Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Cheesy Ending Syndrome

I was just browsing along some stories of amateur writers online, and something occurred to me that had been swimming just below my conscious grasp for many years. Much of the writing of our generation is infected with Cheesy Ending Syndrome (CES). I'm speaking particularly of personal stories, accounts of important life experiences. The most common reason anybody writes such stories is that they are requested as part of application processes for college, jobs, internships, etc. You know, some position for which there is a lot of competition asks you to describe an important moment in your life. It's a test of how well you can write and a crude, counterproductive way of gaining a window to your character. I say crude and counterproductive because, as everyone who has ever written one of these essays knows, at the end of the writing process, there is little left that resembles actual life experience.

During my personal college application hell, I wrote an essay I was convinced would blow people away. The prompt was something vague and uninspiring -- something like, "share an important experience" or "describe an event in your life that has made you who you are". There is a formula to answer such queries, distilled long ago when students and job applicants were first asked such rubbish. You are supposed to tell some story about your past in which you faced a new and/or challenging circumstance, personally or professionally. You are supposed to describe the flash of insight during which one aspect of Reality was laid bare to your virgin mind or heart, and you go on to detail how that experience and insight have made you into such a better or more complete human being, and how much you care about this or that issue, and how dedicated you are to something now.

These were more or less the lines along which my essay proceeded. I went to Hungary, witnessed rampant homelessness, had an encounter with a homeless girl, was shaken up, lost a piece of my youthful naiveté, realized I wanted to do something to fight homelessness. Except it was five hundred and fifty words, narrative, and well-written. But cheesy as a fondue dinner.

The point of these essays is to build yourself up, show that you're a person of intelligence, depth, and character. That was the point of my story. But after slaving away at it for many, many hours over the course of a week, I was left with a document so polished and shiny that, looking back on it, all I can see is my own, fraudulent reflection.

Because let's get real: I had an experience that affected me and that caused me to contemplate for a long time afterwards. But it didn't happen in this dream setting, and it didn't happen all at once. It didn't happen in a perfect narrative form, and it didn't fundamentally change me and inspire me to be an upstanding moral crusader forever-and-ever-amen.

I know it may be a stretch to apply my own experience to everyone else's writings, but I just can't bring myself to take seriously these exaggerated stories following the same, trite blueprint: You had a tough experience, and then in a blinding moment of Dostoevskian clarity, your whole world was changed and you were left a more complete person. ...yes, yes, I'm sure you were. NEXT! It's really just an extension of every cheesy ending we see in Hollywood films. Character is one way, character faces major challenge, character acquires depth and wisdom.

But here's the fact: Life continues, and we are never perfected. We are shaped by hundreds of small experiences every day of every week. There is no silver bullet that cures immaturity. When you read past the end of every essay with Cheesy Ending Syndrome, looking more closely at the reality, you see that we still face challenges and lapses of character, moral conflicts, moments of selfishness or naiveté.

Yet as a society we are obsessed with the happy, cheesy ending. How utterly boring it must be to read over dozens or hundreds of application essays, the vast majority of which arise the same hackneyed template. Real life is far more interesting -- it's choppy and grey and endlessly inventive. I'm beginning to think that universities and employers request cheesy essays so they can more easily separate them from the people who have the initiative and originality to write something that is actually interesting.

Digression/Aside: If there were a law against composing cheesy endings, probably every sports columnist would be in jail alongside most romantic writers. Sportswriters love to tell stories of growth and maturity. It's usually just when you read that a certain athlete has finally set his priorities straight or shed his troubled past that you hear they've gotten arrested or tested positive for this or that substance. And shame on those romantic writers for print and screen that truncate the story just as the couple gets together. All obstacles overcome, they are free to live their life happily ever after. Is it any wonder the divorce rate is so high when people are fed such an infantile caricature of human love and companionship? End of Digression/Aside

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Slippery Kittens

Ever since I was in middle school, I always set my internet homepage to Yahoo!. I picked this up from Jesse, my brother, because he would always read the Yahoo! news and play the free games. All through high school I would read news reports through Yahoo! and keep up with sports through the site. I used to read all their news stories that made it on the front page and then dig around on the actual news page.

