Monday, December 31, 2007

RE: The Word of God

I've recently had cause to reflect upon what exactly I think the Bible is. Here's a working definition: a collection of writings from antiquity that happen to be true, and whose truth God intends to control when in conflict with other purported truths. Parse:

That the Bible is a collection of writings from antiquity is, I think, noncontroversial. I don't think I know anybody who doubts that the entire thing was written in the window of 1500 BC - 200 AD (to give a century's or so margin for error on both ends). It's worth remembering, though, that these are really quite ordinary documents - or, at any rate, more ordinary than the name Holy Scripture tends to conjure. The documents are extraordinary in that they existed at all (in the case of the narrative histories, for example, which were pretty clearly written at least a hundred years before Greek historiography really took off) and in that they are extant and in their content, but the actual form of the documents is relatively mundane. Narrative histories, records of prophecy, lyric sheets, poetry, and semi-personal correspondence - none of those types of documents are especially weird, with the possible exception of records of prophecy, and even those aren't weird in the context of antiquity. "Holy Scripture" is not a form of document I am very familiar with, and I don't have the intellectual tools to deal with it. But I know more or less what to do with historical narrative, lyric sheets, and letters.

Next, I believe that the Bible "happens to be true." I don't mean to say that it is true by accident, of course; I think it's true because God spoke true things and so orchestrated the course of human events that those true things remain extant. By "happens" I mean to convey that I think the Bible is true because I think it is true, and not because it is Holy Scripture, or The Bible.* That is to say, I think the Bible is true because it is true, and not because it is the sort of thing that must be true. Granted it was, I think, spoken by an entity that only speaks truths - but that makes the Bible exactly as true as if God were to speak the Pythagorean Theorem, at least as far as I can work out.

And then we get to the question of "true." The common question here seems to be whether one believes that the Bible is "literally" true or not. I don't think that's a particularly sophisticated question, and I dislike the way it seems to have become a political codeword. One gets the distinct impression when listening to somebody ask whether one believes that the Bible is "literally" true that nobody in their right mind could possibly believe that anything is "literally" true. Here are examples of things that I believe in quite wholeheartedly but probably less than what seems to be meant by "literally:" my own existence as a contiguous individual, my family's love for me, the existence of George Washington, the course of the Battle of Gettysburg, the fact that I know how to dance, and the evidence of my senses that I am presently wearing a blue shirt.

I hope that will dispose of the "literally" label. To continue in the same vein, I would say this: I tend to believe the Bible more the more important the statement in question is to the author's purpose. For instance, I quite doubt that the Philistines had three thousand chariots when they faced Saul at Micmash (1 Sam. 13:4-6). I just don't see how the logistics of that would work, and it's wildly outside of military historical precedent. And because the author does not seem to be noting the size of the Philistine chariot arm as miraculous I am inclined to believe that somebody, at some time, made an error.

Contrast that with an episode where the author is plainly attempting to relate a purported miracle, such as the consumption by fire from heaven of a waterlogged bull upon waterlogged wood upon a waterlogged pile of rocks surrounded by a moat filled with water (1 Kings 18:30-38). That sort of thing strains credulity, to be sure. But in this case, the author is plainly aware that what he relates seems impossible, and is writing it down precisely because he is aware that it is an extraordinary event outside of normal human experience. Or at any rate that seems to me to be his perfectly obvious intent. It does me no good, in that case, to say that such an event is so outside of normal human experience that I will not believe it happened.

Now of course I might say that the author's obvious intent is to be allegorical, and many people do. In the face of reasoned and reasonable literary analysis to that effect, I'm perfectly willing to believe that a given passage of Scripture is allegorical. It is, after all, simply an ancient document. But it seems incredible to me to believe that the default for ancient writers was to be allegorical when they discussed miracles, as if the majority of the ancient world shared the modern skeptic's assumption that such things Simply Don't Happen, or have to have happened a hundred times before they can happen once.

And of course when I discuss "truth" in this context I mean something more than a recitation of historical facts. I think it is pretty plain that the Bible teaches that there is no entity equal to God, that the Holy Spirit is a person, that men and the natural world are not as they should be, or that neither men nor the natural world can be as they should be except through Jesus Christ, or that not being as they should be is pretty much the most terrible thing in existence. Those are factual assertions, but not of the historical kind, and they are the sort of assertions that I think the Bible is really much more concerned about than whether Elijah was "literally" taken into heaven by a chariot of fire or whether Mary was "literally" a "virgin."

Which brings us to that truth being controlling. I think Lewis had it right when he put it this way rather than some of the other, more common formulations. The Bible does not really make any factual assertions at all about chemistry, for instance (or at least, I don't think it does). Consequently I have no trouble at all believing what my chemistry professors tell me about the behavior of atoms and molecules (subject to the usual skepticism anybody should bring to academic assertions). On the other hand the Bible does quite clearly assert as fact that there is no entity equal to God. Consequently I have a good deal of trouble believing anybody, or any part of any religion, who tells me differently.

In addition, I think that the Bible is set above other assertions which may be "true" in the ordinary sense (this sense, combined with the previous sense of the Bible being controlling, comprise the greater part of what I mean when I say that the Bible is "holy"). For instance, the Bible does not explicitly teach me to be gentlemanly. It asserts as true fact that I ought to be kind, and good, and compassionate, and loving. But as for whether I should afford women more social rights than men, or treat them with separate but equal courtesy, or uphold my personal honor or that of my family name ... well, all of those are (I assert) good ideas which will profit me and those around me. But they aren't Biblical. They aren't the same level of true, if you will, as that I should be kind and good and compassionate.

* Precisely why I think the documents are true is outside the scope of this post.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Veterans Day

This post comes quite late, but I didn't want Veterans Day to pass without some kind of reflection. I'm reading Republic Commando: True Colors (by the truly excellent Karen Traviss) and recently finished reading the Iliad all the way through (success at last!), both of which have touched me quite deeply, so it seemed like an appropriate time in my emotional life to deal with the subject of Veterans Day.

It's common on or around Veterans Day to hear people expressing thanks (to God or otherwise) for the men and women who have served to secure our liberties and our way of life. I recently read a number of DAR essays expressing such sentiments.

This kind of talk always makes me uncomfortable. Undoubtedly there have been a great many of American veterans who served and died with the result that our liberties and way of life were secured from direct attack. The veterans of the Revolutionary War come most immediately to mind. But even they ... I mean, how many of those men went to war for the purpose of securing the birth of the nascent nation? Certainly not the vast majority of the veterans of 1776. And what about the veterans of our other wars? Did the Spanish American War really threaten our liberties? Did even World War II (our way of life, perhaps. Our liberties? Who really thinks an Axis victory would have resulted in the conquest of America and not a peace treaty?)? Does the current war in Iraq really defend our liberties or our way of life?

I am thankful that for most of its history this nation has had the good sense to have a War Department rather than a Department of Defense. Not that I oppose the bureaucratic unification of the DoD, but the name ... I mean, really, come on. Whenever people talk about our wars as defensive in nature, I cringe. I suppose it's the classicist in me. In roughly two hundred years of history the Republic of Rome was at peace for twelve. All of those wars were, officially, to defend Roman liberties and the Roman way of life. Did you know that? And in the end? Rome had conquered, quite by accident, the whole of the Mediterranean. Oh, and the republican way of life was lost forever despite the efforts of some very talented well-meaning patriots.

I don't want that for America. I don't want us to go on making defensive war until our nation crashes down around our ears. I want us to call our wars what they are - defensive, aggressive, opportunistic, preemptive, vengeful, whatever. I doubt politicians will do so within my lifetime. But the American citizenry might.

And what about the soldiers? I'll tell you why I celebrate Veterans Day (in my quiet, internal, Natalian way). It's not because the millions of American veterans have secured my liberties (I won't even get into securing my way of life. Does it deserve to be secured?). Some of them have, and some of them haven't. Very few of those who have secured my liberties fought and died, when the chips were down, to secure the liberties of a stranger who would live decades or even centuries after they were dust and gone. Some of the veterans I would like to honor on Veterans Day didn't serve in any conflicts at all.

But they were all soldiers.

What is a soldier? In Knights of the Old Republic a soldier of the Old Republic, Carth Onasi, debates with a Mandalorian warrior the difference between a soldier and a warrior. Here's a definition of "warrior" that fits for the warriors of Mandalore and with the warriors of Homer:

A warrior fights for his good and the good of all his people.

Sarpedon was a warrior. Achilles was a warrior. And a soldier? Here's a definition of "soldier" that fits for the soldiers of the Grand Army of the Republic and for the United States of America:

A soldier fights for the good of his people and surrenders that good for himself.

Achilles was the greatest warrior of his age but not a soldier until the last year of his life. Rodger Young, now ... Rodger Young was a soldier.

Not all American soldiers have secured my liberties. All of them surrendered theirs when they signed up. An American soldier does not, like Achilles, reap the reward of his efforts. An American soldier might or might not do something that secures my liberty during his career, but one thing is sure: for the duration of that career he gives up most of the liberties that make America what she is. He gives up what he has for the chance to give to his people a spoil of war that he himself may never see.

Until, that is, he puts away his uniform, hangs up his weapon, and becomes a veteran.

I'm aware that it's more complicated than that. I'm aware that many citizens become soldiers with patriotism way down on the list of their motivations, and that some become soldiers with no patriotic motivations whatsoever. I'm aware, I think as much as a civilian can be, of why fighting men actually fight. But I also think that what I have written, even though it's only part of the story, is true. And that's why I celebrate Veterans Day.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Seussical Review

Okay, it's time for an art post. Actually, since I don't have a lot of time, I'm basically going to repost this from an e-mail I sent to my family. I have not edited this much for prettiness, but hopefully the excess of excitement will come through to cover that deficiency.

