Nathan Chen: Gifted and Pressured

My current obsession is Olympic ice skating. It’s a floor event. People gather in the lounge every evening and work on homework or socialize as the various events play out on NBC. Sometimes we get really into them, especially when the Americans are doing well (which is not particularly often, but still). But whenever ice skating is on, everyone is glued to the screen.

For good reason too. Ice skating is probably one of the most overly-hyped events. It’s practically a symbol of the entire games – the image of beautifully bedazzled people twirling and leaping across the ice. Plus, it lends itself well to big personalities. Adam Rippon’s reception thus far has been a great example of that.

So it makes sense that when promoting the Olympics, networks turn to notable ice skaters. Nathan Chen was one of those ice skaters.

Touted as Team USA’s best chance for a gold medal in figure skating, NBC announcers dubbed him the “Quad King” thanks to his seemingly inhuman ability to pull off quads, or jumps with 4 spins in the air. It’s currently the highest-scored jump in ice skating, and thanks to that the ice skating world is in a period of transition where all the most successful male skaters are more or less required to have one in their programs if they want to be competitive.

Nathan was also the winner of the 2017 Rostelecom Cup, beating out previous World and Olympic champion and expected winner Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, to the surprise of pretty much everyone.

All that being said, Nathan was hyped BIG TIME. And the fact that he’s only 18 years old and this is his first Olympics only added to his mystique.

So NBC announcers were shocked and appalled when Nathan didn’t live up to their sky-high expectations. He stumbled through his short program in the Team skate, falling on jumps he had repeatedly shown to be able to pull off flawlessly in previous competitions and practices. Then, in his big chance to redeem himself in the Individual Short Program skate, he stumbled once more, landing in 17th place.

Suddenly, the boy for whom Olympic gold was “his to lose” had lost. I watched his falls over and over again as the NBC commentators deeply analyzed what had gone wrong. But to me, it was exceedingly obvious what had happened to Nathan.

See, we as a culture love winners. I don’t think that’s a crazy statement to make, I mean, it’s the reason the Olympics even exists. Winners of all types – athletic, historic, and intellectual. But there’s something we love even more than a winner – a prodigy.

It combines so many of the things we celebrate in our society. Youth, achievement, success… if a young person is unusually good at their chosen craft, there’s a good chance you’ll hear about it on the news or on the Olympics. That’s basically the whole draw of the Olympics too – young, extremely talented athletes. Prodigies.

And Nathan Chen is the epitome of that prodigy. Barely an adult and already shaking up the skating world. 18 years old and USA’s biggest chance for gold in ice skating.

But as celebrated as it is, it’s not always easy to be young and talented. I can’t say I’ve ever been an Olympic athlete, but watching Nathan Chen stumble under the collective eye of his entire country, I related. I’m sure many people with a similar educational experience to me can attest – being a “gifted” kid is a strange and ultimately overwhelmingly negative experience.

Ignore the fact all of us gifted kids never got to develop our social skills along with our peers since we were all so driven to improve our mental skills, although that’s a topic for another post, and look instead to the expectations.

When you’re young and gifted, success is expected. It’s not earned. You’re good at things naturally, and you don’t need to work nearly as hard as your peers. I coasted through elementary and middle school barely studying. I did my homework, sure, but beyond that I relied on my natural talents for school. I expected that that would be enough, and those around me expected me to continue to succeed all throughout school.

It seems like a natural system, right up until you’re in high school and you realize that everyone else around you is just as smart as you are, and not only that, they’re talented in sports or social skills or leadership. Suddenly your excellent test-taking skills don’t matter as much in the mad rush into college, and then in college you’re no more special than anyone else. You start back at ground zero, and you don’t have the skills to claw your way back to the top because you’ve never had to do that.

And you still have those expectations. They don’t go away. You still expect to not only succeed but excel at everything you do, and though they don’t say so, so does everyone around you. Or even if they don’t, you feel like they do. And that natural school talent you had as a kid doesn’t save you from the weight of those expectations once you realize that you’re pretty average, and you’ve never learned how to fail.

