Friday, December 24, 2010


I know that as far as legitimate posts go, this one scrapes the bottom of the quality barrel. But I just couldn't resist sharing this apparently amazing $4 Groupon.

Jump on it!

PS - Merry Christmas

Thursday, December 16, 2010

An Eye for the Sublimely Spinning World

Whenever I see a plane landing at a distance - a hazy, far-off vessel full of human beings, floating down over things close enough (in theory) to hit with a well-lobbed stone - I feel an upswell of emotion that closely resembles anxiety. For some reason, the planes coming to and going from Chicago are an existential trigger for me; something about seeing a distant representation of human purposefulness and intentionality that stands in no clear relation to my immediate situation and surroundings throws a wet blanket of pensiveness over any excitement that formerly colored my actions. "What am I doing here? Who am I? Why are things this way, and not another?" A sense of bittersweet wonder is restored for an instant to my life, as the innumerable contingencies upon which my life precariously works itself out are thrown into relief. In these moments, I empathize with Chesterton, who writes in Orthodoxy about how his conversion to Christianity enabled him to see the sheer mystery in the uncanny facts of grass being green, and the rising of the sun.

The world of human interconnection and directedness carries on, apparently indifferent to one person's persistent living but for traces at the fringes of perception that signify a deeper, more complicated, and more profound all-encompassing web of relationships than is capable of being perceived on this side of the eschaton. Colum McCann's astounding novel Let the Great World Spin gestures like the crazy person at these deeply felt but inarticulable mine-shafts of the human world of life. He evokes the sublime: that which in principle transcends the capacities of language to comprehend and signify, but which can nonetheless be (imperfectly) experienced, and which furthermore is a wellspring of art. This last aspect is interesting: we seem to be intent on communicating our perspectives on the sublime to others somehow, in a way similar to how we would attempt to communicate a private joy to a loved one, by leading them right up to their own encounter with it. In example: "words can't do it justice; you really just have to experience it - which is why I got us skydiving passes from Groupon!" McCann's novel communicates the sublime to me like the planes of O'Hare and Midway do, in a way that ruptures the unreflective equilibrium of my materially-comfortable life.

Here is a photograph that appears in the middle of the book. It triggers the same volatile mix of emotions that signal the sublime, and it reminds me of the dynamic, incomprehensible, supernatural realities that are held in tension just below the taut skin of naturally-sedimented perceptions. It is of the funambulist who held New York City captive in the spring of 1974 while he performed a high-wire act between the two nearly-finished towers of the World Trade Center.

The tiny silhouette seems to urgently ask, "Who are you? What are you doing here? Where are you going? What will you do?" and the grey clouds surrounding and backing him seem ready to grab and hoist the viewer into the overcast sky that glumly surveyed the frantic, harried city full of struggling and thriving human beings some thirty six years ago, on a day that would have apparently started just like any other.

Do yourself a favor this Christmas and read Let the Great World Spin. The sense of awe and the chain of very basic questions it may elicit from a serious reader remind me of a quotation from Merleau-Ponty: "true philosophy consists in relearning to look at the world."

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

RUSH 2: Path 2 Despair

Returning to a neglected theme of this blog (the after-college day-to-day drag), for this post I am reviewing a video-game that my roommates and I have been playing too much.

Rush 2 your doom

For those of you who don't know, RUSH 2 is a racing game made in 1998 for the N64. On first blush, it appears to be just like any other arcade-style 90's racing platform (the popular "Cruisin'" series comes to mind). But if you can get your copy of the game to work and play it for any length of time, you will soon realize that whoever created RUSH 2 must have been a single, isolated dude who only allowed himself to work on the game in his unfinished, unheated basement, perched on a chair covered in thumbtacks and flypaper, with an eagle gorging itself on his exposed liver, on Monday nights after getting back from a book club dedicated to repeated readings of The Stranger and the play "No Exit."


