Art Shmart

Hi there! My friend Dmitry and I have made a little podcast called Art Shmart. It’s (mostly) the two of us doing some research and discussing the history of various forms of art, as well as talking about our favorite examples.

The first season is twelve episodes long. Each one focuses on a different form of art. The first episode, Modern Architecture, is available now, and new episodes will be posted each Sunday.

You can check out each episode directly by using the Art Shmart Podcast link in the sidebar to the left. If you use a podcasting app, here are some links:

iTunes • Stitcher • Direct URL

I really hope you enjoy it, and gain as much from it as we do.

The Mistreatment of River Song

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River Song stands in front of the TARDIS.River Song stands in front of the TARDIS.

River Song stands in front of the TARDIS.

Lots of sad things happen over the course of Doctor Who, but most of them pale in comparison to the fate of River Song. It is a long and twisted tale that spans several seasons of the show, and perhaps her biggest tragedy is that knowing how it all ends isn’t even the worst of it. Needless to say: spoilers abound. You’ve been warned.

(Oh, yeah, if you didn’t know, Brits call TV seasons “series” across the pond. I’ll use their nomenclature from now on in this article.)

I sent him a message, but it went wrong. It arrived too early. This is the Doctor in the days before he knew me.

— River Song, Silence in the Library

River Song is introduced in the fourth series of Doctor Who, the final one executive-produced by Russell T. Davies. She is a main character in “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead,” a two-part arc about a planet-spanning library overrun by dangerous creatures that live in shadows. The episodes were written by Stephen Moffat, who would become show-runner with the next series. She is presented as a rogue archaeologist, taking people on a tour of the deserted planet. From the beginning, she is tragic. She and the Doctor have a history, only it hasn’t happened to him yet. She knows him well, he knows her not at all. Two time travelers, out of sync.

In the second episode of the arc, you learn the fate of Professor Song: she sacrifices herself to save the love of her life, and the Doctor must live with the knowledge that someone who will become closer to him than anyone else will eventually die to save him. River’s identity lives on as the caretaker of a virtual world on the universe’s largest hard drive, but it is hardly a comfort. One would think that a sacrifice as noble as hers would warrant a great deal of devotion and respect. Sadly, it does not.

It’s a long story, Doctor. It can’t be told. It has to be lived. No sneak previews.

— River Song, Flesh and Stone

River Song returns in “The Time of Angels,” this time as a thief of sorts. She defaces a rare object in order to get the attention of the Doctor, and they go on their second adventure. For the time being, things are light-hearted. There is no reason to worry about her fate, as that has already been established. It is revealed that she isn’t all she seems: she killed someone very important, though the identity of this person is not revealed. River calls her victim “the best man I’ve ever known.”

She doesn’t return again until the end of the series, in “The Pandorica Opens,” this time as an inmate in an intergalactic prison, locked away for the crime alluded to earlier. She is her usual chipper self, gleefully breaking out of prison to go on another adventure with the Doctor. She continues her role as a femme fatale, mesmerizing men and bringing them under her thrall. She is integral to solving the riddle of the Pandorica, a prison designed to lock away for all time the most dangerous being in existence. River rescues both the Doctor and Amy Pond from the Pandorica, risking her life and showing yet again she is willing to die for the Doctor. This time, however, he saves her. The Doctor reboots the entire universe, undoing a multitude of losses incurred over the course of the series, most notably those of Amy’s fiance, Rory, and her parents.

Every time we meet, I know him more, he knows me less. I live for the days when I see him. But I know that every time I do, he’ll be one step further away. The day’s coming when I’ll look into that man’s eyes, my Doctor, and he won’t have the faintest idea who I am. And I think it’s going to kill me.

— River Song, The Impossible Astronaut

River returns almost immediately in the series six opener, “The Impossible Astronaut,” and its companion episode, “Day of the Moon.” Over the course of this arc, River witnesses the murder of the Doctor, then meets up with a version of him almost 200 years younger. She helps him fight an alien invasion, displaying incredible battle prowess. At the end of it, he returns her to prison. He offers to take her with him, and she refuses, insisting she must serve her time to fulfill a promise.

“A Good Man Goes to War,” the mid-series cliffhanger, is where things for River begin to really fall apart. The Doctor calls upon a number of favors he is owed in order to save Amy and her daughter, and River is the only one to refuse. She remains in prison as the Doctor takes on an army created to destroy him. Only when the entire event has unfolded does she appear to explain herself: she could not interfere with the rescue. Or, more specifically, the botching of the rescue.

Melody Pond, the baby in question, was kidnapped by a coalition bent on destroying the Doctor. They succeed in escaping the battle with the infant. The Doctor promises to find her, and River appears just in time to tell him how and reassure Amy that things will work out. She knows this, because she is Amy’s daughter.

The Doctor will find your daughter, and he will care for her, whatever it takes. I know that. It’s me. I’m Melody. I’m your daughter.

— River Song, A Good Man Goes to War

This sounds all well and good, if a little unnerving, as River Song also becomes the Doctor’s wife. Don’t worry, though, because that rescue doesn’t happen, either. The Doctor doesn’t save River/Melody. In the next episode, “Let’s Kill Hitler,” Amy and Rory confront the Doctor on the whereabouts of their daughter, and he admits he has yet to find her. Over the course of the episode, it is made clear he never finds her, and that River/Melody has been brainwashed and programmed to kill the Doctor.

So, congrats all around on that one, right?

Melody is revealed to have regenerated and become Amy’s childhood friend, Mels, her best friend and the inspiration for the name of her child. The recursive Melody Pond regenerates again, this time into the form of River everyone knows and loves. She proceeds to begin attempting to kill the Doctor. She tries several times. She is very persistent.

