Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Center of Gravity

Ever since my son Colin was born in 2010, I’ve had more than one conversation and done a lot of thinking about blending. That is the common joke among Aikido practitioners, and we’ve even had a semi-famous Awase article about it: how to blend with baby. A new parent must relearn everything about themselves— when they eat, how long they sleep, and most importantly, how to physically handle this tiny, frail, messy new human that is so completely dependent. The new parent needs to hone their awareness, so that assessing the situation with the baby at any given time is as unconscious and reflexive as breathing.

Just as with Aikido, everyone will approach their growth as a parent differently, under their own terms. As for me, I actually didn’t see this process as blending at all. It was more like ukemi. Colin was an extraordinarily even-tempered baby, but like any baby, he was an implacable, immovable force. There was no redirecting him. There was no taking control of the situation from him. There was no avoiding, no retreating, no realigning. He needed what he needed, and my job was to give it to him. Resistance was not an option, and though I conceivably could accept his demands in such a way that I stayed on my previous trajectory (in other words, preserving the way I was accustomed to living my life and the person I was before he came into the world), that would only put me right back where I started. The handful of occasions when I attempted this, or resisted and let my aggravation show, would do nothing productive at best and actually frighten him at worst. He had no way of distinguishing “Daddy is sleep-deprived” from “Daddy hates me and is preparing to devour me.”

Instead, I learned to take the fall. What’s the worst thing that could happen to me? I lose a few hours of sleep, and have to focus more on my wife and child than on myself? That doesn’t seem like such a bad thing. I’m fully capable of doing that and coming out the other side unscathed, if I let go and roll with it. In fact, just as I usually rise from the mat after a particularly fast or spectacular fall with a smile on my face, I’m finding I rather enjoy this transformative process.

The blending comes later, I’ve found, at least with the nuts-and-bolts process of raising a child. Colin is two years old now, and has opinions. Many opinions. About a staggering array of things. So, now I get the chance to blend, redirect, distract, and retake the center. I have that useful ukemi experience, too, so the occasional kaeshi waza (temper tantrum becomes acceptance of a new option!) or henka waza (naptime has definitely and unexpectedly arrived; change of plan!) will even appear out of all this blending.

Through this process, I’m finding that blending with baby is a more subtle thing than merely adapting to the needs of a child. It’s adapting to the person I have become while accommodating those needs. As I mentioned, Colin is old enough to understand what is going on around him, accurately express his desires, and ask plenty of questions. One of those questions is often this: “Daddy home?”

All of that work towards building a harmonious relationship with my shiny new nage has had a very nice payoff: the little guy likes me a great deal, almost as much as I like him. So when I’m not home playing and spending time with him, he notices. He wants to know when I’m going to show up.

This is where the blending truly happens: negotiating the one-way trip into being part of a family. I did this once before, when I married and became part of a whole. But as I’ve mentioned, parenting requires much more figurative ukemi, and therefore much more compromise. This is another theme that often shows up in the Aikido community: how does a dedicated student of the art balance budo with work, family, and other life obligations?

My priorities have always been set with family at the top of the list, but having a child reinforces those priorities with resounding finality. A parent who is anything close to a decent, functioning person cannot help but make their son(s) or daughter(s) the most important thing in their life. And so, where does that leave everything else? Work is necessary, since it allows you to provide for yourself and your family. In an economic climate where being a public servant like me means understaffing, increasing workloads, decreasing pay, and demanding schedules, there isn’t much room for negotiation. Becoming a parent also doesn’t erase one’s role as a husband, wife, or significant other. So, what is left for the self? With the scant remaining time and energy the parent of a small child has, how do they choose to improve themselves, or do something they enjoy, or simply find a quiet space in which to recharge?

When new Aikido students are finding their footing on the mat, we teach them to blend, because blending is one of the fundamental concepts of Aikido. The most important aspect of blending, in my opinion, is keeping within one’s own center of gravity. We stress this concept often, as well: balance. Don’t lean too far forward. Don’t retreat too far back. Don’t draw up too far off the ground. Otherwise, it won’t take much to have your feet swept out from under you. Being aware of and in tune with your center of gravity is what gives you a chance to blend with an attacker in the first place.

I have had to rediscover my center of gravity over the past year. For a while, I found myself tense and resistant.

I had a training schedule that I had grown accustomed to!

I don’t want to fall behind, and let down Sensei, or my sempai, or my kohai, or myself!

