Monday, December 31, 2018

Christmas: A Weird Heat Companion

Anyone who knows me knows I become deeply rooted in traditions. I would be hard-pressed to think of another holiday that carries more tradition than Christmas. I do not think I am alone. Most people I know do the same things every year this time of year. I think these holiday routines are what make this time so comfortable.

First off, I am fully aware not everyone celebrates Christmas. I do think, though, this holiday season (whichever you celebrate) is the biggest of the year. Even if you personally prefer Halloween or St. Patrick’s Day, the effect of the collective winter holidays is undeniable. For seemingly the whole month, business picks up at stores, traffic gets busier, and many workers get time off. Even if someone does not celebrate, the holiday season is inescapable. I cannot think of another holiday as pervasive.

A dozen people will give a different answer for their favorite part of the holiday. This is particularly unique for this holiday. In about ten seconds of brainstorming, I can come up with food, family, religion, cards, movies, presents, weather, decorations, music, vacation, and so on. Likely, any of these would be considered acceptable answers.

Of course, there is a dark counterpart of each of these positives. For all the good food, there is overeating; for all the gifts, there is consumerism, commercialism, and materialism. For music, there is “The Little Drummer Boy.” We all encounter these dark truths at some point or another, and we have to avoid letting the bad overshadow the good. The winter holidays are a time for joy, after all.

Also interesting is how the importance of this holiday can change almost yearly. Presents start to matter less, for example, while family time may grow more precious. For my part, I appreciate how the general mood everywhere is a bit friendlier. Sure, stress levels are at the year’s high, but still most people prove to be more cheerful and giving. More people are reflective and give thanks, a sentiment everyone can get behind.

Whatever you do this time of year, whichever holiday you celebrate, I sincerely hope everyone reading this has a fun, safe, relaxing season. Peace.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Procrastination: A Weird Heat Companion

Procrastination is often seen as a bad thing—putting off something dreaded in favor of something more enjoyable. It certainly adds unnecessary stress, but I do not think procrastination by itself is a bad thing. For instance, I like deadlines. In fact, I would barely be able to function without deadlines, so I often end up needing to imposing them on myself.

Back when I had deadlines for school, I struggled with one type of procrastination. Say I had a term paper due at the end of the semester. I would start on the project incredibly early, maybe within the week it was assigned. I would feel so good about actually beginning the work that I would shelve what I had done until it was almost due. At this point, I would dig out the work, now two to three months old, and attempt to rejoin my thoughts, stringing together paragraphs with linking sentences. Needless to say, it was not the best way to work.

I look at procrastination more as a way to prioritize our to-do list. Just having a deadline is enough to ensure something is done. For most of us, then, the important things will rise to the top. The most notorious procrastinators I have known make the claim that all their best work is done the night before something is due. Whether or not this is true is besides the point.

I also think putting off work in favor of more relaxing activities can put us in a better headspace to get the work done. After all, how good can our work be if we have not taken any breaks? At the very least, a relaxing break can refresh the brain for a bit. This may be a stretch—even putting it in words seems like an excuse—but there is some truth to the axiom, “All work and no play…”

Instead, I think the direct danger with procrastination lies with the speed at which we try to accomplish the task. If you run right up to when something is supposed to be done, you will likely rush and the quality will suffer as a result. The balance, which is different for everyone, lies somewhere in taking enough time to be comfortable finishing the product and allowing enough time to be successful.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Anxiety: A Weird Heat Companion

In many cases, anxiety can resemble stress, a previously covered topic. It can give that same unpleasant sensation where something is wrong. Unlike stress, though, it may not be possible to point at the direct cause. While stress may be something we can fix, anxiety might be the opposite. Instead, we may be subject to anxiety without a direct causation, making it all the harder to return to normalcy. In a way, stress seems more measurable, while the mass of anxiety is beyond such evaluation.

It is difficult to describe the two conditions, because everyone responds to them differently--and with different levels of severity. As a result, I can really only think through my own experiences. When I’m anxious, I tend to associate it with some overarching cloud of dread. Something is just not right yet I cannot point exactly at what is so troubling. Often when I question what has me feeling down, I really have to think what is at work on my mind. I think this is partly due to the fact that it takes a combination of events working together to make me anxious. For those extra-sensitive to anxiety, a multitude of simultaneous events could lead to panic attacks.

Another difference between anxiety and stress--for me, at least--is when the events are occurring. If I am nervous about something that is yet to happen, I think of this as stress. Also in such situations, I am typically pointing at one event (in the future) that is adding stress. For anxiety, I find it was things in the past working together to make me anxious. For example, I did not get as much work done as I wanted PLUS that social interaction did not go well PLUS I wish I had more time to complete that activity. As events snowball, anxiety builds.

If, as I see it, anxiety is caused by things in my recent past, then that should mean they are not possible to change. They have already happened, so I cannot undo them. I think this is what causes anxiety to take over. While stresses are things we can relieve by preparing to deal with them, anxiety is something we have to deal with as it has passed. Sure, we can work to improve the situations that may have led to the anxiety in the first place, but we cannot eliminate it fully. We can only get through it over time.