It was never going to be a gun for you, Doctor. A man of peace, who understands every kind of warfare except, perhaps, the cruelest.

— River Song, Let’s Kill Hitler

So, we establish that everything River said about Melody being rescued in the last episode is a lie. She lived through the events already, and knows she’ll be programmed to kill the Doctor. In fact, she’s already done it in her own timeline, because she is serving time for it. She gives up her ability to regenerate in order to keep the Doctor alive after poisoning him. The Doctor states that it is too late to save her; they know too much. Amy and Rory give up on saving their daughter, because, hey, timey-wimey and all that.

River goes on to study archaeology, and is unable to escape her fate. She is recaptured by Madame Kovarian and The Silence at her graduation, and is sent to shoot the Doctor in the scene which unfolds in “The Impossible Astronaut.”

River attempts to stop herself, creating an alternate reality where the entirety of history occurs at once. The Doctor, being the cleverest thing in the universe, finds a way to cheat death by placing a robot decoy of himself at the scene. The Doctor marries River in the alternate universe and makes her promise to pull the trigger when the time comes, because it won’t be him that dies.

River serves her sentence to protect her love, while he galavants about space and time. The Doctor can reboot the universe more than once. He can create a pocket universe to bring his race back from extinction on little more than a whim. Clara can split herself into a thousand pieces across space and time. But River Song serves her sentence for helping the Doctor fake his own death. Oh, sure, the Doctor takes her out every night. At best, that makes River Song a kept woman. The one and only woman who ever one-ups the Doctor and calls him out on his bullshit doesn’t even rate an attempt at freedom.

 

On the Nature of Hope

When I have hope, I feel invincible. That isn’t an exaggeration. When I have a goal and I can picture attaining it, it feels like nothing in the world can stop me. Often, these moments get out of hand, and I get too excited. I try to reign myself in, but usually I fail. I feel a little dumb for getting overexcited, but I do not dislike this aspect of myself. I am a big fan of hope. I think it is pretty great.

When I was twenty, I worked for AT&T Broadband, which is now Comcast. Through a series of poor management decisions, I wound up not getting trained for five months. I spent that time riding along with various other technicians, and at some point my manager paired me up with a Romanian immigrant named Traian. He was an energetic, older man in his mid-forties. We had a shared interest in film and music, and he was a huge fan of small cafes. He would often talk about the differences between life in the US and his home country. One day, while talking about opportunities and expectations, he surprised me with one of the best compliments I have ever received in my life:

“You can’t stay at AT&T, man. This job is total bullshit. You’re a dreamer,” he said. “The first one I met here. That’s good. Gives me hope and shit.”

It’s a hell of a compliment, and I let it go entirely to my head. It meant so much to me that I wrote it down so I could remember it. In tough times, there are memories that I return to in order to bolster my spirits, and it is one of them.

I often wonder what other people think of me. Occasionally, I ask, but I rarely get the answer I want. Many people see me as a pessimist, or, more kindly, a realist. While I can’t deny that I do sometimes assume or expect the worst, those feelings usually stem from an already bad situation or prior experience. One friend of mine often refers to me as a masochist, which I find laughable. I do not enjoy being unhappy. I’m just not willing to give up or settle for too little when it comes to things that really matter to me.

I often describe myself as a frustrated optimist, because I hope for the best and things just don’t seem to work out for me. I don’t expect perfection — nothing in life is perfect, after all — but I am often disappointed by people and things not meeting what I feel are usually reasonable expectations. I don’t dwell on things that don’t matter to me, but when something that does matter to me falls apart, it bothers me a great deal. I don’t think that’s pessimism. I certainly don’t think that’s masochism. Like most people, I’d like the things I wish and hope for to come true. Like some people, I put effort into the things that really matter to me. I think that anyone who doesn’t get what they were hoping to out of something that means a great deal to them can be allowed to feel at least a little upset by such events. I don’t think that is antithetical to my hopeful nature. In fact, I think it is quite reflective of it.

When Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was in theatres, I wound up seeing it with an ex-girlfriend. We were attempting to remain friends, and the subject of the film made the entire experience awkward. For the uninitiated, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is about two former lovers having their memories of the other and their relationship erased in order to move on. They wind up re-connecting, having no idea they’d already met, and even when they discover their past, they decide to try again anyway.

There is no greater way to illustrate the difference between our ways of thinking than the ending. When my ex asked how I felt about the ending, I said, “It’s nice. They get a second chance.”

“No, that’s not what it means,” she told me. “It means they are doomed to repeat their mistakes.”

The ending is open to interpretation, of course, so either one of us could have been right. However, it cemented in my mind that I am a hopeful person. I believe in second chances, in occasional good luck, and I like the idea of the underdog sometimes triumphing over their oppressor. As hard as it is to hold onto sometimes, hope is powerful. It is important.

One of my favorite moments in The Sandman occurs in issue four: Morpheus visits Hell and competes against a demon named Choronzon in The Oldest Game, also referred to as The Game of Forms. You can read more about it here, but the gist of it is that each player names a thing which can defeat that which the other player said before it. For example, the demon opens as a wolf. Morpheus counters with a hunter on horseback. The demon returns as a horsefly, which stings the horse and throws the rider off. This continues on and on. Morpheus becomes a spider to eat the fly, the demon a snake. Morpheus names himself an ox, the demon becomes anthrax. Eventually, Choronzon declares himself anti-life, the darkness at the end of all things.

Morpheus counters with hope. The demon becomes flummoxed.

