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Subtle intrusions of comfort

Posted in American, Asian, Culture, Reading by Alex L. on February 20, 2011

Mountains in AfghanistanI have recently been reading Pete Blaber’s memoir, The Mission, The Men, and Me: Lessons from a Former Delta Force Commander, about his experiences during training and in combat around the world (including action in Iraq and Afghanistan). As may be gleamed from some of my previous posts, I have a high degree of admiration for battle-tested warriors such as this Chicago-born operative in the military’s perhaps most unconventional unit.

During late 2001 and early 2002, when Americans special forces were making their first incursions into Afghanistan, Pete Blaber was commanding a detachment of advanced force operations (AFO) soldiers. He describes this early phase of the war in Afghanistan as an uncharacteristic one.

The U.S. government, according to Blaber, knew very little about the country they were invading, and special forces were sent in to acquire contextual information and carry out the initial attacks on the enemy. Since the character of the war to come was still unknown, these various units were allowed to organize and operate in a way that did not necessarily reflect their usual departmental divisions. Combat teams were frequently formed and reformed around a mix of AFO, the Green Berets, and CIA agents as need dictated without a regard for traditional military structure. In true special forces fashion, the only thing that mattered was completing the mission no matter how unconventional the means.

Much like I am in awe of master craftsmen who restore old aircraft, I am stunned by the audacity of the challenges that such special forces troops undertake. My confusion about the morality of war aside, when viewed simply as a problem-solving endeavor, the task of entering a hostile country in small teams of a few dozen men to chase out the entire ruling class baffles the mind. Sure the U.S. soldiers were equipped with the latest supplies and technology to help them accomplish this mission (not to mention scores of Northern Alliance soldiers as allies), but as Blaber describes and the U.S. military had to learn the hard way, technology is never a substitute for one of the basic assets of warfare: contextual knowledge of the people, locations, customs, and ways of thinking of others, especially the enemy. (more…)

Tribal mind

Posted in Culture, Just for Fun, Prehistory, Stories by Alex L. on February 13, 2011

Close-up of "Hunters in the Snow" by Pieter BruegelWhen dinosaurs roamed the earth, chewing the leafy treetops with the aid of their towering necks and soaring above the rivers teeming with life on their reptilian wings, was when the plankton and algae that now power my car swam in the oceans. Dying by the generations, the tiny bodies of these organisms floated down to the ocean floor and collected and compressed over time. Given enough time (millions of years) this biomass under pressure turned into what we now call crude oil.

I sometimes get grief from my friends for driving an old car. My propulsive method of choice is an automobile manufactured by the venerable Ford Motor Company, the make being Escort Sports Wagon, the vintage 1995. The sands of public opinion have shifted and my auto is not in 2011 the strapping beast that it used to be in its heyday, but I still find something odd about this criticism lodged by some at my noble steed. For in the grand scheme of things, the automobile itself is such a curious contraption that my particular specimen of it is not nearly as interesting as the species as a whole.

The Chicago Auto Show came to the vaunted convention halls of our city this weekend and displayed its lovely stock of new machines. Sparkling under electric lamps like a river does under the sun, the parade of autos flaunted the latest fashion in sculpted forms and boasted too of new feats of agility, power, navigation, and cabin architecture. Machinery so alive with centuries of cumulative human inventiveness that it would make even the most proud and accomplished cavalryman blush in shame and hide his mare behind the nearest tree.

Why is it that we find the newest cars so attractive? Perhaps it is a kind of survival instinct: we are used to our tribe striving to acquire the fastest and healthiest herd of horses in the valley. When horses were first domesticated thousands of years ago, the armies of  humans that rode them must have become mighty in their lands, killing from their chariots and saddles the bands of other humans who couldn’t figure out the mount. The genes of those not inclined to the equine arts would have found their eternal end in the blood spilled upon the sands and the steppe. (more…)

The silence of the suburbs

Posted in Culture, Stories by Alex L. on January 30, 2011

A close-up of "levels", a painting by my friend on doodlemoose.com (click to see more)Although I wasn’t born anywhere near it, I grew up and live in the sleepy Chicago suburb of Buffalo Grove. Located about 45-minutes’ drive from the center of the city, Buffalo Grove is a sort of stopping place to (hopefully) better things for a great portion of its residents. Tucked a dozen or so miles away from the elite club of prestigious suburbs such as Lake Forest, Highland Park, and Wilmette, whose private beaches hug the coast of Lake Michigan, Buffalo Grove is ever conscious of its not-quite-there-yet status. If it ever forgets, the sister-village of Long Grove, with its quaint antique shops, wooded estates, and 18-holed country clubs, is nestled right alongside it as a constant reminder of the truly refined suburban life.

