Day One

The following is kind of an experimental type of blog post. I’m not sure how often I’ll do this sort of thing – but this particular topic felt like it needed to be written in a more narrative style than I would normally use on this blog. It just all sort of came together this way. I hope you all enjoy something a little different.


 

My alarm clock is set for 6:30, but when I wake up and check the clock, it’s 5:00.

Somewhere in my sleep-addled brain, I mix up the numerals for six and five, and I’m saddened that I only have a half hour of sleep left.

When I wake up for the second time at 6:00, I’m confused how a half hour could feel so long. It usually works quite the opposite. I wonder if, perhaps, I forgot to set my alarm.

When I wake up for the third time, it’s to the sound of the alarm I did indeed set. I blearily shove myself out of bed to the sound of my sister Maddy shouting for our dog Sam downstairs. He’s under my bed – I know because when I fell asleep he was on top of it, and while he sometimes tolerates sleeping the whole night in my room, he never tolerates sleeping the whole night on my bed.

I open the door to let him downstairs – appeasing both him and my sister – and I get dressed. I look at the one open box on my floor, the one open duffel bag, and the various other scattered items I left for myself the night before.

I am aware, slightly, on the edge of my consciousness, that today is the day I’ve been thinking about for months now. Years. A lifetime, even. It is a fact known to me in the same way I know there is a chocolate-frosted donut waiting for me downstairs in the kitchen. The same way I know I’ll have to go downstairs and pose for first-day-of-school photos looking like I just rolled out of bed, which I did.

Just simple facts of the day. Step one, wake up. Step two, get dressed. Step three, get packed. Step four, leave for college.

When Maddy’s bus comes, I stand in the driveway with my parents, holding Sam. He dislikes being held, and would much prefer to board the bus with Maddy, or sniff the lamp post, or do literally anything other than sit still in my arms.

I wave goodbye, and it is all very normal. Save for the fact that I am not boarding my own bus, it is normal. We all go back inside, I eat my donut, and the normal begins to fall by the wayside. We finish packing, we get in the car, we drive away, two and a half hours.

We drive past familiar sights and unfamiliar ones. At one point, we pass a high school with students pouring out of every door – a fire drill. I feel strange that I’ll never take part in a high school fire drill again. I see a girl wearing a giant gray shawl, and I think about how she picked out that shawl for school that day, or the day before, and how she’ll be going back into the school in a few minutes to a math class or a history class. It’s all too much all at once, the knowledge that I’ll never experience that again. And then the school is gone.

We arrive in Bloomington, and it is as I always remember it. It is beautiful, and imposing. Welcoming and frightening at the same time. I’ve seen a lot of it many times, but it’s streets and buildings are still more or less a mystery to me.

We drive down the temporarily one-way street to Teter, my new home. It is also as I remember it, the most familiar part of campus. My dad and I walk to the front desk while my mom starts to unload the car onto the sidewalk.

I realize too late in line that I need my student ID card out, and awkwardly struggle to wiggle it out of my wallet to present it to the girl behind the desk. She asks if I know my student ID number by heart, and when I tell her I do not, she tells me that I should learn it, but assures me not to worry, since she has it in front of her. The fluster that begins with the ID card continues through my embarrassment to the point where she presents my key to me with the caveat that if I lose it, it will cost $200 to replace it, my roommate’s key, and the lock itself, since the misplaced key could otherwise become a dangerous tool for would-be thieves. $200 is just settling on my ears when she reminds me that I get only two free lock-outs before I am charged $15 for every time I need someone to get me into my room or my building.

I take my key, numbly, and walk out. Dad takes the car and parks it, and Mom advises I go find my room. I try my darndest to, but every door I try to get into the dorm is locked, and my key won’t work. I see a keycard to my right, and I wonder if I’m supposed to use my ID card. But by then I’m too flustered, too convinced someone must be watching me with a mixture of pity and amusement (“Can’t even figure out a simple lock, what a freshman.”), and I walk back to my Mom. She reminds me that, indeed, the ID card is probably what I need to use, and I try again.

And, go figure, it works. And I find my room.

Boisen Room 219. My name is plastered on the door in the shape of Mr. Potato Head, next to my roommate’s, shaped like the piggy bank from Toy Story. I turn my key in the lock and it opens, blessedly, and I peek into my room for the first time.

At this point, I’ve seen quite a few rooms at Teter. I’ve toured the hall twice and seen countless pictures. But, even undecorated and untouched, my dorm is the prettiest of all of them. It’s cold – the air conditioner has its work cut out for it – but it’s mine.

My parents and I get to work moving my boxes and bags into my room. It doesn’t take that long, and thankfully we don’t have to take the stairs. Then comes the long process of decorating. Mom is adamant about moving our lofted beds out of the center of the wall to the corner of the room. I’m at first wary of the idea – first off, I’m not sure it’ll work the way she says it will, and second off, I’m not sure we’ll be able to move the beds. Dad proposes a simpler solution, but Mom has herself convinced, and soon we follow.

Mom is right, the beds moved into the corner give us far more space in the front of the room. The only problem is the way my bed – the top one – juts into the space where one of the two desks lie. It’s not as cramped for that desk area as I thought, but I take that desk anyway. My roommate isn’t here yet, but I don’t want to make her use this tiny space.

We debate where furniture will go with spirit for the rest of the morning, and we’re nearly done by the time my boyfriend Kirby texts me to inform me that he’s on a break from class and can have lunch with my family.

We meet him at the Indiana Memorial Union. It’s the first time I’ve seen him in two weeks – he came to live on campus early. We walk to Nick’s, and I notice for one, Kirby is pretty comfortable with campus, and for two, the two week absence has not at all affected our ability to talk about anything and everything. My parents hang back as he more or less leads the way to Nick’s, both of us just chatting.

