If You’re a College Senior Freaking Out About Your Future, Watch This Movie

nobdy

From Mr. Nobody (2009)

There’s a science fiction movie called Mr. Nobody, and it’s one of my favorites. Essentially, it’s about the butterfly effect: the idea that every small decision that you make ultimately has the power to change the course of your remaining life. The movie is about a boy who is faced with an impossible choice—when his parents separate, will he stay with his mother or his father?—and the consequences of either decision. This influences where he lives, who he falls in love with, how happy he is, and ultimately, whether he lives or dies. It’s really a pretty fantastic movie, albeit confusing as hell. I highly recommend it—especially to anyone who wants to feel both scared and relieved about the future.

As a graduating senior, it often feels like every decision I make from here on out really does fundamentally shift the entirety of my future. Maybe it won’t be life or death, but still. Where to go to graduate school? Which loans to I take out to pay for it? Where should I live? Who should I live with? Who will my new friends be? How will I keep in contact with my current friends? Will I be happy? Stressed? Broke? Regretful? What the hell is happening and how did I become an adult so quickly? In case you haven’t noticed, I am a professional at overthinking things and it should really be the first thing on the top of my resume.

Having an endless amount of options and knowing that you could literally do anything can be exhilarating and exciting, but also terrifying. Technically my path is pretty straightforward because I will still be in school, but it’s a whole different kind of school than anything I have experienced before. These feelings are so much different than the ones that I had when graduating high school. Back then, even though I didn’t know what my major would be or what my roommate would be like, everything felt so much more structured and certain, almost like an extension of high school but in a brand new place with brand new people. Going to college was the expectation. Now it feels like a whole different ball game.

“We cannot go back. That’s why it’s hard to choose. You have to make the right choice. As long as you don’t choose, everything remains possible.” Mr. Nobody is about how choices, both big and small ones, and whether or not we end up choosing the life that is right for us. We can imagine and plan for our lives all we want, but the fact of the matter is that things almost never work out exactly the way that we hoped, or the way that we thought that they were supposed to, but that doesn’t mean that it is wrong. “Each of these lives is the right one. Every path is the right path. Everything could have been anything else and it would have just as much meaning.” (Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself).

The Basics of “Cruelty-Free”

I like to put my money where my mouth is—and by that I mean, after being a vegetarian for 10 years I’ve recently also transitioned into no longer purchasing cosmetic products from companies that test on animals. While I know it’s not possible to be a totally ethical consumer, I feel better about doing something than I do about doing nothing, and this choice was the next natural step to my dietary lifestyle. No one can argue that animal testing isn’t harmful to its subjects, and if that’s something you care about, I’m here to tell you that it’s easier than you might think to fight it. (Or even if you have no intention of going down this route, you can at least stick around to get the basics.) For the sake of sticking to the popular terminology, I will be using the term “cruelty-free” to refer to companies whose products are not tested on animals and to the choice to not buy from those companies. However, I personally hate this term because it sounds a bit self-righteous and ignores other ways in which the process of producing these products could be cruel.

Going cruelty-free isn’t of comparable difficulty to going vegetarian: there are many, many companies across all price ranges whose products are not tested on animals. I would estimate that about half of the most popular makeup companies are considered cruelty-free. This meant that the process of becoming cruelty-free was pretty undramatic for me, as it required me only to shift to buying more from some companies that I already liked and to shy away from a few others. Animal testing is not legally required because it is in no way necessary for safety anymore, which is why so many brands are free of animal testing. According to the Humane Society, there are thousands of ingredients available for use in cosmetics that have been long established as safe and therefore do not have to be tested, and there are a plethora of methods to test new ingredients that don’t involve animals. At this point, still testing on animals in the U.S. only puts companies behind their competitors as this “cruelty-free” movement gains mainstream traction.

It gets somewhat complicated from here, though. Many companies do not test on animals themselves, but do not earn cruelty-free status because they sell their products in China, a country that legally requires animal testing and performs tests on U.S. products before they can be sold there. This is true of MAC, who was originally a proudly cruelty-free company. Big brands tend to value their international business over the morals of animal testing, and this is the problem more often than an unwillingness to change practices within the United States. Another complication is that some brands that do not test on animals are owned by larger makeup companies that are not cruelty-free. For example, L’Oreal owns NYX and Urban Decay, which is troubling because NYX in particular prides itself on being cruelty-free. This becomes a matter of personal judgment. I choose to buy from these companies because I’m still supporting brands that are cruelty-free themselves. Putting money towards them also shows those larger companies that the cruelty-free brands they own are successful.

Finding out which brands to avoid is not at all difficult: a simple Google search will tell you whether and to what capacity any specific company tests on animals. As terrible as PETA can be, they do have a detailed database of information about cruelty-free cosmetics that they update frequently. PETA-approved brands will actually often have the cruelty-free bunny logo on their product packaging. Another equally good website is Cruelty Free Kitty. I find myself on this website a lot to check whether or not a brand I don’t buy from frequently is cruelty-free because it is easy to navigate.

With so many high-quality companies that do not test on animals to choose from, going cruelty-free seemed like a no-brainer to me. I’ve found my favorite makeup brands whose products are not animal tested that I’ve stuck with (Too Faced, Tarte, NYX, Colourpop, Urban Decay, Milani, IT Cosmetics) with really no inconvenience. If you’re into animal rights or have been curious about doing this at all, I highly recommend trying to give your money more often to companies that don’t test or even commenting to a company that you don’t support them testing. It’s not a life-altering change like going vegetarian or vegan, especially if you’re someone who doesn’t buy a lot of makeup.

