My 2020 in Review

I’ve been pondering how to do a review post for a year that I essentially took off from blogging, and the best I can come up with is to shrug and explain that I’ve been focused on lots of other things. Also there’s a toll that you incur when you watch day-to-day life change so radically in the span of a few months. There was a moment last year, right around this time, when I was thinking about how much I appreciate the work of recording my perspective. Even though this space has lain fallow for most of the year, I’ve still enjoyed the occasional jump back into my own writing and thoughts from the past. I don’t think I write with any particular skill or insight that makes this stuff interesting to other folks, but it’s nice to have a way to remind myself of who I was or what I cared about.

That project’s largely obscured for the year of 2020, but only in the sense that I haven’t done as much writing. I did a lot of thinking this year (had a whole round of therapy sessions over the summer even!) and also just put my energy towards other pursuits. Blogging, journaling, writing an online diary, whatever you want to call this particular pastime, took a backseat to doing things like writing and playing games with friends (I have an aborted homebrew D&D campaign that occupied about three months of my life, and I’m continually grateful to my friends who let me bumble my way through the experience of DMing that much original content) and studying art more seriously. After a solid year of lusting after digital art tools, I finally bought myself an iPad over the summer, and I’ve spent the last four months using it to produce art almost daily. I wouldn’t call myself good, but I know a lot more now than I did when 2020 started. Just before I settled in to write this post, I put together a thread pointing out most of the work I’ve done in the last third of the year, and it’s wild to see the progress I’ve made in that short amount of time. The truism that artists hate looking at their older work because they can only see the flaws holds up, but I’m trying to embrace the reality that when we cringe at things we’ve done in the past, it just means that we’ve grown and learned since then.

Professionally speaking, I’ve been doing okay, all things considered. Distance learning sucks lemons; it is unequivocally bad for almost everyone who has to do it. The only thing that really recommends it over in-person is that the chance of turning schools into outbreak centers for the pandemic is virtually zero when everyone involved stays home. Having said that, I feel mostly okay with my job. My first decade in education has been pretty turbulent, but this year has felt like the first where I’ve experienced some peace about what I do for a living. I am perpetually grouchy about the systemic flaws in the way we do schooling in America, but the fact that I work in special education no longer galls me the way it did when I was younger. Perhaps I’ve finally had enough practical experience that I no longer feel like I’m completely floundering in a job that I wasn’t fully trained for; maybe I’ve finally had enough experience in an ELA classroom to know what that job looks like and understand what I do and don’t like about it; maybe I’m just learning to take a more holistic view of my quality of life and not sweat the fact that my job is merely good rather than what I’ve dreamed of doing for years. I’m eager to get vaccinated whenever that becomes a possibility so that I can go back to work in person. I miss seeing my students, even if they are raging disease monsters.

If we take the pandemic and all of its impacts and put them in brackets, the year has been a strangely good one on a personal level. The suspension of student loan payments for the last six months along with our stable government jobs has created an unexpected windfall. When Rachael and I reviewed our finances and realized that we were saving so much faster because we suddenly didn’t have a thousand dollars going out to debt payments each month, it really clicked for us how absurd and self-defeating student debt is. We’re anxiously waiting to see if the Biden administration follows through on its plan to forgive a chunk of federal student debt; such a move would be positively life changing for a lot of people, and I can see only societal benefits from its execution. Cabin fever has only been a mild concern for us, largely because we are already very introverted people and we had the inordinate good fortune to move into a house back in the fall of 2019. We deeply miss some experiences that just can’t be recreated at home, but we’re comfortable and engaged in our creative endeavors. Adopting the mindful practice of focusing on the realities of today instead of anxiously forecasting about the future has helped a lot in that respect.

Really, we know a lot of things have worked in our favor this year. It makes it easy to overlook how we’re coping with a society-wide ongoing trauma in the form of the pandemic and the larger destabilizing forces that have exacerbated it. I try to spend less time thinking about the news these days because I find that impotent rage does no one any good. It’s enough to focus on monitoring how people I know are coping and trying to be supportive in the ways that are available to me. It’s not much, but it fits with what’s sustainable at this moment. Really, sustainability is something I’ve gradually come to appreciate over the last four years. There’s an irony to seeing how all the anxiety of 2016 replayed this year but magnified and expanded to affect even more people than before. I feel like this sort of destabilizing and waves of mass anxiety are simply an enduring symptom of the ways we’ve built our global culture over the last few decades. I’m more firmly convinced than ever that social media’s a net harm for us on a societal level, and we are going to have to figure out how to collectively manage it and the internet as a whole in the next few decades or we’re going to kill ourselves. The great paradox of this attitude is that there’s very little an individual can do besides screaming into the same void that’s trying to swallow us. The more I ponder this problem, the more I think the solution that can work for most people is to try to disengage from the noise machine. I can still be a progressive grump without amplifying the anxieties fellow progressives feel, and I get the added benefit of not being in a perpetual state of fight-or-flight. We’re at our worst when we live in our lizard brains, and the perverse incentives of our social structure encourage us all to stay there. As individual citizens with limited capacity to affect change, we’re probably better served to focus on what’s immediately in front of us.

Altogether, I’m glad to see 2020 move into the past. Regardless of any personal good fortune, it was a hard year made all the harder by having to see everyone struggle through it. I hope that 2021 will be a year of changing directions and renewed optimism tempered by the experience of some very harsh realities. We’ll see how that turns out.

Reading “10: The X-Card”

It’s been a while since I’ve written one of these; I feel very rusty at the whole “structured reflection on reading stuff” thing that I’ve done for a few years. Please bear with me.

I recently read the first book of the Wayward Children novellas by Seanan McGuire, Every Heart a Doorway. I’ve been interested in reading that series for a while, and my general impression upon finishing the first book is that it’s going to be a really fun series to get into primarily for its character sketches. There are some problems with the world-building around the school setting (it doesn’t operate in a way that’s at all reflective of how real educators would manage kids in that situation), but the point of the setting is more as an excuse to throw together all these characters with a wide range of portal world experiences together and explore all that stuff as a cypher for real world trauma that actual people carry with them out of childhood.

Around the same time I was wrapping up Every Heart a Doorway, issue #11 of Die released, and I remembered that I’ve actually been reading a series that explores these same ideas for over a year. I only glancingly discussed Die‘s pedigree as a portal fantasy in a previous entry, but it’s undeniable that there’s similar DNA in both this series and McGuire’s novella. Gillen’s much more interested in exploring the thin boundary between portal fantasy as a metaphor for either trauma or genuine escape where (at least as far as the first book goes) McGuire’s laser focused on characters who had no sense of ambiguity about their desire to stay in the escape. It’s all very fascinating and has me wondering what sort of conversation these two series can have about their common conceits.

Cover of Die #10. A vampire in a fur-lined jacket reclines with his shirt half unbuttoned.
Zamorna looks dangerous and sexy, like he’s supposed to. (Cover by Stephanie Hans)

The cover of this issue features Zamorna, the vampire king who’s a stand-in for Lord Byron and all the other walking bad ideas that teenagers find so attractive. He reclines against a bright red background, running his thumb along one of his prominent fangs, looking like what I think hip folks call a “snacc” these days. Displayed prominently on his left ring finger is a golden band that tips us off how the issue’s going to end (although I just now noticed it as I’m putting this post together). Zamorna serves as the fulcrum that most of the issue’s plot points pivot on. Here he looks all kinds of threatening, which is a good reminder about the kind of loaded gun Ash points at herself by the time we get to the final splash page of the issue.

