman style. As George Washington Plunkitt would say, "He saw his opportunities and he took 'em." It would be too cruel if, after all, what he really lacked was vision. He just sees the present and not the future.

My guess is that he was plotting to take control of the Republic by force. To do that, he needed to crush the Jedi, not become Grand Chancellor. If one apprentice dies, he has number two waiting on ice. There can be only two, but Palpatine is prepared and won't let setbacks upset his plan. This much, he planned.

Of course, when a Grand Chancellorship is handed to him on a silver platter, he isn't about to refuse because it wasn't in his master plan. He'll just take credit for dumb luck. Amidala is an inadvertent partner in his glory. She was never supposed to leave Naboo. But when she gets away, she does what Palpatine can't really do himself: vote no confidence in Valorum. After all, he can hardly get the sympathy vote if he gutted his predecessor. But when the noble queen does it, with her rousing performance of desperation, he can easily be the beneficiary. People are no longer voting for Palpatine, scheming Senator. They are voting for the Queen and the small world of Naboo. After this, Amidala is never supposed to leave Couruscant. Well she goes back and is then not killed as Palpatine intends. Instead, she frees the planet from the Trade Federation, who, contrary to the master plan, are now screwed. After all, they don't know that Sidious is Palpatine and admitting to being in league with Sith Lords is not a particularly good legal defense. And the Courts take longer than the Senate. If we know Palpatine, they're probably still tied up in litigation years after the Republic has been restored. So much for them. Now for our Irish wars.

Amidala has thrown quite a wrench into things. But Palpatine would do well in Washington, for he knows how to smile and wave. Rather than being fazed by the fact that his plan has been twisted, he settles on the inadvertent but utterly useful prize of the Grand Chancellorship. Okay, the Trade Federation and their technoskills are lost. Well, Palpatine will find someone new. Amidala has quite inadvertently made him Grand Chancellor. No matter she has been a loose cannon undermining his plans. He can use her to his advantage. Or rather, he can't use her to his advantage, because he can't control her. He simply is skilled enough to use the events in her wake to his advantage. This is short-sighted opportunism. Rather than being ticked off at his plan being foiled, he flies to Naboo to kiss babies and be seen with the daring heroes. Palpatine can now be the elder statesman who, is alliance with the brave young queen, will restore sanity to the Republic. Is there a more perfect hiding place from which to plot the downfall of the Jedi? The point that is most concealed by the triumph of his machinations is that he is unable, so far, to control Amidala. But that fact he has hidden even from himself.

There is a second level to this. Ever notice that Palpatine has a penchant for apprenticing guys who can't steal his limelight? Take Darth Maul. He has a tattooed face. Now, I don't think a guy with tattoos and horns can have much of a life outside being a sith lord. While you're at it, try imagining Darth Vader drinking a beer with his buddies after work. Palpatine, on the other hand, has quite an active secret life. The question is which life is the secret one? Who is the real man? Batman or Bruce Wayne? Superman or Clark Kent? Well, who is real? Darth Sidious or the Emperor?

Note that the name Darth Sidious is all but forgotten by the time of the original trilogy. The Emperor is known by the name Palpatine and referred to as "The Emperor." Darth Vader claims that the name "Anakin Skywalker," has no meaning for Darth Vader by The Return of the Jedi. He is Darth Vader, Lord of Sith. Moreover, while he offers to rule the galaxy with Luke as father and son, he seems more interested in the "father and son" part than he is in the "rule the galaxy" part. Vader sees himself as a Sith Lord and his son is a lifeline to the good, one that he has trouble cutting. But he doesn't seem to have much interest in politics.

Palpatine seems to be a political animal. But he seems to have recruited Darth Maul on the basis of getting revenge on the Jedi. How important is this grudge match to Palpatine personally? Granted, the Jedi are all but extinct at the start of the original trilogy. But is it all a means to getting power? Did he start as a Sith Lord and get seduced by politics or become a Sith Lord to advance in politics? I lean toward saying that Darth Sidious is a cover, whereas Palpatine is so arrogant that he must be himself above all. But what does this mean for the struggle of the Sith?

