Sunday, January 31, 2010

Sleep as an Emotional State

Sleep and dreams have always fascinated me; it's one of the reasons I majored in psychology in university. The human mind presents a fascinating tableau, and never more so than when the subconscious is handed the keys.

I rarely remember my own dreams, and when I do, it's often due to my being profoundly disturbed within that dream. If I am lucky, it will be something I can talk about with Audrey and gain a degree of catharsis that way. I'm not always lucky though.

Occasionally I will have detailed memories of a dream with a high degree of whimsy; I still remember vividly a dream I had when I was eleven or twelve, in which I was telekinetic. It was superbly detailed, but full of elements that clearly distinguished it as a dream, even beyond the ability to move objects with my thoughts. For instance, while my bedroom was exactly the same, my house and suburban neighbourhood looked far more similar to something out of a television show or movie than where I lived in Willow Park. In the dream, I used my psychokinetic abilities in a variety of ways: I helped my mother carry in the groceries, brown paper bags from the back of our old blue station wagon to the kitchen. When a group of small children kicked a ball into the street, I swiftly returned it in order to keep them out of traffic. Most satisfying, however, was when I was approached by a neighbourhood bully on his bike. I still can't recall whether this was an actual figure from my childhood or just some archetypal cipher, but when I extended my hand to stop him and allowed his bike to continue forward, depositing him on the ground with a bruised rump and shattered ego, and watched him run off in the opposite direction, the sense of personal and moral victory was so palpable, I can feel it to this very day.

When I woke up, still envigored by my triumph, I immediately sat up in bed and made a summoning motion to bring my socks and underwear to me. There was a brief moment of very sincere confusion when nothing happened, followed immediately by the sheepish realization that I had, of course, obviously, been dreaming. Embarrassment began jockeying with bitter disappointment in a race that is, to this day, too close to call.

Audrey has a tremendous recall of her dreams a lot of times. When she was pregnant with Fenya, she had a dream in which she met her maternal grandmother, Fenje, who had passed away the previous year. Her name had already been assured for our first daughter, even though we had no idea of the gender of our unborn child at the time; had it been a boy, the name would have been Liam Jacob, after both our grandfathers. I don't remember all of what transpired in the dream, but I clearly remember her waking up, smiling even though her face was tracked by tears, as she told me of how the dream ended with her hugging Oma Fenje, and how she could still feel that embrace upon awakening.

Sleep seems to contain significance even outside of dreams. The act of being around someone or something sleeping implies a degree of trust almost never rivalled in the waking world. I remember one of my uncles talking about a a friend who awoke on his couch, embarrassed, and apologized for having spent the night so ignominiously. My uncle brushed off the apology, and told his friend how complimentary he found it as a host that his guest was comfortable enough to have gone to sleep in the way he did. I also think of Meryn Cadell's excellent spoken word/song "The Sweater", in which she breathlessly describes an adolescent girl's affection for a sleeping boy:

"And you woke in the night to watch him as he slept but you couldn't see anything 'cause it was dark so you just laid there and listened to his breathing and wondered if your heart might burst..."

When Glory was about 6 months old, she had a tremendously hard time getting to sleep. A lot of young children do, and I wonder sometimes if insomnia doesn't sometimes involve our unwillingly revisiting this time in our development; the sense of surrender, of succumbing to the call of Morpheus, this momentary journey into the unknown of this 'little death' of sleep. For Glory, the only thing that seemed to work consistently was for her to lay upon my shoulder, her tiny face nuzzled into the base of my neck, as I reclined in my office chair in the basement. It was often a challenge to stay awake myself, as I listened to the steady rhythm of her breathing and let her warmth spread though out my torso. "5 cc's of dadazine" became our evening routine for over a year, and in a lot of ways, became the foundation of relationship.

Friday afternoon, I sat in the recliner reading while listening to the Ambient music station on the television. Nitti came and sat expectantly at the foot of the chair, and jumped onto the footrest once I motioned him up. The dog immediately made himself at home on my lap and draped his head across my thigh as I continued to read. I absentmindedly scratched behind his ears, but the baroque electronica in the background (120 bpm; the perfect rhythm for hypnosis, as it happens) combined with the warmth, both thermal and emotional, of my canine companion as well as a rather frantic week leading up to this moment, and I joined him in sleep shortly thereafter.