Drawing of a man with dark, curly hair looking over his female dance partner's shoulder directly at the camera. Caption boxes read "...and all the while, his eyes were on me. I was thrilled." And "Sol noticed first. Izzy and him had split and we were best friends again."
Look at that smolder. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

While Zamorna serves as a focus, he’s much more object than subject in all the movements of the issue. After spending most of this second arc in the heads of the other party members, this issue’s squarely back with Ash. Along for the ride is perpetual frenemy Isabelle whose history with Ash in Die gets fleshed out significantly more here. When the party first arrived in Angria during their first time in Die, Isabelle (who had broken up with Sol by that point) caught the eye of Zamorna, and the two began courting. At the same time, Ash waited in the wings, correctly reading that Zamorna would happily leave Isabelle for her if she wanted.

Drawing of three people sitting on a balcony drinking.
The history among these three is extremely messed up. That Ash and Isabelle have the most baggage about it while Zamorna’s the most responsible for it all feels sadly true-to-life. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

There are layers of complication in this history that Ash, at least in retrospect, is fully aware of. She had been jealous of Isabelle in the real world as the source of Sol’s pulling away, and in Die she had the opportunity to exact a petty teenage revenge by stealing Isabelle’s new boyfriend. Isabelle saw Ash’s dalliance with Zamorna as an abuse of Ash’s powers; no way he would have willingly cheated on Isabelle. At the same time, Zamorna is an immortal vampire who’s existed as long as Die has had the shape and form of the Brontes’ fantasy worlds; he was an adult playing with the hearts of two teenagers. It’s a massive mess of hurt feelings and jumbled emotions exacerbated by the actions of a literal sexual predator. That Ash and Isabelle don’t really get along in the present makes total sense, even as Ash at least has the perspective to understand that in this one admittedly massive case of conflict, it’s entirely Zamorna’s fault. It’s all this history, plus the stuff with Ash and Zamorna’s son (yeah), that leads Ash to determine that Isabelle is the only person she can trust with her plans. Isabelle has seen Ash at her absolute worst and called her on it (however messily); she’s the only person who can cooperate under no illusions about what Ash will do. Of course, Isabelle operates under a severely skewed view of her own motivations, so who knows if she’s the best advisor? The larger point is that Ash has betrayed Isabelle in such deeply personal ways before that she feels only Isabelle will see her actions for what they are. Someone has to know that Ash has conspired to make Zamorna her pawn, and Isabelle’s the best choice.

Drawing of a woman approaching a throne with her back to the camera.
For all the time Ash spends reflecting on how she wronged Isabelle, the issue still ends with Ash putting her entire coup on Isabelle’s head. It’s not a good look. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Because this issue marks the end of the series’s second arc, much of it works to set up the status quo for the next arc. After issue #5’s revelation about the Fallen and the sudden split among the party about whether or not they should go home, it’s fully expected that party dynamics are going to shift again and the overarching goal is going to change. Ash pulls off a coup that places her on the seat of power in Angria with Isabelle as her co-conspirator and Sol as the prisoner who will surely continue to weedle at them both. Zamorna, the vampire king, is bound to Ash, and she can’t risk unbinding him because he’ll kill her the moment he’s able to. Ash has traded her greatest personal power in the Voice for the political powers of an empire, and it’s unclear which one will be more valuable in the long run. Meanwhile, Angela, Matt, and Chuck have fled from Angria; if Ash was willing to leave them in prison and outside her plans now, what guarantee do they have that she’ll let them into her confidence in the future? Besides all the new feelings of mistrust, it’s time to play with the essential ambivalence all the characters have to be feeling about their situation.

Reflections on My First Teaching Job

I spent the first five years of my career in education working at a school for kids with severe emotional and behavioral disabilities. It was hard work, and in a lot of ways it helped me learn how to work with students and prioritize trying to understand where their frustrations were coming from when they acted out in class. Most of the negative behaviors I encountered stemmed from severe emotional disregulation. The kinds of everyday stresses that most of us learn to take in stride were extremely volatile triggers for these kids. Many of them came from impoverished homes. Virtually everything was going against them, and our school was typically the last stop in the educational system before things got kicked over to juvenile justice. It wasn’t unusual for our students to have criminal records.

The stated mission of the school was to provide a therapeutic environment to help kids learn the social and emotional coping skills needed to be able to function in a less restrictive environment. Students were referred to us from their home schools because they were too disruptive, and my job as a case manager was to keep track of behavioral data on my students while I taught them explicit protocols for managing their behavior in a classroom. If a kid came to us while they were in high school, there was a decent chance they’d pick up the skills they needed and then return after a year or so; typically these students had had an acute mental health crisis that they were able to recover from using skills that they’d already acquired before coming to us. Other kids got referred because they did something that so unnerved the home school that they were no longer welcome but couldn’t be expelled due to the protections they were guaranteed as special education students (we had at least one student whom I remember had made a plan and begun gathering materials to bomb their home school before they were caught). Most of our students had simply been referred at a young age and, being educated in such an unusual environment for so many years, had acclimated to the school culture. For them, the thought of returning to their home schools was a foreign concept. The vast majority of our students in the high school portion of the program were with us until they dropped out or, in some rare cases, they graduated with a high school education that had been provided almost entirely via online learning platforms designed for credit recovery.

This was the place where I cut my teeth as an educator, and the idea has hung over me since I left that it was such an unusual workplace that my professional development is stunted in some way. Working in close proximity with these students under the conditions we were made to endure (continual cuts to funding that saw us gradually lose every available therapeutic service we were supposed to be providing to our kids) nearly burned me out of education; I still think of the job I took the year after I left as a vacation in comparison. Rachael has often observed in the years since I left that school that while I worked there I seemed to have been hardened by the experience. I think the professional term is empathy fatigue.

Given the current cultural moment and the reckoning that we’re having in the US with the racist reality of policing, I’ve thought some recently about my own relationship with the police when I was working at this school. Like pretty much every school in Georgia, we had a school resource officer (we actually had several who worked part time there), and because of our student population, the teachers were encouraged to rely on the SRO to help with enforcement of positive behavior if students got too agitated. Our administration at the time I was there was not good in a lot of ways, so it was mostly up to the grade level teams to figure out their own plans for managing discipline with our students. The go-to move for high school was the classroom “lockdown” which we later renamed the “hard reset” when we realized “lockdown” was too evocative of prison. That this didn’t occur to us immediately is incredibly shameful. The basic procedure under a lockdown was that in order to keep students from getting too out of control, we would devote a day to staying in our homerooms and working with our caseloads on appropriate social skills. The reality was that two (more often one in the later years) adults would spend the day in a classroom with ten or so kids who were unhappy about the situation and deeply irritated with one another. Just keeping them in the room was the primary challenge, which made sense given the protocol seemed inadvertently designed to create a pressure cooker scenario. Everyone on the staff hated doing it, but we didn’t know what alternatives we had for behavior management.

Years later, I realize now that we were acting like cops in a situation that demanded a better response.

