Excerpts from Scraps

The following three stories are taken from Scraps, a short story collection I wrote on December 6th 2021.

Beasts of Burden

1

               It’s about five years ago, in the car with my aunt. She was giving me driving lessons to help me prepare for my license test. We were hungry and decided to grab lunch at a nearby Subway. When we were inside, she encouraged me to open up about myself, so I did. I ended up spilling out all the anxieties about my family I was struggling with at the time. I was feeling cornered and pressured by them, so it was nice to have someone to talk to who felt like they had my back. As we were driving home, I thanked her for being someone I could talk to about these things. I told her I’d always keep in touch.

2

               It’s now around two to three years ago, and I’m speaking to my aunt for the last time. Technically texting, not speaking, as several months ago our family decided against seeing her in person. My aunt had a boyfriend that the family, including me, all hated. He was the kind of person that never looked like he wanted to be around us, and his face ensured we’d return the favor. My aunt, despite this, insisted on bringing him to family events, one of those events being my sister’s birthday. My sister was upset by him and his behavior. She refused to shake his hand. My aunt took this personally. She has refused to even acknowledge my sister ever since. This actually happened years ago, but it became relevant due to my sister’s high-school graduation. My aunt insisted on attending only if my sister apologized for the birthday incident, despite the fact that she was only eight years-old at the time. My father had finally had enough of his sister and he’d been dealing with this kind of thing from her all his life. He said that she had chosen her boyfriend over her family and promptly told her off. I was the only one my aunt tried to contact via text. I got the sense she wanted me on her side, to convince an enemy general to defect to her side for a stronger chance of winning the war. I never responded to her.

3

               It’s the beginning of this year, and my grandmother is dying. Me, my mother, and my sister have arrived to meet my father at the hospital she’ll never leave. My father spoke to her by himself, so after him, we all go in to give our final words. My sister and I don’t have a whole lot to say, so our presence speaks for us. We both leave when we feel it’s appropriate, with our mother staying behind for one more conversation. My grandmother tells her about the drama going on with her children, including my father and aunt. She tells my mom about the endless fights and dramas constantly erupting amongst her kids and how to best handle them. My mother gives her an unexpected reply, “You know that they aren’t really your problem anymore, right?” It was like a weight had been lifted from her shoulders, and she could float off up to heaven at any moment. “You’re right,” she said, “It’s not my problem anymore.” My grandmother passed away a few hours later. I have no doubt that wherever she is right now, she’s at peace.

Wildcat Ramble

I’m thinking about my dead cat again. Well, it’s not my dead cat, it’s the family’s cat. I was just in charge of her when she wandered into the woods and got eaten by a coyote or some other beast. I miss her. I wonder how it is that cats can survive most falls, is it their body fat? I don’t know anything about cat anatomy, but I’m watching a video of a cat jumping into a couch that is quite amusing. The way all the fat of its body seems to rush towards its face at the point of impact is the only evidence I have for my theory. Our remaining cat is a real chubby one. If you tossed her off of our deck, I imagine she’d be just fine, in fact I think I remember testing that when I was a kid. I was terrible with animals then, always either chasing them off or scaring the daylights out of them. I remember chasing after our chickens so hard I broke my Dad’s favorite walking stick, desperately burying the evidence in the nearby woods. Funny, how even then, an animal never died under my direct supervision.

My dad never hit me or anything like that, but when he found out about the walking stick, he seemed disappointed in a way that felt as though he resented me. I’m not sure if I was imagining it, since it felt like he was feeling that way about me because of my struggles in school, too. The school administrations didn’t know how to handle me, they gave my mother endless shit when she tried to get me some reasonable accommodations. I remember the superintendent and principal holding one of their goddamned seminars about drug use and how it was tanking the school’s reputation. It made me sick to my stomach. I hate surface-level types like them, they’ve always been my worst teachers. The one big, bald fucker from middle school who got a student pregnant in high school comes to mind, though I only remember him for shouting at me. They never understood how my mind really worked, and even I struggle to explain it. Like the cat theory, that’s a real pain to explain.

Pop

It’s my first family reunion, and it’ll also be the last one that’s on this big of a scale. I’m around ten years old, and the family camp is absolutely swarming with people I’ve never seen before in my life. I can’t really remember any individual interactions, more just the sensation of being surrounded by so many people who were apparently connected to me. It made the camp, which feels cramped and compact to me now, seem like a mansion that went on for miles to my ten-year-old self. Actually, there is one individual I can remember clearly, and he was someone that wasn’t supposed to be there. He was a scrawny kid, around the same age as me, who enjoyed running around and hanging out with the rest of the family. You could identify him easily by his toothy grin, which showed up clearly in the big family photo we all took together. If you actually passed that photo around the room, no one would be able to tell you who he was related to. That’s because he wasn’t related to any of us. He was a stray kid whose parents never had time for him, so he liked to hang around with substitute families. I can imagine him getting lost in the crowds of people the same way I did, trying to find an even deeper meaning in the imagined connection to people he’d never met.

Our world is like a reflection in a bubble, it expands and warps with any subtle changes in the light. A stream of light is pouring into our bubbles today, and the world of our family’s camp has expanded to encompass the entire planet. A shack that becomes a mansion, a lake that becomes an ocean, a crowd that becomes a parade, a gathering of strangers that becomes a family. We are overwhelmed by this vision, observing from a distance, careful not to rupture it. Once it ends, we return to our smaller worlds. The key difference is that I return to a world where my parents call my name, while his don’t even look him in the eye.

It’s my first family reunion, and it’ll also be the last one that’s on this big of a scale. I’m around ten years old, and the family camp is absolutely swarming with people I’ve never seen before in my life. I can’t really remember any individual interactions, more just the sensation of being surrounded by so many people who were apparently connected to me. It didn’t amount to much in the grand scheme of things, but it was real fun.

Our world is a reflection in a bubble, it expands and warps with any subtle changes in the light. A stream of light is pouring into our bubbles today, and the world of our family’s camp has expanded to encompass the entire planet. A shack that becomes a mansion, a lake that becomes an ocean, a crowd that becomes a parade, a gathering of strangers that becomes a family. We are overwhelmed by this vision, observing from a distance, careful not to rupture it. Once it ends, we return to our smaller worlds. The key difference is that he returns to a world where his parents call his name, while mine don’t even look me in the eye.

Looking at the finished group photo, unnamed relatives notice someone. He’s a scrawny kid, around the same age as me, who could be seen playing, running around, and hanging out with the rest of the family. You could identify him easily by his toothy grin, which showed up clearly in photo. Passing it around, none of the relatives could tell who he was related to. He wasn’t related to any of us. He was a stray kid with rich parents who never watched him, so he liked to go off on his own to hang around with substitute families. I remember seeing him as a friend all those years ago, but even now I can’t recall his name. The unnamed relatives point at the toothy smile and ask, “just who’s kid do you think that is?”

My Friends on the Wind

            I’m lying in my room on a cold Sunday night, browsing on my laptop, almost 100 miles away from home, alone. I text my mother to remedy that. She’s eager to hear from me as always. The subject turns to friends, the ones I’ve made in the past, and the ones I haven’t made in the present. The subject of Jae is inevitably brought up. I ask her what he’s been doing these days, and she finds his LinkedIn. He served in the army before spending four years in law enforcement, and now works as an NRA firearm instructor. He’s also a Republican, but that goes without saying. My mind is pulled to the past, a world where I once considered him one of my best friends. I can’t help but wonder if he’s ever tried to look me up and thought the same things.

            The autumn leaves crunched under our feet as we walked, my two best friends and me. It was the first time I had ever had both over, and I couldn’t have been more excited. Despite grey clouds, I remember the light that day was positively beaming. The sky was so blue, and the forest so deep, it almost felt like an autumn ocean. I was around 10 or 11, and my friends were the same, fellow ships just starting their journey on an open sea. One was blonde, scrawny, always nervous, and his name was Victor. The other was dark, heavy, and tall, always holding something in, and his name was Jae. I was convinced they’d be with me forever.

            Jae and I first met when we were toddlers. My parents and his were neighbors, and befitting the middle-class suburban spirit, we mingled. I can’t really recall how we first met, and even if I could remember, I don’t think I’d call it the start of our friendship. That will always be the moment we shared together at my family’s camp. We were both jumping on my parent’s bed and laughing, nothing more or less. I was always an awkward kid, and I really couldn’t make friends in preschool. Enjoying the moment together, hearing us both laugh at the top of our lungs, that was when I understood what friendship was. I’ll always remember it fondly.

            I first met Victor a few years later, near the end of middle school. We were both homeschooled, and our reason for meeting didn’t go much further than that happenstance. It didn’t take too long to see our common ground though. Very extravagant houses surrounded by woods, playing with whatever toys one of us had that the other didn’t, and enjoying any activities that let us indulge our interests or burn off our excess energy. One of my strongest memories of him was him smacking me for a reason I can’t remember, before he was chased down by his mother. I remember how miserable he looked when she caught him. Whatever my transgression was, I’m pretty sure I deserved the slap.

