Thursday, March 21, 2019

The Gap Between Days


There’s this particular feeling that I’ve gone through from time to time, which I’ve always assumed everyone felt but, now that I put it to words, I realize is probably particular to me. It’s evening, the light through the windows is orange, and I’m at home and unsure of what to do. There’s so much time between now and when I go to sleep, but still not enough to accomplish anything real. The day is too far gone to make something out of, but too far from over to call it a bust and try again tomorrow. Moreover, there isn’t really anything I’d dedicate the day to if I tried. So I’m stuck in this gap between days, not sure what to do besides click on the next YouTube video in my recommended feed and keep on killing time.
This spring break has felt like one of those gaps between days, stretched out into a full week. I should be clear that this isn’t really a bad thing. Floating around the house, unsure of what to do or how to spend my time, isn’t an unpleasant way to spend a week, especially when my family is always around to fill that time. It’s what I was begging for at the end of last week, when papers and exams had strangled out nearly all of my free time. But I can’t escape this feeling that I should be going somewhere, doing something, instead of just lazing around in the late-afternoon sunlight. 
Spring break always feels like a lethargic and in-between time, but I think it’s especially harsh this year because a lot of other midpoints line up with it. I just finished a draft of a novel last week, somewhere between the third and seventh version depending on your definition of a draft, but regardless, it’s the longest writing project I’ve ever committed myself to. Now I’m waiting for beta readers to get back to me with edits, and it’s hard to move on to another project when I still feel like I should be living in the world of this past story. Meanwhile, I’m at the point in college when I can’t ignore that it won’t last forever. There’s not much stress surrounding that realization; I know what to do after I graduate. But I can’t escape this strange, weightless, late-afternoon feeling, knowing that I’m reaching the end of college and unsure what to do with that information.

Like I said, this liminal space, this gap between eras, isn’t bad. It’s refreshing, it’s safe. It’s sometimes hard to leave, though. I’ve hesitated to choose a new writing project, because once I do, I know that this time of rest will be over. Likewise, I’ve halfheartedly hoped that I’ll injure myself or get sick before my track team’s trip to Florida, so that, instead of twenty-six hours in the bus on the way to some new, strange, unseasonably warm state, I can float a little while in somewhere familiar. But I know that I have to go. I’ve been home, I’ve caught my breath, and now it’s time to embark on something else.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Pokémon Go


So I’m playing Pokémon Go again. Trust me, I don’t want to. Every time I close the app on my phone, I tell myself it’s the last time, that now I’ll bury the little Pokéball icon down under three layers of sub-folders, in the digital tomb I stuck it in at the end of 2016, when I decided that I was done with it for real. But then I’ll be walking to the library, or sitting on the toilet, or wandering around in the awkward time between and track practice that isn’t long enough to fill with anything useful but isn’t short enough to wait out. And I’ll drift off to wondering how my Flareon is doing in the gym, or if some new Pokémon might come out in this odd weather condition. As soon as the compulsion hits, it’s all over, and soon enough I’m cleaning the computer-rendered version of Grinnell of all its various monsters.
In a way, Pokémon Go is the perfect game to hook college students. It’s easy to excuse in the academic mindset that every minute has to be optimized, because, if you’re going to be walking from one place to another anyway, then why not whip out your phone and make something of this wasted time? And, once it has you hooked, it’s all too easy to begin to feel like you really are accomplishing something, what with all the various stats that go up all the time. You spend time to catch Pokémon, catch Pokémon to defend gyms, defend gyms to get experience points, use experience points to unlock new items, use those items to catch Pokémon, and so on and so on, none of it ever really adding up to anything outside that one little app.
Pessimism about these sorts of things is easy, so it’s probably a good idea to remind myself, whenever I get into one of these spirals, that there are worse things in the world than wasting ten minutes a day on a game that’s actually pretty fun.
Sometimes I go in the opposite direction too, remembering the pinnacle of Pokémon Go as some kind of golden age, lost and gone forever. It did offer fun people-watching for a couple of days, and there was a nice sort of common language between all the newly-converted obsessives. But, by and large, it wasn’t a great time. My memories of early Pokémon Go are inextricably fused with national angst in the 2016 Republican Nation Convention and personal turmoil at the inevitable trip to college. Pokémon Go was, at best, a distraction from a world where most things weren’t going all that well.