The natural impulse in recalling these aspects of my first teaching job is to try to mitigate our actions with context that made it all make sense to us back then. What I then have to remind myself is that all jobs create a kind of tunnel vision through repeated training and inculturation that makes actions which are obviously monstrous to outsiders seem totally rational to the initiated. The paucity of imagination we had after being told repeatedly this was the only way we could safely work with our students as all of our resources were cut to the bone doesn’t excuse the way we treated our charges. We knew we were the last stop many of them had before being tossed into the juvenile justice system, and we made decisions to create an environment that mimicked that destination instead of trying to offer an alternative vision of what their lives could be with real support. The fact that everyone on that staff deeply cared about the well being of our kids doesn’t change the fact we were complicit in a system that was inherently dehumanizing to them. Looking back now, alongside the shame of contributing to it, I also feel relief that I got away from that system before it did further damage to my soul.

Like Riding a Bicycle

The hardest part of taking a break from anything, particularly if it’s something habitual, is the gradual build up of inertia as you transition from “this is a thing I do” to “this is a thing I used to do.” The sudden realization that it’s something you still want to do can be jarring, especially if you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how you should let go of things that you don’t have space for in your life.

If the hiatus-that-you-didn’t-realize-was-a-hiatus stretches on for a while and is full of Events, it feels especially intimidating. My last blog post was at the beginning of March, about two weeks before life drastically changed for everyone. To recap, because it feels like everything is eternally falling down a memory hole, this all happened in the last three months:

  • COVID-19–like, all of it (and it’s still ongoing, regardless of how we might feel given the full realization of summer)
  • The George Floyd murder protests–yeah, that’s still going on too
  • Switching over to what we in Oregon have been calling Emergency Distance Learning, which vacillated between severe bouts of anxiety and boredom punctuated with visits to the backyard because you can do that when your day job is done entirely from home
  • The first anniversary of my mom’s passing–it sucked, but mostly because I was trying really hard to do the macho, grief-doesn’t-touch-me thing, and I ended up just being a jerk for that weekend. I don’t recommend this coping strategy for, well, anything, and yet toxic masculinity, y’know?

There was good stuff too, to be fair.

  • I pretty much ghosted Facebook. I still have a profile that I check very periodically for the occasional message from family who use it to keep in touch, but I uninstalled it from my phone, and I’ve been very happy to not feel connected to that space anymore.
  • Other aspects of social media where I’ve been active have seen a major contraction as well. It’s been good to take some time and get my head straight about what I actually get out of being online, particularly in this extended moment of suspension where online is the primary way we’re all connecting with people who matter to us.
  • I’ve started taking an online art class (I’ll post my practice work here as I go along, although it’s nothing of particular interest right now).
  • Weeding our yard has become a regular pastime for me when I want to move around.

There’s also been reading and TV and all the little nothings we fill up our time with when we’re doing the stuff that doesn’t strike us as significant in our lives. While there’ve been moments of intense cabin fever, the overall experience of the last three months has been mostly contented. There’s been consistent work stress, and thinking about what the fall will bring can induce hives, but mostly things are good here. Our summer promises to be a slow-paced affair without our usual calendar of road trips and visits to family and friends. It’s a good time for contemplation, reflection, and trying to learn some new things.

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This was a thing I did for fun back in April. It’s a sourdough starter that’s a familiar for a character Rachael’s playing in a D&D game.

Man Yells At Cloud

The last month has been exhausting.  At work, it’s felt like I’ve been skipping from one crisis to the next, and while all external indicators suggest that I’ve been handling things as well as can be expected, it’s definitely left me feeling pretty wrung out.  I’ve noticed the stress mostly in the ways that I’ve been disinterested in my usual creative hobbies.  What I thought was going to be a month off from blogging turned into two months (maybe more; even as I’ve been percolating this post I’ve been unsure if there’s anything else I want to record at the moment), and after a relatively intense bout of drawing practice I’ve slowed down considerably.  I’ve lacked bandwidth to do much with my leisure time besides reading and watching TV (and I’ve read and watched some good stuff lately), but the usual drive to sort my thoughts out and put them somewhere other than my head hasn’t been there.  Even now that I’ve sat down to collect myself, it’s a struggle to figure out where all this is going.  It’s like the usual font of opinions has turned into little more than a shapeless burble.  There’s more impulse than plan at work in this update.

In the midst of the work exhaustion, I’ve found myself coping with a general feeling of grumpiness about things outside my immediate sphere.  The news is bad, and the parts of Twitter that I pay attention to vacillate between two extreme poles of mania and anxiety over things that I can’t bring myself to care deeply about.  I know that stories matter, and everyone needs to be able to see themselves in the stories they consume, but I feel a profound lack of patience with the roller coaster of emotions that others experience quite loudly in their online presences.  Maybe my reticence has been not just about mental exhaustion but also a sense that it’s patently ridiculous to shout into a void that’s made up of everyone else’s cries for validation.  I don’t think I can rightly call it a feeling of depression; I just feel irritated by the anxieties of the larger world.

When I was a few years younger, I think I would have found that general expression of irritation at others’ anxieties alarming simply due to a fear that it signals chronic empathy fatigue.  Education work demands a lot of emotional labor, and the professional burnout that can ensue from being asked to care about others so much is a real concern.  I suspect that I used to have a rather inflexible feature of my worldview which treated empathy as a static thing.  Whatever empathy you had existed on a spectrum, and how often and strongly it manifested in your decision-making process wasn’t something that changed much.  I think about that now and realize it’s a terribly flawed model, especially for someone who’s been working in education for nearly a decade.  More broadly, I also see that it’s a mean model.  When you think that people cannot become more empathetic, you surrender the hope that they can be persuaded to care about more and greater things.  Now I think I am inclined to consider that we are all just in various states of exhaustion.  Some folks externalize their exhaustion, insisting on letting others know about their need regardless of the bond they may or may not have with one another; others turn inward and shut themselves away even from folks who want and need to hear from them.

Empathetic meditations aside, I’ve been thinking more about my relationship with various online spaces, and I’m turning ever more cynical about the value of social media in general.  The biggest platforms reward the worst kind of antisocial behavior, and I have no patience for it.  I just want space to share the things I like, and I am bad at asking for attention.  Also I’m tired, but that’s probably more cyclical than anything.

Anyway, here’s a thing I drew; I think it turned out pretty well.

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Random Bits

  • Better Call Saul is a hard show to watch in this cultural moment, but the more I think on it the more I adore Jimmy McGill as a character.  The exploration of how he processes his grief in the fourth season feels very resonant to me, which I think is a weird thing for me to say.
  • Midsommar and Hereditary are both extremely good movies, but I never want to see Hereditary again.  Midsommar is one of those horror movies that has an extremely happy ending if you take the right perspective.
  • I heard the news the other day about a big summer crossover event in the X-Men books, and my first thought was “I do not want to be on the line for fifteen issues spread across a bunch of series I’ve already decided not to follow.”  It might be the purest emotion I’ve felt since I started reading monthly books last summer.
  • I’ve been reading David Foster Wallace’s essay collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and while I can see his talent as a writer, I get continuously hung up on his general sense of meanness about his subjects when he doesn’t obviously admire them.  Also, I can’t help but wonder if he was aware how gross he sounded when he repeatedly described women he found attractive as part of his scene setting.
  • Steven Universe is a treasure and a delight and the ending of the series is extremely okay.

