Thursday, April 30, 2020
Thursday, April 23, 2020
With quarantine and all, I've been spending a lot of my time messing around with all my old Legos. Here's what I came up with so far.
I've got a little mythology built around it. It's from some kind of science-fantasy world where there were once immortal beings who have long since fled the mortal world. But one of them was left behind, trapped in rock (as a punishment? An accident? Not sure). Thousands of years later, some high-tech empire found him and built this structure to contain and study him.
They've mostly given up on studying him scientifically (he tends to eat anyone who gets close), but they can still ask him questions, and sometimes he responds. Mostly because he's bored by thousands of years alone and likes using humans as his personal entertainment. To that end, he tends to give the answer that will lead to respond to the most entertaining outcome (for him) rather than anything truthful.
I've been doing system and Bionicle build separately for a long time now, but this is my first time ever really trying to combine them. I think it turned out alright.
The staircase is the first part of it I built. That thing is just full of illegal building techniques).
Ever since I started with Bionicles (i.e. when I was three years old) I was fascinated with how they'd look interacting with minifigures, since even the tiniest ones are from minifig scale. Guess this is the answer.
Thursday, April 16, 2020
For those of you who can’t read disgraphic, this says “Medieval Reality Game.” I think it was a mock-up for a knight-themed virtual-reality game I wanted to make. Note that the tag on the circle says “choking hazard.”
Next we have a list of things I wanted to do over the summer. I think my mom encouraged me to make them academic goals, but that fell apart pretty quickly. I’m also pretty sure my mom wrote this too.
And finally we have my petition to bring back Galidor, perhaps the worst Lego theme of all time. These things were hardly even Lego at all, made out of these enormous pieces that were so specialized you couldn’t dream of making anything decent of your own out of them. They also had a TV show, though I didn’t watch that, I just got obsessed over the awful toys for some reason. I remember passing these forms around to random people leaving church one Sunday, which is where most of the signatures come from. Probably, most people were just being polite.
Thursday, April 9, 2020
Since everyone is stuck inside and spending way too much time online these days, it’s only natural that Facebook chain posts are spawning at an unprecedented rate. And, since I’m stuck inside and spending way too much time online these days, I’ve seen a lot of them. One that caught my attention the other day was “10 Things Everyone Else Likes But I Don’t.” I don’t think I’ll do that one, it just seems too contrarian, but I can definitely relate to the sentiment it picks up on: the alienation of everyone else being in love with something, especially some piece of storytelling, that you just can’t relate to. The two times I’ve felt that most acutely have been with the sorts of smart, artsy media that English majors like me are supposed to adore: David Lynch’s film Mulholland Drive and Don DeLilo’s White Noise. And, if you’ll excuse me for being a contrarian for a little bit, I’d like to rag on them a little.
The problem with each of them is that they’re not really stories. Sure, they’ve each got characters and something resembling a plot, but you get the sense that the creator isn’t so interested in telling a story as they are in expressing some kind of idea, layered so deeply in abstraction that it’s incomprehensible to anyone’s lived experience. Which is cool, if you’re into that kind of thing, but not really what people read or watch stories for.
My disappointment with Mulholland Drive is actually sort of context dependent, and sort of own damn my fault: I watched it over a series of three nights, in forty minute segments, which meant that I got all excited by the straightforward story of a lesbian couple in Hollywood chasing lost memories, then felt enormously disappointed when the whole thing fell apart into dream logic that broke characterization and came off as both heavy-handed and incomprehensible at once. I’ve talked to real fans of the movie about its meaning, and now I can kind of see the appeal of putting together what actually happened, and there are some scenes that are perfectly beautiful. But I can’t imagine ever walking away from that movie satisfied, much less happy.
