Worth 1000 Words #7: Studying

Allow me to spin a cautionary tale about the importance of studying, and the evils of procrastination and putting off work.

Throughout my academic career, from kindergarten to college, I was a decent student – in the sense that I got good grades and I generally behaved myself. On report cards, I never got below a B; of the few B’s I earned, they were always in my poorest subjects, a.k.a, math or science. Or political science. Government class killed me, man.

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My studying pose, known as “the cricket.”

But while I earned good grades, I was absolutely horrendous at studying and managing deadlines, and, thanks to those poor habits, I can attribute it to luck that I was able to pull off the academic performances I did. It wasn’t until my final year of college that I actually developed a normal/healthy routine with homework and school projects, but prior to that point, it wasn’t uncommon for me to put off an assignment until the day/night before and end up spiraling into a pit of self-loathing and intense regret as I brewed my fifth cup of coffee at 3:21 in the morning on a Tuesday before an 8AM class. I pulled about 5 or so all-nighters in high school, which isn’t all that bad, and I definitely did less in college; but during each of them, there always came a point where I would run a hand through my snarled hair and say, “I am never doing this again,” and yet, I’d end up inevitably doing it again regardless. I think the worst one was 10th grade – I spent a whole night doing the majority of a project that I’d had at least a month to do, drank 2 Full Throttle energy drinks to stay awake, and put “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” from the Mulan soundtrack on repeat for 4 straight hours as motivation. The experience did not make a man out of me. Even way back  in elementary school, I used to wait until the morning my reading logs were due to have my mom sign them, and ended up forgetting to do so on numerous occasions. It takes like, five seconds to have someone sign something, and I was too lazy at 8/10 years old to even do that.

Studying was the largest hurdle in my academic life… mostly because I was a prolific procrastinator, but also because I found it difficult to focus, as I have the attention span of an acorn and I am way too easily distracted. But I won’t deny that I could have applied myself much better, and worked harder to focus – it’s not like I was sucked into a Youtube vortex of fainting goat videos against my will, I chose to put off my work and bore the consequences because of that decision, and allowed myself to fall into that mindset multiple times. During my last year of college, I turned a page. I made sure my homework was done (or almost done) by dinner time, went to bed at 10 PM every night, woke up at 6AM to go jogging 5 days a week, always left to go to class with enough time to grab my usual latte at the campus center (the lady at the counter only had to see me coming and she’d start preparing it for me), I spent my weekends doing homework in my little kitchen nook, and, with what free time I had remaining, I either hung out with friends or worked on writing for personal reasons. I’d cut back my work schedule that year, and during my final semester I dropped my second job in order to focus on schoolwork. This was a massive help because I felt like I had more free time to do fun stuff, which sliced my procrastination level down. It’s a shame that it took me sixteen or so years to get into the appropriate mindset regarding school, because I could have saved myself a lot of suffering, and my caffeine dependence probably wouldn’t be quite as bad as it is now. I am down to 2-3 cups a day as opposed to the 6-7 I used to consume, so that’s progress, at least!

Once I began to apply myself, and worked out a schedule that afforded me a more or less well-balanced life between school/work obligations and personal matters, I noticed an improvement in my academic performance and a noticeable decrease in my typically-astronomical stress levels. I finished my assignments early. I wasn’t scrambling to finish homework the morning it was due. I actually wrote multiple drafts instead of just turning in my first endeavor at everything, and, as a result of all the changes I made, I even improved my diet and sleep schedule, which led to an overall boost in my mood. I wasn’t late to appointments. And it all felt so rewarding, to finally feel like I wasn’t drowning in papers and books in a vicious cycle of my own making.

Looking back, I actually cringe thinking about how I might have improved on some of my work and my assignments had I changed my habits earlier. Those ‘A’s could have become ‘A+’s. Those ‘B’s and ‘B-‘s might not have even happened, and my student ranking might have been higher in high school, which would have awarded me better scholarships. Luck was certainly on my side throughout my academic life, as I still managed to graduate college with honors… but, other than those final months where I turned it around, that success was at the cost of my health, both mental and physical, because it took me so long to reform my studying methods. Just because you are someone who can pull off decent/adequate, or even stellar work, at the last minute, doesn’t mean that you should. And as someone who used to ascribe to that way of thinking, and assumed I could put in just enough effort without really pushing myself to be even better, I definitely recommend that you do not.

Unexpected and Underrated

Before I became a frequent movie-goer, one whiff of a bad review would be enough to convince me to avoid a film. I’d go to the theater to see the “hits,” the usual popcorn flicks, but that was more or less it. Now, over the past few years, my film taste palette has expanded considerably. Since this shift in my habits, I have seen a slew of movies that I found enjoyable despite a poor performance at the box office, as well as movies that I loved against my expectations. So, I’ve compiled a list of my favorite “underrated” films and “unexpected” films.

