Daily Prompt: Facing The Inevitable

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about mortality. Specifically, when you realize you weren’t immortal and how you reacted to it. This actually happened to me a couple of times when I was growing up, the first of which when I was still a child. When I was in elementary school, I’d always spend my Christmas vacation at my grandparents’ house. It was a tradition that involved weeks of decorating the house, wrapping presents, and cooking yummy desserts. But 1995 was different; my grandfather had been diagnosed with a brain tumor and was rapidly declining. I’ve already written about watching him die, so I’ll skip straight to the aftermath. That was the first time I’d ever been so close to death, and the realization that yes, it is a thing that happens. But I never cried over it; I never knew my grandfather as a person, but as an old man who gave out laughs and tickles whenever possible. When the adults awkwardly asked me if I had any questions about death, I shrugged and said no. He’d been sick for almost a year, and the writing was on the wall. With it came the understanding that death was an inevitability – it was just a matter of how and when – and that I’d have no choice to accept it. So I did.

Yeah, I was kind of creepy as a kid.

The second occurrence happened a few years later when I was in high school. I was walking onto the campus when I witnessed a car speed through the red light right next to me…and into a kid who happened to be in the crosswalk. I’ll spare you the details – pretty sure I’ve mentally blocked out the worst parts – but I’m sure you can imagine it. I pride myself on being a fighter now, but back on that chilly, bloody morning, I couldn’t do anything. I stood there, utterly transfixed by death’s proximity and brutality, and I watched a dozen or so people run to assist in what was already a hopeless cause. I knew it was already over, that other people were taking care of it, that I’d just get in the way. I slowly turned away, hands slightly trembling, and numbly walked to my first class. I don’t think I spoke that entire day, even when they announced the accident and death on the PA system.

It was then I realized that death wasn’t reserved for just the old and sick; anyone can die anywhere. What made more of an impression was the sheer randomness of it; there was no dramatic build-up, no final family farewell, nothing but a big hunk of metal zooming into an unsuspecting victim. And if could happen to some kid crossing the street, it could happen to me. If you look at the mortality rates provided by WHO and do a little math, that roughly translates to two people dying every second. Yeah, think about that. I’ve had that stat burned into my mind for years. It’s a sobering reminder that my – and everyone else’s – days are numbered. I don’t fear death, though; I’ve embraced my mortality head-on as I’ve grown older. I’ve come close to dying myself three or four times now, so I’d like to think we’re on good terms. I’m more afraid living a disappointed and unfulfilled life; there’s far too much to see and do, and I refuse to be just another statistic in a history book.

The acceptance of mortality is a double-edged sword, though. It’s a very liberating experience, but it can lead to a slippery slope of some rather grim philosophical pondering. Death is an inevitability; you cannot escape it forever. Most people try to ignore it by distracting themselves with whatever they can. The advent of social media has certainly ensured that people desperate to be remembered and acknowledged won’t (for better or worse) be forgotten so easily. For others, particularly anyone severely depressed, it underscores how vapid and pointless daily life can be; death is ever-present, so why bother sticking around? For me, I’ve come to realize that life’s inherent meaninglessness isn’t a bad thing; as Nietzsche once explained, you can give life your own meaning. Skipping out early is an option, but there are so many, many better ones to try first. Since death is coming regardless, might as well do – and be – something awesome to pass the time. It’s not easy to do – I still have moments when I feel the exact opposite, and I do not look forward to growing old – but it’s more fulfilling than the alternative. My problem is finding happiness and fulfillment, but that’s a whole other issue.

As for death, it’ll stop by and visit eventually. I intend to make the wait worthwhile.

