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Friday, September 26, 2008

The Importance of Games: Avunculitis

My nephew Danny, practically becoming an old man himself these days, was on my mind last week. I was reminiscing about those halcyon days when I lived in Kingston and took my job as an uncle quite seriously.

Dan was a kid possessed with remarkable dexterity. Skateboarding, snowboarding and showboating came naturally to him. As a teen, he could add an acrobatic flair to any mundane activity. Within a week of acquiring a trampoline, he was already bouncing twelve feet in the air and doing double back flips. He was also an aspiring drummer who would pound out a beat on anything nearby: the wall, his pocket full of loose change, the plate you were trying to eat dinner off... anything. He was equal parts maddening and adorable.

I taught him to play hackeysack. It was his kind of game: a test of grace and skillfulness... and not competitive (he shied away from team sports.) He closed the skill gap from my ten-year head start within a few weeks. And within months, he was executing all kinds of tricks I could never get the hang of. But we continued to play regularly anyway. It was fun. It was exercise. It was an excuse to play outside and talk to each other.

Then he made up a game and taught it to me. He dubbed it "bonus mode"... a name swiped from a common component of Nintendo video games. It was similar in concept to hackeysack. It featured the same dynamic of cooperative showmanship and gravity-defying challenge. But in bonus mode, hands were used instead of feet. Instead of deftly bouncing a bean-stuffed sack into the air with your knees and feet, the players try to keep a ball aloft while passing it back and forth with their hands. The challenge came from the game's only real rule: you were never allowed to directly oppose the momentum of the ball. Even the goal of not letting the ball touch the ground stemmed from this rule... after all, if the ball hit the ground, it's momentum would bounce violently back in the other direction. Everything had to be circular. To reroute the ball back to your teammate, you had to employ Tai Chi style swirling motions. Spinning and slinging patterns of movement became our signature moves. It was a silent dance. After all, sound was usually the result of impact... and this game was designed to eliminate any sense of impact. All our efforts went into making these complex circular redirections of energy look effortless.

At the same time, Dan was a master at introducing new techniques... scooping the ball between his legs or behind his back... popping it up into the air and catching it again on the way down, then funneling that momentum into a lob back in my direction. He created illusions by pretending that the density of the ball was so great that it spun him around or dropped him to the ground before he could slingshot it back around to me.

This was the perfect forum for him to shine... and I feel greatly blessed that we were able to share these moments. There were a lot of chips stacked against him as he grew up... but the time we spent playing these games was pure happiness. It was one of the only venues where he got to make the rules, and success was predicated on things he was actually quite good at.

Plus, I think bonus mode was a pretty cool game. I miss playing it.

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Comic Book Philosophy Part One

Magneto
was right



I saw these words spray painted on the sidewalk in front of my house. Obvious stencil job... the paint was magenta.

I found myself liking this graffiti tag... and thinking about it more than I normally would. Who was this tagger... Why did he or she agree with Magneto so passionately? In trying to figure out why it was on my mind, I realized what a pithy little statement this is. There's a lot of philosophy packed into those three words.

Magneto, for those who don't know, is the primary villain of the X-Men comic book franchise. A former Holocaust survivor, he learned first hand humanity's capacity to brutally persecute anyone "different." Magneto is pitted against Professor Charles Xavier, the hero. They are two opposing leaders within the same community, each with their own nuanced ideologies.

In the fictional X-Men world, there are thousands of people who experience profound genetic mutations (like sudden leaps forward in the evolutionary process.) Their mutations often give them super powers. They might also look freakish, and they may accidentally hurt people as their mutations manifest (usually in puberty.) They represent a community of people in serious danger. The rest of humanity is very suspicious and wary of these powerful young "mutants". The comic books often depict youngsters chased by angry mobs, as well as Washington politicians advocating internment camps.

While Professor Xavier starts a school, helps young mutants accept themselves and preaches peace... Magneto takes the other side. He sees another Holocaust in the making. He is the Malcolm X to Xavier's Martin Luther King. Both leaders recruit from the same pool of confused and hurt adolescents. At Xavier's school, students are lovingly taught to harness their mutant powers, and are supported through a process of developing self-esteem and groundedness. Xavier's approach is all about acceptance and patience. Magneto believes this only encourages a sheep-like acquiescence to increasing racism and hostility towards "his people". He encourages strength, rebellion and violent self-protection. His flock is not a school, but an army. He might be compared to those Jews who, after WWII, sought an Israeli homeland and were willing to become militant defenders of that homeland. The books also call to mind various civil rights era issues... occasionally comparing Magneto to those American blacks who would "go back to Africa," to those who sought to infiltrate the power system, and to those who would overthrow the power system in violent ways.

Magneto clearly represents a philosophy that power is currently held by people that do not understand those among us who are different. This lack of understanding will inevitably lead to attempts at oppression... in both spontaneous and in systemic forms. This power, and these encroachments upon the freedom and liberty of the "different" class, must be violently resisted.

In the comics, "difference" is represented by mutantkind, but the parallels to Jews, African Americans or other persecuted minorities is apparent. Given the popularity of the series, I believe that Marvel's white adolescent male readership has expanded the definition to allow self-defined freaks and geeks into the fold. Otherwise they would not identify with the product.

So I imagine this skateboard tagger kid... committing his act of civil disobedience late at night with a can of magenta spray paint... feeling so strongly bonded with the persecuted. This kid, still young... still creative... is already so hurt, or so cynical, that he's giving the finger to all the wannabe Professor X types in the world. He's saying, "No Mr. Social Worker... No Mr. Community Organizer... No Mr. English Teacher... I won't be co-opted. I won't be healed. To be accepted by you people would cost me too much. I'll maintain my minority status. I'll maintain my identity... and my people will run the underground. I'll have a home there... and if you mess with us, you'll regret it." And when I realize the power of that conviction I feel saddened at how hurtful this world can be to people.

But he's not just giving all of us peace advocates the finger; He's also pointing out how lazy and corrupt we've become... how accepting of "lesser-evilism" we've become... how much we've lost our spine. To say that "magneto was right" is to say that I'm proud of who I am and what I stand for... and I won't suffer indignities to those truths. He is our radical communist friend that chides us for supporting an insider like Obama. He is our inner vegan that knows that even organic milk promotes suffering and environmental damage. He's the neighbor that bicycles to work everyday and smiles smugly about it. He pushes us to stand up... he pushes us to accept our extreme beliefs rather than hiding them... which is an essential part of how one becomes more "heroic".

And that is why I smile everyday when I walk home past the little red letters on my sidewalk.

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