Thursday, December 29, 2011

Not Just Another Year

It's been a long time since I posted on here--not for lack of interesting things in my life, but I suppose for a lack of inspiration to write about them. Several people have been urging me to write, and I sometimes find it hard to explain how the trifecta of creativity for me--subject matter, inspiration, and articulation--have to come together in order for me to really feel called to write. There's a part of this journey that took me from Blacksburg to Floyd that feels intensely personal--not in a private way, but simply an ineffable and seemingly inexpressible way.

All those concerns and personal quirks and preferences aside, it's been an amazing year. It started off in a propitious enough manner--a lovely lady with whom I shared a mutual attraction finally found the opportunity to get together, and when we did, it blossomed quickly into a beautiful romance.

As if to show that good fortune follows on the heels of good fortune, I landed a job with a local winery which happens to be among the largest producers of wine in the state (said winery, for reasons both personal and professional, shall remain unnamed, but you can probably guess which one it is if you think about it hard enough). I'd been away from the aspects of the wine industry--the social aspects, the scientific aspects, the aesthetic aspects--for so long that I'd almost forgotten why I began loving it in the first place.

Finally, because good things come in threes, I brought the year to a close (or near enough) in November by getting engaged to said lovely lady mentioned above. I had originally been planning on waiting a little bit longer than eleven months, but there's really no way to find out your intended's ring size without tipping your hand a bit (even if you use a cat's paw), and she is nothing if not preternaturally perceptive. However, I decided that she probably thought that I was going to wait a little while before popping the question, and therefore if I acted quickly, I might be able to surprise her. The week after she cottoned on, I suggested that we take a trip to Williamsburg so I could show her the W & M campus. This led, naturally, to a trip to the Crim Dell bridge, which of course provided the perfect backdrop for the proposal. Naturally (and thankfully) she said yes, and we celebrated by going over to Millington Hall and sneaking into the greenhouse at the top of the building, which I did quite a bit as a freshman. It was a lovely celebration of new beginnings and old, fond, memories.

I said almost two years ago that I believed that my happiness would coalesce around my move to Floyd. It's reassuring and gratifying to find that I was correct in this belief. Here's to many more years' worth of happy events, good fortune, and new adventures.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

On Gentlemanly Character

When I was perhaps six or seven years old, my mother started her own housecleaning business. Her clients tended to be wealthy people who owned expensive apartments or luxurious homes in the Charlottesville area. One of the married couples who employed her had two sons, to which I will refer as Chris and Daniel and with whom I soon became fairly close friends. Our friendship, however, was oddly divorced from the friendships I had with other children my age. At that point in my life, I was unaware of the invisible, interpersonal chasms that class distinctions create; it confused me greatly when my parents refused my requests to invite Chris and Danny over to our house. In retrospect, their refusal saved me a great deal of heartache later.

Six years after I met them, I began attending a private school in Charlottesville through the generosity of a benefactor. Coincidentally, this happened to be the school in which Chris and Daniel were enrolled. Soon after I started that fall term, their attitude towards me underwent an ugly shift in tone and temper, and I became the object of their ridicule, scorn, and mockery. In retrospect, it has become apparent that all middle school experiences are fraught with such petty betrayals. At the time, however, I was unused to such forms of emotional treachery, and took it with a great deal of anguish. My father, witnessing my grief and dismay over this issue, took the opportunity to talk to me, one day, when we were out together. This happened thirteen years ago, so I will by necessity paraphrase, but I believe I know my father well enough to do his thoughts and attitudes justice.

"Will," he said, "a hundred and fifty years ago, Chris and Danny’s ancestors were poor immigrants, while your ancestors were Southern landed gentry. That does not make you better than them, just as their current wealth does not make them better than you. However, by virtue of your heritage, you are a gentleman and the descendant of gentlemen. That is something their money cannot buy and which our family’s current lack of wealth cannot take away from you."

It is important, at this point, to note the distinction between the two uses of the term "gentleman." Historically, a gentleman was defined by certain privileges and achievements: land ownership, collegiate education, and so forth. These became associated, over time, with certain virtues: aesthetic taste, cultural refinement, courteous and genteel behavior, et cetera. Although my father was using the word in its more historical sense, I understood—and understand—him as meaning that the aforementioned associated virtues represented the foundation of a more classical, and timeless, gentlemanly character.

