Goals

I graduated from university about a year ago, at which point I was presented with a crisis. The scripted part of my life was over. Everything up to that point was planned. From the moment I left my graduation ceremony, nothing was planned. There were no longer and pre-determined achievements to unlock. I had to set my own goals.

For the past year I have tried to set goals and for the past year I have come up with nothing. “Projects” is a related term used by my former writing and theatre peers. People have writing projects or acting projects. I can’t manage a clear vision of what to spend a single day doing, much less a “project”.

That isn’t to suggest I haven’t accomplished anything in the past year. Even in the past month I’ve learned recipes, done writing, done some language learning, met people, and become a part of a community theatre production among other things. I’ve been looking for work. When I look at the person I was a year ago, I know I’ve grown. I know I’m further ahead in life than I used to be. But I still have no clear vision of where this is all heading and I’m not sure I can say I have and “goals”. Just things I try to do a little of every day.

And then I remember the words of all the adults in my life who told me, as I approached my final year of university, that they were all winging it. That the adults I had always considered the most established if not accomplished in life were all just improvising and that the most successful are often more fortunate than in control.

Perhaps this is a part of what they meant. Maybe it’s normal to not know where we’re going in life or even if we’re able to steer at all. Maybe it’s normal to want your life to count but not know what that would look like. Maybe it’s normal to aspire to something great but not know what that something great is. Perhaps that’s just a normal frustration to face, especially in young adulthood.

So I don’t have goals or projects or visions for my future. I have individual days that I make the most of. And I’m sure some day I’ll look back and see how each day’s effort lead to something to be proud of. Until then, I’m improvising.

Unlearning (or “The Difficulties Presented for Aspiring Writers by the Present Conventions of the North American University System”)

For every one criticism I might level at my alma mater, I can say ten nice things. Among those criticisms are even things that are not the fault of the institution but of the larger system and my smaller university is to be praised for being flexible and making the best of an unperfectible system. Nonetheless, the system encourages some bad habit that have to be unlearned.

Word counts and page counts – we have all suffered them. I understand them to an extent. Students should be able to express a certain depth and breadth of knowledge on a given subject and two pages often doesn’t cut it. But what happens when you just don’t have that much to say on a topic?

Again, it is reasonable for educators to expect a certain depth and breadth of knowledge from their students. I am certainly not trying to suggest that I, the student, should get to set the bar on how much understanding is acceptable. But all students have unique learning styles. For everything my professors told me in class, there were ten things I wanted to go home and study independently. I wanted the big picture, to make all the connections. My professor makes a passing comment on Latin grammar, I go teach myself Latin. The problem then arises on exam day when I only have that one tenth understanding of the exact material being tested.

Papers presented a similar problem. I would be expected to write 2000 words on a topic and I could manage 500. I could write 50,000 on the given topic as related to others but the system asks me to focus. Which means that I (and many many other students) have had to learn the bad habit of finding the least efficient ways to express information. Clarity is not so important as how much space the sentence fills on the page.

This is a rather dreadful side effect of the system, especially for a student of writing. During the summer after graduating I worked at a Tim Horton’s as a baker. It was a busy location so efficiency was key. The problem was that I didn’t know how to be efficient. My coworkers would come in from the front and say “10 Boston Creams” whereas I would make my entrance and proclaim with theatrical perfection, “Lo and behold, dearest coworkers and brothers in arms against the ravenous tide of donutivorous itinerants! All but the lactose intolerant weep this night in Boston! Two less a score are needed.”

I exaggerate but you understand the principle.

My dad would tell anecdotes of putting out newspaper ads where you paid by the word. It is a helpful way of thinking about brevity in writing.

Belaboring the ratio, for every ten wonderful things I learned at university there is one that I have had to unlearn; the system is not perfect. I have learned grammar, style, and the proper use of the semicolon but brevity is a lesson for no sooner than today.

And getting there will involve a fair amount of unlearning.

 

An appending thought: Longer semesters would allow slower (read “broader”) learners like myself to cultivate the broad, deep, and focused understanding that the word counts are asking for, but this is perhaps an unrealistic suggestion. Better to self-correct one’s own bad habits and do the best possible within the system.

It’s Still You

-Undertale Spoilers-

The artistic merit of video games is a subject I am quite passionate about. I grew up the video games and they’ve grown up with me. I was born as the medium was beginning to take off and find its identity and I found part of my identity through video games.

I have interacted with the medium my whole life and ‘interacted’ is the operative word. Uniquely among media, video games are characteristically interactive. This allows them to explore ideas like agency, ability, and choice like no other medium can. You do not just empathize with a character’s struggles, you enact them yourself. Your character’s struggles are your struggles, their challenges are your challenges.

