My Legs Hurt

Unless I’ve actually strained them in some exercise-related way (hah!) this means one of two things: either it’s raining or I’m hung over. I don’t know why, but without fail it always happens. Today it rained and I was hung over, so I’ve been doubly sore and ambling in a geriatric way around my workplace, trying to inconspicuously massage my knees at every opportunity. This has been, and probably will be, the most interesting part of my day, and this day itself will be abnormally interesting compared to most other days.

For the past couple months I’ve been sequestering myself with either a good book or a good video game, as a way to avoid being crushed by the sheer weight of my own¬†mediocrity. Pretty soon I will have read most of the books I should have read in high school. I just finished the Great Gatsby, and it’s weird trying to talk to people about it because everybody except me has already read it. Like 10 years ago. Thus, however profound, intriguing, or evocative someone might have found the book, they got over it a long time ago, making meaningful discussion about the book a bit hard to come by anywhere outside a high school English class.

In addition to catching up on the classics, I’ve spent a lot of time shepherding a virtual civilization towards greatness by way of a game called Civilization 5. As opposed to the real world, where there is poverty, ignorance, and war which an individual can do little about, Civ 5 gives you a virtual world where you can do things differently; you can do right where historically we have gone wrong. So I start a game and I try to build an ideal civilization, one that values peace, prosperity, tolerance, and scientific progress; through diplomacy, mediation, and others following my shining example, I hope to lead my fellow virtual civilizations into a glorious golden age for all mankind. Once that’s done, I can trick myself into thinking that, having done it in a game, I could help fix the world (should I ever come to any position of power).

However, after about 5000 years pursuing my glorious vision, the entire world hates me. Perceiving my enlightened philosophy as a sign of weakness, every nation I met declared war almost immediately. Every principle my virtual civilization once stood for was violated to ensure its survival. It looks like I’d be lucky to finish the game with just one nuclear war. The game designers did a very, very good job at making their virtual world resemble the corporeal. So unless I suddenly find inviting the prospect of repeating the depressing mistakes of world history in a virtual arena whose theoretical purpose is to be fun, my virtual escape has been effectively thwarted.

I’d like to say that I’m actively trying to find things more interesting to do than play computer games, but that would be lying. I’m glad Obamacare passed, and at one point in my life I would probably spend a lot of time arguing its merits with complete strangers online; I would have thought that these people, many having a virulent personal hatred for Obama that’s beyond ridiculous, could be swayed by reason. Now, experience has taught me that these people can only be mocked, relentlessly, and even then the satisfaction and feeling of self-righteousness one gets in doing so is fleeting and often accompanied by the realization that you could be doing better things with your time. Still, for me, going on an arch-conservative forum and pretending to be the ghost of Reagan is always good for a chuckle every now and then ūüėČ

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On Hiatus With Thomas Pynchon

For the past two months, I’ve been on the receiving end of a literary bludgeoning, otherwise known as reading Thomas Pynchon’s¬†Gravity’s Rainbow. The last month was especially tough going, as the book seems to get exponentially more dense and abstract towards the end. In fact, I’m surprised Pynchon himself didn’t include some kind of mathematical representation of how the book’s difficulty increases over time¬†within the book¬†itself. It’s that kind of book. And now I’ve finally finished it. As it is regarded as both one of the greatest english language books¬†and¬†one of the most challenging, I feel pretty awesome for finishing it. I may even be considered cool for doing so, but I’m not getting my hopes up.

In terms of describing it, I don’t know where to begin. Lets see… Of all the movies and books I’ve seen or read, I’d say in overall tone it’s most similar to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.¬†If it were an original movie, it would, for one thing, be ridiculously long; there would be nothing left on the cutting-room floor. There would be potent and compelling dream-symbolism throughout that would put David Lynch to shame, and half the movie would be devoted to the actual dreams, daydreams, fantasies, flights of fancy, and drug-induced hallucinations of the characters; these mental tangents would be seamlessly integrated and at times indistinguishable from the rest of the movie, and the narrative would jump in and out of these at will. These tangents would also just as likely jump to another character’s conscious or unconscious point of view with no warning or indication whatsoever. There would also be kinks and fetishes aplenty, the likes of which would make David Cronenberg blush.¬†Add in a prevalent sense of paranoia and comic relief as fine as anything by the Monty Python ensemble, and then imagine all of that increasing in magnitude exponentially as the allegorical movie progresses: that is a very, very¬†basic picture of what Gravity’s Rainbow,¬†as a movie, would be like.

