Incidental Insights: Embracing Dissent

Incidental Insights: Embracing Dissent

By Allen

I remember my first anxiety attack.

          It was late in the evening, probably around midnight sometime in the spring of 2013. I had been up for hours trying to study for a General Chemistry final, and my brain was refusing to retain any information. I even remember where I was sitting; nestled in the corner of a couch that seated many but was almost exclusively occupied by me most nights as I try to relax. I’m there, eyes throbbing and red with stress. Notes are everywhere because that felt right at the time, like maybe if I could look at it all at once, I could have some sort of Beautiful Mind moment where it all suddenly made sense. I stopped trying to listen to music several hours earlier, so it was dead quiet. This was my first major final of college, an event I knew to expect and prepared to be challenged by, but I didn’t anticipate how my body wanted to react. The knotting sense in my stomach that I can still feel, the scenario playing out in front of me over and over again, all of these sensory moments in time were what was being written to my long-term memory, with no room left for stoichiometry or alkene reactions.

        It was specifically the moment where I realized that I was potentially going to fail a course in my second semester of college that things got serious. I started sweating, my hands were shaking, and I dropped my notes. I picked up the nearest pillow and screamed as loudly as I could into it. Usually, that helps. But then, I couldn’t help but start crying. Crying and screaming, and not the type of crying that comes from passion or strong emotions. I was crying because I realized where I was, and who I had become. No longer was I the “smart when he tries” kid in high school who only did well when he prioritized working over the incomprehensible time-consuming nonsense that occupies one’s free time at that age. I wasn’t the excited freshman being reassured by my orientation leaders that things are going to be fine, you’re going to make it through these four years. Right there, sitting cross-legged in the corner of that big, expansive couch that nobody else sits on anymore. This was just the first of many times where anxiety tried to get in the way of my success.

        That evening taught me a lot about my limits and how I cope with stress. I know how anxiety manifests itself in me whenever it feels like it, I know that I cannot naturally pass any class by simply studying for a few days and skimming material last minute. Most importantly, almost failing a course that important to my future is just how things go. That’s probably the most universal takeaway that most people I ask mention after finishing college. Those four years are often misconstrued as the time where you come to accept your insignificance, but I think that’s misleading. College teaches you that life is hard and you can’t get by on minimum effort alone, sure. But so does dating, so does working, so does everything you do in between classes and studying. It pushes you to the edge of what you think is easy and comfortable, and tantalizes you with what’s beyond it. It makes you re-assess what’s important to you personally, and allows you to construct your own existence and define your own goals.

        The end of high school wasn’t sad for me. I knew what I wanted to go to college for and I knew that I had the support of my family to get through it. I saw so many people use the presumed sadness that they thought everyone was feeling in the summer after high school to bond with others. Misery seeks company, but it doesn’t work when I’m not particularly miserable to be moving on to newer things. I’d listen and say “Yeah, I’m really gonna miss this” to everyone who would ask, but I was lying. The people who matter to you, the ones who text you at 2 am to apologize for not getting back to you, or who say yes to any plans and challenge you to follow through are the people who you can’t escape. That adage has proved itself true time and time again, even as I’ve been certain that friends I knew in high school would fade from my sphere of concern.

        Orientation day, summer 2012. I’m scared because I’m living at home and not at school, and I feel like I’ve stumbled on the first step. It’s almost embarrassing to look back now at how concerned I was that I lived at home in college, like I was somehow robbing myself of a better experience. That’s not to say I liked living at home; the burden of your parents helping you is magnified tenfold, the commute wore me out day after day, and frankly nothing is more isolating and painful than being 18, lonely, and miles and miles away from anyone your age when you need them the most. I’m so happy I stayed at home though! Oh my goodness, no rent, fewer monetary worries, and most importantly, that loneliness actually cultivated a thirst for exciting social experiences that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Now, any conversation with another human being is a blessing to me, and I’ve come to appreciate my family exponentially more because they supported this joy of others. I leap to almost any chance to stay out late or see other people now because I lived at home, and that made freshman year a slog worth living through.

        Sophomore year exists in this strange but beautiful place between the exciting frontier that is freshmen year, and the comfort in a pattern that comes with being more than halfway done with undergrad. The only course I remember from this time was Organic Chemistry, and even that is only because it is infamously a challenging subject. What most non-medical students don’t understand about Orgo is that it’s difficult not because there is so much material, but because it doesn’t work like any other class. You’re telling me I need to make flashcards, take notes in class, AND develop a study plan that I can stick to, and this is all for one course? Needless to say, I retook Orgo the following summer.

