Monday, April 29, 2013

The High Highs and Low Lows of Giving Gifts

We all want something else.
—"Burn Thru," Abigail Washburn

(Note: as promised [among other promises] in my last post, I've moved my weekly blog post to Mondays, for reasons explained there.)

I really like the practice of giving gifts. I know that there are a lot of complaints abroad about the long dark road of consumerism, materialism, and over-commercialization of holidays in our culture, Christmas in particular, but, while I subscribe to those ideas in theory, in practice I will totally just barrel down the consumeristic excess express if I believe a friend or family member's happiness is at the end of the highway.

Giving a great gift is a wonderful feeling. Not only do you have the pleasure of seeing someone genuinely happy, and knowing that you caused that feeling, but when done right, a great gift indicates the measure of respect and love you have for a person. And even if you utterly fail and give someone something they don't want at all, there is a strong possibility you've just given them something to laugh about a little ways down the road. I have seen someone weep tears of frustration upon opening what turned out to be a pair of purple Chuck Taylors with black velvet bunnies on them, only to later wear them regularly and even occasionally offer a hearty chuckle at their initial disappointment.

For sheer heights of gift receiving, no gift I can recall outweighs the excellence of my big Christmas present in 1999: an N64. It was the culmination of years of longing, hope, and anticipation; after several years of going over to friends' houses in elementary school and reveling in the pure joy of imagined worlds and virtual competition and problem solving, only to have to wrench myself away at the end of each visit, I grew slowly to hope and to dream that one day I, too, could experience the unparalleled ecstasy that was having an N64 in my own home. When I saw a large, N64-sized box under the tree the Christmas of my twelfth year, I could scarcely breathe with the fear that it might not be what I hoped it was, and when I opened it and discovered that it was what I had yearned for so deeply for so many months and years, my joy and relief were intense and lasting. I did have a moment of moderate disappointment when my parents decided to take away the copy of Goldeneye 007 provided by my grandparents, deeming a game where adults shoot other adults with guns to be inappropriate for my preteen self. It did little to diminish my profound happiness, though, as I was well immersed in the deep bliss that is Mario 64 by the end of the morning.

Not that it kept me from eventually re-acquiring Goldeneye.

Undoubtedly the worst gift I have ever received also came to me in preadolescence. It was around Christmas, when people like me, children of Salvation Army officers, were all invited to a party where there were games, happiness, and of course, presents. When it came time for the kids to open their presents, all the boys around me were opening sweet-action Lego sets, with cool undersea divers and large, fantastical submarines, complete with neon green propellers and viewing windows. I loved Legos as a kid; they allowed for nearly endless creative play by myself (an important aspect of growing up as an introvert) and a chance to get another set and build my collection was quite exciting. After eagerly watching others open their presents, I turned to my own. They were disappointingly small in size, I thought; perhaps I was getting several smaller Lego sets instead of the big submarine? That could be cool, I supposed, providing they were still something sweet, like pirates or ice explorers.

Legos: still among the first things you will see when you come to my house.

The first gift I opened was something called a Jupiter Ball. It was a little spherical mold that you would pour different colored rubber cements into that would then harden into a ball that looked sort of like the planet Jupiter, if for some reason you cared enough to do that. It was not Legos, so I was disappoint.

The other present was, I kid you not, a box of fake snot. Needless to say, this was also not Legos.

I tried to be reasonable about my disappointment. I expressed it to my parents, who chalked it up to "I guess so-and-so" (person in charge of buying the presents) "just thinks you're a really weird kid." Heaven knows where they got that impression (heh) but all the same, even weird kids love Legos, so I still had a beef with that person up until I eventually forgot who it was.

Enough about receiving, though; we all know that giving is where it's truly at. I like to pride myself on being a good gift giver. I am often the person who organizes friends into getting an excellent present for a third party with our combined buying power, which is an especially good feeling. But the fact of the matter is that, mainly, being a good gift giver often comes down to simply paying attention to a person and writing down what they say at key moments, such as, for example, when you are in a store together and your friend goes "Man, I would really love X, but I'm totally not going to buy it right now." Then you go buy that thing and sit on it for a few months until their birthday or Christmas or Hanukkah*, badda-bing, badda-boom. Even if they buy it for themselves, you still get hecka brownie points for having paid attention. (Hopefully you kept the receipt, just in case.)

