On Minding the Body

A thought that keeps returning to me lately: “From Confucianism to Daoism to Buddhism to Martial Arts and Taijiquan to Acupuncture and Massage and Traditional Chinese Medicine: the Chinese have always been so mentally one with the body.”

It’s more astonishing because we in the West have not been this attuned, owing to our religion’s historical (and literal) demonization of it. Only very recently–the last two or three centuries–have we tried to make peace with it.
Beach resort

Vacations: A Diagnosis

“Vacation” is a suspicious word. To “empty” oneself from one’s life when one is not “working.” What does this say about the value of our life’s work? And this desire to “vacate” ourselves from our locale to “anywhere but here” on airplanes, Climate Change be damned, in order to escape to sanitized resort cells on predictable beaches: what does it say about our relations with our neighbors and communities, with the earth and its future?

Me? Spring Break is here, and here I sit, as on any other day, enjoying my life of study and discovery — finally able to read those pages today on Ming Confucian Wang Yangming! — over coffee at one of my neighborhood Hawker Centers, happily exchanging smiles with the Malay, Chinese, and Indian regulars here who are my community.

The Way is here with good work and good neighbors, not there, alone, with no work.

Mitt Romney's Bain "Dream-Team"

On Honor, True and False

2013 National Honor Society Induction Speech
Singapore American School
21 March 2013

Thank you and welcome, 54 inductees, current members of NHS, parents, faculty, family, friends.

It’s an honor to have been asked to share some words of wisdom with you—especially so, given that I know your first choice, Mr. Kay, was unavailable to do so.

So: upon accepting this late assignment, I rushed to Mr. Sturgeon to ask what this speech should attempt.

His answer was simple: “Talk about character, service, and leadership—talk about honor.” I have to admit I found the answer slightly boring. But thankfully, Mr. Sturgeon added two more words that hit me in my sweet spot: “Inspire them.”

A Metaphor from the Dead

I happen to have fallen in love with the word “inspire” a good 30 years ago, when I was fresh out of high school and falling in love with the beauty of the English language to such a geeky degree that I spent my spare time playing with etymology—the study of word roots. I used to lie on my apartment floor with this very book—the Webster’s Universal Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language—for hours at a time, and surf through its pages looking not for definitions, but for the ancient, original meanings of words we use today.

The etymology of the word “inspire” has been one of my favorites for all my adult life. The literal definition—“fill (someone) with the urge or ability to do or feel something good or creative”—that’s so cliché by now that, here again, we find it boring. But as one of my very closest friends, the great German philosopher and Dead White Male Friedrich Nietzsche observed in the late 1800s, “all words in use today are dead metaphors.” All the words we use today, in other words, have a poetic meaning at their roots that has rubbed off over the centuries to the point that we don’t hear it.

So hear this one:

“inspire”: ORIGIN: from Latin in- ‘into’ + spirare ‘breathe.’ Originally used of a divine or supernatural being.

Do you hear that? Admit it: at its dead metaphoric root, the cliché word “inspire” has  more epic swag than all of us in this room combined: God breathing life into Adam? An act of “inspiring.” The muse of epic poetry breathing the Iliad into Homer? Another act of “inspiring.” Oh, the swag, it overwhelms.

At the same time, though, this piece of swag makes my job here harder. Because it means that this here ceremony, folks, is at heart religious, and that my job is to somehow try to express nothing less than “the divine.” It means that your teacher has suddenly received the role, for the space of this gathering, of something closer to that of priest.

So the flip tone, the swaggy slang, I must inform you, stops here. One of you asked me to be a rapper up here, and I am not sorry to say that you will be disappointed.

Because honor is no laughing matter.

We can laugh back in the mundane world. I’ll rap for you in the cafeteria.

But here, now, let us try to understand this ritual—yes, I said “ritual”—for what it is.

Out of the roughly one thousand young adults in our society, its elders—and again, yes, I said “elders”—have invited a tiny, select minority of our young—the 54 of you standing on this stage—to honor you with a rite of passage. It is a passing, from our generation to yours, of a torch we call, metaphorically, “honor.”

And this means, at bottom, that we have identified you as having the most promise to lead our society when we no longer can.

It is a solemn thing, the rite of passage, stretching back surely thousands of years and hundreds of generations in human history. In this ceremony, we are entrusting you, among all your peers, with a new role: to be our replacements in the future, and to lead our society well. We are passing to you the responsibility, when you replace us, to keep our society strong and wholesome, decent and admirable.

We don’t do solemn well in these times—so I’m going to ask you to take this moment to concentrate yourselves in order to, just this once, attempt to do solemnity well. I’m asking you to open yourself to whatever “divine breath” might inspire you for the remainder of this ceremony, as we discuss your passage to adulthood, and to a life of honor.

Let’s begin with that lamentably dead, cliché word itself. Let’s begin with the word “honor.”

