Obsessives Anonymous

21 05 2014

Silence of the Lambs was on recently. I like that movie, mostly for Hannibal Lecter. I am a fan of monsters, from towering atomic lizards to human beings ruled by inhuman impulses. Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs is a great monster; alien, powerful, horrifying yet sympathetic.

I went on a little Hannibal kick and dug out my paperback Red Dragon, which I hadn’t read for 20 years or so. The writing wasn’t to my taste as much as it once was, but I read on, happily anticipating the Lecter scenes, figuring I would reread the whole trilogy. But I got to Lecter, and was disappointed. He seemed much more materialistic and petty, not so much the lethally wise enigma Hopkins brought to life. I have a lot of books to read, so I put Red Dragon away.

The other movies with Hopkins as Lecter don’t quite measure up either. Something magical happened in Silence of the Lambs, some confluence of acting, co-acting, writing, directing, cinematography, I don’t know what all. But that quintessential Hannibal Lecter exists in that film, and nowhere else. I wanted more of him, more of Clarice, more FBI vs Hannibal, but there is no more to be had. I decided it’s better to enjoy the one movie that really speaks to me than to chase pale imitations.

This is a new behavior for me, with a range of applications. There are many books, comics, movies, and tv series that I enjoy deeply. Many of those are media-crossing franchises. Now, I wouldn’t call myself an obsessive fan. I have seen obsessive fans, some of them are my good friends, and there are levels of collecting and consuming and trivia-mining that I don’t come anywhere near. Still, I have been known to latch onto a book or a show like an escapism-eating lamprey. And once latched on, I’ve been known to eagerly scarf up every new iteration on screen or page. And the experience is almost always disappointing.

The king of this phenomenon is obviously George Lucas. But like the houses of Westeros, plenty of others are vying for the throne. Steven Moffat is gradually ruining Doctor Who. DC comics have placed their faith in crummy filmmakers. Peter Jackson is burying The Hobbit in bloated sub-plots and self-indulgent special effects. Such is the way of the world. A great story maintaining its greatness for many volumes and across media is miraculous. Of course it doesn’t happen every day.

I used to pin gigantic hopes on newly minted iterations of my favorite stories, like all my happiness depended on the film or the sequel or the series finale getting it right. And sometimes they do get it right, and I will always find that thrilling. But if they blow it, they blow it. Whatever version of the story I fell in love with still exists. I will not require it to update or expand to keep me interested.

Now I’m off to see Godzilla!

 

 

 





My Life Story in Mixtape Cover Art

14 03 2014

Yes, mixtapes. I’ll try to skip all the nostalgia and just tell you the story.

In the early 80s, I owned a half dozen cassettes, all Men at Work and The Fixx and Depeche Mode if you really want to know. I also had a couple mixtapes of odds and ends; bits of movie soundtracks I captured by holding a tape recorder up to the TV, a handful of Queen songs, Flight of the Valkyries, etc. Around the summer of 1985 I put some favorites on a 60 minute cassette, which I christened Neal’s Pirated Tape. I brought this to a kind of summer camp where we lived in a college dorm and took all sorts of crazy classes, and the tape went over well with my small circle of friends. Pretty soon I was assembling a second tape, and in the process decided to revamp the first one, to give it more variety and a more satisfying narrative. Thus, 1986 (my first year of high school) brought about Neal’s Pirated Tape in it’s only surviving version, and Neal’s Other Pirated Tape. And now I was hooked.

I would buy albums, but only by my favorite bands (and I would slowly amass all their albums). Other songs I liked had to go on a Pirated Tape. I always had one in progress, and always named them some variety of Pirated Tape. Throughout high school and college I completed one every 3-9 months. There was always a wealth of songs to be discovered from my friends and family. The tapes began to function as an abstract journal, chronicling my changing connection to pop culture.

After leaving college, the process slowed down drastically. Maybe my own tastes had gotten too specialized, maybe I just wasn’t close enough to enough people, but the fountain of discoverable music just dried up. Even working in a company with lots of cool young (and less young) adults, the fertile sound network just wasn’t there. It took me over a year to complete my first tape out of college, and the one after that languished half-finished for two or three years. It became clear that like staying up all night, spontaneous road trips, and boffer sword battles, the Pirated Tape series belonged to a magical time of high independence and low responsibility that must come to an end. In 1999, I made an effort to fill up the remaining minutes and close the book with Neal’s Last Pirated Tape.

