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The First Seventeen

I was recently on a plane back to New York from Montréal (if you wondering: poutine’s really good, the Canadians are onto something). It’s a short flight in a relatively small plane, but apparently, still one that lets you have those screens in the seatbacks. Which is nice because, y’know, you can watch a movie or something. Good time to catch up on movies you’ve missed or watch different because you wanna.

Thing is, the flight from Montréal to New York is a little over an hour and a half, which, you’ll notice, is a hair short of the typical two hour runtime of a movie. Which means when you watch something, you won’t finish it and that leaves you in a lurch that I don’t like. Means you get a lotta set up, but the payoff doesn’t complete. Take my girlfriend, who decided to watch Alien. She got to the chest busted scene, a little further, and we were in New York. No showdown between Ripley and the Alien, just, y’know, the build.

Seeking to avoid that, I looked for a movie around ninety minutes. The plane had Office Space, one of those movies I know I should watch and just haven’t gotten around to. I decided to get around to it.

Seventeen minutes in, however, it stopped. Like, ended and returned me to the main menu. I was confused and kinda annoyed. The movie was getting into gear and I was getting into it. Also I knew I’d be cutting it close and the couple minutes it’d take to load it back and find my place could make the difference between seeing the ending and, well, not. So I cued it back up and started fast-forwarding to my spot, whereupon I noticed that the timecode for the ending was at, coincidentally, seventeen minutes. Sure enough, when I reached where I was before, it stopped and I was returned to the main menu and Air Canada’s friendly hello.

Office Space has returned to the list of movies that I will watch eventually. But the first seventeen minutes are a lotta fun. Equally importantly, they serve to set up (what I presume) is the plot of the movie. We’re introduced to our protagonist and his two work buddies and we learn that they all really don’t like their job. There are hints of a scheme to screw over their company, the motivation of being free to do whatever they want with a load of money. We’re also given an antagonist in their smarmy boss a ticking clock with their company’s downsizing to speed along the plot. And, of course, it takes a minute to introduce us to our protagonist’s love interest. In short, everything is set up for the movie to come.

Beginnings are important. Duh. You’re still reading this either because you like me or you found my lengthy preamble about inflight entertainment sufficiently charming. A strong start is what keeps the reader, viewer, listened, or player engaged.

But beginnings might matter even more from a narrative point of view. One of the things Aristotle believed to be key about stories was the ultimate catharsis at the end, that great release of emotion (i.e.: blowing up the Death Star). To get that catharsis, you’ve gotta fill your reader (etc) with those emotions (i.e.: take Luke from Alderaan, destroy Alderaan, and lose Ben Kenobi to Darth Vader). You don’t get that release without doing the work (blowing up the Death Star just isn’t the same without all the build up).

From what I saw of it, Office Space certainly lays some strong groundwork. We know the problem — office life sucks — and now it’s a matter of remedying that. I know it somehow involves beating up a printer, but past that I’d have to actually watch the movie.

I’ll get around to it eventually.

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Mixed Results

I really liked the movie Balto as a kid. And for a kid, it makes sense. It’s about a talking dog, and there’s a goose and a couple polar bears in it too. Plus it’s a story about the outsider getting a chance to prove they belong by doing an Epic Heroic Thing and earning their place.’

Also, it’s a story about being mixed.

Like me.

I’m mixed, biracial, half-Asian; whatever the term du jour is. Which is something I mention every now and then on this blog, because it’s part of who I am and thus how I interpret the world around me and, with it, the narratives that the world creates. In other worlds: I tell you this because it directly impact the way I see stories.

And this is important, because Balto is half-dog, half-wolf, which is a major part of his identity in the story. He doesn’t fit in with the dogs because of his wolfness, but he can’t exactly run out and join a pack of wolves. He doesn’t belong to either group. Over the course of the movie he (spoiler) proves himself to his peers and, more importantly, realizes that his being half-wolf is a good thing, not a drawback. The plot progresses and he gets to save the day.

We don’t see a lot of mixed-race narratives, period. TV Tropes has precious few examples, and many of them are either informed traits or their entire story.. Sure, we’ll see interracial relationships play out (Hello, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend!), but anytime the product of one of those shows up, if the question of identity is addressed, chances are it becomes their whole thing. Growing up, Balto was the only story I knew that had a character who was explicitly mixed and dealt with that. As a bonus, it also wasn’t the only thing he had going on; he still got to do the hero thing.

