Tilled Soil

I’m a weird person. This used to bother me a lot in elementary school when I’d get picked on for not conforming to the crowd. In fact, I remember one of my favourite t-shirts in elementary school was a green t-shirt with the word “Non-conformist” proudly written on it. My classmates would pick on me for using “big words.” Apparently 3 to 4 syllables is remarkable for a 2nd grader, an accomplishment now overshadowed by words like “Nicene-Constantinopolitan” which I run into with relative frequency.

Being weird, I’ve wrestled for most of my life with striking a balance between being myself and being understood. Phonological changes in languages are often said to be triggered by tensions between Easy of Articulation (what’s easy to say) and Perceptual Clarity (what’s easy to hear). Analogously, I’ve long had on my mind the need to balance my effort to translate myself with others’ efforts to understand me.

And I mean more by ‘understand’ than just the words I use. If my main passion wasn’t language then there might be fewer obstacles, but we all want to be understood on a deeper level. We want our feelings – passions, fears, and hopes – to be understood, shared, and validated. We want shared experiences, shared memories, shared jokes, shared secrets, and shared worldviews. If not shared, at least understood.

But we inevitably encounter people who are different. We all have our turn being the weird one. Then an exchange happens. Both parties must make reciprocal efforts to make themselves understandable and to try to understand. Obviously we can be too lazy on the latter point but I also think we can do too much of the former.

When you constantly translate yourself into the socially acceptable vernacular you miss out on chances to teach people. Some of my favourite TV shows I discovered only because someone made an obscure reference in conversation that went over my head and needed to be explained. If no one had ever talked to me about Elbow Leaches, I never would have watched Avatar: The Last Airbender (best cartoon ever).

Any polyglot poetry-lover probably knows that so much is lost in translation. Translation always comes with compromise. You can accurately convey meaning but you lose identity. You lose character. Something of personality disappears and that can be as disappointing for the reader-in-translation as it is frustrating for the original poet.

I don’t want to always speak in the vernacular. Being able to is important, but I’ve spent far too much time trying to learn how to say “Did you see that ludicrous display last night” correctly. Confusion is beautiful. Confusion is to learning what tilled soil is to crops. I want to say confusing things like “Easy of Articulation,” “Perceptual Clarity,” and “Nicene-Constantinopolitan.”

I’ve decided I’m going to start confusing people again and I hope- I eagerly anticipate others doing the same.


Medium vs Convention (Or “Why I Don’t Hate Anime Anymore”)

People will occasionally tell me “I don’t like movies,” “I don’t like video games,” or “I don’t like poetry.” Or something else like that. Then I press them for reasons. Sometimes it’s a matter of the medium itself. Screens give people headaches, input devices are confusing, or the written word on a page doesn’t have enough explosions and fight scenes for one’s liking.

Other times it’s a matter of illiteracy. A person might be insufficiently familiar with the medium to understand what’s going on. What does a jump cut signify? How did I die? What do all these images and metaphors mean?

Those are both instances in which the problem lies between a medium and the audience. But occasionally I discover a third reason for disliking a medium and it has nothing inherently to do with the medium itself. Styles and conventions.

I used to think I hated anime. I like some TV shows. I even like some animated TV shows. I love Avatar: The Last Airbender. And I don’t have anything against the nation of Japan. However, I am quickly bored by fight scenes, I think magical girls are an uninteresting concept, and I don’t appreciate pandering or over the top lewdness. And the only animes I was aware of were either stressfully violent (Attack on Titan), childishly magical (Sailor Moon), or intolerably lewd (I’m not going to tell you).

What I failed to recognize in my own thought process was what I often recognize quickly in others – those are all matters of content, style, and convention. Anime often features those kinds of subjects but it doesn’t have to. Mom and dad always made me try new foods at the dinner table so I figured I owed anime a chance.

A friend recommended Death Note, which isn’t PG but at its core it’s about something more than gore, magic, or fanservice. While it may feature these things at appropriate times in service of the story, its core themes are hubris, playing god, the value of life, etc. As a fan of Firefly, I also bumped into Cowboy Bebop which may not have as strong core themes as Death Note but has a very rich setting and some impressive individual stories.

Having come to understand the differences between the medium and its conventions, I stumbled into a whole catalog of series that use highschool settings as backdrops for social dramas and romantic comedies that explore different dimensions of social life including the role of class, emotional distance, and even more thoughtful aspects of gender and sexuality. To varying degrees, these often feature potentially disagreeable conventions (Toradora is notably tame) and an individual’s tolerance for different kinds of material may be lower or higher but if you can discern the core experiences of a series you may find something worth watching to which the conventions might have previously made you blind. In this manner, literacy towards the medium also comes into play.

I still hate Attack on Titan, Sailor Moon, and others but it’s not because they’re anime. It’s because of their content and conventions. The medium itself has a lot to celebrate. There might be a bit of a learning curve and you may not know where to start. In the grand scheme of life you don’t really need to, but knowing the difference between a medium and its popular conventions can be an important tool for figuring out what kind of media you want to consume.

I’m hardly a Japanophile and I’ll always have to watch dubs not subs, but I don’t hate anime anymore.

Seriously, who wants to spend a whole show reading the lower third?

The Other Perfectionism

“There is no art delivered to mankind that hath not the works of nature for [its] principle object, without which they could not consist, and on which they so depend as they become actors and players, as it were, of what nature will have set forth.” – Philip Sidney

I’ve never been a perfectionist in the sense that I’m totally content to show my work when it’s not quite done or ready. I’ve long believed that if you wait until you’re ready then you’ll never get anywhere. Even if I had been a perfectionist then school would have taught me otherwise.

I almost never had the time to reread assignments before I submitted them. I had just enough time (sometimes not enough time) to write something, anything, and hand it in. So I got very used to the red pen. The final grade meant less and less to me over time.

While I was never a perfectionist, I have always been a pedant for originality. If I was writing something and then I found out that someone had already done something like it, I would pretty much give up. I was quickly judgmental of stories with familiar ideas in them. Since then, I’ve developed a bad habit of abandoning any project that doesn’t have some exceptional idea behind it.

It’s good to push yourself but some standards are so high that you can never start working. Therein lies the difference between two types of perfectionism.

The first kind, the common kind, is the unwillingness to consider a work finished until it is absolutely perfect. This leads people to spend forever on a project that never ends. The other perfectionism, the one I have, happens right at the beginning. It’s a perfectionism of concept rather than a perfectionism of quality. It’s the difference between never finishing a work and never starting one.

Overcoming the first is easier, I think. All you need is to make a conscious decision to let go. Overcoming the second is harder because you don’t have a work to let go of. Rather, it takes a reevaluated attitude towards creativity. Artists cannot create ex nihilo. Very rarely will someone invent a new genre or create something that has never been created before, and even then those gifted artists build their work on nature.

The other perfectionism stems from a dissatisfaction with nature or its neglect. Artists can’t draw from much else. To myself and to anyone else who struggles with this kind of perfectionism, I recommend adopting a new humility towards their art. The best works of art are born of simple and understandable ideas.

There are some things that are common to almost all of us as human beings. That is nature, our subject and our inspiration. And there are ways we experience and interpret such things that are unique to all of us as individuals. That is our originality. When those two things come together you get an idea for a work that is perfect enough for the purposes of the artist.