Holding out for a hero

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The world is in crisis. Global temperatures are rising, and the deterioration of the global ecosystem has begun. Already, people have become displaced from their homes due to flooding. We know we need to act, and yet the world is paralyzed by indecision.

It’s tempting to blame all of humanity for our current problems. But that is unfair. Many of those most impacted, such as those low-income environmental migrants in Asia and Oceania who had their homes ruined by floods and tropical storms, contributed the least to the crisis. Instead, let us highlight real villains: the moneyed interests who have abused the world’s resources for their own individual gain. They are the ones who spread misinformation about the crisis, preventing action knowing it would threaten the fossil fuels that sustain their enormous paycheques even as they choke our atmosphere like tobacco. They continue to manipulate people into ravenously consuming products even as the climate demands we use less. And They care not that they have effectively stolen the futures of generations to come, for they have already stolen the present. There’s a reason why the 1% has become a meme: they indeed own more wealth than the rest of the world combined.

In major cities like Vancouver, where even the most modest houses are now multi-million dollar items, the act of owning a home, once considered an ordinary, even mandatory (and albeit unsustainable) part of adult life, has now become something inaccessible. Even those most in need of shelter are forced to bear the cold, rainy night alone while many rich homeowners don’t even step foot in them. And the governments, as of now, have done barely anything to help, instead punishing those trying to make their own shelters. We see such injustice mirrored in many other situations; the police systemically murdering black people, nearly everything we buy being made from the metaphorical blood of overseas workers from poorer nations, and so much more that it’s overwhelming.

You know what the world needs right now? Heroes.

Remember the stories we experienced, then and now? The common plot line of a world overrun by oppressive forces, and those that would challenge the world as it is to fight for the world as it should be against overwhelming odds? Many of us dreamed of the day that we would be in that position. Well, our world as it is right now has a lot in common with the fictional dystopias, and it’s up to us to change it!

Of course, it looks easier in the stories. Often, the heroes will face resistance not only from the villains, but also the authorities and apathetic societies. We admire the heroes for doing what’s right rather than what’s easy, but would you do the same in a similar situation? If everyone around you calls you selfish and entitled for defending the rights of other people, animals, the environment, would you just accept it? Would you filter out the cries for help from those suffering from poverty and discrimination because it’s unpopular to go against the oppressors? It’s been said many times that there are far more of you then there are of them, so why passively accept things when we have the power to fight back, and when the other choice is the destruction of our world and the robbery of our future?

To be honest, I’d rather be out there making change rather than writing things like this. I often wonder if I too am merely a bystander, too concerned about my own life to consider others. But I write this in hopes that it may make a difference, because a ruined future looms on the horizon, and right now, we are all presented with a choice. Die, and be free of pain, or live, and fight your sorrow!

Fake Geek Girl Adventures 1-8: Nazarenko Family Values

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(previous)

“Aww, c’mon! I wanted to be Peach!”

Uncle Zhao nonchalantly pressed A. Nick and Ian had already chosen Mario and Luigi respectively, leaving Stacy with only one other option for this level of Super Mario 3D World.

“Looks like you’re stuck with Toad!” Nick said.

Stacy frowned. Of all characters, she thought. Well, she’ll just have to make do.

“Nice of you to finally join us, Dad!” Ian said as they began the game.

“This is his first time playing?” Stacy asked.

“Yeah,” Nick said. “He hasn’t touched a single Mario game since Super Mario 64.”

Stacy was shocked. “Wait, really? But why?”

“Oh, don’t get him started,” Nick warned.

“Oh, kay then,” Stacy said.

She saw him running for the Star Coin, so she knocked Peach out of the way to claim the prize for herself.

“Hey, watch where you’re going!” Uncle snapped.

The other three giggled. “Good one!” Ian remarked.

Uncle Zhao frowned. “How are we supposed to beat this game playing like this?” he asked, which only made them laugh even more.

Aunt Zhao was in the kitchen, watching the four of them having fun. Stacy shot a side glance at her. “Say, how come you aren’t playing?” she asked.

Aunt Zhao smiled. “I just enjoying watching you kids mess with Min.”

Ian started jumping off towards the flagpole when Stacy outpaced him, grabbing the top while he fumbled towards the middle.

“You threw off my groove!” he yelled as Stacy smirked.

As Uncle and Nick caught up, the latter high-fived his brother and cousin while Uncle just stared, frowning as usual. After the game tallied the end-of-level scores, Stacy came out on top.

“Hey, I won!” she cried.

During the intermission, Aunt Zhao walked over to them. “Say, Anastasia, I have something for you.”

“Mom!” Nick interjected. “Stacy doesn’t like being called that.”

“I know,” she said sternly. “But she should be proud of it. Julie said she searched day and night for that perfect name.”

Julie. Ugh, Stacy thought. She really didn’t want to be reminded of her mother right now. She looked at her uncle, and noticed he too turned away to hide his face in response to his sister being mentioned.

“What you got, auntie?” she asked.

Aunt Zhao handed her a card. Stacy glanced, and beamed at what she saw.

“We’re having a family get-together this Sunday at the Happy Valley,” Aunt explained. “Can you come?”

“Of course, Auntie!” Stacy exclaimed. “I haven’t had Chinese food in ages!”

“It’ll be the real deal,” Uncle added. “Not that greasy crap white people eat.”

Stacy smiled uncomfortably. “Yeah, it’ll be quite an experience.”

Nick hung his arm around Stacy’s shoulders. “So, how does it feel to be one of us?”

“One of…us?” Stacy replied.

“Yeah. Starting Sunday, you’re going to dine with us as an honourary Zhao!”

Stacy Zhao, she thought. She liked the sound of that.

—-

That evening, Stacy was at home cooking chicken stir-fry. She would rather have stayed with her relatives for dinner, but she knew her dad would be furious if he had nothing to eat. She hated cooking for that picky eater, but she did get some pointers from her aunt this time. As she was grilling the chicken, Mr. Nazarenko walked into the door, grumpy and tired as usual.

“Hey, Stacy,” he demanded. “You’re late.”

“It’ll be just a few minutes!” she replied cheerfully.

Her dad was taken aback. What is she so happy about?

As promised, Stacy arrived in the dining room with two dishes and a huge grin on her face. Her dad noticed a bright red card sticking out of her pocket and pointed at it.

“What you got there?” he asked.

Stacy put down the food and pulled out the card. “Oh this?” she replied. “It’s none of your business.”

“As your father,” he said sternly, “It is my business. Now give it to me.”

Stacy sighed and dropped the card. Her dad promptly picked it up.

“Happy Valley Restaurant?” he read. “Who invited you to Chinese food?”

“Oh, just some relatives.”

Mr. Nazarenko was annoyed. “Why were you trying to hide this from me?”

“Um, because they never mentioned you?” Stacy retorted. “Besides, you never invited me to any of your mountain hikes.”

“How was I supposed to know you were interested? Most girls don’t care for such things!”

Yeah, thanks for reminding me, she thought. “Because I asked? Like, a hundred times?”

“I didn’t think you were serious!”

Stacy shook her head. She wasn’t surprised. “Anyway, since you seem so interested, why don’t you just ask Uncle for an invitation?”

“Bah. You think I care about some lame party Chow Main is throwing?”

Stacy was stunned. “Wow…no wonder they never wanted to invite you. By the way, his name is Minchao.”

“Whatever!” her dad snapped. “And fix that attitude of yours, little miss. You have no right to be talking back to your father like that.”

“My…?”

Stacy stopped. She knew continuing on would be pointless, so she simply walked away to her room.

—-

“You’re not from these parts, are you? What brought you all the way here?”

Stacy was playing through Memories of the Sleeping Village to distract herself from that unpleasant conversation. She had finally raised Mona’s relationship values high enough to start a conversation with her. In response to her question, she answered, “I don’t know.”

“That’s odd. Well, where did you come from?”

Stacy answered “City.”

“Oh wow, a large city? Full of vast and tall buildings? That sounds so much more exciting than the village. I’d love to escape to a place like that someday. How is life there?”

Stacy was then presented with two options: “Wonderful” and “Horrible.” She paused nervously, knowing that whichever option she chose, she would not be able to take it back unless she reset the game. She wanted to pick “Wonderful,” and felt it was the correct option, but she couldn’t tell a lie right now.

“Oh. I’m sorry. Is that why you came here? To escape?”

