You may have noticed that I haven’t posted for a few days. I’m busy finishing up my work for the quarter, and I still have some more to go. But when I’m finished, I promise to share my spring break – via this blog – with all of you. See you then!
Did you ever wonder: “What is the longest English word?” “Are there any English words containing the same letter three times in a row?” “Are there any words that rhyme with orange?” “How many words are there in the English language?” “What is the longest one-syllable English word?” The answers to these questions and more can be found at the Oxford Dictionary FAQ.
Here in Iowa City, the only town in America whose economy is fueled entirely by football, alcohol and literature, we get more than our share of readings to attend. While I don’t make it to all of them, I did manage to hear Marilynne Robinson read a few weeks ago. Ms. Robinson is an enchanting reader, and her new book Gilead was atop many “best of” lists for 2004. As anyone who has read a review of Gilead knows, it is Robinson’s first novel since Housekeeping was published 24 years ago, and the way many in the media talk about it, it might as well have been 224 years ago. While Robinson has written two non-fiction books about such varied topics as John Calvin and Great Britain’s nuclear policy, Gilead is indeed her first new work of fiction in many years. But so what? I for one would like to see more authors take their time between novels. One of my favorite writers, J.F. Powers, wrote only two novels and wrote them nearly 30 years apart. They’re both nearly perfect, and I don’t find myself wishing he wrote more. In fact, the scarcity makes it that much more likely that I’ll actually read one of his books a second or third time, something I rarely do. I don’t think I’ll find myself diving into Kingsley Amis’ very fine Old Devils as I’ve been poisoned by the vast sea of mediocrity that separates that book from his masterpiece Lucky Jim. So hats off to the Marilynne Robinsons, the J.F. Powers, and the Donna Tarts of the world. I sometimes wish we had a few more of them and a few less mediocre novels.
Every few months, a peculiar compulsion comes over me. After dinner, instead of reading a book or lazing on the stoop, I’ll walk upstairs, sit down, and fit small blocks together, again and again and again. When I’m in the grips of this dependence, my wife knows exactly where I’ll be from 7:30 to 8:15 or so: in front of the TV, eyes glazed, drool at my mouth. Tetris fever has struck.
Over the years, we’ve amassed a solid collection of Nintendo games, including Tecmo Super Bowl, Mega Man 2, and all three Super Marios. There is Baseball, Baseball Stars, and Bases Loaded 2. But when I’m feeling eight-bit, I almost always go with Tetris; with few exceptions, it stays in the console, safe as a joey. Like Pac-Man or Punch-Out!!, its pacing and graphics are as effective today as they were in the Reagan years, as good as they need to be. When I pop in, say, Tennis or Ice Hockey, I’m depressingly aware of the gap between them and their modern successors—grunting apes to today’s Gattaca humanoids. But Tetris is different. As with chess, efforts to update it have seemed superfluous, faintly sacrilegious. It’s one of the few entertainments that arrived fully formed, little improvement necessary.
For me, this is evidenced by the ease and consistency with which it melts my brain. Once things get cooking, twenty or thirty rows in, I find myself on the fourteenth level—or is it fifteenth?—of consciousness. It’s a murky shade of purple there, with a tinge of lunar dust. Drifting through the door from The Twilight Zone intro, I find “Bitches Brew” the national anthem, Jim Woodring the national storyteller. In this place, everything undulates—yet stays, like, perfectly still, man. Outside of recreational drugs and a Ghibli film, few other things bring on such a strange and fluid state. And like ping-pong or fucking, the game demands a deep focus that must be both maintained and ignored; once you realize what you’re doing, you’re done.
Floating through Tetris’ cranial hyperspace forces a natural introspection. Often, sort of insanely, I’ll dwell upon what my playing method can tell me about myself. My technique isn’t to plow through rows or shatter a score; I play Tetris for the tetris: the four-row clear that comes with the vertically-nestled “I” block. Self-denial is necessary for the maneuver, as all must be laid aside for the blessed piece’s arrival. Meanwhile, the pile mounts dangerously. When the block finally appears, this mild daring and asceticism are handsomely repaid: there’s a flash of light, a scream of sound, and the pile’s heavy fall.
This approach correlates with who I am when the Nintendo is off: I’ve taught myself to stop drinking, but I reward my piousness by getting whacked on special occasions. I withhold myself from others until I’m comfortable, then gleefully let it rip. Most importantly, as a freelancer, my life has become a constant wait for the “I” block. That wait is often unbearable, but when it finally comes—via an editor’s e-mail or telephone call—there’s a flash of light and a scream of sound. I feel great for a time, smug with accomplishment. And then, inevitably, other bricks appear and I must hurry to place them, setting things up for the next big clear.
My wife doesn’t live her life this way, and, tellingly, she doesn’t play Tetris in the same way I do. She takes each block at a time, concentrating on the present, never stalling for the tetris. Watching her careful style drives me nuts, but I understand it: she’s a pragmatist, preferring steadiness to risk, no matter how visceral the reward. Unlike me, she doesn’t need constant validation to get by, can cope with a regular job. Her way appeals to me—it’s calmer, less given to peaks and valleys. But I don’t think I’m capable of arranging my blocks any other way.