Aikido is important to me, so I will continue to train as always have, as if nothing has changed!

I was in danger of pushing my weight too far forward, too intent on my own line and not aware of what was beside me or behind me. One little push, one unexpected change, and something would give— my family, my work, my peace of mind. Besides, that mindset is dangerously close to a competitive one. It’s healthy to set a standard for oneself and strive to live up to expectations, but I found myself worrying about very specific things: training day totals, and speed of rank advancement. I don’t do Aikido to compete with others. I can turn on my Xbox if I want to do that.

So the natural reaction to that realization is to heave back in the other direction. Maybe I need a break. Maybe it’s time to quit until Colin gets older. Maybe I’m too spent, too tired, too frazzled, and need to spend what free time I have doing something less demanding. Retreat, lean back, retreat, lean back.

This is not to say that, sometimes, such a reaction may be warranted. People do need a rest, sometimes. I routinely take one when I’m sick or slightly injured. Sometimes life does intervene to the point where one must take an extended break, or even quit Aikido entirely, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But that isn’t where I was, not yet. I was panicking, and rationalizing the act of giving up all of the work I had done as if it were the only alternative. The atemi caught me by surprise, and I was losing my balance.

So I have been working on my stance. And as we all know, sometimes that isn’t as simple as just shifting or taking a single step and then, like magic, you’re perfectly aligned. Often, you have to take more than one step, and make a series of minute adjustments, before you find yourself back in a stable, secure hanmi. I train when I can. I endeavor to be on the mat no less than once a week, when time allows. While on the mat, I keep complete focus, and train as intensely and wholeheartedly as I can, since that time is newly precious. I train off the mat when I can, as well, occasionally physically, usually mentally. I have let go of my anxiety about meeting quotas, fulfilling requirements, and keeping my place in line. If adjustments need to be made, one way or another, then I make them and then examine how tenable the new situation is. No second-guessing, and no over-thinking. I know what my priorities are, and I know how to find my center of gravity.

Perseverance is part of our dojo’s motto, and is represented within our logo. I have found in my time training in Aikido that I progress best when, every year or so, I find something specific to focus on and refine. This coming year, it is this: perseverance. I will persevere in my training, and trust that I will know what that means just as reflexively and unconsciously as I breathe, or as I find my center of gravity again when I feel it slipping away. And by doing this— by blending with baby, and with everything else— I am starting to learn an important lesson that I will one day be able to pass on to Colin, once he is ready to learn it.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Comic Review - Hack/Slash Omnibus 1, by Tim Seeley

Just look at how ridiculous and awesome this cover is. This is the kind of cover that I wouldn’t really carry under my arm in public, and in fact, I was a little embarrassed having it on my bedside table. Still, I couldn’t pass this up after finding out about the book’s concept, and while it’s a bit of a hot mess, I’m glad I gave it a try.

Hack/Slash is an Image title that began life as a sporadic indie comic, which chronicles the episodic adventures of Cassandra Hack and her hulking, disfigured companion, Vlad. When Cassie was a teenager, her mother committed suicide after being revealed as a serial killer, only to rise from the grave as a vengeful undead “slasher.” Cassie was forced to put her own mother out of commission a second time, and has roamed the country ever since, seeking out other slashers and ending their respective reigns of terror.

This collection is about as over-the-top as one would expect it to be. I’ve seen other readers lambaste this title for being shallow and tawdry, and I’m forced to wonder what they were expecting when they picked it up. For my part, I got exactly what I thought I would: B-flick plotting, campy dialogue, pointless sexual titillation, and plenty of gore. In short, everything that horror movies used to be. There are even crossover one-shots that star Evil Ernie from the eponymous horror comic and Chucky from the Child’s Play movies, along with additional “movie trailer” shorts, to drive that particular point home. It’s definitely not going to make you think, and could rightly be identified as vulgar or even sexist. But it’s a rough-hewn blend of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and a Troma film, which does just fine by me.

I did have a problem with this omnibus, though, and it’s bad enough that I almost knocked another point off. The art, generally speaking, is atrocious. As in, occasionally edging past the line of so-bad-it's-endearing, but more often just plain bad. Seeley recruits a number of artists, including himself, to pencil these early Hack/Slash entries. Some of them are decent, but others may as well have been doodling in their textbooks during algebra class. This is less of a problem when there is a single unifying art style, but in the last story of the collection, the artwork literally changes from page to page as different artists take the helm for a few panels. There are a couple of bright spots, most notably the stylized, nightmarish work in the Evil Ernie crossover. However, these are negated by some amateurish and truly ugly panels elsewhere.