I have never met anyone doggedly devoted to Buffalo Grove in the way some people are patriots of New York City or even of their small towns (which isn’t to say that such fans don’t exist, I just haven’t spoken to many of my neighbors). Needless to say, there are neither buffaloes nor groves left in Buffalo Grove, while some items like sidewalks and park benches are a mere formality in a place where anywhere worth going to for anyone is reached by means of motor transport.

There are almost never people walking about. One warm summer evening last year, when the weather was perfect and the air was almost fragrant, I was driving through my neighborhood and marveled at the half-dozen or so small groups of residents I saw promenading and enjoying nature’s graces. In the backyard of one house I saw a small crowd congregating around a campfire, and I think I even remember spotting a guitar in their midst. This was a rare sight indeed.

When one who has lived in this neighborhood of densely-packed quarter-acre properties stops and thinks about all of one’s neighbors and for how long one has gone to bed night after night, year after year, in a brick-and-drywall abode only yards away from their brick-and-drywall abodes, sat in the dark evenings by the flickering lights of a television only yards away from their solitary lights, when one considers that despite all of this proximity one knows neither the names of one’s neighbors nor even the sight of their faces, it seems like some marvelous aberration of  a yet-unknown law of nature. An impression then emerges that the silence of the suburbs is not akin to something like contentedness or calm, but is the stupefying experience of creation without a story, like the rippling of the face of the deep in Genesis before the spirit of God moves across the waters.

“The Marketplace of Ideas” by Louis Menand

Posted in Academia, American, Culture, Reading, Stories by Alex L. on June 8, 2010

Parents, friends, university professors, family members, esteemed colleagues, and new acquaintances: we are gathered here today to answer a very important question. Why did a young man who has been passionate about the study of history his whole life, who has majored in history in college, excelled in its study, and wanted nothing more than to teach and learn about the past for the rest of his life, decide not to go to graduate school?

Let me leave that question hanging in the air of the (empty) auditorium, shrug off the narcissism (it was me speaking about myself, in case anyone had hoped otherwise), and step down from the podium.

The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University by Louis Menand tries to answer the question of how American universities (more specifically, the liberal arts departments of those schools) have become the weird places that they are. For those who pursued a liberal arts education at a large university and don’t agree that they are strange beasts, I present the following observation of Prof. Menand’s:

It takes three years to become a lawyer. It takes four years to become a doctor. But it takes from six to nine years, and sometimes longer, to be eligible to teach poetry to college students for a living. (157)

Why? Menand, in his insightful book, answers the How? by tracing the history of the modern American university from its roots in the late-nineteenth century orientation toward research, through its gargantuan growth during the Cold War with the help of government funding, through the turbulent decades of the late-twentieth century and their epistemological crises (what are we doing this for? why are we here? and what right do we have?), to the current university that we see today.

But . . . Why? Why must a student devote nine years of his life to learn to think and talk in narrow ways, and then spend the rest of his life educating the public whose instincts (for better or worse, but usually for the better) cringe at the sound and sight of this narrowness? (more…)

‘A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius’ by Dave Eggers

Posted in American, Culture, Literature, Storytelling by Alex L. on May 23, 2010

I never thought of the Chicago suburbs as a place worthy of literature. Books, on the contrary, are something suburbanites use, like drugs, to escape the reality of their environment – a dull, slow, lonely locale, without the drama of a big city or even a small rural town. As Dave Eggers notes in his book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (hereafter referred to as AHWoSG), often under the veneer of a safe and calm neighborhood, the spirit of a suburbanite dies slowly.