It’s quite unfortunate, then, that I didn’t see much of Star Trek until I was eighteen, but even then just the Abrams film. But that’s a movie about Spock’s journey as a character, one that’s inherently related to his own status as being half-Vulcan, half-Human. Again, the importance here is that though the story deals with Spock’s identity, it is not the extent of his arc. He still has a story of learning humility and teamwork and saving the day and all that, one aspect of which is, of course, struggling with his identity.

I wanna stress just how rare this is. When stories come up with biracial characters that touch on their identity, that’s usually the be all and end all of their story. Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life has Sarah Jane, a half-white, half-black girl who passes white and so uses that to her advantage. Her story is one of someone rejecting one identity in favor of another and thus all but abandoning her mother in pursuit of hedonism. Yes, it’s a story about someone who’s mixed, but it’s about being mixed. Most of the time, when someone who’s mixed shows up in fiction and has a role, that’s their story. It’s about coming to terms with their identity, or realizing that they should embrace both halves and what have you. There’s no conjunction; they don’t come to terms with their identity and save the world, they don’t get to embrace both halves and make the big jump to fund their step-dad’s conveniently priced surgery.

This is why Balto mattered to me so damn much as a kid. I got to see someone in a movie dealing with some of the crap I dealt with. I got to see someone do all that and still save the day. It’s about being different, but still getting the normal treatment. Differently normal, if you will. I do think stories about mixed people being mixed are important, but equally important are stories where  they – we – get to deal with the stuff and still be the hero. I want stories about mixed people that aren’t just about being mixed; I’m more than just someone who’s half-white, half-Asian.

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Fast Car

I really like Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” and I realize I’m saying this as someone who’s around thirty years late to the party. Beyond its great musicality, there’s the poetry to it. It speaks to a wanting for a life that’s more than you have, one beyond your circumstances; but also to the dashing of that dream when reality ensues. All in all, it’s a beautiful, melancholic song.

Which I don’t really relate. Or more, can’t. See, I’ve lived a privileged life. I come from a home with functional parents in a healthy relationship; I never had to work to support my family or put my education on hold to care for my parents. The “I” of the song and I have little to nothing in common.

“Fast Car” speaks to something deeper than the surface it transcends circumstances. It’s not hard to relate to wanting something more than you have, to wanting to drive away from your lot in life. But Chapman doesn’t just try to paint the picture of those emotions; instead she describes the circumstances that create the feelings. Instead of telling us how to feel she crafts a narrative that elicits it. Specificity lends it empathy; by describing the events in such detail, Chapman is able to really dig into that wanting. It’s so vivid, it’s real. The fast car drives from metaphor into reality.

But it’s still a very particular narrative, that of a poor, black woman. It’s a story about her and her experiences. So what business do I, a half-white half-Asian man who’s not living in poverty, have listening to it?

Now there’s the universality of art. You don’t have to have lived on a boat to appreciate John Masefield’s poetry. Homegoing is still a brilliant piece of literature whether or not you have any relation to the African diaspora. Good works bring you into a world and state of mind, often through specifics. It’s how you make an unknown world known, how you spark a feeling that you can’t describe.

The stumbling block here, especially with something like “Fast Car,” is adopting a narrative or set of experiences as your own. “Fast Car” isn’t my story and it would be disingenuous of me to suggest otherwise. I love the song and I love singing along, but fundamentally I know it’s not my song. It’s the difference between appreciation and appropriation. If you were to make a video adaption of “Fast Car” and make the leads middle-class and white, you’d be completely missing the point.

This is something I’m thinking through, and a lot of this rant essay is me spitballing. I was introduced to “Fast Car” (and Tracy Chapman proper) when an indie band I love covered the song four-odd years ago. Now, they didn’t change the pronouns or the lyrics at all, but it’s still a white guy singing. Does that fundamentally affect the song? What about me and a friend singing it a karaoke? Am I thinking about this way too much?

In all honesty: I probably am. When Barcelona sings “Fast Car” they aren’t making any claims to the narrative. It’s a thirty year old song and a really good one at that; maybe a cover of it costs some of its subtext, but I don’t think there’s anything, well wrong with it. Maybe it’s like reading a good book, where you get to experience another life as your own for a bit. I don’t have a point to all this, more I’m curious about the way I interact with art, especially with narratives that aren’t about me.

