Mothers

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So, I powered through Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel in a day. It was a slow work day, and I haven’t gone through a book like that in a while.

I didn’t know what to think going into it, mostly because despite the fact that I loved her previous memoir comic work Fun Home, that one’s a weird book that’s basically a critical and thematic literary analysis of not only her relationship with her father and his death, but also her own sexuality, lesbianism, and her father’s sexuality. This one was a lot of the same, but also different, in that the relationship Bechdel has/had with her mother (who died in 2013) wasn’t the entirely abstract thing that the one with her dad was.

A lot of the book deals with the history of psychoanalysis, the application of psychoanalysis and the great minds involved in it, as well as interweaving Virginia Woolf in there as well. But when you boil it down, the really important (or at least impactful to me, but more on that in a second)  elements are the ones where her intensely sloppy but passionate relationship with her mother is examined. It’s really clear that Bechdel, in trying to accurately depict her relationship with her mother, does the same thing that she did when describing what she had with her father;

Something complicated.

Still, and for reasons I haven’t fully gotten through and been able to articulate, the story of her and her mother didn’t have the same impact on me that the one with her father did. I feel, in a way, that the form in which she writes and draws about it is why, drawing as she does on a lot of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. Her intertwining her own growth (or at least mental unwinding) during therapy felt, at times, kind of draining. While I understand that in a narrative sense, her own mental well-being was tied into the growing and reinforcing of a positive relationship (as much as it could be) with her mom, I personally couldn’t really find any connection to that. However, that’s also in synch with the fact that her mother is alive through the story of this book and that Bechdel actively struggles to make a connection to her mother in a conventional child-mother way, a conventional daughter-mother way. While not all of her issues (and there are a lot of issues, many of which I can’t really understand) dealt with through the book and through her therapy relate to her mother, a lot of them seem to orbit around her, at the very least.

This of course makes me immediately jump to the conclusion that because it’s a book about therapy (in a stripped-down oversimplification), I don’t like it because therapy is boring. After all, it’s just people talking to each other back and forth,* and on a comic book page. Why would anyone want to read that?

That doesn’t mean, like I said, that it’s a bad book, because there are amazing elements that are right up there with Fun Home, which I really adore. The ending of the book has the same impact that the first did, a concise moment capturing an adult realization against a childhood visual, which creates an effective stamp of an ending, something literature in general can struggle with. It’s hard to stick a landing.

What I do think though is, what does it say about me that the elements of a book dedicated to relationships and interaction which talk about the roots of how those relationships work is what I like the least? Part of me wants to admit some anti-snobbery brutalist attitude, but at the same time, I know that’s not entirely true. Part of me also wants to express it as some kind of denial thing, like I dislike the psychoanalysis because I need it or connect to it more than I care to. Again though, not something I think is actually true.

The older I’ve gotten, the less self-introspective I’ve gotten, feeling more and more self-aware of knowing who I am, what I am, and how my brain and psyche probably work. Yeah, part of it is because I’m a simple kind of person (read: boring), but part of it is also in growing more and more certain with my own sense of self. On the other hand, in the book, Bechdel isn’t sure of herself, of her own identity (constantly feeling a need to not only be there for other people but also to push herself to the limits in terms of self-introspection and self-harm, metaphorically through self-criticism).

I am aware though, that in the end this isn’t a book meant for me. I mean, it is, it’s out there, and it’s not like it’s labeled “NOT FOR COSTA FUCK THAT GUY” on the cover. However, I’m a heterosexual white male who has a set of alligator-luggage privilege for getting through life and for building my sense of self, nevermind a relationship with my family that’s drastically different with what Bechdel has/had with hers in her work. It’s inevitable that my own lens will be skewed when reading this work and when I strain to make a connection, because my brain, so used to automatically and easily finding connections to art, is floundering here, making me work for what few tenuous connections I can find.

Basically, in this book I see the shadow of who I was and who I could have been, rather than the kind of person I feel like am now. Now, at 33, I’m more confident in my self, in my role in the world, in my own power, and in my own voice, which makes me appreciate Bechdel’s work, but not connect with it. I connect with Fun Home because it’s about coming to terms with self, in the end, as opposed to Are You My Mother‘s battle between an evolving sense of self and how that strains the limits of a difficult relationship. It’s a relationship, and a book, that I’m going to come back to over and over, that I know, but it’ll probably be a slow-going process to fully be able to empathize with it, if I ever do. And I’m OK with that.

*)Cheap shot, I know.

All These Variable States

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So, everyone likes Twin Peaks, right? Well, not everyone, because I know how weird and how strange it can be, melding a lot of stuff that was either too insane to be true what what was kind of groundbreaking, especially for TV.

A lot of entertainment since then, from TV like The X-Files (which you could probably consider a spiritual successor to Twin Peaks in a way) to the current wave of weird fiction podcasts, like Tanis (from production company PNW, aka “Pacific North West”, get it?) that all happen to take place in the Pacific Northwest, all have some root tracing itself back to that show, which basically helped establish that modern concept in fiction of weird towns in remote locations full of forests, full of secrets, and full of strangeness that crosses lines between the supernatural and the sci-fi, the humane and the inhuman.

