The Eagle Has Landed

This weekend marked the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, the first mission that successfully landed human beings on a thing that wasn’t the thing on which every human being ever in the entire history of humanity has lived.

That we as a species pulled this off is still staggering to me.

We put three living humans into a small metal tube perched on six million pounds of concentrated liquid explosion, shot them straight up into the air until they reached a point where they are so high up there is literally no more air, then guided the metal tube to a piece of space rock hurtling through the void almost 240,000 miles away from the Kennedy Space Center, and did it with less computing power than I carry around in my pocket today.

(I use that computing power, by the way, to look at cat videos. To reiterate, NASA used it to send three men — three normal, terrestrial people who cannot fly and who must breath air — to THE GODDAMN MOON.)

The sheer audacity of the US space program’s goal — to send living, breathing people to the moon and then bring them back still living and breathing — is incredible. Beyond the technical challenges this had to pose to 1960s-era scientists and engineers who were still marveling at the hand calculator, beyond the funding that had to be found by politicians who had chilly wars to fight, beyond the undoubtedly bowel-loosening terror that had to be faced by the men in the Apollo capsule as they careened wildly through the firmament towards a tiny chunk of rock floating in an endless sea of nothing, one simple fact remains: the moon is really, really, really far away.

A case study: Apollo 11 launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Orlando. The closest Taco Bell to Kennedy is 13.2 miles away. The astronauts that left Kennedy to go to the moon could have traveled round-trip to that Taco Bell more than nine thousand times and not covered the same amount of distance. That’s beefy five-layer burritos for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for more than eight fucking years.

Or they could have driven from the launch site to Washington, D.C. and back 140 times, a trip that would take 146 days of non-stop driving. Or to San Francisco and back 50 times. To Fairbanks, Alaska and back 25 times. They could have gotten in a plane and circumnavigated the globe almost ten times (no great circles here — I’m talking circumference) before reaching the moon.

My point being the moon is really, really, REALLY far away, guys. It’s cold and it’s alien and it’s distant and we’ve been there. Forty-five years later, the moon landing remains one of the most impressive things accomplished by mankind. It is, of course, a testament to what we can do when we put our minds to it, work together, follow through on some third sports movie cliché, and decide there’s no way those goddamn red-loving commie bastards are getting there first.

In thinking about how to close this post, I was tempted to point to the moon landing as proof that government-sponsored science works, that it’s important, that’s it needs to continue. I believe that’s all true, but I don’t want to use this anniversary to harp on that message too much. Because when it comes down to it, forty-five years ago mankind — essentially a troop of slightly-evolved and overly-opinionated monkeys — shoved three of its own in a can, blasted them into outer space, and took that first small step into the giant universe beyond our world.

And that’s just really, really cool.

Flight 1964

Every time I fly back from a trip home to southern California, which I seem to do in fairly regular three- or four-month intervals, I take the same flight.  Not always the same number, I suppose, but the same flight path, the same rituals, the same trip: a Southwest flight from Burbank to San Jose.  It’s about an hour gate-to-gate — forty-five minutes in the air — or just about long enough for the flight attendants to sprint down the aisle and throw peanuts at me before we start our descent.  It’s a great flight, Burbank may be the easiest airport in the world to fly out of, and Southwest is pretty cheap.  So why would I ever change the itinerary?

The one thing I do change, I suppose, is the side of the plane that I sit on.  Most of the time this comes down to where my carryon fits, since Southwest has this (possibly Marxist?) no-assigned-seats policy, but it gives me dramatically different views of southern California as I leave.  When Southwest takes off from Burbank, the runways point south, so the plane has to wheel around after takeoff to avoid taking us all to Tijuana or — god forbid — Long Beach.  That means if you sit on the left side of the plane you’re on the outside of the turn, and there’s a brief moment after the wheels retract and before the plane starts to bank that you can see the Los Angeles skyline emerge from between two hills that separate the valley from the LA basin, sliding into view as the plane rotates.  The LA skyline isn’t a skyline that rushes to the water, buildings elbowing each other out of the way in a rush to reach the shore; there’s no precipitous architectural cliff that tumbles from the city into the ocean, like the canyons of New York or San Francisco or Boston or Seattle.  Like everything else in Los Angeles, the skyline is sprawling and bizarrely positioned, spikes of steel and glass that rear out of the middle of, well, nowhere really and stretch towards the sky, metal fingers jutting from the impossibly flat sea of the basin like a slowly sinking ship.  Then the plane starts to bank and LA is swallowed by the sky, sometimes smoggy and gray, sometimes clear and cerulean, but always hungry.  By the time the plane levels out it’s hills and farmland and sometimes the coast until the pilot announces the descent back to San Jose.