Moreover, according to Yoda, there can be only two Sith, but how seriously does Palpatine take this? He's apparently cloning Darth Maul. Moreover, there is the curious conversation between the Emperor and Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back, where the Emperor wants Luke killed and Vader says if he can be turned, he could be a powerful ally. Well, if there can be only two, that conversation is fraught with danger. If Luke joins the fold, one of them has to be dead (my gut instinct says that Sith Lords don't just celebrate a triumph and retire to the farm). Unless, of course, Palpatine isn't all that committed to the "Sith Lord Code" or whatever it is that makes Yoda think that there can be only two. But, whatever his commitment to the Sith religion and its tenets, Palpatine uses it to control his apprentices. Darth Maul is much more interested in revealing himself to the Jedi and getting revenge than he is in any political machinations. Darth Vader serves his master faithfully, but seems to have little political agenda of his own. There's room for a lot of interesting development in there.

When talking about a different movie, Tricia has told me that what I described to her was a lot more interesting than the movie she saw. I would guess my closeness to the topic in both this and that case might gives me an insight into both movies that less nerdy people might not have. This, in turn, lets me fill in a lot of blanks and make up for the filmmaker's deficiencies. I could be making the movie better than it is. That may well be true. But Star Wars is supposed to be mythology for our times and mythology is supposed to be a basic form from which one draws a multitude of meanings. To that extent, Lucas remains successful.

The other thing I guess I should address is your concern with plot inconsistency in that Obi Wan, Yoda et al. are unable to sense the presence of Palpatine, an evil Jedi, when the other movies are full of Jedi detecting each other's presence. I could try to develop some hole-filling argument like "The Sith have been hiding for a long while and probably know how to disguise themselves, whereas Jedi are more forthright and never do this," or some such rot. But doing so seems superfluous in a number of ways.

First, science fiction is only science fiction. It isn't, after all, the music drama of Richard Wagner. I pretty much think I got my seven bucks worth of stimulation out of the film. The original Star Wars had plot inconsistencies as well, so this is hardly surprising. It is unfortunate that science fiction is so closely tied with realism. Of course, that is the challenge: to create a realistic artificial world. But on the other hand, while much of the form is realistic, the actual endeavor of making Star Wars movies is romantic: telling a great mythological story in an entirely imaginary world.

To a certain extent, I think it is appropriate to judge Star Wars movies by the standards of romanticism, rather than realism. For example, Wagner's Ring remains one of the masterworks of romanticism and has quite a few plot inconsistencies. The thing is that The Ring is still a triumphant work. To sit and pick at plot tangles instead of throwing one's self into the maelstrom of sublime emotional conflict and deep meanings would be, in my opinion, pedantry of the worst sort. You'd be missing the point and, with it, quite an experience. While Star Wars movies are, in sum total, merely works of science fiction and can hardly compare to the music drama of Wagner, I still love science fiction and believe that it need not limit itself to the strictures of realism to be a good and fun story. Lucas created very black and white characters because he believes that film these days strives for too much realism, too much gray in its techniques and morality. Well, damn it, I personally miss the good guys winning and the bad guys losing and fuck realism. Realism has no potential to be grand and larger than life and we all need that now and then. I like a little romanticism. If that means bearing with the occasional plot hole, I'll live with it. That particular plot hole isn't so glaring that it ruins it for me.

I guess while I'll have to confess that this installment isn't nearly as good as the others, I did get a heck of a lot of fun out of it and I really can't wait to see what comes next. The next movies are supposed to get very dark and as I always believed that Empire was the best of the bunch (which makes sense, it's Vader's movie and I've always believed that Lucas does villains better than heroes) so I'm excited about the next two. I'm pretty sure that the James Clavell "first hundred pages" effect will be gone and I think they'll be pretty exciting. But I confess that I grew up on this stuff and am sentimental about it.

