animal crossing: a place to call home

Animal Crossing is a Nintendo video game that was first released in 2002 on the gamecube console. In the game, you play as a humanoid character who moves to a village of animal neighbors. You meet Tom Nook, the owner of the shaggy-looking Nook’s Cranny (get the pun, haha), the general store of the town. There’s been some new houses built in town by Nook and he offers one to you. You’re in need of some basic shelter, of course, but there’s one problem – you don’t have any bells (the currency of the Animal Crossing world). Nook has you carry out some errands for the store until you have enough bells to afford the down payment. And then… you’re on your own. There’s no guided levels to travel through in this game.

The main objective, at first, seems to be to keep on earning bells, so that you can pay to get expansions and rooms added on your house. You can earn bells in various ways – by selling fruits and shells found in the town, by catching bugs and insects or digging up fossils and selling them, or by selling items you get from doing favors for your animal neighbors.Once you’ve made the final payment for the fully expanded house, you get a little statue of yourself put in front of the train station. There are other achievement-oriented tasks in the game. If you catch all the possible insects and fish or find all the fossils in the game, you get special decorations added on to your house. You can display all the specimens you’ve caught in the town museum. You can fill your house with themed furniture sets and get points from the “Happy Room Academy.”

But a lot of the game actually steers away from goal-oriented activities, which seems a bit strange up front. Isn’t that the point of a game? To win it? But that’s part of the magic of Animal Crossing. The game teaches the player how to enjoy the game just for the sake of enjoying it.

From a 2001 Nintendo Online Monthly interview, Kazumi Totaka, the main composer of the music in Animal Crossing, has remarked that every person seems to enjoy playing the game differently. For him, it’s all about “just walking around in the game.” I would have to agree with Totaka on that one. I love just walking around and listening to the different sounds – my character’s footsteps in the ground (grassy swooshes in spring and summer, crunchy snow in winter), the sounds of different insects (Taro Bando, who did the sound effects for the gamecube version, actually went to the mountains in Fushimi to record the local insects there!), the trickle of the river, the rush of the town waterfall, the relaxes waves of the ocean – and how these sounds fade in and out and combine with one another as you travel throughout the town. Totaka himself has said there  “there’s music hiding in all these spaces.” This sentiment reminds me of the John Cage idea of music existing in all sounds and spaces depending on your perspective of listening. In this way, Animal Crossing allows for an appreciation of the little everyday things that might otherwise go missed. All the activities your character can partake in are so normal – walking around town, talking to neighbors, sending letters, earning money to have a roof over your head. I can’t help but be reminded of the Japanese philosopher Sen no Rikū, who sought to put meaning, ritual, imagination into the seemingly routine and unremarkable.

One of the most defining features about Animal Crossing that I haven’t mentioned about is its slow pace. Animal Crossing occurs in real time – that is, when its June 25th at  3 o’clock in real life, it’s  June 25th at 3 o’clock in the game. Each hour has its own background music track. Each one is a little different in instrumentation and mood, but they all loop around little melodies that are variations of the main Animal Crossing theme song that can be heard on the title screen. As Totaka has described, the sounds used are very electronic and sythn-thy, reminiscent of classic 8-bit video game music.

I love the slightly funky quality of the rhythmic interactions within the different the sound-groupings in each hour. For example, take 7am. There’s this syncopated beatbox-like back beat in a synthesizer chord, studded with sparkly celeste dings. A xylophone-like sound plays one of the most straight up renditions of the song, with some added bluesy notes and range-expanding extensions of the main Animal Crossing melody. As the melody finishes out, the backbeat circles to the beginning again, like ever-repeating minimalist music (but with a happily tuneful tinge). Things shift a little going into the 8am hour. Now, we hear a bumbling arpeggiated ostinato in keyboard, along with snare and hi-hat combination that creates this feeling of briskly walking about the town. A clarinet-type sound directly quotes the main melody. A lot of these midi sounds sound like hybrid crosses between instruments – this clarinet seems almost part-saxophone, with a playful touch of honky abrasiveness. The melody is punctuated by harmonica-like interjections. These little interjections are one of my favorite parts about these tracks, giving each hour its own special flavor. 1pm includes cat noises, from gentle meows to playfully fierce mrawo. At 6pm, little owl hoots finish out each phrases. The owl hoots increase in frequency in the 7p hour, a reminder that bedtime is coming soon.

