Making More Friends in the USA

I’ve written in previous episodes of this series how I made friends with an Aaron Rodgers lookalike and his Malaysian roommate, and having finally found a friendship group of my own, latched onto them like a lamprey eel. But that’s not the whole story. It’s true that I spent almost all of my time with them, but I was also blessed with some other friendships during my 2012 student exchange. After years of loneliness in Bristol and Winchester back in the UK- where I’d sit on benches eating alone, staring at a group of friends walking past, telling myself that would never happen for me, that any form of companionship was denied me- the few friends I made in the USA seemed like a lot. For the first few weeks, it seemed as though friends were falling into my lap, and I wasn’t even doing anything proactively social. As I’ve stated before, just being British made me an exotic novelty- no matter how boring and pathetic I thought I was. One of my British friends asked me recently if I thought he could make friends if he went to the USA. And the answer is of course. If I can, any of you can- no matter how low your self-esteem is.

Midwesterners- Wisconsinites and Minnesotans especially- are renowned for their cheerful, kindly demeanor and affability. By and large their culture celebrates openness and politeness. Around the same time I was practically becoming adopted by Akbar and Aaron, I was making friends with two other lads who lived a few doors down the hall from us. For the purposes of this blog we’ll call them Jimmy and Zeke. Both of them were freshmen with a wild thirst for adventures. I met Jimmy first. He took it upon himself to befriend me, approaching me several times during my first week to make me feel welcome. My initial impressions of him were as someone who hung out with jocks but was extremely nice. I thought he looked like what I imagined a baseball player looked like, and I categorized him as someone who hung out with the cool kids in high school, but was universally liked- someone with a sense of schoolyard honor. Jimmy was also from Minnesota, and I feel like my entire impression of The Gopher State was grafted from his personality. Because Jimmy was such an easygoing type, I figured that all Minnesotans are similarly laidback. Whether there’s any truth to that, I’m not sure, but I haven’t had an experience that’s disproven my “chilled-out” image of the Minnesotans.

The first thing Jimmy taught me was that Midwesterners can be forward without seeming rude. Jimmy asked me if he could watch the Vikings’ season opener in my room because he had nowhere else to watch it. I was delighted to host him, although the TV wasn’t really mine. It was my roommate Brad’s, but he was out and hadn’t previously given me any indication I couldn’t use it. Jimmy figured out how to work the TV and we watched the Vikings. It was the first time I had sat down and watched American football. Jimmy explained the rules to me and my initiation into the sport I would soon come to love came from him. For some reason I was nervous about Brad walking in, even though I knew logically that he wouldn’t have a problem with what we were doing. Back then I wasn’t ruled by logic, but baseless fear born out of a lack of social exposure. I had already agreed to meet Aaron on lower campus and got ready to leave. Jimmy seemed cool with this and asked if he could stay in my room and watch. I trusted him and I was eager to please, so I said yes and left. As I walked down the hill to lower campus I kept thinking about what would happen if Brad came back and found some guy sat on the futon watching sports. It was an interesting little moment for me, as I wondered if such a thing would be awkward in the USA. My takeaway was that Americans feared social awkwardness less.

I first met Zeke a few days later when Jimmy and I grabbed lunch at Hilltop. Zeke was different to Jimmy, but the two of them made an interesting pair as roommates. I clicked with both of them instantly. Zeke was harder to categorize into a stereotype like everyone else. Jimmy was the kid in the movie that offered help to the bullied runt, teaching him how to throw a ball and swing a bat. Aaron was the guy that got the girl in the end and took her to prom. I even categorized myself- think of me as the Neville Longbottom type. But as for Zeke, I wasn’t sure where I had seen his face before. Out of everyone I met he had the most fervent zeal for collegiate adventures. He was intellectually-curious and more or less seemed to want to try everything. He grew up in a rural part of Wisconsin in a town of about three houses, that for some reason I always pictured looking like an Amish hamlet, complete with a working gristmill. As we ate lunch that day he eagerly engaged me on my religious and philosophical views. I wasn’t offended by the interest, but I felt I had to choose my words carefully. These fellas were still new to me, and I didn’t want to alienate potential friends by making myself look like the Antichrist. I just said I wasn’t sure about all that stuff, and they said that “most campuses are pretty liberal”. From that moment forward we became comfortable exchanging ideas throughout the semester, and both seemed very interested in what I had to say. They made my thoughts feel legitimate and they made me feel like I was not only smart, but interesting.

