Category Archives: Personal

Notes on Musical Cartography

When I often discuss musical appetites with people, I often hear “To be honest, I like all kinds of music, but I especially like [insert subgenre]”. I think this is true of most people- it is definitely true for myself. There is simply too much music out there- too much good music- for one to only adhere to a strict subgenre. I understand that some people enjoy more- or less variety- than others, however. For some, their preferred genre of music is intrinsic to their sense of identity; I believe the correct term for those who almost exclusively associate with death metal music to be “metalheads”. And that’s swell. It’s interesting actually, that a particular type of creative expression can resonate with certain people in such a strong way so as to create an entire community.

My roommates and I discuss music often. We have overlapping tastes, but we each have unique journeys as far as our acquisition of music. And sharing with one another our own musical landscapes is a source of intense interest, so I figured I would blog about it. I’ll start with my male roommate- I’ve caught him listening to all kinds of songs, from European electropop artists like MØ, to thrash metal/“harder-than-rock” bands like the inimitable Five Finger Deathpunch, and to older voices such as Billy Joel. He has a broad range of tastes and has supplied about 60-80% of my musical library, no exaggeration. But none of those artists- despite his fondness for them- really define him. There exists for people a deeper connection with music; there are the songs we enjoy, and then there are the songs that speak to us on an emotional or spiritual level, to which we attach larger-than-life qualities. I’ll explain what I mean in less abstract terms, but bear with me for a moment. For him- and for my other roommate (his high school sweetheart), the genre inextricably linked to their identities (both individual and collective) is Alternative or Punk Rock. I’m talking Yellowcard, The Offspring, and best of all, the incomparable Blink 182. If you were to meet him, he would say that he likes all music, but that he is drawn most of all to Alternative Rock, with Rap Music a close second. For her, her tastes are perhaps even broader; less sympathy is given to hard rock, but more to pop, Celtic Punk, even Country. But what unites them, what is so important to their identity- particularly as a couple- is the work of those Alternative Rock bands- American Hi Fi, Goo Goo Dolls, Matchbox 20- that harken back to a time before I knew them, to memories I have to fill in with my imagination, to a nostalgia entirely their own.

But why is this relevant? Well I am going to let that last paragraph serve as a point of contrast, as I approach the crux of this blog post- the establishment of my own musical cartography. Since I have become friends with my roommates, my figurative library has expanded massively. I am going to share how I have received these songs, my own associations with them, and my relationship with music in general. The first and most important fact about myself is that before anything else I am a diehard Elvis fan. I have a lot that I love in my life; I am a brother, a friend, a son, a Cheesehead, a roommate, a creative writer, a blogger et cetera, but before all of that I am first and foremost an Elvis fan. My relationship with his songs arguably deserves its own post, but it’s important that I touch on it here as best as I can. I became a fan after my mom received a free CD with a small selection of his songs that came attached to the newspaper. She would play it in the kitchen whilst cooking or whatever, and I would come in and listen. By the time I was 12 I had firmly established myself as a fan of his work for life, and I got two CDs with about 65 of his songs altogether. I continued to listen to it all through my teenage years and my college days, culminating in a 2012 pilgrimage to Graceland (Memphis, Tennessee) during Elvis Week, where I came within just a few feet of Lisa Marie Presley.

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That is the first part of my musical makeup. However, despite being a huge Elvis fan, his work largely stands unaccompanied in my core library. What I mean is, whilst I like and enjoy other rockabilly songs- I don’t necessarily identify with them on that emotional level. I am more of an Elvis fan than I am a rockabilly fan in general. No, as far as the other half of my heart, that belongs to the genre of hard rock, which I consider to be my primary subcategory of music. My favorite band is Mountain, closely followed by contemporaries of the 60s and 70s such as The Rolling Stones, Blackfoot, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. These are the kinds of songs that I listen to when I am alone, when doing the dishes or folding laundry, or taking a shower. These are the kinds of songs that I consider “Michael songs” that exist without any kind of vivid association. They are to me, what Alternative Rock is to my roommates.

I mentioned earlier that our tastes overlap. I have grown to enjoy the works of Blink 182 and The Goo Goo Dolls especially, but they are not “quintessentially Michael” in their character. Perhaps now I am beginning to make more sense. Now that I have started to give you more of a profile of myself, I want to explore and examine that which I am most interested in- and which I am eager to know whether it exists in the same way with you, my readers. The songs outside of my self-discovered core library, which have been recommended to me by others, are so intriguing to me due to the way in which I came to acquire them. I am known for not falling for a song instantly. I will perhaps hear the same song played a dozen times in the stereo of my roommate’s black Chrysler Sebring “The Panther”, when all of a sudden, I will become quite enthralled by it. It has to be listened to at the right moment, at the exact time when I will associate it forever with a place, person, experience or emotion. Long after its discovery, my listening to it will always and forever recall a very specific nostalgia, an echo or an image in my mind’s eye, that can never be erased. We will now run through some specific examples, so that you do not think I am waffling, or being a pretentious pussywipe.

First up is a recent example. I have had a changeable relationship with classical music. It’s not a part of my identity, but a piece may resonate with me if given the proper association. It must be noted quickly that I don’t necessarily enjoy these associative songs any less than I do a given Elvis or Mountain song. They aren’t “pure Michael songs”, but on any given day I may prefer to listen to them above all else. There is no sense of superiority or inferiority here, only a difference in my conception of it. A few months ago I started listening to some classical music randomly, as I judged this to be the best and least intrusive accompaniment to my writing schedule. One of the pieces I listened to was Danse Macabre by Camille Saint-Saëns, an absolute pimp of a composer from 19th century France. Seriously, this piece is indicative of a straight-up badass. It’s supposed to be based on a legend where, at the stroke of midnight every Halloween, Death plays his fiddle, which calls forth the dead from their graves, who start to dance for him. I learned all this from the comments section of the Youtube video, believe it or not. It is important knowledge, and you consider the song more closely upon gaining it. It is so full of whimsy- it’s like Leopold Stokowski’s score for Disney’s Fantasia– it evokes the majesty of a faerie tale, the violins with connotations of a sinister, Slavic horror, the whole thing a dance so wondrous you can’t help but be swept away, taken in by it’s strange Satanic depravity. But you want to know how this piece became immortalized in my associative library, don’t you? At the time I was reading Clive Barker’s horror novel Cabal, and in it there are undead, shapeshifting bloodsuckers, that dwell in the catacombs beneath the mausoleum of a graveyard, and venture out only at night. They are mostly sympathetic characters in the book- though no time is wasted in the establishment of their horrific and bestial side. They each seem fantastic and unique. It was only months later, that I started listening to Danse Macabre once more, and now every time I do, I am reminded of the events of Barker’s novel. I see the lovers Boone and Lori rushing throughout the wilderness of Canada’s Alberta Province, their struggles, their heartaches, their passion, their despair. I know, from my experiences past, that this association will stand for a long time.