As the background music gradually morphs across the day and night, so too do other elements of the game. In addition to changes in the music, each hour brings on a slight difference in the lighting, in the activity of the animals, and in what bugs and insects might be found. The seasons change gradually, too, with the ground changing from a bold green to orange to brown to snow-covered. Weather comes and goes, with rain showers and even the occasional thunderstorm. In an increasingly urbanized world where our lives seem to be sped up and put on overdrive by technology and the media, it’s refreshing to return to a slower pace. Animal Crossing subtlety encourages players to slow down and smell the roses – literally.  If you make your character run around too much instead of walking (by pressing the “b” button while moving), there’s a chance your character might trip and fall. If you reset the game or time travel in order to undo an action or speed up a process  by jumping ahead (such as waiting for planted trees to grow, which takes three days), you’ll be punished with a lengthy tirade from Mr. Resetti the next time you play.

It’s not uncommon to hear members of our modern society described as hyper-connected through things social media, yet suffering from deep sense of loneliness due to a lack of relationships that go beyond surface-level. Animal Crossing, however, places an emphasis on communication that in a way, serves as an antipode to that. Friendships with the animals gradually form. When interacting with your animal neighbors, you can ask if they need a favor, and if you complete it successfully you can receive a gift from them – a more transitional interaction. But you can also choose to just chat with them for no reason in particular. There are several different “personalities” that the animals can have (in the gamecube version males can be “grumpy,” “lazy,” or “jocks,” females can be “girly,” “snooty,” or “normal.”) But as you talk to each personality-type more and more, they start to reveal more layers of themselves and say things they’ve never said before. What the animals say can be friendly, funny, or even rude. But they’re almost always deeply thought-provoking in some way. This notion extends to other residents of the town as well. Take the two hedgehog siblings that work in the Able Sisters fashion shop, where you can design your own clothing. One of them, Sable, is always quiet, working in the back at the sewing machine. But if you talk to her every day, she’ll gradually warm up to you. Who knew a video game could be a lesson in what it means to have an authentic relationship.

Animal Crossing will always hold a special place in my heart, as corny as that may sound. Every time I play this game, I feel a wave of comforting nostalgia. The sense of rhythm through time gives the game a sense of structure, a sense of here-ness – a feeling that you’re at home and everything is going to be okay.There’s something so peaceful about the rhythm of a quiet life. This rhythm stems not only from the game being in real-time, but also through a sense of routine and ritual by having events happen only at certain times of the day, week, or year. Take, for instance, the postman pelican, who flaps down to the house mailboxes every evening at 5pm to deliver the mail. Or K.K. Slider, the singing dog with impressive eyebrows and a guitar in hand, who sets up next to the train station every Saturday after 8pm to take song requests. Or the turnip lady, who comes by every Sunday morning selling turnips. Your life outside the game may be changing, you may be growing up, but what goes on in your town in Animal Crossing is something that is constant, that you know you can go back to and will be there.

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construct

We perceive such a tiny fraction of reality. We are constantly bombarded by more information than we could ever fully process. That’s where the freedom lies. We can choose what parts of reality to process, and in so doing construct our own version of reality. Reality itself is objective, but our perception of it will always be subjective, colored by context, expectations, culture.

Maybe before the big bang, when the whole universe was condensed in a single pinpoint, it could see all of itself, all at once. There would have been no unanswered questions, no mysteries. Is that lack of meaning what impeded it to explode? Expansion out of itself in a desire to create meaning, to create the presence of mystery and things unknown.

When we seek to make unknown things, known, are we seeking out our own deaths? Does knowledge disintegrate mystery, or does it allow us to more deeply appreciate them, and uncover even more mysteries in the process?

The universe continues to expand, leaving more mysteries in its wake. Energy, decondensed and exchanged. An intelligence with no consciousness.

lately

lately, I’ve been feeling more like an artist and less like a scientist. lately, I’ve been taking hour-long leisurely walks instead of half-hour runs. lately, I’ve been listening to music less often, and when I do, I feel it more intensely, the way I used to. lately, I’ve been figuring out =what exactly it is that I want to be doing, sorting out what I wanted then from what I want now. lately, I’ve been feeling bad about myself for not doing more. lately, I’ve been becoming more aware of the ways that I self-sabotage myself. Lately, I’ve been feeling content with being alone. lately, my feelings towards others have been moving away from jealousy and shame and towards gratitude and inspiration. lately, I’ve been trying to make things less complicated. lately, I’ve been remembering my dreams when I wake.

after the rain

A brief rainstorm passed by. The clouds grew bluer, their bottoms were textured like wet cotton. The sun was again emerging, there was glistening everywhere, rays on wetness. Leaves peppered with small drops, the sidewalk sparkling. This was the most lush time of the year. The birds were chirping before the storm passed, warning calls. Now they were singing again, at ease. The field was covered in daisies, they were drinking. Drinking the wetness and growing. The rain released all the fragrance stored away in dry things. The smell of water and seeds, releasing packets for pollination, for new growth.

to read : to perform

When I am reading something that is eloquently written, every sentence is like a gem. I want to capture, collect each gem for safekeeping. But sometimes the beauty almost becomes overwhelming, and I cannot keep up. As the writer, as the creator, how much work should we expect the audience to do in the digesting of our product? How can I better cultivate pauses and moments of reflection as a reader?