There are over 400 characters, but don’t worry; only about 100 or so are important. Characters from Pynchon’s two previous novels,¬†V.¬†and¬†The Crying of Lot 49, also make appearances. As the events of the novel (mostly) precede those of the other two, these characters’¬†back stories¬†become even richer, and their actions in the other two books become more understandable as well. And just like those previous books, Pynchon takes a broad sample of humanity for his characters, focusing more on the unconventional, the non-glamorous, and the “undesirable:” addicts, dealers, hustlers, prostitutes, anarchists, bureaucrats, disaffected spies, soldiers gone AWOL, mystics, science cultists, dozens of otherwise “normal” people with “abnormal” obsessions, and any number of folks caught up in the machinations of uncaring or outright malevolent forces much more powerful than they are.

With many of these characters, he tries to question the validity of what society deems “normal/abnormal” (and thus the validity of the very act of deeming normalcy). He also tries to show the emotional and psychological effects of living in an industrial society, specifically of having one’s life be determined/ended by the demands of a small, powerful corporate and political elite. As you might guess, many of the characters are or become paranoid as the book progresses. Helping this along is a grand conspiracy underpinning everything, and just like Pynchon’s previous two books, it is strongly hinted at but never conclusively confirmed and is ultimately left up to the reader to determine whether it exists at all.

Ultimately, my favorite thing about the book is its refusal to be forgotten. I will probably be digesting its 750+ pages of dense and powerfully evocative prose for a long time. While I was reading it, I felt like there was no way I could possibly retain even a fraction of it. Now that I think back on it, the wonderful ensemble of loony and (in many cases) tragic characters stands clear in my mind, and I can vividly remember the themes and events of the book in relation to those characters. Now that I think about it, by always bringing everything back to the emotional and psychological effects on/reactions of the characters and by making points be evocative and/or intriguing proportionally to their importance, Pynchon actually did a pretty good job of keeping the whole thing together.

I’ve already applied what I’ve retained from the book. I’ve started reading Saul Bellow’s¬†The Adventures of Augie March,¬†and early on Mr. Einhorn gives a speech that resonated all the more with me after reading¬†Gravity’s Rainbow,¬†and in my opinion it exemplifies Pynchon’s central premise more concisely and in a more straightforward way than any passage in Pynchon’s own book. Talking about the rough and “uncultured” nature of 1920’s Chicago, Einhorn says:¬†

“But there is some kind of advantage in the roughness of a place like Chicago, of not having any illusions either. Whereas in all the great capitals of the world there’s some reason to think humanity is very different. All that ancient culture and those beautiful works of art right out in public… You see those marvelous things and you think that everything savage belongs in the past. So you think. And then you have another think, and you see that after they rescued women from the coal mines, or pulled down the Bastille and got rid of Star Chambers and¬†lettres de cachet,¬†ran out the Jesuits, increased education, and built hospitals and spread courtesy and politeness, they have five or six years of war and revolutions and kill off twenty million people. And do they think there’s less danger to life than here? That’s a riot.”¬†Gravity’s Rainbow’s¬†most important theme may be this, that the “savagery” of the rough-and-tumble “lower classes” is nothing compared to the savagery perpetrated by the very organizations dominated by the “cultured” elite: wars, started by governments and supplied by corporations.