I’ve had this book since high school, just sitting on my shelf. I began reading it when I was eighteen, but, coming off of English classes focusing on Faulkner, Camus, and Sartre, I was sick of authors who played fast and loose with the rules of language, especially to evoke depressing thoughts. I just graduated high school, was looking forward to college, and didn’t need these heavy stories. So I stopped reading after skimming the first few pages.

Six years later, I tried reading AHWoSG again, and finished it in the course of a week. I did not realize until this latest attempt to read AHWoSG that a good portion of the book takes place in Lake Forest, IL. In fact, the author grew up there. One of the most influential novels of the decade was written about one of the most boring places on earth.

I was inspired by this, this entering of the Chicago suburbs into literary history. There is some beauty here  after all, if one has the eyes to see. (more…)

“On the Road” by Jack Kerouac

Posted in American, American, Culture, Literature, Reading, Storytelling by Alex L. on May 4, 2010

"On the Road" cover - Penguin Great Books of the 20th CenturyWhen I was younger, I used to love reading a good book so much that I never wanted it to end, never wanted to say goodbye to its characters. Now, in my relatively more mature years, I rarely get this feeling, though I still love to read good books. Reading the last page about Dean Moriarty, I felt little sadness.

Beat writer Jack Kerouac writes in the last pages of On the Road,

So Dean couldn’t ride uptown with us and the only thing I could do was sit in the back of the Cadillac and wave at him. The bookie at the wheel also wanted nothing to do with Dean. Dean, ragged in a motheaten overcoat he brought specially for the freezing temperatures of the East, walked off alone, and the last I saw of him he rounded the corner of Seventh Avenue, eyes on the street ahead, and bent to it again. Poor little Laura, my baby, to whom I’d told everything about Dean, began almost to cry.

“Oh, we shouldn’t let him go like this. What’ll we do?”

Old Dean’s gone, I thought, and out loud I said, “He’ll be all right.” And off we went to the sad and disinclined concert for which I had no stomach whatever and all the time I was thinking of Dean and how he got back on the train and rode over three thousand miles over that awful land and never knew why he had come anyway, except to see me.

Reading On the Road, I wondered whether the spirit of the character of Dean Moriarty had suffused itself into American culture – I saw it everywhere. The incessant traveler, lover of sights and people and smells, rubbing his belly for joy, sweating, American Odysseus without a home, Walt Whitman re-incarnate. Without Dean Moriarty, the journeys that author Jack Kerouac wrote about that he took with Dean would never have taken place. Dean was the leader. (more…)

Computer games, Divine Liturgy, and imitating greatness

Posted in Christianity, Culture, Just for Fun by Alex L. on March 14, 2010

I grew up in the video game generation. The public discussion about video games for the past decade, I have noticed, has been about whether violent video games encourage violent behavior in real life – parents worrying about children growing bloodthirsty. More recently, some research has attracted attention that suggests that video games may develop logical thinking and hand-eye coordination. Xbox may not be so different from chess and baseball after all. But to me and perhaps others in my generation, video games mean a bit more than that.

If I were to be brutally honest, I would have to admit that my interest in history has a bit (or a lot) to do with me playing the computer game Civilization II as a young boy. Sure, my grandpa read to me – to my great delight – when I was even younger from a children’s book about how man made fire by rubbing sticks and crafted the first primitive tools. But that did not capture my imagination as much as building an empire while playing as the ancient Egyptians in Civilization II or amassing an armada of ships that terrorized the high seas while commanding the Spanish. I piloted an aircraft in the game Aces Over Europe (like my granpda, who flew in real planes in World War II) and won glory for my country as a skilled warrior. I was a hero, like my forebearers. Or, I practiced to become one.

Games are more than about shooting people and destroying things. They are even more than about cognitive and reflexive development. For a child, especially in America where communities lack other rituals for developing self-identity, such games allow you to imitate the greatness of your ancestors. In Plato’s terms, by imitating great deeds (such as defending one’s country as a fighter pilot in World War II) a child may take part in the Forms of Courage, Duty, and Camaraderie. In such a way, he fosters a sense of belonging and duty to his community.

Playing computer games, seen from this perspective, is not much different than taking part in the Divine Liturgy in church. The Liturgy is a play similar to ancient Greek drama: the congregation, an adaptation of the Greek chorus, re-enacts the story of Christ every Sunday and takes part as participants on the stage. After all, is not theater just a type of game, where the actors and audience suspend their sense of disbelief at their imitation of reality just as gamers do? For the sake of something greater, every person is willing to suspend their sense of disbelief.