My apnea means I never nap for long in this fashion, but I did definitely sleep. As I crawled out of the fog and began to again scratch Nitti behind his ears, I realized that being accompanied by the dog on my catnap was just what the doctor had ordered. I reflected on the aborigines who slept with dogs as a source of warmth, which is where the musical group Three Dog night derived their name, and realized once again how much wisdom our modern and insular society has put by the wayside.

If you have someone in your life, whether a child, lover, pet, or what-have-you, I hope you have the opportunity to share some sleep with them. It may be the closest you get to experiencing magic in this day and age, without even dreaming.

There is a great Zen story told about the master who napped in the afternoon, and told his young disciples that in reality he was entering dreamland to confer with the ancient sages. When he encountered all his students asleep in the courtyard one day, he kicked them to wakefulness and demanded an explanation.

The oldest student said, "Honored master, we followed your example and entered dreamland to speak with the ancient teachers."

"Is that so?" grinned the master maliciously. "And exactly what did they have to say, these sages?"

"Well, we asked them if they knew our teacher," the student replied, "But none of them had ever heard of you."

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Based on a True Story

I've mentioned in at least one previous post how much love I have for the movie Slap Shot. For a female screenwriter in 1977 to display such a deft hand with the amount of locker room profanity in this film is really astonishing, and it's also notable insofar as it is pretty unconventional for a sports movie, in which the final set-piece is a game where the outcome is pretty much irrelevant.

I recently had an opportunity to re-watch the film with Audrey, and I have to say, on the whole, it holds up really well. Not all of it mind; I am not sure how I would feel about the movie if I was gay, what with all the "fag" and "cocksucker" talk going around, but let's face it, it is hardly an unfair characterization of that culture at that time. To say nothing of the fact that when they address it with Paul Newman's character Reggie Dunlop a couple of times, he makes it pretty clear he doesn't really care. Sad to say, I find Dunlop's taste in pants more off-putting. Still and all, a very decent and eminently quotable comedy that draws well on a palette of great supporting characters, blue humor and slapstick, with a little pathos thrown in for contrast.

There's a scene during one game where Dunlop hears that the team is being sold, and he trots out of the player box in his skates and into the dressing room office, where he finds the manager (Strother Martin) slumped in a chair staring at a cigar in his hand. He looks up at Newman and says, "It's the final season; it'll be announced tomorrow."

Newman stares in disbelief, then collapses into another chair, his shoulders low. There is a beat, then from offscreen we hear the sound of the goal buzzer, followed by the cheesy organ music which tells us it wasn't the Chiefs. In that one scene, where he doesn't utter a word, I think Paul Newman looked older than he did in any of his next six pictures.

I've gotten into the habit of checking the "Trivia" tab under a movie's IMDb entry immediately after watching it, and when I did this for Slap Shot, I made a shocking discovery:

Slap Shot was very nearly a documentary.

I shit you not. It turns out that screenwriter Nancy Dowd had collected a number of anecdotes from her brother Ned, regarding his adventures with the Johnstown Jets in the North American Hockey League. She travelled with the team and even had Ned bring a tape recorder into the locker room on occasion.

Director George Roy Hill convinced her that the film had more potential as a feature-length comedy than a documentary, and legions of fans are glad he did.

Those who have seen the movie know what a great job they do building up the menace of Federal League uber-goon Ogie Ogelthorpe, with an early reference and relief that he has been suspended, to a later report from Dunlop that he's been deported. When he returns for the final game, the announcer really sells it:
"Oh this young man has had a very trying rookie season, what with the litigation, the notoriety, his subsequent deportation to Canada and that country's refusal to accept him, well, I guess that's more than most 21-year-olds can handle... Ogie Ogelthorpe!"