In later conversations, it would become impressed upon me that being a gentleman had much more to do with responsibilities than rights. In short, being a gentleman is being, and becoming, a superior man while making no man your inferior. What of a superior man, though? What qualities does he embody? Attempting to distill the essence of this superior man, this ne plus ultra of a gentleman, remains a daunting task, complicated by the difference between modes of expression and foundations of principle—in short, the difference between doing and being. A gentleman does many things, but only four identifiable virtues make up his being: duty, honor, compassion, and integrity. On these cornerstones is the house of gentlemanly character constructed.

Duty is the sense of responsibility to one’s country, creed, and other analogous institutions—that is, the more abstract and group-oriented of human constructs. It is also the most easily mocked of the gentlemanly virtues, due to its association and connotation with outdated notions of chivalry, nationalism, and pride—things that fell by the wayside during the relentless advance of post-modernism. As gentlemen, we are bound to such constructs as our homeland, our commonwealth, our community, and our family. There is an intrinsic sense of obligation to protect and defend these things, both as entities and ideals, for without any individual sense of duty, there is no group sense of duty. This virtue makes an appearance in the oath of obligation of one of the remaining organizations dedicated in principle to the preservation of gentlemanly qualities: the Boy Scouts of America. "On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country…"

What would Richard Winters do?

So what, then, of honor? How is honor different from duty? Put simply, honor is personal, in the sense that it is directed inward. Duty is an outward sign of fidelity to social and interpersonal mores. Honor is an inward display of devotion to one’s own personal beliefs, ethics, morals—those intersubjective perspectives which reflect objective values. Honor is essentially the currency by which a man measures his own worth. We appraise our own progress through life by asking ourselves if we are, indeed, the men we wish to be. Honor requires certain external foci, to be sure, but in the end the assessment of self is wholly personal. This interior and personal nature is what gives honor its potency and passion. It is important to note the (perhaps deserved) negative connotations of the term "honor." It is in the name of honor that men down through the millennia have submitted to their baser emotions. When a lesser man’s honor is insulted, his worth—and, by extension, his concept of his own being—is insulted. When honor is informed by gentler impulses, such as compassion, it becomes less prone to wild swings of emotion.

Compassion is, to some extent, an extension of duty. Love is a duty towards those with whom we do not necessarily have any sort of attachment. It is the human incarnation of divine grace, love that does not know or care about the meaning of the word "deserve." Unlike duty, however, which is born of fidelity—fides—compassion is an expression of love—caritas. Compassion is the mercy that tempers the justice of duty and the passion of honor. Lest we grow arrogant in our estimation of ourselves or cold in our actions towards others, compassion urges us to kindness, empathy, and humility. Love in the absence of humility is possessive, jealous, and at times vengeful. Love in the presence of humility gives without needing to receive, and is fulfilled by the simple act of communion with our fellow man. There is no small amount of pragmatism in compassion, for it is in the realization that we are "all in this together" that we access our benevolence, our desire to do good for others at no apparent personal benefit. It is a realization, in a sense, that by helping and healing others we become more whole ourselves.

This leads naturally to integrity—both in the sense of moral and ethical impeccability and in a more overarching sense of integration, wholeness, and unity. Moral integrity is, to use a tautology, "doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do." Knowing what "the right thing" is—being able to recognize a right action, and contrast it with a wrong action—is what makes integrity impossible to teach. Many evil men have felt compelled by duty—one need look no further than the Nazi Party or the Cosa Nostra. Many men who are slaves to their more primal urges place a great deal of value on honor, as we see in tribal cultures of both the modern day and antiquity. The most maudlin and slothful anti-war protestor feels a sense of compassion, albeit compassion in the form of moral equivalence rather than a true feeling of brotherly love. A gentleman understands that no aspect of his character can be divorced from any other—they inform each other, feed into each other, and provide a network of principle through which all behavior is ultimately informed. Without duty, compassion is too weak, too soft. Without honor, compassion has no guiding light, no principle to inform its progress. Without compassion, duty is too harsh, honor too prone to petty spite. A gentleman strives for balance in all things. Integrity of character—which is to say, moral integrity as well as wholeness of being—is the result of that quest for balance.