Caveat: I am not a professional theatre critic. Actually, technically, as of this very moment I'm not a professional anything. But I do know a thing or two about theatre, and in any case, you don't have to be a professional critic for people to find your thoughts valuable. So hopefully some people will find this valuable.

This post is to review Seussical, Berkeley Playhouse's first production, which is showing at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley now through December 2. Short version, for those who trust me enough to do what I say: go see it. Now. Don't wait for Thursday. Don't accept any excuses like "there's no show scheduled for today" or "the cast and crew aren't here today." You go there, take whoever's in the building by the throat, and demand that they get the cast and crew there so you can see this show.

Longer version, for those who trust me enough to read my walls of text: I got to attend opening night, and that was a really good show. I've been wanting to review it since I saw it. So I am.

Seussical's plot is based on Horton Hears a Who, the story of our favorite faithful and honest elephant who discovers a tiny world atop a dust speck that only he (by virtue of his keen elephant ears) can hear, and his attempts to save the dust speck from disbelieving bullies in the Jungle of Nool. It also weaves in (and reimagines) elements from Horton Hatches the Egg, "Gertrude McFuzz," The Butter Battle Book, I Had Trouble In Getting to Solla Sallew, The Cat in the Hat, and a number of other Seuss stories.

The show flopped on Broadway, and if you listen to the soundtrack and look up some pictures online I think you can see why. The material is good (the songs are quite catchy, there's plenty of wit in the book, etc.) but schizophrenic. It doesn't know what it wants to be. Musically it bounces around from torch songs to rock to swing to gospel to Broadway. Thematically, it wavers between being a celebration of Seuss' works and being a celebration of childhood imagination. Material like this needs a firm hand to bring it line, which is just what director Kimberly Dooley and her team have brought to the show (side note: this will be the only full name in this post. Thayet pointed out that there might be Actors' Equity Association rules relating to reviews or something, and we'd hate to get anybody in trouble. If you're reading this out of professional interest, it shouldn't be hard to Google any of the names involved, or pick up a program from the show. Personally I don't see what the AEA can do to me, who isn't in privity with it, or to any of these actors, none of whom have a relationship with me. But just to be safe, first names only from now on. Oh, and fie on unions who think their members work for them).

I am fairly certain that the Broadway version erred too much thematically on the side of being about Seuss. The trouble with that is that Seuss' books are basically all moralizing fables told by a man with a pronounced leftist bent, which is hardly the stuff of a Broadway smash hit. And, as the Mike Myers Cat in the Hat demonstrates (and as the Jim Carrey How the Grinch Stole Christmas demonstrated before it), Seuss' worlds just don't translate that well to live action. Trying to translate the work of a cartoonist into actors in cat suits just makes the show feel like it's trying to translate Seuss for the sake of trying to translate Seuss, which is also hardly the stuff of universally appealing theatre.

This production of Seussical avoids all those mistakes by focusing essentially on what Seuss means to people, especially kids. The books themselves may be moralizing fables, but to a kid they represent imagination, the fantastic, the wonder of "possible." Kimberly's show is actually the story of JoJo, a regular little boy, who imagines the entire story of Horton with the help of the Cat in the Hat, whom he also imagines, and then imagines himself into the story as a little Who boy on Horton's dust speck whose overactive imagination gets him in trouble but ultimately saves the day. I have no idea how much of this frame story is in the original material or not, but it's just what the production needs to take it from catchy but schizophrenic (ho-hum) to fabulous.

For instance, none of the characters are in animal suits. Horton the Elephant is really JoJo's real-life buddy the neighborhood recycling man, and his baggy coveralls inspire JoJo to imagine him as an elephant. The Cat in the Hat is really a fast-talking businessman JoJo has seen somewhere, who turns into the fun-loving prankster that runs the show. And so on and so forth. The only costumes that are actually trying to mimic animals are the fish costumes in "McEligott's Pool," which is appropriate because that song is sung by JoJo the Boy imagining himself as JoJo the Who, imagining that he is fishing in his bathtub, which is connected via underground river with the sea.

The set also does not try to recreate Seuss' worlds, although it takes some heavy inspiration from the books in certain elements. Apart from some dressing (e.g., you can't have Horton hatching the egg if there's no tree for him to climb up) it's really just a series of platforms. I was most impressed by the way Kimberly directed this show. The set is split between the planet of Who (the dust speck) on stage left and the Jungle of Nool on stage right, with the lower area center used for various effects. The Jungle of Nool is really quite simple in design but the actors use it most adroitly as a kind of a jungle gym. The levels on the Who side of the stage, which is really not that different architecturally from the Nool side of the stage, are used in quite a different fashion in order to create the impression that there's more space over there than there really is (in fact the actors are quite confined, but Kimberly manages to use her levels in a way that conveys the impression not only of all of Whoville but all of their dust speck as well. Really, her staging is most impressive).

The Cat in the Hat is played a gentleman named Bill, who is a real gem of a find. The Cat's role in this show actually bears fairly little resemblance to the role he plays in his titular books (in fact, they excised the one number that recreates The Cat in the Hat, which in my opinion was a good choice because compared to the rest of his material it simply feels tacked on). He's essentially the embodiment of JoJo's imagination, and runs the show, even sometimes getting JoJo in trouble - a clever motif in a show about childhood imagination (who really runs the mind of an overimaginative child? The kid? Or does his imagination have a mind of its own?). He pops up throughout the show as if by magic, making things happen and playing about a dozen cameo roles. All of this requires the genius of a really mercurial character actor, and Bill is just that. He has a masterful command of his body and his voice that lets him morph between the Cat's various characters with startling abruptness.

Horton, our hero, is probably the most like his namesake character of any in the show. He is faithful and honest and plain, and what others mistake as simpleness is really just an abundance of kindness. Horton simply doesn't have a selfish bone in his body, and he's hurt by the bullies' torment not so much (I think) because he's being tormented as because it distresses him deeply to see people being mean. Brian, who plays Horton, has all of this down to a T. Brian manages to make Horton lovable without making the mistake of turning him into an adorable caricature. Brian's Horton is lovable by sheer dint of goodness rather than cuteness (which is an important distinction, because that's precisely what motivates Gertrude McFuzz's romantic interest in him). He also manages to convey the impression not of an elephant but of a recycling man whom a kid has imagined into an elephant, which I must tell you is some trick. And his ability to relate to inanimate objects (i.e., his dust speck) is the closest thing I've seen to computer animation on stage since ... well, ever.

The character of Gertrude McFuzz has been transformed from the vain, image-conscious bird in her eponymous short story to Horton's plain, overlooked next-door neighbor (in fact JoJo's family's cleaning woman, who, we may presume, has had a crush on the recycling man for some time). She is played to hilarious effect and with perfect comic timing by Rebecca. Gertrude is an important character thematically, and Rebecca's Gertrude is a goofy, klutzy, desperate-to-be-noticed joy to watch.

Gertrude's "friend" Mayzie, the mother of Horton's egg, is played by a woman named Julie. I think it's clear that Mayzie and Gertrude are friends, but they don't exactly have a healthy friendship of equals. Julie's singing was a bit too free at times (disconnecting her from the orchestra), but she has arguably the best physical performance in the show. She's sexy and showoffish and blithely ignorant of how offensive her self-centeredness can be, and she manages to do all of this while moving like a bird, right down to the attitude of her head and the focus of her eyes.

The role of the chorus is filled by three bird girls and the three Wickersham brothers, who are monkeys. The bird girls alternate between narrators and Mayzie's back-up followers/singers and get the most interesting harmonies in the show. Some of these are quite tricky, and the bird girls managed to navigate them with only one or two slip-ups, which I thought was impressive. They also have an abandon to their ridiculous physicality (both as birds and, in one song, as fish) that manages to sell it out of the realm of the ridiculous altogether. The Wickershams are among Horton's primary tormentors, and the guys playing them have really excellent movement. There's nothing especially monkey-like about their costumes taken by themselves, but when you pair the costumes with the guys' movements the monkey aspect snaps quite startlingly into focus in a way that is sharper than either the costumes or the physical performance could create on its own. The role of chorus lead (and the leader of the bully gang) is filled by the Sour Kangaroo, played by a Japanese woman named Anna channeling Angry Black Woman. You wouldn't think that would work, but it really does. At the performance I went to I felt like Anna's balance was low (she might have just been singing too softly, but the intensity of her Angry Black Woman physicality suggests otherwise), which was unfortunate, but she makes a great villain for the piece - mean enough to inject some conflict into the show, but sassy enough to be really fun to watch.

One character who is not a villain but could be (mistakenly) turned into one is General Genghis Khan Schmitz (aka the crazy homeless guy on the corner), to whose military academy JoJo is sent by his desperate parents. Thomas, the actor who plays Schmitz, definitely has the crazy homeless guy aspects of Schmitz down pat. Personally I would have translated more of that into his military persona; the material seems to me to ask for Schmitz to be kind of a caricature (because he's slightly unstable and based on a crazy guy) of an 1880s British colonial officer who thinks of the military as primarily a kind of rough-and-tumble character school for young boys alternating with a Parris Island drill instructor, all without realizing that the military life involves, you know, people shooting at you. I don't know if Kimberly disagrees with that vision, or Thomas does, or both, but Thomas is still a lot of fun to watch. In an excellent example of the subtext at which this show excels, he manages to give the character a real arc. There's a moment when he realizes JoJo isn't playing his game where his genuine concern for the boy really comes through, and I found that moment especially touching.