The real problem with a lot of this tends to be my primary criticism with most of the world drawing influence from earlier works, which is that the wrong things are being drawn from influence-wise. If you’re going to be influenced by say, The X-Files, then the thing that really should be the impact and influence on you is not just internal government conspiracies revolving around aliens, but also about growing relationships and trust while encountering the unexplainable of the wide world, especially parts of the world that don’t usually get seen or are passed off as too mundane. The X-Files is as much weird horror as sci-fi in that sense, which a lot of “inspired-by” work fails to capture, in my mind.

Twin Peaks is the same, in that the idea of small-town weirdness in an imposing setting is a surface inspiration that often gets used as a fairly cheap-and-easy “spooky” look and vibe. However, the other elements of soap opera-drama, intense personal relationships that can damage and crack at larger things like plans and investigations, as well as the overall larger concept that you CAN’T explain or fully explore these supernatural things…all that seems to be lost in the translation of “inspiration” onto more current work.

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We played the first-person narrative game Virginia, from Variable State and 505 Games recently. I like weird video games, I like first-person exploring narrative-types, and claiming obvious references (mentioned above) is a cheap way to get me to check it out. The X-Files and Twin Peaks (rookie agent and disgraced veteran partner, small town surrounded by forests and a military base, supernatural elements, a missing child, secrets) are all over this game from the get-go, as you (the new agent) end up looking for a missing boy in Freedom, VA. The game’s minimalist to a T, almost to a fault, though not quite, which in a way is supposed to be part of its charm of nostalgia, being set in the 1992 as well. Hell, it works and sells, so why not? A lot of other video games these days in this vein seem to be on the same wavelength of near-past settings, which establish not only a plugging of story holes that a cell phone and interview could solve, but also establishing a visual aesthetic that is meant to deliberately evoke feelings and connections to other media (like TV and film) set in that area, albeit an evoking that only works so well with the minimal art style of the game.

I do like that you can actually see yourself in the mirror, though.

I guess if we’re talking about comparing to other similar games, Virginia is probably closest to Everyone’s Gone To The Rapture, where you literally move through the game simply to advance the literary narrative, with little to no actual “work” involved. It just plays out for you, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing (though Rapture was a game that I found boring and dragging personally) though it does require you to have something involved to make it stand out. Gone Home and Firewatch, the standards in this kind of game as far as I’m concerned, require a little bit of actual work on your part to figure out the narrative, solve some level of puzzles, and most importantly, they help you along in figuring out that narrative.

Virginia‘s main standout element, being entirely wordless with only minimal text, isn’t that big a deal for a video game, because ideally a video game is something where you interact and figure out through playing. You don’t need a lot of literary exposition, because the actions and interactions give that to you. However, Virginia‘s claim that there’s not much if any vocal/text communication but then still have some level of reading involved is where the flaws start to pile up.

There are a couple of mysteries within the overall story of the game, and the big problem is that with no one talking, you have to snatch at bits of text when they appear and devour them as soon and as quickly as you can. Because the game sometimes makes jumps on its own (even though you’re being prompted to act to move forward) you can’t read what’s available, and not catching every little thing all of a sudden creates massive gaps in your understanding. I spent a good 1/3 of the game assuming a character’s mother was in fact her wife/life partner, because I wasn’t allowed to look at a text document (provided for information) long enough to read it, and I couldn’t go back once the scene moved on. Didn’t see the dates related to the related character, lost the narrative thread. The screen changes, I’m forced to close the file folder, or the character looks away and the scene changes.

Oops.

That this happened a few times, all at what I later on realized were fairly crucial moments in the story (in terms of actually learning what’s going on) was probably my major complaint here. Things just moved on with little to no space to understand, to learn, to even move on your own. So much of the criticism of these types of video games is that they’re basically short stories or movies that you’re just along for the ride, and that criticism actually feels pretty apt when applied to Virginia.

If you’re going to include elements in your storytelling that require some level of independent thought and analysis, you still need to include some level of “jump-starting” to fill in the blanks that would start the reader/player down that road, and ultimately if you can’t take the minute or two it requires to grab that information you need to be able to continue forward with a story and then make your decisions and interpretations of the story, then what’s the point of giving someone that interpretative freedom?

When I teach literature, I semi-jokingly tell my students that in literary studies there are “no wrong answers,” which is a really simple way to introduce them to the idea of informed subjective analysis of material. Too often students are scared to give their own opinions when they start out doing this kind of reading and writing (college-level lit classes) so I encourage them to just throw interpretations out there, see what sticks. However, as the class eventually moves on, I introduce more basic concepts to help round out the “but”‘s of “there are no wrong answers,” which include the concept of context.

Context is king. Context is key.

Without even basic context of a story, or the story’s background, you can have all sorts of great connections and some real deep influences going on connecting your work to other works, and you have have a setting that’s rich with emotional punches, but it can feel like it’s too scattered across the board, which is what kind of happens to this game.

