Thursday, December 30, 2010

2010, In Review

2010 was simultaneously horrible and awesome.

It was horrible because it was yet another year wherein I (and thousands of others like me) survived on part time jobs and freelancing. I do not want to sound ungrateful- I happen to love my part time job (more on that in a bit) and freelancing has been immensely fun, especially when I manage to actually get paid in a timely fashion. Any enjoyment that I had of 2010, though, has to be accompanied by a gigantic asterisk.

This wasn't a year of great progress- it was a slog. All in all, a positive slog that will hopefully get us back to where we need to be, but for too much of this year surviving, rather than thriving, was the order of the day. And yes, I know that when someone like me says that it comes across as immensely arrogant. I'm a reasonably well-off educated white boy in the U.S.A. who has quite a few things going for him. It's utter b.s. to pretend that I'm going to be destitute any time soon. However, I'm thirty years old now and would rather like to start a career. (Helllllloooo, grad school!)

That said, the one big job that I did have this year was immensely awesome. I loved it. I still love it, actually. I love that I've learned things from it, that I've become a better public speaker and better communicator. I love that I've learned how to be funny on a consistent basis and can get different crowds of people to laugh at the same jokes. I love being a performer, a showman, and a knower-of-things. I enjoy the hell out of being a tour guide.

Giving walking tours of Portland has been a fantastic experience, and has made me realize something that I always sort of knew about myself: public speaking makes me high. When I taught for GEOS and then Kaplan, I got some whiffs of that- those days when a class just clicked and the students all went "ooooh!" at the same time. For four years now my job has pretty much been "get up in front of a bunch of people and edify them." Now, I finally realize that I'm quite good at it.

Again, I'm sounding arrogant. It's very nice, though, to know what you're good at. I happen to be a good public speaker and knower-of-things. This hasn't just been applicable to tour guiding, by any means. I also officiated a wedding for some very good friends of mine back in March, and have occasionally done stand up comedy. Stand up, by the way, ranges from being transcendentally awesome to horribly painful. I try to veer towards the former.

It's weird that a lot of the time, I'm a professional performer. It's also odd to know that Performance Joe is very much a persona, and not one that I created deliberately. He has a different way of speaking, a different cadence a different sort of mode about him than me. This is true of all performers, and is not a new observation, but something's always weird and new when it happens to you. (By the way, Performance Joe sometimes gets out during social occasions, where I've been told that he can be boisterous and annoying.)

Let's see, what else?

Oh, yes. I talked to some very nice people. That was cool. I also finally encountered the storied and sprawling metropolis that is Los Angeles, which was quite an eye-opening experience. Spent plenty of time in San Francisco, as well, which has rapidly become one of my favorite places on earth, though one time I did have to spend ten hours in a car with a crazy man to get there. Also, a bunch of bigots ended up causing nothing more than a big party here in Portland, which turned out to be quite the uplifting experience.

Oh yes, and I led around a bunch of zombies on bikes.

Anyway, I had fun. Tons of it. I'm in no position whatsoever to say that 2010 was dull or boring or lacking in neato things to do. I have, though, been very conscious of the lack of real progress over that past year, and that remains frustrating.

In that sense, I'm quite ready to leave this year behind. C'mon, 2011- have something nice for us.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Pretty Okay Daft Punk Video: What I Thought of the New Tron Movie

Given that I had a previous post on Tron, I feel bound to offer up a few thoughts about the new movie, which I saw last night.

It was highly adequate. There were a few good thing about it, and a few less good things as well. I'm just going to do a rundown of them. Spoilers ahoy!

Good Stuff:

-Jeff Bridges. Had Bridges not appeared as Flynn, the movie would have very little reason to exist. His being there made it seem more like a "real" Tron movie, and not just an attempt to cash in on geeky nostalgia (even though it is totally that). I loved it that Bridges played the older Flynn as basically an all-purpose Jedi/Buddha/Jesus/The Dude sort of character, an old man with crazy powers in the Grid akin to that of some kind of wizard/god. Also, seeing him digitally de-aged was a neat party trick. I'm sure that it will look terrible and dated in five years, but I enjoyed it for the time being.

-The movie is beautiful. Stunning. Shiny. Dazzling. Electrifying. It is an eye-poppingly wonderful calvacade of cool visuals. The lights and sets and costumes are all fantastically extravagant and orderly all at once. The aesthetic of Tron seems to be that there is a profusion of energy and color, and it is all tightly controlled. It is ecstatically mechanistic, like a choreographed rave. I wish there was a more positive word for "soulless" because the machine-world of Tron is soulless and gorgeous in the best way possible.

-Likewise, the soundtrack by Daft Punk is excellent. There are very few movies where, upon hearing the soundtrack, I think "I would like to hear that in a context outside of this movie." This was one of them.