If that isn't enough, the reactions of the players, especially French-Canadian goaltender Denis Lemieux's "Ogelt'orpe?!", certainly cements his reputation in the minds of the audience. So I was pretty stunned to find out that Ogelthorpe is based largely on real player Bill 'Goldie' Goldthorpe, a guy who got 25 majors for fighting by Christmas of his rookie year. In looking for more information on him, I found this great article that gives even more examples of the truth behind the fiction, including:

* The Hanson brothers are played by two Carlson brothers and an actual Hanson, because the third Carlson got called up by the Edmonton Oilers (!) prior to filming. The glasses were real too.
* The bounty? The fight during the warm-up? Going into the stands to fight a spectator? All based on real events.
* Michael Ontkean, who plays scorer Ned Braden in the movie, beat out Nick Nolte for the part, largely because he played hockey for three years in university.

The Carlsons (who played two of the Hansons), say the part about them "puttin' on the foil" was not true (although others say it was). They not only admit to wrapping their hands in leather, however, but they also say they would soak it in water then dry it with a heater to harden it.

And Nancy Dowd's brother, Ned? He's the one playing Ogelthorpe.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Nerd By Any Other Name

I've mentioned in several previous posts that I self-identify as a nerd. This is probably something that goes without saying because if writing a blog isn't enough to get that accreditation, the fact that I blog about playing Dungeons & Dragons, comic books, videogames or wargaming will certainly erase any doubts.

People are sometimes surprised that I cop to being a nerd so quickly, but I shrug it off. I think it all comes down to honesty, and if admitting that I am passionate about things that the public at large either doesn't know about, doesn't care about, or feels they have grown out of is going to cause my personal stock to experience a correction on the social market, well, so be it.

I don't have all the characteristics of a stereotypical nerd; I'm not nearly good enough with computers and audio-visual equipment (although there are those who will say that this is the mark of a geek more so than a nerd), I'm not scared of the outdoors, and I don't so much shun athletics as the type-A personalities they tend to attract. Plus, you know, I'm lazy, and there's a lot of books I haven't read yet, and DVDs to watch as well. But when Saturday Night Live spoofed Star Trek fans and one of them mentioned Khan's middle name, I knew they had gotten it right. I love etymology and I can recite the Green Lantern oath. I enjoy public speaking and leadership roles and find obscure facts and history fascinating.

Because I am not socially awkward (or adept at concealing it when I am), it is not too likely that someone would use the term nerd to describe me pejoratively, but maybe that is due to the crowd I run with. Knowing that there are people out there who happily would use nerd in its weaponized state is a little upsetting if I stop to think about it though. What's it to you if I never grew out of the simple pleasures of discovery and imagination?

The absence of a generally accepted definition of the word 'nerd' is a hindrance as well; like science fiction or jazz, it is both elusive and subjective. We can't say what it is, but we know it when we see it. Wikipedia defines nerd as one who "passionately pursues intellectual activities, esoteric knowledge, or other obscure interests that are age-inappropriate rather than engaging in more social or popular activities. Therefore, a nerd is often excluded from physical activity and considered a loner by peers, or will tend to associate with like-minded people."

Even though they equivocate a little with the "often" before "excluded", I disagree with this as well. I've known a lot of nerds in my time, and they cover a pretty broad spectrum of socialization, socio-economic background, physicality, musical interest, and popularity.

My favourite definition came from my friend Dave, who in high-school was a good-looking cat who possessed an undeniable degree of smoothness with the ladies and did not fit the cultural archetype of a nerd of that period, and yet not only read comic books and played D&D, but did so vigorously and self-identified as a nerd well before it was made cool by the 'nerd pride' movement that began to develop at the end of the twentieth century. Dave succinctly surmised that a nerd is someone "who simply does not care what other people think is cool."

While this definition runs dangerously close to Marge Simpson's assertion that since she does not care about being cool, she must therefore be cool, I think it has a lot of merit. A person might not care because they are poorly socialized and unaware of the social consequences of their affinities, particularly in groups with excessive amounts of peer pressure, conformity and competition. On the other hand, a person with even a modest degree of self-awareness and confidence might not be concerned with the judgments of others for a completely different reason.

