Archive for the ‘Dreams’ Category.

The Watch

The following was written by me on August 22, 1996 while living in Kyoto Japan. I refer to this event in the About Me page of this website.

I witnessed the pathetic end of a rather sad life today. A young woman killed herself beneath the wheels of a commuter train. Her life ended this afternoon at 12:33, and now some dozen hours later I cannot think of anything else.

Leaping in front of commuter trains is a common method of suicide in this part of Japan. In other parts it is relatively rare from what my friends tell me. Most suicides choose a station with a beautiful view and near a bend so that the train drivers have no warning. As some stations are only served by local trains, these are also more popular as the express trains fly through them – often at speeds approaching sixty miles an hour. On stations where the bullet train pass, they do so on outer, inaccessible rails with tall fences constructed to deter the jumpers.

The young woman chose Tofukuji station on the Keihan line – a station on a bend affording a pleasant view of the eastern mountains of Kyoto. It is also served by local trains only. So at 12:33pm, just before a Kyoto-bound train was to pass through the station and pass my Osaka-bound express train, she threw herself onto the rails. I’ve heard that when the suicides jump, they instinctively land on their feet. I wonder if this girl did the same. Did she stand and see the train driver’s stunned face? Or was she looking at the eastern mountains?

There is a wall of air that surrounds any fast moving object, and hitting this is the equivalent of hitting concrete. The would have sucked her body under the train carriages, dragging it along for several hundred yards until the train stopped. Supposedly death is quick, though I’ve often wondered whether that last instant of life stretches for the doomed, turning into infinity. In all the dangerous scrapes I’ve survived time seemed to become quite elastic, with seconds stretching into minutes before reality snapped back on itself and the flow of time resumed once the crisis was over.

My Osaka bound train had been scheduled to pass it’s Kyoto-bound counterpart at the station. Her leap changed all that. Both trains stopped, with mine halting a car length or so from where she laid beneath the wheels. Any commuter knows the rhythm of her train or bus, and the sudden slowing down of the train broke me away from my newspaper and awakened numerous dozing passengers. A group of high school boys at the very front of the train began chattering, and as the train came to an abrupt halt, I knew there was trouble. The driver scurried between a window and a telephone and the high school students along with some curious old people stood up. I moved forward expecting the worst but drawn forward nonetheless by the irresistible force that draws strangers towards the site of a tragedy.

She laid face down on the tracks beneath an axle, her body covered by the shadow of the passenger car  above her. The high school students and the old people began asking each other, “Is it a man? A woman? From the heap laying on the tracks we couldn’t tell. The driver of our train left and trotted to her body, putting on some latex gloves as he did so. I noticed some station attendants appear, each removing his white gloves and replacing them with purple-colored latex ones. One of the station attendants carried a green tarp which they spread on the ground next to the body. They lifted her gently from under the train, and I was surprised by how limp her body was.

I understand that there are those such as paramedics, firemen, and police who know how a dead body looks when it is moved, but to someone whose experiences of death are thankfully few and far between it is quite stunning. When dead bodies are moved in movies, they never look like that. To me it looked as if the station workers were picking up an odd shaped sack of cement. There was no muscle control or rigidity to the body whatsoever. She was completely, impossibly limp. It may have looked like a sack of cement to me but it wasn’t. What those men laid gently onto the tarp had moments before been human, and I suddenly felt sick.

As they arranged her body on the tarp we saw the gold watch on her arm. It was a slim watch, obviously a woman’s, and the students and the old people said almost in unison, “It’s a woman.” For having a five hundred foot long train run over it, her body was surprisingly intact. The head and all the limbs were all where they were supposed to be. She wore blue jeans and was barefoot. She probably had been wearing shoes which had come off during her death since no one walks barefoot in the street of Japan. To be honest I forget what top she wore, but I can see the watch clearly. It was a gold watch, a slim woman’s analog. Had it been a gift or had she purchased it herself? How often had she looked at it, and had she used it to time her death?

As they carried the body across the rails in front of our train the Japanese boys twittered excitedly among themselves as an old woman gazed upon the scene solemnly. The station attendants and our driver hefted her body onto the train platform and blood gushed upon the concrete, eliciting shouts of “Gross!” and “Disgusting!” from the high schoolers. I found myself shaking and noticed that some old people sitting on the train station platform turned their bodies away from the scene only a few feet away from them, gazing up the tracks and waiting for the next train to come and take them away from the little human drama unfolding nearby.

They were not alone. I noticed that quite a few people remained in their seats on the train throughout this little drama. Some of them were reading newspapers or the ubiquitous comic books which occupy the time of so many Japanese when they aren’t working or sleeping. Others simply stared into space, off in their little worlds seemingly oblivious to this scene. Others waiting in the train which had hit the woman looked annoyed as they looked back and forth between their watches and the station attendants, as if their fidgeting would send the body quickly to the morgue and get the train back on schedule. Their train conductor no doubt was making the same train announcements as ours throughout the ordeal – apologizing for the inconvenience and promising we would soon be underway.