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I don’t hate Virginia. The more I think about it, the more I kinda like it quite a bit, especially in certain areas. I think the concept is really bold honestly, and mechanics-wise this could have been really great if a few things were fixed, because those few things really skewed (not ruined, not quite) the game away from being really great. Also, as I mentioned a bit when I wrote about my frustrations with prestige TV’s obsession with attaching homework as a level of even basic understanding of the story, having to almost immediately jump into external reading and analysis to not just understand the thematic elements but the very basic linear narrative of a work, then I start to feel like maybe we as creators have kind of forgotten the point of there being different storytelling mediums. Yes, good stories are universal, and Virginia is, when you put the work in, a really good story. However, is it best told as a game like this? I don’t know. It could work well in a bunch of other settings (which I sort of suspected might have been the origin here, but that’s another story for another time) and it’s not a bad game, but it’s not what it could be.

Ultimately it left me more frustrated than satisfied, though that frustration is a little tempered knowing that I can go back and try to re-understand better with another play-through. I guess it just depends if I feel like the work is worth it whenever I get around to it. I don’t know, it might be.

Stranger In Fiction

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We tried. I really tried, I did.

While I’m sure the Netflix series The OA appeals to some, a weird mixture of science fiction, fantasy, and some kind of semi-spiritual journey, after three episodes, I have to admit I lost interest. It’s spacey, it’s sparse, it’s highly-reliant on mood and atmosphere and what I’m guessing is supposed to me dramatic pauses and dramatic interludes in general that just draws a lot of it out.

I don’t really like it, and I feel that not liking it (or feeling particularly interested in the vast majority of “Netflix Originals” or “Amazon Prime Original Series”) has a lot to do with some kind of TV burnout.

Overall, TV these days feels burdensome, to be honest, though when we finished watching WESTWORLD, I’d felt like I’d been exposed to something really amazing. That was a great show, an interesting ride I went on, just letting the story happen and seeing some great acting and great visuals. I really enjoyed WESTWORLD a lot more than I thought I would, in an inversely-proportional way that I didn’t care for The OA as much as I thought I might.

I remember when Netflix first launched. It was such a weird idea, an online version of Blockbuster’s, where I spent a lot of time as a teenager. At first, they had almost nothing, lots of shitty movies, Japanese anime, no real TV shows. It was early on in releasing TV for home media at the rate that it comes out these days. Because no one knew who the hell Netflix was, or what it was, no one gave them the time of day. The stuff they had the rights to rent was insanely bad, b-movies, foreign stuff, things like that. It coincided with an uptick in my taste in film, right as the local video store that sold the good stuff was closing down. The idea of a movie rental service being some kind of place for critically-acclaimed TV shows to exist on (or the great potential that I don’t think Netflix is capitalizing on as much as Hulu does in my experience, having troves of B-movies), was ridiculous and non-existent.

I loved the access, suddenly, to this trove of weird stuff, stuff that I’d never been able to find, much less conceive. It was early on in my exposure to regular cable TV (which meant I mostly just watched horror movies and scifi shows), so the idea of stuff like obscure channels and corners of public access on basic cable for old movies, weirdo documentaries and special, or bad cult stuff to watch for kicks wasn’t fully fermented in my head just yet.

We talk a lot about the “golden age of TV” (hell, even I have) in a post-BREAKING BAD, post-THE SOPRANOS world, where television is getting treated like somehow it’s this magic new and strangely-legitimate venue for artistic work. Which isn’t to say that it used to not be, but it was also very much a thing that for a long time wasn’t respected as good (even when it was very, very good). A huge part of this “golden age of TV” too is the ability for TV shows that want to be serious, dramatic, and “deep” now to have a wide range of possible outlets to be seen on. Regular TV, cable TV, HBO, streaming services like Netflix and Hulu and Amazon Prime, not to mention web-based TV channels that are on the far-left (edge of the dial) end of the cable channel options, popping up available on specific providers or through devices like a Roku or Amazon Fire or whatever Google decides to do to get in the game, which you know they will. Semi-related, I’m a little surprised that there’s no Apple TV network of shows, though Apple’s desire to stay in the hardware game is a much better cash flow, so…yeah, that probably answers my own question.

The issue here though is that, in the same way that you can’t pre-emptively create a true “cult” hit (which defeats the purpose of it being cult), you can’t expect something to be considered “serious” and dramatic if you try to aim for those as targets to hit rather than as after-effects of something that’s simply good.

And that’s the thing. Not a lot of what’s out there, what’s pushed at us, is actually good. But the desire to try to get the next actually-good thing kills what made me initially like and actively use a service like Hulu or Netflix (weirdly enough, I also remember when Hulu initially sold itself as a place JUST to watch broadcast TV online to catch up).