            We were all walking across my backyard to the entryway to the forest, the hanging and fallen leaves coating it like a bronze cave. I always thought that it would be fun to bring Jae and Victor together, so I jumped at the chance without a thought of hesitation. I remember Victor asking me about Jae; I think he wanted to know what he was like. I talked about how long we had known each other, and how fond of him I was, as far as I can remember. I’m not sure I brought it up, but I know that now, I wish I could have told him how much they were alike. Jae and Victor’s coming together had a sort of inevitable quality to it, in a way I wish I could have more clearly seen. I feel guilty recalling this because I can’t help but think I let my mask slip. Some subtle trepidation in my description that gave away my fear and worry. I don’t know if Victor picked up on it or not, but in the end, I don’t think it would have made a difference.

            All I cared to see back then was the endless expanse of an autumn sea stretching out before us. Two companions, like ships racing on the wind, guiding me. We could sail as far as we wanted.

            It was through Jae I learned both what Korea and a belting were. Both Jae and his older sister were adopted from Asia, she from China and he from South Korea. Their parents are white Americans, originally from Michigan.  I’m sure they adopted him out of some misguided White Savior instinct, but I was too young to understand any of that. Jae told me how, whenever his father got mad, he would beat him with his belt. I don’t think I understood the concept. I knew belts were those uncomfortable leather things that Dad wore, and I think I remember him threatening to smack me with one once, as a joke. I couldn’t really imagine the deed really happening, let alone from a father to a son. Jae couldn’t look me in the eye while he described it to me. I could never quite look at his father, who happened to also be our family dentist, the same way after that.

            It took my experience with Victor’s father to hammer home that those kinds of fathers really do exist. Most of my interactions with him were in passing, and even now I can barely remember his face. Still, I was always slightly on edge in his presence, mainly because of how much more visibly unnerved Victor became when he was around. One day, Victor insisted we interrupt whatever we were doing at his house to take a walk around his yard, something he had never suggested before. Not one to disappoint the sole social contact I had, I followed beyond the point most parents would consider it safe for their teenaged kids to travel the suburbs alone, never mind 10-year-olds. I only realized the depths of our transgression when the echoes of his father’s shouts reached us all the way at the end of the cul-de-sac. I wanted to go back, but then I noticed Victor started to break down crying. Later, I would learn his father regularly physically abused both him and his mother. There was nothing to do but comfort him and stay put until our parents inevitably pulled us back.

            Back in the autumn sea, my friends are still sailing with me. Jae has scaled a great wall of rocks, and Victor is playfully fiddling with a stray wiffle bat. We challenge the world in our tiny boats, far away from the jagged shores that can, and will break us.

If the previous experiences were any indication, I’ve always been more comfortable with the maternal figures in my life. That’s part of the reason I was content being left in the care of Jae’s mother for an entire evening. It was a standard visit to their place. Though their house was just as big as ours, I always found the place fascinating compared to the relative flatness of my own home. Their equivalent of a “living room” was a massive foyer with large windows and filled with plants. I always mistook it for a massive greenhouse. My lack of familiarity with the home’s true boundaries is likely what contributed to whatever it was that caused Jae’s mom to snap that day.

            I have no recollection of the reason for her outburst, or if there even was one, but the image of her charging down the hall like a freight train won’t ever leave my head. The next thing I knew, I was carried off and screamed at, brought to the table with the other kids for my public shaming at the hands of our merciless inquisitor. After what felt like an eternity, my own mother finally returned to pick me up. Jae’s mother put on her rehearsed Stepford smile to try and pretend all is well, but it only takes one look at my face for my mother to realize something seriously wrong has occurred. She was never comfortable leaving me alone with Jae’s mother ever again.  Without my mother’s care and persistent protection, is it possible I would have resented my female caretakers just as much as I did my male ones? I wonder.

            Victor’s house made just as much of an impression on me as Jae’s did. I didn’t have the sense of scale to comprehend how big my own house really was back then, so every house felt big to me. Yet even with that lens being all I knew Victor’s house through, I can still say with confidence the place was grand. It appeared to have two tall stories that stood proudly at the top of the cul-de-sac, rows and rows of windows and an ornate curved roof presenting elegance as a suburban McMansion can muster. It turned out to be an illusion, a false outer grandiosity since there were actually three floors, with the finished basement layer built right into the side of the hill the foundation rested on. The interior was, however, miraculous, with a wide sprawling foyer leading into open living rooms and kitchens where you could come and go as you pleased. The centerpiece was a stairwell that took you right to Victor’s room, easy access to all the toys and joys on display. Not even the basement was dour, as all kinds of shapes and colors were strewn about for us to enjoy. Heck, the backyard even had a pool. Even with the clarity of time, it’s painfully obvious how much I exaggerate.

            No matter how objective I try to be, I can only remember it in this rosy form. I think that’s probably because if I didn’t, the only memories I’d have of that place would be colored with pure discomfort. Open foyers that felt closed in by the overbearing presence of Victor’s mother. A stairway that felt more like a maze the closer you got to the parent’s bedroom. A basement of color where I vividly remember seeing Victor’s father for the first time. A pool decorating the same yard where Victor slapped me. An impressive two-story visage slowly fading into the distance as Victor and I fled from it. Since Victor lived there, he had none of the rosy interpretations that I always carried, and I can’t help but wonder if he always saw me as a tourist in a prison.

            The leaves on the autumn sea blow, like the billows of waves before a storm. Jae hops across the stone walls with abandon, no care for weather he lands or falls, while Victor swings the wiffle bat aimlessly, no care what he may or may not hit. Any good sailor would turn back at the signs and signals of an impending storm, but I was a mere pretender, and let ignorant joy carry our sails towards oblivion.

            Once upon a time, my parents surprised me with an exceedingly expensive Christmas gift that instilled in me a great sense of responsibility. It was a Nintendo 3DS, back when they were first sold and excessively overpriced. I don’t want to spend too much time on the details, lest I get accused of materialism, but know that it represented exceptional value both personally and monetarily. I always found myself jealous of the toys Jae had, so for once I was glad to possess something that made him jealous. Once it disappeared, I was devastated. I had no recollection of how I had lost it, but I assumed it was carelessness on my part. I apologized to my parents profusely, begging them for forgiveness for my carelessness. They were incredibly understanding, even helping literally upturn the entire living room just to find a trace of it. I was too absorbed in self-loathing to realize how far they were going for me and how reasonably they treated the whole situation.

            My mother would confess to me a few years later that both she and my father were quite certain that Jae had stolen it. Though they had no concrete evidence, other than a rather damning conversation that she had with him concerning the missing console, where he displayed an obvious sense of guilt. She mentioned how Jae how much it was hurting me to not have it and he replied that there was a well-known black market for such goods at the local elementary he attended. Interestingly, at the same time, his parents reported him receiving a large amount of money for selling a device he allegedly “found” in the woods. They bragged about his ingenuity. By then, I was thoroughly over it, and my relationship with Jae had already collapsed beyond repair. In truth, I couldn’t bring myself to resent him for it. Not after everything we had gone through.

            The last time I heard of Victor was when I heard that he had run away from home. My Mom informed me that he was reported missing by the police, and warned me of the possibility that he might come to our house to seek sanctuary. We were both in agreement that we would rather shelter him, rather than hand him over to the authorities, especially given what we knew about his domestic living situation. Part of me actually hoped he would come to us for sanctuary. I had always wanted to provide that for him, ever since I saw him break down while running away from his father’s wrath. I had hoped he might even share a room with me and I could act like a surrogate brother of sorts. He never did show up though, and eventually he was caught and returned to his family. I have no further recollection of what happened to him after that. I don’t think we ever found out if he was headed to our place or not.

            Again, we walk through the woods together, all the past and future completely out of our minds. Victor absent-mindedly swings around a spare wiffle-bat we had lying around in the front yard. He had the same need for constant stimuli that I have. Jae and I talk about something, anything, nothing we will ever remember.

            I wish I could remember, to put some kind of satisfying final conversation into our mouths. But all I can remember is the sight of Victor swinging the bat ever more rapidly, and a mounting sense of dread consuming me a split second too late.

            The bat leaves Victor’s hands and smacks Jae right in the face. For a moment that feels like an eternity, the entire forest is silent. The sea’s silence breaks, the ocean erupts into a storm. The two boats that guide me ram into each other, shards and splinters scatter to the waters below. I watch in helpless fear as I am dragged into the ensuing maelstrom.

            Time resumes, and the world leaves me behind. Victor awakens first and makes a beeline towards the backyard and the woods. Jae soon follows, and he darts onto Victor’s trail, gaining from the very first step. All of this has occurred in the span of five seconds. I am so overwhelmed with panic, that my body can only express it as laughter. I laugh harder than I have ever laughed in my entire life. I am blubber as I chase after them, uncertain if what I’m experiencing is really happening; my questioning leaves me sagging behind. I see Jae catch up to Victor just as I reach the yard, and any doubts about the veracity of the situation shatter. Jae sits on top of Victor, pins him down, crushes and chokes his frail body, and wails on him the whole time. The laughs do not stop, they only grow heavier and dampen with tears. I stumble back to the house, desperately trying to reach my parents in the hope they can stop this.

            I make it up the steps and try to express some kind of message through my tears and laughter. My mother seems to pick up on whatever it is and rushes out while I collapse onto the floor. I spend an indeterminate amount of time lying there, letting the laughter and tears drain themselves, until I can get myself to return outside. Mom is on her way back to the house. She tells me Jae has fled up the driveway, headed in the direction of his own house. I run to Victor’s body, which lays crumpled where Jae has abandoned him. He isn’t seriously injured, but the only thing I am able to process is that he is alive and in pain. I turn back towards the driveway and shout the most severe condemnation I have ever spoken. The words flow like molten fury from my throat, an enraged attack meant to scorch the earth so severely that the invader will never dare to return.