And soon we were as our driver returned, removing his latex gloves as he entered the train. The train conductor announced his thanks and appreciation for our wait. The woman’s body laying covered by the tarp, station workers beside it, slowly slid past outside our windows as our train continued on its journey. Next stop Fushimiinari, famous for its Shinto shrine dedicated to prosperity.

We returned to our seats, the students still chattering excitedly. I stared at the newspaper and at the article I had been reading but couldn’t concentrate. At this paragraph the woman had been alive and I hadn’t known it; at the next she was dead, and that I knew.

No doubt some would scoff at my apparent naivete and sensitivity regarding this woman’s suicide. My wife and I are expecting our first child in two months, and we were warned that parenthood would make us more sensitive to certain events and stories in the news. Perhaps that explains why I have spent the past hours thinking about that watch and that girl, imagining the future.

Somewhere a person was living their life and received a phone call that changed it forever. Their lives, along with those of her family, were now part of a very ancient play in which loved ones are mourned and their bodies consigned to oblivion. The funeral would last several days, and from what I know about Japanese funerals, they are quite extraordinary affairs. Given the state of her body, the family may forgo the usual dressing of it and placing it in a futon, as if the dead were asleep at her family home. On the next day she would lay in an open wooden casket with a large portrait of her hanging above as a Buddhist monk chanted and incense filled the air. Later she would then receive her death or spirit name, the name which would appear on her gravestone. This practice where the dead are given different names makes tracing ancestors by searching headstones in cemeteries impossible. But the Japanese maintain meticulous family histories, some of which go back a thousand years. Finally on the third day she would be cremated.

Funerals are always bizarre affairs in any culture, so perhaps what I’m about to describe isn’t as strange to some as it was to me. But I find the custom of Japanese cremation to be downright spooky. The Japanese cremate their dead at a much lower temperature which burns away the flesh but leaves the bones. Afterwards the bones are removed from the oven and laid out before the family members. Each member then uses a pair of large wooden chopsticks or tongs to pick up a bone and place it into a special ceremonial box. The rest of the remains are then added to the box with the skull placed on top. The box is then covered and carried home where it remains for several days until the family gravestone is opened. One student told me about her grandfather’s funeral. She mentioned the smell and the warmth emanating from the box as she carried it home. Small ceremonies where a Buddhist monk chants, burns incense and rings a bell are then carried out forty nine days, one year, three years, seven years and thirteen years after death. Each year during the Bon holiday in August her relatives will come to her gravestone and pour water over it as they offer a prayer to her soul.

And so it shall be for this girl whose broken body I saw on my way to work today. I will never know her name nor what drove her to a death which mildly inconvenienced several hundred passengers on the Keihan line for a few minutes on a hot summer day in Kyoto Japan.

Post script: There was no mention of her death in the local media.  I don’t know whether this omission was meant to protect the family or because such acts are relatively common here.

Update: The woman has been dead almost 18 years now. Her broken body has faded into shadow, but the raw emotion of this scene still stirs within me. The watch remains clear.

 

The Ethics of Altered Time Perception

The Daily Mail has a thought provoking article on the use of drugs and other methods to prolong the sense of time for criminals, making their incarcerations seem longer than their actual sentences. While the article does a fair job of covering the morality of using such drugs on prisoners, it completely ignores uses of the technology for more benign purposes.

Imagine a drug one could take that could make a two day vacation feel like a month. Or prolonging those instants of joy that spontaneously arise in our lives into minutes, hours or perhaps even days. Would any of us not take a drug that would allow us mastery of time, to fight the inexorable rush forward, reducing it to a creep at certain times of our lives? There are moments we want to last forever. Soon there will be an app for that.

The article raises profound concerns about what justice means, and as the technology comes into existence we as a society should consider each of them carefully. But are we prepared at all for the opposite? Could there be a downside to stretching out those joyful moments artificially?

Precious Moments Remembered

I once had an angel in my life, and 33 years ago today that angel departed me. She was born in May 1975 to my sister and her husband, their first child of eight. It was immediately apparent she was special, and within hours we knew that she had been born with Down’s Syndrome. Worse was to come when her difficulty “pinking up” or oxygenating her tissues lead to a diagnosis of a congenital heart defect. I was only a child myself, and didn’t understand her condition. All I knew was that she was special to me. I guess I connected to her in an obvious way, and my sister granted me the honor of being named her godfather. I remember standing at the baptismal font in church as she was baptized, oil and ashes rubbed on her tiny little forehead by the pastor’s meaty paw, feeling the gravity of the responsibility on my slim shoulders through the incomprehensible Latin and haze of incense.

For four years I grew up with her, and while her development lagged behind children without the condition, she excelled in providing everyone she touched with unconditional love. I almost hesitate to use that phrase here because it has been so debased over the years, but those of us who were touched by her or those like her, no other words will do. I was her uncle but also her playmate, protector and care giver. For four years she shared this world with me and taught me lessons that I’m still struggling to master decades later. She was “retarded” yet understood Life in ways that I can only glimpse in dreams. She lived in the moment as if each was precious and timeless.

