The Top 5 New Shows You Need To Watch!

2017 has been a great year for both new and returning TV shows. I don’t see the value in writing a post about how Stranger Things continues to be good- if you haven’t figured that one out yet then I can’t help ya. Instead I want to highlight five new TV shows that you need to check out to fill in that giant Game of Thrones-shaped hole in your lives.

 

#5 The Sinner

The Sinner - Season 1

Premise: A normal, suburban mom kills a stranger for no apparent reason while at the beach with her family. The event shocks the small, Upstate New York town and a local detective becomes obsessed with the case. It’s not so much a Whodunnit as it is a Why’dYaDoIt– and it’s absolutely addictive.

Biggest Strength: Jessica Biel is mesmerizing as troubled lead Cora Tannetti. It’s a super-challenging role because the character of Cora is so nuanced. Her journey is like no other character on TV and the combination of Biel’s intense, raw performance and the dark scriptwriting serve as the foundation for what makes this show so unique and so engrossing.

Where To Watch It: Netflix.

Trivia: This close-ended series is an adaptation of German novelist Petra Hammesfahr’s 1999 book of the same name. Apparently, in addition to moving the setting from Germany to Upstate New York, the show also toned down on the darkness of the source material- which naturally makes me curious to see just how disturbing and messed-up the novel is!

 

#4 The Vietnam War

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Premise: The best documentary-maker in the business brings us the most comprehensive and complete overview of the controversial and endlessly fascinating story of the USA’s involvement in Vietnam.

Biggest Strength: Ken Burns. The sympathetic and intellectually-curious style of the auteur that brought us The American Civil War (my favorite documentary of all time) makes this 17-hour series as engaging as any thriller or fictional drama out there. We hear directly from veterans from all sides of the conflict, all of whom provide such articulate and introspective insights into a bloody saga that changed so many lives from so many facets of society. Check any assumptions about documentaries you have at the door, because you will find this as engaging and addictive as anything else out there.

Where To Watch It: PBS.

Trivia: The 1035-minute documentary features interviews with 79 witnesses from the American military, the Viet Cong and the ARVN. Burns deliberately avoided interviewing “experts” and controversial, big-name figures such as Henry Kissinger, John McCain and Jane Fonda, preferring the perspective that best gave an impression of what things were like on the ground.

 

#3 Godless

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Premise: An outlaw on the run from his former gang finds his fate entwined with that of a mining town populated almost exclusively by women.

Biggest Strength: For me, what makes this close-ended drama stand out is the way in which it plays with the established tropes of a conventional Western. Women- too often relegated to the sidelines of what has been a historically macho genre- are at the forefront, but what really makes this show special is that it’s able to both subvert convention while retaining all of the essential elements of what makes the Wild West so intriguing. It’s a show that somehow feels both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. The story and its characters are excellent and it’s a show that will keep you thoroughly entertained from start to finish.

Where To Watch It: Netflix.

Trivia: The horse that Jeff Daniels rides is the same one that Jeff Bridges rode in the 2010 film True Grit.

 

#2 The Deuce

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Premise: A sprawling, multi-faceted story of interweaving narratives that explores the rise of the porn industry in 1970s in Times Square, New York.

Biggest Strength: I would argue that the biggest strength of this gritty drama is the writing. It’s created by David Simon, so if you are familiar with The Wire, it’s a lot like that. It’s a show that really illustrates the excellence of HBO, with a slow-burning narrative that manages to touch on every aspect of the time period in such a vivid and authentic way. It’s not fast-paced and it’s not a thriller- and yet it is still so damn engaging. The characters are sympathetic figures with many voices, and we see the world of Times Square through the eyes of hookers, Mafiosi, single mothers, college students, gamblers, pimps, bartenders, drug addicts, porn directors and cops alike.

Where To Watch It: HBO.

Trivia: The series is inspired by stories told to the creators from a man who served as a mob front for the Mafia at various bars and massage parlors in the 1970s.

 

#1 Mindhunter

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Premise: Two FBI agents in the 1970s- a young hotshot and grizzled cynic- team up to conduct a range of interviews with serial killers to learn how they think.

Biggest Strength: What makes this show earn the top spot on my list is how masterfully it presents the conflict of its central character- Holden Ford. His need to get inside the head of these deranged killers (all of them portrayals of real serial killers by the way) becomes an all-consuming obsession that threatens to completely destabilize his life. The idea of “thinking like a serial killer” for academic purposes sounds simple enough, but at what point does Holden stay inside their head for so long that he loses himself on the way?

Where To Watch It: Netflix.

Trivia: The series is based on a book of the same name, which is co-authored by former FBI agent John Douglas, who pioneered the concept of psychological profiling and who is the basis for the character of Holden Ford.