Obviously everything is different now, with every song and album instantly accessible online. I still prefer to hoard music, even if it is pure data, rather than stream Pandora or other such services. I’m still making mixes as a home for stray favorite songs, but now they are playlists, ever fluid and changable, not so much a magnetic engraving of my history with music. However, I’ve finally gotten around to digitizing all 24 of my old Pirated Tapes and adding them to my iTunes library. Naturally, part of the process was to create album artwork for each one. I did what I always do when I need album artwork in iTunes: image search some evocative words from the title and see what comes up.

And now we come to the point of this post: below is all the cover art I came up with for all the Pirated Tapes. Most of it is pure found imagery, but a few I messed around with in Photoshop. Some of the image searches got a little more specific. Like the tapes themselves, the art won’t mean much to anyone but me, but I wanted to share anyway.

NPTcovers





Disassembling on Breaking Bad

7 01 2014

breakingbadscoreWarning: fat stacks of spoilers ahead

Sometime in the last few years, I heard a segment of Fresh Air which brought up the soundtrack to Breaking Bad, composed by Dave Porter. Terry Gross or her guest (I don’t remember who it was) described the soundtrack as being not tuneful or musical, but noisy, droning, and very powerful, and perfect for the show. I had been watching the show, hadn’t particularly noticed the music, but the comments on Fresh Air intrigued me. And after that I did start to notice the music, and it sounded a lot like some of my favorite industrial/ambient stuff. I thought, I should get that soundtrack, and that thought sat in the back of my mind with all the other albums and books and comics I would own by now if I had unlimited money.

Then the final season hit Netflix. And then I got to the point where Jesse is pushed past the breaking point of all breaking points, pretty much loses his mind, and tries to burn down Walter’s house. Gas Can Rage is the name of the music track, and it is a series of downward spiraling drones that perfectly capture the fall off the deep end that goes on and on, the feeling of watching oneself dig one’s own hole deeper and deeper, untethered from any hope or desire to do better.

Then I bought the soundtrack. Both volumes. What follows are the most lasting impressions I got from the show, as evoked by some of the music tracks.

Matches in the Pool: The affable chemistry teacher, living in quiet desperation, diagnosed with cancer, sits at his backyard pool making chemical reactions. Matches light, matches go out. In the pilot episode, Walter White says of chemistry, “I prefer to think of it as the study of change.” When the show’s creators were filming the pilot, did they have any idea how thoroughly every character would change throughout the series? Hank going from pot-bellied buffoon to flawed hero cop? Marie rising above her habitual pettiness as her family rips apart? Walter Junior, the self-styled Flynn, coming into his own and turning on the father he once idolized? Skyler, shifting from controlling shrew to stymied mother, to desperate victim, to tormented collaborator, before finally emerging a poorer, sadder, wiser, ethically sound human being? Jesse, a character who wasn’t supposed to survive the first season, living through an arc more akin to a POW than a drug pusher? And of course, Walter White himself. Did anyone picture the stunning scope of his atrocities when they filmed the pilot? I like to think they did not.

Gray Matter: Every time Eliot or Gretchen show up, I feel like we are glimpsing the life Walter should have had. Throughout the series I was haunted by the question, what went wrong? Why isn’t Walter a high-profile, highly paid researcher with his old friend’s company? All we know is there was something between him and Gretchen, and it ended, and Walter’s attachment to Gray Matter ended with it. Did they shut him out? Did he walk away out of pride? Was he always his own worst enemy? There’s no way to know. I believe Walter when he tells Skyler she is the love of his life in his aborted video farewell, and his devotion to his children is beyond question… unless his wife and children are just the objects of devotion he needs to play the role of provider he imagines for himself.

The Bike Lock: By the time Crazy 8 is imprisoned in Jesse’s basement, Walt has committed several criminal acts, but nothing he couldn’t conceivably walk away from and return to his old life. However, he knows there is no coming back from deliberate, premeditated murder, and he’s desperate not to cross that line. Walter’s cancer diagnosis liberates him somewhat. As a man with no future, he’s free to assault the bullies picking on his son and blow up the douchebag day-trader’s car (two of the most gratifying moments in the entire series). But he’s not a man with nothing left to lose. Not until after he kills Crazy 8. Soon after that, he dons the black porkpie hat of Heisenberg. After bombing his way into business with Tuco, Walter is overcome, surpassed by his own actions, and we witness his alter ego growling to life with bestial birth pangs.