Despite this, it’s something that can make a big difference even with small effort. The tide is turning towards the elimination of animal testing, and companies are listening as the protest becomes louder. Animal testing within the European Union has been banned since 2013. A few weeks ago, a video from MAC came up on my Facebook news feed advertising Halsey’s new lipstick shade. One of the most popular reactions to the video was the angry face, and almost all of the comments were protesting MAC’s animal testing policy. And I keep seeing these types of comments everywhere. Social media pressure has prompted L’Oreal to update their website to say that the company “no longer tests on animals any of its products or any of its ingredients, anywhere in the world“—a completely misleading statement that is later contradicted by “an exception could only be made if regulatory authorities demanded it for safety or regulatory purposes,” meaning that they still sell in China. For companies like MAC and L’Oreal who want to sell their products in places like China where they have to allow the government to perform animal tests on their products, there isn’t an easy solution. However, whether it’s the international policies or the company values that change, I have hope that the pressure will continue to build and soon force real change instead of empty words.

Not The Fastest Man Alive—But Close Enough

“The Flash” is an awesome TV show.

Veeeery minor spoilers follow, but nothing significant.

It’s not without its flaws, which we will get to in depth, but it’s an incredibly fun and enjoyable program that anyone with even the most vague interest in the superhero genre should check out.

“The Flash”’s biggest advantage is that it truly understands the balance between the funny and the serious and knows how to work that divide.

As my friend says, this a show where, in at least half of the episodes, solving the problem boils down to the following exchange:

Dr. Wells: Barry, you have to run this fast.
Caitlin: Barry, I don’t think you CAN run that fast!
Barry: I’ve gotta run that fast!
*He runs that fast*
Cisco: Wow, I can’t believe you ran that fast!

And it’s amazing.

So a show like that obviously has to embrace the ridiculousness. Most of the best superhero movies (“The Dark Knight” excepted, of course) embrace that to one degree or another. These stories don’t function without humor and self-awareness. If you have doubts about that, go watch “Man of Steel.”

But “The Flash” also makes sure to not limit its dramatic options. It can get serious, painful, and even scary.

A lot of the credit for that goes to Tom Cavanagh, who plays the glorious Harrison Wells, one of my favorite television characters of all time. You can feel the show shift every time he speaks. Most of the other characters speak in that cheesy, comic book, half serious kind of way. It’s all surface level, all simple, all fun.

When Cavanagh speaks, the subtext just appears. There are deep, complex layers to almost every line he delivers. It’s absurd how much power he can put into his speech.

He brings a gravitas to his every scene that no other actor in the show possesses, a gravitas that can elevate a speech about something called “the speed force” from a comic book platitude to a powerful, intense moment of development for multiple characters.

(Also, special shout-out to Wentworth Miller, who plays Captain Cold. I honestly can’t even describe that performance–you just have to watch it.)

Credit also goes to the effects team, which is shockingly good for a show on The CW. I am honestly amazed at how good the show looks and sounds at every level.

Obviously, speed-related effects have to be the chief concern of this particular show, and this show has them nailed. When the main character, Barry Allen, moves, he moves. He is a flash of yellow lightning. And the team knows just the right moments to flip into slow motion, showing us Barry’s movements in excruciating detail. It has just the right aura of the supernatural without crossing the line into complete absurdity.

The effects team particularly shines when it comes to the villains. One of the big villains is Reverse Flash–a name that sounds a little silly, especially when paired with his bright yellow suit. But by having him use his speed to vibrate super fast, his voice goes deeper and his image blurs, making him inhuman and granting him a frightening presence.

Another major villain, Zoom, eschews the vibrating image in favor of a much scarier costume. But he also deepens his voice to sound almost monstrous, and is constantly surrounded by crackling blue lightning, the combined effect of which makes him look positively deadly.

But the best villain effects achievement goes to Gorilla Grodd, who is just straight up terrifying. He has been used sparingly thus far, but the scenes in which he is involved are some of the most intense on the show. By hiding him in shadows, the show demonstrates his sheer size without putting him at risk of looking ridiculous by virtue of the fact that he is, you know…a giant gorilla. His voice is especially menacing, a quality that is enhanced by the reactions of Jesse L. Martin, a badass detective who goes to complete pieces around Grodd.

So that’s a bunch of the positives. When it comes to having fun, crafting interesting characters, and showing off comic book effects, this show excels.

It’s got some issues when it comes to depicting women.

There appears to be a minimum two-men-to-one-woman ratio operating at all times in the show. Those women that are shown have some difficulties.

Caitlin Snow is largely defined by her relationships with male romantic partners and by her scientific career. She can often seem like a flat character outside of these relationships, spouting the necessary science and not doing much else. When she does get a moment of autonomy, she can be quite interesting: the episode where she and Barry go drinking is a great example.

Unfortunately, her problems are compounded in the second season, with one particular scene making my suitemate and I scream in rage when we saw it.

The other main woman character, Iris West, is just a straight-up problem throughout the first season. She is awfully written. The creative team needs to have her in the show given her central role in the comics, but they clearly have no idea what to do with her. Nearly every bit of dialogue she has is terrible, and most of her plots are paper-thin comic clichés that are just annoying.

She improves in the second season, but even then, she doesn’t have a clear role. The writers have figured out how to not have her detract from the show, but not how to have her add to it. Given the high quality of almost every male character on the show, this is rather disgraceful. Much like Caitlin, she is largely defined by her relationships with men and struggles greatly to break free of this.