            Whatever I said, it worked. Though he was almost too far away to see, as he was fleeing up the driveway, I could tell Jae was weeping.  

            I’m back in my room on that cold Sunday night, remembering I’m on the phone with my mother. I’m still trapped in the gloom of that day, the collapse of the most foundational friendships of my life still weighing on my head. My mother’s sudden reply well and truly returns me to the present. She asks me about Dan, my current best friend, and whether or not he’s going back to college in Florida. I let her know that he’s going to at least remain in town up through winter break, so we’ll have time to see each other in person again. After wishing my mother a good night, I decide to hit up Discord and blow off some steam with my friends there. I hit it off with them as naturally as I breathe. After I finish, I realize just how distant my memories with Jae and Victor really are. That moment felt like the end of the world, but the world didn’t end, and neither did I. Nor did Jae or Victor either, as LinkedIn clearly attests. No matter how much a person changes, the memories and bonds that form who they are will echo on across the seas of time.  

            I’m alone on an empty autumn sea. All the ships I once sailed with either abandoned me or were lost. I sail on, guided by the insight gained from all they taught me to remember them by. An experienced sailor, I take the helm, and let the winds blow me onward to my future.

The Collective Dream

It’s not outside that counts, but there’s a limit to that too.

-Dr. Atsuko Chiba

            If I were to sleepwalk back through the entirety of my life, I’d consider myself reality’s designated scapegoat. Going through it the first time, I found myself much more attentive to my surroundings than most of the people around me. This is because I tended to find those surroundings hostile in a way many other people didn’t. The wide open spaces designed to be filled with constant noise. Not to mention the noise itself, a frenzied pitch of gossip, hostility, and judgment. Everyone else I knew found the space to be natural, but I never could, and so that gossip, hostility, and judgment would always be directed at me. My only option for solace, or escape, was to put on a mask, one that would suppress the voices and make everyone else think I really belonged.

            Paprika is the story of two woman, Dr. Atsuko Chiba and the titular Paprika. Chiba is a stoic and reserved scientist working for a company that designs scientific devices that allow people to enter the subconscious realm of dreams. Paprika is an expressive and extroverted freelance private investigator that utilizes these devices to enter the dreams of others and assist them in confronting their subconscious anxieties. The story of the film involves following the two as they are faced with a malevolent force infecting the dreams of their coworkers and eventually, society itself. It should be noted that the two women are also the same person.

            I use the term “sleepwalking” to refer to my past self, because that’s the only state I can imagine for recreating my experiences at the time accurately as I am now. Though I had more attentiveness than the people around me, I was for the most part still blind to the truth of my condition. I was a flaw, an exposed crack in the fabric of the society which I inhabited, and one that said society wished to stamp out with clear prejudice. I tried to escape this fact by retreating into popular media: television, games, and film. Within those supposed retreats however, I only found my awareness expanding. The stories presented as clear ideal truths, absent of figures I could clearly identify with in any leading roles. The strange, unconventional, and outcast, the kind I was more inclined to identify with, were relegated to background as sideshows, were they not the overt villains. Not even in supposed escapism is there any escape for me.

            Paprika is a film that is deeply concerned with the nature of media as it applies to our understanding of reality. Both the titular Paprika and Detective Konakawa, a client of hers, find themselves perceiving and understanding their worlds through cinematic terms. One of the most iconic scenes of the film is Konakawa discussing technical film concepts such as the “180 degree rule” and “Panfocus” with visual aids that explain them to both Paprika and the audience. Despite his clear familiarly with the medium, Konakawa is in deep denial regarding his cinephilia, even as his dreams continue to be saturated with it. This denial is eventually revealed to stem from his deep insecurities regarding his unfulfilled ambitions as a filmmaker. He can not truly break away from nor meaningfully affect the collective dream, so he retreats into the fantasy of the personal dream.

            Faced with the inherent lies of escapism, I refused to simply abandon that side of myself, and instead dug deeper. Looking deep into both the media I consumed, and the way I was marked for the consumption of said media, I noticed a strong pattern within the flow of society. It is a flow that much of Kon’s work either directly or indirectly engages. Kerin Ogg, in their overview of this trend in Kon’s work, describes it succinctly: “refusing to abide by the unwritten rules the rest of us live by, this figure also causes all manner of social ills. If this sounds like a roundabout way of saying ‘the [outcast] is a scapegoat’, that is because it is.” Figures such as the outcast, like myself, are in reality an embodiment of all that society suppresses regarding itself. We are a target of not only derision, but also jealousy, for embodying openly that which the rest of society is only capable of suppressing. It’s through this discovery, the realization of why I have spent much of life so maligned, is enough for me to finally shake off the exhaustion of spending my life behind a mask.

            Paprika is a film that ultimately ends with Chiba and Paprika reuniting as one. Through their reconciliation and fusion, Chiba is symbolically reborn with the power to dispel the corruption that plagues the dreams of society and reawaken as a complete person. Though I lack the same capacity to save society, I’ve also found myself irreversibly awakened by the union of the contradictions within myself. In truth, I’d rather not ever go back. If nothing else, movies wouldn’t be anywhere near as entertaining. I’ll continue to wander the world awake, leaving society to its collective dream.

The Miracle Family

On the year’s last day / when all of a life’s accounts / have been settled up.

-Hana

            When I look back at myself and my circumstances, I don’t feel I have much, if anything, to be truly thankful for. To elaborate, by “truly thankful” I mean thankful in a way that cannot be attributed to any identifiable source. This is the kind of thanks usually reserved for God, but as an atheist, or at least as near to one as an agnostic can get, I can attribute those thanks solely to the miraculous and ineffable probabilities behind the forces of existence that we cannot hope to comprehend. Or at least I would, if any such thanks were mine to give.

            This thought occurred to me upon my return home for Thanksgiving, where my liberal-minded upper middle-class parents encouraged me to distance myself from the toxic, colonial aspects of the holiday, and instead use it as a means of reflection on what I’m truly thankful for. Upon pondering this, I realized this oddity regarding my own existence. Essentially everything in my life I hold gratitude towards is the direct result of the actions of either myself, or my parents. My father is a successful entrepreneur who earns the wealth that supports my family through a self-owned business. My mother dedicated her life to the nurturing of our family, allowing me to grow up safe, comfortable, and well-educated. Finally, I myself, through perseverance against a society that’s biased against me, managed to earn a complete, (or nearly complete), college education.

            I take this distinction seriously, and I do so out of obligation. My experiences with discrimination, despite the many fortunes my upbringing has granted me, has made me keenly aware of how many of those fortunes are denied to much of the world. Many grow up without ever having the opportunity to run a business or earn an education, no matter how much effort they put in. I can’t see any miracles in that, and if I can’t, how am I supposed to see it in the life that merely resulted itself from clear efforts? How would the unfortunates of this world answer this question?

            Tokyo Godfathers is a film about a possible answer. The film concerns the lives of three homeless outcasts. Gin: an alcoholic who lost his family to gambling, Hana: a transgender woman abandoned by society, and Miyuki, a teenage runaway fleeing from her past. Each character is defined by the mistakes of their past. Gin lives his life in escapism, using alcohol and his imagination to avoid confronting the loss of his family at the hands of his own gambling addiction. Hana was faced with both abandonment at birth and scorn from a society that does not understand her, and her response was to fight back instead of taking it passively, leaving her completely abandoned. Miyuki was overwhelmed by the resentment she developed towards her parents, and it manifested in an act of violence she sees as irreversible. The misfortune they face is unavoidable, their coping mechanisms hopelessly ineffective. Without the recourse of a privileged life to take solace in, they must bear their scars openly.

            At the time my parents were conceiving me and my sister, they were seemingly no longer tied down by their past burdens. They merely wanted to start a family in a way that was expected of them. The scars were still there however. As we grew up, the scars left by their own histories started to resurface. I got used to treading lightly around my father, while remaining oblivious to the sacrifices my mother was making in my service. The strangest thing to me about these times is how long these issues would remain unacknowledged. After all, we we had nothing to be truly thankful for. We learned how to sublimate our pain through the various amenities afforded to us. Desktop computers, HD cameras, TV on demand, tablets and cell phones, alcohol and cigarettes. We had gotten very good at hiding our scars.

            Tokyo Godfathers is a story almost entirely consisting of miracles in the classical sense. The godfathers encounter an abandoned baby left in the filth, and take it upon themselves to deliver her to her parents, in a clear parallel to Christ’s birth. Across the course of their journey, miraculous happenstances constantly manifest around them, pushing them to see their quest to fruition. These miracles are often grandiose in nature, from a hitman’s assassination attempt preventing a character from making a potentially fatal mistake, to a spontaneous argument with a drunk passerby saving the characters from a car crash. The most important miracles in the film, however, are the more mundane ones that bring the characters back into contact with their respective pasts. Gin is given the chance to reconnect with his family, Hana is allowed to make amends with the found family whom she abandoned out of shame, and Miyuki is pushed towards a reunion with parents who so desperately want her safely back in their lives. Miracles have provided these characters a chance to transcend their unfortunate circumstances.