The last significant interaction I want to discuss is a friend I made in my Creative Writing Workshop class. We’ll go ahead and call him Calvin. My friendship with him follows the pattern of people finding me intriguing and going out of their way to make friends with me. Calvin had blonde hair and looked kind of like a young, Scandinavian Stephen King. He was a senior, and a fellow writer, so that made him different to the other friends I made. I remember him sitting near me, and seeing that I was shy, going out of his way to include me. Just like Zeke and Jimmy, he made me feel interesting. He often encouraged me to share my work and complimented my writing on several occasions. We agreed to meet up to see a visiting writer give a talk on campus one evening. That writer was actually Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and playwright Ayad Akhtar (See American Dervish & Disgraced). After watching Akhtar speak about the writing process and Sufism for an hour, we exchanged numbers. Later, when my 20th birthday came around, Calvin gave me a call and asked if he could treat me to a coffee or something. Unfortunately I was busy at the time, but I promised him we could hang out in the near future. The interaction is significant because it’s another example of how forward Americans can be, and how the experience of having people proactively seek out my friendship contributed to my development as a person and my overall impression of the Midwest. It was little moments like these that really made my exchange.

My idea behind this post was not only to highlight what my behavior therapist roommate would call “social initiations”, but to establish these three personalities for further posts going forward. In many ways, this piece is a necessary foundation for the next few posts in my student exchange series that I have planned. Be sure to catch the next episode tomorrow! Thanks for reading.

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A Sad Affair by Wolfgang Koeppen

Last night I finished reading Wolfgang Koeppen’s 1934 novel Eine unglückliche Liebe (A Sad Affair). This year I’ve resolved to read more fiction from non-English language writers. This one is actually a book that’s been sat on my shelf for so many years that I can’t even remember how I got it. I know I didn’t buy it. I’m pretty sure that it was given to me as a gift by my mom when I was going through my artsy fartsy Bohemian phase. It certainly seems at home when placed in the company of the books I was reading at the time; Quiet Days in Clichy, On the Road, and Women to name a few. All of these books had something in common- they were fictionalized memoirs that focused on a particular time or place, they covered universal aspects of the human condition such as poverty and sex, and they all spoke to a kind of masculine sensitivity- an anguish even. They were all slow-paced and introspective, with philosophical ambitions. They weren’t written as page-turners and they rejected the accepted forms of how a plot ought to be structured.

In addition to committing to reading more non-English language writers, I’m also ticking off so many old books. Why not read Koeppen? The book itself is only 172 pages. Before I started reading, I did something I’ve been trying to do more recently- I checked out the introduction. It was actually super-interesting and it definitely enhanced my reading experience. I can see the appeal in wanting to go in fresh and not know anything about the author’s life, but in this instance it increased my interest in the novel. The introduction is written by the book’s translator- Michael Hofmann. In it he discusses how, despite being regarded by German critics as a quintessentially German book, the book is in many ways remarkably “un-German”. You would expect a book written in Germany in the mid-1930s to reflect in some way life under Nazi rule, but this book is completely apolitical. There’s no mention of world events at all (in fact, I don’t think the words “Germany” or “German” are used at all), and in some way that’s what makes it so interesting- how out of time it is. The focus of the book is entirely on the narrator’s sexual obsession with an actress named Sibylle.

Now I’ve read several books that deal with sexual obsession in my time, but this one is by far the most desperate. And the fact that it all happened (which I learned in the introduction) made the book all the more fascinating. Every moment of pain, anguish and heartache that the narrator goes through is authentic. Koeppen is completely forthcoming and lays himself bare. The object of his desire, Sibylle, is based on the real-life actress Sibylle Schloss- and it’s one of her nude photographs that appear on the front cover. The Sibylle of the novel is portrayed as extremely promiscuous, but also fiercely independent. She is someone that has complete ownership over her sexuality. She is described as falling into bed with almost any man on the street- but it has to be her idea; she has to be the one in control. And therein lies the tragedy for the narrator, who is utterly devoted to her. He worships the very ground she walks on, and witnesses Sibylle give herself to men so easily, and yet despite his infatuation (or rather, because of it) she does not permit him the slightest physical contact. He obsesses over what her lips feel like. He believes wholeheartedly that she is his “destiny”. Sibylle, on the other hand, gets angry at the very idea of them so much as kissing, let alone becoming lovers.

What I liked about this book was that there were several funny lines where the narrator’s observations, neuroticisms, and anxieties felt so relatable. It’s somehow comforting to think that people were awkward back then too. The real strength of the novel, however, is found in its memorable stream-of-consciousness passages. Lines such as “Her lips seemed to him the font of life, the source of all joys, the world offered no drink to set beside the kiss of her lips and never, never once, had he been allowed to breathe on them, to feel them, their redness, their flesh, their moist gleam that shone to his faint spirit, a craving, a signal, a finishing line in a gauntlet race through an infernal landscape, to the scornful laughter of the happy, the contented, the sated, the living; he was without anyone to pity him, the compassion of the world denied itself to him with these same lips” remind me of the lyrical, poetic writing of Koeppen’s contemporary Modernists such as William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf, as well as the later works of the Beat Generation. The protagonist may be pitiful and unheroic, but there’s something so human about him. He wants to be a good person. He has so much love to give, but he is so desperately lonely. Sibylle is unwilling to give him what he wants, but she also seems like the only person that even knows he is alive. Now I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know I’ve fallen into the trap a few times down the years of idealizing a girl I’m attracted to, and I just think it’s such a quintessential flaw in the male psyche. That’s why I’m sympathetic to the protagonist. I think a lot of young men have similarly ascribed higher qualities to the women of their desire that those women cannot possibly live up to. To the narrator, Sibylle is an angel, and no man is worthy of her.

