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.

Rules for Valentine’s Day for Single People

Every year we see varied reactions toward this oft-loved oft-hated holiday and we see varied reactions to these reaction. There’s often a mixture of excitement and resentment among those in relationships and those single, respectively. Because of this, I often start hearing discussions of what the potential merits or shortcomings of this season may be.

Coming from the position of a single guy, I end up revisiting my position each year and discussing it with people in similar situations. I’ve heard positions as graceful as “I use the holiday to celebrate my friends’ relationships and to remind myself of what I have to hope for.” And I’ve heard positions as embittered as “This is the dumbest holiday ever conceived.”

This year I’ve taken on a new position that I think is a healthy middle ground. As I continue to mature in coming years, my feelings about this season will likely change but this is where I am this year.

Rule 1. Don’t resent another person’s happiness. It’s not their fault that I haven’t found what they’ve found. And their happiness doesn’t somehow make me more single than I already am. Even if I feel bad, I should understand that that’s not someone else’s fault.

Rule 2. I don’t have to feel happy for others. I’m my own person with my own experiences and feelings. If some of those experiences and feelings are of disappointment, other people should respect that. I don’t stop being me just because someone else is happy and I can only pretend to be happy for others for so long when I haven’t experienced what they’re happy about.

Rule 3. Focus on the good. Rather than ruminating over the shallow commerciality of the holiday, remember what genuine love is. That may or may not be romantic. Let real love have the last word.

Rule 4. Wonder how Muslims refugees in North America feel during Christmas or Easter.

Rule 5. Try to ignore it. It’ll be over before you realize and then everyone will start stocking shamrocks for St. Patrick’s. Many of us struggle with finding fulfillment in our singleness but the sun rises the next day and there are still many things in life to be happy about. Take a brisk walk. Drink some tea. Watch a TV show you like. Remember you are more than your romantic prospects.

Love is beautiful and worth celebrating but there are 364 other days of the year for celebrating everything else that’s good in the world. We single people can bite the bullet and find lots to be happy about on February 15th.

And if nothing else, we’ve all got each other.

A Four Letter Word

Most of my jobs have been terrible. They’ve been fast-paced, low pay, unfulfilling work. Some have involved working with some amazing people. One temporary job involved working with absolutely no one! But largely the experience of getting paid has been one I associate with profound boredom at best and anxiety at worse.

So now that I’ve graduated school and I’m faced with the prospect of doing something with my life, I’ve encountered a strange phenomenon. The idea of monetizing my hobbies is repelling. Sure, I’d rather get paid to do something I love than something I hate. Sure, once I reach a point that I’ve made my hobbies into my work I’m sure I’ll really enjoy it. But there’s a barrier to break through. I don’t want to ‘work’. ‘Work’ is misery. I’ll fill my days with productive activities but I don’t want to ‘work.’

Many personal struggles take a turn for the better once the nature of the struggle has been identified, and personal battles have a sneaky way of going on without one’s knowing. You know something is wrong but you can’t quite identify what. Ever since graduation my life has been pretty much like that. A whole bunch of things have suddenly become wrong but I can’t exactly identify what.

Luckily, I’ve identified this one barrier and now I can find ways to cope. Or at least ways to start, like writing consistently. Also, I’ve decided that it might be helpful for me to run two blogs at once: one for personal thoughts and reflections, one about arts and such especially literature.

https://litteranaut.wordpress.com/

Hopefully having one space to vent personal thoughts will make it easier to maintain a more professional portfolio for my writing aspirations.

Okay, back to work- I mean… Back to constructive uses of my time.

Not For Need Of Answers

Myths and legends often aim to explain the natural world. Aesop tells us that the tortoise got its shell because Zeus was mad at it. Norse mythology describes earthquakes as caused by Loki’s tremors. Legends tried to explain animals, plants, geography, and many more things that they couldn’t fully explain at the time they were written.

We can debate whether these people actually believed their stories or whether they were just fun traditions, but what’s clear now is that we of the scientific era have found the better answers. We can explain the tortoise’s shell from biology and earthquakes from seismology. We no longer have need for such silly stories, right?

Well, then this week’s episode of Steven Universe aired.

GemHarvest_Main.png

This was the first time I paid attention to something I’ve seen my whole life. Even though we understand the true meanings of things, we continue to invent explanations for them. This often happens when fictional universes adopt real world holidays. The story needs a reason for the holiday to be there.

So we have a thanksgiving Steven Universe story, but the history of that world isn’t the same as ours. It could have been, but it isn’t. For all we know, there were no pilgrims or anything of the sort. The holiday spread is what it is because Lapis and Peridot had the vegetables they had and because the others went into Greg’s van and bought what they could. Expressing gratitude just happens because they were all feeling thankful and having a good time. We carve pumpkins because Steven wanted Lapis and Peridot to have a living vegetable friend (wrong holiday, but whatever.)