            My parents did not come from fortunate backgrounds. My father’s parents did not go to college, and were supported by his father in the army, and my mother had to learn how to survive while being raised by two globe-trotting alcoholics. In spite of everything, both were presented with many fortunate opportunities that they were able to use to improve their lives. My father was the first of his family’s generation to graduate college, and my mother’s wordy experiences led to her being praised as a prestigious talent. These experiences were merely the fabric of their lives, but in a sense, they were also miracles. Both my parents used them to not only pull themselves out of an unfortunate situation, but to elevate themselves to a level where the same struggles they faced would not be shared by their children. If I reexamine my own history, as the holiday encourages, I find the rich and peaceful life I now live is thanks to the good fortune my parents mined from the miracles they were given.

            What matters most about miracles is what you do with them, and the heroes of Tokyo Godfathers are such because of what they choose to do with the miracles they are given. Everyone has struggles, but many refuse to face them, wasting the miracles life may give them to do so. Even with ample temptation, the three godfathers refuse to let the miracles go to waste and make the hard decision to challenge their pasts. I realize that this is the same decision my parents must have made. They could have easily lived a comfortable double-income no-kids life together, but they chose to become parents knowing how badly their own parents had failed them. This was their way of confronting the unfortunate conditions that had defined their pasts.

            Choosing to confront your past and actually being able to resolve it are two different things however. Much of what my parents truly struggled against is the emotional turmoil their own parents put them through. Unlike before, these struggles are given no miracles to easily resolve them, and they left scars that while watered down, eventually pushed misfortune onto their children. My father’s father was a verbally and emotionally abusive perfectionist, and that led to a father that shouts in frustration and prefers to tackle every problem single-handedly. My mother’s parents were neglectful in every sense, so my mother spends much of her life overcompensating on the rest of us, often at her own expense. Is endeavoring to confront your mistakes through a proxy a real solution, or just foisting your problems onto someone else?

            In the climax of Tokyo Godfathers, the three godfathers hand the child over to a woman whom they believe to be the child’s mother, only for her to be revealed as a hysterical woman who has abducted the child out of grief over a miscarriage. The woman, someone who is simply desperate for a miracle to absolve their struggles, is someone the godfathers understand perhaps better then anyone else in the film. They have also realized that their pain is no longer an excuse for them to run from their pasts, or make it anyone else’s problem but their own. It is through this connection that they are able to talk down the abductor and save the child’s life. They are rewarded for this with the opportunity to lift themselves out of homelessness and to restart their lives, their final miracle.

            From where I am right now, I can’t say that what my parents did was a mistake, not for everything they’ve given me despite their struggles. Just as they faced their past and chose to move forward, I endeavor to do the same. All that said, I see now how much I had written off as just happenstance really was a kind of miracle, and how many of those miracles were responsible for my upbringing. In fact, a miraculous and ineffable probability is in a sense, simply another definition for a miracle. Under that definition, I think there is something I can be truly thankful for. I am thankful for the miracle of my family.

The Magic Reflection

I hate you more than I can bear. And I love you more than I can bear.

-The Old Hag

            The fact that life is lived as performance is a truth I’ve understood as long as I can remember. Though everyone puts on a performance, many spend a large part of their lives completely unaware of it. They convince themselves that the conventions they have been conditioned to adopt are simply reality as it is, and will take great offense at the implication that they are somehow being disingenuous. Even when they learn this truth, they may delude themselves into believing they are somehow an exception and spend their entire lives ignorant of their own performance.

            I was not privileged enough for this ignorance, as I’ve understood myself as the other since the moment I was born. The moment I entered this world I had to be taken from my mother and put inside a glass cage, where tubes stuffed into my body would hopefully prevent my underdeveloped lungs from killing me before my life even began. Isolation, discomfort, fear, shame, and a longing for the warmth of connection. I have no memory of this time, but I have experienced all of these emotions, and they resonate into my past. The sensation of being in that glass cage is one I’ve continued to carry into my ongoing present.

            When you wear a glass cage, it’s the people around you who notice before you do. Even if you aren’t immobilized and filled with tubes, you won’t recognize the boundary that’s been constructed around you as anything but an extension of yourself. When the kids at school would react to it apprehensively or with derision, and the teachers would find it flummoxing and antagonizing, I could only sit there, immobilized as their accusations dug into my body for reasons I could not understand. As the tubes remained in my body, I had no choice but to acclimate. I figured out what I had to do to avoid their ire and appear as if I had never had such obstructive origins, I learned how to breathe. But even if they could no longer see it, I still felt myself inside the glass cage.

            Satoshi Kon’s Millennium Actress is a film where the images of the past and the future continually resonate into each other. It tells the story of Chiyoko, a retired actress who attempts to reconcile her fractured memories of life through her films, aided by documentary filmmaker Genya and his unnamed cameraman. Chiyoko’s life is defined by a formative experience from her youth, one in which she saved the life of a revolutionary artist fleeing from the government. She never learned his name and no longer remembers his face, but her life his driven by the promise he made that the two will meet again someday. In one of her early flashbacks, she conjures a device for comprehending her life not unlike the glass cage I built for myself. She envisions herself as a princess who has just lost her beloved prince, and is tricked by a spectral hag into drinking a “Thousand-year curse”, a spell that justifies the life she would lead chasing the ghost of a man from her past.

            I couldn’t help but see the parallels between my cage and her curse. Both are ideas that are born from understandings of truth born from an unremembered past, yet manifest in fantastical forms that blur the line of metaphor and reality. Both are used to rationalize the way our past echoes into our future. Both are used to justify the meandering and incoherent struggles of life, a way to give meaning to the suffering we’ve experienced. In this conception, we can’t help but see our constructs as enemies. My glass cage is a prison, denying me a true connection with the world; and Chiyoko’s curse is the spiteful attack of an old, withered hag, denying her reunion with her beloved.

            The strongest parallel between us, however, is our mutual love of media as both an escape from and architect of our mutual prisons. If there was one part of life where I didn’t feel the glass cage’s presence, it was in stories. Books, television, movies, and games. It wasn’t so much that they made the cage disappear, at first, rather that they would circumvent the cage’s boundaries, causing no friction in my capacity to experience them. Almost as if appearing on the surface of the cage itself, like a reflection. Yet, if I was not so nurtured by media, the vistas of imagination that have so heavily influenced my reality, would I even have come up with such a grandiose construct as a glass cage to describe my condition?

           In their essay on Kon’s work, Kerin Ogg summarizes the fundamental truth at the heart of his art: “modern man is saturated by and exists through media; his mental landscape is a pastiche of movies, ancient myths, literature, television programs, memes, and images.” This truth is clearly visible in Mellenium Actress, where Chiyoko’s history is told almost entirely through the film roles she has inhabited. The course of Japanese history, from the ancient feudal past to the distant star-flung future, is the map by which she charters her life.

            This process even becomes collaborative through simultaneous author/audience surrogate Genya. Going beyond his role as a mere observer, Genya consistently finds ways to integrate himself into roles in Chiyoko’s memories. Though he is revealed to be much closer to her than either the audience or the creator is, he is still fundamentally taking part in her recollections as a means of reinventing himself. Rather than scorn him for this, the film treats his process positively, implicitly inviting its audience to follow suit.

            In the final act of Millennium Actress, Chiyoko uses her reflection to reevaluate herself and how she has conceived that self. In looking at a cracked form, holding an image of her lost youth, she realizes the truth of her thousand-year curse, the old hag who cursed her is none other then her future self, seen clearly in the glass’s reflection. A manifestation of her frustration at the fleeting nature of a youth spent on a chase she now knows she can never fulfill. I realized that my cage was the same. I wasn’t using my cage as a mirror, my cage is the mirror. Or rather, I was choosing to see my mirror as a cage.

            At the end of her life, Chiyoko chooses to see her curse as a kind of blessing. She realizes that even if her quest, her endurance of a thousand years chasing a man she can never reach, was always futile, she still lived a full life. In her dying words: “The part I really loved was chasing him”. I began to think I should see my own construction in the same way. Not a prison, but a mirror that constantly follows me, constantly giving me new insights into myself in opposition to the world around me, whether I like it or not. If Genya can reinvent himself this way, why shouldn’t I? Instead of a glass cage, a magic reflection.

To Trace a Path and To Follow It

Le Guin’s presence, as it has been presented and evolved over the course of her essays, is one of the cartographer.

            It happened on a whim, me finding a parent’s old paperback copy of The Lathe of Heaven. When I opened the pages of thar book, the following seeds were planted in my mind’s fertile soil. A human is born is not merely at their release into the world, but the moment of their recognition of themselves as an existence in the universe, at which point their immediate reaction is to figure out what exactly is going on. Once one becomes aware of it, this struggle and the struggle of survival are synonymous. To struggle with a world that not only withholds the answer, but denies it out of spite, casting you on the role of a defective actor, one who’s mere existence abhors the natural order to such an extent that any answer suiting them would be nothing short of blasphemy, is a Sisyphean task. What purpose is there in seeking the answer when the pursuit itself is rendered pointless? When I closed the pages of that book, I did not have the answer, but instead something more essential. The means to chart the answer for oneself and the methods to unwaveringly follow its course. All provided by the distinguished cartographer of the imagination known as Ursula K. Le Guin.