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The next example concerns the songs my roommates have introduced to me over the past 5 years, and how they have found their way into my library, becoming absolute favorites of mine. The key thing to remember here is that they are songs which I would never have otherwise discovered, would never have listened to or sought out on my own, and if perchance I did hear them, I would likely have been disinterested. But I’ve opened up a great deal to all kinds of music in recent years. Firstly I want to introduce the song “Take It All Back” by the American rapper Huey Mack. It’s a grossly underappreciated song. But my roommate- the male- prides himself on uncovering the hidden gems of music. We would listen to upbeat pop and rap songs such as “Hello” and “Acapella” by Karmin and “The Show Goes On” by Lupe Fiasco that I strongly associated with being in The Panther and driving around Eau Claire at night. They captured the excitement and adventure I felt at grabbing some Half-Off Apps at Applebee’s or some ice cream at Cold Stone Creamery. The streetlights, the lighted windows of Mogies, sports bars, the traffic lights, the dipped headlights of cars. “Take It All Back” was a song that belonged to that group, but took on an even more specific association. We were driving one summer evening, turning from Fifth Avenue onto Water Street. On the corner is the Irish pub Dooley’s. Eau Claire is very much a “college town” whose identity is dominated by the university presence. Out on the streets were the spirits of summer. They were Blugolds without a doubt, living here for the summer. Perhaps they were juniors and seniors, enjoying the newfound independence of living out of their own house for the first time. We passed by these rambunctious crowds, and I remember us commenting on the revealing clothing of the girls. They were dressed in high heels, skin-tight black dresses with a plunging cleavage and so many thighs on display as to put KFC to shame. I don’t want to sound like I’m mocking or admonishing any of these girls based on the way they dress- I am simply observing. But it brings to mind the sorority girl stereotype. You can never truly know someone as you drive past them and look out of a car window. The imagination has to fill in the large open spaces, and you draw upon the stereotypes of our culture to help you out. I wondered at where their evenings would take them, what they would talk about, who they would meet. And Huey Mack’s song, which we were listening to as we drove past, came to fill in those large open spaces, it seemed to supply for me the information I was lacking, and I imagined the girls being like the girl the rapper describes in the song- spontaneous, wild, familiar with things foreign to me (smoking weed for instance!), and with an open, aggressive sexuality. They belong to a group of people in the social sphere I am curious about but have no access to; I see them walking in their loud parties on Water Street at nights- but where are they going and why? I had a friend from Eau Claire I visited a couple times, who actually lived on Water Street and who I felt might be more familiar with such girls. One time I visited him, and we were sitting in his living room, preparing for an adventurous (and for me, unfamiliar!) night out in the Twin Cities. In the corner of the room his friend was smoking a joint, and told us with glee about how this cheerleader was texting him, informing him of her breakup with her boyfriend, and being very forward and not in the least bit subtle about her desire to get close with him. I remember his amusement at her interest, and the subsequent song-and-dance routine in which he broadcasted how he was going to get ferociously laid down the line. It’s all a world that’s never closer than an arm’s length to me, but which I nonetheless find intriguing as I do all things.

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Hopefully by now I am starting to make more sense. As I conclude this post, I want to remind you to comment if you experience music this way too. Let me know if I’m mad. I first heard the song “Emmylou” at the end of a long playlist which had entertained us all the way from western Wisconsin to the eastern edge of the state, when we turned onto the long country road on which my roommate’s family lives. The song may very well have been on in my presence before, but I did not truly hear it until we turned onto that road. My friend lives on a Native American Reservation near Green Bay, WI, and either side of the road are trees. Hearing the song always brings me back to that bright summer afternoon, the branches and all the greenery blowing softly. It might sound like sappy horseshit but it’s true- I swear. I can’t listen to it and not be taken back. It’s not so much the place as it is the feeling. My nervous excitement at meeting his family for the first time, our collective fatigue after a 4 hour car ride, the sentimental mood that put us in. “Well we’re finally here, my favorite road in the whole world” he seemed to say, as if he knew exactly how long and how often I had imagined coming here. It had existed hitherto only in stories, his own nostalgia, family trivia, which upon listening I had attached a romantic, mythical quality. It was as if his house, his family, the Fox River, and the whole of Green Bay, were not made real until I stepped foot there. They didn’t exist until I discovered them. They were stories.

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I could go on. I could talk about my association of “Remember the Name” by Fort Minor with (in my opinion) the greatest athlete of all time Michael Jordan, or I could point to songs such as “Iris” by the Goo Goo Dolls that evoke memories of sitting cross-legged on the floor of my best friend’s room in Towers North- 459- and having manly “heart-to-heart” conversations. The latter is a song often prescribed to me when I let my roommates know that I’m having a depressive episode. I can’t listen to Macklemore’s “Can’t Hold Us” without recalling a wild drive with my friends I took to the Twin Cities in 2012 to see my first NBA game (GO BUCKS!). I can’t hear Rufus Wainwright’s version of “Hallelujah” without remembering the drive back, when we all sang it and I was an emotional prick- despite being familiar with the song for years and previously being very indifferent to it. Car rides are especially vivid for me, as you can tell. John Denver’s classic “Take Me Home, Country Roads” brings me back to the second-leg of an epic cross-country road trip, and the sadness I was overcome by at saying goodbye to my friend in Houston, Texas. The associations are both happy and sad, but I enjoy all of the songs. Hopefully I have given a coherent account of the “soundtrack of my life” or whatever term you wanna come up with. It is an endless source of fascination for me and my roommates, and I have enjoyed sharing it with you. Vowles Out.

