To What Degree Can Yoga Be Whatever One Needs It to Be?

Chennakesava Temple, Somanathapura

 

To what degree can yoga practice be whatever one needs it to be?

 

If one is expecting the definitive answer to this question, one won’t find it here. While I’ll share my views, I’d love to get some comments, because shared wisdom may help myself and others to hone in on a more coherent answer.

 

There is a continuum of views on this question.  On one hand, there are people who have very rigid notions of what a yoga practice can (or should) consist of. “Everyday, one should do precisely x repetitions of Surya Namaskara (Sun Salutations), y repetitions of nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing), z repetitions …, and every full moon one should do…, and every six months one should do… shatkarma, etc.” In some circles, this rigidity may extend to what deity one worships, the nature of one’s personal philosophy, what one should eat, how one should dress, and how vigorous one’s practice should or shouldn’t be.

 

Near the rigid end of the spectrum are those who rail against drawing secular and / or culturally-neutral elements from yoga, and / or engaging in a revision of yogic culture. [Cultural revision, in this case, referring to a shift from the traditional culture which is Indo-centric to a more Westernized approach (e.g. this may be seen in different modes of teaching and / or in interaction between students and teachers.) I’m afraid this may remain unclear to anyone who hasn’t spent time in both: a. a traditional yoga ashram / shala; and b. a Western-style yoga studio. To those who have, it’s likely apparent that these two places each have a culture that may share elements (especially superficial one’s like symbology, etc.), but which aren’t identical.] The recent controversy generated by a paper by a Michigan State University professor, Shreena Gandhi, who suggested that Americans practicing yoga were engaging in a kind of white supremacy is a case in point.

 

I find myself rejecting the aforementioned extreme for a number of reasons. First, if yoga practice should be one thing, how come there are so many different “one things” that it should be? If one set was objectively superior, one would expect it to come to dominate, but we don’t see that. Secondly, it fails to acknowledge the wide variety of varied needs. There can even be logical inconsistencies embedded in these rigidities. For example, if one says that a practitioner should do 15 rounds of Surya Namaskara per day, and, also, that they shouldn’t increase the rapidity of breathing by much, then one is limiting the base of students. Some students simply can’t do 15 rounds in a session, while for others it’s an inadequate warm-up because it doesn’t tax their system in the slightest. Thirdly, while I’m not a Sanskrit scholar, from what I’ve been taught, the early writings don’t suggest the kind of doctrinaire approaches to yoga one sees today. One can see in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras a sparse and vague set of dictums that aren’t consistent with the idea that one needs to accept and embrace any and all of the trappings that have come along in the past few thousand years.

 

Now it might seem that I’m at the footloose and fancy free end of the spectrum. But  I’m afraid that I cringe too hard every time I see a story about “ice cream yoga.” (Or fill in the quote marks with whatever the mashup-du-jour consisting of an activity that some individual finds nifty, and, therefore, assumes will pair excellently with yoga.) At the far end of the spectrum are people who think one can engage in any activity (or set of activities) and label it yoga, and it is yoga. I don’t think I can quite get on that bandwagon either. While I don’t offer my support to the people who have very fixed and limited views of what yoga is, I can empathize with them at times. These include: 1. the person who has the Om symbol emblazoned over 80% of their wardrobe [or — more astoundingly — has it tattooed on his body] but who thinks it translates to “namaste,” “yoga,” or to any other mistranslation. 2. the practitioner who believes the ultimate question of the universe is which print of Lululemon captures her spirit animal, or, 3. the individual who thinks the sports bra and yoga pants she wears for practice seems like reasonable attire in which to visit a Hindu (or virtually  any other) temple.

“Om,” not “namaste” etc,

 

This leaves me somewhere in the middle on the issue. The single question I would ask to determine whether something is a yoga practice or not, is:

Is one working towards quelling the turbulence in one’s mind by dispassionately observing one’s body, breath, and / or mind?

