Mixed Review


Mixed feelings on The Last Jedi.

On the one hand, it had character development, humor and engaging set pieces. We learn more about Kylo Ren and how he emerged. We learn more about Rey, her deep feeling of abandonment, and her quest to learn more about her parents. We see the leadership and command of Leia. We meet Luke again, and see how he has become cynical, closed off from everyone and everything, even the Force. We continue to see the stories of other characters – Finn, Poe, Gen. Hux, BB-8 – and some new characters introduced – Gen. Holdo, Rose, Paige the Codebreaker, etc. Many of the new characters were women, thus continuing to add balance to the gender ratio of the series.

There were also unexpected flashes of humor scattered throughout the movie, moments providing welcome breaks from the story line of conflict, pain, and death. Poe talking to Hux. Luke being handed his light saber. Luke and Rey. Poe at different times. Finn and Rose. These felt refreshing and new.

Finally, the set pieces of space battles and personal combat, were also breathless and riveting, continuing the tradition of previous Star Wars movies. The arc of the Luke’s story was resolved in a moving manner. And the presence of Leia was touching, knowing as we do, that she will not return in Episode IX.

On the other hand there were superfluous characters, some slow scenes, and particularly egregious story holes. Porgs and the caretakers on Skellig felt cutesy and out of place. The scenes on Canto Bight also teeming with characters, all wearing tuxedoes, didn’t seem to make sense. For a while, in the middle, the story slowed down, with exposition and back and forth. Finally, there were big story holes – Leia in space, the lack of background on Snoke, Snoke’s monologuing and his sudden death despite being so powerful, Luke’s lack of understanding of the importance of the Force texts, and Luke’s presence at the end, both physical and ethereal. These seemed too convenient and didn’t seem to fit the Star Wars canon.

So the movie was enjoyable, but I wouldn’t call it a classic like The Empire Strikes Back.


Coco and the Afterlife

We saw Disney/Pixar’s Coco yesterday. What a lovely movie, seamlessly melding story, song, and screwball situations to create a soufflé of laughter and tears. At the essence of the story –– the dead have their own life, until they are forgotten by their family; only then do they truly disappear.

What happens when we die? Where does the consciousness of the departed go? Form changes to emptiness, but is everything lost? For those left behind, family members and friends, reminiscences have to be as unreliable as their memories. So what is left, and for how long?

Starting with Mexican culture, and the celebration of Dia de los Muertos, Coco creates a fantastically imagined afterworld, where the dead are alive, and living their lives, just like in the real world. If they are still remembered in the afterworld, they can travel into our world on Dia de los Muertos, and see their family. Unless they are forgotten by their family in the real world, which is when they disappear from the afterworld, to a place that even they don’t know.

If we continue this belief, how might it change in our age, where we can rely on technology to help us remember? Will succeeding generations continue to remember more of the earlier generations, and for how long?

Just because of technology support, I don’t think that memories will become infinite, and we will remember all our previous generations. Life will continue to get busier making remembrance an active requirement. Parents will need to spend time with their children to make sure they remember their grandparents, great grandparents and great, great grandparents, not to mention step parents at different generations.

While technology can capture our predecessors in photo and video, equally, technology generates so many images that sorting, filing, and summarizing will again need to be an active effort. Just like each of us carry large photo libraries, yet often have trouble finding a key moment, we may carry records of past generations, but never examine these records. We will be swamped in a “sea of remembering.”

So I believe that technology will not solve this problem of remembering our past generations. Only the active act of remembering can keep our past generations alive, and Coco, made with all the brilliance that technology can muster, shows us it doesn’t require technology. Just the desire to remember.



I Was So Afraid I Would Die


“I was so afraid I would die, you know,” said my barber as I sat in her chair, while she cut my hair.

We all have these moments when we are not in control.

I sat down in the barber’s chair, politely asked her, “How have you been?” and then relaxed as she started her story.

She tied the neck strip, and draped the barber’s cape around my body. “Oh, I just came back from Vietnam. I was visiting my family there, you know. I had just got there, when I started getting pain in my stomach,” she said. “It was so bad, I thought I was going to die. I thought, ‘Am I having a heart attack? I’m vomiting, I have a fever. Why does it hurt so much?'” The scissors clipped my hair as I saw her reflected in the mirror.

