Saturday, December 17, 2011

'Tis the Season

I mentioned previously my daydream about winning the lottery and then donating it all to charity, after which the deed, having made national news, would have inspired millions of people to follow suit in giving a little, their combined donations adding up to a lot.  Well, that dream has now partially come true.

No, I didn't win the lottery; I don't even play.  But I read this rather inspiring news story recently, about three money managers who won a $250+ million lottery and are now moving forward with plans on how to distribute the money toward philanthropy.  Speculation is that these three men are actually representing an anonymous client, the true lottery winner, who had the heart to give and needed their brains to figure out how to do so most effectively.  But no matter.  Whatever the case, it's an inspiring story.

It's already old news, however, and it didn't change the world.  Even so, I've decided to follow through in doing my part, letting the story inspire me to make a modest donation this season to Invisible Children.

The San Diego-based organization "uses film, creativity and social action to end the use of child soldiers in Joseph Kony's rebel war and restore LRA-affected communities in Central Africa to peace and prosperity."  They were also a participant in the San Diego Foundation's giveBIG matchday event this past week (sorry, it's over now, folks).  You can go to their website for more info or to make a contribution.

Long Live Play

It occurred to me the other day that my post on the Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance reveal was the first truly gaming-related blogging I'd done in almost a year.  But I'm guessing the majority of the legitimate pageviews I get are still for my old posts on gaming.

Anyway, I saw this PlayStation ad on TV the other day (it's not new, but I also don't watch as much live TV as I used to, so it was new to me):


It's pretty cool, very meticulously detailed.  But it kind of saddens me that I can't ID probably half the franchises represented in the ad.  And of those that I do recognize, I think Metal Gear is the only one I've played.  Oh well.  So it goes . . . .

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Revengeance

Sounds to me like somebody has just dethroned Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days for "worst video game title ever."  Tetsuya Nomura's esoteric titles at least usually make you pause for a split-second before determining that they are complete rubbish.  This, on the other hand, is immediately and aggressively stupid.  It's Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, folks!


I have little doubt that this title came directly from the top, Hideo Kojima himself, the man who brought us "Transfarring."  I sincerely believe that Kojima, with his limited grasp of English, doesn't realize how stupid a title this is.  But this is one of those (many) times when one of the many native English speakers working for him should have the stones to speak up and tell him it's no good.  It's a sad testimony to just how bad it is that I'm actually hoping that "Revengeance" is an intentional reference to the 1969 Supreme Court case involving the Ku Klux Klan.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A poet once said . . . .

Why is the mainstream media only now picking up on the fact that Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain had been quoting the inspirational lyrics of a Pokemon movie theme song throughout the course of his campaign?





Personally, I respect Cain more now than I did a week ago.  That's what I call "owning it."  Of course, that still leaves all that other filthy stuff that he won't own to . . . .

Friday, December 2, 2011

By Grabthar's hammer

Was listening to an interview with Alan Rickman on Tuesday's Talk of the Nation.  It reminded me of my high school government class.  The teacher, Mr. Baldwin, was a personal friend of Alan Rickman.  I don't remember the context, but I don't think Mr. Baldwin meant to brag; somehow it was relevant to the study of government, though that's hardly meaningful now.

Anyway, he was mentioning one day in class how he had had lunch with an actor, whom most of us would probably have recognized.  It was someone who was known especially for playing villains.  Mr. Baldwin seemed to have to think hard to come up with a specific movie.  Finally he remembered that his actor friend had been the bad guy in Die Hard.

I have never seen the first Die Hard, but I knew for a fact that some of my classmates had, yet the title elicited a complete non-reaction, which seemed to somewhat take the wind out of Mr. Baldwin's sails.  He then dropped the name "Alan Rickman," which I did recognize.

Ah, you mean the bad guy from Quigley Down Under, I thought to myself.  The Sheriff of Nottingham!  Rasputin from that HBO Rasputin movie!  Galaxy Quest!  'By Grabthar's hammer'--you know the rest!

I didn't say any of this aloud, of course.  In fact, nobody said anything.  I gathered that we were instead playing the game of "Let's all pretend never to have heard of Alan Rickman, nor anything else Mr. Baldwin references, so as to make him feel very old and out of touch."  And so, Mr. Baldwin, sounding a tad deflated, moved on with his anecdote, whatever the hell it had to do with government class.

The interview itself was not great.  The questions were not the best, but neither was Alan Rickman an especially cooperative guest, and so a lot of time (my time) was wasted on defensive clarifying of trivialities.  Somehow I would have expected the man now best known for playing Severus Snape to be a more fun interviewee.  And yet do I sense some resentment at being typecast as a villain?

Honestly, the most exciting part for me was when they opened it up for callers to contribute their acting experiences, specifically with villain roles.  The first caller was a voice actor identifying herself as "Mary Mac," AKA Mary McDonald-Lewis, voice of Lady Jaye from the 80s G.I. Joe cartoon (and more recently the voice of the OnStar system).  I didn't recognize her name or voice, but somehow I guessed immediately who she was, just because there are only so many female voice actors of that generation (do cartoons these days still have chewy villain roles?) who regularly speak publicly about their careers.  Not that she had anything very insightful to contribute to this interview either.  I just thought it was cool to hear Lady Jaye on the radio.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Where a Kid Can Be a Kid

A coworker was telling the story some time ago of how he used to work at Chuck E. Cheese, the miniature family fun center fronted by a pizza-loving anthropomorphic mouse. It was one of the first jobs he ever worked, and among his responsibilities was having to dress up in the Chuck E. Cheese costume to greet and pose for pictures with patrons. Great fun for the kids, of course, but the job could be brutal on the employees. For the germaphobic, it's disgusting enough having to maintain all the coin-operated arcade games after they have been pawed at with the unwashed hands of children coming directly from eating pizza on the restaurant side of the establishment. But there was apparently nothing more nightmarish than being the guy in the mouse suit and being abused by unruly children. I can well believe it, because, once upon a time, some twenty years ago, I was one of those kids making it a nightmare.

Chuck E.'s was initially kind of a scary place to me. In my memory, it was a dimly lit and uninviting hole, filled with strangers—mostly kids and teens, yes, but also oddly with some gruff-looking biker types there for the video arcade games. The entertainment was pretty awful, too; the animatronic stage show was just creepy. Even today, I still find these singing robot puppets to be disturbingly inhuman simulacrums of life that only leave me yearning for something real.

The “live” Chuck E. was a different matter, however. It wasn't that I cared much for Chuck E. himself, and I understood very well that it was just a man in a costume, but at least that meant he could walk and behave like an actual human, which made him not scary, unlike the animatronic version.

Almost as soon as he appeared and began waving to the guests, he was mobbed by kids who, for some reason unfathomable to me, were overflowing with affection for this character that seemed to me nothing more than a second-rate cartoon mouse. As he was high-fiving and hugging as many kids as he could while making the rounds, my mother urged me to get in there as well and lay hands on him before he disappeared, as though just touching him (or, rather, his gnarly costume) were supposed to produce some magical result. It was hard to grab his attention in that swarm of children, however, so my mother suggested I grab his tail instead. I gripped that tail and pulled with all my seven-year-old might. And in the next split-second, I witnessed something real yet simultaneously unbelievable.

It was one of those moments where time seemed to slow, when my senses seemed to operate a thousand times faster than my reflexes, so that I could glimpse every inevitable microsecond across a seeming eternity, yet I could not move at all to affect it, my own body frozen helplessly along with everything else before me. Chuck E., taken by surprise by being pulled from behind, reflexively stretched out his arms in front of him, as if to balance himself. But it was no use. The pull was irresistible. One foot followed the other backward too quickly. Arms now flailing frantically, he was tripping over himself, stumbling, his behind outstripping his feet, the rest left to gravity, a dull thud as he crashed to the floor.

Poor Chuck E., after struggling to get back to his feet, spun around quickly to see who had been behind him, but I had already retreated back a ways, and there were tons of other laughing children in the same direction. There was no way for him to know who had made such a fool of him.

I know I should have felt sorry for him, but I couldn't. I still can't force myself to feel bad about the memory now. It was as though it were the funniest thing I had ever witnessed, so overcome was I with laughter.

Twenty years later, I finally went back to Chuck E. Cheese. It was not the same location that I went to as a kid. I don't know if that place is even still around, but I know that it was in a part of town that I don't travel anymore. This facility was much brighter and probably cleaner than the one in my childhood. But, either because of that or maybe just because I'm not a child anymore, it was missing some of that mysterious quality that made Chuck E. Cheese both scary and exciting for me as a kid. This just seemed like a pretty sparse restaurant with a very small selection of arcade games. This location as a whole was smaller, I think, than the one in my memory, or at least it seemed that way.

It was actually pretty dreary and depressing. Granted, it was the middle of the week and at night, but there weren't a lot of kids there. It just didn't seem like a very happy or lively place. The pizza was way overpriced and mediocre, and the animatronics show was as creepy as ever, yet now made additionally obnoxious by the weird pop songs that the puppets sang. Most of the amusements were just random games of chance, little different from slot machines, yet they were not only legal but targeted toward children. The selection of coin-operated rides was especially meager. (Yes, I realize there's no way I could enjoy the kiddie rides now, nor did I want to, but it was disappointing all the same to see this part of my childhood disappearing.)

But the most disappointing aspect was Chuck E. himself. Examining the artwork for the character, one of my companions noted how much "cooler"  the modern Chuck E. was, dressed now in his cargo shorts that were quite a departure from the rodent she grew up with. Later that night, the live Chuck E. made his much anticipated arrival, but indeed this was no longer the mouse I remembered. He was decked out in the skater outfit, yes, but, more importantly, he no longer had a tail! Thinking back, both to my coworker's accounts and to the incident from my own childhood, I could understand why maybe they had finally removed the tail from the costume—after all, even a seven-year-old child could have a grown man at his mercy if he got hold of that glaring weak spot—but, even so, there was something lost there, something to be lamented. Alas, you really can't go home again.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Yesterday

“No, Henry, you live every day like yesterday was your last.”

