oh god I can't believe it, the evil magic of Tumblr has ended up addicting me to an online webcomic about cute American college boys playing hockey. The American version of hockey, i.e. on ice. Ngozi's Check, Please! is weirdly poignant, bizarrely socially aware and basically adorable, mostly because Bitty (small cute gay Southern boy who bakes), and because of the locus of well-intentioned awkward anxiety that is Jack. The comic and fan responses to same have inexorably infected my Tumblr feed over the last couple of months. The fanfic is lovely. Of all the things I ever thought I'd find myself doing, enjoying web comics about cute American college boys playing hockey significantly doesn't make the list in any way at all.
As revenge, because it's my only defence against this sort of thing, I shall proceed to dissect it ruthlessly, and with maximum use of polysyllables. I think the thing appeals not just because it's well written and beautifully drawn, but because it self-consciously appropriates and subverts the classically heteronormative and traditionally ideologically ugly setting of the frat house. The male sports team/frat house is a homosocial space whose construction generally implies sexism, toxic masculinity, profanity and all-out grossness, but Ngozi's version of it is resolutely and redeemingly utopian. There's enough grossness and profanity to be vaguely realistic, but the stereotypes are lovingly deconstructed: homosociability is mutually supportive, socially aware, irreverent without being destructive. This reaches its apotheosis in Shitty, the team's Gender Studies wonk and part-time nudist, because apparently "Every hockey team should have a hipster who wears floral snapbacks and shouts about the ironies of male sexuality in the American collegiate Greek system while waiting in line for the pong table to free up." Characters rip into each other cheerfully, both on and off the ice, but the teasing is free of malice. Bitty's gay identity is open, and unquestioningly supported by the team; his endearing personality, which is approximately what you'd get if Tintin embraced the twink stereotype slightly more flamboyantly while more or less continuously baking pie, exists in beautiful relief against the far more macho vibe of the rest of the team.
Part of what Ngozi is doing here, I think, is to present as primary text something which has the sensibility of fan fiction straight off the bat; like slash fic, it posits male relationships in an idealised mode, one in which homoerotic elements, whether literal or subtextual, are celebrated rather than being denied, by the characters and setting as well as the writer. (The college setting is the fictional Samwell, presented as being the most queer-friendly campus in America.) The comic is thus inherently self-aware, existing in dialogue not only with its own raft of external texts (character Twitter feeds, the writer's blog with additional comics, headcanons and occasional character Q&As) but with the whole fanfic paradigm itself. Quite my favourite bit of the series is Johnson the existential goalie, who's a minor character whose hobbies include "breaking the fourth wall": anything he says is metacommentary on his own and the other characters' existences as comic book characters, and he cheerfully acknowledges his own purpose as a device for furthering various narrative arcs. The really good fanfic has him popping in to comment on the difference between his own characterisation in and out of canon. It makes my narrative-fondling toes curl in girly glee.
So, weird but true: I have to admit to enjoying web comics about cute American college boys playing hockey. Because life's odd like that. In a good way.
This is a piece of fan-fiction that posits the Avengers taking over the American presidential election, and I love it very, very much. It's acute and funny, but it's also a beautifully-encapsulated demonstration of exactly what fanfic does. Superheroes are already about wish fulfilment, and most importantly about agency - they are a response to the increasing complexity and scale of our lives, in which our own agency is nil in the greater scheme of things. Superheroes are a projection of our desire to make a difference. So this fic externalises that desire and makes it literal by injecting that utopian notion of agency into one of the most obvious and hopeless examples of large-scale dysfunction in our current environment, namely the American political system. Fanfic does for narrative what superheroes do for social evil - it gives us control. It must be a horrible feeling of helplessness, to be American and to feel that there's no way to stop the obvious asinine stupidities of Trump rampaging bullheadedly over the American political landscape. I'd take a Tony Stark puppet government in a heartbeat. Clean energy in three years, socialised medicine in five. Fanfic and superheroes both have power because their ultimate engagement is not with reality, but with utopia.