The timelessness of gentlemanly character is often overlooked. Its virtues are associated with bygone eras. Perhaps gentlemen of our own time are so rare that we long for an age where more strove to comport themselves in a dignified, impeccable way. Perhaps we are simply reluctant to nurture within ourselves the same virtues, realizing at some level that such an undertaking would require more restraint and discipline than we are willing to expend. Being a gentleman is not easy. Being a gentleman is not designed to be externally rewarding. However, it is only through pulling himself out of the primordial ocean of simple existence and striving for perfection in a fallen world that a man transcends his ordinary nature and realizes the spark of the Divine within his soul.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Beautiful Side of Somewhere

Since moving to Floyd, I’ve been amused to consider that oft-mentioned correlation between negative emotions and the spate of creative energy. By that measure, my life here makes for boring writing:

I got up. I went to work. I came home. I ate dinner. Life is wonderful and I have no regrets.

It makes a good epitaph, I suppose, especially if you dig Hemingway and his love affair with the first person pronoun. However, I have irrational and stubborn principles that come into play when I put my mark down on a page, and if there’s one thing I can’t stand in any form, it’s banality. (Incidentally, this is why I have a hard time reading most of what I wrote on here before 2005.)

Given those self-imposed restrictions, I suppose it’s a good thing that there was a shake-up in my world. The original move to Floyd, precipitated as it was by what amounts to a love affair with what is now my highland home, was built largely upon the fact that I’d found a job—an internship at Five Penny Farm/Shooting Creek Brewery—and, through my employers, a place to live. The internship was supposed to last from April until October, but due to a lot of unforeseen financial circumstances, my employment became, to use the popular euphemism, redundant.

In my previous life, this news would have devastated me and left me convinced that I’d made a mistake in moving to Floyd. Indeed, I was shaken for a good part of the day when my boss regretfully informed me that he couldn’t afford to pay me anymore. It’s become clear to me in the past year, though, that a paradox exists in regards to fear—that is, that the worst time to yield to doubts and misgivings is when they seem the most warranted.

I’d already found a part-time job (originally to supplement my income from working at the farm) at a place called The Tasting Room, a cooperative “satellite” tasting room run jointly by five local wineries. I took it as a good sign that in the short period I’d been here I’d been able to find more employment than I’d ever found in Blacksburg.

“You ain’t got to stand up tall, but now, baby, you must stand up.”

An aside about the nature of faith: a lot of people seem to have odd, skewed notions about the nature of faith, for a variety of reasons I won’t go into. Faith, as I see it, is not blind. It’s not a rejection of fact. It’s an acceptance of things, ideas, notions that lie beyond the realm of fact. Perhaps more importantly, faith is not the absence of doubt, fear, or anxiety. It is the motive force behind the ability to proceed when those doubts, fear, and anxiety are dark waves cresting on the ocean of the soul.

I truly believe that I did not find work in Blacksburg for these two reasons, inextricably linked to each other: I had not yet reached out in faith, and I had not yet found a place (mental, emotional, or spiritual) where I was able to reach out in faith. The evidence, for me, that whatever was lacking before has made itself present to me lies in the fact that before my time at the farm was up, I was offered a job at a local organic food company. A happy side-note to all of this is that when I quit grad school in the summer of 2009, I joked (rather wryly) that it seemed likely I’d never use anything I learned in my year of pursuing a Food Science degree. Irony of ironies—now I may have to give myself a refresher course in Food Chemistry.

It’s always a good idea to keep in mind that, if you say “It’ll be all right” for long enough, sooner or later you’ll be right.

(I’m still flying.)

Friday, March 19, 2010

MBTI/Firefly Demotivators

I put this together the other night on a whim, and figured that fans of either or both of these would find the results amusing. Enjoy!

Monday, March 08, 2010

Just one breath away from being home

(The two italicized quotes in this post come from The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.)

The Lenten tradition is associated, in the cultural mainstream, with giving up meat or chocolate or even Facebook, now that the latter has become such an addictive phenomenon. However, traditionally, it's associated not merely with deliberately punishing one's epicurean sensibilities, but with penitence and spiritual renewal. It's a time for repentance, though not necessarily the most abject, self-flagellating variety. (It's the kind of repentance a favorite teacher of mine used to espouse. When a student would come in late, spouting excuses and justifications, my teacher would smile kindly and say, without rancor, "You don't have to explain. Just say 'I'm sorry I'm late,' and take a seat.") It's also a time to remember that, as Jesus wandered for forty days in the wilderness, so too we wander in our own spiritual, mental, and emotional wildernesses.