On the right side of the plane, the inside of the turn, the views are very different.  Burbank looks like a grid of gray roads and grayer buildings, and when the plane starts to bank your eyes are drawn to a cemetery, the lone patch of green seemingly for miles.  The cemetery is beautiful in its own way, as individual plots blur and smear into a greenish-gray hole in the city, but it’s certainly not as striking as a skyline.  The cemetery always makes me think about who’s buried there, under the shadows of countless flights, the eyes of innumerable passengers — voyeurs, always looking at the stones, but never able to read them.  Then the plane starts to level out and it’s hills and farmland and sometimes some mountains until the pilot announces the descent back to San Jose. 

As for the landing, well, I’m usually too immersed in a book to notice anything until wheels hit tarmac.  Maybe the next flight I’ll pay more attention, but that would involve changing my mental itinerary.

Indian Guidelines

The recent news about the Washington Redskins losing patent protection for their name is a long time coming — even if it does remind me of what might be the most on-point Onion article ever.  I’m happy someone’s finally trying to leverage something to get the D.C. team to change their name.

Plus, I figure it’s as good a time as ever to trot out the audio essay I wrote senior year of college about my time in the Indian Guides and as a Hart High Indian.  And by “trot out” I really mean remind me how great this art form is and convince myself to try to make another audio essay.  So stay tuned?

Anywho, here it is: Cub Scouts and Indians.

(Big thanks to the Dandy Warhols, the Village People, the Hart High Regiment, and the lovely singing voices of Winter 2011′s English 191T.)

Things I’ve Learned from Online Dating, Vol. 1

To cut the preamble: for about seven or eight months last year, I was active on OkCupid.  It’s a strange and brave new world, this internet thing, and after several abortive internet first dates over the last year, as well as one much more enjoyable and longer-lasting yet ultimately equally abortive traditional relationship (that I’m still making a distinction here may be telling, but so far my friends and alma mater have much better taste in women than any algorithm), I’m wrestling with whether it’s time to get back on that, uh, e-horse.

I started this list of learnings last year, before I met a pretty girl at a football-viewing party (like, a real party, with food and people and everything), and before she made me walk away from her in the middle of the night a couple of months ago.  But with every ending comes a new beginning, or however that not-really-consoling-at-all aphorism goes, and so in weighing the benefits of app-based dating — it’s mobile! social! local! 3D printed! — the list has surfaced from the mire of my many half-made blog drafts, to be presented here as evidence in the case of The People v. Winger.

Some lessons the proverbial fish in that deep blue online sea taught me:

  • You are not allowed to both describe yourself as “shy” and have a username with more than two consecutive x’s in it.
  • Don’t capitalize the G and S in “grad school” unless you go to a college named after William S. Grad.
  • I also think of my self [sic] as diligent, meticulous, and detail-oriented.
  • I will never remember what Meyers-Briggs type I am, or what your Meyers-Briggs type means.
  • Do not lead with “hey u want 2 cyber”.
  • What was your Meyers-Briggs type again?
  • “The basic currency of the Internet is human ignorance, and, frankly, [the OKC] database holds a strong cash position.”

But the most obvious thing I learned wasn’t about any of these girls.  Or women in general.  It was about me.  Chiefly:

  • I am an enormous, colossal, unforgivable asshole.

From ignoring people’s messages to criticizing their minor grammar mistakes to losing all interest because of a single unflattering photo, the sort-of anonymity of OkCupid (that’s-not-my-name, that-is-my-picture) both enabled me to embrace all sorts of misanthropic aspects of my personality and to feel terrible about it at the same time.  Would I really ignore a boring girl trying to talk to me at a cocktail party?  Would I really judge anyone for mixing up “less” and “fewer” when telling me a story?  Am I really so shallow that lighting determines how much I want to talk to you?

The answer to all of these questions, it would seem, is yes.  At least, yes when I know I’ll never see these people again (or in the first place).  Yes when there’s no social pressure to do the opposite.  Yes when I don’t have to hide behind cerebral concepts like “society” or “decency”.

It’s not how I like to see myself, to say the least.  But a general malaise of cynical misanthropy I can live with — I can at least assume that I’d feel the same way, that I’d be as judgmental about favorite television shows and Oxford comma use,  if I was trying to find male friends online.

