(no subject)

I have a new personal best for leg presses at 755 pounds.

I also finished season four of "Fringe" on Netflix and was pretty impressed with how they tied things together. I was erked when I watched the far future episode and then they shifted back to the regular "present," but as I watched I realized how they had built up the tension this way and was impressed.

Another book up!

The Vampire’s Courtesan

By Paul Schilling

Taken from her home at an early age, Katharina spent years in training to be a suitable consort for a vampire lord, but she never forgot her first love, nor had Johann forgotten her. Just as Johann’s plans to rescue her cumulate, they backfire, making a future together even less likely. Katharina’s near death experience shocks the Archlord into realizing he does not wish to spend eternity without her, and he offers to raise her into the immortal ranks. As powers both natural and supernatural gather against each other, Katharina must choose between mortal love and immortal power.


Reading the Stone

“Rereading the Stone: Desire and the Making of Fiction in ‘Dream of the Red Chamber”

By Anthony C. Yu

For those of you who have not read “Dream of the Red Chamber” (aka “Dreams of Red Mansions” or “The Story of the Stone”), it is the Chinese literary classic, and by ‘the’ I do not mean the only but the most important to the field of literature. It’s a romantic tragedy the length of “The Lord of the Rings,” taking place almost entirely within the mansion of an important family on the way down, and the first Chinese novel dominated mostly by women characters, even as those women struggle with living in a male dominated society. The entire story was supposedly written on one divine stone, and the narrator is telling us what he read, hence the title.

When I read it for myself, I got the gist of the plot, noticed parallels between my family’s expectations of myself and the Confucian expectations of the Jia family for their son Bao-yu, and enjoyed the story within the story within the story organization. Thanks to Anthony Yu, I’ve realized that “Dream of the Red Chamber” is also a story about two Taoist lovers trapped by Confucian values but told from the perspective of a Buddhist who believes both sides are trapped within illusions caused by their desires, hence involving all three of the great religious traditions in Chinese culture.

His discussion of the relationship between literature and history was also enlightening about Chinese society. “Dream of the Red Chamber” was the first Chinese novel to claim to actually be a novel, but because of the narrator (not necessarily the author in this case) claimed to be writing a memoir, a minor literary industry sprung up trying to draw parallels between the author’s life and the book’s events. In the meantime, “The Three Kingdoms,” which we would call historical fiction, was written like a history book but everyone treated it as a novelization. Frankly, the division between literature and history was pretty vague in the West until the 19th Century.

It makes sense to look at a romance novel from the perspective of desires, and Yu deals extensively with how Chinese have perceived desires. The Confucian tradition considered desires natural, but recognized that we did not live in a state of nature, so looked for ways for people to express desires in socially acceptable ways. Musical education and training in particular was stressed by Confucian theorists. But the hero and heroine of this novel were not ordinary people; they were spirits from Heaven reborn on Earth, the land of illusion, and as such their love could not be sublimated forever, only delayed, then tricked, then defeated, but never snuffed out.

Schopenhauer and “Fringe”

“…the representation of a great misfortunate is alone essential to tragedy (which may be caused by a) character of extraordinary wickedness…blind fate…by the mere position of the dramatis personae, through their relations, so that there is no need either for a tremendous error or an unheard of accident, nor yet for a character whose wickedness reaches the limits of human possibility; but characters of ordinary morality, under circumstances such as often occur, are so situated with regard to each other that their position compels them, knowingly and with their eyes open, to do each other the greatest injury, without any one of them being entirely in the wrong. This last kind of tragedy seems… to surpass the other two, for it shows us the greatest misfortunate, not as an exception, not as something occasioned by rare circumstances or monstrous characters, but as arising easily and of itself out of the actions and characters of men, indeed almost as essential to them, and thus brings it terribly near to us. In the other two kinds we may look on the prodigious fate only from afar, which we may very well escape without taking refuge in renunciation. But in the last kind of tragedy we see that those powers which destroy happiness and life are such that their path to us also is open at every moment; we see the greatest sufferings brought about by entanglements that our fate might also partake of, and through actions that perhaps we also are capable of performing, so could not complain of injustice; then shuddering we feel ourselves already in the midst of hell.”

I’m not a big fan of Schopenhauer, since it appears his best ideas were better said by the Buddhists, but when I was reading this I couldn’t stop thinking about “Fringe.”

On the surface, “Fringe” is about people suffering from either blind fate or the actions of wicked men and the heroes fighting back, but as “Fringe” evolves as a show, it moves towards the superior sort of tragedy. The wicked man turns out to be the wronged man, for his son was stolen by one of the main characters, and yet the kidnapper, from his point of view, was saving the boy’s life.