 

This probably seems like an insane criteria because if one is doing the Gerbil Yoga version of setu bandasana (back bridge while devoting one’s attention to petting a rodent) then one isn’t actually doing yoga. However, if one is sitting at a bus stop watching the air go in and out of one’s nose and adjusting the pace of said flow, then one is doing yoga. Crazy, right? A back bridge is much more yoga-esque than sitting at a bus stop apparently doing nothing. Don’t even get me started on how one could be in a yoga studio doing a perfectly traditional yogasana like ardha chandrasana while your mind is in an internal monologue — i.e.  rant — about how miserable one is in the and how one can’t wait to hit the bar after class, and you’re not really doing yoga. On the other hand, one could be being screamed at by one’s boss in the office while watching the emotional turmoil bubble up, and one would be doing yoga. Crazy as it may sound, it’s the best I’ve been able to figure.

 

Let me know where you fall on the question.

5 Things to Which My Introverted Self Has Been Oblivious

5.) In the absence of information, people write their own stories, and everyone gives himself the leading role in his own story.

Therefore, sitting in the corner, minding one’s own business, deep in introspection, may balloon into: “He’s giving me the silent treatment. I bet he hates me and wishes I would die.”

 

4.) Quietness may be interpreted as arrogance.

I was told this by a teacher in Middle School, but — at that stage in my life — that seemed an impossibility. In those days, I was self-conscious about being introverted — and I was shy, to boot. (That’s not redundant. If you think it is, I’d recommend Susan Cain’s Quiet)  Because I felt that I so blatantly lacked confidence, it seemed hard to imagine that someone would misinterpret my quietness as being over-confident and / or narcissistic. How could it not be obvious that I lacked the confidence to be arrogant, but people see a lot less than one (or they) might think they do.

 

3.) Miss eye contact, miss a lot.

It’s not just that one misses non-verbal communication, it’s that it might be assumed that you caught a signal when you didn’t.

 

2.) When you are in deep introspection, you may have total inattentional blindness, but others may not recognize that. 

You may be familiar with inattentional blindness from the gorilla – basketball pass video. It’s the fact that we can’t mentally multitask, no matter how much we might think we can. If our attention is given over to one task we may miss even the blatantly obvious. Most people don’t think this is the case, and it doesn’t feel that way. That’s because we are usually quite good as bouncing our attention between different events and stimuli. (Though never without a degradation of performance.) However, if you’re entranced in introspection, you may look like you’re giving the evil eye to the angry hoodlum at the bar, or that you’re seeing the projectile flying at your face, but maybe not.

 

1.) If one doesn’t outwardly express emotions, some people may not realize that you have them. 

It seems self-evident that everybody experiences fear, anger, or sadness on occasion. Some more frequently. Some less. Some wear emotions on their sleeves, some hold their cards close to the chest, and every point in between. Part of the problem is that our intuitive understanding of what it looks like to be without emotion is flawed. As is discussed in Antonio Damasio’s book Decartes’ Error, a true lack of emotion (as seen in those with damage to parts of the brain involved in emoting) may look like the inability to make a decision (i.e. paralysis by analysis,) rather than our traditional notion of Star Trek’s Spock — a perfectly rational decision maker who can’t be insulted and doesn’t get sarcasm.

5 Bizarre Moral Dilemmas for Your Kids to Worry Over

5.) Can “innocent until proven guilty” survive the next generation of predictive models?

I started thinking about this post as I was reading Dean Haycock’s book Murderous Minds, which is a book about the neuroscience of psychopathy. In that book, the author evokes The Minority Report, a Philip K. Dick story turned into a Tom Cruise movie about a police agency that uses three individuals who can see the future in order to prevent violent crimes before they happen. Haycock isn’t suggesting that precognition will ever be a tool to predict crime, but what if a combination of genetics, epigenetics, brain imaging, and other technology reached the point where the tendency toward violent psychopathy (not redundant, most psychopaths function fine in society and don’t commit crimes) could be predicted with a high degree of accuracy. [Note: unlike the Tom Cruise movie, no one is suggesting all violent crime could be anticipated because a lot of it is committed by people with no risk factors whatsoever.] One is likely to first go to the old refrain (Blackstone’s Formulation) that it’s better that 10 guilty men escape justice than one innocent man be punished. Now, imagine a loved one was killed by a person who was known to have a 99% likelihood of committing a violent crime?

