Thursday, April 30, 2009

Thirty Seconds of Amusement

This right here is one of the reasons why I love Slate Magazine. Most of the "first 100 days coverage" I find pretty artificial, but this is definitely an exception.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Rock Your Pixels Off

I love video games. I don't think I'll ever really get over them entirely. When I was a kid I cared way more about Mario than Mickey and recently I've had a good portion of my brain eaten by Grand Theft Auto IV, a game that's probably better written than most TV shows. When I see people mix up the trappings of video games in their work, I'm generally interested, and I think that if Warhol had lived long enough he would have done a few prints featuring Mario. Apropos of nothing, here's a bunch of video game-laced musical things.

This video is probably one of the more awesome things that I've seen on the internet in a while. The video below is not game footage. It's certainly inspired by Megaman, but all of it is the work of a guy called Myk Dawg, who's made a few unofficial game-like videos. Kanye West really ought to just buy off this video from him and use it, as it fits well with West's aesthetic. Take a look.

(HD) Kanye West - Robocop (1988 import version) from Myk Dawg on Vimeo.

I love this type of stuff. Nothing gets my nostalgia going like 8-bit games. Another group, Desert Planet, is sort of the audio-equivalent of this, as all of their music is intentionally made to sound like it's from a video game.

What surprises me about these videos and music is the realization that I'm attracted to a certain kind of technological imperfection. Visible pixilation was not initially the result of any kind of artistic process. It was an artifact of technological limitation. Had the developers of Pac-Man had their way, Pac-Man would have probably have looked more like this:

And less like this:

I personally prefer the second image. As irrational as it is, I find the second image to be "warmer" or more "authentic" in some kind of way, but I know that that's simply the result of nostalgia and conditioning. People who say they prefer the sound of vinyl to digital music are usually fooling themselves, and I know that I'm sort of fooling myself with my experience of the pixelated image, but I enjoy it anyway.

Anyway, here's another video, but this time it's a cover of actual video game music with footage of an actual video game:

I couldn't post about this stuff without including The Minibosses, a band I've known about for some time and do some rocking covers of old 80s games. The video is amusing enough, but I distinctly remembering Castlevania III being only one player.

This sort of stuff reminds me that art doesn't really need to be realistic or accurate. That's obvious, when you think about it. I'm far away from being a luddite, and I think it's great that the images that jump out of modern video games and CGI movies are more realistic than every. Realism, though, is a tool. It's something that can aide and enforce emotional reactions in the viewer, but it's not a prerequisite for something to be good.

Think about this: One of the most popular game ever is Dungeons and Dragons specifically, and RPGs in general. RPGs don't have any graphics. Players might use drawings and models, but these are static. The experience is not diminished by the absence of realistic representation. If anything the addition of animated images would distract from the experience. It's all about what's going on in the player's heads, not what's going on in front of their eyes.

Anyways, I'm a sucker for this retro stuff, and I'm sure I'm not alone. A whole slew of twentysomethings are probably going to remember the NES and Atari 2600 in much the same way that our parents remember the Beatles. That will be sort of trip- think of the future equivalent of VH1 specials.

Anyway, here's another video. It's newer, yes, but still cool. A very talented dude plays Zelda music. I quite dig his light-up hat and use of kitchen implements.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

I Just Can't Finish 1421

I rarely put down books. Even if something is not going very well, I want to see if the author can redeem themselves with a good ending. Occasionally this happens. Today, though, I tossed aside 1421: The Year China Discovered America by Gavin Menzies.

Menzies' thesis is that Imperial China's treasure fleet sailed not only throughout the eastern Pacific and Indian oceans, but also went to the Americas, mapped the coast of Antarctica, sailed around western Africa, established colonies all over the world, and left maps that were put to use by later European explorers. I'd heard of the book before, and was suspicious of it from the outset, but it had been recommended to me enough times that I finally picked up my roommate's copy. As bad as I feel, I can't finish it.

My first red flag was that Menzies, early on in the book, talks about how the Yongle Emperor received a collection of heads of state at his new capital in Beijing. He notes the absence of the Europeans, though, because he said that the Europeans were "too primitive."

Now hold on a second. If the Emperor was willing to entertain guests from, say, Mongolia, a place full of nomads who lived in Yurts, then surely he'd also accept the company of someone from, say, France. Menzies doesn't for a moment entertain the idea that the Chinese were either ignorant of Europe or unable to establish connections with it. He just takes it for granted that the Europeans were too savage to be invited to Beijing. Sloppy.

His map of the world also shows the Chinese fleet going everywhere except Europe. I find this highly suspicious. The treasure fleet was an entity that was all about extracting tribute from foreign lands, hence the name. If the Chinese were willing to accept tribute from, say Africa (where they famously brought home a giraffe), then they'd probably also want to do the same thing with Europe, which had much more in the way of stuff. So why didn't they show up in Europe and demand tribute and recognition? Oh yeah- because they probably didn't know what Europe was or how to get there.

I also found the bits about Chinese foreign colonies to be highly dubious. Wouldn't we have heard of these before? Shouldn't someone have fond some pictographs on a rock or something? Really. You'd think that would be a pretty big deal, and someone else would have found something.

Reading the book, though, I felt sort of sorry for Menzies. He obviously has a love for history and things nautical, and seems very much to want to say something interesting. Personally, I find the whole history of the treasure fleet fascinating, and would love to read a more credible history about it.

That story is good enough without making it world-spanning. The Chinese built huge ships, sailed around the Pacific and Indian oceans, and almost bankrupted their empire doing it because the voyages could not pay for themselves. Then, in a fit of reactionary fury, the government banned sailing and went isolationist. That's an incredible bit of history right there, and I'd love to know the details of it. Menzies, though, reminds me of one of my favorite Douglas Adams quotes: "Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it, too?"

I want to learn more about the garden, but Menzies is just looking for fairies.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Defining "Bigotry"

I tossed around the word "bigot" in the last post a lot, and it occurred to me that it's a rather strong word, and I should define my terms. So, here goes:

Morbidly obese 85 year olds: Do you want to watch them fuck? I certainly don't.