In any case, “Fast Car” is a great song, and I do really like both Barcelona’s cover and Tracy Chapman’s original.

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So My Apartment Building Caught Fire

My apartment building caught fire yesterday.

Which is a helluva way to start a morning. I’m fine and, by virtue of being in the back on the sixth floor, my unit was somehow untouched.

But it did mean I was outside on the New York sidewalk at 5:30 in the morning watching firemen fight a fire from the pizza place I live over under control.

Then it started to rain. A cold, early morning rain. The sort that makes you wish you’d grabbed another jacket, never mind the smoke.

Just when we were wondering how long we’d have to stand in the rain waiting for news, a woman from the YM-YWHA a few doors down told us all we could wait inside there, warm up, use their bathrooms, and drink their water. Even though most of us weren’t members. The firefighters and police said they’d keep those inside updated.

Thus, with some of Maslow’s hierarchy taken care of, we continued to wait. But what I really wanted was some coffee.

In walked two people carrying boxes of donuts and coffee. They brought fiber bars and bananas. They brought cellphone chargers. They’d gotten them for us. They weren’t affiliated with the Y, not did they know any of us. They were just, as they said, doing what any good neighbors would do. They stayed and talked with us too, just mingling and hanging out.

The morning wore on. News broke that several units were inhospitable. The Red Cross came through with blankets and to help get people to temporary housing. The director of the Y and the leader of the synagogue next door stopped by to let us know that if we needed anything, they would help; if anyone needed clothing, housing, or food, they would reach out to their community to be taken care of.

There are reasons I believe that humanity, deep down, always wants to do good. And New York is a place that reaffirms it. During the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, people with generators sat outside their buildings with power strips so people could charge their phones. People showed up to work at a pizza place and a supermarket so locals could buy food and supplies. Food carts offered free food. My friends and I were waved down by a worker from a ramen joint to be given free food (I still go to that place to this day).

I’ve seen strangers comfort sobbing people on the subway, I’ve seen an old woman yell at a cabby who ignored a pedestrian crossing sign and almost hit a guy. Half-a-dozen friends of mine showed up, when asked last minute, to help me and my brother move out of our unit a day early.

This is why I don’t believe those stories, those movies and books and tv shows, that declare all of humanity to be depraved and hurtful monsters. It’s why I don’t believe critics who call superheroes unrealistic.  Because when something awful happens, when someone evil crops up, there are always those who step up, who protect, who help. For every Awful in this world, there are a dozen heroes.

It’s one of the reasons I love New York. It’s a city that doesn’t give a damn about who you are, but it will always have your back when things go wrong.

Or, as Fred Rogers put it:

There was something else my mother did that I’ve always remembered: “Always look for the helpers,” she’d tell me. “There’s always someone who is trying to help.” I did, and I came to see that the world is full of doctors and nurses, police and firemen, volunteers, neighbors and friends who are ready to jump in to help when things go wrong.

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Page Feel

I read a lot. This is partly a byproduct of having grown up a bookworm and partly having taken a course of studied that meant a lot of reading. Like a lot a lot. Since graduating, I’ve kept it up best I can and I’m sitting at fifteen-odd books in the past eleven months.

Like I said, reading a lot.

A side effect of this is that I have a wonderful bookshelf. You’ve got Ulysses there and the first volume of Saga there with CS Lewis’ Of Other Worlds. I like it, in part because it’s an egotistical testament to All The Books.

I mean, it’s kinda why I had a BluRay collection for a while. I love special features and stuff, but there’s also the fun of being able to tell a lot about a person based on what movies, games, books, music they own. But I’ve slowly been relying more on Netflix, etc for movies and tv with only really special things (Star Wars) getting bought. So books is the thing on my shelves.

And I’m moving in a couple months, which means packing everything up and hauling it down six(!) flights of stairs and to wherever I’m off to next. Which means packing up All The Books. And carrying All The Books elsewhere.

Which then begs the question: Why the crap don’t I have a Kindle? It’s light, I can fit All The Books inside and would make things so much easier. Also, once the thing is paid for, arguably cheaper. So there’s no real cons.

But the bookshelf.

And the books.