Some readers consider the book to be a self-deprecating satire, because the narrator’s obsession reaches almost absurd limits. There are darker passages in the book that I found interesting (albeit in a morbidly-curious way) such as the scene where they are walking on the harbor in Zurich and the protagonist suddenly starts thinking about pushing her off the edge. I’ve always been interested in why people do terrible things, so the idea that a seemingly normal person might just snap and do something awful on an impulse is quite compelling to me.

This was a good read- and an excellent translation by Hofmann. In many ways, it was a return to the kind of books I read a lot of during my collegiate years.

3 Short Stories I Can’t Get Out Of My Head

Today I’m doing a little short story roundup. I’ve recently submitted a few short stories to magazines and competitions, and I thought it might be interesting to share with you three of my favorite stories that I’ve been reading of late. In no particular order, here are three different short stories by three different authors, all of which have inspired my recent writing.


#1 “Hoeing the Beet” – Endre Ady

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Publication Date: 1907

Collected in: Neighbors of the Night (1994, Corvina Books, Ltd)

Summary: On an estate in rural Hungary, a group of women work for 30 krajcárs a day (a paltry amount of money) hoeing beet. Two of the girls are gypsies (magyar cigányok) and all of them are desperately impoverished, living off of “bread and a slice of stale bacon”. Despite their economic equality, the Magyar women cling to a strong sense of racial superiority and refuse to drink from the same jug of water as the Roma women. The owner of the estate tries to resolve the issue by giving the Roma their own jug. However, the Roma women refuse to drink it, believing that they are entitled to the same water as the Magyar. This results in them nearly dying of thirst and the other women laughing at them. One night, however, as all the women sleep in the field, the two Roma women get up and search for the jug of water the Magyar women have hidden in a nearby grove. They find it and drink all of it in long, hearty gulps. In the morning, all the women get back to work and the Roma women are happy for once. Ady ends the story with the ironic line “This, then, is the way beet is hoed in our glorious Hungary”.

Why I LOVE this story: Endre Ady is one of the most respected figures in Hungarian literature, and considered the country’s most important and most-imitated poet of the 20th century. I’m going to resolve to read some of his poetry- for which he is primarily known- since I loved this short story of his. I like to think of Ady as being to poetry what Thomas Wolfe was to fiction, Kurt Cobain was to music, and Pistol Pete was to basketball; a brilliant comet of pure genius and raw talent, an indomitable soul whose legacy we can’t separate from his tragic end. When we look back on their creative fire we almost assume it was fated to happen. Ady passed away on January 27th 1919 after complications from Syphilis. I think his story “Hoeing the Beet” is a real testament to his character as a sensitive, fearless progressive. In many ways, the owner of the estate in the story, who is sympathetic to the Roma girls, represents the government of Hungary over the years and how it has approached what was once known as “The Gypsy Problem”. He is well-meaning but ineffectual. In the story we see a Hungary in which a certain amount of integration has been reached between the Magyar and the Romani, in that they are both equally exploited in an economic sense- and yet the lingering racism of centuries past still lives in the hearts of the women our protagonists work with. The sad conclusion from the story is that the racial hatred does persist- but that’s kind of why it strikes a chord with me. I don’t want stories that cheer me up and make me comfortable. As Debra Wilson, the actress of Wolfenstein 2’s Grace Walker, recently said “We don’t learn by being comfortable”.


#2 “The Half-Skinned Steer” – Annie Proulx

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Publication Date: November 1997 (Atlantic Monthly)

Collected in: Close Range: Wyoming Stories (May 10th 1999, Scribner)

Summary: In Massachusetts, an 83-year old Mero gets a call from a woman saying that his brother Rollo has died. Mero, who left his family’s Wyoming ranch at the age of 23, and who has attempted in a variety of ways to bury the past, finally decides to head home and attend Rollo’s funeral. The story sees his physical and psychological deterioration as he drives across the country to Wyoming, in which many repressed memories from his childhood and why he left the ranch come back to him. Chief among them is a story his father’s girlfriend once told about a rancher named Tin Head, who has a galvanized metal plate sewn in his cranium that severely affects his brain functions. Supposedly, Tin Head was butchering a steer outside when he decided to take a break, eating lunch and taking a nap. When he comes back outside, he finds the steer gone. It then comes back, half-skinned and mutilated, fixing him with a hateful stare that he believes is the steer setting a curse on him. This story gives Mero a nightmare and he leaves home. After a problematic journey across country, Mero finds the Wyoming landscape much the way he remembers it- despite all his years trying to forget it. It’s night and snowing hard, and thinking he knows the way to the ranch, Mero ends up crashing the car and wrecking the engine. He attempts to find another ranch on foot he believes is nearby, before ultimately perishing in the cold. As he dies, he thinks he sees the half-skinned steer from the story glaring at him with a red eye.