I'd probably lose my lunch if I had to watch a pair of geriatric Jabbas bump uglies. I'd rather watch something more palatable, like cows being slaughtered or a Faces of Death video. Does that make me a bigot? Nope.

Despite my physical revulsion, I think that hugely fat old people have just as many rights as anyone else. They have every right in the world to get married, hold hands, and call each other "shnookums." I may be kind of an asshole for finding their coitus less than inspiring, but that doesn't make me a bigot. If someone wanted to denigrate them as degenerates, though, or take away their right to fuck, hold hands, get married, or in any way be considered less of a person in any kind or real way, that's bigotry.

I don't think that finding gay sex icky makes you a bigot. I'm sure that lots of gay people find straight sex icky, and that's perfectly fine. However, bigotry comes when people want to translate personal ickiness into something like law or social policy. Fortunately, though, fewer and fewer people want to do that.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

On That "Gathering Storm" Ad

When I was in high school, I remember seeing some footage of George Wallace yelling about segregation, and how it would be forever. As a teenager, I was kind of incredulous. "People actually believed that shit?" I thought. I knew that history was full of lots of nasty beliefs, but to actually see a person from more or less the modern era yelling about something that seemed so retro was odd to me. Watching Wallace made for quite the effective lesson, it was a weird lesson in the existence of prejudice.

A few days ago, I had a similar feeling of disbelief when I saw this video that's been making the rounds on the internet- an anti-gay marriage ad by a right-wing political group. When I first saw it, I thought it was very dry satire, until I got to the end and there was no punchline.

The various people in the ad complain about having their rights violated because would have to, potentially, recognize the validity of gay marriage. This is an argument with no intellectual legitimacy whatsoever. None. I'm confident in making that bold a statement. Try this fun little exercise: Every time someone in the ad says "gay" replace it with "black."

Wasn't that fun? You may think it's unfair to equate race with sexual orientation. I do not. Both are determined at birth, unalterable by the individual who possesses them, and have nothing to do with the inherent worth of a person.

I am completely comfortable with denying bigots legal quarter to practice their bigotry. Rights of belief are absolute, but the old standard holds that the right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins. So it is with gay marriage. Bigots are free to resent and seethe as much as they want, but they cannot seriously ask for a right to enact their prejudices. A doctor who claims special exemption to the treatment of gays as equals is no more legitimate, or less bigoted, than a doctor who claimed infringement upon their rights because they had to treat and interact with Asians.

In a weird way, though, the ad makes me very happy. The fact that bigots are so pissed off and vocal means that real progress is being made. I think that the loudest arguments against gay marriage have already been made. Eventually, only the hard right will be ranting against it, and the general public will be either indifferent or accepting of the issue. Until then, whimpers of discontent will accompany news of progress.

An Additional Ambition

Since I've gotten back, I've spent a fair amount of time writing. Mostly about Japan. One of the reasons that I came back, I think, was that I wanted to do this, and I was not particularly productive when I was working for GEOS. Now, though, I spend a bit more time writing each day.

Okay, a shit-ton of time writing. I've been parking myself behind my keyboard for a few hours a day trying to turn an old blog, a pile of emails and journal entries, and recollections into one of those things known as a "memoir." Not only am I trying to write a book, I'm trying to write one of the more artsy and narcissistic kinds.

Sure, it's not just about me. There's a fair amount of stuff that's all about teaching in general and life in Japan. And there's all kinds of nice things that I have to say about my students. But, mostly it's about me. Oh, how interesting! A 28 year old writing about his life experiences! Wow!

I am excited about this. I've always dreamed about being a writer. I've had fantasies about doing book signings, which I think is funny because I've been to book signings, and they generally don't look super-exciting as far as the author is concerned. Whenever I sit down to write something, I get a certain high about it. There are times when you're writing, you're going, and it just all comes. I can understand the whole idea of the muse, because it really does feel like it's all coming from somewhere else at times.

I suppose that's why I blog on a frequent basis, why I can't not write. I'm addicted to the feeling of creative production. Nevertheless, there's this bad little voice in my head telling me "stop." It says that I'm going up a blind alley, that there are thousands of guys like me who pump out fiction, memoirs, and other such stuff, and that every day they dream of seeing their name in print, and almost all of them are disappointed.

And yet...

I used to work in a bookstore, and while there I became convinced that you can get any sort of shit published. Really. We had books about chicks having sexual liasons with bigfoot, books by people who thought that they were the reincarnation of Jesus, and this one book that was just a memoir about some woman going to the beach and sitting quietly for a while. Seeing all this shit, going over it, ogling at it, and ultimately selling it, really convinced me that getting something published is a feat of sales and tenacity, and anything, as long as it fills out the covers, can potentially get turned into a book. I know I'm better than a lot of the wackos and sentimentalists who've managed to get themselves onto shelves, and I really do think that I can compete if I kick myself in the ass enough.

So, I've been kicking myself in the ass. I've sat down every single day to write, pounding out memories of Japan, retooling existing material, and fashioning it all into a coherent narrative that will probably be called Hired Tongue: A Memoir of Japan. Obviously, I'm pleased with myself (that's partially why I'm blogging/bragging about it), but I'm also surprised by it. I'm surprised by how much I've been able to get done by applying myself and tapping my potential.

I've already started sending query letters to agents, trying to get them interested in a memoir about Japan. There are surprisingly books of that nature, which I find sort of odd. Thousands of people teach English there every year, and I sort of figured that someone would have written about it. There is one book, called Learning to Bow, but it's supposed to be fairly dated by now, and not particularly good. Another, a very beautiful book is called simply A Year in Japan, but it's almost entirely illustrations. There are no real, current, straight up books on my topic.