Those moments ceased on January 22, 1980, on the operating table in an attempt to mend the heart that she had been born with, the outcome shredding all the hearts of those of us who had been blessed with them. My mother still cries remembering her, and the tears flow whenever I allow myself to remember the beauty of her smile and the tinkling of her voice, something that I allow myself to do more as I get older, Time proving just how special those moments spent with her were. My sister changed, and her view of me changed and things have never been the same since. She went on to have other children and a full life of her own.

At least I had those 4 years. Sure I wasn’t old enough to truly appreciate them, or perhaps I was because at that age I had yet to be corrupted by Cynicism, Failure, and Knowledge that inevitably came. But they are still within me, and the man I have become, the values I hold today were influenced by a little girl with long brown hair who I swung through the air long ago, filling it with her laughter that I can almost hear now.

7:23 PM

The Kid and I are driving back from a trip to the mall and other various errands in the City. I’m driving into the darkness of the setting sun on a North Carolina road with Pandora streaming alternative hits from the ‘80s on the stereo. We talk about bad drivers since he will soon cross another line separating him from childhood, and he makes a joke that makes me laugh. He is becoming a man, independent from his parents, and will sooner than I want will be on his own, chasing his dreams, and driving roads I will never see. I glance at the clock, 7:23 pm, and for a moment I wish we are driving into the night together talking and laughing forever. As all moments must it passes into memory, but if I could stretch out a moment from an instant into an eternity, it would be this one.

The Bleeding Heart of the Cynic

84 Days Before Election Day 2012

I dream of a candidate who is honest, who tells the American people the truth – that our government has failed us because we as a people have begun looking at it as a surrogate parent who fights our battles for us and most importantly, gives us things that make us happy. I want a leader to explain to us that nothing is free, that there aren’t enough wealthy people on the planet that we can rob to provide us with free healthcare, defined benefit pension plans for all of our government workers, and low taxes.

I dream of a candidate who tells the poor that their condition should be temporary, that there is hope for them. I want a candidate to explain that every middle class and wealthy family did not arrive to this country rich, and for most of our history lived in a poverty that is unimaginable to us today. Yet they worked hard, often as slaves, sharecroppers or indentured servants, saved their money, and taught their children the skills they needed in life to do better than their parents. It often took generations for people to leave poverty behind in this country, but they all did it the same way – through hard work, education, self-discipline and priorities. They didn’t cover themselves in expensive tattoos or have their nails done. They didn’t outsource the responsibility of parenting and teaching their children to teachers. They saved every penny and dime, they taught their children themselves to support their lessons at school. They worked hard to create a better life for themselves and their families. The government did not shower people with money, and those who often found themselves in sudden wealth through luck or circumstance often lost it soon after, and I dream of a candidate who has the guts to say that to the American people. The leader teaches the people that the safety net is their for them, but like any safety net hanging below an acrobat, it is meant to bounce people up to safety. It is there to support them temporarily, and is not meant for them to lay upon permanently.

I dream of a candidate who tells the rich that they aren’t special just because they are successful. While most wealth in this country was hard earned, it is not the government’s job to protect the wealthy or provide them tax breaks to make them even wealthier. All of the great families in this country including the neo-royalty of the Kennedy clan arrived here in filthy coffin ships or packed like sardines and half-starved from months-long voyages that cost them everything. They must be reminded that wealth is fleeting, and that someday the descendant of the Mexican gardener that trims their lawns might employ their grandson or granddaughter, and consequently everyone deserves respect regardless of the size of their bank accounts.

I dream of a candidate that gets the government out of business, that tells Wall Street that while the regulatory hand on their business may not be as heavy as some may insist, it is time for laissez faire to return to the markets. To that end I dream of a candidate who sets about breaking up banks that are “too big to fail” and separating the boring bits of banking from the “exciting” risk takers of the investment bankers and derivatives traders. The days of the government being the lender of last resort, or what normal people would recognize as a metaphorical analog of their parents to come bail their asses out of a mess they created, are over. Every American already has a set of parents, and that includes Wall Street bankers. They can clean up their own messes and shouldn’t expect the government to make them whole again.

I dream of a candidate that recognizes that the American health care system is slowly imploding, and is willing to do something about it. That “something” means working with all stakeholders regardless of political affiliation to begin to address the issues at the core of the failing system. People have no idea what a doctor’s visit or a procedure costs while they are in the office. They have no concept of the cost of the services they consume, perhaps the only example of this opaque pricing in our economy. Such a candidate will ask “Why is it possible for me to buy car insurance from a nationwide provider but not health insurance?” The candidate will ask the American people whether they love the post office so much that they are willing to turn their doctor’s office into one. At the same time this leader will ask the trial lawyers how they can sleep at night knowing they inflate medical costs through excessive payouts and defensive medicine. The candidate will promise them that sleepless nights await them once he or she takes office.