As the curtains of the plot are pulled back, we see again and again that the heroes and villains are not good vs. evil, but relatively normal people pitted against each other, seeing themselves as the heroes and the others as the villains. Some of the most interesting moments in the show occur when they realize how their own mistakes are causing the problems. It is their abnormalities that make them interesting to us, but their abnormalities were created in part by each other’s decisions.

Writing from the Bottom

“Having made an utter failure of my life, I found myself one day, in the midst of my poverty and wretchedness, thinking about the female companions of my youth. As I went over them one by one, examining and comparing them in my mind’s eye, it suddenly came over me that those slips of girls – which is all they were then – were in every way, both morally and intellectually, superior to the ‘grave and mustached signior’ I am now supposed to have become…I had brought myself to this present wretched state, in which, having frittered away half a lifetime, I find myself without a single skill with which I could earn a decent living. I resolved that, however unsightly my own short comings might be, I must not, for the sake of keeping them hid, allow those wonderful girls to pass into oblivion without a memorial.

“Reminders of my poverty were all about me: that thatched roof, the wicker lattices, the string beds, the crockery stove. But these did not need to be an impediment to the workings of the imagination. Indeed, the beauties of nature outside my door – the morning breeze, the evening dew, the flowers and trees of my garden – were a positive encouragement to write. I might lack learning and literary aptitude, but what was to prevent me from turning it all into a story and writing it in the vernacular?”

From the first chapter of “Dream of Red Mansions” by Cao Xueqin

And so the inspiration of the greatest novel China produced began when a writer hit bottom and looked beyond himself. The books of mine other people have liked the most had the least to do with me. The novel I wrote that came the closest to publication was about a samurai who was duty bound to kill himself, but did not so he could help save a child. The conflict between honor and compassion defined his character… the editors loved it, the marketers vetoed it. I had simply wanted to illustrate the most difficult part of Japanese culture for Americans to understand.

I wonder what hitting bottom would mean for me. I’m not sure it’s possible, since I always have the cushion of family to land on. To ‘hit bottom’ would require a Bruce Wayne-like determination. In one of the movies, the crime lord scolded Wayne for being too soft to understand crime, so Wayne gave his coat and money to a beggar and went hunting for the bottom, not so much to join it as to understand it. It took a certain arrogance on his part to assume he would survive it, of course, but that’s what happens to obsessive people.

The narrator, which commentators have assumed is Cao, argued against the assumption that poverty prevented inspiration. In contrast to the West, where poverty is assumed to be fuel for inspiration, in China most writers were independently wealthy scholars who belonged to little clubs where they shared their work with each other. Word of mouth was the only advertising.

Sometimes in Chongqing I would be sitting in my 15th floor apartment thinking, is this really my life? Coming home every evening to a lonely apartment I haven’t even bothered to fully furnish because I know I’m leaving the country anyway? Then I would stand on the balcony and look down at the people who make their living selling food on the street, either as groceries or cooked, and I would wonder how they managed to eek out a living. I was a regular at one stand where the woman basted chicken and grilled it right in front of us. She was an expressive woman; I didn’t need to know Chinese to know when she and her husband were arguing. Most days they were happy, some days they would be working side by side without looking at each other. The Chinese are much more willing to reveal their family difficulties to the neighborhood.

But I don’t generally need to hit bottom to kick myself in gear again. I can use the shame of making a mistake to guilt myself into writing. I can give myself deadlines. Right now I have a post it note on my computer, “What have you written today?”

But it’s not just about how much one writes, but what one writes. If I hit bottom, what would I write about? Would I be too ashamed of how I got there to be honest about what it was like? Would I fall so hard I’d crack the mirror and find a distorted reflection?

My Non-Fiction

Dressed for Yesterday http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00KRPX2W6

This is my humorous take on my life, that of traveler and teacher, reader and writer.

Sun-Tzu, Bruce Lee, and the Tao of Martial Arts http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00KNNFU1S

The first regular exercise I ever found was in Tae Kwon Do when I was about thirteen, but after getting my black belt I moved on to study many others like aikido, Tai Chi, judo, and boxing. Since I generally prefer an intellectual understanding of what I’m doing, I read the Taoteching and books by martial artists and ancient Chinese generals who used Taoism as the basis for their strategies. This book is the result.

The last month of lifting in retrospect

As per usual, when I returned to Iowa from China I worked out more often and yet quickly gained three inches around my waist and about ten pounds all total. That's the American diet for you.

But I seem to have leveled off and am now floating around that new weight. Squats have been the key to burning off enough calories. I only work my bench once a week and my shoulder presses once a week, but I do back exercises twice a week and legs almost every time (five lifting days a week). I focus on dead lifts that last day, because then I have two days to recover. I'm also pretty happy with my whey protein shakes, which I drink after every session.