Monday, March 25, 2013

The DC Metro, or "This Sucks"

I was just in DC this past weekend to visit a friend while I looked into a nearby law school. I don't know if you've been there, but DC is kind of an inspiring and inspired place. The memorials are tasteful and beautiful and appropriately grand. It's hard to not be moved when you stare Lincoln in the face and read his Gettysburg address. Patriotism rises up in you as suddenly and forcefully as a tremble.

But DC's Metro sucks. I've been on a number of Metro systems—New York, Boston, Berlin, Vienna, Paris, London, Rome, Athens, Toronto…—a whole bunch. Regular readers will remember that I collaborated with my brother on a short film that was a loving exploration of the unexpected places metros can take you. I adore and support public transit, especially the wild and wonderful bustle of a subway. I'm usually willing to forgive my inebriated co-passengers along with their oppressive body odor. I blithely skip over puddles of human excrement and rejoice at the cloud of nicotine that hovers around most metros. I'm usually giddy to hear the grating strains of a gypsy's accordion or the atonal shrieking of an amateur jazz saxophonist.

But DC's Metro sucks. It's oppressively lit by dim fluorescents, there's no relief from the dented concrete expanse, and there's the overwhelming and ever-present feeling that at any moment a shank is on its way for your ribcage.

DC's Metro sucks. The workers are cranky and unhelpful, signs informing you what to do when groped by a stranger are plastered across the walls, and the PA system periodically announces that we all need to be vigilant about abandoned bags, because…terrorists.

And DC's Metro sucks. The stops are awkwardly and inconveniently spread out, many of the entrances above ground are skeezy and more poorly lit than the subterranean dungeons they lead to, and you can never really make out what stop the announcer is saying.

But seriously, DC's Metro sucks. My day-pass kept getting stuck in the machines, the train doors take way too long to open and close too quickly, and I feel like I need to emphasize again the gloomy ennui that haunts the urban blight that is DC's sucky Metro.

It sucks.

When I was a kid visiting DC, the Metro was one of the first subway systems I ever used, so I didn't know just how bad it was by comparison. Compared to the world's great capitals, DC's public transit is horrifying and humiliating. To say it's the worst metro I've been on does a disservice to the word worst as an indicator of degree. It's so bad I can't begin to think of a second-to-last. No other subway I've been on deserves that disgrace.

And who designed this thing? Dante? What about all the beautiful neo-classicism that sits on the surface of the city? Why not some of that? What happened to L'Enfant's legacy? Why must the subway be a representation of all that is awful in bureaucracy? Where are the food vendors and the drink machines? Where are the sleazy magazine stands? Where is the LIFE that should fill the heart of a city's transportation?

DC's Metro. Sucks.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Life of Pi: 100 chapters, 100 years

First, happy Pi Day 2013! This post will mostly be stuff I've written before, but this time less pretentious and esoteric. For a long time I was planning on being an English professor, and I wanted to use this topic as my thesis or dissertation or something. But since I've abandoned that route, I don't feel the need to hide the issue in stilted "academic" writing. So here it is:

Life of Pi has 100 chapters, and each chapter is a metaphor for that year in the 20th century.

When I first finished Life of Pi, I went kind of nuts with how much I loved it, so my family gave me a collection of Yann Martel's short stories for my birthday. The main story in the collection is The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios (which, at one point, I could spell without Googling). In it, the two main characters start writing a novel where each chapter is a metaphor for an event in the 20th century. The story was published in the 80s, so they used an incomplete list of events or "facts." I thought that was way too nifty an idea to leave just in the short story.

Turns out, Life of Pi was published in 2001. Pi suspiciously has 100 chapters, and they frequently correspond closely to the "facts" laid out in The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios. In 1903, for example, the Wright Brothers had their first flight; in chapter three, Pi learns how to swim. In 1969, Americans landed on the moon; in chapter 69, Pi shoots off a series of desperate flares. The Tsimtsum sinks in the chapter that corresponds with Pearl Harbor, etc.

The point is, Life of Pi functions on an absurd number of levels. You could go crazy trying to pick apart each chapter and what its commentary would be on all of the different world events.

At the same time, though, I think it's vital to any reading of Pi to be aware that Pi's journey isn't just Pi's. It's Martel's framing of the entire 20th century. This isn't just the story of one boy from Pondicherry trying to stay alive in the presence of a tiger. It's the story of a world trying to come to terms with its spiritual inheritance, trying to make sense of the conflicting stories that shape our reality. It's about the 100 years war of faith, reason, and modernity.

The premise of Life of Pi is so simple it can be expressed in three basic nouns: boy, boat, tiger. But the complexity of the work spirals out towards infinity, as unending and irrational as Pi's own namesake.

I love this book.