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My First Week of College in the USA

One thing I wish I had done during my student exchange 5 years ago is maintain a blog, or at least a journal of some kind. I guess I was too busy living life to report on it- which is better than vice versa- but I have always been interested in doing both. My friends know me as someone that loves perusing old photos or discussing old memories, and I often find myself possessed with a fervent zeal to immortalize even the smallest memory, to lock it down and carve it into a mosaic.

The reason I wish I had kept a better record of my 5-month stay in the United States is because it was such a pivotal period of my life. Everything seemed to change then from thereafter; not in a dramatic way- but when I follow the proverbial threads of my life, I often find that the biggest and messiest knot is situated in that time period: early-August to December 23rd of 2012. The whole concept of The Butterfly Effect (the notion that a single butterfly beating its wings can cause a tsunami halfway across the world) freaks me out. I don’t like thinking about it, because I have fallen in love so many times at the behest of something far-off and paper-thin. Without that one decision to aggressively pursue my application to study abroad, things could have been a lot different. I’m not just talking about the fact that I’ve got to try some cultural things- eating s’mores and shooting guns- but the big stuff. The friends I am living with right now, whom I have visited for the last four years in a row, were made on the UW-Eau Claire campus. We have become family. You’ll see my goofy mug in family photo albums depicting weddings, high school graduations, vacations. All that opened up to me because of a damned butterfly.

I’ll cut the sappy shit before it starts to test your barf-reflex. What I’m introducing, in this post, is a series of retrospective personal essays that will be detailing my time spent at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire during the fall semester of 2012. I’ve wanted to write this for a long time, and I feel like I’m making up for not blogging about it at the time. The intent of this series is to detail as much as I can in the way of sights, sounds, smells, so as to provide a veritable window through which the reader may gaze into my past. I will make sure to keep everything relevant and interesting to what might be called “overarching themes” like culture shock, the contrast between an American campus and a British one, an examination of the local region of Eau Claire versus an interpretation of the city as a microcosm of the United States as a whole, and also- for those readers interested in things like mental health- a log of how my stay on an American campus affected things like my social anxiety and tested my interpersonal skills yadda yadda. Ok? Ok. Let’s do this.

Close your eyes. You’re a tall (6”4), skinny, uncoordinated- but if I may say strikingly handsome- British male of 19 years. Hear the sound of the car door shutting. My host mom has dropped me off outside of a huge dormitory building, “Towers North”. You’re standing with all your luggage- hauled all the way across the ocean to Atlanta, Georgia and driven via Elvis Week to Eau Claire, WI.

At this stage of the journey, I was alone for the first time. Now I had to make good on my ability to survive on my own. It was this moment- the first instance of “fish out of water”- that I had long thought about since my application had been accepted. So we have to go back further into the memory. I applied for the exchange program in the fall of 2011, having only been at the University of Winchester a few weeks. I didn’t think I would be accepted. I knew that as many as 70 people were applying, of which about 15 or so would be successful. It seems strange now to think that I applied to study abroad so soon in my academic career- when just the concept of university and living away from home was new in and of itself. But the rules were plain. The exchange had to be for the first half of your second year only, and in the UK an arts degree is strictly 3-years. We don’t have situations, like in the US, where you might stay for 4 or even 5 years, and things are measured in numbers of classes or credits. But that’s a post for another time.

I made the interview stage and the guy asked me why I ought to be given this opportunity. I straight-up told him that I didn’t have any travel experience, or any kind of independent experiences to speak of. I said I hoped that the exchange was a chance to force me out of my comfort zone and to transform me into a different person- a more resourceful person- by the end of it. “Ah,” the interviewer said, with a trace of a Welsh accent, “so you want to become more worldly?”

He seemed to dig it. I didn’t think I had done very well, and I even- in my panic- ended up using a pretentious word like “deontological” for how I hoped the exchange would go. Surely no one who talked like that ought to be representing the university? Well, a month later an email told me I got it. I had applied to study at the University of Southern Maine, on the basis that they had the most comprehensible website, I wanted to be near big cities and action, and I figured they had the best opportunities for creative writing. It’s information in my memory like that that freaks me out when thinking about the butterfly effect. Somewhere down the line, at the right time, in the right space, a butterfly beat its wings, and the resulting soundwave pushed me in the direction of Wisconsin rather than the state I asked for. I’m glad it did.

I remember the morning I found out- I had poetry class. I was walking down the hill from where I was living, St Elizabeth’s, to the poetry building, which I believe was called Medecroft Annex or something like that. I suddenly blurted out that I had gotten the place in the program to the guys either side of me. One of them, a fellow poet who lived on my floor in the dorms, reassured me that I would be ok. I remember little details like that, because at the time I was shitting myself.

Fast forward 7 months and I’m standing in the shadow of Towers North with all my bags and reminding myself “you’ll be ok”. The first person I spoke to- the first person I even saw- turned out to be my peer guide for International Orientation. We’ll call him Andrew. At the time I remember thinking that Andrew looked stereotypically American; he greeted me with a huge grin and large hands. I figured him for the jock type, as they call it in the movies. It turns out he was into sports, and as he helped me get my bags inside the lobby he took note of my Chelsea t-shirt and asked what I thought about the Blues signing Eden Hazard that summer. I decided then that I liked this guy. I appreciated the way he seemed to sense my shyness and offer reassurance throughout that first week.

The second person I met turned out to be one of the best friends I’d make that semester. He was the R.A (Resident Assistant) and he was an exchange student himself, from Ipoh, Malaysia. I’m committed to using pseudonyms for this blog, and given that my friend was a fluent speaker of Tamil, we’ll just go ahead and call him Akbar- after the most badass Mughal Emperor. I remember being very keen to make friends with Akbar from the outset. At the time I saw him as an authority figure rather than a fellow student, and I zoned in on him as someone who could redress all my grievances. He commented in the elevator that he was a Liverpool fan, and had just got back from visiting the UK, where he had taken a tour of Anfield. I remember telling him that I could have easily mistaken him for being British- his English was as good as mine, and he even used what I considered to be British slang terms that I didn’t think existed outside of the Isle. I made sure to let him know that I would be seeing him around, before rejoining Andrew outside, whose booming voice was gathering the rest of the exchange students.