-References to other films were nice. Flynn's apartment outside of the Grid resembles the apartment at the end of 2001, and at one point he quotes War Games saying "the only way to win is to not play." Bridges also seemed very conscious of his most famous character, The Dude, and put more than a little Big Lebowski flavor into Flynn.

...And that, unfortunately, kind of does it for the really good stuff.

Less Than Good Stuff:

-The action sequences hit their marks, but they weren't all that thrilling or memorable. While I didn't find myself groaning or disliking them, they weren't incredible.

-Garrett Hedlund, the guy who played Sam Flynn, was dry, bland, and didn't really seem like his father's son. He was too preppy and well-coiffed, too much of a nice, clean leading man. Also, the part where he parachutes off of the skyscraper is just dumb.

-Olivia Wilde (Quorra) also didn't thrill me, but she was very nice to look at.

-I didn't imagine I'd ever think, while watching a movie, that it needed more Bruce Boxleitner. Tron: Legacy, though really did need precisely that. Tron himself appears several times in the movie, but always wearing a black face mask that completely obscures his features. Normally, I'd just think that this was the kind of cheap trick that a director would use if they couldn't get a given actor for their movie, but Boxleitner appears as Tron's creator, Alan, early in the film. He also shows up as Tron in a flashback. He could have totally whipped off the mask for a big dramatic reveal! I was expecting that. Not having that there was strange and aggravating.

-Oftentimes, the movie was way too talky and self-important. Instead of dramatic it seemed staid.

-The filmmakers seem to have forgotten that Tron is supposed to happen inside of a computer. The Grid is portrayed as a kind of alternate dimension. In the original film, Tron & Co. were inside of a specific computer system. They don't explicitly contradict this, but it bugged me somewhat.

All in all, the movie wasn't great unless you were already a Tron fan, and even then, it was only kind of okay. I'm sort of nervous that the franchise (which had once been a nice little piece of cult nostalgia) is going to get crushed under a new wave of sequels and spin offs. I saw Star Wars get revived, only to be crushed to death by its resurrection. That franchise is in a state of deeper necrosis than it ever was precisely because things were added to it. I don't want the same thing to happen to Tron.

On the other hand, I did love all the pretty glowy lights set to Daft Punk.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Against Monopoly: An Invective

The other day I had the occasion to go to a mall with some friends, and the whole Cathedral of Consumption (as per usual, this time of year) was decked out with tinsel and faux tree branches, red ribbons and assorted signifiers of consumptive yuletide. Winter Wonderland and its ilk played on the loudspeakers. Patrons moved about, negotiating mall traffic whilst clutching multiple red-and-gold bags redolent with perfunctory gifts.

Such things were expected, but in the mall I espied another seasonal phenomenon. There with the wreaths and the songs and the rest of it were several different versions of Monopoly. Not just in one store (Barnes and Noble may have been the worst offender) but in several.

Classic Monopoly. Star Wars Monopoly. Disney Monopoly. Simpsons Monopoly. Family Guy Monopoly. Anniversary Monopoly in a gold box. Monopoly called "Onyx Edition" which is in a black box for some reason. Monopoly, Monopoly, endless fucking Monopoly.

I hate Monopoly. I hate it as a game, as an object, and as a gift. I hate that it's successful and enduring. I hate that it's a piece of Americana and a fixture of households. I hate that it teaches bad lessons about economics and how real estate works. Worst of all, this year countless editions of it will be given as a thoughtless gift. Festive wrapping paper, glowing with festive potential, will be unfurled to reveal a board game of dubious fun and economic fallacy. The various editions will be played once, probably on Christmas or the day after, and then boxed for good. The various bills and pieces will be lost, possibly lodging themselves under refrigerators or in the ducts of heating systems. Years later, when cleaning a vent, someone will find a small, half-melted bit of plastic, and infer that a Monopoly hotel probably got lodged in there somehow.

As a game it requires little to no skill and the conclusion is usually evident from the start. Someone manages to buy up the various valuable properties, and from then it is only a matter of time until the other players go bankrupt. There are no comebacks in Monopoly, and after a certain point little of the uncertainty which lends any game drama. There is very little room for cleverness or wit, very little space for elegance. It is, ultimately, a grown-up version of Candyland- a game flush with iconic adornment, but has very little in the way of actual playability. For all of its non-complexity, it demands that we pay attention and store the various player pieces, cards, bills, houses, hotels, and dice. Upend a Monopoly box, and a whole bunch of disparate shit is on the floor. It is disparate shit that is so much sound a fury (in plastic form) signifying very nearly nothing at all.

