Oh well, what a let-down.

One of my friends recently posted an article on Facebook with the intriguing title of “I’m Gay and I Oppose Same-Sex Marriage.”  Always eager to hear a new perspective, I was excited to see what Doug Mainwaring had to say on the subject. That interest only intensified when I saw his professed methods:

“Neither religion nor tradition has played a significant role in forming my stance. But reason and experience certainly have.”

Certainly a recipe for effective, empathetic, wide-reaching conclusions, right? Perhaps that set my expectations too high, because I was sorely disappointed by his actual execution. In order to sort through my own reaction, I wanted to take a moment to examine his logical process.

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La Forza del Destino

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There has been so much conversation about the ending of Mass Effect 3 by both nerds angry about it and nerds angry about nerds angry about it. It got awfully hyperbolic on both sides, and I was honestly hesitant to even talk about it, since I don’t feel like I fall into either of those camps. Still, I figured that the conversation had sufficient time to cool a bit, and it’s a prime example of a surprise, our theme for the month. That said, I’m about to talk about a bunch of Mass Effect stuff without regard for spoilers, so if that bothers you, don’t read on just yet. You have been warned!

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April Fools!

Photo: Princeton University

A few years ago, my college invited Crispin Freeman to speak at our campus about comparative representation of women between American and Japanese animation. For those of you who have never heard his name, you may know Mr. Freeman’s voice acting work, particularly in English dubs of Japanese animation. Certainly, much of his career has been immersed in this specific aspect of popular culture, but the lecture itself had little to do with the production and localization side of which he had been a part. This, instead, was more along the lines of filmic criticism, an in depth look at cultural gender assumptions and how popular culture can propagate or challenge those assumptions. Honestly, it was a surprisingly thorough and thought-provoking presentation.

The problem, however, came when the evening turned from monologue to dialogue. As with most lectures, the worst part was the question and answer portion. The first person up to the microphone to ask Mr. Freeman a question was a young woman who breathlessly requested that he perform a line a dialogue from one of his shows. He was taken aback, a palpable wave of vicarious embarrassment washed over the audience, and, after Mr. Freeman graciously obliged the request, our professor hurriedly clarified that questions must relate to the subject matter of the lecture. Still, it led me to wonder how our preconceptions of public figures shape our expectations of their public output. Does James Franco suffer from similar disappointment when dealing with people in his current studies? Was Mr. Freeman more comfortable with that out of place question or the grad students’ criticism of his cultural assumptions?

This was the sort of thing I thought about when I heard that the 92nd Street Y had issued refunds and apologies to its audience for Steve Martin’s appearance. They were dissatisfied apparently because he spoke about art criticism, the topic of his book, rather than, I don’t know, walking on stage with an arrow through his head or something. People had assumptions, and when those assumptions were denied, they grew bored and restless, apparently enough to complain and ask for a refund. What’s great, however, is Mr. Martin’s hopeful opinion piece in the New York Times afterward. Rather than wishing he had played to expectations from the beginning, he regrets caving to them at all. He laments abandoning intellectual opportunities in favor of safety and familiarity.

This sort of denial of expectation can lead to the sorts of exciting things this blog was meant to celebrate, so April Fools, everyone! This month is full of blog posts about surprises, the terrific things they lead to, and the bad taste they leave in some people’s mouths. I’m pretty excited about it; I hope you are too.

Grad Lyfe

Since Autumn, I’ve been gradually applying to my top grad school choices. Since last month, I’ve been gradually rejected from my top grad school choices. That changed this week, when I got accepted into an exciting program that I had no hope of getting into. I’ve made it through the apparently capricious process of graduate admissions. From what I can gather based on my experience and that of others, graduate admissions seem to be a massive experiment in creating a large-scale Skinner Box to elicit random, irrational behavior from human adults. Now I’m left to wallow in agonizing trepidation for several months while I contemplate a move and the prospect of learning two dead languages in a year.

The latter issue is terrifying me the most, though. After reading the thoughts of a number of a number grad students, I understand that it’s pretty common to suffer from Impostor Syndrome, in which accomplished people feel that their successes are the result of external factors, other than their own efforts, often disregarding efforts the contrary. This is a demoralizing sort of stress that grinds down people in already stressful situations. However, just because this is common, it doesn’t mean people who feel they are lucky frauds are always wrong, and I’d be a lot warier of falling victim to the equal but opposite Dunning-Kruger Effect. Impostor Syndrome seems to be sort of a cliche that some lean on as a sort of crutch, as reassurance. In all honesty, I embrace personal insecurity as a sort self-help technique. Self-doubt always drives me to improve myself, because I never feel that I am sufficiently prepared for anything. I feel that now, in a frighteningly intense way. Too much can be crippling, but this is just enough to drive me to study my brain apart from now until September.

The rejection letters I received were then powerful motivators, not setbacks. They are the stick driving me forward, for want of a carrot. And I welcome the lessons that failure and doubt bring, for they are greater instructors than success and certainty. I just hope this strategy works. Maybe I should reexamine it.

A Benevolent Princeps

As violence escalates in Afghanistan after the accidental destruction of copies of the Quran by American forces, the two governments are left with the frustrating task of trying to defuse the crisis. To President Obama’s credit, he immediately sent a letter of apology to President Karzai with the explanation that the event was an accident but that the matter would be investigated. Some have criticized President Karzai for not reciprocating the apology in the wake of Americans’ deaths at the hands of Afghan troops, which seems understandable, but I’d rather focus on the more inexplicable criticism that President Obama has received for apologizing.