        Difficult science courses are not what I remember most about sophomore year, though. I already knew chemistry was hard from that aforementioned anxiety attack, so this was not the year-defining, soul-crushing experience for me that it was for my peers; It was just another one of those. The moment that defines that year is when I came to accept the invigorating nature of rejection. I asked three different people out on dates my sophomore year, a feat that was beyond even a pipe dream to High School Allen. I hesitate to even call it a feat, because that gives off the message that the process of asking another individual out on a date is somehow impressive or worthy of merit. Sure, it seems scary because everything on the periphery of a daily routine is scary. Ordering a different flavor of coffee is scary in a way. Taking a different route home can be scary. Hell, skipping a class (which I coincidentally did for the first time that year, and am glad I did) is scary. But once you get past that fear that the other person will say no to you, it’s just a matter of following through. If you think about it, why are people afraid of asking each other out on dates? Everyone spends boring classes eyeing attractive people in the classroom, imagining a relationship (be it romantic or sexual, but usually the latter) with whoever catches their eye. If you can keep in mind that these other human beings are just as sexually wound-up and existentially bored as you are, then asking someone else out feels like nothing.

Next, junior year. Late 2013/early 2014 is such a haze for me, in part because of that comfort that comes from a routine. Naturally, the most successful year for me academically was also my least memorable. Just to give a decent sample size of my experiences, highlights of junior year that immediately jump to mind are: reading comic books in Boston Common, late-night Biochemistry group study Skype calls, visiting a classmate’s apartment in Southie to film a group video project, getting to put on a suit for a fake talk show, and the numerous long hikes through Blue Hills with some buddies. Junior year is when you start to see the end, mysterious as it may be.

        We arrive in the present, as I’m writing this a few days before graduating. Senior year was definitely a good time, I can say that for certain. By this point, the friends that I cared about stuck around, and we developed our own corner of the school as an inclusive, friendly space where we met new people and bonded over shared experiences. The student lounge became a place for us to exist between life events. It occupied the interludes in the narrative, somewhere adjacent to exam week and vacation time, where you don’t necessarily want to go home, but you’re fresh off of a challenging test. Everyone that came to the student lounge was coming from something, going somewhere, or trying to avoid going somewhere. In a way, the lounge was like friendships, always there but ready to get out of the way when it needed to. Classes were light enough by this point that our eyes were to the future. The two month period in there where I hurriedly applied to dental schools was certainly hectic, and I still remember both times I asked for letters of recommendation and was denied. Being face to face with someone who couldn’t possibly be bothered with your feeble request to take hours out of their time to help you is not only humbling, but almost gratifying in that it prepares you for so much more denial. Finishing applications, learning to not regret the resources I never utilized or the people I never spoke to, senior year felt like an outward admittance that yes, I did do this.

        As I begin what will hopefully be a productive year of working and learning while I re-apply to dental school, I spend most of my time thinking back to what I’ve done. I met some incredible people, developed social and academic skills that I wouldn’t have otherwise, and most importantly, I learned to value myself. I know now that waiting for motivation is fruitless, and success comes from consistency and effort, not some unfathomable sense that you’re inspired to work. That first anxiety attack was my first glimpse at how scary getting older can be, and prompted a lot of late night thoughts about my anxiety and how I would slowly learn to live with it. Sit down, open up your textbook, and learn. College was the first time that I came to value learning for my own personal growth and mental health. I worried for a while that not having assigned work would lead to me not reading anymore, which has happened to plenty of people that I know. It’s times like that where I remember the greatest lesson of the last four years: inspiration, productivity, and fulfillment all come exclusively from feeling challenged and rebuffed by information. Accepting, processing, and adapting that information into something that defines you is how we keep from becoming ignorant and close-minded, and seeking those challenging opinions and facts out is something to live for.

           

 

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Epitosodes: Hey Arnold!

thanksgiving

By Allen

The Episode

Season: 3

Episode: 14

Title: “Arnold’s Thanksgiving”

The Review

It’s sometimes easier to see our lives fitting into a template than allowing the randomness of life to take control. We seek that uniformity because it lets us feel connected in a time where connection is severely lacking. This is especially true for young adults, who crave the validation provided by assigning their identity to one particular stereotype or niche. This manifests itself usually through tastes and brand loyalty, but more commonly in the United States, society’s need to fit into a category comes out during the holiday season.

As the son of two Syrian immigrants, I always felt a little bit left out of the traditional American childhood. I didn’t visit or have friends over my house in any meaningful way until high school, I didn’t have many outdoor adventures with the neighborhood kids, and I didn’t have anything resembling the Wonder Years-esque experience of young love whatsoever. I don’t regret these things not being part of my life, because I made up for them with meaningful, character-buildling experiences of my own. Sometimes, it’s nice to imagine what could have been.