Now, I’ll admit, that’s a little bit of a cynical view of it all. It ignores the fact that, at least in my experience, you get to continue to excel in the things you love doing the most. And it ignores the fact that at the very least you’re not alone (my entire Hutton Honors College floor probably has a similar experience). And I don’t want to imply that Nathan Chen didn’t put any work into his ice skating because he’s a prodigy or a natural. But, you can’t deny that the expectations placed on him were way too optimistic, and that nobody ever expected him to fail.

Because in reality, Nathan Chen wasn’t really a gold medal favorite. He could have won gold, but that would have relied on a lot of other skaters not doing as well as they usually do, including the very skater he beat in the Rostelecom Cup, Yuzuru Hanyu. That’s probably what happened in the Rostelecom Cup itself. As great as Nathan Chen is, and he is great, the gold was not “his to lose.” It was his to set himself up for well, but a lot more went into who would win gold that evening.

And I can’t help but feel that it was those very expectations that led to his surprising failures in the Team Skate and Individual Short Program. Just like a former gifted kid struggling to realize they’re average adults since everyone else around them is usually just as talented as they are in other ways, Nathan was among other fantastic skaters who also had great chances to win gold. The only difference was the expectations placed on his head were the most inflated, especially considering he was new to the scene and very young.

But that was not the end of Nathan Chen’s Olympic story. In 17th place, Nathan Chen entered the Men’s Free Skate as far from a gold medal contender as he could be. And without the pressure that had weighed on him before, Nathan put down a record-breaking skate. He became the first Olympic skater to attempt and land six quads, and the first to land five clean quads. He rocketed from 17th to 5th, and for a moment placed himself back in medalling range.

And as he exited the ice from that incredible skate, he said, “I just wanted to be able to leave here satisfied with what I’ve done.”

Picture me and the rest of the Olympics fans in the lounge at that moment screaming and crying at Nathan Chen’s triumph over adversity, not only because he’s an American athlete and a hardworking person who deserved it, but also because I think we all understood him. As I mentioned, everyone on my floor probably went through a similar experience of shouldering the heavy weight of expectation of others.

And everyone knew, or hoped we would someday know, the satisfaction of being able to succeed not by the terms of others’, but by our own terms.

Carly Rae Jepsen: Pop Princess, Lyrical Genius

A few weeks ago I was riding on a bus to Chicago on a scholarship trip, listening as I often do to Carly Rae Jepsen’s seminal album “Emotion.” As I was listening to it, I came to a sudden realization about the lyrics of a lot of Carly’s songs. They toe a delicate line between pop and alternative and do a wonderful job at grabbing the positives of both sides.

So I thought it might be fun to take a closer look at these songs to examine just how they manage to pull off this careful balancing act, and why they’re just great songs overall.

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What the Ship?!?

When I first started this blog, one of the first ideas I had for a post was a Valentine’s Day post about some of my favorite couples in fiction. However, instead of going through with that post, I spent last year’s Valentine’s Day compiling a massive list of love songs, so I think the time is here to sit down and have fun gushing about our favorite couples in fiction because, really, what else is there to do on this, the love holiday?

(Celebrate actual, real-life love? On my blog? Hah! Who do you think I am, some sort of person who expresses their feelings on the internet? Ridiculous.)

These couples come from all kinds of media, from books to video games to anime, and they’re not necessarily canon couples either. (In some cases, these characters don’t even canonly… know each other. Actually, that’s in only one case but… ah well.) In addition, it should be noted that these couples were mostly selected for their importance to my life. So there’s gonna be some odd ones in there. But I intended this post to be fun, and fun it shall be.

Soul Eater Evans / Maka Albarn (Soul Eater)


When I first thought about this list, there was no iteration of it that didn’t include this pairing. There were ships that came before it, and ships that came after it, but it sticks out in my mind to this day as one of my all-time favorite relationships in a fictional story, romantic or otherwise.

