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you oughta know by now

A few weeks back, I came across this half excellent video essay on The Wolf of Wall Street. NSFW:

The Wolf of Wall Street – Damn Good Picture: Episode 2 from Carl Garcia on Vimeo.

The video starts off talking about diCaprio’s excellent performance, Thelma Schoonmaker’s excellent editing, and the overall difficulty of assembling a watchable narrative out of disparate anecdotes. It doesn’t go off the rails until about 8:26, when Carl Garcia says:

“And yet there was somehow contention over whether or not the film glorified Jordan Belfort.”

I’m as shocked as Garcia as to whether or not there was contention, because of course the film glorifies Jordan Belfort. We can only argue that maybe it doesn’t by descending into the casuistic world of fiddly academia, not by engaging with the Film As It Presents Itself or the Film As It Was Received.

The Film As It Presents Itself

We know what a film that castigates substance abuse looks like. No one watches Requiem for a Dream and thinks about picking up amphetamines. No one watches Trainspotting and decides to try out heroin. No one watches Days of Wine and Roses and decides to go out on a bender.

We know what a film that condemns capitalist excess looks like. I (unwittingly) kicked off one of the most depressing weekends of my adult life by watching Glengarry Glen Ross before going back to work at a boiler room telecom company. No one watches Norma Rae or Erin Brockovich and fantasizes about the life of a captain of industry.

I could go into detail about the narrative and visual choices that those films make to impart the themes they do, but I feel like it’s fairly obvious.

Contrast this with The Wolf of Wall Street, where:

via GIPHY

wolf-wall-street-pool

And so forth. Does that look like a tale of woe to you? Or does that look like a fun place to visit, if not to live?

The Film As It Was Received

Whenever there’s any debate over whether a piece of media glorifies a culture or condemns it, the era of social media provides us an easy litmus test: What Do Douchebags Think of It?

Banker Pros Cheer Wolf of Wall Street (Business Insider)

When Belfort — a drug addict who later attempts to remain sober — rips up a couch cushion to get to his secret coke stash, there were cheers.

Then, intercut with Popeye eating spinach, Belfort is irrevocably high on Quaaludes (or “ludes,” a muscle relaxer) and dumps coke into his nose to remedy the situation — more cheers.

The worst, though, mild spoiler alert … At one point later in the movie, the feds get Belfort to wear a wire to implicate others at his firm. Meeting with his No. 2, Belfort slides over a piece of paper: “Don’t incriminate yourself. I am wearing a wire.”

And the crowd goes wild. Don’t rat! Stand by your firm!

belfort-inspirational-quotes

jordan-belfort-quote

Personal anecdote: couple years ago, I went to a local MMA tournament. One of the fighters entered to a mix of Matthew McConaughey’s chant from this movie. The fighter and every member of his crew marched to the ring pounding their chests in unison.

Douchebags love this movie.

Some Spurious Objections, Demolished

But diCaprio and Scorsese said the movie isn’t meant to glorify such behavior.

It’s the 21st century. The author is dead; wake up and smell the pomo.

But Jordan Belfort gets his comeuppance! He goes to prison and loses everything.

Yeah, he goes to a prison that he describes (and we see depicted) as a “country club.” He ends the movie as a motivational speaker – not the jetsetting mogul he once was, perhaps, but not shaking an empty cup outside the Rite Aid.

Also, a notional comeuppance has never stopped people from glorifying the Rise to Power narrative. You’ll find Scarface or Godfather posters somewhere in the dorms of every college in America, despite the unambiguously bad endings Al Pacino comes to in both films. Why? Because they’re about an Ambitious Man Getting It All.

But does Carl Garcia make any good points?

Not … really? He notes that Scorsese “tones down some of the book’s nastier elements”; that we spend the entirety of the movie in Belfort’s head, seeing things how he sees them. That’s a pretty good argument for how the movie valorizes Belfort. Thanks!

Garcia talks (starting at 12:30 – again, NSFW) about one of the film’s “nastier jokes” – when Jordan interrogates his butler over a missing bankroll after the butler hosts a gay orgy in Jordan and Naomi’s absence. “Devoid of context, that’s some pretty disgusting gay panic,” Garcia asserts.

However, for the audience that’s going to respond positively to this film (douchebags), Jordan’s reaction is entirely justified. “Who wants a bunch of fags screwing all over their furniture? And one of this homo’s queer fuckbuddies ripped him off! The fairy had it coming!” The kind of person who sees Belfort as someone to emulate will not be put off in the slightest by Belfort’s homophobia.