Coming Up From the Baconalia

So New Year’s happened and then I kind of went radio silent for a few weeks on here, which might feel awkward if I hadn’t resolved after the first week to just not beat myself up about the level of activity on the blog.  I’ve jumped pretty heavily into playing with my new art materials, especially the markers that I got, and so a lot of my creative energy has been focused on producing visual art over doing a lot of writing.

When I look at the backlog of comics I have to read, I mostly just feel a bit of despair at the prospect of diving into all that material and devoting brain cells to unpacking it.  I have the entire run of Pretty Deadly: The Rat to look at (I bought it monthly and just stowed the issues until the whole thing was out so I could read it in one go), and my brain just spins when I think about trying to analyze it; Kelly Sue DeConnick produces some really excellent stuff, but I always feel under equipped to tackle her work.  Slightly less daunting but still worthy of sighs of aggravation are the outstanding issues on the Life is Strange series as well as Die #10 which really does deserve some deep thought that I just have not had the bandwidth for lately.

I think the sense of overwhelm is coming from a combination of low-level exhaustion from the end of the holidays (I spent two weeks unclenching from work, and now I’m back to work while needing time to unclench from celebrations) and the general ennui that tends to pervade January.  It’s legitimately the worst time of year as the days are still extremely short, the holidays are done, and also at work we’re all scrambling to drag students over the finish line of first semester.  It’s terrible, and the sense that I should be doing more with my free time is this low-grade buzz in the back of my head that always assails me around the end of the work week as I look at the weekend and wonder if this will be the time that I jump back on the blogging treadmill.  I’m working on this post on a quiet Saturday night at the end of the month, and I honestly don’t know if I’m going to feel like writing more once this update is done.

The saving grace here is that Rachael and I have discussed this general malaise, and we agree that a lot of it just seasonal.  Eventually things will improve (I suspect that I’ll feel better right around the time I get grades finalized and hammer out some lesson plans for the start of February), but in the mean time, it’s okay to accept that this is a sort of Baconalia (that is, a festival of sluggishness that is embodied by our Bacon plushie who just sits on the couch all day).  It’s okay to take breaks from making stuff, especially when making stuff is something you really enjoy doing.  Of course, I then have to remind myself that I haven’t stopped making stuff exactly; I’ve just shifted my focus to something that’s not well suited to a blog format.  I’m posting artwork on my Twitter account almost daily, and that’s been really fun, although the eternal gnawing views monster is never happy with the modest but genuine engagements I get through that outlet.  It’s the worst to make a thing that I find generally satisfying for myself and then have the satisfaction tarnished as I wait hopefully for someone to like or share my work.  The refrain that you should always make art for yourself first is cold comfort when you don’t receive frequent external reinforcement that the art is actually good.

Anyway, here’s some stuff that I’ve made in the last few weeks.  I like a lot of it, even as I wonder how I could have executed it better.  In the mean time, I’m going to go back to doodles and television and reading comics just for fun and thinking about tabletop games that may or may not happen.

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This was fun as an experiment in playing with extreme highlights.  I liked the effect on the head when it was half colored, so I decided to lean into that concept of the character’s energy blast being so bright that it whites out parts of his body.  It’s fun, though these kinds of pictures often emphasize to me how basic my grasp of muscular anatomy is.  I was really irritated that I had to keep redrawing the hand; you can see the erasure marks on the paper from where the graphite got ground in after I overworked it.  While the coloring is okay, I actually think this image is kind of boring and static; the pose feels stiff when I look at it.  I think something’s off with the perspective, like I didn’t foreshorten the torso enough in comparison to the legs to give a strong sense of the character moving towards the viewer, and as a result he just looks like he has stubby legs while he’s moving parallel to the camera.

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I was playing around again with foreshortening in the torso here, and again I think I whiffed the execution.  The figure definitely reads as leaning over, but he just seems top heavy in comparison to his legs.  I didn’t get the position of the hand right, so he’s posed in the middle of sitting up instead of looking like he’s resting his weight on his elbow.

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The more I look at this one the more I see problems with it.  There are still a lot of quirks to coloring with markers that I haven’t adapted to, and it’s especially obvious here where I made mistakes.  I was experimenting some with how to draw eyes here, and while I liked the effect okay before it was colored, now it looks really off.  I’m constantly having to relearn that every line on a comics-styled face ages it dramatically.  That’s pretty clear here.  Also, I think this was the picture I did in the last few weeks that made me realize I am fascinated with drawing hoods, but I have no idea how to proportion them so they look right in comparison to a figure’s head.

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I am obsessed with making my full-body figures look dynamic, and I was pretty proud of how this one turned out.  There are some elements in the execution that I don’t love (that back foot swinging around looks rough in comparison with the rest of the legs, and the shoulder on the forward arm looks dislocated to me), but overall I think it’s a good piece.  I am very gradually learning how to use speed lines to imply motion.

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This portrait was a lot of fun for a couple different reasons.  The first one is that because the character is a humanoid chicken, I didn’t feel as much pressure to avoid shy away from extra detailing.  He’s supposed to look a little grotesque, which is actually a very freeing effect to go for.  Also, because he has a beak instead of a fully functional primate mouth, I was forced to think through how the eyes and eyebrows should work together to communicate emotion.  I wanted him to look happy, and I think I fell short on that; he seems more surprised than anything (chickens always look surprised though).  Fuzzy eyebrows were a fun detail.

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There is so much junk on the hand in the drawing; I hated doing it.  On the flip side, I like the effect and I feel like the texture of the bits on the hand do a good job of giving it a sense of volume despite the two-tone coloring.  The face came out great; that slight raise of the eyebrow like he’s a little embarrassed to be noticed is delightful.

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It’s a Star Wars pastiche with X-Men characters.  I don’t feel like explaining it.  The coloring took three days of work off and on, and in the end it came out pretty decent.  I’m eventually going to have to learn a lot more about how color schemes work so I can simulate different kinds of light.  The clash between the sunset tones of the background city and the foreground characters being in apparently white light bothers me now that it’s finished.  Part of that was lack of planning, but it was mostly just my limited understanding of how to use colors.

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This one was a ton of fun to draw, even if I did have to redo each hand two or three times to get their proportions with the rest of the body right.  I particularly like the way the hair turned out here.  The face is pretty good, but I think the mouth should have been slightly bigger, and I should have reduced the size of the shine on the pupils a lot.  As it is, there’s a magical girl vibe to the face that doesn’t really mesh with the rest of the body.

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I’m going to brag on myself for a moment here (because sometimes it’s good to acknowledge what you do well) and say that I am getting pretty good at visualizing interesting poses.  It’s all covered up in the finished drawing, but I spent a fair bit of time puzzling out the placement of the legs to make sure I knew how the entire figure would fit together.  This whole drawing probably took significantly less time than some of the other ones I’ve done in the last couple weeks, but it feels like a way more interesting piece of art.  I’m a little bugged that I didn’t account for drag when I drew the wings though; it makes no sense that they’d be extended that way.

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This doodle came together in about an hour from concept to final colors.  It was really fast work.  The proportions are a little weird (I have a tendency to over extend torsos when I’m working on a flat surface because my perspective squishes the image slightly).  I am weirdly proud of the way the sweat pants look though.  I’ve been trying to figure out how you give texture to non-fitted clothing for a while, and I finally had some success here.  The weirdly shaped hoodie makes another appearance here as well.