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RIP, Satoru Iwata

Yesterday, Satoru Iwata passed away. For those unfamiliar with his work, he was the president and CEO of Nintendo. But he was so much more than that; unlike countless other businessmen and executives, he earned his success the old fashioned way: starting from the bottom and working his way up. He studied programming in the 1970s, when video games were still in their infancy. He began as an unpaid intern for Commodore, then became a freelancer for HAL Laboratory while in college. After graduating, he worked full time and rose up its ranks in the early 90s. He had a hand in founding Creatures Inc., the folks responsible for bringing Pokemon to the world. He didn’t wasn’t just some guy in suit, either. He took over programming for Earthbound and saved it from developmental oblivion. He programmed the original Pokemon Red/Blue battle mechanics into Pokemon Stadium without any reference documents, using just the Game Boy’s source code instead…in one week. He famously compressed the all of the original game into the Gold/Silver cartridge, just to surprise and reward players for beating the regular quest. When Super Smash Bros. Melee was facing a delayed release date due to programming issues, he – already Nintendo’s General Manager of Corporate Planning – went downstairs and personally debugged the game hands-on, all in less than a month.

Yeah, he was that good.

He was in a unique position of growing alongside his industry; unlike many of his peers, his insight into game design came from the effort of making games the old fashioned way, with a focus on the fun experience while dealing with the hardware limitations. He understood that focusing so much on flashier graphics and processing power wasn’t necessarily the answer, and that appealing to people beyond hardcore gamers was incredibly important. Nintendo is often derided for appealing to kids instead of adults, but he was proud of it; he argued that children have an instinctual understanding of whether a game was good or not. He refused to let the company stagnate, constantly pushing them to try new things. He was initially mocked for bringing forth the DS and Wii – both consoles had unorthodox designs and admittedly terrible launch lineups – but was eventually vindicated via record-breaking sales numbers and some of the finest games in the last decade.

What was more inspiring is what Iwata did when the company wasn’t succeeding. Nintendo fell into a slump when it released the Wii U, mainly due to its high prices, strange design, and lacking lineup. The company was losing money, and he was being roasted by both gamers and corporate shareholders alike. Instead of stepping down, he voluntarily cut his salary in half to make up for it! That was the second time he did it, too; when the 3DS’s sales went poorly, he took the same action. When corporate demanded why he hadn’t fired employees for the sake of profit, he absolutely refused to do so, saying that it wouldn’t work well long-term, and that it’d wreck the company’s morale. If you look around online, you’ll find countless stories of people meeting Iwata and saying what a passionate, candid, and kind guy he was in person. When Ocarina of Time was released, he even went out and bought a copy on the way home from work. His hilarious “Direct To You” presentations and sense of humor have become the stuff of Internet memetic legend. The hundreds of thousands of tributes pouring in – even from Sony and Microsoft, Nintendo’s business rivals – shows just how loved and respected Iwata was.

I wish I had a personal story about meeting him. I wish I could say that we crossed paths at a convention, or that we shared an elevator, or that I pitched an idea and worked for him. But I can’t, and now I never will. Instead, all I have are the games he made, and the memories of how he helped shape my childhood. Yes, I caught all 151 of the original Pokemon, played almost every Kirby game, and spent countless hours fighting in Smash Bros. My gaming library is full of titles made with him as the Executive Producer; I wouldn’t be the same person without Mario, Zelda, Metroid, and other Nintendo franchises influencing me. While I don’t play nearly as much as I used to, gaming is still very much a part of me. It reminds me of something Iwata once said:

“On my business card, I am a corporate president. In my mind, I am a game developer. But in my heart, I am a gamer.”

Thank you for everything, Mr. Iwata. We understand.

Well, It’s About Time.

So, the United States Supreme Court finally decided in favor of same-sex marriage. It’s not surprising, really; it’s been a foregone conclusion for a couple of years now. It was like a poorly-paced novel or show; the outcome is inevitable, but it drags on for so long that you almost don’t expect it to happen. But when it finally does, it feels like the most satisfying thing ever. That kind of statement probably warrants the assumption that I’m neck-deep in the politics at hand, but I’m utterly apolitical; if you’re looking for a debate, don’t bother posting. I lack the time, patience, and energy for that kind of thing. I doubt I’d change your mind regardless.

For me, it’s not a question of parties or other inherently limiting affiliations. Anyone can make promises and tell you what you want to hear. People can change sides and make concessions whenever it’s convenient. All that matters to me is if it works. I consider myself a student of all subjects, though history is among my favorites. I find traditions fascinating, but I’d be foolish to ignore how society changes with times. Knowledge, technology, expectations, roles, beliefs, goals, prejudices, businesses, friends, enemies…It’s all connected in one huge, ever-shifting reality. All we have are the memories from which we can hopefully learn.