Of course, one doesn’t have to lock the high-risk individuals away in prison. What about laws forcing one to take either non-invasive or invasive actions (from meditation retreats to genetic editing) to reduce one’s risk factors? That’s still a presumption of guilt based on a model that  — given the vagaries of the human condition — could never be perfectly accurate.

 

4.) What does “trusted news source” mean in a world in which media outlets tailor their messages to support confirmation bias and avoid ugly cognitive dissonance? (i.e. to give viewers the warm-fuzzy [re: superior] feeling that keeps them watching rather than the messy, uneasy feelings that makes them prefer to bury their heads in sand and ignore any realities that conflict with their beliefs.) Arguably, this isn’t so much a problem for the next generation as for the present one. The aforementioned sci-fi legend, Philip K. Dick, addressed the idea of media manipulation in his stories as far back as the 1950’s. However, it’s a problem that could get much worse as computers get more sophisticated at targeting individuals with messages tailored to their personal beliefs and past experiences. What about if it goes past tweaking the message to encourage readership to manipulating the reader for more nefarious ends? I started to think about this when I got the i-Phone news feed which is full of provocative headlines designed to make one click, and — if one doesn’t click — one will probably come away with a completely false understanding of the realities of the story. As an example, I recently saw a headline to the effect of “AI can predict your death with 95% accuracy.” It turns out that it can only make this prediction after one has shown up in an emergency room and had one’s vital statistics taken and recorded. [Not to mention “95% accuracy” being completely meaningless — e.g. in what time frame — minute of death, day, year, decade? I can come up with the century of death with 95% accuracy, myself, given a large enough group.]

 

3.) When is it acceptable to shut down a self-aware Artificial Intelligence (AI), and — more importantly — will it let you?  This is the most obvious and straightforward of the issues in this post. When is something that not only thinks but is aware of its thoughts considered equivalent to a human being for moral purposes, if ever?

 

2.) When is invisible surveillance acceptable / preferable? This idea came from a talk I heard by a Department of Homeland Security employee, back when I worked for Georgia Tech. He told us that the goal is eventually to get rid of the security screening checkpoints at the airport and have technology that would screen one as one walked down a corridor toward one’s gate. At first this sounds cool and awesome. No taking belts and shoes off. No running bags through metal detectors. No having to pitch your water bottle. No lines. No dropping your laptop because you’re precariously balancing multiple plastic bins and your carry-on luggage. [I don’t know if they would tackle one to the ground for having a toenail clipper in one’s bag or not, but — on the whole — this scheme seems awesome.] But then you realize that you’re being scanned to the most minute detail without your awareness.

One also has to consider the apathy effect. If one can make an activity painless, people stop being cognizant of it. Consider the realm of taxation. If you’re pulling a well-defined chunk of pay out of people’s income, they keep their eye on how much you’re taking. If you can bury that tax — e.g. in the price of goods or services, then people become far less likely to recognize rate changes or the like.

 

1.) If society can reduce pedophilic sexual abuse by allowing the production and dissemination of virtual reality child pornography (computer generated imagery only, no live models used, think computer games), should we? This idea is discussed in Jesse Bering’s book, Perv. It’s not a completely hypothetical question. There is some scholarly evidence that such computer-made pornography can assuage some pedophiles’ urges. However, the gut reaction of many [probably, most] people is “hell no!” It’s a prime example of emotion trumping reason. If you can reduce the amount of abuse by even a marginal amount, shouldn’t you do so given a lack of real costs / cons (i.e. presuming the cost of the material would be paid by the viewer, the only real cost to the public would be the icky feeling of knowing that such material exists in the world?)

