Archive for the ‘Personal Favorites’ Category

I try not to call things “mind-blowing” too often, at least now that I’m no longer a college student who smokes weed every day.  But I think “The Tetris Effect” just blew my mind.  A third of it is basically a summary of the Fred Savage movie/feature-length Nintendo commercial The Wizard, a third of it is excerpted verbatim from books about hedge-funder/financial crisis catalyst Michael Burry, and a third is a memoir about the author’s life-long relationship with video games.  Wolfe threads all these thirds together brilliantly, illuminating each strand in unexpected and eye-opening ways.  “The Tetris Effect” certainly doesn’t claim that video games caused the recent economic collapse, but it does underline the similarities between the two, especially when you factor in Asperger’s Syndrome and God mode-cheat codes.  A long read (at least by internet standards) but absolutely worth it.

1. Computer Space

When I was in second grade, my teacher sent a note home to my mother. I had recently been skipped ahead from first grade to second grade and the new teacher was worried about me. I was keeping up with the class fine, I was having no problem with that, she said in the note, but she was worried about me because all I would ever write or talk or draw about in class or in my journal or for homework were video games. They seemed to be the only thing that I thought about. She wondered whether maybe there might be something wrong with me for me to be so obsessed with games.

In the opening scene of the film, a boy is wandering along an empty stretch of highway, the frame filled with waves of desert heat. His face is blank and he carries a metal lunchbox in one hand, swinging it back and forth as he goes. He is no older than six or seven. The batteries of the sun are slowly dying; heat waves play with the orange light, bending it into shimmers. As the last credits fade into the skyline, a policeman in an SUV pulls up alongside the boy and asks him where he thinks he’s going. “California,” the boy says. His face is blank, his eyes ciphers. The policeman keeps talking to him, but all the boy will say in response is “California.”

“When [he] was born, in 1971, his steel blue eyes seemed crossed in an unusual way, drawing immediate concern from his parents. A local pediatrician…dismissed [their] worries, ensuring them that the boy had a lazy left eye that would improve with time…. Finally, an ophthalmologist diagnosed retinoblastoma, a dangerous cancer that strikes one in twenty thousand children…. Doctors removed the boy’s left eye, to prevent the tumor from spreading…. Before he turned two, [he] was fitted with a glass prosthesis. It was an approximation of his natural eye, the best they could produce at the time, but it had no movement, making it quite obvious.”

Click here for the rest of “The Tetris Effect”

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My favorite favorite Jorge Luis Borges stories are the ones in A Universal History Of Infamy.  I love the way Borges plays fast and loose with historical events and cites completely fabricated sources like they’re factual, which is always cool unless you’re doing it for some kind of evil propaganda-like purposes.  I also love how Borges takes stories that could very well be novels and condenses them into a few pages.  They’re more like film treatments than short stories, but they’re still a lot of fun to read.  Every time I steal one of those aforementioned techniques for my own stories, I make sure to say a little prayer of gratitude to Senor Borges.

I can’t seem to find anything from Infamy online, so here’s “The Library Of Babel,” which is still really great, in case you hadn’t heard already.  It’s a heady meditation on language, God, infinity, and some other stuff too, all in under 3,000 words:

The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings. From any of the hexagons one can see, interminably, the upper and lower floors. The distribution of the galleries is invariable. Twenty shelves, five long shelves per side, cover all the sides except two; their height, which is the distance from floor to ceiling, scarcely exceeds that of a normal bookcase. One of the free sides leads to a narrow hallway which opens onto another gallery, identical to the first and to all the rest. To the left and right of the hallway there are two very small closets. In the first, one may sleep standing up; in the other, satisfy one’s fecal necessities. Also through here passes a spiral stairway, which sinks abysmally and soars upwards to remote distances. In the hallway there is a mirror which faithfully duplicates all appearances. Men usually infer from this mirror that the Library is not infinite (if it were, why this illusory duplication?); I prefer to dream that its polished surfaces represent and promise the infinite … Light is provided by some spherical fruit which bear the name of lamps. There are two, transversally placed, in each hexagon. The light they emit is insufficient, incessant.

Read all of “The Library Of Babel”

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The older I get, the more I appreciate these riffs on the often-infuriating ritual of waiting on line behind other humans.  CK’s bit is fairly straightforward, while Brautigan’s very short story is much more surreal, but both perfectly capture a kindred sort of gleefully silly misanthropy that I can’t help but embrace:

I have a bank account because I grew tired of burying my money in the back yard and something else happened. I was burying some money a few years ago when I came across a human skeleton.

The skeleton had the remains of a shovel in one hand and a half-dissolved coffee can in the other hand. The coffee can was filled with a kind of rustdust material that I think was once money, so now I have a bank account.

But most of the time that doesn’t work out very well either. When I wait in line there are almost always people in front of me who have complicated banking problems. I have to stand there and endure the financial cartoon crucifixions of America.

It goes something like this: There are three people in front of me. I have a little check to cash. My banking will only take a minute. The check is already endorsed. I have it in my hand, pointed in the direction of the teller.

The person just being waited on now is a woman fifty years old. She is wearing a long black coat, though it is a hot day. She appears to be very comfortable in the coat and there is a strange smell coming from her. I think about it for a few seconds and realize that this is the first sign of a complicated banking problem.

Then she reaches into the folds of her coat and removes the shadow of a refrigerator filled with sour milk and year-old carrots. She wants to put the shadow in her savings account. She’s already made out the slip.

I look up at the ceiling of the bank and pretend that it is the Sistine Chapel.

