The Completely Anal Way I Take in Media (Not Literally)

I take in media in kind of a weird way, and I wonder if I’m the only one who does this. When I come across something of interest, I first have to research it exhaustively before I will allow myself to indulge in the actual thing that interests me. This practice has been particularly intense surrounding a hip/hop album I was made aware of in November while searching Pitchfork for “best new hip hop”.

Open Mike Eagle’s Anime, Trauma, and Divorce seems right up my alley. A nerdy hip hop record about dad problems is basically everything I need out of music. My only problem is that I still don’t know if it lives up to its high praise on indie outlets. I still haven’t heard it yet.

The review I read mentioned that it makes copious allusions two specific anime shows in its examination of its central topics: Neon Genesis Evangelion, and JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. So naturally, I had to do my research first.

I spent December watching NGE (which, I have to say, is a fucking awesome show that I’m gonna need to write about all on its own). In my own dad life, I can dedicate about a half hour per day to any show. I made a few exceptions here and there because of how gripping I found it, and at the expense of other interests and passions. For those uninitiated, to begin watching NGE is to descend a rabbit hole of psychology, lore, internet theory and literary critique from which one never really has to emerge, if one doesn’t want to. After the show, I listened to podcasts detailing the background mythos omitted from the show itself. After the podcasts, I read critical essays about it online.

I’m currently in the middle of JoJo, which is taking a minute for an entirely different reason: I don’t actually like it all that much. I’m willing to make liberal allowances for stylistic choices, but at the end of the day, it just doesn’t interest me in the same way as NGE. There isn’t, as far as I can tell, a wealth of interpretations for it, or the abyss of mythos to be plunged. It’s not as sci-fi oriented, from what I can tell. It’s just generally less my jam.

But I’m not a quitter. A lot of people seem to really like it, so I’ll give it a while longer. Why not? I do enjoy the brain vacation it provides, if nothing else. But I sure would like to listen to that Open Mike Eagle album some time soon. I’ll just have to wait for my lust for the research phase of this all to subside, whenever that will be. Is anybody else as crazy and weird about how they take in new art? Just me? Cool.


Dusting Things Off/Fandom Dad

It’s been a while since I posted here! Rest assured my nerdly thought has not stopped, so much as the many responsibilities of my day to day completely swallowed me! Things are good, but hectic.

I now have two beautiful kids who have left my capacity for consuming media somewhat limited. Being a dad and a fan has really forced me to realize which universes and fandoms I really belong to. I’m unsurprised that I’ve kept up with Star Wars, even through the bottoming out of Solo, which I tell everyone was “(sigh) fine.” Surprisingly, I have continued my slow crawl through the Harry Potter books, pausing after each to read about 30 other books. Speaking of books, I have fallen in love with Rick Remender’s Black Science and have followed that avidly, thanks partially to its limited length. Also, I continue to watch Game of Thrones, but then again, that show has been more absent than I have.

Horror for me has taken a bit of a back seat, which is kind of heartbreaking for me. There just isn’t the opportunity to watch movies only I am interested in. I love participating in fandoms and indulging in my interests. Letting one go even for a short time fills me with FOMO. I catch one every now and then, but not enough to write something about. As for horror literature, I’m on kind of a classics kick right now.

I think it speaks to my foundations: fandoms that are more like my earliest obsessions take up more room in my soul. In the hierarchy of my fandom, I am first and foremost a space opera guy, with all that has been done with that genre.

On the flip side of that, I now relish indulging my 2 year old in her first real fandom: Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, based on the work of Fred Rogers. She discovered the show around her birthday, and I have loved the look of surprise on her face when she sees the stickers, coloring books, toys , and replica pajamas others and I have showered on her. It’s great to know she is pleased, but on a deeper level, my satisfaction comes from knowing she has a part of my makeup. I identify with her excited run and wild smiles on an immediate level, with out having to remember my own childhood. She feels the same feelings I do when I encounter these things, and is beautifully unbothered by an expectation to temper her reaction. In a funny way, this is parenthood. Sacrificing yourself to better your child. It doesn’t get better than bettering your child in the same way you were once bettered by others– through exposure to quality art.

One day I will watch scary movies again. Or maybe not– more on that later. Until then, I will make an effort to see past my own disappointment at giving some things up to the greater joy of teaching my kid the belonging, coded languages, and the overall joy of fandom.

A Few Summer Music Selections . . .

Few albums leave a lasting impression on me like those which I have listened to over a specific summer. For some reason, the combination of the weather, the work-free time, and the music creates a sort of instant nostalgia, and thinking of those records later brings me instantly back to spinning it in those sweet months.

It’s hard to predict what exactly I’ll be listening to once school ends (it still hasn’t– upstate N.Y. public school has a brutal calendar) but I’ve got a few contenders that I’ve been playing sparsely, more or less saving for the day I kiss my classroom goodbye and trade my tie in for shades and shorts. Just kidding, I don’t wear a tie.

Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots by The Flaming Lips

I have tried to make sure my selections feature some recent releases, but this album has struck me as such an awesome summer spin that I felt compelled to include it. And it’s new to me, so there. It has a fantastic juxtaposition of pop songwriting, psychedelic textures, and deep pocket grooves which match that laid-back summer feeling. Specifically, I’m gonna pair this one with rainy summer days. Track #2 is particularly good this way.