Escape, Stacy thought. Yeah, I’d like to get out of here too. She picked “Yes.”

“I see. Well, we don’t have much, but I hope we can do whatever we can to help you settle in. Father may be a bit odd, but he wants to make life here as exciting as possible for you. How’s he doing at that?”

Suddenly, her cell phone started ringing. Stacy noticed it was from her aunt.

“Hi Stacy,” Aunt Zhao called. “How was dinner?”

“Oh, it was good!” Stacy replied in a cheerful tone. “Thanks for the recipe!”

Aunt Zhao paused. “Okay, what really happened?” she asked, unconvinced.

Stacy was shocked. She really couldn’t hide it, could she? “I didn’t eat,” she said. “Got into a fight with Dad.”

“You need to eat,” Aunt Zhao said, concerned. “You’re a growing girl, after all.”

“It’s okay. I’ll just have it when he goes to sleep. Besides, I’ll have plenty to eat on Sunday, right?”

The two became silent for a moment. There was something Stacy wanted to say, but she had trouble figuring out how to put it in words.

“By the way…” she began. “What would you say if I asked if Dad could come along?”

Aunt Zhao paused. “Why? Do you want to make things up with him?”

“Not really,” Stacy said. “But it’s the right thing to do, isn’t it? To include everyone?”

Stacy felt an awkward taste in her mouth after saying that. She knew from experience that saying that phrase only lead to trouble, but she felt bad about leaving anyone out. Even her dad.

“Well, he and Min don’t exactly get along,” her aunt replied. “But I guess we could do it just this once. It’s been a while since our families met, after all.”

Stacy smiled. “Thanks, Auntie. See you there!”

“Bye!”

—-

Mr. Nazarenko was oddly quiet while driving to the restaurant, though Stacy didn’t mind. Sitting in the back seat, she preferred the silence. Her dad had on a black and white suit ensemble and his brown hair was finely combed backwards. She had to admit, that actually made him look good. Almost. For her part, Stacy wore an opaque jade-coloured dress. She felt awkward wearing it, but she wanted to make a good impression.

They pulled into the parking lot of a building with bright red banners and Happy Valley Restaurant emblazoned in golden letters. Stacy texted her aunt that they had arrived, both excited and nervous to meet her family.

“Well, where are they?” her dad asked.

“They’re coming,” Stacy replied, checking her phone. “In fact, they’re already inside.”

“What, they couldn’t wait for us?” her dad moaned.

Stacy was trying to be as calm and unsarcastic as possible. “It’s a reservation.”

They walked into the restaurant and were greeted to a huge spectacle. The walls were adorned in red and gold, proudly displaying Dragon and Fenghuang statues along with Chinese artwork. All the tables were neatly arranged within the circular hall.

Good thing Uncle and Aunt are paying for us, Stacy thought. We’d never come here otherwise.

She scanned the room for her family. At first, she didn’t notice them, since it was such a loud room. Suddenly, she heard Ian waving to him.

“Oh, hi, everyone!” she said, as they both walked over to the group.

“Hi, Stacy,” Ian replied. “We were wondering when you’d show up!”

“Aw, how long have you been waiting?”

“Two minutes,” Nick replied, gesturing to ignore Ian.

Another woman at the table turned towards her. “Hello, Stacy.”

Stacy smiled nervously. “Oh, hi, Ms. Markov. What brings you here?”

“Lianzi invited me. Anyways, you’ve been practicing well?”

“Yeah, fine, I guess.”

Meanwhile, her dad was staring at her Uncle.

“Hello, Alex,” her uncle said quietly.

“Hello,” her dad replied, pausing nervously. “Er…”

“Call me Min. Please, have a seat.”

The table suddenly fell quiet as Mr. Nazarenko sat down, separated by one seat each in between Stacy and Nick, and across from Min. Their menus were already laid out, and everyone stared at them for a few seconds, not making eye contact.

“So, what’s good here?” Stacy asked.

“Oh, you’ll find out,” Nick said. “Leave it to ma ma and ba ba. They always know what’s best.”

Stacy grinned, sipping some tea while seeing how confused her dad was. “Sure thing!”

An attractive male waiter came over to the table, conversing in Mandarin to Mr. and Mrs. Zhao. As he prepared to pick up the menus, Stacy’s dad held his firmly.

“Hey, wait, I haven’t ordered anything yet!” he protested.

“We ordered plenty,” Mrs. Zhao told him.

“Well, I’d like my own order.”

“What would you like, sir?” the waiter asked.

Mr. Nazarenko was taken aback. Scanning his menu, he settled on Peking Duck.

“We already ordered that,” Mr. Zhao pointed out.

“Well, I didn’t get one yet,” Mr. Nazarenko retorted.

“We got enough for everybody,” Mr. Zhao said. “Don’t order too much, or else you’ll be too full to finish everything.”

“Just who do you think I am?” Mr. Nazarenko snapped.

Mr. Zhao said nothing as Mr. Nazarenko turned over to the waiter. “Full order, please.”

The waiter, flustered by his attitude, merely bowed and said thank you as he picked up the remaining menus and walked away. Ian made a balloon belly gesture to Nick and Stacy, and they chuckled, in contrast to the sombre adults.

—-

The waiter returned with the first dish, a salad full of slimy-looking yellow noodles. Stacy was slightly grossed out by the sight of them, but smiled anyway.

“Xièxie,” she told the waiter, before turning to Nick. “What is that?”

“Jellyfish, cousin!” he chuckled. “Brave enough to try?”

Stacy’s face scrunched up. “Of course I am!”

She picked up her chopsticks. Her aunt did teach her how to use them, but her grip still felt awkward. Quickly, she grabbed some salad to take to her plate, but as she withdrew her chopsticks, some of the jellyfish flew off, right onto her dress! She desperately tried to wipe it off, hoping no one noticed, but it was too late. The entire table was staring at her, and her dad shook his head disapprovingly. She looked away from him as she stuffed the remaining jellyfish in her mouth.

“Um…” she mumbled as she swallowed her food. “It’s really good!”

She wasn’t lying. The tentacles felt as slimy as they looked, and was hard to chew, but she enjoyed the flavour slipping and sliding through her mouth. Nick and Ian smiled, the latter patting her back for accepting Nick’s dare. Her aunt, also pleased, turned to Ms. Markov.

“Well, Nataliya,” she said. “Your turn!”

As Ms. Markov reached for her serving of jellyfish, Mr. Nazarenko interrupted.

“Sorry about my daughter,” he told everyone. “Tried to teach her manners, but she just never listens.”

Stacy felt a sinking sensation in her heart. She spent so long preparing for tonight: practicing her table manners, straightening out her hair, and yet, she still somehow managed to mess up. She turned away, holding back the urge to cry. She looked back, and saw that everyone was staring disapprovingly, but not at her.

“You haven’t changed a bit, have you Alex?” her aunt replied quietly.

Stacy’s dad gasped in frustration. “What do you mean?” he demanded.

“You shouldn’t talk to Stacy like that,” she said.

“What? I’m just telling it like it is. You Chinese folk should know all about discipline!”

Everyone gasped. Mrs. Zhao turned to her sons, looking guilty, while they looked back at their uncle defiantly.

“Ma ma and ba ba never talk to us like that!” Nick protested.

Mr. Nazarenko was dumbfounded. “Oh what, your kids talk back too? I thought you were better than this.”

Mr. Zhao, who had been quiet throughout the entire evening, finally spoke up. “Still don’t know why Julie left you?”

“What are you talking about?” Mr. Nazarenko retorted. “That’s none of your business.”

“My sister, is none of my business?” Mr. Zhao replied coldly. “Maybe if you thought about someone other than yourself for once…”

Everyone else but Stacy glared at Mr. Nazarenko in agreement. Just then, the waiter came by with the remaining dishes. He saw the tension unfolding, and quickly slipped away. Mr. Nazarenko quickly grabbed his Peking Duck dish.

“Fine! I know when I’m not wanted.”

Seeing that the Smith family was also at another table, Mr. Nazarenko walked off towards them. Mrs. Zhao looked embarrassed as the entire table fell into an awkward silence.

“Sorry to drag you into this, Nataliya,” she told Ms. Markov.

“Don’t worry,” she replied. “I understand.”

Mrs. Zhao then turned to Stacy, who was still looking down.

“What…happened to Mother?” she asked. “Why did she leave?”

The Zhaos and Mrs. Markov stared at each other nervously.

