Category Archives: nerd stuff

Pokémon Go Made Me Go Outside

When I lived in Japan, I didn’t own a car. I had a bike, but it got stolen on base (naturally), and with less than a year left before returning to the US, I started walking instead.

A walking commute is really easy in a place like Japan, where public transportation is robust and accessible. I had my walk to work down to a science:

1. Leave the house for a twelve-minute walk to the train station;
2. Five minutes on the train;
3. A ten-minute walk from the train station to the base gate;
4. Ten minutes from the gate to the gym’s locker room, where I stashed my uniforms;
5. A quick costume change, then, depending on where it was parked, a five- or ten-minute walk to the ship.

After a few weeks, I could predict to the minute what time I would cross the brow in the morning, and I was always on time.

The combination of walking to work and running around the ship often resulted in jubilant vibration on my wrist sometime before lunch: “Congrats!” my fitness watch would say. “You met your step goal of 10,000 steps!”

I took for granted how easy it was to be active when it was organically built in to the day. Coming back to the US was a rude awakening.

Driving a car to sit in an office all day made me very sedentary. I had to make time for physical activity like I never did in Japan, but lifting weights and swimming and running never seemed to get me back to where I was before. I became less mentally resilient, less fit, more susceptible to binge eating and drinking, and had difficulty sleeping. Not all of this is reducible to inactivity alone, but it definitely didn’t help.

A difference, it seemed, was a huge lack of walking – light but sustained activity throughout the day. I thought I would try to recreate the commute that I had in Japan, at least in duration: 45-60 minutes of walking in the morning and evening. I tried reincorporating walking into my daily schedule around this time last year, but fell out of the habit when work got busier and I went on deployment. What could I do this time around to maintain motivation?

Then I saw a Polygon video about how Pokémon Go got good again. It piqued my interest, especially with Sword and Shield coming out soon. I thought I’d give it another try, hoping it would keep me motivated to be more active.

Playing Pokémon Go gives me a sense of purpose while moving around town. It’s easy to forget about a step goal when you’re bouncing between gyms and raids, propelled forward by that part of your brain that heard GOTTA CATCH ‘EM ALL at age 7 and was never the same again.

It’s been two months now since I picked up the game again. I can’t believe how quickly it has gone by. Without it, I might have lost motivation by now; waking up extra early to walk the loop around my neighborhood quickly loses its appeal based solely on its own merits (ie, the benefit of exercise). Now, when I’m tempted to roll over and go back to sleep, all I have to do is open up Pokémon Go and see that one of my precious Poké-children was defeated in a gym overnight, and it’s enough to get me out of bed and outside, excited, ready to kick some ass in return – even if I have to walk all the way to the town mural sign. Especially if I have to walk all the way to the town mural sign.

There is no such thing as a magic bullet, a cure-all for whatever bodily concern ails you. I don’t expect to step-step-step my way to an elite level of fitness. But adding more walking into my schedule helps. Even if I change nothing else, walking at least 10,000 steps each day helps me fall asleep and stay asleep, regulate my appetite, and improve my mood. And, unlike most other exercise, it doesn’t make me miserable to perform.

Playing Pokémon Go adds a layer of fun and discovery to something that might otherwise become a chore when life happens and other things try to claim my time. It pushes me out of the house even when I’m at my laziest, it gives me small goals that add up over time, and it encourages me to go even farther than I would on my own. I’m going to try to walk 30 miles this week! I never would have made (or stuck to) that goal without Pokémon Go.

So I’m 30 years old and a children’s game is giving me more motivation to stay active than any of my grown-adult rationalizations or complex fitness apps. There are a lot of things about 2019 that I wasn’t expecting. Pokémon Go is a surprising but welcome addition.

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Inexpensive Indie Games Worth Your Money

If you’ve ever played an online multiplayer game, you know the world of gaming can be incredibly off-putting and toxic. It’s hard to go a single day without another player challenging your sexuality, calling you a slur, or just being so obnoxious that the game becomes unplayable. This might be why I’ve gravitated towards games of the offline, single-player variety, mostly roguelikes and platformers and strategy games.

At this point, though, the only thing holding me back from being a truly insufferable video game hipster is that I don’t want to keep them for myself. I want to take you along for the ride.

There are games that are pure art; games that put a smile on my face every time I play them; games that make me grind my teeth and make my hands slick with sweat. A lot of them cost less than a third of what the big-name companies are churning out year after year with very little variation or improvement – yeah, I’m talking to you, Bethesda and Bungie. Unfortunately, the lack of a big name often means lack of big advertising. Indie games rely on positive reviews and word of mouth to generate hype.

So here’s some hype for inexpensive games that are absolutely worth your time and attention.

Here is my criteria for a game to make this list:
1. It must cost $20 or less.
2. It must not be made by a major developer.
3. It must be critically acclaimed.
4. I can reasonably suspect you might not have heard of or played it. (Imagine me typing this out as I push my thick-rimmed glasses up higher on my nose and sip on my vanilla soy latte, because I am hipster trash.)
5. It must be memorable for its story, music, or some other aspect of its design – that is, art apart from gameplay.

These rules eliminate some of my most favorite games right off the bat. Rules #1 and 2 prohibit Katamari Damacy, which is ostensibly still in the underappreciated vein; rule #2 also cuts out Portal and Team Fortress 2, the latter of which is, incredibly, still going strong and completely free to play. And, of course, no Fallout. No Final Fantasy. No Legend of Zelda. No Tetris, even! These games don’t need me. I’d like to shine a light on some of the lesser-known ones.

Image result for celeste game

I know, y’all are sick of hearing me talk about this game.

Will I ever stop? No. Celeste is that good.

In case you haven’t been within earshot of me in the past 18 months, Celeste is a 2D platformer about climbing a mountain to prove something to yourself. During her climb, Madeline is forced to confront the aspects of herself that she hates; without spoiling anything, it is only when Madeline learns to accept herself as she is that she is able to move forward. For a game that appears so simple, Celeste totally surprised me with its deeply moving story of anxiety and doubt and the healing power of forgiveness.

This game is the complete package: the pixel art is beautiful, the music is perfectly composed to evoke certain feelings, the plot tells an important story – and even when you want to crack your Nintendo Switch over your knee out of frustration, the rush of euphoria that you feel when you finally, finally beat a screen that killed you hundreds, thousands of times is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before while playing a game. The tougher the challenge, the more rewarding the payoff. Did I mention that the music is extremely good? It is extremely good.

BOTTOM LINE: WHY THIS GAME IS WITH YOUR MONEY
There is a reason why Celeste won Indie Game of the Year in 2018. Just play it already!

$20 on all platforms.

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FTL: Faster Than Light is a real-time strategy, space opera Oregon Trail. What, that alone isn’t enough to reel you in? It is somehow seven years old today and I’m still playing it like it’s brand new. That’s probably because no two play-throughs are the same; the game feels different every time.

The name is a pun on “for the loss,” which tracks with the general roguelike gameplay: you’re going to lose way more often than you win. Choosing from a variety of ships and crews, the player has to navigate across randomly-generated space, making choices and experiencing consequences and, of course, beefing up the ship with cool weapons and subsystems. So much of FTL‘s gameplay is subject to chance that it’s difficult to truly master; aiming to complete achievements gives a sense of direction and accomplishment.

