Monday, November 29

Favorite characters

I am inspired. By a meme. After near two weeks of aborted attempts at posts I find inspiration in providing reasoning behind my selections for the 15 Favorite Characters meme, already on Facebook. Enjoy.

Rachel, K.A. Applegate's Animorphs

Tobias was trapped in the body of a red-tailed hawk. Marco was prepared to kill his mother. Aximili-Esgarrouth-Isthil betrayed his people. Jake ordered the murder of his brother. Cassie was morally inconvenienced. The war against the Yeerks damaged all of the Animorphs, but none so much as Rachel. She was so subsumed by the fight that she wouldn't have been able to exist without it had she not carried out Jake's last order. Her essential conflict was repeated in each of her books after the David trilogy, but hers was the most powerful. And she was the only one to regularly zing Marco.

Screwtape, C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters

The banality of evil is a not uncommon phrase. Screwtape is the methodology and bureaucracy of evil. His machinations toward all other demons, including his own nephew and suggestions on the small, gradual capture of a soul make him as terrifying as the Joker. And somehow, even though Lewis didn't exactly enjoy writing the character, he still created something that was, if not sympathetic, at least lamentable.

Tyler Durden, David Fincher's Fight Club

The passing perfection of the hand on the beach withstanding, my preference is for the film Tyler Durden whose overwhelming charisma could make you believe all the things that came out of his mouth. He had style to burn and beat a man without touching him. And we all know that he was really the grown Hobbes to Edward Norton's grown Calvin.

Jin, Shinichiro Watanabe's Samurai Champloo

Shinichiro Watanabe is fascinated by characters betrayed many times over and still beholden to their pasts no matter how long or far they go to escape them. They are the heroes of his premier series Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo. When these characters begin to shed their pasts and emotional shells to look forward to a future with their new friends, the series reach their emotional climaxes. None of the climaxes reach as high as Jin's return. He had been left for dead by Kariya Kagetoki. He could have escaped with his life but returns and accepts a killing blow to save Fuu. And he totally would have beaten Mugen given a fair chance.

The father, Tobias Wolff's "Powder"

Because even forty-eight year-old, rumpled, kind, bankrupt of honor men have their moments.

Calvin, Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes

When I was younger Hobbes was my clear favorite. He pounced and won the fights. Calvin transmogrified into a tiger. Hobbes just always seemed to have the better of Calvin. My appreciation for the boy who was Spaceman Spiff, Stupendous Man and Tracer Bullet; the boy who invented the Duplicator and Ethicator; and the boy who led GROSS as dictator-for life has only grown. He was irrepressible, and that counts for a lot.

Jim Gordon, Frank Miller's Batman: Year Zero

Jim Gordon can beat a drunk, baseball-bat-wielding former Green Beret alone, but Batman can defeat an entire SWAT team. Gordon can't even stop an out-of-control truck from running down an old woman, and she is only saved by the appearance of Batman, but Gordon is the braver and better of the two. He fights crime and the corruption of the Gotham police department without a mask. If Batman wanted security for the rest of his life, he would only have to burn the cape and cowl and live forever as Bruce Wayne. Gordon can never escape his enemies, and he has more to lose. He has a wife and children. Even if his identity were revealed, Batman has a near infinite fortune that can replace any material loss and keeps every person at arm's length. Batman wishes he could be as good as Gordon.

Lancelot, T.H. White's The Once and Future King

In the many, many retellings of the Arthurian legends, Lancelot is a beautiful playboy, but White's man with a face as ugly as a gorilla's is definitive. He knows himself to be a bad man but is desperate to be a good man and great knight in service of his king's dreams. When he is allowed to perform a miracle and heal Sir Urre, it's heartbreaking.

O.E. Parker, Flannery O'Connor's "Parker's Back"

Parker is unique among O'Connor's characters, mostly in that he is neither a jaded university student or jaded land owner. Like them, a person whom he has no interest in enters his life and becomes its focal point. Unlike them, he does not spend all of his time rejecting this person. He doesn't always understand why or enjoy doing so, but he pursues the woman who hates his tattoos, and somehow finds himself a new man at the end of it.

Morgan Grimes, Chuck

Morgan has no Intersect and has no expertise, but his loyalty to his friends has saved any number of missions and kept Chuck sane. When the CIA couldn't handle the Buy More properly, he became the manager. And the Morgan stance has defeated more than its share of villains.

Marge Simpson, The Simpsons

The only Simpson that doesn't overshadow Marge is Maggie, and that's only because she can't talk. Marge lacks the rampaging id of Homer and Bart and the unrelenting idealism of Lisa, but her sense of responsibility and unflagging love keeps the family together. When she was allowed to take center stage in episodes like "A Streetcar Named Marge" and "Marge vs. the Monorail," The Simpsons was at its best.