BOOK REVIEW: Trying Not to Try by Edward Slingerland

Trying Not to Try: The Art of Effortlessness and the Power of SpontaneityTrying Not to Try: The Art of Effortlessness and the Power of Spontaneity by Edward Slingerland
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This book’s paradoxical title is perfect for its paradoxical subject matter, which is famously expressed in such quotes as, “When nothing is done, nothing is left undone” [ver. 48 of the Tao Te Ching.]  Slingerland lays down the ancient Chinese wisdom of wu-wei and de, but provides something novel by putting it in the context of the positive psychology and neuroscience of today. Wu-wei literally means “no doing,” but can be more meaningfully defined as “effortless action.” De (pronounced “duh”) is a charisma seen in people who have mastered the effortlessness and spontaneity of wu-wei.

While the book is built around the varied approaches of four Chinese philosophers—two Confucians (i.e. Confucius and Mencius) and two Taoists (i.e. Laozi and Zhuangzi)—the author relates this philosophy to the present-day thinking found in Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s conception of Flow, and the neuroscience of the subconscious.

The book consists of eight chapters. The introduction and the first two chapters outline the concepts of wu-wei and de using both Chinese and Western stories and examples to help clarify these arcane ideas and put them in the context of the social and spiritual spheres. Chapter 1 offers an extensive discussion of the operation of the brain as it relates to the discussion of effortlessness and spontaneity.

Chapters three through six make up the core of the book, and present the approach and thinking of Confucius, Laozi, Mencius, and Zhuangzi, respectively. This “boy-girl-boy-girl” Confucian-Taoist organization offers the reader sound insight into the varied approaches and allows one to see the evolution of thinking. Confucius gets the first cut, but his approach to effortlessness and spontaneity involves a great deal of effort and planning. It might seem that Laozi’s approach–which does away with effort and planning–might be more apropos, but it’s hard to imagine anything of benefit actually being spawned by such a loosy-goosy approach. The more nuanced approaches of Mencius and Zhuangzi offer additional insight, but do not eliminate the paradox. It’s this paradox that’s the subject of chapter seven.

The final chapter examines what the reader can take away–given that the paradox of wu-wei seems inescapable. The author proposes that, paradox or not, there is value in pursuit of effortlessness and spontaneity, and progress can be made by understanding and accepting said paradox.

The book has no graphics, but is annotated and has a bibliography–as well as an appendix table that summarizes the various approaches to wu-wei.

I enjoyed this book and found it fascinating. It’s highly readable, having humor and a wide range of examples from ancient myths to pop culture. The book offers a great value-added by considering the relevance of modern science and psychology to this ancient concept. I’d highly recommend this for individuals interested in Chinese / Eastern philosophy, as well as anyone hoping to bring a little more effortlessness and spontaneity into his or her life.

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POEM: Nullius in Verba

nulliusinverba1

Said Socrates, “Oh, those poor bastards, for they think they know.

“I may be an ignorant slut, but I know I know not.”

[I paraphrase.]

My point, if I have one, is that “know” is an overused word.

Stinking up the discourse, like a bloated, floating pig turd.

[Remember Jim Carey, in the movie “Liar, Liar”]

“I object, Your Honor”… “Because, it’s devastating to my case.”

It’s a refrain seldom stated, but oft implied.

It works quite well, if you only talk to one side.

Fault us not for we’re wired to be certain.

If the cave wall shadow might be a tiger,

you don’t wait to see whether it’s a mouse.

That said, we’ve evolved these huge honking brains.

Our prefrontal cortexes might withstand the strain–

of asking:

How do I know this?

What if I’m wrong?

Might my mind deceive?

Facts: cherry-picked or  strong?

POEM: Fuel & Fools

Source: Wikipedia (Public Domain)

Source: Wikipedia (Public Domain)




It was a fire-breathing preacher,

a hard-core and ceaseless teacher,

of lessons they said they wanted none.

Yet, it belched them out by the ton.


Spitting fire and dreadful lies

from the freedom of the skies.

And all about, its fires burned.

And people wailed like lovers spurned.


And then one day there came sage.

He found some sad, some in a rage.

“What troubles you folk,” he inquires.


“From far above, it slings these fires!