Why I LOVE this story: Reading this short story gave me a classic case of “I wish I had written this”. I was just so completely in awe of it that I even felt a little jealous and disheartened. How could I possibly write anything ever again? I can’t believe Proulx’s genius has eluded me for so long as a reader. For those of you who don’t know her, the film Brokeback Mountain is an adaptation of a story from the same collection as “The Half-Skinned Steer”. She also won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Shipping News, which I also believe was made into a film. I’m not sure “The Half-Skinned Steer” has the same cinematic potential as “Brokeback Mountain”, as it is less of a straightforward narrative and more a haze of flashbacks and stories-within-stories. I think it would probably have to be a loose adaptation, with an expanded narrative. The characters and their conflicts are great film material however, and it’s probably the reason I love this story so much. It’s a dark, psychological narrative that explores themes of memory, death and sex.


#3 “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” – Denis Johnson

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Publication Date: Spring 1989 (Issue 110, The Paris Review)

Collected in: Jesus’ Son (1992, Picador)

Summary: The story is narrated in the first person by a hitchhiker who claims to be prescient. Reporting the events of a single night as if outside of time, the hitchhiker recalls traveling with a Cherokee, a salesman, and a college student. Each of them share large quantities of drugs and alcohol with him, until eventually he falls asleep in a puddle on the side of the road. He is then picked up by a family and falls asleep in their car. The car later crashes headlong into a vehicle driven by a man who is apparently asleep at the wheel. The hitchhiker grabs the baby and tries to seek help from a reluctant truck driver. The police arrive and insist that he come with them to the hospital. There, the hitchhiker watches as it is revealed that the man in the family is dead. His wife screams, and the hitchhiker narrates “What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere”. The narrative then jumps forward a few years where the hitchhiker is now being admitted to a clinic for substance abuse. As the nurse injects him with vitamins, he hallucinates being in an idyllic, pastoral setting and claims that he cannot be of any help to anyone.

Why I LOVE this story: I was assigned Jesus’ Son in 2012 during my student exchange to the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire. During a Creative Writing workshop class, we analyzed this story and Johnson’s distinctive writing style. What is so striking about this story in particular is how the fleeting, minimalist narrative is made large by the voice that underpins it. Johnson captures the altered mental state of a drug addict in such an unforgettable and fascinating way. The opening paragraph in particular made a huge impression on me, and influenced the way I wrote stories for years afterwards. I loved the crazy sentences that didn’t make logical sense, yet whose interesting word choices seemed to resonate somehow. Famed author Jeffrey Eugenides sums up the narrator (whose name is Fuckhead, by the way) thus “Fuckhead isn’t Jesus. He’s Jesus’s son, which is a different thing entirely. He’s a person graced with an intuition of heaven who still lives in hell on earth”.


Thank you so much for reading! These are the short stories that have particularly influenced me of late. What are your favorite short stories? Let me know in the comments!

How to Create a Schedule and Get Out of a Slump

A great way to get yourself out of a slump is to create a schedule- whether you’re a writer or not. But it’s not as straightforward as I once thought. The trick is to turn that schedule into a lifestyle; doing it so many times that the components become as unconscious and effortless as the day-to-day rituals of showering or brushing your teeth. I’m going to use my progress this year as an example, because the only way to learn how to improve is by looking back.

I wrote a few weeks ago how the most important quality to defeating lethargy and procrastination is your Bouncebackability. You’re gonna fail and fail until you get it right. But the key to getting it right is to examine those failures, because each one holds the secret to success. Your failures are the best resources you have.

I’ve tried so many times over the years to set a schedule for myself but they just never seemed to stick. My thinking was that inevitably each one would crumble because I’m an inherently lazy person, and that the best strategy was to just keep initiating the same schedule. Sure, there were a few tweaks here and there, but each one was hopelessly set up to fail- like a house made of garlic bread.

The first and most important rule to creating a schedule is not to set yourself up for failure. I know that might sound obvious, but what I mean is don’t be over-ambitious at the start of your journey. If the schedule is too punishing, you’ll slip back into laziness. And that brings us to the second rule- implement a schedule that feels like a lifestyle and not a list of chores. Traditionally all my schedules were based off of the Pomodoro method. I broke up the day into regimented slots of about 30 minutes each. The problem came when I wasn’t hitting my targets as effectively as I wanted. But how did I realize this?

During the three-day lifespans of these schedules, I would be happy and satisfied because my thinking was “I might not be smashing every task, but at least I’m getting something done”. My thought process was that some writing is better than none at all. When 2017 started I wasn’t optimistic. I was in a rut. I stayed up all hours of the night, and generally I felt disgusted with my life. Change was an impossible dream. So when I got around to implementing schedules, they did help me to get out of that depressive state, because by comparison they made me feel like I was doing something worthwhile.