While Mulholland Drive might have made me begrudgingly respect David Lynch, White Noise got me irate at Don DeLilo. It has more consistent characters than Mulholland Drive, and a narrative that doesn’t leave you quite as perplexed, but it’s pretty clear that the author doesn’t really care much about any of it, not even the most emotional parts. What he does care about is making some kind of point (probably something about capitalism) through loads and loads of random details that are a little bit interesting, and clearly meant to be funny, but really don’t make up for the lack of story. The prose was so elegant that I had to finish the book, but I wasn’t very happy about it.
For a time, I took these two examples (and a couple other plotless, characterless, seemingly meaningless bits of media I’d seen) and formed them into a general hypothesis for storytelling: in order for a story to be worth anything at all, it needs to be coherent, direct, and human-centric. But then I found Petscop, which breaks every rule I’d just set out for what makes good art. And I also loved it.
Petscop is a youtube series recording someone playing through an obscure, low-budget Playstation game, using cheat codes to reveal disturbing hidden content about childhood abuse. The game doesn’t actually exist, the recordings are actually just animations, but it feels so authentic to that late 90s-early 00s game style that it gives a nostalgia rush to anyone who grew up with those games, like me. And then it corrupts that nostalgia with reminders that the pain and trauma existed, even, or perhaps especially, in that idyllic time. That feeling is so complex and powerful that I don’t really care that the narrative is incoherent, nonexistent, or inconsequential. Maybe it doesn’t make any linear sort of sense, but I still appreciate it immensely as an experience.
Searching for some answers for Mulholland Drive after I’d first watched it, I found Roger Ebert’s five star review, where he wrote “Think of it as the dreamer rising slowly to consciousness, as threads from the dream fight for space with recent memories from real life, and with fragments of other dreams--old ones and those still in development.” At the time, I thought it was a total abandonment of a critic’s duty to actually work out what’s going on, but now I can’t think of a better way to explain how I feel about Petscop.
What separates my take on Petscop from Mulholland Drive or White Noise? I think it all comes down to experience. Mulholland Drive drew on nostalgia for an idealized Hollywood much in the same way Petscop drew on nostalgia for an idealized childhood cyberworld*. The difference is that I had the nostalgia necessary to feel what Petscop wanted me to feel, but not so much for Mulholland Drive. Plotlines and characters are so powerful in part because they give the reader someone to empathize with, and in doing so understand the emotions of the story and its author. When an author forgoes that, it’s a risky move, because there’s no guarantee that readers will be able to decipher it on their own. That doesn’t make the story bad, it turns out, just risky.
* Still not sure what, if anything, White Noise was drawing on, but sure, I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.
Thursday, April 2, 2020
A couple weeks ago, back when I was still at college, my girlfriend asked what I was writing about in my notebook, and I said, “I’m writing about how I need to write more about the things I read to improve my writing.” I had no idea why she broke down laughing at first, but pretty soon I realized that the whole thing was pretty convoluted and had at least four levels of meta (writing about writing about other people’s writing for my own writing). Ridiculous as it sounds, though, it was important for me to make a written commitment to writing about writing, because reading has never come easily to me.
I always feel jealous when people talk about how much they read as kids. It’s the kind of boasting you see a lot, especially in literary circles, the kind you can get away with because there’s a certain self-deprecation attached (“You can bet I didn’t get out much!” or something like that). My older sister and younger brother were both that kind of voracious and natural readers, my sister read widely and early, and my brother jumped straight from near-illiteracy to the entire Little House on the Prairie series when he was bored one summer. For me, on the other hand, I had the idea that reading was hard, and anything hard must also be dangerous somehow, so I treated thick books like radioactive material and stuck to a narrow set of mid-length books from series that I knew were safe, mostly Percy Jackson and the Olympians and the secret series by Pseudonymous Bosch. I became a sort of junior scholar of these books, reading the same chapters over and over again, rarely stepping outside the texts where I felt comfortable.
