Stardew Valley, Sorge, and Martin Heidegger

I’ve been playing a lot of Stardew Valley lately. The pixel-graphics farm RPG has enjoyed a  one-year anniversary this past Feb. 26, but mostly I’ve found the game to be a bit of an escape as Syracuse’s nickel grey March and school’s looming deadlines deepen a seasonal depression.

For those of you who have not played Stardew Valley, the plot is simple. Inheriting your grandfather’s rustic farm in the bucolic Stardew Valley, you start with some lose coins and tools and gradually nurture the farm back to health, interacting with the community and the surrounding countryside–from mysterious woods, to mines, to the ocean–as you plant and harvest seeds, forage, mine, and care for animals. Like any RPG, you level up your skills, from crafting and combat, and build relationships with NPCs by giving gifts and completing small quests. The player can eventually get married and raise a family.

The game has some overlap with the Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing series, placing the player as a caretaker enmeshed in a community. The simple music, pixel graphics, and winsome, quirky cut-scenes have their charm, and while the mechanics can get a bit grind-inducing (depending on one’s style and goals), the rhythm of rising, getting set for the day, working, and heading to sleep is a calming metronome that structures your daily actions, whether attending a community celebration, fighting “Slimes” in the mine, or simply fishing away a few hours.

More deeply, though, I kept coming back to what Stardew Valley teaches about Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), especially his notion of sorge, or “caring,” as it’s often translated.

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Identifying the Alien in our Humanity

Look around you. At any given moment, “beings” encircle us from all sides. I’m using a computer on a table, while sitting on chair. Nearby, some window blinds murmur a restless patter and s kettle hisses and whines. Outside, the stirring, purring, scratching, sniffing scuttle of nature persists indefinitely. Indeed, we are not alone.

On the one hand, this is pretty obvious. Humans have always had “tools” or “technology,” and we’ve always been in the environment. But at a deeper level, this intimacy with other beings implies a kinship. Particularly in contemporary culture, people constantly interact with and through technology, like cell phones, buses, radios, computers, or televisions. Doing so, we express our humanity in and through technology, and this technology has an important role in how that occurs.

In other words, humans do not express what we often call “humanity” in a vacuum. To compose the great texts of history, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Sappho, and Sun Tzu needed technology. They needed ink or stylus, paper or tablet. And these texts always grew out of a place. The tablets of Mesopotamia needed the clay of the Fertile Crescent. The cave sketches of Lascaux needed the water and pigment–along with the cave wall.

This is what the scholar Thomas Rickert is getting at, to some extent, with the notion of “ambiance”: we grow out of stuff, express with stuff, “are” through stuff and space. As Carl Sagan said, “We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” Humans may like to center the world around our own being, but we are intimately part of the nonhuman, “spoken” in a sense by our environment and the objects and nonhuman beings that compose it.

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Making the Switch

Dave glances at my plate of spinach, beans, and brown rice as I eye the meatballs Not me... yetnestled in his spaghetti.

“You eat like a rabbit,” he says.

“Rabbits don’t generally eat garbanzo beans or cooked rice,” I reply.

“But still…”

As the conversation changes, he forgets my rabbit food, and I forget his meat. In the end, it doesn’t really matter what we have.

According to a 2008 study by Harris Interactive Service, about 7.3 million people are vegetarian in the United States—that’s about 3.2 percent of the population. Most are young, from middleclass backgrounds, and live in the Western or Southern regions of the United States. I’m one of them, a skinny, grain-eating, tofu-crunching middle-class American.

Nothing radical there.

We vegetarians eat about three meals per day—just like our omnivorous counterparts. We don’t all use organic paper and beet-juice ink or attend regular services at hippy churches on weekends.  Most aren’t PETA extremists who throw red paint at fur coats and survive on seaweed and unpronounceable grains. Perhaps our farts smell a little bad sometimes, or we’re be a pain to take out to dinner, but most of us are pretty normal. At least I think so.

Still, some people berate me with things like, “why the hell would you do that?” or “we deserve to eat animals,” or my personal favorite, “you’re going to die because you’re not getting enough protein.”

Others aren’t so malicious. They just don’t understand, or grow up thinking that all vegetarians fit the same model. But we are all very different and have very different reasons for becoming vegetarian.

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