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My Star Wars Essay

I’ve been thinking about Star Wars a lot lately. Last weekend my brother and I booked our tickets to see The Last Jedi, and between my tepid enthusiasm for that and the debacle that was Battlefront 2 last month, I’ve been reexamining my relationship with the franchise as a whole. When I was six years old and the little apple-cheeked incarnation of Satan, my mom took my best friend Tristan and I to see The Phantom Menace. I fell in love straight away and Tristan lent me the original trilogy on VHS. The universe of Star Wars has felt like a second home to me ever since, manifesting itself whenever I needed it in the form of movies, video games, toys, comics, board games, novels, and so on. It seemed to provide an almost limitless amount of entertainment. When my brother and I were little we would go for walks in the woods and the countryside and use sticks as lightsabers to fight against imaginary droids. When my teenage years came around, I would spend hours in my room devising self-insert fan fiction; I would write stories of my adventures that fitted in with the accepted canonical timeline and draw pictures of myself as a Sith Lord with my very own Star Destroyer-esque capital ship. I subscribed to the Official Star Wars Magazine and to date it’s the only magazine I’ve ever subscribed to. And then, when I was 20 I realized that the franchise still had me by the bollocks because no sooner had I read on Facebook that all of my teenage wishes were coming true and they were making a sequel to Return of the Jedi than I found myself sprinting out my dorm room and into Aaron’s to gush about the news.

But this post isn’t just about my relationship with Star Wars. I’m interested in what it means to all of you. It’s trendy to hate on the Prequel movies, but I feel like a little perspective is needed when doing so. The Phantom Menace, as a children’s movie, is absolutely perfect. The soundtrack is excellent and it has the best choreography of any lightsaber fight in the franchise. If you’re going into the film with the expectation of Citizen Kane in Space, then you are bound to be let down. Characters like Boss Nass and Sebulba are whacky and over-the-top, but in the context of a kids’ film they are right at home. As much as I try to forget that Jar Jar Binks exists as a part of Star Wars, I can’t deny that when I was a kid I was laughing along with every other little nose-picker in the movie theater. And in terms of pacing, the movie is great and entertaining. Attack of the Clones is often regarded with disdain for its romantic focus, but at least it’s original- which is more than I can say for The Force Awakens. I remember seeing it twice in the cinema when I was nine years old, and I remember appreciating the slightly more mature tone it had compared to its predecessor. Despite its flaws, it’s always been my favorite of the Prequel movies because it’s the only Star Wars movie that’s a thriller. It starts out like a noir full of intrigue and mystery, and builds nicely towards the best battle in the trilogy. I consider Revenge of the Sith to be the worst film of the franchise, or at least the most poorly-executed. The dialogue was at its absolute worst, the plot was a mess utterly without the structure or pace of the first two movies, and the genuinely sinister space warlock that was the Palpatine of Return of the Jedi was reduced to a shrieking Saturday morning cartoon villain.

I can be both apologetically soft and unreasonably hard on the Prequels, depending on what day of the week it is. But I cherish that my relationship to each of the movies is my own and that it belongs to me- and I accept that it means something different to me now than it did to me as a child. And that’s the message I want to get across in this post- firstly that whatever your opinions on Star Wars are, they are valid, and secondly that it’s always good to have a little perspective. The Phantom Menace resonated with me as a kid, so to disparage it so wholly at this point feels like a betrayal of my younger self. It’s telling that I liked Rogue One so much, because it’s probably the darkest Star Wars movie yet- and in the context of being an adult at the time of watching it, its more nuanced approach appealed to my changed tastes. We got to see Rebel extremists, willing to commit immoral acts in order to bring down the Empire.

My favorite Star Wars stories are ones that don’t take place in the movies at all. The Expanded Universe is full of books and video games that resonate with me on a much deeper level than the movies ever have. To me, Star Wars is a balancing act- something that serves as both a strength and a weakness to the franchise. There’s something for everyone- the movies for families, the cartoons for kids, and the novels for angsty teenagers with a vitamin D deficiency. The problem is that the movies- forever the centerpiece of the franchise- will never fully satisfy each subset. Nothing else in the franchise has come anywhere near as close to the darkness and philosophical complexity that is Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords– which tackles the very nature of the force and turns its status as a magical all-purpose problem-solver into an interesting debate on individualism and free will. But as much as I love it, it’s not for everyone. Many people won’t enjoy it because it pushes the limits of what Star Wars can be, which, if pushed any further, would simply be better suited as its own IP. But it’s important because it’s proof that there is room in the Star Wars universe for more nuanced and original narratives. The worrying tone that Disney set with the Sequel trilogy highlighted the company’s lack of faith in the Star Wars universe to go somewhere new. Don’t get me wrong, as a movie I think The Force Awakens is much better written and acted than the Prequels, but it’s let down by the fact that it’s a reimagining of A New Hope. I like Rey, Finn and Kylo Ren, but the folks over at Disney are wasting their potential on storylines with no ambition.