Generally, this is a more subtle, background sexism than an in-your-face style sexism, but it’s still a genuine problem and source of frustration. Given the creative team’s obvious skill, I have high hopes that they’ll move to more seriously address it going forward, particularly as the show becomes even more popular and backlash starts to intensify.

Broadly speaking, the show is excellent. It has its flaws, flaws that may understandably make the show unappealing to some. But what it does right, it does really right.

One final complaint: Every episode begins with an opening narration in which Barry calls himself “The Fastest Man Alive.” But the season-long arcs have both been about speedsters who were faster than Barry. He has never been the fastest man alive. Ever. Not once. No.

It just bothers me.

In Which a Neuro Major Dispels Some Stereotypes About Anorexia

(Trigger warning for eating disorders)

When the topic of eating disorders inevitably comes up in a psychology class, it usually tends to be just a few pages in a textbook or a few slides in a PowerPoint, usually about how anorexia is a disorder in which the individual has an obsessive desire to lose weight by refusing to eat. These descriptions are almost always framed in a way that makes it seem as though “Losing Weight” and “Being Skinny” have suddenly become the end goals for the individual, and sometimes it is even implied to be due to some sort of inflated sense of vanity. Sometimes the presentation will throw in a few thoughts about genetic predisposition toward susceptibility to the thin ideal that is constantly portrayed by the media and the fashion industry as the ultimate goal for success and beauty. While this is a valid point and I don’t want to discount the pressure and toxic impact that the perpetuation of these unrealistic beauty standards have, I definitely don’t think that it’s telling the whole story.

Of course, I do not want to speak for anyone else’s experiences. All I can talk about is my own experience. And for me, it was never about the wanting to look like a model. For me it was about control. As a freshman in high school, I didn’t have a lot of that. I wasn’t really happy with the people I was friends with, and I wasn’t really happy with who I was. Changing my entire personality was not something that I could easily control, but food was. It was something to direct my focus and attention toward, rather than thinking about why I was unhappy. I starting counting the few hundred calories of ‘safe foods’ I ate each day, and then went to cross-country practice where I ran anywhere from three to ten miles. I remember one day at the end of practice someone brought chocolate chip cookies. Somehow everyone started pressuring me to eat one, since I was the only one that hadn’t, and I did so just to make them stop questioning me. I felt so upset afterward that I ran the five miles back to my house instead of my mother picking me up from school, even though I had already done a two-hour track workout. Eventually the school nurse sent a letter home when my BMI came out dangerously low, my pediatrician expressed concern about my lack of period, and both of them told me that I needed to gain weight. But since I was on cross-country, it was not quite as concerning as it would have been otherwise. Never once did either of them take the time to sit down with me to try to understand what I was going through or even discuss the possibility that I had an eating disorder.

It’s nearly eight years later, and I am glad to say that I am so much healthier and so much happier. It was not easy, it certainly did not happen overnight, and, at least to me, recovery is kind of an ongoing process, but I learned how to eat and run in a way that makes me feel good and that benefits my body. It’s funny because sometimes vegetarians or vegans with a past of disordered eating will get criticism for still following rules and restricting themselves to a “diet” of specific foods, but 1) that’s not the sole reason that I don’t eat animals products anymore, and 2) if someone saw the difference between what I ate then and what I eat now, I have no idea how they could still give that critique. I’m obviously not a doctor (yet), but regardless of what others might think is the only right way to “do” recovery, I think that it’s incredibly important to do what you know works best for you.

So anyway, back to never learning any of this in any class ever (I’m a Neuroscience & Behavior major, by the way). When I came across this study in an article for The Atlantic just a few weeks ago, I was kind of overwhelmed.

“[Psychiatrist Walter] Kaye’s work with women who have recovered from anorexia nervosa found unusually high levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the cerebrospinal fluid that bathes the brain, and he believes these levels were likely also present before the onset of anorexia. Although low serotonin levels are linked to depression, high serotonin levels aren’t good either, as they create a state of chronic anxiety and irritability. As many as three-quarters of those with anorexia had suffered from an anxiety disorder before their eating disorder began, most commonly social anxiety and OCD. It is this anxiety that Kaye believes makes some people much more vulnerable to anorexia.

The body synthesizes serotonin from the amino acid tryptophan, which we get from our diet. Eat less food and you get less tryptophan and hence less serotonin. For people predisposed to anorexia, therefore, starvation reduces the anxiety and irritability associated with their high serotonin levels. Mission accomplished, or so it seems. The problem is that the brain fights back, increasing the number of receptors for serotonin to wring every last drop out of the neurotransmitter that is there. This increased sensitivity means that the old negative feelings return, which drives the person to cut back even more on what they’re eating. Any attempts to return to normal eating patterns wind up flooding the hypersensitive brain with a surge of serotonin, creating panic, rage and emotional instability. Anorexia has, in effect, locked itself into place.”  (The Atlantic, “The Challenge of Treating Anorexia in Adults”, 3.30.16)

I don’t know if you, person reading this, know anything about neurotransmitters or the brain, but I feel like this explains it super well, and to me this was just such a relief and such an affirmation. Even though I objectively and rationally have always known that an eating disorder is a mental illness, knowing the exact mechanisms behind it really hit home for me in a way that nothing else ever has. Seriously, I was never taught this. Maybe I should have sifted through the peer-reviewed literature myself to try to find some answers. Actually, I’m not sure why I never did. What the heck, past self? But regardless, knowing that I haven’t just been making all of this up for years, and that it wasn’t just a subliminal result of me watching America’s Next Top Model when I was twelve years old, and that there is an actual neurobiological reason for me to be feeling the way that I have felt and sometimes feel now? That validation means so much to me.