I’d rather watch movies, to be honest. I’d rather be able to watch a couple of movies a week instead of “marathoning” a TV series (being one of those young modern households that watches TV through the Internet rather than broadcast or cable), one of the dozens that seem to pop up weekly ,half of which are just knock-offs of other shows, or just suck, or are just repackaged British and Norwegian or whatever TV, not an original new show just for that outlet as they claim half the time. It can be an overwhelming selection, and getting burned over and over again looking for good storytelling fucking sucks. Movies are, to me, a better option for trying this out because even thought you might fall into something shitty, the investment of time, something I find myself much more conservative with wasting these days, is less. Sure, I can lose two hours or so, but better that compared to eight to twelve hours that I have to slug through over two to three nights to get to the goddamn point.

The TV I like to consistently watch (on repeat, in the background) is so far from what would actually be considered popular or modern (science cooking shows and old true-life mystery and crime stuff like old episodes of Mythbusters or Forensic Files, or the latest season of Top Chef and episodes of Chopped), stuff I can watch and not pay too much attention to, something that doesn’t present itself as a puzzle to be solved, just entertainment to be enjoyed. TV shouldn’t be a fight, it shouldn’t be a chore (no entertainment should, ultimately, be a chore, but that’s a broader thing). It should be some dumb mindless downtime to unwind you at the end of the day, it should be some background noise while you putter around the house and can’t find something good on the radio or in your music collection.

Maybe I’m just hard to please, but less and less, I don’t care about TV. I don’t care about TV we all claim to love, or adaptations of other medium, or TV on some new interesting platform. I just want something actually good and interesting that speaks to me, that entertains me, not something that demands respect or fucking homework.

Olly Olly

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One of the games I really liked playing last year was OXENFREE, from Night School Studio. A group of kids gathering to have an all-night party/hangout on an old semi-abandoned island off the coast of their town, exploring a place that has a lot of weird mysterious history. The story continues to grow from the simple relationship interactions of the start to a much more in-depth mystery/horror/sci-fi thread that I ended up loving a lot for a variety of reasons. It was probably one of my favorite video games of 2016 (of the few I played admittedly) and is one I look forward to going back and playing again, something you can do thanks to the multiple paths and potential endings.

The mystery and story of the game unfolded really well and I ended up loving it because, like any good story, it starts small and builds. That whole idea of not starting with vast big concepts, but building layer upon layer is a difficult one in storytelling, honestly, because I see it screwed up in storytelling a lot. I think part of it has roots in childhood and teenage imaginations, when you think about it. Basic small concepts that build into larger things are the roots of most childhood play. We’re explorers. OK, what are we exploring? Uhh, this old house, because it’s got something in it we want…and so on, and so on.

Anyway, like a lot of first-person/POV games that exploded last year, it’s both travel-driven (walking through the environment to specific locations) and dialogue-driven (depending on how you respond to speech prompts, the story alters), but it looks more like a side-scrolling/traveling/whatever game, so it’s a little more old-fashioned in traveling around the world of the story, videogame-wise. It’s described as having a “2.5D perspective”, which is a good way of describing it.

The game’s major flaws is the weird viewpoints that can make looking at the action on screen, the movement, and the dialogue bubbles/boxes difficult at times. The background art is so beautiful in the usage of pastels and shadows, and the light or lack thereof works really well naturally  (as time progresses from dusk to dawn), that it sorta sucks to feel it’s all wasted pushed far back into a zoomed-out background. The story of trying to unravel the mystery of the odd signals that seem to be saturating the very air around the island, which was a research facility for odd radio wave-related technology in WW2. There’s something that may or may not be an extradimensional alien force that seems supernatural driving the weirdness of the island, tied to a horrific tragedy

What I really thought about when this game was on the TV in front of me, honestly, was the basic idea that it’s a group of kids left alone to explore the remnants of war, paranoia, and Cold War infrastructure, as they wander the island in search of their friends and answers. It struck a weird chord with me, not just in the nostalgia factor (in that a lot of the game relies on the usage of radios) but in the exploration factor.

As a kid, I’d be left alone a lot when shipped off to visit family in Greece, out on the island(s) alone for hours at a time. My Greek was pretty poor, I couldn’t sit inside and read all day unfortunately, I’d get restless and want to go out. The valley villages and beachfront towns I stayed in with relatives were nothing like I’d ever see before, places where abandoned  but seemingly-new houses stood alongside near-wrecks that people still lived in. Construction would sit dormant for years, paths cut across fields and all over the sun beats down, mercilessly.

Mostly, I just walked around.

I walked through people’s yards, never knowing if they were inside napping in the daytime heat or if the house was abandoned. I have a memory of fleeing in terror from someone’s weird front yard I was exploring because the house had some strange 80’s semi-“Golden Girls” look to it and I was fascinated, thinking the levels of dirt everywhere was a sign the inhabitants weren’t there. They were, and when I heard the door unlocking from the inside I ran in a blind stupid panic down to the beach, in full view of whoever came out.