Hope can carry you through almost anything. Sometimes, it takes a little foolishness or madness to hold onto. Still, a little foolish or a little mad, it’s better than having no hope at all. Without hope, without dreams, would we strive for anything?

Preview

I am currently ridiculously busy getting certified for some tech work. I haven’t finished anything worth posting yet. Here’s a preview of a short story I am writing, just because I abhor the idea of not posting anything for a week.

 

“Abraham and Zoe,” she mused as she entered the restaurant’s vestibule, “We’re the beginning and end of a naming dictionary.”

Abraham smiled, and fought the urge to point out that the more likely names to appear at the ends of naming dictionary were Aaron and Zykela, because that was a thing that he did that people did not like. Instead, he just walked in behind her. Showing no effort at all, he quickly moved to opened the door to the restaurant proper for her. Zoe came to an immediate halt as she left the establishment’s vestibule.

Nearly every inch of every wall was covered in art. Pantings, sculptures, vases, and any number of other art pieces were tightly packed onto the restaurant’s walls. A plethora of chandeliers ran across the ceiling.

“Dude,” she mused. “It’s like my gramma decorated this place.”

“Everything in here is an antique,” Abraham explained. “Well, everything on the walls. I imagine most of the furniture doesn’t qualify yet.”

Zoe beamed as she looked at the ceiling. “Wow. The electric bill for this place must be through the roof.”

The night’s hostess, a chubby young college student with curly brown hair, chimed in from behind, “It’s a closely guarded secret.” Startled, Zoe put a hand to her chest and took in a deep breath. The hostess cringed. “Sorry.”

“No harm done,” Zoe returned.

“Just the two of you, tonight?”

“Yes,” Abraham confirmed. “Where do we get the best view?”

“Oh, it’s all good, but my favorite table is open if you want it.” The hostess grinned.

“We’ll take it,” Abraham said. He and Zoe followed her to one of the restaurant’s dining rooms, where she seated them in a wooden booth under what looked like a Tiffany lamp. An art nouveau bust of a beautiful woman rested on a small shelf and protruded a few inches over the table. The booth itself was incredibly tall and made entirely of stained wood. Abraham took Zoe’s jacket. As she sat down, the back of the booth loomed over her, making her seem tiny in comparison.

Abraham hung up Zoe’s jacket on a coat hook on the end of the booth, along with his. He turned to the hostess. “Is this really your favorite table, or is that just something you say to everyone?”

The hostess smiled and raised an eyebrow. “Another closely guarded secret.” She placed two menus on the table and left the couple to themselves.

The Lovable Loser is My Spirit Animal

Maybe I give myself too much credit. Perhaps I am not so lovable. Still, as much as I might enjoy the power trip that comes along with identifying with a tough-as-nails lead or a ne’er-do-well trickster, the characters that most seem to resemble me are the betas. The second-stringers. And, hey, here’s to us. We keep the world running while the alphas are hoarding the pretty girls and money. Sure, it’s just the illusion of being important. Give us something, we have so little.

 

Clarence Worley, True Romance

I know, I know, a lot of people are going to see this name and think “Clarence was not a lovable loser.” I disagree. At the beginning of the film, he is about as low as a person can go: alone on his birthday, working at a dead-end job. I’ve been there. I have a time share there. I’d say I own property there, but if I were well-off enough to do that, I’d be less of a loser and lose my claim to the land.

Clarence transforms over the course of the film, and it’s safe to say he becomes a little bit cooler. But a lot of that is through blind luck and horrible sacrifice. Clarence takes a bad situation, tries to fix it, makes it worse, bumbles through things, and barely makes it out alive. He is driven by a passion we losers all hope to achieve: to finally fit in. When he suddenly sees a place for himself in the world, he starts to think bigger. Sometimes, all it takes one good connection to transform a life. For Clarence, that’s Alabama.

 

Detective Charles Boyle, Brooklyn Nine-Nine

Charles Boyle is the whole reason I wrote this article. From the very first episode, I saw part of myself in Boyle. He’s kind, naïve, and weird. He’s also a bit of a lummox, and though I do not feel I fall into that category, I have been one on occasion. He falls deeply, madly in love with a woman who can never return his feelings(done it more than once, will probably do it again), clinging to the slightest shred of hope. He maintains a blog that very few people read(hmmm). He’s also quite a sycophant, something I do not consider myself. Still, I understand the energy and obsession behind his character.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine has a term for Charles’ tendency to move too quickly in a relationship, calling it going “Full Boyle.” Nothing rings truer to me than that.

 

Abed Nadir, Community

I am not autistic, nor do women find me cute enough to throw themselves at me. I suppose that feeling removed and misunderstood is more universal than I would like to admit, but I identify with it all the same. I’m nowhere near as selfish as Abed, though I am often just as stubborn. The ways I most identify with Abed are the way he sees the world through the lens of pop culture and his overactive imagination.

My tendency to daydream has always caused me trouble, and I learned from a young age that I didn’t see the world the way most other people did. I stood out in a way that got me attention I didn’t want. This leads to another way I differ from Abed, though: I fight back. Someone tried to stuff me in a locker once. Tried being the operative word.

 

Paul Tannek, Loser

Okay, I am probably going to lose cool/nerd/what-have-you points for admitting that I enjoyed Amy Heckerling’s Loser. I readily admit that it will never be a classic of cinema. It is, however, is a nice, uplifting story that makes dorks like myself feel like life won’t always kick them in the ass(spoiler alert: it pretty much does). Paul is the stereotypical nice guy, always doing good deeds and being way too nice to everyone. He is incredibly non-confrontational until pushed too far, and he takes some pretty serious insults with a smile.