Unfortunately, not everyone processes anxiety as easily over time. I consider myself lucky that I am not susceptible to panic attacks and do not have to take added precautions dealing with anxiety. For the same reason, I would never begrudge someone who did have to take such actions. Every mind is complex, and anxiety has an impact on each one.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Thanksgiving: A Weird Heat Companion

Thanksgiving is in an odd position on the calendar. Wedged between the marketable Halloween and the impending Christmas, Thanksgiving can be overlooked during what we call the overarching “holiday season.” It is an integral part of the season, however, one of the three pillars along with the aforementioned holidays.

I appreciate that through the years, Thanksgiving has not lost its core theme: actually being thankful. While we have pilgrim mascots sitting around a table the day of and commercialism (literally) busting down doors the day after, we nevertheless associate this holiday in particular with food and family. This puts us in a position to naturally look around and appreciate what we have. Even if we do not actively think of “giving thanks,” the feeling of love and gratitude is all but inevitable.

Thanksgiving certainly engenders great memories. Arguably, the holiday produces more feelings than any holiday save Christmas. For me, it serves to recall immediately past Thanksgivings sitting and eating with family. In fact, this time of year makes up some of my earliest memories, which is probably true for many people who celebrate it.

Of course, I have the added pleasure of watching my favorite professional football team, the Detroit Lions, play on this day every year. While everyone else in the country simply looks forward to football, through this weird tradition, I am guaranteed to see my own team. Granted, this pleasure turns into disappointment more often than not, but it is still something I anticipate each season.

One part of Thanksgiving I don’t think I have ever experienced is the common trope of family arguments around the table. Perhaps my family is more even-keeled, or perhaps we avoid conflict. Whatever the case, I am glad to not have this added dread. The holidays are stressful enough.

Of the three consecutive holidays--Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas--a person could make a case that any is their favorite. Even if you are not in a country that celebrates it, I hope everyone has at least something to be thankful for and a Happy Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Money: A Weird Heat Companion

In many ways, money is the backbone of society. It influences everything: where we live, why we work, how we relax. Money is also necessary to live. Without money, we cannot eat or drink, travel to and from work, or occupy a home, much less enjoy recreation. Nearly every decision we make eventually comes back to its financial worth. We make sacrifices--unwanted jobs, modest homes--simply because they are affordable. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Conversely, money is called “the root of all evil.” Because it influences so much in our daily lives, the desire for more can easily corrupt our decision-making abilities. When we get some, we only want more. This is greed. The very crux of the capitalist argument is to do what is right for oneself first and foremost. By achieving that security, we would theoretically hurt others to benefit ourselves. Money can also lead to jealousy when someone else earns more. This gap can sever relationships. So by definition, money is a necessary evil. Necessary because it allows us to live, evil because it can drive us apart.

When I was in college, I arrived at a sensible idea of using money through the advice of a friend. His thinking was to use money first to take care of necessities (of course), save emergency funds as needed (again, of course), but then to live comfortably and happily with the leftover. This sounds overtly obvious, and it is. If we make decisions on where to work based solely on the fact that we make more money, how happy can we expect to be? And if we opt to not attend a fun event because it costs money, how much happier is that extra $100 in our bank account? This attitude was new to me, but I grew to like it.

Making decisions following this method takes the importance out of money, not letting it run your life. I would never advocate spending the entirety of one’s paycheck on something frivolous or living outside of one’s means; rather, I would recommend people stop turning money into a priority. It should be the means to enjoying life, not the goal of it. Sure, money may be the root of all evil, but only if we let it.

I realize this sounds, at the very least, more than a little privileged. Not everyone has the luxury of having masses of extra money lying around. I certainly don’t. But I have come to realize money is no key to happiness. Instead, it is quite the opposite. If we can take money off its pedestal, by turning it into a tool rather than a goal, we can improve any facet of our lives.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Fear: A Weird Heat Companion

Every October, movie fans flock to theaters to see the newest scary release. I like to make a plan to watch as many horror films as I can--modern or classic, psychological or slasher. In fact, horror movies are not limited only to October. It seems there is a new horror movie in theaters every month and on Netflix every week. And I could just as easily put on Silence of the Lambs or Halloween in April as I could in the fall. As a form of entertainment, we seek out fear and crave terrifying situations. As long as it’s happening to someone else. As long as it’s fictional.

Despite our seeming obsession with the macabre, humans certainly try and avoid fears in real life. It goes without saying, none of us want to be trapped in a house stalked by a killer. Luckily, almost no one has to endure this terror, but this doesn’t mean our lives are entirely absent of fear. Our forms of fear are less intense, but equally affecting.

People confront fears on a daily basis at a personal level as well as at a global level. We may be afraid of our boss which prevents us from advancing in our career. Or we may be afraid of our commute which prevents from even getting to work. Or we may be afraid of global warming and nuclear war which prevents us from getting out of bed. These are all fears, however irrational, that people could possibly be forced to manage.

For most people, the above concerns would not even register. But there may be little truths hidden in these fears that may seem a little more familiar. For example, we may be afraid of disappointing our boss if our work is not up to usual standards. This a far more valid fear that affects our daily life. What’s interesting, though, instead of destroying us, this fear could be a tool to inspire us to work harder.

Fear can also be a benefit or a hindrance in creating art. Imagine a person so proud of a song she wrote or a painting he made. The natural place to share this work is the Internet. But what about the countless examples we have of faceless commenters tearing down creative work for no personal gain? All it takes is that spark of fear and the budding artist will never share their work. The fear of being attacked online is painful, of course, because it is symbolic of the fear of failing.