Dead Freight: There is something wrong with Todd. He is missing some basic component of humanity. It’s not surprising, given the family he comes from. But he is a stark contrast to just about every other character in the show. No matter what awful things they do, they all are complex people, generating sympathy on some level. Not Todd. His crush on Lydia is kind of endearing, but he treats her the way he treats everyone he is eager to please, which ultimately comes off as a pure sociopath looking for a place to fit in. It’s hard to believe he could do worse than shooting the kid on the minibike, but of course he does.

Hank’s Last Stand: The death of Hank is the last big turning point for Walt. Up to that point he has done awful things, made terrible decisions, made even worse sacrifices, but essentially always come out on top. But when a member of his family finally dies, he has to see that he has scraped by on equal parts ingenious cunning and dumb luck. It’s hard to tell what pains him more, the death of his brother-in-law or the shattering of his illusions. In the same encounter he loses the bulk of the money he’s amassed for his children. The folly of Heisenberg is undeniable. A bit of the old Walt re-emerges then, leading to a synthesis of  his two sides; a less reckless man, less dangerous to innocent bystanders, but perhaps more dangerous to the objects of his singular purpose.

Chained Dog. Walter White drives the show, and his long transformation is fascinating, but I was much more emotionally invested in Jesse Pinkman. And holy cow, what a brutal investment that is. He’s a decent kid, basically smart but with terrible judgement, trying to play the hardened criminal, unaware of the depth of his own caring. And in 62 episodes he endures enough suffering, tragedy, and guilt to spawn literary traditions for whole nations. By the last few episodes, the question that ate at me was will Jesse survive? By the final episode, I wondered if he’d want to. While enslaved by Welker’s gang, he flashes back to crafting a wooden box, with all the patience and devotion that Walter always wanted him to apply to cooking meth. Is this also a vision of his future? Burdened by his past, but finding a way to live, bringing some beauty into the world? I have to believe it is. Jesse killing Todd gave me a bloody, nihilistic urge to cheer that I’m not at all comfortable with. When he smashes through the compound gate and hurtles away in the car, boiling over with grief, rage, joy, relief, free for the first time since he partnered up with Walter, I could barely take it. Aaron Paul better win every award there is for Season 5, or there is no justice at all.

Heisneberg’s Theme: a spare series of notes, sounding like the devil’s own footsteps. Did Heisenberg emerge from some netherworld to occupy Walter White’s last two years on Earth? It often seems that way. But I think it’s pretty clear that Heisenberg was always present in Walter, that it’s a mistake to think of Walter and Heisenberg as separate entities, despite the yawning gulf between the chemistry teacher in episode 1 and the man who has torn apart the lives of everyone he’s ever touched in the finale. As he says to Skyler (finally giving her the honesty she has always needed), “I did it for me. I liked it.”

Dave Porter talks to Wired about scoring the show here.





24 Hour Comics: Bunnirah 2

29 10 2013

ImageCurses! 24 Hour Comics Day is regularly observed at the Center for Book Arts here in Minneapolis….until the year I move here! Apparently the prime organizer of years past had too much other stuff going on, and no one else filled in. So, no group drawing session for me this time. I have met some Twin Cities cartoonists, and they are fine fellows, but I don’t know any of them well enough to invite them to my house to draw for 24 hours. I think they would find that as awkward as I would.

But! Going solo hasn’t stopped me before. So I planned to draw the sequel to my last one on October 19th. I do have some good friends I could invite over, but they don’t draw. So I invited them over for a Lord of the Rings marathon. Not quite 24 hours, but a goodly chunk of time (all the extended versions, naturally). I figured if I could get the first 12 pages penciled by the 1 pm movie start time, I could ink while the movies are playing and stay pretty much on schedule. Nick brought some miniatures to paint. Jeff had to leave to keep a dinner date but came back for Return of the King.