“I went and saw a doctor, and he said, ‘You have gall stones, and need to have surgery right now.'” Her eyes were focused on my head as she kept going around the chair, her hands darting and taking off errant hair, the click-clack sounds creating a rhythm, puffs of hair dropping in my lap, onto the barber’s cape.

“I had to go in for the surgery, and I thought – if I die, what will happen to my clothes, my shoes and my handbags? All my things, you know? Back in the United States? Who would take care of them? Where would they go?”

We don’t like to think of what will happen after we are gone, and when we do, there are more questions than answers. Answering these questions requires too many hard conversations with loved ones. So we maintain the patina of normalcy, and don’t have the conversations – unless, of course, we cannot ignore the premonitions of mortality provided by our bodies. Then, all of a sudden, the questions are irresistible, overpowering, suffocating, beating down the carefully maintained door of our consciousness, demanding attention.

“I had my surgery and it went well, and I am back here, you know, but I was so scared of dying in Vietnam.”

As I sat and looked at her reflection, I suddenly saw her as a full human being. Not just with physical scars visible on her body, but also hidden psychological scars on her mind, received through her experiences.

Just like all of us.

A Visit to the Hospital

Entry to the Cath Lab at Stanford Hospital

Cath Lab at Stanford

Yesterday, I had an unscheduled visit to Stanford Hospital for a relative. Chest pain, Emergency Room visit, then the Cath Lab. While waiting for the doctor to come out and give us an update, I reflected on the transience of life.

One moment and everything is different.

Thinking is clear. Priorities are uncomplicated. Relationships regain importance. Words have urgency. Time is finite.

Why can’t we carry over this clarity of thought into our daily lives?

Perhaps it is because we suppress thoughts of our mortality, that we will all exit stage right. Constantly thinking of our own mortality could lead to a defeatist attitude – why does anything matter anyway.

Perhaps we make ourselves the center of the universe, and think everything revolves around us. Since we are so important, of course, we will always be there.

Perhaps it is the mystery of an event that has no experiential answer. If there is no answer, why think about it.

Perhaps societal norms guide us to ignoring the finiteness of our bodies. No one wants to strike up a casual conversation about mortality. When such a conversation is necessary, it is accompanied by uncomfortable emotions.

Perhaps thinking about our own physical transience is accompanied by too much regret and remorse. We revisit actions that we would do differently, and mull over actions we should have taken.

Then the doctor came out and gave us an update. All had gone well, the angioplasty was successful, the patient was recovering.

But I am still reflecting on these thoughts and feelings and hoping to carry the urgency and clarity of those moments into my daily life.




The Passing of a Friend


A Graduate School classmate passed away from cancer last week, and I attended his funeral. My first funeral for a friend, a contemporary, not an older relative.

He knew it was bad, and over 18 months, there were good times and bad times. He was sent home from the hospital at the end, and after a few days at home, passed away with his family around him. His family, friends and colleagues, all came to pay their last respects. As I sat on the carpet, listening to the Sikh priest sing the funeral hymns, a mix of thoughts ran through me.

First, what my funeral would be like. The future is totally unknown, except for the singular known fact that I will die. Depending on the circumstances, there will be a funeral.

Second, death is so different if expected due to cancer, versus a sudden passing due to an accident. When expected, along with the sadness, there seemed to be acceptance. I can imagine dazed expressions if death came unexpectedly.

Third, what happens when we die? If form is emptiness, and emptiness is form, the essence unchanging, what happens to the person? Like water that turns into ice or steam, have they just changed into a different form? Their memories continue with us, and perhaps if we practice deeply enough,  we can see them in the world around us.

Fourth, the family left behind thinking of their futures. The children missing the guidance and support of their Dad. A wife missing the smell and warmth of her husband. A parent distraught at the passing of child. Over days and nights, objects that remind us of a person who is no longer with us. It is so hard to be in the present moment, to not revisit past memories, or think of what the departed would say in future situations.

Fifth, how this situation is so unusual. For time immemorial, death was a constant companion for everyone. Whether by disease, war, accident, or old age, the distribution of age at death was very different, with many deaths at earlier ages. Even a journey may have meant that one would never see a loved one again. How stressful and uncertain life must have been in the past!

I sat and listened to the music, lost in these thoughts and in memories of my friend, and I wished him goodbye.