The adult cast is rounded out by JoJo's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Mayor, played by Phil and Tara. When we meet the parents they are in the awkward position of living the lives of (and being) strait-laced, Stepford-like Whos who love their son very much but don't know how to stop him from being so abnormally imaginative (or even if they should stop him from being so abnormal, which is a nice touch). The parents actually have comparatively little stage time, and little enough of that is devoted to their relationship with each other or with JoJo. It's a testament to the actors (and to the fantastic chemistry between them) that they manage to convey a whole familial dynamic primarily with subtext. A lot of aspects of this show are clearly better than Broadway, but Mr. and Mrs. Mayor especially stand out for mining the richness of their roles in ways that the Broadway cast pretty clearly did not.

Singing-wise, at this level of professional theatre I generally expect casts to be some combination of strong individual singers who can't do ensemble singing, strong individual singers who can't act and sing at the same time, or strong actors who are weak individual singers. Seussical's ensemble numbers were strong in terms of the individual singers' projection, tonality, and blend (though the bass part occasionally suffers in the projection department, perhaps because they seem to have only a single Wickersham brother on that line), and also exhibited a number of nice touches that one doesn't see consistently even at the higher levels of professional theatre. Chief among these "extras" in my book was the fact that the ensemble can actually sing in unison even in the more vocally complicated songs. This combined with their diction (I believe their assistant director Phil, who is a conductor by training, really hammered the lyrical parts of these songs) meant that I could actually understand all but one line in the show, and that one line is pretty much incomprehensible just because it's written badly ("Then over the desert, the desert of Dreze / and into the forest with thousands of trees, / past sneetches on beaches" - the bolded words are basically impossible to distinguish without looking them up, and the meter of the entire line is all off as well in a deliberate effort to preserve the integrity of the words, which are lifted directly from Seuss).

Another really impressive "extra" on display in both the ensemble numbers and the solos was that all of these actors can act while they sing (Horton and Gertrude especially impressed me along these lines). One of the things that I thought made this especially noticeable is that many of the songs are not written especially in character (i.e., there are either a number of different ways you could legitimately take the song, or the song is written in a genre that actually works against convincing characterization, such as the gospel numbers with the Sour Kangaroo, the Wickersham brothers, and the bird girls) and they're all sung as the characters would sing them. In other words, the vocal direction and stage direction are working unusually closely together in this show, and the cast has the combination of acting and singing chops to really take that direction.

This integration is overall, I think, the show's most unusual "extra." Everything about this show - the overall vision, the costumes, the set design, the stage direction, the vocal direction, the singing, the physical performances, the delivery of lines - it all works together far more tightly than is usual. The individual pieces are all really quite good, but the way the entire production erases the seams between its different pieces is what makes it a truly extraordinary product. In my experience this kind of integration is unusual even at the very highest tiers of professional theatre.

Seussical runs through December 2. If you're in the Bay Area, it's really well worth making the effort to see. It's the best piece of theatre I've seen in a long time.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Care and Feeding of Your Raider, or Have You Been Playing WoW the Whole Day?

Time for another game post. I thought this time I'd talk about what goes into the process of an MMORPG raid (well, a World of WarCraft raid,s ince that's all I know) in an effort to make the process more accessible to all the significant others out there who have either become WoW widows or made their raider stop playing due to "GF aggro." Fair warning, this is pretty long.

The mysterious world of raids can largely be explained by reviewing some terminology.

Instance. All dungeons in World of WarCraft are physical places in the game world, and dungeons are one of the main focuses of action in the game. There may be several thousand people in the game world at any given time, which raises the possibility of hundreds of people descending on the same dungeon at once. This raises obvious game design problems: how could you design the monsters in the dungeon to be challenging enough for hundreds of players that wouldn't be impossible for only two or three? The conventional game design answer to this problem is to create an "instance" of the dungeon - a discreet copy for a small group of players at a time. Thus five players can go to Shadowfang Keep, and when they enter the server creates an "instance" of Shadowfang Keep in a little dimensional pocket that only those five players are in. If another five players travel to Shadowfang Keep while the first group is still inside the castle, those other five players will enter another "instance" of Shadowfang Keep.

Raid. The question now arises, how many people should be allowed inside a given instance of a dungeon? A hundred at once? Fifty? Two? In WoW, instances are divided into three categories: instances for five players ("5-mans"), ten players ("10-mans") and twenty-five players ("25-mans"). These numbers designate the number of players the instance was designed for and therefore reflect the maximum number of players that can be inside a given instance. There is nothing stopping a group from entering a 25-man instance with only two players, but they will likely find it too challenging to complete. A 25-man instance is designed to require the carefully combined and coordinated efforts of 25 players to be successful. Any instance designed for more than five players is referred to as a "raid," and a player who enters such instances on a regular basis as a "raider." (Historical Note: Before the expansion pack released last year instances were categorized as 5-man, 20-man, or 40-man. Those larger 20- and 40-man instances are still in the game world, but they're less frequented since the advent of the expansion for a variety of reasons.)

Progression. "Progression" refers to the perceived/intended curve of gameplay difficulty in the game. Conventionally, progression is benchmarked in terms of instances, or in terms of raid instances particularly. Progression is a concept that is designed into the game. That is, the fact that (say) Blackwing Lair is a more challenging instance than the Molten Core is not simply player perception. The game design intuition behind progression is to provide players with increasing challenges, so they can develop their skills on easier challenges and then be rewarded by moving on to greater challenges.

In WoW, the progression curve roughly tracks the size of an instance. Roughly speaking, all 5-man instances are easier than 10-man instances, which are easier than all 25-man instances. There is no reason inherent to the game's mechanics that this should be so, but it is a MMORPG convention dating back to EverQuest in the late 1990s. It is also, as I shall contend later in this post, a source of confusion and frustration between players and non-players.

Loot. "Loot" refers to items that a monster "drops" that is of use to a player. WoW being a game whose mechanics are mostly combative, "loot" especially refers to armor and weapons (the former term including all manner of wizardly robes and the like). This brings us to our first insight that the non-player may not find intuitive: WoW is deliberately designed so that player skill is insufficient to defeat all challenges in the game. In many video games, a sufficiently skilled player can defeat all challenges in the game without the aid of the many and various powerful tools (weapons, etc.) the game offers him. Indeed, in many video games players consider it a mark of great skill to finish the game using a bare-bones set of tools. We might call this the "Robin Crusoe" model of game design (the mightier the hero, the lesser the equipment). WoW is the opposite. In WoW (and all other MMORPGs) there are challenges that cannot be defeated no matter how good the player is; he must avail himself of ever more powerful tools. This might be for obvious reasons (e.g., he must seek out magically fire-resistant armor to slay a dragon) or for slightly less obvious reasons (e.g., he cannot, no matter how skilled the human player, defeat this knight without finding a mightier sword than the sword he has now). We might call this the "Iliad" model of game design (the mightier the hero, the mightier the equipment; even a warrior of Achilles' skill cannot face the mighty Hector without magical armor). Implicit in the game world is the understanding that some weapons and armor are just mightier than others, even if they perform exactly the same tasks. For instance, Achilles' spear is mightier than Odysseus', despite the fact that on the physical level it is just another spear; Anduril is mightier than other swords despite the fact that it inflicts its wounds through cleaving and thrusting, just like any other sword; and an Arcanite Reaper is mightier than Lord Alexander's Battle Axe despite the fact that both are just axes. Indeed, an Arcanite Reaper is mightier than a Night Reaver, despite the fact that the former is physically just an axe and the latter is an axe that shoots bolts of shadow magic. The fact that WoW requires players to seek out ever more powerful loot is one of the fundamental mechanics driving the game.

Drop. And how does one acquire loot? Some of it can be crafted by players in the game from rare and exotic materials (e.g., special metals) that those same players have plucked from dangerous mountaintops after facing many perils (albeit perils which, in general, pale beside those to be found inside an instance). Some of it can be crafted or provided by computer-controlled non-player characters for whom the player has performed some suitably epic quest. Most of the loot required to climb the progression curve's higher end is literally looted from the corpses of monsters slain in instances slightly lower on the progression curve. Such loot is referred to as "drops" (the metaphor being that the monster is clutching his prized magical breastplate in his hand, which he lets drop to the floor as he is slain). All monsters have a "loot table" of useful drops that they could drop when slain; the actual piece of loot a monster drops is determined by the game server rolling a virtual set of dice and looking up the result on the table. Frequently a given player will want only one drop from the monster's loot table - and, given the statistical nature of selecting which piece of loot will drop, that player may have to slay said monster many times before the dice come out his way. (Side Note: Don't ask me why the monsters have all these magical weapons and armor lying around to tempt passing adventurers. I never did figure out what Baron Rivendare wanted with a druid's Wildheart Kilt.)

Trash. All dungeons in WoW, following established video game tradition, are populated by two kinds of monsters (or "mobs"): bosses and not-bosses. In WoW, not-boss monsters inside an instance are referred to as "trash." This is part machismo, part recognition of the fact that bosses are the focus of any game they appear in. Being the focus of the players' efforts is part of what makes a boss a boss. The loot dropped by trash (or "trash mobs") may be helpful to a player's progression, but it is rarely vital and usually of lower quality (i.e., less mighty) than the loot dropped by bosses.

Run/Clear/Down. To "run" an instance is to go inside of it and fight the monsters therein. To "clear" an instance is to slay every monster inside of it, or at least to slay all the bosses inside of it. Because instances themselves have miniature progression curves whereby, e.g., the first boss in the instance is easier than the last, "clear" may also be used partially (as in "this week we cleared Karazhan through the Shade of Aran"). If a boss is slain, he is said to be "down" or to have "been downed," and the act of slaying him is "downing" him.