The Grey (2011)
Whenever I am tasked with thinking of an underrated movie (which is almost never) my automatic answer is The Grey. I only ended up seeing it when some friends recommended it to me during my second year at college. It’s a survival/thriller about an oil-drilling team stranded in the wilderness after a plane crash in Alaska, and their efforts to survive both the harsh weather and being stalked by a pack of grey wolves. Plus, it stars Liam Neeson, which should have been enough to drive throngs of people to see it. It’s a sort of “subtle” thriller, in a way – it’s not super fast-paced, nor does it feature nonstop action, but I was completely engrossed throughout the film; especially as details of the character’s lives start to trickle through the narrative. The colors/imagery/cinematography of the film are also excellent, as is the tension/suspense woven throughout. I can still picture the ending of this movie in vivid detail, complete with Liam Neeson’s closing narration – the film really stayed with me, like a grey wolf on my periphery, and it made me think. It’s easily one of my favorite Liam Neeson performances (besides Schindler’s List, obv) and a seriously underrated and unexpected hit. Even if you aren’t a fan of survival thrillers, complete with seemingly hopeless situations and increasing feelings of despair among the characters, I recommend giving it a try. AND SPEAKING OF UNDERRATED, Dermot Mulroney also stars in the film and he is consistently great.

Tron: Legacy (2010)
Tron: Legacy is a movie that I did not expect to love as much as I do, to the point where words cannot accurately convey my adoration for this movie. I like the original Tron just fine, despite the fact that it has not exactly aged well, but the sequel is one of my all-time favorites. The story follows Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) and his journey into the digital frontier of The Grid in order to rescue his father, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), who has been missing for two decades. It’s not groundbreaking in terms of plot or character development, but the story is compelling enough and the acting is superb on all fronts, though it does take some time to get used to CLU and Kevin (both played by Jeff Bridges, though John Reardon was the body double for CLU) being onscreen at the same time. Bruce Boxleitner is also back as Tron/Alan, though Rinzler is physically portrayed by the talented Anis Cheurfa. The cinematography and stylistic elements are amazing, and the symbolism, while overt at times, contains more subtle allusions that I didn’t notice until my 2nd or 3rd time watching – and yes, I did see it 3 times in theaters. The 3D was phenomenal, and the film is a visual and auditory feast. I love this movie so much I even wrote a 20+ page paper on Tron Legacy in college, entitled Biodigital Jazz, Man: Simulation and Identity in Tron Legacy for my Video Games in Literature class. AlsoI still consider Daft Punk not getting at least nominated for Best Original Score one of the worst Oscar snubs of all time.

Crimson Peak (2015)
When I went to see Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak about a week or two after it was released, my mom and I were the only two people in the theater – though I attribute this mainly to the fact that it was a Wednesday afternoon and “Back to the Future Day,” so most folks were at the theater to see the one day re-release of “Back to the Future” – someone even had a flux capacitor with them in the concession line. I think Crimson Peak also suffered from a minor case of mis-marketing, because people seemed to think it was a horror film, when really, it was a gothic romance which contained elements of horror – but all the ads I saw seemed to encourage the “horror” aspects of the film. I enjoy period pieces and the like, but I went in with no expectations, so I was not disappointed. It’s a gorgeous film, though it doesn’t delve quite as deep as it could – the story is somewhat predictable, but that didn’t make me enjoy it any less. It has typical “horror” moments, and romance moments, and suspense, but, while it has so many components of a gothic romance, it never quite realizes a concrete identity. The film has an all-star cast in Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, and Charlie Hunnam as the leads – Chastain is especially and wonderfully creepy in her role, and the highlight of the film. It’s visually arresting, and I recommend seeing it solely for how beautiful it is, from the music to the sets to the costuming, especially for fans of del Toro’s style.

The Finest Hours (2016)
Though T.S. Eliot might disagree, I think January is the cruelest month – especially when it comes to film releases. I don’t know exactly what causes this to happen, but January seems to be the month where new movies go to die a slow and painful death, and I think 2016’s The Finest Hours was an unfortunate victim of this phenomenon. I actually saw it on opening night, so it was pretty busy in the theater – but attendance waned in the following weeks, and ultimately, the film bombed. I don’t think it should have crashed and burned, though – because it was a perfectly good movie. Following the true story of the 1952 Coast Guard rescue of the SS Pendleton during a vicious storm, The Finest Hours boasts a stellar cast (Chris Pine, Holliday Grainger, Casey Affleck,) an engaging story, and all of the elements to make a great movie; and, in my opinion, it is quite good. Certainly underrated, considering the poor performance at the box office; I came out of the theater impressed, and definitely expected it to do well in spite of an unfavorable release date. It just couldn’t rise above the January doldrums, and it’s a shame that it didn’t.