Requiem for a D20

I have died 14 times.

I have killed my best friends.

I have fallen in love.

Usually when someone starts a story with this clichéd (but oh so fun) device, they’re about to pivot into a pitch for why books are great.

I’m going to make a much nerdier pivot into a pitch for why tabletop RPGs (Dungeons and Dragons) are great.

RPGs offer nearly limitless customization and improvisation. You can do nearly anything you want. Each item on that three-part list is a thing I have done in an RPG, and I think that they’ll show you what I mean.

 

1) 14 Deaths. 

This happened in a campaign I’m currently playing: Wizard Cops. In Wizard Cops, I play Amy Brooks, a Gulf War veteran (it’s 1992) who is a highly conservative closeted lesbian with a dead father and a neglectful mother.

Amy has been killed 14 times, mostly by the evil entity known as Mr. Scratch. See, Amy has two problems; she is impulsive and she has one HELL of a martyrdom complex. So when she encountered this arrogant avatar of evil, Amy challenged him to a duel.

Scratch cut her in half.

Then sewed her back up. Then tore her apart. Rinse and repeat. It was brutal.

But the effect on the players was the astonishing part. Several cried. Part of that was shock (player characters don’t often die) and part was humor (apparently?) but a large part was genuine affection. They cared about Amy. It hurt to watch that.

In that sense, RPGs can be very real. For me, Amy did not come out of nowhere. Her character was generated out of my struggles, challenges, and moral dilemmas.

In my mind, Amy’s defining moment came midway through last semester. A cloud of darkness had consumed Boston, and everyone else wanted to focus on the cause and abandon the citizenry. Amy couldn’t stand for that. She demanded to go in and rescue everyone she could.

This led to a bitter argument between her and her employer over whether it was better to try and save these people or focus on stopping the root problem.

Saving civilians may not have been as efficient, but to Amy, it was the clear choice. She nearly died trying to fulfill that ideal, an ideal that arose out of my own idealism and regard for individual life.

Amy is her own person, but she is also a reflection of me. Her world has fractured in concert with my own. She gives me an outlet to deal with my challenges. Her struggles are hers, but through them, I can get a grip on mine.

 

2) I have killed my best friends.

This one comes from a game that I DM. For those who don’t know, the DM is the person who creates the world, runs the background characters, makes the story, etc.

In that capacity, I often have to try to kill, or at least severely maim, my players. At this point, only one of my players has not been killed (I’m coming for you and your damned lupus).

Player deaths can produce a variety of reactions. The first death in this campaign came when a player tried to contest the big bad’s deputy for an artifact. The player was frozen to death and lost the artifact.

A more recent death featured the players seemingly killing an ancient sorcerer and then attempting to loot his body, not realizing that he had some deadly contingency spells in place. An explosion went off, hurling the party’s most powerful player into a wall, where the revived villain pinned him down and slaughtered him.

Player death is a bit of a trick. In both of those cases, the affected players protested (half-heartedly I think, probably because they realized that the deaths were reasonable). It can be a test of patience and friendship to have to deal with that sort of thing as DM, given you’re being personally called out.

But it’s worth it. Good players and friends, like those two, will realize that this happens. Good DMs will recognize that the threat of death needs to be present to give the game stakes, and will also realize that both expected unexpected deaths serve their own purposes.

On the other hand, there are also players who just shrug whenever they die and players who keep a second character sheet handy because they die so often and don’t like changing stats.

You get all kinds.

 

3) I have fallen in love.

This, of course, is the item on that list that many people will experience in real life. Appropriately, this happened both in game and in real life.

Throughout 2014, I played in a Call of Cthulhu RPG that was more farcical than horrifying (go figure). In that campaign, which took place in Canada in 1852, I played the incomparable Robin Scherbatsky (named for my grief over the How I Met Your Mother finale), a woman professor with an early, aggressive feminism. That feminism and its manifestations (many crotch shots for misogynist men) became one of Robin’s defining traits.

Robin’s other defining trait didn’t emerge until the second session, when a new player with an attractive character stepped onto the scene. Being who she was, Robin casually asked out this new character. Their bizarre relationship spanned the rest of the campaign.

Six months later, I began a yearlong relationship with that character’s player.

Therein lies the real power of D&D. This is not a game created by anonymous programmers and writers. You and your friends create it. You pour yourselves into it, whether you mean to or not. You all bond right away–the game doesn’t move if you don’t.

I have made almost all of my most important relationships at Vassar through RPGs. My future housemates and several best friends are fellow players from my oldest game. Some of my more recently acquired but no less treasured friends come from more recent games. Other good friends are mutual friends of these players.

And of course, like I said, my longest running romantic relationship emerged from a friendship that began in an RPG. I did not meet that girl through the RPG, but it’s how we came to know each other. It’s how we developed mutual friends and started hanging out outside of the RPG. How we began to text and Skype.

I can confidently say that that relationship would not have happened without that Cthulhu campaign.

RPGs force creativity and spontaneity on the participants. Groups are too small for anyone to hide. You’re a part of the world and you will reveal parts of yourself. You will contribute. You will reveal things about yourself on impulse that you never intended to. You will bond. You will love it.