Reset. Once you have cleared a raid instance, what do you do? Can you do it again? Or are all the monsters and bosses in there dead for all time? In WoW, everything you just slew will come back to life, ready to be slain (and looted) again, in the course of time (usually on the order of once a week for most raids). This is referred to as the instance "resetting." Resets are a necessary absurdity given the statistical nature of drops and the fact that the progression curve is loot-dependent as well as skill-dependent. Suppose a player needs a particular set of magical greaves in order to successfully challenge a great leviathan, and those greaves are known to be held by an evil death knight. He can (with the help of others) slay that death knight, who may drop the player's magical greaves but could just as easily drop a wizardly robe that is (because he is not a wizard) of no use to the player whatsoever. If the death knight stayed dead, our player could not get his greaves, and would forever be barred from defeating the leviathan (whose drops he would need to face yet greater challenges afterwards). And no - for reasons which are utterly contrived, the player cannot simply rifle through the death knight's corpse and obtain all the loot that he is presumably hiding in his back pocket. Don't ask me why.

There are also "soft" resets within a raid itself. If a raid has multiple bosses inside of it, the trash preceding that boss will generally be "linked" to the boss. From the moment the first "linked" monster is engaged, the raid will be on a hidden timer (anywhere from fifteen minutes to over an hour). If the boss is not downed within that timeframe, the trash will come back to life again and the raid will have to clear it all over. However, if the boss is downed within that timeframe, his linked trash will stay dead until the entire raid instance resets. This mechanic allows players to clear a raid over several days. If a boss is downed today, the raid can come back tomorrow and waltz through the halls that only yesterday were packed full of ravening monsters, until they get to an area of the dungeon that they have not yet cleared.

So now we have all the tools to understand just what raiders do all day. In fact, you probably understand most of the dynamic already.

Let us start with the basic premise: a player and twenty-four of his friends (or at least his comrades-in-arms) desire to down some boss. For instance, this very evening my guild will attempt to down a massive magical-mechanical golem type entity known as the Void Reaver. Our raiders have various reasons for wanting to do so.* The snarky way to put it is that they want to down the boss so they can get loot to down some other boss, etc. etc. ad nauseum. And this would be true, although it's probably no more or less trivial than a football team who wants to defeat this week's opponent so they can get the rating to defeat some other team, etc. etc. ad nauseum. Another way of putting it (which would be true for the football players as well as the raiders) would be to say that this week's target presents a challenge of skill that they wish to answer, for the inherent reward and sense of accomplishment that comes from defeating any challenge, whether or not it leads to further challenges down the line.

It is a common misconception among non-players, I think, that raiding is simply a matter of logging into the game at the appointed hour, journeying to the dungeon wherein the boss resides, and sallying forth to conquer and pillage. In some cases this is true; a player will generally have reasons to visit instances that are lower on the progression curve than his current level of skill and equipment permit him to take on. These instances are "easy" to him by virtue of his skill and equipment and therefore require no extensive preparation on his part to clear. For another player, less skillful or less well geared or both, that same instance might require careful planning beforehand.

In general, raiders are most excited about attempting instances that are at the very limits of what their gear and skill allow (this is particularly true of "new content," a boss or dungeon that the group has never hazarded before). Now, whether one's equipment is mighty enough to down a particular boss is a rather complicated and involved but reasonably mechanical assessment, since many thousands of others have attempted the very same boss and with the help of the internet it is fairly easy to benefit from their experience. Whether one's skill or the skills of one's comrades are adequate is another assessment entirely, and one that is prone to egoism.

There are a number of ways in which a raid can increase its chances against a boss at the very limit of their skill/equipment envelope. One way is to browse the internet for write-ups of others' successful (or unsuccessful) attempts on that boss, or to watch videos of other raids fighting the boss, or to post questions about the boss on an online discussion forum. I have never fought the Void Reaver before, so I read an article that discusses the fight. Alternatively, a player might notice (or be told) that his skill is lacking and he is a drag on the group. This player could go online and discuss with others what he is doing wrong, or what he could be doing better. The WoW forums are full of just such questions. Forewarned is forearmed.

Another way is to craft magical potions, scrolls, and the like (even magical war drums) that the raiders will use just before engaging the boss himself. The benefit from such "consumables" is short-lived, but will effectively expand the skill/equipment envelope for the duration of the boss fight itself. The use of consumables generally increases as the group's familiarity with the boss decreases. If the guild has slain this boss a dozen times before, they may feel comfortable enough to engage in the fight without this temporary augmentation. If the boss has only been downed a few times (or never at all) the group may attempt to compensate for their lack of skill at this particular challenge by essentially temporarily augmenting their equipment. Of course, magical potions are not cheap. They require rare herbs found in the far corners of the globe, and it is no easy task to scour the far corners of the globe in search of enough herbs to provide twenty-five people with five vials of potion apiece. Some players will sell such herbs or potions on the in-game auction house (which is like eBay, except that it's a physical auction house to which one must journey). Of course, since the labor involved in getting those materials for auction is considerable, players who intend to buy their consumables must spend a considerable amount of time in the game raising money.

Finally, a group can try to improve its actual gear before the "main event," so to speak. Another more or less common misconception is that everything needed for a raid is found within the raid itself. The game could have been designed this way, but it was not. In part this is an accident of design; loot primarily intended for one instance may well be useful in six or seven. In part it is also a deliberate design decision; Blizzard wants to contribute to the epic feel of the game by making players journey across the globe to many different locations. For instance, there is an orcish warchief named Kargath Bladefist who is known to drop bracers (forearm guards) that would enhance my druidess' capabilities in her bear form (like all druids in WoW, she is a shapeshifter). Bladefist resides in a 5-man instance called the Shattered Halls, half a world away from the Void Reaver in Tempest Keep. In preparation for this evening's assault on the Void Reaver, I could have found four other players with reasons of their own to visit the Shattered Halls in an attempt to down Bladefist and get my bracers. In point of fact I tried to do exactly that, and failed to find four other players willing to make the attempt (the Shattered Halls, despite being a lowly 5-man, has a reputation for being quite challenging. One of the changes in Blizzard's design philosophy since the expansion pack has been to make 5-man instances more challenging, so players without the time or social network to coordinate 25-man raids can still have a comparable level of challenge). Even if I had, the entire attempt would have taken two to four hours. First I would have had to find four players besides myself who wanted to go. Then I would have had to find four players whose gear and skill, in conjunction with my own, would give us a reasonable chance to actually clear enough of the instance to get to Kargath (who is the final boss of the instance). And then we would have had to go do it, which would take sixty to ninety minutes for even a very well geared and skillful group.

All of this falls into the category of "preparing for the raid," and all of it, as you might imagine, takes time. And then there is the raid itself, which can take anywhere from two hours to six depending on how the group's skill/equipment envelope matches up to the raid, and how persistent the raiders are. As a general rule, a six-hour raid means the group doesn't have the chops for their target, but they may persist in the hopes of learning more about the encounter through painful experience (or simple denial). In my personal opinion a "successful" raid should take two to three hours, but others have different tolerances and expectations (others in my guild, for instance, are perfectly happy with a raid that takes four hours).

I mentioned earlier that all of this preparation may be necessary for some players to run a 5-man instance just as much as it is necessary for another, more skillful or better geared player to run a 25-man instance. This was not really true. One of the things that I think can trip couples up is how much more time and effort must be spent preparing for raids than preparing for 5-mans. The truth is that most 5-mans require very little preparation, because they are simply easier. The progression curve, in other words, is not linear. The jump in difficulty from, say, Sethekk Halls to the Shadow Labrynth (one of the more difficult 5-mans) is not nearly so great as the jump from the Shadow Labrynth to Karazhan (which these days is the first raid that most players can handle). The demands of the game change dramatically when a player begins to raid, because the game has gotten a lot harder.

As I said before, there is no particular inherent game mechanical reason why the game should get much harder in raids (Blizzard has recognized this to some extent, with the addition of "heroic" 5-man instances that are more like raids in their challenge level but still only require 5 players). Nevertheless, that's the game. Blizzard has decided that the hardest challenges its designers can come up with should be placed in a raid context. Of course, that is the very thing about raids that makes them so exciting to most raiders. Unfortunately, because those challenges require 10 or 25 other players to experience, there are significant social reasons why the game takes much more time at the raid level. Schedules must be coordinated days in advance. People log in to the game late. Some members of the raid didn't do their homework, and must have things explained to them (thereby wasting the time of all those who did do their homework, for which the explanation is redundant). And these social barriers, each of which requires time, are compounded atop the added gameplay necessity for greater preparation. I think the effects in terms of needed prep time can be confusing for those around a newly minted raider.

The raiding lifestyle is not particularly conducive to romantic (or indeed, parental) relationships, but I think that understanding it can help. And so far I've been able to maintain my relationship with Thayet without giving up raiding entirely (in fact, although my play time has decreased, my progression has increased). Based on that experience I think the main component to the "romantic raider" lifestyle is that both parties value the other and their leisure activities of choice. Thayet loves spending time with me (and I with her), but it's also important to her that I have my alone time. It's also often seemed to me that it would help many couples if they both understood what the process or raiding involves. For instance, I think you can see by now why it isn't really possible to raid without playing the game outside of the scheduled raid time; such a player would have no time to prepare and therefore could not attempt new and challenging bosses. Of course, a player could always simply refuse to prepare, and there are usually several in a given raid who have done just that. However, their slack must then be taken up by others in the group (or else the group must accept this reduction in its capabilities): others must gather the herbs that he didn't, or spend valuable time explaining the fight. That simply isn't fair to the other players, who (although it is often forgotten) are human beings with lives and schedules of their own.

