The State of Things

I’ve been watching The X-Files for too long and now I feel nearly if not entirely brain dead.  Not that I don’t love the X-files and not that it’s not stimulating in ways, but watch too many back-to-back, sit in front of your computer watching it make a .tar file of your 70 gig home folder and not keep you hands busy, and you get a sweet recipe for mental funk.  Alas, I will try and set aside my mental funk to write a bit.

My tenure in the Weaver’s Way deli is now thankfully done.  I thought perhaps there was the slightest chance it would be my “swiss patent office” but it definitely wouldn’t have quite worked out that way in the long run.  While I did have some interesting ideas as I sat there wrapping cheese, they are pretty much entirely lost because I wasn’t allowed to take a few seconds to write them down and because I was too tired to make them into anything if I did remember them once I was home.  No, it wasn’t quite the job I was looking for.  I’m happy that I did it, but I’m also really really really happy that it’s done.  A job like required almost no mental thought, was high pressure (dealing with unruly customers, a difficult boss, no coverage if you got sick, etc.), and offered little to no room for creativity or change. There would have been a little bit more incentive to stay if for all those challenges I had been compensated at a rate that at least allowed me to break even.  As it were, every month I was operating at a loss so it seemed to make sense that while I had the savings to do so, I should walk away and begin the search for a new position.

Shortly after officially ending my time at the co-op I was offered the position of Assistant Director at the camp where I worked two summers ago.  The job starts in late May and continues through early August.  Having this lined up is great.  It’s some guaranteed money working at a place that while difficult, is a cause I believe in, and I’ll be working in an entirely different capacity than I was two years, which is good because when I left I all but promised I would never come back as a counselor until they got their shit together a little better.

With this new, seasonal position in hand I’m now left with a somewhat awkward two to three month period where I need to decide what to do.  While the ideal situation would be to find a well paying position that allowed me to begin working for the next few months, take the summer off to go be AD at camp, then come back and pick up where I left off, I think we all know that that’s just a tad far-fetched.  What’s more practical I believe is to begin looking for something that I would start in the fall, after camp.  I’ve talked a bit with Alex lately and while finding a job would be nice, I think I need to begin looking to my future in graduate school.  I can say unequivocally that I want I Ph.D.; it is a goal that I wish to achieve in my life.  In fact, it’s one of the few goals that I definitely have right now.  The others that I can think of are hiking at least one long trail (AT, PCT, ect.), creating a majorly influential invention, and one day having the resources work on/engineer new ideas around automobiles.  While the others can (and some have to) wait a bit, grad school I think would be most appropriate for my situation right now.  There’s also the fact that every day that goes by where I’m not using my skills from undergrad, a few more of them slip away and that’s no good.  Yep, the more I think about it, the more necessary it seems to get back into a grad program.  I’ll write more about this later as I could go on and on for quite a while.

While it might sound like I’m thinking a lot about the future and trying to plan as much as possible, I’m actually avoiding it more than I would really like to; hence, the watching SO much X-Files some days.  I haven’t really engaged in a lot of the “projects” that I previously have been tinkering with such as the computer, sculpture, origami (origami and I aren’t on the best terms lately) because there are a lot of things in life right now that we’re just kind of staying on top of day-to-day.  We’ve been doing bikram yoga every day for about the past 30-some days now which takes up about two hours; we also have Keller the wunderkind (our new puppy) who demands at least that much time if not more; then we’ve been making a lot of good dinners lately, which probably take a couple of hours to make and eat all said and done; then there are the stuff that just crops up that needs to be done for another couple of hours.  So yeah, that leaves a few, relatively broken up, relatively unfocused (keeping the dog from jumping on things, eating the cats, etc.) hours to try and engage in whatever it was you needed to get done or wanted to do that day.  The activities the lend themselves a little more appropriately to that time breakdown are things that can easily be walked away from, don’t require a lot of moving parts, especially small ones, and things that don’t require immense amounts of focus.  Unfortunately that knocks out a lot of the things that I do.  That’s not to say that they can’t be done, but they just take a lot more effort these days to actually engage in, and its effort I don’t always have or I’m not always willing to give.  Thus, we have the short list of things that DO fit the bill well for times like these: reading (although not too technical), watching movies/the X-Files, cleaning ones home folder on your bloated mac, or perhaps writing the occasional blog post (when Keller is being calm).

I’ve realized lately that when I read books, I tend to read them pretty quickly.  Unless I have a long in-depth discussion or write about them I tend to forget that I ever read them along with all of the fun lessons they contained and perhaps even how I felt after reading them.  Since I’m plowing through quite a few books lately that I don’t want to forget I need to at least write a paragraph or so to keep them fresh in my memory.