I did watch a lot of cartoons though. When my family and I were still living in a lower middle class duplex, my sister and I watched a whole lot of Hey Arnold! It fit into Nickelodeon’s block of cartoons that bridged the gap between serious adult drama and slapstick kid’s show. Nickelodeon was doing what Pixar is today, essentially. For those that don’t know, Hey Arnold! was a show about a young nine year old boy living with his grandparents and various tenants in a boarding house located in some nebulous amalgamation of New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco. The general formula for an episode of Hey Arnold! was: Arnold sees something wrong with the world, tries to fix it, fails, learns something, and accepts that he can’t fix everything. The show was about disappointment, and realizing how little power we have to change the world. It’s a message that resonated deeply with me as a young kid, filled with optimism and hope that all of the world’s problems could be fixed with friendliness and a helping hand. That’s not to say the show was nihilistic or cynical; rather, Arnold’s accepting that he couldn’t change things led to him being a better person, and adjusting his world view to fix the world in small ways.

“Arnold’s Thanksgiving” is the episode that I frequently reference as an essential part of understanding why the show resonated with so many people. The episode starts with Arnold biking down a facsimile of the Brooklyn Bridge, when he stops to watch the christening of The Mayflower II as a city landmark. As the credits fade in, he looks on wistfully, as he so often does at history and culture. Craig Bartlett, the show’s creator and lead writer, has said that his original pitch for Hey Arnold! was that Arnold would start every episode dreaming of some fantastic scenario, then be woken up in class by his bully and secret admirer, Helga Pataki, shouting the show’s title. It’s clear that they kept the skeleton of this idea in “Arnold’s Thanksgiving”, where you can tell Arnold is dreaming of big ideas before heading back to reality.

The next scene takes place at Arnold’s school, PS 118. The students put on a play telling the story of the first Thanksgiving, and everything immediately falls apart. The hastily-made set collapses, the audience laughs, but the kids keep going. As every scene is ruined in some way, the students never stop the show. Arnold and his friend Gerald are backstage, and as Gerald espouses his love for the holiday, Arnold reveals why he looked on at the Mayflower II so hopefully; he doesn’t get to have a “real” Thanksgiving in the boarding home. His grandmother “gets mixed up”, and confuses Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July, meaning they have to go along with it and cook hot dogs on the roof in November year after year. Arnold’s grandmother’s identity confusion is clearly a sign of advanced dementia, and although the show plays it for comedy most of the time, they treat it with just the right amount of weight for it to feel real. The tenants accept her disability, and work around it.

Helga, the other half of this show, goes on a rant backstage about how her Thanksgiving’s aren’t very typical either; between her overbearingly perfect older sister Olga coming home, her alcoholic mother (don’t worry, the show plays this off as her mom just being a goofball who ‘likes smoothies’), and her father who can’t be bothered to do anything but eat and watch football. The irony of both of these scenes is that Arnold and Helga are playing lead characters in the final scene of the play; a re-enactment of a modern day Thanksgiving amongst a happy family. Both of them get to play the part, but once the curtain goes down, they feel left out again.

The next few scenes really highlight how much the creators cared equally about Helga and Arnold, with each scene bouncing between the two of them as their nontraditional Thanksgivings are shown. They both try to nudge their families into more traditional Thanksgiving celebration, but nobody listens to the nine year olds. These scenes hit home with me the most. I made efforts as a kid to fit into more stereotypes; wearing “cooler” clothes, having a messier room, asking to eat more “American food”. I just assumed that was all right, and fitting in would make me feel like less of an outsider.

Arnold and Helga eventually give up trying to fix their own Thanksgivings, and they both leave their homes for the afternoon. I always found the freedom of Hey Arnold!‘s young cast to come and go as they please fascinating, but it makes so much sense when you consider how truly little their guardians cared about their well-being, be it because of old age or neglect. They both cross paths outside of a store displaying models of a traditional American Thanksgiving, looking inside but always separated by glass. In a beautifully directed scene, they go for a friendly walk on the pier and pass by the Mayflower II, still cruising around the bay. As they look on, it crashes into a bridge and collapses. This is actually the funniest scene in the episode despite sounding so tragic, because it really highlights how willing the creators were to go for a visual gag if it also had a solid symbolic undercurrent. The image of the Mayflower crashing in front of two depressed and jaded young children says everything about this episode.

The kids decide to go join what they think is a “real Thanksgiving” at the home of their teacher and writer of the school play, Mr. Simmons. When they (yet again) look through glass to see Simmons’s house and witness a family dinner almost perfectly resembling the characters in his play, they long to go inside. This time, they pass through the barrier and ask Mr. Simmons if they can join him for dinner. He politely obliges, and the dramatic turn of the episode becomes clear. Mr. Simmons’s Thanksgiving is anything from idyllic; his mother is overbearingly judgemental, his two friends are miserable thirty-somethings that take joy in ridiculing others, and his uncle is an oafishly loud eater (who is also inexplicably Canadian). The whole scene ends in a shouting contest, which Arnold and Helga take as their cue to leave. They realize as they converse in Mr. Simmons’s kitchen that he wrote the play as an idealized version of his own family, and that maybe there isn’t such a thing as a perfect Thanksgiving. Simmons comforts them, saying: “This may not make much sense to you now, but I’m truly thankful for them”. Family gatherings are messy and loud, people don’t get along well, but happiness comes from accepting each other’s flaws and being together. The kids realize this, and head home to their families.