In truth, Paul is probably what all lovable losers aspire to be. He isn’t just nice; he’s clever, outgoing, and fairly confident. He’s the right kind of nerd, socially awkward but incredibly endearing. The fact that he’s in a boilerplate romantic comedy where the nice guy finishes first just proves it’s not realistic.

 

Dean Venture, The Venture Bros

KIM

So, are the Venture brothers cute?

 

TRIANNA

Well, Dean… he’s kinda cute. He dresses like Buddy Holly.

 

KIM

That’s pretty cool.

 

TRIANNA

Yeah. but I think he does it accidentally.

 

That’s Dean Venture in a nutshell. In his defense, he lived an incredibly sheltered life and was raised by an ambivalent father. Dean is weird. For most of the series, Dean is a wide-eyed and easily excited. He falls in love with Triana Orpheus the moment he meets her, prints a weekly newsletter regarding banal household events, and is the foil to his hyper-aggressive fraternal twin, Hank.

Later in the series, Dean realizes that he and his family are the life-long butt of a very cruel joke. The Venture family peaked well before he was born, his father is perhaps the most pathetic person on the face of the earth, and the girl of his dreams? She kinda likes him, but not enough. The Venture Bros is a show about failure, and Dean perfectly encapsulates the sort of failure that comes from being oblivious. Sweet, well-meaning, and utterly useless, Deany-V is the type of person we all worry we’ll turn out to be. Season five Dean is who we often become, and it’s not any prettier.

 

Milhouse van Houten, The Simpsons

This is it: the one dork I identify with more than any other. Constantly playing second fiddle, Milhouse van Houten is the perennial lovable loser. His name alone is a punchline. No one takes him seriously, even his best friend. He spends most of his existence in everyone else’s shadow. Everything just comes up a little short with him. The only person on The Simpsons more pathetic than Milhouse is Gil. Thank goodness I’m not a Gil. I mean, that guy… yeesh.

In recent episodes, the show has gone a little lighter on him: his long-standing unrequited crush on Lisa is validated. As much as it’s nice to see the good guy get a win, it’s also a sign of the way The Simpsons has transformed from being a source of biting social commentary to a sappy, run-of-the-mill sitcom. Milhouse is shorthand for sad sack. He’s not supposed to win in the end. And that’s okay.  While it’s true that nice guys usually finish last, sometimes they get sweet songs like this one from Allie Goertz:

Re-Cutting the Cord

There is a growing trend: cord-cutting. Not the literal act of slicing through cables, mind you, but the figurative act of cutting one’s cable service and finding entertainment solely via broadcast television and internet services. I am one of the rare people who actually went from being a cord-cutter to a cable subscriber. I maintained for years that if I could get decent internet and cable TV (HD, with a DVR) for $100, I’d pay for it gladly. When the opportunity presented itself, I made good on my word and ordered the service. I was happy to so, forsaking Hulu and Netflix for a TiVO Premiere. Last month, in the face of rising cable costs(to $115 a month) and the realization that I spent way too much time watching TV, I scaled back my service with RCN to Internet only.

MONEY MATTERS

This site is called Impoverished Geek for a reason. I don’t make a ton of money. Granted, “impoverished” is a bit of a stretch these days. I’m no longer living on the scant $24,000 per year I did during its inception. Still, I am not rolling in dough. I keep myself to a budget, because if I didn’t I could easily see my finances spinning out of control. I make an okay living, but it does not allow for much in the way of extravagance.

The difference between $100 and $115 may not seem like much, but it’s $180 over the course of a year. That’s three video games, a month’s worth of groceries(give or take, depending on sales), or a little over half a payment on my car loan. It’s nearly two months of the full insurance coverage my car loan requires, and it’s also just $180 I could be setting aside for a rainy day.

Let’s say the price didn’t go up. Would I still have kept the service? It’s hard to say. Before cable, I didn’t watch a ton of TV. I have never been a channel surfer, and I don’t watch sports. After getting the TiVO, I found myself adding more and more shows to my subscription list, but most of them were throw-aways that I didn’t mind missing and often deleted in order to make room for something else.

I picked up cable for a small number of channels, with three or less shows on each: AMC(Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and The Walking Dead), Cartoon Network(The Venture Bros, Space Dandy), Comedy Central(The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, @Midnight), and Discovery(Mythbusters). SyFy could be on that list, too, though nothing in their current lineup really feels “must-watch” to me. I would have liked to add BCC America(Doctor Who), HBO(Game of Thrones, True Detective), and Showtime(Dexter, Episodes) to the mix, but any one would have taken me past the $100 I was willing to spend each month.

Let’s look over that list. At most, eight channels. Fourteen shows, all told, many of them available through Amazon, Hulu, or iTunes. If one were to buy the shows I did get with my cable subscription via iTunes season passes, it would cost approximately $577.58 over the course of a year. If one were to assume that half my monthly $100 cable bill was going to the television portion, that would mean a small savings of $25 over the course of the year. If one was solely getting cable TV for RCN’s promotion price of $65 per month for 12 months, you’re looking at even more savings. Since I already own a computer, the value simply isn’t there for someone like me. The only thing cable has going for it is immediacy; online services typically lag behind broadcasts by a day. The exclusivity of channels like HBO and Showtime could be the tipping point if I was willing to spend more money, but I’m not.

MY TIME IS BETTER SPENT ELSEWHERE

Okay, I hate to be that person: the one who brags about how little television they watch. Second only to people who regularly point out that they don’t own a TV in being utterly obnoxious, the statement “I have better things to do” is almost always insulting, even if it isn’t meant to be. It’s a snide personal attack hidden inside a self-aggrandizing statement.

