In Defense of Happy Endings

I think, nowadays, media has forgotten the appeal of a happy ending.

There’s a certain clamor nowadays for gritty realism in fiction. For violence, for heartbreak, for bittersweet endings.

It’s not exactly a earth-shattering revelation to say that this clamor comes from our own often dark, violent, bittersweet world. But I feel in the same vein, stories that aren’t like that often get cut down for being too unrealistic. We live in a world where optimistic media is seen as unrealistic and avoided as such.

Isn’t that depressing? It is to me.

I think it’s easy to forget in the wash of gritty realism and horror and dark reimaginings that the very heart of media is to provide escape from the gritty, dark horrors of real life. While I do acknowledge that one form of escapism is to focus on the struggles of a fictional world with fictional characters as opposed to our own very real struggles, it still becomes a little disheartening to see how often we forget the simple escapism of a happy ending.

I make this post in defense of happy endings because I feel like too often they’re seen as cop-outs. I’ve seen series like Game of Thrones, for example, touted as good because the author has the “vision” and “gall” to allow his characters to die.

And yeah, okay, there’s merit in that. But I want to argue that authors who let their characters live happy lives can be just as meaningful, just as intriguing.

Take, for example, the incredible finale episode of “The Adventure Zone.”

I’ve talked at length about “The Adventure Zone,” or TAZ, in an earlier post as well as its creators in yet another post, but the finale was good enough for me to want to come back to these boys and their incredible Dungeons and Dragons podcast once again.

(I’m going to try to keep spoilers light in this post for those who haven’t gotten the chance to listen to this podcast, but considering the nature of this post, I imagine I will still spoil some things. Take this opportunity to go listen to it. Really. Do it. I know I’ve said this before, but just do it, you won’t regret it.)

TAZ is, at its heart, an optimistic story. It’s a goofy, lighthearted adventure with an ending that, after the big bombastic boss battle, is a joyous wedding between two side characters and the peaceful resolution of all three of the main character’s arcs.

But this is not an ending that comes after episodes of happy nothingness. No, on the contrary, TAZ is  the story of an unstoppable force slowly consuming the world. It is a story of how power can corrupt. It is a story of how even those with the best of intentions make mistakes.

TAZ very well could have ended with a negative tone. Or, it could have even gone along with many similar stories and ended on a bittersweet note. But no, Griffin McElroy chose to end his tale in the most unabashedly, steadfastly happy way possible.

And honestly? It was more powerful for it.

 

What made its unabashedly happy ending satisfying? What made the joy feel so absolutely earned, so gorgeously meaningful?

Well, even from the beginning, despite the struggles the characters face, it was pretty clear from early on that TAZ was going to be a story of people banding together in the face of evil. Even as the villain seemed to be an unstoppable, all-consuming force of destruction, instead of taking the easy route and creating drama via lots of failure, Griffin McElroy focuses on how his characters struggle and succeed instead.

That, I think, is an incredible microcosm of what makes happy endings so meaningful in my eyes.

It’s easy to create intrigue by allowing characters to ultimately fail. Sad stories with bittersweet endings can be memorable for the emotions they cause. But I think it’s more difficult but ultimately more rewarding to convincingly allow characters to win. That’s why TAZ worked so well. I often asked myself throughout the course of the podcast just how the characters could possibly triumph over their enemies. Knowing the optimistic tone of the story, I knew they probably would, but just how they would manage it kept me intrigued through all 69 episodes of the podcast.

I feel like stories with sad tones and sad endings don’t allow this kind of intrigue to exist. If you know from the start the characters will fail, there’s no reason to root for them. And sure, this can be an interesting dynamic in some stories, but I don’t think it’s the only or even the better way to build drama.

Plus, there’s a definite need for happy endings in the sad world we live in. Maybe “realism” is good in small doses, but I don’t think there’s any reason why optimism in media is a bad or “unrealistic” thing. And even if it is unrealistic, it’s fiction! Why can’t we have a little fun in our media now and again?

So there’s a good reason to allow your characters to live happily ever after. It builds drama through struggle and serves as a bit of light in an often dark world.

The end.

 

 

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A Lyrical Analysis of “Pork Soda”

Well, look at the time! Looks it’s time for another lyrical analysis.

Yep, I did this once before, and it ended up being a really fun little stretch of my analytical muscles. It was really only a matter of time before I came back with yet another song to meticulously dissect because what’s more fun than that? Nothing, obviously.

Like last time, I come to you with a song that has really struck me for its incredibly deep and clever writing. However, this time the lyrics are a little bit more ambiguous. As with all analytical readings, this is simply my own opinion of what the lyrics mean. Your interpretation or the actual interpretation could be wildly different! And that’s okay.