After the Party by The Menzingers

Punk pop is one of those sounds that hit me at such a crucial, malleable time in my life that I will forever partly define the summer by riding around, blasting it out the car windows. This is my selection for that purpose this summer. The energy is high, and the hooks are non stop. This has the added bonus of being pretty much created for late 20/early 30 somethings like me in terms of its subject matter. It literally has songs about paying off your college loans on it. It all serves to invoke that angst that the genre was made for, but in a new age bracket.

Dirty Computer by Janelle Monae



I’ll not rehash anything that’s already been said about this defining moment in neo-soul, feminism and sex positivity, but I will say this: for all of its important messages, it is also an immensely fun album to listen to. Monae seamlessly interweaves soul, pop, funk, and hip hop influences to create an album that is unpredicatable, modern, and classic at the same time. Bump it at a barbecue with your friends.

Pacific Ocean Blue by Dennis Wilson


For all the lore surrounding the life (and especially death) of Dennis Wilson, I feel like his album was actually kind of a sleeper. This is a shame. Pacific Ocean Blue builds upon the vocal centric art pop sounds of Wilson’s origins in The Beach Boys, but stirs in elements of 1970s R&B, and textures lovingly ripped off from a lesser known Beach Boys rival, The Beatles. The album is changeable and melancholic, allowing some of Wilson’s internal turmoil to peek through the veneer of his famously Rock and Roll lifestyle. Anything to do with the Beach Boys will always remind me of Summer, but in particular the album’s opener “River Song” is lush and well-suited for some contemplative waterside alone time on a hot day.

More to come as I discover it! What music are you listening to? Hit me up in the comments.



On Rey’s Parentage and our Final Impression of the Skywalkers

SPOILERS, YO. You have been warned.

I’m going to get right to it and say I loved The Last Jedi. I’m not really interested in arguing whether or not it’s a good installment, because I think it’s so provocative that the question almost doesn’t matter. Among the more provocative choices made for the film was the reveal (or at least the suggestion, if it proves to be untrue) that Rey is not of a noble Jedi bloodline, but instead the descendant of, essentially, space junkies. It contradicts two years of feverish dorkly musings, internet bubbling, and fan theories, and stomps on the audience’s expectations for the new trilogy. It’s a move I find brilliant, meaningful, and ballsy.


It also has pretty tremendous implications for the Saga as a whole. To speculate about them, however, we first have to make some big assumptions.

Let’s first assume that Rey is indeed not a Skywalker. Second, let’s assume that in the end, The First Order will be vanquished, as I’m sure most of us expect. Finally, let’s assume that it will come down to a final showdown between our protagonist, Rey, and her arch villain which, given the events of The Last Jedi, seems like it will be Kylo Ren.

The result of such a film would cast a very negative final light on the Skywalker family, a family which, generation after generation, succumbs to the dark side. Anakin, obviously, becomes Darth Vader and helps Palpatine impose a generation of oppression on the galaxy. Luke, though ultimately benevolent, fails his nephew through his own hubris, thus creating Kylo Ren, and then ignores the situation until The First Order has grown too powerful. And then, of course, Ren himself, an impulsive, destructive kid who helps the first order commit mass genocide. The only true light on the team is Leia, who spends her entire life resisting the tyranny created by the family’s men. If we were to put the deeds of the Skywalkers into ethical units, what you get is a crew pretty deeply in the red.

Enter Rey, the real kid destined to bring balance to the force. She’s not a Skywalker, and if the assumptions we mentioned above prove true, the one sentence summary of the Star Wars saga could read something like “Awful family inflicts decades of war, loss, and misery on an entire galaxy until a smart young kid comes and gives them what-for.” Just as the prequels shifted the focus of the entire saga from Luke to Anakin, the presence of a non-Skywalker hero in the latter third of the saga shifts focus away from the Skywalkers entirely, like a wrestling match for the grand scope of the series.

Before The Last Jedi was released I had a conversation with my brother who expressed anxiety at the popular speculation that Luke was going to turn out to be evil. He said he had too much emotionally invested in Luke as a good guy to stomach such a reversal. But one of the things I loved so much about The Last Jedi was that it called out the temptation to align our heroes with moral good. Even Anakin is humanized and made to seem well meaning as he kills . . . younglings. The Skywalker men have always been morally compromised. Yes, they have had little redemptions to remind us that they have good in them, and I expect that Kylo, too, will have a moment of redemption. But it would be a stretch to say that their redemptions balance out the harm they’ve caused on others either directly or indirectly. And in the end, the one to ultimately restore justice and balance to the galaxy will not be a Skywalker. Like it or not, regardless of each Skywalker’s intentions, they cannot be called the good guys in this galaxy. Not if Rey isn’t secretly one of them.

There is, of course, the possibility that Rey is a Skywalker, and that Kylo Ren tried to manipulate her there, in front of Snoke’s steaming corpse. We’ll find out in Episode IX that, like her parents and grandparents, she was lied to about her origins and place in the universe. If that’s the case, we will have a saga with much more positive light shed on this melodramatic, destructive space family. At the very least, it will be a family that always course corrects when it inevitably throws the galaxy into chaos. Even so, we might do well as fans to listen to one of the primary messages of the The Last Jedi: the force, like real-world morality, is not black and white, and idolizing someone as inherently good only leads to repeated cycles, the endless tug-of-war of good versus evil, which in itself is a kind of evil.