On the other hand, there's a difference between playing the game because you're bored (i.e., sending the message that you value WoW more than your girlfriend) and playing the game in pursuit of some particular goal. For instance, here are some items from my WoW "to-do" list:

Journey to Nagrand and gather rare primal shadow from the demons I slay there, which I will use in an enchantment I want cast on my cloak to enhance my healing spells, and in weaving into magical armor kits and a magical ring that will help protect me from the nature-based spells I will have to face when we challenge the mighty water elemental Hydross
Journey to the Zangarmarsh to gather rare motes of life from the fungal giants I slay there, which I will use in the aforesaid ring
Journey to Terrokar Forest to gather rare primal water from the water elementals in a lake high atop a mountain, which I will use in a different ring to protect me from the frost spells that Hydross and his minions will use
Journey to the Blade's Edge Mountains to gather rare primal fire from the fire elementals there, which I will use in the second aforesaid ring
Journey to Hellfire Peninsula to kill Kargath Bladefist in the Shattered Halls until my bracers drop to enhance my bear form, needed to tank many bosses
While I'm there, invade the various portions of Hellfire Citadel to prove myself a champion of the beleaguered humans of Honor Hold, as only then will they teach me to craft a particular magical armor reinforcement, which will enhance my panther form as well as many of my team mates
Journey across the world to slay various bosses in 5-man dungeons on "heroic" difficulty mode to earn badges of justice, which I can give to the angelic na'aru in Shattrath City to prove that I am worthy of the various pieces of magical armor they give to their champions, which armor will enhance my bear form
Journey to an entirely different world to run the haunted wizard tower of Karazhan, a 10-man raid, in pursuit of various and sundry magical armor and weapons
Journey to Stormwind City (or have another character journey to Stormwind City) to find on the auction house: armor that will protect me from nature spells, armor that will protect me from frost spells, and rare gems that when cut in a particular way can be socketed into my armor to enhance its mightiness because the patch Blizzard will release in a week or two will change the way my druid benefits from particular types of enhancements
Earn money to afford the aforesaid items on the auction house

That list will get whittled down slowly, but it's important that when Thayet is busy or what have you I spend my play time working towards some specific goal, as a way of honoring the time we have to spend together. Some of the things on that list I can do on my own at any time of day in chunks of time as small as ten minutes apiece. Others will require the aid of others to run various instances over the course of hours, which I can only do at certain hours of the day (when other people likely to help me are likely to be playing the game). I think knowing and appreciating a raider's "preparation list" could help a lot of raider/non-raider couples communicate effectively about play time.

* It is another common misconception that the players will want to down some boss for a particular story-based reason. In the majority of cases (I venture to say the vast majority of cases) this is simply not true. It may have been true the first time the players attempted to down a boss; perhaps the game provided them with some story-based reason to do so. Amen amen, I say to you, it will not be true by the time they are downing him for the tenth time, or even the fifth. WoW does tell a story, but it does so in a very strange way. Imagine a storytelling medium where what the audience experiences is only evidence of what happens, or an interpretation of what happens, and from that evidence or interpretation they are supposed to construct in their imaginations what actually happens. That is how MMORPGs (indeed, most video games) tell stories. It may be important to the player's imaginative reconstruction of the story to kill Illidan Stormrage the first time. Very quickly (as quickly as the second time; or indeed, for some players, the first time), the player's only immediate motivations for killing Illidan [again] will become the gameplay challenge he presents, with no story-based motivation at all. Whether this is a failing of game design I leave to you. Personally I just find it somewhat amusing. After all, there's no story-based reason for the activities of football, or basketball, or really any other team sport. I don't consider the lack of narrative motivation a flaw in the design of those games.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Courting Me, part 2

Alexander's comment on my last post got me thinking about the problems with issue-based appeals to the Christian electorate. I'd like to postulate at the outset that there are basically two types of Christian voters. There are some Christian voters who appear to be genuinely committed to political positions for religious reasons - no gay marriage, no abortion, etc. And then there are those who are committed to doctrine - to "religious reasons" themselves, you might say.

Here's an example: suppose a politician comes up to two Christian voters and says, "I believe that gay marriage should be recognized/legalized in this [electoral region]. I appeal to your religious values to determine whether you should vote for me." Christian 1 will say, "My religious values include gay marriage; I will vote for you" or "My religious values do not include gay marriage; I will not vote for you." Christian 2 will say, "Gay marriage is an application of my religious values and not one of my religious values itself; please give me an argument." Three guesses as to which I think is the better way to be.

This is the basic trouble with issues-based religious appeals to voters, I think. Because of course I can (as discussed in the last post) vote for something I think is immoral if I consider the alternative to be worse. As a Christian, I am not concerned with individual platform planks. Any hot-button "values" voter issue you can think of is, by itself, irrelevant to me when I vote as a Christian. What is relevant to me as a Christian voter is whether any individual platform plank is more likely to promote the Kingdom of God than not. This is a much broader inquiry than the issue itself. Let us say for the sake of argument that I consider gay marriage immoral. What I want to hear from a politician who appeals to me based on that issue is not "the Bible says gay marriage is immoral; c.f. passages X, Y, and Z." I want to hear, "I am committed to bringing American society into personal contact with Jesus Christ. I believe that outlawing gay marriage will, on the whole, advance that goal. Here is my analysis of the reasons why it will tend to do that, why it will not tend to do that, and why I think the one effect outweighs the other."

Of course any politician who tried to make an appeal like that would be crucified by his opponents, and perhaps rightly so. After all, voters (and politicians) would raise very serious issues about such a statement and the Establishment Clause (at least, the 20th century version of the Establishment Clause). But here's the thing: I feel like that's the only religiously legitimate issue-based appeal a politician can make. If oppressing a moral evil drives people further away from Christ, I fail to see how that oppression is supposed to appeal to me as a Christian. When Christ dined with prostitutes it wasn't to admonish them about getting a career change. But no politician ever talks about the effects of their political positions on the voters' spiritual lives. They can't. The best they can do is try to get at it sideways, from a sociological standpoint, by saying things like "X is bad for the American family." Those arguments are usually fairly sketchy to begin with, in my opinion, and they don't have anything directly to do with Christianity, either.

So there's the conundrum: the only religiously legitimate way to appeal to me on a given issue is politically illegitimate. My conclusion is that people should just stop trying.

That's not to say that I consider my Christianity separate from my franchise, or that I don't care about the spiritual lives of political candidates. It's just that I think I'd much rather have candidates appeal to me as a Christian voter not on the basis of individual issues but on the basis of what kind of person they are, how they make decisions, and what their spirituality means for them as professional politicos.

That might mean that candidates can't really appeal to me primarily as a Christian voter. That might not be such a bad thing.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Courting Me

"And as for the fact that the Athenians have chosen the kind of constitution that they have, I do not congratulate them ..."

I go back and forth on the duty of a good citizen to be informed about the candidates he votes for. On the one hand I feel bad exercising my franchise in the dark. On the other hand I console myself with the fact that the system was designed with precisely that eventuality in mind, and works surprisingly well for a government nominally run by the willfully ignorant.

In this latest round of voter self-education I have run into the inevitable attempts by Republicans (and Democrats! Exciting new development!) to court evangelical Christians, a voter demographic to which I nominally belong. In fact, I belong to an even less centrist demographic - evangelical Pentecostals (making people like, say, Vonsus, look downright tame).

As usual, one of the hooks used to try and nab my demographic is the issue of legalizing or illegalizing abortion. Like most attempts to court my vote on religious grounds, I find this offensive at worst and problematic at best.

I don't actually know what I would say if someone asked me for counsel on whether or not they should get an abortion. But for the sake of argument, let's say I think abortion is a great sin and a terrible cowardice, to boot. Does it therefore follow that I think my country's laws should forbid it?

It does not. The issue is made clearer for me when I consider religious freedom. As an evangelical Pentecostal Christian I am naturally of the opinion that where Christianity conflicts with other religions, Christianity controls. I am also naturally of the opinion that people ought to be Christian for their own welfare, even if that means (as it usually does) that they can't adhere to any other religions. That's one of the things that "evangelical" means in this context. But does it follow that because I am an evangelical I think all other religions should be outlawed?

It does not. We can even assume, for the sake of argument, that I believe all other religions are demonic conspiracies (which I do not, in fact, believe). Doesn't change a thing. The fact of the matter is that I think the freedom to not follow Christ is an important American freedom, even though I also think it is pretty much the worst decision, pragmatically and morally, that a human being can make. This does not mean that I think the Constitution of the United States is a higher authority than God; it's just a reflection of my belief that attempts to outlaw religious immorality in this country will not, in fact, advance the Kingdom of God.

Similarly with abortion. As I said, I'm not 100% sure what my "stance" on abortion is. But even if I did think that abortion is immoral, why should I want my elected representatives to try and outlaw it? Do we outlaw immorality in this country? I'm not sure that we do. I'm certainly not sure that we should.

Moreover, religious-based political activity makes me uncomfortable as a Christian. The fact of the matter is that most "Christian" political activity is deeply embarrassing to me as a believer. People might start off meaning well, but the next thing you know people think that you're the freak for being cultured, educated, and rational as opposed to, say, Jerry Falwell. I've felt like enough high-profile "Christian" media figures have embarrassed my faith and damaged my personal witness to be highly suspicious of any attempts to court me by legislating my supposed morality into law, thank you very much.

Of course this is easy for me to say; I'm not a politician. If somebody is in a policymaking position and their personal conscience tells them to legislate a certain way, I'm not going to decry that decision just because their personal conscience happens to be Christian. I mean, suppose you do think something is immoral, and you've been elected to make national policy. What do you do then? Can you really look yourself in the mirror every morning knowing you decided to legalize (or fail to outlaw) something you believe is wrong? Maybe you can; I don't know (and I hope I never have to find out). But using promises of what your conscience is going to tell you once elected just feels ... I dunno ... fake? It certainly doesn't entice me to vote for you.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Harry Potter, Boy Hero?

I've started [re-]reading the Harry Potter series. Yes, for those of you who don't know, I never got past Chamber of Secrets. I read that far in Sicily because that was as far as our little impromptu library went, and I didn't find them compelling enough to be worth reading any further at the time. The writing style bothered me, and so did the plot. I don't mind improbable plots (heck, I enjoy improbable plots) so long as they're internally consistent - the magic foundation approach to storytelling. Take an improbable or impossible set of premises, and build a tightly logical narrative on top. Chamber of Secrets, I felt, was a different kind of storytelling - the suspension of disbelief approach. Take an improbable or impossible set of premises, and build an improbable narrative on top.