“She never told us,” her uncle said.

“We were as surprised as you were,” her aunt added.

Go figure, Stacy thought. However, Mr. Zhao looked unconvinced. “I wasn’t. Alex changed her.”

“What do you mean?” Stacy asked.

Mr. Zhao sipped some tea before he continued, smiling for the first time in ages. “She was a wonderful sister to have around. She was kind, always saw the bright side of everything, and could make anyone smile. Kind of like…you.”

Stacy was surprised to hear that coming from her uncle, and she felt an awkwardly warm sensation in her heart. “But…” she protested.

“And she also had big dreams,” he continued. Stacy held her thought and listened curiously.

“She was one of the very best students I ever had,” Ms. Markov added. “Always coming to lessons asking what she could improve on, and her performances were absolutely wonderful.”

Mrs. Zhao agreed. “Yes, the way she played her melodies, it was like being in a dream. And she was always eager to join in our sports. I’m still amazed at how fast she could swim.”

The conversation shifted back to Mr. Zhao. “She also spent a lot of time volunteering with our town’s parks. I often thought maybe she was doing too much. She picked up waste even on days where it was raining heavily. But, she said she just wanted to make Cedar Grove more beautiful.”

Stacy was still quiet, with a blank expression on her face. She wanted to know more, but if she really was as wonderful as everyone said, why was this all new to her? How did everyone know more about her own mother than she did?

“But after she married Alex,” Mr. Zhao continued. “Everything changed. She came out of the house less often.”

“You more than anyone know how he is,” Mrs. Zhao told Stacy. “She was still always smiling whenever she would meet for family dinners, but over the years, we saw her less often. She also said fewer things, especially since Alex got upset whenever we talked to her for too long. We never knew what was going on between them, but Alex always seemed grumpy.”

“When you told me your dad stopped you from playing,” Ms. Markov confessed, sadly. “Well, Julie said almost the same thing. Her playing became worse over time, and in the end, she just quit. Said she was too busy.”

Mrs. Zhao emphasized that excuse. “Yes, busy. Yet, she would never miss our social gatherings before.”

“And then one day, she just…left,” Mr. Zhao concluded. “Without telling anyone.”

A mixture of sadness and frustration welled inside Stacy. “Well, if Dad was such bad news, why did she marry him then?” she argued.

Mr. Zhao frowned, looking hurt. “He did not seem so bad at first, and Julie really did love him. But she was worried that if she didn’t marry him, no one would ever love her again.”

“But I thought everyone loved her,” Stacy told him.

“I thought so too. But she said people talked behind her back. Said people only liked her because she was young and pretty, that she just did everything for attention. They called her…a fake.”

Fake. Stacy knew that word all too well, and started sobbing at the sound of that word.

“I should have known,” she cried. “what she went through. And yet, I hated her. I was so selfish, not even thinking about how Dad must have treated her. But, I still don’t understand. Why, why would she just leave? Without a single word?

Her voice became sharper, gazing at her relatives. “And why? Why did you never tell me anything?”

Mrs. Zhao was taken aback at her niece’s accusation. “We didn’t know how to.”

Mr. Zhao interjected. “However much you hated your mother, I deserve it more. I saw how badly Alex treated my sister, and yet, I just avoided him. I should have helped you, but I was a coward. I let both you and my sister down.

He paused. “I’m sorry.”

Stacy stared angrily at her uncle, realizing that, yes, he too abandoned her. She opened her mouth to yell, but the words never came. She couldn’t bring herself to say it. It wasn’t worth it.

“It’s okay,” she replied. “I’m just glad that, you’re all here now. That I have a family.”

The entire table was relieved to hear her say that. Stacy looked around, suddenly noticing her dad arriving.

“Stacy, we’re going home,” her dad said guiltily.

“Why?” Stacy asked.

“I caused enough trouble for one day,” he replied.

Stacy was confused. “Well, okay,” she said. “But, can I say some things to my relatives first?”

Her dad frowned, thinking of his response. “Fine, go ahead.”

He walked away as Stacy faced her family.

“Um,” Stacy said. “I just wanted to ask. Could I, um…”

Stacy paused, but why? This was finally her chance, to be free of her father forever. What was she waiting for?

“You, want to stay with us?” Mrs. Zhao finished. “Is that what you wanted to say?”

“Um…yes. But, I don’t know. Everything would change, and I’m not sure, if I’m ready for it yet. And, I guess, I would feel bad for leaving Dad alone. Somehow.”

Mrs. Zhao smiled. “You don’t have to decide right now. But, just know, you don’t have to take care of Alex by yourself.”

“Yeah,” Nick said. “We’re always here to talk, cousin.”

“And listen if you need to scream sometimes!” Ian added.

Stacy grinned as her uncle prepared to speak.

“Our doors are always open for you. And I promise, from now on, I won’t abandon you again.”

Stacy walked up to her uncle and hugged him. “Thanks, uncle.”

Everyone else in the table joined in the group hug. When they released each other, Stacy prepared to leave.

“Goodbye everyone. See you all soon.”

—-

“So, why’d you leave the Smiths?” Stacy asked her dad on the way home.

“Well, they weren’t as nice as I thought,” he replied.

“Wow, you’re surprised?” she remarked.

“Don’t give me that attitude!” he yelled, but quickly corrected himself. “Well, they seemed okay at first. But then I noticed that they only ever wanted to talk about their son, Lucas.”

“Oh, him,” Stacy said.

“You know him?”

“Let’s just say, we don’t get along very well.”

“I see. So I noticed that Abby girl being all upset she was getting ignored, and it seemed like she had to deal with it for a long time. So I told them, shouldn’t they ask her how she’s been doing? But they got mad, telling me I should worry about my own family rather than butting into their affairs, and…”

“And?”

“Well, I haven’t been the best father, have I?”

Stacy was prepared to make some snide remark, but decided against it. “No, not really.”

Her dad looked sad. “Well, I’m sorry. I’m not good at this whole parenting thing. But, well, let me know what I can do to improve. To make it up to you.”

Stacy was unconvinced that his about-face would last, but it was better than nothing. “Okay. Right now, I just want to know, what did Mother say to you before she left?”

Her dad’s face sunk. “She told me she didn’t know who she was anymore. Said she needed to leave, so she could find meaning in her life again.”

“Did she say anything about me?”

“Well, yeah, she couldn’t just leave you, right? I tried to get to stay by reminding her of you. But she said was that you deserved a better role model than her. That she would just set a bad example. That was the last thing she said before she ran out the door, and she started crying just thinking about you.”

Stacy finally had an answer to the question that haunted her up until now. It wasn’t a pleasant one, but why would it be? She wished that she could talk to her mother right now, to have the chance to make everything better. But right now, all she could do was look at the moon.

Mother, I don’t know where you are right now. But, I hope you found the answer you were looking for. That you’re happy with your new life. I just wish…I can find you someday, so I can say, I’m sorry.

(table of contents)

Rhythm Heaven reminded me why I love video games

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To get into the mood, it’s best to read this entry with this tune in the background.

About time I showcased something from one of my favourite video game genres, rhythm games. Given that I’ve dedicated a whole chapter of Fake Geek Girl Adventures to these quirky Japanese creations, I may as well go ahead and say why I love them so much.

Rhythm games, at heart, distill video games to their simplest mechanics. The screen puts up a prompt, and you press a button to react. It’s a testament to designers’ skill at audio and visual sleight-of-hand, with incredibly catchy and often surreal tunes and art styles, that this imitation game manages to be as fun and addictive as it is. People often talk of interactive novel games. Well, rhythm games are like interactive MP3 Players or juke boxes.

Rhythm Heaven looks unassuming at first, with a cover like this. But it is a good example of looks being deceiving. Like its sister series, WarioWare, its simplistic art style is used to portray an outrageously wacky world with a variegated cast of characters. Throughout the game, you’ll take on roles from relatively normal (e.g. Naive chorus kid, Idol singer, Karate man), to the surreal (Cephalopod-faced DJ trainee, frog dancer with large, sexy hips, singing Moai). The whole thing plays out like some bizarre slice-of-life variety show (hence the awesome, awesome theme I mentioned at the beginning). It’s weird to say a game with no explicit plot and simple characters has clever writing, but really, these oddballs are surprisingly endearing due to the direction the music and scenarios take in the sequel games and remixes. Also, by getting Perfects on certain games, you unlock reading material that gives you additional insight into the characters’ backgrounds and what goes on in their heads. Particularly cute are the scientists in love, which touches me on a personal level, and also goes to show just how much the game gives the impression of being for everyone.