It strikes me as somewhat fitting that the character most at peace in The Last Jedi is DJ, the amoral hacker impeccably portrayed by Benicio del Toro. Something that characterizes the performance is even in moments of stress, when Finn and Rose are under pressure, he is cool, collected, even a little aloof. His character operates outside of the tense morality of the saga, and makes the story all a little less fantastical, and a little more human. As such, he serves as the perfect embodiment of what I loved so much about The Last Jedi. It offers us our first real admission that our beloved characters, universe, and indeed, our childhood nostalgia are more complex than we’ve been willing to accept.

Top Ten Tuesday: “Weird Al” Yankovic Deep Cuts

In this post, I’m going to take Weird Al more seriously than he was probably ever intended to be taken. But here’s the thing: I’ve made a small career for myself out of music, and none of it would have happened if I hadn’t been exposed to “Yoda” by pure happenstance one time in late elementary school. Loads of albums and small releases in varying groups across the spectrum of musical styles later, I feel confident attributing my eclectic taste and much of my appreciation for all things white and nerdy to Mr. Yankovic. So, when he announced recently that he’s embarking on a tour of deep cuts and lesser known songs, I was pretty quick to assemble a playlist of all of the songs I listened to as a kid (and to be honest, at least once a year up to this, my 30th year), which might be a part of the show. The track list is 25 songs long.  For #TopTenTuesday, I have painstakingly narrowed it to 10 tracks. Here they are, complete with links and brief commentary.

#10: “You Don’t Love Me Anymore”


Weird Al has a bunch of pain songs– that is, songs about literal, physically painful things. They’re basically just lists of agonizing experiences, and for the 11 year old living in a grown man’s body, they are completely hilarious. “You Don’t Love Me Anymore” is one of his most depraved, juxtaposing incredible slapstick with cliched love lyrics like “You slammed my face down on the barbecue grill / now my scars are all healing, but my heart never will.”


#9: “Gotta Boogie”

As with any vanity tour, you can bet there will be a few throwbacks to the beginning. This is one I heard my idiot friend in middle school reciting once, and it just stuck in the weird pop culture trap that is my brain. Its central pun is groan worthy enough before he begins chasing people around with a booger on his finger near the end.  The track is thoroughly forgotten, which means it’s primed for resurrection.


#8: “Mr. Frump in the Iron Lung”

Speaking of that first album, here’s another hilariously bizarre song. It really showcases Weird Al’s occasional dark sense of humor in a delightful Beatlesque, “When I’m Sixty-Four” feel. It’s pretty brutal, actually. You feel bad laughing, but you do it anyway.

#7: “Frank’s 2000″ TV”

. . . And then, of course, it turns out that some of the original songs Weird Al writes are actually, just, really solidly crafted pop songs. This is one of those. It’s technically a pastiche, or style parody, of REM, but I think I like it better than most REM songs I’ve heard. It’s got some fantastic lyrical gags, as many of his songs do, but it’s also got some nice vocal arranging in the choruses. I hear this one once, and it’s in my head for weeks. Please play this song, Al. Thanks.

#6: “Hardware Store”

Weird Al has his typical wheelhouse of song topics– food, TV, physical agony etc. This one doesn’t really fall into any of those. It’s about a dude who is just manically excited for a hardware store to open. It actually resonates with me pretty well given my hometown. It’s so quiet there that when our Price Chopper opened, they had a live band play in the store to celebrate. You get the idea. Personal connections aside, the song boasts an insane bridge-list of tools and materials at 2:25. I also appreciate the raw drama of the padded choral vocals on the choruses. Check it.

#5 “Everything You Know Is Wrong”

What middle school kid wouldn’t appreciate the sheer randomness of this one off of Al’s most revered album, Bad Hair Day? The floating disembodied head of Col. Sander’s claiming black is white, up is down, and short is long is exactly the kind of weirdly memorable, oddly hilarious image sure to stick with you into adulthood, and showcases an absurdist streak in Al’s sense of humor.

#4: “Weasel Stomping Day”

Okay, so I don’t actually expect them to play this one, but I do love its squeaky clean 1950s sound and brutally inhumane lyrical blend. It’s sort of a parody of an entire decade and culture in that way. It’s tradition. That makes it okay.

#3: “Skipper Dan”

Another darkly funny one, “Skipper Dan” tells the tale of a talent wasted. It’s got some pretty astute pop songwriting. It sticks in your brain, forcing its really, really sad story to play over and over in your head. That’s good, right?

#2 “I Remember Larry”

This one is all about the buildup. Two verses and a bridge leading to the twisted final verse are cast in a light, uptempo, major alt-rock feel. The music so completely overlooks the final verse’s lyrics that the its content almost seems forgotten, a stark set of lines that pass as lightly as the rest of it, which makes it even funnier. Also, pan flutes on the bridge? Why not.

#1: “Albuquerque”

I tortured my dear, sweet mother with this song when it first came out. She’s heard it more times than should be legal. But, hey, at least I learned what a colonic irrigation is. Its 11 absurdist minutes have tattooed themselves into the minds of a lot of people. It’s not a parody or pastiche; it’s just pure insanity. If Al plays it, I might just rush the stage, knock him over, and sing the whole damn thing myself.