Obviously, there are a lot of group activities that can bring people together. But few force that kind of intense engagement. And if you’re a nerd like me, many of those other activities may feel closed off to you. This offers social opportunities to people who might otherwise prefer to avoid socializing.

So here’s to RPGs! My life wouldn’t be the same without them.

What’s That Smell?

Have you ever wondered what it means when you see the word “fragrance” as an ingredient in a product like shampoo, body wash, or deodorant? When the term “fragrance” (also listed as “parfum”) is applied to a product, what it means is a mix of ingredients that can include any of over 5,000 different chemicals, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Obviously, fragrance is added to products to make them smell better or to cover up anything that might smell funky. You don’t get a luxurious aroma of citrus blossom or sparkling mountain stream without adding a little something extra. So that’s nice, now you can be tempted to eat your soap every time you wash your hands. What’s wrong with that?

Well, there is no way to know what the exact chemicals are that make up these fragrances, and what potential they might have for serious health effects. Under the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) requires cosmetics to have an “ingredient declaration” that lists all of the product’s ingredients. This law is intended to make sure that consumers have information they need to compare products and make informed choices. However, regulations for this list of ingredients cannot be used to force a company to disclose “trade secrets” (FPLA, section 1454(c)(3)). By this law, fragrance ingredients do not need to be listed individually on cosmetic labels because they are the ingredients most likely to be “trade secrets”, and instead may simply be listed as “fragrance.” This is pretty scary because, according to the International Fragrance Association’s master list, fragrances can include chemicals that are known carcinogens, irritants, allergens, and potential endocrine disruptors, and a study by the American Academy of Dermatology found that fragrance is also the number one cause of cosmetic contact dermatitis.

However, there is limited research on the synergistic and synchronistic long-term effects that chronic exposure to fragrance may have on the body. If you want to start avoiding it altogether, then be sure to read the ingredient labels on products, looking for “fragrance” or “parfum”. An important thing to be aware of is that “unscented” and “fragrance-free” mean different things. Fragrance-free means that there is nothing added to the product, whereas unscented means that an additive was used to mask any other chemical smells. Why do they have to be so tricky? Is it really so much to ask to NOT make everything smell like a Bath & Body Works store? Apparently. The other day I was looking for a soap that was both anti-bacterial and fragrance-free. Seems like it wouldn’t be that difficult to find, but I hit up five different pharmacies and convenience stores and found none. What gives? Why is fragrance taking over the world and trying to kill us all slowly by making us inhale rosewater honeysuckle baby’s breath waterfall scented shampoo? I’m starting to think that I should just use my years of chemistry knowledge and start manufacturing my own soap instead.

A Layman’s Explanation of Kingdom Hearts

Have you ever wanted to see Donald Duck/Octopus hybrid monstrosity? I really didn’t. And yet I have.

Oh, don’t worry–it gets weirder.

Not only did I have to witness this horrific perversion, but I also had to watch it–and turtle Goofy–dance underwater to a song that included the lyric “finny fun.”

Apparently this is Kingdom Hearts.

My friend, Leah, has been playing through the entire franchise since finals week last semester (she’s really responsible). This has served as my first exposure to the franchise.

Prior to this, I had always looked at Kingdom Hearts as something of a curiosity–a neat concept that seemed a little damaged by the presence of Donald Duck as your sidekick.

My opinion hasn’t changed much, but I’m a lot more confused now.

Anyone who would be invested enough to care about spoilers would probably know them all already by now, but just in case: spoilers abound for the entire franchise.

“God dammit, Donald!” Leah seethes, furiously mashing her controller in an effort to not get killed by a giant, invisible lizard (we’re jumping around time a little bit, bear with me here).

These words have been Leah’s most common refrain throughout, because Donald Duck is, apparently, the worst.

Correction: Chip and Dale are the worst. Donald is just terrible. Could I tell you why? Nope. But Leah says these things with such venom that you just kind of learn to accept it.

Leah has tried to explain the plot of this series to me a solid dozen times now, and I think I’m actually starting to get it. Here’s my understanding so far:

 

  • Sora, Riku, and Kairi are an OT3 that is constantly separated by plot.
  • Sora goes on a quest to find Riku and Kairi after they disappear.
  • Leah’s explanation of the start of KH1: “Sora’s walking along, going ‘Do-do-do-do, do-do-do-do-do. Oh no! Then everything goes to hell and Riku and Kairi disappear.”
  • Part of this quest involves fighting a guy named Ansem, who is a really evil king.
  • Except Ansem is not actually Ansem, and there’s actually a second Ansem? Yeah, I don’t get this part, but it’s a thing apparently.
  • At any rate.
  • The main enemy is a group called the Organization, which is composed of what are called Nobodies.
  • Nobodies are a variant of Heartless, and are produced when someone stabs themself, but they have such a strong heart that it creates a sort of incomplete shadow copy.
  • The Nobodies of the Organization seek out the Kingdom Hearts, which they can use to make themselves whole.
  • This would be bad…?
  • Sora has two Heartless (kinda)–Roxas and Namine, the latter of whom is actually a combined Heartless of Sora and Kairi.
  • No, I don’t know what that means.
  • Also, Sora has some guy from the past named Ventas locked in his heart, which is why Roxas looks like Ventas, and they both look a bit like Vanitas (who is Ventas’s Nobody?) who looks like Sora.
  • There’s a guy named Xehanort who is pulling the strings in the background.
  • The universe is a Disney/Final Fantasy mashup.
  • Mickey is a badass (a point upon which Leah is VERY insistent).
  • Final “key” point: Some Nobody named Axl has a weird obsession with Roxas. Go figure as to why.