I include FTL over Into the Breach, a time-based strategy game released last year by the same developers, for two reasons: for FTL, the ratio of success to failure (that is, feelings of triumph to frustration) is much more tolerable, and the music is very good, evolving as the player enters new territories and the intensity of the confrontations ramps up.

BOTTOM LINE: WHY THIS GAME IS WORTH YOUR MONEY
FTL never stops being new and fun, even if you’ve played through it hundreds of times. Between the variety of ships and the random level generation, each experience of the game is guaranteed to be different. Plus, the music just plain slaps.

$10 on Windows, Linux, macOS, iOS.

Image result for monument valley game

If I could give one game as a gift to everyone in the world, it would be this one. Monument Valley is an absolute treasure.

Monument Valley combines puzzles with Escher-like optical illusions in a gorgeously colorful world. The puzzles are never especially challenging and interacting with the environment is always gratifying. Underlying the visual aesthetics is a delightfully subtle soundscape to accompany the music and an equally subtle story about the protagonist and her place in the world.

This is one of those games where it’s better to show than tell, so here, feast your eyes on the beauty of these puzzles.

BOTTOM LINE: WHY THIS GAME IS WORTH YOUR MONEY
Once you’ve played this game, you’ll never forget it. Monument Valley is evidence that games can be art.

$2 on iOS and Google Play.

Image result for stardew valley

My skin is clear and my crops are flourishing.

Of any game on this list, I suspect this is the one that most TRUE GAMERS have heard of. It was created by a single developer (Eric Barone, how you do this?) who thought the Harvest Moon series was going to shit (true) and wanted to get back to its roots.

There is something strangely soothing about developing a routine that involves repetitively completing tasks: watering crops, caring for animals, exploring and mining and fishing, getting to know the villagers in town. Farming simulators are wonderfully therapeutic balms for us Type As who love the satisfaction of striking items off a list and maintaining good time management.

What’s cool about Stardew Valley is that it is a true indie success story, made by one person whose interactions with and feedback from fans made this game incredibly popular very quickly, eventually generating more than $1 million in revenue. When’s the last time your spiteful project made $1 million? Not any of mine, but maybe someday.

BOTTOM LINE: WHY THIS GAME IS WORTH YOUR MONEY
If you enjoy farming simulators like Harvest Moon, Stardew Valley is worth your time. Behind the revolving door of mundane tasks and simple pixel art is a charming story of a community coming together in support of each other, their little town, and their quiet way of life.

$15 on all platforms.

Image result for florence game

Florence is a combination of puzzles and interactive art, designed by Ken Wong, the same creator behind Monument Valley. The player follows the titular Florence as she navigates through a dead-end job and a tense relationship with her mother, to an exciting new relationship, to settling in to a predictable routine, to a devastating breakup, to her growth and flourishing as an artist. It is the story of how people come and go in our lives and how we grow through those connections.

You can finish this game in one sitting, easily – but that hour is going to be an emotional roller coaster. Florence’s life is so deeply relatable to young people, and the player’s interactions with her experiences of love and loss feel very personal. The storytelling – all visual, very little dialogue – is brilliantly intuitive, and the orchestral music follows the emotional tenor of the plot in a very moving way.

BOTTOM LINE: WHY THIS GAME IS WORTH YOUR MONEY
Florence is completely unlike anything I’ve ever played before. It is like an interactive graphic novel. One of the game mechanics – using actual puzzle pieces to show how conversations get easier as we get more comfortable with someone – was so clever and insightful. The music is beautifully composed and rises and falls along with the story, making it an intensely emotional experience. Honestly, if you get through this game without getting even a little misty-eyed, I don’t think we can hang.

$3 on iOS and Google Play

If you’ve got nostalgia for choose-your-own adventure stories or text-based games, you’re in luck: A Dark Room will scratch that itch, but it will probably leave you with more questions than answers.

A Dark Room, as the name suggests, is bare: no graphics, no sounds, just text – and even the descriptions are sparse. You wake up in a dark room and make a fire. You don’t know who you are or where you are. You meet a stranger, who helps you build shelter, which attracts more people just like you. It seems like everyone is working together for a common goal – safety – but are you? As you become more powerful, you start to explore the world outside your enclave, and your relationship with your community changes.

This game will make you feel completely in the dark for almost the entire duration. It gives you so little information that it feels impossible to make meaningful decisions, and those choices have consequences. I’ve heard that there are multiple endings for this game, but I’ve played through it a few times and have only gotten bad ones. After a certain point, the bad stuff feels inevitable. It feels like you’ve become something you barely recognize, like you’ve completely lost control. The ease with which I fall into this outcome is something I still think about a lot. This might have been the point.

BOTTOM LINE: WHY THIS GAME IS WORTH YOUR MONEY
If you like using your imagination and sparse, dystonian storytelling, you’re in for a treat. A Dark Room is a great throwback to text-based adventure games, and since the gameplay demands some waiting on the part of the player, this is a perfect game for a long flight or car ride.

(Not to be confused with The Dark Room, which looks like a less elegant execution of the same concept.)

$2 on iOS and Google Play – free browser version here!

Image result for crypt of the necrodancer

You ever put off doing something for a long time because you know you’re going to love it and you’re not ready for the commitment? That was what Crypt of the NecroDancer was to me. The overwhelmingly positive reviews didn’t do it; it took hearing one of the tracks at random on Spotify for me to be like, hold up, I need more of this.

Yeah, I am late to this party, but better late than never!

Crypt of the NecroDancer synthesizes a roguelike dungeon crawler with a rhythm game. Everything you do has to be on tempo with the background track – moving, attacking, blowing stuff up, finding and purchasing items. The levels are, to a certain extent, randomized, and they only last for the duration of the songs. You can get through a whole dungeon in less than ten minutes, which makes this game excellent to kill time here and there.

This game has a surprisingly sharp difficulty curve for beginners. The tutorial is sparse; it throws you to the wolves (well, skeletons and bats) more or less immediately. You’re going to die a lot in your first 30 minutes or so. I got really frustrated. But once I remembered that this is a strategy game, not a hack-and-slash, and became a little more thoughtful about my movements – paying attention to the enemies’ movement patterns especially – the game got easier and a whole lot more fun.

BOTTOM LINE: WHY THIS GAME IS WORTH YOUR MONEY
Crypt of the NecroDancer doesn’t take itself seriously, and the music is just so dang good. It takes a while to get the hang of it, but once you do, it feels like you enter the drift when the music starts playing. I forgot how immersive rhythm games can be, and how time seems to fly by so quickly, even as it’s being divided up neatly into individual songs and levels.

$15 on all platforms.

Image result for gris game switch

At the start of the game, as the main character loses her voice, her world crumbles and drains of color. Gris uses simple linear platforming to take the player through the five stages of grief, painting a deeply emotional portrait of loss – without using any words at all.

You can finish this game in one afternoon, if you’re smarter than me. I found some of the puzzles to be unbelievably unintuitive; sometimes the beauty of the art obscured the way forward even in the most straightforward of puzzles. Despite that, though, I think this game is worth playing. The art is stunning; as the protagonist progresses on her journey, more color is added to the environment, creating an impossibly layered watercolor dreamscape. I’ve never seen anything like it before.