But what makes Rhythm Heaven in particular stand out from the crowd gameplay-wise? Well, from the producer Tsunku himself,

In Japan, with games that use rhythm and sound, it’s long been the case that the placement of accents and the timing of button-presses has had nothing to do with music. For someone like myself, whose work revolves around music, this has never seemed right, and I wrote up my proposal in hopes of doing away with this.

The cleverness of the writing extends to the gameplay mechanics themselves. Sure, it’s not as intense as the highest levels of Bemani (though Rhythm Rally 2 comes close), but it comes with its own tricks not commonly found in other rhythm games. The second game, the Glee Club with the adorable Chorus Kids, makes you match the timing and duration of the other two singers’ voices, a common mechanic throughout the game. Without any button cues, I admit, it took me a while to get Superb on that game despite being a veteran of the genre. Later notable games include Big Rock Finish, in which you are given one fixed pattern, but need to match it to the tempo of various ending motifs, and Lockstep, which makes you switch between on and offbeats (the sequel making it even trickier by using a rarely heard swing beat; 1 _ 3 1 _ 3 instead of 1 2 1 2). Both of them are a pain in the butt at first, but satisfying once you get used to them (well, for me at least, my musical background made me appreciate these obscure mechanics).

Perfect mechanics are also handled in an interesting way. One game is randomly selected at a time, and if a game you achieved Superb on is that game, you have three shots at a Perfect before the cursor moves to another game. This discourages simply brute force practicing your way through a game, and encourages developing a sense of rhythm in general. The system sounds tedious and stressful, but in practice, I found it kept me moving forward through the games rather than getting stuck trying to get the Perfect so I didn’t get burned out as fast. Ironically, the way Perfects are recorded isn’t actually perfect or intuitive,* but it’s still a satisfying feat to get them all, especially because of the neat reading material I mentioned earlier that you can win.

Even if rhythm games seem to fundamentally play the same way, this game still manages to be an experience like no other. Why do I consider it a reminder of why I love video games? Because, aside from loving music in general, it’s because of its simplicity. It’s proof that you don’t need an AAA budget, just a lot of cleverness, charm, and heart. Rhythm Heaven‘s cute characters and unique gameplay, heck, even the cheesy idol songs, resonate close to my heart just as much as an epic RPG (in many cases, even more so), and it has that slice-of-life optimism that just makes me see the world in a better light.

Another thing that makes the game special? You can literally play the game with your eyes closed because the main cues are all auditory, and the visual cues are primarily for show (heck, a few games have such confusing visuals that not paying attention to them may actually be beneficial). Remember what I said about the game being for everyone? Well, Nintendo actually responded to a blind Japanese boy who loved that it was one of the few games he could play. That’s as good an endorsement of the game as any.

*Some games can be incredibly forgiving (the aforementioned Lockstep, for instance, has a very wide timing window for Perfect, while for Rockers, you can constantly stop your guitar too early and still get Perfect), while others have tight and awkward timing windows (usually that tapping even a millisecond before the beat is considered a failure, but you can tap slightly later and still count, but this is notably reversed for Rhythm Rally).

I hate the phrase “Bros before hoes”

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The reason why should be self-evident, but unfortunately, the phrase and attitude behind it have become so culturally entrenched that many people don’t realize just how sexist it is. It is a prime example of casual misogyny; if you object to it, someone will insist it’s totally not sexist and they’re just joking.* However, joke or not, it still sends a negative message. Let’s see what Urban Dictionary has to say.

The unwritten law that your bros (male friends) should always become before hoes (female with whom you are/hoping to have a relationship with). Most used as a trump card by your bros when they feel you are becoming whipped or that your hoe is a slut and a bitch.

First, using “ho” as a stand-in for woman already sets off a red flag.** Why would you refer a significant other as a degrading term that implies she only exists for sex? One might say that it’s a defense mechanism, but the phrase is often use pre-emptively. How does one build a relationship on paranoia and suspicion?

The phrase also implies that male friends are inherently better than female friends, whether romantic or platonic. Okay, this is where I take personal issue. First off, I have gone through life with male and female friends or acquaintances, and am comfortable around people of all genders, being gender-fluid myself. I do not understand why anyone would actively choose to only surround oneself with those of the same gender and only see the opposite through romantic or sexual lenses. You’re missing out on a lot of potential friends that way.

Second, my best friend, the person I trust to always have my back through all of life’s experiences, good or bad, is female. Neither of us cared much for gender roles, we just acted as ourselves. I wouldn’t give up such a sincere friendship for anything, least of all some arbitrary, restrictive, made-up rule.

The phrase also assumes that every man (or male-born person) has a male support network, and I can tell you, that wasn’t true of me. I had plenty of negative experience with boys and men. People often talk of mean girls, but two-faced mean boys are just as prevalent (think frat culture). Many guys put on a nice front, but I was mocked when I tried to get closer to them, both behind my back and to my face. This is one reason why sincerity became my most important virtue and I’m still wary of two-faced people to this day.

In particular, my junior high school years (which I am not proud of) had me putting down girls while trying to impress boys, which was a mistake I sorely regret as the girls tended to be more cordial and friendly towards me in the long run. Even those that were rude to me were nowhere near as bad as the two-faced boys, since at least they were upfront about it (and I was genuinely an ass back then). But because I internalized “bros before hoes,” even before I heard the term directly, I was blinded to that reality. Fortunately, I learned my lesson by the time I reached grad school.

So yes, “bros before hoes” is a bullshit phrase that panders to rigid gender boundaries. Even if it’s unlikely to be banished to catchphrase purgatory, I’d like people to at least think about the implications of what they’re saying. Because aside from the obvious misogyny, I’ve gone into detail about how it hurts men too.

*Even ignoring the fact that “just a joke” tends to be an excuse, it irritates me when people say things they don’t mean. If I can’t take your insults seriously, then how can I take anything else you say seriously?

**Of course, context matters, and I do acknowledge that some people use such words as endearment terms, but that requires people to know each other well enough to understand that, and in the context of the phrase, it is definitely not meant to be endearing.

Memories of Cardcaptors

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It was the turn of the millennium. Japanese anime was becoming increasingly popular, with big names such as Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, and Pokemon. Naturally, we were all excited to see what else was coming from Japan. Two iconic shows that came out in this era revolved around magical cards: Yu-Gi-Oh! and Cardcaptors. Like Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon before them, they formed sort of a male/female pair, but of course, that never stopped anyone of a certain gender from liking the other show, not back then, and definitely not now. Still, they were quite different in tone. Yu-Gi-Oh was a shonen sports anime (way before esports made it big) that just happened to put people’s souls at stake, while Cardcaptors was more of a slice-of-life show that just happened to have magical trickster tarot card spirits causing trouble every so often. Both were about self-discovery and coming of age, themes that transcend gender boundaries even if they manifest themselves in different ways.

But wait, this post isn’t about Yu-Gi-Oh, is it? Funny how that became intertwined into how I view Cardcaptors anyway. Yes, I’m aware that a lot of people don’t like that name. It was an attempt to make the title more gender-neutral as opposed to the true name, Cardcaptor Sakura. Apparently, in the US, the entire thing was rewritten to appeal to boys; with more of an action focus and scenes edited to make it look like Li Syaoran (or Xiăoláng, as its spelled in Chinese pinyin) was the main character. Well, in Canada, I never got that impression that the main character was anyone but Sakura, probably because we actually got all the episodes. I understand the frustration with the edits, and indeed, I’m not really going to defend the needless censorship. Still, a highly edited dub didn’t stop 4Kids’s version of Yu-Gi-Oh from specifically having fans and defenders, one reason being the witty dialogue spouted by everyone that is actually closer to the Abridged Series than one might think.

Okay, now I’ll stop talking about Yu-Gi-Oh.* But it is strange that when I tracked down the original Japanese Cardcaptor Sakura, I ended up preferring the English version. It felt a lot like the subplot of the Simpsons episode The Haw-Hawed Couple, in which Lisa decides her dad’s made-up ending to avoid mentioning Greystash’s death in the Harry Potter parody she was reading was actually better than canon. But why? It took a while for me to figure that out, but with the increasing celebration of gender fluidity in modern times, it finally hit me.