Woody, Toy Story

Through the de facto leader of Andy's toys the crises of becoming obsolete, finding a sort of immortality and being discarded find their focal point. Woody is not perfect. He is jealous of Buzz to the point of knocking him out a window and is tempted to join the Tokyo toy museum, but his loyalty to his friends and Andy carries him through against all challenges.

Cole Richards, Scott Kurtz's PvP

Cole Richards is the Marge Simpson of PvP, the only responsible adult amidst a company of children who would rather be playing than doing their jobs. He has his pathos in seeing the world move on from the pop culture that sustained him as a child that make his small victories, seeing Superman Returns and finally beating Max Powers, as ridiculous as his rivalry with him may be, all the sweeter.

Jesse Pinkman, Breaking Bad

While Breaking Bad is undeniably the domain of Walter White, Jesse has become the nearest thing to a moral center the drama has as the teacher has clung to his new identity as the meth supplier of Albuquerque. Jesse takes beatings from every side and still strives for human connections and relationships that White has forsaken. If the drama has any hope, it lies in Jesse. That being said, I've only seen the first two seasons. Maybe things get considerably cheerier in the third.

Inigo Montoya, William Goldman's The Princess Bride

Inigo Montoya is the best at what he does, swordplay, just as Fezzik is the strongest, Vizzini the craftiest, Buttercup the most beautiful and Humperdinck the greatest hunter, but it comes from a place of misery. Mandy Patinkin's "Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die." is legendary, but Goldman's literary Montoya edges him out for having a deeper past that is not entirely driven by revenge and the same intensity.

The following are the near misses. Maybe another character from the same work or the same creator is included proper, and this character was overlooked in the name of diversity. Perhaps I don't want to admit to liking them that much. Possibly the boundary between their reality and their fiction is disputed. In any case, if the meme expanded to thirty favorite characters, they would there.

Chewbacca, Star Wars; Elwin Ransom, C.S. Lewis' Space Trilogy; Lisa Simpson, The Simpsons; Turanga Leela, Futurama; Nightcrawler, X-Men; Troy Barnes, Community; Agatha Heterodyne, Phil and Kaja Foglio's Girl Genius; Satchel, Darby Conley's Get Fuzzy, Mark Zuckerberg, David Fincher's The Social Network; Budd, Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, Vol. 2; Hobbes, Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes; James Wilson, House, M.D.; Cloud Strife, Final Fantasy VII; Naota Nandaba, FLCL; Spike Spiegel, Shinichiro Watanabe's Cowboy Bebop

Sunday, November 28

Considering "Machine of Death"

I read an article in the Boston Review earlier this month, an article unfortunately unavailable online, that discussed the impact of Amazon upon book publishing and sales. It argued that Amazon is not a force for good in the book world as it has removed the 'buy' option for books from publishers who have refused to give the online distributor deep discounts on bulk purchases and has attempted to create an early artificial ceiling on e-book prices for its Kindle, a price that would be untenable for publishers once Amazon required a larger cut of the sales.

I do not refute any of it, but I do give Amazon credit for providing a platform where it was possible for a short story collection, already not the most popular writing, written by a bunch of nobodies and illustrated by people only slightly better known to be the best selling book in America for a day. Seriously, look at the contributor biographies in the back. The most accomplished of them have webcomics. The rest offer jokes along the lines of those found in university arts and literary journals. What's more impressive about this feat is that it topped Amazon sales the same day that Keith Richards' memoir Life and Glenn Beck's latest provocation Broke were released, the sorts of books that end up in Costco because their assumed market is so large. This took some planning as the editors asked people to wait to buy Machine of Death until a certain day to pump up its sales ranking, but it is impressive nonetheless.

I'm fairly well tempted to leave this post at that. A collection of bloggers and webcomic artists independently published were more popular for a day than a member of one of the biggest bands of the twentieth century and a man whose rally in Washington D.C. attracted at least tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands. That's pretty sweet.

But what about the stories?

As you might expect in any short story collection, even one by Tobias Wolff or Raymond Carver, they are a mixed bag. Some are excellent, some are less so. They are all bound in including the titular machine of death, a device that is able to predict absolutely the means of someone's death. Any attempts to avoid or circumvent the prediction fail or just lead to it in a Death in Baghdad sort of way. Unfortunately, the predictions are not always clear. They are often vague and more frequently ironic and unexpected. CRACK can be cocaine or a break in a sidewalk. ALMOND can be choking, an allergic reaction or being buried under the tasty nuts.