            Ursula K. Le Guin is a distinguished name among authors of fiction, as one with a particular brilliance in unravelling the uncharted seas of the mind. A lesser known but no less essential part of this distinguished work is her non-fiction writing. To classify it as non-fiction seems almost reductionist. Her capacity to guide one through her process of thinking, of uncovering new means of seeing the world in ways so thoroughly new, that one can hardly help but mistake them for fiction at times. And yet, the truth they resonate with always reach the reader with such directness and applicability as to be unmistakably real. Possibly her most striking example of this is in her 1986 essay The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction

            The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction is in many ways a template of all the elements that makes her non-fiction writing so engaging.  The piece seems to open impersonally, describing the hypothetical lives of prehistoric humans with the accuracy and authenticity one would expect from Le Guin’s anthropological background. Almost immediately, Le Guin works to mend the distance between her readers and her subject matter through a detailed description of all the various foods hunter-gatherers consumed, and how their various options would enable “the average prehistoric person [to] make a nice living in about a fifteen-hour work week” (Le Guin, Dancing, 249). Le Guin humanizes her historical subjects by framing their existence in modern terms. While this could simply be a convince for the sake of simplifying a piece’s historical consciousness, Le Guin takes it further and makes it the foundation of the entire piece.

            It’s in the elaboration of the piece’s true nature that Le Guin demonstrates one of the most powerful tools at her disposal, her playfulness. She describes the hypothetical lives of her tribe of pre-humans in familiar and unpretentious manner, maintaining a familiarly that encourages her modern audience to see them as extensions of themselves. This brings to the reader’s attention the dichotomy between the simple gatherers and the bold hunters, weaponizing her humanization to demonstrate the quiet nobility of the former, and to subtly deflate the exaggerated machismo of the latter. It is in this comparison that Le Guin realizes an unconventional use of historical thought, turning the past into a lens through which the present is examined. Later in the piece, she breaks down the imagery of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, reducing what is popularly considered to be one of the greatest pieces of cinematic science fiction and reducing it to it bare, blunt, and very phallic essentials (Dancing, 250-251). Through her playfulness, Le Guin has deconstructed a fundamental narrative paradigm, and rendered it palatable to her readers by lowering their guard.

            This deconstruction of a dominant narrative paradigm gives way to Le Guin’s alternative and the arguable thesis of the essay, the bottle, i.e., the titular carrier bag. In classical essay tradition, Le Guin introduces this concept through referencing an early essayist’s work, namely Virginia Woolf. Specifically, an excerpt from her notebook where she creates subversive definitions for both “hero” and “heroism” (Dancing, 250-251). Le Guin takes these subversive definitions and runs with them, turning Woolf’s fleeting aside and expanding it into the thesis of her essay. Choosing Woolf specifically not only reenforces her deconstruction of the traditional paradigm but serves as a strong basis for her conception of the feminist alternative to that paradigm. She presents the carrier bag as an alternative to traditional conceptions of fiction, and her mundane descriptions of the lives of the gatherers retroactively become its prime example. The seemingly wistful and superfluous asides from earlier in the essay converge into a cohesive, self-demonstrating thesis.

            This is the primary strength of Le Guin’s fiction background applied to her non-fiction writing. Her capacity to make vivid vision of hypothetical concepts allows her to bypass both the stuffy and impersonal tone of an overtly analytical essay, while also avoiding the trappings of overfamiliarity that a more personal essay might fall into. It through making the reader engage with her ideas through these fictional constructs that she forces them to imprint their own conceptions onto them, allowing her to play with those conceptions at her leisure. This approach provides a level of reader participation that few other essayists can match.

            Though her narrative style of essay is her strongest, she is also adept at adding elements of a more inquisitive style to enhance her work, as she does in her essay Heroes. This essay works as a strong follow up to her previous one, as while Carrier Bag deconstructed the traditional concept of the Hero, Heroes goes on to reconstruct the concept on Le Guin’s own terms. It also does so by forgoing fictionalization in favor of her direct reactions to a historical body of work. This new approach maintains her fundamental strengths while utilizing the unique strengths of the inquisitive perspective.

            The essay opens with Le Guin’s reminiscence of the records of various famous expeditions to the arctic written by male explorers. Rather then gradually coaxing it out like in Carrier Bag,Le Guin immediately establishes a thesis by directly naming these explorers as those she would consider heroes (Dancing, 258). She draws the reader into her world by establishing the direct throughline between her admiration for these heroes and their influence on her work through examples, bolstering it through her established playfulness with a metaphor comparing her “[fermenting] ideas to “a good ’69 Zinfandel” (Dancing, 259). By borrowing these techniques from her previous essay, Le Guin can open an inquisitive work with a much stronger degree of reader investment then a more mundane approach would provide.

            She carries this strong opening into the proper form of an inquisitive essay, which is to present herself with a question and to ponder over it. Said question comes in the form of her strong negative reaction to the words of Shackleton: “Man can only do his best. The strongest forces of nature are arrayed against us” (Dancing, 259). Le Guin takes the reader through her process of rationalization, using her established personable presence to draw the reader into her observations. She dives into a more traditional analytical process to describe what it is about Shackleton’s previous words that failed her and finds her answer in the words of Scott. She culminates her analysis by examining Scott’s memoir not as a historical document, but as a narrative. By utilizing her grounding in fiction writing, she transforms the inquisitive essay and renders it in a state unique to her voice.

            Both her unique narrative take on the essay and the inquisitive variant have their distinct pros and cons. The more purely narrative essay has much stronger reader engagement, as the fictionalized elements lend themselves much more to a reader’s participation. This also grants it much more freedom in how to structure itself, able to deftly weave in evidence and analysis wherever it pleases in between its fictional vignettes. This lack of grounding, while a great strength, is also a great weakness, as a reader who is unable to engage with concepts being discussed will be unable to fully engage with the fictionalizations and will perceive the freely woven evidence and analysis as disconnected and superficial. The more traditional inquisitive structure avoids this by sacrificing that freedom. It maintains the power of the fictionalized pieces though its narrative interpretation of historical sources, while using the grounded analysis those structures necessitate to keep the throughline of thought easier for the reader to follow. However, this is still a diminishment of power compared to pure fictionalization. Though having a strong grasp of both forms would be sufficient in and of itself, Le Guin outdoes herself through a synthesis of both forms through her later essay Introducing Myself.

            Though I’ve prefaced this as a hybrid of her previous narrative and inquisitive-narrative styles, Introducing Myself in its preface applies to itself the unique label of “performance piece” (Le Guin, Wave, 10). This indicates a much stronger level of engagement then the previous two pieces, and its intent is to be performed live in front of an audience. Le Guin immediately establishes how she conceptualizes this in as an essay but pushing her playfulness all the way to the realm of absurdism. Her assertion of masculinity, the place and time that engendered it, and all the various flaws and contradictions associated with it blow her previous deconstructive tactics out the water with their sheer confrontationality. This level of confrontation is what truly cements it as a performance piece, a piece that so thoroughly demands your attention that the prime way to experience it so up close and personal that it cannot be ignored or avoided in any way. Yet even without the implicit coercion of a live presence, Le Guin’s prose is so commanding and compelling that even without a live presence it is a very difficult piece to ignore.

            Essentially holding the reader hostage is arguably a solution for the failing of the previous two formats, but it is in no way a guarantee that the reader will not refuse to engage, so the essay must still be airtight in its construction to maintain the audience’s attention after grabbing it. Le Guin accomplishes this by subtly weaving in the pieces of her major point between playful banter. She continues to deconstruct but dulls the edge of the Carrier Bag level of sharpness just enough that the reader can be suffused in it without being turned away. This is the strongest demonstration of Le Guin’s capacity to lead her reader.

            Her greater refinement does not mean she is above meandering in her prose. Far from it, the meandering nature of Introducing Myself lends itself well to expanding her essay’s scope in a way that keeps its thesis from becoming obvious, without being so far removed from the stablished ideas that it becomes a digression. She touches on the career prospects of woman, masculinity, the gendering of style, the media’s conception of sex, and the implicitly fascist nature of horse jockeys. All of this maintains the illusion of the serendipity of a natural conversation, while all secretly working towards a singular cohesive point. Even the nazi horse jockeys return at the very end to symbolically cap off the piece.

            All the emphasis on the structure of her pieces is important for understanding her style, but what truly elevates her work as essay writing is the immaculate presence she cultivates. This presence is clearly built from her most personal aspects, yet much of her work is light on direct autobiographical elements, and those that are included are often coached in external evidence and sources to supply them with substance. How can a reader clearly define a presence that is simultaneously personal yet distant, one that leads without imposing, One that so strongly felt while it’s true shape remains elusive? That is not to say she is obscuring the personal presence in her writing. In fact, there are a few works of hers that lay it quite bare.

In her short essay Being Taken for Granite, Le Guin demonstrates the qualities that define her presence through the essay’s content itself. She deconstructs the titular phrase (a common misnomer of the expression “taken for granted”), by taking it literally and using it as a metaphor to describe herself. She describes herself as akin to mud, something that is receptive to any and all forces that would act or imprint on it, as opposed to the stoic indifference of a hard material like granite. This universal receptiveness is not merely a quality that defines herself, but one she seeks to impose on her readers as well. To break down their solid preconceptions and to turn them receptive to the world around them in ways they are unprepared for, while giving them the tools to maintain themselves regardless.  Her method can be described as inverted ceramics, taking the hardened and uncompromising clay of her readers and melting it, returning it to a malleable state where it can reform itself as necessary to contain any and all new ideas thrown it’s way. She converts her readers into carrier bags.