Glass Animals’ “How to Be a Human Being” is an album already filled with, er, unusually-written songs. They certainly like to stick to an off-kilter style, but it’s also a goldmine for interesting lyrical readings. “Pork Soda” is my personal favorite of the bunch, both musically and lyrically. Despite its bouncy, goofy sound and lyrics, it’s a surprisingly sad song about loss and confusion. Sounds like a good time! Let’s get to it!

(Also, just to let you know, I will be addressing the… unique title. Don’t worry. We’ll get there.)

“Somewhere in South End when you were fun
You took my hand and you made me run”
We begin the song with a flashback, tipped off to the listener via the past-tense language and also the light vagueness of it all. We’re not exactly where this scene takes place, just “somewhere.”
So, yeah, it’s vague, but what information can we glean from this line? A lot of information, actually. First of all, we know something has happened to the relationship between the speaker and the person they’re speaking of. After all, they’re speaking of this person being fun… in the past tense. Clearly something has gone down.
In addition, we can perhaps assume a few things about the relationship based on how the speaker points out the subject of the song being the one to take their hand and make them run. It suggests a sort of childlike innocence, yes, just two children running and holding hands, but also that the speaker was not the one driving the relationship.
“Up past the prison to the seafront
You climbed the cliff edge and took the plunge”

It’s no accident where the speaker is taken to by the subject of the song. Past the prison suggests freedom, bypassing a common symbol of restraint, opting to run instead to the seafront to dive off a cliff. It’s a wild disregard for safety, plunging forward with the backdrop of the crashing sea.

It suggests a lack of care, a enthusiastic yet ultimately doomed plunge.

If you’re wondering, yes, this is very meaningful for the rest of the song.

“Why can’t we laugh now like we did then?
How come I see you and ache instead?”

One of the biggest motifs of this song is the constant questions the speaker asks. However, for all the questions, there is a distinct lack of answers.

I think, beyond that, these lines more or less speak for themselves. The innocent, excitable relationship that once existed between the speaker and the subject of the song is gone now. They don’t laugh like they used to, and now all the speaker feels is a hollow ache.

“How come you only look pleased in bed?
Let’s climb the cliff edge and jump again”

The first line here is the only line thus far that has suggested anything other than a platonic relationship between the speaker and subject. I think this is important. It suggests that the relationship between the speaker and the subject was once very rooted in friendship, a friendship built, judging by the first lines, on a childlike sense of adventure. Now, however, the only time the speaker sees the same happiness in their partner is when they’re having sex. It’s a wild change from what once was, also connecting perhaps to an overall loss of innocence.

The speaker wishes to go back to the simple times, however even their wish seems ultimately futile, since it only suggests they plunge off the cliff face again. The speaker seems to acknowledge that even if they were to recapture the reckless joy their relationship once had, it would still end up failing, falling.

“Pineapples are in my head
(Pineapples are in my head)
Got nobody ‘cos I’m brain dead
(Got nobody ‘cos I’m brain dead)”

These are the lines that sparked my interest in looking into this song’s meaning and lyrics as a whole. What do they mean?

Well, nothing. They mean nothing at all. And that’s what’s important. This once close relationship is drifting apart, and the speaker can’t figure out why. Nothing seems to make sense. These nonsense lines portray the confusion and lack of distinct reason behind the end of this relationship.

I also think the last line “Got nobody cos’ I’m brain dead” expresses a lot of personal frustration the speaker has with themselves. It’s been suggested that it was the subject of the song that tended to lead in their relationship, but now that they’re no longer invested, the speaker is left feeling dumb. They feel they can’t take charge now and express their sadness over the end of the relationship, perhaps because they never had power in the first place.

“Somebody said that I’m a fuckin’ slum
Don’t know that I belong”

These next few lines start to spiral into each other, and I think they perhaps mirror the thought process of the speaker, slowly spiraling into despair over their lack of power to fix this relationship that’s so important to them.

These two lines further the idea from the lines before, that the speaker feels powerless and lonely. They feel they don’t belong anymore, and can’t do anything about it. I think it’s interesting, though, that this information is attributed to an unnamed “somebody.” I wonder if perhaps that “somebody” represents the paranoia of the speaker, thinking everyone around them can see how pathetic they look. This may suggest self-confidence issues in the speaker in the wake of this failed relationship.

“Maybe you’re fucking dumb
Maybe I’m just a bum”

Here the speaker considers blaming the end of the relationship on the subject of the song, but instead returns back to those same self-conscious thoughts from before. I think this even further proves that these lines represent a thought spiral, chaotically contradicting each other and changing on the drop of a dime.

“Maybe you’re fucking scum
Don’t you go psycho chum”

Now we return to hatred of the subject of the song. You’ll see once again, though, that the tone of the speaker’s thoughts changes in the next lines.