But the schedules never lasted. I had made some progress, but now I was stagnating. And here we return to the wise words of Jabari Parker. In the Sports Illustrated video I mentioned earlier this week, he stresses the importance of giving everything 110%. When we use that phrase we tend not to think about it too much. It’s often dismissed as some kind of idiomatic, uplifting cliché. But what the concept of giving 110% refers to is what athletes call “Overload”. Jabari tells the school children that the 10% extra is absolutely crucial to making your ambitions come true. It’s about pushing yourself and not getting comfortable.

And that essentially is how I changed my schedule. I realized I wasn’t giving the 10% extra. I was living a more productive life, spiced up by three-day spurts of regimented and scheduled work- but I was resting on my laurels. Progress had slowed and I realized that if I wanted to get to where I wanted to be, I had to increase my output. I had to work harder and faster. Simply being productive was not enough anymore. Now it was about urgency, about living as if I only had a year to live at all. That was the moment I started looking back on my schedules with a view to changing them entirely.

To reach your goals and achieve real change in your life, you need to have an evolving schedule. This is where we get specific. One thing that wasn’t working for me with my Pomodoro-esque day planners were the time slots I devoted to coming up with story ideas. Sometimes ideas come tumbling out and sometimes they don’t. And setting aside time to come up with killer ideas for novels, poems, songs (or whatever it is you are working on) is inherently problematic. You can sit there and think really hard but you can’t force the lightning to strike. Deciding that it’s time to come up with ideas is a surefire way for a writer to give him or herself an overwhelming sense of anxiety, stress and self-doubt. If the 30-minute time slot ended and I hadn’t come up with anything, I’d panic because I had to continue the day-planner and the dedicated time for story ideas was lost. The whole schedule would seem tainted because one of the listed targets was not hit.

Looking back on my diaries this week I saw so many entries from 2010 that read “Sat for ages trying to come up with story ideas, and after realizing that the precious hours of the day were dwindling, I gave up and played Age of Empires 2. Day wasted”. So I looked back on these problems and thought about how to fix them. First I asked myself where ideas come from. Well they either strike at random moments, or they happen when I’m reading. The more I read fiction, the more ideas for fictional stories I get. The same holds true for movie ideas, songs, et cetera I imagine. It makes sense after all. So what I’ve been doing recently is reading with a notebook on hand. I read until I get an idea, and when I run out of ideas I resume reading instead of sitting there stressing out. So far the results have been amazing.

Another trick to living a productive lifestyle is to know the best conditions for your success and to replicate them. I do best when I get up early. If I get out of bed with the whole day ahead of me, I’m happy. I write best in the mornings. I know a lot of writers- such as Anne Tyler for instance- do their writing from about 8am-2pm. I need to be happy to write and I need to write to be happy. Simple right? Well my problem for a while has been simply getting out of bed. When the year started I was a night owl, and when I woke up I was severely depressed and lacking in motivation because half my day was gone. I was tired and groggy all the time, despite the medication I’ve been taking for over a year that’s supposed to help. So I looked back on that and thought how best to turn things around.

During my summer in Texas my roommates and I would all get up early and make coffee. I wanted to be a caffeine drinker but I knew I didn’t really like the taste. Luckily, my friends sorted me out.

“My fiancée makes a mean coffee,” Aaron said, and on the first morning of the summer Anne-Marie brought me a coffee lovingly made with almond creamer, caramel syrup and a bit of sugar. A work of art. I tried it and it was the first time coffee ever tasted good. And what ended up happening with coffee was what I always hoped would happen with alcohol- that the more I drank it, the more I’d like it. I started off trying to replicate Anne-Marie’s sweet coffees, and week by week started making them stronger. By the end of the summer I was able to drink black coffee and I didn’t even need it to be warm either.

Every morning that summer was spent waking up early, making a coffee, and eating a large apple whilst reading novels and snuggling with our pup. I’ve managed to replicate those conditions now (except for the dog, sadly) and it works. Without coffee, having a productive day was a lottery. If I woke up groggy I would find it hard to do much. So I got myself a coffee maker and now I’ve established a routine aimed at recreating the environment that saw the happiest period of my life. I wake up early every morning, make coffee, go on a brisk walk, and come back to drink it, eat my apple, and begin my strategy of reading and jotting down ideas. The great thing about coffee is that it gets rid of my grogginess, and so incorporating it into my life permanently has seen some excellent results. I’m chasing what Theodore Roosevelt called The Strenuous Life. I want to pull the moon down from the sky. I don’t want to play the game- I want to win it. I encourage you to be aggressive with your writing (or whatever it is you are pursuing). Learn from the past, and approach each day like Jabari Parker flying down the lane to crush a tomahawk dunk.