Sakura in the English version was one of the rare tomboy magical girls who had the coveted protagonist status. I mean, sure, Japanese Sakura was into sports and wore her hair short, but she was still your typical cutesy girly girl. In contrast, the English dub played up her tomboyish traits. Her voice was low-pitched and often had a more assertive tone, and she could be quite sassy in multiple instances. Yet, she still wore miniskirts and dresses and had a fondness for cute things. And the best part? Here was a girl who was quite androgynous in presentation, and no one questioned it. No one treated it as strange, no one tried to convince her to be more masculine or feminine. She was just comfortable being herself. In her world, androgyny was perfectly normal and unremarkable, and so too did it become so in my world.

It was a stark contrast to most other characters I had seen at the time, and even until now. Buttercup from the Powerpuff Girls, Helga Pataki from Hey Arnold!, Jade Chan from Jackie Chan Adventures, Rika from Digimon Tamers, all very cool and interesting characters, but they were clearly on the tomboyish side of the spectrum. Sakura and Meilin, on the other hand, were closer to the middle (heck, Meilin was a lot like the other tomboy characters, except more cutesy and girly in appearance and attitude). They taught me that, no, wearing a short skirt doesn’t automatically disqualify you from being assertive, hanging out with boys, or having masculine-coded interests. Expressions of femininity are just as valid as masculine expression coming from anyone. I know that Sakura’s personality change was probably done to appeal to boys, but in that case, her androgyny was a happy accident. Indeed, I have fond memories of the Nelvana dub precisely because I rarely ever get to see an androgynous character like her. It’s similar to why Power Rangers has such enduring popularity. Sure, the original season had corny dialogue and people in rubber suits, but a wide demographic of kids could look at those teenagers and think, “Hey, I can role play a Power Ranger too!”

Meilin also deserves a paragraph to herself, because of how much she changed in my view from a superfluous character I expected to totally hate into one of my all-time favourite anime characters. She didn’t give the best first impression, being whiny, mostly useless in capturing cards, seemingly only cared about crushing on Xiăoláng, and just came of as your typical unlikable third wheel character. But I was surprised just how much I ended up liking her. For all her faults, she tries really hard at everything she does and when it really matters, she’s ready to rush in to help her friends. Plus, when I realized why she was such a bitch (she had a massive inferiority complex over being screwed by destiny and not being the almighty Chosen One with bullshit main character powers), I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her. Besides, her sarcastic dialogue was simply so hilarious (“How can I be so perfect at everything else, yet I am lousy at baking a stupid cake?”; “Is hypothermia part of the curriculum?”; (in response to Sakura saying she’s happy to see everyone together again) “Really, you mean that’s it?”; and so much more) that I’m glad that she remained a bitch to the very end. Especially considering just how much girls are socialized to be passive and polite, seeing someone who doesn’t give a damn about any of that and just speaks her mind is very refreshing. And yes, while the whole secondary Asian love interest getting dumped for the default race lead character (in this case, Chinese rather than the default Japanese) is a grating trend in general, in this case, Meilin is likable enough that I can forgive it just this once. Sort of.

Meilin is also special to me for another reason. I began to imagine what it would be like to be around someone like her, someone not afraid to chew me out when I deserved it, but I knew I could count on when I needed a friend the most. In essence, I made a subconscious wish for a friend like her. Years later, I would meet a girl in my lab group who also had a cute face and a hyperactive and cheerful, but blunt and sarcastic attitude. We eventually became best friends, sharing our successes, eccentricities, and inferiority complexes. One time, we had a discussion on what role we’d play as TV show characters, and months, I realized, she acted a lot like an anime character. Slowly, I made the connection to Meilin, and was amazed. Never did I imagine my wish would actually come true, but it did!

To some extent, I’ve outgrown Cardcaptor Sakura. My tastes have shifted darker (like Grimm Fairy Tales or even Simpsons / Hey Arnold! dark), and the series overall is a bit too saccharine for me nowadays. The manga continuation doesn’t seem to be doing much for me either. Still, it’s a fond memory for me, and I feel compelled to preserve the memory of the English dub. It’s weird to want to keep alive the memory of something most would rather forget, but it’s one of those cases where one fan’s worthless trash is another fan’s beloved Garbodor. If I got to see another magical series with an androgynous protagonist, I may join in the chorus of hate, but not likely. Besides, the Nelvana dub also has some amazingly memorable music, most of all Guardian of the Cards. That, definitely, is worth remembering.

*By the way, my favourite Yu-Gi-Oh! character is the camp, androgynous manchild Maximillion Pegasus. Okay, now I’m done.

Memories of Spore

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Time to write about another Maxis game. I remember when Spore was first announced. It was going to boldly go where no game had gone before. You thought SimCity and Civilization were cool, being able to control cities and empires? Well, how about the entire universe, from the microscale all the way to the macroscale? It was the grandest scale game ever promised at the time, a SimEverything! And it was going to make science fun!

Of course, we all know that the end result was, less than promised. Instead of an organically flowing life simulation, we got an awkward, barely-connected mismash of 5 stages which play more like simplified role-playing or real-time strategy games. Instead of a natural progression of creatures and buildings, the features were cosmetic, and evolution was more like Pokémon than Darwin.

Apparently, the development team had a conflict between scientific and cute, the latter won, and it shows. And it shouldn’t be surprising; with such a grandiose concept, inevitably, people were going to butt heads regarding the direction the game should take. Should we make stat spreads more scientifically realistic, at the cost of potentially inhibiting creativity in aesthetics? (after all, so many RPGs with custom equipment end up making the player character look ridiculous when optimized) How would we accurately program limb placement and environmental interactions to such a complex degree? Would we have to take 50 years to finish the game if we truly tried to simulate everything? The game was destined to be below expectations, since most developers still face challenges trying to make games based around just one of the individual gameplay components, let alone all of them at once. Like I just said in my previous post, SimCity had enough trouble being true to life, despite its pedigree, so imagine that inaccuracy multipled tenfold and you have this game.

In the end, Spore became, effectively, a 3D modelling program, and indeed, that’s what the player base used it as. The creatures, buildings, and vehicles everyone created were supposed to be the window dressing for the simulation game itself, but in fact, it was the inverse; the traditional game elements were the window dressing; simply an excuse to show off the community’s creations. And this was where the real fun of the game came from.

I remember starting off on the official forums. My early creations were either overdesigned creatures with too many body parts or hastily put together coloured blocks with no regards for aesthetics. And yet, many of the users were pushing the modelling software to its limits. You had people making elaborate towers, mascot characters, beautiful exotic animals, eggs, even portraits and many other things you wouldn’t expect the software to be capable of at first glance. I was inspired to do better, to go beyond the initial boundaries, and was proud of my first green smiley face (the maximum rating a creation can receive). I participated more in the community, reveling in its willingness to help and support each other, and my mind was whirring with ideas (my Gravatar in fact is one of my Spore creations). I was proud, to discover a creative side of me that I never knew existed, to admire and support others’ boundless creativity, to also be praised for coming up with unexpected things, and to be a part of one of the most positive gaming communities I had ever experienced. Sure, the main forum was full of complaining about the game (which was somewhat justified), but for us creators, we had little time for that, and we made do with the many tools we had.

And, it was through Spore that I met my first crush. She was something of a leader in the community, having written a guide about buildings, several showcase trophies, and her amazing, beautiful creations were frequently featured on the front page. I was honoured to see her happy for one of my compliments, and that she would regularly leave comments on my own creations. Even if I never saw her face, I knew she was very pretty, since her kind, supportive personality shone through her messages (and it helped she had a pretty username that became one of my go-to names for video game characters).

In the end, she moved on from the game, and so did I and much of the community. Spore would never be the same, or as exciting as it was at its peak, because it was the people who made the game what it was. But even if I stopped playing, I would never forget my experience. Years later, I would continue creating things and being inspired by people. I would make custom greeting cards for my friends. I would join the university craft club, and indulge in my love of biology and creepy things. I would transcribe songs from online by ear, and later, try creating music of my own. And I would try my hand at fiction writing (which I hope people enjoy, even if it’s full of stilted early draft dialogue that I have yet to fix). I hope, too, that the friends I’ve met from the game, however short-lived it was, are also too still out there making things for the world to enjoy.