If I traveled back in time 20 years and told 1995-Me that same-sex marriage would be made legal, he’d…Well, he’d probably grab a kitchen knife and chase me – the 30-year-old stranger that suddenly appeared – out of the house. That aside, he’d likely be confused and uncomfortable. At that point, my only exposure to anything remotely homosexual were Uranus and Neptune, the lesbian couple from the Sailor Moon anime who were infamously dubbed as “cousins” in the American broadcast. I’ve always been amused by younger viewers saying how “groundbreaking” recent shows like Adventure Time, MLP: FIM, and The Legend of Korra have been with regards to their implied same-sex romances. Japan has had that market cornered for decades; there are whole genres devoted to them! It’s just that mainstream American media – until quite recently – has had a huge, often hypocritical hang-up when it comes to portraying sexuality. What we have now is not so much a leap forward as it is slowly playing catch-up.

Sorry, went on a tangent. Point is, back in 1995 I was just a child a San Francisco Bay Area suburb. I was a classic latchkey kid, the kind who’d spend afternoons watching TV, finishing homework, reading, and doing chores before (hopefully) seeing a parent at dinnertime. I still get surprised reactions when people – mostly women – find out I know how to run a household. Not exactly quantum mechanics, folks. Being isolated so much never struck me as odd. What did, however, was how the other kids were treating me. I’ve mentioned how much of a bookworm I am; even as a child, I was intelligent, short, effeminate, shy, awkward, lacked confidence, skipped a grade, wore glasses, and was a late bloomer. That’s some prime bullying material, and everyone seemed to know it. But it went beyond that, and I didn’t understand what it was until much later:

I was different.

It wasn’t something that could be pinned down to just intelligence and whatnot; the others could sense that something was “off” – and therefore wrong – about me. I think it had mostly to do with my appearance; I still get mistaken for a woman sometimes. I’m now awesome and confident enough to roll with it. But in 1995, I was a nervous, quivering, prone-to-crying wreck who was bullied all the way through freshman year of high school. California might have a reputation for being progressive, but that doesn’t work so well in real life. I got crude jibes about shaving my legs, putting on makeup, my time of the month, you name it, they said it. I’ve been called every homophobic epithet you can possibly think of, usually from kids on bikes or passing cars as I walked home every day. I’ve had stuff thrown at me, been beaten up, all of it. Unlike the supposed politically-correct era we live in today, nobody – adult, kid, or otherwise – stepped in to help me. There was no “It Gets Better” for me. People only cared when I started fighting back; a ruthless temper can end a fight very quickly. It can also isolate you, and not in a good way. I was respected as a potential valedictorian for the rest my high school days – I was even nominated for the Every 15 Minutes Program and to give a speech at graduation – but I didn’t make any friends.

The problem wasn’t limited to school, though. Much of my family are devoutly religious; my grandfather was a minister, and his emigration here to preach was the reason I was born in America. I went to Sunday school, attended church twice a week, the whole bit. I’m still pretty good when it comes to Biblical topics on Jeopardy.  Growing up like that isn’t too bad; there’s a sense of family, community, and purpose. It’s all fine…as long as you follow whatever you’re told. That’s a real problem when it comes to someone like me, who constantly searches for answers, questions explanations, and strives to see the bigger picture. Or someone who so blatantly doesn’t conform to gender roles and sexuality, for that matter. There’s a lot of guilt involved with that kind of upbringing: the constant fear of disappointing your elders, the paranoia of being caught and judged, the logic that God doesn’t answer your prayers to stop the bullying because you’re a sinner, hating yourself for not wanting to be masculine etc. Never mind being smart, responsible, and having perfect grades; if you don’t conform, you’re a rebellious outcast. Needless to say, I wasn’t popular with the kids my age, either.