Can you save us, you wise old man,

from life in this blasted frying pan?”


“Every fire requires a fuel,

And every lie, a willing fool.

Do you feed the beast, or in its fires bask?”


“Neither, of course, and how dare you ask!”


“I can douse the flames, but they’ll flare right back,

if you fuel them with your petty, piddling yak.”


“Just do it, old man, before we all burn!”


“OK, I’ll give you this one chance to learn.”

So, pulling a hose, off the sage marched.

“Mighty dragon, you must be terribly parched?”


“You know, breathing fire IS a thirsty job.”


At a nod, minions spun the spigot knob.

The water caught the grateful dragon in the throat.

Steam rose, ash spewed, and that’s all she wrote.

With no fire to breath, the dragon flew off,

sputtering out its last ashen cough.


The town was saved, or so it appeared.

But it was as the sage had feared.

Soon, some dabbled in volatile mixtures–

at weakest moments, becoming fixtures.

And the fools? Oh, they missed the glow

of the dragon’s garish and tawdry show.


And soon enough, conditions were right

for the dragon’s fire to again alight.

Even imaginary monsters get bigger if you feed them

Public domain image sourced from Wikipedia

Public domain image of Epictetus, sourced from Wikipedia

There’s a story about Epictetus infuriating a member of the Roman gentry by asking, “Are you free?”

 

(Background for those not into Greek and Roman philosophy. Epictetus was a Roman slave who gained his freedom to become one of the preeminent teachers of stoicism. Stoicism is a philosophy that tells us that it’s worthless to get tied up in emotional knots over what will, won’t, or has happened in life. For Stoics, there are two kinds of events. Those one can do something about and those that one can’t. If an event is of the former variety, one should put all of one’s energy into doing what one can to achieve a preferable (and virtuous) outcome. If an event is of the latter variety, it’s still a waste of energy to get caught up in emotional turbulence. Take what comes and accept the fact that you had no ability to make events happen otherwise.)

 

To the man insulted by Epictetus, his freedom was self-evident. He owned land. He could cast a vote. He gave orders to slaves and laborers, and not the other way around. What more could one offer as proof of one’s freedom? Of course, he missed Epictetus’s point. The question wasn’t whether the man was free from external oppressors, but whether he was free from his own fears? Was he locked into behavior because he didn’t have the courage to do otherwise?

 

I recently picked up a book on dream yoga by a Tibetan Lama, Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche. Lucid dreaming has been one of my goals as of late. I wasn’t expecting to learn anything new about practices to facilitate lucid dreaming because I’ve been reading quite a bit about the science, recently. I just thought that it would be interesting to see how the Tibetan approach to lucid dreaming maps to that of modern-day psychology. Tibetan Buddhists are–after all–the acknowledged masters of dream yoga, and have a long history of it. Furthermore, I’ve been doing research about the science behind “old school” approaches to mind-body development, lately. At any rate, it turns out that there were several new preparatory practices that I picked up and have begun to experiment with, and one of them is relevant to this discussion.

 

This will sound a little new-agey at first, but when you think it out it makes sense. The exercise is to acknowledge the dream-like quality of one’s emotionally charged thoughts during waking life. Consider an example: You’re driving to an important meeting. You hit a couple long red lights. You begin to think about how, if you keep hitting only red lights, you’re going to be late and it’s going to look bad to your boss or client. As you think about this you begin to get anxious.  But there is no more reality in the source of your fear than there is when you see a monster in your dreams. There’s a potentiality, not a reality. Both the inevitability of being late and the monster are projections of your mind, and yet tangible physiological responses are triggered (i.e. heart rate up, digestion interfered with, etc.) It should be noted the anxiety isn’t without purpose. It’s designed to kick you into planning mode, to plan for the worst-case scenario. Cumulatively, one can get caught up in a web of stress that has a negative impact on one’s health and quality of life.  For most people, when they arrive on time, they forget all about their anxiety and their bodily systems will return to the status quo, until the next time (which might be almost immediately.) Some few will obsess about the “close call” and how they should have planned better, going full-tilt into a stress spiral.