As readers, we have the agency to re-read a sentence as many times as we want. We can stop and lift our eyes from the pages, think about what we’ve just read. That’s one way that each person’s experience of reading a book will be different. All the words are there, but it’s up to us how we take it in.

It’s like a musician who chooses to interpret the notes written on a page – how to phrase the line, what nuances to bring out, what emotional quality to convey. Some music presents more explicit instructions on those elements, through things like dynamic markings, articulations, or full-out written descriptions. You can do that in writing, too – through syntax, word choice, sentence length.

… But what if you had instructions in a book like “Read this sentence three times, then close your eyes and pause for ten seconds.” Would that aid in the reader’s ability to experience the work as the author intended it to be experienced? Or would that only constrain the reader’s imagination and their ability to emphasize with the text?

As tempting as it is, I cannot simply collect the gems and display them. When you read a book you are entering a relationship. You need to bring something of yourself to the text, in that space of interpretive freedom. Otherwise it becomes strictly didactical, there is no reciprocal relationship between the written text and the reader.

an ecological aesthetics

What are we seeking when we make art out of scientific knowledge? What happens when we poetically portray what is usually expressed in the cultural language of academia? Should we be cautious when taking scientific principles and interpreting them as models for how we should live out our lives?

These are some questions I’ve been thinking about recently as I’ve been reading David Haskell’s new book, “The Songs of Trees.” As Haskell visits trees the globe and shares their stories, he stresses the profound lesson that ecology teaches us: that biological life not a series of discrete entities, but an interconnected network, a network that humans are an intrinsic part of.

When we give ourselves over to a physical place, that is, when we recognize that we are an intrinsic part of it, we develop what Haskell calls a type ecological aesthetics. An aesthetics: a set of principles that guides us in the appreciation of beauty, the appreciation of nature. It’s not some frivolous thing. It’s essential. Letting our senses become fully receptive to our surroundings is an act of resistance in a culture of disengagement and disembodiment.

When we look at nature and see synergy in symbiosis or resilience in regeneration, we may to some degree be imposing our own subjective human values on what we see. But at the same time, Haskell’s ecological aesthetics acts as a sort of moral guide. When you recognize that you’re a part of the network, you defend it. It’s an extension of the basic struggle for survival, the primal drive for self-preservation. An artistic or poetic lens of the natural world teaches us how to love nature again, not from a utilitarian standpoint, from one that hands it an intrinsic value.

And so what is gained might be seen as a type of an ethics. An ethics of empathy. An ethics that breaks the dichotomies, where the boundaries between the self and the other are blurred. A sense that ego isn’t everything, that we are a part of something much larger than ourselves. An awareness of temporality, that nothing is eternal and that change is inevitable.

inhale… exhale.

I’ve been a bit of a “consumption slump” recently. It can be so easy (for me, but I suspect for many others, as well) to continually feed and feed on the information and media that floods through our days. There’s this imbalance – I feel like I’m inhaling but not exhaling. As human beings we have an impulse to create, and we need to respect that impulse. But various blockages prevent that act of creation, that essential exhale. They come in the form of inner-critic excuses – “it’s already been said before.” “Somebody else could do this better than me.” And then I continue inhaling to the point of exhaustion and implosion. (Or in this case, I suppose it would be explosion?)

Another common inner-critic excuse that comes up for me is “You’re knowledgable enough on x subject to be writing about this.” This, of course, can be addressed with a bit of research. For me the tricky part about research is knowing when to stop. I can keep researching, keep collecting, and never feel like I have enough. Yes, this might suggest the need for a question or topic of smaller scope. Hence why I will be doing these smaller, weekly posts. Knowing that you don’t have to take on the whole world in one go makes the act of starting less intimidating.  (Being idealistic has its disadvantages. Try lowering your expectations and see what happens).

I’m writing on this blog as a way to keep myself accountable. But right now, it is important that I write for my own process of discovery, rather than for the purpose for presenting a product to an audience. This motive might seem selfish, in a way, but it’s a bit like the logic of self-care: you yourself need to be coming from a healthy place in order to reach out and touch others (and, then, in turn, to let those others touch you.)