For some reason the recent Garden XKCD won't load on my work computer, probably because complicated campus firewalls or something - you go to the page and all it gives you is a revolving tree silhouette with the word "LOADING" and a flashing ellipsis, with the mouseover "Relax." I thought that was the whole strip, and it was perfect - that's exactly what you do with a garden, relax and wait for everything to load.
Currently I am delighting in a random corner of my real-life container garden which is slowly and carefully loading three butternut squash plants, the result of me, in a fit of pique at having an entire tray of baby marrow seedlings eaten off at ground level by cutworm, madly planting 6 seeds from a butternut I happened to have for dinner one evening. I'm fairly useless at seeds, a 50% germination rate is bloody good by my standards, but as long as I can keep the neighbourhood tomcat from jumping on them in the course of his flee-the-garden escape route when I shout at him for stealing my cats' food and/or spraying in the passage, they seem to be doing well. In the meanwhile, the XKCD comic is growing things under lights on my home computer, although I cannot as yet persuade it to produce anything other than a row of identical boring trees. I love the way Randall Munroe's mind works, the controls for the lights are elegantly simple.
In a tangentially related note (technological replications of biological processes?), I give you Holotypic Occlupanid Research Group, because delightful. They solemnly and meticulously catalogue the taxonomical classifications of the little plastic widgets used to close bread bags.
In other news also not unentirely related to the unduly artificial mechanical replication of actual life processes, last night Machete Order brought us to re-watch Attack of the Clones. I had honestly forgotten (a) most of the movie, I clearly blanked it in sheer self-defence, and (b) how utterly terrible a film it is. Seriously: the plot sucks, the script blows, the dialogue is beyond lame and unnatural, the greenscreen is ungodly clunky, the "romance" "plot" is the unconvincing bumping together of two wooden effigies, one of them loutish, and the whole represents the utter triumph of overbudgeted CGI over reason, taste or the faintest replication of actual life. Unsurprisingly, given that it focuses on the CGI clashes of droids and clones rather than actual people, the whole thing can be summed up with "Newsflash: I don't care." Honestly, George, it takes a special level of anti-skill to make giant battles between droids, clones and Jedi knights actually boring.
We still have to endure Revenge of the Sith, although probably only when Jo gets back from AfricaBurns. Anyone know any good drinking games? I have time to train my liver up a bit...
Gawsh, this blog thing, I'd forgotten. It has been a Somewhat Medical couple of weeks, with the minor op for the Weird Finger Bump followed by a lurgi and a doozy of a glandular resurgence, which means I've been flattened and faintly choked for about ten days. Seriously, minor sinus/throat infection thingy and it feels as though a horde of inept vampires have been chewing on my neck, enthusiastically but without much actual skill. They are too fumbling to break the skin, but my current levels of flattenedness suggest they're draining blood by some sort of vampiric osmosis. I'm still somewhat exhausted, despite two full weeks featuring exactly two days of work. It really hasn't been an easy six months on campus, I think we're all feeling the tension.
On the upside, the Weird Finger Bump turns out to be a cartilage tumour, which is a benign/non-invasive thingy known technically as an enchondroma, which is a lovely word that bears repetition just for the monk-like chanting effect. Also, I'm associating it vaguely with camels, or possibly the inner wibbly bits of plant cells. I have a neat 3cm slash in my finger, which meekly dissolved its four stitches in a week and is otherwise inoffensive, although it was bloody and rather painful for the first week and large tracts of it were blue and yellow from bruising from the local. The hand, it transpires, is unduly full of nerve endings. On the upside this kind of tumour has a very low chance of recurrence. It has also been headed off at the pass from its purportedly characteristic party trick, which is to grow gently into the bone until it's exerting enough pressure to fracture it. Foiled! Foiled, I say!
I have, regrettably, been a complete and total hermit for the last two weeks, because exhaustion, and my apologies to all the lovely people I haven't seen much of. On the upside, I have played entirely through Knights of the Old Republic and about two thirds of the way through the sequel, which has contented the Star Wars jonesing more than somewhat, and has incidentally revealed the following:
Narrative clearly trumps graphics any day, these are really old games with really clunky visuals, and I'm still absorbed. I have also recently played Bioshock 3 and Dishonoured, both of which are really pretty, and neither of which I have finished because bored and railroaded. Or, in the case of Dishonoured, undue up-front fridging.