I dream of a candidate who tells the rest of the world that America’s success does not come at its expense, and that the truth is quite the opposite that America prospers when the rest of the world grows richer and more peaceful. To that end he or she will offer friendship to Russia and China, but back the offer up with a strong, professional military. This leader will teach these nations that it is possible for an American to be a Sinophile or a Russophile and a patriotic American, that to love one’s country does not displace any others from their heart. As for our terrorist foes, he or she will promise them that they can run, but they will only die tired. Their future  is short and ends at the tip of a hellfire missile or a SOCOM bullet. The candidate will reward America’s friends, present an open hand of friendship to the wary, and an iron fist drenched in blood to our enemies.

I dream of a candidate that tells the elderly that their future is safe and they’ve endured enough changes recently, but turns to those in middle age and asks whether we are prepared to sacrifice a few more years of working for a guaranteed retirement a quarter century from now. I dream of a candidate I can disagree with on issues great and small without fear that deep down he or she disdains the country that he or she rules. I want a leader who shows humility and gratitude to the American people for selecting him or her to rule them, and will do so to the best of his or her ability even if it means skipping a few rounds of golf.

Finally, I hope that someday America deserves such a candidate because I’m not sure it does now.

Bret Stephens’ Advice to the Class of 2012

Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens provides free advice to the Class of 2012:

Many of you have been reared on the cliché that the purpose of education isn’t to stuff your head with facts but to teach you how to think. Wrong. I routinely interview college students, mostly from top schools, and I notice that their brains are like old maps, with lots of blank spaces for the uncharted terrain. It’s not that they lack for motivation or IQ. It’s that they can’t connect the dots when they don’t know where the dots are in the first place.

Sometimes the best advice is that which you don’t want to hear. If that’s the case then the Class of 2012 – and future classes and their parents, should read the entire thing here.

Flights of Fancy – A Moon Mine

Imagine a private spacecraft launched from near the equator. It’s mission? To visit the moon, land on it, gather a kilogram of moon rocks and dust, then send that payload back to earth where it eventually reenters the atmosphere and is captured. Why do it? Why does anyone do anything these days: to make money. In 2003 NASA estimated 285 grams of moon rocks as being worth $1 million. That’s roughly $3,500 a gram. Would it be possible to make it to the moon and back with a kilo of the stuff for less than it’s value of $3.5 million? If not, how much of the lunar soil would make it worthwhile? Who knows, after the success of Discovery Channel shows like Gold Rush maybe they’d make a show out of it.

The mission could be broken down into the following stages: launch, travel to the moon, orbiting the moon, descent to the moon, landing on the moon, soil acquisition and storage, lift-off from the moon, return journey to Earth, atmospheric reentry, final collection. 10 stages – a nice round number.

1. Launch – Piggy back on an existing launch of a larger satellite, assuming that the entire vehicle could ride as a microsatellite weighing less than 100 kg. I assume this would be the bulk of the investment outlay.
2. Travel to moon – Disposable stage to send payload on its way to moon. Propellent could be conserved to lower launch weight in exchange for lengthening the mission. Six months there/six months return seems reasonable. But how to track the rocket both to and from the moon without a world-wide network of receivers?
3. Lunar orbit – It would be nice to skip this stage completely.
4. Descent – Since the moon has little atmosphere to speak of, parachutes could not be deployed. Therefore it seems the mission would have to rely upon rockets at some point to slow descent. That adds weight to the launch.
5. Lunar landing – Since humans aren’t on board a feather-like landing isn’t necessary. A controlled crash landing at some survivable speed would be preferred.
6. Soil acquisition and storage – It would be nice to combine soil acquisition somehow with the landing – say by having the craft land on an open ice cream scoop with a door that snaps shut once the craft has embedded in the soil. Alsoa sensor that confirms the payload isn’t empty would be critical. The last thing we would want to do is send back an empty craft.
7. Lunar ascent – Escape velocity of the moon is 2,400m/s. It’s significantly less than the earth’s of 11,200m/s but even that speed would be a challenge. Since my physics skills are laughable I can’t calculate what it would take to lift a 100kg craft off the the moon’s surface. I expect it’s more than I think.
8. Return to Earth – Anything that made it this far would probably generate world-wide headlines.
9. Atmospheric reentry – The heat shield would most likely have to survive the crash-landing on the moon. If the heat shield was opposite the soil collector (e.g. on “top” of the craft) the craft would have to orient itself to the proper trajectory to avoid becoming an expensive flaming shooting star across the sky.
10. Cargo collection – Would there be enough precision to insure the payload is returned to earth where it can be easily retrieved – such as the American desert southwest?

Which if any of these stages could be combined? For example, would the ship have to go into orbit around the moon before it dropped down to the surface or could we plot a course that would essentially crash it onto the moon’s surface? The Apollo mission relied upon two docking maneuvers. Would it be possible to simplify the mission to avoid these complex actions? That would entail sending the heat shield used for reentry into earth’s atmosphere on the last leg of the journey to the moon’s surface and back.