It was meant more as an amused observation than a criticism, yet still it wounded me.

I often replay conversations in my head, always far too late realizing what I should have said, instead of whatever useless vapor actually escaped my lips in the moment. Yet, even almost a year later in this case, I can't come up with any better response than “No, you're wrong!” or “So?!” My actual response—a weak smile and silent nod—probably served as well as anything else I might muster. Perhaps I might have reminded her that she had only known me but fewer than ten scarcely overlapping days in our lives, and the most recent had been more than five years ago, so she was in no position to be drawing conclusions concerning my person. But, truth is, she was right, partly so, and I think I recognized it even at the time, though maybe I couldn't quite comprehend it.

Never Let Me Go

About a year ago, I met up with an old classmate I had not contacted since college, that business having been concluded some five years prior. I could not call this person a close friend, neither back then nor now. We had had only one class together freshman year, which she rarely attended, and during which we barely spoke to one another. But, during the course of the next three years after that, we would sometimes run into each other at the library or the literature department, and, for whatever reason, she would always remember me and strike up a conversation. These conversations were not altogether profound nor altogether regular—I can count on one hand the number of times we spoke—but they were pleasant and they were easy, unusually so for me.

So, as I was saying, I met up with this person for the first time in many years. A lot had happened in that time for her, though perhaps not enough, even less so for me. We did some catching up, had some good talk, mostly about those intervening years when we weren't following each other's lives. She told me where she was with life now; I had much less to report on the topic. She also talked about the future, about where each of us was or should have been headed. My life, if anywhere, was pointed backward, however, as I seemed to be stuck in dwelling on the past, whereas she was living through today and trying hard to glimpse tomorrow.

She seemed far less interested in reminiscing, which was odd to me, because, our lives having grown so far apart—hers having been much fuller than mine—what else had we in common to discuss except those few experiences we had shared in college? My mind was fixated on that before, back when we were not such strangers. A part of me was stuck there in that past, and an especially foolish part of me thought I could take her back there with me.

Midway into the conversation, I tried to subtly reference an inside joke that we had once shared. It was a reference so particular to the context of our acquaintance, so “inside,” as it were, that I can't even repeat it here, because it wouldn't be funny, it wouldn't make any sense, it wouldn't mean anything to anyone else in the world but the two people who were there in that exact moment those several years ago. As it turned out, it didn't mean anything even to the other person who had been there.

She didn't seem to catch it. She didn't respond in any way. Even if she didn't remember it, she should at least have asked what I had meant by such a bizarre rejoinder, since it was again something that should have made no sense to anyone who didn't already know what I was talking about. Not only did she not seem to know what I was talking about, but she didn't seem to care. She did pause for an instant, reflectively I might dare hope, but there had been plenty enough such brief pauses on both sides throughout our conversation that it would not do to read too deeply into this barely perceptible, perhaps wholly imagined one. It came to nothing. Her eyes rather seemed fixed on something far beyond the moment, far beyond me, and there was no verbal recognition, no acknowledgment even that she had heard me, before she moved right along. And, in that instant, I realized that my life had shrunk to virtually nothing.

I couldn't blame her. She had been busy living all this time, and, for all my self-pity, her weary eyes and voice told that the years had been harder on her than they had been on me. Amid all that experience that she had absorbed and accumulated, such a small and insignificant moment as ours could understandably have become lost. It was not, after all, anything especially clever that I had said all those years ago, although she had laughed at the time. It was nothing to be proud of, nothing memorable, although for some reason I did remember it, and I was proud of it. All the same, once upon a time there was this moment—rather, this small piece of irrelevant information—shared between only two people in the entire world. Now the other person no longer remembered, and suddenly I felt like the loneliest person in the world.

What did I have riding on this, on her remembering, I wondered. Why was I so disappointed now by her non-reaction? It was as though I had invested everything in that memory. As though getting that chuckle out of this one girl years ago had been the best thing—the only good thing—I had ever done, would ever do in my life. Now the one witness to that moment could not attest to it. It was as though it had never happened in the first place. And with the loss of that memory along went any meaning to my tiny existence. She was to have been my proof. How else was I supposed to know that my life wasn't all a dream?

And then I wonder, why did I go through that? Why was I made to hang on so long to this small moment, if it never really mattered? What is the point of all these fleeting dreams and forgotten ideas, all these vanishing thoughts and unexpressed emotions? No one will know them. They do not change the world.

And yet they matter to me. Indeed, I realize now that they are me. Waking up in the morning, brushing my teeth, going to work, pumping gas, buying deodorant, melting into the couch exhausted—such has become my day, and perhaps you could say that is my life, but it is not who I am. Who I am is that inside joke, that laugh shared with this girl who was not quite a friend, but who, for the duration of that laugh, was my entire world. Who cares where it led or didn't? That was more than seven years ago, but it is also today, it is tomorrow, it is all the rest of my days for as long as I live. As I live and as I feel, I myself am the proof that it happened and that it matters. No one can take it from me, no more than they could remove dough from bread. So what more could I possibly require?

We parted ways again after our chat, and, a year later, I haven't spoken to her since. Perhaps in another four years, another moment of weakness will strike me, and I will again be driven to try. But I wouldn't count on that; I don't intend to make the same mistake twice. But someday, very far off I hope, perhaps we will run into one another. In another world perhaps. Yes, a better world.

And what will we say then to one another, in this better world? Perhaps I'll say, “I have so many things I want to tell you”? And then you'll say, “I want to hear all about it”? No, that will never do.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Let It Be

"Let It Be" has never been one of my favorite Beatles songs.  I've always found it somewhat cheesy, and I never actively seek to bring it up on my mp3 player.  Sometimes, when I play the Let It Be album, I'll even skip that track.  And yet, whenever it comes up on the random shuffle, I find myself stopping whatever I'm doing in order to raise the volume.  Yes, that's right--of all songs, "Let It Be" is the one that I crank when it comes up.  Maybe the volume level on that file has not been properly normalized to the rest of my collection . . . .

Friday, September 16, 2011

You perverts

Just logged in to Blogger today to find that it has a brand new interface, with spiffy new features!--most notably a stats tracker to tell me who's viewing which posts on my blog.  The most illuminating part is probably the "Search Keywords" data, which tells me what words people are plugging into search engines to end up on my blog posts.  And by "illuminating" I mean incredibly depressing.

Here's this past week's data:


Coming off his US Open victory this past Monday, Novak Djokovic unsurprisingly gets a bump this week, and the, erm, specificity of these particular Djokovic-related searches is a heartening testimony that I am not the only one keeping score where it counts.

Actually, "djokovic is a douche" ranks pretty high on the all-time list too:


But Novak Djokovic is no Shannon Tweed, I guess.  And, considering I only mention her name once in the title of a post that has nothing really to do with her, I can't imagine that my blog ranks highly on Google's listings for her name, which means that it must be some truly, ahem, dedicated fans of hers who are wading deep into the search results to end up here.

So, alas, most of you readers are probably Shannon Tweed fans, who are now, I imagine, quite disappointed to find that this is not, nor will it ever be, that kind of site.  But I hope you'll take a look around and find something I have to offer that might interest you.  Apparently, once upon a time, I wrote something about a "brown m&m character."

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Saw this several months ago.  Woke up this morning and confession: I don't like this movie, but I love this movie.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

"I hate this place."

In the immortal words of Hugo "Red Skull" Weaving.  Or, I guess, the words were Agent Smith's.  Dialogue presumably written by one of those Wachowskis.  Maybe the shemale.  Is s/he even a shemale?  Is "shemale" even the correct term?  Probably not.  Oh well.

Wish I had a rocket ship

Moon was big again.  And low tonight.

Still Going Nowhere

Just noticed today that the odometer on my 2006 Camry has passed 100,000 miles.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Remains of the Day

I originally read Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day for a class in college. It's about an English butler. It's definitely one of my top 5 favorite novels. But not everyone in the class liked it so.

"I cannot believe that anybody could be so without ambition," said the student from Africa. To this day, I remain unsure to what extent he was talking about the butler, and to what extent the novelist.

"In the village where I come from, this could not happen," he continued. "I come from a village where the people all take care of each other. In the village where I come from, we would not let this happen to anybody. The people are very loving and care about each other like a family. It is unbelievable to me. I cannot believe that anybody could be so without ambition."

Was he saying that the book was objectionable, or that Western civilization was? It wasn't clear to me. When the professor tried to ask him for clarification, he would not elaborate but merely repeated his statements about his village and about ambition. None of our other classmates had any response, so we just moved on while he wore a smug grin, arms crossed, as though he had made some undefeatable point.

I didn't like it. Whatever he had meant to say, I took it as an assault on my culture, on my hemisphere, on my very person.

Seated directly behind this native of Kokovoko or Rokovoko or wherever, I wanted to give him a tap on the shoulder and say to him, "Dude, I live in a house." Surely that would have brought him low and made him think twice before boasting about his savage tribe again.

Granted, it's actually my parents' house . . . .

Monday, June 27, 2011

Good Samaritan

After having worked for about a month as a software tester, I had come to the end of my first assignment. At around 10 PM, the project lead gathered everyone together for an announcement. Thanking us for our hard work, he let us know that we had finally made it to the finish line. After three weeks straight of 12-hour shifts, we had earned some time off, so he told us to go home, rest up, and wait for a callback for the next assignment. Since most of us were temps, and this was actually kind of a competitive position, I knew the reality was that many would not get called back, and for them this was essentially goodbye. I wasn’t even sure where I stood, since I had received only minimal feedback from my supervisors.