It’s in that moment that I think that perhaps I was overreacting that morning about the stress this campus will cause me. It really is beautiful, and I have one of my best friends in the whole world right here, and all the restaurants on Kirkwood are delicious. Sure, I still have no idea where in the hell we’re going most of the time, but hey, Kirby figured it out in two weeks and so could I, presumably.

We eat Nick’s, and it’s good. It’s always good. We follow Kirby around to his dorm, Collins, and to the Wells Library as he fulfills tasks for class. And then we part ways, him back to class and my parents and I to Target.

We need light bulbs, wall hangers, and pushpins, but as we go on the list gets bigger. A whiteboard for the front of the door. Air-pop popcorn for the popcorn machine I received as a graduation gift. A bowl for said popcorn. Granola bars, a request from Kirby for his dorm.

Then, when we pass the shoe aisle, Mom is struck by a pair of simple black flats, and the buy one get one 50% deal prompts her also to buy me a pair of floral rainboots. As I try them on, Dad jokes that if I want anything in the world, today is the day for me to ask for it.

We head back to the dorm, and put finishing touches on the decoration. Dad strings twinkle lights over my bed. I decide where my posters should go.

By then, I’m sweaty and disgusting. The weather outside is sticky and hot and by the time we’re done, I want nothing more in the world than to try out the showers on my floor. Still, I pose for a few pictures, and suddenly, without much fanfare, my parents have left.

The room is so very quiet without them there. I gather my stuff together for the shower, and, unnerved by the silence, put on my record player while I work. All at once, my RA is at the door. My RA is a friendly, bubbly girl named Cat, and she strikes up a conversation with me about my “Hamilton” poster. We swap stories about how we both saw it in Chicago.

As we talk, more people arrive. There’s Brynn, across the hallway from me, who used to be in Marching Band and bemoaned how my former marching band beat hers pretty soundly last season. There’s Sarah, several doors down, who complains about how her top bunk is inconvenient to get up and down from. There’s even more whose names I’ve forgotten, because I’m not good with names. Cat lets me get to my “shower party” eventually, but not before inviting me and the rest of the group to dinner at Forest with her.

Eventually, I manage to get all my shower stuff together. As I’m grabbing my towel, though, a slip of paper falls to the floor. Surprised, I stoop to pick it up. It’s a photo of me and my family from my NHS induction ceremony two years ago. We’re all wearing blue and black, and Maddy is a little blurry, but it’s a good picture. Thinking it just somehow fell in with my towels, I pin it to my mostly bare bulletin board anyway.

I take my shower. It feels far better than any dorm shower should, although that’s probably because I feel like a ball of grease. I change clothes. I put on makeup. I feel a little less transitional, a little more normal. I return to my dorm to relax for a bit before I head to dinner with Cat and several other people from my floor.

Dinner is wonderful. It becomes clearer and clearer that the beauty of meeting new people in college is that more or less everyone is on the same page – a little out of their comfort zone in a new place and hoping to spend time with some friendly faces. Over my delicious Forest Dining Hall cuban sandwich, I get to know several people from my dorm, and laugh… a lot.

Throughout the meal, I continuously have moments of clarity, looking around myself thinking, “Wow, I’m here. I’m here, with people I’ve met today, laughing like we’re all old friends. I’m here.”

When I return to my dorm, it’s with an odd feeling of peace with my new surroundings. It’s almost like nothing is real. I drift aimlessly around my dorm a bit – getting through the entirety of Walk the Moon’s “Talking is Hard” and Bastille’s “Wild World” on my record player, finishing up the book I had been reading, and chatting with the people who walked by my open door every so often. A little after 7, Kirby texts me and we agree to meet in front of Wells Library.

I sit at one of the tables outside for a few minutes. I’m proud of myself – I didn’t have to use Google Maps to find the library this time. It’s a small victory, since the library is literally a straight shot down a sidewalk from my dorm, but I’m holding onto what I have. Kirby arrives, and we walk back to my dorm. I show him my room, and then we walk to Collins and he shows me his. Sitting in Kirby’s dorm room, I feel incredibly blessed for the icy air conditioning in Teter, compared to the sauna-like humidity at Collins.

Regardless, though, I hang out at Collins for a while. With the fan blowing on us full blast, Kirby and I talk a little. I realize that I’m exhausted and so we spend a lot of time just sitting, in a sort of quiet silence. We browse some of the Welcome Week events going on that evening, but at that moment the prospect of getting up and going somewhere seems impossible.

Kirby walks me back to my dorm at around 10:30. And it’s in that muggy, muggy night air that it hits me for the first time that I won’t be going back home anytime soon after this. It hits me like a falling piano – cartoon style – and the full weight is crushing. It’s all I can do to keep walking straight down the sidewalk.

We say goodnight. I walk back into my room, my throat and arms and chest all feeling heavy. I try and settle down, sitting on my bed with my laptop, playing games and listening to music idly, but I keep having to get down from my bed for things I forget – my earbuds, my medicine, a charger… finally, around midnight, I retire to sleep.

But the bed – it’s really comfortable. And even though I have to turn them off before I sleep, the twinkle lights on my ceiling emit a soft, warm glow in the hours I’m awake. And tomorrow, I’ll finally get to meet my roommate, and maybe I won’t be too tired to do any of the Welcome Week activities. And despite everything, despite how much I miss home, I figure it’s only temporary.

At some point, I’ll forget the tiredness and the muggy air and the two outfits I’ve already sweated through and will have to wash. Instead I’ll remember the people I’ve already met, and the people I will meet, and the energy in the air, tangible and unmistakable. And I’ll be able to focus on that one, most important fact.