There are certain memories of Pokémon Go that I still cherish almost non-ironically: walking to the park with my dad on a summer evening to take down a Team Instinct gym, finding myself in the middle of an agricultural fair in my first week of college while looking for Rapidashes, or even these days, exploring unfamiliar streets in the town I’ve lived for two and a half years by now. I’m not so sure I can give Nintendo much credit for those memories, though. More than anything, they’re just parts of life that tangentially intersect with some dumb mobile game.
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Note: This is going to be the last post for at least a month, probably longer. I've really enjoyed keeping this blog for the past year, but the posts are starting to feel more formulaic, and it's getting harder to come up with ideas that I haven't already explored, plus I've just started a writing project that's much more time consuming that I expected.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

The End of the World and the Polar Vortex


This polar vortex feels like a strange sort of unplanned holiday. Classes are canceled and no one seems entirely sure what to do to fill the time, especially when leaving your dorm might mean frostbite if a little bit of uncovered flesh peeks out between your coat sleeve and mitten. The dining hall is down to limited rations, mostly starch and meat, served by a skeleton crew for a dwindling population, since most people stockpiled food before the worst of the vortex hit. A couple of my friends bought bubbles from Walmart and I spent a couple happy minutes watching them as the clouds of shimmering liquid thinned out, until the few that didn’t pop froze and rolled on the ground, intact for a few delicate seconds before they collapsed into an iridescent skin that will probably stick around on the ground like any other trash until this chill ends.
A couple of my friends (the same ones who thought to bring the bubbles) and I passed our time playing End of the World in the new and nearly deserted Humanities and Social Sciences Building. End of the World is a unique RPG, not the kind of thing that everyone finds fun right away, so I was a little scared introducing my friends to it, but that day seemed like an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. In End of the World, your character is you, your stats for strength and speed and intelligence are supposed to be estimations of your own skills (using the honor system, which works to mixed results), your equipment is everything you have on you as the game starts, and your setting is the exact time and place where you start playing. The only element of fantasy is that, at the time when all your self-insert characters sit down together, human society suddenly collapses.
The hard part is keeping your players from getting too firm a handle on the world. Since they usually know the world they’re in better than I do, I’ve played a few sessions where pretty soon they’re holed up in a house with barred windows and enough food and water and guns and ammo to outlast basically anything I throw at them, at which point the game kind of falls apart because there’s not much else left to do. But for today’s game I had a very precise strategy in mind for getting them out of their safe haven: at the moment the world ended, the heat went off.
As usual, it turned out to be a light satire of wherever the game is set, with only a couple legitimate scares and not many real stakes in the end. A rogue artificial intelligence system, created in a rare collaboration between the Computer Science and English departments, was luring the students into the only heated building on campus, then permanently solving the human condition corporeal angst and isolating individuality by assimilating them into a digital hive mind. I had a great time imitating a robotic post-structuralist when the heroes finally confronted the AI.
But, walking back to my dorm and feeling the cold wind across the uncovered places on myself in that blank pain that doesn’t even feel hot or cold so much as it just plain hurts, it seemed a little strange that surviving the winter (not to mention philosophical killer robots and cultist students) had all seemed so fun, when the burning reality of it was just one thin windowpane away. There’s a lot to be said about the way that we turn horror into fun through storytelling, from Aristotle’s theory on the cathartic release of pity and fear to modern neuroscience’s ideas on how fiction is an evolutionary adaptation to help us simulate disaster scenarios so we can survive them when they come. 

But, for once, I don’t want to get too deep into the theory of it. I’m fine saving the mystery of pleasure in terror for another blog post. All I want to say for now is that I got back to my dorm, took of my hat and coat and the three layers of socks I’d been wearing over my gloves to keep my extremities warm, and sat by the radiator. I remembered the crazy, clichéd disaster scenario I’d dreamt up, and the real disaster scenario swirling just outside my room, and I felt happy. It’s a rare thing to recognize in the moment, so I’ll say it again. I felt happy. I’m still happy.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Psychology