We were a helluva melting pot. I knew I had been joined by about 6 other British students from Winchester, but they were literally nowhere to be seen. I was the only European, as far as I could tell, around. I remember being extremely anxious that day because I discovered (too late) that the cargo shorts I was wearing really needed a belt to stay up. They took us all over lower campus, where the administrative buildings were located. That week it reached 100 degrees Fahrenheit and I was sweating my balls off as we were shepherded from place to place, all the while with my hands in my pockets to support my loose shorts. It was a long week and I didn’t really care for the activities, but I knew that (mostly) they were necessary. I’ve always had a very short attention span. I get impatient easily when it comes to bureaucratic stuff. I get bored and I moan. I remember Andrew coming over as I rushed to set up my BluGold (college email) account, and he said “Don’t worry Mike, we’re gonna get you out of here”. God bless that chap, I thought. Some empathy.

The university gave us long talks in which they informed us of what to expect from American culture. They told us that we weren’t to fire any guns or have any pictures of us holding guns, or we would get in trouble. I did both anyway. They told us what to do if we saw a bear or a moose wandering around campus. The most I ever saw was a deer, and nowhere near the centralized areas. And then they told us about Wisconsinites themselves, and what to expect in a social situation. One thing that always stuck in my memory was their warning that Wisconsinites often remarked “How’s it going?” as an alternative to saying “Hello” and that they were never actually interested in how one was doing. I decided to put this into practice throughout the semester, and every damn time I said “How’s it going”- even when I walked briskly past someone- the person would always stop and tell me how they were doing, before asking me the same question.

The week ended with a scavenger hunt, which was okay except it was swelteringly hot outside and after walking several blocks I found that I just couldn’t be arsed anymore. We ate at a place called the Smiling Moose Deli. There were four of us- a Ukrainian girl, a Mexican guy, a Chinese guy, and me- that were being shown around by this girl that was a real sweetheart. It was a long-ass day; Friday 31st August, 2012, and I was distinctly aware that whilst I was “fannying about” as we say back home, all day Towers North was filling up with freshmen. These were the Americans, the folks I would be living with. I reminded myself that as much of a fish out of water as I was, I still had a year of student living under my belt, whereas these rowdy lads and lasses were experiencing college for the first time. They didn’t seem nervous though- Americans never do.

I’ve had long discussions with my now-roommate on how shyness exists in the U.S, and apparently it does, but it’s subtle. The Midwesterners have a culture that is friendly and- by British standards at least- very straightforward. They are well accustomed to social situations and know how to hide shyness when the time comes. At some point or another, all Americans have been on stage, so to speak. Their unique brand of humor so often lends itself to theatrics.

I was more nervous than anyone else there- or so I told myself. What I should have told myself is that people are icebergs- most of who they are remains underwater, unseen. You reveal to people only what you want, and it’s not so easy to separate an introvert from an extrovert as you might think. I am quite sure now that I did not appear as nervous as I thought I was. The fact that I was British gave me a social edge, as Akbar pointed out encouragingly. I was a novelty. Every word I said was given special attention. I got back to Towers just in time for Akbar to tell me I was late and that the rest of the floor, including my roommate, had already met each other. The entire building, joined by the residents of Towers south, which may have been a thousand people, were all sat outside on the grass waiting for the R.As to do a little presentation. On the way there Akbar told me how everyone on the floor- including the females- were obsessed with meeting me, and had apparently gone on a hunt to look for me. Now I was worried about being a massive disappointment. They were probably hoping for a Charlie Hunnam or an Andrew Lincoln type- someone with a voice as rich as a cheesecake and who possessed a roguish, Byronic charm that was at once debonair and yet free-spirited and with a thirst for wild adventures. Little did they know they were getting an accident-prone goofball with skinny thighs and a large Adam’s Apple. Yep, I was the living manifestation of Shaggy from Scooby Doo, right down to my vulnerability for jump-scares at the slightest oriole-fart. Only my time was spent less on smoking weed and making a citizen’s arrest than it was writing self-insert Star Wars fan-fiction.

Things went well though. Akbar led me over to where the boys of our floor were sitting at the edge of the grass. Much as I had when I met Andrew, I ended up categorizing everyone into stereotypes at the first instant. I think that it is a natural process however. You can’t know someone in any great detail at first sight, so the brain is tempted to turn to the stereotypes of our culture, which are always based in some truth- even if only superficially. All them turned around at once, and seemed to say in unison “Hi!”. Hardly able to deal with so many faces, I remember my mind’s eye reducing them to a single archetype- all of them, in that very moment, were pale-skinned, athletically-built, with close-cropped, sandy hair and pale-colored eyes. Akbar warned us that we had to clap and hoot for him when it was his turn on stage. Everyone seemed to like Akbar, and the lads were pleased they had an R.A that they could joke around with, and perhaps not be punished by with too much sadism.

After the show was over, we discovered that the cafeteria was closed, so Akbar led me and most of the guys of fourth floor over to the local Wendy’s for dinner. To those of my readers based in the UK, Wendy’s is a fast food chain that is basically identical to McDonalds, the creepy clown replaced with an even creepier design of a ginger, freckle-faced girl straight out of a 19th century Bavarian wood carving. There are a million fast food chains, from Krystal’s to Whataburger, to Church’s, that never made it to the UK. I got a shake, fries and we sat around the small restaurant sparsely. We shared our last names, the ethnicities behind them, and then started talking about slang. I remember the guys being in fits of laughter as I told them that “spunk” in the UK was slang for semen. At one point, without saying anything, one of the guys stood up and left. The would-be ringleader of our floor told me “He just dipped”.

“Beg your pardon?” I said.

The guy informed me that “dipped” was slang for leaving the area. I have always remembered that with fondness, though I have yet to incorporate it into my evolving lexicon. Things got better once the Americans arrived. These were the people I would attempt to be friends with. After living throughout International Orientation week with scarcely a soul in the building save for me and Akbar, suddenly the place was alive with howls of laughter down the corridor, the sound of rap music reverberating through the walls, and the freshmen girls, playing volleyball below, waiting we hoped, for some guys to join them.

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I hope you enjoyed reading! I will be continuing this series with more accounts of my student exchange.