He also focuses on the bedroom scene where Naomi tosses water on Jordan, as an instance “where the ‘take my wife – please!’ jokes suddenly get very nasty.” But I promise you: every straight male douchebag in America has at one point dated or married a woman of whom he might say:

Cause I can’t keep track of your professions honey! Last month you were a wine connoisseur, and now you’re an aspiring landscape architect, Isn’t that right?

It makes me wonder what sort of bubble Garcia lives in that he can’t imagine a person – much less thousands of people, much less the thousands of people who run America’s finances – watching those scenes and pumping their fist.

But is it possible to make a film that condemns financial excess without being preachy?

Sure. Hell, we already have a movie that fictionalizes Stratton Oakmont but depicts them as the shallow criminals they were: 2000′s Boiler Room, starring Giovanni Ribisi and Vin Diesel.

If you want something more contemporary, consider 2011′s Margin Call. It depicts the same glossy world of high finance: polished boardrooms, men and women in fine suits, talk of millions and billions. There’s even a scene where a sympathetic character (Paul Bettany) talks about how much money he spends! But I have never met or heard of anyone who saw that movie and felt great about a career in banking.

Is Scorsese a Villain?

No, of course not. But he’s always been in love with drug culture (see The Last Waltz) and tales of bold men imposing their will on a resisting world (see Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The Departed). If he says that he’s not trying to uplift those people, then he’s either being polite or he’s gravely mistaken. But that doesn’t change the films he’s made.

And it doesn’t make them bad films! The Wolf of Wall Street is, for half of the reasons Garcia outlines in the video, an excellent movie. Scorsese’s vision, as frenetic as it usually is, compels us to watch. But we can look at the movie, and we can watch the popular reaction to the movie, and we can come to the obvious conclusion.

I’ve been writing some stuff! Check it out:

Justice League v Batman v Superman: How to string together 7 episodes of the 2001 cartoon Justice League that’ll provide a equal or superior viewing experience to Zack Snyder’s superhero epic.

JL_SecretOrigins

RFP: for David Mogolov’s Out of Stock project, a short story about truth and brands.

Bloody note - Vintage inscription made by old typewriter

Cerberus Headless: The Inevitable Future of Podcasts:

When mp3 is abandoned as a format – and every digital format will eventually fade – will NPR put in the time and effort to remaster Serial to the new medium? When that medium fades in turn, will someone recopy it again? It’s not hard to do; just put an intern on it! But the New Era of Content demands such a ceaseless, costless churning of diversion for the middle class audience that I could easily imagine it being overlooked.

And that’s just for Serial, a podcast of acknowledged historical importance. Who’s going to remaster 99 Percent Invisible? Or Radiolab? Or Rose Eveleth’s Flash Forward? Or The Moth? Or Night Vale? Or, perhaps most importantly, a podcast that subjects the popular culture to a level of scrutiny it probably doesn’t deserve?

won’t be long ’till I see it

When you talk about pain to a medical professional in the US, you’re asked to rate it on a scale from 1 to 10. I’m bad at this. Most of the neuroses that I vest in writing stem from the impossibility of bridging the gap between Self and Other, translating the subjective into the objective. I don’t know what Pain 5 is. What’s Pain 5 for you? If Pain 10 is the most pain I can possibly feel, would I even be able to fill out this form?

They booked me for an MRI on the day I decided it was an 8. The MRI tech cautioned me the machine was “wicked loud,” so he set headphones on me and asked what kind of music I like. “Classic rock? Heavy rock? Alternative rock?” The latter, please. Laying still and focusing on breathing is a skill I’ve worked on, so the scanning process was loud and weird but not too grueling. They gave me the CD of images and told me to make sure I brought it with me to any future doctor’s appointments. This felt picayune, but I’m told consumers need to take greater charge of their medical consumption.

A week later, the orthopedist pulled up the scans and tapped a solid white bulge overlapping a long white strand. “You’ve heard of a ruptured disc?” he said. “That’s what this is.” The shooting pains up and down my right leg, the numbness in my right foot: one vertebra digging into the sciatic nerve.