All The Drawings

While I continue to cast around for something else to call my drawing posts (Learning Sketchbook was great!), here’s a big post with all the stuff that I finished at the end of the year plus a few things I’ve been working on since after New Year’s.

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I didn’t feel like coloring this one.  Drawing skeletons is exhausting.

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Rictor and Shatterstar are very good boys who really enjoy their Saturday mornings together.

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I got a bunch of Prismacolor pencils for Christmas, so I drew a Psylocke (the new one, not Captain Britain; I know it gets confusing).  The skin tone pencils are a lot of fun to work with, even though I tend to be really shy about applying a lot of color.

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Finished out my sketchbook with a picture of Illyana that’s done with the same pose I drew her in back in June.  The difference in my style between the two pictures is super striking.

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I also got some markers.  They are fun (again, especially the skin tones).

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Apparently having markers makes me way more ambitious.  By this point, coloring takes the majority of my time when I’m working on a piece.  Part of it is definitely learning to work with a new medium, but also my drawing style is still relatively simple so that I just don’t know how to spend more time on a piece before I move on from pencils.

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The inset panels are mostly okay, but I think I nailed the profile of the face in this one.  There’s a lot of experimentation in this one with how to apply markers for coloring, which I think comes across most strongly in the texture contrast between the black section and the pink.

Against Nostalgia (Part 2)

Despite being the worst of the original trilogy of Indiana Jones, Temple of Doom was the one that I remember watching the most as a kid.  As an adult I could construct a complicated rationale for this about my relative levels of comfort with face melting, heart ripping, and rapid desiccation of a live body (these movies are gruesome), but the reality is probably more simple: I could never find the Raiders of the Lost Ark video in my parents’ house when I was a kid, so Temple of Doom was my first exposure to the colonialist action hero.  Still, you’d think that the heart scene would be the most iconic thing I remember about Temple of Doom, but it isn’t; the bridge scene is.

There’s a moment in the course of the escape from the Thuggee cult where Indy and his companions find themselves trapped on a rope bridge between two groups of cultists.  One of them steps forward to confront the hero with pair of swords that he wields with expert menace.  Smugly, Indy reaches for his holster to realize that he’s long since lost the pistol he normally carries.  Another solution will have to be found.  It’s a weird moment that follows a series of beats that don’t make sense in the context of story.  So many things have happened since Indy was last fully prepared for action with his standard adventurer’s gear that it’s ridiculous he’d suddenly think, “Oh, I’ll just use my gun now.”  If you’re a person who has seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, you get the meta joke that Spielberg and Lucas decided to make here: Indy, when previously confronted with a dangerous assailant who is obviously better versed in some kind of hand-to-hand combat during that earlier adventure, decided to take the most expedient route to victory, and here he can’t pull the same maneuver even though he’d like to.  The reason it’s a meta joke and not a plausible character beat is that Temple of Doom is set five years before Raiders of the Lost Ark.  That earlier success hasn’t happened yet, so it’s bizarre that Indy acts like he knows the solution to this absurd problem and then is bewildered to find it won’t work this time.  The audience, if they’ve seen the first movie, can find the moment delightful, but they have to do some extra labor that should have been on the filmmakers in order to get a comprehensible reading of the character off the chronological order of events.

In short, Indy going for his gun and comically failing to have it is a bit of pure fan service.  It’s silly and nonsensical and even inconsequential in comparison to many of Temple of Doom‘s other sins (or even the litany of problems with the concept of Indiana Jones in general), but it acts as a moment of prioritizing audience delight over building a meaningful and coherent story.  Its foundation is the idea that folks will get a kick out of the filmmakers nudging them and whispering, “Remember that bit you liked in the last movie?  Here it is again with a twist!”  It’s fine in small doses, but overindulgence just leaves you with an empty feeling after the fact, like stuffing your face with Christmas cookies and getting caught up in a sugar fugue.

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The Rise of Skywalker Theatrical Poster (Image credit: Wikipedia)

That’s pretty much the entirety of The Rise of Skywalker.  If you were to take the hundred and fifty minute runtime and chunk it up into individual thirty second nuggets, any one of them alone might be delightful.  Instead, we get to reenact the bit from The Simpsons where Ned-Flanders-as-the-devil tries to punish Homer with endless donuts.  Your mileage may vary as to whether you are Homer or someone who doesn’t have an unlimited appetite for sweet treats.  I, for one, said with all seriousness this past week, “Please don’t offer me anymore cake,” so you can guess how I feel about this last Star War in general terms.

I have spent the intervening weeks between seeing The Rise of Skywalker and working on this post thinking and on and off about what irks me so much about the film.  I can’t say it makes me angry precisely; the Discourse of Star Wars has become largely tiresome in the last few years; it’s just not fun to discuss the creative choices being made with these movies, largely because people take it so seriously.  I’m guilty of this myself (see the first part of this series); that doesn’t mean I find conversations about storytelling choices boring in general (quite the contrary), but I think I’m reaching a point in my life where I’m learning to let go of the more toxic aspects of enthusiastic fandom.  Stories are absolutely important to a person’s sense of identity, and the corporatization of a particular mythology doesn’t make it any less impactful for the people who see vital reflections in it; however, I’m just not there with Star Wars anymore, and I suspect a large part of that jading is the fandom itself.  I was so irritated with the negative response to The Last Jedi two years ago because it promised so much potential for new kinds of stories in the Star Wars movies wrapped up in a very simple theme: The Force is for everyone.  It was such an invitation!

Two years later, I’m still in love with the ideas and execution of The Last Jedi as a movie and as an entry in the flagship series of the Star Wars mythos.  It grapples with a lot of the complexities that are supposed to be present in warfare.  The Resistance is justified in its fight against the First Order (because they’re Nazis, and you always fight against Nazis), but there is no glory in the application of violence to achieve a worthy goal.  People suffer, families are ripped apart, and it’s typically the most morally bankrupt who stand to make the most profit from any kind of armed conflict.  Balanced against that very frank look at the guts of warfare that hero narratives so often gloss over is this extended meditation on interconnection as the very stuff of the Force; Rose Tico’s observation that hope lies in saving what we love instead of destroying what we hate reflects back what Luke has been banging his head trying to explain to Rey in the grumpiest way possible perfectly.  Anyone can participate in this grand thing, and the way we do that is seeking out things to love.

At this point, I think it’s gradually seeped into the general consciousness that Disney as a profit seeking entity decided to change course from all these radical reimaginings of what the Star Wars universe could be about because they feared the backlash against The Last Jedi impacting their bottom line with the final episode of their trilogy.  Sort of secondary to that big idea is the understanding that Star Wars has become a cultural touchstone which is predisposed to turning into a battleground for our ongoing culture wars.  Folks across the political spectrum want to be able to lay claim to it because there’s cultural cachet attached that can steer broader popular sentiment.  I’m fully aware that this phenomenon is one of the driving reasons I adore The Last Jedi and feel generally apathetic towards Rise of Skywalker before we even get into issues of story structure and plotting.  I could easily rant about the regression of this movie’s politics from radical inclusivity to another played out story about genetic destiny and uncritical cheerleading about war.  That stuff’s all there, and it irritates me if I think too hard about it.  What’s more interesting to discuss is the impetus for these changes in sentiment.