Commend me to your wife. While you said you may not get the chance to write again soon, I hope you do, because it was truly stimulating. Take care!

Your pal,


P.S. September 5, 1999. I forgot to mention that I think Jar-Jar Binx should die quickly at the top of the second movie so that it doesn't really do much to disrupt the flow of subsequent events and that we start the growth of a tragedy in a light-hearted and comic note.

Monday, March 19, 2007

St. Patrick's Day

It was the strangest St. Patrick’s Day ever. I spent it with Craig in a hospital in Boise, Idaho, visiting his maternal aunt, Marlene. The poor woman was in a car wreck. She has a fractured neck and is on life support. Lots of images are rushing through my mind.

Being in Love

I watched Craig comfort his aunt and I remembered (as if I ever forgot) why I fell in love with him. His is a gentle and kind soul. I never know what to say in these situations, but he always does. He said sweet simple things, hummed hymns for her and reminded her of beautiful days they had together. She can’t speak. But he knew just what to say. He was an angel. I married an angel. The truth is, I never had a chance—I was in love with by our second phone call, before we’d even physically met. Craig’s soul is beautiful. I will always love him and be in love with him.

My Last St. Patrick’s Day Party

That was St. Patrick’s Day 2001. I had a pub band called We Oughta Been Irish (cause none of us were). The joke ran something like, “So an Arab, a German, a Norwegian and two Jews walk into a bar and order a beer. They asked, ‘Can you play?’ so here we are…” We were the original pub band of perpetual revolution. We never got the t-shirts made, but we had a logo, courtesy of Chris Davis.

Our keyboard man and drummer, Aaron Sarnat, has a dad who’s a doctor and a mom who’s a real-estate tycoon. They have this really awesome mansion in Tacoma that they rent out for affairs as a business. Well, they let us use it for free. Three of my best and closest friends, Kirk Anthony, Briggs Moon and Brian McGrath flew in from Boston, Dallas and Washington, respectively to be at this party. My goddaughter Michelle drove up from Portland. Naturally, Peter Hovde was there (he was the Norwegian in the band) as was Carrie Doan. Katharina Roeckpe, our German fiddler was there, too. Judy, our mandolin player had not yet joined the band. But between all the members of the band and their friends, this was one huge party. The energy was wild, the liquor was copious. There was some weed in there, too, and Aaron got laid that night. Drummers always get laid, right?

I was triumphant that night. I tended a full bar (cream drinks, martinis, margaritas, you name it, I mixed it and served it up with the correct garnish), made fish and chips and sang to bring the house down. I don’t think I realized it, but that was the last time the old Talal was really and truly alive. By September he’d be a queer multiple sclerotic. Yeah, that poor SOB never got laid, but he could drink all you sorry sons of bitches under the table, and that after having mixed everybody drinks and made and fed you the best fish ‘n chips you ever ate (Dave Huntoon had to grudgingly admit that I kicked Ivar’s ass when it comes to making fish ‘n chips). If only the old Talal had been smart enough to figure out he was queer, he’d probably been laid that night too. Sex or none, though, it was one of the best nights of my life.

And the next day, after everyone else left, Brian McGrath and I walked to O’Shea’s after doing shots of 151 at my shithole apartment and got totally smashed again. It was Tuesday night—Irish Heritage night—and who could say no to $2.50 shots of Irish whiskey and $2.50 pints of Irish beer? That was the day I took the best picture of Brain McGrath ever. This is the guy they let into the State Department, the suckers! Marxist radical alcoholic hockey fan. He's now a master of dry understatement, believe it or not.