The world of “Soul Eater” sets itself up for some interesting relationships right from the get-go. It’s a world where part of the population can just turn itself into various weapons, and another part of the population gets to wield those weapons. It sounds… odd, I know, but by the time you’ve gotten used to the concept, it’s already quite charming. Important too to the world of “Soul Eater” is the idea of “soul resonance”, or the natural connection between a weapon and its wielder (called a “meister”).

Maka and Soul are the main meister/weapon pair in this anime, and it was always their relationship I cared about the most. In the beginning, Maka is distrustful of Soul (due to her cheating father making her distrust men in general), and Soul is too headstrong to respect Maka much (just because he’s a jerk). But by the end of the series, they’re incredibly tight companions, caring about each other, protecting each other, and knowing each other better than anyone else. Even putting aside the possibility of a romance, just their relationship is key to the progression of the story. You end up rooting for them to work out their differences, and watching their bond grow stronger as they do is probably my favorite part of the series.

Even if they never officially got together in either the manga or the anime, there are strong hints in both that their bond is at least a little romantic. They live together and share in each other’s triumphs and failures throughout the series. And honestly, just the focus on their strong bond and how it changes both of them for the better, making Maka more trusting and Soul more mature, is enough for me to admire this pairing for years to come.

Cynthia / Owain (Fire Emblem: Awakening)


There are a lot of great pairings in Fire Emblem, just as a consequence of how the game works. But I have to give a shoutout to the OG Fire Emblem ship – Owain and Cynthia.

As second generation characters, both Owain and Cynthia have the heavy weight of their doomed future hanging over their characters, an element that makes them such tragic and fascinating characters. But it’s also just as important that they’re both huge, dramatic goofballs who love heroics and theatrics. Faced with adversity, both of them turn to old-school heroics, and though how exactly they display these heroics is a conflict they work through in their support conversations, it’s obvious they’re working for the same goal.

I admit a lot of my love of this pairing comes from headcanon land. They both admire their mothers greatly and lose them in their doomed future, so I always thought it made sense that they would turn to each other in their time of grief and train together. At the same time, I imagine they’d have a lot of fun together, with both of their goofy and fun-loving personalities on full-display. But there’s plenty of great stuff about them in canon too. They’re childhood best friends who drifted apart, brought back together by tragedy and adventure. It’s just a good dynamic. (Even if their S conversation left… something to be desired.)

Vinyl Scratch / Octavia (My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic)


An odd pick, I know, but I’d be kidding myself if I didn’t include this landmark ship for me. If you think shipping two ponies from “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic” is weird, try shipping two background ponies who barely get appearances in the show.

But it’s the aesthetic of it all, really. They first appeared in the same episode, Octavia as a classy cellist for a party and Vinyl as a head-bobbing DJ. Fans immediately noticed both of their designs – Octavia for her unusually muted colors, all in gray and black alongside the usual pastel, and Vinyl because… well, come on, look at her. From there the fanon expanded. Obviously they knew each other, and obviously they had a rivalry because of their conflicting music genres. Several fanarts were drawn, several notable fanfictions were written (my favorite being this one), and it was hard not to see the possibility for an interesting relationship between them, romantic or not.

And now since I’ve stopped watching My Little Pony, they’ve appeared together once more in an actual scene in an actual episode… man, how cool is that. These two are just great. Conceptually, visually, and fandom-ly.

Percy Jackson / Annabeth Chase (Percy Jackson and the Olympians Series by Rick Riordan)


(Fanart Credit: viria)

Another pairing I could possibly skip mentioning when talking about great fictional couples. The “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” series was monumental for me – it inspired me to write and it gave me a great leading pairing to root for.