A lot of the houses had been abandoned either before or during WW2, when Greeks fled en masse and became refugees in Asia Minor, in Egypt, in Ethiopia (like my grandparents). When the war was over, some only came back to the islands to gather what they could and contact relatives in Canada, America, and the UK to go live there, the country ravaged by famine and occupation. After that, those empty houses would be reused and repurposed by whoever was left in those villages in the 70s. Houses and taverns now turned into what I assumed was storage for church stuff. The old abandoned school that only went to 10th grade. The building made out of cinder blocks in the early 1990’s that’s become the mini-market, walls and shelves stocked to the ceiling with stuff now, constantly humming from the three freezers in there. I’d walk all over and marvel and old and semi-abandoned places, thinking about adventures that could be happening there, about who lived in these buildings and what was going to happen to these half-built and half-abandoned structures littering these tiny villages.

OXENFREE feels like that, in a way, listening in on weird half-forgotten stations in the airwaves and wandering through the ruins of former lives and former inhabitants, from the spookiness of the old mines and military bases to the empty storefront windows of the waterfront “tourist” part of town. The things that your brain does when places are abandoned is kind of fascinating, the leaps that it can make, be they correct or incorrect, are so cool. I thought that construction sites were abandoned military posts because I knew there were supposedly some old forts and stuff around, someone told me someone had told them. When I was really young and out there left to my own devices (those nostalgia-tinged halcyon days of being left alone all day during summers as a kid regardless of where you were), I’d play alone in these ruins, pretending I was a gunslinger or a pilot of an explorer or whatever, only the goats and the lizards and the half-done cinderblock walls hearing me.

In a similar vein, the radio kind of tied into this as well for me then (just as the radios carried by characters in the game), especially in such a weird isolated place. I had no idea what I was hearing, stuff that’d never come back after the first time I’d find it, odd signals and sounds that came from who knows what (maybe military stuff nearby? The many boats that traveled the waters of the Aegean?), snippets of Western pop music both old and new, voices in languages (Turkish mostly, as well as heavily-accented Greek beyond my ability to translate) that I didn’t understand. I’d turn the dials on AM and FM back and forth every night sometimes, or during quiet afternoons when it was too hot to be out, just trying to see who was out there talking, and what it would be like to intercept some kind of secret message, a crude understanding of numbers stations somehow half-forming in my brain.

It was, in hindsight, kind of dangerous. Not the radio stuff, that just fueled my overactive imagination. The exploring, I mean. I admitted about some of my exploratory ventures from those summers to my mom once and she basically said she’d beat exploration out of me, mostly because the older abandoned houses we’d go into in those desolate corners of those villages were full of rotted walls and floors, with half-hidden wells and septic tanks underneath them, traps waiting to catch and drown us like they actually had quite a lot of people through the years. There’s even a ghost story from those little Greek villages of naiads luring drunk single young men off the roads at night from the tavern, out into the fields to lay in the grass with them. You step off the well-worn road, into the grass, following this ghostly beautiful young woman, and step over a half-covered old well, falling in and breaking your neck.

Oh well.

That sense of exploratory uncertainty is probably the best part of the whole thing, moreso than the story, which is still excellent. I liked the blurring of the lines between the horror and the science fiction elements, something I don’t see a lot of (at least not well), it ties a lot into an idea of embracing the uncertainty of unknown enemies and not worrying too much about “explaining” them. Unknown voices and time glitches/reality manipulations that come from some weird tear in the world around us? Enough explanation for me.

There’s a bunch of criticisms of OXENFREE that I completely understand, from the dialogue (everyone’s sorta relaxed considering the danger they claim to find themselves in) and puzzle-wise it’s sorta light, though as something coming out in the visual/walk-through narrative “era” of video games that seems to be happening nowadays, it fits. I’m kinda excited to see what else Night School do.

I’m curious what other buttons from my weird exploratory childhoods they’ll end up pushing, because when done well, it’s less cashing in on nostalgic experiences or mining them for material, and more expanding on the origins of imaginations that began during periods of time we tend to look at nostalgically.

Corned Beef

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It was St. Patrick’s Day recently.

It’s been almost a year since my paternal grandfather, who I’m named after, passed away. He actually died on my birthday, which was hilarious in hindsight but depressing to deal with at the time. Nothing crashes a good teaching day like that sorta news, but whatever.

He loved corned beef and cabbage on St. Paddy’s Day. Corned beef, boiled cabbage, and boiled potatoes. As a kid, I could never understand why. Corned beef smelled fucking terrible to me, as did the cabbage. It was a boiled monster creeping into my grandma’s dining room once a year, so I’d complain and not want any and they’d let me eat whatever other leftovers were in the fridge, be it two-day-old pasta or tuna salad or something like that. It was a tradition.

My grandfather came over from Greece as a young man for a variety of reasons, chiefly to find work but also to get away from an impending famine and the blight of the Axis Powers in Europe. He worked in various high-rise office buildings and apartment complexes in Manhattan, doing plumbing and HVAC work. He raised my dad, my aunt, and my uncle in the Lower East Side before they moved to the house in Queens my grandmother and parents live in now, the house I actually more or less grew up in. He smoked on and off, drank coffee and cognac, hosted New Year’s and Christmas celebrations among his circle of friends and relatives, and watched John Wayne in The Quiet Man and Charleton Heston in The Agony and the Ecstasy.

My grandfather loved corned beef and cabbage.