Around this time last year, I gave my aspirations of majoring in psychology one last shot. By March it was clear that my final stand hadn’t worked, so I switched over to English. This semester I’m taking Abnormal Psychology, Educational Psychology, Neuro-Literary Studies, and a creative writing class with a specific focus on writing psychologically plausible characters. In other words, it feels like I’ve come right back to where I started, and I’m not sure I like it.
Whenever someone asked me why I switched majors, I said that it was because psychology was too scientific for me (which usually gets me laughs from my physics and computer science major friends). And, at the time, I really thought that psychology’s emphasis on empirical observation over lived experience was all there was to it. It probably didn’t help that my first reading for my Research Methods class had a line that read something like “Psychologists view language as a purely practical tool, to be used for conveying information in the most efficient way possible, without detour or extraneous details,” which didn’t sit well with an aspiring creative writer. 
But if psychology was just too far removed from human experience, then why was I drawn to it in the first place? I didn’t even think to ask this question until I found the answer on my first day of my Abnormal Psychology class. My professor gave an anecdote about how disappointed he was with his first psychology class, simply because he came in expecting to learn how to fix his own psychological problems. Psychology never offered him the clear-cut answers he was expecting, so he figured he simply hadn’t taken a sufficiently advanced class. He kept on taking classes until he had found something he hadn’t been looking for, but something deeply meaningful in its own right.
Looking back on it, it would have been a really good idea to raise my hand and ask him what exactly he’d found. It would be especially helpful to know because his experience mirrored mine so closely. In high school psychology, I came to class expecting that I’d learn how to get myself to stop avoiding the number thirteen, how to do well in school without getting stressed, how to be happy and healthy and never lonely. It didn’t work, but I accumulated enough novel tidbits to convince myself that the field had merit and continued studying it into college. As I took more and more classes, it became clearer that psychologists couldn’t really fix the mind. They could understand a lot of it, sure, but they seemed more concerned with finding out which regions of the brain lit up when someone looked at a picture of a banana than how to actually solve any problem. 
An article that I read today for Neuro-Literary Studies, “Evolutionary Theories of Art” by Brian Boyd, reminded me that it’s not just the lack of answers in psychology that disappointed me, but the answers that the field actually did provide. Boyd comes to the article assuming that everything in human society must come down to one of our essential biological functions, reproduction or survival until reproductive age, and therefore every seemingly superfluous activity, from art to literature to religion, is an anomaly to be explained away. So whatever joy you get from reading a great novel or praying to God just comes down to some preprogrammed response that we could get just as easily by sticking a syringe full of the right chemicals into your grey matter. To a psychologist, the brain is just a machine with no higher function than living long enough to get laid. I don’t believe that, but I can’t deny that it makes some kind of sense. I doubt that there is anyone alive who would admit that it makes sense, if they understood the research surrounding it, or who would deny that it makes them a little bit sad, if they were being honest.

I guess what I’ve been looking for, in psychology and English and religious studies and education and just about every other class I’ve taken, is the meaning of life. As countless great thinkers, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, and Calvin and Hobbes would point out, that’s not a question, it’s barely even a concept, so it can’t really have an answer. And, aside from a few poor souls toiling in the philosophy department, no one in academia really seems all that concerned with the meaning of life to begin with. Maybe it’s a good sign, then, that I’ve never really been much of a fan of true philosophy. I’m happy enough watching fictional characters, of my own creation or someone else’s, explore these dilemmas for themselves, with an accent flavor of psychology and education and religious studies here and there. And, if that makes me happy, then it’s good enough.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Video Games


Since I’ve realized that it’s essentially impossible to read everything that I should be reading (after a few breaks with overly ambitious readings lists that ended up leaving me burnt out on the written word altogether), this year I decided that I would read the entirety of a very narrow genre: specifically, all of the books that have emotionally destroyed my friend Joel Tibbetts. That list included the Nobel Prize-winning novel Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro* and The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer. While all the novels succeeded wonderfully on their promise of emotional destruction, The Southern Reach Trilogy in particular left me paranoid of everything and everyone around me in the way that only the best sci-fi can. While I liked all of the books, I think there was a drop in quality with each installment, and I think it’s because each book felt less and less like a video game.
The first book in the series, Annihilation, follows a biologist working for an underground government department charged with investigating the secrets of a paranormal parcel of land. Though it seems at first like the setup for an action-adventure story, the main character really doesn’t do much besides wander around and look at things. The second book, Authority, has a somewhat more active protagonist, this time someone within the government itself, but still, the real driving engine of the book is that sense of observation and discovery. There’s more to my disappointment with the third book, Acceptance, than its decreased focus on exploration: the roving point of view means that there isn’t the same depth of characterization as the first two, and some of the powerful ambiguity from the first books is lost when the series turns from setting up mysteries to solving them. But, when thinking about what I didn’t like in the third book, I realized that what I really liked about the others: the moments of discovery, of finding hidden trap doors and attics that lead to long-buried secrets, of turning a corner and finding some scene of horror, and feeling as though you were the one who turned the corner. That emphasis on exploration and discovery, that’s really the essence of video games.
I feel strange making that argument, especially since the author of The Southern Reach Trilogy himself said that aspiring fiction writers should put down their consoles and focus more on the written word in his creative writing guide Wonderbook. No matter how many points I hear about how video games have just as much literary value as a great painting or novel, I can’t get over the  snobbish instinct that something written in ink that you hold in your hands innately has higher artistic value that something you load into a Nintendo system.
But, at the same time, there are things that video games can do that other forms of media can’t. The rush of dopamine and electronic fanfare that comes with solving a puzzle, the stress of facing a fork in the story path, and above all the sheer joy (often mixed with dread and horror in darker games) of discovering new areas, it’s all legitimate engagement, and it’s all emotion that you can only really get from this one specific type of media. Even Jeff Vandermeer’s lush prose can’t mimic the feeling of real exploration that you get from, say, a dungeon in a Legend of Zelda game.
I think what this all comes down to is the feeling of immersion that video games offer. In fiction and film and pretty much every other medium, you have to filter everything you feel for the story through the central characters and, no matter how empathetic they are, they’re never quite you. Even second person prose and point of view camera shots ultimately fail to make the audience feel like they’re really in the story. But in video games, it’s you who’s exploring an area or crafting a solution or making a difficult choice. Even if the world your avatar inhabits is glitchy or so poorly rendered that no one would ever mistake it for real life, the way that it responds to your controls always makes it more real than even the best writing or film can. 
Admitting that is a little disappointing, actually. I’ve stuck myself on the path to be fiction writer, and I don’t particularly want to backtrack and go into game design. Maybe some of the superiority I feel for books over games is really just envy that I know that games can promise immersion that my writing, no matter how good, never can.
But, at the same time, prose has its own strengths. Yeah, maybe the protagonist never feels like it’s really you, but that gives the writer an opportunity to form fascinating characters and create different emotions in the reader depending on how closely they connect with the characters. Meanwhile, no matter how many interesting people populate the world of a game, inevitably the player’s avatar will be something of a blank slate. To get that kind of immersion, you sacrifice complexity.