A bunch of us n-words got together last night to play D&D, and it turned out to be a very entertaining time. The game itself is a lot of fun, sure, but the badinage and interaction is even more. At the point where we were exploring different varieties of tape to expedite a field repair on one player's pair of glasses, it was remarked that the colour combination of red, white and blue tape would make the wearer look like "Captain A-Nerdica". The owner of the glasses took exception to this (only a little), until it was pointed out that not only was it a nerdy observation for the other to make, but that there was no one at the table who wasn't a nerd in some fashion or another. In fact, it compared to the racial n-word, in the sense that it is not an insult when it is used between peers.

If you are a nerd, own up to it! Another word for name is handle, and if you are holding that handle, you get to determine how it is used. This professor from MIT probably says it best:
My idea is to present an image to children that it is good to be intellectual, and not to care about the peer pressures to be anti-intellectual. I want every child to turn into a nerd - where that means someone who prefers studying and learning to competing for social dominance, which can unfortunately cause the downward spiral into social rejection.
— Gerald Sussman, quoted by Katie Hafner, The New York Times, 29 August 1993

On a largely unrelated note, the evening's highlight for me was when the players hurriedly rushed from one encounter to the next (without stopping to heal as the new rules allow you to without even a spell or potion being involved), and were surprised, both literally and figuratively, by a young white dragon. Absolutely no one was expecting it, since in previous editions of the game such a match-up at any level less than 5 was an almost certain death sentence. It was extremely gratifying to produce an appropriate miniature and to hear the unmistakeable sounds of construction-grade building materials being defecated.

"You can't put first level characters against a freakin' dragon!" someone said.

"I couldn't before this edition," I agreed, "but I can now." Honestly, it's the sample adventure right out of the new Dungeon Master's Guide, and it was ideal for a lot of reasons. It illustrated the different types of encounters, such as non-combat, combat and traps, and within combat, introduced the various monster roles such as artillery, minions and solos, monsters so tough they can take on a whole party by themselves. Like, for instance, a dragon.

They aren't the hardiest group of adventurers either, with 3 spellcasters, a bard, a ranger and a paladin (that's right nerds, no cleric, no rogue!), but once they got over their shock, they gave the big lizard a right kicking. Sure, they almost lost a couple of characters (twice in one case), but all's well that ends well, and it is almost certain that they will never again forget to heal up between encounters, because like the Klingons say, "The burned hand teaches best."

See? Right there: an old school Star Trek reference within a D&D anecdote posted on a blog. Sigh.

Pass the tape, I need to adjust my glasses.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

You Don't Tug Superman's Cape

Back in the day, specifically high-school in the mid '80s, I was a pretty voracious comics reader. Many were the trips Dave Ticheler and I took up to Starbase 12 on 101 Street from Leduc to see what each week had deposited in our bins. I don't recall how many regular titles I had on my pull list, but it was a not insignificant amount, probably the high teens to low twenties, and this number would not include the magnificent mini-series of the time: Frank Miller's Ronin and The Dark Night Returns, Alan Moore's Watchmen and other lesser knowns like Camelot 3000 and Marshall Law.

Independent publishers like First made my favourite comics, like The Badger, American Flagg, Grimjack, Jon Sable and Nexus. The thrill of reading fresh new stories unhindered by licensing requirements, intellectual property and the Comics Code Authority made it a great time to be a comics fan.

It's been a while since I bought a single issue comic, but I still love the medium. While I do buy the occasional graphic novel or paperback collection, I get most of my fix from the Edmonton Public Library. I don't think there is any other way I would have been exposed to things like Invincible, Runaways, or Astro City, all of which offer great takes on the traditional superhero comic.

Ain't It Cool News today posted one contributor's list of the ten best comics of the past decade, and I was struck by two things. The first was how familiar a lot of the names on the list were, which surprised me. Of ten titles, I have only read four, but I have read something else by four of the six remaining authors. Only Ed Brubaker is an unknown quantity to me, and Bill Willingham I remember mostly from his art in my old D&D rulebooks. Two entries, Y: The Last Man and Age of Bronze, are fantastic comics that I would not have come across without an assist from EPL, so I am very grateful for that.