Let's start with the title animation. It opens with three cars racing through a labyrinthine map, taking 90 degree turns on a dime and demonstrating a general lack of regard for our world's physics. One car manages to pull ahead, but promptly tips, rolls, and explodes into a fireball that forces the other two cars to find alternate routes. The two survivors reemerge on the straightaway, and in the last moments are seen battling to be the first into a tunnel. Green car or black/pink car - which will emerge victorious (read: survive)? Answer: everybody dies! The two cars remain neck-and-neck right up to the last moment and together exceed the  width of the opening; therefore they both explode into fireballs. This is telling, as is the next event. The camera pans out to reveal that the blocky structure housing the tunnel was actually the game's title, writ large: RUSH 2 fills the screen, and a voice whispers, "russssssshhhhhh." The message is clear: this game wins itself, players be damned. Welcome to hell.

A player has several options for gameplay, and there are numerous unlockable features. Without the purchase of the controller pack accessory, however, "saving" will remain impossible. This is why the game displays a 327-character code after each accomplishment, intended to enable the player to resume progress at a later date without saving. Great. A moment's reflection helped me to realize that this is why I have taken to saving my gas receipts and stealing pens from work.

The gameplay itself is frustrating. Unless you are accustomed to driving bumper boats, you will be dissatisfied with the handling; furthermore the AI opponents in Circuit and Single Race are remarkably tough to beat. But, if your mediocrity (or any other aspect of the game) is getting you down, fear not. Contained within each level is a variable number of golden keys held in floating orbs and levitating cans of Mountain Dew as large as virtual dumpsters. You can collect these, and they will do something, maybe.


In order to give the game more than a half-hour of replay value, the developers added a feature called "Stunt Mode." It is the closest thing RUSH 2 has to a saving grace. In this mode, one or two players are able to roam around a huge arena that contains brightly-colored structures of various sizes and shapes. The purpose? Ramping off objects at high speeds in order to put together combinations of flips and spins, which are assigned point values. It's like BMXing with cars.

this will most likely end in death, and a fireball

Stunt mode is what keeps me and my roommates coming back. It may also be what keeps us depressed. "Fog" is a variable element in the game that can be increased to a point sufficient to render the experience akin to playing with Hotwheels under the blankets without a flashlight. Doing this in stunt mode adds a spiritual dimension to the gameplay, which is to say, it begins to feel like purgatory. Or hell

RUSH 2's stunt mode undeniably holds a certain allure; the game teases its players by consistently maintaining the possibility of stunt combos worth hundreds of points. The problems are 
  • this never happens
  • some structures have such steep angles that a car will explode into a fireball on impact, even at low speeds
  • the cars are top-heavy and tend to land on their roofs (resulting in an explosion, and a fireball, and death) 
  • not infrequently, the computer will fail to register rolls and flips, and huge "trick" combinations will generate no points 
  • large portions of the stunt level are dedicated to ramp-less, useless, and alienating moon-surface terrain (alienating, hah)
  • sometimes cars will just, well, explode into fireballs 
But it's not as though the points in stunt mode (or any other mode) matter, anyway. There isn't a discernible goal to be worked towards, or a reason for doing anything while the timer runs out, other than beating the other player (an accomplishment that is necessarily rendered questionable by the glitchy point-tracking system). Records aren't saved for high scores. And, in an interesting twist, even death will not allow a player to escape from this limbo-world before the appointed time; players have infinite lives and 999 seconds to attempt as many jumps and flips as possible off the neon-pulsing 3D hills, half-pipes, and ramps. Terry Eagleton's multifaceted characterization of true metaphysical evil in his study On Evil is apt to account for RUSH 2's eternality and circularity, as well as its general sense of confusion and purposelessness.

this state is only temporary, which is surprisingly unfortunate

At this point, it is worth asking the question, what makes RUSH 2 worth playing at all? 