Aside from school assigned books and a couple young adult fantasy series, my reading went through a dormant period in middle and high school, which lasted until I went to the Iowa Young Writer’s Studio and felt like such an imposter among all these accomplished, well read people that I knew that I needed to read as much as I could as fast as I could. That started an era, which lasted up until recently, when I spent every break from college reading quickly and poorly, trying my best to make up for lost time. I took the opposite approach as I had as a kid, choosing the longest, hardest, densest books that I could reasonably finish. When the story lost my interest, the furious desire to be the kind of serious writer who reads serious books carried me through however many pages there were to the finish. I don’t want to undersell this time, I read a lot of books that I enjoyed and that inspire me to this day. But, looking back at the shelves of books I’ve finished since then, there are so many that I only recollect hazily. There were so many subtle turns of phrase and nuances of the plot that I missed in my rush to get on to the next book.
An English teacher quoted Kurt Vonnegut at my class once, to reprimand us for complaining about some reader-response assignment: “Reading without writing is like eating without digesting.” At the time I thought that out teacher, and Vonnegut, were setting hopelessly high expectations. I’m not sure what’s changed in me since then, but now the expectation seems reasonable, and the alternative terribly wasteful. I’ll teach plenty of English classes after I graduate, but I’ll never be a student in one again, I’ll never have this designated time to unpack what I read. So my only option, really, is to set aside a notebook and a little bit of time after each book to think through what was going on, how the author said what they said and what it all meant.
During study breaks between my newly online classes these days, I’ve set up my own system of studying my favorite books from the past few years. This week I’m looking at descriptions of landscapes, reading them and writing little notes about how the authors do what they do and what it all means. Next week it’ll be character introductions, and after that dialogue. There’s so much that I missed in these books, so much power in the language that I skimmed, already looking forward to the next thing. It’s almost disgusting, how I wasted these books. But that’s okay. I’ve got plenty of time left in my life, and a lot of it’s free now since I’m stuck inside to dodge the coronavirus. I can catch up.
Thursday, March 26, 2020
In books and movies, regrets tend to center around a single decision, an instant, something that can be summed up in a sentence or frame that comes back to haunt the characters in flashback. That makes for good storytelling, but I’m not sure it reflects life all that well. When I look back at the choices I regret, most of them are little daily choices that built up like plaque, that I only realize are mistakes years later. But maybe I’m being melodramatic about all this, given that I’ve lived a safe, protected, and therefore am mostly regret-free life. Case in point, three of my top regrets from high school seem pretty petty when I write them out: not socializing enough, not reading enough on my own, and spending way too much time and money on Magic: The Gathering.
If you haven’t spent enough time around nerdy high schoolers, Magic is the first and most popular collectable trading card game. It has a massive community; even a town as small as Grinnell has its own game story that survives mostly on Magic products and weekly Magic tournaments. The rules are so arcane that it took me a full year of regular play to figure out the most obscure of them, and the cards are so expensive that they drive otherwise worthless cardboard up to obscene prices.
The complex rules and high prices scared me off at first, as did the general vibe of obsession that the game seemed to breed. But a few people I wanted to be friends with in middle school played, so I bought a deck and learned a passing familiarity with the rules. Middle school turned to high school and one by one my closest friends became hardcore collectors who would spend two hundred dollars on booster packs in one night. I never spent that much, but I had to spend something to maintain my collection and keep up a deck that could be competitive. I’ve never added up how much I spent, but if I did I think I’d probably be more than a little shocked at how much I’d lost.
The problem, I think, was that I was never all-in with Magic. I liked it well enough to learn the rules and play if someone had their decks out, but not enough to ever get really invested in it. Which, being surrounded by true obsessives, meant that I was always just a little bit behind, hoping that we’d find something more interesting to do or talk about. For me, Magic was just a way to make and maintain friends, but when most of what those friends did was talk about Magic, I felt a little bit lost.