So, I'm excited by all of this. However, I do want to make one promise to myself. I will never, ever, ever refer to myself as a "writer" until and unless I actually publish something. To do otherwise would be an act of pretension that I couldn't really abide. So, for the time being, I'm still identifying as "doing fuck-all," because that about describes it. I just happen to be writing a lot.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Something Lacking

The past two months back in Portland have been wonderful. It's been a joy seeing people again, and great getting reacquainted with my hometown. I've made a lot of headway in terms of my long-term plans, and my social life is pretty active. I've got a great place in a hip part of town, am going to a party tomorrow night, and I'm pursuing my interests with verve and enthusiasm. Everything is great except for one teensy little detail: I need a job.

When I was sixteen years old I walked into a Fred Meyer, Portland's local big-box retailer, and asked for a job. Soon after that I was wearing a smock and name tag, pushing shopping carts around in the parking lot. When I was twenty, I needed a gig and went to a temp agency. Soon, I was ungumming machines in the back room of a Bank of America, a low-paying but uncomplicated job, one that didn't weigh on me at all when I left. At twenty-three I walked into my favorite bookstore and asked to be hired. I got the job because a friend of a friend had been able to hook me up with it, and I worked their for three years before I left the country.

I've always seen the ability to get an okay job at will as a sort of entitlement. I'm educated, competent, and have a pretty good resume. I like to think that I make a pretty good impression in interviews. I went to college, graduated in four years, and have been employed full time since then. At the risk of sounding sanctimonious, I'm someone who has played by all of the rules.

And yet I can't get a job. Neither can anyone else, for that matter.

It's infuriating. It's not only infuriating for financial reasons (those, though are quite surmountable) but infuriating because one has the urge to make some sort of moral connection between behavior and situation. On a very regular basis, I have to tell myself that this is something that is happening to a lot of good, qualified people. I'm not in the position I'm in because I've failed in some way. I've gotten employed several times before, after all, and I'm now more qualified, more experienced, more confident, and more employable than I've ever been. My troubles do not reflect any regression or shortcomings on my part, yet unemployment comes with a sneaking tentacle of judgment, wrapping itself around the base of the mind. Responding to ads, updating my resume, and calling about jobs is a part of my daily routine, but on top of that I need to continually reemphasize my own sense of self-worth.

I know that it's completely irrational. Bad things happen to good people, shit happens, etc. We have cliches about it. But even the comfort of knowing that this experience is shared by so many people, so many that it's become a cliche, doesn't erase the dissatisfaction. My dissatisfaction is mitigated, though, when I remind myself that I, for instance, have a degree but no kids. I know that there are thousands of unemployed people who have kids, but no degree, and life is much harder for them. Despite my frustration, I'm still one of the lucky ones.

There's obviously a political dimension to all of this, and in terms of politics, I like to think of myself as someone who doens't give into emotion or ideology. I try, as much as possible, to be non-dogmatic and reasonable when it comes to making political decisions, and for that reason I've been leery of a lot of the populist anger that people have had regarding the bailouts and such. Yes, there would be certain amount of vengeful satisfaction if we were to tax the hell out the the AIG executives, for instance, but that probably won't do much to fix the economy. We will get out of this by using our heads, not by crying havoc.

Despite that, I'm angry. Very angry, and I have the right to be. I'm angry for myself and I'm angry for all those other people who want to work, but can't. All I did was come home, hoping to get some random job before I leave the country again. That's it. Not a career, not something super high-paying. Just a job to pay the bills for the time being. But even that is gone, and I'm livid because of it.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Admit it: You Love Hearing About Pirates

I just heard an NPR reporter pronounce the phrase "battling pirates off the coast of Africa." Sure, this is a serious issue but my initial reaction was "What is this, 1802?" The words "pirate" and "piracy" have mostly become associated with software in my mind, and it was sort of weird hearing about the actual maritime variety. The report might as well have been about vikings or ninjas or something.

Which is why I think reporters are loving this story, and why the public is paying attention. As serious an issue as this is, I think that reporters secretly love saying "pirate" and meaning it. Especially now. For the past few years the news has been dominated by terrorists, whom few have bothered to really understand or investigate; the Iraq war, which is a frontless quagmire; and the economy, which is a byzantine maze that few people really understand. Now, though, we have clarity.

Everyone understands pirates. What do they want? Cash. What do we do about them? We shoot them. The end.

Obviously, it's more complicated than that. Somalia is a fairly worrisome place. But, I think that after years of messy and depressing stories, people are sort of relieved by something that is not only exciting, but offers a certain amount of moral clarity. We're the good guys, they're the bad guys, and in the most recent round, we won. What's more, these guys are pirates. Motherfuckin' pirates! They're not about politics or religion or anything ideological. They're all about hauling in giant piles of money and stuff. They are, then, a set of villains we can relate to, understand, and feel good about defeating. That's exactly the sort of thing that a media and a public, starved for excitement in the midst of recession, love to hear about.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Paper Werewolves of Pure Awesome

Every so often I've had conversations with people that start with something like "Wouldn't it be awesome if..." whereupon some grand idea is described, and not acted upon. Too bad, really. The members of Nightshade, though, must have had a conversation at some point that went like this: "Hey, guys, wouldn't it be awesome if we put on a creepy shadow puppet show about haunted houses, ghosts, ancient tomes of dark lore, S&M demons, blood sacrifice, and werewolf cultists? Wouldn't that be awesome?"

Except Nightshade, apparently, actually did it. I saw their puppet show earlier this evening, and it was basically the coolest shit that I've seen in a while. The whole event was a big, gothy, hilarious, awesome spectacle, complete with dog vivisection and a creepy rabbit costume. I was thrilled, and at the end of the performance gave a very genuine "Woo!"

By definition you can't fake authenticity, and it's authenticity that really makes the difference between a good performance and a great one. These people gave a shit. They had their paper monsters and spooky sound effects, and you could tell that they were performing their hearts out with them, having a great time. I thought "Wow, this is a bunch of really intelligent, creative people who love the fuck out of werewolves. So much so that they're putting on a hilarious show featuring a lycanthrope-inspired armageddon." I admire that kind of stuff. I really do. I love seeing people inspired and enthusiastic, all fired up about stuff. It was one of the best evenings I've had in a while, and it featured teenage demon puppets talking about Twitter. If they put together another show, I'm definitely catching it.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Extra Special Good Friday Post About My Lack Of Religion

In honor of Passover and Easter (and because I recently read a book about it), I'd like to talk about something near and dear to my heart- religion and the lack thereof.

