But this past summer, our daughter – a fan of good anime and an enthusiastic admirer of Avatar: The Last Airbender – got her mother and me to commit to watching the entire series: three seasons of it, with more than 60 22-minute episodes.
We began it out of love for our daughter. We continued it because it was never less than entertaining. And at the end, we understood and agreed with her devotion to the series.
The storyline is mystical fantasy/sci-fi. The world was divided into four kingdoms, of Air, Water, Fire and Earth. Powerful “benders,” whose power worked with each element were nurtured within the kingdoms, so that Waterbenders could make great waves, strong currents, and walls, knives and projectiles of ice; Firebenders could ignite anything and hurl fireballs or, in some cases, lightning bolts; Airbenders could make winds and dance upon spinning globes of air; and Earthbenders could rip fissures in the ground, hurl boulders or launch new crags of stone upward out of the ground.
Most people in each kingdom were ordinary folk, not benders at all. And each kingdom had its own culture, religion and form of government.
Binding all together was an entity called “the Avatar.” Drawn from Buddhist beliefs, in which an avatar is a divine being, born into this world already fully enlightened, the Avatar of the title is the helper and healer of mankind. When one Avatar dies, his spirit is born as a baby in the next kingdom in turn. He contains in himself, therefore, the collective wisdom of all the Avatars from all four kingdoms – he is the only person who can bend all four elements.
A hundred years before the TV series begins, the Fire Lord – head of the Fire Nation – launched an unprovoked attack on its neighbors, with world domination as its goal. It happened just after the most recent Avatar died, so there was no one to stand in their way as the new Avatar grew up and received his (or her) training.
It was well-known that the next Avatar was due to be born in among the Air Nomads, a group of pacifist, vegetarian people who did no harm to anyone. The Fire Nation wiped them out – all but the young child Aang, the Avatar, who, unable to resist, simply disappeared.
Since then, the Fire Nation has expanded its boundaries and waged incessant war on the surviving Earth and Water kingdoms. Two children of the Southern Water Tribe, would-be warrior/comedian Sokka and his sister, Katara, the sole remaining Southern Tribe Waterbender, discover the Avatar frozen inside an iceberg.
Katara brings Aang out of his hiding place and he realizes that without meaning to, he has left the world defenseless for a century. As long as he was alive, no new Avatar could be born. Now he must master the other bendings (he is the last of the Airbenders and is already quite accomplished) in order to prepare to confront the Fire Lord and put an end to the Fire Nation’s world-wrecking ambitions.
In other words, it is pretty standard fantasy material, though the forms that bending take are quite creative and intriguing. It is also pretty standard to infuse fantasy worlds with a religious system more or less modeled on existing or ancient religions, and fantasies that include a lot of Eastern martial arts are pretty thick on the ground.
What sets Avatar apart from the run-of-the-mill fantasies is the characterization. Character is hardly the strong suit of animated film – it’s one of the things that set Pixar’s movies apart from all others. Usually it’s just nice vs. mean (it rarely rises to the level of “good vs. evil”), with each character having only one trait to distinguish him or her.
Instead, most of Avatar’s characters have a complicated story arc, learning and growing over time. Yes, Sokka is almost always used for comic relief – but he, too, learns how to become the great warrior he always longed to be, and while his plans almost never work out as intended, he is the character most likely to have any kind of plan at all.
Aang is loveable but tormented, and he makes childish mistakes that sometimes have far-reaching consequences. Katara longs for love – especially the love of Aang – but she is also a fierce fighter and contemptuous of those who relegate her to child or helpless-female status.
By far the most interesting character, however, is Prince Zuko, the disgraced heir to the Fire Lord. In order to redeem himself in his father’s eyes, Zuko is grimly determined to capture the Avatar himself, thus removing the last serious threat to the Fire Nation’s ambitions. Zuko is accompanied through most of the story by his Uncle Iroh, a powerful Firebender who is trying to instill in Zuko the love of peace he came to after his greatest – and most terrible – victory as a commander of the Fire Nation armies.
Zuko’s sister, the powermad Azula, and her two friends, depressed cynic Mai (who becomes Zuko’s girlfriend) and the disarming (literally) Ty Lee, become dangerous foes to the Avatar’s party as well. But the Avatar is also joined by new allies, most notably the blind Earthbender Toph, who “sees” through her feet, interpreting tremors in the ground with astonishing detail.
The complexity of the story is astonishing for any television series – it is as involved and intertwined as the storyline of Lost, but without any of the confusion that marred that poorly planned if brilliantly executed series. Avatar: The Last Airbender is so well-conceived that even the digressions (with a few exceptions) are all woven into the intricate tapestry.
