My Winter Break

Today in class we wrote about our winter breaks. Here’s mine:

My winter break was excellent. I had lots of time to goof off and play video games. I also did some writing, grade mountains of papers, recorded podcasts, and made a new breakbeat track on the computer. I didn’t travel, because I always feel like I’m being robbed of downtime when I travel during breaks (aside from summer).

My break was very productive, but I felt this weird tension the whole time: When I was working on school stuff, I felt like I deserved time to relax and unwind. When I was relaxing, I felt like I ought to be doing creative projects, like writing. When I was writing, I felt like I should be working on school stuff. And so on, around and around for two weeks.

Getting two Bonus Days Off was a nice surprise, and I definitely used some of that time to relax, but it also meant I had been given a gift and therefore owed it to the students (and myself) to get more papers graded. I didn’t get every single page graded, but I estimate I made it through 300 pages worth of papers over the break. That’s a lot. (In a way, I’m glad we’re back to school because it means I get to do the fun interactive teaching stuff again, rather than just the less-exciting paperwork stuff.)

In terms of leisure: I should have played The Last of Us, which I’ve had on rent from GameFly for months. But my PS3 is in the basement, and I usually don’t feel like going down there to play games. Instead, I played Gone Home (which is awesome) and Far Cry 3 (which is also excellent, but the story is atrocious). I also played Neverwinter, the free MMO, but there’s something odd about defeating a huge boss and feeling all victorious, and then watching someone else fight the exact same boss one minute later. It makes the experience less satisfying. And besides, it’s supposed to be this big social experience, but no one in the game ever talks about anything. So I began another playthrough of Kingdoms of Amalur.

I’ve been reading, too — Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, for one. I love his work, but Blood Meridian suffers from the same condition as The Road: It’s less a novel with evolving character arcs than it is an impressionistic series of scenes, conveying more emotional texture than actual plot. This doesn’t make it a bad book by any means, but it’s not as engaging as No Country for Old Men, probably his best novel.

I’m also reading Alison Bechdel’s memoir Are You My Mother? It’s an interesting book, but unlike her previous comics memoir Fun Home (which is simply amazing), this one brings in all kinds of psychoanalytic minutiae and long excerpts from other writers. I’m not so interested in whether Virginia Woolf ever met this other guy who lived at the same time as her — I want to know more about the lives of the author and her mom. Still, the artwork is great and it’s worth reading.

At the end of the vacation, I started to feel a little restless. I think it would be different if we had final exams before break, and a new year meant a new semester. But I was eager to get back into the swing of things, even if we only have a week and a half left in the term.

Grading, Games, and Goofing

Okay, no sweat. So I missed two days of blogging so far. I’m still at 50%. There’s not been much to report, but the reason I haven’t blogged is because it’s felt like an intrusion into my free time.

“What intrusion?” I hear you angrily interject. “You’ve got two damn weeks off!” True, but I’ve been grading papers for hours every day. Therefore, after my dog-walking and dishwashing duties, I feel like I can’t spare any time at all to blogging. Otherwise I’ll lose the time I need for important activities like browsing Reddit and reblogging stuff from Reddit and arguing with morons on Reddit.

I have also, of course, been playing video games. The free-to-play MMO Neverwinter has been absorbing lots of my time, but I’m really disappointed at how non-social it is. I’m part of a guild — which advertises itself as being large and social — but no one ever says anything. There are missions where you have to team up with other players, but no one ever talks in those either. I’ve been approaching it like a free ActionRPG, but there’s something odd about being in a world full of other people, watching them get stuff from a treasure chest, and then getting stuff out of the same chest yourself. It just feels fake and weird.

Alas, I’ve not been working on the new book much. After doing so much schoolwork, I just feel blah about writing more stuff. I guess I need to force it.


My Consumptive Hypocrisy

I pride myself on being frugal and living a simple life. In a world awash in hyperconsumption (and therefore drowning in debt, sickened by media misrepresentations, and inured to empathy), it’s a virtue to reject The Man’s prime consumption directive. (In case it’s not obvious, I’m also in love with the second meaning of the word consumption.)