All told, though, this was a great junk-food read. I wish things had come together a bit better, story-wise, and I legitimately hated a good portion of the art. I enjoyed the book like I would any of the slasher movies that inspired it, though, and the concept is fun and interesting enough that I will probably pick up the next omnibus. I hope there will be more of a story arc as I get into the run of the continuing comic, but at this point I’d be satisfied with another dose of increasingly weird slashers and unapologetic butt-kicking.

Verdict: 3.5 / 5

Book Review - The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick

I was going to start this review with a recollection of how I ended up in a hot tub with Brian Selznick, but I think I’ve dropped that particular name enough for one lifetime, so I’ll just leave it at this: librarianship can make for some pretty weird anecdotes.

Anyway, at first glance, this book seems hefty for a children’s story. Opening the cover reveals an ethereal mix of hand-drawn sketches and sparse, elegant prose that unfolds like a mix of picture book, fable, and silent film. I can’t think of anything else like it.

The story is deceptively short enough that I don’t want to give too much away. Hugo Cabret is an orphan that lives in the walls of a Paris train station, taking care of the clocks and stealing food to survive. Every now and then, he visits the toymaker’s booth in the station and makes off with small windup animals, which he cannibalizes for parts to repair a miniature figurine he keeps in his room. The mysterious automaton is the only memento Hugo has left of his father, and he is convinced that if he gets it working it will impart an important message. When the toymaker catches him one day, it sets off a chain of events that connects Hugo’s mechanical man with the dreamlike movies his father used to talk about, and forever alters the lives of both Hugo and the toymaker.

The most striking elements of the book are the two-page illustrations that frequently intersperse the narrative. They can be disorienting at first, until the reader realizes that they are integral to moving the story along. They are scenes in themselves, rather than mere accompaniment. The pictures are wonderfully drawn, and framed in such a way that something almost like animation emerges if you flip through them in just the right way. Selznick’s prose is simple and straightforward; all of the charm and wonder resides in these visual interludes.

The only complaint that I have with the book is that things get a little anticlimactic near the end. Selznick builds so much fantastic wonder, especially in the beginning, that the resolution feels exceptionally earthbound. This in itself is a bit of a brilliant stroke, though, as the story was inspired by a real turn-of-the-century filmmaker and his odd collection of automata. Taken as a whole, The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a paean to how extraordinary the little quirks and foibles of ordinary life can be, especially when you are twelve years old. Despite its impressive page count, this can be read in a day, and is filled with enough enchantment to hook readers of any age. I plan on putting it in my son’s hands as soon as he’s able to read on his own.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Book Review - The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie

This is one of the many books that I should have read a long time ago, and I finally picked it up in honor of Banned Books Week. For some reason, I can never get the teens in my library interested in this one. After reading it, I’m going to redouble my efforts; this is a powerful, funny, and heartbreaking book.

The story is a semi-autobiographical account of Alexie’s own childhood, told through the lens of a physically weak but fiercely intelligent 14-year-old American Indian named Arnold Spirit Jr. Having grown up on the Spokane Indian Reservation amidst rampant alcoholism and crippling poverty, Junior (as he’s known on the rez) clings to his flawed family and his rough best friend, Rowdy, and draws comics as an emotional outlet. A chance encounter with a teacher convinces him that in order to escape the downward trajectory that seems to afflict everyone he knows, he must attend Reardan, the affluent, all-white high school outside the reservation. His unprecedented defection makes him an outcast both at his new school and among his own people, and seems to bring nothing but further tragedy down upon his head. Even so, he is determined to stay the course he has set, relying on his wit and strength of spirit to find new friends and make peace with the upbringing he is trying to escape.

This is a fairly standard Bildungsroman, and follows a familiar course as Junior breaks into adolescence and emotionally matures. The book stands out, however, in the voice of the boy telling the story. The story started as an anecdote from Alexie’s own childhood, and it shows; Junior’s diary bleeds with emotion, by turns furious, despairing, and prematurely world-weary. That being said, this book is consistently funny. Between Junior’s sharp, self-effacing wit and his satirical comics (adeptly drawn by Ellen Forney), his story is buoyed by absurd vignettes, made poignant by the earnest seriousness of his circumstances.