Rick Riordan’s series has been widely loved for a lot of reasons, but his colorful characters are probably the most notable. Percy himself, the voice of the series, oozes personality and boy-hero charm from the get-go. But add on the smart-aleck, cooler-than-everyone-else Annabeth Chase, with whom he shares a ton of chemistry, and you have a slow burn romance for the ages. This pairing, like most of my favorites, is built from a friendship, developed over five books. The vast amount of time the book spends exploring their relationship is one of the reasons that their getting together in the end feels so satisfying for the reader. Annabeth and Percy grow up together throughout the books, taking on insurmountable odds and improving each other along the way. It’s hard not to root for them, snarky and at-odds as they might be at times.

Nora Valkyrie / Lie Ren (RWBY)


It’s probably rather obvious by now, but I tend to fall the hardest for side characters, and even harder for side character romances. And even harder harder for side character romances built on friendships. Thus, Ren and Nora.

RWBY isn’t at first up-front about how these two came to be friends. There’s hints, even an entire song talking about how the two of them have been through a lot together, but just the hints were enough to sell this couple entirely to me. The pink, energetic ball of brutality and her slender, serene companion? Plus the implication that they’ve been looking out for each other for years, and have a bond forged in fire? Say no more, I’m sold.

Mix in the unrequited “oh god I’ve fallen for my best friend” storyline on Nora’s end, as well as the recent seasons finally revealing what actually went down to bring these two together, and I’m a devoted fan.

Wakamatsu Hirotaka / Seo Yuzuki (Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-Kun)


Okay, so, Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-Kun is a stupid show. It doesn’t have much of a plot, it’s just a bunch of idiotic high schoolers going about their daily business with a loose motif of manga tying it all together. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say I love the characters. They’re silly and don’t really get anywhere, development-wise, but it’s so fun to watch them that it doesn’t even matter.

And the best two characters are Wakamatsu and Seo. Wakamatsu is the youngest and tallest of the cast, a basketball player, insomniac, and naive sweetheart. Seo, on the other hand, is terror incarnate. She doesn’t care about anyone around her. She revels in chaos. And she has the singing voice of an angel, the only sound that can cure Waka of his insomnia and get him some sleep. And thus, a strange dance begins to play out between the two of them. Waka is constantly tormented by Seo, but she’s the only one who can bring him peace. He also doesn’t know she’s the one with the voice he relies on, but she knows their connection and loves his ignorance too much to tell him. It’s pure stupid comedy, and yet I still can’t help but root for them to get over their weird hangups and finally just admit they love each other.

Cloudtail / Brightheart (Warriors)


(Fanart credit: JinxBC)

Another oldie, but a goodie. I was capital O obsessed with the “Warriors” books as a kid, and my favorite character was always Brightheart. Her story just spoke to me, an idealistic kid caught in a conflict too big for her and forced to wear the scars from it forever. She’s such a fighter, going through all the terrible things she did, losing one of her best friends, being rejected by her leader, being forced to relearn all her fighting skills… and then there’s Cloudtail.

Cloudtail is… well, he’s a jerk. He’s a spoiled, pampered jerk. And you’d think that a guy like him could never deserve a scrapper like Brightheart, but you’d be wrong. Believe in the redeeming power of love! Because, when Brightheart was in her deepest and darkest point, it was Cloudtail who, unexpectedly, stepped up to the plate to help her out however he could. Their romance developed both of them – teaching Cloudtail how to be humble and Brightheart how to trust others. And then… they stayed together! Through all the crazy stuff the clans went though, Cloudtail and Brightheart are a series constant, always there helping out, being awesome. So obviously they’re the best characters, and deserve the biggest shoutout. They may be cats from an edgy series for middle schoolers, but they’re still relationship goals for sure.

MU / Silas (Fire Emblem: Fates)


Someday I will do an entire post about how much I love Silas. That day is not today, unfortunately, although now come to think of it that would have made a wonderful Valentine’s Day post as well… but oops. Anyway, Silas is great. He’s the player character’s childhood best friend, whose ill-fated attempt to throw a picnic for them ended in disaster, and his permanent removal from their life. But, ever-devoted to his best friend, Silas dedicated his life to becoming a knight so that he might one day see the player character again.