Before he let us go, the lead asked for a few able volunteers to help out with another project that was just about to wrap up. All that was really needed was some warm bodies to fill seats, so that the company could record that a certain number of eyes had inspected the product for a certain number of hours. But these bodies would have to be in those seats from 9 AM to 4 AM over the next two nights. He didn’t expect a lot of people to jump at this opportunity, after having just been told that they had finally earned a return to a regular sleep schedule. I recognized this as a chance, however, to stand out from the crowd by showing my commitment to the job, and so I raised my hand along with three other guys.

The lead thanked us, told the four of us that this would be remembered, and then dismissed everyone. Only one other team still working on that one project, the building cleared very quickly; people were ready to start living again.

Knowing that my longest nights were yet to come, I intended to get a good night’s rest. Having parked in the relatively empty back lot, I got into my car, my father’s Cadillac, and turned the key for the ignition. Nothing but a pained wheezing sound. I had never experienced this before, but I knew it was no good. The engine wasn’t starting. I tried it a few more times, but it was a no go. I knew just enough about cars to guess that the battery was dead.

What was I to do? I needed a jump-start, but the parking lot was emptying rapidly, and it was a bit late in the night to be calling anybody. I supposed my only option was to go back into the building and find someone.

Still in the driver’s seat, I turned to open the door and get out, and I was startled to see that there was somebody standing right outside my window. It was one of the guys who had been working on the same project as me, although I didn’t know him too well. Like some kind of ninja, he had snuck up on me, or perhaps I had just been so rapt in my own predicament that I had failed to notice anything going around outside my vehicle.

Opening the door—one of the things I sure missed about older cars was the crank handles that let you roll down the windows even when the car was not running—I asked him what was up, even though the question probably should have been his, and the answer should have been obvious. Apparently, even though he had parked a ways away, he had heard my car struggling, and so he had walked over to see if I needed help. I explained the situation to him, and, agreeing with my assessment that it was probably the battery, he offered to give me a jump-start, for which I was exceedingly grateful.

Besides being personally grateful, I was impressed, humbled, even inspired. Now, I was not a complete cynic when it came to human nature; I fully expected that, had I gone back into the building to ask for help, someone would have obliged. But what shocked me was that this guy had taken the initiative to lend a hand without having been asked. Had our roles been reversed, I honestly think I would have just ignored his wheezing car and abandoned him to go home. And I would have thought that a normal reaction. But his act of good Samaritanism changed my mind, and it made me want to better myself toward that example.

Three projects later, I was still working as a tester, and I had by this time established myself as a strong contributor, such that I never had to worry about getting callbacks. For my next assignment, I found myself seated next to that same guy, Murphy, who had saved me months earlier with that jump-start. It was the first time, since that first project, that we had been assigned together.

Seeing each other for the first time since that night, we shook hands, and immediately he asked me how my car was. Yes, that was our shared moment that, at the time, I should have hoped would bond us for the rest of our lives. Indeed, I will be forever grateful to him for what he did for me, but unfortunately that had little bearing on how we got along as coworkers.

Over the next three months, I sat next to Murphy and got to know him as a tester. The truth was that he seemed to do hardly any work. By the end of that project, he had submitted only 5 bug reports. The average, consistently employed tester, over the course of three months, would have turned in about 50. I had over 200 to my name. And, even as pressure increased as we got closer to deadline, his lazy attitude never changed. Instead of stepping up and getting serious, he only continued to distract people with his bizarre hickish stories.

He was eager to remind us regularly, for example, that his father owned a gun shop. And, on one occasion, when someone attempted to break in and rob them in the middle of the night, Murphy, who was sleeping at the shop, caught and shot the burglar in the leg. Sure, I had heard ghastlier stories from the military veterans at work, but those were actual war stories. Here was a nineteen-year-old civilian, who was apparently shooting people and later describing it, totally unmoved and matter-of-fact, as though it were every bit as routine to him as purchasing deodorant. Of course, many others believed that Murphy made the whole thing up just to sound hard. Either way, it made me hate him a little.

He also told us about his girlfriend, a farmer’s daughter, who was strong enough to literally lift him off his feet—he was 5’9” and over 200 pounds—yet was also petite, pretty, and “far too good for anyone in this building,” hence why he adamantly refused to show anyone a photo of her, lest we picture her with impure thoughts. That didn’t stop him sharing with us how her mom would stop by their apartment once a month to supply them with condoms, which made us picture things that none of us wanted to imagine.

Most annoying for me personally, as the guy who had to sit next to him, was his peculiar disorder that led him to make “bleep” and “bloop” noises with his mouth throughout the day whenever he wasn’t speaking. When I asked him about it, he told me he couldn’t help it. If it was a legitimate psychological issue, I had to be understanding, but, even so, it did get on my nerves.

It all left me in a very conflicted state. On the one hand, I could never forget what he had done for me, and I was forever in his debt as a result. On the other hand, I found it hard to tolerate him, and a part of me hoped never to see him again once this project was over.

On my next project—a much smaller one, with only five testers assigned to it—somehow the others got into a discussion about what an annoying fellow and sorry tester Murphy had been. I never joined in on such gossip, but neither could I work up the courage to speak up for the defamed, and so I just kept silent. When our project lead walked in and joined in on the slander, however, things got more serious, because now they were actually deciding upon this guy’s future with the company.

I should have thought that Murphy’s work (or lack thereof) should have spoken for itself, but the lead proceeded to take an impromptu poll of his peers on whether he should get a callback. The other four guys had only negative things to say. I had planned to just keep my mouth shut, but then the lead asked me directly what I thought. I still couldn’t understand why my opinion mattered, especially as there already seemed to be consensus among everyone else in the room, but suddenly I felt the weight of having Murphy's fate hanging upon how I responded. Was it my turn to go to bat for this guy and save him as he had once saved me? I still owed him, but I also couldn’t deny that he was objectively a poor fit for this job. Finally, I tried my best to be diplomatic, speaking about him as favorably as I could without lying.

“He’s dependable,” I said.

Then, when asked in what way, I related the story of the time he jump-started my car.

“But what does that have to do with his work here?” my lead asked me.

I had to admit that there was little connection between the two, and so that was that; I never saw Murphy again.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Princess Bride

My coworker stationed across from me had an amusing/annoying ritual of saying random words with a fake speech impediment throughout the day. She joked that it was a coping mechanism of making fun of herself in order to get over her own traumatizing past of having to wear a speech-crippling retainer. Usually it would just be any random long “s” word that she found funny to say with a lisping “th” instead. But other times, again for no apparent reason, she would go into quoting the clergyman character from The Princess Bride, who memorably could not pronounce the letter “r.”

Again, these were not conversations. She would just utter things randomly without any provocation. Headphones on, I made every effort to appear as though I was paying attention to my work and not to her. Yet the less distracted I made myself appear, the more she would try to directly distract me, waving her hand and yelling "Hey!" to get my attention, then saying, "You get it, right?" as if there were anything really to get from such surface-level humor as pronouncing words incorrectly. And so, just to make sure that I was on the same page with the Princess Bride quotes (as if my following along with her running gags was somehow of more importance than either of us getting any work done), she asked me whether I was familiar with the movie.

Indeed, I had seen the movie many times as a child and had once counted it among my favorites. It has probably been close to twenty years since I last saw it, however, and I don't remember too much from it.

What most struck me as a child (and what I most remember now) were the darker moments of the Cary Elwes character being tortured, apparently to death, and of the Robin Wright character, believing her love and all hope lost to her, resolving upon suicide. These moments of despair made it all the more blissful, of course, when the heroes were reunited, and love and goodness prevailed. And yet, I'm not sure whether it was that final promised hopefulness or rather the despair itself that so drew my young self. But even at that age, I could recognize a thematic trend in the material that most consistently engaged my attention.

There was that similar moment, previously discussed, in Disney's Robin Hood, for example, when Robin Hood appeared dead, and these anthropomorphic cartoon animal characters were so masterfully drawn and animated that one could precisely discern, just from their exaggerated facial expressions, the very moment of their hearts breaking at the realization of the loss of their leader and dear friend. No matter how many times I watched these movies, no matter that I knew that of course there would be a happy ending, nevertheless these scenes never lost any of their emotional power over me as a child.

Perhaps it was because, for me, it was in those moments of witnessing the despair of those left behind that I understood best and felt most acutely the intensity of their love for the one they believed lost to them, as though pain and grief over the dead were just more “real” to me than romance and warmth between the living. Perhaps this reflected a secret wish that, like Tom Sawyer, I could somehow attend my own funeral, and only then determine how people truly felt about me. Or perhaps there was a sadomasochistic streak in me that demanded to see people in pain, because grief was the only emotional high that could move me one way or another . . . .  Hrm, no, let's go with the first theory.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

What's he on about?

Just received my copy of Nozomi Entertainment's new edition of the first twelve episodes (the "Student Council Saga") of Revolutionary Girl Utena.  Haven't watched the DVDs, but the packaging is very nice, the real highlight being a 40-page booklet containing commentaries, art, and interviews with the staff.  It's all quite good, worth picking up for any serious fan.

Despite his reputation for being coy in addressing fans' questions about his rather enigmatic creation, I think that director Kunihiko Ikuhara has actually been more forthcoming with substantive insights into his work than anyone else in the industry, having provided commentaries and interviews on many occasions. They're not always enlightening, but neither are they the typical weirdo Japanese metaphysical generalizations that you often get from would-be auteurs, and he usually at least has funny stories.  Here's a sample from his commentary on episode 2, "For Whom the Rose Smiles":

When I was in middle school, my classmate T. recommended to me a book by Hesse. 
He said, "Inside this book is everything about me."  I didn't know what he was on about. 
However, that particular quote stuck with me.  One day long afterwards, T. and I met up again after not seeing each other for over a decade, and I brought it up. 
"What was that again?" 
He didn't even remember the book existed, let alone that he'd recommended it to me.  To think he'd just forget "everything about himself" . . . .  I wonder if  Hesse wasn't needed in the world T. lived in after middle school.  In which case, I wonder why I didn't forget.

