25 November 2008

Letter 4.31

The upper slopes were closed all morning by heavy snow. When the clouds lifted around noon, I was one of the first on the just-opened lift and at the top there was miles of untouched powder snow. My skis sank ankle deep, giving incredible support, but the snow was dry so speed was possible, and everything was so quiet and pristine. After speeding down a slope I came to a rise which ant the top (as I discovered when I got there) was cut away sharply. There was no warning, no chance for planning, just the automatic reaction as for 15 yards I sailed over the snow and made a perfect landing. It was such a rush I knew why people risk their necks to do those incredible hundreds-of-yards jumps... This was one of the most vivid dreams I've ever had in my life -- not a fantasy, but a memory -- perfect recall of an event I'd all but forgotten. The jump with synchronous perfect recall...a suggestion, perhaps, of what I'm trying to do with my life?...

My stay in Colombo was much longer than I'd have thought possible, but all's well that ends well (enough), for I finally got the basic software problem sorted out. I had to return the computer to the people who sold it to me, since their model couldn'd handle the software I needed. They weren't very gracious about it, but in the end they had no choice, not only because legally I was in the right but also because I know a few people who could make my position stick, and the computer company knew it. So I got a different computer, a Taiwan-made CAF, which is simply an imitation of the IBM PC, mistakes and all (the better compatibles try to put right some of the things IBM did wrong). But it runs the software I need to use (and makes my printer work up to its capacities), and also the people who sold it are reliable and will always go out of their way for me, and that makes a big difference in this country. For instance, I paid for 256KB RAM (random access memory -- the amount of data the computer can keep in its own memory, the more of which the more software it will be able to run and the faster it will be able to run it), but they gave me a computer with 640KB memory, remarking that the additional memory chips (worth about $100) were already soldered into place and it wasn't worth their while to remove them. Obviously, there was only one possible reply I could make to this, namely, 'Thanks for the memories'.

A video game called 'Demon's Forge' intrigued me. In most games one knows the rules and wins by skill within the confines of the rules: in this one only a few of the rules are given, and one has to discover, by experiment, what the remaining rules are. They could, perhaps, re-name this game 'Life'.

I remember as a kid the only sort of entertainment comparable to video game was the pinball machine -- put a nickel in and get five balls and two or more flippers. Well, it's more expensive now -- in video: costs a quarter to play, but since pushing 'Q' earns me two bits a push I can manage. Extremely realistic, with flippers, etc. exactly like the mechanical versions of old. Only thing is that it's hard to remember that to 'jiggle' the machine certain keys have to be pushed: the tendency is still to try to jiggle the table, which achieves nothing (except jiggling the table). And if you push those jiggle keys too much, you go tilt. On the other hand, with the electronic version it's possible to change virtually any of the parameters at will: bumper action, flipper response, scoring system, etc. The curious thing, however, is my reaction to winning a 'free' game. In the arcade version there is always the rationale that a 'free game' means additional playing time for my money, but here obviously the plays don't cost me anything at all, except wear and tear of the keyboard: why, then, should there still be the same emotional response of satisfaction at winning a free game, even when it's only by matching numbers at the end of play?

Then I tried the 'Flight Simulator' and was eventually successful in bombing Kraut factories and shooting down a, number of Hanse-Brandenburg DIs, Albatross DIIs, and Fokker DVIIs. I learned something about the controls, including the radar and radio, and managed a few daredevil stunts. However, I couldn't land successfully. When in the Chicago area, it is from Meigs Field that I fly, by the way, and the tall building into which I frequently crash is, therefore, the John Hancock building.

I also beat the computer in chess: quite badly; it was probably embarrassed.

This all plays well with my sense of satire; generally unwelcome in polite society. But I'm not the first to be misunderstood when irony is intended: it's a risky undertaking. Even Swift had some trouble, I believe, when he made a modest proposal of his own.

While in Colombo I read a report on the results of a match in the recent World Cup games which observed that the 'Lebanese marked the football victory in traditional fashion, blaring car horns and firing machine guns.' I also learned that the word 'optimism' was first used in 1737, and of the invention of a new unit of measure called a 'helen', which is the quantity of beauty sufficient to launch one ship. (Helen of Troy is of course the standard measure, at 10 kilohelens.) I also heard a few BBC program on the radio. I enjoyed the Vienna Boys' Choir; in particular a solo version of 'Ave Maria' done to a counterpoint from Bach's Prelude to a Well-tempered Clavichord -- I forget the number of the Prelude but you know which one I mean, the one that's made up almost entirely of arpeggios: I used to play it on the piano. The BBC was also running a series of readings by Garrison Keilor on Lake Wobegon Days. I chuckled (and twinged considering my dental problem, which I have yet, as the Sri Lanka idiom has it, to 'do the needful by) the retired dentist who went fishing all the time and, having snared a sunfish, prepared to remove the hook from the unfortunately creature's mouth by remarking, 'Open wide now; this may sting for a moment'.

A couple peculiar remarks were made on a newsbroadcast. A person being interviewed, a partisan for a particular cause, said, 'There would be no violence if these people would just get out of the way!' He happened to be a Muslim fundamentalist (not one of my favorite charities), but the remark struck me as summing up so much of the world that it is virtually a sociological paradigm. The other remark was a report on the Gulf war, in which I clearly heard: 'A new offensive by Iran is definite for October, which is the start of the tourist season.' This puts a whole new perspective on what the war is all about. The six-year-long equivalent of a professional football game? Killing your neighbors for fun and profit? Seeing the world the hard way? It occurred to me that perhaps I misheard, and what had been said was 'the start of the terrorist season but that interpretation raised even more questions, and seems no more probable than my first understanding. Perhaps, in an irrational world, we cannot expect news reports to be both accurate and rational.

Have you ever felt an elephant's tongue? It is very soft and moist, and also very large. It does not seem to be a very flexible tool. In the municipal park across from the Colombo monastery where I stayed was a very friendly elephant who likes to be patted and rubbed, especially on her concave jowls, and who, if I approach her with food in my hand, opens her mouth and expects to be fed like a baby ('Here comes the choo-choo!'). Only reluctantly will she take food with her trunk (inside is just like a giant pair of nostrils-she doesn't like me to touch the tip of her trunk at all) and feed herself. A whole loaf of bread is a modest mouthful. Bananas go at about 4 to a bite. I just shovel it and she looks at me with a very gentle long-lashed eye. As a pet she would be an expensive white elephant, even though she is gray (with pink spots on her mottled ears, pink tongue, pink nostrils, a few brownish molars, no tusks) and -- so I'm told, I can't judge for myself -- pregnant. But who done it?

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