Since I’m not being paid to guard Steph Curry, they did not recommend surgery, and I didn’t argue. So two days later, I limped to the sleek Yawkey Center at Mass General Hospital for an epidural. I was given a brief form to fill out while I waited. Was I diabetic? No. Was I taking any prescription blood thinners? No. Had I suffered any falls in the last three months? Well …

c/o Theodorou Academy of Jiu-Jitsu

[NOTE: this photo is from over a year ago and was not the proximate cause of my injury

Being injected in the base of my spine was weird but, again, not terribly painful. The body is a tightly packed duffel; wedging a needle and a few CCs of cortisone into it feels uncomfortable. But afterward, the pain was gone. Nothing else had changed. I still limped, I still sat and rose stiffly. I did everything I’d been doing the last ten days; I just did it without pain. When you see pain as a necessary consequence of daring deeds like sitting on the edge of your bed or bending over to tie your shoes, it feels weird to enter a world without.

The pain came back, as the doctors promised me it would. The cortisone is meant to reduce the inflammation, give the afflicted nerve room to recover. Two days after the epidural, I started the PT regimen. It’s nothing terribly complex – flexing the legs, reverse crunches, partial situps. I just have to keep the core constantly engaged while I do it. The effort is more mental than physical—a meditative focus. While I worked the routine for the first time, the PT keeping a hand on my transverse abdominis to make sure they stayed taut, Michael Bolton’s “Back on My Feet” again played, because irony is a jealous god.

A friend asked how I’m feeling, and I said I was managing, which is what you do with pain. There are times I feel like sitting or lying down, and there are times I feel like standing up, and I can’t always predict what those times will be. On a crowded Red Line train to Harvard? Thirty minutes into a staff meeting? Four a.m.? My sciatic nerve is the clicking prong at the base of the Price is Right wheel, and I never know where it will rest.

The worst part of chronic pain is that it makes you self-centered. The pain calls attention to itself. Moment by moment it’s manageable, and there are long stretches where it goes away entirely, but when it resurfaces it catches you like a strobe light. You get so accustomed to pain that it poisons the rest of your thinking. You find yourself limping home like Ahab, snarling at passerby, irrationally angry at people who aren’t suffering like you are.

But of course they are. Everyone carries within them a bit of nagging pain, mental or physical. Everyone has their own 0 to 10 scale. And the only noble cause in life is looking up from one’s own pain long enough to ease someone else’s. Everything else is an evolutionary afterthought.

50 books 2015: Best Suspense / Thriller

I read 50 books in 2015. Here are my favorites:



The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins. The best thriller I’ve read in years – and very possibly ever read. Not only is it written with a compelling style and pace that drove me on, even when I should have been sleeping or doing other things, but Hawkins manages skillfully what so many authors are scared to try: an unreliable narrator and an unlikable protagonist. Recommended without qualification to all thriller readers, and most thriller writers. Better than GONE GIRL; better than GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO.



Personal, Lee Child. Reacher at his best: up against serious threats, untangling a deep mystery that only gets deeper, where the stakes are (as the title implies) personal. A modest amount of verbose description – about the level you should expect from a Lee Child novel.



A Head Full of Ghosts, Paul Tremblay.

HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS
BLACK AS MY TOAST
I’D NEVER LIE
I LIKED THIS THE MOST

(sorry)
(it really is good)



The Power of the Dog, Don Winslow. A broad, sweeping crime saga that packs in more drama than The Godfather, by virtue of the film-treatment terseness of its narrative. You will have no trouble visualizing exactly what’s happening as you turn each page. I kept waiting for the cocky, conversational style to get tired, but it never happened.

50 books 2015: Best Sci-Fi / Fantasy

I read 50 books in 2015. Here are my favorites:

player of games Player of Games, Iain M. Banks. One of the most astonishing science-fiction novels I’ve ever read – not just for the depth of its penetration into human character and social order, but for how enjoyable and readable it is as well.

mockingbird Mockingbird, Walter Tevis. A somber, slow, sweet novel of a far dystopian future. Some of the characterizations and concerns seem dated now, but the emotion and inner turmoil is keenly felt.

the way into chaos The Way Into Chaos, Harry Connolly. If this were merely an exercise into how vivid and original a world a skilled writer can build when he omits all the infodumps and instead lets history, character, and wonder be revealed through action, then that alone would be worthwhile. Instead, it’s all that and a compelling story as well. It’s not just “Western Europe plus a wizard or two” – it’s an original world that’s been built around fantastic creatures and concepts. And we only get a brief glimpse of it before Connolly starts tearing it apart.

