Games Without Frontiers

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So, when I’m not traveling to Iceland or reading lots of books or viewing lots of movies or listening to waaaaaay too much music, I teach.  I spend most of my time working with pre-service teachers, specifically those generous, patient, not-insignificantly-crazy souls who are studying to be high school English teachers.  As a former high school English teacher myself, and, importantly, one who was profoundly dissatisfied with the quality of his own pre-service education, my goal has always been to provide my current students with all the theory they need to create innovative lessons, but to ground that theory in practice by sharing the things I did in my own classroom and dissecting why they did or didn’t work.

My classes are, by necessity then, highly participatory.  I introduce an activity I conducted with my own high school students, my current students take part it in as the high school students did, and then we debrief (or, if it went poorly, conduct a post-mortem) to figure out why it went how it did.  These classes tend to be high energy, boisterous and free-wheeling, full of the noise made by passionate students who are excited to start seeing themselves as teachers.  Crucially, their energy keeps me engaged, too, and in the best moments I see the difference I’m making.  Last year one student told me candidly, “Help me teach the way you teach.”  I tell my students teaching isn’t a game to get into if you need instant gratification, but there are certainly moments that rival any applause I got in my days doing improvisational theater.

But this semester is a semester of tension.  I’m developing an online class, see, and the hardest part so far is rethinking how I teach, to somehow take these energetic lessons, full of lively conversation that cascades across the room like brightly-colored confetti, and translate that to a comparatively monochrome online setting.  How do I replicate these organically evolving discussions where the students and I don’t meet face to face?  How do I show them how activities can work in their own classroom if we can’t conduct them the way they would with their own students?

The short answer is: I can’t.  Even if I provide my current students with an activity I did with my high school students, all I can do is ask them to follow the instructions and then write about it later so I can see how it went.  The closest we can come to actually debriefing in the way that seems the most helpful is to try and arrange a Google Hangout, which still isn’t the same thing.  Because so much of pre-service teacher education relies on trial and error, on seeing what doesn’t work for you but does work for someone else, and on the opportunity for me to assist and guide in the moment, I worry about what I’m sacrificing in the translation to online teaching.

I don’t mean to imply it’s a total loss.  It’s a compromise.  In the six modules I’ve developed for the summer semester, I’ve tried to incorporate a mix of activities that will give the students a chance to interact online using text-based technology, as well as audio and video.  I think it works.  I think it’s good.  But it’s been an adjustment that’s pushed me to think about my practice in a way I haven’t in a while.

Here’s the upshot of all this: I’m still a beginner, which means there’s nowhere to go but up.

*****

Current listening:

Neon praxis

Neon Neon – Praxis Makes Perfect (2013)

You Only Disappear

Klosterman visibleLike the singer who decides to record a solo album or the marquee actor who wants to direct a vanity project, it always makes me a little nervous when an author primarily known for one genre decides to try something new.  This is doubly true of Chuck Klosterman, a fellow who belongs to that little coterie of unlucky authors and journalists with whom I identify to a probably unhealthy degree (see also: Nick Hornby, Jonathan Tropper, Rob Sheffield).  He’s known primarily for penning pop culture-obsessed essays whose train of thought runs so closely parallel to my own that in rare moments of self-confidence I find myself thinking, “See, I could do that.”  His nonfiction collections, Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto  and Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story, are clever and perceptive and often laugh-out-loud funny, and they’ve sort of served as a bellwether for my own thinking about music, media, and celebrity.  In his book Writing with Passion, Tom Romano talks about “distant teachers,” those people from whom we learn even when separated by geographical distance.  For a dozen years, Chuck Klosterman has been one of my distant teachers.

So I was a little nervous when, in 2008, he published his first novel, Downtown Owl.  I still haven’t read it.  If it sucked, if fiction was a poor fit for his talent, I wasn’t sure how it might tarnish my view of his other work.  Then he published The Visible Man in 2011, and it somehow ended up on my shelf, which meant I was obligated to read it as part of the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project. (There’s a slash in blue magic marker along the bottom of the pages, which makes me think I must’ve picked it up in Barnes & Noble’s clearance bin, to be read at some distant point in the future when I was emotionally and intellectually prepared for disappointment.)

Here’s the verdict on The Visible Man: It’s delightful.  I use that word rarely, but it fits in this case.  It was blast from start to finish, a breezy (but at times deceptively sophisticated) treatise on identity, human nature, motivation, and The Beatles.  I devoured it in two 90-minute sittings.