The writers cover every possibility. They create origins of the machine, they consider the greater social implications of the machines, they imagine the individual struggles against and acceptances of predictions. In fact, these cover about every possible scenario, and it feels as though thirty-four stories is too long for the collection as I began to dread another overly serious story about someone refusing to accept their predicted death. For a collection inspired by a webcomic, I expected more laughs and have a preference for Brian Quinlan's "HIV Infection From Machine of Death Needle," Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw's "Exhaustion From Having Sex With A Minor" and Shaenon K. Garrity's "Prison Knife Fight." Though not without their flaws, Camille Alexa's "Flaming Marshmallow" has a wonderful voice in imagining the reformation of high school cliques in the face of the death predictions, and Jeff Stautz's "Loss of Blood" creates the best dystopian response to the predictions. Bartholomew von Klick has a great exploration of accepting death in "Shot by Sniper" while Erin McKean and William Grallo contribute some poetic pieces with "Not Waving But Drowning" and "After Many Years, Stops Breathing, While Asleep, With Smile On Face" respectively.

And what about the illustrations?

Those are pretty sweet, too. Some of the biggest names in webcomics contributed, and my favorites included Christopher Hastings, Brandon Bolt, Carly Monardo, Aaron Diaz, John Allison, Roger Langridge, Rene Engström and Ramón Pérez.

Buy Machine of Death. You'll laugh, you'll think, you'll appreciate some art, you'll stick it to a man who is a sneeze away from collapsing into a pile of cocaine and another man who is a pinprick away from popping like a balloon filled with rage

Monday, November 8

Honorable runner-up in The Global Citizen Photo Art Contest

Even if they didn't select my picture to appear on the cover of the fifth volume of The Global Citizen, I do appreciate that the Krista Foundation selected it as an honorable runner-up and posted it to their website. I don't so much appreciate that they didn't tell me about this. A friend who had been informed by a friend of hers had to tell me.

I did know about its appearance as a header piece within the journal, not that you could easily recognize it. The picture was cropped to about a fifth of its original size so that you could only see the horizon line. You couldn't even see the third girl with the open kanga in it. There was a certain irony in the pairing with Dr. Moses Pulei's article as he is of the Maasai tribe, and the Pokot in East Pokot kind of freak him out.

But, anyway, it's still cool to be recognized by someone else and gives me the warm fuzzies inside.

Friday, November 5

Personal statement for the Rhodes

Take this as a negative example. If you really want a Rhodes Scholarship, don't write a personal statement like this one.

I studied journalism at Gonzaga University because I believe it can change the world for the good. Quality reporting reveals injustices and informs complex issues. It makes our communities and nations better places. I enjoyed my work with the student newspaper, but I became frustrated as I realized the gap between advocacy and action. On the one hand, there are the journalists and other observers who identify problems and draw attention to them. Then there are those who do something about those problems. The ability of reporters to change the world is real, but it is a passive ability. It depends on others reading their article and acting, devising solutions, organizing support, finding funding. It is the difference between Nicholas Kristof writing about human trafficking and Carol Sasaki founding the International Humanity Foundation (IHF) to protect children from a future in prostitution. The work men and women like Mr. Kristof do is valuable and necessary, but I no longer wanted to be just the inspiration for change. I wanted to be the change itself.

To learn and to make a difference I joined IHF after graduating from Gonzaga and served as a director at its orphanage in Kenya and education center in Bali, Indonesia. That year was the most physically and emotionally challenging of my life. I was responsible for the children's health, education and happiness. I organized and attended monthly famine feeds to drought-stricken East Pokot. I managed a staff of twenty and served on the online Directors Executive Committee. I adapted to a radically different culture. The work required all my attention all day, and at times it bordered on overwhelming when there were power outages and when new children arrived at the center. I was forced to dig deeper inside myself than I ever had before to find the energy to meet it all. I was proud of what I accomplished in Africa and Asia, but I found myself frustrated again. More could have been done for the children, more needed to be done for them, but even at the extent of my abilities, I could only do so much. More people needed to be involved and contribute in different ways if a substantial difference at the orphanage, in Nakuru, in Kenya, in Africa, in the world were to happen. I could not be the change alone.

Some months into my service (and perhaps tardily), I asked myself how I had arrived in Kenya and become responsible for over one hundred children. Though I had been active in service from a young age through the Boy Scouts and my church, my high school self would have had a hard time imagining directing an orphanage on a different continent a mere five years in the future. This change was not some instantaneous transformation. It was a gradual evolution that began with a twenty-hour service placement required by my freshman colloquium and developed through a spring-break service trip to San Antonio and the student club Program for International Education and Relief where I led projects to welcome refugee immigrants to Spokane. As a junior and senior, service became a practice when I took a front-desk position at the House of Charity, a homeless shelter. As soon as I became comfortable with one position and one group, I moved on to the next, pushing further to face new challenges and to take greater leadership. By the end of my senior year, joining IHF as a center director was simply the next logical step in this progression.