This Is Where I Leave You (2014)
Although I just finished reading Johnathon Tropper’s 2009 novel This Is Where I Leave You a few weeks ago, I saw the movie adaptation when it was released in 2014 – and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Following the colorful (and conflict-ridden) Altman family during their time sitting shiva in the wake of their father/husband’s death, the film has an excellent cast – Tina Fey, Timothy Olyphant, Adam Driver, Jason Bateman, among several others – and the chemistry between them gave off a very believable family vibe. It’s not the most fast-paced or exciting film, but it has its fair share of humorous moments and poignant moments, and never tries to do “too much” in either department, so the story is relatively balanced and the pacing is decent. While it doesn’t attempt “too much,” it also doesn’t do quite “enough,” especially with such a stacked, talented cast – though I did find the narrative more entertaining and engaging than the lukewarm reception implied. However, the real highlight of the film is the cast; I recommend seeing it solely for the sibling relationships portrayed onscreen, especially between Fey and Bateman.

Rise of the Guardians (2012)
This animated gem is a visual triumph and features a stellar voice cast (Hugh Jackman as the Easter Bunny is a stroke of genius, as is Alec Baldwin as Santa) but it failed to become a real “hit.” When my best friend and I saw it, the theater was almost empty; but I still remember how ensnared I was by the film’s trailer. The story, based partly on a book series by William Joyce, is unique – when the evil Pitch Black threatens the world, the four “Guardians” must band together with the enlisted help of Jack Frost to stop the rise of darkness – and though it contains familiar tropes, it’s plenty entertaining, and it features intriguing interpretations of well-known characters, from the Sandman to the Tooth Fairy. It had all the components of a great film, yet still resulted in a studio loss. For fans of animation who missed this film upon its initial release, I definitely recommend giving it a chance. It was likely hindered by being released around the same time as a few box-office giants from that year (a Twilight film, Skyfall, Lincoln) but I found it to be an unexpected delight, and I still think it didn’t quite get the recognition that it deserved.

The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014)
My mother is my most frequent movie-going companion, because we share a similar appreciation for film, both as an art form and as entertainment. I like to think of it as being film snobs who simultaneously don’t take it too seriously. Regardless, The Hundred-Foot Journey is one such example of a “mom and me” film. It’s got a great cast, and engaging story about an Indian family who opens a restaurant after a tragedy forces them to relocate to France, and the subsequent rivalry with the Michelin-star restaurant 100 feet away. The film also focuses on Hassan (Manish Dayal), the son of the Kadam family, who strives to make a name for himself as a chef. It’s a story about love, compromise, competition, and acceptance; a great movie to see on a Friday night when you want to put the stress of the work week behind you. I mean, it’s about warring restaurants, and it stars Helen Mirren and Om Puri – what’s not to like? It’s a prime example of a great film that is entertaining and heartwarming, but doesn’t try too hard – resulting in an unexpected delight.

Whisper of the Heart (1995)
When people think of Studio Ghibli, they probably think of the landmark titles like My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, and Princess Mononoke, three memorable projects by legendary director Hayao Miyazaki. Because Miyazaki’s works are consistently brilliant and are the most well-known of the Ghibli lore, some other works from the studio get overshadowed. Yoshifumi Kondo’s  Whisper of the Heart is one such film, and it is actually my favorite Ghibli production – plus, it features The Baron, my favorite Ghibli character. It’s a sweet and simple story about a young girl who dreams of being a writer and her interactions with a boy who aspires to make violins. It follows the trials and tribulations of adolescence, young love, and the struggle between making dreams come true and facing reality. The animation is gorgeous, the music is great, and the writing (provided by Miyazaki) is poignant. It might not carry a message as deep as Mononoke or feature the whimsical magic of Howl’s Moving Castle, but Whisper of the Heart is a subtle slice-of-life that hits the closest to home, and fans of Ghibli’s other projects shouldn’t miss out on this underrated gem. And semi-sequel The Cat Returns is a hilarious companion to the film that is well worth seeing – especially since Cary Elwes reprises his role as the Baron.