I am at a level of expertise with these games where I recognise the actors' voices (because Bioware really has recurring favourites they keep using from game to game) within about half a sentence. Since they have cunningly seeded the love interests with the voices of, respectively, Kaidan and Cullen, my two go-to romances from ME and DA, I'm basically doomed, romancing anyone else feels like infidelity. On the upside: Carth.
Dear sweet whistling Chadra-Fan, but the plot of KOTOR2 is a hot mess. It really has too much plot, insufficiently controlled, and its quest structures bugged way beyond hell and gone. Not a quality construction, although productive of a certain player curiosity which propels one through the high levels of wtf in sheer curiosity as to how this whole insane edifice is ultimately going to shamble, clanking and groaning, to a conclusion. My prediction: bits will fall off.
Occasionally I wonder if I actually, you know, have a brain, because possibly going in for an MRI (very minor, there's a weird bumpy thing on my finger that the specialist couldn't figure out) was not an intelligent thing to do only a week after discovering, courtesy of sports traffic, the exact parameters of my problem with being hemmed in. I'd thought it was crowds. Enclosed spaces have never really been an issue; I rather like caves. But when they put me on my face on the table with my hand strapped into a complicated box thing, and roll me into the MRI tube with strict instructions not to move, it turns out I have a small, perfectly formed panic attack. Weirdest feeling, lying there hyperventilating with my heart rate climbing and sweat breaking out all over my body, and my whole being consumed with the desperate, flailing urge to MOVE! at any cost, preferably to thrash and plunge and make a break for it. Flight or fight. It's very odd, knowing it's completely irrational and being completely unable to switch it off.
Fortunately, I am addicted beyond redemption to random link-following on Teh Internets, and a couple of weeks back it was something-or-other that mentioned, in passing, that flight-or-fight responses can be short-circuited if you focus on a breathing pattern where you breathe in for a shorter count than you breathe out. Which I read at the time with a certain degree of scepticism, thought "Huh. Probably woo." and promptly forgot about, until it was recalled by the desperate realisation that a quick sedation was in the offing unless I did something. And, huh. Turns out it's perfectly accurate. Breathe in for count of two, hold for count of one, breathe out for four. It was enough to manage the panic and gradually, over about fifteen minutes, bring it down to something perilously close to trance state, which was fortunate, because they kept me in that bloody thing for over an hour. Apparently fingers are merry hell to scan, small and fiddly and difficult to hold still; they ended up having to pump me full of dye to see what was going on. When I finally emerged I was slowed down and pleasantly calm to slightly stoner levels - in sharp contradistinction to all my muscles, which were in spasm from being motionless for so long.
MRIs sound incredibly Millenium-Falcon for the high-tech things they are - there's a great deal of banging and thumping and ticking and weird "whum-m-m" noises, and that bit where it mutters "muh-muh-muh-muh-muh" to itself very rapidly. They stick you in earplugs before shoving you into the innards, which is somewhat merciful, it's very loud. It's also very varied; an image seems to be built up as a composite, which entails scanning at varying degrees of current through the electromagnet, and it responds with a fair repertoire of noises. Possibly the most frustrating part was not being able to identify what exactly the machine was doing with each different noise it made. Generally I enjoy high-tech medical equipment, and will demand explanations of what's happening with a shameless mongoose interest, but you can't ask questions if you have to lie motionless and focus on your breathing so as not to freak out completely. "For Science!", I kept telling myself, but I'd prefer to know what Science.