I probably won't be watching Utena again until I get the full set of re-releases.  It would be nice then if I could find some time to set aside for a marathon.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A.I.

Back when I still cared about the NBA, my favorite player was Allen Iverson. When I tell people that, it sometimes takes them by surprise. First they're surprised that I ever followed the NBA to begin with, since I don't come off as a sporty person myself. Then they're surprised that my favorite player would have been such an outspoken thug type as Iverson and not more of a respectable straight shooter like Ray Allen or Tim Duncan. True, my all-time most admired (former) professional athlete is probably David Robinson, because of his well-documented humanitarian efforts. (If you don't know David Robinson's story, I won't get into it, but please read about it here, because he is one of the few true role models in sports.) But as a player—we're talking what happens on the court—there was, for me, no one more exciting to follow than Allen Iverson.

In a league largely populated by freaks of nature (relative to the rest of humanity), Allen Iverson was one of the most anomalous players precisely because he wasn't abnormally tall. By many accounts 5'10''-5'11'', he was officially listed at 6'0'', which is admittedly still taller than the average person. But he was nearly a midget by NBA standards.

Most boys, growing up, at some point dream about becoming a professional athlete. The dream doesn't usually last long or grow serious enough to make it too heartbreaking when they have to give up on that to set their minds on something more practical. Basketball can be harsher in that respect, however, because kids can make it all the way through high school as the best player on their local squad. They may feel themselves able to compete, and their game may even be legitimate to an extent, but if they're not a certain height by a certain age, then they have no realistic chance of making a career out of it. Their best prospect is to make it as a point guard, playing more of a supporting role by knowing when and how to pass the ball to the team's designated scorers. This is more of a specialized position that virtually does not exist in the schoolyard, where most kids just want to hit the big shots, and nobody keeps track of the assists stat. To be an effective point guard in the NBA also requires a strong grasp of the fundamentals of court vision and ball-handling, which most young dreamers are unlikely to practice to the same extent as their jump shot and layup.

It is a rare and driven personality that is able to commit from an early stage to develop toward becoming a dedicated point guard. But what is rarer still is the six-foot-nothing hopeful who can aspire toward anything else and actually succeed. More than any other player in history, Allen Iverson was that rare individual who had what it took.

Iverson was technically his team's point guard, yes, but he never played the supporting role. No, he was his generation's most prolific scorer, four times the league's scoring champion, sixth all-time in terms of points-per-game average in the regular season, and second (only to Michael Jordan) all-time in points-per-game average in the playoffs. These results were absurd, unthinkable for a player of his size and physique. And the numbers alone don't do justice to the reality of his scoring ability. Seeing him in action was to witness quite possibly the sport's most unstoppable phenom on the offensive end, able to drive and penetrate at will. He was incomparably quick, the rookie who made the still-dominant Jordan and Pippen look foolish when they tried to take on the impossible task of defending him. In the post-Jordan era, I truly believed Iverson was the league's brightest light and its future.

I was never more mesmerized by the game than when watching his duels with fellow rising stars Vince Carter and Ray Allen in the 2001 Eastern Conference playoffs. Then, when his Philadelphia 76ers managed to steal game one from a stacked and believed-to-be unbeatable Los Angeles Lakers team in the NBA Finals, it was one of the most inspiring efforts I ever saw. Of course, Iverson and the 76ers would not manage to win another game against the Lakers, but his one win still meant more to me than the Lakers' four.

No, not even Iverson could single-handedly stop the unstoppable Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers. Ultimately, only Shaq and Kobe themselves and their infighting could bring the Lakers' winning days to an end. But, even in losing, Iverson suggested that maybe “impossible” was not always what it seemed, because his own career was something theretofore unimaginable, and if he couldn't quite tear down its walls, he at least chipped away at “impossible” and inspired me at times to believe in the unbelievable, which, really, is what is best about sports. He defied the odds, defied common sense, defied nature itself, defied what everyone else thought it meant to be an NBA superstar.

And this tiny David, in a sport of Goliaths, so upset the established order and balance, so upset everyone's preconceived notions of what the NBA was supposed to be, that the league actually changed the rules of the game specifically to contain him by lifting the prohibition on zone defense, after he had proven consistently that no single player could defend him man-to-man. Yes, for some reason, thinking that the natural handicap of his small stature was not enough, they felt the need to institute additional artificial handicaps to keep him low. Maybe I'm an Iverson apologist, but I still believe that they did it just because they didn't have the guts to face what he represented, which was an overturning of basketball as they understood it. He had changed the game, but everyone was so stuck in their old ways that, instead of embracing that change, they just tried to shut it down and forcibly fit him into the old system they already knew and understood.

So what did Iverson have that made him so exceptional? Yes, he did have extraordinary God-given talent and athleticism, regardless of his size. But the qualities that really drew me to him, made me admire him as a man and not just a spectacle, were his indomitable will, his unflagging ambition, and, perhaps most of all, a certain unbreakable pride, stubbornness, refusal to compromise on his ambition. Yes, it was his pride that appealed to and touched something within me in a way that Tim Duncan's cleanness never could.

Duncan is the quiet and steady giant, who plays within the rules and exemplifies the game's fundamentals. He tells us how we should play, modeling the game perfectly by being the model student of the game. Iverson, on the other hand, was the brightly burning candle lighting a view beyond any existing model and toward new frontiers of what a person could be, if only they wanted it badly enough and, against all reason, never stopped wanting it. His ambition was to be the best, and nothing—not his physical limitations, not the common sense offered by armchair analysts, not any amount of coaching or advice from others—could ever deflate his dream or his ego. Simply put, he was too stubborn to submit to his own limitations, and so instead he overcame them. It was in that way that he “had what it took.” Well, at least for a while . . . .

Where is Iverson now? Well, his 76ers were never again able to equal the success they had in the 2000-2001 season. What followed instead were a number of disappointing years where he butted heads with coaches and management and got traded around from one mediocre team to another until virtually no one was willing to take him anymore. Although his skills were still elite, his personality made him intolerable, and nobody cared any longer to build their team around him. In 2009, he announced his sudden and premature retirement from the NBA, following his statement that he would rather retire than play off the bench as a support player. He came back briefly when his old 76ers gave him one more chance, but he lasted only 25 games before departing the NBA again. By that second time, seemingly everybody had given up on him, even the news, and this former league MVP just quietly faded into oblivion. Now he's off in some second-tier European league in Turkey. I wouldn't even know if he's getting playing time, let alone starting over there, because nobody cares what goes on over there.

Seeing him wasting away the last vital years of a once luminous career is frustrating. He just seems like a fool now, a petulant child who refused to grow up. Reading his comments about refusing to come off the bench—basically, refusing to operate according to anyone's plan but his own—my initial reaction was that he was being ridiculous. I thought that he should have been more willing to compromise for his own sake, to simmer down and listen to reason. It was better than not being able to play at all, right?

And yet, wasn't it his refusal to compromise that made me admire him in the first place? His pride made him unreasonable and eventually impossible to work with, but wasn't it also what drew me to him? If he had been less proud and more willing to compromise at any point earlier in his career, he never could have become that favorite player of mine. He's just being consistent now with those same qualities that made him strong originally, sticking to his guns all the way to the ultimate and bitter end. A part of me wants to insist that pride is the young man's stimulant, but humility the mature man's sustenance. It's sad to see what his hubris has led him to. But another part of me would actually be disappointed if he did change now, if he did compromise. Because there's a part of me that values the personal commitment in one's own pride over the chance of success won through compromise, over the possibility of peace, over hope, over happiness, over anything else. And that part of me wants to see that a man will break before he bends.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Fool

I breathed a muffled grunt at the overheard joke now forgotten. Although I had thought my exhalation barely audible, it did not go unnoticed.

“Darn!” said the guy who had made the joke. “I almost got Henry to laugh out loud!” As if getting a chortle out of me were some magnificent achievement to aspire toward.

Somehow or other, I had gained a reputation for being a humorless drag. Perhaps it was because I never shared jokes of my own, never laughed nor hardly acknowledged anyone else's funny stories, almost never even spoke to anyone on matters unrelated to business, and basically expressed no interest in anything at all. I don't think I had a negative presence, more just a blank or neutral non-presence. People were kind and respectful toward me, though they generally left me alone. But perhaps there was a certain strangeness of character to me that occasionally excited others' curiosity.

At any rate, my eyes fixed on my work (since we were supposed to be working), I did not offer so much as a glance of recognition in his direction. He took this correctly to be a sign that the business was concluded, that he would get nothing more out of me, and that work was to resume without further deliberation on the matter.

And yet, after a pause, something compelled me to keep it going. I was the one not quite ready to let it go.

“It happened once,” I said.

“What happened?” he asked. The pause had gone on long enough that nobody was sure now to what I was referring. (Yes, I'm a bit slow.)

“Me, laughing out loud,” I clarified.

“Oh, I've got to hear this!” he said.

And suddenly the entire room was focused on me. But this was what I wanted, right? It was why I couldn't let the moment just pass.

“Have you ever read My Brother Sam Is Dead?” I asked.

The only responses I got were some raised eyebrows, a few reflexive grimaces, and the guy next to me backing up a bit in his chair. Perhaps your reaction is the same at my bringing up this grim title to a grimmer novel as the introduction to my “funny” story. But please allow me to continue.

“It was back when I was in fifth grade. We were studying the American Revolution. My Brother Sam Is Dead is a novel about this guy whose brother, Sam, joins up with the Patriots. At the end of the book, Sam is executed by his own army for being a deserter, or some such thing. It's a bogus charge, but the general is determined to make an example of him as a warning to other soldiers. In the end, the narrator just has to watch helplessly as his brother is gunned down by the firing squad. So, it's a book about the Revolution, but it's not black-and-white on the side of the Americans. It's also a commentary just on how ugly war is in general.