Of course, I’d love for some of the future Star Wars movies and the planned live-action TV series to go somewhere really different. The Expanded Universe has some of the most nuanced characters in Star Wars history; the likes of Thrawn, Ulic Qel-Droma, and Kyle Katarn are crying out for a gritty, Game of Thrones-style HBO drama series- but I’m not so convinced we’ll get it. If you’re like me and you will always see the books of the EU as the true Star Wars timeline, then that’s OK. Like I said before, Star Wars belongs to each of us and no one should be judged for whatever version of it they choose to enjoy. It doesn’t bother me that the Sequel movies are the officially licensed canon. I can still enjoy them as well as all the books that depict a post-Return of the Jedi Luke Skywalker reinventing the millennia-old Jedi Code in order to have hot sweaty sex with a curvaceous, red-headed Imperial assassin. Ahem. Sorry, lost my train of thought for a second. Ultimately, my point is that arguing about “canon” is as sterile a debate as it is embarrassing. You can’t say “Oh, but the events of the EU never happened”, because none of it actually happened. You’re arguing over events that aren’t real and never will be. All one has to do is look upon the many contradictory timelines of super hero comics and movies, or the way the new Star Trek movies take place in an alternate universe. Neither the events of The Force Awakens or the EU are real because none of it is real. Star Wars was created for us to enjoy, so it’s only as real as you want it to be, and only relevant for as long as you enjoy it. Don’t waste your time getting in a pathetic debate with nerds on the internet when you could be sat on a beach somewhere reading RA Salvatore’s Vector Prime…or at least sat in a dark room eating Funyans and playing through user-created mods for Knights of the Old Republic on Steam…

3 Experimental Novels That Inspired Me!

Today I’d like to highlight three novels I read that challenged the accepted definitions of what exactly a novel is. During my life I’ve gone through several reading phases. I had my Star Wars phase, my Science Fiction & Fantasy phase, my Bohemian phase, my Gothic phase and my American phase, but during my early college years I became interested in Experimental Fiction. I was drawn to Modernism and the Avant-Garde, because these books focused not so much on the story itself than on the way it was told. I was also excited by the challenge of reading novels that were considered difficult to read.

Each of the three novels I’m going to list today helped both my reading and my writing. I think every writer can benefit from reading experimental fiction- even if it is not their chosen genre- because what experimental fiction does is it examines the craft of storytelling- the techniques of how a story is told. It takes a step back and investigates the basic workings of narrative exposition, and finds new ways to tell a story. I picked the novels listed below because each one innovates in a way that relates to the theme its narrative explores. Enjoy!

 

La Jalousie

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Author: Alain Robbe-Grillet

First Published: 1957, Les Éditions de Minuit

Opening Line: “Now the shadow of the column- the column which supports the south-west corner of the roof- divides the corresponding corner of the veranda into two equal parts.”

Synopsis: On a tropical banana plantation, a jealous husband spies on his wife through Venetian blinds, convinced that she is having an affair.

How It Innovates: According to Vladimir Nabokov, Jealousy is “the finest novel about love since Proust,” and far be it my place to criticize one of 20th century’s most iconic literary figures, but I’m not sure it’s got anything to do with “love” as such. I can’t get his comment out of my head, because I want to see what he saw when he was reading it. I remember there being a lot of jealousy- and plenty of connotations of lust and sexual tension- but not too much love. More so than anything else, the dominant theme of this short novel is the nature of reality- which is Robbe-Grillet’s favorite theme to work with (see Les Gommes and Le Voyeur). I remember being confused while reading this novel- because it seemed like I was reading the same events over and over again. I then learned that what was happening was that the narrator was constantly replaying the same moments over and over again in his mind to the point that it becomes impossible to distinguish between his observations and his suspicions. It’s this aspect of the novel that reminds me of A Sport and a Pastime; both feature jealous narrators and it’s never revealed whether the events of the book actually happened or if they are the creations of those jealous narrators. The difference Jealousy has with A Sport and a Pastime however, is that unlike the latter it is not a conventional novel, and cannot be approached as such. Robbe-Grillet wrote Jealousy as a novel with what he referred to as an “absent third-person narrator”. The husband is never once referred to in the book, never speaks, never acts, never named. The idea of the jealous husband is one that is inferred by the reader, once they realize that the events of the book are framed as though being observed by someone. There are subtle clues as to the narrator’s existence- such as the number of deck chairs on the veranda or the number of places at the table. This is a book that will make you a creative reader, because a creative reader is what the book requires. On the surface it is merely a sequence of repeated scenes, each of them written with a meticulous and exact sense of geometry. There’s something very mathematical about the book. The smallest angles and dimensions create a sense of perspective, and provide evidence that there is indeed a narrator. And the green landscape of banana trees that enclose the house represent the jealousy of this view, since green is the color of jealousy.