BOTTOM LINE: WHY THIS GAME IS WORTH YOUR MONEY
Gris has, without exaggeration, the most beautiful art I’ve ever seen in a game. Combined with the music, which ebbs and flows gorgeously, Gris is a subtle but intensely moving experience – even if, like me, you have to look up the solutions to a few of the puzzles. Fortunately, the occasionally frustrating gameplay didn’t dampen my appreciation for the gorgeous art and score.

$17 on macOS, iOS, Windows, and Nintendo Switch.

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Texting in Handwriting

Very few of my ideas are original, and my long-weekend plans for Memorial Day were no exception. I read an article from The Atlantic, written in 2014, titled I Sent All My Text Messages in Calligraphy for a Week and thought, huh, that’s interesting.

I made a post on Facebook saying that I was going to be replying to messages in handwriting. I guess I had a secret motive: it had been a weird week in the Navy – we lost some education benefits and advancement results were pretty low – and I thought it might encourage folks to start a conversation. I was surprised by the sorts of people who reached out. I was happy to hear from all of them. Also, I had gotten a really nice fountain pen from my dad for Christmas and I wanted to get more use of it. In retrospect, I’m not sure why I don’t use it more often; I write letters pretty regularly, but for some reason I never reach for the “nice” pen.

It was a long weekend – 96 hours. Here is how it went and what I learned.

People rolled with it!

Even in their confusion, I didn’t get nearly as much teasing as I was expecting. It was challenging to not use gifs or memes or emojis (the combination of the three being my primary mode of communication at this point), but it forced me to think of different ways to get tone and personality across.

People were also very kind in their compliments of my handwriting, something I’m a little self-conscious about. I know some folks who have truly beautiful script and mine, by comparison, feels like a haphazard scrawl. I also watch too many YouTube videos about pens, journals, and stationery, so my perspective is definitely skewed. It’s relaxing, okay? We all have our weird internet niches.

I had to sit down at an actual table in order to send a message

It is unbelievably easy and fast to respond to a text. So easy, in fact, that a lot of folks do it while they should be focusing on other things: driving, for example, or walking, or talking to someone directly in front of them. It is simultaneously completely engaging of one’s attention while also giving the illusion of being present elsewhere, physically and mentally.

Having to sit down at a table, take out a notebook, uncap my pen, and carefully write in cursive (I’m slow) felt positively medieval. It was so strange to have to go to a designated spot in my apartment to communicate with people; we’re used to being so completely connected at all times. But receiving a text or message while out and about or on the couch was like viewing it from a one-way mirror, like being receive-only.

I couldn’t comment on social media posts without exposing my stupid, self-imposed scheme

Sometimes, in my innocent scrolling, social media puts before my eyes some truly heinous comments. It feels like a moral imperative to speak up and challenge them.

Someone is wrong? On my internet?

Having to write out a response to some troll was absurd. Not feeling that obligation to reply, to succumb to some asshole digging for a response, was the most incredible relief.

Unlike the author of The Atlantic article, this experiment didn’t alleviate any sense of urgency when it came to replying to messages, because it turns out I don’t have much to begin with

Maybe I’m fortunate to have friends who don’t take it personally to be left on read for a while – or they haven’t yet expressed their frustration to me (sorry). There are friends who do the same for me, leaving me on read for days and weeks, and though it makes it a challenge to maintain communication, it’s not something I hold against them, either. I don’t feel entitled to a reply, never mind an instantaneous one, just because I initiate a conversation – maybe precisely because I’m used to friends getting back to me in their own time.

(I wish I was able to translate this patience to waiting for answers from romantic partners. Look, if you’re reading this, I know. I’m a hypocrite. It’s a problem.)

It made birthday wishes special

It takes only a few seconds to type out a Happy Birthday! to post on someone’s wall after Facebook’s generous reminder: a fire-and-forget. Taking just a few extra seconds to write something out by hand, take a photo of it, and post it to that person’s wall instead was so different, so much more thoughtful, and it barely took any extra time at all. I was so struck by how sweet this simple gesture was that I would like to continue to do it.

All in all…

This is not an experiment I’ll repeat, mostly because it reinforced things I already know: it takes a lot more time to write things out by hand, but those messages seemed more heartfelt. Sometimes, though, it’s just not practical to have to uncap the pen and take a seat only for the sake of replying okay/yes/no/etc. But it did give provide an easy explanation when people didn’t hear back from me in an instant.

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The Truth About Screen Time

According to the Screen Time function on my iPhone, I average about 4.5 hours each day staring into one (1) glowing rectangle.

If you are over age 40, you’re probably thinking: “That’s because your generation is addicted to screens.”

4+ hours does seem like a lot, especially considering I don’t have my phone with me during the workday. For that much daily screen time, I must have my phone in front of my face from the moment I get home until I put my head down to sleep. Do I?

The answer is a little complicated, both yes and no.

If the purpose of Screen Time is to raise consciousness about how much we use our phones, it’s doing a decent job. Getting notifications every week with those statistics invariably generates the same response from me: “Huh, am I really?” With that in mind, whenever I’m tempted to scroll endlessly on a social media app, I reflexively recall that Screen Time will confront me at the end of the week with an exact figure for my idleness, which does inspire me to use these apps with a little more purpose. In fact, Screen Time awareness brought Facebook down from the #1 to #4 most-used app on the list. Not bad.

Here is how my current average usage breaks out from a pretty typical week at the time of this writing (the last week of May):
Safari 7.5 hours
Libby 5.5 hours
YouTube 5 hours
Facebook 2 hours
Nike Running Club 1.5 hours
Instagram 1.5 hours
Tumblr 1.5 hours
Facebook Messenger 1 hour
Google Maps 1 hour
Music 1 hour
Messages 45 minutes
Podcasts 45 minutes
Notes 40 minutes

What stuck out to me right away is the number for the Podcast app. If you know me, you know this: I listen to a truly untenable, possibly immoral, number of podcasts. Turns out that the definition of “screen time” is pretty rigid: the time that the phone screen is literally on, no matter what else is running in the background.

How we use our phones expands so far beyond just sitting and staring, scrolling on pictures, crushing candy. We use our phones even when they’re not in our hands; for me, it turns out, this is when I use my phone the most.

I went back through all the podcasts I listened to in the past seven days. If my screen had been active for all the time I was listening, that number would have ballooned from 45 minutes to 1,002 minutes, or almost 17 hours. (In just one week! Great, that’s a number I’ll never unsee!) But because my phone screen is turned off while I’m listening, Screen Time tracking doesn’t kick in, and my sins remained hidden – until now. This is true for Music, too. I listen to music while I drive and work out and shower, all of which probably adds up to an hour or more per day. But because my phone screen is not on during that time, it doesn’t count toward Screen Time.

YouTube presents the opposite example. The hours spent on YouTube seems really high, and I know it’s accurate because my phone screen has to be on for YouTube to continue playing. I use YouTube for a ton of different things, though, and very few of them involve me actually looking at my screen, which seems completely contrary to the nature of the app. I like to put on clips of late-night comedy shows as something to listen to while I’m cooking and cleaning and doing things around the house – something I can glance at without having to commit my full attention. The number of hours spent on YouTube is actually a good indicator of how much time I spend on chores every week. Less than an hour per day seems about right.

All combined, I spent about an hour or two per a day on social media apps. To some, this will seem like a lot. To others, not much at all. For most, it’s probably average.

It shocked me, though, that none of my app games amounted to enough time to show up in these numbers at all. I feel like I’m always checking my cats on Neko Atsume. But these check-ins, while quite frequent, only last a few seconds at a time, which even in weekly aggregate don’t amount to much.