Harry Nichols and the Philosophy of Fandom (Crashing a Fandom Part I)


It has been a woefully long time since I’ve posted here. Suffice it to say that between my seven month old baby, my insanely busy summer break, my music habit, and losing 80 lbs (!), my capacity for committing nerdly thought to words has been limited. However, things are settling. The school year is back on, and I’m falling into patterns and rhythms again.

As I announced to my friends on Facebook, I’ve decided to read through the Harry Potter books. Despite being the perfect age for them when they came out, I was incredibly resistant to the series as a youngster.  However, my wife is a fan, and we plan to read them to our baby. I want to convert to fandom for the same reason parents sometimes convert to religions when they have kids– to present a united front. With the routine of the school year coming together, I have managed to squeeze out enough time to knock out the first two, and I kind of want to kick myself for my earlier reluctance.

Before I begin, I feel it worth mentioning that I am very aware of my outsider status. I have seen (most of) the movies, but many aspects of the series have remained mysterious to me, or have been lost to the years since I saw the films last. Some spoilers I know, but there are enough secrets to feel like I’m seeing it through fresh eyes. And yet, bringing up these fresh experiences with experienced fans is a bit daunting. As a fundamentally social person, I want to share my experiences but feel self conscious talking about reading the books for the first time. I’m acutely aware that all of my opinions, hypotheses, and judgements are falling on ears of those inundated with the series since childhood. Their opinions on it are informed by decades of thinking about the complete narrative, much as mine are for other fandoms. I haven’t found others to be condescending, but I am so used to being the one with the great big beard, it’s actually a little uncomfortable to be so green on a subject.

Despite these feelings, I’ve had some initial judgments to share. Ultimately, I think I’ve loved these first two books. I say “I think” because I’ve had to re-evaluate my critical approach to stories a bit lately (perhaps another reason why now is the time to get into the series). Once upon a time, I demanded absolute perfection from a narrative. Plot holes had to be miniscule or non existent. Dialogue and narration had to be natural, free of cliche, and understated. But with those expectations, came the inevitable fact that many of my own most beloved tales can’t measure up. Take Star Wars, for instance. Star Wars is probably nearer and dearer to me than any other lore. And yet, I can’t deny its imperfection. Even Empire, my favorite in the series, is built around a giant plot hole involving either a surprisingly short training regiment for the Jedi, or an absurdly long time spent floating among space junk. If even the crown jewel of that series doesn’t really stand up to the level of expectation I had for stories, a level of expectation that it partially created by impressing upon me its finer qualities in my formative years, then I have to admit that I am rigged to reject stories. Reading books and watching films becomes not so much a process of enjoyment, but one of scrutiny. In doing, I am denying myself the social experience of loving those stories because I demand they meet unattainable standards. Thus, I have committed to taking in this series as a blank slate. I have resolved not to pass judgement on its quality until it is entirely over, and I have agreed to myself that I will allow for flaws that I recognize as an adult, which might have been overlooked as a kid.

Surely, J.K. Rowling was not an amazing writer in her earliest Potter years. I cringed a bit when, in both stories, the climaxes consisted mainly of the villain fully explaining their complete master plan to our protagonist, who was surely soon to meet his demise. But her early books were fun, whimsical, and uniquely captivating.  At the same time, I was surprised to find that many of her characters are beautifully flawed, and unexpectedly three dimensional to the adult reader, even when viewed through Harry’s limited perspective. I find the psychology of the adults in the tales particularly interesting (cough* Gilderoy Lockhart anybody?). This, I’m sure, is to be expected, being a teacher myself, and able to relate more readily to McGonagall’s day to day life than Ron’s. I actually found it quite funny how relatable teaching at Hogwarts seemed to be. It got at a universal truth that served as a grounding for me when I wanted most to question the stories’ value. Even wizard children are, first and foremost, kids. The series, with all of its fantasy and occasional absurdity and squeaks, is a commentary on that age. Kids try more than anyone to make a meaningful impact on their world, as illustrated by Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s constant meddling into affairs deemed by the adults to be beyond the scope of their power.

The first books also carve out an interestingly consistent meld of genres. Start with a base equal parts fantasy and mystery, sprinkle in trace amounts of horror (more for Chamber than Sorcerer’s Stone, but notable amounts in both). It takes a considerable amount of artistry to make satisfying, and yet different enough stories out of the same materials, but Rowling does it. They aren’t perfect, but then again, I had decided that perfection isn’t worth the effort. Rowling shows talent despite her flaws.

Enjoyment of the series aside, there is a tiny part of me that feels like an imposter in this endeavor. I lack the nostalgia that is key for any burning fandom. My appreciation is adopted, rather than an intrinsic part of my makeup. I think among fans, there is an expectation that in order to call yourself a true fan of something, it has to reach down into your very being. You have to have been molded by the art in some way fundamental to your identity. This, of course, essentially means that there is a window to become a true fan of anything. Once your formative years have passed, you are welcome into fandoms as a tourist, but not a native. Considering this, I would that I had given the Harry Potter series, flaws and all, a fairer shake when I was younger. This ride is ultimately enjoyable so far, and I look forward to getting on with the rest of the series.