The old woman puts up quite a struggle before she’s taken away. There’s a lot of blood on the floor. She bit an ear off one of the guards.

I guess you have to admire her spunk.

The check in my hand is for ten dollars.

The next two people in line are actually one person. They are a pair of Siamese twins, but they each have their own bank books.

One of them is putting eighty-two dollars in his savings account and the other one is closing his savings account. The teller counts out 3,574 dollars for him and he puts it away in the pocket on his side of the pants.

All of this takes time. I look up at the ceiling of the bank again but I cannot pretend that it is the Sistine Chapel any more. My check is sweaty as if it had been written in 1929.

The last person between me and the teller is totally anonymous looking. He is so anonymous that he’s barely there.

He puts 237 checks down on the counter that he wants to deposit in his checking account. They are for a total of 489,000 dollars. He also has 611 checks that he wants to deposit in his savings account. They are for a total of 1,754,961 dollars.

His checks completely cover the counter like a success snow storm. The teller starts on his banking as if she were a long distance runner while I stand there thinking that the skeleton in the back yard had made the right decision after all.

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At first, I was amazed by Amy Hempel’s short stories.  Then after I read a bunch of them, I noticed that so many of the stories were told in the first person, and they were obviously supposed to be narrated by different characters, yet they all sounded like the same voice.  And for a brief moment I actually started to feel a little irritated that Amy Hempel expected me to be believe all these characters wrote and thought and spoke in the same idiosyncratic Amy Hempel way.  But my irritation didn’t last very long.  I realized I was mostly just jealous that Amy Hempel could write so many wonderful Amy Hempel-like sentences, and so what if all her first-person narrators sounded that way?  So now I’m back to being amazed.

I especially like “In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” because it touches on so many of my favorite themes: grief, guilt, death, jokes about death, and trivia:

“Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting,” she said. “Make it useless stuff or skip it.”

I began. I told her insects fly through rain, missing every drop, never getting wet. I told her no one in America owned a tape recorder before Bing Crosby did. I told her the shape of the moon is like a banana—you see it looking full, you’re seeing it end-on.

The camera made me self-conscious and I stopped. It was trained on us from a ceiling mount—the kind of camera banks use to photograph robbers. It played us to the nurses down the hall in Intensive Care.

“Go on, girl,” she said. “You get used to it.”

I had my audience. I went on. Did she know that Tammy Wynette had changed her tune? Really. That now she sings “Stand by Your Friends“? That Paul Anka did it too, I said. Does “You’re Having Our Baby.” That he got sick of all that feminist bitching.

“What else?” she said. “Have you got something else?”

Oh, yes.

For her I would always have something else.

“Did you know that when they taught the first chimp to talk, it lied? That when they asked her who did it on the desk, she signed back the name of the janitor. And that when they pressed her, she said she was sorry, that it was really the project director. But she was a mother, so I guess she had her reasons.”

“Oh, that’s good,” she said. “A parable.”

“There’s more about the chimp,” I said. “But it will break your heart.”

“No, thanks,” she says, and scratches at her mask.

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Not so long ago I wrote a little something about the troubles which befell a worthy gentleman known as Jeff “Jarff” Laughlin, lead singer of the band Beards.  Today, the forces of the universe are now behaving quite churlishly toward his bandmate Lily Olive, who is currently undergoing treatment for a rare form of pancreatic cancer.

If you don’t know Lily personally, you can click this link to learn more about her unfortunate situation.  Then if you’re feeling charitable, you can follow the instructions at the bottom of that page to make a tax-deductible donation toward Lily’s astronomical medical bills.  She’s an aspiring artist using the US health care system, so heaven knows she could use a little help.

There’s also this wonderful, funny, sad, sweet letter that Jeff wrote to Lily’s stomach that I really think you should read.  Here’s an excerpt:

To Whom It May Concern:

I am writing on behalf of a dearth of friends and family, and I aim to help you understand why you must cooperate. Lily’s stomach, you must starting digesting food and you must do it posthaste. Of course, I could present the wealth of health concerns you are causing and the stress on Lily herself, but you have a front row seat; one without the obstructions of caring and concern that we humans have. Instead, I am going to offer you evidence of emotional turmoil and explain your overall meaning.

In discussing the vastness of humanity, one must discuss fear. Explaining fear to you in the terms of emotionality is as pointless as it is methodical. Moreover, I’d much rather describe fear in the objective correlative: my hands won’t stop shaking, our eyes dart feverishly when we joke about your failures, I don’t sleep well with dreams of stomach problems muddled by hospital stays. Lily’s stomach, you are the root of our fear.

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This passage knocked the wind out of me for a moment.  I think it’ll be good for me to keep this in mind as life goes on:

Still this now, that he had, was very easy; and if it was no worse as it went on there was nothing to worry about.  Except that he would rather be in better company.

He thought a little about the company that he would like to have.

No, he thought, when everything you do, you do too long, and do too late, you can’t expect to find the people still there.  The people are all gone.  The party’s over and you are with your hostess now.

from Ernest Hemingway’s “The Snows Of Kilimanjaro”

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Perhaps all most stories could, in theory, inspire the following kinds of clashing reactions, but I like to think that only very special stories are capable of such ambiguity:

Pilon complained, “It is not a good story.  There are too many meanings and too many lessons in it.  Some of those lessons are opposite.  There is not a story to take into your head.  It proves nothing.”

“I like it,” said Pablo.  “I like it because it hasn’t any meaning you can see, and still it does seem to mean something, I can’t tell what.”

from John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat.  Special thanks to Mr. Hazard for getting me on this enlightening and enjoyable Steinbeck kick I’ve been on these past few weeks.

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