Honestly, it is difficult to say, outside of a weak appeal to the idea that "some games are so bad, they're good." But additionally, it is interesting to note that RUSH 2's lack of sophistication in graphics and gameplay actually works to the advantage of the player. Since it is simply incapable of offering the level of depth and immersion that gamers have been taught for years to expect, it is easy to achieve analytic and existential distance from RUSH 2. Players of this game are self-aware in a way that players of (for example) Oblivion may not be, because, if for no other reason, it remains painfully present to consciousness that RUSH 2 is a poorly-designed game from an era when games generally were designed to be diversions from real life rather than stand-ins for it. A newer and better game would strive to allow a player to become so involved that it would become possible to temporarily forget a life outside of its virtual confines. 

It may be depressing to realize that two hours have gone by without a single combo-multiplier in stunt mode (this is depressing for several reasons, not least of which being the fact that you have just spent two hours playing RUSH 2), but it would be far more depressing to realize that two years have gone by at a dead-end job, and that three level 80 characters in World of Warcraft are at the center of your life. RUSH 2's unexpected strength, grounded in its many technical weaknesses, is that, at the end of the day, its simplicity and its goofily one-dimensional racing/crashing universe only allow it to be considered as a game and a diversion, and not as a potential lifestyle choice. Its existentially-distressing evocations are real, but slight, and furthermore offer the benefit of points of reference for the real life that the player of RUSH 2 is unable to forget even for a moment while playing the game. For this reason, I have to give RUSH 2 a higher score than it has probably ever received. 


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Two Random Memories

I was on a walk with a good friend several years ago on a cold November night in a nondescript Chicago suburb when our conversation was interrupted by a scary, angry man.

He ran out of a corner house, towards an astro-van that was pulling away, yelling "die! Diiie!" and wielding a large frying pan. My friend and I stopped and were a little scared and did not know what to do, so we planted our feet and watched from the other side of the street.

"Die!" yelled the man in the white undershirt as he ran towards the van, pan raised above his head.

"Die!" yelled the man again. Brake lights cast a demonic red glow over him as he neared the back bumper.

"Die," he said as the van stopped. He caught his breath and lowered his weapon. A moment of pre-meditation passed.

"Die, you almost forgot your pan!" He handed the pan through the driver's side window, and exchanged muffled pleasantries with the driver. At this point, I believe I went from biting my lip to staring open-mouthed.

"Okay, bye!" Hugging his arms to himself, the now-kind man ran back to the house over small patches of snow, and the van drove off.

My friend and I remained for a moment as the man re-entered his house and the van turned a corner several blocks away.

"You know, Marty," my friend Stephen said,
"sometimes real life really is stranger than fiction."

We kept walking, starting a new conversation since we could not remember what we had been talking about.

* * *

When I turned six or seven, my dad got me a Lego Technix (TM) Hovercraft set. Technix sets weren't your ordinary, pedestrian "5+" hundred block-piece structure-without-moving-parts-except-doors sets; Technix sets were for the gifted kids, the ones who would go to engineering school on scholarships and a sheer love of complicated design and construction. Always recommended for ages "12+" or higher, Technix sets were complicated, with numerous unique pieces, three-dimensional connector-joints that snapped plastic beams and shafts together at odd angles, and thick instruction books that probably even had spines. These things weren't even that fun to put together; each was an accomplishment - the kind of thing a kid puts on his shelf like a college grad puts his diploma on the wall.

Anyway, I was delighted to receive this gift from my father, and was even more delighted when he offered to help me put it together. In fact, I was almost giddy. I would gladly have accepted the task of working on it alone for several hours, both for the challenge and for the moment when I would be able to show it to him in its completeness and perfection. But he had volunteered to be involved in this hovercraft's creation with me, which doubled the gift; we were going to work together like fellow craftsmen on the difficult project. The father-and-son team. Send us your orders, I proclaimed in my head to a gathered crowd of delta-dwellers, and we will send you the most advanced plastic hovercrafts imaginable.