An Uncomfortable Question

We observed you closely and chose you carefully, because you have shown uncommon honor. We are confident that you deserve this ceremony, and we congratulate you for it. I personally know many of you standing on this stage, and have observed you in action in our years here together, and I have greatly admired you. I am sure I speak for many of your elders in this room when I say that it gives great hope for the future.

It’s that future that we will now focus on—your future. Let’s be honest here: the odds are strong that many of you will graduate from SAS to enter some of the most privileged and ivied halls of power on earth today.

The question that intrigues me, but also concerns me, and that should concern you as well, is this: how will you handle the opportunities that your privilege will offer you as you grow into adulthood? Will you be able to continue handling them with honor?

I hate to say it, but unfortunately, the odds are very strong that for some of you—perhaps even most of you—the answer may be uncomfortable. Why? A Wall Street Journal article last year entitled 10 Things Your Commencement Speaker Won’t Tell You says it well: “If you really want to cause social mayhem,” the author tells his imaginary audience of graduates, Continue reading

In Which the Teacher is Sacrificial Poet at His First Poetry Slam

In which this teacher sacrifices himself as “Sacrificial Poet” to warm up and launch the First Annual IASAS Forensics and Debate Poetry Slam. SAS, March 2012. (The “Sacrificial Poet,” I was told, is the teacher who is willing to submit himself to audience’s and judges’ knives before the students take the stage.)

You’ll note I stress “at 3.45″ to justify any lameness in the poem. I did write it in the two hours preceding the performance. Later, the Chinese History teacher-lover in me reflected that this comfort with writing-on-demand is very close to China’s traditional attitude toward poetry. Any educated Chinese wrote poetry, I gather, as frequently and nonchalantly as we tweet or post on Facebook today. One Song Dynasty poet produced over 10,000 poems, while the Qing emperor Qianlong has, I believe, several hundred poems, if not thousands, to his credit. (All Chinese emperors and politicians wrote poetry. You weren’t educated if you didn’t, and nor were you civilized.) That’s so worth thinking about.

Anyway, sharpen your knives and watch the performance below. Warts and all, I enjoyed the slam. I got to deliver a message I’ve wanted to send students for ages.

American Novelists Too?

I got a couple of critical responses to my use of Louis CK as an example of Americans having limited knowledge of the world and its history. In retrospect, I should have anticipated the “he’s a comedian, not a historian” response — though maybe I did just that by showing a comedian in that post whose joke was based on a much more highly informed understanding of world history than Louis CK’s own history-based joke (if we’re joking about time-travel into the past, we are joking about history, however well- or ill-informed). And I grant that the Indian-American comedian’s joke was about Indian history, which undercuts him as an example of a disinterested student of the world’s, and not just his own, history.

Anyway, all that aside, a bit of serendipity and synchronicity (no woo-woo vibes intended) just now. Andrew Sullivan at The Daily Dish quotes Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie who, in an essay published in Guernica called “The Storytellers of Empire,” makes a somehow related point about the one-eyed perspective of American novelists in relation to the non-American world:

Your soldiers will come to our lands, but your novelists won’t. The unmanned drone hovering over Pakistan, controlled by someone in Langley, is an apt metaphor for America’s imaginative engagement with my nation. … Where is the American writer who looks on his or her country with two eyes, one shaped by the experience of living here, the other filled with the sad knowledge of what this country looks like when it’s not at home. Where is the American writer who can tell you about the places your nation invades or manipulates, brings you into those stories and lets you draw breath with its characters? (Read the rest)

Shamsie surely doesn’t need to be told any more than I do that it’s possible to find examples of American novelists who are citizens of the world as well of the USA in spirit, nor that exceptions don’t disprove rules.
I ask myself why I even care, and the best I can come up with is: I live abroad — have since 1996 — but still monitor the media of my native country, and see China-bashing, Iran-bashing, and the bizarre booing of Ron Paul when he points out that maybe Americans need to reflect on people in the wider world, and on applying Christianity’s Golden Rule to them — after the disturbingly Roman-bloodlust applause of that same audience to Newt Gingrich’s comfortable snarl, “kill them,” in response to dealing with “America’s enemies abroad.”
I know blogging about this is pointless, but there it is. Maybe it’s because I teach World History to many Americans kids abroad, and think a lot about what I observe about their understanding of, and interest in, their host country, much less other countries’ histories and ways — which is often as minimal as it would be if they were sitting in Arkansas.
And because I know Chinese people first-hand, and Iranian people first-hand, and admire them in many ways, it just weirds me out to see hostility for these people so freely expressed on the waves and screens of my country. Voltaire and Nietzsche both took pride in proclaiming that their patriotism was not for their nation, but for the world. America needs its “citizens of the world” too.
But wait — never mind. That requires being willing to fund better schools in the first place, so that we see less of the below:

If America weren’t so well-armed, and so ready to use those arms, none of this would matter. It wouldn’t matter if I could dance on the moon, either.