Thursday, December 2, 2010

Ask castlerook

And welcome to "Ask castlerook," the part of the blog where we answer all of your questions!

Dear castlerook,

My friend has a problem. She's convinced that she's a fictional character, living in someone else's blog, and that she has no free will of her own. What should she do?


Well Margaret, I suggest telling your "friend" that she has two choices: she can spend the rest of her virtual life trying to figure out the truth of her existence (or, as I suspect is the case, non-existence) without success, or she can accept that she may very well be a fictional character living in someone else's blog, but she can still choose to be the best fictional character living in someone else's blog that she can be.


Yo, castle,

What's up with acting like you still have a blog? There should be some sort of statute of limitations to weed out wannabe bloggers like you. Like, blogger websites that don't get updated after 3 months get trashed. That'd show you.


Dear Bob,

It would. But there isn't. So go away.

To Monseiur Cast leRook,

This iz so lame. At least Strongbad's emails were real. And there were cool graphix and shit.


Dear Marguerite,

And you know what Strongbad would have done with your email, right? (DELETED!!!!!)

Come on readers, ask me about something profound and/or philosophical already.

Dear castlerook,

Given that Godel's Incompleteness Theorem conclusively proves that there are true statements of number theory which are inherently unprovable, does this have implications for our understanding of the universe?

R. Plant

Dear Plant,

Great question! The answer is, "absolutely." To be more specific, the theorem proved that within any formal axiomatic system of number theory, there will be one of two problems: incompleteness, or inconsistency. That is, there will either exist true statements that can never be proven true (as you suggest), or, there will be statements that can be "proven" to be both true AND false! (this happens quickly if you try to "fix" the first problem).

So yes, it is easy (and quite possibly correct) to generalize from this to the realm of philosophy, and claim that there will always be truths which cannot be proven formally (i.e. scientifically), and thus can only be accepted on faith.

Personally, though, I'm also intrigued by the second possibility: what if the universe itself is inconsistent? What if our concept of logic is simply misplaced in this quantum universe, and there exist statements that are true and false simultaneously? For example, what if the statements "God exists" and "God does not exist" are BOTH true?

By the way, you should really learn how to use umlauts while typing. Gödel would not approve of you butchering his name.

Okay readers, that's all for this edition of "Ask castlerook." Keep those questions coming. I'll respond to them all as soon as I can--possibly even before next fall!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Year-long Recap

"experience has taught me all too well that if I were to do this for an extended period of time, removing the word "substitute" from my current designation, then whatever quality it is that makes me a particularly good teacher would fade away, and I would become that very stereotype which I now happily defy. I know that as soon as it ceases to be a role and becomes a defining feature of my existence, a vital part of myself is lost."

--castlerook, 2/20/09

" 'my challenge (for next year) is to learn how to teach while still living creatively.' I suspect what I need to do is to "teach creatively," i.e., to bring my creative spirit to all that I do--even to seemingly dry topics such as solving mathematical equations."

--castlerook, 6/3/09

And so now the academic year is at an end. I submitted all my grades yesterday, the commencement ceremony is tomorrow, and then just another meeting or two and my full-time obligations are over.

I'll still be doing some part-time teaching over the summer, and then it seems a change in direction is in store: this fall, I'll largely have my "old life" back--math tutoring and choral conducting, with an ample amount of to-be-allocated leisure time--but the conducting piece will include starting a choir at a different nearby* college.

*and when I say nearby, I mean really nearby--as in, I can walk there from my new house!**

**oh yeah, castlerook joined the ranks of first-time home buyers last October. All the cool kids were doing it, since Obama was making it sound all patriotic and even giving money away to folks like us. The new house is great--a small cape cod (just right for two) in a quaint little neighborhood.

So while the future holds promise, now seems a prudent time to reflect upon the past. The key question: what has teaching full-time again been like?

Well, it kind of sucked. If my challenge was indeed to live creatively while being a good productive member of society, then I pretty much failed. Most days after work I felt zapped--depleted of any creative energy, and wanting simply to hide from the world and all who lived in it. This I did fairly successfully--often by drinking alone while playing online poker.

So I'm glad it's over. Part of me feels that, financial concerns aside, this past year was a waste, and that I'm back to square one in terms of figuring out my so-called purpose in life.

And I feel the clock ticking. Thirty days from now, I'll be 30. This is a fairly terrifying thought, although I do have this secret hope that upon reaching that age, I will somehow instinctively know my purpose, and be able to begin my work.

But I have also come to realize that any purpose to my life likely must be a product of my own creation.