The truth is, though, that there are things I’d rather be doing that watching TV. Or, perhaps, there are things I aspire to do that mean I don’t have time to watch TV. And if I’m being honest, most of what is on TV is a distraction. I spent a great deal of my TV-watching time with my eyes on my tablet, reading through RSS feeds. I could call that creative multi-tasking, but the truth of the matter is that whatever is on TV during these news sessions obviously isn’t enough to hold my interest for long.

This isn’t some lament on the decline of quality television, either. I’d venture to guess things have always been this way. It’s easy to fall into the habit of letting yourself get distracted. Sometimes, that’s even the right thing to do. Entertainment serves a purpose, but if, like me, you aren’t happy with your life, entertainment can become a pacifier when at best it should be a respite. Escapism is easy, but it isn’t fulfilling in the long run. At least, not for me. I love a good story, but what I want to do even more than watch them is tell some of my own.

You can’t watch TV while writing. Well, maybe you can. I can’t. Whatever is on-screen drowns out whatever is going on in my head. It’s much easier to write without distraction. When I am at my best, the world around me ceases to exist and words flow from my fingertips freely. This doesn’t happen when someone or something else is demanding my attention. Anything more than background music is a detractor.

MODERATION

Just like anything else, TV must be enjoyed in moderation. Cable and satellite providers proudly declare huge channel lineups that run 24/7, always ready to pull you away from the world. And sometimes, that’s a great thing. After a long day of work, it’s nice to shut my brain down for a bit. It just shouldn’t be all night, every night, and through the weekend. The occasional binge isn’t that bad, but when I was unemployed several years ago I once watched three series straight through — the entirety of Six Feet Under alone ate up several days. I spent days accomplishing nothing.

I’ve pared down the shows I’m watching to the point that I don’t have a show a night anymore. What’s more, I’m not going to look for new ones. I might add one here and there, but chances are some of what I watch now will be cancelled, too. Mad Men is on its final season, for example. I’ve cut Comedy Central’s shows entirely, though I will probably purchase some of their downloadable standup specials.

There are only so many hours in a day, and work already takes up far more than it should. It’s time I started making the most of the rest of them.

The Wimpy Method: A Review of Bravely Default

Bravely Default sounds like a foolish debt-management strategy. Surprisingly, the title is quite fitting, though oddly obtuse until you understand the game’s main battle mechanic. Built upon the well-regarded battle system of older Final Fantasy games, Bravely Default adds a turn management strategy to the mix that allow players to breeze through simpler battles and hedge their bets on more challenging ones.

The idea is simple: each character in a battle — your party members and foes alike — each get one “Brave” point per turn. Each action you take in battle costs 1 or more Brave points (most actions are one, a few powerful abilities cost more). If you simply perform one action per turn, you will experience the same turn-based battles you find in most role-playing games. Bravely Default lets you mix things up by saving Brave points by Defaulting. You may store up to three turns in advance. Defaulting characters also take less damage during their skipped turn. Defaulting is a great defensive strategy. For example, healers can stock up a few turns in order to perform multiple actions should the party fall dangerously low on health.

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An example of the battle screen.An example of the battle screen.

An example of the battle screen.

You can also withdraw turns in advance, overdrawing up to three (for a total of four turns at once) in order to unleash a barrage of attacks on weaker enemies and end battles quickly. This is a gambit that often pays off in random battles, but is dangerous in boss fights. When you draw upon your turns in advance, you must forfeit that many until you can act again. If you don’t defeat your foes in that round, you are a sitting duck. There is an incentive to take the risk — ending battles in a single round, escaping unharmed, or defeating multiple enemies with a single move will each add a bonus multiplier to the rewards provided after a battle.

In addition to the new Brave/Default mechanic, Bravely Default also borrows heavily from Final Fantasy V’s job system and Final Fantasy IX’s ability system. Each of your party members gains both experience points and job points at the end of a battle. Experience builds the character’s base statistics, and job points lead to new abilities in whatever role they are currently playing. Each time the character gains a job level, they unlock skills or abilities. Skills are actions that can be used in battle, and abilities are modifiers that allow stat bonuses or helpful traits that cover a wide range of situations. Examples of abilities include a 10% defense boost or a running count how many treasure chests remain unopened in a given dungeon. The game also features Limit Break-like Special Moves that can be used when various conditions are met.

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Rebuilding Norende.Rebuilding Norende.

Rebuilding Norende.

Bravely Default also has a farmville-esque world-building mini game. As you rebuild a destroyed town, new items become available from traders you’ll meet across your journey. You can add villagers to your town via the 3DS StreetPass feature, or via friend codes. The more villagers you collect, the faster you can rebuild and upgrade the town. Because much of this mini game is simply assigning tasks to villagers and then waiting for the assigned tasks to finish, I completed the village in the game’s second chapter.

Building character and job levels is uneven. Progressing from job level one to job level nine will happen relatively quickly, but making it from level nine to ten requires 3,500 points — 1,000 more points than all the previous levels combined. Ostensibly, this gets the player to try new jobs for the characters when they hit “a wall,” because early on in the game it would take several hours of random battles to gain a single level. Excessive grinding is not my idea of a good time. Bravely Default allows you to set the frequency of random battles, but even at its maximum of 200%, progression felt incredibly slow past a certain threshold. Many jobs, like Merchant and Performer, are fairly limited unless you build a party’s entire strategy around one or two skills.

Outside of the mechanics, Bravely Default is a fun but predictable tale featuring likable but bland characters. There are certainly some interesting turns, but for the most part the bits and pieces are standard Final Fantasy fare: fading crystals, a small party against unbelievable odds, and, of course, the villain at the beginning of the game is not your true foe. I imagine some might call that last bit a spoiler, but that particular “surprise” has existed in Final Fantasy games since day one.

