Thursday, June 9, 2016

The joke's on us

On these recent summer nights, our household has been arranging itself as follows: Noel and I in the living room, watching TV, working, knitting, and/or reading; Cady Gray in Archer's room, watching Twitch, playing Steam, chatting with friends online, drawing, roleplaying; and Archer in the front room, keeping up with his various YouTube-based "camps." Every once in awhile Archer will pop up from the couch and go running into his room to tell CG something, or come into the living room to tell us something -- he's had a thought about how Ten Words of Wisdom is working out, or has just learned an amusing fact on Numberphile.

Last night he jumped up, hustled down the hallway, burst into his room and said "Hello!" Except CG wasn't in his room. She was in the living room with us, talking about Romeo And/Or Juliet. All three of us watched and listened, bemused, as he ran past and shouted "Hello!" to an empty room. Then we burst into laughter.

Archer came in and stood in the doorway, smiling uncontrollably. We were laughing at his mistake, at something he had done that turned out to be funny. But -- and here's the important thing -- he wasn't angry or frustrated with us, or even embarrassed about the mistake. He was enjoying the fact that we found it amusing, because he found it amusing too. He grinned and commented happily on the error, recognizing that his assumption had gone hilariously awry. He knew we weren't laughing at him, even though, y'know, we were laughing at what he did. He was having as much fun as we were.

I looked at that smile and thought how remarkable it was. For a boy who had to consciously practice being aware of how others saw him, putting himself in their shoes, and tailoring his actions accordingly, it represented how very far he's come.

And those YouTube camps he watches hours upon end? They're part of it. He emulates the YouTubers who play gamemaster to their subscribers, creating "object shows" where cartoon icons like Golf Ball and Cat Bed compete in Survivor-like competitions, earning points and being eliminated. These channels don't just entertain him passively; he learns from them (and from the feedback they incorporate into the ongoing game) how to manage interactions. His earliest efforts were based on popular marble-race videos made using the software physics engine Algodoo, combined with animated Wacky Races-style cartoons like Battle for Dream Island. But at the same time as his Keynote animation skills develop, so do his interactive instincts, all propelled by his simultaneous interests in designing a good game and keeping his subscribers happy.

Just look at what's going on in his most recent camp, Battle for Regal Planet (here's a video from 10 months ago, and here's one from last week after an Undertale-inspired design reboot). He's even started narrating his TWOW-homage Realm of Fifty Characters, just like his hero carykh. Listen to how smooth and expressive that narration is. He writes it all out, but it's full of dramatic twists. He's clearly aware of his listeners and pitches his presentation to their expectations, needs, and entertainment.

Years ago as we were trying to imagine our #robotboy's future, I hoped that computer interaction, with its throttled stream of cues and information, would allow him to make progress in socialization. Today I'm amazed at how that has happened, in realms I never could have foreseen.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

The greatest

I always watched Wide World of Sports. It was a Sunday afternoon ritual. Jim McKay, Howard Cosell, those yellow blazers, and whatever random sporting event they were covering. (Based on this early experience, I would have projected cliff diving to feature much more prominently in my life than it actually has.)

I watched with my dad, mostly. Probably my brothers were around, too. But it was my dad I was aware of, in the room, following the standings of the giant slalom or weightlifting. And it's my dad I thought of immediately when I heard this morning that Muhammad Ali had died.

Wide World of Sports was the Muhammad Ali show for a lot of those years (with short breaks during which it become the Evel Knievel show). Howard Cosell was Ali's foil. Wide World previewed the fights, showed the fights, interviewed Ali before, after, and for all I can remember, during the fights. Cowell and Ali, Ali and Cosell, verbally jabbing at each other, engaged in a joyous dance, each endlessly amused by the other, needing each other.

Ali was on Wide World so much because he was a personality. He must have been great for ratings. And because of that, I felt ... odd about him. It wasn't always about the sports, is what I realized. Often it was just about putting entertaining, unpredictable people on air and waiting for the fireworks. I intuited, in a childish way, that Cosell was something of a parasite, when it came to Ali. I was disturbed that he could get so far by so blatantly hitching his wagon to a star. (There was more to Cosell, too, I know, but the relationship still felt one-sided.)