I prefer to meditate, live well, and enjoy what I have. Long ago I realized the sublime joy that comes from detaching from conspicuous consumption. (I once saw a quote somewhere about “How lovely it is to wander around a shopping mall, gazing at all the things I don’t need”.)

We have a house that’s just the right size for us. Our car is 15 years old but reliable. We have a normal human-sized television. I don’t love shopping the way some people do; in fact, I start to get irritated and grumpy after 30 minutes in a store. I can feel the psychological marketing tricks working on me, and I don’t like it.

There are, however, three areas where my anticonsumption simple-living platitudes break down: Books, music, and video games. We ran out of shelf space long ago, so we have dozens of books laid on top of neatly-organized texts. Music is all digital these days, so there’s no space problem there — and truth be told I’m quite picky these days, so I don’t buy much music lately.

Video games are another story. I accumulate games with a rabid fanaticism that puzzles even me. As much as I ridicule people who live at the mall or go racing off to whatever idiotic sale pops up, I find myself compelled to check the internet every day for new game deals. It’s ridiculous and embarrassing.

This morning I hit a new low, when I bought a game on Steam that I already own. I guess this is how it starts — you lose sight of what you have, and you keep throwing money after money at your addiction, trying to sate the monkey on your back. Before you know it, you’re alone with your crap and you spend hours staring at it, wondering how your life went so terribly, terribly wrong. Then you go on Reality TV.

I’m legally forbidden from judging anyone else ever again for Black Friday shenanigans. I will continue to mock and lambaste the marketers responsible for our consumer frenzy, but after wallowing in new depths of this little inferno, I cannot in good conscience level an accusatory finger at other humans for buying things they don’t need.

Win7 > Mac for Once

I spent many many hours this week getting Windows 7 working on BootCamp. Now I can play all the cool video games that aren’t available for the Mac. Yay! (No Skyrim, tho — looks like the requirements are higher than what I’ve got. I’ll probably try Fallout 3 or NV and/or Oblivion at some point. Maybe Morrowind.)

However, today — quite by accident — I found this cool feature of Windows 7, which is really nifty and unique:

When you hold down the windows button and hit tab, you’ll get an animated flow of windows to choose from. Sweet!

That’s all.

Norway, Means, Ends, Attentat, and Video Games

The recent terrorist attacks in Norway, masterminded by Anders Behring Breivik (right), have left me — like most of you, I’m sure — with sadness and frustration. I know how easy it is to jump right into the political commentary and finger-pointing (believe me, I know), but I’ve learned that it’s important to take a moment to let ourselves feel the sorrow and aggravation for the death and suffering that this man has caused.

I shall forgo any discussion of his political affiliations or ideological intent here, except to point out — once again — that terrorists come in all colors and religious persuasions and hairstyles.

I will say this, though: I’m sure conservative commentators will argue that, like McVeigh and Kaczynski, this guy was an exception that proves the rule. If you believe that’s the case, then, let me ask you: Why is it that — with a few notable exceptions — why are almost all of those who commit these hideous acts of mass violence men? If you believe that there’s some innate cultural reason why so much terrorism comes from Islamic fundamentalism, do you also believe that there’s some innate cultural reason why men are usually the ones who plan and carry out terrorist attacks?

Means and Ends

Whatever. That’s not why I’m writing this. I’m writing this to make two points, and the first is about means and ends. Mr. Breivik wrote a 1500-page manifesto that is now circulating on the internets, which Garrett and I both spontaneously (and independently, without the other’s knowledge) compared to John Doe’s notebooks in SE7EN.

It’s most chilling in its deliberate commentary, which is designed to serve as followable model for others who seek to carry out similar activities. He refers constantly to the organizations with which he’s involved, and the righteousness of his cause, mostly to do with “cultural Marxists” and those pushing an agenda of “multiculturalism” (ie, Muslim hegemony). There’s a good summary from Blake Hounshell at Foreign Affairs.