Games Of My Childhood

#1 Rayman 2: The Great Escape

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Any discussion of the games of my childhood begins with Rayman 2. This was the first game I had that became an obsession for me. Looking back, I find it interesting that the game made such a strong impression on me, and I am curious as to why this game stood out above the many others I played and enjoyed. I suppose it is necessary to begin with a brief description of the kind of kid I was. As a child I was extremely hyperactive and I spent hours upon hours playing with my imagination, perhaps years after other kids my age had stopped. Exotic or fantastical universes made a great impression on me, and little obsessions would continue to dominate my life right up until my teenage years. Hell, when I was 12, and the other boys in my school were learning all the filthiest swear words and how to unhook a girl’s bra, I became known as the kid that drew pictures of various subspecies of dragons that I laminated into trading cards. You can just imagine what a hit I was with the chicks. Anyway, I was introduced to Rayman 2: The Great Escape when I was about 8 years old, after my brother had been given the PC version of the game for his birthday. In short, it’s about a bipedal sausage dog with no limbs who can shoot balls of energy out of his levitating palms. He lives in a world that aesthetically resembles French faerie tales (think the Smurfs, but with more biomes) called The Glade of Dreams, which is being invaded by a race of sentient, genocidal robotic pirates whose armada has recently wiped out 100 other planets Alderaan-style prior to arriving. I fell in love with the wonder and whimsy of the game’s setting, and frequently drew pictures of the game’s iconic creatures and characters; the margins of my school books were full of giant piranhas, zombie chickens, ninja robo-pirates, and that mystical humpback whale. My obsession even got to the point where my teacher asked me once “What’s that character you’re always going on about?”. When I gave Rayman as my answer, she said that she was filling out my report card to say I had been well-behaved that day for not mentioning him once. Ultimately, I feel like this game paved the way for the games I would come to love as an adult; single-player, story-driven adventure games and RPG’s with exotic settings like Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect and Fallout.

 

#2 Croc & Spyro

A big reason why I love discussing with people the games of their childhood (and also, why I decided to write this post) is because everyone usually has an interesting story to tell. Back then, I didn’t have access to things like the internet, and I wasn’t old enough to get the bus to the city and check out the game store for myself. So what games I got were usually based on word of mouth. I had a friend around the age of 8 or 9 who lived just a few doors down the road from me. I am sure this will seem strange to my American readers (particularly the Texans), given that I am from a small town in the English countryside, but my friend’s mom at that time was the teacher of a popular Line Dancing class on Friday nights. I would go along, and we would dance, but most of the time he and I just hung out. Sometimes, after the class I would be allowed to go back to his house (since he lived so close) and there he introduced to me to two game series that would come to dominate my childhood: Croc and Spyro. Much like Rayman, they were platform-adventure games set in bright, exotic universes rich with fantastical characters and environments. I’ll give brief synopses: Croc details the story of a baby crocodile who arrives via hot air balloon to a lush valley inhabited by a race of magic-wielding Furbies. They live an idyllic life that gets interrupted by a Stalinist tyrant who presides over a race of homicidal frogs that have these fixed, creepy-ass grins. I remember being quite freaked out by them as a kid. During the opening cutscene of Croc 2, one of the cuddly little fur-balls gets cornered by a gang of the grinning frog-things, and the screen fades to black. The same friend that introduced me to Croc used to try freak me out by saying that the reason the screen faded to black was because the fate of the little creature was so horrifically violent, that it was banned from being shown in the game. And me, being the gullible numpty I was back then, believed with my whole heart that some kind of sadistic gang-rape and subsequent cannibalization had taken place, and that footage had been banned upon release. I loved both Croc and Croc 2– both were imaginative, fantastical adventures with bright colors and a variety of settings and characters. Croc 2 is notable insofar as it had a hub world that one could explore more or less openly, and then enter into mission areas; sort of paving the way for my later interest in open world RPG’s. Another interesting point worth noting is that the central conflict of Croc is very similar to Rayman 2. Both are peaceful, idyllic realms that get invaded by totalitarian societies whose main aim seems to be the genocide of the native, pacifist inhabitants. I find it intriguing, because I’m wondering how I would approach Admiral Razorbeard and Baron Dante if I were writing a literary essay on them the same way I would Claudius or Iago. There’s no other way of saying it, other than that their machinations constitute a holocaust. Fascinating. They are evil without qualification, and as a kid I never thought of things like ethnic cleansing as a subject.

The other game my friend introduced me to was Spyro 3: Year of the Dragon. I was instantly attracted to it and it followed the style of Croc, Rayman, and Crash Bandicoot as a 3D platformer with a dazzling array of exotic locales. Another theme of these games, one that is most exemplary of the Spyro series, is that each mission would have its own little theme, biome, and culture. I begged by dad to get me Spyro 3, but he came home saying that all he could find was Spyro 2: Gateway to Glimmer. I played it and adored it, and later on down the line my father was able to pick up Spyro 3. What I love about discussing childhood games, and the reason I am sharing these stories, is I love getting a sense of other people’s nostalgia. I revisited Spyro 2 during my time living in Eau Claire, WI, where I learned that the Spyro series was as nostalgic and important to my roommate and his siblings as it was to me and my brother. I also found it interesting that for Americans, Spyro 2 had the subtitle “Ripto’s Rage” instead of “Gateway to Glimmer”. My roommate and I will still talk endlessly about how we acquired these games before the onset of financial independence, and we love recounting some of our favorite levels from Spyro 2 & 3, like “the one with the ice hockey mini-game” or “the one with the robot farm!” or “the lava level with the Flintstone-esque savages and the rapey theropods”. If I had to sum up Spyro 2 in a sentence I’d say the game told the story of a teenage dragon and his mate Sparx, a dragonfly with magic powers, and how they get summoned to a different plane of existence by a sentient mole known only as The Professor, in order to rid their realm of some hellish demons that the Professor had inadvertently summoned. I know nostalgia has a way of obscuring a game’s flaws, but I honestly can’t recommend this game enough!