Seizing the Day

It’s time for another spontaneous post. Last night I unearthed my old journals. I have four diaries, covering four periods of my life: spring/summer 2010, fall 2010, winter 2011, and winter 2015. They all make for depressing reading, and it’s interesting to look back on them and see me try and make sense of myself. It seems I spent a lot of time trying to understand just who I was; a lot of entries ask the question “What is wrong with me?”

The process of reading these journals was a little nauseating. I wrote about how each day blurred into the next, how time slipped me by, and how powerless I felt. I’d sit at my desk thinking of ways to be productive, before giving in and merely “passing the time”. I was desperate to do something with my life. I felt like I had nothing of any worth, no life at all. It makes me realize just how significant 2017 has been in regards to my personal growth.

But why blog about the discovery of these old diaries? Isn’t this all personal? Couldn’t this be worked out in a new journal? Yes, I suppose it could. But to analyze my growth as a person is not the point of this post. Why do I blog at all? Because I want my experience to touch others. I see my personal blog posts as contributing to a pool of human experience. At the end of the day I can only offer my own experiences and perceptions. I can’t tell you why you think the way you do, or what your experiences mean. But we can share our experiences to the benefit of all- we can find aggregate truths. If I was only concerned with my own therapy, I’d hit up the journal. I want to learn from others, and I want others to learn from me. We gain greater understanding by sharing with one another. My experiences are valid because I felt them, I went through them- and the same is true for you. No information we share is useless.

Every morning I go on a brisk walk where I think about the day’s targets. Today I told myself that every day I should leave a legacy of some kind. What am I going to do today that contributes to my dreams? I like the idea of adding a brick every day to an ongoing construction project. And as I said this to myself, I thought about the diary entries I read last night and the times I spent worrying that each day was wasted. Seizing the day seemed impossible back then. Now I have the urgency and sense of purpose I’ve always wanted. I’m not so much like a hesitant foal weighing up the decision to ford a river. I know it might sound corny, but I genuinely hope this blog can serve to inspire others to navigate the pitfalls of lethargy, self-loathing and depression.

This week I’m taking my inspiration from Jabari Parker- one of my favorite basketball players. My roommate Aaron linked me to a Sports Illustrated video where he talks to a bunch of school kids. Aside from being a dynamic power-forward, Jabari is also a wise and articulate speaker. In the video (the link of which I shall post below), he tells the children that the key to achieving their dreams is to transform those long-term ambitions into day-to-day targets. What can I do today to help me get to where I want to be? It’s a sheer coincidence that the day after I watched this video, I ended up unearthing my old journals and seeing how relevant his advice was to the troubles I had back then. Jabari talks about commitment, getting up early, and giving everything that 10% extra effort. I’ve realized myself that whatever you do, you need that urgency. I hope I’m getting through to you. I’ll publish another post later this week about some specific methods I use to stay on track. For now, have yourself a badass Wednesday!

Click here to see the full Jabari Parker video!

Is Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus Worth Your Money?

In my Wolfenstein: The New Order review I wrote about how I was initially drawn to the game because of an Amazon Prime TV series called The Man in the High Castle. The show was hot with me and I wanted more of that postwar alternate history in my life. I went on to enjoy the game as much as I enjoyed the show that inspired me to pick it up. When the sequel was announced and I saw that the story took place in a Nazi-occupied USA, I was thoroughly, thoroughly excited. The game was released on October 27th, and two days later on the morning of my birthday, my brother drove me to the nearest games retailer and treated me to a copy of The New Colossus.

For today’s post, I’m going to structure it as an alternating sequence of pros and cons, followed by a short conclusion. There are no spoilers here, so all readers are welcome.

Wolfenstein® II: The New Colossus™_20171029141440


PRO: The biggest strength of the first title is back- that is to say, the story and its characters. What made The New Order great was the fact that despite the absurdity of its world, the characters were complex and their journeys were compelling. It would have been easy to make the characters as crazy and cartoonish as the setting, but instead they are all very nuanced and sympathetic. The game is marketed as dumb fun and on the surface it might look like nothing more than a gallery of creative ways to maim Nazis, but once you get past the grenade smoke and pull the shrapnel out of your eyes you find yourself immersed in a masterful narrative. I love that the events of the first game are revisited in the psychological toll they take on the characters. We are given insights into BJ’s childhood trauma, his sense of grief and anxiety, and the fragility that exists beneath his tough exterior. The cutscenes are fantastic and full in equal measures of charm, wit and emotional depth.

CON: For me, the game does not make effective use of the setting. In the previous title each location seemed to showcase life in a dystopian, Nazi-ruled Europe- be it the Gibraltar Bridge Megastructure, the Croatian Concentration Camp, or the massive high-security prison in Berlin. It had a picaresque feel to it; each level a colorful vignette that explored different parts of the Reich. In Wolfenstein 2, however, we basically get 3 American cities/towns, 1 of which is revisited later on. Everything else takes place in dull, samey military bases of one kind or another. I can’t help but feel like there’s so much missed potential. It would have been interesting to see more of the American people- perhaps at some kind of “Reeducation Camp”, or a jamboree for the American Hitler youth. Perhaps the Nazis redesigned Mount Rushmore to honor Adolf Hitler, or decided to drain the Great Lakes? Imagine seeing the desertification of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula! I was especially disappointed when I found out that the optional assassination missions all take place in different districts of the 3 places we have already seen. Why can’t we see what’s happening in Evansville or Colorado Springs?