It also makes very cool pictures with way better resolution than an x-ray, and reveals that I have a weird body which won't do things in any standard way. I have a lump, slowly growing larger, just above the middle knuckle joint on my middle right-hand finger. It's been there for years; it's briefly agonizing if I bump it, even lightly, and has started to ache randomly even when I don't. The MRI doctor was Baffled, Watson, Baffled! - he said it might be a "very complicated ganglion", which is a nerve cluster lumpy thing. Or a cyst, because it takes dye, which suggests there's fluid there, although it's also too hard for a cyst. The orthopaedic surgeon is concerned because it's grown large enough to start pressing into the bone, which will eventually weaken the bone and invite random breakages and things. He's hauling said Mysterious Lump out on Tuesday just to be safe, probably with an element of frustrated curiosity with which I completely empathise. Apparently I am scheduled for One Minor Op Per Year until further notice, and this is mine for 2016. At least it's interesting.
One of the things I did while I was on leave was actually to watch some movies, in an attempt to reduce the reproachful, tottering Pile of Unwatched Doom. (Currently embarked upon Star Wars: Clone Wars, which is so far vaguely cool, although its Anakin may be unduly... chiselled.) Two of the actual movies were the most recent Studio Ghibli offerings, both of which were lovely in rather different ways.
Arrietty is based on Mary Norton's classic children's book The Borrowers, which I ended up re-reading before I watched the film. Lord, I'd forgotten how harsh and claustrophobic and threatening a story it can be - the world of tiny little people living in the corners of normal human existence is precarious and paranoid, and the books are rather despairing about human attitudes to things that are tiny and powerless and vulnerable to being categorised, diminishingly, as either "vermin" or "cute". The Studio Ghibli version is slightly less cruel, but the story still fits naturally with the usual Ghibli preoccupations with environmental destruction, and with the sense of a fragile species watching their specific niche eroded inexorably by unthinking humanity. That being said, the film is beautiful, particularly in its sense of nature, and in its visual fascination with the contrasts and whimsies inherent in very small people interacting with very large things. It manages to retain the spirit of the Norton ending while still providing a sense of uplift, which is quite a feat. I enjoyed it, but it also made me realise that "enjoy" isn't really a word I ever applied to the books, they're too uncomfortable.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is very much more folkloric, and I've added it to my considerable list of fairy-tale things I should probably write papers on. Unlike Arrietty, which has a very standard Ghibli aesthetic and animation style, Princess Kaguya is something of a departure, its visual feel far more impressionistic and watercolour, and astonishingly beautiful. The recognisable folkloric motifs of the peasant man and wife who find a tiny, magical child in the bamboo grove very quickly give way to an exploration of the mannered artificiality of the Japanese medieval nobility - "Princess" as social construct rather than naturalised fairy-tale icon. (Don't worry, the mad fantastic elements snap right back into place). It's a sad story, and one which is as concerned as Arietty was with the importance of unfettered identity, and the idea of agency in, and celebration of, the natural world. It also has sweepingly fantastic sequences which are simply breathtaking, and it packs enough of an emotional punch that it made me cry at a couple of points. I loved this; it's very much its own thing, difficult to find comparisons, but I'll re-watch this over and over.
(My subject line is Bowie's "Glass Spider", which is weird and fairy-tale all in its own right).
Well, that was... salutary. Things I never realised about myself, courtesy of not being a sports fan. Which I didn't need to realise, I know I'm not a sports fan, but a by-product of my sublime indifference to organised or team sport of any stamp is that I'm blissfully oblivious to major sports fixtures happening in Cape Town. Which is a problem when Newlands stadium lies directly between campus and home and the South African cricket team is playing Australia.
It took me exactly two hours to get home yesterday, a trip that should take ten minutes and even in rush hour seldom takes longer than 20. I left campus at 4.30pm, and finally pulled up outside my house, wrung, exhausted and hysterical, shortly after 6.30. During that time I had circled repeatedly between Observatory and Wynberg in a desperate, unavailing and increasingly surreal attempt to cross the railway line. Every single route over the line was blocked by congested traffic for a minimum of three blocks, moving a car at a time and generally sitting without moving at all for anything up to five or ten minutes. Not quite a gridlock, but almost, its ground-to-a-halt effect exacerbated materially by the single-minded selfishness of Cape Town drivers, who will fill up an intersection even if they're not able to move out of it, thus blocking it to cross traffic when the light changes.