Recognizing the different strengths of different genres is vital for anyone creating in any field, I think. Not just so that you can understand your limitations, but so that you can borrow creatively from other fields, and maybe even push past them. Part of what makes Annihilation so good, after all, is the way that it takes the exploratory horror found in the best video games and grafts it onto a protagonist who is very much her own person, and often an unlikable one at that, even as we feel as though we are her in the moments when she’s skulking around the woods of a mysterious off-limits area. 
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* Which is incredible, by the way. I know that pretty much everyone has an overly long list of books that they should be reading, but if I can add just one recommendation, it’d be that.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Exploring the Archives


Time works differently in college. For months, the world moves so fast that it’s ill-advised to look past the next paper, the next race, the next day of classes, because there’s always so much to be done in the moment. Down time is rare, and therefore precious, and therefore shouldn’t be wasted on idle reflection. Past and future fade away and you end up living in a kind of constant present. It’s not a bad thing, exactly, though it takes a little time to get used to. But then the semester ends, you go home to the place you lived before college, in a time you only half remember, and you have enough time to catch your breath and realize that the world is a whole lot bigger, and life a whole lot longer, than college has led you to believe.

That’s a long and probably hyperbolic way of saying that I’ve had a lot of time on my hands this past week, alone at home without much going on. Once the novelty of having time to read, play video games, and sift through my lego collection got old, I started wondering about my future. If I wanted to make it as a writer, I realized that I should probably get serious about finding something to publish. And, since all my most recent work is under lock and key for at least a year, I started searching for anything publishable in the stacks of old writing from high school shoved under my desk.

The best possible outcome would be that I found some piece of polished genius from some forgotten era when I knew all sorts of cool writing tricks that I’d subsequently forgotten. The worst outcome, and the one that I was most prepared for, was that it would all be trash that would make me wonder what the hell I had been up to a few years ago. It turned out not to be either. A couple of the stories were better than I remembered, a whole lot of them were worse, none of them were publishable, and none of them seemed like they were written by me. I mean, sure, I could glance and the title and probably rattle off some vague memory of the plot and a couple key characters, but when I read it slowly, sentence-by-sentence, it didn’t sound like anything I’d ever written or would ever write. The disassociation from my writing got so bad that I even started combing the text for motifs that I didn’t mean to put in, hoping to form it all into some theme I never would have intended.

After a little while, though, I started to wonder if maybe there was some meaning to it all, meaning that I hadn’t put in consciously, but that I had put in all the same. There was one story I wrote in my senior year of high school. It was a phase when I was interested in absurdism without actually understanding any of it, so the characters were all overblown personalities doing nonsensical things for nonsensical reasons. I spent hours trying to decipher what the satire was supposed to be cutting against before realizing that it wasn’t directed at anything at all. The main character was this insufferable twit who never said anything without a handful of unnecessary ACT vocab words tacked on, most of them misused. But there were a handful of times near the end, little more than moments really, where he spoke in standard English to say that this isn’t really him. He’s just putting on a show because everyone around him is putting one on too, and he doesn’t like his role and he doesn’t know when it will end and he just wants to get the hell out. 

