Lost in Wonderland, 2008

Over the years since Dasad and I first attended Otakon, the East Coast anime convention, my fascination with anime and manga has risen to new heights (or sunk to deeper depths) such that I can only ponder (and shudder) at where my interests will lead me next year. Curiosity provided impetus for our first visit; the following year, my love for stories and all things weird beckoned me back, a fact that still astounds Dasad today:

"Wait, you want to go back?"

"Wait, you want to go back?"

“Wait, you want to go back?” he wrote, ostensibly astounded after I pre-purchased tickets. “Why in the world would want to go back? Anime conventions are like social quicksand. Do you WANT to die alone and unloved?”

A little dramatic perhaps but I understand his concerns. Still normality never appealed to me, and so despite my impending destiny, I bought tickets again this year. Recently a few new anime series had captivated my imagination, and thus compelled me to seek out new DVDs, posters, and art books. Yet the real reason, my honest intent was to purchase an anime figure.

Buying an anime figure in the otaku community is akin to primal man’s first successful hunt or a wide receiver’s first touchdown: a rite of passage as well as a point of no return. Some otaku collect hundreds of figures, which they entomb in little glass cases or scatter around their workstations like protective spirits. Yet while owning hordes of figurines is a mark of honor in the anime community, everywhere else collectors are stapled as “thirty-year-old guys who plays with dolls.” Social quicksand indeed, conventions are more like a social black hole.

Normality never really appealed to me . . .

Normality never really appealed to me . . .

Still normality never really appealed to me, and thus this year I convinced Dasad to join me yet again. As we stood in line, I think he still had trouble coping with this decision:

“Remind me again why I am here?”

Dasad and I stood at the end of a long line into the convention center. Dressed in normal street clothes, we actually felt outlandish among the various costumes, makeup, and hand-made wands donned by the rest of the conventioneers. The lady before us was applying copious layers of red face-paint on her boyfriend’s face and arms while adjusting her lank black wig and the sash of her red kimono. Hellboy and Hellgirl then sucked down a can of Red Bull and leaned against the building to cuddle. Dasad wrinkled his nose. The couple smelt of soggy gym socks.

We should have dressed up, I thought.

We should have dressed up.

We should have dressed up.

“Freaks,” Dasad muttered. “I mean, we just visited the anime convention last year. What purpose do we have in coming yet again?”

“Well,” I said, focusing my camera on a host of ninja piling from a nearby van. “Last year was a bit of a farce. Months of waiting which amounted to a measly four hours of convention time, hardly enough to catch music videos and browse the marketplace. This year, the family gave me the whole day off to geek out.”

“Fine for you maybe, but what am I doing here? Besides inhaling geek funk, oh terrific . . .” The couple apparently had kissed. When I saw the girl again, her face shined with smudged paint, like a lioness after dining on fresh zebra. Dasad and I changed lines.

“You’re here,” I said, snapping a few more photos of some tight-donned swordsmen, “Because you’re a good friend who rejoices in my happiness.”

“Nope,” Dasad mumbles as the swordsmen’s ten-foot carboard sword nearly skewers him. “Freak, get far away from me and take your freak-stick with you.”

“Ummm, let’s see . . . there is a chance that I might get assaulted and/or molested by freaks, and you would not be here to watch and/or laugh.” At this point, I realized that we were in the wrong line altogether. Pre-registered attendees could go right inside.

" . . . take your freak stick with you."

". . . and take your freak stick with you."

“As well as capture your humiliation for posterity,” Dasad considered. “Okay I can accept that. Your camera does take movies, right?”

“I think . . . it has that video camera switch. Hold on . . .” I snap a few photos of some greenish wizard holding a large gray bomb and hand the camera to Dasad. I have to give my friend credit; he possesses a true talent for taking quality shots, holding the camera like an expert marksman. Meanwhile I shoot on the run, like an 80’s action star. Almost one-hundred percent of the smeared and blurred shots I delete afterwards were my own.

“So what are you looking for today?” Dasad asks inspecting the camera. “What’s the agenda?”