The world does pay you back for being a good person, according to Hey Arnold! Helga comes home to a family that misses her, and they put her handmade centerpiece on the table as they eat together. Arnold comes home to an abandoned rooftop grill, but it turns out the tenants and his grandparents decided to meet him halfway and throw him a surprise party that mixes both Fourth of July and Thanksgiving celebrations.

This episode holds a special place in my heart not just because it echoes many of the same things I worried about as a young child, but it’s also hopeful and honest in a way most cartoons are not. The credits roll as we cut back to the Mayflower II. All of its passengers are safe, and the hull of the ship rises back to the surface. Everything is okay, just a few buffs and scratches. And that’s how family can be; rough and constantly on the verge of sinking, but always capable of rising back to a healthy medium.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Pentatonic Ponderings: More of That, Please

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By Allen

Prelude

I watch Almost Famous every year that I get the chance. I’ve been doing this since I was 15 or so, when it was first recommended to me by one of the editors of the now-defunct film website, Screened. If you’ve followed this site for a while, you know I really, REALLY like that movie. On my latest rewatch, I picked up on a whole new theme in the film that’s buried under all the nostalgia and rock music; longing. Specifically, the longing for a particular type of music, and how it feels to let a small clip of sound influence and change your life. Anna Paquin’s character sums this up in the screencap I’m using as the thumbnail; it does hurt, and it can be simultaneously isolating and inviting to feel like you’re the only person that feeds off of a particular piece of music. 2015 has been an incredible year of music, and I’ve easily listened to more full albums this year than ever before. Some of my favorite songs this year have that perfect, enchanting couple of seconds of sound that make me feel like everything is okay, and I’d like to share them with the world, and maybe we can all come to appreciate each other’s “silly little piece of music”.

Track 1: “Celebrate” by Metric (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lLg9WUhhhAs&channel=lastofspades)

metric-concert

We’re talking about the synth hit here. If you want my favorite instance of it in the track, it’s at 2:26. Metric’s been my favorite band since I first heard Synthetica in high school, so I started out as a fan of their synth-pop rebranding before going back and exploring their more rock-influenced roots. Shifting genres so drastically is a bold and polarizing decision, but it worked for Metric because they kept the core of what makes them special; an incredible concert sound and personal lyrics that have inspired millions. “Celebrate” is all about grasping at the opportunities in life while they’re still available to you. When Haines hits that synth note, it’s time to dance right then and there. The song almost grinds to a halt every time the synth kicks in, like the rest of the chorus is moving out of the way. It’s a powerful statement: “Here we are, this is what our sound is now.” Nobody wants to sit and wait.

Track 2: “Clearest Blue” by Chvrches (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QpFXXPruuqU)

t1212churches-4

I have gone on record to the official Chvrches Twitter account saying that I will cry if I ever get to hear “Clearest Blue” live in concert. It’s the type of song that attracts that sort of response, with an emotional buildup that is so intense that it, like Paquin’s character says in Almost Famous, almost hurts. It’s a long, intense two minutes and twelve seconds into “Clearest Blue” before the song stands out from so many other Chvrches songs. Their latest album, Every Open Eye, has been criticized for sticking fairly close to their previous work in terms of song structure, but “Clearest Blue” proves this wrong. Even a minute in, a careful listener can notice the addition of different instrumentation and faster pace. “Holding on tightly to the side/Never quite learning why” is exactly how I felt the first time I heard this song. You feel it coming, you feel your pulse racing. And right as the drop is about to start, we become Mayberry in the song, trying to push this track away as yet another dull, chorus-focused pop song. But then it happens. 2:16 into “Clearest Blue” is the singular where I knew that this was an incredible year for music. I was genuinely shaking the first time I heard it, and it’s quite the fun little game for me to show it to other people and watch their reactions. This is the kind of music that really stings when it’s over.

Track 3: “Seeing Stars” by BØRNS (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J2GOGwB4QYU&channel=UCi13pi8_WsPJMpYBqSKwK_Q)

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Known by many as “the guy who wrote the song in that Hulu ad” and “Taylor Swift’s friend”, Garrett Borns established himself this year as an incredible voice in pop music. Although “Electric Love” is probably his most well-known song, “Seeing Stars” delivers much more in terms of the satisfaction we’re looking for in this list. Right from the start, the synth is overpowering and, most importantly, fast. Just when you think that’s just going to be the intro, it becomes the chorus. So simple, just a few notes, and it carries the entire song. I’ve found Borns to be fantastic music for cardio exercise, because rhythm like that keeps you from letting up for even a second.