Written in the form of a book draft written by therapist Victoria Vick and submitted to her editor, The Visible Man details her run-in and subsequent sessions with a patient who claims to have invented a suit that essentially renders him invisible (Klosterman describes the science, but I’m not sure I understand it, and even if I did it’s too complicated to relate here).  Victoria is understandably skeptical, and she treats their first several sessions (the synthesized transcripts of which make up the narrative) as the rantings of a delusional individual who’s suffered a break from reality.  Then Y__ (as he’s referred throughout the book) shows up at her office in the suit, and Victoria realizes he’s telling the truth.

As he explains it to her, Y__ is using this tremendous invention to conduct an experiment on humanity.  He simply sneaks into people’s homes (hoping to find that alone; multiple residents present too many logistical complications) and watches them.  He stays for several days, seeing how they act when they think no one else is watching.  This, he believes, will give him insight into the true nature of humanity, for it’s only when no one else is around that we’re truly being ourselves.

The Visible Man, at this point, shifts into what reads almost like a series of short stories, as Y__ tells Victoria several of his most memorable interactions with those he observes.  There’s Valerie, an obsessive-compulsive who works out with fanatical zeal only so she can spend her evenings smoking massive amounts of pot and eating ungodly amounts of junk food.  There’s Bruce, the Internet multitasker who’s mainly concerned with drafting the perfect email to a woman.  There’s “The Half-Mexican Ladies Man,” who somehow divines that Y__ is watching him.  And most disturbingly for Victoria, there’s the tale of the Heavy Dudes, an interaction that ends in death and incarceration.  All through these sessions, it becomes clear that the relationship between Victoria and Y__ is developing into something beyond therapist and patient, and the implications of that evolution push the book into his final suspenseful chapters.

Because this is a Chuck Klosterman book, there are passages that are undeniably funny, such as when Y__ describes one 74-day-long relationship as “like having sex with the Falkland Island War.”  And of course there are references to music throughout that are entertaining but read more like Klosterman inserting his voice into the story than growing organically from the characters.  At one point Victoria and Y__ have an argument about the ubiquity of The Beatles, and one of Y__’s first experiences watching another person centers on the band Rush.  This didn’t particularly bother me, but I could see narrative purists crying foul.

The most interesting thing, to which I alluded above, is how The Visible Man actually has some sophisticated things to say about human identity.  There’s Y__’s central thesis, which is the importance of viewing people unobserved when they’re alone, but there’s a section later in the book where Y__ talks about how at some point an individual’s identity is fixed, and that person will largely stay true to that personality, even if circumstances change.

The first time I realized I could enter someone’s home, there was this predictable rush of power.  There was an immediate recognition that I could do anything I wanted.  I could kill a man and never be captured.  I could rape a woman and she’d assume it was just a horrific nightmare . . . But the fact of the matter is that I’m not a rapist, and the fact that I suddenly had the means to become a world-class rapist wasn’t going to change that.  We always end up being ourselves, somehow.  I was who I was long before I consciously became the person I am.

And that’s really the question Klosterman is interested in exploring: Who are any of us, really?  The Visible Man is better than I expected and, even more importantly, better than I hoped, and it immediately marks Klosterman as not just a first-class essayist, but a first-class writer in any genre.

*****

Current listening:

Decemberists picaresque

The Decemberists – Picaresque (2005)

An End Has a Start

Shift howeyIf you follow the world of e-publishing even a little bit you likely know the story of Hugh Howey.  He’s one of these rare self-publishing ultra-success stories, an aspiring writer who decided to start releasing his stuff through Amazon’s Kindle Direct store.  It caught on in a big way, and his most well-known book, the Wool omnibus, was selling 20,000-30,000 digital copies a month during its peak popularity in the summer of 2012.  He was offered a seven-figure deal to put the book in print, but he apparently settled for something in the low six figures to maintain e-publishing rights.  Now, if his social media is to believed, he mainly just sails around the world and posts photos to make the rest of us jealous.  So, as much as I hate to admit it, Wool – the story that started it all – lives up to the hype.

It is, first and foremost, a brilliant and astonishing feat of world-building, a vibrant post-apocalyptic imagining where an unnamed catastrophe’s survivors live in a massive underground silo. Their society is rigidly stratified, with the bureaucrats and politicians on the upper levels and things getting decidedly more blue-collar as they descend the massive spiral staircase that is their society’s only mode of transport. You descend through the clinics and labs, through hydroponic chambers where their food is grown, through the IT department, through the Supply rooms, and down and down over a hundred floors until you reach Machinery, the guts of the silo where things are really kept running.  It’s a mystery and a conspiracy thriller, it’s got action and more than a few elements of science fiction.  Generally speaking, it’s a winner.  My only substantial criticism is that it’s too long.  Because it’s a collection of serialized novellas, they become a little unwieldy when consumed as a single work.  There were places when I wanted more momentum, when instead the story would circle back to something only tangentially related to the main narrative (which was so good I wanted Howey to stick with it).