Taking Undertale as an example, you do not simply lean back and wait for the main character to figure out how to peacefully resolve conflicts with the citizens of the underground. You, the player, have to figure it out. Every attack against the main character is an attack against you.

So at the beginning of the game you encounter a mirror and if you try to interact with the mirror then the text prompt reads “It’s you!”

its you

Then you go through the underground and bear the onslaught of confused or scared creatures, never striking back, turning the other cheek, finding the peaceful resolution, and towards the very end you encounter another mirror.

despite everything

Despite everything, it’s still you.

I still find this moving. Many of us will experience transitions or trials in life in which we find ourselves in alien circumstances and struggle with difficult questions. In Boethius’ words, we might feel “Banished from ourselves.” It is in those times that perhaps we ought to make some quiet space for ourselves. Pause for a moment, reflect, and look in the mirror and say “Despite everything, it’s still me.”

But it is more than that. It is not just still you, it is more you. It is a more developed you, a more experienced and wiser you with more choices behind you that have defined your character. And for the moment it may be hard but you choices are in your hands and so long as you choose wisely there will always be a better and better you waiting in the next mirror.

Despite everything, it’s still you. Remember that and hold onto it because the world cannot take that away from you. You have agency. The choice is in your hands.

Undertale’s protagonist, the medium of video games, myself, and the rest of us are all in the process of forging an identity. It’s a bumpy ride sometimes but if we make good choices we’ll never lose ourselves.

The Measure of a Man

I’ve grown up in a slightly insular community. For almost all my life I’ve been surrounded by Christians. I’ve largely known what behaviours to expect from people and what values we might hold in common.

I went to a public high school but I was never great friends with my classmates. I worked at jobs with Christians and I went to a Christian university with Christians. My first meaningful experience with non-Christians was last summer working at a Tim Horton’s and the experience was mixed. Many coworkers were unequivocally friendly but others (who mostly worked later shifts) were a bit harder to connect with.

One of the things I realized from the latter group is that different kinds of people can have vastly different behaviours and values.

And now that I’ve moved from my insular community into the bigger world, I reflect on this revelation and I worry about how I’ll be treated and what will be expect of me. Or, more concerning, how do I know that I’ll be treated with dignity and respect?

If we all have different behaviours and values, then what’s to guarantee that the secular world will acknowledge my worth and treat me right? I don’t know but I’ve taken up this as a creed: “The measure of a man is his kindness.” If I can treat others with kindness, I can hold my head up high. I don’t know well that will be received but it will be my assurance of my own dignity when I can’t rely on reciprocated religious values.

Now my greatest hope would be that all my non-Christian readers read this and think “Pfft. What are you talking about? Most non-Christians are super nice!” And I do recall those people who worked the morning and afternoon shifts at Tim Horton’s, always smiling and encouraging each other. That was a vision of a world I’d gladly live in. But there are also unkind people and I’m not sure how I’ll respond.

I suppose one thing I can do is remember the words of the psalmist who wrote “Even though I walk through the shadow of the valley of death, I will not fear evil for you are with me.” And if I’m not afraid of them, I can afford to be kind to them. And if I’m kind, I’m sure I’ll at least make a few friends.

The Former Wanderer

I’m particularly fond of an Old English poem called The Wanderer. In it, the narrator speaks of his estrangement from his companions and from his home. The Seafarer is thematically comparable. The first time I read it, it resonated with me like few things ever have.

There is something comforting and validating about knowing other people whose predicaments are your own. Even if we don’t like where we are in life, we see others in similar circumstances and think “it’s okay for things to be like this and I’m not alone in it.” When I read The Wanderer for the first time in class (it had been assigned reading but I had been busy) I felt both a deep connection with the poet and newfound comfort in my own circumstances.

As grade 12 began, it became apparent to me that I would soon go to university and move out of my childhood home. I was mostly ready for this thanks to having been booted out the door to go to summer camp in many previous years. But I was still somewhat saddened at the prospect that I wouldn’t have a permanent home for a while.

So I moved between home and university and the summer camp I then worked at for years and years and years. Within university, I moved from dorm to dorm one year after another or sometimes even twice within a year. Then I lived in an apartment in my year after university, all the while knowing that it would be a temporary arrangement.

And then today happened. And I moved again into the downtown of my new city. And for the first time since before grade 12, I wonder if I might stay here for a while. Whenever something has been the case in our lives for a long time, there is a certain nervousness that can set in towards the prospect of things changing. We may be cautiously optimistic at best and cautiously optimistic is exactly what I am. Everything could work out for the next year, two years, or more. That would certainly be lovely.