So, a more truthful rendering of the Screen Time weekly tally would look something like this:
Podcasts 17 hours
Reading 13 hours (Safari and Libby)
Social media 6 hours (Facebook and Messenger, Tumblr, Instagram)
TV, distractions 12 hours (YouTube and Music)
Fitness 2 hours (Nike and Notes, which I use to track my workouts)

All of this is not to exculpate myself, to make it seem like I’m above being glued to my glowing rectangle. Evidently, this is not the case, and clearly I need to be distracted from thinking my own thoughts at all times. But giving some consideration to the numbers that Screen Time puts in front of my face every week made me appreciate the variety of ways in which devices have made themselves relevant to the minutiae of our lives, keeping us connected and entertained even when they aren’t the recipients of our undivided attention. In fact, it made me realize that my phone usage has changed drastically from my eyes to my ears, from active to passive – not unlike how devices are now, too, always listening, always ready for the command to solicit their input.

What will a post about device usage look like in a decade? A century? Will we outgrow the physical aspect entirety and these device functions will merge seamlessly with existing infrastructure (smart homes, etc)? I hope I find this post again when I am very old, if the internet is not obsolete (cool) or abolished (very cool). I hope I can look back fondly at how quaint and naive I am now and how far technology has come. Or maybe we will soon reach another innovative plateau, one that I personally won’t see the other side of. Either way, a pre-loaded app in my phone made me think for quite a while about the integration of devices into our lives, and that was something I absolutely was not expecting.

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2019 Bullet Journal Spread

Out with the old, in with the new!

A few days ago, I put up a Snap about working on the new year’s bullet journal. It was exciting to see how many people sent Snaps back of their own new bullet journal spreads. I love how people adapt the format to their own interests and needs.

Here is quick flip-through of my spread for this year. In case you’re wondering, where did you think of these ideas? The answer is that I didn’t, probably not a single one of them. I’m always scouring Pinterest, Tumblr, and Instagram for inspiration. Folks are unbelievably artistic and creative when it comes to their bujos. Now that I’ve found the format the works for me, though, I’m sticking to it.

This year, I am using a Dingbats A6 pocket notebook. It is the same size (see above) and price ($15) as the Moleskines I was using previously, but the paper quality is much, much better. Notice there is no ghosting or bleed-through despite heavy gel pen usage on previous pages.

We’ll see how it holds up in terms of durability after a year of throwing it around. It’s also taking a bit of spine-stretching to get it to lay flat. Finally, I’m not crazy about the pen loop, but it can be torn out if it becomes too obtrusive.

Here is the index page. The “front matter” before the logs are just a bunch of lists with useful information (addresses, books read, flying notes, etc). I haven’t finished these pages yet. They take the most work.

Speaking of a lot of work, I forgot how long it takes to write out these future logs. I think they are a good balance of being minimal and visually appealing. Here is where I put stuff that I know is happening a long time from now. Whenever I start a new month, I make sure that I reference these pages first to make sure I don’t forget anything… mostly birthdays and holidays.

I am using Pilot FriXon Erasable Gel pens. They cost one (1) dollar more than the notebook itself, but they are worth it. Having an erasable pen takes away a lot of that initial, new-notebook fear of “messing it all up” or “making it ugly.” It’s all gonna get messed up anyway. Let go of bujo aesthetic purity. (Advice to myself disguised as advice to you.)

If you read my previous bullet journal post, this will look familiar.

Each month gets an overview page. This year, I decided to make the calendar smaller so that I can put scheduled events (holidays, birthdays, appointments) and tasks on separate pages. Historically, I haven’t made as much use of the “to do” page as I ought to; I have a habit of putting chores without deadlines on random days of the week. This ends up causing a lot of unnecessary clutter. I’d like to start using the monthly to-do list for those things instead. Everything else is boiled down to the weekly log, the day-by-day look at tasks and appointments.

What I like so much about the bullet journal format, besides the creativity and flexibility, is that things that are written down are very unlikely to be neglected or forgotten; as you progress throughout the journal, you have to accomplish tasks, or move them forward, or delete them, but no matter what they have to be addressed. Very rarely does anything fall through the cracks using this method. I think it is very effective in staying on top of everything. Maybe it will be helpful to you too!

Need ideas or inspiration? YouTube has so many guides and flip-throughs. It’s its own rabbit hole. It’s probably my favorite YouTube niche; something about watching people create their bullet journals is very relaxing to watch.

Let’s hope that 2019 is our most organized year of all!

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2018 IN REVIEW

2018.jpg

WHAT HAPPENED THIS YEAR

I spent five months deployed: January, February, March, May, and June. It seems like a lot of time when spelled out like that, but for the most part it was easy and went by quickly. I got fully qualified and my aircrew wings. Best of all, though, I got to be in Hawaii for my birthday and I got to go home for a friend’s wedding and for Christmas too! I feel lucky. For all my worrying, things turned out okay.

I went on a trip to Alaska. I saw Denali, Wrangell-St. Elias, and Kenai Fjords. Now I have a truer understanding of what constitutes a wilderness. Alaska is sprawling and untamed and beautiful. I admire it and fear it. I would love to go back someday.

I got to spend some time with a friend in Washington as well. I’m proud of these videos.

I ran my first half-marathon! It was fun and challenging, but I don’t think I’ll do it again.

I started going to therapy again. It would be dishonest to say I’ve made a lot of progress – sometimes you don’t know how junked up you are on the inside until a professional calls you out on your own bullshit – but I’m at least becoming aware of what the path ahead of me looks like. The biggest difference between the start and the end of this year is that I now see the journey as worthwhile.

I started volunteering regularly. On Wednesdays I help out at the library on base. I really like the librarians and the work, too: re-shelving, helping out with programs, cleaning, cataloging. The place is always super busy and the time goes by fast.

I read my most books ever – 75 in a year! Thanks, deployment! Even if you take out the comics and graphic novels and novellas, I went way beyond what I was aiming for. A book per week has become a reliably attainable goal. I will stick to it for next year. You can find all the books I read this year here.

My recurring resolution to write a blog post every month frustrates the hell out of me. I wish I would stop doing this to myself. But I’m in the habit of doing it by now, and I know if I drop it, I will probably never find the motivation to write anything at all. I need something that will force me to, even only once a month.

BOOK OF THE YEAR

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I think we all harbor some sort of secret fantasy about the life we wish we could live. If I wasn’t such a coward, my dream is to move to some remote wilderness and stake out a solitary, sustainable life for myself. Whiskey When We’re Dry takes that daydream and shakes it up with my favorite fantasy life: a nineteenth-century, wild-wild-west story of a trick-shooting, cross-dressing young woman on a quest to redeem her family name. I get goosebumps just thinking about it. Jessilyn has the authentically Western voice that I’ve been craving since reading True Grit and her integrity and tenacity left me feeling breathless, inspired, a little bit in love. I devoured every word of this story. I can’t wait to reread it.

2018 Runners-Up
Saga by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples (volume #9 ruined my will to live)
The Witch Elm by Tana French
Circe by Madeline Miller

ALBUM OF THE YEAR

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Jonna Lee’s music has been making a huge impact on my life for almost a decade. Her entire iamamiwhoami project deserves a long write-up of its own. But her music and videos are so dear to me that anything I write feels so incomplete, so inadequate. I have been trying and failing for years to express how much I love what she does.