I’m here.

 

 

“Are you excited?”

I’m pretty sure there was no way I could have made this week’s post without any mention of my finally moving into my dorm in Bloomington on Tuesday. I think it’s because so many adults view college as one of the best parts of their lives that so many also constantly want to know how excited I am for it…

And, I am excited, I think. I think. But beyond that excitement, and that also deep, gnawing fear, I haven’t really been totally sure of what to think about it all.

See, this summer has been a lot different than any other summer I’ve ever lived through. I’ve felt more independent, more on my own than I ever have before. In the sudden lack of structure left by the end of marching band, I filled it myself with my own structure. I’ve never had to do that before.

I’m glad for that, because I feel like it’s prepared me for college in a way nothing else really could. It’s a strange feeling though, since I don’t even know what it’s preparing me for exactly.

What I mean is: I’ve never been so uncertain of what the next year of my life would look like. I love preparation. I love control. I love knowing exactly what things will be like. But I’ve been to the orientations, I’ve done the paperwork, I’ve made the schedule, I’ve toured the campus. I know where I’ll be living and who I’ll be living with, and where I’ll be eating and where I’ll be going to class. I know all these facts but I don’t know anything else.

I don’t know how it will feel. I don’t know if I’m going to love it immediately, or if I’ll have to adapt. I don’t know what my meals will taste like or what the dorms will sound like at night when I’m trying to sleep. I don’t know who I’ll make friends with and what they’ll be like.

And I know so many people in the same position as me who are excited for college despite all that not knowing. I really have to commend them for that, because for me it’s terrifying. It’s cancelling out any kind of excitement I might feel for this upcoming year.

I just can’t honestly say I’m wholly excited for something that I know so little about. I know it’ll probably be fine. I know I’ll adapt, and I’ll grow to love the independence and the fun and the new things. But right now it feels like a lie to say that I’m excited. It’s an oversimplification.

I keep coming back to the first time I was a freshman – going into high school- and how painful that transition was for me. It’s fresh in my mind – feeling lonely all the time, feeling scared when everyone else was excited, feeling like I was progressing slower than anyone else – it doesn’t feel that long ago. And yes, I know I’ve changed since then. I’m very much not the same person I was. I’ve overcome a lot since then… including those first feelings.

But hey, maybe I’m overthinking it. Because, truly, I am excited. I’m excited to try new things and meet new people, and truly find out what sort of a person I am on my own for the first time. I’m excited to learn more about the world, to get opportunities… to have fun, honestly. And it’s not like I’ll be doing it alone. I’m not going so far away from home, and I’m blessed to be living in an era of instant communication.

So, I suppose the answer to the question of whether or not I’m excited is a yes. It’s a quiet and unsure yes at this point, sure. But I know there will be a day, when I’m older, when I see someone in the same position as me now and I’ll ask them if they’re excited, because all the fear I’m feeling right now will be a thing of the distant past.

Or, at least, I hope.

How Men Teach Women to Hate Men

A few years ago, my mother sat on my bed and told me that I shouldn’t hate men.

“Some men are bad, honey,” she said, “But there are also great men out there. You shouldn’t hate them all.”

At the time, I was frustrated. I had just got done telling her about Anita Sarkeesian’s “Women in Gaming” series, which I had binged that day, and it had awoken my mind to a big, giant, societal problem that I had never been able to bring into context the way she could. Suddenly, for the first time, someone else understood what it was like to be a girl wanting to see herself reflected in the culture she consumed. A girl who wasn’t a damsel, or a hardened (but still sexy) badass, or a flimsy love interest. Just. A hero. A main character. With agency and flaws and a story everyone could relate to.

But still I understand her point. Yes, okay, not all men are terrible. I know from experience that this is true. And to believe that all men are terrible doesn’t really help anything, it just makes my own existence harder since no matter how much I might “hate” them, I’ll still have to interact with them.

But also, I don’t hate men.

I don’t! I don’t hate them. I’ve met too many good men to hate them all. My dad, my friends, and many public figures I look up to – there are so many examples of good men.

But here’s the problem: I have to explain that to people.

That has to be the caveat. “I think women are systematically oppressed by a masculine-focused society BUT I don’t hate men.” That “but” has to be there. I can’t focus on women’s struggles without also bringing into account how men feel about those struggles, or else I get labelled as a crazy man-hater.

I don’t hate men! But you know who constantly pushes my capacity not to hate men? Men.

No wait, not men in general. No, a very specific kind of men.

You see, nine times out of ten, the people who encourage women to hate men are not women. Perhaps this is different in other people’s experience, but every time I’ve struggled with my “I don’t hate men” stance, it’s not been because of a woman’s view on how men are, but rather a man’s view of how men are.

Take for example a recent term I discovered. The “nu-male.”

Nu-males, according to Urban Dictionary, are “men (with “men” being used as loosely as possible) lacking self-respect who are completely devoid of any masculinity and will jump at any moment to defend women online for feminist brownie points while falsely believing that in return, they’ll receive sexual favors.”

I discovered this term in the comments section in a video of one of my favorite Youtubers, Folding Ideas, and it, at the time, terrified me. I’ve always liked Folding Ideas not only for his interesting and in-depth analysis of media, but also for his respect not only for women but for all quote-unquote “minorities,” often criticizing media for disrespecting them. That being said, his entire channel does not focus on feminist and socially conscious readings of media – that’s just an occasional topic.

Still, from the look of the comments section, you would think he talks constantly about feminism, and for only one purpose: to gain sexual favor from women.

Perhaps, for men, this idea is not terrifying. In fact, definitely for men it’s not terrifying. “Nu-male” is just a joke, a “witty” and cynical observation or a way to put down other men they disagree with.