Le Guin pulls a reader into her world not only with the strength of her imagination, but with a subtly of guidance that rivals the most overtly persuasive essayists. She has a path that is clearly set, but also one that was charted subtly, and without leaving any visible mark that the path she guides her reader through has even been charted, despite her having already done so with much diligence. Her fiction focused approach is the ideal method for this, as is helps dilute the reader’s preconceptions and make them receptive to her rhetoric. It is a peculiar yet miraculous persuasion that is defining of her presence.

            Le Guin’s presence, as it has been presented and evolved over the course of her essays, is one of the cartographer. Her work charts unknown territory with refined methods so subtle that they appear invisible. As a preface to The Wave in the Mind, Le Guin pulls an excerpt from a letter by Virginia Woolf from which she took the collections’ title. The excerpt describes the source of style as rhythm, and how this possession of the rhythm naturally causes the stimuli of the natural world to manifest as “[waves] in the mind”, that eventually break and tumble until forming into words that match the rhythm (Wave, 5). She quotes this passage because she identifies her own creative process with Woolf’s description, the description of the cartographer’s rhythm. It is a rhythm that is open to the world, willing to receive all that it has to offer, and to patiently listen for the traces of a path of truth to be traced and followed.

Her rhythm, combined with the merging of styles and their advantages reveals her other foundational strength, the subtle firmness of Le Guin’s guidance. Le Guin’s background as a teacher is evident in her writings, both in her ease at breaking down major concepts and the gentle yet absolute guidance she gives her reader in realizing them. This approach is well suited for the reader participation that is a necessity of strong essay writing. It is also the perfect complement of her rhythm, lending it a firmness without making it rigid. The combination of her foundational strengths, to trace by guidance and to follow by teaching, embody the core of the philosophy of Le Guin’s essays.

To set a path is to and to lead it is to impose, to be so assuaged of one’s own certainty in their way of the world that the truth cannot help but follow. The earth is warped beneath concrete boots in such a distinct manner that truth shall have no difficulty in tracing and following your path. But this is a misunderstanding. The truth has already set and walked its path, and we are the ones who follow. As opposed to contemporaries who may deny this, claiming the truth has somehow become unsportsmanlike, Le Guin accepts it. She accept that it is not our place to put ourselves before the truth, but to accept our role behind it. Tracing the truth is difficult however, as it of a much earthier substance (say, mud), that does not leave an easily traceable mark. Embracing this, rather than ignoring it, is Le Guin’s most valuable lesson. In tracing that which we have stopped to study, we find with more certainty that which we cannot see. We become willing to take the plunge on a path that is not laid out for us, to believe in our own judgment. That is why we must learn to trace rather than set, and to follow as opposed to lead. Le Guin spent her lifetime learning how to trace and to follow, and her work is the result of that learning. All that remains for me, and for us, is to take the first step.

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            With this essay, I couldn’t help but try to accomplish something more than the parameters that were given to me. I felt obligated to, because of how much I respect the work of the author I’m covering. This resulted in what was undoubtably the hardest essay for me to write so far. I decided to cover only a small amount of her essays in detail because I really wanted to untangle the nitty gritty of her process. This proved to be a miscalculation on my end, as much of her writing is so short and self-contained that a consistent throughline is hard to trace with limited examples. In the face of this struggle, I allowed myself to fall back on old habits

            Though I did attempt to formulate a creative framing device, this conceit very quickly fell apart. I struggled to find a way to integrate this device with my analysis, and decided for the sake of efficiency to simply state my analysis in the most plain terms with the intent to incorporate it into the framing device at a later date. As the essay’s deadline approached, the opportunity to do so quickly narrowed, as I became more and more consumed by just trying to fill out the essay’s content that I had all but abandoned it. At the end, I even found myself creating an entirely new kind of framing device. I much prefer this second one, as the first one reads as much to forced and personal in hindsight. This second one may be the basis of a long term revision of the piece.

In terms of the actual analysis I found myself uncertain how much I needed to summarize and analyze respectively. This is another struggle of limiting myself, as there’s only so much, I felt I could write on such limited pieces before it just devolves into repetition. Even in its present state I feel repetition is a clear flaw of the current piece. That said, I don’t think the inverse route of stuffing the paper with as many examples as possible would have worked out either. Carless throwing in examples would not only dilute the overall point, but also make a cohesive point much harder to form, again, due to the standalone nature of much of Le Guin’s writing.

I think what ultimately made this paper a struggle was how it tempted me to fall back on the bad essay habits that my former schooling taught me, and my willing acceptance of that temptation. I still stand by much of what I wrote as analysis in and of itself, but I acknowledge that I’ve failed to convey that analysis compellingly as an essay in and of itself. I’ve always struggled with having to analyze the works of others, especially those I admire. While the pressure is preferable to the tedium of writing on a subject I have no interest in, neither are ideal conditions for my productivity. Still, I’m okay to think of this piece in its current state more as a template then a complete work for now. Something that can possibly be salvaged through revision, by making the analysis less repetitive, weaving a creative framing device more solidly through the whole piece, and maybe adding an extra example or two that eases the essay’s overall burden. Perhaps I’m being too hard on myself here, but that evaluation is one I’ll leave up for the professor to decide.

Excerpt Credit

K., Le Guin Ursula. Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places. Grove Press, 2006.

K., Le Guin Ursula. The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essys on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination. Shambhala, 2004.

The Life of Games

The stories we tell with and about our games are invariably stories of communication and intimacy.

            A childhood memory I can always recall with clarity is the first time I beat my father at Chess. My parents had taught me the game at a young age, but I was never especially skilled at it. I lacked both the patience and foresight required to play the game effectively. The strategy my six year old self developed to counter this was to upon losing, scatter all the piece from the board and declare victory over the invocation of “poof magic”. I hadn’t needed to resort to it this time, however. I’m still not a chess player at heart, so I can’t recall the position with any clarity, but I do remember having my father’s king surrounded on all sides. Each move he tried to inch his way to an escape, but the sensation of slowly closing in on him with each of my moves still feels fresh in my mind. The satisfaction I felt upon hearing him admit defeat, and realizing I had actually beaten my father legitimately, is the moment I fell in love with board games as a hobby.

            The appeal humanity feels towards tabletop gaming is both timeless and universal. The ancestor of Chess, India’s Chaturanga, was first mentioned around 600 AD. The earliest board game with recorded rules, Egypt’s Senet, dates to 3000 BC. The global phenomenon of Jacks is descended from the divination practice of Astragalos, founded over 6,000 years ago. In the words of a well-liked board game and history enthusiast: “The instant that humans became advanced enough, that we were able to strip just a tiny bit of free time from each punishing day, we started making games of chance and skill and… games that tell stories.” (Smith, 3:29) A notable example of the stories our cultures use games to tell comes from the West African Yoruba people. It is believed that their games of Mancala are so enticing that the spirts of the dead will be drawn to them if they are played at night. The attachment to games runs so deep that if a person dies, it is believed their favorite Mancala board is a place their spirit may gravitate to if it is ever played again. The stories we tell with and about our games are invariably stories of communication and intimacy.

            Though it exceeds my childhood by a good few years, the other strong memory I can recall of my father from my younger years is when he taught me Backgammon. Backgammon is a game with deep tradition, older then Chess even. It’s roots trace 5,000 years back to Mesopotamia and Persia, though the modern implementation wouldn’t surface until 17th century England. This origin puts the game in the general sphere of my cultural roots, a game my own ancestors likely enjoyed in their spare time. My teenage self-had no concept of this when learning it, it was simply a game my father enjoyed that I desired to enjoy with him. Like with Chess before it, I primarily conceived the game as a means of connecting with my father. I still remember the nights we spent playing at the house he grew up in. Sitting out on the deck, stars peppered across the surface of the lake, only the moonlight to illuminate the board as we played. It’s the happiest memory I have of him.

             One notable facet of the era in which we currently exist is the renaissance of modern designer board games. Most people conceive board games as either centuries old cultural institutions, or tacky and poorly though out childhood-defining time-wasters such as Monopoly or Candyland. That was the image impressed upon me even through my fondest memories. Beyond that shallow modern conception however, the cultural desire to play and create narratives from that play has never died and continued to grow and evolve over the centuries. No where is that more visible then the incredible verity that now exists in the modern board gaming space. From family-oriented games that manage to be simultaneously simple, well-designed, and actually fun to play, to sprawling and complex mechanical systems that run the gamut from immersive and thematic to dense and cerebral. And yet even through this sprawling evolution and variety, the fundamental desire for cultural expression still exists. Many modern board game designs have their origins in Europe, and their theming tends to reflect the grand industrial and expansionist histories of its nations, for better and for worse. Even a modern family game of bidding and bluffing will claim in its rulebook that its heritage is owed to the designer’s great grandfather and his experiences playing games with foreign cultures. Though the claim may be fictional, the fact that the claim, and the universal narrative it represents, exists at all is a testament to how much that narrative still matters to us as the makers and players of games.