So you launch your spacecraft to the moon and a year or so later you pick up a parachute package containing 2.2 lbs of moon rocks and dust outside of Albuquerque. The next thing would be to parcel the dust into 100mg vials and sell them on eBay for $600 a pop. Larger specimens would go for less, of course. How soon would it take for the feds to arrive at your door arresting you for violating some international space treaty or federal law that wasn’t written with this mission in mind but that some governmental bureaucrat wants to throw at you? So on top of eBay and Paypal fees, be sure to add high power federal attorneys. Oh, and those profits? Rest assured that Obama and crew demonize you as being part of the 1% with enough balls to do something that no one has ever thought of.

 

A UCSD Alumnus Speaks

The phone rings and I check the caller ID to see who it is. It’s my alma mater the University of California at San Diego and I grit my teeth as I wonder whether I should answer it or not. If I let it ring the answering machine will pick it up. The system used by the school will recognize that a machine has picked up the call and will drop it. It will then note that I was unavailable and schedule to call back a few days or weeks later. If I pick up the phone and answer it myself there will be a long pause as the system routes the call to an available representative. This representative is always a student who is working while in school not because it’s fun but because he or she has to.

Over two decades ago that student could have been me, although I applied to the job to call alumni but didn’t get accepted. Instead I got a job working at the local video store renting movies to other students, professors and the odd famous person passing through La Jolla California. I rented porn to businessmen and bored housewives, and cartoons to harried mothers dragging their kids to the Ralph’s next door. I also rented New York New York to Jonas Salk and his wife, and met Gary Sinise when he came by to rent a film during some downtime in a play he was performing in at the La Jolla Playhouse. I also rented Playboy Sexy Lingerie III to a man who then turned around and leveled a .45 handgun at me, leaving the store with $500 in cash, John Hughes’s Career Opportunities and my sense of well-being that didn’t return until months afterward.

As I hold the phone in my hands I have only a second or two to decide whether to answer it or not. If I don’t, I’ll just be called back again, so I’m just putting off the inevitable. Since the Wife doesn’t answer the phone (when did that division of labor fall on me?) I’ll be the one to deal with it in the future. But if I answer it I will be forced to explain reality to someone who probably isn’t read for it.

The kid on the other end of the phone is most likely a VA or liberal arts major, but an academically gifted kid from the lower middle class. If she came from a wealthier background, she wouldn’t need to work. If she majored in chemistry or biology chances are she would be already building experience by working at one of the numerous bio-tech firms or hospitals around San Diego. She worked hard to get into UC-San Diego; the UC system is the tougher of the two public universities in California to get into. The UC System has many dirty little secrets that would no doubt make Ronald Reagan whirr in his grave since he protected the system from budget cuts and helped expand it during his tenure as governor in the 1960s. One of those dirty secrets is that it is much harder to get into if one is Asian or White since the system follows strict racial preferences. I only got in because I transferred in as a sophomore and lost a year of credits, after I had initially been rejected (I begged and pleaded in a 7 page long letter to the head of admissions to get in – my dirty little secret). So I can’t be rude to the kid when she starts up her spiel on how great the University is and why it needs my help.

How do I tell her that while my university experience two decades ago was important to the trajectory of my life, it left me with no connection whatsoever to the institution. UCSD was a huge school, and it’s even bigger today with nearly 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students spread out across 6 colleges (up from five during my tenure). It felt big to me at the time, and that feeling was good for me in the long run. It reminded me that I was responsible for myself, that the “system” would not be looking out for me. If I didn’t attend a class, the professor would not notice me missing; the only person to suffer would be me. Attending a large impersonal school was exactly what I needed to help prepare me for the “real world” where I would succeed or fail on my own without help from any institution. I doubt that the school intended to teach me a lesson in small-government conservatism, given the ubiquitous leftist slant of the place – but it did.

I had some interesting classes there. I learned Marxism in a summer class taught by an Israeli communist. A professor in Eastern European Politics brought in a guest speaker from Yugoslavia who predicted his country’s breakup along ethnic lines – five years before it happened. But the rest of the classes weren’t memorable. They were often large, with hundreds of students taught by professors who would rather be doing something else, assisted by teacher’s assistants (TA’s) who were more interested in hitting on the pretty things than they were in helping undergrads master their subjects. It was all ticket punching; I had received a better education from the Jesuits in high school and the teachers at the University of Missouri – St. Louis where I transferred from. All that really mattered was that I graduated from a top school, and UCSD is consistently ranked as one of the best in the country and the world. To do that I needed credits in this subject, credits to finish that requirement. After 3 years all the credits were amassed and I graduated in a ceremony that is completely forgotten except for the fact that my elderly mother attended and met my future wife for the first time.