The acting is okay, and the actors deserve credit for trying to bring life to relatively lifeless parts. Most of the characters fill simple archetypal roles, even the leads. Bravely Default is not a short game, and its story did not keep me engaged at almost any point. Even the side missions, which should have added flavor to the story, felt contrived. Things do get interesting around the halfway point, but that’s too long to expect a person to wade through mediocrity. It appears that SquareEnix still hasn’t learned one of the big lessons taught by Final Fantasy XIII: a game should be engaging from moment one, not hour twenty. A slow burn still requires some sort of flame.

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The Time Mage costume. WTF.The Time Mage costume. WTF.

The Time Mage costume. WTF.

The score, composed by Sound Horizon member Revo, is charming and stirring. There are several memorable pieces, and you would be doing yourself a disservice to play without headphones. The game’s visuals are ornate and vibrant, though the low resolution of the 3DS’s screens make slight details disappear with frustrating regularity. Important things like character expressions can completely vanish. The game’s designs seem imagined for a higher resolution display that the console it wound up on. Bravely Default’s “chibi” character design is sometimes divisive. It’s something I’d refer to as unoffensive, but not engaging. I know a few people who are turned off by them. Additionally, many costume choices for major characters are questionable, and the time mage outfit in particular was very off-putting to me.

Bravely Default is a call back to both the best and worst aspects of the 32-bit era of JRPGs.  The return of an overworld map and airships was particularly enticing to me. Nostalgia only gets you so far, however. If you’re looking for a game to build up characters and master lots of skills, this is the one. If you want a fresh adventure, I’d suggest looking elsewhere. Unless you have an abundance of free time to devote to a single game, Bravely Default could leave you wanting.

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Declarations

I worry a lot. Too much. I worry about the future. I worry about change, about failure, about rejection. I worry about failing past the point of no return. I worry that I will never achieve my goals. I worry that the two big life goals I have set for myself are impossible to achieve. I worry that I am wasting my time and my life on people and things that will never amount to anything.

More than all that, though, I worry too much about upsetting people. The most liberating thing anyone ever said to me was something along the lines of, “I’m not made of glass, I can handle it.” I spend so much of my life walking on eggshells, worried that the people I care about will turn their backs on me if I ever shared my opinion or knew “the real me.” I even get that way with people I don’t care about. Somehow, despite being proud of my weirdness, my refusal to fit in, I still don’t want to be excluded.

I don’t know why I care so much. I really don’t. Because for all that worry, I don’t care about many of the people who cause me such great concern. They are people of no consequence. Take my coworkers, for example. I don’t have anything against them (most of the time), but at the end of the day, they do not matter to me. I don’t like my job. I work because I have to. I am left with no choice but to force myself out of bed every morning and drive thirty-two miles in heavy traffic because I don’t want to be broke and homeless, and having to worry about finances is just one more burden I can’t take at the moment. My coworkers are not bad people. They just don’t mean anything to me in the grand scheme of things. If I actually achieved my two current life goals, they would no longer be in my life at all. And I’m perfectly okay with that. I imagine they all feel much the same about me.

Yet, I cannot bring myself to say things that might upset them. Some of that is pragmatic; spending a day arguing politics instead of working would be both emotionally draining and counter-productive. There are moments where that has come close to happening, and I tend to just clam up, let the other person ramble on for an extended period of time, and then life goes on. More frequently, however, it is a coworker complaining about their day or a frustrating situation at work. All that goes through my head is “Why do they not realize I don’t care? Why don’t they shut up and let me be?” I don’t say it, mostly because I want to maintain a pleasant work environment, but also because I don’t want to see a hurt look on their face when I interrupt them.

My concern for how other people feel may be the most crippling thing for me as a writer. It keeps me from going too deep, from revealing too much of myself or of my opinion. I was so worried as I typed Restless that I would never be able to share it, because it revealed a side of myself I hadn’t shared with anyone in a very long time. Revealing myself reveals flaws in my character, real or imagined. Revealing myself opens me up for true rejection.

There are only a handful people in my life I feel I can be honest with, and it has weighed me down for a very long time. I worry so much about other people that I have found myself in a rut where the things I want don’t matter at all. It’s an oppressive weight I need to shrug off. I am not a bridge burner by nature, and it has served me, to some degree. But at some point, if I want to be happy, I’m going to have to give other things up. I am willing to make sacrifices for the things I want. It’s just hard to cut the cord sometimes.

Sometimes I feel like I am responsible for the world. I know that is ridiculous and self-important, and not the least bit true. Still, there is a part of me that wants to change the world. To bring more meaning to it. I think that what I really want to do is change lives. To inspire people. I know that the only way I can do that is with words.

My life needs to change. I need to stop just wanting, and start more doing. I need to stop dreaming about what I want, and start thinking about how to really get it. I need to act upon my real wants, rather than drowning them out with distraction. I need to stop taking the path of least resistance and start cutting a path for myself. I hope some of you will join me on the journey. I could use the support. But if you stand in my way, even a little bit, I’m not going to hesitate. I’m going to keep cutting.

A Map of the Overworld

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The entire Legend of Zelda overworld.The entire Legend of Zelda overworld.

The entire Legend of Zelda overworld.

My brother and I are very different people. Not in a good/evil way, mind you, but in a much more boring, yin-and-yang sort of way. For example, when he graduated high school, he got a car. When I graduated, I got a computer. He once painted his bathroom orange and blue to celebrate his love of the Chicago Bears. I have spent hours researching which color of Cherry MX switch might best suit my typing style. He probably went on more dates in high school than I have in my entire life. And, like most brothers, I’m sure we spent more time bickering than getting along as kids. Technically, he’s my half brother — a child from my father’s previous marriage. I wouldn’t even mention it, because we don’t see each other that way, but it plays a small part in this particular story.