“Um . . . well, last year we came home with lots of stuff. DVDs, box sets, posters . . .”

“Speak for yourself. I came home with a bad rash and five hours lost, which could have been better spent watching Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares.”

“Well, this year I wanted to maybe buy some artbooks and maybe, if it’s not too expensive . . . a figure.”

“A figure?” Dasad said, suddenly smiling a broad Cheshire grin.

I have always had a fascination with carven figures and models – not that I myself am much adept at the art. When I was a mere tyke, Mom would collect David Winter houses, intricately carved Old World cottages, houses, and ruined castles. Never allowed to touch – lest my PB&J-smeared hands desecrate the artwork – I would nonetheless stare at them from behind glass doors. Now anime figures are equally detailed, and unlike my mother’s other collections, the childish Hummel figurines, do more than push wheelbarrows, plant flowers, and stare dumbfounded into space. Meanwhile, anime and video game characters can wield swords, mount spells, and look cute in bathing suits, hair billowing with the summer breeze. Moreover the transition from the 2D realm into three-dimensional statues fascinates me, and I wanted to commemorate this convention by buying my first figure.

"A figure?  Which one?"

"A specific figure? Which series?"

Nonetheless, this further descent into geekdom frightened me a bit. I have always been a moderate fan at best, picking and choosing my shows based on good-storytelling and interesting plot-lines, always ready to keep my obsession in check. Thus, purchasing a figure scared me some. Dasad of course knew this, and in order to relieve me of my fears, mocked me openly.

“Any specific figure? Which series? A sexy one? You, pervert you . . .”

“Umm . . .” I muttered, my face reddening. “No specific one in mind. Maybe Fate/Stay Night or Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya . . . or anyone that looks good.” Despite my mortification, the quest for the perfect figure had an opposite affect on Dasad, who at once seemed excited, ready and willing to humiliate me as I shopped.

The industrial plaza and its maze of venders regrettably were closed until eleven. Thus, we change direction and head for the art gallery and AMV contest. Navigating around the convention center is like finding oneself a rat in a maze. If you refuse to jump through the right hoops, you might find yourself lost, electrocuted, and a fire hazard.

“Whoa, that fuzzy Pikachu just shocked me,” Dasad shouts as we make our way through the crowds to the lower lobby.

“Wow,” I admired. “That’s quite a costume then. What do you think of the pageantry so far?”

"I can't even recognize half these characters."

"I can't even recognize half these characters."

“I can’t even recognize half these characters. The Dragonball and Naruto guys, sure. But what about that guy with the blue hair . . .”

“Gurren Lagann,” I said, taking a hurried picture. “Awesome show, the plot spans several years and considers the ramifications of changing the world and having to live with those changes.”

“ ‘kay, what about that one: the green haired girl in the straitjacket?”

“Umm . . . Code Geass, I think. New show, I haven’t seen it yet, but I hear it’s very popular in Japan now. The DVDs just came out this week so I’ll probably pick them up later today,” I said, now scanning the hallways and atriums for characters. Many I recognized but failing fluency in Japanese could not pronounce their names. “The kid with the guitar over there might be FLCL or Beck, I’m not sure. And the bunnygirl over there in her mom’s S&M clothes, well, I’m not quite sure what that is . . .”

We passed a large couple stretched out on a black couch. The husband rested his head in his wife’s lap; she slouched down in the sofa, eyes blurred over a magazine. I stopped to photograph a few cosplayers posing near the outdoor veranda.

“It’s ten o’clock in the morning,” Dasad whispered to me. “The convention opened at nine. Are they already exhausted?”

"I'm not quite sure what that is."

. . . the crowd's reaction to specific scenes and anime amaze me.

“Parents,” I said. “They have a long day ahead of them.”

We strode down to the anime music videos (AMV) contest. In previous years, the AMV’s proved the highlight of the convention. Fans would combine technical artistry, fast-paced songs, and their favorite shows into a short four-minute music video. Very impressive all in all. Yet this year, most of the videos – particularly those categorized as romantic or sentimental – proved more soporific than sensational. I believe Dasad fell asleep through half the entries, which failed to maintain his interest – and mine.