As someone raised Catholic, I became a nonbeliever in the fairly dramatic way, with a fair amount of angst. I know several friends who were simply raised secular. I remember, actually, what really tipped the scales for me. I probably would have given up religion anyway, but for me the tipping point came when I was reading Isaac Asimov's robot books. Yes, that's right. Science fiction killed my Catholicism.

Asimov was a committed rationalist, and in his books he explained clearly and persuasively why robots were had just as much "personhood" as people did. I believed him. I agreed that a sufficiently complex artificial system could be just as much a person as a human being. Some kind of metaphysical "soul" was not necessary for its function, and, by implication, our function. Nature worked fine without supernature intervening.

There was more to it than that, of course. I'd read the Bible, and decided that God was an asshole. As a young teenager, I couldn't reconcile the vile acts of the Old Testament with any idea of a loving god. They seemed more like the actions of Zeus of Quatzalcoatl than the deity that was praised at mass. Moreover, I didn't always agree with what Jesus had to say in the New Testament. It was Jesus who introduced the idea of a hell, and I found the idea that any human person could be permanently (eternally!) irreedeemable to be deeply distasteful. Such a permanent lack of forgiveness, I thought, was petty at best. On top of that, god seemed too fantastic an idea to ever fully except. I never really believed in Santa Claus, and I think I felt the same way about god.

There I was, about thirteen years old, and not finding legitimacy for something that was so important to my family. God wasn't real, and religion was an artifact of history.

Realizing all this was painful, mainly because of what it reflected about my parents and teachers. I had been made to go to Catholic school as a child, and attend mass every sunday. In sixth grade, I attended public school, but my father had me attend a weekly religious education class and become an altar boy. What's more, my homeroom teacher in middle school attended the same church as my family, so Catholic authority figures still loomed large for me.

I had come to my own conclusion that there was probably no god, and kept it to myself for years. I didn't want a confrontation with my parents, teachers, or priest. As a teenager, I dutifully went through the rite of Confirmation, though the name I chose, Luke, owes more to my love of Star Wars than the gospel chronicler. I needed a saint's name that would still be meaningful to me, and Luke was it.

Years later, after University, I finally told my father that I consider myself an agnostic (a label that I remain unsatisfied with). He didn't believe me. "You're Catholic," he said, "you'll come back." My father continued to tell me to go to Church and pray, and I told him that I don't do those things. "Yes you do," he said. That was always hard to take. Hearing my father engage in what seemed to be an act of philosophical weakness didn't cease to be painful.

Since my "conversion," if you will, I've often thought about how to be a good person without being religious. This is something important to me because I feel like I'm a better person because I've had to decide things for myself. My moral decisions, I've found, have not been based on fear of an angry god. They have been based on something else, some love of humanity, and I want to know what that is. There is nothing compelling me to be good to my neighbors. I am good to them because of what I am and what they are, not because of outside, deific, pressures.

In addition, there is a widespread belief in America that religion is the proper basis for morality. When Mitt Romney was talking about his Mormonism last year and asking for religious tolerance and understanding, I had a great deal of sympathy for him. Of course he may practice whatever religious system he chooses, even if I think it's a rather silly one. He lost me, though, when he lashed out against secularists in the same speech. He asked for tolerance, but would not give it to me. That that hypocrisy is acceptable in the United States is deeply disturbing. More historical than a black president, I think, will be our first out-and-proud secular president.

Delving into secular morality is what led me to minor in philosophy in university, and I've read a number of books on the subject of why there is no god, and what that means. Most recently I read God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, and found it to be a curious book. I agreed with just about everything that Hitchens had to say, and found him sympathetic, yet the book was still extremely annoying.

Hitchens spends most of the book slamming religion, mostly Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He never says anything that I find all that disagreeable, but his tone is one of a man who is simply ranting and complaining about things. Yes, the Bible contains some awful, immoral things, yes, religious leaders have been responsible for a lot of history's horrors, yes modern science has disproved a lot of it anyway. Yes, yes, yes. I'd heard all of that before.

I kind of wondered who Hitchens' intended audience was. Certainly not me. I wasn't learning anything all that new from what he had to say. I couldn't imagine a religious person being all that persuaded by the book, though. If anything, I thought of theists being so pissed-off by his ranting tone that they would become even more galvanized in their beliefs. Reading the book, I was also reminded of the humorlessness of Richard Dawkins, a man I admire immensely, yet who, I think, has a rather dour public persona.

This is a problem, I think, that is intrinsic in the cause of non-belief. By its nature, it is reactive. People like Hitchens and Dawkins are the sort of personalities who go on and on about what they don't believe, what they think is foolish and worthy of scorn. They are defined by their public opposition to something, rather than by their advocacy of something positive. There are numerous other philosophers and political writers who don't believe in god, but for many of them it's merely something that they don't think about. Most nonbelievers are fairly casual about it, and don't make a zealous project of their lack of faith.

Sam Harris, whose book The End of Faith, I quite liked, says that he does not like being called an atheist. The term, he says, defines someone by their nonbelief in something. It is a purely negative, and therefore largely unappealing term. It is also, he says, sort of absurd. Calling someone an atheist is similar to calling someone an anti-astrologer or anti-alchemist. They might disbelieve aspects of supernature, but that is a single intellectual detail that does not define their philosophical outlook. As I mentioned earlier, I dislike the term "agnostic." I have similar reasons, though I use it. I choose the term "agnostic" as opposed to "atheist," by the way, as a sort of technicality. For all intents and purposes, I am an atheist. There is almost certainly no god, and even if there was one I do not think it would deserve the worship of intelligent entities. However, I believe that a deity, by it's very nature, would be uncomprehendable to human perception and cognition. By definition, it would be impossible to confirm or deny it's existence. Neither I, nor any other human, could make an entirely conclusive statement about the nature of a hypothetical god.