Think about the art that you appreciate the most. Try to describe it in such a way that conveys its significance in your life and encourages others to make room in their own hearts for it. I see this all the time when people recommend TV shows. You just have to watch it, they say.

For her three iamamiwhoami albums (bounty, 2011; kin, 2012; blue, 2014), Lee released the music and videos simultaneously. It was almost impossible to separate the visuals from the audio. The secrecy behind the project also made the release of each new video feel like a dispatch from the beyond, a clue that might reveal more of the machinations behind the creators.

Jonna Lee is a performer, though – she wants to interact with the audience behind the screens, take the audiovisual show to the real world. There was only so long that she could continue as iamamiwhoami. Though Everyone Afraid to Be Forgotten is her first venture beyond iamamiwhoami, it retains enough of the project’s visual motifs and audio samples that it feels like an authentic transition between the two.

Much to my relief, it stands spectacularly on its own two feet.

In Everyone Afraid to Be Forgotten, every song, separately, is memorable. The more upbeat synth tracks that Lee has become known for – SAMARITAN (with excellent costuming by COMME des GARÇONS) and NOT HUMAN, for example – contrasts in sound but not in tone with her slower, echoing dirges (LIKE HELL, HERE IS A WARNING). The haunting live recording of DUNES OF SAND in Jonna Lee’s hometown church provides some of the dopest acoustics your ears will ever be blessed with.

But where Jonna Lee really excels is audiovisual thematic unity. Linking the music with the videos is what makes Lee’s audiovisual storytelling so compelling and unforgettable. So the first time I watched the album’s movie accompaniment, I was actually a little underwhelmed. It felt like there was something missing.

There is just something about the way she produces a short video, contained to one song, that is perfect. No one else is doing what she does. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

2018 Runners-Up
By the Way, I Forgive You (Brandi Carlile)
Be the Cowboy (Mitski)
Dirty Computer (Janelle Monáe)

MOVIE OF THE YEAR

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Look, this one isn’t deep. I like these women and I love a good heist. Ocean’s 8 is light-hearted, fast-paced, and fun. It doesn’t take itself seriously. I liked it when I watched it the first time and I was surprised when I really enjoyed watching it a second time.

2018 Runners-Up
Black Panther
Crazy Rich Asians
Bird Box

TV SHOW OF THE YEAR

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During my first deployment this year, I was on a lot of overnight watches. It wasn’t a real watch, though, because I got to watch a lot of TV. And I watched the entirety of Brooklyn Nine-Nine in an embarrassingly short amount of time.

Once I started, I couldn’t stop. This show is pretty close to perfect. It is hilarious at no one’s expense, my favorite type of humor. Many of the episodes convey substantial moral messages. All of the characters have substance and depth – most of all, in this year’s season, Rosa. Her coming out was portrayed so perfectly that it stayed with me all year long. It was honest, it was authentic, and it gave me hope. It made me feel less alone during a time when I was very lonely. I’ll always be grateful for that.

2018 Runners-Up
Terrace House: Opening New Doors
The Great British Baking Show

GAME OF THE YEAR

Image result for celeste game breathe2018 was the year of beautiful indie games that made me cry. It started with Monument Valley – both, though neither are 2018 games – and then there was Florence and later Gris. What all of these games had in common was they felt like playable works of art.

Just on the surface, there is a lot to like about Celeste (by Matt Makes Games, also creator of TowerFall). The music is some of the best I’ve ever heard; seriously, ask anyone I work with: I have been listening to the soundtrack nonstop for months. If you’ve taken the time to read all of these words (thank you) and you get nothing else from this post, put on some good headphones and listen to the music* from Celeste. The pixel art is also gorgeous. The game controls are so simple and tight that there is zero room for error. As a 2D platformer, Celeste belongs to a genre that is notoriously brutal and unforgiving. From the very start of the game, though, Celeste sets an encouraging tone for the player: “You can do this,” the protagonist tells herself. “Just breathe.”

“Celeste gives me the tools and guidance to succeed so that every death is my own fault,” writes Emily Heller for Polygon. “I find this oddly comforting, since I know every stage can be bested; I just have to keep trying.”

There are going to be many times during this game where you want to give up. I can’t count how many times I rage-quit (though I can say exactly how many times I died, since the game keeps track). But after some time away, I would resume the game and beat that seemingly impossible puzzle almost effortlessly. Why was it so hard before?

Celeste Mountain makes manifest the climbers’ deepest fears. For Madeline, a physical embodiment of her anxiety discourages her from continuing her journey. Madeline first tries to outrun this part of herself, then musters up her courage to confront her head-on. I don’t need you, Madeline tells the negative part of herself. You’re holding me back. This pushing-away has terrible consequences, though, and Madeline hits rock bottom – literally the deepest depths of the mountain. There, she realizes that she can’t conquer Celeste without accepting herself in her totality, fears and all. Madeline’s contrition and reconciliation with the negative part of herself moved me to tears. Together, supporting one another, they summit the mountain.

Through some challenging gameplay (just want to emphasize that again: this game is very hard), Celeste teaches the player that progress isn’t always linear. Through Madeline’s experience, the game reveals that the only way to conquer your fears is through self-love. It is the starting place for true change.

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If you play Celeste (and I really, really hope you do), remember that the effort is what makes it rewarding. It is supposed to be hard. But you’ll get better, and you’ll return to earlier levels and wonder how in the world you found them difficult at all. Facing your fears and accepting yourself sometimes demands an intense inner struggle, too, but you’re going to come out on the other side – or on the top of the mountain – better for it.

2018 Runners-Up
Into the Breach
Florence
Gris

* Lena Raine, the composer for Celeste‘s music, wrote a really interesting blog post about her creative process using as an example one of the game’s most popular tracks. As someone who knows nothing about music, this sort of thing is super interesting to me, and maybe it will be for you too.

FOR NEXT YEAR

I am still trying to stop swearing. I was doing pretty well at this for a while, but inevitably we are influenced by the people around us. I’m going to keep trying.

I have to stop using my phone while driving. This is a terrible habit. Even with my phone mounted to my dashboard, I don’t need to keep changing my music while I’m driving, and definitely I don’t need to read a text or check my Neko Atsume cats “real quick” at a stop light. If you’re in the car with me, please keep me accountable.

I want to – need to – write more. It’s a shame that the only writing I do anymore is for work and for this blog. I have to find some way to stay inspired. Someone please start a creative project with me to maintain my motivation.

Some undefined fitness goal? I focused a lot on running and swimming this year with an appalling collection of tan lines to show for it. Maybe 2019 is the year I come back to the church of iron? Maybe it will be the year I find the balance between the two? Maybe I will give up and be fat in peace at last?

Finally, I am turning 30 soon. I thought this would scare me. With the exception of things that are the result of trauma, as I get older, I feel less afraid, less frantic, less rushed. A family friend once told me that, in his head, he doesn’t feel any older than he was in his twenties; it’s his body that betrays him. I think I’m starting to understand what he meant.

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Bullet Journals and Me

“That’s unprofessional,” one of my LPOs on the ship told me as I scribbled a reminder on the back of my hand. It was his passive-aggressive way of telling me to stop doing it. I didn’t listen because 1. it wasn’t an order and 2. I have a bad attitude.

