My handstand near disaster, re-reading Shteyngart, and seeing Captain Phillips

by Rob Tiller

13 11 15_5181
That’s the crane for the new Citrix office in the Raleigh warehouse district as viewed from our balcony on Saturday morning. Below is the new apartment building going up facing us from Boylan Avenue. It’s good to see construction all around. Things are happening!
13 11 15_5188

As was probably evident last week when I mentioned doing my first handstand, I was fairly proud to finally get it. From the first time I saw another boy in my neighborhood do one, a small part of me secretly yearned for this skill. Why? I’m not entirely sure. It’s different, and it’s good to be a little different. I like to turn things upside down and see how they look. I also like to dial in to another aspect of bodily control and strength. There’s also something bracing about facing down a bit of fear.

So I looked forward to mastering the handstand skill against a wall, and perhaps eventually unassisted. After my initial success, I did a few more over the weekend. On Monday morning I went up for a workout in the small gym on the top floor of our building. No one else was around. After a half hour on the elliptical machine, still breathing hard, I attempted another handstand. Something went wrong. My right shoulder gave way, and unable to lean quickly, I fell straight down. I tucked my chin and hit hard on my neck and shoulder.

It hurt a lot. I lay in a heap, and wondered if this was what a broken neck felt like. After a bit, I tried to wiggle my toes and fingers, and noted with relief that they seemed to be working. I rolled over and tested my neck, which throbbed, but could still move. I felt stunned, but more or less OK. I was sore for the rest of the week, and a bit shaken. I decided to give the healing process a few days before forging ahead with handstand work.

Super Sad, Funny Shteyngart

This week I finished re-reading Super Sad True Love Story: A Novel, by Gary Shteyngart. A couple of years ago I left my original copy in a hotel room with just 60 pages left, and found that I kept thinking about the world it created. After the mild disappointment of reading The Circle, I decided to download the ebook version of Super Sad, and realized this time around that it’s not only an entertaining read, but a feat of Nabakovian brilliance.

It’s hard to categorize. It’s set a bit in the future, like science fiction, but I wouldn’t call it science fiction, because the world and its technology are not very different from ours. It’s sort of a comedy, and at times hilarious, but also keenly observant, dark, and shocking. With an ease that conceals virtuosity, Shteyngart exposes a underside to our fun technology, and shows it transforming society in a way that not only seems believable, but prophetic. Keep in mind that it was published in 2010, before Occupy Wall Street and before the U.S. first threatened to default on its debt.

A quick note on the subject matter: Lennie is a 39-year-old nebbishy, smart guy who works for an outfit selling life extension services to super High Net Worth individuals. He falls in love with Eunice, a 25-year-old Korean-American who seems to spend most of her time surfing on GlobalTeens shopping sites on her apparat and obsessing over luxury brands like Juicy Pussy handbags and Onionskin jeans. They live in New York City, where there is extreme income inequality, with unemployed veterans of the war with Venezuela and other Low Net Worth individuals camped out in the parks opposing the one-party surveillance state, which is financially teetering and close to being taken over by China.

There are technologies that signal your credit score on surrounding Media Poles and also show your sexual desirability rank in any grouping (“RateMe Plus” technology). Along with new apps there’s new youth slang, which is marginally cruder than our youth slang. Recent college graduates are mostly unemployed and trying to get a job either in Media (a very long shot) or Retail (just a long shot).

Lennie is a bibliophile in world where books and reading are socially toxic. Cool people have mostly stopped reading, and paper books are considered bad-smelling. Colleges teach skimming in place of reading. At one point there’s a blackout, and Lennie and Eunice read some from Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being (as it happens, a favorite of mine, as it clearly is of Shteyngart’s). Eunice can’t at all follow the complex ideas, and even Lennie finds his ability to understand a literary text has grown dim.

A large part of the pleasure is not just the ideas or the plot, but the texture and quirky beauty of the language. Shteyngart is a writer’s writer. I’ll just add that the title will discourage some people who would enjoy the book, but it really is, in part, a love story, in the sense of dealing with human feelings, and with how those feelings are transformed by technology and social context. Obviously I loved it.

In a postscript that would have pleased Shteyngart, when I finished the Kindle version of the book on my iPad, my Twitter account appeared with a tweet that said, “I just finished reading Super Sad True Love Story.” I did not write those words, nor did I want to send such a tweet. And I didn’t. But I could imagine just pushing send, since the message was completely accurate, and something I wouldn’t mind sharing (though not on my professionally-oriented Twitter account). It gave me a slight chill. Is this the first bomb to fall in a new phase of post-literacy, where your machines not only correct your spelling and grammar but actually do your thinking and writing?

Captain Phillips

On Friday night we saw Captain Phillips, the new movie about Somali pirates taking a cargo ship with Tom Hanks. It was not what I expected, but much better. With remarkable directness and economy, it establishes the desperate and impoverished lives of the young men who become pirates, such that they can never be viewed as pure evil. Hanks has made a long career as a leading man who’s not particularly good-looking playing normal people confronted with outsize problems or puzzles (WWII, mental retardation, shipwreck, adolescence, etc.). Here, he does so again with seeming utter naturalness.

As the captain, Phillips seems a decent guy who doesn’t aspire to much more than doing a solid job transporting goods. But under attack, he turns out to have above-average grit and resourcefulness. Trying to manipulate the pirates, he seems like a bad liar, but good enough to fool these guys, who are not diabolically clever. But both the pirates and Phillips and his crew are by moments astonishingly courageous. This is an action movie with true feeling and heart, and also a lot of adrenaline.