            When it came to modern board games, this time it was me doing the introducing. I discovered them through the internet and was deeply enamored. It was the natural progression of the medium that my childhood self had sought for years. I quickly found myself grabbing every design that suited my fancy on sheer impulse. Practical considerations like expense and weather or not I’d even have people available to play with were furthest from my mind. The latter point in particular I figured I’d be able to substitute using my family. At first, it worked, as I was encouraged by more experienced voices in the hobby to use simpler and family-oriented designs to introduce them to the hobby. The games that ensued and continue to ensue to this day constitute my fondest family memories. But once I sought to try and bring my family into the deeper waters of this new hobby I discovered was when I was forced to reckon with limits. My family’s limits, my limits, and the limits of the hobby itself.

            I remember feeling the sting most clearly when attempting to teach a game to my parents. It was a card-based game, one of the first modern board games I become infatuated with. It was set in a frozen post-apocalyptic future and used innovate deck constriction mechanics, the kind of shelf-facing bullet points that hooked my young soul. I was so excited to try and teach it to my parents. Their struggle became palpable very early on. My father was especially belligerent about his frustration. I didn’t understand, the systems and rules took some studying sure, but they flowed together in a way that felt natural to me. Dad finally got fed up and quit. I felt so humiliated. I couldn’t understand why there was so much distance between us when it should’ve been bringing us closer. It’s only now that I understand the nature and history of games that I know why it fell apart. Games are handed down primarily through culture and tradition, and it’s through that shared culture that connection comes easiest. The reason the older games came so naturally to me and my father was because he was already part of their tradition, learning them at the same age he taught them to me. It was here most acutely I felt the break in the chain between our generations.

            Modern board games are in the curious state of a simultaneously emerging and continuing tradition in the greater space of games. They remain part of the chain of history that dates all the way back to rolling bones in 6,000 BC. Yet they are also a burgeoning microcosm within the greater whole of modern culture, an explosion of innovation and creativity not seen before in the medium’s history. This state of seeming contradiction, at its heart, is simply the transition between generations. Something that has always been a part of the medium, from Chaturanga to Chess, from The Game of Goose to The Game of Life, from The Landlord’s Game to Monopoly. Though losing the connections of the past generation is always painful, the transition is ultimately necessary for progress and growth.

            My most recent memory of playing games with my father is not a happy one. We were once again at his family home, on the deck facing the lake, only at mid-afternoon rather then night. Me and my mother were encouraging him to try a new game we believed would suit his tastes and skills (an art auctioning game with a focus on estimation and mathematics). Unfortunately, he was even more belligerent then the last time, as a result of being drunk. He bitterly exclaimed that if we were going to keep forcing him to play games like this, he wouldn’t play any games with us for three months. Me and my mother decided to honor his promise on his behalf. Though the loss of this connection pains me, it’s ultimately an inevitability. Culture changes and tradition must evolve. When I walk into the halls of my fellow modern board gamers, I feel myself as part of that newer tradition, and I couldn’t be happier.

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            Overall, I had much clearer conception of this piece, and I’d like to think that makes it much stronger. It felt good being able to draw directly from my own experiences and passions for the core of this essay. It comes a lot more naturally then when trying to force it into the framework of pre-set materials. That said, I did choose to experiment with continued use of an external source. I rewatched the video in question before starting work, and it ended up being such a huge inspiration that I let it become a key foundation. Though it’s mentioned directly only in the second paragraph, it’s the core a whole half of my thesis. Being able to choose this source and using it loosely as I did, letting my passion for the subject naturally grow it into it a central part of the piece, felt liberating. In terms of the overall structure, I went with a very deliberate pattern to sequence it. Alternating between personal anecdotes and discussion of the history of games as the focus of each paragraph. I tried to string each side into one another as the essay progressed, showing the interconnectedness of both elements, and having them build on one another. Part of me worries that going for such a strict back and forth was too artificial. On the whole however, forcing myself to that restriction was creatively stimulating.

            As a writer, I think my main strength is still in anecdotal pieces about myself and the people I know. A piece of non-fiction I wrote about my falling out with my first friend helped me win a scholarship for my senior year, so my belief isn’t unsubstantiated. I’m really jealous of how well many of the other essayists we’ve read, especially the ones from articles, are able to take a rhetorical subject matter and breathe life into it with their vivid writing. I don’t think I went out of my way to emulate any of them though. I tried writing in a way that felt most natural to me, and I’d like to think that gives the sections the same kind of natural tone. But since that kind of writing is outside my wheelhouse, it’s possible that it’s just ended up stilted as a result of my only real experience with that kind of writing being in education mandated work. Still, the only way I can improve is to practice. The authors I look up to often weave their rhetorical sections into their anecdotal narratives in a way similar to what I’ve tried to do, so I think that’s the key for me to succeed with this style of writing. In any case, I’m glad I’ve gotten such a strong opportunity to practice it.

Excerpt Credit

Quinton Smith, 8000 Years of Board Game History in 43 minutes

(4:32, paraphrase)

(7:26, Paraphrase)

(18:00, Paraphrase)

The Succulence of Endless Conversation

It can be argued that a good conversation and a fine meal are fundamentally the same pleasure. Both require a decerning palate, an awareness of rules and customs, and an intellectually curious spirit. The mingling of foreign concepts with internal ecosystems, where new ideas are made both familiar and enjoyable through natural process, leading to a full enrichment of one’s inner being. And of course, they are elevated by the presence of good company. The overlap between the two is easy to see, but it is not singular. In truth the third, and perhaps strongest overlap of this particular pleasure is the Essay.

The Essay has already received favorable comparison to the pleasure of conversation. “These modern essays of ours may be compared to conversation… which is ever diverse… and which finds in the unending multiplicity of the of the world unending matter for discussion and contemplation.” (Klaus (1), 52) The conversational style of Essay has always been  a natural form for it to take, and the most personally compelling to me, a bias I will freely admit. Though not every essay needs to be conversational, all essays are inevitably a conversation. A writer will take their experiences of the world, assemble them, and then present them to the prospective reader with commentary that can range from deliberate and guided to almost nonexistent, like a chef crafting a unique recipe. It’s then up to the reader to interpret what’s been served to them. This cannot be avoided, as the greatest conversational essays will not leave the reader any definitive answers to carelessly regurgitate without thought. The kind of playful disregard that carries a casual conversation or a bag of chips has no place in a worthy essay, even if the essay itself is playful. The concepts the writer presents must be consumed like fine dining, chewed on with thought and intent, then swallowed wholly and thoroughly digested, (or in the case of something unpalatable, discreetly spit out into the nearest wastebin). Through the process of digestion, the reader taking the ideas they have swallowed, breaking them down, and absorbing them into their intellectual ecosystem, the essay’s true potential is fulfilled. It’s through this interaction that the great pleasure at the heart of the essay reveals itself.

It could be argued that the fundamental lack of interactivity inherent to the medium of essay, prevents it from being purely conversational. However, this an argument essayists have already come to address. “It lacks the chief value of conversation, which is the alternative outlook, the reply. That cannot be helped. But I fancy the reader supplies this somewhat in his own mind, by the movements of appreciation or indignation with which he receives what is put before him.” (Klaus (1), 52) If an essay is written well, then the points it raises are so salient and unignorable that the reader has no choice but to engage with it. They so challenge their preconceptions and worldview that refusing to process and argue the points made is nothing short of the denial of reality. The conversation taking place is purely internal but is taken up with the utmost seriousness as to not disregard their own intelligence. In the same way we do not dismiss the process of analyzing flavor as we chew as mere self-indulgence, we cannot write off the internal conversation that comes from processing the essay as daydreaming.

Some would dispute that the key purpose of the essay is to fulfill this pleasure however. Though the essay is fundamentally subjective, some argue that an essay’s message should be fundamentally certain in nature. “The essay then, having persuasion for it’s object, states a proposition; it’s method is meditation; it is subjective rather than objective, critical rather than creative. It can never be a mere marshaling of facts; for it struggles… for truth; and truth is something one arrives at by the help of facts, not the facts themselves.” (Kalus (3), 63) An essay’s worth is determined chiefly through its nutritional value, as opposed to the strength of its flavor, though both are still essential. The inherent subjectivity of the medium cannot be erased, but Fullerton insists that this subjectivity must serve an authoritative and rational purpose. This is not an unreasonable position to take, to maintain a healthy mind and body, one has to be certain what they absorb into themselves is healthy in nature. Conceiving of the essay primarily in these terms however, takes the priority from the essay’s true strength. I can think of no stronger example then this passage from Birding While Black.

“Forty-five more seconds and I will be done. An ovenbird singing over there. A northern cardinal chipping. And human eyes on me. I can feel them watching. This last minute is taking forever. The little mutt is barking like it’s rabid. I don’t hear or see any birds in the last thirty seconds because I am watching the clock tick down. Time’s up! I collect my fears and drive the next half mile, on to stop number thirty-three.” (Lanham)

This passage, right at the very end of the essay, takes what was an otherwise fully formed and well though out conclusion, a veritable vegetable stew, and adding an exotic ingredient that recontextualizes the entire palate. It is a stark reminder that no matter the reassurances of our own experiences and those around us, the harsh truth of prejudice and the toll it takes on our psyche does not easily dissolve. In the greater context, by refusing to leave its argument airtight, it better reflects reality. Persuasion is ultimately a secondary objective. The flavor is the ultimate priority.