That’s admirable enough, but then when Silas actually meets up with the player character again, they’ve forgotten all about him. But in lieu of being upset, Silas is willing to rebuild their friendship. And even if the player character chooses to pursue him romantically, it’s revealed that his devotion to the player was always rooted in friendship, and it was only after he met the player character again that he developed romantic feelings for him. Anyway, friends or lovers, this level of devotion is one of the reasons I love this pairing… and Silas.

Nozomi Tojo / Eli Ayase (Love Live)


Ah, Love Live. With your cute singing high schoolers and hinted-at romances. There’s a lot of teasing in this series of certain couples, but no pair gets teased about as much as Nozomi and Eli.

As “mom” and “dad” of Muse, Nozomi and Eli serve as the guiding older figures for the rest of Muse. They also knew each other before they both joined the idol group. Specifically, it was Nozomi who quietly guided Eli toward approving of the idol group. It’s obvious throughout the series that Nozomi cares deeply about Eli and knows her incredibly well, and Eli, though not always wise to Nozomi’s scheming, trusts her the most of all the other girls, confiding in her first, always. Theirs is a quiet and trusting relationship, and adorable as all-get-out.

Not to mention their beautiful duet, “Garden of Glass.” Listen to that and tell me these two aren’t in love. Go on, tell me.

Akihito Kanbara / Mirai Kuriyama (Kyoukai no Kanata)

I'm a wreck

(Sorry for the grainy screencap, but this is the one that always wrecks me)

Perhaps the most aesthetic of all of these relationships, Mirai and Akihito are a textbook OTP. Meet-cute? Yep. Well, if you call Akihito running up to the roof of the school building, worried Mirai was going to jump and instead getting a sword in the gut a meet-cute. But it’s fine, he’s immortal. Tragedy? Plenty. Mirai is a demon-hunter and Akihito is half-demon, you can bet they’ve got all sorts of drama going on. A relationship that builds? Totally. Mirai spends most of her first week of knowing Akihito stalking him in an attempt to kill him, but by the end of the series they’re in love!

Anyway, these two are sweet goofballs who have to withstand a lot of terrifying obstacles together. They look out for each other and defy great odds to be together. Plus, as in every good pairing, they improve each other. Even Akihito’s weird fetish for glasses progresses to the point where he learns to love the girl behind them more than the girl in them (see the several promotional images of him removing her glasses), and I, not being a fan of weird fan service, was very thankful for that.

Anyway, that’s ten couples I love, just in time for the love holiday. I’ve neglected to mention so many more, so there’s a good chance these sort of posts can continue into the future. Either way, have a happy Valentine’s Day!

Reckless Optimism and Walk the Moon

Sometimes you have bad days. Sometimes you have stressful assignments, or unexpectedly bad grades, or technology that won’t work with you, or interactions with humans that makes you feel like a joke. And sometimes all of those things happen in a couple of days. And suddenly you’ve got a bad week on your hands.

When that sort of thing happens, the best treatment in the world is a Walk the Moon concert. I speak from experience here.

As most followers of this blog could probably tell, I’m a huge fan of Walk the Moon, and I have been for some years now. They’re my favorite band, and I have a hard time believing they’re going to budge from that spot for a while. But I’m not sure I was ever able to place exactly why I’ve loved them so much until I attended their Indianapolis show on their Press Restart Tour last Saturday.

It came at maybe the most perfect time. I was tired and stressed and done with school and with my responsibilities and with life. I was also, simultaneously, ashamed at myself for being so fed up with all of these things, since I felt like I was failing in all of these categories. I’m not so great at failure.

And then I got to go home and pet my dog. I got to go out to my favorite restaurant with my best friend. I got to get pedicures with my mom. I got to be with my mom while she saw my favorite band in the world live for the first time.