But I wasn’t.  I was looking, at one level or another, for female companionship.  What got me to stop using OkCupid wasn’t a real-life girl with a smile like moonlight.  It was a night, a few weeks earlier, when I just kept scrolling.

OkCupid uses infinite scrolling instead of pagination (or at least did last year; I haven’t logged back on to check), presenting a never-ending parade of nubile would-be dates that waltzes up the screen as you scroll further and further down.  And so one night, as I was scrolling through potential matches, I didn’t stop.  Without realizing, I must have scanned a hundred — two hundred — profiles.  You don’t get much information to go on without actually clicking on a profile: a username, a thumbnail headshot, an age, a compatibility percentage.  And that was enough for me to categorically reject every single person that crossed my digital descent.

When I realized how long I had just spent browsing, how many people I had reduced to nothing more than a 100 pixel wide picture and a fake name, I was disgusted.  It’s not that I had expected to find true love in the pool of a couple hundred random people on the internet that night, but rather that I took these girls and ignored them, cast them aside, based on a photo.  A photo!  That’s the textbook definition of objectification, and I — me — I had done this.  Not some frat star I went to high school with, not some red state politician, not some third world country’s dictator, but me.  I disregarded more girls than I could count because of how they looked, without even registering that I was doing it.

I am not here to argue that online dating is bad, in any sense of the word.  (I’m not sure which statistic to believe, but somewhere between 20 and 35% of marriages now start online — which, regardless of the exact number in that range, is staggering and beautiful in equal measures.)  But the ease of access to the most superficial parts of a person, to pictures and percentages and profile names instead of smile lines and nervous tics and laughter, to headshots instead of a head’s thoughts, eventually brought out something in me that I hated.  It was, no doubt, amplified by parts of my personality — I can be meticulous, addictive, obsessive — and so maybe the biggest thing I learned from data dating was that I need to be careful about high volume online romance.  Or high volume online anything, really, if the hours I’ve logged in Diablo say something about the rest of my personality.

And I realize that the same exact thing was happening to my own profile in the hands of who-knows-how-many girls on the other side of my monitor.  I do not pretend that my charms are universally irresistible.  To untold droves (droves!) of women, I will forever be “that dude with the vampire teeth and the goofy hair and the username that sounded like it could be a critically acclaimed children’s board game”.  I’m sure I was thoroughly uninteresting to the majority of people OkCupid pleadingly shoved my profile towards — take him! take him! please! have pity! — in the same way I was thoroughly uninterested in the majority of people presented to me.

But that doesn’t change how I felt about being so disinterested, how I felt about not caring to get to know anyone whose picture couldn’t land them a modeling contract.  With no information beyond a brief blurb about “what you’re doing with your life” and “six things you can’t live without”, looks won out.  They always did.  Which left me wondering if that’s what I actually cared about, if this yen I claim to have for a sense of humor or a deep intellectual conversation or a mastery of English grammar is really just monkey-brain nonsense trying to beat my brainstem into submission.

I know this is a trying time to fire off half-formed thoughts on sexism in a blog post that had its genesis as a rant about internet grammar.  My thoughts are with Isla Vista.  But I suppose that this is the time, more than any other time, to confront what lurks within me: that brainstem can be a sexist pig.  Which means I can be a sexist pig.  Not all the time, granted.  Not even anywhere close to some of the time.  But enough of the time.  Too much of the time.

I fall into so many traps guys my age are prone to — and not just the Tinderized romance of reducing girls on the internet to the sum of their headshots.  I’ll laugh at misogynistic jokes.  I’ll toss around words like “pussy” and “slut” without a second thought to the loaded gender bias behind them.  And, maybe most damning of all, I’ll be quick to agree that my ex-girlfriends are all “crazy”.

These are all huge topics, each worthy of a much larger discussion.  Where is the line between comedy and controversy?  Should we categorically declare certain words taboo?  How do people project their insecurities onto others?  I don’t know any of the answers, obviously.  All I can say is consider this post an admission of guilt, and a pledge to do better.  Because #YesAllWomen deserve better.  From me.  From us.  From everyone.

Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man

As often seems to happen in my life, a miraculous coincidence with disastrous results has cropped up — and sent me running to the internet.  First things first: I have a colossal spider bite on my left arm.  Like a Mt. Vesuvius level of spider bite — this spider must have been the size of a small dog.  That in and of itself isn’t so remarkable, but I’ve been trained by decades of Saturday morning cartoons and something like a thousand Spider-Man movies that giant spider bite = superpowers.  It’s just a matter of time, right?