Nonetheless, the crowd’s reaction to specific scenes and anime amaze me. In past years during a particularly intense or memorable moment the audience, the size of a small stadium, would shout, cheer and clap. I would smile, infected by the crowd’s energy and excitement. Even faced with a dull video, the love of the fans for the medium made the whole experience bearable and fun. At home my own excitement was often met with odd stares and rolled eyes; here I could love my hobby with abandon.

Moreover, I discovered that some songs even improve when coupled with a little animation:

Eventually the industry arena opened, and a tide of conventioneers slowly flooded the marketplace, settling to a steady current throughout the numerous stalls and booths. Anime markets are an example of chaos in bloom. Otaku love to buy things: figures, books, DVDs, posters, key chains, anything associated with their favorite series. As I mentioned they are fairly obsessive people, and as Dasad and I drifted through the stalls, we witnessed fans dancing, posing for pictures, congregating around videos, and some – shoplifters – escorted out by security.

Half-way into the arena we encountered a group of girls dancing, shifting their hips back and forth and flapping their hands near their heads like cat ears. Energetic synth music blared in the background.

“By all that is holy, what is that?” Dasad asks.

“Caramelldansen,” I said. “A Swedish song set to these two anime characters dancing . . . well, like these girls. It’s a very addictive song. If you listen once, you’ll never get tired of it.”

“I have no idea what is going on anymore.”

“Neither do I,” I laugh. “That’s all the fun.”

Nonetheless, despite the choreographed dancing and ensuing chaos, we found our way into a relatively unpopulated booth to begin our search.

“So what are we looking for?” Dasad asked, fingering a large robot I recognized from the series RahXephon.

“I’m not sure myself, but I have to display it at home with the kids so . . .”

“PG-13?”

“Nothing excessively graphic . . . oh and no robots. I hate giant robots.”

“Gotcha, how about this one? It says ‘Cast Off.’ Does it fire missiles or something?”

“No, that means her clothes come off.”

“Whoa, okay. So no.”

“No, I’m not into that stuff. And the family would never let me live it down if I bought it.”

“Fine, but I’m making note of it . . . just in case you change your mind. Oooh . . . this one is sexy. Hey Murphey, don’t you want a sexy figure? Why don’t we buy the one with the swimsuit?” Dasad has a wonderfully honest way of embarrassing me in public. Possessing no shame – but then who does at an anime convention – he will announce with great acumen what I am thinking but probably too embarrassed to speak aloud.

“Ooo . . . I like the one with the girl in the short school uniform. Hey dude, did you know you bend the box at just the right angle you can see up . . .”

“Let’s go over there,” I interrupt, my face as red as sunburn.

. . .  rising from the earth as if flying

. . . rising from the earth as if flying

After much searching, I finally find the figure I am seeking: a Belldandy figure from the anime “Oh My Goddess.” The statue is well-crafted, beautiful with flowing robes, hair, and ribbons, rising from the earth as if flying. Dasad simply shrugs and asks for my camera. He films my purchase, much to the concern of the old man behind the counter as if he fears my whole exchange will appear on Inside Edition later that night. His eyes dart from side to side, and anxiously he quickly slides my credit card while shoving the figure in my hands.

We walk off and I hurriedly stuff the figure into my backpack. “So I have less to carry,” I explained to Dasad.

“Sure, sure,” he said. “Don’t worry no one cares. Shove your shame into your backpack and let’s head out. I’m starving for burritos.”

We leave the industry arena, and hesitantly I look back. Given more time, I think I could have bought a bit more, but for the sake of my stomach, sanity, as well as my wallet, we depart. Until next year then . . . when I will try to convince Dasad to buy that schoolgirl figurine.

“Fat chance,” he said his mouth full of rice. Oh well, but then perhaps I have a good lead on Christmas gifts . . .