Oblivion (2013)
I didn’t hear much about Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion when it was first released, and, as such, I didn’t see it until it came to Red Box. The film is a post-apocalyptic scifi film about a tech named Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and his partner Vika (Andrea Riseborough) who are doing recon/repair work on Earth while the rest of Earth’s population has allegedly relocated to Titan; however, Jack is haunted by flashes of memory of a previous life, which leads him to question his purpose and his identity. While the film does rely on previously used scifi tropes (hey, if it works, it works, as long as it’s entertaining) and it’s somewhat predictable, I also think it did an excellent job of not making familiar material feel stale, and it does introduce some new, fresh ideas into a genre with so many possibilities. Also, the film is gorgeous – it’s sleek, like Tron Legacy, only with a different aesthetic. I just saw Arrival (2016) the other night and Oblivion’s setting/atmosphere was semi-reminiscent of that; futuristic, but subtle and not over the top. It allows the viewer to put the pieces of the story and characters later, and doesn’t rely on excess exposition and explanation, which scifi does tend to fall victim to. I know that many folks have grown weary of the “post-apocalyptic” style of scifi, but Oblivion breathes a whisper of new life into it.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)
My parents and I ended up seeing this film after the film we wanted to see was sold out – and I ended up enjoying it so much that I don’t even remember what we originally intended to see. The story is about an employee of Life magazine named Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) who must embark on a search for a film negative and, subsequently, finds himself hunting the “meaning of life.” It’s definitely not a runaway box-office hit, but I found the premise of the film intriguing, and was definitely engrossed by the story as it was unfolding onscreen; as such, I was stunned when I found out that reception to the film was mixed, with some folks loving it and some hating it. If a ~50% Rotten Tomatoes score is enough to deter you from seeing I film, I recommend you reconsider that stance and give this film a shot. It’s a visually stunning film with a good story, amazing scenery, and a great cast. It might not be award-fodder and it doesn’t hit all the high notes, but it’s worth seeing simply for the fact that most people can likely find a bit of themselves in the character of Walter Mitty.

Writing Techniques: Phases

I think every writer – whether professional or amateur – goes through phases. As a teenager, I wrote fanfiction. I don’t mean to admit this in a dramatic fashion, like admitting past alcoholism or addiction. I’m not ashamed of this tidbit of my writing history – but it is definitely a practice that I never intend to return to.

That said, I also prefer not to disclose the fandom I used to write for, but it isn’t any of the easily recognizable ones. I will admit, with some measure of pride, that I am the author of the longest (English language) story in that particular section, which clocks in at over 200,000 words – though without author’s notes, it’d be a bit shorter. For context, my debut novel was under 100,000 words. I even had a couple of people draw fanart for my original characters; I still have them saved on my computer.

It might sound impressive, but as I said, it wasn’t a hugely popular topic to write for, and the community was already waning by the time I started posting. I’d missed the peak of the fandom by a couple of years, but a handful of dedicated members still hung around while I was there, sharing their stories and posting reviews. I met some wonderful people, a handful of whom I still occasionally speak to. I consider it a vital phase in my development as a writer.

Eventually, I lost interest in the fandom and couldn’t scrounge up the inspiration to finish the last entry in what was meant to be a trilogy. I still regret that I was unable to complete what I started, but whenever I go back and take a look at those old pieces (and by old, I mean nearly a decade old) I cringe a little.

My writing during that phase was so… superfluous. Admittedly, this is the issue I’ve struggled with the most that isn’t grammar/syntax related. There’s a reason one of my fanfiction stories is over 200,000 words. It’s because, as a fifteen/sixteen/seventeen year old writer, I felt the need to cram as much detail as possible into my writing, which results in bloated, overly-descriptive, repetitive passages in desperate need of a solid trimming. I ascribed to the “more is more” mentality back then; if I went back and edited my longest story, I could get it under 100,000 words and not have to slice much, if any, of the actual plot. I am still somewhat proud of my characters and the overall plot structure, but I was incredibly long-winded, verbose, and by no means a fanfiction maestro.

Every now and then, I go to my old profile and glance at my work, and am pretty astonished by how much my writing style has changed since those days. In college – the start of which coincided with the demise of my fanfiction career – my writing style underwent some significant changes due to learning new techniques in my classes, developing a more stable voice as a writer, and receiving influential feedback from my peers and teachers. I see almost zero similarity between my 2008/09 writing and now, as far as fiction goes.

The same can be said for my high school writing assignments in comparison to college work, because in college, I worked on slimming down my writing – though I do still slip into old habits, which leads to numerous, extensive editing sessions. It wasn’t always an easy change to make, but getting the right kind of feedback at this time in my life was important; when multiple sources tell you that something in your writing needs improvement, it’s imperative to take that criticism into consideration. As a result of peer assessments and creative writing classes, and some introspection, I started trying to place less emphasis on florid detail and “pretty” words, and more emphasis on clarity, character development, and flow. More focus on story and plot, not description. During this shift in the tone of my writing, I wrote the first draft of I’m With You.

When I settled the details and finally started typing I’m With You out, my style had adapted to suit the tone I wanted for the story. And, because I was learning about writing and was reading various kinds of literature during this time, my style and process evolved as I was writing. The first draft of I’m With You featured much less detail than the one that was published- there was no insight into previous instances of Remiel’s “curse” in action, no description of the different regions of Empirya, no “flashbacks” to Ciarán and Remiel’s mother or their past/their family dynamic… all in all, a lot less background into the characters. Instead of my previous tendency toward an overabundance of detail, I adopted a more extreme stance of “less is more.” Luckily, my editor was able to point out the need for more detail when the time came to polish up my draft, and I was able to flesh my manuscript out prior to publication. Now, I strive to find a balance in my writing; not too much detail, but not too little.

