Culture Club: On Tetris
Finding tranquility in the ever-shifting blockscape
Welcome to Culture Club, a feature where my editor David Swanson and I talk about what we’ve been reading, watching, artistically admiring, and—this week—playing. This is a feature for paid subscribers only, but enjoy this free preview and consider upgrading to paid!
When I hear the Tetris theme song (or Tetris Theme A, according to the old Gameboy categorization), I get a certain animal reaction, a shift into a state of eager calm. It’s a rarity these days, that altered state of mind, one that I’m willing to pursue across levels and devices and time.
In my mid-30s, I’ve fallen into an unlikely, and unsought-after, sobriety. Marijuana, which I smoked for many years, turns out to play spectacularly poorly with my anxiety disorder; it took me a staggeringly long time to accept that (particularly as weed enthusiasts, somewhat uniquely, seem very invested in suggesting dizzying arrays of strains, types and concentrations in the certainty that there is at least one that won’t cause me to feel like my heart is trying to strangle my brain). After a certain point, however, even someone as stubborn and self-destructive as me stopped chasing the shadow of my teenage, euphoric experiences with pot, and simply declined to be curled up twitching in the fetal position due to voluntary self-poisoning any longer.
As to alcohol, I still periodically indulge, but anything approaching drunkenness comes with a built-in, days-long punishment, a hangover from hell that means I’m bed-bound for a day to a day and a half. At times I don’t even have to be more than mildly tipsy to call down this curse. Occasionally being drunk is pleasant, but the comeuppance—brought on, no doubt, by the cocktail of prescription medication I’m perpetually on—means that there’s a heavy price. As a result I have diminished my alcohol intake to near-zero over the past year. And that leaves me, well, excruciatingly sober. Trapped in the unaltered, howling void of my own mind.
Enter Tetris. Its rain of blocks. Its catchy theme. Despite generally having the spatial awareness of a concussed hen, I’m weirdly good at Tetris—expert-level, dizzyingly-fast good, able to listen to a podcast while I T-spin, combo-block and clear-all with apparent ease. I get into a kind of trance state when I play, letting the music guide fingers that feel impossibly nimble in a life where “nimble” is usually a word I would never, ever use about myself. I may be heavy with doubt and physically grotesque, but when I stare at the screen and make the blocks dance, I transcend myself, briefly, which is all I ever wanted—all most of us ever want, really. Everything is immediate. I make all obstacles vanish.
The theme song—a Russian folk song called “Korobeiniki,” roughly translated as “pedlars who carry their wares in little boxes”—is an absolute earworm, even in the stripped-down MIDI form available to old-school players. I happen to speak Russian, so I can report to you that Korobeiniki is also kind of … well… raunchy. I mean, filthy.
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