And I found it strange that the show was trying to explain something that already has a story. Not wrong, just strange in a science-driven world. Evidently we do this for reasons other than just needing an explanation. We have an explanation but we want to make another. We love to reinvent and reinterpret our world.

Apart from being just fascinating, I find this comforting. It means that no matter what we discover or build, there will always be something more that can be done. We’ll never run out of things to do and we’ll never tire of stories.

Don’t Just Vote

trump-clinton

The situation in the US is a mess. Being only 22 years old, this is the first US Election that I’ve really paid any attention to. I intentionally ignored politics for many years because I wanted to make sure that my worldview (including politics) would grow to be informed by important matters, rather than important matters being informed by my politics.

Aaron, politics are important.” Mmm, kinda? It is my opinion (having never studied political science and being quite proud of that fact) that what happens in the capitol is a consequence of what happens in the hearts and minds of the nation. Policies do not change hearts and minds, hearts and minds change policies. You cannot change the attitudes of the nation by implementing policies any better than you can change the wind by spinning the weather vein. What happens in the nation’s capitol is of second-hand importance – a sign of what’s already transpiring.

The We’re All Doomed position in this election is misinformed in that it’s looking forward instead of backward. Doom isn’t on the horizon. We’re already in a mess and we have been for some time now. This election’s results are only relevant as indicators and fulfillments of something else. I don’t care who wins, I care why. Fixing the problems that follow has nothing to do with Washington DC and everything to do the conversations that happen between now and the next election.

Those conversations are going to be tricky because we are embarrassingly ill-equipped. We tend to respond from our guts rather than our heads and we lack the self-evaluation skills to understand even our own beliefs. We know what we believe, as if our convictions are nothing but a single one-dimensional point of data, but issues are much more complex.

– We must understand why we believe. If two people believe the same thing, one because of X and the other because of Y, they will split once X or Y changes.
– We must also consider the intent of belief. Two people can agree with a position on an issue but have radically different visions on how that belief should manifest. We might agree that something is wrong but disagree on how to address it.
– We must also understand how we believe. Disagreements often include not just an issue, but the importance of an issue. You may be pro-choice but not really care, or pro-choice and consider the issue paramount.
– Even if our position is entrenched, we must understand how we disagree. Is the other position just stupid (they rarely are) or do they have complex reasons for their belief worth our consideration even if we do strongly disagree?

These are tools that will help us over the next four years no matter who wins. Now let me address some of the vices that got us here in the first place.

Autonomy as virtue. Whether it’s bearing arms or aborting pregnancies, we don’t want to be told what to do. Autonomy cannot be an assumed virtue. Sometimes freedoms must be surrendered to accomplish what is right.
Ignorance as permissible. Has either of these candidates studied the Hadith? I’m convinced that Trump’s fearmongering and Clinton’s complacency towards Islam are both born of ignorance, as are many more issues.
Platform over character. It is a tragic flaw of the American system (and the Canadian as well) that elections tend to come down to hot-button issues and soundbites. Character and belief are related but distinct. A leader of integrity, understanding, and selflessness will be a greater credit to a nation than a stubborn platform.

A few years ago, I would have concluded this post with an appeal to not vote; both of these candidates are awful and it would be wrong to express support for either one. While I do believe that both of these candidates would make terrible presidents, let me sum up differently.

Democracy, as we know it, is lazy. Checking off those boxes once every few years is the bare minimum effort you can put into impacting your community and your nation. You have a far greater responsibility. Don’t just vote: Talk. And Listen. It is neither your privilege nor right to look away from the uncomfortable complexities of the world, to disagree in silence and leave the battle to someone else, or to shelter fragile ideologies behind walls.

Be challenged. Read. Think. Challenge yourself and challenge others. If you’re a young adult like I am, we are in the process of inheriting this world. What are we going to do with it? Vote, but don’t just vote. Discuss and discuss well. Have your own thoughts. Think critically. If we can get that right then we’ll find a brighter future.

The world doesn’t need more Democrats or more Republicans, it needs both to be better. And the place to start is yourself.

Luther and the Lion – The Totally True Story of Halloween

It all started almost 500 years ago. Once upon a time there was a little boy named Martin Luther.

wittenberg

Martin was very poor, as were all the boys in his village. They were poor because every year a scary Lion from Rome would visit and take all the village’s money. Lion would go into All Saints’ Church (or All Hallows’ Church), stand at the top of the bell tower, and mightily roar,

“I am Lion! Hear me roar!
Give your gold! Give me more!
I won’t stop until you do!
You won’t sleep until I’m through!”