Even now, the project I’m currently working on has a different tone than I’m With You, but the writing contains some similarities; I feel as though I’ve retained a certain voice, while changing/adapting the way it is delivered. My 2008/09 fanfiction is nothing like my 2016 novel, and that’s okay, because I consider it an improvement – and I hope to improve even more as my writing continues, and I attempt to launch a career. Certain traits might remain the same across stories and projects, but adapting is all a part of the process, and some phases may last longer than others. Writing is an ever-changing thing – and thus, I don’t consider it a bad thing that I no longer recognize my writing style from year to year or project to project, whether it’s a 200,000 word epic fanfiction or a vaguely steampunk low-fantasy YA novel. Phases come and go, but the point is to continue to grow, and learn, be willing to listen, and embrace change as it comes – even if others won’t.

 

 

 

Film Review: Lion (2016)

Dir: Garth Davis
Starring: Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara
Runtime: 121 min
Spoiler level: Light

Last week, the local movie theater gods heard my prayers, despite the fact that January seems to be the month where new movies go to meet their doom. I wanted to check another Best Picture nominee off my “to see” list, and when I checked the Fandango app, I got the notification that Lion was starting a run at one of my local theaters, in answer to my plea. Sometimes, the local movie theater gods are benevolent and merciful.

lion.jpgI haven’t read the book that the film is based on, nor did I know much about the story going into it – but I’m glad I went in mostly blind, with only a general idea of what was about to unfold across the screen.

Lion, which is based on true events, follows Saroo Brierly, a young boy who ends up nearly 1000 miles away from home, with no idea how to get back. Several years later, as memories and “what-ifs” about his previous life begin to haunt him, he tries to balance his search for “home” with the life he’s built for himself and with the family who raised him.

The first segment of the film, following little 5-year-old Saroo’s separation from his family and his struggles in Calcutta, culminating with his adoption by Australian couple Sue and John Brierly, is utterly engrossing. Sunny Pawar’s performance as Saroo is the spellbinding heart of this film; watching him wander through dirty subway tunnels, flee from malevolent pursuers, and cry for his brother Guddu and his mother is heartbreaking and harrowing. That look at what life was like for him, from the suspicious people he encounters to the awful places he ends up – especially considering this film is based on a true story – makes his experiences as a lost little boy desperate for home all the more impactful, and it’s as wrenching as it is captivating.

Unfortunately, the film loses a bit of steam once Saroo ages up. It jumps right from young Saroo to adult Saroo, with a brief look at one year post-adoption, when the Brierlys add Mantosh to the family. These scenes are powerful, but it skips over adolescence, and ultimately, I think this made a bit of a lopsided narrative – the switch wasn’t seamless and the pacing suffered for it, as it seemed like a chunk was left out of Saroo’s history. Rooney Mara’s character, Lucy, acts more like a device than a fleshed-out character; her purpose is to give Saroo someone to interact with besides his adopted parents, often while they’re staring meaningfully at one another whilst laying on a mattress. The viewer only gets a glimpse into her life, through snippets that function as a tool to get Saroo to reflect on his own experiences. Mara’s performance is fine, and the chemistry between Patel and Mara is fine, and I understand why the character is there, but, although the story is not focused on her, the character lacks a concrete identity, which I found difficult to relate to in the context of the film. Since I haven’t read the book, I don’t know what content was added/cut or what liberties were taken with these characters (I certainly wonder about the depiction of Saroo’s adopted brother, Mantosh, who struggles with self-harm, as his backstory and prior to adoption is not really explored in the movie) but within the parameters of the film, the middle portion fell a bit flat, especially compared to young Saroo’s journey in the first arc.

The music is excellent – a fusion of strings and piano that enhances the atmosphere. The editing/cinematography also aids the flow of the narrative, with scenes contrasting the roaming wild of Australia to the varied landscape of India, representing how Saroo’s life has changed with his surroundings. Saroo’s memories trickle back to him throughout the film, with images and scenes of young Saroo and Guddu interwoven within various scenes, which then transition seamlessly back to older Saroo as he yearns for answers and desperately scours Google Earth for a glimpse of something familiar, something that says “home.”