Track 4: “Sunday Candy” by Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i4ooH8frBWg&channel=ChanceThaRapper)

chance-the-rapper-social-experiment-donnie-trumpet-sunday-candy-music-video

Chance the Rapper refuses to let up after having released Acid Rap, a 2013 mixtape that was so good, so incredibly memorable, that it put him on the map of modern hip-hop. “Sunday Candy” is a song off of Surf, an album he did with his rap/soul music collective The Social Experiment over the summer, and it represents a big step forward in hip-hop. The part we’re going to specifically close read here is the first verse and chorus. Chance raps about his grandmother, and how her cooking, spirituality, and tenacity make her his biggest inspiration. Jamila Woods absolutely makes this track though, and her chanting of “Rain down Zion/It’s gonna rain” layered over a velvety baritone AND Chance’s rapping? It’s awe-inspiring, it brightens up a bad day, it…I’m dancing to it right now, and it’s not even playing. Good music can do that to you, if you meet it halfway.

Track 5: “Run Away With Me” by Carly Rae Jepsen (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TeccAtqd5K8&channel=CarlyRaeJepsenVEVO)

CarlyRaeJepsen

SYNTH HORNS, Y’ALL. Who would’ve thought Carly Rae Jepsen could make such a knockout comback after seemingly peaking with her 2012 summer hit “Call Me Maybe”? Emotion is all-around an amazing album, filled with breezy pop tracks that I’m not ashamed to say I’ll be bumping in the car for months to come. The running thread of the album for me was “Let’s do some pop music you already know and love, and throw something special in there”. That’s the synth horns in “Run Away With Me”. I’ve never heard anything like them, and coupled with the thumping bass running through the whole song and the hollow, almost gunshot-like drum hit before the chorus, you’ve got the formula for an incredibly memorable pop chorus that shows Jepsen’s range and reminds me why I fell in love with pop music.

Epilogue

Honest to goodness, I didn’t plan for all of these tracks to be so synth-heavy, but that’s really just what I’m into these days. The criteria for what sounds and songs fit into this article’s theme is intentionally broad, and different for each person. Listen back specifically to songs that have gotten stuck in your head recently, and try to isolate which part, be it some random instrumentation or a lovely falsetto, you’ll know what you’re listening for. Take that, play it over and over again, and make a playlist out of all the songs that do it for you. Here are some of the songs I added to a playlist for this article that didn’t make the cut, but have the same satisfying feel to them:

“Should Have Known Better” by Sufjan Stevens: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lJJT00wqlOo&channel=AsthmaticKitty

“Baby Blue” by Action Bronson and Chance the Rapper: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bVP_w1rQweE

“Duct Tape Heart” by Barenaked Ladies: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zr23m4q6XoY

“New Americana” by Halsey: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b-eYbUVZedY&channel=HalseyVEVO

Random Encounters: The Abnormal Heart

cosplay

By Allen

I’m at an odd impasse with video games culture right now. The last year has been a nonstop bombardment of outright harassment of women, misrepresentation of games in mainstream media, and an overall sense of shame to be part of what should be our most unifying interactive medium. Friends of mine online have since turned against each other ideologically, tweets are being submitted to local authorities, and death threats come to so many voices in gaming like the morning weather. It’s a really awful, sobering time to care so much about games.

We have the potential to fix this though. The negative voices are still a vocal minority, despite how incredibly vocal they are. Friendships are formed online every day, and it is in times like this that I feel the most empathy and camaraderie with the misrepresented voices screaming to be heard. Women, people of color, transgendered individuals, disabled individuals; they all deserve better online and in gaming. Strides are being made in the altgames genre, a specific, very personal type of game that directly and intimately reflects the creator’s beliefs and feelings. These are the games that need attention, because clearly the AAA titles being released in the last few years aren’t pushing many boundaries.

With all this in mind, I went to PAX East 2015 this year utterly afraid; Afraid that I would see the worst of the Internet in human form, afraid that my fears would be confirmed that “gamers” are all anti-social and vitriolic. And, in some ways, I wasn’t wrong. After demoing a fascinating little multiplayer game called Capsule Force with a friend and two strangers, one of the other men decided it would be appropriate to list out point by point what the woman demoing the game (clearly the developer in some capacity) should “Tell the actual maker of the game…” to “fix” and “tweak”. It left me so soured, I had to just outright leave before saying thank you and getting a business card from the devs.

