July 30, 2008

Form & Function Exist Not Without Feeling

Independent Study is awesome. I almost want to call it a Sabbatical Light except that I, humbly, have not experienced a Sabbatical and, respectfully, understand that many professors use that time to get published without which they’d perish.

The work to be accepted and earn admission for an Independent Study is not easy. It’s like making toast, except that you have to bake the bread and engineer a toaster yourself, then write out the instructions for the whole process of toasting. You’re creating a syllabus for a class which already exists but doesn’t exist at that exact moment, incorporating the basics: Assignments, Grading, Reading, Deadlines, and Objectives. And, because the schedule is a tad more loose than your average class, you are left with no regular reminders to do your work/research/writing.

It took me about two weeks of brainstorming with professors and fellow classmates to garner a general idea for what I wanted my I.S. to be. Another week of meeting, formally, with professors to get the proper signatures and paperwork filled out. Close to four drafts of the syllabus (yep, just the syllabus needed that many drafts!). And another week to finalize everything including making sure the bookstore had the books (or I could find them online).

So after close to 2 months of running around, talking, planning, writing, and some hoop jumping my I.S. known as Form & Function was born. I could bore you with the distinct details or present the syllabus but since I know my friend Greggles has probably given up reading this post I’ll cut to the quick.

Prose (short stories, novels, etc.) and Poetry (sonnets, free verse, etc.) each have distinctive forms and characteristics. While Prose is generally written in block paragraphs, it must adhere to strong narrative rules. Poetry can be written in any physical form (four lines, three lines, cascade, etc.) and also has lyrical characteristics which must be maintained. The questions I tried to answer in my I.S. were:

If the same story was told in different Prose and Poetry forms, how would the differences characterize the specific forms used? Would those varying characteristics show that each form has a different function? And are those functions pretty strict or can they be manipulated and played with?


Does a sonnet have to be about something romantic, tragic, or sad because of the strict meter and rhyme scheme it has?

Does a villanelle have to sound lyrical if telling a stronger narrative moment?

Can a 250 word Micro Fiction contain enough detail to convey the emotion of the story?

If you were expanding a story from poem to short story what would you add?

If you were contracting a story from short story to poem what would you take out?

What is up with the Brewers?

My final portfolio consisted of three short stories, three traditional poetic forms, and an environmentally unfriendly hybrid (cause it took a zillion drafts to write) called a Prose Poem. Yes, sounds clear, but boy was it the hardest to write. The seven pieces all contained the same story (as a further challenge I could not add characters, scenes, or change POV...I could cheat and give greater attention to certain times in the overall story and write in any tense).

And so I learned stuff...

-Poetry, while it looks easier to write, takes about the same time to revise as Prose does.

-No one can agree on the basic elements of a Prose Poem.

-Rigid Rule Poetry (MUST rhyme, STRICT meter) sounds poetic no matter the subject matter.

-Short Stories, while they have less rules, need more internal focus of the writer.

-Poems can tell stories; stories can be poetic.

-The Brewers need to send the Cubs a goat in order to win the World Series.

I once sent a verbose e-mail about form & function to my former supervisors/advisors while I was attending Arizona State. I realized that in our daily life when a consistent group of caretakers maintain a form (workplace, home, classroom, theater, etc.) it is likely that it will be more functional to new members. The firmness of that form can allow neophytes to build upon the foundation while dreaming because they don’t have to concern themselves with reinventing the wheel.

I’ve seen some great writing happen when the Professor gives a word limit to his/her students.

Likewise the caretakers or leaders must make sure that the guidelines of the form are not too strict lest they suffocate the good ideas of those they serve or manage.

Try writing a poem where each word can only be 2 syllables long, and every fourth word must rhyme in seven lines of four metrical feet.

My e-mail very much praised the traditional approach to form the department took, and, how, after the daily work was done, there was still time for dreaming, macro-project scheming, and even a little outside the box preening for those looking to invest themselves in new ideas.

And that was the last but most important lesson learned in my I.S...without passion FOR something, without passion to tell a story or detail a dream, the forms are just empty husks, still with function, yet pretty unfunky. I spent weeks alone toiling over what story to tell. But I couldn’t just throw a basic GIRL MEETS BOY, or GOOD GUYS vs. BAD GUYS plot in there.

I needed to put my heart into it. Own my writing. Own my voice.

I once heard the adage “fake it, ‘till ya make it.” Great adage...for Poker. Or Improv. I ‘spose that some people are great at that concept, and invest themselves little, or follow the basics for the sake of following the basics.

But there’s a reason why we don’t only write Shakespearean Sonnets...its because John Milton wanted to write them his way; Walt Whitman, his way; Langston Hughes, his way; Maya Angelou, her way.

I believe individuals can exist inside any focused collective, just as I believe that a consistent collective can create individuals. But those things can only happen when you live your life with heart. When you stop putting on the Beetle Bailey façade that you’re making it work; when you stop cueing in fate’s line waiting for something big to happen to you...when you start taking those creative changes, championing causes for others, or challenging change through small steps...that’s when the beauty of Form & Function starts to sing once more with feeling.