I don’t know if Connolly would market this as “dark fantasy”, but THE WAY INTO CHAOS felt grimmer than any of THE SONG OF ICE AND FIRE, except perhaps the earliest and sharpest novels in Martin’s series. Perhaps that’s because there are fewer characters for us to worry about, and we’re more invested in their success. Regardless, I found myself twisting into knots with each new chapter in a way that I hadn’t with Martin in a long time.

the oldest trick The Oldest Trick, Auston Habershaw. An epic fantasy rollick in the style of Patrick Rothfuss and Scott Lynch. This edition collects THE IRON RING and IRON AND BLOOD, which are really two halves of the same tale (why were they broken up in the first place?), into a single volume. Richly envisioned without getting bogged down in exposition, and bursting with action.

library at mount char The Library at Mount Char, Scott Hawkins. A remarkable, deeply chilling modern fantasy. The few rough patches don’t detract much from a compelling story. Full of images and characters that will haunt you for a while.

The Forgotten Monk, Greg Stolze. A highly entertaining fantasy fable. You can see the borders of the D&D-inspired setting – frequent use of healing potions and handy enchanted items – but that doesn’t detract from the drama or adventure. The story alternates between mystery, action, and gentle irony with deft pacing.

Honorable Mention: Child of Fire; A Key, An Egg, An Unfortunate Remark; Time and the Gods

I’m so sorry but the motorcade will have to go around me this time

eli-lake

Is there any cheaper source of gravitas than saying, “Strangers must be dispatched to kill foreigners” with a slight frown? You never need to put your money where your mouth is, shouldering a rifle and volunteering for the next troop ship. You don’t even need to shake a tin cup for Liberty Bonds anymore. You don’t need to document that you’ve weighed the costs and benefits; you don’t even need to suggest that you’ve considered them. War is serious business (what with the dying and all); ergo, the people who advocate for War are serious people.

Occasionally I see a writer lament that the pundits who were wrong about the Iraq War, the Afghanistan War, and NATO’s mission in Libya still have jobs. But we will never run out of these people! If I want to establish myself as a respectable expert in any other profession, I have to dress well and make credible arguments and sink some time in the farm leagues and work my way up to the C-suite, the keynote speaker, the honored emeritus. Not so in foreign policy! I can propose war as a solution to any crisis and be given a platform. I can suggest war with one of the U.S.’s largest trading partners, with a stagnating, homophobic kleptocracy, or with our nearest neighbor, and do no worse than a Sunday op-ed column. Hell, I can suggest war to resolve crises that were caused by the last war I suggested. Not only will my fellow panelists on Face the Nation not hold that against me, it would be considered gauche to bring it up!

The only reason this strikes me as funny is because, in literally every other field of human endeavor, ruinous violence is seen as the least serious reaction. A coworker badmouths me in a meeting, so I break into her office and shit on her desk, and I am (with cause) prescribed medication. A driver cuts me off in traffic, so I ram his car into the concrete barrier and slam his head in the door when he staggers out, and I am not applauded for defending my honor. But twenty men kill a hundred people in Paris and injure hundreds more, and of course NATO is going to invade Syria. There is no other sensible response. We’re not children.

(See also: “But what about World War 2?“)

michelle pfeiffer, that white gold

Writing news:

At the start of June, I discounted my Amazon Kindle titlesTOO CLOSE TO MISS, TOO HARD TO HANDLE, TOO LATE TO RUN—by 50% or more. It now costs less than $9.99 to complete the whole set! I promoted this heavily on Twitter and Facebook throughout the month of June, and once or twice in July.

The result?

By cutting prices by (roughly) 50%, I saw a 14.8% increase in revenue and a 190% increase in sales volume!*

I’d kept my prices where they were for a while on the (well-meaning) advice of other self-published authors. Sure, my books cost more than a lot of the other entrants in the Kindle thriller market, but they were better, and quality should prove out, right? But, thinking about it further:


  • Any advice on how best to manage the Amazon Kindle e-book marketplace written 91 days ago or longer can probably be discarded;

  • As someone surviving purely on hustle and a day job, volume of sales matters more to me than revenue;

  • My books might not be better than other writers at the same price point? Maybe they’re about as good?

So, for the time being, I’m keeping the books at their discounted prices. If you liked them, please recommend them to a friend, or leave an honest Amazon review. I will be grateful!

Too Close to Miss
Too Hard to Handle (which particularly needs a couple more reviews)
Too Late to Run

———————-
* “From what to what?” Here’s the thing: shut up.

