Ozymandias Two

One of my most-thumbed books is a poetry anthology simply titled The Top 500 Poems. I have about a dozen of my favorite poems bookmarked, one of which is P. B. Shelley’s “Ozymandias”:

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The short commentary on the poem notes that, while the cautionary tale of pride is immediately evident, perhaps the boastful king still had the last laugh: “… even if the monumental statue is broken and the inscription sounds fatuous, what remains of anybody else of that age?”

This is the way the world ends

I knew from the start that this season of Nutcracker would be different, because my heart wasn’t quite as in it, due to a number of extenuating circumstances. What I didn’t realize was that my body was going to call it as well. I guess this isn’t exactly unexpected, knowing the rapid decline of professional sports players when they’re past their prime. What a difference a year makes for so many players — especially in the NFL, when a running back goes from top of the heap to replacement squad in a season.

It seems it also happens to us amateurs as well. After what I thought was a fairly minor lower back injury about a year and a half ago, my body’s been getting progressively worse, to the point that I don’t think I’ll be able to perform next year, even if I wanted to. What little flexibility and strength I have appears to be long gone, not to mention the ridiculous amount of weight I’ve gained in the past year. While it probably doesn’t help that a busier work and social schedule reduces the number of classes I take per week, I can’t help but feel that my time doing ballet is quickly drawing to a close.

The excruciating question has been, and remains: what now? Do I redouble my efforts, and try to work through the malaise and pain? Dare I try to find another hobby, perhaps another dance style that is less of a “young people’s sport”? It frightens me to leave what has been a tumultuous love-hate relationship with ballet, a very tangible sort of comfortable uncomfortableness. While any endeavor can consume time and passion, there’s a special place in my heart for that which humbles me so, which will be hard to replace.

We are the lords of life, and life is warm

Death has been very much on my mind. It’s probably inevitable when someone close to you — the one you meekly most imagine yourself as possibly being — passes away. Right now, it seems that I haven’t learned the lesson that he was teaching, because all I feel is fear. I haven’t had a full night’s sleep since the day before Thanksgiving.

In some ways, as his wife mentioned, he was fortunate to have had the opportunity to put his affairs in order; fortunate to have lived long enough, and in good enough health, to cross off so much of his bucket list, despite the agonizing choices and sacrifices that they did have to make. (I still wish we could have gone to Wimbledon together one more time.) And in my most cynical moments, I wonder just how vanishingly few people are lucky enough to be so financially secure by their 30s as to be able to pivot their lives in order to fully live without regrets or hesitation, to be able to receive world-class treatment, and to have a New Yorker profile written about him or her. For every life’s story that is told, a thousand are unsung.

Marcus Aurelius and other Stoics mused over the question, whether it made a difference if it’s one year, or ten, a hundred, or a thousand? In some ways yes, and in others, no. The specter of death hangs over all living things, and that existential fear would be no less poignant if one were told a day or a millennium. But it’s blindingly obvious that what one would choose to do with one’s life would be very different, given the amount of remaining time left.

When the prognosis became clear, the two of them did the very brave action of focusing on quality of life, not quantity of life. Instead of enrolling in every possible clinical trial or experimental treatment, they focused on hanging out with friends, making music, and building communities and relationships — the experiences of a year for which I’m eternally grateful to have played a small part, and been a generous recipient of their love, generosity, and time. It’s so easy to see that ultimate life lesson, but so difficult to internalize, and even more difficult to actualize. Whether we have terminal brain cancer or are at the peak of health, we should try “to live graciously, nobly, boldly, and with every fiber of our beings.” (Why am I quoting myself?)

We are each bestowed with the vast improbability that is our being alive. Finite though they are, we must build statues though we know they will crumble; dance though we know its fleeting nature; love though we know it will break our hearts; pursue our dreams though we know we will fail; forever fight the good fight, and take each breath until we can’t.

Dear Eric

Dear Eric,

It’s only a few days after Thanksgiving, and already I can feel you admonishing me for wallowing in sadness. Despite the immense shock and sadness of your passing away this Thanksgiving day, I can’t but feel thankful for having the honor and privilege to call you my friend.

It’s hard to imagine what my life would have been like without knowing you. These past few days, I look around my apartment, and traces of you are everywhere. Not in a creepy way, but just the fact that fifteen years of friendship has resulted in so many shared memories and experiences that manifest themselves in ways that are both common and absurd.

Inside my nightstand drawer, besides your letter lies the Tissot watch that you and I both had. We bought them completely independently, but I really wasn’t all that surprised that we managed to choose the same one because you have impeccable taste in watch design. Your’s had its clasp broken, which wasn’t worth the price to fix. But mine is still going strong, after a few battery changes. I rarely wear it anymore, but I still treasure it as my first Swiss watch.

On my nightstand, the automatic and manual wind watches that I bought because you got me obsessed with mechanical movements.

Inside my closet lies the violin that I rarely pick up these days. But I still think fondly of those rare occasions where we’ve played together: the Handel’s Messiah play along, the chamber music get together — both times when I, rusty from years of non practice, struggled to play in tune. But even when we met back in college, you far outclassed me on the violin, and the past year you took things to another level.

In my bedroom bookcase, a row of sheet music: all the concertos, etudes, and sonatas that I’ve never played but you did.

All this ballet stuff around my apartment. If it weren’t for Karen’s little nudge to try out the absolute beginner’s class eight years ago, would I have dared go to my first class?