Having completed what I’m told is the “childhood Potter,” I plan to take a short break, as I do with all series. I’ll be back with more when I dive into a few of the adolescent works. Hit me up in the comments.

On the Staying Power of Final Fantasy VII


I forget exactly how I came upon Final Fantasy VII back in the day. I had a Playstation, and had gamed since elementary school, but I don’t remember the exact moment in time I heard someone first say the game’s title, or saw it played by someone else. The game sort of creeps its way into my memory with considerable stealth for something I hold in such high regard. It’s actually the same with a couple other works of art close to my heart. I have no recollection of the first time I saw Star Wars, for instance. It’s just kind of always been there.

Many will argue that FF7 is one of the greatest games of all time. The discussion I see fewer people having with any great depth is why. Beyond its graphics and mechanics, what gives a game lasting power over people? Nostalgia certainly plays a part in it, but if it were just nostalgia, individual games would still die out over generations. The Final Fantasy series is pretty loaded with games that were once acclaimed, but with less staying power than FF7. Why has that installment, despite its undeniable flaws, continued to live on in popular culture, its copies passed down to the new generation like beloved records? My answer: an artful story that becomes increasingly relevant the further along we get.

In case you need a brush up (and if you do, who are you, even?) Final Fantasy VII placed the gamer in a pseudo-futuristic world ravaged by Shinra Inc., a malevolent company harvesting the planet’s life force for energy. The story is long and becomes pretty complicated, but basically, Cloud, our mercenary protagonist, struggles at first against Shinra, but ultimately against Sephiroth, a powerful entity hell bent on becoming a god at the expense of the planet.


Over three discs, the player is immersed in an expansive world quite beyond what had been done elsewhere in the mid-to-late 90s. Though exploration is a major facet of why FF7 was so successful, the game is really geared toward narrative, which again, was a change of pace from the popular Playstation fare of the day. Characters were crafted and given an arc. The game conveys thematic statements. It makes heavy use of flashback, and dedicates hours of game time to backstory for various characters, not only in cut scenes, but game play as well. This, in turn, makes the gamer feel more invested in each character’s journey while simultaneously coloring the events of the main conflict.

The plot itself, as previously mentioned, becomes incredibly complex and even a little postmodern. Upon replaying FF7 this past year, I was surprised by how well I followed it as a tween. By adopting narrative techniques that had been pioneered by generations of writers and artists before it, Final Fantasy VII was among the first games to make people wonder if games could be more than just kid stuff, if their complexity could elevate them to actual art.

Final Fantasy VII is also lent a little extra staying power because its characters, events and themes actually feel more relevant today than they did in 1997.

The game’s environmentalist messages hit harder in 2017, when a growing body of reports continue to indicate that human activity has caused irreversable global warming. There is a sense of tense foreboding, particularly in the early hours of game play, that the planet is on the brink of death, that everybody is waiting for it to collapse. Still, you find all manner of people populating Midgar and the surrounding world, some concerned at the state of things, but most simply concerned with their own getting-by. Particularly in America, where our recent election highlighted a clear discord between those who think collectively and individualists, exploring the world of the game and interacting with these diverse people feels particularly poignant.

In fact, Cloud’s major character arc can be adequately summarized as a maturation from individualism to collectivism. Early on in the game, Cloud, in his bad-ass-hard-bitten mercenary-ness, is concerned only with getting paid and expresses no interest in the cause for which AVALANCHE fights. Through interactions with Aeris and discovering his origins, he is transformed at the end of the game. He realizes that achieving your individual agenda requires a certain amount of collective thinking and empathy.

Cloud Motivation

Speaking of that recent election, the gold-headed and immoral President Shinra bears a bitter resemblance to our own turd cannon of a president.

Trump wishes he had that jawline and Tom Selleck ‘stache.

The resemblance adds a layer of unplanned irony, but also gives the entire game an air of prophecy. Played in 2017, Final Fantasy VII actually feels very little like a fantasy at all. Its fantastical elements are merely superficial. The thematic material it grapples with are very much rooted in our present lives.

Finally, FF7 breaks away from previous Final Fantasy titles by setting its tale in a semi-futuristic world possessed of technologies we are ever closer to obtaining. In keeping with the paradox of progress, few seem to be enriched by the technology, and mostly it appears to do a considerable amount of evil at the behest of Shinra Inc. Hojo, a major figure in the game, embodies the traditional mad scientist, throwing ethical concerns to the wind for his experiments by splicing Jenova cells into human clones. His character reflects a culture’s growing fascination and concern with the technology’s incremental advancement toward omnipotence, a fascination that the 20 years of technological advancement since the game’s release has only heightened.

Haters are quick to point to any number of flaws in the game. The graphics are terrible for the most part. Much of the dialogue is clunky. Some of the characters aren’t aging well. These flaws granted, it was still a game that made you think in the age of Spyro the Dragon and Crash Bandicoot (as much fun as those games were).

I realize that as a gamer, I have been chasing this experience pretty much ever since I finished FF7 for the first time back in the day. I’ve played many games I’ve enjoyed, but few with the same sticking potential. I’m a few generations behind in consoles, but I’ve recently picked gaming back up, and I’d love to know what titles of similar quality I’ve missed. Hit me up in the comments.