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PRO: The gameplay is still super fun, and by extension the game as a whole can be thus considered a successful game. The New Colossus has earned praise for its weapons, and it very much deserves it. I had a ton of fun using the heavy weapons and blasting apart the armor plating of encroaching Übersoldaten and Laserhunds. There are plenty of moments of high-octane, intense combat which will see you spray the rooms with lead and fire before throwing a hatchet at the commanding officer’s face and diving out the way as a nearby fuel tank explodes.

CON: The level design is awful in this game. Not only are the levels uninteresting as places, but they lack the clever pacing and structure of The New Order. There’s something messy about them that makes them feel like nothing more than a sequence of chaotic action set pieces. There’s also something repetitive about them as well. You’ll navigate an area that gives you the option to stealthily take out the commanding officers or go in guns blazing, only to enter the next area and be slapped with the exact same scenario. In The New Order, however, the missions would have this well-crafted sense of narrative pacing; a given level would start out with stealth, story and puzzles, before building up to a dramatic, action-oriented finish that it earns. Not so much in The New Colossus I’m afraid.

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PRO: You get to ride a Panzerhund. This was something I’ve been looking forward to since the game’s announcement at Bethesda’s e3 press conference. The razor-toothed, Fahrenheit 451-style mechanical hounds are iconic to the series in much the same way that the Big Daddys are to Bioshock. Getting to ride one and douse the Nazis in belches of flame was a helluva time, and probably my favorite moment of the game from a purely gameplay perspective.

CON: The prologue is nowhere near as good as The New Order. I know this is more of a criticism of The New Colossus as a sequel rather than a game, but I was hoping for an opening a little more memorable. I liked the cutscenes and flashbacks, and the haunting confrontation with Engel served as good motivation going forward, but the fight aboard the U-Boat just seemed to fall short of the standard set by the assault on Deathshead’s castle. The wheelchair was a nice touch but quickly became an annoyance when the lack of agility saw me get helplessly riddled with bullets.

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PRO: I liked the little details in this game. You can certainly play the game as just mindless fun, and as I said, the combat is a blast. But if you do want something more subtle from the experience, there are a bunch of collectible epistles that flesh out the world of Nazi America. Whenever any story exerts self-awareness- especially a video game, in which you have to kill so many people- I’m intrigued. I’m interested in redshirts and games that give them character. The game’s cover shows you standing on a mountain of discarded Nazi helmets; it’s very much marketed as a Nazi-hunter simulator. But if you take the time to read the personal logs you find on your way, you often find yourself in a moral dilemma. I found postcards in which German soldiers wrote to their loved ones back in Europe, and some of them were quite tender and touching. Underneath the futuristic Nazi armor there are human beings with families and lives entirely ordinary. The game even addresses how many people BJ has murdered; we see a grieving mother in one scene, and in another we see BJ let a German soldier run free instead of killing him. The letters and postcards are particularly interesting, because BJ does not comment on them, and we the player have to fill in for his conscience. It makes us uncomfortable, and my takeaway is that the BJ in the world of the game is reading these letters and blocking them out to make his job easier.

CON: Personally I felt the game was in need of more unique encounters in the way of boss battles and vehicles. We had the Panzerhund and that was great, but the fun was over before we knew it. Imagine that the game is a sandwich, and the repetitive shoot-or-stealth scenarios are the upper and lower halves of the hamburger bun. Well the Panzerhund is a single slice of salami in the middle. We need more filling in this sandwich. We could have explored more dynamic swimming gameplay and underwater combat, we could have navigated environmental puzzles, and the game was in dire need of some good secondary villains to terminate on the way to settling the score with Engel. Where was this game’s equivalent of the London Monitor or Deathshead’s mech? The game’s final challenge was little more than a horde of troops. I was expecting something on a bigger scale- this is Wolfenstein after all, where the writers are only as limited as their imagination. Also, the futuristic unicycle was crying out to be used in some kind of swashbuckling escape sequence!

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In conclusion I would say that Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is a good game if not a great one. It is definitely worth your money, which is more than I can say for a lot of games these days. The game deserves credit for its artistic integrity and the lack of microtransactions or tacked-on multiplayer modes. The writing is excellent and there’s a good amount of content to keep you busy for a while.  What did you guys think of the game? Let me know in the comments!

Turning 25

Last weekend I turned 25. I enjoyed a nice, steady birthday where my family and I went to see Blade Runner 2049 and eat at one of our favorite Siamese restaurants. The movie was a masterpiece and the Gaeng Phed Ped Yang always hits the spot. At various points during the day, my friends and family asked me “So how does it feel to be 25?”