But no matter what happens, one thing will stay the same. I love The Wanderer. I’ll always love that poem that spoke so clearly to something that was such a big part of my life for a long time. It’ll always be something I take with me. Even if the grand scheme of the future is uncertain, there’s one thing that won’t change.

Moving still sucks though.

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.

The Aesthetic of Emptiness

One of my earliest memories is of the game series Myst.

emptiness-exile

Myst III: Exile

For those of you who don’t know, Myst is a series of puzzle adventure games in which you explore these vast fantastic worlds full of puzzles, mysteries, and history. You spend most of your time in the games alone, often with haunting music playing in the background. Much of the Myst games is lonely. And I love it.

I love it because the contrasting emptiness emphasizes the player’s presence and agency in the world. I love it because the stark vacancy drives a player’s curiosity to discover what happened in these worlds and how they work. I love it because there is something about the aesthetic of emptiness that dissatisfies a person, makes them uncomfortable, and drives them to act.

It reminds me of auditoriums, sheets of paper, or canvases – things specifically designed to be empty for the purpose of being filled with music, words, or images. Things built to be incomplete. The feeling I get in an empty auditorium is the same I get standing at the top of a hill or cliff. It demands that I speak or sing into the emptiness.

It’s the same feeling I get when I look at a newly rendered Minecraft world, an empty field, or the night sky. Our species has an apparently insatiable desire to fill and create from what we find. And it makes me wonder about the inherent meaning of the universe. Some say life is inherently meaningless and some say life is decidedly meaningful. I believe it to be meaningful but I look at emptiness and I think “There’s a manner in which we’re supposed to create more meaning. Fill in the blanks. Fill in the parts of the story that have not yet been written.”

For this reason, I love works of art that are minimalist or simple. Songs that use silence as if it were another note. Paintings that use the empty canvas as if it were another colour. Games where the player is in an empty world. I love these because the feeling of incompletion emphasizes the grandeur and impulse of creativity, that first dramatic step from nothing to something. From ignorance to understanding. In Myst, from absence to agency. The aesthetic of emptiness is the one that best conveys the power of the inspiration to create.

Why I Hated Dance

In elementary school and high school I would sit in the audience of talent shows and think “This is admittedly impressive in that the performers have great control of their body, but isn’t this form without content? Doesn’t this lack meaning or message?” So for the first 20 years of my life I was convinced that dance was just an inferior art form if an art form at all.

My thinking began to shift when I watched a Ze Frank video in which Ze narrates a dancer’s life story over his performance.

I liked this. I loved it. There was a marriage of form and content that I had been searching for. I wouldn’t have been able to read Harry’s performance without Ze’s narration, but we all have to be taught to become literate. No one is born reading. No one is born understanding much of anything. So then I had a problem. I had found a dance performance I liked. I could no longer write off an entire art form as inherently inferior. So what was different?

I wouldn’t know until a couple years later. I sat down to consciously think through dance. Every art form has advantages and ideas that it’s better at exploring. Theatre explores causes and effects. Poetry relates connected ideas. The various movements in the history of painting demonstrate different ways of perceiving the world. What does dance do?

The answer I came to was this – dance demonstrates dynamic. A dance that takes place between two people represents the innermost essence of relationship; some are exciting, some are happy, some are equal, some have a leader, some are slow, etc. So dance is about connection and interaction. Dance is what two souls are doing while two bodies are talking or walking or working or whatever.

So what about these solo dance performances like the detestable ones in high school or the beautiful one on youtube? If dance is about connection, aren’t solo dances inherently deficient? Aren’t they inherently about loneliness? Well, yes and no. Solo dance performances (I am including coordinated dances done in groups but without interaction between dancers) are about what the soul does when its on its own. They’re a way of sharing an innermost part of ourselves.

But that has to be vulnerable. And there’s the difference between hip-hop loving teens and Harry. Harry is exposed. Harry is embodying his pain. The talent show performances aren’t vulnerable. They should be but what they say is “The inner most part of me is strong and sassy and beautiful and ain’t takin’ nuthin’ from nobody.” That claim is almost certainly a lie and I wouldn’t want to be friends with someone for whom that was honestly true. Real people are vulnerable and demonstrating that takes incredible courage. Anything less than that isn’t art. It’s a lie you tell yourself. Unfortunately it’s the lie that most talent show participants have told themselves.

But dance is made for more. Dance is what the soul does. It can be what two souls do together or it can be a single soul at its most vulnerable. What it should never be is without risk.

You may disagree. You may find “strong and sassy” inspiring. That’s a conversation we can have. The point is I don’t hate dance anymore. What I hate is invulnerability. What I admire is vulnerability. If you admire strength, I submit to you that real strength is the courage to be open.