“Anyway, after we finished the book, our assignment was to write about how we would have felt or acted in the narrator's place, knowing that our brother was going to be executed on false charges. We were just writing in our journals during class, and, when time was up, the teacher asked for volunteers to read theirs aloud.

“Now, the thing is, I don't remember anything at all about what I wrote, and obviously I didn't read mine aloud. But the kid next to me did. And I will NEVER forget his.

“He came up with this entire alternate ending, where, as the narrator, he and his brother's girlfriend would have somehow devised this miraculous rescue plan to bust out Sam in the middle of the night before the execution. And, some time immediately before or after—I can't remember which exactly, though I don't think it matters much—he would have burned down the house (or was it office?) of that evil general, with the general still inside. And not only that, but he would have made another stop, in order to burn down the house of the other commander—the nice one who had been sympathetic to Sam's situation but had, in the end, been useless to stop the execution. Then he, his brother, and his brother's girlfriend would have made a run for it. God knows where to.

“Anyway, maybe this guy's story doesn't sound that funny, but it must have been the funniest thing I had ever heard, or maybe it was just the way he told it—so earnest and enthusiastic—that was so funny to me, because I started laughing out loud almost as soon as he started, and I couldn't stop myself at all until he had finished. Basically, I was sitting right next to him, laughing uncontrollably through his entire story. This must have lasted close to five minutes.

“Now, to give some context, this shouldn't surprise you, but I had a reputation back then as 'the quiet kid.' And I don't mean it the way a lot of people look back and remember themselves as being a quiet kid in class. I was THE quiet kid. Freakishly so. Like, I literally almost never spoke a word unless called upon by the teacher.

“But I was also known somewhat as 'the smart kid.' That reputation wouldn't last, but, in elementary school at least, I was still top of my class. So maybe the other kids saw my quiet as of the more dignified sort, rather than of the arrested development sort. So they respected me, and they respected my silence, as if it were a valid stance, instead of some personality deficiency, which was really the case.

“But that was my identity. I was the quiet kid, presumably focused on his studies, who never spoke, never acted out, never joined in. And this was many months into the school year, and most of my classmates had known me even longer from previous years. They knew (or thought they knew) what I was about, what to expect from me. I never 'broke character,' so to speak, and it was one of the reliable truths of their world that Henry was 'the quiet one.'

“So what did it mean that I was laughing like a drunken lunatic in that moment in the presence of all my classmates? Well, it was certainly uncomfortable for me. I mean, I was laughing because I genuinely thought what I was hearing was funny. So, in that sense, I was enjoying it. But I didn't mean to be laughing out loud, drawing attention to myself. I was really trying to suppress it, which was usually not difficult for me. My self-control was always a point of pride for me. But, this time, I just couldn't seem to help myself. Maybe it was just too funny. Or maybe I was experiencing a nervous breakdown.

“I don't know how it came across to everyone else. Even as I was laughing, I was also nervously looking all around me. Not a single other person was laughing, but everyone was staring at me. No one else was even smiling, except for the guy reading. I'm not sure if he appreciated my laughter, or if smiling was his own way of coping with the embarrassment. But everyone else looked mortified. And, like I said, this lasted for a few minutes.

“When it was over, what was the reaction? The girl across from me pointed at the other kid and said to me, 'He's crazy.' She was referring to the kid who had been reading, not to me. And she wasn't smiling as she said it, but seemed actually kind of disgusted. Aside from that, nobody else made any comment whatsoever on what had just happened. The teacher said nothing about the kid's story, said nothing about my laughing, and moved right along to the next volunteer. Nobody asked me to explain myself. Not then, not the next day, not for the rest of the school year. None of my classmates ever mentioned it to me ever again.

“Honestly, I think they were all just too afraid to acknowledge it. The teacher too. Like I said, it was one of the fundamental truths of their world that I didn't talk, didn't laugh, basically didn't show emotion. If what just happened really happened, then everything they knew and understood about the world was thrown into question. Suddenly, up was down, left was right, the Earth orbited the Moon, cats barked and dogs meowed, Mommy and Daddy didn't really love each other, Jesus never gave a damn! . . . Bigfoot existed. In short, if that really just happened, then maybe the world was not what they all thought it was. And I don't think anybody was ready or willing to face that possibility. So they all just collectively agreed to pretend it never happened. Obviously, I was more than happy to go along with that.”

Perhaps my story sounded a bit rehearsed. It surely was. For, although I myself had had no occasion in a long while to discuss that moment in my life, it was nevertheless a singularly poignant memory for me—the only time I ever so lost command of myself in a fit of genuine laughter. Perhaps it was the most honest I had ever been in public. Indeed, were I to reduce the story of my life to just a few key moments, I believe this would easily make the top ten. And so I had rehearsed it many times in my mind. You never know, after all, when you may be required to give an account of your life before some cosmic panel or for the ultimate interview, and you had better be ready to present your own best self when that time comes. I dare say I told my practiced story well, and it was met this time, not with mortified stares, but clapping and good cheer.

“I'm gonna get you to laugh out loud. Just like back then,” said the guy next to me.

He sounded quite determined, but, despite his best efforts, he never did get more than the occasional audible breath of amusement from me. Indeed, I'm proud to say that the My Brother Sam Is Dead story still stands alone, and I have never since so lost control of myself.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Other Scholar

Her name was Natalie. She was not my friend; I hardly knew her. I met her only once, and, at the time, she was still going by Natalya.

It was right at the start of my freshman year at John Muir College at UCSD. The quarter had not yet officially begun, and I, along with my fellow first-years, was there for orientation. A more senior Muir student was showing us around campus, describing college life, letting us know what to expect.

We had stopped for a moment to rest at some stone seating walls. In order to help us get to know each other better, our guide proposed the classic icebreaker game “Two Truths and a Lie,” wherein each person was supposed to reveal three things about themselves, two of which were true and one a lie. I distinctly remember one guy, after telling two truths that I’ve long since forgotten, saying, for his lie, “I’m from Mars.” This was met with dead silence as nobody seemed to appreciate his joke, which most people just saw as him not even trying. Myself, I think I would have come up with something similarly lame, but, luckily, before my turn ever came up, a pretty brunette with clipboard in hand came and, after whispering something to our guide who then pointed right at me, pulled me away from the group, saying, “You’re going to see the provost.”

Telling me nothing more as we walked in silence, she escorted me to the office of the Muir College provost, Patrick Ledden. Before leaving, she introduced me thus: “This is Henry, the other scholar.” This cleared things up a bit, as it became apparent that I had come to the provost’s attention on account of the fact that I was a scholarship recipient. And I was “the other scholar” because the first one was already there, seated across from Provost Ledden at his desk. That was Natalya.

My story was a non-story. Truthfully, I had been a mediocre student in high school. I took the advanced classes, but my non-weighted GPA was not even a 3.5. I participated in no extracurricular activities. It was curious that I should even have been accepted into UCSD, let alone received a scholarship, but I think what it all boiled down to was my SAT scores. I was in that office on that day only because I had scored on the high side, and those numbers for some reason suggested to Provost Ledden that maybe I had some potential worth cultivating.

Looking back now years later from the outside, it seems so ridiculous to me that anybody should have assigned such significance to a standardized test score. It certainly doesn’t mean anything to my life as it is now. So don’t even bother asking what I got; it’s nothing worth boasting about, any more than the rest of my life. And if I had any advice for high schoolers about to take the SAT now, it would be not to stress out too much over the results, because, in a few years, none of it will mean anything.

Natalya was a different story. I don’t know what her SAT scores were, or even what tests she might have taken—she had grown up and studied in Russia before having just moved to the United States with her parents—but she seemed like the real deal. As we sat next to one another, I don’t think the contrast could have been any greater. I was inexpressive, aimless, lacking deep thoughts. She was almost overpoweringly enthusiastic, highly articulate, and seemingly had her entire future planned out before her.

As different as we were, when the meeting began, Provost Ledden tried to address us equally in turn. He apparently already had some documents detailing our academic backgrounds—test scores and whatnot—but he wanted to know a little more about our interests. As he explained, he was here to help guide us along in realizing our potential, so that we might get the most out of our college experiences, that we might subsequently make the most of ourselves. Turning to me, he asked what my favorite subject had been in high school.

“English,” I answered.

“Any favorite books?” he asked.

Catch-22?” I said, as though I myself were unsure.

“Have you read Ulysses?” he asked.

I hadn’t.

“Well, it would be your favorite if you had.”

I nodded.

Clearly, he was not getting a lot out of me. As if at random, he then crumpled up a piece of paper (perhaps my academic history?), and, aiming toward the wastebasket in the corner, he asked if I wanted to bet whether he could make the shot.

“I don’t gamble,” I told him.

He fired and missed. “Should’ve taken the bet,” he said.

He then turned to Natalya.

I deeply regret that I cannot remember in greater detail any of what she said, only that there was much energy in her voice and many words. As far as her interests, she had already decided that she would double-major in biology and art. My own experience with those subjects had been incredibly shallow—just one year of each in high school. Really, there was no subject that I knew well enough to be declaring it my major before even having begun college. I could only imagine that she had been through some intense Russian schooling that had made her so ready to conquer both of these two unrelated fields.

Even Provost Ledden seemed a bit awestruck by the vigor and determination with which she spoke. But he was still the wise one in the room, and he recognized that she also could have benefited from some guidance, though of a different sort than me. Whereas he had tried to excite some direction in me, in her case he seemed to want to dial back her focus and make her consider a larger perspective of a future still full of many different doors for her to open and explore.

Having gotten through personal introductions, Provost Ledden proceeded to tell us a little about the particular focuses of the John Muir College at UCSD. I’m afraid I don’t remember much of this speech either. I do remember him informing us, however, that Muir’s most famous alumnus was probably Mike Judge, creator of the animated series Beavis and Butt-head and King of the Hill. Provost Ledden paused then, as if in anticipation of our “oohs” and “ahs” of recognition. I merely nodded, while Natalya frowned and shook her head.