Nothing in that vein has manifested so far.  What has manifested in my veins instead is a minor infection, which is kind of the opposite of super-strength and agility.  I’m drafting an angry letter to Stan Lee (and taking a healthy dose of antibiotics, no worries).

The remarkable part here — okay, the sort-of-mildly-interesting part — is that in two weeks, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 hits theaters.  Coincidence?  Again, decades of Saturday morning cartoons and something like a thousand Spider-Man movies would say obviously not.  Regardless, these two things have finally given me the momentum to write what will truly be remembered as my magnum opus: On Spider-Man, or Why the Webhead is the Best Goddamn Superhero Ever.

First of all, let’s compare Spidey to the pantheon of other famous, lantern-jawed, musclebound heroes: Superman? Invincible.  Batman? Fear incarnate.  Iron Man? Flying tank.  The Incredible Hulk? Unstoppable rage monster.  Wolverine? Unstoppable rage monster with claws.  Thor? God of friggin’ thunder.

Spider-Man? Proportionate strength of a spider.  That’s it.

There’s a bit of Cirque du Soleil acrobatics thrown in, and, fine, if you’re getting technical he has some degree of precognitive instinctual plot armor “spider sense” thing,  but really, proportional strength of a spider?  Face it, tiger, you just hit the jack-shit-pot.  Even the coolest part of Spider-Man’s powers — flying through Manhattan on strings of steely silk, like Tarzan brachiating in a concrete jungle — aren’t even a power in most incarnations of the character.  The webslinging is made possible by some silly string knockoff Parker aerosolized and whipped up in his garage.  Spider-Man lives in a universe where beings exist who can level cities with a breath, fly at supersonic speeds, lift buildings with their minds (and/or robotic limbs and/or normal limbs) — and he can crawl up walls.

I may not seem to be making my point here, so let me reiterate: Spider-Man has the shittiest superpowers ever.  He’s sort of strong but not that strong, sort of fast but not that fast.  He can’t fly without the aid of decades of civil engineering, city planning, and a graduate degree in bioengineering.  He’s not a slab of impervious muscle, but a scrawny kid in glasses.

What makes Spider-Man the greatest hero is that his powers are so impossibly bad, so ludicrously outmatched by the rest of the Marvel catalog, so laughably themed (around arachnids, of all things) that he can’t help but be the most relatable superhero ever created.

Peter Parker is over-worked.  He’s neurotic.  He can’t keep his work life, personal life, or any other kind of life straight.  He’s a slob and a scientist.  In a word, he’s me, he’s you, he’s us — with a bit more ambition, a lot more radioactive spider blood, and the safety of New York riding on his slender shoulders.

And then, on top of everything else, Spider-Man realizes this.  He’s aware that he’s a failure and a success, a laughingstock and a powerhouse.  But he also knows that until Reed Richards shows up he’s the smartest person in the room — and let’s be honest here, that is ultimately always the greatest superpower.  So he says stuff like this:

And makes jokes like this:

How can you not like a guy who’s smart enough to insult you as he beats you to a pulp?  Batman never cracks one-liners, and I don’t think Kryptons smile.  But Spider-Man has made a career out of being so doofy he’s spawned not just a meme but an entire genre of meme.

Spider-Man is good because he is so bad: a hopeless case of neuroses and failure — how many times has Peter Parker been penurious and pining? — who nonetheless finds it in himself and his relatively subpar gifts to save the day, time and time again.  He never quits because he can’t bench press Cleveland.  He never stops because his powers of flight give out around 116th Street.  He soldiers on, in the face of insurmountable odds, and does it not only with a smile but with the joke you wish you had thought of.  It’s that characteristic — knowing he’s not the best, not the strongest, not the lightning-bolt-shooting-est but he still keeps going — that make Spider-Man the greatest hero, and maybe the most inspirational to boot.  Being a nerd, a scientist, and a tinkerer doesn’t hurt his case, either.

So I may not be getting super-strength or webshooters from this spider bite, but if I can get half of Spidey’s drive and determination, half of his moxie and verve, three-quarters or more of his girlfriend (hellllooooo MJ), I’ll consider the trade a success.


Lord of the Rereadings

The story of Passover, which starts tonight, is about many things: the evils of slavery, the horrors of matzo, the strange utility of lambs’ blood.  It’s the story of a journey through the desert to find a peoples’ identity, of golden calves and parting seas.  It is a mythos so grand only Cecil B. DeMille could do it justice.