And that brings me to the fundamental problem with Shift, the second omnibus that serves as a prequel to Wool.  Like the first collection, its introductory novella (titled “First Shift: Legacy”) starts off in strong fashion, telling us the story of how the silos came to be built and why people eventually needed to live in them.  It focuses on Donald, a U.S. Senator with architect training; Thurman, an older Senator who’s Donald’s mentor and who initiates the silo project; and Anna, Thurman’s daughter with whom Donald had a college relationship.  It’s tense stuff, especially as we come to realize that Thurman’s motives for creating the silos is sketchy at best.  This narrative is intercut with a second and equally important narrative (which I mention only to make the point that it’s decidedly not a subplot; it’s complementary to the other narrative thread) that takes place in one of the silos years in the future.  It’s here we meet Troy and learn about the shifts: six month periods when survivors are thawed out of a “deep freeze” lasting decades to do one of the jobs that keeps the silo running.  Troy slowly comes to realize that something is rotten in the state of Denmark.  Unlike the other residents of the silo, he seems to have memories of the world outside and, in the course of his investigation . . .

SPOILERS ABOUND FOR THE REST OF THIS REVIEW.

IF YOU EVER INTEND TO READ THIS BOOK

YOU MIGHT JUST WANT TO SKIP TO THE FINAL PARAGRAPH

OR GO LOOK AT FUNNY CAT PICTURES INSTEAD.

. . . we come to realize, along with Troy, that he is, in fact, Donald, and the whole silo operates on the necessity of its residents not knowing anything about the world before.  “First Shift” ends with Troy/Donald trying to break free of the silo, only to be captured, given memory suppressing drugs, and cast back into the deep freeze by Thurman, who still runs things, Oz-like, from behind a metaphoric curtain.  It’s powerful, nail-biting stuff, so for the first 157 pages, I was fully on board.

But then some of the old Wool omnibus malaise sets in.  In the second installment, titled “Second Shift: Order,” Howey follows the pattern of the first, cutting back and forth between locations. We get more of Donald and his investigation into the true nature of the silo (which is complicated by the later fact that when he’s awoken from the deep freeze everyone thinks he’s Thurman because, you know, it’s been decades and everyone’s on memory suppressing drugs anyway), including why and how he got separated from his wife, whom he discovers made a life for herself in a different silo. It’s okay. But then we’re introduced to a second, not-so-complementary-this-time narrative about a character named Mission who in his own way is also trying to figure out how things came to be the way they are.

In the third installment (“Third Shift: Pact”) we get the Donald/Thurman thing, and intercut with that is the story of Jimmy, who later adopts the name of Solo when silo rebellion breaks out and he sequesters himself in a sort of panic room for years with only a cat named Shadow for company.  It picks up some steam toward the end when we realize that this is leading up to the events that make up the main plot of Wool, but it’s really too little too late.  I was heavily invested in the first installment, less in the second, and sort of bored with the whole thing by the third.  It’s all resolutely good, really totally fine, but over 600 pages it starts to drag in the same way the Wool omnibus started to drag.  I wanted momentum, but for the last hundred pages or so it was like, “Oh, I guess we have to go see what Donald is up to again.”

So, really, part of the issue might be the format.  Because Howey wrote these to be read in bite-sized pieces, maybe it’s a mistake to plow through all three parts as a single experience.  Maybe.  But I’m not entirely sold on that idea, either.  If it’s a satisfying story, everything should click together like a well-built Lego set, whether it’s a hundred pages or a thousand.  If I had read “Third Shift: Pact” on its own, weeks after reading the other two installments, I don’t think I would’ve cared any more about any of the characters.  The bigger issue might be that Howey just needs to streamline and know when enough is enough.  In my review of Wool I said I really liked it but wished it had been 100 pages shorter.  For Shift, my praise is less effusive and we can increase that number of expendable pages to at least 200.

*****

Current listening:

Yo popular

Yo la Tengo – Popular Songs (2009)

One World Passport (Iceland, Part 6: Whale watching in Húsavík and a Trip to Ásbyrgi Canyon)

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Greetings, readers.  If you’re just joining me and planning to read this post, it might be helpful for you to catch up with the first five parts of the trip to Iceland my wife and I took in July 2015.  Here they are:

Part 1: Atlanta to the Blue Lagoon

Part 2: The Golden Circle

Part 3: Pingvillir to Fjadrargljufur

Part 4: Fjadrargljufur to Egilsstaðir, via the Eastfjords

Part 5: Egilsstaðir to Húsavík, via Mývatn

And now, Part 6 . . .