After graduation the degree turned out to be less useful than I had hoped. It was necessary to teach English in Japan, but any bachelors degree from any accredited school would have sufficed. It would have been more important had I been determined to follow my dream to join the foreign service as one of my high school friends had, but a baby and the Wife’s ambitions to be a doctor took priority. It would have been hard for her to attend medical school and for my son to know his grandparents in Uzbekistan. This was a conscious decision on my part, and while there is some regret it is outweighed by the contentment for the rest of life that followed that decision.

A couple of years ago the Wife and I drove by the campus of the university. I had intended to stop, but after seeing it we decided that there was no point. Large buildings had been placed on every open field making the campus completely unrecognizable to us. Neither of us felt any connection to that place whatsoever. It made us both somewhat sad, so we left La Jolla and cut short our nostalgia trip.

UCSD helped me find the Wife, gave me a degree that has no bearing on my career today, left me in the hole $12,000 with student loan debt that I paid off in 4 years, and the sense that I am not special – just one of many that needs to look out for himself. There is no connection, mental or otherwise, to the institution, and I am not going to pretend otherwise.

Does the kid on the other end of the phone really want to hear that?

Things have changed a lot since I graduated, like tuition. When I left tuition was running $3,500 a year; now it’s over $14,000. I finished school with a total debt of $12,000 – including the debt from University of Missouri – St. Louis – and paid it off in 4 years. According to UCSD the average undergraduate finishes his or her degree with $20,000. Even at that inflated price I believe the cost of the education is worth it especially compared to private schools. One can thank the generous California taxpayer for making the UC system a bargain.

But will she want to hear that her liberal arts degree won’t make it easy to pay back even that relatively small amount? That one of the best things a school can do is provide connections to businesses employing alumni? Small private schools excel at that, but not huge education factories like the UC schools. Even large schools like Ohio State and Michigan have strong bonds with their alumni because of their successful sports teams. The only sports we had at UCSD was offending the Women’s Resource Center in the humor newspaper and betting on the cockroach races at the Che Cafe. While enjoyable these sports don’t make for good television on Autumn Saturday afternoons.

Chances are she will work in some field that has nothing to do with her degree, earning less than people less educated her and wondering where she had gone wrong. She will then either return to graduate school and make her situation worse or find a field that she excels at on her own, and UCSD will have had little to do with the success she eventually achieves.

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed my college experience, but unfortunately for the Alumni Fund my college had little to do with it. Does she really want to hear this? Should she hear this – or should I just answer the phone and politely say, “Sorry, I can’t donate anything right now. Thank you for calling,” and hang up? I suppose the answer is obvious…

Lost Friendship

A couple of years ago I met a man who I thought was very intelligent. He was very successful, had done many interesting things, and his life shared several uncanny similarities with mine. He married a woman his senior as I have, and he read many of the same books and appreciated the same philosophy and art. He also came from a region of Europe that many of my ancestors came from. His wife once said we looked like brothers, and given the small country he came from and the number of my ancestors that emigrated from there, it was even possible that we were distantly related.

But very quickly things changed. I found that the similarities between us were superficial and that there were some very significant differences. He liked wielding power – whereas I instinctively shy from it. He seemed to get a thrill from looking down on people with his education and the status his profession conferred on him. I come from humble stock and try to follow in the path of the Beats who saw ordinary people as being closer to enlightenment than those who posed as enlightened. I occasionally slip into elitism, and when I do I have been blessed with a wife who has no qualms with smacking me upside the head and yelling at me to snap out of it.

Worst of all my friend never listened to anyone. He always did most of the talking, and when you did manage to squeeze a word or two in it was clear that he didn’t accept what you said at face value. Instead he interpreted it, translating it through his viewpoint and cleansing it of your perspective before coloring it with his own. As a consequence he couldn’t learn anything because he knew everything. The old saying is that even Homer nods, but not this man. He truly believes that he has all the answers.

It wasn’t always this way. I’ve spoken to people who knew him when he first arrived in the area. Apparently back then he was quite personable and got along well with everyone no matter what their station in life or educational background.

But over the years he changed. Little by little his circle of friends became smaller although he would try populating it with new faces. I was one such face. But very soon the new faces would catch on and drift away, leaving him with an ever smaller cohort of people who were willing to put up with his narcissism.

I tried to reach out to him. At first I thought he was a misunderstood genius, a man like me whose insecurities lay beneath a thick crust of arrogance and cynicism. But these attempts were rebuffed. One day I sent him a copy of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan, one of the most influential books I have ever read. Weeks later I asked him about it. He didn’t like it (which was his prerogative of course) but the reason bothered me; he said he didn’t learn anything new from it.

I have been in software development and design for over 12 years, and there is currently a push by the federal government to get medical practices to use information technology. To help his practice I investigated electronic medical records systems in my free time. I talked to vendors, installed trial versions, and corresponded with health care providers about what they liked – or didn’t – about their systems. He wasn’t interested in my findings (also his prerogative) but what was worse in my opinion was why. He implied that I didn’t understand practicing medicine, even though I was married to a doctor and grew up with a close sister who was a nurse. This statement stunned me. It was the equivalent of saying that only photographers could design photo software because only they understood photographs, or only astronauts could engineer space flight control systems because only they knew what to expect in space. This was such a basic fallacy that I couldn’t believe my friend believed it. Even though I have been personally involved with the design and modification of complex IT systems worth hundreds of millions of dollars, he didn’t listen to my opinion, or worse, value it.