The most commonly expressed fears always seem to be external, like snakes, flights, or heights. Often the fears circle back to pain or death. Failure, on the contrary, is more of an internal fear. The pain of failure is often a more emotional one, but still just as real.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Stress: A Weird Heat Companion

Stress, as they say, takes years off our lives. Supposedly, it damages backs, overworks hearts, and prematurely turns hair grey. When we become stressed, we may also become unpleasant and lash out at others. It’s an overall uncomfortable feeling, being stressed. But stress can also be a great motivator.

Stress is a metaphorical two-way street. If we let it define us and affect us, it can be crushing and debilitating. At its worst, we are unable to focus on anything else until we alleviate some of the stress. But at the same time, we need a little pressure in our lives or we will begin to stagnate. A small amount of stress can be this good pressure, pushing us—hopefully easily—towards accomplishing a goal. How does this work? Imagine feeling overwhelmed by a school project. You could either a) allow yourself to be overwhelmed completely and collapse under pressure, or b) compartmentalize the project out to a manageable level and complete a worthy submission. Nearly everyone has experienced a similar situation--to one result or the other.

I’m a firm believer in the mentality that if we are experiencing stress about something, it means we care. Whether this care is worthwhile and spent towards something meaningful may be a different question. Stressing about a big exam may be worthwhile because we care about something important; likewise, worrying about a baseball game may not be as crucial. It comes down to priorities. Consider, in another context, we use stress for emphasis, i.e. “I can’t stress this enough…” Truly, then, a legitimate stress should be saved for something actually important.

Another important consideration is whether or not the object of our stress is within our control. I’ll be the first to admit, I have felt high amounts of anxiety watching a Tigers game. This is stupid because the game is far out of my control. Stressing about the aforementioned big exam may be valid, therefore, depending on the amount of proper studying. Preparing for the test allows you to exercise some amount of control over the situation.

How we respond to stress is just as important as how we react to the failure of giving into it. Suppose the thought of that exam was so mind-numbing to us that we gave in to the pressure and did not study. Rather than confront the stress, we failed to prepare for it, thus avoiding it altogether. Then, as expected, we failed the test. What then? After such a traumatic experience, it would be better to turn that stress into a learning experience and know how to react to it the next chance we get.

I don’t think the correct answer is to completely quell stress altogether. As I said, stress under the right situation can inspire us and lead us to some great things. Instead, we should use stress as a resource. To me, it is akin to the concept of working better under a deadline. And little stresses early in life can make a person better prepared to deal with bigger ones later on. As difficult as that may seem--and it is easier said than done--treating stress as a motivator rather than a deterrent can lead to a more enjoyable lifestyle.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Moving: A Weird Heat Companion

No one likes to move. I mean, the physical act of packing up all of your things so they can be safely transported to a new place, then unpacking it all in the right places, working with three different companies to figure out electricity, water, Internet, all while worrying if you chose the right space. That’s stressful. It’s why we so often ask for friends’ help doing it.

But the actual moving and settling process is a great one. It is a reset from one part of your life to a new one. A chance to start fresh with a new living space and make it your own. If nothing else, it is a nice change of scenery.

Metaphorically, moving to a new house or apartment can signal a change from one phase of life to the next. Even if the change is not drastic--you are still at the same school, still in the same relationship--you are a little older and more mature. For example, you may have not been able to cook in a previous apartment, but you taught yourself how in the following house. In short, you are a different person, regardless of any similarities. There are still pieces of yourself left behind, though. I cannot drive past one of my old houses or apartments without experiencing a flood of memories1. And trust me, I make it a point to drive past old haunts.

Like most college students, I moved once every ten months or so, all throughout undergraduate and grad school. And while I always hated unpacking at a new place knowing this was as clean as I would ever see it, I always looked forward to how I would use each area. Granted, after moving, I always told myself I never wanted to go through the process again, but there is an undeniable sense of relief in getting it all done.

Now that I have been at my current address for several years, my belongings have dispersed and settled and I have no interest in boxing it all up. I still have that excitement, however, in the prospect seeing how it would look in a different apartment.

Another nice part of moving is that it may force you to pare down on some unnecessary things. The longer we remain in one place, the more stuff we seem to accumulate. Rather than go through the trouble of boxing it all up and ship it somewhere new, moving allows us to shed some of that weight and trash it. In the end, we are (hopefully) left with the essentials. After a move, we have a new place to start collecting junk again.

For me, I can accomplish at least some of the moving sensation by simply rearranging furniture. This gives the same old area a chance to look fresh and new. Adding new furniture altogether can change the demeanor of a room as well. Even a quick once-over with a vacuum or picking up trash can give that new-place feel. But nothing short of packing up your things and turning in your keys can give that sense of a new phase in life.

1 In fact, my friends and former roommates have a theory that you must go through at least one cycle at another living place before the really great memories start coming back. Something about nostalgia, I’m sure.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Social Media: A Weird Heat Companion

I have a complex relationship with social media, and I suspect most other people do as well. On the one hand, there is something entertaining about easily staying in communication with friends and family. People are reunited across great distances as if they were still in the same town or neighborhood or school. But this idyllic impression of social media is soon lost in practicality. On the other hand, social media can waste time at best and engender abuse, horde personal information, and spread falsehoods at the very worst. We are at a point where, I speculate, social media is responsible for the decisions made in most facets of our lives. This is mostly not provable, because the entities of Facebook, Twitter, et al. are so broad.