The Difficulty in Finding Engaging Text for Seventh Graders


Seventh grade is a terribly awkward year in every sense. For students, wild hormones combine with a sudden awareness that other people have thoughts about them, turning them effectively into paralyzed, self imprisoned weirdos. Familiar with their childhood selves, and inexplicably called to an adult world they they don’t really understand, their lives are constant tension centered around social issues. It behooves the writers of curriculum to keep this in mind when picking study materials for an age group so heavily in the middle of things.

Of course, seventh grade is awkward for the teachers as well. Not only do the sometimes bizarre actions of students put us in uncomfortable situations as their caretakers and disciplinarians, but simply trying to accommodate the odd little buggers and hold their interest is uniquely difficult. It’s out of a concern for their interest that I historically haven’t taught full length novels, relying instead on short fiction to convey most of my key learning.

But then again, I teach English, god damn it. I want to read a novel with my students. The question simply becomes which? The answer is harder to come by than expected.

Even Charlotte Doyle looks bored with The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle

When I think back on my own seventh grade experience, I find that I can recall the titles I read surprisingly well, better even than those of some college courses I took. They were pretty well worn middle school fare: Avi’s The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson, and April Morning by Howard Fast all stick out in my mind. Though vastly different stories, they all shared one commonality: They bored the hell out of me. There’s an entire cannon of novels for middle school that are slowly falling out of favor with young readers.  Even the most recent of those listed, Charlotte Doyle, was written in a markedly different world than the one in which kids now find themselves. The times have changed, and I want to teach something that reflects the world my students see around them. And so, my struggle begins.


Thanks to their thoroughly in-between nature, twelve and thirteen year olds often come up against the wall of appropriateness preventing them from discovering meaningful , potentially motivating content. Parents are often careful what they allow kids of this age to consume. As a teacher, I need to be extra careful to avoid offending families of varied sensitivity to sex, language, and violence. This year, in particular, I have felt my pedagogical creativity stifled by that wall, to the point where I needed to pose a question: in protecting our kids from inappropriate material, are we not also smothering the sparks of their interest? Which is the greater good, to shield students from the world’s nasty bits, or to engage their developing minds, possibly helping them connect their own struggles to their studies?

Should kids of that age be allowed to read, watch, and play absolutely anything? Of course not. But I think at times those who would censor school materials focus on the superficial. Take for example the unit I sought to develop this year on Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. The book is a modern classic of young adult literature. However, because our protagonist at one point proudly admits to masturbating and refers on occasion to erections to describe interest in things only occasionally sexual (ex. having a “hard-on for words”), I was shot down.

My problem with this is twofold. First, these sexual references are superficial. They are the surface language through which the book’s deep thematic material is delivered, rather than the thematic material itself. Second, the book, being about a kid’s upbringing on a Native American reservation, contains several ties not only to historical content covered in seventh grade social studies, but to the world these kids experience daily. In the year that the indigenous people of Standing Rock had to suffer to stave off the desecration of their sacred grounds, what would have been more pertinent that reading a book which takes as its backdrop the genocide and relocation of the Native American?

Disappointed, I turned first to the internet for alternative narratives reflecting the Native American reservation life. Nothing even came close to covering the material in quite the depth or quality of Alexie. (If someone knows of one, please point me in the right direction). So eventually, I began to look outside the subject I was planning on covering. What other novels out there might I find that are modern, relevant, gripping, connected to other subject areas, and appropriate?

The solution is, unsurprisingly, hard to find. I looked into a new novel called The Last True Love Story by Brendan Kiely. It’s got relevance, being set around Ithaca, NY, where my students live. It has a connection to other content, being itself a sort-of YA Odyssey, and drawing on students knowledge from 6th grade. And yet, like every epic hero, it has its tragic flaw: a bunch of naughty words. Common Sense Media rates it 14+, the same death blow dealt to my beloved Alexie unit that never was. Raunchy language, again, is superficial. It is the delivery vehicle for the book’s meaning. And certainly, most of these kids have never heard or used such language before, right?

I didn’t just look into these two books, either. Finding a book that is both meaningful to the students and appropriate has proven unexpectedly difficult for me this year. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. By seventh grade, kids are no longer living school appropriate lives. Why should a novel that reflects these lives be any different? We should make a distinction between objectionable material on a superficial and thematic level. Allowing the former would create so much more opportunity to draw students in and encourage thoughtfulness, while still shielding students from material they are not yet ready to process.




Getting Old in Punk Pop


Blink 182’s most recent album, California, begins with a starkly honest set of lines:

 There’s a cynical feeling saying I should give up / You’ve said everything you’ll ever say

The lines resonated with me. A songwriter with power pop leanings myself, I sometimes worry about the easily observable tendency in artists to produce less material as they get older. While I don’t feel anywhere near that point just yet, I’m a long-term thinker, and constantly work to avoid the day I run out of ideas however far in the future it may be. I want my craft to last into my old age, and I don’t want it to get stupid along the way.

The muses of pop-punk are ephemeral, however. As with all forms of pop, melody is king. Particularly with power pop, lively energy and a certain angst are a part of the sound. Of course, we all eventually start running short of lively energy as we get older, and that angst has a tendency to fade as well, at least towards the subjects that are usually sung about: romantic relationships, rejection of authority, and youthful stupidity.