When you get older, the human palate starts to change, triggered by both your natural growth but also the slow death of the billions of tasting sensors on our tongue. Your food sensitivity (and thus your smell sensitivity) are off the charts as a small child, which is why kids love sweets but hate sour or bitter foods like say, vegetables, for the most part.

As we get older, many people develop tastes that are difference from the tastes they had as small kids. Sours and bitters (two different things as far as I’m concerned), salty, and spicy all become things we respond to positively in our food, probably because they can still trigger intense reactions in the taste buds we still have at that age.

I had weird food tastes when I was younger, in hindsight. I didn’t like sauce on my spaghetti, I didn’t like hot food, and, like a lot of kids, there were reactions to weird textures. I liked bread and rice mostly, sweets obviously, hot dogs, and apples. Now though? Oh man, bring the tangy, the sour and the spicy and hot and oily.

Obviously there will be weirdo kids like me who ate their veggies and some people will never like spicy stuff or hot sauces, but for the most part, this explains why my dad puts vinegar on all his stews and soups and sops it up with bread. It’s why my brother consumes the sour fish cooked whole in oil cold at four AM. It explains why I love pickles, black coffee, sriracha, and the hot sour peppers in oil my grandma makes.

It’s why I love corned beef and cabbage.

Corned beef’s got a surprisingly light taste to it, considering the natural protein density of beef. The boiling of the preserved meat, cured in salt, gets that bright pink-red color going, and it’s fatty to the point that boiling it makes the fat so soft it can be scraped off with a spoon. It shreds like pulled pork, so slicing it is more or less a formality, you can tear into it with a fork. With mustard smeared on it and served with sliced pickles (something I did last time I ate it), it’s actually delicious. Boiled potatoes covered in salt (something else he did) are always great, and thinking back, I’ve actually liked boiled cabbage since I was a teenager. It works best, I think, as a wrap for dumplings my grandma makes, but that’s another story. Again, with mustard and pickles, because why not?

When I went over there recently, I just wolfed all of that down. My mom and my grandmother were there and commented that I usually didn’t like it, and were a bit surprised I was excited for it. My grandmother was pleased, though, probably because, as I said out loud to them, I knew it had been his favorite food.

Considering everything my grandmother would cook for him, and she cooked a lot (still does), I don’t know why he liked it so much. Was it a wartime thing, or was it just something that he was exposed to when he came to New York, where it was a cheap and popular meat, and he took to it? I used to think it was an old man thing, like so many other things he did, including the mustache, cheating at cards, the occasional casual racism (despite his weirdly progressive personal politics), and sneaking smokes after his first surgery to remove a benign cyst from his knee.

I still don’t know why he liked it, almost a year after he died and about two years or so since he could eat it. Cancer slowly ate away his appetite for solid food over the past few years, at one point I had to basically chide him to eat toast to keep his blood sugar and energy levels up so he didn’t collapse randomly around the house.

 –

The first thing of his that I got after the funeral was his electric shaving razor, which my grandmother handed to me still in the box. He’d bought it but never used it, soon after he’d started to go downhill and she shaved him with a hand razor, until his pain was too much for that. Then, she gave me his old trimming kit, for brushing and trimming your mustache. This was a little more personal, and it’s something I legitimately treasure as well as use.

A few months later, she came back from going to Greece for a while, and she brought a bunch of his things back to the US, which she gave to my dad, his brother, my brother, and myself. I got one of his pocket knives, a Swiss Army knife he probably got from the Marlboro catalogue. I can’t help though but think that maybe I got more from him over the years that I didn’t really think about. There’s the love of old movies, like The Quiet Man with John Wayne. I did’t get the card-playing, but I did get the on-and-off smoking and I definitely got the constant books and reading, scattered all over in piles.

There’s the post-church/family event tradition of the only drink being Scotch on the rocks, which definitely started with him. I know I got the love of fried eggs with ham in the morning and the nonstop downing of coffee like water, and even though a lot of family will tell me I tend to favor my mother’s father more in terms of demeanor, like my dad I got my grandfather’s sense of humor, which terrified me as a little kid but I snorted at when I got older.

I guess I also got corned beef and cabbage.

No Damn Cradle

The idea of a mystery story is kind of a conundrum, if you think about it. They’re impossible because in a pure form, you can’t understand the problem of the mystery before you. It must be solved, but even then the mystery has to be good enough to be almost unsolvable for it to be a draw.image

How do you solve something unsolvable in a story? The easiest way is to introduce a flaw in the mystery. Have a deus ex machina. Something to cheat, to magically help “fix” the mystery at the end so that you can make it work and still preserve the status quo of our protagonists.

Or, you can so it the hard way.

The best way, the real hard way to solve a mystery is to require a sacrifice. A deep and good mystery is one that you can’t solve from the surface. You need to get deep into it. You need to bury yourself in it’s world. You have to give up something of yourself, either literally or metaphorically, to find the root.

To find out what happened.

How the hell do you sum this all into a consumable story? How do you solve an unsolvable mystery in a way that people can connect with?