That sounds disparaging but it isn't meant to be. There's absolutely nothing wrong with skating by on the sheer coolness of your world, or your aesthetic, or your narrative voice, or whatever. There are lots of books that "skate by" in that way that are much better than magical foundation books, taken as total packages. But at the time all anybody could talk about was how cool Rowling's world/aesthetic/imagination was, and that was (probably unreasonably) offensive to me. More imaginative than Wrede? More imaginative than Pierce?

Well ... maybe. Looking at the question afresh, though, that doesn't seem to be the question. The merit of a fantasy world is to be judged by the way it plays with fantasy formulae, not by the imagination on display in its original elements. I'm not really far enough in to comment on Rowling's use of formulae.

But here's something that nobody ever talks about with regard to Harry Potter, even now: what is the call of the story? What is the story itself saying about the world, philosophy, morality? When people did discuss this sort of thing when I was reading them the first time, it seemed that all anybody could say was that the call of the story was to let it be okay to be a bratty ten year old kid. That ten year olds were naturally bratty and antiauthoritarian, and that was okay.

Which is, of course, total nonsense, and made me really uninterested in reading further. I can read a book with a bad aesthetic, I can read a book that's unimaginative, I can read a book that's badly constructed; I can even read a book that's all three if it has a really, really good call. But a bad call just kills it for me. I have plenty of time to contemplate the base and low in the real world (I was doing it just now, reading about politicians' response to Ahmadinejad's talk at Columbia. Honestly, people, it's a university). Who wants to spend leisure time contemplating anything other than the noble and good?

Perhaps it was a fluke of my sample of fans back then, or perhaps it's just that the series is finished now, but when I've managed to get people to talk about Harry Potter's call these days they tell a different story. And that makes me interested again. I'm sure the books get perfectly formulaic and clunkily written after you've read about four of them with your literary critic hat on. Whatever; I'm absolutely certain I've read worse and enjoyed every second. Never mind Rowling's adverbs; what is the woman trying to say?

Here's what I hope I'm going to find. No, let me back up. There are basically two types of hero stories in the world. One type of hero is typified by, say, Honor Harrington. Honor is a compelling protagonist because she is practically perfect in every way, morally larger than life. She has a strong sense of duty, an indomitable courage, an unwavering moral compass, and the physical and mental skills to back them. She isn't perfect, of course; I find her character flaws quite compelling, but she is, in short, predisposed towards heroism. And yet she is ever the underdog, and the reason Honor is a heroine is because she continues to choose the right course of action in the face of ever more horrible threats from the outside world. And when she spits in the world's eye and does the right thing anyway and the world follows through with its threats and something horrible happens to her because she did the right thing, she takes it without complaint and is just as determined to do it again the next time. Anybody who's ever felt that the world is just too much for them to handle, that doing the right thing was too much cost for no reward, should be able to recognize the appeal of this kind of heroism. This is holding fast to your heroism in the face of the world trying to seduce (or bludgeon) you away from it.

And then there's the other type of hero, the kind that I hope Harry Potter will turn out to be. Because Harry, so far as I remember, isn't predisposed towards heroism. It's not just that he isn't a tactical genius, crack shot, and doesn't have a black belt. He isn't even mentally or morally disposed to do the right thing; he isn't mentally or morally remarkable in any way. I don't mean that his heroic qualities are overlooked by those around him, like Disney's Aladdin. I mean he doesn't have any, even deep down inside. Not that he has a great store of villainous tendencies deep down inside, either. He's just a normal kid, which is to say he's kind of a brat. Back when I was in college this seemed to be the very thing that made people so enamored of him. Personally I felt when I was his age (and continue to feel) that calling that kind of behavior "normal" is a sad commentary on the quality of contemporary parents.

But here's the rub: Harry isn't predisposed towards heroism, but he has the option to be a hero anyway. Everyone does, after all. And it's just as heroic to choose heroism in spite of your natural proclivities as it is to choose it assisted by your natural proclivities. Harry's story (I hope) is the choice of a boy who ultimately chose to do right not because that's the kind of person he was but because he chose to do so. With help, of course - indispensable help, I imagine - but because he chose to. This is the kind of heroism that the anti-hero exhibits. Harry may not be Honor Harrington, but I hope he's Han Solo.

And this is, ultimately, the kind of heroism that we all exhibit as well. Maybe some people are more predisposed towards heroism than others. But ultimately all of us choose it in spite of ourselves more than we do because of ourselves. And we have help, yes, the kind of help without which we could not choose the right thing no matter how much we tried. The important thing is not that we chose it alone or with help, or that we chose it because or inspite of ourselves. Just that we choose it.

Friday, July 20, 2007

What to Do

Before I get started, the previous post has been tweaked a bit. I'm much happier with it now.

On Tuesday I take the Bar, which is probably all the warning this blog is going to get. I was going to write a much more emotional stream-of-consciousness post on the subject, but I had the good fortune to talk it over with Thayet before I did anything so silly (not silly because acknowledging your feelings is silly, but because it's silly to post such things on a blog before talking them over with my closest supporter).

It's been an unpleasant experience. Well, it is an unpleasant experience, since it's not over. And I'm not at all sure that I'm going to make it.

"Do you mean you think everything will come right if we do untie him?" said Scrubb.

"I don't know about that," said Puddleglum. "You see, Aslan didn't tell Pole what would happen. He only told her what to do. That fellow will be the death of us once he's up, I shouldn't wonder. But that doesn't let us off following the Sign."

It wouldn't be so bad if I could convince myself that the Bar is a worthy opponent. But I just can't.

"I can't!"

"Aslan believed you could ... and so do I."

What I mean is, it's just so large. But that's all it is. It's like an army of conscripts led by a drooling idiot. It wouldn't be so bad, I suppose, to lose to professionals - or even to lose to amateurs led by a great general. But this ... it's just some great bloated thing. It's large and broad but intellectually shallow. Losing to the Bar (when I imagine it, as of course I do) feels less like being beaten and more like failing to conquer. It feels (to put it another way) like losing to myself.

"I thought you would be grand and terrible! I thought you would make us grow up, make us accept knighthood's duties and sacrifices. This is just mean - you're a nightmare device, bringing bad dreams to people who want to help others!"

And besides the sheer indignity of losing to such an inglorious foe, I feel robbed by it as well. I miss my friends. I miss the made-up glamor of arming in tails. I miss having a good church. I miss going out on dates. I miss cooking. I miss grocery shopping. I miss art. I want to dance again. I want to learn Irish on Monday nights. I want to play games and watch movies and be thrilled again with the beauty of it all. I want to tell stories again.

"Ye want. Ye want. 'Tis something different ye're learning here."

Instead I have furtive retreats to Azeroth so I can stumble back to my books and pretend that I'm training well, and snatches of the Iliad read at night, and movies stolen from study time. Not that World of WarCraft doesn't have art, and the Iliad is nothing but art, and Transformers thrilled me with the beauty of it all. But everything has happened under the shadow of this idiot foe, this Bar exam.

I find the sequentiality of my brain working against me here. It's just so big, and there's no way to knock it down. There is always more studying that one could do, and I chastise myself for being soft - for needing to drop into the familiar mastery of my druid, or to conjure the plain of the Troad, or slip into that strange trance that holds childlike wonder and film critic side by side in tension. For that matter, why can't I think about something else when there's an unfinished task still? Weakness, weakness, weakness all!

Another trudged with heavy thoughts
Until he disappeared from view,
To ruminate on what he'd done
And punishment, as was his due.

There is an insidious kind of elitism at work here. As I've remarked before, real combat isn't like the finely balanced game theoretical puzzles that developers love so much. It's messy. You fight what you face where you face it with what you've got in whatever shape it's in. And at the end of the day, it doesn't much matter whether you lost to a disorganized rabble or to a "worthy" opponent. The willingness to present an unfair fight is what sets apart a simulation from a sport - or real life from a game. The ability and desire to win an unfair fight (whether you hold the advantage or the disadvantage) is what separates the martial from the game theoretical.

"Well," answered Zim, "suppose all you have is a knife? Or maybe not even a knife? What do you do? Just say your prayers and die? Or wade in and make him buy it anyhow? Son, this is real - it's not a checker game you can concede if you find yourself too far behind."

"But that's just what I mean, sir. Suppose you aren't armed at all? Or just one of these toadstickers, say? And the man you're up against has all sorts of dangerous weapons? There's nothing you can do about it; he's got you licked on showdown."

Zim said almost gently, "You've got it all wrong, son. There's no such thing as a 'dangerous weapon.'"

"Huh? Sir?"

"There are no dangerous weapons; there are only dangerous men. We're trying to teach you to be dangerous."

My goddesses have ever had this martial spirit. Did Alanna the Lioness give up for no better reason than that the fight was unwinnable? Did Cimorene, or Keladry, or Honor Harrington? Did my sweet one refuse to win because what stood between him and victory was ignoble?

"Look, young Trebond - what did you think studying to be a knight was about?"

My life is full of duties fulfilled and unfulfilled. I have a duty to do my best. I have a duty to be prepared for anything. I have both done and not done that duty. I have a duty never to complain. I have a duty timely to complete every one of my tasks no matter how many there are or what they are. I have both done and not done these duties.

And, because I am a lawyer, I have to ask: what are the consequences of failure? There are consequences, of course. Large ones. But one thing does not change: keep going. Don't stop. This is both an artistic and a martial statement. As Xenophon said (and when has my Xenophon ever stopped because life was unfair?), "Now for it, brave sirs; bethink you that this race is for Hellas - now or never - to find your children, your wives; one small effort, and the rest of the march we shall pursue in peace, without ever a blow to strike; now for it!"