Despite the pacing in the latter part of the film, the overall acting is stellar throughout. Eight-year-old Sunny Pawar deserves ALL OF THE AWARDS for his performance as young Saroo. ALL. OF. THEM. He carries the entire first arc of the film, with palpable joy, anguish, desperation, fear, and hope, and his interactions/scenes with Abhishek Bharate, who plays Saroo’s biological brother Guddu, are both heartwarming and gut-wrenching. Patel’s performance as the older Saroo, featuring occasional impish smiles and playful banter, is rife with emotional turbulence, and I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t have to brush my tears away a few times when he spoke of his fractured past and how it feels to be “lost.” Coupled with the visual components of the film, Patel does a great job of showing how Saroo struggles to move forward while feeling such an incredible pull toward his past. Kidman’s portrayal of Sue Brierly is superb, though I found myself wishing she had more screen time – I almost feel as though the Lucy character could have been cut or minimized in favor of shedding more light on the mother-son relationship between Saroo and Sue, as well as her experiences as a mother to two adopted boys. Also, I was so pleased when David Wenham’s name showed up in the opening credits, as I had no idea he was in this until the film started – I am always down for an unexpected Faramir appearance.

Lion might not be getting the same amount of buzz that Moonlight and La La Land have garnered during the awards circuit, but this film, with its powerful, multi-layered definitions of “family” and “home”, lets out a big roar.

Overall rating: 8/10

Emoji-Speak

Whenever my best friend and I hang out or carpool somewhere and she drops me off at my house afterward, I turn into an overly-cautious helicopter parent and ask her to text me when she gets home; especially in inclement weather. I just like to make sure that my pals get home okay, considering the absurd driving habits of people in our area of Pennsylvania, as well as the numerous winding, pot-hole covered roads.

However, this “tradition” has evolved into her sending me a random emoji when she gets home, and I send one back as confirmation. Similarly, when she arrives at my house to pick me up, she signals to me with an emoji so I will know to come outside. This is our most recent exchange, when we worked a couple of overnight shifts together and carpooled:

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For the emoji impaired, the eyeglasses are her telling me that she has arrived home safely, and the cheeseburger is me confirming that I have received her message. The ensuing cow, several hours later, means that she has arrived at my house to pick me up for our next shift. The entire herd of cows that follow the first are because I am slow and had yet to come out to her car. The sleepy face is her getting home safely once again, and the sheep is my confirmation. You may be able to tell that the type of emoji usually doesn’t matter, for these exchanges.

As a simpler example, this is how we sent Christmas cheer to one another:

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Very to the point. We do this for practically every holiday; bunnies and chicks on Easter, ghosts and pumpkins for Halloween. Maybe a tree on arbor day. Cakes and party-poppers for birthdays. Etc, etc.

On some level, we could probably communicate entirely in emojis. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing, really. My personal favorite emoji is the octopus, and I use it whenever I can.octo Sometimes I just tack it on to the end of a text, without any context or previous references to cephalopods. It’s like adding a little smile at the end, only with eight legs (the picture technically has six, but I don’t think it’s meant to be a squid.) It actually used to be a lot cuter, but my keyboard recently updated, so my entire emoji scheme is different, but the new versions have grown on me. I am also very fond of the various cat faces and the elephant. I do refrain (typically) from using them in professional correspondence, however… though a smiley may slip by, on occasion.

During the most recent season of American Horror Story, my sister and I did not watch the episodes under the same roof, but we did text throughout each episode, predominantly using emojis. I’ve since switched phones, so I don’t have my entirely emoji-based, masterful recap of one episode any longer, but here are the predictions we exchanged for the finale:

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Honestly, I believe our predictions were pretty spot on, and the entire exchange took less than a minute. My parents and I text in this way too, sometimes; mostly me, but they’re not strangers to emoji-speak. Questions via text can be answered by a “thumbs up.” That’s better than the ever-infuriating “K.” I’d much prefer to get an emoji in my inbox than “K.”

Despite the claims that current language and communication trends are “dumbing down” the future generations, I think the value of emojis is often overlooked. I don’t think my communication skills have suffered much from the introduction of smileys and animals and various other symbols. With emojis, you can say so much in so few words… or so few images, if the case may be. They’re sort of like new-age hieroglyphs, only less… instrumental to the understanding and evolution of human communication. Like, why tell my friend that I’m annoyed with something when i can just sent the (-_-) face emoji? It gets to the point so much faster than typing out an explanation, and they are multi-purpose. Emojis can help convey emotion; interpret feeling. And add emphasis. Cat faces make everything better! EVERYTHING!

Sometimes it’s silly, sure. Emojis aren’t necessary – and shouldn’t really be used as a form of communication on their own, I guess. But in defense of emojis, they are a nice supplement to the text-based communication AND they’re mostly universal! When used appropriately, they’re harmless – and a few extra smileys or a tasteful octopus can even brighten someone’s day.

The Importance of Sorrow

A few days before Christmas this past year, my mom and I went to see Manchester by the Sea, the much-lauded Amazon Studios film helmed by Kenneth Lonergan, which stars Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, and Lucas Hedges. It is a highly emotional film, and it’s difficult not to have a similarly emotional reaction to the content. There’s some heart-stomping moments, some heart-shredding moments, some heart-bulldozing moments. I won’t go into spoilers, but you can probably tell from the reviews and the buzz surrounding the film that it isn’t a happy-go-lucky comedy focusing on the bright side of life; it’s a real, raw film that doesn’t show an idealized interpretation of the world.