Anime animation tends to be fairly primitive – Saturday-morning level animation, where only one or two bits of any frame are in motion. But within those limitations, the animators of Avatar did a brilliant job of making the bending look convincing and magical, while the characters are brought to an astonishing level of lifelikeness.
The result of good writing (usually), good animation (within budget limits) and good voice acting (sometimes rising to real excellence and never less than charming) is a story that was funny, exciting, and emotionally involving.
All through the series, but especially in the four-episode final sequence, there are moments of real emotional power, inducing tears of woe and tears of relief and happiness.
But the series’ creators are not above parodying their own work. One advantage of a multi-year series is that the earlier parts have already aired – and created a community of fans – while the later episodes have yet to be written.
So it’s a delight when, near the end of the final season, the Avatar’s party happens to attend a Fire Nation community’s presentation of a play … about them. Of course, to the Fire Nation the Avatar and his friends are a joke and a danger – think of Charlie Chaplin’s anti-Hitler comedy – yet it causes them to question themselves and their own weaknesses.
Meanwhile, though, the parody play-within-a-TV-series brings up many issues that exercised the fans over the years, including certain much-hated episodes and much-ridiculed aspects of some characters. So besides being funny and perceptive in itself, the episode was also something of a clap-on-the-back to the fans, introducing them to the inner circle, so to speak.
We did not watch the whole series in a row. For a while in the summer it was two episodes a night. Then, after long lapses because of travel, we watched the last seven episodes last Friday and Saturday. I was left ravaged by the experience, but also thrilled: The series exercised all my emotions, but also filled me with a sense of its rightness.
The series doesn’t require you to accept the pacifistic beliefs of Aang – in fact, when, near the end, he consults the older Avatars (aspects of himself!), the advice he gets is a consistent justification of violence and even killing when that is necessary for the good of mankind.
And when, in the end, Aang finds a way short of murder but far more demanding on himself, the audience approves it, not because killing in defense of a nation or the world is rejected, but because we know that it would have devastated Aang himself to resort to ultimate violence.
Now the executive producers (read “writers and creators”) of Avatar: The Last Airbender are preparing a new series based on the life and challenges of the next Avatar, presumably after Aang has grown old and died. It is surprisingly rare for the creator of one work to come up with a sequel that matches it in power and excellence, but if anyone can, it’s Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko.
Because the series was created for Nickelodeon, it can never show actual death (though many die); sometimes this leaves a bit of ambiguity, though adults should realize that when it looks like it should be death, it is.
The benefit of its Nickelodeon origin is that it is completely watchable by families viewing together. Adults, you will not only stay awake, you will enjoy yourself and never once think that death might be better than watching one more moment (as many of us feel during Sponge Bob or other nauseating children’s programming).
It truly is a family bonding experience, and from then on will give you a shared culture. In-jokes from the series have already been cropping up within the family, and the moral dilemmas have led to serious discussion.
We are also united in hating the gross misunderstandings that Shyamalan’s version showed. It is astonishing that he could want to make a feature film of this great series – and then treat the story with such contempt. But then, Peter Jackson did no better as he added his own childish, cliched incidents to Lord of the Rings while cutting out some of the heart of the original.
It always baffles me that movie makers have such blind arrogance that they can take great works of art by other people and then add in their own “ideas” to “improve” them.
One thinks of some moron redoing the Mona Lisa with more cleavage, so she’ll be “more attractive to the audience;” or turning the horns on Michelangelo’s statue of Moses into flowers, thus removing the symbol of divine revelation; or adding a new “comic” motif now and then throughout Ravel’s Bolero because the original is so “relentless” and “boring.”
If you’re going to adapt a brilliant original into a different form or medium, treat it with respect. You may need to cut or combine incidents in order to make the film version fit within the allotted time, but there is no excuse for adding new material
The weather’s finally turning cooler – but, oddly enough, this can mean that it’s better ice cream weather than the hottest part of summer.
After all, during the heat of summer – especially as relentlessly overheated as this past one was in Greensboro – we can be reluctant to leave the air conditioning of our house to venture forth.
In the old days, pre-A/C, ice cream came as a blessed relief. Now, though, going to an ice cream store means needlessly going out into the heat! And as for buying ice cream in bulk and bringing it home, a hot summer can mean a distasteful episode of melting and refreezing, which can ruin an anticipated ice cream treat.