The LIMETOWN podcast, from creators Skip Bronkie and Zack Akers, manages it. I don’t know how, but they manage it. Journalist Lia Haddock and her journey to find out the truth of what happened to the town of Limetown, a community of people living by and working in a secretive research facility, is a fascinating and impossible mystery.

It’s a fascinating mystery that plumbs some interesting depths, reaching for some weird cliches of mystery, sci-fi, and at the fringes, horror. Something happened the night the town went wild, and three days later it mysteriously became a desolate ghost town. Why? Why were they doing there? And why are the survivors, or “citizens,” reaching out now?

The sacrifice is great. The sacrifice here is even greater than we’d think is Being given, because Lia pays for the truth. She paid for it with her life and her freedom, taken by strangers to be the insurance, the bait, the backup harvest.

We can all still walk away. That is the warning in the final episode, but there’s another warning in there as well. “No damn cat. No damn cradle.”

No damn cat.

No damn cradle.

Vonnegut’s words, encompassing a massive wonderful joke played on us all, that in the end, the things we think are there are in fact, not there. Life is a trick, a set of string meant to distract us from the bigger thing. We pay attention to the string, looking for the cats and looking for a cradle, but failing to realize that the hands and the face are what we need to be looking at. The mechanisms of the joke, and the face that laughs while we struggle.

Limetown, the town of the story, is not the mystery here. Sure, it is in the surface, but the real mystery here isn’t about this town, this testbed of research into artificial telepathy through biomedical implants. The real mystery here isn’t the connection between the main character of Lia Haddock and the mysterious root of the Limetown technology itself. The real mystery is about the sacrifice. It’s about the sacrifice that Haddock is willing to make to get to the truth, to see beyond the cat, beyond the cradle. The very usage of this metaphor, from Kurt Vonnegut’s book Cat’s Cradle, is meant to imply the distraction of someone from the larger issues at hand through a complex but ultimately shallow and useless structure.

Here, the useless structure is what happened that night, the night that Limetown burned as un-implanted townspeople rioted and killed implanted friends, family, and neighbors. The story that the “citizens” tell is important, yes, but it’s the cat’s cradle. The real thing that Lia doesn’t realize until its too late is that Limetown, as the mysterious and horrific woman from the end tells us and her, was only the beginning. It was only one of many. The work must continue, with or without Lia’s uncle, Emile, “the man they were all here for.” But if the work must go on, then they will need Emile.

To get Emile, they need Lia, a trap she’s basically walked into through her sacrifice for the story. She sacrifices her logic, her consciousness, and her own safety (albeit without a full sense of the true danger) for the sake of the truth, and she feels almost until the end that the truth is worth it, no matter what. Of course, her discovering exactly what happened to non-implanted people, the hideous truth of men and women and children turned to slurry and poured down the drain…was it really worth it?

I think that’s why I find this story all so fascinating. The unraveling of the story into a bigger and bigger structure, only to see the true evil at the end, in a twist that in fact makes perfect sense, is why this works so well. It’s what makes Limetown such a concise and really interesting mystery. Yeah, it’s Serial meets “The X-Files”, but it’s also very much its own thing, something much more important and valuable as a mystery.

“I’m coming home.”

I’ve been slowly exploring playing video games more and more these days. I’ve got terrible reflexes when it comes to stuff like that, but writing and storytelling and mysteries are things that I’m drawn to, so those elements are always interesting. There are games where the action is non-existent and the puzzle-solving or the mystery is the primary drive behind the game’s engine, and that sort of stuff is what I find myself liking.

There was this video game that I heard about, called Gone Home. I didn’t really know what it was, or what it was about, although the basic surface details I got were intriguing. A imagesgiant empty house on a stormy raining night, scattered with clues about the past year’s events. You’re the older daughter home from a year abroad, and the clues help to develop a sense of what went on while you, the older perfect daughter, went away. Did your parents’ marriage fall apart? Why is your sister gone? Seriously, where is everyone? How did you end up with his new home, this house in the middle of nowhere in Oregon?

So we got it to play together. We were both interested in it, and we played it together.

My apartment looks lived in. Sure, there’s cool stuff up on the walls (well, crap I consider cool), but there’s the clean dishes drying in the rack, the bills on my desk, the tax paperwork, the books I use for work. Someone lives here, it’s not just a collection of furniture or of things, it’s someone’s messy (in my case, very messy) life.

The house I grew up in for the most part, the house my grandparents lived in together (and my dad spent most of his life in) and that my parents and grandmother live in now, when I go to that house, the comfort comes from it being lived-in. The TV remote is on a couch, and the couches are ancient. The dining room table used to be covered in stuff during the days, though not so much anymore now that my grandfather died. Still, the kitchen is constantly going, and the books are everywhere, the one basket of laundry either going up to the linen closet or down to the washing machine is always at the top of the stairs. When I moved back to New York and was back in that house for a while, the first few months has a very surreal feel, as I was recovering from a ruined attempt at a new life and seeing if I really could just slide back into the old shed skin of my old life.

I couldn’t, obviously. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t feel at home.