What I wasn't quite sure about was whether I should be equally disturbed by Ali playing along. Was he in on the joke? Was he doing an act for the cameras? Was he giving the people what they want? Or was he desperate for attention? In my world, one was expected to be self-deprecating and gracious. All the boasting and grandstanding -- it made me uncomfortable. And the Wide World machine enabling and encouraging it, egging him on. I really did not know what to think.

Boxing was different in those days, for sports fans. Now the title fights are all on pay-per-view. They're still very popular, no doubt, but they aren't a mass-market product. Back then they were on network television and we all watched them avidly. When Ali fought, that's when my confusion melted away. He was actually engaged in a different sport than his opponents. He was playing a different game. He could tell the whole world his exact strategy, like the "rope-a-dope" (which I remember so well), and still nobody could do anything about it.

Someone who could back up his braggadocio with actual domination -- someone who was bigger than life in a seventies wide-lapel suit and in boxing trunks -- someone who made for equally great copy in his interviews as in his contests. That's what I wasn't prepared to understand. Someone who always played his own game and expected us to come to him, in the media world and in the ring alike. I didn't know how to judge that, how to value it.

Race was a factor, there's no doubt. We were privileged white folks. I had very few black classmates in my private schools, and at least in the arenas where I interacted with them, they displayed few cultural traits or habits that weren't my own. We employed a black maid. Dad interacted with black truck drivers or other workers in his job sometimes, I knew. Our large and prosperous church was all white. Obviously I wasn't comfortable with black assertiveness, black speech patterns, black politics, black power. Obviously I was bound to see it as alien, as a threat, even if I had the most generous of curiosities.

I watched with my dad, and part of my discomfort was my suspicion that he wasn't okay with the changes in sports that Ali represented. I idolized and learned my sports fandom from my dad. I didn't know whether I should be okay with them or not. But we kept watching, together. There was never any question that when it came to the fights, these were monumental events, and that Ali's triumphs represented a historic dominance of the sport.

That ambivalence mixed with fascination defined my view of Ali during childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. Boxing moved away from the mass market, and I stopped paying attention to it. It wasn't until the 1996 Atlanta Olympics (which Noel and I attended) that Ali re-entered my consciousness in a big way. I was stunned by the significance of that event, by the courage of the fighter bowed by disease standing up once again to be seen, taking it as his due. In subsequent years, the documentaries When We Were Kings and The Trials of Muhammad Ali (both tremendous, powerful films) filled in the massive gaps in my knowledge. I don't remember Cosell asking about, or Ali talking about, resisting the draft -- maybe he did and I just didn't know what was going on. I was ignorant of all the context surrounding the Rumble in the Jungle. I was ignorant. I'm glad in a way that I was too conflicted to have a strong opinion, besides just fascination. I didn't know enough to have an opinion.

Since then I've read David Remnick's biography. I've read many great sportswriters painting a picture of the man, in all his dimensions.  (Check out Jerry Izenberg's obit, just for a sample.) He has only grown larger, more imposing, more improbable with each detail. What I wasn't equipped to appreciate until only a few years ago, I think (having been fortunate enough to be educated by many eloquent, thoughtful, forceful, patient people of color on social media, especially), was how important he was as a black man. How his politics and religion unapologetically flowed from that singularly American experience. How paying attention to that could teach me things I could never learn on my own.

Muhammad Ali made me a better, more well-rounded, more nuanced and perceptive person for paying attention to him, for thinking through what he showed me, especially when it was uncomfortable for me to do so.

Yet he didn't exist for my benefit. That's what made him the greatest. He was exactly the person he wanted to be, almost from the moment he burst onto the scene until the day he died. I'd thank him, only it's beside the point. Better to say to the universe: We didn't deserve that. We're grateful.