An odd thing has happened to me over the last month or so: I’ve gotten back into Magic. The lore, which once seemed so dense and meaningless, now fascinates me in how overcrowded and bizarre it all was. The convoluted rules have a sort of legal elegance to them that I didn’t take the time to appreciate when I was first learning them. I have a special appreciation for how each of the colors has its own personality and philosophy, and how those interact when mixed. I’ve even considered getting back into the Magic community, even though that’s basically impossible now that social distancing has shut down all competitions. Really, I want to go back in time and choose a side. If I’d been really indifferent, then I should’ve found different friends, different interests, and built something that would’ve served me well through the rest of my life. Or I could’ve gone all-in, memorized the terms and watched the matches and learned to love it. I could’ve gotten a lot out of it. But I didn’t choose either, and now I feel like I paid the price and got nothing for it.
But, when we remember things, especially things we regret, we tend to simplify what should be complicated. The friends I made playing Magic are real friends, even if there was a consistent disconnect between us. The thrill I felt constructing my own halfway decent deck for the first time was real too. I got a lot out of it, if never quite what I wanted. And the memories that I have left over from it all aren’t just regret; there’s happiness there, real happiness that I should value.
Thursday, March 19, 2020
One summer in middle school I volunteered as a Vacation Bible School camp councilor, but all that I remember from it is the fascinating way those kids talked about the past. They assumed that all events before they were born happened roughly simultaneously, that Jesus died on the cross at around the same time as their parents went to college, and God created the heavens and the earth back when George Washington fought off the British. In their minds, the world used to be a frightening and exciting place, where angels visited prophets and nations went to war about once every fifteen minutes. Then they were born, world events settled down and the history stopped. When I talked to them about it, they seemed relieved that they had been born into a simpler, safer world than their parents, but a little disappointed too. Scary as the past was, it would’ve been nice to hang out in that world at least long enough to see a dinosaur (which, according to them, died out sometime in the 1980’s).
This way of thinking intrigued me in part because it was so familiar. I followed a less extreme version of it even then, and would for years to come. Sure, on a conceptual level I knew that things happened as slowly in the past as they did in the present, but I definitely got the sense that the world had decided to halt major events when I came around. The obvious exception to that was 9/11, but by time I was old enough to understand it, I’d forgotten what it was like in the moment. Then there was the Obama election, but I grew up in such a conservative town with such liberal parents that I couldn’t decide how I was supposed to feel about it and ended up registering it as a mostly neutral event. The U.S. was at war through most of my childhood, but the information was so muddled and the event so distant that I didn’t know how I was supposed to feel.
Because of this, for most of my life I had the distinct feeling that I was missing out on history. You could attribute this to my general disinterest in present reality, always imagining that there’s something better in the past or future or some fantasy world that never existed. (I’m still a little like that: I have trouble getting into modern space exploration, but I marvel at archiac scientists with crude telescopes who thought that there were jungles under Venus’s thick atmosphere or that Mars’s stones were red with blood from alien wars). But there is some truth to this too, I think: aside from a blip in the housing crisis, we had a fairly stable nation from 2001 to 2016. And, though it was never really on the front of my mind, I did have an idle wish that I could live in an era someone could study or write historical fiction about.
Ever since November of 2016, that wish has seemed like some kind of monkey’s paw-style curse. I forgot that, with precious few exceptions, people don’t remember major world events because everyone had a good time. Usually, it’s an event because a whole lot of people die.
It’s impossible to deny that we’re in some sort of major world event right now. Even home in sheltered, suburban Edina, there are no cars on the highway and basic amenities are disappearing from the grocery store. My parents and brother and sister and her girlfriend and my girlfriend are all under one roof, none of us entirely sure what the next step in each of our lives will be. In a way, it feels like a gritty reboot of what I thought the past was like as a six-year-old: disaster and excitement in a chaotic mess, nothing stable for more than a couple minutes.
But in the midst of it all, there is a sense of peace that I don’t think any six-year-old could have predicted. For the first time ever, Mica is meeting my entire family and staying at my house for more than a few days. Even pandemonium isn’t what I predicted, I guess. And there’s that to be thankful for.