We weren’t the first kids on the block to get a Nintendo Entertainment System(colloquially referred to as an NES). We may have even been the last. I remember wanting one so badly that when I turned seven in the summer of 1987, I begged my parents to let me use my birthday checks to get an Action Set(I used a similar tactic a couple years later, promising to give up a full year of gifts in exchange for a Game Boy). I don’t know that they actually cashed the checks and used them to pay for the system. It is entirely possible that my parents just deposited those birthday checks into my savings account and bought the NES. I was in second grade, I wasn’t checking the books at the time.

Getting an NES was a big deal. No longer were our gaming sessions limited to the whims of our friends, surely exasperated at my obsession with their copies of Super Mario Bros. and Kid Icarus. For the better part of four months, we had two games, both of them on a single cartridge: Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt. The NES was hooked up to the only TV we had, which sat in the living room. This meant our game time was quite limited, and as a result those two games felt like more than enough. We’d seen some newer games at our friend’s houses, however, and so my brother and I asked for new cartridges cartridges when the holiday season came around. That December, my brother and I each found ourselves unwrapping a new game. I’d asked for Super Mario Bros. 2. He’d asked for The Legend of Zelda. The excitement didn’t stop there, however. In addition to this, we received a TV of our very own. It was incredibly old and clunky, so much so that a few years later it would die entirely, but it was ours.


You can guess who's who.You can guess who's who.

You can guess who’s who.

My brother and I had an odd living arrangement. The house we lived in technically only had two bedrooms and a single bathroom. When my mother began nurturing the embryo that would become our sister, the bedroom we shared was prepped for our sister. The finished attic became our bedroom. It was actually two rooms, and the one that had stairs, and therefore no privacy, became our play room. The bunk bed we shared in the regular room was converted into a pair of twin beds. These rested in the next room, which became our actual bedroom. With the addition of a TV, our play room became a game room. 

I don’t recall how long it took, but at some point, while we were playing Zelda, my brother decided we’d need to map the world out. We had seen maps of the game before; one of our friends had the coveted Official Nintendo Player’s Guide, which featured complete walkthroughs of many original NES classics. We had no such book, and my brother didn’t feel that we needed to buy one.

“We’ll make our own maps,” he proudly declared. “But we have to put them somewhere they won’t get lost.” I pondered, perhaps for the first time, the idea of permanence. His eyes lit up. “I’ve got it.” He grabbed a pen and ran from the playroom to our bedroom, grabbed the reading lamp from my bedpost, and slid under the bed. I followed him.

On the particle board base of my bed, he drew that starting point of the entire game: the opening square where Link began his journey. He drew the entrance to the cave that held the wooden sword, and approximated the rock face around it. We began to build out from there, drawing the beginning of the overworld map from memory. We marked the various stores, rooms with mysterious old women that said nothing, and the bombable walls that our friend Sam had shown us during one of his exhibitions of the game long before we owned it. We plotted the course to the first dungeon, and the desert just beyond it. We used different colored pens to mark the secrets things we discovered and to mark important locations.

We never finished the map. We kept playing Zelda, but in short order began to memorize the sprawling overworld. Before long, my brother had finished the game. We kept playing it, of course, because when you are that young you can’t afford to buy every game that catches your eye. Everyone on the block was playing it. For a brief period, it was declared that I was a good luck charm for the game’s secondary game, a room where an old man would ask you to “Play money-making game” and gamble a portion of your money. I was asked to choose which of three possibilities would pay out. When I was wrong, my friends bemoaned that I wasn’t taking it seriously. I found the whole thing silly, but I conceded to their demands until the fad mercifully passed. Around this same time, I suddenly found myself spending a great deal of time not playing video games. Being grounded from video games became my parent’s new favorite punishment, and I was a terrible student. 

That following summer, my brother returned home from visiting his mother(remember: half-brother) with a copy of Zelda II. He declared that she told him this was his game, and I wasn’t allowed to play it, because she bought it for him. I was insanely jealous. In the face of my constant pestering, he eventually relented and let me play on a separate save file. I even used his ownership of it as an attempt to circumvent my parent’s limiting of my play. After all, it was his game, and his mom bought it, so didn’t that mean if he said I could play it, my parents were powerless to stop me?

(No, as it turns out, it didn’t.)


This would have been a very different situation in the old days.This would have been a very different situation in the old days.

This would have been a very different situation in the old days.

In the summer of 1990, our family moved from Chicago to Skokie. My parents wanted to get us out of the Chicago Public School system, and into a better suburban one. My brother and I lost our large bedroom and playroom, this time relegated to a smaller single room. Our bunk beds were re-stacked, and the space beneath my bed became a haven for whatever mess I’d left on the floor the day before and didn’t feel like cleaning up. I forgot about the unfinished map of Hyrule.

On his fourteenth birthday, the spring before he’d be entering high school, it was decided that my brother would get his own room. He got all-new furniture, including a new bed. My parents re-arranged the bookcases in the basement so that he had a quarter of it to himself, and I got a room of my own. A year and a half later, for my thirteenth birthday, I received a new set of furniture for my bedroom. When preparing to sell our old furniture at a garage sale, my parents discovered the map. They were not pleased, but knew nothing could be done about it. They sold the bunk beds, including our cartographic adventure, to another family.