 

The Sound and the Fury

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Author: William Faulkner

First Published: 1929, Jonathan Cape & Harrison Smith

Opening Line: “Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.”

Synopsis: The fall from grace of a Southern aristocratic family is chronicled over 30 years through the memories of three brothers obsessed with their sister.

How It Innovates: The novel is divided into four parts. The first three sections detail the memories and thoughts of the three brothers Benjy, Quentin, and Jason- each of whom has a different relationship with their sister Caddy that consumes them in various ways. The fourth section of the novel is written from a third-person omniscient point of view, and Caddy- the heroine, the central figure of the book- has no narrative voice at all. And yet this only makes her presence seem all the more powerful, as our image of her is filtered through the views of her brothers. And ultimately that is what the book is about; not Caddy herself so much as what she means to her brothers. It is the first two sections of the novel that are the most interesting to scholars because they are unlike anything else in fiction. Benjy, the voice of the first section, is cognitively disabled and non-verbal. His passage is so interesting because he is trapped in the past, going over various events in his life linked by visceral sensations. It makes for challenging reading, because the time shifts abruptly every couple paragraphs or so, and we are presented with this splintered, kaleidoscopic mélange of scenes. I got the hang of it when I realized that the temporal shifts are indicated by italicized lines (Faulkner originally wanted to have different colors of font to mark the alternating time periods) but it still makes for very challenging reading. It’s not the sort of book you wanna rush, or take to the beach and unwind with in the sun. It’s the sort of thing you have to methodically work through and re-read again and again. The second section though, is even more difficult. It’s narrated by Quentin as he slowly loses his mind. He is tortured by his father’s nihilistic world view and his sister’s sexual promiscuity. Benjy’s section, when you get used to the temporal shifts, is more or less a series of physical sensations and images. He’s non-verbal, so there is no voice to speak of. Whereas with Quentin, we are given a rush of pained emotions and neuroticisms. I honestly marvel at Faulkner’s genius here, because the psychology of the narrators are as interesting as you will find- it is as though he wants to get to the very heart of the human soul and its agonies. As Quentin’s mental state rapidly deteriorates, all sense of grammatical structure and punctuation is thrown out the window. And that’s what I meant in my opening paragraph about experimental fiction reinventing narrative techniques to reflect the themes of a story. Faulkner does not subvert convention for its own sake, but because it serves the book’s themes. Quentin is one of the most fascinating characters in American literature- in some way representing the chivalric, “white knight” psyche of all Southern men- and Faulkner’s abandonment of form makes for an unforgettable account of the man’s depressive state. I’m not sure if I have a favorite novel, but The Sound and the Fury is definitely a contender for the title. Although it’s ball-bustingly difficult, it’s actually a very entertaining story with plenty of cinematic scenes in its more straightforward final two sections.

 

Rayuela (Hopscotch)

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Author: Julio Cortázar

First Published: 1963, Editorial Sudamericana Sociedad Anonima

Opening Line: “Would I find La Maga?” or “Yes, but who will cure us of the dull fire, the colorless fire that at nightfall runs along the Rue de la Huchette, emerging from the crumbling doorways, from the little entranceways, of the imageless fire that licks the stones and lies in wait in doorways, how shall we cleanse ourselves of the sweet burning that comes after, that nests in us forever allied with time and memory, with sticky things that hold us here on this side, and which will burn sweetly in us until we have been left in ashes.” (depending on where you start the novel)

Synopsis: An Argentine writer living in Paris searches for his mistress La Maga, before going home to his native Buenos Aires and seeing her everywhere he looks.

How It Innovates: Hopscotch is described by its author as a “counter-novel”. As you may have noticed above, I put two opening lines for the book. How can a book have two opening lines, you ask? Well that’s because it was written as being “many books”, although it is two above all. If you want you can read it from the first page in a straightforward manner like you would any other novel, and the book ends at chapter 56. There are 155 chapters in total, but the last 99 are considered “expendable”. Thinking that I would not read this again for many years, if at all, I decided to read it the second way, where you “hopscotch” from chapter to chapter using a code indicated at the front of the book. This way, you read all of the chapters, starting with chapter 73, and using the code to figure out which chapter comes next. It was super-interesting and completely unlike anything else I’ve ever read. The expendable chapters provide deeper insights into the characters as well as random musings that serve to fill in the gaps of the main narrative that runs through chapters 1-56. It’s been a few years since I read the novel, but it’s an interesting read and the protagonist makes for an intriguing, isolated tumbleweed that goes from place to place without really finding a sense of belonging.

 

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That Time I Saw Bill Clinton In A Parking Garage

In the last post in this series I wrote about the kinds of opportunities on offer at an American campus. When I studied at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire my semester coincided with the 2012 presidential election. It was awesome to have Vice President Joe Biden come to campus and to attend his campaign speech for free. As the semester went on, the weather got more and more bitter and so too did the election.