I was not caught; I crossed the line

If this is still your primary source for John Perich news, here’s what I’ve been up to lately:

1. I recorded an Overview (freelance commentary track) for Terminator 2 with the guys from Overthinking It. We talk about religious symbolism, robots and qualia, motherhood, and Public Enemy’s significance in the early Nineties’ popscape. Download it today and rewatch T2 ahead of, or in lieu of, Terminator Genesys this weekend.

2. I’ve been recapping True Detective S2 for Decider. Despite other critics’ recalcitrance, or perhaps because I didn’t see S1, I’m eating it up. It pushes every button I have for noir: Los Angeles land politics, broken and driven cops, gangsters trying to go straight, SoCal weirdness. The Episode 2 recap will go live some time today; in the meantime, ingest my hot take on the season premiere, ‘The Western Book of the Dead’, if you like.

true-detective-s2

life in a northern town

It’s Ben Franklin’s idea, supposedly, but I learned about it from Gene Wolfe in his afterword to “The Boy Who Hooked The Sun”:

Find a very short story by a writer you admire. Read it over and over until you understand everything in it. Then read it over a lot more.

Here’s the key part. You must do this. Put it away where you cannot get at it. You will have to find a way to do it that works for you. Mail the story to a friend and ask him to keep it for you, or whatever. I left the story I had studied in my desk on Friday. Having no weekend access to the building in which I worked, I could not get to it until Monday.

When you cannot see it again, write it yourself. You know who the characters are. You know what happens. You write it. Make it as good as you can.

Compare your story to the original, when you have access to the original again. Is your version longer? Shorter? Why? Read both versions out loud. There will be places where you had trouble. Now you can see how the author handled those problems.

Want to try it yourself? With Scrivener, it’s really easy!

I chose James Joyce’s “Araby”, since Dubliners is in the public domain, and the complete text can be found on any number of sites. I printed off a copy and read it several times: once at normal pace, once sounding it out loud in my head, a few more times on the T.

Next, with a red pen, I wrote in the margin next to each paragraph what the point of that paragraph was in one short sentence, two at most. If this were a dry recollection of facts, rather than a story meant to evoke particular thoughts and feelings, what would those facts be?

Here are my notes on the first few paragraphs of “Araby.” You can follow along with the actual text and check my work:

* I lived on a quiet block growing up.

* Our house was a poor one.

* My friends and I made our own fun by playing outside. We were fascinated by Mangan’s sister.

Give the story at least one more read through, then open up Scrivener, start a new Project, and create a new text entry.

Now, type up the short story word for word, transcribing from the copy you’ve been reading. I know this feels silly, but do it. This will both engrave the words deeper into your brain and will start to hint why the writer constructed sentences the way they did. For “Araby,” this took me less than an hour.

Save and close your text entry. Set aside your marked-up copy of the short story. Create a new text entry in the same project. Now, recreate the story as best you can.

You’re not going to be able to re-type the story word for word, especially if the story was written a hundred years ago by a drunk Irishman. This is fine. If you remember the words the author used in a sentence, use those words. If you can’t remember them, but you remember what the sentence was about (Mangan’s sister was standing by the fence, and the light hit her hair a certain way), then approximate the sentence in your own language (“Mangan’s sister was standing by the fence, and the light hit her hair … a certain way” bravo, Perich).

You will forget things. You may get the order of certain details wrong. You may find the lyrical strains of evocative imagery hard and the narrative sequence of events easy, or maybe the poetry will stick in your mind where the literal escapes. Again, all this is fine.

Just keep writing. Don’t stop and, whatever you do, don’t reference the original text. This isn’t like a school project, where you get an A if you reproduce “Araby” from memory and a C- if it’s full of dull phrases like “I was the only person on the train.” If you reference the original text, you’re not even cheating—you’re missing the entire point of the exercise. It’s like setting up a ladder next to a basketball hoop and then climbing it over and over to work on your lay-ups. “Haven’t missed one yet, Coach!”

Finished? Good. Have a drink. Tea’s fine; I prefer whiskey. Water will also do. You probably aren’t drinking enough water anyway.

Open up both the text file with the transcription and the text file with your recreation. Align them side-by-side. In Scrivener, this is easy: click on the button in your toolbar that looks like two vertical windows in parallel.

scrivener-vertical-split

Note any sentence in your rewrite that’s vastly different in tone and content than the original. If you expressed the same idea in your own words, that’s fine. But be stringently honest with yourself. “I felt like I was losing control” is not the same as “All my senses seemed to desire to veil themselves and, feeling that I was about to slip from them, I pressed the palms of my hands together until they trembled”.