I like writing in my books. My copy of Ulysses is covered in my scrawls. Some books only have the occasional comment or underline. The Chinese in America has a lot of notes in the margins. Sure, you can do that on a Kindle and typed notes is easier to read than my handwriting, but there’s the process. Pen on paper. Flicking through a book looking for those notes. The feel of the pages.

There’s the bookshelf too. Maybe it’s an egotistical thing where I like having a monument to All The Books I Have Read in my apartment and to make sure people visiting can see All The Books. It’s a way for me to tell any visitor that I have a diverse array of interests (why yes, that is Mark Mazzetti’s study of the CIA, The Way of The Knife, next to Ready Player One; behold for I am cultured). It means that when some friends and I are a few drinks deep and talking about 80s movies or Ulysses I can pull a book off my monument to All The Books I Have Read and point to a passage relevant to our discussions. Like I said, it’s egotistical, but it has a purpose.

But maybe that egotism has a deeper root in a declaration of identity. Books are, to an extent, more personal than, say, movies. You don’t just go read a book at random, usually. Bookshelves represent what you’re into and what you’re enjoy, what you’ve studied and what you read for pleasure. They work as a summation of your interests and are thus reflexive back on you as a person. If you’re someone with The New Bloomsday Book you take reading important books seriously, but The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy lets everyone know you know how to have fun. By curating a bookshelf, you’re displaying a facet of yourself. You don’t get that on a Kindle.

I think that’s something that we lose when we go digital. Sure, it’s a bit of a luddite’s perspective, but I like recognizing a book a stranger’s reading on the subway or having an immediate icebreaker when you recognize a book on someone’s shelf.

So will I get a Kindle? Maybe. Probably eventually. Let’s see just how much I complain about lugging these books to a new apartment.

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Xenophobia, Science Fiction, and, eventually, Hope

I didn’t learn the term ‘xenophobia’ from the news, the radio, or a textbook. Didn’t come up in class or any place you’d expect. Rather, I learnt the word ‘xenophobia’ from the old Star Wars Expanded Universe books.

Was in the context of various political factions being distinctly anti-alien. Now, the xenophobia usually stemmed from the Empire and their staunch humans-first attitude and view of anyone who wasn’t as being intrinsically lesser, but some players in the New Republic also held xenophobic beliefs which made working together harder. Key thing was, these people were either villains or antagonists and their belief that someone who looked and thought differently was worth less than a person was wrong. The heroes, Luke, Leia, and even Han, weren’t about that; it was Emperor Palpatine and his ilk who pushed a xenophobic agenda. For a kid in his early teens recently immigrated to the US, it was a pretty clear distinction: good guys aren’t afraid of or mean to people because they’re different.

Now we all know that aliens and hyperdrives and Jedi are fictitious. But, xenophobia, as I would find out later, is a real term used by real people to describe real issues. The idea behind it, though — treating different people differently and meanly — was something I knew was unquestionably wrong because, well, Star Wars books. That and I was, y’know, a half-Singaporen cultural immigrant to South Carolina. But you get the idea.

I’m loathe to call Star Wars and science fiction in general ‘morality plays.’ Heck, I’m loathe to call any good fiction a ‘morality play’ because good fiction doesn’t preach at you. What science fiction does particularly well is, well, it says something without saying something. Diego Luna, in an interview with Vanity Fair,  said that the wonderful thing about setting Star Wars in a galaxy far, far away was “…whenever you get too personal, you can say, “No, I’m not talking about you. This is a galaxy far, far away.” But with this tool, you can actually make the most effective comments on the reality in which you’re living.”* Learning that species isn’t a demarcation for the capacity to do good is good practice for knowing that skin color and country of origin don’t have any bearing on whether someone is ‘good.’

And that’s the thing about stories: they’re practice. See, folks smarter than me have been trying to figure out why humanity does this whole storytelling thing. One theory is that stories are practice for interactions, a sort of simulation. When we read, we experience it ourselves. It’s science, since there are studies that “…suggest when we experience fiction are neurons are firing much as they would if we were actually faced with Sophie’s choice or if we were taking a relaxing shower and a killer suddenly tore down the curtain” (pg 63 of The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall, if you’re wondering). Stories are practice. They’re parables, where you can learn something by living something in a different way. As Gottschall says, “if you want a message to burrow into a human mind, work it into a story” (118).