The second thing was a line in the description of Garth Ennis' The Boys:
"the core of the series really centers on a theme that Ennis has touched on before in his previous work, but really delves into here: the idea that there may be something fundamentally flawed in the concept of superheroes (which happen to dominate the American comics marketplace). Chiefly, Ennis has a problem with the idea of glorifying a select number of individuals as “above” the rest of us, and he shows us the consequences of what such individuals would do with that kind of unchecked power..."

I took a bit of exception to this. It's not that superhero comics, or 'tights & fights' as they are sometimes known, are the only genre I like in this medium, or even my favourite. (All right, they probably are, but not by a wide margin.) But they play to the strengths of this format incredibly well. What should comics be about, if not larger than life characters and their exploits? A couple of millennia ago, mythology served two purposes; the first was to try to explain the unexplainable, like what all those bright dots are in the sky at night, and what that big noise is that's always behind the lightning. The second was to entertain with tales of gods and demi-gods who were bigger, stronger, faster and braver than any human could really hope to be, but could perhaps aspire to. I think comics fulfill this role today by giving us a rich tapestry of mythology without tying it to natural phenomena which we've de-mystified with science. I can't list all 12 labours of Heracles, but I know the difference between red and green kryptonite as well as the meaning behind all the letters in SHAZAM! (I once got free garlic bread at Jack Astors for me and my workmates for knowing it too.)

And another thing; I think it's great that there are stories in the comic book format that are made for grown-ups (and alleged grown-ups), and I am glad that some of these 'graphic novels' have superheroes in them, but on the other hand, there aren't a lot of superhero comics on the newsstand I am comfortable letting my 11 year old daughter read. In addition to the crushing weight of backstory from whichever title you are reading, you have to have at least a passing familiarity with the interminable crossovers and shared-universe 'event' stories, like Marvel's "Civil War" story which pitted authoritarian Tony (Iron Man) Stark against libertarian Captain America, with heroes and villains ranking up behind both of them and tearing through every single book published by Marvel for half a year. On top of that, comics have joined TV's "Law & Order" franchise in 'ripping stories from the headlines' and increasing the darkness quotient so significantly that writers at DC had to have the one character's wife raped and killed (Sue Dibny, wife of the Elongated Man) just to bring sufficient gravitas to one of their storylines. Don't get me wrong, I understand that even kids would have a hard time believing a gang of twenty hired thugs would put on ridiculous costumes just to join The Riddler in trying to heist a giant penny from the World's Fair despite knowing that he is inevitably going to tip off The Batman and get them all mercilessly beaten and thrown into the hoosegow, but how far do comic stories need to overcorrect in the other direction? Who the hell isn't reading superhero stories for at least a little bit of escapism?

Do you know why superheroes wear tights? It's incredibly pragmatic; when comics were in their infancy, artists often drew a nude form first, and then drew clothes over it. By sketching a pair of trunks on top a nude form and coloring the 'tights', they could draw exciting scenes far more quickly and fill the merciless page count they were responsible for by their deadlines. I mean, think about it: how tight would someone's spandex have to be in order to show off their abs like that?

It is nothing but a good thing that comics are finally beginning to get a little respect as a medium for telling stories graphically. Art Spiegelman's Maus won the Pulitzer Prize a few years back, and The Watchmen was named one of the best novels of the twentieth century by Time magazine. Not graphic novel, mind; novel. At the same time, I find it disappointing that so many people are willing to turn their noses up at the genre that gave the medium its leg up into legitimacy. There is nothing wrong with capes and masks, even if they are a little silly. I mean, give us a little credit; despite how much real science they managed to cram into stories with The Flash or The Atom, we knew they were silly, even when we were kids, and we read them anyways. And even when we take a serious look at a silly concept, it doesn't always have to go straight black, does it?

Maybe there's hope: Marvel has announced the coming of a new Heroic Age after cynically assassinating Captain America, and the end of DC's most recent crossover extravaganza means slightly fewer zombie superheroes, at least on their side of the street (io9 article here). But it truth, it's easier to go dig up my old Chris Claremont X-Men comics and read them with Fenya, so that's what I'm going to do in the meantime.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

I'm an Avatard

We had kind of a humdrum holiday this year, mostly due to having our hospitality options reduced by the ongoing bedbug situation. Still, for the price of two vacation days, I was off work from Christmas Eve until tomorrow, a winter holiday stretch unequalled in my adult life, and a great opportunity to just spend time with the family.