It is easier to look at social media as two separate concepts: “social” plus “media.”

For a long time, I have been struck by the ridiculousness of the seeming validity of social media. To judge oneself by the amount of friends, followers, likes, and reposts is not an accurate representation of our true selves. But the social qualities of various platforms is undeniable. It is a quick, easy way to surround yourself with like-minded individuals, united around themes and conversations. This can form, however, the dreaded “echo chamber” of too many people all in agreement. How social is that?

Furthermore, the virtual nature of these products means participants in online conversations lose the physical interaction. This means people can say whatever they want to whomever they want with little or no repercussions. For the vast majority of us, human decency is enough to keep us civil. But for a few people, hiding behind a screen is all that is needed for negativity to come out, which will only spawn more hatred. No social media platform is safe from rampant meanness.

The other larger problem with social media is the actual media half. The common complaint with media, however well-founded, is that it is a business and only shows us a sensationalized picture. Unfortunately, social media does the same thing. When you have a system of individuals sharing ideas, the same stories are naturally going to rise to the top. Therefore, readers have to work harder to evaluate information, work which is not always done. We have all been guilty of misreading a story online.

All that said, I still turn to social media as a lens for events. Instead of being the be-all-end-all integral to the goings-on of our world, social media is an effective tool to cultivate and bear witness to mass opinions. It is a forest, and our opinions are the trees. But we cannot get lost in the forest. And when discussions lose civility, I’ve had enough. Social media is just a tool; it shouldn’t be turned to drive people apart.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Health: A Weird Heat Companion

Health is undeniably a good thing. We strive to stay in good health for the obvious benefits of a happier and longer life. No one ever wants to be sick, so we work to remain on the opposite side. Isn’t it interesting, then, that the work we do to stay healthy is not often considered “fun”? It’s not at all that being healthy is bad, but the practice of staying healthy is actually quite boring.

Look at the stereotypical examples of health. What do you have to eat to stay healthy? Fruits and vegetables are the top of the food pyramid, certainly not chips and candy. What makes a healthy person “in shape”? Going to the gym or running, not reading a book or watching TV. Even sleeping soundly, which is supposed to increase our overall well-being, isn’t particularly exciting1. I suppose the counterpoint to this is sitting, which purportedly takes years off a life, is not very interesting either. It is, however, when coupled with something rad like video games.

Of course, many people enjoy fruits, vegetables, and working out. I eat some combination of my daily value every day for lunch and dinner. But I would never claim an apple--the paragon of health--to be enormously fun. Not as fun as a bag of Twizzlers. Some people get a rush out of physical exertion when working out. But that feeling is usually coupled with aches, pains, and exhaustion.

Put another way, think of what we use to reward ourselves and others. If a child does something admirable, they earn a piece of candy. After we finish studying for an exam, we allow ourselves an hour of TV. What is conventionally considered “unhealthy” is typically a positive reinforcement! There is an opposition here.

In the end, what is considered healthy may not be exciting, but they are unquestionably beneficial. If something tastes good, there’s a chance it was processed to be that way and is lousy for you as a result. Meanwhile, just because something is bland doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be eaten2. As with American literature, Moby Dick may not be much fun, but it is definitely important.

1 But it is excellent.
2 I have a celery stalk nearly every day for lunch.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Cooking: A Weird Heat Companion

I am not really the right audience to appreciate cooking as an art form. I don’t much enjoy doing it myself. Cooking a beautiful meal takes time, and unfortunately, I would rather spend my time in other ways. I also have a rather Neanderthal concept of food. I get about as much enjoyment out of a boxed mac and cheese as I do with an extensive meal. After eating, as long as it tasted fine and I’m no longer hungry, I consider it a success. Of course, I can realize when I have had especially great food, but I do not feel the need to dedicate an amount of time to recreate it.

When I watch cooking shows (usually for the human drama as opposed to the actual cooking) the actual process leaves me mostly baffled. I can follow directions, and my results usually match the accompanying picture. But the creative ability to experiment? It is alien to me. I do not understand how to turn the right dials to make adjustments and improvements to meals.

It is this experimentation which does fascinate me. To me, it’s the difference between preparing a meal and capital-’C’ Cooking. Almost anyone should be able to follow the step-by-step directions and accomplish a meal. That ability to analyze a set of ingredients, though, is what impresses me.

Like other art forms, cooking fulfills the individual. It is about having a finished product at the end and feel pride. On the other hand, people enjoy cooking for others as much as they do for themselves. In this way, the art of cooking is different from the others. A meal is inherently consumable. Sure, critics can express admiration for a painting or a song, but a recipient can really love an exquisite meal. That bond is special.