Normally this sort of traffic congestion is a matter of biting the bullet and inching forward; you'll get there eventually, painfully slowly, and probably having given your road-rage vocabulary a brisk evening constitutional. What this is not apparently compatible with, however, is my borderline crowd phobia which, it transpires, is mostly a desperate terror of being hemmed in. I've always hated rush hour: sitting in traffic is one of my fairly reliable fatigue triggers, and it appears that the exhaustion is actually the result of subliminally suppressing panic attacks if I can't move, can't leave, can't see a way out. (This in retrospect also explains that overly dramatic episode in undergrad when I passed out in the middle of the Zimbabwe border post, which is always heaving crowds).
Yesterday the non-moving traffic endured long enough, repeatedly, that I could no longer suppress the panic response. I kept trying to turn away from build-ups, feeling my control slipping, my hands shaking, my hysteria mounting, and only ended up spiralling myself tighter and tighter into congested roads, with my options narrowing inexorably. At one point I ended up stuck in a byroad in Claremont near the station, hemmed in by taxis, shaking and crying hysterically, with concerned passers-by offering me water and otherwise mostly exacerbating the problem by looming at me. When I finally wriggled free I'd circle round to find another route, only to run into further rows and rows of bumper-to-bumper cars. It was like one of those repetitive nightmares where you can't get out, you keep coming back to the same spot, you're trapped. After a while the repetition becomes a sort of hellish hallucination. You feel as though you'll be doing this forever, over and over, trying to get through, always blocked, home and tranquillity and a door to exclude the world a sort of faint, mirage-like image which clearly doesn't exist in any real way.
Halfway through this process I gave up and tried to go back to campus to sit in my office for a bit (trial and error having established that sitting by the side of the road in the car didn't help at all). This wasn't the best move, because (a) going back to campus after you've left for the day is a nasty déjà vu feeling that itself feels like a nightmare entrapment, and (b) there was some sort of student activity - protest, demonstration, march, flash mob, who the fuck knows - filling up the roads, inevitably triggering further phobic reactions. I turned round and re-entered the hellscape. I finally wriggled through via Kenilworth, it now being late enough that the booms were up, took a tranquilliser, ate something, I forget what, it didn't seem to object so probably wasn't one of the cats, and fell into bed by 9, more or less shattered. It was, all in all, a horrible experience - made worse, I think, because heavy traffic is also a prime example of non-working, irrational, eco-unfriendly civilisation and we should damned well do better than this.
I am enlightened, however. I have identified a trigger. My tendency to arrange my work life to avoid rush hour, which I've always treated like a preference, becomes an imperative. I shall espouse the religion of the long way round if it looks for a microsecond as though build-up is happening. I shall also become au fait with major sports fixtures and arrange, preferably, to leave the country for them. For a nice, open desert full of absolutely nothing, but especially not people or cars.
I've been playing this as background music for the last couple of days, while doing anything except actually, you know, videogaming... and it's excessively lovely, a perfect confluence of two of my passions, gaming and classical music. These are full-on orchestral suites, beautifully arranged. As I type, Legend of Zelda is making me cry. They have an actual ocarina. I'd forgotten how much of that game allowed you to use a musical ear to short-cut the puzzles. Also, note to self, if they ever ported Zelda to PC I'd probably lose several years to playing the entire back catalogue.
The interesting thing, though, is how emotive I'm finding it even when I haven't played a lot of the games - in fact, Zelda is the first one in this sequence that I've actually played. But I still loved the other suites, Assassin's Creed, The Last Of Us, Journey and the Mario mix and all. I think this is an index of how game music is written - to be stirring, emotional, to figure the hero's journey, whether introspective or martial or whimsical, to embody the frequently beautiful landscapes of the gameworld. Like gaming itself, videogame music has to distil reality into an essentialised version of itself. Which means it packs a punch, to say the least.
The subject line is from "Beauty and the Beast", because I had to have something from the Heroes album.