While the plot itself is standard YA fare, the depiction of life on an Indian reservation isn’t. Alexie paints a picture of desperation and racial tension that is unique to one particular group of people that remains mostly underrepresented. Most importantly, he showcases the issues that a boy of Junior’s culture must endure while still making him universally relatable. Arnold Spirit Jr. is a 14-year-old boy, and ultimately faces the same trials any 14-year-old boy must face.

I feel like I’m ranging all over the place while trying to review this book, but that might be appropriate. Junior’s story whipsaws between hilarious and heartbreaking, and doesn’t waste words while doing so; this is a slim book and makes for a very quick read. It’s worth a look for anyone, though, regardless of age. At its most basic level, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a diverting, visually interesting, and bittersweet little story that also serves as a primer for Alexie’s other works. Also, it’s frequently challenged by parents who think it will introduce their preadolescent children to the concept of masturbation. So, if you don’t find that as amusing as I do, at least read it because all banned books deserve to be read.

Verdict: 5 / 5

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Comic Review - Doctor Grordbort's Contrapulatronic Dingus Directory, by Greg Broadmore

I got this one by winning a stack of Dark Horse books in a raffle at this year’s ALA Annual Conference. I didn’t think much of it at first; it’s very short, and looks like a novelty piece or an offshoot of a larger work. I was hooked by the second page, though. The humor alone is worth picking up Doctor Grordbort’s Contrapulatronic Dingus Directory.

This is essentially a fanciful catalogue of intricate, highly dangerous ray guns and other equipment for manly men who want to conquer the moon people and impress at social gatherings. There is no story to speak of, beyond the common elements of an alternate retro-futuristic universe where rugged, mutton-chopped adventurers traipse across the solar system, pillaging planets and seducing space vixens. The weapons, gizmos, and robots share a distinct H. G. Wells vibe, and bristle with random tubes, antennae, bulbs, and unpronounceable pseudo-scientific elements. The book is capped off by a richly illustrated vignette of Lord Cockswain’s adventures hunting exotic Venusian wild game with even more exotic weaponry.

Even though the book is slim (it’s even shorter than it looks, thanks to the thick cardstock pages), there is a lot of content packed into each page. The print is small, and the format perfectly emulates an old-timey pamphlet. There is a mix of illustrations and actual photographs of the products (designed and built at Broadmore’s day job: special effects powerhouse Weta Workshop) and each entry comes with both specifications and marketing copy. These little articles are the reason to flip through this faux-brochure; they are drenched in wry, bawdy humor that starts out hilarious and gets progressively more absurd. Offhand descriptions of violent intended use and horrific side-effects sit alongside meaningless retrotechnobabble and meathead slogans that could fit in an advertisement for “natural male enhancement,” all with subtle world-building and steampunk-esque gewgaws in the background. It’s a rollicking mess that’s perfect for reading in bite-sized chunks. The mini-comic at the end doesn’t add much, but the artwork is gorgeous, and it presents a nice thematic punctuation mark.

I don’t usually offer more than a middle-of-the-road rating for story-light companion pieces like this one, but I bumped it up a bit just because I found it so funny. The sense of humor is reminiscent of the violent buffoonery and bravado of the video game Team Fortress 2; sure enough, as I discovered, you can get “Grordbort packs” in the game for the Soldier, Engineer, and Pyro, with more on the way. Absolutely perfect.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Book Review - The Raven Boys, by Maggie Stiefvater

I was really afraid I was getting into a romance with this one. I’m a little romance-weary when it comes to teen lit, and I’m especially done with paranormal romance; I can happily live out the rest of my days without reading another book involving a girl’s forbidden interspecies love with a vampire, werewolf, ghost, zombie, angel, orc, mummy, leprechaun, or any other miscellaneous creature of the night. Stiefvater’s Mercy Falls series fits that bill, which is why I’ve never read any of her work until now. As it turns out, I’ve been doing myself a disservice. Stiefvater is an excellent writer, and this a taut and fantastic book.