Most gifts I have given in this fashion have turned out well. The best gift, I think, that I have ever given involved not attentiveness so much as extreme creativity and limited resources. I participate in an annual holiday gathering of friends from my time in AmeriCorps, where we do a white elephant gift exchange with an almost unbearably low cost limit of $5. One year, I put together a coloring book featuring pictures of all of the participants; I used an official AmeriCorps application as a cover, altering it so it read "Give a Year, Color the SCMs" (SCMs being our shared job title and "Give a Year, Change the World" being the organizational motto). I bundled it with crayons and wrapped it in used paper with Excel spreadsheets on the back. (Total cost: whatever a box of Crayolas was at Walgreens, so like $3 maybe?) The sheer explosive excitement generated upon the opening of this gift was satisfying enough, but anyone knows that the true marker of the value of a white elephant gift is how much the participants steal it from each other, and my gift was almost immediately stolen the maximum number of times.

Thus, getting gifts and giving gifts are both excellent processes, and even if you find yourself initially disappointed, the process is almost always worth it in one way or another.

*Note: I have never given a Kwanzaa present. This does not mean I wouldn't love to. 
Photo Sources:
Photo 1:
Photos 2 & 3: my house!

Friday, April 26, 2013


All right, time for two mildly important personal public announcements:

1. I am suspending my Bible-reading project for the month of May for the following reasons:

  • I am a little worn out and it's kept me from reading any other book books (i.e., not comic books) for four months now. 
  • I just hit the halfway point (Jeremiah) at about 1050 pages out of 2100. 
  • It stinks to have the project feel more like a burden than an adventure, and I think I can turn that around with a little break.
2. I'm changing the day of the week I post on my blog from Friday to Monday because:
  • That will let me use the weekend to polish things up (or push back the panic and last-minute decisions to Sunday night rather than lunchbreak on Friday). 
  • I'm betting it'll be less likely to get buried in the afternoon social media content rush on a Monday than a Friday.
Thanks to everybody in my life who is encouraging me on both these fronts. I appreciate you.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Favorite Supercuts

Part of a series of Lists of Cool Things.

Saving it up
And spending it all
On moving pictures,
Silent films.

—"Moving Pictures, Silent Films," Great Lake Swimmers

Today I'm going to be talking about supercuts. To quote one definition, a supercut is "a fast-paced montage of short video clips that obsessively isolates a single element from its source, usually a word, phrase, or cliche from film and TV."

Supercuts are an Internet phenomenon; they've come into being as a genre of Internet video over the last 5-10 years as people have had better access to (1) video editing software and (2) editable versions of movies and TV shows. There are a number of different kinds, each with their own purpose.

The first and probably the most widespread form of supercut is the supercut for its own sake: an obsessive cataloging of every instance of something, more or less just for fun. My favorite example is the clip below isolating every time someone says "double oh" in a James Bond film (this clip organizes them by length, for a dizzying acceleration effect).

Other noteworthy examples include a cut of Don Draper from Mad Men saying "What?" and this famous clip of every "dude" in the Big Lebowski (warning: language). The big problem with this kind of clip is that it often requires prior knowledge of the source material to seem interesting; it is not the kind of thing that functions well if you haven't seen the stuff it's taking material from. (For example: watch any of the above if you haven't seen any James Bond movies, Mad Men, or The Big Lebowski, respectively, and then gauge how much you enjoyed the experience.)

An often related supercut type is the critique supercut. In this genre, the editor uses the supercut to make a comment on popular culture, usually trying to say something about the overuse of a phrase or trope. In the clip below, the editor has created a collage of instances of different characters using the totally impossible "enhance" function to clean up images and catch bad guys. Note how the editor clusters similar phrasing and actions to point out the typical structure of an "enhance" sequence, commenting on the laziness of the show creators in using this trope.

Other noteworthy examples in this type include a supercut that deftly points out and lampoons the "I'm not here to make friends" cliche in reality TV, and a clip that critiques Aaron Sorkin's reliance on stock phrases ("Sorkinisms") in his TV writing. The critique form is a little bit easier for an outsider with no specific foreknowledge of the subject to enjoy than the supercut for its own sake, because it is making an external point, rather than simply reminding the viewer of a single element of something they may or may not have seen.