Back to science fiction. Reading stories about the real world can be tough, because seeing the crap we know exists in real life existing again isn’t always the funnest thing. Science fiction (and fantasy, etc) are reality adjacent, and so have more leeway. Ursula K. LeGuin can explore classism and sexual identity without pointing a finger at anyone for being a bigot. It becomes a safe space to discuss complex topics and live experiences you wouldn’t ordinarily. Stories can change you, can impact you because, well, the nature of fiction is that it strives to put you in that place. A good book has you working with the writer to empathize and live the narrative first hand. You can’t read a good book and come out entirely unchanged.

And the fantasy of science fiction means that there is a quick gratification to that hope. You don’t have to wait years and years on the edge to know that good will triumph over evil, that diversity beats xenophobia; you just gotta reach the end of the book.

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Of Stories and Hope

I’ve never been a huge fan of tragedies. Don’t get me wrong, I love stories like Othello, Whiplash, and Sicario; but those aren’t the ones I count my favorite stories.

I sometimes joke that I tell hopeful stories because if I want stories of injustice and despair, I can just read the news. I skim headlines and it’s not hard to see Othello and Chinatown being reenacted in current events. There is, of course, a greatness to using tragedy to comment on the human condition and all that. But sometimes, you need more. As a kid bullied at school for being different, I would find solace in fantastical worlds where, well, things were different.

Having just narrowly avoided a deadly encounter with a Nazgûl, Frodo sits amongst the ruins of Osgiliath devoid of hope; the Ring he seeks to destroy has been taking its toll; nothing makes sense anymore, let alone his quest. But Sam, his erstwhile gardener turned companion, rallies the hobbit: “It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered” (The Two Towers, 03:21). When things got bleak and everything seemed lost, the heroes pressed on no matter what. These stories were the ones of importance, “Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why” (03:22).

That’s how I opened my rationale (a thesis of sorts wherein I describe the focus of my four years of study at NYU Gallatin). Which, if you read my blog, recounting a scene from The Lord of The Rings in the first paragraph of my thesis really shouldn’t surprise you. I then go on to yammer on for the next several pages about the importance of stories as a means to define identity and convey truths. And something that stories can convey like no other is hope. They’re where we get to watch good triumph over evil and see hope win. It’s the total catharsis that Aristotle talks about in Poetics, or the ultimate boon of John Campbell. It’s that win, that “we did it!”

So why do those moments work? Why is Frodo and Sam preserving – and eventually overcoming Sauron – so powerful?

We know things by their opposite. Joy means nothing if we don’t know despair. In fiction, the bleaker things seem, the greater the catharsis of victory will be. Heck, Sam says it right there in his monologue, “when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer.”  The plot of The Lord of The Rings is a literal journey into darkness, with Frodo and Sam trekking into Mordor while Aragorn and the others face off an overwhelming army. Things couldn’t really look bleaker. There’s a reason Luke Skywalker only destroys the Death Star when it’s about to blow up Yavin IV: it’s the bleakest moment. The Return of The Jedi illustrates it even better; Luke’s decision to throw away his lightsaber and turn down the dark side doesn’t come when Palpatine is taunting him, it comes after he attempted to attack the Emperor and went on to give into his anger during his fight against Darth Vader. Luke’s rejection of evil only comes after we’ve seen him travel down that path, making it all the more powerful.

I think that may be one reason why The Empire Strikes Back stands as arguably the best Star Wars film. We end the movie with Han in carbonite, Luke missing a hand, and the revelation that Vader is Luke’s father. But then Luke gets a new hand, a reformed Lando flies off with Chewbacca to find Han, and we see Luke and Leia standing in the medical bay of a Nebulon-B Frigate that’s just one ship in the Rebel fleet. As bleak as an ending is, there’s hope. We know that this isn’t the end for them, we know they’ll keep going because they’re holding on to something.

I love stories. I really do. I love how they make Sam’s beautiful monologue in The Two Towers feel perfectly natural and earned. I love how these other worlds — because every piece of fiction, no matter how realistic, takes place in another world — show us things about our own. I yearn for stories imbued with hope because, against it all, that’s how I want to see the world: one where hope and love will triumph. There is a time and place for tragedy, but there are days when you need to be reminded that there is good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.

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