However, for me, it just creates this world where every man wants nothing more than to have sex with every other woman. It creates a world where no man truly wants to treat women with respect, they just want to get into their pants through any means necessary.

I know that isn’t true. I don’t believe all men are like that. But so many men seem to believe it.

I mean, look at the idea of the “friend zone.” That popular notion that anytime a man is friends with a woman, he’s losing out on something. He’s missing his chance. “Poor guy, friend-zoned like that.”

Or, related, the “nice guy,” only being kind to women to pursue a romantic or sexual relationship with her.

Or, when I was young, my father telling me that all boys are terrible and that I should never trust them.

“But, dad, you’re a boy!” I would say.

“Doesn’t matter,” he would say.

And so with all these terms, it’s obvious to me that the negative stereotypes about how men treat women come just as often, if not more often from men themselves. And yes, it’s more often than not in a joking manner, but its still indicative of a culture where men accept these stereotypes as unchangeable fact. And yet they are confused why women react negatively to the idea that no man will ever respect her as a human being.

Feminism, as a movement, doesn’t hate men. In fact, many feminism ideals benefit men as well, freeing them from their own gender roles and expecting decency and human empathy from them.

But those women who do hate men aren’t taught to do so by other women. No, there’s a litany of men out there who do the job for them.

 

Storytelling With “Tres Horny Boys”

I originally had a much longer and very different post planned for this week. It was going to be more or less a follow-up to last week’s post addressing an example of a piece of media that I think does the depiction of mental illness and suicide well.

However, to be frank, the topic was too huge to tackle for a second time on a more specific level in the limited time I ended up having this week. So instead, I decided to discuss something a little lighter.

See, a while back I talked about how obsessed I am with “My Brother, My Brother, and Me,” a podcast by Justin, Travis, and Griffin McElroy. Definitely go back and read my review of it and check them out because that podcast is still one of the most genuinely funny pieces of content the internet has to offer. But recently I’ve fallen hard for another McElroy podcast product… “The Adventure Zone.”

“The Adventure Zone,” or TAZ, as I’ll refer to it for the rest of the post, is a podcast chronicling the Dungeons and Dragons campaign of the McElroy brothers and their father, Clint McElroy. It’s DM’d by Griffin and it’s honestly and truly a masterpiece in its own right. And because I always like to take a deep look at things I love to determine why it is I love them so much, I want to take a look at why this podcast gels so well with me and with so many others.

Now, I went into this podcast with high hopes, of course. I have made no secret of my love for the Brothers McElroy and their brand of comedic genius. And, on top of that, I adore Dungeons and Dragons. I’ve, admittedly, not played nearly as much of it as I’d like, but I hope to change that going forward.

See, Dungeons and Dragons is unique in just how, well, unique it is. There’s no other game quite like it, that can so easily appeal to so many different kinds of players. Every D&D campaign is usually unique in one way or another, some focusing on minute details for those who are picky and analytical, some focusing on action or character development for those who enjoy that. I’ve heard of honest-to-god D&D strategies! People who play it like a real competitive game, creating characters not for their intrigue but rather for their stats. And that, for me, is something to get excited about.

Because with a game that lends its players such flexibility, it becomes a powerful tool for building some really creative and diverse worlds with fascinating stories and compelling characters. Or not! And that’s the beauty of it.

So what kind of world does Griffin use D&D’s powerful world-building tools to create? Well, one that’s surprising and comical and beautiful and so obviously McElroy.

Their campaign is an interesting one, for sure. For one, Griffin makes it clear right off the bat that he doesn’t want it to drag on the small details. He refuses to focus on how adventurers Magnus Burnsides (Travis), Taako Taaco (Justin), and Merle “Hitower” Highchurch (Clint) eat, sleep, or travel on any of their adventures. They literally are shot out of a cannon to each new journey, and are given free rein to focus on the story and the story only.

And while this method was at first a bit novel to me, since my few forays into the world of D&D tended to focus on the “journey” aspect of the adventure rather than the episodic structure TAZ employs, it quickly became clear that it was the perfect method to tell the story Griffin wanted to tell.

For one, he knows his tools. And in this case, the “tools” are his family members, the main actors in his story, Justin, Travis, and Clint. Knowing their penchant for goofing off and getting distracted, Griffin constructs a world that simultaneously keeps them focused but also gives them some material to play with.

Griffin sheepishly berates himself in several episodes for “railroading” his players into doing what he wants them to, but honestly as a listener I’m glad he runs his campaign the way he does. Personally, I think he does a wonderful job at balancing free choices and unchangeable story beats to the point where it’s really not noticeable which are which, especially to the players and the listeners, which is the most important part anyway.

And if it’s not obvious at this point, I really want to commend Griffin in this post. It’s not easy at all to be a Dungeon Master, especially one overseeing the frankly sometimes flaky playstyle of Justin, Travis, and Clint. Yet Griffin pulls off his duty with grace and a good sense of humor, as well as, and this is most important to me, a lot of passion.

I think this is also what makes TAZ work so effortlessly for me. In the first few episodes, when the boys are just feeling everything out for the first time, some of the situations are funny, sure, but the plot doesn’t really get compelling until Griffin’s vision for the campaign as a whole begins to take shape. When the passion and effort he clearly puts into the campaign becomes apparent, that’s when TAZ really starts to shine.

And… I love that. I love that TAZ’s success hinges so heavily on its creator’s love for it. That’s something that resonates strongly with me, as a creator myself.

Not, of course, to diminish the role of the three main actors in the story. The “Tres Horny Boys” are certainly unconventional heroes, but they’re so genuine in the way they’re portrayed that they’re hard not to root for.