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Musical Haunts

Lately songs have become lodged in my head, whispering lyrics as I sleep like the ghost of some blond pop diva.  I speak of course of Natasha Bedingfold’s “Pocketful of Sunshine,” one of the most addictive songs on the radio this year.  If you happen to hear its wispy synthetic prelude, careen off to the median and throw yourself from your car immediately (or turn down the volume), lest you subject your family and loved-ones to long off-key interludes of “Take me Awaaaay . . . to my secret plaaaace . . .”  Airborne infection occurs within seconds; normal healthy siblings will fall into chorus or dance after a single verse:

Natasha’s secret place apparently excludes non-beautiful people who cannot street dance — or look horrible in white.  Ryan meanwhile took most of family to see Neil Diamond Tuesday.  The average age of the audience included 30-year old men and 40-year old women, shaking and dancing to the rhythm of Neil’s blue jeans.   During one energetic song, we told by the row behind us to sit down and slump in our seats as we stood to dance.  Apparently the older curmudgeons, too old or lazy to stand and clap, felt angry at the prospect of paying eighty bucks to watch our porcine rears shake and obstruct the stage.  Some people enjoy to dance; other enjoy to sit quietly and listen.  Either is good, but for those that choose the latter, a $20 DVD succeeds much better than an $80 concert ticket.

Dated

The last line of the digital notice Pat and Tiff sent me prior to our blind double date read “have an open mind and no expectations.” I think that this was Tiff’s way of trying to assuage my fears and rising anxiety about the whole dating-process.

Dating and I are like oil and vinegar. We rarely mix well and end up tasting really bland on the dinner table over iceberg lettuce. Years ago, my first date involved the sister of a friend in college, who I only briefly knew, and judging by our short unappealing conversations, my friend thought that we might make a good couple. Though disaster hung about my head like a guillotine, I agreed after some persuasion, if anything for the sake of curiosity about the whole dating-process. I had witnessed individuals dating before – mostly on TV and in comic books – and I thus wondered if the ritual truly reflected the fun and excitement of these examples.

The short answer was “No.” “Please Lord, let this night end,” would provide an even longer but still pretty accurate answer. After picking up the girl, whose name I remember incorrectly as Alice, we drove off to a flick and some dinner afterwards. Alice knows little about movies, cares little about them, and possessed the personality of a clam. Every “Have you seen any good flicks this year?” or “Hey, what do you think about those previews? Anything look interesting?” or “How’s classes going? Have you decided on a major?” seemed to only draw her even further into a vegetative state. Now albeit I probably was a little annoying, trying every conversation topic possible to provoke . . . a pulse or two, yet nothing seemed to pry open her shell until I asked about music.

Apparently Alice loved David Matthews Band, to whom I occasionally listened on the radio, “Ants Marching” being a popular song at the time. Alice seemed to ready to stalk the man, citing every visit DMB made to the East Coast, which ironically enough coincided with various roadtrips she and her friends had made over the last few years. She knew every single, every band-member, every instrument, and CD cover. Over the few hours I nearly drowned in data about Matthew’s eating habits, dental records, and how if those bastards at the cleaners used less starch his clothes would not rip off so easily. It was around this time that I noticed the colorful necklace she wore and fingered while speaking seemed threaded with a plaid polyester dress-shirt.

The level of obsession here scared me, yet any attempts to change the subject met with a cold glare and gloomy silence for the rest of the evening. Later the following Monday, we exchanged brief pleasantries about the evening and I wished her well in her studies, almost afraid to broach another subject. A week later, my friend told me that Alice had decided to try homosexuality for awhile. Even now, I never found out whether he was joking or not.

PS: In the end Saturday’s double date ended quite well. We all enjoyed ourselves albeit after a surprising turn of events at the Belmont Stakes (Pat and I were hyped for a Triple Crown victory). Even the 104 degree temperature which left us sticky and slow, gave me ample reason to break my no-coffee rule with a mint java chip frappaccino. Mmmm . . . nothing says summer like sweet chocolate drinks and shattered New Year’s resolutions.