It comes back to nostalgia.

Nostalgia is an inherently conservative force in the makeup of the human condition.  It’s the feeling that we chase when we realize that things have gotten more complicated than we would like them to be; it’s an effective way to soothe anxiety about the ever changing state of the universe around us.  There’s comfort to be had in memory.  When William F Buckley coined his infamous characterization of conservatism as someone standing athwart history and shouting stop, he was directly appealing to nostalgia and suggesting that there might be a way to actually achieve the feeling it promises to people who pursue it.  It’s the core thing that drives people who hoard power to stomp on people who demand that power be shared among everyone.  It’s an obsession with rule by the old order reduced to the pettiness of small slights.

In The Rise of Skywalker, Rey finds herself confronted with her lineage: Emperor Palpatine is her grandfather, and for vague reasons this is a major catalyst for her temptation to submit to the Dark Side of the Force.  The intended subtext is that there’s something about the Palpatine family that is inherently predisposed to rage and passion and fear; apparently genetics matter way more than upbringing and social support systems in this version of Star Wars.  In the end, Rey rejects this proposition in favor of choosing the heritage of the Jedi (whom Rise of Skywalker seems to go out of its way to venerate following the serious interrogation that Luke and Yoda did of the tradition in the last movie) and as a cookie for saving the galaxy, she’s given permission by Luke and Leia’s ghosts to claim membership in the Skywalker clan.  Honestly, it’s a dumb, empty plot resolution that only feels emotionally significant because we already know and like most of the Skywalker family.  You can honestly say the same thing for probably ninety percent of the beats in the rest of the movie.  So little about this last adventure is built on new thought or even just realistic character sketching.  It’s nostalgia all the way down.  When Lando shows up to assist the heroes, you go, “Hey, it’s Lando!” and then you move on to a chase scene without actually spending any time with who Lando has become (because there’s been no consideration of how Lando might change after Return of the Jedi).  When Luke shows up as a Force ghost to deliver a pep talk to Rey in her darkest moment (or what passes for a darkest moment) and then raises his old X-Wing out of the ocean so she has a ship to fly to confront Palpatine, you say, “Hey, Luke’s doing a Yoda!” without pondering how he must feel literally resurrecting the symbol of his hotshot glory days so this girl he barely knows can go off to maybe get herself killed in an ill-advised solo mission (Abrams only seems capable of echoing heroic moments from the original trilogy, never the bits about how stupid and rash Luke was at the end of The Empire Strikes Back).  When Chewbacca gets the medal during the final celebration you feel satisfied that that error in the first movie has finally been rectified (never mind that we have no idea what Chewbacca and Lando actually did to warrant that kind of recognition).  The Rise of Skywalker is just a greatest hits compilation that doesn’t actually care about its central characters beyond their capacity to play ersatz versions of the old heroes, and it’s all fueled by the bet that nostalgia is the moneymaker.

At the risk of bumbling into overwrought doomsaying, I find myself growing more and more fearful of the broader pop culture trend towards nostalgic storytelling.  We’re living through some incredibly bad and volatile times, and the impulse to curl up with stories founded on past glories makes total sense.  A lot of comfort is needed.  What I fear is the general stagnation of mass storytelling in response to these needs.  Part of this is rooted in the growing anxiety that our modern mythologies are slowly being rounded up under a single creative umbrella that has no impetus to allow for experimentation and innovation.  The people who stand to make the most money are always the ones who have the fewest qualms about ignoring any kind of principles or ideals, whether those are related to how you tell a story or what ideas you give dignity.  It’s clearly how we’ve gotten two decades of JJ Abrams wandering into established intellectual properties and shouting a bunch while throwing old bits around like so much confetti.  Indy’s going to be reaching for that missing pistol forevermore.

My 2019 In Review

Let’s go ahead and get the typical boilerplate stuff out of the way: as an educator I don’t usually spend too much time dwelling on the end of the calendar year because it falls halfway through my annual project of teaching some kids some stuff and hoping that they at least retain the bits about being kind to one another and maybe how stories and language work a little.  This is an exercise I engage in because everyone else is doing the same thing, which makes it timely content.  The actual act of reflection is sometimes difficult for me, not because it’s painful but because it’s just not a regular frame of mind for me.  The whole point of keeping a blog is for me to fire and forget my thoughts.

Okay, I think that’s shaken the cynical cobwebs out, so let’s talk about the year and (I guess) the decade.  Again, it’s an entirely arbitrary benchmark that I don’t put much stock in, but folks are doing it, so let’s just try to go with the flow.

I suppose the proverbial elephant in the room regarding my year is the fact that Mom died back in May.  That was a massively disruptive event in the short term, and I had a lot of really complex feelings about the act of grieving and my perception of the social expectations surrounding it.  I went to counseling over the summer to help me process a lot of that stuff (that was good) and I recently realized that much of what I internalized as the appropriate way to grieve was directly received from my mother.  She was much older than I was when her own mother died, but it was pretty formative event in her own life.  I was still very young when it happened, but I think years of observing her building so much of her identity around the relationship with her mom put this unexpressed image in my head of appropriate grief for a parent.  It’s supposed to utterly wreck you, and the mere mention of the deceased should bring you to the brink of tears for years after they’ve passed.  It should feel like a gaping wound that everyone can see just by looking at you.  You’re definitely not supposed to be able to keep it together at the funeral.

Instead, I’ve been mostly fine.  To be sure, I miss her, and there’s definitely some sadness whenever something reminds me of her, but it’s just not the overwhelming psychic devastation that I’d been led to believe it would be.  I still feel a little uneasy discussing these thoughts because they seem so utterly alien.  Questions of whether I appear to be a bad son occasionally float around, but then I remind myself that anyone who would think that is not worth worrying about.  I’m really fortunate to have always felt totally secure in my parents’ love for me, and the distance that emerged between us as I got older isn’t unusual, let alone something for which I should feel ashamed.

So yeah, that happened this year.

Turning to more positive things, I learned how to draw this year!  I’m okay at it!  This is a skill that I completely lacked a little over a year ago, and now I have a decent working knowledge of human figures and faces.  I’ve definitely gravitated more towards a comic book style as I’ve practiced more, mostly because I enjoy comic books and that visual language is the one with which I’m most familiar.  There’s still a lot that I need to learn, obviously, but I feel way more confident after a year of regular practice.  My personal project of sharing almost everything that I’ve drawn this year has been so much fun, and it’s left me with a great visual record of my progress.  I didn’t meet my goal of completely filling out my first sketchbook this year (I have three blank pages left on New Year’s Eve, and I just don’t have the stamina to do three drawings before midnight), but I’m so happy with the artifact I’ve made for myself.  If anyone who knows me in meatspace ever wants to see a thing that I think is super cool, I’ll be happy to pull it out and show it off in the future.  I eagerly await the indeterminate moment in the future when I want to cringe at the results of my first year of serious practice.  For now, it’s probably best to let it belong to the rest of the blog: finish it and move forward to new projects.