 

days three through six

day three
its hotter, but at this time of day the shade penetrates deeper into this little alcove. Occasional shuffles in the grass from the hops of a foraging bird sound like human footsteps, make me uneasy. A scary, red ant-shaped insect hovers over my legs. The surface of these broad grass blades are sticky. This grass, Galium aparine, apparently goes by the name of “sticky willy.” Its considered a noxious weed, and its the dominant plant covering the ground here. Yet it possesses its own type of humble beauty – little whorled leaflets, and tiny white flowers blooming from their tops. A couple have squirts of white foam pasted to their sides – protective coverings for the larvae of froghopper bugs. Between the blades, invisibly-thin spider threads mark the tiny trails of spiders . Sometimes little shells of seeds get stuck to the threads and dangle in the wind, suspended in a magician’s magic trick.
 …
day four
At the top of the hill again, a round circle of grass; a miniature clearing for butterflies to gather. The heat is even more intense today, but the air moves fast and cool at this height. The sky is clear save a few small wisps of cirrus, it fades to a pale white at the horizon line, a layer of pointed evergreen tips I’ve come to identify as home. You can see one layer further today: the light blue of a distant sloping mountain range, the stark peak of mt. hood in the center. With our rooftops we humans seem like small inhabitants of a vast forest from this perspective – I guess that’s what it is, really. Today I’ve caught several hummingbirds sitting in trees, with their squeaky soap-like whistling. At what point do they no longer withstand the heat and retreat into dazed torpor? I hear the chorus of leaves in the wind, the faint twinkling tones of a nearby wind chimes. The rhythmic clanging of a hammer. Small daisies are sprouting up everywhere in the grass right now. Looking at them fills my heart, reminds me of friendship.
 …
day five
I haven’t been feeling that great physically today and its really been barricading the flow of my thoughts. I sat down on the bare-bright bench, thighs burning from the radiant heat. The wind is strong this afternoon, on my way up I saw a bird of prey, wings splayed and facing the wind but not making any headway against it. Like being frozen in time; stuck in one place. It looked pretty uncomfortable. Why didn’t she simply turn around? Eventually after a pointless struggle, she veered to the left and I lost sight of her as she swept behind a stand of pine trees. The pervasive sound today is the wind, larger, deep and resonant; no audible birdsong over this gale. The grumbling of waste facility trucks – its garbage day. I see the cars below traveling on their daily courses – that question of how we can live in the reality that is the everyday without losing sight of the broader realm of the imaginary and the ideal. Maybe part of that is carving out quiet spaces like these. Seed fragments and needles float up in little whirlwinds over the asphalt. My allergy-ridden body is rejecting this all – nose running, eyes itching – and propels me to leave this place of quiet against my will.
 …
day six
The temperature dropped down to a breezy 60 degrees today, and a wide spread of flat-bottomed cumulus clouds extends before me. Gray shadows and wisped edges. Gliding birds ride on the wind currents like paper airplanes, changing directions in sudden darting motions. The shadow of my hand moves across the page. As the clouds move everything flickers, shading of the leaves gives this subdued sunlight a candlewick effect. There is one cement brick missing from the railing, open space like a proud lost tooth. I wonder where it went.

day two

I planted myself in the tall grass, gray bumpy flies stopping to take quick rests on my bare ankles. Looking up, the sky is sparser today, splatters of charismatic cumulus clumps. An intense sun produces long and stark shadows in the still-white light. Strong contrast of translucent chlorophylled-cover and silhouettes form against the flat blades like a puppet show but without the  drama. The background noises seem more imperious today – some type of wood-cutting chainsaw, whirring planes, a women’s strident voice in a nearby backyard. Lawn mowers. Birds in more isolated chirps and calls, buzzy pitched signatures. A more present and insistent buzz of insect wings circling around my ears. The grass and trees seem so alive as they sway in the slight breeze. What does it mean to see each organism here as possessing its own special type of consciousness? Rustling. On the ground – pine cones, pine needles, bark, drying moss and fruticose lichen. Ants, tiny black beetle with two orange stripes. I wonder how different this place was before all the neighborhoods moved in. As I sit here the shadows move as much as their plant owners, this is the only reflection they’ll know, a playful dance with themselves.

 

day one

slowly stepped up the paved path of a suburban hill, sandwiched between the houses. mid may and about seventy degrees, a slight breeze with a tad of radiating heat that sits on the surface of the skin. A low rumbling of the road is the undertone to heavy leaves swaying, so many layers and shade of green-ness. A chorus of bird song in the early evening, species I still do not know the names of. children playing. Various small things that dance in front of my eyes – dots of black gnats, puffs of cotton that lazily float by like loose clumps of snow. a pair in flitted flight, interactions of attraction and separation. I can’t tell if they’re birds or insects, just black silhouettes against distant marbled clouds. In all this life it is finally quiet. so many voices and information, its so overwhelming that its just here and accessible. Remember that it’s okay to take your time.