This scared Martin and all the children very much. So every year the families would go to All Hallows’ Church one by one and knock on the door. Lion would make them say “Purgatory or treat,” because if the village did not give Lion his treats, he would not give them indulgences.

Martin decided that he had had enough of this. He decided that he would stop Lion. That year, Lion came at the time of the harvest and locked himself in the church and demanded his treats, roaring,

“I am Lion! Hear me roar!
Give your food! Give me more!
I hold the Keys, I stand on the Rock!
Until you admit it, I won’t stop!”

Martin knew he would need help to stop Lion, so he went to visit his friend Calvin. Calvin was a sad and lonely boy who spent most of his day reading books, but he was very smart and clever.

calvin

Martin knocked on Calvin’s door and said, “I am going to stop Lion and kick him out of our village! You are so very clever. What shall we do?”

Calvin opened the door and said,
“Silly Martin. You can’t stop Lion.
He’s so very strong, it’s not even worth tryin’.
If God wants to do it then in time He will,
And if He does not then I won’t waste my skill.”
For Calvin was clever and very well read,
But also quite lazy, and left not his bed.

Martin needed someone else to help him to stop Lion, so he went to visit his other friend Wycliffe. Wycliffe was clever but moreover quite active. Wycliffe had learned to speak Lion’s language and secretly shared Lion’s books with the villagers. Surely he would help!

wycliffe

Martin knocked on the door and said, “I am going to stop Lion and kick him out of our village! You are so very clever and active! What shall we do?”

zwingli

But it was not Wycliffe who came to the door.
“I’m so very sorry, but please stay outside.
I’m sorry to say that my brother has died.
We did not pay Lion so he’ll come for us,
But it was nice to meet you. My name is Jan Hus.”
Wycliffe and Jan – They were both bold and smart.
But sadly for them, Lion’s teeth were too sharp.

Martin started off, but before he could go
Jan Hus said, “There’s one little thing you should know
My brother found out, before he got sick,
The Lion is lying – Purgatory’s a trick!”

Martin was very sad. He simply had to stop Lion but Wycliffe was gone, Jan would be soon, and Calvin was just too lazy. Martin almost gave up but then, on the last day in October, he had a brilliant idea!

“I can’t outsmart Lion. He can’t be out-dared.
But what if, I wonder, he were to be scared?”

So Martin went to visit his last friend, Zwingli. He knocked on the door and said, “Zwingli! I am going to stop Lion and scare him out of our village!”

zwingli-not-hus

Zwingli opened the door and asked, “How?”
Martin explained how they’d chase out the Lion.
Martin would dress up and then terrify him!
They took to the kitchen and chopped up his hair
And made him look sickly, his head’s top was bare.
Lion would run, thinking Martin a nut,
For no one is sane who has that hair cut.
Lion would tremble and Lion would flee
And the people of Wittenberg would then be free!

Dressed up as a complete lunatic,  Martin went to All Hallows’ Church. Lion roared from the tower,

“I am Lion! Hear me roar!
Give your soul! Give me more!
I don’t care if there’s a recession!
I have apostolic succession!”

luther

Martin knocked on the door, refusing to stop
Until Lion arrived on the 95th knock.
The doors opened wide with an ominous creak.
And Lion growled out, “Purgatory or treat!”
“Trick or treat!” The bald boy said,
Yelling quite loudly and showing his head.
The Lion was frightened, his eyes filled with dread.
“What is wrong with your hair!?” He shouted and fled.

Then Martin called out to the people nearby,
“Good news, everyone! Purgatory’s a lie!
We’re saved from our sins only by grace
And the Righteous, from this day on, shall live by faith!”

The people of Wittenberg shouted and applauded and that winter was the most joyful winter in years! Lion tried to come back every year, but the people of Wittenberg would knock on All Hallows’ Church’s door dressed as monsters to scare Lion away. They named the day “Hollowe’en,” after Lion’s hollow doctrine. In later years, they discovered they could scare Lion using images carved into hollowed-out pumpkins. Calvin always left his house a mess of pumpkin guts, but his brother Jacob was always there to clean up Calvin’s messes.

Wycliffe and Jan were gone, but the village built a library in their honour and filled it with all kinds of books! Martin and Zwingli remained good friends, but occasionally disagreed over the health benefits of juice and crackers.

And for the next 499 years, the village was free and happy and peaceful, apart from the occasional party on Azusa Street which the village was mostly okay with it. And that’s the true story of Halloween.

door

Happy 499th birthday, Protestantism!