 

With this in mind, I have tried valiantly to follow along with the story whenever I catch Leah playing.

It actually goes worse than the above, if you can believe it. That mangled summary is the accumulation of several conversations that end with Leah struggling to explain that yes, the plot really does make sense–somehow.

The thing that perhaps annoys Leah the most is my attempts at shipping Sora and Kairi (I’m hoping some readers just went nuclear at reading that sentence).

To me, it seems perfectly obvious that Kairi is Sora’s love interest. He seems to constantly be searching for her (throughout the entirety of the first game, for example), and the opening of Kingdom Hearts II shows Sora repeatedly running at Kairi, holding her gently, and touching her hand. Heck, her Wiki page even explicitly lists Sora as her love interest.

Of course, I don’t actually believe this for a minute, but Leah’s utter fury at the suggestion is far too amusing to ignore.

Yes, I swear we’re friends.

Don’t worry; she treats me the same way.

We jump to another scene–Sora soloing a guy with lightsabers for hands. Amazingly, the fight doesn’t end there. The battlefield expands, and soon–huzzah!–Riku jumps into the fray, battling alongside his friend, Sora.

In response, the enemy turns into a massive spaceship.

I stare at the screen in perfect, stunned silence. Cause, really, how else am I going to respond to something like that?

I turn to Leah and wordlessly gesture at the gigantic ship that her foe has suddenly become.

She glances at me as best she can. She is fighting a massive spaceship, after all, so she can’t really focus on me. “What?” she asks defensively.

“What is happening?” I ask, pouring every ounce of confusion I can muster into those five syllables.

“Don’t worry; this happens every time!”

Kingdom Hearts, everybody.

On Thinking Critically About Things We Agree With

Last week, I attended the debate between the Vassar Conservative Libertarian Union (VCLU) and the Vassar Democrats about the issues of gun control, energy policy and immigration. Like the majority of people at Vassar, I consider myself quite liberal, and because of that (and my own personal very negative experience with certain members of the organization) I went into it with a bit of a preconceived bias against the VCLU. At the same time, I recognized that the knowledge that I possessed about all perspectives and details of these particular issues was not all-encompassing, so I was intrigued to hear the arguments from both groups.

The first thing that I came to realize at this event was that an alarming number of people appear to eagerly accept whatever they hear without any sort of critical thinking if it happens to confirm what they already believe, think and value. This really shouldn’t have been news to me after having taken numerous psychology classes discussing terms like “confirmation bias” and “in-group, out-group bias,” but actually seeing it action was weird. It is easy to imagine that only specific groups of extremely narrow-minded and uninformed people are susceptible to this way of thinking. I hate to break it to you, but us “highly educated” liberal arts college students are far from immune.

I say this because—not to sound harsh, because if I had to stand in front of a giant crowd of people and debate complicated and controversial issues I would probably melt into a puddle of my own sweat before I got a word out—the Vassar Democrats were not very good at debating. If you are reading this and you were one of the debaters, I am really sorry, but it’s true. Some folks certainly performed better than others, but overall it seemed as though they had not done the same depth and breadth of research as their opponents. It felt as though they expected the VCLU to present the sort of inflammatory statements and blatantly false information that many Republican presidential candidates have done, making the Dems’ job as easy as saying things that actually make some semblance of logical sense. Especially given the fact that the majority of the audience would be liberal and therefore agree with them, I would not be at all surprised to know that many of the Dems had felt confident (dare I say cocky?) enough to go into the debate much less prepared than they should have been. Evidence of this played out in the gun control and immigration rounds of the debate, but I think what best illustrates my point was the energy policy round. The Dems focused on the immediate need to combat the effects of global climate change because CLIMATE CHANGE IS REAL AND WILL KILL US ALL, while the VCLU remained skeptical about the science behind the scope of humanity’s role in climate change. However, both sides seemed to agree about the importance of investing in sustainable and renewable energy and technology. Great! Well, until the VCLU questioned the proposed carbon tax and stricter emissions regulations for industries and the ensuing costs that would be passed onto consumers, and asked how the Dems would offset increased costs of electricity for low-income families. I thought it was reasonable and important question, but instead of answering it, the Dems reiterated that CLIMATE CHANGE IS REAL AND WILL KILL US ALL. This happened multiple times.

And yet…the crowd applauded.

Meanwhile, I was confused. I am someone who 100% believes in climate change, what humans have done to contribute to it, and that immediate action must be taken. I too am exasperated when people don’t believe that climate change is real and will kill us all. I completely disagreed with a lot of VCLU’s positions throughout the debate and thought that some of what they said was pretty problematic. It’s not like I am suddenly ready to join their club. However, I did agree with many of their critiques. In this instance, the Dems avoided an important question that they should have had an answer to, and were not even putting together a strong argument about climate change in the meantime, but the majority of the audience enthusiastically cheered and celebrated their responses regardless. That was extremely confusing to me. It was like a football game where people devotedly support their team regardless of how terribly they might be playing. The Dems were not saying much aside from repeating a few “liberal” buzzwords every other sentence, but from the audience’s reaction it was as though they had just scored a touchdown.