I think if Griffin succeeds in the balancing act of free choice and railroading, then Justin, Travis, and Clint succeed in the balancing act of playing their characters seriously and humorously.

I mean, it’s clear that all three main characters were conceived in a slightly joking manner. I mean, “Taako Taaco?” Magical wizard elf chef? You know, Taako, from TV? Magnus Burnsides, with magnificent sideburns, a ridiculously tragic backstory, and a vehicle proficiency? Or Merle Highchurch, a cleric who doesn’t know how to cleric and knows way better how to “ZONE OF TRUTH?” They’re all silly… and yet…

And yet, they’re played with a sense of reality. Despite their ridiculous names and roles in the story, the campaign more or less takes them seriously. They’re treated as incredible heroes in their world, and they are! And that’s inspiring, and endearing, and really easy to care about. And even as the boys crack jokes about their characters, at the end of the day it’s clear that there’s care and… well, passion, in this story.

So, whatever you do this week, consider putting on the first episode of TAZ. It starts a little slow, but trust me, once it hits its stride you’ll be hooked. You’ll be carrying your listening device around your house like a fool, hanging onto every word, laughing and crying along with the Tres Horny Boys as they fumble their way through Griffin’s beautiful and intricate world.

(I know, because it’s what I’ve been doing.)

Listen to the first (condensed for ease of listening) episode here!

All the Bright Reasons Why YA Can’t Discuss Suicide Meaningfully

Okay, okay, old topic I know. I’m late to the party. But allow me to take a side on the raging debate. Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why does not do an effective job at discussing suicide or mental health in a positive manner. And I could sit here and reiterate all of the reasons why this is, but honestly, a million and one people have already done that. Just do a google search, really. So today, I won’t be talking about 13 Reasons Why… or at least, I won’t be talking about it specifically. (This is partly because I haven’t watched the series, and partly because I’ve only read a bit of the book.)

I don’t feel exactly qualified to speak about 13 Reasons Why, but I can speak on another YA book I read that deals with a lot of the same themes. A book which, I think, is an excellent example of why so many YA books fail so spectacularly so often at discussing mental health and suicide for teenagers.

This book is called All the Bright Places and it’s by Jennifer Niven. A few years ago, it was marketed pretty heavily in our local Barnes and Noble as the “new John Green!” (This, by the way, is a really common way bookstores market books by local authors around here since John Green lives in Indy. Basically any book about teenagers by a local author also set in Indy gets touted as the “new John Green!” and it’s only sometimes true.)

Still, I picked it up because I thought the cover was cute and the concept seemed neat, and honestly I really like supporting local authors. And I read it.

And it was bad.

No, no, not just bad.

Disappointing.

Which, in a lot of ways, is even worse than bad.

Because if it were a bad book only, I could have put it down and returned it to the store before getting too invested. But because it was a disappointing book, I was engrossed from page one, legitimately enjoying the characters and the story line, right up until I was completely betrayed at the end.

The following post will contain major spoilers for the plot of All the Bright Places. If you plan on reading it, for gods’ sake, don’t. Just read the spoilers. Read this post instead. I promise it’s not worth your time.

So, because you definitely won’t be reading this book, let me tell you about it. All the Bright Places is about two teenagers, Violet and Finch, both of whom struggle with mental illness. Finch has been battling his illness for basically his entire life. His family situation is rather unhealthy, and suicidal thoughts have been something he has had to face for years and years. In order to get past this, Finch makes it a point to find some reason, one reason everyday to stay alive. This is immediately established as one of the most important aspects of his character – this constant mentality of finding that one reason to keep going.

It was this part of Finch’s character that really, really endeared me to him right off the bat. I’ve never seen a character with mental illness so central to his character simultaneously be so positive. Normally, characters with mental illness in YA are either constantly gloomy or negative. Finch is not that at all. He’s a surprisingly realistic teenager who just so happens to also deal with suicidal thoughts.

Violet, on the other hand, is rather new to her illness. After the sudden and tragic death of her older sister, Violet’s once happy life is completely destroyed, and her suicidal thoughts appear as a result.

The beginning of the book sees Finch at the top of his school’s bell tower, a place he often goes to calm down and think through things. While he’s up there, though, he runs into Violet, clearly contemplating jumping off the tower to her death. Finch talks her down, and brings her safely to the ground. From there, the two form a shaky acquaintanceship until a school project brings them together. Their project sends them across the state of Indiana, reporting on various famous landmarks.

As YA standards would dictate, Finch and Violet become close friends and eventually fall in love. Their shared experiences in mental illness becomes a way they connect to one another and they help each other through the tough times and come out stronger for it.

And then, with no build-up whatsoever… Finch commits suicide.

Okay, yes, there is a little build up to it but… the way the book presents the timeline of events, Finch’s suicide comes out of really nowhere. The book would like you to believe that the reasons for his death come from two separate incidents. One, an argument with Violet over… something or other (I can’t actually remember right now, if that speaks to how insignificant it was.) And two, his visiting of a mental health support group and their subsequent suggestion that he consider taking medication for his mental illness.

Putting aside the problematic notion that medication somehow changes or harms people with mental illness, Finch’s death makes absolutely no sense. And not in a “suicide is a senseless tragedy”-kind of way, although it is, but I mean as an ending to his character arc.

As I established up above, Finch’s defining trait from the beginning of the novel is that he looks for a new reason to stay alive every single day, no matter how difficult it might be. Despite the struggles he deals with, he remains positive. He fights through his illness. And yet, his death comes with no struggle. We don’t even see it happen. We’re just told it happens. I honestly didn’t even believe it when I first read it – I expected it to be some sort of mistake.

And with his disappearance also goes all the potential of his character.