Eventually he crossed a line, a very important limit, and he attacked when he should have restrained himself. All he had to do was put up his hands and say “Okay, where do we go from here? How do we stop this deterioration and salvage this relationship?” But he couldn’t bring himself to do that. Apparently it just wasn’t his way. He only knows how to intimidate and hurt people, and so he did just that, and he’s quite good at it. Very effective.

By crossing the line he became the bully to me that others are well acquainted with. But I’ve been dealing with bullies since I was 12. They are not exotic nor particularly difficult to handle. I have dealt with so many through the years that I have almost a set routine for how to handle them. And so I have.

For all of his knowledge, for all of his status and wealth, he isn’t one of the most intelligent men I’ve ever met. No, I meet far smarter men every day, humble men who treat everyone with respect no matter how much schooling they have, nor how much – or little – respect the people they deal with actually deserve. For all his schooling, and all his material success, he is nothing more than an idiot.

And that scares me because for all the differences the similarities between us still exist. I don’t want to become like him. I want to listen to others and learn from them. I don’t want to ever believe that I know everything, or even a smidgen more than anything. I want to retain the humility that the pursuit of knowledge requires and not descend into narcissism. I treasure the freedom of curiosity that pushes one to search; the fun in the quest for understanding is in the chase, not in the destination. While lost friendship is painful, I do hope that at the last I can learn from the experience.

UPDATE: Yet I almost can’t help but feel sorry for him. He simply has lost the ability to see things from the perspective of others, and worse, has lost the ability to empathize with them. He kind of reminds me of my eldest rescued dog – a portly old beagle who had lived her entire life outside in the grass and mud. No matter how I try, I can’t housebreak her; the concept is simply lost on her because she spent her entire life outside, most likely living in her own filth. Training her is pointless; she will never change. And I doubt my friend will ever change back. For some reason that makes me terribly sad.

Comfort

I imagine sitting next to a roaring fire in a cabin somewhere in a cold and beautiful place listening to Neil Young’s Harvest.

American Streamline Nightmares

In March 1992 I arrived in Japan to catch up with my Wife who flew there the prior month. I soon found a job teaching English at Nova Intercultural Institute (Nova ICI) - at the time one of the largest English Conversation schools in the country with hundreds of schools throughout Japan. To teach English all I needed to show was proof of my bachelors degree, and after a quick trip to Korea to change to a work visa I returned and taught English. I taught to students of all ages and abilities: office ladies and salarymen who wanted a touch of the exotic in their lives, bored housewives, and children forced to attend by their parents. All Japanese study English junior high through high school. But they learn English the same way we learn Latin: they might know the grammar but for the most part they can’t ask or answer rudimentary questions even after 6 years of formal education. Add to this being the product of a naturally isolationist culture, and the result is that most Japanese have an “English Complex” – which has led to a thriving English Conversation school industry in Japan employing tens of thousands of native speakers as “English teachers”.

There wasn’t much training for the job. The lessons were straight from the textbook American Streamline, a text that spoon fed teachers the lessons. There was an icebreaker to help the students relax, followed by a reading of a short text. After that we went over the text again, having the student listen and repeat it. After that there were a few exercises – again all straight from the teacher’s copy of the text followed by an extension phase to encourage the students to use what they learned. The lesson was completely structured by Streamline from start to finish, and there wasn’t much need for thinking or creativity from the teachers. After a few weeks of teaching the same lessons over and over again the mindless repetition dulled the job and burnout set in. At the time the 6 month attrition rate for teachers was 50% due to the mind-numbing nature of the job along with the stress of living in Japan – one of the truly unique cultures on the planet. 75% of teachers were gone from the job within their first year, with most leaving Japan completely. After two years there was hardly anyone with 2 or more years of experience left.

From April 1992 until June 1994 I taught seven 50 minute lessons a day + 1 lesson of “voice” – 50 minutes of unstructured conversation. Being somewhat of a workaholic, I often worked overtime – especially when the Wife returned to the states to visit her family.

After living in Africa from June 1994 to July 1995, I returned to Japan and picked right up where I left off teaching American Streamline at Nova. I finally quit in March 1997, and we returned to the United States where I began my illustrious career in Information Technology (woohoo!).

At one point I calculated that I taught close to 5,000 lessons in American Streamline. I wasn’t the best teacher; I had trouble with culture shock, and teaching English wasn’t want I wanted to do. I drank too much, smoked too much and wasn’t mature enough to handle being often the first foreigner a Japanese person ever met. American Streamline was a big part of the reason for that. Still I learned a lot from the Japanese, and I hope that I gave something back to them during my stint there. But I don’t want to ever teach English in my life again.