The strongest flavors are those that cannot be easily and adequately described by those who taste them. Likewise, the most compelling conversations in media and literature have always been those whose true meaning is not fully understood by its speakers. It is the given prerogative of the observer, (with perhaps ambiguous guidance from an abstraction such as a narrator), to determine what the real meaning, if any, is to be defined from the ambiguity of a natural conversation. This applies doubly to the Essay, in which the roles of observer and speaker become paradoxically entangled for the author. They must suitably distance themselves from their work while maintaining a sense of authenticity “The triumph is the triumph of style… that self which, while it is essential to literature, is also its most dangerous antagonist. Never to be yourself and yet always – that is the problem.” (Klaus (2), 46) It’s only through a sufficient level of detachment can the author leave enough room for the reader’s input. And this detachment must be cultivated with the utmost care. This is perhaps the starkest difference between writing, and cooking. A chef, no matter how much they pander to a given palette, can always be assured that their ingredients will taste how they are expected. But words are not defined so solidly as food. A writer cannot be assured that their words will be received in the exact same way by anyone. Thus, there is no set formula for how to achieve detachment. It simply takes experience and self-awareness to achieve an intentional lack of attention.

Though this entire discussion has centered on the mutuality of food, conversation, and essays, in closing the manner in which essays outpace it’s predecessors must be emphasized: endurance. The memories of fine food and a fine conversation do not have the same capacity dor endurance as the memories of essays. This is because the memories of essays are always ongoing. “You have not finished with it because you have read it, any more then friendship is ended because it is time to part… we look back upon essay after essay by Mr. Beerbohm, knowing that, come September or May, we shall sit down with them and talk.” (Klaus (2), 46) All conversations, no matter how memorable, are fleeting. The essay however in spite, or rather because of it’s lack of an external partner, is never truly concluded. The reader, as they change over the years, will find themselves returning to it and having new things to say. A chef may be able to recreate a dish, but even to a changed palate, it will not be the same as the first taste. The essay however, remains the same no matter who reads it or when. That is the essence of the essay as a medium. An essay’s ultimate power is using the surface appeal of simple pleasures like meals and conversation as a means of communicating a soul’s inner depths. In this sense it’s elegance and power as a medium is unmatched.

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            In truth, this essay was very difficult to write, and given that even now I’m still uncertain whether I accomplished my goals, I hesitate to consider it finished. The main idea that captivated me was the food motif. I ended up stumbling into it by accident while first drafting the piece, and I thought it was so clever that I decided to make it the main motif of the entire piece. I already had the central idea of comparing the essay to conversation from the start, so it seemed natural to add a third element. In hindsight this may have been an overburden. At the very least I really enjoyed writing the bits talking about food and trying to tie them into the overall piece. The “The concepts the writer presents must be consumed like fine dining..” section I particularly enjoyed for its more comical tone, felt like I was really channeling Belloc there. I had to be much looser and more metaphorical, like the latter half of Essay on Virginia. I’m not sure it really worked to the same degree. Speaking of, part of me wishes I had quoted it directly, but by the time it felt relevant the essay was already long enough. That’s another element I held myself to that I’m uncertain about, the quotes. Integrating quotes has always been the hardest part of writing essays for me. I read something like Ralph Waldo Emmerson’s Quotation and Originality, I’m incredibly jealous of his ability to seamlessly weave quotes into his essay. I’m held back by the formal expectations drilled into me by the high-school essay. I feel like I have to fulfill a minimum quota rather then home in on what really engages me. Aside from all that though, I fundamentally just struggle to comment on the words of others as opposed to simply producing them myself. I do at the least very much enjoy what I decided to quote. I primarily chose my quotes and decided their relative location in the piece before I wrote anything else. Though it was certainly constricting writing this way, I will admit to also enjoying the challenge it presented. At the very least, using the quotes as a kind of roadmap to guide the construction of the rest of my piece made the work a lot easier to process. The hardest thing for me when writing has always been getting started. Honestly, I don’t mind it. I think it’s fine to spend a lot of time thinking about what you’re going to write to be sure it’s worth putting to paper. But there are things you can figure out about what you’re writing until you see it in action. That’s why I’m always pleased with finishing something, even if I’m unsatisfied with it. In a way, I’ve reflected this thinking through my view on the essay itself. Just as the essay presents an endless conversation, the process of growing as a writer is an eternal ongoing project. I hope at the very least, as a part  of that project, this piece was engaging or revelatory to someone.

Excerpt Credit

Carl H. Klaus and Ned Stucky-French: “Essayists on the Essay”, 2012

  1. Hilarie Belloc: “An Essay Upon Essays Upon Essays”, 1955 (51-54)
  2.  Virginia Woolf: “The Modern Essay”, 1925 (44-47)
  3. Katharine Fullerton “An Essay on Essays”, 1935 (61-64)

J. Drew Lanham: “Birding While Black”, 2016

Settling my Grievance

Though I have always enjoyed writing, I have come to dislike writing essays from the moment I was obligated to doing it in school. I enjoy writing the most when I can free myself of any pretenses of order or structure. Just letting the ideas flow fully and freely for as long as I can sustain them. Ordering them and making sense of them is something that can wait for latter. In the case of the essays I am forced to write for school, it’s the opposite. The formal structure of grammar, content, and presentation, and adherence to said structure, preceded my own ideas and how I wanted to express them. Having to constrain the natural flow of my ideas into such a rigid framework stifled me to the degree that it made me doubt weather writing was the correct choice for me in the first place. However, after having read Toward a Collective Poetics of the Essay, I’ve realized that I’ve made a fundamental judgment error in my conception of the essay. Specifically, I don’t think I should consider most of what I’ve written in school essays at all.

            My earliest memory of the rigidity of formal writing comes from middle school. The private school I attended had an annual project where each grade’s glass would host an event full of presentations each student would make based on a subject of their choosing. All the desks fanned out and stuck together, now topped with three-piece folding display boards. Each one customized by a student to pertain to their given subject, complete with information, visual aids, the occasional model, and of course, a written report. For my very first one, I was told that it would be necessary for me to use an external source I would reference extensively. Being quite young at the time, this gave me the impression there wasn’t any need for my creative input to begin with. I simply printed out the multi-page article I wanted to source, and then painstakingly copied down every word of it by hand into my written report. As I was around halfway finished with the process, someone noticed what I was doing and informed me that my hard work was both unnecessary and illegal. I had to rely on assistance from my parents to produce something suitable by the deadline. The misunderstanding I experienced back then became the foundation for my greater misunderstanding of the essay.

            Reading Toward a Collective Poetics of the Essay made me realize how much I enjoy essays actually enjoy essays by changing my conception of them. The idea of the essay in and of itself exiting in opposition to the structure and form of traditional scholarly writing is something my previous experience would never lead me to consider. However, the historical context the essay provided makes such a compelling argument for that distinction that’s utterly swayed me. Particularly liberating was the implication that the kind of things we write in school, by the standards of actual essayists, wouldn’t be considered essays at all. This has given a strong sense of closure to the unaddressed grievances of my early schooling.

            In terms of the grievances that stand out from my high school years, there’s one specific class I remember really infuriating me. I can’t recall it exactly, but it was a social studies class of some kind. For some additional context, the school was a private institution with a special focus on students with learning disabilities, including myself. It was also constantly understaffed and underbudgeted, which directly lead to this class’s particular teacher. He was a real schlub somewhere in his mid-thirties who looked like he wanted to be anywhere else but here. His class consisted entirely of writing bland formal essays in-between watching old MST3K clips off of YouTube. I just got to a point where I was so infuriated with it that I asked him what the actual purpose of our writing he was. He responded in the most detached deadpan voice that what we were doing was simply preparing us for the grind we were inevitable going to face in college. That explanation, combined with all my previous experience with essay writing, firmly solidified the essay as a necessary evil. An obligation I was duty bound to fulfill if I wanted academia to grant me permission to work on the kind of writing I truly enjoy. To know that this was always a misunderstanding has allowed me to make peace with the essay, and appreciate the way it’s become formative to me without me even realizing.

            My learning disability makes reading a struggle (rather ironic for a prospective writer, I know), and as a result, the essays I’ve read and actually enjoyed are so few and far between that I struggle to recall them off the top off my head, There is however, actually a recently emerged form of media that’s a direct descendant of the essay that I now consume on a consistent basis, the video essay. With the knowledge gained from “Collective Poetics”, I can now take my experience with this newer from of essay descended media, and use it to validate the essay’s point on what makes a true essay separate from what you write for classes.

I took a class on TV analysis last semester at this very college. As excited as I was for the subject, I was soon immensely disappointed by the teacher utilizing the same tired mold of rigid formal essay-based analysis that I endeavored to escape from. As I got deeper into the class, I found this limitation applying to much of the scholarly literature relating to the subject as well. I felt it most strongly in the section of our textbook describing the show Lost. Though such scholarly work is essential, that the only writing we had access to was so bland and detached that it felt like a disservice to the content and the medium. The video essays I’ve seen on the show, however display the kind of free-association and “unmethodical methodical” approach that “Collective Poetics” presents as inherent to the essay as a medium.

Reading “Collective Poetics” has allowed me to bridge the gap between my negative experience and the true potential of the essay as a medium, and given me an opportunity to appreciate what the essay is really capable of outside of the restrictive formal framework.