Needless to say, I eagerly listened on to hear what Mark Hoppus, a man who rose to fame writing songs about making prank calls, pubescent sexual tension, and grandfathers shitting their pants, would have to say about continuing to perform with Blink 182 into his 40s. With 2003’s self titled album (which I love), and 2012’s Neighborhoods (which grows on me more and more), I was led to expect some musical growth. The opening lines were promising for the lyrical content to follow. There is definitely an untapped wealth of inspiration in the tension created when you outgrow your craft, and punk pop music, at least the way Hoppus defined it, requires such youthful point of view to maintain.

Instead, California turned out to be an absolute regression. Rather than nod to where he has been, using his wisdom and experience to comment on his former self, he tries simply to become his former self. “Teenage Satellites,” a forgettable mid album track, tells a story of completely cliched young-and-wild love that feels forced. The single, “She’s Out of Her Mind,” heavily recalls “The Rock Show” even as its music video remakes the iconic streaking scenes of “What’s My Age Again?” The song romanticizes its subject’s instability like only a horny 17-year-old can, except these guys are 45.


There are a few less regressive songs on the album. “Rabbit Hole” is about self perpetuating misery, but still, it smacks of pubescent mopey-ness. There’s also a streak of Golden State worship in the album’s lyrics, most of which feels out of place on an album otherwise populated with the imaginings of man-children seeking their youth through music. “California” has a few flirtations with honest nostalgia about a past spent in the title state, but it spends so much time on cliches of Californian life that it sounds like it was sponsored by the board of tourism.

One mustn’t forget the joke songs, either. As Hoppus belts in one song,  “I wanna see some naked dudes / that’s why I built this pool.” Just like in their heyday, Blink has provided a few 30-second splashes of sophomoric entertainment, like the icing on a cake of sadness. Clearly for Hoppus et. al, the solution to running out of ideas is to take all your old ideas and do them again, regardless of how goofy it looks on you now.

Green Day, another of my childhood favorites, put out an album recently as well. They aged a bit better than Blink 182 throughout the 2000’s, releasing American Idiot, which turned their signature punk pop into a more progressive stadium rock sound, ordaining79a2201c67a9aa386cda76562666c62d.500x500x1 their youthful songs of rebellion with lofty concepts. Billy Joe Armstrong still sang about young love, but he began to create characters, and while the band went through less extreme stylistic changes than Blink, they still seemed to mature better. They used their political anger to fuel change in subject matter and maturity.

I maintain that American Idiot is one of the more important albums from the George W. Bush era. It was a rare evolution from what is usually a very stagnant genre. Post American Idiot, they released several duds, as they failed to grow more. 21st Century Breakdown played like an album of American Idiot b-sides. Uno, Dos, Tre! sought a return to a more traditional album, stripped of all higher concepts, but came out incredibly boring. And now we have Revolution Radio, another album heavily derived from their American Idiot developments.


Lyrically, Armstrong is still writing ironic, politically angsty sounding lyrics. He has a few entertaining and memorable quips like “I found my soul / beneath the sofa cushions.” They don’t always land, and often leave the listener puzzling at their meaning. Other tracks, like “Bouncing Off the Walls” are pretty generic songs of rebellion not really worth remembering.

As with all post 2000 Green Day albums, you kind of get lost in the steady stream of distorted eight notes and power chords. Tre Cool uses only his kick drum, hi hat, and snare for everything with extremely rare exceptions, and songs are punctuated with chants of “hey ho” that sound sampled at this point. In the middle, the temptation gets strong to switch the record despite a few new arranging tricks, such as the verses of the album’s opener, “Somewhere Now,” which contrast 60’s esque ringing guitar arpeggios with stomping stadium rock choruses. The hooks are certainly more ornate and interesting than those on California, but at the end of the day, it’s another f*cking Green Day album. They may have risen to a musical precipice beyond Blink, but they’ve been there for 13 years, with only very minor changes beyond that.

At this point, I haven’t seen proof of a power pop artist continuing thoughtfully through their career, innovating, but still staying true to the basic tenants of their genre. It’s possible that the kind of excitement you get from a well crafted punk pop tune just isn’t meant to be made by those who aren’t in the budding years of their lives. It’s a truth that is particularly painful because for so many creative types, myself included, it serves as a gateway for a glimpse of back-in-the-day. It’s only natural to want to generate that feeling for others, and it requires care and vision to attempt after certain benchmarks of your life are passed.

Top Ten Tuesday: Horror Flicks that Don’t Rely on Jump Scares

I love horror movies of all kinds, but lately I’ve come to really appreciate those that can disturb their audience without over-reliance on the age old horror tool, the jump scare. I wrote a thing about it here, but in essence, when a film doesn’t rely heavily on jumps and jolts, it allows the its atmosphere and themes to really shine through, which tend to be more memorable and enduring for the audience. So here’s a quick list for #TopTenTuesday of great films that focus on deeper thematic horror beyond just jumps. Not that there isn’t still a jump or two here or there, you know, for good measure.