This all being said, it is important to acknowledge the challenges of not instantly accepting the opinions of others and actually evaluating what is being said. I certainly struggle with it, and I think that Internet liberalism in particular tends to fall into this trap really easily. Wading though all of the new information, opinions, arguments, and beliefs constantly being presented through the media and online can be confusing and time-consuming. Sometimes it becomes difficult to decipher if you are actually thinking individually and originally, or simply regurgitating the points that others have made before you, and that’s kind of scary. I challenge us to use those critical thinking skills that I know we have as students and apply them to everything, even the words of those that you (think you) agree with. Don’t thoughtlessly accept something that you saw on the Internet as fact, do your own research, consider alternative perspectives, and form your own opinions. And don’t cheer for people who are actually doing a lousy job at debating simply because they share the same political affiliation as you.

Now enjoy this video of Donald Trump, something that we can ALL agree as being objectively ridiculous: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RDrfE9I8_hs

Blizzard’s Failed Legacy

One of my earliest memories, if not the earliest, is being four or five years old and watching the ending cinematic for Blizzard’s original Diablo.

Yes, my folks made some questionable parenting decisions.

Diablo was the first game I had ever played, and it quickly got me hooked into the entire Blizzard catalogue. The only Blizzard games I haven’t played are Overwatch and Heroes of the Storm. I have at least a basic level of lore knowledge for all of their main universes. I am a tremendous fan.

Which is why Starcraft II: Legacy of the Void is such a bitter disappointment.

The Starcraft franchise has dipped in relevance with the rise of MMOs and MOBAs, but the original Starcraft essentially created e-sports. To this day, it remains my favorite video game.

Fair warning: Starcraft and Starcraft II spoilers abound, accompanied by an angry rant. You can cut to the last paragraph if you want the non-spoilery summary.

The original Starcraft was released in 1998. Wings of Liberty, the first game in the sequel trilogy, didn’t come out until 2010. Legacy of the Void, the final game in said trilogy, came out in November of 2015.

I was already hyped for this game, and then the trailer, depicting a Protoss effort to reclaim Auir, was released.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M_XwzBMTJaM

The Fall of Auir occurred midway through the original Starcraft game, ripping the Protoss civilization apart. The reclamation of Auir holds a symbolic significance that is unrivaled in the franchise.

And after two or three missions spent on the assault, you lose control of the entire Protoss invasion force in a cutscene and have to give up Auir again.

That is terrible writing. Auir meant something. Yeah, the sudden twist set the stakes for the game, but you cannot sacrifice a years-old plotline just to raise stakes.

And it’s all the more tragic because Blizzard simultaneously did effectively set the stakes by killing off Zeratul.

Zeratul’s death was well done. His arc revolved around his victories being turned against him. Across the course of the series, this tendency had him more and more isolated, until nearly his entire race treated him as a pariah. He was a noble but tragic figure. Letting his possessed friend kill him in order to reverse said possession is a perfect end to his arc and warns us just how bad things will get.

Killing off Zeratul is cruelty with purpose. Tearing away Auir is just gratuitous.

Unfortunately, the problems don’t stop there. The entirety of Starcraft II has suffered from some degree of oversimplification, but Legacy kicks it up a notch.

The original Starcraft was all about complex, factional politics. Each race had multiple factions. As you moved through the campaigns, you were able to experience in each a half dozen perspectives. In Brood War, you both charge into battle alongside Fenix and later brutally murder him. Even the monstrous villain who ultimately emerges, Sarah Kerrigan, is complicated and deeply sympathetic despite having a penchant for genocide (more on her later).

In Legacy of the Void, that’s gone. There is no more effort to become the dominant faction; everyone unites with little trouble. Hell, it’s not even a battle between humanoids anymore, but a struggle against Amon, a godlike being whose sole motivation is “Kill them all.” It’s simplistic and boring. Even the color scheme is more simplistic: the evil factions are all black and red, no exceptions.

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Starcraft II: Legacy of the Void (2015) (via: http://cdn.escapistmagazine.com/media/global/images/library/deriv/931/931976.jpg)

And the endgame, the finale of a nearly 20-year-old franchise? Boring and insulting. You reinvade Auir to prevent the aforementioned god from materializing, which you do by destroying a few defensive structures and then watching as your fleet wipes out his body. The majority of the game’s missions boil down to “Break these five objects,” so it’s pretty stale by this point, especially since you don’t even get to confront the god.

The last mission is more interesting, a clever and frenetic variant on Starcraft’s classic “hold the line” missions, but it’s tough to care by that point. Any feelings you did have are then shredded by the epilogue… bringing me back to Kerrigan.

Pre- and post-infestation, left and right respectively. Starcraft II: Legacy of the Void (2015).

Sarah Kerrigan pre- and post-infestation, left and right respectively. Starcraft II: Legacy of the Void (2015).

Sarah Kerrigan, the Queen of Blades, is easily my favorite Starcraft character. She is forced to become the Queen of Blades, but in time, she embraces it, even revels in it. She is terrifying, cunning, and overwhelmingly powerful. She handily outplays five rival factions in Brood War. She is the self-proclaimed Queen Bitch of the Universe, and pretty damn happy about it.

By the time Legacy ends, Kerrigan is a full-on hero, so weighed down with guilt that she’s willing to sacrifice everything to become a Xel’Naga like Amon so she can destroy him forever.

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Starcraft II: Legacy of the Void (2015)

A few things.

First, her ascended form is essentially just her original form doubled in size and turned gold.

Second, it hovers, but it can’t fly.

Third, you get to use her in the final mission, and her supposed godlike strength is nowhere close to what you would expect.

Fourth, all her villainous traits, which had admittedly diminished in Legacy’s predecessor, are completely ignored.