“Somewhat offbeat television programs,” he clarified. “Maybe not the sort of thing you would watch.”

Disappointed by the lukewarm response, he moved on to the main task of the day, which was to help us select the classes that we would be taking for the quarter.

There was a mandatory Muir-specific writing course that he quickly signed us both up for, but otherwise we were quite free to explore the fall 2001 catalog. I selected Chinese for my language requirement, and I also expressed an interest in psychology, and maybe earth science to fulfill my mathematics/natural science requirement.

Provost Ledden, himself a mathematician, seemed thoroughly disinterested in my selections and particularly frowned at the lack of a math class among my choices. This was by design; I had struggled through high school calculus and was ready to be done with math, as it was clearly not where my future lay. The provost, though recognizing my reluctance, wouldn’t let it go. Looking at the catalog, he insisted that I sign up for calculus (and the more advanced sequence at that!).

“Baouendi’s teaching this quarter,” he said. “He’s excellent, and this might be his last year. You can’t miss that!”

I honestly could not have cared less who was teaching it. Every fiber in my being told me that more calculus would be a bad idea, but I lacked the will to stand my ground and say no. And this was not just one quarter that I would be giving up; once begun, no matter how much I hated it, I would be committed to another two quarters more of it, for the sake of fulfilling that mathematics GE.

“With your SAT scores, there’s no way you shouldn’t get an A in the class,” he assured me.

And so finally I acquiesced. In a short time, he would indeed be proven wrong, as I struggled bitterly through one final year of mathematics. To be fair, I did even worse in psychology, which I had chosen all on my own, and maybe I would have hated earth science too. It’s impossible to say now, and, honestly, I don’t think my choices then could ever have greatly impacted my life today. In any case, it was not worth bearing any resentment over.

With that, my part in the meeting was effectively over. I became a practical nonentity in the room as Natalya completely took over, demanding the much greater share of the provost’s attention. Again, I’m sorry that I can’t remember more clearly any of their discussion. I only remember him trying to get her to loosen up and broaden her horizons (though I didn’t get the impression that they needed much broadening, so varied yet uniformly intense were her myriad interests).

“I want you to take some chances, try something fun and different while you’re here,” he told her. “Maybe anthropology—”

“Oh, I looooove anthropology!” she immediately responded.

I must confess, I wasn’t even sure which “-ology” anthropology was at the time. I certainly hadn’t studied it at my high school, and I knew I didn’t love it.

As for Provost Ledden, he just sounded more and more as though he were scrambling to find some lesson to impart to someone who already knew everything about everything (except who Mike Judge was).

I remember nothing more specific about that day. By the time Provost Ledden let us go, it was too late for me to rejoin the orientation tour, so I just went home. But I came away from that meeting feeling even more inadequate than usual. I was in over my head, I thought. Natalya looked to me the model of a scholarship student, which meant that I was just some horrible fluke, due in time to be exposed for the fraud that I was. Because I was never going to be able to get to where she was, no matter how hard I worked. Because it wasn’t even the working hard that was the crucial difference between us. She actually seemed to care. She seemed to want this. Wanting, caring—those were the things that I didn’t “get.” Already I was a worthless nowhere man floating through life. Nothing meant anything to me, whereas she seemed to crave everything.

But the world didn’t stop for me even as I stood uselessly in place. Time rolled on, and I had a reasonably good year, I suppose, calculus notwithstanding. I never saw Natalya again, but I remembered her occasionally, not as some standard to strive toward, but as an example of true talent and ambition to humble me. I suppose also there was a small part of me that was relieved to know that there were such people in the world, who were so much better than me. It meant to me that I didn’t have to work so hard, because the world was already in good hands with people like Natalya.

And time rolled on. Until February 7, 2003.

The headline was “Student found dead at Pac. Hall.” UCSD’s student newspaper, The Guardian, reported, “John Muir College junior . . . found dead in a loading dock behind Pacific Hall on Feb. 7. UCSD police officials are calling the death an apparent suicide.” A followup article would clarify that this student, a nineteen-year-old sophomore named Natalie, with junior standing majoring in visual arts, was actually the very same Natalya that I had met in Provost Ledden’s office. She had only just changed her name after becoming a U.S. citizen.

It was like I had just taken a punch to the gut, had the wind knocked out of me. I couldn’t believe it. The world was unrecognizable, incomprehensible. Natalya was dead? And not only that, but suicide?

Like so many other students, I wanted a reason, but none was ever produced. There was no note, “I leave the rest to you, Henry.” It didn't happen that way. I'm sure I never crossed her mind in her final moments. I'd wager I never crossed her mind again after we parted ways in Provost Ledden's office.

There was no way to know how long she had been planning it, but apparently nobody saw it coming. Nobody saw well enough to stop it, anyway. One witness claimed to have heard her screaming as she took her fall off Pacific Hall, as if Natalie herself wasn’t quite prepared for the finality of the decision she had just made.

Time passed again, and I very quickly stopped hearing anything further about Natalie. Suicide is unfortunately not an altogether uncommon thing at UCSD, or in college in general, for that matter. I don’t mean to imply that she was the only one, or that her death mattered more than others. But, even though I hardly knew her, I was bitterly dissatisfied with the lack of closure. And so I remain to this day.

The story of Natalie was tragic, but that word alone could scarcely encapsulate all the feelings that haunt and torment those of us who, like it or not, had to walk on into a tomorrow without her. I still find myself asking why. And I don’t just mean what her reasons were for jumping. I want to know why she had to die, while I am still alive. Where is the sense in that? She was the good one, the talented one, the one who gave a damn. She might have made the world a better place, whereas I only stand apart from the world, lest I drag it down.

I struggle to understand what she might have gone through that led her to that final moment. Was she stressed out? Was life too hard? Were the expectations too great? Did she feel alone? Unwanted? Unappreciated for who she really was? Did we kill her with the burdens we placed upon her? With our failures to understand her? It is impossible for me to know the answers, and so the questions go on forever.

A few months after Natalie’s death, I saw Provost Ledden again for the first time since that meeting in 2001. I never went back to his office or anything, and, with my disappointing academic performance in my first year, I would not have wanted to face him again. But I was walking across campus to class one day, and he just happened to be walking the same path in the opposite direction. Eyes cast downward and hair disheveled, he looked stressed out and exhausted, like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders—a far cry from the proud mathematician and James Joyce devotee who had shot that wad of paper at his wastebasket (and merely shrugged and left it on the ground when he missed).

I didn’t think he’d recognize me, but, as we passed, he raised his head just enough to look me in the eye and offer a tired hello. Neither of us slowed even a step, however, and we had our backs to one another before I could respond. I still don’t know if he actually did recognize me, or if he was just being friendly in saying hello to a random student. I never saw him again. I didn’t realize it at the time, but he was battling stomach cancer. He would lose that battle on October 28, 2003, at the age of 67.

And so I found myself suddenly alone in that room in my memory. And it kills me that my memories are so incomplete and inadequate, for there is no one else now to fill in the blanks. The only other people in that office are now dead, and I alone survive to carry on the memory of that day.

I am sorry, Provost Ledden, that I was never able to pay off your investment in me. I am sorry, Natalie, that I never got to know you better. I am sorry that I cannot do justice to your story, that I cannot share your life with the world, because I just don’t know it. I only remember that you loved art and biology. And anthropology. But maybe none of those things were even true. Maybe you were forcing yourself, and I was too dense to realize it. I excused my own shortcomings by convincing myself that you were simply of a different class—a genius and a natural. I thought I was isolating myself, but I didn’t realize that I was isolating you too by setting you apart on some pedestal.

I am so sorry, Natalie, that I don’t have what it takes to live your life for you. I’m only just surviving my own. But I swear to you that, though what memories remain to me may represent only the merest fragment of who you really were, I will cherish them and hold onto them for as long as I live.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Last Time

Went out for a hot dog from Costco the other day. I'd had Costco's pizza many times, but never a hot dog. It was all right. Pretty big. $1.50 includes drink. Condiments are help yourself, including relish and onions.

I tried to remember the last time I had a hot dog. It probably wasn't that long ago. I've probably had dozens of hot dogs just over the last decade. Hundreds even? Erm, maybe? I don't keep count. But whenever I think "hot dog" and "last time," I go back, not to the forgettable actual last time, but to a specific memory from many years ago.

It was probably about twenty years ago. My family was staying with a friend of my mother's in the Bay Area. For lunch, my brother and I had microwaved hot dogs at this friend's home with her two sons. Don't remember the brand. They were good but nothing special.

Later that day, we went out walking (sightseeing?). Don't remember where we went or what we saw. I vaguely recall a museum, but that doesn't seem entirely likely, since I've never been much of a museum person. Maybe we just walked by a museum or museum-like building. But I remember we stopped at a hot dog vendor on the way. Our host's two sons decided to get hot dogs from this street vendor. All the fixin's, including relish, which I used to think was gross.

I remember thinking it very odd that they were stopping randomly to get hot dogs off the street. Just the impulse fooding seemed a foreign concept to me, not something I ever personally considered. But to go for such a cheap food as hot dogs, which could easily be had with little preparation at home, and which we, in fact, had had earlier that very day. It did not seem sensible.

But I was not above trying new things. I shrugged, went along with the others, and had another hot dog. No relish.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Living the Dream

It is maybe ten, maybe twenty, maybe even forty years in the future, though I do not feel physically any older. My life is much the same as well, with one major difference: there is no one else in the world but me.

And yet I do not alter my routine in any way. I go to the same workplace every day that I do now, although, in this future, it is completely abandoned. There are no people inside, no cars in the parking lot, not even any security personnel. Yet somehow I am still able to get inside. My keycard still unlocks all the doors. The lights are on inside. I go to my desk and turn on the computer, which still runs, for some reason. But there's no one to actually assign me any work, so I just sit at my desk and wait.