Monopoly inspires my hatred precisely because I love games so much. I love Scrabble and Cranium. I love Jenga and Apples to Apples and Trivial Pursuit. I dearly love Risk, in all of its incarnations. Each one of these games has more elegance, more grace, more intelligence and is ultimately a better source of fun than Monopoly. Yet Monopoly gets endlessly repeated and endlessly sold, and is, for some reason, one of the best loved board games out there.

This year, I implore you: Do not buy your loved ones Monopoly. Buy them something with drama, like Axis and Allies. Gift them a game that will actually make a party better (nor more boring) like Apples to Apples. Wrap in paper a game that excites the strategic mind, like Risk. These games, I guarantee you, will be more fun the Monopoly, a terrible game that is wholly unworthy of the attention, money, and love that it receives.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Goodbye, Blank Slate or What I Think About That New Tron Movie Coming Out

It is occasionally alarming how much geek culture is defined by nostalgia. Watching Star Trek or Star Wars or the rest of it does not make me me think of the future or possibility or sweeping vistas of the world of tomorrow. Instead it calls to mind childhood and adolescent comfort, something familiar, tested, and proven. They are narratives and artifacts that don't have to stand up to the rigors of contemporary scrutiny. Why should they? They carry so much emotional cache.

The fact remains, though, that they don't transport me to the future. They transport me to the 1990s.

Nostalgia pieces by definition wistful, and bring to mind forgiving smiles and gentle rationalizations of their flaws. An object of nostalgia might appear simple, but we justify it by saying that it was from a simpler time. Effects were less sophisticated. Budgets were lower. Audiences weren't as savvy. That's what we tell ourselves to excuse Luke Skywalkers's ludicrous comment about "power converters," or to justify transparently cheap monster costumes.

Nostalgia is not bad or wrong per se, but it is warm and unchallenging. It is easy to idealize the objects that produce it, to put layers upon them and add dimensions that are not there. In almost every incident, the idea of the nostalgic item is much better than the work itself.

Which brings me to Tron.

Tron blew my fucking mind. I don't remember how old I was when I first watched it. Maybe eleven? Twelve? I don't really know. But there were glowy lights on everything and it was about a guy who got zapped into a computer and, man, that was cool. The guy had to play computer games inside of a computer! C'mon- how neat is that? There were tanks and motorcycles and everything was covered in neon because back then that's what the future looked like.

I watched it again in college, and, much to my surprise, found that I still liked it. Last year I actually got my ex-girlfriend to watch it and she had to concede that the movie that her geeky, overenthusiastic boyfriend had recommended to her was "kind of fun."

And it is. Tron, though, is quite a simple movie. There isn't much to it, really. Why is the Master Control Program so evil? He just is. Why is Tron the good guy? He just is. How is it that Tron's disc will bring about a new order on the grid? It's a MacGuffin- just go with it.

Tron is a very pretty movie with an okay plot. Fortunately, it seems that the filmmakers knew that. Tron is shallow, but has no pretension to depth. It is thin, but does not pretend to be substantive. The ultimate message of Tron is, really "Hey, look! Shiny computers! Whee!" This is all well and good, and makes it the perfect nostalgia piece.

Because Tron is so basic, it's completely possible for a thirty-year-old geek like me to invest it with all kinds of layers and awesomeness as I wistfully recall it. Fans like me can imagine any sort of drama or depth we want of Tron, because the movie is ultimately just a bunch of cool blinky lights and zoomy computer game action. In lots of ways its a blank slate that we can project all kinds of affection and imagination onto. The idea of Tron is oftentimes better than Tron the actual movie. If it were to come out now as an original film, it would probably be dismissed as readily as Avatar was by people who actually care about science fiction.

Disney has decided to cash in on the widespread affection and nostalgia for Tron and release a sequel later this month, nearly three decades later. Like many other genre fans, I'm completely geeking out about this and probably will fork over the extra cash to see this thing in 3D. However, once the sequel comes out, a certain amount of the nostalgic "oomf" of the original is going to get taken away. Tron will cease to become an object of nostalgic affection, and turn into a franchise.

With that, it will go from being something that can be vague and unspecified, to something specific. It will no longer exist primarily in the minds and emotions and memories of fans- instead it will be an actual thing, separate from their feelings and ideas of of the original. Tron won't be something that belongs to fans anymore, a pop-culture byword that recalls shared experiences of wonderment about computers. Instead, it will become the first movie in what is likely to be a series. We won't have a blank slate to play with anymore. The idea of Tron will be gone, and in its place there will just be Tron.

This does not bother me too much. Later this month, though, I'm going to buy a movie ticket, put on a pair of 3D glasses, and a little bit of my nostalgia and geeky affection for Tron will be gone forever.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

In Which Elvis Asks Me Who I Am

"Who are you?" asked Elvis. We were sitting across from each other on the MAX and he was looking directly at me. He stared through his massively thick glasses, quizzically. "I've seen you around a lot!"