Puffin may be a soporific, because I slept like a baby.  It’s also likely that by this point – five nights into the trip – I was finally acclimated to the fact that the night sky never got any darker than a mildly overcast afternoon.  Also, Amanda and I had grown adept at MacGyvering the blinds to maximize the gloom, so this convergence of factors meant we were both well-rested as we headed down to the Húsavík waterfront to catch an early boat.

DSC_0085Our whale-watching tour was set to take three hours on Skjálfandi Bay – supposedly one of the richest areas for spotting whales in all of Iceland – and we suited up in our cold-weather waterproof gear.  As you can see in the photo to the left, layers were key: T-shirt, Patagonia fleece, REI waterproof jacket, sexy waterproof jumpsuit, and eventually some sort of raincoat.  As we pushed out into the bay, our guide, the dashing Norwegian Aksel Bjarnason, filled us in on the geography and history of the area (Flatey Island, home of many, many puffins, was just outside the boundaries of our tour).  We were also told we’d likely see humpback and minke whales, and while there were blue whales in the bay, sightings were extremely rare.  So we tooled around in our boat, looking for the telltale spray and flocks of sea birds that meant whales were close.

It wasn’t too long before Aksel spotted our first whale.  As we had been promised, it was a humpback, the whale breaking the surface and then the stereotypical fin following it back underwater.  We cruised in circles for a bit, following the whale and trying to get close enough for photos.  Because tourists like annoying animals in their natural habit.  It was at this point, though, that near us, maybe 20 feet away and without warning, another whale surfaced just long enough for Aksel to exclaim that we were seeing what few people ever saw: a blue whale.

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Look: A photo, especially one taken by an untrained photographer with frozen fingers on a rocking boat, just isn’t going to do the moment justice.  But man.  There was something truly majestic and awe-inspiring and sort of overwhelming about seeing something so huge, so rare, right there next to us.  Part of me wanted to get closer, but part of me also wanted to just leave it alone so it could eat krill or flirt with other whales or whatever a blue whale does when it’s not dodging boats.  It finally took a dive and left us to circle for a while longer.  We saw a couple more humpbacks, but sorry humpbacks – once you’ve seen a blue whale, you’re a little anticlimactic.

For most of the tour I’d been feeling pretty smug.  Earlier I mentioned all my cool layers, and as I saw my fellow whale-watchers shiver in the wind and spray I couldn’t help but feel pretty cozy in my waterproof duds.  Even my shoes were waterproof.

However.

Waterproof shoes do you no good when frigid Icelandic water sloshes up over the top of and into your shoe.  So, with roughly an hour left before docking, both my feet started to feel distinctly like ice cubes.  By the time we returned to Húsavík, I couldn’t flex my toes.  We hobbled back to the guesthouse (well, I hobbled; Amanda walked because her feet were fine), and I stripped off my shoes and socks to see feet that had taken on a decidedly purple tint.  I’m not sure at what point frostbite sets in, but I had to’ve been close.  After soaking them for 20 minutes in warm water, I was finally ready to head back out.

We didn’t have much of an agenda for the rest of the day, so we decided on a detour west to Ásbyrgi canyon.  This is another one of those places that photos can’t accurately capture, especially because of the enormity of the location.  A huge, horsehoe-shaped depression with steep rock walls and a pond at its base, Ásbyrgi was formed, legend has it, when Odin’s horse rested one of its hooves there.  In reality, it was probably caused by glacial flooding, but it’s still pretty spectacular, Odin’s absence notwithstanding.

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After Ásbyrgi it was back to Húsavík for dinner at Naustid, a really good seafood restaurant on the waterfront.  Funnily enough, this was the restaurant where we had the best service on our trip – probably because our waitress was an expat from New Jersey.

A word or two about guesthouses, since I keep mentioning them.  Iceland only has two hotel chains – IcelandAir and Hotel Edda – both of which (and IcelandAir, especially) tend to be overpriced.  Most of the affordable lodging is in small guesthouses, basically bed and breakfast deals with maybe a dozen rooms at the most.  Here’s our Husavik guesthouse:

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And Egilsstaðir:

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And Höfn:

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They’re not extravagant, but when you’re mainly only using the room for sleeping, extravagance is secondary to a comfy bed.  And sometimes you get a cool sitting room right outside your bedroom, like we had in Húsavík.

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And, if you’re really lucky, the guesthouse owner will fix you a kick-ass blueberry Skyr tart for breakfast.  It ain’t Holiday Inn; it’s better.

Up next: Angus!

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*****

Current listening:

Promise nothing

The Promise Ring – Nothing Feels Good (1997)