In researching my undergraduate honors thesis and through conversations with the director of Gonzaga's community action department, I learned this development was designed under the theory of service-learning. It was an education that did not treat students as mere vessels to be taught skills and concepts. It was an education to make us morally better people. The concept fascinated me. This went well beyond teaching a survey of ethics and asking students to consider abstractly the categorical imperative in relation to the greatest good for the greatest number. Service-learning asked us to consider how best to apply our unique skills, passions, positions and resources for others. It encouraged us not to be content with just filling a bowl of soup at a homeless shelter or mentoring a child in need but to form relationships with the served and be available for them emotionally and socially. Service-learning demanded constant self reflection to avoid complacency and to discover where the need was greatest and where we could best serve.

Now, my year of service abroad complete, I am impelled to gather myself before taking the next step, the largest step. With the Rhodes Scholarship I will read for Higher Education and Comparative International Education, two one-year Msc degrees. Professor Ingrid Lunt, director of graduate studies for the department of education, has already indicated I would qualify for these programs.

Prepared by these studies and degrees I will educate the educated about the poor. I will design and implement study-abroad programs in developing nations and communities. Through these programs I will teach students the realities of poverty's origins and persistence. They will discover the differences between urban and rural poverty and the different challenges facing the impoverished in nations as different as Thailand and El Salvador and Guinea-Bissau. These programs will be a synthesis of advocacy and action. The students will learn first hand about some of the world's most intractable problems. They will know what needs to change, how they can change. Then, through these direct, personal experiences they will discover how they are best suited to act and to make the world better. I will teach them, and we will be the change.

Thursday, November 4

The Rhodes

I got an email from the selection committee of the Rhodes Scholarship Trust for District 14 earlier this week. That would be the group that chooses two students from Washington, Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, Wyoming and Montana to study at Oxford University for two years, all tuition and living and everything expenses covered, the same award that brought Bill Clinton, Nicholas Kristof and other American luminaries to England.

I tried to avoid talking about the fact that I had applied. I thought it was pretentious to even admit that I thought I had a chance. Not that I wasn't pretentious or arrogant or any of that. I thought I had an even shot at the scholarship. I looked at the biographies of Rhodes Scholars selected in the past few years and thought I measure up. I have a shot. At least with the ones whose most prominent achievements were in service. Not the ones who had an internship with the World Bank and wrote a thesis on economies of the developing world or had their research and names published in leading scientific journals. I am an Eagle Scout. I wrote an full thesis on service-learning. I graduated summa cum laude. I studied abroad and am marginally bilingual. I spent a bleeding year directing orphanages on other continents. That seemed to pretty well cover the three criteria of literary and scholarly attainments; truth, courage, devotion to duty, sympathy for and protection of the weak, kindliness, unselfishness and fellowship; and moral force of character and instincts to lead, and to take an interest in one's fellow beings. As far as I was concerned, the only criteria I missed was the demonstration of an energy to use one's talents to the full, as exemplified by fondness for and success in sports.

But I guess that was enough of an omission because that email earlier this week was to inform me that I was not selected to attend a personal interview mid-way through the month. I think it would be appropriate to say that devastated me. Sure, whenever someone mentioned the possibility of life in England after I submitted my application, I would say I needed to have the interview first, but I didn't really mean that. As much as possible, I thought I was a shoo-in for an interview and was preparing for that, which is a surprising lot like filling out a Facebook profile in being able to identify a favorite novelist, nonfiction writer, poet, painter and so on as well as demonstrating a familiarity with current events and having an opinion on them. I was trying to figure out the best way to get to the interview and who I could bum a bed or couch off of for a night.

The email sent me into a tailspin. The day after, for the fourth time in a row I was told not to come in for work since not enough rooms had been rented the night before. Without the chance for distraction through scrubbing bathrooms and making beds, I spent the day watching streaming Netflix. I watched the entire first season of Archer, got through the first few episodes of Samurai 7 and finally saw the fruits of Werner Herzog and Nicholas Cage's collaboration Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans.

I'm better now, I guess. If I think about it, it bothers me, as in What more could I have done?, but I'm not actively seeking distraction from that line of thought anymore. I'm trying to remind myself that the odds were always against me. I'm trying to focus on the positive, in that I get to spend next year with Demetra and not be separated from her by an ocean and continent.

It's weird. It was my last real opportunity to be officially told that my performance and achievements were greater than those of others. I am no athlete, obviously, so there are no Rookie of the Year or Most Valuable Player awards to compete for. I have little interest in going on to graduate school otherwise, so there are no more scholarships or fellowships to apply for or academic honors nights to attend. All part of being an adult, I hope, admitting I'm not that great and no longer being told that I am great, having to find the motivation and whatnot in myself.