Given that my primary job is the walk tourists around Portland whilst gesticulating at buildings, landmarks, etc., this wasn't too unusual. A few other people have also recognized me and asked who I am.

"My name is Joe," I said, "I'm a tour guide."

"Oh, that makes sense," said Elvis, "You're in Saturday Market a lot. I've seen your groups. What do you tell them about?"

"Oh," I said, "you've probably seen me telling them about the Skidmore Fountain."

"Ah," Elvis smiled a bit, "You know, you should tell them about me. You tell them about some stony old fountain, but you don't tell them about one of the best things in Portland!"

Portland's Elvis is an old guy, maybe in his fifties, sixties, I'm not sure. I've also got no idea what his real name is, but he's known as Elvis throughout town, so that name works well enough. He's wearing his black and gold jumpsuit is holding a guitar case. I've seen his guitar- it is a beautiful guitar. It has waves and surfers and ships and Hawaiian scenery on it. Everybody recognizes Elvis. He's a fixture of the town. His picture is outside Voodoo Doughnut.

"I've seen you," I said, "but I didn't want to put you on the spot."

This is true. I am completely comfortable talking about buildings or fountains or geographical features. I'm also okay talking about dead people. Talking about a real, live person who is walking around, though, like they're a piece of architecture seems a bit weird to me.

"Why not? That's why I'm there. Next time you see me, say 'hi.'"

I say okay.

"I mean it!" says Elvis, "I'm part of Portland just like that fountain is."

I have to admit he has a point. We talk for a bit and he asks me how I got a tour guide job. I told him I was a teacher, got laid off, and then turned into a tour guide. He says that he's been performing at Saturday Market for twenty seven years. That is quite a bit of time, and he is part of Portland. If I have the opportunity, I would like to say hi to him on a tour, but don't want to treat him like a mascot. I snuff that thought out, though, on account that its a tad patronizing. He is a part of Portland. I'll say hi, next chance I get.

It's my stop and I have to get off the MAX.

"Hey, one more thing," says Elvis, "I've seen you tell that story about the guy launching the airplane off the roof of that hotel. Is that really true?" He's referring to Silas Christofferson, who in 1912 flew an early lightweight craft off the roof of Portland's Multnomah Hotel.

"It's totally true," I say, "But he was later killed in crash."

"That's too bad," says Elvis, "but I'm glad it's true. You say hi, next time!"

"Yes, sir," I say, and step of the MAX.

And I really will, too.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

"Kids These Days..."

More than once in the past year and a half, I've felt myself biting back on a strong but irrational negative emotional sensation. It wells up in the back of the throat and steams behind the eyes, fomenting in the upper chest and manifesting in clenched fingers that coalesce into fists. Various primal (and unproductive) responses assert themselves, and I have to say to them "calm down." In a few moments, it goes.

This incipient rage? Near hatred of the Baby Boomer generation. In particular, any Boomers tilting their heads and gazing in wonderment at the plight of people in their twenties and thirties. I found that much talked about piece in the New York Times earlier this year to be utterly infuriating. More recently, though, the Oregonian ran a story asking if Portland was the new Neverland, (as opposed to the old one?) and the proceeded to mock young-ish people for not yet having "real" jobs and wasting time with bikes and comic books.

Whenever I see this sort of thing, I'm dumbstruck by how Boomers (yes, I'm generalizing) try to assign blame and point fingers at younger generations for presumably not doing anything, being layabouts and slackers. I have two responses to this:

1: Older generations have always complained about "kids these days." Here's a famous quote you've probably heard before:

The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.

Ladies and gentlemen, that was Socrates. Hearing the older generation bitch about the next is literally as old as Western Civilization itself.

2: The issue of people in their twenties and thirties isn't really an issue about what's wrong with them, or the culture, or anything else. It's an economic issue, and trying to dodge that reality is, I think, intellectually cowardly.

We are still reeling from the effects of a gigantic recession, and are only slowly recovering. The cause of all recessions, broadly speaking, is a failure of demand. When people don't want, don't need, or can't afford various goods and services, we all suffer.

Right now, there is a below-average demand for labor. Experienced workers (older workers) are going to receive preference over people who have just gotten out of degree programs or have only a few years of experience (i.e., less than a decade) and it stands to reason that younger workers will suffer.

In the meantime, why not get on a bike? (It's cheaper than owning a car!) And why not make comics? (If you've got a lot of free time, you might as well do something creative in order to use your brain.) The issue that gets decried as being some kind of generational anomaly actually has everything to do with the disappearing middle class.

And so, when it is framed in generational terms, my instinct is to snap back at the Boomers and tell them that the Rolling Stones are overrated. I bite it back, though, talking myself down with a nice little internal economics lecture.

Wish they'd do the same thing...