On the blog itself, I’ve had an incredibly productive year in terms of output.  Participating in Inktober and doing my extremely on-brand obsessive completion of every day’s prompt without pause went a long way towards helping me maintain momentum through the fall when I typically get tired with the added work load of a new school year.  My output on the blog took a distinct turn away from personal topics (outside of a few reflections related to Mom’s passing) towards comics and movie criticism.  If I were to go back through this year’s posts, I would probably find remarkably little about myself explicitly on display, but there is a wealth of thinking and reaction to the things that delighted and irritated me this year.  At the risk of sounding pretentious, I find the mental grinding that accompanies engagement with someone else’s creative output really pleasant most of the time.  Occasionally it feels like work, but so does everything else.

If there’s a thing I’ve internalized over the last decade (and there are many), satisfaction with things done is a far more reliable metric of contentment than frequency of moments of delight.  This is a tangent, but I have never mastered the art of unabashed expressions of enthusiasm, and I think this is the thing that leaves me feeling most alienated from other members of various fandoms that I want to interact with.  You think this thing is cool!  I think it’s cool too!  Also, I am extremely uncomfortable with being enthusiastic about anything, so we’re probably not going to get much farther than that.

The reason I point this thing out is the stubborn desire I have for people to notice who I am based on the things I keep in my life.  My blog’s a running account of where my mind is focusing its attention, and I hope vaguely for someone to say, “I like that thing too!”

One thing which I have not discussed on the blog this year is the fact that I experimented with a thing tracker in 2019.  I’m not sure of a better name for it because it’s just a spreadsheet where I logged things that I encountered this year.  You can see what mattered to me based on the categories I maintained.

  • Comic Books – 147 trades read (I’ve not tracked most of the individual issues I’ve been reading this year, so the actual number’s probably slightly higher)
  • Books – 15 read (I have always felt I wasn’t a prolific reader, but I think I just enjoy books with pictures more)
  • Video Games – 18 finished (the vast majority of these are games that can be completed in a weekend; there are probably four or five that have play times that approach sixty hours)
  • Minutes Exercised – I quit tracking this when around halfway through the year.  I know I spent over a thousand minutes working out in that time, but my workout schedule got disrupted in the second half of the year with the move.
  • TV Shows – 51 seasons watched
  • Movies – 40 watched
  • Words Written – 132,428 (This applies only to words that have been put on the blog, but I’ve barely done any other kind of writing this year, so it’s pretty accurate)

The most fun aspect of keeping my things tracker has been the ability to look back and recall what I’ve seen this year and when.  A lot of the television and movies happened over the summer when I spent two weeks living like a bachelor while Rachael was at a novel writing workshop.  We watched all of Schitt’s Creek in this calendar year.  There was a glut of movies that we saw in December, mostly because of all the celebrating over the winter break.  I spent New Year’s Day 2019 watching the My Little Pony movie and playing Bandersnatch on Netflix.  The comics I read tended to be parts of long running series that I picked up when they were on sale.  I have read a lot of Star WarsTeenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Runaways this year.

The one caveat to my logs is that I only noted new stuff that I encountered this year; there was a fair bit of revisiting familiar stories, but I didn’t make note of any of that.

Going into 2020, I’m not sure what I want to accomplish.  I think I will do the tracker again, but I’m going to have to recalibrate a little bit with what goals I want to set for myself.  There were definitely categories of things that I lost interest in tracking early on, and I haven’t bothered to note them here because there’s just no data to pour over.  Others I way underestimated what I could accomplish in a year.  Back in January I thought it’d be ambitious to read twenty comic book trades this year.  I passed that benchmark in a month.  The trick there is that I don’t know if this sort of pace will be replicable in 2020.  I read a lot of comics because there were a lot of things I wanted to read; who knows whether that will be true going forward?

On a more public level, I think my primary goal for this year is going to be resisting the temptation to obsess over national politics.  The last presidential campaign was an incredibly stressful thing, and I already have all the information I need to cast my vote in November.  The current embarrassment has got to go, and I’ll vote for whoever Democrats put forward as the candidate.  I have preferences like anyone else, but the bottom line is that there will not be a worse choice than what we already have.  Obsessing over the horse race is only going to cause anxiety about things beyond my control.

I think that’s everything to wrap up 2019.  Let’s get on with another year then.

(And for the decade stuff, whatever.  I got into my dream career, started a blog, and moved across the country to a place where I’ve never been happier.  Next question.)

Against Nostalgia (Part 1)

I wrote this essay nearly two years ago in response to both the final chapter of the Life Is Strange series (the first one with Chloe and Max and Rachel) and the release of The Last Jedi.  I had held off on publishing it because I thought I might sell it, but I was naive about the way that freelance writing tends to work.  It’s one of the things I’m most proud of writing, and after having seen The Rise of Skywalker I find myself revisiting the ideas I explored here.

These days, I’m hard pressed to explain what video games I like.  When the subject of gaming inevitably comes up with my students, it’s always a difficult dance of trying to give a comprehensive picture of what I enjoy; my tastes run in cycles through various action-adventure titles to more narratively focused experiences to sometimes just wanting to play a button masher.  About the only solid pieces of information I can give to students are that I don’t do multiplayer games, and I’m typically turned off by traditional first person shooters. It feels like this automatically rules out ninety percent of the games that my students like to play as subjects I can authoritatively discuss, and yet it’s inevitable that I’ll have kids say, “You should play [hot new game of this quarter],” because the desire to connect with someone over a shared interest forever seems to outweigh considerations of personal taste or ability.  It’s hard to convey the idea that things get more complex as you mature, and simple answers become more and more inadequate for simple questions. This is why when the question is asked, “what sort of games do you like?” I flounder for a succinct answer before throwing up my hands and saying, “I like lots of stuff, but the last time I loved a game was Life is Strange.”

It’s not unusual for me to play a game and have thoughts about it; a big part of the fun for me involves turning over things for a while after I’ve finished experiencing them.  With Life is Strange, it went beyond the normal mulling over; I spent the better part of a month picking apart the game because it gave me feelings.  You know, not just the typical reaction to a story that’s well crafted enough to make you sympathize with its characters but something that evokes a sense of wistfulness that never really comes back in the same way twice.  It’s a game that, among a lot of other things, is about nostalgia and the ineffable sadness that springs from understanding you simply can’t recreate an original experience perfectly. Max Caulfield learns, regardless of what final choice the player makes about Chloe Price’s fate, that there is no going back; her superpower is being able to perfectly relive memories, except she can’t decontextualize them from what she knows about the future.  Even she can’t scratch the itch that nostalgia always leaves as it skitters through our brains. Life is Strange says, quite emphatically, that we’re collectively doomed to chase imperfect facsimiles of cherished past experiences.

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Star Wars is not Life is Strange.  It begins with a nobody farm kid discovering he’s heir to a powerful legacy and growing into the power that legacy offers through a series of victories and defeats (but mostly victories).  The scale of the story is massive, the stakes the political future of a galaxy. This is high melodrama we’re dealing with, all fit neatly into a very well trodden story structure. Star Wars is big and flashy and exciting while also being comfortable in a way that can be difficult to explain.  Over the course of the original story arc, following Luke Skywalker from farmboy to Jedi Knight and liberator of the galaxy, the audience gets invited into a classic power fantasy.  There are no moments of small feeling or sitting with slight discomfort or teasing out the nuance of a few exchanged words. Emotions are big and, for the most part, pure. Audiences loved it to such an extent that now all you have to do to call up those thoughts and emotions is mention Star Wars.