Leave a comment on this sentence, retyping the original sentence—or as much of it as you need to for the gist—in the comment.

scrivener-araby

Click to zoom.

Using myself as an example, here’s a paragraph from the original “Araby”

Every morning I lay on the floor in the front parlour watching her door. The blind was pulled down to within an inch of the sash so that I could not be seen. When she came out on the doorstep my heart leaped. I ran to the hall, seized my books and followed her. I kept her brown figure always in my eye and, when we came near the point at which our ways diverged, I quickened my pace and passed her. This happened morning after morning. I had never spoken to her, except for a few casual words, and yet her name was like a summons to all my foolish blood.

And here’s my version

On mornings I would draw the blind in our parlor to an inch above the sill, then lie on the floor and watch her door. When she emerged, a figure in swishing brown, I would bolt from our house to catch up with her. I don’t know why; I never exchanged a word with her beyond the usual inane pleasantries. We would walk just a few yards apart until the end of the block, where our paths diverged, and I would increase my pace to be quickly past her.

Now have another drink.

Reviewing your comments on the rewritten version, ask yourself honestly: what tools of the writing craft does the author use that I did not use in my rewrite?

In my case, Joyce is much better at evoking a scene with physical details. This is partly because he lived in the neighborhood he describes and I didn’t, but that’s also something I do need to work on. I need to remember to include one or two striking details to make a scene work.

If you want to soothe your ego, note any things that you wrote more or less as the original author did.

In my example, I was pretty good at picking up on the personal details that evoked a person’s mental state without naming it explicitly—the uncle mumbling to himself and rocking the coatrack (drunk); the boy clinking his small change in his pocket (ashamed).

Now have another drink.

love is an ocean that I can’t forget

Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, and devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad.

-Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash

If you want a quick lesson in humility, put down a non-refundable deposit on a rental car reservation that starts and ends two weeks after you arrive at your destination. Picture it: you’re in the humid Palm Beach airport (start the day at 40°F, end the day at 80°F), shuffling through a line of laden travelers, commenting to your patient wife how everyone at a car rental counter—on either side—just looks defeated. As if the war is over and we’re all just waiting to sign the unconditional surrender. You finally get to the front of the line and give the agent your name. She confirms the spelling and frowns. You pull out the confirmation, which you loaded on your phone for just such an occasion—wait until you get a load of—and there it is.

It was an important object lesson because this is the sort of mistake that the John Perich of ten years ago would never have forgiven. How do you make a NONREFUNDABLE deposit without double-checking the date?, he asks, his baritone thundering down the years. What is the reason for this? And you don’t know what to tell that proud, stubborn boy except: there is no reason. There is no reason to make a mistake. There is no reason for most of human endeavor. Autopilot and social cues can get you from bed to the shower to the office to home again to your microwave to the couch to bed again.

Okay, sending that message backwards in time will break the poor kid’s already fragile spirit. So perhaps I’d offer this: for years, you’ve been immersed and immersing in media that teaches you that strength comes from obedience to your own Will, even to the exclusion of others. You think that’s the hard road, and that being hard is what makes it good. Well, if you want to try something hard, chumley, try opening up to other people. Try being vulnerable. Try having relationships, or looking for common ground with people you don’t think you share common ground with, or striking up a conversation.

I was in Palm Beach this past weekend to attend my niece’s baptism. The ceremony was held in the back of an old, modest church in downtown Palm Beach. My niece freaked out when her great-aunt tried to put a bangled bracelet on her but was otherwise well-behaved. After the water was poured over her head, she stared at the flask, the font, and the priest with the wide-eyed awe of the new that all infants share. She reached for the font with both hands and said, “Agua.” After the ceremony, we repaired to her parents’ house, where we spent the rest of the day in the most American of pastimes: sitting on the back porch, chatting over beer and wine while watching the sun set.

When I agreed to be godfather to my niece, I took another step away from the free-wheeling, independent renegade I’d always fantasized I might be and toward a different future. In this newer, more plausible future, I have roots and responsibilities. I have people who depend on me. I have people whom I belong to and to whom I might belong. That can be a little daunting for someone whose vision of manhood centered on riding off into the sunset. But I had plenty of chances to enroll in distant Chinese monasteries, and I let them go, so I might as well do something hard with my life, like sharing it with others.