How does it feel? British humor dictated that I reply “You know, it’s an awful lot like when I was 24,” and I obliged the waiting faces a chuckle- but I wasn’t done. I did feel something. I was suddenly morbid. The last 25 years seemed so vast, and I feared that the next 25 would go by in a flash. At some point I’d wake up, 50 years old, and remark “Where did the time go?”

I was at the biological peak of my life, I told myself. I was finally here. When we’re young our bodies bail us out of bad habits, quickly replenishing cells with fresher ones for optimum efficiency, priming us for our sole purpose- which is the same for all life- procreation. And once we get past these mating years- whether we make the beast with two backs or not- we start slowly dying. Everything deteriorates gradually, cells are replenished slower until they’re not replenished at all, and you start doing things like spending your mortgage savings on a Harley with aggressively steep ape-hangers, or trying to explain to your wife that the reason the laptop is overrun with malware totally isn’t because you were streaming Girls Gone Wild from a less-than-reputable source.

It might sound a bit hysterical, but it wouldn’t be a birthday without an existential crisis wrapped up with a pretty bow on top. I’ve never really been good at birthdays. Something about turning 25 makes me feel like I’ve completed something, like I can look back on everything behind me as a single volume in the story of my life. It might seem that I was plagued with visions of the future, but to be honest most of that was the tickle of my subconscious. I spent most of my first week of being 25 looking backwards, at the past.

I was definitely better at birthdays when I was a kid. Back then I’d invite all my friends from school to go tobogganing or to play laser tag and we’d top it off with chicken nuggets or something. It was something loud and colorful, and I didn’t feel self-conscious or weird about the fact that it was all about me. Birthdays weren’t bad after that, but once my teenage years came around they were never the same. I became bashful, almost guilty, that there was a day where social custom dictated that people celebrate me. And the idea that I was expected by everyone to be happy made me anxious. I’m not exactly the best at being happy. The wild-eyed, theatrical rogue that was my child-self was dead. He didn’t make it past the age of eleven, sadly. He was skipping along as in a 1940s cartoon when an anvil fell from the sky and flattened him. The Michael that emerged, once he popped back into 3D and resumed his journey, had an altogether different look to him.

Teenage years were a mire of hormones and bullying and the search for identity. I was extremely self-conscious. I remember extended family members remarking how quiet I’d gotten all of a sudden, trying to pin-point the moment the little devil they knew had become an awkward, gangly recluse forever blushing and apologizing. Birthdays came every year and each day they seemed to reflect in some small way the person I was becoming- the same way the birthdays of my childhood were indicative of the little adventure-seeking, bright-eyed brat that I was. They were still fun, but now I didn’t make too much of a fuss. I enjoyed a low-key meal with a few friends, before giving up the idea of inviting people to an event altogether.

I was going to make this post one of those “Letter to My Younger Self” things where I’d address the kind of person I was at 15 years old and how I’ve changed in the last 10 years. But to be honest I’m not sure what I would say to the Michael of my school years. I suppose the thing to do would be to warn myself not to overreact, stay positive, yada yada, but that would just read like a catalogue of my teenage angst. I’m not sure I want to send 15-year old Mike a telegram saying “WATCH THE FUCK OUT” for this upcoming pitfall or that. Not to try and sound philosophical, but you kinda need pitfalls in life. There’s a bunch of things I regret, that’s for damn sure. Like most people I have memories that make me shudder like someone emptied a jar of cold piss down my neck, ones that I wish I could erase. I hate hurting or disappointing people. It sucks, but assuming you have some level of self-awareness you do learn from it.

What I’ve always ultimately been interested in is how best to navigate the social sphere. Call it what you want- coexistence, perhaps? Being able to understand others and communicate effectively is what it’s all about. That’s how you succeed- whether you’re building business relationships or personal ones. In my teenage years I’d watch other people at school float on by with effortless skill. I focused on small things- the priceless knowledge they had- how to walk, what to do with your hands, how to joke around, how to speak, when to speak. It was like everyone else had the answer sheet to a project and I’d inexplicably missed out.

I watched other people, less skilled, trying out personalities that weren’t entirely their own. I was never so brave, but when an unexpected situation came my way I often found myself saying something that didn’t feel quite so natural to me, trying out different walks, thinking to myself how best to look relaxed when sitting in class. The big one was how the hell to talk to girls. You’d see other guys making them laugh and wonder how on Earth they did it. But at the time I was far too ignorant to realize that girls were people too, and that behind their laughing eyes and self-assured smiles there was a human being experiencing all flavors of confusion, doubt and fear. But it’s from that very ignorance that empathy is learned. I’m still searching for answers to all the questions of my youth, but I don’t feel quite so hopeless now. Part of that has to do with the fact that I’ve realized all along that so many others, perhaps more than I ever thought possible, were asking the same questions.

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