So don’t forget that some of Greensboro’s best cold-treat shops – Baskin-Robbins 31 Flavors, Cold Stone, Bruster’s, and the brilliantly authentic Italian gelato shop, Gnam Gnam – are open for business.
Gnam Gnam in particular is constantly bringing in new flavors of the owners’ invention, as well as other desserts and meal entrees. If you haven’t tried their sandwiches and soups, you’ve been missing out. But the main reason to visit their shop in the same center as Fresh Market on Lawndale north of Pisgah Church is and always will be the absolute best frozen desserts you can get within driving distance of our city.
The fact that Gnam-Gnam is not yet a chain is simply a reason to pity people in other cities.
Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born on this day in 1772. He and his friend, William Wordsworth, began the Romantic movement in poetry, which soon came to popular fruition with Byron, Keats and Shelley. Coleridge’s poetry still penetrates popular culture with the expression “albatross around one’s neck” (Rime of the Ancient Mariner) and the place-name Xanadu, from the poem Kubla Khan, which began:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
In those days, every literate person knew how to parse poetry. As editor of the online poetry magazine StrongVerse.org, I constantly ask for poetry that scans and rhymes, but of the small minority who even attempt such once-common achievements, the barest handful can do it at all.
The music of those five lines – not considered to be the remarkable feature of Coleridge’s poem – rings now like the echo of a long-forgotten song. I believe I was in the last generation that learned to scan and recite and even memorize poetry in school. To us, the childish sloppiness of rap is like a sad imitation of poetry, while most “poets” offer an unstructured, unmusical gush.
Parents of young children, celebrate Xanadu Day, not by taking drugs and writing extravagant speculative poetry, but rather by pulling out a book of Mother Goose or A Child’s Garden of Verses and reading them aloud to your children. Use your best sing-song voice, stressing the beats so they can learn to hear them.
With “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick / Jack jump over the candlestick” and “Mary, Mary, quite contrary, / how does your garden grow?” imprinted in their minds, your children will grow up able to hear the difference between well-crafted poems and utter slop.
Today in 1879, Thomas Edison demonstrated the first incandescent lightbulb that could be used economically for domestic purposes. This prototype, developed at his Menlo Park, New Jersey, laboratory, could burn for 13-and-a-half hours.
This sounds like a ridiculously short time to us, but remember that the incandescent bulb was a replacement for candles, which generally burned out in even less time, and gave off so little light that it would take dozens of them to light a room half as well as Edison’s bulb.
In those ancient days, light bulbs were switched on only after dark, and only as long as they were needed. Though they were cheaper per lumen than candles, they were still expensive. Thus fathers throughout the world acquired the duty of switching off lights left burning in empty rooms, while making snide remarks to their wives and children.
Ursula K. LeGuin, author of the Earthsea Trilogy, turns 81 today. Before this famous and popular children’s series, however, she had already wrought an important transformation on science fiction, where her early “Hainish novels” set the standard for using invented worlds and societies to illuminate our present world, without sacrificing even a dram of entertainment value. Most notable: The Left Hand of Darkness.
Friday, Oct. 22 – Brinkmanship Day
This is the anniversary of the 1962 “Cuban Missile Crisis.” President John F. Kennedy, in a nationwide television address on this date, demanded that the Russians remove their nuclear missiles from Cuba. To give teeth to his demand (because in those days Democrats had teeth) he imposed a naval “quarantine” to prevent future weaponry from reaching Cuba. (It was called a quarantine instead of a blockade because, by international law, a blockade is an act of war.)
On Oct. 28, the USSR announced it would remove the weapons in question. In return, the US removed missiles from Turkey that were aimed at the USSR.
The irony is that the entire mess was caused by Kennedy’s macho but stupid decision, when he first took office, to rescind Eisenhower’s order to remove the outmoded and strategically trivial missiles from Turkey. Since Turkey bordered on the USSR, the Russians figured that American provocation should be answered with Soviet missiles equally close to our borders.
In the dreamy-eyed view of historically-challenged liberals, Kennedy is regarded as a hero – but all he did was tap dance his way out of a problem resulting from his own shortsightedness (rather like the whole incident with PT-109).
Today marks the grand opening in 1883 of the original New York Metropolitan Opera House, with a performance of Gounod’s Faust. In those days, opera was still a popular entertainment rather than an artsy one; you attended in order to be moved, not impressed. (Though a certain percentage went to the opera merely to be seen, so that others would know they were cultured.)
Saturday, Oct. 23 – Terrorist War Begins
On this day in 1983, a suicide terrorist drove a truck loaded with TNT through the thinly defended entrance of a US Marine compound in Beirut, Lebanon, killing 240 American personnel serving in a “peacekeeping force.”