On October 31st Bill Clinton was visiting Eau Claire to campaign for Barack Obama. How could I turn down the opportunity to see such an iconic figure? It was a Wednesday, and on every Wednesday I had my senior class- a 3 hour creative writing workshop. It was my favorite class with my favorite professor. As I walked down the hill to lower campus, I started to wonder if I could really be arsed to see Clinton. Back then I was extremely anxious about going to places and trying things without someone to do it with me, which sounds crazy when I had already come all the way to another country by myself and was doing just fine. Not only was I anxious, but I was a lazy son-of-a-gun to boot. I wondered if I would be able to motivate myself to walk downtown and see this speech all on my own. I didn’t like the idea that laziness and anxiety would get in the way of a chance to see a former President, and I continued this warring dialogue in my head as I approached Hibbard. It would be so easy to just say “ah, heck with it” and walk back to the warmth and comfort of the dorms, and resume binging Breaking Bad and eating pizza with Aaron. I wished he were here so we could go together.

I got into class, sat myself down, and a thought occurred to me. In my Making More Friends in the USA post I introduced my friend Calvin, who sat near me in that creative writing class. Only two days prior, he had asked if I wanted to get coffee on my birthday. I was busy chillin’ with Aaron, Zeke and Jimmy in Towers North at the time, but had promised him we would hang out. Calvin had a friend, a girl that sat with us, called…let’s call her Briony. As we unpacked our notepads and pens, she said, “Hey, isn’t Bill Clinton in town today?”

Class commenced as per usual, and when it ended it was late in the afternoon. Calvin looked at me and said, “So, how about that coffee? You busy?”

I said I was interested in going to see Clinton, and perhaps we could go together. He smiled and looked back at Briony and asked if she was interested. Swell!

We left the campus and headed toward Briony’s house where we planned to leave our bags. I remember being interested to see what a given student house looked like. We walked through big sylvan streets with little traffic. The houses all had large lawns. They were often made of white-painted wood and all had spacious porches which contained locked bicycles, inflated donuts for tubing the Chippewa River, hookah pipes, and the evidence of many a party; beer bottles and red solo cups strewn about the front steps and lining the porch railing. There were also dogs and families in some of the houses. A thick canopy covered every street, and everything was shadowed and sleepy. The front yards were adorned with whirligigs, flower patches, American flags, abandoned couches, empty lawn chairs, tricycles, and discarded stacks of cardboard.

We arrived at the house where Briony lived and it fascinated me. Briony and her roommate rented the upper half of the house, and so there was a stairway on the exterior of the building that took them up to their front door. I remember Briony apologizing for how messy her apartment was and it struck me as representing the carefree existence of student living. We found her roommate sitting cross-legged on the floor and the girl smiled up at us and said hi, promising to look after our bags.

“Just throw them on the floor anywhere you like,” she said, as Briony went into another room to fetch her jacket.

We started then towards downtown Eau Claire and the light was starting to leave the sky. It was at that point in the day when the streetlights are coming on and glow faintly amber against a sky the dullest shade of white. The speech was taking place at the Ramada Convention Center. By the time we arrived, the line was so big that it stretched around the whole block. We instantly grew apprehensive about whether we would make it.

I can be a pretty impatient person sometimes and one thing I’m not good at is simply standing still. I’ve always hated waiting in line, especially at airports and the like. As the day grew later and the line (“queue” in British English) trudged forward at the pace of a spilt flow of porridge, I began to realize just how naïve I was to the weather in Wisconsin. I’ve always had this tendency to put on less layers than I need out of a fear of being too hot. I hate being out and about with too many layers on and feeling sweaty, and back then I figured it was better to be too cold rather than too hot. Almost as soon as we got in line, I started complaining I was cold. I knew right away I had made a grave error. I was dressed in a thin, white vintage cabana shirt with black, office pants. I looked like I ought to be drinking Cubanitos in Havana or smoking outside a café in Sidi Bou Said. Aside from being about forty years out of date, I attracted all kinds of bemused stares at my lack of preparedness. With the kind of shirt I was wearing I was practically topless for all the protection it offered. To quote Joey from Friends: my nipples could cut glass.

Unable to control myself, I started shivering like crazy. Wisconsinites are polite and yet direct. They’re too polite to criticize my choice of clothing but nonetheless direct enough to ask where my jacket was. A woman in front of us couldn’t stand to hear my teeth chattering any longer, and said that while she didn’t have a spare sweater for me, she could offer me these little things that might warm my hands. Out of her handbag she produced these two things that looked like teabags.

“Rub them together in your hands. It’ll warm you up,” she said. “But whatever ya do, don’t open or tear them. That would be painful.”