Even bedsheets, because it reminds me of that one time when we were obsessed about the thread count on sheets. Or maybe that was just me. And remember when you were trying to explain to me what color “Delft” was?

Not to mention the Wimbledon souvenir towels, or the “HTC” bathrobe, or the little potted plant gifted from your church.

But these are just the physical cues, which are just a small slice of memories and adventures. How you’ve impacted my life goes far beyond stuff.

Who knows if I would have gone back to Stanford for Statistics if I weren’t just following in your footsteps? It was always fun and inspirational that we worked at rival economic consulting firms, and then rival tech companies. Even if I were never as successful as you, I could always aspire to be “Eric lite” in my working life.

And despite all my protestations, I’m forever grateful for your meddling that finally led me to K. I couldn’t have asked for a greater silver lining, and despite my clumsiness with relationships, I’ll try my hardest not to mess things up.

Now, who will I talk to about taxes and finances? Who will recommend to me interesting podcasts? Who will criticize me for what I do or don’t do in my career? Who will root just as hard for Roger Federer, or be as big a groupie for Hilary Hahn? Who can I confide to about the ridiculousness of life?

I didn’t lose just my best friend, but also my most trusted financial advisor, career counselor, musical inspiration, and hero. But I know that you’ll still be our guide, a guardian angel for me, for Karen, for your family and all your friends. And we’ll continue to fight the good fight, with you always at our side.

P.S. Andrew’s baby boy was born in the morning Thanksgiving day.

P.P.S. Yes, of course I’ll take care of your watch collection.


My best friend is dying.

It’s strange, seeing the statement written down. For one, its tautological properties are taunting: everyone, by virtue of being alive, eventually dies. For another, I’ve refused to stack rank my friends since at least middle school, so even the thought of a “best” friend is foreign to me. But alas, for all its perniciousness, the spectre of death does tend to bring about clarity.

He was diagnosed with incurable brain cancer a few months ago. Despite world-class treatment, the prognosis is not good.

At this point in my life, it’s not like I still retain the immortal conceptions of youth. Death isn’t a mere abstraction to any of us. Alcohol took its toll on a few friends and acquaintances in high school and college, and grandparents have passed away. Friends have lost family to terrorist attacks, acquaintances have died in war, or murdered their family, or taken their own lives. But brain cancer, at our age, against one of the most keen and ambitious people I know, only confirms that fate is a motherfucker.

We all know that we’ll die at some point, but I think it’s among the most instinctively repulsive things to conceive of one’s own death. And we try, consciously or not, to push it down, brush it away. We’ve read about the ways that the great intellectuals of the past viewed it:

Epicurus: “Death means nothing to us…when we exist, death is not yet present, and when death is present, then we do not exist.”

Tolstoy: “The example of a syllogism that he had studied in Kiesewetter’s logic: Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal, had throughout his whole life seemed to him right only in relation to Caius, but not to him at all.”


Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

It’s funny: both of us were in a freshman college class called “Visions of Mortality”, where we read those texts above. That class, I think, had a pretty direct link to my emotional depression throughout college, but I still consider it as one of the most worthwhile courses I’ve taken. Yet no matter how much you twist and turn it in an intellectual exercise, when finally you stare at it, you can’t help but feel that rationality is toothless against death. What good are the quotes and experiences of others when we confront this fear for ourselves? These impregnable logical barriers are houses of straw.

He and his wife are among the most strong and resilient people I know, so it’s taken with a bit of grim irony that it’s been he who has been trying to comfort me about his situation. I’ve never been so much at a loss for words.

He recommended me to read Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, a short, powerful memoir of a neurosurgeon who succumbed to lung cancer at the age of 36. As a fellow Stanford alum, the book resonated with me in expected and unexpected ways. Here was a work written by someone whom I felt an intellectual peer, someone who thought through the same complex issues, approached life with the same driving philosophy. Someone who — just like my best friend — by mere contrast illuminates all the deficiencies of my own life. And anyone who uses T.S. Eliot’s “Wasteland” as the recitation text for determining sanity of mind: that’s a “you had me at hello” sort of moment. (Incidentally, I was gifted “The Wasteland” by my teaching assistant for “Visions of Mortality”, a gesture which to this day I still ponder.)

Kalanithi describes the maddening uncertainty of cancer. Before, you knew you would die at some unknown point in the future; after, you still know you will die at some unknown point in the future, but that point is just closer. Yes, you can look at the probabilities, the Kaplan-Meier survival curves, but each observation is a life, unique among the rest. If you knew with certainty how long you had to live, you could plan things out. And how do you live a meaningful life? What actions would be different if it’s 2 months vs. 2 years (or 20 or 200 years)?

What consolation is it to a dying man that he has lived a meaningful, fulfilling life? We learn such hard lessons about how to live our lives, but so little about how to accept our deaths.

I very recently watched through the Harry Potter films. There, too, the faintest glimmers of answers, here and gone.

For the past few months, I’ve been trying in vain to craft a letter to my friend. Each time I try to start writing again, I cry and stop. All I have is this:

I’m sorry that even if you lived to 133, I may still not have found someone to reciprocate the favor of having you as my best man.

I don’t know if there is an afterlife, but I do know this: that any heaven will welcome you with open arms.

This is something that I’ve been thinking about for the past few years: I don’t know if you ever drew space-time diagrams in physics, usually with the speed of light being a 45-degree line. I’ve been thinking about how all our lives are these slow, sinuous lines that weave along space and time. Even though all our lines are finite, we all are woven into this fabric of the universe. Yours has touched people more than you know.

I love you, man.