That night at the theater, I was not the only one who found the film to be soul-wrenching. When it was done, and the credits started rolling, the sobbing woman beside me managed to say, “I don’t understand. The reviews said it was a good movie. I don’t get it,” and the man she was with said, “Yeah… I like to see movies with happy endings.”

Now, I freely admit that I am a film snob. However, I understand their perspective, even if I don’t completely agree. I can understand why certain folks don’t necessarily want to subject themselves to a sobfest for 2+ hours – I’m not gonna turn into Russel Crowe in Gladiator and scream, “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?!?” at people who don’t enjoy sitting through what are considered “depressing” films.

I mean, I love the Marvel movies and films of similar genres, but if I went to see a superhero film where the villains emerge victorious, the heroes lose, and the world subsequently suffers some horrendous fate, I’d probably have a few complaints. Because that’s not why I go to those types of films; I go to see the heroes triumph, despite the obstacles they endure along the way. There are exceptions to this (Watchmen comes to mind) but usually, if I’m looking for an “escape” from reality, it’s easy to peg which movies will provide that experience. Like, if I’m hunting for a film to lift my mood, and my options are Brokeback Mountain and Airplane! the choice is clear.

Certain films are designed with the escapist in mind; the moviegoers who yearn for the fantasy, for the formula that produces a happy ending without fail, for the victories of heroes and the vanquishing of evil. I don’t go into Disney movies expecting to emerge from the theater at the end weeping because all of the little woodland creatures were murdered in some grisly fashion, or the prince left the princess for her devious step-sister. Lots of movies have “sad” moments, or emotional hurdles for the protagonists to conquer, but those obstacles are typically stepping stones on the road to “happily ever after.” And there’s nothing wrong with that; it works, for some films.

But when it comes to film in general, happy does not necessarily mean good, and “sad” does not automatically equate with bad. This applies to books and television shows, too, but I’m limiting the scope for the sake of time.

Manchester by the Sea is not a happy movie, but I still found it to be great – and one of my favorites of the year. Because sometimes, it isn’t an escape I’m looking for; it’s a more grounded, real experience. I can’t imagine that particular film having a standard by-the-book happy ending. It wouldn’t work. I’d also say something similar for Moonlight, which I saw this past week. I wouldn’t necessarily call film “sad,” but it’s not a romp through the daisies – and the more realistic content and approach gives the film a stronger impact. It gives the viewer a tether to hold onto; situations to empathize and sympathize with. Some films, while fictional, strive for a more realistic adaptation of life or events instead of showing a world where everything goes right all the time. Because if there’s one thing I know about the world we live in, it’s that things most certainly don’t always go “right.”

Some of the most notable films of all time are “sad” movies, or movies that don’t follow the “typical” plot structure of “set up, conflict, stuff goes awry, climax, everything works out”- and sometimes, that’s what makes them notable. For example, Schindler’s List is a brilliant film and it packs an emotional wallop. I watched it almost a decade ago for the first (and, thus far, only) time and can still  vividly remember the ending scene. Dead Poet’s Society ripped my heartstrings to shreds and it’s one of my favorites. I still can’t watch the Wilson scene in Castaway without getting sniffly. The first ten minutes of Up, the last ten minutes of Toy Story 3, and almost the entirety of Grave of the Fireflies had me absolutely blubbering. Seven had me in jaw-dropped shock long after the screen went black. The Road was exhausting, and last year, Leonardo DiCaprio’s journey through bears, snow, and wilderness in The Revenant left me feeling emotionally and physically drained. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest won Best Picture in 1975, and certainly not for the laughs. And yet, movies like that can linger; their messages resonating long after their initial release.

Movies can provide an escape, but they can also be a mirror; a portal through which we see a fictional world not too different from our own. They can provide heartbreaking moments and emulate emotions that a viewer can latch onto or relate to, instead of distracting from them. The message or mood of a film might be bleak, or depressing, or somber, or just outright discouraging or dismal, or hope might be but a pinprick in the distance for characters the viewers have grown attached to, but that does not devalue the film overall.

Just like there is great importance in happiness and positive, uplifting messages, there is immense value in emotions like sorrow. Films can help us learn, or allow viewers to confront and process difficult, stressful, and painful emotions through a fictional lens. Sometimes, it isn’t about the escape, but the journey – even if that journey has no light at the end of the tunnel.