The line snaked around these two massive buildings and we were stood there for an hour or more, with me cursing my stupidity the whole time. It was nice to hang out with Calvin and Briony some more, but I was starting to think I should have taken them up on their initial suggestion of coffee. I imagined we would have gone to a place in the campus student center Davies called The Cabin. I never actually went to The Cabin during my exchange, but I remember thinking of it as a nest of hipsters in flannel shirts and beanies, discussing Bon Iver over their Caribou Coffee. I was super-paranoid about being associated with hipsters back then. I’m not sure what my fear was exactly, but I avoided them like they were linked to Spanish Flu. But all my insecurities about being a closeted hipster went out the window when I was on the sidewalk that day feeling my crown jewels shrivel up into my body in a desperate attempt to preserve heat. At that moment The Cabin looked like the warmest, coziest place in the world.

This better be worth it, I thought to myself. We were so close to the convention center now. As we edged closer, coming off of the street and under the massive concrete parking garage attached to the side of the building, we began to talk excitedly about the comfy chairs and central heating ahead of us. It was fully dark by now. The stars were out and the hardy Wisconsinites breathed clouds of condensed water vapor. Then all of a sudden the line came to a stop and didn’t start moving again. A crowd began to form outside the hotel and a woman came along and announced that the seats were all full and that she was very sorry but could we kindly piss off.

An audible groan rang out and the crowd didn’t move. A barricade was erected to keep us from getting any closer and to make room for Clinton’s motorcade. We waited for the shiny black cars to arrive so that we might catch a glimpse of him. At worst we could brag at having seen one of his secret service agents. The only thing I remember from this part of the story is a crushing sense of disappointment. Finally, however, as if knowing that I had come all this way from Bristol, England, the woman returned and announced to the sizable crowd that Bill Clinton was going to come out and give a mini-speech to us, so that we didn’t go home with nothing. What an amazing fellow, I thought.

Then, sure enough, Bill Clinton’s motorcade turned up and he got out of the car. He looked exactly as he did on TV. His hair was brilliantly white though- whiter and thicker than Biden’s. He had a really distinctive look to him, I thought. Someone handed him a megaphone and he addressed the shivering crowd of Wisconsinites clad in green and yellow coats. It was quite a scene, I thought. Even though we didn’t get to see the actual campaign speech, this little spontaneous moment in the parking garage felt somehow more special. Everyone seemed to be wearing some form of Green Bay Packer attire, and we all felt touched by Clinton’s coming out to us in the cold.

The fact that I didn’t bring my camera felt like an even bigger mistake than my choice of clothes. Sometimes in today’s world of social media, it feels like if you don’t have a picture to mark an event, then it didn’t happen. So I don’t have a photo of my own to accompany this post. However, I did find this image online of Clinton speaking to us in the parking garage-if you look really hard you can even see half of my face, at the back of the crowd on the right of the image.

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Photo credit: Jeff McCabe, click here to see original image

When the speech was over everyone cheered and we hurried back to Briony’s house as quickly as we could. And so ends the memory and today’s blog post. Thanks for reading! If you’re enjoying this study abroad series, then consider giving me a Like or let me know what you think in the comments. Make sure to subscribe to keep yourself up to date, because I have plenty of stories left from that fall semester in 2012.

Horizon: Zero Dawn’s Frozen Wilds DLC Is Beautiful

Horizon: Zero Dawn is my game of the year. There’s no other game of 2017 I’ve enjoyed anywhere near as much. I got it on March 1st and within a week I had the platinum trophy. It’s not a perfect game- and there are flaws to be found such as the lack of interesting side-quests and the somewhat empty feeling to its gorgeous cities. It falls short of the standard of The Witcher 3, but comparing any game to such a complete masterpiece feels a little unfair. Horizon: Zero Dawn stands as the best title I’ve played this year because of its excellent storytelling, voice acting and world building. Guerrilla Games’ vision of a post-apocalyptic Earth is resoundingly imaginative and the spectacular artistic design is realized with slick, cutting-edge graphics. And that’s where we reach the subject of today’s post. I recently played through the Frozen Wilds DLC and like the game proper it’s beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, that I had to keep pausing the game during missions to indulge the Photo Mode. It’s quite fun actually. My idea for today’s post is not so much to review the game as to celebrate it. It’s my favorite game of the year, and I figured what better way to salute it than to share with you all a gallery of my favorite screenshots? All of these are taken by yours truly. Want a review of Frozen Wilds? Well here it is: if you liked HZD, this is basically just more of it.

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My trusty synthetic ram Hemingway, before he got his horns blown off by a rampaging Fire Bellowback (see below).

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I found that the DLC definitely ramped-up the challenge. One of my favorite aspects of the base game was the unique tactics required for each encounter. New enemies such as Scorchers and Frostclaws will throw you around like a rag doll.