And finally, the animators are sure to very carefully craft her butt.

Seriously. Kerrigan is the most intimidating and powerful character in the franchise. Yet somehow, her precisely rendered ass manages to be the focal point of her character model.

I don’t even know what to say about that. I think its ludicrousness speaks for itself.

I waited years for Legacy of the Void. I have never been so hyped to play a game. But it was a terrible letdown.

With this latest iteration of Starcraft, Blizzard has sucked the life out of one of the world’s most famous video games. If you only care about the multiplayer, you’ll probably be fine, but if you care about the story at all? This game is an abysmal failure, a miserable plunge from the franchise’s height.

I’m gonna go bitterly replay Brood War now.

Tanah Tumpah Darahku — Rethinking Violence, Drama, and History with “The Act of Killing”

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From The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2013)

Indonesia, tanah airku,
tanah tumpah darahku.

Indonesia, my land and sea,
the land for which my blood spills.

-Indonesian National Anthem

* * *

History is so infamously known for being written by its victors. Those who win plant the flags, win the battles and get charged as innocent in justice trials. In the context of the 1965 massacre in Indonesia, right-wing death squad leaders were the victors, as they boldly proclaim that “history is written by the winners, and we are the winners.”

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From The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2013)

The Act of Killing is Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2013 documentary about the making of a film revolving around the 1965 Communist purge in Indonesia. Framed as a documentary about the making of a film, The Act of Killing tells the story of Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry, two poor black market movie ticket salesmen turned rich North Sumatran death squad leaders. Set years after the killings, the documentary explores their modern lives as corrupt right-wing political leaders whilst exploring their violent pasts. Their interest in movies and outlandish lives piqued the interest of Oppenheimer, as he assists them in making a film about their adventures as death squad leaders. With a part-time interest in history and a full-time Indonesian citizenship, I was initially intrigued by this documentary, as this was a part of my personal and national history. I felt curious, almost obliged to find out a little bit about what really happened in 1965, an event buried deep in the chaos of the political instability that rocked Southeast Asia during the Cold War. The Act of Killing tells both a national and personal history, presenting itself as a unique collage-like documentary that is part biography, part production drama and part historical epic with a fantastical twist.

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From The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2013)

The Indonesian name for the documentary is Jagal, which more or less translates to “butcher.” After watching the entirety of the documentary, a part of me wishes that they’d kept the name for the English version too. The documentary is graphic—vivid dramatizations of torture and violence, mentions of casual rape and murder and blood are among some of many topics explored figuratively, visually and narratively. Oppenheimer implements the surreal nature of the killer’s fantasies and delusions. Although difficult to view, the documentary refuses to shy away from the truth and refuses to leave things out. A lot of this is done in behind-the-scenes footage of the men preparing for various scenes in their movie. Anwar’s casual descriptions of torture and his pompous gloat over the number of men he killed are still a hard pill to swallow. Even the final scene in which the arson, rape, and killing of a Sumatran village is reenacted is too much for Anwar and his men to handle, leaving them to reflect on their past sadism. However, this is what makes The Act of Killing so riveting: its disturbing persistence in telling the story as it is.

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From The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2013)

Criticism has stemmed from the usage of fantasy, raising disputes in the classification of The Act of Killing as a documentary. However, reviewers such as A. O. Scott of the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/19/movies/act-of-killing-re-enacts-indonesian-massacres.html?_r=0) have acknowledged Oppenheimer’s unique artistic decision, calling it “unusual, both in the annals of barbarity and the history of cinema.” However, I feel that the documentary would be incomplete without it, as it would have been difficult to emphasize and portray the disillusionment of these death squad leaders any other way. Out of touch with both reality and themselves, the mental dissonance that comes with being celebrated for single handedly executing Communists by cutting off their necks with wire is poignantly portrayed, albeit with a “garish absurdity.”

What remains the most disturbing to me is the number of “anonymous” contributors cited in the credits of the film. Most of these anonymous contributors are Indonesian citizens that have reasonable justification to leave their names out; many of the death squad leaders are powerful and highly influential figures in Indonesian politics and would have no trouble ending the lives of those who spoke against them.

Many portions of the massacre have been modified in Indonesian national textbooks, glorifying the killings, framing the eradication of alleged Communists and Chinese-Indonesians as a necessary act towards political stability. The massacre has been seen as a “necessary purge” rather than the genocide of millions. Until today, there has been no formal apology, reparations, nor official government statement for those affected, especially those in my own immediate family.

My grandfather still remembers hearing about anti-Communist troops storming his neighborhood mere hours after he left for work. He was only lucky that his neighbours maintained a level of respect for him and didn’t choose to rat him out. It was also at this time when my grandfather was forced to cut contact with any remaining members of family who were living in China, as he feared being detained for association with a Communist nation. Under government regulations, he also had to change his last name from Kuang to Haryanto, an Indonesian last name. However, other relatives were not so lucky and were taken in police custody in 1965, never heard from again. Racism towards Chinese-Indonesians remained a problem after the killings through most of his and my parents’ lives.

In the wake of the Jakarta bombings of January 14, 2016, much can said about the state of the country today. Violence and terrorism still lives on in Indonesia with new faces, new names and new causes to kill for. What remains indisputable is the government’s neglect in acknowledging systemic social happenings, such as corruption and poverty, which breed radicalism and senseless violence.

2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the regime put in place because of these killings. The world, let alone the Indonesian government, has done little to nothing to acknowledge the role these men played, or persecute them for their crimes.

Their silence continues to speak volumes.