It’s not surprising that he declares his admiration for Al Qaeda, since they share a fanatical devotion to their own self-righteousness. Once again we see the blinding effects of closed-minded certainty with violence as the instrument of delivery.

Several years ago, while working to make the Wikipedia page about Emma Goldman to a Featured Article, I came across this quote from her, which made a powerful impact on me and which I now quote constantly:

There is no greater fallacy than the belief that aims and purposes are one thing, while methods and tactics are another…. The means employed become, through individual habit and social practice, part and parcel of the final purpose.

Breivik and Bin Laden (like Hitler and Stalin and every other terrorist you can name) both believed they were doing nasty violence in the name of a greater good. One more example of the “To do a great right, do a little wrong” sentiment Shakespeare presented in The Merchant of Venice.

But this way of thinking is a fraud. The world doesn’t work this way — if you use violence to achieve a political goal, you will achieve violence. People will die and others will suffer, and you will make things worse.If you want a better, more peaceful world, you must use better, more peaceful ways. Otherwise you become violence, and the world you create is one of suffering and pain.

I’m willing to admit — like Cornel West — that there are certain situations where violence is the only alternative to annihilation (the Treblinka uprising, for example), but usually it’s just delusional people who refuse to consider any point of view other than their own.

Therefore this is a good time to provide another excellent quote, this one from Chinua Achebe (another of my Wikipedia FAs):

Whatever you are is never enough; you must find a way to accept something, however small, from the other to make you whole and save you from the mortal sin of righteousness and extremism.

Amen, dude.

Propaganda of the Deed

Another sad connection between Breivik and Goldman is their belief in the goodness of attentat, or “Propaganda of the Deed“. Basically, the idea is this: “If we kill [name of bad person/people], enough people will wake up and take action and things will start to get better!”

Another absurd line of thinking. Emma Goldman and her buddy/lover Alexander Berkman decided they would murder wealthy industrialist Henry Clay Frick. Ironically, after they shot him (wounding but not killing him), it was one of Frick’s oppressed workers who subdued Berkman until the police arrived.

Here’s a fun quiz: Guess whether or not a massive uprising of workers took place after this incident? Give up? The answer is: No! There was no spontaneous revolution or burst of class-consciousness epiphany. If anything, I expect this action only led people to believe that their anarchist cause was dangerous and stupid.

This will (hopefully) happen also in Breivik’s case. There will doubtless be ignorant buffoons who view his actions as heroic, but I daresay the vast majority of onlookers will be horrified and saddened and dissuaded from his ideology. As with the above, the point here is clear: If you believe The People™ need to be educated about the rightness of your cause, then use actual education. Quit pretending that your egoistic violent action will inspire anyone to make anything better.

Video Games

Okay, one last thing. The guy was apparently a fan of video games. In his manifesto he explicitly mentions Dragon Age: Origins, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, and Modern Warfare 2. In fact, he celebrates MW2 as a way to “more or less completely simulate actual operations”.

This is chilling and sad, and provides another example (along with the Columbine kids and DC sniper Lee Boyd Malvo) of a terrorist associating video games with his murderous actions. And while it’s obvious that the knee-jerk reaction is quite correct (“There are so many other factors to consider, how come so many other people play these games and don’t kill anyone, etc etc”), I’m sickened by the fact that I enjoy games which are praised so highly people who actually kill.

It’s easy for us to say over and over that we’re not affected by these games, but just as I get high off of loud techno music, or inspired in positive ways by great literature, it’s just not true that video games have no impact on me whatsoever. The key is to be honest about all of the effects — good and bad — and committed to balancing the bad with positive resources from other places.

Like I said in 2008: I’m playing a living contradiction. (And speaking of which: It’s time for a GTA4 playdate!)

UPDATE: This Calvin + Hobbes cartoon is pretty relevant, dont’cha think?


I love 5 Second Films so much. (TWO WARNINGS: 1. If, after you watch that movie, you hit “Random” even once, you will spend an hour on the site. I guarantee it. 2. There are some adult situations in some of their films. 3. This is the best thing they have ever done.

Today I’m listening to: Electric Oasis!