Fed up with my bullshit, my chief told me explicitly to stop, which I did, for the most part. I started writing on my wrist instead, right below the strap of my watch. I patted myself on the back, thinking this was very clever: it was more or less out of sight but still maintained the spirit of my stupid system. But of course they caught on to this, too, and the jig was up.

I was certain that, if a reminder about a task wasn’t immediately in front of my face, I would forget about it for good. I’m like an infant with object impermanence, but for things to do: once it’s out of sight, it’s completely out of mind. I had to find some other way.

If you’re in the military, you’ve seen those little memorandum books: green, pocket-sized, reporter style. The memo notebook’s larger, hard-covered cousin, the logbook, was a precious and scarce commodity on the ship; having one of those was a status symbol. The highest tier of Navy notebooks was the leather-bound, magnetic-clasped varieties carried around by Chiefs and Chief-aspirants.

In other words, this was me, your typical shitty E-4:

This was your workcenter supervisor:

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This was your LPO:

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This was… yeah:

So I started small, with one of those little memo notebooks. For the most part, it worked out pretty well. It fit easily in all my pockets and it was so cheap and common that I could scribble all over it without feeling any sort of organizational impulse.

I mentioned that it was cheap. What I mean is that it wasn’t durable, and ship life takes a toll on things. This little book was rained on, sweated on, HAZMAT’d on, put through the laundry once or twice by accident. But for all I put it through, it’s still more or less intact and (arguably) legible.

And then bullet journaling hit the internet like a ton of bricks.

It is an incredibly, almost insultingly, simple method of organization. It takes a list of tasks and breaks down big, long-range plans to the smaller, daily tasks. A bullet journal, at its essence, is an agenda that you design for yourself from a blank notebook. The original method suggests organizing pages by year, then month, then week, but the appeal of the bullet journal – and why it became so popular so quickly – is that it gives you a broad framework under which you can develop a system that works best for you. And I was definitely in need of a new, better system.

In 2016, I started with one of those light green logbooks mentioned above. I had become a first class, after all. It was time to move up! The logbook withstood damage better than the memo book, but it was harder to carry around. Bulky and with sharp corners, it was not very pocket friendly.

But it was my very first bullet journal, the first journal in which I used an organizational method, not just scribbling and crossing-out on any available empty space. It took some getting used to, but it ended up being a really useful system. I felt more “on top” of things: less forgetting, less falling through the cracks, more reliable in showing up where and when I was needed.

Next, I tried a small, grid-lined Moleskine notebook. In the stationery corner of the internet, Moleskine is your basic bitch, but for me, anything that wasn’t military-issue was a huge upgrade. I used this style of notebook for two years – 2017 and 2018 – and it helped me learn what qualities of a bullet journal were absolutely essential for me. I had developed a system!

(Moleskine’s classic notebook. Pocket-sized. $15. An entire year in the size of my palm.)

Here are the elements that have been consistently included in each new iteration of my journal:

  • Index
  • Future log (year at a glance)
  • Addresses
  • Passwords and log-ins
  • Books read, movies and TV shows seen
  • A few pages for misc notes and scribbles
  • Blue brains (flying notes)
  • Monthly log (month at a glance)
  • Weekly log (where the action happens!)

Everything from the index to the blue brains comprises the first quarter or so of the notebook. I like to keep the odds and ends separate from the logs. This is what this year’s index looked like:

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You can see how I would be devastated if I were to misplace my bullet journal. It contains an entire year’s worth of data. That’s why it’s so important to me to keep it close and handy at all times: it has become an extension of myself. One of my mentors calls his notebook an “external brain.”

Here is an example of what it looks like on the inside. A typical monthly and weekly log:

The monthly “to do” stuff carries over through the weeks ahead. Once you write down a task, the bullet journal system forces you to address it in some capacity: complete it, move it forward or backward, or delete it if it becomes irrelevant. This is ideal for tasking triage, or managing the most important, urgent stuff first. Used correctly, nothing gets lost, even amidst the chaos.

You can see how there is some bleed-through on the pages and how the binding on the notebook is coming a little loose. For 2018, I am trying a new brand of notebook: the Dingbats pocket-sized notebook. It is almost identical to the Moleskine, but has better paper quality and appears more durable. But that’s the only big change. With small tweaks here and there, I’ve found a way of staying organized that works really well for me – without being unprofessional.

If you’re looking for a way of staying on top of your to-do list in a way that makes sense to you, why not start from scratch? Bullet journals give you a loose but usable structure, flexible enough for you to manipulate it as it works best for your own life. It has helped me quite a bit; I can’t imagine not using it anymore. If you are interested, here are some resources on how to get started.

The official bullet journal website
Why I started a bullet journal, and so should you (Financial Times)
Why do millennials love bullet journals? Control. (Vox)
The Bullet Journal, Minus the Hype, is Actually a Really Good Planner (Lifehacker)
Bullet Journaling for Beginners (and Impatient, Unartistic People Like Me) (Medium)

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Making Time for Yourself

Someone asked me recently what I would be doing to entertain myself if I was back home. I didn’t have an answer. This is, I think, for two reasons:

  1. I haven’t lived in Hawaii for long enough to carve out a familiar, comforting routine. Of the past nine months (whoa) since coming to Hawaii, I’ve been away for almost six of them, and the others were seeped in an overwhelmingly liminal feeling.
  2. Almost all of the things that make me happiest are portable.

Think about it: if you were to leave home for a while – a few weeks, or many months – what is it that you would miss? If you have a family or spouse or even a pet, they have to stay behind. That’s rough, but this is about you. Who are you, apart from everyone else? What entertains you? What activities make you feel like you are fully yourself?

I like to ask people what they look forward to doing when they get home from work and all the chores and errands are finished. My dad would never let us pick up an activity if there was work left to be done; it made really appreciate my leisure time and, more importantly, live fully inside of it, free from to-do lists nagging at the edge of my attention. So when it is time for you to put your feet up and relax, what do you reach for? If it’s something you can carry with you, then, I think, you’ll always have a little bit of home with you wherever you go.

I’m sure I have a biased perspective. It took a long time, but now I am used to living away from my family and friends, and I had to learn how to make myself happy without them around for support, filling up my time and space. And I guess I’ve always been a quiet, introverted nerd. Outdoorsy and athletic, too, but my parents wanted me to be, and I’m not sure how many of those impulses are inherent and how many are the result of habit and upbringing. In fact, even those physical activities are, for me, solitudinous – running, swimming, hiking: all alone.

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Illustration by Chris Buzelli (from a great essay, titled “At Home in the Liminal World“)

When your principle form of diversion is depends on you alone – your creativity or motivation – almost any hobby can be carried along with you. I do things alone. I associate solitude with home. In a way, then, I can bring a little bit of home with me wherever I go.

Even amidst the roar of propeller blades and the chatter of the crew on the headsets, when I open up a book, I am transported to a different place, any place of my choosing. I can play my Nintendo Switch in a crowded, noisy lounge and forget that anyone else is there. Even writing this post, or any creative writing – I keep a notebook in my backpack, ready to seize the opportunity when inspiration strikes, and my phones “notes” app is filled with scraps of ideas and descriptions that I want to remember or revisit. When I run, it’s just me and the music (and suffering). I’m getting back into video editing, which requires a surprising amount of concentration and a challenging learning curve and a lot more invested time than I remember from before. All of these things bring me the most joy, and I can do all of them whether I’m at home or on the road.