It didn’t quite go according to plan. I only had 8 pages penciled when we started the movies. After 20 hours of drawing, I had 16 or so pages penciled and 13 inked, and it was obvious I wouldn’t finish by hour 24. So I went to bed, slept for a few hours, and spent Sunday finishing up. In the end I finished after almost 40 hours. I was generally happy with the resulting comic, but that’s way too long to work on one of these things. Next time, I will strictly limit myself to 24 hours and let the story fall where it may.

I get the impression that Bunnirah is not a favorite among readers of my 24 hour comics, but I still find him and his cohorts tons of fun. Clearly I’m adhering to the advice for writers/artists I read somewhere, “follow your obsessions.” Maybe the writer’s obsessions should be tempered with something else…an editor perhaps. I might still create some posters or t-shirts or other merchandise with the gang of nuclear dickweeds, as Ted calls them.





A Shomen for Drawing

18 10 2013

shomen3Awhile back my friend Anna wrote a post about building a physical, external aid to creativity. Hers was an automat– a replica of one of those old-timey walk-in vending machine/diners, which she would stock with things to help her get writing when she’s feeling blocked. I thought this was a really cool idea. She invited her readers to suggest their own constructions, but I couldn’t think of anything. But then, writer’s block isn’t really my problem. I have miles of story mapped out for my webcomic. My problem is sitting down and getting started on drawing pages, and then continuing to draw pages rather than re-watching old seasons of Breaking Bad.

One morning I was doing what I always do. I’d had breakfast, read the paper, and I was reading all my online newsfeeds, comic subscriptions, and Facebook updates, trying to rev up for some drawing before it was time to walk the dog. I go through the same routine every day. It’s a ritual with no clear conclusion. There’s always more to peruse on the internet– I just stop when I feel guilty enough. Or I don’t stop until Teagan starts bugging me for a walk, and the morning is a wash. And then I have other obligations that eat up the day and the comic falls behind.

I decided that rather than a construction like Anna’s, I need a better ritual. One that sends a clear signal to my brain: now is drawing time. Kinda like how we bow in for Aikido. In fact, almost exactly like that.

We bow a lot in Aikido. At the beginning of class, at the end of class, when we practice with someone, when we pick up a weapon. We bow to other students, to the sensei, and to the shomen, which is a kind of altar at the front of the dojo. It may look like a lot of pointless rigamarole, but it actually serves a purpose. Aside from being good etiquette, treating the time and space of practice in a certain way we separates it from the outside world. Starting class with a bow is a way to clear the mind, set aside whatever else went on that day, and focus on training.

shomen2So I started doing this for drawing. I made a very rudimentary shomen by hanging up a collage of artists’ work I would like to emulate. I found a nice box to hold my favorite drawing tools when I’m not working. I do a formal bow at the beginning and end of the work day, and a casual bow when I step away for a break.

I did this for several weeks and managed to crank out pages consistently. Then some other obligations came along, and I stopped bowing, and page production slowed way down. Causality? Or spurious correlation? Rather than a pure cause-and-effect relationship, I think the ritual and the work feed each other. I’m going to get back in the habit of bowing in and see what happens.





Twilight Made Me Care About Vampires

8 07 2013

draculaI’ve loved monsters– pretty much all of them– ever since I was a kid. Giant city-stompers, gothic creeps, alien weirdos, mythic creatures, I was a fan of them all. Except for vampires.

I’m not sure why. Probably because they are essentially human beings with little fangs. The thing I liked about monsters was their strangeness. I much preferred the Wolfman or the Creature from the Black Lagoon to Dracula. Even Frankenstein and the Mummy had more alien mystique than Dracula. Honestly, a guy in a tuxedo baring his teeth is pretty dorky.

I was in high school when Anne Rice came along with Interview with the Vampire and The Vampire Lestat. My friends were big fans, and some of their enthusiasm rubbed off on me. I became interested in the subtext of monsters, the underlying cultural fears that inspired them. But my craving for monsters was never about fear; it was more about escapism. I wanted non-human characters I could identify with. Rice’s books were the beginning of vampires as sympathetic characters, but if anything her vampires were more human than ever. I enjoyed her modern gothic stories, but the vampire remained my least favorite monster. I wanted someone to reinvent the werewolf instead. (No one did, so eventually I started writing my own updated werewolf story. I might even finish it one day.)