And I know what you’re thinking. “But Gillian, what if that’s the point? What if it’s a message on how suicide makes it so people can’t come to a meaningful conclusion of their life? What if it’s symbolic?”

To that I say… I wish. Instead, Finch’s death is only symbolic in the ways that make it more tragically beautiful. He drowns himself in Blue Hole lake, one of the landmarks he and Violet visit. And the way his body is described floating upon that beautiful depth of water… it made me sick. Really sick. Actually sick.

Because if Niven truly wished Finch’s suicide to make a statement on how suicide makes it so people are never able to reach their full potential, she wouldn’t have made his death so endlessly “meaningful.”

And this is the problem with how YA depicts suicide. It strips the realism out of a very real, very terrible problem and makes it into some sort of martyr’s sacrifice.

See, death in fiction is a really dramatic choice for an author to make. It takes a major player in the storyline out of the story completely. If done wrong, it can make a character seem pointless, and can make an audience feel like they cared about a character for no reason.

So, most authors give their main characters meaningful deaths. Those characters who die, do so for a purpose. They die to save others, or to motivate others, or in service of some sort of theme the author hopes to convey. Sometimes, their death fulfills their character arc. For example, perhaps a character whose main flaw is that he is selfish dies saving someone else, thus proving that that character grew up enough to overcome their prior selfishness.

And this is all fine and dandy when the deaths we’re talking about aren’t self-inflicted. It’s okay to glorify deaths that come from courageous acts, or emphasize the beautiful tragedy of a terrible accident. There’s no danger of inspiring real people to go out and die that way too since, mostly, they don’t have any control over that.

However, when we’re talking about suicide, the glorification becomes a real problem. A character committing suicide is a character death just like any other character death, and so authors feel the need to justify them – make them meaningful and beautiful, make them fulfill some narrative purpose.

Here’s the issue though – in real life, suicide doesn’t do any of that. It’s not meaningful. It’s not beautiful. It’s terrible and awful and sad and it never fixes anything.

When characters commit suicide in books, authors peddle the lie that suicide is a death that can solve problems. A death that can teach lessons to other people. For Finch, Niven peddles the idea that suicide is a beautiful end to a beautiful boy’s life, because to depict it as anything else wouldn’t fit the story she was trying to tell. For Hannah in 13 Reasons Why, Asher peddles the idea that suicide can somehow teach her bullies a valuable life lesson.

Here’s the reality. Suicide can’t do that. Suicide is a meaningless loss of life. It is not beautiful, and to depict it as anything else than ugly and meaningless is incredibly dangerous.

Because unlike a glorious death on the battlefield, or a tragically beautiful accidental death via disease, for example, suicide is something that a real person could make the choice to inflict upon themselves. And when they see these suicides in books and other media depicted as beautiful and meaningful, they might think of it as a viable option for themselves.

They might look at Finch, optimistic Finch who just wanted to keep living, and see that there’s no chance for them. That even if they work hard to stay alive, they will ultimately fail. They will see that the best option for them is to die in a beautiful way, so everyone can remember them as the beautiful person they were in life.

They might look at Hannah, who was bullied and mistreated, and see that the best way to teach the bullies a lesson is to kill themselves – to stick it to ’em, teach them a lesson. Show them that their actions have consequences.

And you can stick as many suicide hotline numbers at the end of these narratives as you want. At the end of the day, the message society overwhelmingly clings to is clear. If you struggle with mental illness, or bullying, or anything, and the possibility of suicide rears its ugly head, might as well just go with it. Hey, it’ll be tragic, but it’ll be beautiful and meaningful.

If Niven wanted to actually help real teenagers who struggle with suicidal thoughts, Finch wouldn’t have died. He would have remained alive, as a real and honest example that people with mental illness can fight their battle and win. His choice to remain alive would not only have been more meaningful for his character arc, it would have also been more meaningful for the real people reading the book who were maybe just looking for a sign. Looking for a character like them, who made the brave choice to stay alive, despite everything.

But the problem is, YA (and most media) too often focuses on the story instead of the real people. It desperately tries to carve meaning out of everything. And that’s why they so often fail these real people. They sell them lies. Beautiful, meaningful lies, but lies all the same.

“Okay Gillian, fair,” you say, “But how, then, do we discuss topics like mental health or suicide without the danger of inspiring real people to commit suicide?”

Easy. Let characters like Finch and Hannah live. Don’t shy away from depicting their struggle, of course, but also let them live. Let them be the example that life is always more beautiful and meaningful than death. Always. Let their character arcs end in triumph over the darkness. Let their readers see that there is a hope. Let them see the reality of the situation, not the sensational tragic fantasy.

Because for this issue, we don’t need cautionary tales. We need heroes. We need examples. That’s the only way we can discuss this terrible problem in a healthy and positive way.

And that’s the truth.

(A/N: After writing this all out, I went on Google Images looking for a header image of All the Bright Places and learned that a movie adaptation will be released later this year. I didn’t really intend this post to coincide with that and… I don’t think it needs to be said, but don’t see this movie. Don’t do it. Don’t buy into this.)

Character Spotlight: Owain, Hero of Ages

Defining an all-time favorite anything is not an easy task. I know this to be true from experience. Picking a favorite song, favorite book, favorite movie, favorite artist, etc etc etc is nearly impossible. The pool is too big. I love too many songs and books and movies and artists and etc to choose just one that is, all around, the best.

However, there is one category for which I can pick one definitive favorite without a hint of hesitation.

My favorite fictional character ever in anything is Owain from the Fire Emblem series.

That’s a bold statement, I know. Even if you’re not familiar with the character, you may be wondering how he can be so good that he is the definitive best in any series. How can one character possibly rise above so many other great characters I love to claim the throne as the best?