If you asked me back then why I wrote him like that, I probably wouldn’t have a good answer. Looking through old journals, though, I found out that I wrote at night in hotel rooms after long days of touring prestigious East Coast schools that I doubted I could get into. I think that it was about college applications: how this absurd new world was forcing me to sell myself as some kind of pompous intellectual, when really I just wanted to be the same undefined me that I’d always been. 


For any high school seniors reading, I don’t want to give you the impression that college applications are some kind of mind-bending hellscape. I got through them just fine and was happy enough to be one the other side. But still, those feelings were real, even if I don’t remember them anymore. There’s this quote by Gail Carson from a book I read in my middle school creative writing class, “When you become a teenager, you step onto a bridge. You may already be on it. The opposite shore is adulthood. Childhood lies behind. The bridge is made of wood. As you cross, it burns behind you.” The idea is that you should write when you’re young, because it’s the only way to remember what it was like on the other bank once the bridge is burnt. I’d even go a little further and say that we’re always crossing a burning bridge, always changing, never able to remember exactly who we were the day before. Usually I don’t have the time to remember that I have a past  to begin with. Which is why I’m glad that I keep on writing, so that there is always some evidence of who I was. It's a little hard to decipher, maybe, but it's always there, under my desk, just in case.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Road Trips


I spent eleven and a half hours in the car with my dad yesterday, driving from Grosse Pointe to Edina. It’s a trip we’ve made every year for the past nine years, and by now I recognize various landmarks along the route: the quarry, the weird-shaped casino, the church with high spires that look vaguely like Quidditch goal posts. It takes a long time to get that kind of familiarity with the landscape, and I’m starting to wonder about all that time I’ve lost in the process. After all, with nearly twelve-hour trips twice a year (one going there, one going back), that’s almost a full twenty-four hour day spent staring blankly at the landscape.
It’s weird the kind of cultural capital that roadtrips have built up in American culture, given how boring they are. I mean, there’s a whole genre of novels and films built around an activity that amounts to sitting motionlessly while you wait to arrive somewhere. Maybe it’s not surprising, if art imitates life. After all, one of my earliest memories is watching the flat midwestern landscape whizz by as my family drove a straight vertical line up and down the country, from our home in Texas to a remote lake in Canada and back again. And I bet that most people who grew up in the U.S. has a similar early memory of long car rides. But even if it’s something that so many people experience, why is it something that we want to remember and celebrate? No one writes books or makes movies about waiting in line at the doctor’s office or lying still in bed with your eyes closed as you try to fall asleep.
I guess you’re not just staring out the window when you’re on car trips, though the range of activities is still pretty limited. You can drive, sleep, listen to an audiobook*, stop at a gas station to use the bathroom, talk, and that’s about it. Not exactly thrilling stuff. 
All the same, I’ve always sort of liked road trips. Sometimes I’ve even enjoyed them more than the places they’ve taken us to. For a long time I thought that it was just because I liked listening to audiobooks, but I realized yesterday that I even get a strange kind of enjoyment in the quiet hours, where it’s nothing but sitting in silence and watching the landscape.
My dad’s giving a guest-sermon this Sunday, and to pass the time he asked me to read the scripture he’ll preach on and talk to him about it. The passage was a tough one, 2 Peter 3:8-18. Essentially, it’s trying to figure out how to get on with life on earth when Jesus still hasn’t come back yet, and concludes that you have to be patient and not get fed up with God for taking so long. Given that this period of waiting has lasted two thousand years, I’m not exactly holding my breath for The Second Coming these days, so it’s hard to relate to. If I were anywhere else, I might have given up, or given some snappy answer to make it seem like I understood it right away. But we were in the car, we had hours between us and no better way to fill them, so I stared out at the low rolling hills with tall grass half-covered in snow, and just let it sit with me. After a couple minutes of pondering, there’s one passage that really stood out, “With the Lord, a thousand years are like a day, and a day is like a thousand years.” I’d heard that line quoted quite a bit before, and I’d always written it off as just another way to describe God’s infinite knowledge, but now I really took the time to wonder about it. How could there be a God who can take the long view of history, seeing human history as the blinking light that it is, while at the same time understanding and feeling every passing moment in that car ride, knowing every landmark better than I do? You can’t understand the enormity of God’s knowledge either way, let alone hold the duality of it in your mind at once. But, when you’re in a car ride you don’t have anything better to do, so you might as well try.
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* On our car ride we listened to Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming. It was very good over all, and really made me miss having such a relatable but intelligent presidential family (unlike the incomprehensible wealth and endless stupidity of the Trumps).