So for a game that has brought me so much joy and life-changing experiences, could I really call it a bad game, or a disappointing one? Sure, it failed at its overly ambitious primary goal, and perhaps other games do what it does better. However, for all its shortcomings to the scientifically-inclined and students of RPG and strategy games, it succeeded in appealing to a different audience, the artistic types, for which the universe was their canvas. There’s a simple joy in beaming down a hologram of the creature you spent hours crafting, and having it walk around your decorated, terraformed planet; simply soaking in all the sights of land and sky, your magnificent buildings juxtaposed against the splendid randomly-generated scenery.

Memories of SimCity and its Legacy

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I remember when I first booted up SimCity 3000 at the age of 6 or so. I was instantly blown away by the sheer scale of the simulation. At the time, a video game to me was something like Super Mario Bros., a fixed game with a set challenge. But instead of bite-sized levels, SimCity had you building an entire magnificent metropolis! And the soundtrack wasn’t just 8-bit chirps, but an grand collection of jazz and New Age which I still play fondly to this day. For the longest time, I considered it my favourite game, along with Super Mario 64, because of how ambitious and imaginative both games were for their time.

Of course, being young and stupid, I didn’t understand financial management yet, so my early games consisted of me constantly running my cities bankrupt with loans. But when I tried again at age 11, I was able to build a decently sized city with a population of 600,000. It was disorganized and a prime example of urban sprawl, but I was proud of it. Still, I looked on in envy at that perfectly organized Metropolis example city with 2.1 million residents and Astronomical land values (even destroying it a few times).

Speaking of financial management, I would also get a hold of SimCity 2000 later in my life, which had quite a nasty Hard mode in which you had no money except for a $10000 loan which kept draining money from you until you raised $10000 to pay it off. It was much more restrictive than SimCity 3000’s Hard mode, which had loans that expired after 10 years and the ability to offset them with Business Deals. At first, I tried playing the budget cautiously, but the money kept draining. It was only after I went all in that I was able to raise enough taxes to stay in the green and eventually pay off the loan. At that moment, I finally understood how Keynesian economics worked, despite how counter-intuitive it seemed, and why economists consider austerity bad policy.

Naturally, when I heard they were reviving SimCity for a new generation in 2013, I was thrilled. It was going to be online, and each city was going to be part of an entire interconnected region! It was an immediate purchase decision for me…and most of us know how that game turned out. I tried convincing myself I was having fun, but it didn’t work out, and each time I made a city, I quickly hit a ceiling in which I had no desire to expand any further.

I could blame the small city sizes, the myriad glitches that constantly gridlocked the roads and limited what you could actually accomplish in the game, and various other forms of mismanagement. But looking back, I hit a similar ceiling with the other SimCity games as well, despite the series’ promise of endless gameplay and no true end goal. I’d build up my population and land value numbers, and that was it.

Part of the shift in my opinion of SimCity came with a similar shift in my own life. No longer did I spend my life alone in the outskirts of some isolated small town, through which SimCity fulfilled my urban fantasies. Now having moved to major urban environments, I have come to understand city life a lot better, and realized just how simplistic SimCity’s model truly is. It’s not segregated Residential-Commercial-Industrial indicators that make people passionate about the city, and in fact, dense cities like Vancouver routinely blend those sectors. Nor is it about ever-increasing land values. In fact, such gentrification has been a detriment to the culture of cities like Vancouver and San Francisco, and citizens routinely protest this favoured treatment of the rich while depriving lower-income residents of homes. Yet you’ll never realize this from SimCity, which treats gentrification as merely a gaming ideal to aspire to.

No, city life is about interaction, about the ingenuity of the quirky folk displaying offbeat clothing and personalized artwork in East Vancouver and Edmonton-Strathcona. It’s about architecture, open markets, walking and soaking in the sights. SimCity is so focused on the macro-management that it doesn’t consider the micro-scale of the human experience. Indeed, the city structure portrayed in the 2013 game seems firmly stuck in the past. It’s dependent entirely on roads, with few transit options, and relies on resource extraction as a primary source of income. This urban planning vision looks less appealing in the environmentally conscious post-recession age, even more so in Canada as it came out during the notorious reign of Stephen Harper and his own backwards addiction to natural resources as the backbone of Canada’s economy.

Some say we shouldn’t talk politics in video games, that it’s purely escapism. But as George Orwell said, all issues are political issues, and when you’re dealing with something as real as city planning, discussing a game’s politics is inevitable. SimCity may be great in scale by video game standards (aside, funny how we as a gaming community tend to set such low standards for ourselves), but it’s lacking as a city simulator and its vision is overly conservative. I’m grateful for the game for introducing me to budget management, serving as the impetus for my passion for city planning, and expanding my horizon when stuck in small town life, but I’ve outgrown the game and am now looking for a more in-depth city simulation game that more accurately represents the joys of urban life. I’ve heard the SimCity 4 community has modded the game far beyond its original scope, and if so, good for them. Other titles have also popped up, and it’d be good to know where to start.

Misunderstood Holiday Classics: Ron Howard’s How The Grinch Stole Christmas

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Blast this Christmas music! It’s joyful…and triumphant!

Most know the story of the Grinch; the green recluse who hates Christmas and steals everything, only to have a change of heart at the end when the Whos celebrated Christmas all the same. At the turn of the millennium, Hollywood made a full-length movie out of it. To say the least, a lot of people didn’t like it. More accurately, they were pissed, and to this day, it’s popularly remembered as a disgrace to the original children’s book and cartoon. And yet, a lot of other people sit down to watch it every year and dedicate Twitter accounts to quoting Jim Carrey. Yep. It’s one of those love-it-or-hate-it movies. Well, looks like I’m gonna have to shift the public opinion barometer closer to the love side.

Here goes. Five reasons why the Grinch movie is totally, indisputably not a terrible film, and actually pretty freaking awesome:

(Obviously, spoilers, as well as an alert that this post is going to delve into discussing mental illness. Also, “totally, indisputably” is tongue-in-cheek.)

1. It’s a fractured fairy tale.

Don’t forget the Grinch. I know he’s mean and hairy and smelly. His hands might be cold and clammy, but I think he’s actually kinda… sweet.

SWEET? You think he’s sweet?

[nods] Merry Christmas, Santa.

Nice kid…baaad judge of character!

The major point of contention with the film seems to be that it’s not a faithful adaptation of the original Dr. Seuss story. The Whos are jerks, the Grinch has an unnecessary backstory, and so on. Well, yeah, from reading the original, Seuss didn’t seem to have all that in mind. However, remember all those revisionist fairy tales in which the villain is actually misunderstood and has their own reasons for being a jerk (one of the most popular ones being Shrek)? The whole concept of the Grinch becoming a misanthropic asshole because he was ostracized by the Whos is standard for that kind of adaptation. I honestly believe that a good deal of the hate comes from people not realizing it’s a fractured fairy tale, but expecting a straighter adaptation, and if it was properly advertised as the former, it would have been better received.

Of course, just because it’s a fractured fairy tale doesn’t automatically make it good, but that’s what the other reasons are for.

2. The Grinch is a surprisingly accurate portrayal of mental illness.

The nerve of those Whos. Inviting me down there – on such short notice! Even if I wanted to go my schedule wouldn’t allow it.
4:00, wallow in self pity

4:30, stare into the abyss
5:00, solve world hunger, tell no one
5:30, jazzercize
6:30, dinner with me – I can’t cancel that again
7:00, wrestle with my self-loathing… I’m booked!
Of course, if I bump the loathing to 9, I could still be done in time to lay in bed, stare at the ceiling and slip slowly into madness. But what would I wear?

This is what goes through the mind of us socially anxious people whenever we get told to go out and meet people, come out of our shell and socialize. Also, the Grinch debating with himself whether to go to the Whobilation or not, coming close to stepping out the door before turning back and insisting he’s not going? We do that too, at least in our heads. Maybe out loud, but where no one can hear. And then getting humiliated with the reminder of the ostracism that made us socially anxious in the first place, causing us to retreat back to our secret lair and give up on ever fitting in (hopefully temporarily)? Well, we hope it doesn’t happen, but it’s expected.

Heck, most of the Grinch’s lair scenes show him clearly being depressed. Yeah, I know, he looks like a manic jerk. Believe it or not, that’s one way depression manifests itself. The word implies a sad sack, but that’s not how it always looks. Outwardly, he performs anger and sarcasm, but his words give him away:

  • I tell you Max, I don’t know why I ever leave this place. I’ve got all the company I need right here.
  • Am I just eating because I’m bored?
  • And of course, his schedule.