Though we invariably call the bomber a “terrorist,” it’s worth pointing out that he attacked a military target, not a civilian one, which means it was not terrorism at all, but an act of war. Just because the explosives arrive in a truck rather than in a missile or artillery shell does not change the legal meaning of the act.
It is also worth remembering that this attack was a direct retaliation for the American Navy’s shelling of a “terrorist-harboring neighborhood” in Beirut. In contrast with the bombing of the US Marine barracks, our shelling was an attack on a mostly-civilian neighborhood. While our military’s frustration with the terrorists’ penchant for hiding in civilian neighborhoods was understandable, the best solution was probably not the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians from ships several miles off shore.
President Ronald Reagan was faced with a hard choice: retaliate and escalate; rationalize, legalize and define the goals of the Lebanese “war,” or simply retreat. He chose retreat, and thus began to demonstrate the pattern of American weakness that Osama bin Laden would eventually count on when he declared a decidedly asymmetrical war against the greatest military power on earth.
When Reagan-worshipers absurdly give him credit for “causing” the end of communism in Europe, I wish they would also remember that every decision he made concerning Muslim terrorists was dreadfully wrong. He rewarded hostage-taking with payoffs; he sold arms to terror-sponsoring Iran so he could, illegally and unconstitutionally, use the profits to fund the Contras in Nicaragua, contrary to the law he himself had signed; he authorized the shelling of civilians in Beirut; and, having thus begun a war, he declared defeat and ran away following a single successful military operation by the enemy.
We reap today the reward of Reagan’s mindless, erratic and often unconscionable foreign policy. Far from being “strong,” he was, in moral and practical terms, one of the worst presidents ever in the realm of foreign policy and military action. Obama’s foreign policy may turn out to be as bad, but from a rational historical perspective it would be hard, as yet, to justify calling it worse.
Johnny Carson was born today in 1925 in Corning, Iowa. A comedian and magician (“The Great Carsoni”), he worked on various radio and TV shows, most notably a starring gig on Who Do You Trust? He first appeared as a guest on The Tonight Show in 1953, and when Jack Paar resigned in 1962, Carson was named to replace him.
He remained on the show for more than 30 years, and, along with sidekick Ed McMahon and bandleader Carl “Doc” Severinsen, brought the talk show form to its peak of quality and entertainment value. No one else has ever come close, before or since. Carson died in 2005, more than a decade after his retirement.
Sunday, Oct. 24 – Mother-in-Law Day
When I grew up, “mother-in-law jokes” were a staple of comedians. Mothers-in-law got their bad reputation because of the actions of a few who try to control their children by driving wedges between them and their spouses. Most people I know, however, have a splendid relationship with the woman who raised their spouse.
Why not celebrate this day by writing a thank-you note to your mother-in-law for having brought up the person you love most in all the world? Even if you don’t have the best relationship with her, such a card (or phone call) might go a long way toward improving things.
The bad behavior of some mothers-in-law is caused by fear of loss and loneliness. By letting various insults and offenses roll off your back and treating her with unfailing kindness (“A soft answer turns away wrath”), you can set an example to your own children of patience with and kindness to the older generation – a lesson you will benefit from in later years.
And if you’re a mother-in-law with a poor relationship with your child’s spouse, perhaps you can celebrate this day by making a resolution to never say or imply any negative opinion of the person your child chose to marry. Except in cases of actual abuse, no one will ever thank you for doing anything but trying to help your children’s marriages succeed.
World Origami Days begin today and continue to Nov. 11. I can’t help but wonder why the art of paper-folding needs 19 days, and how these dates were chosen. Science fiction writing doesn’t get any day at all. I’m miffed.
Monday, Oct. 25 – Magic Week
International Magic Week celebrates the world of magic and the magicians who fake it. The climax of the week is Oct. 31, the anniversary of Harry Houdini’s death.
While spectacular effects are created by many big-name magicians, my favorite illusions and tricks are those performed close up by sleight-of-hand artists. My friend Gerry Argetsinger, an outstanding theater director, professor and translator of Danish plays, is also a wonderful magician and creator of stage effects. I have watched his work for years and never cease to be amazed at his skill and resourcefulness.
Remember, too, that while magicians must practice endlessly by themselves, they need to be able to test themselves in front of a sympathetic audience. If you’re the parents of a child afflicted with the desire to do magic tricks, be patient and provide them with sympathetic attention. No matter how awful they are at first, they might get better. Think of it as another branch of theater, a cure for shyness, a small-scale athletic event – and remember that your child can still grow up to be a useful human being.