It might seem absurd for an old Nintendo game to bring on such navel-gazing, but, hey, there it is. And that’s why Tetris, unlike others in its genre—Klax or Arkanoid or Dr. Mario—is consistently at or near the top of greatest-game lists. Because while its premise seems dull, its simple complexity allows us to project ourselves fully upon it. In a 2007 interview with Gamespot, Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov said, “Emotion comes from [the player,] and [the designer] can’t control that. As soon as I design drama for you, I take away your freedom.” That’s what Tetris brings: interior freedom through steadily-vanishing rows, a vehicle for thoughts that might not otherwise surface. We supply the drama. Pretty good for a game that was made in the age of Excitebike.
[Image credit: Aldo Gonzalez]
In early 2002, the mogul for whom I worked began reimagining his prize property, The Atlantic Monthly. For a few weeks, I and other David Bradley employees at The Advisory Board Company received emails asking how The Atlantic might be improved. Would expanded political coverage make us more likely to subscribe? How about an expanded travel section? And: Could we recommend a witty British essayist to round out the list of contributors? (I’m pleased to say I botched this last question, and so can claim no credit for Christopher Hitchens.)Indeed, for a while, I wanted nothing to do with The Atlantic at all. Though the changes inaugurated that year improved the circulation numbers, they seemed to me to damage The Atlantic’s brand. The palpable rightward lurch; the proliferation of infographics, polls, and lifestyle coverage for the country-club set; and especially the breathless editorial hooks – “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” “Was Rumsfeld Right?” “Is Feminism Bad for Women?” – had made this intellectual institution everything it once wasn’t. While reading an article pegged to season five of The Wire, I could practically hear cut-and-paste mouseclicks turning good reporting into vacuous bloviating. (The Wire’s chief offense? It’s fiction!)It was around this point that I began to toy with an essay called, “Is The Atlantic Monthly the Death of Journalism?”The most telling weakness of The Atlantic circa 2005 – 2007, I would have argued, was the way that it had assimilated in print form a quality conventional wisdom assigns to online writing: i.e., an instinct to manufacture controversy, at the expense of common sense. This pseudo-blogginess was on vivid display in the magazine’s letters section, wherein master sophists such as Caitlin Flanagan hectored any reader who dared to point out the tendentiousness of their logic.Even as the editorial standards of the print magazine slipped, however, a stealthy inversion was happening on the magazine’s blogs, whose readership numbers soon eclipsed newsstand sales. Marc Ambinder sought some middle ground in our contentious political discourse. James Fallows and Clive Crook, freed from their editorial overlords, offered thoughtful feuilletons. And even as Ross Douthat and I got into a mini-contretemps about presidential fiction, I came to admire the high standards of logos and ethos he brought to that mire of pathos, the Internet.Now, with a new design and a new slogan, the print and online arms of The Atlantic have perhaps reached some happy accommodation. The current print issue reveals the virtues of editorial patience; Hannah Rosin’s piece on transgender juveniles, in particular, is a model of probity. By far the most interesting aspect of the redesign, however, can be found on the web. The new version of www.theatlantic.com sports a svelte and user-friendly index of the magazine’s blog offerings (a.k.a. “Voices”). Moreover, the central panel of the homepage features a rotating selection of current content, making no distinction between print and online provenance. It’s a credit to The Atlantic’s intrepid bloggers – and a nod to the possibilities of the blog as a medium – that readers won’t miss the distinction.
Recommended Collections:The Coast of Chicago and I Sailed with Magellan by Stuart DybekDybek owns a specific part of the literary universe, a several square-block section of the south side of Chicago. He focuses on that, hones it, and reproduces it beautifully. His stories – sentimental (but not sappy), funny, and moving – describe a world where cultures and generations rub against each other, sometimes producing sparks. If you don’t read collections in order, or if you happen upon Dybek’s stories in an anthology, start with “Hot Ice,” “Pet Milk,” or “Orchids.”Sixty Stories, by Donald Barthelme and In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William H. GassBoth of these are challenging collections, or at least they were for me, yet both are also adventurous and mind-altering. Barthelme, who has experienced a renaissance of late, did more with the form of the story than anyone I can think of. His stories – brief, wild, audacious – will cure whatever boredom might have possessed you. Gass’ stories, typically quite long, describe the emotionally bleak and unforgiving Midwest, with its brief moments of untold beauty buried within quotidian horrors. At one moment, a Gass character might be counting the peas in his pot pie; in the next, he’s contemplating freedom in the backyard. The titular story contains what is, at the moment, my favorite sentence: “It’s true there are moments–foolish moments, ecstasy on a tree stump–when I’m all but gone, scattered I like to think like seed, for I’m the sort now in the fool’s position of having love left over which I’d like to lose; what good is it now to me, candy ungiven after Halloween.”Recommended Stories:“The Christian Roommates” from Early Stories by John UpdikeAn ode to the classic freshman double. This story pretty much was my first year of college. I played it pretty straight in high school, and had my mind completely blown open by all the nuts I met in school, including my freshman roommate [God bless you, Glen, you beautiful bastard]. Updike captures that so well that the first time I read this, I couldn’t believe it had been written before I was born.”The Fall of Edward Barnard” from The Collected Stories of W. Somerset MaughamSort of a precursor to The Razor’s Edge, this is the story of a man who goes to Tahiti to find his best friend, Edward Barnard, who’s fallen off the grid and who also happens to be engaged to his best friend. I spent two years of my life trying to adapt this story for the screen to no avail. If I were pressed, I’d say this is my favorite story.