I’m not going to deny the importance of religion – people need to believe in something to survive, be it spiritual, philosophical, technological, whatever – but I can’t abide by it. The human mind is far more stubborn and creative than any religion can fully encompass, and we’re just starting to understand how it works on a psychological level. The centuries of violence, bloodshed, and oppression, all for what? They’re all the same stories, told in different ways. It’s like the human race; many branches, one tree. We should be learning from and helping each other survive. Yeah, I know it’s naive and it’ll probably never work; we as a society are still too foolish to make it happen. We’ll probably never find whichever beliefs – if any – are accurate. That’s a two-way street, by the way. Extremism is bad regardless of what side it’s on, and the messages from some well-meaning social media groups outright terrify me. I’m celebrating the same-sex marriage victory with the rest of you, but remember, popular beliefs and morals change over time. In another 40 years, we’ll be the ones considered old-fashioned and mocked accordingly.

Think about it.

So, where does the legalization of same-sex marriage leave me? Pretty much where I was yesterday, honestly. Despite numerous assumptions to the contrary over the years, I’m not gay. I’m 1.5 at most on the Kinsey Scale. I’m not too keen on the whole categorizing thing, though. I’m far more interested in gender fluidity; biological sex and gender are now considered separate, and the latter has its own spectrum. That explains a lot for me, even if the concept is still being developed. 1995-Me could’ve really used that term and had a better childhood. The human mind is too complex to be limited to society’s expected gender roles, which is something that our culture is only beginning to understand. As for all those lost, bitter years? I’ll never get them back. But I can take solace in the fact that while I may be different, the times have (temporarily, at least) shifted in my favor.

As for the rest of you, congratulations. You’ve earned this victory.

Daily Prompt: LEGOs For Life

Hey, folks. Yesterday’s Daily Prompt was all about toys. Specifically, the ones you played with as a child, and the ways they affected your adult life. I could spend all day writing about how video games have shaped me; I learned how to use an Atari 2600 joystick around the same time I learned to walk, I could speed run through Mega Man X like a record-setting pro, and I’ve played just about every Mario, Zelda, Metroid, and major fighting game released in America. I don’t play as religiously as before – though I have a tendency to play Tetris as I’m watching Jeopardy – but the 90s gamer geek culture is thoroughly engrained in my personality. However, it’s not all that I am, nor is it my only influence. Besides, video games aren’t actually toys; they’re part of an emerging medium, much like films were in the last century. When it comes to toys, I can think of only one thing:

LEGOs.

I don’t think I need to expound of the virtues of those amazing building blocks; it seems like common knowledge. It even got its own feature length, award-winning movie in 2014! It makes you think and create, limited only by the extent of your imagination and patience. Unlike video games, it allows you to play and build with something tangible; you can see and physically touch the fruits of your labor, and thus feel accomplished for it. On my fifth birthday, I was given the Black Seas Barracuda. Even by modern LEGO standards, it’s an amazing, massive piece of work: 865 pieces, eight characters, cannons that actually fire, the folding stern that lets you see inside…So good. The adults apparently didn’t care that it was supposed to be for kids aged 9-12; they just set up a table, opened the box, handed me the instructions, and let me work. It took a couple of weekends – my parents were divorced – but I built that ship myself before I started first grade. It’s still sitting in storage somewhere, a remnant of a childhood long past.

Needless to say, building it (and many others to follow) played an important role in how I turned out. For me, it was another puzzle to solve; I grew up noticing the little pieces that made up life. When I read, I could understand things like characterization and theming long before I knew those were even words. When I drew with crayons, I didn’t just choose random colors; I asked how we knew that the colors we saw were the real ones. Yeah, I’m pretty sure I freaked out a few adults with that. The more I learned, the more pieces I found, the more I could understand reality and how it all tied together. As an adult, I have so many interests in both nature and the sciences; I love a great sunset, and even more because I understand the physics and astronomy behind it. I can walk on the beach and feel the sand between my toes, and imagine the time it took for the waves and wind to grind the particles down. There’s so much out there, and so few see it…