You know what? I don’t care what anyone says about how obnoxious the old Talal was. He was a good guy. He had three friends who flew in from the ends of the continent to drink with him on St. Patrick’s Day and, good Arab that he was, threw the mother of all parties to celebrate. My people may lose every war (God help us), but goddamnit it, no one throws a better party. The boy knew how to live (poor virgin that he was). Would you believe that we even sang “American Pie” that night, too, after my famous rendition of “Seven Drunken Nights?” It couldn’t have been more perfect.

That, brothers and sisters, was that day that I died.

Dave Huntoon got married

This isn’t a memory—it’s announcement. I just got the e-mail today! May Dave and Heather be as happy as Craig and me. It’s the best I could wish anyone. And don’t you dare die in this war, hear me, Dave? Live for many years and be ludicrously happy. Speaking of great karma—

Dinur and Mai-Anh both got into grad school

While they haven’t heard from all their choices, both Dinur and Mai-Anh will be in graduate school next year. I couldn’t be more proud.

I got a letter from Mark, my college roomie

Mark’s now a priest. We’re getting to know each other again, after his great transformation and mine. It’s a little awkward, but it’s good to hear from him again.

Would you believe that I still have grading to do? Back to the grind... But I hope you had a blessed (and suitibly wet) St. Paddy's Day, wherever you may be!

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Eye of the Storm

I woke up this morning with a deep feeling of gratitude. I slept for twelve hours last night, roughly from 8:30 pm to 8:30 am. I was exhausted. Last week kicked my ass and next week will kick my ass. But this is my little moment at the eye of the storm. I woke up, and although the kitchen is a wreck, I managed to throw together a bowl of cereal and some espresso. Craig is off to a meeting and I have time and space for quiet reflection before I force myself up off the couch and go take a shower. The house is quiet. The older I get, the more I love silence.

I never thought I would cherish simplicity, but I begin to. A few years back, my brother and his then-fiancée came to visit Craig and me. I took them to the Seattle Art Museum so that my sister-in-law could have a smattering of culture to brighten her trip. In one of the rooms of the museum there was a whole Japanese tea house. I do not know how it is that the Japanese learned so much about aesthetics, but I was deeply moved by the teahouse. It was constructed in such a way so that looking at it produced calmness and serenity. The photographs of tea houses I find on the web really don’t have the same effect. The aesthetics of a photograph are rarely the same as the aesthetics of viewing something live, especially when the object is three-dimensional. But I would like to return to that teahouse and discover its secret. The artist clearly possesses techniques that I don’t understand. Those are the techniques I require in my life.

The aesthetics of my life used to be the aesthetics of momentum. As the narrative was about constant, directed, creative change, the present didn’t really count for much. The pleasure of an aesthetic of momentum is watching the present dissolve like wax thrown into boiling fat. My life moves much more slowly now and the present counts for so much more. Indeed, from an aesthetic viewpoint, the present is everything now. There is still change in my life, but the change is slow and incremental. From an emotional perspective, the future seems so far away now. When I could move quickly, I could see the change before my eyes. Now, I can really only discover change, and only when I look backward and think about the past is a precise way. Life changes in small increments. I no longer exist at an emotional frontier where the present dissolves into the future. The present seems to drag on for all eternity, much as it did when I was a child. I see the changes only by use of historical technique. This, then, is the aesthetic of plodding. As a child, I viewed this as a jail sentence, something to be escaped through ingenuity. Apparently, that was the wrong answer. Kobayashi Maru. I clearly missed the point of the exercise.

My therapist Micheal used to tell me that I most focus on being the tortoise, not the hare. He and I derived such different morals from that fable. Micheal derived “slow by steady wins the race.” My response was, “The rabbit lost because he was lazy. Fuck slow but steady. Just keep working.” Well, whatever the correct interpretation of the hare’s behavior, like it or not, I am now the tortoise, not the hare. I must live in the present in a world where the transformative effects of my labor are not readily apparent. I need the aesthetics of the Japanese tea ceremony. Perhaps one of the reasons I have never been able to “capture the moment” in writing is because I have never lived in the moment. I think it is time that I learn how.