Wednesday, August 11, 2004

I'm Baaaack!

Sensitive readers -- and all my readers are sensitive if not absolutely tearful -- may have noticed a certain decrease in zeal and focus in my most recent post, not to mention a gap of four long days (long for you, yearning to pierce the riotous mysteries of my all-too-human heart) between posts.

Well, it was the computer game. Out of curiosity, I downloaded a computer game in which the challenge is flying a little bitty plane through a maze while shooting robots, who shoot back dammit! For a week my blog time was eaten away by the narcotizing repetitions of a pursuit that -- unlike anagrams and crossword puzzles -- almost certainly does nothing to ward off the Alzheimers. Perhaps some dexterity was encouraged. But why at my age do I need to hone my eye-finger coordination?

A happy retirement dealing three-card monte in one of the streets adjacent to Times Square?

I don't think so.

But the greater waste that informs this activity is the mild depression that accompanies the moment when you finally stop doing it. It's not just the consumption of precious time. I lavish my attention on trifles, but when those trifles consist of words forming sentences forming stories -- or even some transient political opinion -- that time spent never seems wasted even when, objectively, it is.

It makes me think of a short story by Jean-Paul Sartre I read so very long ago the point of which is the absurdity of the universe. A man makes a choice so that the death of a comrade will be avoided, and that choice insures the death of that comrade in circumstances of quite arbitrary irony. That's not why I remember the story, since the plot I have just described is the mother of all cliches -- which means, of course, that it haunts us like a nightmare and thus is freshly terrible every time.

That is not why I remember the story. Too many other treatments rattle around in my memory. What I recall from Sartre's version is a line that becomes a refrain. The central character keeps saying, "I wanted to understand. I wanted to understand."

Me, too. Almost any kind of reading stumbles in that direction, and though I may feel anxious and frustrated after reading some right wing diatribe on the Net (which I seldom do anymore because I'm not a masochist) I don't feel emptied by the experience. That is how I feel after blowing up robots. What was that? I think, of an activity that's like a kind of amnesia.

This is not a trivial concern. When I started teaching again in the early Nineties, I spent my first summer preparing for class. I have a file cabinet full of the notes I did that year, and they are still good notes, if a little dated. By my second summer -- classes had gone well; the notes were still fresh -- I made the mistake of buying a half-price computer game at Radio Shack. It was called Railroad Tycoon, and it had various scenarios in which you brought rail service to regions, countries or continents. Many were the obstacles. Many were the bankrupticies. For weeks shading into months I played the game for eight hours a day, hiding from my wife the amount of time I was investing, as a alcoholic hides his drinking. I quit playing it only when I covered Europe with high-speed passenger trains, and my profits ran into the billions, exhausting the ability of the game to measure them.

At which point I thought, "What was that?"

This grey sea, this interruption, this hiatus came at a cost. I was supposed to be doing scholarship so that I could earn tenure at the great metropolitan university at which I teach. (You would recognize the name if I mentioned it. Indeed, I believe I already have at the top of this page!)

In the end I had to ask the dean to postpone the date at which I presented myself for tenure because for one delirious summer I retreated not into the world of my own imagination -- and any decent scholarship is an act of imagination -- but into someone else's rigid universe of mechanical determinism where I learned a little about analytic thinking, perhaps, but really nothing that escaped the confines of the game. There's existentialism and then there's existentialism, you know.

If all this complaining and excusing seems to be a bit of a bonfire made of one matchstick, just let me say it is better to build a single sentence than it is to blow up a thousand robots ....

As it happens, I am not yet proficient enough to blow up a thousand robots.

I suddenly feel like a hermit in the desert, praying for the burning -- not of the sun or the sand either -- dear God to pass pass please pass.

And here is the terrible game itself.


edith said...

So now I know!

mackdoggy said...

Perhaps I would *play* this game more than 10 minutes if I could figure out how to make the plane turn.
After 10 minutes of smashing into the first building, I've decided to stop.