The vampires of The Lost Boys were, in my opinion, the coolest yet. Rather than bemoaning their curséd state, they embraced their power and flaunted their outsider status. By the time Bram Stoker’s Dracula came along in 1992, I had taken a college class in gothic fiction, read the original book, and was eager for a full-blooded (ha ha) film interpretation. That movie remains my favorite vampire story,* because it really plays up Dracula’s monstrous qualities. The style and cinematography emphasize unreality. Dracula takes on many bizarre forms; a bat-creature, a wolf-creature, an unnerving count with big brain hair, crazy fingernails, and an independent shadow. Even in his previous life as a medieval warrior he wear armor that looks like a flayed man’s muscular system, with a bestial snout. The tragic romance is perhaps overplayed, but that’s the nature of gothic romance. Also, the music kicks ass. (Unfortunately, there is Keanu Reeves. But on the plus side, Winona Ryder.)

It seems like I’m fully on board with vampires after Gary Oldman. Maybe I am. After college I saw the vampire as an essential member of the monster canon, but I still found almost any other monster to be inherently cooler. (Zombies are less cool. They only have scare value and are impossible to identify with.) I enjoy watching True Blood with Marcie. But, while the vampire drama is good, I’m more interested in every other character, including the humans.

And then….Twilight.

In fairness, I haven’t read any of the books. I have seen the first movie, and I’ve read and heard plenty of commentary on the whole series. In which, vampires shun the daylight because it… makes… them… sparkle.

Before long the awful stew of misplaced wish-fulfillment and Mormon family ideals boils over with harmful, regressive stereotyping. But really, the sparkling says it all. This is a non-vampire vampire. This is a monster stripped of all monstrosity. This is a fairy story masquerading as a vampire story. Now, there’s nothing wrong with fairy stories, but if that’s what you’re telling, then tell a fairy story! Don’t hijack a monster and dress it up in sparkles for millions of readers too young to see what a crime against fiction you are committing!

Thanks to Stephanie Meyers’ libelous novels, I am suddenly up in arms about vampires. Suddenly I’m all about the wide range of erotic/thanatotic subtext, the crucial roles of blood, sunlight, and darkness, the  dramatic potential of a monster that speaks with erudite sophistication.

Like any legend, the vampire is always subject to interpretation, reinvention, even parody. But not betrayal. You cannot betray the essence of the legend. These things are important to some of us. These unique  creatures, powerful in their alienation, wrestling with good and evil impulses, have been a lifeline in hard times for some of us. Their bad side is not something you can jettison for narrative convenience.

I still think the fang-mouth is kinda dorky though.

*Actually, my favorite vampire story is Dexter on Showtime. While not technically a vampire story, it has the blood, and the cursed predator, and does everything I wish vampire stories would.





Person or Brand?

2 07 2013

brandingI just read this article about Paula Deen. (Also this, which seems like a more measured and responsible take on the whole controversy than I am capable of.) I don’t have much to say about the Deen story–I’ve never been a fan and I don’t mourn the loss of her career. What really jumped out at me in the first article was the bit about Food Network Star, which, much like American Idol, Shark Tank, and a host of other shows, offers contestants the chance to be “a big star who makes a lot of money and is successfully transformed into a brand.”

This is the Faustian bargain being pushed throughout our consumerist, media-heavy culture. Stop being a person, start being a brand. This is why I have no patience for any of the manufactured stars of reality tv competitions. Brands are artificial, hence inherently false. Brands are calculated to make lots of money.

Maybe I’m overly sensitive, but every time the word “brand” is used for a concept larger than an actual logo, my skin crawls. All of us independent artists are supposed to make brands of ourselves, which to me seems like the opposite of making authentic art. Franchised fictional properties are brands, not characters. News outlets work harder to brand themselves then to report the news. Even our political parties are now brands. How are we supposed to ever have a real discussion about anything when everyone is busy targeting demographics?

The Supreme Court has ruled that corporations are people. Before long they’ll probably rule that brands are people too. We’ll have brands electing brands, an entirely brand-driven economy, with the few remaining people toiling in the service of brands. At least there will be plenty of sugary soda.