Keep going.

"You mean," said Lucy rather faintly, "that it would have turned out all right - somehow? But how? Please, Aslan! Am I not to know?"

"To know what
would have happened, child?" said Aslan. "No. Nobody is ever told that."

"Oh dear," said Lucy.

"But anyone can find out what
will happen," said Aslan. "If you go back to the others now, and wake them up; and tell them you have seen me again; and that you must all get up at once and follow me - what will happen? There is only one way of finding out."

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Happy Birthday to a Dear Friend

For her birthday, Shanah Van asked that we give somebody else a gift lin lieu of giving one to her. This post is probably going to be late, because it’s taken me a while to figure out what to say, and also because I’m writing this from a place that doesn’t have internet access.

You can tell this is a serious post because I’m going to start it off with some disclaimers. Let me start by breaking the rules a bit and saying that I love Shanah Van. This has been true for some time but “I love you” was one of those things that was locked away in the statue room for the right person. Now it’s been given to the right person, so I can say “I love you” to Shanah and not feel bad (I suppose most of you know this, but for anybody who doesn’t, let me note for the record that I dislike qualifying “I love you” with phrases like “as a friend” or “in Christ.” Of course I don’t love Shanah the same way I love my sister, or my mother, or Thayet, and I harbor no romantic inclinations towards her. But the fact remains that I love her, and that’s that).

Second, let me say that this post is bending the rules of this blog just a bit. My intention is not to honor, and not to offend. I don’t think anything I’m going to be saying is news, so anybody who knows who I’m talking about ought to also know already what I say here. But if anybody finds anything here offensive or uncomfortable, please let me know, and I’ll be happy to redact accordingly.

That said, on to the post.

I couldn’t think of one person to give a gift to, so instead I’m going to do a partial tour through my statue room, now that it’s closed. There are plenty of statues I’m going to skip, and of course the whole concept means I’m not going to be hitting any of the guys (and I’m still missing a blogname for Blue Rose’s boy). What can I say? Can’t hit everybody in one post.

In my head there is a long hall, all in white, with bright lighting that seems to come from everywhere and nowhere. At the end of this hall there is a painting framed in rich brown wood, which is the only color in the entire scene. We’ll return to the painting later. At the end of the hall you can turn left or right. I don’t know what lies to the left. To the right, at the very end of the hall on your right, is the door to the statue room.

This hall and the door itself are all plain featureless white, all brightly reflecting the same sourceless white light. Inside are statues of all the girls I’ve ever had crushes on (there is only one girl I can say I have ever loved, in the romantic sense, and she isn’t here). They stand on a vast crowded floor on low circular podiums, carved in white stone smoother than the creamiest Parian marble. All is the same pristine, unbroken white except for Nari’s statue, with its steel thunderbolt—pristine, but not cold. There is a warmth in the stone of the statues, a bittersweet fondness as of old friends. I have often wished that I could carry a document like this in my wallet, so that if I were in a serious accident somebody could try to find these women and tell them what a difference they made, that Natalie remembered them. But of course such a document would be far too large to carry in a wallet.

In revisiting this place it is not my intention to revisit old feelings for the sake of old feelings. But I would like to single out a few because they taught me something significant that has helped to bring me here.

There is Nala, who can be named at last after Twilight and Kathelia’s wedding. Her statue is a lioness with an imperious tilt to her head, gaze focused on something distant, caught in the motion of crouching into unseen grass. Nala was the first girl ever to show interest in me as a boy, and also the first girl I had a major crush on that I learned to be friends with. My first crush ever was Raven, but in all the ways that matter it began with Nala. She was the one who first introduced me to that complicated dance through the woods of pursuit and pursue. It would never have worked out, but for anybody who thinks Thayet and I are a surprising match—oh, you should have been there in middle school with me and Twilight and Nala, in the days of the Empire and Gen. Hayes.

There is Thea, whose statue is a long and sinuous dragoness backwinging as she sets down on a lake unseen, head tossed upward with the joy of the grass and the sun and the water. Nala was my friend. She was wild and romantic and fiery, like a wood elf come to life. We would wrestle and play and fight and dream together. But Thea—Thea was kind to me. My old friend. The girl I used to go on dates with that left me with a grin I just couldn’t shut off, because she liked me for me. Thea taught me that I really was as good as anybody. She believed in me.

There is Princess, whose statue is the dragoness Sasha—I don’t know how else to describe it. In early high school my Dragon Girls inspired me to write a pair of beauty pieces that tried to explain our relationships. Thea’s was titled Simply Wonderful. Princess’ was simply I Know a Girl. Princess taught me for the first time what it was like to be friends with and attracted to a girl who was my intellectual equal. Someone who didn’t think I was smart, or weird, or verbose—just Natalie. Wonderfully Natalie, enjoyably Natalie—but just Natalie. She taught me how wonderful that is, and how necessary, and how possible. When we went out we’d just talk, enjoying the electricity that crackled between us. People would always mistake us for boyfriend and girlfriend, and she was (is, I suppose) a beautiful girl—but I think I was always just Natalie to her, and to me she was just Princess.

There is the Hawaiian, whose statue is just her, standing behind her keyboard, wearing a smile being lifted on unheard chords to God. The Hawaiian was the first Christian girl I had a real crush on. She taught me how necessary, how indispensable it is to fall in love with a girl who loves Jesus. And she taught me that you have to wait for God’s timing even when you can’t see any external obstacles.

There is Blue Rose, about whom I could say so much, but I imagine that too much would embarrass her. Her statue is just a long-stemmed rose, standing upright, suspended by unseen forces above its podium. She is the lady knight at my round table, who has always looked out for me, always called me back, always called me on by her example to be like Jesus. I always felt that we went through Stanford like two figures out of a Tyrtaios song, neither running ahead nor lagging behind, encouraging each other with our words. She taught me … well, lots of things. She taught me that the true things do not necessarily become untrue just because they operate differently in new life circumstances. She taught me the importance of being myself even as myself changes and grows. She taught me new ways to be brave and obey God.

There is Shanah Van, whose statue is herself in an enormous gown (green, though the stone of course is white) with layers of petticoats. She is caught in the midst of a spin, and though her face is blankly serious there is joy lurking beneath the surface. Shanah was my Sweatshirt Girl, who with Blue Rose kept me going through those first two years in Testimony and thereby opened up so much of what God had for me, and who bears a large portion of responsibility for the fact that I dance (and therefore, in a way, for my meeting Thayet). I think Shanah was the first girl at Stanford to flirt with me—she taught me how attraction can nourish friendship, if the friendship comes first.

The last statue I want to take you past is that of Esther Selene, whose statue is the a mare’s head thrown back and whinnying, against a backdrop of a crescent moon whose arms enclose three stars. It was Esther Selene who taught me a large portion of what I know about dating and romance (and who first taught me how to apply what I know), who taught me the joy of doing it right, and who put the last nail in the coffin of the idea that at heart I’m really just a nerd, and nobody outside of my family will ever love me.

And that brings us to me, as we weave our way through all the other statues whose subjects I don’t have time to honor now, and I direct your attention away from the statue of the country girl in the checkered dress with the basket on her arm. It would bend the rules too much to talk about who I am, but I suppose you know—and to the extent that I am a worthy partner for a woman, a large part of the credit goes to the women above.

Now it is time to close the door to the statue room, and return to the painting we passed by at the start. The painting is of a woman, with tumbled curls of hair so brown it is nearly black and creamy pink skin, with a full and mobile and very red mouth. The wood of the frame is a rich brown, and to the left of the painting as I show it to you there is a heater shield trimmed in silver and blue. To the right is a hoplite aspis, also in silver and blue.

This is Thayet, after the half-K’miri queen of Jonathan IV (did everybody catch the details there? Don’t tell me you haven’t read the books), whose subjects call her the Peerless—but I call this woman my sister, fellow priestess, lady knight, and my future queen. I call her, after the phrase of Solomon, the one whom my soul loves.

The woman in this painting loves Jesus. She is morally brave, and willing to do what he tells her to. She is wild and romantic and fiery, but I would like to call your attention to the self-evident fact that her painting is not of a kite. It is of Thayet as Thayet I, founder of the Queen’s Riders (and let us recall as well the character of the Queen’s Ladies). Wild and romantic and fiery, yes, but flighty—no. Her emotions run high, but as a person, she is steadfast. She is practical, in her way, which is usually not my way—that is to say, we are both young, and we have different (but I think complimentary) areas of expertise when it comes to living life well both practically and morally.

There is a surprising sadness in the face of the woman in this painting. She has been through a lot—which is not especially impressive, of course, nor particularly admirable. Lots of people have been through a lot and come through it the worse for wear; suffering is an opportunity to build character but doesn’t produce it. Here is what I do find admirable: to bear suffering and retain one’s happiness, one’s sense of delight. Of course, lots of people can stay happy in the face of crushing disappointment; it’s one of many defense mechanisms the psyche can choose from. So here is something more admirable still: to bear suffering and joy simultaneously, with joy the deeper and higher of the two. Happiness can be a defense mechanism. Contentment and wonder can be defense mechanisms. Joy comes from the Lord, and my love is a joyful woman.

She’s always been there for me. Of course, there are lots of reasons to always stick by a person, not all of them good. But Thayet stuck around because she believed in me, believed both in what I’m trying to be and that I can do it, and she believed those things for the right reasons. Anybody can believe in a dream and the ability to accomplish it as wishful thinking. I don’t care about wishful thinking. I care about honesty and obedience and dreaming the dreams Jesus dreams for us. I care about sticking it out even when you don’t feel like it because Jesus told you to. And that is why there is an aspis on the wall. Her emotions run high, and I love that. But her colors are argent and azure.