Religion, I think, will always be with us. I am not so optomistic that I think that humanity will ever come to a grand enlightenment with regard to supernatural ideas. There will always be some proportion of the population who sincerly believe in gods, angels, and an afterlife. We cannot crush it, as Hitchens and Dawkins seem to suggest. Instead, I think that the best we can ask for, and something we really ought to ask for, is a place at the table in America and the world. What I hope for is that people like me will be considered just as moral, good, and philosophically legitimate as any theist. I know that lots of people think that already, and that we'll get to that point eventually.

Right now, though, it's particularly poignant. I'm going over to my family's house on Easter, and I know that I will have to defend my (lack of) religion. I will be asked to pray and attend church, and I will decline to do both. Given the expansive nature of my father, there will be conversations, maybe contentious ones, about the nature of the resurrection and all that. The man who raised me will belittle my beliefs, and say that they are not my own, that they are a result of going to a secular high school and university. It will not be the last time we've had this argument, and we will each leave unconvinced by the other.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

On the Waterfront

I've been in Portland for almost two months now, and I've come to really admire this place. I've always loved Portland, of course, but I haven't actually lived here for ten years. When I cam back from either Eugene or Japan it was only for a period of days. I was back in the States for two weeks over year ago, but I also split my time between Washington and Eugene. Portland, then, has always been my hometown, but it got more and more abstract the longer I was away. I often introduced myself with something like "I'm Joe, and I'm from Portland," but that always felt a little inaccurate, as I'd never lived here on my own.

Of the many things that I've begun to really appreciate, is Portland's abundance of public space. In particular, Waterfront Park and the Esplanade on the Willamette's east bank. It's remarkably pleasant. Really, that's the best word for it. Pleasant. Even the huge, industrial looking bridges are pleasant.

There seems to be an aesthetic at work in Portland where no one accepts any sort of dichotomy between niceness and functionality. the Hawthorne Bridge is, indeed, a massive chunk of metal that opens up over a river. It is also fairly nice looking. It's not an iconic beauty the way the Golden Gate is, but it is far away from an eyesore. It's all the more impressive to me now, because I remember some years ago when it did not look so good- it was a rust-strewn thing that was all function with no thought of beauty.

The Broadway, Fremont, Steel, Ross Island, and St. John's bridges are also attractive urban features, and, looking at them, I sort of wondered why anyone would make a bridge like the Burnside and Morrison bridges, which are mostly a flat hunks of concrete stretching over the river. The other bridges are just as functional as these, and far more attractive. Now I'm wondering, why on earth would anyone make such a massive urban feature that wasn't at least as nice looking as, say, the Hawthorne Bridge? Fortunately, the Hawthorne seems representative of a lot of Portland's urban planning: Not revolutionary or aesthetically stunning, but still assembled with forethought, and with the conviction that the major landmarks of an urban center should not be ugly.

Above is Portland's memorial for the Japanese-Americans who were interred during World War II. I think it works as a memorial because it is fairly understated, and because it doubles as a usable public space. When I think about memorials that "work" I often think that less is more. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, I think, is a model of memorials- it is stark, simple, and conveys its message through its structure and aesthetics. When I was in Hiroshima, I was impressed with the Peace Park not only because of what it said, but also because of what it was. The Peace Park itself made Hiroshima a more pleasant city, a better place to live. It memorialized, yes, and made the present pretty nice as well. Portland's Japanese internment memorial does that, as well.

In contrast, Eugene has its own memorial commemorating Japanese internment, and its a failure as a memorial and as a public space. Nestled in an out of the way spot near the Hult Auditorium, it contains far too much in the way of statuary, things carved into rocks, quotations, lists, and odds and ends. There is quite simply too much in Eugene's memorial, and I could not imagine wanting to, say, sit in that public space and read a book. An expanse of rock and cherry trees, I think, is far better.

Part of me still wants to call them "sakura." When I was thinking to myself, I kept using the term "sakura blossoms" in my head, even though I knew the term was redundant. I was also on the Waterfront on Sunday, and was extremely pleased to see all of the people taking advantage of the space and the beautiful trees. There were a few performers out, and a guy on stilts dressed as a frog made me wish I had my camera.

When I was a kid, there were plenty of summer days that I spent jumping around in Salmon Street Springs. The fountain invites it- there are no obstructions around it, the spray of the water changes frequently, and as long as it remains unfenced there will probably always be kids, dogs, and uninhibited adults jumping around in it. It's still a bit too cold to see sweaty Portlanders jumping about in it, but come summer there will definitely be lots of them.

Really, how cool is that? How cool is it that there's a place in the city that's basically a miniature waterpark? Supercool! The thing's awesome, and if they ever put up a sign that says something like "No Cavorting In Fountain," I will gleefully ignore it.

The Esplanade on the east bank of the Willamette is still new to me. I know that it's been in place for a while, but it wasn't here back when I was a resident. I've come to really like it, especially because it's so immensely bike friendly. I remember when the east bank of the Willamette river was the dingy side, the side that paled in comparison to the west bank's Waterfront Park. Portland, to it's credit, is not a place that lets its dingy places stay dingy. They've fixed up the place wonderfully, and I quite like metal-and-concrete aesthetic.

I have just one issue with the Esplanade, though: it's named after Vera Katz.

I don't have any problem with Vera Katz particularly. Everything I've heard about her says that she was a perfectly fine mayor. My issue is that I think it's kind of weird naming public structures after leaders who are still alive. The fact that there's an ugly bronze statue of her nestled into the otherwise nice space makes it worse. States of people who are still living, I think, are sort of icky. I know it's an unfair comparison, but I'm reminded of Kim Il-Sung, who unveiled a huge bronze of himself on his sixtieth birthday. Vera Katz isn't Kim Il-Sung, but the naming of the place, and the immortalizing of someone who is still quite mortal, makes me feel sort of icky inside.

