My Favorite Essays and Short Fiction of 2014

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Happy New Year!

If your attention span, like mine, has diminished considerably over the last year, consider these brilliant essays and pieces of short fiction. (My own essay is not on my list, but shameless plug here.) A fraction of the time to read, just as satisfying. As with all my lists, these are my favorite pieces I read this year, not necessarily published this year, although this is the most current list of all. Thanks, the Internet!

10. “The Man Who Invented the Calendar” by BJ Novak (2013) via The New Yorker
I’m cheating here because I read this last year, but Novak’s short story collection, One More Thing, was published in early 2014 and contains this brilliant short as well as the provocative story “Sophia” about a man who purchases a sex robot and gets more than he bargains for.

9. I Remember by Joe Brainard (1970)
I Remember is a small book, 167 pages of statements all beginning with “I remember.” Joe Brainard was born in 1941. He was a painter and artist, and this little book is an art piece itself. His memories are an assortment of pop culture (“I remember ‘Love Me Tender,'” “I remember the Liz-Eddit-Debbie scandal”) to food (“I remember ‘Payday’ candy bars and eating the peanuts off first then eating the center part,” “I remember ‘Spam.'”) and sexuality (“I remember getting erections in school and the bell rings and how handy zipper notebooks were,” “I remember jerking off to sexual fantasies involving John Kerr. And Montgomery Clift.”)

8. Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham (2014)
All the essays in the Love & Sex portion of this book are worth a look. I wanted to call my eventual essay collection “Not That Kind of Gay” but now I’m afraid it would be gimmicky.

7. “The Twilight of the Indoor Mall” by Mike Nagel (2014) via The Awl
Dying shopping malls are like whale carcasses decaying in the middle of cities. Nagel explores the corpse of one near Dallas. Remember the scene in Gone Girl when Amy Dunne buys a gun from a drug dealer in an abandoned mall? This mall will be that mall by the end of 2015.

6. “Naked and Unafraid: Baring Witness at a Christian Nudist Festival” by Adam Weinstein (2014) via Gawker
I never imagined the words “nudist” and “Christian” would go together. “My face bowed, penitent and hopeful, I focus chiefly on how bumpy the follicles on my scrotum look when smushed against a white towel. Christ changes your perspective.”

5. “Miss American Dream: How Britney Spears went to Vegas and became a feminist role model. No, really.” by Taffy Brodesser-Akner (2014) via Matter
Perfectly captures the spectacle of Spears, Vegas, and Spears in Vegas, and includes maybe my favorite paragraph of 2014:

The sun rose and descended over the Strip, quickly, like it does in a reality show, on sped-up film. Some dancers who were also gymnasts and contortionists rehearsed over and over for hours on the revolving platform, doing everything from a sexy schoolgirl-uniformed “…Baby One More Time” to a fire-breathing “Circus.” The wind blew even harder, and some in the audience paused their gum chewing to express to the security guards that perhaps it was dangerous for these dancers, and of course, Britney, to perform on top of the structure. Everyone seemed quite worried, but also there was nothing else to talk about. A young woman who had slowly gotten drunker and drunker over the past hour thanks to a double Eiffel Tower of frozen drink said, “Where the hell is that bitch?”

4. “The Devil’s Bait” by Leslie Jamison (2013) via Harper’s
Also included in Jamison’s collection The Empathy Exams, “The Devil’s Bait” explores the legitimacy of Morgellons disease and how all pain, whether “real” or “imagined”, is, well, painful.

3. “Gravy Boat: My Week on the High Seas with Paula Deen and Friends” by Caity Weaver (2014) via Gawker
Weaver takes the best cruise since that time David Foster Wallace went on one without Paula Deen. Filed to: Biscuits and Crazy. It was a good year for Caity who also spent more time at a TGI Friday’s eating cheese sticks in one day than I’ve spent there cumulative in my entire life.

2. “That Time I Took the Bus and Everything was Great” by Nathan Deuel (2014) via Gawker
Deuel proves that you don’t have to write about cynicism and misery and pain to make a compelling story. Refreshingly sunny and happy and delightful. Totally unlike me.

1. If You Knew Then What I Know Now by Ryan van Meter (2012)
Van Meter writes beautifully about little things, creating loving sepia-toned snapshots of childhood. Gorgeous reflections. My tiny review cannot do it justice.