Book One: Surfing Through Hyperspace by Clifford Pickover

This is the book that I most recently finished.  It’s a mostly qualitative look at visualizing higher spatial dimensions as told primarily from the point of view of two FBI agents investigating some strange occurrences (a la X-files… I didn’t actually know this when I asked for the book) around Washington D.C.  What I think it actually accomplished better was describing the consequences and capabilities of beings/objects existing in a fourth spatial dimension when they come into contact with our little slice of their space.  The book stands out to me as a great introduction to higher-dimensional spaces for someone who doesn’t have much experience in the subject, and a fun read for even someone who does.  It has a GREAT series of appendices full of puzzles, thought-problems, and believe it or not, computer code to run some of the imaging stuff he does in the book. That’s what really makes it worthwhile to a larger audience than the anyone-can-read-it popular science books that people like Jonah Lehrer are (were… too soon?) publishing.  Pickover also has a great references and further reading section for those who want to get more technical with it.  This book would be REALLY great and educational for an advanced high-school math class.  While I would say the book “fails” in any way whatsoever, I can say that Pickover’s didactic dialogue between his two agents gets… tiresome to say the least.  I realize that his intention was probably to play on the style of the X-files (slightly corny and slightly sexually-tense) but it’s much more overwrought than even the show is and they go on for a little to a lot too long.  A much more effective use of dialogue to introduce a topic is in Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter in his conversations between the Tortoise and the Hair, i.e. introduce the topic in the conversation, then discuss outside of that world.  My other complaint about the style he ultimately chose was that because the topics are subtly different, the dialogue is not as precise of a method for differentiation of what is actually being discussed.  As a result, a lot of the “conversations” feel very similar.  Since it’s so dialogue heavy, the “Science Behind the Science Fiction” sections at the end of the chapter end up being cut too short, but perhaps this was a deliberate decision to keep a different group of readers interested.  All in all, while I have my stylistic complaints, it’s a good book and Pickover seems like a fun author (prolific too!) who doesn’t take himself too seriously.  I’d definitely recommend the book to science-minded and non-science-minded friends alike but with a little asterisk about the things I mentioned here.  There’s a lot of really good information in this book.

Book/Story 2: The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy

On a completely different topic from Surfing through Hyperspace, is this short story by Leo Tolstoy examining death and the emotions, feelings, realizations of  a man who dies a tragically slowly.  I read most of this on a bus ride to and from the world’s crappiest job-related meeting in New York City.  It was also a really crappy bus ride back.  It’s not a crappy story at all, but it is a little bleak.  Combining all of that made for a pretty depressing and rainy trip back from NYC.  I won’t summarize the book here but rather just talk about what I did and didn’t find interesting.  Overall I thought the over-arching moral lesson to be a bit ham-fisted in how its told (a man dies trying to always live his life the way society dictates to be the “right” way and then winds up unsatisfied, alone, and depressed.  He also, quite literally, dies at the hands of his focus on material goods.) but there are plenty of subtle moves that saved it for me.

This is another story that kind of drags on, but does so deliberately, to make the reader feel how slowly Ivan Ilyich is dying.  In that time of dying many discoveries are made by Ivan about himself, his family, and his friends that are more subtle and fine-grained, that really make him an exceedingly human main character.  I loved (in a melancholic way) his desire towards the end of the story to just have people pity him, to cry for him, and to be with him; not to tell him that another doctor was coming, that a new cure had been discovered, or that religion could save him.  My heart so went out to him in the moment where he realizes that he just wants someone to cry for him.  Pause and think for a moment where you didn’t want anyone to offer you a solution or try and help you, you just wanted someone to look and say “I’m so sorry” and cry for you, cry with you.  What further makes me feel for him and his plight is that even though he knows that he is going to die and that there is no cure, he allows himself to succumb to hope even in his most final moments.  There’s just something so… tangible in that.  The whole story is that way: filled with these subtle moments of despairing realization that are really powerful when reflected on.  They can help you realize that although you may not be dying in the same way that Ivan Ilyich is, his slow march towards his end is not that much different anyone’s no matter how healthy or sick.  Everyone could benefit from comparing their own lives to that of Mr. Ilyich.

The most supremely interesting aspect of this story is how it came to be inside of Tolstoy’s life and as a method for examining death and his fear of death for himself.  All of my knowledge of this came from the introduction to my edition/translation.  I might (read: probably won’t) write more about this later, but it’s so well discussed and thoroughly explored in the intro that I won’t even really attempt to write my own summary of it.  What I will say is that it’s a beautiful example of someone using writing and story-telling as a means of processing our human fears and concerns about our lives.  This is something that every day seems to be appreciated less and less as writing and creative writing especially as a mode of self-exploration seem to be less and less emphasized.

I would recommend this story to damn near anyone.

Book 3: The Driver by Alexander Roy

If you like cars, and stories of people doing things that you most likely never will in them, then this is a good book for you.  Alex Roy is the record holder for a coast-to-coast “Cannonball” drive from New York to LA.  These are fun stories of fast driving and some pretty wild characters (and cars) surrounding some major “rallies” (read: races) as well as his record attempts and successes. My major complaint is that its hard to read the book with Alex Roy’s ego blocking your vision the whole time.  He definitely has reason to be proud as what he did was no small feat, but it gets a little ridiculous and overly dramatic at times… most of the time… perhaps all the time.  That being said, it’s a total page turner so it’s actually quite easy to read if you can appreciate it for the car stories and see past the arrogance.  It certainly made me want to push the MG across the country before I die.

Alright, it’s time to go to yoga there’s still plenty more in the state of my life, but I only ever have so much time to talk about it.  I’ll update with covers of the books and links to amazon.