By the way, I never outgrew LEGOs. No one should. I have a few vats of assorted pieces at home, and I’ve made a tradition of getting one of the Architecture sets every Christmas. A shelf in my room has the Empire State Building, John Hancock Center, Seattle Space Needle, Burj Khalifa, Sydney Opera House, Big Ben, and Leaning Tower of Pisa. They’re not quite as grand as the old sets, but they’re a nice reminder of my travels and places I’ve yet to see. In that sense, LEGOs are inspiring me in a completely different way now. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Soundtrack Saturdays: Donkey Kong Country 2 – Stickerbrush Symphony

Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest had a lot to live up to. With only a year since the release of the original DKC – one of the finest and visually stunning games on the SNES – it was a ridiculously tough act to follow. Rare stepped up to the challenge by introducing even more collectible items, tons of hidden rooms and secrets, more allies and enemies, even better graphics, more varied platforming and level designs, and a new character with a more unique abilities and jump physics.

It also boasted one of the finest soundtracks on the SNES, if not any console of that generation. David Wise put a lot of effort into the composition, and it shows. Other 16-bit games could only dream of having its intricate layering and epic tone. “Stickerbrush Symphony” is arguably the most famous track in DKC’s already impressive musical library. It’s strangely fitting that such a relaxing song plays during one of the toughest levels in the entire game.

If you want more DKC2, you can find the full OST here.

Good gaming, good music.

Soundtrack Saturdays: Donkey Kong Country – Ice Cave Chant

With Christmas just around the corner, I wanted to find a video game song to fit the season. Last year, I went with the iconic “Phendrana Drifts” from Metroid Prime. Many games have snow-themed levels, but finding one with a good song is a little trickier. The Flanoir theme from Tales of Symphonia was a close choice this time, but I decided to go with Donkey Kong Country again. There are actually two winter themes; the “Northern Hemispheres” track is much better known and more atmospheric, but the “Ice Cave Chant” is far more upbeat. The brief melody in the middle only hints at the underlying danger and difficulty of its stage.

If you want more Donkey Kong Country, you can find the full OST here.

Good gaming, good music.

Daily Prompt: Thanks, Gundam Wing

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about guilty pleasures. Specifically, thanking them for the inexplicable joy they bring to your life. I’ve got a few guilty pleasures, but the one that stands out the most is Gundam Wing. Originally released in Japan in 1995, it was finally localized and premiered in America on Cartoon Network’s Toonami in March 2000. There’s far better anime out there, of course; even the original Mobile Suit Gundam in 1979 had more relatable characters, political intrigue, and a narrative that examined the consequences of revenge and ambition. Nearly 40 years later, Amuro Ray VS Char Aznable is still one of the most bitter rivalries you’ll ever see in anime. But I didn’t know any of that when I was 15 years old and watching Gundam Wing for the first time. All I knew was there were badass giant robots fighting in outer space! Seriously, watch this premiere trailer:

And yes, that is Peter Cullen, AKA Optimus Prime!

Every weekday evening (and Midnight Run on Saturdays), I was treated to this epic intro:

…It’s so good. Gundam Wing, thank you for that wonderfully cheesy 90s rave theme. I still have that on my most-played iPod playlist. Thanks for your loveable – if somewhat underdeveloped – cast; Treize Khushrenada may not have been the best villain, but the man was a brilliant tactician and made taking rose petal-filled bubble baths cool. Thanks for the Epyon, which is such an awesome robot design that I had to get its scale model kit. Thanks for giving the viewers an ensemble cast of heroes, as the show would fall flat if even one of them were gone. That especially goes for Quatre, who first showed me that anime heroes could be flawed, introspective strategists instead of hot-blooded warriors…even if he (Spoilers!) was technically the most dangerous and frightening character. Thank you for those awesome space battles, even if most of the animation was constantly reused to save the budget for the epic finale. The showdown between the Earth and colony forces was built up perfectly; no other anime has ever captured the sheer amount of hamminess and spectacle quite like it. I usually prefer more thought-provoking storytelling, but I’ll gladly make some popcorn and binge watch well into a Saturday night. Thank you for helping shape my love of anime, science fiction, and entertainment. Gundam Wing, you truly are one of a kind.