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Rematch

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rematch

I have an essay over at The Rumpus. It’s about my name, my dad, and Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!

One afternoon I downloaded Punch-Out!! on the Wii U Virtual Console. A lot of memories came back, and it only cost thirty cents.

The first fighter, Glass Joe, whom I’d had such difficulty beating, has a record of 1 win, 99 losses. As an adult, I was able to knock him out in less than a minute. Once you’ve figured out the pattern, it’s not that hard to win.

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Dodging Von Kaiser

I used to think the key to winning was strength and brute force. Then I realized that Punch-Out!! is more of a puzzle than it is an action-based game. Develop a higher level of thinking and use your wits to survive. Don’t make the same mistakes.

I still can’t finish the entire game, but there are endless opportunities to try and figure out the patterns. Video games are great that way, giving you a second chance in a way real life doesn’t.

When you lose, Punch-Out!! encourages you not to give up: “Start training. Make a comeback!”

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Dollah Dollah Bells, Y’all! – Animal Crossing: New Leaf

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I’ve written about my appreciation for how Animal Crossing handles gender. I also appreciate how it deals with money, and possession of material goods.

kittyselfesteem

Animal Crossing is a game about collecting things. In fact, if the game can be said to have a goal, its goal is, at its most basic level, to collect. Daily activities include shopping at the store, shaking furniture out of trees (Oh, the feeling of shaking a urinal from the branches of a tree), digging up fossils. You engage with villagers, do favors for them, and are rewarded with stuff.

There’s lots of stuff. I have the Prima guide, and it’s like the LL Bean catalog of Animal Crossing. Over 300 pages of stuff. Pages and pages of stuff. Furniture. Wallpaper. Shirts. Bugs. Fish. Gyroids.

Back in the Gamecube days (circa 2002), Animal Crossing was definitely a game about stuff, at least for me. My main goal was to upgrade my house to get more room to cram more stuff in there. I want the complete Modern Furniture set. Also, more NES games and gyroids to fill my basement please.

My obsession with stuff spilled over into real life. I bought things just to buy things. DVDs. Clothes. And, yes, video games. It accumulates. It takes over.

In Animal Crossing, you can only hold so many items in your house. However, they supply you with a magic closet, a wardrobe with an interior the size of a small country, in which you can store extra items.

Eventually your own private Narnia also reaches its capacity.

That means it’s time to prune. Getting rid of your digital items is hard, especially the rare ones. The ones you can’t purchase from the catalog at the store. I would agonize over ditching these little piles of pixels. Ten years later, I can’t say I miss the Warbloid I left at the recycling center, or the Exotic Bureau I sold to Tom Nook. Why did I even hang onto them in the first place?

As Animal Crossing has grown, so have I.

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New Leaf takes a different approach to stuff. Yes, this is part of Animal Crossing’s natural expansion of the game world. (Every day I am surprised by the new things to do. I walked around town carrying a cup of coffee. Why? Because I could! And, you know, coffee.) But it’s more than that.

Re-Tail, run by husband-and-wife alpaca team Reese and Cyrus, is a recycling/second-hand store. It is the only store that is inside your village, not on the Main Street drag north of town. Whereas the museum, the post office, the Able Sisters, and the various incarnations of Timmy and Tommy Nook’s retail paradise are separate from your life, Re-Tail is an integral part of it.

Re-Tail encourages you to – take a deep breath – get rid of stuff.

Hold my hand. We can do this together.

There are two ways to get rid of your stuff. You can sell the items directly to Reese, or you can put them up for display in the shop.

re-tail

Putting items up for display serves no real practical purpose. Animals won’t pay an extravagant amount for your used crap (even Kitty won’t pay 10,000 bells for a Rococo Sofa), and, when it really comes down to it, you can’t make a significant amount of bells more than you would just selling your secondhand stuff to Reese. So why is the option for flea market space there?

Because it’s not about making money.

Re-Tail is about sharing your possessions – and therefore, your life – with your neighbors. Other animals come into Re-Tail. They browse your stuff. They encourage you to let go. “You can get rid of something, but the memories stay forever,” they say. They get their own personal use from your items. You can go into their houses and see your old things, if you wish. Reminisce. These little pieces of your life become little pieces of theirs.