But maybe the most therapeutic part of the weekend was the concert itself. It was in the Egyptian Room at the Old National Centre. To those who haven’t seen a concert there, it’s a pretty intimate affair. It’s nothing but the stage and a large standing-room only area for the audience (as well as VIP wings with tables and chairs to the sides, but I can’t imagine trading the amazing view for a chair). The stage itself isn’t really that big either, just enough room for the band members to stand and face the audience, and maybe walk back and forth a little. It was stiflingly hot in that room, packed in with the audience as I was, and I stood the entire time.

It was my third time seeing the band live, but it was the closest I had ever been to them. I could see all of their faces clearly. Once the concert got started, I danced and screamed and sang as loud as I could. I threw my arms up in the air when the moment felt right, and so did the entire rest of the audience. At one point during one of their more romantic songs, the crowd near us parted to give room for a man kneeling down to propose to his girlfriend. (The band members, watching this happen, demanded to know the couple’s names so that they could congratulate them.) The mood was happy, energetic, hopeful.

And standing among the hundreds of fellow Walk the Moon fans, screaming every lyric I knew (99.9 percent of them), dancing and jumping and throwing my arms in the air, I realized what it was that made me love this band so much.

They are optimistic. Recklessly so. You can probably gain that from their recorded music only, but it becomes absolutely obvious when you see them perform. Walk the Moon mostly performs optimistic songs and even when their songs are sadder, they’re always with a note of looking ahead to better days. I can think of only one of their songs that is truly sad, and that one doesn’t usually get played at their concerts. (Though it is excellent).

But it’s not only in the content of their music, it’s in how they perform it. They’re energetic, they engage with the audience, they run back and forth across the stage. Kevin Ray, their bassist, always turns around and shakes his butt to the beat of “Shiver Shiver”, a classic fan-favorite that’s heavy on the bass. Eli Maiman, their guitarist, likes to shred his most complicated parts while striking rock-star poses. And Nick Petricca, the band leader, vocalist, and keyboard player, always encourages the audience to let loose and sing and dance along.

At no point do they bring down the mood. It seems they have no other mode except high speed, full energy, all optimism. They’re flashy, they’re colorful.

They’re unashamed of their positivity. Recklessly optimistic. And that is what I admire most about them.

I could talk for days about how much talent they all have, how fun their 80s-inspired sound is, how I love their often goofy lyrics, but it all comes down to that optimism. It’s the reason I keep coming back to them again and again.

It’s the reason that particular concert was such a cleansing moment for me, because it had felt that entire week like I could never possibly be optimistic again. What was the point, when it felt like I was failing in everything? What did I have to look forward to except more failure and more feeling awful?

But that performance showed me I was wrong. As far as I know, we hadn’t left the world, hadn’t traveled to some place where things were suddenly alright that night in the Egyptian Room. Yet, in that moment, I could still be optimistic.

Don’t get me wrong, when I came back to IU the next day, the same stressors and failures were there waiting for me. In fact, they were there with a vengeance that sent me back into a similar funk to the one I had been in before. And then, on the way back from class one day, I started listening to their new song “All I Want”. And I was surprised when a few of the lines hit me particularly hard.

“I am my own sanctuary,
I am my own hero,
I am my own teacher,
I am my own best friend,
I am my own Friday night,
I am my own love of my life,
I am my own way out.”

I won’t lie and say that all of a sudden I’m a master of fighting my anxiety demons and winning. I won’t lie and say that I never give in to defeatist attitudes anymore. But remembering what it is that I admire so much about my favorite band is an excellent reminder that that reckless positivity comes from within.

That was the energy I was feeling that night. As much as it was influenced by the crowd around me and the band on stage, it was my decision to laugh and scream and sing along. And it’s my decision to be happy, even when it’s hard.

I’m glad this wonderful band reminded me of that