Even though I do not feel the same way about actually cooking myself, I can appreciate those who compare a finished meal to a freshly painted canvas, to a work of art. Arriving at the right combination of spices and flavors takes practice. There is no question to me: an elaborate meal--like any work of art--takes time, effort, and emotion. I sometimes wish I had an expert tasting palate and could tell exactly what makes up a meal. In the meantime, I’ll leave it to the professionals.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Growing Up: A Weird Heat Companion

Whenever I hear the phrase “growing up,” my first thought is the lyric from the blink-182 song, “Dammit.” Of course, it is interesting the band I listened to most as a young person and still claim as my favorite band today never fails to remind me of my younger days. Immediately, I start to think of old friends and skateboarding and staying up late, things which are increasingly rare as I do, in fact, grow up.

Naturally, growing up is a good thing. When we are young, we talk about what we want to be when we grow up. It is always in this sense of wistful, hopeful dreams. What we “want to be” is the most idealistic concept of our futures. Regardless if those dreams are attainable, it is exciting to think ahead to what will come.

After we grow up, life is very different. We have established lives, happy marriages, delightful children, full-time jobs or any other measure of success. We are independent and can make decisions to better ourselves. At the same time, though, we have unavoidable complexities, like bills and responsibilities, we never used to have. We look back on childhood as a simpler time.

Part of this is the lens of nostalgia. We are able to look back on our former lives with warm thoughts. Unfortunately, we are not able to look ahead at the unknown, so we can only compare against the past. It may be a case of “the grass is always greener” where we do not know one side and cannot go back to the other.

The band, blink-182, was narrating their own lives when they sang, “Well, I guess this is growing up.” They were also narrating the experiences of their fans. Sure, there is some sadness in losing the innocence of childhood, but there is also a sense of empowerment as we advance in the world. I could still put on “Dammit” and go out on my skateboard, but it would not be the same. Not better, not worse, just different.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Crying: A Weird Heat Companion

Most of the time, crying has the unfortunate association with sadness. Whenever we see someone cry, it is automatic to assume the worst kind of tragedy. Certainly though, this is not always the case. Crying is the ultimate feeling of empathy. We cry when we are emotionally affected, out of sadness, joy, relief, and so on. It is not a bad thing to cry; rather, it is quite the opposite.

As one half the theater masks, sock and buskin, the Greek concept of catharsis describes the restoring feeling of emotional release. Crying is the purest form of catharsis. I like to think we are slowly acquiring emotions over time. When we cry, we are releasing this pent-up level of emotion--good or bad--in an effort to feel better. This feeling better is a return to emotional normalcy.

For me personally, I do not feel ashamed of crying, even if I do not make a show of it. To me, crying at an art form is commonly a sign of quality. If I feel that emotional tug, it means I am connected to the characters, the setting, or the events. If I am watching a sitcom, for example, and I get choked up when two of the characters get married--not an unhappy event--it means the show was successful at connecting me to the characters. The show was able to make them feel more real, more like people. Crying is a validation of these emotions.

Stepping out of the realm of art for a second, of course, we have to cry in our real lives as well. Some events, both happy and sad, are powerful enough to lead us to a state of crying. It is just as much of a release for true events in our lives as it is for fabricated events in fiction. While we accuse people unable of crying as emotionless robots, not crying is not an immediate sign of sociopathy. Instead, some people may be capable of carrying more emotion internally.

It is unfortunate we so often associate crying with sadness. It is perhaps more unfortunate that we generally perceive crying as a sign of weakness. We all build up emotion, and we all deserve the right to release through the comfort of tears.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Isolation: A Weird Heat Companion

As my previous few pieces on different concepts have evolved, the prevailing theme which continually bubbles up is how those concepts affect the creative process. So now, I am looking at how isolation fits into this creative mold.

Human beings are, by nature, social animals. We like being around others. We like sharing experiences. We like building connections. In fact, at nearly every stage of our lives, finding friends or a partner is a primary goal. There is a sense of comfort in surrounding ourselves with friends and family.

But at times, being alone is just as important. When we are alone with nothing but our thoughts, we are free to explore new ideas. Being alone also allows a person to fully be themselves. You do not need to affect a personality or sensibility to match up with another person. This independence can be highly important to the creative process. By not having a social connection present, we do not have to perform and can behave how we like.

The other important part of isolation is that it is an inherently judgement-free space to work. The only criticism you have when you are alone is, of course, yourself. This means you are free to work on something to the exact specifications you desire. At the same time, however, isolation can lead to reluctance when it finally comes time to share your creativity with others. Dare I say, isolation can become insulation?...

Everyone’s definition of isolation is a bit different. When I am alone, I like to surround myself with a lot--music, a book, a game, my laptop. In effect, this raises the question of whether or not I truly am isolated. Sure, I may be isolated from people in the same physical space, but I may not be separated from connection at any time. In such a case, isolation has become harder to achieve as technology advances. This form of pseudo-isolation also influences thoughts and ideas in other ways than if we were totally alone. Despite this exterior influence, however, it is the type of isolation that best helps my work.

To each their own, your sense of isolation is what you make of it. We shape our quiet moments of aloneness in the ways to work best for us. Even though most people primarily require human contact, it is difficult to deny the importance of solitude. Some of our most creative output can come from reflective moments in isolation.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Pride: A Weird Heat Companion

Pride has the distinction of being the only deadly sin that can also be an admirable quality. Of course, it can easily be taken too far. It may not necessarily be admirable to aggressively and boastfully display pride. It is nice, though, to take pride in hard work. Therefore, it is the only deadly sin with a nugget of goodness. This discrepancy is hard to unpack.

