Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Thoughts on Fahrenheit 451


I have a confession to make: I've never read Fahrenheit 451. In fact, I'm pretty shamefully unversed in the classics. I mean, I've read some thanks to college and high school, but I also spent not a small part of my college half-assing things. In fact, I literally beat Plants Vs. Zombies by playing it every day in my British Literature class.

Which is actually a great jumping off point for talking about Fahrenheit 451. (Couldn't you have just left it called The Fire Man, Bradbury? It'd be so much easier to spell.).

The novel imagines this futuristic dystopia where people have stopped reading or thinking about important things. Instead, they prefer to fill up all their time with mindless, shallow television programs, or stuffing their ears with little devices that pump noises into their heads in lieu of dealing with the crushing silence of not being engaged with some electronic stimulation. A world where people drive everywhere and nobody goes for walks anymore and those that do are considered strange and suspect. A world where people that think about life and the implications of those things are looked at as strange and eccentric at best and untrustworthy and dangerous at worst.

So...totally fiction, right?

So, the idea that Ray Bradbury eerily predicted much of where our society has gone is not a new idea. Yes, there are superficial similarities we can point to--like earbuds and ipods are similar to the seashells, and the walls of TVs aren't much different than the number of TVs in our homes anymore. It's true that, as John Green pointed out in a Vlogbrothers video, you can watch an episode of NCIS and not be sure if you've seen it before just like Montag's wife watches programs and then moments later can't remember what she watched.

To me, though, there are much more interesting things about the book.

For one thing, the unthinking, callous way that people behave strikes a chord with me. There's a moment where Montag is walking in the city--on the run--and he very nearly gets run over by someone driving a car. At first he thinks it's the authorities come to run him down like a squirrel in the road because he's carrying a book--which is against the law. But actually it's just some assholes that saw some weirdo walking and thought, "Who walks anymore? Let's see how close we can get to him."

I've experienced this. If you're someone who likes to go running, walking, or biking, you've probably experienced this, too. There's something about being in a car, something about being surrounded by the most advanced safety technology in human history, about having the force of several thousand pounds of steel and rubber at your disposal that makes you feel entitled, that makes you feel separate, other from those squishy meatbags.

I'm not saying that people that drive cars become sociopaths, but I've also been on my way to work and got caught behind someone on a bike and thought, "Oh, just get over so I can go around. I have PLACES to go!"

I've also been on a bike and had giant vehicle rocket around him, mere inches away from me.

And it's not just that. People have a way of rationalizing so much. If we look at history, World War II was a huge moment in our country's--in the world's history. It affected everything. But we've been at war with the Middle East nearly constantly for nearly 15 years. Like, they actually, literally declared war in my life time. And while I can say that we've all been affected by it, the war is a thing that you catch in glimpses on those public TVs in breakrooms and fast food restaurants that are playing one news channel or another. People don't really follow the progress of the war. It's just background noise.

In the same way that, in the book, they announce that they're going to war, and people idly discuss it as if it's nothing at all, as if they won't be affected by it at all. War with whom? Against whom? We never find out. It's just war. Even the thoughtful, educated people talk about the war as both "before" and "after" before it's even started.

War appears to be so constant that nobody even bats an eye at it.

On a technical level, one thing that I noticed about the book is that for the first half or so, it's written in a very sparse style. It's mostly dialog with very terse descriptions of actions. Not much setting, not a lot of worldbuilding. Lots of things left unsaid. It's only later, after Montag begins thinking, begins really paying attention to the world, that the book starts gaining more description. Even more so, toward the end of the novel, when he's fully separated himself from the life that he once knew, the book becomes almost overwritten as he ponders on every blade of grass, shake of leaf, and lap of water. It was such a subtle and great tool to reflect the state of mind of the character and his changing world view.

I can't say that the book was one of my favorite books. The characters were very simplistic, and it often felt like a cynical crank's thinly veiled rant about The Way Things Are. Additionally, not all criticism is the same, but Bradbury treats it as such. The Fire Chief, at one point, mentions all the minorities that get upset because one thing or another is offensive to them and how that, too, led to the watering down of everything. But black people being mad that black characters are all "Uncle Toms" is not the same as people being offended that a character cursed in a book, and the fact that Bradbury treats them as the same is ridiculous. (And I know it's Bradbury and not just the character because Bradbury makes the exact same points in an afterword in my edition of the book.)

But at the same time, there are parallels that on my darker days, I can see. We're all seeking distractions--it's why countercultural ideas like "phone free meals" are springing up. Every second that we're not engaged feels like an eternity. Why would I want to sit for fifteen minutes in line with nothing to do when I could be playing Candy Crush or Angry Birds or whatever cell phone game is popular now?

Ultimately, I think the novel is a worthwhile read, at least to get people thinking about the importance of thought and engaging with our world complexly, but I also think that means engaging it critically as well and recognizing that just because the book is classic doesn't mean it's infallible.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Making the World a Better Place

My wife and I are going through a touch of a life readjustment. Things aren't so bad now that we've cut some of our costs and moved into a cheaper apartment, but in many ways we're returning to where we were 5 years ago, when we first got married. Finding myself living in an apartment that is almost exactly like the one we lived in when we first got together (only mirrored) has had me thinking about the past a lot. I realized recently that my perspective has shifted in a lot of ways since then. 