Well… that’s a complicated question, and one I hope to answer in this post. So come with me and let us explore what makes humble Owain, hero of ages, such a fantastic and deep character.

Meet Owain

Owain first appeared in Fire Emblem: Awakening, the revival of the near-dying Fire Emblem series. His role in this game is pretty small. (In fact, his role in both games he appears in is small.)

Owain is one of the many future children the player is able to unlock over the course of the game. He is available for recruitment once the player marries his mother, Lissa, to any one of her potential marriage candidates. He starts out a myrmidon with a slight affinity for magic from his mother, but nothing about his recruitment or role in the game sets him apart from the rest of the recruitable children.

He’s completely unnecessary to the plot of the game. The player could, feasibly and easily, go through it without recruiting him at all.

Now this isn’t terribly uncommon. Only one of the recruitable children is required to finish the game, and that’s Lucina. All the rest are simply add-ons, fun little rewards for playing with the support system in the game. And yet, for Owain, this detail is incredibly important to what makes his character work so well. Keep it in mind.

From first impressions, Owain is a ridiculous character. He’s over-dramatic. He yells dumb catchphrases and pretends he’s an unstoppable and legendary hero. He gives weapons flashy and superfluous names. He claims to have an “unquenchable bloodlust” and a magical sword hand that constantly aches for battle.

The game makes no secret of the fact that Owain is delusional. Other characters treat him like a joke, and he constantly fails to do the things he claims to be able to do. For all intents and purposes, the audience is encouraged to consider Owain a comic relief character and to not take him seriously.

This too is not unusual for Fire Emblem. Fire Emblem is a game that requires a lot of unique characters for the game mechanics of assembling and commanding an army of heroes to work. And in order to ensure the player is able to remember details about as many of these characters as possible, they tend to all have some sort of memorable schtick and not much else to their characters on the surface. This is a topic I’ll probably end up going into in more depth in another post, but basically Owain is just a weird quirky goofball in a whole army of weird, quirky goofballs.

Yes, Owain is completely ordinary for Fire Emblem. Like all the other filler units in the game, he sticks to his schtick. He’s got some decent fighting stats but he’s overall unnecessary to completing the game.

So what makes him special, exactly?

He’s Not Special…

There’s some other information about Owain I didn’t tell you and it’s this – Owain, no matter who his mother Lissa gets married to, is of royal blood.

This is not a shocking statement. His mother is a princess, the younger sister of the main character and eventual king, Chrom. Because of this, he is also a member of the Exalted bloodline, the bloodline around which the story revolves.

Both Chrom and Lucina, (that one child I mentioned earlier who is necessary to complete the game) have character arcs that rely heavily on the fact that they are of Exalted blood. It makes them royal, but it also gives them special story powers – the ability to slay the Big Bad™, Grima.

Lissa’s character also revolves around her Exalted blood. Almost all members of the bloodline get a characteristic birthmark somewhere on their body. On Chrom, it’s on his tastefully exposed shoulder. On Lucina, it’s in her eye. On Emmeryn, Chrom and Lissa’s elder sister, it’s on her forehead. However, Lissa never got hers, and her anxiety over this fact is an important part of her character, and something that is brought up as a point of self-consciousness for her.

Although it’s apparently not unheard of for a member of the Exalted bloodline to never get their brand of the Exalt, for Lissa it means she’s unsure of whether or not she is actually a legitimate royal. For all she knows, she could be a bastard child. The only way for her to know for sure is to hope that one day her descendants inherit the mark.

And thus, lo and behold, enter Owain. If you’re wondering, yes, he does have the mark of the Exalt on his arm, proving definitively that Lissa is actually a member of the royal bloodline. This fact is established early on as one of the reasons Lissa is so close to her son. His very existence proves her legitimacy and puts one of her worst fears to rest.

So that’s cool and all, and it’s definitely one of the reasons why I like Owain so much, but there’s something else about Owain’s blood that makes his character so deep and fascinating.

…Yet Special-ness Flows Through Him

So this Exalted blood, right? It’s a big deal. Like I mentioned before, the two mainest of the main characters have their special main character powers because of this bloodline they belong to. And as the son of the now-proven-legitimate princess Lissa, Owain also shares this blood.

And yet… Owain is not even close to a main character.

He has the blood, he has the brand, but Owain is the only member of this bloodline to not make it into the main cast of characters.

So, think about it. You’re Owain. You’re a prince. You belong to a bloodline of incredible warriors, warriors with the power to slay a giant dragon made of malice and pure evil. Your very existence proves to your mother that she belongs to this bloodline as well.

And yet, you don’t play a main role in the slaying of the Big Bad™ at all.

Don’t you think that would be a little disheartening? To know that your mother, your cousin, and your uncle all played a huge role in the slaying of a legendary beast and the saving of your world because of the very same blood you also possess and yet you aren’t a part of it at all?

Wouldn’t it make you want to be a part of it?

And Thus, Theatrics.

So, taking all this information into account, let’s take a look at Owain’s personality, his schtick, one more time.

He’s overdramatic. He’s a ham. He demands attention. He’s delusional. He pretends to possess a great and unique power, one he can barely control. Well, you don’t have to even wonder where this behavior comes from. As the one member of the exalted bloodline not to play a direct role in the plot of the game, it makes sense why he puts on such a show.

His entire family is composed of legendary heroes, and so Owain pretends to be one.

With this connection, everything about Owain’s character makes perfect sense. Of course he would have a reason to put on theatrics constantly. He has an entire bloodline to live up to. It even works on a more meta game level. Not only in-universe is Owain not a “main character” but he is also literally not a main character in the actual game. His character works both in-universe and out-of-universe and that is cool.