In truth, this past year was not a waste at all--for in the process of doing battle with various inner demons, I have certainly gained some valuable self-knowledge.

In summary:

1. I had my enneatype all wrong. In a previous post I described myself as a 2 with a 3 wing, and now I am convinced that I am actually Enneatype Six. Sixes are sometimes described as "The Loyalist" and other times as "The Devil's Advocate" or "The Questioner"--a seeming contradiction because Sixes are themselves contradictory, with a highly ambivalent relationship with authority--either fiercely loyal or deeply skeptical. Often both at the same time.

Sixes have big problems with anxiety and insecurity, and it was only after discovering I was this enneatype that I realized the full extent to which I have these problems. I suspect no one who knows me would be surprised to learn that I have anxiety issues, but I'd never fully realized it myself, because... well, I've never known anything else.

2. I have tendencies towards depression.

My brother suffers from clinical depression. Historically I have not, although I find it interesting that I always seem to have been drawn to people who do suffer from depression. I've often been "the healthy one" in a circle of depression-suffering friends. So when I realized last fall that I was experiencing all these symptoms I'd heard about, like feeling this big heavy weight upon waking up each morning, I was... surprised. But at least able to name it.

Things have gotten much better since then, though not altogether. It occurred to me a couple months ago that my symptoms of depression really didn't exist before I stopped eating meat last year, and I need to face the possibility that a correlation exists. So (and I trust my vegetarian and vegan friends will understand!) two weeks ago I started adding some meat back into my diet--chicken a couple times a week. I'll try that for a couple months while monitoring myself, then go from there.

3. If I have one antidote to feelings of depression, it's singing. Performing in general is good, but singing especially so.

There were two highlights in the area of public performance over the past year. The first came in January, when I had the opportunity to play one of my dream roles: Brad, in a local community theater production of The Rocky Horror Show. I may write more about this experience at a future date, but let's just say there are few things more liberating than being on stage in a corset, fishnets, and heels. While singing.

The second came a few weeks ago: singing in the chorus of a performance of the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

Some time ago, I wrote a series of personal meditations about Beethoven's Ninth, covering the first, second, and third movements--but never managed to tackle the last. I would try, and then find that I just wasn't up to it. I suspect I'm able to do so now. Something finally clicked while helping to bring that work to life--the knowledge that personal existential struggle can only bring one so far, and that the divine joy expressed in the last movement can only be experienced through shared human interaction.

A short list, perhaps, but an important one. And with this very difficult year behind me, I have hope that the worst may truly be over--and that whatever challenges lie ahead, I may have the courage to face.

Friday, March 19, 2010


A summary of my chess career thus far:

I became infatuated with the game as a young kid, likely because it was perhaps the only competitive endeavor at which a short, skinny, precocious seven-year-old could demonstrate that he was better than his peers. When I learned that there existed such things as chess tournaments that I could actually compete in, I got really excited, and played in my first tournament at age 10. Before too long, my excitement gave way to frustration as I found that I was no match for many of my opponents. My initial rating was in the 1300s*--perfectly respectable for a kid my age, but not particularly impressive. And, despite spending hours in solitude reading chess books and playing in many more tournaments, I never seemed to get better. I finally quit playing in tournaments at age 15, my rating still stuck at 1340.

*A rating above 2200 is "master" (and above 2400, "senior master"). From 2000-2199 is "expert," while anyone rated below 2000 is a "class player": Class A from 1800-1999, Class B from 1600-1799, Class C from 1400-1599, Class D from 1200-1399, etc.

Over the next several years I would occassionally play a casual game, often against my brother, who had also played in tournaments and was about my strength (well, okay--his rating was slightly higher). But the part of myself that competed in chess tournaments gradually faded to a distant memory until I rather suddenly caught the "chess bug" again about six years ago. It started when, browsing the internet, I realized that you could actually play live chess with people online now.* I won my first couple of games, and was immediately hooked.

*We're talking or even interfaces with lots of weak opponents. There are, of course, much better free options out there, such as or

Soon afterwards, I was browsing the local Barnes & Noble and my eye was drawn to a chessbook, which I bought and promptly devoured. I actually had no idea that the book I'd bought on a whim, Jeremy Silman's How to Reassess Your Chess, was already considered a classic for the aspiring class player. Soon I was eager to play "real chess" again, and so I renewed my long-dormant membership in the USCF (United States Chess Federation) and was off to play in tournaments.