And, oh, how complacent a wilderness can make a person. It's not about wanting to be in such a place; it's about not having the energy, courage, or gumption to leave. As I mentioned before, I became extremely sick with the H1N1 virus, on the heels of which followed pneumonia. Although I may joke here and there about coming close to dying, it's truer in a sense than I sometimes admit. Part of me did die with that illness—the slothful indolence that allowed me to continue going down a slow road to nowhere. I came back to Blacksburg in December, after being gone for a month, and realized that as much as I love my friends and my church, I was staying put for the wrong reasons.

"My heart is a traitor," the boy said to the alchemist. "It doesn't want me to go on."
"That makes sense," the alchemist said. "Naturally it's afraid that, in pursuing your dream, you might lose everything you've won."
"Well, then, why should I listen to my heart?"
"Because you will never again be able to keep it quiet. Even if you pretend not to have heard what it tells you, it will always be there inside you, repeating to you what you're thinking about life and the will never be able to escape from your heart. So it's better to listen to what it has to say."

Back in January, right around the time I wrote the Avatar review, I had been visiting Floyd over the course of two weeks. The county and the town have fascinated me for some time, and something—call it whatever sounds most appealing: the Holy Spirit, the ordering principle of the universe, serendipity, those are all good terms—told me, "You need a break. Go explore Floyd." Actually, what I set out to do was drive on the Parkway and get a cup of coffee at one of the two coffeehouses in Floyd. (The fact that this town has a population of four hundred and contains two coffeehouses should give some idea as to why I liked it from the start.)

However, the Parkway was closed due to snow, and Café del Sol was in the process of closing for the same reason, as it looked like a storm was coming in. I went across the street to the Black Water Loft. And, somewhere in between the time I entered the Loft and when I left, I felt something that I hadn't felt in almost five years: utter certainty. "The love that casts out fear," as the apostle John said.

I've realized, rather belatedly, that I haven't discussed that one moment of clarity I had so long ago. Back in the spring of 2005, I went on a trip to see Maria in Orange, Virginia. Among other things, we took a trip over to Barboursville Winery. It was technically closed, but a door from one of the rooms to the outside was unlocked and ajar. I snuck inside, despite Maria's protests that I was going to get in trouble, and gazed out through a wall of windows at the westering sun settling over the vineyards. Something inside me said, "This is where I belong." That thought took root and blossomed over the course of the year it took for me to wake up, one morning, and think "I'm going to open a winery." It was the clear realization of a truth axiomatic enough to open new doors of understanding and belief.

"[Your Personal Legend is] what you have always wanted to accomplish. Everyone, when they are young, knows what their Personal Legend is. At that point in their lives, everything is clear and everything is possible. They are not afraid to dream, and to yearn for everything they would like to see happen to them in their lives. But, as time passes, a mysterious force begins to convince them that it will be impossible for them to realize their Personal Legend...It's a force that appear to be negative, but actually shows you how to realize your Personal Legend. It prepares your spirit and your will, because there is one great truth on this planet: whoever you are, or whatever it is that you do, when you really want something, it's because that desire originated in the soul of the universe. It's your mission on earth...To realize one's Personal Legend is a person's only real obligation. And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it."

And so my perception has begun to change in the past two months. I suppose you could say I got that vineyard back, mentally. My poverty and lack of work in Blacksburg has not been a curse or a punishment, but a clear sign that it is time to move on. Life and work in Floyd is, and will be, another tale. I can't wait to tell it.

(Although I try to avoid being so self-absorbed that I quote myself, this was relevant enough that I didn't want to try to bother rephrasing it. I'll hope I can be forgiven this one exception.)

"I really do believe that everything will unfold the way it should. Without that, what do I have to hope for? I believe that eventually I'll end up where I need to be, and that things will fall into place somehow. ...I'm not afraid anymore. I don't think I have to be. Even though I have no idea where I'm going, I know that I will find out eventually. And after all that's happened I have reason to believe I'll be all right in the end."
-May 12th, 2005

(I'm still flying.)

Friday, January 08, 2010

Happy 2010!

It's good to be back. I got sick back in November with the swine flu, which worsened into pneumonia. That took quite a while to get better, and by the time it did, Christmas was close and I was still looking for a job, et cetera, et cetera.

Things have been a bit rough recently, but rather than simply whinge about it on here, I decided to start 2010 off right: with a rant directed a target that can't fight back. It lies below. Enjoy (hopefully)!