My brother and I get along much better now. We have our own lives, and meet up for holidays and birthdays. Despite over a decade of major life events occurring since, that time spent mapping out the original Legend of Zelda is still one of my fondest memories.

Just a Bunch of Songs That Speak to Me

Some songs just stick with you.

Rilo Kiley: Breakin’ Up

This song reminds me of the relief felt after the end of a bad relationship. I’m a hopeless romantic at heart, to the point that I’ve tried to save relationships that just weren’t worth the effort. Once the initial shock of losing someone wears off, the realization that I’m happier without them in my life is actually uplifting. Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. Sometimes what you had just isn’t worth making a fuss over. Honestly, this song is worth playing when any source of stress disappears from your life.

The Get Up Kids: Action & Action

I discovered this song while driving home after a particularly long night during my stint as a cable technician. I recall the moment quite clearly: the sun was setting in the distance as I drove east on Techny toward Waukegan Road, and I was listening to WLUW (Loyola College Radio). I was feeling depressed, because a close friend and I had been doing nothing but fighting for weeks, and if the friendship hadn’t already ended it was close to exploding. A listener called in and requested the song, and within seconds I had pulled over so I could write its name down.

It’s hardly a secret that I am often a whiny brat. At the time I was a stereotypical emo kid, though the term had not risen to prominence yet. Years later, a girlfriend would refer to The Get Up Kids as “whiny and neurotic,” which I guess isn’t wrong, but I still like a lot of their stuff.

Tegan and Sara: Nineteen

Tegan and Sara write amazing love songs. The challenge for me was not whether to put them on this list, but which of their songs to include. Other songs I considered included Love They Say, Where Does The Good Go, You Went Away, and You Wouldn’t Like Me.

Part of me will always be an awkward kid that just wants an uninterested girl to like him back. This song reminds me of yearning for affection and knowing I should give up on ever expecting it. That’s not actually what the song is about, but that’s how it makes me feel.

Here’s a tangentially related personal fact: when I was in preschool, I came home crying one day because a girl I had a crush on wouldn’t talk to me. PRESCHOOL. I don’t really remember the moment; my mother reminded me of the fact years later. That feeling still resonates with me. I’d like to think I have thicker skin these days, but I’ve probably just gotten better at holding that sort of thing in.

Lisa Loeb: Stay

Kind of the opposite of Breakin’ Up, Stay does double-duty as a song that resonates when I’m feeling lovelorn and as the first time I realize I was into geeky girls. I remember the moment perfectly: my family was on vacation in Door County, and we were watching Saturday Night Live. Lisa Loeb was the musical guest, and as she sang on stage, the my thought process was basically this:

  • She’s cute.
  • She’s kind of a dork. Especially with those glasses.
  • Wait, I wear glasses. Is that why I think she’s cute?
  • Those glasses may be too much.
  • I’m enough of a nerd. I don’t need to perpetuate the nerdiness this far.
  • I still like her. I should stop.
  • I need to like popular pretty girls.
  • But she’s so cute!
  • Also, the glasses.
  • Fine, I like her, but I’ll never admit it to anyone.

Oh, to be a teenager again. The internet tells me this happened on October 7th, 1995, but I remember being much younger. In particular, the girls I remember thinking I should like were all from junior high. But maybe I am just merging old memories. The basic feeling is still strong in my head: stop trying to be what people want you to be and just like what you like. It wasn’t the first time I had the thought, but from around sixth grade until this point, I was trying too hard to be someone else. This is one thing that helped be get back on track.

The Smiths: Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now

It never ends, does it? My friend Dmitry introduced me to The Smiths with this song. No matter what you achieve, the want for something more or something else will follow some people forever. I can’t say I’ve ever felt perfectly happy, save a few moments that are long past. I don’t think it’s that I am never satisfied, it’s that the things I want most in life seem to forever elude me. I’m told my standards are too high. I disagree.

The lyrics “Why do I give valuable time to people who don’t care if I live or I die?” pretty much sum up a frustration I feel on a daily basis. I am too nice. There are any number of people who have made me think, “I am better off without this person in my life,” but because of either circumstance or personal weakness I have not jettisoned them. Part of me really wants to.

Finally, “What she asked of me at the end of the day, Caligula would have blushed” is pure genius. No way around that.

The Decemberists: The Engine Driver

This is the first Decemberists song I heard, and it immediately became one of my favorite songs of all time. It’s a song about accepting what you are, even if it isn’t what you want to be. It’s about feeling trapped in a situation you can’t handle, and about how the things that trouble one person are trifling to another. It’s about hanging onto something long after it’s healthy — for both the holder and the held. The part that really speaks to me, however, is this: 

And I am a writer, a writer of fictions

I am the heart that you call home

And I’ve written pages upon pages

Trying to rid you from my bones.

Either you get that or you don’t.

Smashing Pumpkins: Tonight, Tonight

Number one with a bullet. Where do I begin? Tonight, Tonight is the first song I ever really loved. It’s the first song I ever connected with. I have yet to find a song that I feel defines me better. It was on nearly every mix tape, mix CD, and mini disc I ever made. I’ve dissected it, interpreted it, reinterpreted it.

Tonight, Tonight resonates with me in a way no other song ever has. It’s earnest and hopeful, a song suitable both for feeling downtrodden and victorious. It begins with stirring violins and the tick-tock sound of the instruments that accompany the opening line of “Time is never time at all” fit almost too well. Everything about this song comes together perfectly. I sometimes avoid listening to this song, because I never want to get tired of it. When I do listen to it, it’s all I want to listen to, over and over again, on repeat. I sometimes wonder if I would be the person I am today if I’d never heard it.

I could honestly write a whole essay on this song alone. In fact, I think I’m going to.