 

#3 Pokemon Silver & Crystal

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As a kid I had this weird thing going on where, if I hadn’t been the one to discover it, I would condemn something before trying it. I turned up to school one day and all the other kids were raving about this Pokemon thing. For some reason this gave anxiety, and for a while I said I hated it, and largely it was because everyone else loved it. Then, inevitably I gave in and became the biggest geek in class. I feel like those Pokemon games that came out for Gameboy Color and Gameboy Advance are worth mentioning on this list, because they were the first true open-world RPG’s that I played. They also formed an important part of my childhood and had a social component to them that the other games on this list did not. As I stated before, these are all games that were attained before I reached the age of financial independence, or the ability to research games on Youtube or the internet to see what I might like. Therefore, they could be gotten one of two ways: as a randomly-selected gift from my parents or as something I requested of them having heard about said game from my school friends. Pokemon definitely fits into the latter category. Every boy in my tiny school (there were literally about 12 of us in our grade) had a version of the game, be it Yellow or Blue or whatever. I remember at first that getting the games, which were essentially about taming wild creatures with psionic powers, was slightly controversial. My parents were hesitant about it, and even after they relented and got my brother and me the games, they regarded them with contempt, and admonished us for playing them too much. I remember coming in the living room one time whilst the 6 o’ clock news was on, and there was a story about a wave of crime related to the collecting of the trading cards off of which the games were based. There were reports of fights and robberies, and I distinctly recall being left with the feeling that if you carried cards around with you, you might get beaten within an inch of your life by a bunch of working class thugs with sparrow-like faces pointing sharply out of flat caps. My most vivid memory of playing the series is my tenth birthday, when I got either Pokemon Silver or Pokemon Crystal. I know I had them both, but I can’t remember when I got them. That day I had all my friends from school over and we were gonna hit up the tobogganing slopes and go for dinner. I remember sitting on the couch before we left and having my friends sitting around me and watching me receive Cyndoquil- perhaps my favorite all time Pokemon- at the beginning of the game. I found the creature so cute that I refused to evolve him, and tried to get him to level 100. Ultimately, I have some great memories of playing these games, and whenever my family went on vacations to places like France or Wales, my little brother and I would be playing our Gameboys in the back of the car. The music used to infuriate my dad, and we were made to turn it down. Whenever we arrived at our destination, my brother and I would still be playing, and insisting that we couldn’t leave the car yet because “you can’t save the game during battles”.

 

I hope you enjoyed reading my nostalgia trip. Please comment and tell me about the games of your childhood!

Philly Cheesesteak Quesadillas & Hot Fudge Milkshakes!

Another day, another recipe courtesy of our go-to site at the moment, Tasty. However, this day we took a departure from our Barbeque fad, as our roommate was returning to the household after a week spent in Colorado. The drive to and from our apartment to George Bush Intercontinental Airport is a hellish voyage worthy of a Clive Barker novel. So when we at last got home in the evening, we were perhaps more tired than we were hungry. But whatever your ailment is- good food is always the answer.

Our next recipe was to try and make Philly Cheesesteak Quesadillas- and though the making of these quesadillas was perhaps the simplest of our week’s recipes yet, the result was glaringly imperfect. After deciding that our BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwiches we worthy of a Michelin Star diner in downtown Charleston, there was something of an air of invincibility about us as we made our preparations in the kitchen. My honest review of this recipe is that it is a fine idea, but not easy to perfect.

I will leave the recipe below for you folks to take a look at. The make or break factor is getting a quality cut of steak. The recipe calls for half a pound of skirt steak- which we purchased at H-E-B- and which we cooked lovingly in the skillet just long enough to get rid of the redness but not too long so as to over-do it. Upon reflection, we don’t believe that the resulting chewiness was down to how long we cooked it- as the warning signs of its hardness were there when we cut the raw meat. As we served up the quesadillas, our first impression was of how wonderful the cheese tasted with the grilled veggies pressed together in the folds of the tortilla. There was no issue with the rest of the quesadilla- just the meat itself- and we found ourselves chewing for a long time on the meat- which tasted adequate enough, but was simply too tough for this kind of meal.

Our bellies did not go to bed dissatisfied however; upon finishing dinner my roommates made us some hot fudge milkshakes! They were, as it is said these days, “the bomb”. The shakes were a lot thicker, made a greater deal more traditional, than our Jarritos milkshakes last weekend, with more generous helpings of ice cream. All you need to make them is some ice cream, hot fudge, a dash of milk, and a blender to put them in. Trust me, this recipe is simple but deadly effective!

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RECIPE- PHILLY CHEESESTEAK QUESADILLAS

Servings: 2 quesadillas

 

“INGREDIENTS

1 tablespoon olive oil

½ pound skirt steak, sliced into thin strips

Salt, to taste

Pepper, to taste

¼ cup onion, julienned

¼ cup green bell pepper, julienned

2 large flour tortillas

4 slices provolone cheese (double for 2 quesadillas)

 

PREPARATION

  1. Heat olive oil in a large skillet and add the strips of skirt steak. Season with salt & pepper and cook 5-7 minutes. Remove from the pan.
  2. Add onion and bell peppers to the pan and cook until slightly soft. Remove from skillet.
  3. Place the tortilla in the pan and add a layer of cheese on half of the tortilla followed by the steak, peppers and onions. Top with more cheese and fold in half.
  4. Cook for 6 minutes over medium heat, flipping half way.
  5. Serve with cheese sauce & enjoy!”

My Top Five Small Towns in Wisconsin

Throughout my travels in Wisconsin- from my student exchange in the fall of 2012 to the back to back legendary summers of 2014 and 2015- I have been lucky enough to see what might be referred to as the “essence” of the Badger State. And that, I believe, is comprised of its small towns. I am especially interested in those little microcosms of yesteryear, and the way in which these towns formed. The movement and placement of people is traced back to Wisco’s oldest industries- namely logging, the manufacture of paper, dairy farming, and the harvesting of cranberries- but also the state’s long history as a place of recreational activities. So I have decided to make a little list- a list of five small towns that have made a particular impression on me. They are communities from all corners of the state that for one reason or another I have found interesting.

#1 Cedarburg, WI – 2012

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Founded: 1844

Population: 11,400 approx

County: Ozaukee

Trivia: Cedarburg has the oldest covered bridge in Wisco!

Located in Ozaukee County in southeastern WI, this town is perhaps the prettiest on our list. I visited this place in 2012 whilst taking a road trip with my family from Atlanta, GA to Eau Claire, WI. We found that we preferred the pace and scenery of these small towns to the big cities, and opted to see what Cedarburg had to offer, instead of spending our day heading into Milwaukee. Cedarburg has a dreamlike, picturesque quality to it, like the dying dream of a soldier far from home. To me it represents the rural idyll of the American Midwest. It’s the kind of town replicated in miniature railroad sets.