#10: The Invitation

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There’s a current trend in mainstream comedy that my colleague and I have dubbed cringecore– basically comedy excruciatingly derived from awkward situations. The Invitation seems a bit like the black sheep of that family, in that it follows what might be the most awkward dinner gathering in history. Rather than turning funny, however, things get pretty messed up. The horror here comes in the audience’s unraveling of the relationship history among the attendees, culminating in a pretty thrilling climax. It’s enthralling for all the right reasons.

#9: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

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Filmed in a noir-reminiscent black and white, this Persian-scripted film is an excellent, fresh take on the vampire tropes. Visually memorable and feminist in nature, the movie has been largely praised by critics, who like me, agree that it’s awesome to see such a vivid, humanist portrait of what is so often treated only with broad strokes. Add to this that the move is also just downright creepy thanks to its use of darkness, shadow, and of course to a haunting performance by Sheila Vand, and we have a winner.

#8: It Follows

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A lot has been said about this movie. It’s definitely a darling of the indie horror circuit largely for its use of its unsettling, mildly surreal atmosphere. Some interesting reading on that atmosphere can be found here. It also predated Stranger Things as a scary love letter to the 80s with its haunting synth-heavy soundtrack. All elements collide in just the perfect way to turn what could have been a lame cautionary tale about teenage sex into something much more nuanced and artistic.

#7: Antichrist


Lars von Trier’s first entry into his unofficial “depression trilogy” is laden with his signature use of rich metaphor and symbolism, which some find overbearing. It covers a topic oft dealt with in horror: grief. Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg play parents dealing with the death of their young son, who foolishly decide to figure things out at an isolated cabin in the woods. The film was the subject of controversy upon release, drawing rightful accusations of misogyny in its thematic messages. However, taken as a trilogy with its successors, Melancholia and Nymphomaniac, once can start to see with more nuance the message: the assessment that mankind by its very nature is evil, because nature itself is evil. It’s pretty heavy metal.

#6: We Need to Talk about Kevin

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Be warned. This one is definitely going to harsh your mellow. It’s a story that gets at deep seated horrors of parenting with ambiguity enough to keep you thinking about it for years. Without giving away spoilers, it also gets at some of the darkest trends of real life horror observable in current events: truly an American horror film. It’s always weird to see John C. Reilly giving serious performances (forever Dr. Steve Brule to me), and yet he does so admirably here. However, the real credit is due to an intense, heartbreaking performance by Tilda Swinton. If you haven’t seen it, you need to. Just make sure it’s already been a crappy day, because things won’t get better afterwards.

#5: The Babadook


The Babadook offers a more allegorical approach to the subject of child rearing. Essie Davis protrays Amelia, a widow struggling at once to cope with the death of her husband, and to manage her particularly difficult son, Sam, who shows some symptoms of autism, although it is never explicitly discussed. Sam’s obsession with a childhood monster becomes a supernatural pressure point on Amelia, whose unraveling illustrates with incredible foreboding the toll her life is taking on her. It’s always nice to see women of horror at work, and director Jennifer Kent sets the bar high.

#4 Alter Ego

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I’m sure at this point, the list has become pretty predictable, so I wanted to throw a wild card on here for you. Takashi Shimizu (director of Ju-On, among other memorable J-horror films) was a “supervising director” on this low-budget affair in 2002, and let me first say that most would probably not consider this film on the same critical level as others on this list. The production is cheap, the acting isn’t great and the script, well. Let’s just say it follows suit. HOWEVER: I found it to have a certain B-film charm to it. The film follows a group of girls at a photoshoot on the campus of an empty school. One by one, malicious doubles appear to pick them off. Shimizu makes the most with what he’s got, using some simple, but genuinely freaky special effects to make the doubles memorable, wacky and surreal. With its short run time of just about an hour, I recommend carving out a moment for this one, particularly if you like quirky, weird horror. Find it on Shudder.

#3: Contracted

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Here’s a novel idea: a zombie movie that focuses on the horrors of a single person becoming a zombie, rather than the apocalyptic hordes-of-undead stuff of traditional zombie lore. If the purpose of a jump scare is instantaneous payoff, Contracted seems to follow an opposite philosophy: the film’s horror is all about the slow degradation of its protagonist. You may need to look past a few hard-to-swallow moments, but this one rewards, overall. Extra kudos to the makeup team for subtly turning the protagonist into a pile of death over time.

#2: Beyond the Walls

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Okay, technically Beyond the Walls is a three part miniseries rather than a film, but the pieces can easily be taken as a whole. It’s got an intriguing premise: a woman who inherits a mysterious house discovers a door inside its walls leading to a strange other-worldly place. I leave the spoilers off from there. The story is imaginative and dark, and there are a handful of cool visual moments that lend some memorable creepiness to it all, all without a single jump scare. There are a few unexplained moments and plot peculiarities, but on the whole, this one satisfies.

#1: The Witch

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There was a lot of hype surrounding this one, and for once, it was all deserved. I can’t recommend this film enough to any horror fan. It is subtle, artistic, dark and heavily atmospheric while featuring some outstanding performances. The film is about a puritan family who is excommunicated to live on their own. Slowly, they succumb to their own flaws and are preyed upon until the film’s disturbing and memorable climax. The film is a wealth of possible interpretation, and I’m sure many will put their spin on it in the years to come. If you are a horror fan, you kind of have to check this one out.