Sometimes people get their “me” time, some comfort of home, from being around other people – group activities, team sports, spending time together. They could feel comfortable wherever they go. That is wonderful, a truly enviable characteristic. But this post is not about that.

I am deeply interested in people who make it a priority to carve out time for themselves, who have some quiet interest that draws them away from the company of others. Now, more than ever, it is so easy to waste time. (I’m guilty of this just as much as everyone else my age; I spend a truly appalling amount of time scrolling through memes and watching the same youtube videos over and over.) I’m fascinated by people who have clear priorities, who set boundaries on the time they’re willing to give to others and the time they insist on keeping for themselves. It takes some bravery and focus, and sometimes awkward explanations, to detach from the world around you and turn the focus inward instead, to be wholly and authentically yourself. I have a lot of respect for people who make it look natural and effortless, especially since I’m pretty firmly entrenched in the “antisocial weirdo” camp.

So if you have some secret hobby or passion, something that you do for you alone when no one else is watching, I’d like to hear about it sometime. I think I understand you a little bit already, and I’d like to know more.

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi

“Is it better than Episode VII?” my brother asked via text, more or less immediately after I walked out of the theater. I was still digesting what I had seen.

I thought about it. I talked about the movie with other people. I read about it. It’s only been about 48 hours, but I think I have answer: yes, The Last Jedi is better than The Force Awakens – not just on its own merits, but also what it establishes for the Star Wars universe as a whole.

Spoilers below. These are scattered thoughts without much explanation or summary, so it might not make sense without seeing the movie.

Negative stuff first, because it’ll be quick: it could have been 30 minutes shorter. The Last Jedi is 2.5 hours, and it absolutely feels that way. The sidequest on Canto Bight had an important message and great character development, for sure, but it felt like a strange detour from the overarching story and probably could have been omitted. Sometimes the pacing of the story felt off, and some situations felt like pure fan-service (not necessarily a criticism, just an observation). There are also a few jokey moments that might not hold up on a second viewing, especially with the porgs as (admittedly very cute) comic relief. Some folks complained that this is the “Disney-fication” of the series, but the original trilogy had its share of these moments, too. It would be a bummer to endure 2.5 hours of war and dying religions and family melodrama. Besides, it just feels good to laugh in a theater where everyone else is also laughing, even if the jokes are a little silly.

Now that that’s out of the way, the remainder of this post is dedicated to what I really liked about The Last Jedi, and in particular what stood out to me after one viewing. I will rewatch this movie before Episode IX’s release in 2019, and I’m curious to see how these first impressions hold up over time.

First things first: I was dying to know who Rey’s parents were. It felt like the entire theater was at the edge of its seat as Kylo Ren tormented Rey with this information. The reveal was not what I was expecting at all. It was perfect. I think the Star Wars franchise needed this to sustain itself. If we trust what Kylo Ren had to say – and I think we should, at least for now – Rey’s parents are nobodies, not any part of these enduring Star Wars lineages. Instead, Rey’s rise from obscurity is a powerful and completely necessary development, reminding us that a new hero can come from anywhere, even a backwater like Jakku. This point is driven home by the final scene of the movie, in which a child on Canto Bight grabs a broom using the Force (now affectionately dubbed Broom Boy by the internet) and gazes up at the stars while the camera focuses on the Resistance signet given to him by Rose.

One of my biggest ongoing issues with the Star Wars universe is that the Sith are not credible or relatable villains. Rarely do they demonstrate motivations that outsiders can relate to. “Kill them all” is one-dimensional and meaningless without emotional context, and no previous Star Wars films did this convincingly – yes, even Episode VII. In fact, I think part of the reason that Episodes I-III failed so spectacularly was not only because of Jar Jar and bad acting – they failed in forcing the audience to truly empathize with Anakin. We need to see not only how he came to choose the dark side, but to be able to put ourselves in his shoes and think, yeah, if that had been me, I might have done the same thing.

Here, in The Last Jedi, we see how perception matters more than objective reality: Kylo Ren glimpsed his master’s dark machinations, spooking him enough to reject everything that Luke stands for. Can’t we all relate to betrayal by someone we trust, someone we thought had all the answers? Kylo Ren’s dilemma is one of the most significant takeaways from this movie. It’s something we can forgive him for, which puts us precisely in the same position as Rey. It makes him a great antagonist and a great character. I never thought I’d say that after seeing Episode VII.

In a similar vein, I thought that Rey and Kylo Ren’s psychic connection across space and time was hugely beneficial for both of their characters, and it left me desperately eager to find out who was going to be the dominant influence. But while it was a great device for character development, I wasn’t convinced by Snoke’s motives in linking the two. How could he have not seen how conflicted Kylo was and how easily an outside influence, especially one sympathetic to Luke, could have further exasperated his turmoil? I’m also not yet onboard with the romantic angle that other fans seem to have seen. The two have great chemistry, made abundantly clear during their joint fight scene against Snoke (more on this later), but the power play between the two – their separate and shared suffering, their allegiances to opposite but somehow, sometimes overlapping ideals, their competing destinies – strikes me as much more compelling. Rey and Kylo seem to be two halves of one whole, but to what degree, I’m not yet sure.

There are two scenes that deal with the past that I’d like to talk about, because I think they mirror each other in some ways.

The first is Luke’s attempt to burn down the tree which housed Jedi religious texts, which he had carefully preserved despite his voluntary rupture with the Force. He hesitates, torch in hand. An apparition of Yoda intervenes – not to stop Luke, but to finish what he started, summoning a bolt of lightning to set the tree aflame. Luke tries to run inside to salvage the texts but is forced back by the blaze. Luke grieves over the loss of ancient Jedi wisdom, but Yoda sets the record straight, reminding Luke of a sentiment he himself had just recently expressed to Rey: the dangerous deification of the past. This was some striking symbolism – literally setting fire to the holiest of holies – and at first it seemed like a hilarious middle-finger to purist fanboys. All that you hold sacred is gone, gone, gone, destroyed by the very arbiter of those truths! But there was more at play here, I think. It established a theme that would arise between Rey and Kylo Ren later: mistakes aren’t cause for complete erasure, to start over and pretend like the past never happened. “Failure is the greatest teacher,” Yoda says. Go ahead and hold something dear, but see it for what it is: imperfect, mired in mixed motivations, but worthy of improving upon going forward – a direct reflection of the Star Wars franchise’s recent rebirth. Learn from the past. Do better in the future.

The second scene comes after Kylo Ren betrays Snoke and, together with Rey, issues a spectacular beat-down to his security team. Rey assumes Kylo Ren is repentant and ready to turn a new leaf, but he has other plans: to join with Rey, light and dark together, and start a new order, a similar agenda to his grandfather before him. Rey begs him to save the Resistance, the remains of whom were being bombed out of the sky as they retreated from their final spent cruiser, but Kylo Ren is firm. Let them all burn, he says, the First Order, the Resistance, the Jedis, the Sith, their families, the past. It is time for the new generation to take their place. Rey, of course, rebukes him, pleading with him to join her and the Resistance instead. They enter a stalemate portrayed visually by a force-battle for Luke’s lightsaber which neither of them win – another piece of powerful symbolism. Rey, too, has a painful history of betrayal and abandonment, yet she is the only one with a plan for the future that doesn’t demand destruction of the past. She wants to carry the good forward and leave the bad behind, in its proper place, while both Kylo and Luke can’t foresee the next step without a clean slate, perhaps a symptom of their lingering regrets. Even as Leia gives up on her son, Rey continues to embody reconciliation with the past and forgiveness of mistakes. She is the spark of hope.