If that sounds gross and unappealing to you, it’s because it is. The PAX show floor is this fascinating, diverse blend of personal conversations with independent developers full of insight and meaning, followed by the worst of the worst rubbing elbows with each other to critique, berate, and consume. Why then, do I love PAX? Is it because online games culture is constantly full of bickering and disagreeing, and so seeing it come to light is weirdly cathartic? Or is it the self-parody, deconstructive nature of what exactly we’re all doing here that makes PAX worth going to at least once? The moment where I decided it was the latter was approximately 9:00 PM on Friday. As a friend and I prepared to play some games in the classic arcade area, we walked by several Princess Peach cosplayers at once. This is standard fare at a convention like this, so I thought nothing of it. But I looked closer, and saw everything that is gaming layed out in front of me: One was a slender woman, hiking up her stockings on a bench as a clearly intoxicated man who she seemed to be with leaned on her, one was a hefty adult male opening a carton of cigarettes while furiously scratching himself, and one was an adorable little girl, holding her mother’s hand as they prepared to go home to a safer place.

That’s most of PAX in a nutshell. It’s dirty, it’s raw, and it is, above all else, starkly real. It represents everything that gaming is right this second. All ages, all groups, all types of beautiful and terrible people flock to this convention center for a weekend, and they all highlight where we’re at. A few hours before that encounter, I spent a few minutes in the “Roll For Diversity” lounge, which is a safe space specifically designed to make everyone feel comfortable and relaxed between trips to the show floor. It was there that  I hung out on a beanbag next to a nice person, and we talked about games, the refreshing nature of sleep, and things that just make us happy. And after that, while lining up for a panel, a kind fellow struck up a conversation with me about where we were from and why we were at the show. These are the moments that make it all worth it, too.

Before I conclude, I just want to mention New York City. All my life, it was shown to be this beautiful utopia of art and culture coming together to form a meaningful experience for anyone who visits. I finally went to NYC for the first time in August 2014 for an afternoon with my family. Five minutes in Times Square will shatter this illusion for you. Between poor workers begging you for money in torn Spider-Man costumes, and a nude women with the American flag painted on her being groped by someone’s dad, you really get to see what the grimiest of New York really is. These two experiences echoed each other almost perfectly, and it shows just how much PAX echoes real life social dynamics.

So all of that is why PAX is important to me. Too many people approach it in a way that minimizes this experience though, and I implore you to heed my word if you’re reading this: don’t go just for your favorite website’s panels and meetups, don’t go just for free stuff, and for the love of God, don’t go just to watch livestreams on a big TV or to meet YouTube stars. Go to play Mortal Kombat on an arcade machine with a European man in a trench coat who beats you without hesitation and then thanks you for challenging him. Hell, go just to meet Internet friends and explore the city.  Go to take our pulse as a community. We are united by our desire to change as people and grow, and that’s what we’ll be doing forever. This is the human condition. This is PAX.

Pop Modern Interviews: Dan Marshall from Size Five Games

Dan Marshall, founder of Size Five Games, has been in the games industry for quite a while. After the indie adventure game series Ben There, Dan That and the 2D multiplayer game Gun Monkeys, he began work on a new project. After canceling and remaking The Swindle, it is now on its way to being a hit. We discussed the game, going from adventure games to stealth, and why steampunk designers are idiots in this interview from the PAX East 2015 showfloor.

Television Tribune: Diamonds in The Meh

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By Allen

Television is a unique medium in that the writers and directors are given exponentially more time than any other visual medium to develop their characters and story. Some shows, like Lost and Helix, simply dig deeper and deeper narrative holes for themselves to climb out of in their later seasons, confident that the viewers will be along for the entire ride. I like to say that I’m not a huge fan of this type of writing, but I am hopelessly devoted to at least one of those shows (Hint: it’s not the Syfy original series). Another, more common method of TV writing is what I call the “paint on the wall” method. Most popular serialized shows employ this method, eschewing anything particularly memorable for several seasons of passable, forgettable viewing. This method covers shows like your Law & Order’s, your American Horror Story, and basically every show on USA. These aren’t necessarily two opposite ways of writing, and they’re not the only two types of television. “Paint on the wall” shows tend to have individual standout episodes, and usually benefit from a selected viewing of the best episodes from each season.

One show of this type that has always held a special place in my heart is Modern Family. Even in its fifth season, the writers are still producing one of the most consistently entertaining shows on cable. Designed from the ground up to appeal to the groups that it owes its namesake too, Modern Family is basically this generation’s Full House. The characters are likable, vulnerable, and always teaching each other valuable life lessons, usually just after doing something incredibly humiliating and comical. And like Full House, the average episode is nothing to write home about. It follows traditional sitcom format; there is a misunderstanding, actions taken to fix it, miscommunication, and resolution. Every time I consider removing it from my weekly watch list, I remember how long I’ve been watching, and how deeply it resonates with my own family.