Eventually they’ll outgrow your things — their things — too. The birdbath Kody bought back in July might show up back in Re-Tail in August. Or you might even realize that Kody gave it to Paula who in turn tries to give it to you. “You can re-gift it if you want,” Paula says. She knows it’s just an object. A symbol of her gratitude. She knows that if you sell it, or give it away, that you don’t appreciate her any less.

It’s just stuff.

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Animal Crossing is no longer a game about collecting. It’s a game about sharing. It’s a game about sharing your stuff, your money, your life, yourself, with other people.

Now if only I could stage an intervention with Kitty over her spending problem…

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Behind the Rainbow Screen – Animal Crossing: New Leaf

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Animal Crossing: New Leaf is a judgment-free zone encouraging self-expression that blurs gender lines.

The Animal Crossing series has always been about self expression. As the game has evolved from Gamecube to DS to Wii and now to 3DS, the methods of self expression have also evolved.

New Leaf is the subtitle given to the 3DS version, and, from what little I’ve seen, it’s quite a step beyond the Wii version in terms of what you can do. You can buy fortune cookies with humorous, often Nintendo-related, fortunes. As Mayor you have more control over your town. For the first time, you can customize your house beyond just the roof color. You spend the entire game staring at your own endlessly happy little avatar, and the customization options have exploded: you can change your pants, socks, shoes, and over accessorize yourself until you look an Olsen twin. Or both Olsen twins.

As Nintendo takes its own small steps toward the online environment, they encourage players to connect to the Nintendo network to download a new item each month. June’s item is the Rainbow Screen.

Rainbow Screen

That’s me behind the screen, in my teeny tiny butterfly-wallpapered house.

There’s not much of a screen to it. A screen implies something to hide behind. This is a transparent rainbow arching between two fluffy clouds.

June is also Gay Pride Month.

This is more than just coincidence, or Nintendo throwing a rainbow-shaped gay bone to its audience. Animal Crossing: New Leaf is a judgment-free zone encouraging self-expression that blurs gender lines.

Although your character’s gender is decided by whether you think you’re “cool” (male) or “cute” (female), it stops there. All that does, along with a few other questions, is determine your character’s facial type.

With the current expansion of clothing customization options comes more than just jeans and sneakers. Characters can also wear dresses. (I admit that I cannot remember if dresses were an option in Animal Crossing: City Folk, or if that game still just relied on patterns. However, I do believe it would give you the option to take on a hairstyle normally reserved for the opposite gender.)

The Able Sisters – Mabel, Sable, and Labelle – run the combination clothing and accessory shop on Main Street. Each day they rotate the clothing your character can wear. It can range from the costumey – an Egyptian pharaoh’s robe, a motorcross helmet, viking horns – to the practical – stonewashed jeans, a plaid shirt, wire-frame glasses.

Your character can purchase any item clothing he wishes. Want to try on a dress? Go right ahead. Mabel even encourages it, even if she is a little older and clearly unaccustomed to cross-dressing customers. With the ridiculous costumes she sells, she should be used to a flamboyant queen or two shopping there by this point.

Yodel Dress

My eyes are closed because I’m embarrassed to be seen in Heidi’s hand-me-down dress. Yodel-a-he-hoo.

I have yet to mail dresses to some of my male townsfolk and see if they’ll wear them around town. If I can get Peewee – a butch gorilla – into a micro-mini dress, my life will be complete.

It didn’t click with me how much Animal Crossing is doing to not just ignore the issue of gender expression, but to encourage it, until a conversation I had with Kitty, my neighbor, who is a cat.

Each animal folk has their own personality. Although there are potential hundreds of animals, their personalities are not exactly unique. There are a handful of set personality types – the butch, the athletic, the grumpy, the cute, the cheerful, the scatterbrained, the elderly – and they are assigned to animals, enough that each animal in your town appears to have their own personality. Most animals are more creatively named than Kitty, and many are disturbingly named after a product that would be made from the animal were they to be slaughtered and processed. I’ve encountered a brash hog named Rasher, a duck named Pate, and a horse named Elmer.