The town boasts a beautiful mill situated on Cedar Creek, a winery, and several art galleries. The streets feature an array of houses that date back to the late 19th century. Therefore, it is no surprise that Cedarburg is a popular tourist destination, and a great stop for a weekend’s drive in the countryside.

#2 Alma, WI – 2012

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Founded: 1868

Population: 770 approx

County: Buffalo

Trivia: Alma is named after the Battle of Alma in the Crimean War! (Alma is a river in Crimea)

I visited Alma in 2012 and I think it is quite a unique and atypical Wisconsin town. It’s absolutely tiny and sits on the banks of the Mississippi River. The land in this part of Wisco is different to the rest of the state, and during our time there we observed bright marshes and high, rocky bluffs thick with trees. Alma is located right next to the Lock and Dam No. 4 of the Mississippi River and you can watch the towboats going through the dam with their cargo. The Lock is also a notable nesting ground for bald eagles, which are among the most magnificent native animals I have observed in the wild. Buena Vista Park is a great place for a picnic, and provides visitors with an opportunity to photograph the Lock and riverboats below. Another strange feature of this town is the Castlerock Museum- which is home to a collection of Roman weapons and armor.

#3 Tomahawk, WI – 2014

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Founded: 1886

Population: 3350 approx

County: Lincoln

Trivia: The Kwahamot Water Ski Club is based here, and they put on a fine show for the locals every summer!

I first went to Tomawhawk in the summer of 2014, during my stay at my friend’s family cabin, which is located about a half hour’s drive away at the scenic Seven Island Lake. Once there we got ready for the aforementioned water ski show. It was still light in the evening, and “the kids” and I headed on over to the local Dairy Queen where we shared a massive cup of Gatorade with multiple straws. We all joked about how “trash” we were, with one lass declaring herself “Duchess Dumpster”. The water skiing was a nice, relaxing way to spend the evening.

Tomahawk is situated at the confluence of three rivers- the Somo, Tomahawk and Wisconsin rivers- that damming has joined together to form Lake Mohawksin. The area was originally inhabited by the Ojibwe peoples, before the postbellum logging boom brought about the founding of the town by American business interests. It’s a lovely place to visit if you are staying Up North during the hot Wisconsin summers, and caters to the cabin folks with some impressive bait shops.

#4 Fish Creek – 2015

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Founding: 1857

Population: 990 approx

County: Door

Trivia: Fish Creek is home to one of the last remaining clockmakers in Wisco!

I checked out Fish Creek two years ago whilst on a day trip to Door County with some folks I consider family. As we drove down the hillside we had a lush view of crystal-blue waters of Lake Superior. We grabbed lunch at an awesome pizza place called Wild Tomato Wood Fired Pizza and Grille- which to this day is the finest ‘Zza I have had outside of Italy.

Fish Creek is very much a community based on tourism. I imagine it would be a completely strange and quiet place outside of the summer months. The town is full of these amazing antique stores and art galleries. The day we went, we visited second-hand bookstores, antique stores, confectioneries, designer clothing stores, local ice cream shops, a hats & caps store and much more. For a long time I examined a collection of fringed leather jackets worthy of a Hell’s Angel. The town is a favorite place of artists and craftsmen alike, and is home to the Peninsula School of the Arts. I honestly cannot recommend this place enough!

#5 Oneida – 2015

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Founding: 1903

Population: 4000 approx

County: Outagamie

Trivia: The largest ethnicity of Oneida is listed as Iroquois, with 56%. The Oneida nation were originally one of the Iroquois (or Haudenosaunee) Confederacy’s six nations, which also included the Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondaga, Seneca and Tuscarora tribes, who banded together to dominate the fur trade in the Ohio Valley.

Oneida- both the name of the town and the Indian Reservation, whose names are derived from the Oneida tribe of Native Americans (who in fact are from Upstate New York, but had been displaced)- has served as the boyhood home of my best friend. It proved to be an interesting community, and one that I feel is wholly different from any of the other towns on this list. I had no idea, prior to visiting, what life on an Indian Reservation would look like. For some reason I always imagined adobe houses, abandoned gas stations, and chain-link fences halfway fallen down. I imagined something barren where nothing grew, something that reflected the poverty of Native Americans and the gradual erosion of their way of life. But of course, not every reservation is the same, and as far as I know the idea of adobe houses in Wisconsin is a quite ridiculous idea.

In June of 2015, my buddy’s mom made us an absolutely massive feast of crispy bacon, chocolate pancakes, and fresh strawberries. A bunch of us then walked Riley (a Brittany Spaniel) and Trout (a pug) in the warm Midwest sunshine. The geography of the reservation included much farmland, and we passed by large barns and pastures that grew soy beans. The houses were modest and clean suburban houses, all with huge yards, complete with American flags and Golden Retrievers.

Through the center of the Reservation runs what one of my buds described to me once as being her favorite river, a little stream called Duck Creek. For those-like her- who are interested in the language, culture and history of the Oneida tribe, the town offers a little museum/cultural center that provides fun information!

The Time I Got Bon-dangled by Border Patrol

Well I finally made it back to Houston. It’s my fifth stay in the United States and the fourth year in a row I have roomed with my friends for the summer. My return to Texas is also something of a farewell tour; come next year it is likely that my pals will be living in a state with a less punishing climate, and begin their life together as husband and wife. Their wedding will ensure a sixth visit to the US of A, but the years of the mythical summers will come to an end. So it is that this year then becomes my last chance, at least for a while, to see more of what Houston has to offer. The plane came in to land around suppertime and everything was much as I had left it and it was bright in the evening. Out of the window I had an unobstructed view of the low, gray buildings and the low, dark hardwoods. The grass was pale and everything had the sticky quality of a swamp. As we got closer to the runway, more buildings came into view; car dealerships with seas of glimmering car-tops and modest, gray motels, and every building site and industrial complex was low and spread out among the swamplands.