This being a dream, there is no proper observance of the passage of time, and though my body rests for only eight hours, it feels infinitely longer for my sleeping self. In the dream, I sit there for hours, day after day, for what feels like years. What am I waiting for? I don't think the question ever even occurs to me. In the dream, it all just seems to make sense to me. This is my life.

When my “shift” ends, I go home, just as I do now in my real life. The house is also empty. There are no messages. I sit and wait some more. The process repeats, day after day, as it does now in my real life.

Yes, it goes on for years. Then, randomly, someone else finally shows up at work. She walks by toward her old desk, then, a few seconds later, is headed back out. As she's leaving, she notices me. She smiles and tells me she came to pick up her jacket (left there years ago?). I notice that she's accompanied by a small child. She introduces him as her son. Or maybe it was her grandson, although she herself looks exactly the same as she does today. I never say a word, but I wave. The kid waves back. Then they're gone, and I'm back to waiting.

This goes on for years. Nothing else happens. There's not even an end. I just open my eyes eventually and wake up to a life that is maybe not so very different from my dream.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Comrade

For no real reason, I submit the following piece that I wrote back in 2003.  This was for a short fiction class led by Laurie Weeks, self-styled rock star lesbian feminist writer who contributed to the screenplay for Boys Don't Cry.  Well, she was pretty cool, I guess.

The prompt for this assignment was to consider how other people perceived us, or how we wanted others to perceive us, and then to introduce ourselves as though from the perspective of a fictional other person.  As was typically the case, I didn't follow the prompt exactly, and so my piece actually revealed practically nothing about me.  Unless you think perhaps the narrator is actually a stand-in for me . . . .  (He's not.)

* * * * *


Comrade

Just the other day, I met a most remarkable person in class.  The fall quarter had just begun, and I, in my third year at UCSD, found myself in the position of being a recently-declared literature/writing major.  I had been making steady progress as a linguistics major previously, but I eventually found that linguistics bore no interest for me, so I simply gave that up, because, after all, my time and talent were precious, and I could see no sense in wasting them on anything I didn't personally care for.  Meanwhile, I had already been taking the lower-division writing series to fulfill a general education requirement in humanities.  The writing classes did amuse me, so, following my estrangement from linguistics, I chose to lend my abilities to the writing department a while longer.

Returning to the topic at hand, I happened to meet this remarkable kindred spirit in one of the upper-division writing courses that I had, for this fall quarter, enrolled in.  This man was, evidently, a writer, like myself.  Now, it would be natural to simply assume that, in an upper-division writing class filled, not so surprisingly, with writing majors, one might find oneself surrounded by, at the very least, the writing elites of the local sub-community, but, generally speaking, I have found that this is certainly not the case.  Rather, most of the students in these classrooms are little more than trained gorillas, with a knack only for mimicry, lazily emulating the most boorishly irreverent yet sensationally sentimental material that manages to shock and confound its way into official favor.  True, a lesser ego could easily find itself drowning in such a homogeneous sea of perverse ambition, but the true writer is one who stands firm and unbreakable against the withering waves, aspiring to be unique, and better, rather than the same.  So it was that I came to notice this man, who stood out from the crowd, a fully-formed human, like myself, apart from and infinitely above the endless puddle of primordial ooze that so bitterly resented us as it still indignantly maintained its defiance of evolution.

As I listened to him read from his assigned "life story" piece about his declination of a high school counselor's juvenile offer of pseudo-wisdom, I alone could simultaneously infer from his account that he possessed an uncompromising soul that truly made him the same as me.  After class, I made sure to follow him, which was easily done, since he walked so coolly and methodically, unlike everyone else on campus who simply raced maniacally from one destination to the next.  I soon caught up with him and wasted no time getting to know him, although, of course, I already knew and understood him quite well, I thought.

As we proceeded to walk, side-by-side, I began by asking him how his parents were.  He turned, briefly raised one eyebrow, and then replied that they were just fine.  That brief moment of hesitation before answering undoubtedly confirmed, to my delight, that we were indeed kindred spirits, for I too hated my own parents.  Having established that we were the same, I felt comfortable pursuing more serious discussion with my new friend, so I next asked him what he thought of the writing classes.  He curtly responded that he was having some amount of fun with them, though he still wasn't sure where exactly these experiences stood in the grand scheme.  Naturally, he also wanted my opinion, and I told him exactly what I thought, about the gorillas and whatnot.  He gave a few subtle nods and seemed to form a mild grin.  Perhaps he had doubted before the existence of another writer in this world, but I could tell now that I had definitely impressed him.  He had to leave shortly afterward for another class or some such thing, but I am certain I will be hearing much more from him in the time to come.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Marvel vs. Capcom 3

I was pretty disappointed when Capcom revealed the full roster for Marvel vs. Capcom 3. Don't get me wrong, there were a lot of laudable additions (and deletions) compared to previous games, and the Capcom side especially was much better than what we saw in Tatsunoko vs. Capcom.

The Capcom library is much more broadly represented than ever before with such welcome additions as Arthur from Ghosts 'n Goblins, Spencer from Bionic Commando (granted, it's Bionic Commando '09), Dante from Devil May Cry (granted, it's young Dante from DMC3), Amaterasu from Okami, and Mike Haggar (finally!) from Final Fight. It's also great to see Viewtiful Joe back from TvC, and especially cool to have Zero—not only the best, but the dominant character in TWO fighting games that nobody cared about—finally getting called up to the big leagues.

But where is Strider? Where is Captain Commando? They don't even have Mega Man in there!

The Marvel side is of comparable quality, although, since these are not native video game characters, I can more readily forgive Capcom for the hard decisions it had to make in choosing between recognizable names and designs that offer unique gameplay potential (or even just characters that look cool and animate well in computer-generated 3D). I'm not a fan of Deadpool, but it's nice to see heavyweights Thor and Phoenix added to the mix, while Dormammu and Taskmaster are somewhat obscure (and therefore novel) yet also completely awesome, both visually and mechanically. Among the returning characters are most of the rest of the biggest Marvel names, as well as characters such as Magneto, Storm, and Sentinel, who were ubiquitous within the Marvel vs. Capcom 2 tournament scene (and thus integral to the game's identity).

For me, the real disappointments were the inclusions of Akuma (ugh), She-Hulk (sigh), and X-23 (huh?). Superman here captures my thoughts perfectly on the matter:



For that matter, as much as I like Resident Evil, do we really need Chris and Wesker AND (coming soon) Jill? Or do we really need a second Devil May Cry character? Or both Felicia and Hsien Ko? Or Crimson Viper?

But this is a serious fighting game first, fanservice second. Soon enough, nobody will care too much that X-23 was some bad fan fiction dream that should have been buried and forgotten somewhere. After all, even most of the characters in the game will probably not prove viable in tournament play, and those that are may not be the most recognizable in the mainstream. I mean, who was really asking to play as Cable before MvC2? What matters is that X-23 and She-Hulk, despite their comic origins, actually offer unique gameplay options that make them fun additions to the playable cast (though time will tell if they can compete).

On the other hand, it is precisely while playing the game that the lack of certain characters disappoints me personally. Before getting my hands on the game, I could only wonder where Mega Man was. After ten seconds of actually playing, I was asking, where is Cable? Where is Spiral? Where is Captain Commando?! Without those characters, I was hopeless in MvC2, and, man, I sure suck at this game now . . . .

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Watson Fights for the Users

Or at least we better hope it does, because I don't think we'd stand much of a chance against it.

To recap, Watson is IBM's new supercomputer designed to take on the best human players in the world at the quiz show Jeopardy! For specifics on how it works, you can refer to IBM's official website. Earlier this year, it was pitted in a two-game match against Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, the two greatest (human) Jeopardy! champions of all time, in the first ever man-versus-machine competition in the show's history. The games were broadcast over three nights this past week, and Watson proved itself not only able to play, but able to dominate humanity's best. In the end, its total winnings were well more than Jennings and Rutter's combined scores.

It was the most significant development in the ever-evolving “man vs. machine” saga since IBM's Deep Blue trounced grandmaster Garry Kasparov in chess back in 1997. I was in eighth grade when that chess match went down, and I still remember what a big deal it was. Of course everybody recognized that computers could process faster than us. Even a weak computer could crunch numbers faster and longer than any human, but that sort of “intelligence” was one-dimensional. Chess, on the other hand, was a highly nuanced and intellectual game, long considered by some to be the finest and deepest test of complex strategic thinking. Champions such as Kasparov and Bobby Fischer had been respectfully regarded as geniuses, representing the pinnacle of mind. Thus, when IBM produced a computer that could outplay humanity's champion at its noblest game, it was almost as if to say that human intelligence had run its course, and any forward progress lay in the hands of machines. Chess matches played between “mere” human players, of any level, subsequently seemed to lose all significance.

Bringing things forward to today, many of those following the Watson story, fearing the larger implications of an AI once again making a mockery of human will and wisdom, hoped for a human victory in this real-life John Henry scenario. It was not to be. Not even close. But the results are hardly as conclusive even as the Deep Blue match. Jeopardy!, after all, is not just a test of one's knowledge but also one's finger speed. I've seen both Jennings and Rutter play before, and they are exceptional competitors, capable, on any given night, of running the board with displays of extraordinary breadth of knowledge. It is likely that, in this case too, either man could have provided as many correct answers as Watson, if not more. Watson just didn't give them the chances. As a computer, it can manage perfectly and consistently precise timing on buzzing in, which no human could ever hope to match. I think everybody was willing to concede that much coming into this, and if all this contest proves is that a machine can time a buzzer click more perfectly than a human can, well then that's not portentous at all. It's not even really news.