Sound awesome? Radical? Thought provoking? Mind-effing? It is. All of those. If you haven’t already, read it! You’ll be glad you did, or at least feel very accomplished for finishing the damn thing ūüėČ

Birthdays, Time Travel, and Other Challenges

It’s interesting where certain trains of thought can take you. A particularly interesting one came to me last night: I was lost, freezing off certain extremities and¬†walking all over Lincoln Park looking for the bar where my friend was having his birthday. It¬†occurred¬†to me that Time Travel could solve this predicament. Now, let me preface this by saying that there are a lot of good reasons to not invent time travel. For instance, all time-travel movies predating invention would become cheesy once they have to measure up to the real thing, and every time you tried to watch them some nerd would spend the whole movie critiquing its inaccuracies and basically ruin the whole thing. On top of that, all time-travel movies created after invention would be either non-fiction/documentary and really boring, or they’d for cinematic effect exaggerate time travel to bombastic heights only to be ruined by nerds criticizing¬†them for being unrealistic.

There are also plenty of good reasons to invent it anyway. One of those could be the complete elimination of winter birthdays and thus nullification of discomfort to certain extremities. How, you ask? Well, had I a time machine, I could delay by a few months a certain ‘twinkle’ from appearing in a certain ‘dad’s eye.’ The specifics would definitely be complicated, but at least my friend’s birthday would safely be in the Spring. That’s only if my time meddling doesn’t somehow go awry and cause a global atomic conflagration, plunging the world into nuclear winter. That would, ironically, make all birthdays winter birthdays. With all days thus being cold, it at least would force people, once they could no longer blame the cold,¬†to come up with more creative excuses like “I’m taking care of my mutant sister” or “I can’t, I’m expected in the Thunderdome that day.”

However, no matter how relatively favorable a birthday becomes after such time meddling, there is one birthday rule that will remain constant. When you turn 21, you have a party at a bar with everyone you know, plus some people you don’t know who say they’re with your party to get an open bar wristband at the door. At 22, the strangers no longer attend, and some friends have other, perhaps college-graduation-related things, to do. At 23, and every year after until you turn 29,¬†the number of people who come to your birthday decreases exponentially; at 29 there is mathematically less than one person attending your birthday, meaning you forget to celebrate it and let it pass without notice. After 21, it just gets harder and harder to be enthusiastic about aging. Next year, I can expect probably two people and my brother’s dog to come to my party, and I can’t guarantee they all will have a good time. Luckily everyone, including you, cares about turning 30, as 30 is realistically the last year you can be considered ‘young’ and you have one last chance to act accordingly. So for birthdays 22-29, having expectations for anything other than, say, board games and tepid conversation may be a stretch, but you can take solace in the fact that everyone else’s birthdays in that period will probably be equally lame.

2012 Challenge: Reading 100 Books Before an Overwhelming Number of People Act Like the World is Ending and Bring Society, and thus the Library, Grinding to a Halt (Reading 100 Books in 2012)

The last time I took on a reading challenge, it was not by choice. I was in 8th grade, and we were supposed to read as many books as we could during the year. Our teacher kept track of the number of books we read on a chart in the back of the classroom so we could measure up against our classmates. I confidently chose J.R.R.¬†Tolkien’s¬†“The Silmarillion” as my first book, which if you don’t know is basically the complete history, mythology, and¬†genealogy¬†of the “Lord of the Rings” setting. I thought it would be awesome, and I thought wrong. Somehow, reading about the ancestors of every single Elf in Middle Earth turned out to be boring,¬†and from every reading session I retained nothing. Yet I was stubbornly set on finishing this book and soldiered on. 3-4 months later and I had no stickers on the chart. Everyone else had at least like 6. The kids who used to knock me for trying hard now knocked me for being dumb. Never before or since have I been a negative statistical¬†outlier;¬†never had I been graphically, statistically represented as a dunce. After somehow reading half of it,¬†I gave up on The Silmarillion and read other books; sadly, the gap would never be closed and I finished¬†last.

I’ve decided today that I will redeem myself by reading 100 books this year. I’ve seen other bloggers taking on this challenge and I can think of no better form of¬†redemption. I’ve read two already, which puts me about 15 books behind according to Goodreads. I’ll be posting reviews and impressions as I go, which may or may not be written before I read the book, whether or not I¬†actually¬†read the book, and/or be completely¬†plagiarized.¬†Feel free to follow along as Goodreads tracks my progress over on the right there.

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