 

Mind states have consequences, whether or not they’re based in reality. I’ve always been befuddled by something I read about Ernest Hemingway. He’d won a Nobel Prize for Literature and was universally regarded as one of the masters of American literature, but he committed suicide because he feared he’d never be able to produce works on the level that he’d written as a younger man. There seems to be more to it than that. Many others managed to comfortably rest on their laurels when writing became hard[er]–including writers with much less distinguished careers.  The monster may be imaginary, but if you feed it, it still gets bigger.

 

As you go about your day, try to notice your day-dreams, mental wanderings, and the emotional states they suggest. You might be surprised to find how many of them have little basis in reality. They are waking dreams.

BOOK REVIEW: Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe

Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple WordsThing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words by Randall Munroe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Allow me the awkward start of explaining two things before offering my lukewarm reception of “Thing Explainer.” First, I loved “What If?” (this author’s previous book.) I thought that book was brilliant, gave it my highest rating, and eagerly anticipated Munroe’s next book (this one.) Second, I didn’t deduct because this book is a pain to read on an e-reader (at least the basic model I have.) That’s on me. I should’ve known better, and accept full responsibility. All I will say on the matter is to recommend that–if you still do want to read this book—you get a hard copy. [If you have an awesome reader, your results may vary.] The hard copy is large-format, and that’s useful because the graphics are so crucial and the text can be hard to read (some of it is light text / dark background and some is dark text / light background.)

The author uses only the most common 1,000 words of the English language to explain the operations of many modern technologies (e.g. laptops and helicopters) and scientific ideas (e.g. the workings of a cell or the sun.) It’s an intriguing question, and I can see why Munroe was interested in it. Can one convey the inner workings of objects like nuclear power plants or a tree with a rudimentary vocabulary? You can. Munroe does. However, the next question is, “Should you?” I come down on the side of “no.”

One might say, “But this is a book for kids [or people with a child-like grasp of language], you aren’t the target demographic.” Perhaps, but the book doesn’t do children any favors because the brainpower needed to puzzle out what the author is trying to convey through imprecise language can be more than is necessary to expand one’s vocabulary. [e.g. What do “tall road” or “shape checker” mean to you? If you went straight to “a bridge” and “a lock,” you may be more in tune with Munroe’s thinking than I, and thus more likely to find this book appealing.] For adults, it’s like reading essays by an eighth-grader who’s in no danger of being picked for the honor roll. Without the combination of the book’s graphics and a general background in science and technology, I suspect the book would be a muddle. I’m not against explaining ideas in simple terms, but I felt the book takes it too far and it becomes a distraction.

On the positive side, the graphics are great—sometimes funny while providing enough detail to get the point across without bogging one down. Also, Munroe’s sense of humor comes through here and there throughout the book (though it’s hampered by the lack of vocabulary.)

The book includes the list of words used as an Appendix (though you obviously won’t find the word “Appendix.”)

If it sounds like something that would interest you, pick it up. It’s hard to say that I’d recommend it, generally speaking. It’s funny and educational, but it’s also distracting and tedious. I neither hated it, nor loved it. I give it the median score of “meh.”

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Reflections on Vietnam

IMG_0122I was five when Saigon fell. So I can’t say that I remember the war as breaking news. However, by the time I was coming into adulthood, Vietnam remained front and center in the American psyche. Many of the most prominent movies on the war came out when I was in high school or shortly thereafter (e.g. Platoon (1986), Full Metal Jacket (1987), Bat 21 (1988), Casualties of War (1989), and Born on the Fourth of July (1989).) Even films that weren’t explicitly or solely about the war often featured characters transformed by its crucible (e.g. Lt. Dan from Forrest Gump.)