The story of Raven Boys follows two distinct households. Blue Sargent has grown up in a loud and eccentric household of psychics in rural Henrietta, Virginia. She can’t see the future, but she seems to amplify the extrasensory powers of those around her. Ever since she was born, she has carried the burden of an ominous prophecy: if she ever kisses her true love, he will die. As a result, she’s carefully cultivated a veneer of solitary weirdness, content in her own eccentricity. Meanwhile, across town, Richard Gansey III continues a longstanding eccentricity of his own: hunting for the final resting place of the mythical Welsh king Glendower. He is a Raven Boy, one of the well-heeled princelings that attend the prestigious Aglionby Academy. He methodically searches for traces of old magic with three fellow students: surly Ronan, studious Adam, and inscrutable Noah. Blue is thrown in with this motley crew through a twist of fate: one of them may be the true love of her prophecy, and despite the warnings of her family, she can’t help but be drawn into their quest. However, they are not the first people to try and wake the magic that lays sleeping in Henrietta, and the stakes become much higher when others around them realize what they are doing.

The book defied pretty much every expectation I had of it. Instead of being a romance, it was an ensemble piece that deftly examines class differences and the profound effects that ripple out from broken family lives. There isn’t any hand-holding when it comes to the paranormal aspect of the book; the reader is dropped right into the quest for ley lines and ancient wish-granting kings, and catches up by way of fascinating little bits of expositional trivia. The characters are charming, realistic, and an absolute joy to read. The story is pretty grim overall, but the heavier moments are balanced by plenty of humorous interludes and by the surprisingly homey feel of Blue’s oddball family.

The ending is a bit problematic, as this is very clearly the first volume of a pending series. However, Stiefvater avoids the common trap of using a cliffhanger to hook the reader. She does paste on a last-minute reveal, but for whatever reason it didn’t really put me off. The climax is a bit vague, but the most urgent plotline is resolved nicely, and the reader is left with few wildly waving loose ends that lead enticingly into the next volume.

This book was exquisitely enjoyable, and a very impressive series opener. The story is odd enough that I have trouble recommending it for a specific group outside of “teens” or “paranormal fans,” but I honestly liked it from cover to cover. It’s definitely worth a try.

Verdict: 5 / 5

Friday, September 21, 2012

Comic Review - Fables: The Deluxe Edition Vol. 1, by Bill Willingham

I've run across various volumes and offshoots of this series for the past few years, and finally decided to buy this deluxe volume on a whim and dive in. As a rule, I'm generally careful of pantheon comics that come to me with universal acclaim; The Walking Dead and Buffy Season 8 have taught me that I will be disappointed if I expect too much. However, while Fables isn't quite perfect, it is really, really good.

The first story arc of this volume begins in The Woodland, a New York City high-rise that serves as a kingdom-in-exile for the inhabitants of every conceivable myth and fairy tale. Driven out of their respective storylands by a mysterious adversary, these "fables" are trying to make their way in the world of the "mundanes" by sticking together in their own little community, ruled by Old King Cole and administered by a considerably more world-wise Snow White. The suspected murder of someone close to Snow threatens to throw a tenously peaceful community into disarray, so she leans on reformed predator Bigby Wolf to solve the case.

The second arc deals with an upstate farm that houses the more anthropomorphic Fabletown denizens, hiding them away from the mundanes. The forced seclusion and loss of their ancestral lands have made the farm fables restless; murmurs of revolution roil at the farm, fomented by two of the three little pigs and encouraged by Goldilocks. Snow takes a trip to the farm in order to ease tensions, but is drawn into a sudden, violent coup that could mean chaos both there and in the city.

I don't know what I was expecting when I flew blind into this series, but fairy-tale characters acting out hardcase mystery and quasi-political intrigue were pleasant surprises. Willingham plays most of this stuff pretty straight, and while the result isn't anything that moves beyond the realm of what one usually sees in comics, it's still novel and downright fun enough to keep me turning pages. The artwork is top-notch, particularly the consistent character work. The visual style seems a little comic-retro, somehow; Snow White looks like a 1950s model, and it definitely adds the right visual feel.

My only complaint is that the plotlines, for all of their excitement, are a bit superficial. This is compounded by melodrama that pops up in odd places; dialogue will occasionally take a stilted turn, and characters will artfully cry for a panel or two and suddenly stop. The comic doesn't lack for grittiness in the appropriate places, but I think it gets a bit too airy (and not in the fairy-tale way) in a few others.

As I said, though, I don't expect any different from a decent comic, and Fables is much better than decent. It's a cleverly written, beautifully drawn diversion. I'm definitely sold on the second volume.

Verdict: 4 / 5