I figured at this point that I’m a seasoned traveler. I’ve been here five times now and twice to the Big Country- so what did I have to fear? No doubt I would be akin to an old guest at a nice hotel, the kind that makes jokes with the doorman and has his lucky room reserved for him by the winking desk clerk. But no, that wasn’t the case. As a general rule the folks at border protection are largely a humorless bunch- and this is no more true than in the case of those who guard the shores of the USA, the nation that, although built by immigrants now considers it something of a curse word. There is something very detached about the way the officers at customs interact with us travelers. The lady who dealt with me asked me to scan my fingers and have my photo taken, before suddenly informing me that I was to be escorted to Immigration for some unspecified reason. I said “Okay” and reached for my passport before she snatched it away and put it in a folder.

“Oh, you’re keeping that are you?” I asked.

“Yes, of course I am” she snarled, in this real patronizing way as though I knew what the hell was going on. She stared me down for a few seconds like I had insulted her, as I looked around for where Immigration was. She pointed me in one direction, before yelling at me to come back and wait for an agent who would escort me. I get taken to this little waiting room and left among a bunch of other miserable looking travelers who similarly have no idea why they have been disallowed entry. Across from me is a mother from India balancing a baby on one arm whilst trying to rein in a screaming naked toddler with the other.

One of the officers came over and demanded the mom get the kid some pants. The mom tried in vain with her one free arm to get the child into some pants whilst he made a screaming wheel of himself on the floor. The officer then came over again and yelled at the woman to control her kid, seemingly oblivious to the fact that this lady had the odds stacked against her. This pattern repeated itself for about 45 minutes and the naked kid started attacking his mom. Everyone watched without saying anything as the little kid- who had been screeching without pause for the better part of an hour now- started clawing at his mother’s face, gauging her eyes, and pulling her hair out. There was murder in his little eyes. Finally the officers, who found there was no luck to be had in screaming at this woman themselves, brought her husband in, and it wasn’t long before he lost his temper and tried to smack the kid like he was a housefly. At this point the officer strode over and wagged her finger an inch from the guy’s face and said several times “NO. NO. YOU CAN’T HIT KIDS IN OUR CULTURE,” in the kind of voice one would use for a disobedient dog. I half expected her to follow it up with “BAD BOY”.

No one seemed to be checking on us and no one told us why we were here or how long we would be delayed. I swear that room was a Kafkaesque nightmare. We were infinitesimal drops of spray against the high stone walls of bureaucracy. I could observe the officers joking with each other, but as soon as they interacted with us they fixed us with these mechanical eyes, and all sense of human empathy was lost. Maybe I’ve been reading too much Ray Bradbury recently.

Anyway, we were a right motley crew in that waiting room. There were a dozen of us from a dozen different corners of the Earth with a dozen different problems. We were told that we couldn’t leave the room or use our phones. One British girl who was there for having her green card stolen was only allowed to go for a piss with an armed escort. Most of the people’s issues that I witnessed seemed to be mere bureaucratic errors. I overheard things like “Look, lady- just because you have been approved to adopt this baby, doesn’t mean you have completed the adoption progress. You need to go back to Pakistan and call this number…” or “Ah, so it looks like glitches in the fingerprint scanners are logging people as having criminal records, so we have to wade through your criminal history”. It turned out that the reason for my being there was something like this- somewhere down the line there had been a misunderstanding or misstep in their system. I got interviewed by a guy with a thin, downward-curling mouth and steel-colored eyes, who responded to even the most straightforward answers I gave him with a confused “huh”. I guess my student visa from five years ago had confused their system, which is strange, because I have visited the USA in 2014, 2015, and 2016 all without incident. The guy grumbled at me to call a number and sent me on my way, two hours after I had landed.

I got a call from my friend, who informed me that there was an active tornado warning and that he, his fiancee, and their puppy Adelaide had locked themselves in the bathroom and turned out the light. I had to watch out that I wouldn’t get blown halfway to Cuba as soon as I stood outside. But first I had to worry about where the hell my luggage was. I was late, so none of the conveyor belts had bags on them, and I was the only passenger left in the area. I asked the only folks around- a couple cleaners- if they had seen my bag. The answer was that, since it had been so long since my plane landed- or indeed any planes had landed- that I would have to find the nearest British Airways agent and hope that my bag wasn’t destroyed as a potential bomb threat. I passed through a set of doors that informed me I wouldn’t be able to return through, and in the distance in a long, empty room, I spotted my bag casually abandoned beside a wall. I picked it up, and left with the feeling that the day’s drama was behind me.

I went over to the first cab I saw and asked if I could use it. The taxi driver asked where I was going and I told him “NASA Space Center”. He said okay and for me to get inside whilst he loaded my bags. Then, inexplicably, he ran over to his supervisor and had a short, animated conversation. The driver came running back and asked me to leave my bags in the car and convince his supervisor I needed a cab. I did this, and the driver then ran over to us and exclaimed to his supervisor “He asked me to take him to the hospital, I swear!”

“No I didn’t,” I said.

“Get this man’s bags. You can’t take him,” the supervisor said.

“But HE came to ME,” the taxi driver protested.

“Get his bags, now,” the supervisor demanded. Turning to me, he said, “I’m sorry sir. Go to that cab over there. He will get your bags.”

The cab driver, visibly irritated, grabs my luggage and complains that I should get my own bags.

“Really,” I say, “I can go over and get it, it’s fine.”

“No, you don’t have to do it. He’s gonna do it for you, sir.”

The cab driver protests some more and I go over and take my bags off him. The supervisor apologizes to me and I get in the cab he indicates to me. I see them start to argue behind me. I tell the new cab driver “NASA, please” and we finally get going. A couple minutes pass before the driver tells me, “Yeah, that driver back there is gonna get suspended for a week now. Not your fault though”.

We drive into the night and the traffic on the freeway is almost non-existent. The trees give way to lots, and the lots become billboards; blazing violets and reds and blues of neon. We pass by every kind of cuisine imaginable. Everything is lit up, and you can hardly see the clouds for the great roadside advertisements. Soon we pass by the heart of the city and Minute Maid Park, and the whole thing never loses its grandeur. All the verticality of the city is condensed to this one, bright nucleus of skyscrapers that stand above the rest of the city, which spreads suddenly flat in all directions around it.

When I get to the apartment complex it’s raining but the storm has passed. I enter into the old place and Addie starts going mad, springing off her back legs five feet in the air. My friends had ready for me a homemade pizza, a slice of ice cream cake, and a cold glass of Jarritos waiting for me. We all heaved a sigh of relief, and thus, the summer of 2017 began.