My grandfather was still alive then, so the TV was always on. He drank a lot of coffee, so the leftover cups were either on that kitchen table or in the sink. I got my voracious reading habits from my dad and grandfather, so of course the books were everywhere, and the same old fridge, older than me, with the same old magnets, older than a lot of us, were up. They’re still there.

That, I think, more than anything is what I really enjoyed about this game. The setting of Gone Home is lived-in, and I think that this element of the game’s writing and development was done on purpose. Lived-in environments (in real life) always draw us in, because they (like comfort foods), remind us of home and security. Something lived-in is something we can connect with, there’s an element of life and of reality to it. What makes people so wary of the cliche of picture-perfect homes with nothing out of place is the fact that there’s no elements of people actually living in those spaces, so our natural fear of impostors, of simulacra, rises up.

The drawers in the bedrooms of Gone Home are somewhat half-filled, half-open. The dining room and office tables and desks are scattered with mail and papers (the game takes place in the mid-1990’s, so no bills paid online or email). A nice chunk of the story is the allusion to the house being perpetually half-unpacked, of a family life struggling to be maintained that’s very evident in the evidence that you both actively seek out as well as notice. The dad’s spaces, with notes and papers and books and typewriters. The mom’s spaces, with letters from her friend and work notices and books and day planners. The sister’s spaces, with mix tapes and zines and letters.

There are a lot of letters. There are a lot of other little things that are clear time period indicators meant to feed into the 1990’s nostalgia that this game brings up, from furniture and home style to electronics and the lack of certain other kinds of electronics (landlines, old video game consoles, older model TVs, no cellphones obviously, no Internet, probably no cable TV).

I had one of those older TVs in that house I grew up in until a few years ago, still-working artifacts that we kept out of sheer stubbornness. They worked, and they interfaced with the cable box, so why bother replacing them?

Reclaimed parts of the house that are hideouts and comfort zones besides the traditional office/kitchen/bedroom are probably both the biggest indicators of the interactive narrative of the game with all the clues, but they’re also the big indicators of familiar comfort spaces being built within the house. The basement and attic where the younger daughter Sam makes zines, has secret sleepovers with her girlfriend, and explores for the ghost of her dead uncle who built this house. The second writing desk and typewriter in the greenhouse/glassed-in garden, where the dad goes through mail and is working on a new book that that isn’t the stereo reviews he seemingly does for a living, somehow revived as a writer. The sewing rooms off the main bedroom where Mom’s books and sewing machine and materials are, and the corner of the kitchen where her promotion letters from work are displayed, work that we can tell means a lot. I’m reminded a bit of a page in Alison Bechdel’s Gone Home, where she describes her childhood home as something like an artists’ colony by the time she and her siblings were teenagers, with every family member off in their own worlds and corners, oblivious to the rest until dinner time.

Gone Home garnered a lot of praise, which I can see in the story and the gameplay (a really in-depth Forbes piece on the game’s flaws describes it more as an interactive narrative than a “game” per se, which I agree with). There’s something lacking in it, though, which I can’t quite put my finger on.

For one thing, the game’s ending leaves a lot to be desired, honestly. You probably could have fit another hour or two of story into this game without sacrificing much in terms of gameplay. You don’t really solve mysteries so much as piece them together the main story from reading and inferring, but I feel like the story could have been expanded more to fill in the missing year’s life before coming to the conclusion of the end.

Also, while I understand the desire to not just be a “haunted house” story or game, the mystery of Uncle Oscar, the father’s uncle who willed them this weird old house, is one that I feel could have been further expanded on, and not in a supernatural way. Personal/family mysteries, Nineties nostalgia, and the Pacific Northwest are great as concepts to work with, but for $20, I kinda wish I’d gotten more out of it.

I think there’s at least one or two more play-throughs of this, mostly because i think I missed some stuff and I want to go back. However, even with the flaws, I really enjoyed this primarily because of the things it made me think about and feel. So much of the game is about the cycle of a year and metaphorically “going home,” a heavy-handed trope but one that, with a deft hand, works incredibly well in literature. Gone Home is pretty much that. It’s a really good little novella/longer short story, albeit one packaged more as a full novel.

I like novellas. They’re comforting. Short and interesting fiction I can always come back to, to me, is coming home.

Just in case you were interested…

I’ve been pretty slack about being on here except to post when a new thing launches or a new chapter goes up.

However, I have been treating my personal Tumblr as a sort of, among other things, repository for various essays on various things that comes to mind.

Here are a few I’ve done recently that I actually like.

So there you go. I’m sure I’ll come up with more when I should be working on chapters of various other stuff or actual paid work like lesson plans and shit,

Introducing STANDING UP & STANDING TALL

Hey just wanted to drop a line about a new part-time project, STANDING UP & STANDING TALL, a “dumping ground” of sorts for nonfiction essays and funny real-life stories and observations.

An idea inspired by a friend of mine, SU&ST is pretty much a no-schedule, no-format thing that I hope you find funny. The “plan” is hopefully a once-a-month thing, but we’ll see.