Avatar: Same old story, different graphics

There is a scene in the movie Avatar where the main character—or at least the ten-foot blue body the main character spiritually possesses—falls off an aircraft and plummets into the jungle several hundred feet below. He manages to hit just the right combination of flora on the way down, breaking his fall and allowing him to land feather-light on the ground. The movie pulls off a similar trick, bouncing us gently from implausibility to smug sanctimony, until we land heavily upon the unpleasant truth that the movie is a waste of thirteen dollars and one hundred sixty-two minutes.

I’m not even going to bother going into the plot and characterization (or lack thereof) here, because if you’ve seen a movie made about Indians, rainforests, or nature in the past twenty years, you already know the interpersonal dynamics and dramatic storyline. The white men are bad. The natives are good and pure. The white men want to despoil the land. One of their number (in this case, a laconic James Sully) sides with the natives and helps them defeat the other, evil, white men. (As an aside, am I the only one who finds it patronizing that the natives always need help from the most stereotypically patriarchal white man? It seems oddly self-defeating in nature.)

However, the white men—the Resources Development Administration mining company and their hired gunsel associates—are portrayed as being ludicrously bad. It’s painful to see Giovanni Ribisi, a talented actor, playing an over-the-top jerk of a businessman whose job is to mine “unobtainium.” Really. Unobtainium. It’s unclear to me whether the name is perhaps the only joke in the movie—Avatar having some fun at its own expense? Doubtful—or is just another sign of the movie’s sanctimonious sobriety, that such a ridiculous name could be uttered with a straight face.

My purist ideals as a chemist aside, the movie is terrible. The mercenaries are two-dimensional cardboard cutouts that the natives, the pure and good-hearted shamanistic Na’vi, hack and slash and knock down with ease. There is no point in discussing characterization because there is none. None of the main characters have any real motivation for doing what they do. The humans have no need to engage the Na’vi on the ground, and yet they do so. I’m assuming this is some kind of a nod to Vietnam, what with the hooting natives charging through the jungle, but what is the allegory behind soldiers in mechanized suits getting run over by herds of charging alien rhinoceri? “Eywa [the earth-goddess of the planet] has heard you,” screams Sully’s love interest as the soldiers fall victim to angry fauna, even after telling him hours previously that the goddess took no sides. Internal consistency is necessary for a coherent narrative? Don’t tell that to James Cameron.

And the Colonel. Don’t get me started on the Colonel, the leader of the mercenaries (the “First Strawmen Regiment,” I dubbed them mentally). I understand that these soldiers are mercenaries, and one can get away with depiction of soldiers as somewhat, well, un-soldierly in such a situation. However, mercenaries don’t charge needlessly into battle. Mercenaries want to get paid and survive whatever hellhole in which they’ve been hired to fight. They don’t go up against an enemy with superior numbers in an environment that has been established as being dangerous and unfamiliar. Nothing about this movie rings true, which makes it a fundamentally empty and, indeed, aggravating experience.

Someone said to me, as I was debating the aforementioned issues with a friend, “Shut up and enjoy the special effects.” That seems to be the basic message in the movie: lie back and think of the CGI. Sadly, most people seem to be able to do this. Why is this sad? Because good graphics cannot save bad writing. Avatar is a mud cake that has been decorated with really beautiful icing. It is terrible, awful writing covered in a surfeit of amazing and well-crafted computer-generated fuzz and glitter. Nothing about that combination should strike anyone as palatable, and it is a sign of how much our tastes have become diluted that we hoot and gibber and clap at the pretty, pretty, lights.

If you’re thinking about seeing Avatar, I recommend renting Fern Gully or Dances With Wolves, or maybe both, instead. Neither of them are good movies. In fact, both are mediocre at best. However, they have original characters and original storylines, and both of those are things that Avatar is sadly lacking.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Bill Watterson Would Be Proud
Death Is The Mother Of Beauty

Scary-Go-Round was an excellent comic. I ranted about it to friends, family—anyone who would listen—and I read it faithfully ever since I found it, sometime during my sophomore year. Now it's over. John Allison had the guts to end his beloved comic and wrap up the narrative it had spun over many years, and his blog post on the subject indicates that it probably wasn't an easy task.

Kudos, Mr. Allison. A lot of hacks and talented writers/artists alike get trapped in stagnation and sameness. Your fans will never forget what you created, and will treasure the stories that you wove. May your future endeavors show similar success. Godspeed.