A very recent episode, “Under Pressure”, seemed like just another forgettable twenty-odd minutes. Jane Krakowski (of 30 Rock fame) guest starred, but she wasn’t given much to do other than be shrill and crazy. Jesse Eisenberg was also in a pretty small role, but he was relegated to his usual “douchebag with a heart of gold” archetype. The one standout plot of the episode didn’t involve guest stars at all; it instead focused on the youngest Dunphy daughter, Alex. It’s her sixteenth birthday, but she doesn’t seem happy at all. Precocious as she is, she signs herself up for a meeting with a therapist. I didn’t expect much from this plot, since it’s typical of Modern Family to make Alex seem self-reliant and commanding. However, her meeting with the therapist gets surprisingly personal, and she opens up about her feeling like nobody in her family understands her because she tries so hard to be the best at everything.

I’m not just highlighting this episode because it struck so close to home for me, someone who never felt like he belonged for most of his teenager years. That’s all well and good, but what really struck me was how this was actually a subplot on Modern Family, which usually puts comedy before emotional resonance. There isn’t even a punch line to this subplot. Alex is picked up from her mother at the end of the episode, and they share a tender hug as the credits begin to roll. This dramatic shift from the usual tone of the show caught my attention, and I’ve been a much bigger fan of Alex since then.

Does an episode like “Under Pressure” make Modern Family a better show overall? Not particularly, but it doesn’t have to. For that week, there was nothing better on TV for me. The endless race to be the best, longest-running sitcom on cable is a crowded and pointless one, but touching on delicate subjects like loneliness and growing up one week can really elevate a show’s place in the endless pantheon of “paint on the wall” sitcoms.

Allen Talks 2013: Mobile Games, Dramatic Tension, and Female Singers

2013

 

By Allen

With another year of pop culture under my belt, it’s time to honor the classic tradition of year-end retrospectives. This isn’t a beat-by-beat series of “Top 10 Movies/Games/Albums/Whatever” in 2013. Rather, it’s just going to be a look back at the media that stuck out to me as important, entertaining, or worth praising.

Video Games: year walk

I definitely finished more games this year than I have in recent memory, due in part to the fact that my iPad probably got the most playtime out of me this year on my long commutes to and from college. I started off with my now-annual playthrough of Blendo Games’s Thirty Flights of Loving, which still impresses me with minute details every time I play it. I then turned to smaller, independent titles to get my gaming fix, such as Bastion, The Room, Little Inferno, and Year Walk. These were all played on iPad, and each one impressed me with how it used the simple touch device’s interface to create genuinely exciting and unique gameplay experiences. I can only see more of these coming out in 2014, and I look forward to plowing through another large batch of them.

The two largest titles I played this year were Bioshock: Infinite and Grand Theft Auto V. Both of these represent a culmination of an entire generation’s worth of experimenting with tying gameplay to narrative, as well as crafting unforgettable worlds to traipse through. In the first, I was a little put off by how much combat there was and how it bogged down the second half of the game, but the story and landscapes just wouldn’t let up for a second, and even in that last moment, as the story reveals itself to be cyclical, I was calling up a friend during the credits to shout about how blown my mind was. It tied the Bioshock series together in a way that I never could have expected, and its use of music and reinterpretation of American history was unlike anything I’ve ever played. Similarly, Grand Theft Auto V represents a culmination of sorts, but not narratively. This classic crime drama of three men who just can’t get enough of the criminal world not only made me sympathize and believe my psychopathic character’s motivation, but be willing to join them on this crazy journey for hours on end. Just driving around the city of Los Santos is a delight, and it is, without a doubt, the best GTA game I have ever played. If there’s anything to be said about this year in games, it’s that developers really got a grasp on what their players like. From Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon’s addicting, conquest-based gameplay, to Guacamelee’s high-speed combat and level design that even put the Metroid series to shame in some spots, this was a great year for games. Let’s just hope that a new year brings these new consoles up to speed with what is still coming out on their predecessors, and that the industry as a whole can continue to produce unique, exciting experiences.

Movies: before midnight

I only saw a handful of 2013 films in 2013, but each of them struck its own unique chord with me, so I’m just going to present each one with a sentence that encapsulates my feelings on it. These are presented in the order that I viewed them. 21 and Over made me realize that, even as a college student, I still don’t like films about college kids just hanging out and getting into trouble. Iron Man 3 made me reflect on what was honestly a series that ranged from decent to pretty dang good, while also telling its own unique story that deconstructed Tony Stark as a character by separating him from his suit for so long. Fast  Furious 6 was the first example of a big, dumb action film that I didn’t need to separate myself from by liking it ironically in any way, and it made me care about a bunch of criminals driving souped-up cars more than most dramatic films do with their characters. The Great Gatsby proved that book adaptations can take as much creative liberty as they want, as long as it leads to an entertaining, if occasionally tone-deaf, film.