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The game is set in Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park, north of where the base game takes place (Colorado & Utah). And I’m pretty sure what you see below is Devil’s Tower.

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This is an example of DLC done right. It’s reasonably priced and worth every penny. No Season Pass horseshit. Guerrilla Games took their time and crafted something designed wholly for the fans to enjoy.

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In preparation for this post I headed to Yellowstone’s famous geysers to take some photos only to get distracted and start harassing a peaceful herd of Tramplers…

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Thanks for reading! Let me know in the comments what games you had the most fun with this year!

That Time I Saw Joe Biden Speak On Campus

During my student exchange at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire it seemed to me that an American campus offered no end of opportunities. Everything was more. We had more food (free food!) than we could possibly eat, we had more recreational facilities than we could possibly know what to do with, and every week there was an event of some kind going on. I could only imagine what opportunities were on offer at institutions such as John Hopkins or NYU. UW-Eau Claire is a small college in a small city, but like everything else in America it’s rich with possibilities. I wish I had done more, but two things that stand out as being especially memorable are the campaign trail speeches I got to see. I’m going to detail the first one in this post today.

In my Making More Friends in the USA post I highlighted three friends I made during my semester abroad and in my Living on an American Campus During the 2012 Election post I described the atmosphere of the campus during the 2012 presidential election. It is in this post that we bring those two pieces together, now that the appropriate context has been established.

I got to see Vice President Joe Biden on September 13th, 2012. The campaign was just starting to heat up at this point, with the vote about 2 months away. Even though I didn’t know Biden that well, I knew I couldn’t turn down the chance to see a sitting Vice President. I went with Jimmy and Zeke and I remember standing in line for ages outside the Zorn Arena. It was a bright day, and although the punishing Midwestern summer heat had dropped off quite suddenly, there was a residual, pleasant kind of warmth that ushered in the Indian Summer of fall. Jimmy and Zeke, being freshmen, shared the same sense of excitement that I did as an exchange student. We were similarly new to the campus and in awe of the fresh sights and sounds before us. We were hungry for experiences. As we waited in line we joked around and pointed out the Secret Service agents taking up various positions around the perimeter of the arena.

“Look, a sniper!” we said, pointing at a guy in shades standing on the roof.

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As we got closer to the entrance I got my first glimpse of the UW-Eau Claire marching band, who paraded down the street in a phalanx of blue and gold. They were very impressive and I enjoyed the booming music of drums and brass instruments.

The marching band’s reputation preceded them and I was glad to see them in action. One girl told me “The marching band are legit awesome. It’s like, super-nerdy, but they’re so good.”

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The running joke on campus was that the marching band was better than the Blugold football team it supported, and that people attended the games as much to see them as they did the sports.

When we got in we were seated in this gallery overlooking the main stage. People were still flooding into the arena, and our attention focused on the secret service agent guarding the exit near to where we sat. The guy was built like a vending machine but had this serene look to his face that reminded me of a teaching assistant or music tutor with unlimited patience. Zeke said that he was going to go shake the agent’s hand, and asked if I could take a photo of him to prove he did it. I was swept up in the adventure of the moment and as he left our row of seats, Jimmy laughed and said “Dude, he’s legit going to do it.”

Unfortunately my camera at the time was not very good. I did my best to get the highest quality picture I could for him, and the result was pretty blurry. However it was not so blurry that you couldn’t tell what was going on. You can see the handshake, but the agent’s got two heads, so it looks like his spirit is leaving his physical body and watching the event over his shoulder. At the time I was worried that not getting a good photo was a missed chance to improve my new friendship with Zeke, but really it just serves as an example of how I used to fret over every little thing back then, that the slightest imperfection in my social endeavors would have far-reaching consequences. But as I have stated, Wisconsinites are a super-friendly bunch, and throughout the semester both Jimmy and Zeke were absolutely wonderful towards me. I apologized to Zeke but he just laughed and said “Good enough. Thanks man, this is badass.”

The event started with a bunch of guest speakers I can’t remember. A quartet of blonde German-American girls gave a lovely rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner” and my friends reminded me to put my hand over my heart and face the flag. I wasn’t sure what to do, as a foreigner, but I decided to go along with it. It was a strange sensation and a thought came over me at the time: “So this is my life now. How the hell did I get here? Here I am in the USA doing the pledge of allegiance I’ve seen so many times in the movies…”

It was a far cry from the life I’d known just a few short months ago, hiding in my room getting all my knowledge of the outside world through media instead of direct exposure. It was weird. For so long I’d felt that I was somehow “outside life”, existing only as an observer of the stories of others. Now I felt like I was living. I was in the stories I read and the movies I watched. This was a recurring emotion during my student exchange, one in which my perception of reality was changing. This might sound completely insane, but it was like all of a sudden I felt real.