Let’s look at a few of the other prime sins. Nothing positive can come from a little bit of wrath; severe anger quickly sets a person down a destructive path. Overt greediness leads to one taking more than they deserve. So too does gluttony, in addition to making one obese and unpleasant. Pride, on the other hand, has some advantages (in moderation). This is what makes pride so complex.

Few statements are more rewarding to hear than, “I’m proud of you.” It is a warm and comforting sentence. It means you have done something good, something worthwhile. When others have pride in something you have done, it means they happily associate with you or your accomplishments.

It is a combination of self-pride and that expressed by others that drives the creative process. Pride is a major part of expression. If an artist or creator did not feel pride at least once over the course of the creation, the project would never be complete. And if there was not a sense of pride at this completion, the person would never begin something new. It is a prime motivator.

It starts to fall apart when pride leads to arrogance and conceit. As good as it is for others to have pride in you, this can quickly lead to an over-inflated ego. Too much pride is at the root of any instance of a God complex. It is easy for pride to infect a person and make them think they are better than others.

Essentially, the opposite of pride is humility. Even a hint of pride should be accompanied by a healthy dose of humility. Possessing a humble nature can counteract pride and turn it into a strength. It can prevent a person from feeling more important unnecessarily than others.

So pride is good--to a point. The difference, then, seems to be a bit of self-pride is good if effort merits the feeling. Similarly, when people feel proud of someone, this is validated when work has been done to deserve that pride. It’s when pride leads to an over-inflated ego that it begins to be a problem.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Nostalgia: A Weird Heat Companion

The snarky sentiment in pop culture today is “Nothing is new.” More and more new releases—in any form—are sequels, spinoffs, remakes, and remasters. We applaud any new idea for being original. Meanwhile, the massive amount of repeated stories exist because they are safe. They play off nostalgia. An audience has a built-in sense of enjoyment which naturally extends to the newer edition. Even if the new form is not any good, it does not need to work to get a following (which translates to money). How many atrocious sequels have we seen make boatloads of money for no reason other than the preceding name? Nostalgia is safe.

As the line between originality and retreading becomes increasingly blurred, what will become of this concept? Essentially, every iteration of follow-ups will bring in fewer fans. It’s the basic law of diminishing returns. Star Wars is a wonderful example. The films released in the early-00s, known commonly as the Prequels, are critically panned but well attended because of the fond remembrance of the original series. There is still a sense of nostalgia for those original films, but whatever feeling of affection for the Prequel trilogy will be markedly less. Since the Prequel film is generally seen as being of less quality, there is naturally less nostalgia for these specific films. Instead, that nostalgia is transferred to the older, better films, or it begins fading away altogether.

The Star Wars example is an extreme one. The sheer amount of materials in the franchise ensure that it will never truly fade away. For something with less of a foothold in cultural literacy, the sense of nostalgia will disperse even after newer versions. The original Robocop film was mostly excellent; the 2014 remake was mostly forgotten (as well as the original sequels, for that matter). Copies merely transfer nostalgia towards the original (at best), or deaden nostalgia for the original (at worst). The perceived lack of original material is not destroying nostalgia altogether, but it is causing a shift.

This shift is away from our mutual sentimentality, and it is evident in the way we consume entertainment. Our exposure to pop culture has changed so much in the past few decades. Even twenty years ago, people had access to such fewer outlets for entertainment. There were fewer television channels; music was harder to come by on the Internet; video games were more or less limited to the technology at hand. It was easy then to have a shared, unified culture around one thing. With the Internet, we can cultivate our own interests to specific points. We have access to a glut of ways to stay entertained. Twenty years from now, it will be harder to summon the sense of nostalgia if there is so many niche markets. Sure, the sense of personal nostalgia will not change; people will still remember their youthful experiences fondly. The communal nostalgia, however, will be altered completely.

Consequently, there are two types of nostalgia: personal and communal. As much as I enjoy the warm and fuzzy private feeling, I do still lament the probable loss of the public. Meeting people of a similar age later in life—in college, for instance—is about exchanging common threads. I wonder how different such an experience will be.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Pets: A Weird Heat Companion

Have you ever stopped to think how odd it is for humans to let animals walk around our houses unchecked? While we're away at work or school, a furry animal is left to its own devices to wander from room to room, interacting with anything according to its whims. It is strange. Basically, the only thing that separates my cat from a raccoon crossing the street is the window between them.

The thing about pets, though, is there is an accompanying emotion around them which everyone who has ever had a pet of their own immediately and universally understands. Pretend I detest aardvarks. If you have a pet aardvark, I may not appreciate the animal itself, but I can appreciate the love you have for it at the very least. For me, this is evident with certain dogs. I’m a cat person, so I’m not a fan of huge dogs who jump all over me with the apparent intent of forcing me to the ground. But I can understand its owner the person feels the same way as I do about any cat I’ve ever had.

We have unbreakable positive connections with our pets. The bond goes much deeper than being cute and furry. Sure, there may be a disagreement about what time to wake up or when to go outside. Then, all of the annoyances melt away with one “curl up next to you on the couch” moment. I have heard of people taking grieving days after losing a pet. This does not even strike me as weird. It would strike me as more strange to lose a pet and not have this reaction. It is part of the process of having a pet, and anyone who has ever made that connection probably agrees.