While my first tournament as an adult was rather humbling, it was soon clear that my understanding of the game had actually grown quite significantly. What's more, I studiously went over my games, learned some new openings, and quickly amassed a small library of instructional chess books. I soon crossed the 1400-rating barrier, then the 1500, and less than a year after returning to tournament play, my rating actually passed 1700! Somewhere in this period of rapid improvement I set myself the ambitious goal of becoming a master before I turned 30.

Of course, I soon realized that there's a big difference between improving from, say, 1500 to 1700, and 1700 to 1900. My rating progress slowed to what seemed like a complete halt--but I persevered, continuing to learn more about the game and gradually improving my results.

I had something of a breakthrough in the second half of last year--in July, I took first place in the Under 2000 section of a fairly big tournament in Connecticut, winning 5 out of 5 games! Then in December, I won 5 out of 6 games at a weekend tournament in Albany, also enough for first place. In some ways that victory was all the sweeter in that I lost my first game, and then had to win the rest.

And so, while some time ago I realized that my goal of making master by the age of 30 would not be feasible, it appears I may have done the next best thing.

I'll turn 30 exactly three months from today. My most recent chess rating, according to the USCF website:


2003. Expert! I feel I must hasten to add that ratings don't become official until a month or so after they're rated, and indeed this may be something of an anti-climactic announcement, since last Saturday I played in a local one-day tournament (which has yet to be rated) and didn't do well, and so my rating may well fall back below 2000 before my next "official rating" comes out.

But whatever. For the moment anyway, I can at least refer to myself as an "unofficial chess expert." And it's only a matter of time before it becomes official.

And then, who knows... perhaps I can still make master by age 35.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

"It is I, castlerook's first blogpost, come to gloat! Just as I predicted, castlerook has proved incapable of maintaining his blog! See, what a desolate wasteland is here. 'Tis been over five months since castlerook has visited this, his creation. He has abandoned thee! I hereby claim rule over this region of cyberspace!"

"Not so fast, vile one! It is I, castlerook! I have returned to reclaim that which is rightfully mine!"

"You're too late! This blog is my domain now. Look around. See anyone here? I didn't think so. Did you honestly expect you'd still have any readers if you came back? That anyone would still care about what you have to say?"

"It matters not. 'Tis true I have been away, and 'tis true there may be no one left to hear me speak. But I am here now, and again have voice. That alone matters. Begone with your purposeless cynicism."

"Ah, but you created me, castlerook. My purposeless cynicism is really your purposeless cynicism. Don't you know that?"

"Then I shall smite thee out of every corner of my own consciousness! Draw, and do battle!"

(A virtual swordfight ensues. A lot of epic stuff happens--blogpost's virtual blade cuts castlerook's virtual right shoulder, castlerook disarms blogpost but graciously allows blogpost to retrieve his blade--you know the drill. In the end, blogpost is about to deliver a fatal blow but castlerook's sword reaches its destination first.)

"Oh, I am slain! Farewell, castlerook, but know ye this: shouldst thou waver in thy care for this virtual land--shouldst thou once again be silenced by thy own self-doubt and cease thy work--should that day come, I will return, and stronger than ever!"

(Blogpost dies. Castlerook gives blogpost a sincere and proper burial, and then at last resumes his mercurial musing.)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Chess Therapy

One of the reasons I play competitive chess is that my results actually give me a sense of how I'm doing in the most general sense: success indicates that my life is progressing more or less as it should be, while failure suggests that something is out of balance--that I have some internal conflict in need of resolution.

If this sounds overly dramatic, it honestly isn't. Certainly there are exceptions: I may play good chess and still have less-than-great results. But if I lose due psychological factors that result in a concentration lapse or poor decision-making, I take it as a sign that I have some personal work to do.

About two months ago, I had my best chess tournament result ever. I won the Under 2000 section of a weekend-long tournament: 5 wins, 0 losses, 0 draws. For my efforts, I gained an $800 prize and a great deal of confidence in my chess abilities.

My next tournament took place three weeks ago, at a similar but slightly larger six-round event with a top section prize of $1200. I was one of the top-rated players in my section, and given my recent triumph, I had very high hopes.

It started well. The first game, I not only won but did so with a certain brutal efficiency, quickly punishing a couple of inaccurate moves from my opponent. It seemed clear that I was still in the same form with which I had ended my previous tournament.

The next game, played that same evening, also began well. I had a good position in the middlegame and while I missed an opportunity to obtain a decisive advantage, I managed to reach a rook endgame in which I was a pawn up and had some winning chances.