What is news is that IBM has created a computer that can play Jeopardy! at all. Were Watson merely a vast database of facts and a quick trigger finger, it still could not be regarded as intelligent, and it would not be enough to play Jeopardy! The achievement is Watson's unprecedented ability to actually comprehend the game and the questions, and to (usually) provide a correct answer in the appropriate form and in real time without assistance. It had its moments of weirdness, as more complex, multi-part clues sometimes tripped it up and prompted bizarre responses that were nowhere close to correct. But those moments, though not infrequent, did not keep it from competing on a level with the best players in the world. More often than not, it was able to understand the clues in their written, plain English forms, and that's impressive. After all, have you ever typed a query into Google and received in return thousands of results that do not appear in any way relevant? I certainly have, and, based on that, I would have thought that the Watson tech was generations away.

That said, we're still a long way to go from being able to carry on conversations with machines. Watson doesn't really so much comprehend language as analyze it. And it can only look up simple answers out of its database of facts. It can't provide deep reflections or produce new thoughts. It could still make life easier, much in the same way that a search engine does, but if anybody's seriously worrying (or hoping) that human culture and society will make way for robots, you can probably rest assured that we're not quite there yet. (Then again, a year ago I would not have imagined that we'd be here yet.)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Little Things

Back when I worked as a game tester, I remember there was one guy, nicknamed "Speaker Box," who would consistently refer to the stock PS2 DualShock 2, a wired controller, as a "remote."

"Hey Henry, this remote's not working."

For some reason, that always really ticked me off.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

To Be a No. 3 Man

I said it here on this very blog two years ago: "I must admit, a Djokovic-Murray match suddenly sounds more exciting than a Nadal-Federer final."

At the time, Federer and Nadal seemed immovable as the No. 1 and No. 2. For Novak Djokovic, holding at No. 3 was something to be proud of--as much as any player could hope to achieve in the Federer-Nadal era. But No. 4 Andy Murray was the hot man, breathing down his neck for that No. 3. He would get it, then lose it, then drop to No. 5. But the question of "Who is (third) greatest (in the Federer-Nadal era)?" could only truly be answered by a one-on-one in a major, which seemed unlikely to happen, as the two men, always on opposite sides of the draw due to their rankings, could only possibly meet in a final, and Federer and Nadal were determined to own one or both slots in every major final.

Well, I finally got my Djokovic-Murray final, but it's about two years too late. Murray may well go down as the greatest men's player never to win a major. Having watched him now in three Slam finals, I can say that he just hasn't got the stuff. Not even a single set in three finals. The guy is mentally hopeless on the grand stage. And the writing was on the wall well before Djokovic owned him for the second set. Murray wasn't even trying. By the third set, neither was Djokovic. Lame.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

La Pucelle

You wanna know what else I dreamed once upon a time? Well, when I was a teenager, I used to dream that, if I ever became successful, by which I mean filthy rich—multiple billions rich, and continuously through my own achievement, not some lottery—I would use the money to pay off the taxes in Domremy, the birthplace of Joan of Arc.

For those who don’t know the story, when Charles VII wanted to offer Joan of Arc some reward for winning him his crown, her only request was an exemption from taxes for her home village of Domremy. Charles granted the request, but unfortunately, after the French Revolution more than three centuries later, the exemption was revoked. I always thought this was shameful, as Joan of Arc was kind of my hero, and granting that one request in perpetuity seemed to me the least they could have done for her. And so, in my adolescence, I thought, If the French government will not take care of Domremy, then I shall! Another silly dream, yes, and one rather of vanity. But such are dreams . . . .

Saturday, January 22, 2011

If I ever get out of here

While at work the other day, I overheard two people discussing the lottery. Earlier this month, the multi-state Mega Millions lottery, having reached a jackpot of $380 million, was split between two lucky winners. Even split in two, that is, of course, more money than the average person would even know how to spend over their lifetime. It’s something to dream about. I’m not sure, though, whether the dream is made any more or less tangible by the fact that, a few years ago, someone at work actually did win the lottery. It was a much smaller jackpot—about $4 million, I think—but still several times more money than most of us will ever see at once.

I must admit, the moment I heard the news, my heart began to race as I considered what his winning could possibly mean for me. It settled down quickly enough, however, as I recognized that it didn’t mean anything for me. I could only try to feel glad for my coworker, actually a supervisor, who had often loudly complained about being too old to stay until 5 PM, about his arthritis in both hands, and about wishing he could work from home, “minus the work part.” I don’t really know what he’s doing now, but he certainly didn’t stick around long after winning. From conversations I overhear, I gather that he’s basically using the money to enjoy retirement, still occasionally having lunch with former coworkers, inviting them to shoot pool, letting them bask in his newfound fortune and comfort.

Yes, I think being so close to that money, without actually being able to touch it myself, does encourage me to dream a little more, despite the fact that I didn’t play the lottery then, and still don’t play it now. Maybe it’s the same for some of my coworkers, or maybe they don’t need extra encouragement to thus fantasize.

The guy who brought up the jackpot the other day is actually also a supervisor, of a higher rank than the guy who won the $4 million. I used to sit next to this guy, and I would overhear his conversations about buying vintage cars and parts to work on, or about his thirty acres of land at home for the dogs to roam. I couldn’t really picture it, but thirty acres sounded pretty big, and I got the impression that he was rather well-to-do. On the other hand, he also works much harder and much more than I do. Also, our company is officially a non-profit, so it’s hard to comprehend how anyone could get rich doing what we do. Maybe his money, if indeed he has any, comes from his wife. Even if they do have money, however, it’s not so much as to spare him from dreaming of a more comfortable life. Reflecting on that $380 million jackpot, he mused, “With that kind of money, I could probably disappear.”

It got me thinking too. It was an appealing idea. Years ago, working the late shift at my previous job, my coworkers got into a discussion over our ideas of “the perfect day.” It took me a good long while to come up with an answer—I’m a guy without any goals or prospects, after all—but in my very uncertainty lay my answer. For a man who could not think of anything to desire, perhaps the dream was really a life apart from everything. I would find a place far from other people, and I would just stare out the window all day with a glass of juice in my hand, caring nothing about the world, and the world caring nothing about me.

I don’t know if my supervisor was thinking along the same lines when he spoke of “disappearing,” but that’s what I pictured as my own dream. I thought to myself, if I ever had enough money, I would find a nice house out in the middle of nowhere, to spend the rest of my days doing nothing, seeing no one. It’s merely a dream, not a plan, and probably, if I ever did come into such a large sum of money, my conscience would forbid my spending it so wastefully.

I read a news story recently about a man who wrote a $10,000 check to the state of California. Dennis R. Ferguson was retired and living in South Carolina, but, seeing California in its current budget crisis, he felt compelled to give a little as “repayment” to the state that, almost fifty years ago, helped him through a tough couple of weeks with unemployment checks.

I thought it an extraordinary story, though it didn’t make “front page” news and was quickly bumped by other articles. Of course, practically speaking, that $10,000 is nothing against the state’s budget issues. Even $380 million would hardly put a dent in our deficit. But it made me think. For it will never be the money that solves our world’s problems. Money has been the source of our problems, not the solution. Truly, Ferguson’s newsworthy gesture is of greater benefit than the actual dollar amount of his contribution. By that, I mean that, in showing such admirable character and selfless generosity, Ferguson might have inspired a lot of people, and the fruits of his seemingly small act might ultimately have been much more than his $10,000 check.

Daydreaming about the Mega Millions lottery at work, and recalling Ferguson’s check, I thought about what an inspiring story it would make, if someone were to win some $380+ million and then donate every last cent to charity. In fact, my imagination perhaps got a little carried away, as I began to think seriously about how it would go down.

Ferguson’s story certainly inspired me, but unfortunately it did not make huge waves in the media. Sadly, I don’t think he made any practical difference. But a man donating the entirety of his nine-figure lottery jackpot to a good cause—surely the world could not ignore such a deed. At least, I would hope that people would be inspired and motivated. Because, again, even nine figures is practically nothing against the bigger issues of today’s world. But it would seem a lot to the average person. It would make headlines, hopefully for more than one day. Hopefully, people would see that this man, being not some exceptional genius, was no different from them, but only luckier. And if he could give away all of luck's spoils separating him from them, then surely they too, having hearts, had the capacity for charity. And if everyone gave just a little, the amount would quickly dwarf the original contribution. More important than the money collected, however, would be the good feelings cultivated, that positive drive to do for one another. Much more than any amount of money, to generate and then spread that kind of active positivity would go a long way toward fixing our world.

I suppose I’m still dreaming. But as I sat there grinding out the day at work, I made a silent commitment. I don’t know to whom, but I vowed that, if I were to somehow win that jackpot, I would do exactly according to that dream. I have no idea to whom I would give all that money, but again the gesture would be more important than the details. If it made the news, then people, seeing the gesture, and having their hearts magnified by it, would in turn magnify the details by spreading more money to more causes. But I would have to give every last cent. If I kept even a little for myself, it would be a very different story. People would see the giving, but they would also note the saving for self, and I think it would give them sufficient excuse not to follow, but to instead conclude that I, being so lucky unlike them, could afford to give, because I had plenty to spare. No, in order to make any real difference, the sum would have to be massive, first of all, in order to make people notice, and it would have to be everything, so as to leave no easy excuses.

And I continued to think about it. And I realized that, truthfully, I couldn’t be that guy. I have too many flaws, too many weaknesses of character. The media, after raising me up for my good deed, would then dig up dirt to tear me down, as it ultimately tears everyone down. And, once again, the people would have their excuse not to follow, not to change, not to try. Martin Luther King, Jr., great American that he was, also had his weaknesses. Just the other day, my brother, responding to a news segment reflecting on King’s achievements, again pointed to the man’s philandering, which is not very much disputed. Does it take away from the good that King did? I guess not really. But it’s pretty bad. And it made me think, when people can point easily to such flaws in their would-be heroes, as my brother did with King, that again grants them an excuse. They see that they are justified in being as bad as their heroes, instead of trying to be as good.

Well, it’s only a dream.