These are just some cursory and perhaps simplistic observations. I thought I may post this because I have been thinking that this pull towards imitating greatness – either through games or theater or rituals – remains with people (or at least has with me) even into adulthood. I read about the Battle of Britain and I still want to strap into a virtual cockpit. I watch an episode of The Pacific on HBO and I feel the urge to play Call of Duty: World at War. I feel the lack of adventure in my life, and I play The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Serrated Scalpel. Or I read literature, for it too is an escape (or transcendence) of reality.

We all played games when we were children, but we also all persist in other forms of imitation as adults. Why? And to what end? Maybe if we can answer these questions, we could clear up a lot of others about the purpose  in contemporary life of religion, art, and – not to forget – even video games.

History, the History Channel, and Dairy Queen

Posted in American, Culture, Television by Alex L. on March 6, 2010

You feel a bit silly when you find yourself – an adult man – sitting alone in an otherwise-empty Dairy Queen store, licking a soft-serve ice cream cone. This was the situation in which I found myself yesterday after I deposited a check at my bank and, pulling out of the parking lot, decided to park again and buy some ice cream. I usually don’t have cravings for ice cream during late winter, but this time I couldn’t resist.

I’ve been visiting this shopping plaza biweekly for the past four months, and yesterday (Friday) was the first time I’ve noticed that there was a Dairy Queen store next door to my bank. I usually ignore Dairy Queens for the same reason I ignore Baskin-Robbins and Dunkin’ Donuts: I hate their pink signs and bubbly graphic art trying to convince me everybody’s having a good time inside the store when it’s actually usually empty. It’s inauthentic and corporate and depressing.

Those were my thoughts about Dairy Queen until this Thursday, when I had come home from work and, in lieu of going to the gym, had decided to watch an episode of Modern Marvels about ice cream on the History Channel. I used to think Modern Marvels – a documentary series about modern technology – was an impostor on the History Channel, taking up valuable air time that could be better utilized by a show about the history of the samurai, the story of the Romanov dynasty, or even yet another special about World War II. But I’ve recently come to respect Modern Marvels for doing what good history does as well: make the present artificial world (what humans create apart from the natural world) more understandable.

In his classic book of popular philosophy, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig claims that the reason many people in the modern world feel alienated by the sight of technology (imagine the feeling you get driving past an electric power station) is because they don’t understand the “mind” behind the metallic beast. That is, if they only understood how technology worked, people would feel a lot less threatened by it. In fact, they would perhaps even begin to think of the electric power station as almost beautiful.

The Modern Marvels episode I watched on Thursday described the technology of making ice cream, as well as the history of the famous franchise Dairy Queen, the originators of soft-serve ice cream. I was surprised to see a photo of the grand opening of the first Dairy Queen in 1940 in Joliet, Illinois: throngs of families crowding the store on a hot summer day. The franchise spread, and Dairy Queens became almost emblematic of small-town American life in the 1950s and 1960s.

After watching about the technology and history of ice cream in America on Thursday, I felt it fitting and proper on Friday, when I noticed for the first time the Dairy Queen (now known as “DQ”) next to my bank , that I would stop by and take part in an American ritual. The store was empty, as I expected. A women’s college basketball game was playing on a flat-screen TV in the back of the store. The graphic design in the store looked like it was imported from a design agency in New York or California which no doubt held many meetings to come up with a way to convey the message, through bright signs printed on cheap and durable materials, of “zany”.

I ordered a cone with a stack of puffy soft-serve ice-cream layers that I remembered seeing on Modern Marvels. I sat at a booth and enjoyed my dessert while looking at the framed photographs hung on the wall: black-and-white, showing Dairy Queen shops of the past, the only monochrome design elements in the store. I thought to myself that I looked out of place here because a grown man should not be eating ice cream alone, especially in the evening during winter.

Before I finished my cone, a man had walked into the store, the only other customer aside from me. He had graying hair and was dressed in neat business-casual attire. He too ordered soft serve and sat at a booth by the main door. Another grown man buying an ice-cream cone by himself – perhaps I wasn’t so crazy after all. On my way out of the DQ, I passed by the man: he was eating his ice cream and typing on a Blackberry.