But Wait! There’s More

But of course, Awakening wasn’t the last time we saw Owain. He made another appearance in Fates under the moniker “Odin.” Once more, Owain was not a main character, but he was a normal unit this time, with his own child unit, Ophelia.

I think of the three Awakening kids that got teleported into Fates, Owain got the most interesting character development. While, yes, he’s still the goofy comic relief character from Awakening, there’s a certain maturity to his character that wasn’t there before.

There are two reasons for this slight growth of character. The first one is that Owain, for the first time, is special in regards to the game. He was teleported into this new world for the express purpose of helping them. He and his companions are the only characters with this duty, and while they don’t ultimately end up playing that huge of a role in the plot of Fates, I think the idea is that Owain, for the first time, is a special hero. A hero of time, sacrificing his home and family to help a group of strangers. It’s definitely a reason for him to feel for the first time that his charades might have some actual heroic backup to them.

The second reason is his daughter, Ophelia. Ophelia shares a lot of similarities with her father in that she too has a theatrical personality and likes talking about her secret hidden powers. But unlike her father, Ophelia is not really pretending when she talks about her legendary abilities – she believes in them wholeheartedly.

Where Owain was aware of his normalcy and used theatrics to hide his embarrassment over it, Ophelia only knows her father as a legendary hero, and as an extension, only knows her bloodline as one of magic and heroics. Ophelia is like what Owain would be if he was a main character, or at least was unaware of his relative unimportance as compared to his family members.

So, in that way, their interactions become very fascinating when taking a look at Owain’s character. It does a lot to confirm what I already suspected about his mindset in Awakening. He seems reluctant to crush Ophelia’s dreams, and goes along with her tirades with the same enthusiasm as she, but when it comes to telling her about his actual home, he seems sad and unusually reserved. It really adds a level of depth and growth to his character that I appreciate.

In Summation

Owain is just… a really excellent example of how a side character can be given depth without having to go into too much explicit detail. And that’s why, I think, I can so easily call him my favorite character. I’ve always been attached to side characters, and too often I see them pushed to the side and not given the depth and development they deserve.

And while, yes, I don’t think Owain’s development is probably entirely on purpose by the people behind Fire Emblem, regardless, I believe he stands as a lovely example that side characters can work on multiple levels.

And with that, I leave Owain. For now. But who knows when my analysis hand will twitch again…

Taking a Holiday

Maybe this is just my experience, but graduating high school has made me nostalgic like nothing ever has.

I guess it’s because graduating high school is the first huge change I’ve ever had to deal with in my life. I’ve graduated from schools before – twice, actually – but elementary school into middle school and middle school into high school wasn’t that huge of a change. School was still school, and the people were mostly the same, as was the place. My role in the world stayed pretty constant as well.

But now, leaving behind high school, I also leave behind the majority of people I know, the place I grew up in, and I’m taking on more personal responsibility than I’ve ever had before. I’ve been an “adult” but never before have I had to prove that by living independently.

I’m thankful I have the summer as a transitional period – I feel like it’s helping a lot, believe me – but there’s still a really loud, huge part of me that takes joy and comfort from turning away from the very real, very scary future staring me down and clutching onto the places and things I loved in the past.

After all, the past is done. It’s already happened. I don’t have to deal with the struggles and the hardships of the past anymore, now I can just focus on the good things that are past. It’s easy and comfortable.

And so… Holiday World.

For several summers in my childhood, my family made it a tradition to go with a few other families to Holiday World in Santa Claus, Indiana. We would camp at the park’s official campsite, Lake Rudolph, and spend one or two days in the park while spending the rest of the time cooking meals over the campfire and enjoying “nature.”

That tradition more or less fell to the wayside with the arrival of marching band, and the fact that all of the families got busier and busier as their kids got older, but it was enough of a monolith of my past that it remains one of my favorite places in the whole wide world.

It was Holiday World where I rode my first roller coaster. It was “The Raven,” the smallest of Holiday World’s three major wooden coasters. I was goaded into it by my friend, and I prepared by watching first person ride videos and talking nervously and incessantly in line to distract myself. I enjoyed the ride, but felt that I had fulfilled my quota of big rides and didn’t ride any others for the rest of that trip. I vowed to take on the next two biggest coasters in the following two years, but I enjoyed the middle-biggest coaster “The Legend” so thoroughly the next year that I also took on “The Voyage,” the biggest and baddest.

Now, I love roller coasters and thrill rides. They fulfill a need to feel brave in a controlled and almost 100% safe environment.

It was at Holiday World that I first got a taste of independence. By the time I had been to the park two or three times, my parents decided I was old enough to wander it with my friends without their supervision. I was probably only in middle school then, possibly even younger, so it was the first time ever I was allowed to dictate exactly where I wanted to go and when and how without my parents. It was liberating.

So I guess, in that way, it makes sense why I approached the summer after my senior year of high school with the desire to go back. Holiday World was a place of childhood fun and innocence, but it was simultaneously a place where I grew up and came into my own. It was, in a way, like dipping my toe into what independence feels like, into what courage feels like.

And now I’m going again with two friends. One was the one who goaded me into taking that first ride on “The Raven,” while the other isn’t too fond of roller coasters herself (but who knows, Holiday World has a habit of changing people’s minds on that topic, as I know firsthand).

I will, for the first time, be able to drive the golf carts around the campsite since I now have a drivers’ license. Now, that independence I felt in the park will be available to me at the campsite too.

Now, I’ve got the keys and the license to go wherever, whenever. I’ve got decisions to make, and thrills and dangers around every corner. So I suppose while it is a place of nostalgia and childhood happiness for me, it’s also feels a little bit like a microcosm of the world I’m living in now.

(Well, except for the free soft drinks and sunscreen. That’s not, in my experience, something that happens in your adult life too much.)