So it's weird these days to open my internet browser and the first, biggest headline (including picture and video link) that I see is:


And next to it are three video links entitled:

  • Dog can't go up slide
  • Bunny's hiding place
  • Dog learns new word

I mean, this is a website that gets hundreds of millions of hits per day and hosts billions of visitors per year. This is the one thing above all else that they choose to grab people's attention? It's not that I'm disappointed in Yahoo! Clearly, they've calculated what is the best way to get people looking at their site. It's just...I'm not sure what this says about humanity. One of the biggest information/interaction hubs in the entire world bets that a video of slippery kittens is the surest way to attract mass attention. God save us all.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

My Dilettantism

A couple days ago I finally finished reading The Night's Dawn trilogy, by Peter F. Hamilton. All told, those three books add up to around 4,000 pages. Of course, those are science fiction pages, which go significantly quicker than, say, philosophy or classic literature. I picked up the series a couple months ago at the behest of my brothers and read it with pauses between the volumes. What a ride it was, though. I've got some friends who look down on sci-fi as an inferior genre, but reading this series reminded me why it's not only a worthy literary form, but a genuinely important one.

First of all, science fiction has an inherent ability to pose unique moral dilemmas, especially those of a social nature. Questions about genetic engineering, the integration of biotechnology into everyday life, and (obviously) the role of religion in our lives. If, like in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, you had a drug that was non-addictive, non-harmful, free, widespread, and legal, would there really be a reason to object? If society were divided into classes of people who had drastically different capabilities and no opportunity for social mobility, but all were happy and satisfied with their role in society, where would that leave us? It's not that other genres cannot raise similar questions, but with sci-fi you have a unique ability to explore issues caused by technological development, because you can work from the assumption that we've reached that technological level. And, with enough time, it's almost guaranteed that we are going to face those difficult moral questions (think about the queasiness you feel when you see the human 'enhancement' in the film Gattaca).

But rather than leaving us to regard the future with fear and apprehension, as many individuals are prone to do, sci-fi can help excite us about the future and the changes we're going to see. In the last fifteen years, the Internet has changed society. What do the next fifteen years hold? And if the rate of technological progress is increasing, how much headway can we expect to make three or four decades down the line? Sci-fi can be instrumental in preparing us and exciting us to see this future.

Which leads me to my next point: sci-fi is important because it inspires people to embrace that future, and even to work towards it. When you think about all that is possible, all that we can achieve as a species, it can be dizzying. It just takes some imagination. Think how far we came between 1500 and 1900. Now between 1900 and 1970. Now between 1970 and 2010. Now think of where we'll be in a thousand years. Two thousand years? Five thousand? If you don't assume that we're going to kill ourselves off, which I do not, the possibilities are truly mind-boggling. What about intelligent species out in the universe that have been developing for hundreds of thousands of years? What might they be capable of? I don't know about you, but it just makes me giddy to think of. And the excitement that comes from this thought makes me very, very interested in science. For young people who can choose to go that route, it can inspire them to be part of that effort to realize our scientific potential as a species.

One objection I hear sometimes to argument for increased funding on space exploration and/or basic research: How can we justify spending all that money on _____ when there are tens of millions of people going hungry in the world? How can we be dreaming about the stars when things are so wretched on the ground? This irks me. By the same token, you could ask: Why should anyone become a veterinarian when plenty of humans lack for medical care? Why should any problem be addressed when there is a more dire problem as yet unfixed? Come ON, we should not hold ourselves back because of a selective employment of moral hierarchies. It's important to feed our imaginations, to invest in our future as well as our present.

[As an aside, I think much of the literary merit of sci-fi comes from the imagination involved. Where there may be a lack of character development and the use of clichéd plot/dialogue elements, there can be a bounty of mind-tickling visions of the future and creative projections of current scientific/political/social trends. Where authors of great "literature" may pour their energy into examining the human condition, authors of great sci-fi pour their energy into fantastic imaginings and creating their own worlds.]

So, in a clumsy segue from the general topic of science fiction and how it stimulates me, I ran into this page on Wikipedia, which I think might be the coolest thing ever:

A list of unsolved problems in physics!

I know I'm not the only one who finds physics almost as fascinating as it is mystifying. We've all eagerly picked up one of Stephen Hawking's books, only to stare at the page and re-read the text a bajillion times in an attempt to comprehend just what the hell he's saying. Just trying to wrap your head around these problems is a fun exercise; I can get lost for hours trying to educate myself about particle physics and all that jazz. A naked singularity? I HOPE WE FIND ONE.