Walking by his Lexus SUV in the parking lot, I imagined that the man in the DQ had grown up in the 1960s in one of those small towns I had heard about on the History Channel. He would go to the Dairy Queen with his parents and siblings, and there would be neighbors and friends that he expected to see there. I imagined that now, in his 50s, that man sometimes drives by a DQ and childhood memories prompt him to stop, come inside, and partake of a dead ritual. I thought about this while I drove home.

My recent work as a web designer has made me more sensitive to art and design in my environment. I can walk into a zany Baskin-Robbins/Dunkin’ Donuts combo store without feeling sick with myself as I used to feel, because now I understand the design process that went into creating the persuasive graphical monstrosity that permeates such corporate places. But understanding something foreign and powerful doesn’t necessarily mean you want to be on board. Sometimes the bright-and-colorful relics of the present are more dead than the black-and-white memories of the past.

Love and apocalypse in current pop culture

Posted in American, Culture, Film, Music by Alex L. on February 25, 2010

Hollywood has popularized the idea that romantic love is salvific, that all of one’s problems in life will be resolved by finding “the one true love”. Boy gets girl and they live happily ever after. Unlike old European fairy tales, there is no heroic quest (such as slaying monsters or the like) for the boy to endure before he gets – chauvinistically – the girl as a prize. In a typical Hollywood narrative (gross exaggeration intended), getting the girl is the quest.

In the past decade or so, there have been some works of art that have challenged this traditional Hollywood love story. In fact, they downright portray the opposite: romantic love not as salvific but as apocalyptic. The film Fight Club, with its fascist and destructive undertones, is also surprisingly a love story. The narrator, played by Ed Norton, claims in the opening scene that “the guns, the bombs, the revolution all have something to do with a girl named Marla”.

In music, the young singer-songwriter Josh Ritter’s song, Temptation of Adam, echoes similar themes to Fight Club. The song is an allegory of romantic love compared to both the fall of Adam in the Bible and the nuclear apocalypse of the Cold War. The song ends with these words, which interlace imagery and symbolism from all of those themes: “So I think about the Big One: W-W-I-I-I / Would we ever really cared the world had ended? / And you could hold me here forever, like you’re holding me tonight, / I think about that big red button, and I’m tempted.”

Are these works of art in current pop culture a reaction against the sugary Hollywood love story? And yet the two works mentioned above are not purely apocalyptic; one could argue that they have equally hopeful themes apart from the destruction portrayed in them (a contemporary example where destruction is indulged in for its own sake is the song “Aenema” by the band Tool). Perhaps this theme of ‘romantic love as apocalypse’ has always run parallel to ‘romantic love as salvation’ in American pop culture. I haven’t looked into it too much, but it does make for interesting works of art.

Colbert calls for poetry revival

Posted in American, Culture, Poetry, Storytelling, Television by Alex L. on June 19, 2009

I enjoyed last night’s interview on the Colbert Report of poet Paul Muldoon, especially how Stephen Colbert tried to popularize poetry by reading one of Prof. Muldoon’s works, “Tea”. As Colbert mentioned, poetry is not cool in today’s America. In a country with a strong democratic spirit, perhaps it seems like an artifact of antiquated aristocratic habits. Quote a poem at a social event and you are sure to sound like a snob.

But this decline in popularity is not entirely the public’s fault. I think poetry, like other arts influenced by academia, has evolved to be too cerebral for the public’s taste. And what a shame!

Well-crafted verse, like no other art, has the power to preserve for posterity emotions, the spirit of an age, and even morals. I heard a contemporary scholar criticize Walt Whitman for writing some of his poems in rhyme. But how well Whitman captured the spirit of a historical moment – the national mood upon the assassination of President Lincoln soon after the end of the Civil War – in his rhyming poem “O Captain! My Captain!”! It is rightly so that this poem is remembered above others in the compilation, Memories of President Lincoln, because it not only delivers a powerful message but also does it so pleasurably (one need not overstrain his brain to understand it).

My hope is that poetry does experience a revival. Words beautifully prepared and powerfully spoken are one of life’s greatest joys.