American writer Anne Tyler, one of the best novelists alive, turns 69 today. To sample her work, try my favorite, Back When We Were Grownups, or The Accidental Tourist, Breathing Lessons, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant or Noah’s Compass. You’ll find her characters frustrating to the point of tragedy – but also noble. Indeed, I think Tyler succeeds in doing what Arthur Miller attempted but failed to do with Death of a Salesman: Make tragic heroes out of ordinary people.
Tuesday, Oct. 26 – Mule Day
This is the anniversary of the first importation of Spanish jacks to the US, a gift from King Charles III of Spain. Mules, which cannot reproduce directly, are created by the mating of a donkey with a horse, and are said to have been bred first in this country by George Washington, from this pair of jacks delivered at Boston, Oct. 26, 1785.
Celebrate Mule Day by being kind to, and speaking well of, people you know who work hard, bear heavy burdens but stubbornly refuse to obey stupid orders. Even if the stupid orders come from you.
The Erie Canal opened on this day in 1825, providing a water route from Lake Erie to the Hudson River. These days we forget how transformative canals were, even more in Europe than in America. Roads were hard to build in those days and hard to maintain in good order, whereas the water in canals provided a low-friction, always-level pathway for steam-powered, rowed or horse-drawn barges. (The horses walked along paths beside the canals, pulling tow-ropes.)
Construction on the Erie Canal started July 4, 1816, and the canal cost $7,602,000 – a massive expense in that era. But it was worth every penny. Until railroads were built to supplant it, the Erie Canal was the primary means for goods from the Midwest to reach the port of New York and the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. It made the American Midwest an economic powerhouse instead of a backwater, and cemented New York City’s role as the most important port in the country.
Hillary Rodham Clinton turns 63 today. If you don’t believe she’s thinking about challenging Obama for the 2012 Democratic nomination for president, you’re crazy.
Wednesday, Oct. 27 – Subway Day
The first New York City subway line, running from City Hall to West 145th Street, began operation today in 1904. It was privately operated by the Interborough Rapid Transit Company and later became part of the system operated by the New York City Transit Authority.
Because Manhattan is a high rocky island, an underground railway made sense, putting the noise and crowding of trains and stations out of sight, and using up almost no surface real estate.
In other cities, with higher water tables, subways are simply impossible, and instead urban railways depend on surface trolleys or elevated railways, which either chew up expensive real estate and interfere with road traffic, or cast shadows and spread noise over a wide area.
Because New York has a subway system, it has been able to grow vertically, cramming more and more people into a relatively small island without choking its transportation system. If you live and work in New York, there’s simply no reason to own a car.
Contrast this with Los Angeles or Greensboro, where almost everyone – even the poorest – has to have a car in order to hold a job or go shopping, and you can see how much impact a far-reaching subway system has on the quality of life.
The first of the 85 essays commonly called The Federalist Papers appeared in print in a New York City newspaper, Oct. 27, 1787. Written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, these papers argued in favor of adoption of the new American Constitution, which provided for a strong federal government to unify the newly independent American states. The last of the essays was complete on April 4, 1788.
While Madison’s contribution was important, Alexander Hamilton wrote most of the essays and was the driving spirit behind them. Since Hamilton also invented our financial system and got America out of debt, and was the single most important influence on policy during Washington’s time as president, one can argue that if Hamilton isn’t the father of our country, he’s at least America’s wise and generous uncle.
Theodore Roosevelt, born on this day in 1858, became the 26th president of the United States when, as vice president, he succeeded to the presidency on the death of William McKinley. He was later elected to a term of his own, so he served from Sept. 14, 1901 to March 3, 1909.
He was the first president to ride in an automobile (1902), submerge in a submarine (1905) and fly in an airplane (1910). A Republican, he was America’s most liberal president since Lincoln, doing much to break the economic stranglehold of trusts and monopolies. Ironically, when his hand-picked successor, Taft, proved too conservative for Roosevelt, he mounted a third-party campaign that led to the election of racist Democrat Woodrow Wilson in 1912, who ended the federal government’s hiring of African Americans for government jobs in the South – the last nail in the coffin of black civil rights, ushering in the long dark night of Jim Crow.
Welsh poet Dylan Thomas was born on this day in 1914; he died in 1953. His best-known poem begins:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
It is one of the best poems ever written in English, and its best public performance ever was given by Rodney Dangerfield in Back to School in 1986 (a wonderful comedy that, ironically, gets no respect).
The poem ends:
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.