 

(As an aside, I intended to write a review for Moonlight for this post, but during my showing, there were two obnoxious women seated behind me who felt the need to fill every silent or poignant moment in the film with their commentary and inappropriate jokes (especially during romantic scenes, which they seemed to disapprove of), and so, my experience was somewhat marred, and I didn’t want that negativity to seep into a review – especially since my focus was broken at a few key points. But I will say that, despite their rudeness, it was a remarkable film with incredible performances from the cast, and I hope to see it succeed at the Oscars. And as a general PSA for moviegoers: shut up and watch the movie. Don’t ruin the experience for the others around you.)

 

Worth 1000 Words #6: Leon

My first car was a navy blue ’02 Subaru Legacy, purchased with 148,000 miles on it. I was 17 years old and absolutely terrified of driving on the highway (still am, for the record), but regardless, I was ready to (slowly) hit the road.

And boy, I loved that car. I named him Leon, because all cars must have names. I actually got the name “Leon” from the main character of Final Fantasy VIII, Squall Leonhart, my favorite all-time FF character. Leon the Legacy was his full name, but I usually called him by his stage name – Leyonce. This post shall be an ode to Leon.

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Now, I did not get my learner’s permit or license until well after most of my friends had already acquired wheels and the means to use them. This is largely because I was terrified of driving. When I was still learning how to drive, I took my mom’s Ford Escape around our neighborhood at 15mph, constantly asking, “Am I going too fast? AM I?” I also cried during my driver’s test because the instructor yelled at me, and I’m like, 43% sure he only passed me because he felt bad.  That should give you some idea of what sort of driver I was at the start of my driving career.

But soon, I had Leon.

I did not have him an exceptionally long time, but Leon got me through a lot, helped me overcome some of my driving inhibitions, and was with me during my first forays into the world of adulthood. I only got a car because I needed one to go to college in a state six hours away from home, since I didn’t live on campus and needed a way to get to class and my part-time job – and Leon was the best first car I could have ever asked for.

I believe I suffer from some sort of driving dyslexia, because, while I am not a good driver in general, it’s mostly because I am not good at all with directions. Two months ago I had to use my GPS to get home from the same doctor’s office I’ve been going to for like, eight years. I don’t know what it is, but when I’m behind the wheel, I am utterly useless at finding my way anywhere. It’s a miracle I even make it to work.

Leon is the first car I braved the highway with. I have fond memories of driving on the Mass Pike by myself for the first time, eschewing a panic attack, and having to climb out of the car to get my ticket at the station because I couldn’t reach it through the window. A 20 minute trip turned into 2 hours; and that’s not including the return journey, which included trauma I won’t go into. But I had Leon; my navy blue security blanket with all-wheel drive. I made it safely home, despite my struggles, thanks to him.

Late night heart-to-hearts with friends, parked at a curb in our tiny PA town. Driving up to the highest residential point in the area to look out on the city below. Venturing home from work after a snowstorm and skidding straight through a red light at a four-way intersection, screaming bloody murder all the while. My first road trip, from PA to MA, where I didn’t have to trade the wheel off until CT, when I was fighting to ward off sleep. Crossing state lines to play laser-tag (medieval style) for my 20th birthday, and jamming out to the Backstreet Boys on our way back to campus.

Leon’s demise came in 2014, after two head gasket replacements in a one year span. The first one made my wallet weep, but I understood why it was necessary, as Leon was 12 and things were starting to get worn out. After the repair was finished, I assumed all was well for the time being. So, I was driving around for a while (as in, for months) before I started to smell something burning every time I drove. A mechanic told me it was my oil pan, so I shelled out money for a “used” oil pan, then when that didn’t fix the problem, they took another, closer look. I was told that I needed another head gasket, and that I shouldn’t have been driving with my car in such a condition, because it could have broken down at any moment. Apparently, the first one wasn’t installed properly, or whatever – which made me lose a lot of confidence in said mechanic. Needless to say, I got another new head gasket. For free.

Sadly, though he seemed to be mostly okay after the second repair, this incident basically showed me that Leon was now costing more to maintain than he was worth. Every time I took him in for an inspection, there was something wrong with him – and it was never something that was easy or inexpensive to fix. I was forking over hundreds of dollars for a car that experienced constant issues, so, in the late summer of 2014, I decided that it was time to let Leon go and get a new car.

I found a used Nissan that I liked, and it was time to say goodbye to Leon. Before I traded him in, I took the time to clean everything out. The frisbees in my trunk, which I kept because you never know when you’ll need a frisbee. My emergency bag, complete with emergency granola bars and emergency change of clothes and emergency toothbrush. Countless poptart wrappers (it’s an addiction, don’t judge me). A surplus of CD’s, chronicling my taste in music over the years; from J-Pop to film scores to Swedish metal. Approximately 47 half-filled water bottles.

Once all my things were cleared out, I handed the keys to the dealer, and my trusty Subaru either went off to auction or was sold to someone new. It was difficult to say goodbye, but no matter what I’m driving, I’ll always have fond memories of Leon.