Now, the story of the War of the Ring is also about many things: the evils of, um, evil, the horrors of lembas bread, the strange utility of hobbits’ courage.  It’s the story of a journey through Middle Earth to save a peoples’ identity, of golden rings and parting companies.  It is a mythos so grand only Peter Jackson could do it justice.

What is the Haggadah but a Tolkien-esque description of a feast?  What is Tolkien’s expository prose but a biblical description of lineages and rules?  Gandalf may as well have returned from his battle with the Balrog on the peak of Zirakzigil with two stone tablets inscribed with commandments (though number 1 would probably read “Thou shalt not pass”).

The parallels are not usually too obvious to me — or fine, to anyone — but today’s the first night of Passover and I happen to be pretty much smack in the middle of rereading The Lord of the Rings (Faramir has just captured Frodo and Sam, for those of you who care about chronology).  I think the last time I read LotR, I was about to be bar mitzvahed — which happened a mind-numbing twelve years ago yesterday.

Twelve years is a long time between sojourns into Middle Earth, and rediscovering the books is really more like reading them for the first time.  I almost never reread books (the exception here being a period of my life between ages 12 and 18 when I spent an inordinate amount of time with a boy whose name starts with “H” and rhymes with “Larry Dotter”).  There are always too many other things in my queue, too many other worlds and words to visit.  I have a bookshelf full of novels I love, but I can be sucked back into that feeling just by glancing at the titles and covers: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay drops me in my Stanford apartment right after sophomore year, sweltering in the summer heat after my day in lab; Lolita puts me on the U-Bahn in Berlin, eyes jumping up and down the page with the bumps of the train; Cat’s Cradle whisks me back onto a plane, squinting against the economy overhead light as we hurtle towards Korea.

So I’m surprised, this time through, that The Lord of the Rings is so different than I remember it.  At 13, I couldn’t stand Tolkien’s page-long descriptions of the flowers growing in Ithilien, or the reflections in the Mirrormere — and now I marvel at his descriptive powers.  In junior high, my favorite character was Aragorn (and not the Viggo Mortensen conflicted-hero weight-of-the-world am-I-truly-fit-to-rule Aragorn, but Tolkien’s I-am-the-lord-of-men fear-the-flame-of-Andúril no-fucks-giving Aragorn) — but now I see much more of myself in the pensive eyes of Faramir or the impetuous hands of Boromir.  The landscape is the same, but my mind has shifted.  The world has changed, as Galadriel would say, I feel it in the water.  I feel it in the earth.  Much that once was is lost.

I feel the same about the story of Passover, and here’s where the real connection begins, beyond the kitschy references to common story-telling tropes.  The Haggadah is the same every year: the same story, the same centerpiece, the same prayers, the same songs, the same order.  Part of the observance of Passover is rejoicing in that structure and order, over and over, the same repetition and the same celebration through generation and generation until it lands on your table again, unchanged, as your grandparents and their grandparents and their grandparents knew it.

The landscape is always the same.  But the day is always different.

Passover today is missing the things that made it Passover to me when I was younger: my grandfather’s brisket, my great aunt’s jello molds, the hazy late-afternoon light in that Encino condominium now so many years removed from the Winger family.  The story, the ritual, the seder plate — they stand tall and constant, like a pillar of rock in a turbulent sea, as the waves of generations ebb and flow and crash around them.

Much that once was is lost, the quote goes, for none now live who remember it.  The comforting thing about tradition — and, thanks to Peter Jackson’s indelible film trilogy, Middle Earth — is that it’s easy to remember, easy to fall back into familiar melodies and recipes, even if the last time you thought about them was a year or more ago.  To me, Passover and all these Jewish holidays aren’t a particularly religious experience.  They’re not even historical, though that facet appears, too.  They are, instead, a deeply personal remembrance: remembering my grandfather leading the seder, recalling my mother teaching me the four questions, summoning the things and people once dear to me that have faded into myth, into legend, into a land across a sea and far away from home and hearth.

(Not, of course, literally summoning them in some sort of Aragorn-commanding-the-Dead-Men-of-Dunharrow way.  I’m done with that metaphor.)

I realize as I type this it sounds dour, but I don’t mean it that way.  I’m glad to have some checkpoints throughout the year that make me stop and think about the past — it’s far too easy to get trapped in the present.  So, this Passover: l’chaim, to life, to past, to future.  Here’s hoping yours is filled with joy and laughter — and great food, with just enough matzo to remind you how good real food is.

…And here’s hoping I wait another twelve years before rereading these books again.  They’re really goddamn long.