Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A Brief History of the Cousino High School Anime Club

In my senior year of high school, I decided that I wanted to start an Anime Club. Thought I only had a few months before I left, I wanted to have the experience, just to see if I could do it. And maybe some enterprising underclassman would pick up the torch next year? That idea appealed to me, and I decided to give it a shot.

I found a sponsor in Mrs. Domka, my English teacher, and bugged my friends about joining, and told them to bring their friends and siblings too, in an effort to drum up the necessary members to qualify as an after-school club. There weren't really any official positions per se, but I appointed myself President, assuming that the position was automatically mine, since I had come up with the idea and singlehandedly founded the club. It seemed reasonable to me at the time.

I had very high hopes for my new club. It was going to be a tight-knit community of people who embraced and celebrated their otaku-ness, with myself set up as the Fearless and Benevolent Leader, the L33t M4st3r, so to speak.

Unfortunately, my enthusiasm outstripped my organizational skills.

I never had any plans for a particular session; we were improvising every time. We would just see who had brought which episodes of what series, and vote on which one we wanted to see that day. because there were so many different titles, and such different tastes, we often required multiple rounds of voting to select a clear winner. This voting made a considerable dent in our already-limited time.

Because of this time-constraint, we rarely had time for feature-length movies, and could only watch two, maybe three episodes of a particular TV series in one meeting. This added to the feeling that we weren't really getting anything done: we never watched enough of any one series to develop a real interest in the characters, because we had already moved on to the next title.

After a month or two, members were alienated, and felt that their votes and preferences counted for very little. It just wasn't fun anymore. I allowed the Anime Club to lapse into obscurity, and no one missed it.

This experience taught me a lot about the importance of making plans ahead of time. Even if you change them, or don't follow them at all, it's always good to know where you want to end up. Set yourself some goals, give yourself some reference points. And most importantly of all, make sure that your team-mates/subordinates/members feel ownership of the organization. Make sure that everyone has a voice, and a way to make their preferences known in a meaningful way.

If you don't put in the effort of organizing your meetings, the others will sense this, and see it (correctly) as a lack of enthusiasm. If you're not going to take this seriously, why should they?

Monday, June 28, 2010

Movie Review: Toy Story 3

I don't think I can imagine a way that this capstone to Pixar's beloved trilogy could have been better. It's got something for everyone: action, comedy, romance, family (the good kind and the bad kind), nail-biting escapes, daring rescues, loyalty, betrayal, in-jokes, a catchy soundtrack, a cameo by a famous cartoon icon, and Buzz Lightyear dancing an exquisitely-choreographed flamenco.

Everything about this film is perfect. The featurette before the movie ("Night & Day") is one of Pixar's most successful, boundary-pushing experiments yet, and if the first scene of the movie proper (a daring train-robbery which seamlessly incorporates every toy in Andy's collection) doesn't have you laughing with delight, then you need to seriously reexamine your outlook on life.

All the characters are endearing and interesting, without being saccharine or using to cheap emotional hooks. Every one of the toys (and humans) in this movie feels like someone I know personally, with likes and dislikes and personal tastes which aren't easy to predict. They're fully-formed. Three-dimensional.

Which segues nicely into my next point: Pixar's use of 3D. It's rare to see a movie which so seamlessly and unobtrusively uses the third dimension to such powerful effect. Instead of shoving sharp objects into the viewer's eye (lest you forget why you paid $13 for a ticket instead of $9), the camera steps back from the action, allowing the 3D to enhance the sense of place and setting, coaxing the viewer into the movie's space, making you feel like you're standing right by Woody's side. As if you were a conversant rather than an audience-member.

And this reduction of space, this transgression of the fourth wall, is in my opinion what allows this film to have such deep emotional resonance. It seems strange to speak of empathy in relation to a group of inanimate objects, but the cast is affecting and, dare I say it?, vulnerable. In essence, this film is a long ode to the painful-yet-beautiful necessity of growing up.

I was several times reminded of Paul of Tarsus: "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things" [1 Corinthians 13:11]. It does not say that he "threw away" or "forgot" about childish things. The trappings of childhood should be placed safely, lovingly, into the hands of another. They should be honored, not by being locked in a box, but cared-for by one who will truly understand their significance. It is difficult to part with them, though in the end we all must. But this does not mean they are forgotten, or wasted.