She taught me to open new areas of myself to introspection. She taught me new ways to believe in myself - not in the tired, defiant way in which we must never believe in ourselves, but in the simple, humble way of acknowledging what is. She taught me to be more open. And to hold on to the old, Nehemiah-like determination as well.

And that again leaves us with just me. And who am I? Have I grown as a result of knowing all these girls? Well, this is still Speaking Natalie, and I’m not going to answer that question myself in detail. Ask my parents. Most of you know how. I will content myself with saying yes. I am more myself—more who I am supposed to be, and who I long to be—for the varied loves of these women. There is more to say in my heart about each of them than I can say here, or could say here if I had all the time in the world.

Happy Birthday, Shanah. I love you.

Monday, June 11, 2007


Here are some things I’ve learned regarding my beliefs about death in the last week or so. If we need an overarching theme, I suppose it’s that my beliefs about death (which are, I suppose, a subset of the Christian beliefs about death) are weird. That’s not to say paradoxical, or inconsistent, but I have to admit they are weird.

Here’s an example. It turns out that I view death as an almost wholly biological phenomenon. I am highly skeptical of claims that dying people are seeing those who have passed on, or heaven, or have any extraordinary insight that the rest of us don’t have. This is not to say that I think it’s impossible to see those who have passed on, or heaven, or to have literally superhuman insight. It’s just that I think those are relatively extraordinary events, and in any case I don’t see what at all they have to do with death. If anything, I suppose that the dying perceive less than the rest of us.

On the other hand, it’s very important to my conception of death (and, indeed, to my conception of humanity) to affirm that a person is bodily. In Phoenix Earth terms I would say that humans are animals; i.e., they are meant to have bodies and their bodies are an important part of who they are. I reject wholeheartedly the view that the body is merely a shell or a vessel, unconnected from the “real” or spiritual person. When a person dies, in my opinion, they are dying – death is not the mere release of a person’s true self from a wasted shell. When we say that a person dies, I think that they really are dying, and I prefer to call it that. Euphemisms (and I don’t mean the term perjoratively) such as passing away, going home, or even that most ancient of Christian euphemisms, falling asleep, make me uncomfortable.

Of course, it is equally important to my conception of death (and life) to affirm that people are spiritual. That is to say, I believe that we are animals, but also that we are animals with spirits, and those spirits are no less a part of us than our bodies. So while I believe that when a person dies it is they and not a container that is dying, I also believe that there is a part of the person who is not dying.

And what happens to that part after death? The truth is, in most of the ways a person observing a loved one dying might care about, I don’t know. My beliefs don’t include anything on the subject of whether the dead can or cannot hear us when we talk to them, or whether they care about what’s happening on Earth, or are aware of it, or just how it is they remain distinctly themselves separated from a vital part of themselves. My sacred texts are silent on those subjects, and I decline to speculate. My understanding of angels prevents me from imagining that the dead turn into angels (and I wouldn’t find the thought especially comforting even if I did, since as I understand angels they are a warlike and thoroughly inhuman race). But I don’t really know what a person does “turn into” when he or she dies.

For that matter, what do I mean when I say “death?” Christians frequently speak of the first human sin as allowing “death” into the world, and we look forward to a day when there will be no more dying. I look forward to a day when there will be no more dying. But what does that mean? Once upon a time, did organic life really never terminate? Is the existence of carnivores a result of the fallen state of the world (for that matter, is the entire animal scheme of feeding a result of the Fall)? Perhaps, although I admit I find it hard to believe that a lion’s feeding reflex (or a zebra’s) is evil simply because it results in the termination of the food’s biological existence. And were humans truly intended never to die of old age? Do our bodies wear out faster now than they were supposed to, or were they never supposed to wear out at all?

I don’t know the answers to those questions, but I suspect that when we say “death” in this context – death entered the world after the Fall, Jesus conquered death, there will come a day when there is no more dying – we mean something like destruction, and not the mere termination of biological life. So we can speak of the “second death,” when some human spirits will really be destroyed forever. And human death really is death, perhaps not because the animal part of the person is dying but because the person is being sundered.

It is conventional to assume that one holds one’s beliefs about death partially (if not chiefly) as a comfort. Here I am believing that death is merely biological – but also that people are inherently biological. I have no real clue as to what existence is like for a person who has died. I suppose that Christian people probably go to “heaven” (whatever that means, although it certainly sounds not-bad), but I’m not even positive of that (c.f. Ecc. 9:5). These are not especially comforting beliefs. I do have one belief about death which is comforting, and that is the advent of the Phoenix Earth.

It turns out that I really do believe in a day when the Earth (and perhaps, by implication, all of existence) is made new and all those people (or at least, all the ones who were Christian when they died – I’m agnostic about the rest, although I am firm in my belief that there is a bad outcome to this story as well) whose very humanity was sundered by death are given new bodies, when people can be spiritual animals again and in some cosmic not-very-well-understood sense, all is as it should be. I haven’t the slightest idea what those bodies will be like – I suppose they will resemble our current bodies as much as a seed resembles a sunflower. And I haven’t the slightest idea what that new Earth will be like, or whether that Earth will eventually be swallowed up by a dying star as this one is supposed to be, or how the laws of nature will have to change so that all is as it should be, except I imagine we will be surprised by the depth of the corruption worked when “death” entered the world. But it turns out it is enough for me to look forward to a day when the sundering is undone and will never be worked again.

As I said at the beginning, it seems to me that my view of death is pretty weird. But it turns out that it really is my view. And it turns out that it really is comforting after all.

Monday, May 28, 2007

The Last Shot

Yesterday I turned in my last ever law school assignment. Law school is finally over. There are more steps in the process, technically - I haven't received a grade yet (for any of my classes), my degree hasn't been conferred, I haven't received my diploma - but those are all out of my hands. The last shot has been fired; it just hasn't hit yet. I am now in the limbo at the end of the level, when at last you can lower the gun and wait for the scores to appear so you can check the one all-important measure of success.

That measure is, of course, accuracy. Never mind how many points you've garnered. Never mind how many times they hit you, how many quarters it took to get here. Did you make every shot count? That is the only true measure of success.

In life, of course, true measures of success are harder to come by. You can try to measure success procedurally; you can ask, "Did you do your best?" But the answer to that question is always no, and holding too tightly to it leaves one in a constant struggle to reframe the scope of the endeavor. Oh, there were those last glorious hours for this last assignment when I was up until 8:00 in the morning, writing calmly and steadily with [I hope] clarity and force for almost ten hours straight. But there were also the days before those hours, when I just didn't care, or it was all too much. And maybe it was too much; maybe it really was beyond my ability in those moments that stretched into hours. But at the very least, I could have tried harder.

And that's the thing - even when the task is impossible, even when you're going to get hit no matter how fast you are on the trigger, you can always try harder, think faster, plan farther ahead. And that makes "doing your best" a rather amorphous measure of success. So you can look at what you've done, what you've accomplished. But that seems rather hollow. For one thing, accomplishments come easier for some than for others - but there is value in effort; there has to be. You can't ignore the milestones, of course, and I don't. My "accomplishments" bring me pleasure and a deep rooted sense of satisfaction with the world. They bring me joy; I feel the joy of the Lord in this limbo at the end of the level. But the accomplishments aren't success. At the end of the day, whether the milestones come easily or hard, you do your thing and sometimes people throw awards at you.

There is one other measure of success I can think of. When the credits roll and you step out of the booth or put the gun back in the holster, nobody asks you what your accuracy rating was. They ask if you finished the game. In one sense accuracy is all that matters, and that is a true sense. But in another sense what matters is that you got from level to level, and that is perhaps the truer sense. In a game, of course, the levels are linear and there are no wrong choices; they all lead to the last climactic shootout. But life's levels are not linear, and there are wrong choices. I've made more than my fair share of them, as we all have. And those choices, the level choices, are perhaps what really matter. In life, I submit, perhaps the question is not how well you did but what game you were playing.

At the end of law school people seem fond of telling you that, for all the jokes people make about lawyers, you've made a good choice by choosing to be a lawyer. It's a good profession. An honorable profession. The profession to which America has always looked for its greatest leaders; a profession with its own unique niche in the world from which to make a difference, and all that is true, but it doesn't mean we've all made good choices by choosing to be lawyers. We've made good choices to be lawyers, if indeed they are good choices, because that's what God made us to do and we're doing it. The grades in the computers, the piece of paper on the wall, are not given significance by the effort that went into them (and I worked for this piece of paper, I really did). The effort itself is not given significance by the fact that it led to a good and honorable profession, or even simply by the fact that it was effort. The effort has significance, if it has significance at all, because the effort was to do what God made me to do, what he's told me to do, what I must do. The grades and the pieces of paper have significance, if they have significance at all, because they're milestones on the right road - not that it has to be a straight and narrow road (and mine isn't), but the right road. A road that I chose but didn't design.

I think it's the right road. It's not just joy I feel, alone in the dark at the kitchen table with the buzzing of the refridgerator and the remains of a home-cooked meal. It's peace. All is right with the world. I missed quite a few shots in the last level. More than ever before, I think. And it will only get harder from here. There is the bar to study for, and take, a wedding to plan, and after that the hurry-up-and-wait routine of a transactional lawyer. A house to keep. An engagement to live, and to grow in. Friendships to maintain, and in some cases reclaim. There will be dark times, when the nights are late and the games are few and snatching even a few hours with my beloved will take all the strength we have left, I am sure.

I can sit here alone in a darkened apartment and see all of that coming. But my heart is not troubled. It is a path I have chosen, but not designed. The last shot has been fired. For a few moments I can lower the gun and dwell on what is to come, and it makes my heart swell. Because the level may be harder than any that have come before. But it's the right one. I know it is.