Another kind of supercut wants to say something or simply ask a question about something without necessarily being critical, such as "Why does Harrison Ford seem to be constantly talking about his family?" These supercuts often draw lines between the same actor's performances across many movies or shows to create a sort of catalog of an actor's tendencies or even obsessions.

A similar question is "Why is Nicolas Cage so mad all the time?" (warning: language and stuff), but see also the supercut which wants to investigate the matter of "breaking the fourth wall." Because of their nature as encouraging thought, questions, and even analysis, these supercuts can be even more engaging to the outsider than the critique supercut, though like that genre they sometimes actually discourage you from watching the source material altogether.

The most important type of supercut in my mind is the one in which the editor uses the superclip method to create something unique and beautiful. While it is still an obsessive catalogue of a single kind of thing, the best superclips give a sense that an entirely new and fascinating piece of art has come into being from the obsession, a true piece of collage that is greater and vastly more wondrous than the sum of its parts. A decent example is a recent pre-2012 Oscar video that collects scenes from all of the best picture winners to date, set to haunting music:

Academy Awards: Best Picture Oscar Winners from Nelson Carvajal on Vimeo.

My favorite, though, is this supercut of people standing with their backs to the camera, looking at things. It's a masterwork of editing, setting the images to the music in a way that's almost balletic in its synchronicity and beauty. Take a look:

The View: A "Back-to-the-Camera Shot" Supercut from Zach Prewitt on Vimeo.

In creating a new piece of art from the dismembered bodies of others, the creators of this kind of supercut obviate almost completely any need to have experienced the original material, but unlike the critique supercut or the question/comment supercut, they rarely discourage engagement with their sources.
If you're interested, some more thoughts on the current provenance of supercuts can be found here, and a great history of the phenomenon stretching back before the Internet can be found here.

Photo source:

Friday, April 5, 2013

My Introversion and What I'm Doing About It

So just leave me alone,
Leave me alone,
Leave me alone—stop it!
Just stop doggin' me around.
—"Leave Me Alone," Michael Jackson*

Ever since I have known what an introvert was, I have identified as one. As a child, my preferred methods of interacting with the world were (1) reading books about it and (2) taking solitary walks through it. I tended to content myself with one or two good friends as a kid, and was generally quiet and mildly anti-social around others. Learning to interact with strangers was an ordeal: such tasks as ordering at a restaurant, calling a company help desk, and being pleasant to people on the street or in an elevator were all things I couldn't do comfortably until college or later. Heck, I still struggle with calling strangers, come to think of it. Just a week or two ago, I spent days psyching myself up to call Timberland, and not even about anything that stressful: they owed me some money, which is great! Thankfully, before I managed to convince myself to call them, they gave me my money. Few things are as sweet to an introvert as a problem involving telephones that solves itself.

The funny thing about this picture: I took it myself.

When I was in middle school, my dad took me on a weekend hiking trip where he spent much of the time trying to get me to talk about the fact that I never really talked much. I had nothing to say on the subject, and I didn't say so, nor did I say much of anything else. It was profoundly awkward at the time, but in retrospect I'm glad that it happened, because it was the first time I grasped that being completely solitary and turned inward might be a problem that needed dealing with, rather than an alternative lifestyle that the world just needed to accept. I remain eternally grateful to my father for undertaking this task, which must have seemed totally futile at the time.

Today, partly as a result of my father's early efforts, I consider myself an assimilated introvert in an extroverted society. I can interact at length with friends, talk to strangers, and even speak to a large group, all while feeling relatively calm and even having a good time. Occasionally, though, I'll have a moment of clarity about my true nature (e.g., the aforementioned Timberland telephone incident), in which I'll be reminded that I am just not that comfortable when speaking with new people, and that that is considered extraordinary by some. The most frequent of such moments are when I'm walking around downtown Chicago and pass the clipboard/binder/Greenpeace people, who are always super friendly and engaging and smiley in their attempt so talk to people about whatever cause they're supporting, and who are constantly, constantly, being rejected, implicitly or explicitly, by semi- or fully hostile people who pass them on the street. And because fear of rejection is one of the big things that drives my introversion, I always shudder slightly when I pass these people, and feel super thankful that I don't have to do that in order to get by, because it would be the pits. That and telemarketing. (Shudder.)