The Esplanade, though, is something that I've come to love as a bicyclist and as someone who just likes to wander about. Biking home a few nights ago, there were several people in its nooks and lit patches, some looking out at the glowing city across the water, and others making out on benches and in shadows. That's a fairly good use of public space there, if I do say so myself.


Here's a local Portland issue near and dear to my heart- the fate of the White Stag sign. I've always loved this thing, ever since I was a kid and was delighted to see the neon light up in the night while I rode in the back of my parents' car. At Christmas, the stag's nose glowed red, and I thought that was pretty awesome, too. I don't think that my experience is unique. Just about everyone who grew up in Portland has come to love this sign, which is why there's such a fracas about how to preserve it.

It originally advertised White Stag Sugar, and then White Stag Sportswear. Long after both of those companies went out of business, the sign remained up, glowing in the night advertising nothing. I remember a while back when the city was considering removing the sign due to costs, and Made in Oregon bought the advertising space, saving the sign, until recently, when its fate came up again. Once again the city discussed scrapping the thing, until the University of Oregon agreed to buy up the space. I think that this is great. Absolutely ideal, and everyone who's complaining about it should shut up for the following reasons:

-Condemning the sign would suck. The thing is a Portland icon, and everyone who grew up here would miss it. Don't pretend you don't care about it. You'd look into the emptiness of Old Town and weep at the emptiness. I would, you would, everyone would. I'd rather use a puppy as a soccer ball than tear down that thing.

-The sign, though, isn't cheap. A huge neon sign takes upkeep. It was an advertisement originally, so it's entirely reasonable for it to be an advertisement again, and hopefully produce some revenue for the property owners.

-The advertisers should have some local connection. The sign is a Portland landmark, and should proclaim something Portland-y with it's blinking lights.

-The University of Oregon is the perfect buyer for the sign. Yes, the U of O is in Eugene, and yes, there are lots of Portlanders who didn't go there. But, there's a Duck Shop in the building below the Stag, thus making the sign an actual advertisement for what it's actually above. Moreover, I was never thrilled about Made in Oregon owning the sign. Have you ever been in a Made in Oregon? I like the idea of the store, of stuff produced here. But most of what you find in those shops is uninspiring tourist crap. When I think of things that are made in Oregon, I think of Intel chips, Chuck Palahaniuk books, stuff published by Dark Horse, indy rock, and beer. Made in Oregon shops do not have these things. They have hazelnuts and wood carvings. That stuff is all well and good, but it doesn't really say "Oregon" to me.

The U of O, though, is something that has made an appreciable percentage of Portlanders better people, me included. How many Portlanders do you think "found themselves" in a Made in Oregon shop? Probably two. The U of O, though- man, that's a place where seriously profound shit is discussed. That's a place that molds the brains of the Rose City citizenry.

So, I think that the University buying the sign is a complete upgrade. Having one of the most recognizable landmarks in Portland advertise the largest academic institution in the state, as opposed to a kitschy shop where you can buy postcards, is more than appropriate. So I say: Yay White Stag sign! Yay U of O buyin the White Stag sign!

And if you don't like it, just wait another ten years. Someone else will have bought it by then.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

"Dick Lit": Reading High Fidelity.

"You really should read it. It's a great book for anyone who likes girls and music." That's my brother there, talking about Nick Hornby's High Fidelity as he shoves it into my hands.

"That would be me," I said, and took it. When I told a female friend of mine his above mentioned description she smiled a bit and said "Oh, dick lit," in the self-satisfied manner of someone who has just said something wittily accurate. I liked the term. I liked it so much that I stole it.

High Fidelity is one of my favorite movies. It's right up there with Blade Runner and Star Wars, as far as I'm concerned. John Cusack is a male role model that I admire way more than any musclebound action star. I've never wanted to be Arnie or Bruce Willis. Not really. I have, though, wanted to be John Cusack, and I think that High Fidelity had a lot to do with that. Also Better Off Dead. That one's good, too.

So, I love the movie. I am firmly in the "I like girls and music demographic," and love having my interests spoken to. Some years ago, a day or so after I broke up with a long-term girlfriend, I popped in the DVD and got ready for a good wallow. About a third of the way through the movie, the phone rang and I answered. A friend asked me what I was doing, how I was dealing with the breakup. "I'm drinking a bottle of wine and watching High Fidelity," I said.

A pause. "That," he said, "is the saddest thing I've ever heard." I laughed my head off when he said that. He knew what I was doing, why I was watching it. He'd also been there, and knew exactly what to say to make me laugh. So, I really like this movie- I like it because it empathizes with all sorts of anxieties and desires that I've recognized in myself, and because it describes this perfect little hipster fantasy world- one where you can have a cool little LP store in a big city, hang out with music geeks like yourself, go to shows, and have sex with sultry singers and snappy lawyer chicks. It's as appealing a fantasy as anything out of sci-fi.

So, anyway, I've got heaps of affection for the movie, and for that very reason avoided the book for quite sometime. In a sort of inversion of usual convention, I decided that I didn't want the book to spoil the movie for me.

But it didn't. The book isn't that bad. In fact, it's pretty good.

The book and movie really aren't all that different, (the one glaring difference is that one is in England and the other the States) and it seems like big swathes of the book were just cut out of the text and pasted into the screenplay. This wasn't necessarily a bad thing, but it did constantly bring John Cusack and Jack Black to mind. I'd gotten so used to those actors speaking those lines, that I couldn't help but summon their mental image when I was reading the book.

There are several places where the book is more detailed, which is nice, particularly in the character of Marie. In the movie she just sort of shows up, Rob sleeps with her, and that's about it. She's actually fleshed out in the book, and the scene where Rob sleeps with her is great because, like the rest of the story, it's anxiety-laden in a very familiar way. I found myself nodding "uh-huh... uh-huh..." to the various dilemmas that Rob encountered and invented for himself, and rooting for him when he solved them.