 

It wasn’t just cinema. While many of the most prominent books on the war came out in the 70’s and early 80’s, bestsellers were still coming out during my early adult life (e.g. The Things They Carried (1990) and We Were Soldiers Once… and Young (1992).) Even once the war wasn’t news anymore, discussion of the aftershocks continued to grace news and talk shows. I do remember my father watching an episode of 60 Minutes  which showed footage of helicopters being pushed off of aircraft carriers into the sea as American forces steamed back home. I have no idea what that story was about (perhaps the ecological and environmental effects of the war,) I just thought it was too bad that they were destroying perfectly good whirly-gigs.

 

Terms like “the fall of Saigon” were etched into my consciousness before I had any capacity to understand them. It fell from what? To what? I didn’t know. It’s a city, right? How can a city fall? Balls fall. People fall. Dinner plates, unfortunately, fall. Of course, I’d eventually be taught what it meant, and would mistakenly think I knew what it meant for many years. I thought it meant the defeat of those forces that would keep Vietnam from becoming a totalitarian dystopia akin to the Soviet Union or, even more apropos, Kim dynasty North Korea. Sure enough, one side–the side that America had supported–had been defeated, but otherwise this “fall” was false.

 

IMG_0411As one walks around Saigon today, passing a few Starbucks, a Carl’s Jr, and innumerable Circle-Ks, it’s difficult to imagine how a victory by the other side would have resulted in a more entrepreneurial or vibrant Vietnam. The college kids at the dinner, largely ignoring the friends around them in favor of texting someone else on their iPhones, seem strikingly like their counterparts in Bangalore and Atlanta. They seem mirthful and exuberant. A tour guide lets fly little criticisms about the bureaucracy, and nobody sweeps in and throws a black hood over his head. People just don’t seem scared, brainwashed, or crazy, and–believe me–everybody who survives in North Korea fits one of those criteria. (While I’ve been impressed by cool, gregarious, and well-spoken North Korean diplomats; they’re always accompanied by a sinewy, mirthless “assistant” who I’m pretty sure has a syringe of strychnine in his pocket to silence the diplomat if he goes off script.)

 

I’m aware that it’s difficult to see the dysfunctions of a nation as a traveler or tourist. I also realize that–to twist Tolstoy– “All happy nations are alike; each unhappy nation is unhappy in its own way.” However, what Tolstoy’s quote doesn’t convey is that all families are unhappy in some measure–and the same is true of nations. However, it’s easy enough to see extremes of dysfunction. That’s why the Kims mostly keep foreigners out of the DPRK and carefully select and manage the experience of those they do let in. It’s difficult to imagine a degree to which things could be better in Vietnam that would have made the cost of that war worth it.

 

I also know that hindsight is 20/20, but where fear runs rampant foresight is 20/100 with a nasty astigmatism. In my International Affairs graduate program, I specialized in asymmetric warfare, writing a thesis entitled, “Playing a Poor Hand Well.” While my thesis didn’t focus on Vietnam, one can’t study asymmetric warfare without learning a thing or two about the Vietnam war. One learns that the mathematical, attrition rate-based formulas that analysts love are worthless in deciding a victor when one side is fighting in their backyard and the other is fighting in a place of marginal importance to a population who mostly couldn’t point said country out on a map. Will matters. What made America take on such a burden on the other side of the world?  Many feared a domino effect. If Vietnam was lost to the forces of communism, soon we’d be surrounded by tyrannical totalitarian states blaring “one of us, one of us…” through loudspeakers until we relented–or something like that. In retrospect, it seems like an astounding lack of faith in the appeal of democracy and rule of law, but that’s what happens when one stews in one’s fears.

 

What worries me is that I still see a desire to make mountainous threats out of mere ant hills.

 

 

 

 

POEM: I Stand Before the Sea

I am a string of MEs

Strung out through eternity

But each eternity will die

Leaving in place another I

 

An I, a me, standing before the sea

Forget what I said about eternity

I am a finite speck of sand

Pushed and dragged by an unseen hand

 

Crack the speck, the TARDIS of Who

I’m every creature in the zoo

Every beast with limb and lung

Residing in every land far-flung

 

You think you know me? You know me not

I’ve not known me since I was just a tot

So I’ll thank you not to spoil my investigation

By classifying me by creed or nation