These facts make it somewhat surprising that I would agree to go out canvassing for a political cause, i.e., knocking on peoples' doors and asking them to please reject me. People really do not like talking to people who knock on their doors. As a person, this is a basic part of my knowledge about the world. Yet I chose to ignore that fact and knock on people's doors anyway, because I genuinely thought people needed to hear what I and my fellow canvassers had to say.

I live in Illinois, where a state budget crisis has prompted the government to slash funding for schools, healthcare, and any number of other important public programs especially important to the poor. Meanwhile also in Illinois, two thirds of corporations pay no state taxes, failing to support the infrastructure and services that they and their employees use on a regular basis. (This strikes me as both stupid and wrong.) A bill recently went through the state legislature that would have closed corporate tax loopholes and forced corporations to pay their fair share. This bill was killed in committee by a couple of Democrats in the state House. My friend invited me to canvass in the district of one of these Representatives (this guy, if you're interestedand especially if you live in the 23rd Ward!), asking folks to call him and tell him that, should the opportunity arise again, they would like him to not kill a bill that would end this stupid and wrong state of affairs.

I said yes, not because it sounded fun, but because it seemed like the right thing to do. I went to a meeting where we talked about strategy and the basics of what we were doing, and I bluffed my way through it with jokes and smiles, all the while feeling pretty terrified about what was about to happen. And then we left the meeting place and drove to our respective streets in the 23rd Ward, and it hit me: I was now the clipboard person, the Greenpeace volunteer, the telemarketer. I was going to be very uncomfortable for the next few hours.

Gunderson Street in Chicago's 23rd Ward.

The worst part about canvassing is not the conversations you have with people. While these can be awkward, frustrating, or painful, they are nothing compared to the intense fear, sometimes akin to panic, that comes over you when you're about to knock on a complete stranger's door. I would stand in front of someone's steps, sometimes for several minutes at a time, working myself up, calming myself down, so that I could walk up the stairs and ring the doorbell. Occasionally, I would find myself seeking some excuse not to do it at all, just for the moment's relief of walking to the next house, excuses like "this person is too old to bother about this" or "this person's house doesn't have a doorbell." And when I managed to knock or ring, and no one answered the door, the relief was indeed intense, if extremely fleeting: there went one more house I didn't have to face rejection at.

There were a fair number of houses where no one was home, but there were also plenty where people were there. People had a range of responses, from dismissive to skeptical to enthusiastic. Only two of the doors I knocked on lived up to my worst fears. At one, a man with a Hulk Hogan mustache answered the door, and when I told him about the problem in our state, he asked me if I knew the only way to solve the political problems in Illinois. I said I knew how I thought we should go about it, but then made the mistake of asking his opinion. "Kill 'em," he said. The government and corporations are so corrupt, that you have to just literally murder the people in charge to change anything. I let him talk for longer than I should have, given that I lacked any leverage or tools to change his mind, and then left, saying that I didn't share his cynicism (which was true) but that I appreciated his honesty (which was a lie). "You will," he said, referring to me sharing his cynicism (which I won't).

The other bad conversation was with an old man who was very, very racist.

Those two conversations aside, the experience was positive. I got to talk to people about an issue I care about, and many of them listened and were sympathetic; a few agreed to call their Representative, and one person made the call right in front of me! My hope is that experiences like this will help me to experience the richness and goodness of life more fully, to help me move beyond my introversion and become better engaged with the world, even though it's a frightening and messy place. So I plan to do this kind of thing again. And I think next time it will be less frightening, less uncomfortable, and I will have a better idea of what I'm getting into!

*Note that most weeks I do not explicitly recommend watching the video that accompanies the music quoted at the top of my post, but that this week is an exception, as the video is among the most beautifully weird things I've ever seen. It includes a dancing elephant/human hybrid skeleton, dogs in suits, and a theme park built into a giant Michael Jackson.

Photo Sources:
Photo 1:
Photo 2: Me!
Photo 3:
Photo 4: Google Maps