Joe Biden sauntered onto the stage with his trademark swagger and ear-to-ear grin. He was old, thin, with a head of hair so white as to shame a Stranger Things antagonist. He looked like the American “good ol’ boy” archetype and I could imagine him playing a sheriff or saloonkeeper in an old-school Hollywood Western. His natural charisma and quintessential “American-ness” reminded me of Harrison Ford. Despite his age and his thinness, he was a man fit to bursting with excited energy. He seemed so vibrant and lively. He strutted about the stage shaking hands, slapping shoulders and snapping his fingers. His reputation as such a colorful personality turned out to be true, and it made for an entertaining speech. Biden resonated with the youth and knew how to galvanize them. He joked around, he was goofy, and he had this innocent, trustworthy twinkle in his eyes like your favorite uncle at Thanksgiving dinner. He spoke about foreign policy and then went on to paint a picture of the America he and Obama envisioned; a place of diversity, tolerance and progressivism.

I wasn’t too big on politics at the time, but I remember enjoying his speech and leaving Zorn with a sense of hope and optimism. There were people in power working to make the world a better place.

Living on an American Campus During the 2012 Election

One of the things I haven’t covered yet- a detail that made my semester abroad that much more colorful- was that I was in the USA during election year. Tensions were high and the campus was highly politicized. Both the Dems and the GOP had official organizations at the grass-roots level- veritable legions of fired-up, partisan students that scoured the campus for recruits during the day and drank toasts to the bloody demise of their counterparts come night. There was a real sense of vitriol between the two sides. It was as though every four years the country braced itself for a civil war, which is an apt choice of words because the ideological divisions in this country can be traced right back to the fricking Gatling Gun. I’ve always thought that America is really two countries- like two warring spirits vying for control of a host body. One thing I picked up on as soon as I arrived was the tangible sense of dread people had towards the 2012 general election. Now I’m not saying people back in the Old World of Yurrup enjoy elections, but I’ve certainly never seen the same sense of fear. In the UK some people go about hardly noticing there’s an election at all. But in the US- boy do you know it’s game time.

The US is about as polarized as a nation can get. When I was making my road trip across the country before moving into the dorms, I met up with my assigned roommate Brad and a bunch of his high school chums in the parking lot of a Best Western hotel in Madison, WI. After grudgingly obliging their demands I say “bloody hell” several times in my normal voice, I was able to pick up a few pointers on the Do’s and Don’ts of living in the Land of the Free.

“Whatever you do, do NOT mention politics, religion, or race,” one girl told me.

There was this sense that to do so was to light a cigarette in a room already doused with gasoline. Any moment things could explode. It was an interesting climate to witness, and any American will tell you that when things kick off, it’s ugly as all hell. And it’s true; in the UK there simply isn’t the same level of hatred that exists between both factions. People just kind of get on with it, and few folks can really be bothered to make a scene.

The memory of that semester that sticks out most to me was the time my bestest of mates Aaron got back from casting his vote.

“Shit’s hit the fan,” he said, lying back on the rug across from where I sat. Aaron told me how an argument about abortion exploded on lower campus outside the voting booths. I’m not sure who started it, but basically what happened is two girls got into a screaming match and one of them called the other a “cunt”. You know the hatred is genuine when Americans use that word. In the USA it definitely carries more weight than anywhere else. Over there it’s strictly a gender-specific word. It’s a word used against women to demean women. In the UK, it’s still bad, but it’s applied more or less equally to both genders (think of it as an upgrade of “jerk”). And in Australia, I hear it’s actually a term of endearment. But no, in the US whenever that word is used it’s like all air is sucked out of the room. Back home, if I were to say it I’d get a slap on the wrist for being vulgar, but if I were to utter it in the USA, there would be a sense of “Did you really just do that?”

As a foreigner, I was pretty much insulated from it all. Come election-day a girl knocked on my door and asked if I had voted yet. I told her I wasn’t eligible, and for some reason I got a real sense of satisfaction in doing so. But a part of me did feel like I was missing out on the party. I wasn’t politically-inclined at all in those days, but I still felt swept up in all the excitement. There was a real sense of hope that came with Obama’s crushing victory, and the dorm rooms were warmed by the glow of progressivism. No offence to Mitt Romney, but he displayed about as much charisma and political insight as a pilchard. I’ll never forget staying up with Aaron all night to watch the live coverage of the votes being counted, and I have such a vivid memory of Obama’s rousing victory speech in the wind and rain of Chicago. It was probably one of the greatest speeches I’ve ever heard, and one of the few I’ve really been affected by with a surge of emotion. Our reaction was tantamount to that of seeing Giannis Antetokounmpo performing a slam dunk over someone. “Holy shit,” Aaron said. Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, you had to give it to Barack Obama; the man is undoubtedly one of the greatest orators in American history.

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