Which is why I liked High Fidelity so much to begin with, and why I was so pleased with the book. Rob is a likable protagonist because his problems, hang-ups, and issues are so real-seeming. He's also likable, though, because he doesn't really wallow in them. He thinks things out and solves his problems, he has a method to things and takes action to better himself, which is great. It's a sort of emotional Horatio Alger story- the protagonist starts off really depressed, pulls himself up by his mental bootstraps, and gets happy.

So, yeah. That's about it. The book of High Fidelity is really good, and Nick Hornby seems like a nifty, charming author, great for anyone who likes girls and music.

Monday, April 6, 2009

I Dig It: Reading On the Road

Until a month ago, I'd never read On the Road. This seemed kind of odd to me, as it is such a seminal book, the kind of book one reads in some formative time, much like Catch 22, The Stranger, or Slaughterhouse Five. I got to all of those, but never to Kerouac, never to the a book that I'd heard so much about and heard talked about, and had recommended to me numerous times. The last recommendation stuck, and I finally picked it up.

On the Road
, then, was book with a lot of baggage for me. Prior to picking it up, I already had an idea of On the Road, a mental image of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, and a preconception of the whole Beat scene and ethos. I tried to put all these aside when I picked up the book, but the fact that my edition had the words "The Novel That Defined a Generation" on the back cover did not help matters. Nevertheless, I tried to read it on its own terms.

My short review: I really liked it, but it doesn't have much of a plot.

Kerouac's biggest strength is his authorial voice. His words and descriptions of people and things are suffused with life, and there is a scattershot, stream-of-consciousness feeling to it all. He splatters words, exaggerates, and rambles most excellently. His writing is like an exhuberant shouting, and he transmits his exhuberance to the reader.

Kerouac certainly does make you want to get in a car and drive across America, but then, I wanted to do that anyway. Now I just want to do it more. Kerouac's writings, though, reflect nicely what it means to travel. Sal Paradise (Kerouac's alter ego) and Dean Moriarty (Cassady's) don't have much in the way of goals or objectives. They are not after any particular thing, nor do they have any coherent destination in mind. At no point do they really say "Let's go to place X and do Y." Instead, they derive value from the things that surround them. As cheesy as the old slang is, I really appreciated how the characters would simply get out of the car and "dig" things.

I've been there, and could relate. Last night I was on the Portland waterfront, stopped my bike, and just looked at the lit-up city. I didn't have any well thought out reason for doing this, or anything specific I was trying to derive from the experience. I just sat there and appreciated a glowing American city. There were plenty of days when I just walked or rode my bike around places in Japan, and just took those in. That's what On The Road is all about. Finding things, looking at them, and soaking in the beauty of the surrounding world, digging it.

It's too bad that's a cliche now, because On the Road must have been fairly fresh when it was published. The idea that you could have a travel narrative that's mainly a series of anecdotes and visions doesn't seem very revolutionary now, and while reading it I constantly wished that I had some ability to have seen the book in the context of it's time, but I suppose urges like that are frustrating and useless.

This project of the book though, this snapshot of America and the meanderings across it, is also the book's biggest shortcoming. On the Road doesn't really have much of a plot, which makes it something of a plod at times. There isn't much in the way of a beginning, middle, or end. There's mostly just lots of middle. Many of the characters remain fairly undeveloped, as well. Most of the people who aren't Sal or Dean just sort of show up in scenes and vanish later, which is fine, I guess, but it makes the supporting cast sometimes seem interchangeable.

Another issue that I had with the book (and I don't think this is a literary flaw, mind you) is that Dean Moriarty seemed like kind of a dick. Sure, he's entertaining and would probably be fun to hang out with in small doses, but I couldn't help but judging the guy for lying to and mistreating women and abandoning his kids. He steals cars as well, but I can forgive that. Knocking people up and ditching them, though, I don't find particularly charming.

All in all, though, the book made me want to get in a car and drive somewhere, speed around, see whatever shows up, and talk to whomever. I can understand it's appeal, I can see why Kerouac inspired so many, why generations of hipsters have picked up Kerouac and said "yeah, man, yeah!" Kerouac seemed to look at the world in such a way that he could not help but see something wonderous and stimulating.

While reading On the Road, I couldn't help but think of another piece of Beat literature, Allen Ginsberg's Footnote to Howl, wherein the old poet madly proclaims the holiness, as he calls it, of basically everything. I've always thought of Ginsberg as something of a manic street preacher of a man, belting insanity, though the best sculpted sort of insanity. Kerouac doesn't seem nearly as crazy as Ginsberg. If anything, Sal Paradise is often the sane counterweight to Dean Moriarty. Kerouac, though, seems to have seen the world through the same eyes as Ginsberg, taking in everything, not judging, not evaluating, and simply letting the visions and beauty of the world pass into you.

I am far away from the Beat ethos, but I think that's why I liked the book. As someone who constantly thinks, constantly judges and evaluates, and does his best to remain calm, I found this fervent enthusiasm for the wide world appealing. It spoke to a part of me that is often outweighed by the overriding intellect, an emotional outpouring of unjudgemental wonder.

Yeah, man. Yeah.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Goodbye, Monster Manual...

A comment from Joseph last week about old times in Eugene:

"I'd just come over to your place, and you'd be reading roleplaying books," he said, "it was weird."

"I worked in a bookstore, and collected them like someone would collect comic books," I responded.

"I know, but it was still weird."

Okay, maybe it was a little weird, and I'm always proud of my friends when the call me out on my bullshit and/or oddities, but in my defense I was almost always reading something at my old place in Eugene- novels, comics, news, nonfiction, whatever. If I was sitting at my home, and you walked in on me, chances are I was reading something. And yes, sometimes that was RPG sourcebooks, which, yes, is kind of an odd thing to sit around reading.

I got into RPGs in middle school, where a friend of mine invited me to join his Dungeons & Dragons game. My character was named Randy, and he was a half-elven thief who backstabbed people a lot. I had tons of fun playing D&D, but skipped over it in high school. There, I got addicted to speech and debate, mock trial, and other extracurriculars. I was busy being a teenaged intellectual, and didn't have much time for pretending to be an elf. I still watched Star Trek, read Tolkien, and had a huge crush on Agent Scully of the X Files, but I thought that I'd left the big centerpiece activity of geekiness, roleplaying, behind.