What transpired next is even now painful to think about. I played the endgame abominably and turned a possibly winning position first into a drawn position, and then ultimately into a loss. While any chess player has had his/her share of tough losses, I had never been as angry with myself after a game as I was then. I stormed back to my hotel room and flung my chess set against the wall. I was filled with an unusual and self-directed rage. My loss has little to do with a lack of chess knowledge but instead represented a psychological breakdown: my opponent had been a rather annoying kid who squirmed around a lot in his chair, and I had let his behavior get into my head and affect my concentration. Furthermore, once the win had slipped away I had been unable to adjust. Both the game and my psychological state then fell into a downward spiral.

Unable to come to terms with the loss, I attempted to wipe it away the following morning by re-entering into the 2-day section of the tournament. Unfortunately, I found that I was still rattled from the previous night's game, and began the day with a draw and a loss. I straightened myself out somewhat with a much-needed win the next game, and then managed another draw in the fourth and final game that night.

I was no longer in contention for any prize money, and the next day I discovered that my normally irrepressible competitive drive had been completely sapped. Round 5 was a rather lackadasical and joyless draw. Afterwards, while sitting off by myself in a corner of the hotel lobby, I realized that I had no desire to play in the last round. And so I did something that I have never done before: I withdrew from the tournament before the last round, and headed home.

Now, my results weren't exactly awful: all told I had 2 wins, 2 losses, and 3 draws. Granted, I was one of the pre-tournament favorites, and so I had a right to be disappointed. But what made this tournament so painful was that none of my failures were the result of being unfamiliar with a particular opening line or being outplayed by a superior opponent. My mistakes were all psychological; I would have a lapse in concentration and after one mistake, I was often unable to re-center myself. By the end of the tournament, sadly, I had simply stopped caring.

This brings me back to the assertion I made at the beginning of this post: psychological failure at the chessboard generally indicates that something else in my life is out of balance. The truth is that over the past month and a half or so, I have been struggling with some very real depression. There have been various factors contributing to this, the most obvious one being the return to a full-time job that I don't particularly enjoy. But it's become clear to me in the last few weeks that the roots of what I'm dealing with go much, much deeper.

The point I'm trying to make here is that this abysmal chess tournament actually served as a very effective wake-up call: it forced me to see that something has not been right with myself, and I have been able to come to terms with this knowledge. Simply accepting that I have not been emotionally healthy has helped a great deal, and while things are not all better yet, I am fairly optimistic.

And if I am correct that my level of play on the chessboard reflects my psychological state, then I have some very good news. Yesterday I went to a small one-day tournament, held an hour's drive away. I almost didn't go, as I was feeling exhausted from a tough week of work and not at all sure I was ready to confront my inner chess demons.

My results: 3 wins, 0 losses, 1 draw, and clear first prize.

Castlerook's back.

Monday, August 24, 2009

In Pursuit of a Meta-Philosophy

Note: The ideas presented in this post are far from fully worked out. Comments are particularly encouraged.

"Live in such a way that will make the world a better place. Do good to others."

"Live an authentic life by following your heart's desire. Don't give up on your dreams."

The above is my rather crude attempt to summarize two very different approaches to the question of how best to live one's life. I think they are the two dominant approaches in our culture, and possibly other cultures as well, past and present. Certainly I can feel the presence of both within my own psyche. What's more, I believe in the Truth of both.

What follows is an attempt to reconcile them.

I said that these are two very different approaches, and they are, but they are not necessarily contradictory. I think they may illustrate two paths to the same destination: living a healthy, productive, and joy-filled life. Those who have arrived at that destination are both living out their heart's desire and doing good to others. Indeed, in a fully enlightened state, the two may be the same.

The hard part, of course, is getting there. If I live solely according to our first philosophy, I may easily neglect myself, or fail to discover and make best use of my unique gifts, so that I fail to do much good in the long run. If I live solely according to our second philosophy I may neglect those around me, fail to take responsibility for my actions, and as a result never find the bliss I was searching for.

Now, one following the first path might eventually realize that in order to really do good, he/she must also pay attention to him/herself. The converse holds for someone on the second path. In either case, it is at this moment of realization that spiritual growth occurs.

So I think that each path can work. Joseph Campbell spoke of a "right-hand path" and a "left-hand path," and I think he had a similar dichotomy in mind.

What I'm trying to figure out is whether it's possible to pursue both paths simultaneously.

And with that goal in mind, here’s my first attempt at a meta-philosophy:

Strive to place yourself in situations where you will want to do good.