24 Hour Comics: Bunnirah

15 05 2013

I’ve been remiss in writing about my 24 hour comic experiences on this blog. Here’s what’s happened since 2009’s Shamanic Lemonade:

wp4HI missed two 24HC events in 2010. In 2011, we ended up with no family obligations for Thanksgiving, and I thought it would be fun to host a 24HC event at home that weekend. Only Adrian Wallace was able to stay the whole time, but we had fun and I produced The Four Humors. We spent a lot of time goofing off, so I had to draw a lot of essentially single panel pages to finish in time. This may be my weakest 24 hour comic, but I’m happy with it. It’s pretty much an elaborate pun I just had to get out of my system.

WPcrepsIn May of 2012, I hosted another gathering, on a weekend less prone to family commitments. This would be my last group 24HC event in Portland. I’m glad my good pals Adrian, Conch, and Spider were able to make it. By this time I’d posted all my 24 hour comics to my new site on Comic Fury. I figured if I do two 24 page comics a year, I could post one page a week all year long. However, I found with The Four Humors that 1 page a week is too slow. So for The Crepusculars, as an added challenge, I drew on extra large paper and designed each page to split in half, so that I could have two pages to post each week. In other words, 48 pages of narrative on 24 sheets of paper. Would this be twice as arduous as 24 straight pages? Not at all. It prevented me from using some of my tried-and-true shortcuts, and forced a denser story, but certainly was not twice the work of the comics I’d done before. I’ve stuck with this format ever since.

WPbky2The rest of 2012 was consumed by prepping the house, selling the house, and moving to Minnesota. On the official 24 Hour Comics Day in early October, we had just put the house on the market. There was no way I or anyone else could expect to plant ourselves for a whole Saturday of drawing comics. But then the house sold, much faster then we expected. Then Marcie left for her week-long conference in LA. There was still much to be done for the move,  too much to devote a whole weekend to comics (it’s best to set Sunday aside to sleep and recover), but I decided to try to work it in around the move preparations. My plan was to draw 12 pages in 12 hours for two consecutive days while I had the house to myself. What I discovered is that there is no substitute for setting aside 24 hours and sticking to that one day deadline. Things came up, there were distractions, amorphous breaks, and I couldn’t accrue 12 hours of drawing in a day. It then became just like any project that you work in around your daily life, and took me three weeks to complete. It’s not really a 24 hour comic at all, but it is The Return of Blinkey.

WPBunnirahBy Christmas we were in our new house in Minneapolis. In May, Marcie traveled again for a meeting and I had the place to myself for a week with no pressing engagements. On the spur of the moment I decided to draw a 24 hour comic. Months ago I had mentioned a dream I had on Facebook, in which I drew a comic about a giant radioactive vampire bunny. Several people demanded that I make the dream a reality. I knew then who would star in my next 24 hour comic: Bunnirah, Count of Monsters. This was my first completely solo, legit 24 hour effort. I never managed to hit the one page per hour pace, even thought I broke the split-page format a couple of times to speed things up. At hour 24 my last five pages were still in pencil, and the story was only 22 pages long. I didn’t want to rush inking the final pages, so I threw in the towel and went to bed. I dozed for about an hour, and then people were working on the street outside (a hazard of doing 24 hour comics midweek), and the dog was barking, and I couldn’t sleep. I read, watched tv, expected to doze off again, but didn’t. So I went upstairs and finished the damn comic. I consider this a successful 24 hour comic as per the Eastman Variation. It may not be my best effort, but I had an absolute blast with these characters. Be assured they will return.





The Unfair Critic vs Life Of Pi

10 05 2013

life_of_pi_ver2Warning: I will spoil everything

This is a hard post to write, because I find myself in endless ironic loops. I’m just going to barrel forward and try to ignore them, you can do as you like.

I read Life of Pi by Yann Martel. I only knew what everyone knows about it: boy gets stuck on a lifeboat with tiger. I like animals, and I like ocean voyages, and I was hoping those things would be dealt with somewhat realistically. I was engaged by part 1, about Pi’s life in India. I thoroughly enjoyed part 2, the part about being stuck on a lifeboat with a tiger. I found myself frustrated and angry by the end of part 3, when the author brings everything back around to a question of faith. It’s not the book I want it to be, which is my problem, not the author’s. The author, as far as I can tell, achieved exactly what he intended, and I commend him for it.