Anyway, I expected Kitty to be the snobby type. There is often one in the town, usually a cat, done up in fancy makeup and expensive-looking clothes, and preoccupied with designer labels, frou-frou furniture, and maintaining a classy appearance.

I haven’t yet drawn a bead on Kitty’s personality. She isn’t snobby. She’s amiable. Middle of the line. Nothing struck me as memorable about her until she asked me the question: “Do you wear makeup?”

I had two options, which I don’t remember exactly, but were along the lines of “Yes, sometimes” and “No, never.” I chose “yes, sometimes.” Kitty responded, “There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s 2013. Boys wear makeup now. I say deal with it.”

Being new to the game, I had forgotten I could take screenshots at any time. Here are Kitty and I enjoyed each other’s company after our chat.

Kitty likes me for me.

Kitty likes me for me.

I’m not sure if any animal will ask this question, or just the “average” one I’ve deemed Kitty to be. I’m also not sure what the response is if you say no.

However, I’m beyond excited with Kitty’s positive response. I picture a young boy playing this game, confiding honestly, and receiving encouragement from a place where they might not expect it, and at a time when they might not get it from anywhere else. “I say deal with it,” indeed. I appreciate that this response comes from the animal with the most middle-of-the-line personality. It isn’t the brassy flashy one that says this, it’s your normal, next-door average Jane, saying, you know what? It’s okay. Go for it. There is nothing wrong with it.

New Leaf, like all Animal Crossings prior, lets you design your own town flag. Do it. Let your flag fly.

If you like my post, please check out this post on how Animal Crossing encourages sharing, and discourages making the accumulation of money and material possessions your main life goal.

The Bios Urn and the LifeGem

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I got the idea for my story on Every Day Fiction today, “The Day My Neighbor Amputated One of My Grandmother’s Limbs,” from two real methods of preserving human remains–the Bios Urn and the LifeGem.

I first heard about the LifeGem about 9 or 10 years ago. It’s a method of compressing the ashes of a loved one–human or animal–into a gem stone. Being about 19 at the time, I thought this idea was bonkers.

“Love your earrings. What are they? Sapphires?”

“No, it’s my mother.”

As I’ve gotten older (not necessarily more mature), I think of it a little differently. It strikes me in two different ways, depending on my mood. Sometimes it strikes me as sad, this inability to let someone go. The need to literally preserve a loved one’s remains and keep them nearby at all times. But I see how it can provide comfort, although then I picture someone rubbing the gem in times of stress. Personally, I wouldn’t want to be rubbed without consent.

I’m sure there’s a sci-fi story in here somewhere about a consciousness trapped inside of a gemstone, living forever, being passed down through the ages…

The Bios Urn is a more recent development, which I heard of last year. It’s a more organic alternative, returning a loved one’s body and life energy to the soil and using it to provide energy and sustenance to a new life: a tree. This appeals to the modern-day hippie in me.

Then I got to thinking, what if someone got really attached to this tree? What if they took “tree hugging” to an entirely different level? What if something happened to this tree? So this little story was born, a combination of both LifeGem and Bios Urn. These thoughts and ideas were compressed into a seed which grew into something new.

Everyone grieves in different ways. Everything we do to a body after death, whether it’s stick it in a box, burn it to ashes, squeeze it into a gem, or use it to plant a tree, it all seems a bit goofy when you think about it.

This story is about seeing another person’s point of view and trying to understand it.  It’s not always easy, and it doesn’t always happen. An often the people who are different, the ones who really want to be understood, they, too, have a difficult time empathizing with others or dismissing them as bonkers.

Empathy is an eternal process. Like life. Like death.

Requiem for a Manual

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Do you hear that? That’s the sound of the video game manual dying.

That strange, girlish, squeaking sound you also hear? That’s the sound of me weeping, mourning its slow, slow demise.

I love video game manuals. The video games I keep, I keep in perfect condition: box, game, and, of course, manual. Ah, the beloved manual. Without a manual, we would never have known about Birdo’s identity crisis in Super Mario Bros. 2.

We wouldn’t know the ridiculous scientific names of the humans in Toejam and Earl.

[NO IMAGE! I’ll have to get around to scanning my copy of the manual for this one.]

We’d never have the zany sticker book that doubled as Warioware’s manual.