So why can’t I stop teaching American Streamline to 7c’s in my dreams 11 years later? Since leaving Japan I have dreamed about teaching English on average once every week or two. In order to understand this you have to consider that the most basic Japanese students – 7c’s – were allotted 10 lessons of American Streamline. The next level, 7B, had 30 lessons – and I remember one of them – Lesson 25 – even today:

“Pete’s standing outside the movie theater. He’s waiting for his friend Betsy. He’s looking at his watch because she’s late. An old man is coming out of the theater. A young woman is going into the theater. A boy is running up the steps. Some people are standing line outside the movie theater.”

The purpose of the lesson was to teach prepositions of location – not to instill post traumatic stress disorder in the teacher that he can’t escape 11 years later. The teachers used to joke that they would be teaching lessons in their sleep long after they had quit and left Japan, but for me that isn’t just a joke.

These dreams always involve returning to Nova in Japan, and walking into an unfamiliar school usually late then scrambling to find my student files for the next lesson. Inevitably I’m scheduled a full slate of 7c’s and 7B’s – beginners. Often I don’t find the school at all; since overtime often involved being on-call throughout the region on your days-off, travelling to an unfamiliar school at the last minute to teach complete strangers was quite common. I’m usually mercifully spared the discomfort of sitting down with the students and beginning the lesson – two strangers from completely different cultures thrown together at 2,700 Yen a lesson in a tiny room with four chairs around a circular table.

The odd thing is that for about 2 years after my return to the United States I had reverse culture shock; I had gotten so used to living in Japan that I had to adjust to speaking English 100% of the time instead of a mix of English and “Gaijin-ese”. The most difficult change was adjusting my mental concept of space – myself in relation to the world around me. In Japan I had gotten used to moving around in tight areas – narrow streets packed with people, small grocery stores with thin ribbons for aisles, and a whole apartment that would fit completely in my current living room.

The dreams are invariably unpleasant, and I usually awaken happy to find myself on the other side of the planet in a completely different and more lucrative career. I’m left wondering what it would take to end these dreams. Nova went bankrupt last year so I can’t return to Japan and visit the schools that I taught at in Kyoto and Osaka. Perhaps I’m stuck with them the way even old people dream of being late to a high school or college exam.

Airplane Ride

Yesterday the Family hit the American Helicopter Museum in West Chester PA. This museum is a gem; it’s small but packs a lot into a small space and has top-notch displays, including a complete V22 Osprey. A few weeks back the Family sans me visited the museum and discovered that it was running a “Pennies per pound” special: for $.15/lb members of the nearby Brandywine Airport would take you up in a plane for a ride.

I have to admit that I was nervous, but having grown up in a household with a dad who was afraid of storms and driving on the interstate, I’ve learned to be very careful with expressing my fears to the Kid. I don’t want him growing up with the same neuroses that I have; nope, he’ll have to get his own new ones.

The event was run by The 99’s - a group of women devoted to spreading the gospel of Flight started by Amelia Earhart in 1929. The crowd was small but extremely friendly, ranging in age from toddlers to people in their nineties. The Kid & I took to the skies in a Cessna Skyhawk owned and piloted by a guy who looked to be in his early 30’s. A computer programmer by trade, the guy handled his plane confidently and I lost the last of my nerves as soon as his plane took to the air.

Since I was a kid I’ve always wanted to learn how to fly. It is a lifelong dream that began with model airplanes hanging from the ceiling in my pediatrician’s office and later my own room as a kid. It has disappeared in the haze of life, clouded by other responsibilities and tasks only to reappear as crystal clear like it had always been there.

I sat in the back seat behind the Kid and the pilot as he took the plane to about 1,500 feet, explaining what he was doing to the Kid over our headsets. Meanwhile I felt like a puppy in a car, leaping from window to the next, taking in the lush Spring foliage of southeastern suburban Pennsylvania gently rolling below us on a sunny and slightly hazy day. Flying this way in such a small craft is different from the commercial travel I’ve known. It is to commercial flight as a motorcycle on winding country roads is to car travel on the interstate. The fact that about a quarter inch of aluminum separated me from plummeting to my death occurred to me but didn’t trouble me in the least.

After the plane landed I spent the next 30 minutes talking to our pilot as the dream settled in, returning after its long absence. I stood at the edge of the runway watching the other planes take off and land, including a 1947 Piper Cub that the Wife and the Mother-in-law each took turns flying in. I saw the planes and knew that I could do it.

Langston Hughes wrote a famous poem about deferred dreams, yet failed to capture what had happened to mine. It didn’t fester or crust-over; it came back as new and as fresh as ever. It never died; in fact I don’t think it can die. It is such a part of me that I suspect that it won’t die until I do.

Does this mean I will run to take lessons tomorrow? No, but the time will come when I take to the sky again, and it will be sooner than even I suspect.

Cessna Skyhawk

The Kid (disguised as George Clooney) & I and a Cessna Skyhawk