I didn’t see the movie, and I don’t plan to. I think I would hate it. The still images I’ve seen from the movie glisten with that CGI sheen. I don’t want this story to shimmer with magic. The situation is fantastic enough; I want the sights and sounds and smells to land with matter-of-fact, undeniable reality. I want to believe it. I want to be on that lifeboat with that tiger. I want to breathe the air in the middle of the ocean with a wild predator, at once dangerous, inaccessible, and part of a bond with a human being.

Part 2 of the book accomplishes all this admirably. Pi’s strategies for dealing with the tiger are surprising, ingenious, and plausible. Their journey is arduous and enthralling, and believable. The distance between human and tiger is never entirely bridged, because hello, it’s a wild animal. Believability is key. I desperately didn’t want the story to become fantasy. I enjoy fantasy, but with this story I was hoping to feel a more authentic connection to the natural world; the ocean, the sky, wild animals. Again, my problem. What’s the point in approaching any work of art with such specific expectations? I’m not writing the book. I can interpret it in my own way, but I don’t get to decide what happens.

Still. Expectations met, as I said, in Part 2. Even though there were some elements that stretched plausibility, that might be called magical realism. The oil tanker that blindly brushes past the castaways seems unlikely in the vast ocean, but also seems like one of those events so ridiculous it has to be true. The island of algae may or not have any basis in actual botany, but I had no trouble believing it. The one thing that really threw me was meeting the other blind sailor in the other lifeboat. That was so utterly unlikely, I thought the whole episode was a hallucination, right up until the two Japanese reps discuss it in Part 3.

Part 3, when Pi tells his story to the men from the shipping company, and they don’t believe him. So he tells them another story, with no wild animals, that they can believe. And then I start to doubt this wonderful story I’ve just finished. Why would the author do that? Probably for the same reason he wrote 100+ pages of Pi being in India and absorbing different religions. Pi is pious (is that why Martel chose that odd name for his protagonist?) and he prays a lot at sea, but it’s his empirical knowledge of zookeeping that saves him. So what’s all this religion in aid of? Only the central theme of the book, it turns out. In the end, we are given a choice. Believe the unbelievable, the much better story, or fall back on what fits with our own experience. Have faith, or don’t.

To clarify, I don’t really doubt the story with the tiger. It’s pretty clear what really happened to Pi (if anything can be said to have “really happened” in a work of fiction.) I think Martel is just giving us an exercise in faith, a miniature model of faith. I am not religious, so when I hear people talk about faith a part of me switches off. Faith is nothing to do with me. So I was frustrated to get to the end of the book and feel evangelized to, even in a most subtle and friendly way.

Still, I have to admit, all the things I wanted from this book–the sense of connection to the ocean, the sky, wild animals, the natural world–most people would call that a spiritual impulse. I don’t mind calling it that. One can seek and feel a connection to the larger universe without believing in God. We skeptics get a lot of spiritual juice from scientific observation. That’s why I so craved, and so appreciated, the realism in this story. Realism was my best path to a spiritual experience. When faith became the clear central theme, I almost felt my realist path to spiritual connection devalued.

Almost, but not quite. In the end I have to just let it go, as Pi lets Richard Parker go, connected and disconnected at the same time. Which again is the nature of spiritual experience, because unless you are fully enlightened and enter Nirvanna there will always be an element of disconnect. See! Despite my best efforts, Life of Pi remains the book its author intended. I’m gonna go read Spider-Man now.





Nidan Test: I’m Doing It Right

30 10 2012

Last week I was lucky enough to do my 2nd degree black belt test in front of Frank Doran Sensei, who is a world-renowned, high-ranking teacher and head of my dojo’s division. With aikido, as with drawing, I often feel like I’m faking my way through, and not actually skilled enough to do what I’m attempting to do. After my test, Doran Sensei made it very clear that yes, I am training at a Nidan level, flaws and all.

Awhile back I wrote a post about drawing how I draw, and training how I train, rather than trying to draw or train in a way that is not appropriate for who I am. My test really affirmed this for me with aikido. Like any art, aikido is a lifelong pursuit, with more questions to answer and more flaws to polish continuously showing up. The goal is not to eliminate mistakes, but to elevate my practice so that the mistakes I do make are appropriate for my level.

It was immensely gratifying to hear that I am doing just that from a trusted authority. If Doran Sensei says I am a Nidan, I can believe it without question. It’s too bad there’s no absolute authority to evaluate my drawing… but if art wasn’t subjective, I probably wouldn’t be so into it.








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