So we set up shop in the master bedroom, sitting with out backs to the bed in the space just inside the door, which was partially open next to an enormous mirror. The doorway was on our right; the mirror was just in front of his feet, propped up against the wall. This allowed me to see me and and my dad at work, just like I imagined some passerby on the street outside our hovercraft shop would see us through our shop's display window, wondering about our wares. I made faces that I imagined a hardworking hovercraft artisan would make, concentrated yet friendly enough to make non-threatening eye contact with intimidated civilian onlookers.

"Well," my dad said after at least an hour of co-working. He gazed soberly over the glasses perched on the end of his nose at the half-constructed vehicle in his hands. "I think I may need you to grab something for me from my toolbox."

"Sure, dad!" I leapt to my feet exuberantly, feeling what Gadamer describes as the 'superabundance of life' that attends the experience of play. "What do you nee-eed?"

"How about you get me a screwdriver and a glass of water?" Squinting, he held our project close to his face and picked at a mislaid piece with his thumbnail.

"Okay!" I jumped over his outstretched legs and hopped out the door, swinging it open behind me as I went out without thinking why.

I was startled to hear a "thump" behind me as I left. I stopped and spun around in the hallway to face my dad. He still sat with his back to the bed, still focused, pieces still scattered around him. But the door I had casually swung open had swiveled around to hit the side of the propped-up mirror. I now realized that the mirror had been leaning at a precariously shallow angle to the wall.

A sick sour sensation grew in my belly; the gently-swung door had somehow disturbed the uneasy rest of the six-foot tall, inch-thick monolith, and it now stood upright, unsupported, Frankenstein-like. It wavered above my unsuspecting father for an eternal moment. Then it began to lean in the wrong direction.

At this point, several things bubbled up together in my terrified mind. I decided immediately that there was no way I could save my father from the falling mirror without fatally injuring myself. The shock of grief over my dad's imminent demise, coupled with the shame of my cowardice in a dangerous situation, plus the knowledge that I was unmistakably the cause of this terrible event, sent me sprinting into the living-room where my mother had been pleasantly talking with a friend over tea. "I killed dad I killed dad I killed dad!" I screamed, jumping and landing with my knees on the couch, clutching my face with my hands and sobbing. My mother even had time to ask, "what?" before we heard the earth-shattering crash of the enormous mirror, which I knew at that moment was breaking on the plane of my hapless father's forehead.

I went with him to the ER, crying to a point of exhaustion in the waiting room after they took him in as my mother did her best to reassure me. She spoke with a doctor, and he then allowed me into the room where they were doing small surgical procedures to remove shards of glass from my father's body. I held my left forearm behind my back with my right hand and shot rapid-fire questions at the doctor leaning over my father's wounds, who chuckled at my anxiety and irrepressible candor. "You know what, you know what I think you have a very large nose," I said to him. My dad closed his eyes and smiled hazily from the table, and the doctor laughed.

By some miracle, although my dad's face and arms had been covered in cuts of various lengths and depths, the glass had only entered the skin on his right hand, so the surgical work was finished by dinnertime. "I'm really hungry," I mentioned somewhat absently to the doctor as he led me back out to the waiting room. "It's because you've seen a lot of blood," he said.

The rest of the day passed in a mist of guilt over what had happened, relief that I had not killed my dad, and bone-tiredness. That evening, as my mom put me to bed, I looked up to the shelf over my pillow before turning off my light and discovered the hovercraft. It was finished and looked even better than it had on the box, a glorious technical achievement and marvel of micro-engineering.

"What is this?" my mother asked, in faux-surprise. "Looks like your father finished it!"

I was amazed and near tears with gratitude, as this vehicle now signified, with so much else, the things my father had been repeating to me that evening whenever he saw me mulling over my tragic mistake from earlier: "It's okay, Martyn. It wasn't your fault. I'm fine. I love you." Even though it really was okay, it would prove impossible to forget the decisive moment when I ran instead of trying to stop the falling mirror, or even attempting to let my dad know that he was in danger.