Following Life is Strange, Square Enix decided they wanted to publish a prequel.  Life is Strange: Before the Storm has the unenviable task of going back in time to tell us the story that brings Chloe to where she is when she first barges into the bathroom at Blackwell Academy looking to settle a debt with Nathan Prescott.  It introduces us to Rachel Amber, the girl who has left such an indelible impression on everyone in Arcadia Bay with her absence in Life is Strange that her presence could only be a disappointment (and yet it somehow isn’t).  In the predestined frame of tragic death awaiting one or both of these girls, Before the Storm dares to push relentlessly towards the happiness that they so richly deserve regardless of the personal cost.  In a lot of ways it succeeds, although like all prequels this story suffers from knowing what comes next. That the developers felt the need to add a stinger after the game’s final credits reminding you what’s in store for Chloe and Rachel in Life is Strange underlines this fact grossly.  A story that should be about two queer girls finding happiness despite everything being set against them is marred in ways that can’t be avoided because you can’t change what’s past.

Fans of Star Wars have grappled with this problem of prequels for two decades now; a story that they loved got more added to it, but it was done in a way that failed to meet their expectations.  While George Lucas was off chasing his own nostalgia for the movies and serials he grew up with while playing with modern filmmaking technology, the audience was waiting for their nostalgia for Star Wars to be satisfied.  If we can set aside the objective quality of the Prequel Trilogy, what we’re left with is both a creator and his audience discovering in a very rude way the incompatibility of their nostalgias.  Lucas couldn’t recreate the magic of the first movie, so he didn’t try, and fans revolted. Nostalgia became a catalyst for toxicity in the fandom. Anyone who was even vaguely aware of Star Wars fans in the ‘00s knew that a vocal portion of them were bitterly angry with Lucas for failing to deliver on their preferred vision.

Before the Storm, with its push to break new ground in a story about memory, couldn’t be the last word for Chloe and Max.  Nostalgia trips aren’t complete without some return to original form, and there’s too much inversion in the prequel for it to stand alone as a satisfying reprise of what Life is Strange captured; Max and Rachel, eternal foils in Chloe’s mind, have to be put back in their original roles as the respective presence and absence that pull her character in opposite directions.  To close out our time with these characters, we get the bonus episode “Farewell” which serves as a prequel to the entire series.

The whole episode is an extended exercise in fan service and nostalgia for the dynamics that fans of the series loved about Life is Strange.  Max is a little unsure of herself, and Chloe is full of enthusiasm and joy that covers some deep pain about being a social outcast.  The original voice actors (absent from Before the Storm because of a voice actors’ strike that happened during the game’s production) reprise their roles.  The soundtrack reverts from the hard rock that Chloe prefers to the more melancholy folk and indie tracks associated with Max’s perspective.  The side quest is once again Max’s ongoing search for the perfect photo ops. As a player you are supposed to nostalgia trip hard, and for the most part the episode succeeds at getting you there.  The pain and poignancy of the episode revolves entirely around moments of foreshadowing to which Chloe and Max are oblivious while the player absorbs all the tragic import.  Family plans that will be dashed mingle with Max’s ever present misgivings about how she can stay in touch when she’s moving so far away to continually pull the player’s emotional strings.  We get it; this is a last moment of unmitigated happiness for Chloe and Max before the universe starts to punish them for existing. We so appreciate being reminded of all the stuff that these characters suffer while we were growing to love them.

Ultimately, “Farewell” chooses to end in the same spirit as Before the Storm‘s main story: with a gut punch that only hurts because it’s powered by the memory of something that can’t be reclaimed.  If you step away from the investment in the characters for even a moment, it immediately becomes apparent that this story was structured to maximize the emotional manipulation of the player.  Of course the day Max tells Chloe she’s moving away is the same day Chloe’s father dies.  This can’t just be a bittersweet story about friendship promising to endure despite unseen rough waters; it also has to remind us of Life is Strange‘s worst impulses towards traumatizing characters just because it can.  A straightforward reading of the entire series is that the universe hates Chloe Price; the cynical reality is that the developers, who created that universe, don’t hate Chloe so much as see her as a vehicle for delivering measured doses of trauma porn.  They created a character that many players of the game love, and then they exploit that emotional connection to induce sadness in players, the vast majority of whom simply do not have the well of related experiences to be anything but voyeurs.  It’s a cruel trick, but this is a story about nostalgia, and the only way nostalgia can be enjoyed is to not notice its cruelty.

I remember feeling cautiously optimistic about the news that Lucasfilm had sold the rights to Star Wars to Disney.  This was a soulless corporate juggernaut taking over a beloved film series, but at least it was a soulless corporate juggernaut that knew how to make an entertaining movie.  Along came The Force Awakens, and fans were treated to the nostalgia trip they had been craving but George Lucas hadn’t delivered.  It was off, though. Some fans felt like too much was similar (the desert planet, the nobody discovering their heritage, the third iteration on the Death Star) while some (mostly white, male) fans felt things were too different.  Nostalgia found itself in direct conflict with the impetus to do something new. Still, the muddled response to The Force Awakens (after all the initial ecstasy of having a new Star Wars movie that wasn’t terrible wore off) pales in comparison to the anger that The Last Jedi elicited from certain nostalgic fans.

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Theatrical release poster for The Last Jedi. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

The extremely vocal faction of Star Wars fans who have railed against The Last Jedi are fundamentally upset because they were presented with a story that puts nostalgia in its place as something that’s fleeting and unhealthy to dwell in; they wanted Luke and Leia and Han to remain unchanged despite thirty intervening years.  Their vitriol against a story that dared to make characters change in the same way that people change is entirely fueled by disappointment that their nostalgia wasn’t satisfied. They missed the fact that Han is mostly unchanged when he boards the Millennium Falcon in The Force Awakens: he’s returned to his original state as a shiftless smuggler just trying to stay ahead of the people he owes, and the result of this enforced stasis is that he has an estranged son who ultimately kills him.  Luke, in contrast, is totally disillusioned with the past; he’s seen the havoc that sort of reverie can wreak, and he completely dismisses the glory days as unsuitable for dealing with the present. The legend of Luke Skywalker is an illusion that’s only good for a distraction.  The new Star Wars trilogy, as far as it’s gone, says quite emphatically that enshrining the past over adapting to the present will cause heartache.  Nostalgia indulged uncritically on a massive enough scale will turn from a small cruelty into a large hatred.

And of course nostalgia is cruel.  The promise of a return to something simpler and more pure and joyful is so incredibly seductive as we grow more complicated and uncertain and jaded by our experience of the world, but it inevitably disappoints.  You can’t go back, and the longer it takes you to come to terms with that fact, the more nostalgia twists the knife. We become Max, caught between an irreclaimable past and a painful, destructive present that we didn’t really have a hand in making but we do have a responsibility to help make bearable.  

The confounding thing about this position is just how frequently we seem to get trapped in it.  Yes, the wistfulness and the reverie are appealing, but they also hurt.  The big question seems to be whether the pain associated with nostalgia gets directed inward towards the person experiencing it or outward towards others.  Neither direction seems especially healthy, and it leaves one wondering why we continue to collectively indulge in nostalgia at all. We seem to be addicted to this thing that we’re only capable of weaponizing in order to torture each other in our endless interaction with story.  It feels untenable, but in the long run it probably won’t change in any meaningful way; people are remarkably stubborn when it comes to holding on to the past.