We can sort of point at anything and call it a pet. Dogs and cats are often called pets. Lizards and spiders can be called pets. A single rock has been called a pet. However unconventional the type, though, there is an implied mutual relationship: giving care and receiving comfort. While a pet rock might be easy to care for, I would expect someone to be at least mildly troubled if they lost it. The comfort returned from a loved pet is nearly unspeakable. They are warmth and happiness embodied.

I have had overlapping cats for almost all of my life. Each had distinct personalities, but there were constant similarities as well. As any pet owner knows: we take them to the doctor, buy their food, clean their actual toilets, and pay their room and board. What do they offer in return? Financially not much; we’re still mostly in charge. And yet, I hesitate to use the phrase “pet owner.” The relationship is different than owner and property. I do not have a right over my cat’s life. I take care of him, and he provides comfort in return. That extreme comfort is a reward any pet owner can understand.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Disappointment: A Weird Heat Companion

No one likes to be disappointed. It's an unpleasant feeling. No one sets out to do something with the intention of being disappointed. Why would anyone purposely seek out that feeling? Likewise, no one wants to be a disappointment. "I'm not mad, I'm disappointed" is an instantly recognizable, infamously devastating comment. It is an all-around lousy feeling. But disappointment is also essential to art.

I believe the prospect of disappointment is what fuels our appreciation for art. It's like making a bet. By partaking in any art-form, we are risking disappointment for the chance at enjoyment. That uncertainty is all a part of the experience. It’s great when it pays off, but an enjoyable experience is made even more so by a lead up of disappointments. It’s a rush. If every piece of art met our expectations, wouldn’t we eventually get bored?

This holds true for both consumers and creators. Art always begins as a perfect vision in the artist’s head, and almost always becomes a disappointment after its creation. It is rare to find an artist completely satisfied with the completion of a project. However great the finished product is, the artist is typically left with a twinge of disappointment. This striving to attain the internal vision, and thus avoid disappointment, forces artists to keep improving and creating. Here again, disappointment drives art.

At the same time, a creator is constantly negotiating with the disappointment of their audience. The disappointment of fans, and avoidance thereof, pushes artists to continue innovating, almost as much as the creator’s own personal judgement. It is a regular cycle. At every turn, disappointment is an essential cog to the creative process.

Disappointment is often intertwined with nostalgia, where something you remember is simply not as great as it once seemed. We tend to associate art with a certain time period of our lives: a cherished TV show from a childhood, an overplayed song from high school, a thoughtful book in college. Sometimes when we return to one of these, it may bring back memories of old but position them within our current situation. We look back fondly on those memories, but then question our interests if the object is no longer as good as we remember it. This has more to do with personal memories than the quality of the surveyed item. We tend to conflate the good memories of the time with the possibly average artistic worth of the thing itself.

The opposite of a disappointment is, of course, a surprise. Contrary to disappointment, everyone loves a surprise. To mitigate the risk of disappointment, we tend to lower expectations, to the point where a pleasant surprise is more likely. But disappointment often pushes art to new heights. It is a ceaseless push and pull between surprise and disappointment. The art is worth the risk.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Optimism: A Weird Heat Companion

Generally speaking, we view optimism as a good thing. Optimism as opposed to pessimism; positive as opposed to negative. When someone claims to be a pessimist, we assume the person is a downer, while an optimist is someone who is fun to be around. In the same breath, however, we could say it is the difference of idealism against realism. An idealist is a person who strives for the absolute best (the ideal) in a situation, a person known otherwise as an optimist. By contrast, therefore, a realist must be someone who expects the worst. Is being realistic such a bad quality? No, we would not say outright: idealism equates to positivity and realism to negativity. To my mind, idealism and optimism may be synonymous, but realism is certainly not pessimism.

Optimism is a difficult state of mind. It takes work. Any opportunity that goes wrong is a proverbial chink in the armor. For pessimists, on the other hand, they can offer a casual accepting shrug to any incoming problem. Even though optimists are, by nature, positive people, their attitudes are often met with annoyance by other people. As if optimistic people are too clueless to realize what is actually going on, their benevolent actions are nearly invalidated. This is not very fair. If we've already established optimism is broadly positive, where is the logic in attacking it? Staying optimistic is worth the effort. It's what makes having a favorite sports team fun. Optimism puts the excitement in anticipation.

Conversely, optimism can lead to heightened disappointment. Perhaps, it is the outward expression of disappointment which gives optimism a bad rap. If we are constantly expecting the best, it is more likely to fall short of expectations than to meet them. In fact, it seems optimistic anticipation is directly related to disappointment. In any case, if we could monitor our levels of anticipation and disappointment, optimism could be a more attainable state of mind. As for the phrase, "cautiously optimistic," could a person reasonably claim instead to be "hopefully pessimistic"? Unfortunately, this is not part of regular vernacular. Simply put, optimism is one complex feeling.

Everyone could attempt to be a little more optimistic. Simply being optimistic is not a choice, to be sure, like any emotion is not a choice. I know that. But attempting to minimize poor expectations while opening a mind to the possibility of a good outcome has got to be an overall good thing. An optimist (probably) goes through life with fewer stresses. A scientific person (so, not myself) could go so far as to argue optimistic people live longer. They might even be more fun to be around, in the long run.