Man of Steel was the final straw for me tolerating Zak Snyder directing comic adaptations, and even though I liked it more than most critics (mostly due to the excellent acting from the main cast), it still didn’t do what a good, dark Superman film needed to do. This Is the End and The World’s End made me believe that a strong ensemble cast, and a few clever twists on genre conventions can produce some of the most fun apocalyptic comedy this side of Ghostbusters. Before Midnight made me cry like a baby, and felt like the most realistic crumbling of the tender relationship established in the two films preceding it, even if it did rely on the viewer liking those characters from the start. Gravity had me clutching at my chair in the theater like an anxious child, instilled genuine fear in me, made me believe in 3D as a way to provide depth to film, and also not really do much besides that in two hours. Spring Breakers was certainly one of the most unique films I saw this year, but its sleek cinematography and mesmerizing scenes with James Franco’s character were all bogged down by boring, repetitive monologue, a lack of direction, and an ending that just…OK, you should probably just watch Spring Breakers and get back to me if you want to discuss that…film. Finally, Inside Llewyn Davis was the first Coen brothers film that didn’t feature any abject tragedy, murder, or absurd comedy, and what was left was a tightly-written, thoughtful, and, ultimately, poignant film about doing what one loves, even in the face of detractors around every corner. 2013 was probably one of the strongest years for emotionally resonant dramatic cinema.

Television: breaking bad

I didn’t watch an exorbitant amount of television in 2013, but what I did catch was all pretty great. Since the absurd Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Angel wormhole that Magellan and I fell down is still ongoing and also not from 2013, I’ll leave that discussion to a separate article. But Breaking Bad certainly ended this year, and boy, did that hit hard. The final arc of Walter White as not only a sociopathic, transformative character was engaging on a level that basic cable television hasn’t been in a long time. Just as Walt says in the pilot episode, “Chemistry is the study of change”, which Vince Gilligan and his writing team have proven through the physical, mental, and psychological evolution that these characters went through. The final season was powerful, beautifully shot, and it gives me hope for more work of that caliber on TV. It’s all about the subtle moments, like Walt’s admittance of taking pleasure in his crimes to his wife, the death of most of those around him, and Jesse’s final moment of pure freedom from the world that Walt dragged him into.

Justified continued to impress in 2013. It’s a hard show to recommend wholeheartedly due to its middling first season of “hick criminal of the week”, but once it establishes each season’s overarching themes and villain, there is nothing else like it. I’ve never been a huge fan of police dramas, but the hunt for Drew Thompson had me on the edge of my seat in the last few episodes without fail, and even the introduction of Patton Oswalt’s character didn’t make the show too comedic or pull away from the drama. I’m just excited to see where Raylan Givens is heading next, given the ambiguous ending of the fourth season.

To wrap up the television section, I just wanted to mention Steven Universe. Spearheaded by writer and storyboard artist on Adventure Time, this new show is exactly what Saturday morning cartoons need to strive for today. Besides being drawn and animated beautifully, it tells such simple stories with so much pathos and heart that you can’t help but love that pudgy little protagonist. Essentially, the setup of the show is that Steven, a young boy, has a magic crystal embedded in his stomach. It doesn’t let him to anything special, but it is what connects him to the Crystal Gems, three young women with their own special gem powers and crime-fighting duties to take care of. As they go off to fight giant monsters threatening their seaside town, Steven tries to keep things going well at the homefront, but it almost always leads to some horrible creature being spawned from his mistakes. It’s a show that takes what superhero cartoons are doing, flips them on their head, and tosses flowers and rainbows at them to make them look pretty. Maybe it’s just because so much of television today is dark and moody, but it’s exciting to have a show that is nothing but positive vibes and jaunty adventures.

Music: bones

I listened to more music this year than anything else, but I don’t have much to say about any individual album. Yeezus was the best summation of why Kanye West is as popular as he is, and even if the songs themselves aren’t amazing, his lyrical prowess still shines. Similarly, Earl Sweatshirt’s Doris made me reflect on where rap music is today, and how someone like Sweatshirt can be successful without forgetting where his roots lie, both with rap collective Odd Future and his family. Tegan and Sara’s Heartthrob and Chvrches’s The Bones of What We Believe reminded me why female musicians can make my emotions swell while still being deep and personal with pop music. But above all else, this was the year of free or cheap rap albums and mixtapes dominating my listening time. Because the Internet was a great sophomore album by Childish Gambino, but it didn’t manage to impress as much as the metanarrative that surrounded it online before release. Acid Rap is just earworm after earworm, and I can’t stop listening to “Juice” and “Cocoa Butter Kisses” even as I write this, and I’m excited to see Chance the Rapper do more in the future. Similarly, Chicago-based jazz/rap band Kids These Days broke up this year unfortunately, but frontman Vic Mensa released an excellent mixtape Innanetape, which almost sounds like a rap diary from a kid who has been going through a lot over the past year.

Conclusion: Woo, what a year for pop culture. I didn’t intend to have this much to say, but it’s been a dense, exciting year to be a game player, film buff, and music lover. I wasn’t able to get to everything I loved this year, but all the big stuff is there. Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a whole new year of media to consume ahead of me, and I’m about to ready to dive right in.