Newt Gingrich said that the apology indicated that there “seems to be nothing that radical Islamists can do to get Barack Obama’s attention in a negative way,” which seems to be rather flawed argument. This isn’t about anything radical Islamists did; it’s about what American forces did, even if accidentally. That is what the apology addresses, and figuring reactions to the event in whether or not to apologize for it seems like putting the cart before the horse. Even from a more pragmatic perspective, it only stands to reason that a mea culpa would take at least some of the steam out of anti-American sentiments, which could save lives in a time of increasing violence. Even if that’s only supposition, what would silence or belligerence gain? Still, aside from that bizarre comment, Gingrich’s statements seem to mostly focus on his expectations for an apology from President Karzai. Senator Rick Santorum’s comments have been much stranger. Apparently, he seems to think that apologizing for a mistake “shows weakness.” Is malice required for contrition? Does that mean the US is off the hook for all the Afghan civilians killed in the chaos of conflict? Sure, people are dead at Americans’ hands, but it was an accident! No hard feelings, right? This kind of thinking ignores how important public opinion is to counterinsurgency in particular and how important responsibility is to being a decent human being in general. Since they are candidates, Mr. Gingrich and Senator Santorum can safely make these sorts of jingoistic pronouncement to their base while never having to worry about writing a letter home to families that their loved ones died because the president wanted to be an arrogant prick.

This all reminds me of an event from imperial Roman history. In 48, Emperor Tiberius appointed Ventidius Cumanus the new procurator of Judaea. The province had grown more unstable in recent years and had churned through a few Roman and Roman-collaborating governors in that relatively short time. Cumanus was tasked with restoring some order to the region, but he began with a blunder when he recruited his auxiliary troops from the pagan towns of the Levant. The consequences became apparent when, among other insensitivites, one of his soldiers destroyed the Torah of a village synagogue. In such a tense climate, this offense was the largest spark to set alight a sudden uproar. Cumanus could not simply abide open riot in his province, so he had to show Roman power to regain control.

Which he did, when he apologized by beheading the offending soldier before his accusers. An uneasy peace resumed for a time.

I’m obviously not proposing beheading anyone who burned a Quran. Rather, I want to emphasize that being apologetic is not the same as being weak. For an empire that flexed its might with almost wild abandon across swaths of three continents at the time, this was an extreme act of contrition, but the most important thing to remember is that it was still insufficient. In the reign of the very next emperor, Rome and Judaea would descend into a brutal war that would leave Jerusalem in ruins. Rome never understood the concerns of the Jews under their rule, and lacking that knowledge in meant that even the most dramatic apologies would still be reactions, attempts to cure symptoms predicated on hamfisted mismanagement rather than simply operating with greater sensitivity to prevent the lethal sickness in the first place.

It is a cautionary tale of the importance of diligently seeking understanding between people and cultures and what bloody results may befall those who do not.

The Right Hand of Fellowship

Late last month I stopped into a Brooks Brothers and picked up a new oxford shirt as part of their end of year sale (since I am unemployed and must buy clothes cheaply). All I got was the shirt and a pair of socks, both of which were deeply discounted. Given my meager purchase, I was especially surprised when I found this in the mail.

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And even more so when I opened it to find that it was handwritten.

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Maybe I’m outing myself as a sentimental rube, but opening my mailbox to randomly find a handwritten card from a store I visited once to buy something on sale was a welcome surprise. I understand intellectually that this was likely prompted by the fact that since it was my first visit to the store, they added me to their system and were likely required by policy to write me a missive as a result. I understand intellectually that this is not based on their role as a “lifelong family friend” but on pragmatic business calculation. Still, the fact that the salesperson actually set pen to card stock on my behalf still seems very personal, given how impractical, time-consuming, and downright antiquated the format is in the modern era. That she spelled my name correctly was also a rare treat.

Now naturally I don’t mean to spend a blog post promoting Brooks Brothers, especially since they’re doing fine without me. Rather, I intend to promote physical, written correspondence.

Obviously I’m not trying to impugn more convenient forms of communication. There’s no sense in throwing telephones, text messages, email, social networks, video chat, or telegraph out with the bathwater. They serve an excellent purpose and even provide an intimate sort of social fellowship all their own; I sincerely hope that doesn’t sound snide or condescending, because that’s not how I intend it. There are few means of remote communication that demonstrate more personal effort and intimate attention than a handwritten letter. Specifically, handwriting requires a great deal more forethought and planning for obvious reasons inherent to the format, and just putting something into an envelope, paying for postage, and walking it to the mailbox simply inconveniences a person. It’s a small sacrifice but greater than most other means of long distance communication.

With the ubiquity of social networking, I keep in fairly regular contact with a larger number of people than before, but it’s all so oblique and distant, obviously in the case of those who are geographically distant but even in the case of those in the same city. I wanted to bridge that gap with these friends of mine, so I’ve been trying to send letters more often, with mixed success. To that end, I did something I’d never really done before: I sent out Christmas cards, which made me realize how few of my friends’ physical addresses I have on hand. I made an effort to write awful little poems in many of the cards in an effort to personalize them as much as possible. It felt a bit awkward for me, the act of collecting addresses and writing notes in my awful chicken scratch. Still, I enjoyed it doing it, so I wanted to keep it up.

Around the same time, a friend of mine went to basic (whose graduation I’ll be driving down to see in the morning), which, as we all know, is a perfect excuse to write letters to someone. Naturally, I sent him one of my Christmas cards, and in his response, he commented on my childlike scrawl. In the next letter I sent him, out of embarrassment dressed up as altruism, I broke down and typed my next letter to him, thus ending my experiment with handwritten letters.

I do want to pursue old fashioned communication though, so maybe I’ll have to get my manual typewriter fixed up and use that instead to writer letters. I think, however, that’s a topic for another blog post. In the meantime, feel free to send me an epistle in the comments.