This next part is going to generate some wailing and gnashing of teeth, but don’t @ me. Look, representation matters. It really does. And if you disagree, consider the possibility that you’ve always been represented. The way you feel when you see an abundance of characters who don’t look like you – well, that’s everyone else’s experience, all the time. You’ve probably never felt the surge of joy in seeing someone who looks like you, for once, portrayed heroically on the big screen. (Rose’s sister’s valiant death, and later Rose’s intervention on Finn’s suicidal plan, struck a particularly emotional chord with me.) As a white woman, this is something I can relate to only in a small way. I always had Leia, for example, revered princess and general, to look up to, though back in the original trilogy, she was a lonely island in a sea of white, male faces. Now, seeing lady fighter pilots and admirals and even First Order soldiers gave me a rush of exhilaration. Can you imagine how people of color, especially children experiencing Star Wars for the first time, must feel? It is direct, visual evidence that this movie, this world, this struggle: you’re part of it, too. The Last Jedi is more representative than ever, and despite what cranky pissbaby fans might say, this makes the Star Wars series much more realistic and convincing. It is a big, wide universe out there. It can represent all of us. It should.

I’m glad we got a final meeting between Luke and Leia. It was all the more tragic remembering Carrie Fisher’s recent passing, which leads me to this: we know that Leia, too, has to die. This is what I expected when she was sucked into space from the Resistance cruiser, that she dies alongside her admirals and generals. It would have added to the gravity of the situation and really driven home the point that the Resistance could have been crushed right there, right then. But she didn’t die. Leia’s use of the Force to propel herself to safety was… well, I’m not sure. Not believable? We’ve seen crazier stuff happen as a result of this mysterious space-magic. Not necessary? Then we never would have gotten the aforementioned reunion of Luke and Leia. Leia’s presence was also important for resolving the power-struggle between Poe and Holdo, particularly for the latter’s redemption. I guess the glorious space-death would have been a convenient time to say goodbye to Leia, but the Star Wars franchise thrives on keeping things complicated. I’m curious to see how Leia meets her end in Episode IX.

It hurt my heart to see Carrie Fisher on the big screen, remembering that she has passed away. She was a treasure not just for the series, but for the world.

On a similar note, here is one last theme that I noticed a few times throughout: women intervening on men’s well-intentioned but foolhardy plans. Rey and Kylo. Rose and Finn. Holdo (and Leia) and Poe. Each time, they seem to say: it doesn’t have to be like this. You don’t have to sacrifice yourself or put others at risk. There has to be another way. They represented the voice of moderation in a situations seemed to demand extreme solutions. It’s a different kind of bravery, one that I wish we saw more of.

All in all, The Last Jedi is a fun movie and a great addition to the Star Wars canon. It bridges the gaps between generations (and canonical inconsistencies) in a meaningful way. This is an exciting time to be a fan, even a casual one like me.

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Memory Palace

I’ve often wondered if my poor memory is just a narrative I’ve told myself about something I’ve never committed much effort to improving. For the past eight weeks, I’ve been in a class that is notorious for its demand on exhaustive memorization, and it presented me with a opportunity: why not try something different than the standard flash cards and repetition?

I think I first heard about memory palaces in BBC’s Sherlock. The name makes it sound silly and, at the time, I didn’t take it very seriously, chalking it up to a quirk of the fictional character. But the idea returned to me while preparing for this class, and after watching a few instructional youtube videos, I decided to give it a try. Would using a memory palace be easier and more successful than simple rote memorization at retaining random sets of information?

The class was divided into four units. We were tested daily on all of the numbers we had received so far, culminating in the overall unit test. When we started a new unit, some previous numbers carried over, but some did not. New sets were added as well.

I “set” each unit in a place I was very familiar with. Each group of numbers represented something I was “looking” at, in my mind’s eye, in that space. Recalling the numbers meant moving through the space in my imagination and systematically focusing on each object which represented a set of numbers. Here is an example:

Three hawks circle overhead. The oldest one is the bully hawk. He comes to steal food from the critters on the deck during certain hours of the afternoon. His brothers have to scout the place out in the morning before animal control tries to capture them all.

Weird, right? But it stuck out in my memory. Even when I couldn’t remember the particular numbers attached to these ideas, I always remembered the images themselves: hawks, bully, critters, deck, animal control. The rest was just details.

This method did demand effort. Thinking up with ways to apply numbers to an imaginary physical object took a surprising amount of creativity. In fact, after we got each new set of numbers, my classmates would usually go to lunch while I stayed behind for a while. I needed quiet to concentrate, scribbling down a nonsense story to tie the numbers together. This was probably the hardest part of the whole process, but it paid off: once I had some context in my head which united seemingly random data, it stuck. After returning from lunch, I found that I remembered a lot of it even without a committed effort to studying. I filled in the blanks for a few hours and left each day with a clear picture in my head.

For the first two weeks, that was all well and good. One unit, one location. When we started the second unit, though, I had a decision to make: do I put everything all in the same place, or do I separate each unit by location? Each choice, I think, had its own benefits and limitations. I ended up going with the latter and put the new unit in a new place.

I think the memory palace method would be extremely useful for someone who is trying to memorize something that will always be in the same order: the digits in pi or a chapter of a book, like in the video above. The route through the memory location will always be the same. When I was able to systematically move through the space I had imagined, my recall was very good. It became much more challenging when I had to jump from object to object out of order as we dropped and gained numbers for each new unit. This would be like asking someone for the eighteenth digit of pi, or the fourth word in the ninth sentence of a particular chapter of a book. It’s in their brain somewhere, but it might take them a minute to maneuver around mentally to where they can retrieve that information.

Ultimately, with this method, I wanted to know three things:

  1. Would it result in a good grade?
  2. Would it require less effort to memorize and recall than rote memorization?
  3. How much of the information would I retain after two months?

On the first point, I never scored below a 98% on any test, and almost all of those errors were the result of my complacency! I was getting so confident that I was making stupid mistakes!

Second, it took some effort in creating the context, but once I had it, I had it. The hardest part was reorganizing everything in my head for each new unit, as only some known numbers were carried over to the next. More importantly, though everyone performed very well on all of the tests, I experienced substantially less stress than my classmates. As much as I would like to chalk that up to my personality, that would be really, really dishonest; everything stresses me out. I went to optional night study only once, and all it did was remind me that I did, in fact, remember everything.

Third, I can easily recite the stories for each set of numbers, even from the very beginning. I can describe each object in each location without much effort. The images really stand out. Retaining all of the details, though, requires some regular refreshing. Many of the particulars fade with time. If I had reviewed everything everyday, even for a few minutes, I think I could remember an enormous amount of information indefinitely. I feel confident about that. (The same could probably be said for other memorization techniques, though.)

In fact, this whole experiment made me feel much more positively about my memory as a whole. I could have struggled with this class but I didn’t. Finding a better method made a huge difference.

(An unexpected, possibly coincidental, side effect of cramming so much into my memory at once – or maybe because of inventing so much imagery – for the first few weeks, I had nightmares almost every night. It made me feel more curiosity than fear, but it was definitely strange.)

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