He also gets frustrated and in denial when Cindy Lou ends up seeing through his performance. This is because society tends to frown upon people being open with their troubles and appearing weak as a result. So he tries to cover it up the best way he can: by playing the role of the villain and pretending he doesn’t care about his or anyone’s feelings. That’s why when his heart goes three sizes, he has a nervous breakdown. His emotions are almost literally exploding out of him. When you’re finally free of depression, uncontrolled crying fits, at least inwardly, are to be expected as you reflect back on your depression, likely regretting how much of a jerk you’ve been to people in the process.

His unusual birth, both in appearance and behaviour, also serves as an applicable metaphor for physical or mental abnormalities. Most of the conversation focuses on his appearance, but there’s still a clear subtext of being unable to fit in because he doesn’t act normal.

Also worth noting, anime fans will recognize the Grinch as that manic-depressive character archetype known as a tsundere. Best example is his “Oh Max, I love you,” followed by telling him to scram. Opening up to people takes time, after all.

3. Cindy Lou Who is an amazing heroine.

But the book does say the Cheermeister is the one who deserves a backslap or a toast. And it goes to the soul at Christmas who needs it most. And I believe that soul is the Grinch. And if you’re the Whos I hope you are, you will too!

The whole “Mayor Augustus Maywho gets owned by kid” scene is great. And if you don’t believe this is realistic for a girl her age, well, try listening to Severn Cullis-Suzuki at the Rio 1992 Environmental Summit, or reading Madison Kimrey’s essay to Phyllis Schlafly. For the namesake of “gets owned by kid,” albeit older, try Jesse Lange vs Bill O’Reilly.

Seriously, Cindy Lou Who is astonishingly underrated, especially considering she’s from a big name movie that grossed more than $300 million worldwide. People often think “Strong female character” means a girl or woman who excels in punching people, but as child activists show, that’s not the only form of strength. And just because someone looks “girly” doesn’t mean they’re weak.

Cindy is brave. In the face of condescension from the mayor, disbelief from the town’s populace, and the frightening legends, she presses on regardless, determined to learn the truth about the Grinch.

Cindy is smart. She actively goes out to research the Grinch’s history and to put the pieces together. She read the Book of Who enough that the Mayor can’t bullshit her in the debate to nominate the Grinch as Cheermeister. Heck, she’s the only one aside from the green man himself to question why everyone is making themselves miserable in their gift obsession in an ostensibly cheerful season.

Cindy is kind. She knows the Grinch isn’t exactly right in the head, but sees the good side of him he so desperately disguises, and tries to help him unconditionally. And while that sounds like the typical manic pixie dream girl, she’s not doing it out of any obsession with him. She’d do that for anyone in need, which includes herself. By helping the Grinch, she helps herself realize the joy of being there for someone in need and rediscovers the Christmas spirit.

And anyone who ever tried to make a difference, anyone who’s constantly underestimated by society, especially little girls, will recognize this:

Did anyone listen to me? No, you choose…to listen to a little, not to be taken seriously, GIRL!

This pretty much sums up the main argument from a lot of conservative adults. But in the end, because she stuck to her convictions, her timid father came to her defense, and so did the entire town. She’s been my inspiration ever since I saw this movie as a kid, and as an adult who’s been around the political scene for a while, even more so.

4. The movie doesn’t contradict the original message. It expands it.

I’m glad he took our presents. I, well, I, I’m glad.

He’s glad! You’re glad! You’re glad everything is, is gone. Heh hah heh. You’re glad, that the Grinch virtually wrecked, no no no, not wrecked, pulverized Christmas! Is that what I’m hearing from you, Lou?

You can’t hurt Christmas, Mr. Mayor, because it isn’t about the…the gifts or the contest, or the fancy lights. That’s what Cindy’s been trying to tell everyone…and me….

I don’t need anything more for Christmas than this right here: my family.

In the tradition of a good fractured fairy tale, this movie adds another dimension to the original story. I mean, the Grinch didn’t have a particularly developed motive before, and people are naturally going to ask (just like Cindy did!). Heck, psychologists have essentially detailed the plot of this movie as a possible explanation for why anyone would steal Christmas. (If that’s not vindication, well, I still have one more reason to go). Telling the audience to look beyond the materialistic trappings of the holiday season is a natural extension of “It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes, or bags!” It may take creative liberties with the original story, but it still carries the same spirit.

5. It essentially has the same plot as Frozen.

 

Let’s see: emotionally repressed main characters have some aspect of themselves that they cannot control, and shut themselves out from the world as a result. Eventually, they are found out, and run away to a snowy mountain where they hide for an extended period of time, building impressive abodes in the process. The other main characters: brave, headstrong girls, come over to their lairs to get them to open up and overcome their social anxieties. Both the Grinch and Elsa have scenes where they go out in public just to feel rejected. And in the end, they find the inner strength to rescue Cindy and Anna respectively. Heck, all four of them even have their own theme tune, which are recurring for the latter two.

And yet one is regarded as a Disney classic (despite having little to do with The Snow Queen), while the other is scorned as a butchery of a Seuss classic. What the hell, people? Yes, I know Frozen is itself controversial, but it just goes to show how much the context in which a movie comes out can inherently change audience opinion.

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I mean, sure, the movie isn’t perfect. There are some logical inconsistencies in the movie’s story, such as why the Grinch’s caretakers didn’t seem to care that he was gone for so long. But it does so many things right, and uncommonly for a Hollywood movie to boot, that it doesn’t deserve the negative reception it got. It’s like Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Once upon a time, people hated it because it took a lot of liberties with the source material, the gargoyles were jarring, Quasimodo didn’t get the girl, etc. But now, people appreciate just how awesome it is for taking on Christian fundamentalism, slut shaming, male entitlement, prejudice and racism, and so much more while reaffirming the ideals of Christianity itself (not to mention the beautiful animation). For us Grinch movie fans, there’s hope that people will eventually come around to it in a similar fashion.

Plus, it’s extremely quotable.

The appeal of horror; why choose to be frightened?

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 Much like fairy tales, there are two facets of horror. One is pro-institution, which is the most reprehensible type of fairy tale: Don’t wander into the woods, and always obey your parents. The other type of fairy tale is completely anarchic and antiestablishment.

Guillermo del Toro

As a niche genre, horror is often misunderstood. It is often vilified as ultraviolent, misogynistic exploitation or mocked for cheap costumes and overdone fairground tricks, associated with schlocky, lowest common denominator fare churned out just to make a profit. However, like anything, horror has its gems, and there are many things that horror accomplishes that few other genres can match.

Horror is fundamentally psychological

What causes fear? Uncertainty. A lack of control. Being subject to the whims of fate. These are the feelings that horror thrives on. In fact, Psycho is essentially a psychological study of Norman Bates and his struggle for control over the memory of his abusive mother, showing also how horror gives insight into the darker aspects of humanity, parts of it that many of us do not experience and thus have trouble comprehending.

It’s also worth noting that the common jump scare is rooted in the fear of the unknown, not knowing when it will strike. Many do not understand this, thinking the jump is what causes the scare rather than its context, and this is why it has become such a derided narrative technique.

Horror is a depowerment fantasy

What distinguishes horror from other genres is the power of the protagonist, our proxy character. In a typical hero story, the protagonist is able to conquer any foe by the tale’s conclusion. Despite all the pressures imposed by the narrative, applied just enough to cause suspense, the outcome is rarely uncertain. In contrast, the protagonist of a horror story is far weaker than their adversary, again lacking control over their situation. You genuinely feel that the hero is outmatched in a way that cannot be overcome by training and experience against weaker foes. When faced with an invincible man or monster, or some strange environment not subject to the protagonist’s rules, the goal is often not to win, but simply to survive.

A good example is the original Wicker Man. The protagonist, a police officer, believes himself in a position of power and thus acts aggressively towards the islanders. However, he does not triumph in the end, for his heroic bravado merely played right into the cult’s hands. In the end, he was defeated by a force more powerful than himself. (as an aside, I must admit that the Nicolas Cage remake parodies this aspect pretty well. “I’m a police man! See my badge?”)

This is also why people often consider Resident Evil 4 the point at which the series started to shift from horror to action. The more powerful the protagonists become, the less scary the adversary is.