I want to take special note of the second line though, calling the subject “chum.” I think this once again connects to how heavily based in friendship it seems this relationship used to be. Now, though, the person is so unrecognizable from the friend and lover they once had, the speaker calls them “psycho.”

“I want you for the world
I want you all the time
(Stop!)”

And yet, it’s clear the speaker still really loves the subject of the song. These two lines are the first to really agree with each other, but it’s here that the speaker cuts off their own thoughts with a “stop!” It’s clear that these two thoughts are the most painful for the speaker to consider. The fact that they still love the person they’ve drifted apart from is something they cannot even allow themselves to think. So, the “spiral” stops abruptly, and the song fades into instrumentals for a bit, as if resetting, before getting back to the chorus.

“Pineapples are in my head
(when you were fun)
Got nobody ‘cos I’m brain dead
(you made me run)
Pineapples are in my head
(to the seafront)
Got nobody ‘cos I’m brain dead
(she took the plunge)”

Once more we return to the confusing and meaningless end of a relationship, but now we have a repetition of some earlier lines. There is one difference now, though, and that’s that the speaker refers to the subject for the first time in third person. It very clearly signifies a disconnect between the speaker and the subject. They’ve removed themselves from the scene of the subject plunging off the cliff, passively describing it as their confusing, muddled thoughts repeat.

So, how is our speaker coping with the loss? By removing themselves fully from any past connection. And how well does that go? Well…

“5000 footsteps in your wet dress
Back to the house with your arms around my neck”

…Not very well, it seems. The lyrics lurch unceremoniously into another flashback. It’s pretty vague. Why is her dress wet? Where did they come from? It’s left up to the audience to interpret. However, the lack of information suggests that, to the speaker, this scene needs no set-up. It’s ingrained in their mind. They don’t need to remember the exact details, just the feelings of the subject’s arms around their neck and her damp clothing.

“We drank pork soda with tangled legs
I won’t forget how you looked at me then”

And hey, I said I’d explain the title! Here it is. “Pork Soda” seems to be a reference to these happy memories the speaker shares with the subject. It’s a weird detail, for sure, but unforgettable. It suggests that this relationship, for the speaker, is too strange and also simultaneously comforting to forget. Even through their confusion and their sadness and their attempts to demonize or remove themselves from their past lover, this memory remains.

It’s no coincidence that this memory is the first lyric that has suggested any returning affection from the subject to the speaker, either. This memory is a memory of love, what once was.

(Also, as a side note, according to Dave Bayley of Glass Animals, the title came from a woman he met with a tattoo that said “Pork Soda.” It was apparently a reference to a pork dish made with coke. I can attest that pork cooked with a can of coke in a crock pot is DELICIOUS, and I assume that is the dish the tattoo referred to.)

“I know I’m no sweet prince of love
Those times when we got drunk”

And this happy memory triggers yet another spiral of thoughts, but this one actually goes somewhere. We start with the speaker justifying their own flaws in the relationship, calling out how they weren’t exactly the most romantic person. In addition, it seems that getting drunk was something they did a lot, which harkens back to all that earlier recklessness in the relationship we discussed.

“Maybe Jamaica rum
Maybe some Jonnie Dub
Maybe you still think of us
Phone buzz, and still I jump”

Our speaker gets sidetracked a bit with the memories of those drunken times, but eventually jolts back into the present. They suggest that there’s still a part of them that hopes the subject will change their mind, which leads every phone buzz to make them jump, hoping it’ll be the subject calling to reignite the relationship.

“Why don’t I say it then?
I want you all the time”

And we return to the motif of questions, but now the question is to the speaker themselves. They wonder why they can’t just tell the subject how they still love her and want to be with her.

“Why can’t we laugh now like we did then?
How come I see you and ache instead?
How come you only look pleased in bed?
Let’s climb the cliff edge and jump again”

And thus, we return to these questions. Unfortunately, as I mentioned above, there are no answers. Our speaker is left to continuously fight these repeating thoughts with no end in sight.

“Pineapples are in my head
(Pineapples are in my head)
Got nobody ‘cos I’m brain dead
(Got nobody ‘cos I’m brain dead)
Pineapples are in my head
(Pineapples are in my head)
Got nobody ‘cos I’m brain dead
(Got nobody ‘cos I’m brain dead)”

And we are left with that lingering sense of confusion and lack of meaning.

This is a really tragic song about a special, loving relationship ending for no real reason. But the way it communicates that confusion – through nonsensical lyrics as well as the off-kilter instrumentation – is really fascinating to me. I hope you enjoyed this analysis as much as I enjoyed writing it.

And hey, maybe next time I’ll do a happier song!

(But probably not.)

 

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.)