Sunday, July 5, 2009

Recent Dreams

Most mornings, I awake with no memory of what I dreamed the night before. When I do remember my dreams, they generally fall into one of three categories:

1. Wild, nonsensical dreams full of seemingly random surrealistic imagery. In these dreams, I am completely unaware of myself as a conscious entity.

2. Dreams in which I am a central character but the "I" of the dream is separated from the "I" of my consciousness. That is, my dreaming self watches as "I" live out various fantastical stories.

3. Realistic dreams in which I have the same sort of thought processes as when I am awake. These are the sorts of dreams from which one awakes and asks, "Was I dreaming?"

Sometimes the boundaries are fuzzy, particularly since dreams can have more then one "episode," and so a dream may begin with one level of consciousness and end with another.

Yesterday morning, I awoke with the feeling one has after a Type 3 dream, but soon felt rather silly asking the whole "was I dreaming" question, since the dream could not be called realistic. For starters, I was pregnant.

Pregnant, and a doctor was informing me that I would have to abort my baby. Apparently I had previously undergone a new, innovative procedure making it possible for men to carry babies, but something wasn't going well and for my own safety, the pregnancy would have to be terminated.

Now, up to this point I think I had been having a Type 2 dream. I cannot recall any conscious thoughts in any detail, just basic emotions and reactions (the doctor's news actually came as something of a relief). But then a new scene begins: I'm alone in a hospital room waiting for my operation. I'm wearing a hospital gown and feeling nervous about what's going to happen. Will the surgery go okay? How do I feel about losing my baby? The conscious thoughts are all there, and everything seems completely realistic. I seem to be fully myself, just in a highly unusual circumstance. So, it's a Type 3 dream now. I analyze my own complex feelings about losing my baby until I wake up.

Clearly this is a dream almost begging to be subjected to all sorts of interpretations.* My wife suggests that the baby could symbolize an aspect of my creative life, and I think there's something to this. Still, it's unclear to me whether the dream suggests that I need to abort some aspect of my life, or whether I'm feeling pressure to abort something and should resist.

*Castlerook's really a woman! Or, castlerook really wants to be a woman! He has uterus envy!!

While I'd be fascinated to read any theories my readers may come up with, I'm going to leave the subject of castlerook's pregnancy for now. Believe it or not, I had another dream the same night which I find even more interesting.

I'd been awake about an hour or so before I realized that I had another dream before the "I'm pregnant" dream.

The dream was very brief, and consisted of a single image and a series of thoughts about the image. In my dream, I was looking at a picture of the enneagram.

Necessary digression: the enneagram (or, more specifically, the Enneagram of Personality) is a tool used in personality analysis, sort of like the Myers-Briggs personality typology, but with something of a more mystical basis. In the enneagram, there are nine personality types which exist along a continuous circle. Everyone supposedly has one personality type, though this type may be influenced by a "wing," that is, by an adjacent point. Here's a good site if you're interested in reading more. Actually, go to that site now even if you're not particularly interested, since I'm about to refer to the image of the enneagram on that site.

Back now? Great. I have, for some time, identified myself as a 2 with a 3 wing. On the site you just visited, 2 is termed "The Helper" and 3, "The Achiever." So, one could say that my basic desire is to help people but I also have a strong desire to achieve things for myself.

Digression over. The sole visual content of my dream was a picture of the enneagram, but each number had a different descriptive word next to it. Next to 2 was the word "communication," and next to 3, the word "insight." There was a very clear realization that I was now too close to the 3-point, and needed to get back to the 2-point.

In remembering this image the following morning, I was momentarily unsure whether I was remembering a dream, or an actual event. Then I realized that the words "communication" and "insight" don't fit in with any enneagram theory that I've ever seen. Indeed, "The Achiever" is usually described as a success-oriented, go-getter type, and the "insight" description doesn't really apply. For me, though, I think it does. The areas in which I care most about achieving have always been mentally oriented (chess being the prime example, but only one). I am fiercely competitive when it comes to mental challenges. Furthermore, lately I've been engaged in a sort of existential effort to try and uncover "the meaning of it all" and this, too, may be deeply related to my need for achievement.

The message of the dream is both clear and accurate: I have become too focused on achieving great personal insight, to the neglect of communicating such insights with others (witness, for example, the dearth of recent entries on this blog).

Come to think of it, maybe my quest for personal enlightenment is also my unborn baby.

Or maybe all of this rambling is a sign that I need to get more sleep that doesn't involve carrying a fetus or floating nine-pointed geometrical figues.