Paradoxically, this makes horror empowering

Because horror is so willing to explore issues to a depth that few other genres dare descend, we gain a better understanding of those issues, and knowledge is power. Whether it’s growing up in a broken home or living in fear of sexual assault while people around you blow off your concerns, seeing your experience on screen says that yes, someone understands you. Yes, your concerns are valid. And it is possible to overcome them.

It’s no surprise that the faces of horror protagonists are typically female. Society treats women as the weaker gender, less capable of fending off evil presences. But passive characters like the typical love interests in action movies don’t make compelling protagonists, because people want to see themselves as more active than that. The very choice of making a girl or woman the viewpoint character gives insight into her mindset, so that even male viewers come to understand her story. And in the realm of horror, where masculine strength means nothing in the face of a much more powerful enemy, it is female cleverness, ingenuity, and determination that succeeds over evil.

A Nightmare on Elm Street is nothing if not corny, with byzantine death sequences (a weightlifter turned into a bug! A guy eaten by his own motorcycle!) and a villain who seems to have a dayjob as a Catskills comedian. But it’s also explicitly about female empowerment, as its final girls learn not just how to control their dreams but to control their lives as well, and overcome such obstacles as alcoholic parents, insecurity, and being ignored by those in power. It also establishes what can only be described as a final girl matriarchy, with myths, rituals, and a strong bond of friendship uniting its heroines.

– Sarah Marshall: Beyond Clarice: Underrated Horror Heroines

Like life, horror does not always resolve neatly

But of course, true evil takes more than a punch to the face to disappear. No, the cackling slasher will always return again and again. The spirit will always find a new host. Even after escaping, the legacy of her terror will always come back to haunt the hero. Such is life, where we must always remain vigilant, for real-life horrors such as racism are not simply resolved by one civil rights movement.

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By no means are these aspects limited to stories specifically made to invoke fear in the audience. Horror elements often overlap with other genres, such as in dark fantasy or psychological thrillers. Even if you are not interested in reading or writing horror, it is worth understanding the genre. Again, knowledge is power. To conquer fear, you must first learn its roots.

Like romance and comedy, horror is a difficult subject to get right, since all three involve manipulating people to achieve a specific emotional reaction. Doing them badly is like failing at a magic trick; the production ends up being incredibly awkward (if not unintentionally hilarious). But the insight into humanity horror can provide makes it a genre worth respecting.

The many faces of storytelling

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The Illusionist

Sleight of hand. Distraction. Misdirection. Drawing attention to what’s hidden in plain sight. In fiction, we call these plot twists or hidden depths, but the mentality is the same. Just as the magician tricks the audience into believing their improbable feats, so to does the writer manipulate their audience into believing the reality they created. Joy, anger, sadness. All directed towards that which is not real, but feels so.

How effective the manipulation depends on the interplay between illusionist and audience. It is easiest to impress those who have never seen the tricks before; less so the jaded who have seen the tricks a hundred times.* And yet, they can still be won over; for instance, by introducing the standard trick merely as a set-up for a new spin on the classic (as Penn and Teller show). Knowing the audience is key to manipulation.

Of course, though, manipulation can also be used to unscrupulous ends. If you have someone capable of making coins disappear, you can probably imagine what other applications that could have. It would be absurd to comment on how artistically done a pickpocketing job was, and yet so many art critics take that approach to writing; attempting to detach the art from the propaganda. This is not possible. All issues are political issues; all art attempts to convey a point of view.

*As a personal example, while many were overjoyed at the nostalgia trip that was Toy Story 3, I was unimpressed soon afterwards. Why? Because I’ve already seen The Brave Little Toaster.

The Engineer

Now we consider the more savvy audience members. The kind who enjoy taking things apart to see how they work. The kind who closely and analytically observe the illusion to identify the realism behind the magic. Some of them even enter the creative process themselves, calling themselves postmodern.

The engineers consider their work a response to the magicians. Indeed, their style appeals to the critics who dedicate their lives to taking media apart and analyzing it. However, these techniques: metafiction, fourth wall awareness, intertextuality, unreliable narrators, are tricks in themselves reminiscent of the Penn and Teller approach to magic. And as such, they primarily impress those that have never seen the tricks before. But these are classic tricks, at least as old as the 1600s and Don Quixote.

Nonetheless, since fiction is a reflection of reality, it is natural to ask questions of where to draw the line. When you willingly let yourself fall under the creators’, it is useful to ask, to what end? The analytical approach can offer valuable insight into plot conventions or character archetypes that would otherwise be neglected, and every writer worth their salt should at least be thinking about the implications of their work. In addition, the engineer is the type of person who places particular emphasis on novelty, brainstorming ideas to set themselves apart from the crowd.* However, just remember; all this too is part of the illusionist’s show.

*Worth noting, my graduate studies are in a scientific field, and figuring out what makes your paper different from everyone else is the most important part of getting published.

The Anthropologist

Whether it be the manga collecting nerd, or the European classic collecting academic, this is the audience who has an extensive breadth of experience with their devotion of choice. They know, for instance, the historical popularity of certain plot tricks, the influences across time from ancient mythology to the then-modern popular culture, how such works differ across cultures and audiences, and the interplay between media and the real world.* Like the engineers, they bring a similar “seen it all” mentality to the show.

Naturally, one that has devoted so much of their time to one thing would often be motivated towards the creative process to pay homage to their favourite things. Or perhaps they prefer to mock the more absurd conventions, though even parody requires one to have some appreciation for their target if they are to expend so much effort lampooning it. A well-informed, well-read creator can enrich their work with history or take their creations in bold new directions by combining multiple influences from fiction and real life. In a sense, they are like the engineers, but with a different background.

*Incidentally, I’m a huge fan of bad movies because of how fun it is to analyze why in particular something is bad; for instance, the sheer depth of critical analysis dedicated to Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. Anyone who wants a taste of that can check out Greg Sestero’s autobiography The Disaster Artist. You’ll be amused as to how the bizarre scenes came to be.

The Actor

What is the purpose of escapism? To imagine yourself as someone else, somewhere else. To imagine a life without prejudice or pain, or to be reminded that you are not alone in your experiences. By immersing yourself in a story, you become an actor in your own imagination, taking on the role of a character closest to your own. This is most obvious online, taking the form of Tumblr role-play blogs and the like, where even minor characters take on a life of their own.

Naturally, it is easiest to come up with stories that you have personally experienced. How then, does one imagine that which is different from them? It’s definitely possible; you have young directors telling compelling stories about the elderly, for instance. And people have experiences told every day: from friends divulging their inner secrets, from family reminding you what life was life back in their day, even conversation on the bus. Observation, listening, empathy, those go a long way towards creating compelling illusions that feel like the real thing. Stories can be a powerful way of reaching out to the audience, both through the show itself and directly interacting with fandom.

A lot has been said about representation. Here’s my take: as mentioned, the audience often uses stories as a form of role playing. They want to see themselves. So even if a minority character is underdeveloped, even if a female character is ignored, people will cling to them because they want an avatar.* They want to be a part of that world. They don’t want to be left out. So if you’re a creator, shouldn’t you treat your characters with respect? Shouldn’t you give your audience the opportunity to live out their dreams, whoever they are?

*Worth noting, the reason why I enjoy the Nelvana dub of Cardcaptors, even despite all the edits? It’s because Sakura is portrayed as braver and more of a tomboy. To my knowledge, that’s not particularly common for magical girl shows, let alone for a character to be so comfortably androgynous without comment. I also enjoy the live-action Grinch movie because Jim Carrey’s Grinch is a surprisingly accurate portrayal of my own struggles with depression. Yeah, it’s an weird take on it, but it works. Those are a few examples of why I may deviate from the consensus opinion on things.

Conclusion

Who owns stories, the creator or the audience? Obviously, I spent this entire blog post arguing for both of them, that it’s a false dichotomy, but it’s still worth examining the underlying mentality between possible answers. One might say that a creator’s work is art that must be carefully preserved; that any changes to it are akin to vandalizing the creator’s vision. Others might say that the story belongs to the one telling it; that even if a previous storyteller did not tell it the same way, the next one brings their own perspective and interpretation.

Personally, I lean towards the latter response, because I see storytelling in the vein of the oral tradition in which stories would be passed from generation to generation. In addition, the audience often sees a story differently from its original creator. A character that may seem sympathetic to a writer may not come off that way to a reader due to their differing life experiences. So I’m not a fan of literalism. But it is an open question, so others may have different arguments. After all, everyone approaches stories differently, and acknowledging those different faces makes them all the more compelling.