One of the highlights for the four of us was going to see James Cameron's Avatar in Imax 3D. I've always enjoyed Cameron's films, and this one was no exception. Avatar is by no means perfect; those who call it a pastiche of his earlier works (the military/corporate elements of Aliens meets the love story of Titanic, etc) are hard to refute, as are those who distill it down to "Dances With Wolves in space".

As familiar as parts of the story might be, the experience itself felt very new. Despite the amount of green screen and CGI involved, the moon Pandora feels like a very real place. Given Cameron's technical inclinations and his tendency to win as many patents as Oscars, it is not surprising that the 3D in this film is the best I've seen yet, and it adds a tremendous amount to the immersive effect. I caught myself on more than one occasion trying to crane my head around a foreground frond or fern in the lush jungles of Pandora. There is no 'comin' atcha!' gimmickry, the 3D is simply there to add depth and texture.

There are some very decent performances, especially in the guises of the CGI Na'vi and human/alien hybrid Avatars. The 'uncanny valley' that often prevents us from relating to artificial constructs as living characters is fast becoming a very small piece of real estate. My favourite performance is that of Stephen Lang, who as Chief of Security Quaritch plays one of the hardest biscuits and toughest hombres ever to hit the screen. Lang played the Party Crasher killer in the James Woods/Michael J Fox movie The Hard Way, Col. Pickett in Gettysburg and Ike "Law don't go around here lawdog" Clanton in Tombstone, so he has a lot of game as a character actor, but he does a great turn as Quaritch, never stepping all the way into psycho territory, but instead committing terrible acts in the name of pragmatism, manifest destiny and a refusal to compromise.

On the whole it was a great moviegoing experience, and if the story was not exactly new, it was at least good, with both a positive message and a visceral experience for my girls to take away with them. Given how many of the people who worked on this movie were around their age when they saw Star Wars for the first time, it really got me to wondering if they would have the chance to use their creativity on a similar project in the future, and even if they didn't, what might they end up seeing from the ones who did?

Shortly after seeing the movie, I received a notice from the Edmonton Public Library that a copy of the Avatar game for the Nintendo Wii had arrived in my queue. Recognizing that most movie license games are terrible, I picked it up with a mixture of anticipation and foreboding.

It turns out to have provided a very decent (if somewhat short, since I played through it in less than 4 days) game experience. You play a Na'vi warrior seeking to reclaim the relics of his tribe in a story that takes place before the events of the movie. A mixture of fighting, stealth and exploration, the game takes you through a number of environments, from the Pandoran jungles (during both night and day), through a variety of constructs of the 'Sky People' such as a dam and research outpost. You also get the opportunity to ride a Banshee, and can even control its movements using the Wii balance board.

Unlike a lot of multi-platform games on the Wii, this one makes full use of the motion-sensitive controller, and several of the larger fights combine these controls with the same sort of mini-games used in God of War boss fights. There is even an exclusive feature supporting the MotionPlus accessory, wherein you can control a Hellfire Wasp and use this enormous insect to reconnoiter ahead or even paralyse enemies with its stinger.

Best of all, the game doesn't just rely on a "militaristic corporation bad, noble savages good" theme for its storytelling, and your Na'vi protagonist clearly feels some pathos after he listens to the dying message of a father after the mayhem he has caused. It's not as though the game offers you a "Renounce Violence? Y/N" at any point, but like the movie, the game's story deals with the costs of our actions.

Just by creating such a lush and fully realized world, with such fantastic creatures and imagery, Cameron has given us a tremendous playground for our imaginations, and the fact that it has grossed $1 billion worldwide (he's the first director ever with two billion dollar films) is just icing on the cake. Best of all though, is that he has previously said he has at least two more stories in mind for Pandora, and Avatar's success means that we should have an opportunity to visit there again. It can't happen soon enough to suit me.