When we were in college, when we were just starting out, there were a lot of things that we did that we have moved away from over the years. We had thoughts and ideas that, as we moved into a real house and got real jobs, we thought about less and less as we tried to make our way in the rat race of real life. These things were small, but they were our way of trying to make the world a better place.

We used to try to donate money to charities.

We used to use those reusable shopping bags.

We used to recycle (or try to, anyway).

We used to try to eat healthier.

Somewhere along the way, I feel like I lost some of that in myself. I became so concerned about carving out what I thought of as a successful life for me that I stopped caring about being a successful person--and a successful person in my definition is someone who tries to live in a way that reflects his values.

I'm not such a hippy that I'm going to, like, start making my own toothpaste or some such. But I want to try to make more of an effort to, in my own small way, make the world a better place.

I've been taking Crystal Light and a water bottle to work rather than the bottled sodas and teas that I was taking because I want to start cutting down on the liquids that we buy. Liquids are extremely heavy and result in a lot of carbon emissions to ship them. If I can cut down on the amount I'm buying, in the smallest way, I can try to reduce my carbon footprint.

In the same way, I'm going to continue walking/biking to work as weather permits. This will help us save gas, which will save us both money and reduce the amount of fuel spent.

I've purchased a reusable shopping bag. We used to have a ton of them and we kept forgetting to use them. Well, I only bought one, but if I can build the habit of using it, I'll get a couple more and start doing my grocery shopping like that to reduce our plastic waste.

I'm trying to cut down the amount of meat--specifically beef--that I eat. This is both healthier, and again, better for the environment.

This isn't world changing stuff. I'm not going to stop eating beef and wake up to the effects of climate change suddenly disappearing. Nor do I want to be that person that makes others feel crappy for their life decisions. But these were small things we used to try to make the world a better place in our own way. And going back to our more humble beginnings has me thinking that maybe we can get back to that. And this time, as we build up our careers once again and build toward a more financially stable future, I'd like to remember who I am and keep these things in the forefront of my mind.

I'm going to be looking for way to make the world a better place. Little things that I can do throughout the year to try to make a positive impact on the world.

I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Project For Awesome '15

It's that time of year. Get the breakdown here, then get your donating fingers ready.

'Tis the season for some giving.


Monday, December 7, 2015

Friendship

 photo from bekassine...'s Flickr
Friendship is weird to me. I mean, I'm not a robot, I understand both why we have friends and I have the desire for friends and companionship. But still, the act of making friends is not one that comes naturally to me.

All my life, I've been very quiet around strangers. I do not do well with coming up with things to say. Small talk is something I'm atrocious at. I'm grateful that nerdy things are currently in vogue because it means that I'm more likely to mention the latest Marvel movie and likely get some kind of response from people, and based on what the person says, I'm able to gauge just how much I need to reveal that I know about those franchises.

(An aside: I've learned from experience that if I just unleash the firehose that is my knowledge of random trivia, I can intimidate and shut down those conversations with the average person right quick. So, gauge and adjust.)

That said, the act of getting to know people is incredibly uncomfortable. You know when you see two animals fighting, and they're just circling each other, feinting every now and then, but not charging, gathering intel on their opponents reflexes and such? That's sort of what it feels like when I try to get to know people. There's so many things I'm aware of--to what kind of politics do they ascribe? Should I curse around them? How religious are they? Do they like comic books? Movies? Reading? What kind of movies/books/music?

I don't want to go on a rant about something I saw on The Daily Show and find out that person is a very staunch Republican--not because I can't be friends with Republicans, but because I don't want to offend the person right out of the gate. Same with cursing. I curse a lot. Like, a lot. So how much is this person comfortable with? A smattering of "damns" and "hells"? Are they cool with the f'word, but not cool with "goddammit"?

This is all trivial stuff, and while I crosses my mind, there are other things that I'm much more aware of. Such as that awkward silence that just happened: was it because they didn't like the thing I talked about and are just being polite, or was that just a natural lull in the conversation. Did they not hear me just now, or are they choosing to ignore that particular lane of conversation? Are you getting tired of talking to me and looking for an exit?--Maybe I should exit first to save them from being held up by my lack of self-awareness? Did exiting that conversation just offend them because it looks like I'm trying to rush them along, like I don't have time for a conversation? I actually don't have time for this conversation right now but I don't want to be rude and cut this person off

GAAAAAAAH *static, short, cough, splutter, ded*

My wife and I have recently been trying to make more friends--or at least acquaintances--with people from work, and I find myself going through all the usual steps that I do with friendships. The friends that I have know that I'm a constant worry ball of anxiety, and they've come to accept and understand that about me, but I can't throw all my crazy onto new people. You gotta ease them into the crazy. So, even though after every interaction I want to email them a list of apologies for things that I'm fairly sure were stupid, I don't. Because that would be crazy.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them."