[OMG! No image of this one either. I must be the only person with a love of manuals. It’s okay. I get it.]

We wouldn’t have experienced the god of all manuals: Lunar, The Silver Star Story Complete.

Why yes, it is hardcover, full color, and has a ribbon bookmark and enclosed cloth map. Game manual heaven!

Things have changed.

I first noticed it with Nintendo. Nintendo always had good, full-color manuals. With the Wii, and their insistence on cramming English, Spanish, and French into one manual, things started getting a little scant. A 30-page manual suddenly became a 10-page manual, filled with nothing more than the basics you learn during now-mandatory in-game tutorials.

Then this came along:

That’s the manual for Super Mario 3D Land. A little four panel fold-out PIECE OF CRAP.

Ahem. No, I’m not angry about this. I swear.

Almost all the 3DS manuals are like this. Why? Because the 3DS has a built in manual feature. That’s right: digital manuals. (Professor Layton is the exception, with a beautiful full-color manual. I do not have any non-Nintendo published 3DS games, so I don’t know if they’re following this trend.)

The Wii U followed suit, with Nintendo Land and New Super Mario Bros. U. They’re nice enough to include flimsy little pieces of paper in the case, but that’s it.

This is all in line with Nintendo’s push toward digital distribution. I wish the games weren’t $10 more this generation since they’re saving money by  not printing all this paper, however.

Anyway, I realized the end was nigh this evening, when I open up the new Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time for PS3. (More on this game after I play it a bit more.)

Here’s an image of the manual:

That’s right. THERE ISN’T ONE.

I’ll have to scan my manual for this game, too.

Now, a Sly Cooper manual was always a fun thing. They looked like the fabled Theivius Raccoonus, were in full-color, and included profiles of all the baddies you were going to face.

Side note: Sly Cooper follows one of my favorite traditional video game plots: Multiple bad guys (5 or 6 or so) that you know about in advance, you play though themed levels for each one, and the boss fight is a Big Freaking Deal. Metal Gear Solid got me hooked on this type of gameplay. Reading about the bad guys in the manual just enhances the excitement for me.

Now, with Sly, there’s nothing. Just an empty half of the case for me to put what’s left of my soul. The digital manual includes no Big Bad profiles, no artwork, no illustrations. Nothing.

I’ll forgive Sly. The game is a great deal at $39.99, $20 cheaper than your average game, so I can understand cutting non-essential corners. I’m just disheartened that this seems to be an industry-wide trend.

Am I the only one lamenting the slow disappearance of the video game manual?

How Do People Find Me?

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The other day I noticed that someone found my blog by searching “necklace heart shaped pendant fuck you.” Obviously not a Titanic fan.

That got me wondering how other people stumble across this dusty corner of the Internet.

It seems that the majority of people come her with some variation on Swamplandia! and the meaning of the red Seth, so I hope my little essay helps them find some meaning in that complicated symbol. However, two people searched “gator hat dollar tree.” Just because it cost a dollar, doesn’t mean it isn’t fabulous.

The creepiest person to find this blog searched “bowser and peach porn xxx.” Regular Bowser/Peach porn isn’t enough for this fella. He needs it to be triple-x strength. Rule 34, dude. I’m sure it’s out there.

Runner-up: “bowser’s penis.” I mean, okay, he has to have one. He has, like, nine kids. Doesn’t mean I want to see it.

Many people get here searching “sesame street book club” or some variation thereof. Now, I know they’re (probably) searching for the series of books that Don’t Forget the Oatmeal was a part of, but I can’t help picture a circle of adults sitting around and having a serious discussion of Ernie Gets Lost. This would either be the most boring book club, or the best book club ever. I’m not sure yet.

The one that made me LOL: “What to do to a pigeon with indigestion?” This probably led some disappointed bird lover to my review of The Pigeon Pie Mystery. (Or maybe Ernie Gets Lost, which features the classic board game Pigeon Land. Who knew I had two tangentially pigeon-related posts?) What I want to know: How would you even know your pigeon had indigestion? And what do you do about it? Pepto-Bismol coated birdseed?

Finally, one person got here by searching “I hate children.” I’m not sure where on my blog this search term leads, but I just have to say, me too. Me too. You’re welcome here.

Please let me know, how did you first find me?