It wasn't until college that I got back into it, forming a D&D group with my friends. It was tons of fun- we hung out in dorm rooms and apartments, drinking Mountain Dew and beer, bullshitting and listening to music, and all the while imagining that we were killing the shit out of orcs. It was good times. I eventually got to like it better as someone who ran the game (the Game Master, or GM) rather than as someone who played it.

I enjoyed being a GM for the same reason that I enjoy cooking- it's instant creative gratification. You make something (like a lasange or a plot involving vampire warlocks), you cook it up, serve it, and there's an appreciative audience right in front of you. Running a successful and fun RPG session is a sort of high for creative types because it's an instant outlet. You have your story, people react to it by way of participation, and there's instant appreciation. What's more, I loved seeing my own stuff remixed. The players, via their characters, interacted with the world I made, commented on it, and added to it. It was like jamming with awesome musicians. (Well, most of the time, anyway.)

So, throughout and after college I was continually thinking up plots, stories, and quests for my friends. Campaigns, recurring stories, would run for weeks. We often met at my place, and each week I looked forward to my friends, my audience, showing up. I cleaned up my living room, stocked my fridge with beer, and was eager to splash my creative juices all over people. In one campaign, they were a bunch of superpowered mercenaries who killed an evil god king, in another they were a bunch of Werewolves who killed of Portland's vampire population. In still another they were all evil elves, and for another they were fey creatures fighting Lovecraftian beasts in modern London. I ran single-shot games, too, with stories that only lasted one night. I had a mystery involving ghosts that I was very proud of, and in another all of the players discovered that they were walking dead (yes, I do like creepy dead shit, as you may have noticed). One very successful one involved Nazi vampires stealing a submarine. Two of my old coworkers were at that one, and they enjoyed it so much that they bought themselves a bunch of roleplaying sourcebooks the next week.

So, I was proud of this, proud of these stories that I had an instant audience for. I devoured roleplaying books, mainly for ideas and inspiration. I had books about monsters and heroes, books of fictional places, and books on things like how to make statistics for castles. Books of things that I wanted to use, and they fed into my imgination. When I read stuff I thought, "I want to tell a story that has this in it." I imagined putting my friends in space and in the distant past. I imagined running games where everyone was a wizard, and others that heavily involved robots. I was always thinking about some fantasy world I could make, some ornate, created place that my friends could inhabit for a little while, react to.

When I went to Japan, I stored all of my RPG books in boxes, and thought about how I wouldn't have this hobby available to me anymore. Recently, I got them out of storage.

I dont' really want them anymore. They're all on Amazon now, the whole lot of them.

This isnt' to say that I don't have affection for them or that I don't like them. Far from it. I know that as much as I've de-geeked in the past two and a half years, part of me will always be that little boy who, dazzled by Tolkien, made a half-elf theif named Randy. I also know that I'll always need some kind of outlet for my creativity. One of the nicest compliments that I've recieved recently was from a girl who said, "You have a very active imagination." She meant it in a good way. Well, I'm pretty sure she did.... Anyway, back to the matter at hand...

I'm getting rid of all (yes, all) of my old RPG books for the following reasons:

-I will probably run an RPG session again at some point in my life, but I don't need RPG to inspire me. If I want to run a game about, say, zombies, I know enough about, and am creative enough, to make my own damn zombies. I don't need a book to tell me what a zombie is, or how to portray one.

-Money. Most of my books are out of print, and worth money to the right people. That's money that I can use to finance more interesting stuff, like traveling.

-I am in a place where I want to be unencumbered. I dont' want to have to worry about how my things are doing. It's liberating to not give a shit about your stuff, to not be concerned with a collection or a pile of objects. Yes, I know this sounds sort of new-agey and whatever, but it's true. Stuff weighs you down, man.

-It is sort of weird having a giant pile of books in your living space devoted to, for example, pretending you're a dwarf. I know that this is a little petty and that I shouldn't apologize for my proclivities, but still...

-I have other outlets for my creativity. I've been at my desk every day turning Hired Tongue into a coherent narrative, and also writing on this and my other blog. Oh, how I love the internet as a means of getting feedback and attention.

So, I'm saying goodbye to my little darlings, and I feel fairly good about it. I'm also eyeing my CD and LP collection, as well as my other books, but there are a few irreplaceables in there that I know I'll be keeping. In any case, I feel fairly good about this, sloughing off old stuff, being able to part, joyfully, with things that were once important to me.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Dilemma Reversal

Last night I went to an informational meeting about the Peace Corps, which is my Plan B if I don't get into the Foreign Service. It was pretty informative, and I'm very glad I went. The Corps seems like it would be a good experience in and of itself, and after twenty seven months of service, one can get preferential selection for Executive Branch jobs. That's a big, juicy incentive, right there. I'm still gunning for a Foreign Service job, and the State Department has been hiring. But, I'm hedging my bets with the Peace Corps, and given my education and background, I'm pretty much a shoo-in for them.

So, whether I join the Foreign Service or the Peace Corps, my long-term goals look awesome. I'm pretty much over the classic twentysomthing dilemma of "I have a shitty job, goddammit, what am I going to do with my life?" That's all in the past. I'm glad to be done with it, and am excited for the future.

Now, though, I'd really like a shitty job. Well, hopefully a cool job. There's a nonprofit position that I'm excited about, and I'm going to try to teach SAT and GRE prep on the side, but nothing's set yet, and given the current recession, I can't be too choosy about prospects. I'll be fine, I know, but it's weird to have the twentysomething life dilemma reversed. Now my situation is "Okay, I know what I'm going to do with my life, but I need some random gig in the meantime."

I'd prefer this, really. It's way less whiny angst, and I've been consistently optimistic about what I'm doing. But it's still kind of odd, having the dilemmas reversed.