A new chapter needs a clean page in order to be written. But the old chapters are still part of the story, and their resonance will be felt all the way to the last chapter, the final page, and the closing of the book.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Book Review: "Longutude," by Dava Sobel, 1995

Living in Warren and working in Ann Arbor is draining, on my gas tank, my time, and my sanity. To ease the monotony of the hour-long commute, I've taken to borrowing audio books from the Ann Arbor Library, to keep my mind occupied. Thanks to this, I've finally gotten around to reading (well, hearing anyway) a book that I've been meaning to read for no less than fifteen years: Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, by Dava Sobel.

Longitude tells the story of John Harrison, a West Yorkshire carpenter who built what is universally regarded as one of the most important clocks in human history, the marine chronometer, without apprenticeship or training in the principles of clock-making. His machine was nothing short of a miracle; in an age where clocks could gain or lose as much as an hour a day on dry land, Harrison’s fourth sea-clock, “H4,” kept time to within five seconds during a six-week sea-voyage from England to Jamaica! (My mind has officially been boggled by this Harrison guy.)

Longitude a fascinating read. More than once I found myself gasping with surprise or laughing with amazement at the "true story of a lone genius who solved the greatest scientific problem of his time." I had no idea how difficult and dangerous seafaring used to be. Even in calm weather, and with favorable winds, every sea-journey taken beyond sight of land involved becoming lost at sea at some point. Sailors could find their way by the stars, but Polaris could only tell you how far north or south you were; it was impossible to judge your position relative to east or west. “In literally hundreds of instances, a vessel’s ignorance of her position led swiftly to her destruction” [Sobel].

For example: in October 1707, Admiral Sir Cloudesley-Shovell of the H.M.S. Association was returning to England with five warships under his command, after a victory against the French navy. The Admiral and his navigators believed themselves charting a safe course for northern England, but a sailor told them that he had been keeping his own private reckoning of their position, and feared that they would be smashed to flinders on the rocky cliffs of the Scilly islands.

The Admiral had him hanged instantly. It was insubordination verging on mutiny for a sailor, an uneducated seaman, to second-guess the judgment of his betters; it invited dissent and rebellion. But within 24 hours, just as the unfortunate sailor had predicted, the cliffs of Scilly loomed out of the fog, and four of Admiral Cloudesley’s five ships “pricked themselves on the rocks and went down like stones” [Sobel]. In the space of five minutes, the rocks became the unmarked graves of nearly 1,5000 English sailors.

In light of this disaster, Parliament offered a prize of £20,000 (millions of dollars in today’s money) to anyone who could come up with an accurate and reliable method for telling time at sea, so that sailors could compare their perception of midday with the local time in their home-port, and figure out how far they were from home. Harrison’s clocks were entered into the contest, but Nevil Maskelyne, Harrison’s arch-nemesis, did everything in his power to discredit Harrison and deny him the prize, insisting that his own Method of Lunar Distances was far superior. (Even if it did take four hours to compute, and didn’t work on cloudy nights, new moons, or when the sea was rough.)

All in all, it’s a really good book. It made the science (and the danger, and the back-stabbing) come alive for me. John Harrison could easily be seen as a stuffy old man in a powdered wig, but this book made him flesh-and-blood, a real human being with real emotions, foibles, and shortcomings. Check this book out! Especially if you’re a scientist with children, or an elementary-, middle-, or high-school teacher who needs a way to get kids interested in science. It might be a bit dry for the ones who aren’t already into that stuff, but the book begins with a story about a massive shipwreck that's sure to hook anyone’s attention. After all, who can resist the lure of human tragedy?

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Dungeons and the Dragons

All through middle school and most of and high school, I flat-out refused to play Dungeons & Dragons. Or any other form of Role-Playing Game (RPGs to those in the know). I looked down on them like most "cool kids" looked down on me. “At least I’m not one of those losers,” I would think to myself when I saw them in the lunchroom with their dice and their character sheets and their Magic: The Gathering cards.

Part of the problem was my friends, who felt much the same way I did. At least some cool people played video games, like Halo and Super Smash Bros. But nobody who was cool had ever touched a twenty-sided die and lived to tell the tale.

Late in high school, I found out that my step-brother’s friend Paul was a D&D player. He had all the rulebooks, and he would let me read them when he wasn’t using them. Flipping through the pages, particularly those of the Monster Manual, I discovered that the illustrations were actually pretty good-looking. And once I took a gander at the pretty pictures, it wasn’t long before I was reading the descriptions, too. I didn’t understand any of the actual game mechanics, but the Monster Manual was full of interesting and intriguing possibilities. So many ideas, so many monsters, and so many ways to combine them! And some of them were brand-new monsters, not taken from any mythology or culture, but lifted straight out of the inventors’ minds. Gradually, it started to look… well, kind of fun.