A realist is someone who expects something somewhere in the middle, not the best possible outcome but nowhere near the worst. A realist would be far too neutral to claim one side over the other. Instead, we should call a pessimist--join me, I'm smithing a word--a "despairist," one who expects the absolute worst. This is a far more accurate comparison. Honestly, most people are mostly realists most of the time because we live in a predictable world. I know I am. Sure, it's easy to get excited about one thing or dread another. But isn't it better to be happy along the way? If we could shift our expectations a slight fraction for the better--and allow others to do so as well--we might end up a happier place.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Game Review: What Remains of Edith Finch

The term, "walking simulator," does a disservice to most games. Okay, the majority of such a game is spent walking around, interacting with, and discovering facets about surroundings. It is not a "game" in the traditional sense of challenging puzzle solving or action-based levels. Such games are experiences which tell a story through interactions with the environment. Think of it like a book with more to do than simply turn pages. The term, "walking simulator," is reductive. It may be an accurate description, but it should not be a derisive one. That said, What Remains of Edith Finch is a walking simulator. It is also one of the finest examples of storytelling I have encountered this year--in any art form.

I should be up front: the developer of this game did something very nice for me. They exchanged a digital Steam code on my ancient PC for a shiny new code for the Xbox One version. It does not affect my opinion of the actual game, but it should be mentioned. Regardless, please note: the developers are pretty cool.

The story is told in a dozen or so short vignettes over the span of two hours. The short time frame, however, does not deter from the overall narrative. It is a collection of fascinating stories--some which are better than others--all told in a sitting or two. Each chapter follows events or moments in the lives of individual members of the Finch family. The theme is macabre (I mean, death is constantly encompassing) but not necessarily horrifying. And honestly, to say anymore about the experience would be a detriment.

When I say some of the stories are better than others, each episode takes a different approach. They all follow a different character, take place in another wing of the house, and utilize a new gameplay mechanic. Will all of these variations, some do fall short. Some characters are less interesting than others, or the new mechanic does not feel quite right. The beauty of the game’s format, however, eases from one story to the next so a weaker one does not linger. On the other hand, the stories are diverse and inventive, so they feel fresh. The highlights are very high.

The events spread throughout the brilliant set piece that is the Finch family house. A massive, sprawling structure complete with secret corridors and hideaways, simply exploring the house is a marvelous experience. For the couple hours spent in the house, the player begins to feel like another inhabitant. The house feels handcrafted yet bolted together, like a jigsaw puzzle. In reality, it would be a desirable place to explore.

Suffice to say, What Remains of Edith Finch is well worth the time. It is the type of game anyone could enjoy, from experienced players to those who have never before used the machine. The actual gameplay is never too difficult to bar someone from enjoying it. At two hours long, the game is the length of a tight movie. It tells an impactful story in about a dozen vignettes. After confronting the game’s conclusion, and after a brief chill runs down your spine, you will witness video games as storytelling at its very best.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Album Review: Jeff Rosenstock - POST-

Before I even put on Jeff Rosenstock’s new album, I wondered what the title meant. Because I had done no research, simply picking it up after a favorable review, I presumed the title POST- had something to do with genre. Typically in music (or any art form, for that matter), “post-” refers to a stylistic shift. I wondered if that was the case here, if the album was a departure from the artist's previous work. It did not really matter though, considering I was also unfamiliar with the artist. To be fair, I never do much research on music before I listen to it.

At any rate, since I had no expectations, I was pleasantly surprised when the album blew me away. My theory about genre shift was partly correct. Bookended by a 7- and an 11-minute song, the album accomplishes a variety of styles. Furthermore, each of the styles function incredibly well in their moment. Every song is given a chance to breathe. From the anthemic opener to the melodic close, the album resonated with me, fairly immediately and constantly.

Although musical styles evolve during the album’s run, each song has a personability which remains throughout. Even the most raw songs are endearing, as if Rosenstock is presenting a gift. The energy is both simplistic and brilliant. And despite the repeating oppressive nature of the words, there is a sense of hopefulness nothing short triumphant.

The best art comes from turbulent eras, and POST- feels very much a part of its time. The opening track is an angry, resilient yelling match about the state of life, appropriately titled “USA.” This bleeds directly into an equally angry, yet equally resilient “Yr Throat.” The finale reassures us that we will do anything but “Let Them Win.” (You can fill in your personal ‘them.’) All of this should come as no surprise in 2018. In fact, it becomes more difficult not to listen to the music without the lens of time and place.

Only a couple listens of this new album were enough to make me go back to his older material. With POST-, I found, Rosenstock doesn't really do anything new. I know this sounds like an indictment, but it's not meant to be. Instead, what I mean is that there is a melding of a variety of different sources. These sources are evident throughout the record. There are echoes of Weezer, shades of Titus Andronicus, even bits of DIY punk. In effect, I think this is why the album appeals so much to me. Is nostalgia enough to win over an album? Can you even call it "nostalgia" if it is for something you have never before experienced? Over the course of 40 minutes, POST- effortlessly manages to transport me to different eras of my musical tastes. It would not sound out of place to me in high school or in college. It is certainly not out of place for me now.