So, for your next independent study in life...the career you always wanted to pursue, the hobby you wanted to take up, the relationship you wanted to start...here’s an anonymously written mantra for you I discovered in my high school weight room, a place where it’s pretty hard to fake it:

All I had, I gave;

all I saved, I lost forever.


July 16, 2008


As I exhumed the contents of several mid-move boxes last week, looking for some George Carlin CDs, I found a lost piece of my childhood: a tiny, LCD, hand-held He-Man ‘video’ game. High tech gadgetry years before Atari and a half decade before Nintendo/Sega.

Simplicity at its finest...only five buttons:


Moves He-Man in a manly pixilated stride down Castle Grayskull’s maze like corridors.


Rotates the giganto arrow which tells He-Man which way to move.


Tosses He-Man’s sword at Skeletor who has one pose, a triumphant “Skeletor up in this MoFo!!!” (I should say triumphant until he gets a sword lodged in his face).

Sound Off:

A switch which sorta tells you what is off, but not what is on.


One of those tiny, recessed jobbers where you need a pen or pencil to press it...much like the members of Lost stuck in the hatch, I refuse to press it out of fear that something bad will happen.

The plot just as simple:

Our boy, rough and tough with his puffed out chest, and, like always, mostly naked, bolts through the downtown-Phoenix designed hallways of Castle Grayskull, looking for his sword, avoiding trapdoors that lead to jail cells, and frequently being carried off by some ‘roided up bat/pterodactyl with poor direction sense. Again, the culmination is to chuck a sword at Skeletor’s face.

Cue the 1-bit music which accompanies a victory. Of course, with all this intricately simple planning there are some other unique aspects.

He-Man can only travel NSEW, yet has a spider-sense which tells him when his sword, a spare jail key, a cell, and/or Skeletor are in an adjoining room. Upon sensing Skeletor, you then guess which room he’s in and ‘hurl’ the sword down the appropriate hallway. If it hits, then it’s party time at Man-at-Arms’ crib while Skeletor calls LifeAlert from the LCD ground. If it misses, both his sword and Skeletor magically teleport to another part of the castle.

There are three levels of difficulty, but I have yet to determine what separates them since I die pretty frequently no matter what the level. I’m also baffled by the supposed time limit the only indicators being the “da DA da DA” sound every 11-16 seconds and the fact that I left it on and lost. This then leads to the more confusing scoring. If the time limit runs out, you get a 99. But if you win the game, you get a 14.

The game is fantastic! I’ve spent a Final Fantasy amount of time on the game.

A few plot inconsistencies between the game and He-Man mythos:

1. Skeletor spends pretty much every TV episode (and comic) trying to break into Grayskull to begin with...in the game he’s hanging out like Rocky...I suppose this somewhat fits why He-Man searches for him (and ultimately impales his face).

2. Why Skeletor sits still (and how he magically teleports at a He-Man misfire) is beyond me. Why not make it harder and jog around the corridors?

3. I know the MTV Cribs “Castle Grayskull” episode doesn’t exist, but I don’t recall The Sorceress having a metaphysically implausible maze.

4. Speaking of which, where is she?

5. Moreover, He-man’s got no idea where the heck he is, yet has a key for the cells. And, much like the sword...

6. ...the key mysteriously vanishes after use.

7. Speaking of which, how did he lose his sword to begin with? Last I checked the Jaw Bridge could only be opened by that.

After playing this game about fourteen dozen times, I found myself empathizing with He-Man’s LCD world.

How often do we feel like we walk an endless maze--avoiding obstacles, looking for our strengths, facing our fears, and, randomly, getting off carried track, literally, by a crazy, misguided bat--all in an attempt to get some closure or ‘win the game?’

In the great abstract world of time, while it constantly moves forward, our ability to move in a finite space seems limitless. And not just in traveling from place to place, but what activities, hobbies, interests, career moves, job fires, social moments, and basic survival needs (eat, sleep, bathroom) do we fill our space with? These two concepts cause us to feel like our life is linear; being stuck a car stuck in car wash, getting pelted with Fruity Pebble wax and royal blue brushes.

Tweak that view for one second and learn a lesson He-Man’s travels. What if the muscle-bound man made a map? What if he sat down and plotted out where all the traps were, eliminating rooms where his sword could be, and plotting, as best he can, where the crazy bat will carry him off to in relation to where he was?

Now, what if you did the same?

If you got out a big sheet of white construction paper and started scrawling: where would you start; what is the journey like so far; what symbols would represent positive moments, negative times, and other important events in your history? There’s no right or wrong how you do it (if in the end you draw a straight line, perfect, but you still have to fill out stuff that’s happened along the way).

Eventually, I did make a map for my monochrome main man. I started thinking/feeling a sense of relief, a sense of focus. While this venture only helped my game a bit (scoring a few more sword to skull victories) the most significant idea behind my upbeat feeling was the one necessary element of map making.

The last marker I put down was a “You Are Here;” I soon realized I wasn’t too far off course in the first place.