If you spend long enough immersed in a foreign language, even if you don’t know any of it, after a while you’ll start to understand it. So it was with me and D&D. I asked questions, got answers, and gradually came to understand what was going on. I realized that the blurb on the back cover of the Player’s Guide was right: “Endless adventure” was actually a possibility, because you could just keep making stuff up as you went! I had finally found a game whose only real limit was my imagination.

I delved deeper, discovering other RPGs, with different systems, different rules, different characters, and new ways of expressing myself. It became clear to me that RPGs were much more than simple games: they were the perfect fusion of Cops and Robbers, pass-the-flashlight ghost stories, LEGOs, and improvisational theater. I was in my element!

It’s been a few years since then, and I’ve only just scratched the surface of what PRGs are capable of doing. I’ve seen and heard a lot of awesome and amazing things happen on those late nights around the kitchen table, surrounded by beer, happy conversation, and the clatter of dice. I never would have found any of this stuff if I’d listened to my “friends,” and let them tell me what was or wasn’t “cool.”

So if you want to try something, go ahead and do it, even if your friends would think less of you. “Nerdy” is just a word that ignorant people use to excuse themselves from enjoying things.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Drawing From Life

When I started my college career, I knew exactly why I was getting my degree, and why I was majoring in Art: to become a graphic novelist. Now, I didn't come to college with this goal in mind: that came shortly after enrolling in classes, when I stood in the now-repurposed McKenny Hall bookstore, and read a little book by Scott McCloud called "Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art."

I had spent most of middle and high school watching anime, reading manga, and playing Japanese video games. I had some talent with a pencil, so my plan was clear: learn Japanese, practice drawing, practice writing, move to Japan, and become a famous manga-ka (comic-book artist). All of a sudden, McCloud was blowing my head wide open! There was a whole world of comics right here in America, which I had largely ignored since I stopped watching the X-Men cartoon on Saturday mornings.

I rapidly reconsidered my life-goal: learning Japanese was looking pretty hard right about then. I declared my major to be Art, bought a portfolio and the rest of McCloud's books, and decided that I was gonna be a Graphic Novelist. There was just one problem: everyone in the entire world was about 50 million times better than me.

I couldn't help but look at the work of people like Amy Kim Ganter, Kazu Kibuishi, and Jeph Jacques and feel insignificant. Even if I practiced for hours every day, I knew in my heart that I would never draw like they did. I would call myself "stupid" and "lazy," and curse myself for not having practiced my art more often when I was in grade school, instead of playing all those video games. Gradually, I started to lose heart; who would ever hire someone who drew like me, when they could get something that looked better out of Mike Krahulik's waste-paper basket?

And so I quit drawing completely. I took everything off my deviantART page, gave away my pens and portfolio, and changed my major to English. I discovered that I was a better writer than artist; the words flowed more freely than the pictures ever did, and I was much more confident.

But about a month or two ago, glanced at an old notebook, which I'd used to take notes while playing an RPG with my friends ("Dark Ages: Vampire", if you were curious). In its pages I had drawn little sketches of our various characters. It struck me that these character sketches weren't half-bad. A little weak in the anatomy department, but their lines were clear and strong. I wondered if maybe I should offer to do the same for my friends' characters in my current adventure, and decided that yes, I should.

This time around, it was a lot easier. Maybe I've matured to the point where I don't need to compare myself against other artists. Maybe my fingers just needed a long vacation. Either way, I'm much more satisfied with my drawings than I have been in years, and for the first time in a long time, it's not a chore to practice, but something I actually want to do. And that's a really good feeling.

So, I guess the moral is that if you don't feel comfortable with doing something you used to love, it's okay to take a break. Even if that break lasts for a couple of years.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

f1rst p0st!11!!

Well, hello everybody. If you're reading this, then congratulations: you have successfully discovered the Internet!

I'm not quite sure what to put in here. My friend Anna told me I should start a blog (since I'm a writer and all), as a way to practice, get feedback, and provide writing samples to prospective employers. So here I am, jotting down my thoughts in cyberspace (Does anyone even use the word "cyberspace" anymore? It feels so... nineties, I guess.)

I'll try to post regularly, and keep you entertained in the process. If you read something you like, let me know. I'm not quite sure what this blog is going to be "about," exactly, but I'm sure that'll become clear before long. Probably, it'll be mostly ruminations, movie and book reviews, cultural analysis, and a story or two, both real and imagined.

I guess that's all for now. Keep coming back to see what's new! And thanks for reading!